When the police can't give her answers, Sutton's grief drives her to try to solve Cara's murder herself. The more she learns, the greater her determination to follow every lead until she finds her sister's killer. But that decision will take Sutton into a world where religious faith and power are masks for blackmail, greed, perversion and worse - and where Sutton soon finds her own life is on the line in her search for justice.
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The insistent computer cursor blinked at me accusingly. It was only eleven o'clock in the morning, but my stomach, which I had given a meager breakfast, was already empty, ready for its lunch, and growling loudly. Unfortunately for my stomach, the blue computer screen stayed as blank as my mind. I had been staring at the damned screen for a good ten or fifteen minutes now, but inspiration had failed to strike. My news story for tomorrow's paper, on the Fairfax County School Board's long-term budget planning, remained stillborn in my ordinarily garrulous brain.
At this rate, I thought in frustration, the next thing I'm likely to find myself writing will be obituaries, the signal at many newspapers of a career that is on the skids.
Starting with an obit for the defunct newspaper career of Sutton McPhee?
That was from my little voice, my constant companion and chronic irritant for most of my life. I know intellectually that this voice is just another part of myself. (At least I hope to hell it is, although I do seem to hear it as a male voice, now that I think of it.) But over the years it has developed quite a personality of its own and, apparently, has taken on as its mission in life the task of never letting me indulge in self-delusion or wallow in self-pity for very long — in other words, never letting me have any fun. It has kicked my butt regularly through ten years of newspaper reporting jobs in three states and through one failed marriage. If it had a corporeal existence, I would have been arrested for murder years ago.
No, starting with an obit for you if you don't can it, I told it. Get lost.
Touchy, aren't we?
The little bastard had a point, I supposed, as much as I hated to admit it. I was touchy. What else can you expect in the middle of a career crisis? I was not a happy camper lately. Which was, I decided, the real reason I couldn't seem to find the words for the story that I had to finish in the next hour, before I headed out for an Arlington hearing on whether public-school kids there should pay to participate in school sports. I was afraid I had lost my career bearings, and that thought was distracting in a big and worrisome way.
Since college, I had steadily worked my way up from a small daily newspaper in Albany, Georgia, to a larger paper in Tallahassee, Florida, and finally, onto the staff of the Washington, D.C., News, a major metropolitan daily where many a small-town reporter would have given her firstborn to work. I'm thirty-two years old and in the big time, I asked myself, so why aren't I happy? But after two years of covering schools in northern Virginia and five years of education reporting in Tallahassee before that, I worried that my stories had taken on a sameness that reflected what I feared was my own boredom with the beat. The big question that really haunted me, however, was where did the problem truly lie? With the subject matter or with me?
Wanna know where I'm putting my money?
Don't start, I told my voice, I've got work to do. But I worried that it was right, that the problem was with me. And that thought terrified me. I had wanted to be a newspaper reporter since I was a fourteen-year-old ninth grader. My high- school history teacher, who coached the debate team on which I was an alternate that year, had asked me to do a roundup for the local weekly paper on the results of the school's participation in the state debate competition. The editor ran my summary almost verbatim and gave me an unexpected byline as well. The sight of my name above a story on the paper's front page had instilled in me a drive for more, a drive that had never left me.
I became a fervent newspaper reader, noting bylines, learning to distinguish one reporter's style from another, determining the differences between hard news stories and features, and developing a sense of the power of well-crafted stories to inform, to move, to touch a reader, to evoke a time, place, person, or mood. That drive had sustained me through high school and college, had pushed me out of the nest and into an unlimited world that offered an equally unlimited number of stories waiting to be written, a world that dwarfed my small Georgia hometown.
The picture of myself as a reporter was such an integral part of my self-image that I couldn't imagine what I would do or even who I would be if that no longer was who I was. If the problem was with me and not with the beat, I was afraid I was in real trouble.
I took a couple of deep cleansing breaths to clear my head, second nature after several years of yoga classes, and focused again on the blank screen, determined to get the story done one way or the other. I was glaring down at my abortive first attempt at a lead when voices and laughter suddenly broke into the quiet of the morning newsroom. I looked up just as Ken Hale, who covered the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, came through the door with Barbara Betts and Will Farber, who were my school-reporting colleagues. Barbara handled the schools in D.C., and Will covered those in the central Maryland counties that bordered the district. I had spent more than one after-work bar session with Barbara and Will, comparing war stories and decompressing.
All three raised their hands and said hello. Then, apparently deciding that I looked far too serious for my own good, they came in my direction.
"Hey, Sutton," Will said as they surrounded me, "how's it hangin'?"
Will was something of a multiple personality, inveterately bawdy and profane, regardless of the company — but only in the presence of other reporters. If you saw him out in public, particularly covering his school beat, you would have sworn he didn't even know any bad words. People who didn't work with him thought he was a paragon of gentlemanly manners. I long since had decided that the most effective way to deal with him in his other mode was to give as good as I got. When reporters took offense at his vocabulary, they generally brought out even more of it. And besides, I hadn't met many reporters who didn't already know all the words anyway, mostly from personal use, including myself.
I gave Will a long stare below the belt and then looked up, straight-faced, and said, "Gee, Will, I don't know. I can't tell that it's hangin' at all."
That brought guffaws from Barbara and Ken and a big grin from Will.
"You're okay, Sutton," he said, punching me on the arm. "You're okay."
Satisfied, he wandered across the newsroom to his desk, where he immediately got busy on the telephone. Barbara made some noises about needing another cup of coffee, the life's blood of many a reporter, and walked out the back of the newsroom toward the cafeteria.
Ken made himself at home in the chair that belonged to the desk behind mine, where the empty desktop signaled that it did not have a current resident.
"So what're you working on?" Ken asked. Preferring almost anything to going back to the story I was vainly trying to write, I told him. Ken and I often compared notes on our beats, since we both covered Fairfax County governmental bodies. The fact that the Fairfax County supervisors also determined the county's portion of the school system's budget meant we occasionally found ourselves at the same meeting. A few times we even had shared a byline.
Ken was one of my favorite people at the paper. He was a first-rate reporter, whose instincts and determination to get to the bottom of a story rarely steered him wrong. And while he could enjoy the company of a flake like Will, Ken himself was a steady, stable guy with few hang-ups that I could find. He also was pretty easy on the eye. His sandy brown hair and blue eyes lived in a face that was tan most of the year from his tennis games. He was taller than I, at about six feet, and in good shape. I knew for a fact that he was thirty-six, but other people often judged him to be only in his late twenties. I had thought once or twice in my time at the News about asking him out, but my general reluctance to date people with whom I worked usually won out over his sex appeal. Nor had he ever issued a formal date invitation to me, I suspected because he had a similar reluctance. We both had seen one too many newsroom romances go on the rocks and derail careers to want to find ourselves in like circumstances.
I was regaling Ken with an anecdote about an argument I had witnessed between a Democrat and Republican on the ostensibly nonpartisan Fairfax County School Board when I heard my name called and looked up to see Rob Perry, the metro editor and my boss, motioning to me from his office door across the mostly empty newsroom. I'd noticed him come in about half an hour before, which would make it an early — and very long — day for him. Most editors at morning papers work afternoon and evening hours, getting the papers out in the wee hours of the morning to be waiting at dawn on the porches, steps, and driveways of readers. It wasn't unheard of for Rob to be in this early, however. With three marriages in shreds, he more or less had given up on a home life. The News was as much his family as were his grown children — or more — and I suspected he often put in the long hours that he did because he preferred the paper's newsroom, even quiet, to his empty Georgetown apartment.
Rob also is something of an anachronism in the increasingly corporate world of newspapers, a reporter's editor who keeps a shepherd's eagle eye on his flock of writers and produces a prizewinning metro section through a surprisingly effective and politically incorrect combination of witty sarcasm, bullying, uncompromising standards for accuracy and precision in our copy, and a willingness to back his reporters to the hilt when our stories bring someone's wrath down on us — as long as we get those stories right. Whether that someone is from outside the paper or from the Sennet Newspapers corporate hierarchy. Most of us pretty much worship at Rob's altar. Not that we'd ever tell him that.
"Be right there," I said to Rob. Turning back to Ken, I told him, "You'll have to excuse me now. I've been summoned."
Ken laughed. "Yeah, and I need to go and at least pretend to be working on a story myself or he'll be summoning me next," he said, getting up from the chair and sliding it back under the vacant desk.
He walked off in the direction of his own desk, and I went over to where Rob stood, his pale blue oxford-cloth shirt already looking rumpled, though he had been here less than an hour. By the end of the day, his tie not only would be loosened but most likely lying on the copy desk, where he also kept a seat. Apparently the longer and harder his brain worked editing copy, the more uncomfortable his clothes became. I fully expect him to stand up some night when things aren't going well and strip naked so he can work.
As I walked toward Rob I also could see, through the wall of windows that divides his office from the newsroom, a man I didn't know, who was standing and watching me approach.
"It's not nice to interrupt a meeting of great minds," I told Rob, smiling and expecting to get a typically sarcastic response. Instead, I got a look that I couldn't identify.
"We need to talk to you, Sutton," Rob said, no smile in sight. Which told me right away that something was out of kilter. He never called me — or anyone else on the staff — by their first name. I always had been McPhee to Rob, even during my job interview two years ago. I gave him back a questioning look of my own and went past him into the office where the stranger, a tall, dark-haired, big-boned man in chocolate-brown slacks and a tweed sport coat, stood. I had not noticed him coming into the newsroom, which he apparently had done while I was engrossed in the intellectually stimulating and highly professional conversation with the other reporters.
"Have a seat, Sutton," Rob told me, motioning to a chair facing his desk, as he stepped into the office behind me and closed the door. I sat. Rob perched himself on one of the desk's front corners, taking off the half-lensed glasses he wore when he was reading copy and laying them on the desk behind him. The big man took the chair at the far end of Rob's desk. As he sat back and his jacket fell open, I saw his belt held a gun in a holster and a leather tab on which was fastened a badge.
"Okay," I said, eyeing the gun and badge and smiling at their owner, "what did I do this time?" He didn't smile back.
"Sutton, this is Detective Jim Peterson from the Fairfax County Police Department," Rob continued, looking as dour as Peterson. "I'm afraid there's some bad news."
I glanced up at Rob, my persistent efforts at humor having been brought to a halt by his words, and then looked back at the cop, who clearly was the bearer of these bad tidings. Peterson leaned forward and rested his forearms on his thighs, clasped his fingers, looked down at the dark gray carpet on the floor, and then back up at me.
"It's about your sister, Ms. McPhee," he said.
All the air was instantly sucked out of the room and out of my lungs. A wave of fear-heat flashed through my body like electricity, and my throat and chest tightened spasmodically. It is amazing to me how the body can react so quickly, even before the brain has had time to absorb the meaning of the words.
"Cara?" I asked, unable to get out more.
"I'm afraid she's dead," Peterson answered glumly.
I looked at him from the silence into which his words had jolted me. Some part of my brain registered that Rob straightened up from his desk and was watching me closely.
"She was shot," Peterson went on. "It looks like an ATM robbery. A bank employee found her body in her car. This morning, in a bank parking lot south of Springfield. I'm really sorry to have to tell you this."
My own body stood up, with no conscious instruction from me. I realized I was turning in different directions, like an animal trying to find its way out of a locked cage. A cage that had no doors.
"Sutton!" Rob's voice was sharp, and he grasped me by both shoulders, turning me to face him. Then he said more gently, "I think you should sit back down, Sutton."
I sat again, struggling to regain my power of speech, only to have Cara's many faces appear before my mind's eye, the years of her life flashing through my head like snippets from someone's home movies. There she was as the baby who was born just as I was going off to first grade. I remembered her as the toddler who followed in my every footstep. I saw again how she grew into the adolescent who watched her teenage sister with a mixture of awe and envy. Once more, she was the teenager whose growing up I mostly missed as I went on to college and a job. I remembered her as the grieving college sophomore who turned strongly to religion after our parents were killed in a traffic accident. The most recent Cara in my mental movie was the twenty-six-year-old woman who had moved a year ago to the Washington suburb of Springfield, Virginia, to be near her older sister and to look for work. A woman I was really getting to know for the first time and whose company I was enjoying immensely, in spite of our different personalities and views of life. Cara. My baby sister. My family. The only real family I had.
I turned my head toward Rob and now understood the uncharacteristic look he had given me at the door. My eyes filled with tears, but I regained enough control over my throat muscles to enable me to speak. I looked back at the detective.
"Tell me all of it," I said while my mind silently begged him not to say the words, not to make the nightmare real.CHAPTER 2
"We don't know a lot more at this point," Detective Peterson said, watching me as closely as Rob, no doubt gauging how much to tell me, what details to censor, calculating what I could absorb, what might send me into the screaming hysteria to which I wanted to surrender but wouldn't.
"We've taken a preliminary look at the security video from the ATM," Peterson went on. "Your sister is there, and she keeps looking off to the side, from where we can hear a man's voice talking to her. We think he's the person who then took her back out to her car and shot her, but he never got within camera range. Obviously, he was holding her at gunpoint at the cash machine but was smart enough to stay out of sight himself."
He paused, still assessing how I was handling the information, giving things time to sink in.
"Go on," I said through gritted teeth. And how was I handling it? As Peterson talked I found my desire to scream, to lash out in violent protest receding behind the wall my mind threw up as it retreated into reporter's mode, that habitual dividing of brain function that can make the difference in whether or not a reporter can do the job. Most of my reporting experience had been in covering schools and local government. But my limited exposure to more grisly stories, during those times at the smaller papers when it was my turn to handle the weekend's police coverage and general assignment, had been enough to teach me the necessity of learning how to separate from my emotions long enough to cover my story. I often had paid the price at night, as the brain and those emotions reconnected in the solitude of my apartment and when what I had seen kept me awake or followed me into dreams. But on the job, the ability to step away mentally, to disconnect, enabled me to ask questions and note details, to think about story leads and structure, even in the middle of the human carnage, the accidents, shootings, and fires that I sometimes was sent to cover.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Corruption of Faith"
Copyright © 1997 Brenda English.
Excerpted by permission of Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Eight Days Later,
About the Author,
Also by Brenda English,