E X C E R P T
A Vic Bengston Investigation
Richard J. Schneider
©Richard J. Schneider 2012
Two shadows stood nearly thigh deep in the chilly waters of the South Platte River. The silent one, done talking now, shoved the reluctant one.
“You can't do this,” the reluctant one said stumbling forward, hands wrapped behind her with duct tape, struggling to maintain balance against the relentless pressure of the river. “Do you know who I am?”
Silence, except for the low rumbling rush of the water and the muffled sound of far off city traffic. Even the wind had gone to sleep.
The silent one rapped the reluctant one's right elbow with something.
“Aw!” the reluctant one grunted, then began sobbing. “Please. Please, let me go.”
After a poke in the back the reluctant one slogged two more steps. The silent one followed, then lifted a shadowed arm toward the reluctant one's head.
“Don't spill my blood. Not here” the reluctant one pleaded.
A pop. Then a splash.
Only one shadow stood against the unceasing flow of water.
The river, the constant, the blood of the plains, gently carried the other shadowy package downstream.
A “floater” in the South Platte River was something of an oxymoron. Settlers described the river as a mile wide and a foot deep. Still, there were pockets of depth here and there that might float a body. Anyway, that's what Vic Bengston's new boss called it, a floater. She was as old as his daughter. He figured she picked up the term watching television.
Vic wheeled the newspaper's pool car, a late model Ford Explorer, off North Washington Street onto 49th Avenue heading east. The road ended at Emerson Street and, beyond that, the South Platte River. The corner was blocked by three cop cars, lights flashing, and a van from the Denver Medical Examiner's office, so Vic pulled into a wide-open blacktop lot filled with semi-tractor trailers and parked. When he saw the yellow crime scene tape and a gathering of uniformed and suited cops down by the river, he felt a rush, that same surge he used to get when he sensed a hot story.
He shut the engine off and slid out the door. Fumbling with the keys, Vic pressed the red panic button on the key fob. All the lights on the SUV began blinking simultaneously with the blaring horn, which announced to the world that the car was being stolen. “Ah, crap.” He held up the fob, squinting so he could see the unlocked padlock symbol, and pressed the button until the SUV lapsed into stony silence, lights off.
Vic turned toward the cops down by the water’s edge. All of them had stopped doing whatever they were doing and just stared up at him. The six-foot-four frame of Lt. Frank Driscoll, Denver's chief of detectives, towered over the others. Nearby, a man in tan pants and a dark sport coat and a woman in a gray pants suit stood guard next to an empty gurney. Probably from the Medical Examiner's office, Vic thought. The two took a break from pulling on rubber Wellingtons and stared up at him too. Vic felt his heart pound.
The road was a good fifteen feet above the riverbed. Vic side stepped down one tier, crossed the pinkish cement South Platte River Bike Trail, and then began the rest of his descent. All eyes followed him.
The fall was quick and merciful. His left foot landed on a large rock, just wobbly enough to eliminate any hope of balance. Vic's other foot flew into the air and the rest of him soared along for the ride. His rump hit hard on the grassy slope and Vic tumbled the rest of the way down to the gathering of Denver’s finest.
“Can I say with some level of certainty that you are the last person I thought I’d ever see here today,” Driscoll said. “To what do we owe this pleasure?”
Vic scrambled to his feet, brushing himself off. “Same reason you’re here.”
“I don’t think so,” Driscoll said. “Are you on some goofy ham radio expedition?”
“No, I’m here to find out about this body.”
“Some new corporate client I don’t know about, Vic? A coffin company maybe?”
“No, Frank. I’m here for the Sun.”
“The Rocky. The Rocky Mountain Sun,” Vic said.
“Oh, don't tell me,” Frank said. “You’ve actually gone and done it! I thought you were just babbling away the other day about your rotten company and your life and needing to give meaning to what you do. I had no idea you were actually dumb enough to do this.”
“I started today.”
“I still don’t believe it,” Driscoll said.
“Believe what?” asked a patrolman standing with Driscoll.
“This guy--by the way, Vic Bengston, Officer Bill Conran,” Driscoll said, nodding toward one uniformed cop. Vic and officer Conran shook hands. Officer Denise Peterson. Vic shook her hand. “Mr. Silence over here is Detective Greg Frakes.” Another handshake. “Vic and I play golf on Saturdays. He helps me forget you guys, but he apparently is suffering from sunstroke. He’s got a nice little public relations company, and he’s tossing it all over the side to write for a rag.”
“The Rocky Mountain Sun?” Frakes said. “Not my favorite fish wrap.”
“Yes, but now in an even conveniently smaller tabloid format,” Vic said. He thought he’d put in a pitch since he had an opening.
“You’re right about that,” Frakes said. “The Times is too big.”
“The Sun is much easier to read at the coffee counter,” Conran said.
“And what coffee counter would that be,” Driscoll asked.
“That would be at Winchell's Donuts, sir.” Conran grinned.
“Can we get to the business at hand?” Vic said.
Driscoll raised his eyebrows and jerked his head toward a woman’s body lying face down in the water at the river’s edge. Her right leg was inelegantly hung up on an old cottonwood snag. “You mean this?”
“That’s what I had in mind.”
“Detective?” Driscoll said to Frakes.
“Not much yet,” Frakes said. “Female, probably mid to late forties. No ID on her. I didn’t see any wounds, but we can’t be sure about that until the ME examines her.”
“How’d you find out about it,” Vic said. “Her, I mean.”
“Anonymous phone call. About an hour ago. Probably a pre-paid cell phone,” Driscoll said, then pausing a few seconds. “That’s off the record, Vic. We want to catch this guy, not tip him off.”
“She hasn’t been dead long,” Conran said.
“We don’t know that either,” Frakes said to the uniform. “But it seems like she hasn’t been in the water very long.”
Vic reached in his coat pocket for his fountain pen. It was gone.
“Frank, do you have a pen I can borrow?” Vic asked.
“My, aren’t we prepared on our first day at the new job,” Driscoll said. He looked at the other cops. “Now did we all bring our guns with us today, our mace?”
“I forgot my cuffs,” Conran said.
“Two demerits for you, officer,” Frakes said.
Driscoll pulled a gold Cross pen from his shirt pocket. He handed it to Vic and said, “I want it back.”
“I had one. Don't know where it went.”
“Lost it in the tumbling exhibition, perhaps,” Frakes said. “We all gave you high nines in the scoring.”
Vic just looked at Frakes, then took the pen from Driscoll. “Isn’t this the pen that I—”
“Yes it is,” Driscoll said. “OK, Conran, I want you to scour the area for anything. Get some help too.”
“Clothes, shoes, purse, wallet, you name it,” Frakes said. “Clark Kent's pen, maybe.”
“I’d like to take a look at the body,” Vic said.
“No you won’t,” Frakes said.
“Frank?” Vic said, appealing the decision.
“Not in this lifetime, pal,” Driscoll said. “I don’t want anyone near that body except my officers and those two over there.” He shot a long index finger toward the medical examiner techs.
“I was supposed to meet a photographer here,” Vic said. “Seen him?”
“Jones?” Driscoll said. “Here and gone. I had a little chat with him. He's empty-handed.”
“You staying, Greg?” Driscoll said to Frakes. It was an order.
“Yeh, I’ll call you later,” Frakes said.
“Yes you will,” Driscoll said. “I’m out of here, then. Keep the place tight. No one gets in. Clear?”
“Right chief,” Frakes said.
“Conran?” Driscoll had to shout. Conran was seventy-five feet away looking down at the ground and into the water. The uniformed cop waved and gave thumbs up. Driscoll started for the embankment. He gently grabbed Vic’s left elbow and took him with him.
“Anything more I can help you with, Mr. Fourth Estate?” Driscoll said, friendly and loud enough for Frakes to hear. Then, under his breath, “Meet me at Sapp Brothers when you leave here. Don’t say anything. Just nod.”
At the top of the embankment, Vic stopped and turned back around to take in the scene. The techs had waded in ankle deep to examine the body. Their hands were sheathed with light blue latex gloves. Up on the bank, a sky blue tarp had been spread out, ready to accept the body once it was pulled off the snag and out of the water.
The woman lifted the victim's right leg. Her partner helped by holding the knee. The two worked efficiently, but gently, as though the victim were still a complete woman with memories, breath, and blood coursing through the body with her soul intact. Only her soul wasn’t there.
Detective Frakes stood on the bank near the techs. He asked questions and made notes. Fifty yards upstream, Officer Conran combed the bank for anything that might add to the case. He seemed eager to please.
Wishing he had a set of binoculars, Vic pulled Driscoll’s gold pen from his pocket and made a few more notes describing what he saw from the hill. He sketched the river, the snag, and the warehouse in the background, then the body. Something didn't seem quite right, but Vic wrote it off to his imagination, stoked, he guessed, by all those hours he spent watching old mystery movies. He twisted the Cross pen closed and then held it up to read the inscription on it.
“Lt. Frank Driscoll. 20 Years. Your Friend, Vic”
The 20-foot coffee-pot sign at the intersection of Quebec Street and I-70 on Denver’s north side signaled the Sapp Brothers truck stop. Like a giant stove heating up the pot, the main building housed a vast complex of showers, lounge areas, game rooms, plasma televisions, a convenience store, a sit-down restaurant, three different fast food counters, books, DVDs, CD's, and twelve-volt appliances capable of such tasks as making a pizza, cooking hot dogs or brewing coffee, all for the benefit of long-haul truckers. Next to the building, spread out on a wide tarmac, about fifty eighteen-wheelers were parked in a series of bays that allowed the truckers to take a nap while running their diesels. Exhaust stacks were connected to flexible hoses that funneled the poison engine exhaust away from the slumbering drivers.
Vic walked through the store and passed the clothing racks, a NASCAR display, and a DVD rental counter before stopping at a small display filled with office supplies. He pulled a ballpoint out of a Sapp Brothers coffee mug and took it up to the counter where a skinny red-haired old man rang up the sale. Then he walked into the double-wide main entrance of the restaurant. Driscoll sat on one side of a sprawling U-shaped counter, his back toward Vic.
The graying reporter slid onto a stool next to the detective. Three stools away a boisterous mountain of a man with long greasy gray hair pulled back into a ponytail jabbered incessantly to no one in particular. His head bobbed up and down just enough so the tips of his untamed salt and pepper beard dipped in and out of his coffee.
Driscoll jerked his head to the left. “Let's move down, a little further away from the font of knowledge over there.” He stood up and swept his coffee mug down the counter with his right hand all the way to the wall. Vic followed. When they had resettled, Vic pulled the gold pen from his shirt pocket and set it on the counter in front of Driscoll.
“You’ll want this,” Vic said.
“What in hell are you going to write notes with the rest of your shift, Mr. Newspaper Boy?”
“I got this on the way in,” Vic said, flashing his new forty-nine cent ballpoint.
“Want me to loan you my notepad?”
“No. My nanny gave me one at the paper.”
“And what about your pants?”
“You must have torn them up sliding into home,” Driscoll said.
“I'll survive. They're just a little dirty.”
“You could stop at Target. Get another pair. You need a credit card? You got money? Did you eat today?”
“How much of this do I need to take?”
A waitress appeared from nowhere.
“Coffee, hon?” she said to Vic, who nodded. A fresh mug flashed from behind her. It was half full by the time it hit the counter. “Menu?”
“No thanks,” Vic said. She topped off Driscoll’s coffee and vanished.
“You need your head examined,” Driscoll said. “Nice little company you've got. Tossing that over the side, for what?”
“I missed it.”
“Is that what they call it these days?”
“As opposed to?”
“Uh, let's see,” Driscoll said. “Muckraking? Sensationalism? Let's get a cop?”
“You forgot treason.”
“That too. What do you mean you missed it?” The detective had dumped three creams and as many packets of sugar into his coffee by now. Vic drank his black.
“I missed it, for crissake!”
“You didn't miss the money,” Driscoll said.
“No. I didn't miss the money.”
“You're working Sundays already,” Driscoll said. “That's special.”
“I noticed you're working Sundays too, detective.”
“I work every day. Comes with the job.”
“Sundays are slow. Good time to get my sea legs.”
“You’re nuts,” Driscoll said, then sucked down a long sip on his creamy sweet coffee.
“Look, you left the force once,” Vic said.
“Three whole months,” Driscoll said. “To help Eaton get his campaign security team organized. Big deal.”
Eaton was Denver’s first black mayor. Driscoll and Eaton grew up together on the northeast side, where life for blacks left much to be desired in a city once run by the Ku Klux Klan.
“Can we just leave it at, I wanted a change?” Vic said.
“Change? From what?”
“The corporate crap,” Vic said.
“That crap put a lot of food on the table,” Driscoll said. “Helped your kids with college.”
“I know. I know.”
“Bought you your sailboat.”
“Yes, I know,” Vic said. He sipped at his now cooled coffee. “It gets old. It just doesn't have the punch of a breaking news story.”
“There’s got to be more to it than that,” Driscoll said.
“They stopped listening to us,” Vic said. “You know, everyone’s a writer.”
Driscoll said nothing. He just sipped his coffee. Mountain man continued to jabber. Vic felt compelled to speak.
“Age,” Vic said. “I think they thought Ben and I were too old. Experience didn’t count for anything.”
“You're too old?” Driscoll said. “I know that one. At least you're the right color.”
They both laughed.
“I’m too pasty looking to have your problem,” Vic said.
“I still think you're nuts,” Driscoll said.
“The work didn't feed the soul, Frank.”
“And writing for that rag does?”
“That rag cleared three cops from bogus brutality charges last year,” Vic said. “Have you forgotten that?”
“How about the big chief's expense account records?” Driscoll said.
“Four thousand dollars for a dinner in Las Vegas?”
“Those were grant funds,” Driscoll said.
“And the source of that grant?”
“DOJ,” Driscoll said.
“Right out of my hip pocket,” Vic said. “You pay taxes too.”
“He paid it back.”
“After he got caught.”
“Can we change the subject?” Driscoll said, after another long slurp of his light brown liquid. “We're going to have to re-frame our relationship, you and me.”
“Here. Take your pen, will you,” Vic said. “I've got to call the city desk.”
“Wait a minute,” Driscoll said. “I've got to talk to you about that body.”
“What body?” Vic said.
“Smart ass,” Driscoll said. “Look, we’ve got an ID, but I need you to hold it for a while.”
“My first day back and you want me to sit on a story? If it shows up in the Times and I don't have it, I'm hosed.”
“I don't think anyone else has this,” Driscoll said.
“You don't think?”
“I'm pretty sure.”
“You're pretty sure,” Vic said. “That’s fine when you're judging the distance of a seven iron shot. This is a little different.”
“Look, this woman is a name you know,” Driscoll said. “Everyone knows it. It's going to be a zoo when this hits the street.”
“Well, then, let me be the one who hits the street with it,” Vic said. He just shut up and stared at the cop. The stare used to work back when he last worked for the Sun. It was like a contest with a dog.
Hours passed. Vic knew Driscoll was thinking. More hours passed.
“This is my first day,” Vic said. “Give me something.”
“Okay, but don't put it out on the wires,” Driscoll said.
“I'll see what I can do.”
“No, you won't just see what you can do. I don't want this out tonight. Okay?”
“All right, you don't want this thing, whatever this thing is, this ID, out just yet. I get that, but I don’t know how long I can hold it, if at all.”
“But you’ll try,” Driscoll said.
“So I’ve got to go back and play coy with my new editor,” Vic said. “This could be my first and last day at the paper, but I will try.”
“Jessica Swain,” Driscoll said.
“No shit,” Vic said.
“Yes, shit,” Driscoll said.
“I can’t hold this, Frank. This is the Lieutenant Governor of Colorado. She's been murdered.”
“We don't know that yet,” Driscoll said, sitting up straight. “We're not letting anyone, especially you media hipsters, near the crime scene right now. You got in on a fluke, buddy. Hardly anyone knows about it yet. Your photo guy just happened to be riding with me on another thing when I caught the call. We kept him away. He doesn't know a thing. CBI and the state cops should be there by now. I called the governor myself.”
“You can't keep a lid on this,” Vic said.
“Just a few hours,” Driscoll said. “So we can get our act together.”
“Frank, everyone scans the cop frequencies,” Vic said.
Driscoll pulled out his cell phone and waved it in Vic's face. “Wonderful things, cell phones. Very private. Every cop needs one. Most of us carry them now.”
“Frank, she was going to run for governor,” Vic said.
“She's too prone to run at the moment,” he said. “Her hair’s a mess, and did you see how she trashed her clothes?”
Vic stared at him.
“I'm sorry,” Driscoll said. “Gallows humor. Relieves the tension.”
“You'll get relieved of more than that if I ever quoted you.”
Driscoll finished his sweet creamy coffee and dropped a Jackson on top of the ticket. From nowhere, the waitress swept the tab and the money off the counter.
“I'll be back with your change, hon,” she tossed over her shoulder.
“Shower ticket number 344 is up,” a woman's voice blasted over the PA system. “Shower ticket number 344. On deck, 345.” Graybeard, now silent, got up and walked into the store part of the truck stop. A trucker, in for some coffee and a hot shower, Vic thought. He probably bored the snot out of the other drivers on the CB radio too.
The waitress flew back with Driscoll's change. He dropped two bucks for the tip and the two golfing buddies walked out into the late Sunday afternoon sun. Driscoll handed Vic his card with the cell phone number hand written on it.
“You can call me at that number,“ Driscoll said. “I've already got your cell number on my phone. I'll give you the jump on whatever I can.”
“That would help,” Vic said. “And how about a stroke a hole next Saturday?”
“If you’re giving them to me,” Driscoll said. He paused, and then said, “Just a few hours. That's all we need.”
“I'll try. I'll try.” Vic said as he headed for his pool car.
From across the parking lot, he heard Driscoll shout after him, “You're going to miss the money.”
“City desk. Mayer.”
“Peggy. It's Vic.”
“Do you have anything?”
“Just a second.” Vic steered the Ford SUV with his left hand while untangling a knotted phone cord and plugging it into his phone. He jammed the earphone in his ear. “Okay, now I can drive with both hands,” Vic said.
“Tell me something,” Peggy said. She sounded nervous, edgy. “Anything.”
“I'm sorry about the art,” Vic said.
“Huh?” she said.
“Jones never comes back without something,” Peggy said. “But all I've got is a wide shot with cops standing around. I can barely see the body on the snag.”
Vic hadn't yet met Jones, but his stock had risen a few points.
“First, we have a request from the cops, relayed to me privately by Driscoll,” Vic said.
“Do you have an ID or cause of death?” Peggy said, all business.
He ignored her question.
“They want us to keep this quiet as long as possible,” Vic said. “At least until later tonight. You guys still give carbons to Grandma as soon as it's written?”
“Carbons?” Peggy said. “Grandma?”
“Carbon copies, of your stories,” Vic said. Peggy laughed.
“I know what carbon copies are, Vic,” Peggy said. “My dad showed one to me. Now, who's Grandma?
“The Associated Press,” Vic said.
“Grandma?” Peggy said.
“Well, that's what we used to call it,” Vic said, “When I was at UPI.”
“You worked for Reverend Moon?” Peggy said.
“Uh, no, Peggy,” Vic said. “The company that owns your paper used to own UPI. Reverend Moon is just UPI's most recent owner.”
“Whatever,” she said. “Anyway, AP –- or Grandma -- gets electronic copies -- our carbons. It's part of our contract with them. But we've got some latitude on hot stuff. Is this hot stuff?”
“And there’s that other thing,” she said.
“What other thing?” Vic said.
“That internet thing,” she said.
“Oh, I forgot, all those tubes,” he said. “Those internets.”
“Yes, Vic. The internet. There's only one.” The phone amplified her exasperated sigh. “We’re online twenty-four-seven. This will be on everyone’s computer screens in seconds.”
“You mean you guys are filing directly into those internet tubes?” Vic said, playing along. He had been using the internet since before the world even knew it as the internet. “That's almost like what we did with the wire service. Although we'd run a story like this past the brass first.”
“I'm the brass,” Peggy said. “What’s the delay crap for, anyway?”
“Driscoll said they just want to get their ducks in a row,” Vic said.
“Ducks. Schmucks. This is a newspaper. If it's that critical, we can keep it from the AP for a little while. What about the Times?”
“I think they’re still out to lunch on this,” Vic said. “Driscoll said we were the only news outfit to know about it, and that was by mistake because Jones was already with him. I just said I’d see what I could do about holding the story. I didn't make any promises.”
“Gimme the goods,” Peggy said, right out of a Bogart flick. She was right. Vic didn't want to sit on the story either, for any reason, especially today, the day of his return.
“Are you going to call anyone,” Vic said. “The editor maybe?”
“Not until I know who the victim is, Vic!” Peggy said.
“The lieutenant governor,” Vic said.
Silence for a moment, then, “No shit.”
“My words exactly,” Vic said.
“What the heck was she doing there?” Peggy said.
“Not much when I saw her,” Vic said. “Floating mostly. Face down in the South Platte. The rest hung up on a snag.”
“Before that,” Peggy said. Vic imagined her eyes rolling.
“Not a clue,” he said. “Driscoll said nothing either.”
“Are you on your way in?” Peggy said.
“I'm about twenty minutes away.” His cell phoned beeped him. “Just a second.” He held it out at arm's length so he could read the screen and watch the road at the same time. He put it back to his ear and said, “Peggy, Driscoll’s calling. I'll be there shortly.” He clicked her off and Driscoll's call came through. “Bengston.”
“It's me,” Driscoll said. “The chief, the governor, and the DA, maybe the CBI, are going to hold a news conference at the capitol at seven.”
“Well, so much for the exclusive,” Vic said.
“Were you going to hold it?” Driscoll said.
“No,” Vic said.
“Then you’ve got a head start on the rest of the jackals,” Driscoll said. “Don’t quote me directly, okay?”
“On the story, or the jackals thing?”
“Neither one. I don't think any of your so-called competition knows about this yet.”
“The city desk knows,” Vic said. “I'll call them about the news conference. How are you going to bill it?”
“Major crime announcement,” Driscoll said.
“I thought you said you didn't know what happened,” Vic said.
“I lied,” Driscoll said.
“Now I don't feel bad about anything I've done, even dropping that ball on number three last week without taking a stroke,” Vic said.
“Hands bound behind her and a hole in the back of her head. Looks like a small caliber weapon. Don’t know what precisely, though.”
“Execution style?” Vic said.
“I'm not going to use that phrase,” Driscoll said. “But I have no control over you media bozos.”
“Hands bound with what?”
“ME techs think last night. Not solid on that, though,” Driscoll said. “Governor's office said she was seen at some environmental fund-raiser Saturday evening.”
“So she could have been killed early Sunday morning, right?”
“Yeh, that's right.”
“Was she, uh—” Vic said.
“That's all I know, Vic, but probably not,” Driscoll said. “Her clothes seemed to be intact. But I’m not totally sure about that. You can’t use my name. Sources, all right? Police sources. Investigation sources. That crap. Not Me.”
“Seven o'clock. In the press conference room. At the statehouse.”
“You'll have a full house. We're breaking the story.”
“I figured you would,” Driscoll said. “I've got to go.”
He flicked the phone off and tossed it onto the passenger seat, then picked it up again and dialed the city desk to feed Peggy the additional information for the story lead.
As the call rang, Vic hit the button that automatically dropped the driver’s side window. He shouted into the wind.
“I’m back, baby!”
As Vic emerged from the stairwell and stepped into the city room, he saw Peggy in an animated discussion at the city desk with Christopher Hogan, the editor and publisher of the paper. Hogan hired Vic for this encore performance as a journalist. “I’ve got a good feeling about you,” he told Vic, who, at the time, said, “Back at ya.” It was all he could think of at the time, assuming he’d never get the job in the first place.
Alan Smythe kibitzed with them as well. Vic knew it was going to be a political story as well as a crime story. Smythe was still the paper's political columnist, but when they last worked together he was a statehouse reporter like Vic. Mal Hoffman, the senior capitol reporter, sat off to the side. The vultures were already circling, Vic thought. Still, Peggy seemed to be holding her own against this tsunami of journalistic experience. At least she had the good sense to call someone.
All four looked his way, eight eyes following him as he made the perp walk across the city room. Nothing like waltzing in the door with the story of the year on your first day back at work. Vic hadn't felt this nervous since he was drafted during the Vietnam War.
“I thought you were dead,” said Smythe.
“Sorry to disappoint you,” Vic said. “Mr. Hogan here plucked me from my cushy prison of corporate communications.”
“I’ve never seen a flack make it back into the newsroom,” Hoffman said. He was short, about five-six, stocky, and ruggedly handsome, his old horned rim glasses replaced by some narrow euro lens design.
Peggy stayed quiet. She looked a little nervous.
“We want Hoffman to take the lead on this, Vic,” Hogan said.
Vic scrunched up his mouth, pondered the decision, then just exhaled. “It would be hard to protest, first day and all.”
“You're still untested,” Hogan said. “You haven't managed a newspaper project team. What would you do?” He was right, but Vic didn't like to hear it.
“And if I protested?”
“There's no point to it,” Peggy said. “You'll get the first byline, Vic, on the net and in tomorrow's paper.”
“And then, we'll see,” said Hogan. “You're out front on this, Vic, but we can't just let you run with it. It should be a team project. You know it’s going to hit the fan with this one. But we realize—”
“Realize what exactly?” Vic said.
“Realize—that you seem to have some rapport with this, uh, who is the cop?” Hogan said to his city editor.
“Driscoll,” Peggy said. “Chief of Detectives.”
“Yes, Driscoll. I'd like you to keep working on the story, Vic. We'll just coordinate it from the desk.”
“I play golf with him,” Vic said, delighted he'd get the byline in the morning paper. Let the world know. He loved bylines, especially his.
“What's your handicap,” Smythe asked.
“Welcome to the club,” said Smythe.
“At least you didn't have a little break in service,” Vic said. “Try the job market sometime.”
“Little?” Hoffman said. “Twenty-five years? That's a long one to come back from.”
“Okay, so the honeymoon's over,” Vic said. “And it's 'a long time from which to come back.'”
“Thank you professor Bengston,” Hoffman said.
“We don’t do honeymoons anyway,” Hogan said. “At least you know these two guys.” He nodded toward Smythe and Hoffman. Then he peeled on a salesman’s grin, rubbed his hands together, and said, “Not everyone's gone, and I don't think they'll sandbag you too badly. So, what do you say? Let's make a newspaper.”
Vic understood. If he were editor, he'd have done the same thing. Like with any new client, he'd have to prove himself. In the corporate world it happened over and over with every new client, and it got old. Maybe if he'd stayed in the newspaper business to begin with, he'd be the editor by now. What was I chasing, he asked himself.
“There's obviously a big political angle here,” said Smythe. “Swain was a shoo-in to become Colorado's first woman governor.”
While Vic enjoyed following the game of politics, he never wanted to cover it as a journalist. Campaign politics, especially the way it played out today, lacked substance. It was all fine-tuned and often ugly propaganda, mostly a string of predictable talking points and promises that were never honored. He preferred the daily politics of getting things done, in government, in business, even in sports, to the hollow and dully repetitive rhetoric of the campaign trail.
“It's bigger than you think, Alan,” Vic said.
“How can it be bigger than 'Lieutenant Governor Dies'?” Smythe said.
“How about 'Lieutenant Governor Murdered Execution Style'?”
Four momentarily gaping stares.
“Like a mob hit?” Hoffman said.
“Her hands were bound and she was shot in the back of her head execution style,” Vic said. “With a small caliber weapon.”
“Holy Cow,” Peggy said.
Vic turned to her and said, “Clean up your language, young lady.”
She blushed. It couldn't have been that easy for her. Young and female, standing there with three old farts and a forty-something editor and publisher. He pictured his daughter struggling to be tough on the outside while shivering on the inside. No different for men, he thought, we just hide it better.
“Where'd you find that out?” Hogan said, sitting down into one of the empty chairs.
“Sources close to the investigation,” Vic said.
“Your golf buddy,” Peggy said.
“Not for attribution,” Vic said.
“Except now they've called a news conference for seven,” Hogan said, pissed. “TV will have it tonight and the Times will have right with us tomorrow.”
“Don't forget radio,” Hoffman said.
“They’ll talk this one to death,” said Smythe.
“When don't they?” Vic said. “They all have a firm grip on the obvious.”
“We'll just have to put out the best package,” Hogan said. “Okay, Mal, you write the obit. Give us plenty of her background. Alan you work the political angle. See what this might do for next year's election.”
Peggy had flopped back down into her chair as Hogan barked orders.
“Vic you do the crime story, for this cycle,” Hogan continued. “Feed everything to Peggy. She'll write it. I'll help on the desk.”
Peggy snapped up straight when the publisher said she would do the writing.
“Byline for Vic on this one,” Hogan said. “Page one, and let's get a nice head shot of Swain from the files.
“Any other art?” Hogan said. “Crime scene?”
“Just a wide shot,” Peggy said. “They kept Jones away but he got a few when they weren't looking.”
“Head shot?” Vic said. “Nice phrase given the circumstances.”
“Photograph,” Hogan said. “Sorry.”
Peggy wasn't sure just who was in charge, although clearly the commander in chief was on the deck. Vic kept imagining his daughter in that spot, ostensibly the city editor but surrounded by decades of seasoned experience, her boss, and a relic who once had a promising career as a journalist.
“The bulldog deadline is nine p.m.,” Peggy said, telling me and reminding the others. “But we’ve got to get something big, and fast, for the net.”
“You want to bring Arquette in to cover the news conference?” Hogan said.
“Bob Arquette?” Vic said.
“You know him?” Hogan said.
“What is this, a geriatric team?” Peggy said. She was grinning. “I’d like to minimize the chance of a heart attack on this story, Chris.”
“He’s still on your staff isn’t he?” Vic said.
“Jones can handle it,” Peggy said.
Vic's fatherly protectionist feelings toward her vanished in a pop. Then he said to Hogan, “I think a second photog would be good.”
“I’ll go with Peg on this one,” Hogan said.
Vic looked at Peggy and raised his eyebrows. She just shrugged. “What about calling your friends at Channel Nine? Don't you have an arrangement with them?”
Peggy said, “What for?”
“To have them break into programming and report the story, quoting a Rocky Mountain Sun exclusive,” Vic said. “That way you get credit for beating everyone. Nine still is number one in the market, isn't it?”
Hogan stood up and said, “Not a bad idea.”
Still a few rattling around up there, Vic thought, then said, “After we move the story on the internet, will the AP give the Sun an exclusive credit?”
“I'll call Bill Branson at home,” Hogan said. Branson was the AP bureau chief.
Peggy ran to catch up. “Vic, Can you give me a hundred words in about five minutes?”
Vic nodded and smiled. He wanted badly to write a lead for the story before he got back on the phone to dig for more information.
Hoffman and Smythe said nothing. No more jokes. They just drifted off to their respective cubicles to start with the phones. Hogan was over talking to Jones about photos.
“I need a place to, uh, sit,” Vic said.
“Just use the other side of the desk,” Peggy said.
Vic walked around the large city desk and found a spot with a terminal about as far away from Peggy as he could get, just to maintain a bit of privacy, not much, just a bit.
“How do I turn this on and log on?” Vic asked, fumbling around the back of the monitor in search of an on-off switch.
“Just hit the SPACE key,” Peggy said.
He did, and the screen sprung to life, demanding a log-on ID.
“Try your social security number,” Peggy said. “But I doubt if you’re in the system yet.”
Vic typed in the nine digits that separated him from all others in the country, unless his identify had been recently stolen. “Invalid ID,” the screen said.
“Try this. Rready?” Vic nodded. “555-55-5555.”
This time Vic got a menu screen giving him a few choices. Some security, he thought. The menu screen was fairly intuitive: new story, open story, research, email, notes, archives, log off. He selected new story, and a blank screen appeared. He wrote five paragraphs fast.
Lt. Gov. Jessica Swain, expected to become the next governor, was shot to death execution style Saturday night or early Sunday, police said.
Her fully clothed body was found face down in the South Platte River near 49th Avenue in north Denver.
Police told the Rocky Mountain Sun Mrs. Swain was shot in the back of the head with a small caliber weapon and that her hands were bound behind her back with duct tape.
She was seen alive early Saturday evening at a fund-raising event for an environmental cause, police said.
Police said Sunday they had no suspects.
He asked himself, was it too political? Nope, she was the light governor. She had already said she wanted to run for Dowd’s seat. Too sensational? Naw. It was a first day lead, a crime story, and the truth. Vic didn't make any changes. He liked that. He still had it.
“How do I save this?” Vic asked.
“Just like a PC,” Peggy said. “Control-S will do it.”
“Not bad,” Peggy said about two minutes later. Vic looked up. She was reading his first draft lead.
“Solid on all police info?”
“Like a rock.”
“By the way, is there any privacy on these terminals?” Vic said. He often kept things to himself.
“When you get a permanent desk and terminal, you’ll get a password,” Peggy said. “We can override, but you’ve got a bit of security. That terminal, though, is a part of the city desk.”
“So, no privacy then.”
“Not a lick,” Peggy said.
“So what do you think?” Vic asked.
“Well, I already said not bad.”
“Not bad isn’t great, or riveting.”
“It's already posted in the net, with a screaming head and two photos,” Peggy said.
“You didn't tweak it at all,” Vic said.
“It’s got that gritty crime story feel.”
“Isn’t that what we want?”
“Yes, that’s what we want,” she said.
“But not what you want,” Vic said.
“Oh, sometimes the blood and guts stuff gets to me,” Peggy said. “But it’s a daily newspaper.”
Yes, Vic thought, and I have missed it every day since I left.
©Richard J. Schneider 2012