Last night was my very first book signing/book talk. Other than me speaking far too fast, forgetting to take out my gum, and accidentally wearing my sneakers instead of the pair of strappy sandals I had picked out, it went well.
One of the things I had talked about was how I often cut scenes that I love or entire characters because they just don’t fit in the book. I save them off into a separate document and there they sit until I decide they’ll live in another book or I share them as extra content.
I haven’t shared any of that in a long time so I thought this was the perfect opportunity to do it. Without further ado, here is the alternate opening scenes of The Broken Trail.
At gate ten in the Regan National Airport Katherine Grant waited for her flight in front of a bank of flat screen TVs, one of which was playing the news program she’d just finished taping. She watched as the on-screen Katherine eviscerated the argument Senator Baxter had raised for yet another educational bill that was all show no go. Despite having been in Washington for two decades, the man hadn’t done his homework. He trotted out his talking points with an almost casual sort of disdain practically daring anyone to disagree. By the time Katherine was done with him he was speechless, red-faced, and angry. He should have known that in the talking head game you do your homework or you think on your feet. He hadn’t done either. She was a master of both.
Watching the exchange she expected to feel good. The bill he was proposing was so convoluted, so over-reaching it would have paralyzed small school districts and alienated home schoolers while completely failing to aid the urban districts it was targeted at. It had to be stopped and she’d done her job in making sure that happened. Usually these small victories made her feel satisfied, but lately it was taking larger and larger ones for that happy vibe to settle in. Being a hired gun was getting old. Or maybe it was the road that was aging badly. There was no charm left in another day, another airport for sure.
She felt the row of chairs she was sitting in rock a little as someone took a seat on the end. “He never had a chance, did he?” She gave a little start and turned to find Helena Murkos, a Washington heavy-hitter, sitting in her row. Katherine had met Helena years ago and although not friends, their interactions had always been friendly. Helena was well into her fifties, sporting the female version of a power suit and blunt-cut gray hair. Katherine liked Helena, but cautiously, like a cat you don’t know; maybe they’ll purr for you, maybe they’ll bite you.
Helena watched the last of the clip, specifically the part where Katherine ended her rebuttal on the one-liner, “It may be pretty, but this dog won’t hunt.”
Helena chortled. “Nice touch.”
“I’m glad you’re amused. Can I assume, then, that the administration is not in favor of this new beast of a bill?” Katherine kept her tone carefully light.
“It is beastly at that,” was Helena’s non-answer. “Let’s just say that your government is grateful for your service today.”
“Politics as usual, is it?”
“Considering the source, criticizing it would have been…tricky.”
Katherine huffed out a laugh. That was an understatement. No party took down their own guy, unless he was someone they could spare and this guy was not. “Politics is what it is.”
“Right, backstabbing, underhanded, soul-crushing,” Katherine replied before adding a wink. She didn’t want to annoy Helena, but she wasn’t about to hide her disdain for the whole business.
“Is that why you’ve been avoiding the big chair?” Katherine cocked her head to the side in confusion. Helena was a king maker, the kind of woman who could get you a job with one phone call or end a career with a whisper, but Katherine didn’t think she was on her radar. At least, not enough for Helena to have followed her career that closely.
“I’m not avoiding any big chairs. You have one in mind?”
“Heard you were offered provost – rumor says it was Ivy League – and you turned it down. Heard you were offered a cabinet position in Powell’s administration and turned that down too. I assumed it was because California is not your style.”
Katherine was stunned. So Helena did have her on radar, but she had no idea why. Over the years there had been a few high-profile jobs, but nothing to garner this much notice. “Those were both great offers, but just at the wrong time. I’m not sure I’m interested in that kind of commitment.” In fact, she’d been thinking about taking a few months off. Home was more a post office box than anything else, but she did have a beach house on the Cape near her mom. She’d been toying with the idea of taking it off the market for rental this summer and actually living there for a while.
“Hmmm…” Helena had a speculative look on her face. “Well if no provost for you, or deputy secretary of the whatever, then what are you after? Not to sound cliché, but where do you see yourself in five years? I doubt you got those doctorates just to do the cable news circuit.”
Katherine had gotten those degrees after Life Plan #1 had crashed and burned, literally. When she was picking up the pieces and moving on she’d found a calling and she’d put her entire heart into it. “I’m open to whatever comes my way,” she shrugged. “I don’t like to limit myself by guessing what I will want in five or ten years.”
“Interesting. I think you’ve got the right idea there. I get calls from far too many people your age trying to restart stalled careers or begin new ones and it’s clear they’ve no idea what it is they want.”
”So forty is the magic number for reboots?” Katherine asked.
“You’d be surprised. You know, something came across my desk the other day, an opportunity that few administrators at your level would touch. The pay is a joke, the school is tiny, and there is pretty much no prestige to be had. I doubt I’ll find anyone to take it.”
“But, you make it sound so attractive,” Katherine joked. Helena smiled, but only briefly.
“The school is unique. Gorgeous campus up in the mountains in Maine. Lovely old brick buildings, small pond, picturesque town.”
“So far it sounds like every private school in New England.”
“Ah, but what makes it unique is the student body. Half are day-students from the nearby resort community and surrounding towns, but the other half are boarding students who are almost exclusively kids about to age out of foster care. The school runs a program geared to helping them transition to independence and adulthood. It’s a vocational program and it’s had great success. But, they’ve had some troubles in the last two years.”
“They think a new administrator will fix their problems?”
“Last one was a disaster. Came in promising changes and managed to make all the wrong ones. Enrollment tanked, parents started complaining, and the state started asking questions about why they were paying for students who ended up dropping out or failing. Put simply, if they have another year like the last, they will lose their grants and probably most of the day-students.”
“So they need a miracle,” Katherine mused, and Helena nodded, a slight smile on her face.
“Good grief, you’re thinking me.”
“I am.” For once she wasn’t being sly. “If I knew that you had your eyes on a big chair of some sort, either public or private, I’d never suggest it. If you were on a fast track, I’d never consider you, but your career has already been all over the place.” Katherine tried to argue, but Helena cut her off. “Who goes from principal to superintendent to principal again and then becomes a policy analyst who moonlights as a consultant? Nobody.”
“But I’m not really looking right now-”
“And it’s a Christian school. You’re a Christian, right?”
Katherine nodded although she hadn’t been to church in about a decade.
“Besides, you take tough jobs in districts I wouldn’t walk thorough without an armed guard. You’ve also lived in those districts while you worked. Something else I probably wouldn’t do. You can rough it up in Maine.”
“But a private school isn’t my-”
“It’s got the exact population that typically draws your interest.” Helena interrupted. “Kids at risk. These students have nothing to look forward to when the system dumps them out at eighteen. The world does not have its arms open to foster kids. No matter what the motivational posters say tugging on bootstraps alone isn’t going to get you anywhere. You need a high-school diploma and some kind of edge. This school gives them that.”
She tried to object again, but Helena rolled right over her. “They’re only asking for one year. They want someone to come in and be the heavy, make the tough changes, get the ball rolling. They’ve already lined up a Maine native to take over once the hard work is done. He’s a bit green so they’re looking for someone to pave his way, give him a head start and multi-year plan to implement.” While Katherine searched for a polite way to say no thanks, Helena added, “I’d consider it a personal favor if you’d take a look at their offer. A serious look.” Katherine felt a sort of sinking sensation since there was no way she’d say no to doing Helena a favor. Effectively, she’d just been painted into a corner.
“Okay. If they can email it to my assistant I’ll take a look.”
“Consider it done!” Helena clapped her hands together. On the loudspeakers Katherine heard her flight’s boarding call announced. She stood, gathering her stuff and noticed that Helena had done the same, but she had no luggage with her, just her phone and she wasn’t heading to the gangway either. She spotted Katherine looking puzzled and chuckled. “Turns out I’m not flying today after all.” She left with a jaunty wave over her shoulder.
“Sneak attack, that’s what that was.” Katherine muttered under her breath before pulling out her phone and calling her assistant. Heather picked up on the second ring.
“Aren’t you supposed to be on a plane?” she asked.
“Boarding now. Did Helena Murkos call you today?”
“Her office did. They wanted to schedule a meeting after the taping, but I explained you were flying right out.”
“Guess who met me at the terminal.”
“No way! That’s why they wanted to know when your flight left. Was she ticked about you skewering that senator?”
“No, highly amused, but that’s beside the point. She also suggested I take a look at an offer, so I wanted you to keep an eye out.”
“It’s already here. If that’s what this is,” Heather said. “’Sweet River Christian Academy’ sound right? Maine?”
“Yah, that’s it. When was that sent?”
“Like, a minute ago.”
“Man, she works fast. Okay, send it to me and when I land let’s go over it.”
“Katherine, you can’t be serious. The compensation they’re offering…” Heather trailed off and it sounded like she was scrolling through it, reading the details. “Well, bonus. Apparently the job comes with housing, cute little house. Victorian, wrap-around front porch, legit English country garden out front, lawn out back. You should see the window boxes.”
Katherine felt a tiny spark of interest. A cute house certainly would be a bonus. It had been a while since she’d lived in anything other than a hotel room or apartment. “Okay, I’m boarding. I’ll text you when we land.” Katherine hung up and made her way on board. Once they were at cruising altitude she pulled out her laptop, logged into the wifi, and brought up the web page of the school.
The pictures showed a beautiful campus and the town’s main street with American flags on the telephone poles and quaint shops lining the road with window boxes filled trailing vines and bold petunias. Katherine felt a sort of pang of homesickness. Sweet River reminded her powerfully of her own hometown, the one that she’d left behind when her hopes of having a big family died. She’d dreamed about living there for the rest of her life, raising her kids in a big house complete with a sprawling back yard, tree fort, and tire swing. The sting of that loss had lessened over time, but it had never really gone away. Before her thoughts could get melancholy she remembered the pledge she had made herself the day she left. She was going to play the hand she’d been dealt and try not to mourn all she’d lost. Marriage and family were not in the cards for her. Never really had been.
At the Smooth Moose Bar Mac sipped his coffee and waited for the wonders of caffeine to go to work on his sleep-deprived brain. The older he got, the less potent caffeine seemed to be. He needed at least four cups to get him through a nightshift. On the stool beside him, Pete Coleman spun in place and grabbed his arm, causing him to slosh the hot liquid over his hand.
“Sheesh Pete, you-.”
“Look there. She’s on.” He pointed up at the TV over the bar. Mac looked up and saw some cable news program. There was a politician he somewhat recognized going head to head with a woman he didn’t.
“Who on earth is that?” Mac asked, irked about his burnt hand and his lost coffee.
“Dr. Katherine Grant. She’s that education expert we’ve been trying to recruit for director.”
“The trustees think they can get some TV pundit to come up to Sweet River?” He was unable to keep the incredulity out of his tone. It was crazy to think anyone who had the clout to appear on TV was going to give it all up to run a tiny school in rural Maine, no matter how great the school was.
“Greg says he has an old friend who knows her, some Washington insider, gonna lean on her to take it.”
Mac looked up at the screen again. Dr. Grant was busy tearing through the politician’s argument and in general, making him look like a fool. She wasn’t being a battle-axe though; she was funny – even folksy. She was attractive too, younger than him with dark blond hair. As she turned to face the reporter he spotted a scar running from the hairline over her right ear, across her cheekbone and down, almost to her lip. It was thin and white, which he knew meant the wound had been deep.
Ever the cop, Mac couldn’t help but speculate what the circumstances were. It was odd that she was clearly wearing makeup, but she took no pains to cover the scar. He assumed that meant she was either proud of it or she didn’t care that much about looking perfect. The latter was a rare, but very fine trait in an attractive woman. “She’s got a hell of a scar on her face.”
Pete squinted up at the screen. The man was sixty-five so he could be forgiven for forgetting that his glasses were in his pocket instead of on his face.
“Chest pocket buddy.” Mac offered quietly. Pete spun on his stool to give him a glare and then fished his glasses out of his pocket and took a better look.
“Dunno how she got that scar, but if I was a betting man I’d say glass from a car accident. If she was a guy I’d say knife fight.”
Mac laughed at the idea of a woman who appeared intelligent and refined getting in a knife fight. Not that he’d put it past her with how passionately she was arguing. Clearly a fighter.
“Anyways. Greg thinks she’ll take it. Said her secretary agreed to an interview. That’s a good sign.”
“Well good luck. It’s a great way to start your first year on the board of trustees. What a hassle. I still think you’re nuts for taking it on. You haven’t even retired from the wardens yet.”
“Board meets four times a year. It’s not a hassle. Besides, it was an honor to be asked.” Pete sat up a little straighter, his chest puffed out.
“They just picked you because you’re old. All that gray makes you look smarter.” Mac gave him a side-eyed glance and got enough time to dodge the backhand aimed at him.
“Watch it son.” He huffed and finished off his coffee. “You ready to hit it? I’ve got poachers to catch. Can’t sit here gabbing with you all night.”
“Yah.” Mac reluctantly slid off his stool and left a ten on the bar. He tipped well at the Moose considering it was the only place open after midnight and the bartenders brewed a fresh pot if they saw a uniform arrive. The night shift was not normally his gig, but he didn’t have family to speak of or anyone to go home to so when someone needed coverage, he’d offer. It was better to feel useful than to feel alone, or at least that’s what he told himself.
Tonight the shift should at least be a bit interesting. He was backup for Pete’s hopeful bust of a family of poachers that had been in his sights for half his career as a game warden. Pete suspected there would be both trouble and additional charges so he’d called Mac in on it. Most likely Mac would stand there looking menacing while Pete did his job, but at least it was something to keep him awake. He smiled when he thought of how different the night shift in New York had been. Back then there was never a slow night. Although, back then he had twice the energy and half the brains. Getting into his cruiser he followed Pete out of the parking lot and into the night.