Copyright © 2004 by Rich Mussler. Not to be reproduced without permission.
At breakfast we all rested elbows on the simulated wood grain formica countertop of the only Denny's left on the south side of town. You know, that one at Lamar and Grand. It wasn’t light yet, and we were coming off a nightmare shift.
Though exhausted I recognized that it was probably not a good idea to talk about what had just happened. Best leave certain things unsaid.
“More coffee?” the waitress asked. Only it sounded like “Mo-ah cawfee”. This was the same top-heavy girl that always calls everyone “honey.”
“Personally, I could use something stronger,” the news lady said. But she pushed her mug forward and the honey-waitress filled it.
“There ya go-ah, honey,” she said and moved on.
I could see the short-order cook behind the counter, slinging hash, and recognized him. He was a doper I’d put away a few years back, out now on parole I guessed. Good for him. At least he’s working at honest labor, and maybe clean and sober. Maybe. I sort of hoped he wouldn’t recognize me as just then he was making my Grand Slam with eggs scrambled. God knows what he might put in those eggs if he recognized me. He looked up from the grill briefly and half-smiled, then turned his back so all I could see was a line of sweat down the spine of his t-shirt.
“I always wondered,” Kathy Borman said and stopped. I was listening but apparently she wasn’t going to finish. She lit a cigarette instead. She sat between me and Howard Thorp at the counter and I saw her glance at him.
He saw it, too, that sidelong glance. “Always wondered what?” he asked, pointedly.
Kathy picked a bit of tobacco off her tongue and wiped it on a napkin. She took the diplomatic route and lied, finishing the sentence with another thought. “I always wondered if you’re to tip the waitress when you sit at the counter. Do they expect it?”
Howard Thorp had, not three hours earlier, peed in his pants. That’s right, he wet himself. It was a good thing he kept an extra pair of slacks in his locker. Several of the production crew slapped him on the back and gave him encouragement, despite the embarrassing mishap, saying things like, “I woulda done the same thing, Howard,” and “it coulda happened to anybody, Howard.” But the two cameramen who were closest to him when it happened and caught it on video didn’t say anything. They gave him looks of disgust.
We’d been sitting there with them in the back of the production van, waiting until Kathy came in, expecting to be interviewed like always.
Kathy did come in but she didn’t interview anyone. In fact, she didn’t speak at all. After awhile the two cameramen shrugged their shoulders and left. Howard and I waited silently. She was perched in front of a small vanity with one leg curled up under her. She removed the “on air” makeup.
Then we all drove to the Denny’s.
“So,” I said to Howard, “you made your first bust,” and sipped bad coffee. I leaned back in my seat and peered over Kathy at Howard Thorp. “And it’s a good one, too.”
The news lady between us shook her hair, turned her head and looked at me. She turned the corners of her lips down and rolled her eyes. My, oh damn! She is one fine looking woman. I recalled, at that moment, reading something about a five million dollar, three-year contract with the local CBS affiliate and felt in my gut that she was probably worth every penny. Chocolate brown hair and icy blue eyes. Beautiful. Seasoned news investigator. Intelligent.
“It was a good bust, wasn’t it?” Howard Thorp said. There was a sort of hope in his voice. “Someone said street value of a couple hundred thou?”
“Yes it was,” I said. And added for emphasis, “At least.”
The news lady turned her head to shift her gaze from me to him. I couldn’t see her expression now but could guess it. Then she turned back to me, rolled her eyes again and blew smoke.
She didn’t know me very well. I hoped she wanted to know me better, though I admit I’m not much of a catch. Maybe there’s a chance, I thought, but not likely. I shook the thought from my head.
God knows what Kathy ever saw in Howard Thorp, other than news anchor good looks, fame, money, etc. The rumors about them, I knew for a fact, were true. They went at it like bunnies. I heard them myself in that little production van a few times.
That was then and this is now, so I smiled at her. She smiled back. I saw her eyes drop and follow my arms down to the counter then back up to the coffee mug I cradled in both hands. There was something sensual in the way she did that. Of course, with those crystal blue eyes of hers just about anything she did would strike me as sensual. She's at least fifteen years younger than I am, I noted to myself. What was I thinking?
She pulled her shoulders back and looked at me, in my dark-blue DEA jacket with the bright yellow letters, as if she were seeing me for the first time. She chewed the inside of her lower lip thoughtfully. Then she turned her head and snubbed out her half-smoked cigarette.
“Well, thank God it was a good bust,” Howard Thorp said, repeating the phrase. “My first one, after all.” He smiled at the news lady but she did not return the smile.
Instead she looked at him thinking (I’m guessing this part): Six months planning, two months of daily on-air time and a budget of three-quarters of a million to get… this. But again she said nothing. Just looked at him.
And then, after a long moment, she turned back to me and rolled her eyes one more time. I peered around Kathy to look at the subject of her disdain. Mr. Howard Thorp, Channel 6 sports anchor, was a short but athletic-looking fellow built like the Olympic swimmer he had once been. His hair was closely cropped, his jaw square and dimpled, and his face highly photogenic. He was everything I am not and never will be. He had volunteered for this assignment, I was told. Good PR for our department. I was told that, too. The camera favored him from any angle, they said. His numbers are high with women, they said. So they followed him with their cameras through abbreviated training for the DEA. I supervised his training myself. And every evening a news crew showed up with Kathy Borman who asked Howard searching questions (edited and fed to millions of TVs throughout Dallas-Ft. Worth via the six o’clock evening newscasts).
“How are you holding up to the rigorous physical training, Howard?”
“Do you enjoy the firearms instruction?”
“Was the sensitivity training useful, or is it a guise for racial profiling?”
Howard answered every question with thoughtful, intelligent sound bites. He looked into the camera and connected with the viewing audience. It was pure gold. Ratings for channel 6 soared.
And Kathy closed each session with a curt nod, saying “I’m Kathy Borman on location with Howard Thorp, live and undercover, on special assignment with the DEA.” Howard wore the same jacket I wore, except his was new and fit better.
Howard Thorp was probably a nice guy. Hell, what do I know? He was maybe thirty (I’m no good at ages), was recently profiled as one of North Texas’ most eligible bachelors in one of those cheesy magazines, and was fit and trim from swimming God knows how many miles every day. A natural athlete, the man holds three gold medals and two silvers from the nineteen-eighty-something Olympics. What can I say?
But what made things interesting to me, twisted Texan that I am, sitting there at the counter that night, was that just a few hours earlier Olympic gold medalist Howard Thorp, Channel 6 Sports Anchor, a guy who routinely partied with the Cowboys, the Mavs and the Rangers, and was a known womanizer, this very same Howard Thorp had proven himself (video-recorded for posterity, I might add) to be cowardly. Like the lion from Oz. Or as we say here in the great state of Texas, chicken. Preparation and media hype aside, the man was yellow.
So when I looked at him all I could think was: cluck-cluck-cluck.
But now, seeing him there on the other side of Kathy, I felt sorry for him.
“Thank God it was a good bust,” he said to me, again, responding to my longer-than-polite gaze. “And I want to say to you, Fritz," he swallowed hard but managed to spit it out, "thank you for what you did out there tonight to help.”
Kathy checked my reaction.
I shrugged and gazed into my cup. “Just doing my job, Howard.”
“Quite right,” she remarked. “Fritz was just doing his job.”
Howard Thorp dropped his eyes to his own coffee.
Kathy, smiling at me again, leaned against me. “Aren’t you carrying a gun?” she asked, kind of purring. “I mean, I thought you said you always carried a gun.”
She must have noticed I’d removed my .45. No bulge, at least none under the armpit.
"Oh," I said, absently slapping the empty space. “It’s in the car. But I always carry a back up.” She looked at me curiously. “A second gun," I said, explaining. "Most cops carry one.”
Howard Thorp tilted his head at this, making a mental note to buy a second gun.
Kathy raised her eyebrows and looked intently about my person. This scrutiny made me a little uncomfortable. “Where?” she asked.
“Trust me,” I said. “It’s there.”
The waitress delivered our Grand Slams, then punished us by refilling our cups with that rancid brown water they call coffee. “There ya go-ah, honey,” she said to no one in particular.
Kathy ignored the food but lit another cigarette. She rested her chin on her palm and studied me a moment, stirring creamer into her cup absently. Something was gelling in her mind, and I had a feeling I was about to hear about it. “You know, Fritz,” she said, her voice trailing off.
(She sounds even better, up close right there in your ear like that, than she does on the air.)
“What?” I prompted her to complete her thought and shoveled hash browns into my mouth.
"I was thinking. You have a very photogenic face."
Like hell, I thought. “Sure,” I said to her.
Howard Thorp peered at me over the top of Kathy's head. It was as if he read ahead and didn’t like where this script was going.
Kathy continued. “You ever think about…"
I put a stop to it. "It's Mr. Thorp’s job to look good on camera. My job is to keep him from getting into too much trouble."
He seemed relieved to hear me say that.
"Well," Kathy said, countering, raising her mug to sip from it. "Unfortunately, Howard seems more than capable of keeping himself out of trouble. The only useable footage we got tonight was of his backside cowering behind a dumpster."
That icy comment came without warning and I choked on my wheat toast. So much for leaving things unsaid. Howard Thorp gritted his teeth and turned a bright red. Not an angry sort of red but the embarrassed kind. "Shit," was all he said under his breath.
"No problem, really," I said, not knowing what to say. "We got a good bust out of it. And it isn’t uncommon for someone to freeze up their first time out." It was a lie meant to save face for poor Howard.
Kathy Borman gave me a look that would chill margaritas. She wasn’t buying it. And I'm sure Howard saw what was coming and was dreading it.
"It is a problem," she said, putting her coffee down hard, spilling it. “Because my reputation is involved. And my career. Right now I have no story for this evening’s broadcast – unless I choose to show our-man-undercover wetting himself.”
She pivoted on her stool to face the Olympian directly. “Congratulations, Howard. You’ve given new meaning to the term yellow journalism." She slid off her stool and marched out of the restaurant.
Now, that was cold.
Howard sat there a moment, stunned. He didn’t look at me. He drew a deep breath then let it out slowly, composing himself. "I suppose," he said quietly, "I deserved that. I expect I will hear it for the rest of my life."
He stood up. "It's crazy," he said with a puzzled look on his face. "I was so excited to be working this assignment with you DEA guys. It never occurred to me that something like this would happen, but it did." He shrugged, and then walked off.
I watched him over my shoulder until I saw him pass through the Denny's front door. Poor SOB, I thought, and went back to work on my eggs.