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By:Alisa Woods

Olivia stared out the window of her boss’s office. The gleaming towers of downtown Seattle looked bright and innocent, but she knew darkness lurked in the corners of the city. Not least in the dingy offices of the local celebrity rag, the Tales. Olivia crossed her arms over her chest. There had to be some way out of this assignment.

“Can you do it?” her boss demanded. William Cratchton, editor of the Tales, took a long draw on his vape-cigar and puffed out a single noxious plume. He needed to shave off the scraggly salt-and-pepper half-beard before he started looking like a crazy old mountain man.

Olivia unlocked her arms and shook the manila folder of glossy photos clutched in her hand. “Yes, I can do it. I’ve got a hacker on speed dial who’d love the job. I just was hoping for something a little less… sleazy.”

A trail of vapor leaked from his smirk. “I pay you for sleaze, Liv.”

You hardly pay me at all. But she couldn’t afford to voice that thought. In her twenty-five years on the planet, she’d worked every job from barista to pet sitter to a human-sized hot dog advertising some new fast-food place. But she’d never been able to get ahead. Now that she’d finally landed a position in her dream job as a reporter, her finances had just gotten worse. The rent was due. Her phone had been hacked with all kinds of charges she was still paying off. Thank God it was June, and she didn’t actually need heat—she was two months past due on that. She really couldn’t afford to turn down this assignment.

She held in all her thoughts and went for begging. “What about that story on the homeless shelter I floated last week? There’s something rotten there, I’m sure of it. Too much funding and not enough people getting meals—”

“The public’s not looking for righteousness, Liv.” Cratchton gave her a look like she had morphed into a nun before his eyes. “Nobody gives a shit about the homeless. We need naked celebrities to sell copies. Come on, you’re a smart girl. You know the score.”

This was not what she imagined doing with her life.

Last week, Cratchton had her bribing her way into high-end restaurants with a photographer, just to get a shot of the latest teen hottie out on a date. This week, he wanted her to hack into private cloud accounts for celebrity pictures, hoping to score a sex tape. What next? Actual breaking-and-entering the bedrooms of the rich and glamorous? Where would she draw the line?

Maybe he’d understand if she told him the truth. She softened her voice. “It makes my stomach turn, Bill.”

“Yeah, well, give it a few years.” He took another draw on his vape. “You’ll get used to it.”

A sour taste rose up in the back of her throat—he was right. She could feel it getting easier already, like a black ooze that crept in, filling up your lungs more and more until you forgot what clean air felt like. It was easier that way…until, suddenly, it was drowning you.

“I want you on this, Liv. But if you don’t want the work…” He put the vape down and leaned forward in his chair. His leering gaze focused on her chest. “We can work out something so you can keep your check this week.” He literally licked his lips.

God. Ew.

Her face heated. She crossed her arms over her chest again, and Cratchton’s face scrunched in disappointment. She wished she’d worn a turtleneck instead of a button-up blouse that liked to pucker at all the wrong times. She’d always been on the plump side, both ample up top and generous in the hip department, but that only seemed to make her a magnet for lecherous old guys. She ignored Cratchton’s surly expression and turned to look out the grimy window of the 14th floor again.

There was darkness in this city, but there was also goodness—or at least the potential for it. Good people doing good things, making a difference in the world. I want to do something that matters with my life.

“Yeah, well, I’m not paying you to win the Pulitzer.”

She blinked and looked back at her boss. She hadn’t meant to say that out loud. And she didn’t need to win awards—this wasn’t about being famous or winning accolades. She just wanted her work to mean something.

She’d always been on her own. Ever since her parents died, and she’d spent half her childhood in Seattle’s foster care system, bouncing from one lecherous foster-parent to another. All she had wanted was to survive. Grow up. Make a difference in the world. She’d couldn’t afford the university, but she’d managed to take a few journalism classes at the local community college. She figured she could work her way up… but she didn’t count on wading through slime along the way.