Posts Tagged ‘reporter’

Thursday, March 22, 10:12 a.m.

In my limited experience, all daily newspaper journalists want to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Local TV reporters want to get hired by Fox News, CNN, 60 Minutes or Dateline NBC—whichever calls first.

Writers at the too-cool alternative weeklies want to be latter day incarnations of Dorothy Parker and get hired by The New Yorker, or become the next David Sedaris and craft false memoirs for NPR.

Bloggers want to be real (i.e. print) journalists.

Monthly newspaper reporters turned fully fledged editors want to write a book.

But what do crime reporters want?

Jack O’Lies is one.

I find it hard to believe that such a job still exists. Nonetheless, I’m about to meet him in his natural habitat: a crime scene. A murder scene. A possible serial killer murder scene, if the tweets are to be believed.

The crime scene is on the western shore of Lake Washington, where the sand meets rain-churned mud. I park between a King County Sheriff’s car and a City of Seattle Police car. Washington State Patrol is on scene too, sandwiched in between a pair of TV news vans. I’ve never understood the division of labor among the various cop agencies. I’m not that kind of journalist.

I don’t get out of the car. Chaos reigns as cops and marauding ducks fight to defend their strongholds between the mucky bank, the gently lapping gray water, and the yellow Police Line Do Not Cross tape that separates them. Through my windshield, I can see a major media convergence zone just outside the yellow tape. I’ve been here once before, under far more mundane yet equally duck- and reporter-ridden circumstances.  I ought to feel right at home. Except for that whole dead body found floating on the water thing.

Stumbling over the waddling wildlife, the perpetually jeans ‘n’ T-shirt-clad TV cameramen

Camera man in Seattle

(they are always men)

Camera man in Seattle filming The X-Facto

poke their lenses into the cops’ faces while the on-air talent—no one I recognize—fiddle with their handheld mics. Also jeans-clad, but sporting dry cleaned sports jackets, a half-dozen newspaper reporters are standing together gossiping. Their photojournalist counterparts, decked out in full-body khaki like war correspondents, are picking their way through the muck to shove their telephoto lenses over the yellow tape. Several radio reporters stand well apart from the mob and record their reportage with their iPhones: a feat that impressed me excessively the first time I saw it —ironically at the equally over-policed Shop With a Cop Christmas charity event.

Keeping a safe distance from the edge of Lake Washington where the corpse recently washed ashore, and looking hungover, overwhelmed, or both, are a couple kids from one of the alternative print weeklies. Given their smeared eyeliner and excess of sequins, I’m willing to bet that they got pulled directly off late night music club duty to cover this murder scene. Appearing uncomfortable and sporting homemade press passes, a few lonely souls drift through the crowd. As soon as I see their expensive digital cameras, I peg them as bloggers. My digital camera is small, cheap, and freelances during off hours as the family snapshot taker.

If this is indeed the crime scene of a serial killer, the FBI ought to be in attendance, dressed in their iconic trench coats. I’m wearing a trench coat that I bought a few years ago because I thought it looked reporterish, courtesy of my vague memories of 1940s movies. It was on sale at the Value Village and once got me erroneously pegged as a private investigator whilst I waited for an interviewee outside his tattoo parlor. Maybe the intimidating cops and the clique-ish reporters will think I’m FBI.

The thought cheers me considerably. I wanted to join the FBI in college. I sent in an application. “The X-Files” was popular at the time.

The X-Files

I’m with a monthly newspaper. And I’m way, way outside my newspaper’s coverage area. In more ways than one.

I get out of the car. I need to find Jack O’Lies. He’s a real, live crime reporter. He’ll be able to steer me through this murderous morass without landing me on the 5 o’clock news, immortalized as the crazy lady who blundered across the Police Line Do Not Cross tape and tripped over the corpse.

I pause next to the KING 5 TV news van. I have no idea what Jack O’Lies looks like. There are plenty of images of his wife’s killer, Robert “Bobby” Dean Clasky, the Westgate Serial Killer. They range from wild-eyed courtroom sketches to dead eyed mug shots going back fourteen years to a single school photo, aged eight or so, that ruins all wrath with his blond, abused, tentative yet hopeful smile.

Layne Stayle as a child

I know that Jack is 45. Because I’m white, I whitely assume he’s white. He lives in Seattle’s Scandinavian ghetto, Ballard, so he’s pretty much got to be white.

The air is crisp and reeks of fish, waterfowl excrement and cheap aftershave. I wend my way over the slippery ground toward the water’s edge. Up to their thighs in Lake Washington, the police crime scene investigators are slowly trudging, their eyes on the rippling water. Red and white lights atop three useless ambulances circle silently. Cop radios jabber while, incongruously, the cops attached to them burst out laughing. I see a TV cameraman aim his all-seeing lens at a kid in a Seattle PD uniform who can’t be a day over 19. “Why so much police interest in a semi-eviscerated and mutilated body? Can you confirm this is the work of a serial killer, and is all of Seattle in danger?” the heavily made-up TV reporter inquires.

I spy an idle print journalist, identifiable by her jeans, sensible shoes, and out of style but carefully pressed suit jacket. She’s leaning against an ambulance, smoking and poking at her iPhone with a short-nailed thumb.

“Excuse me? You don’t happen to know if Jack O’Lies from the Washingtonian is around here somewhere?” I say.

She points her cigarette at an open space beyond the yellow police tape. “Over there with the coroner. Can’t believe Muhammad actually came to the mountain for once,” she says.

The cigarette indicates a black guy in his fifties who is talking with a white guy. The white guy looks to be in his forties, with graying hair hacked into a super-short crew cut. He sports a couple days’ worth of beard growth that looks sexy on movie stars in their twenties but doesn’t work for professional men over the age of thirty. The black guy is wearing a dark blue windbreaker loudly emblazoned “King County Coroner’s Office.”

I take a deep breath and contemplate the forbidding yellow tape that separates us.

I’ve only seen such a thing in real life once before. Granted, it was labeled Fire Line Do Not Cross, but close enough. It cordoned off a crucial cross street in the wilds of Ballard (Jack O’Lies country, before I had heard of him) when I was working on a Halloween article about bugs as a culinary option.

Plate of bugs in Ballard, Seattle

Yes, I ate bugs in Ballard. For journalism. But I didn’t violate the official yellow tape.

I glance around. There’s a gawky kid in a trench coat wandering around beyond the yellow tape. His trench coat screams “I’m a reporter!” more blatantly than mine. He’s got a fantastically expensive camera. He’s clearly a blogger. I duck under the tape barricade and approach the coroner just as the blogger turns and makes a sudden beeline for the same.

Blast these tenacious amateurs! I pick up my pace as best I can, but I’m slow and unsure on the slick mud. The blogger reaches the coroner and starts waving the camera in his face.

What happens next confuses me. I’m out of earshot. The blogger and the white guy—Jack O’Lies, I presume—appear to exchange words. Angry words. Because the blogger is attempting to horn in on Jack’s interview, perhaps? In my peripheral vision, I see a couple TV cameramen hustle toward them.

My view is abruptly blocked by a radio reporter, then a print journalist, half a dozen photojournalists, uncountable bloggers, and all the cameramen and audio techs from the TV crews. Everything suddenly becomes a noisy, jostling, desperate sort of scene that I’m not used to but have seen on the rare occasion when I’ve covered a popular news story.

Gates Foundation opens in Seattle

Someone is shouting, then the white guy with the graying crew cut and last week’s 5 o’clock shadow shoves his way through the crowd of reporters. All lenses, boom mikes, SLR digital cameras and iPhones swivel to point at him.

I have no idea what just happened. But according to the cigarette, that is Jack O’Lies.

The lenses and the reporters attached to them turn back to the coroner, the lake, and the blogger, who is being hauled to his feet after he apparently slipped in the mud. I hesitate, then follow my presumed interviewee. I have a very fast car this week. I have no doubt that even with his head start, I can catch him.

As I navigate the slippery ground to my press car, I figure there’s a 50/50 chance he’s heading to the Washingtonian headquarters. I don’t know exactly where the Washingtonian building is located, beyond the mythology of the so-called Paper Triangle formed by the Interstate 5-bordering Seattle Times, the waterfront home of the comatose unto death Seattle P.I. and the northern apex between the two, the Washingtonian, which points toward Ballard.

Lucky for me, I have GPS in the car. This awesome ride, the Infiniti G convertible is the best car I’ve ever driven in my life. And it’s mine for a whole week, courtesy of the automobile PR firm that arranges such things, so that my newspaper can review the latest cars, generating revenue by selling ad space surrounding the car reviews. It is a total midlife crisis car. When I have my midlife crisis 10 or 15 years from now, I plan to ruin the family budget to buy one for myself.

Even with GPS, I manage to get lost. Forty-five minutes later, I pull into the Washingtonian’s “staff only” parking lot and hide the press car between a couple Fords. If it’s towed, I’ll be stranded but not liable for the impound costs, since it’s not my car. I hope.

I’ve walked past the corpse of the Seattle P.I. once. I’ve entered the Seattle Times building twice. The Washingtonian, never. I pull open the frosted glass front door and enter an echoing, marble expanse of soulless 1960s architecture. Like at the Times, there’s a front desk manned by a security guard. Unlike at the Times, there’s a two story waterfall behind the front desk that would be quite impressive if it wasn’t bone dry. Also unlike at the Times, I’m treated with little caution or interest. I tell the guard that I have an interview scheduled with Jack O’Lies.

“Know where he is? Third floor,” he replies. The Times has a formidable security gate. There’s no security gate here. Nor am I issued a plastic I.D. badge with a mugshot of me on it, which the Times security guard insisted I wear. I drift uncertainly to the bank of elevators, press the up button, and wait.

The building feels bereft. It appears to have been designed for a bustling community of thousands that has been decimated during the past decade. It’s creepy.

On the third floor, I wander through a cubicle farm dominated by row upon row of empty desks. I run into Deputy Assistant Editor John Whiteclay exactly where I least desire to: coming out of the men’s room.

I’m certain that it’s him. He’s hard to forget. The last time I saw him, he had a waist-length black braid and was wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt

Che-Guevara-T-Shirt

(red, of course) under a second-hand brown corduroy jacket with leather elbow patches. He also sported tight jeans with a hole in one knee, a turquoise and silver bracelet, and a pair of beat up cowboy boots. He was such a twenty-seven-year-old tribal cliché punk when he strutted up to collect his trophies at the Society of Professional Journalists awards ceremony.

Today, his hair is shorn to corporate shortness. He’s wearing a pair of unattractive pleated front Dockers, a department store golf shirt, and unobtrusive lace-up leather shoes. Pushing thirty, his face is about a decade older than it was two years ago.

“Oh, hi,” I say. “You’re John Whiteclay, right?”

Looking surprised, cornered, and yet so very professional as the bathroom door swings closed behind him, he replies, “Yes. I’m sorry, you are…?”

“Katherine Luck from the Journal. We set up an interview with your staffer, Jack O’Lies, remember?”

Not surprisingly, he looks very surprised that I’m here after he gave me the big brush off over the phone this morning. However, he hides it with managerially speed.

“Right, right,” he says. “Coffee? I was going to grab a cup.”

“Sure, I never say no to coffee,” I say, trailing him to the break room. “So, I went on down to Lake Washington, but I didn’t manage to hook up with Jack.”

Mr. Whiteclay grabs the Mr. Coffee carafe and a probably clean mug from the counter. His face again registers surprise before he hides it ever so professionally.

“I thought you two were going to schedule things over the phone. Were you covering the murder for your paper or something?”

“Oh no, we don’t do hard news. Nothing controversial,” I say.

He does not offer me a cup of coffee. He leans against the counter and sips.

“Okay,” he says.

“I just figured it would be easier to get in touch with him in person, maybe,” I say.

John Whiteclay says nothing. He crosses one Dockers-encased leg over the other, leaning against the counter in a way that announces that this is where we’re going to wrap things up. I’ve been long-form blown off before. I know the body language all too well.

I, however, become stubborn when professionally thwarted. I can stay here all day if that’s what it takes. I’m saved from making myself obnoxious by a staff writer who pokes his head into the break room.

“Oh man, Chief, you gotta see this! O’Lies punched the hell out of that idiot Seattle Crimeologist blogger.”

Chief Whiteclay’s face registers alarm. Still clutching his coffee mug, he follows the writer. Not uninvited, I trail them to a low-walled cubicle in the middle of the newsroom. Half a dozen reporters are crammed in it, their eyes glued to a computer screen. Their Chief, John Whiteclay, shoulders his way through to stand next to the cubicle owner, who is seated in front of the computer.

“Did you see this, Chief? It’s all over his blog,” she says, hitting play on the uploaded video.

Lake Washington of about an hour ago comes into focus: reporters, camera crews, cops, ducks and all. Behind the camera, a whiny, juvenile sort of voice is saying, “It is a measure of the depravity—nay, the sheer brutality—of modern American culture that a police force immobilized by—”

Off screen, someone says, “Jack? That really you? What’re you doing here today?”

The camera swings from the rippling blue lake filled with wading cops to focus on a black guy in his fifties standing with a white guy who looks to be in his forties. The black guy is wearing a dark blue windbreaker loudly emblazoned “King County Coroner’s Office.” The white guy has graying hair hacked into a super-short crew cut and a couple days of beard growth that looks sexy on movie stars in their twenties but doesn’t work for professional men over the age of thirty.

“Tell me about it. I feel about a hundred and forty today,” the white guy says.

The black guy leans closer to the white guy. In the cubicle, we all lean closer to the computer speakers. The coroner says something that sounds like, “Jack. What’re you doing here, really? You know what today is.”

Behind the camera, there’s a gleeful chortle and the shot begins to wobble as the cameraman walks toward the pair.

“Jack O’Lies, Washingtonian crime reporter,” says the unseen cameraman. Both the coroner and Washingtonian crime reporter Jack O’Lies turn and stare into the camera. “What, indeed, are you doing at a serial killer crime scene today, of all days? Are you trying to finally win that Pulitzer? Today’s the perfect day to give it another shot!”

The white guy, Jack O’Lies, goes whiter. Then whiter still. His eyes are fixed on the camera. He steps toward it.

“Jack,” says the coroner. Then he exclaims, “Jack!” as the camera makes a rapid arc up to the blue sky.

“You don’t ever speak to me, you ignorant little bastard,” a voice beyond the blue sky shouts. There’s a commotion, then some scuffling sounds as the camera swings wildly around. We viewers are treated to scraps of cop uniforms, blurry reporters, a few fancy TV cameras and boom mikes—look, that’s me! Then a shot of the back of Jack O’Lies’ head and jacket as he pushes his way through the crowd.

“And it’s on the KING 5 website, too,” says the cubicle owner, tapping at the keyboard as her fearless leader, the stricken Chief, stares at the monitor. There’s a snippet of happy talk from the KING 5 in-studio talent, then their faces and voices abruptly go serious.

“A body was found on Lake Washington today,” says the blond (female).

“The nature of the as-yet unidentified man’s injuries have officials from the Seattle Police Department speculating that it may have been the work of a serial killer,” chimes in the blond (male).

They cut to one of the heavily made-up TV reporters I noted earlier. He begins to speak earnestly into the camera, clutching a large microphone that I suspect is purely a prop, given all the boom mikes I saw.

“Thanks, Shannon and Greg. I’m here on the shore of Lake Washington, where police have discovered another body that officials suspect may be one in a string of—”

Off screen, there’s a commotion, then some scuffling sounds. The TV camera swings smoothly to take in Jack O’Lies shoving a gawky kid wearing a trench coat that screams “I’m a reporter!” more blatantly than mine. The kid slips in the mud and lands on his back.

“There appears to be some sort of incident here—hold on,” says the unseen yet unflappable TV reporter as his cameraman zooms in on Jack O’Lies’s enraged face.

“Ever speak to me, you ignorant little bas—BEEP!” he says.

Is “bastard” really on the FCC’s profanity list? Or is KING 5 hypervigilent?

Just then, a man with a graying, super-short crew cut shoves his way through the crowd into the cubicle. He slams a galley sheet covered with text in 12-point Times New Roman font onto the keyboard. Like meerkats sensing danger on that meerkat nature show I watched once, dozens of reporters around the newsroom poke their heads up from their cubicles.

“Here,” he says to Deputy Assistant Editor John Whiteclay. “And you don’t ever, ever send me out into the field again.”

I glance at the graying crew cut, then at the copy, which is bylined “Jack O’Lies.”

Wednesday, March 28, 10:24 p.m.

Jack: What?

Katherine: Nothing. Are you going to tell me whatever it was you saw at the morgue?

Jack: Did you just turn on your recorder?

Katherine: Yes.

Jack: I don’t want you to record this.

Katherine: But—well, see, I’d just really rather—

Jack: What?

Katherine: So, are you going to tell me, or whatever? It’s getting late. I’ve got work tomorrow…

Jack: I don’t want this conversation recorded, I said.

Katherine: But—

Jack: But nothing, Katherine! Turn it off.

Katherine: But—

Jack: I’ll hang up and then I’ll call back, and if you’re still recording, you’ll be breaking the law.

Katherine: Oh come on, Jack! Seriously!

Jack: I’m hanging up.

Katherine: Okay, okay, Jesus freakin’ Chr—

End of recording.

Wednesday, March 28, 10:25 p.m.

Katherine's Handwriting

See? This is why I record important interviews!

Friday, March 30, 5:39 p.m.

Jack pulls into my office parking lot precisely 21 minutes after sending his last text. It has started to rain. The evening darkness is gathering in the black puddles, making me glad I don’t have to bus myself home. Nevertheless, I’m confused and annoyed at his insistence on picking me up.

Jack’s car is a beat up yellow Saab: the perfect car for a Ballard dweller.

1989 Saab

I scurry through the chilling drizzle to the passenger door. He leans across the seat and thrusts it open.

“Thanks,” I say, settling on the ripped cloth seat and yanking the door closed. The car smells exactly like the couch on Jack’s front porch: mildew mingled with cigarette smoke.

“Let’s go get a drink,” he says.

His voice is tight. He sounds pissed off. At me?

“So what’s going on, Jack?” I say. “What happened to you today?”

His face is white in the street lights refracting through the rain spattered windshield. His knuckles are white on the steering wheel. His eyes are wide, the whites showing. He pulls out of the parking lot, squealing the tires and jouncing me against the door.

“You scared the hell out of your boss, going AWOL this morning like you did,” I say. “And what’s the deal with those obituaries you left on his desk? Jack?”

To my surprise, Jack explodes.

“Why didn’t you stay home like I told you?” he shouts. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

I shrink against the cold passenger door. His voice is so loud, so angry. I instinctively make myself small, cringing away from him.

“It was so simple—stay home! Lock your door! Why didn’t you listen to me?”

He’s breathing hard. He jerks the steering wheel too hard. He’s speeding, ignoring red lights and the ticket-issuing traffic cameras attached to them. We’re going to get into an accident.

“You never listen,” he says. “You’re the most stubborn woman I know.”

“You don’t know me, Jack,” I retort. “We met eight days ago—you don’t know me at all! Screw this, let me out. Stop the car! You let me the hell out!”

I am stubborn.
I don’t listen.
He does know me.

He swerves across traffic, setting off a chorus of horns, and pulls onto the freeway. He cuts across four lanes to the carpool lane, where he can speed with relative impunity. I continue to rail at him.

“You have no right to talk to me like this! You do not ever yell at me, Jack, you hear me? I have no interest in being shouted at by some man I don’t even know. You let me out of this car!”

Jack proves himself to have been a husband for over 10 years and the father of a teenage girl as he masterfully tunes me out.

He pulls off the freeway abruptly, taking the exit that leads to my house. Just off Interstate 5 is the world’s nastiest Irish pub. The one and only time I ate there, I found a hair in my daughter’s French fries. Not the kind of hair that comes from a head.

Ew!

Jack cuts into the parking lot at 45 miles an hour. The Saab bottoms out and the undercarriage scrapes shrilly against the wet cement. He slams on the brakes, sending us careening into a parking space at a wild angle. He kills the engine.

He turns on me, pale, panting and wild eyed. The fire goes out of me, replaced by the cowering coward.

“Calm down,” I say.

“You are so damned stubborn!” he hisses.

For a moment, I’m certain that he wants with all his heart to do something bad.

Grab my shoulders and shake me?
Slap me?
Crush me in his arms, smothering me against his wrinkled Member’s Only jacket?

He’s not seeing me right now. Have I been replaced by his endangered daughter? Or maybe his raped and murdered wife?

“Lucy’s safe,” I say. “I got her. Jack? I got her like you asked me. Jack…say something.”

He blinks. He blinks again, then takes a deep breath. He exhales shakily. His hand comes up to scrub across his mouth. He turns away from me. He stares at the raindrops making snail trails down his window.

I know for certain that it’s his dead wife he sees when he looks at me. Three minutes pass, according to the digital clock in the battered dashboard. The only sound in the car is Jack’s unsteady breathing.

“I need a drink,” he says at last.

“Not here. Trust me,” I say.

Another minute passes, according to the clock.

“You know where I live, don’t you?” I say.

Jack nods, not looking at me.

“How?” I say. “Did you investigate me?”

He nods again.

It took me barely seven minutes to find out The Seattle Crimeologist blogger’s real name and phone number. It probably took Jack all of thirty seconds to discover my home address, social security number and legal name.

“Why?” I say.

Jack doesn’t answer me. He doesn’t look at me.

“Jack?”

I’ve never touched him. Our fingers appeared to meet in that unfortunate photo of us on the moldy couch on his front porch, but we’ve never actually touched.

Hopper Painting

I reach for his shoulder. He flinches away before my hand can make contact. His eyes meet mine instead.

“Can we go to your place?” he says.

“No.”

I’m not about to take Jack home, introduce him to my husband and kid, and complicate things further. There’s no way I’m setting foot inside the pubic pub, either. But I’ll sit out here in his dank, smelly car for as long as it takes.

“Tell me what happened today,” I say.

He deflates. His neck bows until his forehead touches the steering wheel. His hands grip the wheel like a shield.

It must have been very, very bad.

Friday, March 30, 6:13 p.m.

The rainfall grows steady as I sit with Jack in his car, both of us staring through the water-streaked windshield at the gaudy neon lights in the windows of the Irish pub. We don’t talk for several minutes. This must have been what the Sunday car picnics with his wife were like, back when they were having problems.

“Yesterday,” he says at last. “After the autopsy, I went back to work. I put my notes in my desk drawer and went to the bar. I got pretty drunk. I left my car in the lot and took the bus home.”

“That was smart,” I say. “Taking the bus, I mean. You shouldn’t keep getting drunk after work.”

I know about his two DUIs. From the way his pale blue eyes slip over mine with the speed of a snake’s flicking tongue, I know that he knows I know.

“I called you when I got home,” he says.

“And told me you hadn’t been drinking,” I say.

“I don’t remember,” he says. “I had some vodka while we talked. A couple shots. It felt so good to talk to you. That’s all I remember. Then suddenly I wasn’t on the phone anymore and the bottle was empty. It was pretty late, I think. I remember I took out my cell phone to call you again, but then it was morning and I lying on the couch. I was still holding my cell phone.”

“Nice,” I say. “Did your daughter see you passed out on the couch like that?”

Jack shrugs, his shoulders lifting asymmetrically exactly like Lucy’s.

“I got Lucy onto her school bus. I took a shower, shaved, caught the bus to work. I sat in one of the handicapped seats. You know, the ones that’re turned sideways instead of facing front?”

“You’re not supposed to do that,” I say.

“I sent you a text,” he says. “When I looked up, there was this nurse sitting across from me. Old style. White dress, white tights.”

Nurse

“White hat?” I say.

“You’ve seen her,” Jack says. His eyes burn into mine. “You have, haven’t you?”

“Maybe,” I say. “I’m not sure.”

“On the bus?”

“Yes. I think. But maybe not,” I say.

“She stared at me like she knew me,” he says. “I sent you another text.”

“Telling me to stay home,” I say. “Why?”

“Because I knew,” he says.

“You knew what?”

“That she was looking for you,” he says.

“Oh Jack, that’s…”

I want to say “crazy.” Or “ridiculous.” Or “stupid.” Instead, I say the thing that he most needs to hear.

“Thank you for trying to protect me.”

He lets out a shaky sigh and closes his eyes. His right hand reaches for my shoulder and it’s my turn to instinctively shy away before he can touch me. He opens his eyes and puts his hand back on the steering wheel.

“Her eyes are dead. There’s something about her…can we get a drink? Please? Just a beer?” he pleads.

I shake my head vigorously.

“That pub is nasty,” I say. “I won’t set foot in there after what I found in the fries last time. Just talk to me, Jack. What happened after you sent me the second text?”

“The nurse stared at me. She never blinked. Not once. Then she smiled at me. And this name came into my head: Spine.”

The drafty Saab feels much colder all of a sudden. Leo wrote something in his blog today about a nurse, a man named Spine and a murder.

“When we got to my stop, I jumped off the bus and ran flat out until I got inside the Washingtonian lobby,” Jack says. “I sent you another text. Then I went up to my office, grabbed my notebook, wrote a note to The Chief, and left the obit folder on his desk.”

“Yeah, with your obituary in it. And mine,” I say. “What the hell, Jack?”

He looks at me. Like the nurse, he doesn’t blink. Not once.

Saturday, March 31, 8:32 a.m.

I knock on Jack’s motel room door.

“Jack?” I call. “It’s me. Sorry, I didn’t bring your car back. I hate stick shifts. Why do they even make them anymore? They’re impossible. Jack? You up?”

The door opens. I’m yanked into the room.

By Leo.

He kicks the door closed. I can’t be sure whether I yelp in terror or just stare at him in mute shock. He leans against the door, trapping me. Leo isn’t pointing a gun at me, but he acts as if he is. He looks like a menacing member of the Trench Coat Mafia.

Columbine killer photo

“About time you got here,” he says.

“Where’s Jack?” I say.

“How the crap should I know?” he says. “You’ve got to help me. I pissed them off. They’re on their way here right now!”

Leo looks utterly panicked. I am confused.

Leo stalked Jack. And me. He photographed us and sent us threatening texts. He stole Lucy’s school records. He tracked Jack all the way through two counties to this obscure motel. He must have hacked my credit card records to do so. Maybe he knows where I live. Maybe he’s going to kill me.

“What did you do with Jack?” I say.

Leo claws impatiently at his floppy hair.

“Nothing! I haven’t seen that worthless S.O.B. in…wait. Are the two of you staying here together?” Leo cocks his head at a lascivious angle, his fingers meeting to twiddle under his chin. “I thought you’re married.”

“I am!” I say. “Jack’s staying here. Alone.”

“This is Jack’s room?” Leo asks. He sounds confused.

“Yes.”

“But you paid for it with your credit card,” he says.

I knew he hacked my account! Now I’ll have to cancel everything. What a hassle.

“And your cell phone’s here,” he says, pointing at my phone, which sits abandoned on the side table.

“Our phones got switched last night,” I say.

“But his car isn’t here,” says Leo.

“I stole—borrowed it. It’s at my house. Where is he?” I say.

“I don’t know, I said! I don’t care! You’ve got to help me—he’s useless.”

Stone cold killer Leo, the murder of my hypothesis, yet again strikes me as barely able to kill the mood. I ought to fear for my life. Instead, I roll my eyes and huff over to the bed where Jack lay sprawled the last time I was in this room. I sit.

“You’re a stalker,” I say. “You investigated Jack.”

That was supposed to be my job.

Leo, still barricading the door with his redoubtable scrawniness, lets out a snort.

“Big deal. He’s an ass-jack. He deserves it.”

“You sent him all those creepy texts,” I accuse.

Leo hesitates.

“Technically,” he says.

“You took that photo of us on his porch,” I say.

Leo grins.

“Oh, holy yeah!” he says.

“I was handing him his car keys, pervert!”

“Whatever.”

“So that means you also took the picture of him outside the bar in Ballard,” I say.

Leo blanches. The color in his already pasty face actually drains, like a weird species of chameleon turning white to match the door he’s leaning against.

“Yeah,” he says.

“But,” I say. “In the picture, Jack’s standing over a man in a green suit. I thought you’re the man in the green suit.”

“No!” Leo chokes. “No…he’s…he’s coming for me. I made him mad. You’ve got to help me.”

Despite Leo’s essential dorkitude, my skin crawls.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

Leo sinks to the floor, his back still pressing hard against the door. He wraps both arms around his knees. He’s not trying to keep me in, I suddenly realize. He’s trying to keep “them” out.

“They’re going to kill me,” he whispers.

Saturday, March 31, 8:40 a.m.

“I never stole Jack’s car,” Leo says. “It was all a big misunderstanding.”

Had I not recently stolen/borrowed Jack’s car without permission myself, I would have a lot less sympathy for this former Washingtonian newspaper intern, Leo Krakowski. His tale of misuse at the perpetually hungover hands of Jack O’Lies sounds plausible, however.

Two years ago, after abandoning his battered Saab in the parking lot of the 3 Coins lounge the night before to avoid a third DUI, Jack inappropriately ordered fresh-faced journalism student Leo to go fetch it. He instructed young Leo to move it all of two blocks to the Washingtonian parking lot so that it wouldn’t get towed. After weeks of aggravation from Mr. O’Lies, Leo decided to exact his revenge by taking the Saab on a little joyride.

He drove Jack’s car around Seattle from nine in the morning until noon, blasting the radio and feeling free…until he was pulled over on Interstate 5 by three state troopers. The Saab had been involved in two DUIs. It had been reported stolen hours ago. Leo was dressed in his juvenile delinquent uniform of black trench coat and blacker sunglasses.

“And, okay, so maybe it was closer to five o’clock,” Leo says. “Or maybe six. Anyway, the cops agreed to call Jack’s editor to, like, confirm that he’d given me permission to drive his car. It wasn’t that hack from that pathetic reservation weekly—this guy was old school, had been at the Washingtonian for, like, thirty-two years. He told them that, yes, I was an intern there. And yes, Jack had asked me to move his car and gave me the keys and all. The cops had the car towed back to the Washingtonian parking lot, Jack’s editor got him to agree not to press charges against me, and I got fired on the spot.”

Leo radiates unresolved bitterness.

“The state troopers handcuffed me in front of all the evening commuters crawling along at, like, three miles an hour. Locked me in the back of a puke-smelling patrol car for forty-five minutes. I almost ended up a felon because of that miserable a-hole. He ruined my career!” Leo says.

This little bastard with the ruined career makes more money than I do.

I limit myself to grunting, “Ah. I see,” which seems to satisfy him.

“So that’s why I keep tabs on him,” Leo says. “If he ever does anything wrong, I’m so gonna break that story. So when I saw you and him go to that bar by his work last week, I followed you.”

“It’s a restaurant,” I say.

“Whatever,” Leo says. “Then he got in your car, so I took a chance and guessed you were taking him home. I jumped a bus to Ballard and actually beat you there.”

“I don’t navigate well in Seattle,” I say defensively. “What happened after I dropped him off? He doesn’t remember.”

Leo smirks.

“He went into that bar by his house. He drank. And drank, and then drank. And then, do you know what he did? He drank. But around one in the morning, he went outside.”

Leo suddenly shudders, hugging his knees to his thin chest. He looks about ten years old.

“I’m not sure what happened exactly,” he says. “I heard shouting. I found Jack out in the alley behind the bar. He’s a hell of a lot stronger than he looks. He’d gotten…him down on the ground and was punching him.”

“Who?” I say.

“Him,” Leo says. “Mr. Spine.”

Supine: on the spine.

“I didn’t know what to do. I pulled out my phone and took a couple pictures real quick—click, click, click. Jack went all deer in the headlights and ran.

Deer in the headlights

Leo shuts his eyes, gripping his knees tighter.

“I helped him up. Mr. Spine. He was grateful.”

“Who is he?” I say.

Leo opens his eyes and shakes his head slowly.

“Don’t find out,” he says.

Saturday, March 31, 9:11 a.m.

The door, against which Leo is leaning, beeps suddenly.

We both freeze. The door opens slightly, bumping against his back. Out in the hall, there’s a masculine grunt.

“It’s him!” Leo hisses.

“What the hell?” Jack’s voice says on the other side of the door.

Leo jumps up and dashes into the bathroom. He slams the door with a staccato “wham!” as Jack shoulders the motel room door open and enters.

He sees me sitting on the bed. He stops short.

“Hi,” he says. “Did you lock it?”

From his slightly red eyes and his difficulty with consonants, I can tell he’s had his breakfast, and it consisted mainly of Guinness.

Oh Jack…getting in touch with your Irish roots before noon!

“Where were you? Did you go to that nasty pub across the freeway?” I accuse. “I warned you about it.”

“What happened to my car?” he counters, setting his keycard on the table beside my cell phone.

I sit primly at the foot of the bed. The pillow is dented from his head, the blankets screwed into a hectic tangle. I consider them casually while I consider my response.

“It’s at my house,” I say.

“What’s it doing there?”

“I had to get home last night, didn’t I?” I say. “I left you a note. I thought we were going to get breakfast. Why didn’t you wait for me?”

“I got hungry,” he says.

He sounds like a defensive husband. I sound like a shrewish wife. But he’s a widower and I’m someone else’s spouse. I suddenly feel mean and deceitful. Especially given the young man hiding commedia dell’arte style in the bathroom.

Marriage of Figaro by Mozart

“I talked to someone who knows what happened outside the bar in Ballard,” I say.

Jack recoils. He collects himself almost instantly and leans against the cheap armoire that conceals the TV. He folds his arms across his chest.

“Oh yeah?” he says. “Who?”

“A reporter. Of sorts,” I say.

“Of sorts?”

“Yes.”

“You mean a blogger?” he says.

“Maybe,” I say.

Jack ponders this for a moment. I can chart the course of his comprehension as it dawns in his face.

“You don’t mean…that little bastard!”

Jack’s face goes purple. Cords stand out in his neck. His hands ball into fists that resemble a pair of sledgehammers.

I rise.

“Before you freak out—do not freak out, Jack!—will you let me tell you the most important thing he had to say?”

“That horrible little punk!” Jack shouts.

“You didn’t kill anyone! Isn’t that great?” I say, forcing enthusiasm. Oh desperate cheerleader that I am!

Jack’s pale blue eyes are aflame like the gas burners on my stovetop back home. He looks like he did in the shaky video from the Lake Washington murder scene, right after he pushed Leo into the mud.

He crosses the room and puts his face too close to mine.

“Let me tell you,” he hisses. “Exactly what that miserable little bastard is capable of.”

Saturday, March 31, 9:29 a.m.

Jack says, “What are you doing here?”

Leo says, “The same thing you’re doing here, idiot!”

Jack says, “This does not go on your pathetic blog. None of this, you hear me?”

Leo says, “You can’t suppress the press, man.”

Jack says, “You’re not the press. You’re barely literate.”

Leo says, “Says the guy who hasn’t written an article in a decade!”

Jack says, “You aggregated my piece on the Lake Washington murder. You’re a car thief and a plagiarist, you little bastard!”

Leo says, “So, you read my blog after all! You’re a freakin’ hypocrite!”

Jack shouts, “You’re not a journalist!”

Leo shouts, “You’re an a-hole!”

I interject, “Guys! Can we just calm down for a minute here?”

Leo and Jack turn on me.

Leo says, “Wanna talk car thieves? Right there: she stole your car last night!”

Jack says, “Yeah, real classy, Katherine. And what the hell did you do with my cell phone?”

Leo says, “You think you’re so much better than me because you work at some lame print monthly? You’re barely better than a blogger!”

Jack says, “You only care about that book you’re supposedly writing.”

Leo says, “Want to talk about bad writers? Look in the mirror, baby! Have you even heard of the inverted pyramid?”

Jack says, “You are the most frustrating woman I’ve ever met!”

I say, “Yeah?”

Jack glares at me. Leo sneers at me.

I shriek, “Way to gang up on me! I thought you two hate each other. But no, as soon as you get a chance to lay into a woman, off come the goddamned gloves and suddenly you’re on the same team, aren’t you, frat brothers? To hell with you both!”

I think I actually twang, “Ta hell with the botha youse!” in an unintentional imitation of James Cagney. What I really want to do is slap both of them in an intentional imitation of James Cagney.

Instead, I snatch up my purse and march myself to the motel room door. If either of them grabs my arm to detain me, I will go all Cagney on them and it won’t legally be considered assault on my part.

Neither of them lifts a finger to stop me. I grab the door handle, yank it, and stalk out into the hall. They let me go without a word.

I stomp down the hall to the elevator. They don’t come after me. At the end of the hall, I realize the elevator is located in the opposite direction. I turn around and walk less and less assuredly as I approach the closed door to Jack’s room. It doesn’t open as I pass by. I reach the elevator and push the down button. I glance back at the empty hall.

I started off deeply offended. Now I’m deeply hurt. How can they gang up on me, then not come after me to apologize?

I get on the elevator and meanly take solace in the possibility that they’re too busy beating the shit out of each other to bother with me.

Saturday, March 31, 10:46 a.m.

I call Jack as soon as I leave my rendezvous with the coroner. Outside, hunched against the chilling rain, I hold the cell phone to my ear. After three rings, just as I reach my car, he answers.

“Katherine?” he says. “Where are you?”

“You gave me permission to investigate you, right?” I interrupt him curtly.

“Yeah,” he replies.

“Did I give you permission to do the same to me?”

Silence flows from Jack’s line to mine.

“But you did, didn’t you?” I say. I fumble my car keys out of my purse and open the driver’s door. “You found out where I live. You wrote my obituary before the fact. And now, your coroner friend tells me that the two of you have been talking about me. Your coroner friend! What the hell, Jack?”

Another fathom’s deep silence gushes out of the cell phone into my ear. I get into my car and slam the door. Rain patters on the roof. I open my mouth to say, “Care to explain, Jack?” when suddenly I go utterly numb.

It all makes sense. The solution to the mystery that I’ve been wrestling with for the past week is…

I am dead!

No. That doesn’t make sense. I’ve gone to work. I’ve filed articles. I’ve driven press cars. I’ve bought groceries. I’ve interacted with my family. My co-workers have spoken directly to me at meetings and ‘round the water cooler. There hasn’t been one mention of my funeral or a single comment upon the sad absence of Katherine while I was in the room.

Still…

“Am I dead?” I whisper. “Please, Jack. You can tell me. Is that why you wrote my obituary? And told the coroner about me?”

Jack is speechless for a moment, then he lets out an elephantine snort that dispels any further melodrama I might have stored up.

“Jesus Christ, Katherine,” he mutters. “For the love of God.”

“Well,” I say defensively. “It was a very good obituary. Very accurate.”

“I’m thorough,” he says.

Another solution to the mystery occurs to me.

“You’re a stalker!” I accuse. “You’ve got some creepy fixation on me, don’t you?”

His silence is brief, broken by a world weary sigh.

“What did you do to my life?” Jack says. “Things got so mixed up the day we met.”

“Because you stalked me,” I say.

“I did no such thing,” he says.

“You investigated me, then,” I say.

Jack, the former investigative reporter, hesitates.

“Possibly,” he says.

“Why?”

“You were trying to interview me,” he says. “For some nebulous book. Why the hell wouldn’t I check you out?”

He acted so neutral, so uninformed when I introduced myself nine days ago. What a liar. He must have been an incredible journalist once.

“So, how average does my life seem to you?” I say.

“What?”

“You got everything right about me. Birth place, childhood, boring college, boring first career, boring second career. Married. Kid. Third career as a third-rate journalist. All the boxes checked. I guess I can die now, right?” I say.

“Don’t,” Jack says.

I can’t tell if he means, “Don’t die,” or “Don’t talk like this, you self-indulgent drama queen.” Either seems plausible right now.

“You’re a very good writer, but even you couldn’t make my life interesting,” I say.

“Can we get a drink?” Jack says.

“You always say that,” I say.

“Then say yes for once,” he says.

I sigh. I’m not dead, so why not live a little?