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 10: Hook ‘Em Part 1
By Dave Pezza
Henry gripped his pistol’s handle with his right hand and failed to stop the bleeding with his left. His father, an officer in the Great War, had handed the U.S. Army-issued Colt 1911 down to Henry before he died. Henry was just nine years old when his father, who would later succumbed to complications from exposure to poison gas, collapsed on the front stoop.
Henry never thought he would need to use the military weapon, especially against the city’s finest. He looked at the gun now and thought of his old man. The pain in his side grew worse every second. The heat coming off the wound surprised him the most. Trickling blood, like oil leaking from a running engine, kept his hands warm and slippery. Henry pushed against the back alley’s pavement with his dress shoes, slipping before gaining some traction and squaring himself with a brick wall. He didn’t want to believe it, but could feel that this was it. He would die here, in a filthy back alley near city hall, his crimson blood oozing unevenly on the black tar. If only he could pass on what he had seen and heard to Shirley, they would have their story.
He thought of Shirley in her green silk robe and despair shot through him. He would never see her again. He would regret that the most, not making an honest woman out of her, no ginger-topped runts with his last name.
It could have been worse, he thought. If not for this damn story, we would'nt have had each other at all.
A month earlier, the break of their lives had sought them out. Betty Finton, Hal Finton’s own daughter, had come to them at the park saying she would be willing to help them track Finton down and find out what he might know, if anything, about the city’s lingering corruption. In a week’s time, Shirley, Betty, and Henry had become a journalistic team. Betty was undercover “reconnecting” with her father and gathering any information about his dealings she could find. Henry ran all over the city in back alleys, bars, and places of ill repute following leads to no avail. Shirley coordinated it all and kept track of what they had and what they needed, helping Henry craft their story piece by piece. Finally, Betty brought back the king of all leads.
“I think I’ve got something big Shirley, really big,” Betty whispered into the phone’s receiver late one Friday night.
“You better come down here then, I don’t trust this lines.”
“All right, I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“We’ll be waiting.”
An hour past, then two. Around 2:00 a.m., Henry put on his overcoat.
“I’ll check in with the pay phones, just in case she turns up here,” he said, easing his fedora onto his head.
Just as he turned to the door knob, a loud knock pierced the small apartment. Betty stood soaked through and through, gasping for air.
“Betty, what happened?” Shirley asked, showing her to the couch.
“Someone was following me, I don’t know if it was my father or someone with the gangsters, I don’t know.”
“Did you ditch ‘em?” Henry asked, grasping the pistol in his overcoat’s pocket.
Shirley threw him a look of disappointment.
“I need to know, Shirley,” Henry said, his eyes leading Shirley’s down to the concealed firearm.
Shirley’s faced turned grave, and she knelt down to meet Betty’s eyes.
“I think so, but I can’t be sure," Betty gasped.
“It’s okay, you’re safe now. You’ve done a tremendous job,” Shirley said with a wide, caring smile.
She hugged Betty. Henry watched, captivated by Shirley's empathetic touch and care.
“I’ll keep an eye out from across the street, just in case. You gals need to have a nice chat; get to the bottom of this damn story.”
Outside the rain rinsed the dirty city streets only to pool the mud and muck in hidden alleys and storm drains. Henry lit a small cigar and cozied up to the apartment complex’ exterior brick wall. Henry pulled the fedora low on his eyes, the coals from the end of his cigar lit up the lower part of his face. He watched them slog through the spring rain, dodging rain drops as they rushed along. Henry would never understand; it was only water. It will dry, the storm will pass. If anything, he welcomed it, its damp smell, the way it cleared the hot, crowded streets.
He caught his shadow from the street lamp where the brick wall met the sidewalk. He gave off a sinister profile, leaning against the brick with both hands shoved in his trench coat pockets. The looks from the faces of passersby, shielding themselves from the rain and his glaze, confirmed the shadow’s image. Henry chuckled at this visage of himself, so far from what he considered Henry Jones to be.
But what if someone did turn up at the apartment, some thug with a bulge in his pinstriped suit jacket? Henry asked himself. Would I really have the stones to put the bastard down, to start a shootout in the middle of the street like one those gangland stories?
He doubted himself at first, but then he thought of Shirley in the apartment and young Betty. If it was necessary, yes. He didn't think that would be the outcome of their case, but, if so, he was ready. He would see it through.
After a few hours the city street was all but dead, and Henry, back inside, cold, wet, and smelling of tobacco, rejoined Shirley and Betty.
“Henry, we’ve got ‘em,” Shirley said with confidence a tinge of girlish excitement in her voice.
Betty slept on the couch, still buttoned into her coat.
“She couldn’t get it all out fast enough, and as soon as she did she nearly passed out.”
“Well, if you’re right, she has certainly earned some shuteye.”
Henry placed the pistol on the kitchen counter and then hung his overcoat, suit jacket, and fedora on the coat rack. He moved back to the kitchen and pulled the coffee out of the cupboard.
“Well, darn it Henry, don’t you want to know?”
“I do, and we have a long night ahead of us, but first things first,” he said and wrapped his arm around her waist, kissing her neck.
“Are you serious?” Shirley asked playfully.
Henry looked at her squarely, and said with a smirk,
“We got a lot of work to do tonight.”
Betty slept only a few hours, waking to the sound of muffled, punctuated clicks. Shirley fluttered about the kitchen in an emerald silk bathrobe, pencil in her ear, and copy in her hands. Shirley noticed Betty stirring, and set her crimson hair into a high pony tail.
“Morning,” Shirley said blankly. “Coffee?”
“Yes, please. Good Lord, did I really sleep in my overcoat?”
Shirley straightened her robe.
“Honey, have you seen this place? I wouldn’t fuss on our account. Besides, you could barely keep your eyes open.”
“Did I get it all out?”
“I sure hope so. Anymore and I don’t know if I would have believed you,” Shirley joked.
The clicking persisted from behind the bedroom door.
“Henry is still typing it all up. I was looking for the first bit just now,” Shirley answered Betty before she could ask.
“Thank goodness,” Betty said, still exhausted. “I must look a mess.”
Shirley took a mental assessment of her own image: hair up, in a bathrobe with company around, and clothes and newspapers strewn about the apartment. Her fingers were smudged black from ink and graphite.
“I think I better hop off and right myself,” Betty said.
“Honey, I think it might be best if you stayed here a bit longer,” Shirley said delicately.
Betty was part of it now, a deep background source. And it would mean that Betty would have to be careful now, more than any of them. A young girl like her, holed up in a crummy city apartment with a couple of outlaw reporters. It sounded like a dime store fiction. But it was true and dangerous.
“You think they’re still looking for me?”
“Most likely, especially if they find out what you know.”
Was this too much for the girl? She thought. Were the grim, vicious details necessary?
Shirley put herself in Betty’s wrinkled overcoat. After all that she had risked and accomplished, if it was Shirley, she wanted to be on the level. Leaving Betty in the dark diminished her role.
The muffled clacking and clicking continued, steadier.
“…they’ll hunt you down,” Shirley finished.
Shirley’s face turned hard like granite.
“Oh,” Betty said inwardly.
“But Henry and I won’t let that happen, you hear?”
Shirley convinced Betty and herself.
Betty slumped back into the couch, her courage dripping off like the blood from a slaughter animal.
The clicking stopped.
“Let me get you that coffee,” Shirley said, pouring the pot with an encouraging smile.
That afternoon, Shirley stood in front of an old oak desk, stained dark, darker still in spots from dried ink. Her patience had finally run out. She shifted her weight and ignored the bald spot growing on the top of Will Graham’s head. The office was already different, new faces on a new floor. City Scribe had moved down a handful of floors, only one off the ground now. That was Will’s doing. He didn’t give a damn about appearances if it meant his people got paid. Things were getting tough for the paper, and if one couldn’t tell by the looking at the office, one could see it written all over the editor-in-chief's face. He looked worse for wear, worse than ever. He had days’ worth of growth on his jaw, tie loosened along with his top button, and the smell of whiskey emanated from his side of the desk like low tide.
Shirley could wait no longer.
“Well?” She asked.
“Well, if it’s true, it’ll be the biggest story to ever hit this fucking town.” Will said, rubbing his eyes with his thumb and index finger.
Shirley winced. Things really had changed.
“The problem is,” he said, reaching for something in the bottom of his drawer. “How do I know that it’s all true?”
Shirley’s jaw dropped. Defensive now, she asked,
“Will, do you really think that after all the malarkey Henry and I have been through, all that we risked, we would hand you a lie?”
She fortified her voice with courage by the question’s close. Will caught a glimpse of the fire behind Shirley’s eyes, and it sent a chill down his spine, but it was nothing Johnnie Walker couldn’t numb.
“No, Shirley, I don’t. But everyone else will, especially since you’re both on the lamb.”
“But our source saw it in the flesh. It’s the truth!”
“You have an entire story backed by one source. No cross checking, no due diligence.”
“It’s Betty Finton, Hal Finton’s our daughter for Pete’s sake!”
“Who could be out for revenge, stringing you along.”
“That’s hogwash, and you know it.”
“It doesn’t matter what I know, woman!” Will’s voice had begun to boom, and Shirley began to see a familiar man before her, a resilient man who had salvaged a newspaper’s reputation for twenty years.
“It doesn’t matter what you, or I, or Henry thinks,” Will said.
He stood quickly, mid-temper.
“It matters what everyone else thinks. Our job is to present facts, not the first thing we shovel off the street!”
Shirley sat, retreating.
“You expect me, you expect this paper to print this?”
“Last time I checked we don’t print in yellow! We may have fallen from grace, we might be scraping along, but while my name is on that door I won’t let my two best damn reporters wipe their ass with a story like this, and I sure as hell won’t print it!”
Shirley’s eyes would not meet Will’s. He suddenly felt shamed, seeing himself in the reflection the office window: unshaven and reeking of hooch. He was flesh, cloth, and alcohol hewn into man. Will took a long pull from the flask, openly. Shirley looked up surprised. The hiding, watching their backs, chasing dead end after dead end, it had all lead up to this. She thought of Henry back at the apartment, the apartment in Will’s name, resting, ink still drying on is hands. Will was being unreasonable; he was saving his own ass.
Will could see the anger and distrust on her face. But he knew he was right. That feeling in the pit of his stomach guided his resolve. It was that instinct that made him an honest-to-God newspaperman. He removed from his mind that this would be the biggest story any newspaper in the city would ever land, that they would be selling reprints for weeks. They would get it right, like they always did.
He sat back down and relaxed.
“Shirley, you know, deep down, I can’t run this.”
“But it’s all there. We’ve been running ragged for months and this is all we have.”
“You have a lead. A damn good one, but just a lead.”
Shirley sat defeated.
“You better buck up, you got some goddamn work to finish,” Will said encouragingly.
Shirley raised her chin, thrusting it in front of herself as she stood at attention.
She summoned with all her gumption, all of her will, all of her past, all of it at her command.
Will caught a different chill now.
“I just need one more thing from you,” Shirley dared.
He winced behind his haggard, calloused demeanor. She could ask for anything right now, and he would offer it up.
“Betty, the girl, she risked everything for us. We got to get her out of this city.”
He breathed a sigh of relief and opened his personal checkbook. He had used the last of the corporate checks weeks ago.
“All right, what’s the damage for this dame?”
Will took another swig of whiskey.
TO BE CONTINUED...