Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Whisper: Chapter 1

The Phantom Wiseguy

Getting shot at ain’t like the movies. There’s no simple “bang” of a bad guy’s gun as some gent in a bloodless suit grabs his chest and falls to the ground. No, if someone unloads a gun at you, and if you’re very, very lucky, you’ll hear a pop like firecrackers in the distance: a nice little note from your guardian angel that, “Hey, that guy who wants you dead just missed your ass!”

What I heard that miserable Friday evening while weaving my eight-year-old Packard through the Potomac fog was the crash of my rearview flying off, the smash of my back window caving in, and the ping of a neat little hole popping two inches to the right of my reflection in the windscreen. 

Son of a bitch.”

The voice of my passenger was like static on the radio. That didn’t bother me as much as the fact that according to all my other senses there was no one there at all.

Take a hard right. Don’t slow down.”

A staccato rhythm like popcorn announced the bullets peppering through my trunk. I gripped the too-close steering wheel with white knuckles, just waiting for all that flying lead to blow out one of my tires. Somewhere in front of me was U.S. 29 and the Key Bridge back to Georgetown and I had it in my head that if I could just get across like Ichabod Crane, all this craziness would fade like a bad hangover.

Another poke hole knocked itself through the windshield and crystal fault lines spidered outward, just like my mind was about to crack if one more disaster piled on.

That’s right: speeding through the dark at who knows how many miles per hour, with one goddamn headlight and zero visibility, bullets flying around my head, the Invisible Man shouting orders, and part of me goes, “Oh look, a metaphor!”

You missed the turn,” my passenger said. I didn’t even see the turn, and I goddamn told him. 

Enough of this crap,” he spat back. “Cover your ears.”

“With what?” My throat burned, though I don’t remember screaming. Then thunder louder than God erupted by my head. For the span of a film shutter, bright flashes illuminated the space beside me. I glimpsed a white jacket, white hat, black gloves, but no face. My companion had turned around, his back against the dash, to empty a handgun the size of a truck at our assailants. Tires squealed behind us, and my passenger disappeared.

“Is that it?” I said. “Did you get ‘em?”

Shit, slow down.”

I could barely hear through the ringing. “What do you mean slow down?”

The biggest tanker truck I’ve ever seen filled the beams of my headlights, lunging toward us at 60, 70, 80 miles per hour. A black glove yanked the steering wheel out of my hands, hard to the right, and I screamed for true as the whole world whipped around in a swirl of pavement and fog.

***

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***

Look, let me start over.

That morning, just before lunch, I was in my editor George Farnsworth’s office at The Washington Street and he wasn’t buying what I had to sell.

“For crying out loud, Allan,” he said, “I asked for a story on the Transportation Commission, not this tabloid crap.” He slapped my notes on his overcrowded desk and leaned back in his chair as if to distance himself. Farnsworth had a paunch that pulled his shirt out of his trousers and a face like a peeled potato, but his rolled-up sleeves showed massive forearms that could probably break an upstart reporter in half.

“What do you mean, crap?” I said. “I’ve got evidence of congressional ethics violations. If half of these reports of payouts to Representative Crawthorn are true, it could tip the election next month.”

“One.” Farnsworth rose from his chair and pointed. “You don’t have evidence, you have anecdotes and hearsay. That may have been good enough for that L.A. scandal rag you used to hack for, but it won’t cut it in this town, not unless your last name is McCarthy.  And two, it won’t do squat to the election. Crawthorn’s a ten year incumbent war hero, and his opponent is an anti-segregationist on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon line. You’d have to catch him in flagrante delicto with an underage prostitute to put a dent in his reelection, and you’d need photographs to back it up. Besides, his constituents don’t read our magazine anyway.”

I winced at the mention of my previous employer. I’d tried my best to put my work as a celebrity gossip monger behind me when I moved east. As far as most of my coworkers knew, all I had on my resume was some freelance work and a tour of duty in Korea writing for Stars and Stripes.

“What are you saying, we’re going to keep this under wraps?” My eyes were on those giant ham hocks he used for fists, but I plowed ahead. “I thought it was our job to let people know the truth.”

“Sweet baby Jesus.” Farnsworth’s face actually paled like a kid at a horror show. “How can you…? Seriously? Here. Sit down.” He shoved me into a chair, pulled an unlabeled bottle off of a shelf, and poured something golden-brown into a short, dirty glass. I thought he was fixing himself a drink, but instead he handed it to me.

“Um, no thanks.”

“Drink or you’re fired.”

I poured the tumbler down my throat, then gasped as a grenade went off in my head. Once I’d stopped coughing, Farnsworth sat on the edge of his desk and held the latest issue of the Street up to my face.

“You want to know what our job is?” He opened the magazine to the inside back cover, where a model in a two-piece swimsuit leaned against a hot red convertible. “Selling cars.” He flipped to another page. “Perfume.” And another. “Toaster ovens. You and I are salesmen for toaster ovens. That’s what pays the bills. That’s what keeps the lights on. Magazines, newspapers, radio, television, it’s all just there to trick people into looking at advertising. That’s the job. Now, all these stories, editorials, what have you, that’s just a carny act. It’s the mermaid, the fire eater, the bearded lady. It’s what gets Mr. and Mrs. Joe Public to look in our direction so we can make the sale. But you’ve got to give them what they want or they’ll look somewhere else.

“Now right at this moment, Mr. and Mrs. Joe Public in Washington don’t give two shits about some corrupt Southern politician, but they do care about whether or not the DC trolley lines might be extended to their shiny new subdivisions. So what you’re going to do is take these all these notes on Crawthorn and plant them in the bottom of your filing drawer. Then you’re going to sit yourself down and give me five thousand words on the Transportation Commission’s expansion plans by four o’clock. Agreed?”

I sighed. “Yes, but—”

“That was rhetorical. Get out.”

I slunk from his office like a whipped schoolboy. Tim Leslie, the magazine’s star photographer, leaned across the hall with an idiot grin.

“Say, I’m in the market for a toaster oven,” he said. “Heard any good deals?”

“Shut up.”

“Leslie?” roared Farnsworth. “Where are those glamour shots I asked for?”

“Right here, Georgie,” he said. “See you ‘round, Jones.”

I trudged down to the newsroom, where my desk and five thousand words of tedium awaited. Half a dozen other hacks typed away on assignments, but most everyone else was out chasing leads, attending press conferences, or (more likely) having their first drinks of the day in one of the dives that lubricated the gears of the District of Columbia. That liquid fireball Farnsworth had poured down my throat was still making my nose burn. I almost looked forward to my hard, oak chair and barely functional typewriter.

A loud pop of bubblegum stopped me short.

“Gave you a chewing out, did he?”

Roxy Brandt ran the office switchboard from a desk twice the size of mine. She was young enough that no one asked why she wasn’t married, the question was still ‘when.’ From what I’d heard, she’d shot down the advances of every eligible man in the office. She wasn’t a Hollywood stunner, but her short brown hair framed her perfect, round cheeks in a way that made me want to bundle her off to an amusement park, win her a teddy bear, and buy her a mountain of cotton candy.

“Christ,” I said. “Did he broadcast it over the intercom?”

Roxy tapped one of the plugs on her board. “There’s a short in his phone so his receiver never turns off. I can hear everything that goes on in there.”

That gave me pause. “Does Farnsworth know?”

“Not unless you tell him, cutie.” The words were playful, but her eyes somehow reminded me of a sniper I once interviewed in Korea. I mimed closing a zipper over my lips.

“Oh well, then,” I said. “Off to the salt mines.”

“Say, Jones,” she added between smacks of her gum. “You know anybody named Smithee?”

A chill ran over my scalp. I should have said no. I knew I should have said no. But I didn’t.

“Who’s asking?”

“Some guy called and left a number. Didn’t give me his name. Started off asking for ‘Allan Smithee’ then told me to tell you to call him.”

That’s all I needed: some ghost from out west to crash my new life and spread stories of my “good old days” at the L.A. Whisper. There were about a dozen people I could think of who called me “Smithee,” and not one of them I wanted to put in the same room with the Washington press. On the spot I formed a plan to locate this bozo and shuffle him off to greener pastures… like Pittsburgh. I sank into my desk chair and asked Roxy to patch me through.

The phone rang six times before someone picked up. “Hello?” said a voice I didn’t recognize.

“Who is this?” I said.

“You called me, asshole.” There was chatter and a clink of glasses in the background, like in a restaurant or bar. “You go first.”

“This is Allan Jones.”

“Smithee!” He shouted, then hushed himself at once. He went on with a tone of palpable relief. “My god, it’s good to hear you.”

“Who is this?” I said again.

“It’s me. Hugo.”

I relaxed. Hugo Harvey wasn’t a member of the press. He was a lawyer, and in spite of that he wasn’t on my list of people to avoid. He sounded odd, though, and not like himself.

“Hugo! How’s it going? What are you doing in D.C.?”

“Oh, nothing much. Hiding out, on the lamb, you know. Angry clients.”

I could hear the nerves behind his levity. Something wasn’t right. “Is everything okay?”

“Oh sure, everything’s great.” It was a reflexive answer. “No, not really. Look, I’ve got some information I need to get off my chest. There’s no one back in L.A. I can trust. Hell, there’s no one anywhere I can trust, not except you.”

“Sounds heavy,” I said. “What is it?”

“A story, Smithee. A story that needs to get out. Bigger than that last piece I gave you. Bigger than anything you’ve ever handled.”

I sat up straight, pen and paper in hand. “I’m listening.”

“Not over the phone.”

“Fine, I’ll come to you.” Screw Farnsworth and his Transportation Commission.

“I’m still on the move. Getting a little paranoid here in unfamiliar territory. I’ve got some things I need to see to, then I’ll hook up with you later. Can I call you at the magazine around six?”

“Sure,” I said. “Hey Hugo, how’d you know where to find me? I didn’t exactly leave a forwarding address.”

Hugo chuckled. “You wouldn’t believe it. Let’s just say an invisible little bird told me. See you around, Smithee.”

The line clicked. What the hell was I supposed to make of that?

Hugo Harvey was a “bluff artist,” a lawyer who specialized in keeping celebrities’ indiscretions out of the paper. I knew him because from time to time he made some extra cash by passing on gossip about movie stars who weren’t on his dance card. Hugo wasn’t the most forthcoming of people, but he’d never been so cryptic before.

“So why does he call you Smithee?” yelled Roxy from across the room.

“God damn it! That was a private conversation.”

“I didn’t listen much. A girl can’t help but be curious, especially about Mr. ‘mysterious past’ Jones.”
I groaned and walked over so I could talk more quietly.

“It’s a Hollywood thing. If a director doesn’t like what a studio does with one of his pictures, so much that he doesn’t even want his name on it, he’ll have them put ‘Directed by Allan Smithee’ instead.”

Roxy furrowed her brows. “So you’re a big shot movie director now?”

“No, but the editor I used to work for twisted my stories out of shape so bad that I stopped using my byline entirely.”

“So that’s why your resume’s so thin,” she said. “And here I was hoping it was something more romantic, like spending five years in a Turkish prison.”

I looked at her sideways. “You think Turkish prisons are romantic? No wonder you don’t have a boyfriend.”

“Still got my eyes open,” she said with a smirk, then nodded at my desk. “Better get typing, movie boy. Those toaster ovens won’t sell themselves.”


***

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***

Hugo didn’t call at 6:00. I waited. I didn’t start to worry until 7:00. My fellow writers had come back from their morning binges and press junkets, typed their stories, sent them to the copy editors, and gone home to their favorite bars. Roxy clocked out at 6:30 and let me take her place at the switchboard with the injunction not to swear at anyone who called after hours. Farnsworth left the office at 8:00, nodding at me as he passed through the newsroom. I’d made his four o’clock deadline, so whatever debt I owed the furtherance of American advertising was in the clear.

At 9:00, the phone rang for the eighth time since Roxy relinquished the board. The first call had been from a sweet old lady in Mt. Pleasant who wanted to complain about the “commie Chinese” students in her grandson’s classroom. Three were hang-ups, one was from an upscale laundry service looking for ad space, and two were wrong numbers for Sonny’s Late Nite Grill. The last caller tried to place an order for a medium rare steak even after I explained that he’d dialed a wrong number, so I told him to go to hell. When the phone rang ten seconds later, I was sure it was the same asshole calling to order his potatoes au gratin.

“Smithee,” said the person on the phone.

“Hugo. Where the hell are you?”

“Across the river at a bar near Arlington. Happy Jack’s. You know it?”

“No, but I can find it. What the hell is going on?”

“I’ll tell you when you get here. And Smithee, you got a gun?”

That shut me up for a moment. “What? No, I don’t have a gun. Hugo, what the hell is going on?”

“Get a gun. Bring it. I… I gotta go.”

The line went dead. It didn’t sound like a hang-up. I dug the phone book out from under Roxy’s desk and thumbed the pages to Happy Jack’s Beer and Spirits in Rosslyn. I jotted down the address, then called the number.

“Happy Jack’s,” a woman answered. (She pronounced it ‘Jay-ucks.’) I hung up without speaking and headed for my car. I didn’t own a gun, and I wasn’t about to stop at a pawn shop to get one in the middle of the night.

Happy Jack’s sat a couple blocks off of Lee Highway, a little past Rosslyn proper. An October fog had rolled off the Potomac, framing the few streetlights in eerie halos. The bar was nothing but a blur of orange and green until I came close enough to make out the neon writing through the haze. It appeared to be open, but its parking lot was behind the building so I couldn’t guess how many people were inside. I drove to the end of the street and parked on the curb instead. That decision probably saved my life.

I adjusted my hat and buried my hands in my pockets against the cold. Every other business on the street was closed, and it wasn’t entirely clear whether they would open again. It seemed awful quiet for a Friday night. Where were the teenagers who should have been joyriding? Where was the laughter, or the sound of a brawl, that should have been coming from the bar ahead? Something snapped across the road to my left, then a voice from the shadows on my right whispered, “Hey buddy, you got a light?

I stopped and looked. No one was there.

“Who the f—”

A weight slammed into me and threw me to the ground. I struggled for an instant until I heard the unmistakable ricochet of a bullet.

Shhh,” said the voice. I felt someone’s weight on my back, but when I looked over my shoulder all I saw was a streetlight.

“What the hell is—”

Shut up.” The voice was no more substantial than the fog. “Scramble. Down the alley. Keep low. Now.”

I scrambled. The alley was dark and the back of it was a maze of refuse. I banged a trash can with my knee and startled a cat.

Keep quiet.”

“I’m trying.” And I’m talking to myself. “Who are you? Where are you?”

You came here to meet a man named Hugo Harvey.”

“That’s right.” I didn’t like this at all. Hugo had been scared, and I was starting to see why.

Harvey’s dead, and you’re about to be next.”

“If that’s some kind of threat…”

It’s a warning, sweetheart. And you’re welcome. Now don’t move. I’ll see if it’s clear.”

This was nuts. I’d never heard voices in my head before. Was this how it started? It was five years too late for a Section 8 to do me any good. Then Hugo’s words came back: that “an invisible little bird” had told him where to find me.

He was right. I wouldn’t have believed him.

The only light was from the gap at the end of the alley. There, in the glow of the streetlamp, a thin figure appeared. White slacks. White coat. White hat. Black gloves. I didn’t see a face. Scratch that: I didn’t see a head, just a hat floating on air. The apparition vanished and the voice returned.

Can’t go that way. Head out the back. Hopefully we can circle around.”

“Where are we going?”

Your car, sweet cheeks.”

“My car? What—”

Gunfire cut me off. Not a single shot, as from a rifle, but a fast barrage from something meaner. Multiple chinks and pops echoed through the alley as metal collided with brick, and I didn’t argue any more with my invisible ally.

***

If you’ll pardon some poetic license, here’s where we skip ahead a bit. The film breaks, the audience boos, some popcorn flies at the screen, then the projectionist feeds the reel back through the projector. 

We pick up the scene again with my car looking like a Bonnie and Clyde castoff getting up close and personal with a giant tanker truck. Someone leans over, whispers “This is where I came in,” and the show goes on.

***

My companion gripped the wheel and we spun. The gas truck flew around us like a great, white comet, and I swear two or three of my tires left the ground. I shifted some of the power from my scream into my leg and slammed on the brake, too little too late I was sure.

They say your life flashes, blah blah blah. All I saw was an obituary: 

  • Allan “Smithee” Jones, 1930 – 1958, parents dead, no accomplishments, no history you’d care about. Spent most of his service in Korea behind a comfortable desk while his friends were getting killed. Wasted five years trailing B-list Hollywood wannabes for a gossip rag no one admits to reading. Came to D.C. to be a big shot. Ended up a grease stain on the highway. No funeral. Don’t bother sending flowers.


We shrieked to a halt in the middle of the road. A Cadillac swerved around us and honked. Another car stopped about fifty yards away, its headlights beaming into my eyes. The cab filled with light from the other direction. They’d boxed us in.

My invisible friend reloaded. “Keep your head down. Drive forward slowly, then floor it when you get past that car.”

“Whatever you say, chief.” My voice cracked like it hadn’t since puberty.

I inched forward. A shot banged through the windshield. If I hadn’t been hunched, it would have taken my head off. I cringed even lower, so I couldn’t even see. I felt my companion tug on the wheel. Two more shots blew through the air. They were close. One tore through the car’s roof, while the other must have impacted the engine. I heard a whine that could only have been steam from the radiator.

That’s it. That’s it. Now go.”

I floored the gas and sat up. I hoped one of the bastards was standing in the road so I could run him over, but there was nothing ahead but highway and just enough light to guess where the lanes were.

“They’re still behind us.”

I know. I’m going to change my frame of reference. Don’t stop ‘til you get to D.C. And it might be good to lay low for a while.”

“You’re doing what?” I turned my head to see my passenger flicker toward solidity. Under his coat was something like a black bandolier with a series of dials. He twisted one of the knobs, and then flew out the back of the car. Not out the window, mind you, but out of the car itself, like a ghost walking through walls.

I turned to look over my shoulders, and saw flashes of light from the cab of the car behind me, accompanied by pops of distant violence. The vehicle swerved, then tumbled off the highway into a ditch. I faced forward, wary of any more tanker trucks, and rode the pedal all the way over the bridge back to Washington.

***

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***

My faithful old Packard held on long enough to die in the “No Parking” space by the fire hydrant in front of the Street building. Other cars, black and official-looking, took up the rest of the curb, and every light in the building was on as if we were open for business.

This was a little odd.

Not to say that the magazine staff never pulled all-nighters, but usually we had several days’ notice and an impending deadline. I could only conclude that something else in addition to my own little escapade was going on tonight. All I had to do was get out of the car to find out.

All I had to do. Was get out of the car.

C’mon, asshole, get out of the car!

I took my hands off the wheel. They were shaking. I let my foot off the brake and the other off the clutch. The muscles in my soles cramped. I pulled the key out of the ignition, slowly so as not to make a sound. I inched the door open, my head low.

No one shot me.

I stumbled out to the sidewalk and looked back at my death-wagon. From the passenger side, it almost looked respectable. From the back it looked like a target from a weapons range. From the front it was clear that someone would probably call the police the moment they saw it. I fished a pack of Oakwoods out of my pocket, lit one up, and took the short steps to the front door. It was unlocked, and there was a government man inside.

“Hold it, buddy,” he said. “What’s your business?”

“I work here. Something wrong with that?”

“Name?”

The Washington Street.”

“Wise up, smartass.” He pulled out an NSA badge. “State your name and why you’re here.”

“Allan Jones. I work the political beat. I write words, okay?”

“You’re Jones? Go on in. You’re wanted.”

On second thought, just let me go back to a pay phone and call a tow truck. I had a feeling something bad would have happened had I said that out loud. Instead I swallowed and stepped around the Suit With A Badge.

The newsroom was crawling with NSA roaches. Most of them clustered around my desk. It occurred to me that I might need a lawyer. It also occurred that the only one I could think of was dead.

“Jones?” Farnsworth yelled. “My office. Now.”

All heads turned and tracked me as I crossed the newsroom. I tried not to stare back, but I kept watch from the corner of my eye. If anyone reached for a gun, I was ready to drop under a desk at an instant.

An NSA agent held Farnsworth’s door open. This one had a relaxed smile, and unlike the others his coat wasn’t buttoned. Maybe he was trying to put me at ease, but if this was the one agent who didn’t feel the need to knock me over with a show of authority, then this was the one I was afraid of the most.

He shut the door behind us.

“Mr. Jones,” he said. “I’m Agent Tyler. First off, I want to apologize for this intrusion. Believe me, I wouldn’t have dragged your editor away from his dinner if it wasn’t a matter of utmost importance.”

“Am I in some kind of trouble?” A cliché, but it had to be asked.

“Should you be?” Tyler’s smirk didn’t extend to his eyes.

“Don’t answer that,” said Farnsworth. No shit.

“Mr. Jones,” said Tyler, “did you receive a telephone call from a Mr. Hugo Harvey this afternoon?”

That was the opening move, but it wasn’t the question on my mind. That question was exactly how far I should go in cooperating with these goons. I had no reason to trust them – newshounds know better than to trust anything the government tells you that isn’t supplied by a court order – but on the other hand, despite violating a few traffic laws I hadn’t actually done anything wrong. I figured the best course was to lead with openness, not secrecy.

“He called me twice,” I said. “Once around noon, and once about an hour ago.”

“And what were the nature of these calls?”

“I used to know Hugo back in Los Angeles. He dropped me a line on a story now and then.”

“Did he drop you a line on a story tonight?”

“He hinted at something like that.” I felt on safer ground, or maybe that was the shock kicking in. I took a drag on my cigarette, which I’d ignored ever since I lit it outside. Farnsworth pushed an ashtray across his desk.

“I don’t really know,” I went on. “He wouldn’t talk over the phone, and I never got to meet up with him.”

“So you did go to meet him?”

Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. “Yeah, but… Well, he wasn’t where he said he’d be, so I came back.”

Someone knocked on the door. Tyler leaned his head out, and another agent whispered in his ear. When Tyler came back, he said, “Mr. Jones, is that your car outside?”

Oh, Christ. “Yeah, what of it?”

“It sounds like you had a little trouble.”

I shrugged. “Some punks started shooting at me, so I high-tailed it back here. I’ll take it down to the garage tomorrow. What, you think I ought to call the cops?”

“That’s up to you, but I wouldn’t worry yourself about having it towed. I’ll call somebody to look after it. One more question.” Agent Tyler was grinning now. “Do you expect to hear from Mr. Harvey again?”

I looked that son of a bitch in the eye and said, “No. Somehow I don’t think I will.”

“Thank you for your candor, Mr. Jones.” Tyler passed me a business card. “Just in case you do hear from him, give me a call. Mr. Harvey’s become a person of interest, and any story he might send you… well, let’s just say you might want to run it by me first. There could be national security issues at stake. Mr. Farnsworth, thank you for your time. We’ll be out of your hair shortly. Good evening, gentlemen.”

Tyler let himself out, and Farnsworth turned to me. “Jones, what the hell is going on?”

“I wish to hell I knew. I’m always after the hot scoop, but this is bigger than I want to deal with. Let me tell you…”

I was about ready to pop with the full confession. That’s what an editor-in-chief is for, right? A tap on the door cut me off.

“What?” Farnsworth shouted. Tim Leslie slipped in and shut the door behind him. He wore a satchel under one shoulder, his camera under the other.

“Busy night, chief?”

“Wiseass. Grab down that scotch or you’re fired.”

He did as instructed. Farnsworth poured himself a double, no rocks, and Leslie gave me a look of concern that didn’t really fit on his face.

“You okay, Jones? The hell happened to your car?”

“Sit down,” I said. “I was about to tell.”

“Oh, by the way,” he said. “I snuck this past the goons.” He pulled a flat package out of his satchel and handed it over. “You know anybody named Smithee?”

I almost didn’t take it. “Who gave you this?”

“Friend of a friend who knows a guy. Said I should get it to you in case things got crazy tonight. I think this qualifies.” He thumbed in the direction of the newsroom.

“Jones,” said Farnsworth, “I’ll ask you for the last goddamn time. What the hell is going on?”

The package had the name “Smithee” written across it. I flipped it over, and a tiny “H.H.” was inscribed over the seal.

I had a feeling we were about to find out.

To Be Continued

***

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***

The Whisper © 2013 Jared Millet

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