Authors: B. David Warner
Tags: #mystery, #action thriller, #advertising, #political intrigue
Carter turned to me. “Paul’s a scratch
golfer, except when he’s playing a client.”
"I had to hit eight balls into the water last
Thursday, to keep from kicking Denny Desnoyer's butt by more than
fifteen strokes," Chapman said.
"I'm surprised Desnoyer did that well," said
Carter. "How he swings a club past that gut of his ranks with the
mysteries of the pyramids and the missing link."
"Speaking of stomachs," Rodriguez said,
"mine's empty as a vp’s office on Friday afternoon. Let’s go.”
"You're sure I won’t be in the way of some
kind of male bonding session?" I asked.
"You kidding?” Rodriguez said. "How can you
bond with guys who don’t even know what a gerund is?”
The repartee continued as we left the
building heading for Big Norm’s Restaurant two blocks away.
At one point I heard Carter whisper to
Chapman, “What the hell is a gerund anyway?”
“I’m not sure,” Chapman whispered back. “I
think it’s one of those old golf clubs. Like a mashie or a
“Be worth a lot of money, you had one in good
To paraphrase Yogi Berra, lunch at Big Norm’s
Restaurant turned out to be “déjà vu all over again.”
I’d been inside Big Norm’s last during my bon
voyage affair five years ago, and as we approached the
well-manicured old building memories danced in my head.
The sign in front advertised “A Dining
Experience,” but to Adams & Benson employees who treated its
elegant lounge like a neighborhood bar every night after five, it
would more accurately have read: “A Drinking Experience.”
Now that would have been truth in
As we walked through the front door, Willis,
Big Norm’s tall, distinguished maitre d’, greeted me with a hug. We
asked to be seated in the lounge and got the last table, a
white-cloth-covered four-top just inside the door. It was SRO at
the bar itself, and waiters and waitresses hustled drinks from the
service bar to tables, and carried trays filled with the seafood
dishes that put Big Norm’s on the culinary map. As we sat down, I
couldn’t help notice that a tall, wiry, red-haired man in the crowd
at the bar seemed to be staring our way.
"Matt, did you know the guy who was killed
last night?" Manny Rodriguez asked as he unfolded a white cloth
"Caponi? Yeah. Darren Cato and I used his
studio a lot. Vince and I golfed once or twice, and I had dinner
with him and his wife a few times. I can’t believe he’s gone.”
"Murdered," Chapman said with an exaggerated
shiver. "Who would kill a guy like that?"
"Do the police have a motive?" I asked.
Glancing toward the bar, I noticed the red-haired man continued to
glare toward our table. His attention seemed focused on me, but
why? It was my first day here after five years.
“The motive wasn’t robbery,” Carter said.
“Vince had a wallet full of money and credit cards."
A waiter appeared, setting menus and a basket
of Big Norm's hot-from-the-oven onion rolls on the table. He
retrieved a notebook from his pocket and took drink orders. The
redhead at the bar continued to stare my way.
"Have you had the dubious pleasure of meeting
Sean Higgins?” Chapman asked as the waiter left. He apparently had
heard enough talk about violence.
"What do you mean, dubious pleasure?" I
asked, my attention returning to the table. I knew Higgins by name
only. He had joined Adams & Benson as account head of the
American Vehicle Corporation business during the five years I had
been gone. I knew we’d be working together, and my title as
creative supervisor meant, in theory, we were equals.
"I mean you won’t find many creative people
worshipping at the shrine of Sean Higgins,” Chapman said.
"Let me put it in less religious terms,”
Carter smiled. “Sean Higgins thinks creative people are more
interested in doing commercials that win awards, than in selling
the client’s product.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “We’re merely
trying to create print and broadcast advertising that stands
out...that breaks through the clutter.”
“Tell that to Higgins,” Carter said. “If you
get the chance. When it comes to dealing with creative people, he
has the tact of a pit bull on steroids."
“Darren Cato found that out,” said Rodriguez.
“Remember the time he walked into Higgins’ office with his shades
“Yeah,” said Chapman. “It wasn’t so much the
sunglasses as Cato’s way of strutting around in them. He’s a
producer-type, thinks he’s strictly Hollywood. Higgins brought the
meeting to a screeching halt and made Cato leave his sunglasses out
in the hallway.”
“That’s Sean Higgins,” laughed Carter, “pure
hard ass. He thinks he’s still playing football for the University
Rodriguez turned to me. "You’ll have to
excuse Matt, he’s never gotten over the fact that Higgins didn't
fall for his memo." I had to ask. "What memo?"
Rodriguez leaned forward, his smile widening.
"Rumor has it that Matt, here, was responsible for a certain memo
sent to all employees under the signature of one of the senior vps.
The memo requested that account executives drink whiskey instead of
vodka at lunch."
"So that during afternoon meetings clients
would know the account executives were drunk, not just stupid.”
That got the table laughing. In the middle of
it, the waiter appeared to distribute the drinks. He pulled the pad
from his pocket and waited for our food order.
"I haven't even had time to look," I said,
reaching for the menu.
"Big Norm's is famous for broiled salmon,"
“Salmon it is."
One by one, the others ordered and the waiter
left, snaking through the crowd at the bar where people now stood
"Hey, look...Baron Nichols." Carter pointed
to the red-haired man who had been staring at me from the bar.
Catching Nichols' eye, he waved him to our table.
"Baron, meet Darcy James," Carter said as
Nichols approached. "She's the new group creative head on AVC."
I held out a hand that Nichols ignored,
instead staring coolly into my eyes. "I hope she can handle it," he
said. Then the arrogant bastard left to rejoin his group.
"You could scrape the ice off that greeting,"
Rodriguez said. “I heard Nichols had a screaming match with Ken
Cunningham when you got the job as AVC creative head instead of
him, but there’s no excuse for that behavior.”
"No harm done,” I said. “Believe me, I’ve
Truthfully, I felt more angered than
embarrassed by Nichols’ snub. And while he may have acted like an
ass, there seemed no point making an issue of it.
Chapman finally broke the embarrassed silence
that followed, changing the subject. "I hear Darren Cato didn’t
show up for his meeting with the VanBuhler people.”
“Yeah, said Carter, “his girlfriend’s Sue
Askins; the woman in Research? She tried to call him all morning.
She left just before lunch to check his house.”
“He’d better not miss many meetings with
those people,” Rodriguez said. “Have you seen that guy Bacalla? He
looks like he sprinkles guys like Cato on his breakfast
“What's happening on the VanBuhler campaign
anyway, Paul?” Carter asked. “We haven’t seen much of you since you
got assigned to the team. You must be important."
"Yeah, tell me about it. Fact is I'm more
go-fer than executive. Bob Bacalla quarterbacks all the plays."
Rodriguez reached for another roll. "Is he as
mean as he looks?”
“He’s tough to read,” said Chapman. “I’ve
worked with him for weeks and I know less about him than when I
I jumped in. “The election’s coming up fast,
Paul. How about a prediction?”
"It’s going to be a lot tighter than people
I had been following the campaigning. "For a
third-party candidate, VanBuhler sure ate up the primaries. New
Hampshire, Massachusetts, Illinois..."
Entering the race as an independent, Niles
VanBuhler straddled the fence on virtually every issue. His boyish,
sun-tanned good looks and impeccably combed, prematurely silver
hair played well with the press. When it came to sound bites, the
guy was a piranha. With the election just weeks away, VanBuhler’s
popularity rivaled that of the incumbent, David Nordstrum.
"What does VanBuhler's contingent say about
his mysterious success?" Carter asked.
"Nothing, nada, zero," Chapman said. "Funny
thing is, they don't seem all that surprised."
The waiter interrupted, setting steaming
dishes in front of each person. My plate held a salmon steak nearly
three-quarters of an inch thick.
A sudden ringing came from somewhere close.
Carter set his fork on the plate and reached for his pager.
"Ain't technology great?" he said. "Even
without my cell phone, the office can find me anywhere." He stood
up and headed for the sole pay telephone near the restrooms.
"Poor Matt," said Rodriguez. "It’s not enough
to be a producer, he’s trying to be a writer, too. The guy's been
running his butt off."
Chapman started to speak, but stopped as he
noticed Carter hurrying back.
"A package just arrived," Carter said, taking
a quick bite of whitefish without sitting down. "It's addressed to
Darren Cato. Since he’s AWOL they plopped it on my desk.”
"What's the hurry?" Chapman asked.
Carter took a gulp from his water glass and
set it back on the table.
"The package is from Vince Caponi.”
Riding north on a concrete ribbon, we twisted
past the factories of Flint, the factory outlets of Birch Run, up
and over the mammoth Zilwaukee Bridge, winding around Saginaw and
Bay City, then straight through mile after mile of flat brown
autumn fields that reached out to touch the horizon.
Just when it seemed the land in this part of
the state grew nothing but monotony, trees closed in on either side
of the highway and we were in Michigan's north country. I peered
out the side window and took in a blur of autumn reds, oranges and
yellows, interrupted by the occasional dark green of a stand of
I had forgotten how hilly northern Michigan
could be. One moment I stared up fifty-foot embankments on either
side; the next, I gazed down as the shoulder dropped into a valley
thirty feet below. I was admiring the landscape when Higgins turned
"Guess I owe you an apology."
"Oh?" An apology? From Sean Higgins? I
smiled, recalling Matt Carter’s comment: "an apology from Higgins
comes about as often as a neutered Cocker Spaniel."
"You knew Bacalla and Roland were up to
something," he said. "Personally, I think it’s industrial
"They’re evil, alright. But their game’s not
"It isn’t? But you..."
"Thought at first they were spying on our ad
campaign for the new Ampere. I know."
"You're not going to say my imagination’s
"After what's happened anything is possible.
My mind is as open as one of those giant beach umbrellas."
"Alright. You’ve heard of subliminal
"You mean that BS about the sub-conscious
picking up messages invisible to the eye?"
"BS, huh? Where’s that giant beach
“My mind is always open. But that doesn't
mean it accepts every hare-brained thought that comes along."
“I admit it’s a stretch, but something Manny
Rodriguez said the night he called sticks in my mind. He mentioned
the words subliminal persuasion.”
“He said he found a subliminal message on
“Not exactly. He told me to come over right
away, which I did, finding him nearly beaten to death.”
“So you don’t know for a fact he found a
subliminal message on the disc.”
“No.” We rode in silence for a while.
"Assuming you're right,” Sean said finally,
“and I don’t believe for a moment you are, what kind of subliminal
message would be on that disc?"
"Whatever’s on it, Bacalla and Roland are
desperate to get it back.” I said. "I think somehow it involves
drugs or drug cartels.”
I wanted to describe my conversation with Sid
Goldman yesterday afternoon; a meeting that now seemed an eternity
ago. I recalled my former creative director’s suspicions concerning
Bacalla and his telephone calls to Tijuana.
Remembering Sid’s shaking hands and the
threats to his granddaughter's life, I kept the conversation to
Higgins stared at the road ahead. "If you're
right, we're in ahell of a lot more trouble than we thought."
Monday, Oct. 11 – 1:13 p.m.
The FedEx package listed Darren Cato as the
addressee, but Carter didn’t hesitate to tear it open.
Inside he found a square, flat plastic
carton; the type designed to hold DVDs or CD-ROMs. The label on the
disc inside was clearly visible: Avion On the Beach :30 Submaster
copy. Chapman, Rodriguez and I watched as Carter popped the
container open and removed the disc. A piece of paper packed with
it fell to the floor. Carter picked it up.
"It's from Caponi," he said, glancing at the
paper and then back to the three of us. “It says, Hey Cato, what
the hell's with this DVD?"
"Maybe it’s blank,” Chapman said.
"Doesn’t figure he’d make a big deal over a
blank disc,” Rodriguez said.
Carter nodded. “Let’s run it on the big
screen up on seven and see.”
A half-dozen run-throughs in the screening
room turned up nothing unusual. The disc contained a commercial
exactly as I remembered seeing it on TV: an Avion automobile
screaming over Daytona Beach sand, its movements choreographed to a
strong jazz beat. As the car halts, it’s surrounded by a group of
bikini-clad women. The ad stood as proof that beer commercials
don’t have a corner on mindless male chauvinism.