“Alex B. Robbin’” was how he sometimes identified himself to his equally young and often reckless friends. His name was actually Alex Robin Hale. But the moniker was a pun. Robbing was his profession, or, technically, stealing, since he’d never, in fact, stuck anyone up. But “stealing” had no rhyme to it, no lighthearted Winnie-the-Pooh echo. And “burglarize” was even stuffier, although that was his specialty.
Which he was hoping to practice in a few moments.
He was fifty miles north of Brattleboro, his home base, in Windsor, whose only claim to fame, to his knowledge, was its boast of being the birthplace of the Republic of Vermont in 1777.
As far as Alex was concerned, that had to have been the place’s high point.
Not that he was complaining. Currently, he was finding Windsor’s threadbare reputation to be part of its appeal. He was parked inconspicuously in the Amtrak parking lot, which—because this was Windsor— wasn’t, in fact, Amtrak’s, but belonged to a restaurant that had bought the old station house and converted it, leaving passengers to be served by a bare, uncovered concrete slab running parallel to the tracks.
Alex’s interest, however, wasn’t the lack of amenities for railroad travelers. It was where they left their cars behind.
Alex was a prospector of sorts, or perhaps a dedicated bargain shopper. He had learned to read the geography, scan the landmarks, and look for opportunities. But he was more broad-minded than the average seeker of gold nuggets, both in terms of appetite and of how he could use, transform, secrete, fence, or otherwise channel his ill-gotten gains. And he was a lot more successful. Alex had an advantage over the run-of-the- mill thief, especially most Vermont versions: He wasn’t an alcoholic or a drug user, which almost by definition meant he kept his mind clear, his actions organized, and his finances under control.
This hadn’t always been so.
He’d begun conventionally, assuming the self-destructive habits he’d seen practiced by a dysfunctional family and by impulse-driven friends. Ironically, it was the very stanchions of society he now preyed upon who had saved him from most of that. He’d been forced by the state to undergo a substance rehabilitation program, and been reborn as a result.
Alex was a poster boy for reform, without the hoped-for end result authorities had intended.
What he’d heard loudest back then was how wasteful he’d been of his brains and potential. What he hadn’t agreed with was how those assets should be applied to the pursuits of the average law-abiding citizen.
His was the soul of an entrepreneur, he’d discovered, not suited to the limitations of a nine-to-five routine. He could also hold his home life as a root cause for this, and that his attraction to nonconformity was born of a pathological dislike of authority. First his father and then his mother’s subsequent string of boyfriends had all been heavy-handed bullies. He’d learned to skirt supreme rule and seek reward through independence.
Like a hunter, he’d once told a girl he was trying to impress, he’d found his best ground maneuvering unseen through the civilized underbrush, in search of prey. She hadn’t understood a word of it, but a perfect example was now sitting before him, the analogy’s equivalent of a ten-point buck, cluelessly munching the grass.
It was a brand-new, fully accessorized Cadillac Escalade that Alex had seen abandoned by its owners minutes earlier as the two of them had left it—hand in hand—in exchange for the southbound train.
Confident that he’d properly sighted his target, the self-perceived hunter started his truck and left the parking lot. He’d be back, long after dark. Passenger trains in this state were a once-a-day phenomenon, the Escalade’s owners had been carrying luggage, wearing city-bound clothes, and the spot they’d left their ride was helpfully labeled long-term parking. Alex had time to work slowly and carefully.
“Reiling,” the deep voice rumbled across the room.
Rachel looked up from her desktop computer. All the reporters had intercoms, texting, emails, even cell phones, if it came to that. Not that she faulted the timeworn tried-and-true approach—the newspaper’s en- tire pressroom was the size of a generous four-car garage. And her boss preferred yelling. It reminded him of the old days.
That fit. With no hair except a snow-white fringe around the edges and a grizzled beard, Stan Katz looked as old days to Rachel as her grand-father. That included his wardrobe, which apparently contained an endless and only slightly varying collection of corduroys, vests, and argyle socks.
She knew that was harsh, even at age twenty-four. Katz might have been getting on, but he was no candidate for an old folks’ home. In fact, he still seemed capable of running circles around her and her few colleagues.
Rachel crossed the room to Katz’s small office, whose desk seemed more tchotchkes museum than work space, festooned with memorabilia, knickknacks, old clippings, postcards, and piles of paperwork. His computer monitor resembled Custer surrounded by hostiles.
Katz propped one foot against the edge of the desk. “You happy here?” he asked as she stood eyeing his guest chair piled high with books and magazines.
“Are you happy with me?” she countered. He smiled. “Sure.”
“Then why the question?”
He shrugged. “People come and go. The Brattleboro Reformer’s the state’s third-largest newspaper, but it’s a way station or a springboard to most people your age. That’s neither here nor there to me. I used to care, but I don’t anymore. I just live with it. But,” he emphasized, dropping his foot and sitting forward, “I won’t waste my time or enthusiasm on somebody who’s gonna dump me at the altar.”
She smiled back, aware that he’d been married for over four decades and had no true idea of the concept he’d just invoked. “That’s some metaphor. Where’re we going with that?”
He gestured to the chair, impressed as ever by her self-confidence. “Move that crap onto the floor.”
She did so and sat as he continued. The pressroom beyond was empty. The Reformer, some 140 years old, had once filled the entire building. Now, perhaps reflecting modern trends, the police department was the majority tenant by a large margin, reducing the paper’s footprint to one small section toward the back. There was more than old age encouraging Katz’s fatalism.
“You know my history, right?” he asked.
“I know you were the editor here a long time ago,” she said, about to add, “When the paper had some clout,” but she stopped herself in time, finishing instead with “And that the new owners got you to return some- how.”
He digested that before admitting, “Yeah, well . . . Once an old war-horse . . . The thing is,” he resumed in a stronger tone, “we used to be a pretty big deal. I’d like to get that back, if not in the same way. Times have changed—I know that—along with how people access their news. But I and the people who hired me do want to aim for relevance again.” He straightened in his chair, his passion slowly fueling. “I love this town. Always have. And I like that this paper covers tiny house exhibitions and cow parades and whatever the hell else reflects who and what we are. People laugh at Brattleboro as being a left-wing haven for transplanted, tree-hugging trust funders. But that’s nonsense. We care about what’s important, and for each other, and in general, we think people should do more than just sit around and bitch. You know why I came back and gave up perfectly good money trying to teach corporate idiots how to communicate better, while they were busy staring at their iThingies?” he suddenly asked.
Rachel kept quiet, knowing the question to be rhetorical.
Katz held up a finger. “Because,” he stated, “I think as journalists we can regain a little of the influence and purpose we used to have, and maybe bump up circulation in the bargain. I want us to be a paper whose phone call no politician or business leader will palm off on his press secretary. On that level, if nowhere else, I’d like us to get back to the old days.”
“Okay,” Rachel said quietly, still waiting.
Katz gave her a wide grin, which struck her as almost creepy, given how rarely she’d seen it. “Right,” he said. “And who gives a rat’s ass?” He became more serious, to her relief. “I’m hoping you do. That’s why you’re sitting there. You were hired as a photographer. You’ve done great work, as a shooter and writer, both. You dig, you bend the rules, you use what you’ve got to get what you’re after. All good, as long as you don’t get in trouble or break the law. That’s why I’ve been asking you to write a few pieces, in addition to taking pictures. You been enjoying that?”
“Good. ’Cause I wanna ramp that up.”
He extracted a small pad from the jumble before him and scribbled something down, still speaking. “Not too many people know this, Rachel, but I insisted on one condition when I came back: I told the owners I suspected the Reformer was part of a buy-one-take-all deal they didn’t want when they purchased the flagship in Massachusetts, and that therefore this paper would pretty much have to fend for itself. They denied that, of course, and maybe I got it wrong. Nevertheless, I said I would wrestle and bicker and bargain with all the usual competing interests facing a typical small-town paper—advertising, obits, sports, the bottom line—as well as do everything from op-ed pieces to the calendar of events to answering the phones and fielding complaints. But,” he emphasized, looking up from his writing, “I would do it only if they gave me a reasonably sized special fund that could never be lost inside the rest of the profit/ loss mix. It was mine to spend. To their credit, they agreed.
“That money,” he concluded, tearing off the top page of his pad and handing it over, “was to be used exclusively for whatever features and/or investigative articles might come our way, but which normal fiscal constraints wouldn’t usually allow us to write. I’ve been in this post for over a year now, and I haven’t used a penny yet. Partly because I wanted to make sure the owners were happy they’d brought me back, which they’re proving by letting me hire a couple more people. Partly because I wanted you to gain your sea legs, which I think you have.”
He pointed at what he’d just given her. “That’s the name of a private investigator I know. Actually, I know her father better—have for years. Bit of a weirdo, but one of the most connected guys I ever met. Anyhow”—Katz pointed again at the piece of paper he’d just delivered—“since he’s hard to reach, Sally’s the next best thing.”
Rachel read what he’d written: the woman’s name, email, and phone number. “You want me to contact her?”
“Contact her, get friendly with her. Mostly, learn from her,” he instructed. “I want you to take a shot at being that specially funded reporter.” He waved toward his inward-facing office window at the pressroom. “You guys have smartphones and social media at your fingertips. Good stuff. I’m not saying otherwise. But there’s a ton that won’t show up there. Face-to-face chats, casual drop-bys, overheard conversations, old-fashioned dogging people’s heels. Right now, we chase the news. We get a tweet, hear about a disaster, and off we go. That’s okay. You’ve done well with that, and it works like a charm for a photographer, especially. You can’t shoot what hasn’t occurred. But if you’re interested in doing more reporting—investigative reporting—you need to develop a nose for what’s about to happen, or what’s happening out of sight. That’s why I want you and Sally to meet. Tell her that.”
“She know I’m coming?” Rachel asked.
Katz stood up and looked around, the one-sided meeting over. “Nope,” he said. “That’s what I mean. Make it happen.”