Fool's Mate

Chapter 1

The president of the United States was in the middle of surgery to remove a polyp from the presidential colon, a volcano of Vesuvian ferocity had erupted in Alaska, there’d been an assassination attempt on the military dictator of Myanmar, and it was only nine o’clock in the morning.

In the eighteen months since she’d taken this job, Josie Kincaid had trained herself to edit out the surrounding cacophony of the bustling newsroom while working on a story. But sometimes it required every ounce of her concentration. Using one hand to mark up the latest version of the Myanmar script scheduled to air in fifteen minutes, she used the other to brush away the swath of dark auburn hair that perpetually bungee jumped across her face. Josie quickly inserted a line about the country’s ethnic minorities being coerced into adopting a constitution that severely limited their rights, though she was well aware her space for hard news was tighter than ever with the new “Hollywood Watch” segment that had just started running at the bottom of every hour, which she made no secret of despising and openly referred to as “Tits & Glitz.” The Myanmar story would end up as one more piece of filler between the Hollywood celebrity trials, beltway peccadilloes, and pharmaceutical commercials increasingly aired by the News Channel, or TNC, as everyone called it.

The plywood door to Josie’s office flew open and banged against the back wall. She glanced up at Hector Rojas, sharply dressed in one of the perfectly tailored designer suits and ties that he’d become known for during his four years as anchorman. Unfortunately, it was true—that on most days the news desk received more e-mails about Hector’s wardrobe than any of their news stories.

“Come in,” said Josie, even though Hector had already walked the three feet to her desk.

“I just finished with Nickel-and-Dimed and she told me to send you over.”

“Nickel-and-Dimed” was what everyone called Nicole Dimon, the perennially constipated-looking assistant director of news hired last month with a mandate to cut costs by forty percent across the board.

“Be warned. Be careful. Be afraid.” Hector’s eyes widened in warning.

She merely frowned. Josie wasn’t worried. Already she performed the work of two staff writers and was underpaid by at least twenty-five percent according to industry standards. Besides, anchors earned their livings by overreacting. The only TNC employees who appeared to have taken more drama classes than the anchors were the weather announcers.

“Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.” Josie recited the title of her favorite Ella Fitzgerald song.

“I’m serious,” said Hector. “She’s really on the warpath this time.”

“Our dental insurance was cancelled the day before my root canal, and my car was towed four times after our parking passes were revoked last month. The only reason it’s not up to ten is because I haven’t sprung it from the impoundment lot. How could things possibly get any worse?”

“She found out that some of the tech guys were scamming their overtime.”

“Isn’t it regulated by a computer clock?” asked Josie.

“Exactly. They found a way to override the time,” said Hector. “So now when any workers not on salary leave the building they have to stand under the big lobby clock holding a copy of that day’s newspaper while a guard takes a photo.”

“It would appear that we’re now officially hostages, only without the free room and board.”

“Get this—I have to wear my ties at least three times and the studio is no longer paying for shoes and socks,” complained Hector.

“Next time they ask you to present at one of those fancy award shows you should arrive in red Crocs with white socks,” joked Josie.

“You just gave me an idea!” Hector darted out of Josie’s office in the direction of makeup and wardrobe.

The phone rang. She checked the caller ID and hit speakerphone. “Dad!” No matter how busy her life was, Josie tried to speak to Ed a few times a week, although more often than not she left a message. It was safe to say that her father had a better social life than she did.

“How’s my favorite reporter?” Ed cleared his throat and sounded very much as if this was his first sentence of the day.

“Most likely about to get into huge trouble,” she told him the truth. “Again.”

“Don’t sweat it. Everyone in the news biz knows that you can’t make a nice wine without stomping on a few grapes.”

“It’s the new head of finance,” said Josie.

“Move back to Philly and we’ll open an ice cream parlor called the Daily Scoop,” joked her father.

“Only if you promise not to eat all the rum raisin.” She made light of her father’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Josie’s phone vibrated, and she saw that Nickel-and-Dimed’s secretary was hunting her down. “If you murder someone in Georgia does that mean capital punishment or just life in prison?”

“Clarence Darrow liked to say that although he never killed a man, he read quite a few obituaries with a lot of pleasure,” replied her father.

“Love you,” said Josie.

“Remember—you’re the best,” Ed said before hanging up.

Josie tapped a key on her computer that shot the updated Myanmar story over to the control room. Then she set off on the long, winding trek to Nickel-and-Dimed’s office. The sprawling newsroom took up an entire city block in downtown Atlanta. The main floor reminded her of the nervous system of a giant organism with thousands of ganglia stretching out toward hundreds of desks, cubicles, computers, cameras, and three soundproof studios for live broadcasts, interviews, and taped shows. Outside these enclosed areas, twenty-foot-high ceilings and miles of coaxial cable hummed overhead, workers barked at one another against a background of ringing phones, and high-pitched bleeps erupted from flashing computer screens. Conversation was almost impossible without raising your voice to a shout. Everyone had the volume on their numerous electronic devices turned to “high” and their patience levels turned to “low.”

Josie paced back and forth in the corridor outside Nickel-and-Dimed’s office while waiting her turn. The cement floor was covered in drab gray industrial carpeting splotched with dark coffee stains and peeling at the edges. Mounted on the far wall was a large electronic tickertape with feverish neon green digits racing across it from left to right. Directly below that a long digital strip known as the Zipper flashed breaking news from around the globe. Underneath it a row of chrome clocks showed the time in Los Angeles, Honolulu, Sydney, Singapore, Istanbul, and London. At the end of the line a hand-lettered cardboard banner stated: “BAGHDAD IS 8 HOURS AHEAD!”

Without the clocks the hour of the day would be deceiving. Every inch not cast in shadow by a desk or file cabinet was harshly illuminated with the glare of overhead fluorescent lighting. The cavernous center was windowless and always thrumming along like a ship at high noon on the equator. Around the perimeter were a honeycomb of small offices jam-packed with industrial furniture, computers, and small flickering television sets.

Josie checked her cell phone messages and then leaned her head back to put in some eye drops.

A secretary peeked out into the hallway. “Ms. Dimon will see you now.”

A soundman walking past made a scary face at the name “Ms. Dimon.” Josie suspected that he was the one who pasted Nickel-and-Dimed’s photo over Osama bin Laden’s head on the “Wanted: Dead or Alive” poster in the control room.

Nickel-and-Dimed’s office was the second largest on the floor—a testament to her power. All that was missing was a sign above the threshold saying, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Josie made no effort to conceal her irritation and impatience; she was an overworked, underpaid twenty-eight-year-old top news writer with a show to get out.

Rather than offer Josie a chair, Nickel-and-Dimed stood up. She was a fortyish woman in a steel gray suit with black-framed glasses propped up on a gunmetal gray helmet of hair. Josie wished she were back in her own office working on the Alaskan volcano story, which had great potential for a tie-in discussion on global warming, only it needed to be turned in by ten. Instead, she had to cope with hell-on-heels while suffering some serious bottle fatigue after staying out until four o’clock in the morning.

“What is it this time?” asked Josie. “Should we make fans out of folded cardboard to save on air-conditioning?” She knew that she was just gunning for a scene but couldn’t help herself.

Nickel-and-Dimed glanced down at the array of papers spread across her large ovary-shaped, glass-topped desk. “I’m simply mesmerized by your last expense report, Josephine.”

“Josie,” she quickly corrected her tormentor. “Or Jo.”

“Josie, I had no idea you were an aspiring novelist,” Nickel-and-Dimed eyeballed her from head to toe like an assassin searching for the best shot. “What a shame to waste such creativity in the news business.”

“It’s safe to say that most of our news is fiction these days anyway,” replied Josie. Only she suddenly became worried. Maybe Nickel-and-Dimed really was going to fire her—though considering what the station paid, they’d have to get a kid who delivered newspapers to take Josie’s job. The attitude of TNC’s parent company seemed to be that employees should pay them for the experience and privilege of working at the highest- rated cable news network in the country. At least it was until three months ago, when one of the networks decided to buy its own cable channel. Now they were running neck and neck.

Nickel-and-Dimed continued as if Josie was standing before her silent and contrite rather than hand on hip, impatiently shifting her weight from one foot to another. “Four hundred and twenty dollars in parking tickets, three hundred in deli meals, and, this is most interesting, a six hundred dollar bar bill from an establishment known as the Blue Monkey that sends accounts receivable out on the back of cocktail napkins.” Nickel-and-Dimed lifted up the napkin containing the black flair marker pen scrawl as if it was a dirty diaper.

Josie felt her irritation rising. “Nicole, I don’t have to tell you that like most of the people on this floor I hardly make any money to begin with.”

A lighting guy had recently come into possession of a list containing the executives’ salaries and immediately e-mailed copies to everyone in the building. As a result, Josie knew for a fact that Nicole earned ten times what she did.

Josie raised her hands in the air. “It’s understood that we live off reimbursements for expenses. T.E. always tells us not to ask for a raise but to use our expense accounts because that way the company can claim a deduction as opposed to shelling out more in payroll taxes.”

Nickel-and-Dimed peered over the black frames of her glasses, penciled eyebrows rising, as if to impress upon Josie that whatever the newsroom manager T.E. Strayhorn used to do was no longer company policy, if indeed it ever was. He might still be in charge of the news, but she was now in charge of the purse strings.

“Besides, those are all legitimate expenses,” argued Josie.

“Barclay Laundry—$245.25?” asked Nickel-and-Dimed. Her eyebrows appeared to meet somewhere in the middle of her forehead as she narrowed her bright green eyes to a catlike squint.

“I spent two nights going through dumpsters in Vancouver for that cigarette smuggling case,” explained Josie.

“And the bar tab?”

“Sources, interviews, beat cops,” Josie shot back. “Plus they serve food there.” It was actually true that the Blue Monkey served snacks, though the closest Josie had ever come to ordering any of them were the orange slices that arrived in her cocktails.

“Well, from what I understand, you’re not in the field anymore.” Nicole offered a smirk that bordered on a smile. “And therefore your expense account has been cut off as of now. This is a news BUSINESS, and if you’re not part of the profit then you’re a LOSS.”

“That’s not fair!” Josie protested. This would really put an end to her career as an investigative reporter.

“If I were you…I’d just be glad that our insurance company picked up the two thousand dollars for the motorboat you demolished last month.”

“Hey, that was a dent,” said Josie. “And T.E. was the one who came up with the idea and told me to rent it. Plus, that story on illegal riverboat gambling and prostitution is up for an award!”

“Not if the district attorney’s office has anything to say about it,” replied Nickel-and-Dimed. “It was illegal to release the client book containing the names of several prominent businessmen—who also happen to be heavy political contributors—while it was still needed as evidence. Not only do we now face the prospect of being sued, but currently the Federal Election Commission is no longer returning calls from any of our reporters.”

Excuse me,” Josie interrupted. “I mistakenly thought that as a news office it was our duty to inform viewers that their Commissioner of Public Works was accepting bribes. Because I don’t know what a hooker can possibly do that’s worth forty thousand dollars unless she comes with a new car.”

Nickel-and-Dimed virtually spat out her words. “There are channels and procedures for disseminating information in the proper way at the proper time and…”

Josie was already out the door. She stormed down the hall, angrily shaking her head, shoulder-length hair flying. She’d come to the network to make her mark on the world as an investigative reporter and had ended up as a desk jockey who was supposed to walk to work every day carrying her lunch in a brown paper bag. How would she ever break some big White House leak story while chained to a swivel chair writing about proposed tax code changes and not making enough money to fix the leak in her own bathroom? Josie hated to even think it, but why hadn’t she listened to her mother and gone to college? She wouldn’t have been the first person to take out her weight in student loans. At least the government was good for that.

Marching down the hall, Josie dug her heels into the carpet extra hard. “Well, that’s ten minutes of my life I won’t get back,” she thought.

Why hadn’t she just quit? It was the perfect moment to tell Nickel-and-Dimed what to do with all the long hours, constant neck tension, sleepless nights, laughable paychecks, parade of crazies and pack of lazies who were supposed to be assisting her.

Deep down, Josie knew why. Eventually the giant beast mesmerized the people who worked there, like a snake captivating its prey. They began living solely to feed and attend The Creature, which exhausted the mind and body, but provided the only adrenaline that could still satisfy. The truth was that despite all the bitching about it, she loved her job and wouldn’t know what else to do with herself.

As she strode past identical rows of cubicles the excitement and tension was palpable. Almost all of the reporters, directors, and producers working in the newsroom were Type A personalities, naturally born action junkies engaged in a multitude of vices as a way to stay sane during the lulls. But whether their thrill was scotch, sex, cocaine, or cards, for inveterate newshounds the ultimate rush was capturing a big story on the small screen. Unfortunately the high only lasted the few brief moments that your work was being broadcast. Doubts quickly followed—the segment could have been tighter, too much time was spent on a shot of the evidence, there should’ve been less B-roll and more of the subject stating his case. And so on.

Diving into the tiny windowless office she shared with another reporter, Josie slammed the door behind her, slumped deep into her desk chair, and stared at the chessboard next to her computer with intense concentration. The pieces were made of airline-sized alcohol bottles, with Wite-out having been applied to the caps of those representing the opposing team. Small squat Cointreaus were pawns, slightly taller Iceberg vodkas served as rooks, the svelte Frangelico represented the bishops, dark saddle-shaped Godiva bottles were knights, and for the king and queen there was champagne—tall elegant Moet topped with gold foil for Her, and an imposing red bottle of Piper for Him. Josie slid the white bishop three spaces to entice the black queen out from the safety of her home square.

The chessboard was surrounded by a jumble of empty soda cans, takeout cartons, plastic utensils and a snowfall of paper napkins. Behind Josie a low table showcased a dozen wilted ferns, a collection of dried stalks that were once potted plants, and bouquets of dead flowers that suggested a forest fire might have raged through the week before.

Josie pushed the button on a CD player next to her computer and the moody alto voice of Billie Holiday singing “This Bitter Earth” blew through the room in deep mournful gusts, like a cold December wind.

The door suddenly swung open so hard that it ricocheted off the wall and actually shuddered for a few seconds. In barged a big explosive man with ruddy cheeks, nose speckled with burst capillaries, and a large head of unkempt brownish gray hair that matched the bushy eyebrows. T.E. Strayhorn briefly adjusted the ever-present matchstick in the left side of his mouth, grabbed the cord of the CD player with his Ping-Pong paddle-sized hand, yanked the plug out of the wall socket, and scowled in Josie’s direction.

“Where in tarnation is the write-up on the treasury secretary’s speech last night?” boomed the newsroom manager in a deep bass voice that was equal parts Texas twang and Pall Malls.

Josie flicked over the white bishop on the chessboard with her thumb and middle finger. Then she casually handed him several pages of fresh copy from out of the mess on her desk.

After glancing through the lines T.E. muttered, “Uh-huh, uh-huh, good, uh-huh…” Then he started to sputter. “What! Jo, you can’t say that his hair was parted differently and that the bright blue tie didn’t suit his coloring, which goes better with warm autumn tones. HAVE YOU LOST YOUR COTTON-PICKIN’ MIND?”

“Yes I have General, but that was a while back, during the previous administration.”

“Then what is this hooey?” T.E. stomped his right foot on the floor like a bull about to charge.

“Reporters are always commenting on the hair, clothes, shoes and makeup of any female secretary of state or speaker of the house. Heaven forbid that she gets a new pair of reading glasses—eighty fashion editors are called on for commentary.”

“That’s because she’s a woman!” he growled. “And womenfolk like to know about that sort of thing.”

“Perhaps gay men want to know about a cabinet member’s hair, attire, and cologne,” replied Josie.

“Jo, how many times have I got to tell you that kickin’ doesn’t get you anywhere unless you’re a mule!” T.E. rolled his eyes, grunted, took a red pen out of his ink-stained pocket and slashed away at the offensive prose. “I get it. You’re trying to give me another heart attack, is that it?”

“No, General.”

“And quit calling me General. That was my great-great-granddaddy who led the Texas cavalry.”

“Yes, Chief. I presume you’re referring to the War of Northern Aggression in 1863.”

“Yer darn tootin’ I am. Though the Strayhorns were not slaveholders. And it’s not Chief, either, but T.E. Or Big T.E. if you want to be formal.”

“And is there a Little T.E.?” A hint of a smile played at the corners of her mouth.

“Nope, just my son, Even Bigger T.E., who was a linebacker at Texas A&M, and my Daddy, God rest his soul, the Biggest T.E. of ’em all.”

Her officemate, Sharon Stark, entered the compact space and collapsed into a chair next to the only other desk in the room. Sharon was petite and fair-skinned, with a sunlamp tan and hood of blond hair, outfitted in a neatly tailored fuchsia suit and accessorized from tip to toe. It was indeed a stark contrast to Josie’s T-shirt containing the slogan, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

Normally Sharon was made-up to the hilt, with a faceful of foundation, eye shadow for a nation, and lip gloss to spare. Today her mascara was in big raccoon circles and the carnation lipstick was smeared so that she appeared more like a blurry photograph of herself. Josie had never seen her coworker look such a wreck. If Sharon didn’t aggravate her so much by being pert and perky, Josie might actually ask if she’d been injured while covering a demolition derby.

“Sharon, you look like somethin’ the cat drug in,” declared T.E. “Don’t you dare go on air without stopping by makeup and gettin’ them to tart you up.”

He turned back to Josie. “I need something on the revised defense budget for tonight.”

“You mean the offense budget?” asked Josie. “I can’t tell the difference between the defense secretary and a hand puppet.”

“I don’t care if you can’t tell him from a dipped sheep,” growled T.E. “Baker is working on it, which of course means a rewrite for you at six o’clock, so cancel any plans you have for dinner.”

“T.E., I have an important engagement tonight!”

“You’re not so bad looking when you’re not dressed like ten miles of bad road,” said T.E. “I’m sure he’ll wait.”

“It’s not a date,” said Josie. “Can’t I just write the story now and let Baker review some of the video games he plays all day long for the website?”

T.E. lowered his voice, which was equivalent to a normal person’s shout. “Listen, I know Baker’s got nothin’ under that baseball cap except for hair, but his daddy just happens to be the chief financial officer of our parent company.”

“Maybe Baker can start earning his keep by figuring out how to make coffee and give shoulder massages while I fix all his work.” Josie toppled a pyramid of Chinese takeout cartons on her desk by poking at the bottom one with a pencil.

“And maybe you could take a few minutes and teach him a thing or two, Miss Smarty Pants!”

“Hang on a second,” said Josie and removed a notebook from a shelf above her desk. With black magic marker it was labeled “The T.E. Texas–English Dictionary,” edited by Josie Kincaid. “If you don’t mind my quoting the great T.E. himself.”

T.E. looked both amused and annoyed.

“Wait, here it is,” said Josie, locating the exact quote. ‘You can put your boots in the oven but that doesn’t make ’em into biscuits.’

T.E. shook his head from side to side with mock despair. “You Yankee gals can be colder than a pawnbroker’s smile.”

Josie perked up. “Oh, I don’t believe I have that one.” She reached for a pencil. “I’ll put it right here next to ‘as chuckleheaded as a prairie dog.’”

T.E. offered a horse-sized snort and began to stomp out of the room. But he paused at the door. “And don’t put anything funny in that defense budget script like when you called the last president a Dead Duck instead of a Lame Duck!”

Josie nodded her head with mock sadness. “An unfortunate accident all around.”

© Copyright 2010, Laura Pedersen. All rights reserved.