Galveston, TX – Midnight
Larry was incredulous, to say the least.
“OK, severe head trauma!”
Frank was exasperated, to say the least.
They stood together before one of the most puzzling discoveries of their long careers in criminal investigation. A report had to be filed, and the suitable language eluded them. Larry relented and bore down on his metal clipboard, with the tension of frustration, and to ensure the “s” imprinted on all three layers of the carbon-copy Galveston Police Department Incident Report. They stood at either side of the body in question, which lay in the doorway of a ladies restroom, on the Seawall.
Larry read back,”Deceased found face-down, exhibiting severe -”
“Prone,” Frank interjected. “Face-down ain’t proper. Besides, he ain’t got no goddam face.”
He pulled off his Resistol and rubbed his forehead, exhaling sharply.
“It was just the little girl here. It wudn’t a crowbar, nor a baseball bat. Ain’t no way it was a gunshot.”
“The little girl in the hospital, ah…” Larry consulted the report “Slown, Heather, age 7 – she described a bright light.”
“Her eyes were closed the whole time, DOA’s blood was on the ‘lids. She heard barely anything but her own screamin’”
“Well there ya go, the shock of the altercation,” said Larry. “Maybe she don’t know what a gun sounds like. Hell, ya seen how terrified she was.”
Frank replaced his cover, nodded in agreement. He took a cooling breath.
“We know our DOA here, name o’ Davis, accosted this girl. He followed her here, or maybe cornered her. We can only speculate re: his intention. But you look at the wall, there; she was scared before it happened.”
A spray of gore stained the tile wall, except for a small, cowering silhouette. A uniform aspersion spattered most of the surfaces in the dim chamber: blood dried and oxidized to a shit-brown. Frank perused the restroom once again.
“What the hell did this?” he asked aloud, shaking his head.
“It ain’t like a blunt weapon or a slug or even a load o’ shot. They’d be more – directional, ya follow?” Larry gestured with the clipboard, flinging his free hand toward the wall.
Frank nodded his agreement, rubbing his chin raptly.
“Exactly. This calamity went in every direction,” Frank said, stretching his hands out. “This asshole got nuthin’ but a stump on his shoulders, and the rest paintin’ the walls of this public lavatory.”
A contemplative silence fell. The crashing waves mixed with the mutter of the press, gathering beyond the crime scene tape.
Larry spoke tentatively, “It’s almost like – like if you took a quarter stick of dynamite -”
“There ain’t no powder marks, Larry! Powder burns! On his goddam neck stump!”
A gull cawed.
“So. We’ll just go with severe head trauma, then?”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – Santa Monica, CA
In the light of the admission of pop duo Viddi Moliddi, that they did not perform their own vocals on last year’s smash album Believe Me, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences has revoked the Best New Artist award, bestowed on them earlier this year. The academy reached the decision after a telephone poll of its 34 trustees. Warren Nemec, the president of the academy, says the trustees “were just livid about the situation.”
Representatives of Vincent DiBattere and Morris Liddy said the duo will return the Grammy trophy, but have no further comment at this time.
Portillo, TX – Present
Rex turned onto Highway 225, toward the Air Today plant, his assignment completed. All the morning radio talk was about the Viddi Moliddi scandal. Rex tuned in the classic rock station. A hilarious prank call was in progress.
“How big a boy are you?” the voice drawled, with mock intimidation.
Rex snorted a laugh as he shut off the Crown Vic. He sat a moment, admiring the complexity of the works beyond the fence. Up close, all the pipes and conduits looked chaotic, but every part had a distinct function, served a specific purpose. Someone had had to figure all that out. The end result was just short of magic, or alchemy: transforming matter to suit the will of man. Rex had barely passed chemistry class, in high school.
He had come prepared this morning, already zipped into the blue jumpsuit. He had recorded Dangerous Pressures onto a VHS tape, per his assignment, and was ready to deliver it. Furthermore, he intended to press Lydia Scotch-Bonnet about future work, to see what other opportunities Air Today might have for him. He was eager to hand out his first new business card. The Office Barn had indeed taken care of him. Rex put the filmstrip, the VHS, and his goggles inside the hardhat and carried them to the guard shack. He rapped on the Dutch door. As before, Tib appeared and greeted him, a Creole elf in a fairy tale cobbler’s shop.
“I have a delivery for Miss Scotch-Bonet,” said Rex, setting the VHS and the filmstrip before Tib.
“I will take that, on Miss Lydia’s behalf. I am to give you this.” Tib handed Rex a mechanically printed check, for the agreed amount.
“But, I – is she not available?” Rex was anticipating a conversation with Lydia, not a simple drop-off.
Tib picked up the little plastic canister and held it over the hardhat in Rex’s hand.
“Take this, brother, may it serve you well,” he said, letting it drop with a rattle.
Rex looked down at it, bewildered. He reached in his pocket and bought out a business card, laying it unavailingly on top of the VHS tape.
“Thanks,” Rex said, turning to walk back to his car.
Rex drove down Center Street, windows down, radio off. The wind blowing through, and the sound of traffic, blended to a white noise, like a soothing mother’s shhh. Disappointment had lit on him like a hoarse crow, and may well have prevailed, but Rex had plans this morning. He drove a little farther to the site of the brand new Sol-Mart. It was grand opening day, and Rex had planned to shoot the ribbon cutting, then offer the footage to TVTO. This was called “stringer” footage, in the parlance of his profession. He planned to invest in a police scanner, when he got a little more money together, to pursue this on a regular basis. He could rush to accidents and fires and other news-worthy incidents to capture valuable footage, then sell it. He would roll that into a better camera, then there were even greater possibilities. Rex had a lot of free time to formulate such strategies.
The parking lot was nearly filled. Rex found a spot near the street. He stood at the trunk of the Crown Vic, peeling out of the Air Today jumpsuit – worn over street clothes – as discreetly as he could manage. He shoved it into the trunk, wondering if he would ever get to walk in the plant again. Rex re-played the scenario in his mind, this time insisting on speaking to Lydia, confidently eliciting a new assignment from her, parting with smiles and promises.
Striving for optimism, Rex reckoned he now had more time to get a good position by the store’s entrance. He extended the Manfrotto, and secured his JVC GY-X1 atop it. The camera recorded on inexpensive Super-VHS cassettes, a recent innovation, and provided image quality comparable to much costlier units. Rex installed a fresh tape, closed the trunk, and trekked forward. He began with some B-roll of the store’s sign: plain block letters, except for the “O”, a stylized sun.
Moving closer to the entrance, Rex saw Stig Slavin, one of the best shooters in town, and his former comrade at TVTO. Stig’s presence meant they would not be interested in his footage, but Rex was keen to chat with him.
“Slow news day?” Rex asked, patting Stig’s shoulder.
“Hey, the Jann-Man!” he said, shaking Rex’s hand. “Actually, there’re some pretty important dudes up there.” He pointed to the area where the ribbon-cutting was being staged.
“The mayor, reps from Sol-Mart and Air Today, Senator Boyd, some professor guy, bigwigs all.”
Rex scanned the crowd, to see if he recognized anyone. The Portillo High School Marching Band filed through the crowd, predominantly housewives. Their marching was more precise than their playing, as they bleated out a rousing arrangement of Faith No More’s Epic.
Stig continued as returned his eye to his viewfinder, “How you holding up?”
“Can’t complain,” said Rex. “Just shooting some stuff for my demo reel,” he lied.
“You got a real opportunity there, J-man. You’re your own boss, no 4AM crew calls, you don’t have to deal with that prick Jerry. Sounds like such a deal,” said Stig.
“How about the others?” Rex asked.
”Naguchi got on with an affiliate in San Antonio, Corning is temping with his uncle, some kind of bakery, he says it’ll do for now.”
PA speakers squealed feeedback as a microphone was tapped.
“Hey, looks like they’re about to start, let me give you this, in case you hear of anything.”
Rex held out a business card. Stig pocketed it, nodded at Rex and went back to his camera.
“Sure thing. Keep dancin’ buddy.”
A half-dozen men assembled behind a broad, red vinyl ribbon. Bradford Goss, the mayor of Portillo, brandished a huge pair of scissors. He worked the blades open and shut, with a manic look in his eyes, excited by the size and power of the implement. Several brief comments were made to the crowd, each speaker thanked with polite applause. At last, the time came to sever the ribbon. A PHS band member supplied a drom roll. Rex observed, his lens zoomed in full telephoto. He was shocked to see that, in fact, the great shears could not cut at all, even as Goss animated them like the jaws of a twitchy gator. The Sol-Mart representative assisted, covertly raising a tiny blade, slicing. The crowd cheered as the ribbon fell apart in two slack pieces.
As Rex replaced his gear into his trunk, a Lincoln stretch sedan, then a second one, rolled up behind him. The second pulled alongside the first. Windows were lowered.
“Just follow us there,” Rex heard cried from one car to the other. The second car pulled forward and took the lead.
Rex had a sudden inspiration. He slammed the trunk closed and clambered into his own car, tearing out of the parking lot to follow the two black limousines. These were very important men, vastly influential. If he could somehow bump into them wherever they were headed, he could pass on a business card. He had to keep his momentum going. He couldn’t regress to his condition of the previous weeks. Depression and inactivity would ruin him, if he allowed them to take hold again.
Rex followed the two Lincolns across Portillo for about ten minutes. He identified their destination, and circled the block, for discretion. Coming back around, he entered the parking lot of the Mobius Strip. The men’s club was identified by a fluorescent-lit sign, with mismatched letters, announcing: Endl3ss Ladies.
“I never go these places,” Rex said to himself, surveying the entrance in his rearview mirror. He almost turned the key again and bailed out, but he rallied his nerve, and walked in.
The Mobius Strip was inhabited by a spare but diverse mix of gentlemen: plant drones, cubicle jockeys, NASA nerds. They came to enjoy the entertainment, have a beer, eat some chicken wings, steep in musky camaraderie. The lurid interior was a beast’s belly, purple with blacklight, veined in neon, undulating with strobes and mirror ball petechiae.
A dancer thrust and prowled on the stage, splashed in multi-colored spotlights. Rex made his way to the buffet line. He searched for the party of important men, finally spotting them in a large circular booth. He got some chicken wings and took a seat at a smaller, adjacent booth. Only some vinyl ferns separated him from their conversation.
He attempted to eavesdrop, but the music was too loud, originating from a young man and woman commanding an arsenal of musical plastic. Each moved their hands across various keys, knobs, buttons. One laid down a pounding rhythm, and the other layered on a jagged arpeggio. The relentless throb incited the dancer to whirl about and jerk mechanically, intermittently seizing in provocative attitudes.
A bored-looking waitress stepped in front of Rex, and spoke. In the pulsing din, he could only assume she was soliciting a drink order. Her face looked like the pit of a bisected peach, amid a wispy mound of blonde curls, dyed orange by the stage lights.
“Shiner!” Rex hollered.
She sauntered away, cottony curls bobbing.
Rex gnawed on a greasy chicken wing. If his plan didn’t work, at least he was getting lunch. He stole a glance, through the faux fronds. The men seemed an odd combination. Rex wondered what pursuit they could have in common. He chewed and mused.
The waitress re-appeared, startling Rex from his introspection. He took the cold, sweaty bottle, dispatched her with a couple of wrinkled bills, and had a long pull off the Shiner.
As he had rummaged his pocket, Rex realized he still had the filmstrip on him. He brought out the little canister and extracted a couple feet of “Dangerous Pressures”, absent-mindedly examining the frames. His eye landed on an image of an iron valve wheel. If turned under improper circumstances, great damage could result. A strobe flashed the image of the spoked wheel into his eye, hypnotically.
The dancer’s routine ended, and the male musician thanked the patrons. He punched a button on a tape deck, starting Damn Yankee’s High Enough, at a slightly lower volume. Rex coiled the celluloid back into the plastic container and put it away. He leaned over, slyly resting on his elbow, trying to hear any fragment of the important men’s conversation. He heard the highest frequencies of their voices, his ear tuning them in, like a TV station from a town over.
Rex sat in his Crown Vic. He did not remember walking out of the club.
He heard a plot, a devious scheme being woven in the men’s voices.
He could not recall the details of what the men discussed.
Each man laid a thread in the loom of their conspiracy, identifying his own role, his own secret movement concealed by his respective prominence in the community.
Rex had no recollection of writing a note on a pink Mobius Strip napkin.
It was diabolical.
And yet, he held the folded square of paper, imprinted with his own hand.
He did not understand the words at first:
BLOW UP AIR TODAY
Heather’s doorbell rang. She opened up, and Rex stood before her, the beige block of the Dukane straining one arm, and the portable screen bazooka-like on the opposite shoulder.
“Did it work?” she asked.
“Perfectly,” he replied.
“Here,” she said, taking the heavy gear from him, setting it inside the door, but remaining in the doorway.
“You smell like smoke.”
“I was in the plant, delivering the goods,” said Rex. “The smell of money!”
Heather knew it was cigarette smoke, but she let it pass. They faced each, silently, for an interval.
“I really owe you one, for getting the stuff from the school,” said Rex. “Have dinner with me. Friday. Something nice – but casual. But, nice.”
“I have an appointment Friday,” Heather replied. She let him squirm a second. “But, how about tomorrow night, casual. Casa Rellenos.”
Rex paused, thrilled, this was progress. “Great!” he said, his voice cracking. He coughed. “Good things are coming, I can feel it.”
“You deserve it,” Heather said. She looked lovely, in the fading evening light. He ached to be with her, the way they used to be.
“Seven o’clock, I’ll be there,” she said.
“Hey, I almost forgot.” Rex pulled a fresh business card from his shirt pocket, handed it to her. Heather’s eyes flicked over it, then fixed on his. She smiled at him.
“I’m legit now.”
“Air Today; tomorrow, the world.” Heather did not often attempt jokes.
They smiled at each other, letting a warm feeling hover between them. She leaned in and kissed him softly and briefly. He had been drinking. At a bar? At least he’s getting out, she thought.
Rex drove home the long way. He was giddy with the turn of events, but almost twenty-four hours stretched out before him, with no plans. He needed plans.