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Chapter 11

When Tess switched on her computer at the Beacon-Light Monday morning, she found three messages waiting: a perfunctory note from Dorie Starnes about basic computer commands she might need, another lunch invitation from Guy Whitman, and a polite, professional welcome from Jack Sterling. "Welcome aboard," he had written. "Let me know if I can do anything." Sent on Friday afternoon. Did the offer still stand? And was there anything personal to be gleaned from the impersonal words? Even as she was deconstructing his first message, another notice from him flashed across the top of her screen: "U there? 10:30 pre-meeting to daily 11 o'clock in Colleen's second office. BE THERE. But U didn't hear it from me."

Like all newspaper editors, the Blight bosses met constantly, in various sets and subsets. There were two news meetings a day, one feature meeting, two metro meetings, a Page One meeting, and a sports meeting. When the editors weren't in formal meetings, they were in informal ones, dashing into offices and shutting doors to whisper conspiratorially. The 11 o'clock was the first news meeting of the day, mandatory for all department heads. But what was a pre-meeting? And where was Colleen's second office? Jack Sterling gave her too much credit, Tess thought, dialing Whitney's extension.

"This is Whitney Talbot." Tess waited a second, unsure if she had reached a real person. Whitney was one of those people who sounded exactly like her voice mail.

"Well, is someone there?" Whitney snapped impatiently.

"Hey, it's Tess. I'm here. But I'm not sure for how long. I've just been summoned to Colleen Reganhart's second office, whatever that is."

"Look, Reganhart might act as if she has the authority to dump you, but she doesn't. Only Lionel or Five-Four can terminate you. Don't let her bluff you." Whitney actually sounded concerned, as if Tess were still an under-employed bookstore clerk who needed the Blight's fee to keep body and soul together.

"Don't worry, I have a little advantage where that's concerned. But I'm not sure what I can do for the Blight, with the union on my back and Wink dead. Obviously, he's not going to bring suit now, so what's the point?"

"You were hired to look into the computer sabotage, remember? Wink's death doesn't change the fact that someone, most likely Rosita, compromised the paper's integrity. What would the paper look like if every reporter greased the skids for her pet project?"

"Look, I'd better find this meeting. Where can I find Reganhart?"

"On the fourth floor, behind the door marked Ladies,' an irony that quickly becomes apparent in any prolonged discussion with Colleen Reganhart."

The fourth-floor women's bathroom was a suite with a large anteroom separated from the facilities by the kind of double doors usually associated with saloons. Tess, pushing her way into the sitting area at 10:25, reflected that the size, placement, and fixtures of such restrooms could give future archaeologists much to ponder about the late twentieth-century workplace.

Upstairs, where men had dominated the news pages throughout the Blight's history, the women's bathroom was an afterthought, a cramped, windowless room carved from a corner of the original men's room, barely large enough for two stalls. But this bathroom near the former Woman's Page was a two-room suite suitable for an attack of the vapors. The lounge had a long sofa and two upholstered chairs. It even had a vending machine, stocked with sanitary napkins and pantyhose in formidably large sizes. The dispenser, dusty and dented, didn't look as if it had been restocked since the late 1960s, about the same time the Blight had stopped discriminating against black and Jewish brides on the wedding page. Tess took her place on a banana-yellow vinyl chair and waited.

At precisely 10:30, Colleen walked in, lighting a cigarette and taking a deep drag before the door swung shut behind her.

"It's against the law to smoke in Maryland offices," Tess said helpfully.

"If you have a problem with cigarette smoke you can leave. In fact, you can leave even if you don't have a problem with cigarette smoke."

Jack Sterling came through the swinging door and did a not-bad job of feigning surprise to see Tess there.

"Given that Miss Monaghan was to be the subject of our discussion here, don't you think she should stay?" he asked. Very cool, Tess thought.

"No, I don't. I think she should go to her desk, clean it out, and get the fuck out of here. We don't need her. We never needed her. This weekend's story makes the first one look like a goddamn puff piece. Who cares any more how it got in the paper? It led to the second story, which is even better."

"What if-and I'm just playing devil's advocate here-what if his widow still tries to sue?"

"Let her. You can't libel the dead. Besides, we didn't libel anyone. Wink's suicide proves we don't know how much shit he had to hide. This is a goddamn fucking purple orgasm of a story, and it gets better every day."

"A little self-examination won't keep us from nailing the story, Colleen," Sterling said.

"It won't get us jack shit."

"What are you so scared of? That Tess's investigation will lead us straight to your prot'eg'e, Rosita?"

Tess sat on the sofa, feeling as if she were watching her parents bicker. Jack Sterling and Colleen Reganhart had an odd chemistry. It wasn't sexual, not like one of those television romances where hate turns to a clinch in mid-quarrel. This tension was the kind one expected from romantic rivals or siblings. And the object of their affection was the Beacon-Light, as embodied by Lionel Mabry, dear old dad.

"We all have our prot'eg'es," Colleen told Sterling, exhaling smoke aggressively into his face. He didn't flinch or cough. "We hired Miss Monaghan because Lionel's would-be-prot'e, Whitney Talbot, talked him into it. But that was last week, when Wink was alive and Five-Four couldn't eat at the Center Club without someone waggling a finger in his face for screwing up the basketball deal. Now we look brilliant and Five-Four can pretend a great enthusiasm for the fourth estate. Everybody's happy."

"Lionel's not. And neither am I. We got lucky. It doesn't change the fact that tampering with Page One isn't something to be taken lightly, and the use of unnamed sources on this story has been far too liberal. Wink Wynkowski died without knowing the names of his accusers. Do you think that's right?"

"The bottom line is cash: this investigator's salary comes out of my budget-our budget, Sterling, the newsroom's budget-and it's a waste of money."

Tess was tired of being discussed in the third person. Sterling hadn't tipped her off about this meeting for her to sit here meekly.

"Paying me is not a waste of money, Colleen." The name felt strange in her mouth, but Miss Reganhart, for a woman not even ten years her senior, would have seemed stranger still. "Besides, it's not something you can renege on. This morning, I checked with my boss, Tyner Gray, and he confirmed he had inserted language to that effect into our contract. You can play me or trade me, but you still have to pay me. Colleen. For at least two weeks' work."

Reganhart looked stunned, a poker player who had plopped down a straight only to be confronted with a flush. Spike always said arrogance was the worst thing you could bring to a wager. "Math don't play favorites" was how he put it.

"So you have a contract, too. And the union has its contract," Colleen said at last. "Me, I can be fired at Lionel's whim. If he can't get the tee time he wants, or the counterman in the company cafeteria forgets to put his salad dressing on the side, I'm outta here. Whatever happened to the idea of a meritocracy? Whatever happened to people doing their jobs without counting on all thesegimmicks?"

"A contract's not a gimmick. And the problem with meritocracies is they assume one or two individuals have any clue about what merit is, uncolored by their own biases."

Reganhart slumped on the orange plastic sofa. She was neither as tall nor as large-boned as Tess had first thought. Unlike most women, she dressed to maximize her size-four-inch heels, seriously big hair, oversized and out-of-fashion shoulder pads tucked into her pea-green wool jacket. On the losing side of a battle, she seemed to shrink, like a Persian cat caught in a rainstorm.

"Assuming that you're telling the truth about your contract-and you can bet your ass I will check-then you can go ahead as planned." She turned to Sterling. "Now I'm actually going to use this room for its intended purpose. Could you give us girls a little privacy?"

As soon as he left, Colleen fixed a hard, blue stare on Tess.

"Your contract also stipulates thirty hours of work a week. I want you here six hours a day, Monday through Friday. And you're to check in and out with my secretary. If we pay you to work here, you work here."

"No problem."

"The problem will be how to fill your days. You see, I've just decided I don't want union representatives sitting in on your interviews with staff. The union will, of course, file a grievance over my decision. I'll fight it. I'll take it to arbitration. I'll take it to the fucking Supreme Court. And we'll end up putting the whole investigation on hold until the matter can be resolved, which should be well after your contract expires. So go ahead, collect your paycheck. Doing nothing is the hardest work you'll ever do. If you don't believe me, I can refer you to some reporters I've put in the same position. In the end, they all quit."

"This isn't about money," Tess said. "What's your problem with me?"

"I don't trust you. I don't trust any friend of Whitney Talbot's. Jack Sterling's gunning for my job and she thinks she'll get his job if he forces me out."

"Whitney doesn't want to be an editor. She wants to go to Tokyo."

"I'm sure Whitney would be willing to forgo three years in Japan if she could become a deputy managing editor before she turns thirty. You may know your friend; I know ambition. How do you think I went from city editor in Wilmington, Delaware, to managing editor here in just five years?"

Reganhart dropped her cigarette to the floor and crushed it beneath her pump. Deprived of a prop, her hands flopped nervously at her sides, and she quickly lit another Merit. Tess had a hunch the managing editor was a collection of barely controlled tics-a reformed fingernail biter, a hair twister, a scab picker, an earring fiddler. Chain smoking probably kept her from tearing herself to bits.

Before Tess could make her exit, an excited Marvin Hailey pushed his way into the room, followed by Jack Sterling.

"We've got a good murder in Northwest," Hailey panted. "Really juicy. Two carjackers tried to take a minivan from an Orthodox Jewish mother with seven kids. She put up a fight and they shot her, right in front of the kids. The kids were so freaked they wouldn't get out of the van, so the carjackers left on foot, heading over to a fast food place on Reisterstown Road for fried egg sandwiches. Cops arrested them while they were still on line. One of the photographers heard the call on the radio and managed to get to the scene before the police. Great stuff. Amazing. But we need to decide how to make it big, how to tell people something tomorrow they won't see on the television news tonight. TV is all over this."

"There are no good murders." Sterling 's voice was gentle in its reproof. "But Marv's right, we do need to throw a lot of bodies at this. Our readers will expect the definitive version from us, something more than what they'll get on TV tonight."

"I assume the art department is already working on a map-where it happened, where the guys were caught." Colleen dropped her fresh cigarette and rubbed her palms together, as if the story were a rich meal or a pile of money set before her. "I want Bunky Fontaine on the community angle, rounding up the usual rabbis. And isn't Northwest the police district where the community was bitching about the decision to suspend foot patrols?"

She rushed from the room, Hailey hard on her heels like a happy puppy. Sterling followed, moving more slowly, but still following. Whatever their personal differences, Colleen and Jack could work as a team when the situation demanded it.

"A good murder," Hailey had said, and to Tess's sorrow, she knew exactly what he meant. In her own newspaper days, she had done a brief rotation on the night rewrite desk. There, at a safe remove from victims and grieving relatives, one quickly learned that value system. Good murders, great murders, wonderful murders, all determined on a sliding scale of hometown, money, race, body count, and celebrity.

"We've got a good one." How many times had she said the same thing? How many times had her fingers flown with delight over the details of someone's final moments on earth? It was small consolation to remind herself that Colleen was the one who had called Wink's death the ultimate orgasm, a climax powerful enough to bring an entire newsroom to a collective shudder.

Chapter 10 | Charm City | Chapter 12