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Ellen Butterby had never before seen a dead body. So she was not at all prepared for what she found on that mid-September morning.
It was a chilly day, mist turning to rain. She emerged still groggy from New York's Port Authority bus terminal on Eighth Avenue--she had napped on the bus from Montclair--and angry that she had left her umbrella at home. To be unprepared ran against her character. Her gray hair was already covered with tiny droplets, a spider's web glistening with morning dew.
She walked to the open-air coffee wagon on West Forty-fifth Street and joined the line behind five people. She seethed that it was moving so slowly, depriving her of the shelter of the wagon's metal sideboard, propped up to provide a roof for only the first two or three customers.
Finally she reached the service window. From inside, Bashir flashed a smile.
"Some day, isn't it?" he remarked.
She nodded curtly by way of reply.
He had anticipated her order, one hand holding the container with the Lipton tea bag, the other bent at the wrist, pulling back the hot-water tap. On days like this, when the windows of his wagon steamed over and he hunched down to make change from the coins scattered on a towel beside the window, the Afghan struck her as a troll in his lair.
She picked up the container and set off down the block, leaning into the now-quickening rain. She reflected on the fact that she was rarely pleasant to Bashir. Perhaps, she mused, she was something of a snob. She felt a vague stab of emptiness. What did she have to be snobbish about? Childless, unmarried, fifty-seven years old, and living with her bedridden mother, she had not drunk deeply from life. As a young woman fresh out of secretarial school, she had answered a help wanted ad, appeared in the cavernous lobby of the New York Globe, and was hired at ninety dollars a week. That was thirty-six years ago, and she had been there ever since. What had she accomplished? Like everyone else, she had given everything to the paper, that bottomless pit. She was aware, on days when she scanned the obits, that she wouldn't merit a single paragraph.
But lately, it seemed, the newspaper was beginning to repay her. She had risen through the ranks to a respectable position, administrative assistant to none other than Theodore S. Ratnoff, the Globe's much-feared assistant managing editor. Ratnoff was famous for the dressing-downs meted out to subordinates, especially copy editors, who labored in suffering obscurity like half-blind medieval monks churning out illuminated manuscripts. He was in charge of style, standards, and usage--the coin of the realm--and he enforced his edicts with Torquemadan unrestraint. A dangling modifier led to a verbal lash of the whip, a pejorative anonymous quote to a figurative stab with a red-hot poker. Headlines of unintentional ambiguity--so-called two-faced heads--brought out the rack. But on substantive issues--like pandering to the reader with puff pieces--he was among the worst.
Two things were notable about Ratnoff. One was his intelligence, which made his remarks all the more cutting; he was rarely wrong, and on those rare occasions when he was, no one below the masthead called him on it. The other was his imposing demeanor and fastidious dress. He was tall and blond, of German extraction on his mother's side and Hungarian on his father's, with a crew cut like a ship's prow and cold blue eyes. His black pinstriped suits were bespoke and the white cuffs of his Turnbull & Asser shirts were clasped by diamond-chipped links. His shoes were polished to the patina of a black tulip. Such an outfit might turn a smaller man into a dandy, but in Ratnoff's case it accentuated his naturally dominating presence. When he walked into a room, other men sometimes felt a tingling in their gonads.
Among all the reporters and editors, only Ratnoff was permitted to use a purple flow pen. How this corporate crotchet came about, no one remembered, but it had become a law of its own, enforced when necessary by Ratnoff himself. A cocky young editor who bucked the sanction in his first week--he used a purple pen to fill out an overtime form--was shortly afterward banished to real estate news. This coup de grâce spread Ratnoff's notoriety to newsrooms all the way to the West Coast.
Ratnoff wielded his purple pen liberally, dispensing critical notes of Teutonic exactitude with such abandon that copy editors reporting for work developed the habit of gravitating toward their mailboxes to see if the walnut interior reflected a lavender glow. Every few weeks, Ratnoff's messages--he kept dupes, naturally--were collated into a bundle the size of a suburban phone directory and distributed to the staff. These became known as "poison plums." The public humiliation from the plums took such a toll on morale that senior management eventually prevailed on Ratnoff to leaven the dough with an occasional compliment. He complied. Thereafter, he trolled through each day's paper with one eyebrow raised, turning the pages at arm's length, as if they were radioactive, looking for bright news stories and clever turns of phrase to praise. Whenever he came upon a felicitous headline, along the lines of WAL-MART CASH REGISTERS RINGING UP A GREEN CHRISTMAS OR ST. PAT's PARADE TURNS IRISH EYES TO SMILING, he would fire off a note to "the slot"--the person in charge of the appropriate copy desk--demanding the name of the author. These notes invariably consisted of two words whose brevity was peremptory: "Nice. Who?"
Butterby came to the revolving door and pushed. The brushed edges gave way with customary reluctance. The lobby floor was slick and slippery. She noticed with approbation that the guards, seated behind their pale consoles, were chatting amiably. They had not yet laid the trail of thick green carpeting that grew so soggy that a trip to the elevator bank was like wading through the Everglades. She pulled out her ID card, swiped it, and gave the turnstile arm a sideways pelvic thrust. She skirted the massive five-foot globe of the earth suspended by wires over an upside-down dome in the floor--the paper's symbol, also printed on its front-page nameplate--that had so impressed her during that long-ago job interview and that the reporters, cynical souls all, called "the barbecue pit."
She rode the elevator to the fifth floor, still thinking about Ratnoff. If she were honest with herself, she'd have to admit that she drew a certain satisfaction from his tyrannical reputation because some of it rubbed off on her. With self-satisfied magnanimity, she pretended not to notice the kowtowing when other secretaries hurried to make space for her in the company cafeteria, or the shock when a backfield editor languidly picked up a phone receiver and learned who was calling.
The receptionist's desk on the fifth floor was unoccupied. Behind it lay the vast newsroom, now dormant. It was an entire block long, from Forty-fifth Street to Forty-sixth Street, with windows on either end. Clocks affixed to pillars ticked off seconds noiselessly and computers glowed, their screen savers floating eerily, as if they were signaling one another. Butterby loved it like this, deserted and peaceful, a battlefield after the slaughter. Page proofs and notes and photos cluttered the editors' desks like spent bandages and cartridge belts. The reporters' cubicles were darkened, burned-out pillboxes. Their desks were stacked with debris--yellowing newspapers, thick bound reports, legal pads, loose notes, books, food containers, coffee cups. Inside, the fabric walls were plastered over with clipped cartoons, yellow Post-its, vacation photos, and clever sayings about deadlines: "What dead lion? I don't know anything about a dead lion."
She looked at a clock. Eight-thirty. In another half hour, the place would begin to come alive, at first gradually as the copy people came in to clean up, then more quickly as the news clerks arrived to check the wires and look for messages, and then rapidly as the assistant editors rushed in to review assignments and draw up news schedules, and finally frantically as the desk heads and senior editors strode in to check the overnight reports and phone the foreign, national, and metro desks to ask what was going on.
It was a ballet she had seen hundreds of times, thousands.
Except that today it was different.
For today, as she rounded the central aisle of the newsroom, not far from Ratnoff's glassed-in office, she saw something lying in the middle of an open space near the page-one conference room. It was large, indistinct, and definitely out of place--a pile of something, perhaps, or an overturned piece of furniture or--was this possible?--an animal of some sort. A Great Dane? A beached shark?
She strode closer and gasped, her hand rising involuntarily to her mouth, ready to stifle a scream.
It was a body, a lifeless body, and not just any body. It was Ratnoff. On his back, his arms outstretched as if ready to hug the air, lying in a pool of blood that had almost reached the glass doors of the conference room, turning the heavy-wear carpet a rusted brown. She tiptoed closer and looked down.
Ratnoff's eyes were closed. His face looked peaceful. But there, in the center of his chest, was a four-inch-wide green hunk of metal. She recognized it immediately. It was the base of an editor's spike, used in the old days to kill stories. The metal shaft protruding from it was sunk into Ratnoff's blue-and-red-striped shirt, hammered in so hard that it had created a tiny cavity filled with bright blood. The end of his red tie dipped into it, like a tongue into a martini glass. Fixed to the spike was a note.
She leaned over the body to read it. It was in purple ink.
It said simply: "Nice. Who?"