She could hear the gate alarm sounding, but she thought she could make it across. The ringing and the flashing came first, warning that a train was coming. Then it usually took several seconds before the striped wooden bar swung down. But this time it dropped instantly, the moment she bumped her SUV onto the tracks. Damn! She shifted into reverse just in time to see the other gate drop down behind her. She was trapped on the tracks with a freight train charging toward her.
The clanging bells seemed to get louder, more incessant in their warning. And then there was the light, shining on her from the distance and getting brighter by the second, so bright that she couldn’t see the locomotive behind it. She grabbed the handle and threw the door open. Then with all her strength she hurled herself out of the car, tumbled through the air, and landed with a crash. The night table rocked, and the glass of water that she kept by her bedside poured down on her face.
“Damn!” Jane Warren was lying on the floor, looking up at the overturned water tumbler. Her alarm clock was clanging furiously. Bright sunlight was streaking through the blinds, hot on the bed she had just hurled herself from. She sat up abruptly and stared at the clock until she understood that it had been ringing for half an hour. “Damn!” she repeated. Her day had just started and she was already running late.
Coffee! She padded into the kitchen and took a mug down from the shelf. Then she saw another disaster. The pot wasn’t squared under the spout of her coffeemaker. Soggy grounds had oozed over the edge and down into the space between the counter and the refrigerator. The coffee that might save her life was spilled down the front of her kitchen drawers and onto the floor. For a few seconds she thought that she was going to cry.
Jane threw bath towels at the puddle of coffee and across the wet carpet in her bedroom, then processed herself through the shower and into her underwear, jeans, and a sweater. She was in her car, turning out of the garage, just fifteen minutes after she had escaped certain death under the wheels of a freight train.
She pulled down the visor, with its vanity mirror, and set to work with her cosmetics. Lipstick went just on her upper lip and was transferred to the lower lip by a grimace, a smile, and then a pout. Blush went on with a dab to each cheek and was blended in with the heel of her hand. She rubbed a finger into the eye shadow, wiped the excess on the bottom of the driver’s seat, and then spread it over her eyes, closing them one at a time so that she could see what she was doing and get an occasional glimpse of the road. Then, using her right hand to steer, she aimed a razor-sharp eyebrow pencil into her face with her unsteady left hand. She had one eye finished when she turned onto the parkway, a narrow, twisting two-lane road that had been built in the 1930s. The other eye would have to wait until she reached her office.
But even with one brow off color, so she seemed to be perpetually winking, Jane had achieved a minor miracle. Her fair skin, usually a bland alabaster, had subtle highlights across the cheekbones. A mysterious blue tint over her eyes complemented their deep tone and changed their shape from round to almond. Her lips, usually noticed only when she showed her generous smile, were now dark and suggestive. Her deep brunette hair, worn in a cascade of curls, seemed stylishly casual. In less than half an hour she had gone from plain to foxy, and from downtrodden to down-to-business. She liked what she saw in the mirror even if it was only a disguise for the wet towels and unmade bed that she had left behind.
She tapped the steering wheel impatiently in the stop-and-go traffic while the dashboard clock kept reminding her that she was late. Not that there was a fixed starting time. In the newspaper business the flow of news events set your schedule more than arbitrary work hours. Entertainment editors filed their stories after midnight and slept in. Sports editors worked hardest on the weekends. At her financial desk, the afternoons when the markets were posting their closing prices were generally much busier than the mornings. But still, she had her local business column to write under her J. J. Warren byline. That meant calling brokers, bankers, and business executives, who were generally much harder to reach after lunch. She hated to waste the morning in gridlock. Her day was off to a terrible start.
Suddenly it got worse. When she pulled into the garage beneath her office building, her recently divorced husband was standing in her parking space. Arthur Keene slouched against the wall in a wrinkled black suit coat and baggy trousers, pretending not to notice the Honda CRV that turned into the space and rolled toward him. He didn’t even look up until the car had lurched to a stop, with its front bumper touching his knee. Only then did he make eye contact with the woman behind the wheel and favor her with his confident smile.
“Art, I’m late for a meeting,” Jane lied as she stepped down from the car. “I haven’t got a minute … .” She beeped the car locks and started for the elevator.
“I’ll ride up with you,” he offered, falling in next to her.
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
“Then talk to me here. I need you to find a couple of my disks.”
Jane stopped just short of pushing the elevator button. “You took all your disks.”
“No, I’m missing two of them. One has my notes for the Martha’s Vineyard play. The other is my latest draft of Hudson Falls.”
“You took all your disks the day after you moved out. Remember, you came over in the morning and spent the whole day collecting your stuff from the computer.”
“Jane, I know what I had then and what I don’t have now. There are two of my disks in with all your crap.”
She pushed the button. “I’ll look. I’ll call you if I find something.”
“You don’t know what you’re looking for. Let me look.”
“No! You’re out of the apartment. Read the agreement.”
“You don’t even have to be there. All I want to do is let myself in and look for my disks.”
The elevator door opened and Jane stepped inside.
“No! I don’t want you going through my things.”
“Jane,” he pleaded. “They’re major works. I have to find them.”
The door closed across Art’s anguished expression.
Major works, she thought, shaking her head in despair. Art had never completed a single play, much less had one produced. They had wasted their six-year marriage waiting by the telephone for his genius to be appreciated. Her career as a journalist had been dismissed as a “temporary accommodation with middle-class values,” while his was a “statement on behalf of humanity.” The problem had been that her “accommodation” had to pay the bills that his “statement” ran up.
Art had been a dreamer even when she met him. But at that time, fresh out of college, dreams were easily mistaken for ambition. Art was at the head of the class, cocksure that he was destined to have an impact on the world of letters, certain that he would hit social mores like a meteor striking the earth. It had taken her three years to realize that he was waiting for an adoring audience to assemble, and another three years to decide that his work was, at best, mediocre. Art was sure that he was important. Over time, Jane realized that he really wasn’t.
And yet the divorce had been his idea. He had sensed that Jane was impatient, tired of putting her life on hold in deference to his fantastic potential. Then she had suggested that he consider a job in the Arts section of her paper. Not permanently, of course. Just something to ease the financial pressure while keeping him in his chosen world of theater. He had found the suggestion insulting, proof that Jane had no idea of the stretch of his ambition. “What do you want?” he had demanded while smashing dinner dishes against the edge of the sink. “Am I supposed to give up everything? Join you in headline hunting and rumormongering?” He had demanded his freedom and rushed through the proceedings as if every second spent with her sucked the creative juices from his flesh. It was only when the court granted his wish that he realized Jane would no longer be obligated to fetch his supper and pay his bills.
For her part, she had been crushed by his demand for a divorce. It seemed an announcement of her failure at the first serious enterprise she had undertaken. If she couldn’t make a simple thing like marriage work, how could she hope to survive in the more complex affairs of modern life? But in the sea of legal filings and court deliberations, Jane had seen her boat plow ahead while his foundered and sank. Two decisive promotions had carried her up to a senior editor’s position and given her an honest endorsement of her worth. Art had tried to capture his emotions from their split in a new play and had sunk deeper into obscurity, if that was possible for an unproduced playwright. Minutes before the divorce was granted, he had cornered her outside the courtroom and allowed that he was considering the wisdom of giving her one more chance. Jane had answered with her middle finger.
The elevator door opened into the reception foyer of the Southport Post, a middling member of a suburban newspaper chain that covered the bedroom communities of southern Connecticut. The lobby was impressive with fabric-covered walls decorated with comments by Pulitzer and Mencken, set in three-dimensional pewter letters. The receptionist was a young woman imported from England, with a public school accent that suggested a higher standard of learning. Even New Englanders felt humbled after cooling their heels in the waiting room.
“Good morning, Grace. Please tell me that there is still some coffee … .”
“Perhaps a tad,” Grace answered. “Shall I bring it to your office, or will you send somebody?”
“If you could just pour it for me, I’ll carry it myself.”
Grace responded with an expression of curiosity, her head tipping to get a more focused look at Jane’s face. “Just black, right?”
“Any way at all,” Jane answered, wondering if Grace had suddenly found her attractive.
She balanced the paper coffee cup down the carpeted aisle of the business department, which was really the heart of her newspaper. Trapped between The New York Times and The Boston Globe in an area blanketed by cable and satellite news, the Southport Post had little hope of breaking big stories. Its front page was copied from the wire services with a focus on state and local issues. Inside, the editorial content was devoted to soft news from the immediate area—local politics, school-board issues, and meetings of the Rotarians. The business department, on the other hand, was rudely aggressive in selling ad space to the local car dealers, furniture stores, culinary boutiques, and dress shops. It did a great business with advertising inserts for shopping malls and supermarkets. Taken together, the business departments of the eight papers in the New England Suburban Press organization sold more space than the Times and Globe together and racked up sales figures that matched either one.
The carpet disappeared when Jane reached the editorial offices at the back of the floor. There were two rows of desks flanking the center aisle and fabric-covered cubicles along the walls. The desks were for the classified people who wrote ads of twelve words or less, using abbreviations for every noun and eliminating most of the verbs. Classified took in nearly as much money as display ads, at about a tenth of the cost. The cubicles housed the reporters, giving their telephone conversations a sense of privacy even though their voices carried over the walls. The rear offices, sealed off with glass barriers, were for the senior editors for news, business, sports, and society. Their rewards included windows, carpeting, and side chairs across from their desks.
Jane went straight to her office and sat hunched over her coffee. She barely forced a smile when Jack Dollinger, the news editor, sauntered in and settled into her side chair. “Bad night?” he asked. Dollinger was twice her age, old and foolish enough to think that Jane found him attractive. He masked his romantic heat, stoked by her recent divorce, under a pretence of professional patronage.
“Bad morning,” she answered.
“I just read your latest piece on William Andrews. Quite interesting …”
She cut him off with a trembling hand gesture. “Give me a minute, Jack. If I can get this coffee down, there’s a good chance that I’ll regain my hearing and my eyesight.” She sipped without raising the cup from her desk.
“A really bad morning.” He chuckled.
She lifted the cup and gulped. Then she managed a nod. “As bad as it gets!” She told him about leaping out of bed to escape the onrushing train, the spilled water, and the coffee explosion that had wiped out her kitchen.
“That’s your first cup?”
“The very first of the day. It’s a wonder I made it here alive. And then who did I find in the parking lot, waiting to greet me, but my ex. I hoped it was all part of the nightmare.”
“But it was real?”
“Too real. Art thinks that even though we’re divorced, I’m still responsible for his laundry.”
“Any luck with his new play?” Jack feigned interest in her husband’s work while secretly enjoying Arthur’s ineptitude.
“He hasn’t finished it. Still rewriting the third act. The wife has a few redeeming qualities that he’s trying to get rid of.”
He stood up slowly. “Let me take you to lunch. Maybe you can salvage the second half of your day.”
She dropped her paper cup into the wastebasket. “Let’s see how it goes.”
He paused in her doorway, staring at her for a moment. “Something the matter?” she asked.
“No … oh, I almost forgot. Roscoe wants to see you.”
Jane looked up at the mention of the managing editor, whose summonses usually meant criticism rather than praise. “What did I do now?”
“Something to do with your William Andrews series. At least I heard him mention Andrews several times during a phone call.”
She frowned. “I went too far, didn’t I?”
“A bit emotional,” Dollinger allowed. “But overall, I think you were completely fair.”
William Andrews was better suited as a subject for Fortune or Business Week than for a suburban daily like the Southport Post. Beginning in his twenties with a small investment in a cable franchise, he had created a communications and media empire that reached around the world and connected with satellites in space. He controlled broadcast networks on three continents, major newspapers and magazines in a dozen countries, Internet services, and even a film studio. It was difficult for a thinking person to get through a day without making contact with one of Andrews’s properties. Jane had made him the subject of several of her business columns because he had begun buying up chains of small-town newspapers, extending his reach even further into society’s roots.
“Morning, Jane,” Roscoe Taylor said, making a show of checking his watch. “Nice of you to join us.”
“Don’t bait me, Roscoe. It’s been a bad morning and I just had an unscheduled meeting with my former husband. I’m still in a rotten mood.” She sat across from him.
He studied her for a moment. “I like it,” he decided. “Bold, unconventional, but certainly memorable. It reminds me of an ad campaign for a shirt manufacturer that ran many years ago. A great ad campaign because I still remember the name—Hathaway.”
“What in God’s name are you talking about?”
“Your new one-eyed look. One brow outlined and the other unadorned. The Hathaway man always wore a black eye patch.”
Jane reached to her face as if she hoped to feel the difference in color. “Oh hell! I did it in traffic. I finished only one eye.”
“Well, don’t tell anyone it’s a mistake. Take full credit. It’s a bold initiative.”
She got up and started for the door. “Excuse me, Roscoe. I feel like such an ass.”
He laughed. “You look like you’re winking at me. I’m amazed your husband didn’t think you were inviting him back.”
“Arthur wouldn’t notice if I had only one ear. My eyebrows never made it onto his radar. But now I understand why I thought Grace was coming on to me.” She had the doorknob in her hand when she remembered what had brought her into the managing editor’s office. “Oh, what did you want to talk to me about?”
“Your William Andrews articles.”
She winced. “Was I too rough with him?”
Roscoe shrugged innocently. “I hope not. He’s our new boss. He just bought the Suburban chain.”
Her knees weakened. “He what?”
“Bought the New England Suburban Press. Us included. We’re now part of the Andrews Global Network. And you’re interviewing him in Manhattan this afternoon.”
Copyright © 2004 by Diana Diamond.