Tuesday, like every Tuesday, was hump day around the Record-Herald. The general rule was that they tried to have the copy wrapped by Tuesday noon so they could go to paste-up Tuesday afternoon, but nothing ever quite seemed to happen right, and there was always something coming up last minute. In actuality, they did have several hours – every other week, Brenda would do the city council story, and it was up to Mike and her to guess how much space was going to have to be left on the front page for it. Mike had come down to check all of her council stories so far, but that might not last forever, she knew.
So it was that Brenda got little chance that morning to think about the Jason Bailey incident. It was there, she knew she needed to work on it, but there was always something else that needed doing, too, so that was as far as they got.
The Record-Herald staff didn't have time for gossipy lunches in the mail room on Tuesdays – there was just too much to do. Brenda's lunch consisted of an apple and a Coke, eaten at her computer. At that, it took a while to get through the apple. Finally, she had the last story on her queue sent, and headed out to the paste-up room.
Brenda didn't know much about paste-up. Right from the beginning, Mike had told her to not bother learning it, either; it soon would be gone from the Record-Herald. "Now that you're here," he told her that first morning, "I'll have time to get the bugs out of the new system."
"What's that?" she'd said, curious.
"We'll be going all-digital," he'd told her. "We started with digital photography a couple years ago, and these days we don't use film cameras unless we need a big lens, which we rarely do. We've had the capability of doing color front pages on a spot basis for several years, but we're going to go color every week, and full-page markup. For thirty years, ever since cold type came in, we've pasted up pages. You ever done that?"
"Some, in school."
"Dead technology. We'll be doing it all on the computers and FTPing full pages digitally to the printing plant. We've got the software, I've run test pages and it works, but I've been too busy doing what's now your job to mess with it." Mike went on to explain that it would involve a major reorganization in who did what and when it happened. It would probably be rough until it was worked out – which is why the plan was to hold it off to the small, slow papers that came in the couple weeks immediately following Christmas.
But Brenda figured she might as well get a taste of it, and Mike had agreed, laughing. "Brenda, mark my words, you stay in this business, and thirty years from now, you'll be saying, 'We used to put out a newspaper with this crap!'" When that day comes, you'll have some stories to bullshit the new kids with." Mike had let her have the responsibility for Page Two, the obit and police news page; it was stuff she'd worked with, anyway. It was mostly a jigsaw puzzle, with some answers that were better than others but none necessarily correct, but the basic format for the page stayed the same from week to week, so that gave her beginner skills an easy start.
But it was out back in the paste-up room that Brenda really managed to get a chance to talk to Mike about the Bailey story. As they stood side by side working on the paper, she went through what little she'd been able to learn. "I mean, every story I've heard pretty much points to the same thing. It's what I haven't heard that makes me wonder," she told him. "And I've heard just enough to let me know I haven't heard it all, not by a long shot."
"You been able to talk to this Bailey kid, or his family?" Mike asked.
"I tried," Brenda frowned. "It took a little doing to get the number, but when I called and said who I was, the woman I talked to just hung up. I haven't been able to get an answer since."
"What did you say the kid's name was?" Sally said from a couple spaces down the light table, where she was putting the finishing touches on a late-coming ad.
"Jason Bailey," Brenda said. "Don't know anything about him."
"Well, I know a Jason Bailey who'd have to be about a sophomore," she said. "I don't know him real well. But he's a scrawny little kid, not the kind who's going to be picking fights. It must not be the same one."
"Oh, hell," Mike said. "Look, Brenda, if it'll make you feel any better, I'll go call Harold."
"I wish you would," Brenda said. "See if you can find out why the kid pulled the knife."
Mike was back a few minutes later. "Harold says he doesn't know why the kid pulled the knife. He said he came around the corner, and there he stood, and that's all he needed to know."
Brenda had a heck of a lot she'd have liked to have said just then, but she kept her mouth shut. Well, Mike didn't have the suspicions she had; there was no reason why he would have pushed it. And, she knew that Hekkinan was a good friend, going back many years. He might not push real hard if he didn't have a reason to. Really, though, she didn't have much she could say. All she had was a nagging suspicion, and maybe she was putting two and two together and coming up with five. The story in the school board article was probably right, as far as it went. But there was more there, and it might important, but unless she got a hint of what it was, there was no hope in following it up.
They got the paper pretty well ironed down by four – it'd sit in the paste-up room until the wee small hours of next morning, when one of the staffers would take it to the printing plant in Camden. The Record-Herald hadn't been printed on site in Spearfish Lake for thirty years; modern press equipment was just too expensive to only be used just a few hours a week. The Record-Herald didn't even do job printing anymore – the job printing that had once been a big part of the business had been split off years before and moved to a separate operation in a separate building, leaving the drafty old turn-of-the-century wood building rather empty. If a fire, or some breaking news came up overnight, there was a last chance to jimmy it onto the front before it went to the plant; it was going to be Debbie's turn to do the Camden run tomorrow.
It was a nice afternoon, too nice to be inside at the Women's Fitness Center, and Brenda felt vaguely uncomfortable anyway, especially over the Bailey story. After thinking about it a bit, she decided to go for a run down the lakeshore, instead – except, this time, she'd go past the burned-out house, maybe up to the head of Hannegan's Cove, or something.
It was in fact a nice afternoon, and there was a sweet taste of success to jog past the burned-out house and not be breathing so desperately hard that she could barely move, in fact, going good. She pressed on; it was probably another half a mile up to the bridge at the head of Hannegan's Cove, and that would make a good marker. She was almost up to the bridge when she saw a jogger coming the other way. In an instant, she could see it wasn't Carole; some other woman, a brunette. As the two drew closer, Brenda could see that it was a high-school-age girl. God, if she could just talk to her a minute, she probably knew what was going on . . . well, why not? She stopped for a moment, jogging in place, then turned around, heading back the other way, but going slowly.
In a moment, she heard footsteps coming up behind her. "Hi, how's it going?" a girl's voice said.
"Not bad," Brenda said, "Just a little lonely. Can I join you for a bit?"
"Sure, I don't mind," the girl said. "Nice day, isn't it?"
"Yeah, we've got to be doing it while we can," Brenda said, struggling to stay up with the girl's faster pace. How the hell do I do this, she wondered. I can't just say, what do you know about all this. No, act like you know what's going on. "Pretty tough about the Bailey kid, isn't it?"
"Yeah, he's really getting the short end of the stick."
Yes, by God, there was a story there. Now, what? "Did you see it happen?"
"Yeah," the girl said. "He was lucky Hekkinan showed up, or he'd really have gotten hurt. It was bad enough as it was. At least he's out of it for a while."
It really wasn't much of an answer, but put together with other suspicions, it added up to a heck of a lot. Now, the big one. "Did Hekkinan ask you what happened?"
"No, he didn't talk to me, anyway."
"Look," Brenda said. "Can you tell me exactly what happened?"
The kid jogged along silently for a moment, then finally said, "I better not. I could catch hell."
"Why . . ." Brenda started to say, but the girl speeded up, made a turn, hurdled a fence, and was gone.
God damn it. But, yes, there really was something there, and the more Brenda thought about it, the more she didn't like it. She really didn't even notice the miles passing as she thought hard. She still didn't know who to call. Well, there was Henry, and she'd call him, now. And, Falconswing, if he'd ever get online. But now, knowing there was something, she could start at the "A"s in the phone book and start calling until she heard something. She got back to the Record-Herald, ran upstairs, and flipped on the computer. She still didn't want to call Henry unless she had to, but 'had to' was getting pretty close unless she got something useful out of Falconswing.
It took a few seconds to get online, but this time, in the middle of all the spam on the hotmail account, was a message from Falconswing: "Did you find out what happened?"
She stared at the screen for a moment. Well, yes, she had a pretty good idea of what happened now, in a general sense. But, it was all surmise, no facts. It only took a few seconds, and then her fingers were flying across the keys: "No, all I get is the party line but I know there's more there. Can you help?"
That probably isn't going to be much help, she thought as she hit the "Send" button. Who knew how long it would take for Falconswing to get back to her? Hell, she'd been trying to get hold of him for days.
Only now did Brenda realize that she was hot and tired and sweaty, but had just set a new personal record for her after work jogs. That was something to feel good about when and if she got the time to think about it. But, something to drink would taste good. Her throat was dry, her heart was still pounding. Might as well at least get herself under control before she called the McMahons for Henry, the only other source she could think of. Might as well do it downstairs, where the phone book and some of the other information was, she thought, but as she headed for the inside stairway, decided to check Zapmail again, just in case.
By God, there was a message there from Falconswing: "Come up on DS chat."
Brenda had spent hundreds of hours doing this, and it was pretty automatic, but she'd never done it with just this kind of excitement before.
[PRESENT: FALCONSWING, VALLEYWITCH, VAMPYRE]
[MITHRIAN JOINS GROUP]
[VAMPYRE] I barely got out of the trap.
[FALCONSWING REQUESTS PRIVATE SESSION WITH MITHRIAN]
[FALCONSWING LEAVES PUBLIC AREA]
[MITHRIAN LEAVES PUBLIC AREA]
[PRIVATE CHAT SESSION WITH FALCONSWING]
[MITHRIAN] I suppose this involves the Jason Bailey thing, right?
[FALCONSWING] Yeah, he did pull a knife, but he'd already been hit three times and knocked down twice, thought he was going to be killed.
[MITHRIAN] WTF? Why didn't that come out?
[FALCONSWING] Bunch of gd jocks who can do no wrong. He's been beaten up by them before, figure since he's smart he should be their punching bag, but nobody ever listens. Hoped you would.
[MITHRIAN] Any witnesses?
[FALCONSWING] Yeah, but I guess they didn't say anything.
[MITHRIAN] Didn't you go to HH?
[FALCONSWING] Why would he believe me? He used to be the fucking football coach, he thinks the jocks can do no wrong.
[MITHRIAN] Do you know if he talked to any witnesses?
[FALCONSWING] Don't know.
[MITHRIAN] Can I give your version of what happened?
[FALCONSWING] Yeah, but you can't use my name, nobody would believe me.
[MITHRIAN] Anyone I can talk to who saw it?
[FALCONSWING] I know Cindy deLine was there. If she was there Henry McMahon probably was too, they usually stay pretty close together but don't talk much. They're sweet on each other but don't want anyone to know. Doubt if their folks know.
[MITHRIAN] Stay online, heating up the phone.
All the little hints, all the surmises – dead on! Jason had been bullied, bullied a lot, and he was scared, so the second time he got up, he had a knife in his hand – he wasn't going to take it anymore. Poor fucking kid, can't blame him, either. But damn, Cindy deLine, with that ranting bitch of a mother. Well, like it or not, she was the only name of an independent witness she had, except for Henry, maybe. Might as well call her first. Quickly, she looked up the number and dialed the phone.
"Hello?" a voice said at the other end of the line. It wasn't Lisa, anyway.
"Hi," Brenda said professionally. "This is Brenda Hodunk from the Record-Herald."
"I told you I can't talk about it," the voice said.
Shit! Cindy must be the girl she'd talked to while out jogging a while ago! "Hey, I understand," Brenda purred. "I know your mother too. Tell you what. Let me tell you what I think happened. Kohlenberger, Ruoff and Ferguson were beating on Jason pretty good, knocked him down a couple times, and the second time he came up with the knife. Right?"
"Yeah," Cindy said.
"And Hekkinan never talked to you or anyone about it, right?"
"Yeah, but please don't use my name," the girl pleaded. "You know what would happen."
Brenda let out a sigh. Just on what Cindy had said, she had her story – but she realized instantly she would have to back it up. Cindy would be a solid lead, but as useless a source as Falconswing, since she'd have to be anonymous. "Tell you what," she said. "If you can give me a couple other kids' names who saw it, I won't even think about you." Damn it, it was almost blackmail, shit, it was – but she was pretty sick of all the runarounds and stonewalling she'd gotten. "Someone's got to be fair to Jason," she added. "I guess it's going to have to be me."
"Promise?" the girl said, audibly scared.
"I promise," Brenda replied seriously.
"I know Amanda Sprow was there," Cindy replied. "And, Tina Berry. And, Henry, of course."
"Yeah," she said shyly.
"OK, thanks, Cindy," Brenda said. "I won't ask you any more. But you've just been the biggest help Jason has had in a while."
"OK, you won't tell, even hint, right?"
"Never heard of this deLine kid in my life," Brenda grinned. "I know how it is. You hang in there. Bye, Cindy, and thanks again."
BINGO! Bingo, bingo, bingo!
Brenda turned back to the computer and the Dragonslayer chat line. Now that she'd had confirmation, there were a couple other questions that she really wanted to ask Falconswing. But a glance at the screen told her she wouldn't find out more there, at least not now. He was gone – not logged off, just gone, [CONNECTION BROKEN] gone. That's strange, Brenda thought. She went back to the main chat room, but the list of players present was just Vampyre and Valleywitch, like before. That was kind of strange, she thought. Falconswing spends a lot of time on the chat room, and he's hardly been there for days, except for that little bit Thursday, and now a few minutes ago.
Hold it, she thought, enlightenment coming. Could Jason Bailey be Falconswing?
Brenda scrolled back through the conversation, then copied it to her hard drive. There was nothing in it to indicate that he was – in fact, he'd referred to Jason in the third person a couple of times. But, that meant nothing; anonymity was a rule on Dragonslayer, an attitude. Besides, from what she could figure out, Jason was getting shit on by everybody. No one was listening to him, just listening to the jocks' stories. Maybe he'd reached out in desperation for the one person he knew who might be able to help, maybe not sure if Mithrian would believe him either . . . damn it, that made it a family matter of a sort. She really didn't like Falconswing, didn't like his smartass attitude, his cock-of-the-walk superiority. But damn it, he was a fellow Dragonslayer, too, one she'd stood back to back with in a couple of epic battles, even though they were trying to stab each other in the back as soon as those battles were over. God, there'd been times in her own life when her anonymous online friends in Dragonslayer and some of the earlier online games had seemed like the only friends she'd had . . . and might well have been. She'd said things anonymously online that she would never have said to anyone face to face. And, even if Jason Bailey wasn't Falconswing, he still was obviously the kind of kid who got picked on a lot. Now, he was being railroaded, and Hekkinan was blowing the whistle.
God damn it, she thought, and let go a mental war cry. Mithrian rules!
But she knew she'd better be sure she had her facts straight. She spent the next half hour with the phone in her ear. One of the kids Cindy had told her about wasn't at home, but another was, and basically confirmed her story, and wasn't as shy about it. And, she gave Brenda yet another name. God, Brenda thought after about the fourth confirmation. Really, all you have to know in this business is who to call, but that's really the big trick, isn't it?
At the end of the half hour, she knew of seven kids who had seen the incident, and all had confirmed Falconswing's and Cindy's account. And, all of them said that Hekkinan hadn't talked to them about it, individually or in a group.
There was one final call to make; she'd held off on it until she was sure she had all her ducks in a row.
"Hi, Mike," Brenda said when he answered the phone. "Can I talk to Henry?"
"Please, Mike, I need to talk to him."
It took a moment for Henry to come on the phone. "What's up?" he said suspiciously.
"Look, let's keep this in the family," Brenda said. "What do you know about the Jason Bailey thing?"
"I know he pulled a knife in the hall and Hekkinan tackled him, and he got kicked out of school."
"Were you there?"
"Were the Ferguson, Ruoff, and Kohlenberger kids beating on him before he pulled the knife?"
Silence. Mike was right there, of course, Brenda knew. Maybe Henry was shy in front of his father. Then, she remembered something Falconswing had said. As gently as she could, she said, "Your girlfriend said they were."
"You leave her out of this, OK? She'll catch hell!"
"You're covering for her, right?"
"Yeah, and you know why."
"OK, Henry, I'm not going to use her name if you come clean." Well, she wasn't going to use it anyway, but he didn't need to know that. Blackmail again. "And, I don't plan on using any other names either, if I can help it, but your dad is going to want to know where I'm getting my information. What I was told is that Ferguson, Ruoff, and Kohlenberger were beating on this Jason kid pretty good, and after the second time he got knocked down, he came up with the knife. Is that what you saw?"
"Yeah," he said. "That's about it."
"And Hekkinan never talked to you or anyone else about it, right?"
"Never talked to me, and not to anyone else, as far as I know."
"OK, thanks, Henry. I owe you one. Let me talk to your dad again."
Mike was back on the line in a few seconds. "Brenda, what's this all about?"
"The Jason Bailey thing," Brenda said. "You better get down here. I've found out what happened, and something really sucks."
It would be a few minutes before Mike could get there – the family was still at dinner – so Brenda headed downstairs, still in her grubby running shorts and T-shirt, and fired up her office computer. She knew now what had happened, and she was just about as pissed off as she'd ever been in her life. Hell, she'd never even been this pissed at her mother, and that was saying something. But, while she pretty well knew what had happened, there was a piece to complete the story, and she knew it. She really didn't want to make the next phone call, but she was running on a full head of steam now, and she was dialing the phone even as the computer booted.
"Brenda, can't this wait till tomorrow?" Harold Hekkinan said when she announced who she was. "We're right in the middle of dinner."
"You know what the schedule is like down here," Brenda said, trying to sound professional and cover up her anger. "Let's make this quick. Did you talk to any of the other kids who witnessed the Jason Bailey thing?"
"Hell, I didn't think I needed to," he said, a little angry. "I talked to the Ferguson, Ruoff, and Kohlenberger kids, they all gave the same story, so I didn't I need to talk to anyone else. After all, I was the one that took the knife away from the Bailey kid. That's all I really needed to know."
"OK, thanks, Mr. Hekkinan," Brenda said sweetly. "That's all I needed to know. Enjoy your dinner." She smiled as she hung up the phone. You probably aren't going to enjoy it tomorrow, she thought. Mithrian rules!
With the front page already made up, Brenda knew she had little space to work with. She pulled up a copy of the school board story, yanked out the paragraph about the expulsion hearing, trimmed down a couple of other things, and yanked the quotes from Lisa deLine out entirely. Actually, she was dead right, but talking about the wrong things, and to use the quotes would put them in absolutely the reverse context of what was said.
That left a little hole, not much, but it would be well up on the page. It would have to do. It was hard to write it that tight, but she got the key point in: Several unnamed witnesses to the incident say that Bailey pulled the knife in self-defense, after being struck several times, following a long history of being bullied by Ferguson, Ruoff, and Kohlenberger. Principal Harold Hekkinan admits he did not bother to talk to these or other witnesses to confirm that Bailey acted in self-defense.
Brenda had the story in hardcopy by the time Mike got in the door. He read the story over quickly – there really wasn't that much there, and nodded. "Yeah, so what?"
"I know I didn't have a lot of space to work with, and it gets close to editorializing to point out what it means. But, the kids I talked to know what it means."
"So what?" Mike shrugged. "The kid pulled a knife and got kicked out, like he's supposed to."
"You don't get it, do you?" Brenda said, getting angry now. "Hell, not a surprise, Hekkinan doesn't get it either. Here's this poor little shit, gets kicked around a lot, and it isn't the first time it's happened. He's desperate, he's getting hurt, and no one will help him. It's a bunch of big fucking jocks, they've got him outnumbered three to one, and everyone else around is scared to stick up for him for fear it's going to happen to them, too. So, he does what he has to do, and he gets reamed for it. And the dickheads who got him thrown out walk away laughing about how they stuck it to him and got away with it."
"You think that's what happened?"
"I know damn well that's exactly what happened. I had a couple of the witnesses say that. Hell, go ask Henry. He was there and watched the whole thing. Lisa deLine is dead right. There's an atmosphere of violence over at the school and the administration ain't doing jack shit to control it. This proves it."
"Brenda, that's a serious accusation," Mike said. "At least you didn't put it in the story. Harold Hekkinan is a respected member of the community and he's a long-time friend. You can't just say something like that."
"Look, Mike," she said, trying to make her case. "It's clear what happened. Your old friend didn't bother to investigate what happened. So, the Bailey kid gets kicked out and the jocks walk. What happens now? Maybe they'll think it's neat to pick on Henry next. They've proved to themselves and everyone else they can get away with it. I realize Hekkinan's your friend, and you owe him, but he's proved himself to be a lazy asshole. No one else is giving the Bailey kid a fair shake, and we need to."
"Brenda, I agree this story is inadequate, but we can't print allegations like that without naming witnesses, and they're all kids."
"Right," Brenda said. "But we can print Hekkinan's statement that he didn't bother to investigate what happened. That'll say what needs to be said, and the people who know what happened will understand that he fucked up. That's the goddamn point, anyway." She was getting exasperated, and she was getting pissed – well, she'd been pissed for a while, so she said something that she didn't intend to say. She tried to hold her anger down, and said quietly but seriously, "Look, Mike, you know how bad I want to do well in this job to prove myself, but if you don't have the journalistic integrity to print the story, I guess I'm just as glad to know now. I'll have my shit out of the apartment by morning."
And, by God, she meant it. She remembered a statement well over a hundred years old, that was one of her ruling principles of journalism: The purpose of a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Damn it, a dream shattered. Maybe all she was good for was flipping burgers, but damn it, she had principles, too!
"Give me a minute to talk to Harold again," Mike said quietly. He went into his rarely used office – he had another desk out on the floor with the staff, and usually used that, mostly because he preferred to be out where things were happening. But, he left the door open, and called Hekkinan on the speakerphone. Curious, Brenda stopped pulling things out of her desk drawer, got up, and went to stand at the door of his office.
"Mike, look," Hekkinan said. "I had a call from that girl of yours a few minutes ago asking about the Bailey kid again. Doesn't she realize that there isn't much else I can do under state law than what I did?"
"I think she realizes that. But, that's not the point. What happens to the other kids, Ferguson and the others?"
"Why should anything happen to them?" Hekkinan said. "They're the ones who had the knife pulled on them."
"Damn it Harold, it was three on one," Mike said bristling. "Gil would have trouble with those odds! Didn't you ever think to ask yourself why he pulled the knife?"
"Like I said, it doesn't matter," Hekkinan said angrily. "The fact is that he did it."
"I'm sorry, Harold," Mike said quietly. "But I'm going to have to do what I have to do. You handed this Bailey kid the shitty end of the stick without thinking about it, and you don't even know why. Look, I'll give you a word of advice. I suggest you call in some of those witnesses one on one and find out why Bailey pulled the knife."
"You're running a story on this, right?"
"Yeah, Harold, we are. Brenda did what you should have done."
Brenda's jaw dropped. She wasn't going to be flipping burgers again after all!
"Look," Harold said. "Will you hold the story while I investigate it?"
"No," Mike said, visibly pained. "It should have already been done. I will say this: if you do a good investigation and do what needs to be done, there won't be an editorial next week charging you with letting bullying run rampant at the school. If we have to run one, I won't write it. I'll let Brenda. And, let me tell you, if she has to write an editorial, it'll blister paint at fifteen paces." He put down the phone, shaking his head.
"Thank you, Mike," she said quietly.
"No, thank you, Brenda," he said, shaking his head. "I fucked up there for a bit, and let friendship get in the way of the truth. That may have cost me one of my best friends, one I owe an awful lot to. Brenda, I hope you'll accept my apology and stay on."
"I can tone the story down a bit," she conceded.
"No," Mike said. "If we're going to do it, let's do it right. Rip up the whole damn school board story, we'll find some place for it inside."
"I don't really have that much," Brenda protested.
"Do what you can," Mike told her. "I'll work the phones a bit and see what I can do to flesh it out."