I was sitting at the city desk, halfway through my first cup of cafeteria coffee, when I saw him. His jacket was flapping, his arms flailing, as he sprinted along the computer terminals and zigzagged past three-foot piles of newspapers, eyes trained on the prize -- a big sign that said METRO, under which I sat, scanning the wires on a slow Saturday morning.
You might think that with all those deadline pressures, newsrooms would be kinetic places where people leapt and darted and yelled all day long. Maybe they do at other places, but here at the Los Angeles Times, the only place I've ever worked, such displays are considered a mark of poor breeding.
I'd never seen anyone run in the newsroom and wasn't sure what to make of it. But up he came, skidding to a stop before me, white bubbles foaming at the corners of his mouth. He wore a tweed cap, which he took off and ran along his forehead to swab up the sweat pearling at his hairline. Then he placed the cap over his chest like he was pledging allegiance.
"Miss, you've got to help me look for her. The police won't do anything until forty-eight hours have passed. But something's dreadfully wrong, I feel it here."
His cap flapped weakly against his chest.
"Look for who?" I cast around for someone who could wrestle him to the ground if it came down to that, but it wasn't yet eight o'clock and the newsroom was empty. How had he gotten past security downstairs?
"My daughter. Isabel," the man said. His face tightened, and he looked over his shoulder. "She's been missing since yesterday. I think I know where she is, but I don't want to go alone. The press should be there. Please, miss, are you a reporter? Will you come with me?"
He must have heard how unhinged he sounded, because he shoved his hand into his pants pocket, rooted around for a wallet, and pulled out his driver's license.
"Vincent Chevalier," he said, holding it up with a trembling hand. "I'm a sound engineer. Done all of Jackson Browne's records since Late for the Sky."
He looked at me. "Of course, you're too young to remember that one. I know what you're thinking. That I could be an ax murderer."
Damn straight, I thought, inching away my chair.
"I know I sound crazy, and I am -- I'm crazed about what might be happening to my daughter. Please, miss, we have to hurry."
He craned his head again, and this time, I did too. We heard yelling and the pounding of feet.
"He went that way. There he is, get him."
For the second time in my career, I saw people running in the newsroom. This time it was two security guards, charging straight for the city desk. Was I going to be on the news myself tonight? The guards pounded up, each seizing one of Chevalier's arms.
"He flashed an ID at the door," one of them said, "but it didn't look right so I told him to wait. Then he ran up the stairs. I had to radio for backup before leaving my post."
The guard saw me staring at him, and then at the man he had apprehended much too late to save anyone. He shifted from one foot to the other and hooked his thumb into his thick black belt.
"We only have a skeleton crew on the weekends since budget cutbacks," he mumbled. "C'mon, you." He jerked the captive's arm roughly to show him who was boss. "Out we go."
An anguished howl leapt from Vincent Chevalier's throat. "Isabel," he bellowed. Then the fight went out of him and he began to weep. "And what if it was your daughter? Wouldn't you do everything you could?"
It wouldn't be my daughter, I thought, because I don't have a daughter. But if I did, I'd keep closer tabs on her than you obviously have. "Late for the Sky" indeed. But something about his tone got to me.
"Wait a minute," I said. "He came up here wanting to talk to a reporter. Let's hear what he has to say."
Copyright © 2003 by Denise Hamilton
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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