Read an Excerpt
1959 September 28 Monday 21:22
A candy-apple-red ’55 Chevy glided down the rain-slicked asphalt, an iridescent raft shooting blacktopped rapids. Behind the wheel was a man in his mid-twenties, with a wiry build and a narrow, triangular face. His elaborately sculptured haircut was flat on top, long on the sides and back, ending in carefully cultivated ducktails.
The Chevy’s headlights picked up an enormous black boulder, standing sentry in a grove of white birch. The driver pumped the brake pedal, then blipped the throttle as he flicked the gearshift into low. He gunned the engine, kicking out the rear end in a controlled slide through a tight S-curve. As soon as the road straightened, he eased off the gas and motored along sedately.
A quarter-mile later, the driver pulled up to what looked like a miniature cottage. A lantern-jawed man slowly rose from his seat on the one-man porch. He held a double-barreled shotgun in his right hand like an accountant holding a pencil.
“It’s me, Seth,” the driver said, out his side window.
“I knew that a few minutes ago, Harley,” the man with the shotgun replied. “Heard those damn glasspacks of yours a mile away.”
“Come on, Seth. I backed off as soon as I made the turn,” the driver said.
“You’re getting way too old for that kid stuff,” the man said reproachfully. He stepped closer to the Chevy. The driver reached up and flicked on the overhead light. The man with the shotgun glanced into the back seat, then shifted his stance slightly to scan the floor.
“Let’s have a look out back,” he said.
The driver killed his engine, took the keys from the ignition, and reached for the door handle.
“I’ll do it,” the man with the shotgun said. “You just sit there, be comfortable, okay?”
“Are you serious?” the driver said.
“You been here enough times, Harley.”
“Exactly,” the driver said, with just a hint of resentment. “So what’s with all the—?”
“Ain’t my rules.”
“Yeah, I know,” the driver said, sourly. “Let’s go, okay? The boss said nine-thirty, and it’s getting close to—”
“Next time, come earlier,” the man with the shotgun said, taking the keys.
He walked behind the Chevy and opened the trunk with his left hand, leveling the shotgun to cover the interior. He pulled a flashlight from his belt and directed its beam until he was satisfied. Finally, he closed the trunk gently, walked back to the driver’s window, and handed over the keys.
“See you later, Harley,” he said.
1959 September 28 Monday 21:29
The darkened house was a featureless stone monolith, the color of cigar ash. Harley ignored the horseshoe-shaped brick driveway that led to the front door; he drove carefully past the big house, his engine just past idle, until he came to a paved area clogged with cars. He slid the Chevy into a generous space between a refrigerator-white Ford pickup and a gleaming black ’56 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, and climbed out, not bothering to lock his car.
A short walk brought him to a freestanding single-story building. Its wooden sides had been weathered down to colorlessness, but the roof and windows looked newly installed.
As he approached, Harley saw his reflection in the mirrored finish of a small window set at eye level. Before he could knock, the door was opened by a short, bull-necked man wearing a threadbare gray flannel suit. The man’s perfectly rounded skull was covered by a thick mat of light-brown hair, roughly trimmed to a uniform length. His facial features were rubbery; his mouth was loose and slack.
“It’s me, Luther,” Harley said.
The short man nodded deliberately, as if agreeing with a complex proposition. His slightly protuberant eyes were as smooth and hard as brown marbles, reflecting the moonlight over Harley’s shoul-ders. Wordlessly, he tilted his head to the left.
Harley stepped past the slack-mouthed man into what looked like a modern two-car garage. A charcoal-gray Lincoln sedan was poised on the concrete slab, its nose pointing toward a wide, accordion- pattern metal door. Conscious of the other man somewhere behind him, Harley opened a door in the back wall, and followed a passageway to his left.
He paused at the threshold of a large, low-ceilinged, windowless room. One wall was lined with file cabinets, another with bookshelves. Various chairs and a pair of small couches were scattered about, all upholstered in the same dark-brown leather. Most of them were already taken. A few of the seated men glanced expressionlessly at the new arrival, the youngest man in the room.
The far end of the room was dominated by a lengthy slab of butcher block, laid across four sawhorses to form a desk. Behind it sat a massive man in a wheelchair, like a stone idol on a gleaming steel-and-chrome display stand. He had a large, squarish head, with wavy light-brown hair, combed straight back without a part, going white at the temples. His ears were small, flat against his skull, without lobes. Heavy cheekbones separated a pair of iron-colored eyes from thin lips; his nose was long and narrow; a dark mole dotted the right side of his jaw. The man was dressed in a banker’s-gray suit, a starched white shirt, and a midnight-blue silk tie with faint flecks of gold that occasionally caught the light. On the ring finger of his right hand was a blue star sapphire, set in platinum.
The man glanced at his left wrist, where a large-faced watch on a white-gold band peeked out from under a French cuff, then looked up at the driver of the Chevy.
“I was held up at the gate,” Harley said. “Seth took about half a day to . . .”
Nobody said anything.
Harley took a chair, and followed their example.
1959 September 28 Monday 21:39
“Procter!” a sandpaper voice blasted through the half-empty news-room.
All eyes turned toward a broad-shouldered man hunched over a typewriter. “What’s up, Chief?” he shouted back, without breaking his hunt-and-peck rhythm, eyes never leaving the keyboard.
“Get the hell in here!”
The broad-shouldered man kept on typing.
A pair of night-shift reporters at adjoining desks exchanged looks. One scrawled “2” on a piece of paper and held it up; the other crossed his two forefingers to make a “plus” sign. Each man reached for his wallet without looking, eyes focused on four large clocks on the far wall, marked, from left to right: Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, and New York.
In perfect rhythm honed by long practice, a dollar bill was simultaneously slapped down on each man's desk.
The second hands of the clocks swept on. One full revolution, then another. Two minutes and seventeen seconds had elapsed when . . .
“Procter, goddamn it!” rattled the windows.
The reporter who had made the “plus” sign plucked the dollar from the other’s desk as Procter slowly got to his feet. His hair was as black as printer’s ink; raptor’s eyes sat deeply on either side of a slightly hawked nose. Wearing a blue shirt with the cuffs rolled above thick wrists, and a dark-red tie loosened at the throat, he stalked through the newsroom holding several sheets of typescript in his right hand like a cop carrying a nightstick.
Procter ambled into a corner office formed from two pebbled-glassed walls. Behind a cigarette-scarred, paper-covered desk sat a doughy man wearing half-glasses on the bridge of a bulbous nose. His bald scalp was fringed with thick mouse-brown hair.
“Chief?” Procter said innocently.
“How many goddamn times have I told you not to call me that?” the doughy man snapped, his scalp reddening. “You’ve got a lot of choices in that department, Jimmy. ‘Mr. Langley’ will do. So will ‘Augie,’ you like that better. Save that ‘Chief’ stuff for your next editor.”
“So I’m fired?” Procter said, his voice not so much empty as without inflection of any kind.
“I didn’t say that!” the doughy man bellowed. “You know damn well what I meant. This isn’t one of those big-city sheets you’re used to working for. We do things differently around here.”
“I’ve been around here all my life,” Procter said, mildly. “Born and raised.”
“You like playing word games, maybe you want to take over the crossword. You haven’t been around this newspaper all your life. You came home, that’s what happened.”
“Came home after being fired, you mean.”
“I say what I mean, Jimmy. You’re a great newshound, but this is your fourth paper in, what, seven years? We both know you wouldn’t be working for the Compass if there was still a place for you with one of the big-city tabs.”
“And we both know, soon as a job on a real paper opens up again, you’ll be on the next bus out of here.”
“I can do what I do anywhere.”
“Is that right? For such a smart guy, you do some pretty stupid things. What happened up in Chi-Town, anyway?”
“The editor spiked too many of my stories,” Procter said, in the bored tone of a man retelling a very old story.
“So you went behind his back and peddled your stuff to that Communist rag?”
“That exposé never saw a blue pencil, Chief. They printed it just like I wrote it.”
“Yeah, I guess they did,” the doughy man said, fingering his suspenders. “And I guess you know, that’s never going to happen here.”
“I’ve been here almost three years. You think I haven’t learned that much?”
“From this last piece of copy you turned in, I’m not so sure. Your job is to cover crime, Jimmy. Crime, not politics.”
“In Locke City—”
“Don’t even say it,” the editor warned, holding up one finger. “Just stick to robberies and rapes, okay? Shootings, stompings, and stabbings, that’s your beat. Leave the corruption stories for reporters in the movies.”
From the Hardcover edition.