The Newspapermen: Lady

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 Four: Lady

By Daniel Ford

Be a lady, Shirley thought. Don’t cause a scene.

She stood at the local police precinct’s front desk. Her camera hung on her hip and she was wearing Henry’s fedora. It was a size too big, but it made her feel official and intrepid. It wasn't likely she'd return it. 

The press credential stuffed in the hat’s brim wasn’t doing her any favors. Not even the well-coiffed secretaries would give her a second glance. She calmly rang the bell on the desk and impatiently waited for nothing to happen.

Nellie Bly never had to put up with this shit, she thought.

“What can I do for you little lady?” A burly sergeant asked. “Is your kitty up a tree?”

“If that was the case, I’d be at the fire department, wouldn’t I?”

“You’re one of those uppity dames, ain’t cha?”

“I’m here on official City Scribe business.” She pointed to her hat. “I need to speak to Henry Jones immediately.”

The copper’s face turned to stone. He didn’t say anything else as he walked by her.

“You’re going to be a lot more talkative when I shove my heel up your ass!”

A few heads turned, but for the most part, her moment of rage passed unnoticed.

Be calm, she thought. Try to be a lady.

Her mother was a lady. Prim. Proper. Knew her place. All it had gotten her was repeated beatings from her lout of a husband. No one told him he had to shape up, put on a clean shirt, or comb his hair just so. The little money the family made financed the tavern down the block. Everyone cheered when he walked in the door. His stories might have been full of shit, but they kept the patrons in stitches until they all stumbled out into the night to beat the missuses. It was all fun and games until Shirley’s father told the wrong story to the wrong drunk. He went head first through the bar’s front window and then had his head bashed in by broken bar stools. Shirley’s mother handled it relatively well, considering. She dressed to the nines and put a bullet through her mouth. It was a closed casket, but the undertaker had given Shirley a glimpse right before he shut it. Her mother looked as prim and proper as ever, just without a face.

“Were you born useless, or does that lesson get beat into you at secretary’s school?” Shirley said to one of the hairdos typing away a few feet from her.

The woman didn’t stop typing. Her eyes remained glued to her piece of paper. It fueled Shirley’s rage. She had been ignored at the orphanage. She had been ignored by her dreadfully boring and religious foster parents. She had been ignored by all the boys at school because she liked to read and voiced her own opinion. She was done being ignored. Her editor had given her an assignment and she was going to damn well do it. Besides, she may have inherited her red hair and good looks from her mother, but her temper was forged by her alcoholic father.

You asked for it, she thought. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Shirley discreetly pulled a small .22 pistol from her bag. She angled her back to the mindless secretarial drones. She aimed the gun at the stack of magazines on the table in the waiting area. She counted to three and pulled the trigger. The bullet burst through the stack of glossy paper and lodged itself in the floor boards. The pistol had produced a small puff of smoke and an almost inaudible “pop,” but it was enough for all of the secretaries to faint out of their chairs. A mix of coppers and flat feet flooded into the room with their guns in the air. More shouting and finger-pointing ensued after they noticed a pile of dames on the floor. In the commotion, Shirley was able to slide her pistol back into her bag. She sat down with her back of the desk, took Henry’s hat off, and rustled her red hair. She put on the most distressed face she could muster.

“Which way did he go, ma’am?” A police officer asked her.

Oh, it had to be a he, huh? Shirley thought. Couldn’t have been a disgruntled housewife? Or a poor street woman tired of never catching a break? Or a love-struck lady of the night?

Shirley dramatically put her hand to her forehead. She wearily pointed out the door.

“Did you take a photo of the guy?”

“It all happened so fast,” she said. “He was too fast. Go catch him! There are righteous women in here that need protection and justice!”

“Pft,” he said. “Dames.”

A swarm of armed blue, black, and khaki rushed past her and left the precinct deserted. Shirley got up, smoothed out her skirt, adjusted her heels, and rang the bell on the desk as she made her way toward the holding cells.

“Nice hat,” Henry said.

His jacket and vest were neatly folded next to him on the bench. His shirt sleeves were rolled up. He looked a little bruised, but on the whole, no worse for wear.

“You ready to get out of here?” She asked.

“Now, I don’t want you getting in trouble on my account…”

“Save your lecture,” she said. “We’ve got work to do.”

Henry eagerly collected his things and waited by the cell’s door. Shirley paused a moment before turning the key. She grinned at him mischievously. He gave her a grin that suggested he’d be perfectly fine if she joined him in the clink for a little pitching woo.

No time for that, she thought. There was a story to track down,

Shirley opened the door, took off his hat, and gestured for him to lead the way.

“I’m not getting that back, am I?” He asked.

“Not a chance.”