by Rick Beck

Chapter 2

The Meeting

George told Assistant-Chief Williams he'd like to sit in on their poker game after he got off work. As he was wrapping things up for the day, the Walrus summoned him to his office.

The game would have to wait.

"Mr. Hitchcock, I'd like to see you in my office, now," was how he phrased the invitation.

George cringed. They weren't words anyone in the newsroom wanted to hear, especially when a hot poker game was waiting.

The Walrus, with a mustache that wiggled when he spoke, was called Doc by some of the older reporters. George called him sir or Mr. Warner. Whatever you called him, when he called you, you jumped. Only God ranked higher at the City News. Even God cringed when the Walrus called.

Mr. Warner was the editor-in-chief at the City News, and it was never good news when he summoned you to his office. For a stringer, the call was doubly worrisome, because you didn't have a job at the City News. Stringers hung out there, hoping to get a story.

When George stepped into Mr. Warner's office, the big man spoke.

"Close the door and take a seat, Mr. Hitchcock," Mr. Warner said, his walrus mustache moving up and down on his face as he spoke.

"You were sent out on a simple story on 3rd Street this afternoon, I believe. Mr. Myers told me that he sent you out between two and three, and when you came back, I watched you typing away at the stringers' desk. Hard at work you were. The puzzling thing about it, you looked so industrious. I thought you were finally catching on to how things are done at the City News, Mr. Hitchcock. I was curious and I went to see what you'd produced, I found this in Charlie's in-basket. He no doubt left it there rather than add it to today's edition. I brought it to my office to read," he said, holding up the copy George wrote after his foray on 3rd Street.

"It was after four," George said. "When I came back."

"Is that supposed to mean something to me?" the Walrus asked.

"It was left in the basket because today's edition of the City News already went to press, Mr. Warner."

Mr. Warner gave George a stern look.

"Let me quote," he finally said.

"What do you do when your cat's in a tree? Mrs. D dialed 9-1-1. 'My cats in the tree,' she plainly said, "The cat's in the tree, way over my head.

"In a flash fire trucks drove to her house. Fire trucks one, two, three will get that cat out of that tree.

"A firemen said, "I'll climb the tree and bring that cat down.""

"With branches too high, or arms too short, he never gets off the ground. He can't climb the tree and bring the cat down.

"A ladder will work," a fireman said. "A ladder reaches way over my head. I'll climb that tree, and bring the cat down.

"No matter how many times he reaches for the cat, where he reached wasn't where the cat was at.

"That darn cat doesn't want to come down, and I can't wait to get my feet back on the ground. It'll take a better man than me to get the cat out of that tree."

"Fire trucks one, two, three, drive away. The police have no reason to stay.

"Wait! Mrs. D is suddenly inspired, dashing for her house like it's on fire. In a flash she puts tuna in the cat's dish on the floor.

She opens the back door, and who came skidding across the floor, that darn cat, and Mrs. D shut the door.

"What do you do, when your cat's in the tree? One thing is for sure, you shouldn't call me. George Hitchcock, City News."

"And what do you call this, Mr. Hitchcock? Has it not occurred to you that you are working to become a professional reporter. We, at City News take our work seriously, and this, this,...."

"Mr. Warner, you send me out on stories no one is going to read. Half of them never make it into print in the City News. I decided that this story needed some pizazz, Mr. Warner, and so I gave it some pizazz, It's cute. I like it," George said, defiance in his words.

"Remind me how long you've been with us at the City News, Mr. Hitchcock. Be precise with your answer. Your next editor might want to know, and you can pray he has more patience for nonsense than do I," he said.

"I'm glad you didn't call it work, because what I do here doesn't resemble working, Mr. Warner. I need this job, because I need the experience I'm getting. I am a good writer, Mr. Warner, and I'm going to be one of the best reporters in this town in a few years. Speaking of nonsense, that's all I've been assigned since you put me on as a stringer. I came here three months and nine days ago? You can fire me, but you haven't heard the last of George Hitchcock."

"Feel better now, Mr. Hitchcock. I wouldn't want you to go away feeling bad," the Walrus said.

"If you don't like what I write, maybe we should part company. Yours is not the only newspaper in town. I am going to be a reporter, with your help, or without it."

"You write fairly well. I read everything you write, Hitchcock. I'm aware that you have some aptitude for the written word, but the City News is a serious newspaper. We don't do cute. I expect you to write serious stories. Take this... this..., whatever it is, and write me two to three paragraphs on what took place on 3rd Street," he said, tossing the copy at George.

"Write precisely. Be succinct. Double spaced."

The paper hung in the air for a second, slowly floating down into George's lap. The Walrus had made that move before. He knew right where the story would land, but it wouldn't land in the City News.

It wasn't his first, the City News is a serious publication' speech. George felt like he'd been scolded by the headmaster. He'd deserved it. What he wrote wasn't serious. He'd go back to write it again. This time he'd write it Mr. Warner's way, and it would still end up in the circular file. So much for the poker game at the firehouse.

George put his poetic masterpiece into his jacket pocket on his way back to the stringer's desk. It was cute, but he'd write the three dull paragraphs Mr. Warner wanted. You couldn't fight city hall, and, if you were smart, you didn't argue with the editor-in-chief of your publication. George was smart, but frustrated.

In ten minutes the story was done. He dropped it into Pops' in-basket. He'd get it when he came in the next morning, but it was another useless exercise. Pops would file it where he filed most of Georges nothing stories' his trash can.

It wasn't the first time George had been in Mr. Warner's office. It was the first time he'd had a conversation with the man. He'd been prepared to be fired, but he'd have come and gone from the third most read paper in the city without anyone knowing he'd been there.

He intended to leave his mark on the City News, and after he did, at a time of his choosing, he'd quit, and he'd get a job at the first or second most read newspaper in town.

Mr. Warner didn't fire him, and that was something. He gave him the, 'The City News is a serious newspaper' speech.

Because the City News did report serious news, the 'Cat Caper' was probably inappropriate. He knew it while he was writing it.

What did Tom Jefferson say, 'The tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots from time to time."

George was just watering the tree. Mr. Warner could have fired him for that. He did challenged the man head-on and it made him feel better even if it wasn't very bright. He was angry and he let the anger speak for him. He knew that was never wise.

The Walrus was restrained. He wasn't. The slow pace his career had taken frustrated George. The Walrus may have something to do with the pace, but he had a job to do and he was doing it.

George needed the company of newspaper men. He knew just where to find some.

George gave up the idea of going to the firehouse to play poker. There was a game a lot closer than the firehouse. It was where City News employees drank and played poker. He needed the company of newspaper people.

For George playing poker was relaxing. He wanted to talk to reporters tonight. He turned toward Jerry's as soon as his feet hit the street outside the City News building.

A story that would get him noticed might come at any time. A story with meat on its bones. That's what he needed. Pops didn't routinely hand good stories to stringers. Sometimes just being there was enough to be handed a story that turned into something.

George had to be in the newsroom at the time a good story came to a stop on Pop's desk. That is why he came in early and left late. If he was in the newsroom the hours the other stringers were, Mr. Warner wouldn't have caught up with him. He'd have nailed him the next day and two days would have gone bad instead of one.

The cat in the tree didn't go over any better with Pops. He'd left it where he found it, in his in-basket. He didn't throw it in the trash can, no, he left it for Mr. Warner to see. He liked Pops, but Pops answered to Mr. Warner.

It was the middle of the summer in the city. Like the fire department and the police department, the news business was on holiday. Even their best reporters weren't covering anything that a publisher or editor would call a big story.

George understood that his impatience wasn't doing him any good. He had to wait for a story that was something other than routine. Once he got a story like that, if he was smart, he'd be able to turn it into major news.

Being fired by the City News would not look good on his resume. He needed a drink and some company that knew the business he was in. Some nights he wanted to get as far away from reporters as possible, but this wasn't one of those nights.

Jerry's was close to the City News building and, and it's where City News' employees drank, and some reporters played cards there. If George went to Jerry's around dinner time, the family men were home eating with their family and there was usually a chair open.

George saw the table and the three players as soon as he walked in. There was something he needed more than the company of other reporters at that moment.

"Barkeep," George said, and the bartender looked up. "Johnny Walker."

"You're running late. We almost sold your seat to the next warm body that came in the door, but, alas, you are he," Al Shapiro said. "Bring your beverage over here. We shall deal you in, George."

Pouring the shot glass full, George tossed it back. That one was for Mr. Warner.

"Hit me," he said, and the bartender poured another shot.

It followed the first shot. That one was for George.

George dropped a dollar on the bar. He went to take his seat at the table.

As reporters went at the City News Albert Shapiro was the dean of reporters. He'd worked there for twenty years. If there was a big story being covered, Al was likely to be covering it. A widower with three grown children, if he wasn't at the City News building, he was at Jerry's. It's where George got to know Al.

"You aren't planning on driving, I hope?" Al asked.

"Not unless the bus driver has a heart attack, and it's the only way I can get to Maryland Avenue," George said, slipping out of his jacket.

George loosened his tie before reaching for the five cards in front of him.

"Why the long face," Al asked George. "You look like you've lost your best friend, and he shot your dog before he left."

Al had been the first reporter to read any of George's copy. He didn't hesitate to offer suggestions. If anyone knew what an editor wanted to read, it was Al. George didn't know why he'd befriended him, but he was happy to accept the renowned reporter's advice.

"I got to spend a little time with the Walrus before coming over here," George said, studying his hand.

"If you're no longer an employee of the City News, you'll need to leave the table," Wee Willie Whitaker said.

"He didn't fire me," George said with pride. "I told him it was fine with me if he did."

"You didn't," Al Said, looking away from his cards.

"He told me to take my work more seriously. He didn't like the copy I turned in at the local news desk. I think he waited to see what I was writing, and then he called me into his office."

"He didn't like what I wrote on an assignment Pops sent me out on," George said. "it was a nothing story. I spiced it up."

Al held out his empty hand. George reached into his inside jacket pocket and produced the original copy. He handed it over to Al. He frequently asked to see what George was writing.

"How many, Hitch. I'm not going to ask again. If you don't pay attention, we'll get someone else to sit in on the game," Wee Willie Whitaker said, handling the deck of cards like a man aspiring to head for Las Vegas to do his dealing there.

"Sorry. Give me one," George said, after looking at his hand.

He did want to hear what Al had to say. He was a real reporter, and he knew what was good and what wasn't.

George didn't look at the card he was dealt. He wanted to see Al's reaction.

Al chuckled twice as he read.

"No," he said, laughing, "This wouldn't be something Doc would let run at the City News. It's clever, Hitch," Al said. "Funny stuff."

The copy made the rounds to Wee Willie and Jack Andrews. They both laughed out loud. Wee Willie slid it back to Hitch.

"What is it that has our aspiring ace reporter, thinking about something other than poker?" Wee Willie asked, after kicking the pot up a quarter. .

"Oh, I was just hallucinating about getting a real story to cover," George said.

"It takes time, Georgie," Al said. "Give it some time. And when you get that big story, make sure you're ready to cover it."

"Stringers don't get real stories to cover," Jack said, looking at his cards. "Kick it a quarter."

"Call your quarter, raise you a quarter," Al said, as as quarters dropped into the pot.

"Hitch?" Wee Willie said impatiently.

That meant Willie liked his hand. George picked up the card he was dealt, looking it over carefully before making his bet.

"Kick it a buck," George said, nothing showing on his face.

"A buck. You were drawing for a straight. You didn't get your card, Hitch. You're bluffing," Wee Willie said.

"Easy enough to find out Whitaker. Put your money where your mouth is," George said, staring into Wee Willie's eyes.

"I'll be a son-of-a-bitch. He did get his card. You're the luckiest dame card player I've ever seen," Wee willie objected.

"Cards aren't about luck, Willie. It's a game of skill," George said with no doubt in his voice. "I'm bluffing, remember?"

. "I knew we shouldn't let you in our games. I fold," Wee Willie said.

Al tossed his cards on the table in front of him.

"Too rich for my blood. You two fight over it," Al said.

"Three sweet tens. Come to Papa," Jack said, reaching for the pot.

George put his hand on top of Jack's hand.

"Not so fast, Tonto. Three ladies beats your tens," George said.

"I'll be a son-of-a-bitch. What did you draw, Hitch," Jack asked.

"He dealt me the three queens. I drew a seven," George said, bringing in the pot and stacking the quarters in front of him.

"Barkeep, come fill my amigos' glasses. Put it on my tab," George said.

As the four men drank and played cards, the banter was mostly about the news, the predictable summer doldrums, and expectations that a story that wasn't on the radar at present would break the logjam of nothing stories. The overwhelming opinion was that this story would hit around Labor Day, and it would captivate the news.

The city would be filled with residents home from vacation. The adults would be back at work, and the kids would be back in school. Somewhere in the world would come a catastrophe. Maybe an earthquake, a volcano, massive fire, or a government somewhere would be overthrown by its antagonists. No one would see it coming.

Once that story hit the headlines, the summer doldrums would be over, if things ran true to form. The presence of more people led to more news.

George lost two hands in a row, after winning the first hand, and then he won three hands in a row. Wee Willie grumbles, Jack kept kicking the pots higher and higher, and Al would throw in his hand as soon as someone kicked it a buck.

Al was no fool. He knew the odds. He also respected an element known as Lady Luck. Even when a man appeared to be bluffing, Al didn't bet the farm, only to find out he wasn't bluffing at all.

"You've run me out of quarters," Wee Willie complained. "Will you take my check? I'm not ready to quit. I want a chance to get some of my money back.

"You need a loan, Willie?" George asked. "I'll tell you what, do you have one of those nasty black cigars you gas us with? What's your price? I've been run over by a Walrus. I may as well gas myself with one of those nasty cigars."

"I don't go anywhere without my Good Old Smokes," Wee Willie said. "For you, a buck should cover it. Make that four quarters."

"If he's going to smoke one of those things, I'll buy one too," Jack said, as cigars and quarters changed hands.

"Tell you what, Willie, I'll give you a buck not to sell me one of those stink bombs," Al said, tossing four quarters into the center of the table.

"I'm in the wrong business," Wee Willie said, counting his quarters.

Al produced a Zippo to light George's cigar. Before he could offer Jack a light, Jack was putting out a match and puffing away.

Willie counted his quarters.

"Old is what makes it taste like this," Jack said, as he read the cigar band. "Old Fashioned Smoke."

Smoke hung over the card table. Al coughed. Willie dealt.

"These might explain why our fathers only lived to fifty or so. An Old Fashioned Smoke a day would no doubt assure an early grave," George said, puffing to keep the cigar lit.

Smoke lingered over the poker table.

"Let's play some stud," George said, once the deck came to him.

Wee Willie groaned.

"You and your stud poker," Wee Willie complained.

The bartender filled each glass from the bottles he carried.

George dealt the cards.

Jack continued to bet big.

Al coughed.

Wee Willie complained.

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