This is the first of two excerpts from The Tower by NPL editor Karl Wenclas.
“Bobo!” Rick Romeo barked. “The press conference begins in twelve minutes. You have to be there.”
The bizarre looking mascot, who’d been skulking around the facility, raised a costume hand in acknowledgement while running off. Not necessarily in the right direction. The stadium was so huge, had so many levels, turns, and byways, corridors of blue, orange, or green, Rick wasn’t sure the mascot knew where he was going. But if anyone knew the facility better than Rick did it was Bobo.
A gum chewing office staffer named Connie ran up to Rick with what she said were seven important phone messages come in during the last thirty minutes. They’d been scratched onto memo pad sheets with imprinted cartoon characters on them, “URGENT!” written in thick letters at the top of each one in Connie’s exaggerated handwriting. Connie’s hyperbolic personality was easily sent into high gear by impressive voices on the phone.
Were they now using unauthorized memo pads? Tychon wanted everything in the office to carry the team logo.
Rick perused the memos while Connie stared brazenly at his face, which a few of the young female staffers were fond of doing. Rick ignored that.
“They’re very important,” Connie said, still chewing gum, any moment about to blow a bubble.
Connie’s south side accent jarred in this environment. She came from Rick’s own sprawling neighborhood. Anna’s revenge– he’d chastised Anna once for hiring from the mass of applications only dull-witted rich kids from the Old Line. Rick noticed one of the calls was from the mayor’s office.
They stood in a wide, blue carpeted walkway on the second level. Rick’s eyes became distracted by activity outside the sweeping glass window to the side. He spoke into his hand-held radio.
“Keep that flake Sheila away from the entrance,” he told his security force.
Sheila was a street artist who hung around the stadium painting portraits of anyone who gave her a few bucks. She kept up on anything happening here, as today. Rick had chased her off more than once. Keeping unlicensed vendors off the property was a constant battle. Tychon ordained all concessions be in-house.
Rick’s radio beeped while Connie continued to stare at his face.
“Reporters filing in,” a voice informed him.
“Ten-four,” Rick responded. “Keep me apprised when the coach appears. Bobo also.”
“Ten-four. Out here.”
Rick hadn’t decided if the team mascot was crazy or just stupid. He had different worries about the head coach. Young Connie, who was nineteen, popped a gum bubble. He handed her back the memos.
“Connie, they’ll just have to wait.”
Rick was already striding down a corridor to get to the media room.
The head coach was a special problem, a laconic type from the deep South, that if you asked him something he’d take five minutes to answer, accompanied by sighs, grunts, and coughs which indicated either weariness or total disgust. If forced to talk it’d be with a glare through eye slits in his bulldog white face. He used this effectively on reporters, adding to his every response the attitude of, “You must be really stupid for asking me that.”
The coach held undisguised contempt for East Coast journalists. In his way, he was as arrogant as Tychon or Rick Romeo. Rick worried the coach would have enough of this circus and leave.
Rick walked briskly toward the Media Room, scanning broad walkways for stray journalists. Various security personnel signaled a-ok. His radio beeped. The voice of McGunn, Rick’s second-in-command.
“Coach is in the room,” McGunn said. “Polka dot arriving now.”
Polka dot! The delinquent clown. Possibly the worst looking mascot in the league. Tychon had designed the costume himself– one of his few creations to go wrong.
Rick Romeo positioned himself in the open entrance to the Media Room, prior to closing the doors. Sports reporters holding cups of coffee took their seats inside. Grabbing chairs at the back were several stadium staffers, including Anna; Todd, the sales manager; and a couple from Legal engaged in a poorly hidden romantic affair. The coach’s press conferences were a good place to hide, to flirt, or to sleep. Several reporters already were yawning.
As Rick turned, his hand on one of the doors, an aggressive redhead stared through him as if her eyes could command him out of the way. Though she barely came much above the height of his chin, her demeanor suggested she would stomp him into the carpeting if he didn’t make room for her. She wore press credentials around her neck. A spoiled brat journalist.
“You know the rules– or should,” Rick said. “The coach doesn’t like latecomers.”
“Who are you?” she asked. “Mr. Authority? Lord of the Stadium? Keeper of the Door?”
He continued to block her way as they sized up each other. She crossed her arms and looked at him with amusement.
“Are you made of granite?” she asked. “Are you square and fit into a box?”
Then she brushed away his arm and entered the room.
The sideshow began. Bobo stood in the right front corner, fidgeting noticeably. A full contingent of reporters. Team colors of blue, green, and orange crisscrossed the ceiling and walls in broad strokes. At the podium, an indolent, insolent coach. The coach grimaced and pointed. Questions began.
The first questions focused on the condition of the defense and prospect of stopping the Laser a few games from now. The encounter would test the team’s progress.
As Rick watched, his brain signaled a warning. He became alert, wondering what was happening. The snippy redhead had moved herself into the front row. Oh shit. This could be trouble. Rick was trained to anticipate problems. He saw one now. His hand instinctively went to his radio, in the same way, in a different situation, it would’ve reflexively grabbed a weapon.
The coach drawled out an answer to another softball question. He knew by now the easy reporters. But, the redhead– she’d positioned herself closer to the center of the row, reseating the stooges of the press. Having her way with them. In control. The coach blinked, pointed– at her.
“Coach, what I’d like to know”– a clear and strong voice– “is your opinion of this facility. This beautiful stadium which you and your team are privileged to use.”
Rick moved closer up the side aisle.
“Yes, ma’am,” the coach said.
“Are you aware, Coach, that the public paid for this, for all this largesse, including the luncheon we’re going to feast on afterward?”
“That the possessor of all this, this magnificent palace, paid for by we the taxpayers, one Arthur Tychon, still owes the city millions of dollars and no one not anybody will talk about it? Least of all the lapdogs of the official media?”
Rick brushed past the mascot to position himself behind the coach. The redhead scanned around herself.
“Is there one of you with an activated mind?” she asked. “Or are you so used to Tychon doing your thinking for you you’ve forgotten how to engage your brains? Are you jellyfish? Do you care that this mad sport, the entire business, is a reflection of caste, or that the athletes like disposable gladiators pumped up by hormones and drugs are destroying their brains and bodies, that many of them will be dead by age fifty, or disabled, or brain-damaged, all to sustain profits for a handful of plutocrats? You study plays between the lines, you scribes of the press– you journalistic experts– you analyze and debate every trivial detail, but are unable to see outside the lines to notice more meaningful and dangerous plays taking place in boardrooms, more significant and expensive plays, I assure you. Isn’t that right, Coach?”
The coach gurgled and sighed and cleared his throat a few times.
“I’m a football coach, ma’am.”
The reporters she’d called lapdogs were furiously sending texts and tweets. They’d recognized the voice as soon as she began speaking. The same message they sent via cellphones went up immediately as headlines on local news websites: “It’s Her!”
Microphones and tape recorders pointed in her direction. Cellphone cameras and professional photographers clicked away. Rick Romeo stepped in front of the coach and grabbed the microphone.
“Do you have another question?”
“I have a lot of questions!”
Her eyes weren’t intimidated by his. Their eyes collided. Rick stepped back.
On her way out, amid the tumult, she ran hard into Bobo, who did a reverse somersault and landed on his back, where he remained for a full minute. No one could tell if his injury was real or an act.
Newspaper headlines the next day: “IT’S HER!” “CRUSADER REVEALED.” “THE BEAUTY BEHIND THE VOICE.”