Tom Hollis was a person who valued routine in his life. He woke up at the same time every morning, and went to bed at the same time every night. He had spent years making it so that there were no surprises in his life. He went to bed knowing exactly what the next day would bring. That's what gave him the feeling of contentment and happiness that he'd had ever since he got his job at the Midnight Star. He had no idea that it would all come crashing down around him so quickly.
If he would have known what was coming, he would have been able to pick up a few clues that morning. Instead, he went through the morning rituals without a second thought. He woke promptly at 5:45 am, after hitting the snooze bar twice. He took a quick shower and shaved in the little bathroom connected to his bedroom while his wife slept. He went downstairs, dressed in his black shirt and charcoal slacks. The paper had gone business casual a few months earlier and he no longer had to wear a coat and tie. He poured a bowl of cereal, and heard the TV in the living room. His daughter, Sandy, was already awake and watching it instead of getting ready for school. At least he wouldn't have to go upstairs to her room every ten minutes, trying to wake her up. When he finished breakfast, he went out into the living room to talk to her.
If he would have been looking for something strange, that's when it would have shown up. She was at that awkward, gangly, overly tall stage of early adolescence. She had grown almost three inches in the last two months, and he was fond of telling her that she was all elbows and knees. He was used to her giving him one word answers to his questions, but when he asked, "How did your meeting with the school counselor go?" she didn't answer.
He waited for a beat, but didn't want to be late getting to the office, so he said, "You can talk to me about it when you get home." He leaned over to kiss her on the cheek and noticed that she flinched as he did. Not enough to be visible, but he could feel it as his pursed lips brushed her cheek. He thought it was strange, but didn't think any more about it once he went outside. It was a sunny, beautiful spring day, and he thought about how nice it would be to be able to look out his office window and actually see sunlight. It had been cloudy for so long he couldn't remember the last sunny morning.
He got into his Mazda 626 and backed slowly out of the driveway, making sure that there was no oncoming traffic on his street before backing out and driving off. On the ride in, he listened to the news station for the ride, catching up on the kind of things he used to read about in the morning paper. Now, he got all of his news from his drives to and from work. Spending the day working on the Midnight Star had gotten him to the point he couldn't read normal newspapers anymore. He spent all day making sure that the stories were brief, sensational, and the design of the page would shove your eye away from the story to the ads. The ads were the lifeblood of the paper, and they were laid out and in place before a single word was submitted by the reporters.
He got to the office at 7:30, a half hour before any of the rest of editorial showed up. When he turned on his computer, the coffee pot plugged into its power bar sprung to life. The office was full, as he liked to observe. There was a nice coat rack by the door, a big metal desk with his beat-up chair behind it. There was a couch shoved in between all of the file cabinets, and a single chair on the opposite side of the desk for people to sit in when they came into the office. By the time the computer was logged into the network, the coffee pot was full. He filled his extra large mug, and read through the memos that had been dropped on his desk by the overnight crew. The mug had the headline from the best-selling issue of a few years ago "Mystic Avenger Battles Chicago Vampire." Not only did they sell it by mail order, but they also had them half price in the employee store and Tom couldn't resist a bargain.
He kept the door to his office open as he went about his morning tasks, listening to people as the came in. The first half hour or so at the office was very active and busy, but not a lot of work got done. People talked about what they had done the previous night, what they were doing after they left work today, and other gossipy type stuff. Tom wasn't the kind of boss who tried to quash that sort of talk anymore. He wanted to when he first made it to editor in chief, but his predecessor explained to him that if people didn't like the people they worked with as friends, they would have more time to think about what they actually do. That always led to dissatisfaction, and poor work. Tom filed that information away in his mind, and through the last ten years, he'd seen that it was true. He could always tell when an employee was getting ready to quit, because they would start to question the worth of what he did.
Tom never questioned the worth of what he did. He didn't see this as entertainment, or news, or anything other than a job. It was his job to deliver a completed document to the printer every Thursday morning, and he made sure that it was something that would catch the eye of a casual reader, and keep the advertisers happy. He never thought that his job was particularly hard or demanding, it was just busy. When he got to the last memo from the overnight crew, he read through the stories that had been dropped into his "IN" box after he left at 4:30 the previous night. The editors were the ones whom either wrote the stories or whipped into shape the ones from reporters. Each editor was assigned a different section of the paper to fill with the kind of tabloid stories that had sustained the paper over the years. One of the editors, Earl Bayan, had a different assignment than the others. He was where all the stories about the entertainment industry came from.
Earl had been hired away from one of their competitors a few years previously to beef up their celebrity news. When People magazine came out, it cut into their sales and made it so they actually had to have some basis for the celebrity information they published. Before, they could just go with the standard "who's sleeping with who" or "who never talks to the people they knew before they were famous" stories. After People magazine came out, they had to do more than that. Earl had people on the magazine's payroll who would feed him all the dirt they could possibly use and more. He bragged that he had an insider at every major treatment clinic in the nation. Any time a celebrity showed up to dry out, the Midnight Star would have the scoop.
Problem was, after a couple of years, everyone had someone from those treatment centers on their payroll. Then, celebrities started putting out press releases that they were going into treatment, and the hefty salary they had paid Earl was irrelevant. He did his job, though, and his assigned pages were always delivered on time. Most importantly, they'd never lost a lawsuit brought by a subject of those pages, and that was all Tom cared about.
The cover story was all done for this week, and that always made Tom feel better about the week. At the Monday editorial meeting, he showed them a picture of the "Face on Mars" and said he wanted something new on it, since the Mars face hadn't been on their cover in over two months. In his hands, he held "Face On Mars Is Mobile!" The story went on to tell about how the face had been found in one area of Mars and now it had moved at least 100 miles since it had been found. There was the usual Hoo-Hah about how this proved that there was intelligent life on Mars and how we should demand that the government tell us what the real story was. It was written in a quick, brief style, had about five new pictures and didn't use any words over three syllables (one of Tom's major rules). It would work out well, so he wrote his initials on the story and stuck it down in the "OUT" box.
At 9:00, he held his daily editorial meeting, getting updates on where everyone was on making sure their pages were full and bouncing around ideas. This was Tom's least favorite thing of the day. He would have to stick in a conference room with ten other people as they threw around different ideas trying to come up with new stories to fill 48 pages every week. He once tried to do away with the brainstorming part of the meeting, telling people to do it on their own, but the quality of headlines dropped. That caused a sales slide, and he quickly reinstated the brainstorming. Tom was never someone who let his personal feelings get in the way of what worked. So, he endured the meetings, slipping out early if he could think of a good excuse. Today he didn't have one, so he was treated to a fifteen minute discussion of why the "Space Alien" would be endorsing Colin Powell and trying to brainwash him into running for president.
When it was over, he took care of the calls that had piled up in his voice mail. One advertiser wanted to be sure that there would be some sort of biblical revelation in the issue he was rolling out his new products in. Another wanted their shirt ad next to the "Worst Dressed" section of the Oscar coverage. Yet another wanted to make sure that there wouldn't be any stories on violence in the Middle East when he ran his "Biblical Cruise" ads. Tom handled them all with professionalism and grace, promising what he could, and gently turning down their suggestions for stories. The last thing he needed was more stories. By the day before they went to press, they were already cutting stories right and left, making sure nothing was so long that it had to be continued on a later page.
As he talked on the phone, he looked over a few mockups some of the editors had dropped by. He assigned editors pages to be filled, and they were in charge of making sure the page design worked. If he would look at a page and be able to read it in less than three minutes, it was ready to go.
Lunch was in the building lunchroom. A few people who'd been with the company as long as he would gather at one of the center tables, and they would talk sports while they ate their sandwiches and chips. Most of the younger and newer employees would go out to eat. Usually they would just grab some kind of fast food, but it made Tom think that they just didn't know how much money they would save by bringing their lunch. Once in a while, if it was someone's birthday or anniversary with the company day, they would go to a nice little diner that was a few blocks away and have a nice burger or something. Most of the time, though, it was the lunchroom.
He knew that when he got done with lunch, there would be more messages to return, more pages to proof and he would have to put together the daily reports for the publisher. Bruce Conner, the new publisher, had taken over the paper from his father a few years previous. He was fanatical about making sure that everything was running on time. Every afternoon, Tom would have to let him know how many pages were done, how the cover story was coming and the editorial to ads ratio. It was a tedious process that took almost an hour of his day, but that was the job, right? If he didn't like it, he could always look for another one. Tom was ready for a long, boring afternoon.
That's why it was a shock when he saw that there were a couple of people waiting outside his office when he got back from lunch. Both were dressed in smartly tailored blue suits, one was a woman in his mid thirties and the other was a younger man, looking fresh out of college. "Are you Tom Hollis?" the woman asked when she saw him.
"Yes, is there something I can help you with?"
The woman held out her hand to be shaken and said, "I'm Mary Sapir and this is Truman Perry. We're with DCFS and we'd like to talk to you for a minute if it's not too much trouble."
Tom shook the woman's hand and opened his office door. Truman was carrying a large briefcase, and Mary had large bag slung over her shoulder. Tom sat down at his desk and motioned for them to sit down, which they did after Truman shut the door. Truman opened his briefcase and pulled out a microcassette recorder and asked, "Is it OK if I run this while we ask you questions?"
Tom's face screwed up in confusion and nodded that it was fine. He had no idea what DCFS was, but anyone that used initials instead of a company name couldn't be good news. He clicked through what trouble he could possibly be in. Was it another celebrity threatening to sue? Someone who'd gotten sick using one of their diets? A rival paper who is going to come after them for plagiarism? More of those damn government people telling them that the Janus Trelane and UFO stuff were a little dangerously close and they need to either embellish or drop the stuff? One thing he knew for sure, he was only going to give yes or no answers until he knew just what the hell was going on.
Mary flashed him a warm, yet professional smile that was calculated to put him at ease. It didn't, since he'd seen the same smile from sales people who were going to try and do something particularly nasty. "We just need to get some information from you, Mr. Hollis. Your daughter, her name is Sandy, isn't it?"
"Yes," he said, knowing that one of the first tricks you learn interrogating people was to get them to say yes a number of times. Once they get you in the habit of saying yes to the easy questions, they can slide into tougher ones, since you are comfortable, in the habit of saying yes, and agreeing to a lot of things.
"Sandy was referred to our department after a few things started coming out during her sessions with her school counselor. We need to ask you a few questions to see if we should investigate the matter further. Do you understand?"
"Not really," Tom said. He knew that Sandy had been talking to the school counselor, but he thought all that the counselors at school talked to kids about was what college they wanted to go to. That's all they ever did when he was in school. He also knew that Sandy was spending a lot more time in her room, and alone lately, but he thought that was just a normal thing that teenagers do. "Who are you with again?"
"We're with the DCFS," Truman said, as if he were talking to a particularly slow child.
"I know that," Tom said, the irritation he was feeling straining his voice, "but you didn't say what DCFS stands for."
Mary flashed her professional smile again, "It stands for the Department of Children and Family Services. I'm a social worker, and Truman is my assistant. We just need to find out what Sandy's home life has been like. You know, if she's been moody, or acting different than she normally does."
"I don't know," Tom began, his mind flashing on her flinching away from him earlier that morning, "she's been spending a lot of time in her room, and she doesn't talk to me as much as she used too, but she's a teenager now, and that's normal behavior for them."
He heard Truman snort derisively under his breath, and watched as Mary wrote down a few things on her legal pad. He noticed that the pen she used was a Mont Blanc, one of the more expensive pens available. This whole thing seemed wrong. He wished for a brief second that he was watching all this on TV, when Mary asked him, "What forms of discipline did you used to practice when she was younger?"
Tom could feel a chill deep in his chest start to form, and he wanted to end the interview right there. He knew that that would be the same a lifting a sign that said, "I beat my child!" He shifted uncomfortably in his chair and said, "I really didn't have much to do with that when she was younger. I had to spend a lot of time here at work, and Tanya, her mom, did most of the child raising."
"But when you did have to punish her...."
"I usually sent her to her room and would go in after she was done crying to talk to her about what she'd done."
"Is there any history of abuse in your family?"
"No," he said with a finality that left no room for further questioning.
Mary asked a further question anyway, "Your father never spanked you?"
Tom thought about the question for a moment. When he was growing up, no one thought anything of a parent having to take a belt to a child's backside. It was done to him not only by his father, but by teachers in his school, and a couple of times by the principal. Now, of course, if anyone did that, they'd be up on charges. If a teacher ever even thought about doing it, they wouldn't be able to work in the field ever again. Tom also knew that if he answered yes, there would be a multitude of questions about how his parents lived. Did he want these strangers, looking for God knows what information, asking about all his personal family information? No. He didn't. He had to find out what was going on before he started volunteering information. "No, he worked in the mines when I was younger, and by the time he was able to spend any sort of time with me, I was a teenager. I grew up in a very quiet, peaceful home."
"Do you and your wife get along?"
"Can I ask what this has to do with anything?" Tom said, failing to hide his irritation.
"There have been accusations that you have abused your daughter, and we need to see what kind of atmosphere exists in the household," Mary said bluntly.
Tom felt like he'd been hit over the head with a blunt object. Everything seemed to dim, and for a second his panicked mind thought that he would black out. He stared down at his desk, not wanting to believe the words he'd just heard. His daughter, his little girl was telling someone that he'd done something like that. All the nights he stayed up with her, all the times he'd caved in to her every demand because she was his only daughter, all the love he'd shown her over the years, they all flashed through his thoughts in the blink of an eye and were gone. All he could feel was a numbing cold and the fear that had clenched his stomach.
They asked a few more questions, but Tom could barely answer them, croaking out one or two word answers. When they saw that there was no more information they would be getting from him, they politely left, packing their notes, their tape recorder, and their accusations. They left him alone in his office with the numbness and the fear.
He sat there for a few minutes, staring at the picture he had of his wife and daughter on his desk and went over every detail. His wife was wearing her favorite summer dress. Black with tiny white dots creating a pattern, loose, flowing sleeves and a scooped neckline. Her face was just starting to show the lines of age, and her smile was one of someone who had been through a life. Her daughter had the look of a little girl just on the edge of being a teenager. He remembered that she was so excited about the picture because it was the first time Tanya let her wear makeup. He was supposed to be in the picture, but he had had to stay at work late and fix a production problem. He didn't even remember what the problem had been. He just remembered that he had his suit hanging on his coat hanger by the door all day. Every time he looked at it, he had felt horrible about missing their family portrait.
No matter how horrible he felt then, it was nothing compared to how he felt now. It all felt so unreal. He could barely remember it in actuality, but as something he'd read about once a long time ago. He looked around his desk to see the things he had to do that afternoon. There were pages to proof, a small pile of phone messages and ad layouts to look over and see that they weren't offensive. He picked up one of the pages and tried to read it over. When he started on the first paragraph of the first page for the sixth time, he dropped it on the desk in disgust. There was no way he was going to get anything done this afternoon.
He drove home in silence, not turning on the radio, not listening to the traffic around him. All he wanted to do was go home. When he drove onto his street, he saw that the area was deserted for the most part, only a few cars here and there in driveways. His own driveway had Tanya's little Dodge Neon sitting in front of the garage door. He pulled in next to it and parked quickly. He walked up to his front door, feeling better as he thought about how he was in his neighborhood, on his sidewalk, about to go into his house. He'd spend the day at home trying to find out what was going on, and how he could get it all cleared up. He had decided on his way home that there must be some kind of file mix-up and his name got on some other person's report. He worked at a newspaper and knew that that sort of snafu happened all of the time. They would figure out that they were wrong and the whole thing would go away. He just had to wait until it was all sorted out.
When he got to the front door, he was shocked that the door was locked. If Tanya was home, she usually kept the front door open. He started to fumble in his pocket for his keys when the door opened. It was Tanya, dressed in a pullover sweater and her stirrup pants. Her face was hard, and she looked like she had been crying. "What do you think you're doing here?" she said, trying not to shout.
He could see that her forehead was tense, which always meant that she wanted to blow up but was containing it. "I couldn't stay in the office anymore. A couple of people from Child Protection came by and...."
"They should have hauled you off to jail, you son-of-a-bitch. What you did was so..." she stopped, searching for the right words. She looked down for a second, and when she brought her face back up, her eyes were filling with tears, "I want you to go."
Tom's hands began to tremble so violently that the keys he was holding began to rattle loudly. He gripped them in his fist so that they wouldn't make so much noise. He looked past her into the house, and wanted to be sitting in his chair more than anything he'd ever wanted in his life. He looked at Tanya again, and her brown eyes were full of anger and pain. It had been a long time since they'd had any sort of fight, but that was how she'd looked the night they talked about getting a divorce. He could also see in her eyes that there was nothing he could say that would change her mind. That was one of the reasons they didn't argue anymore. He knew when she was going to stand her ground. The problem was, he never even spanked Sandy, let alone hit her in such a way that it could be called abuse.
"I didn't do anything wrong," he said, before he turned in defeat to go back to his car.
"You don't think that sleeping with your own daughter is wrong?" Tanya hissed through clenched teeth.
The world grew dim for Tom. He felt like he was going to pass out as his knees buckled. He was able to remain standing, but not without making a supreme effort. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it, thinking over what he should say. What could someone say to that? The very idea repulsed him, and that fact the people thought he had done that just made no sense to him at all. "There's no way that could have happened," he said in a small, defeated voice.
"I can't believe you. Until I know for sure that it didn't happen, I don't want you near me, my daughter or this house. If you did do it, I will do everything in my power to make sure that you never stop paying for it."
Tom couldn't blame her. If he had found out that someone had done that to his little girl, he would probably be out right now, giving in to his basest, vilest urges. It wasn't someone, however. It was him being accused of it. He had nothing to say. No words could prove his innocence, but he had no idea what could. He got his in car and drove, but had no idea where to go, or what to do. He drove, just the same.
* * *
Tom awoke the next morning, his back stiff, his neck hurting and his clothes rumpled and askew. He had spent the night sleeping in his office at the paper. He had first wanted to check into a hotel, but when he tried to check into the Best Western near the office building, they told him that his credit card had been frozen. So was his ATM card, his checking account and his savings. His wife had shut them all down. He stayed in the bank for over two hours, trying to find some way so he could get some of his money. She'd had his name taken off of everything, and there wasn't anything he could do about it without a lawyer. When he got out of the bank, it was past five o'clock, and all he had was the thirty dollars he had in his wallet.
He went to a quick little fast food place, and thought about calling one of his friends to have a place to stay, but they would want to know why he'd been kicked out of the house. He wasn't going to tell anyone what was going on until he talked to a lawyer and got everything straighten out. He drove around a while after eating and decided that he could just stay in the office. It would only be one night, he thought, and he could always tell people that he'd stayed late to get some work done, and just fell asleep when resting his eyes.
When he got to the office, the cleaning staff was going through his floor, taking out the trash and running the vacuum. They knew him by name, but he didn't really know any of them. He saw them every Thursday night, when he had to stay late to make sure everything got to the printer by the eight p.m. deadline. He went into the office and went through the motions of proofing and doing paperwork until the they finished up. When they left, he turned on his radio and lay down on his office's uncomfortable couch. He listened to the songs in a way he hadn't listened in a long time, concentrating on the lyrics and deciphering what they meant. All he remembered about the night was waking up a number of times until he went to the medicine cabinet in the lunch room and grabbing a few antihistamines. After that he was able to sleep straight through the night until the sunlight came in through the window.
He cleaned up as best he could in the bathroom. It wasn't as if he hadn't done it before, but in the past, he'd done it because he'd stayed late of his own free will. This time, there was an overwhelming sadness to it as he looked in the mirror and wished he was home in front of his own bathroom mirror. He wasn't able to shave, and looked like he'd been out all night, bar-hopping like a young reporter. He had an extra change of clothes in his office as well. Another case of planning ahead to stay the night for a late deadline.
By the time the few folks who showed up early were in, he was at his desk, ready to go for another day. He wrote a few things on his list of things to do that were different than a regular Wednesday. Along with the usual meetings and proofing, he had to talk to a lawyer and change his payroll check from being automatically placed in his checking account on Thursday. If he could just last until tomorrow, he'd be able to at least get into a hotel room to wait things out. At least that's the thought he used to get through the morning.
He tried to get through the day like nothing had happened, going through the daily motions. The routine calmed him down and made him feel better. He still would get swept up in thoughts about how bad his situation was, but Tom was a very practical man. He knew in his head that dwelling on the problem wouldn't solve it. The problem was, in his heart, he was shattered and felt like a small child, hoping someone would come along and make it better.
Since he didn't have a lunch from home to eat, he went a few blocks away to a nice little deli and got soup and a sandwich. He ate it, not tasting any of it, and really had force himself to finish the meal. After he ordered the food, he wished that he would have stayed in the office and worked through lunch, but he knew that that was a bad thing to do. He had to eat something, no matter how much he didn't want to.
He trudged back to the office, his eyes never leaving the ground. He watched his feet moving up and down as he walked, thinking of how many movies he'd seen that just show people walking. It never looked as fascinating on the screen as it did as he watched his own feet. His head hurt, his stomach hurt and he felt slightly dizzy when he finally got back to the building. The more he tried not to dwell on the situation, the more he did. He argued with Tanya in his mind, replaying the scene they had had at the door over and over again in his mind. He came up with a hundred different ways to answer the accusations, but in the end it was all a waste of his time. The only thing that would end it was for the truth to come out.
He thought about what he would say to his lawyer as he rode the elevator back to his floor. There were about five other people in the elevator, two of which worked at the paper, and they engaged in light conversation. How the weekend was, what they thought of last week's paper, how the competition was screwing up, that sort of thing. When he got to his floor, he breathed a quick, cleansing sigh and couldn't wait to get back into his office. He thought about canceling the afternoon meeting, because he really didn't want to put up with anyone today. When he did get to his office, he was a little shocked that the door was closed.
He only closed the door if he was inside the office or done for the day. He thought that maybe one of the editors had done it after dropping off a proof page. He'd talked to them a number of times about how he kept the office door open so that people could go in and drop their work while he was gone. They still did it once in a while, but he still hated it. He immediately imagined the worst, that someone had found out why he was here the previous night.
When he opened the door, he knew that he had not been pessimistic enough. Sitting on one of the chairs was a young looking, uniformed police officer, and standing next to him was an older looking man in a long trench coat that served as the jacket to his dark blue suit. They both had very severe looks on their faces. Tom looked at the two of them and felt his heart stop for just a brief moment.
"Mr. Hollis?" the man in the trench coat asked.
Tom shut the door and slowly sat down in the chair next to the door. He barely heard as the officer read him his rights and then asked him if he understood those rights. He asked if he had to be taken out in handcuffs, to which the uniformed officer nodded sadly.
As they took him through the office to the elevator, the look on the face of each and every person burned into his mind. He memorized them, the ones who looked shocked, the ones who looked sad, the ones who turned away, unable to look at him, and the few whose faces were blank, as if they could not believe the scene before them.
Thankfully, there was no one in the elevator as they went down to street level. There were people in the lobby, many of which worked in the other offices housed in the building. He wanted to cover his face so that he wouldn't have to put up with their questioning eyes. Outside, there were a few more people, ones he didn't know for the most part, who watched as they put him in the back seat. His mind oddly fixated on how it was hard for him to get into the back seat of the car without one of the officers helping him put his head down, just like on TV.
The next couple of hours were a blur. He was brought in and booked, accused of molesting his daughter for the last year. They took his fingerprints and put him in front of a camera, took a picture and told him to turn to the right. It seemed surreal to him, like he was lost in a daze. He was set next to a desk and had to give them his name, phone number, work history and all the other information they needed to book him. They took him to another room and took away his wallet, his belt, his shoelaces, and anything else he might have had in his pockets that wouldn't be allowed in a jail cell. They let him stay in his own clothes for now, but told him that they would be issuing him a uniform after he was taken into the courtroom to see if he was going to be held over for trial. He didn't understand how the whole system worked, and they didn't take the time to explain it to him. A small voice in his mind said that he should fight, struggle, and try to stop this whole thing. He ignored the voice and was resigned to whatever his coming fate would be. As they slammed the door to his holding cell, he asked if he could have his one phone call.
He didn't even know if that was how it worked, but he knew he'd seen it on TV a number of times. The officer nodded to the wall and told him he could use it. He picked it up to call his family lawyer, but couldn't remember the number.
When he realized that he had no idea whom he could call, the walls inside him shattered. He began to softly cry. He started by leaning against the wall, but slid down until he was sitting on the floor, crying into his hands. He couldn't remember the last time he had cried, and it felt strange to him to have tears rolling down his cheeks. His body shook with sobs. He wanted to let go and sob uncontrollably, but found that he couldn't. He had no idea how long he sat there, slumped against the wall, the cold floor chilling him through his business pants.
Tom pulled himself up and picked up the phone and called the only place he could think of. The offices of the Midnight Star. He went into the company's voice mail as it was now after hours, and hit the obscure code that would take his call out to the first available phone in the editorial offices. It rang once, then again, and after the second ring, he thought that whoever had left their phone out of voice mail wasn't going to be there and he would have to wade through the labyrinth of the phones once again trying to talk to a human voice. After the third ring, the phone was picked up, and the voice on the other end said, "Harry Winters, Midnight Star!"
"Harry, this is Tom," he said, hoping that his voice didn't sound as shaky as it felt, "I need some help."
"I heard," Harry said, his voice tinged with concern, "what do you need from me."
Tom slowly explained what he was charged with, pausing a number of times because he felt uncomfortable with the very idea that he had done something so horrible to his daughter. Harry prodded him, and asked questions, drawing out as much of the story as Tom knew. When he finished, Harry told him to hold on for a second, and put him on hold. As he listened to the company muzak, he wondered if he'd done the right thing giving all this information to Harry. He told himself that Harry was a competent man. It went over and over again in his mind to console himself, because he really had no other choice than to trust him.
Harry had started working for the Midnight Star about four years ago, and his resume suggested that he belonged at a big city daily paper. The problem was the same as that of a lot of journalists who ended up in the tabloids. He'd pissed off the wrong people, and wasn't able to get a job with a respectable newspaper. Tom hired him because he could churn out a good blood and thunder story and because he brought an ace in the hole with him. He had the only access to a man who had been in the news for being a real life ghostbuster. Janus Trelane was the man's name, and he was being pursued by all of the supermarket tabloids for the rights to his stories. Harry came in looking for work, saying that they were a package deal, and Tom hired him without thinking twice. Over the years, they had delivered some of the Midnight Star's biggest sales. Janus Trelane on the cover assured an extra half million copies sold.
Harry had come in looking like a Chicago Tribune reporter, suits for interviews and business clothes around the office. It didn't take him long to become yet another of the blue jeans and sweatshirt crowd. Sometimes, Harry would try to break out of the tabloids by trying to sell stories to the legit papers, but something always kept him back. Tom thought that he stayed more out of comfort than desire. That was why most men kept jobs they weren't happy with. It was more comfortable to be sure you had a paycheck twice a month that to be out on the street, bucking for interviews.
He'd clashed with Harry more than once, but he was always able to count on Harry to deliver the goods. He thought about how many times he'd had to take a risk with the accounting people for Harry and Janus's stories, but the sales always made up for it. He hoped that this would be another time he could count on Harry, but not to get a story.
"I'm back," Harry said. He sounded preoccupied, and Tom heard paper shuffling the whole time he spoke, "I talked to the paper's lawyer, and he's going to have someone down there first thing in the morning to get you out. We really won't be able to do anything until then. Tonight he's going to prepare what he can to make sure you get bail waived and a place to stay. Then, he's going to start to work. He won't be able to do anything about your home situation until he gets the case thrown out, which he thinks he can do. I also talked to a friend of mine in the accounting office, and you don't have to worry about any of that noise. You'll be taken care of on that end, seeing as how you've got a 401k about the size of most people's houses."
Harry stopped rustling papers and asked, "Are you sure that the charges are false?"
"Of course," Tom said, finality in his voice.
"Then we're going to have to find out what's going on. I'll get that end taken care of."
"What are you going to do?"
"I'll call a friend of mine in Social Services and see about getting the file pulled and see what they have on you. From the sounds of it, all they could have against you is someone's word. We find out who that someone is, and go from there."
"I don't know if..." Tom started.
"Do you want my help or not," Harry said plainly.
"Then let me do my job. I'm not too horrible at it, if you remember."
He stood up and put the phone back on the cradle. For the first time since the whole thing had started, Tom felt like there might be a way out of the nightmare.
Copyright 2001 Solitaire Rose Productions
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