“I hate these things,” Conley Hawkins said, gazing toward the newsroom’s glass-encased conference room, where the rest of the staff was gathering. “Stale sheet cake, lukewarm champagne, and tepid farewells. It’s such a farce. At least a third of the people in that room don’t even like me. I’ve said goodbye to the people I care about. Can’t we just leave it at that?”
She’d almost succeeded in making a clean break, only feet away from the elevator, when Butch caught her trying to sneak out. “You can’t skip your own going-away party,” he’d said. “Everybody’s waiting. You’ll look like an ingrate if you try to duck out.”
Before she could argue, he’d deftly taken the cardboard box she’d just finished packing and placed it on her desktop.
Her former desk in the fourth-floor newsroom at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, her home away from home for the past four years.
“It’s actually more like two-thirds of the people in the room who detest you,” Butch pointed out, steering her toward the conference room. “Nothing personal. Call it professional jealousy. Well, except for Rattigan. Nothing professional about his feelings, right?”
Butch Culpepper wasn’t just some dude who’d sat at the desk right next to hers for the past three years. He was her social conscience and self-appointed office husband and, therefore, privy to most of her secrets.
She winced at the mention of Kevin Rattigan. “Don’t.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Too soon?”
“I really didn’t think he’d take it so personally,” she protested. “We weren’t even all that serious.”
“You were living together,” Butch pointed out. “Most women I know would call that serious.”
“It was only for six weeks, and I only let him move in because he couldn’t afford a two-bedroom after his roommate got transferred to Miami.”
By now, they were standing right outside the open doorway of the conference room, and Roger Sistrunk, her assignment editor, was waving her inside.
“Hawkins! Get your ass in here! You might not have anything better to do, but some of us still have a paper to get out today.”
“Oh God,” she mumbled.
And then the champagne corks were popping, and she was being presented with the signed caricature from the paper’s political cartoonist, and Roger was making a well-meaning speech about how much she’d be missed, using a rolled-up copy of the Metro section as a makeshift megaphone.
“Attention! Attention, please,” he called. “Okay, well, somehow, our esteemed colleague Conley Hawkins managed to scam these pinheads in D.C. into offering her a job making twice as much money for half as much work,” Sistrunk began. His bald head gleamed under the fluorescent lights.
Light laughter and a few catcalls. She smiled weakly, and despite herself, her eyes sought out Kevin, who was standing, stony-faced, in a far corner of the room. His wheat-colored bangs flopped over his glasses, and her fingers itched to push the hair back, clean the smudges from the glasses, and whisper a smutty joke in his ear, just to watch the bright pink flush spread over his pale freckled face. He caught her staring and quickly looked away.
Butch pressed a paper cup into her hand, and she drained the champagne in two gulps.
She didn’t catch the rest of what Roger was saying. Tiana Baggett approached and flung an arm over her shoulder and leaned her head against Conley’s. “Gonna miss you, girlfriend,” she said, sniffling loudly. “I can’t believe you’re really gonna go and leave me behind. Who’s gonna watch scary slasher movies with me now? Who’s gonna rewrite my ledes?”
Aside from Butch, Tiana, the Metro section’s police beat reporter, was her best friend on staff.
“Come on, Tia. Don’t do this to me,” Conley begged. “Look, you know as soon as I hear about an opening up there, I’ll put your name in the hat.”
Tiana sniffed again, extended her arm, and attempted to take a selfie with her smartphone. “Aw, damn,” she said, shaking it. “I’ve got no juice. Gimme your phone.”
Conley pulled her phone from her pocket, extended her arm, and clicked off three quick frames. As she was shoving it back in the pocket of her jeans, she heard the distinctive bicycle bell ringtone alerting her to an incoming text message.
Tiana looked down. “Who’s the text from? Kevin?” She looked hopefully across the room. She was the one who’d set them up and who’d accused Conley, more than once, of being heartless since the breakup.
“No.” Conley shook her head. “He won’t even look me in the eye. It’s actually from my sister.”
“Grayson? The one you think can’t stand you?”
“I don’t think it, I know it. Wonder where she got my phone number?” The text had a link to a Bloomberg wire story. She tapped the link and read the first paragraph.
Intelligentsia, the trailblazing digital investigative news service, announced today that it will suspend publication immediately, citing the failure of a recent round of venture capital financing.
Conley stared down at the sentence, her brain and tongue temporarily frozen. Beads of sweat popped out on her forehead.
“What’s wrong? Did somebody die?”
Conley handed her the phone.
“Jesus Hopscotching Christ,” Tiana muttered. “Is this your sister’s idea of a joke?”
“Grayson is incapable of joking,” Conley said. “She lacks a humor chromosome.”
“You think it’s true?” Tiana asked. “About Intelligentsia? I mean, if it were true, you would have heard something, right? Maybe it’s just a rumor.”
“You should call that guy, the editor, what’s his name?”
“Fred Ward.” She pulled up the list of recent callers, but there was nothing from Fred Ward, nor were there any calls with a D.C. prefix.
“Conley! You need to cut the damn cake!” called one of the sportswriters.
“Yeah,” another voice chimed in. “Let’s get this party started. I got a story to file.”
She looked up. So many faces watching hers. She swallowed hard, fighting back against a wave of nausea swelling up from her gut, the champagne sour in her mouth.
“Just do it,” Tia whispered.
Roger was holding out the pica pole, which was tied with a faded red ribbon. The pica pole was a quaint relic from another era, from the Marietta Street days, back when newspapers were physically laid out on drafting tables in the downtown composing room, instead of digitally designed in this gleaming smoked-glass box in a suburban office park.
Conley took the stiff aluminum ruler and made a horizontal slash through the gooey white frosting, then another vertical slash, dividing the cake into quadrants. She handed the pole back to her editor. “You do the rest,” she said, forcing a smile. “I can’t eat cake. I’m gluten-free.”
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