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PART ONE
LIVES OF CRIME

 

Chapter 1
Before the Deluge

Mickey Statler started driving in the general direction of The News-Free Press, whose Press had been merely free, not news-free, when he had gone to work there twenty years earlier.

He was an award-winning columnist. They put cartoons of him on cardboard squares that were inserted in the machines where papers were circulated at Waffle Houses when football and basketball seasons were about to begin. They gave away tee shirts bearing those same cartoons to lucky subscribers who outpicked him in weekly football contests. The News-Free Press had an investment in Mickey Statler. The News-Free Press and Mickey were one and inseparable, now and forever, till death did them part, like bacon and eggs, or politics and corruption, but times were changing, and Mickey had started to fret. If The News-Free Press’s new owner kept lessening its news, Mickey might be out of a job and going door to door, simulating Halloween 365 days a year, along with the other dozen of his onetime colleagues now trick-or-treating for a living in one way or another.

He carried the morning paper with him to the Starbucks, located inside the Barnes & Noble between his condo and the office. He put The News-Free Press on a table, ordered a large Blonde and a cinnamon muffin, and walked around the corner to peruse the magazine rack. There he noticed that Playboy magazine no longer ran photos of women who were fully nude. As he walked back over to the counter to receive his order from the barista, it occurred to him that if nudes weren’t available in the pages of Playboy, Mickey Statler in The News-Free Press might not be too far behind.

As he sat at his table, sipping coffee, scanning idly the events of the previous day, and thumbing his cell for the events of the current one, Mickey’s mood improved. After all, he had outlasted nudes in Playboy. Stanley Lanier was living in a small house on Lake Lure, trying to make a living with a website that had a stupid name because all the good ones had been taken and copyrighted. Suzie La Fontaine wanted to be a player’s agent, and so far she had masterminded the signing of two to Canadian Football League contracts. Ronnie Leggett, once the best racing writer in the Carolinas, had moved off to somewhere in Kentucky, where he might not be growing weed but had texted Mickey that he knew where he could get some. Mickey didn’t have anything against it, but the off chance that The News-Free Press would be willing to spend the amount of money it would take to drug-test all employees was enough to keep Mickey content with the occasional beer, or six if it was Dollar Draught Night. He had an ex-wife living at the beach, a daughter in college, and not enough of a financial reserve to take any chances.

Chapter 2
Mischief

She’d gone off to college on a soccer scholarship but grown tired of soccer about the time she started fancying herself a writer. She’d shown more talent in the classroom than she’d been able to muster on a field of grass, and her perspective on life had begun to change. Where once the team had invaded Tirello’s Pizza Buffet after eking out a one-nil conquest of Francis Marion, now her friends gathered at a coffeehouse, arriving there high, playing alt-something on their guitars, reading their poetry to one another, and slipping out for cigarettes on the sidewalk.

When she felt her talents had exceeded her academic opportunities, she had managed to win a grant at a private school, where she longed to swim with larger fish in a smaller pond and champion a new Beat Generation to shake up the staid predictability of an ignorant society. Now she was getting prepared for her first class. What she hadn’t divulged yet to her parents was that the extent of her grant was one session of summer school, and it would start draining momentarily. She was unworried. Mom and Dad would find a way. They always did.

Sitting amid the greenery on a concrete bench that would have seemed normal in a cemetery, she lit a Marlboro Light, tilted her head back, and exhaled. The heat of the day was still brewing. A breeze caused the branches on the maple trees to sway and crackle. Four or five others were languishing similarly, all but one as carelessly as she.

She became aware of an ungainly boy, black hair tousled awkwardly, wearing an ill-fitting, white dress shirt and khaki pants. He leaned against one of the trees and kept stealing glances her way. She knew that game. Pretty girls learned that certain boys were aroused by smoking. They watched the way the girl lit her cigarette, what kind of lighter she used, what brand she smoked, how she inhaled and exhaled, studying as if she were somehow their assignment, holding their cells because they wanted to snap her photo if they could do so without her noticing. She kept him at bay by occasionally turning her gaze to him just so he would avert his eyes. She didn’t feel insulted. She didn’t feel harassed. She thought it hilarious.

He picked up his canvas pack but slung it over only one shoulder and walked toward her. She thought he might be heading to a class in a building behind her.

“Do, do, you, you, mind if I sit d-down?”

A stutter. How charming.

She switched the cigarette to her left hand and extended cheerfully her right. Charming him.

“How do you do? I’m Marcia.”

He shook her hand. “Peter.”

Marcia took a draw. She left the cigarette hanging as she inhaled and took it back with her right hand. Then she obligingly turned away to exhale a thin stream. He became nervous as he looked mostly at the ground, his head bouncing a little.

“Do you mind if I-I a-ask you a question?” Peter asked.

“Obviously not,” she replied, knowing he wouldn’t catch the humor

“Do-do you th-think it’s coo-ool to …?

“Smoke?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Marcia could see him asking her for one. She looked directly into his eyes, drew hard on the cigarette, inhaled deeply, held it a bit, and attempted to emit rings of smoke, a couple of which remained briefly defined before the breeze dispersed it. The venue wasn’t the best.

Then she held what remained of the smoke in front of her, wafts of it clouding the field of vision between them, and said, with mock gravitas, “Yes. I do.”

She ground out the cigarette with her jogging shoes, picked up her own book bag, said, brightly, “Nice to meet you,” and went off to class. Peter was late for his. He was masturbating in a bathroom stall.

Her first lesson came from a pretty girl, shorter than she, who tapped her on the shoulder as she entered the entrance of the classroom building.

“Excuse me.”

Marcia stopped and turned around.

“Uh, I just thought I ought to tell you that Triborough is a smoke-free campus.”

“Oh,” Marcia said.

“I’d die for one. I’m Lana.”

“I’m Marcia. And I’m new.”

Chapter 3
Just the Usual Brand of Absurdity

Mickey Statler walked straight to his mailbox at The News-Free Press, and many were the days when all he ever did there was peruse the mail, or, in most cases, throw it away. Mail was already obsolete. The standard mode of interactions – arranging credentials, interviews, photo shoots, etc. – was now electronic. No one even listened to voice messages. Hooking up with a contact required a text message. Actually speaking to another human being was a last resort. Pro athletes, in the unlikely event that they gave a friendly scribe a number, wouldn’t actually answer their phones unless they noticed the incoming number was from their agent, drug dealer, or girlfriend, and it wasn’t too unusual for two of the three to be the same person.

Nosy types filled newsrooms. Mickey remembered his years of desk duty as the most miserable of his life. He hated the office. He hated to be conducting an interview, knowing full well that others were eavesdropping, listening to what questions he asked and taking them wildly out of context.

Hey, did you hear that question Mickey asked?

Yeah, how lame-ass can that guy be?

Some of the backstabbers merely wanted his job. Mickey could respect that. Ambition was a good thing. A writer needed to aspire to greatness. More often, though, the detractors were the self-important wretches who thought of the rag’s writers as undisciplined riffraff, out gallivanting around on expense accounts, running up frequent-flyer miles, and booking expensive hotel rooms. Mickey saw the newsroom, designed as a place to sift through and prioritize, as a humdrum collection of ass-kissers who sat around in meetings half of each day, rubber-stamping stupid ideas so that when, predictably, they failed miserably, it wasn’t anyone’s individual fault. Survival in the newsroom was learning how to spot what the bosses were going to do anyway and then jockeying for the most-favored brown-nose slot.

The News-Free Press was a miserable place with a miserable excuse of a sports editor. Mickey hadn’t let it bother him for a long time. The position changed frequently, and, to Mickey’s way of thinking, the reason was never improvement.

Mickey had once been a sports editor, back in the days when the position entailed writing. Writing had gone out of style. Now sports editors were clerks, selected for their utter lack of guile and willingness to jump when upper management said so. They went to budget meetings and nodded a lot. They delivered bad news in low-key style. They never raised their voices. Their souls had been broken and testicles figuratively removed. The process had started twenty years earlier. Mickey, known then as now for his columns, had been retitled as News Sports Editor. The most ingratiating desk man, now undoubtedly selling insurance somewhere, had been dubbed Sports News Editor.

The News Sports Editor and the Sports News Editor, together, as a team, created a News-Free Press seven nights a week. In time, Mickey had evolved into a Senior Columnist.

Jon David McMahan was the prototype of what management wanted. The job had been conferred him not because of his innovative ideas but because he didn’t have the guts to do anything but nod and take orders. He’d been on the job for almost a year, which was about average. Eventually he would be farmed off to a smaller newspaper in the chain, there to be Executive Editor or Publisher because he had demonstrated that he could be counted upon to enforce the harsh edicts from corporate headquarters without balking or offering even mild dissent.

“Hey, Mickey. Good to see you,” the mound of Jell-O said.

“J.D. … I just dropped by to go through the mail and get ready for the Legion game tonight,” Mickey said.

It was the summertime. Mickey had just gotten back from the Atlantic Coast Conference’s preseason football showcase. The next trip out of the county he was scheduled to make wasn’t until a football game on Labor Day weekend. He’d taken vacation. All he really had for column fodder was the girl who had apparently proven she could play shortstop at the American Legion level. She didn’t get to hit. The pitcher did, and the designated hitter subbed for her. All Mickey had seen was her photograph. As best he could tell, she was cute, though he couldn’t vouch for her figure below the neck. He didn’t mind. It would be different. He wondered if male chauvinists would boo her. Women were in combat. He wondered if Korean War veterans would mind if the hot little shortstop – good field, no hit – was not only hot and little but also a little hottie. Fans rooted for teams. Writers rooted for stories. Mickey had his hopes up.

“Are you going to be a while?” J.D. asked.

“I got an hour to spare,” Mickey said.

“Got your laptop?”

“Yep.”

“I need to set you up with I.T.”

Mickey got a sinking feeling, the kind that comes with the realization that an hour could not possibly be enough to deal with I.T. Information Technology. If the different departments of The News-Free Press had been castles, I.T. would have had a moat around it. Security was tight, ostensibly because expensive equipment resided there. One had to call before stopping by. The entrance had a speaker and a buzzer that had to be activated from the inside in order to have the door remotely unlocked. The unkempt gamers who worked there could kill two days programming a laptop to respond to a new password. The director couldn’t even get in. He had a nice, sun-drenched office in the front of the building, conveniently next door to the publisher, whom he was widely believed to be fucking. Hunter Quilici was his name. Cynthia Boland was hers. Both were married. He was a triathlete with a degree in marketing who had apparently gotten his job because he could create multi-media, power-point presentations on creating effective social-media posts, attention-grabbing video blogs, and, of course, that glory of the modern scribe, slide shows. The seminars were breathtaking. A room full of employees tried not to nod off, while everything on the screen was read aloud in the off chance that anyone who worked at a newspaper might not be able to read.

In the cave, meanwhile, twenty-three-year-olds, most of whom had gotten associates’ degrees in the maintenance of electronic devices, having taken four years of work to get two years of education, sat around and played video games, or that was Mickey’s suspicion. On those rare occasions when he had been granted access to information central, he had noticed an abundance of action figures and Playstation cartridges for games that apparently involved rescuing princesses with antiquated weapons or prisoners of war with modern ones. The place had a lot of turnover. The cast of nerds was always changing, but a dress code never appeared. He remembered the I.T. experts by their slovenliness. He vividly remembered the one kid who always wore old-fashioned, cloth Chuck Taylors that were caked in mud. For at least a month, they had been caked in mud.

J.D. spent a lot of time in the I.T. cave, especially when he first arrived at work. He often seemed quite relaxed. His eyes were often glassy. Being the crack journalist that he was, Mickey surmised that the first of J.D.’s daily duties was to go back to I.T. and smoke cannabis through vaporizers, and the second was to offset the resulting stupor with a nice mug of free coffee. Coffee in the canteen was the last vestige of things employees of The News-Free Press got free. While J.D. went back to I.T., undoubtedly for another nice hit on the vape, Mickey strolled off the other way to pour himself a nice, refreshing cup of generic coffee. He didn’t care what they were doing back in I.T. J.D. and the boys in the back might be having wild gay sex – they actually had their own restroom and shower – and Mickey didn’t want to know. Dealing with J.D. was much smoother when J.D. was stoned, and that was probably the way J.D. saw it, too.

Mickey was reading a Dick Francis mystery on his phone when J.D. reappeared.

“You’ve got one of the new Dells, right?” J.D. asked.

“Nope,” Mickey said and looked up. “You all right, J.D? Your eyes are red.”

Mickey did not smirk. He kept a perfectly naïve look on his face.

“Damn contact lenses,” J.D. said. “And allergies.”

“Um. My dad had hay fever. Me, I guess I’m lucky. About the laptop. I own mine. Remember? I write stuff on the side. I got tired about five years ago of company laptops going dead, so I’ve been using my own ever since.”

J.D. looked really stupid and stoned, and Mickey thought that figured because they were close to one and the same. No wonder no one ever left the building anymore.

The Sports Editor of The News-Free Press became almost disoriented, sifting through conflicting information that his brain had difficulty processing. He should’ve been writing a short story, not weighing issues of office politics and standard Machiavellian procedure. J.D. had been told to get Mickey Statler’s laptop. Mickey Statler’s laptop belonged to Mickey Statler. That made it more difficult to obtain. And J.D. couldn’t imagine a reason for the company to want it or a justifiable defense of seizing it.

“Oh, okay,” he said. “Never mind. I forget.”

Then he headed back in the direction of the Information Technology citadel.

Having a zombie boss wasn’t entirely a bad thing. Mickey reckoned that he had a certain freedom other columnists lacked. Of the past three sports editors at The News-Free Press, Mickey didn’t know of another who was an apparent stoner. All three had been as stupid as mudholes, though.

 

The local American Legion baseball team had built a regional renown and was thus hosting the state finals on its home field. It was why Mickey was there. He just had to write a column, albeit on deadline. The high school editor, Rashawn Ling, was an executive editor’s dream come true because his father was of Chinese lineage and his mother African American. Mickey couldn’t imagine why Rashawn hadn’t been hired out of college by the New York Times. If Rashawn had been R’Aquel, and thus a she, it would have happened. That bit of slightly bigoted half-humor notwithstanding, Mickey liked Rashawn and found him perceptive and possessing of an admirable cynicism for a young man. Rashawn should have been at the New York Times. All he really needed was a higher assignment so that he could experience the requisite disillusionment of every journalist who discovers that men of great athletic gifts do not necessarily share accompanying quantities of character. Once that was discovered, journalists could match up nicely.

The shortstop’s name was L’Jonna Lyles, and it had been easy for Mickey to chat with her during batting practice since her participation in it wasn’t needed. She was personable and enthusiastic, as women athletes were wont to be, and Mickey liked her. He wished she’d get to bat, but he knew it was unlikely in a state tournament.

As the night fell over the local diamond, Mickey strolled out on the open-air veranda that stood at one side of the “press box,” which was really the place where one scorekeeper, one scoreboard operator, three boosters, and two coaches’ wives made themselves comfortable so that sportswriters could stand behind them and scrawl on notepads. Fortunately, the local nine was facing a squad from nearly two hundred miles away, so the place was uncluttered, and both he and Rashawn had an air-conditioned place to sit. Mickey just felt bored and wanted to see if the summer breeze would make him feel fine. It was a mistake.

Mickey had his column angle in mind and was just watching for a while, and hoping that nothing either team in front of him would do would be sufficient to make his column idea obsolete. He was prepared for a win or a loss, but hell had no fury like a triple play or a no-hitter. He’d write around it if a kid hit for the cycle. It seemed like the more set a column was, the more likely lightning to strike.

Maybe L’Jonna could turn a triple play. That would work nicely.

Had Mickey been asked to draw a picture of the last person on earth with whom he wanted to chat, he would have sketched a five-foot-six, muscle-bound policeman in uniform, wearing a shiny badge and a protruding Adam’s apple. A model copied exactly from this would-be sketch walked alongside and was in a mood to talk.

Within minutes, Mickey was idly trying to figure a way he could somehow craft a sports column dealing with the subject of coddled cops. It was a stretch. A colleague had once suggested in a crowd of people that Mickey Statler could write a column about taking a shit. He was resourceful, but not that resourceful. Good taste was quite the trick with such parameters.

The name tag said Graig Bartlesby. Sergeant Graig Bartlesby. Mickey tried to get himself occupied. He didn’t know Bartlesby. Bartlesby seemed to be of the opinion that they were best friends.

“Hey, Sergeant … Bartlesby.”

“You know better than to call me by my last name, Mickey. Graig.”

“Hang on just a minute, Graig,” Mickey said. “I gotta catch up on my Twitter feed. Damn tweeting is part of the job these days.”

Mickey ran his index figure across his screen carefully. The body count was rising in Brussels. A body count was always rising somewhere. That and a death toll. Body counts rose when terrorists attacked. Death tolls rose when a river, quite often the Ganges, overran its banks, or a stray typhoon struck Osaka, or something involving Mother Nature, who had gotten just about as angry as everyone else.

Then Mickey tweeted. Still scoreless, bottom 3rd. Avett South lefty looks sharp. All Mickey had noticed about the Avett South pitcher was that he did, in fact, rely on his left arm. He hadn’t given up a run. Surely that qualified as sharp.

Bartlesby was not dissuaded. He apparently had a bone to pick. Policemen often had bones to pick with writers of all persuasions. They were not, by nature, a trusting lot. They were also men with exceptional memories. A perceived slight might lead them to stop a motorist for driving a mile an hour over the speed limit.

“What you think about that shooting?” Bartlesby asked, folding his arms and mildly flexing his imposing biceps.

“What? Down near Columbia?”

“Uh, huh.”

“Well, you know, Graig, when a law officer shoots a black kid in the back, from ten yards away, it looks right bad,” Mickey said.

God. He should’ve just nodded and mumbled.

“You don’t know what that little shit had on him,” Bartlesby said, pulse quickening and sweat popping out.

“Do you?”

“Well, no, but it’s dangerous out there.”

“You don’t reckon it might be that a white police officer might feel any black kid was more threatening than any white kid.”

“No way,” Bartlesby said. “No fucking way.”

Profanity in a police officer suggesting anger that was quickly ripening. Weightlifters so often had hair-trigger tempers. Wonder why that was?

“I don’t figure it’s intentional,” Mickey said. “What I just said, though, is what the statistics reflect.”

“They’re just more inclined to being crooks,” Bartlesby said. Mickey had a pretty good idea that was off the record.

“Graig, I appreciate what you do,” Mickey said. “I’m glad you’re here to protect the community. It’s not an easy job, and you don’t get paid enough. It’s a stressful job. It’s dangerous. But a man’s got to follow the rules, no matter what job he’s got.”

“Are you saying I’m on the take?” Bartlesby asked, rather irrationally.

“Not unless something came out of my mouth that I didn’t notice.”

“Well, let me tell you something, Mickey. I’ve been working with this public safety department for twelve years now, and not once, not once, have I ever seen a fellow officer take part in any activity that wasn’t honest and by the book.”

“I congratulate you for that, Craig. Look, I’ve enjoyed our conversation, but I’ve got to pay attention to this ballgame so’s I can write about it.”

Bartlesby smirked, his look suggesting that he thought he had won a great debate, and that the sniveling writer was making up excuses because he was losing the argument.

Mickey thought to himself that Sergeant Graig Bartlesby sure did fit the description of a man with something to hide. One of Statler’s Rules of Journalism was, The truth is never more obvious than when being vehemently denied. The crooks were always the belligerent ones, the ones who turned attention away from themselves by being an asshole to everyone else in the office. Mickey wondered if he needed to start watching his back.

He sat alongside Rashawn, turned on his laptop, and started pecking away. While hammering away at the keyboard, he maintained a running commentary toward his young colleague.

“Tell me how Avett South got two runs, old buddy.”

“Big kid at first, Wehunt, hit a two-run homer after Brandon Cogswell walked the second baseman,” Rashawn said.

Mickey pulled out a highlighter and marked the names on his lineup card.

“Locals ain’t dead yet,” Mickey said.

“Nope.”

“See that kid on the mound, the lefty?”

“Hormel,” Rashawn said.

“Yeah. He’s about to start throwing meat. Hormel. Meat. Get it?”

“Sadly, yes.”

“Plate umpire’s pissed at him,” Mickey said. “Count’s three and oh. Two of them were borderline strikes. If he doesn’t want to walk another batter, he’s going to have throw it right down the middle, and that Keller kid ain’t the one to have to do that to.”

Mickey tapped away a while longer.

“You know,” he said, “back when I got started, I used to think it was wrong for an umpire to behave like that. I felt there was no place for an ump who protected his turf. I felt like he let his turf get in the way of his ego.”

“Exactly right,” Rashawn said.

“Nope,” Mickey said, “it’s not. It took me twenty years to learn it. If someone shows you up, if he insults you, if he runs over you, sometimes you’ve got to let him know you mean business. I always say, ‘Okay, hot shot, you better be perfect. Everything better go your way. Don’t make any mistakes. I’m laying for your ass. One wrong move and I’m nailing you for all it’s worth’.”

“Damn, Mickey.”

“I’m serious, Rashawn. They make more money. They got more power. All you got’s the words, man. You’ve got to use them to keep the high and mighty chopped down to size.”

Rashawn hadn’t even thought Mickey was paying attention.

Chapter 4
Predictable … in Retrospect

By nature, Mickey Statler was annoyingly early. It didn’t fit the rest of his personality. He always allowed for disaster. A traffic jam on the way to the airport, for instance. On this day, the traffic jam was on the way to the office. He had time. It wasn’t far. A wreck. A detour. For once, his silly punctuality was going to be beneficial. Mickey spent too much time sitting on a bench in a rental-car center, thumbing through his Twitter feed, or reading a book on his phone while waiting for one of his friends to be fashionably late.

Mickey was strangely relaxed. Why worry about what cannot be changed? He turned up the music and picked up his harmonica and jammed along. Occasionally, he glanced across at the people nearby, all red-faced and sweaty, not because their vehicles weren't equipped with air conditioners but because they were consumed in stress. It was self-inflicted.

Shit like that'll kill you, man. He hoped, when they peered back to exchange the glances, they thought him crazy. Crazy was okay. Mickey preferred to think of himself as irreverent. It served him well in his job.

When he pulled into the parking lot, his spot was taken. Son of a bitch. It was understandable, though. Mickey only rarely stopped by. Maybe taking his spot gave some kid straight out of college a shorter walk when he got off at one in the morning.

He swiped his card at the side door. What? Red? Now he was going to have to walk around the building, but he was going to have to do that, anyway, to get the card recoded. He banged on the door a couple times and walked away. Three steps down and one foot on the sidewalk, he heard it swing open.

“Thanks,” he said to some guy wearing coveralls who'd probably heard him while he was having a pack of Toastchees in the break room.

“Don't mention it.”

The newsroom was getting ready to get busy. Half the people were sitting in front of desktops. The other half were leaning over wrap-around desks, chatting to the people sitting behind the desktops. As Mickey walked through the newsroom, the voices slowly quieted. He saw the people behind desks tilting their heads in his direction, signaling the visitors to cool it.

Uh, oh. No good can come of this.

The last time Mickey had seen a hush fall over the entire newsroom, it wasn't because one person walked in. Maybe it happened when a celebrity stopped by. Mickey didn't know. He'd never been there when that happened. No. It was like this the day management announced furloughs. Everyone went quiet and depressed, but then some started musing about the benefits of being relentlessly upbeat “associates,” and others rationalized that it could be worse, but only Mickey had resisted counterintuitive optimism. The Human Resources Coordinator -- hers was a proper name, while his was strictly little “c” in columnist -- had told all the panting faces that they were fortunate to have to take two weeks of unpaid leave because it was better than a pay cut, and Mickey had raised his hand to point out that, across a period of a year, it was slightly worse. Inexplicably, this had seemed to make him unpopular among his peers, at least until they were out of the room.

So, Mickey reasoned, this was bad.

It couldn't be that bad, though. Just yesterday, he had been watching David Ortiz hit a home run, a single, and two doubles, and the latter double might have been a triple, and the cycle, had not the ball hit the top of a cushion and bounced into the stands for a ground-rule double. It had made him feel young again, or, at least, younger than David Ortiz.

Theoretically, following his customized pattern of life, Mickey should be on a hot streak for at least one more day. Probably two.

He pulled up a chair in sports editor J.D. McMahan's cubicle. They had a brief, uncomfortable “boy, those Braves sure do suck” conversation, and then it died after J.D. said “we sure could use some rain.”

Mickey wasn’t sure whether or not J.D. had been vaping in the I.T. den again. His eyes looked fine, or, as fine as they ever did.

Then the E.E. -- that's Executive Editor, not a row in the lower grandstands -- rang the sports department, and J.D. grabbed the receiver hurriedly so that “speaker” wasn't on, and talked real low, ended it with a hushed “okay,” turned to Mickey and, “Well, Cynthia's ready, Shall we go?”

Mickey said something profound like “I reckon so,” and off they strolled, the sports editor – J.D., who had replaced Jonathan, and Seth had been the one before that -- trying and failing to look relaxed. Perhaps this was a special occasion. Perhaps J.D. had vaped and hedged his bets with a few squirts of Visine. If he’d vaped, though, Mickey figured he would have been relaxed, if incoherent. He was seldom notably coherent. By the time they got to the E.E.’s office, Mickey had concluded that J.D. was likely straight and at least passable. His condition qualified it as a special occasion.

Still, Mickey was guardedly optimistic that it might be a cutback in his schedule, or maybe they wanted him to write a feature column on Tuesdays, or switch to another beat, or, horror of horrors, fill in with Legion baseball writing game stories, not columns. All had happened before in sixteen years, six months, and four days at the News-Free Press, the newspaper without irony.

The optimism crashed with the force of a Pinto, horse or car, into an oak tree, when Mickey noticed the presence of the Human Resources Coordinator, wearing the kind of smug impression one wears when secretly enjoying the dismissal of the smart guy who was always making smart-alecky questions in her required presentations.

Mickey thought the black cloak and glistening scythe made her look hot. Alluringly evil. He was already cascading into the waterfalls of absurdity that accompany the exhilarating freedom of impending disaster.

Not even Head Rollin’ Cynthia Boland, of whom it was said a cash register should be played at her funeral, had much enthusiasm for the execution. She shuffled her shoulders -- “You know, we both knew this was coming,” and Mickey said, “No, we didn't know. No one warned one of us” -- and tried to look empathic as, behind her steely-gray eyes, math was being quickly completed to indicate the progress toward a $5,000 bonus that would be achieved with just one more mercy killing.

J.D. was, by then, long gone, undoubtedly back at his desk, whispering to someone about how painful this was or commiserating with his fellow stoners amid the vaporous air of the I.T. hideaway.

 


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Don't Ask, Don't Tell is Monte Dutton's eighth novel. He has written about a pot-smoking songwriter, a football coach who loses everything, a Southern town in the tumultuous sixties, a murderous politician, a pair of cowboys home from World War II, and a young stock car racer with an attitude. Before all that, Dutton, who lives in Clinton, South Carolina, was a sportswriter who specialized in auto racing for twenty years.

Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A.
Watching the increasing frequency of young men being gunned down in the streets by law officers, I thought, what if they weren't accidents? What if they weren't self-defense? What if they were executions?
Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A.
Current events -- specifically, the unexpected outcome of a presidential election -- led me to rewrite the novel and conjure up an entirely different ending. It was worth the effort, but lots of ends had to be loosened and reknotted.
Q. Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from this book?
A.
Josh Brolin would make an authentic Mickey Statler. I could see Kristen Stewart as Marcia Statler and Jason Segel as Dylan Wannamacher.

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