Fred’s fat ass made a beautiful target for my big yellow school bus as he bent over the trunk of his Mercedes and fussed with his groceries in the Shopmart parking lot. I coasted silently towards him not fast, but with enough kinetic energy to splatter his body like a ripe tomato and mix it with the pulverized remains of his car.
Squish time: 10 seconds.
I’d never thought seriously of killing another person until a few weeks earlier when that corporate toady had walked into my office and terminated my journalistic career without cause.
I had become familiar with this parking lot because I needed a job and Shopmart needed somebody to bring its carts back into the store. There were some unexpected benefits: my low station in life made me invisible to most customers, even Fred, whom I saw every Friday around midnight wearing the same faux-fur overcoat. And nobody noticed me sneaking into any of the school buses that parked on the lot overnight whenever I felt the need of a nap. They were easy to break into — drivers keep the keys behind the window visors in case they sleep in and somebody else has to take their shift. I could even start their engines to warm them up.
Gradually a plot began to form in my mind and, after some careful observations and even some calculations about mass, force, momentum and the squishing power of school buses, I was ready. Revenge would be mine!
I had designated this particular Friday as the last day of Fred’s useless life. I had already selected a bus and parked it about 50 metres from Fred’s car, just enough upslope to allow it to coast towards the target with the motor off.
Fred I found in the meat department. I watched him as he fondled the chicken breasts, squeezed the vegetables and browsed the breakfast cereals. Then, as he approached the cash register I headed towards my bus, fingering the keys in my pocket. It wouldn’t be long.
I wasn’t worried about witnesses. We were among the only humans in a parking lot at midnight in the dead of a North Atlantic winter. At those temperatures people are snuggled into their hoodies, hands on their clickers, looking only for the flickering lights of their cars.
I had welcomed Fred into my office that morning, expecting praise for my performance as editor of the Podunk Weekly Post and a conversation about my future with the company. Instead he’d thrown a letter onto my desk. It said I had made too many snap judgements and that too many stories had contained factual errors. I had discredited the newspaper and I was to clean out my desk immediately.
If I’d been a little faster on my feet, I’d have reminded Fred that I was merely following his orders. “Drop the crusading journalist stuff,” he’d told me over coffee on my first day on the job. “It takes too much work and the stories are boring. We’re losing readers to Facebook. We need to compete with the click bait.”
“Yeah,” I said, my voice dripping with sarcasm. “I’ll see what I can do.” Despite my show of reluctance I wasn’t sorry to forsake the image of the crusading journalist. It was hard work indeed. Every word had to be documented. Every fact checked. No sliver of bias allowed. Wary copy editors turned the most dramatic stories into turgid clotheslines, each fact strung to the next and pinned with dry accounts of how they were checked and confirmed. Talk about libel chill!
So I gave Fred what he wanted — stories that competed with click bait. In the next few months the paper was transformed from a tedious collection of press releases and charity banquets to a scandal sheet that flew off the news stands and smashed sales targets.
Our secret formula was gossip. My reporters had grown up in the town. “You already know what’s going on,” I told them in one of our weekly coffee meetings. “So why aren’t you writing it? Don’t get bogged down with the facts. Write what you know, or think you know.”
I become a force to be reckoned with. Politicians nodded to me on the street; waiters remembered my favourite sticky bun; I never got parking tickets and best of all, ordinary, God-fearing Podunkians stopped me on the streets with their malicious story ideas.
Take Tom Smith for example. Yeah he was the town drunk but he saw a lot of stuff from his park bench and his brain was pretty sharp. “I saw Mrs. Peabody go into the Royal Grande Splendide with Mayor McGillicutty,” he told me. The tip was easy to check. I wandered into the lobby, waited till the reservations clerk was good and busy and told him I had an envelope for his honour. “Room 271,” he told me without looking up.
It was the easiest journalistic coup I’d ever made. I just stood outside the door and listened. “Oh! Tom!” screeched a female voice. “Oh! Yes! Yes! YES!” and words to that effect.
And a great-looking front page it made, too. “Oh! Tom!” screamed the headline in Impact Extrabold 400 point, second-coming type. Everybody knew our insufferably righteous mayor was boffing the nubile Ms Amelia Peabody, except perhaps Mr William Peabody. The story wasn’t long on detail as neither of the participants returned my calls, but I did hear from William Peabody. He called me at 3 a.m. to share his thoughts about our newspaper and journalists like me but kept stumbling over his words and started snoring in mid rant.
We did a follow-up story the next Monday. It was about the church service after Peabody’s untimely death due to a combination of sleeping pills and alcohol. It seems he never woke up after cursing me over the phone. The church was jam-packed. I sat in the back row, wearing my trusty false nose and glasses. Peabody was described as a loving family man, a loyal parishioner, an energetic Rotarian and the kind-hearted manager of our local hardware store. Yeah, I put all that drivel in my article, an homage to the journalistic truism that there are two sides to every story. And I wanted to get our company lawyers off my back.
But the lawyers insisted there were three sides: My version, our smarmy followup and the truth.
Damn the truth! How was I to know I was listening outside the wrong door, and that the exclamations of joy and passion came from a TV soap opera? The mayor had been in Room 217, not 271, listening to a presentation by Ms Greenaway, president of the town Parks and Recreation Committee.
All that stuff was recounted in Fred’s letter. More corporate weasel words like judgement, integrity and due diligence.
Squish time: 7 seconds.
Being fired turns you in a pariah. My former co-workers wouldn’t answer my emails and even unfriended me on Facebook. We’d had fun in our short time together, going to the pub on Fridays, where the waiter remembered my favourite craft beer, and talking about the stories we’d like to do. I hated losing that.
I especially hated losing Mary, our fledgling reporter with blue eyes and golden hair. We’d had many companionable afternoons teaming up for our person-in-the-street interviews. She’d handle the writing and I’d take the pictures. Then I’d buy the coffee and bask in her adoring gaze as I dispensed pearls of journalistic wisdom. “Don’t let anything get between you and your goal,” I’d tell her. “Think about your career. Strategize.” I loved those blue eyes but I didn’t see the little wheels turning behind them.
She had begun taking my advice to heart and used her looks to coax secrets from her male interview subjects. I began calling her my blonde barracuda. She developed predator’s taste for bylines.
Squish time: 5 seconds.
I wasn’t always the gossip-mongering journalist who would do anything to get a story. I had been an idealistic young man, out to change the world or at least my small part of it. And for a while I thought I did. I revealed the hideous plight of abandoned pets, waiting out their time before execution day at the local pound. I wrote about the unsafe working conditions at our local sawmill. I railed against city budget cuts that closed sidewalks in winter instead of ploughing them, driving main-street merchants to ruin as sales plummeted over the Christmas season.
There was no end of scoops to be had once you knew where to look. The town dump was always afoul of garbage guidelines; cops were always beating up homeless people and small-time politicians could be goaded into making ignorant statements. It seems disillusioned people everywhere would trade their stories a few minutes of attention. You’d be surprised how much some people will tell you when you start writing down everything they say.
Squish time: 3 seconds.
The passenger door popped open on the Mercedes. A tall woman with silky blonde hair stepped out, blinking into my headlights. Omigod! Mary!
I shut my eyes to hide from the dreadful reality. The bus lurched on, a metallic zombie without a driver.
But I couldn’t hide from the truth. That scheming vixen had deployed those calculating blue eyes on Fred and convinced him to give her my job! Now her life was in my hands. Could I take it?
Squish time: 2 seconds.
Mary had her hands over her face, shielding her eyes from my headlights. Suddenly I thought of a better way. Let them live! Mary would make Fred suffer more than I ever could. He’d die a slow, painful death under her spiked heels, just another stepping stone in her relentless quest for success.
Squish time: 1 second.
I wrenched the wheel to the right, brought the bus to a halt beside them and opened the window. “Mary!” I shouted. “Good for you! What a catch! And Fred! You think she cares about you? You don’t know what you’ve got yourself in for! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!”
And then Mary pulled her hands away from her face to reveal a pair of brown eyes and a mouth full of braces. The tall blonde I’d thought was Mary was a teenage girl. And that wasn’t Fred, peering over the trunk either, unless he’d grown a Van Dyke beard in two weeks.
“You stupid shit!” shouted Fred, or whoever he was. The girl began to cry.
I drove away, nearly weeping myself with the relief that I hadn’t gone through with my original plan. A mile down the highway I aimed the bus into a snowbank, wiped the prints off the steering wheel and left by the emergency rear exit.
I still keep track of Mary. She got Fred’s job after a few months and did wonders with the company website. Married the designer, actually.
Fred also experienced marital bliss, with his boyfriend. They moved to Bermuda. Who knew?
As for me, I still patrol the parking lot and play bass in the blues band on my night off. And every time I see a guy in a fake fur coat I jump. It happens a lot. If I’d known how many guys wore that coat I probably would have found some other way to identify Fred from behind.
Those snap judgements will be the death of me.