The sky is dark by the time we arrive at the Star Lite Inn. I pull into one of the empty spaces under the neon sign, cut the engine, and check my phone. It’s a little after 8 p.m. Right on schedule.
“You sure this is it?” Richie asks in the passenger seat, his eyes scanning the empty lot.
I reach for my pack of Camels. “It’s the Star Lite, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, but...there’s no one here.”
“Relax.” I light up a smoke. Inhale. “It’s still early.”
The kid shrugs and goes back to fiddling with the video camera in his lap. I gaze up at the sign, electric blue stars flickering in the night. For the Star Lite, anytime before 10 p.m. is early. Catering to a clientele of mostly adulterers and drug addicts, the motel’s busiest hours come when the rest of the city is asleep. But most people would avoid a place like this no matter what time of day it was.
Taking another drag on the cigarette, I shut my eyes and think about how life’s going to change for me in the next 24 hours.
Eyes still closed, I answer: “Yeah?”
“What’s the craziest thing you ever saw in this job?”
I peer at Richie with one eye. He’s twenty-something, fresh out of college, the younger brother of the attractive publicist I’ve been sleeping with since May. Overweight and unkempt, he looks like someone with no future beyond a nondescript desk job behind a cubicle. The only reason I even brought him along is that I need an extra pair of hands to film.
“The craziest?” I smirk. “Let’s see...”
For the next twenty minutes, I share the highlights of my career: sex scandals, murders, drug busts, you name it. The fruits of 12 years’ labor in the business—ten at various tabloids in Washington and New York, and the last two on my own, hustling as a freelancer in the nation’s capital. In that span of time I’ve been barred from more press conferences than I can count and made enemies on both sides of the aisle. Mention the name Frank Sully to some of the most powerful people in D.C., and you’ll be greeted by a torrent of profanities too vulgar to repeat.
But they know my name. And in this business, that’s what counts.
“The important thing,” I conclude, “is to not let your feelings get in the way. The only thing that matters is the story. Get it?”
“But you don’t ever, you know, make stuff up. Right?”
Only if I have to, Richie.
“Of course not.”
He nods his head in reassurance, and I glance back at my phone. I don’t want him to catch on, but I’m starting to grow anxious myself. Amber told me to be ready by quarter past eight; it’s already half past.
So I feel relief when, a short while later, a pair of headlights cuts through the darkness up ahead. I lean forward, hands gripping the wheel, and watch as a black Mercedes pulls up next to the front office of the motel.
The kid turns to me.
After a moment, a man steps out of the driver’s side. I need to squint to get a good look at him, but even in his casual attire, with his prematurely grey mane covered by a baseball cap, I recognize him. In fact, I’d know that face a mile away.
“That’s our boy,” I say.
Richie nods, his fingers wrapped around the video camera. I watch Garrison—handsome as a movie star, clutching a bottle of champagne in one hand—climb the outdoor staircase to the second floor of the motel. A smile crosses my face. I’ve finally got him: beloved governor, golden boy of American politics, the man I’ve been trying to take down for two years and counting. Pat Motherfucking Garrison.
A few minutes later, he appears on the second floor landing. Strides past door after door before stopping in front of the one at the very end. I know that’s the door to Room 18. I know Amber is waiting behind it, fresh from her shower, wearing her favorite negligee. I know there will be candles on the dresser and cocaine waiting for Garrison next to the bed. All the things he’d expect. All part of the trap I’ve set for him.
Sure enough, the door opens and Amber’s standing there. She embraces Garrison as he enters the room and shuts the door behind him; unbeknownst to him, she’ll leave it unlocked. Within seconds, the light flicks on in the curtained window—the first signal. Quickly, I reach into the backseat and pull my Nikon out from its case.
“What now?” Richie asks.
“Now,” I say, removing the lens cap, “we break some news.”
I exit the car and flick my cigarette on the pavement. Hurry across the dark parking lot toward the motel, the kid following close behind with his video camera in one hand. When we’re on the second floor, a few doors down from Garrison’s room, I pull him aside next to a vending machine.
He gives me a puzzled look. “Frank, what’re we doing? You haven’t told me the plan.”
With an exasperated sigh, I explain everything: How I hired an out-of-work actress to get close to Garrison. How I got her to convince him to meet her at the Star Lite for a bit of fun. How everyone knows Garrison cheats on his wife like it’s a sport, so I knew it wouldn’t be difficult. How she’ll text me when she’s ready, and then we’ll barge in on them when he happens to be in the most compromising position imaginable.
“Get it, kid? That’s what the cameras are for. We’re gonna catch the son of a bitch red-handed.”
I’m grinning ear to ear as I tell him all this. Garrison, a likely future White House contender, is about to get caught on film with a woman who’s not his wife and drugs on his bedside table. Every newspaper in the country will pay a fortune for these photos. And with Richie’s video to sweeten the deal, I’ll have every network in the world crawling to me as well.
The thought of it all is enough to make me giddy. After two years slumming it as a freelancer, I’ve finally scored the story of my career. My ticket to the big time.
Richie’s eyes shift from me to the motel room door, and back again. “This was all a setup? Isn’t that, I dunno, wrong?”
“What do you want from me?” I say. “You told me you were interested in being a journalist. Well, here you go.”
“It just seems a little...unethical.”
“So now you’re a fucking expert? Listen, you’re lucky I brought you here in the first place. Now shut up and do what you’re told.”
I check my phone; still no word from Amber. Frustrated, I reach in my pocket for a smoke, then remember I left them in the car. Just then, I hear a voice from behind me.
“What’s going on out here?”
I look over my shoulder, and see an old woman’s creased face peering out at me from the darkness of one of the motel rooms.
“Oh—nothing, ma’am. We’re just getting something from the vending machine, that’s all.”
“You guests here?”
She hunches forward. “What room?”
“Your room number. What is it?”
Narrowing my eyes, I say: “What’s it to you?”
“My son owns this motel, that’s what.”
“Room 3,” I respond quickly.
“We don’t permit loiterers at the Star Lite. I’ll call the cops if I need to.”
Grunting, I turn my back on her. “Whatever you say, lady.”
She snorts and slams the door. Richie turns to me, distraught.
“What do we do?”
“Nothing,” I whisper. “Forget it. She won’t do anything.”
I check my phone again. Nada. I glance around, feeling the pressure of the moment start to weigh on me. It shouldn’t be taking this long. She should have him in bed by now, and be giving us the green light.
Finally, I shoot her a text: We’re outside. What’s going on in there??
Richie looks like he’s about to get sick from nerves. I tell him to pull himself together. Nodding meekly, he turns his video camera on. I look back over at Room 18. Check my phone again.
What the hell is she doing?
“I think there’s a problem.”
Slowly, I face Richie. He’s looking down at his camera, grimacing. “I think the memory card’s full.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“No,” he says, holding the camera toward me. “Look.”
I smack his hand away and grab a fistful of his shirt. Yank his face close to mine. Tell him to go back to the car and find another memory card and not to come back until he’s got it.
“Hurry,” I say through clenched teeth.
Richie stumbles backward, turns, scurries down the stairs like a frightened dog. Seething, I rub my temples with a thumb and forefinger. It’s taking all my willpower not to lose my composure right then and there. I can’t let this opportunity fall through. I can’t fuck this up.
Because there’s something else I didn’t tell the kid. Tonight’s not just about landing a big story.
It’s about payback.
Two years ago, I lost my job at a top tabloid because Pat Garrison didn’t like a story I wrote about him. He pressured my editor to fire me, and since then it’s been a struggle just to be taken seriously, let alone find work. But all that’s going to change. After tonight, no one in the business will ignore me ever again.
Thinking about all of this makes me lose track of time. I snap back to the present, wondering where Richie is. I look around for him, muttering to myself.
Then I hear a noise from inside Room 18. A woman’s scream, followed by a loud thud.
I stand there for a moment, wondering what to do. Consider calling Amber, then decide to hell with it, I’m going in. With or without the kid.
Camera ready, I burst into the room.
And freeze in my tracks.
Amber is standing there, her manicured hands covering her mouth, her long black hair a mess, her ripped satin negligee hanging loosely from one strap.
At her feet, Pat Garrison lies on his back on the carpeted floor, the wound in his head blossoming red. There’s blood where his skull smashed against the corner of the end table and blood seeping into his Calvin Klein boxers.
I take the scene in, stunned. She turns to me, a mix of terror and rage on her face. “He got all violent with me, Frank. I thought—I thought he was gonna kill me. I pushed him and he fell and hit his head. He went freakin’ ballistic on me, I swear.”
“Why do you think? He saw your text message, moron.”
A moment goes by, and I drop the camera. Put my hands behind my head. Start pacing around the room.
“What are we going to do?” Amber says. “I...I think he’s dead.”
I glare at her. “What do you mean ‘we’? This is on you.”
“You killed him. Not me.”
“I...I didn’t…” She starts sobbing. “Oh Jesus, they’re gonna take my son away...”
“...I can’t go to jail…”
I’m still trying to think when I hear commotion outside. Moving to the window, I see a cop car in the parking lot. Next to it, two officers are talking to a man gesturing in my direction. Watching them, I feel my stomach drop.
“You gotta be kidding,” I say, my back toward Amber. “The cops are here.”
The two officers make their way toward the staircase. The old lady is on the second floor landing, pointing them in the direction of Room 18.
I’m still staring out the window, trying to comprehend what’s happening, when a blow to the back of my head sends me crashing to my knees. I’m fully conscious just long enough to look up and see Amber, cheeks blotched with runny mascara, standing over me holding the champagne bottle by its neck.
The next several minutes are a blur. My vision keeps going in and out of focus, and my skull feels like it’s being pulverized by a jackhammer from the inside.
At some point, I look up and see the two officers standing over me. In the corner of the room, Amber is cowering in the fetal position, pointing her finger at me accusingly, saying something about how I got in a fight with Garrison, then killed him.
She’s a pretty good actress, it turns out.
Soon, I’m being escorted out to the squad car, my hands cuffed behind me. More police have arrived, and the old lady and her son are whispering to each other on the sidewalk. I’m within earshot of one of the cops as he leans over to his partner and says, “I know that guy. That’s Frank Sully, the journalist.”
That’s when I realize how bad this all looks. A disgruntled reporter tries to set up a politician, things get heated, said politician winds up dead.
It’s a story made for the tabloids.
Just as we reach the car, I notice Richie standing among the onlookers. I call out his name. Turn to one of the cops and say, “Officer, that kid over there knows me…” In that moment, Richie steps forward. At first, I think he’s going to intervene, tell the police this is all a crazy mistake. But then his eyes meet mine, and I catch the slightest hint of a mocking smile on his face. I soon realize why.
The little punk is recording all of this on his camera.
I’m about to lunge for him when the cop forces me into the squad car. Within minutes, we’re pulling away from the motel in the direction of downtown. The driver turns to his partner and makes a crack about how news people will do anything for the story. Then he glances at my reflection in the mirror.
“Looks like he’s getting what he came for—his name on the front page of every newspaper in the country.”
They laugh, but I barely hear them. I’m too busy thinking about how my life’s going to change once Richie’s footage hits the airwaves.
Staring out the window, letting my new reality sink in, I smile bitterly. At least I was right about one thing.
After tonight, no one will ever again ignore the name Frank Sully.