By William E. Wallace
(Excerpt from a Work in Progress)
Cliff Masters was working on a react piece to follow his exposé on the city’s new bus czar, Marshal Kent, when the copy kid Billy Stansfield stopped by looking for him.
“Hey, Masters, the boss wants to see you, pronto,” Stansfield said.
Masters looked up at him with surprise. “He sent a copy boy to get me? Why didn’t he just IM?”
Stansfield shrugged. “Dunno, ace,” he said. “He told me to track you down, even if you were at O’Malley’s. Didn’t say why.”
O’Malley’s, the saloon in the alley behind the newsroom where newspaper staffers drank while off-duty -- and sometimes while on -- was traditionally a sanctuary. The unwritten rule was, if an editor wanted to talk to a scribe, he had to wait until he either returned from the bar or went home. If Managing Editor George Hemmingsley was willing to send a copyboy looking for him there, it had to be serious.
Cliff hurriedly saved the story he was writing and logged his terminal off, then picked up a notebook and headed to Hemmingsley’s glass cage at the front of the news room. He hesitated at the door but Sarah, Hemmingsley’s editorial assistant, waved him past.
“You wearing your asbestos BVDs?” she whispered as he reached for the doorknob.
Cliff grinned. He had dated Sarah for a while but she broke it off after she met her current boyfriend, an attorney in the public defender’s office. “You know what kind of skivvies I wear,” he smirked. “Why?”
“I don’t know what you did, but you’ve got the boss hot enough this morning to boil ice water,” she said nodding toward Hemmingsley’s office. “Watch yourself!”
Hemmingsley was sitting behind his desk, leafing through a wad of pink “While You Were Out” message slips. He was the only person in the plant who still used the damned things: everybody else sent instant messages over the newspaper’s Intranet. He looked up at Masters with a glare that would have peeled fresh paint.
“You want to have a steward here for this?” he asked, his voice barely concealing his anger.
“For what?” Masters said, sitting in the chair at the corner of Hemmingsley’s desk and hanging his elbow over the back nonchalantly. “What’s this about? Give me a clue and I’ll let you know.”
Hemmingsley held up the wad of message slips. “It’s that story you did on the transportation guy,” he said. “I want to go over your sources with you. The publisher wants you fired for fucking it up, so you may want to have a union rep sit in.”
Masters stiffened, but tried to look calm. The only shop steward he’d be able to find on short notice would be Ralph Christian, an editor for the weekly roto section; the reason Ralph would be available was because he never did any work: he spent all his time bullshitting people about the bosses and making sure nobody else in the unit ran for his union rep job. Because he was a perpetual candidate for firing himself, Christian would be useless in a disciplinary meeting.
“I’ll pass on the steward, at least for now,” Cliff said. “I know my rights. Hell, I was vice-president of the local for two years. If this starts to go bad, I’ll ask for a rep. That’s my right under Weingarten. You know that, George. You used to be in the bargaining unit member yourself.”
If reminding Hemmingsley of his past as a working stiff was intended to invoke his sympathy, it didn’t work. The editor went right to the point.
“What was the origin of the Kent story, Cliff?” he said, arranging a legal pad in front of him and picking up a pen. “Take it from the top and don’t leave anything out.”
Masters spread his hands. “I got the documents from the Texas Department of Public Safety in a plain manila envelope with no return address on it,” he said. “It came through the office mail. One of the copy kids put it on my desk.”
“Had it been opened?” Hemmingsley said making a note on the pad.
Masters nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Standard office protocol, I thought. Don’t they open everything that comes into the mail room before distributing it? I thought that was the deal ever since the anthrax scare in 2001.”
Hemmingsley made a note without looking up. “Did you keep the envelope?”
“Yeah,” Masters said. “I stapled it behind the documents after I went through them the first time. Say, George -- what in hell is this all about, anyway?”
Hemmingsley put down the pen and sat back in his chair, his hands in his lap. “Your story contains material errors of fact,” he said. “That’s what our lawyers say, anyway.”
Masters was surprised. “The whole damned thing was based on those documents from the Texas Rangers,” he said. “Frawley checked the copy against the documents himself. What are the alleged errors in the story?”
“The dates you included for all those moving violations and DUI stops?” Hemmingsley said, his tone making it a question.
“Yeah, we used them in the graphic, too, to make the map and inset showing where the incidents occurred,” Masters replied. “What about them?”
Hemmingsley sighed raggedly. “Kent says he wasn’t in Texas when any of those incidents you wrote about occurred,” he said. “He says he has appointment calendars and expense account slips to show he was traveling out of state each time you say he was in an accident or was arrested for drunk driving. He sent photocopies of them to the publisher and our legal office along with a notice and demand for a retraction.”
Masters was aware that his mouth was hanging open. He closed it without saying a word.
“Cliff,” Hemmingsley said, leaning forward with a sad look, “we’re going to investigate what Kent says very carefully before we take any action, but you’re definitely in deep trouble and if what he claims is true, we’re going to have to fire you. In the meantime, we’re pulling you off investigations. We’re going to shift you to the obituary section while we look into what happened here. You will continue to collect a paycheck and remain available to help us figure out how this fuck-up happened. But you are going to keep such a low profile that you’ll make a flatworm look like Andre the Giant.”
Masters, his face ashen with shock, swallowed audibly. “Will I actually be doing any work?” he asked.
Hemmingsley nodded. “But obits, only,” he said. “The paper’s policy is there are no bylines in the obit section, so for a while, anyway, you are going to be as dead to the world as the people you’ll be burying. If it turns out you are blameless, we’ll put you back on the special projects beat.”
He raised his shoulders in a gesture of resignation. “But if it turns out your story is wrong because you were negligent, we are going to have to let you go,” he said.
The metro editor shook his head sadly. “You’ve been here a long time, Clifford,” he said. “I’m sorry this happened. I hope we can clear everything up and get you back to work as quickly as possible, but I have to say, I’m afraid you stepped way over the line on this one. Take the rest of the day off. Go down to O’Malley’s and have a stiff drink. Have two. Then try to get some sleep. Tomorrow, check in with Ernie Escobar. He’ll put you to work on the dead page.”