by Rick Beck

Chapter 8

Man Mountain

On an assignment to city hall, George felt like he was floating. He would get a chance to ask Mayor Packard about Mrs. Packard's dalliance with young Delesandro. It's what he'd wanted to do since the fender bender at Thomas Circle, but being a lowly stringer, he had no access to the mayor until now.

Pops was right. The question had been spinning around inside his head since he encountered the mayor's wife at Thomas Circle. It needed to be asked with the proper respect, and it would be asked with the backing of the City News.

He wasn't sure how to ask the question he wanted answered, once the time came. George knew words. When the time came, he'd pick words that would get a response. Hopefully A response he could print. There was a hazard in asking a question if you didn't know the answer. He needed to be prepared for a follow up question if the answer wasn't an answer at all. You didn't let someone off the hook because he was a good dancer.

What he was most likely to come back with, 'Mrs. Packard's affairs have nothing to do with the purpose of this news conference. We discuss political matters at City Hall.'

Her affairs were all to do with politics. As the mayor's wife, Mrs. Packard was able to gain access to someone she wouldn't have paid any attention to if her husband wasn't the mayor.

How did he get all that into a question before he was shut down?

It was the question that needed to be asked, and George had been given credentials so that he could ask it. The usual city hall reporter who covered local politics, Mort Cord, was present to cover the event for the City News. George was there to ask the question the City News wanted answer. George's readers wanted the answer.

Everyone would know why he was there, once he asked the question that would start, I'm George Hitchcock, City News.

Turning right, George was in no hurry. He had forty-five minutes to walk the five blocks to city hall. He breathed the sweet fresh air. It was a nice day. The heat and humidity had broken, and ten degrees cooler and little to no humidity was a welcome relief.

George did what he'd done a hundred times since going to work for the City News. He checked his right inside pocket for his notebook, coming to a stop in the middle of the sidewalk. He'd taken it out of his pocket while he was writing the piece on Mama Delesandro's plight. He left his notebook on the desk beside the Smith Corona he used.

Making an about face, he'd lost only five minutes, and there was plenty of time to kill. Jogging up the seventeen stone stairs, he walked back into the news room to retrieve his notebook.

His notebook was in plain sight, right where he left it. Picking it up, he slipped it in his inside jacket pocket. He still had a half hour. There was no reason to rush.

Then he saw something that brought him up short, once he'd turned back toward the stone stairway.

He always looked at the doorway of the office dead ahead, on his journey to the stone staircase. Mr. Warner's office. He was no longer standing in the doorway.

A feisty looking gray haired septuagenarian had the Walrus backed up against his desk, and she was reading him the riot act. The woman was smartly dressed and neat except for a few darting gray hairs. She could have been anyone's granny, but he'd never seen a granny fierce as this one.

George could hear her irrate voice, but he couldn't hear what she was saying. Mr. Warner was red as a beet. He did not respond to her.

The woman, maybe five foot nothing, had her head turned up and her mouth was almost touching Mr. Warner's chin as she yapped. She put George in mind of a Mexican Chihuahua who has cornered a German Shepard, having no idea what she was doing.

It was almost comical if George hadn't suddenly felt the sting of her words. It was a vague and unfocused stinging, but George had the unmistakable feeling that he was somehow involved.

He turned back toward the front of the newsroom, approaching Pops' desk. Pops saw him coming and looked up.

"Pops, who is the lady in the Wal..., Mr. Warner's office?"

Pops laughed out loud.

"That ain't no lady. That is Dorothy Mellon Miles. Your boss, kid."

"I've never seen her in here before," George said.

"She comes in about once a year. Heaven help the poor moron whose ox she's in there goring."

"What do you mean?" George asked.

"Only two things bring that woman in here. The City News is being given an award of some kind, or someone has written something that has torqued her jaws. Heaven help that poor son-of-a-bitch. Hard to get hired once Dorothy Mellon Miles puts the hex on you, son. ...Aren't you supposed to be somewhere? I bet you better get your ass in gear. You won't get into one of the mayor's news conferences once it starts. He has muscle heads blocking the doors."

"Yeah, Pops. I was just curious," he said.

"You don't get into that news conference, you won't get to ask that question you have running around in that reporter's brain of yours. Go! Go! Shoo! Can't you see I'm busy. Don't worry about the Walrus, he's surprisingly agile when it comes to keeping Mrs. Miles at bay. Her bark is worse than her bite, and she has surprisingly little influence on what we do here."

George hesitated just before he made the turn toward the stairs. How could the owner of one of the city's three newspapers have surprisingly little influence in the newsroom? It was plain to see, she didn't know how surprisingly little influence she had. She'd influenced Mr. Warner into a corner of his office.

The woman's jaws were still flapping as fast as she could make them move. Mr. Warner was a big boy, and she was a tiny speck of a woman, but a ferocious speck.

George laughed as he danced down the steps. Pop had done two things that made his day, maybe his whole week at City News. Pops called the Walrus the Walrus, and he'd called him a reporter. It couldn't get much better than that, and he still had plenty of time.

Once the room where the news conference was being held was pointed out to him, he joined the gathering press corp. There were maybe twenty other reporters attending the mayor's news conference. George recognized some of the faces, and strangely enough, Mort Cort nodded to him, once he stepped inside the room where the news conference was to be held. George smiled, returning the nod.

Mort was the dean of local politics at the City News. Having his own office, he did not rub shoulders with staff reporters, and as far as George knew, Mort didn't know there were stringers working at the City News. George had seen Mort from a distance and on television from time to time.

While the nod was polite, it wasn't the least bit cordial, and George refused to be intimidated by well established and well known beat reporters. These men had nothing he didn't have, well, relatively speaking. He would join their club in time, and he'd be just as respected for his ability as a reporter as they were, but why wasn't Mort surprised to see another City News reporter on his private turf?

Had Mort seen George from a distance? if he had, why?

George noticed a couple of rows of folding chairs. From time to time, a city official or invited guest would come in and take one of those seats. Better known reporters sat behind the dignitaries. The rest of the men there to report on the news conference stood along the side of the room and in the back.

George was handed a sheet of paper by the only woman in the room. She walked up one side, down the other, and then she offered a stack of papers to the man sitting at the end of each row.

The news conference had been called for the mayor to speak on the newest transportation bill he would sign later that day in his office. The subway and light rail system was being expanded into nearby suburban areas. Since the subway was originally proposed the plan was always to eventually expand its reach. It was hardly a news flash.

Pops spoke of the question running around inside George's reporter's brain. The only question he could have been referring to was the question about Mrs. Packard and Jon Delesandro. He'd been on that story all week without a hint of interference. While he hadn't been instructed what to ask the mayor, it didn't take a brain surgeon to know why George was there. It could only have to do with what the mayor's wife was up to.

Who else besides Mort Cort knew he'd been sent to City Hall to make one gigantic wave?

George wasn't a political reporter. By industry standards, he wasn't a reporter at all. He may have a reporters brain, but from where he stood, he was merely freelancing for the City News. It amounted to pretending to be a real reporter. Until Pops or the Walrus said the words, George was nothing, and someone who was nothing risked nothing by making waves. He'd been sent on the fools errand.

When George got a story, it was up to him to make something out of it, but some stories make something out of themselves, because of who was involved and what their involvement was. The fender bender at Thomas Circle was such a story.

Ordinarily, if a stringer was put on a story like the Thomas Circle affair, it would have been turned over to a staff reporter, a real reporter, once the initial reporting was done.

A story involving a high official's wife would automatically go to a staff reporter. George knew how things worked. No matter what happened, when the smoke cleared, George may or may not still have a job, but he had one now, and he intended to do his job the way he knew it should be done. He would not flinch in the face of adversity.

George stationed himself in a line behind a half dozen people leaning against the right hand wall, when you were looking at the podium on the raised platform at the front of the room. There were people so arranged against the other wall, and along the back of the room. The two dozen seats were now filled.

Before the news conference began, there were nearly forty people in the twenty-five by twenty-five foot room. The buzzing of many conversations filled the space.

The indication that things were about to get rolling was when the buzzing became a stirring and the stirring led to a murmur, and then the room went silent, as men began to appear at a door on the right side of the raised platform. The first man in line, the mayor's chief of staff, moved up to the podium.

"I'm Stephen Foster, the mayor's chief of staff. I want to welcome you to the mayor's press conference on the transportation bill that he'll sign in his office this afternoon. His Honor, Mayor Barnard Packard," he man said, moving back away from the podium.

The mayor, now standing at the podium with light applause greeting him, had originally been wedged between two gigantic men. Once he stepped out from in between them, they looked even larger, because the mayor was five foot six, which was his height as well as the measurement around his middle.

Smiling warmly, Mayor Packard tapped at the microphone, listening to see if he heard anything. He looked back at his chief of staff, still tapping on the microphone that was attached to the podium with a two foot flexible cable.

"Is it on?" you could plainly hear the mayor ask.

In that size room, all he needed to do was speak at a conversational level, and everyone could hear what he said, but the chief of staff had to come back to the podium and tap the microphone, check the connections and assure the mayor he would be heard.

"Excuse me," the mayor said, leaning into the microphone, it came through as a shrill squeal.

It put George in mind of a pig being chased by someone with a very large ax.

"Good morning. I mean good afternoon. This is a news conference on the transportation bill that I'll sign later today," he said without surprising anyone.

"Since the subway and light rail project began several years ago, the expansion that will get underway once I sign the legislation into law it tightens our economic and fundamental connection with our nearby suburbs. I want to greet our suburban neighbors who have come to witness the joining of our communities in a tie that that shall be unbroken for all time. Gentlemen, welcome on behalf of the city and its mayor," the mayor said, stepping back to lead a light applause.

When the mayor stepped back to join the light applause, George got a better look at the two man mountains that the mayor arrived between. One was the clone of the other. They stood like choir boys, hands folded safely in front of them.

The man mountain that stood behind the mayor's right shoulder was the same mountain that barred his egress from the parking space at the mayor's house. George could plainly see him waggling his finger at him that morning. There was no mistake about it.

A warm fuzzy feeling didn't emerge from the recognition.

The mayor stepped back up to the podium, removing a sheet of paper from his inside jacket pocket, and blocking most of what George could see of the raised platform. Only the head of man mountain one was visible, and it gave George a sinking feeling. Did he really want to confront the mayor with a question about his wife

George was intimidated all over again.

The mayor looked at the podium, where he placed the paper.

"Thank you, gentlemen. This is a news conference concerning expansion of the subway into the nearby suburbs. It's a project whose time has come. As the city grows, our suburbs grow, and transportation is the key to linking the economies of all regions nearby our fair town," he read

George had been handed a sheet of paper describing the news conference as an official endorsement of the subway and light rail expansion. George wasn't there for that endorsement. He wasn't there to keep track of what the mayor said. The mayor needed to answer his question about his wife and Jon Delesandro.

"Now, I'll take your questions," Mayor Packard said.

George would wait until the questions on the subway expansion were all asked, before he'd ask the question he had.

It was a cordial exchange. The mayor called on the reporters by name. He smiled a lot and his answers weren't so much answers as they were prepared comments he'd tried to memorize with only partial success. He wanted to appear polished. He appeared to be rehearsed, reciting facts he was reading from a sheet of paper on the podium.

During the question and answer period, the mayor worked his way around the room, smiling, asking reporters questions about their families, new arrivals, sad departures, and whatever sounded folksy. This was the quality that got the mayor his job. He did folksy as well as anyone.

During the questioning, George worked his way to the front of the line, until nothing separated him from the raised platform or the mayor. He raised his hand and kept it raised.

The mayor looked directly at him. The show was about to begin.

"Yes, a new face, and who might I ask are you?"

Man mountain one picked this opportunity to step forward to whisper sweet nothings in the mayor's ear. Partially turning his ear, the mayor listened to the ten second meeting.

George said, "George Hitchcock, City News," but the mayor's ears were busy.

"You've been calling my house, Mr. Hitchcock? You were seen parked across from my house this morning? You aren't stalking me, are you? I should think here are laws against that."

"I wasn't there to see you, Mr. Mayor," George said.

"I should hope not. There are limits to the freedom the press enjoys. You are aware of these?"

"Yes, Sir, I am, but I wasn't there to see you. I went there to see your wife," George said.

The room broke into a raucous laughter as the mayor stared at George, looming above him on the podium.

"Get on with your question," the mayor said, not so friendly as before.

"The question I have does fit in with the general theme of transportation. Mrs. Barnard was in an automobile accident at the first of the week. First, I wanted to know how she was. Yes, I've called to see. I was sent by the City News to cover the fender bender. Second, I wanted to ask how the Delesandro boy is, and if you know his whereabouts. He's left the hospital and his mother hasn't heard from him. Readers of the City News are wondering too," George said, adding enough bullshit to make the question sound appropriate for any occasion.

George didn't mention that day's installment that started at Thomas Circle earlier that week. It would appear in today's edition of the City News. It spoke of Jon being released from the hospital without his mother knowing where he was or how he was.

George knew where Jon was. He'd seen Jon coming out of the mayor's house that morning. He'd gotten into Mrs. Packard's car, and they drove away together. George saved that revelation for the last line in today's installment, and now he was working on the installment that would no doubt appear in tomorrow's edition of the City News. It would soon be the mayor's turn to squirm.

"Mr. Hitchcock, move a little closer. I'm going to explain my rules to you. I don't want there to be a misunderstanding, because you are new, I'll do this once, and if you don't have a full understanding of my rules, or can't comprehend them, you'll be asked to leave. Do you understand?"

George was now five feet from where the mayor stood. They were locked eye to eye. George said nothing. He waited for the rules.

"Mr. Hitchcock, do you know who the mayor is?"

"You are, Mr. Mayor," George said without hesitating.

"As the mayor, my wife and lifelong partner, has no role in the administration of the business of our fair city. Does that make sense to you."

"Certainly, Sir, perfect sense," George said in perfect agreement.

"My family is off limits to reporters and their questions. Did you hear what I said, and do you understand?"

"Yes, Sir, I heard you quite clearly."

"Now that we've established the ground rules, would you like to ask a question about the transportation expansion that's the topic of this news conference?"

"Yes, Sir. I would, Sir," George said with a great deal of deference for a high public official. "Mr. Mayor, once the subway expansion is completed, will Mrs. Packard and Jon use it to get around town or will she continue driving Jon around in her Mercedes?"

The entire room came alive with the buzz of reporters. What was written about Mrs. Packard and Jon Delesandro in today's edition of the City News had been written on the wind as well. It would be reported by the city's media, but the City News was the only afternoon publication. The story belonged exclusively to the City News until in the morning. Then it would be the story dominate the news all weekend. It was perfect timing for the City News and for George.

George had done what he was sent to city hall to do.

There was a titter of laughter and some genuine horrified looking reporters concerning George's breach of decorum. After all, the mayor had just told him not to do what he just did, and he did it anyway. What was the city coming to?

George would have taken more time to enjoy himself except for man mountain one charging off the dais. He came between George and the mayor. As the man mountain moved forward, George could do nothing but back up. He did so, knowing that he wouldn't be attacked in a room full of reporters no matter how annoying he was. George felt relatively safe under the circumstances, but he was remembering a movie he'd seen years before, 'Daddy Long Legs.' The star, Fred Astaire, was a flawless dancer. He was elegant and graceful. It wasn't Fred that came to mind at that moment.

What George remembered most about this famous dancer, his partner did everything he did, but she did it backwards and in high heels. George felt a little like her, as he backed up.

Once his backward dance stopped, George was no longer in the room with the other reporters, he'd been separated out, through a pair of swinging doors at the side of the platform.

Once on the other side of those swinging doors, man mountain stopped moving. He stood in front of the doors, hands folded in front of him, looking very much the choirboy. He said nothing, but his Cheshire cat grin alarmed George.

If he screamed, and he was perfectly capable of screaming bloody murder, everyone in the room he'd just been removed from would hear him. He wasn't too alarmed, yet.

"You do know that holding someone against their will is illegal?" George asked.

"I haven't touched you. You're free to go," he said with a coy smile on his immobile face and body.

George looked around. He was in an empty hallway. There were doors he didn't dare open, that might allow him to exit. There were doors that might be another layer of separation between him and the other reporters. His smartest move was not moving. People were a few feet away.

Man mountain 2 pushed against the swinging doors. Man mountain one moved forward. One door was pushed open far enough for the man's head to appear. He whispered something to his clone and disappeared back from where he came.

Man mountain one began to speak.

"Listen carefully. You are to leave Mrs. Packard alone. If you are smart, and I have no reason to think you are, you'll stay away from the mayor and his family. If you continue being an annoyance, well, you'll be finding out what it is I do. The warnings won't get any more pleasant than this one, Mr. Hitchcock, but I know your type. Too smart for your own good. You simply have no idea who you're fucking with, and because of that, I will be told to enlighten you, which will give me a great pleasure," he said.

"This is not the last we are going to see of each other. Men like you can't help themselves. That's where I come in. You don't know what misery is until I show you what I'm paid to do."

"you're threatening me?" George said angrily.

"Would I do that? I'm merely explaining my employment. If you choose to avail yourself of my services, that's your choice, not mine."

George was angry now, he had something to say about his employment.

"I'm surprised you had all that in your head. What's your name, since we seem to be inexorably connected. I'd like to know your name," George said.

"They call me Harold," Harold said without hesitation. "You can call me Harold if you like. Make us kind of compadres."

"Harold, for your information I'm engaged in the only profession mentioned in the Constitution of the United States. That's a paper signed by the founders that lays out the laws that governed the country they established, Harold. Those laws give me the right to cover anything that can be considered newsworthy. I have the freedom to go where I please and interview anyone who will agree to be interviewed, Harold. You, because of your size, think you can do what you want, but you can't. There are laws about that too."

"The mayor tells me what to do and what not to do. I follow his law. He hasn't told me to hurt you, yet, but if he does, have no doubt you'll be hearing footsteps behind you. If I were you, and I'm glad I'm not you, I'd start looking over my shoulder, because you have no idea who you are fucking with," Harold said, disappearing on the other side of the swinging doors.

He left George with nothing to say and no one to say it to. As frightening as Harold was, the void he left behind him became far scarier. Did he want to push through that swinging door to find out what was waiting on the other side? Did he stay right where he was. That was a good question.

There wasn't a sound coming from the room filled with reporters and dignitaries a few minutes before. He wasn't sure what to make of that. He'd been pretty sure of himself when he arrived at City Hall. He had the City News behind him. Now he was completely alone.

It seemed too easy but George stepped back into the empty news conference venue. It was totally empty. He was all by himself in the room. It was quiet as a tomb, which provided no comfort.

There were doors in front of him and doors behind him. He knew which door went to the business part of City Hall. He came in that door. Two dozen reporters, including Mort Cort, saw him being removed from the room. No one would bother him here.

Standing in front of the door he pulled it open. Harold wasn't behind that door and a few feet away was the usual foot traffic that moved around the building on most days.

It was Friday and a lot of people would be leaving work early to start a summer weekend at the shore or at least in air conditioning. George merged into the exodus. He didn't really think he was in any danger, but he was sure glad Harold hadn't been waiting for him outside the conference room. He wanted to put a scare into George and he had succeeded.

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead