Payne County, First Chapter
Updated: May 20, 2019
Doing the right thing was always a clear, easy decision for LaShelle Roland, editor of Payne County Weekly in Stillwater, Oklahoma, until she discovers the District Attorney's Drug Task Force is actually shielding major drug dealers from prosecution. The Sun, Stillwater's powerful daily newspaper is part of the corruption cover up, and pressuring LaShelle to sell her struggling paper to keep a lid on the story.
Lashelle shares details of the corruption with Bo Stark, a financially successful classmate from their days at Perkins High School in the 1970s, who visits Stillwater with his family during spring break in 1994. Bo wants to help and offers an investment so she can withstand the financial backlash to her advertising revenue which will be caused by publishing the story.
What’s the right thing to do? Sell Payne County Weekly and take a marketing job the Sun is offering to arrange for her in Oklahoma City, or accept Bo’s money and break the story, placing herself, the informant, Bo and and others in mortal danger by going up against the local power brokers.
Chapter 1. Tough days
On the last day of school before spring break, nineteen-year-old Cordova High School senior Debbie Stark sat alone at the kitchen table in her Memphis home looking over the admission papers from Oklahoma State University. She’d just looked in on her mom, who was still sleeping. Her dad Bo, just turned off the shower.
Debbie’s solitude was interrupted by a weak voice saying, “Working on the packet, I see.”
Looking up to see her mother leaning against the wall, Debbie jumped up to assist her and asked, “Why didn’t you call me?”
Welcoming Debbie’s assistance Sally Ann replied, “I’m OK.” She placed one arm around her daughter until they reached the table. Debbie pulled out a chair, helped her sit down and pushed the admission papers back into the envelope.
“Your grandparents hope you choose OSU,” Sally Ann said, catching her breath. “Being in honors classes, you’re in line for a lot of scholarship money and our connections in Stillwater will help, too.”
Debbie struggled to smile and said, “All I care about right now is you. I promise, I’m looking seriously at Stillwater. Can we talk about it later?”
“Right after school,” Sally Ann insisted. “Putting off college won’t change my diagnosis. It is what it is. We’ve been over this. Your life has to go forward. The editor of The Daily O’Collegian loved the articles you submitted on the Presidential election. You’re a shoo in.”
Leaning over to gently hug her mother’s frail body Debbie said, “I know. I can’t talk after school. Cher and I are helping her brother set up for his gig on Beale Street tonight.”
“All right, but there will be no going in the bars and try to be home a little early. We’re leaving early in the morning.”
Debbie gave her mother a slightly dissatisfied look and replied, “You know I don’t go into the bars. He’s playing on an outdoor stage. I’ll be home by midnight.”
Sally Ann patted Debbie’s hand and continued, “Cher’s still going with us, isn’t she?”
“Her parents are OK with the trip, but they really want her to stay here and go to University of Memphis.” Debbie looked away, unable to continue.
Sally Ann gave her a reassuring touch and said, “I’m fine for the trip. Going home always perks me up and moms cooking will do all of us some good.”
Debbie knew her mother was right about the concerns of Cher’s parents. She stood up, gathered her books and embraced her mother while fighting back tears. Sniffling a little she said, “Dad’s staying with you at the appointment, right?”
“He always does.”
“He never takes any time off,” Debbie replied, immediately regretting the sarcastic words about her father, a successful, self-confessed workaholic who rarely took time off before Sally Ann’s illness. Pulling back from her mother and struggling to smile she said, “Will you page me if there’s anything new?”
“I will, but there won’t be.”
Tears filled their eyes as they embraced. Bo entered the kitchen, saw them hugging and was about to join them when the phone rang, causing him to reach for the receiver. Although Debbie knew he was there, she didn't acknowledge his presence. She released her mom and exited through the door leading to the garage without saying goodbye.
Watching Debbie leave, Bo smiled at Sally Ann as he picked up the phone and said, “Good morning, Stark residence.” The smile faded as he listened before responding. “If you’ve measured it against the floor plan, he’s gotta make it right. Remind him we have contractors pounding the door down in Bentonville to do the Texas stores. Give me a call if he doesn’t jump right on it.”
Sally Ann reached out for Bo and the smile returned to his face as he moved in her direction and said, “Let me know if you need anything. I’ll be on the pager after lunch.” There was another pause and then he continued, “Sure, I’ll tell her.” Bo hung up the phone and moved to stand beside Sally Ann.
“Problems?” she asked.
“Jackie’s first walk through at a new store in Dallas shows a small variance in the placement of a break room wall. He can handle it.”
“He called you anyway.”
“Mainly it was about wishin’ you good luck with the appointment. The wall isn’t a big deal.”
Sally Ann smiled and said, “That was nice. Crystal called last night. She’s over there with him this week.”
“They’re a real team on store setup, just like we used to be,” Bo said, giving Sally Ann a kiss on the forehead. “Now, what are you havin' for breakfast?”
“Maybe some cereal. I ate the yogurt you brought in with my meds at six. I’m really not hungry.”
Pointing to the envelope in the middle of the table Bo said, “No commitment yet?”
“You know it’s a lot for her to handle. Right now, she can’t see past my situation, much less think about college. I’m just grateful she’s going to class and maintaining her grades. The letter from the editor of the school paper really lit her up. We know she loves the campus and wants to be close to mom and dad and your mom, too.”
“Not to mention being away from me,” said Bo.
Pulling him closer Sally Ann said, “She’s mixed up and pissed off and you’re just the handiest target. It’s better than taking drugs or drinking to ease her pain.”
“I know. I can take her attitude. Anyway, I remember being pretty screwed up at eighteen.”
“Oh no you weren’t, Bo Stark. You knew exactly what you wanted. The New York Times and me.”
“Working at The New York Times. That was some big talk. Probably a good thing I missed out on it.”
Sally Ann squeezed him and said, “You’d still be a good writer or editor. That’s where Debbie gets it, even if she won’t admit it.”
Gently hugging his wife Bo said, “I haven’t written a thing except company memos in close to twenty years, but I learned a long time ago not to disagree with you. Are you sure I can’t talk you into something more for breakfast?”
“Just cereal. You know I don’t eat much before appointments. Anyway, I’m not sure why we’re even going to this one. All I’m doing is counting time.”
Bo placed his chin on top of Sally Ann’s head and whispered, “Fighting to the end, remember?”
“I am, and I love you so much.”
“I love you, too.”
Inspiration to write Payne County Weekly. I saw a lot of political corruption while living in Southeastern Oklahoma in the 1990s. After becoming a novelist, I thinly disguising the story and placed it 200 miles away in Payne county. The tagline for this book could easily be, “The names were changed to protect the guilty.” I also needed to release a little more grief from losing Becky. The funeral in the book is taken from her funeral service.