A KINGSBURY COLLECTION THREE NOVELS IN ONE
By KAREN KINGSBURY
Multnomah Publishers Copyright © 2005 Karen Kingsbury
All right reserved. ISBN: 1-59052-521-3
Adense blanket of heat and humidity covered the Florida peninsula the afternoon of July 10, but at the climate-controlled offices of the Miami Times
the unending process of news-gathering continued at a frenetic pace.
That Friday afternoon, while the city sweltered under record-breaking temperatures, the editors sat quietly at their desks in the center of the newsroom and Ellen Barrett, back from a morning of interviews, worked intently at her computer several feet away.
"Jim, tell me there's not something more to this murder." She held up a news clipping and strained to see Jim Western. Jim sat in the cubicle immediately in front of her and worked the environmental beat, dealing with illegal chemical dumping and polluted harbors. He was not interested in homicides.
"Sounds fishy." His eyes remained focused on his own computer screen and the story he was writing. Ellen watched for a moment, fascinated with his neatly arranged notes, his clean desk, and the way he typed using only his index fingers.
"More than fishy." She reached for her coffee and took a sip, wiping the moist condensation off the notepad where the cup had been sitting. Her eyes traveled across her desk, searching for a clear spot. She alone could make sense of the disaster that was her work area. Somewhere, buried under layers of rumpled notes, was a picture of her and Mike on their wedding day and a Bible he had given her three years ago. It was dusty now, though its pages were stiff and clean-much as they had been when she received it.
Ellen studied the heap of papers and, as she had once a month for the past year, made a mental note to get organized. For now she pushed her keyboard back and set the hot drink in the space it created.
She looked at Jim again. "Guy lives his whole life in his father's shadow, tells his friend he hates the old man, and next thing we know Dad opens the door and gets blown away by an AK-47 on the Fourth of July."
"Neighbors think it's fireworks and no one sees a gunman. What does the grieving son do? Hops in Dad's shiny, new Corvette and shows it off to half the people in town."
"Not to mention the tidy insurance settlement sonny boy figures to get now that Dad's gone."
"Know what I think?"
Jim sighed. "What?"
"Prison time for sonny boy."
"Hmm, yes." Jim continued to type, his index fingers moving deftly across the keyboard.
"And won't that be something after everyone's been busy doling out sympathy cards to the guy like he's some kind of forlorn victim? Truthfully, I can't understand why he hasn't been arrested. I mean, it's amazing, how obvious it is."
Jim sighed once more, and this time his fingers froze in place as he looked up from his work. "That all you and Mike talk about at home? Homicide investigations? Must make great dinner conversation."
Ellen ignored him, but she was quiet for a moment. She didn't want to think about Mike and the dinner conversations that were not taking place. She glanced once more at her notes.
"Well, I think the kid's dead in the water. No doubt in my mind. He'd better enjoy the Corvette while he still has his hands free."
Jim continued typing and the conversation stalled. Ellen settled back into her chair and glanced around the office. The newsroom was a microcosm of the outside world and it pulsed with a heartbeat all its own. If a story was breaking anywhere-from Pensacola to Pennsylvania, Pasadena to Pakistan-it was breaking at the office of the Miami Times.
The room held twenty-four centers, each with eight computer stations manned by hungry reporters. By late afternoon, most of the reporters were seated at their desks, tapping out whatever information they had collected earlier in the day.
Like the product it produced, the newsroom was broken into sections. News, sports, entertainment, religion, arts, and editorial. Each department had its physical place in the office and operated independently of the others but for the constant relaying of information to and from the city desk located at the center of the room.
Despite the hum of activity from the other sections, Ellen knew it was the editors at the city desk who ultimately made up the life force behind the paper. They had the power to destroy a local politician by placing his questionable use of campaign funds under a banner headline on the front page instead of burying it ten pages into the paper. A plan to expand the city's baseball stadium could be accepted or rejected based on the way the editors chose to play it in print.
Stories from around the world poured into the office through computerized wire services while editors sorted through reams of information and argued about whether children starving in Uganda was a better lead story for the World News section than Saddam Hussein's latest threat against American armed forces. Whatever was deemed worthy of writing was passed on to the other reporters.
It was a powerful job-one where perspective was difficult to maintain. At the Miami Times, editors did not walk in the same hurried fashion as reporters. They sauntered, carrying with them an unmistakable aura of importance and often causing reporters to shrink in their presence.
Except for the editors, Ellen's peers at the Times generally enjoyed their jobs, thriving on the kind of pressure that causes stress disabilities in other people. Angry sources, missing information, daily deadlines, mistakes in print ... the reporters would have taken it all in stride if not for the wrath of the Times's editors. Among media circles, the Miami Times's editorial staff had a reputation for being demanding and difficult to work for.
Reporters at the Times credited one man with earning that reputation for the paper: managing editor Ron Barkley.
For three years Barkley had been in charge of the Times's news desk. Every section of the paper had at some time come under his scrutiny, but he paid particularly close attention to the front section. Stories that made the front section were produced by Barkley's general assignment reporters, a handful of the paper's best writers who gathered and crafted stories that did more than entertain readers. Front-page news changed lives. The real news, Barkley called it.
If anyone knew Barkley's wrath, or the impossibility of his demands, it was the general assignment reporters. His presence among them had caused more than a little grumbling in the newsroom. Ellen had even heard talk of a union forming to combat what some reporters considered inhumane treatment.
Ellen had once interviewed J. Grantham Howard, the paper's owner, for a piece about the Times's evolution over the years. Howard had acknowledged the friction between Barkley and his staff and told Ellen he kept himself apprised of the situation. Certainly the owner understood that Barkley did not make conditions pleasant for his reporters. But Howard was a multimillionaire with a keen business sense and he readily admitted he was not about to disturb the very successful chemistry in the newsroom.
Howard told Ellen he'd kept a close eye on Barkley and found him to be as brilliant as he was demanding. In the years since Howard had hired the managing editor, circulation numbers had reached more than a million on Sundays and advertisement rates had nearly doubled. The same thing had happened at the paper Barkley had run in New York, and Howard believed the editor was the common denominator. Still, whenever Howard would visit the newsroom, Ellen had seen him cringe at the way Barkley treated the staff. Especially her.
"Barrett!" Barkley would boom across the newsroom on occasion, shoving his chair away from his desk and rising to his full height of six feet, four inches. His eyes would blaze as he pointed toward his computer screen. "Get over here! We can't run that story unless you verify those things Jenkins told you. You wanna spend the rest of the year in court?"
His voice would echo off the fiberboard walls of the newsroom as other reporters busied themselves in their notes. Ellen knew they were empathizing with her and envying her at the same time. For all the grief she took from Barkley, Ellen knew the position she held at the paper. She'd heard it too often to doubt it: she was unquestionably the Miami Times's best reporter.
Ellen smiled, and glanced toward Ron Barkley's office. He thought Ellen feared him much the way her peers did. Her smiled broadened. Poor Ron would have been shocked had he known that his prize reporter really thought he was an emotional kitten of a man, a fifty-six-year-old gentle giant, whose rough exterior was only a cover-up for who he really was inside.
Ellen had been at the paper before Barkley's arrival. She had moved to Miami four years after earning her journalism degree from the University of Michigan and had been a sportswriter for a year before being promoted to the front page. When the Times hired Barkley, she heard rumors that he was hard to work for. She researched his background and found the names of several reporters who had worked for him in New York.
"Tough as nails," a senior reporter told her. "He'll yell and scream and throw a fit until you get the story perfect. But don't let him fool you."
And then the man told Ellen a story she had never forgotten. Ten years earlier Barkley's son had been a bright investigative reporter with a brilliant future in the business. The young man was driving home from the office one night when he was hit head-on by a drunk driver and decapitated. After that, there had been something different about Barkley's presence in the New York newsroom. He still sounded loud and acted angry, but there were times when he would be reading a story about somebody else's tragedy and suddenly start coughing.
"I'd catch him swiping at a tear or two when he thought no one was looking," the reporter said. "Eventually the memories were too much and he needed out of New York."
"You liked him?"
"I understood him. The man knows the stuff we write about is more than a way to fill a newspaper. Another thing. He's the best editor you'll ever work for. Ignore the rough package and listen to him. He'll make you a better writer than you ever dreamed."
That had been three years earlier, and Ellen had taken the reporter's advice to heart. When other writers fought with Barkley, Ellen Barrett gave in. When he demanded, she produced. When he screamed, she produced faster, nodding in agreement and accomplishing all he asked of her. She learned to rely on the man, ignoring his outbursts and allowing him to fine-tune her journalistic talent with each story. As a result, if Barkley got wind of a sensational tip or a front-page lead, he would always pass it to Ellen.
For her part, the effort paid off immensely. She was the highest paid reporter on staff and her name was known throughout Miami. Twice she had worked on Pulitzer-prize-winning articles and she was only thirty-one years old. She had no problem with the fact that the crusty veteran editor credited his editing practices as the cause of her success. Whatever the appearance of their working relationship, Ellen was not looking for sympathy. The situation suited her perfectly.
She flipped through her notepad and considered the homicide story on the screen before her. She wanted to scrap the whole thing and write a story blasting the dead man's son, painting him as the primary suspect. But that was impossible unless the police were at least headed in that direction. If only they'd arrest him and make it official.
She tapped her pencil on her notepad and wondered whether she should call Ronald Lewis, the sheriff 's homicide investigator. Earlier that morning she'd visited his office and he'd told her there were at least a dozen leads on the case.
"What exactly are you looking for, Lewis?" Ellen had asked impatiently. "The guy's son did it, and you know it."
Lewis had studied her thoughtfully for a moment. He trusted her. She was thorough and truthful and careful not to burn her sources, and he knew that. She'd made sure that when someone talked off the record with Ellen Barrett, the information never appeared in print. It had been a long road, but she had earned the department's respect-and Lewis was no exception. There were things he would tell her that he wouldn't consider sharing with another reporter.
"Listen, you're probably right," he had admitted finally. "But let me make the arrest first, will you?"
That was six hours ago, and now Ellen stared at her story knowing it was noticeably vague and really only half written. She reached for the telephone just as it rang. "It's about time, Lewis," she muttered, picking up the receiver. "Miami Times, Ellen Barrett."
"Ellen, it's me."
It was Mike. She relaxed and glanced at her watch. Five-fifteen. He would be home wondering when she was leaving work. Lately their schedules had been hectic; sometimes weeks passed without a single dinner shared together. But that was the price of being successful reporters, she supposed. The success they both had achieved before they married had continued and grown after the marriage. Mike knew the business well, and so had understood the long hours. He'd even been the one to encourage Ellen to keep her maiden name since that was the name people in the industry knew.
"Hey." She softened her tone. "How was your day?"
"Ellen ..." There was a long pause. "Ellen, I have bad news. Your dad's had a heart attack, honey. Your mom wants you to call right away. She's at the hospital in Petoskey."
Ellen felt the blood drain from her face and she hunched over in her chair, elbows on her knees, feeling like she'd been punched. A heavy pit formed in her stomach, and she pressed her fists into her midsection in an effort to make it go away. She felt nauseous. Dear God, help me. Deep breaths, Ellen. Take deep breaths and stay calm.
She had expected this phone call for as long as she could remember.
"He's alive, right?" Her voice betrayed none of what she was feeling.
"Sweetheart, I don't know anything. Your mom said for you to call her. I think you should come home."
She was silent a moment and Mike exhaled softly. "I should have waited until you were off work-" He broke off, then, "Are you okay?"
Ellen squeezed her eyes shut. "Yeah. I'll be home in a few minutes."
Friday was the day Sunday's front-page stories were filed and approved by the city desk. None of the general assignment reporters dared ask Barkley if they could leave before he cleared their Sunday stories. Even so, Ellen stood up, gathered her purse and her notes, and moved mechanically toward Barkley's desk.
He looked up as she approached. "What is it, Barrett?" he barked.
"Something's come up and I need to leave. My story's finished; it's in your file. I'll be at home."
Ellen studied Barkley, waiting, and she thought she saw a flicker of compassion. Maybe losing his son had enabled Barkley to tell when something equally devastating had happened in another's life. His response surprised her.
"Fine." Barkley's tone was almost gentle. He returned his eyes to the computer screen and stretched his long legs beneath his desk. "I'll call you."
Ellen turned, barely aware of her surroundings. She made her way to the elevator, and then to the parking garage outside where she climbed into her dirty, black convertible BMW. Vanity plates on the front and back read, RTNBYEB: "Written By Ellen Barrett." She switched off the car radio and screeched out of the parking lot, intent only on getting home.
"Please let him live," she whispered. "Please, God."
When Ellen pulled into the driveway of the two-story house she and Mike owned near the beach, he was waiting on the porch.
Even masked with deep concern, her husband's face was strikingly handsome. Marked by masculine angles and high cheekbones, punctuated with piercing pale blue eyes, Mike Miller's face looked like it belonged in a high-fashion advertisement or a cologne commercial. For some reason it seemed unfair that he should look virile and healthy when her father was fighting for his life eighteen hundred miles away.
"I'm sorry." He met her halfway down the sidewalk and nervously pulled her close, stroking her hair. "I've been praying."
Ellen remained stiff, unwilling to be comforted. Mike had never known how to deal with the emotional moments in their marriage, and she didn't want him practicing at a time like this. She refused to allow herself to break down. Her father was sick, but he was alive.
Excerpted from A KINGSBURY COLLECTION by KAREN KINGSBURY Copyright © 2005 by Karen Kingsbury. Excerpted by permission.
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