The Boys are Back in Town by Christopher Golden
The world was still solid and reliable that chilly October morning, but it would not stay that way forever.
Or even for long.
Will James stepped out of the Porter Square T station amidst the early morning throng, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the crispness of the autumn air. The other commuters disgorging themselves from the subway were as uncommunicative as always, their eyes downcast or steadfastly focused on navigating their morning routes. But Will caught a vibe off them, a sort of aura that told him that they were enjoying the blue sky morning just as much as he was.
A heavyset black woman crowded up behind him as he started along Massachusetts Avenue toward his office. Will could feel the hurry coming off her in waves, so he stepped aside. As she passed he raised his Dunkin’ Donuts cup to her and smiled. She said nothing but did smile in return as she continued on her way.
Will blew into the hole he’d ripped in the lid of his coffee cup and it whistled slightly. He set off again along the sidewalk, taking his time. Technically he was not due in the office until late in the morning but he nearly always showed up early. Will was a Lifestyles writer and entertainment critic for The Boston Tribune, a tabloid that’d been the third best-selling paper in the city since Lew Orton had founded it sixty-five years before. Will had always suspected that after the first couple of decades everyone at The Trib had just given up thinking it could ever be anything else.
It sure didn’t look like he was ever going to work for The New York Times or win that Pulitzer Prize-his dreams had been larger than reality had provided-but he loved his job and for the most part got along with the people he worked with. And he had learned enough to know that was not the norm. Some days he did not feel like it, but he was a lucky guy.
A police officer directing traffic at the intersection just ahead blew a whistle and waved several cars through. An SUV driven by a perfectly coiffed blond in sunglasses rumbled by, followed by a Volkswagen Beetle, the windows rolled down and blaring out hip-hop rhythms that nearly knocked over the bicycle messenger who was trying to keep up with the traffic.
The offices of The Boston Tribune were not actually in Boston, but Cambridge, and he had always been pleased with the incongruity. There was something wonderfully avant garde about this section of Massachusetts Avenue. Porter Square was in the midst of a Bermuda Triangle of Boston’s college scene, with Tufts, Harvard and M.I.T. all near enough to have inspired the second-hand clothing boutiques, specialty bookshops, and unique restaurants that lined the road.
A van went by pumping Aerosmith out of its speakers and under his breath, Will began to sing along. He had a long day ahead, starting with some follow up phone calls on a Lifestyles piece he was working on, then lunch with old friends who were in town, and finally a pair of back to back film screenings, the reviews for which he had to write before nine o’clock that night to hit the deadline for tomorrow’s paper.
It was a good thing he loved his work. He did not have time for very much else.
When he reached the Tribune building he bid a reluctant goodbye to the blue sky and the scent of October on the breeze, dropped his nearly empty coffee cup into a trash can and held the door open for a UPS delivery man. It was just after ten a.m. when he stepped off the elevator on the fifth floor and into the editorial bullpen. Reporters and editors were fond of saying that the fifth floor was the heart of the newspaper. Will disagreed. He figured the actual printing press was the paper’s pumping, beating heart. The bullpen was its eyes and ears and sometimes, if they were very lucky, its conscience.
“Morning, Micaela,” he said as he swept past the desk of the City Editor. She was typing and her gaze did not even rise from her computer screen, but she greeted him nevertheless. He would’ve thought she was psychic if he believed in that sort of thing.
Several other people greeted him, but at this time of day the bullpen was anarchy, the entire staff behaving like they were racing dogs and somebody’d just set the rabbit to running. Will slipped off the Somerset University sweatshirt he had worn that morning and slid into the chair behind his desk. Other than the paper clutter of notebooks and bits of research he printed off the ‘Net, the only things that marked the space as his were a small black and white photo of his parents, a harlequin-painted ceramic mask he had picked up in New Orleans, and a framed photograph of Harry Houdini, the great escapist and magician.
Will mentally said good morning to his parents, vowing to call them down in South Carolina later that morning and knowing he would forget to do it. His dad loved the game of golf maybe more than he did Will’s mother, and so rather than Florida they had retired to Hilton Head.
The message light was blinking on his phone so he picked up his voice mail. There was only one message. “Good morning, Will. Do me a favor? Come see me when you get in.”
It was Tad Green, the editor-in-chief of the Trib. There was no hint in his tone as to the nature of the impromptu meeting. Will got up from his desk and weaved through the bullpen toward the e-in-c’s corner office. Halfway there he passed the cubicle where Stefan Bruning was busily doing his advance prep for the next day’s Sports page.
“Hey. Did I hear right? You going after what’s her name? The lady who talks to the dead on the radio?”
Will stopped short and looked down at him, brows knitted. “Helen Corsi. And she doesn’t talk to the dead, Stef, she pretends to talk to the dead and gets paid for it by people who already have enough heartbreak in their lives. It’s called fraud.”
“Ah, man, come on,” Stefan replied, waving him away. “You don’t know that. I’ve listened to her on the radio. I’m not saying I’m going to pay her to do it, but it sure sounds real to me.”
With a chuckle Will shook his head. “It’s supposed to sound real. If it didn’t, nobody would pay her. There are lots of people who think professional wrestling is real, too.”
The sports writer blanched. “You mean it isn’t? Next you’re gonna tell me there’s no Easter Bunny.”
He managed to keep his face blank for the count of three, and then the two of them laughed. Will walked on toward the corner office as Stefan put the other earplug back in.
Tad’s door was open. The editor-in-chief was dressed in a brown suit with a bright yellow tie, phone clutched to his ear. Will wore a decent shirt and black shoes, but invariably his uniform started with blue jeans. He doubted that Tad was required to wear a suit, but could not imagine why anyone would choose to do so if they didn’t have to. It was one of the mysteries of life.
Will stopped just outside the office and rapped on the door frame. Inside, Tad looked up and nodded, holding up one finger to indicate that he should wait. The e-in-c was forty-seven, but he was thin and his eyes were blue and bright, and that lent him a boyish air in spite of his thinning hair.
“Hey, Will, come on in,” Tad said as he hung up the phone. He motioned with one hand but his gaze went back out into the bullpen. “Close the door, will you?”
What gave it away was the fact that Tad did not look at his face as he stepped into the room. Only after Will had closed the door and slid into the chair opposite the editor-in-chief’s desk did Tad meet his gaze. By then, Will had the whole thing figured out.
“You picked a new Lifestyles editor. And it isn’t me.”
Tad actually flinched. He was a good manager, tough when it came to the job, but fair and an amiable enough guy. But he sucked at delivering the bad news.
“You’re a hell of a writer, Will. I’ve told you that a hundred times and it’s always going to be true. But there are other things that come into play when making a decision like this and-“
“Who’d you give it to?”
Tad picked up a pencil from his desk and tapped it on the arm of his chair. He sat back and regarded Will closely. “Lara Zahansky.”
Will swore under his breath. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it had been anyone else. Lara was a team player, a decent writer when it came to the mechanics of the job, but she had no flair and her aesthetic judgement when it came to the Arts was for shit. But she dotted all the I’s and crossed all the T’s and always met her deadlines. Perfect management material, in other words.
“Jesus, Tad,” Will whispered.
“You’re only twenty-eight years old, Will. Give it time. Work out some of the kinks and-“
Will’s head snapped up and his eyes narrowed. “What kinks?”
Tad rolled his eyes. He was losing his patience. “Don’t play games with me. You know what I’m talking about. Your age was a factor, but at least half the reason you didn’t get the gig this time around is that you’ve made a rep as an eccentric. You’re unpredictable, Will. That might be okay for a crime reporter, but this is Lifestyles.”
“I’ve won awards for my work, Tad. Been in People magazine. What’s Lara got on her resume?”
The editor-in-chief gave him a hard look, all the reticence burned out of him now. “For starters, she’s got this job.”
Will ground his teeth and looked away.
Tad sighed. “Will, look at the Lifestyles pieces you’ve done in your tenure here. At least a quarter of them have this occult angle in them. Mediums. Psychics. Witches.” He paused. “Vampires, Will. You wrote about vampires.”
Tired now, Will slipped a few inches lower in his chair, getting comfortable. He had had this conversation far too often for his tastes. “I’ve done stories on mediums and psychics in order to debunk their claims, Tad. I’ve worked with the state Better Business Bureau to expose frauds and get people their money back. I’ve done stories on Wicca, a modern religion made up of so-called witches, mainly to explain the difference between them and the hags with pointy hats and broomsticks.
“As for the vampires, that piece was about cults of people who either believe or pretend that they’re actual vampires, but who spend their time cutting themselves and drinking each other’s blood. There are parties devoted to it, major gatherings all across the country, which you’d know if you bothered to actually read the pieces you’re talking about. All right, I confess, the idea that people believe this kind of bullshit gets under my skin. So when I see it out there, I want to shed some light on it. You want to know why? Fine. My grandmother lost her life savings to a woman who helped her communicate with my dead grandfather. Is it personal, sure, but that doesn’t make it any less valid. Someone’s got to debunk the charlatans, Tad. Why does that made me eccentric?”
Will took a deep breath, gazing steadily at the editor-in-chief. For a long moment Tad only returned his stare. Then the man reached up and loosened the knot on his tie and leaned forward, elbows on his desk.
“It’s crap, Tad. Give the job to Lara. She’s competent. I’m sure she’ll be fine. But don’t tell me I can’t do the job because I’m ‘eccentric.’”
The editor-in-chief pushed back his chair and walked over to the windows. The corner office gave him a wonderful view of Massachusetts Avenue. The sunlight flooded the room, brightening the yellow of his tie, the green and red in a painting on the wall, the orange of the ceramic Jack o’ Lantern on his desk; yet somehow it made his face washed out and pale, his thinning hair little more than wisps in the bright light.
He slipped his hands in his pockets. “Look, Will, I’m sorry. Truly. I could’ve bullshitted you, laid it off to Lara having more years at the paper. But that wouldn’t have been doing you any favors. You’ve got this little crusade going and with what happened to your grandmother, I guess I understand it. We’ve gotten some great pieces out of it, I won’t deny that. But you might want to tone it down in the future. That’s all. I thought you should know why you didn’t get this gig, so maybe things will be different the next time around.”
For a long moment the two men regarded one another. Then Will took another long breath and shrugged. “I just try to do my job as well as I can. This wasn’t the news I wanted today. I guess I’ll get back to it.”
“Hey,” Tad said as Will started to walk out of the office. He waited for Will to pause and look back before continuing. “Stick it out. It’ll happen for you eventually. You’re too good not to make it work for you. I was thirty-five before I was made an editor.”
Will nodded politely. Tad didn’t want him to quit. That was almost funny. Disappointed as he was, where would he go? He was a reporter and a critic. It was the only thing he had ever wanted to do.
The rest of the morning flew by in a rush of e-mail and phone calls as he tried to focus on his draft of the story about the supposed radio medium. He did a quick follow up interview with one of her most avid supporters during which he feigned interest just long enough to get a handful of usable quotes. By the time he had hung up the phone it was ten ‘til noon.
Tugging his jacket from the back of his chair, he got up and hurried from the newsroom, glancing at the clock as he rushed for the elevator. He was going to be late.
Thanks to Tad Green’s bad news, the magic of the October day had escaped him, yet it returned the moment he set foot back out on the street. The air was still crisp, the sky ice blue, and he could smell the smoke from a fireplace or wood-burning stove on the breeze. Right here; this was the only kind of magic that mattered.
As he walked the four blocks to Carmine’s Trattoria-a place he loved for the freshness of its food and the paper map-of-Italy placemats that set off an otherwise sophisticated décor-he took his jacket off and draped it over his shoulder. The lunch time crowd had hit the sidewalks, milling about and crossing the streets at abandon, slowing Cambridge traffic even further. Will passed a construction site, where surprisingly tactful men in hardhats watched a slender, model-beautiful woman walk her terrier down the street with admiring glances but no rude shouts or whistles.
Will watched her as well. The woman was breathtaking in a sheer, sky blue top and crisply new jeans. The effect of seeing her-and of the men loosening their ties and women tying sweaters around their waists-made it feel like spring instead of fall. Will found himself suffused with a feeling of well-being that brought a smile to his face and made him chuckle softly to himself.
When he walked past the front windows of Carmine’s he spotted Ashleigh and Eric DeSantis at a table right in front. Grinning, he tapped on the glass. Ashleigh was on her cell phone but when she looked up and saw him her eyes sparkled and her face lit up with a smile that made her look ten years old again. She wore a deep red cable knit sweater that brought out the auburn highlights in her chestnut hair and was tight enough to flatter her slender frame. In a white Oxford shirt and khaki pants, Eric sat tilted back on his chair and raised a hand to offer a casual wave. That was Eric, cool as could be, letting the world just wash over him.
When Will was a kid, Ashleigh had literally been the girl next door. Their mothers had walked them side by side in their strollers and planned play dates. They had grown up together on the broad expanse of lawn between their back yards, bisected by a row of tall shrubs, and on the swingset behind Ashleigh’s house. They had explored the woods that began at the back of their property lines and stretched what looked like forever, into some primordial forest of their imagination.
She was his oldest friend, and he had never thought of her any other way. Even when his buddies at Kennedy Middle School and later Eastborough High teased him, Will looked at her thin, elegant features and lush brown hair and saw the girl he’d gone trick-or-treating with every Halloween since birth, the girl who had cried on his shoulder the first time she had ever kissed a boy, because the little shit hadn’t kissed her back. Will had punched Jimmy Renahan in the head for that one, and Jimmy hadn’t had a clue as to why.
Will’s parents had never had any other children, but in Ashleigh, he had a sister.
When he walked into the restaurant she rushed to meet him. He wrapped his arms around her and lifted her several inches off the ground in a bear hug.
“Hey, Ash. Welcome home.”
She grinned and hugged him again. “You have to visit more. I miss you so much. You haven’t come down to see us since New Year’s!”
Ashleigh and Eric lived in Elmsford, New York, where she was a lawyer and he was the athletic director for a private high school, and where they still somehow managed to be fantastic parents to their twins. Though he knew it wasn’t, they made it look easy, and that gave him faith.
Will made an effort to go down and see them a couple of times a year and always came away pleased that Ashleigh had married Eric. It could be difficult at times-when he had been with Caitlyn the four of them had often formed a social quartet-but his pleasure at seeing Ashleigh happy far outweighed whatever discomfort his own regrets might bring him.
With his arm around her he walked to the table and shook hands with her husband.
“Good to see you, Will,” Eric said. “Have a seat.”
They hadn’t been seated for thirty seconds before Ashleigh leaned over and gave him a conspiratorial grin. “So, come on. You know you want to go.”
“I really don’t.”
Eric shook his head and picked up a sweating bottle of Sam Adams from the table. “You do. You just want to make us all suffer and prove our love by begging you to come along. So no more of that shit.” His eyes were alight with mischief. “One comment from me, Will, then we’re done. If I was single, I would take this opportunity to spend the weekend banging all the girls I wanted to have sex with in high school but never got the chance to.”
Ashleigh leaned over the table, chin rested on her palm, hazel eyes narrowed with interest. “Oh, really. And which ones were those, honey?”
“Nah, I’m not talking about me, sweetheart. But Will, he was a horny dog back then. I’m sure he’s got a list.”
His wife pretended to look scandalized and Will just rolled his eyes and reached for his menu.
Ashleigh sighed softly. “Is it Caitlyn? Please don’t tell me you don’t want to go just because you don’t want to see her. Otherwise I’ll have to lock her in a closet for the weekend.”
“No. I don’t think I’d enjoy seeing her, but it wouldn’t kill me. Time heals all wounds, right?”
He hoped he sounded more confident than he felt. Will’s relationship with Caitlyn Rouge had survived high school graduation and four years of college, only to fall messily apart on what was to be their wedding day. It was an old wound, but the truth was that five years after their breakup, it still had not healed.
“So?” Ashleigh prodded, nudging him, knowing with absolute certainty that he loved her too much to take offense.
As he perused the list of salads Will shook his head slightly. Even if Caitlyn did show up, years had passed since the last time they had seen one another. The world had moved on, unmindful of whether or not he still loved her. Which was fine, in a way. A lot had happened in those intervening years, and it was not as though he had any illusions.
“I’ll regret this later if I don’t go, won’t I?” he asked without glancing up from the menu.
“Horribly. Particularly because of the torment you’ll suffer at my hands,” Ashleigh promised.
Slowly, Will lowered his head to the table and thumped it once against the wood.
When he returned to the office the first thing he did was check his e-mail. The first of the two film screenings he had to go to started at three o’clock, so he only had about half an hour before he had to fly out the door again. There were twenty-seven e-mails, many of which were attempting to lure him to various pornographic websites or to sell him Omaha steaks or crystal penguins. Roughly one third of them were business, a handful were personal.
As he was responding to his e-mail, Will ruminated on the events of the day thus far. His feelings about the reunion did not stem from an actual aversion to attending, but from a general lack of interest. Certainly there was a curiosity about old friends and acquaintances, but the people he really wanted to see he had already made plans to visit with while they were in town. Lunch with Ashleigh and Eric had been planned because he had no intention of attending the reunion. He saw Danny and his wife often enough.
His brow furrowed. There was something else he had planned, but it seemed to have slipped his mind. Then, abruptly, it came to him. Lebo! He and Mike Lebo had exchanged e-mails the previous week. Mike was flying in from Arizona for the reunion and he and Will had made a plan to get together on Sunday afternoon.
What the hell’s wrong with me? Will thought, annoyed that he had let it slip his mind. Mike had been part of the group he’d hung out with all through high school, along with Danny and Eric, Ashleigh and Caitlyn, and a handful of others. They spoke a few times a year but he had not seen Mike for ages.
For a long moment he stared at his computer screen, and then he chuckled softly to himself. Why the hell not?
Will typed up a quick e-mail to let Mike know that he had changed his mind. Seeing everyone separately was all right, but the more he thought about it the more he realized that having the whole gang together would be really nice. He had to search his memory for Mike’s e-mail address, since for some reason he couldn’t find it in his computer address book, but it was fairly simple and his recall for that kind of thing had always been good.
He sent the e-mail, confirming that he would be there, but a few minutes later, as he was getting ready to head out to the first screening, he received notice in his Outlook in-box that his message had been rejected because the username “lebomp01” was unknown to the system.
Will frowned and stared at the screen. It had taken him a moment to remember, but he was certain there was no mistake in the e-mail address he had used. There was nothing he could do at the moment, however. Not if he wanted to make the screening on time. And when he was wearing his critic’s hat he was a stickler about that. Will James would never write a review about something he had not witnessed in its entirety.
He’d see Mike tomorrow night. Anything they had to say to one another would keep until then.
Keep reading . . .