Continued from here:
Thompson prided himself on his editorial skills. He prided himself on his ability to handle reporters, most of whom thought too highly of themselves. And he prided himself on making the most of opportunities as they arose.
With McMahon, though, things were starting to get strange, and he had to make that clearer to him. Not that they were getting impossible or he was suddenly getting out of hand on things, but he had to be brought back more into line.
“See, McMahon, you’ve done a wonderful job with your stories. Every new one you tell gets all the right people outraged and makes all the other right people thrilled. They’re already imagining how it’ll attract more people there in the future, maybe even now. Their cuts are bigger than ever, skimming off from the saloons and whorehouses and gambling and all that.”
He spoke in his casual voice, as he understood it – low-key, persuasive, he hated having to shout. And why should he shout with McMahon? Best reporter they had. None of this whining about ‘proper’ journalism, just good red meat, the redder the better. He did exactly what he had hoped he’d do when he first appeared in the City, cover the scandals without making it clear that there were ways to fix them. Let the saps who bought the paper try and figure it out. If they didn’t, no worries, they’d still keep buying papers and pretending to be outraged. He loved it.
He looked up from where he’d been reading over yesterday’s issue, reminding himself of certain points, and considered McMahon. Quiet today. Strange but no stranger than other things he’d done. Looking tired. Spending more time at his favorite place, maybe. Whatever worked for him – Thompson was happily married and found his wife more than enough, so long as McMahon kept up his work, he could spend every evening screwing every woman in the City as far as he cared.
McMahon wasn’t smoking his preferred cigars either, that was even stranger. Suddenly caring about health? He wasn’t minding Thompson’s own cigar, for whatever reason. McMahon still looked neat and presentable – he liked that in his reporters, the less sloppy they were the more likely they were going to be able to present themselves well to people who could be caught off guard. In many ways he was just as he should be, but Thompson could tell that McMahon still didn’t seem like he was at his best – as if the story yesterday couldn’t say that already.
Thompson snorted, folded the paper to a particular story and slapped it down on his table. “You dreaming there, McMahon?”
“Mm.” McMahon shook his head a bit and blinked, looking as if he had indeed dozed off briefly. “Sorry boss. Had more on my mind lately than I figured, I think.”
“Well that’s no matter so long as you don’t let it take over your work, but here’s a question about this part.” He held up the article to read it. “Now I’m used to letting you do your thing, I can rely on you. I let this go through yesterday without a comment because honestly I barely noticed it. Now I’ve got a couple of messages here, even a phone call, which tells me you went a step too far. I know it now, at least, and you’re going to know it.”
McMahon, Thompson noticed, didn’t take his eyes from him and followed along with occasional nods and interjections. He approved – too many writers looked elsewhere or tried to pretend the conversation wasn’t happening. Conversation, hell – monologue, he knew that much about himself, at least. Thompson found the part he was looking for and read it through out loud, McMahon focused on him as he did so.
At the end, Thompson coughed a bit through his cigar smoke and leaned forward towards McMahon. “That’s almost libelous, mentioning someone like that.”
“Almost, boss, not quite libel itself.”
“Not something that anyone who follows the City is going to miss though.”
“Boss, you say yourself that everyone knows already, and that others aren’t going to catch it when that’s referred to. What makes me mentioning who’s really behind a good chunk of the Coast so different from that?”
“Gotta open your eyes, McMahon. All of a sudden the do-gooders are getting more powerful around here, and elsewhere. Seems like they’re going to try and ‘clean up the City’ or whatever else they’re using as a slogan. All hogwash, of course, but maybe you not working as much at City Hall might have made you miss that a bit.”
“Mmmf.” Thompson was a bit surprised at McMahon’s non-committed reaction, usually that would have been the type of thing to make up get up out of the seat with anger. The editor frowned a bit and continued:
“Anyway, keep up with the stories, just give me more lead time so I can double check them, and talk more with our boys here so you know what’s going on. Look, I don’t think those ‘progressives’ or whatever they call themselves are really going to change anything here, but if they do we don’t want to be on the hook for it, and you know that there are people out there who would love to see us out on the street.”
He paused and then frowned even more heavily at McMahon, who now seemed to be looking right past him at some spot on the wall. This was getting ridiculous.
“McMahon, you paying attention?”
“Yeah, boss, you said I should keep up on more things, give you the lead time more, explained why.”
“Huh, okay.” Thompson scratched his chin and stubbed out his cigar. “Gotta say, McMahon, you seem a bit more…no, scratch that, a bit LESS yourself. Something’s gotten into you, and I’m no priest for you to confess to, but if you have something on your mind, better get it out. I’m not one to read minds or any of that nonsense.”
“I’m sorry boss.” McMahon suddenly seemed more focused, which Thompson did appreciate. “Just turning things over in my head a bit – did you know I saw Ephraim the other day?”
“That old character? God love him, bit of a freak but he knew how to cover this city and the people in it. He’ll die with all the secrets even I don’t know about. What, he wasn’t sharing some with you, was he?”
“No, I wouldn’t expect to him ever do that – at least not the real secrets. He’s got too many of his own he’ll never want to tell any way.”
“Good quality for a journalist, to know that about yourself – makes digging up the secrets of others more of a challenge. So you saw Ephraim and he was his usual self, and you drained some more of his brandy collection dry, if I know him and you. Anything else?”
“We had a talk about a few things, gave me some advice – handy things to remember.”
“He’s good for that too. Be glad you have him as a bit of a mentor.”
“Always am.” McMahon seemed more relaxed to Thompson now, putting both on familiar ground. Maybe this would get them both somewhere so McMahon could concentrate on what he needed to remember about his work. “Boss, what do you think of this place?”
“This office? God knows it could do with some cleaning.”
“Sorry, I wasn’t clear – the City. What do you think of it?”
“What do I THINK of it? C’mon, McMahon, what kind of question is that? I live here, I work here, it’s the City.” Thompson felt almost angry at being asked this. Was McMahon turning into some kind of philosopher? The City was the City, it had its frustrations but that was to be expected. Good to leave it some times, always better to come back.
McMahon lifted a hand. “Boss, I’m sorry…let me try another approach.”
Thompson almost admired it, it was nearly another journalistic style from the one he was used to from McMahon. Perhaps he’d been finding new ways to talk to people with all his work down there on the Coast.
“So here’s an idea.” McMahon sat up fully his chair. “Is there anything that’s ever happened to you while you’ve been here in the City that made you look at it differently, see it in a new light?”
“Hmm.” Thompson drew his lips into a tight but not angry line. “Good question, actually….Well, let me put this way – you know I’m not originally from the City, right?”
“You said your parents came here in mid-century.”
“That they did, following some dreams – didn’t work out as they planned it but they did well enough, God rest their souls. Had to live by my wits for a while after they died, but I was young, had the energy, started working for other papers. But all that time, when I was chasing around the whole City, I always felt that despite all the murder and depravity going around – and it WAS going around, worse even than now, no matter what the bluenoses say – I felt that the City had something to it that I hadn’t felt anywhere else where I’d been before, not that I had much experience with that.”
Thompson smiled a bit. He hadn’t expected to go down this road, but didn’t mind now that he was on it. “A freshness, no that isn’t the word. Hell, my kids say they get that too from the City, and they’re young. No, it’s something beyond even whatever words I can come up with right now.” He shook his head. “You’ve got me dreaming here, McMahon! No time for that right about now, I think. Look, it did feel different, but I’m damned if I can figure out exactly why, or even if it was better or worse. Like I said, there was plenty of mayhem happening, the Coast was already a terror for most people. Enough was going on to make sure that people walked carefully at night, and I still remember the vigilante committees and the people they hung. Hell, I covered some of it.”
“Okay, so it was all a disaster back then.” McMahon’s voice was flat.
“No, no, McMahon, you’re missing all this. It wasn’t a disaster at all, it was rough, it was troubled, but it wasn’t the end of the world.”
McMahon scratched his ear. “Well, how about now?”
“Now?” Thompson was brought up short, unsure of McMahon’s point.
“Well, you’re saying it’s better now but maybe it’s closer to the end of the world?”
“McMahon, is that what’s been eating at you all this time? You’re going to start wearing a placard at this rate – make sure you follow in the vein of Emperor Norton, you’ll get some free food out of it.”
McMahon laughed, which pleased Thompson – at least that meant he wasn’t completely out of it. “No, nothing so bad. Boss, I admit that for me it’s so hard for me to put my finger on it that I’ve just been trying to gather reactions as I can.” He coughed, then paused. “Also I wonder if my work is starting to get to me more than I knew.”
Thompson’s eyebrows raised. “Oh? How so?”
“Did you ever cover the Coast yourself when you were younger?”
“Not if I could help it.” Thompson had some dark images cross his mind that he swiftly put down – he did not want to return there. “No. Did you want out? Most people I know don’t seem to last too long.”
“Not yet.” McMahon rose. “I almost think that there’s a bigger story out there that I’ve missed until now, and I think I need to be in the Coast for it if it breaks.”
Thompson nodded. “That sounds fine for now. Before you go,” he added as McMahon reached for the door. “You seem to have calmed down on some other fronts lately. Less boasting and all that.”
McMahon smile seemed wintry. “Maybe I just grew up a bit. I don’t know.” He left, leaving Thompson with his thoughts.