Just thought I’d tease some of you a little with an excerpt from the first chapter of my novel Quenton’s Honor. Go ahead. Take a chance. Read it. Maybe you’ll decide that one chapter just isn’t enough. If so, you’ll find it for sale on Amazon’s Kindle Store, for only $3.99. And if you don’t have a Kindle, a Nook, an iPad, or an iPhone – no problem. Amazon has an app that you can download for free to turn your computer into a digital reader for any book you buy. Enjoy ..….
QUENTON’S HONOR: Chapter One
“I hope you duly appreciate your cook, Mr. Ahmed,” Quenton said, addressing his Pakistani host as they walked from the dining room with the two other men who were also guests for the business dinner they had just finished. “That was one of the most delicious meals I’ve had in a long time.”
“Indeed, I do appreciate his talent, Mr. Sutherland,” he answered laughing. “Especially since he serves me meals just as delicious even when I am alone.”
“You’re a lucky man.”
Ranjit Ahmed turned toward a closed door and opened it into a cozy library, inviting his guests inside. “Please join me in here for some relaxing conversation now that our more serious business is taken care of.”
“If you wouldn’t be offended, gentlemen,” Quenton said, taking in all three men in his glance, “I’d like to be excused to check on my personal e-mail and perhaps answer some of the most pressing communications.”
“Certainly, Mr. Sutherland. This has been a very pressing trip for you, and I imagine you’re feeling the strain of it about now, and probably long for your bed and sleep as much as more conversation.”
“There’s some truth in that,” Quenton answered, laughing. He turned to shake the hands of the two other men. “Thank you so much gentlemen, for taking the time to meet with me this evening and answer my questions. Your information has been very useful in deciding what kind of help is most needed by the people here in your country.”
“It was our pleasure,” one of the men answered him.
“Indeed,” the other added. “We’re very glad to know that our information has been of benefit. We appreciate your generosity in orchestrating such humanitarian efforts, Mr. Sutherland.”
Quenton turned back to his host. “I’m hoping your offer of the use of the computer in your office is still open. It shouldn’t take long to access my e-mail and print out anything I really need.”
“Feel free to make use of it, Mr. Sutherland. I’ll not be using it again until morning myself. And if you find that there isn’t much that needs your immediate attention, please join us here when you’re through. Otherwise . . . I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Thank you. Goodnight.” Quenton turned and walked down the hall to the office he’d seen as Ranjit Ahmed had shown him around his beautiful home that morning. He entered the office and closed the door, going immediately to the desk and computer terminal.
As he moved the mouse, he was surprised to see a letter replace the screen saver. Hmm . . . must have been something Ahmed had been working on, and he had forgotten to close it out before he left the office. Quenton was a natural born reader, and he often found himself scanning any written material in front of him without even thinking about it, regardless of what it was. By the time he realized he was reading a letter that was none of his business, his eyes had scanned over a couple of lines where the mention of three specific time zones caught his attention, and he automatically started reading again from the top of the page.
“The main components will be in place by midnight in the Pacific Time Zone, which will make it 2:00 AM Central, and 3:00 AM Eastern. The product should have saturated the market within a few hours of the initial entry. Response should be almost immediate, so departure should be as early as possible after the business has been transacted. The last communication from here will take place twenty-four hours before the appointment time. After that, there will be no way for you to access this information or communicate with this site.”
Quenton shook his head slightly. “This is one odd letter,” he said, not even realizing he was talking to himself out loud. He leaned back in the desk chair, thinking and still mumbling out loud. “I had no idea Ahmed did business with anyone on both coasts too. I was sure he told me we were the only American company he’s been connected with for the past three years.” He shook his head again and re-read the words. For some reason he was unable to dispel a faint sense of something shady here. The terminology seemed almost purposely vague.
He shrugged his shoulders. Oh, well, it really had nothing to do with him if Ahmed wanted to do business with somebody else too. “It’s not like I’m trying to corner the market in his line,” Quenton said now, and started to open a new window in the browser to access his own mail.
But something just kept nagging at his mind so much that, instead of opening a new window, he found himself pulling up the information that would tell him who the letters had been sent to. He didn’t recognize any of the e-mail addresses, but he just couldn’t keep himself from pulling his notebook from his coat pocket and jotting them down.
Then he laughed quietly to himself. “This is stupid. I act like I’m in a spy movie,” he said, shoving his notebook back into his pocket and getting down to his own business. He found only one item he needed to print out, so within thirty minutes, he was back in his bedroom preparing to get some sleep.
He must have lain there for at least another hour before he finally dozed off, but it felt as if he were instantly awakened by the slamming of car doors close by. He rolled over in the bed and looked at the clock: midnight. Well, evidently, he’d been asleep longer than he thought. He supposed the car doors indicated the other guests finally leaving. But as he lay there, he heard voices in the courtyard below his room, and after several minutes, he realized he hadn’t heard any car engines running, or the sounds of any cars driving away.
He got up and looked out the window. He could see the courtyard easily, and he was surprised to see Ranjit shaking hands with a man who hadn’t been with them at dinner. The next thing he knew, Ranjit was turning and speaking to someone else who was already out of site in the doorway of a room that opened right onto the courtyard and driveway. Instinctively, Quenton stayed back far enough to be sure he was out of sight, which wasn’t too difficult, since he hadn’t turned on a light. He saw Ranjit and the first man enter the room off the courtyard also and close the door.
Well, he was wide awake now. He might as well put on his robe and go back down to the library and find something to read. Ranjit had told him to help himself to any of the books during his two-day visit. He didn’t encounter anyone else in the hallways, but for some reason, he walked especially quietly. He wasn’t sure why, but he didn’t feel exactly comfortable wondering around someone else’s house after midnight. It seemed a little creepy.
He shook his head at his own feelings and mumbled to himself. “I must be letting Steve’s warnings about the dangers of this trip get to me.” His vice-president had done everything in his power to change Quenton’s mind about making the trip, citing a number of possible scenarios that could end unhappily. He shook his head again and kept walking, determined to find himself something enthralling to read and get his mind off this foolishness. He opened the door to the library and turned on the light, crossing the carpeted floor to peruse the shelves. As he moved to the shelves on the back wall, he realized he could hear voices again, and glancing around, he realized the library was situated right next door to the room he’d seen the men enter a few minutes ago.
Well, he didn’t want to listen and get his mind bogged down with something that wasn’t any of his business, so he’d tune them out and get his book and leave. But the fact that they were speaking English worked against him. He couldn’t seem to not hear what they were saying … at least some of the time. One of the men had a softer voice, and Quenton missed his words, but he could hear Ranjit and one of his visitors pretty clearly.
Quenton pulled himself up short again with a mental lecture about minding his own business, but about that time he heard the words, “The system in San Francisco is more difficult to get into than the others. Do you think we should try a different avenue there?”
“There’s no other avenue that will reach nearly as many people,” Ranjit answered. “Tell them to keep trying.”
“But they’ve tried everything they can think of already, and time’s running out.”
“There has to be a way! A water system that large has to have a weak spot somewhere.”
WATER? Quenton’s hearing sharpened instantly. His heartbeat picked up speed, but he deliberately tried to settle it with deep breaths, because he was determined to listen now. Why would they be interested in San Francisco’s water system? He began to wonder if he had spent too much time the past year listening to talk about possible terrorist plots.
At that thought, his heart started pounding again so loudly that he had to walk right up to the wall and lean against it to hear any more words.
The soft-voiced man was saying something now, but he couldn’t make out any of it except the word Chicago.
“That’s right,” Ranjit said now. “If they can figure out a way to access the system in Orlando and Chicago, there is a way to take care of it out there too.”
CHICAGO!! ORLANDO!! Quenton’s mind jumped back to the letter he’d seen earlier in the evening referring to the three specific time zones. He’d wondered about the letter being in English, but he knew that was a common language for businessmen in this part of the world to use, and it hadn’t made him particularly suspicious. But now he realized that the letter must have been going to people in all three of those cities, and would draw less suspicion if it were in plain English, just in case it ended up in the wrong hands at some point.
He was having a hard time shutting down his own racing thoughts enough to listen to the rest of the conversation. But he could hardly hear anything clearly now. They must have moved to the opposite side of the room. He pressed his ear to the wall, but still couldn’t make out any of the words. But suddenly he noticed that the drapes at the library window that faced the courtyard were still open, and anyone walking toward the drive could see him in the room, leaning against the wall. He’d better grab a book and get back to his room. He’d find a way to get back to the computer after everyone else was in bed. He could surely find some answers there.
He quickly reached up and grabbed a book on the history of Pakistan and slipped out of the library silently. Once back in his room, he changed into jeans and a knit shirt. He couldn’t seem to stop pacing, waiting to hear the midnight visitors leave. When he finally heard car doors slamming again, about an hour later, he eased up to the window and looked out. Sure enough, both men were leaving, and Ranjit turned toward the house.
One of his servants came up to him and spoke in a rather secretive manner Quenton thought, but Ranjit’s only response for several seconds was just to nod his head as if he understood. Finally he glanced up toward Quenton’s window, but Quenton forced himself not to jump back. He didn’t believe Ranjit could see him through the lightweight drapes anyway, but even if he could, it shouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary for someone awakened by the cars to glance out of the window. Ranjit’s glance lasted only a couple of seconds; then he again moved toward the house, along with his servant.
Quenton sat down to wait. He’d have to give all of them time to get to bed and, hopefully, to sleep, before he ventured out again. He closed his eyes, weariness from the trip . . . and from his own troubling thoughts . . . weighing him down. He sighed heavily. He really didn’t want any part of this at all. Could he just ignore everything he’d heard and go on and finish his own trip and get back home? All he wanted to do was help some of the people in these countries, hoping to bring just a little bit of peace to some of them … even in the midst of almost unceasing conflict and turmoil.
His father had been diligent to teach him that a man blessed with much wealth had the responsibility to use that wealth to benefit mankind as much as he possibly could. James Sutherland had lived by the rule that if you give some of what you’ve been blessed with to others in need, you will continue to be blessed even more – and then can be an even greater blessing – and the cycle will continue. And to the best of Quenton’s memory, that policy had never failed his father at any time. So he had continued to live his own life the same way.
He smiled to himself now, his head resting on the back of the chair. He’d wanted to be just like his dad ever since he could remember – always following him around – begging to go with him to the office or to visit clients – to “help” carry his golf clubs around the green or to sit beside him on the boat with his own cane fishing pole hanging over the side, waiting for a nibble. And, of course, when his dad had become a believer, Quenton had always been ready to accompany him to church – at least as a very young boy.
But by the time he was out of high school and on his way to college, he didn’t figure he had time for God and church. He knew his parents were disappointed – as was his grandmother, who’d told him stories of faith from the time he was a toddler – but he had to start living his own life sometime, and the day he left for college seemed as good a time as any. Those feelings only intensified when he began to listen to the questioning ideas and attitudes that were so plentiful in his classrooms and among the people who became his friends.
He sighed again. Oh, well, religion just wasn’t for him, but he had to admit that it hadn’t done too badly by his dad. He had been an extraordinarily successful man, and Quenton was honored to have had him for a father. He would continue to live by the principles his dad had instilled into him – at least as far as business was concerned – to the best of his ability.
He glanced at his watch now. He’d waited long enough. It was time to slip down to the office.
As he stepped into the hallway thirty minutes later, the house was silent as a stone. He slipped easily down the corridor and turned to the left, heading quickly for the office. He had planned to use the excuse that he had forgotten to access his business computer’s e-mail, should he get caught at the terminal at such an unusual hour. But he hoped that wouldn’t be necessary.
He closed the door silently and eased his way around the desk to the chair in front of the terminal. He was thankful for an almost full moon, because it gave just enough light to avoid stumbling over something. He turned on the screen and found that it gave enough light to see the keyboard clearly. Now to discover the right password.
He was more grateful than ever that he had expanded the family company into the manufacturing of computer hardware and that he’d forced himself, in the process, to learn a great deal about how all of the various systems functioned. He’d learned more than one way to scour those systems for the information he needed. He worked quickly and as silently as the computer itself would accommodate, holding his breath almost the whole time. … Bingo! He had it. Now to get into the rest of the e-mails and possibly some related files. He checked the time, knowing he needed to hurry, but wanting to take the time to assimilate what he read so that he didn’t have to write it all down.
As he worked his way back through letters preceding the one he’d discovered tonight, he found more details. By now he felt sure he wasn’t imagining things. All these details had the makings of a thoroughly organized plan to infiltrate city water systems with a deadly substance. But what he couldn’t find were dates. His neck was rigid from the tension, and he reached back to massage it, closing his eyes for just a moment. He had to find the dates.
He opened his eyes again and pulled up another document. The wording was extremely odd, and just as he was concentrating on trying to decipher what must have been some kind of coded instructions, the office door swept open and the overhead light flashed on. Quenton jumped … just enough that his hand hit the mouse, and it slid off the desk to the floor. With that motion, his tiny window of opportunity for closing down what he had been reading dissolved into thin air.
(© 2004 Sandra Conner)