“Flight of the Rat” was a story I debated about doing. It was written shortly after the first draft of Northcoast Shakedown in late 2002. 9/11 was still raw in our memories, but Iraq was little more than saber rattling ahead of a midterm election, or so I thought. Like comedians in the month following 9/11, I approached this story under a cloud of “Too soon!” apprehension.
I remember asking Neil Smith about possibly doing a 9/11 story for Plots With Guns. At the time, he said most of what he’d seen was gimmicky, designed to be little more than a ripped-from-the-headlines angle designed for shock value. And he was right (assuming I remember this conversation correctly. It’s been over a decade.) Most of the early stories involving 9/11 were gimmicky crap.
But I had trouble dealing with the tragedy. I didn’t live in New York, and at the time had not even been to the city. Most of the writers I knew at the time lived there, though, and one of the planes went down in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, my extended family’s home until about World War I. We used to attend huge family reunions there when I was in junior high. Someone took down a plane on that day in my family’s backyard? Might as well have crashed it into the Scripps Howard Building in downtown Cincinnati. It was the same thing to me.
Enter Anthony Dauer, editor of the now-defunct Judas, which later became The 3rd Degree. Anthony was a military vet who now worked as an IT analyst for a contractor near the Pentagon. He saw the plane that hit the Pentagon and later learned a friend was on that plane. I mentioned I had an idea for a story. He wanted it. So I wrote.
The story has two components. First is Harry Z, who has an Algerian name. He calls himself Harry so he’s not hassled, and has affected an American accent to blend in. Harry is a large black man who does fugitive apprehensions, and much better than Stephanie Plum. But he’s also from the North Africa, a heavily Muslim part of the world. Nick frequently helps out Harry Z, who makes an appearance at the beginning of Second Hand Goods. He was an obvious choice to be affected by the hell that broke loose that awful day.
The other part was Margo, Nick’s news reporter girlfriend. At some point, I would need to explain why she wasn’t in Northcoast Shakedown. The real reason was that I was afraid she’d become the series’ Susan Silverman to Nick’s Spenser. I didn’t want to have her on one of the planes. That would just be too exploitative. Then I read a story, quite funny, actually, about Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. Seth was supposed to be on one of the flights that hit the Trade Center. Only he missed the plane. He was hungover after a night of partaking of Boston’s many fine adult entertainment establishments, and slept in.
What if Margo was supposed to be on one of the flights (sitting next to Seth no less? I left that part out.)? As a reporter, the station where she interviewed would probably put her on the air at Logan International as their person on the scene. But Nick wouldn’t know anything about that. He’s too busy chasing this whiny sonofabitch through Hopkins International Airport in Cleveland.
I don’t know how effective the story is on its own merits. It did flesh out Nick’s background quite a bit.
It was also very cathartic to write.