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The Highs and Lows of Stanley Huntsville Higgins

     Let’s face it, we’re all trying to get the best high we can, one way or another. If we’re honest about it – and incidentally, honesty is not my strongest attribute – we all crave that adrenaline spike, that thrill blast, that rapid-heart-beat-hot-dash of ecstasy. And then we get it, and we love it, and we want it all over again.

     Most people get it from sex, obviously. Or drugs. For some, it’s that moment of placing $1,000 on a horse that probably won’t win, but just might. I’ve seen runners’ eyes glazed from their endorphin kick – it’s not all that different, really. I’m 38 years old, and I’ve tried it all. But for the past ten years or so, my go-to fix has been one I’ve honed painstakingly. It could take effort, sometimes weeks, even months to build up to each moment of joy. I would have to tease it out, strategize. Sometimes it was all about how I’d flutter my come-hither lashes over my baby blanket blue eyes. Other times, it required up-all-night research so I could talk stamp collecting like I’d done it all my life. Some days it meant stick-firm handshakes, shared steak dinners and rounds of whiskey, with me exuding with practiced skill my light beam of promise: “You can trust me.”

     I got high off of other people’s secrets.

     To be specific, I got high off of other people telling me their stories when they shouldn’t. I got paid to do it. Until recently, I was the lead investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Herald. In the newsroom, they called me “The Closer,” because that’s what I did. I made deals with people – you tell me what you know you shouldn’t, and I will listen with glowing I’m-all-yours empathy, emptying you of the burden you never wanted to carry.

 

     Then, I’d release your secrets into the world, where they belonged, and I would convince you it was the right thing to do.

     For those delicious moments afterwards, I was envied and admired. I forced my competition to scramble and crawl over each other to catch up to whatever I had unearthed. Over the years, I’d built up a bit of a reputation. I was the Scoop Master, King of Reporters. And I won’t pretend to be humble: I was maybe a little bit famous, for a print reporter. I was on television a time or two. I may have gotten some preferential treatment at a few clubs in West Hollywood.

     I was happy. I was good at my job. I have awards on bookshelves to prove it.

     It all crashed down on me, as these things do eventually. I’m even more famous now than I used to be, but it’s all a bunch of bullshit. I can’t believe how irresponsible reporting has become.

***

 

     I can start my story anywhere, from the moment I was born as Stanley Huntsville Higgins in Mobile, Alabama to my journalism degree to my 10-year-old red Porsche and my journey across the U.S. to the City of Angels playing the part of Jack Kerouac in my head. I can start at my skyrocket-hot-shot-rock-star career, where I made my name reporting on the porn industry, which is everywhere in LA, but no other reporter wants to delve into it. I had the voice of my dead Daddy in my ear, and he said, you make yourself indispensable by shoveling the shit nobody else wants to shovel, but everybody needs shoveled, and he was right. But I did it all in my black leather jacket and Balenciaga shoes, going to the hottest parties in Silverlake and Hollywood Hills, so not like my Daddy, who was actually shoveling actual shit to feed his family.

     I’m sure you’ve heard some nasty things about personal life. I haven’t been an angel in L.A., tempted over the years by everything that smells nice and tastes pretty. And I’ve tricked people, betrayed them. But don’t believe the lies about me. Police reports and local news live shots don’t tell the whole story.

     The easiest place to start is with Oliver Delfine. I’ll admit I hunted him down. Oliver was by all appearances an easy mark – 22 years old, befuddled. He was sitting on a bench at 500 Temple Street, a few blocks away from the L.A. County Courthouse, eating a falafel pita sandwich from a food truck. It was Tuesday afternoon when I sat down next to him, with my own falafel in one hand, a leash in the other. I didn’t get too close, left some air between us, so he didn’t feel cramped or on high alert.

     When Oliver wasn’t being Grand Juror #7, he was a veterinary assistant at Western Animal Clinic about eight miles from where we sat. He had two dogs and three cats in his one bedroom apartment, and a girlfriend named Polly, who was allergic to animals, which made his romantic life complicated. Bits of falafel and dribbles of tahini sauce fell from his mouth onto the dress pants he wore because he had been sitting in court all day, instead of working like normal in the back of the veterinary office. He usually wore jeans. My research on him included the type of music he preferred – John Prine and Billy Joel, typically – and his morning route with his dogs.

     Oliver vacillated between trying to rub clean his pants with paper napkins made wet with his saliva and glancing over at me, or, rather, the Norwegian Lundehund I’d borrowed from my neighbor in exchange for the promise of $50 and a backrub. The Norwegian Lundehund was called “Skippy,” and he sat obediently by my side.

     I waited for Oliver to speak first, and he fell right into the trap. I watched him fight and then overcome his shyness.

     “Wow,” said Oliver, still rubbing his pants ineffectively, falafel sandwich momentarily placed on the arm of the park bench. “Your dog? If you don’t mind my saying so, that’s quite a rare breed you have there.”

     “Not at all,” I said, smiling my shiniest grin, my voice chipper. “He’s a prize. You’re welcome to pet him, if you’d like.” Skippy obligingly trotted over to Oliver, allowing himself to be stroked as he sniffed at Oliver’s abandoned sandwich. Oliver smiled, and unhunched his shoulders.

     “You don’t know how much I needed this,” Oliver said, looking over at me briefly, but then concentrating on Skippy’s perfect triangular ears.

     Oh, but I did know. I knew exactly how much Oliver needed a canine pick-me-up. I knew that Oliver had been listening all day to District Attorney Wanda Horne present evidence concerning who had murdered “Oddest Man Out” star and celebrity partier Madison Ewing, who had been discovered bleeding to death behind a health food store. And while I didn’t consider myself a celebrity reporter per se, the question of whether charges were pending against any number of suspects in Madison’s death made this story as big as the O.J. Simpson case had been a decade earlier.

     So there we were, Oliver and me, sitting on a bench, Skippy collapsed against Oliver’s leg, sighing contentedly as Oliver expertly scratched his back.

     I ate my falafel sandwich with tidy bites. Finally, I asked, “Rough day?”

     “You could say that” Oliver said. “It’s hard to make big decisions about other people. And that’s what I have to do this week.”

     “That’s tough. I can barely decide what to eat tomorrow.”

     Oliver gave a clenched mouth smile.

     “I hope for you tomorrow is better,” I said, all soft and tender ember empathy.

     Oliver nodded.

     “Maybe I’ll see you here tomorrow,” I said. “This is my usual route for walking my dog and getting a quick early dinner.”

     I let my eyes fish-hook his, and felt the glowing triumph of conquest. It was time to make a quick exit, leave him wanting more. I called Skippy to me, dunked my trash in a free throw, and then gave Oliver a gentle wave.

 

***

 

     It’s probably here I should talk about Madison Ewing because without him there would have been no reason to bother with Oliver, no reason to seduce him into trusting me. Without Madison, there would have been no giant blowback in my face.

     The murder of Madison was always going to be the story, as we say, that had legs. Even a reporter lacking my slice-sharp instincts could tell that. First off, you had Madison as a victim. Not just any celebrity, but Madison Fucking Ewing. Born in Beverly Hills, L.A.’s most notorious partier. Married three times by the age of 30, Madison, child-star-turned-sitcom lead, rehab regular since he was 9 years old. Did you know he’d been arrested 19 times, once for pissing on Charlie Chaplin’s Hollywood Walk of Fame star? What he had against Charlie Chaplin; nobody knows. Even at 45, Madison was still at the top of his fame, thanks to big biceps, a diet of drugs mixed with bean sprouts, and yet another hit TV show.

     No matter how much trouble Madison caused, no matter how many times he’d been rescued on the brink of death, he glowed on camera. If his pinky twitched, your eyes fondled the pinky, sucked on it.

 

     And then there was how he died. Madison was stabbed seven times and left bleeding by a trash bin behind “Peace Heathy Eats,” where he was known to pick up his vitamins and tofu. Surprisingly, given his mega celebrity status, it took 12 hours to discover that Madison was missing and even longer to find his body, limp and loosened, skin already shrinking down, from ears to ankles. You couldn’t make up a more tragic end to his trajectory.

 

     So many people cried over his death. Maybe you did too. But here’s the thing: Madison was an asshole.

 

     Okay, so yes, some of those rumors about Madison and me are true. I knew him. I’d met him at some parties. It’s all old news: Years ago, I’d had a few one-night stands with Lana Lioxa before she moved on to Madison. Wouldn’t you want to spend a night or two or three with a famous ballerina?

 

     And yes, I got a little pissed when she told me. But I did not run over her pug Trouble for revenge like she said – it was all just a horrific accident. There’s a police report filled with her venom against me, but the cops never charged me with anything, and that should tell you something. I buried Trouble in my backyard. I can tell you a lot about Lana’s temper. She screamed at me for an hour over Trouble’s dead body – an unreasonable amount of time, in my opinion.

     But enough about me.

     There was a plethora of suspects – the ex-wives, all with grudges, his former manager whom he’d fucked over, former publicist likewise. Countless dealers who hadn’t been paid just because Madison was careless, not because he didn’t have the cash. And of course, Lana. I remembered her blood-hot tantrum when I accidentally on purpose ran over Trouble. And I remembered, as anyone would, her last words to me: “I hate you.” And then there were the photos of her and Madison at different parties and premieres, her smiling brilliantly, strapped to his arm. Him talking about how his life was a party every night now that he had her. Her sly wink to the camera. Was she trying to spite me? I don’t know, but she would never take me back, not that I asked, except maybe once or twice.

 

     From the beginning, I owned the story about Madison’s murder. I knew they discovered his body before any other reporter did, before even most of LAPD. How I got there so early has been the subject of some debate on television, which is stupid. Reporters have sources. I don’t have to tell you everything.

 

     When I got to “Peace Healthy Eats,” the coroner was still examining Madison’s body, before they lifted it up onto the stretcher and covered it, just as officers were stringing up the yellow tape around the scene. A crime scene specialist examined several pools of blood on the ground and the design of the splatter on the trash bin. Madison’s blood ran bright red rivulets, curving around brown broken bottles and crumpled granola bar wrappers.

     “There’s no camera back here,” one detective told another. “Or on the corner.”

     Two street cops were debating what kind of knife had been used when they noticed me.

     “Stanley Higgins, get the fuck back.” The cop sent me far enough behind the yellow tape that I couldn’t hear anything anymore. I stuck around as the television trucks showed up, calling Alice, my editor, to let her know where I was and that the story was mine. Even if I hadn’t already been on the scene, I would have been the obvious choice, the most experienced with criminal investigations, the best person to track down the little details the police and the District Attorney would initially try to hide from the public.

           

     When I talked to Alice, I could have mentioned that I had a minor connection to Madison, but I didn’t. Alice was – and still is, I’m sure -- just such a bitch stickler for rules. She might have said that I had a conflict-of-interest or me covering the investigation would give it the “appearance of impropriety,” one of her favorite yawn-inducing phrases. And then she would have given the story to someone else.

     Once I dug up a major scoop on Madison’s murder, I figured I would be heralded like it was mother fucking Watergate. Who needs political shenanigans when you have a good celebrity murder, especially involving someone as blonde (even with a slightly receding hairline) and troubled and white as Madison Ewing?

     So, I said nothing, except, “I’m on it.”

 

***

 

     My next stop was Madison’s home in Hollywood Hills. I knew where it was. Years ago, Lana and I had been to a party there together. It was a mansion on a cul de sac with an infinity pool, a wine cellar, and a separate cottage for the housekeeper. I might have done some snooping while Madison was monopolizing Lana’s attention with all his talk about his private plane. That was the same night somebody stole his 1997 Screen Actors Guild award, and he filed a police report a few days later and said he suspected me. Again, no charges were ever filed against me - - another lie.

     I slipped past the police already milling about the main house, to the housekeeper’s cottage in the back. I knocked on the door, and Willow Read, the housekeeper’s daughter, answered. And yes, I remembered her from the party, back when she was still in high school, smoking pot out by the pool with her friends.

     “If you’re looking for my mother, she’s in the front, talking to police,” she said, half-opening the door, one hand tugging the sleeve of her UCLA sweatshirt. Her brown hair was swept up in a messy ponytail, strands loosened around her blotchy tear-stained face.

     “I’m here to ask you a few questions,” I said in my gruffest, most authoritative voice. “And then I’ll be on my way.”

     She looked at me suspiciously. “Are you police?”

     “I’m not in uniform right now,” I said.

     “I really don’t have much to say,” she said, not moving to let me inside. “My mother can answer all the questions about Madison.”

      I switched tactics. She wasn’t going to go for the undercover police routine.

     “I don’t know if you remember me, but I was one of Madison’s friends,” I said.

     “Nope,” she said, starting to close the door, and then she stopped.

     “Wait, I know who you are. You’re on TV.”

     “That’s right,” I said and waited to see what she remembered or thought she remembered.

     She opened the door wide for me and ushered me inside.

     Willow offered me a cup of coffee, which I took. She wiped away some tears. “You sound so smart on TV. I heard you talking about the old days, about covering the O.J. trial.”

 

     Turns out she was obsessed with everything O.J. -- the low-speed car chase, the bloody glove, and specifically Kato Kaelin, who had been living in O.J.’s guest house and testified against him. Her face lost its splotches as she asked me questions.

 

     “Did you meet Kato?” she asked.

 

     I weaved her a tale about my extensive friendship with Kato. Luckily, I remembered enough from the trial that I could sound convincing. Why the fuck anyone would obsess over that deadbeat, I don’t know, but it was a way to connect with her, so I took it.

 

     “Do you still talk to him?” she asked.

 

     “Sure,” I said. “He’s still doing some acting.”

 

     “I want to meet him,” she said. “Think about it. I live in a guest house on someone famous’s estate, and so did Kato. He’s an actor, and I’m a drama major, so it’s like kismet or something.”

 

     “I can introduce you,” I said. And then, eventually, I got her talking about Madison.

 

     She peeled the red polish off her fingernails as she told me about Madison’s parties and how Madison let her swim in the infinity pool whenever she wanted. She told me about Madison’s dimples and Madison’s laugh and the time Madison hilariously fell off the deck after drinking too many shots of Tequila. I had to grip my coffee cup tightly, holding on waiting, waiting, waiting.

 

     “You’re a good listener,” she said. I drank more coffee, touched her hand briefly. I didn’t show how excruciatingly long this was taking or my concern that the police would wend their way to the back cottage eventually, pushing me out before I had gotten what I wanted from her.

 

     “He must have brought home a lot of women?”

 

     “Of course, who wouldn’t want to be with Madison?” she said. She told me about the ex-wives, the actresses, the models over the years, the women Willow met as she was growing up.

 

     “Like Kato,” I said. “You may end up being a witness in a murder trial, once they figure out who did it.”

     She nodded. “Will this get me on TV? Can you help get me on TV?”

           

     “Absolutely,” I said.

     She said she had a lot she could tell the police, but she wasn’t really a fan of them, and neither was her mom. She told me about the drug dealer who stopped by their house and threatened to kill him, and the producer that yelled at him a few days earlier. And then she talked about Lana and Madison, and their noisy sex that they could hear all over the house, even as far as the cottage sometimes, and the fight she had heard, culminating in two wine glasses being thrown against the large glass window overlooking the pool.

 

     “She told Madison, ‘I never want to see you again,’” said Willow.

 

     “That sounds important.”

           

     I gave Willow my cell phone number and promised her that as soon as I had finished my reporting, I’d help get her famous. But I didn’t coach her, no matter what she says now.

 

     After I left Willow, I just sat in the car for a few minutes, watching the light dance across my windshield, reveling in the secrets I had scored. The fight. The broken wine glasses. I vibrated with excitement as I do in these moments. I breathed in my pheromone-and- testosterone-filled sweat of success.

 

     But it fizzled out. I know what you’re thinking – that I was raging over Lana and Madison’s life together, that I hated Lana being with Madison so much that it got in the way of my moment of joy.

     You’d be wrong.

     My problem was simple – I was quick-close to breaking this case sprawling city-wide, but I wasn’t there yet. Not enough to report. Not enough for any decent story. I needed more evidence pointing to a murderer, pointing inevitably to Lana and her winks and her long, long legs.

     Over the next few days, I watched as the police investigation clicked into action. I collected tidbits here and there, and wrote simple stories, the police briefings telling us very little. I did get a few details other people didn’t know, like the kind of knife they believed killed Madison – a Gerber Mark II – and the last phone call he made. To Lana. 30 seconds. Content unknown.

     And then I got a better scoop: The Gerber Mark II was found in the trash around the corner from Lana’s Silverlake condominium.

     Horne began to walk in her deliberate heels from her office to the third floor where grand jury proceedings were held, files in hand, a cluster of prosecutors protecting her from people like me, the intrusive press. I decided my next step was finding a grand juror who could leak me information. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d convinced a grand juror to talk to me. There could be consequences for the grand juror, the possibility of jail time, contempt of court charges, public humiliation. It takes a hell of a lot of skill to get a grand juror talking.

     I called in a longtime favor from a deputy clerk who provided me with the name of all 23 grand jurors. I researched them all, and Oliver, with his earnest snub nose, stood out as the weak link.

 

​***

 

     From the beginning, Alice had her doubts about the whole scheme of sucking grand jury information out of a hapless man-child. And that’s what she wanted to talk to me about, she said in her sternest voice, when I found her after my first meeting with Oliver.

     Alice ushered me into her office, although first she asked me about Skippy.

 

     “Will he pee on the carpet?” 

     “Probably not.”

     Alice closed the door. This usually meant she was getting set to either yell at me or micromanage me. Her normal stance would have been folded arms, but she was eating beef with broccoli standing up, eager to pester me about journalistic integrity.

 

     “There’s the ethics to think about,” said Alice.

 

     “The ethics of what? Doing my job?” I took a glossy red apple off of Alice’s desk and, without asking permission, chomped down on it. Skippy curled up at my feet.

 

     “Is there something you’re not telling me?” Alice asked, putting her food on her desk.

     I took a big bite of the apple.

     “Nope,” I said.

     “How is it again that you ended up first on the scene?”

     I decided to jab at her where I knew it would hurt, “Just because you’re getting all maternal here about this kid, doesn’t make it wrong.”

     Alice did the slow breathing thing that my Momma used to do when I spilled my chocolate milk or her beer, which kind of proved my point that she wasn’t thinking like a ruthless warrior, but like a woman gone soft.

 

     I could smell her beefy breath with each word: “Stanley, you may be one of the best reporters we have, but you’re reckless. You shove people around like they are nothing. Someday, probably soon, someone is either going to get crushed under your ugly feet or you will make a huge mistake, or somebody will shove you back harder.”

 

     She stopped, pointed at me, and continued, “I can’t tell which it’s going to be, but karma’s coming your way.”

 

     It was a good speech as far as newsroom speeches go. But I just said, “My feet aren’t ugly.”

     I was getting a headache.

 

     “Let’s face it, Alice, this story is the hottest one in town. Why don’t you let me do my job? Whatever I get, however I get it, Bill is going to want it on the front page, upper fold, in bold, and you fucking know it.”

 

     Bill is the editor-in-chief. He’s also the guy who fired me about a week later, but regardless, I had her. Bill wanted stories first, fast, and yes, accurate. I was in full craving mode.

 

***

 

     The next day I was ready for Oliver. I carried the dog’s leash in one hand and used the other to slick back my hair, to steady my nerves like anyone does before a big score.

     I waited for the timing to be perfect when I walked Skippy by the same bench. Oliver was eating another falafel sandwich.

“It’s you again,” I said. “What’s your name?”

     “Oliver.”

     “Oliver, you look a little beat down today,” I said. “You okay?”

He broke quickly. His lips formed into a trembling smile and a tear ran down his face. He wiped it away and gave Skippy another pat.

     “Do you want to talk about it?” I asked Oliver, as he hung his head, all jagged breathing, brown curls dipping downward.

     “I can’t,” he whispered.

     “Then we’ll just sit here until you get ahold of yourself,” I said, and Oliver sighed in relief. I let him compose himself enough until his breathing became regular-soft.

     We spent several days like this. It wasn’t cheap to keep borrowing Skippy, but I did it anyway. He was a good companion.

     That last afternoon with Oliver was different from the start.

     Oliver wasn’t sitting down, and he wasn’t at the Middle Eastern food truck. I panicked, briefly, then spotted him at another food truck, paying in crumpled cash for a burger and fries. I sat down on the bench and waited for him. When he turned, his doe-tender eyes spotted Skippy, then me, and he grinned. Despite his smile, he looked tuckered out, his body bent like some sort of sad cartoon Atlas with the world strapped to his bony back. He sat down next to me, mustered some enthusiasm for Skippy, who returned the affection, stealing a few French fries in the process.

     It was time to test out my theory.

     Oliver looked deflated, like the marionette my Momma kept in a box in our old attic. Pinocchio folded up, strings down. For a brief moment, I wanted to let him be, to walk away from everything. But then I looked down at his soggy burger and limp fries and said nothing. I couldn’t stop. I needed to know what was going to happen to Lana. I wanted to be right there covering the story when they hauled her ass to jail. I wanted to watch her cry out her innocence with tortured lips on the stand, in the courtroom, cameras catching her fall from grace.

     I offered to tell Oliver a tidbit from my life. “It’s problem that I have, you see,” I said. “A dilemma. And maybe you can help me out.”

     “Sure,” said Oliver, calmer, a tinkle of curiosity in his voice.

     “So,” I began. “I have this friend, a ballerina from New York. She has this chow chow who is so completely devoted to her.”

     “That’s completely within the chow chow’s personality,” Oliver couldn’t help but interject here.

     “Exactly. Wherever she goes, Zanzibar goes. Even when she’s dancing, Zanzibar is in the audience, usually with her brother. But her brother is in Nevada right now and she’s here.” I stumbled here, losing track for a minute of where I was going with my tale.

     “Anyway, my friend, she’s gotten herself into some trouble, and she’s trying to figure out if she should tell her brother to come to L.A. right now to take care of Zanzibar in case she gets arrested. Can you believe that? Arrested! I have no idea what to tell her. My beautiful Lana, arrested.”

     “Your friend’s name is Lana?

     “Yes, Lana Lioxa, maybe you’ve heard of her? She’s kind of famous, I guess.” I let my voice trail off, then added, in a tearful lament: “What do they do to dogs after someone gets arrested and nobody is around to take them? Dog shelter? Will they kill Zanzibar? I just don’t know!”

     Oliver stared at me.

     I should probably mention here a few more facts about grand juries. This is how they work: Someone from the District Attorney’s Office, or the District Attorney herself, presents evidence to a grand jury if, for example, they want to arrest someone for, say, murder. Grand juries listen to testimony and look through evidence, weigh it all, and then choose to indict someone or not. Grand jurors are good little soldiers – they keep their mouths shut. They are rule followers. They take their roles very seriously.

     I thought I had Oliver pegged. As much as he was an obedient little rule follower, he had a soft spot like the top of a newborn baby’s head. He liked dogs more than the rules he was supposed to follow. He liked dogs more than he liked most people. And if Lana’s imaginary chow chow was in peril, Oliver’s loyalty to a process would lose out. The dog would win.

 

     I waited for him to cave.

     Oliver looked at me suspiciously.

     “Who are you, really?” he said, pulling back from me. His hand moved away from Skippy’s fur. “Do you think I’m an idiot?”

 

     “No,” I said, trying not to let desperation leak into my voice. I debated several approaches I could take. “For real, I’m just a reporter trying to do my job. You probably know my name. I just need to know if there’s an indictment against Lana.”

 

     Oliver stood up, dumping his burger and fries onto the ground. I gave it once last try: “Oliver, I’ll lose my job.”

 

     “And I’ll go to jail.”

 

     “No, I can protect your identity.”      

     I know all about people saying that I would do anything to see Lana charged with murder. Here’s the thing: It wouldn’t break my heart to see her in prison. But I’m not some genius psychopath who masterminded some big plot. I was just a reporter, jonesing for a scoop.

     This is what happened.

     He turned to me and took pity on me. Humiliating, but effective. He said, “You’re right. The grand jury is looking at charges against Lana.”

 

     I had what I needed; the secret revealed. Exhilaration. Sweet-dizzying bliss.

 

***

 

     Then Alice had to be told, and Alice didn’t approve. As expected, she was reluctant to run a story about charges pending against Lana based on the word of a single grand juror. We argued for hours, and when Bill got involved, he said, “make it work.” We wrangled out a compromise story with the headline: “Ballerina faces imminent arrest for death of Madison Ewing.” The story said that a grand jury had indicted Lana Lioxa for murder, according to a person familiar with the proceedings. I was proud of myself for keeping Oliver’s name out of the story even though I didn’t actually have to do that. See, I’m kind. I’m thoughtful. We got the story out in time to be included in the print version arriving on people’s doorsteps. And it went up on the online version in the early hours of the morning, just in time for journalists across the city to get angry calls from their editors, “What the fuck kind of sources does Stanley Higgins have that you don’t?”

     After returning Skippy to his owner, I stretched out in my bed, falling to sleep dreaming of my rivals frantically scrambling to catch up to me. I dreamt about Oliver, standing in a field, struggling to hold onto hundreds of red, yellow, pink and orange balloons. I grabbed the balloons from him, and then let them go, and together we watched them float into the air, away from us, towards the Hollywood sign. I sighed in relief, until I noticed that in the grass lay Madison, his body parts pulled apart by black vultures. Oliver screamed, and the birds looked up from their feast and straight at me.

 

     I woke up late, with my fingers clutching my pillow. My phone was ringing. “Get down to the courthouse now,” Alice shouted in my ear. “They’re already setting up a press conference there. And DA Horne has bawled me out three times since 6 a.m., and she says she’s going to find you and put screws in your face for almost fucking up her case.”

 

     I threw on jeans and a T-shirt, shoving my cellphone, tape deck, pen and notepad into my leather jacket and sped from my condominium in Culver City to downtown, where I parked illegally so not to waste time. As I approached the courthouse, I lifted my chest with pride. I counted eight TV trucks, already set up, along with dozens of reporters, all there to follow the lead of my scoop.

 

     I weaved through a crowd of spectators and then into the cluster of journalists, many of whom eyed me knowingly. I got some applause and a few pats on the back. I took note of the men and women who looked at me with faces shining with admiration, useful knowledge for later, for sex or free beer.

     Horne began the press conference in her deep voice: “Today we are holding this press conference to announce that contrary to a particular report, there are no pending indictments against any individuals. We are disbanding the grand jury, as it looks like it has been compromised, and we are turning the case over to our own office to make charging decisions on its own.”  

     I froze, felt dread descend. Surely, Willow had testified about the fight. The police had found the knife. What the fuck went wrong?

 

     I spotted a thin young man outside of the press gaggle, standing with the spectators. It was Oliver inching his way through the crowd, towards me.

“Unfortunately,” said Horne. “We have a false report out there. I don’t know if this reporter was deliberately misled by a grand juror or if the reporter was overzealous, but here we are. We will have an internal investigation, and we are exploring what if any charges we can file against any involved individuals.”

 

     Horne finished off the press conference and began walking back to the courthouse. The television reporters and their producers scribbled out scripts for live shots. The other journalists started making phone calls. Nobody talked to me or looked my way. Alice started calling, but I didn’t answer.

I found Oliver again, just on the other side of the temporary fencing separating the press from the spectators. I jumped over the divide and pulled him away from the crowd, one hand steering him by the elbow.

 

     “Oliver,” I hissed. “What are you doing here?

 

     Oliver strained against my grip. I let go of his elbow.

 

     “You lied,” said Oliver, his voice quivering. “I read the article this morning. I never said anything about the grand jury. I’m going to be investigated now, who knows what will happen to me, and you lied.

     “You misremember,” I said.

     “The thing is, Stanley,” Oliver said, gulping and lifting up his eyes to look into mine. “I don’t believe anything you say.”

     Oliver voice rose, and I could see that he had changed. Behind his hysteria, holding him together and moving him forward was the firm rigidity of righteous anger. “I’m going to tell the District Attorney everything about you, that you tried to get me to talk, and that I didn’t say what you said I said.”

 

     “They won’t believe you.”

 

     “I don’t care. I’m going to do it anyway.”

 

     I took a step back, surveying his tightened jaw. He turned his back on me and rushed away, and I stood there, immobilized.

 

     My phone started buzzing again. More calls from Alice. And then one from Willow. I ignored them all, chose instead to walk, past the Walt Disney Concert Hall, through Chinatown, through streets where thousands of movies had been filmed. If my life were a movie, I knew I was in the desperate last 20 minutes, in the quiet before my last attempt to claw my way out of a deepening hole.

 

     I eventually made it to the newsroom. On one television, a hand-wringing Oliver complained about me. On a second screen, Willow posed for the camera, her hair recently blown straight, explaining that I’d bewitched her and coached her to finger Lana for the murder. And then the reporter concluded, “What we know about reporter Stanley Hudson Higgins is that he was in love with Lana Lioxa, and when she left him for Madison Ewing, he murdered her dog. Is this a story about one man’s thirst for revenge?”

 

     Alice was waiting for me in her office.

 

     “I can explain about the dog,” I said.

     “I don’t give a shit about the dog.”

     “Okay.”

 

     “I don’t even know where to start, Stanley,” Alice said. “You manipulated a potential witness, fabricated your sourcing, and failed to tell me about your relationship with a suspect and the victim.”

     “It’s not nearly as bad as it looks.”

     Alice glared at me. “It’s worse than it looks. That much I know.”

That’s when she called Bill into her office, and he fired me. I tried explaining that I was being unfairly maligned and falsely accused. But they believed everyone else over me. I threatened to sue, and Alice laughed at me. After all I’d done for the paper over the years, they didn’t in the end side with me. Not even for a second.

     I punched Alice in the nose before I left, just because I had been waiting so long to do it.

     I drove back to my condominium. I turned on the TV, but on channel after channel, the news was playing, and I had become the lead story -- my career, my mistakes, the arc of my life all on display, eagerly dissected by pundits on local news, even CNN. Reporters speculated about my hatred of women. A mental health expert found unfavorable diagnoses for me. And then Lana appeared at a press conference, swathed in black, with a single red rose in her hair. She reminisced about Madison, then called me a stalker who nursed a grudge against both of them.

     My neighbor sent me an email with the subject line: “Dog Killer.” She wrote to stay away from both Skippy and her. She had a gun. She didn’t want the money or the backrub. The email made me particularly sullen. I liked Skippy and felt like we had created a little bond.

 

     I looked out my window at the bed of red, yellow, pink and orange poppies I had planted over Trouble’s grave.

 

     Secrets are like stones in a person’s pocket. They can weigh you down.

 

     You think you know my secrets, now that my story has supposedly been told, my life stripped and flayed open to the world.

 

     You don’t know half of what you think you know.

 

     You have been spoon-fed a soup of lies.

Published by The Plentitudes.  July 2021.