'The Assignment' by Robert Boucheron



The Vindicator occupied a storefront on Main Street, with creaky floorboards, a high ceiling of pressed tin, and a lingering odor of printer’s ink. As Louisa entered, Walter Nickles sprang up. Necktie loosened, he bustled from behind his disaster zone of a desk, took her coat, tossed it over a chair, and offered her a cup of coffee. She knew better than to accept.


“I made it myself,” he said.


“That’s what I’m afraid of.”


“You got my phone message?”


“I did. ‘Come into the office A. S. A. P. Have I got an assignment for you!’”


“Word for word.”


“Mindless repetition is my hobby.”


“Did you know Ralph Willis?”


“Not personally. I heard him play the organ. He gave recitals at St. Giles once a year.”


“Never made it there myself. You can get to know him a whole lot better.”


“How is that possible if he just died?”


“You can write a follow-up for next week.”


“I have no training in journalism.”


“I’ll coach you.”


“Jimmy Kidd is your reporter. I’m an ordinary, middle-aged woman who has her hair done on Thursday and plays bridge with the girls on Friday.”


“By the way, your hair looks stunning.” Nickles smiled ingratiatingly. “People still play contract bridge?”


“Yes, we do. The same deck of cards you play poker with.”


“Then why so standoffish?”


“When Ruth Garrison retired, you asked me to take over the lifestyle column, Tittle-Tattle. I learned on the job, and now everyone seems to enjoy reading my pieces. They’re light, not too filling… like whipped cream. I’m not sure I can handle a police story — a grisly shooting.”


“No, no, no! I want an in-depth profile, a human interest story. A tribute to the late artist, the man and his music, something like that. Talk to people who knew him, dig into his past, tell us why we should remember him fondly.”


“Interview friends and family?”


“You have a knack for it.”


“I don’t know.”


“This is right up your alley.”


“What if I uncover something… unpleasant?”


“If it’s shocking or sensational, so much the better.”


“What if people prefer not to talk?”


“Exert your powers of persuasion, your special gift.”


“I have no special gift.”


“Don’t sell yourself short, Louisa. You’re a fine figure of a woman with a keen eye, a level head, and a nose for news. In your capable hands, Tittle-Tattle went from tedious social notes and stray gossip to… whipped cream! Now, if you’re too busy with household chores and picking the lint from the dryer vent, I understand.”


“If anything, I have too much free time.”


“And you’re ready to sink your claws into something.”


“This story may be too big for my delicate touch.”


“Scared to learn a new skill?”


“I’m trying to be realistic.”


“How do you see the story? Walk me through it.”


“Ralph Willis drops dead in his own house. Nobody had a reason to shoot him that we know of. He was a church musician, not a drug lord or a stool pigeon, or something that gets a person killed.” Louisa made a helpless gesture.


“Accidents happen. The police think it was bad luck.”


“What do you think, Walter?”


“I think you are ideally qualified to sniff out the truth.”


“How will I know the truth when I find it?”


“You’ll know. We’ll work on this together — your instinct and my expertise.”


“Assuming we dig up something, what good will it do?”


“How will it help Willis? It won’t. But I have a hunch that people know more than they’re letting on. The police are dragging their feet. Are they understaffed, not very bright, or just plain stubborn?”


“Do you want me to butt heads with Captain Ryder?”


“Wheedle him. Insinuate your way into his heart. See if he has a soft spot, an interest in bird-watching, a secret talent for watercolors.”


“And if he has none?”


“The head-butting may come later. Leave that to me.”


“Is this an in-depth profile or an investigative report?”


“Make of it what you will.”


“Do I get paid?”


“Not only do you get money, you get glory—a byline. So you’ll give it a shot?”


“I’ll give it a try. Let’s watch our metaphors.”


“Good. If you’re correcting my metaphors, then you’re already on the story.”


“And this is a church-related matter. People are sensitive.”


“All the more reason for a blasphemer like me to stay in the background.”


“You don’t swear.”


“I can if provoked. Want to hear a sample?”


“Another time.” Louisa reached for her coat. “Right now, I want to hear what Captain Ryder has to say.”





Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, and he worked as an architect in New York and Charlottesville. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, and Saturday Evening Post.

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