Jim Davies sat back in his leather-clad editor's swivel chair and contemplated a test print-out of the next day's Gazette front page.
There was no doubt what the main story was going to be tomorrow, the paper had managed to find Jonny Devil safe and well. He hadn't been on a beach in the Bahamas, he hadn't been in a desert in America and he even hadn't been on top of a mountain in Switzerland. Nothing so dramatic. Jonny Devil had been discovered staying at his mum and dad's house in North London.
Jim took a good long look at the mock up of the paper's page one and chuckled cynically to himself.
"The Devil In Barnett" screamed the massive 76 point sized headline heralding the Gazette's triumph in tracking the singer down.
In terms of the immediate battle for survival in an increasingly hostile media world this was a victory. But looking back over all the years Jim had been involved with newspapers, he reckoned it was a win with a sour taste. Jim told himself that when he started out in as a journalist there was no way a story like this would have got front page billing. Now it was like gold dust, a sure-fire sales winner.
And despite his grumpy outlook there was further good news for Jim. As he was getting increasingly suspicious of Steve, the cunning editor had decided to ensure his chief reporter got nowhere near this particular development of the story. The results were most satisfying.
There had been no last minute interventions by Kasey Coleman. Of course there were still a few hours left until deadline, so there was time for her to stick her oar in. But so far so good.
And while Kasey's current absence wasn't proof positive she was in league with Mr Helm, it was another circumstantial piece of evidence against him. Keep Steve out of the picture and what a surprise, Kasey Coleman doesn't swoop to spoil the scoop.
Just then the intercom sounded. Letita informed Jim that Mark was ready to see him for discussions on the paper, he was quickly shown through. With the front page nicely taken care of so quickly there wasn't much else left for the two men to talk about. The inside was going to be filled with the usual combination of celeb gossip, soap opera plot exposes, pictures of Lord Bells, pictures of showbiz parties, sport, film reviews, agony aunt, recipes, opinion columns, horoscope, quizzes, Imelda's fabulous fashions, politics and some world news.
Mark was worried by a far away look on Jim's face. “Is everything all right Boss," he enquired.
“No, not really. You and I have been in this game a long time, haven't we?"
Mark nodded his confirmation.
"We remember the days when newspapers actually printed news, not this rubbish.”
“Sorry, I don't understand.”
“Au contraire, as our beloved leader might say. I think you do understand. I think you understand all too well.”
“You just don't want to admit the truth.”
“All those years ago when the likes of you and me entered the industry we used to go after real stories, not this guff. You understand that real good.”
“Times have changed," Mark reasoned with him.
“And not for the better. Look at us. Reduced to peddling rubbish about kids with hairy feet."
“Hairy feet is the new Watergate.”
"But it's wrong."
Mark was taken aback at the outburst from Jim. It wasn't like him. He usually just soaked up everything that was thrown at him and got on with doing a very good job. It seemed the pressure was taking its toll. Jim was going on holiday next week, the break would obviously do him good. Maybe all he needed was a bit of time away from the daily grind and some reassurance from his troops. "Don't beat yourself up about this. The figures for the hairy feet edition are in and sales went up by 12 per cent."
Mark went on to tell Jim they may even have started a bandwagon rolling. There had been lots of people logging on to the website in response. One woman phoned up about her 16-year-old son who had particularly hairy nostrils. In return for the Gazette agreeing to buy him all over cosmetic body surgery she was offering them his exclusive life story. She stipulated it would have to be on the front page and run along the lines of: Kai - My Journey From Awkward School Boy To Chiselled Hunk. "Do you want to telephone her back Boss," he said offering Jim the woman's mobile number.
Jim accepted the crumpled sheet of A4 and thanked Mark. "I might need it later, if there's no loo paper in the toilet."
"I'll take that as a no-need for follow up action then."
"We also have to talk about arrangements for the paper in my absence."
"I'm all ears Boss."
When Jim went away on holiday, which wasn't very often, the day to day running of the Gazette was usually put in the hands of Mark. About a week before departing Jim would brief his news editor about what issues would be coming up and requiring particular attention. Jim had been wrestling with the problem regarding Steve's trustworthiness. He hadn't wanted to tip Mark off about the problem because there was no proof. But at the same time if he did nothing and Steve was guilty, the chief reporter would have a field day in Jim's absence. - while the cat was away the mouse would really play. Jim decided the best way round the issue was to give Mark a list of important planned stories that he alone was to handle. The rest of the news desk would be kept away. If absolutely necessary, Mark was to use freelance journalists with no fixed connection to the Gazette for big one-off stories. To avoid raising any suspicions about a possible spy in the camp, Jim was going to tell Mark the temporary system was a test to see which of the Gazette's journalists could come up with brand new top stories in his absence.
Just as they were about to start discussions a man walked in unannounced, it was Lord Bells. "Hello gentlemen good to see you," he greeted them cheerily. The reason for his lordship's excellent mood soon became clear. "I gather that we have had some great sales figures and feedback regarding the girl with hairy ears."
"Feet, Lord Bells. It was hairy feet," Mark corrected quietly.
"That's the one. Anyway onwards and upwards, what are we doing to cash in on it?"
"We've already got an idea for a follow up," said Jim taking the sheet of A4 Mark had handed him just a short while ago out of his back pocket. He didn't want to be a 44-year-old former editor. "It will take a bit of negotiating though."
"I'll leave it with you, formidable. Now on another note I understand that you're leaving us Jim."
This sentence was greeted with great alarm by Jim. He wondered whether this was Lord Bells' way of saying he was fired. "Lucky fellow, all set for 10 days of holiday."
"Oh yes that's right," a relieved Jim said.
"For a moment you looked as if you didn't know what I was talking about there."
"Crossed wires," he explained.
"Right. In your absence Jim I've decided that we should try to introduce a little bit of a shake up."
The decision was greeted with trepidation in Jim's heart. "A shake up?"
Lord Bells explained that while he appreciated the work Mark did as a stand-in during vacation time he felt it was time to experiment with a new management line up, on a temporary basis of course.
"How would that work exactly," Jim enquired.
Lord Bells was only too happy to outline the plan. "For this time while you're away I am going to put that Steve lad in charge."
"Yeah, that's the one." Lord Bells said he'd been monitoring Steve's progress and thought he was an excellent candidate for more responsibility. "I'm giving Steve a chance in the hot seat. Let's see if he's cooking with gas or gets toasted."
Jim was beside himself, not knowing exactly how to respond. He panicked, telling Lord Bells he'd changed his mind and wouldn't be going on holiday after all.
His lordship's brows furrowed together in a stern glance, and then he said: "Nonsense, you absolutely must go. It'll do you good to get away from all of this for a couple of weeks."
"But I'm only due to be off for 10 days."
"Have the other four days as well. You'll find a break so refreshing. And I think Steve can really develop in your absence. It'll be win win for all.”
Lord Bells giving people extra holiday entitlement was as rare as a unicycling unicorn. Jim also wondered whether this last comment was actually a veiled threat to him about his job security - or lack of it. Maybe Steve was being lined up as a permanent replacement. He asked: “Do you think that’s wise? I mean Mark has got the experience and has always done well as a deputy.”
Lord Bells agreed Mark was excellent at the job. He stressed having Steve in charge this time around shouldn’t be regarded as any kind of criticism on the quality of the news editor’s workmanship.
“But Steve is so young, he’s never done anything like this. Are you sure he’d be OK in charge of a national newspaper,” Jim stressed.
“I’ll tell you what. Let’s get the kid in and ask him ourselves shall we,” his lordship replied.
“There’s no need for that surely? We can sort this out between ourselves.”
But Lord Bells seemed quite taken with the idea of showing Steven his new playground for the coming fortnight. He leaned directly over Jim’s body, pressed the intercom and asked Letita to contact Steve. “Tell him to get over here right now, we’ve got good news.”
While they waited for Steve to arrive the three men discussed the current big issues involving the paper. Lord Bells then asked Jim where he was going for his holidays.
"We're heading off to France, the Dordogne."
"France? Gorgeous place, lots of investment potential. Some of the happiest days of my life were when I worked as a waiter at a lovely French restaurant in Kensington for three weeks. Marvellous little bistro it was."
Jim, in a diplomatic way, asked Lord Bells if he had ever actually been to France. The answer was non. But his lordship announced he had just bought two vineyards in the Loire Valley which had been producing some of the world's finest wine for the last six generations. He was very excited about the purchase and had big plans.
"Are you going to nurture and develop the wine production Lord Bells," Mark asked.
"No. I'm ripping out the vines and turning the whole thing into seven holiday villages, eight if I can get round the planning regulations. That's where the real money is, follow the wonga I say."
Just then Steve breezed in through the door, giving a token knock as he marched through, almost like a one man conquering army.
“Hey Big Guy, how’s it going,” said smiling Steve giving Lord Bells a strong handshake and a couple of manly pats on the back. His lordship seemed most enthusiastic at the treatment. It was like the power mad geeky school prefect being delighted at hanging out with the sixth form's top athlete.
Lord Bells told Steve to sit down as he had an important issue which needed to be discussed. When the proprietor put out the plan, Steve's reaction was revealing. He severely screwed up his face, jumped up off the sofa, clenched both fists, shouted "yes, yes, yes," and started to run around the room – as if undertaking a lap of honour. When that was completed he began punching the air several times, still with a severely screwed up face, and screaming "come on, come on , come on" at no-one in particular.
"So what do you think," Lord Bells asked.
For a second it looked as if Steve was going to go into an impromptu Hollywood-style Oscar acceptance speech. "What do I think? What do I think? I honestly don't know what to say to you for giving me this wonderful opportunity, of which I hope to prove worthy. I'd like to thank all my ..."
Just as Steve was starting to get into his stride, to Jim's great relief the intercom went off. He answered. It was Letita, who else, enquiring if they would be requiring refreshments. The reason Letita asked was because there were such loud celebratory noises coming through the thick wooden doors she thought Champagne may be called for. And possibly there could be a glass or two in it for her. But it wasn't to be. Jim said they wouldn't be needing anything. He was however very glad she'd intervened as it had spoiled the moment for Steve. Jim seized his tactical opportunity and quickly moved on, making sure Steve couldn't pick up from where he'd left off.
"Many congratulations Steve, make sure you don't make a real hash of it now – ha ha," he laughed in a jokey way, but still making a point.
"Cheers Guv." Then, turning to Lord Bells, "I won't let you down Big Guy."
"The reason I've done this Steve is because I think you have got the potential to go a really long way in management," Lord Bells flattered. "But as Jim said, don't make a hash of it." Lord Bells warned.
To Jim it was as if he was witnessing a shepherd handing over the keys of his lambing shed to Mr Wolf Securities Ltd. There was no telling what Steve was going to do now. It would have been bad enough leaving the paper for a brief holiday and not having anyone to keep an eye on what Steve was up to. But to have him actually in charge was a disaster. It was giving him access to all the Gazette's secrets. If as suspected he was a traitor, Steve could sell anything he wanted to Kasey Coleman on the quiet. Then when the cupboard was bare, and the Gazette on its knees, all he had to do was leave. Steve could set up in business as a public relations consultant, either on his own or with Kasey.
Just when Jim thought that things couldn't possibly get any worse, they did. Lord Bells decided it would be a wonderful idea if Steve tried out the editor's chair for size. In the traditions of the newspaper industry this item of furniture is sacrosanct, virtually like a throne. The editor's chair is believed to look and feel so good it gives its owner an extra edge of confidence, acting like an invisible shield of invincibility. It helps editors dominate discussions in meetings with the likes of pushy lawyers who are threatening to sue - and that's crucial to the health of the paper. Only the editor, as pack leader, is allowed to sit there and they guard that status jealously. But now it looked as if the golden rule was about to be smashed, and Jim's pride with it.
"Go on my son, try it out for size," Lord Bells urged.
As a non-journalist his lordship may not have realised the huge magnitude of what was taking place. However Steve was acutely aware it was such a big ask that even he was a little apprehensive at first. He turned to Jim and said: "What do you say Guv, am I on for it?"
There was a cold silence for a brief moment as Jim summed up the situation. It was clear to him there was no option. He couldn't go against the proprietor on an issue that to an outsider may appear completely trivial, especially when the particular outsider in question actually owned the chair in any case. He had to let Steve test the seat out. "Why not? Be my guest," he said, slowly getting up
Steve's walk over to the desk had the atmosphere of a coronation procession. Jim stood aside with a bewildered frozen stare smile on his face as Steve sat down. All that was missing was a crown to carefully place on the young man's head. The chief reporter was so delighted he could almost feel himself bursting with the sheer joy of it all.
"How does that feel boy, do you like it," enquired Lord Bells.
Steve, all 6 foot 4 inches and 14 stone of him, swivelled around like an overgrown child a couple of times and laughed. "Well it's nice. But you know to be honest, for a big fella like me, it's a little little. We're gonna need a bigger chair," he guffawed.
Jim stared directly at the chair, with Steve sitting on it, and commented: "I don't believe you can get a bigger swiveller." It felt like being a witness at his own funeral.
"Hey, what's this," asked Steve eagerly grabbing hold of a piece of paper that was on the editor's desk. Again - just when Jim thought that things couldn't possibly get any worse, they did. The sheet which had drawn Steve's roving eye was the test print-out of the next day's Gazette front page. The very document which Jim had been working so hard to ensure Steve didn't see before deadline. "Wow. It's a big story. I didn't know there'd been a breakthrough on this one Guv."
"Didn't I tell you, must have forgot," replied Jim. It was like an earnest, embarrassed father apologising to his badly behaved teenage son.
Steve gave a long, low whistle, signalling he was impressed with the quality of the tale. "Wow, The Devil In Barnett eh? Who'd have thought it." He then urgently looked at his watch - his big, chunky very shiny watch bought from the illicit proceeds of traitorous deals conducted with the Serpentess of Sleaze Kasey Coleman – before suddenly declaring: "Hey is that the time? I've got to shoot."
Lord Bells looked disappointed that his protege was leaving so soon. "Do you have to go now," he pleaded.
"Yeah. I've got a meeting with...um...someone lined up. Could be a real biggy this one. It'll have the rest of the press pack snapping at our heels if it comes off."
"That's my boy. Always on the lookout for the next scoop," enthused Lord Bells. " What a winner. Don't let us stop you."
"Listen Big Guy, thanks for everything," said Steve going over to Lord Bells and giving him what he thought was an appreciative light play punch on the shoulder. Maybe it wasn't as light as it should have been, Jim was almost certain he saw 10 stone Lord Bells wince slightly as he took the full impact of Steve's muscular knuckles. Then to the rest of the room – ie Jim and Mark - Steve said: "Catch you later dudes."
"Yeah I'll catch you later Steve," Jim said. And when I do catch you - red handed selling Gazette stories behind our backs - I'll make sure you get what's coming to you, Jim thought. The editor was now worried about what was going to happen about the front page exclusive he had worked so hard to protect from the thief. By the look on Steve's face it was almost certain he'd realised the potential of the story and immediately decided it was worth a try selling it to Kasey, even at this late stage with deadline looming. But for the moment Jim was powerless to do anything. The cat had been let out of the bag and was now well and truly among the pigeons.
"I'm glad we've been able to sort everything out on this one," Lord Bells summarised. "I'm looking forward to a very successful and productive two weeks with you not here Jim, no offence intended of course."
Jim smiled to acknowledge that no offence had been taken at all, what else could he do.
"I'm certain that when you return here from holiday you'll have your batteries fully charged. Then we can really kick on with taking the Gazette forward and whipping the opposition. And no more mishaps."
"I'm sorry," Jim asked for clarification.
"And no more mishaps," Lord Bells repeated, staring hard at the editor as if to emphasise his point.
"I'm not quite clear what you mean."
Lord Bells took a deep intake of breath and told Jim he was worried about a trend which had emerged in the Gazette editorial team. "Top scoops are being lost at the last minute, and it's happening on your watch Jim. That's not good and it's not what I pay you for."
Now it was clear. Jim was getting the blame for all of the stories which were ending up in the delete basket because of Kasey Coleman's intervention. He wanted to tell Lord Bells about his suspicions regarding Steve, but instantly decided against it. To make such an accusation now would only smack of sour grapes. As there was nothing to back the theory up he could be placing himself in an even worse position.
Satisfied his point had been made, Lord Bells got up. Before walking away he stressed again: "No more mishaps." With that he left. Jim with Mark looked at each other with world wearied expressions. Mark was the first one to chip in, although he was actually driving Jim into revealing his own thoughts with: "So what do you make of that then Boss?"
"It's not good."
"I'm looking forward to a productive two weeks with you not here, no offence," repeated Mark sarcastically in an uncanny impression of Lord Bells. He had a gift for mimicry and was particularly good at taking off the Gazette's owner. "Stupid berk," he asserted, reverting to his own voice.
Jim apologised to Mark that he wasn't going to be in charge. Jim felt terrible the whole embarrassing situation had arisen in front of staff. If Lord Bells wanted the new arrangement in place that was one thing, after all it was his newspaper. But the owner should have let Jim know first, instead of dropping it on him with the team around to see it all unfold. Mark told him not to be so soft and stressed he wouldn't breath a word to anyone on the news desk.
"I think it's a bit late for any of that. Steve will have probably have let everyone know by now. He'll even want it on the front page."
"No chance there. Jonny Devil is nailed on to page one for tomorrow."
"You think so? I wish I could so sure, I really do." Jim made a decision - it was time to see whether Maddie was interested in going to war against an intelligent, street wise, handsome and charming foe.