The first part of 2020 has been all about creating a story to gift to my Coffee Klatch reader group. Because they’re special peeps. No other reason.
The story hasn’t got a title just yet, but it’s set in Vegas, features a handsome if somewhat misguided cowboy/motivational speaker, and draws a wee bit on my days toiling at a newspaper. I’m still in the editing stage, but here’s your chance to get a sneak peek.
Below is the first chapter. Enjoy!
Seven Hours to Midnight
“Ronnie, sheez, you’re going to have to hurry up. Those are due at midnight.”
My red pen strikes through an errant semicolon as I look up at Glenda, the managing editor of The Vegas Hospitality Weekly.
“Your reporters waited till the last day to hand in their submissions.” I try to ignore the to-do pile, which is blocking my view of the window, and strike out yet another pointless comma.
Glenda shoves my pile of my romance novels to the floor and lowers herself with a grunt into a chair. “Of course they did.” Her voice is a PSA against smoking for thirty years. She leafs through a few of the articles. They’re not regular articles. They’re for the magazine’s yearly contest that the editor puts on to award excellence in tourism journalism.
Apparently excellence and punctuality don’t mix.
Glenda won’t have to judge the contest. That’s the editor’s job. The same editor who’s leaving for an ashram on the red-eye tonight, which is why everyone has to get their submissions in by midnight because he won’t have access to e-mail after.
The room goes quiet as I continue to search out typos and stain pages in red. A bleep comes from my phone, but I don’t pick up.
Not with the boss sitting right next to me.
The phone bleeps again. I shove my phone in my pocket without looking at who the sender is. I already know.
Glenda tosses the articles back on the to-do pile and nods at something near my feet. “You finish a submission yourself?”
I follow Glenda’s gaze to the floor, where a trash bin is filled with scrunched-up paper, my wasted attempts at writing my own article for the contest. “No,” I say and push the bin under the desk with my foot.
“Right,” Glenda shrugs and pulls out a cigarette from her faded case. “After all, you’re just the proofreader.” She gives me the look she always does wants someone to argue with her.
I don’t give her the pleasure. “Didn’t you quit smoking?”
“And I did so well, I’m giving myself a treat. Stop waving your hands around. It’s not like the smoke will kill you.”
She takes a drag on the cigarette and almost hacks her lungs out. I lean over to push open a window so I don’t die of asphyxiation. “Why are you in my closet?”
Glenda raises an eyebrow.
“Office, I mean. Office.”
A string of bleeps rattle my pocket. The insistence of the text only confirms who’s trying to reach me.
“Is that your boyfriend texting?” Glenda asks.
I shake my head and avoid her gaze. “Just a friend.”
The phone bleeps again.
“Don’t you think you should answer?”
“I’m at work. Why are here? You never come in here.”
She doesn’t answer. Doesn’t need to. A deep, dull voice erupts in the foyer outside. “Where’s your boss lady?” I notice a couple of really tall, really burly, really similar-looking guys standing at the front desk.
Tina, the secretary, squeaks, “Glenda is out.” After a grumble or two, the door slams shut, and everything is hushed again.
My phone beeps again. I turn to Glenda. “What’d you do now?”
“Aren’t you going to answer your phone?”
“It can wait.”
“Answer your phone.”
“You’re such a snoop.”
“I don’t care what your phone says. It’s the noise. It’s driving me bonkers.”
“It’s just a friend.” But I check my phone anyway. I was right. The messages are all from Chase.
Who, as I said, is just a friend.
“Ronnie!” Chase’s first message says. The next one says, “Ronnie!!!” Another says, “Ronnie? Ronnie?! Ronnie????!!!!!!!” followed by a bunch of emojis ranging in emotion from 🙂 to 🙁 to . . . Well, I’m not sure. My emoji vocabulary is pretty limited. “Did you get my thank-you card?”
“Just a friend, huh?” Glenda says in my ear.
I jump. I didn’t realize she was reading over my shoulder.
“Yes. Why are you hiding back here?”
“Nothing. Boring stuff. Aren’t you going to answer?”
“You’re a boss. Shouldn’t you disapprove of people chatting on phones while at work?”
“Sweetie, you’re going to be here till midnight reading all this crap. Take a break.”
“Translation: You’re bored.” I hit reply and let him know I got his card but that I’m at work. He must have already been typing something because a message comes through right away: “Did I use the pucker and a smirk right?”
“What?” I inch away so Glenda can’t see, but she follows me like some sort of satellite beacon.
Chase writes back. “The ;”
“Oh, the semi-colon. More or less.” Less, not more, but I don’t want to be mean.
“I have another thank-you for you!!!”
“Sure, he’s just a friend.” Smoke from Glenda’s cigarette curls in front of my eyes. I bat it—and her—away.
“I got something for you.” Chase adds numerous emojis. “An article idea.”
I turn in my chair so Glenda can’t see my reply. “What do you mean?” I type.
I know exactly what he means, of course. He’s been prodding me to submit something for the contest, but what’s the point? I’m just the proofreader.
“You know that job I got with Dirk Cowboy?” Chase types back. “He’s got a conference tonight at the Grand Pelagic West Casino & Resort, and yours truly got him to promise you an exclusive interview.”
My fingers itch. An interview with Dirk Cowboy. He’s a cowboy-turned-big-time motivational speaker. Big time. And author of some New York Times bestsellers like Lasso Success.
I might have read his books. Out of curiosity. You know, because he’s influential. As in cover of Forbes influential. Wall Street Journal influential. National Enquirer influential. You name it, his dimpled smile and cowboy hat have graced it.
“Too bad you can’t go,” Glenda snickers as she lights another cancer stick. “Not till you finish this pile of proofreading.”
“Stop reading my personal messages.” I don’t mean to snap. She’s right about my work. I’m the proofreader, after all. That’s what pays the bills. And heaven knows, the editor only gave me this job because Glenda threatened to burn him with the end of her cigarette butt if he didn’t.
I’m about to type “I can’t” to Chase when the outside door thuds open. The same deep voice from before echoes through the room. “Funny, toots, but the grocer across the street insists your little boss lady is here.”
A second voice, equally dull, says, “Yeah.”
“Glenda?” I say. “What did you do?”
Glenda ducks on the floor behind my desk.
She shrugs as though to say it’s no big deal. “I might owe some money.”
“Let them huff and puff. Mind locking the door, squirt?”
I scamper to the door and lock it, but a peek into the outside office tells me that the two thugs could blow it down with a sneeze. “Am I seeing double?” I ask as I duck down next to Glenda.
“They’re brothers. Twins. Identical.”
“Glenda. It’s not gambling, is it?”
“You know me better than that.”
I level a stare at her.
“Fine, you know me too well, but it’s not gambling this time. I needed some cash to cover some . . . inducement for a story I’m writing.”
Glenda doesn’t have to write stories, but it’s in her blood. She used to work in places like Uganda and the Sudan and Syria, and she greased plenty of palms to get scoops. She even has a few B&E’s on her record for inviting herself into government offices. I once asked her whether she was ever afraid she’d lose her job because of her overzealous nose for a story. She leaned right into my face, stared me in the eye, and said, “When you believe in your story, you know what rule to break. You just know.”
And then she almost coughed her lungs out.
Anyway, she misses those days, and every time she quits smoking, she takes up journalism. You wouldn’t think a hospitality magazine would feature articles about the underworld, but when Glenda does journalism, that’s the only journalism she’s willing to do.
In her case, maybe smoking is the less dangerous option.
“Who’d you bribe this time?”
“You don’t want to know. But I had to take a payday loan to cover it, and I might have put my car up as collateral.”
“So the Tweedle Twins are coming after your car.”
“Tweedle Twins. I like that.” She peeks from behind the desk and ducks lower. “And if I don’t give them my car, they’re coming after me.”
In the foyer, someone slams what sounds like a fist on a metal desk.
Anyway, I hope it’s a fist and not Tina’s face.
My phone rings.
Glenda nods at my phone. “Your boyfriend is calling.”
“He’s not my boyfriend. Why don’t you just pay?”
Glenda waves her cigarette above her head. “Sure, I’ll just wave my magic wand and make money appear.”
I tug my desk drawer open and count some bills. Only thirty-seven dollars. “This won’t be enough, will it?” I say as I hand it over to Glenda.
“You’re a doll,” she says. “But no.”
My phone rings again. I pick up. “Chase, I can’t.”
“Hi to you,” Chase answers. “I know you want to.”
I see Glenda staring at me. She’s sucking on her cigarette. When It obviously hasn’t occurred to her that making smoke signals is a terrible way to hide.
I close my eyes, the red end of the cigarette slowly fading in the dark. “I can’t,” I tell Chase.
Glenda wrangles the phone from my fingers and rasps into the phone, “She can’t talk. She’s at work,” before hanging up.
“Call him later. I need your help.”
“No kidding, but I gave you all the cash I have.”
“I got an idea,” she wheezes.
“Come out, come out wherever you are!” one of the Tweedle Twins thunders.
“I’ve gotten really good at talking these guys down,” Glenda insists. “They’re not that smart.”
“It’s your car or your face,” one of them yells.
“Glad that’s working so well for you.”
She points to the back wall. “You leave through the rear door and take my car away for a bit. That’ll buy me the time I need.”
“How’s that a solution?”
“If the car is AWOL, what are they going to do?”
“Your car is bright orange. How hard will it be to follow me?”
“You’re jittery. Think this is my first rodeo? I’ll distract them.”
“Before or after they punch you in the face?”
“I’m not picky.”
Glenda takes another drag on her cigarette. “Their bark is worse than their bite. Just trust me on this. Take my car. It’ll give me enough time to get to my son and beg some cash out of his ungrateful wallet. When it’s done, I’ll let you know the coast is clear.”
“I’ve got less than seven hours till I have to get through that Mt. Vesuvius of proofreading.”
My phone bleeps again. I can’t help myself. I look at Chase’s message. “I know you want to interview Dirk Cowboy. Talk about a big break!”
When I look up, I see Glenda reading the text. I cover the screen with my hand. I can’t let her think I’m tempted to go to the Pelagic during work hours. Because it’s irresponsible, what with all the work I have. And pointless because I don’t have time to write an article and proofread everyone else’s. And embarrassing, because who am I to think I can write a winning article anyway?
I feel silly for even being tempted.
“I can’t lose my car, Ronnie.” She leans right into my face, like she does when she wants to impart some important lesson, and says, “But I’m not letting you off the hook from your job. Don’t think for a second I am. I know you young people. You get ideas in your head. But don’t forget, you have less than seven hours to turn your work in. Don’t think of doing anything but driving my car around long enough for me to string along my loan sharks. And then you come back as soon as I call you, not a second later.”
Glenda holds up the key to her car. I glance at it, but her grey eyes, faded and dotted with brown, pull mine back. For a moment, I’m not sure whether she’s seeing me or memories of war and rebellions and slimy, gun-toting rebels whose palms she’s greased over the years. Because she’s seen all that and more. Things, unspeakable things, that must make her say, “If I die today protecting my VW Bug, at least I know I have lived.”
But there’s more. Her words are stern, but not her look. She has that same fire in her eye that she gets when she tells me, “If you believe in your story, you know what rule to break.” Is she inviting me to break a rule? To run to the Pelagic and interview Dirk Cowboy and submit an article to a contest I could only win if I lived in some fairy tale world where proofreaders rise to the top and become belles of the proverbial ball?
Another beep calls to me from my phone.
“You hear?” Glenda says.
Is she referring to her order to return as soon as she calls? Or does she, like me, remember how she once talked so boldly about flouting the rules?
A shaft of light breaks through the window, skips off the scratches that mar the key’s once shiny surface. Is that what opportunity looks like? Scuffed and worn and second hand?
All I know is that it is mine to take.
I reach out and grip the cold with my fingers. I don’t dare break what feels almost like a spell by talking. I just nod.
She pulls herself off the floor, apparently ready to face the Tweedle Twins with a down payment of thirty-seven wrinkled bills.
And I wonder whether I have been reading way too many novels.
“One hour, two tops.” She winks. “Your proofreading awaits.”
Will Glenda ever quit smoking?
Is Chase as cute in person as he is in text messages?
Can a lowly proofreader like Ronnie rise to the top?