Wilbur Hadley smiled at his reflection in the mirror, adjusted the royal blue silk tie, ran his tongue over the front of his teeth one last time. “You shouldn’t have called me.” His reflection glared at the speaker phone on the bedside. “I don’t have time for this shit. This is what I pay you to do.” His voice was deep, calm, confident; he knew it was one of his many assets. Manicured stubby fingers ran through thick salt and pepper hair, adjusting carefully any strays. “Nothing less than perfection today,” he cooed to the man looking back at him.
“Yes, sir. I thought perhaps with the number of calls you would be taking today, no one would notice if I called you. Besides, this couldn’t wait.”
Hadley blew out his cheeks, looked up, rolling his eyes. “It was a stupid thing to do.” He adjusted the red carnation in his lapel, then moved over to the hankie in the breast pocket of the finest Armani suit. He smiled again, then leaned in. “Beth was right; it does bring out the color of my eyes.”
“For the love of God, what the hell do you think you should do? We’ve come to far now to let this shit happen. Handle it.” He took two steps backwards, turned to the side and glanced at his profile. His voice dropped as he ran a hand over his stomach. “Not quite what it was back in the day, but for a man my age, I am not going to complain.” He frowned, tightened his abs, then released again. “Ah hell, with my height, I can afford to carry a bit more weight than most men.”
“Sir? So I should talk to our friends in the south?”
Hadley was getting bored with the conversation. “Yes, of course you should. Everything is set to start today, so you have about four fucking hours. Do not ruin this day for me. Get the damned job done, and make sure you leave no loose ends.” Hadley strode to the phone, pushed the disconnect button with a sharp jab.
He looked back to the reflection, smiled, then chuckled. “Damn, Wilbur. I never knew you had it in you. There’s no stopping us now.”
“There is nothing like the twang of a good country song first thing in the morning, is there?”
Victoria Seacress was perched on a bar, her hands wrapped around a cup of cold coffee. She slowly turned towards her cameraman, her eyes warning him to tread carefully. “I wouldn’t know, Jake. If you can find a ‘good’ one we could give it a try, couldn’t we.” Her shoulders slumped as she looked around the crowded bar. “I went through all those years of university for this? It’s nine in the morning, and here I am doing some stampede fluff-crap at the boss’s friend’s sleazy bar? A damned monkey could do this.”
Jake pressed his lips tight into a sympathetic smile. “Vic, you know how it goes. I wish I could change it for you, but I can’t, so we do the job, blow the doors off the place and move on to the next.”
“The next bit of fluff-crap. Brock will have me doing this shit forever. The political convention of the century is happening three hours from here; that’s where I should be, not here asking some fat sexist asshole what sort of beer he gave the idiot making the pancakes. A stampede breakfast? Yee haw. Nothing like the smell of recycled beer and vomit for breakfast. But wait, Jake, even better, let’s top it off with a two-step.”
Jake rested his hand on her shoulder. “I would Vic, but something tells me you would be stomping on my feet in those shit-kickers you have on.”
She looked at her cowboy boots. “They really aren’t a fashion statement, are they?” Her hand ran down the denim on her hip. “It’s nothing more than a damned costume for a play.” Her eyes refused to look at the breast buttons on her western shirt.
“You can change in the van. Your yellow linen suit is waiting for you, so let’s do this last bit and call it a day.”
Victoria snorted. “Yeah, let’s hurry, because we have to rush to get ready for the damned dog show. There’s nothing I love more than a whole day of this shit.” She pushed away from the bar, ignored the leering eyes from the other side. As she turned, a rough hand caught hers, another grabbed her waist as she was dragged to the dance floor.
“You’re that pretty lady from the news.” The smell of beer already on his breath made Victoria turn away.
“I know who I am, thank you. I am not sure who you are or what you think we’re doing.”
He guffawed. “We’re dancing, pretty lady. You ain’t the brightest, are ya? What you lack in smarts though, you more than make up for with your other fine attributes.” His hand dropped down, cupped her bottom for an instant, then slapped. Victoria jumped. “You certainly do have one fine looking dairy-air there, lady.”
Victoria opened her mouth to reply, intent on putting Farmer Fred in his place. Instead, he disappeared from her arms, his hand pulling her around as Jake lifted him off the ground. A dangerous smile on his face, Jake leaned close to the man. “My job is to protect the talent. No one touches one of my reporters, especially in such an ignorant, rude, disrespectful manner. She is not a hunk of meat you are looking to buy, my friend; you will afford her some respect. Maybe if you tried showing some respect to all the women you meet, you would find you don’t have to assault them on the dance floor just to get the chance to touch one.” Jake dropped the man to the ground. “Oh, and how about a damned shower? You might want to consider that as well, you stinking asshole. We have a job to do.” Jake’s arm was around Victoria’s shoulder, guiding her to where they were set to do the last of her reports for the morning news.
“You shouldn’t do that, Jake.”
“He shouldn’t be so rude.” He held up a finger in her face. “Don’t you dare say it was just the booze talking, or just stampede fever or whatever. There are no excuses. Hold them to account.” He turned her around, adjusted the sound pack on her belt. “They want to mess with you, they can learn they have to go through me to do it.”
Victoria looked at her protector. His shoulders were broad, the result of carrying heavy equipment all day long for many years. “Well, they should be able to tell by looking at you that it’s not smart to get in your face.”
“Nope, not at all. Now, get ready. Your mark is there.” He pointed, she smiled; she knew where the mark was, but he would always tell her anyways. “They will be coming here in thirty seconds.”
Victoria watched the feed on the monitor while she clipped on her ear piece. The current coverage was of an update from the political convention. She sighed, picked up her mike, waited for Jake’s signal. “Good morning, Britney. We’re still downtown here at Foghorn’s Bar and Grill for the stampede breakfast...”
“You know what today is, don’t you?” Victoria was in the back of the van, changing out of her blue jeans.
“You have to narrow it down for me, Vic. It’s the start of the convention, it’s the first day of the dog show, it’s the middle of the Stampede...”
“It’s Brock’s wedding.” She dropped into her seat, bent over to pull on her shoes. Saying the words out loud made it a reality, caused the ache to return to her heart.
“Vic, he is an asshole. You’re better off without him. He deserves that airhead Heidi.”
“It’s supposed to be my wedding day.” She turned, looked out the window at the houses flitting by. To look at Jake now would be disaster for her makeup.
“Yes, it is. What does that say about the pathetic little bitch? She was too lame to plan her own wedding. The fact that Brock went along with it says volumes as well, Vic, and nothing that it says is critical of you. He was boinking her while you and he were planning a life together. He’s pond scum.”
“He’s our boss. He decides the assignments.”
Jake pulled up to the arena, parked, then turned to Victoria. “He gave you shit assignments because he didn’t want you to outshine him. He knew you were too good, and that scared him. He might not have been in control if he let others see what you are capable of.”
She fiddled with a nail. “He said it was because he didn’t want me out there where I could run into something dangerous or get hurt, and he didn’t want me covering anything that would keep me away. He said he loved being able to come home to me every night.”
“...After he was done boinking Heidi every afternoon.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a pack of smokes. “Victoria, you have to quit torturing yourself over this. I know it’s shitty, and yes, it sucked when those photos were delivered to you at work...”
“They were delivered just in time for me to see them as I was coming back from my last fitting for my wedding dress. I had my wedding dress with me, in my arms, when I picked up the envelope, Jake. I put my career on hold for him, was prepared to give it all up for him. When I saw those pictures, what the hell did I do? I marched up to his damned office, didn’t even wait for the bitch to announce me, although I would have enjoyed breaking all her fingers if she had tried to reach for the intercom.” Her voice lost some of its venom. “What does he do when he opens the envelope? Takes a look at his hair in the pictures, then runs his hand through the real thing, admiring both. He was checking to see that the light caught him at the right angle, the egomaniacal bastard. And yet, I loved him.” She watched Jake light his cigarette, blow the smoke towards the window from the corner of his mouth.
“I hate to be the one to tell you this, but if he loved you at all, he would have worked his ass off to help your career. Let it go, Vic. He was pond scum, and you have to quit giving him this much power over you. Shake him off. Scrape him off the soles of your shit-kickers, just as if he was nothing more than a pile of horse crap.”
“I know.” She also knew her reply lacked conviction.
“And if you stop to think about it, all those exotic holidays he promised to you, the long flights, the romantic dinners, the balcony seats at the opera, the political dinner... now he has to take Heidi to those, and Vic, let’s face it; she is as stupid as they come. He won’t be able to take her to anything like that; she will be an embarrassment. For God’s sake, a pizza house menu confuses the hell out of her. He has delivered a pretty damning blow to his future. No one will take him seriously.”
She shrugged. “You’re right.”
“Of course I am.” He stabbed out the smoke. “It’s time for the pity party to shut down, Vic. You have fluff-crap to do, but you will do it better than any other reporter in the world, and once he is done busting your chops, he will be sorry. For now, the son of a bitch and his little whore wife are still in Bali, but that floor mop of a dog he got her is in the show. Let’s get in there, do the damned story, get some film for the studio, then go find something real to cover. There is no one else around to cover anything that might come up. Let’s have some fun with the day, find a slam-dunk story and show the world how you shine when Brock the station manager is out of the way.” Victoria smiled, straightened with his words. “Your makeup still okay?”
She dabbed at the corner of her eye. “Yeah, I’m all set. Let’s go. It would be a shame to keep Fitzgerald’s Alabaster Wizard waiting for his photo op.”
Jake jumped out, ran to the passenger side to open the door. Victoria rolled her eyes, smiled, accepting the fact that Jake would never be able to shake the gentleman gene he had been blessed with from birth.
“I’ve been to some of those political conventions with you in the past, Vic. You know damned well you probably wouldn’t have been invited to this one, and if you had been, you wouldn’t want to be there. If ever our profession was going to hail a pre-set and predetermined political position, this is the time. They would cut you off at the knees every time you spoke.” He flashed her a crooked smile. “Besides, you know damned well there is no way in hell the Premier’s handlers would allow you anywhere near him this week. You have never covered the political scene and you’ve never met the man, but your reputation as an up-and coming political pit bull... yes, you know it as well as I do, so don’t pretend it’s not true... would precede you. They will vet every reporter before the cameras roll. They were never going to let you have the chance to piss on his parade.”
Victoria closed her eyes again and sighed. “Guess they don’t need to worry about that anymore.” She scuffed the toe of her shoe into the asphalt. “That was the old Victoria Seacress, the one who planned on being a real reporter, not Fluff-Head Reporter Barbie.”
Jake put on his patient face, allowing her to wallow in pity, but only for a moment. “As long as you’re able to get in front of the camera, you can turn this thing around. You aren’t stupid, so start thinking smart, okay? It’s time to make some lemonade, Vic.”
She smiled. Jake was a walking dictionary of clichés. He threw them in whenever he could just to drive her nuts. Some of them he deliberately messed up, because that annoyed her even more. “I can still swing at ‘em, can’t I?”
Jake beamed. “Our very own Cinderella Man…Woman…whatever. You aren’t down for the count yet.”
Victoria took a deep bracing breath. “I’m not down for the count yet,” she repeated softly to herself. “Okay, Jake, let’s go find old Fizz Wiz and turn him into a star.”