“Don’t even start with the excuses, Hugh. You’re fired.”
Trapped inside the glass-walled office, Hugh Schaeffer planted his feet before the City Editor’s desk and tried to get his bearings. Outside in the newsroom, journalists and copy editors were hard at work. He would have been too, if Bud Kresnick hadn’t confronted him the moment he stepped off the elevator and ordered him into the corner office.
It was just like Bud to incinerate a relatively happy Monday by leveling threats. ‘Relative’ being the operative word. Hugh’s latest live-in love, Melissa, had moved out of his apartment, taking his flat-screen TV with her.
Women, the thieving witches, always took something on the way out. His flat-screen TV. His microwave. Last March, Tamara Kelly made off with his entire sound system including the speakers he’d installed in every room of his condo. From the looks of the plaster, she’d used a blunt spoon to dig them out.
The weaker sex, my ass. Every last member of the pilfering sex should be banished to the seventh circle of hell.
Hugh grappled for a sense of calm. “You don’t want to fire me.” His trusty intuition warned that this time the City Editor would make good on the threat. “I’ll work late. Move up the deadlines, pile on the work—I’m your man.”
“Bullshit. You missed another deadline.”
Bud folded his hands over his expansive gut. “I went to press with a hole on page one. Know what I filled it with? Page four fluff. A ribbon cutting ceremony that’ll make me the laughingstock of every respectable paper in Ohio.”
“It won’t happen again,” Hugh said, thinking, this is the third deadline I’ve missed this month.
It wasn’t his fault. Melissa had been spilling tears across his apartment, in some sort of premenstrual funk over the sculpture she couldn’t finish. She blamed his vibes, claimed his energy was dark and repressive and his inability to commit thwarted her creative flow. He’d vacillated between consoling her and camping out in front of the tube to watch the Browns lose to the Steelers, with a six-pack at his elbow.
On the other side of the desk, Bud wasn’t buying. “You’ve got an addiction, pal. Now it’s cost you your job.”
Hugh glowered. “I’m not a heavy drinker. Not anymore.”
“I’m talking about women.”
He flinched. “Okay—you’re right. I need a twelve-step program.”
“You also need a job since you’re no longer employed by the Akron Register.” When Hugh grumbled a protest, Bud waved the words away. “Listen, I was excited when I hired you. I knew you’d been thrown off four other newspapers. I also knew you’d once been a fine investigative reporter, one of the best in the state. I even felt bad last summer when I gave you the Liberty gig. You’re a cold-hearted bastard, and writing cotton candy prose must’ve nearly killed you.”
Which was true. Writing an upbeat feature about the money raised to pay for a kid’s bone marrow transplant wasn’t exactly Hugh Schaeffer material. No one had been gunned down at close range or absconded with thousands of dollars of public money. There was no sexual impropriety in high office to report or juicy grist about a corporation dumping some toxic stew into Lake Erie.
But he’d taken the assignment without complaint because Bud wanted to punish him for missing yet another deadline. Not my fault. Hugh was between live-in lovers at the time. When he met Zoe, a vivacious personal trainer, he left the article on union corruption in limbo.
Dodging the thought, he stuffed his pride. It was time to grovel. “If you fire me, there isn’t a newspaper in Ohio that’ll put me on the payroll. Not with five strikes against me.” Nervous tension wound through his muscles—this would be the end of his career. What would he do? He’d be a failure, a has-been—he’d be pathetic. “I’ll do anything. Give me one more chance.”
At the desperation in Hugh’s voice, Bud lowered his brows. But the City Editor surprised him when his expression softened. “Maybe you should try therapy.”
Bud slowly rubbed his chin. “Seriously, pal. Get a therapist. Talk about it.”
“Talk about…” A sense of foreboding crept into his blood.
The members only club of newspaper editors was so tight knit, it was nearly incestuous. Had Bud heard through the grapevine about Hugh’s involvement in the Trinity Investment scandal? Ancient history, but it was the kind of archeological dig that could bury a man for years.
Fourteen years had passed since he’d written the article that derailed his life. Had Bud learned the sordid details from a colleague? The article, written when Hugh was a rookie, brought him perilously close to his subject. Naïve and eager, he plunged into the murky world of celebrity when he was too young to comprehend the danger. Had he loved the celebrated philanthropist, Cat Seavers? Impossible to recall—the intervening years had washed away the particulars of his emotional state even if they hadn’t absolved him of his sickly remorse. Her death and the subsequent uproar nearly destroyed him. He sought absolution in drink and women. He survived, barely, and his journalistic style became edgier, more in-your-face.
When he couldn’t find his voice, Bud said, “What are you, two years away from forty? All you do is chase tail, which has me thinking you aren’t chasing so much as running.”
“I’m not running from anything,” Hugh replied with enough heat to nearly convince himself. But if the City Editor had been a goddamn mystic he couldn’t have been more accurate.
“Tell you what.” Bud turned toward his computer and navigated through the Internet. “Remember those websites for the Perini girl? The ones where people donated cash for her bone marrow transplant?”
“They’re still up, bringing in money.”
“She had the operation months ago.” Hugh’s inner antenna went on alert. Why were people across the country still making donations? Blossom Perini was on the mend. “What’s her father doing with all the cash?”
“Gee, Hugh, I don’t know. Think he’s funneling greenbacks into a vacation condo?”
“Lots of good people donated money for the girl’s medical expenses. A real shame if Anthony Perini misappropriated the funds.”
Hugh’s brain whirled. “He could be doing anything—investing, buying cars—I’ll bet he’s already put thousands in his 401k, the bastard.”
“You tell me.”
“Okay, I will.” It might take a few weeks to uncover the scam, but if it put him back in Bud’s good graces, what the hell.
“But don’t tell me on my dime because you’re fired. You want to do some digging? Do it without an expense account from the Akron Register.”
Stunned, he let out a gargled laugh. “You’re telling me to spend a few weeks in Liberty without a paycheck or an expense account? Are you shitting me?” How much did he have in his checking account—a thousand dollars? Saving for a rainy day had never been his style. “If you want me to jump through hoops, I will. But not without greenbacks to make the gymnastics palatable.”
“Then forget it. I’m cutting you loose.”
The irritation churning Hugh’s gut mixed with fury. “That’s it? I’m fired unless I dig up dirt without pay?” Which wasn’t the worst of it. Liberty was a time warp from the 1950s. They rolled up the sidewalks and turned out the lights at 9:00 P.M. No nightlife, nothing. “You think I’m so desperate I’d consider it?”
Bud picked up a pen and rolled it between his thumb and forefinger with galling disinterest. “I have work to do.” He turned back to his computer. “And stay away from women while you’re in Liberty. Who knows? You might produce decent copy if you give your gonads a rest.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish