The Winner Takes It All

Another Exciting Adventure in … THE GRIND
(Act I: All Wounds)
(Act II: The Status Quo)
(Act III: Covet thy Neighbor)

***

previously…

The light-emitting diodes filling my living room dried out my eyes. Well, to be fair, the marijuana wasn’t doing a very good job of lubricating them either, but I preferred to blame the television, which drained my soul and showed me nothing useful. I probably would have died there had it not been for my neighbor emerging from my bedroom, announcing, “Your window’s open.”

Blinking in gratitude, I mumbled, “It’s a beautiful night.”

“Anybody could come crawling inside,” she told me.

“Anybody’s welcome.”

Emma squinted at the screen. “Is that the Oscars? I thought those were, like, six months ago.”

I looked at my watch. “Three years ago, actually.”

“You know they have those every year.”

“I have to review those too.”

“Why?” she asked.

Hours ago, my editor, Myron, had the answer: “Jack Lagattuta.”

“Nobody talks to Jack Lagattuta,” I’d reminded him. “Last time I tried, I ended up smeared all over a movie set.”

“You’re going to have to try harder.”

“There are more humane ways to murder me,” I told him.

“Max,” he said earnestly, “we need to do something about your friend, Allen Dean.”

Allen Dean is no friend of mine,” I replied.

“Regardless,” Myron said, “he’s eating our lunch.”

“Well, I hope he doesn’t a peanut allergy, because I ordered Thai.”

He glared.

“Actually,” I added, “maybe it would benefit us if he did have a peanut allergy.”

He ignored me and paced behind his desk. “Up until this little twerp came out of nowhere, we had the best entertainment coverage in town. It’s up to you to turn this around.” With a whole lot of gravitas, he stopped moving and turned to me. “We need to scoop him on a grand scale.”

“Did you say scoop?” I laughed. “Does this mean I get to wear a fedora with my press badge sticking out of it?”

“No, you do not.”

“You never let me have any fun.”

“Nobody’s having any fun until we fix this!” he barked.

“Your plan is flawed,” I said after giving him a second to cool off. “He lives in Bel-Air, and he won’t take my calls.”

“You’re in luck,” he told me. “He’s going on tour soon, and he’ll be hitting New York around Thanksgiving.”

“A press tour?”

Myron shook his head.

“Then what kind of…?” It hit me. “Oh, shit. He’s one of those middle-aged white actors.”

“He’s one of those very wealthy middle-aged white actors, so he can front a blues band if he wants.”

“A blues band?” I moaned. “Oh, fuck.”

“While he’s here,” he continued, “I want an unscheduled one-on-one.”

“How?” I begged. “He’s locked up tighter than the president. Last time, his people actually pressed charges. Nobody presses charges, Myron. I was in jail for a week.”

“That’s why I’m giving you a month and a half to come up with a plan,” he concluded.

This is how I found myself immersed in talk shows and award shows, probing for the slightest weakness in the armor of Hollywood royalty. “Homework,” I told her. “Boring, pointless homework.”

She settled into the love seat beside me. “Last time I watched the Oscars, I got so bored I ended up seducing the guy I was hanging with.”

I picked myself up and moved to nearby the easy chair and attempted to fill the air with small talk. “Your boyfriend?”

“Not up to that point,” she replied.

My imagination started acting up. “You should probably go home.”

“Relax,” she assured me. “I was twenty-four. It was a different time.”

Ancient history or not, the subject needed to change. “And what brings you here this evening?”

“I had a really bad day, and when that happens, only two things make me feel better.”

“And?”

“I think you know what the first thing is.”

I froze.

“And Tyler’s working late.”

I bit the inside of my cheek. “What exactly are you trying to tell me?”

She exploded with laughter and covered her mouth to hold back what was left. “No, no, no, dude! My TV’s broken.”

“Since when?”

“Remember when we knocked it over?”

It came back to me. “After Gretchen and I had that blowout…”

“When you assaulted me with that amazing…”

I bit the inside of my cheek again, this time drawing blood. “But I thought you said it was okay. The TV, I mean.”

“It was only mostly okay,” she told me. “And it just now quit for good.”

“Crap,” I said. “Sorry.”

“It was totally worth it,” she replied. “But when I don’t have sex to turn to, I watch movies to unwind, so you owe me.”

“You know what?” I shrugged. “I could use the break anyway. What’s the name of the turd in question?”

On & On.”

“What’s it about?”

“It’s a period piece set in the eighties–a sort-of satire about the Cold War,” she told me.

“And?”

“Lots of running,” she admitted.

“Car chases?”

“Just one,” she replied. “At the end of the first act.”

“Explosions?”

“Not as many as you’d think.”

“Punching?”

Her eyes rolled before they closed, and a grin spread across her face until she interrupted it by biting her lip and sucking in a lungful of air with a helpless squeak. “Oh, God,” she moaned. “So… much… punching.”

I shook my head to dislodge the thoughts forming there. “You are a sick person.”

I can’t help what turns me on.”

We coughed and averted our eyes from each other.

“Look,” I told her after taking a deep breath, “I can’t talk to you about fucking anymore.”

She sat up. “Sorry?”

“You heard me.”

But that’s all we have in common,” she replied defensively.

“Em,” I told her, “I am as surprised as anyone by what I’m about to tell you, but I honestly think you’re one of the coolest people I’ve ever met, and I actually enjoy being around you with all your clothes on. Plus, you bailed me out of my little birthday breakdown last week. I mean, you listened to me. No one else really does.”

“You’re not making any sense.”

I cleared my throat and said slowly, “I’m okay being friends, but please no more talk about fucking.”

She frowned. “Why not? I thought you said we were friends.”

I grunted. “Because I miss it, Em.”

“You miss fucking?” she asked breathlessly. “You, of all people, haven’t been fucking?”

“Are you kidding?” I snorted. “I’m on a roll!” This much was true. Ever since she gave me the pep talk that night, I seemed to have developed some kind of homing system for women looking for one-night stands. “I miss fucking you.”

“This is awkward now.” She stood and sighed. “I think I should go home and watch this on my laptop.”

As she left, I whispered, “Yeah.” I rubbed my eyes and resumed my research with renewed vigor. I was going to find a goddamned victory somewhere.

to be continued…

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Appropriation

Another Exciting Adventure in … THE GRIND
(Act I: All Wounds)
(Act II: The Status Quo)
(Act III: Covet thy Neighbor)

***

previously…

Tyffanie Grant was only sixteen, but she had spent the past five years selling out pop-music concerts and acting in her all-ages sitcom, Mac and Daddy. She’d always dressed and acted provocatively, yet maintained her virtue. Tonight, she was going to put money on it. Judging by the decorations and the size of this yacht on which I stood, I’d say it was a lot of money.

For a purity ball, I was expecting more white clothing. Even the boys, all athletic and bobbing their heads in unison to the music, wore mostly baby blue shirts tucked into their meticulously pressed khakis–too cool, of course, to dance.

The girls unanimously wore black cocktail dresses with skirts that reached down to their mid-thighs and kept hiking up as they wriggled, writhed, and sweat to the bubblegum blaring out of the unnecessarily large speakers in every corner. To Ms. Grant’s credit, none of the tunes were her own.

After hours of this, I barely even noticed my colleague, Gretchen, finishing her photographing orbit of the room and gliding over. “Max, look at this.”

I am looking.”

She smacked the back of my head. “Not there.”

I turned my attention to the display on her camera. “What am I looking at now?”

“Who’s that?”

“Phil Ferris,” I replied, “the washed-up comedian who plays the titular father in Mac and Daddy.”

She smacked me again. “That’s for saying tit in a yacht full of teenagers.”

“It means title, you idiot.”

She shrugged. “I know, I just like hitting you.”

“That’s nice,” I told her. “Can I go back to being a creepy pedophile now?”

This time, when she swung at me, I caught her wrist.

“Do you think you could tell me what’s going on without hitting me again?”

“I’m not talking about Phil Ferris,” she said, liberating her arm, “I’m talking about the guy behind him.”

I squinted. “Looks like a ferret in a sweater vest.”

“Yeah, but who is he?”

I scanned the room and caught sight of him swaggering over in this direction, with his loosely knotted tie, well-worn pants, and scruffy blond hair. I’d never seen him before, but it was obvious to me exactly who I was dealing with: my arch-nemesis, who worked for my rival paper and had been snatching exclusive interviews right out from under me.

I said to him, “Allen Dean, I presume.”

“Wayne,” said someone nearby.

“Say what?” I turned to the voice to see a towering slab of Nordic beef. His blond hair, like Gretchen’s, improbably swept over his head in the most stylish manner imaginable. His lips, like Gretchen’s, puffed alluringly. His chest, like Gretchen’s, threatened the integrity of his button-up shirt. And he brandished a camera, just like Gretchen.

The Aryan repeated, “I’m Wayne.”

“I’m Gretchen,” she purred, checking him out.

“Knock that off,” I hissed at her.

“You must be the lauded Max Fuentes,” the ferret said.

“You must be…”

“Not lauded much longer,” he added.

“That’s a declaration of war, Dean,” I told him.

A bit of a one-sided war, don’t you think?”

“This sexual tension is killing me,” I said. “Should we make out now, or should we trade a few more barbs?”

He shook his head. “You’re funny. But redundant. I’m about to score an exclusive, and all you’ll have left to write are captions.”

“You’re so cute,” I told him before cupping my hands to mouth and turning toward the dance floor. “Tyffanie Grant! Come on over!”

A few moments passed, and she emerged from a cloud of giggling teenage girls without a word, just a curious smile.

“If I promised to dance with you and all your friends, you think I could get an exclusive?”

She glanced at the line of subtly bobbing boys, looked me up and down, grabbed my hand, and said, “Deal.”

As she pulled me away, I made sure to blow Allen Dean a kiss.

A half hour and a full notebook later, I rejoined Gretchen, who was standing alone and fanning her face with the hand not occupied with a camera.

“The hormones in there are suffocating,” I told her. “If I don’t fuck something tonight, I am going to die.”

She let out something between a moan and a sigh. “Oh, yeah. It’s a good thing I have a boyfriend to go home to.” I couldn’t tell if the sigh was one of relief or schadenfreude. It didn’t matter, because I spent the rest of the evening inebriated to the point of nausea by youthful lust.

When I got home hours later, I tried a cold shower, but I couldn’t wash the hormones off of me. It made it worse, actually, as I became aware of how nude I was, and how badly I wanted to share that nudity with someone who richly deserved it.

I tried masturbating, but I kept remembering how young the objects of my fantasies were. Whenever I tried to change the subject, I found myself recalling the skinny, immature limbs of my high-school sweetheart. Whichever way my mind’s eye went, it landed on jailbait.

And so I tried climbing onto my fire escape and getting some fresh air laced with tetrahydrocannabinol, but this was the worst idea of them all, because of my neighbor.

I could have fled at that moment, because, facing away from me with her cell to her ear, she had no idea I was there. Yet I was paralyzed by her neck, exposed by a loose ponytail and glowing with sweat, by the damp polyester clinging to her back, and by her workout pants.

Damn. Athletic women: my only weakness.

My mind, already on fire, ceded control to my body, which maneuvered my feet right up to her. The fingers of my right hand slid over her hip so they could tug loose the knot that held her drawstring together. The rest of them stroked her stomach and crept under the hem of her shirt.

She told her phone, “I’m going to have to call you back, Mom.”

Fifteen minutes later, give or take, I rolled onto my back and wheezed, “Sorry.”

She also rolled onto her back and attempted, with limited success, to slow down her breathing. “Why?” she panted. “Fair’s fair, after all.”

to be continued…

Cesspool

Another Exciting Adventure in … THE GRIND
(Act I: All Wounds)
(Act II: The Status Quo)
(Act III: Covet thy Neighbor)

***

previously…

The door to the holding cell opened, and the officer on the other side told me, “You’re free to go, Max.”

With a yawn, I asked him. “Hey, Jason. What’s going on?”

“You know, the usual.”

“Really? Because the last time I was in, they told me you and the family went to Florida for the week.”

Rolling his eyes, he said, “Not much of a vacation when you got to stay with your in-laws, if you know what I mean.”

“Not personally, but I’ve heard things.”

“Lucky.” He shook his head. “You know the way out. Stay out of trouble.”

We smirked at each other.

When I got to the check-out desk, I said to the uniform sitting behind it. “Hey, Roger.”

“Hey, Max,” he replied. “Says here you were trespassing backstage at the Staplebitch concert.”

I shrugged.

“My daughter loves that band.”

“Your daughter has lousy taste in music.”

“That’s what I keep telling her,” he said, “but you know kids.”

“Not personally, but I’ve heard things.”

He handed me my belongings, I signed for them, and he told me, “See you next time, buddy.”

Upon exiting the building, I was greeted by my colleague and photographer, Gretchen, leaning on a lamppost, playing with her fingernails. Her voluptuous hair was tied up into a stringy ponytail, her pin-up-girl figure was hidden under too-large jeans and a T-shirt, her bright eyes were bloodshot and framed by the ugliest pair of glasses I’d ever seen, her lips were pale, and her smile was absent. I’d recognized her only by the sound of her gum-chewing.

“Gretchen,” I told her, “you look like shit.”

“You look like the shit that shit shits,” she replied.

I took a moment to comprehend what she had just said. Failing that, I closed my eyes and exhaled.

“We done?” she asked.

I nodded.

She strode off, and I turned on my phone to see what the world had been up to in my absence. “You have one new message,” the ethereal voice inside informed me.

“And I bet you a dollar I’m going to hate it,” I mumbled in reply.

“Max,” the first message growled, “this is Myron. You know, your editor? The one who keeps having to bail you out of jail? That Myron? I expect to see you in my office within a half-hour of you getting you out, and I expect you to have an interview for me with the notoriously difficult-to-interview it-band of the moment with the stupid name. If not, I will murder you, chop up your body, and throw it in a compost heap.”

Seeing as I’d failed to get said interview, I figured I should try to make a run for it.

“If you failed to get said interview, and you try to make a run for it,” the message continued, “I will hunt you down, then murder you, chop up your body, and throw it in a compost heap.”

Scratch that.

My phone went off while I was a dead man walking to the train, and I went ahead and answered it, given that I was too numb to give a fuck anymore.

“Am I talking to Max Fuentes?” it asked.

“Who wants to know?” I replied.

“I need you to confirm or deny the veracity of a recent news-related rumor.”

“And what rumor would that be?”

“That an exclusive, all-access, behind-the-scenes story about Staplebitch is not running in your paper this weekend.”

I’d never heard the voice before, but the cockiness of my arch-nemesis could not be mistaken. For starters, it rivaled mine. “Allen Dean,” I moaned.

“I also need you to confirm that I scooped you. Again.”

It didn’t even occur to me to ask how he got my number, because I was too busy informing him, “Dean, I am going to fucking kill you.”

He laughed and hung up.

I sighed, “Myron is going to fucking kill me.”

Forty-five minutes later, however, my editor sentenced me to a fate worse than death. I blinked. “You want me to do what?”

“Not you,” said my editor as he pointed a finger at my colleague and photographer, Gretchen, who had somehow gone home, showered, washed and blew out her hair, dressed, and applied most of her makeup, since I last saw her not all that long ago; “both of you.”

“I’m clear on who’s involved, Chief, but it’s what you want us to do that I don’t quite understand.”

“Go to a purity ball,” he repeated. “And you should probably stop calling me Chief. You’re already skating on thin shit.”

Gretchen snorted. “Max isn’t exactly pure, you know.”

“Well,” Myron continued, “it’s not your purity in question, but you’re still attending.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I’m not going to do that.”

“Since when did this become a democracy?”

“Since 1788,” I replied, “when the Constitution was ratified. Mind you, it excluded blacks, women, and poor people, but we’ve since made improvements.”

During the course of this back and forth, Gretchen produced a vial of mascara from God knows where.

“Max,” Myron said as he absently produced a mirror and held it up for her, “if you don’t shut up and do as you’re told, I’m going to physically kick your ass.”

“I’d like to see you try.”

“I’d pay money to see that,” Gretchen muttered.

“You’re young,” he told me, “but I could take you.”

“You’re probably right,” I admitted. “So, I totally forgot with all the banter, what was our assignment?”

to be continued…

Counterintuitive

Another Exciting Adventure in … THE GRIND
(Act I: All Wounds)
(Act II: The Status Quo)
(Act III: Covet thy Neighbor)

***

previously…

I don’t know why I even bother. I mean, I should have known when I took a goddamn train to goddamn Boston and tracked down the ex-girlfriend of Lane goddamn Sheridan to uncover that massive bombshell from his past, that goddamn Allen goddamn Dean would have beaten me to it. Yeah, so he’s only done it once before, but, given that he was my brand new nemesis, it was inevitable, wasn’t it? I was getting old–almost twenty-eight. Over the goddamn hill.

And I don’t even know why I bothered to schlep this goddamn lawn chair all the over from the goddamn Cloisters and up four goddamn floors and to my goddamn fire escape because I knew full well that the moment I turned my goddamn back, my goddamn neighbor was just going to sit on it. And I would try to goddamn converse with her, even though she was just going to call me Dude, like she had ever since I’ve goddamn known her. And it was only a matter of goddamn time before she blew my goddamn cover with my goddamn roommates and outed me as a goddamned heterosexual.

I sat in my prize, determined not to let her win. I had no idea where she was, but I knew she was watching me, and that this chair was comfy. Unfortunately, a sizzling jones then set in, and I needed to get high right goddamn now.

I stood and mourned the upcoming loss of my seat. Oh well, I sighed, my funeral. It took only a moment to gather up my pot-smoking and return to the outside, but that was all she needed. The inevitability of it all did nothing to lessen the sting.

“Dude,” she said.

I gritted my teeth, and choked out a polite offer, “Weed?”

She shook her head.

I was used to that too. Still, just before I put my pipe to my lips, I told her, “Your funeral.”

She sat up in the chair. “That doesn’t even make sense. How is it my funeral if I’m not doing something that could make me cough and die?”

I took my hit and held it, wondering how exactly it was that I’d set her off–so I’d know how to do it again.

“Why would you even say that?” she persisted.

I exhaled. “It was just something to say,” I replied. “I didn’t even think about it.”

She closed her eyes and sighed. “That was really weird of me,” she said. “Sorry.”

“That was pretty weird.”

“You know what?” she continued, extending her hand. “Fucking day I’ve had, I don’t care.”

I handed her the pipe and a book of matches, asking, “Are you sure you can handle this? You had a lot of fear before.”

She snatched the paraphernalia away. “Dude, don’t.” A flick of a match later, her beautiful chest rose as smoke filled her lungs. Her equally beautiful face grimaced as she tried to keep it to herself.

A smirk crept across my cheek.

She exhaled in a fit of coughs, and when she recovered, she snickered, “What are you laughing at?”

I shrugged.

“It’s not funny.”

“It’s a little bit funny.” I reached for my stuff, but she yanked it away from me.

“Mine!”

“Mine!” I replied.

“Yours when I’m done.”

She took another hit, and another. I found that my irritation at watching my marijuana disappear, bud by bud, into this woman’s mouth was tempered by the fact that it was one hell of a mouth. Finally she returned the half-exhausted pipe and a third of the book of matches she’d started with.

“Are you sure you’re finished?”

She giggled.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

“Oh, my god,” she moaned, “I needed that.”

“Cannabis has that effect on people.”

She sighed as I helped myself to the remains of my bowl, and I asked her when I exhaled, “You want to tell me about the fucking day you had?”

Her eyes shot open. “Oh, no.”

“You want me to tell you about the fucking day I had?”

She sat up in the chair, gripping the armrests like she was on a plane hitting severe turbulence. “You want to go inside.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Yes, you do.”

“I just shared an assload of weed with you.”

“Dude,” she insisted.

“Okay, what the hell is going on?”

She giggled.

I laughed with her, but I had no idea why. “Better now?”

Still giggling, she got to her feet and shook her head.

“You are one strange cat,” I told her.

She started to glide toward me.

I backed away, until the only thing standing between me and a four-story fall was a flimsy, cast-iron railing. “Now just wait a minute.”

She giggled again; her face was less than an inch from mine. I tried to turn away, but she followed my gaze in every direction. “I warned you,” she said.

My blood pressure rose. “Are you going to tell me what this is about?”

“I just remembered why I don’t get high,” she whispered into my ear before nibbling on it.

“Ah.”

“This is your last chance to get away.”

“You’re not making a very good case for that.”

I felt a quick tug, and my belt clattered onto the fire escape, along with two bucks. “Your funeral,” she said.

to be continued…

Disappointment

Another Exciting Adventure in … THE GRIND
(Act I: All Wounds)
(Act II: The Status Quo)

***

previously…

The ringtone I’d assigned to Sean McCoy was “Shower in the Dark” by Binary Mystery. The band was chosen because binary must have been his native tongue in the android factory in which I assumed he was assembled; the word mystery referred to the fact that I had no idea what the fuck he was about. The symbolism of the song itself was that it was free for download, and I didn’t want to put too much work into a goddamned ringtone.

“Why didn’t you shut that shit off, Max,” asked my editor, Myron Fogle.

“Because nobody ever calls me.”

“I call you.”

“Nobody who doesn’t ask me to do things that aren’t my job calls me.”

He frowned as he rifled through negatives in that sentence until he uncovered my point. “Your job is to do whatever I tell you to do.”

“If you told me to eat the Chrysler Building?” I asked. “Would that be my job?”

“Yes.”

“Checkmate,” I admitted.

He sighed, “I don’t like this either, Max, but word came from on high.”

Mr. Lloyd?”

Myron flinched, because he was Jewish, and his people were not in the habit of speaking the names of those at the top. And while Mr. Lloyd wasn’t God, he was pretty close. “Not quite that high.”

“So nobody gets struck by lightning if I pass?”

My editor took a deep breath and removed the reading glasses I was certain he only owned because he needed something to remove to show he was serious. “I really hate to tell you this, because you’re a cocky son of a bitch, and the last thing you need is validation.”

“It’s true.”

“You’re the only one who can get in there.” He explained, “When it comes to journalism, nobody’s security is tighter than Hollywood’s, yet you get through every time we ask you to.”

“I don’t do it because you ask,” I replied. “I do it because they because they don’t want me to do it.”

“These guys really don’t want you to.”

“I’m listening.”

“Total media blackout for three square blocks surrounding the entire Brook-Gareth Hotel complex. “Nobody gets in without an invitation, and those involve security checks.”

“Catering? Cleaning staff?” I asked. “Being Hispanic does give me an unfair advantage.”

He shook his head. “In-house.”

I ground my teeth.

“You have thirty-six hours. No interviews–just the names of the people there, the gist of the keynote speech and the identity of the one giving it, and some color. All you’ll need to do is get in, get out, and call Bill immediately so he can type it up.” He sat down at his desk, returned his glasses to their former position, glanced at his computer, glanced back, and said, “You’re still here?”

I called Sean back immediately.

He asked, “I’m curious as to your–“

“Busy,” I replied. “I’ve got to get into this super-secret-media-non-grata-political-fundraising-bullshit and so some stealth reporting and I don’t even know how I can get into the building without an invite…”

“I can acquire an invitation.”

“Excuse me?”

“You are alluding to the governor’s ball at the Brooke-Gareth Hotel tomorrow evening, are you not?”

“You’re invited?” I stammered.

“Not presently,” he replied. “Typically, I choose to avoid such events inasmuch as they tend toward the stuffy and pretentious.” Yes, I was aware of the irony, but I don’t think he was. “However, it will be a simple matter of a telephone call to amend my schedule.”

And so, the next evening, a tuxedo-clad Sean McCoy strolled up to where I leaned on the outside wall of the Brooke-Gareth hotel and asked, “This is the attire you have chosen for such a prohibitively high-security, high-class gathering?”

“I tucked my shirt in!” I said.

“You may wish to remain by my side for the duration of the evening, lest your goal be ascertained by those who do not want their greased palms exposed.”

I watched limo after limo pull up to the front door to be met by enormous, humorless security guards. “You’re probably right,” I told him.

Naturally I wandered off at the first sign of an hourglass figure in a strapless, backless evening gown. She was all class, and I was playing hooky out by the creek or whatever it was kids did when they played hooky. She belonged here in this nightmare of political tuxedos and greased hands. I, on the other hand, did not. Long story short, I was not even remotely in her league.

That never stopped me before. “Hi,” I said to the woman who possessed both the figure and the gown, “I’m Max.”

Sara,” she replied before she even saw me. When she did, she looked me up and down and smirked. “You’re wearing cowboy boots?”

“Yes, I am.”

“At a formal, fundraiser?”

“Yes.”

“You may be the ballsiest man in this building.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” I replied. “Senator Bruno Sanchez is standing over there, and he’s running in the primary as a fiscal conservative.”

She laughed. “Ouch.”

“He’s not the ballsiest man in the building,” I continued. “That would be Councilman Marvin Hechtmann over there, who insists he’s the go-to guy for family values. Now, if you want to expand the field to both genders, then the ballsiest person in the room is Senator Vicky Southern, who voted against the last federal jobs bill and has actively been campaigning to repeal it. And when the money from it started rolling in, she signed the checks and went to all the photo ops, and–this is my favorite part–claims that the money came from a different spending package.”

With a grin, she shook her head.

I concluded, “On the other hand, I am wearing cowboy boots to a formal fundraiser.”

“You know the press isn’t invited here tonight.”

“What makes you think I’m the press?”

She flashed me a dirty but amused look.

I gave her a card. “You win.”

She took a look at it. “I was wrong,” she said. “You’re not a real journalist if you work at this paper.”

“I like you.”

“The feeling’s mutual.”

“Want to get out of here?”

“I can’t,” she replied. “It’s my party.”

“You’re the governor?”

She laughed. “I’m the social director. I’m the one who brought all this together.”

“Oh.” I asked her, “You want to find an empty room nearby and fool around?”

“You really are the ballsiest person in the building.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“There’s an old smoking lounge on the other side of the bar,” she replied. “No one knows it’s there.”

I don’t know how long we’d been in there, but I do know that I had my hand up her skirt when Sean turned on the lights.

“Max,” he announced, “you need to be aware that…”

Sara jumped off of my lap and began smoothing out her dress while I tucked my shirt back into my pants.

He groaned in frustration. “Is there any point in your life, Max, when you are not…”

Sara said, “Hello, Sean.”

His back stiffened. “Sara.”

“Are you his plus-one?” she asked me.

I shrugged.

She snorted and walked to his side. “You, of all people, should remember that the media is not, nor has it ever been, invited to gatherings such as this.”

“He is merely my companion,” he replied. “What he chooses to do with that status is his business.”

“Your companion? I was wondering how long it would take for you to realize that about yourself.”

“Aspersions about my sexuality? Mature.”

After she stormed away, I asked, “What the hell was that about?”

He rolled his eyes. “She’s my ex-wife.”

“Say no more.”

“I had no such intentions.” He pointed a thumb at the door. “Regardless, I have come to bring to your attention that the keynote speaker has nearly ascended to the podium. It might interest you to know that she is Andrea Gareth, heiress to this both the Gareth and the Brooke family holdings.”

“I need a minute before I can go out there.”

“Erection?”

I nodded. Nothing Sean said surprised me anymore. Nothing.

Ninety minutes later, I whipped out my cell phone the moment I stepped out of the media-blackout zone. “Bill, I hope you’re ready to type. We might be able to catch the first edition–”

“No rush,” Bill replied. “We’ve been scooped.”

I handed Sean the phone. “Take this,” I said. “I need to find a quiet place to throw up.”

“Evidently you have given Max news of an unpleasant nature,” Sean said to Bill. “Please clarify while he vomits.”

After several hours’ worth of hors d’oeuvres fled my stomach, he handed me back my cell. “A journalist for your rival paper, The New York Caller, by the name of Allen Dean had secured, by means which remain unclear, interviews both with the governor and Andrea Gareth, as well as an advanced copy of the speech she eventually delivered.”

“Allen who?”

Sean replied, “Unbeknownst to either of us, you appear to have acquired yourself an arch-nemesis.”

to be continued…

(… a look back, for perspective)