The sunlight filtered through the columns of glass that adorned the lobby; the angle of the rays upon the floor let Roger know that he was just in time, or not, depending on where his boss happened to be when he arrived at his cubicle. He crammed himself into one of the elevators packed with the other nervous tardies and watched grimly the doors close them in like the prepackaged tin tray anchovies come in. But it was not anchovies; it was the repugnant stench of rotten oranges. He noticed the occupants around him milling about in the close quarters, works twenty-four hours, sure. He tried to be discreet, pretending to look at his watch, he ducked his head, got close enough for a sniff, at least it’s not me. As he continued the turn, he glimpsed a raggedy old man whose jacket must be the culprit, speaking in a tongue that was barely perceptible and rocking his body as if to a tune no one else heard. The man caught his glimpse and glared, not just yet quite distinctly, then mumbled something unintelligible there will be time and began staring back within his space. Roger was jolted for visions and revisions once more back to the centrifugal force of the dream. But there the orange blossoms were fresh and alive. The boy laying in the meadow with the…he fidgeted.
As the elevator lifted with a jolt, Roger was too overcome by an horrendous pounding in his head, what was it a fifth of ™Black Jack and what else, to give a damn about drunks or monks; he just wanted to clock in and get to the bathroom to be sick and get this terrible feeling over with. He fell out of the elevator, along with a few stragglers, all short timers all on the verge of extinction at the great SCAB!, doing time till the ax. Roger pingponged his way through the maze of Styrofoam cubicles until his finally came into view. He poured himself into the cushioned chair like it was a satin sheik’s bed, burrowing his face into the fabric to block out the fluorescent glow, the sun, his brain. His cheek felt cool; if he could just sit here like this for a few minutes he would be fine.
“Jackie,” he cried across to the next cubicle. “Please, O Lord please be a dear and get me some coffee.”
“Get it yourself, I got PMS,” was the reply.
Roger pulled around in his chair to come face-to-face with MacKensie Bran Peters hovering in the entranceway.
“So,” the grin was expectant, “how the hell are ya? Hadn’t heard from you in what four days, you and Terrasea must ah,” he gave Roger a prod, “really patched things up.”
“Hell, no,” Roger was not in the mood. Terrasea seemed light years away, the last two days taking precedence in his mind. The memory flooded back. “The bitch took everything. Her and her gargantuan boyfriend emptied the place,” he made a sweeping motion, “ya know what I mean.”
“Well, it was all hers,” Mac cracked with another prod. “Just kiddin, I figured it was either real good or real bad. That piece on the aliens meeting Palin had to get out, so I went ahead and finished it up for ya.”
“Thanks,” and he really meant it.
“But nephew Frank is really pissed,” his voice lowered. “I think he wants your ass. He’s already made the rounds twice looking for your sorry…”
“I know,” Roger ran his fingers through his hair, “He wants pics of Cazz Diamond on her deathbed.”
“Yeah, so?” Mac stopped grinning, looking rueful. “Did you get them?”
“Yeah, but I don’t know,” Roger made the throat cutting gesture. “It’ll be the death of me, ethically speaking.”
“Ethical, scmethical,” Mac grinned again, “who really cares? If you have them, give them, if you don’t want to, zap ‘em.”
“Haven’t I done enough to that girl with the other story?”
“Lookit, she’s a public figure,” Mac started winding up. “It’s just a game. You give them publicity good or bad, they don’t care just want to have their names in up in lights. Today’s society is one big photo op and…”
Roger blocked out the rest, if only you’d seen what I saw, the last two days amounted to a hell of a lost weekend and he was still flailing to process the painting, the bum in the shop, not so much a bum and the bum, Ben, who either saved him or tried to kill him. The waitress at the Donut King and the change in her when the bum walked in, almost high schoolish, the way she swooned, the nurse. Then the actual man himself What had he said, see yourself in a man like me or something. But, the man had accosted him, although Roger had not felt a real fear from him, more of a gauging. He tried to connect dots but there were too many and his head still hurt. What it is, is the sauce you freak! He’d been hitting it hard since Terrasea moved out; four straight days of it, without any food and he had been hallucinating about the painting, about the diner; but not about the bum, Ben, who had practically died in his arms. Roger decided to write the piece about Ben, perhaps a tribute or a “what went wrong with his life” sketch. He would pitch it to Frank and see, it would make another benchmark contribution to the tabloid and a growing portfolio he was sure he would never be able to show to any reputable journalistic firm.
Roger pulled his dead weight out of the chair and staggered out the invisible door and to the coffeemaker; it was empty. He fiddled with the can hoping some sweet person would give him a hand, as he rarely made coffee. When he did it was java with a bite. But the only sounds he heard were the ominous footsteps of his manager approaching from down the hall, a curious thump kick sound that meant impending doom.
“Miller, what in the sam hill are you doing?” it was not a question. “When you’re finished there I want you to see me in my office,” he turned his head in the wake. “Pronto!”
“Just getting some coffee, sir,” Roger mumbled. “I’ll be right there.”
Roger forgot about the coffee and made his way reluctantly to the boss’ office. After plodding down heavily in the leather chair, he massaged his temples and waited for the worst.
Frank Danforth had always been the man left out. He was in truth several years younger than Roger and followed him at UCLA. After 911, he had followed Roger’s rise as one of the few journalists who asked interesting questions and, in an atmosphere of fear resembling McCarthyism, actually questioned the government’s actions. When Frank left school, it was with the sole purpose of following in Miller’s footsteps, he would be the hard charging young buck that made a difference. Unfortunately, by the time he showed up in 2006 the stratosphere in the journalistic circles had changed. After winning the award in 2003, Miller was buried further and further down the list of acceptable journalists and succinctly blackballed from the White House. Frank had caught on in Santa Barbara, but his crime beat consisted of nothing more than a few meth houses and extremely polite rappers.
Frank’s life than took on the tale of so many idealists without true talent and, through the persuasion of his wife, he tucked his tail between his legs and came to his uncle for work. It was a compromise that he was sorely torn between—the money and prestige of associate editor against the idealized fire of true journalism. He told himself that he would change the focus of the tabloid, at meetings had insisted that a vacuum of real reporting gave the tabloid fodder to reach into investigative journalism. He had watched Roger’s career with a sense of envy and admiration, Roger’s fall from grace, the two libel suits that buried him under the desk, so to speak. Finally, his being fired from the company after a drunken altercation with management that led to his dismissal.
“Where’s my scoop!” his hands trembled, underlying the excitement he felt to outdo the other three relations vying to take over the magazine. He knew if anyone could get that picture, Roger could. He watched keenly Roger instinctively reach for his phone on the holster of his belt, then the hesitation, then the slumping of the shoulders. “The story of a lifetime, right under your window,” he leaned forward in his desk, “tell me you have the photo of the century.” He had been the one who pushed for his uncle to hire Roger Miller, stroking the old man’s ego, an award winning journalist. His vision had been to reshape a section of the tabloid to be concerned with legitimate newsworthy investigations and Miller would be the lynchpin.
“I was…” Roger looked at Frank pleadingly, “Frank I just can’t do it.”
“Can’t or won’t,” Roger knew who had gotten him the job, but it was never mentioned and to be honest Frank was a little let down, when he finally met the man he had idolized in college.
“I just can’t sink this low,” Frank’s disappointment in Roger developed from the ashes of his own dream and the reality of the shell of the man Roger had become. “I just can’t do that to the girl.”
“You started out so well,” Frank was exasperated. “You write a goddamn horoscope for god’s sake,” he flailed his arms. “How much further do you think you can sink?”
“I’m sorry,” Roger fiddled with his phone. “I have to hang on to what little integrity I still have.”
“You know this was your last chance. Give me the pictures and I’ll see what I can do. You’re not the hot shot reporter you once thought you were. I asked for a simple assignment from you. Find out what happened, get me an interview, find out all the incongruities,” he pounded the desk, “that’s what real journalists do. But not you, with that goddamn theory and your cozy little horrorscope, you know I hate that damn thing, you’re lucky it amuses the big boss. Plus, you’ve been out partying too much,” Frank Danforth suddenly looked frustrated, almost repentant, the wisp of hair pasted across his dome, the paunch of the stomach gave him the aura of a monk.
“Look, Frank, I need your back on a story, I have the perfect angle on the spontaneous combustion cases,” Roger leaned to his knees as he spoke, “an actual eye witness to the bum burnings.” He looked into Frank’s eyes but did not see any excitement. “And I’m working on a connection between that and I think some testing the Nazi’s conducted in Dachau during the war; it’s gonna be great.” He looked again, but Frank appeared to be looking through him.
“The pictures and we’ll talk,” Frank held out his hand. Roger handed over the phone.
“I give you the pictures,” Roger began fiddling with a remote in his pocket a friend, Jose, had given him several weeks before. “You give me the fabulous Cazz Diamond story, again.” Frank lunged for the phone, “You know they sued us for a million,” went to the photo gallery. But we made over six millions on the sales,” flipped through the shots, “McNamara was more than happy, said the mother was a real piece.”
“That’s nice, Frank,” Roger toyed with the remote in his pocket, “but don’t you think the girl has been through enough?”
“What kind of shit pictures are these, I can’t even tell it’s Diamond, it looks like the fucking mummy from that movie,” Frank squinted up at Roger.
“The cases,” Roger pulled out the remote and pointed it at his phone, “or no deal.”
“I have Houghton on that one,” Frank held the phone in his claw and looked down at a memo on his desk.
“Are you nuts?” Roger approached the desk on his elbows, “Frank, I’m telling you I have an eye,” he pointed to his eye, “fucking witness to what three spontaneous combustion cases.”
“You didn’t hear? To busy boozing it up with your pals,” Danforth rose in his seat, “Look at you, you even stink of it, your eyes look like you’ve been swimming in chlorine, the pot hangs on your clothes, and your breath smells like kerosene. You want to do a story, get the scoop, have you considered that Cassandra Diamond is an actual fucking eyewitness,” he stood all the way up. “She’s been moved now from Sinai to some god forsaken private rehab center with real security, totally off limits to the press and public,” he sat again looking tired, “And we have the only pictures of the little bitch in the world, a total exclusive.” Frank swiped through them, “Forget what I said, I like the grainy look,” Frank opened a drawer in his desk. “I’m thinking of a number.”
“I want the story.” Roger toyed with the remote, Jose had set it up for him, in case the cops busted him, a zap app. “C’mon Frank, it’s important to me. I need another chance.”
“No can do,” Danforth pushed himself forward in his chair. “Lookit,” Danforth gave his best professional look. “I got a call from the big boss, McNamara; he wants to see you in his office,” his look turned apologetic. “You know I try to cover for you guys as best I can, but you’ve been slackin off way too much lately. I guess he got wind of it.” He swiveled mechanically in his chair. “Maybe he’s fed up with that horrorscope, too.” Danforth fell back into his leather chair. “On your way back tell me what it’s about and I’ll be sure to give ya a good recommendation. You used to be somebody.”
Roger stood before the desk, not believing how quickly his future had dissolved, first Terrasea now this, even this shitty little job with an unreputable rag was better than going back to that empty apartment. His entire life flashed, then fizzled before him. He got up and on the way out; he turned, aimed and fired the remote, wiping out the photo gallery. “See ya, around Frank.”