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First pages

Chapter One

Perfidy, Peril, and Predilections

“You can’t be serious,” Angelica said. “The mayor did that? Our mayor?”

“Seems so,” came the muffled reply. Digby Doolan rarely raised his voice, which made his foghorn-in-the-distance growls even harder to understand. The shocking value of Digby’s revelations made the inconvenience easy to overlook. How he sounded didn’t matter so long as what he offered remained juicy.

Angelica Rohrbach scratched a concluding line on her notepad. It was nearly full, just like the other eight such notebooks she kept locked in a strongbox in the root cellar, the closest thing she had to a bomb shelter in a time of war. Though it was unlikely any German or Japanese bombers would ever reach Georgia, it never hurt to take precautions. She took similar care in recording the dates and times of each notebook entry. Later, when she wrote up her column for the Atlanta Clarion, she would enhance the details and obscure their source. No one ever knew where she got her information, and she aimed to keep it that way.

“What do I owe you?” she asked.

Digby shuffled his feet and fiddled with his cap, mannerisms Angelica had learned to accept along with the cemetery caretaker’s odor and his dirt-stained attire. Not that she ever let him in the house; just being in his presence provided all the nerve-jangling she could handle.

“Hun’erd?”

Angelica recognized the inflated first offer and shook her head. “Don’t be silly.”

“It’s about the dadgum mayor,” Digby grumbled. “That’s worth more than usual.”

“It would be if we could prove it. That a man like him would spend time with a--” She paused. “A streetwalker, doesn’t surprise me. How’s fifty dollars sound?”

“Pretty danged chintzy. The information’s worth a helluva lot more. Now that I think on it, I reckon it’s worth more like two hun’erd.”

Angelica pursed her lips. “There’s no doubt my readers will be delighted to learn that His Honor provided a hussy with a furnished apartment. I, for one, would like to know how he paid for it, and whether or not he used tax money. But in any case, I need proof before I can print any of it.”

Digby stopped shuffling and pushed his short-brimmed cap to the back of his head. A shock of unkempt gray hair slumped forward and covered his weathered forehead. “You’ve started with rumor before. You kin do it again.”

“I suppose,” she said, trying to reconcile accepting his opening bid with her native frugality. “Let me get my purse.” She slipped away and took a grateful breath of air not tainted by the gravedigger’s aroma. She found her pocketbook and dug out half of what she needed then hurriedly returned to the back door. “I’ll have to go to the bank to get the rest,” she said, pushing the money into his outstretched hands. “There’ll be fifty more tomorrow; I promise.”

“There’s only fifty here now,” he said. “I told ya two hun’erd.”

“Now see here, Digger, we’ve been doing business for--”

“A long time,” he said. “And if you’d like to continue doing business, you’ll pay what I ask.”

“But--”

“A hun’erd an’ a half. Tomorrow. Bring it by at lunchtime. I’ll be in the shed.”

“But--”

“See ya then,” he growled over his shoulder as he sauntered away. “Don’t be late.”

~*~

Still fuming, Digby clambered into his ancient Ford truck and nursed the rusting relic to life. As a cloud of thick exhaust fumes rolled over the Rohrbach residence, he shifted into first and eased his foot off the clutch. Had he been a younger, more impetuous man, he might have tried to spin the tires and spew gravel across Angelica’s neatly raked driveway. He knew, however, that such an effort would likely have caused the engine to seize and possibly cough up one of its four dinky pistons. As crappy as the truck was, it was the only vehicle the owners of the cemetery provided for him. If he tore it up, they’d take forever to replace it.

And in the meantime, he’d still have to haul his tools around to care for the old graves when he wasn’t digging new ones. They called it landscaping. He wasn’t sure what the hell it was. Grass-cutting and flower planting, sure, but the worst of it was hauling off deadfall from the acre upon acre of hardwoods that shaded the place and made digging graves so damned difficult.

Even worse, the owners were too cheap to hire additional labor. If they had more than one burial in a day, they’d give him a little extra cash to hire “independent contractors.” These were usually winos and/or other down and outs who’d work for the pittance he had to offer. Granted, at fifty cents an hour, it was twice the minimum wage, but who wanted to earn it digging holes big enough and deep enough for caskets?

Thanks to Hitler, Mussolini, and the Emperor of Japan, able-bodied men were scarce, and those willing to dig graves in the summer heat of Atlanta were rarer still. Rather than pocket some of the cash for his trouble, Digby often had to pay double to avoid killing himself with the extra labor.

Years before, when still a young man, Digby entertained thoughts of getting a desk job of some kind, but he’d seen what that did to people--turned ‘em into pasty-faced weaklings who spoke like they were always in church. He knew better. He’d gotten the word. Lots of words, actually. Many of which he’d shared with a local paper’s gossip columnist. No, he thought. Make that a local paper’s cheapskate gossip columnist.

He had a good mind to cut her off entirely. No more scoops, at least for a while. It’d serve her right. If she had nothing interesting to write about for a few months, maybe she’d realize how valuable his information was and actually pay him for what it was worth.

That was somewhat problematical, however, because he needed the extra cash she provided in order to pay for a few of the finer things in life which weren’t possible on his caretaker’s salary.

Impasse. He’d heard Angelica use the term. It meant you and somebody else were going head to head, and neither party was willing to back off. He’d avoided locking horns with her for ages on account of her being female and him being single. She’d been married once, way back, and got a house out of the deal. He’d always hoped the two of them might get along better, but it never happened. She always seemed glad to see him, but once she heard what he had to say, she grew standoffish and acted as if he had some dread disease. Measles maybe, or the clap. It pissed him off, but he always got over it. Before. Their meeting that day, however, hit him the wrong way, and harder than ever.

She wouldn’t get away with it this time. Nope. This time he’d keep his tips to himself until she came around to the fact that she couldn’t cheat him anymore.

If only he had the option of selling the information somewhere else, but the city of Atlanta, and The Atlanta Clarion in particular, could only support one gossip monger.

What the town really needed was a newspaper with an alternative gossip columnist.

~*~

Stormy Green sat in her 1928 Willys Whippet coupe with her forehead pressed against the steering wheel. Though the car could squeeze more miles out of a gallon of gas than most other vehicles, it couldn’t do so forever. Her little two-door had wheezed its last and shuddered to a stop almost off the road. Close enough, she hoped, that people would think she’d just done a lousy parking job. She had one gas ration coupon left and no idea how to get the fuel or where to go once she had it.

She straightened, and with a puff of determined breath, fluffed the bangs covering her forehead. The time had come. No sense putting it off any longer. But then she glanced at her legs, bare from mid-thigh down, she still couldn’t make herself comfortable in the outfit her former roommate, Lorraine, had sewn for her.

“It’s called a romper, and it’s all the rage,” Lorraine said. “As slim as you are, you’ll look spectacular, and not just at the beach.” She handed Stormy a page ripped from a Hollywood fan magazine. It featured three starlets in matching rompers, all styled to look like sailor suits.

“They’re cute,” Stormy admitted. “And would be great for a long trip in a hot car. But go out in public dressed like that? I dunno.”

“When did you turn into Mrs. Grundy?” Lorraine handed her a cream-colored romper with green trim. “Try this on. I made one for each of us, only yours is about five sizes smaller.”

Stormy smiled at her plump friend. “You’re too good to me.”

The exchange had occurred three short weeks earlier, and now the cream-colored jumper was the only clean piece of clothing she owned. It couldn’t be helped, she’d have to wear it for her interview.

The editorial offices of The Atlanta Clarion stood half way down the block. While not exactly a prestigious publication, it had a respectable circulation for a small city’s second daily. Stormy hoped her credentials as the assistant editor of her college paper would be enough to wrangle a job. Though less than optimistic, based on failed attempts with five other newspapers in as many towns, Stormy tried to ignore her ridiculous outfit and focus her thoughts in a positive fashion. Failure meant going hungry, sleeping in her car, or worse--going home, hat in hand, to an avalanche of I-told-you-sos from her family. She wasn’t above working any reasonable job to survive, but she’d always dreamed of becoming a journalist, and she wasn’t about to give up on the idea. At least, not yet.

After a last check of her hair and make-up in the Whippet’s minuscule rearview mirror, Stormy slipped out from behind the wheel, grabbed her portfolio from the passenger seat, and aimed her steps toward the future. Or what she hoped might be her future.

~*~

Angelica Rohrbach realized she’d made a mistake in bargaining with Digby for his information, but she’d become accustomed to the practice. And he never seemed to mind. It was a game, that’s all. If he couldn’t see it, that wasn’t her problem.

At least, it hadn’t been before that day. Now the old reprobate seemed determined to not only set his prices high, but to stick with them, too. It wasn’t fair. How was she supposed to keep up with the vagaries of an old man’s mind?

Maybe it was time for her to teach him a lesson. She had already heard everything he had to share about the mayor. Now it was up to her to find some way to confirm it. Maybe it would be best if she held off paying him another nickel until she had some solid proof about the mayor’s shenanigans. On the other hand, Digby had never been wrong before. He might have gotten a detail or two confused, and sometimes the reality didn’t measure up to its potential, but he never gave her bad information.

The phone rang as she ruminated on her plan to put Digby Doolan back in his place.

“This is Angelica,” she said.

“Your column was due an hour ago, Angie. What am I supposed to do, make something up for ya?”

She found her editor’s voice nearly as grating as Digby’s, though for different reasons. Though Nathan Sparks ran The Clarion like the ringmaster of a circus, his vocal range was much higher than Digby’s. It was also significantly more nasal and came accompanied by a good deal of wheezing and coughing, no doubt the product of his three-pack-a-day habit. Angelica maintained the same odor-isolating distance from both men.

“Well?” Nathan said, his voice rising an octave over the course of a single syllable.

“I’m workin’ on it, but I’ve got some things to nail down, first.”

“So, I should just leave a blank space where your words are supposed to go? Readers will love that.”

“Of course not, Nate. I just need you to be a little patient.”

“There’s no such thing as patience in the news business. You’ve been around long enough to know that.”

“Obviously.”

“Then why do you drive me to utter distraction every week? You know what your deadline is. Why must I call you every time to remind you of it?”

“But you don’t have to do that!”

Nathan’s response was part cough and part wheeze. Angelica wondered if he was having another heart attack. “You okay?” she asked.

“Hell no, I’m not okay!” he roared back. “I’ve got a paper to put out, and all I have to go on your page is a furniture ad and fifteen column inches of empty space.”

“Calm down, Nate. I’ll come up with something. I always do.”

He exhaled heavily.

“Seriously,” she added. “All I need is a couple hours more.”

“Oh, no problem. I’ll tell the gang in the press room to sit back and relax ‘cause Angie needs a couple extra hours. They’ll love hearing that. It means they’ll get overtime. It means my whole damned budget goes up in flames. It means everyone else on staff will wonder why they have to get their shit in on time when you don’t. It means--”

“Okay, okay. I get it,” she said. “Just use my back-up column. I’ll keep working on the juicy new stuff I’ve got, and next week you’ll be all smiles. I promise.” She couldn’t actually remember seeing him smile.

“I used your back-up column the last time you missed your deadline, remember?”

“Oh.” She actually didn’t remember, but she didn’t dare tell him that. “You know I don’t just make this stuff up. It takes time and effort to get to the truth.”

“You’re a regular Horace Greeley.”

“Now you’re just bein’ mean.”

“Angie, I swear, the only reason I put up with your crap is because it usually pans out, and sometimes I can get an actual news story from it. I don’t suppose that’ll happen this time.”

She chuckled. “When I said ‘all smiles’ before, I meant it. This new story could be huge. Gigantic!”

“I’m getting too old for this,” he muttered.

“I’m serious!”

“And I don’t really give a shit,” he said. “Get me something in an hour. That’s all the time I can spare. Your usual five hundred words of inspired innuendo will do.”

He was definitely being mean. She’d have to make it a rumor and be careful not to identify the subject of Digby’s revelation. Digby, of course, would remain anonymous as usual. No way she’d ever give up her source.

“So, you’ll do it? You won’t let me down?”

“I swear, Nate. You won’t regret it.”

He grunted. “I already regret it.”

Angelica raced to hang up before he could.

~*~

Digby Doolan liked the tool shed. He thought of it as his office, even though it more closely resembled a metal-roofed barn. He had walled off a section for his personal use and installed a folding cot with a thin but useable mattress, a cupboard for his beer and snacks, and a radio so he could keep tabs on his favorite teams. College sports ruled the south, and he could usually find a game if he tried hard enough. One could be a fan without ever having been a student, and that description fit Digby perfectly.

Sports and coffins, he mused. He never seemed to run out of either.

The most valuable thing in the shed, however, was neither a tool nor a domestic convenience. That designation belonged to an ornate mirror which had been left behind by his predecessor. Digby had no idea where it had come from originally though he suspected it had been imported from Europe or some obscure part of the Orient. Way before the war. He didn’t know exactly when, and if the man who trained him was aware of its history, he never bothered to share it.

Certainly, the old timer hadn’t said anything positive about the mirror. Quite the contrary; he feared it and even swore it was cursed. He kept it covered with an old blanket and made Digby promise to leave it that way. That had changed over the years, but truth be told, using it scared the crap out of him, too, if not as badly now as it had the first few times.

He glanced toward it, hanging on the wall above a workbench. He kept a towel draped over it to keep the dust off. Whether that mattered to the inhabitant of the mirror he didn’t know. He’d never asked. There were many questions he’d never asked.

Sometimes it was better not to know all the answers.

~*~

In a carefully hidden set of German command bunkers nestled in the wooded splendor of Bavaria, Axel Schmidt looked at the orders he’d been given for his new mission, one which had but two possible outcomes: disaster and suicide, probably both.

His thoughts were shaped in large part by the debacle known as “Operation Pastorius.” In that ill-fated effort, a team of eight, highly trained and well-funded saboteurs secretly entered the United States with the goal of blowing up factories, power plants, military installations and Jewish-owned businesses. Their success was intended to terrify the American population and force them to withdraw manpower and equipment from the war effort and put it to work guarding their homeland.

The plan could not have failed more miserably. Instead of spreading terror across the land, the mission whimpered to an end when the leader of the team turned himself in to the FBI. The other seven operatives were arrested, and all were put on trial and convicted. Two went to prison for life; the other six were executed. In Germany, they would have been shot. The Americans used their “electric chair.” Axel’s sphincter tightened to a pinprick at the thought.

While similar in nature to the failed Operation Pastorius, Axel’s mission had a much narrower focus. The Americans were building a factory which would soon be churning out long-range bombers at an alarming rate. The massive aircraft would be flown by female pilots to bases near the war zone where they would be loaded with bombs and crewed by veteran airmen intent on laying waste to the fatherland. Axel’s family had perished in Dresden, burned to ash along with 40,000 other innocent civilians when the British and American bombers dropped their devastating loads on the unprotected populace below.

Der Führer himself had been rumored to say a few more such raids would force Germany to stop fighting. For Axel, that was unthinkable. The Americans had to pay for the misery and death they inflicted on his family, and that sentiment had propelled him to volunteer for the mission. He would have preferred to personally dole out retaliatory death and destruction, but he was enough of a realist to know that a covert operation had the capacity to do far greater damage than could one man, no matter how well armed.

The Americans had developed a high-altitude, a high-speed airplane which carried a vastly bigger bomb payload than any other. The B29 could turn Germany into rubble; Axel and his crew were expected to slow down if not stop their delivery. The team would be dispatched onto American soil via U-boat as had their unfortunate predecessors. This time, however, the mission wasn’t being planned by the craven leaders of the now-defunct Abwher. Every step of the complicated plan had been worked out by the Schutzstaffel, or SS, to which Axel had dedicated himself.

America would pay.

~*~

Stormy tried to brush some of the wrinkles from her skimpy outfit as she waited to see the Clarion’s managing editor. A bony woman with gray hair and severe clothing had told her to wait, though she couldn’t say for how long. The look she had given Stormy--or more accurately, Stormy’s outfit--had screamed disapproval, though she settled for an obviously unneeded sniff. She claimed the staff had production deadlines to meet, and she couldn’t be sure the managing editor, or anyone else, would have time to interview a potential trainee.

Stormy didn’t even get the chance to correct the trainee reference. She was there for a real job. She’d had all the training she needed; she was ready to write.

Sitting in the empty room, she whiled away the time by filling out an employment application. She felt as if she’d gone through a hundred of the damned things since she received her college diploma, a handshake from the dean, and his mumbled good luck wish. He almost got her name right.

It was okay though; she was done with what her father called “higher education.” She was on her own at last, free to pursue her dream. She never realized getting a paying job in the industry would be so hard.

“Miz Green?”

Stormy almost jumped to her feet but caught herself in time. No need to appear over-eager, though she knew the effort was hopeless. Her face always gave her away. Everyone said so.

“Mr. Sparks will see you now.” The gray-haired stick figure smirked at her as she gestured for Stormy to follow, then turned and marched away. Stormy scrambled to catch up, chasing the real-life version of Popeye’s girlfriend, Olive Oyl, down a hallway.

“He’s in there,” the woman said, aiming a skeletal digit toward a room that bore an atmospheric haze.

Is it safe?

“Hope you don’t mind the smoke,” said her gray guide. “Someday they’ll pass a law about smoking in the workplace, and he’ll be out of a job. Assuming he lives that long.”

Stormy didn’t believe Congress would go along with anything like that; aside from the fact they were focused on a world war, there was simply too much money being made in the tobacco industry. Everyone in Hollywood smoked, or so it seemed. If opinions were based solely on what the movie stars did, everyone would think smoking was glamorous. Many of her friends in college smoked, but she’d only tried it once. That was enough. She’d heard of some who’d tried marijuana, too, but she figured if she couldn’t handle tobacco, she’d never handle anything stronger.

“Well, c’mon in,” said a voice from within the smoky room. “I’m not gettin’ any younger.”

Stormy eased into the cramped, messy room, most of which was occupied by a wide wooden desk. The speaker remained hidden from view behind a handful of yellow copy paper. She recognized the stuff from her time on the staff of her college rag.

“Siddown,” he said. “Be with ya in a minute.”

There were two chairs in the room. Mr. Sparks filled one of them, and a stack of files filled the other.

“Uh--”

“Hang on. I’m almost done.” He dropped the paper on his desk and attacked it with a blue pencil, drawing a huge “X” on one paragraph and several lines through another. He circled a word here and there, drew some arrows and added a couple symbols she’d never seen before, then tossed it in a metal tray marked “Out.” In the same motion, he pressed a button on the corner of his desk which summoned a runner. The boy, a couple years younger than Stormy, dashed in, emptied the “Out” box and departed without a word.

While Stormy observed the runner, Sparks observed her.

“Just set that stuff on the floor,” he said, watching intently as she followed his instructions.

When finished, she handed him her resume and the partially completed job application. “I didn’t have time to answer everything.”

While he perused her paperwork in silence, Stormy glanced around his workspace. A dozen black and white photos and a handful of wooden plaques adorned the walls. She didn’t recognize any of the awards, though some of the people in the photos looked familiar. Among them were the governor, a state court judge, who she was reasonably sure now occupied a cell in a federal prison, and some other supposed notables.

A poster featuring the face of Franklin Roosevelt bore a quote from his 1940 re-election campaign: “I’ll say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” A feathered dart protruded from the left side of the president’s forehead. Numerous tiny holes in the poster testified to previous assaults.

“Stormy, huh?”

“Yes sir,” she said, steeling herself for the inevitable snide comment about the notorious burlesque queen who performed under the name “Stormy Weather.” She didn’t have to wait long.

“I’m pretty sure there’s a fan dancer by that name.”

“I think the term ‘stripper’ is more accurate, but I assure you, that’s where the similarity between us ends.”

Sparks cleared his throat and lit up a Lucky Strike. His ashtray overflowed with snuffed out butts and burnt wooden matches. After taking his first deep drag, he smiled at her in a way that suggested a measure of respect. “So, you wanna be a reporter.”

“Yes sir,” she said, relieved that he hadn’t said anything about a trainee position.

“We already have a trainee. You saw him a minute ago when he came in.”

The room suddenly felt a great deal warmer than it had before, and the volume of cigarette smoke made her lightheaded. “Actually, I’ve already done some practice jobs. I’m ready for a real one.”

He regarded her closely, paying significantly more time on her face and figure than on her resume. She suddenly wished she’d worn pants. And a parka.

After an uncomfortably long silence he once again focused on her paperwork. “Says here you maintained a regular column on your school paper. Got any samples?”

“You bet,” she said, digging into her portfolio. She had divided it by story types: news, features and opinion. She grabbed everything in the opinion section and handed it to him.

“Nice photo,” he said, holding up the clipping to compare the headshot in it with her actual, in-the-flesh, flesh. “Very nice.”

“Thanks.”

“We don’t use headshots in our opinion pages.”

“Oh.” Crap.

“But if the folks writing for us looked as good as you I’d be tempted to change that.” It appeared he wanted to say more, but once he started coughing it took him a good long while to regain his voice.

“Can I get you some water?” she asked.

“No,” he said, red-faced. “I’ll be okay.”

He reached down beside his chair and retrieved a thermos jug from which he poured two fingers of something dark into a coffee mug. Stormy wasn’t close enough to identify the fluid by smell, especially since the room reeked of cigarettes and other odors she chose not to think about.

“Which of these is your best?” he asked, holding up her columns.

“I think they’re all pretty good,” she said, “but the one I like the best is about problems with the nursing program. Those were--”

“This one?”

“Yes.”

He handed it back to her.

“Which one do you like the least?”

She was trying to get a handle on his game, but had little confidence. “The one on women’s sports, I guess.”

He thumbed through them and finally held one up. “This it?”

“Yes.”

He handed the rest back to her and started reading.

“I--”

“Shhh. Gimme a sec.”

Trying not to do a slow burn or squirm too much in the straight-backed chair, Stormy waited until he finished.

“Not bad,” he said at last. “A little overly dramatic, maybe, but not bad.”

“Thanks.” She managed to avoid adding, “I think.”

“So, why do you want to work for the Clarion? Why not a big-time paper like the Constitution?”

“I’d love to work for a big paper,” she said, “but from what I’ve seen, they only want writers with years and years of experience.”

“And the Clarion doesn’t?”

“I didn’t say that!”

He smiled at her. At least, she thought it might have been a smile.

“Tell ya what,” he said, “I’ll take a chance on you. Your writing isn’t bad. It isn’t great, either, but we can fix that. What you need is seasoning--a little time in the saddle and exposure to some real editing. Before you know it, you’ll be one of those experienced writers, and then I’ll probably have to bribe you to stay here.”

“You won’t regret it,” Stormy said, flushed with relief. “I promise.”

“I’d rather you promised something else.”

She blinked at him, her suspicions as taut as a harp string. “Like what?”

“Promise you’ll continue to wear short skirts. Seems like everybody who works here is a couple hundred years old. Seeing a pretty girl in nice clothes will definitely improve the atmosphere around here.”

Stormy paused, her mind racing. “Uh, okay. But I confess, this is the only short outfit I own, and I probably won’t get paid for--”

Sparks smiled and dashed off a note. “Give this to Audrey, she prefers ‘Miz Banks’ by the way, she’s the woman who showed you in. It’s an advance on your first paycheck.”

I won’t have to sleep in the car!

“Be back here at eight o’clock, sharp. I’ll have an assignment for you. Screw it up, and you can return the advance before you leave in the afternoon.”

“I won’t screw it up,” she said, forcing every bit of determination she could into her voice.

“Let’s hope not,” he said. “Now, skedaddle.”

Chapter Two

Innocent en Brochette

Angelica hammered out a column even more heavily laced with supposition than usual. The facts would come in due time, hopefully strung out across two or even three more stories. That was the lovely thing about gossip. One could present it in so many ways. A single indiscretion could be parlayed into a three-act morality play if handled properly.

Avoiding specific names, dates, and places only made sense. Angelica couldn’t afford another libel suit; she hadn’t paid off her attorneys for the last one--and she’d won that case. No, patience had to be her guide. She needed to own the particulars before she put any names in print. For now, she and her readers would have to settle for insinuation, and that she could provide by the truckload.

Unlike Diogenes casting a light in search of an honest man, Angelica shined hers in search of a corrupt one. Something sinful, sinister and sleazy was afoot in Atlanta. It involved at least one well-known official and had something to do with the city’s dark side, an area best known for its seedy bars, “exotic” dancers, and rooms for rent by the hour.

Just who could this shady character be, and what despicable things had been done to satisfy his carnal desires? She urged her readers to stay tuned to her column if they cared to find out.

~*~

Stormy carefully tucked the cash she’d received from the Clarion into a pocket hidden inside the hem of her skirt. Lorraine was nothing if not resourceful. The abbreviated outfit might have its drawbacks, but it had some pluses, too. Though the money wouldn’t last long, it represented short term survival versus a return home as an acknowledged failure. Things were definitely looking up, and that put a smile on her face and a bit of renewed purpose in her stride. She also found a gas station a bit further up the road. With a mental nod to the patron saint of fools and journalists, which she assumed to be one and the same, she slipped into her best damsel in distress mode and approached the two men working there.

It would have been an easy thing to buy gas if she had a few extra ration coupons, but she’d been burning them up fast during her drive south. The War Office wasn’t keen on letting the population drive around the countryside at will. They didn’t care about her job search; they wanted the gas for tanks and trucks. And, just maybe, a little for the generals in DC so they could maintain their social schedules.

Taking her cue from the chain-smoking editor whose office she’d just left behind, Stormy undid the top button of her blouse and smoothed her skirt which was short enough to mortify her grandmother, had the dear old lady still been alive and close enough to see her. She then marched toward the station attendants.

“Hello, boys!” she said in a voice Mae West would have envied. “I’ve done something incredibly dumb, and I need help.”

The two men looked at each other, then smiled, and both walked toward her.

“What’s wrong?” asked the taller of the two. The name written on the pocket of his work shirt read: Pete.

“I ran outta gas before I could get here,” she said, a tremor in her voice. “I feel so stupid. My boyfriend said-- Well, he’s my ex-boyfriend now. Anyway, he told me I didn’t have enough sense to go anywhere by myself.” She sniffed as convincingly as she could. “I’m outta gas coupons, and now I’ve proven him right. I feel just-- just awful.”

Pete appeared ready to propose marriage and couldn’t move fast enough to comfort her. His co-worker did not seem similarly afflicted and went back about his business.

“How far is your car?” he asked. “We’ve got a gas can in the garage.”

“You’d let me borrow it?”

He held up both hands in protest. “Heck no. You’re all dressed up. You don’t need to be carryin’ some nasty ol’ gas can.”

“But--”

“I’ll do it for ya. Now, where’s your car?”

She told him, and he jogged back to the station to get the gas can. When he returned, she batted her eyelashes at him. “I can’t thank you enough.”


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Josh Langston writes books which amuse, anger, enlighten and entertain. He regularly mines history for background material that's little known but reliably fascinating. His plots are complex, interconnected and layered with humor and suspense; his characters are rarely predictable, and even his bad guys tend to be both engaging and diabolical. When he's not writing, Josh is either editing or teaching classes on writing.

Q. Which writers inspire you?
A.
Robert Heinlein, Mark Twain and Carl Hiaasen are my faves, but I enjoy many others. I look for and admire writers who inject humor into their work while maintaining a high level of tension. That's quite a rare commodity.
Q. Where can readers find out more about you?
A.
I invite readers to visit my blog at JoshLangston.com. They can find out more about me and my books, and they can even sample one of my textbooks, "Write Naked!"
Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A.
Finishing it! I just have too much on my plate. I finally pushed everything else aside and wrapped it up before I forgot who was doing what to whom, and where, and why. Too many forgotten details! I like to produce one novel a year, and this one was taking far too long.

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