"There was almost a shooting on Tybee last night," she announced. "Would have been the story of the year given how little happens out there."
Baxter glanced up at her. "But?"
"But it was only fireworks, cops think. No body. No blood."
"Terrific," Baxter said, dourly. "I'll hold the front page."
There were dark shadows under her eyes. Harper dropped into one of the chairs facing her desk. "You look worn out."
"Thanks." Baxter closed the laptop. "I'd be fine if one of my reporters would bring me a big story. Actually, I'd accept anything at this point. The newspaper building burning down, for instance. That would work."
She leaned back in a black leather executive chair that had been hers since Paul Dells, the previous managing editor, had been fired last summer. Baxter, the night editor, had been doing both their jobs since he left, and the strain showed. But she had little choice. MaryAnne Charlton, the paper's mercurial owner, was demanding more work done by fewer staff. The paper was profitable but there was no such thing as enough for the Charlton family.
"There was that shooting last week," Harper reminded her. "That should've calmed Charlton down for a while."
Baxter dismissed that. "It was a one-day story. Charlton's a thorn in my side but she's right about this—we haven't broken anything big in weeks." She picked up that day's paper with its front-page image of bumper-to-bumper cars. "What gets people subscribing are crooked politicians and crime. All we've got is traffic. I need something big before Charlton throws us all out and opens a boutique hotel in my newsroom."
Standing, she yanked her blazer from the back of her chair and stabbed her hands into the sleeves. "I need a cigarette."
Harper followed her through the door into the newsroom bustle. The editor didn't make it far.
"Hey, Baxter. Could you take a look at this?" Ed Lasterson, the court reporter, waved her over. As she turned toward him, Harper headed to her desk.
Education reporter DJ Gonzales spun his chair around as she passed. "You're early." His tone was accusing. "You're not supposed to be here until four."
Harper smiled sweetly. "I couldn't wait to see you...to tell you to mind your own business." She switched on her computer and logged in with motions so automatic her brain hardly knew it had happened.
Unbothered by her sarcasm, DJ rolled closer to her. "What's up with Baxter? She looks rough."
"She's tired," Harper told him, quietly. "I don't know if she can handle the pace much longer."
DJ grew sober. "If she goes, who the hell will run this place?"
Harper didn't reply. She didn't have to. They both knew Baxter was the glue holding the newspaper together. The editor's joke about Charlton converting it into a hotel was too close to reality to be funny.
"She'll be fine," she said, shortly. "All we need is a good story."
"We'll get one," DJ said, without hesitation. "We always do." He spun his chair back to his computer, somehow ending up with his hands on the keyboard.
He was right. But Harper wasn't willing to just wait for a story to fall into her lap. Her beat was the one that sold the most papers. There was nothing people liked more with their cornflakes in the morning than a juicy glass of homicide, and the criminals of Savannah had been too quiet lately.
Or maybe she'd missed something.
Yanking open the top right-hand drawer of her desk, she pulled out a handful of reporter's notebooks and began riffling through them for a crime she could follow up on. Something she'd overlooked.
The slim, wire-bound pages were filled with hasty scribbles that had made sense at the time.
"Nine-millimeter hollow-point shells fired six times. Casings recovered."
"Three males last seen running west on Broad. One bleeding from the shoulder . . ."
"Bags tested positive for cocaine..."
When her phone rang, she picked it up absently. "McClain," she said, not looking up from the notes in front of her.
"Um. Hi." The voice on the phone was cautious. Gruff. "This is Officer Tom Southby from Tybee. We met last night?"
"Oh, hey," Harper straightened. "What's up? Is there news on the shots fired?"
"It's not that," he said. "I'm sorry to bother you, this might be nothing, but you did say for me to call if anything happened out here. And, well... Someone on the island's gone missing."
In Harper's experience, most missing people were teenagers running away from home. Generally they came back before the news story was published. Still, it was unusual enough for a street cop like Southby to tip her off, that she pushed the old notebooks out of the way, and dug out a new one.
"Tell me about it," she said. "Is it a juvenile? How long have they been missing?"
Southby must have been in his car—she could hear the sound of traffic during the brief pause before he spoke. "That's the reason I'm calling you. The missing man's kind of famous. A musician. Name of Xavier Rayne."
Frowning, Harper summoned a vague mental image of a handsome young man with high cheekbones and light brown skin.
"I've heard of him. So, he's gone AWOL?"
"So, it seems," Southby said. "His friends called this morning. They say he hasn't been seen since last night."
Harper was puzzled. Normally the police didn't consider someone truly missing until they'd been gone twenty-four hours.
"They don't think he just went to someone's house and crashed for a while?" she asked.
"Here's the thing," Southby said. "Last time his friends saw him, he was walking out to the beach with his guitar in his hand." He paused. "We found his guitar this morning. But there's no sign of Xavier Rayne."
This excerpt ends on page 13 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book The Molten City by Chris Nickson.