“An intelligent, textured and taut thriller about political corruption through the lens of a disgraced journalist.” –Best Thrillers
When reporter Levi Cole returns to his rural Texas hometown to help a colleague and married ex-girlfriend report on a murder, he finds out he’s caught in a deep conspiracy.
Two years after an anonymous tip helps reporter Levi Cole break one of the biggest political scandals in recent memory, the same unknown conspirators expose him for fabricating parts of his stories. After resigning from his cushy job in Dallas, Levi returns to his rural Texas Panhandle hometown to regroup and win over Kat Hallaway – the married woman and fellow reporter he left behind – by helping her cover a grisly murder. But, as Levi and Kat get close to unraveling the mystery, she is kidnapped by the killer. When Levi finally finds Kat, he learns the identity of his tormentors and how they connect to the murder. Faced with the truth, Levi must decide how far he will go to rescue the woman he loves and regain control of his life.
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|Publisher:||Black Rose Writing|
|Edition description:||First Printing ed.|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.57(d)|
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In two years, Lucky Levi had developed an affinity for skinny bitches. The drink, that is. Vodka, soda, and lime, a low-calorie cocktail that helped him fit in his suits despite drinking at hotel bars far more frequently than a person should. And, if he only wanted to appear tipsy for the sake of female company, he could discreetly tell the bartender to hold the vodka.
Levi Cole, chief investigative reporter for the Dallas Daily Star, also enjoyed flying to the East Coast, staying in fancy hotels, and sleeping with women like Emily Greene. She worked in Atlanta for Georgia Barrett, who hosted cable's second-most-watched primetime news program. And as the mid-term elections drew closer, Levi had become a frequent member of the show's discussion panels, which meant more opportunities with Emily.
"Are you ever going to tell me how you got that dirt on Lockwood?" she asked as she put her hand on his bare forearm. Like all the other times they'd been together, Levi had rolled up his white shirtsleeves and loosened his tie after appearing on the show.
"You're cute, but you know I can't reveal —"
"My sources," they said together.
"So, I'm just cute?"
"No," Levi said, leaning in. Emily was, as it happened, skinny. And blonde. And tall. As she had been during those previous encounters, Emily was wearing what she had once called her "good" perfume. Maybe a little too much, but with his senses dulled and his inhibitions waning, it was in the sweet spot.
"But," Levi continued, "I like to try and keep it professional when I can."
"And when you can't?"
Emily had gotten comfortable enough with Levi to skip most of the small talk. Levi took another sip of his drink and leaned in closer, his lips just brushing Emily's left earlobe.
"Come see for yourself."
* * *
Emily tripped and nearly fell into the doorframe as they made their way into Levi's suite. He had been guiding Emily by the small of her back, allowing him to keep her on her feet. Good catch. That would've killed the mood.
"Scotch or vodka?" Levi asked, opening the minibar.
"My kinda girl."
"Woman," she said.
Levi turned around just in time to see Emily drop her black bra. She was still wearing the black skirt from earlier that night when Levi had been on Georgia's show to weigh in on national politics. He used to wonder why they cared what he thought. He didn't know the politicians, nor did he have any unique insight. Or did he? It didn't matter, so long as they kept booking him.
"My mistake," Levi said before putting down the liquor and walking toward Emily. He paused just before their lips touched. Her eyes were swimming, and she couldn't focus on him. Whatever. It's fine. He kissed her before taking her right hand and moving toward the bed. Emily tried to follow but tripped again.
Shit. When he was in college in Austin, Levi and his friends were diligent about making sure they never went too far. Don't put yourself in that situation, and no trouble can follow. Levi hadn't had to worry about it since the night he graduated from The University of Texas. After getting his free shot at every bar on Sixth Street, Levi found himself dancing with a petite brunette in her little black dress. As they made their way out of the club at closing time, Levi asked if she was going home with him. She said yes. His buddies said no.
But now, alone in a hotel room with a woman he'd slept with before, he had no such guidance. Could he ask her what she wanted to do, if she felt okay at regular intervals? That might work, unless she was blackout drunk, at which point it wouldn't matter how much consent she gave.
No matter how badly he wanted to sleep with Emily, Levi knew he would do the right thing and preserve his ability to face his reflection in the morning. He knew what it was like to sleep with Emily. He didn't need to do it again tonight. Levi also reminded himself that he was a public figure. He needed to keep his name below the headlines, not in them.
"Come here. I think it's time for bed," Levi said.
"No, I mean time for you to lie down and sleep. I'll get you a ride home in the morning."
Emily pouted for a moment, but then stumbled toward the bed and curled up next to Levi, still in his pants and shirt. Lucky Levi my ass.
* * *
Coherent thoughts escaped Levi as he pulled the anvils from his eyelids and slowly pried them open. How long had he been asleep? He picked up his buzzing cellphone and saw the time. Who was calling him at 12:30 a.m. on a Saturday? Tim Edwards. Fuck me.CHAPTER 2
Hot bile crept up Levi's throat as he digested the typewritten letter.
To whom it may concern,
Please find enclosed a DVD with several video interviews regarding the reporting of Levi Cole over the last four years. In these interviews, sources quoted by Cole detail his misquotation and misrepresentation of facts. As you will see, the only accurate work he has done during his tenure with you is his reporting on the Lockwood scandal.
I trust you will use this information to serve the public interest.
Tim Edwards, the managing editor of the Dallas Daily Star, retrieved a laptop and opened it when Levi finished reading. Publisher Christopher Applegate and a corporate lawyer were also seated at the long table in the executive conference room, and everyone watched for ten minutes as the first source spoke. A voice offscreen asked a high school football coach questions about a story Levi had written more than two years ago. The coach detailed how Levi had misquoted him during a preseason interview. The quote had been part of a flowery lede detailing how two-a-days made men out of boys and prepared them for both football and life.
"I never said that. All I said was that these practices are hard every year and that sometimes it helps kids decide whether or not they really want to play. I liked his version better, though. My wife cut out the story and put it up on our fridge at home."
Edwards stopped the DVD. "That would be enough right there, but there are five of these interviews. I had to sit through an hour of that shit."
Over the years, Levi had convinced himself he wasn't a shoddy reporter. He hadn't written outright lies. Fudges, maybe. Sensationalized anecdotes and polished quotes — things busy reporters sometimes do but never talk about, especially in sports and features — all to tell a greater truth. That story had earned him praise. The coach was as redneck as they come, and to quote him directly would've made Levi, and the Star, look bad. And, just as the guy had said on the DVD, he was grateful Levi had made him sound intelligent in one of the state's largest newspapers. Everybody won. That's why he'd done it. A few victimless cases of journalistic malpractice during a time when he needed to catch a break. Levi had been in a bad way when he started at the Star, as low as he'd ever been. Of course, neither Edwards nor Applegate had known Levi then. Now, Levi was top of mind. Lockwood had put him on their radar — on everyone's radar — and anything before that hadn't mattered.
"You know what comes next," Edwards said. "We're going to have to run retractions for just about everything you've ever written. We don't even know where to begin."
"Hold on now," the lawyer said. "I've watched this DVD, too. None of the people sounded angry. None said they were going to sue. In fact, that guy isn't the only one who thanked Mr. Cole."
"So? We printed inaccuracies and misrepresented sources, and we know about it," Edwards said. "If it ever gets out that we found out about this and didn't fire Levi, and print retractions, we're through as a newspaper. Readers will never trust us again."
"And what do you think happens if we run a retraction to every story our chief investigative reporter has ever written?" the lawyer asked. "What do you think happens to all those awards we won for the Lockwood stories? He wasn't the only one who reported on that."
"That doesn't matter," Edwards said. "We can't bury this."
"You know, I never thought I'd agree with a lawyer," Applegate said. "But I don't want to have employed the next Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair."
Levi saw his chance. The bosses didn't know who'd sent the letter and DVD. He did.
"Why don't you just let me leave," Levi said. "I'll be out of here. When someone asks why I stopped writing stories, all you have to say is you can't discuss personnel matters. I'll stick my head in the sand, come up for air on TV in a week or so, and announce that I decided to go freelance again."
"Do you think whoever sent this is just going to let us sit on it?" Edwards asked.
"I do. This note is from the same anonymous source from the Lockwood stories."
"You said an old friend turned you onto Lockwood," Edwards said.
Edwards pinched the bridge of his nose.
"The original note was also anonymous, but it was addressed to me, personally, when I was a freelance sports and features writer," Levi said. "This is about me. Plus, this new letter says that the Lockwood reporting is good. This person wanted me to expose Lockwood. He won't want you to put that reporting into question."
Levi had become a professional bullshitter, but this time he was selling the truth.
"I'll buy that," Applegate said.
Edwards shook his head. Levi had known Edwards for a few years now, and they'd never seen eye to eye. Edwards was cordial enough but had politely declined the time Levi had invited him out for drinks. He didn't change Levi's copy much, but he never gave Levi positive feedback, either. Levi had concluded that Edwards was jealous. It's the only explanation that made sense. The implausible alternative was that Edwards didn't respect Levi's talent.
"Alright then, it's settled. I'll coordinate with HR," the lawyer said. He turned to Levi. "As of right now, you are no longer an employee of the Dallas Daily Star. To help keep this quiet like we just discussed, I won't have security escort you out. But I will need you to leave immediately. Per company policy, we'll pack up your personal items — discreetly of course — and send them to you. What's your address?"
Levi started to give them his Arlington address, but as he thought about having complete freedom for what he hoped would be a brief period, another great idea struck. "Just send everything to Bison Ridge, Texas," Levi said. "204 Broadway."
Levi had no reason to stay in the Metroplex. He rarely spent more than a night or two in his condo during election season. He'd been touring the network Sunday morning shows and participating in cable news discussion panels next to reporters from the Times and Post. The Star's bosses preferred him on the road, sitting among journalism's heaviest hitters, promoting the paper's national political coverage. He was their traveling East Coast bureau chief.
Levi used to feel like a fraud. Those other reporters had covered the White House. They'd met U.S. presidents and foreign leaders, and most had broken major national and international political scandals. Levi — along with Edwards, Applegate, and a few others at the Star — knew how underqualified he was to be in their presence. But when he started getting booked more frequently, Levi realized none of that mattered. He was charismatic, had an easy smile, and his stories had affected real change. And, according to those respected reporters, Levi had "changed the course of American political history."
Levi's nausea had passed by the time he'd left the building and removed his tie. Not that he deserved to avoid a life sentence in journalism jail, but Lucky Levi had once again emerged unscathed.CHAPTER 3
Kat Hallaway's eyelids popped open at the sound of the dinging elevator, which had rudely ended her five-second nap. The third floor's trophy case greeted her as always. She ducked her head and hurried past the Amarillo Morning Standard's 1963 Pulitzer Prize medal for public service.
"Kat, I need you for a sec."
Shit. Greg Bishop had summoned her in his signature style — yelling at her from his desk through the glass walls of his office, which was decorated with framed front pages hanging on the wall and a coat rack in the corner wearing a lonely navy blazer. Nobody ever mentioned it, but the paper's managing editor also had management-for- dummies books stacked up on the side of his L-shaped desk.
"What brings you in on a Saturday afternoon?" Kat asked.
"Shut the door, please," he said.
"I've got to sit down and start writing."
"I only need you for a minute."
It was never a minute with Bishop. In his world, every story every reporter ever worked on was essential to the paper. There were always more sources to interview, more background to dig up. Bishop was intelligent and cared about the craft of daily journalism, but it was fucking exhausting.
Kat's assignment had been to write a bullshit feature about a local pumpkin farm as it prepared for Halloween and Thanksgiving. She clenched her jaw and wondered what sage advice Bishop could give about that piece of essential journalism — the B section centerpiece, which was more about the cute kids in her photo than the text surrounding it.
"You're the boss."
"I know I haven't been here long, and I haven't done a lot to get to know everyone, and I apologize for that," he said. "But, I've started reviewing the staff's past work. You've done some impressive stuff here."
"Yep. Two-time Reporter of the Year," Kat said. It seemed like a lifetime ago, but Kat had once been the pride of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. In addition to those awards, the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors had given her a third-place Investigative Report award and an honorable mention in the Breaking News Report category.
"It's been about four years since you've won anything, though. Judging by your submissions, I'm not surprised. And, I don't know if you've checked the board out there, but your page view numbers are low."
Kat sighed. Bishop was right. The dismal sum of her combined clicks from stories, videos, and photo slideshows mocked her every day from the whiteboard at the newsroom's back wall. Despite covering the area's prominent crime stories and trials, the name Katherine Hallaway remained glued to the bottom of the ever-shrinking list. She never bothered with taking and editing video, or providing extra photos for slideshows, unless explicitly told to do so. The night reporters, however, were eager to record endless footage and snap countless stills of the graphic and deadly wrecks they covered. They were young, most were unmarried, and none realized the pitfalls of working off the clock. They wanted to seem like team players and thought their loyalty would be rewarded. Maybe that worked in other industries. Movies and TV continued to spin that story, the same one Kat had heard when she was young and had the scanner-hound beat. That was before "page views" and "web traffic" had become more important than journalism. J-school Kat wouldn't have stood for it. Hungover Kat didn't give a shit.
The Web department updated the board on Monday and Thursday mornings. It was a source of public humiliation disguised as a way to give bonuses. The first bonus came at a weekly page view threshold — Kat didn't know or care what it was — then there were monthly winners. The most dedicated ambulance chasers could earn a whole three hundred extra dollars a month if they "earned" all the available bonus money. If a reporter hit their monthly threshold three consecutive months, another bonus. Hitting it all twelve months meant a New Year's bonus. Kat imagined it was like working for a high-pressure sales company, right down to that damn whiteboard — though at any other business, there'd be at least one more zero at the end of the monthly pot.
"I'm not sure what you want me to say." Kat leaned back in her chair. She knew she was underperforming. She didn't care.
"I didn't bring you in here for a lecture." He leaned toward Kat and lowered his voice. "I wanted to tell you that more layoffs are coming in December. At least that way, people will be able to spend a long Christmas break with their families."
"Again? It's only been, what, eight months since the last round? Do you know who's getting laid off yet?" Kat's volume increased with each question.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Deep Background"
Copyright © 2018 Rick Treon.
Excerpted by permission of Black Rose Writing.
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