David Hagberg doesn’t mess around. During a workshop in Venice, Florida, he said genre writers have to hook readers early, and the best way to do that is with action. He should know. He’s written a dozen thrillers for TOR.
After the session, I said I couldn’t decide how to begin Peak Season, a crime novel set in the fictional Florida beach town of Spanish Point. Should I start with the inciting incident, the one that drags the protagonist, CW McCoy, into the action? Or should I start with the scene that caused her to lose her gun, her badge and her self-confidence, the incident that propelled her to take refuge in this resort town by the sea?
In that big, bellow of his Hagberg said, “Start with the action!” I think people from Tampa to Naples heard him. I certainly did.
Was he right? Take a look at the first few pages of the novel and tell me what you think. (You can reach me through the email link at the bottom of this website’s homepage.)
I spotted the gun as soon as I walked through the door. Nicholas Church aimed a Glock 22 at his wife and daughter, arms straight and locked, his finger touching the trigger. His wife’s hands held nothing but air. The daughter gripped the back of her mother’s dress. Church’s eyes looked hard, the wife’s anguished, the little girl’s wide with terror.
My face burned. After leaning out to call for backup, I stepped fully into the room and identified myself. He knew me. We’d worked together for two years. I held my hands away from my holster where he could see them. Non-threatening. No show of force. Talk him down.
Church filled the kitchen. He stood over six-feet-six and weighed more than 250 pounds, black hair slicked back, khaki slacks still creased despite the hour, white shirtsleeves rolled to the forearms to reveal a blue Marine Corps tattoo nestled among a thatch of hair. Under the fluorescent lights his silver badge glowed. Two years ago he’d received a citation for rescuing a woman trapped in a car. A year later the department had placed him on leave for beating a suspect during a drug bust. The wounded hero.
At five-foot-five, Anita Church shrank before her husband. She looked mid-twenties with a sharp nose and wisps of blond hair that floated around dangling earrings. She wore a sundress of pale yellow and blue, belted at her slender waist, and ballet shoes. Her wedding and engagement rings sparkled, as if to mock Church’s badge. When I moved closer, she glanced at me as if to say, you’re a woman, you can save me, and reached behind to clutch her daughter.
The girl was maybe seven, dressed in jeans and a sparkling pink T-shirt that depicted one of the Disney princesses. She wore pink slippers with rabbit ears. Junie, I thought. Nick called her June Bug.
For the third time that night I reminded myself that I didn’t belong there. Patrol responded to domestics, not detectives. My luck I was passing the neighborhood when the call came in. I inched forward, using Church’s name, reminding him that I was a cop and understood his anger, telling him to lower the weapon, showing him that we could talk. I gestured in slow circles, sliding to the right, watching his face, his fingers.
No one else in the room. Copper-bottom pots hanging from the ceiling. Two openings arching into shadow, one on the left that led to the laundry, one to the right that opened onto a formal dining room. In the silence I could hear him breathe, shallow, nasal. Somewhere in the house a clock chimed.
Where the hell is backup?
Church stood to my left, aiming across a table set with flowers and fruit, feet braced, both hands gripping the gun. With the slightest movement of his head he glanced right and ordered me to leave.
Tension clawed my neck. “Nick.” I kept my voice steady, my hands where he could see them. “You don’t want to do this. Put the weapon down. We can talk, whatever it is, we can talk.”
Behind me I sensed movement. A young male officer drew his weapon and crouched into firing position, his boots chirping on the tile. A radio squawked. Anita Church clutched at Junie and started to wail.
I shoved my hand into the holster and raised my weapon while edging to the right. In a voice deep from the gut I yelled, “Drop the gun!”
He kept the pistol trained on his wife. “Stay out of this!”
I tightened my grip, arms and stomach clenched, breath and blood pounding in my ears. “Drop the gun! Now!”
I watched his face, watched the eyes refocus on his wife, the jaw muscles tightening with the finger of his right hand, his stance shifting as the gun settled on the target. My vision narrowed and at the end of the tunnel Nicholas Church took in a deep breath as his index finger moved backward in slow motion.
Bam! Bam! The shots exploded in the tight space. The first round hit his chest and turned him. The second knocked him into the refrigerator. He slumped, his gun rattling on the tile. Anita screamed. Clinging to her mother’s dress, Junie gasped for air.
Ears ringing, the tang of gunpowder biting my nose, I holstered the weapon and put two fingers against Church’s neck and rose to call for an ambulance and the coroner. Walking across the kitchen to Anita and Junie, I guided them to chairs in the dining room. The crying crushed their faces. They’d soon slide from grief to shock. My arms shook and my stomach threatened to crawl out of my mouth.