It had all seemed so innocent, now that I thought about it. I had found her by accident, the way most things happened in my life, lately. I flipped on my computer at NNN and inserted what I thought was a news video disk. There she was, staring back at me, looking so damn … beautiful … like the brightest rose in a garden of weeds. Her sable-colored hair cascaded over smooth, high cheekbones, giving her almost a Native American look. Her dark eyes sparkled with an innocence that captivated me. Hell, I felt like a schoolboy with a bad case of puppy love.
“Who's that?” Fayrene asked. I startled at the sound of the station receptionist's voice. I hadn't noticed her entering the production room where I was supposed to be stringing the news show together for that evening's broadcast instead of staring goo-goo eyed over some good looking gal smiling at me from my monitor.
“Huh? Oh, nobody,” I said. “I mean, I don't know who she is. Somebody left this disk in the news rack.”
“Well, she's quite lovely, whoever she is.”
I felt like the kid who’s just been caught with his hand down the front of his pants. Suddenly I wanted to change the subject.
“What are you up to?” I asked. I wanted to talk about anything except the drool that oozed from my mouth as I watched the girl on the disk toss her head from side to side as she talked. I wanted to talk about anything except why my underpants suddenly felt two sizes too small, or why I was squirming around in my chair trying to hide the instant erection I had gotten looking at the girl on the disk. I pushed a gray colored button on the keyboard marked Esc and the girl's image froze on the screen.
“Oh, well, there's nothing going on up front so I ... ummm ... thought I'd see what kind of excitement was going on back here.”
Fayrene had a little laugh that made her sound like a ditzo, but I knew from peeking in her personnel file that this lady was anything but dumb. Ghetto born, she had escaped most of the street shit that happens to kids. Somehow, she had managed to pick up some decent scholarships in her senior year. I respected her because she was smart but didn’t give you that smart-assed “I’m smarter than you” Attitude. Also, she was anything but hard to look at. She was taller than most of the ladies at NNN, even taller than the other black ladies working there. She had a small rounded fanny that invited you to play with it, especially if you fell into that wide-awake hypnotic state of watching her butt swish and sway down the corridor as she walked ahead of you. She wasn’t what you’d call jet black; her skin was the color of Brazilian coffee with just the right amount of cream added. She was smart. Seeing her physical charms, it’s hard to remember sometimes that the lady has a whopping IQ over 120. I know I peeked at her chart. Fayrene had worked her way through college before coming to work at NNN. She had graduated with a 4.0 average. Why she was working administration was beyond me. Why she was working behind the camera was beyond me. She had the long, slender legs of a model, a svelte body that begged to be caressed, and the most perfect lips I had ever seen on a woman. She was hot. Too hot for this kind of work. She should have been on the cover of Playboy or Biker's Babes, something that showcased those perfectly shaped breasts that flopped around freely inside the loose, silk tops she always wore.
Some women have huge breasts that looked like they’ve had a ton of silicone pumped into them. Fayrene had a comfortable pair of breasts, large enough to stretch out any sweater, but small enough to just barely overfill your hand if you got lucky enough to test them.
“Excitement? In this place? You haven't worked here long enough or you'd realize how ridiculous that sounds,” I said.
Fayrene giggled again and ran her hand over my shoulder, up my neck past my ear, and through the graying strands of my uncut brown hair, then stepped away as the door opened. Quinlen, NNN’s chief engineer, stuck his head through the door and announced final deadline coming up.
“We're lasercasting in five minutes, better hurry.”
“Yeah, sure thing,” I said.
Quinlen hung in the doorway while I jiggled the switches on the mixing board. I hit a button and the girl's disk ejected. I popped in another one and my own face came on the screen. I winced at the gray just starting in my hair and the lines around my eyes. Quinlen snickered and pulled back from the door. I copied my anchor disk to the report sent in by satellite from Miami.
If I was going to meet deadline, I wouldn't have time to examine the program for glitches. Besides, I could always blame Miami for not QCing the final string. I ejected the main disk and rose from the keyboard, slipping the girl's disk into my jacket, as I headed past the audio-video editing room and up the stairs toward the projection booth.
The station manager was waiting for me. Deep scowl lines crossed Ayosa's face as I brushed past him. “Come on, Shannon. We're almost on.”
The projection room is a lovely clear-glass dome where you can look up and see celestial bodies circling around you. In daylight it provides all the lighting for the next level below; at night, which is when I end my shift, it's like being in an observatory or what it must be like out west in the desert regions. You can see a million stars twinkling on a blanket of black sky. Starlight, star bright, first star I've seen tonight. Boy, if I had a wish granted for every night I've climbed these steps and looked up at the sky, I sure as hell wouldn't have to be working for a living. I'm not complaining. Working for NNN has been good. It's given me a career, and it will give me a retirement when I leave. Besides, I've bounced all over the globe as a roving reporter. I've seen shit I never would have seen if I'd been a button pusher in engineering.
I took the steps two at a time leading up the landing to the mainframe buffer. Quinlen backed away from the machine's disk loader and allowed me full access. I looked at the control panel. Blue buttons for activation, white buttons for timing and sequencing. One red button that was unlabeled except for the words Do Not Touch. In the twenty-plus years I had worked at NNN, I couldn’t remember a single time that anyone had ever punched the red button. Only one person had ever punched the red button, I’d been told, and he didn’t work here anymore. Some of the older heads said he didn’t work anywhere anymore because he didn’t exist any more after punching the red button. There were no records in our history files that supported that story. It was just one of those stories that makes the night a little creepy when you’re loaded up on thrice the amount of caffeine you should be drinking and you almost hit the red button when you meant to hit the Enter button. And the story comes back to haunt you because it’s there in your memory cells where one of your training supervisors planted it years before and when the sky is black, the stars are gone, and lightning dances across the glass dome over your head you remember like it was fresh in your mind.
Don’t press the red button!
I didn’t press the red button. I punched in the correct codes and a green light blinked on and off as the new information was loaded. I hit the Enter button and turned toward the row of world-wide time clocks hanging above the projection booth and smiled.
“One minute before lasercast, Fred.” I said, bouncing down the steps past Ayosa. I could feel him staring holes in the back of my head. Too bad, I thought. He should be used to me making deadline by now, even if I did cheat by not editing the string properly. The sweat on his balding head showed I had gotten to him this time. It was the closest I'd ever come to dropping the stack in before we went on the laserways. Worst of all, Ayosa knew that I did it just to piss him off.
He didn't know how many times I'd almost slipped up due to my own clumsiness. So far, I was getting by on my years of experience with just a little dumb Irish luck thrown in on the side.
It was the years of experience that had caused the problem between us. I was Ayosa's senior by three years, but I had pissed off the big guns upstairs a few years ago. They had gotten back at me by bringing Ayosa in from his position as bureau chief at NNN's Gobi Desert station and promoting him to station manager over me. The Gobi station had fallen to the Sayhandulaan terrorists. Ayosa had almost gotten his butt barbecued before he got out of there. That was enough for NNN bigwigs to call the promotion “compensation.” I called it a stab in the back. But, instead of resigning as they had expected me to do, I had stayed with the network-if for no other reason, I was going to be an itch they, and Ayosa, couldn't scratch.
“I'd like to see your reports in the can a little earlier from now on,” Ayosa growled.
“So would I, Fred. So would I.” With that I skipped lightly out the door, knowing that Quinlen and the others in the projection room were laughing, or at least smiling, and that meant one more notch on my side of the board.
I stepped back into the production room and saw the NNN logo appear on the monitor. Then my own image appeared, suave, dignified, every bit the professional journalist who was welcomed in more than ten million homes every night.
“Good evening. I'm Rio Shannon and this is the Nova News Network. Our first story ...”
I snapped off the monitor and grabbed my touring cap, an old Camel's hair thing with a front snap on the bill. I paused at the lobby desk on my way out and presented Fayrene with a single rose I had plucked from a spray on Ayosa's desk.
“Fayrene, you are the loveliest thing this side of Calcutta”
“And if you don't quit pinching Mister Ayosa's roses, you're going to be the most out of work journalist this side of the Atlantic,” she replied.
“Ah, but what is life without adventure, sweet princess?”
She thought for a moment. “Synthetic wine in a Styrofoam cup?”
“Precisely! Bravo, my sweet ebony seductress. Bravo!” I gave her an exaggerated stage bow and tiptoed backwards through the huge glass double doors leading outside.
In the parking lot I tossed a token to the attendant and hopped into the driver's seat of my old Cosmo. The readout of my thumbprint took longer than usual before the vehicle started. I don't know why, but I stared at my thumb as if half expecting to see the thumbprint had vanished. The kid gave me a smirk that said I was well over the hill mentally. Not knowing what else to do, I smiled stupidly at him, hit the accelerator and zoomed outward, away from NNN. But I didn't leave the area right away. Instead, I circled the glass and steel building and shot past the projection windows where I knew Ayosa would be watching. Only then did I turn the Cosmo uptown and head for my apartment in the Atlanta Towers. In the distance, a storm was brewing. The gray sky had just a touch of black in it, and streaks of lightening tap danced across the sky in rapid procession.
I got home before the first raindrops fell. I powered up the computer and opened the door to my cooler. I wasn't really hungry so I grabbed a bottle of nonalcoholic wine and poured half a cup. Halfway back to the living room I stopped and laughed. Holding up the cup I said aloud, “You were so right, Fayrene. Synthetic wine in a Styrofoam cup. This is what it's all about. A synthetic existence in a Styrofoam city and I am the king of its laserways.”
I downed the half a cup of wine and popped the girl's disk into the computer, automatically saving to my hard drive. Outside, the darkness of night was prematurely settling over the city as the storm clouds rolled past, heading north. Small streaks of lightning dotted the sky in the distance. The girl's face snapped onto the screen.
“Hello. My name is Charley.” Her voice was throaty, sexy, captivating. “I like dancing, art, and theater .…”
She tossed her head back and shook her dark tresses left and right, causing her hair to dance back and forth across her face. I started getting that itchy feeling in my pants again and sat down on the ergonomic office chair that came with my computer desk. The camera panned back to show her full voluptuous body sitting on a stool, bare legs extending in a graceful crisscross from under a short black skirt that hugged her curves the way I was already wanting to do with my arms. A bare wall stood behind her, the colored fiberboard fading in places. I was looking at a dating disk, made in one of those quickie, garage based studios. I could only guess one of the fellows at the station had subscribed to a contact club and brought the girl's mini-disk to the newsroom. Quinlen, perhaps? Maybe Ayosa. Ha! Grabbing a milk carton from the cooler, I swigged down a mouthful of the cool liquid. It calmed the burning I felt in my stomach. Was I feeling the first stage of an ulcer? I turned my attention back to the girl.
“... and my parents died last year, but I'm over that now.” A shadow crossed in front of her face and she frowned at the interruption. “I came here to get into acting.” The shadow crossed again and disappeared. “I live in The Village. Leave a message for me by calling 555-4435. That's the Silk Rose. They know how to reach me.”
I had to get away from the Silk Rose. I could smell danger in the air. It hovered somewhere just above the stale aroma of the rotten garbage lining the street, and caused the fine hairs on the back of my neck to stand on end. Fear was alive and marching beside me like a soldier in formation, matching its cadence to my own short, quick steps on the ancient asphalt that snaked its way throughout Lennox Square. I had to break formation, to get away, to find isolation. I had to have time to think.
What was on that computer disk?
Something caught my eye in the dim light of a street lamp. A gray mass of human shadows shuffled sideways in asymmetrical patterns, looming hungrily, menacingly, in the darkened quarters of the street. I focused on each ill-shaped pattern and counted them off as each step of my boots tapped out a rhythm against the cold, dark macadam. Details. Twelve years behind the anchor desk at NNN-Nova News Network-had not dulled my sense of perception. Always take note of the details, no matter how small. I counted a dozen street punks lining up in the shadow light across the street a hundred yards in front of me. They weren't just kids out on an evening stroll. Each punk held a piece of pipe, or chain, or braided plastic-weapons of the street. I kept my pace steady, not wanting to show any apprehension, but my mind was racing at full speed. I had seen news reports about gang violence in the city, from Mount Sinai Park to Peachtree Street. Now I was here, and by all indications about to be in the thick of it with these punks. I wondered if this was going to be another late-breaking disk for the evening news. My station manager, Rudy Ayosa, would like that.
Rio Shannon finally gets his-telecast live at five.
Menlo Bridge was still a long way off. My heels pounded heavily against the rutted pavement, causing my ankles to throb. Slow moving. Too slow. I wouldn't see a cabbie until I reached Hightower Street … if I made it that far.
The punks were moving forward now, their faces starting to show, fuzz-faced felons snarling their hatred at a world gone mad. But, it wasn't the intimidating stare forced from under their furrowed eyebrows that scared the crap out of me; it was the hunger in their eyes for the kind of sustenance you couldn't find in a place like this. Compassion. The square had become the dumping ground of Atlanta's human waste. One kind word, one simple humane gesture, withheld at some point early on during their formative years had turned innocent children into sociopaths, scavengers, out for revenge for what the world had taken away from them; and fate had placed me squarely in the middle of their turf.
They were the new world order, while I represented a world of archaic morality.
I cursed the night and the absence of the hack drivers. Most of the taxi companies had ceased service to The Village square long ago. Their drivers had been mugged; their machines set on fire; passengers had been robbed, raped, murdered. City officials had tried to clamp down on the entire section, but they failed. What had been a huge shopping mall and surrounding blocks of open air markets, was now an open air slum with almost no police patrols to protect those who still lived there. The street hoods moved closer to me. Here and there I could make out a torn shirt or gleaming length of metal chain. They acted like a pack of hyenas, tracking their prey, sensing the rise of blood in my veins as the adrenalin kicked in. They would wait a little longer before they moved in, at least long enough for the fear inside of me to reach its highest level. This is what you do when you plan on a rumble in Square One.
That’s what we called it. Square One. The square was home to the alternative underground. The civil majority didn’t come around anymore. Government leaders had tried to clean up the drugs and the gangs. Those efforts only resulted in all-out, international gang unification and gang warfare against the police agencies. In short, the criminals took over this part of the city.
Further social deterioration came as art museums gave way to peep shows, coffee houses sold alcoholic beverages to minors. The drug trade flourished everywhere. New chemicals and new pipelines sprang up overnight. The new-age culture advanced one step further into degeneration. Police crackdowns over the last year, however, had placed the drug market in short supply. Narcotics were being shipped in to The Village, but supplies were limited and prices zoomed sky-high.
I knew the downside of Square One about as well as any normal citizen could know it. As anchor man for NNN, I reported stories about Square One most every night. The stories I hated most were the ones about city officials looking the other way when gangs brought in limited shipments of crack, crank and crinoid -the new synthetic wonder drug. Like that great English writer, Charles Dickens, noted about his beloved London some four centuries ago in his book, A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times ….”
So, what the hell was I doing here?