"Ya gotta help me out here!"
Oh, Jesus Christ, here we go, Baragon thought, rolling his eyes and fumbling into his limp shirt pocket for the already half-empty pack of cigarettes. Why don't you people ever call anybody else?
It was quarter after five on a Thursday afternoon in late February. The day had been a slow one in what was amounting to another slow week. Baragon had been thinking about getting himself together to head out, and he should've known better than to pick up the telephone when it rang. Old reflexes. Still, other old reflexes should have told him that phones that ring when you're about to split work never amount to any good.
Ruby, the receptionist, thought she was doing him a favor by putting these people through. She knew what his job entailed and, if only out of common courtesy, he'd never told her any different. Receptionists, especially in a place like this, had enough to deal with already.
"Uh-huh," Baragon sighed around the cigarette, which he was trying to light without much success. "And, uh . . . what seems to be . . . y'know . . . the problem?"
The man's voice was ragged and wild, and after that opener, Baragon couldn't help but think this whole scene sounded like the beginning of some lost Hitchcock film. Two hours later, he'd be sitting on a plane to Honduras, to meet up with a man named "Jeb."
"I . . ." the voice declared, with a certain dramatic flair, "have been kidnapped . . . by the state of Alaska!"
Under most circumstances, Baragon would have hung up after hearing something like that. At least these days he would. But although he desperately needed the drink that was waiting for him at the bar, something in the strangled urgency of the man's voice made him want to hear more, if only out of twisted curiosity. That was an old reflex, too--the very same reflex that had landed him where he was today. Cigarette finally lit, he settled back in his chair and casually checked the tape recorder that was plugged into his phone. Just in case. This was, after all, what he did.
"Uh-huh," Baragon said. "So . . . uh, why would Alaska want to kidnap you?--Wait, before you answer that--why don't you take a deep breath and start from the very beginning?"
The man paused--Baragon could actually hear him inhale--then he started again. "First they raped my wife--"
"The state of Alaska did."
"Yeah. Yeah. Then they tried to blame me for it."
"And then they blew up the rest of my family with a car bomb in Colorado. This was all back about seven years ago."
"Wow." Baragon looked around his desk for the ashtray, couldn't find it, and decided to use his coffee mug instead, hoping he would remember to wash it out first thing tomorrow morning.
"Then they arrested me for that, too."
From the noises around him, it was obvious that the man was in some public place. Whether it was a madhouse, a prison, or a train station was unclear.
"So, tell me, uh, sir . . ." (always be formal and polite--he was usually tempted to call these people "bub" or "chum," but figured they had enough trouble as it was, without having to figure out how they'd ended up in a comic book) ". . . why, exactly, are you calling here to tell me all this?"
"Because you're the only one who can help me. My wife, after all this first happened, she wrote you a bunch of letters--"
"Wait--this all took place in Alaska and Colorado, but your wife wrote letters . . . to me?" Baragon began scrolling back through all the crazed, cramped, schizoid letters he'd received over the years but couldn't remember anything that sounded like this.
"No, Alaska only came in later."
"When they attacked your wife. That was in Alaska?"
"No, that was in California."
"So . . . Alaskans attacked your wife in California, blew up the rest of your family in Colorado, kidnapped you, and now you're calling me for help because your wife says she wrote me some letters."
"Okay then." Baragon dropped the half-finished cigarette in the coffee mug and lit up another. It sounded like this was going to take a while. He reached over and turned on the tape recorder. The small red light glowed, and the tiny wheels began to rotate. It was illegal in New York to tape a phone call when one party was unaware they were being recorded, but there you have it. "So long as we're on the same page here. Why do you think she--your wife, that is--wrote, uh, to me?"
"Because she knew you had all the right political connections."
"Well, that much is true." Baragon shrugged his shoulders to no one in particular. For all the years he'd spent in this racket, he'd never once spoken to an actual politician. A few flunkies here and there, but that was all. It was a business he had no interest in.
"Yeah, well, see?" the man went on. "I need you guys to help me out. They're tryin' to pin all this shit on me--"
"When, all the while, it was Alaska that was doing it."
"Yeah, right, and then I heard that you were looking for me."
"You heard that I was looking for you?"
"But this is the first I'm hearing of any of this--I don't even know what the hell your name is."
The man took another deep breath. "My name's Nick Carter, and I really don't have much time--"
"And where are you calling from, uh, Mr. Carter?"
"Last I knew I was in Barrow. It's . . . hard to tell, though--there are no windows in here. They could be moving me while I'm asleep and I'd never know it."
"Barrow . . ." Baragon racked his brain, if leisurely. "You mean Point Barrow? That in Alaska?"
"Yeah--way north. Look--you gotta get me outta here--They're--" Then Carter yelped--it sounded as if he were being dragged away from the phone by several men while one of them was stomping on his feet.
"Uuhhh . . . Mr. Carter?" Baragon asked pointlessly.
Suddenly there was another voice on the line, speaking in abrupt, indecipherable tones. It certainly wasn't English--or any other language Baragon recognized offhand. Too many rapid-fire vowels and syllables. Then the line went dead.
Baragon pulled the phone away from his ear, looked at it, shrugged again, then hung up.
Just as well, he thought, that was starting to get boring. He clicked off the tape recorder and hit the rewind button, then stopped it, hit play, and listened to the voice at the end once again. It sure wasn't English--but what was it? Inuit? Damned if Baragon knew. Gibberish of some sort.
He hit the stop button and set the tape recorder back where it had been, primed and ready for the next big scoop.
Roscoe Baragon had been losing his hair for the last fifteen years. In that same time period, he'd also put on about forty-five pounds. Way he liked to figure it, he actually had the same amount of hair he always had, but as his body expanded, he was simply growing out of it, the same way he grew out of most of his shirts.
For that same time period, he had been sitting at the same desk, with the same phone, in the same little New York Sentinel newsroom, surrounded by five other desks, with identical phones and identical computers. Baragon's desk was always the sloppiest of the lot, littered with stray piles of gray ash and teetering mountains of folders and papers he'd long since forgotten about. The beige keys on his computer keyboard had, over the years, greased over black.
The other desks in the office had been occupied by an ever-changing collection of eager, bright-eyed young hotshots, most with brand-spanking-new journalism degrees, and most about half his age. Few of them stayed at the Sentinel longer than a year. Some of them--the more greedily ambitious of the bunch--had been snatched up by the Post or the Times or one of the glossy newsweeklies. A couple of the particularly chirpy, stupid ones had moved on to local television. Others had been promoted to private offices. As each one left the small newsroom, his or her desk was refilled in a matter of days with someone else who fit the same description. Most of the time it didn't bother Baragon as much as it could have. He'd already had his glory years and was satisfied with where he'd ended up. He didn't care for all the headaches that came with a private office or a bigwig editorial position--the added responsibilities and all that extra money. Besides, these days, none of the other dailies or glossies were exactly going to any great lengths to steal him, the way they once had. Fuck 'em. Here he could come and go pretty much as he pleased, cover the stories he wanted to cover. He could dress the way he liked and be as cranky as he cared to be. There was nobody (well, almost nobody) he had to answer to. He was forty-two now, and no longer had the energy, the drive, or the cold viciousness it took to get ahead in this business.
The most important thing about the job, Baragon felt, was the fact that he was working in what he assumed was the last office space in New York City in which he would be allowed to smoke at his desk. To him, that meant more than money, prestige, respect, any of it.
He shut off his computer, pulled his stained and mildly rank trench coat on over his stained and mildly rank open-collared blue shirt (he'd never bothered much with ties), and stepped out of the newsroom without saying a word to the four other people who remained sitting in front of their terminals, frantically tapping away at their keyboards, all of them so deadly serious, all of them certain that this was it--this was the story that was going to snag them that Pulitzer and get them the hell out of this dump.
From the third office he passed on his way down the carpeted hallway, Baragon heard a high-pitched voice bellow: "Hey you! Scoop! Get in here!" It was too piercing to be considered either lighthearted or threatening.
Baragon stopped short, closed his eyes, then slowly turned around. There were clearly evil forces at work here--forces that were doing everything in their power to prevent him from reaching the bar that night. "What is it, Ed?" he sighed. He didn't need this right now, he was in no mood, but he stepped into the small office anyway.
"Baragon, what the hell am I reading here?"
Ed Montgomery was a living caricature of a major metropolitan newspaper's editor, and Baragon always thought that was how Ed wanted it to be. Sleeves rolled up, tie undone, a porcine face that grew a magnificent shade of magenta whenever he got angry--and he was almost always angry. Montgomery was ten years Baragon's junior, but no longer looked it. He had been one of those bright-eyed kids back in the newsroom, once. Baragon remembered how excited Montgomery became the first time he got an actual interview with an actual city official. It was, as it turned out, the sanitation commissioner, concerning the burning issue of "dead animal pickup."
As a result, Baragon had a hard time taking his act too seriously. He'd been watching Montgomery practice and refine it from the moment he got the promotion.
"Not real sure, Ed--you, uh . . . you wanna give me a hint? Or you want me to read it aloud to you?"
"Cut the bullshit, Baragon--" Montgomery said, gesturing toward his computer screen. "I'm talking about this . . . thing you turned in to me this morning."
"Yeah?" To be honest, Baragon didn't really remember all that much about the story he'd turned in that morning. He leaned against the door frame and waited for Montgomery to fill him in.
"'Voodoo Curse Haunts Natural History Museum'? C'mon, Baragon--"
"So? What about it?" Baragon looked bored because he knew what was coming. He knew what was coming because it was the exact same thing that happened every time he turned in a story.
"Shit, Roscoe--why do you insist on doing this to me? Do you hate me?"
"Maybe, uh, Ed, if you explain what the problem is, I could try to help you out. Is it just the headline?" Baragon tried to put on his most innocent face, but he just ended up looking a little nauseous.
"First of all, there is no voodoo curse on the Museum of Natural Goddamn History."
"That's not what I heard."
"Yeah?" Ed's face was growing darker. One of these days, if he was lucky, Baragon would be on hand when it finally exploded. Now, that would be something to see. "And where'd you hear that?"
"Have you read anything beyond the headline?"
"Believe it or not, I have. I shouldn't have--I didn't really need to--but I have."
"So you see the sources are all laid out very clearly."
"Sources. Baragon, some homeless guy calling himself 'Chief Tokesalot,' who's camped out in the park across the street from the museum, is not a source. Christ, you've been in this business how long now?"
"Longer than you, Ed, which is kind of sad--but look--the museum's got a new show of Haitian artifacts--pots and crap like that. And this guy was from Haiti, and he was pretty pissed about it."
"That isn't a source."
"He was pretty pissed about it. Y'know, the whole 'stealing his heritage' business. And he knows there's a curse because he's the one who put it there. That's about as good a source as you're gonna get."
Montgomery closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, just like world-weary editors are supposed to in situations like this.
"Roscoe, look--in your next-to-last paragraph," he tapped the screen, "you say here that there were zombies wandering around loose in the museum."
"Well, I dunno--they sure looked like zombies to me."
"'Looked like.' But you don't say 'looked like' in the story, do you?--here you say they were zombies. Simple as that. There's no 'looked like' about it."
"No. Just--please--no more. Don't say any more. We aren't going to discuss this any further. There's no point. First thing tomorrow, you can either give me a real story about the goddamned exhibit--"
"Which'll sound like the same press release stories you'll be reading in every other daily--" Baragon interrupted, "--except that it'll be a day later--"
"Roscoe, have a seat."
Excerpted from The Buzzing by Jim Knipfel. Copyright © 2003 by Jim Knipfel. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.