“A brazen political thriller for our times. Timely, spellbinding and entirely plausible.” –Best Thrillers
In the second book of the Vega Thriller series, Action 6 News’s Francine Vega hunts for the Zyklon Killer before he can kill again while at the same time reporting on a heated presidential campaign. The more she digs into each story, the more they converge to expose an explosive truth that could rock the country to its core.
"A fine sequel and tense thriller with an added element of moral, ethical, and psychological reflection that adds depth, elevating this book to a level many intriguing tales can't reach.” –Midwest Book Review
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"Dave, have law enforcement officials been able to identify the three victims?" I asked our reporter, Dave Glass, who was on the scene in Brooklyn where a gang-style execution of three Hispanic men in their early twenties had taken place in the early morning hours.
"No, they haven't, Francine. I spoke to both NYPD and FBI officials before coming on the air and they are still trying to identify them. They have some leads but nothing solid at the moment."
"Thank you for your report. Keep us posted on any new developments."
The split screen shifted to me alone on the screen.
"That was Dave Glass reporting from the scene of a triple execution-style slaying in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. We'll now leave you for a few messages from our sponsors and when we come back we'll get an update from Katrina Turow who's on the presidential trail with candidate Malcolm McKenzie. This is Francine Vega for Action 6 News."
I was rather wistful at that moment. Prior to my promotion to co-anchor for morning news on Action 6 News in New York, something like a triple murder in Brooklyn would have been my story. I would have been in the field, investigating stories, conducting interviews and following up on leads. That's my true love. Being an anchor was much better pay and higher exposure and I would have been a fool to turn it down a year and a half ago, but I longed in my heart to be back out there.
While Dave is an excellent, hard-working reporter, I would have had a leg up on this story. For example, I'd already learned from my husband, Special Agent Will Allen, that the FBI did know the identities of the three slain men (they were mules for the Diego cartel out of Mexico) but the authorities chose not to reveal that information to the public at this time for fear that it could hamper the investigation. Perhaps Dave had also been told this confidentially, but I doubted it.
After the commercial break, our viewers were welcomed back by my co-anchor, the white-haired news veteran John Gray.
"Let's head out to Battle Creek, Michigan where we'll find Katrina Turow, who will give us the latest on the improbable presidential campaign of Reverend Malcolm McKenzie. Thank you for joining us so early in the morning, Katrina. I know you must be exhausted, given that the Reverend's rally went until close to midnight last night."
"Sleep is highly overrated, John. I'll get plenty once the campaign is over."
Katrina Turow did seem to be indefatigable, on the tube at all hours of the day. In her low thirties, slightly older than I, she was a bright, pretty, perky blonde who was taking full advantage of the chance given her to make her name in this tough male-dominated business.
We both came to Action 6 News about seven years ago. She did much the same types of stories as I: mostly local events sprinkled with an occasional transit strike or other real news pieces. I would have liked to become friends with her but we were both young and ambitious. We weren't backstabbing or anything like that, but our competition kept us from getting close.
I was surprised and pleased, therefore, when Katrina gave me a warm hug and sincere congratulations after I was promoted to morning anchor. I did deserve it — I played a key role in thwarting a plot to destroy Mecca for which I was considered for a Pulitzer and was personally responsible for Action 6 News ratings rising from number 4 (that is, last) in New York to number 2 — but that doesn't mean everyone welcomed me with open arms.
To his credit, my co-anchor, John Gray, has always been professional. He's never been especially warm towards me; he's not especially warm with anybody. But he wasn't antagonistic when I took over the chair beside him. Glenn Wilson, the morning meteorologist, on the other hand, was most definitely resentful. He's never done anything outwardly hostile but there were always little things he'd do to undermine me. Telling Frank McDermott, our station news director, that he'd let me know about a hastily scheduled programming meeting but then somehow forgetting to inform me so that I'd have to get a call asking me to join the meeting already in progress; things like that.
Word had gotten back to me that he's spread rumors that I'd gotten the anchor job not because of my abilities but because of my looks and my relationship with Frank. I wouldn't be surprised if he'd made comments that Frank and I were sleeping together. For the record, I have never slept with Frank or ever even thought of him that way. And the feeling is reciprocal. Frank is the most devoted husband and father I have ever known.
In regards to my looks, I can name at least ten other women I know personally — Katrina included — that I consider more beautiful than I am. As I'm doing a show I consciously refrain from looking at myself in the monitor. All I would see are the flaws in my appearance. This, in turn, would make me fixate on the relatively short shelf life accorded on-camera women in the news business.
I suppose there are some people that find me attractive since I was given the dubious distinction of being named New York Trends Magazine's Hottest NYC TV Reporter two years running. While I would rant about the sexism of the award, an inner part of me was flattered. I didn't make the cut this year, however. My guess is, now that I'm a mother, my desirability level has plunged significantly.
Granted, I was only twenty-eight when Frank approached me and advised me the anchor job was mine if I wanted it. I passed over a number of reporters who were much more seasoned than I when Willa Harrington, our former anchor, jumped to another station. But to imply that I hadn't earned my stripes was downright insulting especially after what I'd gone through.
I was nominated for a Pulitzer for a story that had international consequences. I say in all modesty that it was great journalism. It was my efforts that saved the city of Mecca from being destroyed and kept the world from plunging into world war. I worked closely with FBI Special Agent Will Allen (who would subsequently become my husband and the father of our daughter, Rosa) and Alan Westbrook, a brilliant but quite unstable genius/computer nerd. In the process, I was nearly killed a half dozen times. If that isn't "earning my stripes" I don't know what is.
I should have been a shoo-in for the Pulitzer but the federal government, which was profoundly embarrassed by complicity at the highest levels in the plot to destroy Mecca, did all they could to undermine — and even at times discredit — my efforts. Hence, the Pulitzer went elsewhere. Oh well.
Still, I never saw any advantage to confronting Glenn to see what his beef with me was. I always viewed weathermen as the defensive backs of TV news. My guess is that, when they were young boys, very few football players dreamed of someday being a defensive back. The glory positions are all on offense. Perhaps there are some meteorologists that see themselves doing that job from a young age. However, many ended up in that profession because they didn't have the stuff to be real news people. When Will and I would watch football and a defensive back would go up for an interception only to have the ball bounce off his hands, I'd remark, "That's why he's not a receiver." Weathermen like Glenn fit that bill.
Anyway, I digress. Earlier this year Katrina had been approached by the network and was offered the chance to go out on the presidential campaign trail with a candidate. The candidate they offered her was none other than my old friend, Reverend Malcolm McKenzie.
Reverend McKenzie, or simply "The Reverend" as he liked to be called, had been propelled to national prominence when he promoted the thing I was trying to thwart: a mad scheme to wipe Islam off the face of the earth by destroying Mecca. When I first became aware of the plot, I went to his brother, Edward, who worked for the State Department as an expert on Arab relations. Edward was extremely dismissive of my concerns but that did not stop him from conveying them to Malcolm, probably over a couple beers. The problem was that The Reverend did not think it ludicrous as he went on to make a nationally televised speech condemning Islam at one of those Southern mega-churches. He called it his own "Cross of Gold" speech that propelled him to such national prominence that he soon considered running for the Presidency.
Whenever he spouted this and other equally offensive ideas, the crowds would go wild. At first, he promoted his ideas as a holy war, Christianity vs. Islam, but as his message grew more vitriolic and gained more acceptance, he decided to enter the political realm.
After Katrina got the assignment to cover McKenzie, she invited me out to lunch since she knew I had a history with him. While she bemoaned being paired with such a minor candidate who would probably fizzle out after a month or two, she was determined to make the best of it. Another chance like this may not come along and she was a professional who wanted to make the most of the opportunity. She wanted to find out all she could about the man she was covering and the first step in that process was to pick my brain. She had already done a ton of research on him, including reading his autobiography, but she wanted to see if I had any personal insights on the man.
I described him as not an especially bright or inquisitive person but he was a master of latching onto what the people want to hear and exploiting that to his full advantage.
"The Reverend focuses on a large segment of the population — white males primarily — who feel society had left them behind. He offers them rationales as to why they aren't living in big fancy houses or driving the latest model Mercedes Benz. The reasons are always that "others" — immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims — had taken what was rightfully theirs. And in the process, these others had taken America away from them. Malcolm McKenzie makes it clear that he is the one person who can help them achieve the greatness denied them.
"Facts don't mean a lot to McKenzie. He's a master communicator and does it purely on an emotional level. As a man of the cloth, he cloaks his statements in religion, which the masses lap up.
"Katrina, watch your back. Reverend McKenzie definitely has a vindictive streak. I had done a couple of pieces on-air pointing out how fact-free his campaign was and how inconsistent many of his policies were and how dangerous the message he was spreading could be. He initiated a smear campaign against me after I got in his way. He probably thought it wiser not to go after Will, an FBI agent, but I was fair game. As a result, I received numerous death threats and protests from his followers. Those died down after a while."
I didn't think it wise to tell her that his vendetta only ceased after Will's two assistants, Agents Willoughby and Broderick, paid The Reverend a special late night visit.
Now, here we were four months later and instead of The Reverend's star plummeting from the sky, it instead was shining brighter than ever. Katrina's tenure on the campaign trail, and not to mention her national visibility, therefore kept getting augmented and extended. Last time the campaign swung through New York, Katrina and I got together for lunch
"Katrina," I confided, "I am quite jealous of you."
"Of me? You're an anchor in the biggest market in the country. If anyone should be jealous, it should be me." "I thought my girlhood urge for fame and notoriety had been sated but here I am wishing I was back out there again in the field, and on a national campaign no less."
"You'll just have to suffer through being a highly paid anchor with a happy marriage and kids you brag about all the time. Tough life you got there."
"When you put it that way, it does make me sound like quite a whiner, doesn't it?"
"I wasn't going to go that far, but ..."
Two weeks later, Katrina began her live report from Michigan. During the commercial break, Katrina told us that a group — or more precisely a mob — of McKenzie supporters set upon the reporters during the rally. The Secret Service intervened and the altercation didn't last long enough for there to be footage although one competing network had secured a shaky smart phone video of the assault.
Katrina tried to downplay the incident but just looking at her made it obvious that it was more serious than she let on. The right side of her face looked swollen, as though she'd been beaten. Professional makeup had hidden most of the redness but it could not mask the swelling. Still, she soldiered on as if nothing had happened.
"During his remarks to a packed house at last night's rally," she noted, "Reverend McKenzie continued to hammer home his themes of better border protection and the need to punish Islam as a scourge on the face of the Earth. The crowds wherever he goes are receptive to these messages, and the reaction by the people in attendance on this night was no different.
"Reverend McKenzie has yet to hold a press conference," she stated, "but he has done several one-on-one interviews with Astra Broadcasting, including one he did yesterday just before his rally. Here is a short segment of that interview with Janine Tonelli."
The viewer then sees Reverend McKenzie and Astra Broadcasting host Tonelli sitting in heavily upholstered armchairs in front of shelves hosting an array of books on numerous subjects.
Â "Reverend McKenzie, can you give our viewers an explanation for your meteoric and improbable rise in politics to where you're now the leading candidate to take your party's nomination for President of the United States?"
"There's a hunger out there, Janine, a hunger for someone who hasn't been bought, for someone who tells is like it is and has spent a lifetime watching out for the forgotten people of this country. While my rise may be a surprise to many people, it sure isn't to me."
"What do you say to those who claim your campaign is built on hate and fear, especially against Muslims?"
"I hate no one. I have spent a life dedicated to loving my fellow man. But I know personally the insidious nature of Islam and find it contrary to everything this country stands for."
"Tell me about your personal experience."
"Most people know how close I am to my brother, Edward. We were extremely close growing up but then he married a Muslim woman who tore our family apart. Because of her, my brother and I didn't speak for over a decade. Then she tore his heart out by leaving him, taking their children and fleeing to Jordan. Now, my brother and I have reconciled and he is managing my campaign. I have nothing against Muslims. I just don't feel that they fit in well with the American way of life. That's just one example."
The viewer was switched back to Katrina.
"Last night, however, the Reverend added a new sector of society as being worthy of the public's enmity. I'm talking about the media. We as a group received special notice as being"
She looked down at her notes.
"in league with Satan aligned against America's interests. Later on in the rally, some people took his message to heart and decided they needed to attack Satan directly. Since all the reporters had been herded into a pen, we were an easily identifiable target."
She stopped cold. She appeared woozy and wobbled but then she steadied herself. One of her production assistants was obviously coming to help her but she waved them away as she composed herself.
"My apologies. Sometimes the weeks and months on the road can take its toll. Needless to say, Reverend McKenzie has, in his own words 'declared war on the dishonest media and will bring them to account for any lies that they spread.'"
She had another minute dedicated to her report but we could tell she was having trouble proceeding so I interjected before she finished.
"Katrina, thank you for your reports from the campaign. They are always fair and well-researched. You're doing exactly what a reporter should be doing. Keep it up."
She raised her head and looked directly into the camera. There was a determined smile on her lips.
"Thank you for those kind words, Francine. Don't worry about me. I'm in this to the end no matter what the candidate and his followers say or do. This is Katrina Turow reporting from Battle Creek, Michigan."
The report ended as the scene shifted to an adorable panda gnawing on some bamboo shoots. The director, Gary Freeman, indicated that we would go to commercial in fifteen seconds.
"We'll take a break now to pay some bills. When we come back we'll show you something else you can do this weekend as we join Stacy Wills at the Bronx Zoo with a report on Oscar the panda, the zoo's latest addition. I'm Francine Vega here with my good friend John Gray and you're watching Action 6 News."
We all fell silent.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Zyklon"
Copyright © 2018 John Hazen.
Excerpted by permission of Black Rose Writing.
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