The Return of Inspector Dan Rather
by David Burge
They say dames are like a flowers. Maybe they’re right. Nice to look at, fun to smell, covered in complicated reproductive do-dads. But brother, get too close and you’ll also find out that they have thorns. And bees. And enough pollen to flood your sinus with a hot painful load of mucus that’ll take a jumbo economy size box of Claritin and a six pack of hankies to forget.
It’s a hard lesson you learn every day in my line of work.
My name is Rather. And I’m a dick.
It was 5:15 and I had just finished typing up the final Abu Ghraib report (Dan Rather #23: The Prisoner Wore Panties) into my trusty Remington 17. Ever since my suspension at CBS (Dan Rather #21: Judgment at Black Rock) I was working down in Cable Hell’s Kitchen. A freelance investigative gig at HDNet, a smalltime news outfit wedged between MTV-6 and the Cubic Zirconia Channel. Not much money, but they didn’t ask too many questions and they didn’t have any nosy “fact checkers.” I had just pulled out my hip flask for a snort of Zima malt beverage when I saw a familiar silhouette in my office door. It was short and curvy with a pair upturned perky hairflips straight out of the CBS makeup department.
“Well, well, well. If it isn’t little Katie Couric,” I growled as she walked in. “Why are you slumming down here on the cable news docks? I thought a hotshot media deb like you’d be out sipping champagne out of your shoe, with the rest of the swells up on West 57th.”
She stood there, perky and defiant, atop a pair of muscular cheerleader’s calves that looked powerful enough to snap a co-anchor in two. But, at the same time, she looked strangely vulnerable. She heaved, just a little. Suddenly she burst into tears.
“Oh Danny, Danny, Danny!” she sobbed. “I’m in an awful fix! The auditors found over three million missing from the Nielsen account, and they’re blaming it on me! If… if I can’t come up with the missing viewers, the network boys downtown are gonna cut me loose, and I’m gonna end up on god-forsaken basic cable filler network like… like…”
She collapsed into my arms.
“Can the waterworks, sister! Maybe you should’ve thought about that before you ditched your nice little fluffy morning news bit in Perkyville! Maybe you should have realized the anchor desk is no place for a dame! Well, welcome to big time journalism baby!”
I slapped her hard.
“But… but you’re my last hope, Dan!”
I slapped her again, softer. Then she slapped me back, extremely hard. But not before I got one more good slap in. After trading a few more slaps I had her calmed down.
“Okay Couric. Maybe I’m a soft touch, but I’ll help you find those missing viewers.”
“You will?” she sniffled.
“Yes. Because this time it’s personal. And you’re gonna help me.”
“I’m gonna make a journalist out of you yet, baby.”
She moved up closer, eyes closed, lips parted longingly. For some reason, I decided to slap her again. She kicked me straight in the nuts.
Damn, those legs were powerful.
“It just doesn’t add up,” said Moonves, pacing the floor of his office and daubing the sweat from his glistening forehead. “The research boys Q-tested Katie with all the upscale demographic groups. We balanced all the war disaster stories with soft focus celebrity news. And still our numbers are leaking worse than a viewer in our core bladder control product advertising target.”
“Those viewers have to be somewhere, Moonves,” I said. “Maybe it was an inside job. Maybe it was the other nets.”
“No dice Rather,” he said, pouring another shaky four fingers of Ensure into his highball glass. “the audience embezzlers been hitting every precinct in town – ABC, NBC, CNN, MSNBC. They hit Time and Newsweek so hard that even the dentist offices won’t touch ‘em. If we don’t do something soon we’re gonna lose the Poligrip account!”
“Dan, do you think…do you think this has something to do with the internet mob?” said Couric, a pall of perky horror washing over her mug.
“I’m way ahead of you, baby. We’ve got some bloggers to talk to.”
She kicked me in the nuts again.
“Ow!” I screamed. “What was that for?”
“I thought you were going to slap me again,” she said.
I had to hand it to her. She was learning.
“Where are we going Rather?” asked Couric, slinking into the passenger door of my black Hudson.
“Townhall. We’ve got a surprise date with Cleveland Huey and his crew.” I packed my Sony FV-100 noise canceller mic into its holster in case of trouble.
A few minutes later we arrived at the nondescript hall deep in the Blogosphere Bowery. We pushed through the filthy padded door and made our way to a smoky backroom. Huey was seated at a card table, around which sat a rogue’s gallery of sleazy online opinion slingers: Beantown Barney, the head of the Boston family; Mongo Steyn, the hulking French Canadian punditry thug; Duffer Hitchens, the East End goon with a taste for brutal polemics; and Jimmie Fargo, capo of the Twin Cities blog syndicate.
Jackpot, I thought. I knew they were up to their fedoras in some kind of audience heist. Trouble was, it would be next to impossible extracting information out of them. Hewitt and his gang were notoriously tight-lipped, and were blood-sworn to the Blogosphere code of silence. Getting two words out of this bunch of mutes would be harder than getting a proportional font out of a ’68 IBM Selectric.
“Nice little hideout you got here Huey,” I said sauntering up to the table. Couric’s fingers clutched my arm tightly. “There’s probably enough room here to stash a million or two missing TV news viewers.”
“You’ve got it all wrong, pally,” said Huey, tossing cards around the green felt. “This joint here is a, whattayacallit…”
“Social club,” offered Mongo, discarding a pair.
“Yeah yeah, social club. That’s it. Place for me and the boys to get away from the wives. Play some cards, talk about the weather. How’s the weather in Minneapolis these days, Jimmy?”
“The usual,” said Fargo, shooting me a straight razor glare.
“See what I mean, Rather? Strictly small talk.”
“Yeah yeah, boss, small talk,” said Beantown.
“Shaddup, stupid!” he glared. “Just play your hand, real easy-like.”
“That’s not the word on the street, Huey,” said Couric, angrily. “Word is you and your pals are packing microphones and rolling up a lot of hit counts.”
“Oh sure, doll, we do a little radio, and blog once in a while,” said Huey. “Just a little fun. But I ain’t touched a TV studio ever since I left PBS. Ain’t dat right, Hitchens?”
“I don’t know nuthin’ about nuthin’,” said the menacing Limey, slamming back a shot of Yoo Hoo chocolate beverage. “Gimme three.”
“If I were you, Rather, I’d go snoopin’ out in L.A.,” said Hewitt. “That’s where all the action is. Any of you mugs got an 8?”
“Go fish!” snapped Gnat, Jimmy Fargo’s pint sized gun moll.
“Check your oil mister?”
Through the gas monkey’s window rag I spied a bicycle speeding down Santa Monica Boulevard headed for the pier. I recognized that Schwinn Black Phantom instantly -- it belonged to my old nemesis Charlie Johnson, a penny-ante LA guitar plucker with a penchant for pedaling and exotic typography.
“No thanks kid. Here’s a buck for the fill-up, keep the change!”
I rammed my Hudson’s shiftknob down into first and tore out of the filling station.
“Dan, that gas monkey was pounding on the trunk lid and yelling something,” said Couric over the roar of the Hudson’s powerful Twin-H motor. “Do you think he had some clues for us?”
“Too late for that now,” I yelled. “We’ve got a hophead jazzbo to catch!”
I needled the Hudson in and out of traffic down Santa Monica, with Couric sliding left and right on the sweat-slickened mohair. I hit the intersection at Sepulveda hard, and Couric flipped backwards into the rear seat. I looked in the mirror and saw those muscular gams arching and flailing provocatively as she struggled to free her head from the jump seat. I struggled to tear my eyes away from her nylons as the Hudson careened into a crowd of street musicians and jugglers at Venice Beach. I saw Johnson again, whipped the Hudson around and chased him to the end of a blind alley. I jumped out of the Hudson and caught Johnson as he attempted to escape over a cyclone fence, pulling him to the ground by the split tails of his chartreuse zoot suit.
“Cool it, Pops, it’s copasetic,” said Johnson. “Reet poteet! Like who’s the crazy chick doing the upside down jitterbug in your Hudson, Daddy-o?”
“Never mind that!” I barked. “There’s a couple million viewers missing from CBS News, and you’re gonna tell me where they are!”
“Like Digg, Daddy-o. Like, Digg.”
“Spare me the bebop reefer lingo, junkie! I want answers and I want them now!”
I grabbed him by his lapels, but Johnson began laughing in some sort of narcotics-induced trance. What was he talking about?
Before I had time to think about it, I felt a sharp sting at the base of my skull. Lights out.
A faint echo of chimes filled my head as I groggily shook off the cobwebs, followed by the acrid smell of patchouli. I pulled myself to my knees on the Persian carpet and a pair of two tone wingtip oxfords came into focus. My eyes panned slowly upward and I saw that directly above them was a rumpled white gabardine suit containing a pockmarked man wearing a red fez and a sunglasses. Allahpundit. I had my run-ins with this greasy sadistic weasel before, and I knew this was not my lucky day.
“Good moooorning Danny,” he warbled, rolling a Lucky Strike in his fingers. “time for you to rise and shine.”
A bucket of ice water cascaded over my head. The freezing wakeup call was delivered by Ace, Allah's deaf mute co-sadist. Legend says he was abandoned in the Maine woods by his prostitute mother and raised by a moose and a camp of perverted lumberjacks. All I knew is he smelled worse than a burning hair diaper and was wanted in nine states on morals charges. He began snorting and giggling maniacally.
“I didn’t know the Shriners were in town,” I sneered, shaking the frigid water from my pompadour. I was mad enough that I could've slapped Couric again. Couric....
“What have you bastards done with Katie?”
“Oh Danny, why must always you call us bad names?” pouted Allahpundit. “Ace and I just like to have the fun and play. Let us have more fun!”
Ace hit me with another bucket of ice water. This time he included the bucket.
“That will be all, boys,” said a languid female voice with just a hint of the Shanghai waterfront. It was then I realized where I was: deep in the lair of the Dragon Lady, the slinky Oriental bombshell who had ruthlessly clawed her way to the top of the blog underworld by flooding the market with a barrage of cheap street-grade news and opinions. She was draped nonchalantly on a rattan throne, squeezed into a tight silk shift with a slit that went all the way up and an embroidered dragon that shimmied hypnotically with her every move.
“I was quite concerned about you, Mr. Rather,” she purred. “You took quite a nasty spill down those steps. Luckily Ace and Allah were nearby to bring you and Miss Couric to safety. Maybe someone is trying to send you a message.”
I look over and saw Couric... someone had slipped her a mickey and she was sleeping it off on a filthy mattress in the corner, her head still wedged in the Hudson's mohair jump seat.
“Oh yeah? Well, I’ve got a message for you too, China Doll,” I sneered. “A singing telegram from Rosie O’Donnell.”
“Well, let's hear it Mr. Rather.”
“Ching chong ching ching chong,” I barked.
I felt another sharp pain at the back of my skull, and fell face-first into the Persian rug.
I watched the countryside roll past as the Zephyr speeded toward Knoxville, Tennessee. If we were going to get to the bottom of this caper, we were going to have to go straight to the top -- Professor G. Harlan Reynolds, the elegant criminal mastermind who pulled the real strings, far removed from the mean streets of the ugly blog flamewars.
"Is something wrong, kid?" I asked Couric. "We haven't slapped each other for hours."
"Maybe I'm worried about you, Dan," she said. "And me, a little bit too. And you and me."
"The problems of people like you and me don't amount to a hill of beans," I said grabbing her broad, boxy gymnast shoulders. "Not in a world where we're losing hundreds of our media boys every day, average Joes with a syndicated column or a little $600,000 anchorman's job in Cincinnati and a dream."
"Did I mention I booked a single sleeping berth?"
That's when she kicked me in the nuts again. Real hard.
After cooling our heels for 20 minutes on the parquet floor of InstaManor’s entry hall, Chalmondeley appeared again at the third story balustrade.
“Professor Reynolds will receive you now,” said the rotund butler. “He and Lady Smith are taking their constitutional on the autogyro pad. Shall I escort you?”
“Don’t bother, sport. I think I know the way.”
When we finally arrived at the autogyro pad, Reynolds and a buxom brunette were sunning themselves on lounge chairs in terrycloth robes. A muscular Nordic houseboy was pouring some sort of odd looking smoothies from a large blender.
“Inspector Rather! How delightful to see you again,” said Reynolds. “I was becoming worried. Chalmondeley radioed you were en route over an hour ago."
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Professor. That hedge maze of yours is a sonofabitch.”
“Where are my manners? May I present my wife, the Lady Smith. You may recognize her from our podcast.”
“Afternoon Ma’am,” I said, tipping my fedora. "I'm afraid I'm not much of a computer type."
She looked up from her copy of Hollywood Psychologist and pouted with a pair of voluptuous ruby lips. I felt her eyes feeling me up behind those sunglasses.
“Say, you’re kind of old.”
“And not very cute.”
“My mother was scared by a circus clown.”
“And your banter is not very good.”
“Are we bantering? I hadn’t noticed.”
“You’re not very good at noticing things either, are you?”
“Oh yeah? Well, I am rubber and you are glue, and everything…”
“Is there something we can help you with, Inspector?” interrupted Reynolds. “We're hosting an orange tie affair for Coach Fullmer this evening. I hope you think it not rude of me to ask that you get to the point of this visit."
“What have you internet people done with my ratings!?" screamed Couric, erupting into a perky rage. I grabbed her as she swung futile windmills.
“Oh, yes. I believe I read something about that on my Technorati feed three weeks ago,” he said, in a deadly calm. “Tsk, tsk. Terribly dreadful business, this television news problem. It seems to have infected the entire... how shall I say, 'traditional media.' Perhaps you should pay more attention to blogs to avoid these surprises.”
“Maybe I don’t know so much about blogs, Professor,” I said. “But I know a thing or two about Tennessee that might surprise you.”
His eyes narrowed.
“Such as the fact that Tennessee is the only state that salts its roads in summer.”
“Good heavens! Is that true? Why would the transportation secretary approve such a wasteful program?”
“You'll excuse me if I don't 'heh,' Mr. Rather,” he sneered. "Klaus, please escort Inspector Rather and Miss Couric to the door.”
We were on a park bench in Knoxville, out of ideas, at our wit's end.
"I think that's it, Katie. When the ratings come out Monday, it's the Big Kiss-off. Sayonara. Endsville. I wish I could have done more."
"It's not your fault Dan," she said squeezing my palm. "You were the one who showed me the ropes on the TelePrompter."
"And you were the one who made this cynical old newshound appreciate a good 3 minute Paris Hilton segment."
"You Katie Couric?" interrupted a Western Union boy. "Telegram from Mister Lester Moonves in New York City."
We tore it open.
NEW NIELSENS IN. STOP. CSI SWEEPS TOP THREE. STOP. ENOUGH AD DOUGH TO OFFSET EVENING NEWS LOSS. STOP. YOUR CONTRACT EXTENDED THROUGH 2011. STOP.
"Well, I'll be damned," I said. "Moonves actually pulled off the old loss-leader news department excuse."
"Oh, Dan, I..." she threw her arms around my neck.
"I... I guess I'll be going back to New York now," she said, peering up with those beady, perky eyes. "How about one last slap, for old time's sake?"
"No thanks kid, get back to your anchor desk. There's a lot tragedies and celebrities that need reporting. I'll be seein' you around. Newstown is a small place."
I watched her walk to the Greyhound station. I turned around and the Western Union boy was still standing there with his hand out.
"How about a tip, Mister?"
"Sure kid," I said, lighting an Old Gold. "Don't get mixed up with dames."
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