My book doesn’t come out until May, but you can pre-order it on Amazon for the very appealing price of $17.63. If you’re more of a Barnes & Noble fan, you can find it here for the even lower price of $17.27.
“But Stephen,” you might ask. “I don’t even know what this book is about, and I’ve never read any of your work.”
I thought you might say something like that. Below is an excerpt that sets up the central dilemma of the story, and should inform your decision of whether or not this kind of fiction is your cup of tea. Please let me know what you think.
The man in the charcoal suit gave a thin smile that barely registered a blip on the sincerity meter. His handshake was cool and soft. Maybe he was easing his grip because of the mayor’s advanced age. Or maybe he was just a wimp. Either way, the mayor knew right off he didn’t like this guy. And he didn’t feel too swell about his decision to come all the way to St. Louis to meet him.
“Trent Dodge,” the man said, “VP of North American Operations.”
“How are you, Trent? I’m Roe Tolliver, mayor of Pridemore, Missouri.”
Dodge led the mayor into a conference room that overlooked the glass towers of a suburban office park. He invited the mayor to treat himself to some coffee in one of the tiny Styrofoam cups that lined a nearby tray, but Roe politely declined.
“So Mayor Tolliver, how can we help you today?”
“Well, sir, as you know, my fair city was honored to be considered among the top five candidates for the new plant that Sunnyside Farms is going to build.”
“But we didn’t make the next round. And I just wanted to follow up to see if there’s anything I can do to make you feel more comfortable about keeping Pridemore in the running for this wonderful facility you’re going to create.”
He paused to allow a response from Dodge, but none was forthcoming. You pudding-headed fool, the mayor thought to himself, you should have accepted the damn cup of coffee.
“It’s no secret that Pridemore has fallen on some hard times,” he went on. “We were hit pretty hard by the farm crisis and have had a few big companies leave town. But I think our situation could work to your advantage. As your people know, we have a 500-acre industrial park that’s just itching to be developed – prime commercial real estate where you can build and expand as you please. And you’d be Pridemore’s largest employer right off the bat.”
Still no response. But Dodge was kind enough to offer one of his thin-lipped smiles.
“The people of Pridemore have an incredible work ethic and a great passion for agriculture,” the mayor added. “I’m sure that was plain to see when your team came to visit us.”
Dodge suddenly stirred. “You mean the light show?” Actually, it was a twilight ceremony the mayor had carefully orchestrated in which Pridemore residents lined Old Highway 54 and held up candles as the Sunnyside executives drove out of town. It made for a hell of a front page photo in the next day’s Evening Headlight.
“Yes, I heard about that,” Dodge said. “That was a nice touch.”
“Well, thank you. And I can assure you, it came from the heart. Because the people of Pridemore—”
“—Let me stop you.”
The mayor let out a tiny hiss, but smiled politely. He wasn’t accustomed to being interrupted.
Dodge opened his leather binder and pulled out a map of central Missouri. Pridemore and four other towns of similar size were circled in red ink.
“Just bear with me a second, because I want to show you something that I think will address your concerns.”
He ran a pale index finger across the map until it found Pridemore.
“You guys are here, right?”
The finger ran an inch or so to the east.
“And the new Highway 54 is here, eight miles away. Correct?”
He peered at the mayor through designer glasses that were probably worth more than the average Pridemorean’s paycheck.
“Those eight miles are why you didn’t make the cut. Wherever we decide to put the new harvesting center, it is vital that it be along the Highway 54 corridor. We’re going to have trucks coming in and out of the center every single day and night. We’ve got to be on the highway.”
The mayor nodded grimly. This was nothing new. Highway 54 had been a burr in Pridemore’s ass since the state decided to redirect it 10 years ago.
Dodge moved his finger up the highway a couple of inches.
“Now here’s Farley, which, between you and me, stands a very good chance of winning the bid. They’re similar to Pridemore in size and all the other factors. Except they’re on the highway, which makes all the difference.”
He closed the binder and ran his hand across it like it was a dear pet. “Make sense?”
The mayor tried to collect his thoughts, seething at the arrogance of this man at least 30 years his junior trying to treat him like some junkyard dog, condensing his city (his life’s work!) down to some arbitrary dot on a map. Arthritic knees or not, he felt like taking this Trent Dodge fellow by the collar and tossing him and his wingtips onto the parking lot seven stories below.
Thankfully, the nimble coolness that had served the mayor well in his many years as a trial lawyer took over.
“We’ve offered you a generous incentive package,” he said. “One I know the other towns can’t match. And we can get even more generous if need be. It won’t be easy, but we’ll do whatever it takes.”
He paused for dramatic effect. “We can make up for those eight measly miles.”
Dodge frowned and looked at his binder. “Well, we have other concerns about Pridemore that kept you from being a serious candidate for Sunnyside Farms.”
The mayor was losing his patience. “Like what, exactly?”
The vice president of Sunnyside held back for a moment, as if he really didn’t want to throw this final punch because it was going to hurt. But he did anyway.
“Well, for instance, we feel you have a glaring shortage of skilled labor.”
That did it. Screw this garden party, the mayor thought. He slowly rose and slapped both hands on the oaken table.
“We are talking about a hog processing plant, right, Mr. Dodge? You take hogs and you cut them up and you shrink-wrap the pieces, correct? You can call it harvesting or whatever bullshit thing you want. But it’s basically a filthy, fly-infested slaughterhouse, isn’t it? So exactly what kind of skilled labor are we really talking about here?”
Dodge nervously eyed the door. But the mayor wasn’t done.
“The people of Pridemore have harvested soy beans and corn, they have built houses, they have built roads, they have manufactured computer chips and automobile parts. I’m pretty damned sure they can hang a pig upside down and bleed him into a garbage bin.”
“Okay, I think we’re done.” Mr. Dodge stood up and held out his hand.
“No thanks,” the mayor said as he turned away. “I don’t care for cold fish.”
He slumped into the back of his Chrysler New Yorker and beat his fist a few times against the leather upholstery.
“Went that well, huh?” Rufus Stodemeyer asked as he started the car. The Pridemore City Council president often acted as the mayor’s chauffer when there was out-of-town business to be done.
“That Godforsaken highway is going to be the end of us. Maybe it already is,” the mayor said.
Stodemeyer shot him a concerned look through the rearview mirror, no small feat for a man who most days had about as much compassion as a Burmese Python.
“You want some Italian food?” he asked. “I know a good place on the Hill.”
The mayor said nothing for two hours, until they veered off the four-lane Highway 54 and onto the two-lane blacktop now known as Old 54, which dissected Pridemore and had served as its economic spine for generations. In its heyday, the highway was the main route for travelers headed from the cities to The Lake of the Ozarks. Back then on summer weekends, Pridemore’s downtown swelled with people dressed in loud Bermuda shorts and loafers with no socks, flashing credit cards around, indulging their kids with sugary treats and smiling easy because they were on vacation. They hailed from exotic places like Ames, Nebraska City and Sioux Falls. They left ten-dollar tips on the restaurant tables. They made a big deal about “bargaining down” for ridiculously overpriced heirlooms and yard ornaments. The out-of-towners, for a few months at least, made Pridemore a little oasis of big-city bustle.
That was one hell of a long time ago, the mayor thought as he gazed out his car window at the empty storefronts and boarded-up buildings lining Main Street. Sad as it was to imagine, Sunnyside Farms and its filthy, sewage-belching hog plant – and its 300 jobs – were the last chance at a better life for the town he had led for nearly 50 years.
“What happened to us?”
“To us?” The councilman looked at him, eyebrow arched.
“To this town. What happened to this town?”
“Oh,” said Rufus, lowering his shoulders like it was a question he got every day.
“I don’t know, Roe,” he said after a minute. “I guess we just outgrew our usefulness.”
The mayor thought about this a second, then cleared his throat with the same low, guttural grunt he used in city council meetings when he wanted people’s attention. For the first time in his life, he was officially out of ideas.