The Thousand Words

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Chapter 24

I woke up Monday morning energized and ready to go after sleeping a full eight hours with Kelsey once again plastered against me. We had talked about recent developments, mostly concentrating on the two people who were following me and had almost run me over. She wouldn’t let me change the subject at all.

“Do you think it was a good idea you came to my place last night?” Kelsey asked me with concern in her voice.

“Why would you think me being here is a bad idea?” I said hoping she still wanted to be with me with everything that was happening.

She caught on to my thoughts and put me at ease by simply grabbing and holding my hand. “What if they followed you here? They would know where I live now.”

She had a great point. One I had purposefully steered away from when telling her what had happened. No choice now. “I made all the necessary precautions when driving here. The route down here took me twice as long for all of the double backing and side streets I went down to make sure no one was following. Traffic was extremely light so other cars were easy to see. No one was tailing me, guaranteed.”

I could tell that my assurances made her both at ease and concerned at the same time. On the plus side, I didn’t lead any nefarious strangers to her home. On the flip side, I had taken precautions but didn’t let her in on my thoughts or actions. Knowing I had the best intentions and best interests in mind, she let me off the hook.

“Good. Thanks for thinking of me.” We had spent the rest of the night binge watching a few episodes of the latest season of our favorite show before heading to bed.

The situation after talking was still the same and I hadn’t miraculously come to any epiphanies during the night. As a result, I decided to keep with my original strategy of trying to find my client at his workplace downtown. It was a complete long shot, but I had to do something.

First I confirm with Jane I could continue to use her car for the day. She faked her usual irritation and annoyance at me, the way she does for everything and then said it was no problem. This situation was exactly what she needed to use one of her brother’s motorcycles for a few days and told me not to bring the car back anytime soon. She said she was going to be there all day and asked if I would be the office at all. I told her I had no idea but would let her know if I was headed home.

I drove downtown to my usual out of the way and inexpensive lot. My plan was to call a number of the larger brokerage houses to see if John Burns worked at any of them. All of these calls could have been easily made from my office or Kelsey’s apartment, but I wanted to be close in case I happened to find where he worked. Since the vast majority of the brokerage firms were in the downtown area, I parked near them and went to work.

Finding the location of someone can be both easy and difficult at the same time. The part is knowing if someone works for a company is the easy portion. All you have to do is call and ask for them. If they work there the receptionist will patch you right through. The hard part is getting any additional information if you are successful. Most companies have policies that prevent any additional information from being given out. The trick is to seem like you are just doing your job and need some additional benign data. The tactic that works best for me is a phony employment verification inquiry. Once I verify a person works there, I can usually ask for some more information and generally get a few answers before the person gets too suspicious. It’s usually enough to pinpoint a location, office, or whereabouts for the person in question.

Finding where a person worked was often the initial step to find who you were looking for. In my case, I couldn’t even verify a John Burns worked for any of the financial firms in the area. There were quite a few, well over fifty I called over the course of a couple of hours. I remembered after the first couple of calls John Burns was actually W. John Burns. Thinking he might use his more formal name for work, I made it a point to inquire about both names after calling the initial companies back to verify the slightly different name.

Only one of the companies came close to a lead. One of the larger brokerage firms in the area had connected me through to a Jonathan Burns who worked in one of their offices in northern Kentucky. I concluded immediately over the phone this was not the correct person. This John Burns was well into his sixties and had a very deep baritone voice. Not a match to the individual who hired me. The employment verification act worked perfectly. I was able to ask a number of questions seeing if maybe his son or some other relative was the person I was looking to verify. It was a dead end. A simple coincidence.

While I was on the phone with one of the companies, I received a voicemail from Neil Shelton, my editor at the newspaper for The Thousand Word column asking me to call him back. I had nervous energy and needed to get out of the car. Since I was not making any progress on my search, I decided to meet him in person. I hiked up Elm Street over the freeway that ran through downtown separating the riverfront area from the main downtown buildings.

Entering into the familiar main lobby, I stopped off at the reception area letting them know I was here in the building to meet with Neil. After a few minutes on the phone, they asked me to wait in one of the sitting areas. I used the opportunity to check my email.

After fifteen minutes, I noticed Neil walking out from the secured area of the office building with two other people. The first I recognized as Neil’s boss whom I had met during a tour of the building while signing my original contract with the paper. The other individual was dressed in a suit that had a security emblem on the left chest area of the sports coat. Not a good sign. I stood up and walked over to the three of them.

Neil greeted me first. “Alex, I wish you would have just called me back. A call would have made this easier.”

“Made what easier?” I asked clearly concerned.

Neil’s manager responded first. “Let’s talk over in this conference room.” He led the three of us over to a conference room on the side of the lobby. These rooms were used for meetings where you don’t want to grant the attendees access to the secure area of the building. The three of them all sat down on one side of the table with me on the other.

Directing my question specifically to Neil, I asked, “What is this all about?”

Neil’s manager is the one who answered me. “I am not sure if you remember me, but my name is Kent Thomas, Neil’s manager here at the paper.”

I nodded my head not wanting to say anything yet.

“We have numerous grave concerns about the situation you currently find yourself in. The news business is one driven purely by reputation. To be honest, we don’t feel you are someone who we can rely on to do what is right for our paper. As a result, we are terminating your contract effective immediately.”

“What?” I blurted out. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The avalanche of bad news just kept on coming. “What could I have possibly done in the past few days for you to make this decision?”

“It is a factor of what you have done, as well as what you haven’t done that has us concerned,” Kent Thomas responded.

I shot Neil a glare hoping for him to help me out of this predicament. He was staring at his hands in his lap. It was obvious the decision had been made and there was no going back. Getting fired didn’t mean I had to take it lying down.

“What the hell does what I haven’t done even mean?” I said loudly. It was taking most of my effort to not stand up and yell at them. At least the reason for the security guard being a part of the meeting became obvious. “I deserve an explanation.”

“First off, it has come to our attention you are a prime suspect in two separate murders of women in our fine city. At a minimum, we would need to suspend your column indefinitely until the situation is resolved. We cannot be involved with any impropriety even if it is just imagined. Any of our columnists would be held to the same degree of scrutiny.”

“I had absolutely nothing to do with those murders and any accusation of the sort is simply untrue and purely slander.”

“The information of you being the prime suspect has been verified by the police department, so there is no denying the fact. The other area of concern is your disregard for the main purpose of our newspaper. We strive to inform our readers of the news that is important to their everyday lives. You were in a unique situation to accelerate your career as a professional photographer as well as this fine institution. Instead, you chose to ignore the opportunity.

“The unwillingness to act for the betterment of both sides as well as your potential involvement in these two murders that have stricken our city, we have chosen to rescind our agreement and go our separate ways. You are no longer employed by this paper and you may no longer use our name or any references to the paper. As a reminder, any images and text you published with us remain our property and you may not use any of it without our written permission. Our ownership includes your personal blog entries that were published in the column. Feel free to contact your own lawyer and see how they respond after reading the contracts you signed.”

“This is all about me not relaying any restricted information about the various crime scenes I work at. Isn’t it? I have told Neil before, a confidentiality agreement is in effect with the police force preventing me from providing any details on the cases I am involved with.” I was dumbfounded and feeling a bit naive.

“Welcome to life, Alex,” the manager continued. “This is the real world. We could get any one of our staff photographers and teams of writers to do what you do.”

“Neil, you told me a few days ago you had just found out I worked with the police department. Were you lying to me? Was it your intention the whole time to get information from me about various crime scenes?”

Before Neil could answer, his boss held up his hand to prevent him from saying anything. “We will be sending you the official termination of your contract later today but effective immediately you are no longer working for this newspaper. This meeting is over. Please escort Mr. Layne out of the building.” With that statement, the three of them got up. Neil Shelton and Kent Thomas left the conference room without looking at me again. The security guard simply gestured towards the door.

I sat there for a few moments pondering my options. The only viable option was to leave quietly and without making a scene. Walking back to my car, I reflected on how my life could conceivably get any worse. The only possibilities scared me to death.

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