The moment Jackie Schilling returned from lunch, Amanda Hawthorne's harsh, masculine-sounding voice boomed at her from the open door of Amanda's office.
"Jackie, come in here, please."
As she quickly made her way through the tight little maze of cluttered cubicles, she saw Leanne Delavan glare at her with her hard dark eyes. Leanne wore a smug, superior smirk on her simpering face.
"Close the door," Amanda commanded, and her authoritarian tone of voice seemed to soften somewhat. She did as she was directed.
"Have a seat." This time, Amanda offered her a pale imitation of a smile, one therat was as cold as the tiny speck of icy light in her blue eyes. Amanda's right nostril flared slightly in a private gesture of contempt. Her heart banged like an angry fist inside her chest and her entire body tingled with apprehension and dread as she seated herself in the uncomfortable plastic chair, in front of Amanda's pristine desk.
Amanda was tall and commanding, with a beak-like nose that gave the impression of being broken at least once and lusterless blonde hair, which made Jackie think of gangsters. That idea probably came from the black and white pin-striped jacket, white blouse and tie Amanda wore. She almost giggled at the image of Amanda with a snappy fedora and a big, fat cigar sticking out of one corner of her petulant mouth. She sobered, realizing she wasn't far off the mark. Amanda took great pride in her ability to bully everyone on the staff of the Morning Ledger.
Jackie, however, was unimpressed.
Amanda regarded her for a long moment with a strange mixture of disdain, pity and pleasure. She stared right back at her boss, determined not to back down.
Amanda allowed the uneasy silence to drag on for another lengthy moment. Then, in a dull, flat voice, she said, "I just finished reading both your articles." Her cold gaze strayed momentarily to two thin sheaves of paper held together lying on top of her desk.
"They're excellent as always," she continued; she sounded as if she was growing bored. "Crisp, concise, and colorful. Tell me. Did Duduka and your boyfriend really almost come to blows at the weigh-in, this morning?"
"Andy Latshaw is not my boyfriend," Jackie shot back stiffly. Mentally, she added, at least, not yet. She nodded. "Yes, it happened exactly the way I described it. Guy has the pictures to prove it."
Guy Telemark was Jackie's cameraman. He accompanied her to nearly evey sporting event she covered for the paper.
"I can't wait to see them. I'll publish Guy's best picture along with your little article about the weigh-in on the front page of the sports section in this afternoon's edition." Amanda smiled, obviously pleased with her masterful editorial decision. "That should sell a few extra copies. Surprisingly, there are still quite a few fight fans in The Valley. They've been waiting for Duduka and Latshaw to duke it out for months now."
And here, Amanda turned the full force of her coldly beneficent gaze upon Jackie. She waited expectantly.
"Thank you," she heard herself respond in the same stiff voice as before.
Apparently, she didn't sound humble or grateful enough to suit Amanda. Amanda's bloodless lips twisted in a distasteful frown.
"Now, as for your other article," she said, and her voice turned distant and aloof. "I'm going to print it in this afternoon's sports section, as well. Your one-on-one interview with Latshaw is fascinating, as is almost all of your writing. However, I'm afraid it's too long for the afternoon edition. I've taken the liberty of cutting it a little. I hope you don't mind."
"What did you cut?" Jackie demanded, raising an eyebrow.
Amanda paused to take a long, deep breath, expelling it slowly, almost reluctantly. "Well, for one thing, that rather long section where Latshaw discusses his religious beliefs. It seems to ramble on and on forever."
"But Andy's faith is important to him," objected Jackie.
"And that's all fine and dandy for him. But it is not germane to the story. The fans don't care what faith he is---unless, of course, he's some kind of radical militant jihadist." Amanda laughed at her own joke. It was a short, sharp barking sound like a dog might make. "The only thing the fans care about is whether or not he thinks he can beat Duduka. And from what I've been hearing on the streets for the past few weeks is that most of the fans think Duduka is going to knock out your poor boyfriend in five rounds or less."
"Andy's faith defines him as a person," insisted Jackie.
"Oh, puh-lease. His faith in some great, mythical sky deity no more defines him as a person than your brown hair defines who you are."
"Andy's integrity, his honesty, his strength, his goodness and kindness---they all stem from his belief in God. I know how much you don't like to hear this kind of thing. But the vast majority of people in this valley still consider themselves Christians. And like Andy, a lot of them are Lutherans. People like it when their sports heroes share their values."
"Fine," Amanda snapped. "If you feel so strongly about it, I'll have them publish it in Sunday's relgious section. It will be old news by then. No one will care anymore. If I let it run in this afternoon's edition as it stands now, the younger readers witll just shake their heads and laugh out loud at your previous boyfriend for being such a neanderthal and stupidly clinging to his particularly perdicious brand of primitive myth and ignorant superstition. They'll throw this afternoon's paper in the trash with the rest of the garbage, where it belongs. And they're exactly the type of readership I want for this paper."
"How do you know they don't believe the same things Andy believes in?"
"You don't get oout very muxh, do you? When was the last time you went to a restaurant and saw anyone mumble into their hands before they ate their meal? Or sat in a bar and engaged in a spirited debate about the virtues of organized religion? Organized religion. Now there's a contradiction in terms. Just like government intelligence. Neither of them exist. Jackie, I hate to have to tell you this. I know your father is the pastor of the biggest---and the only---Lutheran church in Monotoning. But I'm also very happy and proud to inform you that, according to the latest polls I've seen, over twenty percent of the people in this country now openly claim to be atheists. As for the seventy-odd percent who still cling stubbornly to their antiquated myth and superstition, many of them don't even bother to attend church anymore. As far as they're concerned, most churches are nothing more than bottomless money pits. And thanks to those depraved fundies on television, over the last fifty years, religion in this country has become as intrusive and oppressive as that so-called big government all the sheeple pretend to despise and fear so much."
Without warning, Amanda suddenly stopped talking. She just sat there, behind her small, metal desk , stiff as an iron ramrod, and stared at Jackie, with those icy, blue eyes.
Now, it was Jackie's turn to smile a little.
"You know, since you took charge of the news room a year ago, our daily circulation has dropped almost thirty percent," she said. "And we've lost at least twenty percent of our advertising revenue."
Amanda responded with a haughty snort and a savage sideways jerk of her block-shaped head. "Where are they going to go? The only other game in Ellentown is The Merchandiser. And unless I miss my guess, that worthless, little rag had maybe another year of life in it at the most, before it finally goes belly up. Good riddance, I say. I have tons of private money behind me. And I know exactly what my investors want. It's the same thing I want. To put an end to the tyranny of religion in this country, once and for all."
"That's never going to happen," Jackie replied, shaking her head in shocked disbelief.
"Oh, really? Ya think not?" A sharp edge of sarcasm sizzled like battery acid in Amand's husky voice. "Well, let's see now, shall we? People like me have taken prayer out of the schools and the Ten Commandments out of the courthouses." She ticked off each dubious achievement on the long, tapering fingers of her right hand. "It's long since passed the point where anyone who even dares to mention God's name in public is mocked and ridiculed and looked at like he's an imbecile. And just in case you haven't noticed yet, dearie, every other month or so, Sundays religion section gets just a little bit smaller than it was the week before. Oh, sure, we get the usual avalanche of angry telephone calls and emails. Hundreds of people threaten to cancel their subscriptions. But after a few weeks, the tumult dies down and that mindless mass of morons out there go back to reading what's left of their Sunday paper, the same as before."
Amanda beamed, looking pleased with herself. And proud.
"Now, as I said before, there are two ways you can go with your story," she continued in a soft, soothing voice that was almost like a lullaby. "It's entirely up to you. I'll respect your decision. But first, I want to tell you something in strictest confidence. I really do like you, in spite of our constant differences of opinion. And this is something I rarely tell anyone. You're extremely intelligent and you're the best writer here. Leanne likes to think she's a better writer than you are. And most of the time, I indulge her in her little heresy. The poor, delufed darling. I often find myself rewriting her copy, before I send it downstairs. I should have fired her a long time ago.u
"Next month, they're kicking me upstairs to join the big boys. They tell me I can pick anyone I want to replace me. I'd like that person to be you. All you have to do is forget all about this religious nonsense and learn to play ball a little. It's really not all that hard. Trust me. So, what do you say? Would you like to be the new managing editor of the good, old Morning Ledger?"
Jackie looked deep into Amanda's frigid, blue eyes. In a firm, decisive voice, she said, "But I don't work for you. I've never worked for you or anyone else. I work for God."
"Then get the hell out of here. Your services are no longer required."
She leapt like a frightened gazelle from her chair and flew out of Amanda's dingy, little office, cutting a quick course right down the center of that forlorn jungle of cubicles. Leanne Delavan's eyes glared at her once more over the top of her partition like the tiny, black holes at the end of a double barreled shotgun.
"The job's yours," she called over her shoulder to Leanne. "I don't want it."
The look of surprise, consternation, and triumph on Leanne's poor, bewildered face was priceless. She threw back her head and laughed.
On her way home, Jackie decided to stop at Hennessy's Pub, on Main Street, in Monotoning. (Just because she was a minister's daughter, that didn't mean she didn't crave a drink from time to time.) Gayle Hennessy, the owner's daughter, fixed her a rum and Coke, with a lot of rum in it and very little Coke.
Jackie sat and quietly sipped her drink. Soon, it seemed like only seconds later, Gayle turned on all the lights inside the dusky taproom. The early evening darkness peeked playfully at Jackie from just outside the murky windows. The front door opened and banged shut repeatedly as more and more people, most of them men, entered the room and assumed their usual seats at the bar. She glanced at the bright clock on the wall behind the bar and discovered that it was already seven o'clock.
She shook her head. A weary sigh escaped her lips.
A familiar voice suddenly spoke up at her side, tentative and timid. "Jackie?"
She turned her head and was startled to see Leanne Delevan standing there. "Do you mind if I join you?" Leanne asked in a sheepish voice.
"No, no. Go right ahead."
Leanne averted her eyes from Jackie's inquisitive gaze, as she settled herself on the empty stool next to Jackie. Leanne smiled at Gayle Hennessy and ordered a gin and tonic. She even said, "please," which shocked and surprised Jackie even more; she'd never heard Leanne use that word before.
When her drink came, Leanne took a long sip, letting the alcohol sit for a second or two behind her clenched lips, before she swallowed it. Finally, she turned her head and looked Jackie straight in the eye.
"You were right to quit the way you did," she told Jackie. "That woman is crazy."
"Don't tell me you quit, too."
"Well, I'm surprised. I thought you wanted my job so bad you'd do anything to get it."
"Oh, I have no problem stepping over other people to climb up the ladder. But she, well, she wanted me to do things to her that I can't, won't do for any woman, no matter how bad I want to get ahead. I guess I have morals, after all. And look where they got me. Now I'm broke and out of work."
Leanne laughed a sour laugh. She took another long sip from her glass. "I guess I owe you an apology," she said.
"For all the terrible things I said about you to Amanda behind your back. Forgive me?"
"There's nothing to forgive."
"What, no sharp rebuke? No harsh words of recimination?"
"Why? What would that prove? What's done is done. I've found that it's always better to leave the past alone and look to the future."
"Right now, the future looks pretty bleak."
"Oh, there's always another job out there somewhere. You just have to go out and look for it."
"I must say, I admire your attitude. Especially in these trying times."
"And I like what I see of you right now, too."
"Do you think we can ever be friends?"
"I don't see why not."
"Oh, miss," Leanne called to Gayle. "Another round of drinks for me and my new best friend."