Chapter 16 - Press Conference


The SWAT team took a prompt tally of the situation in Weede's office and were pleased, but not surprised, at the accuracy of their shots. The scruffy gunman and his two badly dressed cohorts lay dead like heaps of raw meat dumped on the speaker's office floor. What remained of their faces wouldn't have been enough for their own mistresses to identify.

The marksmen were relieved to see that the governor, the speaker and their two guests were uninjured, with only a minimal amount of carnage on their suits.

Rudy dazedly flicked a chunk of the pink cottage cheese from his lapel, while Vega viewed the scene mindlessly, as if he were some kind of organic camera.

"You sure as hell took your own sweet time getting here," Chuck belligerently bluffed. Obviously none of the cops recognized anybody in the room, or Chuck wouldn't still be alive. "We need to get a handle on this thing right now. You men did a commendable job here today. Although you did scare the bejesus out of me."

A Captain puffed proudly at Chuck's words. It's not every day that a hard working guy gets a shot at saving the lives of the state's top leaders. Although he wasn't sure whether the man in the dark suit was the governor, he was appropriately officious. "My apologies for the timing, sir. We only received the call a few minutes ago, but we came directly to this location. I trust that you and the other gentlemen were not injured by the deceased perpetrators."

"I think we're all fine, if a little worse for the wear. Thank you Captain. I'll make sure you and your men are recognized for what you've done for all of California today." Chuck looked at Vega and Rudy; "Mr. Peen, Mr. Weede, I believe we have a crisis to manage, so we'd better pull ourselves together and get to it."

He turned back to face the cop. "Captain, time is short here, please do me a favor. If you'd call down to the front steps and spread the word to the media that there will be a press conference in five minutes, I'd be grateful. Don't mention this little incident though. Just tell them there's going to be an official statement."

"Consider it done Governor. And just let me say sir, I am impressed with how cool you are under fire. At this point in time, most civilians would be in shock."

"There's plenty of time for that later. Captain. Right now, there are priorities, and panic isn't one of them." Chuck grabbed each buddy by an arm and inarched them smartly to the door. A civilian in Chuck's shoes would have good reason to panic. In fact, Chuck himself was going to find some fresh underwear right after this crisis passed. But in the interim, his military experience kept him as cool as a mummy in a blizzard.

"Good luck Governor Peckerwood," shouted Captain Smucker as the inner office door closed.

The luckiest trio in California shot through the reception lobby with Chuck's firm grip on his twe friends. The staff still cowered under their desks, so none of them saw anything but shoes hurrying into the hallway.

Without Chuck's cool directions, his friends would still be stupidly standing over the shattered corpses of Peckerwood, Weede and Peen, waiting to be arrested. They dazedly followed Chuck, but didn't know about his new plan that could lead them away from the ravening jaws of the lion and into the acid filled gut of the beast instead. Chuck feared that daylight was far away, at the distant end of a long and particularly unpleasant journey.

Downstairs, the rabble that is the capital press corps gathered hastily at the front steps, eager for a few impromptu sound bites from the governor. None of the media types suspected that an invasion force was holed up inside the building, but then, nobody had given them an official handout about it.

As he descended the inner stairs with his charges. Chuck debated the wisdom of appearing on camera after the debacle in Weede's office. More heads were going to roll than just the three on the plush carpet upstairs, and his would probably be one of them. But right now, the movement needed a spokesman, no matter who ended up taking the blame for the mess in Weede's office.

"Listen you two, it's obvious somebody decided to have us killed up there," Chuck theorized. "They were probably going to say we planned some kind of hostage taking situation that was barely stopped by quick thinking on the part of the police. All the right witnesses would agree to say whatever they were told to say. The cops probably wouldn't even know that they'd been set up."

Vega and Rudy just nodded dazedly.

"You've got to admire their ballsy approach," Chuck went on. "It would have worked too, except for you Rudy. You turned their bogus murder plan into a real hostage taking situation. Maybe the clothes do make the man after all - they sure as hell saved our asses." He dearly wanted a little guidance from Rudy or Vega, but they were totally occupied by the strain of walking, zombie-like, with Chuck's hands on their arms. "Oh hell," Chuck muttered, "Let's get on with it. Might as well hang for a rhinoceros as for a chicken."

The media crowd on the steps below looked ugly to Chuck. If he'd been more experienced, he would have realized that this is pretty much how they always look. He leaned his friends against the great stone facade and stepped to the podium. "Is this thing on?"

The news crews became animated.

"Who's the guy?"

"Beats me, I only come down here once a month."

"Maybe it's the governor's press aide."

"No, I've seen that ape, this guy's too intelligent looking."

Finally, one of the blow-dried TV reporters announced knowingly, "That's State Senator Danforth White of Salinas. I hear he's this year's great white hope for the party."

"Which party?"

"Does it matter?"

The proclamation worked its way back and forth through the press corps like a pickpocket at a parade. By the time the rumor washed back to where it had originated, it had become the truth, verified and corroborated by the usual reliable sources. A dozen hushed voices announced into their respective microphones that Senator White was about to make a statement on behalf of Governor Peckerwood, live from the capitol steps.

Meanwhile, the excitement level in the governor's office rose dramatically.

"Who's the guy?" asked the governor's press aide as he munched a banana.

"Beats me. What's he up to?" answered Betty Jones, the governor's personal secretary.

Nobody recognized the man on the TV screen, and none of them knew anything about the press conference they were watching. It wasn't like the governor to authorize a press conference without letting them know. It also wasn't like the governor to let someone speak for him in his absence. Calls went out to Speaker Weede's office.

"No, he's not here Betty; it's a madhouse right now." It was the woman who had previously welcomed Chuck and party into the office. "There was some nasty business up here, and the governor left with the speaker and Mr. Peen. The police SWAT team's still here. One of them had us call a press conference on the governor's orders. They won't tell us what happened, but I think I heard gunshots inside the speaker's office."

"Thanks Peggy, I guess we'll just have to sort it out on our own."

SWAT team? Where was the governor then? Betty was more than staff; she was the governor's right hand. It was totally out of character for him not to check in with her. She wanted to be scared, but fought it off as she hung up.

"All right people," Betty's contralto shouts brought the governor's staff to attention. "Any of you who can put down what you're doing for a few minutes, please help us out here. We need to fan out and find the Governor. He's probably somewhere here in the building. He left the Speaker's office a few minutes ago, but he hasn't made it to his press conference on the front steps yet. I'm sure everything is all right. Let's just find the governor. Call this office as soon as one of you catches up with him. Now let's get out there."

The SWAT team's presence in the Speaker's office gnawed at Betty's thoughts. She'd overheard 'SWAT team' mentioned several times lately in snatches of conversation between the governor, the speaker and one or two anonymous others during her normal trips in and out of Peckerwood's office. It gave her an uneasy feeling, but no solid clues. Not even a good reason to be as worried as she had become.

Chuck gathered his thoughts and his anger as he settled in at the podium. "People of California, we have a crisis on our streets. A crisis that threatens to destroy the moral fabric of our society. A crisis that threatens the physical health and well being of almost every person in this state, and in this nation.

I'm not talking about freeway shootings or faceless crime. I'm not even talking about street gangs who kill and rob with impunity. I'm talking about a hundred thousand Californians who live on the streets; some for a few days at a time; and many, all of their lives.

It's not pretty, and many of us don't even want to admit it exists...but it exists. Oh yes, it exists. But homelessness isn't an it, homelessness is human beings like you...and even like me."

Chuck's grin was for himself, but the camera shared every facial nuance. "Why do people live on the streets? Is it because they like it there? No, of course they don't like living on the streets any more than you would. People live on the streets because government policies, business decisions, or just bad luck have forced them to make a tough choice; a choice between paying rent and buying food. Now I don't know about you folks, but I think I'd choose food myself."

A voice shot back from the press corps, "But what about all the money they spend on alcohol. Maybe if they sobered up they could pay their rent."

Chuck wanted to jump off the podium and kick the reporter's butt, but he knew he had to keep talking. "Good question. The fact is, most of the homeless aren't chronic alcoholics, which a good reporter could find out with only minimal research. But since one or two of you obviously aren't familiar with how research works, let me fill you in.

Most of the homeless aren't public drunks; what they are is people who live on the streets. Many of them smell bad and look shabby. That's because there aren't any bathtubs or showers on the streets, and they can't afford nice new clothes. If you believe this makes them less than you, then the flaw is in your values, not in the homeless."

The gang in the governor's office was videotaping every second of the speech. Nobody could figure out who the guy was, but they knew it wasn't Senator Danforth White.

"Get somebody down there and find out who this joker is," screamed the simian press aide. "And bring me his head, if you can get it."

Betty nodded at two men in the back, who immediately scurried into the hallway and toward the press conference.

Chuck sensed the danger of talking too long, but he knew this was the best chance he was ever going to get to talk to millions of

people on TV. He'd already come to Sacramento prepared to be arrested, so it was no big deal. That's when he remembered three dead politicians and soberly started to schmooze the press again.

"Many of the people you see living on the streets who appear to be drunk haven't touched a drop. They've got severe medical problems that need a doctor's care. In this state, we've thrown thousands of people with serious mental problems onto the streets by closing down homes for the mentally ill. Do you honestly think it's more humane for a person who can't take care of himself to live on a sidewalk than in a crowded mental hospital? Neither answer is good, but we're moving in the wrong direction.

Now you folks in the press know that every year, public opinion polls say homelessness is one of our three top concerns; yet every year, we do almost nothing to change the situation. This is despite the fact we have it in our power to completely eliminate the problem."

"Yeah, right. And what plan do you have that nobody else has come up with yet?" asked a different, but equally arrogant news face.

"Nothing new at all. Let's look at the actual reason people are homeless. It sounds simple, but it's so obvious that everybody overlooks it. The reason people are homeless is because they have nowhere to live! Pretty amazing, eh? And that's everyone's fault, because we don't demand any better. And you people in the press; you know better, but you never offer your viewers and readers realistic solutions, you just moan Ain't it awful. Well, you're damned right, it's awful!

We've allowed millions of cheap housing units to be ripped down in this country since 1980. It's usually replaced by housing that costs two to five times as much. You tell me where you'd live if somebody suddenly doubled your rent and ripped down every building in town that's in your price range."

"Is this guy running for Governor?" asked one of the radio guys.

"Hell, it sounds to me like he's trying to get run out of town on a rail, Son," answered the crusty columnist.

The pair from the governor's office rounded the curve on the inner stairs so quickly that they almost fell. They wanted to stop the unknown guy on TV before he got people stirred up enough to demand changes. They both thought he was probably crazy, or suffering from stress. Either way, they'd be doing him a favor by shutting him up before he made a total ass of himself and embarrassed the government beyond repair.

The press corps was as agitated as the governor's staff. They sensed a story, even if it wasn't written down for them anywhere.

"So what's your plan. Senator White?" quizzed a blow-dryed TV reporter."

Being called Senator set Chuck back for a second. The cops thought he was the governor, but apparently the press was just too darned shrewd to be taken in by that ruse. He continued in his newly appointed role of senator.

"I propose that the California State Assembly join with my friends in the senate to approve the current homeless aid package it's now considering. And I further call on them to dramatically strengthen the package to fund self-help programs for the homeless. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it will actually cost us less than our current policy when viewed over the long term."

Sudden movement in his peripheral vision spooked Chuck into a clever summation. "Thank you very much for listening."

The governor's aides neared the podium, but it was empty when they reached it. Chuck was out of the crowd so fast that even Elvis Presley would have been impressed, had he been in any condition to be impressed.

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