Breakdown Chapter Four

Charms–Or Something

As I walked along Chicago Avenue, a couple coming out of a bar tried to offer me a dollar for a cup of coffee. Their gift made me realize just what a bizarre vision I must present—in my running shoes and bedraggled evening gown I was an avatar for homelessness.

I’d started the evening looking like I belonged in a limo, or at least in the grand ballroom at the Valhalla Hotel, which is where I’d been headed. I’ve never been fond of big glitzy events, and you go to the Valhalla only if glitz is your middle name. I especially wasn’t fond of them when they celebrate the life and work of people I despise: in this case, Wade Lawlor.

If you don’t know Lawlor, it’s because you get all your news from microform copies of the Chicago Daily News. Local boy made, well, “good,” would be putting a values spin on it. Local boy made national superstar was more like it.

Although I tried never to watch the show, you can’t live in Chicago and not know Lawlor’s face—it’s on the sides of buses, on billboards, on the back of the Herald-Star. GEN, the Global Entertainment Network, whose lead cable news show Lawlor hosts, often features him on its billboard along the Kennedy Expressway.

Lawlor’s signature is a blue-checked work shirt, open at the throat to show he’s a working man who scorns the suit and tie of an effete liberal journalist. His thick black hair is artfully tousled on-air: America’s in danger, I don’t have time to comb my hair!

For his anniversary carnival, Lawlor incongruously wore his checked shirt with a dinner jacket, a modern one with square pockets sewn to the jacket front. An American flag picked out in jewels was on the lapel. It had a fancy little ear of corn on top of it, as if to point out that he could afford diamonds and rubies, but he was basically a Midwest hick at heart.

Lawlor was working the room with one of those top-grossing stars whose name and face you keep seeing in Us and People. My red evening dress is a backless, ankle-length number, but the star, whose smile seemed epoxied in place, made me feel overdressed. When Lawlor came over to where I was standing with Murray Ryerson, I tried, discreetly, to see how his date kept her breasts from tumbling out of the front of her dress, since it opened all the way to her waist. More epoxy, I decided, keeping a glass in my right hand and food in my left so that I wouldn’t have to touch Lawlor.

“Hey, Ryerson, thanks for showing up.” Lawlor’s eyes scanned the room behind us, looking for people more worth his attention.

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Murray said with unnecessary heartiness.

Lawlor smirked. “And who’s the talent?”

“V. I. Warshawski,” I said.

“I haven’t seen you before. Out of town?”

“Totally local,” I assured him. “Steel City. And you?”

“What’s ‘Steal City’? The Chicago motto?”

“Very clever, Mr. Lawlor. I’ll have to put that in my blog, how clever you are, and what a thrill to meet you, and so on.”

I kept my voice languid, trying, for Murray’s sake, to keep the venom I felt out of it. Even so, Lawlor’s lips tightened and his eyes narrowed. He put his hand on the star’s elbow and started to guide her away, but she stayed put. Perhaps she didn’t like him any better than I did; perhaps it was her publicist’s idea that she be seen with him on the entertainment sites.

“Are you with GEN?” she asked.

“I’m a private investigator,” I said. “Murray Ryerson and I have worked together on a number of stories.”

Lawlor eyed me in a way that made me long to take his ribs apart. “She your legwoman, Ryerson? Why’d the network give you the one with the body and me the ugliest guy in Chicago?”

“I guess our looks match our results,” I said.

Lawlor frowned; the veneer of charm vanished to expose a startling rage. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Murray knocked my arm hard enough that the wine sloshed over the rim of the glass. We all exclaimed at the mishap, and the star let Lawlor lead her on.

“Why the fuck did you have to say that?” Murray demanded.

“It was just banter, Murray. I didn’t know he was sacred and that you’re not allowed to answer back to his gibes. Is it critical for your career for me to find him and apologize?”

“No, no, don’t!” Murray said. “Your apology might involve black eyes and stuff that would really end my career.”

“And that flag pin—does he have that glued to every garment he owns?” I fumed. “What’s with the ear of corn? Is he showing that he’s the corniest man in America?”

“Where have you been since campaign season started, Vic? That’s Helen Kendrick’s signature—U.S. flag with corn from the heartland. Ethanol is a big chunk of her husband’s family fortune, you know that. And Lawlor is her number-one booster.”

Kendrick was running for Senate. She thought the last time America had been a great country was the day before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, so it was no surprise that Lawlor backed her campaign.

Various other media and entertainment celebrities drifted by. If I did keep a blog, I’d have written up the number of national figures who felt their careers required them to get freshly Botoxed and epoxied, and show up in little numbers by Chloé or Vera Wang. I didn’t care about spotting stars of GEN’s reality show All-American Hero. What staggered me were the senators and even Supreme Court justices who’d flown in from Washington to see and be seen. That told a sobering tale of how influential Lawlor’s voice was on America’s political scene.

A few minutes later, Harold Weekes, head of GEN’s news division, ambled by. Even though I thought he was the slime on the pond, I smiled, said little or nothing, and even let him leer at my cleavage.

“Keep up the good work, Ryerson! ‘Chicago Beat’ matters to us at Global One, you know.”

I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at that—what a name for the ugliest chunk of glass and steel to go up in Chicago since Trump Tower broke ground.

“I’m happy to hear that, Harold,” Murray said, with an effusiveness that made me wince. “I wanted you to meet Vic here. V. I. Warshawski. She’s one of Chicago’s most skilled criminal investigators.”

Weekes’s brows went up. “Expecting to find murder here?”

“Nope,” I said. “Just the usual graft and corruption, nothing special.”

“Vic has done background work on a lot of my stories,” Murray said hastily. “Last winter’s exposé on war profiteering, for instance.”

Weekes frowned. “I know you thought you had a big scoop there, Ryerson, but it’s always been true that war creates opportunities for the alert.”

I grinned insanely, the little woman ecstatic to be in the presence of power. “For the alert opportunist, I suppose. Other people just have the chance to get their heads blown off.”

There was an uncomfortable silence for a beat, and then Weekes laughed. A smiling woman in a silky red dress, she could be given the benefit of the doubt.

Murray plowed ahead doggedly. “You know the series I’m working on, ‘Madness in the Midwest,’ on the mentally ill, from the streets to state hospitals’ forensic wings—Vic could add a lot of depth to the series.”

Weekes patted Murray’s arm. “We’ll certainly keep that in mind, Ryerson. If your friend has investigative experience we can probably find a role for her.”

Like Lawlor a few minutes earlier, Weekes’s eyes were glazed over. Talking to Murray and his friend was his idea of purgatory. I couldn’t really blame him—the feeling was completely mutual.
The governor of Wisconsin came along and tapped Weekes’s arm. The news king moved on.

“Murray, is that why you invited me to this horror show? To help you with some story about mentally ill criminals?” I demanded. “Why didn’t you tell me you had an agenda?”

“You put up such a song and dance about coming at all, I didn’t feel I could go into it with you,” he blazed back.

That much was true. When Murray called last week, asking me to be his date to tonight’s celebration of Lawlor’s tenth anniversary as GEN’s star, I’d said no without thinking.

“I hate Wade Lawlor,” I protested. “I hate his politics, I hate his molassied voice, and I hate his pretense of being a working-class boy. That fake work shirt makes me throw up every time I drive up the Kennedy. I bet the closest he ever got to a day’s hard labor was paying a neighbor to mow his mother’s lawn when he was a kid.”

“You’d lose,” Murray said. “He comes from some kind of broken home. I’ve seen him weep on camera, over how his dad ran off and left him and his sister to fend for themselves. Success hasn’t just gone to Wade’s head—it’s made him vindictive. My job ain’t so secure that I can dis the network’s golden goose. And I don’t want to go alone.”

“What about all those blond twentysomethings you flaunt any time I see you in public?” I snapped.

“Are you jealous?”

“More disgusted. Why can’t you act your age?”

“That’s what I’m trying to do here, and you’re not helping. You can rehabilitate me, turn me into a boomer who’s not afraid to show his age,” he wheedled.
“If I could rehabilitate you, Murray, it would be to turn you back into the journalist who won a Pulitzer for White Crime/Black Convict.”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I’d wished them back. Murray had done a spectacular series for the Herald-Star on the white youths who bought their coke and meth on the black South and West Sides but who were seldom accused of drug crimes. He’d followed four kids—two black, two white—from the drug scene for a year. At the end of the year, the two white guys were setting off for the east coast to college at Haverford and Princeton; one of the black kids had been sentenced to fifteen years for possession, while the other was dead.

The year after Murray won his Pulitzer, the Global Entertainment Network bought the Star, along with several hundred other papers. Harold Weekes acquired a minor Hollywood studio for its cable potential, moved the company from the outer reaches of LA to Wacker Drive, gutted the reporting staff at Global’s papers, and hired Wade Lawlor to disseminate rumors, innuendo, and outright lies, under the catchy title “Wade’s World.”

“Wade’s World” trumpeted the claim that Obama had ordered police to collect Bibles from kids on their way to school. Wade signed on with a group disputing the president’s citizenship.
It wasn’t Murray’s fault that his new owners preferred video to print. It wasn’t his fault that he had to scramble to keep a job, so I didn’t hold it against him that he anchored a weekly TV show on GEN. In “Chicago Beat,” he reported on everything from politics to the arts, but most of his shows were devoted to sensational crimes, since that’s what draws a crowd.

Despite Harold Weekes’s hearty assurance that everyone in GEN’s headquarters loved “Chicago Beat,” Murray’s show aired once a week in Illinois and Indiana, although Wisconsin and Michigan affiliates sometimes picked it up. “Wade’s World” was shown four times daily in every city, village, and farm in America.

I didn’t believe Murray’s career hung by the thread he kept claiming. But he was working in a poisonous environment. Lawlor was reported to pull in twenty million a year just from GEN, while his endorsement contracts probably tripled that figure. Other GEN cable stars made seven-figure salaries; in a milieu where the chief operating officer dismissed print journalism as “turning back the clock to the era of illuminated manuscripts,” no matter what Murray earned, he was bound to feel insecure.

I felt ashamed of rubbing Murray’s face in his troubles; I said I’d go to Lawlor’s event at the Valhalla with him. And I’d regretted it the minute I walked in the door. After the encounter with Weekes in the Valhalla ballroom I was furious.

“You could have warned me before I met your boss that you wanted my help with a story. I could have jumped in with some intelligent backup, instead of which he dismissed me as your girlfriend.”

Murray looked sheepish. “I just couldn’t find a way to propose it to you, and then Weekes popped up, and I wanted to get the idea back in front of him. You saw the first piece, looking at the returning Iraq/Afghan vets who’ve become homeless.”

“Yes, yes, I did. You did a great job with that. I didn’t know it was the start of a series, though.”

“It wasn’t,” he fumed. “I had the whole series started—I was going out to one of the state mental hospitals to look at murderers found not guilty by mental defect, I had one on the advanced practice nurses who do most of the hands-on medical care of the mentally ill homeless—I had nine shows lined up, and I had my own producer’s blessing, and then, right after the one on the vets ran, Wade Lawlor stuck in an oar at the huddle, said it was banal and a resource-eater, and Weekes axed the whole series.”

“I can’t possibly persuade Harold Weekes to listen to you instead of Lawlor,” I protested.

“No, but I was hoping you could come on board as the resident expert on evaluating criminal evidence for the segment on people found not guilty by reason of mental defect. I’ve tried pitching that again as a single episode; I put together a list of five people who’ve been held at Ruhetal or Elgin for more than twenty years, but Lawlor keeps shooting down the idea, and I never get time alone with Weekes. I was hoping if he saw you, I don’t know—”

“Even though I’m not a blond twentysomething, that my sparkling gray eyes and flawless skin would captivate him.”

Murray grimaced. “You have a way of putting things in the worst possible light, but, yeah, something like that.”

It was then, as the noise level in the ballroom had passed the dangerous decibel mark, Petra’s call came, begging me for help. I told Murray I had a client in trouble, refused to give him details, and fled. It took a good fifteen minutes for the Valhalla valet to fetch my car. By the time I got to Mount Moriah, the girls had a substantial head start on me.