dense blanket of heat and humidity covered the Florida
peninsula the afternoon of July 10, but at the climate-controlled
offices of the Miami Times the unending process of
news-gathering continued at a frenetic pace.
That Friday afternoon, while the city sweltered under
record-breaking temperatures, the editors sat quietly at their
desks in the center of the newsroom and Ellen Barrett, back
from a morning of interviews, worked intently at her computer
several feet away.
"Jim, tell me there's not something more to this murder."
She held up a news clipping and strained to see Jim Western.
Jim sat in the cubicle immediately in front of her and worked
the environmental beat, dealing with illegal chemical dumping
and polluted harbors. He was not interested in homicides.
"Sounds fishy." His eyes remained focused on his own computer
screen and the story he was writing. Ellen watched for a
moment, fascinated with his neatly arranged notes, his clean
desk, and the way he typed using only his index fingers.
"More than fishy." She reached for her coffee and took a sip,
wiping the moist condensation off the notepad where the cup
had been sitting. Her eyes traveled across her desk, searching
for a clear spot. She alone could make sense of the disaster that
was her work area. Somewhere, buried under layers of rumpled
notes, was a picture of her and Mike on their wedding day and
a Bible he had given her three years ago. It was dusty now,
though its pages were stiff and clean-much as they had been
when she received it.
Ellen studied the heap of papers and, as she had once a
month for the past year, made a mental note to get organized.
For now she pushed her keyboard back and set the hot drink
in the space it created.
She looked at Jim again. "Guy lives his whole life in his
father's shadow, tells his friend he hates the old man, and next
thing we know Dad opens the door and gets blown away by an
AK-47 on the Fourth of July."
"Neighbors think it's fireworks and no one sees a gunman.
What does the grieving son do? Hops in Dad's shiny, new
Corvette and shows it off to half the people in town."
"Not to mention the tidy insurance settlement sonny boy
figures to get now that Dad's gone."
"Know what I think?"
Jim sighed. "What?"
"Prison time for sonny boy."
"Hmm, yes." Jim continued to type, his index fingers moving
deftly across the keyboard.
"And won't that be something after everyone's been busy
doling out sympathy cards to the guy like he's some kind of
forlorn victim? Truthfully, I can't understand why he hasn't
been arrested. I mean, it's amazing, how obvious it is."
Jim sighed once more, and this time his fingers froze in
place as he looked up from his work. "That all you and Mike
talk about at home? Homicide investigations? Must make great
Ellen ignored him, but she was quiet for a moment. She
didn't want to think about Mike and the dinner conversations
that were not taking place. She glanced once more at her notes.
"Well, I think the kid's dead in the water. No doubt in my
mind. He'd better enjoy the Corvette while he still has his
Jim continued typing and the conversation stalled. Ellen
settled back into her chair and glanced around the office. The
newsroom was a microcosm of the outside world and it pulsed
with a heartbeat all its own. If a story was breaking anywhere-from
Pensacola to Pennsylvania, Pasadena to
Pakistan-it was breaking at the office of the Miami Times.
The room held twenty-four centers, each with eight computer
stations manned by hungry reporters. By late afternoon,
most of the reporters were seated at their desks, tapping out
whatever information they had collected earlier in the day.
Like the product it produced, the newsroom was broken
into sections. News, sports, entertainment, religion, arts, and
editorial. Each department had its physical place in the office
and operated independently of the others but for the constant
relaying of information to and from the city desk located at the
center of the room.
Despite the hum of activity from the other sections, Ellen
knew it was the editors at the city desk who ultimately made
up the life force behind the paper. They had the power to
destroy a local politician by placing his questionable use of
campaign funds under a banner headline on the front page
instead of burying it ten pages into the paper. A plan to expand
the city's baseball stadium could be accepted or rejected based
on the way the editors chose to play it in print.
Stories from around the world poured into the office
through computerized wire services while editors sorted
through reams of information and argued about whether children
starving in Uganda was a better lead story for the World
News section than Saddam Hussein's latest threat against
American armed forces. Whatever was deemed worthy of writing
was passed on to the other reporters.
It was a powerful job-one where perspective was difficult
to maintain. At the Miami Times, editors did not walk in the
same hurried fashion as reporters. They sauntered, carrying
with them an unmistakable aura of importance and often causing
reporters to shrink in their presence.
Except for the editors, Ellen's peers at the Times generally
enjoyed their jobs, thriving on the kind of pressure that causes
stress disabilities in other people. Angry sources, missing information,
daily deadlines, mistakes in print . the reporters
would have taken it all in stride if not for the wrath of theTimes's editors. Among media circles, the Miami Times's editorial
staff had a reputation for being demanding and difficult to
Reporters at the Times credited one man with earning that
reputation for the paper: managing editor Ron Barkley.
For three years Barkley had been in charge of the Times's
news desk. Every section of the paper had at some time come
under his scrutiny, but he paid particularly close attention to
the front section. Stories that made the front section were produced
by Barkley's general assignment reporters, a handful of
the paper's best writers who gathered and crafted stories that
did more than entertain readers. Front-page news changed
lives. The real news, Barkley called it.
If anyone knew Barkley's wrath, or the impossibility of his
demands, it was the general assignment reporters. His presence
among them had caused more than a little grumbling in the
newsroom. Ellen had even heard talk of a union forming to
combat what some reporters considered inhumane treatment.
Ellen had once interviewed J. Grantham Howard, the
paper's owner, for a piece about the Times's evolution over the
years. Howard had acknowledged the friction between Barkley
and his staff and told Ellen he kept himself apprised of the situation.
Certainly the owner understood that Barkley did not
make conditions pleasant for his reporters. But Howard was a
multimillionaire with a keen business sense and he readily
admitted he was not about to disturb the very successful chemistry
in the newsroom.
Howard told Ellen he'd kept a close eye on Barkley and
found him to be as brilliant as he was demanding. In the years
since Howard had hired the managing editor, circulation numbers
had reached more than a million on Sundays and advertisement
rates had nearly doubled. The same thing had happened at
the paper Barkley had run in New York, and Howard believed
the editor was the common denominator. Still, whenever
Howard would visit the newsroom, Ellen had seen him cringe
at the way Barkley treated the staff. Especially her.
"Barrett!" Barkley would boom across the newsroom on
occasion, shoving his chair away from his desk and rising to
his full height of six feet, four inches. His eyes would blaze as
he pointed toward his computer screen. "Get over here! We
can't run that story unless you verify those things Jenkins told
you. You wanna spend the rest of the year in court?"
His voice would echo off the fiberboard walls of the newsroom
as other reporters busied themselves in their notes. Ellen
knew they were empathizing with her and envying her at the
same time. For all the grief she took from Barkley, Ellen knew
the position she held at the paper. She'd heard it too often to
doubt it: she was unquestionably the Miami Times's best
Ellen smiled, and glanced toward Ron Barkley's office. He
thought Ellen feared him much the way her peers did. Her
smiled broadened. Poor Ron would have been shocked had he
known that his prize reporter really thought he was an emotional
kitten of a man, a fifty-six-year-old gentle giant, whose rough
exterior was only a cover-up for who he really was inside.
Ellen had been at the paper before Barkley's arrival. She had
moved to Miami four years after earning her journalism degree
from the University of Michigan and had been a sports writer
for a year before being promoted to the front page. When theTimes hired Barkley, she heard rumors that he was hard to
work for. She researched his background and found the names
of several reporters who had worked for him in New York.
"Tough as nails," a senior reporter told her. "He'll yell and
scream and throw a fit until you get the story perfect. But don't
let him fool you."
And then the man told Ellen a story she had never forgotten.
Ten years earlier Barkley's son had been a bright investigative
reporter with a brilliant future in the business. The young
man was driving home from the office one night when he was
hit head-on by a drunk driver and decapitated. After that, there
had been something different about Barkley's presence in the
New York newsroom. He still sounded loud and acted angry,
but there were times when he would be reading a story about
somebody else's tragedy and suddenly start coughing.
"I'd catch him swiping at a tear or two when he thought no
one was looking," the reporter said. "Eventually the memories
were too much and he needed out of New York."
"You liked him?"
"I understood him. The man knows the stuff we write
about is more than a way to fill a newspaper. Another thing.
He's the best editor you'll ever work for. Ignore the rough package
and listen to him. He'll make you a better writer than you
That had been three years earlier, and Ellen had taken the
reporter's advice to heart. When other writers fought with
Barkley, Ellen Barrett gave in. When he demanded, she produced.
When he screamed, she produced faster, nodding in
agreement and accomplishing all he asked of her. She learned
to rely on the man, ignoring his outbursts and allowing him to
fine-tune her journalistic talent with each story. As a result, if
Barkley got wind of a sensational tip or a front-page lead, he
would always pass it to Ellen.
For her part, the effort paid off immensely. She was the
highest paid reporter on staff and her name was known
throughout Miami. Twice she had worked on Pulitzer-prizewinning
articles and she was only thirty-one years old. She had
no problem with the fact that the crusty veteran editor credited
his editing practices as the cause of her success. Whatever the
appearance of their working relationship, Ellen was not looking
for sympathy. The situation suited her perfectly.
She flipped through her notepad and considered the homicide
story on the screen before her. She wanted to scrap the
whole thing and write a story blasting the dead man's son,
painting him as the primary suspect. But that was impossible
unless the police were at least headed in that direction. If only
they'd arrest him and make it official.
She tapped her pencil on her notepad and wondered
whether she should call Ronald Lewis, the sheriff's homicide
investigator. Earlier that morning she'd visited his office and
he'd told her there were at least a dozen leads on the case.
"What exactly are you looking for, Lewis?" Ellen had asked
impatiently. "The guy's son did it, and you know it."
Lewis had studied her thoughtfully for a moment. He trusted
her. She was thorough and truthful and careful not to burn her
sources, and he knew that. She'd made sure that when someone
talked off the record with Ellen Barrett, the information
never appeared in print. It had been a long road, but she had
earned the department's respect-and Lewis was no exception.
There were things he would tell her that he wouldn't consider
sharing with another reporter.
"Listen, you're probably right," he had admitted finally. "But
let me make the arrest first, will you?"
That was six hours ago, and now Ellen stared at her story
knowing it was noticeably vague and really only half written.
She reached for the telephone just as it rang. "It's about time,
Lewis," she muttered, picking up the receiver. "Miami Times,
"Ellen, it's me."
It was Mike. She relaxed and glanced at her watch. Five-fifteen.
He would be home wondering when she was leaving
work. Lately their schedules had been hectic; sometimes weeks
passed without a single dinner shared together. But that was
the price of being successful reporters, she supposed. The success
they both had achieved before they married had continued
and grown after the marriage. Mike knew the business well,
and so had understood the long hours. He'd even been the one
to encourage Ellen to keep her maiden name since that was the
name people in the industry knew.
"Hey." She softened her tone. "How was your day?"
"Ellen ." There was a long pause. "Ellen, I have bad news.
Your dad's had a heart attack, honey. Your mom wants you to
call right away. She's at the hospital in Petoskey."
Ellen felt the blood drain from her face and she hunched
over in her chair, elbows on her knees, feeling like she'd been
punched. A heavy pit formed in her stomach, and she pressed
her fists into her midsection in an effort to make it go away. She
felt nauseous. Dear God, help me. Deep breaths, Ellen. Take deep
breaths and stay calm.
She had expected this phone call for as long as she could
"He's alive, right?" Her voice betrayed none of what she was
"Sweetheart, I don't know anything. Your mom said for you
to call her. I think you should come home."
She was silent a moment and Mike exhaled softly. "I should
have waited until you were off work-" He broke off, then,
"Are you okay?"
Ellen squeezed her eyes shut. "Yeah. I'll be home in a few
Friday was the day Sunday's front-page stories were filed
and approved by the city desk. None of the general assignment
reporters dared ask Barkley if they could leave before he
cleared their Sunday stories. Even so, Ellen stood up, gathered
her purse and her notes, and moved mechanically toward
He looked up as she approached. "What is it, Barrett?" he
"Something's come up and I need to leave. My story's finished;
it's in your file. I'll be at home."
Ellen studied Barkley, waiting, and she thought she saw a
flicker of compassion. Maybe losing his son had enabled
Barkley to tell when something equally devastating had happened
in another's life. His response surprised her.
"Fine." Barkley's tone was almost gentle. He returned his
eyes to the computer screen and stretched his long legs
beneath his desk. "I'll call you."
Ellen turned, barely aware of her surroundings. She made
her way to the elevator, and then to the parking garage outside
where she climbed into her dirty, black convertible BMW.
Vanity plates on the front and back read, RTNBYEB: "Written
By Ellen Barrett." She switched off the car radio and screeched
out of the parking lot, intent only on getting home.
"Please let him live," she whispered. "Please, God."
When Ellen pulled into the driveway of the two-story house
she and Mike owned near the beach, he was waiting on the
Even masked with deep concern, her husband's face was
strikingly handsome. Marked by masculine angles and high
cheekbones, punctuated with piercing pale blue eyes, Mike
Miller's face looked like it belonged in a high-fashion advertisement
or a cologne commercial. For some reason it seemed
unfair that he should look virile and healthy when her father
was fighting for his life eighteen hundred miles away.
"I'm sorry." He met her halfway down the sidewalk and nervously
pulled her close, stroking her hair. "I've been praying."