Just for the record, let me introduce my boss, Sal Valente. Picture a fat, middle-aged former union thug with one rolled up cotton sleeve revealing a tattoo of himself. Sal’s a redhead whose perpetually rosy cheeks are not due to embarrassment, but rather from being slapped so often his chameleon face had long decided to stay that way. Flush and ready to print anything, he has come to inhabit a once tidy wood-paneled office with a nasty green Amazon parrot in a antique brass cage, and there he sits behind a cluttered mahogany desk with his hands resting palms-up on the edge. Call me delusional, but his wriggling fingers always reminded me of the legs of giant Brazilian roaches trying to turn over and escape being featured on page fourteen of the Celeb-Ration. That would be Benny’s column on the bizarre in the world of science. Oh, and Sal’s voice? It’s not unlike the Godfather’s, but with a pronounced nasal quality, as though he’s spent too much time underwater. Salt water, by the look of his red eyes.
—“What ya got there for me, Jude?” Sal asks me one pivotal afternoon, rendering his patented don’t-disappoint-me stare. “Another lifestyle piece, I hope?”
—Sal worked in a meat packing plant in Dallas before coming to Miami to take the reins of the tabloid. No one knew exactly what his connections were to get the job, but it was rumored he’d done some sort of illegal service for Martin Weinstein, the little prick publisher of the Celeb-Ration. The job probably involved the breaking of bones. Wishbones, most likely, because whatever education Sal possessed in the area of magazine editing and English grammar wouldn’t have been able to parse The Cat in the Hat.
—“What I’ve got,” I reply, “is soap star Tracy Corwin caught on camera, cussing a blue streak.”
—“Who’d ya say?”
—Sal accepts my proffered video camera, then crooks his chin to study the playback. When he recognizes me on the LCD, his eyes narrow perceptibly. At my cannonball in her hotel pool, his look evinces disgust. “We can’t be be-mirched,” he concludes, wriggling his nose.
—“What? You mean besmirched?”
—He shakes a finger at me. “Right.” Then he looks down and manipulates the controls on my camera.
—“What are you doing?” I ask in bewilderment.
—“Erasing the evidence.”
—Deed done, he opens his bottom desk drawer, and drops my camera into it.
—At this point, I pinch the bridge of my nose. “You’re giving me a migraine, Sal,” I tell him.
—“No, I’m preventin’ my own. Can’t ya see that?”
—“Do you see this hang dog look you’re giving me? Any leads on the South Beach party tonight, at least?”
—“Stick to lifestyle trends,” Sal says. “Mark and Russ are coverin’ that.”
—I sigh. Mark Messna and Russ Wells are fresh out of journalism school at FSU, having failed to make the recruiting cut to the Miami Herald or the Orlando Dispatch. True, they hadn’t picked up anything compromising in the way of ethics or self respect as roomies in college, thanks to frat parties and online term paper purchases. Their actual field experience was limited to contacts who scout for résumés, not for celebrities snorting coke with known felons. So the little matter of how to keep their student loan creditors from holding a pocket mirror to their noses as they slept in a dumpster had probably brought them to Sal in the first place. And Sal, being inept at everything but delegation himself, always admired desperation more than he did credentials. In this way he was similar to the old curmudgeon he’d replaced, back when I’d first applied two years prior, right after my failed career as a travel writer.
—“You know, Giselle is supposed to be there tonight,” I say, angling to be included somehow while voicing my complaint.
—“Forget ‘er, she’s eye candy,” Sal declares. “Too skinny, anyways.”
—I chuckle cynically as I admire the cheese Danish next to his telephone console. “Too skinny for what?”
—“Besides, they say you can’t be too skinny or too rich,” I remind him, quoting a fashion bible I’ve been ignoring all my life.
—“Oh no?” Sal says. “Then what was that series on anorexic stars ya did last year?”
—“That was different,” I insist.
—“How zit different? Nevermind. Look. If ya gotta get outta the office and write somethin’ that might actually get us sued. . . well, ya stay outta the picture, okay? But remember–I need something big. Unusual. Gimme somethin’ with teeth.”
—“You mean like the biggest Everglades croc? What?”
—“I dunno. What do I pay you for? Fadricate something!”
—“You mean fabricate?”
—“Yeah. That’s it.”
—“Well, ya don’t have ta do that, exactly,” Sal says. He swipes at a fly, slapping his tattoo in the process. Then he picks up his cheese Danish and studies it. “Just make sure it’s big and juicy,” he says, and sinks his yellow incisors into the pastry. “And be careful out there.”
—“Right,” I tell him. “Thanks for your wonderful input, Sal.”
—He glances up as I’m leaving. “Hey, Jude,” he says, still chomping on pastry.
—I frown as I turn at the door. “Yeah?”