JUDY 5CENTS, the soccer mom with a taste for murder





Winslow Beach Beacon, September 3rd

Kate Dennison has joined the staff of the Winslow Beach Beacon. Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, Ms. worked as a reporter for the Suburban Press newspapers in Dayton, Ohio. She also taught second grade in the Dayton public schools. She lives in the Sunset Park section of Wilmington with her daughter, Molly.

It wasn't exactly as she'd pictured it.

Kate Dennison stood outside the door of the office of the Winslow Beach Beacon. Office was too kind a word. The newspaper was housed in an old discount store in a seedy-looking strip mall on Market Street. There was a chiropractor's office on the left and an empty storefront to the right with "Jenny's Treasures, Adventures in Consignment" still painted on the window. The southern charm of Historic Wilmington was only two or three miles down the road, but there were no charming rows of live oak trees or antebellum mansions here. This part of town was known for its used car lots and half-empty strip malls.

Kate was not the least bit concerned with appearances. She was earning her own money. And her ex-husband would finally get off her back about finding a job.

She opened the glass door to find a circular plywood receptionist desk with a bleach blond fortyish (possibly fiftyish?) woman sitting behind it. Besides the desk and the receptionist, there wasn't much else in the reception area, just a couch with yellow vinyl cushions and a metal frame, an occasional table with some old magazines and a couple of metal racks in front of the desk offering copies of the Beacon.

"Hey, there," the woman said, with a big, toothy smile. She waved Kate toward her, and the dozen or so gold bracelets she wore clanked together. The bracelets were complimented by four or five gold neckaces and chunky gold rings on every finger (even her thumbs, Kate noted). This veritable jewelry store was set off nicely by a very red, very tight red blouse.

"Don't be shy," hon she said. "Come on in. What can I do for you?"

"Hi, I'm Kate Dennison. Roger Hoffman told me to be here at nine o'clock. He just hired me to work on the paper."

"So you're the gal Roger's so excited about. Glad to have you on board. I'm Janie Glenn. I'm the Beacon office manager. I do everything that needs doing around here and then some. You need anything, you come to me."

"Thank you," Kate said.

"Hang on a second and I'll have Roger take you back to the editorial office."

Janie picked up the phone on an ancient console/switchboard and pressed a button.

"Get your buns up here, Roger. Your new reporter's here. And I've got your e-mails printed out so you can pick those up too."

Roger wasn't kidding when hed said the office was informal.

"He's on his way," Janie said, hanging up the phone. "I'd tell you to have a seat, but you don't want to sit on that couch. Roger bought it and everything else around here at a municipal auction in New Bern. So don't expect too much as far as the decor goes."

"Believe me, I'm just happy to be working someplace where I don't have to say 'Do you want fries with that?,'" Kate said. "Decor is not an issue."

"Guess you'll fit in just fine," Janie said. "Now Roger tells me you're a divorcee with a girl in second grade. If you don't mind me saying so, you must've been a child bride. You don't look old enough to have a daughter that age."

"I'm old enough," Kate said. "Thirty-eight on my last birthday."

"Well, you certainly don't look it, hon. Someday you'll have to tell me your secret."

"Thank you," Kate said. She had grown used to comments about her youthful appearance, and she knew she should be appreciative, but deep down she wished she looked her age. She always felt that if she had curves, real hips and a bosom instead of the slight figure she had, people would take her seriously. Here she was, approaching forty and she still looked like a seventh grader.

"Does your little girl have red hair and green eyes like you?"Janie asked.

"She has the red hair, but she's got blue eyes like her father."

"You'll have to bring her in sometime."

"I will."

"Oh, I almost forgot your tax forms." Janie held up a stack of papers held together with a large paper clip. "Just bring 'em back here when you're done. We can't pay you without 'em."

The door behind Janie's desk opened and there was her new boss, managing editor and publisher Roger Hoffman. A distinguished-looking man in his sixties, Roger was well over six feet tall and heavyset, a very imposing figure. Moreover, with his thick white hair and mustache he bore a vague resemblance to Mark Twain.

"Hey, Kate. You're right on time," he said. "I see you've met Janie. Be sure to stay on her good side. She knows where all the bodies are buried. Are those my e-mails?"

"Yes, they are," Janie said, handing him a stack of papers two inches high. "You know it would make my job a whole lot easier if I didn't have to print out all those e-mails about church picnics and the next meeting of the Whatchadoodle Bird Watching Club every morning."

"Yes, but it makes my job easier to read them on paper, the way things should be read. And, as I've mentioned before, Janie, it's your job is to make my job easier."

"Yes, sir, Mr. Hoffman, sir!" she snapped back, giving him a mock salute.

"One of these days, Janie...oh never mind. Kate, come on back."

Roger escorted Kate through the door and down a long dark hallway. On the left was a wall covered with cheap tan colored wood paneling, on the right there was a door marked "Advertising" and a second marked "Publisher" At the end of the hall, she could see the Editorial Office sign.

"As you can see, this is where our advertising office is," Roger said. "They don't have much contact with the editorial side and vice versa. Except for Clarisse Hopper, our business reporter. She calls herself a reporter, but her stories are all advertisements masquerading as news. I figure there's a place for that, so I let her write whatever she pleases as long as she doesn't libel anyone. Here we are, Kate.

Roger opened the door into Kate's new world, the Beacon Editorial Offices.

"This place is a bit gloomy but it works for us," Roger said.

Gloomy was right. The editorial office was a windowless box. The walls were covered with the same fake wood paneling as the hallway The floor consisted of linoleum squares the color of old coffee with light brown flecks. Shoved against the walls were several metal desks, the cast-offs of the City of New Bern. Two had computer terminals on them, the rest were empty. One bit of the wall was glass instead of paneling, which appeared to be the managing editor’s office.

"Where do I sit?" Kate asked.

"This one right here. Yes, a lot of empty desks. I may fill them some day. Aside from the stringers and the occasional intern, we only have two full time reporters here--you and Barry Moore, who also doubles as our staff photographer. He should be here soon."

Kate sat down in the four wheeled office chair behind her new (to her) desk and swivelled from side to side.

"It's perfect," she announced.

"I wouldn't go that far," Roger said. "Adequate is the best I can hope for. I know the office leaves a lot to be desired. Windows and a laminate floor would be nice."

"It's your newspaper. You can redecorate if you want. Didn't you make a fortune when you did public relations in New York?"

"Yes and no. You need to make a fortune just to live in New York. Somehow we got this crazy idea of retiring to North Carolina and buying a newspaper. I know I complain a lot about this place, but it wasn't easy to find something large enough to accommodate a newspaper right here on Market Street. We got a great deal when the old Dollar Saver went out of business. But we still have barely enough money to make ends meet, let alone put in new paneling and track lighting. Marlene does the books, and she says if it's not broken, we don't fix it. And if it is broken, we try to get along without it. That's why we're so glad to have you onboard. It's damned impossible to find reporters willing to work for what we pay them. "

"Well, the free daycare is a definite plus."

"That's only for reporters who live next door to the publisher," Roger said. "Honestly, Kate, I can't believe our luck. I was going nuts trying to find someone to fill this spot and then Marlene called to say that our nice new neighbor just happened to have a degree in journalism, a year of experience and was looking for a job. All we needed to do was look after that sweet little girl of hers after school. I wish all my problems could be solved that easily."

"Are your sure Marlene doesn't mind looking after Molly? She can be a handful."

"Nonsense, Molly is a joy. Marlene adores her. And besides, you don't need to be in the office all the time. It's fine with me if you want to be home when Molly gets home from school. With the evening meetings you'll be covering, your hours will be erratic anyway--early one day, late the next. Today will be almost banker's hours, but don't get used it. I called Barry in today so you could meet him. We're having a staff meeting at nine. In the meantime, make yourself comfortable."

Kate pulled open the large file drawer. There were several empty manila file folders; the previous occupant had cleared them out before leaving. She slid them back and put her purse in the drawer.

"Would you like some coffee?" Roger asked. "We keep the pot out that door to the break room.  It's free, too, by the way, and that's the only fringe benefit we provide besides the mileage stipend. I think we have some extra mugs out there. Remember to bring one in tomorrow. We don't have plastic cups. It saves money and cuts down on waste in the landfill. How do you take your coffee?"

"Black with sweetener, if you've got it."

"We do. Janie insists on it. Although a little bit of sugar in your coffee wouldnt hurt you, Kate. You don't need to lose weight.

"It's bad for your teeth."

A dark-haired young man walked in the room. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, dressed in blue jeans and a red plaid flannel shirt over a plain black t-shirt. His red canvas sneakers made squeaking noises as he walked across the linoleum floor. He carried a backpack with him and looked a bit miffed when he saw Kate sitting at her desk.

"David, thanks for coming in," Roger said. "This is Kate Dennison, our new reporter. Kate, this is David Hatcher. David is deserting us for the greener pastures and bigger paychecks of the Raleigh News-Observer."

Kate stood up to shake his hand. So this was the former occupant of her desk. Guess he wasn't quite ready to give it up. Oh well, the News-Observer should provide him with a much nicer desk and chair. And possibly an office with a window and track lighting.

"Hello, Kate," he said politely. "You don't know how glad we all are to see you. We were sure it would be months before Roger found someone to take the job."

"What can I say? No one wants to be a reporter anymore, and if they do, they don't want to start at the bottom." Roger complained. "Kate, David was kind enough to came back to this hell hole to fill you in on his beat. You'll be covering the schools, the Winslow Town Council and that hotbed of controversy, the New Hanover County Planning and Zoning Board, at least whenever it relates to our readership, which is basically the top half of New Hanover County, from the Cape Fear River east to Winslow Beach and north to the Pender County line. David, I'll let you get started. Kate, pay attention. I'm off to get Kate some coffee. Would you like some, too, David?"

"Yes, thanks, Roger, double cream no sugar."

"Got it," Roger said and walked out the door to the pressroom.

"He gets you coffee on your first and last day. In between you get it yourself," David said.

David set his backpack down on the desk and unzipped it. He pulled out several file folders and set them on the desk. He slid a chair over from the next one and motioned for her to sit down.

"I put all this together for you last night. It should help you sort out the mess you're going to have to deal with in planning and zoning. Schools and Winslow Beach Town Council are pretty straightforward, but development here is spiraling out of control and the zoning board is just letting it happen.

He thumbed through his files, opened one up and spread its contents of newspaper clippings and typed papers across the desk. He pointed to a slick color brochure for a something called Normandy Sands.

"Okay, this is a new development by Ed Kominsky. You wouldn't believe how fast this thing went through. The county ignored every single environmental regulation on the books. The house is way too close to the beach. Somebody's going to have to pay for dredging up the sand when the beach erodes and you can bet it won't be Ed Kominsky. Then there's the water and sewer issues. And the emergency services problem. Fire and ambulance service is all volunteer in that area, and any calls to Normandy Sands would have at least a half-hour response time. It's all in this story I wrote last year when he submitted the plans for it."

He handed her one of the clippings with the headline "PLANNED DEVELOPMENT POSES CONCERNS."

"The name just kills me. 'Normandy Sands'." David said. "It always makes me think of the invasion of Normandy and the opening scenes 'Saving Private Ryan.' Who'd want to wake up to D-Day every morning?"

"Yeah, it does have a kind of dour connotation, now that you mention it. But I guess it's hard to come up with the names for these places. Maybe they were trying for something kind of quaint and European."

David nodded then continued.

"Let me tell you about Ed Kominsky. You're sure to end up hearing his inspirational speech at some community meeting. I've heard it at least a dozen times. I've got the whole thing memorized. 'I grew up poor and fatherless in the slums of Chicago. We were so poor we had to eat our cereal with a fork to save milk'" he recited in a thick Chicago accent. "Well, you get the idea.

"His older brother Walter joined a gang and little Eddie was about to do the same. He was already doing small crimes. Then his brother was arrested for armed robbery and sent off to prison. His mom swore the streets wouldn't take her other son, and she made him promise he'd turn himself around. When he describes visiting his brother in Joliet, you can hear a pin drop. It's especially effective at DARE graduations.

"Anyway, Ed promises his mother he'll work hard and stay out of trouble. He gets a job in construction and works his way up to foreman. Then he starts his own building company. He always ends by saying he knows his mama is looking down from heaven on all the beautiful houses he's built, and the best reward is knowing he kept his promise and made her proud."

"How touching."

"Oh, it brings down the house every time," David said. "Seriously, though, you have to watch out for him. Kominsky is one smooth operator. He comes off as a really nice guy. He donates a lot of money to charity, sponsors a soccer team, and he holds a huge benefit every year for child abuse prevention. You can almost forget that he's destroying the Carolina coastline. When you interview him--and you will--be prepared to verify every word he says."

"Thanks for the heads-up," Kate said, a bit warily. She now wondered just what she'd gotten herself into with this job. Perhaps working at Target wasnt such a bad idea.

"Good. Now we get Kominsky's problems." handed her the last clipping in his stack. The headline read "NEIGHBOR CHALLENGES BUILDING PLANS." "This guy is Kominsky's worst nightmare. He's John Cochran--smart, rich and owns the best oceanfront property in the county. Made his fortune designing software then selling it to Microsoft back when they were buying up every innovation out there. You wouldn't know it to look at him, though. Most of the time he looks like an old hippie.

"Normandy Sands is going up right next to Cochran's property on Piney Point. More than anything, Kominsky wants that property, but Cochran will never sell it to him. Cochran tried like hell to keep him from building Normandy Sands. He managed to slow him down some but couldn't stop him. Kominsky kept ignoring the injunctions and no one around here bothered to enforce them."

"I heard about this--I remember seeing that on the news," Kate said, interested.

Davidgave her a look of disdain.

"You never get a clear picture of anything from TV news. As a reporter, you should already know that."

Kate said nothing, but felt her face growing hot with embarrassment, hoping that David didnt notice her blushing like an idiot.

She actually enjoyed reading newspapers but rarely bought them. She was irritated by the large amount of slick advertising inserts and felt like most of the newspaper ended up in the recycling bin unread.

"Never mind, you've been out of the business a while," David said, in a sort of apology.

She studied the photograph of John Cochran. He certainly was handsome, in a rugged, wind-battered sort of way. There was someone she'd enjoy interviewing. Especially if he was single.

"The man's got a ton of money and he looks like he belongs in a Tommy Hilfiger ad. Some men are just born lucky," David said. "He's Wilmington's most eligible bachelor, you know. Divorced with a grown son. You'll get to meet him in the flesh this afternoon. He's president of Friends of the Carolina Coastline and youl'l be covering their meeting at two o'clock. Oh, by the way, here's a list of the officers and their phone numbers. Frank Wells, the vice president, is the best contact. Really helpful, but he'll talk your ear off if you let him. They're having the director of the North Carolina Chapter of The Nature Trust Corporation speak today."

"I used to volunteer for the Nature Trust back when I lived in Dayton. They do great work. Preserving diversity by working with the developers."

"Yes, they do. Cochran hopes they'll be able to make some headway with Kominsky."

Roger arrived with the coffee.

"Kate, Barry Moore is here," he said as he handed David and Kate their cups "I'd like to meet with the two of you now."

"Don't think so, Roger!" a male voice shouted from the back of the room.

Kate had been so engrossed in her conversation with David, she hadn't noticed the young man sitting at the other reporter's desk.. The voice belonged to an overweight, baby-faced man with a head of brown curly hair. She noticed a police scanner, with lights flashing, sitting on his desk. police scanner, with lights flashing, sitting on his desk

"There's a huge fire at Normandy Sands," he said in a thick North Carolina drawl. "That McMansion on the beach is burning out of control. If I leave right now we can have pictures for this issue."

"Okay, Barry, you take your camera and get what you can. Fill in the rest later."

"One more thing," Barry said. "They think someone might be inside the house. There are a couple of cars parked outside, but there's no word on the owners."

"What a shame," Roger said soberly. "Let's hope they're taking a walk on the beach. See if you can find out who they are, but for God's sake, Barry, if the worst happens, don't go graphic on me. I won't print it, and you can't sell it to anyone else."

"Sure thing, chief." Barry grabbed three cameras and a large camera case and lumbered out the door.

Kate sat at her desk in stunned silence, trying not to think about the horror of burning alive.

"Sorry, Kate, looks like it's just you and me for now."