It was raining on Pack Square and John Parker didn’t like the rain. The journalist had seen more rain in the past fifteen years than some people see their entire lives. Rain during hurricane season along the Gulf Coast . Rain during monsoon season in the tropics. Rain during every season in Seattle.
But that was what a journalist did— anything to get the story. However crummy that story would be. The thirty three year old man looked around the heart of downtown Asheville, North Carolina and hoped this story would be worth the trouble. Today would be the difference between a fifty dollar commission and a five hundred dollar commission.
He looked down at the Rolex on his wrist. Even after fifteen years the engraving around the rim was still intact. “We are proud of you, Mom and Dad.” Briefly he wondered if it was still true. Briefly he wondered if it mattered. There came a time in life when you accepted things like they were. When things like pride took a back seat to things like love and acceptance. He frowned. She was late.
John sipped his black coffee and kept looking across the Square. He needed this job. It hadn’t been a good year so far. The stories hadn’t paid very well. This one could change that. If he could get this one in on time and if it did well, he would get the levee story. That would make a big difference at the end of the year.
“Excuse me.” He looked up into a pair of pretty brown eyes under a ball cap. “Are you John Parker?”
“Well I’m Jamie McDowell. We spoke on the phone.”
John relaxed — a little bit. He stood and shook her hand. Then they took their seats. “Miss McDowell you have no idea how glad I am to meet you. Would you care for some lunch?”
Pizza and soda was ordered and he got a refill on the black coffee. The twenty one year old was skinny as a rail and hyperactive as an over-caffeinated squirrel. Collar length light brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail and he got the impression this girl was as no nonsense as her jeans and t-shirt suggested. Jamie lit a Marlboro as she spoke.
“You said you wanted to know about the de Soto treasure.”
He nodded and sipped more coffee. John Parker had hoped this girl was what would make his article worth ten times more and so far he wasn’t disappointed. She worked part time for the Haywood County Sheriff’s Department and had volunteered with the Civil Air Patrol. As she related what her grandfather had told her he grew more confident and excited. She came from a family of surveyors and deputy sheriffs, just the people he needed to talk to.
Legend had it that Hernando de Soto brought an Aztec treasure out of Mexico. Supposedly he’d buried it in Western North Carolina when he came through in the 1530s. Evidently during the Civil War a group of pirates from Tortuga learned of the treasure’s location from an old Spanish pirate. They traveled to the Smoky Mountains and Jamie’s grandfather said they actually found the treasure.
But something happened on the way back to civilization. Her grandfather had speculated they’d run afoul of bushwhackers and the home guard. Whatever happened a decimated party buried the treasure and fled the mountains. Now the location was completely unknown. But the girl from Clyde had plenty of anecdotes about people who had gone looking for it.
Fifteen minutes later John took a deep breath and finally smiled for real. He had five C-notes in the bag. Jamie had finished lunch and was standing to leave. Now came the next big gamble. Maybe bigger than the first.
“Miss McDowell, I can’t tell you how big a help you’ve been. You’re the only person in all of Western North Carolina I’ve met who has any real idea about this treasure.”
She grinned. “Thanks, I enjoyed telling you. My grandfather always said it was out there.”
He made his move. “I’m really in your debt. It’d be a real treat if I could buy you dinner tonight. How does the Wild Wing Café at seven o’ clock sound? And they say there’s a good band at the Orange Peel.”
The twenty one year old grinned again. “I appreciate the offer, but my boyfriend and I have plans.”
John nodded and smiled. Oh well, it had been worth a shot. Now he reach in his pocket and handed her two twenty dollar bills. “For your trouble.”
“Oh, I couldn’t.”
“Believe me, the perspective you brought to the story is worth ten times this amount. Besides…” He shrugged. “… I can take it off my taxes.”
With a grin she stuffed the cash in her jeans‘ pocket. A minute later she was gone and he was sitting under the canopy alone again. The rain continued to fall. John Parker sighed heavily, ran his hand over his shaved head, then turned back to the notes he had jotted down. Fifteen minutes later he had fit it into the rest of the article. Now it was ready to turn in. He could feel the five hundred dollar bonus.
His Blackberry buzzed and he answered it. He paid the waitress, collected the receipt— for tax purposes— and was on his way back to his Kia. The phone call had blown away everything he had been planning on. Specifically the levee story.
It had been his. His boss, Oscar Byrd, had told him if he could pull off this story he’d have the levee story. And that was as close to real journalism as he’d been during the past year. Five minutes later his Kia was doing the speed limit heading south on I-240 toward Charlotte.
John Parker worked for Charlotte based Media Content, LLC. The company made its money by selling news companies prepackaged stories. They weren’t going to get a Pulitzer Prize but the growing thirst for information assured it would stay in business.
He’d graduated from Bailey University over in Tennessee fifteen years earlier. Without any experience he’d taken a job that ensured a steady cash flow. The journalists who wrote the stories were paid a flat ten percent of whatever they sold for. That price depended on content, topic, and the media outlet it was sold to.
Without Jamie’s interview his Aztec Treasure story would have been an online sidebar and maybe article in a spooky magazine. Now it could go to a main stream magazine—Time, Newsweek, Southern Home— for thousands of dollars. This was pay dirt. But not all articles were like that.
The stories each journalist worked on were determined by their supervisor. His, Mr. Byrd, was a stuck up grouch with a sense of pride and vanity. It was his way or the highway. He and John hadn’t gotten along from Day One. For the first three years he’d tried to find a way to get rid of the cub reporter.
But John was a good, solid journalist. He did good work and got it in on time. Byrd finally realized he needed the rookie to carry the other journalists who knew the path to promotion lay in kissing up to the boss. Which was something John wasn’t that good at.
John had been taught in school that if you do a good job and write good stories you’d move up in the world. Well he soon discovered that wasn’t the case. The good, high paying stories that looked good on your resume were given to the office favorites. He got the filler stuff. Fortunately, he was able to finish enough of it to make a living. Although his pay was stuck at thirty five thousand he stretched it with a little bit of freelance work and some tutoring. He managed to clear about fifty thousand a year.
Two hours after he’d left Asheville he was at Media Content’s in Charlotte. Oscar Byrd had been at the company a long time. He was tired and relied on his political acumen to stay on top. The changing times, industry, and technology made him nervous. And a nervous boss isn’t a good thing.
After filing his report Parker went straight to his boss’ office. The older man was expecting him. He got his kicks from needling his subordinates. He’d push them to see how far they’d bend till they broke. It gave him a sense of power, authority, and control.
He had been expecting John Parker all morning. This would be good. Parker was too stubborn for Byrd’s taste. Parker challenged him way too much. Oscar Byrd needed people around him who could be relied on not to cause trouble. And to kiss up.
Parker’s arrival turned into a thirty minute verbal wrestling match. The argument kept going in circles. There were multiple variations on two sentences.
Parker kept saying. “Its not fair. I earned that story.”
Oscar Byrd kept saying. “I don’t care. I’ll give to whoever I want.”
Finally John Parker stood there steaming. He was getting nowhere. But Mr. Byrd was watching him. The reporter was controlled enough to remind himself the jerk got a kick out of this. His brain spun.
This had been going on for fifteen years. And it would end the same way as it always ended. Unless he did something different. Perhaps even something stupid. But he was tired of being pushed around. A thought occurred to him. A long shot, but worth the trouble. He crossed him and looked Oscar Byrd in the eye.
“Lets make a bet.”
John Parker leaned on the desk, looking down at his supervisor. “Here’s the bet. I can give you the best story of anyone here. Bar none. Or I quit.”
Byrd smirked. This guy was so full of himself he was an easy target. Parker was such an idealist. He thought things should go according to what was “right.“ Okay, lets humor him.
“Alright, Clark Kent, what big story are you gonna turn in? Blow my mind.”
Now John was on the hot seat. This hadn’t been a plan, just a off the cuff idea. Gee, what now. He remembered the independent newspaper he had read while waiting for the cute girl from Haywood County.
“Twenty Twelve, you know. How the world ends next year?”
“You want to do an article on that nonsense.”
“That nonsense is a huge deal. And its trendy.”
“We’ve done it before.”
“Yes and I’ll do it even better. This will the best article so far this year.”
Byrd shook his head. This kid needed to be put down. But the article actually sounded good and Parker could pull it off. He shrugged.
“Why not? You’re on.”
Parker wasn’t done. He pushed further. “If I write it what do I get?”
“Get?! You get paid.”
“Unnh-unnh. No way. I’m raising the stakes. If I do this I want the Columbia job.”
Now Byrd froze. Why the little so-and-so. He couldn’t get the job. Byrd wanted to keep this guy down. He wanted him under his thumb.
The Columbia, South Carolina job was no picnic. The journalist had to cover the entire state of South Carolina. There was no office and lots of travel. But it was a promotion from being a roving reporter. And the pay was nearly double what Parker got now.
Office rumor had it would go to one of Parker’s rivals who kissed up to Byrd. Right now they were Trevor, Jim, and Susan. Byrd had the job picked out for Susan. He wanted her in Columbia. Hmmm. This was tough.
Parker was good and had fifteen years of experience under his belt. Byrd had a grudging admiration for the guy—sort of. But most of all he needed the story bad. Media Content had just gotten a new executive Oscar needed to impress. A big spread on 2012 could be just the thing.
And he needed to keep Parker under his thumb. Slowly an idea came to him. Take the bet, but handicap Parker to ensure he couldn’t make the deadline. Then let him keep his job and throw it in his face. Oh yeah, this would work. Susan gets the Columbia job and Parker looks bad.
He leaned forward. “Alright, now I raise you. You’ve got one week to turn in the story, ready for print.”
John Parker didn’t have to think it over. He’d already committed himself. He nodded. “Deal.”
Then he turned and walked to the door. He was feeling a bit shaky. Even after fifteen years of doing business with this old crow it still unsettled him. He needed some coffee and a snack. As he turned the doorknob Oscar Byrd spoke.
“Oh, Parker, I’ve got an intern for you.”
Parker spun. “What?”
Byrd shrugged. “Look, its out of my hands.”
“No buts and no questions. This comes from the highest levels. Take her to Mexico with you and bring her back.” He let the room fall silent for a long moment. “Got it?”
Parker clenched his jaw. “Yeah, I ‘got it.’ “
“Good. She’s in the lounge waiting for you.”
With the door closed Oscar Byrd picked up the phone and dialed a number. Over the years Media Content had received tips and favors from government agencies. They would return the favors at different times. Now the CIA had called one in. Take someone into Mexico using the company as a cover. It was risky for the company but the favor being repaid had been a big one. Someone picked up on the other end of the line. Byrd spoke. “Yeah, that situation you told me about. Taken care of.”