Excerpts

Chapter One

Lishan Amir sat at her desk, feeling pleased. She began re-reading her exposé against Senator Libby and his cronies, the ink on the newsprint barely dry. Sitting with legs crossed between her charcoal knit pencil skirt and black, stylized Harley boots, she raised her head, surprised, when her desk lamp unexpectedly shut off.

She looked up to see Executive Editor Jerry Hanson, the lamp’s pull chain still in his grip. His other hand held the afternoon edition, a Page A1 headline circled in red. “Truth Be Known: Senator and FDA Collude With Food Kingpin to Seduce Public.”

“Got a minute?” Jerry asked as though there were a question mark. But it was merely rhetorical. His face was contorted and taut.

His Xanax must be wearing thin, Lishan thought.

“Of course, Jerry.” Standing, she smoothed and checked her button-back blouse. She liked the raglan sleeves, but the ecru color was a little too revealing for a close-up meeting with a guy she couldn’t stomach. Still, it would have to do.

Jerry was already heading to his office.

It was early afternoon on Monday, well after The Washington Mirror had hit the streets. Lishan’s exposé had made the front page. She always did enjoy a little hyperbole when exposing dishonest CEOs and government officials.

Still, she had been mildly surprised when it passed through the city desk editor’s hands unchanged. The various editors in the hierarchy had strict orders against certain brands of controversy, nearly always finding a conservative replacement before the paper went to press. Jerry was unbending in this arena, especially if the official under fire was a deep-pocket business ally.

Lishan continued to push back against these restrictive guidelines. Today she was in luck. It was the city desk editor’s last day. For some reason, Jerry had let this editor handle final-page signoff on her last day of work. It must have been an oversight—perhaps one-too-many prescription hits.

“Tell me where the fu…where you think you’re headed with this truth thing of yours, or where you were headed,” Jerry barked as they entered his office. “It’s a fun read, Lishan—a departure from your usual torturous writing. But we don’t want to make Senator Libby out to be an immoral servant of the people, now do we, like when you wrote about our country’s new president and dissed him for what you called his ‘”sophomoric referrals to fake news?.’”” Again, not a question.

Jerry reached out on his desk and straightened the photo of the president—the inscription, “You and I both know the real news.”

“And Conner, whom you’ve accused, along with our beloved senator and the FDA, is an outstanding CEO. If it weren’t for Conner, our country would have a food shortage, not to mention a lack of pharmaceuticals!”

Jerry fidgeted a furrow along the hardwood floor. Years of pacing was caving it in, like a piece of old plywood left out in the sun. Breathing deeply to regain composure, he continued, “I think they’re doing a fine job.”

Jerry, self-described in his adulterous singles ads as a handsome DWM, had an imposing presence in the newsroom. A head taller than Lishan’s five foot eight, he was a towering figure, barely fitting through the X and Y of the doorframe. He wasn’t what most would call fat. Hefty was more like it. His flattop hairstyle was military-fashion, short enough to allow sunburn. The office grapevine pegged him as a fascist, acting as though he were in command of a battalion of missionaries. He had the subtlety of a bouncer. Handsome he was not.

Lishan stood near the door, neither intimidated nor overly confident. She found this to be the best stance when faced with Jerry’s self-righteousness.

“Jerry, I’m a journalist. I get the news out, good or bad. That’s my job. Facts are facts.”

“You’re forgetting a major component. We’re also a business. Profit and loss statements complete with advertisers, and government officials who audit our books. Remember the IRS last year? Remember? And if you could think outside of your liberal-minded box, you would know that our senators are working hard to provide democracy for the people.”

Lishan had heard it all before. He pressed—hard—any time she or any other reporter stepped on one of his friends’ toes. The question was, how far could she push?

And, yes, the IRS. How could she forget? She saw Jerry as the one needing a reminder—the investigation, the audit narrowing to Jerry’s court with his undeclared monetary connections to certain government officials. At mention of the IRS, Lishan just shook her head. She knew what the real issue was.

“Are we going to be true to the people, or just print what the Associated Press gives us alongside recipes for Grandma’s favorite pudding, next to Home Mart ads? Senator Libby has broken nearly every promise to the public. He wasn’t well liked to begin with. The promises, and likely some kickbacks, were the only ticket that got him elected. And Conner Foods, Conner Pharmaceuticals, do you have any idea how many people have become sick or died at Jack Conner’s hands? The toxic fillers and empty calories he gets away with in the foods he manufactures? The drugs that never should have been fast-tracked through the system? Do you…” Lishan stopped to take a breath. “We can’t, in journalistic faith, support this.”

Jerry’s face seemed to expand, pressing outward against the invisible seams that held his face together. He didn’t like Lishan, but he respected her work. He knew she was a top-notch reporter. She had a following. The problem was that Lishan was often too damned good, probing into matters that could cause trouble for Jerry’s friends, and Jerry.

“Yes, Lishan, we can. And we will.”

“What? Support hypocrisy? Support decisions that favor liars and cheats and their high-paid lobbyists, at the expense of the public?”

“No, dammit! We are true to the people.”

“Like the time you put a spin on the RU-486 ‘morning after’ story, the day after Bush fired Jane Henney? We made it look like Henney got fired for defying FDA ethics. Ethics my glutes, Jerry. Everybody—and I mean everybody—knows it was because she violated the political football. She was following the guidelines. And as far as this newspaper, as the story goes…”

“I know how the story goes.”

“As the story goes,” Lishan pressed, her voice elevated, “you had been in support of Henney, until Bush’s press secretary paid you a friendly visit. Night and day, Jerry. One day you’re a professed representative of the people. The next, you’re a born-again…”

The editor slammed his fist on the desk, knocking his NRA trophy on its side.

Don’t question my principles, Ms. Amir!”

 

Chapter Two

19th Street NW, D.C.

The sound of breaking glass came from Jack Conner’s posh office. It was the $2,000 mirror he used to frequently inspect his tall, 220-pound European-American frame and the shaved head he felt gave him a look of power. Six months prior, when Charlotte first took the Executive Secretary position, she would have sprung up to attend to his needs.

But no longer. Conner was known for his anger. It was no surprise when his fury would send one of his arms in a sweeping movement across his desk, clearing everything in sight onto the floor. Important documents, a half-empty wine glass—it didn’t matter. Charlotte once found a journal, buried in the bottom drawer of her desk, with entries from the previous six secretaries. The journal was filled with comments on his violence. It was never physical toward the employees, but there were emotional hits. Charlotte questioned how long she would last. The six secretaries spanned a mere two years.

“Who in Christ’s name does she think she is?” he spewed, from a face that had borne years of tantrums, as he reread Lishan’s article.

 

Chapter Three

Half an hour into the party [the D.C. Media Gala], a sudden eruption of camera flashes got everyone’s attention. Four men and their wives, with one couple in tow, entered nearly as a pack.

Lishan immediately recognized Jack Conner, Senator Libby, and the FDA commissioner. Several seconds lapsed before she identified the fourth—a trim, white male in his late forties, the look of the country club set—Nathaniel Ferrali, the uppermost echelon U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. The lesser couple bringing up the rear included none other than her editor, Jerry Hanson, appearing nearly as an attendant to the group. It was clear that Jerry attempted to blend in as though he were a key figure, but his antics, his waving and smiling, only made him look ridiculous.

Lishan made herself less conspicuous. She knew their gossip about her wouldn’t be flattering. She imagined the commissioner and Jerry would see her as a mere speck of agitation. As for Ferrali, she couldn’t be sure. Yet, for Conner and Libby, perception management was key to them if reputations were to remain fully intact along with profits and a checkmark at the polls.

She kept the troublesome group in her periphery until they settled into an area close to the bar. Lishan maneuvered to one of the many hors d’oeuvres tables, peering at her options, when a gentleman’s voice said, “I love your gown.”

She looked up to find an exquisitely dressed Indian-born man looking warmly at her.

“My name is Salman Kabir. How do you do?”

Salman Kabir, Lishan repeated to herself. Barely containing her delight, she finally said, “My name’s Lishan Amir,” extending her hand. “This is your dress.”

“In a manner of speaking,” Salman smiled. “You wear it very well.”

They talked of fashion and world affairs. Ten minutes had gone by when Lishan felt an icy hand on her back. She recoiled sharply, turning to find the group of ten standing there, gazing at her attire. Conner withdrew his hand.

“Nice frock,” Conner laughed. “A little sleazy though, don’t you think?”

“I’m not surprised,” chimed Senator Libby. “A backless dress of such poor quality at a formal affair. Really, Ms. Amir. I must agree with Mr. Conner. Sleazy.”

“Sleazy,” Lishan mimicked. She turned toward the designer. “Do you find this gown sleazy, Mr. Kabir?”

Salman put his hand to his chin. “Hmm. Honestly? I can’t say I do. But perhaps these gentlemen are more expert than I about fashion.”

Conner’s wife Loren gasped as she recognized the designer and his work. She tried to get her husband’s attention, but to no avail.

“So, are you an expert on sleaze, Senator?” Lishan said.

The senator grew red. “Ms. Amir, you don’t know me well enough to insult me.”

“But I do.” The soprano voice, coming from behind the group, caught everyone’s attention. The men and their wives turned to find a tall, slender, African-American…female? The intruder’s attire included a snug-fitting shiny black skirt, halting six inches above the knee. The top was a matching black long-sleeve blouse, with two lines of purple sequins—like two reversed parentheses—suggesting a 6-inch waist. The neckline plunged shamelessly.

Ah, it’s JoJo, Lishan said to herself, delighted. The FDA commissioner also recognized him, but he chose to keep silent.

JoJo continued, shocking nearly everyone as he changed to his deep baritone. “Hello, Senator. And Jack and Nathaniel, how nice to see all of you again. I should add, as to sleazy, you boys just don’t recognize artful clothing when you see it, unless of course it’s being taken off by some—if I may borrow a word you boys seem to freely apply—bimbo.”

JoJo nodded to the commissioner, then turned his attention to Salman, shaking his hand. “Mr. Kabir, I just adore your work,” JoJo said admiringly, running his fingers along the fabric of Lishan’s gown. JoJo scanned the faces of the five men. “See you again at the club, sometime this week?”