The fifth in the Jane Wheel mystery series
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Excerpt from Hollywood Stuff:
Nothing good ever comes from a conversation that starts with “babe”– From Hollywood Diary by Belinda St. Germaine
Jane Wheel knew better than to speak on the record. One month ago, when asked if she would be interviewed for a news magazine program by the journalist who had written last summer’s story of Johnny Sullivan’s murder as a syndicated feature, coloring it as cautionary tale of small town grift and aging Americans in rural isolation, which truth be told, Jane had thought a bit over the top at the time, she could have and should have said no.
And if her mother, Nellie, hadn’t agreed with Jane’s first impulse, telling her that she would look like a fool, going on television bragging and yammering about other peoples’ business, Jane might have remained firm in her refusal. But something about Nellie’s advice to say no, turned Jane’s no into a yes.
That’s how she ended up in a small television studio, mic’d for sound and pancaked for glamour, all of her instincts for self-preservation, her obsessive desire for privacy, her almost paranoid fears of self-revelation conspiring to stop Jane from talking. She choked on a glass of water, causing her to cough unattractively for the first five minutes of the pre-interview. She then felt her muted cell-phone vibrate in her pocket. She excused herself, explained that her husband was out of town, she had to answer it in case it was her son calling… and left the room. There, she explained in an angry whisper to the actual caller, Tim Lowry, her media curious best friend, that the interview had barely started, she could hardly tell him how it was going. She returned to the set with her lipstick freshened—Tim did know his stuff when it came to cosmetic reminders—and when the camera rolled on her return, answered each question posed about the murder, about the experience in Kankakee at Fuzzy Neilson’s farm, as directly and as cautiously as she could. Jane paused for a drink of water, remembering to allow her lips to stay moistened—Tim’s voice in her ear again—and relaxed, just a bit. It was going well. She hadn’t cursed, stammered, stuttered or blurted out anything negative about anyone personally. Then, Marisa Brown, the journalist who had written the original story that had been picked up by newspapers in almost every city in the country, leaned forward, girlfriend to girlfriend, and asked Jane Wheel, on camera, the million dollar question.
“One day you were haunting garage sales, the next you were solving murders. Do you ever feel that your life has become a movie?”
Jane forgot that there was tape rolling. Her throat suddenly cleared. She opened her brown eyes a bit wider, barely licked her lips, and leaned forward in her chair.
“That’s exactly how I feel. Every time I find a body, I think somebody’s going to jump out and yell Candid Camera or what was that new one? Oh yeah…Jane Wheel, You’ve been punk’d.”
After that, Jane couldn’t stop talking. She described her parents, Don and Nellie, their tavern, the EZ Way Inn, the gambling scandal that had involved practically their whole town. She babbled on about her neighbor’s murder and mentioned that she had been a suspect in that one because of an innocent kiss.
“Hey, it didn’t mean anything,” Jane had said, “I mean, we were drinking for heaven’s sake.”
Jane found that she liked playing to an audience. Marisa was smiling and nodding. Marisa’s sister, Laura, who had taken the photographs for the print piece was standing in the wings, doubled over in silent laughter at Jane’s stories. Even the camera man, all serious business when Jane was choking earlier, was now laughing and miming one handed applause.
Only after the lights were off and Laura and Marisa were high-fiving each other on the piece did Jane wake up.
“I got a little chatty,” Jane said.
“You were marvelous,” said Marisa.
“Perfect,” said Laura.
“Could you maybe edit out…?” Jane paused. Where to begin? The loose remark about her mother, Nellie, being, at best, a difficult woman? The knock on Kankakee as the tavern capital of the world? Blurting out that Charley was an academic and everybody knew that academics were underpaid?
The Brown sisters did edit some of the interview. The carefully measured and thoughtful performance that Jane gave at the beginning of the piece disappeared. Instead, when the interview was televised nationally that week on a news magazine that Jane had never even heard of before, Jane Wheel appeared to be a cross between the crocodile hunter and the entire Ozzie Osbourne family.
Watching with Nick, she gave silent thanks that Charley was out of the country and hoped that Don and Nellie were still having problems remembering the numbers of television channels since they got digital cable. Besides, who had ever heard of this program?
Everyone. Jane heard from her former school teachers, Kankakee shopkeepers, her Evanston neighbors. Her personal worst was when she yanked the phone cord out of the jack and she looked over to Nick for some sympathy. He was staring straight ahead, almost comatose.
“I’m not going to school tomorrow,” he said softly.
“What? I didn’t say anything bad about you, honey,” said Jane. “You’re the one…”
“Ace,” said Nick.
“I’m the ace mid-fielder on my soccer team?” said Nick, not quite as softly. “Why would you say something like that? Why would you say anything about me?”
“Ace means that you’re good,” said Jane, feeling herself grow weaker and weaker.
“Do you know what this means? For the rest of my life, I will be called Ace,” said Nick. “And I’m not even that good, Mom. I’m finished. I’m quitting.”
“You can’t quit soccer, Nick. Nobody watches this, nobody…”
“I’m not quitting soccer. I’m quitting school,” said Nick, leaving the room. “I’m quitting this family.”
Jane heard a kind of angelic choir, some kind of chanting and thought maybe, if she was lucky, she had dropped dead. Of course the way she had sworn and been bleeped on national television, she should have known immediately that the first thing she heard after death was not going to be an angelic choir. No, it was just her cell phone that Nick had switched to the Seraphim ring tone.
“It wasn’t that bad,” growled the voice at the other end.
Uh-oh. If Nellie was calling to comfort her, it was even worse than she thought.
Jane would have to quit the family, too.
Copyright © 2006 by Sharon Fiffer