I was not going to panic. Even though my tuxedo jacket containing George’s DVD had been picked up by a laundry service and was now on its way to
I still had time to figure something out before the tribute film was to be screened. And though George probably had other copies of the film with him, I wasn’t about to disappoint Celia and Unity by telling him I’d lost mine. They had so much faith in me. It was time I proved to myself that I was actually worthy of it. Somehow I’d have to get the jacket and DVD back without their help.
Bert took immediate charge of the situation and quickly ushered me into the staff office, where he made a phone call to the laundry service. After a few minutes, we learned the truck was due shortly at the facility, but no one was driving back into the city this evening. Tomorrow morning was the earliest they could deliver it. Bert then suggested I hire a courier service to go pick the jacket up, but we couldn’t seem to find one available for at least two hours.
I began to wonder who I could call in
Bob and Barney immediately came to mind, but then I’d probably have to answer too many probing questions. The Two Jakes? No, they were at a gay wrestling tournament this weekend. Ramona? Maybe, but then she’d chastise me for not using whatever laundry service Luis had a “connection” with, because he probably could have gotten me a much better deal.
That left only one person. Rick.
I had slight reservations about calling Rick. Not because he wasn’t trustworthy and reliable, but because I felt I’d already imposed on him enough. He took a big risk with his job when he helped me last night. And now I was going to ask him to pick up my tuxedo jacket and chauffer it back into the city for me? It seemed like too much, too soon.
Still, he did tell me to call him if I needed anything.
“Henson, is that you?” Rick said, picking up after one ring.
“Hey Rick. I hate to bother you…”
“You’re not a bother. I was hoping you’d call. What kind of trouble are you in now?”
I quickly explained what I needed, and Rick agreed to help without hesitation. He even said he would double-check to make sure the DVD was still in the jacket before he left the laundry facility. You could love a guy like that.
With Rick on his way to retrieve the DVD, I returned to the mezzanine, which had become quite crowded in my absence. The table I’d been using to fold napkins was now occupied by David Copperfield, who appeared to be doing an impromptu magic trick with several napkins and a carving knife.
I couldn’t really see what he was doing, as he had his back to me, but I assumed it had something to do with making the knife disappear. His audience was completely captivated, giving him a very enthusiastic round of applause when he finished. (Later, I thought I noticed a blood stain on Copperfield’s shirt cuff, making me wonder if the knife’s disappearance didn’t go as well as people thought.)
“Ladies and Gentlemen, please take your seats. Dinner will be served in ten minutes.”
The scraggly technician was making the announcement from the control booth. The evening was about to officially commence, and I was still without the DVD. I was grateful that dinner would probably last an hour or so before they started the presentation. Rick would surely have time to get here before that.
I looked over the balcony to the main dining area below. People were moving in and out of the various tables looking for their seats. A smartly dressed Mark Wahlberg was talking to a group near the stage consisting of Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher and several other people I didn’t recognize.
Sarah Jessica Parker and her husband Matthew Broderick were near the bar hobnobbing with the very beautiful Eva Longoria and the equally beautiful Mario Lopez. At one point, Mario twirled Eva around and caught her in his arms like a tango dancer. Sarah and Matthew tried to imitate the move, but somehow got tangled in each other’s arms. To say they looked cute would be an understatement.
I’ll admit I was mesmerized by the proceedings, which temporarily distracted me from my main purpose---to watch the control booth. So with only one eye visible, and my mouth open in perpetual “awe” formation, I’m sure I looked like a gawking Cyclops.
I finally managed to pull my attention away long enough to witness the scraggly-looking technician opening the side door of the control booth. A very elegantly dressed woman was standing on the other side holding what looked like a DVD case. After speaking for a few minutes, the woman handed the technician the DVD case and left. The technician then went back in the booth and appeared to be inserting the DVD into some kind of player.
I took this as a good sign. The original tribute film was now in place, which meant that Paul or another member of the SSRS would try to switch it with their version sometime soon. So my first objective was to get closer to the booth. The mezzanine had gotten so crowded, I couldn’t see the area around the control room as well as I’d like to.
But before I could do anything, I was unexpectedly ambushed by a very animated Ellen Degeneres. She was wearing some kind of makeshift patch over her left eye, which appeared to be fashioned out of two Breathe Right strips and a drink doily.
“Argghhh,” Ellen said in a very gravely voice. “Who should we make walk the plank tonight, Captain? Greg Kinear? Catherine Zeta Jones? Or maybe Lindsay Lohan could use a good dunking. What do you say?”
I wasn’t exactly sure how to respond to this, so I just stared at her with my one good eye.
“Sorry,” Ellen said, removing the fake eye patch. “I saw the pirate costume and I couldn’t help myself.” She paused for a moment, before adding: “It is a costume, isn’t it?”
I nodded in agreement, because I figured the less I said, the better. I wasn’t sure if Ellen was part of the SSCP or not, so I wasn’t taking any chances when it came to hiding my identity. And since Ellen thought I looked like a pirate, that’s exactly what I became.
“Argghhh!” I growled, for no apparent reason.
“Argghhh yourself,” Ellen shot back. “Argghhh you part of the entertainment this evening?”
“Ladies and Gentlemen, please take your seats,” the technician announced again. “Dinner will be served in five minutes.”
“Come on,” the other woman said, suddenly coming into view. “Stop bothering the waiter. Let’s find our table.”
It was Portia De Rossi. Oh my God! The hottest lesbian couple in
Portia took Ellen’s hand and led her away, but not before thanking me for my help. I nodded and then continued walking toward the control room, being careful not to bump into anyone along the way. When I got near the bar, I noticed Paul across the room. He was in a very heated discussion with another man and neither one seemed very happy. The other man looked familiar to me, but I couldn’t remember what TV show or movie I’d seen him in. He had one of those faces you remember; you just can’t remember why.
“Hello, Henson,” Someone whispered in my ear.
“It’s okay,” the female voice continued. “George told me all about the plan, and Celia pointed you out a few minutes ago.”
I began to turn around, but the voice stopped me.
“Don’t turn around. Don’t even act like I’m talking to you.”
By this time, I was pretty sure I knew who the voice belonged to, because even her whisper was recognizable. In fact, she was probably the only person George would confide in about tonight’s plan, as she was the very person responsible for getting me involved with the SSCP in the first place. Julia Roberts.
“It’s nice to see you again,” Julia said quietly. “Thank you for helping us tonight.”
Since Julia didn’t want me to turn around, the only way I could talk to her without anyone noticing was by employing the ancient art of ventriloquism. Not that I’m adept at this particular skill, but what else could I do?
“My pleasure,” I said through gritted teeth. “I’m so grateful for all you’ve done.”
I suddenly felt a rush of emotions, and I could feel my eyes starting to tear.
“For giving me a second chance,” I continued. “For improving my life. For…for…”
“Shhh…you don’t need to thank me. At least not here. Once this is all over, I’d love to get together and talk.”
“I’d like that, too” I said. Because honestly, who wouldn’t?
“I’m beginning to look a little suspicious just standing here behind you,” Julia whispered. “But I wanted to come over and say hello and wish you good luck. The SSCP is very proud of your progress.”
Without another word, Julia separated from me and walked over to a perfectly tanned Matthew McConaughey, who had just arrived with an unidentified model-type. As they struck up a conversation, I turned my attention back to the control booth, which now appeared to be empty.
I looked at my watch. There was still an hour before the presentation portion of the evening was to begin. Would Rick make it in time? If not, what was Plan B?
I spent the next fifteen minutes obsessing over the situation, as I watched the control room for signs of the SSRS. But nothing happened. Not until a familiar name jolted me from my comatose state.
“Where is Brit?” someone said behind me. “He was supposed to meet me at seven.”
I turned to find myself mere inches from the infamous Lacie Fromage and Paul the realtor. Lacie was completely decked out in a yellow and orange ensemble, which appeared to be fashioned out of bird feathers. Perhaps Parakeet. (Not since Bjork’s famous Swan Dress at the Oscars had fashion been more in need of a good Aviary.)
As she and Paul spoke, I tried to eavesdrop on their conversation. This wasn’t easy, as I had to have a good reason for staying in their vicinity. I opted for a nearby cart the waiters were using to bus dirty dishes, and began sorting the various dishes into piles. Not that this was really necessary or even helpful; it just gave me the appearance of looking busy. (Once again, my observations of the African Art Dealers at my old storage locker had come in handy.)
“I don’t know where he is,” Paul said. “We haven’t been able to reach him either.”
“He’d better get here soon,” Lacie responded, with her typical slurring speech pattern. “I don’t like to appear like I’m flying solo at these types of events. It doesn’t look good for my image.”
“Your image should be the last thing you’re worrying about tonight. Especially in that dress.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Lacie practically yelled.
“Nothing, nothing,” Paul protested. “I’m just saying, if you wanted to call attention to yourself, you’ve certainly chosen the right vehicle. Who was the designer? Big Bird?”
“How dare you talk to me like that. After all I’ve done for this group.”
“I was just kidding,” Paul laughed. “Lighten up. This is our big night. You should be excited.”
“I just wish Brit was here.”
“I’m going to check on the DVD,” Paul said, before air-kissing Lacie on her right cheek. “I’ll see you later.”
As Paul walked away, Lacie appeared quite agitated and upset. She pulled a cell phone out of her clutch purse and flipped it open. Even before I heard the ringtone, I knew she was calling Brit. And it was just my luck his phone happened to be in my pants pocket.
As I hurried to get it out, a popular tune by the Pussycat Dolls began blaring from the phone’s speaker.
“Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me? Don’t cha wish your girlfriend…”
It kept playing as I continued to fight with my pants. Brit’s phone had somehow gotten stuck in the folds of the pocket and was putting up quite a struggle with the fabric.
Lacie eyed me curiously as the tune kept blaring loudly. Several other people, including Jodie Foster, also began watching me. I finally managed to pull the phone out just as the call went into voicemail. Thank God!
Nevertheless, I went through the pretense of talking to someone on the phone so Lacie wouldn’t make the connection between my ringing cell and her call to Brit. I got so carried away, in fact, that I didn’t notice Lacie hitting her redial button, which again caused my phone to blare loudly, this time directly into my ear. YOW!
This time Lacie eyed me with more than curiosity. She eyed me with suspicion. I tried to find the button that automatically sends a call to voicemail, but I wasn’t that familiar with Brit’s phone yet. Lacie snapped her phone shut again and hit redial, once again causing my phone to sing like an electronic stool pigeon.
I was caught red-handed and I didn’t know what to do. Luckily, there was a curtain near me that led to the back area of the venue. I ducked behind it, hoping it would shield me from a confrontation with Ms. Fromage, but I was sadly mistaken. Fabric does not a fortress make.
No sooner had I started walking down the hallway than I heard a raving banshee yelling behind me.
“Excuse me, you there with the bad toupee!” Lacie bellowed. “Come over here this minute.”
I pretended I didn’t know she was talking to me, and kept on walking. Although I’m pretty sure I was the only person in the vicinity, let alone the only one with a toupee on.
“Hey!” Lacie continued. “I’m talking to you, and I don’t like being ignored!”
Lacie must have thrown something at me, because all of a sudden I felt a hard thud against the back of my head. It wasn’t a powerful thud, but it stung nonetheless. Whatever it was bounced off my head, hit the wall, and then finally landed in front of me. One of Lacie’s high heel shoes. Ouch!
As I bent down to pick it up, I felt Lacie’s hand grab my shoulder.
“What are you doing with Brit’s phone?” She demanded, as she pulled me around to confront her.
“What’s a Britsphone?” I asked, trying to play dumb.
“Did you steal it? Where is he?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Bullshit. Let me see it.”
I reached into my pocket and innocently pulled out my own phone, which I handed to her for inspection. She seemed confused at first, especially when she noticed the Mickey Mouse screensaver. Probably not something Brit would have on his phone.
After checking my list of contacts, she handed the phone back to me, slipped on her missing shoe and haughtily began walking back down the hall. But not before flipping open her phone and hitting redial again.
“Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me? Don’t cha wish your girlfriend…”
There was no escaping this time. Lacie wheeled around to find me still holding my phone in my hand, as Brit’s phone was singing from inside my pocket.
“I knew it!” Lacie screamed, as she came barreling down the hall, feathers flying off in all directions. It was an eerie sight; to see her running and molting at the same time.
Before she was able to reach me, I turned and ran down the hallway to where it turned in another direction. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I knew I couldn’t talk to Lacie anywhere near the guests. They might hear us. When I turned the corner of the hallway, I saw Bert at the other end. I didn’t want him to see me running away from Lacie, but I didn’t really have a choice.
“What have you done with Brit?” Lacie screamed behind me.
Bert was sneering as I ran up to him. Or was he smiling? I couldn’t tell.
“No time to explain,” I blurted out. “Mad woman behind me. Part of George’s prank. Must detain her for a while.”
When Bert saw who was pursuing me, he must have sympathized with my situation. Without another word, he walked to a nearby door and opened it. I wasn’t sure how that was going to help, until I noticed where the door led. The old supply closet from the Speakeasy days.
“I demand to know why you have Brit’s cell phone,” Lacie spit out, as she finally caught up to me. “Or I’ll call the police.”
“Now why would you do that?” I asked, turning to her. “Don’t you want to see Brit?”
“Of course I do. What have you done with him?”
“Nothing. He’s right in that room,” I said, pointing to the supply closet. “He’s waiting for you.”
“What?” Lacie asked, confused. She walked over and peered in the dark interior of the room. “Where? I don’t see him.”
“Then perhaps he plans to meet you there later,” I said, as I forcefully pushed her into the closet, slamming the door behind.
If Lacie was upset by this sudden turn of events, or screaming to get out, I couldn’t hear it. Because as Bert had explained earlier, the room was soundproof and the only way to get out was if someone on the outside opened the door.
“Is she safe in there?” I asked Bert. “I mean, can she breathe okay?”
“Yes, she’ll be fine,” Bert responded. “Though she didn’t seem too happy with you. Are you sure George knows what he’s doing?”
“Of course,” I said, lying. “But what if someone lets her out before the big surprise?”
“Don’t worry,” Bert assured me. “No one ever goes in there. Especially the staff. They think it’s haunted.”
“After tonight, it might be.”
I thanked Bert for his help, and then made some excuse to go back to the mezzanine area. I had to see if anything had happened to the control booth. And where was Rick?
At twenty minutes till show time I noticed the technician getting a phone call, which apparently made him very angry, because he immediately stormed out of the booth and down the stairs.
As soon as he was out of sight, I saw Paul move swiftly to the booth. He looked very cagey as he scanned the area to make sure the technician wasn’t coming back. Had he done a broader investigation, he might have noticed me standing in the shadows by the wall. But Paul’s mind was elsewhere, and soon his body was too, as he quickly opened the control room door and went into the booth.
I could only see the top half of him through the booth window, but it looked like Paul was replacing the existing DVD with the SSRS version. Within a minute, he was out of the booth and moving quickly away, the original Tribute video cleverly tucked under his arm.
Okay. Now everything was in place for me to put in George’s DVD. Except Rick still wasn’t here with my tux jacket. I began to nervously twirl one of the gold buttons on my red velvet jacket until the threads holding it became so frayed, the button came off in my hand.
After a few minutes, the technician returned to the booth, and made an announcement that the presentation portion of the evening would begin in twenty minutes. This caused a flurry of activity, as anxious guests rushed to the various bars to acquire fresh drinks for the proceedings.
I noticed Bert on the other side of the room, and he was signaling to me. As I walked over, I saw Rick standing right behind him. I nearly started crying when I saw his bright smiling face.
“I didn’t recognize you,” Rick said. “Is this some kind of costume?
“You might say that.”
“He’s supposed to be inconspicuous,” Bert said, rolling his eyes and smirking.
Bert escorted us to a private area in the back, where I quickly extracted the DVD from the tux.
“Thank you so much for this,” I said, hugging Rick affectionately.
“Rick can’t go out in the club without proper attire,” Bert told me. “But I could always fix him up with a waiter uniform if you want him to hang around.”
“Really? That is so sweet.”
“No wig or eye patch though. We don’t want everyone being inconspicuous.”
While Bert took Rick to the men’s locker room to change, I went to the control booth area to carry out my mission. I felt bad leaving Rick so shortly after his arrival, but I had to make sure George’s DVD was in place before I could do anything else.
The second floor had thinned out considerably, as most people had gone downstairs when dinner was served. Morgan Freeman was at the back bar talking to Meryl Streep, who looked perfectly stunning in a white and blue cocktail dress. I noticed her watching me as I walked by, no doubt scrutinizing my bizarre attire and cataloging it away for some future acting assignment.
The door to the control booth was slightly ajar, but the technician was still inside fiddling with the lighting panel. How was I supposed to replace this DVD without him knowing? I would have to think of something fast before he turned down the lights and started the ceremony.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, please take your seats,” the technician announced again. “The presentation is about to begin.”
I looked around for something that might provide some inspiration when I saw a huge power cord plugged into the wall behind me. If I pulled it out, what would happen? I didn’t really care as long as it distracted the technician for a few minutes. That’s all the time I needed.
I made sure no one was watching as I bent down to carry out my mission. When I grabbed for the plug, I was surprised at how big it actually was. And thick, too. I assumed it had something to do with the sound system, and wouldn’t really be noticed by anyone but the technician. Yet as soon as the plug was out of its socket, I realized why it was of the larger variety. All the lights on the second floor went out, as well as most of the lights on the stage. The entire venue was abruptly plunged into semi-darkness.
The unexpected loss of lighting caused people to begin talking louder than normal, as if the lack of illumination brought about a temporary deafness as well. Within moments, the entire venue was in an uproar. I moved away from the wall, and watched as the technician came running out of the control booth, panic on his face.
He moved past me to the back area, which I assumed must house the club’s electrical panel. This was my moment. I quickly slipped into the control booth and found my way to the machine that played the DVDs. This was not an easy task, as the bottom half of the booth was covered in darkness. Thankfully I’d watched the technician when he received the original Tribute DVD, so I knew approximately where the player was.
Without much trouble, I took out the SSRS DVD which Paul had placed in there earlier and replaced it with George’s version, being careful not to disturb any of the papers on the control panel. Good! Now everything was finally ready for George’s presentation. I had nothing more to worry about.
But just as I was about to leave, the door to the control room suddenly burst open. At first I couldn’t see who it was, though I assumed it must be the technician. But as the figure came closer, the sparse lighting emanating from the exterior of the booth revealed quite a different persona. It was the man I’d seen earlier talking to Paul. The one I thought I recognized, but didn’t know why.
“Well, well, well,” The man said, as he advanced further into the booth. “It looks like we might have a little problem here.”
“Problem? What kind of problem?”
“I saw you through the booth window. Why did you switch the DVDs?”
“I…I…I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t play dumb with me. You’re holding my DVD in your hand.”
I looked down at the disk. Damn! Why hadn’t I thought to put it in my pocket? I looked out the control room window, hoping to see someone I could signal for help. But no one was in sight. The immediate area was empty and I was on my own.
“I’ve waited for this moment far too long to allow some one-eyed waiter to ruin my moment of glory,” the man said, reaching into his jacket pocket. “I’ll ask you one more time. Why did you switch the DVDs? Who told you to do that?”
As the man pulled something out of his pocket, I finally realized why his face was so familiar. He was the man responsible for all the attacks on the Chosens. The same man who’d been planning his ultimate revenge for years, and whose sole purpose seemed to be the destruction of the SSCP and the humiliation of George Clooney. Mr. Lightning himself, Adam Wordon.
And right now, Adam was pointing a gun straight at my heart.
Only Four Chapters Left!