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Killed in Fringe Time
A Matt Cobb Mystery
By William L. DeAndrea
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 William L. DeAndrea
All rights reserved.
I AM A FIRM BELIEVER in the concept that principles should never be affected by money. I am also a firm believer in the idea that you should always keep two months' rent in the bank, maintain a car length's distance from the car ahead of you for every ten miles per hour on your speedometer, and put Drano down the sink at least once a week.
Sometimes, though, you don't have any choice.
It was a Friday afternoon at the Network. I was supposed to be working, and I actually sort of was. That is, I was sitting in my chair in my office, holding official Network papers in front of my eyes and in some arcane manner unknown to science but familiar to most people stuck in offices on summer Friday afternoons somehow registering their contents without the actual use of any of my living brain cells.
I was occupying those in marveling at how in love I must be. I was going to give up a weekend in an air-conditioned luxury Central Park West apartment and drive to Maryland with a dog in order to spend Saturday with my girlfriend/lover/partner/inamorata (choose the one that offends you least) in and around a college dormitory, only to have to drive back on Sunday.
Add to this the fact that it was scheduled to be the hottest weekend of the summer, with temperatures virtually guaranteed to top a hundred each day, and my pathological hatred of hot weather and of driving (if they had public transportation in Antarctica, I'd live there) and you can see how the whole project should have filled me with dread.
Only it didn't. Roxanne had been gone for several weeks now, away at this special seminar she'd been chosen for, and I missed her enough not to mind the road or the heat.
Of course, that might change once I got out there and had to start dealing with them, but right now, I was very pleased with myself as the very model of the modern boyfriend/lover/partner/etc.
Quarter to four. I was trying to decide whether it was late enough to leave the office and beat some of the traffic. I could leave if I wanted to. As vice president in charge of Special Projects, the youngest VP at the Network, there was nobody to tell me to stay.
But Special Projects is also the smallest department at the Network, and the strangest. We're a euphemistically named bunch of troubleshooters handling everything that's too insecure for security and too private for Public Relations. We depend a lot on teamwork, and if I came on like most of the VPs around the Network, with long lunches and tennis and the rest, I'd probably wreck the rapport that made the department work with a modicum of efficiency and a minimum of nastiness.
And don't doubt for a second that the potential for nastiness is there. People complain about sex and violence on television, but what winds up on the screen is nothing. Television is a world of driven, insecure people who have to keep demonstrating their own existences to themselves with ever-increasing displays of fame or power or wealth or attractiveness.
Well, everybody in television isn't like that. Some of us are really wonderful people, once you get to know us. But there's enough of the crazy kind to set the ground rules. If you meet a normal-seeming TV performer or executive, you may assume this person is an island trying to remain afloat on a sea of insanity. You won't often be wrong.
I had just about decided to go the conspicuous virtue route, stick it out until five, and use my good feelings about myself to sustain me during the horrendous traffic jam I would undoubtedly find myself in, when the intercom on my desk buzzed at me.
"Mr. Cobb," came the Cuban-spiced voice of my secretary, Jasmyn Santiago. That meant I had a visitor. We're on a first-name basis in Special Projects except when we have company. "Mr. Cobb, Mr. Bentyne would like—"
I heard another voice, the famous friendly tones of Richard Bentyne. "Like, nothing. I'm going in."
"You can't—" Jazz said, and then she took her finger off the button and the connection went.
Now I heard a commotion outside the door. I went to it, pulled it open, and was awarded with a picture the National Enquirer would have paid a quarter of a million bucks for: the late-night talk show host the Network had recently given a forty-five-million-dollar contract to about to belt a low-to-mid five-figure-a-year secretary in the mouth.
It was a tableau that had everything. Bentyne was tall and very blond, Jazz a small brown Latina. The only mitigating factor was the fact that Bentyne wore glasses and Jazz didn't.
The glasses did nothing to hide the glint of crazy anger in Bentyne's eyes. Jazz, I think, was cowering away from that as much as from the upraised hand.
And that was where principle gave way to money. I do not care for men who strike women, or even threaten to. I like it even less when the man is big and the woman is small, and the woman is a friend and co-worker of mine.
So what principle called for here was for me to drop this schmuck with a hard shot to the side of the neck, which would have been a snap because of the way he'd been standing and because he only had eyes for his intended target.
Instead, I was given one of my rare flashes of foresight.
It came to me that the company that employed me at a comfortable but still humanly comprehensible sum had just agreed to tie up forty-five million dollars for this jerk. With whom would they side in a dispute? No bonus points for getting it on the first guess.
At the very least, I would be fired. Worse, Jazz would be fired.
So I didn't hit him. I darted my hand out and grabbed him by the wrist just as the hand started downward. I gave a hard jerk, and pulled him off-balance. He staggered into my office and across about ten feet of carpeting, but he didn't fall. I decided on balance that I was happy about that, although (in principle) I wouldn't have minded if he'd broken his neck.
I ignored him. "All right, Jazz," I told my secretary. "I'll take care of it from here. Are you all right? Do you want to lodge a complaint? With the Network or the law?"
Her dark eyes were pretty good at flashing anger, too, but apparently she had also been gifted with a flash of foresight. "No, that's all right, Matt. I'll trust you."
"You're sure, now."
She smiled a little. "Chure," she said, "This is the dirty tricks department, right? We'll think of some way to fix him and keep our jobs at the same time."
"Promise." I looked at my watch. "Look," I said, "it's after four. Why don't you take the rest of the day off?"
Jazz looked dubious. She was one of the most conscientious people I had ever met, and she had ways of making me toe the line as well. In this case, though, I got her to listen to me. She said she'd see me Monday, got her bag, and left. I closed the door behind her.
Richard Bentyne was sitting in my guest's chair, grinning the guileless grin that had charmed millions of late-night TV viewers.
"Excellent, Matt. Really, terrific." You might have thought I'd won the Guess the Punchline contest on his show, and was about to get two free dinners at Gage & Tollner over in Brooklyn. "You've saved me from bad publicity and probably a lawsuit, and you got that harpy the hell out of here. Now all you have to do is give her time to get home, and have someone call her and tell her that as long as she's taking the rest of the day off, she should take the rest of her life off."
I went and sat behind my desk. It's a very impressive piece of furniture, though less so when you find out that all sixty-seven VPs at the Network get identical ebony desks with black marble tops.
As soon as I was seated, Richard Bentyne laced his fingers behind his head and put his feet up on my desk.
I looked at him for a few seconds. All he needed to complete the picture was a big cigar jutting out of his mouth, but Bentyne was a militant, high-profile non-smoker. It was probably the only thing we had in common.
I kept waiting for him to say something, but he just sat there grinning at me.
"What am I supposed to do?" I said. "Read your mind or something?"
"The first thing you're supposed to do is arrange that phone call," he said amicably.
"I'm not arranging any phone calls."
He shrugged. "Or do it yourself, I don't care. But I want that bitch fired."
"You do, huh?"
"Yeah, I do. She laid hands on me in an unfriendly way. I don't like that."
"I didn't exactly caress you."
He grinned. "You were saving me from the tabloids. I'm not unreasonable, you know. I make allowances."
"I'm not unreasonable, either," I told him. "Tell you what. You want my secretary fired. I want Leno and Letterman crushed and broken in the ratings. When you've got that accomplished, then come back and tell me how to run my office. Only that time, wait to be let in. It's called 'manners.'"
"I see," he said without heat. "That's the way you want it, huh?"
"Exactly the way," I told him.
"All right, for now. You'd better hope you stay shacked up with Roxanne Schick forever. Maybe you'd better marry her—then community property ... is this a community property state? ... could make you a major stockholder in the Network, too."
"Mmmm," I said. "That would be nice. I could sign your checks, maybe."
Or maybe not, I thought. The first anybody'd heard of Richard Bentyne, he was doing a radio talk show in Waterloo, Iowa. He had a combination of boyishness, brashness, and venom that attracted attention even there.
I say "even there" not to put down Iowa; it's just that late-night talk shows aren't the major format in areas with a lot of agriculture, because too large a percentage of your audience has to go to bed early.
But Bentyne, apparently, was worth staying up for. He went from there to a daytime half-hour in Chicago, but in the land of Oprah Winfrey, he didn't fit. If Bentyne had a group of abused transvestite pipefitters who were blind in one eye, he wouldn't empathize with them, he'd laugh at them and invite the audience to do the same.
So the Chicago show bit the dust in thirteen weeks, and Bentyne drifted out to L.A., where he did some stand-up (not his best suit), wrote material for other comics, and eventually got his big break, a show on MTV. A talk show on Music Television seems like a contradiction in terms, but only to people who don't know what MTV is really about.
MTV is about being hip. This kind of music is hip. This kind of movie, these kinds of clothes, this kind of attitude, that political opinion, is hip. According to MTV, of course. It's a brilliant thing, really. Teenagers always feel like mutants, anyway, desperate to be accepted on any basis, and MTV provided an instant Rosetta Stone of hipness. You didn't even have to read a teen magazine to plug into it, all you needed was cable.
And, of course, the big appeal of hip is that it allows you, the former misfit, to join in the snide, patronizing contempt the hip always show to the unhip.
And that was the genius of Richard Bentyne. He'd get on the air, youthful-looking (though he was over forty by now), blond, conservatively dressed, seemingly guileless, and get famous people, from rock stars to politicians, to prove themselves to be utter fools, at the same time demonstrating his own immutable and ineffable hipness.
That hipness had an awful lot to do with cynicism. A rock star once came on the show and said it was no compliment to him that girls he didn't even know wanted to sleep with him because of how well he played his guitar.
That may strike you as rare intelligence among rock stars (it did me, when I saw the tape), but to Bentyne it was the occasion for ten minutes of less-than-subtle sarcasm. It was funny. No denying it was funny. But it was also sort of queasy-making, too.
My opinion was apparently in the minority, especially among executives at the various networks. When Bentyne's contract at MTV was up, they started falling all over each other to give the guy money, bring a fresh jolt of hipness to their channels. This was not entirely due to some adolescent desire on the part of the executives to be hip, though I won't deny that was part of it. The major reason they wanted all the hip viewers is that in order to be truly hip, you've got to spend a lot of money on really useless things. The manufacturers of useless things are assiduous advertisers, and they'll pay a premium to reach the right victims. I mean consumers.
So rich a prize was the man perceived to be that all the networks plus several syndication outfits bid for him. NBC and CBS had already committed their eleven-thirty EST time slots to traditionalist Jay Leno and proto-hipster David Letterman respectively.
Like Letterman before him, Bentyne had his heart (or whatever organ he used for these things) set on the classic, post-local-news time slot, so NBC and CBS were out of it from the beginning. ABC had the prestige news show, Nightline. Therefore ABC couldn't guarantee the station clearances, and they were out of the Bentyne sweepstakes.
The syndicators lost out for the same reason. There aren't that many markets with more than three commercial stations in the first place.
That left Fox and us, and we simply offered more money. So we won.
Bentyne decided to do his show in New York, so the Network bought him a movie theater on Broadway (hey, what the hell, Manhattan real estate is always a good investment) and spent another few million converting it to a TV studio.
And in that studio he was now ensconced, along with an announcer, an orchestra, a staff of writers, and his producer since MTV days, Vivian Pike, who was also his live-in girlfriend.
The show debuted back in May, and while he hadn't replaced Leno or Letterman in the public's affections, he was pulling over twice the ratings of the old movies we'd been showing in that time slot.
At that rate, in the insanely inflated world of TV, the contract would probably turn out to have been a bargain.
But the mood around the Tower of Babble was less than ecstatic. I, thankfully, had not had to do much dealing with Richard Bentyne, and the little exposure I'd had to him (this afternoon, for instance) had done nothing to get his name added to my Christmas card list. Still, the word was that if the man had a saving grace, it was that he really did care about putting on a good show.
In fact, he had ambitions beyond just "good." He wanted to be fresh and innovative as well.
This was a laudable goal. It was also impossible. By the early sixties, Steve Allen and Jack Paar between them had invented every single thing it's possible to do on a TV talk show, from taking guests right off the street to taking the show to exotic locations, to wacky stunts, to working the audience. The only thing that had changed was things were a whole lot raunchier these days. Jack Paar once quit his show because NBC censored a joke about a "water closet."
That seems quaint in an era preschool kids can sit on their mother's laps and watch Phil or Oprah talk to a bunch of homosexuals who have cheated on their lovers with transvestite lesbians, but it was a fact.
Richard Bentyne could tell jokes about water closets or homosexuals who had cheated, etc.; in fact he had, scratching his head and wondering if such an act were more perverted or less than what they usually did. Got away with it, too—his lovable/cynical persona somehow placed him outside the bounds of the television religion of Political Correctness.
And so he was rich and free (he had complete control of the show) but he was not happy. Too many of the reviews of his show had said that he was too much like other talk show hosts.
That really scalded him, because in his hipness, he didn't consider himself to be doing a talk show—those were for the rubes. Richard Bentyne was doing a parody of talk shows, a satire of them. Stars came on the show to be skewered (which is why so few of them came back); even the audience entered at their own risk.
Anybody hip enough count knew that. Except the critics. Unhip though they might be, they still counted, because the press always gets the last word, and they could hurt him.
Which was something very few other people in the world could do. Practically nobody at the Network could, and keep his job. I certainly wasn't among them.
And yet, here he was, having made a special trip over from his Broadway domain to make trouble for me at four-fifteen on a Friday afternoon.
"Hey," I said. "Don't you tape at five-thirty?"
"Sure do. Want to come watch?"
"Watch what? You're over here."
Excerpted from Killed in Fringe Time by William L. DeAndrea. Copyright © 1995 William L. DeAndrea. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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