Skywriting at Night

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Chapter 25

     The morning and afternoon newspaper staffs shared a building which featured a roving traffic jam that magically appeared the moment the first gold-plated shovel struck red clay at the groundbreaking ceremony and would continue until the mortar chipped off the last brick and was sold for salvage. "Celebrating over 103 years of entropy" would have been an apt motto for the newspapers had they each not long ago laid claim to their own: "The state's morning newspaper" and "The afternoon newspaper of the state". Original thinking was never a prerequisite to work in management.

     The traffic jam worked like this: the final deadline for the afternoon paper was twelve o'clock noon. At that moment people, paper, and shouting clogged the newsrooms, editor's offices, copy desks, and conference rooms. Three minutes after deadline you could walk an elephant through the newsroom without hitting a copy boy because the traffic jam had migrated to composition and typesetting. From there it flowed to the pressroom, and then out to the loading docks. With nary a moment's relief, the traffic jam reappeared in the newsroom, editor's offices, copy desks, and conference rooms of the morning paper, moving through the same never-ending perpetual motion sequence.

     Thus, someone could show up in a department at the right moment of confusion and remain virtually undetected, for invisibility is directly proportional to the level of chaos squared. And were this person a security guard, no one would stop and question his presence even if they did notice him among the churning hubbub.

     Just such a person was Chuck Edwards, a Detective First Class currently assigned to the investigation of the serial robberies who was working part-time at the newspaper solely to circumvent the garnishments that had been attached to his wages at the Police Department. Like most of the cops working on the case, he wasn’t happy with how the investigation had been going, though at the moment he was infinitely more preoccupied with a picture postcard he’d received from his wife that afternoon with a Myrtle Beach, South Carolina postmark, no return address, and a message informing him that she had moved in with a twenty year-old bowling instructor appropriately named Rod who satisfied her every sexual whim. And to think, Chuck could have sworn his wife was visiting her sister in Crystal, Kentucky.

     As he walked through the composition room he watched the traffic jam shift its focus to the far end of the room, clustering around a large table. The detective walked from one work table to the next, glancing at proof galleys that were precursors of what would later become the afternoon newspaper. Stapled to each was a small square of paper that read "OK with corrections" with lines underneath for five approving signatures. He stopped and looked at the proof of the front page with its large headline that blared:

Serial robber strikes again,
suspect set free

     He looked up at the traffic jam which was beginning to roil in anticipation of its dispersion to another department. The approval slip had all five required signatures, each illegibly scrawled using a standard issue medium point black pen. The detective picked up a red pen from the desk and made a quick note on the proof galley. If only life could be corrected as easily as a newspaper.

     * * * * * *

     As Neckless walked down the steps after school he thought about Jet, sitting in the cafeteria, a chivalrous Sir Walter Raleigh in a roomful of truants, talkers and taunters, stoically suffering through the hour of silent meditation known as detention. It could have been him in there, Neckless thought, probably should have been him in there. What’s he talking about? It most assuredly would have been him in there had Jet not taken the rap for him. Boy, then he would have had some explaining to do.

     He stopped at the curb and untied the ribbon which held his turtleneck above his head, pulling the elongated collar down beneath his barely noticeable chin. Walking from the school to this point was easy; go out one door, down sixteen stairs, and take thirty-seven steps straight ahead. But now he had traffic to contend with. Neckless may have had his quirks, but a strong death wish wasn't among them, and besides, once he was safely out of the school it really didn't matter if his turtleneck was at ease as long as he didn't turn around and look back at the building. Like Lot's wife, Neckless was sure that if he looked back he would turn into a pillar of salt.

     "That's one way to become a pillar of the community," he thought to himself, as he did every afternoon when he completed the ritualistic unmasking.

     He headed towards Broad Street, where instead of going home he would walk the half mile to the studios of WMDP-TV, a spartan one-story cinder block affair that wouldn't have looked out of place had it been the last remaining fallout shelter left standing after nuclear devastation annihilated the Earth. Of course, it's highly doubtful any fallout shelter would have had an 880 foot transmitting tower standing behind it. Especially after a nuclear war.

     WMDP was Neckless’ personal detention center. Every day after school he would walk to the TV station, say hello to the surgically enhanced receptionist—who would do her blessed best to embarrass him by blowing him a kiss—and walk down the steel stairs to the newsroom. After greeting whichever reporters were in the room, he'd stand in front of the frosted glass office door of the producer of the six o'clock news and knock gently.

     "Come in," a woman's voice called out.

     Neckless opened the door and looked in. "Hi, Mom. It's me."

     "You're late today," she said without looking up from her stack of papers. "Everything okay?"

     "Yup."

     "Mommy's putting the finishing touches on the show and it's been absolutely bonkers around here all day. I'm beginning to wonder if there's gonna be a show tonight at all. Why don't you be a good boy and go do your homework so Mommy can get this mess straightened out?" She frowned at a sheet of paper, wadded it up, and tossed it across the room into the overflowing wastebasket without even looking up, scoring what would have been a perfect field goal had there been room for it in the wicker receptacle. "I think Lisa's still out on assignment, so why don't you use her desk. Just be sure not to mess up her organized chaos; you know how she can be if she's not having a good day. What am I talking about? She's like that on the best of days. So be a dear and I promise Mommy'll come out just as soon as she finishes up everyone else's work that they didn't bother doing, okay?"

     She looked up, but Neckless was long gone.

     The kids at school envied him. Imagine, being able to spend time at a TV station every day after school talking to the anchors and reporters and, best of all, the substitute weathergirl. But to Neckless it was like watching the same episode of a sitcom every afternoon for years; even though it might be an all-time favorite, it's permanently entombed and incapable of changing even one frame.

     Face it, familiarity breeds boredom.

     Neckless set his books down on Sabrina's desk. Even though it was smaller and even more cluttered than Lisa's, he had an unbearable crush on Lisa that made sitting at her desk not only extremely uncomfortable, but absolutely painful. He walked into the adjoining studio, wandering across the news set and around the haphazardly abandoned cameras. Wandering into the control room he sat down and looked at a computer monitor. On it were the words which would be fed to the TelePrompTer so the newscaster could stare straight into the camera and appear to be reciting from memory:

   

     Neckless looked around the control room. In another hour it would be buzzing with activity, but right now it was deader than the host of the station's Midnight Massacre Movie. He pulled the keyboard to him and began typing, the index finger of each hand slowly hunting down and striking the keys.

     TV newscasters, like their audience, believe everything they see.

     * * * * * *

     The Quite Reverend John Joseph Matthew Paul III sat in the back seat of the limousine as it left the airport and headed for his hotel. The television was on and the newspaper was folded neatly on the seat next to him. The Quite Reverend made it a point to stay on top of the local news whenever he hit a new town. "Preach globally, act locally" he liked to say.

     He picked up the newspaper and looked at the front page. There, in type large enough to be read by a myope at twenty paces it blared:

Cereal robber strikes again, suspect set free

     The Quite Reverend chuckled at the obvious typo. He was one of only 450 people who got to see the headline, for even though more copies had been printed before the unauthorized change was discovered and corrected, they had all been distributed to newsstands and vending machines, which made them much easier to retrieve than it would have been had they been home delivered.

     As he turned up the volume on the TV, the eerily clean newscaster with the blonde helmet-hair looked directly into the camera and smoothly read the copy as it rolled across the TelePrompTer.

     "In our top story tonight, the continuing saga of the Zen-like robberies took several interesting twists and turns when police today were forced to release their only suspect from custody after discovering three more break-ins had occurred while he was being held in the city jail overnight. Meanwhile, the Weekly World Scene has posted a $1 million reward for the apprehension of the true culprit. Police say they have several new leads and they hope the robber, who we all know really hasn't done any harm, will be left alone to have his little fun." The newscaster squinted, trying to make sure she was reading the copy correctly. "Milo Jenkins, the officer in charge of the investigation, said the police department feels the break-ins are a humorous diversion which helps take the edge off an otherwise depressing job."

     Her eyes darted to the left, then to the right; this wasn't the copy she'd looked over before the broadcast.

     "Okay, Lisa. Why aren’t you reading the copy?" a voice said into her earpiece.

     She couldn’t answer. Not out loud, anyway. She raised her eyebrows questioningly as she continued reading.

     "Meanwhile Mayor Young said this afternoon that he hopes the people of the city will ignore the Weekly World Scene's one million dollar reward and let the robber run free. He further said that this amusing escapade is the most fun this boring city has seen since Fannie Marks was arrested for skinny dipping in the library fountain in broad daylight."

     The cameramen were excitedly running their index fingers across their throats, signaling that she should cut, while the director’s voice kept repeating "Where the fuck did this come from?" over and over in her earpiece.

     The newswoman smiled sweetly into the camera. "We'll be back with more of the news right after this."

     * * * * * *

     Like the newspaper headline, the news report was later straightened out. During the eleven o’clock newscast, while the anchor was reading the correct story, Jose was tiptoeing through the storeroom of the Food House, amazed at how easy it had been to get this far undetected. His body danced with prickly tension, each step being accompanied by the pounding beat of his heart. He knew Whitey Heppelwhite was still in the store—which was why the rear door was ajar, giving him his means of entry—so he needed to find a hiding place until Whitey left for the night. He gently pushed open the double doors which led to the store and took a step into the brightly lit room. He heard voices. Then footsteps.

     He jumped back into the storeroom, frantically scanning the cluttered room for a safe haven while the double doors noisily swung to and fro. He ducked behind a pallet stacked high with ten-pound bags of Idaho potatoes as the voices approached.

     "Thanks for the food," a woman's voice said.

     "Anytime," Whitey answered, "always glad to help."

     "I want you to know I really appreciate it."

     "So do I. Anytime you want to, uh, you know, if you need more food, you just stop on by around closing time and let me know."

     As they walked through the double doors into the storeroom, Jose caught a glimpse of Whitey carrying two bags of groceries while his companion paid more attention to her reflection in the small mirror of her compact than where she was walking in her three-inch heels. She stumbled on a broom which had fallen across the aisle, clutching Whitey's arm to regain her balance. Whitey shifted both bags into one arm, putting his free one around her thin waist to steady her. As he leaned down to kiss her, she not so delicately turned her head so his mouth barely brushed her cheek. An overhead light cast its yellow pall on her face.

     That was no woman, that was Candy Warsh.

     Whitey let her out the back door, then using the phone on the wall, called his wife to tell her he was on his way home and did she need anything from the store? After hanging up, he switched the store lighting to its dim night setting, then turned the alarm system on and left by way of the back door. Jose’s heart continued pounding until he heard Whitey's car start, pull away, and vanish into the quiet night.

     He stood up and went back to the double swinging doors, pushing them hard so they swing wide, swaggering into the store like Marshall Dillon entering Miss Kitty's Saloon with a couple of belts under his belt. He listened to the hum of the compressors, the sound pumping bravado through his veins. He strode past the fresh fruits and vegetables, past the toiletries and patent medicine. He strutted past the cleaning supplies and the paper goods, past the frozen food and the soda. He stopped in front of the canned fruits and vegetables, then continued on to the condiments. Moving to the next aisle, he looked down the long row at the never ending boxes of Cheerios, Cocoa Puffs, Trix, and generic corn flakes, the drone of the compressors sending adrenaline surges through his muscles as he looked down the aisle and smiled.

     * * * * * *

     "I’m sorry to wake you up at this hour," the newspaper production supervisor said into the receiver. "I know you signed off on it, but we've been through this once today and I figured I'd be a damned idiot not to check it out again. How many new assholes does a guy need to get reamed before he learns to be cautious?"

     "I understand your being apprehensive," the managing editor told him, "but the headline’s right.

     "Well, you can't blame me for wondering, can you?"

     "No, I can't. Just chalk it up to life imitating art."

     "I understand the life part," the production supervisor said, "but when did a newspaper became art?"

     The managing editor laughed and hung up the phone. The production supervisor turned to the pressman, who was standing at the controls of the huge three-story printing press ready to start churning out the next morning’s newspaper, and gave him the thumbs-up. The pressman raised his eyebrows questioningly. The supervisor nodded his head and walked back to his office. As the pressman pushed the large green button, the massive press rolled into action. The paper went through innumerable rollers, folders, and cutters, emerging from the far end of the press right side up, precisely trimmed, neatly folded, and with all sections inserted. Across the top of the front page, in big black letters, was the intentional headline:

Cereal robber strikes, milking town for sympathy and bowling over police

Chapter 26 ]



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  Skywriting at Night - a novel by Mad Dog

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