A breeze scattered leaves across the familiar winding blacktop driveway that led Jack Crittendon to the back of the gleaming steel-and-glass Columbus Festival Arena. At 4:30 p.m. the massive parking lot was a ghost town, but soon it would be teeming with cars, school buses, campers, and Greyhounds. People would be com- ing from across the region to catch a glimpse of controversial senator and independent presidential hopeful Martin Sterling as he stumped through the swing state of Ohio with hopes of making it on the November ballot next year.
Eight months ago Jack would have been covering the event as a reporter for the Trenton City Dispatch. But after the debacle that sent four top Dispatch employees to prison for their involvement with the felonious Demler-Vargus Corporation, the newspaper had folded and left him out of work. Things had been unraveling ever since.
He slowed at the guardhouse, where the slouching guy inside squinted to check the parking sticker on Jack’s windshield. The gate lifted, and Jack zipped through. He curved around to the enormous loading docks in back of the arena, where on concert days roadies loaded and unloaded stage equipment and where the stars lived in their decked-out tour buses for the brief time they were in town.
Although Jack was thankful for the part-time job he’d found working for EventPros, the firm that provided security and guest services for events at the twelve-thousand-seat venue in downtown Columbus, something had to change. He had to find a full-time job in journalism or PR or anything that had to do with writing. Thus far, endless hours of research, filling out applications, and sending résumés had turned up zero, and he was feeling the strain at home.
Jack’s wife, Pam, had been forced to give up her cherished role as stay-at-home mom to go back to work. She would have returned to the classroom, but her teaching certificate had lapsed. Plus, she wanted to spend her evenings with the girls, not grading papers and creating lesson plans. So she ended up taking a job as an administra- tive assistant at a local orthodontist’s office.
Jack swung the Jetta into the dark parking deck, backed into his normal spot, and checked the time. He still had a few minutes. He dug around in the glove compartment for some mints and thought about texting Pam to let her know he’d arrived. They’d had to pay three more bills from their dwindling savings account, and it had caused major havoc between them on his way out the door. He felt as though she resented him for failing to provide, and he really didn’t feel like talking with her.
But since she was eight months pregnant with Crittendon num- ber three, he checked his phone to make sure he hadn’t heard from her. No texts or missed calls. He leaned back and closed his eyes. It was a relief to get away for a few hours. Although he was grateful for Pam’s mother, Margaret, who’d come to live with them after her husband died last winter, her constant presence in the midst of their deepening financial woes was stifling.
Jack stuffed a handful of mints into his pocket, locked the car, and headed for the staging area in the bowels of the arena. On his way, he double-checked his uniform: black lanyard with ID badge, flashlight on belt, khaki cargo pants, black Reebok high-tops, black EventPros golf shirt, and orange EventPros windbreaker. All set.
“Hey, Jack.” His elderly coworker Edgar, seated behind a table stacked with pagers and walkie-talkies, ran a trembling finger across a page, found Jack’s name, and signed him in. “You’ll be on the floor. Section A-2. Take a radio.”
Good. He liked being close to the action.
He grabbed the agenda for the evening and scanned the busy room. People aged seventeen to seventy worked for EventPros. Many of the retired ones like Edgar treated the job as a hobby. It gave them a chance to get out of the house, earn some gas money, and see all the big stars—from Justin Bieber and Keith Urban to Green Day, James Taylor, and Carrie Underwood.
Jack grabbed a walkie-talkie and untangled a headset from a knotted pile. Many of his colleagues, all dressed in similar uniforms, were sitting as long as possible before they would be required to stand for their four- to six-hour shifts.
He spotted the colorful self-proclaimed “survivalist” Brian Shakespeare sitting at a table with two other friends and headed over. “Gentlemen.” Jack exchanged fist bumps, then clipped the radio
to his belt and got the headset and mic adjusted.
“You hear who’s gonna be here tonight?” said Shakespeare, who once claimed he was related to the famous English writer.
“Besides Senator Sterling?” Jack said.
“Everett Lester,” Sid Turk, an overweight, blond kid with oily skin, chimed in through a mouthful of Whopper.
“You’re kidding me,” Jack said. They all shook their heads. “Since when? Pam loves him.”
“It was a last-minute deal,” Shakespeare said. “I heard it on the news on the way over. Clarissa’s trying to keep it hush-hush, but Chico heard it too. It’s gotta be goin’ viral by now.”
“Gonna be a full house for sure,” said Chico Gutierrez, a rail of a kid with straight black hair. “Anytime you can see Everett Lester for free, you’re gonna pack the joint.”
Jack tested his radio by clicking his Talk button and listening for the static in his headset. The radios, headsets, and pagers were beat up and needed to be replaced.
“Lester’s a pansy,” Shakespeare said. “He was better before his big conversion.”
“Come on, dude. You gotta like some of his new stuff,” Jack said.
“I’m just saying his music was better before. It’s just a fact. He’s not the same without the original band.”
“Oh, dude, Death Stroke rocked so big-time,” Sid said. “Even
I know that, and I was in diapers when they were in their heyday.” “That they did,” said Shakespeare, whose once-booming swimming-pool business drowned when the market plunged in 2008. He and Jack worked almost every event because they both had marriages, mortgages, kids, and cars, as well as a long list of bills to pay.
“Are we gonna have enough staff?” Jack scanned the room again.
“Are you kidding me?” Shakespeare said. “This was supposed to be a spur-of-the-moment whistle-stop. Two to four thousand people, tops. But with Lester here? We’re gonna be turning people away— you watch. Clarissa’s got calls out for all hands on deck, but we’ll be short. What else is new?”
Tab Deacon blew into the staging area with a gust of wind, his walkie-talkie glued to his mouth, and a chronic limp. That was Tab—always a flair for the dramatic. He dashed up to Clarissa and whispered in her ear at length. The pointy-nosed, gum-chewing Clarissa Dracone, head manager of EventPros, pulled back and scowled.
Jack found it odd he hadn’t picked up Tab’s voice on his headset, but he knew upper management had other channels they used to address sensitive issues.
He watched the two face off. At six foot four, Tab stared down at Clarissa with creased brow and a face full of fret. She glared up at him in her baggy orange windbreaker, her lipstick suddenly looking starkly red against her pale white face.
In an instant she snapped out of it and whipped into action, tap- ping one, two, three of the nearby supervisors and waving them into her office with walkie-talkie in hand. She quickly shuffled in behind them, practically stepping on Tab’s heel, and slammed the door.
“Hmm.” Shakespeare switched from channel to channel on his radio, trying to pick them up. “Very interesting.”
Jack did the same but got nothing.
“Wonder what’s up?” Sid wiped his runny nose with a worn-out napkin. “Are you guys getting anything?” He and Chico only had pagers.
Shakespeare shook his head. “Never seen anything like that before. I’ll be right back.”
A twitch of anxiety turned at the pit of Jack’s stomach, but noth- ing ever worried Shakespeare. He was a former marine who looked you dead in the eye, told you exactly what he thought, and never backed down. Jack once saw him manhandle five drugged-out freaks at a Kid Rock show who’d gotten way too violent in the mosh pit. Shakespeare had zero tolerance for thugs. He once called himself a “righteous patriot,” and it fit.
As Jack watched, Shakespeare tapped once at the office door and barged in. From his vantage point in the hallway, Jack saw Clarissa and the others turn toward his friend, each face pale with alarm.
Shakespeare said something. Clarissa spoke right back and waved him in.
Shakespeare spoke again, throwing a thumb back toward the staging area.
Clarissa threw up her hands, turned, and glared at Jack.
At first he thought he was just standing where her eyes happened to fall, but then he realized she was staring at him. His face flushed.
Shakespeare turned to Jack and waved him into the office. Although Shakespeare wasn’t a supervisor, Clarissa knew he was her toughest, most street-smart team member—and apparently he wanted Jack in there with him.
“Uh-oh,” said Chico, his black eyebrows raised. “Dude, let us know what’s goin’ on,” Sid said.
“Will do.” Jack took a deep breath and headed for the office. He walked past other EventPros who hadn’t noticed the developing situation.
He approached the door with a silent prayer to stay cool and stuck his head through the doorway. “Hey, folks. What’s going on?”
The room was silent.
Somber faces looked back at him.
“Get in and close the door,” Clarissa said. “We’ve got a national security threat.”