WARMING UP TO MURDER
By Richard Varr
Ted Wingard hid his face behind the stark white Carnevale mask, but it couldn’t conceal his desperation. He darted through the contorted, narrow streets of Venice, racing past revelers as they shouted out laughter while downing glasses of deep red wine and fizzing champagne. His lungs felt heavy. He gasped for air in the cold night fog. The blood red, decorative trim lines on his mask could be a macabre symbol of his fate if he took an extra second to catch his breath. Fear choked his body more than breathlessness.
He was running for his life – he had been doing so now for almost six hours. But it seemed more like six days. This could be it, he thought. What a sad and dramatic end – shot to death with his screams drowned out by an ironic cacophony of laughter and celebrations. Maybe they would throw his body under one of the dozens of footbridges. Maybe into the Grand Canal.
He sharply turned the corner at Calle delle Veste and draped his cloak closer to his body. It was a typical black cloak – the same many of the costumed partiers sported here. That was good, he thought, because it could help him blend in with the crowds that choked the narrow Venetian sidewalks and old courtyards.
But they had already seen his mask – two shadowy figures still hung close behind.
From an upstairs window, scratchy violin strings cut through the dense air, striking even more tension in his pounding heart. But he didn’t break his stride. Wingard charged toward Piazza San Marco, where he could already see the crowds cramming the fifteenth-century historic square. Carnevale was at its peak.
“Wait a minute. That’s the answer!” he said under his breath. He had a plan. He would quickly dash into the square and grab someone else’s mask. That would buy him time – he was even more desperate now. The piazza was just over the footbridge and he would get lost in the crowd.
His endurance and stamina were keeping him alive on this night. He was proud of his athletic training – running track and playing baseball in high school and college. It had given him the strength and vigor to chase corrupt politicians and gangsters, to parade with demonstrators for blocks at a time, and to work the twelve- and fifteen-hour days his job as a television reporter often demanded. “Just a few dozen yards more,” he told himself. “Keep running! Run! Run!” He gasped deeply as he turned the corner.
“Aaughh,” he grunted, as he suddenly collided with another masked man, flooring him instantly. “Sorry!” he exclaimed, taking these precious few seconds to catch his breath. He quickly peeled off the dazed man’s bright yellow mask. He shouldn’t leave a trail, he thought, so he stuffed his white mask in his pants.
He sprinted into the piazza where, luckily for him, the surge of revelers seemed to peak. He stretched the elastic support of what he hoped would be his life-saving mask over his pointed, black-costume hat and then around his head. He smelled someone else’s musty saliva – but he could tolerate that. He ducked down and again galloped through the crowd.
The Basilica San Marco brilliantly reflected the spotlights cast upon its domes and faded golden facade. Since the basilica was straight ahead, he knew he had to head towards the right – to the Grand Canal.
Now his plan changed. A centuries-old Venetian tradition would be his escape and salvation. He would whisk away to safety in a gondola to hopefully live another day. He looked behind him. No sign now of the two murky, black-masked villains. But no time to waste.
“Per favore,” came his voice from behind the sunshine-yellow mask. The gondola oarsman nodded his head. In seconds they were off. He sat still and faced away from the piazza and the Doge’s Palace. The sleek, black gondola sliced into the gentle waves and slowly faded into the fog-shrouded darkness of the Venetian Lagoon. It circled around the tip of the Grand Canal past the imposing Santa Maria della Salute church, which was emblazoned with lights on this festive night. He ordered the gondolier toward the quieter Dorsoduro district. That was the only escape plan he could muster for now.
The festive chatter of Piazza San Marco now steadily drifted off into background noise as the gondola pulled farther away. Wingard was nervously calm and waited until he was in darkness before looking back again. He breathed more easily – at least for now. There was no indication that anyone had followed him.
He felt his stomach. The videotape was still safely tucked away in a money belt around his waist. It was the smoking gun for the news story of the decade. But it could very well cost him his life.
TWO WEEKS EARLIER
The sirens screamed as police cruisers raced up Columbus Avenue. They dashed down a side street before screeching to a stop where a small army of officers stood with shotguns drawn. Following just a half a block behind was a Channel 3 News van.
City steam poured out from cracks around the manhole covers. It was a biting twenty-nine degrees on this clear January evening. Police huddled with their weapons. Television photojournalists clutched their cameras, poised to roll tape on the dramatic action that could very well follow. Just down the street, the more than sixty floors of Boston’s Hancock Tower were checkered with lights that helped illuminate the night sky.
Reporter Ted Wingard stepped out slowly and without any fanfare. These crime scenes were all too familiar – he had covered them for years. He had seen dead bodies with bullet holes; anguished, screaming mothers hugging dead children; raging fires and floods. He had interviewed gang members and drug dealers. He knew his work well and another shootout didn’t faze him.
Wingard approached a police officer. “What’s going on here?” he asked.
“Talk to the chief.”
Wingard knew the police chief well – he had interviewed him dozens of times before. “What’ve you got?” he asked.
“A man’s holed himself up in his apartment. He shot his two kids dead and he’s holding his wife hostage.”
“What’s the motive?”
“Can’t tell. We’re trying to move the SWAT team in slowly. That’s all I can tell you now.”
Wingard carefully scanned the crowd. Curious neighbors hovered around the perimeter of the yellow crime scene police tape now flapping in the brisk cold wind.
“Does anybody know the family?” he asked neighbors. No answer.
“Does anybody know the children?”
“Yes,” said a woman, thirty-something, wearing a worn brown coat and a taupe beret. “Her kids go to school with mine. They’re in the fourth and fifth grades.”
“Did you hear any gunshots?”
Wingard hurried back to where the photographers were lined up with their cameras on tripods. “J. J.!” he yelled. “We got a witness.”
He was called J. J. for short – his real name was Jonas Johnson. Wingard admired J. J. and liked working with him. J. J. was medium height, but a burly and strong man wearing pressed jeans and a blue parka with warm fur lining the hood. An African-American with a closely shaved head, J. J. had a tough will but a kind heart. He was the kind of man Wingard wanted on his team. And most important, J. J. shot rock-solid video.
J. J. snatched his camera off the tripod and they approached the witness.
“Are you rolling?” asked Wingard.
“What did you see and hear?”
“My husband and I were inside, in the living room, when we heard these bangs. We knew what they were. We just didn’t know exactly where they came from.”
“What raced through your mind when you heard the gunshots?” asked Wingard.
“Death,” she said. “I’ve heard gunshots before in this neighborhood and the outcome was never good.”
J. J. turned off his camera – he was pleased with the sound bites. He was also pleased to be working with Wingard, who he thought was a great reporter. Wingard really knew how to snag at the emotions and how to evoke heartfelt responses during interviews. And that was good TV. A handsome man with sandy-brown hair and a square jaw, Wingard had a thin build but was lean and strong. He wore snugly tailored suits, crisp-collared shirts, and ties with subtle eye-catching patterns. And on this night, Wingard was wearing what he called his “standard-issue” reporter’s trench coat.
Although he admired him, J. J. did find his partner arrogant at times. But he surmised Wingard had earned it. Wingard covered both the War in Iraq and the Persian Gulf War, filing stories on Boston area soldiers. He slept little during eight days of reporting from lower Manhattan just after the September 11th attacks. He was on an airplane flying to Oklahoma City just an hour after the bomb exploded at the Federal Courthouse there. Wingard also covered Princess Diana’s funeral in London. He covered four national political conventions and reported on his share of hurricanes, tornadoes and floods.
J. J. headed back to his tripod when all of a sudden a woman screamed uncontrollably. “Get that J. J.!” shouted Wingard. And in just seconds, J. J had his camera back on his shoulder and was rolling tape.
“My babies, my babies,” screamed a middle-aged woman, sobbing uncontrollably. “What will I do now,” she groaned with another horrendous cry. It was the dead children’s grandmother – a neighbor apparently had told her the bad news. She was shaking and then dropped to the ground. Neighbors tried to console her, but Wingard knew there was little anyone could do.
“Do you have it on tape?”
“Got it,” said J. J.
It was not that J. J. and Wingard weren’t saddened by the nearly deafening cries of anguish. It was just that they had seen it so many times before and were simply numb to it. They both figured criminals won’t stop killing people and fires won’t stop burning down homes and destroying lives. News crews would cover it anyway, so it might as well be them.
It was now 10:15 PM and they had forty-five minutes to edit their taped report before going “live” on the late news. Would the man inside kill his wife and himself, or would he let her go and surrender? The latter, Wingard hoped, because that way the crime scene would end more quickly and he wouldn’t have to stay there all night.
The reporter/photographer team hammered out the story and Wingard’s report lead the Eleven O’clock News. “A mother’s worst nightmare comes true, and at this hour her nightmare is hardly over,” he said, while eyeing the camera in his deep, “broadcast” voice. “The woman’s husband allegedly shot their two children and is now holding the woman hostage.”
The report was over in less than two minutes. “Great job,” squealed his producer’s voice through his earpiece. But for Wingard, the sadness and tragic pathos here were just routine. All he could think about now was quitting time. Just another deadline, another interview, and another shattered family. Sometimes he felt like an undertaker – making his living in the presence of death.
“I need a change,” he said to himself. “I need to cover the big stories again.” It was true he had earned the lead prime time reporting slot on the Eleven O’clock News. But it wasn’t the same as covering the big story. The big story touches the lives of millions, is often seen around the world, and can even initiate political change or downfall.
“What?” interjected J .J. “Did you say the big story?”
“Yes. Have you had any lately?”
“None. In fact, you’re lucky. You’ve had many chances to travel the world and cover things. I’ve always been stuck here at home with the nuts and bolts – with the meat and potatoes.”
Wingard slowly nodded his head. “I want the big story once again,” he said.
Nancy Greene awakened feeling relaxed and renewed. She had not slept eight hours in weeks, it seemed. It was Saturday morning. Sunbeams dodged through the tree branches outside her bedroom window, shining through the colonial style window. Some sort of funky-sounding music emanated from her son Jonathan’s room. Maybe he was watching music videos, she thought. She knew he liked that type of music and knew that was what teenagers listened to these days.
It was already 8:30 AM. She rolled out of bed and slipped on her warm cotton bathrobe. Downstairs, the coffee-maker was soon trickling away brewing a medium-sized pot that would help clear her morning grogginess and put her in her fast-track thinking mode. Yes, the EPA Chief Administrator would end up working this Saturday, albeit in the comfort of her home office in her Georgetown duplex.
She took her coffee with just a tinge of skim milk to help ease the strong black taste. She walked into her office and immediately turned on CNN, which she always watched out of the corner of her eye. She did the same whenever working at her downtown Washington D.C. office. It was a technique she learned in graduate school – she could concentrate on her work while keeping an ear open for headlines and environmental news.
The life of the EPA’s top gun was not an easy one – meetings every day, travel, and constant plans to fight the big oil and gas industry lobbies on Capitol Hill. Everything from “Save the Whales” to “Save the Planet.” Today, she would begin reviewing notes regarding what she hoped to be her momentous presentation for the upcoming World Conference on Global Warming to be held in Vienna. It was something she had put off long enough.
Coincidentally, Greene was proud of her last name. It was a running joke when she was active in Greenpeace – when she took part in the first Earth Day back in the ‘70s, and when she protested about saving the Brazilian rain forests. She had signed up for the Peace Corps program. Fresh out of Berkeley then, she had a carefully balanced streak of activism and a philosophical love of people and life. Probably a bit naive, she recalled, but no doubt with a conviction to preserve God’s green earth from industrialization and greed. That conviction had given her the drive to earn a Ph.D. in environmental sciences from MIT and serve three terms as a congresswoman from her hometown of Framingham, Massachusetts.
She opened her maroon leather briefcase – bulbous like an attorney’s case – stuffed with files and papers she took home every day from the office. She grabbed several folders and distributed them into a couple of neat piles on her mahogany desk.
“The Ozone Hole has grown above Antarctica,” she heard faintly from the television. She grabbed the remote control and raised the volume as the CNN report continued. “Researchers say they have determined the Ozone Hole to now be larger than the total area of the United States.” This alarmed her deeply. Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, were eating away the earth’s protective ozone at such an alarming rate. There was little anybody could really do about it in the short term. This was just one of the monumental problems facing not only her agency, but also the world and especially its children. “What kind of world are we leaving for them?” she asked herself.
In a couple of weeks, however, she would make her contribution. She would deliver a keynote speech on global warming to the Vienna conference. Her staff had been researching the issue and was now organizing it into what she was hoping would be a concise and cogent presentation.
Global warming really bothered her. She knew that if carbon dioxide emissions aren’t drastically reduced, then the CO2 levels in the atmosphere could double by the end of the twenty-first century as compared to pre-industrial levels. Other greenhouse gases include methane, CFCs, and nitrous oxide from fertilizers – all possibly leading to eventual cataclysmic change in the earth’s atmosphere. Warming temperatures could melt glaciers and raise the earth’s sea level. In a worst case scenario, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could collapse and slowly slide into the ocean, raising the worldwide sea level by up to twenty feet over a couple of centuries.
This scenario made Greene uneasy. “What a nightmare!” she shouted. She shook her head at how the rivers and lakes didn’t seem to freeze as much as in the past. Like most people, she enjoyed the milder temperatures. But she knew global warming was simply unhealthy for the planet.
She heard a knock on the door. It was her son Jonathan who told her he was heading out to meet his friends. He was a tall young man of sixteen with brown hair and brown eyes. He had his father’s pointed nose and sharp wit. Greene was pleased with him because he was smart, responsible and self-sufficient. She needed that, especially as a single parent with such enormous job responsibilities.
She enjoyed the interlude, but her mind quickly focused on her project once again. The keynote address would be the perfect opportunity to present her plan to combat or at least slow down global warming. It was an ambitious plan that required the gargantuan task of formalizing it on paper as well as turning it into a compelling political proposal.
She picked up the phone and dialed.
“Ron, how’s the speech coming along?”
“I’ve got some really great news for you Nancy,” said a deep voice on the phone. “Your presentation is nearly complete.” Ronald Gregory was the Deputy EPA Administrator.
“And you’re including the eight percent cut in greenhouse gases?”
“I think that’s way too high, maybe even radical,” retorted Gregory.
“Go with eight percent. And I’m adamant about that!” she shot back with anger building in her voice. “It’s a high but necessary percentage. It should be even higher.”