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 Six: Fit to Print
By Daniel Ford and Dave Pezza
Heels in hand, scarlet hair beneath a brown fedora streaming behind her, Shirley led Henry out of the police station at a pace not conducive for a thin pencil dress. Henry held on tight to Shirley’s hand, clutching his side with his other hand. The cops had roughed him up after dragging him into the station. They left his face free of evidence, this wasn’t their first conspiracy. Henry was sure they had broken a rib and hoped it hadn’t punctured anything. But even at an arm’s length, gasping, he could smell her perfume, making each breath’s pain a little easier to bare.
Shirley had slipped the cabbie a sawbuck and a wink to keep the cab running, no matter what. She rounded the block and looked up toward the sky in relief, monochromatic yellow salvation waited at the curb.
“Henry, we just have to make it to the cab, okay?”
“Yeah, I see it. But…”
“We just have to get there, okay?”
“Okay,” Henry panted, barely audible.
Shirley threw open the canary yellow door and nearly dove head first into the cab’s black leather interior, her dress riding so dangerously high now. Henry in tow, fell sideways into the cab, wincing to shut the door. He landed on top of her, a searing pain barreling through him.
“Go! Go! Go!” Shirley yelled to the off the boat Italian.
“Andiamo! Andiamo!” The cabbie yelled back, the screech of tires and the smell of burnt rubber pervading through the getaway car.
Henry eased himself off of Shirley, aware of his heavy body on top of her. He planted a hand besides her head for balance, and, before working his sore body upright on the backseat bench, he stuck a solid one full on Shirley’s blood red lips.
“Thank you,” he said as he backed his head away from her, staring straight into her motives.
“No sweat, Henry. I can’t write this story on my own, now can I?” She asked grinning.
“I suppose not,” Henry replied.
His hat had fallen off of Shirley’s head during the dash into the cab, its top now crumbled. Henry gently stamped his fist into the fedora, its top regaining composure. Shirley had fixed herself up now, pulling down and straightening her dress, fixing her hair. Henry blew imaginary dust off of the fedora and gently wriggled it onto her head, messing her hair again. She looked over to him, scrunching her nose and mouth.
“Fits you better, I think,” he said.
Shirley looked at him, a look outside of her past and her aspirations. Henry removed his notebook and pencil from his wrinkled suit jacket and began jotting diligently. Shirley checked the camera for damages, snapping a picture of Henry nose deep in paper and graphite.
Could she really have fallen for a newspaperman?
“True or false: One of your reporters broke another one of your reporters out of jail,” City Scribe’s publisher Montgomery Edwards said.
Will Graham observed that Edwards' three-piece suit was probably worth more than his entire wardrobe. For a big guy, he wore it well. Henry would have been impressed.
That little pissant, he thought.
“False,” Will said.
“So you’ve just decided to lie to my face?”
“Shirley isn’t technically a reporter.”
“Is she technically a woman?”
“A female employee of yours fired off a gun at police headquarters and then freed your cub reporter who had been hauled off to jail for causing a scene at the mayor’s press conference. Did I forget anything?”
“The press conference was about kittens.”
“I swear to God Will, don’t push me. Is everything I just said accurate?”
“Well, I wouldn’t write the lead quite that way, but you’ve nailed the essentials.”
“Will, you motherfucking twit! How are you going to fix this? Those two are fired immediately for starters. I don’t want to see them in this city ever again. You make sure they are good and gone. I asked you to cover one story. One! About kittens! And you use it to turn this already disreputable paper into a laughing stock. You know how many advertisers called me this morning? We’re barely above water as it is and you decide to set fire to the Titanic as it sinks!”
“They’ll calm down. They always do. We’ll cover the story and say we’re cooperating fully with the police department and the situation will die down. The kid tried to mess up the mayor’s hair a little, he didn’t kill anyone.”
“And where the fuck were you during all this?”
Having a scotch at my desk pretending I still had a shred of talent and dignity, Will thought.
“I was sitting on my ink-stained hands,” he said. “Someone has to edit and re-write most of the shit those advertisers want us to publish. We’re running an ad agency here, not a newspaper.”
“It’s not your job to determine what we are, Will,” Edwards replied. “Your job is to make sure the commas are in the right place and names are spelled correctly. That way enough money comes so we can keep the lights on and keep your sorry ass employed. Newspapers aren’t worth anything anymore. They were nothing more than a way for angry, repressed rich men to prove how smart and successful they were. Pulitzer. Hearst. They weren’t newspapermen, Will. Newspapermen are shadows that chase an elusive sun to justify their pathetic existence. The sun always sets, remember that.”
The large man took his pocket watch out and sighed wearily.
“Late for something, sir?” Will asked.
“This newspaper’s funeral,” Edwards said. “Fix it, Will. Fix it or it will be your ass.”
Will’s office door shook on its hinges as the publisher slammed it on his way out. The editor took a deep breath. He reached for his scotch bottle. He poured a thimble full into his empty glass and shot it down. He drummed his fingers on his desk. The piles of copy he was ignoring angered him all over again.
“Hey, boss, can we come out now?” A voice asked from the closet.
Will closed his eyes and shook his head.
“Boss? Are you still there?”
“I need another minute, you dimwits. I’ll let you out when I’m good and ready.”
“It’s getting a little stuffy in here,” Henry said.
“So you’re complaining about being locked in a closet with me?” Shirley said.
“That’s not what I meant!”
“What did you mean?”
“I want to get to work!”
“Should have thought about that before you got yourself arrested.”
“You were there, I was given a raw deal!”
“Now I’m the one with a raw deal.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?!”
Will stared at the closet door incredulously. He took a drag of scotch right from the bottle. He walked over and unlocked the door. Henry and Shirley tumbled out. Will’s eyebrows raised as he watched Shirley don Henry’s fedora.
“I know, it looks good doesn’t it?” Shirley asked.
“Not going to look very good when the cops catch up you two bozos,” Will said returning to his bottle. “What the hell were you thinking?”
“Which one of us?” Henry asked.
“Even for a reporter, you ask too many questions. String a few statements together.”
“I was wrongfully imprisoned and Shirley freed me.”
“Shirley, where did you get a gun?”
“Are you kidding? In this city? The corner drugstore. A woman can’t be too careful in a town full of goons, trigger men, and crumbs,” Shirley said.
“You were right, boss,” Henry said. “Something is definitely suspicious. Lot of shady characters hanging around the mayor. There’s a story here, and we need to track it down!”
“Is that lipstick on your collar?”
Henry’s mangled collar indeed featured a bright red pair of lips. The cub reporter pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and did his best to clean it off. Shirley blushed and shrugged.
“How are we going to get anything done when you two can’t keep your damn hands off each other?!”
The scotch was doing a lot of the yelling for him. In truth, he was jealous of their youth and vigor. Before they barreled into his office out of breath and grinning, Will had been face down on his typewriter. The worst part was that the piece of paper he had loaded into it was still blank. He hadn’t even had the creative energy to write his name. Henry was beat to hell and wanted to dive back into the story. They didn’t know the real dangers. They didn’t know how at risk they were. They were two dumb kids that only felt the thrill of each other’s skin and adventure in their blood. He knew they’d never be satisfied with anything else.
“You two are off this story until further notice,” Will said.
Henry and Shirley’s faces dropped.
“I know you’re mad, but…”
“No but. That’s it. Go home, discreetly, and get cleaned up. Henry, you need to go sit in a tub of ice for a variety of reasons. Lay low until you hear from me. Do not go outside. Understood?”
“Yes sir,” they said at the same time.
“Now get out of my office, I’ve got work to do,” Will said waving his hand dismissively.
Shirley mouthed “be careful.” Will nodded and pointed to Henry. Shirley got the hint and wrapped her arm around his shoulders as they made their way out.
Will sat down and looked at the blank page. The fear was still there, but there were words now. They were coming back to him one by one. He stretched out his fingers and reached for his bottle. He looked at it longingly. He took a deep breath. Will tossed it into his wastebasket and turned back to the typewriter.
“Time to set some fires,” he mumbled.
TO BE CONTINUED...