Read Rough Cut Online

Authors: Ed Gorman

Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Private Investigators, #Mystery & Crime

Rough Cut

Ed Gorman
Rough Cut
    
***
    
    
P.
(heroic scan-finding & OCR) &
P.
(formatting & proofing) edition.
    
***
    
    Sometimes, the breakneck world of advertising gets to be just too much for Michael Ketchum-he can't stand the pace, the politics, the backstabbing. And things at his small agency are starting to get out of hand: his partner, Denny Harris, is polarizing the employees; there are inconsistencies in the bookeeping; and he finds out that Harris is having an affair with their top client's wife-threatening the future of the business.
    In a rage, Ketchum drives off to his partner's home for a confrontation. But someone has been there before him: Ketchum finds Harris dead-brutally stabbed and murdered.
    Could the murderer have been Cindy Traynor, the client's wife, whose car Ketchum saw leaving the scene of the crime?
    
Rough Cut
follows Ketchum into a fight to save his business-and his life: he must prove to the police that
he
is not the murderer; he must prove to himself that the beautiful Cindy Traynor is not the murderer; and he must find the mysterious connection between the killing and the other strange goings-on at the agency.
    But before long there is a second murder. And then a third. And there is only one thing that Ketchum is certain of: that
he
will be next.
    
***
    
    "…a fine mystery that breaks new ground in the way of combining the best elements of the so-called English school and the American method, while allowing the reader a peek inside the subculture of the advertising industry. The writing is lean and visual, the characterizations sharp. The mood is at times somber, at times terrifying, and always compelling. All in all, an excellent first effort."
    
-Loren D. Estlemen
    
    "A clever and suspenseful venture into the cutthroat, anxiety-ridden world of advertising… A slick, fast-paced, witty mystery."
    
-Booklist
    
***
    
    
For my favorite people, in order of appearance: Mrs. Bernadine Hixenbaugh, Danny, Julie, Joe, Hixie, Ben, and in loving memory of my father.
    
And for Carol, forever.
    
Special acknowledgment to Max Allan Collins for much more than just the title.
    
    
I heartily disliked most of the advertising agency persons; although I had a few friends among them, I wouldn't have wanted to take a blood oath with one.
    
-Bill S. Ballinger
    
    
He felt the loyalty we all feel to unhappiness-the sense that this is where we really belong.
    
-Graham Greene
    
ONE
    
    As the lights went down in the screening room, the sweet, weedy aroma of marijuana rose from the back, near the projection booth.
    There are a lot of holdovers from the flower-power days in our advertising agency. Invite them to view a rough cut of our new commercials and they think it's like seeing
Fantasia
back in '68.
    The projector completed an exceptionally bad day for me by breaking down midway through the leader, throwing the room into darkness, catcalls, and a few giggles.
    As if the day hadn't been bad enough. I was still considering swallowing a few dozen sleeping pills because of what a certain sleazy private detective had told me a few hours ago.
    The house lights came up. The dozen people scattered throughout the movie-theater seats looked like escapees from the world's last disco-trendy to a fault. Many of the guys were dressed like cowboys to reassure themselves and others that they really were manly, while others were got up in less obvious but no less goofy costumes-short ties, pegged pants, sport coats that looked like bellhop jackets, even a few white-hunter numbers, apparently made necessary by the dense vegetation that Harris-Ketchum Advertising finds itself surrounded by here on the eighteenth floor of a Loop office building.
    A few of the ladies were no less ostentatious. This fall the fifties look was back. Some of the women looked like chorus girls in a production of
Grease.
Fortunately, the majority were sensibly dressed and their looks didn't suffer a bit.
    At the moment I was the only guy in the room with a regulation Wembley necktie on, and a suit that Richard Nixon would approve of. I am Michael Ketchum, forty-one-year-old partner in one of the city's most prosperous agencies.
    At least that was true for the moment. Given what the private detective had told me, I had some serious doubts about our future.
    The door to the screening room opened up and a kindred spirit walked in, a slight man in a dark brown suit. He looked like the sort of guy who ushered at church on Sundays and spent his leisure time building playthings for his kids. Except for his haircut, that is. He had one of those fancy razor cuts that belongs only on a Vegas lounge singer who uses his finger like a pistol when he wants to point out somebody special in the audience. For forty-four-year-old Merle Wickes, the haircut was all wrong: flashy to the point of being comic. It did not go with his jowly face or his beagle-sad eyes or his defeated little mouth. It was like putting Continental hubcaps on a rusted-out Chevrolet.
    Merle came down the aisle and seated himself a few rows back from me. When we made eye contact, he glanced away nervously. Merle and I did not speak often these days. As far as he was concerned, the Harris-Ketchum agency had only one real boss-Denny Harris, the same guy who had transformed Merle's formerly traditional haircut into something that Wayne Newton would think was swell. Harris had transformed many other, less obvious things about Merle, too.
    At least that's what the private detective had told me.
    
***
    
    The commercials the writers tell you about, and that the art directors show you in storyboard form, are almost never the commercials you see in the screening room.
    In the studio or on location, things happen, things change. An actor has trouble with a line, so it must be rewritten or altered in delivery so much that it carries a different nuance. Then there's the editor. He or she thinks that the third scene should go where the script calls for the second scene. So that gets changed.
    Et cetera.
    By the time you sit down in the screening room, you're likely to have a different commercial from the one you scripted. Sometimes the changes lift what was a mediocre commercial into something special. Sometimes the changes turn a thoroughly enjoyable, if unpretentious, spot into a piece of incoherent gibberish.
    The lights went down.
    The film flickered on the screen again.
    What appeared there for the next thirty seconds was a prime example of incoherent gibberish.
    The lights came up.
    It was obvious from the faces that my cursing had been audible throughout the screening room.
    Everybody stared at me. Waiting for me to speak-to tear into Ron Gettig, the producer, who sat in the rear. He was one of the guys wearing a jungle jacket and toking on a joint. He was also one of the guys I always kept in mind when I was working out three times a week in the gym. The thought of him kept me moving around the weight room, getting myself in shape for the inevitable day when I smashed in his smug, Marlboro-man face. He only looked tough. In a bar one night a small man he'd insulted had made quick work of his nose. He'd deserved and gotten a bloody face and a reputation as an empty bully.
    Immediately, people started leaving the screening room, calling out the names of the bars where they could be found over the next few hours. It was autumn and early dusk made the trek to waterholes seem all the more urgent. By the time Merle Wickes left, knowing what was coming, seeming anxious about it, only Gettig and I were left.
    He had his size 12 feet, encased in snakeskin cowboy boots, propped up on the back of the seat in front of him. A cheroot was in the corner of his mouth. He upped the ante by putting amusement in his blue eyes.
    Once a year I went to management seminars where consultants always pushed the same point. Deal courteously and patiently with employees. Give them the benefit of the doubt, even when you're seething inside. Ask questions and listen sympathetically to answers.
    "I'm really tired of your bullshit, Gettig," I said, standing over him.
    Two days ago, when I'd seen a rough cut of this particular spot, Pd pointed out to Gettig that the ending was wrong for our marketplace, and our particular consumer. Pd told him I wanted the ending reshot. Instead, he gave me the same ending, only edited in such a way that the offensive scene played an even larger part in the commercial.
    But you don't know what I'm talking about, do you?
    Traynor Chain Saws is this agency's largest account, spending an average of ten million a year on television, radio, and print advertising. Without the Traynor account, we would be half our size and a very mediocre agency. There was even a good possibility that, if we lost the account, we would be perceived as being on the skids, and the rest of our clients would seek help elsewhere. Clients like to be associated with winners, and an agency that's just lost half its billing hardly looks like a winner.
    The Traynor account is special in another way. It appeals to an older demographic of middle-middle-class (and upwards) craftspeople. The Traynor costs more than any other saw but the Traynor customer doesn't mind spending it because he knows it's worth it.
    Now, you can probably deduce from what I'm telling you what the average Traynor customer is like. Over forty, financially secure, a man who takes quiet pride in his work, whether he uses it to make a living, or just cuts off an occasional branch in his backyard.
    He is not your beer-commercial macho type. Any gusto he gets comes from professional pride.
    Yet it was the beer-commercial machismo that Gettig kept giving me. The last scene showed an overly muscular sweaty guy cutting down a tree with enough grimaces and groans to fill a half hour of professional wrestling.
    The guy may be somebody Gettig is related to, but he was somebody who would offend the average Traynor customer.
    Gettig stood up. He's six three. I'm five nine. He hoped to intimidate me. He didn't.
    "I'm taking you off the commercial," I said. "Giving it to Molloy."
    "Molloy," he sneered. "He says
eek
when he sees a bug."
    "He's a good producer."
    "Meaning he takes orders," he said.
    "Meaning he does what's appropriate."
    He grimaced, much as the man in the commercial had grimaced. Then he leaned toward me a bit. "Maybe someday I'll do what's appropriate."
    "Get the hell out of here, Gettig."
    We were both starting to lean toward each other when the door opened and Tommy came in. He saw what was happening and his young Norman Rockwell face-complete with curly blond hair and freckles-got tight.
    "Shit," Tommy whispered loudly enough to hear, as if he'd just stumbled between participants in a western gun battle. He glanced longingly at the door, obviously wishing he could put himself in reverse and get out of here.
    Most people around the agency liked Tommy. I wasn't quite sure I did. He was a college intern, a twenty-two-year-old trying to learn the agency business so that when he graduated in a year he could have a job waiting for him. He worked hard, all right, but there was something nervous and a little sweaty about him for my tastes-he was always finding ways to remind you of how hard he worked, and he could butt-kiss shamelessly, praising a piece of mediocre ad copy until it sounded like a sonnet of Bill Shakespeare's. The only thing that redeemed him in my eyes was the fact that he wasn't very good at all the political games he tried to play- his failure giving him a vulnerability that kept him likable. He was given to a lot of "Gee's" and "Goshes" and the hell of it was, despite all his puppy-dog careering, you knew he meant them.
    "Is everything all right?" Tommy asked, coming down the aisle. He knew things weren't all right, but he also knew that simply by asking the question, he could interrupt us and calm us down.
    Gettig opted not to take the opportunity for a truce. He turned to Tommy and sneered, "Things'll be all right as soon as Mr. Vice President learns that Denny Harris gives the orders around here."
    "Meaning what?" I snapped.

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