Exclusive Excerpt: From author Jessie Chandler’s “Operation Stop Hate”

Exclusive Excerpt

Operation Stop Hate

by Jessie Chandler

 

Prologue

The second gunshot came less than a minute after the first. The sharp report faded, replaced by the frenetic sound of music drumming through Sony headphones. They covered the ears of a young man who moved with slow, deliberate steps down an empty hall. Blond curls brushed the collar of a black Carhartt jacket, and worn jeans hung loosely on his thin frame.

He peered carefully through the narrow, rectangular windows on each classroom door. Inside, students cowered alongside terrified teachers. As he systematically checked one room after another, he tonelessly hummed to the thumping rhythm in his ears. Halfway down the hall, he froze in front of one of the windows. After a moment, he raised a hand and tried the doorknob.

School protocol dictated that in the event of a threat involving potential or realized violence, the teacher’s task was to lock down their classroom. The teacher within had followed directions.

The boy wrenched violently at the knob. The door shuddered under the onslaught.

He stepped back, aimed a black handgun between the knob and the doorjamb and pulled the trigger. The deafening report of the gunshot sent the still classroom into a blur of movement. Kids screamed, scrambling for cover. The teacher charged toward the now-splintered entry at the same time the shooter slammed the sole of his scuffed boot in the center of the door. It swung violently inward, into the woman. She bounced off the door and skidded across the floor.

The boy calmly stepped over the motionless teacher and scanned the room. He reached up and tugged his headphones off, leaving them slung around his neck, the pounding bass now clearly audible.

The shooter focused on a thin teen in jeans and an untucked, green flannel shirt. “Hunter.”

A wide-eyed, longhaired girl who’d been standing near Hunter backed slowly away.

Hunter made a choking sound and his face blanched. He raised his hands. “No, Mike, please. What’s—”

The gunshot shattered the air. Hunter spun as if a hand reached down from the ceiling and twirled him like a top. He crashed into the girl. Both went down in a flurry of arms and legs. The panicked shrieks of thirty terrified students reverberated through the classroom.

Mike exited without a backward glance, humming once again. Three doors down, he paused and tried the doorknob. This one turned. He pushed the door open.

A chubby man with a fringe of white hair stretched his arms protectively in front of a number of students who huddled like lambs behind him.

Mike looked past the teacher and locked eyes with another student with a buzz cut and an athlete’s physique.

“Billy.” Mike’s voice was glacier cold. “Mr. H., please move.”

“Mike,” Mr. H. said, “this isn’t what you—”

“Please, just move.”

“You don’t have to—”

“Move it!”

Mr. H. lunged toward Mike. Blood spewed as the report of the shot hammered through the room, the concussion almost a physical force in the enclosed space.

Kids yowled. They scrambled over desks and each other in an effort at self-preservation.

Mike calmly skirted the fallen Mr. H. He stopped in front of Billy, who was backed up against the windows that overlooked the parking lot.

“What are you doing?” Billy’s voice sounded like someone had kneed him in the nuts.

“What am I doing?” Mike echoed faintly. He raised the gun. “You know what.” Mike’s body quaked and he shouted, “No more!”

“Please—”

“Shut up.” Mike stepped closer. He pressed the barrel of the gun into Billy’s sternum.

“Mike!” a voice shouted from the doorway. “Please, please don’t.”

He cast a glance back at a tall, plump girl who stood on the threshold. She breathed heavily, eyes wide. Like rats deserting a sinking ship, kids squeezed past her and ran down the hall. Mike let them go.

“No, Livy, not this time.” Mike refocused on Billy. Over his shoulder he said, “Get out of here. You don’t want to see this.”

“Dude, come on.” Olivia took a couple of steps inside the classroom. “It doesn’t have to be like this. They’re not worth it.”

“Olivia, go!”

Billy’s eyes flicked between Mike and Olivia. “Yeah, Mike, come on—”

Mike dug the barrel harder into his chest, and Billy grunted in pain.

Mike’s voice dropped, hardened. “Hunter and this asshole did something to Otis. To my goddamned dog. We had to put him to sleep last night.”

“Oh, God,” Olivia whispered on an exhale.

Billy said, “Come on, man. I swear I didn’t—”

“Shut up, fucker. Paybacks are a bitch.” More gently, he said, “Get out of here, Livy. Do it now.”

Olivia backed away, stumbling over an upended desk. A thunderous blast chased her out the door. Glass shattered, the sound almost lost in the din of screams echoing in the hallway.

At last, nothing remained but the tinny beat of heavy metal rock music.

Cover Final Stop Hate JPG

Chapter 1

Raindrops pounded the ground. I forcefully shook my head before stepping through the back door into my apartment, which was half of an ancient, two-story Northeast Minneapolis duplex. Built railroad-style, the apartments had a long hall that ran along the outermost wall, going through the unit from the front door straight to the back door. The kitchen, the living room, and a half-bath opened off the hallway. On the second floor, two bedrooms and a full bath were situated off of a duplicate hall.

I shrugged out of my wet jacket and hung it up. April showers might bring May flowers, but they didn’t do much more than make me cranky. The week had been grueling, and I looked forward to an unexpected weekend off.

Mail injected through a slot in the door by the postal carrier was strewn haphazardly across the foyer. I scooped up the envelopes and brought them into the kitchen.

At the table I flipped through the mail. Two credit card applications landed in a shred pile. A Target bill and a reminder that my teeth were overdue for cleaning went into another.

A pink envelope had the return address of one E. Knight. Eli was a redheaded Tasmanian devil, an ex who’d recently decided she no longer wished to hold that status. After what the tramp had pulled on me, that status wasn’t about to change. Ever.

In the midst of an intense four-year relationship, I’d come home unexpectedly early one afternoon and walked into our bedroom to the shock of a lifetime.

Eli and a woman she worked with were sprawled in our bed, between our sheets, doing the horizontal mambo. After my brain caught up, I flashed the gun in my shoulder holster and sent them both packing, dressed in nothing but their birthday suits.

As they scrammed down the stairs and out the front door, I picked up the clothing they’d dropped and threw it out the bedroom window. The neighborhood gossiped for the next month about the two naked chicks scrambling around my front yard attempting to cover themselves while trying to gather their stuff.

That was nearly two years ago. Eventually, for whatever reason, Eli decided she wanted another go. Ever since I’d come home from an assignment in New Jersey last winter, she had been a pain in my ass. I figured sooner or later she’d knock it off, but five months had passed, and she hadn’t let up. She’d recently taken over the helm of the advertising agency she worked for when we were together. The little womanizer had the gall to claim she’d slept up the ladder for me. For me? Yeah. Whatever. She was a certified nut job wrapped inside a power-hungry barracuda.

I gazed at the stack of pink envelopes on the table and then at four empty vases—vases that had held red roses before I pitched them directly into the trash—sitting on the kitchen counter between the refrigerator and the microwave. All the flowers had come in the last week. Maybe it was time to admit my ex had lost her mind.

I ripped the newest missive open and pulled out a single sheet of scented stationery. The smell brought unbidden memories of times best forgotten.

Cailin,

Why are you shutting me out? I’m finally at the top, and you’re meant to be here with me. I’m the only one who knows how to love you, and you know it. Let me give you all of me. I love you, Cailin. I know you love me too.

Eli

I tucked the note back into the envelope and tossed it onto the growing pile of undying love. It was past time to call her on her bullshit, but I’d put off a confrontation hoping she would pull her own head out of her ass without help.

I threw the rest of the junk mail in the recycling bin and dialed Northstar Gallery.

“Northstar,” a distracted-sounding voice answered. My heart thumped, like it did whenever I heard Alejandra—Alex to those she knew and loved—Rodriguez speak. My girl was always quick to make it clear she wasn’t to be confused with the ex-Yankee baseball player. While she had bigger figurative balls than half the Yankees put together, she came by her strength naturally. Every night, when I lay down and held Alex to me, I thanked the gods and goddesses for bringing her to me.

My responsibilities as a special agent for a small branch of the Department of Homeland Security called the National Protection and Investigation Unit took up the majority of my life. The Federal Government wasn’t creative enough to come up with a new set of job titles for the NPIU, so we were stuck with the same ones the Feebs used. Beyond that, though, were some major differences. The NPIU had three main goals. The first was to assess, track, and stop homegrown terror plots by analyzing and acting on information gathered by a number of agencies at all levels of government. Information collection proved exceptionally tricky. Just ask those folks at the National Security Agency.

Currently, the NSA was under fire for overreach in their efforts to collect international intelligence. I didn’t know how the mess would end, but no matter which way it went, the reputation of the United States had taken a serious hit. I was glad I worked mainly on this side of the pond.

The second mandate was to be available to any agency who requested our assistance, terror-related or not, so long as imminent danger to the American public was established.

The last, and in my opinion, most critical mandate was to improve cooperation—sharing of vital information between city, state, and the federal agencies in an attempt to bridge the negative attitudes departments often held against each other.

The pervasive cooperation problem reminded me of a pack of dogs fighting to mark their territory by seeing who could lift their leg higher. The truth of the matter was, all too often, no one was getting any relief.

I’d been caught in one of those leg-lifting battles last September. Two of us had been sent to New Jersey to help the ever-shorthanded East Coast Bureau investigate a threat involving the Holland tunnel. The bright spot out of that mess was Alex. We’d begun dating, and she allowed herself to be dragged to Minneapolis when the assignment ended. I was still shocked she was here.

Alex cleared her throat and repeated, “Northstar.”

“Hey.”

“Hey, yourself.” I heard the smile in her smoky voice. “What’s up?”

“Aside from being whiny from loneliness, I figured you’d like to know I got another letter.”

Alex let out an exasperated sigh. “What did it say this time?”

“Same shit, different day.”

“Jesus Christ. What’ll it take for her to get the hint? Get a restraining order. Shoot her. Something.”

Alex was only half-kidding. Eli had been incessant since we’d come home. She had an obsessive streak, but in the past she eventually grew bored with whatever her current obsession was and would fixate on a new one. Why she wasn’t doing that this time was beyond me.

In the deepest recesses of my gut, a part of me felt wholly inadequate because I couldn’t find a way to successfully rein in my ex-lover. The chats I’d already had with her had no impact. Maybe a restraining order wasn’t a terrible plan, but the idea that someone who worked in law enforcement couldn’t take care of their own shit was pathetic. I needed to be firmer. On occasion, my pride did have a nasty habit of getting in the way of common sense.

“Shooting Eli sounds like a splendid idea,” I said. “I don’t get it. She should’ve moved onto something else months ago. This is excessive, even for her.”

A buzz in the background became a jumble of loud voices. “It’s because you’re irresistible. On that note, I gotta run. Some briefcase-toting chicks in designer power suits just walked in. See you tonight.” Alex disconnected and almost immediately another call lit up my phone screen. Bad sign—my workplace was on the line. I had a hunch my weekend was about to go up in flames.

“Sorry for the call, McKenna,” my direct boss, Supervisory Special Agent Allen Weatherspoon said without preamble. Weatherspoon was a decent guy and still remembered what it was like to run hot in the trenches. When his agents had a rare weekend off, he was loath to interrupt. He had a wife and three kids and liked to keep to a regular schedule himself. If the SSA was expressing an apology to me on a Friday evening, something very bad must have happened.

“There’s been another school shooting.”

“Oh, shit, no.” I wasn’t sure if I said that out loud or if the words only echoed in my head.

The previous week a shooting occurred at Steven’s High School in Minneapolis, and we’d been called in to assist. Minnesota hadn’t seen a school shooting since the Rocori High shooting in Cold Spring in 2003 and the Red Lake massacre in 2005.

The Steven’s High shooter had killed himself after dropping four students and the vice principal. The investigation into the incident was ongoing. There didn’t seem to be any effective federal solutions, thanks in part to a government that couldn’t agree on anything and a noisy portion of the public terrified of losing their right to bear arms.

“Where?” I asked.

“Gray Academy Charter. Minneapolis has asked us in, and Nakamura’s on her way. Coordinate with the responding agencies and the locals. You know the location?”

“The alternative school? 31st and Nicollet?”

“That’s the one.”

“Is it secured, or is the shooter still on the loose?”

“Secured. The shooter took out two kids, a security guard, and at least one teacher. Funny thing, he was waiting on the front steps of the school when the cavalry arrived. He stood up, hands in the air, and turned himself in.”

“Weird. I’m on my way, sir.”

I texted Alex that I’d been called out and that she was on her own for the evening. I had a feeling I wouldn’t be home anytime soon.

***

Twenty minutes later I parked near the entrance to Gray Academy. The structure was imposing—the early twentieth-century brick building had housed the Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company, and many of the city’s streetcars had been built there in an era long since gone.

The wind had picked up, and I shivered with an inner chill the warmest heater wouldn’t chase away. Dusk was eerie, far earlier than usual at this time of year thanks to low-lying, battleship-gray clouds and the nonstop rain. Mother Nature seemed to be weeping for what had taken place.

Squads and ambulances, their red and blue lights flashing, were parked within the cordoned-off parking lot. Across the lot, on the sidewalk next to the street, three dozen gawkers had gathered. Reporters crowded together in a designated area, their bright lights shining and cameras ready to roll.

Yellow crime scene tape wound from tree to signpost to garbage can around the school. A number of crime scene guys hovered over something on the ground to the right of the front doors. Intensely bright police spotlights flooded the area.

I caught the attention of one of the officers valiantly engaged in staving off the morbidly nosy. When I flashed my NPIU credentials, he said, “It’s an ugly one, McKenna.”

“They all are.” I ducked under the crime scene tape. Trampled brown grass ended at a sidewalk leading to a flight of ten stairs and the wide, double doors of the school’s entrance.

Five people had gathered halfway up the stairway. I recognized my NPIU counterpart, Agent Rosie Nakamura, by her short, angular profile. Beside her stood the Minneapolis Chief of Police, Howard Helling, along with MPD Officers Manuel Martinez and Bryan Peterson who were a couple of Minneapolis Homicide guys I’d worked with in the past. They moonlighted on the MPD’s Special Response Team. I didn’t know the fifth man.

Peterson and Martinez reminded me of a mixed up Laurel and Hardy. Martinez was laid back, rotund, and balding. A thick, black moustache hovered over his upper lip. Bryan Peterson’s thin, six-foot-tall frame was topped by a mop of straw-colored hair.

Martinez said, “Would be nice to see you, McKenna, if we were at the bar.”

All business, Peterson said, “Let’s get the intros out of the way. Agent Cailin McKenna, Principal Nyland Nash.”

He jerked his head toward a solidly built man with salt-and-pepper hair. I reached for Nash’s hand and gave it a quick shake. His paisley tie had been loosened, and the knot sat crookedly at the base of his throat. Sweating and shaky, he looked like he might lose his marbles any moment.

“Miles Johnson,” Peterson continued, “is running the scene along with MPD’s crime lab. Here he comes now.”

Johnson took the steps two at a time. “Hey.” A man of few words, he was the head of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s Forensic Crime Scene Team. I’d worked with Johnson a couple of times. He was a decent guy and had a great nose for finding shit that was often overlooked.

I gave him a nod and turned to Helling. “Chief.”

Every time I saw Chief Helling, he reminded me of Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad—minus the terminal cancer diagnosis. His face vacillated between bluish-gray and reddish-green in the reflection of the flashing lights. The stress of dealing with a cancer of a different kind that encompassed our entire city had to be monumental.

Might as well get on with it and maybe we could get out of the drizzle. I asked, “What have we got?”

Principal Nash found his voice. “A little after three this afternoon, one of our students opened fire.”

In report mode, Miles Johnson picked up the narrative. “We have two dead.”

Chief Helling crossed his arms, his face anguished. I would not want to be in his shoes.

“Three wounded,” Johnson continued, “including the security guard at the front door who was shot in the upper thigh, one teacher who was knocked unconscious by a door the shooter kicked in, and another teacher who was shot in the abdomen. The dead are two seventeen-year-old male students. The injured have been transported to Hennepin County Medical Center, and the deceased are still in place. The shooter has been taken to the Juvenile Detention Center.”

Helling said, “Students awaiting pick up are in the library, along with a few kids who came forward wanting to talk to us about the shooter. We need to find out what they know. One fortunate turn of events is one of the kids is the shooter’s best friend, and she’s willing to talk.”

Rosie asked, “Do we have an ID on the shooter?”

Peterson flipped open a notepad. “Michael John Lorenzo, age sixteen.”

The air suddenly thickened. I felt like I was choking in a vacuum of disbelief. “Michael Lorenzo?” Cold sweat broke out on the back of my neck. For a second I thought I might go toes up in front of everyone.

“Cailin?” Rosie asked. “What’s wrong? You know him?”

It would be easier to think if the roaring in my ears subsided. “I know a kid, a teen, with the same name.”

Off-duty, I occasionally picked up off-the-record cases, cases typically outside the scope of my job. Behind closed doors, I admitted to sometimes wielding the power of my badge in ways my bosses might not approve of. Most of those cases involved trying to pull runaways and homeless kids off the streets and get them somewhere safe. Provide them resources they might not know were available. The MPD had a small unit assigned to do just that, but they were often swamped. I was more than happy to lend a hand when I could. The intent was noble enough in my eyes, and that made it easy to rationalize away my legal indiscretions. How many Michael John Lorenzos could there be attending this particular high school?

I snapped my mouth shut. “I pulled a Mike Lorenzo off the streets and helped him get placed in foster care. He attends Gray Academy.”

“McKenna.” The chief faced me. He pensively tapped his chin with a finger. “Since you might know this boy, maybe you should be the one to talk to this friend of his.”

“Who is it?” My voice still sounded thin.

Martinez consulted his notebook again. “Olivia Chapman.”

“Goddamn it.” The words were out of my mouth before I could censor myself. I tilted my head back to the dark sky. “The shooter is my Mike.” A second later I returned my gaze to Helling’s. “A year or so ago he told me he’d actually made a friend. Her name was Olivia. Yeah, I’ll talk to her.”

“Where are the teachers?” Rosie asked. She was one of the NPIU’s high tech, detail-oriented computer magicians, and she approached life like she did her work, with a single-minded focus.

Chief Helling said, “Teachers are in the gym. Martinez, head downtown. Make sure the foster parents are notified.” He pointed at Rosie and Peterson. “You two go with McKenna. Johnson, get back in there and make damn sure no one is contaminating the crime scene. I’ll have enough people crawling all over me without having to deal with that problem.”

“Sure thing, Chief.” Miles Johnson made for the front door of the school, the big yellow “CST” on his burly back reflecting the sweep of the emergency lights.

Helling rubbed his hands together briskly and attempted a smile that came across as a tired grimace. “Mr. Nash, if you’ll come with me, I’d appreciate it. Time for us to face the cameras.”

The two men moved down the stairs, Martinez following in their wake.

Martinez stopped after he’d descended a couple of steps. “Jesus, McKenna. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, me, too.”

Rosie nudged me. “Come on. Let’s get this over with.”

 

Jessie Chandler
Author of the award-winning Shay O’Hanlon Caper Series.

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