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It was one of those nights.
Early on there was a flicker of hope—a couple of stabbings, a car wreck with potential. But the wounds weren’t serious and the accident was routine. After that it fell quiet.
A quiet night is the worst thing that can happen to a crime reporter.
With just an hour to go until her midnight deadline, Harper McClain sat alone in the empty newsroom with no story to write, doing the one thing she despised most in the world—a crossword puzzle.
On the far wall, tall windows reflected back a dark image of the huge open room with its white columns and rows of empty desks, but Harper didn’t notice it—she was glaring at the paper on her desk. Smudged and scratched-out letters glared back, like an accusation of failure.
“Why would anyone know an eight-letter word for ‘reckless bravery’?” she grumbled. “I’ve got a seven-letter word for ‘bravery’—it’s called ‘bravery.’ I don’t need a longer word…”
“Audacity.” The voice soared across the newsroom from the editor’s desk at the front.
Harper looked up.
City Editor Emma Baxter appeared to be focused on her computer screen, a silver Cross pen glittering in one hand like a small sword.
“An eight-letter word for reckless bravery.” Baxter spoke without shifting her eyes from the monitor. “Audacity.”
Baxter was pushing fifty at varying rates of speed. She was small and wiry, and that only made her look better in a navy blazer. Her angular face had a permanent look of vague dissatisfaction, but somehow that suited her, too. Everything about her was precise—her perfectly even short nails, her stiff posture, and you could cut your hand on the razor-sharp edge of her straight, dark bob.
“How the hell do you know that?” There was no gratitude in Harper’s voice. “In fact, why the hell do you know that? There is something fundamentally wrong with anyone who could answer a question like, ‘What is an eight-letter word for bravery?’ without first wanting to off themselves with a…”
At her elbow, her police scanner crackled to life. “This is unit three-nine-seven. We’ve got a signal nine with possible signal sixes.”
Harper’s voice trailed off. She cocked her head to listen.
“I’m willing to forgive your insubordination on this one occasion,” Baxter said magnanimously. But Harper had already forgotten all about audacity.
On her desk, her phone buzzed. She picked it up.
“Miles,” she said. “You heard about the shooting?”
“Yep. Slow night just got busier. Meet you out front in five.” His Tennessee accent glided over each word, smooth as warm honey.
Harper gathered her things with quick efficiency. Her police scanner hooked to the waistband of her black pants. Sweeping a light black jacket off the back of her chair, she shrugged it on. A narrow reporter’s notebook and pen were shoved into one jacket pocket. Press pass and phone in the other.
Moving fast, she headed across the room.
Baxter cocked an enquiring eyebrow at her.
“Shooting on Broad Street.” Harper spoke as she walked. “Possible injuries. Miles and I are heading down now to find out more.”
Baxter reached for her phone to alert the copy desk.
“If I need to hold page one,” she said, “I have to know no later than eleven-thirty.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
She turned out of the newsroom into a wide, brightly lit corridor that opened directly onto a staircase leading down to the front door. Her editor’s final words floated after her.
“When you return, we can have a little talk about your attitude.”
It was Baxter’s favorite threat. Harper knew better than to worry.
The sleepy-looking security guard at the reception desk didn’t even look up from the small TV on his desk as she hit the green exit button with hard impatience and hurled herself out of the building into the steamy darkness.
June had arrived a couple of weeks ago, bringing blistering days with it. Nights were better, but only a little. Right now the air was velvet soft, but so thick you could stick a fork in it and expect it to stay standing up. This wasn’t the usual Savannah humidity—this was like breathing under water.
Summer rain in Georgia is no minor threat—it can wash away your car, your house, your hopes, your dreams, and Harper glanced up at the gray clouds scuttling across the sliver of moon as if they might tell her when the water would fall, but the sky had no news to give.
The newspaper’s offices were in a century-old, rambling four-story building that took up half a city block on Bay Street, close enough to the slow-moving Savannah River to smell its green river smell, and to hear the giant engines of the massive container ships rumble as they rolled slowly out to sea. The neon words DAILY NEWS glowed red from a rooftop sign that must have been one of the last things sailors saw before the great Atlantic Ocean opened before them.
Down the street, the ornate city hall’s gilded dome gleamed, even at this hour, and through a break in the buildings, Harper could see the cobblestone lanes leading down to the water’s edge.
She’d never lived anywhere except Savannah, so it had been a very long time since she’d paid much attention to its landmarks and antebellum architecture. To her, like the verdant town squares and endless monuments to ill-fated Civil War generals, it was all just there.
She didn’t spare any of it a glance now as she waited, one leg jiggling impatiently. Her scanner crackled on her hip. Ambulances were being called out. Backup was being sent.
“Come on, Miles,” she whispered, turning her wrist to see her watch.
It was quiet enough for her to hear the faint wail of sirens in the distance just as a gleaming black Mustang rounded the corner and roared straight toward her, headlights blinding. It stopped in front of her, the motor revving.
Harper yanked the door open and leaped in.
“Let’s go,” she said, strapping on her seat belt.
The tires spun as they sped off.
Inside, the Mustang was alive with voices. Miles had one scanner on his belt, one mounted within the dash where there might otherwise have been a radio, and a third hooked up behind the gear shift. Each was set to a different channel—one monitored the main police frequency, another was set to a side channel the cops used for chitchat. The third monitored ambulance and fire.
It was like walking into a small, crowded room where twenty people were all talking at once. Harper was used to it, but it always took her a second to make sense of the cacophony.
“What’ve we got?” she asked, frowning.
“Nothing new.” He kept his eyes on the road. “Ambulance en route. Waiting for an update.”
Photographer Miles Jackson was tall and lean, with dark skin and neat, short-cropped hair. He’d been a staff photographer until a couple of years ago, when all the photographers were let go. Since then, he’d been freelance, doing whatever paid the most. He could be found shooting a wedding on a Saturday afternoon, and a murder later that same night.
If it pays it plays, he was fond of saying.
He had a cool, sardonic smile and liked driving fast. He was doing about twice the speed limit as they roared around the corner onto Oglethorpe Avenue, sending the car fishtailing.
Swearing under his breath, Miles wrestled the wheel.
“Doesn’t this thing go any faster?” Harper deadpanned, hanging on to the handle above the door.
“Very funny,” Miles said through gritted teeth. But he quickly regained control.
As they raced past Forsyth Park, where a huge marble fountain poured a hoopskirt-shaped arc of water into a stone pool, she cocked her head, listening to the scanner.
“They know where the shooters went?” she asked.
Miles shook his head. “Lost them in the projects.”
Just then, the scanner for the police chitchat channel lit up. A grave-deep voice growled, “This is one-four. Unit three-niner-seven, what are we dealing with here?”
Miles and Harper exchanged a look. Fourteen was the code number used by Lieutenant Robert Smith, head of the homicide division.
Miles turned down the other scanners.
“Lieutenant, we’ve got one fatality, two going to the hospital,” the officer on the scene responded. Excitement sent his voice up an octave. He talked so fast Harper got a contact high from his adrenaline. “Gangbanger party. Three shooters, all MIA.”
Not waiting to hear the rest, Harper pulled out her phone. Baxter answered on the first ring.
“It’s murder,” Harper said without preamble. “But it could be gang-on-gang.”
“Damn.” She could hear the editor tapping her silver pen on the desk. Taptaptaptap. “Call me back as soon as you know more.”
The line went dead.
Shoving her phone back in her pocket, Harper leaned back in her seat.
“If the dead guy’s a ’banger the story goes inside.”
“Well then, we’d best hope our victim is an innocent housewife,” Miles observed as they turned onto Broad Street.
Eyes on the road ahead, Harper nodded. “We can dream.”
On early maps of Savannah, the city is a perfectly symmetrical grid of straight lines, OCD neat, with Broad Street forming the eastern border. In all directions, everything outside that grid is dark green emptiness, its contents identified with the words “Old Rice Fields” in the nineteenth-century cartographer’s precise typographic handwriting.
Today, that orderly grid remains largely unchanged, save for the rice fields, which are long gone, replaced by unlovely sprawl. Broad Street forms a speedy direct line between gorgeous, picture-postcard old Savannah and the parts where Harper and Miles spent most of their working nights.
As they headed west, the grand old houses fronted by trees draped in the gray lace of Spanish moss gradually disappeared, replaced by peeling paint, overgrown yards, and cheap metal fences.
No leafy squares broke up the dense housing in this neighborhood. No fountains poured beneath oak trees. Instead, battered apartment buildings stacked people on top of each other in cramped and ugly conditions fronted by broken sidewalks and illuminated by the garish signs marking out fast-food chains and discount shops.
Out here, the streets were busy—drug dealers did good business at this hour.
Miles’ hands were steady on the wheel, but his eyes—scanning the buildings around them—were alert.
He was older than Harper—in his forties. Photography was his second career. Years ago, back in Memphis, he’d had another, very different life.
“I was an office guy,” he’d told her once, as he took his camera carefully apart. “Pushing paper. Made good money. Had the big house, the pretty wife, the whole nine yards. But it wasn’t for me.”
He’d always loved taking pictures, and he knew he had an eye. One day, he signed up for a photography course. Just, he said, for something to do.
“After that, I had the itch.”
As far as she could tell, within a year of taking that course, he’d quit his job, left his wife, and started over.
He’d visited Savannah for a business convention and it always stayed with him, he said. The slow way of life. The silky, sweet beauty of the place. The long curve of the river.
He said it felt like a fairy tale. So he came here to live the dream.
They’d both started at the newspaper the same year. Harper as an intern. Miles as night-shift photographer.
Even after seven years, he still saw the city with a stranger’s eyes. He loved the homey cafes and the waitresses who called him “sweetie.” He liked driving out to Tybee Island at sunset, or just sitting on River Street, watching the ships pass by.
Harper couldn’t remember the last time she’d done any of that. She’d spent all her life in Savannah. To her, this was just home.
Ahead, swirling blue lights lit up the street like a deadly disco.
“Here we go,” Miles muttered, hitting the brakes.
Peering into the glare, Harper counted four patrol cars and at least three unmarked units.
An ambulance rumbled up behind them, its siren blaring, and Miles pulled to the side to let it pass.
“Better leave the car here,” he decided, killing the engine.
Harper glanced at her watch: 11:12. She had eighteen minutes to let Baxter know if she had to hold the front page.
Her heart began to race in that familiar way.
She had a thing for murder. Some people called it an obsession. But she had her reasons. Reasons she didn’t like to talk about much.
Miles gathered his equipment from the trunk, but Harper couldn’t wait.
“Meet you down there.”
Leaping from the car, she took off, notebook in one hand and pen in the other, running toward the flashing lights.
Copyright © 2018 by Christi Daugherty
“The Shutout” copyright © 2019 by Christi Daugherty
Excerpt from A Beautiful Corpse copyright © 2019 by Christi Daugherty