“They’re not going to let you in with that, Cat,” Mia said pointing to the near-full foam cup of hot chocolate I’d bought at the carry-out to drink while standing in line for the movie. There were four of us in our group: Mia, a sultry, dark-haired female mechanic; Beverly, a pretty, mature, blonde housekeeper; Lupa Schwartz, a – well – he’s hard to describe; and me, a magazine reporter who had just recently become a member of this mishmash of a household after the death of my ex-husband with whom I had recently been trying to reconcile.
“They might,” I said, but I didn’t really want to discuss my beverage since I had intentionally brought it to make a point, so I changed the subject. “Hey, wasn’t that something about Myron from Overlord?” Overlord was a reality style TV game show.
“What about him?” Mia asked.
“Didn’t you hear?” Beverly asked tossing her head and flipping her blond pony-tail excited at the chance to tell the story. “He died this afternoon; poison. Somebody fed him pokeweed.”
“Excuse me,” Schwartz said to the young heavily-pierced couple standing in line in front of us. “Excuse me, would you mind putting that out?” As Schwartz made his request, Beverly buried her face in her jacket. These kinds of confrontations embarrassed her to the point of physical discomfort.
“We’re outside, man,” the Young Turk noted, his lip-ring bobbing as he spoke calling attention to the healing infection of his newest piercing. “There’s no law against smoking outside.”
“Just put it out, Billy,” the Young Turk’s anemic girlfriend said with an eye-roll. “It isn’t worth the hassle.”
“Thank you,” Schwartz said as Billy stamped out his smoke. Both the young smoker and his snippy little girlfriend curled their lips and made “tsk” noises and sighs laden with ennui, then went about their business.
“What are you doing?” I said to Schwartz concerned that if he made an issue of this it might interfere with a political statement I had been planning to make.
“What’s pokeweed?” Mia asked returning to the conversation we had previously initiated.
Beverly answered her, shifting the focus of our conversation. “It’s a plant that grows wild and gets little clusters of dark purple berries.” Beverly was also Schwartz’s private gardener, so she knew a lot about weeds. “Remember that wild-berry centerpiece I put together last Thanksgiving? It had pokeweed berries hanging over the edge.”
“Oh, yeah,” Mia said. “So somebody poisoned Myron with berries?”
“They don’t know that somebody else did it,” I pointed out. “It could have been an accident. Maybe he ate it himself by mistake.”
“He didn’t die from eating the berries,” Beverly said. “Nobody would eat more than a few, and the berries aren’t that poisonous. I think he probably ate the leaves; but even then, he must have eaten a lot.”
“Well, how could he have eaten any and not been seen?” Mia asked. “Aren’t the cameras on them all day long?”
“That’s what they were saying on television today,” Beverly said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Excuse me,” Schwartz was saying again to Billy the pin-head and his pin-cushion girlfriend. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Just before his interruption, Schwartz had watched in dismay as Billy had spotted another couple with too many holes in their faces, and had invited them to join them in line. “They’re friends of ours,” Billy explained. “We’re letting them cut line. Is that a problem?”
“As a matter of fact,” Schwartz boomed, “it is. Our position on line is anterior to theirs. You can’t allow just anybody to supplant my position in the queue.”
“What?” Billy said as a small dry scab of saliva stretched in the corner of his mouth.
Schwartz sighed a lament for the loss of the American lexicon and clarified. “No cutting.”
“Forget you, man,” Billy said — only he didn’t really say “forget.”
Schwartz pulled an expression of supreme disbelief. “Is it your position that what you are doing here is acceptable social behavior?” Schwartz asked imploring a debate with a punk whose idea of winning an argument probably involved throwing the last punch. I shook my head in denial of the mounting likelihood that Schwartz was going to undermine my planned demonstration.
“They’re my friends,” Billy said inflating his not-so-imposing chest. “I was saving them a place in line.”
“Folderol!” Schwartz said. “You didn’t even know they’d be here until you saw them arrive.”
“Lupa,” Beverly said taking Schwartz by the sleeve.
“You can’t prove that,” Billy said.
Schwartz pulled on his lips, the sure sign that he had gotten an idea. “Sir,” he said addressing the father of three who was standing with his wife and children in line just ahead of Billy and his coterie. “Sir,” Schwartz repeated pulling his wallet from his pocket as the man turned to see who was speaking to him. “Here is the twenty dollars I had promised you for saving my place on line.” As he spoke he pressed a bill into the stunned man’s hand and stepped into line behind him. “Much obliged,” Schwartz said winking.
“Hey!” Billy said as his girlfriend took his sleeve.
“He was saving my place,” Schwartz insisted as the puzzled patron shrugged and pocketed the double-sawbuck. “Prove that he wasn’t.”
“Let it go, Billy” the waif said as Billy and the other young line-cutter stood brooding.
“You don’t mind if I let my friends in front of me, do you?” Schwartz asked taunting poor Billy.
“Go ahead,” Billy said with a sneer. “It don’t matter.”
“Thank you,” Schwartz said. “I have a lot of friends.” At that he waved Mia, Beverly and I in front of him to our new positions on line. Mia took her place first with a sort of prideful joy. I followed thinking that things might simmer down now, and Beverly bashfully brought up the rear. Then Schwartz stepped out of line and addressed the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you all for joining us here tonight. I’ve reserved you all a place in line directly behind me. If you would all come up and step into line between myself and these four young people here...”
“Now wait a minute,” Billy said stepping from the line himself. “That ain’t right.”
“You’re absolutely correct,” Schwartz said smiling the broad satisfied smile that caused his eyes to disappear in a splash of branching crinkles as the crowd began to shuffle nervously. “It would be much simpler for you and your friends just to take your rightful places at the end of the line.”
“It’s all right,” someone said from the crowd. “We’re fine.”
“It is not all right,” Schwartz said. “Line cutting is a crime of arrogance.” Now that — I thought — is a familiar line. He actually carried cards that commented about a crime of arrogance to place on the windshields of cars whose tires he’d routinely flattened in a form of citizen’s arrest. “But if you are all uncomfortable demanding justice, I understand. I’ll just have to make do with what justice I can mete out.” He stepped back into line, and calm gradually returned as the ticket window opened for business.
Perfect — I thought — that resolved itself just in time.
“So how do they think he got the poison,” Mia asked as we began to move forward.
“Who?” I asked.
“Myron,” she said.
“Oh, right. Sorry,” I said. “They have no idea. They don’t think it was in his dinner that night. They all ate the same thing. It was part of the production for the Internet audience.”
“What do you mean?” Mia asked.
“Every Friday the producers throw a theme dinner for the contestants and people watch it on the net,” I explained. “Yesterday, it was a Mexican meal served one course at a time while a band and some dancers from Mexico performed. The first course I think was tacos brought in on a community tray, and they all ate as the performers danced and sang. Then they brought out a hot plate of fajitas and then chilies rellenos. I think they had Mexican beers and Sangria too. Then they had churros.”
“Maybe one of the servings was poisoned after it was brought in, or maybe before it was brought in,” Mia suggested.
“No,” Beverly said. “That doesn’t make sense. I saw the video on the news. Everything was brought out on a community tray one course at a time, and everybody just took what he or she wanted. Nobody could have known who would eat what.” I looked back over my shoulder and noticed that Schwartz was still tugging at his lip.
“Maybe it was in the beer or the sangria,” Mia suggested.
“It could have been in the wine,” I said, “Except that only Myron was poisoned. Nobody else even got sick.”
“Well,” Beverly said, “if it was in the wine, they’ll find out. It’s being tested along with all of the rest of the food and the dishes left over from their dinner.”
“They’re doing an autopsy too,” I said. “They’ll find out what was poisoned from his stomach contents.”
“How many please?” the ticket girl asked as we reached the front of the line.
“One for theater two,” Beverly said since we had agreed to all go Dutch-treat.
“One for me too,” Mia said as she passed her money through the slot. “Same show.”
“Me too,” I said stepping up and brandishing my cup. “One for theater two.”
“You can’t take that inside, Miss,” the ticket pusher said with a scowl aimed directly at my cup.
“Why not?” I asked innocently.
“I told her that,” Mia said in no way helping my cause.
“We have a policy,” the clerk said. “No outside food to be taken into the theater. If you want something to drink, we have a concession stand.”
“Does your concession stand have hot chocolate?” I asked.
“No, ma’am,” the clerk admitted. “It doesn’t.”
“Then I can’t get what I want from your concession stand at all,” I said, as the clerk made a face that said, I’ve-fought-this-fight-with-better-than-you. “I tell you what,” I parried. “If you’ll let me take my drink inside, I’ll buy some popcorn; a small one. On the other hand, if you make me leave it outside, I won’t buy anything. It’s your choice. Break the rule designed to sell concessions and actually sell some concessions, or keep the rule and sell nothing. What do you say?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the clerk said. “I can’t break the rule for one person, and enforce it for everybody else.”
“May I say something?” Schwartz asked.
“I’m handling this,” I said. “Fine,” I said turning to the woman behind the glass. “I’ll toss out my drink, but I meant what I said about not buying any of your concessions.” I gave her my money and placed the almost-empty-cup on the ground next to the trash feeling that I had made my point.
“How many,” the clerk said turning to Schwartz and forgetting all about the moral victory I had just won over her.
“All of them,” Schwartz said.
“I’m sorry, sir?” the woman said.
“I want to buy all of the remaining tickets for both theaters,” Schwartz said.
“I can’t let you do that, sir,” the woman said. “There are too many people who have waited too long on line.”“Actually, I’m buying the tickets for the people waiting on line behind me,” Schwartz said turning and staring hard at the four punks with whom he’d had his run-in over line-cutting. An evil smile took over his face. “Well, for most of the people on line behind me that is.”
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