“The most impressive trick of this book – and it is a very good one – is the way Mitchell pulls off a literary thriller that is as suspenseful as it is introspective.” - The Globe and Mail
When you spend your life saving others...who will be there to save you?
When tragedy erupts on a stifling summer night, three ordinary people, with the extraordinary jobs of rescuing strangers, are connected to one another in ways both explicit and invisible. Each is deeply devoted to what they do, but they are all beginning to crack under the immense pressures of their work.
Tough-as-nails Kate, when she's not working with her beloved search-and-rescue dog, Zeus, is a trauma nurse who spends her off-duty hours trying to forget what she has seen. Estranged from her troubled family, she must confront the fact that resolution may elude her forever. Respected police officer Mike is on the edge of burnout and sets himself on a downward spiral that may be impossible to break, fraying the bonds of love that hold his family together. Tamara, an agoraphobic 911 dispatcher, who is trying her hardest to remain as calm and emotionless as an automated message, is propelled into the middle of a story that she can't avoid and must enter the world to find out how it ends.
With a city prickling under a heat wave and a hurricane threatening to make landfall, these responders will be forced to make fateful choices that will alter lives. A storm is coming and nobody is prepared.
About the author
- Short-listed, Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award
SHANDI MITCHELL is an author and filmmaker. Her debut novel, Under This Unbroken Sky, was simultaneously published by Penguin Canada, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (UK), and HarperCollins (US) in August 2009. It sold in nine countries, including translation rights for Chinese, Hebrew, Dutch, and Italian. Under This Unbroken Sky won the 2010 Commonwealth Regional Prize for First Book (Canada/Caribbean), the Thomas Head Raddall Fiction Award, the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award, and the 2012 Kobzar Literary Award. It was also longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Mitchell was born in New Brunswick, raised in Alberta, and now makes her home in Nova Scotia.
Excerpt: The Waiting Hours (by (author) Shandi Mitchell)
Kate swung open the jeep’s rear gate and was greeted by Zeus’s tail thumping against the wire crate. Eager to be released, he stretched and pawed the latch. She made a visual check of her search-and-rescue gear, first aid kits, rations, dog supplies, all-weather kit, boots, and backpack. All that was needed to sustain them for a couple of days. Nothing had shifted. She unhitched the crate door and Zeus waited for her to indicate work or play. She fastened a line to his collar, and his tail hoisted higher. It wasn’t work yet.
“Ally-oop,” she said.
He jumped from the hatch, his nose to the ground before his hindquarters landed.
“Do your business.”
Trailing the line behind him, he headed around the SUV to check out the tires.
Kate scanned the debris field of twisted rebar, concrete slabs, mangled cars, and a collapsing barn. Flames and black smoke churned from a rusted oil drum. The team had done a good job mocking up the scene. It wouldn’t be an easy test.
Zeus bumped her fist with his nose.
He sat and looked up at her.
“You think you need a treat?”
She opened her hand. It was empty. He nudged the other hand. Nothing. He looked to her eyes and breathed her in. He liked this game. Snuffling over her jeans, he focused on her right pocket. His velvety snout brushed her wrists and palm. He was correct. A biscuit had been in that hand and that pocket.
He circled her legs. His nostrils flared, inhaling sharp breaths and snorting out short puffs. He was filtering all that was extraneous to extract the singular scent, separating the air he breathed and the cookie he wanted. He licked his nose, heightening the sensitivity of the million receptors that catalogued his world.
The conditions weren’t ideal. In this heat, his nose would dry out quickly. She lightly tapped its wetness. He expelled her scent with a breath and zeroed in on her left ankle. His tail wagged faster. His tail was incapable of lying. His nose bumped her boot top and he sat expectantly, snorting one small woof. She hoisted her pant leg. Ever so gently, his lips tickling her shin, he extracted the biscuit protruding from her hiking boot’s cuff. In one crunch, the biscuit was gone.
She looked to the assessment officer overseeing the exercise. It was Riley. Beside him, Heather was serving as designated note taker. His wife was still in basic training with a six-month-old Belgian Malinois that was far too much dog for her to handle. She wasn’t a strong trainer. She flustered easily and talked too much. It definitely wasn’t her calling. Unlike her husband, who was legendary in the search-and-rescue community.
Riley had a reputation for impossible finds, unwavering calm, and a relentless will. He had been a medic in Iraq until he took IED shrapnel in his chest. He had told Kate about the girl who rode on the back of her father’s bicycle and her brother who sat on the handlebars. How he gave the boy a chocolate bar and the girl a pack of gum and how shyly the little girl took it. She wore a poppy-red dress and matching velvet shawl embossed with full-blown roses stitched with golden thread. He showed the little girl how to blow a bubble. It was large and pink, and her eyes widened when it popped.
In the camouflage of night, when she couldn’t see his face, he had told her about the sound an IED makes five hundred feet away, detonating in the trunk of a car. How the pressure drops as the concussion kicks your chest, and the air is sucked from your lungs. And the silence. The depth of silence, right after, and the fall-on-your-knees beauty of white smoke against a robin’s-egg sky. He told her how hot the parts of a bicycle get when it has been incinerated . . . and the weight of what remains of a poppy-red child. He told her this as her fingers traced rose-petal scars on his bare chest. Zeus looked up the leash. He felt her tension in the line. She smiled and loosened her hold. All’s good.
She watched Riley and practised not caring. He was a good-looking man and tough. During SAR’s brutal three-day winter survival certification, he broke his ankle less than half a mile from course completion. He wanted to keep going, and she didn’t doubt he would have crawled to the finish line if they had let him. As it was, he had to run the course again the following winter. He set a new record.
Every team member was loyal to him, and every handler aspired to reach the mastery of Riley and his beloved Belgian, Annabelle. Despite the pressure to get another pup before she died, he refused. They say he was with her at the end. They don’t know he injected the needle. Kate understood why he couldn’t get another dog. He had been with Annabelle for ten years. Four years longer than his wife. She had never seen him interact with his wife’s unruly pup. Kate looked to Zeus. She couldn’t imagine bringing home another dog.
Riley’s arm shot up in the air. It was time.
She grabbed Zeus’s working vest from the truck and he fell in tight against her leg, assuming the heel position. She slipped the stiff Kevlar vest over his back and secured the straps across his belly and broad chest. She completed the task in under thirty seconds. No talking. No dallying. This was work. She strode to the edge of the field. She had trained Zeus for both tracking and air scent. He could alert for cadaver or survivor. It gave him versatility as a search-and-rescue dog. They had never failed a certification test.
Near the burn barrel, Chris and Jake were sitting at the pump truck monitoring the fire. It was twenty-eight Celsius and they were wearing black T-shirts, turnout pants, and boots. The fire boys could have been posing for a calendar. She wondered who the volunteer victim was this week. There were three other dogs running. A German shepherd had already failed with an off-course. She was the only civilian without military training attempting qualifications today. Riley nodded and his arm dropped.
She leaned over and patted Zeus’s lean, muscular side.
“Find live,” she said and unleashed his lead.
Zeus bolted forward. He huffed the air, making quick tight loops over the drought-stricken grass. He swept the open field in a grid pattern. In this stagnant heat, he would be working the updrafts. She kept pace behind him. He ignored the pumper truck crew, but she noticed the bob of his nose indicating their presence and his dismissal, as though he knew it was too easy. He kept course, not slowing or veering around the billowing smoke. She tasted gasoline and wood at the back of her throat.
His head swung back and forth, his body leaned in, and his ears perked forward. His nose popped up. He was on a scent and she jogged to keep up. Her muscles responded with the easy lope of her daily two-mile runs. It was more than a scent he was following. A scent was the past, a memory. He was gathering a story assembled through pheromones, skin cells, follicles, bruised grass, snapped twigs, and the molecular compositions of man-made scents—the traces left behind.
If he were trailing an animal, he would know the species, gender, and social order, alpha or follower. He’d be able to discern what paths it travelled, the food it ate, and whether it was friend, foe, or prey. Presumably, with a human he could smell the cheapness of their shoes, the sourness of their pants, the soap used, the scrape of a knee, nicotine on fingers, alcohol in pores, and the cancer in their bones. He could smell fear. And death. And weakness. He could smell narrative. She often wondered if he knew the outcome before he reached the ending.
His ears twitched and she noticed the slight rotation of his head, widening his peripheral scope. He was working the scent cone, intent on his directive to find “live.” With a sharp bark, a thrust of his nose, and a sit, he indicated the objects on the ground as possible clues. She marked a sock, a glove, a ball—his eyes watched hers: this might be something. “Good boy,” she said.
His path oscillated and the cone of his track narrowed. He zeroed in on the debris pile. Pacing the base of the massive, upturned cement blocks, he looked for a pathway up and leapt. His hind legs clawed, his hocks knocked concrete, and he scrambled up and over. Kate’s knee clunked the ragged edge.
Zeus nimbly treaded the twisted rebar, tangled wires, and large rocks that had been heaved up onto the loose boards and plywood sheets. Kate noted the clothing strewn about to condition her emotional fortitude—a pink floral dress, a plaid shirt, and a baby’s shoe. Zeus hopped over slabs driving upward to the ragged peak. The structure was more solid than it appeared.
Kate was huffing. Her trail pants were damp and her long-sleeved shirt stuck to her chest. Her feet were broiling in her boots. Slung at her waist, two water bottles slapped bruises on her thigh. She smelled suntan lotion and body odour. Her lips were already dry. Zeus poked his nose into a crevice and inhaled. She watched his ears and tail. There was nothing here.
The rescue organization she got him from had named him Zeus. He was from a litter of eleven found duct-taped in a box and left in a dumpster. Three had died. He had a border-collie brain and physique but his coat had the curl and wave of a spaniel’s. He was all black. His sleek racing body and spindly legs culminated in powerful haunches and a plumed, ever-alert tail. A black dog in the afternoon sun. He was panting.
It had been her weekly routine to walk through the pens of quivering and yapping adoption candidates looking for something extraordinary in their eyes. Zeus was the most inquisitive, fearless, and confident of the litter. As the staff recounted the pups’ brief, sad history, she had surreptitiously run her own tests. Tests that gauged fear, drive, aggression, intelligence, curiosity, frustration—all gently concealed in the guise of belly rubs, head pats, and her fingers dancing across the floor. Commands designed as play. When the other pups had tired of her, Zeus remained, wanting more. It had taken only three hand gestures to teach him to sit, before he offered the behaviour unasked.
That was five years ago. Together, they’d had four live finds and three cadavers. They were catching up to Riley and Annabelle’s record. Kate stumbled and grabbed for a jutting metal rod. A cold-hot sliced through her leather glove. Zeus’s head turned, but she kept moving forward.
Focus, she berated herself. Zeus trotted across a narrow plank, stopping at a fractured opening. His nostrils flared. He bowed and leaned into its space.
Kneeling, she shone her flashlight into the hollow, checking the ceiling and walls for stability, and gave the all-clear. He belly-crawled down the incline. She suppressed the urge to call him back to her safety. She had raised him to be tough physically and mentally, able to withstand gruelling conditions: heat, sound, and ever-varying stimuli. It was the handlers who were the most difficult to train. Choosing to trust their own meagre senses over their dog’s acuity, thus missing obvious communications because of emotion, fear, ego, and fatigue. In the field, these mistakes could cost a life.
She kept her flashlight trained on Zeus. Several mattresses and pallets were propped against the low, bunkered walls. He paused, considering the cross breezes. Honing in on a mattress in the corner, he bowed and barked his deepest voice. Loud. Strong. Certain. A hand emerged. Zeus’s backside swayed with joy. The mattress jostled aside, and seventeen-year-old Ben’s grinning, sweat-drenched face appeared. Riley’s son from his first marriage. He had his father’s eyes. Kate raised her fist.
Zeus bounded up the makeshift ramp and slammed against her chest. He pranced on her lap, his hot tongue licking her cheeks. She rewarded him with his favourite toy, a ball with a tether rope. She tugged and the ball squeaked, squeaked, squeaked. She wrapped her arms around his squirming body and held on longer than he needed.
“Good boy,” she said.
She pulled off her glove. Blood seeped from her palm and dripped down her fingers. She reached for his water bottle. Only then did she feel the pinch of pain.
In her pocket, her phone vibrated. She checked the number and wondered why the hospital was calling.
Praise for The Waiting Hours:
“The most impressive trick of this book—and it is a very good one—is the way Mitchell pulls off a literary thriller that is as suspenseful as it is introspective.”
—The Globe and Mail
“[A] novel about the triumph of failure . . . such an immersive read . . . I was just drawn into [The Waiting Hours] and could not detach myself from this book . . . her characters are . . . so vivid . . . [the climax is] riveting . . . just amazing.”
—Shelagh Rogers, The Next Chapter, CBC Radio
“A novel that is relatable . . . that anyone could take something away from.”
“[A] novel that seems to strike at the core of what it means to be a first responder. . . . [The Waiting Hours] looks both at emotional and physical loss, and at how people find themselves afterwards." —The Standard
"A propulsive and invigorating book. The strange, difficult work of frontline workers will be fascinating and unfamiliar territory to most readers, but the rich inner lives and emotional fractures of Mitchell's characters are painfully -beautifully-recognizable."
—Katrina Onstad, author of Everybody has Everything