Blood & Ink

Presenting three sample chapters of G.N. Jacobs’ first novel Blood & Ink.

© 2008 G.N. Jacobs

Chapter Two – Purchase in Store 

CLICKITY CLACK! CLICKITY CLACK! CLICKITY CLACK-CLACK! Such was the rhythm of Anna’s typing that had somehow lasted more than six hours. The lesson here, never break a rhythm for momentary self-congratulation that faded into the night like the offshore breeze. She could feel her train of thought following her gaze across the darkened living room out to the buildings across the street.

She took a deep breath and contemplated her surroundings. The living room in the full light of day boasted the whitewashed plaster and rounded edges of the southwestern style. Her mother had trimmed the ceiling with lighter woods and broken several fingernails laying the pink flagstones into the floor.

Anna appreciated the extremely cool fact that she’d been entrusted with such a nice place. However, she could see her mother hadn’t decorated the place with recently graduated daughters in mind. In the living room the stereo had been placed on a low shelf on the built-in bookshelves that took up an entire wall and the speakers had been placed properly at the edges of the shelves at the same level.

Of course, the real problem was the TV had been placed in a corner alcove a couple feet to the right of the right speaker. This meant that both speakers were to the left of the TV, killing all thought of plugging the set into the stereo for butt-kicking home theater. Anna shrugged and reminded herself that the rent was free.

CLICK! CLICK! CLICK! Her typing rhythm long gone, she felt the old Deadline Two-Step that she also called the Green Meanie creeping up on her. The editor of the Chicago Telegraph could wait until morning to be made aware that Anna Victor, the best female journalist since Nellie Bly, wanted a job. The next part of the dance was the guilty feeling that came both from her outlandish ambition and her Mom’s faith in eventual success. Anna would spend the next hour trying to fight the broken rhythm and still give up in frustration with the project incomplete.

Even though she was already well above the weekly output quota she’d agreed to, she still felt the high stakes as a knot in the pit of her stomach. Now, she really had to stop for a little while, because an ulcer waited ten years down the road and Anna feared nothing quite so much as a self-induced stress injury. Getting up and moving around for an hour or so and then relaxing for a half-hour after had always wiped out the Green Meanie in the past.

Her hands absently moved towards the computer plunked down haphazardly on her mother’s desk. The speakers were turned off in favor of a pair of headphones with a ridiculously long extension cord. She stood up and enjoyed her reflection in the computer screen. Anna clicked her mouse on her music file and set it to shuffle several hundred songs.

She stepped back a few paces until she stood on the track for the sliding doors that separated the office from the living room. It occurred to her that she’d left the blinds open on the balcony and had set the lights to light up the office and the living room near the TV. She wondered how much could be seen across the street which only mattered if her neighbors were peeping toms, after all her teddy was revealing.

Screw it! I look good, Anna thought.

The first song, Green Day’s 409 in Your Coffee Maker, blasted into her headphones. Anna chuckled, considering the song an anthem for anyone who had ever found trouble because of a short attention span. At the first downbeat, she made a crisp inside-out crescent kick.

***

Actually, Anna did have to worry about stalkers and peeping toms. Tom Jarrett, a prototypical fat, bespectacled, comic book geek, sat in a beach chair on his balcony across the street from Anna’s condo. He thought he was going to get a few cheap looks, but this brunette Amazon had more kung fu in her pinkie finger than he could ever hope to have.

As he watched, his sexual interest waned with the prospect of these excellent kicks, chops, arm locks and other techniques of personal destruction being used on him. All that remained was a curiosity that instantly compared Anna’s moves to his favorite comic book heroines.

The comparisons came hard because most of the really good heroines had powers that were a cheat in a simple girl fight. Sue Storm would use her invisibility. Jean Grey would read the poor girl’s mind. Wonder Woman would toss the Lasso of Submission and be done with it. That left a limited list for Anna to fight honestly.

He finally decided Anna would stomp the Huntress unmercifully. The new Batgirl would go home crying to the old Batgirl, now known as Oracle. Big Barda would win on the mismatch in weight classes between a real world Amazon and an honest-to-God heavyweight. Elektra Natchios had Anna’s number and would slice and dice with her sais until the cows came home. Somehow the image of Anna rumbling with Wonder Woman kept coming back.

He concocted a fantasy where Wonder Woman was angry enough to allow herself to be disarmed of her bracelets and lasso. Wonder Woman fit perfectly as the imaginary opponent for Anna as she moved fluidly in her living room practicing kung fu. Soon the mental image of two brunettes cut from the same cloth as Athena, Artemis and Nike squaring off in personal combat brought back those dark sexual thoughts. The picture brought Tom to a state of mental overload, so he went inside for a shower.

***

Anna ended her routine with a spinning back kick that almost knocked a painting from the wall over the fireplace. Glistening with sweat she glided over to the high-backed office chair abandoned an hour before. She collapsed into her seat breathing with her belly and diaphragm instead of her lungs. She tried to center her mind with an imaginary sexual encounter that no man could ever survive to avoid stressful thoughts.

She lowered the volume on her headset and imagined her dream lover actually staying awake for a meaningful conversation. The Green Meanie ran into the inky night, screaming like the first slut to die in a slasher film. The rhythm would come back after a half hour of this meditation.

The writing groove came back with a jolt five minutes later as the music changed to The Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil. Anna immediately felt her fingers typing more or less in time with the keyboard line of the tune. She lip-synched the words and bobbed her head to the drum part. Soon, the words to the song and her letter to the Chicago Telegraph editor blurred together.

Please allow me to introduce myself,

CLICKITY CLACK!

I’m a reporter of skill and Grace

CLICKITY CLACK-CLACK!

I was around when Chancellor Roberts had his moment of doubt and pain.

CLICKITY CLACK-CLACK-CLACK!

I shouted out who will answer for your thieving and groping?

CLICKITY-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK!

To the end of her days, Anna would always swear she’d written a standard cover letter where she introduced herself, reminded the recipient of her accomplishments and promised to call within a few weeks. She had a grand old time in her slightly dissociated state, where arrows always hit their targets and projects made deadlines.

Five more letters would fall while she felt this groove. She fell asleep in the chair, dreaming of a sparring match with Bruce Lee.

***

Frank Granger hated meetings, especially those with corporate sharks from the home office. He leaned against the concrete planter that served the dual purpose of beautifying a short-term parking lot and protected the building complex from car bombs in this age of heightened paranoia. The Century Plaza Towers, a pair of white cheese wedges stood on end, had long since become a symbol of the power of Los Angeles as an economic center.

Frank chose to remember Century City for the movie lot it had been before someone decided Elizabeth Taylor should play Cleopatra. However, he was too young to really visualize and feel those old Fox movies. He did remember the fourth Planet of the Apes movie, which had been shot after the studio sold the land. Apes burning and pillaging a major center of commerce always brought a smile to his face.

He adjusted his glasses and contemplated what those celluloid memories meant. As a child, he simply enjoyed blowing shit up. More recently, such thoughts were a reaction to the inevitable body count when journalists tried to defend their ethics from the home office. The company rumor mill even told wild tales of a former beauty queen smashing a cherry-filled donut into a very important face. The story then said the woman followed the pastry with two quick slaps and a big kiss learned from Bugs Bunny before storming out.

That story has got to be bullshit, Frank thought. He’d long since stopped taking things at face value until after doing a little homework. Informed skepticism had been just the right attitude that had gotten him a great job as the Managing Editor for Movies at Snapsquared.com. Unfortunately, the man who’d asked for this brief meeting in a parking lot held that great job in the palm of his hands.

“The story about Hannah Valmont is true,” Benjamin Crown said, sneaking up on Frank from behind.

Frank jumped out of his skin, having been caught looking the other way. He turned to look at Mister Crown, who looked every inch the corporate heavyweight in a thousand dollar suit. Frank played a mental game common to film journalists, casting the people he met with stars. Mister Crown was the spitting image of George Clooney.

“The home office wanted the mayor taken to school and she objected,” Mister Crown continued. “She’s already been hired by an ABC affiliate in New London owned by one of our competitors. But, enough gossip, I made you our regional headhunter.”

Frank still couldn’t believe the confirmation. “You said the story was true?”

“Which version?” Mister Crown asked. “The cherry-filled donut and big kiss are true. The kick in the balls and the smack to the head with her purse are total fiction. Now Frank, tell me who the company will hire this year.”

“Anna Victor has just graduated,” Frank said, nervously looking deep into Mister Crown’s brown eyes and finding a good excuse for a mild and unspecified fear. “You’ll remember she’s the one who turned a pinch on the ass into a two-point takedown of her school’s chancellor.”

“No one else?” Mister Crown asked.

“You asked me to find permanent staff,” Frank responded, fervently wishing to be anywhere else. “Most of the people I run into are really freelancers and will always be so. Usually, it’s a temperament thing. Anyway, most of the people looking for day jobs have been snapped up by other publications.”

“Why?”

“We pay fifteen percent below average for new hires and…”

“Out with it.”

“Well, sir, we have no identity since we’ve changed our name three times in as many months,” Frank said.

“This Miss Victor, has she sent us her resume, yet?” Mister Crown said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “I’ve been following her, too. She’s got deadline problems. Don’t hire her just yet, but string her along at your website as a freelancer, until after I close our next acquisition.”

“Sir, she did Watergate level reporting as a college senior that should have picked up a Pulitzer, but for unwritten rules keeping it away from students,” Frank objected. “She also has the physical equipment to replace Hannah and any other Barbie-doll we want to stick behind the anchor desk at our silly little CW affiliate. Logic says we kiss her ass and make a deal, now.”

“No. String her along with those silly junkets you go to and make friends with her,” Mister Crown commanded. “When the time comes, I will personally take her career in hand.”

Frank couldn’t help feeling the chill run up his spine. When home office sharks took that much interest in attractive young journalists, insurance carriers usually spit coffee onto their shirts.

“Relax Frank, we’ll still have her when we’re ready for her,” Mister Crown said, forcing a jocular tone. “At least half of our competitors will check up on her and freak out over her deadline issues. The other half may still want her, but will be able to find all the talent they want elsewhere. It’s a buyer’s market.”

“I really want to see this girl get paid,” Frank said, using his last trump card.

“Nothing is stopping her from submitting to our various travel sections,” Mister Crown said. “With reprints and the Net she’ll keep a roof over her head.”

“So what is our next acquisition?”

“The Weekly World Guardian. We’re moving the editorial offices to Los Angeles.”

Frank would have spit coffee on his shirt, except he’d already digested his morning caffeine jolt. “Sir, how do we fit three-headed babies, UFO abductions and the lamest ghost stories on the planet into a serious news department?”

“We don’t. We used three or four shell companies, so we don’t have to answer that question.”

“Am I correct in assuming the rag is wildly profitable?” Frank asked rhetorically.

“As it is now, it pays for the black hole we own in Cincinnati,” Mister Crown said with a smile that struck fear rather than reassurance. “When, I’m done with it we may even pay for that train wreck in Detroit.”

“When you’re done, Sir?”

“I spoke with the Chairman,” Mister Crown said. “In addition to supervising our West Coast assets, I’m getting back into harness with the Guardian. I’ll need a good pseudonym to be Editor in Chief.”

“Huntley Hart.”

“Frank, I watch the same movies as you,” Mister Crown needled. “Especially Hitchcock, it’s too obvious.”

“Ok, how about J.J. Septon?”

“You can do better than Stalag 17.”

“Then try Max Schumacher.”

“Another William Holden part,” Mister Crown said, rubbing his chin in a manner that suggested approval. “Did you suggest Network because of the journalism theme?”

“No, I’ll tell people I did,” Frank said. “Actually, it’s because William Holden was so good at playing assholes.”

Mister Crown’s eyes actually lit up. “Thank you, Frank. You really like me.”

“Do I have your permission to leave?”

Mister Crown waved Frank away and started towards the North cheese wedge for a meeting to sign a contract. Mister Crown turned back.

“You know Frank, we do have some things in common,” Mister Crown said. “Imagining I’m the hero of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes so I can burn these pigfuckers down is one of my hobbies, too. Or was it Fight Club? I never can tell.”

Mister Crown walked away, leaving Frank to ponder the freakiness of how the man knew what his fantasy had been. He walked to his car, the fear doubling in his troubled soul.

Frank shook his head wondering if he needed a shower. Across Century Park East, an old friend and mentor stood by a trashcan. Johnson Packard wore mirror shades and a trench coat as if he wanted to be spotted following someone. The grandfatherly Pulitzer-prize winner had the good sense to break cover and cross the street. They hugged.

“Jack! I didn’t know you were in L.A.” Frank said. “The…”

“The stakeout duds are a little obvious,” Johnson filled in. “I want to see how paranoid Mister Crown is. At the moment, not very.”

“Last I heard you were senior columnist at the New York Dispatch, still a competitor’s flagship, I’m glad to say.”

“An almost true rumor about ‘Personal Differences’ will drive me into the same job at the Chronicle,” Johnson said. “But, just between you, me, God and my dog, Spot, Michael Pearson at the Dispatch has a niece that fell for Benny’s charms and came out a little different. I agreed to be dealt to who do we work for again?”

“Fuck, if I know I just work here.”

“Yeah, so I gather. I’ve been dealt here so I could get close to Benny and burn him on the women,” Johnson said. “Pearson gets even. The Dispatch watches the company pay out harassment settlements. I get my last book for the old regime in print and then become loyal to the new regime at a fifty percent pay raise.”

Frank cringed. “Jack, Mister Crown is the regime out here. We both read the Scripture about serving two masters. This kind of thing is about as smart as flying a jet with unshielded electronics near a cell tower.”

“No, Frank, this is more like a kamikaze mission,” Johnson said grimly. “Mike Pearson is the kind of man for whom I’d shed blood and good brandy. And this may also be the last shot for the old dinosaurs to explain why we need ethics and ombudsmen with real balls.”

“But, harassment, Jack?” Frank asked. “That’s like the fox guarding the henhouse.”

“I’m getting help,” Johnson protested. “And my ladies all cooperated. No one was ever hurt or degraded. Benny is far worse. I should know; it takes one to know one.”

“Well, I’m your friend,” Frank said resigned. “Let’s go get a drink.”

“You laid things out for me like a good friend should,” Johnson said. “That puts you on my Blood and Good Brandy list as well. The girl whose career you’re masterminding is also on that list.”

“Anna Victor? Do I want to know this story?”

“No. Let’s just say that two blood oaths from my past have intersected and go get that drink,” Johnson said.

Chapter Seven – Purchase in Store

Anna, Mika and Bobby roared through the right-hand S-turn from the French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours. As predicted, Bobby didn’t add any weight to the kart borrowed from George Carmichael. The owner had sized Anna up and figured that the confident young lady who’d brought her own helmet packed the gear to drive a kart with a well-tuned steering and suspension kit and a hot motor.

Anna reached down and patted Mika on the shoulder, letting her put her hands on the wheel in the upcoming straightaway. The little girl sat between Anna’s legs with a special harness strapping her in. Even with the extra weight from driving tandem, it was easy for them to follow Phil Collier around the track. The proper line for the track almost seemed to be revealing itself to Anna as if she had a virtual heads-up display surgically implanted in her head.

Meanwhile Bobby clung to Anna’s back as if he were a baby chimpanzee being taken care of by its mother. Anna felt very sure that she was going to have a long talk with her invisible hitchhiker about proper behavior. She was sure that this ghost, or whatever he was, enhanced the growl of the engine by screaming in her ear.

Anna chuffed in her helmet sounding to herself like Darth Vader having an asthma attack. She pointed towards Phil in the tourist kart just ahead. Mika nodded and stomped on the gas, passing her father. The daughter’s exclamation of sheer glee joined the engine noises, Anna’s breathing and Bobby’s growl in the audio stew that existed inside Anna’s helmet.

Mika held up a hand and twirled a finger as she completed the pass around her father. Anna took the hint and turned around and put her hand to the front of her helmet. She snapped a picture of Phil Collier with the digital camera taped to her helmet. The holographic grandstands seemed filled with screaming fans and this was almost as good an ego boost as the cheering at her graduation had been. She was glad of it, because it was better than contemplating a world with ghosts in it.

Anna felt a little schadenfreude seeing Johnson Packard spin out near Pit Row. The older man kicked his tires and stomped off to the hot dog stand. He restrained himself from kicking a trashcan, when he found out there was no bar.

Realizing he had no feel for an article that he wasn’t obligated to write, Johnson got his keys and left Carmichael Racing. He had other fish to fry as Mister Benjamin Crown was playing golf today. Johnson kicked himself later for missing a good story.

The hostility rubbed his hands with glee as he stood next to George Carmichael on the viewing platform of the main building. The camera crews and other journalists taking a break from driving stood with George watching the action. The reporter who had almost burned his bridges asking about George’s driving career held a pair of binoculars on Anna’s kart.

“Where did that Amazon learn to drive?” the reporter asked. “Even with the extra fifty pounds she’s ripping up your pavement. You think maybe between us we can get her into one of the circuits that feed F1, CART or Indy Cars?”

“She’ll sign up for NASCAR before anything else,” George said. “She seems like the type those good old boys will take to as she breaks that gender barrier. But, I get this feeling that Anna Victor already has the job she’s best at.”

The hostility didn’t care except for that it would be ironic to put this attractive woman with the green eyes into the nearest wall. He crept closer to George and examined the remote control in George’s left hand. It was a simple matter to hit the lock out button and then to disappear into the server room.

The computers hummed and whirred. The hostility unlimbered long unused fingers and sat down to type at a keyboard. Data flew across the screen, as the program for the track became something else. He deleted all sorts of payroll and financial information to make room for the changes. His work done, it was time to sit back and enjoy his handiwork with a hearty laugh that no one would hear on the track outside.

Phil Collier drafted behind Anna and his daughter and followed them through the big right turn after the straightaway and pit road. Mika had relinquished the wheel figuring that Anna knew how to hit the turn correctly. Together, the two karts passed a group of karts wallowing at the outside of the turn. Anna thought she recognized the leader of the pack as the female anchor of the local NBC affiliate’s News at Eleven show. Anna could kick herself for not sticking a camera rig on the nose of the kart like her colleague.

A deep rumbling mixed with the squeal of metal scraping intruded on the already noisy environment inside Anna’s helmet. Mika heard it too and turned her head to look at Anna. The sight of the little girl’s blue eyes widening behind the visor of her helmet would stay with Anna for a long time. Bobby took this moment to jump off Anna’s back and disappear.

The sound carried all the way back to the main building. It got the attention of everyone on the gallery rail. George immediately held up his remote control and frantically mashed the lock out button. He grabbed the reporter next to him and spun him around.

“Help me with the computer room!” George shouted.

Anna put a reassuring hand on Mika’s shoulder. A red kart driven by a famous movie reviewer obviously out to scam free admission for a day out with the family flashed by on the right as the backstretch approached. The holography for the French Grand prix track started to flicker.

Then everything changed. Magny-Cours became Monaco, the part where cars traditionally have to brake going downhill before turning left. Anna gunned her motor to get through before the upwelling hydraulics pitched her kart into the air. Mika’s father wasn’t so lucky. His kart was suddenly airborne.

“Daddy!” Mika screamed, watching her father separate from his kart about fifteen feet in the air. “Get my Daddy!”

Bobby chose this moment to return. He had decided to go to the main building and deal with the heart of the problem, but the fear he felt from people he liked brought him back. He willed himself to stand more or less under Phil Collier’s impact zone and turned himself into a visible ball of light.

Phil didn’t like the look of the pavement below him. The ball of light that formed under him was confusing. The light cradled him and absorbed most of the impact energy. Believing in spirits had come with a psychic daughter, but this was his first direct experience. Damned if he didn’t hear a young boy’s laughing – Hey! Just like on Chips!

Phil rolled to the ground and started running towards the main building largely because there was a five hundred pound kart on some sort of trajectory for the pavement. The ball of light changed partially back into a small boy and waved at the terrified journalist. Bobby caught the falling kart with the same care and set it on the ground. An idea came to him. He sat in the kart and drove off.

George and the reporter put their shoulders to the server room door. Something or someone actively resisted by putting equal weight against the door. Marilyn came up to help with a flying karate kick learned a long time ago at summer camp. The door crashed inward to the floor.

The hostility started throwing computers at the intruders. “Get off my land!” he whispered.

The reporters in the main building and dining areas quickly made agreements amongst themselves and split their cameras between covering the track and the brewing fight inside. Four TV crews and lots of digital cameras were trained on the server room, just in time for George to survive a blizzard of loose computers and parts for brief access to the room.

Eyes popped all through the hallway as the cameras caught George and Marilyn in a death struggle with something that wasn’t there! The hostility ground George’s head into a nearby wall. Marilyn fought like a tiger, but soon the hostility had her bent forward over a table with her arms pinned behind her. The hostility laughed as he reached for his captive’s skirt.

The hostility forgot that his best defense was his insubstantial nature. His bad intent forced him far enough into the regular world for Marilyn to connect with a foot stomp and hard elbow that could be heard all the way to the hot dog stand. The hostility backhanded her for the temerity.

Bobby enjoyed himself. He was driving like he’d always wanted. The traffic on the track stayed consistently heavy because all the people had panicked and tried to keep driving until they came to Pit Row. Bobby solved that problem by driving next to them and reaching over and pulling the distributor cap off each engine in turn.

The sight of a driverless kart just before their engines conked out convinced the drivers to get out and run towards the main building and the parking lot. Bobby felt a little like Casper in that no one thanked him before they ran away, screaming. But, what was a little fear compared to driving in real traffic, like a grown up?

Anna couldn’t let the trust Phil had shown with his daughter be misplaced. She squeezed her legs a little hard on the small girl in front of her. The track had gone through three pre-programmed tracks since the change to Monaco. She had expertly ducked hazards on the Japanese, German and Brazilian Grand Prix tracks. A flash came to her that she should stop, cut the engine and run with Mika to the main building.

Just then, the code for track selection finally rewrote itself so that Carmichael Racing began making up its own tracks. Hydraulic rods burst out of the ground and retracted, attempting to spear through the bottom of Anna’s kart. She had the sense to look around at other parts of the track and saw that most of the phenomenon concentrated on her. Somebody hates me, she thought before yanking her kart through a left-hand braking drift to avoid a spear intended to crack her differential gear.

George recovered and grabbed Marilyn before running from the server room. A journalist, who split his efforts between covering Compton and writing for a Catholic journal, held his gold crucifix aloft. This act of faith caused a moment of pause that enabled George and Marilyn to make their escape. Then the hostility remembered that it took more than a shiny cross to beat him. He proceeded to beat the reporter to a bloody pulp.

The reporter took the beating like a Christian going to the lions. “Yo Mama! I been worked over by the Po-lice, Crips and the Eighteen,” he teased, reverting to the street slang his education had eliminated. “Is this all you got, muthafucker?”

The cross may not have any special meaning to the hostility, but the faith and simple experience with beatings were too much. The hostility focused his Chi and threw the reporter back towards the bank of electronics, becoming unintentionally visible for the cameras. The hostility kicked the door to the server room closed, leaving stunned silence.

Benjamin Crown had the worst round of his life. Hiding behind the bushes at every green was Johnson Packard. Mister Crown couldn’t two-putt to save his life. What did the bastard know? Mister Crown thought.

Jerry and Michael waited near the United Airlines check in desk in Terminal Six. Hannah Valmont had sent her things to Connecticut and held a coach-class seat on tonight’s redeye. They were going to ask her for a few comments about what they thought had been happening to her over the past three days.

“You know, Mike,” Jerry said, looking up from his notebook computer. “If Ms. Valmont is what we think she is, how does the usual solution affect our standing as journalists? Our fictional counterpart Kolchak had this same problem in his first adventure.”

Michael laughed. “Jerry, old pal, the tides of darkness we seek brought us to the Weekly World Guardian, where no one expects us to have anything like an ethical standing as journalists.”

“You’re still sore about our Amazon friend laughing at you last week in the parking lot, aren’t you?” Jerry asked.

“Just because I am what I am, doesn’t mean I can’t get stomped by a pretty girl,” Michael said, shaking his head. “She laughed at both of us if you remember.”

“I saw her first.”

“No, I did.”

Jerry smiled and stuck his nose back into his computer screen where he was reading the real time AP wire. He hit a few buttons and tapped into a story that seemed interesting. A few more buttons got him the video feed that the Associated Press sent to its television clients. His eyes bugged out when he saw a racetrack where the ground welled up trying to wreck a kart carrying a woman and young girl.

“Hey, Mike,” Jerry said, hitting his friend’s arm. “Speaking of our Amazon friend, here she is out in Pacoima and I think she bought into a scene where our special talents could help.”

Michael spent a moment feeling the answer to his questions. “Yep, but we can’t help her.”

“What?”

“I’m busy hunting the subject of our story,” Michael continued. “And your skills come with lots of strings attached. The subject of our story is just barely on the approved list for your club. This situation is less so.”

“But, we like this girl.”

“I have it on good authority that she will walk away from this,” Michael said. “Besides, she needs the story more than we do.”

Jerry nodded, but started capturing stills and video off the AP wire, just in case. Movement near the door caught the attention of both Jerry and Michael. A classy blonde in a business suit glided across the tile floor. Hannah Valmont flicked hair out of her gray eyes and adjusted her travel bag on her shoulder. The silver charm worn at her last broadcast dangled from her throat.

“Showtime,” Michael said, standing up.

Bobby had done his job and killed every engine except Anna’s on the track. People more frightened than injured ran to their cars in the parking lot. He worried about what they would say when they recovered their wits and started making use of their position in the press. He liked fast cars and this land was as much his as it was the mean Other’s.

Bobby set his teeth and stomped on the gas trying to catch up with Anna on the other side of the track. He too noticed that whatever the Other did to wreck the track Anna was the focus. Bobby didn’t know how long he’d been locked in with the Other, but this was the last straw. Bobby decided to get even.

Bobby closed the distance with Anna. Pavement screamed by inches under the feet he still thought he had. The Speed Racer theme song flashed in his memory and he sang it like he had when his mommy finally let him watch.

Anna pulled out every trick taught to her by the old moonshine runner that had lived next door in Houston. She did slides, spins, J-turns, drifts and even a few moves used so rarely that they didn’t have names. The physics behind the design of the kart prevented her from going up on two wheels, a good idea when spikes shot up from the track aiming to tip her over.

Somehow a pattern to the track’s mayhem emerged. She found a way to drive away from every spike, bump and ripple the pavement used to smack her around. Finally, she pulled up to Pit Row and the main building. Mika ran towards her father screaming as if she had many skinned knees for Daddy to kiss. Anna watched the non-journalists run away in panic, while the media types stood their ground to cover the story of a lifetime.

Anna stood tall, breathing easy like someone with very little left to lose. She tore her camera loose and held her helmet like a battering ram. Bobby pulled up in his kart just in time to see the nice Anna lady start towards the main building. He immediately grabbed Anna’s ankle trying to stop her.

“He’s mean!” Bobby wailed, becoming slightly visible to Anna for the first time.

Anna knelt down and looked her ghostly friend in the eye. “No one is meaner than me, when I’m this pissed off.”

Anna entered the building, swinging her helmet by the straps.

Corporate warriors scattered. Some hid under their desks. Journalists throwing down with each other were supposed to be a thing of the legendary past. Johnson threw office supplies like staplers at Mister Crown’s head.

“Why are you wasting your time on me?” Mister Crown asked ducking a three-hole punch.

“Because you’re a lawsuit waiting to happen!” Johnson hissed.

“And you’re not? OK, that’s it! You’ve lost your column,” Mister Crown commanded. “We’ll find you another office for you until you crank out the books you owe us. Then you never work in this town again!”

Security arrived to take the situation in hand. Johnson packed out his desk and then walked away from his corner office on the fifth floor. Another office meant the basement, though when he got there he did wonder why there was an office in the corner with Mister Crown’s name on it.

A guard turned on the lights revealing cubicles shoehorned between office supplies. They led the man to a cubicle where he set up his treasured black Remington.

“Hey Sir, we like your work,” the guard said. “Here’s hoping the wind changes and the poop blows in another direction.”

They left him and he began typing.

Chapter Ten – Purchase in Store

The sunlight faded into fantastic reds and oranges as Richard Harrison’s ghost contemplated the abandoned racetrack. He was running out of things to do. Spider webs had already formed on some of the karts and no one came around. He needed an audience even if only to scare them to death.

Richard Harrison had uselessly haunted his old house for thirty years, unable to break through the love created by the brat and the bitch who had been his wife. Burning the house down should’ve set him free, but the insurance company had built the new house on the same floor plan. The brat and bitch moved back in and had made him weak as a kitten every time he tried to rape a housewife or daughter, while making the men and boys watch.

Leveling the house for the racetrack had set everyone free, but now that Richard Harrison had his stage no one wanted to come over and play. He was paying the price for being completely over the top with his haunting. He considered moving into a sorority house at a college where the girls are pretty, intoxicated and a little stupid.

The small convoy of cars and minivans backlit by the setting sun pulling into the parking lot caught his attention. Even at this distance, he could see a Porsche and a Japanese-built hatchback find parking spaces. He searched his memory and knew that the brat’s new girlfriend and the racetrack owners were coming back for Round Two. The third vehicle, a battered minivan that rode better than it looked, pulled into the lot behind the other two cars. Richard Harrison squinted into the fading light hoping to see who drove this vehicle.

Anna led Bobby, George and Marilyn over to the new arrival unloading gear from his van. Bobby flopped onto the tailgate and handed over a Matchbox car to the man in the dark suit. Father Juan Gallegos jumped out of his skin, seeing the barely visible boy holding a toy car.

“My God!” Father Gallegos blurted. “This isn’t the one that I’ve come for, is it?”

A second shock followed the first when he got a good look at Anna with her bottle green eyes and black hair. Father Gallegos had long since learned not to ignore the ravings of madmen. It had proved bad for business as an exorcist. But, Bobby hopped around like a kid coked up on sugar because he could, distracting the priest from his message.

Bobby hopped up on Father Gallegos’ shoulder and fiddled with the priest’s luxurious grey hair. “No, silly, it’s my mean daddy you want. Like my car?”

Father Gallegos took the toy and looked at it more carefully. He beheld a 55-scale 1968 Camaro convertible in blue that seemed suspiciously like a chariot long since retired to the scrap yard.

“Hey, I had this car once upon a time,” Father Gallegos said. “How did you know?”

“I guess good,” Bobby said, giving the Father a pat on the forehead before jumping into Anna’s arms.

“You guess well,” Anna corrected. “Now, Father, I want to make sure that Bobby won’t be flushed down the toilet with the spirit you’re here for.”

Father Gallegos looked up from playing the Pull-The-Nose-Off gag with Bobby. He’d long since found that playing up the image of the simple village priest helped his numerous enemies underestimate him. Of course, it was easy around cute kids.

“Señorita Anna, the little man followed you home. Any chance of him being accidentally flushed is long gone. Of course, he may decide his business is over when we’re done.”

“Does that mean I have to go to that nice place in the sky?” Bobby asked.

Father Gallegos couldn’t help thinking that Bobby reminded him of his youngest nephew. It had nothing to do with how they looked, because Bobby should have been a poster boy for sweet Anglo children everywhere. It was the fire behind the blue eyes that caused the comparison. Both boys had grabbed life with both hands and held on as if they were glued to a Playboy playmate.

Father Gallegos tousled Bobby’s hair and smiled. “Does that worry you, little man?”

“No cars, no loud music,” Bobby said. “The Book says it’s boring.”

“The Book doesn’t actually say much about the specifics,” Father Gallegos said. “I think they might set you up with a cherry ride, if you ask nicely.”

Bobby shook his head and held on tighter to Anna. “But, I like Anna. She’s fun.”

Father Gallegos patted Bobby’s head and shouldered his bag. Together, four people and one ghost walked into the racetrack.

Father Gallegos watched Anna as she slept on the couch in George’s office. Richard Harrison’s vengeful spirit had gone down fighting, spraying spores from a magic mushroom in Anna’s face. Apparently, they grew on the exact spot where the man had died, watching his whole world burn down around him.

Father Gallegos put his hand on Anna’s forehead. He could tell from the frantic eye movements under her eyelids that Anna was living through a nightmare much like a Stephen King novel. No, on second thought, a John Carpenter movie seemed more appropriate. The priest took a deep breath, getting used to the spectral boy under the wool blanket with Anna. He had never seen a ghost so friendly and protective of the humans in their orbit.

Father Gallegos pulled out a sketchpad and began to draw the scene. He hadn’t told anyone, but he wrote and drew the comic book that he advertised in under a pseudonym. The money from the Divine War Journal paid for the costs associated with cleaning up dangerous spiritual messes. The book had also brought him some regular street cred in mainstream comics which resulted in offers to write Batman. The money from those comics went into a trust fund for his nephews and nieces.

The sketch of Anna and Bobby bundled up on brown leather couch developed into a cross between a Titian and a Goya. Father Gallegos realized that Bobby had leeched most of the terror into his own being, because he loved Anna. Death got in the way of Eros, so Bobby had decided to be the little brother from Hell as the next best thing. It was these emotional undercurrents that jumped the sketch up into the stratosphere of great art. The priest crossed himself and said an Our Father in thanks for this pairing.

“Father, draw me from the left side,” Bobby said, choosing to be aware of the attention.

“No, little man, it’s good doing it this way.”

Bobby waited for the priest to finish the sketch and then set about tapping Anna awake. “Wake up; we have to fix the racetrack.”

Anna woke up, glad to not have to face the ghost that tried to clock her with a crescent wrench for the fortieth time in her dreams. Bobby left and came back with coveralls and a helmet.

“Bobby, we fixed the racetrack,” Anna said, stifling a yawn.

“Anna, we fixed the ghost,” Bobby answered. “The cars won’t run until we fix the…the pube-lishia.”

“Bobby, did you mean to say publicity?”

Bobby tugged on Anna’s arm. “We’re going to fix that too.”

Anna let Bobby drag her into the nearest changing room. She passed the amused Father Gallegos on the way out. “Thank you, Father, for knocking me out with that Valium.”

Bobby returned with coveralls and helmet for Father Gallegos. “You too, Father.”

Anna put her helmet on as she stepped out onto the pavement. George and Marilyn stood by a trio of karts wiping off the cobwebs that had formed over the past three days. Father Gallegos followed behind, testing the feel of his driving suit.

“Damn, if it hasn’t been years since I’ve done anything like this,” Father Gallegos said, his smile clearly visible in the crimson morning air.

The priest tapped Anna’s elbow. She pulled up her helmet visor.

“Anna, a little while ago I received the kind of warning that exorcists don’t ignore,” Father Gallegos whispered. “A crazy homeless man became lucid just long enough to ask me to warn you or a girl that looks like you about a vampire in mirror shades with a penchant for beheadings.”

“Do you have any personal experience with vampires, Father?” Anna asked.

“The Vatican has a couple texts in our super secret collection,” Father Gallegos said. “But, most priests, even skilled exorcists, aren’t sneaky enough to catch them with their pants down, so No.”

“I’m not sure I believe the threat, Father.”

“Be careful.”

“Always.”

Mika Collier had recovered her composure in the preceding days. The twin nightmare of nearly losing her father and being brained by a ghost had already faded into the past. Now, she walked home with a pack of friends from summer school past the fence to Carmichael Racing. She paused and put her hand against the fence, enjoying the looks of horror from her pals.

“There we were,” Mika said, fibbing like a champion. “Behind the wheel going, like, two hundred miles per hour and we’re coming up on a right turn and then…”

“Hey, Mika,” Bobby interrupted from the other side of the fence. “I bet you I can beat you on the track.”

About half the other children took off running for home at the sight of Bobby choosing to materialize slowly as he spoke. Two boys and a younger girl with trusting brown eyes stood their ground though their hands shook.

“I’m way better than you, Bobby,” Mika challenged.

They resumed their wrestling match. Obviously, Bobby still hadn’t learned anything about tussling with Mika, because she got him in another headlock and dished out a noogie and a wedgie before he could scream. Standing up to a ghost put a lot of street cred in play between Mika and her friends.

“I still can whoop your butt on the track,” Bobby said.

“Excuse me, Casper,” Angela Barrett said, hiding everything below her eyes behind a Raggedy Ann Doll. “But, the mean ghost was on TV and our parents won’t let us come in here anymore. So why are you busting Mika like this?”

Mika smacked Bobby on the arm. “He’s trying to tell us that some adults fixed the mean ghost’s wagon and he wants to play.”

The two boys shrugged and stepped inside the fence. Angela stood her ground.

“But, Mommy and Daddy said not to go in,” Angela said.

A boy turned around. “Angela, you’re just a scaredy-cat,” Tim Barrett said to his sister. “Chick-en! Chick-en!” He completed the taunt with clucking noises and a chicken dance.

Mika loomed into Tim’s face. “Your sister is not chicken and she doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to.”

Mika kneeled down and held Angela’s hand. “We’re going in because I trust Bobby, but if you don’t want to go in we’ll call your Mom and Dad from inside and they’ll pick you up.”

“Can you really trust Casper?” Angela asked.

“He saved my daddy,” Mika said. “And his name is Bobby, so if you don’t use his name right he may forget that he likes you.”

Angela shrugged and let Mika take her by the hand into the racetrack.

A pair of disposable cell phones in juvenile hands created a ripple of word of mouth among the children of the San Fernando Valley. A free day of racing and food dragged a multitude of children willing to disobey their parents out of the malls and movie theaters. Soon parents surfaced trying to corral their kids sucked into the day of fun by Anna and Bobby who stood at the gate shaking hands.

The parents were followed by a local news crews that captured footage of all kinds of people driving safely around a previously haunted track. News coverage then turned into a flood of phone calls asking about making reservations and arranging birthday parties. Anna spent her time taking notes and helping George give a driving demonstration that showed off their skills.

Father Juan Gallegos took a few turns around the track and then retired to the air-conditioned comfort of the arcade where the kids that were too small to drive safely by themselves congregated. He came across Angela Barrett standing on her tiptoes to play Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He slid over a stool that would help her see the screen.

Father Gallegos put some coins in and joined Angela. Together they played Buffy and Spike as they tore through all the undead of Sunnydale.

“What’s it like to do this for real, Father?” Angela asked.

Anna’s new suit couldn’t contain her nervousness as she stepped out of her car. She already had the job that had brought her East along the Santa Monica Freeway to the canyons of glass and steel of Downtown Los Angeles. But, she still felt the butterflies in her stomach as she walked along Hill Street towards City Hall, as if she could still have her job taken away on a whim.

Turning right down First Street, Anna couldn’t help but feel awed by the twin towers of City Hall and the Los Angeles Chronicle building. Actually, City Hall was a little more impressive being both taller and the exterior for the Daily Planet on the original Superman show. Both buildings harkened back to the days when architects liked using marble and sandstone to dress up concrete rebar.

Of course the Chronicle had ruined their building in the seventies with modern glass and steel additions that grew out of the original stone like a cancer. The largest and most consistently solvent paper in Los Angeles had needed to expand their office space, but couldn’t convince the City to let them knock down the original stone tower. Anna held her notebook computer a little tighter under her arm and entered the building.

The glamour of going to work in the citadel of California journalism had faded by the time the security guard had led Anna through to the service elevator. The straight journalists covering crime, movies and what was left of the aerospace industry tended to give her dirty looks. She decided that the reason for the stares was split equally between snobs who hated tabloids despite stealing their tactics and the trapped that had stayed with the paper through three or more mergers.

Then she saw her workspace and all doubts about her place in the company food chain were erased. Her desk was a forlorn steel job made for the Army back when shooting Germans was still in vogue. Someone had placed the right end up against the single worst support column in the basement, a block of concrete rebar slathered in lumpy pink plaster. The ancient shotgun blast that left two rebar cables exposed in the harsh fluorescent lighting was an especially a nice touch.

Anna then looked up at the rest of the Guardian’s space and shook her head. The powers-that-be had cleared out seven hundred square feet or so from the basement supply room. Then someone had the brilliant idea of using some of the displaced supplies as partitions so they wouldn’t have to buy cubicles. The resulting labyrinth of paper boxes and storage bins for pens, notepads and staples reaching well over the head of any hypothetical visiting basketball players seemed designed to make anyone feel small.

Anna shrugged and opened up her notebook computer. She set about writing her triumphal follow up to the great racetrack haunting story. Her attention kept wandering to the hole in her column. It offended her well-ordered sense of aesthetics to see such a gaping hole in her space and this became that day’s excuse not to work. She decided that whoever had put it there had been less than eight feet away because a baseball sized mass of pellets had clipped the corner of the column.

A solution presented itself to Anna as she twirled her pen in her fingers. The screwdriver that she kept in her purse for protection felt good in her hands as she chipped out more of the hole. Thirty minutes later, there was enough space for a small houseplant like a fern.

“What are you doing, Anna?” Jerry Campbell asked, having silently walked in behind her.

Anna turned around, nearly taking Jerry’s eye out with the screwdriver. He deftly stepped out of the way and stepped over to brush the dust off her coat.

“Just settling in to my new workspace, Jerry,” Anna said. “That hole was too big and deep to repair or cover up so I made it bigger. I can put a plant in there.”

Jerry smiled, his body language clearly showing his interest. He sat down on her desk and reached between the desk and the paper boxes and pulled up a fistful of cables attached to a junction box on the concrete floor. The connections showed signs of having been originally installed two decades ago and retrofitted over time to keep up with new technology.

“Plug your computer in here until the suits buy you a desktop system,” Jerry said.

Anna got to work and found the rhythm of the clacking typewriter in the next cubicle over to be relaxing. Jerry kissed her and left for the photography department. She peeked into her neighbor’s cubicle and was a little unnerved to see Johnson Packard banging away on a treasured black Remington manual. She was about to introduce herself and have it out with the man.

Johnson was so intent on his copy that Anna remembered some maxims about interruptions: never disturb a cat while it eats and never disturb a writer at the keyboard. So she nodded her approval and went back to work.

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