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"ERIN MCNULTY, line three, please." A disembodied voice sounded above the din of the newsroom just as Harvey Wallace, editor-in-chief of American Photographic magazine, poked his head out from his office and bellowed.
"Erin! I need those proofs, like yesterday! Marshal," Harvey shouted at the reed-thin reporter who was trying to scuttle past without drawing attention to himself, "that piece on corporate America was pure crap! College graduate, my ass! I want a rewrite by tomorrow or else I'm placing a listing for a features reporter in JournalismJobs.com first thing in the morning. You got me?"
Erin looked up long enough to watch the color leach from Marshal's face. She spared the young man a compassionate thought but quickly returned to the latest proofs scattered about the light table. She didn't have time for much else--they were all on deadline for the February issue and Harvey was riding her just as hard as he rode everyone else, possibly even harder since she announced her interest in the recently vacant position of senior photographic editor. Every assignment felt like a test, every successful campaign felt like a step closer to her goal. And as she surveyed the photos before her, she was sure she'd just taken a giant leap forward. They were, without a doubt, the best of her career thus far. If Harvey didn't at the very least wet himself when he saw them he was a blind man and she was wasting her time.
Despite the near growl he'd ended her name with, she held up a hand, halting Harvey's tirade in mid-breath. "Two minutes, Harv. Two minutes and you'll have the proofs on your desk." So, shut your yap, you cantankerous old fart. Ifonly she could actually say that. She scooped the three best and headed for the lion's den.
"It's about time," he said once they were in his hands.
"You upped my deadline by two days," Erin reminded him, silently chafing at his tone. "You're lucky I didn't cut it close to my actual deadline."
"No--" he glanced up, the look in his eyes combative "--you're lucky." When she failed to snap at the bait, he returned to the photos. His sharp blue eyes scanned the photos for the minutest of flaws, but Erin knew he wouldn't find any. They were almost textbook perfect in composition, lighting and subject. She'd really outdone herself this time.
"Erin McNulty, line three, please." The voice over the intercom sounded again, this time more urgently, but Erin ignored it. Not even the opportunity to photograph God himself could have torn Erin away. The longer Harvey studied, the more tense her stomach muscles became. Her confidence level dipped ever so slightly until Harvey leaned back and tossed the photos to the desk. "Not bad," he finally grunted, making Erin want to climb over the desk and choke him until his eyes bulged from their sockets.
"I happen to think they're my best," she countered. Harvey grunted again but didn't comment further, which led her to believe he felt the same but wouldn't give her the satisfaction of voicing it. If he weren't the best in the business, she'd have told him to take a flying leap a long time ago. Sometimes she thought it was a miracle she'd lasted this long.
Figuring there was no time like the present to broach the subject of her promotion she opened her mouth to start, but Harvey had already moved on. "I've pulled Michael from the Hometown America spread and I'm putting you on it," he announced as if he didn't know that Erin hated happy-sappy photo spreads. "Deadline's three weeks from now."
Disappointment at being thwarted drowned in the rush of anger that flooded her veins at the knowledge that he was deliberately provoking her.
"No problem," she answered, taking great effort not to clench her teeth as she said it. "Just surprised."
"Why's that?" he said, growl returning. Sensing she was treading on dangerous ground, she proceeded with as much caution as her temper would allow. "Harvey, I've been working at American Photographic for three years full-time, and two years freelance. The last time you sent me to take pictures of hometown hoedowns was when I was freelancing and you figured even a novice couldn't screw up that easy of an assignment. The only reason you're putting me on this one is to see how much that promotion means to me. Well, I'll tell you right now...that promotion means everything."
Half expecting his marble pen holder to go whizzing past her head, she was relieved when all he did was snort.
"You've got a lotta nerve, McNulty," he finally said.
"I've fired better photographers than you for less."
She didn't doubt that, but it was too late to pull back. Either he'd toss her out or not. She met his stare. "But you know I'm right."
The silence stretched between them until Erin thought she'd pass out from the breath she was holding. Finally, Harvey shrugged but the look in his eyes was shrewd. "Deliver this assignment and I'll give it some serious thought."
He'd give it some thought? "See you in a few weeks, then," Harvey said, finished with the conversation. His dismissive tone was meant to push buttons. The old man was notorious for driving people to their breaking point, which was why only a select few remained on staff for more than a year. She doubted poor Marshal had much of a chance. He was already sprouting gray hairs and the kid hadn't even hit twenty-five yet.
She returned to the assignment. So, he wanted happy-sappy? I'll give him a Norman Rockwell overdose, she thought as she scooped up the folder and turned her back on him. "In a few weeks then," she said over her shoulder, equally dismissive.
Pompous windbag! She deserved that promotion, probably more so than anyone who'd ever had the misfortune to work under Harvey Wallace. Yet he continued to dangle the promise of that coveted position like a juicy carrot to a starving horse if only to see if it could take one more step before collapsing. Well, she was this close to telling him to stick his carrot up his ass, promotion be damned. Whoa there, a voice reasoned, putting a quick stop to her inner diatribe. Don't throw away everything you've worked so hard for.
Breathe. She exhaled slowly. Right, she reminded herself, taking another slow breath. Creative freedom and the power to delegate--not to mention a pretty sharp addition to her resume. That's why she put up with his crap.
Feeling only marginally better, but certainly less likely to rip the last remaining hairs from Harvey's head, she detoured toward human resources to grab some mileage forms, when she was nearly bowled over by Molly, the harried receptionist whose voice she'd heard over the intercom.
"Ms. McNulty! I'm so sorry," she exclaimed, reaching out with a manicured hand to steady herself. "But I've been paging you for the past ten minutes. You have an urgent call on line three."
It took a moment for Molly's words to sink in. Erin's mind was stubbornly refusing to let it slide that she was being sent like a cub photographer on her first assignment to shoot some bucolic country scene because her boss was on a power trip.
"Ms. McNulty?" Molly ventured hesitantly when Erin failed to answer.
Erin shook her head, realizing she was being rude. "I'm sorry... What were you saying? A phone call?"
"Not just any call," Molly said with a worried frown. "He said he was with the Granite Hills Police Department."
At the mention of her former hometown, Erin stilled. She rarely received phone calls from home. "Did he say what he wanted?"
Molly shook her head, her expression concerned. "He said it was personal...sounds serious. Isn't that where your family's from?" At Erin's barely perceptible nod, the little worry lines that seemed a permanent fixture on Molly's middle-aged face deepened. "I'll transfer the call to your office," she said and quickly disappeared down the hallway to the reception desk before Erin could say anything else.
Granite Hills. Aside from her Aunt Caroline, there was nothing of interest to Erin in that place. Her father included.
Closing the door behind her, she stared at the blinking red light on her phone and wished she didn't have to take that call. There could only be one reason the police were calling her at work. Charlie. The urge to simply ignore the call and let it go to voice mail almost had her finger on the button to do exactly that, but a small seed of doubt laced with fear made her hesitate.
Dropping the assignment folder to the center of her desk, she sank into the leather chair and reluctantly picked up the line. "This is Erin McNulty," she answered, hoping the reason for the call was innocuous, or better yet, a mistake.
"Ma'am, this is Officer Barrett with the Granite Hills Police Department," a voice with a subtle New York accent said, his solemn tone trapping the air in her lungs and causing a bad feeling in her gut. "I'm sorry to have to tell you this over the phone but there's been an accident."
An accident? The image of Charlie weaving his beat-up truck down the highway, heedless of the danger he posed to others, popped into her mind and she had to force her voice to remain level when anger quickly replaced her fear. The drunken old fool probably drove off a cliff.
"What kind of accident?" she asked, though she sounded the exact opposite of someone who cared. Assuming her theory was correct, she returned her attention to her assignment folder. "Is he all right?"
He was probably fine. The man, despite the fact that his liver had been pickled nearly every single day of his adult life, was surprisingly healthy.
Erin, impatient for an answer yet not entirely interested in the details, rolled her eyes at the photographic drivel Harvey was sending her to capture and pushed the folder away. Boring as hell.
"Ms. McNulty...there's no easy way to tell you this..."
"What?" She heard him drag a deep breath and knot of foreboding returned to her chest.
"I'm sorry but Caroline Walker died in a single-vehicle car accident earlier this morning."