Up to a dozen undercover FBI agents and Spokane police officers were sprinkled through the large crowd that turned out Oct. 10 to hear Sherry Jones' first reading of her novel, The Jewel of Medina. In August, two months before the book was published, the romance -- centering upon A'isha, one of the wives of the Prophet Mohammed -- was caught in a sudden whirl of criticism that the book was offensive to Islam.
Internet firestorms ensued. Then in the wee hours of Sept. 27 a real fire broke out. Three men being tracked by British anti-terrorism police in North London were immediately arrested after stuffing a small "petrol-bomb" through the mail slot of the home and office of the book's UK publisher.
The small fire was quickly doused. Martin Rynja, head of the Gibson Square publishing house, went into hiding. The Jewel of Medina's American publisher, Beaufort Books, shuttered its New York offices for a day out of security concerns.
And with her debut reading fast approaching, former Montana journalist Sherry Jones, even though she received no threats, did the practical. She called the FBI.
"I initially alerted them to, you know, the situation with my book and concerns about potential threats," Jones says.
As local anti-terrorism missions go, "It was different," says Norm Brown, FBI supervisor of the Inland Northwest Joint Terrorism Task Force.
Special agents from the FBI and members of the Spokane Police Department's dignitary protection team soon turned up at Auntie's to talk with the staff and eyeball the store in the lower floors of downtown's Liberty Building.
"It was quite exciting," says Auntie's owner Chris O'Harra.
Mapping escape routes from the second-story reading area is something her staff hasn't ever had to consider, even for authors who may have read from awful books.
The really trippy thing, O'Harra says, was the task force's vow that, "You'll never know we're here."
"Right." O'Harra laughs. "Except for the extremely fit, extremely tall men in suits," standing motionless in the corners.
A crowd estimated at more than 100 people hiked up the stairway to fill the folding chairs arrayed in an arc around the author's lectern.
It was a crowd typical of evening author readings in Spokane, dominated by gray hair and casual dress. And the large, suited men standing stiffly at parade rest were quite the standouts. They strained to be vigilant as Jones talked about the story of her book and then read a purple-prosed passage about A'isha's wedding night.
"It was very unique," Brown, the task force supervisor, says with a bit of a chuckle. "Fortunately we don't do this very often. I don't expect we'll do much (author protection) in future."
There were no threats of violence that night, both law enforcement and Jones say.
"I believe it was prudent on the part of law enforcement to provide her with security," Brown says. "In this particular situation we were concerned for her welfare. We generally do not afford private citizens or authors that level of security. We weren't sure what type of reaction there would be" at the novel's first reading.
Brown, who was not at the reading, would not reveal how many federal and local members of the task force were deployed that night, citing the still-open prospect of being detailed to future readings once The Jewel of Medina book tour, currently stalled, gets back on track. He also would not reveal how much the operation cost. He did say the federal agents "adjusted their shifts so there was no overtime."
Staffers at Auntie's estimate the total security presence at up to a dozen.
The not-so-undercover guys in the corners were deliberately not-so-undercover to reassure the audience and "also to serve as a deterrent against anyone planning adverse action," Brown says.
The Inlander, after the reading, spoke to other task force members who were much less visible, mingling with the crowd in blue jeans and sweaters. Their giveaways were subtle: a more robust fitness level, Secret Service-style earpieces and the way they drifted closer to people who got a little tense during the Q & amp; A session after the reading.
The most visible task force member, the tall one in the rust-brown suit, was Jones' personal action figure. He stood in the corner closest to the podium, almost like a guardian angel behind Jones' right shoulder.
"They told me if I heard him shout, or if he grabbed me and started to run with me, I should not struggle, not ask questions but just go along with it," Jones says.
Hard for a journalist, she says with a laugh, but wow, for a writer of a romantic novel to be swept off her feet by a tall, strong silent type is almost too much.