No...you never can tell when a day that begins so ordinarily can turn into a day that changes your life forever. There’s nothing to indicate that you are just hours away, minutes away, seconds away...nothing at all, then everything hits you all at once. Sometimes these moments can be for the better; others, for the worse. I had seen them from both sides, meeting Marcia, getting my columnist position with the Times, my encounters with the less reputable members of society, amongst others. All told, I’d received more than my share of blessings. Unfortunately, it seemed that on this day, fate had decided to deal me the less pleasant variety of life-altering moment...
“Yes, dear?” I called back to the muffled voice of my wife of four years, Marcia. I knew merely going by the acoustics that she must have been somewhere in the kitchen.
“Hadn’t you better hurry? You’ll be late!”
Her voice had an urgency that chased away my sleepiness. I glanced at the time on my watch. Eight twenty-six. Damn, I groaned in my head. I hadn’t meant for it to get this late, and now I was going to pay for it in the early morning rush hour. If I was lucky, I might still clock in on time, but I had to leave just about immediately. Even so, as if on instinct, I checked myself once more in the bathroom mirror, as always, to ensure that my grooming and attire were spotless.
Working for the LA Times instilled this attitude in anyone who wanted to hold on to their job for long, particularly the columnists. We were, after all, the faces of the paper, therefore we needed to be as close to perfection in our appearance as in our words. And as the boss was ever fond of reminding us, “if the average Joe and Mary Sue can trust you, they can trust the Times too.” Satisfied that my appearance would pass muster, and keeping in mind that the other thing the boss wouldn’t tolerate was tardiness, even from a columnist, I quickly moved back into the bedroom and picked up my briefcase.
Sure enough, Marcia was moving about in the kitchen, and she looked lovely in her blue polka dotted sundress. Normally she could immediately sense when I was approaching her, but she was tending to something, possibly making coffee,
Taking advantage of her distraction, I closed the distance between us and embraced her while kissing her gently on the cheek. She tensed up for a moment in surprise before she looked up at me with a breathy laugh.
"Oh, Wes, good heavens, I didn't know you were there! Good morning, sweetheart."
I smiled sadly. At times like these, I found myself, as was often the case, wishing I could just skip work altogether and spend the whole day with her. It was a difficult temptation to resist when she smiled at me the way she did now.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to get going, no time for coffee. The sandman really got to me last night, and now I'm behind schedule.”
“I suspected as much,” she sighed and felt my forehead as concern creased her brow. “Are you feeling all right?”
I smiled at her, hoping this unusual sensation would subside. Oversleeping wasn’t like me, and it had thrown everything off.
“No need to worry, I feel right as rain.”
Although I doubted I’d convinced her, for I hadn’t even convinced myself. And she continued to eye me with the skepticism that told me my instincts were correct. She almost seemed as though she would say something, but then stopped herself. For a moment, I thought her concern might have been greater, but her knowing smile soon returned.
“I know you better than to believe that, but I don’t want to start a fuss...you’re in too much of a hurry now. Let’s discuss it over dinner. Oh, talking of...what do you suppose I should make? I can always go to the store if we need-”
I stroked her hair and laughed softly, she could be such a doll sometimes, it only made my urge to stay grow. “Don’t fret it, kiddo, we’ll eat out tonight, it’s Friday.”
“Are you certain?”
Her eyes narrowed. She was so sweet, afraid to spend money when it wasn’t necessary. But I needed a break. And it had been a rushed morning. I placed my hand in hers to assure her.
"Sure, besides, it's been a long week for both of us, hasn't it? Let's treat ourselves to something nice, your choice. What do you say?"
"It sounds wonderful, Wes," she responded quickly, her lips curving into a bright smile. "We'll have ourselves a grand old time! Now go on and have yourself a fine day. You never know when a big story will drop." She quickly fixed my tie for me as she spoke.
"That's true. Though if I might confess to you, I wouldn't mind somebody else getting the job every once in a while." I replied with weariness that was both exaggerated and real.
I'd been writing up the big stories for the Times for the past few months, and while it was certainly bringing growth to our pocketbooks, it was also taking away from our time together. Every hour spent working late, laboring over a story, boring through mountains of research, was an hour I wasn't spending with Marcia. It wasn't as though I'd gone into this job with the aim of surrendering my soul to it. I suppose in my sub-conscious even then, I knew I'd never recover those precious moments again, but the thought never entered the forefront of my mind. It lurked in the shadows, a threat if I allowed it to become one...
"Well, we can't fault them for wanting their best columnist on the job, now can we?" She said after a brief silence, as she softly caressed my cheek.
"No, but I'm certain if they tried enough, they can find someone better." I checked my watch again, past eight-thirty, the boss was going to skin me alive if I dallied any longer. "I've really got to run now. Take care, sweetheart, I'll be home before you know it."
I gave her a quick kiss on the lips, and rushed out the door. I caught one last glimpse of her as she waved me goodbye. Her sweet scent and heartfelt words lingered on long after I had exited the comfort of home and entered the downtown rush into the dark underbelly of the city...
Los Angeles was a beautiful city, but you never wanted to get on her bad side. While I hadn't taken up the crime beat, I knew many friends who had, I worked alongside some of them, and in the end, I wrote most of their stories. The change was immediately noticeable from the peaceful neighborhood where Marcia and I had made our home to the seedy inner city. Folks became more guarded, less willing to reveal their hand, lest someone call their bluff. It was a place where you didn't stay out too late alone unless you were looking for trouble, and more often than not, trouble found you anyhow. This was the LA that we reported on. It drew you in with its glamour and promises of fame and riches, then it pounced.
Marcia and I were more fortunate. We’d learned the game, and compared to many a less fortunate soul, even thrived. Thus far, we had managed to avoid the pitfalls that the City of Angels had to offer. Even so, there was always a part of me that wondered how long we could be sheltered from the horrors that I so often detailed in the paper...
The LA Times HQ at 9 in the morning was like a war room preparing for the D-Day landings, it was utter bedlam at any hour, but none more so than now. For the first few weeks, the chaos had overwhelmed me, but gradually I had grown more or less accustomed to it. Now, it was like a second home to me. The constant noises of typewriters clicking and phones ringing were the symphony that accompanied my every day. The editors frantically rushing about, trying to ensure that all articles were in as perfect as condition as possible, supervisors ensuring their charges were keeping up with the frenetic pace of the morning, field reporters relaying the latest information to the news desk.
With my trained eye, I was able to see through the noise, and there was no mistaking the man I'd just spotted. His posture was unmistakable, the constant sight of a cigarette between his lips a trademark. This was one of the Times' most experienced crime reporters, Archie Shaugnessy, and he didn't just show up at HQ without a reason. Every scoop he made had a chance to become instant front page news. Front page news that I would likely have a hand in crafting. I watched Shaugnessy from the corner of my eye while I checked in for the day. He was discussing what seemed to be a serious matter with the floor supervisor. Then he was going towards the room where I'd soon be headed myself, the office for the Times' columnists. This could only mean something big was brewing.
I made a beeline for the office, exchanging quick pleasantries with some of my colleagues whom I had become acquainted with in my time with the paper. Some asked how Marcia was doing, others wished me well on my next byline. They all seemed pleasant and cheerful, but I didn’t really have time to stay and chat, not this morning. Not when a reporter of Shaughnessy’s renown was in our office. I had hoped to catch up to him and hear what he was telling my fellow columnists, but by the time I got there, he’d already gone. I suppose that was the price to pay for not being on time...
“Wes, boy are you a sight for sore eyes.” I glanced down at three of my colleagues gathered around a table strewn with newspaper clippings, note books, and scrap paper. The man who has just spoken to me was Vic, the most senior columnist at the Times an our unofficial mentor. A forty year veteran, he’d seen everything from the First World War to the Great Depression to the Atom Bomb and then some. He was a grizzled older man now, white hair, large rimmed glasses, and a dignified, if world-weary, posture. Yet he still sought to instill the rock-soldi faith and optimism in the power of journalism as a force for good that had once been instilled in him. It was Vic who’d seen my potential at first and had raised the boss’ attention to me.
“I feel fine, though I suppose I’ve seen better days,” I replied causally.
“I’ll say. Hey, you shoulda been here a few ticks ago, Shaughnessy was just talkin’ about you.”
That voice belonged to Marvin, or Marv, as he preferred to be called, the biggest wisecrack this side of the county line. His eyes were constantly in motion, always looking for something new to toy with, a new angle to take up. With his hairline in full retreat, Marv wore a hat at all times, even indoors. Management wasn't happy about it, but in spite of his jocular nature, he was streetwise as well. making him one of the most valuable members of the team, so they let it slide.
"Did he now? What'd the old man want with me?"
I tried to appear unconcerned, but the truth was, between Shaughnessy's sudden appearance and now his specific reference to me, the writing was on the wall, I was going to be called upon again. My time with Marcia would be short. Still, a job was a job. I figured It'd be just one more item to knock off the agenda Sure enough, Marv continued.
"There's been a drug ring bust, a big one, on the south side. These weren't just hoodlums either. They had friends in high places. Shaughnessy says some corrupt cops were in on the scheme-"
"What did you say?" I halted him. I had to make sure I'd heard correctly. Marv gave me a queer look, eyebrows raised slightly. When he spoke again, he sounded more cautious.
"I said there were corrupt cops involved...."
"Is something the matter, Wes?"
It was Jan, the third person at the table and one of the few female columnists employed by the Times, who had addressed me with concern laced in her voice. She, like the others, smoked regularly and could hold her own with anyone, anytime, anyplace. Yet as rare as it was for a woman to attain the level of status that Jan had, she'd earned it without resorting to the sort of underhanded tactics which so many in our profession were prone to. She could write with the best of 'em, there was no doubt about that, and whenever you needed a pal, she always had your back.
Maybe that's why I was almost tempted to open up and tell her, but I couldn't tell any of them. Not this. This was a secret that I was holding on to for the sake of an old pal, and I couldn't bear to let it out. Not even to these three, whom I had come to see as my only friends in this lonely place.
“Nothing’s the matter...why did Shaughnessy mention me?”
“...Shaughnessy recommended to the boss that you write the article.”
I shook my head, already knowing what my answer would be. That episode had been buried in the past, and that’s where it would stay.
“Tell him he’ll have to find somebody else,” I answered in what I hoped would be an authoritative tone that would close the matter. No dice. Marv rose from the table.
“Now hold on a sec, pal, this is the biggest scoop of the year! Think about it! It’s what any one of us would dream of-”
“What Marv means to say is, this sort of story doesn’t come around every day,” Vic said calmly while holding Marv back. “It’s an interstate ring, one of the most infamous in Southern California. This could be the byline that makes you go national. You’re a real gem, son, I haven’t seen many like you in this business.”
Again I shook my head, I didn’t regret my decision for a second. “Forget it, fellas, it’s not going to happen.”
Vic sighed in resignation. “Very well, I’ll tell the boss that you’re out of the running.”
“Thanks, Vic.” I exhaled silently as I turned around.
“Where are you going?” Jan called after me as I was about to leave the office.
I looked back at them ruefully, if only they knew the burden I carried, but that burden was for me and me alone. Well..and a select few. But they would not he included. Maybe I cared for them too much, or perhaps it was simple self-preservation. I cast my eyes away from them, hoping they would not detect my true distress and believe me to simply not want to take the story for some other reason.
“To get some coffee.”
Work passed rather uneventfully after that terse exchange, if one could call a story about a corrupt politician being arrested on bribery charges in connection with a campaign finance scheme uneventful. Truthfully, everything seemed to pale to the dredged up memories that the news of the drug ring bust had brought on in me. It had been over three years...one would think that would’ve been enough time for the edges of those memories to dull. That one moment made it perfectly clear that they hadn’t. Still, I did what I had been trained to do, I left my troubles at the door and got back to business. By the time I returned to the office, the matter had been dropped, and we moved on.
I pushed it out of my mind, it wasn’t worth spending another thought over. After all, I had avoided taking the story. I had a night out on the town with Marcia to look forward to. Yes, I had at last convinced myself that this day would still turn out for the best. I felt much better as I parted ways with my colleagues and packed up to go home, as I was driving along the lively streets of the city with the sunset providing a gorgeous backdrop, as I returned to familiar ground and parked in the driveway of our home...
“In the living room, dear!”
I shut the door behind me and entered the living room to find Marcia seated on the couch watching something on the television. She’d gotten all done up for our date tonight, and did she ever look breathtaking...there was something elegant yet simple about her all at once. She stood to greet me and we kissed softly.
"How was your day?"
"All things considered, it was all right…" my thoughts again briefly drifted back to the office, to the news of the drug bust. Of course, nothing had been confirmed, but if my suspicions were right, then it was best to not bring this particular episode up when we had finally left it in the past. "But let's not discuss that now. We've got a fun night ahead of us."
I ran a hand through her hair. "Just let me get changed into something more comfortable and we'll be on our way."
She smiled at me for a moment, then her eyes lit up as though she'd recalled something. "Oh! I checked the mail earlier, you know I always do, And I found this."
She handed me a large, white, unstamped envelope. Scrawled in barely legible handwriting on the front was my name. No sender, no address. I looked up at her in curiosity.
"Do you know who it's from? It looks hand delivered."
She shook her head. "It must've been. I don't know who it could be from, darling. Have you had any unusual clients at work? Perhaps someone's read your articles and wanted to reach you."
"Hm…" It was true that I occasionally received letters from regular readers of the paper. Some were well-wishers who congratulated or thanked me for my work, others were...less so, but all had arrived through the standard channels. I'd never known anyone to be dedicated enough to track down my home address and deliver a letter to me in person. My look of confusion must have worried Marcia, for she suddenly placed her hand on my arm.
"Is everything all right?"
I tried to shake off my worries, it had been a long day, that was all. I was simply feeling the effects of tirelessly staring at headline after headline exposing the rotten core of this town. There was no use in worrying over something like this and allowing it to ruin the whole night. I figured I may as well give it a peek and thereafter put it out of mind.
"It's probably nothing, love. Just the same, it wouldn't hurt to give it a look now. I'll be in the bedroom if you need me," I gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and retreated to the comfort of our bed. Somehow, even here, I felt exposed. I found my eyes flitting about, scanning the corners to make sure nobody was watching.
Once I was satisfied that I was alone, I deftly unsealed the envelope and emptied its contents into my hand. It was a plain sheet of paper, simply addressed to "Mr. Wesley Faulkner"...
Dear Mr. Faulkner,
You are reading this letter for one reason, and one reason only. You are reading this letter because you have wronged me, and I do not intend to rest until you have suffered as I have suffered. Until the grief in your heart crushes you, as you crushed me by your cruel betrayal. I trusted you, and you repaid me with a knife twisted in my back. You left me to rot in a prison of my own despair. You abandoned me in my hour of need.
Forty-eight hours, Mr. Faulkner. I'm willing to give you that much time. Forty-eight hours from the moment you read this letter - and I will know when - until time runs out for Marcia. I give you this time not put of the goodness of my heart, no, it's because it will give you hope that you can stop me. And I will take immense pleasure in seeing that hope burn out when you find your wife's cold, lifeless body lying on the floor of your own home.
You had better get going, Mr. Faulkner. There are only so many hours in a day…
There was no signature.
There was no date.
The letter slipped from my fingers and floated gently to the floor. It was only then that I realized my entire body had been trembling.
I tried to stand, but my knees buckled and I wobbled into the night stand, knocking over the lamp with a great crash.
What I had just read...it couldn't be true…
It couldn't be.
I buried my head in my hands, trying in vain to stop the tears that stained my eyes...
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