Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Sensational! - Marty Keller


Alistair W. Higgins III slammed down the telephone and punched the mahogany desk with his bare fist. Manhattan Trust was the fifth bank to reject the loan in two weeks. He was running out of options even faster than he was running out of money. His late great grandfather Alistair W. “Big Buck” Higgins had built The Chattanauck Falls Courier from the ground up with little more than spare change and the sweat of his ten typing fingers. Back in his time, Big Buck didn’t need to beg from banks, moneylenders or other half-honest investors. There were hold-ups, round-ups, prospectors, peddlers and charlatans galore. Those were Gold Rush days and all Big Buck had to do was dig up the dirt and dish it out again – for a small fee. But the Gold Rush Era was long gone and few banks were willing to sink money into the newspaper business.

“The paper biz is D.O.A., Al.” The last lending agent had informed him.
“Everybody gets their information from the internet nowadays. Nobody reads a newspaper.”

Great Grandpa Big Buck wouldn’t back down, thought Alistair W. Higgins III. Neither would he. What The Chattanauck Falls Courier needed was an exclusive. A mouthwatering scoop of a story guaranteed to hook readers and keep them reading week after week. More than anything, The Courier needed something . . . sensational! Alistair nursed the self-inflicted wound on his fist and ordered his secretary to hold all calls.

“What calls?” Margot barked, admiring her manicured nails. “It’s deader in here than a morgue at midnight.” Alistair glared at Margot and shut the door. Lately, his secretary’s colorful expressions were beginning to wear thin. Margot had been with The Courier since his father took over the reigns. She was as much of a family heirloom as the mahogany desk in his office – an heirloom with an attitude.

He rolled up his sleeves and made a list of possibilities. A heartbreaking story of lost love? An exposé about social injustice? A personal story with a local twist.? Chattanauck Falls was an aging community where most of the dirt had been dug, but there had to be something fresh, something newsworthy, something . . . sensational waiting in the shadows. If only he could find the right rock to turn over.

“Al!” Margot hollered, knocking on his closed door. Alistair W. Higgins III clasped his hands over his ears and continued working.

“Al!” This time Margot jiggled the doorknob before poking her round head inside. “One of the writers here wants to see you.”

“I told you to hold my calls, Marge.” Alistair replied without looking up. “I’m in the middle of something important.”

“Looks like you’re making a grocery list to me, Al.” Alistair W. Higgins III parted his lips and prepared to chastise the full-figured, frowsy-haired, matron glowering over his desk. But before he could say a word, Hadley Bixby, The Courier’s advice columnist, slipped past his secretary and collapsed in the chair across from him.

“You should get some ice for that fist, Al.” Margot called out as she shut the door. “Looks like this one might swell.” And in a wink of one of Margot’s faux eyelashes, Hadley Bixby and Alistair W. Higgins III were alone.

“This better be big, kid” Alistair kept his head down and continued reviewing his list. He was still smarting over his secretary’s latest reproof. “I’m up against a deadline.”

“It’s a matter of life and death, sir.” Alistair dropped his pen and took a hard look at the young woman seated across from him for the first time. Hadley Bixby was a wafer-thin girl with the constitution of a frightened country church mouse. She lacked the doggedness of a tenacious cub reporter, but her father was well-connected in local politics to people with deep pockets. In the hope of currying some favor with the wheelers and dealers around town, Alistair had thrown her the weekly advice column and let her educate the locals about cooking, gardening, and etiquette. Now she was daubing her eyes with a wad of tissues and quivering like a wind sail. “I’m afraid it’s very serious, sir. I don’t know how much longer I’ve got.”

“Slow down there, sweetheart.” Alistair offered, trying hard to maintain his composure. “Start from the beginning and tell me the whole story.”

She took a deep breath, pulled a small stack of papers out of her purse, and handed them to Alistair. For almost a month, someone had been sending her threatening letters. At first it was exciting, Hadley confessed. She began to receive cards from an unknown source and thought she might have a secret admirer. Messages like, “I’m watching you” or “You look pretty today” were scrawled inside of the greeting cards and sent from a local post office but never with a return address. It was all so innocent in the beginning, she insisted. But lately the letters had taken a darker turn.

Alistair leafed through the correspondence, pausing at the more recent installments. Someone had scribbled “I’m coming for you, Hadley” and “I know where you live” in an over-sized, childish scrawl.

“I think this person wants to kill me, sir.” Hadley whispered, her voice warbled with sniffles and tears.

“Let’s not jump to hasty conclusions, kid. Have you provided any response?”

“What do you mean?”

“In your column. Have you communicated with this individual?”

“Heavens no, sir!” Hadley exclaimed, aghast at the suggestion. “What would my readers think? They’d be too frightened to ask me for advice. There might even be copycat killers out there who--”

“Think of the possibilities, kid!” Alistair rose to his feet and hastened around the other side of the desk. Leaning against the front of his desk, he grabbed Hadley’s hand and continued. “Every week you and this . . . secret stalker exchange a missive. A real live cat-and-mouse game!”

“But I’m the mouse!” Hadley snapped, perking up in her seat to blow her nose.

“Don’t you worry about all of that, sweetheart. I will personally guarantee your safety.” Alistair dropped her hand and wiped his fingers on the back of his pant leg. He started to pace around the edge of his office. The juices were flowing through his head again and the pain in his fist had subsided. This was just the kind of break The Chattanauck Falls Courier needed. “This thing is big, kid. It’s bigger than anything we’ve got and it’s got exclusive written all over it.” He clasped his hands together and flashed her one of his Big Buck grins.

“I won’t do it, sir. I’m scared.”

“Don’t you see? It’s going to be . . . sensational!” Hadley shook her head and gathered the letters scattered across the mahogany desk. Alistair W. Higgins III was no longer looking in her direction. He was staring into space, arms stretched out wide to grab the front-page headline he could already imagine.

“I think I should go to the police, sir.”

“The police?” Alistair’s arms dropped at the mention of the word. “Well, of course. You’re absolutely right, kid. We should contact the police, right away. We’ll want to get them involved in the story. The ‘Dear Hadley Stalker’ exclusive.”
“Sir, I really don’t think--”

“Don’t you worry about a thing.” Alistair spoke in a calm voice as he pried the small batch of letters out of Hadley’s hands. “I’ll give one of my contacts at the station a call and he’ll be on the story in a flash.”

“But I don’t want to make this into a story, sir.” Hadley was beginning to tear up again. “I just want it to go away.”

“Listen, kid.” Alistair dropped the letters on his desk and knelt down in front of his young columnist. “If there’s a stalker on the loose, then we have to chase this lead with everything we’ve got. The cops will be there to track down the bad guys, but we need to keep the people of Chattanauck Falls informed.” Hadley rubbed her eyes and listened. “It’s our duty, kid. We report the news.”

“But I’m just an advice columnist, sir.” Hadley noted. “You’ve said so yourself.” She had a point. When Hadley Bixby had suggested a story about the semi-annual bake sale at St. Clement’s last month, Alistair shot down the idea and told her to stick to her column.

“Even a columnist deserves a front-page story, kid.” He countered, helping her out of her seat. “Consider this yours.”


“Let me know if you get any other letters. I’ll take care of the rest.” Alistair handed Hadley a fresh tissue and showed her to the door.

“Hadley Bixby?” Margot announced as the bleary-eyed young woman emerged from Alistair’s office. “Letter for you.”

Alistair snatched the letter out of Margot’s doughy clutches and tore it open. “I’m thinking about you, Hadley.” Alistair read aloud. “How do I know you’re thinking about me?” Hadley Bixby held her breath and checked to make sure the penmanship matched the other letters.

“Sounds like you caught someone’s eye.” Margot joked. “Sure is a funny way of asking a girl for a date.”

“He wants a spot in the paper, kid.” Alistair stared into space, picturing the front-page headlines again. “And we’re gonna give it to him.”

“What’s all this about?” Margot patted Hadley Bixby on the back with a well-manicured hand and pressed the other hand against her hip.

“Make a note of it, Marge. The Chattanauck Falls Courier has the hottest scoop this side of the mountains -- ‘The Dear Hadley Stalker’ exclusive -- and we’re gonna start running it tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Hadley trembled.

“No time like the present, kid. The public needs to know.” Alistair backed into his office and shut the door. “And we need the money.” He added under his breath.

For the rest of the day, the office was abuzz with talk of “The Dear Hadley Stalker” exclusive. Alistair ordered Margot to deliver any correspondence to him personally. “Cops orders.” Alistair replied, when she snipped that the letters weren’t addressed to him. The fact was that the paper couldn’t afford a leak and the fewer people who knew about the contents of the letters the better.

At ten minutes to five, the post delivered a letter mailed to Hadley Bixby with no return address. Margot stormed into Alistair’s office and handed it to him. Not that it was any of his business, she noted.

“The paper business is my business, Marge!” Al snapped and ripped open the envelope. “Tell Hadley to get in here.” He commanded, skimming the latest note. “I need to speak to her.”

“No can do, Al. Hadley left early today on personal business.”

“Personal business?” Alistair fumed. “We’ve got a story to run here. And she’s in the middle of it!”

“Sounds to me like she’s at the end of it, Al. Said she bought the last train ticket out of Chattanauck Falls tonight. Taking an overdue vacation to I-don’t-know-where.” Margot fussed with her hair as a sigh escaped her lips. “I’m heading home myself, Al. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Alistair W. Higgins III grabbed his overcoat and stormed out the door. Big Buck wouldn’t let a story get away from him on the last train out of town. Neither would he.

By the time Alistair arrived at the station, dusk had settled around Chattanauck Falls and the platform was a desolate stage of shadows and dark places. An early winter wind blew through the open corridors. Alistair Higgins turned up the collar of his coat and scanned the unfamiliar faces of out-of-towners and traveling vagrants, until his eyes settled on the familiar silhouette of a wafer-thin girl quaking in the corner.

“Hadley!” Alistair called out. Without turning around, Hadley dropped her suitcase and started to run. The high beams of an approaching train flickered in the distance; its horn wailed a warning of oncoming danger. Alistair called out Hadley’s name again as she darted down the platform, but the howl of the oncoming train drowned out every other sound – even the sound of the heavy footsteps that were gaining on Alistair and Hadley.

Alistair’s heart pounded against his ribs like a caged beast, threatening to break free. “Hadley!” Alistair shouted one last time. He fell to his knees and clutched his chest. The footsteps behind him drew closer and closer, but Alistair couldn’t hear them above the roar of the passing train. When he looked up again, Hadley was gone. In her place, a woman’s scarf was trapped beneath the tracks, helplessly flapping between life and death.

Alistair covered his mouth with his hand and cringed. The heavy footsteps were upon him now. He recognized the clickety-clack of high heels on hardwood before he even turned around.

“Alistair Wentworth Higgins III!” Margot bellowed. “You should be ashamed of yourself. Scaring a young girl half-to-death with a phony stalker. Your father would turn over in his grave if he knew what you were up to.” The letters addressed to Hadley Bixby were in her hands – right behind the handwritten list he had made earlier in the day. “As if you thought I wouldn’t know? After all these years I can spot your chicken scratch in the dark with one eye closed. You can’t fool me for a second, Al.” She wagged her finger in front of his beat-red face. “Not for one second.”

“Look, Marge!” Al pointed in the direction of Hadley’s scarf. “We’ve lost her.”

“No, sir.” Hadley’s familiar voice called out. “I lost you.” She stepped out of the shadows and walked towards them. “But you know what?” Hadley asked. “I think you were right, sir. I think I finally found my front-page story.” She beamed. “And I think it’s going to be . . . sensational!”

BIO: Over the years, I have worked as an attorney, a teacher, and a shoe clerk. My first feature-length screenplay entitled, Last Chance Lovers, Inc., finished in the top 15% at the 2006 Austin Film Festival. My mystery stories have appeared in Writers’ Journal Magazine (The Lesson, January 2007) and The Storyteller (The Kind That Nobody Notices, Jan./Feb./March 2008). I recently completed my first novel, Bloodlines, about a straight-laced cop who’s hunting down his father for murder.

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