Hard Newsby Mark T. Sullivan
Scandal rocks a California city, and one dysfunctional newspaper covers it all
To the people who toil inside the labyrinthine offices of the Post, it is a miracle the paper comes out every morning. This beleaguered California daily is an engine that runs on jealousy, gossip, and lies, yet somehow still manages to produce great reporting. At/i>/b>… See more details below
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Scandal rocks a California city, and one dysfunctional newspaper covers it all
To the people who toil inside the labyrinthine offices of the Post, it is a miracle the paper comes out every morning. This beleaguered California daily is an engine that runs on jealousy, gossip, and lies, yet somehow still manages to produce great reporting. At the center of the maelstrom are Prentice LaFontaine, a giddy gossipmonger, and Gideon McCarthy, a thirty-five-year-old veteran whose talent seems to have deserted him. For three months, Gideon hasn’t found a single story worthy of a byline, but a deadly scoop is coming his way.
A woman is found murdered in a canyon outside of town—the latest in a string of brutal homicides. While Gideon searches for a thread to connect the bodies, Prentice uncovers a web of corruption behind a massive waterfront development deal. They’re chasing a story destined for the front page—if they can stay alive long enough to submit it.
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By Mark T. Sullivan
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1996 Mark T. Sullivan
All rights reserved.
They found her because of a personal improvement program.
Mick Hennessy, an out-of-work, overweight aerospace engineer, had spent the better part of the last six months watching half-hour television commercials posing as daytime talk shows. He could recite the scripts of every new infomercial touting the latest kitchen device, real estate recipe, or hair detangler.
Nothing had prompted him to open his wallet, however, until he'd gone channel surfing one day about two weeks prior to the discovery and seen the big toothsome smile and heard the velvety, supercharged voice. The product: a twenty-eight-day series of motivational audiotapes—only $149.95!—all produced by a smooth-talking, incredibly wealthy guy in his late twenties who flew his own helicopter back and forth between personal castles he'd had built in California and Arizona.
Mick was mesmerized. The gray flannel guru seemed to look right inside him, to tell him things that he instinctively knew but had never acted upon. If he bought the tapes, the man told him, Mick would learn to control his emotions, to improve his physical state, and to make his family love him. Mick would become more than the colossal flop he was now. Mick picked up the phone. He ordered the tapes. He listened to the voice every day.
Which was why Mick had suggested the late-afternoon desert hike with his adolescent son. A couple of hours of exercise and father-son bonding in the great out-of-doors. Physical, financial, and emotional well-being couldn't be far away.
Now, as they pulled off the highway sixty miles outside the city, his son, Tim, scrunched down in the front seat of the air-conditioned car and scowled. The boy wanted to spend the afternoon in his darkened bedroom, rattling his brain with the heavy metal throb of Clinically Comatose, his favorite new band. The temperature outside hovered near one hundred. The manzanita and greasewood stood like stick matches waiting for friction.
"This is gonna be righteous," Tim groused. "We're going to fry out there. And as we die, we'll watch the vultures begin to circle. I hope you drop first."
"Shut up, Tim." Mick heard a voice in his head preach understanding. "We'll make it a short walk, okay?"
Tim groaned, but got out. He squinted at the landscape. He noticed a pile of massive rocks that jutted off the desert floor about a half mile in from the road. Hey, good site for a black mass, he thought. Let's check it out.
"Bouldering, Dad," Tim said. "We'll go bouldering. Saw it on ESPN."
Mick rubbed his gut uncertainly. Gripping scorched rocks wasn't what he had in mind. Honestly he'd rather be back in his Barcalounger seeing what Cher and Victoria Principal had cooked up for hair sheen. The voice again. This time it spoke soothingly about commitment and follow-through and how people could walk across red-hot coals barefoot if they set their minds to it.
Tim jogged off through the brush in black T-shirt, black jeans, and green high-topped sneakers. Mick wheezed and followed.
Tim made the rim of the boulder pile five minutes before his father. He examined the surface of the stones for runes or dried blood from animal sacrifice. Disappointed to find none, he climbed higher. There the rocks formed a ring. He came over the top and dropped into a broad, sand-filled circle. He stopped short.
"Totally cool!" he whispered.
She looked just like the cover art on the Clinically Comatose CD he'd bought the other day. She was blond. Her skin waxy. She was nude from the waist down. Her legs were splayed. She wore black stiletto heels. White cord stretched from her wrists to a pair of gnarled live oaks. One firm breast jutted from the torn black blouse. Fishnet stockings cinched her neck. Her bulging eyes seemed to study him. And what the hell was that coming out of her mouth? Silently Tim hoped they were bugs; his friends at school would lose it! He took two steps forward and frowned. Gravel?
Tim was trying to remember if he'd ever seen tiny stones shoved in the mouths of tied-up heavy metal babes on MTV when his father huffed and scrambled into the macabre scene.
Tim turned, beaming back at Mick's horrified expression. "Welcome to Satan's Lair, Dad. Bet that old self-help dude never talked about stuff like this!"
The Living Dead ...
General assignment reporter prentice LaFontaine figured he could go to his grave happy if he ever managed to unravel the intricate mystery that was The Post.
It troubled him constantly how the editorial staff, a dysfunctional pack of 175 neurotics, paranoids, egoists, eccentrics, and Ivy League graduates managed to put out a newspaper every day. He declined to consider his own status among the information freaks. He'd been at work nearly seven hours and had successfully avoided being given an assignment. There had been too many of his fellow workers to study today, too many gossip leads inside The Post to run down, too many power analyses to perform to risk being sent outside the confines of the newsroom.
Another hour and he was free. LaFontaine pretended to focus on the neon verbs, nouns, and adjectives glowing on his computer screen. Out of the corner of his eye he watched the city desk's editing drones continue their dizzying series of meetings, phone calls, and career-enhancing maneuvers. Four hours to deadline. The management spear-carriers of The Post's hard news operation already had that glazed veneer about them. Their expressions reminded LaFontaine of a movie he'd once seen about machines taking over human bodies. That's who they are, he thought to himself;they're the Stepford Editors!
LaFontaine adjusted the cuff of his purple pinpoint cotton shirt, ran his fingers lightly over his newly coiffed hair, checked his waistline, then patted himself on the left hand in congratulation. Stepford Editors! The phrase was bound to annoy the powerful and delight the downtrodden.
He reached past his papier-mâché statues of Joe DiMaggio, Eddie Fisher, and Arthur Miller to adjust the cardboard sign taped to the edge of his desk. In bold red crayon it read: "ALL THE DIRT THAT'S FIT TO SPREAD." He smiled. He remained the undisputed champion. They didn't call him News for nothing.
"News! Where's that no-account McCarthy?" growled a gigantic black woman dressed in an orange-and-ebony batik jumpsuit.
LaFontaine shuddered. Caught by a Stepford Editor. Only this one's eyes weren't glazed; they popped around inside her head like Ping-Pong balls.
"Ms. X-executive assistant city editor, do I look like poor Orpheus's keeper?" he replied in his deep Louisiana twang. "Probably at the night cops shop. It is four o'clock, isn't it?"
Her popping eyes slowed. Her lids drooped. Reporters like LaFontaine pissed Claudette Forbes off. Which wasn't unusual. The fact was that she had been pissed off since before Martin Luther King's assassination, at least since the Watts riots, maybe as far back as that white doctor's cold hand slapping her rump. So predictable were her daily fulminations that one day LaFontaine had compared her to the angry dead black nationalist and had given her the newsroom sobriquet of Claudette X. No one had the guts to call her that to her face. No one except News.
"There's been another body found in the desert," she said.
"So he'll actually get a byline," LaFontaine said. "Three months. It's about time."
"If we can find him," she said.
"Beep him," LaFontaine suggested.
"I have, three times."
"Then why bother me? Let me alone now, Ms. X. I'm busy, busy, busy."
"Not so fast," the editor said. "I want a follow-up interview to your development story."
"More drivel on that dreadful monstrosity?" he asked, affecting weariness. "It's only a construction project."
"Sloan Burkhardt's going to control twenty-two acres of downtown waterfront and to you it's only a construction project? You ever hear of urban renewal?"
"Such terms imply a greater good," News replied. "No such thing. With private development it's just one monument to ego replacing another."
Before Claudette X could respond, LaFontaine lowered his voice and whispered conspiratorially. "Speaking of edifices to ego, I hear Neil Harpster's bought a new home up in The Ranch and is shelling out thousands for landscaping, including a greenhouse. Anything to add?"
Her shoulders—massive and round from her days as a college shot-putter—tensed. "Prentice, you spent as much time digging up news as you do gossip about this place, you'd have won the prize by now."
"Heavens!" the general assignment reporter cried. "News win the Pulitzer? And become as respected and insufferable as our great editor-in-chief, Connor Lawlor? I think not, Ms. X."
Claudette X scowled. "I want you to arrange an interview ASAP," she ordered. "And if McCarthy calls in, tell him to get out to the desert, pronto!"
News held his fist to his chest like a Roman centurion. "It shall be done, my liege."
Claudette X bolted back toward the city desk. Grudgingly, LaFontaine called Burkhardt's office. His secretary told News that the developer had a late cancellation in his schedule. He could see LaFontaine at six-thirty if it was convenient.
It wasn't convenient. It meant overtime, which News despised. But it was better than having to explain why he'd passed up a follow-up interview. He told the secretary he'd be there.
Which gave News an hour to waste. Not much time. But at least he'd be able to take inventory of this afternoon's goings-on. LaFontaine looked around. A warm prickly feeling came over him. Even after nearly twenty years in the business, the buzz, the whine, the screech of news gathering still managed to comfort and goad him.
Like The Beacon, its last remaining competitor, The Post occupied the entire twenty-first floor of a skyscraper, the base of which filled a city block. Divided into five main sections—Sports, Features, Business, Copy, and, the last and largest, City—to the uninitiated the newsroom more closely resembled an orgy scene for pack rats than the nerve center of the city's second-largest circulation daily. Littered across desks were stacks of yellowed past editions, crinkled budget reports, forgotten indictments, unread press releases, unintelligible legal briefs, half-used white notebooks, and coffee cups sprouting mold; not to mention reams of wire copy, frayed police reports, transcripts of ancient court proceedings and the letters: letters from critical readers, letters from hateful readers, letters from bigoted readers, and—the letters LaFontaine respected most—missives from the truly deranged; they were the only ones who seemed to understand the world these days.
Amid this paper jungle telephones rang, computer keyboards snapped and clacked, editors swore and pounded their fists, reporters begged for stories, reporters begged off of stories. Reporter and editor alike peered over their shoulders to make sure no one with clout coveted their jobs. Clerks bustled with shopping carts filled with interoffice memos. Fax machines cawed with the latest spin of every public relations flack in the city trying to influence The Post 's current interpretation of truth, justice, and the American way.
LaFontaine peered over at a man in his fifties slouched before a computer terminal. A photograph of three monkeys was taped to the side of the machine. "HEARS ALL EVIL, SEES ALL EVIL, SPEAKS NO ..." was scrawled underneath the photo in black Magic Marker. The man's complexion was sallow, his flesh spare, his knuckles bubbled with scabs. His brown hair hung crazily over his telephone headset. Behind his thick glasses, his eyes seemed to glow an unnatural red.
The Zombie was The Post's obituary writer, had been for nearly twelve years, during which no one, not even LaFontaine, had heard him speak an intelligible sentence. How the Zombie managed to get accurate information from funeral homes, clergymen, and bereaved relatives—and then to fashion such beautiful, terse elegies to the dead—was one of the newspaper's many enigmas.
LaFontaine followed the Zombie's gaze to the series of glass-faced boxes that stretched along the north and south walls of the newsroom. The line of cubicles served as offices to The Post 's top editors. The majority of reporters referred to the giant aquariums and their occupants as the "Glassholes." News prided himself on his more sardonic appraisal. Long ago he'd named the offices "Lobotomy Lane," for they were inhabited by a dozen post operatives. How else could they have risen to power in such an insane business?
Following his daily routine, LaFontaine studied the configuration of Lobotomy Lane. He searched for clues to the shifting winds of influence. Some evidence was easily discerned. The raw power of each editor, for example, was determined by the proximity of his or her office to the northeastern and largest of the Glassholes, the one occupied by Connor Lawlor, The Post's owner, publisher, and editor-in-chief.
News, however, based his analysis on more subtle manifestations of clout: whether an editor visited another Glasshole or was visited; whether an editor warranted copies of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times each morning; who an editor lunched with and how often; whether an editor sat behind a desk during large meetings or sat in supplication before the real deal. This was the grist LaFontaine gathered, milled, and leavened with his own cynical critique. This was what made him the peerless gossip baker in the hot oven of the newsroom.
LaFontaine glanced again at the Zombie, the only person who studied Lobotomy Lane as much as he did. There he was, staring bullets at the offices. And what's this? He's breaking the tops off a bouquet of daffodils while he leers? That's a new twist.
What the Zombie must discern with such focus! Then again, LaFontaine thought, the Zombie didn't watch the Glassholes for pleasure. LaFontaine's mind swirled with the Zombie's possible motives, almost all of them cast in shades of flesh and blood. He shuddered, then checked the time. Half an hour to go. Maybe he'd head to Burkhardt's office early. He tossed his notebook into his alligator-skinned briefcase and snapped it shut.
But before he left he sneaked a peek under his desk to see if it was big enough to conceal him should the Zombie's magenta eyes ever start to slap side to side like excited atoms before the Big Bang.
No Humans Involved ...
An hour later, Gideon McCarthy angled his battered blue Toyota sedan past the fire truck mounted with a generator to run electricity out to the body. It would be dark soon. The portable lights would illuminate the crime scene. He parked beyond the medical examiner's blue van. Two uniformed officers drank coffee with the gurney men. A good sign: the body wasn't ready to be moved yet; the homicide detectives were still out there.
McCarthy prayed that the homicide cops—uncooperative and cocky as a rule—would be willing sources this evening. He desperately needed a good yarn. If he was ever to emerge from the black hole he'd dug for himself, he had to break stories, stories with weight, stories that would force the editors to put his name back in the paper. Three long months without a byline. To a daily reporter three months without a bylined story was worse than limbo—it was oblivion.
To make matters worse, he'd gotten here late. He'd heard the pages from Claudette X, but had been unable to return the call for nearly an hour. His car had been broken into for the third time this year and he'd been filling out police reports. Maybe I'll get lucky and contract polio tomorrow, he thought.
Time to work. McCarthy grabbed his tape recorder and notebook. He jogged to the end of the yellow tape line, then angled off through the brush.
Excerpted from Hard News by Mark T. Sullivan. Copyright © 1996 Mark T. Sullivan. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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