TDYKn – Chapter 1.3
Mayor Nathaniel Malech assumed his chair at the head of long and ostentatiously appointed hall. Mock chandeliers gave the room a warm yellowish glow. The who’s-who of Moose Flats were sprawled around the hall, chatting of this and that. He perched his posterior on the tip of his chair and cracked his knuckles. Everyone was talking. Into the hum of babelogue he said, “Committee is about to be in session. None of us is quite so stupid as all of us put together. We will begin dumming down to the weakest link.” Scanning the room, he said, “I believe that would be you, Duncan.” Duncan Mackie gave him a lazy middle finger. Malech smiled in response, then looked at his watch. “Dumming down in four, three, two, one – we are all stupid, and committee is now in session.”
“Ladies,” he paused to draw a weary breath, “ladies and gentlemen, four score and twenty years ago brave and strong men settled here, our forefathers. They built a modest settlement into a town, and a modest town into a great municipality – Moose Flats. I have been your mayor for eighteen years. Prior to that, my father endured the burdens of this office for an even greater tenure, and I tell you honestly and with profound gravity that our fair city has never faced a challenge more threatening in all that time than the one with which it must grapple today.
“I have just returned from a conference of Alberta mayors in Calgary, and with a heavy heart I must inform you, my most prominent constituents, that the rumours that have troubled us these last months are indeed well founded. The provincial government of Premier Raymond Spleen intends to divest between ten and twenty major settlements in Alberta of their municipality status. The government acts, it says, in the interests of reducing deficit and debt. These motives we applaud. But this government also acts against the interests of those who put it into power – the so-called rural constituency. Having met with the mayors, I can tell you that we can expect no support from Edmonton or Calgary. Even Lethbridge and Red Deer have turned their backs on our plight. There will be no common defense, and this policy of de-municipalization will be enacted.”
He paused to allow the gravity of his message to settle in. This was the part of the job that he loved most, holding court and fancying himself a grand prince of the Medici surrounded by fawning courtiers. As he passed his gaze over the assembled characters, he pictured them in period costumes of the Italian Renaissance: brightly coloured blouses and tunics, big floppy hats gem-crusted and adorned with fanning peacock and ostrich plumage, and, of course, leotards. The leotards in particular always gave him a laugh. For Leon Trillibite he made an exception, preferring to imagine his gadfly in jester’s garb.
“As you are all aware,” he boomed again, “Moose Flats has been deficient of municipality criteria in terms of both population and revenue for many years. And I need not remind you of the many steps we have taken to present a more robust impression of our city to the authorities. The fictitious segment of our population now stands at more than three hundred.
“Unless we take drastic steps to increase our revenue and population – both fictitious and real – we will cease to be regarded as a city, reduced to a much smaller blip on the provincial radar. What will this mean for you? First, it may well mean that you will have no mayoral office. You may be thinking that this is not so bad, that you can live without Malech quite well. But the loss of a mayor constitutes only the most superficial of the losses our community can expect. We can expect drastic reductions in provincial and federal support for education, healthcare, sanitation, transportation, and granary development. You may now be thinking that deterioration of social services won’t touch you. You are all important and wealthy individuals. Well insulated. But let me remind you that your success is tied to this city’s successes. As it rose, so have you risen. And as it falls…”
The mayor was pulling no punches today, giving them the full blast of his arsenal of melodramatic talents. He was, ironically, a prisoner of his own penchant for hyperbole. The situation was genuinely desperate and so he had little choice but to pump the volume up to the maximum. His fatigue was genuine also. The last four years had been ones of constant battle as he struggled, scrambled, and concocted mad, often hare-brained schemes to try and keep his fiefdom on the map. There had been nothing but darkness and recession ever since those petty, small-minded bastards in the Department of Highways had screwed him over, and in so doing, screwed over the entire community. A good deal of scrambling and thick layers of whitewash had been required also to keep from the public eye the fact that it was almost entirely his fault. It was his imperious bearing and intransigent greed that had so provoked those parasites in the D.O.H. – known as the Department of Holidays to anyone who actually worked for a living – that they redrew their plans, juggled their finances, and cooked their books to place the new highway project three and a half miles further south and outside of Moose Flats County. Malech knew all to well that if word of this got out, his constituents would shed their civility in a twinkling and string him up in a trice. It certainly didn’t help matters that his personal finances were such a mess, not-so-proud owner as he was, through a series of shoddily constructed fronts, of long tracts of utterly useless scruff, rough, and swamp running just south and parallel to the CP railway line – right where the string of highway services ought to have sprung up. But no gas, restaurant or hotel chains would be vying for plots anytime soon. Not even Malech, Svengali of the corridors of municipal power, had been able to concoct a pretext by which the city might buy this land back. And now the provincial Tories were sticking it to him, treacherous scum. He knew them. He’d rubbed elbows and shaken hands with them. He’d gone to stump and pulled out the old-fashioned political barbecues for them. He was as responsible as anyone for the fact that Moose Flats had returned a Tory MLA to the legislature for more than twenty straight years. Now the current incumbent seemed to have forgotten where he came from and scarcely bothered to return his calls. And when he did, it was just to deliver the brush off: “Sorry man, gotta go with the party whip.” Ungrateful scum. What kind of conservatives were these who wouldn’t lift a finger to conserve a goddamn thing?
“We are not facing a mere belt-tightening here. We will lose entire schools and day cares. We will lose our hospital. We will have to bear the whole of our street maintenance and cleaning costs. Most personally threatening perhaps is the fact that we will lose our municipal police force. Chief Schertz and his officers will lose their jobs, at best staying on as an unarmed security force. But what is that to you?” Malech drew the attention of his audience to the tall hawk-faced and morose Chief Schertz with a motion of his right hand.
“What it would mean for all of you can be summed up in four letters: Royal Canadian Mounted Police. A federal agency in our midst, federal law enforcement in our neighbourhoods. Indifferent to our interests, insensitive to the way we like things done. How long, ladies and gentlemen, will your enterprises survive under big government scrutiny?”
He needed assemblies like these to calm his nerves, to stare directly into their bovine and trusting eyes and convince himself that he was indeed in control. He scanned the crowd now and felt the power of the puppet master surging through every cell, fingernail and follicle. These were his people and he could see right through them. He knew their fears, lusts and greeds, and where they’d hidden the bodies. Caleb Harrison, for example, sitting three places to the mayor’s right, round, gray, and chronically bored, might have become a threat but for flaws of character and errors of conduct. As bank manager and acting Reeve of Moose Flats County, Harrison was well situated to develop his own patronage network and vie for real power, or at least demand a larger slice of the pie. But he didn’t. The man was indolent and debauched. Free weekends at an apartment he kept in Calgary in the company of underage native prostitutes, that was all he really cared about. He liked to be seen to be his own man, but in truth he preferred to be told what to do, provided no one saw him being told it.
Eleanor Rorshak, queen of the ostriches, was a kettle of very different fish. Lip service was her preferred currency and, provided you paid it in cheerfully supplicant raspberry tootles, you could count on her vote and count on her to bully many of the rest of them into coming along. One glare was all it usually took. She was glaring at him now from her favourite spot at the far end of the table, her mammoth fists balled up in front of her, powerful shoulders hunched forward and a look on her face that made him feel like a matador. But she wouldn’t charge yet. He knew this from experience. That look of power and hostility was meant simply to serve notice that she was there, she was watching, she would take no crap. Eleanor was waiting to hear what the mayor might have to say on the subject of the mascot project.
The accursed mascot project had been a headache for the mayor ever since it was conceived in this very room. It was, on the face of it, a simple matter and a worthy undertaking that would revamp the town’s image and bring in the tourist dollars. And then that dreadful and divisive question popped up its serpent’s head and began to uncoil: what should the mascot be? From many suggestions, the field quickly narrowed to two. And from there the battle became both pitched and bitter. Malech could see the lines graphically drawn in the seating arrangements in front of him: ostrich ranchers to the right and at the far end of the table, llama-herds to the left and grouped in the extra seating area on uncomfortable fold-up chairs. Etching the battle line yet deeper in the sand was the fact that those on the ostrich side were all Ukrainian Catholic, the others mostly German Lutheran. An issue that caused people to form their own opinions, to assemble in groups, to organize, to promote and to lobby – it was an incumbent politician’s worst nightmare. For the challenger, it was gravy.
Malech noted wryly how Trillibite had seated himself right in the middle of the fault line, waiting for the mayor to show preference so that he could leap to the defense of the other side. Meanwhile, Eleanor Rorshak continued to glare, demanding that he do precisely that, show preference. At first it had seemed that the llama lobby had the upper hand, they were many and could easily carry a vote. But the ostrich contingent were far wealthier and more strategically placed, and so it was decided by some murky process that the financing of the mascot should be turned over to the private sector, meaning that whichever side raised the requisite construction capital first would carry the day. The well-heeled ostrich cabal raised more money in private donations than the llama group managed in six weeks. Then the community spirit of the llama Lutherans came rumbling into play. They held bake sales, rummage sales and bottle drives and by early summer had amassed a war chest of fighting proportions. The Protestant Lovers of the Llama seemed poised for victory.
The ladies of the Catholic parish, not to be outdone, decided to hold a fund-raiser of their own. The Christian Women’s Sodality “Wings of the Emu” Menstruathon was the serendipitous sanguinary cross-product of the enterprising mind of Father Tettler and a chance comment made by the plain-spoken Millicent Mesanchuk, wife of emu rancher Gordon Mesanchuk and a woman much afflicted with what were in general delicately referred to as “women’s problems”. A routine inquiry after the state of her health had elicited the less than delicate observation that if she had a dollar for every hour she’d been at the mercy of her cycle in the past three years, she’d have enough money to pay off the bank loan for the emu sheds and put a new septic system in the farmhouse besides, thank you very much for asking. The priest was in that instant blessed with a startling epiphany. Divine inspiration led him to intuit in a single coruscating flash both the vast untapped potential of menstruation as a basis for unit-time sponsorship fundraising and the related possibilities inherent in the extraction of matching funds from a major multinational feminine hygiene products manufacturer in exchange for the obvious product placement and event sponsorship considerations. Efluvix Inc. gleefully picked up the tab for promotional costs and overhead, flooded the region with complimentary samples and launched a national ad campaign in the hopes of spawning similar contests elsewhere. Eleanor Rorshak took the laurels in a single cycle and the cause of the ostrich was pushed over the top.
It was around this time that the defeated llama squad recalled that they had never agreed to the terms of the game, and they had never been allowed a vote on the matter, one that they would surely win. The issue of a city mascot was a civic matter, they argued, and ought not be perverted by private sector influence. Let’s just have a vote.
Let’s just have a vote, that’s what the eyes on the left were saying, and the ones at the rear on the uncomfortable folding chairs. The eyes of Eleanor Rorshak, however, were saying that it was time to declare the victor. Her Texas longhorn glare was daring the mayor not to. And then there was Trillibite, all sweaty and quivering; it was win-win for him. Whatever side he ended up on, the speeches were already rehearsed – stirring the pot and playing the populist. There were few things that Malech detested more than politics gone public.
“…working together, we can pull out all the stops. It’s gut check time for Moose Flats. We have a lot of projects on the table now for increasing revenue and population base, and they are all equally important. What we have to ask ourselves is, what is best for the community, because what is best for the community is ultimately best for each of us individually. Okay, that’s probably enough for me, so before I bore you all silly, I’ll turn the floor over to the head of the mascot sub-committee. Caleb?”
Caleb Harrison was caught off guard, daydreaming as usual. He blustered and fumbled with his briefcase. “Yes, umm, well, right. Many settlements of our size have turned to mascots, and many have reaped substantial dividends as a result. The reasons… …ummm, first, the mascot itself causes travelers to stop and take pictures. Having stopped, they are more likely to stay in our motels, have a meal, or at least gas up. Second, the mascot serves as a sort of signature for the community. The prairies are dotted with innumerable communities. Eighty percent of travelers, both drivers and rail, cannot remember the name of a single one of them that they pass – unless that town had a mascot, a single memorable image. There are a few examples that are particularly successful.”
By this point in his sloppily rehearsed presentation Harrison had managed to locate two rolls of blueprints and his notebook. “Vegreville is the third most recognized town in Alberta. After Edmonton and Calgary, sure, but before many much larger places like Medicine Hat. The reason? The egg. Vegreville has the giant Ukrainian Easter egg. There is also a town in Dakota – damn, I forget the name – that has the world’s largest ceramic Holstein cow. Both of these mascots have served their communities very well, both for prestige and for incidental revenue that would otherwise have gone further down the highway. Those bastards in Vulcan have it easiest of all, handed to them on a plate by TV. A dinky one-whore-town halfway from Calgary to Lethbridge, but they have taken this ball and really run with it. They’ve got the replica Enterprise, that much was obvious, but they’ve got every fire hydrant in town dressed up like a Star Trek character, and they’ve got souvenir gift ideas coming out the wazoo. It’s worked so well that they got a guy employed full time – office, staff, the whole bit. All he does is visit every Trekkie convention on the continent and hand out brochures.
“We can’t expect that kind of success, because we don’t have Vulcan’s kind of luck. But these other communities – Vegreville and that place in Dakota – we can top them. Successful as they have been, they have both made the same mistake. Both have situated their mascots where they can be seen from the road. Sure, it means more people see them, but it also means they don’t have to pull off the road and pass through town. They can take their own pictures and never even realize that there are quality postcards of the mascot, to say nothing of miniatures, picture books, even board games, on offer. What I’m saying, people, is that for the first time since the D.O.H. screwed us, our distance from the highway might actually help.”
He unfurled a topographical map of the area and thumped his index finger on an area northeast of the city and just off the provincial border. “There is, uhh, only one point of suitable elevation within Moose Flats County: Greyere’s Hill.” The name sparked a ripple of murmur. “If we assume a mascot of under fifty feet in height, it will be visible but still indistinct from the highway’s closest point. Which is to say, ladies and gentlemen, it will be a tease.
“Now, as was pointed out by the mascot committee, distance from the highway may mean that it will take longer for our mascot to attain the same recognizability as the Vegreville Egg. In the long run, however, it will mean greater profit.”
“We are, I believe,” the mayor objected, “in search of short term dividends.”
“Yes, yes, that’s right. I know that, and I believe we can have it both ways. You see, in Vegreville and in that place in the States, the mascot is placed in a highly visible location and essentially left to advertise itself. We will have to compensate for the remoteness of our mascot by vigorously advertising it in other forums.”
“That means more cost up front,” objected a voice from among the people who could not find a place at the table but sat in the clutter of chairs at the end of the hall. Angry hoots followed.
“Yes. Yes, it does, but it will be worth it.” Harrison quickened the pace of his delivery to keep ahead of the hounds, then deftly passed the ball. “The only real questions to be decided are how it will be built and what it will be. Mrs. Rorshak has been doing some research and has some hard figures for us. Eleanor?” Having called the assistant of the mascot subcommittee to speak, he hunkered down in his seat so as best to duck what was about to hit the fan.
Eleanor Rorshak screwed her greasy cap down over red strawlike hair that stuck out like frayed scarecrow limbs, raised her muscular frame and planted her strong, fat hands on the table on either side of a clipboard of dog-eared pages. “Ahright,” her voice was deep and raspy, “there’s two things to decide here. What’re we gonna build it outta, and what’s it gonna be. We got two choices. We can go ceramic, in that case it’s gonna be pre-fab and we gotta order it from Calgary. It’ll take a couple of months and will cost more, but it won’t need as much maintenance. Or, we can go with wood, in that case we can give the work to some around here what needs it. I think that’d be a good idea. People won’t squawk sa’much if it makes jobs. If we go wood, it’ll be cheaper, be on site faster, but’ll need regular paint and weather-proofing treatment.
“Now, I hope none of you boys will take this the wrong way, I know a lotta ya are pretty handy at puttin’ up a barn or a fence. But what were talking here is sculpture. And I just don’t know that we got carpenters in town as are up to it. I mean if we want people to pull off the highway just to see it, it better look fuckin’ sharp.”
Eyes on Eleanor from the sides and rear told of offense taken. “Old man Toole can carve like nobody’s business,” said a voice.
“Oh come on, Chuck,” sneered Eleanor, contorting her lips, “there’s a damn big difference between whittling a flute or carving injun heads with a chain saw and sculpting a thirty-foot ostrich.”
Leon Trillibite spun around in his chair and thrust out an accusing finger. “What makes you so certain that it is going to be an ostrich, Mrs. Rorshak?”
“Well, I guess I’m gettin ahead of myself, but it stands to reason it should be an ostrich.”
“Does it?” He spoke with venom.
“Yes, Leeee-on, it does.”
“I can’t believe this. Mr. Mayor, this mascot committee is hopelessly biased. Harrison was told to put together a proposal for us, and he has gone and handed all logistic concerns to the woman who owns more ostriches than anyone in the county.”
Malech raised a hooded brow. “You were hoping for a statue of yourself?”
“Don’t think you can get around me like that. I speak for a significant proportion of your rural constituents when I say that that mascot had better be a llama. They are coming, Mr. Mayor, they are coming here today to show their numbers and make their voices heard.”
Malech felt an ominous sinking within. The prospect of a pro-llama demonstration gave him grave pause – and Trillibite time to seize the floor.
“Ladies and gentlemen, do not be fooled by figures and crass arguments. We are not talking about a mere amusement or even a beautifying embellishment to our city. No. Much more than that. We are selecting an emblem, a symbol that will embody and express all that is good and worthy in Moose Flats. It must ring true. It must express us honestly, accenting our unique qualities, but without hubris. People, this will be like a tattoo on the body of our town, and we must not choose it rashly, or be swayed by passing fads. That is why we must choose the llama, an exotic and noble beast, extensive herds of which grace our area.”
“Shut up, Tribet.” Tired of waiting for the mayor to act, Caleb Harrison took the matter into his own hands. “Nothing has been decided yet, and the lady has the floor, so shut your mouth and let her speak. Eleanor, tell this boob why you think an ostrich would be best.”
Mrs. Rorshak flipped through the ratty pages on her clipboard but could not find her place. Eventually she tossed the board aside and improvised.
“Ahright, you all know that there are more llama herds in town than ostrich ranchers, but that doesn’t mean much. There are llamas all over Alberta. There are two – it’s two, right, Caleb?”
“Three other towns in this province are thinking about llama mascots. Ostriches are newer and not so many, but this county – listen, fellas, you probably don’t know this – this county has the highest density of ostriches in North America. Ostriches give us something special to talk about. And they’re better looking, better than a inbred deer with no horns, which is what a llama will look like from a distance.” She held her fingers up to the sides of her head to show what horns were.
“The bottom is dropping out of your market,” Trillibite snapped.
“That’s crap, we’re just experiencing some growing pains.”
Hisses and hoots from the back benches drowned out Trillibite’s retort as taunts and insults sailed like mortar shells cross the conference table. There was some shoving and shaking of fists. Caleb Harrison was struck in the chest by an airborne egg salad sandwich, luckily still bundled in plastic wrap. Duncan Mackie, who ran a tire and scrap metal shop and didn’t give a good god-damn about the mascot, began firing spitwads at random through the hollow tube of his pen, fulfilling an ambition he’d harboured for many years. At the table’s head, the mayor cupped his jaw in his hand so as to keep his impassive visage from crumbling. It had all so suddenly gone disastrously wrong. Just when he thought he might collapse, vomit, or commence to weeping, came the reprieve.
One of the great double doors to the hall swung in with a shuddering groan. The round capped head of a policeman poked cautiously through. He wore an earnest and even frightened expression which he trained on Chief Schertz. The chief spent a long moment surveying the face of his deputy before he excused himself from the now silenced hall, clop-clopping in his shiny black boots as he went.
Destination Zululand by King Kurt progenitors, with Peter and the Test-tube Babies, of British ‘nutter’ or ‘idiot punk.’ Adamantly and defiantly stupid, but quite refreshing, I think, by comparison with the drab intellectualism of so much British pop. All those mopey sad sacks in their cardigans who are always staring at their shoes. Before that we heard from a homegrown band that seems to draw from idiot punk and from American psychobilly. There’s a couple of Hasil Adkins covers on here – Big Fat Mama and I Need Your Head – but what we heard was an original and a rocking good tune. Shit Howdy and the Cognoscenti from just down the road in Calgary doing We in the No. And we started off the program as always with Fugazi, the lords of the straight edge, and Five Corporations from End Hits.
Larry Mantis here on CRAK 88.17 FM, Moose Flats’ only hope for interactive radio. I’m not supposed to be on for another hour and fifteen but I find no one at the helm, so here we go with something a little more contemporary, a rattling shit-kicker from everyone’s favourite Bond chick, and a song about the essential member – Dick Johnson by Pussy Galore:
Just as the members of Moose Flats’ chamber of commerce were assuming their places and preparing for the address of Nathaniel Malech, Terry’s radio sparked back into life. It had been silent for so long he had forgotten that the damn thing was on. Its rejuvenation drew a grimace across his haggard features, rough and gray like a moon-face; a full half-hour of dead air and during the morning rush too. Unforgivable. If it been a serious technical problem, he should have been called. If not a serious technical problem, then the dead air was a hanging offense.
He sat curled up under his sheets with his knees up. Kandy lay naked beside him on top of the sheets and sprawled on her back. Her posture, bearing and expression all spoke the same word: ‘yawn.’ Her body was lovely. Smooth, unblemished flesh, pert ruddy-nosed breasts, thighs that were wide but creased with impressive musculature. Terry had done his best not to notice any of these delights. He had noticed her smoking though, but tried not to show it. Every five minutes or so she dropped another butt into her coffee cup, then lit up another within seconds.
“Sorry, where was I?” The radio had thrown Terry off the line of his discourse.
“You tell me, where were you?” Her voice oozing disdain.
“Who the fuck is Samuel?” Kandy chanted without interest.
“I realize it sounds really stupid in retrospect, thinking that having a kid might save us. If your lifeboat is sinking you don’t say, ‘Gee, if only we had more passengers.’ And I can’t for the life of me remember if it was me or Alice who thought it up first – I was really drinking a lot then – but suddenly there it was on the table as an idea, and instead of needing a reason why, it was why not, and I have never had an answer for that one. So we did it. Our lifeboat never found land but it took a few extra years to sink. By the time it did we’d cannibalized each other in every way you can think of – me and Alice, you understand, we always kept it civil around Samuel. Such a great kid, and bright. Sam is such a bright kid…”
“Everybody says that their kid is such a bright kid,” she sneered with unseemly viciousness.
“Yeah, I know that, but he was reading at four. And reading for the words, not just the pictures. I know because I taped plain paper over the drawings and he still tore through the books. But things with Alice got even worse. The more energy I put into the dad thing, the more she seemed to hate me. Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand her point of view. She’s a highly successful woman in her field – recognition, money, promotion, the whole bit. Paying all the bills. And then there’s me, waiting tables, collecting records, and doing the radio thing for free. She could never understand doing anything for free. But being a good provider doesn’t just mean money. I thought I was a good provider – just providing other things. What do you think?”
Kandy contemptuously spewed the smoke from her lungs and tossed a freshly lit cigarette into the coffee cup. “I’d have killed you in your sleep. You’re the worst kind of guy, easy to take home and impossible to screw. I don’t even understand why we’re talking at all. We could be fucking. Fuck!” Violently, she thrust her hands down to her sides, framing her pudendum, perhaps inadvertently, betwixt her palms.
“I know. I don’t want to – I mean I want to as much as you do, believe me, don’t be offended. You should take it as a compliment, I think that it is really important that you understand where I’m coming from. There’s a lot of baggage here. I wouldn’t want you to feel deceived.”
“No, I wouldn’t feel deceived, or led on, or taken advantage of. And believe me, I mean it when I say that the last ten years of your love life are fascinating. Maybe it’s just the way you tell it, but wow! A heart-wrenching three-hankie play. Really. A walking chick flick!”
Kandy slammed her mug full of butts onto the nightstand and stood before Terry, naked in the sunlight, brazen and proud, as if to say this, this is what you could – should – have your hands on now. “I’m gonna take a shower. You just lay here and sort out your issues.”
As she stomped past him, Terry thought he might have seen tears in her eyes. Bright girl, he thought, sharp and pretty, but inexperienced. Doomed by geography to have to pick from all the wrong kinds of men: redneck assholes, radio station boneheads, worthless, drunken old lechers like me. The wrong kind of guys were all over the place. And if she bolted for the big city, there’d be an even wider variety of jerks and cretins waiting.
Terry remained curled up on the bed, feeling stupid and listening to the radio. Larry Mantis was playing Halleluwah by Can, a psychedelic but danceable dirge from the late ‘60s that clocked in at just under twenty minutes. A great tune, but clearly padding to allow the DJ time to collect more music from the library. Every disc jockey had a short list of long songs reserved for occasions when there wasn’t time to prepare a show. Larry followed Can with another extended piece, this one a contemporary instrumental number by Gronge. Terry recognized the band, but could not recall the title.
He bobbed his head to the irregular beat, cursed himself and resolved to apologize the moment she emerged. He rolled over and cracked a window to let out the smoky haze. The day outside was already heating up. What harm would there be in a tumble, really? She seemed worldly enough, neither a virgin nor on the hunt for husband material. She must have spotted him for a bum back in the bar and, as long as she knew he was a bum, it might be okay. It might be nice. God, it might be nice. Then again, he’d probably already squandered whatever sexual interest she had in him.
He screwed up his face and struck himself repeatedly in the head. The shower continued to spray. Gronge faded out. A John Coltrane track started up, cool, smart and bluesy – but the third twenty-minute-plus track in a row, and jazz on Larry’s show? Something was wrong. He plucked up the phone, intending to ring the station, but was stopped by the bathroom door opening.
“Jesus, Terry, you are one hard fucking case, I’ll tell you that. I don’t know a single guy in town who wouldn’t have joined me in the shower.” Kandy sauntered into the front room wearing Terry’s dragon-backed kimono and rubbing her hair with a towel. Terry set the phone down and gawked. The shower had made her radiant. She seemed to grow more attractive every time Terry looked at her. He really wanted her now.
Her eyes flashed with a feral intensity but her words were contrite. “I’m sorry,” she said. “You don’t want to fuck, that’s OK, I guess. You’ve got issues. That’s cool. I guess I’m just not old enough to have those kinds of issues. You wanna talk some more? That’s cool too, we can just bond if that’s what you want.”
Carefully, so as not to reveal too much through the front of the bathrobe, she lit upon the corner of the bed and began drawing her hair into a pony tail. “It’s all cool with me. Really it is.”
Terry felt his testicles drop to the floor and thought he’d actually heard the thunk, but it was the sound of a firm hand banging on the screen door. For the first time that morning, Kandy and Terry looked each other squarely in the eye. His face formed a question, hers posed an answer. The hand thundered again, this time on the interior wooden door. “Po-lice,” called a voice. Kandy shrugged and reached for her cigarettes. “You’d better get that.”
Terry hauled on his jeans and walked through the kitchen to the door. He found on his step a tall gaunt man, hatchet-faced and uniformed, with the eyes of a non-mammalian predator and the facial shadow of a man who had to shave several times a day. Tiny, randomly placed clusters of long black hairs stuck out all over the rugged outcropping of his jaw. Closer to seven than six feet tall and so lacking in expression he might as well have been without facial muscles, the head of police spoke with an authority as innate as it was impregnable. “Terry Umble?”
“Is that one of those joke radio names?”
“No. I was born Umble.”
“Is that Basque?”
“No, it’s Welsh.”
“Really. My grandmother was Basque.” The ghastly man flashed a policeman’s badge. “I’m Chief Schertz. Can I come in, sir? There has been a serious incident at your radio station.”
Terry led the officer to the kitchen table and sat down across from him. “What’s this all about?”
“You are connected with CRAK FM, are you sir?”
“Yeah, I’m the program director.”
“Do you know where Martin Spatz is?”
“No, I called him a while ago and he wasn’t in. What’s this about?”
“So you don’t know where he is. Why were you trying to call him?”
“There was dead air. He’s the station manager. Look, what’s this all about? Sit down and tell me what the hell is going on.”
Chief Schertz placed himself on the chair nearest the wall. “Brian…” the policeman consulted his notepad, “Brian Riesling, a.k.a. Brainsurgery, was found dead in your studio B, strangled with a headphone cord,”
Then, and later, Terry was amazed and appalled at how coolly he took the news. Icy calm. The policeman allowed no time for the news to sink in, but Terry didn’t need any.
“How many staff does CRAK have?”
“Twenty DJs and three techs.”
“Nineteen DJs,” Schertz corrected. “And how many among them would you say disliked Mr. Riesling?”
“What do you mean ‘disliked’?”
“I know you must be upset, but please, just answer the question. How about Earl Winker, a.k.a. Rocket-science. Did he get along well with Mr. Riesling? According to your schedule, he should have been in the station when the late Mr. Riesling arrived. And we have been unable to locate him.”
“This is ridiculous. Nobody inside the station hurt Brian. You should start with your homegrown thugs. Do you know how many times we have been harassed, chased, spat at, beat up? You should know, you’re the police.”
“All such incidents as have been reported to us have been investigated. I will say there do seem to be a lot of them. You boys don’t do yourselves any favours. No matter who starts these altercations, it’s you boys that provoked the conflict by coming here in the first place. Surely you can see that.” The police chief remained stone-faced, but somewhere beneath that cool, officious bearing he was gloating. Terry could taste it.
“I see you’ve got coffee on…?”
Terry nodded but made no move to serve the chief. Schertz stared at him quietly for a few moments, then rose and helped himself. “Lawrence Fisher, a.k.a. Mantis, discovered the body. He said the station was empty and locked when he got there. Is it always locked, sir?”
“Except during business hours.”
Terry shrugged. “Ten to five officially, eleven to four, sometimes just one to one-thirty, whenever the senior staff get there. That’s just Martin, Peter, and me.”
“You don’t exactly run a tight ship. And how many people know the combination to the lock?”
“All twenty-three of us.”
“All twenty-two. I suppose you’re going to tell me you’ve been home all morning?”
“I’m not saying I believe you, but you look far too rough to have gone anywhere. And your coffee is stale. It’s been on the burner for at least two hours, I’d say.” With a disgusted grimace he pushed the mug away.
“Well Monsieur Poirot, feel free to fix yerself a fresh pot.” Terry always went to great lengths to avoid antagonizing the law, allowing himself only a little good-humoured cheekiness even under the most outrageous harassment. This Schertz was really pushing it though. Brian was dead. The steady abuse the CRAKers had suffered since they set up shop in Moose Flats had escalated to homicide and still the cops were blaming the victims.
“Are you now, Mr. Umble, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”
“I am not answering that.”
“I’ll take that as a yes. I’ve seen your bumper-sticker.” Schertz was referring to the CRAK logo: the standard black and white head-shot of Che Guevera, replete with signature beret and beard but embellished with a rainbow-coloured set of headphones.
“It’s just a joke.”
“A joke? I really don’t know what’s worse, the kids back then who thought Castro was great, or punks like you today who think he’s funny. Tell me about this ‘dead air.’” He scribbled the term into his notebook.
“Yeah, okay. I was listening to the station pretty much all morning. It’s part of my job to keep tabs on how we sound. Earl came on at five, as usual on a Wednesday. His show ended at eight and Brian took over, all on schedule. Brian played tunes for a while and then the radio just went dead. I called the station but got no answer. Maybe it was about forty-five minutes later that Larry took the helm. He wasn’t supposed to start for another hour or so. You can check all of this. Everything that goes over the air gets recorded on a slow reel. Everything on the on-air phone line gets recorded too, it’s all according to CRTC regulations.”
“We know that. Your man Lawrence explained it to us. We have the reels and believe me, we will be checking. But let’s go back to your behaviour. You knew something was wrong at the station and you did nothing.”
“Like you said, it’s not a tight ship. If I jumped at every fuck-up, I’d never leave the place.”
“If you had ‘jumped’ today, Mr. Riesling might be alive…. Be that as it may, let us look at what you have already said. Riesling took the air at eight a.m., he broadcast for about a quarter of an hour before going silent. At about ten to nine Lawrence Fisher arrived and immediately took the helm. It took him about twenty minutes to notice the body in studio B and call the police. That means the killer had a window of opportunity of only thirty minutes to murder, move the body and mutilate it. So either the killer was reckless and extremely lucky or, and this is much more likely, he knew your schedule very well, knew exactly how much time he had to play with. Add to that the combination lock on the door and it’s quite clear we’ve got an inside job. So, Mr. Umble, I have two questions for you – are you all right?”
Terry had gone ghostly pale. The word “mutilate” shot through him like sickness. Much more so than “death” or even “murder,” it brought the fate of Brian Riesling down from the abstract to the grim real.
“Mr. Umble, have you knowledge of the whereabouts of Earl Winker?”
“No. I dunno, he’s probably sleeping in his van somewhere. He lives in it. Look, the door doesn’t always lock unless you pull it tight. Someone could have gotten in there without the combo.”
“Do you know the make and colour of the van?”
Terry thought for a moment before answering. “No.”
The policeman pursed his colourless lips in disapproval. “We will of course be getting around to speaking with each of the members of CRAK. I took the liberty of grabbing a staff address sheet from your offices. If you hear from Martin Spatz tell him to give us a call. And if you see Mr. Winker, do him a favour and tell him to come in peaceful-like.”
He closed up his notepad and tucked into a breast pocket, then abruptly flipped it out again. “One more thing. You wouldn’t happen to know who…” he found the appropriate patch of scribbling and read, “who ‘Luke the Drifter’ is?”
“Yeah,” said Terry with a derisive snort, “its Hank Williams. That was his stage name for a while, his band was called the Drifting Cowboys. Why?”
“No reason.” Schertz gave an unconvincing shrug. “Hank Williams, eh? I did not know that and I’m a fan. That’s not the kind of stuff you CRAKers play though, is it?”
“No. Not often.” Terry felt a relapse of his hangover coming on. He dearly wished the cop would leave; he needed time to think. Schertz once again made as if to rise and depart, and again stopped and resumed speaking.
“We asked Lawrence Fisher to keep playing music over the air – semblance of normality you understand. Nice kid, really – apart from the hoop through his nose – but he’s pretty shook up. Perhaps an older fella, like you, ought to go down and hold the fort. And there’s one thing about you, Mr. Umble, that confuses me.” He focused his flinty eyes on Terry and dropped his voice. “The air is full of cigarette smoke, there are butts in your sink. I came bringing you quite upsetting news. I’ve been interrogating you now for a full half-hour and you haven’t reached for a smoke, haven’t even fidgeted. So let me tell you two things.” His voice dropped another grade, down to a guttural rumble. “First, you are not a smoker, sir. Second, if Earl Winker is here and you don’t say so now, I’m gonna bust your faggot ass.”
At this point Terry’s guest chose to enter upon the scene. She had been quietly hidden in the next room, absorbing every word. Hidden she could easily have remained, but sometimes mischief is all that much sweeter if you get caught. And so she sauntered in, wearing nothing but a fang-flashing grin and Terry’s kimono. “Mornin’ Henry,” she chirped.
Chief Schertz spluttered and choked as if he had swallowed his tongue. His cold stone-face erupted in lava and brimstone. “Kee-rist!” he managed at last. “Rue, what the fff… what the hell are you doing here!? And with this scumbag. My God, how you make your poppa gray. Too few goddamn spankings if you ask me.”
Rue cackled and invited the chief to give her a spank or two, thrusting a buttock in his direction. But it was Terry who the chief struck, landing a vicious backhand on the bewildered disc jockey’s temple and toppling him from his chair. Schertz stood over the fallen man and thrust a thick callused finger in his face. “You listen to me,” he hollered. “For the sake of her poor daddy I’m gonna let this slide – this time. Whatever she’s told you – she’s a devil – this girl is not yet seventeen. You know what that can mean. Her daddy’s a crack shot with the ten gauge, and if I see you hanging around her again, I’ll help him take you down myself.”
Terry did not even try to stir from the floor until the chief had slammed the door on his exit. Rue knelt down and smiled over him running a tender caress over the fresh knuckle-prints on his face. “Okay, so I’m not Kandy Florentine. Rue is a better name anyway, don’t you think? Don’t go believing all that stuff he said. Daddy doesn’t have a ten gauge, just a twenty-two for gophers and a four-ten for grouse. Should I put some more coffee on?”