Carolyn Baugh Excerpt: Shoreline

Shoreline by Carolyn Baugh is the second installment in the Detective Nora Khalil series.

Officer Nora Khalil is a strong independent woman used to navigating different terrains. As an American-born Muslim, she loves her country and tries to honor the traditions of her people, but feels that she must constantly confront those who think she is alien.

Assigned to the FBI office in Erie, Pennsylvania, she tries to fit into small-town America after a childhood growing up in the bustle of Philly’s dark streets. A series of horrific acts of violence are committed by a well-connected group of domestic terrorists eager to spark a national revolution. The town erupts in chaos and the eyes of the nation are on these events. In turn, this heats up the debate about the fabric of our nation…and how those who feel disenfranchised by our new multiculturalism are determined to take back their birthright and, in their own words, make our nation great again.

Will Nora and her team be able to defuse the situation before the carnage goes national?

PROLOGUE

Nora brushed a few sweat-soaked strands of hair from her eyes in order to better regard her father. In each of Ragab Khalil’s hands he clutched the neck of an industrial-sized trash bag containing all of the least-frayed towels, Nora’s polka-dotted comforter, three heavy blankets, and six feather pillows. Baba’s shirt was dark with perspiration, and the walk down the steep stairs from the family apartment over their restaurant had left him winded. Meeting Nora’s eyes, he lifted the bags in a small gesture, and looked with flared nostrils from her to the back end of Ben’s SUV. Nora gave a small nod. Frowning fiercely, Baba plopped the bags next to a heavily taped cardboard box.

He was getting better at all this, Nora decided. In the past year she had moved from their apartment to a tiny flat of her own in Chinatown and from there to her twenty weeks of training at Quantico. During her first move, he had confined himself in the restaurant’s kitchen, pretending to be immersed in work, and banging pots and pans with such intensity that the din resounded out onto Arch Street. He had not met her eyes for nearly a month after that. When she had announced the second move, which meant her first stint away from Philadelphia, he had sworn most foully in Arabic and gone off to pace at the playground behind the restaurant, muttering darkly.

This time he was making eye contact, talking to her, and ignoring Ben with as little open hostility as possible. When not schlepping what she’d assigned him, he would try to thrust on her as many pots, pans, and ladles on her as the restaurant could spare.

“You might need it, just take it,” he said.

“I never cook, ya Baba,” she said. “You know this.” She was fighting to be as patient as possible, but the summer heat was bearing down on them. It was hard to breathe, and her shirt was soaked with sweat. Also, Ben was double-parked on Arch Street, provoking conniption fits from the driving public.

Baba was insistent. “Maybe you will throw some big FBI party and need to make fetta.”

Nora pulled the ladle and stock pot out of the back of the Rogue. She pressed them gently into her father’s hands. “I couldn’t make fetta if I wanted to. Keep your kitchen. I will come visit and you can make me fetta.”

“What are you going to eat there?” he demanded.

“Same thing I ate at Quantico, Baba. Big juicy ham and bacon sandwiches.”

Her father’s face convulsed in disgust.

“That would be even worse than dating him,” he said, nodding toward Ben.

“I know,” Nora stage-whispered. “That’s why I said it. See? It’s not so bad. I still haven’t gone over to eating pig.”

“So there’s hope,” her brother Ahmad declared cheerfully, joining them and gingerly setting a pile of CDs on the floor of the front passenger seat.

Ben peered at the stack. “What’s this?”

“Old CDs of my mom’s,” Ahmad answered. “Symbol of her rebellion against my grandfather—who wouldn’t let her listen to music.”

Nora looked at her brother, refusing to get weepy. “You would never let me touch those before,” she said gruffly.

“Yeah, well, you’ll need something to keep you from freakin’ out in that little town.”

“Don’t hate on little towns,” Nora said. “I’ve rented a bigger apartment than you’ve ever been in for half what we pay here.”

“I don’t understand why anyone would name a town Erie,” said Ahmad. “It sounds like something out of Scooby Doo.”

“Believe me, I have no idea,” Nora answered.

Her father, still clutching his stock pot, said, “But why did you have to pick that town, Nora? Who would pick a town with a name like that?”

She shrugged. “I told you, Baba. It was Lincoln, Nebraska, Birmingham, Alabama, or Erie, Pennsylvania. It was the closest I could get to home.”

“Well, I don’t see how it’s close at all. It’s the furthest part of the state that you can go and still be in the state. Who can get there if you need them?” His eyes flicked over Ben, then he said sourly, “Not even him.”

“He has a name, Baba. It’s Ben. And Ben will come visit, and you and Ahmad will come visit, and it’s no big deal. People move all the time.”

“Not my people,” Ragab grumped.

“Besides, I’m a big bad FBI agent now,” she said with a grin. “I don’t need anybody at all.”

Her father wiped at the sheen of sweat on his forehead and gave her a baleful look.

“It’s true, sir,” Ben added, trying to be helpful. “She got first in her class in mixed martial arts.”

Ragab’s lip curled ever so slightly as he staunchly refused to look at Ben.

Nora rolled her eyes. “Give me a kiss. I’m going. Don’t pout.”

He dutifully gave her a kiss on each cheek, then patted her hair. “Call me every day.”

“I will call you. Not every day.”

“Call me every day,” said Ahmad, pulling her into a hard hug.

“Maybe,” conceded Nora.

She draped her long arms around both of them, breathing them in, then reluctantly released them. All three smiled at each other’s wet eyes. Nora slid quickly into the SUV as Ben waved goodbye. He’d long ago given up hoping Ragab would shake his hand.

Ragab and Ahmad stood rooted to the sidewalk, still waving at the retreating Nissan. Nora stayed turned around in her seat, watching and waving until Ben turned right onto 22nd and started heading toward the Ben Franklin Parkway and the Schuylkill Expressway beyond.

He glanced over at her. “You okay?”

She nodded in silence.

He lay a hand on her knee. “Not convinced.”

She shrugged. “I’m good, Ben. Those two are going to have a hard time, though.”

“They aren’t your job, Nora.”

“We’re all each other’s jobs,” she answered softly, her gaze falling on the parade of flags adorning the Parkway. They passed in front of the Art Museum and began traveling up Kelly Drive; he always took this way when he could, she’d noticed. The river snaked along beside them while craggy cliffsides stretched skyward. She’d run along the river thousands of times, but she still watched it as though seeing it for the first time. The pathways were dense with runners and dog walkers; several rowing shells were slicing through the still water. Nora squeezed Ben’s hand, then started sorting through her mother’s CDs. There was a lot of Amr Diab, some Warda and Isala, a few Kazim al-Sahir albums, and the ubiquitous Umm Kulthoum. She glanced at Ben, trying to assess what he’d be able to tolerate, and decided on some Amr Diab.

It wasn’t the first time she and Ben had had a road trip together. He’d driven her to Quantico and picked her up at graduation, although Ahmad had been with him that time. As they logged more and more miles away from the city, Ben’s tension seemed to increase.

Finally he switched off the music.

“Look,” he said, clutching her hand. “I’m just saying that if you ask to transition into anti-terror you will end up with a job in a real city.”

“Erie’s a real city. They have a mayor and everything,” Nora said.

“Nora, look—”

“Benjamin, I get it. But I have never wanted that.”

“But you want to be with me, right?” he insisted.

“Of course I do. But we both know why anti-terror isn’t for me.”

“Because Eric Burton once thought you were sketchy?”

“Because on some level I’ve been coping with terrorists who happen to look like me since I was a kid. I don’t want it to shape my whole life that way. I gotta figure out who I am outside of that box.”

He looked over at her, frowning.

“How about ‘the country needs you’ argument?”

Nora burst out laughing. “You are so self-serving. You just tried to work the ‘Ben Calder needs you’ angle. When that fails, you go after my patriotism?”

“Well, maybe you need to think about it that way.”

“You yourself said they recruit people like me every day. So maybe they’re in good shape.”

“I think you’re being short-sighted.”

“I think you’re being pulled over.” She pointed at the flashing lights of the State Trooper as Ben swore.

*   *   *

The first few weeks in Erie, Pennsylvania, were a swift and unrelenting blur of meeting new people and learning to live in a quiet apartment in a quiet city.

She found a routine, though. It was, she realized, one she hadn’t necessarily anticipated.

One issue for which she was thoroughly unprepared was having a neighbor.

The floor overhead groaned as Nora frowned into the dimness.

“You cannot be serious,” she said aloud, as the music began filtering down into the stillness of her ground-floor bedroom.

On some level, she preferred the music to the pacing, but both kept her from sleeping. She glanced at the clock, only to confirm that it was just past one in the morning, which was, in Nora’s mind, the wrong time to be playing the violin.

She would not have played the violin at that time.

She would not have paced around on hundred-year-old hardwood floors at that time.

But she was, apparently, the only rational tenant of the two who occupied the old brown-brick house on French Street.

Her landlord had not shown her the apartment at one in the morning, however, so she’d had no idea that her upstairs neighbor could be so malevolent. Since taking up residence in June, Nora had prepared in her head three or four polite speeches and several carefully-constructed patient pleas for respectable hours. Somehow these would crumble on her tongue each time she saw the slight woman with the pale blonde hair. Her neighbor would nod at her and pull her thin lips into a thinner smile. Nora would always end up feeling regretful of her irritation toward this wispy woman whose name she did not know.

Now she lay in her bed, a box fan aimed strategically at her, feeling powerless against her tiny violinist neighbor. The crusty, peeling windows of the brown brick house seemed to usher in the July heat (something else the landlord hadn’t mentioned), and so Nora had invested in a fan to help the one window air-conditioner in its labors.

She finally turned on her side and, taking her BlackBerry off of the bedside table, texted Ben.

He called her immediately.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” she replied, grateful for his voice.

“How’s Erie?”

Nora paused, wondering how much to bombard him with at this time of night. I hate it, she responded in her head. I hate it so much. I run. I work. I work out. I sleepI wake up. I do it all again. It was late, though. She didn’t want to waste their conversation complaining. At last she settled on the word: “Boring.”

“How’s the neighbor lady?” he asked intuitively.

She couldn’t resist spouting out, “Killing me. I don’t get the walking as she plays. There’s no reason to walk, is there? Can’t you just stand still and play the violin?”

“I have no idea, Nora. But you need to talk to her. Or complain to the landlord.”

Nora sighed. “If I complain to the landlord, she’ll know it’s me. And the few times I’ve seen her it just hasn’t felt right. I feel like I could squash her. So I’d feel like a jerk for having that be the first thing I ever say to her.”

“So ask her out for coffee, get to know her, and then talk to her about it,” Ben answered sensibly.

Nora smiled in the darkness. “You and your coffee.”

“Did you get any ticks yet?” he asked.

She shook her head into the darkness. “Not yet. But that thing about deer ticks I sent you … that wasn’t even the half of it—83 percent of the countryside is apparently insane because of Lyme disease.”

“What’s your source for that figure, Special Agent Khalil?”

“The server at the Eat-n-Park.”

“Well, she would know,” Ben confirmed. “How’s the world of child pornography?”

She sighed. “Scary. Ugly. Sad.”

“Your team?”

“Good. Fine. Whatever. Boring.”

Nora was silent, thinking, then said, “I haven’t figured Pete out yet; he comes off as some sort of hard-drinking frat boy, with this crazy Southern drawl. Which totally makes him sound ignorant, right? But he’s very sharp, very intense, about computers. Every time I say I don’t understand something he says, all nerdy, Well did you try to understand? Anna … I don’t know. She makes me nervous.”

Ben laughed. “What? Why?”

“She’s so intense, so, like, relentlessly capable…”

“Kinda like you?”

Nora made a “psh” sound. “I am waaay more subtle. Anyway, they aren’t as fun to hang out with as you.”

“Did you go out drinking with them yet?”

Nora groaned. “Oh my God, this is the drinkingest town I ever saw.”

“You haven’t seen many towns,” Ben reminded her. “But of course it is. What else are they going to do there? Anyway, this whole violinist thing is your fault. If you were out at the bar you wouldn’t notice. You don’t have to drink. Have a coke. It’s called group bonding.

She considered this, then said again: “They’re really boring, Ben.”

“Is that your way of saying you miss me?”

She shook her head, listening for a moment as the melody upstairs crescendoed and then eased into softness. “You know I do,” she answered.

“Good. Now go to sleep. You have to be at work in seven hours. I’ll come see you on Labor Day?” he was asking.

“Yes. Ahmad will be here. But come.”

Ben was silent. “When is he coming?”

Nora noted the change in his tone and said slowly, “It will be his first long weekend after classes start, and he knew I’d want to hear all about it.…”

“So the whole time I’d be there. When will we get time alone?”

Nora sat up in bed and clutched her knees. “Ben, I don’t know. But it’s hard on him not having me around, you know this. It was just us for so long. He’s so excited about coming.…”

There was a long pause. “Okay, Nora. I guess I’ll talk to you soon, then. Get some rest.”

His voice was both cold and hurt.

Nora held the phone against her ear, trying hard to think of something to say. “I—okay, Ben. You, too. Call me soon.”

She replaced the BlackBerry and lay back down feeling so much worse than before they’d spoken. The violinist overhead seemed to sense this and began a slow, soulful tune that eventually lulled Nora into a dreamless sleep.

*   *   *

 

Copyright © 2017 Carolyn Baugh.

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Carolyn Baugh holds a Master's and a Doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in Arabic and Islamic Studies. She is currently Associate Professor of History at Gannon University, where she is the director of the Women's Studies Program. In addition to Quicksand and Shoreline, she is the author of The View from Garden City.

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