Title: Too Late to Run
Author: John Perich
Publisher: John Perich
Author: John Perich
Publisher: John Perich
Too Late to Run is the third book in a series of gritty mystery novels starring Boston photojournalist Mara Cunningham. This time, Mara reluctantly aids a crooked real estate developer from her past who's been detained on trumped-up charges. But each clue she uncovers turns up more enemies - backwoods militias, corrupt bankers, and a mysterious pyromaniac - and raises doubts as to her friend's innocence.
When the feds came for Mickey Scanlon, they came hard: guns out, blue windbreakers with big yellow letters, “ON THE GROUND, ON THE GROUND NOW.” They shouldered their way through the lobby of Greenfield Development Associates, the largest of Scanlon's several fronts, just after twelve noon. The receptionist, a twenty-two-year-old intern chosen for her cup size, had the sense to hit the panic button beneath her desk before an agent whipped around the counter and cuffed her. The cuffs were too tight, she whined.
Mickey Scanlon—just past fifty, tan as a baseball glove—saw the pulsing light in the alarm panel above his office door: three quick strobes, pause, another three. He reacted with accomplished haste, executing perfectly a routine he had only drilled once. Standing, he tugged his laptop free of its docking and dropped it into the bottom drawer of his desk. It adhered to the inside of the drawer with a dull thump. Leaving the drawer open, he crossed to two small filing cabinets opposite his desk. A black metal box sat atop each one. He pulled the tab on the first, waited for the hiss he'd been warned to expect, then did the same for the other. All this in less than ten seconds.
Scanlon had his cell phone out when the agents kicked in the door. They dropped him on his stomach, cuffed his hands behind his back, patted him down for weapons, then hoisted him to his feet. They marched him out of his office, ignoring the smoke coming out of his filing cabinet and his remarkably bare desk. They walked him past a dozen witnesses: some inside associates, aware of the full extent of his real estate rackets; some innocent employees, tenuously aware of Scanlon's two previous arrests. An SUV with tinted windows waited in the parking lot, surrounded by armored vehicles and men with dogs.
They pushed him into the back seat of the SUV, keeping his head free of the roof by yanking on his suit collar. He turned to say something to the offending agent. The words were lost in the chaos, but the look in Scanlon's eyes was obvious: too wide and hesitant to match the bluster in his voice. The agent slammed the door and the SUV drove off.
I knew none of this at the time; I wasn't there. I had to piece together details from multiple sources hours after the fact. At the time I was at a corner table in the window lounge of Top of the Hub, fifty stories above the Back Bay, trying to swallow my pounding heart.
Across from me sat Jeremy Brandt, a man from whom Mickey Scanlon might have learned about roguish charm. Brandt wore his silver hair and blue eyes like honors from the Queen. He had on a navy blazer over a tight T-shirt and chinos. He was sifting through a large leather portfolio with one hand, flicking by glossy blowups of the best photographs I'd taken over the last six years. I took another sip of ice water, wondering if I might swap out for something stronger.
Jeremy Brandt made headlines two years ago when he quit Control Center at CNN. Four months later, he surfaced as the owner of Flashpoint, a high-volume news blog. Most of America knew Flashpoint for its list articles and eye-catching photos. “Seven Things You Never Knew About the Human Brain”; “Eighteen Extreme Sports Stunts You Won't Believe Are Real”; and so forth. But the blog's ad revenue also financed a small but dedicated team of freelance journalists. Brandt poached hip young voices and distinguished veterans from The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere, trying to do with a staff of twelve what the media had fumbled with for the last twenty years: break meaningful stories to a mass audience.
And here he was, looking through my photos, hence my pulse pounding in my throat. Well, that and our occasional eye contact across the top of my portfolio. I'd told myself that morning, as I zipped up my pantsuit, that most of Brandt's legendary looks came from makeup artistry and TV magic. I hadn't been prepared for how good he'd look in a casual outfit. Or how good his voice would sound when it was pitched low enough for just the two of us. Or how good he'd smell.
Easy there, Mara.
Brandt closed the portfolio carefully, as if shutting the door on a sleeping child's room, and rested the binding on the edge of the table. He drummed the fingers of his left hand (no ring) on the leather and pursed his lips.
"These are good," he said.
I nodded, deflating into my comfortable Chiavari chair and resting my hand against my ice water. I could see it in the way he held his breath at the end of the sentence. Better luck next time. Thanks but no thanks.
"This isn't what I had in mind, though," he said.
I nodded again, tucking my hair behind my ears. "I tried to select as broad a variety as possible to showcase my range. But I've mostly been doing crime scene photography for the Tribune for the last four years. I do believe most of those skills would translate into any other field, so I'd …"
He smiled, letting me speak. I could see he wanted to say something but was too polite to interrupt, so I trailed off and let him jump in.
"I don't doubt it," he said. His voice hit that baritone register that soothed my nerves like warm oil. "But this isn't what I'm looking for. I know plenty of photographers already."
I looked away, my face warm. Of course he did. Brandt came up as a war correspondent in the Persian Gulf and Kosovo. He wouldn't need a freelancer from Boston who'd snapped a few car crashes. Realizing that, however, left me more confused than embarrassed.
He saw my brows knit and continued, both hands up. "This was my fault. I must not have been very clear in my first email. Of course this is what you'd think I meant."
Still nothing. My stomach climbed halfway up my throat. Spit it out, handsome.
"I wanted to see a portfolio of your writing."
The room seemed to grow still. I drew my hand off the table and clasped it in my lap, hoping he wouldn't see me shaking.
The waiter chose that moment to reappear. "Another of those, sir?" He gave a short bow toward Brandt's empty beer glass in that way waiters have.
Brandt nodded. "And you, ma'am?"
I found my voice somehow. "Manhattan."
"Any preference for your whiskey?"
"Yes. No. I don't care. Whatever you … you know."
The waiter gave another short bow, as if he received these orders every day, and sidled off, leaving me alone with Jeremy Brandt's gentle grin. "Not the answer you were expecting?" he asked.
"Not hardly," I said. I had covered the State House beat for the Boston Tribune up until five years ago, when I'd pulled a stunt that the paper had threatened to fire me over. The union and the owners had reached a compromise: I could keep working for the paper, but I would never write another word. Gary, the metro desk editor, had kept me on as a photographer. But the work had been drying up over the last four years: more freelancers, fewer pages per issue, less money to go around. All of which led to this midday interview with Jeremy Brandt.
But no, not the sort of interview I'd been expecting at all. "I hate to talk you out of your brilliant idea," I said, "but you know I haven't written for the Tribune for some time."
He nodded. "And I heard about why. That's what inspired me to take a look at you. I need writers with that sort of initiative. Writers with the stones to point out the obvious, no matter who it might embarrass."
"I didn't realize the story had traveled that far." I felt the blush flowing down to my collarbone again. The encouragement in Brandt's eyes didn't help any.
"I heard it from Saul Kirkadian, actually." My mentor at the Tribune, he'd left last August after more than forty years on the beat. "In full disclosure, he was my first choice. But he gave me your name instead and told me why I should give you a look. I trust his judgment."
"And I trust yours."
My Manhattan arrived on a literal silver platter, next to Brandt's beer. We took our drinks and toasted. Every moment of eye contact between us ended in mutual smiles, as if we were in on some private joke.
"I'm recruiting feature writers in all the big metros," he said. "Boston, Atlanta, LA, Chicago. People with experience and a viewpoint, not just content mills."
"So you're not looking for 'Twenty Reasons Boston is Better Than New York'?"
"There aren't any." He grinned. "But no, I want feature copy. The sort of articles you'd write for the Tribune, if you had your way. And more of them too. Ours is still a high-volume business."
"You'll get them."
"Good. The hours might get crazy."
"That's fine." I kept nodding, then checked my head. My hours didn't entirely belong to me; the class I taught in Cambridge at Sandy's self-defense school was another obligation. "There are a couple of evenings—"
Brandt held a hand up. "You set your own schedule. So long as copy gets to the editors on time, I don't care what else you do."
"Really?" The release of tension had left me feeling playful. "You don't want me signing a morals clause?"
Another moment of lingering eye contact. "I don't think either of us would last very long with a morals clause."
I lowered my eyes to my drink and stomped on the brakes in my head. Pleasant enough to dwell on what Brandt was doing to my imagination—and what he might do to other parts of me—but that was as far as it could go. This man was, potentially, my future boss. I'd screwed my life up in the past by going after the wrong older man.
My cell phone vibrated in my purse, trembling against my leg. I kicked it aside. Whoever it was could wait.
The check came; Brandt paid it. We stood, gathered our things, and went for the exit. I overheard murmurs and saw a few heads snap up as we passed: is that? Do you think? And who's she? I smirked at the notion of appearing in the celebrity pages, before remembering I didn't want anyone knowing about my job hunt. Shit. Hopefully no one recognized me.
"Do you have a writing portfolio?" Brandt asked as we reached the street.
"Send it to me, and we'll do this once more."
We set a follow-up for the day after next. As a metro photographer, I was notionally on call throughout my entire shift. In practice, the Tribune needed me less and less every day. I could spare the time for another date with a silver fox. Interview, Mara. Not a date, an interview.
"I'll see you then." We shook hands, his fingers warm against my palm. Then I jogged to where I'd parked my car, heels clacking on the pavement.
While the maverick captain of new media had been flattering me over drinks, I'd missed one text and one call. I didn't recognize the phone number on the call, so I left it alone. The text was from Gary, an assignment he wanted me to cover. Three-alarm fire, Vassall Street in Quincy.
And like that, the pleasant flush of the afternoon vanished. My brain queued up a list of items to consider: traffic at this time of day, crowds gawking at the fire, who I knew among South Shore first responders.
Playtime's over; back to business.