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The whole business started at Lily Rowan's Super Bowl party. If that sounds cryptic—good; I read someplace once that the best way to hook a reader at the start of a story is with something cryptic, so there you are.
Anyway, around Thanksgiving Lily got the idea she should toss a big Super Bowl bash in her penthouse palace on East Sixty-third just off Park Avenue. For years, Lily and I have been what some might choose to call "special friends," and in all that time, I never detected in her even the merest flicker of interest in pro football. Baseball, basketball, and hockey are different stories—I can always coax her to Shea or the Garden for a game.
"Oh, you know me," she said when I expressed surprise about the proposed festivities, "I don't care a fig for the game, for heaven's sake. It's just such a wonderful excuse to get people together in the middle of the winter—at least those who haven't gone off to Gstaad or St. Moritz or the Caribbean." That might sound like place-dropping, but given many of the people Lily knows, it's simply accurate reporting. As it turned out, I wasn't all that excited about the Super Bowl myself. Both teams were from burgs more than a thousand miles from Manhattan, and the strongest offensive weapon each had was a sawed-off field-goal kicker with an unpronounceable Middle-European name.
But never mind the football, the party on that January Sunday exceeded even Lily's usual lavish standards. It drew a shade over a hundred of her nearest and dearest friends, at least those who had passed up Switzerland or the islands. A tuxedoed, five-piece band usually booked into the Churchill Hotel's Velvet Lounge made sweet sounds in the sun room. Red-jacketed mixologists poured drinks at bars in the living room, game room, and den, and waitresses moved through the crowd every thirteen seconds with trays of canapés, shrimp, fresh vegetables, quiche, and assorted other goodies. The game itself was on six screens in various rooms, although well over half of the guests were more interested in mingling than in rooting for guys in red-and-gold or brown-and-white uniforms. The hostess, looking lovely in a light gray number and gold shoes, moved smoothly from cluster to cluster, pausing to talk to everyone—even me, her escort. "See, darling," she whispered, giving me an impish look, "nobody cares about that damnable game. They're here to eat, drink, dance, and Lord knows, maybe even gossip."
"Who can quarrel with those lofty goals?" said I, brushing her dusty blond hair with a hand and enjoying the scent of Uninhibited. She drifted off toward another group and I found myself talking to a couple named Pembroke that Lily and I had sat with at a benefit dinner a couple of years back. They hadn't become any more interesting in the interim, so I excused myself to get a drink at the nearest bar, where I ran into a glum-faced, sandy-haired guy who bore a more than middling resemblance to Robert Redford.
He introduced himself as Rod Mills. "And you're Archie Goodwin, the detective—right?" he asked, sticking out a firm paw. I pled guilty, and while we both stirred our Scotches, I inquired as to what he did for a living, to be polite.
He shrugged deprecatingly. "Advertising."
"Would I know your work?" I asked, still in the polite mode.
"You might," he answered, scratching the back of his neck. "Our biggest account—we're Mills/Lake/Ryman—is Cherr-o-key. You know, the soft drink."
"Sure. Say, didn't I read something in the Times or the Gazette last week about a spectacular Cherr-o-key commercial that's going to be on during the Super Bowl?"
"Why do you think I'm keeping one eye on that stupid screen? Certainly not because of the game." He gestured dismally toward the nearest tube. "It's going to be shown at halftime—the network willing. I quit smoking two years ago, but God, I could use a cigarette now."
"Rod! Come on, I'm getting everybody together in the game room, where they've got the big screen!" The voice was breathless, and it belonged to a svelte creature who probably made most of the men she met breathless, too. "Hi," she bubbled to me, tossing long black hair in a practiced but pleasing manner. "I'm Dawn Tillison."
"Ah, yes, Lily has mentioned you," I said with a slight bow. "You've worked together on a charity board, right?"
"That's right, Mr. ..."
"Dawn, this is Archie Goodwin," Mills said. "He's—"
"Oh, now I know—he's Lily's good friend," she put in, appraising me with purple eyes. I sensed a shrewdness beneath the surface effervescence. "I recognize the name. I've heard so much about you, Mr. Goodwin—it's a real pleasure." Those see-all eyes danced when she said it, making me want to believe every word that passed her nicely formed lips. I assured her the pleasure was mutual, but that it would increase exponentially if she'd call me Archie. She solemnly promised she would, but it was clear that at the moment, all she could think about was Mills's commercial. "Come on, hurry," she said to both of us, taking a somber Mills by the hand and smiling at me. I trotted along and found myself joined by one L. Rowan, who linked her arm in mine.
"I see you've met Rod and Dawn," she said as we fell a few steps behind them. "Aren't they a good-looking couple?"
"I hadn't studied him terribly closely," I told her, getting a light dig in the ribs as a reward for my honesty. "Still avoiding the game?"
"I haven't watched an instant of it," Lily purred, "but I was just told that I'm sixty dollars ahead in a pool, something about points scored. I don't understand it. All I know is a group in the sun room was putting together this pool thing before the game started and I threw in ten dollars, just to be sociable. I didn't even pay any attention to the numbers I drew, but they wrote them down in squares on some sort of a chart."
"A little more of that kind of sociability on your part, and all of your millionaire guests will go home broke. Say, how do you happen to know Mills?"
"Rod? Oh, through Dawn—she's been going out with him for three or four months. He's divorced, and apparently is very successful in advertising, so she tells me, although she's hardly unbiased. She's crazy about him."
Just then Dawn Tillison hushed the crowd, or at least the thirty or so of us who had squeezed into the game room. "Here it comes," she said excitedly. "Everybody quiet now."
"I feel like I'm on a movie set about to watch Streep and Nicholson in action," I whispered to Lily, who tugged at my sleeve to shut me up. The rest of the buzzing subsided, and for several seconds, we all watched a station break that informed us in multicolored, computer-generated words and graphics and reverential tones that there was more to come on the "Super Bowl Halftime Spec-TAC-u-lar!"
"This is it," Dawn injected unnecessarily as the familiar "Breaking Free with Cherr-o-key" theme song assaulted our ears—sung, I later learned, by the hottest of the new British rock groups. The giant screen exploded with single-engine planes flying in formation, filmed at different angles from other planes or helicopters. Then, simultaneously, tiny figures dropped from each of the planes and hurtled earthward, causing gasps in the darkened room.
Next, again almost simultaneously, parachutes with the red-and-yellow Cherro-key logo on them burst open above each of the plummeting figures, and they floated to earth, all landing in a field while the rock group pounded home the theme. Each of the skydivers, photogenic young men and women in red-and-yellow jumpsuits emblazoned with the soft drink's logo, were shown moments after they alighted, triumphantly holding up cans of Cherr-o-key that they presumably had clutched to their contented bosoms as they floated earthward.
The instrumental volume soared. The skydivers popped the tops of their cans in unison, leaned back, and began pouring the red stuff down their throats to the heavenly lyrics " ... breaking free with Cherr-o-key, oh yes, oh yes ... Cherr-o-key and you and me, oh yes, oh yes ..." The closing shot, taken from the air, showed the divers joining hands and forming a large C around one of the parachutes, neatly laid out on the ground to display the bright logo. As the screen faded to black, applause broke out spontaneously. There were cries of "Way to go, Rod!" and "Good show!" and "How many skydivers were there?"
"Sixteen," Mills shot back, passing a handkerchief over his forehead. He looked to be more nervous than the coaches of the Super Bowl teams. "I should know—I had to authorize the damned insurance for each and every one of 'em. And for sixteen pilots, too. And you should have seen the bill for renting the planes—not to mention the choppers."
Laughter followed and a half-dozen people lined up to shake hands with the perspiring adman before moving back to their respective game-watching seats or conversation groups. Dawn Tillison was last in the receiving line. She put her arms around Mills, kissing him and whispering something that caused his ears to turn red. I looked discreetly away and made for the bar.
I was stirring my refill when Mills walked up and ordered, his ears now more or less back to their normal color. "You've earned that drink," I told him. "That was some production."
"Thanks," he said, exhaling noisily. "I'm glad that's over. It took a lot of work by a lot of people, to say nothing of money."
"I can imagine. Were the kids on the ground drinking Cherr-o-key the same ones who'd jumped?"
Mills took a healthy swig of his Scotch, then shook his head. "That's part of what made the spot so damn expensive. Skydivers are an okay-looking bunch on the whole, but we wanted beautiful for the close-ups, you know? The skydivers—we got them from clubs in California, where the commercial was shot about six weeks ago—their part was over the second they hit the ground. The bunch in the close-ups were actors and models—another sixteen people to pay. Not to mention the camera crews in the other planes and the choppers."
"Well, cost aside, you've got to be feeling pretty good right now," I told him.
The adman let his shoulders sag. "I'm just glad the thing has run. Oh, given what it cost to put together, it'll be on again, sometimes in shorter versions—this one was sixty seconds. But the Super Bowl slot was the big one." He set his drink carefully on the bar and gave me a thoughtful look. "You know, originally Dawn and I were going to watch the game at my place, just the two of us. But then we got the invitation from Lily, and I remembered that you and she are, well ..."
"Right. I guess I must have read it somewhere, maybe in one of the columns, or maybe Dawn mentioned it once. Anyway, I figured you'd be at any party Lily gave, and I wanted to meet you."
"Okay, I'll bite—why?"
He frowned and rubbed his chin. Despite the apparent success of the ad, his expression remained troubled. "I know Nero Wolfe doesn't take on very many cases—I read that somewhere, too. But I was hoping to interest him, and you, of course, in a problem our agency is having ..."
"You're right about Mr. Wolfe. On his priority scale, work is somewhere down around visiting the dentist for a root canal job. Care to tell me a little bit about it? Sometimes I can get him interested, or at least irritated enough with me to consider accepting a fee, if only to shut me up." What I didn't mention was that our bank account, although not anemic, could stand a healthy transfusion. It had been nearly three months since Wolfe had added to the treasury by noodling out which of seven officers had been embezzling from a bank in a little Connecticut burg.
Mills shot the hovering bartender a wary look, and we took our drinks and moved away to a corner out of earshot. He still looked uncomfortable—and glum—but after sampling Lily's Scotch a time or two more, he indulged himself in another deep breath and started in.
"I don't know how familiar you are with the advertising world, so if I'm being too elementary, tell me. First off, it's hellishly cutthroat, particularly when you're dealing with products—or services—that are themselves in a cutthroat market. And dammit, there's nothing much more cutthroat than soft drinks."
"As in Coke versus Pepsi? I don't watch TV all that much, but when I do, it seems like one of the two has a commercial running every fifteen minutes."
"Yeah, and also as in Cherr-o-key versus AmeriCherry, although their ad budgets aren't in the same league with Coke and Pepsi. However, cherry drinks are really hot right now. Personally I can't stand 'em," he said, lowering his voice and making a face, "but I'm telling you, at the moment they can't make the stuff fast enough."
"So what's the problem?"
"The problem is, AmeriCherry ..." He sighed, as if he hated to pronounce the name. "AmeriCherry, our client's big competitor, has a mole in our shop, or so it seems."
"Mole—as in industrial espionage?"
Mills nodded, sawing his lower lip with his teeth. "Yeah, in effect. For the last two major Cherr-o-key campaigns we've planned, AmeriCherry beat us out with practically the identical execution."
"Great minds, et cetera?"
"No way. These were too damned close to be coincidences. My partners and I are absolutely convinced that our creative is getting leaked to the agency that handles AmeriCherry."
"You talked to anybody over there about it?"
"Hell, no. Those arrogant bastards—it's Colmar and Conn—are probably twenty-five times our size, if not more. Besides, if there is a leak, which seems sure, it's got to be starting in our place, or with people we use."
"So you're suggesting that Mr. Wolfe find the leak?"
"We sure haven't had any luck trying to plug it ourselves." Mills sounded bitter.
"Well, they didn't beat you on the skydiving thing," I said.
He allowed himself a sour smile. "No, but that was pretty much a one-shot blockbuster, rather than a continuing campaign, although it cost several hundred thou, about as much as a whole campaign. And even with the blockbuster, I've been worried stiff we'd see something like it out of the competition before today. I really was, and so were my partners. They've probably been sitting in front of their TV sets at home sweating just like I have here."
"I must tell you that this isn't the kind of job Mr. Wolfe normally takes," I cautioned. "I won't completely rule it out, but for one thing, he's not a great fan of either television or advertising." I could have been less diplomatic in my phrasing, as in Wolfe loathes most of what's on the tube and virtually all the advertising he sees, both on TV and in the papers and magazines, but I saw no reason to alienate a possible client.
"But he does like money," Mills countered.
Mills leaned forward, setting his jaw. His face had taken on an unhealthy tinge. "Mr. Goodwin—Archie—for our agency, this is serious on a cosmic level. We're fairly new, and growing, but we're not exactly large yet, probably never will be, which is all right. Cherr-o-key is far and away our biggest account. The agency's income this year will be around four and a half million, piddling compared to the big guys, and Cherr-o-key will account for about two million eight, or a little better than sixty percent of the bottom line. Without them, we're hurting both in the financial and the prestige departments, to say nothing of how many people we'd have to lay off if we lost their business. We—that includes my two partners, Boyd Lake and Sara Ryman—desperately need to meet with Mr. Wolfe."
I studied Mills as he talked and decided that his problem was worth incurring the irritation of the czar who signs my checks. "Okay, I will take this up with him either tonight or tomorrow morning."
"I appreciate that," he said, nodding soberly and handing me his card. "I'm glad we were able to talk."
"Me too. After all, the alternative was watching the dullest football game since they outlawed the flying wedge."
That actually got a chuckle out of him, which was something. This was a man who didn't look like he'd been laughing much lately.
Excerpted from Fade To Black by Robert Goldsborough. Copyright © 1990 Robert Goldsborough. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted June 1, 2013
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