I glanced up after an intense period of writing as the noise level in the usually quiet newsroom rose several notches while people rushed around. I turned to ask a passing intern what all the excitement was about when he reached up and snapped on the TV sitting on top of a tall file cabinet.
"Turn on channel eleven," someone suggested as more people gathered. The TV came to life with the local news reporting on a fire. They showed a firefighter clutching a man and a child in his arms flying from one rooftop to the other. The camera zoomed in to follow him back to the roof to retrieve more people.
Well, there goes the slow reveal, I thought in amazement as I watched the dramatic rescue unfold.
"Ball get in here now," Mackie called from his office. I dashed in where he was watching the same thing on his set.
"Well, I guess we can run that story now," I enjoy being facetious on occasion. He didn't have time for humor and ordered my article to be printed.
"Goddamit, his name will be all over the place any minute now," he fumed equals parts angry at passing on the story and at me i his name as I promised Archer. Mackie didn't like a young female upstart challenging his authority. We argued over this until CNN flashed his name and a dreadful photo of him in uniform. Mackie's face was a livid shade of red.
"So they know who is, they have nothing on this guy but I do," I told him about my last meeting with Archer. His eyes grew bright and crafty as the obvious dawned on him.
"Write up everything you have on him and get it to me pronto."
I was half way out the door before he finished his sentence. I wrote as fast as possible but could barely concentrate with the noise and avalanche of information pouring in. I was headed down the first drop of a roller coaster and held on tight.
* * *
Roscoe looked down at me as I sat on the couch with a towel draped around my neck, my hair still damp from a shower. I looked glumly at the TV as CNN beamed an image of me around the world.
"Remember how you were so jealous of the stories I told, how you were going to shut me up one day with a story of your own. Well, you win," Roscoe beamed with glee, plopping down and jarring me with his girth.
A moment later his stepfather George came in the front door neatly placing his briefcase on a side table. He looked into the living room regarding the two of us without a hint of surprise.
" Ah, the prodigal son has returned," he said, his manner warm and jovial. I saw where Roscoe got his dry humor.
George was the nicest, most urbane man ever. He and Roscoe were a study in opposites. He had a distinguished, undisturbed air about him. His perennial suit and bow tie were perfectly tailored to his slight frame. The last time Roscoe wore anything approaching formal was at his wedding three years ago. Unlike Roscoe's short cut, his wiry hair was wild and dusted with gray like his mustache-goatee. The only thing they had in common was their dark chocolate complexion.
Roscoe laughed at the little joke then winced at a sudden pain in his lower back.
"When are you returning to work?" I asked, worried about the big man being out of service for too long.
"When I can backhand my PT," he replied with a wide grin.
We returned to watching CNN and he turned up the sound when they showed my official photo in dress uniform. Those photos are worse than high school portraits.
Well there goes my anonymity, I thought in sour resignation. The more depressed I got, the more animated Roscoe became, he was really enjoying this.
The phone rang and George answered it. He listened briefly then held the receiver to his chest and turned to Roscoe.
" Would you happen to know where Neil is?" he asked in his lilting Harvard tinted voice. Roscoe gave me a look and I bolted from the room and down the hall out of eyesight.
"Why no sir, I don't where he is right now.” he answered, being technically truthful. George conveyed this information and hung up. I returned to the living room couch and joined in Roscoe's snickering.
"That was the Chief of the Bureau asking for you. I suggest you call him back," George said, his parental tone denoting an order.
Shit, this was depressing, I groaned. Why couldn't this have happened after I was ready to deal with all of the consequences. As if that was possible, I corrected myself.
I paid attention to the news again when I heard them mention Victoria Ball. Double shit. I grabbed the phone and called her. The answering machine picked up. I almost left Roscoe's number but he shook his head at the attempt. The problems piled on with all the people I had to deal with, but first, I had to call my parents.
George offered me the use of his study for privacy and I sure as hell needed it. I sat down at his large roll top desk and stared at the phone in anxious contemplation. Trying to figure out what to say was like assembling a kid's bike on Christmas eve with no instructions. This was no way to inform loved loves of a lifelong secret, but I was trapped by circumstances. I placed the call.
"Hello," I heard Mom's quiet voice say.
"Mom, I have something very important to tell you," I managed, my voice breaking in half. I glanced at the window and the slivers of sunlight sneaking in around the window shade.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
" Yeah I’m fine, is Dad up, he needs to hear this too," I suggested. He often retired early. I heard her put down the phone and a moment later he was on the extension.
"Alright dear what's this all about?" Mom was her usual calm self. I took a deep breath and braced myself for a jump into cold water.
"Um, I don't know how to explain this but from the time I was very young I've . . . I have a special skill I've kept to myself."
"Oh you mean your flying ability," she stated simply.
"I've always been able to . .. ." Suddenly her words registered in my brain. "What? You know about that?"
"We've known ever since that sneaky trip you made through our bedroom when you were little," she said.
My eight year old curiosity had got the better of me and I had to find out what I was getting for Christmas. My parents set boundaries, and one of them meant staying out of their bedroom. They treated my room with the same respect and always knocked before entering.
Mother left to go grocery shopping which gave me the chance to go upstairs. I knew Dad kept presents under the bed and as I carefully lifted up the comforter, I heard the front door open and shut. Panicking, I did the obvious and stupid thing; I stepped across the bed, opened the window, and climbed out on the rear porch roof. It had snowed the night before. Dad had shoveled a path from the back door to the detached garage leaving a large pile of snow close by. I tiptoed to the edge of the roof, aimed for the mound and jumped. Instead of hurtling ten feet to the ground, I drifted like a leaf from a tree.
I laid in the snow bewildered, trying to absorb what had happened, the cold on my backside reminded me Mother would expect me to be in the house. Brushing snow from my clothes, I noticed our next door neighbor Mr. Hoover in his driveway with a shovel in his hands and a gaping mouth. Giving him a nervous wave, I headed through the back door, almost running into Mother unloading groceries in the kitchen.
"What are you doing outside without a coat?" she asked. I mumbled something about something but she didn't notice.
I held the phone, dumbfounded. This was turning into the single most bizarre day in my life.
"How did you know?" I thought this had been a long held secret.
" Honestly dear, you left the window wide open and your foot prints in the snow across the roof," she explained. I heard Dad chuckling in the background.
" I always suspected you were the one behind the prank with the anvil on Abe's head,"
Dad chimed in. Damn, I never hid anything from them. I had to laugh and it shed the tension I had been holding. Maybe this would work out after all. We exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes until reality intruded.
"I know you must be terribly busy but can you do something about the TV people parked in front of the house?" Mom said with some irritation. I looked at the wall clock and did some calculating. I still had to deal with the chief, the media here, and God knows what else. Oh the endless complications.
"I'll be there tomorrow morning, " I promised and hung up.
I discussed the matter of the chief with Roscoe and George. I called Fabiano and once again, he made the sensible choice that I go to Headquarters ASAP. Needless to say the place was a madhouse. Media vans filled the street. Police provided security as people rubbernecked at all the commotion. The darkness allowed me to slip in the unguarded back door.
I met Fabiano in the hallway and we walked upstairs in silence. He puts up with a lot from the guys but like a stern father he also has his limits. I braced myself for the worst. All the big heads were there, I discovered, when we arrived at the reception room. The president of the union, the district deputy chief, our battalion chief and several staff members were gathered for an audience with Mallin.
Ah yes, the Big Chief, as we called him. Despite his efforts to improve the bureau and conditions for firefighters, there was resentment from the old guard and the union boss at his "interference" with the cowboy approach to fire fighting. Phil was the only one who ever said anything nice about him only because they had worked together years ago.
Ever the politician, he knew how to appear, what to say, who to kiss up to and how to keep his own head when others got lopped off. I reflexively touched my neck.
"Sorry I left you in the lurch," I said, to the Captain, feeling like I'd been called to the principal's office.
"Don't worry, you did a good job today, it'll be fine," he said proudly, noting my anxiety. I think he regretted not informing his superiors, but he was tough enough to handle the fallout.
I was about to say something when a storm of camera flashes and shouting outside announced the arrival of Chief Thomas Mallin. He came in wearing his formal uniform with a photographer in tow. Like Teddy Roosevelt, he never went anywhere without one.
I had never met the man before so it was interesting to see him up close. He was over six foot and almost as wide. A grey buzz cut and a square face sat atop a heavy neck and broad shoulders. He walked straight up to me and shook my hand with a death grip.
"It's a pleasure to meet Pittsburgh's bravest firefighter," he said in a booming voice to go along with his outsized presence. The camera flash went off several times, recording the moment.
"Of course I would have preferred to be informed a bit sooner than today," he chuckled, but I could see he was unhappy about being left out the revelation.
"Sorry sir, this all happened so fast," I said, trying to make light of the situation. Fabiano nodded and projected an air of equal surprise.
" I'd like to speak with you privately," Mallin said in a curt dismissive tone.
"Anything you need to say to me you can say to Captain Fabiano as well," I said, meeting the challenge and Mallin decided this was not the time for a pissing contest. He nodded then gestured for two assistants to follow as we trooped into his office. He sat down behind an immense desk, but made no effort to invite us to sit so we remained standing. His lackeys stood behind him wearing deep scowls with hands crossed in front as if guarding their genitals. After a dramatic pause he honestly looked at me for the first time.
"Are you for real?" he blurted with genuine astonishment.
"Yes sir," I answered to what would become a common refrain.
" I was told you are interested in being an independent contractor. What do you say to a promotion to Battalion Chief instead-- with a substantial raise of course," he beamed as if he had just scored a touchdown at a high school championship game.
Words fail to describe the sheer gall of his offer. Was that a bribe of some sort? One does not become a battalion chief easily, a position the captain had been eyeing for at least three years. Choose your words carefully I thought as I calmed down from the hot coal tossed in my lap.
"That's very generous of you sir, but unnecessary. I like my work in S and R," I said, but couldn't keep a look of confusion off my face.
His shoulders visibly sagged in relief as he shot a puzzled glance to his assistant who looked like he wanted to be invisible. Fabiano and I looked at each other wondering where the hell that came from.
"Well fine, meantime, I'd like you to join me at my press conference," he said. Again there was the automatic assumption I would comply to his request.
I glanced at the clock on the wall. Of course, the press conference would be done just in time for the late news. The expression on Fabiano's face and my better judgment decided the matter.
"I'm afraid I can't sir. I have to get to my parents as soon as possible." I turned to the real authority in the room.
"Captain, request permission to take sick leave immediately," I said, technically I was still on shift. He smiled at my formality and granted it, much to the befuddlement of the Chief.
"Stop by my office when you return," Mallin pointedly added and we shook hands.
Not a chance if I can avoid it, I wanted to say, but merely nodded assent.
* * *
"Ball you're staying here in case Archer calls, I'm sending Shore," Mackie ordered as I headed out the door to PBF headquarters for the chief's press conference. I halted in white hot anger.
Shore was an arrogant, chauvinistic, pompous bore who happened to be a brilliant investigative reporter. This was still my story but I guess Al felt like punishing me for my earlier insubordination. I insisted on going before he could stop me.
I hoped Shore had been delayed by traffic or one of the whores he patronized, but no such luck. I spotted him in the pressroom talking to the New York Times guy as a noisy milling crowd waited impatiently for the arrival of the chief. There weren't as many reporters there as I expected as I shoved my way over to Shore and we exchanged acid smiles.
There were plenty of TV cameras, the current event was perfect for the medium as Mackie had sardonically predicted. I did a double take when I spotted the only other female reporter in the crowd. Clarissa Jones had been hired by a local TV station as their token black to compete with the recent popularity of Oprah Winfrey.
Chief Mallin soon emerged through a side door and quickly stood at the small podium festooned with microphones. I was surprised Archer wasn't with him.
" Good evening. As you know, there was an extraordinary rescue at today's tragic fire by one of our own fire fighters. The Bureau fully supports Mr. Archer's action and we look forward to his continued service as a firefighter," he began in a formal manner.
"Is there any truth to the rumor that his stunt was an elaborate hoax?" someone interrupted. Mallin reacted as if someone just put a steaming turd in his hand.
"There was nothing fake about what occurred today. I just spoke to the young man and I can assure you, he's quite real," he stated emphatically. This produced a quarrelsome response from the crowd.
Somewhere in the back of my memory was a rumor about the chief's enemies; he had a lot of them in City Hall, who desperately wanted to ruin his political ambitions. Perhaps this was a ploy to discredit him. I jumped into the fray.
" When exactly did you know of Archer's powers? " I was interested in how much he knew and how he would spin it. Shore gave me an ugly glare.
" I was informed of his abilities immediately after his coworkers were," he answered. Translation: I found out when everyone else did. He tried to shut down the questions and get back to his prepared speech.
"Why was he kept secret?" Shore threw out.
"How does he fly?" Jones asked, dropping the other shoe. There was a split second of silence before a fusillade of questions were fired off by the increasingly excited reporters. Mallin cut the air with his large hands demanding silence.
"That's complicated. You'll have to wait until he's available to answer that more precisely than I can," he said as he plowed on, but this only created more chaos. Shore guffawed and poked me in the upper arm.
"Did your lover tell you how he does it?" he said, leering at some private joke.
"Excuse me?" I knew what he implied. Shore was old school and believed women should stay is the secretary pool where they belonged. He, along with every other journalist, thought the only way I got the interview was by sleeping with Archer. This was the eighties for God sake, not the Stone Age.
" Where is he now--?"
"I have no idea," I cut him off in a tone as sharp as broken glass.
The rapidly spreading rumor that our heroic firefighter was nothing more than a joke was upsetting to say the least. Nobody knew the truth about him so they were flailing around trying to get a grip on more facts. Filling in the blanks, as I suggested in that damn article. The meeting ended disastrously with the chief stalking out sweat faced and furious. He had enough and I didn't blame him.
Where was Neil anyway?
* * *
I had stopped by the apartment long enough to pack a few clothes and unplug the incessantly ringing phone before driving twelve hours straight to Galesburg. It was past noon when I arrived in the hot, sleepy town. I spotted an old friend walking by and honked the horn. He recognized me and I stopped to say hi.
"Hey dude welcome back to Smallville," he said with a grin, leaning an elbow on the car door. Dave always sounded like the surfer he aspired to be.
"Yeah and look who's still here," I dished back.
" You won't get near your parents house this way. The road is clogged with those fancy media trucks. Old man Foster was PO'd he had to call in extra help," he snorted, referring to the notoriously lazy police chief who was indifferent about the job in his old age. I smacked the steering wheel in frustration.
"I'd go the back way if I were you," he suggested and I thanked him for the heads up.
I parked a few doors down from the house and hopped over the alley fence, taking a shortcut through Mr. Hoover's yard. I found him sitting in a lawn chair set in a pile of sand. He had on big shorts, a Hawaiian shirt and straw hat. He was reading a travel magazine and lowered his glass of lemonade when he saw me enter the yard.
"Good afternoon young man," he said pleasantly.
" Good afternoon sir."
"There's quite a bit of commotion going on over there," he said tilting his head in the direction I was headed.
"I'm aware of that sir, that's why I'm here," I explained. He nodded approval and returned to his reading.
As if picking up from my childhood, I entered the house through the back door into the kitchen. I found Mom in the living room, her lanky form folded neatly as she sat on the couch, knitting furiously, watching TV with the sound off. She turned and was not the least bit surprised to see me standing there.
I promptly broke down sobbing. I sank onto the couch in exhaustion and she hugged me. I hadn't slept in 36 hours, I was tired, hungry, and overwhelmed. Mom just held me and stroked my hair the way she did when I was a kid. When Dad came down the stairs, I stopped crying instantly.
I never allowed myself to appear weak or vulnerable in front of him. Hell, I cried at sentimental movies but I only witnessed him cry twice. Once after his brother died when I was very young and when I left for Pittsburgh. He put a hand on my shoulder as I wiped my nose on my shirtsleeve.
"I'm proud of you," he said in his slow manner and hugged me.
As he held me, I was reminded of my graduation from fire fighting training.
Mom and Dad had flown in for the ceremony and I gave them a quick nod as I took my seat with the other grads. Chief Gordon, the head of the Academy, gave a brief speech from a lectern set at center stage. We all stood and raised our right hands for the swearing in.
Traditionally a badge is presented by a relative and Dad beamed with obvious pride as he carefully pinned it on my coat--number 1174.
The moment froze like a scene in a movie. Now it was time to use my gifts to save lives as I just pledged in the firefighters oath. I bit the inside of my mouth to subdue the rise of emotion, worrying if I was up to the task. Mom handled the tears for all of us.
* * *
"Where the hell are you?" I shouted at Neil, my irritation louder than I intended. There was a brief pause on the line.
"Sorry," he said, and his wounded puppy tone immediately evaporated my ire.
His description of the media circus parked out in front of his parents house came as no surprise. As far as he could tell, they didn't know he was there, trapped behind drawn curtains.
"What do I do?" he whimpered.
"Don't worry this is temporary excitement until real news takes over again, like the brewing Iran Contra deal." I assured him with a dose of sarcasm. Political scandals are always a good distraction. I stared at the pile of messages on my desk and had an idea.
"Stay put, don't face them yet, I'm going to make a call first," I said, demanding he give me a number to call him back.
"I'm not so sure Mom would like --,"
" Look, I'm not in the mood for this and I am not wanting for you to call me back, now fork it over," I snapped.
I made a call to Stori Adler, the biggest PR gun in town. I met her at one of my mother's soiree's and we were instant friends. I explained the situation to her and she agreed we had to get the press out of the way until a more permanent plan was in place.
" I want you to write this down and have him repeat it exactly," she dictated in her smooth Virginia accent. It was a brief but effective statement. I called him back and repeated her instructions.
"Are you sure this will make them go away? They seem unmovable," he said, sounding dubious.
"Yes, trust me. Stori knows what works. Stay cool, stick to the script and get back here as soon as possible," I said and hung up. I turned on the TV and called Stori.
"This should be interesting," I told her while we waited for the breaking news from CNN.
"Oh this is nothing darling. There's so much he needs to learn to be presentable, and I can teach him," she said. She wasn't boasting, Stori had experience turning rookie congressmen, overnight celebrities and shy athletes into poised professionals.
I kept her on the phone when he appeared on TV. He had the carefully written note in his hand as he stood before the clutch of media holding out microphones. He was wearing a clean shirt and looked freshly showered and shaved.
"Good afternoon. I have a brief statement to make as I am not ready to answer any questions right now on recent events in Pittsburgh. In the meantime I request that you respect my parent's privacy. The sooner you leave here the sooner I can arrange a time to hold a press conference and answer all of your questions --I realize you must have a lot of them," he smiled and I held my breath as he went off script. He cleared his throat and continued to read from the note he held.
" Please be patient, once my parents are left alone and resume a normal life, I can return to my work and prepare for a conference. Thank you." he nodded then sharply turned back to the house ignoring the shouted questions.
"I cannot wait to meet this handsome devil, " Stori said, positively gleeful. She relished making her clients look good and the media foolish. I couldn't wait to see him either.