July 14th, 1974
The gunshot hung in the air like a grey gas. The slumped figure, spread across the news desk like an oil spill, seeped into the hazy charcoal blue of the studio lights, into the oncoming suspended darkness. The screen faded slowly to black.
Then came the jingle for Bob Crew Automobiles. The Most American Show in Town.
In his fifth-floor office, several blocks away from the studio, Carson Fitzroy remained motionless. He waited for the phone to ring. Loosening his tie he carefully placed his cigarette unlit into the ashtray. The photograph of his wife and son on his desk – Richie smiling a wide free grin on his mother’s lap, a picnic bench, soft greens around them, Rachel with her blond locks, her oval face – God, I hope they weren’t watching that, he thought. The end of several careers in one sharp punctuation point.
Carson needed a moment. He thought quickly about damage limitation. What was needed was for all this to be pulled up squarely in front of Claire Coffey, like a bonfire, and her thrown on it. She had been warned about this sort of thing. Not this sort of thing. ‘Stop pissing people off, Claire. At the moment it’s just us. We know you. You don’t want it to get any higher. Keep your opinions to yourself.’ This was going higher, going for the jugular. What exactly had he just witnessed? A prank? A prank with consequences, that was for sure.
He looked down at the phone again. Still not ringing. Carson sucked his teeth. Perhaps it was he who should be doing the calling?
He needed to get to the studio. First thing was to get Claire in a room, get the story straight – probably fire her on the spot and worry about the long term in the long term. Judd Edwards was going to be throwing martinis at the TV on his boat in Hyannis Port right about now. The moment called for swift, iron-bladed handling. Show it was the right decision to put Carson in that office in the first place. Get rid of her – get her to a clinic. A fucking nunnery. It didn’t matter. Claire Coffey was through. A good-looking, strong-headed woman who looked good for the network, but that only carried a person so far. Big Money was happy to give up mid-morning chat to benign feminism, it kept their wives off their backs; but this was not the done thing. We invite you in, the saying went, now don’t take a shit on the rug.
Judd Edwards was the type of CEO who never paid a visit in the good times. He did his congratulatin’ over the phone, his strangulatin’ in person. He was Southern hokey in the gravest terms; broad shoulders and low forehead, always in those tinted aviators. ‘I like to take weekends up in the Hamptons so I can poison the Liberal water supply,’ he liked to say. He wouldn’t laugh, but it was the job of those around him to do just that; level bellicose laughs with straight mouths.
Judd would not have heard of Claire Coffey. The only woman he called by name was his wife, and she went by ‘Birdy’. Carson would never in a million years have brought Coffey’s recent dissentious behaviour to Judd’s attention. For a start it was far too mild to worry about, he’d thought; at least compared to what she had just done. He’d barely given it a second thought himself. And on top of that, Judd’s reaction would have been predictable: ‘Fire the bitch!’ Carson did not want to fire Claire; he wanted to tutor her in the ways of the world. The girl had talent, after all.
He picked up the receiver and held it under his cheek. He paused. He needed to speak to Gil Hendon at the studio. He needed to speak to someone on the floor, someone in the booth. He needed to know what the fuck Claire thought she was doing faking her own suicide live on air.
The door opened with a brisk hand. Harry Clennon curved in, alive, as if emerging from an explosion, his limbs feeling their way through the new air, his thick moustache a burned black on his etiolated face.
‘Did you fucking see that?’ he said, somewhere between tears and laughter. He looked across Carson’s office to the television set. ‘You saw it?’
‘Close the door,’ said Carson calmly, replacing the receiver.
‘Close the door?’ said Harry, incredulously. ‘Claire Coffey just blew her brains out on live TV and you want me to close the door?’
Carson waved Harry in, noting in a dour expression his disapproval of the excitement.
‘She didn’t “blow her brains out”,’ Carson said. ‘What she did was end her career at EEMBC. And any other fucking network for that matter.’
Harry slumped into the chair opposite Carson and threw his hands into his thinning hair.
‘Her career? I’ll say. She fucking shot herself.’
‘Stop saying that,’ said Carson, almost as an afterthought. ‘It’s a stunt. She’s pissed at us for not taking her seriously.’
Harry seemed bolstered by this, immediately on side, and his shoulders loosened.
‘Some fucking way to get heard,’ sighed Harry.
‘Have you heard from Gil?’ Carson said.
‘All the lines are jammed – not surprising.’
‘I just hope to Christ Judd didn’t see it,’ said Carson, chucking his pack of cigarettes across the table to Harry.
‘You think this looks like one of our lucky days, Sonny?’ said Harry taking one. ‘I’m surprised he hasn’t called you already.’
They both sat in silence for a moment. The commercials ended. The opening credits of an old black and white movie began to appear on the screen accompanied by the warm clarinets of ‘Dance of the Cuckoos’.
‘She won’t get any coverage,’ said Carson.
The two men looked at each other, looks filled with an accumulated sense of the business they had both been in for twenty five years.
‘For a stunt like that she’ll blanket the airwaves,’ said Harry, leaning in and prodding toward the TV set. ‘We both know the angle. Crazy fucking broad mimes her own death in protest… in protest at what?’
Carson sucked his teeth. He had an unshakeable feeling that he had not taken Claire seriously, that he had taken his eye off the ball. She’d delivered this little piece of theatre to get back at him for not listening.
‘Did you hear what she said before she got the gun out?’ said Harry.
Carson couldn’t remember.
The two men looked at each other again.
‘Watergate’ll save us,’ Carson said. ‘Nobody gives a shit about anything else right now.’
He looked down at the photograph of his wife and boy. He should have called them first.
‘Judd hasn’t called because he’s expecting us all to be down at the studio by now,’ said Harry. ‘He’s probably on his way there himself to rip some people some new ones. Unless…’ Harry’s eyes turned on… ‘You don’t think he thinks this was real do you? He could be with his lawyers. He could be lining us all up for the guillotine.’
‘It wasn’t real, Harry,’ said Carson quietly as he stubbed out his cigarette.
‘I thought it was real, Sonny. Twenty five years with my head up to a monitor in TV land and I thought it was real.’
Carson kept his calm.
‘Claire has had some kind of breakdown, Harry. Our biggest worry is how it looks that the producer and studio manager allowed a mentally unstable person in front of a camera. She’s pissed off at the world, and she does this to get some attention.’
‘You think we should have seen it coming?’ said Harry.
‘I think we should get down to the studio and find Gil.’
As they walked out into the bullpen, Carson clumsily pushing his arms into his jacket, pulling it over his shoulders and trying to fix the collar, they could both see that eyes were on them. Heads peaked up from desks, people stopped in aisles; Peggy Ford came at them from the side, a folder held tight to her blouse.
‘What the fuck happened to Claire?’ she said.
‘We’re just going to find out,’ said Carson, without slowing his pace.
‘Apparently the studio is fielding hundreds of calls from the public,’ Peggy said.
‘Calls about what?’ said Harry.
‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ said Peggy, ‘About why our chat show host just blew her brains out live on air.’
Carson and Harry stepped into the elevator and turned to Peggy who remained in the burnt orange of the corridor.
‘I did not see any brains, Peggy,’ said Carson assertively, and he looked at Harry next to him. ‘Did you see any brains, Harry?’
‘No, I did not see any brains, Sonny,’ said Harry, offering a straight, serious smile to Peggy.
‘So if anyone mentions that word…’ said Carson.
‘Brains?’ said Peggy.
‘Brains,’ repeated Carson.
‘Ugh, okay,’ said Peggy rolling her eyes and marching back to the bullpen.
The elevator doors juddered shut.
The two men stood side-on to each other. Carson bent his neck and looked up to the numbers above the door illuminating and darkening, one after another, as the elevator reached the lobby of the EEMBC building.
‘What was it she said before she got the gun out?’ said Carson. ‘I’ve been trying to remember what it is she said.’
‘Some garbled nonsense. Let’s be honest, when Claire gets going, do you always listen to every word, right to the end?’
‘The segment was wrong,’ said Carson, remembering.
‘It didn’t run. There was a malfunction.’
‘Does that make this a conspiracy?’
‘Don’t put anything past Claire Coffey. She’s a clever one. And a prick tease. Those guys in the booth would have held up anything for her.’
‘A prick tease? Really?’ said Carson. He had always had Claire down as some kind of religious authoritarian. She was thirty and she still lived with her mother, always wore black, the neck line right up to her chin. She was dark around the edges and it made her look sullen, but the intensity of her eyes always brought it back to a more interesting place. She was tall, slender, serious; the camera liked her, and nobody, not even Judd Edwards, argued with the camera. Not that Carson had given it any thought before, but he took her as the sort of woman to scare men off rather than lead them on.
Carson put his hands in his pockets and pushed down on the balls of his toes.
‘I left my cigarettes in my office – do you have one?’ he said.
Harry tapped the bottom of his pack and held them out to Carson.
‘What would you say to her?’ said Carson.
‘To Claire? You mean after I’d fired her and stopped being pissed? I’d tell her to go out and get drunk, get laid, and stop reading French novels.’
Carson thought of all the parting shots to a colleague that would be one that would potentially stick in the mind. He chuckled a little.
In the foyer, again busy heads turned to look at them.
‘Are you heading over to the studio?’ Miller came as if from nowhere.
‘It seems the place to be,’ said Harry.
They walked fast.
‘There’s a reporter from Boston Local looking for you,’ Miller said to Carson.
‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ said Harry.
‘I don’t know what to say, Harry; some people have a sixth sense for shit like this,’ said Miller.
‘Tell him to go find a real story,’ said Carson as they burst out the main doors.
‘And then tell him to eat my shit,’ said Harry spinning on his heels.
‘We need to stamp on this,’ said Carson as they walked to the parking lot. ‘We have friends, right?’
‘Sure. And then we have the enemies of our enemies.’
‘So call around and make sure nobody is going to run with this.’
‘It’s already being done. That Boston Local shitbag is a rogue. He’s off the reservation and just isn’t up to speed yet.’
They got to the car but before they got in Carson stopped and said to Harry across the roof, ‘If I can I’ll try and save her, y’know?’
‘How are you going to manage that?’
‘It’s the morning show. We can talk this round. Get her some therapy. Make her see sense. She’s a real talent and we could do with her. And besides: she’s yours.’
Harry sighed and looked up to the clear blue sky. They got in the car.
Harry had found Coffey, given her that chance, taken her off the carnival beat and put her in front of a studio camera. What had he seen in her? She was young, beautiful, confident, intelligent, but importantly, she was ready to fill in the gaps that blistered out of a piss ant budget. Her show, Breakfast with Coffey, was a simple non-scripted local magazine programme that spent an hour every weekday going over some local news issues – guests, local officials, victims, witnesses, achievers, competition winners. She’d been doing it for five years. She started quietly, she was nervous for about the first eighteen months. Some anchors stay nervous; some have their egos drown out all that. But Claire seemed to find something that got her over that ridge. There was a definitive moment – everyone felt it – and it was during the 1970 mayoral race.
‘You have a great deal of support here,’ she had said to Ron Buchanan, the Democratic nominee. He held up his arms, turned at the waist to the crowd who jutted blue placards into the air, his teeth were too much for his mouth, his hair was like a waved vacuum formed mould.
‘Is there anything in your campaign manifesto that suggests you really have the needs of the people of Bangor in mind?’ she said. Buchanan’s teeth shrunk back behind his lips, his face lost some of its manila tan. ‘Because even at a glance it seems like you’re just a board member for Taverners Petrochemicals looking for a hobby.’
Harry had called her the Black Widow after that.
‘I’d like to save her too, Sonny,’ Harry said, rolling down the window. It was a hot morning. ‘But these stunts shouldn’t go unpunished. And you have to remember we have to work as part of a bigger team. You don’t spend so much time at the studio now you’re the boss. The guys are not going to like her being around after this.’
‘The guys will be fine.’
‘The things she’s been saying lately have not gone unnoticed.’
Carson remained calm and focussed his eyes on the road.
‘And there’s the other side of that,’ said Harry.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I was at that editorial meeting last month where she went off about the direction our news coverage was going.’
‘Was I at that meeting?’
‘No. It was editorial stuff. But I told you about it.’
‘The violence thing?’
‘The creeping of salaciousness. She used that word, Sonny. Salaciousness. I tell you, it was like an article in Prissy Shitkickers Monthly Digest.’
‘Is that a real journal?’
Harry batted away the joke.
‘My point is this is not a concern she holds in isolation from the rest of humanity. She has people who feel the same way. Paired with a stunt like this it could become a real headache. If you get what I mean?’
‘I hear this shit all the time,’ said Carson. ‘I’ve got some woman from the DBUC calling me up week in week out. If not about some news report of some rape in midtown, then it’s about some murder somewhere. Like I control what rapists and murderers get up to.’
‘People want to hear this shit…’ said Harry. ‘It’s their news.’
‘You can’t deny the ratings,’ said Carson, his voice trailing off as he turned at lights.
The last couple of years had been difficult for them all in one way or another – Christ, with Nixon’s transgressions it had been difficult to be an American, never mind a member of the EEMBC ‘family’. Judd’s father had retired, the estimable Milhous Valentine Edwards, at the age of eighty-two, the man who had built the Edwards East Maine Broadcast Corporation from a local radio station and made it into the stanchion of a national media empire. It was the non-profit part of the business; it was the foible of the millionaire who still had beliefs in something other than blind, vivacious profit. Judd did not share his father’s views, however. He viewed himself as a modernist, a progressive; a man was worthless unless he was on the cutting-edge. The changes to the ethos of EEMBC had been subtle at first. This, Carson knew, was because there were bigger fish to fry in other areas of the empire. But Judd had given him this job personally, in the understanding that Carson was Judd’s guy, and would move things along in the way he approved. A newsman, yes; but a TV guy first and foremost. Carson knew how to make the eyelids flicker.
Reports coming in that local broadcaster Claire Coffey shot herself live on air during today’s mid-morning show on EEMBC.
It was on the local radio.
The car swung down the ramp into the basement parking lot of the Studio 62 building, the tip of the fender skimming the tarmac as always if you went down over 18mph. The whole show was moving across town as part of Judd’s ‘modernising’, but the television studios were the last to go. Management first; it was like a land grab – stick a stake in a plot. Carson hated going back to the old place; it reminded him of a past where he had a hand in things, rather than on things. Not just the job, but his youth, his energy, and, Christ, his interest.
Carson and Harry looked at each as they pulled up and listened to the news report. They said nothing.
The studio, the foyer at least, was just as quiet and empty as the streets had been on the drive over. The security guard was not at his post and neither was the main receptionist. There was a moment when Harry and Carson’s eyes met, and they both knew what the other was thinking.
‘Where the fuck is everybody?’ said Harry.
Carson leaned over the reception counter to view the security monitor.
‘The whole place looks empty,’ he said. ‘I’ll go down to studio four and see if I can find Gil.’
But Harry had put his hand on Carson’s shoulder as he rose back up from the counter, tapping him to take note.
‘Sonny,’ he said, pointing to the glass doors through which they had just entered.
Accompanied by a swift shrill siren, an ambulance pulled up to the front of the building and two paramedics urgently jumped from the cabin, bags in hands and ran into the building. As they did so, Tyrone Crossly came the other way up the main concourse from the studios. He was sharp-faced, his teeth bearing, his movement angular. He hurriedly tucked a walkie-talkie into the belt of his slacks as he met the paramedics at full-pelt. He was walking back toward the studio with them, pointing onward, talking in shards of sentences, when he saw the two gaunt figures of Harry Clennon and Carson Fitzroy next to the reception counter.
After a beat of recognition Crossly marched over to the two and putting an arm around Carson said, ‘Jesus, Sonny; where the hell have you been?’ The air of chaos came out from in and around him like halitosis. And Harry and Carson almost recoiled from him as such.
The three of them began to stride toward the corridor that led to the studios.
‘Did you see it?’ said Crossly, whispering almost, his head leaning in to Carson as if the foyer and corridor was full of eavesdroppers. ‘Fucking crazy crazy crazy lady.’
‘Where are those paramedics going, Ty?’ said Harry.
‘And where is everybody?’ said Carson.
‘You didn’t see what happened?’ said Crossly.
‘Is Claire hurt?’ said Harry.
‘So you didn’t see it?’ said Crossly. ‘You missed your chat show host go on a fucking crazy rant about how the world is all going to shit and then blow her fucking brains out? On live TV.’
Neither Carson nor Harry said anything.
Carson stopped in the corridor just short of the double doors to studio four. He rubbed his hand around the back of his neck as Crossly crashed through the security bars and the doors rattled open onto a flat, loud mumbled noise, people rushing around, people everywhere. There was a crunching chaos to the place. Some people in tears, some people consoling, some people taking charge or looking to take charge.
Crossly and Harry had rushed round the front of the studio to the floor. Carson’s gaze followed their path and then fixed on the news desk through the metal archway of the two studio cameras. There were many figures on the floor, silhouetted, some moving about, a few police officers asking questions, some people animated, some stood still, some heads bowed, some looking to the heavens.
Carson walked over and saw Claire Coffey on her back through a forest of paramedics and others trying to help, gathered round. She had been arranged, laid out. The desk was covered in blood. It had come out in glugs from the hole in her head. Between shoulders and arms and paraphernalia Carson could see her face, her calm closed eyes, that strong jaw line now crimson wet. And then a moment came to him that he had forgotten about. A few years back, after the Buchanan mayoral win, the whole team was in a bar and it was late and everybody was drunk and Claire leaned over to him and looked him heavily in the eyes and she said, ‘You don’t have much to do with your reporters, do you?’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ he had said.
‘I hear you like to keep your distance from your staff,’ she said.
‘I believe in professional boundaries, if that’s what you mean.’
‘I’m not talking about romantic affairs, Carson. They can swallow you up. Spit you out. I’m talking about getting to know people.’
‘I know people, Ms Coffey.’
‘That’s the trouble with all you newsmen; you think you know people. And it is beyond question that you know people. You will not have that questioned. Maybe you do know people. But what if you don’t? Does that ever cross your mind? What if you don’t? What if all you know is how to create a narrative. That’s not people, Mr Fitzroy. People are not stories. Life is not a story. News is not a story.’
And she scowled at him. She actually scowled at him, turned her lip at the corner and she lifted herself on her elbow at the bar and turned away and walked off into the crowd.
Carson looked down at her now. More paramedics had arrived and helped swathe her head and neck, lift her and strap her down to a gurney. And they pushed the trolley out toward the south corridor, the way they had come in, as if it was a departing circus show. Some studio staff followed, gusted by the riptide.
Carson stepped slowly up onto the stage. The chair was pushed back from the desk; the carpet below the desktop was black with blood.
‘Sir,’ a policeman, a young Italian with his cap off, called over from in front of the desk, ‘Sir, you shouldn’t be up there right now.’
Carson looked up, but his eye was caught by a woman on the periphery, in a red pleated dress, with a brown leather bag over her shoulder. He recognised her from somewhere but couldn’t place her.
Then Gil Hendon was at his arm, a big man looking very small, his thick-rimmed spectacles held loosely by their arm in his heavy hands.
‘Aw, Sonny; what a fucking mess,’ said Gil, and he put his hands to his temples.
Carson’s throat was dry. He looked back to the woman in red with the leather bag. There was something about her that gave him cause for concern.
Harry came over.
‘This is not good,’ he said, the words coming out stunted. ‘How does an accident like that happen?’
‘That was not an accident, Harry,’ said Gil.
‘Where do I know that woman from?’ said Carson.
‘People don’t accidentally shoot themselves in the back of the head,’ said Gil.
‘How did this happen?’ said Harry.
‘She did what she did, Sonny. She’s always had a certain intensity… but this…’ said Gil. ‘You did see it, didn’t you?’
‘Where do I know that woman from?’ said Carson.
‘What are you talking about?’ Harry and Gil looked at the distracted Carson and then followed his gaze across the studio floor to the woman in red.
‘Who is that woman?’ Carson said again.
‘I don’t fucking know, Sonny; she works here somewhere,’ said Harry.
‘No,’ said Gil.
‘Well, she’s from somewhere,’ said Harry. ‘I don’t have time right now to do a fucking staff inventory.’
‘I know her,’ said Carson. ‘That’s Melissa Cassiter.’
‘Who is Melissa Cassiter?’ said Harry.
‘She’s an entertainment reporter,’ said Carson. He was distant now, as if putting together parts of a puzzle.
‘Sonny, we need to focus on the shit that is going down here,’ said Gil.
‘This is serious stuff. We are all on the line now, Sonny,’ said Harry.
‘Harry, you remember that editors’ conference in Boston last year? We were talking about how back in the day it was held in the upstairs room of McGinley’s, and we would all sit around listening to each other’s bullshit stories, and how now it’s at the Fairmont and everybody turns up in limousines and tuxedos and we all have to pretend like we are on some calling from God.’
‘Melissa Cassiter was there.’
‘So fucking what, Sonny?’
‘She asked me for a job. She said… what was it… she wanted to work for the station that put Claire Coffey on the air. She said we were modernisers.’
‘You’re thinking of hiring her?’ Harry was not in the mood to laugh.
‘No, you fucking idiot; she’s the reporter from the Boston Local.’
Harry and Gil spent less than a second in stunned silence, and then set off toward her, but Carson called them to heel.
‘I’ll speak to her,’ he said.
Gil said to Harry, ‘We’ve had hundreds of calls. People asking if it was a stunt? Was it for real?’
‘What have you been telling them?’
‘It doesn’t matter what the hell we tell them now there’s a fucking reporter in the room.’
‘The room’s full of reporters, Gil. Sonny knows how to play this.’
Carson, on the walk between them and Melissa Cassiter, had decided on a direct no-bullshit approach. Cassiter was ambitious – Carson could smell that on a person – and she had stuck in his mind from the conference.
‘So, you have two ways you can go with this, as far as I can see,’ he said by way of introduction. Cassiter looked surprised to see him.
Before she could say anything he said; ‘You’re at this moment getting ready to call up your editor at the Local to tell him you’re in the room they just stretchered Claire Coffey’s body out of. You have the inside scoop on a live suicide.’
‘It was a protest,’ Cassiter said. ‘Against the nature of this network’s news coverage. Do you care to comment?’
‘Claire was under a great deal of strain,’ said Carson.
Cassiter raised an eyebrow.
‘What kind of strain?’
‘Personal problems. Romantic problems.’
‘A break up?’
Carson shook his head sadly.
‘Something more to do with longing,’ he said. ‘I understand she read a lot of French novels.’
‘I’m surprised. This is contradicting what I was led to believe.’
‘Well… nobody’s interested in politics, Miss Cassiter. Human interest stories, that’s our business. You’d look good up there: anyone ever tell you that?’
They stood in silence for a moment, both looking toward the blood-stained desk.
‘So what did you say my options were?’ Cassiter said.
‘Your way or my way,’ said Carson.
‘Let me guess: your way benefits us both. My way would not be good for either of us.’
Carson felt himself smile slightly at her.
‘You’ll fit in just fine here,’ he said.
They both surveyed the tragic bustle of the studio floor.
‘You’d be careful to make sure nobody sees a copy of that speech,’ said Cassiter.
‘We don’t tape daytime,’ said Carson.
Harry came over.
‘Judd is on the phone. He was at some fucking golfing fund raiser,’ Harry delivered the news triumphantly. ‘So we’re out in front.’ He looked at Carson and then at Cassiter and then at Carson again. ‘We all okay here?’
‘We’re all okay here,’ said Carson. ‘Why don’t you go take Miss Cassiter for a coffee, Harry? She’s a bit shaken up.’
Cassiter did not welcome the suggestion that she was anything other than on the job, but she went with Harry anyway, who slipped easily into the role of tour guide.
Carson went back up to the desk. On it, spattered with glugs of blood he found Claire’s script for that morning’s show. At the bottom, specked but not covered, were the last words Claire had said – he remembered them now, he remembered her saying them, how she said them that morning on air, and as he read them he could hear her voice, her clear, upright vowels, and her soft relaxed cadence.
In-keeping with EEMBC’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living colour, you are going to see another first – a suicide.
Carson picked up the script, folded it neatly, and put it into his inside jacket pocket.
Banner image: ‘The Brouhers’ by Ric Bower