Writer’s Bone’s ongoing fiction series The Newspapermen follows the tireless reporters of a major metropolitan newspaper in the late 1930s. If you need to catch up, order a stiff drink and read Chapter 1: Ink and Drink Club.
Chapter Eleven: A Stiff Beat Part 1
By Dave Pezza
Betty Finton did not search long to find Henry Jones’ room on the first floor of the small New York City hospital. Police officers flanked the door, and a contingent of dapper men crowded the waiting room. At the center, Will Graham deferred and sweated beneath the bright camera flashes and constant interrogatives from every publication in the city. Among the commotion, Will noticed, suddenly and absolutely, Betty in a long blue bunched skirt, its white trim stained black from the train’s heavy soot. He immediately knew who she must be. Her bangs and her ponytail, her folded hands about the waste matched the picture already drawn in Will’s head.
Betty walked slowly toward the back of the crowd, peering into the other rooms—sterile and empty or engorged with hectic mortal struggles. Betty stood on her tiptoes, eyes beginning to swell.
“That’s it!” He yelled above slicked back hair and fedoras. “We’re done here.”
Will motioned to one of the guards. The previously bored foot solider stepped in front of Will and thrust his shotgun out like a crucifix before vampires. The photographs abated and the reporters shuffled out of the lobby. Will stood between Betty and Henry’s room.
“Miss Finton?” He asked.
“…yes?” She answered.
She was miles away, staring through Will.
“I am Will Graham, from the City Scribe. Shirley and Henry’s boss.”
“Oh yes. They’ve mentioned you. Thank you ever so much for your generosity.”
“That’s no problem. We take care of our own, but I’m assuming my generosity wasn’t enough.”
Betty looked at him, puzzled, as if he and the hospital had all just appeared before her.
“You’re still in the city,” Will explained.
“Right. Yes. I’m so sorry. I read this morning about Mr. Jones, and I just had to come.”
Will’s eyebrows furled.
“That’s mighty kind of you, Miss Finton, but I am afraid Henry isn’t…”
He caught the tears coming up through his throat and pushed them back down.
“He’s in a coma,” Will continued. “The damn quacks don’t know if he’ll pull through.”
Betty looked down at the white tile and brought her shoes to a point.
“He is a tough bastard though, Betty,” Will said, shortening the distance between them.
“He’ll pull through.”
Betty collapsed into Will. He felt tears soak through his white dress shirt. She looked over his shoulder to the red number four on Henry’s door.
“He’s going to pull through,” Will repeated like a prayer.
Will scavenged a cup of tea for Betty and calmed her down. They sat uncomfortably beneath the gaze of Henry’s two guards. Will had nothing left in him to give at the moment. He thought only of his own family now and of the one Henry might never have.
“I have to make a call. Will you be all right here?” He asked gesturing to the guards.
“I think so Mr. Graham,” she gulped. “Thank you so much.”
“I’ll be back in a jiff.”
Will half turned, already a few strides away.
“What’s the matter?”
“Do you think I could see him…?”
“I know he can’t see or hear me. But I think it’ll be better somehow.”
Will looked over to the nearest guard to see if he had heard.
“Can she?” Will asked.
The guards looked at each other.
“She’s come all the way down from Albany for Christ’s sake,” Will said.
“Fine,” the taller one blurted. “But quickly.”
Betty forced a smile.
Will called home. The NYPD said they would send a black and white, but anyone could be a suspect or a victim now. Everything was so muddled.
“Hi daddy!” His oldest daughter said
“How are you, honey? I miss you.”
“There’s a policeman here, but Mom said he’s going to keep my dollies safe,” she said. “He showed me his badge!”
“That’s great, baby, I’ll be home soon to give you a big hug.”
“Great! Where are you now?”
“I’m, um, at the, um, hospital,” Will said. “Visiting a sick friend.”
“Aw, tell your friend to get better soon because I have a lot to show you!” Will’s daughter said. “I drew you a picture at school!”
Will’s eyes dampened, but he couldn’t help smiling.
“Can’t wait to see it,” he said. “Can you put your mother back on, sweetie?”
“Bye, daddy!” She said.
Will heard her thrust the phone at her mother and then skip off.
“I’m worried, Will,” his wife said. “What’s going on?”
“I’m still at the hospital. I can’t leave him yet. I just can’t.”
“We’re scared, Will.”
“I know. I’ll get to the bottom of this,” he declared. “Give the girls a kiss for me.”
“They need you, Will.”
“I’ll be home as soon as I can. I promise.”
Will groggily put the phone back down in its cradle and then picked it back up. He could feel the danger they were all in now. He wanted to rush home, but the thought of leaving Henry here alone punched his gut from the inside.
He had the operator try to reach Shirley at the lie low and the office, but no dice. He would just have to wait.
Will rubbed his forehead and walked back through the lobby. He stopped dead paces away from Henry’s door.
It was open, and the room was filled with blue uniforms and white coats. The doctors were bent over the bed, pumping on Henry’s chest, but Will saw Henry’s pale face and blank eyes.
“Where’s Betty?” Will asked the empty lobby.
He rushed to the door and was met with the barrel of a shotgun.
“Where’s the girl?!” He yelled at the guard.
“You tell us!” The guard screamed back.
Will felt a cold breeze from Henry’s open window. It rustled the sheets on the fallen reporter’s bed. A crumbled piece of paper fell to floor. On it was written in red lipstick,