Chapter 3: Remember three months from this date. Good things are in store for you.

Pepper wasn’t crazy about the Walbash County News’ recent merger with Wallace Media – a large middle Tennessee publishing group out of Nashville.

In her opinion, they spent too much time chasing advertising dollars and not nearly enough on editorial resources like actual trained reporters.

During the negotiations — and in an effort to avoid paying her more money – the new group officially promoted Pepper to Editor & Publisher. She now did twice the work for the same money … all for the glory of seeing her name at the top of the masthead.

The former WCN owner, Max Gregory, continued to draw a salary as a “consultant” but rarely darkened the newspaper office door.

She found her new boss’s endless obsession with conference calls beyond tedious but she’d become a big fan of their computerized archives. They came in handy for research. Anything printed in a middle, Tennessee newspaper after 2000 could be located with ease. Before that, you’d have to head to corporate or the Tennessee State Library to find it on microfilm.

Pepper typed in the name Randall Sterling and the screen filled with a dozen results. One headline in particular stood out: Former FHS football star indicted in Vandy rape case.

Pepper clicked on the Franklin Herald Times link and the article loaded. She quickly scanned to the bottom of the page to see if there were any follow up pieces. There were no additional links.

“That’s odd,” Pepper said. She’d been following the case in the Nashville papers for months. There’d been dozens of articles. Why only the one in one of the suspects hometown newspapers?

Pepper scanned the article for Sterling’s name.

Authorities charged Chase Sterling, the only son of prominent Franklin businessman, Randall Sterling, and a former Franklin High School football star, with aggravated rape and two counts of aggravated sexual battery. He’s been released on bond and awaits his first appearance in court.

“Okay, so his kid made questionable choices. That doesn’t make him guilty of anything,” Pepper said. “What am I missing?”

She scrolled through the other search results … several society page mentions, an anniversary announcement, a couple of business profiles … nothing suspect. Down toward the bottom, four realty transfers caught Pepper’s eye … one a year for the past four years.

 

Dorthey Egan to Sterling Properties LLC, 548 Shady Cove Road, $42,000.

Stella Blanchard to Sterling Properties LLC, 874 Old Jones Mill Road, $57,000.

Betty Sue Talbot to Sterling Properties LLC, 410 Landers Ferry Road, $28,000.

Frances J. Martin to Sterling Properties LLC, 890 Old Marina Road, $39,000.

 

Pepper sat and stared off into the distance – her mind working out the details in the void.

“Cove, mill, ferry, marina … those are addresses near water,” she thought. “And all women … umm.”

Pepper glanced at the clock and decided to let it go until the morning.

* * *

When Pepper returned to the WCN offices the next morning, her 63 year old assistant, Miss Lila, greeted at the front door with coffee and a look.

“He’s in your office,” she said nodded toward the right corner. “Something on your desk caught his eye when he dropped of last month’s P&L. He’s been muttering to himself ever since.”

“Is he drunk?” Pepper asked. It was a fair question. Max Gregory took long two-beer lunches with the good ole boys down at Ruby’s when he work as publisher. Now that he he’d retired, it wouldn’t surprise Pepper if he got started a little early.

“No, don’t think so. Seems … I don’t know … spooked, maybe,” Miss Lila responded.

Peppers furrowed her brow at the thought. Anything that “spooked” Max would surely trickle down her way. This could be trouble.

“Hey Max,” Pepper chimed maybe a little too enthusiastically. “What are you doing here early on a Thursday morning? Why aren’t you on the golf course?”

“Just came in to grab my windbreaker out of my office. It’s supposed to rain mid-morning … didn’t want to get soaked. Pepper what’s this?” he asked nodding toward the two side-by-side computer monitors on her desk.

Dual monitors made composing and researching much easier. It’d been her single demand during negotiations for the editor’s position. Max gladly acquiesced but installed them facing out where anyone standing at her office door could read the screen. Pepper meant to rearrange the office to fix this, but she’d never gotten around to it.

In her hurry to get home the night before, Pepper left the Vandy rape article up in the left screen and the real estate transfers up in the right. The query, Randall Sterling, highlighted on both screens.

“Oh nothing really … just a little background research on the zoning board thing. The guy who caused the ruckus at the last meeting is an out of town investor from Franklin. Just getting a little background before they meet again in two weeks. Why do you know him?”

“Pepper, Randall Sterling is a very powerful man. He’s old Nashville money with all the influence that comes with it. Be careful with him. He’s extremely well connected … including to Jack Wallace the now owner of this newspaper. In fact, anything you write that names him directly might need to come past me first.”

Pepper immediately fumed. She’d earned a B.A. in Communications from Tulane University and her first editor’s position before the age of 28. She belonged to the Society of Professional Journalists and could recite their Code of Ethics by heart. She’d long ago earned the right to make these calls.

“I’m sorry, what? You know I can’t do that,” Pepper stammered. “It goes against everything I’ve ever been taught. There’s supposed to be a wall between editorial and advertising.”

Pepper narrowed her eyes as Max explained.

“Yes Pepper, I know. But you know how lean things are in advertising.”

“Actually, I don’t. I know how things are in the larger markets where there’s more competition. But this newspaper’s the only media outlet in Walbash County. I’ve met our advertising goal every single month since Wallace Media took over … by more than a little.  People depend on this newspaper to tell them the truth. If I lose their trust, you might as well lock the front doors. It’s over.”

“Don’t tell me how this works, young lady. I’ve been running this newspaper since you were in grade school,” Max argued back, immediately regretting his tone.

“First, young lady is something my father calls me. And you, sir, are not my father. So how about you dial back the condescension a notch. Second, you don’t run this newspaper anymore. You retired … remember? Third, if you ask me to do something unethical, I’ll quit and you can have this job back. When people ask me why, I’ll be more than happy to tell them the truth. I’d rather wait tables at Ruby’s. I’m not afraid to lose my job.”

Realizing that strong arming wasn’t working, Max changed tracks.

“Okay, okay. You’re right. I’m sorry. I’ve just known you since you were a little girl. You used to attend my daughter’s sleepovers. Remember?  It’s just hard for me not to think of you in a certain way. You’re an outstanding journalist, Pepper. And a better editor than we could hope to find in a small market like this. I know you don’t really want to be here. I know you’d have more opportunity in the city.”

Pepper wasn’t interested in rehashing her past and Max’s attempts to change the subject weren’t gonna work.

“I don’t see how nostalgia or my personal life have anything to do with it. We’re talking about my professional reputation here. Are you unhappy with constantly growing circulation numbers?”

“Well, no …” Max managed before Pepper cut him off.

“Are you unhappy with the bonus you receive each month when we meet our advertising goal?”

“No.”

“Then what I’m doing seems to clearly be working.”

“Look, I’m just thinking about your long term best interest. We attend our first Wallace Media corporate meeting in three months. I really need us to continue to show a profit. We can’t take a huge advertising hit and we can’t afford litigation. Sterling can facilitate both. Listen, I’m late for a tee time. We’ll talk about this later.”

No, we most certainly won’t, Pepper thought as she and Miss Lila watched Max cross the room. Neither spoke until he’d gotten halfway down the sidewalk.

“Thoughts?” Pepper asked Lila. “I know you overheard every word.”

“Only that he doesn’t understand woman at all … and doesn’t understand you in particular.”

Pepper smiled broadly. Miss Lila always had her back.

“I’ll be out of the office for the rest of the day. Tell Allen to put the ad proofs on my desk. I’ll approve them when I get back. I’m headed toward Franklin to see what I can learn about Randall Sterling.”

‘Sounds about right,” Lila said grinning. “Should I take Murdoch home with me?”

“Yes please. I might not be back until late.”

* * *

{Next weeks chapter fortune: You will bring sunshine into someone’s life.}

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One thought on “Chapter 3: Remember three months from this date. Good things are in store for you.

  1. Would it be too much for Pepper to stop in for coffee, run into Beau and end up having to take him along to Franklin or at least spark his interest in a chance meeting causing him to be waiting on Pepper’s return?

    Just a thought.

    I really liked chapter 3. Sets up lots of questions.

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