The ventilator rose like a stretched-out accordion then folded back down, forcing air into Anton Myers’ injured lungs. The beep, beep, beep of his heart rate was probably the only thing comforting his mother, who sat next to his hospital bed stroking her thumb over his battered knuckles.
In the few months that I’d gotten to know Sophia Myers, I’d learned that her strength and will far exceeded her tiny frame. Even in the face of tragedy, she was immaculately groomed and flawlessly presentable. She was cold, hard and serious. I admired her.
I stepped closer to the bed. With his eerie eyes closed, Anton’s power or anger or whatever it was that motivated him was less evident. He was just a shell of a man with a tube down his throat and an IV in his hand. It was as if his dangerous draw had floated away.
The sterile odor of alcohol lingered in the air from the hand sanitizer that the nurse had used when she’d checked his vitals minutes prior, and it only added to the cold room. Somehow, the orderly environment suited Sophia. Baking cookies and an apron sure didn’t.
My phone vibrated and I flipped my wrist to check the text message.
Someone had leaked the shooting to the press. It had already been hard enough to smooth over Sophia’s questionable past when my boss—the mayor of the city—had decided to marry her. But this? His new stepson involved in a gang-related shooting? It was a public relations nightmare.
My phone vibrated again, this time with Mayor Demsey’s name.
Sophia glanced at me as if she understood, and before I turned to walk out of the door, I offered her a tight, sympathetic smile. No matter what her past, I wouldn’t want her present.
I swiped the screen to answer, but instead of saying hello, I said, “I just saw. I’m leaving the hospital now.”
“Who the fuck would have leaked this?” Demsey yelled through the small speaker. His scratchy voice revealed his Long Island accent. The crass demeanor that came out when he was pissed was one of the few things he managed to keep hidden from the public.
His question was logical, but the answer was irrelevant. Lucky for my boss, I’d already played the game of ‘worst-case scenario’ over and over in my head for the previous twenty-four hours.
“I’ll call a presser and get in front of this. We can spin it. I’ll say he was robbed. In the meantime, avoid reporters. And don’t you dare ass-dial Mitch from The Times like you did last week. In fact, put your phone in your drawer once you hang up with me.” My heels clicked down the hall of the private hospital at a rhythmic pace. At the nurse’s station, an older, handsome man smiled at me and I rolled my eyes once I’d passed him. Unwanted flirty smiles from men always jabbed at a button in me that said because I was pretty, my intelligence was underestimated. That particular gentleman had ‘man-splainer’ written in bold above his raised eyebrows.
“Sam?” Demsey asked in a softer tone. “Don’t forget to call the chief and tell him what you’re going to say so we have a consistent message. Jack likes you way more than he does me, so it will be better… Actually, swing by to see him on your way back to the office. He’ll appreciate the personal touch.”
“On it.” The elevator doors rattled open. “Make this easy for me and keep your mouth shut, boss.” I swiped my phone off. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Demsey or his new family, because I did. He’d taken a chance on me as his spokesperson when I hadn’t exactly had a long list of celebrity clients banging down the door of my small public relations firm.
Before agreeing to the job, I’d heard about Demsey and his taste for the corrupt, but it didn’t bother me. I’d learned over the years that the line between flat-out lying to the public or dressing up facts to make whatever bad thing seem good was pretty damn blurry. My job depended on how I massaged the truth. Being one hundred percent honest was the only thing I was sure I’d never do.
It didn’t matter if I lied. It was how much.
Outside, I hailed a cab, and we battled the downtown traffic until I was at police headquarters. I flashed my identification badge at security and stepped through the metal detector. On the third floor, I smiled to the uniformed officers as I made my way through their cubicles to the corner office of Police Chief Jack Galaway.
Jack’s eyes were closed and he pinched the bridge of his nose with the phone against his ear. I wrapped my knuckles lightly on his door, causing him to look up. His frown switched to an easy grin and he waved me in.
I took the empty chair to the right and sat patiently as he ‘mmhmm-ed’ his way through the rest of the call. He spun his finger around in the universal sign that indicated he wanted the other person to wrap it up already, and I crossed my hands in my lap.
The walls of his office were lined with plaques and certificates with gold seals. Jack was a family man but specifically kept any sign of his personal life to himself. We’d never really believed in small talk. We were both direct in the interest of time, but I did know that he’d married his high-school sweetheart and he had two sons, both of whom were on the force. He was a good man, as good as he could be while he navigated a system and city that favored the depraved.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” he said when he’d hung up. “Why can’t my guys keep their dicks in their pants?” Jack frowned and the wrinkles in his clean-shaven face deepened. “You don’t look like you have good news either. Spit it out.”
“Anton Myers was shot two nights ago.” I re-crossed my ankles, and the movement caught his eyes. He liked to tease me about my shoe addiction. I was wearing a new pair of black heels and their red souls matched my red dress. Much like Sophia Myers, I, too, took a lot of care in how I presented myself. I never showed cleavage, my skirts always hit just above my knees and my nails were perfectly groomed and color-free. I wore makeup but it was subtle. My lips only saw red on Christmas or for parties.
Jack leaned back into his massive leather chair and swiveled. “First I’ve heard of it.”
“It was”—I shrugged and scrunched my nose—“cleaned up. But it’s about to break in the news. I’m going to do a presser this afternoon and claim he was robbed at gunpoint.”
He shook his head. “That’s bad for me.”
I knew Jack wouldn’t like my plan. It would be another unsolved crime and feed fear to the public, but that wouldn’t stop me. Plus, I knew the chief of police was a tit-for-tat kind of man.
“It will be good for your budget.” I stood and flattened out my dress. “You can refer all press to the mayor’s office.”
Jack’s desk phone rang, and I headed for the door. “Hey, Sammie?”
I turned around. He had the receiver pressed into his chest under his badge.
“You may want to consider someone like Anton Myers would prefer the truth to your spin. You’re about to make one of the most dangerous gang members in our city a victim. He’s not going to like that—and neither will his crew.”
I gave exactly zero fucks about what Anton Myers would or wouldn’t like. I worked for the mayor, not him. Sophia had warned him to lie low. Getting shot by a rival gang? Not exactly my idea of exceeding his mother’s expectations. And his crew? There was nothing left of it. Any loyalty they’d had for their leader had been wiped away the second he’d fallen. Sophia had spoken to one of them and forbidden them from returning to their neighborhood, effectively disbanding the entire gang.
“Well, fortunately for me he’s mute and in a hospital bed. He doesn’t have a choice.” But the confidence in my voice wavered just a little. “I’ll email Debbie my statement before I go out.”
He nodded then barked, “What now?” into the phone. On the way down to the lobby, I mulled over his advice. So what if Anton woke up and was pissed about how I’d handled things? His life as he knew it was over. His mother had assured it. But the chief had a point. I could cut out the ‘robbed’ part.
Once out of police headquarters, I dialed my assistant. “Hey, Fanny, can you let the press know that I’ll be making a statement with limited questions at three o’clock?” I crossed the street with the crowd, the blue-and-white police cars all around us. As I approached city hall, Mitch from The Times came into view. His signature checked shirt stood out like a flashing sign that read ‘pain in my ass’.
“I’ve already gotten calls from six reporters.” Fanny’s tone held a little bit of a question.
“I’m coming up now but stay on the line. Fucking Mitch is downstairs.” I held the phone tight to my ear. “Tell me anything. Read me a menu or recite a damn poem if you have to. He won’t let me walk by without pestering me.”
Fanny let out a small laugh. “So I met this girl at a bar last night…”
Mitch’s eyes lit up like the Fourth of July when he spotted me. I quickened my pace and shook my head as I pointed to the phone and said, “Super important call.”
Fanny continued, “We totally hit it off. I was laughing and having the time of my life. Then it hit me like a bulldozer. She had long blonde hair, sun-kissed skin and a banging body.”
I climbed the stairs of City Hall with Mitch at my heel. “I’m so sorry to hear that.”
Mitch spouted questions but I ignored them. At the top of the stairs, I opened the massive door. I just had to get through security then I would be home free.
Fanny continued in my ear. It wasn’t the first time we’d faked a phone call. “She looked exactly like you. It freaked me out so hard that I literally stood straight up and walked out.”
“I’m at security. I’ll call you back.” I ended the call and placed my phone in a black plastic basket on the conveyor belt.
“Nice try,” Mitch said as he rolled his green eyes. “But my source tells me that Anton Myers was shot in the chest. Can you confirm?”
My job was to talk to the press. The cat was already out of the bag, and there was no putting its fuzzy ass back in. Information was fluid and it had to run both ways. Mitch was only doing his job, as annoying as it was. There were so many other things that he could have been reporting on. But sensationalizing the shooting of the mayor’s stepson was click bate and would get him seven more followers on social media. It would make his superiors happy, and if I just threw him a tiny crumb, he would stop.
I stepped toward the metal detector and set my shoulders. “I confirm.”
The crooked grin on Mitch’s face soured my stomach. “Thank you!” He spun around and left the building with a bit of pep in his step. Being the first one to get confirmation meant everyone else would use his story and say his name all day long.
I grabbed my phone, which was lighting up with notices of the confirmation I’d just given, and went upstairs to my office.
Fanny sat behind her immaculate desk and typed into her laptop. Her dark hair was down and her long bangs kissed the top of her eyebrows.
“Was that true? Did you fall for my doppelganger?” I walked over to our community fridge and grabbed a bottle of water.
“Sam…” She stopped typing and spun around on her chair to face me. “It was literally you. She even had great shoes. I may not recover from this.”
I grinned. The lighthearted banter was a refreshing break from my otherwise-stressful day. I stepped into my office and just before shutting the door deadpanned, “I think you have a crush on me.”
“Me and Mitch.”
“Eww.” I shivered, and when she faked offense, I said, “Not you…Mitch. Also, now that I think of it, maybe a little you too. You’re like my kid sister. Shame on you and your twisted mind, Fanny.” I tapped the door and forced an exhale out of my mouth. “Hold my calls. I have a statement to write.”
Three hours later, I stood at the mayor’s briefing podium with the statement that Demsey had approved and that I’d emailed to Debbie, the police chief’s assistant. I rubbed my lips together, spreading the freshly applied nude gloss even more, and waited for the room to fall silent. Three rows of reporters sat eagerly facing me as the local and national news cameras flanked the back and walls.
I adjusted the microphone and scanned the crowd of familiar faces. “Good afternoon. As I confirmed earlier, the mayor’s stepson, Anton Myers, was the victim of a shooting two nights ago. I’m happy to report that after a long touch-and-go surgery, he is resting and in stable condition. The mayor and his wife ask for your understanding for their need for privacy in this difficult time.”
The hands flew up for questions and I repeated my motto—reassure and deflect.
There were a few reporters I loathed less than others because I could always count on them to throw me a softball. I found one and called on her. “Stacey.”
“Thanks, Samantha. Do the police have any suspects? Do we know what happened?”
“As you know, I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation, but I have nothing but respect and confidence for our men and women in uniform.”
Mitch waggled his fingers and his eyes bulged. I skipped over him. Where was the guy from the local station who had winked at me the week before? Ah, yes. Middle center. “Steven.”
“Anton Myers is a convicted criminal. Was this gang-related?”
My throat tightened and I willed the heat in my chest to cool. “Ongoing investigation, but there’s no reason to start rumors about a man who was inches from losing his life.” I glared at Steven. He wouldn’t be getting called on again anytime soon.
Mitch was practically halfway out of his seat. Experience and poise kept my eyes from rolling.
Sam? Uh, no. It’s Samantha in this room, dipshit. We aren’t buddies.
He cleared his throat. “A source tells me that Anton was taken to the hospital by two men in suits and a gang member. Can you confirm?”
So his source was someone at the hospital. The director would be getting a massive earful from me…or Fanny. Fanny would actually be fantastic at bitching someone out. Then I could stay nice-ish.
“I don’t have those details, but I’ll try to find out and get back to you.” I closed my binder and addressed the room. “Listen, guys… I know it’s been a boring news week and we’re all a little hungry right now, but let’s not turn a victim of a violent crime into a criminal because he has some misdemeanors on his record from when he was barely eighteen.”
Someone scoffed but I wasn’t quick enough to catch who.
I narrowed my eyes, scolding them for their lack of empathy. “I’ll update you as soon as I can.” What I really meant was that I was going to brush this under the rug and try to get them to forget about it as soon as I could. That little nugget from Mitch about the men who’d brought him to the hospital was a nightmare for me and the police.
As I stepped away from the podium and exited the room, they all hollered questions at me—questions that weren’t that different from the ones ping-ponging in my own head. And with Anton still unconscious, I was walking the tightrope between what I could spin and what other information was out there.
Sophia had said she trusted the men who’d brought him in and that the rival gang had been “taken care of”. But it wasn’t the first-hand witnesses of the shooting who bothered me. It was the aftermath that had to be pieced together perfectly to sell a believable lie.
Fanny followed me down the corridor and it wasn’t until we were in our office that she said, “What the fuck is with the hospital?”
I paced in front of her desk. “Call them and take out all your sexual frustration on them. Fucking leaks.”
“On it.” She slid into her seat and wedged her phone between her ear and shoulder as she typed on her computer.
As much as listening to her would have been fun and I was sure I’d miss some fantastically creative insults, I needed silence to think. I closed the door to my office, only to have Sophia’s number pop up onto the screen of my phone.
“Hey, how is he?” I asked.
“He’s awake and…” Her calm tone was ominous. “Cranky. You’ve officially been summoned. He’s waiting—and not patiently either.”