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Killed with a Passion
A Matt Cobb Mystery
By William L. DeAndrea
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 William L. DeAndrea
All rights reserved.
"This is a job ... for Superman!" —Clayton (Bud) Collyer, "The Adventures of Superman" (MBS)
I HAD ALREADY SENT my regrets, but it looked as though I'd be going to the wedding after all. The wedding was set for upstate Sewanka, New York, the last week of April. So, apparently, was the Network's next round of trouble.
I sighed and pushed away the pile of reports Marty Adelman had brought me about an hour and a half ago. Marty was in charge of the newly created Network Cable Arts programming system; he was convinced the Network was getting shafted all over upstate New York. As far as I could tell, he was right.
I was in my office on the thirty-sixth floor of Network International Headquarters, more familiarly known as the Tower of Babble. Look at this building from the outside, and you'll see a neat stack of dark gray rock punctuated by tinted windows. Inside, you'll find offices and studios, restaurants and shops.
And a lot of nervous people. Television may be, as some critics claim, an electronic tranquilizer for the masses, but for the people who work in it, it's a stimulant more powerful than any amphetamine. At the Network—at all the networks—we deal in three dangerous drugs: money, power, and fame. It's a rare individual who doesn't get hooked on one of them.
I buzzed my secretary. "Yes, Matt?" she said. I run a very informal outfit—first names only, unless we have company.
"Jazz," I said, "ring Marty Adelman and tell him I'm coming down to see him."
Jasmyn Santiago has the proud blood of Cuba in her. She's never gotten over her strict upbringing by refugee parents forced by Castro to find a new home, where they had to live far below their station. She's a walking directory of Network protocol, and she gets very upset with me on those frequent occasions when my dignity slips.
Her position this time was that I should summon Marty Adelman to me. After all, I was Vice-President in charge of Special Projects, and he was only Director of Cable Programming, one whole order of magnitude below me. She put it as a suggestion, but it was really a reproach. I ignored it. I heard a frustrated noise before she clicked off, but she smiled and shook her head indulgently as I walked by her on the way out.
Marty Adelman was one of the rare individuals at the Network, one of the unhooked ones. I was the youngest vice-president at the Network—the youngest, in fact, in the whole Corporation. I'm not bragging. I really didn't have much to do with it; it was mostly luck. The jury is still out on what kind of luck, but the fact remains that a person my age having my position usually feels a certain amount of resentment from coworkers.
I never got anything like that from Marty. I don't think he even knew his own title. To Marty, the Network wasn't really a career; it was merely a means to an end. Marty had been born with the zeal of a missionary; unfortunately, he belonged to a religion that doesn't evangelize.
So Marty's mission became the Arts. He had worked for Ed Sullivan, spotting top opera singers and ballet troupes for Ed to put on his show. When that had gone off the air, Marty had been hired by the Network as a cultural adviser, in a blatant public relations move.
Marty hadn't cared. He'd worked very hard and had actually managed to get some of his stuff on the air. When cable TV took off and the Network decided it was feasible to program for a fragmented audience (especially for high-income culture vultures), Marty was a natural choice to head the operation.
He was in his element at last. It was a pleasure to see him in the hallways, he was always so happy.
But he wasn't too happy this morning. He had his elbows on his desk and his face in his hands, looking down at something in front of him. "Sit down, Matt," he told me gloomily. "I'll be with you in a second."
I sat and looked around at his framed posters from plays and art shows. Marty was the only person in the building who could have gotten away with that. All the rest of us were forbidden to remove the crap wished on our walls by the Network's official decorator. Instead of a TV, Marty had a big stereo set in his office. He was humming along with the classical music on WNCN.
It took longer than a second. Marty kept reading; every once in a while he'd shake his head slowly and curse under his breath. I think that was one of the reasons for Marty's success: He looked and acted like a regular guy. Many cultured persons I have met I have not liked because they were snobs.
Marty wasn't like that, and his attitude helped him enormously in his dealings with the rest of us philistines here at the Network. He would do everything in his power to get you to like Puccini, but he'd never try to get you to stop listening to ABBA, if that's what you happened to like. He looked like a fairly decent middleweight fighter a few years into retirement, and he always went around with his tie loose and his sleeves rolled up.
I liked him. That would make the impending job easier to tolerate.
Marty finished reading his report, then slid it across the desk to me. "You don't really have to look at it," he told me. "It's the same as all the others."
"Aced out again, huh?"
"Shafted again, Matt. I'm sure of it. This is the fifth one in a row, over a year and a half now. That report's on Sparta, and that's only the latest. But what the hell am I telling you for? You've read the other reports." Marty tugged at his hair in exasperation, uncoiling heavy brown curls at either side of his head. It made him look remarkably like a buffalo.
"Same setup as the others? Five or six competing applicants for the franchise, all but one or two of whom have agreed to carry Network Cable Arts when they get wired up?"
"Exactly," Marty said. "Only they never get the franchise. It's always one of the outfits that won't carry NCA who wins. It stinks, Matt. You've got to do something about it."
There was the tiniest touch of desperation in his voice, and I didn't blame him. At last count, the Network had sunk twenty million dollars in NCA, with no profit in sight. It wasn't that twenty million was such a vast sum—in Network terms it isn't; they put that much into a bad situation comedy—it was the fact that if cable systems didn't put NCA on, no one could watch it. If no one could watch it, it would never grow. It would become a Failure. Then would begin the great Network game known among the executives as Covering Your Ass. The first guy to suggest axing NCA would be a hero, and Marty would be out of a job. And the viewers would miss out on all that culture.
It was my job to do something about it. This was the kind of thing Special Projects was designed to handle. I didn't design it—I just inherited it. Still, I cashed the paychecks; I might as well do the job.
I don't know who came up with the name "Special Projects," but the man was the Shakespeare of ambiguity. I'd worked at the Network almost two years before I was transferred to Special Projects, and I had no idea until I got there what a "Special Project" was.
The basic job broke down into four parts: (a) to keep the Network from getting into trouble or from being inconvenienced; (b) to get the Network out of trouble or free it from inconvenience; (c) to minimize the ill effects when the Network does get into trouble or is inconvenienced; and (d) keep anybody from finding out about it.
You may think that this is a difficult job, but in fact it is impossible, especially if your parents raised you with a prejudice against committing actual felonies in the course of a day's work. My people and I do our best.
"Marty," I said, "I hesitate to ask this, but is there any possibility the guys who don't offer NCA are winning these things on merit?"
"Well. I always appreciate a straight answer."
"Not five times, Matt. Especially when this one outfit takes four of them."
"Yeah. They consistently come in with higher installation costs and higher monthly fees than at least three of the other applicants. When the towns involved bring in outside consultants—you know, the way they sometimes do—the consultants consistently recommend someone other than ComCab. But ComCab still gets the franchise."
"Okay, I'm convinced. I was before I came down here."
"It stinks, Matt I hate to bother you with it—"
"It's what Special Projects is here for, Marty," I said.
I hated it too. Cable TV has the potential to be the biggest advance in communications since television itself. But there is risk inherent in the system. Somewhere along the line, when cable was starting out, someone decided the public would be better served if, instead of letting anyone who felt like it go into the cable business, local governments held a monopoly on cable rights and licensed them to operators. I have always had a hard time understanding why governments always think they serve the public better by protecting them from freedom of choice.
Well, not really. Because the public isn't really what they're worried about. Cable TV is, to put it bluntly, the greatest opportunity for local government corruption since the building of the railroads. The system cries out to be abused. The truly astounding thing is how honest most of it has been all over the country. There are some horror stories, but mostly, the cable TV industry/ local government story restores my faith in human nature, especially when I manage to ignore the stupidity of the basic setup.
Until now, apparently. It would have to be looked into. Right now, it was the Network that was getting the shaft, even if only incidentally to the main dirty work involved. But an investigation into ComCab would be an investment in good public relations—a scandal in the communications industry makes everybody look bad. It's good to nip that sort of thing in the bud.
Marty looked at me hopefully. "What are you going to do, Matt?"
"I'm going to put my two best people on ComCab, find out who they are and where they're coming from. And what they've done before."
"Are you going to send someone up to Sewanka to monitor those hearings?"
I shook my head; Marty looked disappointed. "I don't want to seem pushy, Matt, but don't you think you should? I mean, you might be able to catch them in the act or something."
"I'm not sending anybody because I'm going myself."
He was honored; he never dreamed I'd just drop everything and see to his case personally.
"It makes the most sense for me to go," I told him. "I know the town. I'm a graduate of Whitten College up there. Besides, things have been quiet in Special Projects lately. They'll never miss me."
I didn't bother to explain that things are usually quiet in Special Projects until they explode into bedlam, with gusts of insanity. The last gust had blown the autumn before, whipping through what was supposed to be the Network's fiftieth anniversary celebration, leaving four fatalities in its wake. Five, if you wanted to count my heart.
But Marty was talking. "... hope you can find out what's going wrong and stop it, Matt. I really do."
"So do I. I'll do what I can. This kind of job is like chasing a cloud of steam."
He thanked me and shook my hand. I left him humming again and shaking his shaggy head in time to a waltz. He even showed a trace of a smile.
It was going to be a bitch of a job. Tedious, slow, and possibly unnecessary. It was possible (barely) that ComCab had been the beneficiary of a series of coincidences. I would not bet my life against any crazy series of events occurring in this industry. We would also have to walk softly. If we (meaning I) were to get uppity in advance of evidence, or if there was no evidence to find, the Network could be called up on the carpet by government officials on a minimum of three levels. The Network prefers to stay off the carpet.
I was getting a headache already.
But in spite of all that, I didn't dread this thing nearly so much as I dreaded attending the upcoming nuptials of Miss Debra June Whitten and Mr. Grant Sewall, to be held, if the weather prove fine, by the waterfall on the Whitten Estate, Route Seven, Saturday, the twenty-first of April, etc. They'd requested the honor of my presence.
I hit the elevator button and waited, got impatient and hit it again just as the bell went off and made me jump. I said a rude word, got on, and rode back to my office to make arrangements.CHAPTER 2
"Like sands through an hourglass, so are the days of our lives." –Opening blurb, "Days of Our Lives" (NBC)
"MATT!" DEBRA WHITTEN SAID. "That's wonderful!"
"I'm not too late then."
"No, of course not. We have to have you at the wedding. Now that you'll be coming, Rick and Jane will be the only ones from the old gang who won't be there."
I suppressed a sigh. The old gang. An unlikely collection of basketball players and rich kids, thrown together in the artificial environment of a small-town college. I had been one of the basketball players, a New York City street kid with a decent jumper from twenty and a God-given ability to score well on a standardized test. Every year, Whitten College (endowed by an ancestor of Debbie's shortly before the annexation of Texas) finds a kid like that and gives him a scholarship. I was atypical only because I was white.
Rick Sloan had been the catalyst. He was a rich kid and, because he happened to be six- eight and not a spastic, a basketball player as well. Jane Anderson had been Rick's girl friend (now his wife); she had gone to prep school with Debbie. Only one other member of the gang really figured in the situation as I stumbled into it that spring. He happened to be my best friend and one of the two men who wanted to marry Debbie Whitten.
Who was talking to me. "You don't suppose I'll be able to reach them on the phone, do you, Matt?"
I told her I doubted it. I was living in their Central Park West co-op, and even I couldn't get in touch with them.
"They're in the middle of a rain forest in Thailand looking at ruins, Debbie," I said. "I could bring Spot, but he didn't get an invitation, so he might be miffed."
That was supposed to be a joke. Spot is a dog, a Samoyed owned by Rick and Jane Sloan. Part of the reason I'm living in their apartment (aside from the chronic New York City housing shortage) is to keep an eye on Spot while they're out of the country. The Whittens bred Samoyeds; Spot had been born on the Whitten estate. He never showed any signs of being homesick for it.
Debbie thought it was a great idea. "Oh, Matt, bring him!"
Debbie's voice had always fascinated me. She was always reaching for high notes to show her enthusiasm, and though the enthusiasm frequently seemed forced (like now, for instance), the notes never did. Despite the flat vowels and nasality of the accent in that part of the country, all the sounds Debbie made seemed to come from her throat smooth and sweet. At times, I thought that was the whole secret of her appeal. Then I would remember that Debbie was pretty, if not beautiful, with blond hair and blue eyes, and a trim, athletic figure featuring truly spectacular legs. I would also remember that her father owned the Sewanka Daily Sun and forty-five other daily newspapers in small and medium-sized towns all over the country, as well as the local TV and radio stations in Sewanka. I always wound up conceding there was more to Debbie's attractiveness than her voice, whether she appealed to me or not.
"Do you really want me to bring Spot?" I asked. "It would make things easier for me. I really can't see an aristocrat like Spot in a commercial kennel."
"You wouldn't dare put one of our dogs in a commercial kennel!"
"Correct," I said. "I'll have to bring him with me, if you want me to come."
"I really do, Matt. Dan will be so glad you've changed your mind."
I froze. I'd been dreading this phone call because I knew Debbie would wind up saying something like this. Dan Morris was the friend I alluded to earlier. He was the last one to join the "gang" Debbie liked to talk about. He'd been my roommate at the dorm; I introduced him to Debbie.
Excerpted from Killed with a Passion by William L. DeAndrea. Copyright © 1983 William L. DeAndrea. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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