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Exposure

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January was the coldest month in New York. Strangely, rain wasn't a frequent occurance until later months such as August, which, in other parts of the country, provided a sticky, summery weather. Nevertheless, puddles shimmered on the grimey sidewalks and asphalt roads, their dirty water splashing with the disturbance of heavy tires or pedestrians' boots. Angry winds blew down on the city through barely-there gaps in-between dense clouds, big and dark and threatening, as if the gods above were unleashing their wrath and fury on the unsuspecting masses, trying to erase with their force every man-made element so they could build the city anew, better and purer.

Andy Sachs stared out of her second story window, gaze lost somewhere on the horizon. Hers wasn't a tall building like the skyscrapers in the surrounding area and their erect structures blocked the view of the city, but the greyness that had been hounding it for days with its message of doom and gloom filled the air nonetheless, never hidden from sight.

As a kid, Andy used to romanticize winter. It had brought with it the fresh, earthy smell of damp soil, cozy evenings in front of the fireplace in baggy sweaters and fuzzy socks, her mother's hot chocolate. Tree branches would be covered in pristine, white snow, as if exchanging their leaves for a woolly coat, and twinkly lights would flicker in every corner with their happy holiday spirit. Along with her friends, Andy would run outside in warm clothes and rubber boots to build snowmen and take part in snowball fights, basking in the utter, carefree, rosy-cheeked glee of childhood.

But that had been her childhood, and that had been Ohio. In her adulthood, wet clothes had to be hanged to dry and snow mixed with sidewalk dirt had to be shoveled off the house's front steps and sometimes she found herself walking around all day, cringing at the squelching noise her drenched socks made inside her shoes after a wrong step outside. Winter was disgusting: it brought with it viruses and discomfort and a sense of melancholy. There was nothing romantic about the dreary weather and murky state of the sky or about people dressed in excessive layers struggling not to have their eyes poked out by the myriad of umbrellas on the busy street.

Perhaps the weather outside was the cause for Andy's unease. A bad feeling settled deep in the pit of her stomach as she sat at her desk, looking out of a window fogged up from the cold. She couldn't attach a name to that feeling and it contradicted every praise and pat on the back she'd received throughout the day. For all intents and purposes, she should have been happy, gleeful and carefree as she'd been in her youth, but something unsettled her, as if the world had turned dark and chilly for the specific reason of warning her of something sinister to come.

So lost was she in the rain clouds outside, trying to gauge when they would finally erupt in tears and pour down on buildings and cars, that a voice from her other side startled her. "Pulling another all-nighter, Sachs?" the voice inquired lightheartedly, its owner approaching her.

The New York Mirror bullpen was warm, so much so, in fact, that Andy had shed both her jacket and overcoat, remaining in a mere cashmere button-up. The office's artificial heating, joined by dozens of people that breathed and emenated body heat in the closed, confined space, contrasted the storm cooking up outside, the crazed wind and threat of rain.

Swiveling in her chair, Andy blinked as though back into reality, the loud commotion of the office registering once again in her ears: ringing phones, keyboard typing, incessant chatter. Before her, with his crooked smile and unruly, brown hair pulled back into a loose bun, stood Miles. It was unlikely that, had they not been working together, they would have ever struck up a friendship: even before she started wearing labels such as Armani and Prada, which starkly contrasted Miles's washed-out jeans and rolled-up sleeves, the two had had very little in common. He was an easy-going, we'll-cross-that-bridge-when-we-come-to-it type of guy; she kept everything in organized, labeled, and color-coded folders and notebooks. He liked sauerkraut; she detested it. Even their fields at the same newspaper were polar opposites: while he covered the business section, sucking up to Wall Street suits and advising on the best stocks to buy, she dedicated her time to investigative work ranging from corporate wrongdoing to political corruption. Rarely if ever did their jobs collide, but late hours and water cooler talk had somehow brought them together, first as comrades in a grueling, thankless job, and later as true friends whose relationship was founded on genuine affection and shared personal stories.

Of all the people that had come and gone from The Mirror in her time there, Miles was easily Andy's favorite, and his distraction immediately loosened up the weight on her chest. He was standing by her desk, alternatively looking at her and at a stack of papers in his hand, one leg already poised to continue his stalled journey across the bullpen, as if his question was merely synonymous with a passing "hello" and didn't require an actual answer.

Nevertheless, Andy, brought back into the present and her surroundings, returned his smile and began collecting items from her desk. "Not tonight," she replied, inserting her planner into a pocket inside her beat-up satchel and her favorite pen right next to it. Next, she rolled her earphone cords around her fingers before placing them inside the bag as well. Her phone she picked up and unlocked the screen to check for any unanswered calls or messages: a few congratulatory texts waited in her inbox, but with nothing pressing to tend to, she slid the device into another pocket.

"I'll see you tomorrow?" she asked, standing up and hoisting the satchel over her shoulder.

"You know it," confirmed Miles, already making his way past her desk.

The bone-chilling wind outside required the two additional layers she had previously discarded. Pulling the lapels of her coat tightly against her already scarved neck, she exited the wooden doors of the Cary Building, skipped down the front steps, and narrowly avoided destroying her Manolos in a puddle before bumping into a fellow pedestrian who cursed under his breath and moved along.

Her breath puffed out of her in white clouds even as she kept her head lowered against the harsh elements and rubbed her gloved hands together in a futile attempt to generate heat. Even though the sun had yet to set, it made little difference on the streets that for hours had been shrouded in greyness. In that hour of premature darkness, Andy navigated the crowded sidewalks and traffic-burdened roads, fantasizing about her warm house and warmer shower. It kept her going as she strayed from the throngs of fast-paced New Yorkers walking en masse like clockwork and pushed open the glass door to a corner shop.

The shop had the usual stench of raw meat, but it was considerably warmer than the world outside, the air standing still instead of whooshing and wheezing by Andy's head, blowing her hair this and that way and coloring her nose and cheeks a bright red. It was empty, too, granting a reprieve from the packed, stifling sidewalks, but an old Sinatra song filled the space and swam into every corner with its melodious tune to make up for the quiet.

"Andy!" she was merrily greeted by the man behind the counter, tall and burly with a white cap covering his scarce hair. "What can I do you for?"

"Hey, Tony." She approached the counter, a smile stretching along her reddened cheeks, and fumbled with her satchel until she managed to pull out a crumpled piece of paper, from which she read, "I need three pounds of chuck steak, and I need you to trim the fat and cut it into two-inch chunks."

"I got just the thing for you," said Tony in a heavy Boston accent and reached into the display counter dividing between them, retrieving a large cut of red meat and slapping it onto a cutting board. "We just got it today and it's..." he trailed off, finishing with a chef's kiss to his latex-gloved fingers. "Only the best for Andy."

"Lucky me." Andy's grin widened as she watched him use a big, sharp knife to trim the white fat off the steak. "Take it off completely," she added when he prepared to start chopping.

"It's off," Tony insisted.

"No, look at that side, there's still a lot of it," she argued as behind her the door opened for another customer, letting in a gust of cold wind. Wrapping her arms around her middle, Andy said wryly, "Come on, do you want her to kill me?"

"How's this? Bettah?"

"Yes, much."

"Whatcha making?" Tony inquired as he began cutting into the meat with skilled presicion.

"Bœuf bourgignon," she cheerfully exclaimed in her best French accent, which was still far from great.

"Ahhh, first time?" he asked knowingly.

"Just trying to shake things up."

"Working you hard?"

"Something like that."

By the time her cab pulled up to her quiet neighborhood, the sun had set completely and the only illumination on the street came from the lamps at the fronts of houses and windows left with their curtains withdrawn.

The steps between the taxi and her front door were scarce and few, but still Andy exited the heated vehicle with a begrudging slowness, shivering all the way up the front steps and while she unsteadily jammed her key into the lock. It was when she stepped into the foyer between the outer and inner doors of the house that she finally breathed her first sigh of relief. It wasn't much warmer in that purgatory space, the chill still seeping in through the thin doors exposed to the street, but she was home.

Bending down, she picked up the stack of envelopes slipped in through the mail slot, unlocked the next door, and entered the warmth with one last shudder and an announcement to no one in particular, "God, it's so cold outside."

Quickly dropping her satchel and divesting herself of unnecessary layers, she made her way down the hallway and straight to the kitchen, where she dropped the mail and shopping bags on the island.

"Did you buy the meat for tomorrow?" Miranda asked from the kitchen table, not bothering to lift her eyes from her glaring laptop screen.

"Yep, and tofu for Caroline," answered Andy, opening the fridge to put all the groceries away.

"Vegan..." Miranda muttered in disgust. "She didn't get that from me. Certainly not from her father."

"It's important she knows we still love and accept her," Andy said while placing a milk carton on its designated shelf and turning back to grab a block of Gruyère, trying for a serious tone but unable to contain a smirk. "She's still the same Caroline."

"Where was all this concern for the well-being of animals when she begged to wear my snakeskin shoes?"

"Well, to be fair," Andy admitted, closing the fridge and raising her voice when she walked into the pantry with two different cereal boxes, "I also think snakeskin is obnoxious." Re-entering the kitchen, she finally approached the table, leaned down, and pecked Miranda's lips. "Hi."

"Hmm," Miranda hummed, refocusing her gaze on the computer. Nevertheless, she asked, "How did today go?"

"Insane," Andy answered on a long breath, supporting her weight on the table as she unzipped and freed one foot and then the other from her pinching ankle boots. "But a good insane, you know? My phone has been ringing off the hook, everybody wishes they'd gotten the story first. I really made some noise with this one--it's all everybody's talking about."

"I told you they would," Miranda said simply and shut the laptop, meeting Andy's eyes. Even after all these years, her approval still warmed Andy from the inside out, even on a cold day like this, and when she smiled, Andy felt as if her entire body was glowing. "I'm proud of you."

Leaning down again, Andy kissed her through her own smiling lips. When she'd straightened up, she said, "I'm gonna take a shower--I've been dreaming about it all day. When I'm out, we'll do dinner?"

"Take your time," Miranda said and reopened her laptop. "I still have some things to go through."

On her way to their bedroom, she passed by the kids', who hated being called kids and wished their rooms weren't on the same floor as the grown-ups' in a big house such as this. Caroline's door was firmly shut with show tunes blaring through the barrier, which generally meant that a disturbance was not welcome, but Cassidy's door had been left ajar, and when Andy poked her head into the room, she found her perched against a collection of throw pillows at the head of the bed, a book propped up on her bent legs with a finger steadying its cracked spine. She had clearly showered, as attested to by the pink towel holding her hair up, and the outfit she had worn that morning to school had joined countless others on a chair that served as a second closet.

"Did you read it?" Andy asked from the doorway.

On the bed, Cassidy looked up from the book, smiled, and gave her a thumbs up, a less verbal approval than her mother's, but a genuine one nonetheless. Winking, Andy closed the door and proceeded into the master bedroom for, at long last, her much-desired shower.

 


 

"Are you, like, famous now?" Caroline asked around a mouthful of green beans. Miranda had told her to get her foot off the chair twice since the beginning of dinner and twice she had pulled her pajama-clad knee back up to her chest.

"Caroline," Miranda reproached in repulsion. As far as irritating her went, it was Caroline's second strike after sneaking her phone to the dinner table.

"Hardly," Andy chuckled as Caroline obediently finished chewing and swallowing her food.

"But he's getting arrested, right?" ensured Cassidy, diligently mashing with her fork her already thoroughly mashed potatoes.

"That's the hope," Andy said.

"And hopefully castrated," Miranda provided in a dry, resentful tone.

"When's the next article coming out?" Cassidy asked.

"Thursday. We're doing two a week."

"Out of...?"

"Five."

"I bet you're gonna be promoted after this." Caroline smirked, reaching over her leg for the mashed potato bowl.

"That's now why I did it," Andy chuckled again.

"Yeah, but I bet you're gonna."

"Will you leave her alone?" Miranda softly intervened and reached over to push Caroline's leg down, changing the subject. "How was school?"

"Fine."

"Okay."

Across the table, Miranda and Andy shared amused looks. As kids, the girls had been all too happy to patter away about every occurance the adults in their lives had missed during the day, from what new thing they'd learned in class to what the teacher had been wearing, but adolescence had certainly brought a sense of quiet to the house, where everything had to be probed out of reluctant lips and the children were no longer children but tiny adults who'd begun to develop their own private lives and wished to keep them so.

Caroline was more tight-lipped than her sister. After years under public scrutiny as collateral of her mother's fame, the urge to be different had sprung to life and given wings to new hobbies, a new style, and a resentment toward any similarities to the people who'd brought her up. Andy oftentimes thought that Caroline's new interests and dislike for things she had previously enjoyed where occasionally a forced effort to become someone new and hoped that as she continued to grow, her authentic self would be a cause for acceptance and celebration instead of denial.

Cassidy, on the other hand, while growing out of the spoiled and WASPy lifestyle she had been born into and her sister, despite all, still possessed, showed a real desire to get close to and form bonds with her family while she still easily could. Andy's job fascinated her, the notion that one could make a difference with their words, and had given them a common ground in the early days of awkward unfamiliarity and deliberations of approval. When Cassidy once, during a shared dinner such as this one, had claimed that she wanted to grow up to be a journalist like Andy, it had been the closest the latter had ever come and possibly ever would to feeling like a proud parent. Since then, Cassidy's love for the piano had continued to take precedence over other hobbies, but Andy's work and mentorship had stayed a constant foundation in the close relationship forged between the two.

In other areas, however--

"Mom said you're making something new for dinner tomorrow," Cassidy said, her face immediately scrunching up in ready disapointment. "It's not chicken again, is it?"

"No, you little terrorists," Andy retorted. She had spent hours she didn't have on online recipes to appease the bored yet picky and luxury-entitled mouths of the two minors in the house and elaborated in an entirely American accent, "It's beef bourguignon. It's great, you're gonna love it."

"Gross," Caroline muttered.

"You're getting your tofu," she placated.

"Gross," Cassidy parroted.

"Don't worry, baby," cooed Miranda, patting her hand, "if it's bad, we'll order from Craft."

"Miranda!" Andy cried in outrage.

"I'm sure we won't need to, darling," Miranda cooed some more.

From Andy's side, Caroline smirked evilly. "You know where the fire extinguisher is, right?"

"Thank you very much," Andy exclaimed sarcastically, addressing everyone around the table. "It's nice to have the trust and support of the people closest to you."

"I miss Bertha," Cassidy supplied, referring to the cook Andy had claimed some years prior that they didn't need.

"Miranda," Andy pointedly turned to Miranda again, this time in search of help, and this time Miranda deigned to rise to the task.

"Cassidy, not everything Andrea makes is terrible."

 


 

Full from dinner and fatigued from a busy day, Andy lounged on the couch in the TV room, staring mindlessly at the screen as the news anchor teased with the segments to come. The soothing cream color of the surrounding walls, the pink and light grey tones of the furniture, and the constant movements on the screen were enough to cause Andy's eyelids to droop, and although she burrowed further into her big, warm sweater, she fought sleep off.

The teens had dispersed to their rooms shortly after dinner, leaving their dirty dishes on the table for a nonexistent maid to clean up, and music was once again floating up from Caroline's room to the fourth floor, providing an entrance tune for Miranda, who had a Cabarnet glass in each hand and her laptop tucked beneath an arm.

"Thanks," Andy mumbled tiredly as she was handed a glass, the liquid gently sloshing inside at the exchange of hands and painting its clear confines a dark red. She moved the sweatpant-covered legs she had stretched along the cushions at Miranda's nudge, tucking them under her instead.

"Huntsman dropped out of the presidential race," she pointed out indifferently as Miranda sat down beside her, relaying the anchor's earlier words.

"I know," said Miranda, positioning the laptop on her lap and opening it. On the television screen, the blonde-haired woman in her silken, purple blouse announced a commercial break and Andy leaned back against the cushions, sipping her drink. The warm, fruity spice of the wine danced on her tongue and palete while her attention indecisively shifted between the keyboard ticking beside her and the loud commercials on the screen.

When a beautiful woman with an obviously photoshopped smile recommended a Colgate toothpaste, Andy's mind bounced back to life as if shocked with a surge of electric current. "I forgot to buy toothpaste," she remembered over the rim of her glass.

"I'll have my assistant get some," murmured Miranda with little regard to the matter.

Gradually waking more from her near-dormant state, Andy frowned. "You're gonna hassel your poor assistant just for a little toothpaste? I'll pick some up tomorrow after work."

"Your dedication to making life more complicated for yourself is inspiring," Miranda nonchalantly commented, leaning toward the coffee table for her wine while keeping the other hand on the laptop's touchpad.

"Better me than Lauren," said Andy, taking another sip from her own.

Beside her, Miranda's forehead creased. "Who?"

Andy opened her mouth with a breath for a retort before closing it and pinning Miranda with a long, wry look instead. "How is it that I know your assistants' names and you don't?"

"You have an irritating habit of meddling," Miranda bit out just as the news jingle signaled the culmination of the break, transforming the screen from the logo of a mattress company to the familiar face of the blonde-haired, purple-blouse-wearing anchor behind her glass desk.

"We're back with the scandal that has shaken the country in the last twenty-four hours," she read from the teleprompter, her facial expression appropriately severe. On the couch, Miranda put away her laptop and Andy, fully alert, straightened up. "Earlier today, the FBI announced that they had launched a formal investigation against well-known business tycoon Roger Thayer for claims of operating a sex trafficking network over the course of two decades. That's after New York journalist Andrea Sachs published today the first article in a five-part exposé series accusing Thayer of alleged criminal behavior that included soliciting underage girls and standing at the helm of transactions with rich and powerful figures whose identity, at this time, remains unknown."

Andy's heart was beating at a million miles a minute--she could feel it in her throat, almost suffocating, could feel tingling at the tips of her fingers and toes. Her legs, which had somehow unfolded from under her, were now resting in Miranda's lap, sure hands caressing and sending warmth through her black socks. On the screen, a picture of the man she had spent the longest several months of her life silently investigating stared menacingly back at her. It was strange how a person who seemed so ordinary and unthreatening could, in the blink of an eye, look undoubtedly evil once his atrocities were unveiled. O.J. could have been your friendly next-door neighbor; Stalin, without the mustache, had been a rather handsom guy; Hitler-- well, no. Hitler had always been creepy.

Roger Thayer, with his thinning, white hair, big potbelly, and joyous smile, might have, up until recently, given the illusion of the sweet, old grandfather figure who handed out handkerchiefs and made everyone laugh if Andy hadn't known that, behind the scenes, he'd spent years using his billions and power to steal, sell, use, and abuse helpless, unassuming girls.

Now Andy only saw him as a monster, and couldn't imagine how anyone else could look at that smile and see anything but vile depravity. Her world view had darkened, much like the dismal clouds outside. Her work had made her more cynical, less naïve and trusting. It had made her think, what did one really know about the people around them? Did they know the smiley mailman went home every day to beat his wife? Where they aware the happy woman they saw hugging her children in a Facebook photo was considering drowning them in the bathtub? Could anyone have ever suspected Roger Thayer's façade concealed something so abysmal and perverse and chosen to say nothing?

"'Roger's actions have been a dark secret hidden in plain sight,' wrote Sachs, hinting at the complicity of some well-known names in the criminal scheme," the anchor continued speaking while Andy was lost in thought. "According to her, a list of associates with whom Thayer allegedly conducted his illegal business is rumored to exist and could help convict him and many others should it come to light."

"I have a few names I'd put my money on," Miranda remarked gruffly as the anchor went on to detail Roger's background as a self-made billioner and head of a successful investment and stock exchange empire.

The five-minute segment drew to an end with the anchor quoting, "'A grave, unmitigated injustice is being inflicted on my client,' said Thayer's lawyer, Benjamin Cohn, upon request for comment. 'My client is innocent, as will be proven once this unnecessary investigation is through.' He added and said, 'This is nothing but an abominable witch hunt conducted by a bored, disgruntled journalist who couldn't get a story, and The New York Mirror will be hearing from us in the near future.'"

"Good luck with that," Andy muttered. Miranda squeezed her foot in agreement.

 


 

Getting up with a stretch, Miranda looked back down at the couch. "Are you coming to bed?"

Andy downed the remaining few drops of her wine before replying, "Yeah, in a bit. I'll just finish wrapping everything up around here." Swinging her legs onto the floor, she straightened her back and stretched as well, yawning while Miranda turned to leave. "Tell Caroline to turn that noise down, will you?"

"You can be sure I will," murmured Miranda, Idina Menzel escorting her out of the room.

With a sigh, Andy shook herself for energy and forced her lethargic body up from the couch, turning off the television and grabbing the emptied glasses from the table. She held them together by the stems as she proceeded toward the stairs, leaving only the light on the landing on for her trip back up. On heavy legs she walked to the kitchen, where she washed the glasses in the sink and put them on the rack to dry before opening the dishwasher and extracting the washed and dried dinner dishes to put them away. Next, she headed to the coffee maker, timing it for the next morning, and looked around for anything she might have forgotten. On the kitchen island, for some reason, lay Cassidy's math notebook, open on a page with various equations, and she flipped it closed before turning to the stack of mail she had brought in earlier, quickly sifting through it for anything important before she could finally turn in.

Water bill, wedding invitation, phone bill. She paused, frowning. Right between the phone bill and a plumber ad was a white envelope. No stamp, no return address, not even the townhouse's address. Intrigued, Andy put down the rest of the mail and turned the envelope in her hand, using her finger to unstick the flap. Inside was a regular A4 page, folded in half. She unfolded it, read the three sentences printed in oversized, black letters, and froze.

You are in way over your head. We're watching you closely. Keep publishing and there will be retribution.