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Sandra Brown

The Thrill of Victory

"Ramsey is out for your butt, Mackie."

The gopher, who had met the star sportswriter of the Dallas Tribune at the elevator, fell into step behind him as he walked toward the city room of Dallas' largest newspaper. Judd Mackie was unfazed by the threat of being out of favor with the Tribune's managing editor. He made a beeline for the coffee machine. Its brew was so viscous, so black, he'd often joked that they used the leftovers to fill in the cracks on North Central Expressway.

"Mackie, did you hear me?"

"I heard you, I heard you, Addison. Got a quarter?"

The pockets of his slacks-expensive, but hopelessly wrinkled-hadn't produced the cor rect amount of change for the vending machine.

He was notorious for never carrying money. It was ludicrous that he was bumming from a guy whose age and income were a fraction of his.

"Ramsey's fit to be tied," the gopher said in an ominous undertone as he passed his idol a handful of coins.

"He usually is." Mackie watched a Styrofoam cup fill with coffee whose only virtue was that it was scalding and as darkly opaque as the sunglasses he still had on, though he'd been inside the building a full five minutes.

As he sipped barely diluted caffeine from the disposable cup, the lenses of his glasses fogged over, reminding him they were there. He took them off and dropped them into the breast pocket of his jacket, which wasn't any more dapper than his slacks. His eyelids were puffy; the whites of his eyes were rivered with red.

"He told me to catch you at the elevator and personally escort you to his office."

"He must really be steamed. What'd I do this time?" Judd asked with disinterest. Michael Ramsey was perpetually steamed at him. From one day to the next the extent of his wrath was only a matter of degree.

'I'll let him tell you. You coming peaceably?" the gopher asked worriedly.

Judd took pity on him. "Lead on."

Addison Something or other was an intern who worked part-time between his journalism classes at Southern Methodist University. During the boy's first day on the job, Judd had passed him a rumpled handkerchief he'd fished from an even more rumpled pocket and jokingly suggested that the eager student use it to dry behind his ears.

But when Addison had looked wounded, Judd had slapped him on the back, said he'd meant no offense, and offered the best advice he could give someone who aspired to a journalistic career, which was to reconsider.

"The hours are long, the pay lousy, the working conditions abysmal and the best you can hope for is that whatever you've written gets read before the dog chews it up or the bird craps on it or the housewife wraps chicken guts in it."

Addison was still around, so apparently he hadn't taken the jaded sports reporter's words to heart. Judd would have continued to rebuke Addison's idealism if he hadn't remembered a time when he himself had had stars in his eyes about a career.

The stars had gone out long ago, but on occasion, usually when he was deep into his cups, he remembered what it felt like to have a burning ambition for greatness. So he let the cub go on dreaming his dreams. He'd find out for himself that life played dirty tricks.

It was midmorning and the city room was a beehive of activity. Reporters at word-processing terminals clicked away on their keyboards. Some had telephone receivers tucked beneath their chins. Messengers hustled among the desks, which were already stacked with packages and mail as yet unopened.

Then there were those individuals simply hanging out, smoking, sipping canned drinks or coffee, waiting for something newsworthy to happen or, short of that, divine inspiration.

"…the Arabs. But then Israel-hi, Judd- wouldn't do…"

"So I said to her, 'Look I want my keys back!

Hi, Judd. To which she said…"

"…mea quote. Hi, Judd. Somebody's got to stick his neck out and go on the record about this thing."

Popular with his cohorts, he nodded greetings as he followed Addison through the maze of

The Thrill of Victory 11 desks, then down a carpeted hallway toward the managing editor's office.

"There you are," his secretary said in exasperation.

"Since we don't have a militia, he was about to send me in search of you. Thanks, Addison.

You can get back to whatever you were doing before Mr. Ramsey summoned you."

The gopher seemed reluctant to leave just when the fireworks were about to start. But Ramsey's secretary was almost as indomitable as the boss himself. He ambled away.

"Hi, doll. What's up?" Judd tossed his empty cup into the nearest wastepaper basket. "Pour me a cup of the real stuff, will you?"

Propping her fists on her hips, the secretary asked, "Do I look like a waitress?"

Judd winked and gave her the leisurely, miss-nothing once-over that rarely failed to make points toward a big score. "You look like a million bucks." He sauntered through the connecting door before she could retaliate against either his blatant sexism or ingratiating compliment.

Inside the door, Judd was greeted by the noxious fumes left by the first two of the four packs of cigarettes Michael Ramsey would smoke that day. He had one cigarette smoldering in an ash tray and another in his mouth when Judd strolled in.

"It's about time." His face was florid with rage.

Judd flopped into a leather chair and crossed his ankles in front of him. "For what?"

"Don't get cute with me, Mackie. You've really blown it this time."

Ramsey's secretary came in bearing the requested cup of coffee, brewed in her personal coffee maker. Judd thanked her with a smile and another suggestive glance that she knew, and regretted, was meaningless.

After she withdrew, Ramsey exhaled a veritable thundercloud of acrid smoke. "You missed the biggest tennis story of the year."

Judd burned his tongue on the coffee and choked on a laugh. "Tennis! You're all red in the face over a tennis story? Geez, as high as your blood pressure is, I thought the Cowboys must've declared bankruptcy. What happened, did McEnroe call the line judge a naughty name?"

"Stevie Corbett collapsed during her morning match at Lobo Blanco."

Judd's grin fell. His attention and his mirth were instantly arrested. He held the coffee cup, real china, against his lips and gazed at Ramsey over the patterned rim. Ramsey ground out the cigarette in the ashtray, took a final drag on the one presently in his mouth, then haphazardly flicked the ashes toward the overflowing ceramic bowl on his desk.

"What do you mean collapsed?"

"Well, now that's what we don't know because we didn't have anybody out there covering the story," Ramsey replied sweetly. "Our overpaid, star reporter was sleeping in this morning."

"Cut the sarcasm, alright? So I overslept. Big deal. What'd Miss Corbett do, trip and fall over her braid?"

"No, she didn't trip. Thankfully the photographer showed up even if you didn't. He said she 'collapsed.'"

"Like fainted?"

"Like dropped down and folded up into a little heap on the court."

"Terrible phraseology."

Ramsey's face went darker red. "If you'd been there, you could have phrased it yourself."

'It wasn't necessary for me to be there," Judd said in his own defense. "Corbett was a cinch to beat that Italian girl."

"Well, she didn't. She had to forfeit the match. She's out of the tournament." ' 'On the heels of her winning the French Open, this one was a shoo-in. She was playing more as a courtesy than anything. I was going to catch some of the more interesting matches this afternoon."

"When you came to terms with your hangover,"

Ramsey said balefully. "As it is, you missed reporting on Stevie Corbett's collapse in front of a huge hometown crowd that got up early and fought rush-hour traffic to watch her play while you were still tucked in."



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