Chapter Four: Ambush Journalism
The Springton Police Department used to have two separate stations, one on either side of the town. It was a fairly efficient system, all things considered; of course, this being Springton, it couldn't last for that exact reason. The north station burned to the ground two years ago.
At the time, the chief was convinced it was an act of arson carried out by a growing gang of young, violent delinquents looking to overthrow the municipal government. His conviction was so unshakable that he had the entire force sweep both North and South High for evidence of illegal activity. The search was ended prematurely when an electrician discovered the north station had actually suffered an electrical malfunction. Apparently the building's wiring was so poorly put together that an investigation was ordered by the mayor's office into the wiring of every structure put together by the same company that helped build the station.
What had once looked like a rural rebellion in the works turned out to be the result of horrific incompetence during construction. Almost half of the recently built government buildings in town had to be torn down and rebuilt, including the southern police station.
Since leaving Springton without a working police department wasn't exactly an option, the town bought out the current building they were working out of while the two original stations were under construction. They had originally thought finding somewhere to house twenty two uniformed cops would be difficult- luckily for them, the town's largest daycare center had recently gone bankrupt! Two stories tall and with enough square footage to squeeze in enough room for all of them, it was jam packed but efficient; it's positioning in the center of Springton made it practically perfect for all intents and purposes.
Plus, it was positioned right next to the Springton Watch Newspaper's headquarters, which made it quite convenient for a certain pair of intrepid investigative journalists looking to score their next big exclusive.
"...Are you sure about this, Harper? The last time we camped outside the station they sent Rodriguez out after us." Riley Rogers lowered her camera from her face, her lips curling into a pout. Try as she might, she couldn't find a decent angle of the sun peaking through the clouds and shining down over the station. If she could just line it up like it was in her head, Riley's picture would've been front page worthy for sure. 'A Ray of Hope In This Dark Time.' It...wasn't a great headline. She'd leave writing that part up to Harper.
The only problem was, she couldn't physically control the sky to make it work with her imagination, leaving her with a subpar shot of a cloudy day and a brick roof. Not the most compelling photography work she'd done.
Harper Griffin stood not far from where her partner in crime was attempting to take the shot of her life, her mind focused on her matters. "Yeah, I remember."
She dismissed Riley's concerns almost out of habit, throwing a wave back over her shoulder as she stared down at her cellphone with an intense concentration. Harper was trying to put together everything she knew about the recent pair of cases that had cropped up- it was easily the two worst crimes to ever befall their tiny community since she'd moved there nine years or so ago, and they happened back to back.
It couldn't just be a coincidence, right? Audrey going missing and then Leon being murdered while he was investigating her disappearance all in the span of a week when- up until that point- almost nothing bad had happened in Springton for more than a decade. It was connected. It had to be. The only question was: how?
"Do you remember? 'Cause Rodriguez had to carry you back to the car-"
"I remember, Riley-"
-"Over his shoulder, and you were kicking him and screaming about your rights-"
"Riley!" Harper snapped, spinning around to glare at her younger partner. Fire burned behind Griffin's violet eyes, the intensity of which was enough to make even the hardest of men flinch away. It was a little overkill for someone of Rogers's temperament, however. She'd nearly cried the first...few...times- twelve or so, to be exact- that her partner had given her that look.
"Sorry." Riley squeaked, ducking down behind her camera, believing that the expensive piece of equipment would somehow save her from having her soul sucked out of her body by those horrible eyes. It wasn't exactly her most brilliant plan, she had to admit, but it seemed to work as Harper turned her attention back to her notebook.
"How many times do I have to tell you?" Harper sighed, a pang of guilt digging it's way into her gut. She didn't mean to upset Rogers, but the girl seemed wired to take anything that wasn't direct praise as some kind of insult against her person. "Stop apologizing so much." She criticized, never looking away from the words she'd written on the parchment in front of her.
The sound of a car pulling into the former daycare's parking lot drew Griffin's gaze away from her notes. A black and white police cruiser slowed to a halt alongside several identically colored vehicles. There were at least a dozen unique models among the bunch, since the town couldn't afford to buy a whole fleet of the same cars in bulk. Hand-me-downs from other departments across the state would have to do for the foreseeable future.
"Oh! He's back!" Riley called out, her mood shifting wildly as she lifted up her camera to snap a couple of pictures of Officer Goodman while he was climbing out of his car.
"Wait, already?" Harper felt his throat go dry. She wasn't ready for him yet. She needed a little more time to prepare what she wa supposed to ask him. Quickly spinning around, the small town reporter ran her hands through her blonde locks, bunching them up to slip them into a quick, messily done ponytail. 'This is...this is fine. You don't need notes for this. It's just a few, simple questions- you've read them over a dozen times.' For all her attempts to self-assure, she couldn't shake the sinking feeling in her gut that seemed to be getting worse with every approaching footstep.
A small, delicate hand fell on her shoulder. She looked over it, met by Riley's smile. It was as warm and authentic as the day the two of them first met. "You'll do great!" Riley said, practically bubbling with enthusiasm. "And..And how you look is the last thing you need to worry about- h-honest." She stumbled, her grin twisting awkwardly as she realized how strange that came out. "That came out wrong. I-I don't mean- err, what I meant to say was-"
It took all of the willpower Griffin had at her disposal not to burst out laughing. She almost immediately felt bad for the near-outburst when she saw the look of pained embarrassment painting Riley's face; but it was hard to ignore that the brief moment of levity had ejected the butterflies "Thanks for that."
"What else am I here for?" Rogers gave a few awkward, forced chuckles as she shrugged her shoulders.
"Getting us a picture that'll land us on the front page. Back to it."
Any response Riley had was cut short before it could be interrupted by the sound of a discordant, far too loud laugh coming from behind her. "If it ain't Sherlock and Holmes, back at my front door again!" Officer Goodman gave the two women a crooked grin that made a slight tingle slide down Harper's spine. No matter how many times she had to talk to him, Stevie Goodman always managed to make her feel horribly uncomfortable. It was like he was gifted in the art of making everyone around him want to leave.
That was probably why the department used him to run off the press so often.
"Uhh, actually-" Riley shoved her round glasses up her caramel-colored nose. "It's Sherlock and Watson. Holmes is Sherlock's surname-"
"Yeah, hun, that's great." Goodman waved her off dismissively. "I gotta get movin', though. Busy day. Big case. You know the drill." He was moving fast, taking a quick, practiced sidestep to move around the duo standing between him and the station's entrance.
Harper responded by sliding to the right, placing herself directly in Stevie's path. "Do you have any updates for the public on the ongoing investigation into Officer O'Connell's murder?" She asked, receiving no reply aside from a stink eye from Goodman. He slipped the other way, only for her to jump back and in front of him once more. "Is what happened to him at all tied to Audrey Banks's disappearance a week ago?" Once more she received nothing but uncharacteristic silence from the bombastic policeman. He was still trying to find a way around her, but she managed to slip into his path before he could get more than a step in.
It was a dance they'd done a hundred times, and never once had Goodman succeeded in outmaneuvering the journalist. The first few times she tried it he had picked the slender woman up by the waist and moved her out of the way, but his boss had railed on him every time- apparently 'assaulting the press' was 'a supremely stupid' move.
"Griffin, babe, I got places to be!" Goodman finally stopped to protest, shaking his hands in front of his chest for added emphasis. "First murder case since I got outta the academy, and I am not wastin' it talkin' to you!"
She stood her ground, however, her hand racing down into the pocket of her jacket to whip out a small, black device. She pressed a button on the side of the audio recorder and held it up between herself and the officer. She could've sworn his eyes rolled straight out of his head at the sight of it. "Ah, you gotta be freakin' kiddin' me-"
"Come on, Stevie. Give me something. It doesn't have to be anything big, just enough for my article-"
"No." He cut her off, his arms crossing over his chest.
"-I'll put you on the front page-"
"I appreciate the appeal to my ego, but no. I don't wanna get my tush canned for your crumby exclusive."
Harper let out an exasperated sigh, her free hand tapping against her hip. She'd forgotten almost everything she had written down, so she was forced to ad lib it. "You have to give me something." She repeated. "People are scared, Stevie- like you said, this is the first time anything this bad has happened- let me tell them something that'll calm them down. It doesn't have to be big. Just enough to let Springton know you've got it handled."
"I ain't doin' it!" He pressed back. "People'll only freak out more if I start handin' out incomplete information. Speculation by youse and your people is only gonna make it worse."
That struck a nerve with Harper, but she couldn't let it show. She felt very passionately about what she did, even if- in the grand scheme of things- the Watch's journalism didn't amount to much. She decided to come at it from another angle. "This isn't just your first big case, Stevie; it's the biggest thing to happen in this town since the Cowpocalypse." Spending several weeks following around hundreds of farmers as they attempted to wrangle escaped livestock had been fun, but it wasn't exactly going to help her score a spot in a big time newspaper. She needed something huge to really catch some attention. "How am I supposed to get out of this town if you stonewall me on the only important article I'm going to get to write before I'm old and grey?"
For a moment it looked like her words had gotten through to Goodman's charcoal heart, his expression softening at the thought of forgotten dreams and an opportunity to become more than another rural nobody living in a nothing town in the middle of nowhere. Goodman hadn't grown up dreaming of becoming a cop in a town where all he did was chase around teenagers for underage drinking.
His mouth dropped open, his eyes shifting away as he tried to think of some kind of excuse, or perhaps even something he could definitively tell her about the case. Finally, though, all he gave her was a sigh. "I can't, alright? I'm sorry, Grif, but I can't. I'm...I'm in a hurry, this new guy'll kick my can if I don't get back with the ax soon-"
"New guy?" The reporter perked up, her eyebrows shooting up her forehead in earnest curiosity. "What new guy? Who's the new guy? What's this about an ax?" She seemed to come back to life with three times the enthusiasm at the tiniest shred of information Goodman had supposedly leaked in a momentary lapse in attention.
He gave an elongated, irritated groan as he took a step passed Harper and started again for the station. He used his shoulder to make sure Harp couldn't get in his way again without ramming directly into him; it wouldn't be his fault if she did it all on her own, right? "You're the worst, Harper!" He called back to her, doing his best to suppress a grin. "You're gonna get me fired!"
"You brought in someone to help investigate Officer O'Connell's death, is that it?" Griffin spun about, chasing after the exasperated cop with the recorder held out in front of her to make sure she didn't miss his reply. If she could just get him to confirm it-
"Don't you have anything better to do with your life than hound me?" He chastised her without turning around, walking a little faster as he neared the door.
"Give me a yes or no, Steve! Please!" Harper pressed, even as he threw open the glass entryway and started inside. "For old time's sake?" And again he gave her nothing she could work with but abject silence.
"Is he a state trooper? A federal agent? A detective from the city?" She stuck her hand inside the door, shoving the recorder inside to push him to answer as she pressed for an answer as hard as she was physically able.
Goodman didn't give a peep, only to throw the door back behind him to let it crash against Griffin's extended arm. "Ow! Jerk!" She stumbled backward, dragging her wounded limb out of the threshold and letting it click closed once she'd removed herself. Despite the pain flowing down her forearm, Harper was exuberant, her eyes lit up like Christmas trees when she turned back to face her photographer. "It wasn't exactly what I was looking for, but I can work with this. How does 'Mysterious Outsider Joins Homicide Investigation' sound to you?" She asked, inspiration burning on the tip of her tongue. She could practically feel the opener writing itself already. This was going to be her masterpiece. Her Citizen Kane. Her pièce de résistance.
The question was lost on Riley, her entire attention absorbed into the world she saw through her camera lens.
Being ignored was a surefire way to take the wind right out of Harper's sails, her gaze darkening as she glanced over at her newly christened photographer. The much younger girl wasn't even focusing on anything that looked particularly interesting. From where Harper was standing, it looked like Riley was trying to take the picture of the treeline on the other side of the road of all things. How in the world was that relevant to anything? "Uhh...Riley? Hellooo? Earth to Riley, come in Riley." Griffin furrowed her brow, shooting a glare at the back of her partner's head.
Rogers didn't turn from whatever it was she was looking at. "Huh?" She absentmindedly grunted, her finger twitching on the shutter button.
"What're you doing? Case of our careers here, Riley. It's kind of important." Harper all but hissed, trying to be patient. She knew she needed to be patient with the newbie- she was...different- but this was getting a little ridiculous. "There a UFO I'm not seeing up there? Are the heaven's splitting open? 'Cause I don't hear any trumpets."
Riley didn't respond, pushing herself up onto the tips of her toes to get a better angle down the way. Whatever she was looking at seemed to be more important than keeping to task, which, Harper had to admit, drew her own curiosity out. "Do you see that?" Rogers muttered, snapping a couple of pictures. "Right over there."
Harper, now equally curious as she was frustrated, moved to stand beside her shorter co-worker and tentative friend. She didn't have any clue what Riley was so absorbed by at first. She seemed to be staring beyond the road, toward the woodland on the other side, and refusing to so much as glance away like her life depended on it. At first glance there looked to be nothing more than some bushes, shrubbery and a whole host of trees over there- none of it was exactly riveting, front page material. "What am I looking at?" Griffin huffed, annoyed and confused more than anything.
"Look where the road curves down into the woods. They'll pop up again in a second." Rogers explained, her trigger finger hovering over the camera's shutter release in anticipation for the event.
It sounded like a waste of precious daylight to Harper, but she held fast, trusting her younger partner to not be completely crazy. Sure enough, her faith was rewarded as a flurry of heads and shoulders briefly popped up from the incline. They were moving fast and erratically, disappearing back down just as quickly as they had shown up in the first place. There had to be close to twelve people, if Harper had managed to count all of those heads correctly before they vanished behind the horizon. "Huh. What're they doing down there?" It wasn't completely out of the ordinary for people to be moving through the woods; that particular area made for a decent shortcut from central square to the northern half of town.
Still, that was a much bigger group than any she'd seen head into the woods at once. Something was clearly going on, but Harper hadn't a clue what it was.
"No idea, but there's a bunch of 'em. Looks like they're running somewhere, too." Riley finally lowered her camera, turning to look at Harper. All of the concern and interest she'd shown in whatever it was going on down there seemed to evaporate the moment she'd gotten a decent enough picture of it, her attention shifting entirely to the previous thing she should've been worried about in the first place. "So are we going down to the crime scene or what? I wanna get a picture of the house; y'know, get that front page pic you mentioned! Ohh, maybe- maybe if we hurry we'll run into this mystery man Stevie mentioned. Maybe he'll have somethin' for us."
Griffin just sighed, her gaze lingering near the treeline. She couldn't sworn she heard someone yelling, but it was too far away to be sure. Maybe it was just a car or something. "Right." Eventually she was able to tear her eyes away. Her muse had been gunned down and brought to a grinding, bloody halt by this new develop that Harper was sure she'd never get closure for. It'd take her forever to get back into writing that article in her head. "Let's get going, I guess. Unless there are some more bushes you just need to capture."
Riley shook her head, already on the way toward the car. "Nope, I'm good! Let's go."