First Chapter: S.P. Bailey’s Millstone City

Millstone City by S.P. Bailey is the latest title from Zarahemla Books. It’s a thriller about some Mormon missionaries in Brazil caught up in a murder investigation. It’s a great summer read, and it’s packed with Mormon lit goodness. Read Theric Jepson’s A Motley Vision review. Or read the first chapter:

Chapter One

I put on my missionary outfit with the lights off. All except the name tag—white letters on a black plastic rectangle. It says Elder Carson above the name of the church. A mosquito circles my head. Its high-pitched buzz goes loud and soft and loud again. It stops. I slap at the tingle on my neck, and I wipe the palm of my hand—a spattering of blood and mosquito parts—on my pants.

It is after midnight when I push open the apartment door. We keep a strict schedule: wake up at six thirty, work from nine thirty to nine thirty, lights out at ten thirty. The door squeals as I pull it shut. Elder Nordgren doesn’t stir. I shared a room with my brother growing up, and Nordgren is nothing like him. Nordgren doesn’t snore. He never stays up with me for hours talking about sports, movies, and girls. He is a deep sleeper. He has at least three tattoos.

It is a hot night. Humid like always. The scent of the ocean, a mixture of saline freshness and marine decay, fills my lungs. Only the rain ever supplies a break from the sticky air. Faint music plays in a bar down on the beach, a guitar sobbing a gentle, bitter little samba. Waves crash on the sand in a rhythm so regular I hardly notice it anymore. Other than that, things are quiet.

The Opa is not far from our apartment. Maybe one kilometer. I start walking. I keep to a long narrow avenue parallel to the beach and the main highway, but a few blocks inland. It is gray cobblestone set in coarse white cement. The vast mango trees lining both sides of the street are black and still. Here and there overripe mangos rot on the sidewalk. Their acid-sweet odor burns in my nose.

This is Olinda. Northeastern Brazil. The easternmost point of the Western Hemisphere. The houses I pass are big. They have tall concrete walls topped with razor wire or steel spikes or shards of broken beer bottles, translucent green and brown and blue. A nice neighborhood.

I set off some motion lights. I laugh, quietly, at the thought that the owners of these garish fortresses just off the beach—places generally impenetrable to missionaries working door to door—might think that I’m a prowler. I’m harmless, of course. I was a Boy Scout before my mission: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, and so on, right down the list.

The word opa means “hi” in Portuguese, and it’s also the excessively cute name of the phone company. The little Opa store in the old part of Olinda is open all night. It is a small room with a desk and some phone booths—a holdover from the days before mobile phones. It serves people who have neither a landline nor a mobile, including homesick Mormon missionaries. I go inside. The walls and low ceiling are chalky white plaster. Every other surface—the desk, the phone booths, the floor—is brilliant blue plastic. I dig around in my backpack for a phone card.

“Elder Carson,” the guy at the counter says. He is gaunt. Skeletal even. About sixty. He has a salt-and-pepper beard and sorrowful glassy brown eyes.

I look up, afraid that a member of the church has recognized me. I’m breaking several rules: being alone, being out after midnight, calling people back home not on Christmas or Mother’s Day. I usually carry a little white book of mission rules in my left breast pocket. We call it the “white bible.” It is back on my dresser with my name tag and a laminated notecard of irregular verb conjugations. “Juvelino.” The guy unfolds a bony brown hand and places it over his heart. “We are friends. You came to my house! You gave me one of your books!”

I remember that Nordgren and I taught this guy a first discussion about a month ago. Juvelino seemed to be bored out of his mind. He said no to almost everything. No, I won’t schedule another appointment. No, I won’t pray with you. No, I won’t visit your church sometime. But he was glad to take a copy of the book.

“Right,” I say. “It’s been a while. How are you?”

“Bacana,” Juvelino says. “And you?”

Tudo jóia.”

E aí, rapaz?” Juvelino says. “What can I do for you?”

“International call.”

“All right,” he says. “Sign in, meu amigo.” He slides a clipboard and a pen across the blue counter and watches me intently. I put my name down twice: autograph and print. I step into the first booth, swipe the phone card, and dial her number. There is a long pause. The sound of connections being made over the thousands of miles between Brazil and Utah.

“Hello?” she says.

“Lilly, it’s me.”

“Who is this?” she says.

“Elder Car—Zach.”

“Car-Zach?”

“Zach, Lilly. This is Zach.”

“What’s wrong?” she says. “Are you all right?”

“I miss you.”

“I miss you too,” she says.

“How is—everything?”

Silence.

“Did I lose you?” I say. “Hello?”

“Normal,” she says. “Zach, time goes by so slowly. You’re such a jerk!”

“What?”

“You made me cry,” she says. “I keep thinking this is a dream.

I miss you—and you are such a jerk.”

“I wanted to hear your voice.”

“You’re breaking the rules,” she says.

“It’s your fault. I can’t stop thinking about you.”

“I know how to kiss boys so they don’t forget.”

“Boys, huh? Plural? You have something you want to tell me?”

“Shut up!” she says. “What about you, Elder? Say hello to all those hot Brazilian chicks for me.”

“It’s true I guess. My name tag must be some kind of aphrodisiac.”

“Maybe you’ll get sent home,” she says. “Maybe? Please?”

“You’d never marry me if that happened.”

“A girl can dream,” she says. “Tell me something about your day. What did you do? Where did you go?”

“It was P-day. We toured some old church with, you know, chanting monks and everything. That was cool. We played basketball in Recife with the presidente. We got groceries and did laundry.”

“That gives me all kinds of fantasy material,” she says. “You playing basketball. You pushing around a grocery cart. Monks on the soundtrack. You do your laundry by hand, right?”

“Washboard and everything. I’d be willing to say I did my laundry without a shirt on today. You know, if it makes for better material.”

“Oh bronze Adonis,” she says. “Washboards everywhere.”

“That’s Elder Adonis to you.”

“I love you,” she says.

“I love you too. I wrote you a letter today.”

“That’s sweet. I guess I’ll see it in three weeks?”

“Something like that. Watch your mailbox for my letter from three weeks ago. I loved you three weeks ago too, so it works.”

Silence. I feel like we are both holding our breath.

“You have to go?” she finally says.

“I better get back. It’s the middle of the night.”

“Where’s your companion?”

“Calling his girlfriend. He’s in the next booth. You want to say hi to him?”

“Seriously?”

“Dude’s asleep. He doesn’t even know I’m gone. Trust me. The guy will still be sawing logs when I get back.”

“Zach—you are bad.”

“Pure evil,” I say.

“I’m going to bed soon,” she says. “To dream of you.”

“I’ll dream of you too.”

There is another long pause.

“Bye, Lilly.”

“Bye, jerk. I’m crying again.”

“Stop it.”

“Bye.”

“I’ll call again soon.”

“Don’t, Zach. It makes it worse.”

“I’ll call again tomorrow.”

“Evil,” she says. “This is where I encourage you to focus on the work.”

“Nice try,” I say.

“Bye.”

“Good night.”

I hang up. I sit there for a minute grinning to myself. I stand.

“You got a restroom?” I say to Juvelino.

Juvelino points to a glossy blue door in the back.

I’m in there, washing my hands, when I hear a vehicle pull up. It sounds big, a truck or a hot rod. That’s unusual in the land of compact Fiats and Hyundais and Volkswagens. Doors slam, but the engine keeps idling, a low grumble. The front door of the Opa opens and shuts. A man says something sharp. I can’t make it out.

“Please,” Juvelino cries. “No.”

I open the bathroom door just a crack. There are two men in front of the desk. They have guns on Juvelino. One of them is slight, maybe five six and a hundred forty pounds. He wears black slacks, patent leather shoes, and a white shirt, unbuttoned and wide open at the neck. The tattoo on his chest is a jagged green splotch. A Martian birthmark.

Filho de puta,” he says.

The other one is bigger. He wears shorts, flip-flops, and an oversized T-shirt. He looks over his shoulder, and his eyes meet mine. He looks like Heitor, I think. It is Heitor. I baptized him two months ago. It has only been maybe four hours since I saw him with his family at a little party. He is scared in a way I have never seen him. He gives me a look that is desperate and menacing and sorry. He gestures for me to get back in the bathroom.

I step back, slowly pulling the door shut. I hide in the back stall, standing on the toilet seat and crouching down. My heart pounds. I can’t get enough air. They can hear me gasping, I think. I try to hold my breath. I pray. I’m amazed by what I just saw—Heitor pointing a gun at an unarmed man.

“No—” Juvelino cries again.

Gunshots. Too many to count. Both guns. Automatics. Then I hear the other guy—not-Heitor—laughing. “Vamos,” he says.

The door slams shut. The vehicle drives away. I’m frozen there. I start to sob without making a sound. I know I have to get out, but I can’t face the sight of what they did to Juvelino. I force myself.

From the bathroom door, I see a smear of red down the chalky white wall behind the desk. I go for the front door. Juvelino is slumped over in a pool of blood. It looks purple on the shiny blue floor. His legs are folded under him sideways at a sharp angle—a pose that would hurt the living.

His eyes are wide open. I cough and my eyes water. I crash through the door. I run around the corner and up an alley. I hear a siren blocks away and approaching fast. I keep to the same side street I took to get there. I break the quiet, running and gasping all the way back to the apartment.

Motion lights go on again. A huge fila, a Brazilian mastiff, stirs. It jumps at the flimsy chain-link fence that stands between us. It’s taller than me up on its hind legs like that, and it drools and barks and snarls in a gravelly double bass. I keep running.

I creep into the apartment, change out of the missionary outfit, and lie on my mattress. I can still hear Lilly’s voice in my ear. I replay our conversation. I don’t sleep. No, Juvelino cries. Filho de puta, the guy with Heitor says. Gunshots and laughter. Acrid gun smoke taste comes back to my mouth. I sob again silently. Nordgren doesn’t stir.

Want more? Order a hard copy here or here or here. Or download the e-book (only $2.99!) here.

Comments

  1. Well, you got me. Bought and downloaded to Kindle.

  2. Couldn’t wait for the bookstore to open got mine on Kindle too.

  3. S.P. Bailey says:

    Thanks, Ardis and Peggy! I hope you enjoy it. And thanks to BCC for posting this. A lot of familiar faces/names around here (Wm Morris, Brian Gibson, Steven Evans, and many more) were kind enough to read and respond to various drafts of the book.

  4. S.P. Bailey says:

    So thanks to all of them too!

  5. So now I’m almost halfway through — so much for the project I was supposed to outline today — and I can’t put this down. Can S.P. keep it going this well to the end? I’ll find out today, ’cause I’m sure not going to be able to do anything else until this is read!

  6. Ahhh … time to catch my breath now after all I’ve been through today with Elders Carson and Nordgren. This was definitely a thriller, the kind I read once in a blue moon, but it kept me going clear to the satisfying ending. So why haven’t other BCCers been reading this today so we could exchange reactions?

  7. My impressions from a considered reading:

    Your use of first person dimensions no one, excluding, perhaps, your drawn imagination: your “I” excludes us.

    Your use of the present tense times nothing – no intended impression of immediacy immediates.

    To compliment – the style is derivative, which suggests you have read something.

    Sorry, but this is for a limited audience with a narrow range.

    Good luck with that.

  8. It’s it appeals to Ardis and doesn’t appeal to someone who would write #7, I’m going to check it out.

  9. brian: Your comment appears condescending and insecurely hyper-intellectual. But I’m not entirely sure if that’s the case because it mostly came across as gibberish.

  10. I niver larned to talk important and stuff, but here are a few miscellaneous points about why I enjoyed this — no spoilers ahead.

    I liked the elders. I *knew* the elders. Their characters are real. I was a little wary from Chapter 1 that this was another one of those pieces of Mormon fiction where an author thinks the best way to make his characters “real” is to make them edgy (in this case, disobedient missionaries). But there’s a sympathetic, interesting reason, it turns out, for Elder Carson to have been breaking the rules this way. It doesn’t excuse him (or wouldn’t, if he were a living elder), but it’s believable and sympathetic.

    Other characters were real to the point of caring what happened to them (I’ve sat through movies where I wished the main characters would die at a faster pace, because I didn’t care what happened to them and just wanted the movie to be over.) In this novel, I felt a little pain when one character died. Near the end of the story another prominent character doesn’t show up on stage when he might have done, and I regretted not being able to say good-bye to him.

    I suspect that the cultural and geographical details would also be recognizable and pleasing to someone who knew Brazil; I don’t, but never felt that the author was using those details as an insider connection to returned missionaries or others with local experience.

    While there wasn’t a lot of Mormon-specific vocabulary, what was there was deftly handled. A non-Mormon wouldn’t be puzzled over those terms, because necessary meanings were subtly provided without drawing attention to themselves. This is something that has not been well handled in some Mormon fiction, and I was pleased to see that somebody has figured out how to do it right.

    A number of the characters besides Elder Carson and his companion are Mormons, or investigators. They *behave* like Mormons. This book is a thriller, not a slice of Mormon life, meaning that the main characters don’t spend a lot of time preaching to the reader — they just act like Mormons. There’s one line in particular at the end of the book that I would love to use an example here, but I promised no spoilers.

    As I’ve said a number of times, this is a thriller. You won’t mistake it for War and Peace. If you don’t like the thriller genre, you won’t like this. I don’t read many thrillers, but I do like them very, very occasionally. This one followed all the rules of a thriller, with the added fun of a Mormon setting. It’s unlikely that so very many narrow escapes and foiled plans could possibly occur in such a short time span and to a pair of characters, but that’s part of the genre — surrender to it!There are girls, and Brazilian beaches, and crime, and the vilest of underworld characters — and yet no foul language or even excessive gore. They weren’t necessary — the scenes and characters were vividly drawn without that.

    This is hardly a review, of course, just a few points about why I enjoyed escaping with Millstone City today, and why I think a lot of you — if you like the genre — will enjoy the book.

  11. Daniel Bartholomew says:

    This looks to me like something I will enjoy reading.

  12. Finished it today also, and now got my husband started reading it also. Good read — exciting and believable..

  13. S.P. Bailey says:

    Thanks again, Ardis, Peggy, Ray, Jacob, and Daniel for your comments. Especially Ardis, whose comment No. 10 caused me to question whether I should clarify that neither I nor the publisher paid her or anything for her kind words! And thanks to everyone who has bought the book! We saw a definite spike in Kindle purchases when this went up!

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