At roughly six--thirty on a Thursday morning that dawned bright and clear, members of the Chicago Police Department’s Homicide Division and Forensic Services were lured to the city’s Oak Street Beach by a body that had been deposited on the sand by Lake Michigan’s ebbing tide. A drowning in the lake, accidental or otherwise, was not exactly remarkable. But this one was clearly unique, though that fact was not presented immediately to the public.
The CPD had dropped a cone of silence over the discovery. Even the hapless early--morning jogger who’d nearly stumbled over the corpse was being forced to pursue his cardio perfection in seclusion somewhere off the grid.
Surprisingly, in this era of instant information, where members of the media are as persistent as they are plentiful, the news blackout lasted for nearly thirty hours. It was broken by a gray--haired, ill--tempered former cop named Edward “Pat” Patton. Since his retirement, Patton had begun a second career with a blog, Windy City Blowdown, devoted primarily to outspoken and often outrageous political critiques, right--wing rants and, adding a much--needed patina of credibility to his efforts, an ex--lawman’s insider take on the city’s criminal activity.
Blowdown’s popularity had led to Patton’s frequent appearances on local talk shows and on a few network offerings, such as Midday with Gemma, where the eponymous hostess Gemma Bright had just welcomed him to share a periwinkle--blue couch with her previous guest, Carrie Sands, a young vibrantly blond actress who was starring in a new motion picture filming in the city.
When the applause of the primarily female audience began to subside, Patton plopped down on the couch. He leaned in close to the actress and whispered something in her ear that caused her smile to lose its perk. Then he turned his attention toward the show’s hostess, adjusting his face in what he probably believed resembled a Gene Hackman–Popeye Doyle half--grin. “Okay, Gemma, I’m here,” he said in his familiar, gruff voice. “So what d’ya wanna talk about today?”
“Oh, I think you know, Pat.” Gemma Bright’s Australian accent was elaborate, slightly nasal, and made more distinctive by her odd habit of emphasizing words and syllables in a seemingly random fashion. This, combined with her fortysomething zaftig but stylish good looks, an extroverted personality, and an ability to convey what seemed like genuine interest, had positioned her as the second--most--popular television personality in the Second City. “We want some dish on that mysterious body that washed ashore yesterdye.”
“Dish, huh? Well, lemme tell ya, babe, it ain’t all that appetizing.”
“Death rarely is,” Gemma said.
“That’s probably why all those health--conscious wimps kept jogging past the body without stopping,” Patton said. “Or could it be that they were just too caught up in their own petty little lives to wanna get involved?”
“That’s not fair,” Carrie Sands chirped, evidently feeling he was talking about her people. “When you jog you get in the zone and you block out a lot of what’s happening around you.”
“That explains why most of you bubbleheads voted for our illus-trious illegal--alien president. You were in the zone.” Patton winked at the audience, which, surprisingly, rewarded him with scattered applause and laughter.
“Holy shit, Billy,” my assistant, Kiki Owens, said. “Who is this trog?”
“You know as much about him as I do,” I said, which was the truth at the time.
“After the president’s release of his full, authenticated birth certificate, this guy must be the last idiot spewing the birther crap. On our network!”
“Oh that pesky First Amendment,” I told her.
We were in the studio--six greenroom of Worldwide Broadcasting’s Chicago affiliate, WWBC, watching the midday show unfold while I awaited my turn on camera. We were sharing the space with a pale, undernourished--looking guy in his twenties. His black hair was bowl--cut in what may have been an homage to the late Moe Howard, may he rest in Three Stooges Heaven. His concave chest was wrapped in a black T‑shirt emblazoned with the statement “Down is the New Up” in yellow letters. His faded black jeans had slipped low enough on his hips to show an inch or two of candy--striped boxers, which in its way complimented his oversized pink high--top canvas shoes.
“Patton’s a local celebrity,” he said. “A real asshole who treats his employees like dirt.”
“You work for him?” I asked.
He frowned. “Me? I’m Larry Kelsto. Why would I work . . . ? I’m a comic,” he stated, adding defensively, “I’ve been on a bunch of network shows. Last Comic Standing, Comedy Brew, Last Call with Carson Daly. Anyway, if you want to know about Pat Patton . . .”
He then went on to provide a Wikipedia--lite explanation of Pat Patton’s semi--fame, concluding with, “The guy never met anybody he didn’t hate. He’s the opposite of Roy Rogers.”
“I think you mean Will Rogers,” I said.
“Who the hell is Will Rogers?”
“Roy’s father,” I told him, dismayed that a comedian, even a young one, would have to ask that question.
Larry Kelsto was not really interested in any of the Rogerses, including, I assumed, Kenny or the late Mister. Lowering his voice, he said to Kiki, “You’re an actress or a model, right?”
Kiki stared at him. She’s an attractive, diminutive black woman who seems as fragile as an orchid, but, as I once witnessed, she can make a six--foot--four, 290--pound Russian Mafia enforcer break down and cry like a baby. Her best weapon is a British accent with which she can draw blood faster than a buck knife. Judging by the look she was giving Larry, she didn’t seem to be into younger guys. Or maybe it was the candy--striped boxers. Or the shoes. Probably just Larry.
“Stick to comedy,” she said, and focused her attention on the monitor.
That didn’t seem to improve her disposition. “I’m picking up a really toxic vibe from Mr. Patton. We should leave now, Billy.”
“Are you kidding? What business are we in, again? Show business. And what’s the cardinal rule? The show must go on.”
“I can fill for you,” the comedian said.
“Thanks, Larry, but I think I can handle it.”
Kiki shook her head. “Big mistake, Billy.”
“Relax,” I said. “It’s just a talk show. After sharing a couch with Carrot Top, listening to him expound on the joy of weightlifting, and Sean Hannity just being Sean Hannity, this will be a breeze.”
“Really? Listen to the guy. He’s rancid, Billy. He makes Hannity sound like Walter Cronkite.”
“Bite your tongue,” I said.
On the monitor, Patton’s face had turned a sanguine shade as he replied to something the young blond actress had said. “Okay, I give you that, missy. Out of a couple hundred self--absorbed, gotta--stay-in-shape me--firsters, one little wimp shows some sense of civic responsibility by pressing a button on his cute little iPhone to call the CPD. Give ’im the friggin’ key to the city, why not?”
“We tried to get him for the show,” Gemma said, diluting the man’s vitriol by choosing to ignore it. “But the police are treating this as if Homeland Security were being threatened. We couldn’t even find out his name.”
“All you had to do was ask me, Gemma,” Patton said. “It’s Shineman. Carl Shineman. They got him locked up tight in his million--dollar high--rise apartment on Elm.”
“Why all the seecrecy?”
“Ah. If I told you that, Gemma, you’d know as much as me.”
“How is it, Pat, that you allways seem to be in the know on every crime story?”
“Honey, as I’ve told you before, I put in a lotta long, hard years with the CPD, and I was payin’ attention every minute. I understand how things work and where to go to get the info that citizens have a right to know.”
“Then maybe you should tell us why the police are being so seecretive.”
Patton hesitated, then said, “It’s . . . all about the corpse, Gemma.”
“The corpse?” It was our hostess’s turn to address the camera. “This bad boy will never even give me a clue about what he’s going to say once he’s out here.”
“Where would the fun be in that?” Patton asked with a guffaw. “I get a kick out of seeing your reactions.” He faced the audience. “You like to be surprised, too, am I right?”
Applause and giggles.
“Point made, Pat. So what’s the big seecret about the corpse?”
“The police don’t want to look like clowns, but the fact is, even with all their state--of--the--art computer toys, they’re having the devil’s own time making an ID.”
“Had the body been in the lake that long?” Gemma inquired.
“The water and the fishies did some damage, to be sure,” Patton said. “But that’s not the real problem.”
I noticed a tiny crease appear above Gemma’s right eyebrow. Love that high--def quality. She seemed to be getting a little peeved at the way Patton was drawing it out. “And the real problem is . . . ?” she demanded.
Grinning, the ex-cop ran a thick finger across his neck. “The corpse’s head had been chopped off clean. And they can’t find it anywhere.”
Enjoy your lunch, kids.
I’d written off as nonsense her comment about not knowing what Patton was going to say. Even if Standards and Practices didn’t have their own often too--rigid rules of dos and don’ts, talk show hosts are usually control freaks, at least professionally. But from where I was sitting, it looked like genuine surprise on her elaborately pancaked face.
She waited for the gasps from the audience to subside and asked, “You’re saying someone decapitated the victim?”
“He sure as heck didn’t do it himself,” Patton said. “His hands and feet were chopped off, too.”
“OhmyGod!” Carrie Sands exclaimed. “Then it had to be murder.”
The view switched from a two--shot of Patton and Gemma to an angle that included the actress.
“The missing hands do kinda rule out suicide, babe,” Patton said. “But like the old joke says, they could always use what was left for third base.”
“That’s disgusting,” Carrie said.
Patton shrugged. “All in the eye of the beholder. I know people who say pole dancing is disgusting. Personally, I’m a fan.”
Carrie glared at the grinning man.
“If you can get your mind off of pole dancing for a few more minutes, Pat,” Gemma said, “is there anything else you can tell us about the mysterious body?”
The camera moved in on Patton.
“Sure,” he said. “The vic was Caucasian. Male. That much is still in evidence. Wherever the head is, it’s got brown hair. In his forties, they think. No DNA match so far. The feeling at Homicide is that he’s somebody whose identity would point the way to the killer or killers.”
The camera closed in on Patton and Gemma, catching a glint in her green eyes. “And they have no idea who the poor soul might be?”
Patton lowered his head and tried another Gene Hackman grin. “They don’t.”
“But you do?”
He shrugged. “Let’s just say I’ve got a hunch. If it pans out, you and your audience will be the first to hear, Gemma.”
“Does your hunch have anything to do with the work you were doing before your retirement? Back when you were on the Organized Crime Task Force?”
He smiled. “Good try, Gemma. But no. Those Outfit guys usually didn’t bother cuttin’ off parts of the body if they were using the vic for fish food. When they put somebody in the drink, they stayed in the drink.”
“W-whoever did this didn’t try to keep the . . . d‑dead man submerged?” Carrie Sands asked, catching the camera operator off guard. By the time he found her, Patton was answering the question.
“They tried. The theory is the body had been anchored by a heavy weight but broke loose when the fish came to dinner. Judging by the teeth marks, they say it mighta been a bull shark did most of the dining. I been living in Chi my whole life and I never knew there were bull shark in Lake Michigan.”
Gemma Bright must have realized the idea of a shark nibbling on the corpse was one nightmare image too many for her lunchtime audience. “Yes. Well. Nasty business, indeed.”
She turned to the camera and said, “A real--life murder mystery, and we’ll be bringing you the events as they unfold. Now, coming up is a charming man--you all know him from Wake Up, America!, seen every weekday morning from seven to nine right here on WWBC Chicago, and on his own cooking show on the Wine and Dine cable network, Chef Billy Blessing.
“But first . . .”
As the show cut to a commercial, I stood, fully aware of Kiki’s gimlet eye. She was on the verge of saying something, but Larry Kelsto interrupted her.
“Only fourteen minutes left,” he whined. “I’m getting that bumped feeling. I knew it as soon as Patton showed up, the asshole.”
I took a few deep breaths and tried to relax. A young woman appeared at the door, wearing denims, a white WBC T‑shirt, a barbed--wire tattoo on her left wrist, and a headset. Whispering into the headset, she approached and quickly and efficiently checked a tiny wireless microphone before hiding it behind my tie.
“This way, Chef Blessing,” she said.
“Lose the goofy grin, Billy,” Kiki advised. “It’s inappropriate with all the talk about a headless dead body.”
As I followed my guide along the darkened backstage area, I heard Gemma announcing, “Here he is, one of your favorites and my very good friend, superchef Billy Blessing.”
A stagehand pulled back a flap in the dark curtain, and I stepped into bright lights and a response that sounded, to my ears, at least, a little more enthusiastic than the blinking applause signs usually produced.
The other two guests shifted on the couch as I took our hostess’s hand and kissed it. I can be debonair when I want to. I gave the still-applauding audience a friendly wave and took my place on the end of the couch.
Gemma smelled of magnolias. Patton smelled of a spicy aftershave and, unless I missed my guess, a mid--morning gin.
“Billy, it’s wonderful to have you here again,” our hostess said. “It’s been much too long since your last visit.”
“About three years,” I said. “Definitely too long. This is a great city.”
Gemma faced the camera. “This is the busiest man I know. In addition to his so very entertaining television work, he has a marvelous restaurant in Manhattan. He writes cookbooks and--”
“He was mixed up in some murders on the West Coast,” Patton said.
A shadow of annoyance flitted over Gemma’s face. She wasn’t used to being upstaged, especially by a guest who’d already moved to the less--active middle of the couch. “How right you are, Pat,” she said.
She leaned closer to me and, using a softer, more intimate voice, said, “You went through quite an ordeal in Southern California last year, Billy. And before that, you helped the police with a series of murders in New York City, as we know from the fascinatingly suspenseful book you wrote. What was it called?”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Talk Show Murders: A Billy Blessing Novel by Al Roker and Dick Lochte. Copyright © 2011 by Al Roker. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.