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In Chicago, in her bedroom, a barely awake Shelby Simon grabbed the remote and turned up the volume of her TV several notches.
"... no reports of injuries as yet, Diane, but authorities here in Hartford are confirming that at least one person was taken to a local hospital. At this point, what we do know is that all three newspapers are part of the Helm-Harris Syndicate, whose flagship paper is the Chicago Daily Mirror."
"Uh-oh." At the mention of her employer, Shelby clicked the volume up again and continued to stare at the screen.
The camera came back to the anchor desk, where the perfectly coiffed and glossy-mouthed Diane Delgado said, "We're receiving a report that there's been another incident ..." She paused, frowning as she concentrated on a piece of paper just handed to her from offscreen. "Apparently there's been a fourth letter bomb incident in the offices of the Columbus Citizen, another paper in the Helm-Harris Syndicate, if I'm not mistaken." The attractive blonde blinked into the camera and managed a thin imitation of a smile. "We'll be back with more details right after this break."
Shelby turned the volume down, reached for the phone beside her bed, and punched in the number of the Chicago Daily Mirror. What was she doing, anyway, watching breaking news on television, when she could get it faster and firsthand from the wires at her very own office?
"Come on. Somebody answer," she muttered after the fourth ring, just before the automatic system kicked in.
"You have reached the offices of the Chicago Daily Mirror. We are unable to take your call right now ..."
While she listened to the smooth and efficient voice on the tape, Shelby glanced at the time on the TV screen. It was after eight. The auto answer at the paper should've been deactivated by now. They only used the system after regular business hours. By this time of the morning, at least half the staff would already be at work. She'd be there herself right now if the battery in her alarm clock hadn't croaked sometime during the previous night.
"Please leave a message after the tone."
It was the only message Shelby could think of just then.
She showered and dressed in record time, choosing slacks over one of her usual tailored suits, donning sneakers rather than heels in order to get downtown fast. In the background, CNN was reporting on a fifth incident-or was it a sixth?-and lining up their terrorism experts just in case.
"Have there been any threats against the Helm-Harris papers?" the blond anchor asked her correspondent in the field.
"Not that I'm aware of, Diane. If you'll recall, there was a walkout by the printers union last year, but that concluded in successful negotiations. Their contract won't be up for another three years. We're waiting right now for a briefing from postal inspectors here in Hartford."
"Thank you, Eric. We'll keep an eye on the monitor and get back to you as soon as that briefing begins. Now let's go to Susan Carey in Buffalo. Susan?"
Shelby clicked off the TV, grabbed her handbag, and hustled toward the front door of her apartment. The instant she closed the door behind her, though, she knew she'd made a terrible mistake because her neighbor's door immediately opened and Mo Pachinski, part-time mobster and full-time sexist pig, stepped into the hallway, blocking Shelby's passage.
What did the guy do? Wait with his hand on the knob and his eye on the peephole every morning? He'd been driving her nuts for months, ever since he moved in, accosting her in the hall this way, until she'd learned to outfox him by closing her door soundlessly and ducking past Apartment 12C. But this morning she'd been off her game, befuddled by oversleeping and then distracted by the news.
Mo was wearing a gorilla-sized electric blue warm-up suit, its velour jacket unzipped a few calculated inches in order to display the gold chains nestled in the dark forest of his chest hair. As always, Old Spice radiated from his muscle-bound body like a toxic cloud, fairly knocking Shelby off her feet.
"Runnin' a little late this morning, huh, Doll?"
"As a matter of fact, I am."
She tried to sound rushed rather than impatient, polite rather than pissed, not wanting to offend him because she suspected, if he wasn't exactly in the Mob, he was at least connected to it. She'd asked him once what he did for a living, and his answer was a rather vague and smirky I consult.
Mobbed up or not, Mo had problems with the women in his life. There seemed to be a lot of women in his life, so the man had a lot of problems. And because Shelby was an advice columnist, Mo was constantly asking her for just that-advice. Should he send roses? Was four dozen too much? Or not enough? Red ones or pink? What about diamonds? What about your lesser jewels? What did Shelby think?
In the beginning, Shelby considered him a challenge. Now he was just a pest, especially this morning when the newspapers in which her column appeared seemed to be exploding all across the country.
"Could we talk later, Mo?"
"Yeah. Yeah, sure. Okay." He shrugged and stepped aside just enough to let her pass through his aura of aftershave. "Later's okay," he grumbled. "When exactly?"
"Oh ..." Shelby called over her shoulder as she sprinted for the elevator. "Just later."
"Well ..." She smiled sweetly, hit the DOWN button, and said, "We'll see," as the elevator doors slid closed.
Shelby jumped on the bus headed south on State Street, and wasn't at all surprised when the driver, a man she'd never seen before in her life, greeted her.
"Hey, Ms. Simon. How's it goin'?"
After all, how surprising was it that he recognized her when her face was plastered on both sides of his vehicle on five-foot-long banners that proclaimed "Ms. Simon Says ... Read the Daily Mirror!"
Her picture had been running alongside her column for years, so she wasn't exactly unknown, but this latest ad campaign had suddenly vaulted Ms. Shelby Simon from minor, ho-hum celebrity to a kind of local stardom. People used to stop her in the street with "Oh, you look so familiar." Now it was "Hey, Ms. Simon. How's it goin'?" and "Yo, Shelby." She still wasn't sure exactly how she felt about the notoriety. What had been a real kick at first was now beginning to cloy, and even to annoy.
She hadn't become an advice columnist in order to be famous. In fact, she hadn't wanted to be one at all. It had never occurred to her. Well, whoever grew up wanting to be an advice columnist, for heaven's sake? Kids dreamed of being astronauts, great athletes, rock stars, and Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalists. Which was what Shelby had every intention of being after she graduated from the journalism school at Northwestern.
Unfortunately, the day she interviewed at the Daily Mirror just happened to be the same day that the venerable and much beloved and hugely syndicated Dear Gabby passed away. Hal Stabler was the managing editor at the time, and he'd already asked better than half his staff who'd like to take over the paper's advice column, and had been met with everything from grim silence to polite demurrals to outright guffaws. The poor man had been desperate.
"Want to give it a whirl?" he'd asked his interviewee.
"Sure. Why not?" Shelby had replied.
The rest, as they say, was history. And now, twelve years later, that history included a certain high visibility she wasn't entirely comfortable with.
Still, she had a lot more to worry about this morning than her dubious fame. What in the world was going on with these letter bombs at the Helm-Harris papers? Was it the unions or some disgruntled ex-employee? Or could it really be some sort of terrorist attack as they had speculated on TV? How many people had been injured? Oh, God.
She jumped off the bus at Wacker Drive, then trotted the two blocks to the Daily Mirror, her anxiety increasing with every step, not to mention her blood pressure, as she saw the fire trucks and ambulances and squad cars in front of the building, and-God Almighty!-a big black box of a truck prominently labeled "Bomb Squad Disposal Unit."
A little moan of relief broke from her lips when she spotted Derek McKay sitting on one of the huge cement flowerpots that decorated the courtyard of the Daily Mirror. Since it was October, the pots were brimming with chrysanthemums in shades of yellow and bronze, and the darker hues were a perfect complement to Derek's bushy auburn mustache and chronically tousled hair.
"Welcome to pandemonium," he said as she approached. "You're late this morning."
"I overslept." Shelby perched beside him. "What's going on?"
If anybody knew, it would be Derek, ace investigative reporter, winner of numerous awards, not the least of which was a Pulitzer. He and Shelby had had a pretty torrid affair right after she started working at the paper. It was, she later learned, sort of an initiation rite. Derek had affairs with all the bright young things who crossed the Daily Mirror's threshold. Amazingly, they all forgave him. At least Shelby had.
Before he could answer her, she pointed to the tall paper cup in his hand. "I'd kill for a sip of coffee," she said.
"Be my guest."
He handed her the warm cup and Shelby took a gulp of the frothy brew, then promptly choked.
"Jesus, Derek," she sputtered. "What's in that?"
He grinned and pulled a tiny silver flask from the pocket of his corduroy jacket. "Greetings from Jamaica, mon."
"Rum? At this hour of the morning?"
"Hell, Shelby. It's almost nine."
She shook her head, handing the cup back to him. "Thanks anyway. So tell me what's going on. Another letter bomb?"
"Probably. They're searching the building now."
"This is horrible." A little shiver coursed down her spine. "Any idea who might be behind it?"
Derek shook his head. "Nope. But they've got a pretty good idea who the target is."
"Oh, yeah? Who?"
He looked at her then with such warmth that for a split second Shelby felt a twinge of longing for their ancient affair. She reminded herself that it had happened scores of lovers ago. His. Not hers. "So who's the target?" she asked again.
"You," he said. "Every letter bomb was addressed to you."
Half an hour later-after the bomb sniffing dogs had successfully located the lethal letter and the bomb techs had sealed it in a metal canister and driven it away-and after the police and the postal inspectors had asked her a few preliminary questions-Shelby answered the summons to her boss's office, which was a glass-walled cubicle in the center of the Metro floor, usually referred to as the Sweat Box.
Her entire staff was already assembled there. And her entire staff-all three of them-were looking distinctly distraught.
Sandy Hovis, her loyal secretary and personal spell checker since day one of the column, was there. The only word that Sandy couldn't spell was diarrhea, which didn't matter all that much since Ms. Simon rarely said it. Sandy was sitting on the edge of a chair directly across from the managing editor's desk. She had obviously been crying and was clutching a wad of Kleenex as big as a softball and getting tissue lint all over her black wool skirt. Poor thing.
Still single as she approached the big Five O, Sandy was the sole support of an older brother with cerebral palsy. From the beginning, Shelby had made sure, with each new contract she'd signed, that her secretary received a handsome raise in the bargain.
In spite of her robust coloring, her plus size figure, and her ability to spell every word in the English language but one, Sandy had always been a bit fragile emotionally, always teetering on the brink of tears, but the past few years, as things had grown more and more unsettled in the world, the woman had become a certifiable nervous wreck. Shelby had been hounding her lately about signing up for a yoga class that apparently worked miracles with its students. Now didn't seem like a good time to hound her further, so she merely placed a reassuring hand on her secretary's shoulder.
"It's awful," Sandy said with a wet sniff and a linty flourish of her tissues. "Just awful. I'm so upset."
"It'll be okay," Shelby murmured. Well, it would, wouldn't it?
She gazed across the office, offering what she hoped was a buoyant smile to the other members of her staff.
Jeff Kerr, a thirty-something neo-beatnik and researcher par excellence, sat glumly on a leather couch, chewing on a cuticle, while next to him, Kellie Carter, the pretty young intern from Northwestern, sat staring straight ahead as she twisted the hell out of a long red skein of hair. The two of them reminded Shelby of Gilligan and Ginger under extreme duress.
She was just about to offer a word of encouragement to the troops when Hal Stabler blasted through the door and announced, "We're shutting down your column, Shelby. As of right now."
"You can't do that," she gasped. Could he?
"It's already done," Hal growled, angling his too-many-donuts-and-Danishes backside into the leather swivel chair behind his desk.
He held up a hand in warning. "This is not negotiable, Shelby. I mean it. I've just been upstairs with Brian and Bob. This is their decision."
Brian and Bob, though the names may have sounded like a folksinging duo from the sixties, were actually Brian Helm and Bob Harris. The Helm and The Harris of the Syndicate. The Wunderkind of Newspaper Publishing. The Powers that be. Alpha and Omega. And in this case, apparently, the final word.
Suddenly her knees felt a little wobbly so she sagged into the chair next to Sandy's. "This is horrible."
"You got that right," Hal said. He was a man who always looked harried and hassled, as if he bore the burdens of the entire planet on his beefy shoulders, but right now he looked particularly oppressed. Leaning back in his chair to a chorus of leather and metallic creaks, he said, "Frankly, it sucks. Still, it could suck worse. Brian and Bob think it will be worse if we keep running your column. So it's canceled. Temporarily, at least. Now, here's the deal ..."
He went on to describe what amounted to a fairly generous offer of continued employment for her staff. "They can use you down in the Lifestyle department, Sandy. Talk to Jean Prewett. She'll get you settled in."
"Thank you, Mr. Stabler." Sandy's tears of anxiety turned to those of gratitude. "God bless you."
"Yeah. Yeah. You can stop crying now, all right? Jesus." Hal glowered and swiveled his chair toward the couch.
Excerpted from Ms. Simon Says by Mary McBride Copyright © 2004 by Mary Vogt Meyers. Excerpted by permission.
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