I'd only known Guy Mertz for ten minutes and already I was plotting to murder him.
"So, Barb-can I call you Barb?" He didn't bother to wait for a response. "Tell me about your website." His pointy nose rose into the air as if he'd remember the title by smelling it. "FlixieChick." He nodded, pleased that his memory had served him well.
Suppressing an eye roll, I waited a beat, then corrected him. "ChickAtTheFlix."
A minor grimace crossed his thin face. "ChickAtTheFlix. Hmm." He tugged at his filet mignon with a fork and knife. "FlixieChick has a lighter ring. Shorter. Easier to remember." He popped a hunk of beef into his mouth and continued to talk around his chewing. "Ever think," (chew, chew) "of," (chew) "changing it?" (chew, chew, chew)
I disguised a gag by sipping on my dry Chardonnay and not-so-casually scanning the banquet room of the prestigious American Cinema League's Tanner Building. The ACL was a national organization-their DC building featured a 200-seat theater and sweeping banquet hall which were often rented by Hollywood studios for local movie preview events. Although excited to be in attendance, I lamented being seated next to this bozo instead of Randolph Rutter. Randolph-the movie reviewer for Channel 3-appeared to be in a serious discussion with up-and-coming action movie director, Kurt Baugh. Rumor had it that Kurt's next project would be a Steven Spielberg-collaboration. I really wanted to talk to Kurt Baugh and find out for myself, but I was stuck sitting between a no-show empty chair and Guy, the ill-mannered carnivore.
Guy Mertz was a celebrity of sorts in the Metropolitan Washington, DC viewing area. Every evening on Channel 10 News, Guy "entertained" the television audience with melodramatic reports of local true crimes. Some people found the reports deep and meaningful, most people found them humorous, but I just found them nauseating. Guy was the reason I watched Channel 6.
How he made it to television, I'm not sure. Certainly no one had surveyed his headshot before hiring him. His face was unnaturally long and his flabby lips hogged most of the square footage. His beady brown eyes were topped by eyebrows that looked like fuzzy caterpillars on steroids. Let's put it this way-if he had been Don Knotts' brother, Don would have been the good looking one.
Guy was babbling on about my website, but I had tuned out and instead, was transfixed on Kurt Baugh who was stealing food from Randolph Rutter's plate. Kurt appeared to be the kind of man who had been strikingly handsome at one time, but had partied a little too hearty, and now looked more like a down-and-out country western singer recovering from a two-year bender. I found myself staring at his horribly orange skin and wondering if he really believed that ten bottles of spray-on tan could recover his youthful splendor. Unfortunately, I stared just a micro-second too long, and he caught me. It was one of those moments where you don't realize you're gawking at someone, but then they "feel" your gaze and turn to meet you eye to eye. Thankfully, he must have been flattered rather than irked because he shot me a wink before taking a sip from his water glass.
I, however, was mortified and jumped back into my conversation with Guy at just the wrong time. "I wanted to cover your story, you know."
My stomach lurched.
I downed the rest of my wine and wondered if they had something stronger. Arsenic perhaps. "Pardon me?"
"Your bang 'em up, shoot 'em up, FBI's Most Wanted story out there in Rustic Woods."
My worst fear was being realized. I had wanted to attend this screening as a respected movie reviewer, not as the famous, flighty, gun-toting suburban mother who found herself in the middle of the yearbook fiasco from Hell.
I was about to ask politely if we could refrain from discussing my newsworthy crime tale, but Guy steamrolled on. He shouted across the table. "Hey, Rutter!" He waved his sharp, silver steak knife around in the air to catch Mr. Rutter's attention. Unfortunately, he was successful. Randolph Rutter and Kurt Baugh stopped talking and turned their heads in our direction.
How could I silence this buffoon? I considered the possibility of quickly jamming my fork into Guy's jugular and blaming it on an involuntary muscle spasm attributed to a rare genetic disorder, but of course, I'd have to come up with a name for the genetic disorder and I'm just not that quick on my feet these days. Instead, I sat, face flushed, wondering where that waiter was with the wine.
"This is Barbara Marr!" shouted Guy. "Remember her story?"
Randolph's face was blanker than the checks in my wallet. He did not remember my story. Now I wasn't sure which was more embarrassing-the fact that I wasn't memorable, or the reality that Guy Mertz was about to make me look like a crazy lady in front of some very important people.
"You know," Guy torpedoed on, the entire table paying attention now. "The soccer mom in Rustic Woods who took down three of the FBI's most-wanted with a hand grenade."
A smile tugged at the corners of Randolph Rutter's mouth and he nodded.
"Actually," I said, feeling the need to set the record straight, "the hand grenade wasn't my idea."
I coughed while everyone stared. A moment later the table broke into laughter. The problem was, I didn't know if they were laughing at me or with me. I held my wine glass high in the air. "Waiter?"
"If I remember right," Randolph added, "you also have a movie 'review' website and that little incident gave you quite a bit of free publicity." He finger-quoted the word "review" and his sarcasm wasn't lost on anyone. He didn't stop there. "Your husband is an FBI agent, am I right?" He had the table's attention now. "Isn't that . . . convenient?"
Smiles faded on the faces around me and people went back to their food while Randolph Rutter held my gaze for a few miserable moments longer. Finally, after what seemed like decades, he turned back to Kurt Baugh, continuing their conversation.
The way I figured it, I had a couple of choices. I could dive under the table and hide until the guests were ushered into the screening room, or I could pretend like I hadn't just been covertly insulted by Washington, DC's most popular movie reviewer. I peeked under the table. It didn't look so bad under there. No, Barb, I said to myself. Be strong. He's not better than you. Look at those hair plugs for crying out loud. Who's he to talk?
Guy leaned over and whispered in my ear. "Don't let that idiot get to you. He knew who you were the minute he saw your nameplate on the table. His job teetered on the edge of oblivion when you hit the news. I heard from more than one reliable source that Channel 3 came this close," he held up two nearly-touching fingers for illustration, "to offering you his reviewing spot. They needed the ratings."
I raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
Mertz nodded and popped the last of his steak into his mouth. After a couple of chews he said, "Wish they had. Can't stand the prick."
Okay, so Guy Mertz was my new best friend. If only he chewed with less enthusiasm.
When a waiter didn't show up with more Chardonnay, I went searching for some myself. I was also looking for a friend: ex-mobster-turned-chef and caterer, Frankie Romano, who was supplying the delectable eats at this shindig.
Guy Mertz was right about my "fame"-I'd been the news story of the day after being held hostage by three female bank robbers, aka the Dynasty Dames. Frankie had supplied the hand grenade and the 9mm Beretta that helped me escape. The whole debacle occurred in my suburban town of Rustic Woods, which made it pretty much impossible for the FBI to keep the story under wraps.
Within days, my face was plastered across newscasts in the greater Washington, DC Metropolitan area. The publicity landed my husband, Howard Marr, a desk job pushing paper, and found my movie review website a huge following. Howard wasn't happy about the desk job, but now, three months later, I was ecstatic that my website's popularity had gained me an invitation to the private screening of the new summer blockbuster, Hell Hath No Fury. I was even happier when I was able to recommend Frankie Romano as the event's caterer. Frankie was pleased as punch, too. A job like this could open up a whole new world for him.
I located Frankie standing proudly next to a buffet table against the far wall of the banquet room. "Who's in charge of these servers?" I asked him.
A smile lit up the face of my Italian-American friend. "Yo, Barb!" He gave me a tight bear hug. "How you doin'?"
"I'd be better if I could get a refill on this Chardonnay," I said, holding up my empty wine glass.
"Sorry," he said, and immediately flagged a passing young man in a black uniform. "Find another bottle of Chardonnay and fill up this beautiful lady's glass. Pronto!" The man dashed off.
"I'm impressed." I smiled, watching Frankie in action. He was a good guy, despite his questionable past with the Mafia. "Did you have to bring your own staff?"
He nodded. "I put on da whole show, but they paid my asking price witout blinkin', so the profit'll be nice. Can't thank you enough for tellin' Jorge about me. He said he'll have more work for me if the studio likes what I did tonight."
Jorge Borrego was the director of ACL's DC office. After I received the invitation to the preview, I'd contacted Jorge and requested a tour so I could write about the ACL on my website. He'd only mentioned his troubles with his current event caterer in passing, but I jumped on it like Charlie Sheen to a Hollywood hooker.
"I'm glad I could help," I said. "Where is Jorge by the way? I haven't seen him all night."
"Last I saw, he was giving someone a tour of the building." He flashed another wide grin. "Hey, didya like the candied yams? That was a new recipe for me."
"Like them?" I rubbed my belly. "I inhaled them. The whole meal was delicioso."
He scanned the room, which was populated primarily by local TV and print media folk along with a few studio execs. Hollywood celebs were virtually non-existent except for an actor who played a bit role in the movie we were about to see. "Anyone famous here I should know about?"
I shook my head. "Mostly no. That's the director over there." I pointed to a ruggedly handsome, sandy-haired, late thirty-something man in jeans and a black t-shirt. "Andy Baugh. His brother, Kurt, is also a director. He's sitting at my table." I pointed. "He's the one with the bad tan job sitting next to the scumbag with the black hair plugs."
"Whoa, that is a bad tan. He looks orange. Both brothers are famous?"
"They're more famous for their sibling rivalry than for their films. They're trying to out-do each other-at least that's how Entertainment Today reports things."
"So they don't get along like dose Fargo guys?"
"The Coen Brothers?" I shook my head. "No. More like the Corleone Brothers-Michael and Fredo."
He nodded. One of my favorite things about Frankie was that I could always talk The Godfather with him, and he got it. "Which one is Michael?" he asked.
He shook his head. "Poor Andy."
"I know," I agreed. "The advance buzz on the movie we're seeing tonight is bomb with a capital B."
"So you tink da brother is here to support or gloat?"
I'd been wondering the same thing since I found out he was sitting at my table. "I don't know, but I sure would love to get a chance to talk to him. Supposedly he's working a deal with Steven Spielberg."
Frankie grabbed my arm and started walking. Before I could argue with him, we were standing next to Kurt Baugh. Frankie extended his hand to the surprised director. "Mr. Baugh," he said. "Pleased ta meetcha. My name is Frankie Romano and I'm your caterer this evening."
Kurt flashed a friendly, pearly-white smile and took Frankie's hand for a shake. "Thank you, Mr. Romano."
"Did you enjoy your meal this evening?" asked Frankie.
"Very much," Baugh nodded. "You put on a nice spread. I've attended screenings here before, and this was the best food ever served."
Frankie was about to respond when Randolph Rutter jumped in with his two cents. "Your timing is fortuitous, Mr. Romano." His emphasis on the title 'Mr.' carried a tone of sarcasm. "I was about to ask for you. My candied yams were cold. I don't like cold yams." He pushed them around on his plate as if to prove some point. "I'd like some more-preferably warm this time."
"Cold?" Frankie looked horrified. "That won't do. I'll fix dat for ya." He was about to leave me standing there looking like a goon, but luckily remembered why we'd come over in the first place. "Mr. Baugh, before I get those yams for dat gentleman there, I'd like to introduce you to a very good friend of mine, Barbara Marr. She's a fan of yours, though she wouldn't tell you that, 'cuz she doesn't like to be too pushy. But she found me this job here tonight, so I wanted to return the favor somehow."
My face must have blushed sixty shades of red during Frankie's little soliloquy. I didn't know if I should kiss him or ram Randolph's cold yams down his throat. I waited for Kurt Baugh's reaction before deciding.
He regarded me silently for a few scary seconds. Sweat dripped from my armpits and I prayed that my deodorant would get me through the stress smelling like that pretty lavender on the label. Thankfully, Kurt turned on a smile, shook my hand, and invited me to sit in the empty seat next to him. Whew! Frankie would get a kiss when he returned with those yams.
"So," said Kurt, turning his back to Randolph Rutter and giving me his full attention, "it sounds like you live an exciting life."
I blushed again. "Not as exciting as yours, I'm sure." I was about to segue brilliantly into a discussion about the rumored Steven Spielberg project when the sharp sound of feedback startled us both.
I couldn't believe it. Shut down dead by a woman on a microphone. The tall and buxom blonde introduced herself as Susan Golightly of Climax Pictures, and blah, blah, blah, thank you for coming and would everyone move into the screening room. I knew she was just doing her job, but at that moment, I really hated Susan Golightly of Climax Pictures, and not just because she had a stunning body and a really cute last name.
Anxiously, I stood along with Kurt hoping to still squeeze in my Spielberg question, when that dirty rat reached over and did a little squeezing of his own, right on my rumpus.
Since I was taken completely by surprise, I simply yelped and moved back a few inches, wondering if it might have just been an accident on his part.
He leaned in and whispered in my ear. "Wanna sit with me, beautiful?"
I was about to release a diatribe on him, citing my marital status, when Frankie piped up. He'd arrived behind us with the warm candied yams, and must have seen the whole thing. "She's a married woman with standards and morals, asshole. Leave my friend alone."
Kurt and Randolph Rutter whirled around. Frankie handed the plate of yams to Randolph. "Warm and to your liking I hope, sir."
Kurt stole the plate from Randolph, laughing. "You obviously don't know this man's reputation for jerking people around, Mr. Romano. He didn't dislike the yams because they were cold-he just isn't a yam man. Me, on the other hand, I could eat a boat load of these sweet babies." In a swift movement, he took a fork from the table, speared three yams, and deposited them into his mouth. He threw me a quick wink for added effect.
Frankie did not look pleased, but he kept his mouth shut. I was glad, because I didn't want him to lose a good gig while defending my honor. Randolph Rutter laughed, then scooted away with his young chippie dinner date, who he'd practically ignored up to this point. I quietly excused myself, hoping to make a quick getaway to a seat in the screening room far from Kurt Baugh and his way-too-friendly-fingers.
I thought I'd made it to safety until I found myself caught at the tail end of a body gridlock. The dinner guests had converged upon the one entrance to the screening room, and feet shuffled slowly as people trickled in. I felt a rush of exhilaration, however, when I realized the man to my right was none other than the director, Andy Baugh. He acknowledged me with a slight smile. I considered introducing myself, then felt hot breath on my neck. Kurt the Flirt was all over me.
I cringed and Andy grimaced. He slid me a look that said, Sorry about my foul brother. "Bro," he said, "why don't you hit the men's room and throw some cold water on your face. I think you've had too much to drink."
"Drink?" slurred Kurt. "You know I don't drink." He clutched his bulging stomach, stumbled and glommed onto my arm. "Anymore." His face was right next to mine, so it wasn't hard to see the drool dripping from the corner of his mouth. I tried to pull away, but we were packed tight with people trying to push their way into the screening room. Despite the fact that I didn't actually know this man, his behavior was odd since I'd only seen him drinking water during dinner. I was inclined to believe his denial and wonder if he was sick rather than inebriated.
Andy removed his brother's hand from my person. "Why don't you come with me?" he said to Kurt. "You don't look so good."
"You know," Kurt responded slowly, "I . . . don't feel so . . ."
That's when my bad dream turned into a nightmare.
Kurt Baugh fell on me. You would think this wouldn't be an easy thing to do with us crammed so tightly. Well, here's what I have learned: when a big man goes down in a crowd like a dead tree in a forest, people scatter. If only I'd been lucky enough to get out of the way too.
My legs couldn't bear his weight, and the next thing I knew, I was on the floor, stomach down, under the heavy body of a sleazy jerk. People were screaming and all I could see were shoes in my face. Kurt's drool dripped down the side of my cheek and bile rose in my throat. Then, because my wonderful night hadn't been defiled enough, the man vomited.
This wasn't how I'd expected my first review screening to be. Somehow, I'd pictured something a little . . . less messy.
The Golightly woman was on the microphone asking people to calm down and step back against the walls and the next thing I knew, two men-Andy Baugh and Frankie Romano-were pulling Kurt off of me. Andy rolled him on his back and slapped his face a couple of times. When blood bubbled out from Kurt's mouth, Andy freaked and ripped Kurt's white button-up shirt open to reveal his chest.
"Call 911," he shouted.
Susan Golightly took off like a shot to follow that order and I struggled to fight off a vomit attack.
Two kind ladies helped me to the restroom while Andy tried to clear his brother's airway.
It took twenty minutes for emergency responders to arrive, five minutes for them to attempt revival, and one second for them to pull a sheet over Hollywood director Kurt Baugh's face and pronounce him dead on the scene.
For most people, this would be an unusual day. For me, not so much.
My name is Barbara Marr and you ain't seen nothin' yet.
... continued ...