"What do you mean, I'm fired?" Cecilia Sanchez blinked once, twice. Surely, she hadn't heard right? She was great at her job. Like, really great. The strongest journalist her paper had. And she loved what she did. They'd been picking away at Tribune readership for the better part of a year, thanks to her ongoing series regarding bribery and potential embezzlement at the school district. Her investigative reporting had resulted in two school board members being recalled. There was no way she heard him right.
Bob Collins pulled at his collar and adjusted his tie, looking everywhere in the room but at her. Was that sweat between his eyebrows? "I'm sorry Cecilia, but when your article implies that the son of the Board President is involved in-"
"I didn't imply," Cecilia bit out. "I have evidence."
Bob carried on as if she hadn't interrupted. "Potentially illegal-"
"There's no potentially about it."
"Activity," he continued over her, "there will be consequences." Bob's volume ticked up a notch, and for the first time he met her gaze head-on.
Cecilia's stomach plummeted. This couldn't be happening. Not after the months, and months, and months of work she'd put in - nearly a year, piecing the story together bit by painful bit, going on dates with handsy businessmen, biting her tongue until it hurt when they made comments that coming from anyone else would have caused her to dump her drink in their lap. This story was supposed to net her a Pulitzer, not a pink slip. "Who's seen the story?" Hard as she tried, she couldn't keep the tremor from her voice.
Bob ran a puffy hand through his thinning hair, jarring loose a thin strand that flopped dangerously close to his eye. He sighed heavily, all the answer she needed.
"You could have just run the story," she accused, disappointment pressing against her sternum like a bowling ball.
"Like hell, I could have," he snapped. "We both would've been sacked."
"So you sacrificed me." Disappointment quickly transformed into something darker. Her chest flushed as a flash of rage colored her vision. How dare he throw her under the bus to save his own skin?
"You don't understand, Ce-"
"Damn right, I don't."
"I'm six months from retirement. I promised Janet a trip to the ocean."
"Don't give me that line of s**t, Bob. Everyone knows you could have retired a year ago." The office pool was up to $300, but so far no one had guessed right. "Come on, Bob. You have no idea what I've sacrificed for this story. My boyfriend dumped me, for Chrissakes." Her heart twisted painfully. That was only the tip of the iceberg. She'd been couch surfing for the last two months.
For a split second, regret flashed in his eyes. "I'm sorry kiddo." He spread his hands. "Once they read the accusations-"
"The evidence. And don't call me kiddo."
Bob kept going as if she wasn't even in the room. "There was no way they weren't burying this at the bottom of Lake Michigan."
How many other stories like hers had been buried at the bottom of Lake Michigan? "I-I'll take it to the Tribune."
When he laughed there was a bitter edge to his voice. "Be my guest. They won't touch it with a ten-foot pole."
"You don't know that." He was probably right, but it was worth a shot. "I bet they're dying for a story this good."
Bob snorted, shaking his head. "You're s**t out of luck, kid. There's a merger coming."
For once, Cecilia didn't think to correct him. Her mouth opened but no sound came out. Merger? s**t. Shitshitshit. She swallowed. "When?"
"Press conference at noon today. And you need to be out of the building before then."
Cecilia blinked hard, this time to keep the unexpected moisture from spilling over. She wouldn't give Bob or anyone else for that matter, the satisfaction of seeing her cry. After everything she'd sacrificed, after her years of hard work getting to this point, it was all up in smoke because some powerful asshole could bury her? f**k. That. She sniffed, rolling her shoulders, and drawing herself up to her full height of 5'2", not counting her four-inch stilettos. "Don't do something you're going to regret, Bob. You're going to regret this."
"I already do," he answered quietly, shoulders slumping. "You've got talent, kid. But a word of advice?"
Heavy silence engulfed them. She didn't have the energy to endure a head-patting from a washed-up editor with no courage.
"You're ah... a strong flavor, Cecilia. You'll go farther in this profession if you tone it down."
"You mean if I'm compliant," she practically spit. "If I don't make waves, and offer to write puff pieces."
"There's no shame in writing human-interest."
She ground her molars so hard they squeaked. "This is when your cowardice is complicit in trafficking," she accused, steel in her voice.
"Now, calm down a hot second." He raised a finger. "You're only speculating."
Cecilia slammed her hands down on squeaky clean desk that stood between them, and leaned in. "I. Will. Not. Calm. Down. Sir." Chicago's queen of the Northeast Heights, Bonita Carradine's matchmaking service Until You was involved in trafficking. She knew it with every bone in her body. She just hadn't been able to prove it. Yet. She'd already seen evidence it was an illegal escort service. It wasn't too much of a stretch to move into trafficking, especially when so many young co-eds were on her payroll, and the number of mafiosos on Bonita's client list was staggering. She stared hard at her boss. How had she been so blind? He'd let her chase down the story to keep her occupied and distracted while he was privy to the pending merger. "You were going to fire me anyway, weren't you? This just made it easier." Her stomach churned violently. Stupid, headstrong Cecilia, always crusading for a cause. Only this time, she'd gotten so caught up in her discoveries, she'd been oblivious to everything else - the frenetic energy in the office over the last month, the guilty looks exchanged between coworkers when she walked into the break room. She'd foolishly assumed they'd felt bad that her boyfriend Charlie had dumped her.
At least Bob had the grace to blush. He dropped his gaze, nodding once. "Trib wasn't interested in someone with your skill set."
"You mean, someone like me," she said flatly. "Someone who goes after the tough stories. Someone who still has journalistic integrity."
Something warm flashed in Bob's eyes. "You're too much of a liability."
"Because I expose the truth?" Her nostrils flared as she huffed out a breath, shaking her head. "I expected more from you Bob. I really did."
"Journalism's changed, kiddo, you know that."
Cecilia straightened. "Journalism's dead. And thank God you've saved me from following in your footsteps and dying a slow, pathetic death." The corners of her mouth drew up, though it was no smile. "Have a nice life, Bob. Enjoy the beach with Janet." She didn't bother to remove the acid from her tone. Turning, she stalked to the door, taking care to not rush her steps. She wouldn't give them the satisfaction of seeing her c***k. A hush fell on the outer room as the door swung open, all the evidence she needed that her colleagues knew. Keeping her eyes riveted on the far side of the room, she marched to her desk, swept her messenger bag from her chair, and wove through the eerie silence and down the hall to the bank of elevators. Thankfully, she met no other employees on the elevator ride down. At the security desk, she paused, removing her badge. "I won't be needing this anymore, James," she said with a watery smile.
The older gentleman's eyes widened, but she shook her head before he could speak. "It's okay. All part of the plan. See you 'round." Her silver gladiator heels echoed across the shiny marble as she propelled herself toward the revolving doors and out onto Michigan Avenue. It was only nine-fifteen, but already the warm summer air held a heaviness that predicted afternoon showers. By the time she'd walked the mile-and-a-half to Grant Park and dropped to a bench, her feet were screaming at her. She didn't care. Right now, the pain was welcome. Better her feet than her heart. She pulled out her phone, took a bracing breath, and called the only person in the world who might possibly make this day suck a little less.
"Sissy! How's it going?"
The smile in her little sister's voice knifed right through her chest. Cecilia bit her lip to keep from crying out. "Hi," she said, voice wavering.
"What is it? What's wrong?" Mariah's voice filled with concern. "Spill," she ordered.
The fierce love and worry in her sister's voice was her undoing. Cecilia squeezed her eyes shut trying to keep her s**t together, but it wasn't enough to stop the water from leaking out, or the cry from exploding out of her throat. She bent against the searing pressure in her chest. "I lost my job," she sobbed. "I don't know what to do."