Done To Death
Barry Stromstein felt the migraine coming. His vision had wavy lines around the edges and it was hard to focus on Lenore’s face. There was her trademark auburn bob and arresting green eyes; admittedly, her hair was wavering to the right and, at the moment, she had four eyes. He heard her words, but struggled to put them into sentences. Just nod and smile, he told himself, hoping he could make it through, knowing it was her perfume – Lenore’s ‘Possession’ − that triggered what was blossoming into a headache that if he didn’t take his Rizatriptan in the next ten minutes would leave him desperate for his bed and a dark room for the next three days. ‘Right,’ he parroted her last sentence, ‘local color . . . petty jealousies, fun characters.’
‘Are you even listening?’ she asked. ‘I don’t think you’re getting this, Barry, and to be honest, your first treatment I wouldn’t use for toilet paper. Bargain Bonanza? What kind of crap project is that? We’re not cable access. You either pull this together fast, or I’ll give it to Carrie. And if that happens . . .’
He wanted to scream, and he knew she wasn’t kidding. ‘I’ve got it, Lenore,’ and, struggling to find the words, he blurted, ‘you want blood, guts, expensive tchotchkes and scenic New England. Kind of Antiques Roadshow meets The Hunger Games on the set of Gilmore Girls.’
There was a moment’s pause. ‘Hallelujah!’ she said, closing the space between them.
Her perfume, like a wave of noxious gas, engulfed him. He had to get out of there. ‘I’m on it.’ He backed away, ‘I’ll have something on your desk by morning.’
‘That’s a good boy,’ she said. ‘And Barry, if you don’t . . .’
He took that as his cue and, holding his breath, bolted from her inner office. Half-blinded by the oncoming migraine he raced out of Lenore’s penthouse suite and down the hall. He bypassed the elevators and flew down eight flights of stairs, his thoughts fixed on the pill in his upper desk drawer. He sprinted to his offices and banged his knee on a glass top desk in the reception area.
Celia, his secretary, looked up, ‘Oh crap,’ she said. ‘You’ve got migraine eyes.’
‘Yeah,’ he said without stopping, the words thick on his tongue. It was always the same. First the vision went, then his words, and then came the actual headache, like a vice squeezing his eyeballs while a steel pike pounded into his brain. He jerked the drawer open, grabbed the little blue box, pulled out the ridiculously expensive pills, fumbled at the packaging and finally popped the melty lozenge under his tongue. It tasted like chalk and like something trying to be a pastille mint, but bitter and metallic. He closed his eyes, and heard Celia as she quietly walked around his corner office closing the blinds and shutting out the spectacular views of Central Park and midtown.
‘Do you want me to cancel your afternoon meetings?’
‘You got it . . . you should go home.’
‘Can’t. Need to come up with a new concept. She hated Bargain Bonanza. Give me forty-five minutes. Wait!’ Still tasting the pill’s remnants on his tongue, he thought through Lenore’s directive. ‘Tell the team to toss everything on Bargain Bonanza but the locale . . . I think that’s still OK – in fact, I know it is. Tell them blood lust and collectibles, and to be ready to pitch by one. And no one’s leaving till we have a winner.’
‘Will do. Anything I can do to help?’
‘No . . . it’s just got to run its course. Thank God for the magic melt-under-the-tongue pills.’
‘It was her perfume, wasn’t it?’
‘Why don’t you tell her?’
Barry looked at his assistant through hooded eyes. ‘Seriously?’
‘Right,’ Celia shrugged, as her phone rang. ‘Hope you feel better,’ and she shut the door.
Just breathe, he told himself, his head in his hands, his eyes shut tight. Let it pass. What a bitch! After three years with Lenore, Barry had no illusions. Either he came up with an acceptable pitch in the next twenty-four hours or he could take his résumé and try to find another producing job in an industry where thirty-five is over the hill and forty is washed up, and he was thirty-eight. To the outside world this was a great gig, a high six figure salary, bonuses, a team of young and energetic wannabes snapping at his heels. His NYU Alma Mater, Tisch School of the Arts, wanting him to take interns, holding him up as an exemplar of someone making it in the entertainment industry. And in a single day it could all turn to ashes. Lenore was desperate to stay on top . . . of the ratings, of her celebrity, of everything and everyone. She was hunger personified, a gaping maw always wanting more. ‘She’s a monster.’ He cracked his eyes open, and thought of his one point five million dollar apartment that was barely eleven hundred square feet, with a tiny patio, two modest bedrooms − one for him and Jeanine and the other for three-year-old Ashley. He pictured his gorgeous wife and their little girl, with blond ringlets that would darken with time, bright hazel eyes − they were his two treasures, his salvation. You have to pull this together.
He and Jeanine, a contestant on his last successful show, Model Behavior, had no more than a two month cushion in the bank and no family safety net. To Barry’s blue collar Jersey parents and Jeanine’s, who survived crop to crop on their Iowa farm, they were the affluent ones.
His phone buzzed; Celia’s voice came through the speaker. ‘Barry, it’s Jeanine, do you want me to tell her you’re out?’
‘No, put her on.’
The line clicked.
‘Hi sweetie,’ Jeanine’s husky voice even better than his magic pill.
Barry closed his eyes, ‘Hey babe, what’s up?’
‘It’s kind of stupid,’ she said. ‘But I felt like I should check before blowing twenty-five hundred bucks on a pocketbook.’
‘I know you’ll tell me just to do it. But I’m looking at all the other high-end real estate agents and the ones who get the million dollar sales are all carrying Chanel or Birkin. It’s part of the uniform − a Chanel suit, a pair of Louboutin pumps and a Birkin bag.’
‘Then do it,’ he said.
‘Babe, if you need it, you need it.’
‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.
‘What triggered it?’
‘That bitch! Are you going to be OK?’
‘Yeah, actually just hearing your voice helps.’
‘Why don’t you take the rest of the day? Screw the purse, I’ll pour you a bath, give you a massage . . .’
Barry let Jeanine’s words fill his head. He imagined her soft hands kneading his tense shoulders, the tickle of her silky curls against his skin. ‘That would be what the doctor ordered, but I can’t.’
‘Barry, tell me what’s wrong, and I’m not just talking the headache. What’s going on?’
He didn’t want to tell her. He hated this crushing sense of failure, of letting her down. He also knew she wouldn’t let up until he told her. ‘She hated the pitch.’
‘Barry, I’m so sorry. What’s the backup plan?’
‘Working on it now. I’ll come up with something.’
‘And if you don’t? What did she say? Tell me, please.’
‘Don’t worry about it. It’ll be fine. Everything’s fine. Really. It’s just the headache couldn’t have come at a worse time. But I got to my pill in time, it’s passing. You know me, it’s all about pulling rabbits from hats. I want you to go out and buy that pocketbook. Because you know what they say?’
Remembering advice from one of his first mentors in the industry. ‘The more you spend, the more you make.’
‘You’re sure of that?’
‘Absolutely. I’m going to want to see that purse when I get home. Although don’t wait up, it’s going to be a very long night.’
‘I love you Barry,’ Jeanine said. ‘And that has nothing to do with a pocketbook.’
‘I know. But I want you to have it. I want you and Ashley to have everything, and I’m going to make damn certain that this next pitch blows Lenore away.’
‘OK then . . .’
He heard the concern in her voice. It was like a knife. ‘I’m going to make this work.’
‘I know you will.’
‘Buy the pocketbook.’
‘I love you.’
‘I love you too,’ she said, ‘and I hope that bitch Lenore drops dead.’
‘Please God no,’ he said. ‘Without Lenore there will be no Birkin bags.’
‘Fine, then I guess she can live. And Barry . . .’
‘I am going to wait up.’
After he hung up he felt a familiar tingle that pushed against the migraine. Eight years into their marriage and ten into their relationship, just her voice made everything right. If she wanted a Birkin bag, he’d make damn sure she’d get it. Lenore trashing Bargain Bonanza was not the end of the world . . . not yet. With his eyes closed he hung on to the sound of Jeanine’s voice. How did you get to be that lucky? It was time to get to work.
He glanced at his monitor and braced for the stab of pain the light would send to his head. He squinted and focused on unread emails. His vision was clearing. The pill was doing its trick with the pain − holding it back. Sure, he’d have a headache, but he’d gotten to the med in time. Just function, he told himself. That was all that mattered − function, come up with something brilliant − Antiques Roadshow meets The Hunger Games on the set of Gilmore Girls − pitch it and get Lenore to love it. In spite of everything, he chuckled. ‘That won’t happen.’ In his three years with Lenore she didn’t love anything, and even when she did, she’d never let you know. ‘I expect brilliance,’ is what she’d say. ‘It’s what I pay you for.’
Celia, who pre-screened his emails, had divided them into files. He started in with those related to the now tanked Bargain Bonanza. There was one from the field agent who’d been scouting locations − Grenville, CT being a front runner, as Lenore had a country place in Shiloh, the town immediately north. There were several from agents who represented prospective hosts they’d approached, and a small stack from assorted locals at the various sites. He flipped through a couple from freelance show runners and field producers, two of whom he knew well, one he’d gone to school with, Jim Cymbel.
He opened Jim’s.
Wanted to get back with some ideas for your killer new reality show − Bargain Bonanza. Where the market’s saturated with these flea market contests, it’s a tough sell getting a new boy to float to the top. I’ve got several ways we could do this. I’d love to talk it over and see if we could make a marriage.
Love ya . . . and Jeanine.
He thought about calling, but only as a last resort. Sure, Jim wanted to help − help himself to Barry’s job. Because that email − and several others in his queue − were a lot like the one he’d sent to Susan Grace, the woman whose offices he now occupied. Last he’d heard she’d fallen down the industry food chain to where she couldn’t even get pitch meetings.
He looked back at the screen and shifted from prospective producers and their promises to deliver fresh ideas, scanning the ones from talent agents − waste of time till you know what you’re doing. He scrolled past the smattering of locals at various sites. Those were a crap-shoot, everything from mayors and first selectmen, wanting Lenore’s reflected glamour in their town, to B and Bs and prospective locations eager to sign lucrative deals.
His eye caught on one headed ‘Cash or Trash − Lil Campbell’. ‘That’s as lame as Bargain Bonanza’ – but he clicked it open anyway.
Dear Mr Stromstein:
This is in response to the email I received about my syndicated antiques and collectibles column, ‘Cash or Trash’. Yes, I’d love to set up a phone time to talk about one of my favorite things − my hometown Grenville, CT, the antiques capital of New England (possibly the world). The thought of having a Lenore Parks show feature our town is a thrill. Feel free to call any time − the home number is the best, but I do carry my cell.
He replayed his Hail Mary pass that Lenore seemed to like − Antiques Roadshow meets The Hunger Games on the set of Gilmore Girls. Scenic Grenville, in the Litchfield Hills, fit a third of the equation. Through hooded eyes he dialed Lil Campbell’s number and pressed the button for speaker. He leaned back and waited for an answering machine.
‘Hello?’ A woman’s voice answered.
‘Hi, this is Barry Stromstein, of Lenore Parks Productions. I’m trying to reach a Lil Campbell.’
‘How strange is that? I had literally just dialed your number when you popped up on call waiting.’
‘Talk about synchronicity. Do you mind if I put you on speaker? My partner Ada Strauss is with me and we don’t often get calls from TV producers.’
‘That’s fine,’ he said. ‘So what got you to dial?’
‘You’re kidding,’ she said. ‘The thought of having even a single episode of a show shot in Grenville would be a big deal. I mean several of our dealers have been experts on other shows, but nothing in the town itself.’
‘Right,’ and Barry recoiled at the familiar scent of want. ‘So,’ falling into his familiar role of gatekeeper to the brass ring, ‘what makes Grenville special?’
He listened as this Lil woman extolled the town’s beauty. He’d seen the pictures and knew she wasn’t lying. It would be a dream to film: the changing seasons, lovingly preserved Colonial and Federal houses, the tidy greens with their romantic bronzes and ancient cannons. Fine, it’s pretty, he thought, lots of places are pretty. And sure, it probably fulfills two out of three − Antiques Roadshow and the set of Gilmore Girls. He imagined bringing Jeanine and little Ashley out for the shoots; they’d love it. His thoughts drifted, and he made polite noises as though he were paying attention as Lil Campbell talked about the two hundred antique dealers, the weekly flea market and active council − God save me from active councils. He’d heard enough. He gently cleared his throat. ‘It does sound like a place to consider,’ he said, and prepared to launch into his kiss off.
‘Lil, don’t forget to tell him about the murder rate,’ a new voice popped in.
‘The murder rate,’ this other woman, with a slight New York accent, repeated. ‘Grenville had the highest per capita murder rate in Connecticut for two years running. And if you think about it, all of the victims were in some way connected to the antiques industry, although in that horrible fire at the assisted living center it was mostly that doctor.’
‘Which doctor? And I’m assuming you’re Ada.’
‘Ada Strauss. Long story short: it was a huge Medicaid fraud, we’re talking millions, that centered on this doctor − who apparently was both an antique clock collector and a hoarder. We’d see him every week at the flea market. It wound up as an arson slash multiple murder at one of the biggest assisted care facilities in the state. And, considering the total population of Grenville is twelve thousand, it doesn’t take much to bump our numbers up. That pushed us to the top for 2011, and in 2010 there was a serial killer who was taking out high-end antique dealers. Come to think of it, another doctor − what is with them? That one was a dentist. The freaky thing is he actually worked on a crown for me that came off when I was eating a crème brulée . . . sorry, too much information. Although both Lil and I barely made it out when he torched his place.’
‘What? Wait a minute!’ Barry was forward in his seat. ‘Not too much at all.’ His complacency and the throbbing in his head had suddenly been blown away like leaves in a storm . . . meets The Hunger Games. Ding ding ding. ‘Tell me about the murders. It seems like you know a fair amount about them.’
‘Please, we were there . . . I mean really there, as in almost got killed. You see Calvin Williams, the psychopathic dentist, had a lifelong crush on Lillian, and apparently his mother, who had Alzheimer’s, had been selling off the family heirlooms to local dealers who’d essentially robbed her blind.’
Barry was mesmerized as plots and twists fell from this Ada Strauss’s lips. A town filled with competing dealers, a supply of merchandise that was hotly contested, corruption, bribes, small-town scandals, a child-molesting dentist . . . murder. Too good to be true. He tried to picture Ada Strauss. She sounded a bit older, knowledgeable and funny. At one point he interrupted her, ‘Do I have your headshot?’
She laughed, ‘Why would you?’
‘Right . . . not an actress or on-screen personality, I’m assuming.’
‘Hardly. I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember Strauss’s department stores.’
‘I remember them.’ He laughed. ‘I remember my mother putting us in matching caps so she wouldn’t lose us during the back to school sales.’ He felt a twinge of regret. She might be too old for on-screen talent, or she could be a total dog. ‘You’re that Strauss . . . and Mr Strauss?’
‘Passed several years ago.’
‘You didn’t kill him. But it’s kind of you to say.’
His usual defenses were down. There was something here − at least he hoped there was. You’re desperate, Barry, this is a reach. ‘Is there any way I could get you – I mean the two of you – into the city for a pitch meeting this afternoon?’
‘I have no idea what that is,’ Ada Strauss said. ‘I mean aside from what you read in Jackie Collins novels. Lil? What do you think?’
‘We could be there in two hours. It’s the middle of the day, and traffic shouldn’t be bad.’
‘Fantastic!’ And he gave them the address.
After they hung up, he buzzed his assistant. ‘Celia, we’ve got an Ada Strauss coming in from Connecticut. I want some test shots, and get Jason to get her on tape. Have her talk about anything: antiques, murder, whatever.’
He hung up and realized his headache was gone. Please, he thought, feeling the dangerous seed of hope take root. Please, please, please.