“We can’t just walk away from this, chief.” Veteran newspaper reporter David Pine, early fifties with the nervous energy of a chihuahua, paced the floor in front of his News Director, Lance Ludlow’s desk. Its surface was as empty and untouched as a piece of showroom furniture. This unsettling display of workplace vacuousness stoked Pine’s niggling paranoia about the guy. Dude came out of nowhere to manage a significant L.A. news outlet but he had no understanding of journalism.
Ludlow adjusted his cufflinks.
Pine hadn’t seen cufflinks since he’d viewed his grandfather’s open casket.
The News Director cleared his throat. “I don’t find anything viable in the direction you’re suggesting, Mr. Pine.”
Pine jammed his hands into the pockets of his rumpled khakis. “Not sure how you can say that,” he said. “We’ve got a reliable informant who’ll implicate Brandon Doyle–emails, texts, bank accounts in the Caymans–the ‘Full Monty,’ literally. Got photos of him bare-assed, breast-stroking underage girls.”
Ludlow pursed his lips as if tasting something sour. “Old news. Former District Attorney Doyle’s been exonerated on sexual abuse of minors. It’s over. They’re just trying to drum up bad press to thwart his run for Congress.”
“It’s not over.” Pine felt his unfortunate pale complexion begin to flush. “And who the hell is they? It’s us reporting the story, and we’re telling the truth, giving the facts, not trying to sabotage the election. Give me a fuckin’ break, Ludlow.”
The News Director winced and checked his fingernails. “No need to be crass.”
The reporter gritted his teeth so hard he thought his molars would crack. Ludlow was a complete luddite. “Okay, sorry, but I’ve known this asshole, I mean this, uh, fellow, Doyle, since we were roommates at Berkeley. He doesn’t give up until he wins, no matter the cost. And now since he’s after the Senate seat, all the more reason the people need to know who this sleaze-ball really is.”
Starched shirt and pricey suit, Lance Ludlow’s round black glasses rested on his Pinocchio-like nose. He was a younger version of one of former President Trump’s old cronies, Roger Stone.
Pine knew that Ludlow had come into the L.A. paper’s top news position from the San Francisco Evening Monitor–an unimpressive rag where he’d been head accountant with a law degree from a third-rate school on the side. Pine took a deep breath and struggled to keep his cool. An award-winning journalist himself, he felt a psychic shop vac from this job begin to suck hard at his gray matter.
Ludlow seemed oblivious. “Doyle’s been fully acquitted on sex crime charges,” he said. “We’re not going to get him on anything else. Be realistic, Mr. Pine.”
“He’s neck-deep in the swamp with Big Pharma. Been dealing since he was sixteen. This time it’s generic drugs. We have to tell the story. It’s what we promise the public to do—you know, the Fourth Estate.”
Ludlow looked confused.
Pine tried not to roll his eyes. “You know—the political system: executive, judicial, legislative and the press. The idea is often attributed to the British politician Edmund Burke…”
“Please, stop. I understand the concept. Just slipped my mind for a second.”
“Okay, sorry.” Why was Ludlow stonewalling him? Something wasn’t right. Pine’s journalistic antennae buzzed like mad bees.
Ludlow tapped his manicured fingers on the shiny desktop. “Regardless of your history lesson, Mr. Pine, the Doyle thing sounds like fake news to me. Move on.”
Pine stopped pacing and jerked to a dead stop like a dog who’d hit the end of his leash. “Fake news? Did you really say that?” He leaned toward the News Director and truly considered punching him hard in his smug face. “Are you accusing me of falsifying information for a story?”
Ludlow drew back, held up his hands in protest, or more likely, protection. “Of course not. I’m told you have an impeccable reputation. A bad choice of words.”
“Choosing words is what we do, sir. I take that task very seriously.”
“Yes, of course.”
The reporter let out a long breath. “I get pretty touchy when my profession, our profession, gets trash-talked. Sick of being beat up for telling the facts.”
“Yes, I understand.” Nodding sagely, Ludlow steepled his eerily long fingers. “Why don’t you bring me everything you have on this Doyle story. I’ll review it all carefully.” His thin eyebrows were drawn in a slash. He looked up from his desk, watery peepers the color of weak tea. He blinked through trifocals. “Have you shared this information with anyone else?”
“Not yet. I knew you’d want to be the first to vet it and give the okay.”
Puckering his lips into a donut hole, Ludlow nodded again. “Okay, good. I’ll take another look. This information is completely confidential and off the record until I get back with you. Agreed?”
“You got it, boss. I swear to God this dude’s involved in some bad, bad shit.” But was it smart, Pine wondered, to keep the story exclusive to the Daily News? Would this bean-counter develop the piece or kill it? His gut said don’t trust the sonofabitch, but the creep was still signing the reporter’s paychecks.
He tightened a fist. What the hell had this organization come to? The group that just bought the Angeles Daily News where Pine had been onboard for a decade, clearly had a hard-on for Ludlow’s fake news and conspiratorial-type views. They recently canned the paper’s long-time exec, a woman with more centrist leanings and a respectable portfolio of professional experience. Lance Ludlow’s journalistic credentials were sketchy at best.
Pine felt a rush of anxiety dampen the edges of his thinning hairline. He rubbed at his short, graying beard. If he were ten years younger, he’d hustle up a new job someplace with integrity, if such places still existed. Times had changed.
Ludlow adjusted his eyeglasses. “Can you get me your notes by tomorrow morning?”
Pine’s cheerless mood brightened just a flicker. “Yeah, sure. In fact, I can give you my files on a thumb drive right now.”
“Excellent. I like your initiative.”
Pine squeezed out a scant smile. The asshole was definitely bullshitting him. Guy probably hated any kind of initiative. Pine, however, knew from bitter experience that former L.A. County Prosecutor and Senate candidate Brandon Doyle was a charismatic, sociopathic, drug-dealing predator who’d only sharpened his hunting knives over the years. But Pine had sharpened his weapons, too. Information was his blade, and if he went down, it would be fighting.
His angry stomach began to rage in its usual noxious way and he excused himself from the News Director’s office in search of a Pepcid.
Back at his cube, David Pine popped a couple antacids and copied the majority of the Doyle information onto a flash drive for Ludlow. But Pine would be damned if he’d give the sonofabitch everything–he’d hold back certain documents for now. And in case the worst happened, he dropped a drive containing the entire file into an envelope addressed to friend and veteran reporter, Beatrice Middleton.
Bea Middleton was an intense, early forties African-American woman with the head-turning good looks that could give any Hollywood luminary competition. She stared at her computer screen in her TV news office, absently twisting a paperclip into a knot.
A throat cleared nearby. She glanced up, and froze.
A wild-looking woman with explosive curly hair the color of copper shell casings and a face bleak with fatigue, slumped in the doorway.
Savannah, Georgia Detective Mary O’Hanlon gripped the jamb like it would save her from drowning.
“Oh, my God, Mary, what are you doing here?” Leaping from her desk, Bea stumbled over a pile of folders she’d stacked on the floor.
Pulling the surprise visitor into her arms, she hugged her tightly. A triathlete and karate black belt, Detective O’Hanlon felt frail as a bird. Something was seriously wrong.
Bea released the embrace and grabbed Mary’s hand, led her into the office and shut the door. Cleared off a chair and motioned for her to sit. “Sweet Jesus, what is going on, girl? When did you get into L.A.?”
“About an hour ago. Sorry for barging in like this, but I don’t know where else to turn. I’m desperate and I don’t trust anybody in this God-forsaken town.”
Bea studied her friend’s face. Usually rosy with ginger freckles that matched her hair, Mary was pale and bloodless as skim milk. There was only one answer to the unhealthy transformation. “This’s about Brandon Doyle, your asshole ex, isn’t it?”
“How’d you guess?” Mary’s lips trembled.
“I know your history with him, sweet pea. Why else would y’all show up in Tinseltown looking like hell and skinny as a stem of marsh grass?”
The detective squirmed in her chair. Clenching and unclenching her fingers, her green eyes were glassy and feverish. Her breath came in little gasps.
“Panic attack?” Bea asked.
Mary nodded. “I’ll be okay.” She pulled a water bottle from her bag and took a long drink. “He has everybody in his pocket. You have no idea.”
“I think I have a pretty good idea, my dear.” Bea opened a desk drawer and lifted out a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream and two paper cups.
“Oh, yes, much better.” Mary forced a wan smile. “Didn’t know this was your stress beverage of choice.”
“Result of a small mystery drop of Irish blood in my DNA. I hope it was true love, but probably not.” She poured them each two fingers. The scent of whiskey, cocoa, and vanilla was soothing. They tapped cups and drank, paused and let the warmth take hold.
Bea held up the bottle. Mary refused the offer for more but Bea poured herself another splash. “So, I was pretty damn sure ol’ Bran was going to be off the street for a decade, at least, on that sex crimes thing.” Bea shook her head. “I was shocked at the ruling.”
“Acquitted. Unbelievable.” Mary uttered a strangled cry. “No disbarment. Lots of sympathy for what he’s ‘gone through.’”
Bea gazed out toward the Hollywood sign, tinged yellow in the acidic air. “It’s a travesty.”
“And in the meantime, he showed up unannounced in Savannah and took our daughter!”
“What?” The air whooshed from Bea’s lungs. Less than two years ago, Detective Mary O’Hanlon risked her life to help find Bea’s son, Dexter, who’d been abducted by a sadistic psychopath. The screaming panic still lived in Bea’s brain like a latent virus ready to erupt given the right trigger. And triggers lurked everywhere. “Tell me.”
“He flew into Savannah-Hilton Head on a private jet and stole Molly when I was at work. Told her I was okay with it! Bribed her with a hot little Mini convertible, a no-limit Black Mastercard, and God only knows what else.”
“Molly’s twenty-one, isn’t she? Of consent age?”
Mary nodded. “It’s why I can’t do anything. And since the car accident that almost killed her, residual brain trauma has really screwed up her cognition. You talk to her, she seems twelve, in a hot woman’s body.”
Sounds like Doyle’s wet dream. Bea threw back the Bailey’s, gritted her teeth.
“But she’s walking again, barely limps anymore.” Mary’s pride shone in a blush that suddenly colored her complexion. “Was living with me, doing well, going to school part-time at Armstrong-Atlantic. She also worked with a local pet rescue. Then, he shows up. I knew it would come to this. Nobody leaves Brandon Doyle without getting sliced to the bone.
She broke into fresh tears. Laid her head on Bea’s desk and wept. “He won’t let me see her.”
Bea pushed a box of Kleenex toward her friend. Mary straightened up with great effort, pulled out a wad and blew her nose. A tear-wet post-it from the pile of memos she’d been drizzling on, stuck to her cheek.
“Girlfriend, you’re a hot mess.” Bea reached over and peeled off the note. “Listen to me. He’ll let you see her, or I’ll have my new investigative unit all over his ugly ass.” She wouldn’t mention that the unit was just two rookie kids and an intern.
“I appreciate that.” Mary yanked out another clump of tissue and blew her nose again. “But he has so many media connections—and I found out he just made a significant investment in one of your local newspapers.”
“Newspaper, snooze-paper. I have a few connections, too, honeybun. And a whole bunch of us would like to see Brandon Doyle burn in hell. He’s a scourge on this community.”
Mary laughed, with a touch of hysteria, then started to cry again.
Bea patted her shoulder. “Where’re you staying? You need some rest. And some deep-fried food.”
“I’m at an Air B&B in Culver City.”
“You’re now at Casa de Middleton in Santa Monica. Let’s get your stuff. We’ll order in some barbeque tonight and plan how we’re gonna get to your daughter.”
Mary dragged her sleeve across wet eyes. “He’s dangerous, Bea, homicidally dangerous. Has no boundaries, no sense of decency. It’s all about getting whatever the hell he wants at any cost. Our daughter is just another tool for his personal use.”
Anger and outrage clawed at Bea’s insides. She folded her arms and looked intently at her friend. A strong, gifted police officer had been brought to her knees by the sonofabitch, Doyle. Soul-sucking fear for one’s children can do that. But she knew Mary O’Hanlon, and the woman would rise up.
“Detective, we’ve taken on worse.”
“I’m not so sure about that. And guess what? He’ll be announcing that he’s running for Senate. Has a bundle of money-people all lined up.”
“Really? Senate? Pretty ballsy after barely ducking sex crime allegations.” Bea poured a few more drops of Baileys.
“He presents himself as an innocent casualty of the MeToo movement gone wild,” Mary said.
“He was victimizing children, not adults. That’s not Me Too, that’s pedophilia, child trafficking—something twisted.”
“Whatever you call it, he has a lot of sympathy in this town. Scratch L.A.’s shiny liberal surface and you’ll find a shit show of frustration, misogyny and hate festering just below the rhetoric. I grew up here, I know this place. Brandon Doyle’ll come out unscathed. Hell, it’s ultimately all about power.”
“I hear ‘ya, but we can play that game, too.” Bea hauled her briefcase from a nearby chair and loaded in Manilla files, unopened mail, and other workday detritus. She paused to glance at a mailing envelope from a fellow reporter, then tossed it in with the rest.
David Pine sat in the living room of his modest Santa Clarita condo, watching the Golden State Warriors hammer the Lakers. Fifteen points down at halftime–today he barely seemed to care.
Brown-haired and pretty, Claire Thompson, his thirty-something girlfriend of barely three months who lived in the unit across the hall, snuggled next to him on the cozy chenille couch. Pine had been divorced for a decade and the comfort of this wonderful creature’s company still amazed him. It had truly been love at first sight for them both.
He pulled her close.
The timer on Claire’s iphone beeped. “Pizza’s ready, hon. Be right back.”
“I don’t know why you don’t bake it here.” Pine reluctantly let her slip from his embrace.
“I told you, I make it from scratch and all my cooking equipment is in my kitchen.” She rolled her eyes. “Plus, your oven is so mis-calibrated, the same dish can be raw on one side and overdone on the other.” Claire gave Pine a playful smooch and moved toward the door.
He jumped up and followed her. Overwhelmed by a sudden feeling that he couldn’t live without her, he grabbed her hand. “Claire Thompson, why don’t we move in together? I love you; you love me. We’d have a much nicer place; we’d get the oven of your dreams. Life is short—what the hell are we waiting for?”
She raised an eyebrow. “How many beers have you had?”
“One, barely one! I swear I’ve never been more sober.” Emotions had been building for some time and he finally knew she was the one, the soulmate he’d been searching for. Work was turning to quicksand, his two children lived on the East Coast, and he wasn’t getting any younger. Claire was his rock.
Her hazel eyes filled with tears. “Oh, David. You’ve always been so hesitant to discuss….”
Pine gathered her tightly into his arms. “I even miss you when you leave the room.” He stroked Claire’s soft, straight hair then pushed her back and gripped her shoulders. “I’ve been an idiot, scared to commit, but I’m through with that. You make me so damn happy. Just hanging together, having dinner, watching some stupid TV show—it’s heaven.” He laughed out loud.
“I’m so glad you think so, too.” Claire sniffed. “But speaking of dinner–the pizza’s burning, sweetheart.” She gave him a deep soulful kiss then reluctantly drew away and stumbled toward the door, eyes glossy with joy. “We’ll talk in a minute.” She practically skipped across the breezeway.
His whole being radiated with warm certainty as he collapsed back onto the couch, smiling. Hell, he even loved how practical she was, so concerned with the little things like oven calibration. He was one lucky dude. This time, he wasn’t going to blow it.
He closed his eyes, smiling.
The sound of a spitting whisper tore through his brain.
And David Pine was dead.
Voted Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Writer of the Year for 2021-22, Sue Hinkin was raised in Chicago and is a former college teacher and administrator, TV news photographer, and NBC-TV art department manager. She was also a Cinematography Fellow at the American Film Institute. Her thrillers, featuring Los Angeles TV news journalist Beatrice Jackson and photographer Lucia Vega, have been recognized with multiple awards. Book 5 in the series, The Rx for Murder, will be released July 1, 2022. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America. Hinkin lives in Littleton, Colorado where she is the new grandmother of twin girls who already love a good book.
See more at www.suehinkin.com.