Verse 27: DIRTY LAUNDRY
Roberta "Bobbie" Halliwell's newsvan was twenty minutes outside Mystic when the call came in. Sam Delahanty, station news director, notified her that the puff piece local celebrity story he'd originally assigned her had, by some lucky fluke, just moved into the much more prestigious Crash & Burn category.
"This is the kind of chance you've been pulling my dick about," he told her. "Don't screw it up."
Three hours earlier, Delahanty had called Bobbie into his office to inform her that his boss, the station manager, had told him that his boss, the station owner, had received a call from his apparent boss… his college-age daughter. Miss Thang had creamed her jeans over some prettyboy bar singer Friday night and wheedled daddykins into making this clown a feature story. Shit flowing downhill, it devolved on Delahanty to make it so. Bobbie, low woman on the totem pole, had been given this non-breaking non-news story that, time permitting, might actually air on the Sunday evening snooze-athon at Six.
Bobbie routinely got so-called stories of that ilk. Cat show? Boat show? Rat turds in a Chinese restaurant kitchen? Looks like a job for Halliwell. She had begun to suspect that Boston was just one more stop on the road to nowhere, and that her dreams of network were never gonna come true. She notified the camera and sound peons that she wanted to start out early because if she couldn't get dinner on the company's chit out of this ho-hummer she wasn't going at all. Jorge and Mitch shrugged, made lewd comments about her once her back was turned, and, unperturbed, resumed their euchre game.
Word of the change in story focus did wonders for her mood, though. "No dinner and a show tonight, men," she told the crew. "We got ourselves a fire!" They understood her elation. Fires got ten second promos during prime time station breaks. Fires got shoved into the ten block and pushed everything short of a visit by the Pope down a notch. Fires provided great background visuals, and she thanked the media gods that she hadn't worn red that day because it would have bled all over the screen. Fires even got – and she had a tiny orgasm at the thought – live feeds.
"Step on it, George!"
"Jorge," the cameraman muttered.
"Whore-hay then!" Her voice dripped with a sarcasm that gave away her Midwestern roots as surely as fluorescent lights did her brunette ones. "Vamanos! Maybe we can beat the local yokels from Hartford and New Haven."
Jorge depressed the accelerator and the van jumped from 70 mph to 72. Mitch, who viewed any change in speed as an invitation to disaster, yelped from the back seat.
The van arrived on the scene at 5:47, long before its counterparts from the Connecticut affiliates, but missed the brass ring by several inches. The lousy firemen had put out the fire! Water still sprayed on smoldering timbers, but there were no leaping photogenic flames. Bobbie pounded the dashboard in helpless rage.
"Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!" she moaned.
"Fire wouldn't have shown up well in this light anyway," Jorge commented.
"Go focus yourself!" she snapped, sure she was being mocked. "C'mon. Maybe there're some crispy critters."
Bobbie pulled down the visor to check herself in the mirror. She applied another coat of gloss, slapped the visor up, and declared herself ready. Jorge and Mitch held their applause.
No burn victims to exploit awaited them, but the still smoking truck carcass amid the rubble looked promising. Vehicles crashing into buildings were always good television; viewers never seemed to get sick of them, and the bigger the vehicle the better. She set Jorge the task of getting the best possible shot of the wreckage while she sought out a camera-hungry fireman or cop. Unfortunately, they all seemed intent on doing their jobs. A tall, Eastwoody man turned out to be the Fire Marshall. He told her the fire was under investigation, there were no serious injuries, and could she please stay behind the yellow tape.
So, she went in search of a decent sound bite. "Anyone here see what happened?" she asked. A nervous man smoking a cigarette raised his hand. "And you would be…?"
"Marlon Twimble. I'm from Meriden."
"How nice for you. You saw the truck hit the building?"
"Uh, no. Not really." She turned away. "But it almost hit me when it smashed into the bar." He added eagerly. "Missed me by that much!" He held his hands about two feet apart, then moved them closer together.
"Really?" Bobbie feigned concern. "Were you in fear for your life?"
"Yeah, I guess."
Bobbie took the meager crumbs fate had left for her. "Great!" she told the smoker. "Stay there, I'll be right back."
She found Jorge and Mitch chatting up a bimbo in a tight t-shirt with a Siberian tiger's face distorted by the press of her prodigious breasts.
"Hey!" she called. "Siegfried and Roy!" They reluctantly trudged after her, and took their own sweet time doing the set-up. Bobbie tapped her foot impatiently until they announced themselves ready. Plastering a lukewarm smile on her face, she began when Mitch cued her.
"Roberta Halliwell, In the Know News, reporting from Mystic, Connecticut. This popular tourist destination was rocked today when a runaway truck crashed into Gilda's, a venerable drinking establishment that has stood here for decades. That long history may have ended today, however, in the aftermath of a tragic fire that, while it claimed no lives, left many shaken by their brushes with possible death. With me is Mr. Marvin Trumbull, a visitor from Michigan, who came within inches of being crushed beneath the wheels of the pick-up. Isn’t that right, Mr. Trumbull?"
Jorge widened the field of vision to include the interviewee.
"Ah, yeah, I was sitting there, minding my own business, when all at once there was this huge crash and a great big truck came through the wall. It missed me by that much." He repeated his earlier gesture, with his hands now about five inches apart. "Um, and I was in fear for my life, too."
"Could you describe the truck?"
"Sure. It was big and white and not very well kept up, and it smelled of stale beer."
"No shit?" A young man in a torn black Motley Crue t-shirt, who had been waving his arms and mugging in the background, pushed his way into the frame. "That sounds like the Rammstein! Was Buzz in it? Is he dead?"
"Cut!" Bobbie screamed. Jorge lowered the camera. "Do you mind? We're doing an interview here, in case you didn't notice."
"A lame one," the camera hog smirked. "You should interview me instead. If that's the Rammstein in there, I have the real dope for you."
"What pray tell is the Rammstein?"
"It's this old junker my friend Buzz Kochanski drives. He used to work at this joint until a few days ago. Then he got shitcanned by the bitch owner. She even had us arrested! Buzz used to give it to her regular, if you catch my drift."
Bobbie's heart began to race. "What's your name?"
"Billy Thurber. Me and Buzz are like that." He held up his right hand with only the index and pinkie fingers pointing skyward. "You wanna interview me or not?"
"You know, Billy, I think I just might." Bobbie put an arm around his shoulder and huddled with him privately for a few minutes. Then she called her news director.
"Sam? I'm in Mystic, and do I have a story for you!" She repeated the gist of what Billy had told her. "Is that a lead or what? Of course, I'll have to do this on the fly."
The news director, whose current lead was a mayoral press conference about traffic foul-ups, grudgingly agreed. She signed off and addressed the crew. "All right, we're going live at the top of the 10-block, that means we have –" she checked her watch – "two minutes to get ready. Mitch! Give Billy your shirt!"
"Because Jorge's won't fit, you moron, and we can't go out live with Billy here looking like a complete slob." Mitch started taking off his short-sleeve Henley. "Now Billy, please, please keep the profanity to a minimum, okay?"
Billy agreed. He put on Mitch's shirt and Bobbie tried in vain to do something about his hair. Then she got the word that she was live in 30 seconds and everyone took their places.
At 6:01, on television sets all over greater Boston, Roberta Halliwell's face (and, more to the point, her hair) appeared. Wearing an expression calculated to convey a sense of urgency and yet imply she was providing her viewers access to some shared secret joke, she began reporting the story.
"This is Roberta Halliwell, reporting live from Gilda's Tavern in Mystic, Connecticut. Moments ago, a team of volunteer firefighters bravely contained a two-alarm fire at the popular watering hole in this upscale tourist community. The fire began shortly after a white Dodge Ram pick-up truck crashed through the front door, began leaking gasoline and caught on fire."
Jorge's previously shot footage of the truck and surrounding debris replaced Bobbie's face. Her voice continued under the image.
"While no fatalities or serious injuries were caused by the crash and subsequent fire, upwards of thirty customers and staff were placed in serious danger and escaped possible flaming death only through the direction of Gilda's staff."
Bobbi's face once again filled the screen. She switched to Facial Expression No. 11, the one she liked to call Conscience of the Nation. It involved some pretty complicated eyebrow work, but was generally worth the effort. Properly executed, it cued the audience that it should prepare to be outraged.
"But this is not a story about brave firefighters, historic buildings, or narrowly averted death by fire. This is a story about a man driven mad by love, mad enough to deliberately drive a truck into a place he used to work and at the woman he used to love."
The camera pulled back to reveal Billy standing next to Roberta. "With me today is Billy Thurber, best friend to Buzz Kochanski, the man behind this apparent crime of passion. Billy, your friend Buzz is the one who drove this truck into the building, correct?"
"Bleepin' A he did. He took that bad boy into gear and slammed right through the mother-bleep!-in' wall. Oh–bleep! I bleepin' forgot I'm not supposed to say bleep! on the bleepin' air!"
"And why did he do that, Billy?"
"Well, he used to have this thing with the woman who owns the place –"
"That would be Gloria Robinette?"
"Yeah, that's the bleepin' bleep! He used to bleep her every night on one of the pool tables. But she got tired of him, and that broke Buzz's heart. So we went into the place on Tuesday night to talk sense to her, so Buzz could, y'know, tell her how he really felt about her."
"What happened on Tuesday night?"
"She fired Buzz and called the bleepin' cops on us! Then she tried to kill Buzz, but luckily the police arrived before she could, but they took me and Buzz away instead of arresting that lousy bitch. Does that suck or what?"
"Why were you arrested?"
"For sticking up for Buzz like any true friend should do." Billy puffed out his chest. "I believe in bleepin' loyalty, not like some bleep-bleepin' bleeps. Can I say hi to my peeps Dell and Nick?"
"Thank you, Billy." The camera followed Bobbie as she walked behind the building to the service door. "Kochanski was taken away before we arrived on the scene and was not available for comment." A door opened and two men and a woman exited the building, the woman holding on to the taller of the two men. He was thin with long dark hair. Bobbie rushed towards them and pointed her microphone at the woman.
"Roberta Halliwell, In the Know News," she identified herself. "We're going out live. Miss Robinette, can you tell me your reaction to these tragic events?"
Gloria flinched. The camera pulled in tight on her red-rimmed eyes. "I really can't talk now, I'm sorry." She stepped forward but the cameraman stepped back to keep her in frame.
"Miss Robinette, how do you respond to the allegation that this fire was caused by a former lover in retaliation for you dumping him?"
"What?" Gloria recoiled. "Who told you–"
"How dare you!?" The long-haired man stepped in front of Gloria, partially blocking her from the camera lens. "You are intruding on a sad and private moment. Gloria has no time to spend conversing with gossipmongers now. Be off with you!"
"You're Lex Machallo, the singer?" Halliwell asked.
"Yes, I am. What business is that of yours, woman?"
Jorge managed to get Lex and Bobbie in a two-shot.
"What is your relationship with Miss Robinette?" She put extra emphasis on the word "relationship" and her insinuation was very clear.
"That is our affair!"
"So the two of you are having an affair. Did she break up with Kochanski because of you?"
He raised his right hand in a claw-like gesture, but the Robinette woman rushed forward and pulled his arm down. "Lex, no!" she cried, then faced the camera. "We have nothing to say. Leave us alone!" She pushed past the reporter and headed across the parking lot. The camera followed them to a motorcycle parked in the far corner, and covered their rapid departure. The camera returned to Roberta for the wrap-up.
"There you have it. All this destruction caused by a sexual triangle involving a beautiful woman, a former employee, and a mysterious music man. The stuff of soap opera, or even grand opera, perhaps, playing out here on the streets of this seaside hamlet. From Mystic, Connecticut, I'm Roberta Halliwell."
"Annnnd we're out!" Mitch announced.
Jorge turned off the camera. "Good stuff, Bobbie," he grudgingly admitted.
"Did you catch that guy's speech patterns?" Bobbie crowed. "Gossipmongers? Be off with you! Who talks like that outside a Harlequin romance?"
"Good looking fellow, though," Mitch observed.
"I suppose. Oh God, here comes the competition!" A channel 8 newswagon pulled into the lot. "Billy!" she yelled.
"Yes ma'am?" he trotted over. "You want the shirt back? Sorry about the swearing."
"No, you were great. So great –" she put her arm around his shoulder again "— that I want to show our appreciation. Mitch? Why don't you take Billy to one of the local boutiques and buy him a new shirt, and then Billy can join us for dinner! Would you like that, Billy?"
"Free grub? What's not to like?"
Bobbie could almost see him salivating. "You two hurry off and don't talk to any other reporters. Jorge and I have to check out something in the truck and then we'll meet you, okay?"
Once Billy and the still shirtless Mitch were out of earshot, Bobbie led Jorge back to the van. "What gives?" he asked.
"Play back that footage of the singer." Jorge hooked the camera to the monitor and rewound. "There! Freeze frame! See what he's doing with his hand? What's up with that?"
"Dunno," Jorge pondered. "If he were dressed in a cassock, I'd say he was giving a benediction."
"Look at that face!" The man on the screen was positively livid. "Does that seem like a man who's about to bestow a benediction?"
"Looks more like a curse."
"Voodoo, Santaria, I don't know. Maybe it’s a gypsy thing. He looks sorta gypsy."
"Maybe." Bobbie considered. "Go forward slowly." On the monitor Robinette placed her hand on the man's upraised forearm and gradually forced it down. "Look at her." Bobbie leaned in closer for a better look. "She's afraid he's going to hurt someone."
Bobbie turned to Jorge. "Something here just doesn't add up. I thought this was a fluffy feel-good story, then I thought it was about a fire. Next it turned into a sex scandal, but I'm not sure that's the real story either." She tapped the monitor screen. "There's something hinky about this Machallo person. I think we should stick around another day and find out just how hinky."