Ok, here’s what I’m going to do. I’ll post the very first chapter and hope for constructive comments. What you can do is really easy. You can say something constructive (meaning useful) comments bit if you’d rather not see any more you don’t have to say a single solitary word.
WARNING: This Chapter is 5,295 words long or 14 pages long.
Chapter 1 Blue Cottage
T. H. Austin
Cassandra Carter, also known to her friends as Cassie, was a radio reporter for station CKMT. She’s been working there for five years. Her boss was Robert Stone who had the nickname of Buddha. Once you saw him you’d know why he had that particular nickname. Cassie’s current employment status might be best be described as questionable. She was hired, then suspended then told to get out of town but it might be better if you knew the entire story.
When she got out of bed she knew it was going to be a very special day. It was five years to the day that she had been hired as a reporter by the station.
And for five years she had done everything asked of her and fulfilled every assignment without complaint or comment. She was determined that today would be different from every day that preceded it. After she drove into the parking garage she had to check in with security in the lobby. The building used to be an old hotel and little had been done to change its overall appearance. When she reached the lobby it was a short walk before she reached the security office. Ben, the daytime security guard, asked for her station ID card, just like he had for the last five years. Today was just one day too many.
“Oh come on! You know who exactly who I am” she said feigning mild exasperation. “Do we have to go through this charade every single day?” said Cassie.
Ben liked giving Cassie a hard time every now and then. When she didn’t have her ID ready for inspection he asked her to step aside while she searched through her purse. Ben looked right at her while he attempted to answer her question.
“I’m just obeying the rules, Cassie. I’ve got to check every ID. Besides, you know the deal. This whole process would go by much faster if you’ll go out on a date with me.”
Cassie rolled her eyes. Ben had been asking her out for five years and she had been saying no for just as long.
“Would you let me pass if I said I’ll think about it?”
Ben shook his head then took pity on her.
“Oh alright. Just this once.” He held up one finger.
“Besides, you’re holding up the parade. There are people behind you. Now scat or I’ll phone Buddha and say you’re making a scene.”
That’s when the clock in the lobby sounded nine and Cassie became furious.
“You rat! You made me late on purpose.”
Before she got on the elevator she pushed her station ID against the tip of Ben’s nose. Still angry, she tossed her ID inside her purse and closed it. She quickly stepped inside the elevator. As the doors closed she shook her fist at him. She was still angry when she got to the CKMT studios on the third floor. Cassie was one of the first to arrive that day and empty desks covered with flowers or photos littered the third floor. Hers was beside her boss’s office. The lack of cursing told her that Buddha had yet to arrive. Then she spotted an assignment slip taped the top of her desk. She reached for it and read it.
“Be at the zoo by two-thirty. Big announcement”. It was signed with a “B”.
Cassie thought about the assignment slip.
“Not bloody likely. I’m a real reporter. I’m not a cub reporter fresh out of journalism school. It’s not my job to do puff pieces about Tibetan tigers and panda bears. That’s for first-year reporters. I cover hard news.”
She had good reason to be upset at the slip. She had been doing animal stories for five years and was sick of it. So after a few strong curses, Cassie turned around and walked towards the elevator. When she got to the ground floor she approached the security checkpoint and simply said: “Tell Buddha I’ll be at city hall”.
Her first stop was at city hall security. She had to inform them she was there, who she was, what media outlet she represented and would be taking part in the mayor’s daily media scrum. Television reporters were always in the first row of reporters. They were always closest to the mayor. Behind the TV reporters stood radio reporters. And behind them were newspaper reporters. She didn’t know who decided this on particular pecking order but it seemed to work. TV reporters had a friendly dislike for radio reporters and radio reporters had a mutual dislike for their TV counterparts. But reporters were always ready to help each other out when they needed a quote. Reporters also stood together if one of them was slighted in any way. By the time she reached the office of city hall security, she was trembling. She held her press credentials for inspection. Then she stood in a line of other reporters that seemed to move forward with the speed of a lame snail. Normally media outlets sent one reporter to cover city hall, and at CKMT the city hall beat belonged to Toby Squires. It would look very strange if two reporters showed up unless there was a very good reason. She handed her credentials to a very bored looking guard sitting at the desk in front of her.
“Cassandra Carter representing CKMT”. The guard looked at her with an unusual intensity.
“Toby is already here. Why are you here Miss Carter?”.
This was one question was one she should have been prepared for. She gave the guard the first excuse she could think of.
“Toby is nearing retirement. My boss asked me to shadow him for a couple of weeks to see if I liked the assignment”.
The guard stood and glowered at her.
“Now that’s strange. Toby hasn’t said a word about retirement”.
Cassie now had to lie like her life depended on it. And, in a way, it did.
“Mr. Stone and I talked about this assignment yesterday. He said he wanted someone new to give the reporting a more youthful sound. I can’t say for sure but I think this is more of a lateral career move if you know what I mean”.
The guard was quiet for a short time and sat back down. He exhaled out and his cheeks ballooned out while the press credentials were scanned for metallic objects. A female guard waved a handheld scanner over Cassie’s body.
“You mean the guy is getting fired?” the guard asked quietly.
Cassie was now in it up to her neck. She now had a friend’s career in the palm of one hand and her own in the other. She leaned forward and started speaking quietly as well.
“I can’t say for sure but it sure looks that way. Please don’t say I said anything” she pleaded.
The guard looked winded and pale as if an old friend had just died.
“Wow, I had no idea. I’m sure gonna miss him” said the guard.
The guard dragged his fingers through his hair and looked like he had just been dealt a body blow. On the off chance, she did get the city hall beat he wanted to pay her a compliment.
“Don’t take this the wrong way but you’ll sure brighten this place up. Time has not been kind to some of the regulars. Some of them have been covering City Hall since you were a kid. Just sign where I’ve marked and you’re good to go”.
After signing in and getting accredited she hid out in the ladies’ room and waited till it was just a few minutes before the scrum. The ladies’ room was directly opposite the mayor’s office. It also provided a place where she could keep an on things, plus keep a lookout for Toby. She didn’t want to run into him before the scrum began. When other reporters started assembling outside the mayor’s office she discreetly exited the ladies’ room. She hugged the wall and only moved closer when the actual scrum began. The mayor didn’t care for reporters. She couldn’t control the media and reporters were always an unknown quantity. When she finished re-announcing what she had already announced during the re-election campaign the free for all began. Reporters jumped and yelled trying almost anything to get the attention of the mayor. The rules were quite clear. Reporters could do almost anything until the mayor pointed at one of them. Then dead silence had to take the place of the toddler like pandemonium. The mayor pointed to one of Cassie’s cohorts from the zoo beat. It was obvious the mayor didn’t recognize her.
“The woman wearing the red pantsuit in the second row,” she said pointing at the woman. Silence fell and the reporter asked her question.
“Madam Mayor, why are you re-announcing plans you have already announced during your re-election campaign?”
The mayor was caught red-handed performing an old political trick. She avoided the question and pretended she didn’t hear it. Then she pointed at Cassie who was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
“The woman near the wall in the dark green pantsuit” barked the mayor.
“Casandra Carter of CKMT. A male employee of the city has accused you of sexual harassment. Would you care to make any comment?”
When Toby Squires heard the call letters of the station he immediately pulled out his cell phone. As he talked he made eye contact with Cassie who immediately turned green. He looked furious. Suddenly her smartphone began to vibrate which meant it was a text message.
“GET BACK TO THE STATION NOW!” The message was from Buddha.
The mayor was red-faced with rage. She began sputtering and stuttering at the question. Her rage was so fierce she started to shake and to steady herself she had to hold on to the lectern in front of her. She turned her back on the scrum and spoke quietly with a member of her staff. The same staff member soon started moving towards Cassie. A second staff member soon approached her in a classic pincer movement. Cassie tried backing up but soon bumped into the wall. One of the mayors’ minions grabbed her by the arm. Soon her other arm was grabbed as well.
“Come with us, Miss”. Cassie complained and protested this treatment. The two staff members took her to city hall security. As the three of them entered the security office Cassie glanced at the guard who had signed her in. One of the mayors’ staff spoke up.
“She violated the rules of the scrum. Plus the mayor wants her banned for life” one of the mayors’ aides said.
The security guard now stood and ripped off Cassie’s press credentials. The guard looked at her as a disappointed father would.
“Sorry, Cassie. You lied to me, and Toby’s not being retired. You should have known this would happen. From here on in you will no longer be welcome at city hall. Your photo will be kept on file and you will be refused entry should you ever try to come here again. You’re Persona Non-Grata here. You’ll now be escorted out of the building”. He paused then said, “You brought this on yourself”.
Unknown to Cassie other reporters were demanding the mayor answer the question she had asked. The mayor abruptly ended the scrum and retreated into her office. By law, reporters could not go past the glass wall of the mayors’ office. The office had recently been renovated and the walls of the office were now bulletproof and soundproof so all the staff members could do was see the reporters. Some of the staff even referred to the mayors’ office as “the fishbowl”.
As Cassie walked back to the CKMT offices she tried her best to put a positive spin on what just happened. But the more she tried the more she realized there was nothing remotely positive about this. She slowly realized that she had just committed journalistic suicide. When she reached the CKMT building she saw Ben the security guard waiting for her.
“Buddha called and told me what happened. He also asked me to escort you upstairs”. Cassie couldn’t help but notice he didn’t ask me out.
They went up in the elevator together in total silence. They both knew what was going to happen. When the elevator reached the third floor Ben stayed inside. Cassie took a step forward then turned around and put a hand on his chest. “For what it’s worth I almost said yes today”. Then she heard some footsteps behind her. Buddha was waiting.
“Carter! Get your scrawny ass into my office”.
Cassie walked into Buddha’s office. Robert Stone, also known as Buddha, was the boss at CKMT. He used to be an editor at a large metropolitan newspaper until it was sold. The new owners wanted him as editor but he didn’t want anything to do with the new owners. His physical makeup was that of a man in his fifties with rapidly thinning hair who could stand to lose more than a few pounds. His physique was that of a person who used to play football. He didn’t have a neck. After Cassie sat down Buddha entered and sat behind his badly dented gunmetal desk. Whenever he was angry or unhappy he kicked the side of his desk. A small sign in the main office showed the number of kicks the desk got on a given day. As she walked towards her date with destiny she saw a sign that had the number “seventeen” written on it. For a short eternity, Buddha just sat in his chair, leaning back and stared at Cassie. His glare was piercing. Finally, he spoke. The shouting started immediately.
“Are you trying to kill me?” he bellowed. “I’ve never had anyone cause me as much trouble as you have today” was a little lower in tone but at least it didn’t rattle the soundproof windows. Cassie knew she had screwed up badly and started looking at the floor. She found it incredibly hard to face the man who hired her right out of school and gave her her first real job in radio journalism.
Buddha started pointing at the phone on his desk.
“See this phone. There’s nothing remotely special about it. It’s an ordinary desk phone. But it’s seen more action in the last hour than all the Playboy Bunnies combined!. So, if I’m sitting on an angle it’s because the battle-ax that owns this station just chewed my ass off!. She wants you fired immediately. She’s had calls from the mayor’s office and other station owners. So, naturally, she bitches at me”.
Buddha sat up and leaned forward in his chair. “So listen up! Me boss. You employee!” He slammed the desk. “You’ve been escorted out of city hall for the very last time. They’ve rescinded your press credentials and are adamant about never reinstating them. And City Hall security has standing orders to detain you should you ever go back, for any reason. You can’t even go back to use the ladies’ room. The provincial government and those boneheaded Feds have heard about your little stunt with the mayor and are in the process of banning you from all government buildings as well as retracting your media credentials”.
Cassie started sniffling and prayed Buddha would stop. But he continued.
“Does the story stop there you ask? Not a snowball’s chance in hell. Your name is in almost every newspaper, television broadcast, and radio broadcast in the western world. You make fights in Taiwan’s parliament look tame”.
He walked over to the front of his desk and sat on the edge. Praise usually came from behind the desk in a seated position. If you’re about to be handed your head he liked to be up close and personal. He crossed his arms and scowled.
“You’re actions today have got me over a barrel. I could fire you, and God knows I should. But dammit, you’re also one of the best radio reporters I’ve seen in a damn long time”.
Buddha had a thin streak of humanity that was rarely seen and it was starting to show. His philosophy was to rule by instilling fear in those that worked under him, and he wanted to keep his “meanest son of a bitch in the valley” reputation intact so he closed the door. He returned to his chair and put his feet on his desk.
“You’ve got drive, empathy, and passion. That’s a combination that rarely comes along. Most of the people in this business have only got two of those qualities. But have three and that makes you a damn special person and only a fool would fire. In the news business, you’re what’s called a triple threat. But you’re not professional enough. You’ve got detach yourself from the story. That’s why I kept giving you zoo assignments”. Then he stood up and started to pace inside his office. His spartan office only had two pictures. One of the Hindenburg explosion and the space shuttle Challenger exploding.
“The owner of the station wants me to fire you. But I’m not going to do that. You’re just too damn good to cut loose. You’ve got potential coming out the wazoo but unfortunately that’s all it is right now. So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to put you on indefinite suspension until you reign in whatever is that’s pissing you off. You’re still an employee of CKMT. I’ll square that with the owner. I’m not sure how I’ll do it but I’ll do it. But I’m not doing you any favors. “Indefinite suspension” is radio journalism’s little purgatory. It means no pay, no health benefits, no “perks” of any kind that usually go with the profession. Zilch. Worst of all is you can’t write for any other news station or news medium. If you were my daughter my advice to you would be to get outta the city and cast out your demons. Where you go is your business, but when you come back that chip on your shoulder better be gone. If it’s still there your career will be over. Now, I want you to take some time off and ask yourself if this is really what you want to do. Do I make myself clear?”
“Crystal. Get out of town and grow up”.
“Took the words right out of my mouth. Now, get a box from storage and clear out your desk before I have to call building security”.
Cassie slowly walked towards the storage room and picked out a sturdy white bankers box. Walking back just as slowly she slammed it on top of her desk. It took only a few minutes to clean out her desk then she said goodbye to a few select people. Then she took the elevator down to the parking garage. The elevator seemed to move painfully slowly and Cassie started to tear up by the time she finally reached the garage and her car. She put the box on top of the trunk, her hands against her face, and started to cry. She took one look at the contents of the cardboard box and thought it was a pretty puny collection for five years of her life. She didn’t expect to come back so she snapped the plastic lanyard around her neck and tossed her ID badge into the box. After putting the small box on the passenger seat she got in the car, revved the engine and sped out of the parking garage, past Ben, and away from CKMT.
As she drove home her eyes began to get moist. It wasn’t long before she started tearing up again. She realized she needed to talk to someone. Crying and driving don’t usually mix well and the tears were quickly obscuring her vision. She began stabbing the dashboard of the car.
“Where’s that damn button?”.
She tried reaching it with wet, salty tears obscuring her vision. And all she succeeded in doing was in breaking a nail. Normally she’d be ticked off but this time she just didn’t care.
Cassie looked at her nails and shivered. The nail covering the index finger was jagged and ugly when compared to the other nails. She drove the car to the side of the road and parked. Searching through her purse she found the little packet of Kleenex and wiped her eyes with it. When Cassie bought the mascara it was sold to her as waterproof. Well, it wasn’t. When she looked into the mirror a raccoon looked back.
“Oh hell!. I better call Carol. I need someone to talk to”.
Carol Jenkins was one of her few remaining friends she still had from journalism school. Most of the others worked in different areas of the country. Even though Carol worked at a competing station the two became so close they thought of each other as sisters. Carol was somebody she could confide in. The previous Christmas Cassie gave herself a present and had a phone installed in her Honda Civic. It was one of those voice-activated models. All she had to do was say the name of the car and the name of the person to call.
“Toodles, call Carol”. For some reason, I named my car “Toodles”.
After a few seconds, a phone began to ring.
“Hello, this is Carol Jenkins. I’m away from my desk-”.
“Damn!” Cassie hated voice mail and pressed the “end call” button.
She waited for five minutes and tried again.
The phone connected and started ringing.
“C’mon girlfriend be there. I need to talk to you” said Cassie.
She prayed for a flesh and blood person to answer the phone. After what felt like a small eternity Carol answered.
“Carol Jenkins. How ya doin’ girlfriend?”.
Cassie paused. Suddenly the words “I’ve been canned” burst out of her mouth and a torrent of tears streamed down her face.
“Cassie, did you just say that butt-head fired you?” asked Carol.
Cassie chuckled a bit. Carol had been funny without meaning to. The tears were too much to handle so she leaned back and rested her head against the headrest. Carol never had a head for names let alone nicknames so her mangling Buddha’s name came as no surprise.
“Buddha didn’t fire me exactly but it’s just as bad. I’m on indefinite suspension and you know what that means”.
When Carol and Cassie were in school there was a special lecture on the subject. The lecturer had been put on indefinite suspension and he called it “radio hell”.
At first, Carol said nothing at all. Then she understood the magnitude of what Cassie had said.
“I’m coming over tonight with comfort food. I want all the details. I can’t come over right now, but I’ll be over around seven tonight. I’ll be coming over after work. You going to be all right hon?” said Carol.
When Cassie heard Carol say she was coming from work her head dropped onto her chest and she could feel her neck muscles start to relax.
“I need to talk to my auntie Carol. Thanks” She pressed the “End Call” button and another river of tears started.
When she got home she changed from her work clothes into an old ratty sweatsuit from better days. As Cassie sat on the sofa she peered into the box containing what used to be important. She looked at the note pads and the cassettes and started crying again. She bowed her head and bawled her head off. And for a few hours, that’s all she did.
Carol arrived shortly after seven armed with Häagen-Dazs mint-chocolate ice cream, four gigantic bags of Oreo cookies, and two bottles of Lowenbrau beer. First, she tried knocking on the door. No response. Juggling ice cream, Oreo cookies, and beer was no easy feat and she resorted to kicking the bottom of the door.
“Cassie, it’s Carol. Open the door. This stuff is heavy!” she yelled.
Cassie had three locks on the door plus a peephole so Carol had to wait in the hall as she pulled a heavy bolt lock at the bottom of the door which went into a hole in the floor. Then she had to deal with the chain lock being undone which always made a scraping sound, and the smaller bolt lock that always gave out a “thunk” when it was being undone. Before unlocking the door Cassie looked through the peephole to see if Carol was still there.
The sight that greeted Carol when Cassie opened the door could only be described as horrific. Some of her mascara had dripped down her face and coupled with the red raccoon eyes transformed her into something you might see in a horror movie.
“Holy Christmas! I’m gonna clean you up so you look human again. Help me with these bags then follow me into the bathroom” said Carol.
When Carol went into the kitchen and put the bags and beer on the kitchen counter Cassie went back to the sofa. Carol grabbed some Kleenex from the bathroom and proceeded to remove the mascara streaks. When she finished cleaning Cassie up she sat in a comfy chair with crossed arms and looked right at her. Cassie chose to sit on the floor directly in front of the sofa.
“When you called me I didn’t know what to think so I want to know everything. From what you had for breakfast to what you wore to work. I want to know what happened at work, and what didn’t happen. One of my stations’ reporters said you were in city hall?. When did you get the city hall beat? Did butt-head hit you?”. When Carol finished she pointed right at Cassie providing her with an opening to answer Carol’s questions. Cassie sat on the floor in her sweatsuit hugging a red pillow and started sniffling. When she didn’t start talking Carol started talking a little softer.
“I don’t make comfort runs to the grocery store for just anyone. C’mon girlfriend, talk to me. If all you’re going to do is sit there, pout and hug the stuffing out of that pillow I’m going home. I’ve got a mountain of things that need to be done yesterday”.
When Cassie finally began talking Carol noticed that she was surrounded by a sea of romance novels. Some looked like they had been read two or three times and others very recently. When she picked one up she noticed that some lines had been underlined, and when the name of the female protagonist was mentioned that name had been crossed out and Cassie substituted her own. For the better part of an hour, Cassie recounted her day in almost gory detail. But she wasn’t finished. Partway through she stopped, got up from the floor and walked into the kitchen. When she returned she was chowing down on mint-chocolate ice cream. A few minutes later she returned to the kitchen to retrieve the Oreo’s and a bottle of beer. As she got closer to reciting her chat with Buddha she started to rock back and forth. When she got to the part where Buddha said “I’ve never had anyone cause me so much trouble as you have today” she was bawling her head off again. All that did was make her eyes redder.
“Then he told me to get out of town and get my shit together. Normally Buddha is a bloody great lump with all the manners you can find on the head of a pin. But today he was almost human. He talked to me like I was his daughter”.
Carol thought a bit before speaking. Then she leaned forward to ask what was a sensitive question.
“I know this probably a ridiculous question but is it possible, just possible, that he has romantic feelings for you?”.
Cassie opened her mouth and stuck her finger in it.
“God, what a revolting thought. The man’s old enough to be my father. That’s so gross I think I’m going to hurl. Yuck!”.
Carol took her shoes off and leaned back in the chair.
“Sorry. I had to ask so I could eliminate the possibility. But he did say you were a triple threat and lord knows you gave him more than enough reason to fire you. Maybe being suspended isn’t such a bad thing. Technically you still work for the station. Do you have any idea where you’re going to go?”.
Cassie leaned back and her head fell onto on the sofa.
“I’d rather not dig into my savings if I can avoid it. I had an aunt Heather who died last year. For some reason, she left her cottage to me. Maybe I should check it out. I’ve only been there only a few times and that was during the summers and very briefly. She wasn’t exactly a people person. Why she left it to me I’ll never know. It’s near a sleepy little town called Norland. You know the kind. The kind of town where if someone has the flu at one end of town by the time the news reaches the far end of town they’re at death’s door with the plague. I’ll have to contact our family lawyer for the directions. His name is Harold Langtree”.
Carol relaxed for the first time since she arrived.
“You had had me going ya know. You sounded pretty frantic when you called but it sounds like you’ve got things sorted out already. Can I make a suggestion?”.
Carol reached down for one the books at her feet.
“When you go to the cottage take a few of these books with you. You’re going to have a lot of questions. Some of the answers you’re looking for might be in between these covers. Once you get settled give me a call. It sounds like an intriguing place. Can I ask one more question?. And I promise it has nothing to do with your station or mine”. Caroled around and started scratching her head.
“You’ve had this apartment about five years now and it still looks like you just moved in. What gives?”.
Cassie looked tired but she forced herself to answer Carol’s question.
“Apartments aren’t a home. A house is. A house with kids and a husband who never remembers to put the seat down. Between you and me I was hoping I wouldn’t be here this long. Plus I’m not the decorating type of gal. I guess I just don’t have the decorating gene. Now I want to thank you for coming over and bringing the comfort food but shoo. You look as bushed as I feel. And once I get the cottage all straightened up I promise to invite you. Now scat!”.
Cassie held the door open for Carol. As she went through the doorway she handed Cassie one of the romance novels that were on the floor.
“Read it. Only this time really read it. Sometimes books have answers to questions you’ve forgotten to ask”.
Cassie looked at the cover and couldn’t recall reading it. Then she smelled the pages and there was none of the tell-tale dust. As she closed the door she peered through the peephole and watched Carol walk down the hall. Carol was a really good friend who deserved so much more. After Carol was safely in the elevator Cassie started to fasten the bolts on the door and the chain lock.