"It's an outrageous result, utterly outrageous!" Ellie Cross ranted at her editor, one hand resting firmly on the solid oaken desk in the centre of his office, the other one hammering away at its wooden surface to punctuate every irate word she uttered. The door was open and the conversation – although 'conversation' rather seemed too tame a word for this – carried through to the main office quite easily. Those outside abandoned any current projects in favour of pretending to look busy, allowing them to loiter and still keep an ear open on what was happening.
Michael Bridges, editor of the Herald newspaper, picked up his cup of coffee to stop it from spilling as his formerly solid desk shuddered under Ellie's onslaught. There was a long silence as he gave her a long, piercing glare until she removed her hands from his work surface, then he nodded contentedly and took a large gulp of the piping hot liquid.
"Yes. Yes, it is," Bridges agreed quite amiably, putting the mug back down on a coaster and shuffling through the folders and piles of papers Ellie had dislodged from their usually obsessively neat organisation on his oversized desk. "But I don't know why you're yelling at me, Ellie; it's not as if I'm the one who organises the results of these elections."
"We should have backed Parker more," a now distinctly calmer Ellie muttered sulkily, moving over and perching on the nearest chair in Bridges' office. "We didn't give him enough support. We could have changed things, Mike, we really could have done."
"We backed Labour plenty," he assured her with a roll of the eyes. This sort of argument was a well-rehearsed one, though it felt like the grand performance to them both. "Perhaps not as much as you wanted, but that's not your decision. It's not even mine. If the boss doesn't want to go too extreme on his political stance, then there's only so much a columnist like you can change."
Ellie nodded slowly, eyes downcast with defeat. There was a long moment of silence as she adjusted her shirt and brushed her dark hair back, then her eyes lit up and she leapt to her feet, somehow managing to become equally dishevelled at the same time. "That's it!" she declared with a sort of angry conviction. "I'll go talk to Robinson! Tell the bastard what he did wrong…"
Mike Bridges was on his feet in moments, hands raised to attempt to calm down his furious reporter, so convinced did she seem in her intent to go through with a probably suicidal crusade to convince the Herald's owner of his 'mistakes'. "Wait, wait, wait," he insisted, speaking a little quicker than the usually casual portly editor did. "You don't want to go talk to Robinson. You really don't." He sighed as Ellie gave him a dubious look. "Well, it won't change anything. Even if you change his mind, which I doubt. The election's done. Labour lost. Tories won. It's the nature of the beast." Bridges shrugged, giving her a hopeful flash of a grin. "Besides, do you really think that he'd change his stance to back the losing side?"
Ellie's expression sagged to one of desperation, but she pushed forwards. "Everyone loves an underdog!" the columnist practically wailed, throwing her arms up in the air with a hint of resignation.
Bridges shook his head. "Not in politics. Not right after an election. This was a landslide defeat, Ellie. You couldn't find a dog in the street that'd admit to supporting Parker now; there's no way he'll maintain party leadership after this. The popular support now stands with Whittaker and the Tories."
A sneer tugged at the corner of Ellie's mouth. "Don't you mean Lord Whittaker?" she muttered.
The Herald's editor rolled his eyes in a mixture of realisation and defeat. "Oh, God, it's about this, isn't it," he muttered despondently, then fixed his gaze on her again. "Yes, the public elected a party which has a noble as its leader. They didn't elect John Whittaker, they elected the Tories. Whittaker's just a by-product. One you have to live with."
"Maybe," Ellie mumbled sulkily. She shrugged as Bridges raised an eyebrow indulgently. "I could emigrate to America!" was the slightly unrealistic proposition.
Her editor didn't budge an inch as he just gave her a long, thoughtful look. "America's got Bush."
Ellie's frown deepened. "Damn." There was a long silence as she sat down again, hands clasped in her lap. Her expression shifted to a more open one, and she gave Bridges what was probably supposed to be a hopeful, quirky grin. "That's not why I came here, however."
He tried, and failed, to not look taken aback. "It's not? I thought you came to me whenever you had anything to rant about which this horrible, horrible world has done to poor little you." Bridges grinned toothily as she fixed him with a glare. "Shoot. What's on your mind?" the grey-haired editor asked indulgently.
"A new story. Some sort of investigation into the reasons for the failings of the old Labour government, why the Tories got in…"
"And how stupid the voters are for electing a Conservative government?"
"Something like that." Neither of them missed a beat in the banter, which was again rather familiar to them both. Ellie shifted in her chair, a little embarrassed. "I know it's not my most original idea…"
"No, it's not. It's a pretty piss-poor idea, actually," Bridges said, candidly but somehow not unkindly. It was one of his gifts as an editor – he could bluntly and honestly tell his writers when they came up with something which stank without traumatising them, or at least hurting their feelings. "I know that this is what you do – poke fun at the politics, charge around bashing the right for being right and criticising the left for not being left enough and secretly wishing there was a socialist party in power, but it's rather getting old. Especially in this new, rather conservative age of Britain."
A slight look of horror had crossed Ellie's face, and she had gone a little pale, as if she was about to be sick. "Do not tell me that you're going to fire me…"
Bridges looked at her for a long moment, an incredulous expression on his face, then gave a short bark of laughter. "What? No! I'm not going to fire you." There was a long pause, then he sobered up a little. "Not yet, anyway. Times are changing, El." Ignoring the fact that it served to only make her look more sick, he reached into his inside pocket and pulled out a packet of cigarettes, yanking one out and lighting it with his chunky lighter smoothly. "The public are changing. They don't want to read about extreme views anymore; they just want to be happy and pampered to."
Ellie's expression darkened. "If I was a writer who pampered the public at large, then I'd be writing for The Sun," she declared dismally, going a little limp in her chair and glaring at the cigarette in his hand.
Bridges grunted unhappily, but stood and stepped across the room to open a window, allowing the cigarette smoke to waft out, the slight breeze of late spring filling the air-conditioned room. "No, you'd be wasted there. You're a broadsheet writer – you can actually be clever. But these are moderate times, and the Herald must be moderate with them." He glanced over back at her, shrugging. "It's not your political viewpoints that make you a good writer, it's your actual writing. Your humour, your way with words. Better than any of the other monkeys out there." He waved a hand dismissively at the door. "Which is why I want you to take a look at this, and not any of the others."
He stepped back around to the desk and extinguished his half-smoked cigarette in the ashtray – a small glass job with a 'No Smoking' sign in the style of those seen in the Underground emblazoned on it, as a pointed Christmas gift from his wife – in momentary deference to Ellie, who he knew would pay him no attention if she was gagging, then slid a small folder across the desk towards her.
She took it dubiously, opening it up and briefly scanning the pictures and scribbled notes inside. "Edward Whittaker," Ellie declared, in a flat tone which sounded a little similar to that one would use if they were commenting that it had started to rain. There was a long, pregnant pause as Bridges nodded hopefully. "He's a ponce," she declared finally.
Bridges sagged, collapsing onto his large, overstuffed leather chair, which squeaked a little in protest as it was hit by his sizeable bulk. "I knew you were going to say that," he sighed despondently. "But… that's not the point. I want you to get an interview with him, then do us a good write-up."
"I'm not a good interviewer," Ellie declared flatly. Bridges raised an eyebrow at her, knowing that there were better excuses than this lying around. She sighed, taking the bait. "Why the hell would I want to do the write up on the poncy son of a… Prime Minister." The title was spat as if it was an insult.
Bridges smiled indulgently, now she was taking the conversation somewhere he could direct it from. "Because he has a fame of his own. Because he's a well-known solicitor, with his own money, his own influence, his own achievements –"
"…and just happens to be engaged to the heir to the throne?" Ellie finished for him scathingly. "This is the sort of thing that ends up in News of the World. 'Scandal for poncy Prime Minister's son'. I'm an actual… serious writer, you know?"
"I know. Which is why I want you to do this. The Herald's official position on this, to show how we're a cut above the rest. Don't piss the wrong people off, but make this the sort of thing our readers will appreciate. Cater to what they want to read without dumbing it down for the masses. We don't do the masses. We do the educated."
"Can I make a point about how those are two separate things thanks to Thatcher?"
"No. Now get out."
A long stream of curses was following Ellie the moment she stepped out of the door and was heading towards her desk, low mumbled words she wouldn't usually dare utter in Bridges' office. The editor may have been a fairly kindly and laid-back man, but he had a vicious temper and could be very malicious if he was in the wrong mood and you rubbed him the wrong way. She knew that, with the way things had been going for her career lately, with the columns that were more rambling than witty and few people wanted to read anymore, she needed something new. The fact that Bridges had given her something new, important, and above all different showed that he recognised her skill, but also recognised that she needed to get out of this rut and into something new.
Fine. She'd do the damnable interview. It couldn't be that bad, and at least Edward Whittaker wasn't just a pathetic tagger-on – he did have his own skill, his own achievements, and she had heard of the successful solicitor before his father had emerged in full force in the Tory party. Still, if he was anything like the obsequious upper-classes she had known in the past, she knew she would have no chance in hell of actually liking the man.
She grunted with dissatisfaction as she plonked herself down unceremoniously in the chair behind her desk, throwing the folder across the table. It flew across it, hitting the lid of the laptop on the desk opposite her. The lid was knocked down, closing up the laptop and causing it to bleep in a complaining manner.
A head popped up from underneath the desk, pen in hand and looking a little outraged as the other hand lifted up the laptop lid. "Oi! Cross! Watch what you're bloody doing with that folder! Do you want me to lose all the pictures I have here?"
Ellie raised an eyebrow, evidently not in a mood to be apologetic. "Sorry, Mac," she declared, without a trace of sincerity as she flipped open her own laptop and booted it up. "I know how much of a tragedy it'd be for you to lose your extensive library of porn." A contemplative look lit up her face. "After all, it's not as if half the people in this office don't appreciate the collection."
"Actually, these would be the photographs of Whittaker striding victoriously into Number Ten yesterday." Tim MacCallum imitated her expression, with the slight addition of a humourless smirk, but his eyes were twinkling as he stood and deposited the folder on her desk. "What's got you waking up on the wrong side of bed this morning, Cross?" the photographer asked lightly.
"The fact that you can take photographs of Whittaker striding victoriously into Number Ten," she replied dejectedly, then flipped open the folder and pulled out an A4 glossy print of Edward Whittaker's smiling mug. "And this."
Mac took the picture and examined it with a critical eye, then smirked a little. "Oh, I see what you mean… the composition on this is horrible, just horrible. The lighting's just wrong – I don't think you can get much more wrong than this." There was a long pause, then the smile became more toying and wicked. "Good looking guy, though."
"Hmph. I bet he went to public school. And Oxford or Cambridge. And he is not good looking!" Ellie declared insistently, glowering at him. "People like him can't be good looking! They're all inbred! I bet he's got eleven toes." Her expression became even darker, if at all possible as she gave Mac the evil eye. "Poofter."
The photographer raised an eyebrow as he smiled excessively pleasantly. "Is that supposed to be an insult?" he asked, sauntering back over to his own desk and tapping away quickly at the laptop, his pictures evidently in no danger of having been lost. "You homophobe."
"I'm not a homophobe. I'm very liberal!" Ellie protested, a little too excessively.
"I know, I know, I read your column every sodding week," Mac groaned. "Believe me, you need this. You've got yourself in a rut, and you're not writing like you used to. It's just processed insults now, not the witty attacks. And hey, you'll be attacking those in power now… surely that's more fun?"
There was a long pause as she continued to glare, then a slight smile tugged at her lips and her eyes lit up with a slight touch of malice. Mac backed off a little under her eye, then she looked down and rifled through the folder until she pulled out a Post-It from Bridges. "Well, well, well… look at this! The interview's tomorrow at twelve thirty, and oh, look! Mike wants me to bring along Mr MacCallum for photographs! Seems he wants something a bit individual for this story and doesn't want to take up more of Mr Whittaker's time than is necessary!"
Mac sagged, looking utterly deflated. "But I hate the Old Bailey," he whined, shaking his head.
"And I hate the people in the Old Bailey, so I suppose we'll be quite a pair."