"Truly a masterwork . . . a spectacular achievement." Mystery News
"An excellent series." Chicago Tribune
Edgar® Award winner Jan Burke continues her USA Today bestselling Irene Kelly series with a suspense-laced novel of buried secrets, old friends, and new dangers in "a brilliant exhibition of what the crime genre can offer" (The Baltimore Sun). Sweeping across decades, Burke masterfully unearths a cold case that is far from closed while/i>/i>… See more details below
Edgar® Award winner Jan Burke continues her USA Today bestselling Irene Kelly series with a suspense-laced novel of buried secrets, old friends, and new dangers in "a brilliant exhibition of what the crime genre can offer" (The Baltimore Sun). Sweeping across decades, Burke masterfully unearths a cold case that is far from closed while introducing an intrepid novice reporter, Irene Kelly, learning the ropes from her mentor, Conn O'Connor. From the late fifties, when a bloodstained car is buried on a farm and a wealthy family disappears at sea . . . to the seventies, when Irene makes shocking connections and brashly tracks a killer from the past . . . to today, when new threats and deadly surprises are closing in on the veteran journalist and her husband, Frank Harriman, Bloodlines follows a fascinating labyrinth of lives, loves, sins, and secrets with the irrepressible Irene Kelly at its core.
"Truly a masterwork . . . a spectacular achievement." Mystery News
"An excellent series." Chicago Tribune
If the blonde had not put her hand on Jack Corrigan's thigh, he might have awakened in his own bed, rather than facedown on the side of a farm road in the middle of the night. Then he would have missed the burial.
Given his condition that night, he might have slept through everything that happened, but a cold wind cut through his clothing, rousing him. He rolled painfully onto his back and found himself looking up dizzily into the rustling, moonlit leaves of tall, thin trees. His perspective was marred by the alcohol in his veins, and the fact that his left eye was nearly swollen shut.
He closed his eyes and tried to recall how he had ended up here. He remembered the party and the blonde . . .
The blonde had smiled and said something to him, then she took another drag from her Lucky Strike.
Corrigan saw her heavily lipsticked red mouth form words, but he couldn't hear what they were. The rock-'n'-roll band was on a break, but someone had turned the radio up, and Jerry Lee Lewis's "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" was rattling the windowpanes. Conversation in the crowded room competed with the music by notching up the shouting level. An old injury kept him from joining the dancers. No, he admitted even if his ankle hadn't troubled him, this was not his kind of music. You old fogey, he told himself, and not yet out of your forties.
Not his kind of music, and not his kind of party, which was part of the problem with his mood tonight. He wouldn't have come, but Katy had sent him a note, specifically asking him to be here.
Despite the note, neither Katy nor her mother, Lillian Vanderveer Linworth, had seemed especially friendly when he arrived. That didn't surprise him. Harold Linworth, the birthday girl's father and Lillian's husband had politely despised him for years.
Katy's in-laws were there as well, Thelma and Barrett Ducane. Barrett was already hitting the sauce, but Thelma looked almost sober for once. Jack planned to catch up to Barrett as soon as possible.
Thelma let it drop that they had just talked Katy and their son Todd into coming along for an after-hours party on their yacht. A moonlight cruise on their new fifty-foot Chris-Craft Catalina.
"I bought the Sea Dreamer for Thelma for Christmas," Barrett said. "She's quite the sailor, my little gal."
If Thelma was supposed to be the captain of this idiotic voyage, that explained the sobriety. She was careful with her toys. Although the Chris-Craft was by no means the most expensive boat they could afford pocket change to them, he was sure Jack thought of how tightfisted they were with their boys, Todd and Warren, and how readily they spent money on themselves. He asked if Warren would be joining them on the boat.
Thelma frowned, openly displeased by the question.
"I told Warren to come along," Barrett said, "but he's off with some of his cronies."
"Surprised to see you here, Jack," Thelma said. "You write for the society pages of the Express now?"
"Should be a nice night for a cruise, almost a full moon," he said, and as he walked away, added, under his breath, "perfect for lunatics like you, Thelma." Going out for a pleasure cruise on a January night. That bitch was nuts. She was probably trying to irritate Lillian, who had once been a close friend, but now had little to do with her. Lillian wouldn't like Katy being pulled away from the party by the Ducanes.
Lillian had always opposed Katy's marriage to Todd Ducane. She had made bigger plans for her daughter, and Jack supposed that after her falling-out with Thelma all those years ago, the idea of Katy marrying Thelma's son had been a bitter pill to swallow.
For once, Jack and Lillian were in agreement. Jack had never liked any of the Ducanes, including Todd. The Toad, as Jack thought of him. But Katy had rebelled. He knew she had since come to see her mistake, but so far, she hadn't rectified it.
Lillian hadn't chosen so well herself, Jack thought, watching as the family gathered for photos. Harold Linworth had little more than his wealth to recommend him. Maybe that had been enough for Lillian. At forty, Lillian was still a looker. But standing next to Katy Jack smiled to himself. Katy was a little subdued tonight, but still she had that quality, a fire within that drew others to her warmth. Not all of Lily's beauty could match it.
He watched as parents and in-laws stood next to Katy and Todd, the six of them smiling stiffly as a photographer went through the juggling act of focus, shoot, eject the used flashbulb, put a new one in, focus, shoot, and so on.
Why wasn't Warren around? The Ducane brothers were close. He glanced at Thelma and thought he had his answer. He was fairly sure all it would take to keep Warren away would be a demand by Thelma that he attend the party. There was the difference in the two boys Todd acquiesced to their every demand, hoping to catch crumbs from their table. Warren rebelled. If that was what kept him away tonight, Jack had to admire him for it.
What the hell was he doing here himself?
But Jack had never been able to turn down Katy's requests. Her twenty-first birthday. Katy an adult. What nonsense. She was already a wife and mother. Yet to Jack, she was still a child herself.
Her elegant appearance this evening hadn't changed his thoughts on that all dressed up in a demure evening gown and long gloves, wearing the Vanderveer family diamonds at her neck. Her dark hair was pinned up in a sophisticated style, her brown eyes emphasized by carefully applied liner.
The overall effect had been spoiled somewhat by the pug. Corrigan hated that damned dog and seeing her holding it tonight angered him. Max, her two-month-old son, left at home attended to by some stranger, a hired nurse but the dog in her arms. Maybe that was the sort of family life the Ducanes might like, distanced from their children, but Jack hated to see Katy influenced by Todd in that way.
When Katy greeted him, she leaned forward a little, and the dog squirmed awkwardly between them. She shook Jack's hand, saying, "What an unexpected pleasure." Her sardonic tone would lead any listener to believe he was a party crasher. If she hadn't softly added, for his ear only, "Later," he would have turned on his heel and left.
He did try to leave at one point even had his hat and coat in hand. Katy had hurried over to him and taken them from him. "Don't be silly," she said, handing the hat to the butler, Hastings, and smoothing the coat into a neatness that didn't seem natural to it.
"Careful, you'll ruin your dress," he said, noticing that he needed to take the coat to the cleaners.
"To hell with the dress," she said, and flung the coat around her shoulders. She smiled at him, eyes bright with mischief. "Now, this is comfort. And it reeks of cigarettes and spilled booze and what's this?" Pretending to sniff the collar. "Ah, yes, ink. You must have cut yourself."
She took it off again, handing it to Hastings. "Uncle Jack "
"Does your mother know you still call me that?"
"Never mind her," she said angrily.
"On the outs again, are you? Is that why you've asked to talk to me?"
"No," she said, "no, of course not. Oh, Uncle Jack, please. Please stay until we can talk. You always tell me the truth, and I need " But she looked up and saw her husband making his way toward them. "Oh damn, here comes Todd."
"Leaving, Jack?" Todd asked hopefully.
"No, just getting my cigarette lighter out of my coat pocket."
"Oh . . . well, excuse us, but there are some people waiting to talk to Kathleen."
Katy leaned closer to Jack and kissed his cheek, then again whispered, "Later," before allowing Todd to steer her away.
Still, she had made no effort to come near him since.
Corrigan was drinking heavily, as usual, but tonight he knew himself for an especially sorry sort of drunk. "Self-pity makes a lousy chaser," he said aloud.
"What?" the blonde shouted back, confused.
"Nothing." He grabbed two martinis from a passing waiter's tray and handed one to the blonde. She smiled. He thought she said thanks.
He looked away from the blonde and scanned the crowd, wondering if he'd catch another glimpse of Lillian or Katy. Unlikely, given the press of humanity between his seat and where Lillian and her daughter were holding court. Trouble with a January party was, most years it was too cold outside on the veranda, so nobody ever had any breathing room. He downed the martini and watched for another waiter.
He would never, so long as he lived, understand the rich. Why had Katy wanted him to be here? A whim, no doubt. She was a bit of a troublemaker, Katy. Kathleen. He was one of the few who ever called her Katy. He smiled, thinking of how it fired her up when he did so. He was a bit of a troublemaker himself.
He thought about that whispered "Later," and about a look he thought he had seen in her eye, something just before Todd the Toad ushered her away from him. It made him wonder why the birthday girl, normally sunny and vivacious, looked so unhappy most of the night. He meant to find out. Curiosity was his besetting sin, and a necessary part of his work as a reporter.
Most of her friends would not believe anything amiss. The smile was still there and as usual a crowd of her admirers near at hand. They didn't know her as well as Jack did.
After a while it was clear that the Toad was on guard and ready to maneuver Jack away from Katy whenever he drew near. The Toad hovered over her tonight lighting her cigarettes, making sure her half-empty martini glasses were exchanged for full ones, feeding canapés to her dog. Jack decided to bide his time and drink up Lillian and Harold's expensive booze until he could evade their son-in-law.
One of the attentive servants made his way to Corrigan and exchanged the empty glass for a fresh drink.
The party was a success, if you measured such things by the lack of room to move, the sound of raucous laughter, the cloud of smoke hanging thickly in the air. He wondered what Lillian really thought of it. He was surprised at the roughness of some of the characters he saw here tonight. Todd's friends, he supposed. Harold probably hated to see such riffraff crossing the Linworths' Italian marble floors. Not that all of the Linworths' friends and acquaintances were on the up-and-up.
The blonde interrupted his musings with the hand on his thigh. Less than an instant later, he felt a hand on his collar, pulling back hard and cutting off his breath, then yanking him up onto his unsteady feet. A big, fair-haired man with a crewcut was shouting something about keeping his hands off his wife, and before Jack could so much as clench a fist, the giant had landed a blow that knocked him out cold.
Corrigan felt the wind and the chilled earth beneath him and shivered into something like wakefulness. He had passed out again. For how long? He slowly rolled onto his stomach and then pushed himself to his knees. He tried to take inventory. He was sore every damned where. His bad ankle the one that had doomed his efforts to enlist hurt like hell. Nothing new there.
He felt along the ground for his hat, but saw no sign of it. He half-hoped the lummox who had attacked him and yes, at least one other man had left it with his coat at Lillian's place. If not, it had probably blown away. Corrigan sighed. Young O'Connor told him hats were going out of style, but Corrigan couldn't feel dressed without one.
Still on his knees, he patted his vest, pleased to find the pocket watch still on its chain, not as pleased when the crystal fell out in little pieces. The hour hand was gone. He put the watch back in its pocket, feeling the sore spot where it had been driven into a rib. He had a bruise on his thigh from where something similar had happened with his keys. He eased his cut and swollen fingers into his pants pockets to make sure the keys were still there, and was relieved to find them. A small saint's medal had been lost off the chain, but at least he'd be able to get back into his house without calling O'Connor. And checking his back pocket, he discovered he still had his wallet. He hadn't been robbed.
He rose painfully to his feet, staggering from the double influence of blows and drink.
It was a noisy, shadowy world he had awakened to, one smelling of earth and something medicinal menthol or camphor. No, he slowly realized, it was eucalyptus. He was standing beneath a eucalyptus, along the outer edge of a narrow grove of the spindly giants, trees probably planted as a windbreak. On the other side of the road, a barbed-wire fence surrounded an empty pasture; in the distance, the tin roof of a dairy barn reflected the moonlight. He was wondering if he could make it that far, maybe sleep it off in the barn, when he heard the sound of an engine starting up somewhere behind him.
Corrigan was seldom a cautious man, but the beating had shaken him, so he stepped back into the moving shadows of the trees, concerned that the giant and his friend might be seeking further amusement at his expense. He frowned at the injustice of it. He hadn't known the woman was accompanied, let alone married, and only the inertia brought on by a forgotten number of martinis had kept him sitting near her as she pressed her attentions on him.
Except for a fleeting image of awakening once in a sedan a Bel Air? What made him think that? A moment of being propped up against its two-tone paint job? He wasn't sure. He had no certain idea of how they had brought him here. He thought he remembered smelling the woman's perfume coming from somewhere within the car, but he couldn't swear that she had been in the sedan with them.
He watched the road for several minutes before he understood that no car was on it. He moved forward toward the source of the noise, his usual slight limp now a hobbling, uneven gait. He paused at the edge of the grove, peered out from behind one of the wider trees. He could only see from his right eye now, which added to his sense of disorientation.
Before him lay a fallow field. His attention was drawn to an object that sat not far from him: a blue Buick sedan.
The Buick had clearly been in an accident; the front end was crumpled into sharp folds that angled back toward the windshield, so that the car seemed to be forever frozen in a posture of flinching, its metal-toothed grill caught in a buckled grimace. The windshield was darkened and webbed with cracks.
Corrigan steadied himself against the tree, fighting memories of another car accident, long ago. The motor sound drew his attention again. It was not coming from the car, but from somewhere beyond. Not a car motor, but a diesel engine perhaps a truck or a bus. Where was it? He heard the engine strain as gears shifted.
Suddenly there was light, light from the ground a beam tilting over the field at a forty-five-degree angle. He watched in disbelief as headlights emerged somewhere behind the car, seemingly from the earth itself. A tractor, coming toward him.
The headlights of the tractor shone through the car from behind, eerily illuminating the Buick's interior, the shattered windshield. Corrigan's stomach lurched as he saw the fractured glass was covered with a brownish red glaze. Bloodstains.
The sight of that blood made Corrigan obey an impulse to hide himself from the driver of the tractor. He moved clumsily farther into the trees and crouched near a low, leafy branch. His head was pounding now, pulsing with the throb of the tractor's motor, refusing to cooperate with his struggle to comprehend what he was seeing.
The tractor circled the car and came to a stop. The gears shifted again and the tractor stood idling as a small, wiry man climbed from the seat. He wore a cap and kept his head down as he marched back to the car, a heavy chain on his shoulder. Corrigan heard more than saw the man attach the chain to the back axle of the Buick.
Soon the driver was back on the tractor, the gears shifting as he pulled the Buick across the field toward the place where the tractor had emerged. Corrigan stepped out from behind the tree, tried to make out the odd shapes of earth and man and machinery across the field. The headlights of the tractor and the moonlight combined to provide just enough light to see an earthen ramp leading down into a shallow pit. Tall piles of loose soil stood at its edges.
The man on the tractor climbed down again, removed the chain, and then maneuvered the tractor so that it pushed the car with a gentle shove, sending the Buick down the ramp and into the pit. Corrigan heard the last loud groan of metal as the car came to a rough halt somewhere against the earth below.
A sharp barking came from the dairy farm across the road, dogs reacting to the unfamiliar noise. The tractor driver turned and saw Corrigan.
Corrigan hobbled back into the trees. He kept moving, tried to stretch his agonizing, clumsy stride as he heard the tractor motor start up again.
It was coming closer now, had crossed the field too fast, much too fast. His ankle was on fire, he couldn't breathe for the ache in his ribs, but he pushed on, held down the bile of fear that rose in his throat. He stayed in the grove, watched the shadows of the tree trunks sharpen as the headlights of the tractor drew closer.
The little sodbuster couldn't come in here with his big damned lummox of a tractor, Corrigan thought, just before he stumbled and took a hard fall into blackness.
Copyright ©2005 by Jan Burke
My hero is an asshole."
"Irene..." Lydia said in mild protest.
I said it sadly, not as a declaration of pride. I did not deliberately choose an asshole to be my hero. I discovered he was one in the way most of us make such discoveries: I got to know him.
Lydia, a friend since childhood, knew that I spoke of none other than Connor O'Connor.
At a distance, over years of reading my morning newspaper, I had come to admire O'Connor more than any other journalist, and that included Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein. I was in J-school during the Watergate years, so that's saying a lot.
Both Lydia and I wanted to become reporters long before Watergate, and there was never any doubt in my mind that the newspaper I most wanted to work for was the Las Piernas News Express. The Express was the first newspaper I read my father read its funny pages to me before I learned to read, then helped me with the big words when I started reading the articles themselves. By the end of grade school, I began looking for stories written by O'Connor, because I knew they would be good ones. I wanted to be like him.
When Lydia and I were in the fourth grade, we cajoled our neighbors into buying subscriptions to a self-produced newspaper that lasted one issue Sister Mary Michael, catching us in the act of surreptitiously using the school's ditto machine for edition number two, suspended publication.
We were on the school newspaper together in junior high, high school, and college. She was often an editor. That was fine with me. I just wanted to be a reporter, to write like the man who had inspired this dream, whose words had lured me into my career. O'Connor.
"He's not, really," Lydia said.
I just shook my head.
"Well, I will admit you have a reason to be upset," she said.
Of course I had a reason to be upset. The legendary O'Connor had just stabbed me in the back.
"Would you be happier over in features?" Lydia asked.
I glared at her.
"No," she said. "Stupid thing to ask."
"You should be working in news, and we both know it."
"I don't want to have to deal with what you're putting up with," she said.
She meant the hazing I was experiencing in the newsroom.
My first job after college didn't take me to the Express. The Express only had openings in features, not news. My first question on any job interview was, "Do women cover hard news for this paper?" The answer was seldom an unqualified "Yes." At the Express, the answer was, "Once upon a time we did, but not now. Maybe someday, if we like your work in features, we'll give you a shot at it."
Someday wasn't soon enough, so I went to Bakersfield, where there was an opening in news on the Californian. As an added benefit, I could get away from the embarrassment I felt when I was dumped by a creep I had dated in college the number-one inductee in my Dating Hall of Shame.
Lydia stayed in Las Piernas and took a job in features. Not so many years earlier, the features section was known as the "women's pages." Lydia wrote about cooking. The editor of the food section left the paper about eighteen months later, and the next thing you know, Lydia was promoted.
I'd been gone from Las Piernas for two years. Now I was back, and thanks in part to Lydia's help, I was able to land a job at the Express, too.
The first day I walked into the newsroom, I discovered with no surprise whatsoever that its occupants were almost all white (the sole exception: Mark Baker, who is black) and almost all old (I counted four who were under forty, and Mark was one of them). H.G., the city editor, was pushing sixty. He was a quiet, cynical man who smoked cheap cigars and whose rugged face seemed to have only two expressions: one indicated his usual state of unflappable, contemplative calm and the other mild, private amusement. He led me to my desk wearing the former and walked away wearing the latter. The cause of the change might have been the shock on the faces of his fellow newsmen. The leading caveman, who I later learned was known as Wildman Billy Winters, came up to me and said, "Honey, you're in the wrong room. Women write for features down the hall."
I was ready to reply when the publisher, Mr. Winston Wrigley II, strode out of his office and said, "She's in the right room, Bill. And she's not the first woman to work here. Ask O'Connor Helen Swan was one of his mentors. Ms. Kelly was taught by Helen and Jack, too. That's more than good enough for me."
It took me a moment to recall that Helen Corrigan had been Helen Swan before she married. The journalism program at the college had three or four former staffers from the Express on the faculty. Helen was easily my favorite instructor at Las Piernas College.
Another favorite was Jack Corrigan, who had taught there, too. He had died of a stroke six months before I started working at the Express, while I was still up in Bakersfield. I hadn't learned of his death until after the funeral. Hardly able to talk for crying, I'd called Helen. She told me it was quick, that he had been among those he loved when it happened.
"Every morning after he turned fifty, the first thing Jack would say was, 'What a pleasant surprise,'" she said. "I suppose that was because he believed that anyone who had lived as hard as he did shouldn't take any new day for granted."
Thinking of her that first day in the newsroom of the Express, I vowed to find time to visit her.
My first weeks in the newsroom of the Express weren't especially happy ones. About a third of the men were openly hostile or patronizing. I heard the word "honey" more times than a beekeeper. Some, like Bill Winters, treated me as an occupying force, my desk a beachhead taken by the enemy. Others tried to pretend I was invisible. A few didn't seem to have any problem with it. Like H.G. and the news editor, John Walters, they were content to watch events unfold, and neither helped nor hindered me. That was fine. I figured anyone who didn't hinder me provided all the help I needed.
Then there were those who thought Winston Wrigley II had hired me to "improve the decor," as one of them put it inveterate oglers, and generally the most repulsive guys in the building.
I wasn't held dear by most of the women staffers, either. I saw them every time I wanted to use the bathroom, because the newsroom of the Express had no women's room nearby. You didn't even need to step out into the hall to find a men's room. There was one right off the newsroom.
There were three women's bathrooms in the entire building: one downstairs, near classified advertising, where the staff taking calls for ads was entirely female; one upstairs, near the executive and business offices of the paper (where the typing pool and payroll clerks were female); a third on the same floor I worked on. Same floor, but reached through a maze of hallways, and at the far end of the large open room that housed the features department. It was as if whoever designed the building wanted to make sure that no one ever brought a tampon anywhere near the newsroom.
So I had to allow time for the hike when nature called, and it was easy to see that I was as much an outsider among the women in the features department as I was among the men in the newsroom. Whenever I entered this domain, there was a noticeable pause in the clatter of IBM Selectric typewriters all across the room. The faster a features reporter went back to typing, the more likely I thought we'd get along once the novelty of my situation wore off. Lydia was there, of course, but in those early days we went out of our way not to spend time together at the paper, so that we wouldn't be accused of being unprofessional or wasting company time. We seldom spoke more than a word or two of greeting to each other until after work. Later I learned that some of these women most of whom had worked for the paper for several years had previously tried to move over to the news side. They had been turned down. One more reason I was so popular.
I could have eased some of this, I'm sure, if I had gone drinking after work with the staff, or out to dinner with "the girls." The minute I was finished with work, though, I had to hurry home to my father.
I almost hadn't taken the job in the first place. I half-hoped Mr. Wrigley would tell me that he still didn't have a job opening for a woman in news, so that I could come back home to my dad and say, "I gave it my best shot, and it didn't work out, so I'm going to stay home and take care of you." But I'm not sure twenty-four hours a day of his rebellious daughter would have given my father much peace of mind, and my whole reason for coming back to Las Piernas leaving behind a job I liked and a man I wanted to get to know better was to make life easier for my father, to have time with him while I could. It did not seem likely that much time was left in that life.
My problems with O'Connor began on a Thursday, the day before I decided he was an asshole. Before then, he had merely been grim-faced and standoffish, but he was that way with everyone.
That Thursday, I had received permission from my city editor, H.G., to take a couple of hours off to take my dad to a doctor's appointment a follow-up visit after his first major cancer surgery. Part of Dad's stomach was gone now, and he was weak and thin, but we were relieved: if the cancer had been worse, they would have taken the whole thing. He couldn't eat much, he got sick a lot. He slept most of the day.
He was alive. Recovering. I said this to myself whenever some insistent fear for him pushed its way into my thoughts. I said this to myself a lot.
I had an assignment that day, too, to cover a school board meeting. There are not many assignments that are lower level than school board meetings.
Despite delays at the doctor's office, I managed to get my dad back home before I needed to leave for the meeting. But the woman we had hired to care for him while I was at work called in sick. It wasn't the first time, and I wondered if I should just tell her not to bother coming back. The thought of going through the interviewing and hiring process again was so daunting, I put off making any plan of action for seeking a replacement for her.
I called my older sister, Barbara. She wasn't home. I reached her answering service she has a business as an interior decorator. I left a message.
My father's voice, once so strong, able to command anything, called to me as not much more than a whisper. I hurried to his bedside.
"Barbara won't come here," he said. "It's because of your mother."
"Mom died twelve years ago. That's not much of an excuse for Barbara."
"Your mother died of cancer. Barbara's scared. Don't judge her so harshly."
"You think I'm not scared?"
"Oh, you are," he said softly. "And I'm sorry for that."
"Dad I didn't mean to say..."
"Hush. You've got more Kelly in you," he said, taking my hand, "so I know you'll be all right. That's why I called you."
We sat in silence. Probably nothing else in this life had cost my father's pride more than asking me to come back home from Bakersfield. That gave me some idea of how frightened he was himself. I swore a silent oath: I would stop bitching about Barbara to him.
"I'm just going to sleep," he said. "Don't worry about me. You go on to work."
"Dad, it's only a school board meeting "
"It's your job. Go."
Able to command anything, even at a whisper.
"Call the paper if you need to reach me," I said.
"I will. I promise."
But just before I left, he got sick to his stomach again. He had managed to get out of bed, so the bedding was okay. I helped him change into new pajamas and cleaned up the floor. I didn't want to go, but he insisted that the next time he was sick he wouldn't be such a damned fool, and he'd use the plastic basin on his nightstand instead of trying to get up.
"Go on, now," he said, "do your work. I'll die of guilt if you stay here."
"Don't talk about dying. Not from anything," I said.
So I hurried to the meeting. I will admit that it did not hold my interest. My thoughts wandered to my own worries. I did manage to grasp the main issues under discussion. I rushed back to the paper.
I thought of calling my dad, but if he was asleep, I didn't want to wake him.
I called Barbara. I got the answering service again.
My father and I knew that Barbara would be fairly useless in this sort of crisis. Neither of us had expected her to develop an ability to vanish that would be the envy of a magician.
I wrote the story about the school board as quickly as I could. I got it in just before deadline. I went home.
My father was sick all night long. I dozed off on a chair in his room sometime before dawn.
Barbara never returned my calls, but just as I finished dressing, I heard a car pull up in the drive. I looked out the window, expecting to see her Cadillac.
Instead, I saw a cherry red '68 Mustang convertible. The woman who got out of it looked with disdain at the car next to hers in the drive my Karmann Ghia. Her long gray hair was plaited into a thick braid. She wore blue jeans and an embroidered denim shirt.
My father's aunt, Mary Kelly. I felt myself smile.
I opened the door and said, "What's a night owl like you doing out and about so early?"
"Why haven't you come by to see me? Never mind I know the answer to that. Are you late to work?"
"Patrick called me last night, told me his helper was sick. I thought he meant you. Glad to hear it was just that other one. I don't think she was good for him, anyway. Why don't I take over for her?"
"Mary, that's generous of you, but "
"But nothing." She looked me directly in the eye and said, "I want the time with my nephew. Patrick is dear to me."
"I know he is," I said, returning the look. "But you argue with him."
"Of course I do. He needs someone to argue with he's a Kelly."
"Not now he doesn't."
"Irene. Are you going to stand there and tell me that in the weeks you've been home, you haven't argued with him once?"
She had me there.
She smiled and said, "Thought so. You can trust me not to do him harm, Irene. You know that."
"Yes, I do. Thanks, Mary. If it's okay with Dad, I'd certainly appreciate it. It would be a great relief."
"Prissy Pants isn't anywhere to be seen, I suppose."
"I do fear that one day you'll slip up and call Barbara that to her face."
There was a certain glint in Mary's eye that made me quickly add, "That was not a dare."
Mary laughed and said, "Go on to work, I'll mind things here."
As on many another occasion, I prematurely felt pleased to finally be out of the woods. The woods are surrounded by quicksand.
Knowing that Mary would not abandon my father, I set to work on the next story assigned to me an increase in the fees for dog licenses with more enthusiasm than I had felt in some time. It wasn't that the story itself was anything glorious. The difference was that I could concentrate on what I was doing without worrying too much about the care my father was receiving.
I got some good quotes from dog owners, went back to the newsroom, ignored everyone there, and went to work. I had a story. I knew how I was going to tell it. Nothing else mattered. It felt good.
The newsroom was all but empty by the time I finished. Most of the men had gone across the street for the traditional happy hour at the Press Club. I filed my story with H.G.
Now that the story was in, I realized that I had been putting off going to the bathroom. I'd never make it to the women's room in time. I glanced around. No one was looking toward me. I ducked into the men's room. Fortunately, no one was in there.
I went into a stall and closed the door. I wasn't in there for more than the most important minute when I heard the bathroom door open and the voices of two men. Mortified, I pulled my feet up, not wanting to betray my presence.
I recognized the voices O'Connor and Mark Baker. My first fears were allayed when neither of them tried the stall door. Then I realized what they were talking about.
"Why are you so down on her?" Mark Baker said.
"Because she's not much of a reporter."
"Man, that's cold."
"I'm going to ask Helen if she ever really taught her."
"You think she lied in her interview?"
There was a pause, then O'Connor said, "No, I doubt that. But you'll never convince me that Helen had much influence on anyone who turned in a half-assed story like the one Kelly turned in yesterday. And that wasn't the first weak piece she's filed. She doesn't put any effort into anything. She just does the minimum. The worst part is, she's giving every man who thinks we ought to have an all-male newsroom all the ammunition he needs for his arguments. She's a sorry excuse for a reporter, and she's going to make it more difficult for any other woman who wants the job."
"I think you're being too hard on her." Mark laughed, a little uneasily. "C'mon, man, you have to at least admire her guts. She's been taking shit from almost every dude in the newsroom."
"And giving it back," O'Connor said as they moved toward the door. "What a mouth she has on her. Who knows? Maybe Wrigley asked her to talk dirty to him..."
The door swung shut and I couldn't hear any of his other complaints or innuendoes.
I waited until I stopped shaking, or at least didn't shake quite so much. I went to the sink and washed my hands and face. At that point, I didn't care if Wrigley himself walked in on me.
Just about anyone else on the news staff could have said the same things about me, and I would have shrugged it off. But O'Connor, the man whose work made me want to be a reporter, thought I was lazy, foul-mouthed, and had slept my way into a job.
I lived past the initial few seconds when I felt an urge to cry. That, I decided, would really undermine any chance I had at surviving in the newsroom.
Close on the heels of this devastation was rage.
I took a deep breath, turned around, and marched out of the men's room.
In retrospect, I'm glad only two people saw me at that moment, and that of any two it could have been, it happened to be Mark Baker and O'Connor.
I considered letting O'Connor hear just how foul-mouthed I could be, and telling him I learned all those words from his mother. Instead, I walked up to them, looked only at Mark, and said, "Thank you." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw O'Connor's suddenly bright red face. I heard him call my name as I strolled out of the newsroom. I kept walking.
The moment I was sure I was out of sight, I scurried like a rabbit through the warren of corridors to features. Lydia was still there, signing off on the last of her pages for Sunday's paper, which would be printed on Friday.
"Come with me into the women's room," I said. "Hurry."
She looked puzzled, but followed.
"Are you okay?" she asked. "You're kind of pale."
"I need a favor," I said.
"Would you please get my purse from my desk? I just made a grand exit, and going back after it will ruin the effect."
"You quit?" she asked in dismay.
"No. Not yet. Get the purse and I'll buy you a drink....Not at the Press Club," I added hastily. "How about the Stowaway?"
"All right." She started to leave, then said, "Why did you drag me into the women's room to ask me this?"
"I might go into the men's room, but I don't think O'Connor will go into the ladies'."
"Long story, which I'll tell you over that drink."
We made our escape. The Stowaway is a small place, a quiet little restaurant with an ocean view. I called Mary from the pay phone when we got there, and found she didn't mind if I got back a little late.
I told Lydia my story over dinner and drinks. And declared my hero an asshole.
"And you know what the worst part of it is? He's right."
She tried to argue with me.
"Okay, so I'm not about to stop swearing for his sake, and I didn't sleep with anyone to get the job. But he's right about my work being half-assed."
"Irene, with everything that's going on..."
"No excuses, Lydia. None. You stuck your neck out to get me hired at the Express, and I've let you down."
"Baloney." For Lydia, that was red-hot cursing.
We sat in silence for a few minutes.
"What are you going to do?" she asked.
"Prove him wrong," I said.
Copyright © 2005 by Jan Burke
O'Connor paced across Helen Corrigan's living room floor as he listed his many grievances against Irene Kelly. Every now and then he found himself starting to address his complaints to an empty, overstuffed chair the one that had been Jack's favorite. The loss of Jack somehow further fueled his ire. Everywhere he turned, there were sharp reminders of him here. Even the air itself although Helen had quit smoking years ago, Jack hadn't, and the room still carried the scent of his cigarettes.
He wouldn't and couldn't talk of Jack. But he had a good deal to say about Ms. Kelly.
Helen patiently listened to it all.
"In the men's room!" he said, still not quite believing it himself. "And never a word to let us know she was in there. She should be ashamed of herself."
Helen smiled. "While you feel just dandy about your own behavior."
He sat down on the sofa beside her, suddenly tired. "No, of course not."
"Have you apologized to her?"
"I've tried. Twice. You may remember that I rarely work on the weekends I made a special trip in today to try to talk to her."
"I'm a mute version of the invisible man, as far as she's concerned."
"Honestly, Conn. Where's that famous persistence of yours?"
"The last of the O'Connors to beg on bended knee died in the fifteenth century."
"I'd love to ask all those generations of Mrs. O'Connors if that's true."
He laughed, then shook his head. "I don't know why Ms. Kelly irritates me so."
"I have some idea."
"She irritated you when she was your student?"
"Not at all. She and her friend Lydia were two of the best I've had in the last decade."
"Really? I'll grant you that her writing is all right, but we both know that's wasted on someone who won't do the work. In fact, it makes it worse a waste of talent."
"Now, perhaps we're getting closer to at least one of the reasons she angers you. You already know she has talent."
"So what? Nothing I've read of hers indicates she's capable of really going after a story."
"Oh?" Helen reached for a copy of the Express. O'Connor recognized it as today's paper. He had a story on page one, but Helen flipped past that to a story on page five. She held it out to him.
"Read the story about the dog license fee increase."
He did, then looked up at her in disbelief. "This isn't hers."
"If I were a gambler, I could make some money right now. Is it a good story?"
"Yes. But "
"It's hers. No byline, naturally, on a story like this by a new general assignment reporter. She's not handling the sort of A-one stories you are."
"She hasn't earned that."
"No, I imagine she feels lucky that Wrigley the Second hasn't assigned her to the society pages. But that story is hers. I'd know her style anywhere."
He frowned as he reread the article. "May I use your phone?"
She handed it to him.
He dialed the newsroom and asked for the city desk.
Helen listened in amusement as he confirmed that the story had been written by Irene Kelly.
"I don't understand it," he said, hanging up.
"No, you don't."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Conn, how old were you when Jack took you under his wing?"
He thought of the day Lillian Vanderveer had given him a silver dollar. "Eight."
"Don't you think it's past time you paid that back?"
For a moment, he thought she might have read his thoughts.
Seeing his puzzled looked, she said, "You're a generous man, Conn. I could name a dozen examples of that generosity without having to work at it. And raising Kenny "
"Kenny was fourteen when he came to live with me, Helen. I can hardly be said to have raised him."
"We'll argue about that another time. I'm not talking about your home life now. I'm talking about your professional life. As a newsman, whom have you helped along the way?"
He considered this in silence for some time, uncomfortable with the realization that while he had worked hard to be worthy of the lessons Jack had given him, he had never taken the time to show the ropes to less experienced reporters something Jack had done not only with him but with others. He could look around the newsroom and see any number of men who had been helped by Jack H.G., Mark Baker, and John Walters among them.
Jack had shared his expertise throughout his career, had been a teacher long before he joined the faculty at the college as Helen had been, too. Neither of them had been much older than Ms. Kelly was now when they first encouraged O'Connor to write. That thought brought a sour reflection in its wake.
"Ms. Kelly doesn't want help from the likes of me. Especially not after she eavesdropped yesterday."
"I never knew you to be fainthearted before now, Conn. Show some spine."
"It's not a matter of being afraid of her."
"I'll tell you what," she said. "You're a good Catholic boy in need of some penance. I'm going to be your priest." She laughed her husky laugh. "You've sinned against Irene by opening your yap about her to another member of the staff. You agree?"
"So, for that sin, your penance is to help her even if she doesn't want you to do so. Even if she never says, 'Thank you, oh wise and wonderful Mr. O'Connor' help her."
"And for your far worse sin of showing rather sexist prejudice against her something I never thought I'd see from you, Conn you must learn everything you can about her. You claim she isn't working at being a reporter do some digging. Find out why the hell not."
He was taken aback. "Do you think she's in some kind of trouble?"
"She may not be in trouble, but with only one story from her like this, I feel fairly sure that something's going wrong somewhere in her life."
"What do you suppose her problem is, then?" he asked irritably.
"Conn, I'd tell you if I knew. Hell, I haven't seen her since she left for Bakersfield. She called after Jack died, but I was too damned distracted with my own troubles to ask her about any of hers."
He looked again toward Jack's chair. He felt a tightening in his chest.
"All right, Swanie," he said. "I'll try to help her."
Copyright © 2005 by Jan Burke
Jan Burke is the author of a dozen novels and a collection of short stories. She is the founder of the Crime Lab Project and is a member of the board of the California Forensic Science Institute. She lives in Southern California with her husband and two dogs. Learn more about her at JanBurke.com.
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