Deadline Man

Deadline Man

He's a man whose life is so intertwined with his job that we know him only as "the columnist." He writes for a newspaper in Seattle, isn't afraid to stir ...

About The Author

Jon Talton

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan, the author of 11 novels, and a former columnist for the Arizona Republic. Talton now ...

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Thursday, October 14th

In my line of work, it’s called an anecdotal lede, a way of beginning a complicated story with a telling human angle. If journalism exactly mirrored life, mine would begin like this:

Troy Hardesty has achieved the paperless office. Not even a Post-it Note profanes his sleek desk. The desktop is ten feet long, made of black marble, framed in platinum, and shaped vaguely like the deck of a supercarrier. It is polished so highly that I can see my face in it. At the desk’s precise center are two thin computer screens, facing in at angles, a keyboard, and mouse. The newest Blackberry model sits to the right of the keyboard. Every few seconds the Blackberry chirps: confidential dispatches from the front lines of capitalism. Troy’s hedge fund has just invested $75 million into a Silicon Valley startup that will compete against the company that makes Blackberry. Three chairs face the desk, made of the same platinum and dark reddish wood as the superstructure of the desk. They are comfortable, but not too comfortable. After half an hour in one of those chairs your back may start to hurt. Four other chairs of the same design are set at precise stations around a circular conference table ten feet from the desk. It, too, is bare. Two walls are adorned with Picassos and two are all glass, facing the city. His office is expensive and minimalist and it smells like lemons.

A large plasma-screen television hangs on the wall nearest the desk. It has a dark wooden frame that exactly matches the frame of the nearby Picasso. The screen is split into four. CNBC, Fox Business, and some private feed of market numbers are on three of the splits. The fourth is local news, showing a photo of a girl-next-door with straight honey colored hair, parted in the middle, and a peaches-and-cream face with a thousand-watt smile. She’s the girl every boy fell in love with in high school. Underneath the screen says, “Megan Nyberg: missing teen.” I shake my head: a world of important news out there and people would rather be entertained by the latest pretty white teen in peril. My back is starting to hurt.

I am twenty-six hours from deadline.

Troy glides in, a tall man wearing a sleek black suit and purple shirt, buttoned up to its pinpoint collar, without a tie. It’s properly edgy and expensive. For all that, he resembles an Episcopal priest. Father Troy of St. Bigbucks. Except he has that look common to men who make a lot money: expensive haircut, chiseled athletic features, taut skin, chicken lips. He’s forty-five and looks it, but in a good way: seasoned, resourceful. He nods and says my name. He quickly pages through the messages on the Blackberry, then makes a show of checking the time on his wristwatch, a silver Breguet with a black band. I saw a story in Forbes that said it retails for $275,000.

He then walks with quick strides to the glass doors leading out to the terrace. I stand and follow him outside. He always does this, as if he’s paranoid about someone overhearing what he tells me—as if it were that good—or he’s supremely proud of his view of downtown, Elliott Bay, and the Olympic Mountains. It’s the kind of October day where the long, late West Coast summer lingers in Seattle like a fickle tourist. The temperature is seventy-five, a slight breeze flickers down from the northwest out of a cloudless, nearly cobalt blue sky. A ferry is plowing white froth across the bay from Bainbridge Island. Behind it a massive container ship is beginning the long journey to Asia.

The balcony planters are still wild with colors: red, pink, violet. From twenty stories down, I hear the whine of a siren.

“Is this beautiful or what?” He leans on the balcony railing and I join him. I am not afraid of heights. I am not like Jill. Fear is not hopelessly coded inside me, destined to make me too afraid to leave my loft. It’s a disloyal and selfish thought, but then I think about Rachel and figure this is my week for them. It’s a long way down and I make myself study the people-ants scurrying along Fourth Avenue to early lunch. The railing is not quite waist high, but I have long legs.

“Mountain’s out.” He cocks his head to the south, and sure enough, the giant cone of Mount Rainier has emerged from the foggy muck that often shrouds it.

“So what does the columnist want today?” He gives me an indulgent smile. But his movements are agitated. “You know, I’m still getting grief from that thing you did on me. Don’t know why I talk to you.”

That “thing I did on him” was a column more than a year ago, discussing the implosion of the hedge-fund industry, but explaining why some players were still making big money. I remember the headline: “Long live the hedge-fund kings.” I used Troy as an example—and with his ego whispering in his ear he went along, giving me details right down to his vintage car collection, float plane and getaways to the San Juans. I write as many as 140 columns a year, plus a blog. So it’s easy to forget most of them. Writing a newspaper column is like writing in chalk on a sidewalk, an old-timer once told me. But the sources always remember.

So I start with a softball to put him at ease. What’s his reaction to increasing regulation of the hedge-fund industry? But he takes it and launches into a lecture about excessive regulation driving capital overseas. There’s more than a trillion dollars in hedge funds like the one Troy runs and they long operated outside the rules that govern traditional securities. They’re part of the shadow banking system that most people have never heard of, and they’ve been blamed for helping bring on the big recession, or small depression—depending on how you look at it.

Some of the funds have profited from the repeated federal rescue attempts. Troy’s is one. Others have collapsed. A big fund just went down that morning and now is being investigated in New York for pension-fund fraud. I may ask about this later, but for now I just listen as seagulls fly overhead. Troy is probably not a bad guy. But he’s a source, not a friend, not an acquaintance. We’re here to use each other and I always intend to get the better end of the bargain. “So how long are you going to stay in the newspaper business?”

It takes my brain a few seconds to process his question because I had tuned out his homily about the sanctity of free markets. My mind is on Pam, in my bed last night. Pam makes a lot of noise when she comes and afterward I read poetry to her as we lie naked and drink shots of single-malt scotch. Robert Frost and Macallan. I let that image go reluctantly and give my stock answer, “Every day I’m employed, I’m pleasantly surprised.”

It usually produces a laugh. Troy just leans out, studying the street. I hope nobody cut corners with the construction of the railings. “Journalism is over,” he goes on. “Your kind of journal- ism. Nobody reads anymore. You’re too elitist to write about what people want. Celebrities.”

“Please.”

“The LATimes and the Chicago Tribune are in bankruptcy. San Francisco may close. The Rocky Mountain News, gone. The P-I, gone—don’t think that’ll keep you guys out of the crapper. Ad revenue keeps collapsing by double-digits. Look at all the layoffs…” For a guy who claims to not care about newspapers, he keeps up pretty well. I am so tired of the newspaper death watch, so tired of arguing, speculating, trying to make people understand all the reasons newspapers have committed suicide. It’s the last thing I want to discuss with Troy. I say, “It’s all because of greedy bastards like you.” Now here I am trying to piss off a source I need for my Sunday column.

“You couldn’t get me to invest in a newspaper today!” he sneers. “Mature industry. Declining profit margins. You’re all in the buggy whip business after Henry Ford came to town. You ought to do something new, make some money.”

“It’s not in my nature. I’m a skeptical, ink-stained wretch.” He waits for the sound of a siren to fade, then, “Yeah, and if I was seeing Rachel Summers, I wouldn’t worry, either. Daddy will set you up. Hot little daughter with a big trust fund.”

I think: asshole. I also wonder, how does he know I am seeing Rachel Summers? I say nothing. Most guys like Troy like to oper- ate in the shadows. If they talk to the press at all, it’s to the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. I’m fortunate this particular asshole likes to talk to me. His agendas are mostly benign: to see himself quoted, when he wants to be quoted, and to show the local columnist how smart he is. Me, I want scoops and rarely get them from him easily. Otherwise, I’ll settle for an influential hedge-fund manager’s insights, or an off the record tip that I can leverage elsewhere. We both have to trust each other. So far, Troy has never burned me. It’s a delicate transaction.

“Olympic International,” I say. “Hear any takeover rumblings?”

Troy steps back from the railing and rubs his chin. “You’re kidding, right? They’re a dog.”

“But their stock’s been doing well. Some of the raw materials prices are rising again.”

“They’re overvalued,” he sniffs. “And don’t tell me that demand is going to restart in China. Industrial production is still way down. Look out at the port. How many container ships do you see?” I see one. “Inflation is still a big issue there, it’s just that nobody’s talking about it. They’re stuck with a trillion dollars in U.S. Treasuries—that doesn’t make them strong; it makes them weak. Anyway, China has a huge population that’s poor out in the countryside. You can forget about the clean energy racket. The Chinese leadership is going to have to do whatever it takes to feed everyone, and that means more dirty industrialization.”

This is where Troy is very good: smart and contrarian. A gust of wind streams across the terrace, whipping my tie.

“But,” I say, “does the market believe Olympic is overvalued? Private equity outfits are sitting on a lot of cash. What if somebody broke up Olympic and went with the most profitable units.”

He looks at me closely. “Are you asking me this or do you know something?” A vein on his forehead is standing out. I think he wants to gossip.

“You know Pete Montgomery is an old friend,” he says. “He and I were roommates at Harvard.” Montgomery is the chief executive of Olympic, and I have only heard this information a half dozen times from Troy. I nod.

“So are you going to quote me about the SEC thing?” “You know I don’t make promises.” I smile. “But I’m sure I can find a home for what you said. You’ll sound brilliant as usual.” “Smartass.”

“Anyway, everybody’s been talking about turning Olympic into a real estate investment trust. That’s not the sweet spot of the company.” He looks back over the side. “What do you know about eleven-eleven?”

I don’t hear him at first, or I don’t think I do. But he repeats it: eleven-eleven.

“Some New Age thing involving crystals and Burning Man?

I don’t have a clue.”

He laughs, or I think he does. Then, “Come back in the office and I’ll tell you what I know about Olympic. But this is all off the record. I mean it. You can’t quote me, even on background.”

“Wait. What about eleven-eleven?”

“What do I look like, the newspaper? You want to hear about Olympic or not? I’ve got another appointment in a few minutes.”

# # #

Half an hour later I have a good start on my Sunday column. Five or six more phone calls and I’ll be done. Oh, there’s the writing under deadline pressure part, too. Troy walks me as far as the private side-door to his office, claps me on the shoulder and says, “Think about what I said. Don’t take your future for granted.” I thank him and head out. I won’t be caught napping if one of the city’s largest companies is facing a takeover attempt. Once I reach the street, I’ll duck into Tully’s and make  notes. I didn’t want to do it while Troy was talking. It makes some sources nervous.

The elevator is full when it arrives, but everyone is getting off on the top floor. A woman in a gray suit pushes out and crashes against my shoulder with a force that gets my attention. She’s tall and pretty with short, blond hair, and doesn’t acknowledge the football block she put on my shoulder or look back. Whatever happened to Seattle Nice? I ride down alone, thinking about what Troy had said about newspapers. It might be the end of my world. I know that. Papers have been closing. So many good people I know have been hurt. The survivors have been cutting staffs, dumbing down coverage and acting as lapdogs rather than watchdogs. I am lucky to be at the Free Press, which still values serious journalism. It is also a private, family-owned company, a little more immune from the terrible pressures and fads that are bleeding newspapers through a thousand cuts. I don’t always make smart choices, but coming back to Seattle five years ago and returning to the Free Press was one.

The plaza and street are busy with the lunch crowd. Men in suits with places to go. Young women in skirts and heels with life in their eyes. Tourists studying maps of downtown and carrying Nordstrom bags. Badly dressed Seattle kids in hoodies who think they invented the unbathed, stubble look. Lots of young software engineer-types with windbreakers and computer bags over their shoulders. The usual panhandlers and assorted street rats. Traffic is moving easily along Fourth and every few seconds a green-and-yellow King Metro or blue-and-white Sound Transit bus roars by. Even so, the air smells like it must have smelled the first day the world cooled down and became paradise. I re-crimp the knot of my tie and pull the notebook out of my inside suit pocket. My shoulder still aches where the short-haired woman hit me and I start to rub it when I hear the faintest whistling sound. The explosion is close, a single sharp boom, concussing and echoing between the skyscrapers. I fall to the plaza concrete and cover my head, a consequence of long-ago training. The concrete is cold and that only makes my heart hammer harder. When I look up, most people are just standing there paralyzed, locked in the second of the detonation, dumb, stunned looks on their faces. I think, of course, terrorism. I stay down, recalling reading how there’s often a follow-up car bomb to kill the rescuers. Another part of me thinks: this is a great story.

The street is silent for a few seconds, and I can’t smell any evidence of an explosion. None of the windows are shattered. There’s no blood. As I rise to my feet, people start talking and yelling, moving toward the street. A car alarm erupts. One scream, seismic in its intensity, then a second. Different screamers. I follow the noise and see the wrecked hood of a new black Toyota Camry. The front tires are flat. It’s sitting behind a bus on the curb lane, where the building angles away from the plaza and sits hard against the sidewalk. The Toyota’s driver is one of the people screaming. Then I see what’s left of the body cradled in the collapsed hood of the car. My legs walk toward it, my body drunk on adrenaline. I am amazed by the lack of blood on the corpse. It lies face up. That makes it easy to see that what’s left of the man on the Toyota is encased in a sleek black suit and a purple shirt, buttoned at the collar.

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