Randolph Warnke felt great. He was a few years past fifty, with a rapidly retreating hairline and a salt-and-pepper moustache. He was dressed in his typical wardrobe of sweatpants and a faded Pitt Panthers T-shirt. The clothes hung off of his frame, as if he had recently lost a lot of weight. He knew that he looked like crap, but he didn’t care, because he felt great.
He vigorously polished the chrome trim on his kitchen table and whistled a jaunty tune as he worked. When he was done, he surveyed the rest of the kitchen. It was spotless. “Hell, yeah!” he shouted. He felt great.
He hadn’t felt great in a long time. Before he’d had to move to Fester Fucking Pennsylvania, he had been a star. That had been great. For fifteen years, Randolph Warnke had appeared every weekday afternoon as Cowboy Bob, the rodeo clown host of WEVL-TV’s Cowboy Bob’s Funtime Cartoon Rodeo Roundup. Schoolchildren from three counties sat glued to their TV sets every weekday, watching Cowboy Bob’s antics, along with afternoon TV staples such as Bugs Bunny, Speed Racer, and Deputy Dawg.
Warnke had enjoyed being a big fish in the small pond of central Pennsylvania television. WEVL’s advertising revenues during the Cowboy Bob show were consistently high, and Warnke had been paid well. He’d had a big house, a fancy sports car, and plenty of groupies. A little celebrity went a long way in a place like Weaverville, and Warnke had made the most of it.
Most of all—more than the money, more than the women—Warnke loved being in the spotlight. When that red light when on, and the cameras swung around to face him, Warnke knew he was the absolute center of attention. All of the viewers in thousands of homes, all of the production staff on the set, and all of the kids in the studio audience were focused on one person only: him. There was nothing to match that feeling, and Warnke had lived for it.
Cowboy Bob had ridden high for fifteen years. Then things had fallen apart with stunning swiftness. It had started the day that Norbert Weevil, the station owner, had dropped dead of a heart attack on the golf course. His son had taken over the station. On his first day, Norbert Junior had announced that he was taking measures to “cut the fat” at WEVL-TV. This had included replacing Cowboy Bob’s Funtime Cartoon Rodeo Roundup with back-to-back syndicated reruns of Boscoville.
Boscoville was a staggeringly popular prime-time animated sitcom. It followed the adventures of the Fergus family, who lived in the titular town of Boscoville. It was the typical sitcom family trope, with Raymond, the father, being a lazy boob whose antics provided most of the show’s gags. There were also the sitcom-standard two precocious kids, and the family pet—a talking chimpanzee named Spanky.
Warnke loathed Boscoville. The show’s continued popularity produced an almost endless string of merchandise and promotional tie-ins that rankled Warnke whenever he encountered them. Every time he saw a Boscoville product, he was reminded of his own showbiz downfall.
That downfall had been swift and merciless. Warnke had tried to find work with other TV stations with no success. There just wasn’t demand for a TV kids’ show host. The genre was too specialized, and hosted afternoon cartoon shows had largely gone the way of the dodo. Warnke’s meager savings dwindled quickly. The fancy sports cars and groupies were soon ancient history. Warnke had been forced to relocate to a cracker box of a house in a run-down neighborhood of Fester, where he eked out a loathsome living appearing at supermarket openings and children’s parties.
Fortunately, he’d found a way to supplement his income. An associate had introduced Warnke to a shady character in Philadelphia named Jimmy Francini. Francini promised to supply Warnke with all of the high-grade marijuana that he could move.
Warnke was all for it and found a ready market in his new town. Fester was such a depressing shithole that the residents would consume almost anything if it would take their minds off of their miserable existences. The high-grade weed sold well, and Warnke built up a network of distributors, mostly high school and college kids. He’d hoped that he would soon be able to afford to move back to a modest condo in Weaverville and put Fester behind him permanently.
This hope was now being derailed, and it was his own damn fault. Three months ago, during a run to Francini’s place, his host had offered him a couple of lines of cocaine. Warnke had been offered coke many times before during his showbiz days. He had always refused, saying that he didn’t want to “contaminate his craft.”
Now that his “craft” was limited to the occasional ribbon-cutting at a new Food Ape store or twisting up balloon animals for snotty brats up in Morningwood Heights, Warnke figured he didn’t have much to lose. Besides, he didn’t want to risk offending his host, who was pretty damn intimidating. Warnke had gone ahead and given the toot a try.
It was an epiphany. For the first time since his show had been cancelled, he felt like the star that he always knew he was destined to be. The rush, the feeling of invincibility—these were what he missed most from his days in front of the camera. He felt great. Really great. Randolph Warnke had taken to cocaine like a pig to a cesspool.
That day, he’d brought a quarter gram of blow home along with the regular consignment of pot. On the next run, Warnke had purchased a gram, and on the trip after that, an eight-ball. Now he was going through an ounce every two weeks or so.
His newfound habit was cutting deeply into his profits. He was spending more on blow for personal use, which left him less to buy weed for resale. His solution to the problem was to get Francini to front him a bit more weed so he could increase his distribution network in Fester. It was risky, but Warnke knew he could pull it off. Because he was great.
Warnke looked at his watch. It was almost time for the Plummer kid to come by. Just enough time to do another line. He got his gear from the kitchen drawer and chopped out two big rails and snorted those puppies right up. His heart began to jackhammer, and he began to feel the slow Novocain drip in the back of his throat. It felt great.
There was a tentative tapping at the back door. Warnke jumped and nearly knocked the mirror to the floor. The little Plummer shit was early. He jammed the mirror back into the drawer and rubbed at his mustache, making sure that he was getting all of the residue off.
The tapping came again. Normally, Warnke would have made the kid wait a couple of minutes, just to let him know who’s boss. No point in that tonight, though. He was feeling too good for that. Great, in fact.
He sprang to the back door and yanked it open, surprising Paul Plummer. He was a weedy-looking teenager who was five foot ten when he wasn’t slouching. He had lank brown hair that hung down to his eyes, and a beat-up denim jacket that had some god-awful painting of a heavy metal band on the back. He jumped when Warnke yanked the door open. “Ah! Uh, hi, Mr. W,” he said.
“My boy!” said Warnke. “Come on in, come in!”
Paul came into the kitchen reluctantly, nonplussed by Warnke’s uncharacteristic bonhomie. “So, uh, how’s it going?” Paul asked.
“Going great!” Warnke stepped over to the gleaming kitchen table and yanked back a chair. “Have a seat, Paul. Take a load off, as they say.”
He slowly slipped into the chair. “Yeah, uh, thanks . . .”
Warnke deftly swiveled around the adjacent chair and straddled it, leaning into Paul’s face. “So, my boy, how are you doing? How’s school treating you? You ready for summer?”
“Uh, yeah, I guess so. It’s, uh, y’know, not really for another couple of months, y’know?”
“Oh, yes, of course, of course,” said Warnke. “It’s just that it’s so hot already and it’s not even May. Whew!” He armed a puddle of sweat off his forehead. It was hot, at least to him. His heart was racing like a sprint car and his body temperature seemed to have gone up ten degrees. “Jesus! It’s like summer already!”
“Uh, yeah, I guess so,” said Paul. He started to take off the ratty jean jacket.
“Hey, I know!” said Warnke. “How about a nice cold beer? Nothing better than a cold beer when it’s hot, right?” He bounced up from his chair, yanked open the refrigerator door and pulled out two Yuengling lagers. There were a few other bottles of beer in the spotless fridge and little else.
“Yeah, a beer sounds good, I guess,” said Paul.
“You bet,” said Warnke. He felt another rush coming on. All of a sudden he felt better than ever. He slipped into his Cowboy Bob voice and screeched, “Hey buckaroo! There’s nothing better than a cold beer after a hard day on the trail! You betcha!” He capered around the kitchen, waving the bottles and singing the theme song from his old show. “Hey, boys and girls, it’s Cowboy Bob time, Cowboy Bob time, Cowboy Bob time! Hey, boys and girls, it’s Cowboy . . . WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?”
“Wh-what?” asked Paul, clearly unnerved. “I don’t kn-know . . .”
“Your shirt!” screamed Warnke. “Your fuckin’ shirt!”
Paul’s shirt had a picture of a cheeky-looking cartoon chimp in a pair of lederhosen, with the word “Spanky!” in balloony yellow letters underneath. He plucked at it helplessly.
“Why are wearing a fuckin’ Boscoville shirt in here, you little shit? Take it off! Take it off right now!”
“What? You mean take it off? Here?”
“Hell, yes! Just take it off! Turn it inside out! I don’t want to see the fuckin’ thing!”
“Yeah, yeah, sure. Sorry!” Paul quickly inverted his shirt, then shrugged back into his jacket.
“Jesus! What the fuck were you thinking?” Warnke took a long pull off of one of the beers and put the other one on the counter. His good mood had suddenly been turned on its head. “Wearing that thing in my house! What do you want, anyway?”
“What the fuck do you want? You didn’t come here to chat about the weather, did you?”
“Uh, no, man, sorry. Sorry,” said Paul. “I, yeah, I guess I want a zee, if that’s cool.”
“No, it’s not ‘cool,’ asshole,” snarled Warnke. “I’m not screwing around with this rinky-dink shit anymore. Minimum’s a kewpie.”
“A quarter pound? I only have enough for an ounce.” Paul pulled a wad of cash out of his pants pocket and made a show of thumbing through it.
“That’s all right,” said Warnke. He leaned in and snatched the bills from Paul’s hand. “I’ll front you the rest. I know you’re good for it—your family’s rich. I see your dad’s face on billboards all over town, with his Lee Plummer Realty Trust bullshit. He got enough out of me, selling me this shitbox house, so I know you got money. Just get me the rest by Friday, okay? You got a problem with that?”
“No, no, that’s coo . . . that’s all right.”
“Fuckin’-A it’s all right.” Warnke said. He opened the freezer and reached behind an ancient bag of frozen peas. “Ah, here we go!” He yanked out a fat plastic sack of pot and tossed it to Paul, who fumbled it.
“Hey buckaroos!” screeched Warnke. “That’s some killer shit right there! Blow you right out of the saddle!” He laughed to see the look of confusion that spread across Paul’s face.
Paul picked up the freezer bag, stuffed it into one of the jacket’s inner pockets, and jumped up from his seat. “Yeah, okay, thanks, man,” he said. He began backing towards the door. “I, uh, guess I’ll be going.”
“Yeah, why don’t you do that?” said Warnke. “I’m gettin’ sick of looking at you. And don’t forget to get me the rest of the money by Friday. Don’t make me come looking for you, snotnose.”
“Yeah, no, problem, man.” Paul stepped quickly to the door and pulled it open.
“See ya later buckaroo!” screamed Warnke, laughing like a loon. Paul darted out the door and slammed it behind him.
After a few minutes, Warnke’s heartbeat slowed down, but he was still pissed. That little shithead, wearing a fuckin’ Boscoville shirt in here. Rubbing his nose in his own failure. That little fuck.
“Fuck it,” he said out loud. He pulled the coke gear back out of the drawer and cut out another big line. He snorted it up and sighed. The rush was back. That was better. He turned to go into the bedroom to stash the cash.
Chief Constable Billy Snyder was standing in the kitchen doorway.
Warnke jumped. His heart seemed to seize up, then doubled its already frantic pace. He grabbed at his chest with one hand while flailing around with the other to find something to lean on. It hit the kitchen counter, and Warnke leaned back, breathing heavily.
Billy Snyder laughed. “Ha! That was fuckin’ funny, Randy! You looked just like Redd Foxx. Y’know, you ought to go into show biz!”
“Holy shit!” gasped Warnke. “You scared the crap out of me! How the hell did you get in here, anyway?”
“With this,” said Billy. He pulled a device from his belt that looked like a hot glue gun with a small saw blade on the end. He pulled the trigger a few times, producing a harsh rasping sound. “It’s a lock-pick gun. Not entirely legal, but I’ve found it to come in very handy at times. This sucker will open up just about any lock. Well worth the investment.”
“Shit, you could have just knocked,” said Warnke. “You scared the bejesus out of me!”
“Nah,” said Billy. “I don’t knock, especially when I’m dealing with clowns like you. I like to see what people are up to when they don’t think anyone’s watching.”
Warnke’s mind raced. Had Billy seen him doing the coke, or did he come in afterwards? Would he even care? It was probably best to play it cool—although that was a difficult task when your heart was doing a drum roll from too much coke and a big shot of adrenaline on top of that. Cautiously, he reached for his beer and took a gulp. “So, what do you want?”
“We’ve got some business to discuss,” said Billy. “I think we need to renegotiate our deal. Two thousand a month, payable immediately.”
“Wh . . . what?” sputtered Warnke. “That’s almost twice what I’m paying you now! Shit, I can’t afford . . .”
“Bullshit!” roared Billy. “You’re getting the deal of a lifetime, asshole! It would be cheap at twice the price. In exchange for your paltry two grand a month, you get to avoid going to prison. How’s that sound? You’re getting a fuckin’ bargain!”
“Yeah, I guess so,” muttered Warnke. He started to calm down. Billy probably hadn’t seen the cocaine. He was just a crooked cop out to get his take.
“You guess so?” said Billy. “You’d better know so. I take care of my people. Like that time I kept the county mountie from searching your car at that speed trap on Route 17. Don’t give me any of this ‘I guess so’ shit, okay?”
“Yeah, right, okay. I appreciate your help, I really do . . . it’s just that I’ve got some cash flow problems right now, and . . .”
“Look, I know that you’re moving more product than ever, so spare me the poor-mouth routine. Two grand. Now.”
“Okay, okay, gimme a minute.” Warnke went back to his bedroom. Billy followed him. Warnke knew better than to complain.
“Shit, you really got this place spiffed up,” said Billy. “You’re not thinking of selling your house and moving away, are you? Fester would sure hate to lose it’s only celebrity.”
Warnke said nothing. Right now, he just wanted to get Billy Snyder out of his house. He dug through his sock drawer and found his roll of cash. Hunching his shoulders so that Billy couldn’t see how much was there, he peeled off two thousand—which didn’t really leave a whole hell of a lot.
“There you go,” he said, handing the cash over. “If you don’t mind, I was just going to get ready for bed.”
“Oh, I doubt that very much.” Billy took the stack of bills and jammed it into his uniform pants. Then he just stood there in the bedroom, eyeing Warnke.
“Is there anything else?”
“Just one thing,” said Billy. He stepped up to Warnke and shoved his face up close, so they were almost nose-to-nose. “Don’t screw with the system, Randy. We’ve got a really good thing going here, and I’d hate to see you fuck it up. I don’t like it at all when somebody makes things complicated for me, understand? UNDERSTAND?”
“Y . . . yeah, I get it,” stammered Warnke.
“Good. I hope you do. Just keep doing what you’re doing, and paying me my cut, and things will continue to run smoothly. Start fucking up by, say, holding out on me . . . well, things won’t be pleasant for you. I fuckin’ guarantee that. You just keep it in mind.”
“I . . . I will.”
“Good. Now, I’ve got better things to do that bullshit with a has-been cartoon clown. Don’t bother showing me out—I can find my own way.” He disappeared from the bedroom.
Warnke sank to the bed, perspiring heavily. He absolutely did not need this crap. Now he’d have to come up with more money to keep Billy off of his back. Meaning he was in hock to the gangster supplier in Philadelphia and the local cops. Cash flow problem, indeed. Bad shit.
He briefly considered doing some more blow, but after the scare that Billy had just laid on him, decided against it. He no longer felt great. Not even close.