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Killed on the Rocks
A Matt Cobb Mystery
By William L. DeAndrea
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 William L. DeAndrea
All rights reserved.
... on the road in upstate New York. —Charles Kuralt, "CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite" CBS
YOU MIGHT HAVE THOUGHT the New York State Thruway was a three-hundred-mile- long runway, and the stretch Lincoln limousine a particularly inefficient airplane. The limo was so trunk-heavy, the nose of the thing pointed upward at a perceptible angle. The front wheels were so light on the asphalt that the driver was steering with one finger.
My contribution to the overload was one suitbag and one small suitcase. There had hardly been room for them. Fully half the trunk had been taken up with financial reports and "draft instruments," courtesy Charles R. Wilberforce, of the Network's Legal Department. The rest of it was filled up with stuff. Wintertime stuff. Fun stuff. Some of it belonged to Carol Coretti, Wilberforce's assistant, but most of it was the property of Roxanne Schick. Roxanne was the granddaughter of the founder of the Network, and the daughter of a past president.
In her early twenties, she was one of the richest women in the world.
She was also the Network's largest single stockholder, though aside from depositing dividend checks, she hadn't had much to do with the family business before now.
She frequently said she hated the Network. She claimed the Network had been responsible for the various catastrophes that had befallen her family (father's death, mother's insanity, grandfather's suicide). She was not unjustified in making that claim. She didn't blame the Network for causing her to run away from home, and become hooked on drugs, walking the streets to support her habit, and I was proud of her for that. A lot of social-worker types would have let her get away with it, but accepting responsibility for her own actions was a big part of what had kept her straight all these years.
But this trip was one bit of company business that was not going to be allowed to take place in her absence. Not only was she going into seclusion with the rest of us at G. B. Dost's Adirondack retreat, she was treating it like a school trip. She was wearing corduroy slacks and a sweater with DEER knitted on it and a fake-fur-lined parka and a wool hat with a little pom-pom. Her eyes were bright, and she was bouncing on the seat beside me. I would say she looked like a fifteen-year-old, except I'd first met her when she was fifteen, and then she was a strung-out junkie, emaciated and damn near dead.
This was a decided improvement, I thought. Even if the reason for all this glee was that she was on her way to sell the Network.
Just north of Albany, where the Thruway runs into the Northway, Roxanne gasped, and grabbed my arm. "Cobb!" she cried.
Wilberforce looked up from a file he'd been reading. He had no expression on his face, but then he never did. His grayish-pink skin was on so tight, I didn't think he could move his face if he wanted to. It was a wonder he could talk.
Carol Coretti's face showed real concern. She was a tall woman, auburn-haired, my age or a little older, with a pleasantly lupine face. She asked if something was wrong at the same time I said, "What's the matter, Rox?"
"We forgot your skis!"
Wilberforce went back to his file. He managed to radiate disgust, even if he couldn't show it. Carol Coretti smiled. I wondered how someone as nice as she seemed managed to survive daily contact with a fish like Wilberforce.
I turned to Roxanne. "No, we didn't," I said.
"Yes," she insisted. "I saw Ralph repacking the trunk when we picked you up." Ralph was the driver. "There were only two sets of skis and poles in there, mine and Miss Coretti's."
"Call me Carol," Carol said.
Wilberforce looked up from his paper for a second, just daring somebody to call him Charlie.
Roxanne declined the dare. "I already know Mr. Wilberforce didn't bring any skis."
"Yeah. Neither did I."
"Why not, Matt? Rocky Point has two private downhill runs, and a private lift. Do you know what that means? No lines. And it's been snowing up there on and off for weeks. The weather forecast calls for four to five inches of fresh powder."
"It's snowing now," Carol Coretti said.
I hooked a curtain aside with my finger and looked. It was indeed snowing, fat little powder puffs that hit the cold asphalt, then blew across the road like miniature tumbleweeds. That couldn't last—they'd start sticking to the road before too long. I hoped the limo and Ralph were up to it. The load in the trunk would be good for traction, at any rate.
Roxanne was delighted. She saw the snow only as a source of fun, not as an inconvenience, or even a driving hazard. I've noticed that skiers have a tendency to think that way.
"Oh," she said. "Look at it. Do you think it will be like that all the way up?"
"Ask Ralph to try to get a weather forecast on the radio," I suggested.
She ignored me. "I hope it is," she said. "Lots of fresh powder and no lines. I'm finally going to get as much skiing in as I want to."
"I've already gotten in as much skiing as I want to," I said.
Carol Coretti was suppressing a grin. "Have you had many bad skiing experiences, Mr. Cobb?"
"Matt," I said. "We're all on the same side here, right? But to answer your question, I have never had any bad experiences skiing, because I have never been skiing."
"But I thought you said—"
"Right. And that's exactly how much skiing I want to do in my life. None. I can feel my ankles snapping just watching 'Wide World of Sports.'"
"Cobb, I don't believe it," Roxanne said. "I've finally found something you're afraid of."
"You haven't been looking very hard."
"Well, I'm sure any place like Rocky Point is sure to have some equipment for guests. I'll teach you to ski, don't worry."
"I'm not worried. And neither you nor you assisted by a company of United States Marines is going to get a pair of those things on my feet. You ski. I'll build snowmen. Or better yet, I'll do some work. I'm getting paid for this, you know."
Without looking up from his papers, Wilberforce said softly, "Hear, hear."
My God, I thought. Wilberforce made a joke. We hadn't even arrived yet, and things were already getting weird.CHAPTER 2
All things are as they were then, except ... You Are There! —Walter Cronkite, "You Are There" (CBS)
THIS WHOLE THING HAD started out to be fairly weird.
I had shown up for work one morning about a week earlier to find my secretary waving a message slip at me.
"Mr. Falzet wants to see you," she sang. The last word of the sentence wasn't quite "joo." Jasmyn Santiago had been a child when her family fled Cuba, but she still had the tiniest trace of an accent. She had a lot more of a trace of a stern, Hispanic-Catholic sense of the rightness of things, and she's always scolding me about not sharing it. She's younger than I am, and looks like a fashion model (she once told me she gets up at 5:00 A.M. to do her makeup), but the person in the world she reminds me of most is my grandmother.
"What's the matter?" I demanded. "Am I late again? It's got to be before nine o'clock." It's a talent I have. Under any circumstances, ask me what time it is, and I'll tell you correct to the nearest ten minutes. In my entire life, it had come in handy once. This time, on the defensive, I looked at my watch. I showed it to Jazz. "See? Eight fifty-seven and a couple of seconds."
She wouldn't look. She closed her eyes and shook her head. "I don't care," she said. "When your boss gets in before you do, you are late."
Mmmm, I thought. A fairly stringent requirement. I tried to think of an occasion on which I'd beaten Jazz to the office, but couldn't. There had been times I'd stayed in Net HQ overnight, but I don't think they counted.
I decided to change the subject. "What the hell does Falzet want, anyway?"
Tom Falzet was president of the Network, and had been since Walter Schick's ultimately fatal accident. If I had to make a list of The Ten Most Obnoxious People I have ever known, Tom Falzet would take up the first six places on it. My name would occupy at least as big a percentage of his list.
We managed to do our jobs and avoid each other. The only reason he ever wants to see me is to rip off a piece of my hide, and the only time he ever feels safe doing that is when we're in the middle of some Network-threatening crisis. He feels safe then because handling crises for the Network is my job. I'm vice-president in charge of Special Projects. "Special Projects" is the title some nameless propaganda genius gave years ago to the part of the Network that would handle everything too nasty for the Legal Department, and too sensitive for Public Relations. If the wholesome star of one of our family sitcoms is strung out on dope, we'll try to keep it quiet while he gets straightened out. If he doesn't get straightened out, we'll arrange some other kind of reason for him to leave the show. That kind of thing. I'd never lusted after the job, and sometimes I didn't want it now, but I had it, and I did the best I could. I tried to keep things as legal as necessary and as moral as possible.
The reason Falzet is afraid the rest of the time to make my life the living hell he thinks I deserve is that he's afraid I will use my influence with Roxanne Schick to screw him over. He's safe. I fight my own battles. But he doesn't have to know that.
I didn't rush upstairs in answer to Falzet's summons, but I didn't dawdle, either. There isn't too much to dawdle over in that building. The architect who'd built the place had decreed a stark, black-and-white decor, with no decorations in the hallways except for exit signs. It's a running joke around the Network that one of biggest health hazards of working at the place was snow blindness.
The elevator was brushed aluminum. Riding in it was like being inside a cigar tube. I took it all the way to the top, the thirty-seventh floor, and told the receptionist that Mr. Falzet was expecting me.
"Yes, Mr. Cobb," she said. Her eyes said, "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."
I put on a brave face and walked in.
Falzet's office is enormous. It takes up the entire floor of the building. Some executives use their offices as putting greens. If he wanted to, Falzet could play a par-four hole of golf in his.
As always, he sat behind a polished ebony desk as big as a grand piano, watching me cross the room. I told him once that anyone could tell he was a big shot because there was nothing on his desk but a telephone.
As I walked across the expanse of black carpet, Falzet kept staring at me. Every once in a while, I had to go down or up a few stairs, which the architect had undoubtedly put in to keep the office from looking like an abandoned bowling alley.
Falzet is in his late fifties, a good-looking man in a big-toothed, horsey kind of way. He has the slightest trace of a southern accent. When I had crossed enough of his office to draw within earshot, he said, "Good morning."
This was a far cry from his usual greeting to me ("What is the meaning of this"). It made me take a closer look at him.
This was a surprise, too. He wasn't angry. He wasn't happy, but he wasn't angry. Worried was more like it.
"Sit down, Cobb, sit down." This, too, was virtually unprecedented. I plunked myself down in a matte-finish black leather chair and waited for what might come next.
"What I'm about to tell you is a secret, Cobb."
"I've always treated all our, ah, conversations as confidential."
"Good. This one, even more so."
Falzet took a deep breath. Whatever it was, it tasted bad enough to make him want to keep it off his tongue. Finally, he just spat it out all at once.
"The Network is a takeover target," he said.
"Oh," I said. "Well, there have been rumors ever since the other three went."
It was true. Over the past few years, the other major networks had been "acquired," as they say in the brokerage ads. ABC was swallowed by a smaller company called Capital Cities (business does not obey the laws of physics), NBC merged with General Electric—actually, reunited with them, since GE was one of the companies that founded NBC back in the twenties. The three-note bong bong bong signature NBC has used for years is g-e-c, standing for General Electric Corporation.
Where was I? Oh, right. Acquisitions. CBS, facing possible hostile takeovers, had found a white knight in the person of Lawrence Tisch, who had megabucks from the Loew's theater chain and other businesses, and who was a good friend of CBS founder and chairman William Paley.
Now, I am the owner of a few dozen shares of Network stock—some I bought on purpose, and some that were bestowed on me from time to time by virtue of my being a vice-president—but Big Business and High Finance are beyond me. I'm the kind of person who figures it's less wearing to take the bank's word for what my balance is at the end of the month than it is to do all that arithmetic.
Still, I had the occasional lunch with Betsy McCarren from the Finance Department, and I had long elevator rides with some of the Network's big money men, and I had picked up a hint or two.
One thing I'd gleaned is that the world of big business is as prone to fashion as a suburban high school. There was a time when, if you owed money, you were in debt, and were to be avoided at all costs. Now, if you owe enough, you are said to have used "leverage," and people ooh and ahh about how smart you are. And just like the year everybody in the building I live in bought a VCR, the current trend in the financial world was to buy or sell a TV network, depending, of course, on whether you already owned one.
The psychology of fashion was at work in the business world even more strongly on this one, because unlike VCRs, TV networks are always in limited supply. Rupert Murdoch's Fox Network was too new for him to want to sell, and too small to be a satisfying meal for a Wall Street shark. The other networks had already been eaten.
That left us.
"Who wants to buy us?" I asked hopefully. "Ted Turner?"
Falzet blanched. Apparently Turner had the same effect on him that Falzet usually had on me.
"My God, Cobb, don't even think that! The last thing—" He stopped. He looked at me with something close to panic in his eyes. "You haven't heard anything, have you?"
I almost laughed. I had made a point of irritating the man for such a long time, it was something very close to a habit. I decided not to, for two reasons. One, he was being amazingly civil, for him, and two, he was really scared over this.
"Nonono," I said. "This is the first I've heard about anything, beyond vague rumors."
"Then why did you say what you did?"
"Just speculating. I thought maybe if Turner bought the Network, he could colorize the building."
Falzet was bitter. "You may find the situation a fit matter for jokes, Cobb, but there's nothing funny about it. This is a billion-dollar corporation, in a government-regulated industry, with responsibilities and opportunities unlike those of any other sort of business. We have stockholders to protect, and a public trust to be true to."
"Yes, sir," I said. One of the reasons I still worked for the Network was that for all he was a petty tyrant and a major pain in the ass, Tom Falzet honestly believed all that stuff. More than that, he was honest, period. In this day and age, that was refreshing.
"Negotiations," he went on, "will be extremely delicate, and must be handled with the exact same care the government would give to nuclear-arms talks."
Well, I thought, all good things must come to an end. It had been ten minutes or so since I'd entered the room, and Falzet hadn't hit one of my linguistic pet peeves until just now. "The exact same" doesn't mean "exactly the same." If it means anything, it means "The same that has been taken away." I know it's a losing battle, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.
"With whom?" I said. I don't usually say "whom," but being with Falzet always makes me watch my grammar.
He begged my pardon.
"With whom are these negotiations to be held?" I asked, maybe overdoing it a little.
"Dost," he said.
"Ah," I said. I mentioned picking things up from financial people around the Network, but I could have known who G. B. Dost was just from looking at the headlines on other people's newspapers in the subway.
Excerpted from Killed on the Rocks by William L. DeAndrea. Copyright © 1990 William L. DeAndrea. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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