The clank of the outside door down the hall woke up Valerie Murphy. She still lay flat on what passed for a bed, staring up at the dirty ceiling.
She heard two sets of footsteps. That was unusual. The first sounded familiar—a guard. A jangle of keys, he walked with a slow limp. She didn’t know which side he favored. She had heard, but never seen her guards. This wasn’t the one who had spoken those brief words, telling her to shut up in there when she was losing her mind.
The second set of footsteps were harder to make out. They sounded like somebody walking in slippers or barefoot. Her sense of hearing had become acute. At any given time, she could make out the creaks of the building, people walking around in the halls, even, sometimes, traffic, although she didn’t know where she was located.
The steps got closer, and so she stood. She didn’t know why—they’d never come through the door before. All the same, she stood, tried to arrange her matted, filthy hair. This was too unusual. They were coming only a couple hours after a meal, and this time there were two of them. What could it mean?
A moment later, a loud buzz, and the door opened.
She stared. Her guard, who she had heard day after day, who delivered meals to her, was short, fat, and ugly. Pretty much what she’d expected. He wore a gray uniform, with a US Department of Justice patch on his shoulder. Department of Justice. Now there was a laugh.
Beside him stood someone unexpected: wearing nothing but prison overalls just as she wore. Al Clark, former Congressman and briefly, Secretary of State of West Virginia. Her old boss. Al didn’t look so hot either. His hair had grown long, hanging dirty near his shoulders. She looked at him, doubting her eyes. She wondered if she was hallucinating again.
“Valerie. It’s me.”
Her eyes watered, and she reached for him. They embraced. But the touch of another human being was too intense. She backed off quickly.
“All right there, come on,” the guard said. Not friendly.
“Where are we going?”
The officer didn’t answer, but Clark spoke.
“We’re getting you out of here, Valerie.”
She couldn’t quite place the words. Getting her out of here. What did that mean? Did it mean they were going to release her? Release her for what? She didn’t know.
The guard walked away, and they followed.
Down the hall, the guard opened another set of locked doors. At the end of the hall stood a man and a woman, both in dark suits. The diminutive woman offered a stark contrast with the tall, blonde, athletic man next to her.
“Ms. Murphy, come in here please.”
The woman indicated the room to the left.
Valerie looked in. Like the rest of the prison, it was drab, with a bare table, colorless floor, and cracked ceiling. But this room was different: it had a window.
She stepped in, disbelieving, and without hesitation walked straight to the window and looked outside. She was stunned by what she saw, because she recognized it. Outside, far below, a crowded street was heavy with traffic; a riot of color and sound.
My God. She was still in Washington. This was the FBI headquarters. She couldn’t be anywhere else. Why in God’s name had she been held here all this time? She had no idea the FBI even had these kinds of isolation cells in the their headquarters. When she’d first been taken prisoner, she’d been carried in the back of a closed van for hours before being taken to cell. It was all nothing more than a sham. She turned back and looked.
Clark still stood. So did the other two.
“What is this?” she asked.
“Please have a seat, ma’am,” said the man in the suit. His short hair and athletic look seemed almost fake to Valerie. He was nothing more than a mannequin in a suit. A plastic Ken doll, who probably went out and played football on the weekends; or went boating up the Potomac with an equally plastic Barbie doll. His Barbie doll would smile and vote Republican and probably went to church every Sunday.
All the same. Ma’am, he’d said. No one had spoken to her with courtesy in a long time. She sat, then folded her hands in her lap and waited.
“My name is Richard Higgins. I’m a special prosecutor for the Department of Justice. This is my assistant.”
“Mr. Higgins, why you here?”
“Last month I was given the task of investigating the charges of terrorism against you. You’ll be happy to hear that you’ve been cleared. There won’t be any grand jury, no trial. I expect that within the hour you will be free to go.”
Valerie was afraid to respond.
“However, we need to talk to you about a couple of things first.”
The prosecutor and his assistant looked at each other for a moment, then at Clark. The assistant didn’t seem plastic. In fact, she seemed anything but. The woman radiated discomfiture, and had deep lines in the creases of her eyes. Valerie studied her, and guessed that this woman, at least, had no desire to be here at all.
Well, that made two of them.
“We’re prepared to release you with no charges filed, nothing on your record, provided you remain silent about anything that has occurred since you’ve been here.”
Valerie shrugged. “What has occurred? I haven’t seen another human being in—I don’t know how long.”
“Three months and nineteen days, ma’am.”
Good god. One hundred and nine days.
“And why should I stay silent about what amounted to three months of the silent treatment?”
“That’s the deal. You must agree to that if you want to go forward.”
Valerie sat back and looked at Clark. “What aren’t they telling me?”
Clark looked at her. “I have no idea. They only came to get me in my cell about an hour ago. There is one bit of news they didn’t share. It seems that …well, according to them, Governor Slagter killed himself back in January.”
“I don’t understand what that has to do with me.”
Higgins, the prosecutor, spoke. “It seems that some pressure has been brought to bear—I don’t know who, someone from the military had been pushing to have you released. I’ve been trying to complete my investigation as quickly as possible so you wouldn’t be held any longer than necessary. That’s the first issue. The second is that under West Virginia’s constitution, the legislature is free to appoint the governor of their choice should the governor die. That new governor is Mr. Clark here.”
Stunned, Valerie looked at Clark.
“You’re kidding me.”
“Apparently not. I don’t know any more than you do about this, Valerie, but that’s what they’ve told me.”
“So you’re going to go from being prisoner to being governor.”
“It could be worse.”
She smiled a bitter smile. “It certainly could. Why should I sign this piece of paper?”
“Because I need you Valerie. I need you to come with me. I can’t do this alone.”
“What about my father?”
Clark looked over at the prosecutor. Higgins squirmed and his face darkened a little. “I’m not sure—” He trailed off without finishing.
Clark interrupted. “What aren’t you sure about?”
“I’m not sure I’m the person who should deliver this news.”
Valerie’s eyes watered, and she said, “Whatever news you have, it can’t be any worse than what I’m afraid of, so you might as well just tell me.”
“All right. General Murphy was tried for treason, and executed.”
She gasped. “But it’s only been three months. What about the appeals?”
“I’m afraid that process went very quickly, ma’am. As I understood it, the General waived his right to an appeal. Again, he was executed, just a few days ago. I’m very sorry to give this news to you.”
Valerie closed her eyes. Her father was dead. Executed. She saw his face as she had last seen him, right before Christmas. Smiling a bitter smile, knowing that at any moment the fighting might erupt. He’d already been dead by then; he just didn’t know it.
“How?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“How was he executed?”
The prosecutor looked even more uncomfortable. “By lethal injection, ma’am. My understanding is that it was very quick. He probably didn’t feel anything.”
Abruptly, Valerie lurched out her seat, and vomited the contents of her breakfast on the floor, leaving an acrid stink in the room. Clark reached for her, but she jerked away. She didn’t want to be touched. Her father was dead, and there was nothing she could do about it.
“And what if I say no? That I won’t sign your paper.”
Higgins looked at his assistant, his face disturbed, and said, “We’ll continue to hold you indefinitely. As you know, West Virginia is in a state of insurrection. Accordingly, President Price suspended habeas corpus for all residents of the state effective January 1. If you don’t agree to remain silent, we’ll make sure you never have the opportunity to talk.
Higgins paused, distaste for his task clear on his face. “I never said that, but it’s the bottom line.”
“Valerie,” Clark said. “Come with me. There’s still good we can do. You can’t make a decision like that—not after just hearing about your father. You’ll need time.”
She looked at him and said, “Time for what? I’ve known for three months that he was a dead man. It was just a question of when and how. I just wish he had died in combat. He would have been happy then.”
Clark closed his eyes and said, “I understand.”
“All right then. Where do I sign?”
Higgins opened his briefcase, and passed across a sheet of paper.
She scanned the lines. They were very simple, promising not to discuss the conditions of her imprisonment and waiving her right to sue the government. Who cared? After all, what would be the point?
She signed the paper. She was free, but what did that mean? Could freedom bring her family back? Would freedom bring her any safety, or just more risk?
And did it really matter if it did?
“Let’s get out of here.”
First Interlude: 1994
The ground rumbled and shook at quarter-past twelve, silencing the sixty-odd ninth and tenth graders in the Clear Fork High School cafeteria.
The three teachers in the room stood as the shaking came to a stop. Ms. Pine, the music teacher, looked frightened as she whispered to one of the other teachers. A mousy woman, her expressions and gestures always seemed half-finished. Right now she simply looked frightened: her husband worked in the Eagle Mine.
Joe Blankenship leaned across the table toward his best friend, Bob. “Something just let loose in the mine. Holy shit.”
“Nah,” Bob said. “Could have been anything. A big truck, maybe.” Bob was light to Joe’s dark: blonde hair clipped close to his scalp, blue eyes. Joe looked much like his father: swarthy, a strong touch of Native American in his bone structure.
Mandy, Bob’s little sister, said in a quiet voice, “I hope so.” She seemed into shrink in her seat next to Joe. Though a year younger than Bob and Joe, she was in the same grade: she’d skipped second grade.
Their hopes were dashed almost instantly by the sound of the alarm, mounted at the top of the coal tipple, just a quarter mile from the high school.
Mandy grabbed Joe’s arm. “I knew it,” she said. “I hate that mine.”
“I’m sure everyone’s okay, Mandy,” Bob said. He rolled his eyes at Joe, as if to say, “Sisters!” He looked at his watch. “Bell’s going to ring in a minute.”
“Yeah,” Joe said. He turned to Mandy. “Meet me after school? I’ll walk over to the mine with you, so we can check together that everything’s okay.”
She nodded, her eyes round with anxiety. Bob scoffed. “You know, Joe, if you weren’t my best friend I’d kick your ass for chasing after my sister.”
That brought a rise from Mandy. “Shut your mouth, Bob Mays. You ain’t got no say in who chases after me.”
Joe grinned as she leaned against him. Mandy was a smart girl, and knew what she wanted. Sometimes just holding her felt like grabbing hold of a piece of heaven. He wanted to hold on for dear life.
“Well, you just watch out, little sister. Joe may seem like a nice guy, but he’s got a funny turn to him. Just wait: you’ll see.”
Joe gave his best friend the finger, then stood up when the bell rang. He looked around to see if any teachers were watching, then gave her a kiss on the lips.
“Don’t worry, Mandy. Everything’s fine, you’ll see. Meet you after school.”
Forty-five minutes later, Joe frowned and creased his eyebrows as he stared down at the almost blank page in front of him. Mrs. Wilson, his English teacher, was a goddamn sadist. Day after day, they wrote five-effing-paragraph essays. Day after day, Joe wrestled with the damn things. And day after day, his grade point average was dropping.
It had been a little better lately, because Mandy had started helping him in English. Well, his grades weren’t any better, but at least he enjoyed studying. Somehow he didn’t think Mrs. Wilson thought of English quite the way he did. If she knew, the old woman would be scandalized. She’d been his father’s English teacher in 1975, practically before history started.
When the loudspeaker let out a loud feedback whine, the pencil snapped in his hand.
“Mrs. Wilson? Can you please send Bob Mays to the office for early release, please?”
“Oh, shit,” Joe muttered. Bob and Mandy’s dad worked in the mine, side by side with Joe’s father. If something had happened at the mine, it had probably happened to both of them.
“Joe Blankenship! How dare you say that filthy word in my class?”
Joe shrunk into his seat. “Sorry, ma’am. It just slipped out of me.”
“Well, it looks like a trip to see Mr. Bateman just slipped into you. Bob, you go ahead to the office, and take your things.”
“Yes’m,” Bob answered, his voice shaking. Joe met Bob’s eyes as the other boy struggled to stuff his books into his backpack.
Mrs. Wilson began writing on a familiar report slip. Joe had made more than one visit to the assistant principal in the last three months. She was interrupted by another loud screech from the loudspeaker, followed by the voice of the school secretary.
“Mrs. Wilson, please also send Joe Blankenship to the office please, for early release.”
Joe’s heart sank. It couldn’t be nothing but an accident at the mine. Oh, son of a bitch. He stood, shaking, and stuffed his books into the bag. His dad worked on the continuous miner, a massive machine that ripped into the coal seam, tearing out hundreds of tons of coal each day. Had something happened with the machine? Or the ceiling collapsed? God, let it not be that. Joe and his dad didn’t exactly get along, but that wasn’t the same thing as wanting to see him hurt—or worse.
“Come on,” Joe said to Bob, and they both hefted their bags and walked toward the door. Joe didn’t bother to wait for permission from Mrs. Wilson.
Mandy was already in the dark, wood paneled office when they arrived. She stood against the wall, shaking. Mark Radley, the union supervisor from the mine, stood with Mr. Bateman, the assistant principal.
Joe and Bob stood to either side of Mandy, and Joe put his arm around her. That earned a frown from Mr. Bateman, but right now Joe didn’t really give a shit.
“Kids,” said Radley, “I’m sorry to bring you bad news. There’s been a collapse down in the mine.”
Mandy burst into tears, and Joe pulled her a little closer.
“Your dad’s was repairin’ the continuous miner when the ceiling cut loose.”
“Are they okay?” Bob asked.
“Well, they’re both still down there, and they’re alive. We don’t know if they’re hurt, or how bad; all I knows is they’re working to get ‘em out right now. They’re both still talking, so they can’t be hurt too bad. Your moms are already there, and asked me to pick y’all up.”
Joe nodded his head. “Okay. Let’s go.”
Twelve hours later, the three teenagers were still waiting. Joe sat on the ground, leaning back against the base of a tree. Mandy lay with her head in his lap, and a few feet away, Bob sat with his legs crossed, slowly tearing the bark off of a twig.
Twenty feet away, their mothers sat in chairs inside the wood-frame office near the top of the mine-shaft. Rescuers were down there: desperately trying to clear away the tons of rubble in order to bring the two men back to the surface. All they knew was that both of them were still alive—Robert Mays had his legs trapped under the rock, and Warren Blankenship lay next to him, his arm trapped.
Joe hadn’t said so, but he had the feeling Mandy and Bob’s dad wasn’t going to live. Or if he did, he wasn’t going to be worth much. No way the doctors were going to be able to repair that kind of damage, and that was only if they could prevent another collapse. They’d sat through several rumbles in the last twelve hours, and every moment counted now.
Bob cursed and threw his twig away. “You ever wonder if we’re going to be in same way in ten or twenty years?”
“What do you mean?” Joe said.
“You know what I mean. Are we going to be down there in that damn mine? Working? I always tell myself I’m going to find something else. Make Whitesville a place where you can live without having to go down in the damn mine. Or maybe I’ll just go somewhere a thousand miles away.”
“Zoe wouldn’t like that,” Joe said.
“Yeah, that shows how much you know,” Bob said. “Latest is she wants to go to California and be an actress. Course, Zoe changes her mind about once a week about what she wants to do with her life.”
Joe shook his head and shrugged. “More power to her. I don’t know. I always figured I’d end up in the mine. I’m not exactly likely to get a scholarship or nothin’, and it’s for sure my Dad can’t afford to pay for college.”
He didn’t say the obvious—that there were no guarantees either one of their fathers would even survive the night.
Mandy turned toward him at his comments and slapped him lightly on the shoulder.
“Don’t you say that,” she said, her voice firm. “Don’t you ever say you’re going to work in that mine.”
“Why the hell not?” Joe replied, his voice wounded.
“’Cause I ain’t marrying no damn miner. I’m not sittin’ outside that office waiting to find out if my husband is going to live or die. That. Is. Not. Going. To. Happen.”
She punctuated each word with a finger jabbed into his shoulder.
“Who said anything about gettin’ married?” Joe cried.
She stood up, tears in her eyes. “Joe Blankenship, sometimes you are just as dumb as my brother.”
She stormed off to the office and slammed the door when she went inside.
Joe and Bob stared at each other. “Well, dummy,” Bob said. “Maybe she’s right.”
They didn’t talk again until they heard the sound of the shaft elevator. The men were being brought up—alive.