Fiction

OUT-OF-TOWN ASSIGNMENT

They all said Nan could handle a crime story like a man. That’s why it was a shock to see her suddenly go for the woman’s angle

JAMES CARVER February 15 1948
Fiction

OUT-OF-TOWN ASSIGNMENT

They all said Nan could handle a crime story like a man. That’s why it was a shock to see her suddenly go for the woman’s angle

JAMES CARVER February 15 1948

OUT-OF-TOWN ASSIGNMENT

JAMES CARVER

CITY EDITORS invariably told reporters new to the city, to watch Nan Morgan of the Blade when they were out on a story. These instructions were pleasant to follow because Nan had all the curvaceous qualities of a pin-up girl, plus a flair or clothes that made other women pluck distractedly at their new outfits and wonder why they felt suddenly frumpish when she walked in.

The instructions were also very sensible in the interests of self-preservation for, in addition to being nice to watch, Nan had the instinctive sinewy intelligence of a beagle that somehow got to be district attorney.

“Schiaparelli with a touch of Machiavelli,” was the way her own city editor, Tom Bailey, had once described her.

When Nan was starting out in the business of getting news, fresh from school, Bailey sometimes allowed himself to feel proud that he had trained her. Now that she was one of the best reporters in town, with an uncanny feeling for news and a sweet ruthlessness with the opposition, he often wondered in a nervous way just what he liad started when he first sent her out to cover a flower show. He no longer boasted mildly to himself about what he had created; he just marvelled apprehensively at whal had happened and hoped no one would lure her away to another paper.

The heat of the day was beginning to throb like distant tom-toms when Nan swung out of her rumpled bed and walked with a sleepy shuffle to the hall of her tiny apartment to answer the phone.

“Do you know where Cairnsville is, Nan?” asked the voice.

“Is this a quiz show or Bailey?” she asked irritably.

“It’s Bailey, baby. They just called me from the office. There’s a big story at a place called Cairnsville. Wonderful story . . . right down your alley,” he said soothingly.

Bailey writhed every time he listened to himself wheedling a reporter. He had been raised in a tough school under a city editor who would have made Simon Legree look like Mother Machree. It had been his ambition and intention, until good newspapermen joined the shortages like soap flakes and good Scotch, to emulate that rugged character.

“What’s happened in Cairnsville that makes such a good story? Has a one-headed baby been born in the town?” asked Nan flatly.

Bailey’s chuckle was as cheery as a ninety-ninecent alarm clock at seven a.m.

“Nan, ihis is good. The mayor, a millionaire by the name of Wurtele, has been kidnapped. It’s a great story,” he said.

“They’re all good stories. What time is who picking me up?” she said wearily.

“Frank Lobracio, the new photographer, is on his way over. You’ll have time to get dressed,” said Bailey.

“That’s nice. How about my day off?” asked Nan.

“Look, Nan, you can get your day off as usual. You can take it in Cairnsville if you like, or you can ...”

“I’d be likely to take it in that place, wherever it is,” snapped Nan.

“I thought you liked small towns. You’re always talking about a place in the country, some chickens . . .”

“Tom, we’re wasting time. I’ll write. ’By, ” said Nan.

“You’d better. ’By,” said Bailey.

Nan had a cool shower and began to feel better. She slipped into a black linen dress that gave her a crisp, unadorned, expensive look. Her scrap of a hat was fresh as a new chip atop her shining cap of hair. She swept up her bag, a raincoat and her always-packed overnight case just as the apartment buzzer sounded.

Lobracio was just out of the Navy, delighted to be driving a car again, delighted to be on a story with Nan Morgan.

“I’ve sure heard a lot about you, Nan,” he said underlining his words with a long appreciative look.

Nan tapped him on the sleeve.

“Just keep your eyes on the road and drive this thing, or they’ll never hear of either of us again,” she said quietly.

CAIRNSVILLE would have been a two-hour drive with almost anyone but Lobracio. He slowed down at the outskirts after a little over an hour and Nan said.

“Be sure to put your wheels down before you

They all said Nan could handle a crime story like a man. That’s why it was a shock to see her suddenly go for the woman’s angle

land, sailor, and then I think we should check in at the police stat ion.”

He stopped with a curve and a cloud of dust like a cow puncher pulling up to the hitching rack at the Last Chance Saloon.

There were two reporters on the sidewalk. They ambled over.

“Hi, Nan,” said George Blakely.

Kent Parsons, the other reporter, gave a languid, one-fingered salute to Nan. He looked bored.

“Well,” said Nan. “Certainly looks like a red-hot story from where I’m standing.”

“The chief’s no help, Nan,” said Blakely. “There’s nothing new and the people at Mayor Wurtele’s won’t even talk to us. The police have thrown out a dragnet; they are leaving no cliche unturned.”

“We’re going to stick around the station and wait for something to pop,” said Parsons.

“Well,” said Nan, “suppose we should go up to the house just to say we’ve been there anywav.

“No one will talk. There’s an old aunt and she’s tough,” offered Blakely.

“We’ll give liera try,” said Nan.

“W’hat pictures do you think we should get?” asked Frank.

“How about storting with close-ups of the kidnappers,” said Nan;

Lobracio flushed. Nan put her hand on his arm.

“I’m sorry, Frank. Didn’t mean to be sarcastic. I’m tired I guess. Tired and fed up with this road show of a job. We can get a picture of the house even if she won’t open up the family album tor us.”

As they drove up the hill to the residential section of the town Nan really saw Cairnsville for the first time. The streets were broad and shady. It was a hot day but here there was a slight sweet-smelling breeze.

“It’s not that hot heat you get in the city,” explained Frank.

Nan nodded. By the time they reached I he Wurtele house she was beginning to like Cairnsville.

Nan drew the old-fashioned bell pull and released it. The bell sounded deep in t he house?. There were footstepsheavy footsteps, and then Nan was facing a large good-looking young man with fair sun-bleached hair and blue eyes. He wort? an army shirt, no t ie, sleeves rolled up.

“Hello,” he said. “Won’t you come in?”

Nan hesitated.

“Thank you, but I w'as looking for Mr. Wurtele’s aunt,” she said.

“She’s here. She won’t talk to you, but come on in anyway,” said the large young man.

Nan looked closely at him.

“Why won’t she talk to me?” she asked.

“She won’t, talk to any newspaperman but me. I’m Sam Cairns - I’m the local press.”

They shook hands.

The large young man continued.

“You see, in Cairnsville people talk only to the Cairns. Something like Boston, I guess.” He closed the heavy door behind Nan and guided her down a long narrow hall with a gleaming unearpefed floor.

“Which paper are you with?” asked the local press.

“()h, I’m sorry. I should have said. I’m with the Montreal Blade. I’m Nan Morgan.”

They shook hands again.

In a sunporch at the back an old lady was rocking with determination and the intensity of a rider posting to hounds. She looked up as they entered.

“Miss Wurtele, this is Miss Morgan. She is from a newspaper in Montreal,” said Sam Cairns.

“How d’ye do,” she said crisply to Nan. Then to Sam, “Now send her away, Sam. I’m not talking to any of them.”

She went back to her rocking. Sam spread out his hands in a helpless gesture and turned to Nan.

“It’s like that all over town. They come to me before they go to the police. 1 haven’t been out of uniform long enough yet to get used to it. \ ou see, it’s all because my grandfather founded this town and my father ran the newspaper here for fifty years. I’m sorry, Miss Morgan.”

Nan smiled at him.

Continued on page 46

Out-of-town Assignment

Continued from page 11

“What a deal. You mean you’ve got the whole town sewed up like this?”

Sam shrugged.

“Not sewed up exactly, but most of the older families just wouldn’t talk to a newspaperman unless he was a Cairns. Since I’m the only Cairns, it’s sort of a monopoly by default.”

“Look, could I talk to her for just a . . .” Nan began.

“Tell her to go, Sam,” said Miss Wurtele. Her rocking chair hit a firmer beat.

It was Nan’s turn to shrug.

“Well, I don’t run into this very often,” she said frowning.

Sam guided her to the door.

“You wait in the car out there and I’ll give you what I’ve got on this. It’s a good story, too. The old lady saw the kidnap car. I’m trying to persuade her now to talk to the chief of police, but she won’t see him. She thinks he’s a fool. I won’t be long,” he whispered and closed the heavy door behind her.

“I got some pictures of the house. What did you get?” asked Frank Lo bracio.

“I think I’ve got a nice little scoop. The local press is going to meet me out here. How about you sending that picture off for a start and I’ll meet you at the hotel later? You haven’t a chance of getting in here,” said Nan.

NAN went back and sat on the front steps and looked down the sloping streets of Cairnsville and listened to the distant small-town sounds of the place. It was muted and restful.

Cairns came out after fifteen minutes. “Sorry to keep you waiting but I got another couple of phone calls. What say we go over to my car now and I’ll give you what I’ve got?” he said.

“Look, this is very nice of you to do this. The Blade will pay you for your help,” Nan said as they got into Sam’s coupe.

He knocked the suggestion away with a gesture of his hand.

“Forget it. This is the first news break we’ve had in this town in a year and I’m getting a kick out of it. You’ve no idea how dull it is here . . . the agricultural society’s annual meeting, a ball game, Doc Spivens went to the city last week to pick up a new dentist’s chair. That’s the sort of thing the Cairnsville Daily Courier is made of,” Sam said.

“Well, at least I’ll share anything I get with you,” Nan smiled. “That’s a laugh, too, the way you have this town sewed up.”

“Fine, it’s a deal,” said Sam. “I just get a kick out of working with one of you—well—big-name reporters.”

! Nan frowned.

“Are you kidding? Don’t tell me you’d leave all this,” she indicated Cairnsville with her notebook, “to join the kind of road show I’m in?”

Sam nodded.

“Yes, I’d do it just to prove to myself that I was good enough for the big time. I’m a fair newspaperman, I guess, but I’ve never had a chance to find out just how good. Working here has always been . . . well, you see how easily 1 get my news here where everyone knows me. Maybe the war made me restless but I’d certainly like to take a shot at a big paper.”

“You’re crazy,” said Nan. Then she smiled. “Now that we’ve established that, what did Miss Wurtele have to say?”

When Sam was finished Nan gave her head an appreciative half twist.

“That’s a good yarn. How does the Cairnsville Courier feel about us using this?”

“We don’t come out until tomorrow morning, same time as you, so that’s all right.”

“‘There’s just one other thing,” said Nan slowly.

Sam grinned.

“‘You needn’t worry about the other reporters—we’re partners, aren’t we?” he said as he started the car.

Sam fjaid it was one of the best partnerships since Trade and Mark got together. Bailey, who knew all about the deal, was as close to happiness as a city editor can be. When the kidnappers sent another ransom note— this lime for $50,000, right to Sam’s house with instructions to pass it on to Wurtele’s lawyer, Bailey swore ecstatically Nan was making the stuff up.

Nan wasn’t quite as happy about the alliance. In the first place she preferred to work alone; she was jealous of her independence. True she contributed to the joint story as the week went on but it was Cairns’ tie-up that was making the headlines. Then she didn’t like the gaunt mocking smiles she got from Parsons and Blakely, who in turn were getting the devil from their desks for being beaten consistently.

By Friday the story was cooling off. Th;ere had been no more word from the kidnappers; efforts by Wurtele’s lawyer to .get in touch with them had failed. The police had no clue except Miss Wurtele’s story that she had seen her nephew get into a cream-colored roadster on the morning he disappeared.

Nan called Bailey to ask him to send someone else down. She wanted to go back to take her day off—remember? Sure, that would be all right after the great job she’d done.

NAN walked over to the Courier office to say good-by to Sam. He was at home so she phoned there. He wasn’t coming down until after lunch but wanted her to have lunch with him and his mother. She’d love to.

Sam picked her up and took her up the hill where the old homes of Cairnsville slumbered in the sun.

Mrs. Cairns was a small whitehaired woman. Nan liked her immediately. She liked the birdlike way she put her head on one side when she listened. When Nan was putting her hat in one of the big front bedrooms that smelled faintly of lavender, Mrs. Cairns said,

“I’ve never seen Sam as happy and interested in his work as he has been this week.”

That was another good reason to get back to town, Nan told herself. There was sweet baked ham for lunch and hot biscuits and corn relish. They sat on the side porch after lunch and Nan could feel herself relaxing—she was letting down too fast after the excitement of the week. In fact she felt a little dizzy. She shook her head.

Sam watched her put her head back against the chair.

“Headache?” he asked. “C’mon, let’s go for a drive.”

She said good-by to Mrs. Cairns. “You’ll be back again,” protested Sam.

Nan shook her head.

“I’m going back to the office tonight. They’re sending someone else out.” “That’s awful,” Sam complained when they were in the car. “Don’t you like Cairnsville?”

“I love it, Sam. I really do. I’ve been thinking all day what a perfect little town it is. I’m going to miss it, too, but I’ve got to go back.”

“Stay around for the week end and we’ll have dinner tonight . . . and . . . I was going to ask you to have a picnic tomorrow. It will be hot in the city—hot and muggy. How about it?”

Nan leaned back against the seat of the car. She thought of her little apartment and the empty refrigerator. She thought of Bailey and the next assignment and suddenly she never wanted to go back.

“You’ve talked me into it, Sam,” she answered.

That night they drove out to a summer resort hotel at a lake not far from Cairnsville. They had dinner and danced slowly. They talked about newspapers, about what do you like that I like.

“You know, Sam, you’re mad to want to leave this life and go on a city paper,” Nan said. “Every city is full of guys who would give anything to have this. Why I . . .”

“You’d what?” asked Sam, smiling at her across the table. “Would you actually like this life?”

Nan thought for a moment and then said, “Yes, I would. Anyone would. It’s calm and peaceful. You have time to get your values straightened out like the things on your dresser. My dresser things are usually in an overnight bag.

I don’t know where my values are. Why, yes, anyone would like this.”

“All right then,” Sam replied. “If you’re serious, there’s a job here for you. I need a women’s editor. I know it would sound silly to have Nan Morgan for women’s editor of the Cairnsville Daily Courier, but if you really want this kind of life, if you really mean it . . . there it is.”

Nan twisted and untwisted a folder of matches, examining them as though they were something strange she had just found. Finally she looked up.

“Well, I’ve been talking like this for a long time and someone has at last told me to put up or shut up,” she said. “But you’ll have to give me a little time, Sam.”

“Sure, any time,” said Sam. “You let me know. But I should warn you you’ll be bored to death. I’d give anything to get out of here—even just for a year.”

They drove home slowly.

“You’re different tonight, Nan,” said Sam. “Not so . . .”

“Tough?” she offered.

“I didn’t mean that. But you are pretty professional you know. Tonight you’ve been . . . well . . .”

“Never mind, Sam. I know what you mean. It’s Cairnsville, I guess, and the people. Like you, Sam.”

“Like me?”

“Yes, like you. You’re a big man in this town. You may not know it but that little sheet of yours does a lot of good. It’s got integrity and people believe in it and they believe in you, not just because you are Adam Cairns’ boy but because they respect you. That’s the reason you should never leave here,” she finished.

They were silent for at least a dozen hamburger stands.

“I never thought of it that way exactly, Nan.”

“You should. And I shouldn’t talk so much.”

The car was travelling so slowly that Nan didn’t realize it had stopped at the side of the road. Then Sam put his arms around her and kissed her. He kissed her again. Then they both sat very straight and looked ahead with their hands folded before them.

“Now that I know the editor likes me, too, I’ll take that job,” Nan heard herself saying.

BACK at. her hotel Nan stood by the window and breathed the soft night air. Well, you’ve had a big night, Bright Eyes, she told herself. You not only fall in love with a large corn-fed editor after side-stepping the big winners, but you chuck your career. All in one night. You must be crazy. She

leaned farther out the window and breathed deeply. Somewhere not more than a few blocks away there was sweet clover. She decided she was crazy.

Should she phone Bailey now or wait until morning? Might as well make a night of it and do it now.

Bailey’s voice was the lamentation of a stricken mother mingled with the roar of a wounded bull.

“Do you know what you’re passing up? You’ll go crazy down there! Look, I’ll get them to send you on a tour of the country . . . you can write a book . . . People will quote you!” “Tom,” said Nan wearily, “1 don’t want to write a book. I don’t want to be quoted. I want to quit and go to bed and get some sleep for a couple of weeks and then I’m going to be women’s editor of the Cairnsville Daily Courier. Thanks for everything, Tom. Goodby.”

Nan slept late the next morning and then went over to the Courier to meet Sam for lunch. He was busy when she got there and she sat in the small, crowded editorial room and smelled the rich blend of paste and ink and lead and newsprint.

Nan breathed deeply and decided she loved every hit of it. If she hadn’t been hungry for her lunch she would have become quite sentimental about the Courier and Cairnsville and Sam Cairns. As it was, when Sam came suddenly from behind the glass door that was frosted like a julep glass she felt her heart do a flip.

“You’re just hungry,” she told herself sensibly. It might have been hunger hut it wasn’t appeased by the fried chicken and strawberry shortcake and two cups of coffee they had at a good place out on the highway.

They agreed they didn’t like little restaurants any more than they liked orators who were always talking of “the little man” as though the people they meant were three feet high. They decided the Courier would fight, for big restaurants, full-sized people.

They decided a few other things that night and the next. The most important was that they were in love.

The job was good, too. Because he had competent help, Sam had more time to roam around the country collecting stories, meeting old friends.

One day on her way back from lunch Nan saw Clint Patterson of the Blade drive by. Clint was a sort of one-man Gestapo for the newspaper. He did the fixing for Bailey and the rest of them. If something had to be taken care of in the life of an otherwise careful and useful reporter Patterson was the pay-off.

If a private report on how a deskman spent his time between tricks on the desk was needed, Patterson was the boy who made up the dossier.

The next night the phone rang and the operator asked Nan to hold on for a long-distance call. It was Bailey. “How’s things, Nan?” he asked.

“Fine, Tom.”

“Love among the paste pots, eh, Nan?” said Bailey.

Nan took a deep breath.

“I can save us both some time, Tom. The answer is still no. Good night.”

She didn’t say anything to Sam about the call but waited for Bailey’s next move. A few days later he made the flanking movement for which she had been waiting.

At dinner one night, about a week after Nan had seen Patterson, Sam pulled a letter from his pocket.

“I’ve had an offer from your old paper, Nan,” said Sam.

“From a man called Bailey?”

“That’s right . . . the city editor.” Sam shook his head. “It’s an awfully good offer.”

Nan looked down at the letter which Sam had pushed across to her.

“Well . . . what are you going

to do?”

He frowned.

“Look, Nan, I don’t want you to misunderstand this, but you know how 1 feel about a chance in the big league. Maybe I’m wrong about it but I’ll never be happy until I have a go at it. Do you understand?”

She nodded. “Sure, I understand.” “Nan, I’ve been happier here with you this last, couple of weeks than I’ve ever been. You know that. But I’ve got to give this thing a try. I’ve been thinking since I got this letter that maybe you wouldn’t mind carrying on here. I’ll be down week ends and we’ll see each other often.” There was a hint of desperate pleading in his voice.

“Guess you’ll just have to try it, Sam,” she said.

“They said they heard how I helped with the Wurtele story and liked the way I handled it. They want me to start as soon as I can,” he explained.

Somehow she couldn’t tell him it was just one of Bailey’s manoeuvres.

NAN worked along on the Courier missing Sam acutely. In the evenings after work she would sometimes go up and visit Mrs. Cairns. The paper came out all right but people were obviously disappointed when they climbed the narrow flight, of steps expecting to find Sam and were met by Nan.

There were the week ends of course. They kept Nan going. They were fine but it. wasn’t the same. The separation had made a difference. Love is something that has to be worked at just about full time, Nan was beginning to suspect.

Sam was excited about his work though. Bailey had told him he was doing well. He showed Nan of his

stories. Nan knew from them that Bailey was lying to Sam or he had changed his standards radically. Sam was good, but not good enough. He was a step off the pace. If she hadn’t known before, she would know now that Bailey was using Sam as bait to get her back.

When Bailey called her the second time, hefrankly admitted his technique.

“No, Tom, I like it here,” she said.

“Don’t you find it a little lonely? We’ve got quite a nice staff here now, Nan,” he said.

Nan told him he had all the finesse and charm of a hammerheaded shark and hung up.

Of course the bitter part was that Bailey was right. It was lonely in Cairnsville. After all, face it, she told herself, you didn’t come to work in Cairnsville just for its stately trees.

And what if Sam really was clicking at the Blade? What happened then? Did she carry on indefinitely as editor of the Courier? She and Sam hadn’t got around to talking about marriage. At this rate it would never get on the agenda.

Nan came down to the office in a low mood the night after Bailey called. Something was slipping. Certainly she was no longer the competent and slightly sassy Nan Morgan who made it her business to see that life gave her the breaks. Here she was mooning about a boy who had left her for a byline. And he wasn’t nearly as good a newspaperman as she was.

The whole situation was unsatisfactory,and slightly absurd, Nan decided, as she turned into the dark doorway that led to the editorial rooms. Her foot struck something soft ... a man . . .’ on the broad step of the side door. The man made a muffled sound.

Nan bent down. He was gagged and

bound. She untied the gag and then the bonds on his ankles and got him upstairs.

In the editorial room he sat in a chair while Nan helped him chafe the circulation back into his hands and feet.

“You’re Mayor Wurtele, aren’t you?” she asked.

“That’s right.” He rasped the words through his dry throat. “They asked me where I wanted to be brought and 1 said to Sam Cairns’. Where’s Sam?”

Nan told him, and explained who she was.

Wurtele talked slowly, painfully. He told Nan how the men in the gang lost their nerve, argued and then split.

“Why they didn’t kill me or just pull out and leave me I’ll never know,” said Wurtele. “They seemed to get panicky. They quarrelled half of last night and it ended in a gun fight.”

He described the bloody battle and how in the middle of it he was gagged and bound and brought to Cairnsville. They dropped him off at Sam’s. He wanted Sam to get the story.

Nan said Sam would. She drove Wurtele home. He said he would sleep first and talk to the police later. He didn’t want a doctor . . . just sleep.

Back at the office Nan paced the floor a few times. Then she sat down abruptly and put in a call to Tom Bailey, city editor of the Blade.

“Remember the Wurtele story, Tom? Well, I’ve got it. Right here. A scoop. I’ve just talked with Wurtele and he won’t be talking to the police for some hours. Never mind how. It’s all mine . . . that is . . . unless you want it too. You do! I just thought you might! It’s a great story, Tom. It’s got murder, cops and robbers and an incredible ending. It’s got everything. Now take it easy, Tom. There’s just one thing about this story though. One condition. I want you to fire Sam Cairns. Yes, that’s right. Right away. I don’t want you to hurt him too much hut if you do bruise him a little I’ll take care of that. Sam’s really a great newspaperman, Tom, but he’s not your kind. He belongs here. In Cairnsville he’s great. This town needs him. I do, too. That’s the condition, Tom. How about it?”

She could hear Bailey’s deep intake of breath at the other end. A split second pause, then . . .

“Okay, Nan, it’s a deal. Shoot.”

When she had finished with the rewrite desk Bailey cut in.

“Nan . . . er . . . Sam should he there almost any time.”

“Well, that is service, Tom, but I won’t expect him for a couple of hours yet.”

Bailey hesitated.

“Nan . . . I guess I sort of held out on you. I should have told you before, but I wanted that story too badly.”

“You should have told me what?” she asked suspiciously.

“I should have told you that Sam walked in here a while ago and quit. He told me that he was going back where he belonged. Said he was going to marry a girl called Nan Morgan. Hello . . . hello . . . are you there, Nan?” Bailey shrugged and replaced the dead phone.

Nan stood quivering with rage. Then she lunged at the phone. The hot words she had for Bailey were rising like angry bubbles.

There would be a slight delay in the call she was told. Could the operator call her back? She certainly could, but fast.

Nan listened to a thumping and thought it was her pounding heart until the door burst open and there was Sam.

The phone in the editorial room of the Cairnsville Courier rang and rang. Then long-distance gave up. -Ar