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A brand new mystery from the world of Lexi Graves featuring a character you've met before...
Shayne Winter thinks she has everything she ever wanted: a job as chief reporter at the LA Chronicle, a swish new apartment in a fabulous neighborhood, and a Californian-cool lifestyle just waiting to reveal itself. But on the first day of her new life, it all goes horribly wrong. The apartment is less ‘young professional’ and more ‘young offender’, the only furnishing a handsome squatter with roving eyes. Even worse, Ben, her predecessor at the Chronicle, has returned to claim his old job, leaving Shayne nothing but the obituary column and a simple choice: take it or leave it.
Her first assignment should be easy: write up the accidental death of washed-up former child-star Chucky Barnard and file her column. Yet when Shayne interviews the people close to Chucky, his sister claims Chucky had everything to live for and his untimely death could only be murder.
Convinced this could be the perfect headline to put her life back on track, Shayne vows to find the truth, convince a reticent homicide detective to investigate, and bring a killer to justice, all before Ben grabs her story and the killer makes Shayne his or her personal deadline.
"Take it or leave it, baby, but if you want a job at The LA Chronicle, you're writing obituaries."
I looked into the bejowled face of Bob Chance aching to tell him exactly where he could shove his crappy job. As I silently fumed across the desk, I restrained the urge to tell him I hadn't driven from one side of the country to the other in a beat-up car to take a job writing obituaries, the section people usually use to line their kitty litter trays. No, Bob offered me the job of reporter after an enthusiastic video conference that was barely deflated by a reduction in salary. I, Shayne Winter, ace reporter, was supposed to be writing headlines for The LA Chronicle. My name was supposed to be on the cover. That was the reason I left my cushy reporter job, along with everybody and everything familiar to me in my hometown of Montgomery to drive to California.
"What's it going to be, Shayne?" he pressed. "Do you want a job at The Chronicle or not?"
I weighed my options. If I declined, I could try to get a job as a reporter for another newspaper, or even a magazine. Maybe I could do some freelancing while I sought a permanent job? Or I could slink home to Montgomery and beg for my old job back. Except I'd already given up my rent-controlled apartment and sold my furniture. Plus, my car would definitely need new tires for that kind of return journey.
"We found you a nice apartment," Bob reminded me.
That was true. A week after I was officially hired, his assistant mailed me photos of a cute, little apartment in a nice complex with a pool. Yes, it was smaller than my last place, but cheaper; and despite the salary reduction, I could afford it. Plus, I already signed a year-long lease in anticipation of my new job. I couldn't renege on it without being in the hole for at least a couple of thousand bucks deposit.
"Can I write features?" I asked.
Bob's face softened. "Maybe," he said, "if you do a good job with the obituaries. Tell you what, our entertainment reporter is taking maternity leave and we've used a few freelancers to fill her role. You can take over that too, if you like."
I gulped. Entertainment. I didn't know if that was worse than obituaries, but at least, it was a start. A few good features with my years of honed and witty copy would surely prove my capabilities to Bob. Maybe he'd bump the jerk who stole my reporter job and eventually give it back to me. The last few weeks of headlines in The Chronicle were pretty lackluster. How hard could it be to snatch my job back?
"Shayne?" he prompted.
It was now or never. "I'll take it," I decided, plastering a bright smile on my face. So it wasn't the job I expected, but journalism for me had never been an easy career. A little more scramble and I'd definitely come out on top.
"Here's your assignment," he said, not even stopping to congratulate me on the job before tossing a ripped sheet of lined paper to me. "I found this in the police blotter. Go meet the team, then get out there and doorstep this poor bastard's family until you can get a good quote."
"Doorstep?" I scanned the page. It had a few terse notes. Chucky Barnard, forty-two, found dead at his home the previous weekend. Police reported finding a quantity of unlabeled prescription drugs at the scene and put it down to a suicide, or accidental death. Something about the guy’s name was familiar to me.
"You know, get over there, stand on the doorstep and pound on the door until someone answers. Stick your mic in their face and insist they tell you something juicy about this guy."
"Yeah, I know what it means."
Bob harrumphed and his eyes narrowed. "You got a problem with interviewing a dead man's family?"
I shook my head. "No, sir."
"Good. Now, get out. I'm busy." With that, Bob dropped his gaze to his computer and began to punch keys, one thick finger at a time. Clearly, he was not at one with technology, but I didn't comment on that. No, I grabbed my purse and exited his office, unsure whether to feel deflated or relieved.
I stopped outside his door, surveying my new kingdom, or, at least, the territory where I would spend my days punching out copy. The Chronicle was busy, a low-level hum of voices combined with vigorous keyboard-tapping, and the sound of a microwave pinging somewhere. I looked around at my new colleagues and wondered where the hell I was supposed to sit.
When Bob hired me for the reporter job, he promised me a cushy desk by the window, the latest computer, a cell phone for business use, and an expense account to make up for the slash in salary that The Montgomery Gazette paid me. Not only that, but I would get my pick of the stories. Half an hour ago as I sashayed into Bob's office, I still expected that, but now my hopes were dashed. Fortunately, my spirit wasn't; and my mascara remained intact too, despite the tears of disappointment and humiliation bubbling at my lashes, threatening to make me that girl who cries on her first day.
"Shayne?" A short woman with a chin-length bob tapped me on the arm. "Shayne Winter?"
I plastered on another bright smile and turned to her with what I hoped weren't crazy eyes. "Yes?"
"Martha. Martha Sinowicz, Bob's assistant. Let me take you around the office. We're all looking forward to meeting you." She beamed warmly, a full head shorter than me, and more, given my heels!
"Yes, okay, great, thanks," I babbled, my eyes still searching for the cushy desk. I couldn't see any near the window that were unoccupied. Surely, that hadn't been taken away too?
"So, this is where the paper happens every week," Martha said, waving an arm to indicate the whole floor. "It's not a big office like a daily, but Bob ensures we all work hard. Come and meet the ‘Chronic Crew’ as I like to call them."
"Why?" I asked, unable to stop myself.
Martha faltered, her smile uncertain. "I don't know."
"It's catchy!" I rushed, feeling bad for her. With her warm, mother hen attitude, she clearly wanted to be liked and I wanted to like her. If she wanted to call the team the Chronic Crew, I was willing to get on board.
She brightened. "Do you think?"
Martha, as it turned out, was not only sweet, but she also had an inside edge on everyone in the building. She took me around, pointing out where I could find the kitchen and the copier and everything else I might need. I figured that she, like any good assistant, knew everything about everybody and was probably the person to ask if I ever needed help. Bob, I guessed, preferred to just dash my hopes and dreams.
"So you're our new obituary columnist?" she said as we stepped inside the kitchenette. It looked twenty years out of date. There was an open carton of milk on the countertop along with several spoons, and a small heap of wet coffee molded into a volcano shape. Martha picked up the carton, sniffed it, recoiled, and dropped it into the trash.
"Shame about the reporter job, but I'm glad Bob found you something else. It would be such a pity if you came all this way for nothing. The obituary column just opened up, first time in fifteen years."
"What happened to the previous columnist?"
I blinked, momentarily speechless. "Should I write his obituary too?" I asked.
"Oh, no! Calvin wrote that five years ago. It's his swan song. We're running it in this week's edition. Do you have something for next week?" she asked, indicating I should follow her along the corridor where she pointed out the ladies bathroom.
"Bob said I should go interview the family of this guy he found in the police blotter. Chucky Barnard."
Martha squeaked and slapped a hand over her mouth. "He's famous!"
"He is?" I puzzled over the name. It did sound familiar, like I should recognize it, but from where?
"Well, sure! You must have seen Not Just Chucky back in the eighties. He was the cute, little kid with the freckles." She began to hum the theme tune and suddenly, it all came flooding back. I knew exactly whom she meant. Chucky was an enormously famous child star with a huge following. We all loved his cheeky quips and his catchphrase, "This ain't happenin'" was emblazoned on everything from our lips to our lunchbags.
"What happened to him?"
"Bob said suicide or accidental death. I have to interview his family."
"That's so exciting. Your first job in LA and you get to talk to a real star!"
I made a non-committal noise as I wondered how someone so famous as Chucky Barnard could have died in such a tragic way. More so, I wondered if I could turn it into an actual news report, maybe even convince Bob to run it on the front page. Surely, someone as famous as Chucky was worth more than a few inches buried deep in the back sections of the newspaper? Only, there was a small problem with that. The Chronicle already had a reporter and it wasn't me.
"Martha, do you know who the new reporter is?" I asked, wondering about the competition.
"He's not new. He's our old reporter," she told me, looking around as we stepped out of the kitchen, much to my relief. A few more minutes and I might have had to call a cleaning squad.
"I thought the previous reporter left? That's why so many freelancers were being used?"
"We thought it was a long sabbatical, so we called in a few freelancers to help out; but Ben called Bob last week and said he wanted to come back right away. Bob jumped at the chance. We all love Ben."
"Ben?" I spat his name out like it was a curse word.
"That's him over there." Martha waved to a man sitting in a corner desk over by the window. With the mid-morning sun glowing around him, he looked almost like a saint. His short, dark brown hair gleamed, his blue eyes sparkled, and his skin sported a healthy, golden tan that only made his white shirt look even crisper. Any other day, a man like him could have made me weak at the knees. Today, however, I hated him and his stupid halo. "He just flew in from Florida," she confided.
I focused on the big desk Ben occupied. "And that's the chief reporter desk?"
"Yeah. He sat there before. Oh, let me show you your desk." Martha tugged me by the elbow and I followed her away from the golden glow shining around Ben. We went over to a corner on the other side of the office, close to the entry. The door bumped open, sending a cool blast of air-conditioning over me, causing a very un-LA shiver as we waited for the mailman to bump his cart past.
My desk, unlike Ben's, was past its prime with a chunky computer, a broken lamp and a pile of mismatched stationery. "Sit!" insisted Martha, grabbing a wheeled desk chair from a neighboring station and pressing me into it. I sat. The chair plunged down six inches, leaving me with both legs sprawled. "Hmm," said Martha, pulling a face as she stared down at me.
Unable to speak for mortification, I reached for the drawer, tugging it open. The handle and draw front flew off, due to the drawer sticking. Stifling another tear, I stuffed the front facade inside the drawer. A sob stuck in my throat.
"We can probably fix that too," said Martha, hitting the power button on the computer. It chugged slowly to life. "At least, the computer works!"
The computer gave a small pop before sparks flew out from the keyboard, and it promptly died.
"Maybe I can bring my laptop?" I said, hiccupping back another tear as I looked up to Martha for reassurance. If there were any occasion to be a mother hen, it was now. So I was relieved when she nodded, suddenly beaming as she turned away from my cubicle. I followed her gaze, wondering why she was so happy, but couldn't see; so I tipped my head sideways, looking out from the side. I didn't have to wait long before Ben strolled over, his hands in his pant pockets. His shirt was open a couple of buttons, framing his tanned neck, and his rolled-up sleeves revealed strong forearms.
"You must be our ace new columnist," he said, proffering a hand over the cubicle. I tipped upright and struggled out of the chair to my feet, praying I didn't touch anything just in case it fell off. "Ben Kosina, chief reporter."
"Shayne Winter." I couldn't bring myself to add recently usurped.
"Great that you could take over old Calvin's job at such short notice. We'll miss the guy, won't we, Martha?"
Martha giggled and beamed up at Ben who stood over her like a giant.
"Shayne was nearly our new reporter," she told him as I wished for a very big chasm to open up in the floor and swallow me whole. "But she's going to stay on for obituaries and entertainment."
"Two things that naturally go hand-in-hand," quipped Ben as Martha giggled again and swatted his arm. "Did you hear Calvin wrote his own obituary?"
"I did," I replied as icily as I could to the job-stealing heartthrob. I bet his chair didn't collapse and his desk didn't fall apart. I bet Bob never demeaned him either. And I bet he didn't have to take a crummy job because he had no other options.
"Has Bob set you working on anything?" he asked, fixing me with an interested stare.
I blinked. Of course! Ben wouldn't be merely introducing himself to his new colleague, he must’ve heard about my assignment from Bob. He wanted to know if there was a news story in it! The pieces began to click together. I wondered if there was more to it than an accidental death; plus, Chucky was a big star. Clearly, Ben wanted a sensational front page headline for himself! As if it weren't bad enough that he breezed in from his long Florida vacation and snatched the job offered to me. Well, I decided, that just wasn't going to happen. The story was mine and I planned to ace it. When I filed it, Bob would realize what a huge mistake he made.
"Actually, yes," I told him, lifting my head high as I snatched Bob's scrawled note from the desk. "I do and I have to get out there and start interviewing."
Ben rested his arms on the cubicle frame and leaned in. "Sounds juicy."
"Just a regular story... not even a story... it's nothing, really. Just a sad death."
Ben raised his eyebrows. "Unexplained?"
"The police gave a great explanation actually." I shut my mouth as he straightened, looking intrigued.
I pretended to consult my assignment. "Routine."
"Who's the stiff?" he asked, not giving up.
"Martha," I said, addressing Bob's assistant as I gave the collapsed chair a push out of my way, "thanks for showing me around. If Bob asks, I've gone to interview the deceased's family and then I'm going to check out my new apartment. I'll see you tomorrow. I can bring my laptop so don't worry about this computer."
"You'll love the apartment," she assured me, handing me my purse. "The pool is great."
For the first time since leaving Bob's office, I brightened. I had something to look forward to, at least. "You've seen it?"
"Only the photos. It sounds great and the apartment manager said it would be just the thing for a young professional like you."
"You're new in town?" Ben guessed.
"She got here this morning," Martha told him before I could breezily pass myself off as a competent native. "I found her a place to live near Venice. The Bougainvillea Apartments."
"Venice Beach? Nice. I live close to there. Want me to show you around town? I could drive you over to the deceased's family? Make sure you don't get lost?" he eagerly offered.
I hesitated, ready to accept when I realized he almost had me hoodwinked. Did he think he could charm me out my first story for The Chronicle? "Me? I never get lost," I told him snippily. "And I don't need your help, thank you!"
"I can get my keys. I'll be just a min..."
"Don't worry about me!" I gave him and Martha a little wave as I moved the few steps to the door. "I know how to get around the city."
"But do you know where you're going?" he asked.
I had absolutely no clue, but there was no way I would admit that to him. "Absolutely," I said, giving my hair a little shake so it fell prettily over my shoulders. "Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get busy for my column." With that, I grabbed the door handle, pulling it so hard, I heard the hinges groan, and flashed out of The Chronicle office.
I didn't just have an interview to conduct. I had to discover if Chucky Barnard was more than just a back page story.