It's time for the UFO Pictures team to present their project to the town council. But how could any movie be shot when the threat of civil war hangs in the air?
The U.F.O. Pictures equipment truck driven by their production assistants/UCLA grads, Callie Morrow and Eddie Yanakis trundled into town sometime after six that evening. Unfortunately Eden's Econo-Lodge was booked up with attendants for a propane gas retailer's convention being held in Middleton one county over, so the team had to see if there were any rentals at Copeland Realty. After Leticia spent an hour arguing with Floyd on her /LG White Chocolate/, she got the keys to a town house with a wraparound portico on Harvard Drive. From upstairs the view of the shore would have been ideal, were it not for the huge chestnut tree.
Charlotte opened her window to take out the stale, musty air. Dusty drop cloths covered the furniture. She studied the room; the gardenia print wallpaper was yellowing, but at least she would have it to herself. Leticia took the other bedroom down the hall, Callie and Greta roomed in the den while Chris and Eddie camped in the living room. A pair of thumps on her door distracted Charlotte from picking at a bit of curling tape from the ugly wallpaper.
"Charlotte," it was Greta. "Food's here."
"I'll be right there." Charlotte waited until Greta's footfalls faded to leave her room. Forty-five minutes later, the dining room and coffee tables were strewn with half-empty Chinese take-out cartons from Mr. Han's Palace/. Callie sat on the floor using the coffee table as a workstation twirling beef lo mein noodles around her plastic fork like spaghetti with one hand as she clicked at lightning speed on her /Mac laptop with the other.
"Here it is!" She announced to the room. Diverting everyone's attention from the T.V., save for Charlotte, the U.F.O. team crowded around Callie.
"You got it up?" Chris asked clutching his chopsticks between his teeth. An Adobe file opened up displaying the front page of the Eden Courier with the headline 'WE LIKE MIKE!'
"'Eden elects the youngest mayor in town's history. When Mike Novak, 29, threw his hat in the political ring last summer people thought it was just a publicity stunt for his bookstore.
"Even my parents thought I was crazy. They tried to list every reason as to why I'd lose- and I hadn't gotten on the ticket at that point!" Mayor-elect Novak said. "I never said Mayor Beauregard was a bad guy. He just never seemed to like the idea of fixing the potholes on Main Street. It was time for a change." And apparently his pitch for pothole filling on the campaign trail struck a chord with voters with his slogan /VOTE FOR MIKE! I'll Fix The Potholes- Promise!/'"
Charlotte's worry line deepened as she lay on the beat up maroon sofa stuffing her face with broken fortune cookies.
"This article is dated 2002. Apparently Mike did such a good job about fixing the potholes they decided to re-elect him." This was silage for sitcom writers, Charlotte thought. But she braced herself knowing that it was going to get a whole lot better. "But Mike didn't glide into office without speed bumps." Callie clicked on a link to another article from 2004. "The former mayor, Red Beauregard, who was once president of the Madison Federal Trust Savings Bank, criticized Mike for being a 'big spender.'"
"How so?" Leticia plugged a sweet-and-sour sauce drenched bit of chicken into her mouth.
"Well he fixed the potholes, gave his alma mater Ulysses S. Grant High School a much needed facelift and new athletic field, the public library got a new computer lab with T1, then got a court injunction against a shopping mall being put up here."
"There's like an outlet mall ten minutes away from here," Chris remarked.
"Well, well, well." Leticia said wagging her hips. "Mr. Novak Goes to Washington, indeed." Charlotte sat up on the sofa and leaned over Callie's shoulder to get a closer look at the monitor.
"Did they say where they wanted to put this mall, Callie?" Charlotte asked. The production assistant scrolled up searching for the passage.
"Umm... here it is! Well there's this dairy farm here that went belly up 20 years ago, and the developers who wanted to buy it were planning to build a mall. Even had a name for it, Eden Plaza."
"That wouldn't sit well with the local merchants." Charlotte said.
"That didn't sit well with anybody here." Callie emphasized. "So they went to Mike, their go-to mayor. And now every town council meeting turns into Friday Night SmackDown! because the dead dairy farm is the biggest piece of grass this town owns and now nobody knows what to do with it."
"You've gotta be kidding me." Eddie said through a mouthful of pork fried rice.
"Nope." Callie shook her head. "And it only rivals the vineyard."
"Vineyard?!" Greta shoved her Styrofoam carton of crab sticks and French fries aside. "Since when is there a vineyard here?" Callie punched the enter key and a new window popped open.
"La Belette Vigne." The vineyard's graphic intensive flash homepage opened up. The background was their bottle's sepia and white label depicting a three-storey Louisianan Bayou mansion with columns, French iron grilles and windows. "The La Belette vineyard is a family-owned and operated business with the vinification plant at the opposite end of Eden's Lake Pleasant. The C.E.O. is Gerard La Belette, his wife Yvonne is on the board of directors and- get this! The spokesperson and general management director is..." Callie paused, deliberately dragging out the suspense.
"Well who is it?!" Greta shouted.
"Monique La Belette." A collective hush descended over the group momentarily.
"The KTLA /weather woman?" Chris was incredulous. Charlotte knew Monique La Belette; of course she was best remembered by B-movie fanatics as Kandi Sweet. La Belette began her pseudo-acting career in high school as a Junior Miss Something or Other. Naturally model work followed, but it was never enough to get her out of catalogs and onto the European runways. But she had the looks for the commercial agents to come banging down her door, La Belette was in everything from /Burger King to Teen Spirit ads. Finally her big break (or so she thought) came when she was given a script for an episode of the /CBS Schoolbreak Specials/. She auditioned and won the role of the girlfriend of a high school sports star who was killed in a drunk driving accident.
Charlotte saw the episode on /YouTube/; while La Belette's performance was adequate she would hardly describe her as star material. She was featured in the teen magazines for a while, but after that became old hat going to auditions was the closest she got to the camera. The callbacks were few and far between, and eventually all prospects dried up. La Belette was on her fifth agent using whatever money she had left from modeling forced to scrape the bottom of the barrel. Big Island Talent was one of the many talent agencies that were the equivalents of greasy spoons in the industry, just next door to porn. Many of the lesser and well-known B-actors considered Big Island to be a pathway to the mainstream. The truth behind it was the agency's sagacity in providing incentive (kickbacks) for the B-movie studios with better resources to provide actual acting talent for them. And La Belette was adequate enough. At the behest of her agent she changed her name to Kandi Sweet and he slated her to star in such memorable video store titles as /Devotion of the Axe Murderess/, /The Vice Squad /series, /Summer Camp Slaughterhouse 3 /and /4/, and a U.F.O. Pictures original, /Red Leather Memoirs/.
La Belette's direct-to-video career proved lucrative, satellite and cable networks supplied their late night block with fillers jam-packing them with B's. As luck would have it, the KTLA network president had a college-aged nephew obsessed with low-budget hacks, and put the 'fan' in fanatic for La Belette. He knew that his uncle was looking for a new weather woman for the nightly news since the current one started maternity leave and was planning to retire. He pitched La Belette to his uncle showing him a taped Cinemax /broadcast of /The /Vampire Legacy/ which she starred in. La Belette's flirtatious valley girl personae and her model looks with lustrous strawberry blonde hair (mostly extensions) and pouty lips (collagen treatments) sold the network's president and gave her the job. La Belette obtained that stardom she lusted for as KTLA's weather woman until audio tapes of phone sex she was having with the network's president were leaked to /The Enquirer /and /Star/. Photos and video footage taken by the private detective the president's wife hired surfaced on rival networks, a huge scandal erupted and the president not only had his wife divorcing him but was forced to step down. La Belette was canned never to grace the small screen again.
That was five years ago, and it seemed that La Belette was making a comeback of sorts as the family business' spokeswoman. But something irked Charlotte. She went back to the previous article about Mike's success in shutting down the Eden Plaza project. Beauregard heavily disparaged Mike about that above all else she discovered, then again he was Madison Federal's president before his stint as mayor and she assumed that it was his bank that owned the dairy. Charlotte opened up labelettewine.com's homepage in a separate window and clicked on Gerard La Belette's profile. When he wasn't making spirits Gerard could be found on the links at the exclusive Eden Oaks Country Club, an establishment for and by Eden's elite. Beauregard would have a considerable amount of money to his name and probably had a lifetime membership to the club as well. Charlotte left her place on the sofa walking to the dining room and slid open the patio door to the yard. They dragged up the picnic table and benches from the basement earlier and Charlotte perched herself on one of them. The brick red paint was chipping and it reeked of mildew.
"Whatcha doin', honey?" Leticia semi-slurred in the doorway. Judging by the highball she carried in her left hand Charlotte knew that Leticia was not too far off from getting completely smashed.
"Don't you think it's a little weird?" Charlotte asked.
"What's weird, babe?" Leticia took a big gulp from her tumbler.
"The pretty boy gets carped up and down by Beauregard for shutting down the mall deal, right?"
"Charlie, Beauregard is an old fart."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Charlotte conceded. "But putting aside all the politics, age, and the fact that Beauregard is a sore-ass loser... don't you feel there's a darker element to all this?" The melting ice in the glass clinked and Leticia crooked an eyebrow waiting for the other shoe to drop. "Beauregard was president of the bank that owns the dairy farm, right? So the developer that wanted to build the mall was willing to spend a pretty penny, right? That means Beauregard would get some kind of incentive from this transaction."
"I won't argue with that." Leticia said. "But Ness, don't you think you're jumping the gun a little calling it a 'darker element?' Business is business, you're dad was a corporate attorney."
"Big anti-union man." Charlotte sighed. Bernard Stratemeyer's last five years practicing was doing negotiations for global outsourcing companies. Thousands of blue and white-collar workers were crushed under the iron fists of men like her father. She remembered standing on line for tea at Starbuck's overhearing a conversation between an elderly lady and one of the workers who happened to be an IT forced to take a survival job pouring lattes after a two-year failed job search. His student loans were in deferment. But there was hope on the horizon for him, his Chinese girlfriend managed to wrangle him a position on the American marketing team at his old company relocated in Shenzhen. Apparently the elderly lady was one of his neighbors and she wanted to buy his melmac kitchen table.
"I always thought your parents were hilarious." Leticia giggled. And so did Charlotte, but she began laughing only after her father's retirement since he couldn't stay sober past noon having to deal with his wife all day long. All Cecilia did was shop on Rodeo Drive and meet with her girlfriends at the spa when she wasn't nagging everyone to death. Behind the ivy-encrusted high walls of the Encino idyll Charlotte grew up in was the kind of suffering borne from hate. Perhaps she and Monique La Belette had more in common than she thought.
"I don't care." Charlotte said obstinately. "Something isn't right here, and I'm going to find out what that is."
"Well don't forget about the little movie we're shooting." Leticia rebuffed. "Because we have to make our formal proposal when the council convenes at the end of the week."
"Don't be too pissed at me if the mayor runs us out of town. Considering how I made an ass of myself today." Charlotte mumbled hunching her shoulders.
"I don't know," Leticia said winking at Charlotte. "If the lord mayor was quick into getting friendly with you, he might have a big heart and is just as forgiving. This may work to everyone's advantage." Charlotte knew Leticia wasn't strictly speaking about the film and eyed her suspiciously.
"What do you mean?"
Leticia circled the glass rim with her finger; the long metallic pink nail flashed the fading sunlight like a bit of foil. "Why for the rebound of course." Charlotte turned right back around on the bench.
"You know perfectly well that I'm not ready for anything right now."
"Oh I didn't mean anything serious. You just need to get laid, Charlie." Charlotte spun back around completely mortified
"I can't believe you just said that to me, Tish!"
"Well, the pretty boy doesn't seem to do a whole lot in that library of his. I have this sneaky feeling that he has an active imagination."
"Tish the mayor's imagination is no business of ours! Can't you keep your head out of the gutter- for once?!" Over the seven foot wood slat fence that divided every backyard on the block, another patio door slid open. "Leticia, you've got to remember where we are!" Charlotte lectured. "This is small town America. Watching our mouths- and everything else- is first priority if you expect to get a film out these people. We don't need them to think that we're depraved!"
"A little depravity never hurt anybody. I mean without it we wouldn't have places like Vegas or D.C." The fence gate swung open revealing Mike. He carried his Middleton University coffee mug with The Eden Courier under his arm. He was barefoot and wore a pair of khaki cargo shorts.
"Your Honor!" Charlotte snapped to attention.
"Mr. Mayor, what a surprise!" Leticia said. "D- did we disturb you? Charlotte didn't mean it," she was about to protest when Leticia clapped a hand over her mouth, "she's from Encino." She stage whispered. Mike was helplessly amused and couldn't stifle his laughter.
"Actually, I don't live here." Charlotte's shoulders dropped feeling one of the iron weights on them become soap bubbles. "I was just finished having dinner, this is my parents' house."
A ton of bricks dropped on Charlotte just as the words tumbled from those full Slavic lips of his.
"Isn't that wonderful Charlotte?" Leticia didn't bother to wait for a response. "What a small world!"
"Twenty-five hundred," Charlotte moaned from behind grit teeth.
"We were just discussing your upcoming town council meeting, Mr. Mayor." Leticia glared at Charlotte who returned it with one of her own.
"So I heard. But I wish you'd call me Mike. Titles are so... pomp and circumstance." Leticia playfully smacked Mike's bicep, tensing her fingers for a split second feeling nothing but steely muscle. Fed up with her friend's treachery, Charlotte shoved Leticia over gathering the few wisps of courage she had left and confronted Mike.
"Charlotte," Leticia admonished. "Mike doesn't like titles... so lighten /up./" Leticia's last words came out a hiss that Charlotte ignored.
"Your Honor, I want to apologize for my unprofessional behavior this afternoon. Please don't let my rambling affect your judgment Friday."
"I promise Charlotte, that wouldn't affect my judgment." Mike shook his head. "And please, call me Mike."
"Thank you Mr. Mayor." She blatantly ignored the request simply for the fact that he was staring. Not even her ex did that when they first met, then again she regained consciousness in the wrong dorm when they first met. Leticia began chatting up the mayor attempting to pry some personal details which Mike cleverly evaded. Yes he lived in the apartment above his bookstore. No he did not have a girlfriend. Whether his bachelor status gave him the women's vote, he didn't know and didn't care. Was he looking for a girlfriend? Mike simply smiled. Leticia grinned pointedly at Charlotte who just rolled her eyes.
"I'll be right back." Leticia said airily picking up her empty tumbler. Panic iced Charlotte's innards and she seized her friend's wrist.
"Where are you going?"
"To get a refill. Why don't you keep Mike company?" Charlotte leapt from the bench ready to lash out when Leticia vanished inside. Mike quietly shut the gate in case of any nosy relatives and made himself comfortable beside Charlotte. She slid a few inches over in the opposite direction
"Hi." It was the only thing she could think to say.
"Hi." Mike replied. "Would you go out with me?" And now it started. Actually it started way back in sophomore year at El Camino Real. The pity kisses, followed by pity dates and to ice the cake, the pity sex. Charlotte had to throw a monkey wrench into Mike's works, because she didn't want anyone's pity anymore.
"Don't say anything you don't mean, Mr. Mayor." Charlotte said.
"Mike. And I always say what I mean. Just as I mean what I say." If he was the Mad Hatter, then she had to be Alice. Now if Charlotte could just find a mirror to get out of here...
"I what I/ mean/ is, I don't need you to put yourself out because I'm divorced."
"Even if you weren't divorced, I'd still want to go out with you." Mike shrugged his shoulders looking like a fourteen-year-old. "So what do you like? Thai? Mexican? Or we could just order pizza and eat in." Sure they could eat in. Because he looked about ready to rip her clothes off and eat her out.
"Mike you little bastard!" A woman's voice exploded from the other side of the fence. A tall woman with hair as blonde as Mike's and the same blue eyes slammed open the gate. "You finished all the coffee!" She held the empty Maxwell House can upside down.
"'Sorry?'" The woman snapped. "You're going to get your ass down to Andy's and get us the ECONOMY SIZED can, you little caffeine addict!" Before the woman could continue her tirade she finally saw Charlotte gawking at her like a fish. She quickly put on her happy face.
"You must be the murder house movie people! I'm Julianne, Mikey's big sister." She shook Charlotte's limp hand. Julianne was just as pretty as her brother standing 5'10" and maintained her shape after having kids. "So Mike tells me you're the director of this picture."
"More or less." Charlotte said.
"So when do you begin filming?" Asked Julianne.
"We expect to begin principal photography after we get the vote from the town council on Friday."
"Oh I wouldn't worry about that. This town's starved for the tourism; they'd propagate Eden as Bigfoot's new stomping ground if they could." Charlotte was relieved by Julianne's presence and already admired her. She had the cynicism that Mike lacked. She wondered if there were any more siblings.
"You're brother made an interesting comment earlier. It seems that Mike is quite the dissenter for an elected official." Charlotte said.
"My little brother is far from what you would call orthodox." Charlotte got the impression that Julianne often talked about her brother as though he wasn't around when he was. "When Mikey was fourteen, our aunt and uncle invited him to go backpacking up in Alaska where they live the summer before he started Grant. So when he came back before Labor Day, he refused to wear shoes." Charlotte laughed.
"Why didn't he want to wear shoes?"
"He said we have poisoned the earth enough with our piling waste, noxious gasses and toxic chemicals, that we can no longer desecrate it with our rubber soles." This was rich! Charlotte thought that they should chuck the whole haunted house deal and do a profile piece on the mayor. "He almost got suspended from school because of his refusal to wear shoes. So our parents struck a deal with him, he could walk barefoot all he wanted outside of school, but he had to agree to at least wear sandals in school and anywhere else that required footwear."
"No shirt, no shoes, no service." Charlotte quipped.
"Exactly. Then in his junior year he and his environmental club spent the whole spring break cleaning up the beach. They also petitioned town council to enforce a fine for beach littering- and got it passed into law. And then when Mike was in Middleton he and his fraternity, Phi Delta Psi, protested the university's use of garbage incineration instead of introducing a recycling program."
"What happened?" Charlotte asked.
"Somehow the press became aware of it and then suddenly Middleton had the whole student body in a sit-in until they dismantled their incinerators." Maybe Charlotte was being a bit hasty. She looked at Mike who didn't look at all cocky about the accomplishments Julianne ticked off. His mother was right, Mike was intense but Charlotte could do without intense for a bit.
"And your parents thought you were crazy for running for office?" Charlotte asked Mike.
"I just wanted to fix the potholes."
"And when you decided to run for re-election?" Mike got up from the bench taking his coffee mug with him.
"There are a few dragons I've still got to slay." The mayor replied enigmatically. "'Night." And he went back into his parents' house.
"Now what was that supposed to mean?" Charlotte asked. Julianne's brows knit uneasily, she watched her brother round the corner from the living room knowing he was going to hole himself up in the den as he had been doing for the past several months.
"You just never know with Mike."
It was after 1 a.m. when the lock on Copeland Realty's door jiggled. The intruder entered, shut the door silently and pocketed the keys. Making a beeline for the boss' office with the name Meg Fanshaw emblazoned on the ripple glass, the intruder padded in and went for the computer. Pulling out a white iPod Video the intruder connected it to the tower and booted up the PC. No password, Fanshaw was as thick as two planks. The file wasn't hard to locate and a copy was downloaded. The iPod and its USB cable were safely tucked away and the office was vacated.
The dreaded Friday morning town council meeting rolled around and the U.F.O. team sat in the council's meeting chamber in Town Hall. The walls were painted sky blue purposefully as the murals depicted prominent historical scenes: Columbus' landing, Plymouth Rock, the Declaration of Independence signing, Lexington and Concord, Appomattox, World Wars I and II, the moon landing and the Berlin Wall falling. The sea foam colored marble floor was scuffed and scratched; the spectators' seats were five long rows of oak chairs on either side of the aisle. At the front of the room sat the six members of the town council with the mayor seated in the middle behind a large dais. Should a speaker address the council they did so behind the podium situated in the middle of the room.
But not one of the U.F.O. team was feeling valiant enough to break up the screaming match that was going full strong. Mike was brandishing the gavel at an older councilman whose flesh round his skinny neck was wadded and rolled up like a tortoise. He in turn was just as aggressive with his fancy silver-plated pen. Charlotte was reminded of that fight scene between William Daniels and Donald Madden in /1776/.
"Councilman Stillman," it was not even 9:30 and Mike already looked haggard, "the reason why I call your logic into question on your outdoor swimming pool idea for the dairy farm is simply for the fact that we are a /beach /community."
"Well some of us don't like the stink of salt water when it gets into your swimsuits!" Argued Stillman.
"And there are those of us who that think you /stink." Was Councilman Betsy Carlyle's rejoinder. There was uproarious laughter from several other councilmen and from the U.F.O. team. Herbert Stillman, manager of Andy's /Supermarket, has been an opponent of Mike's since his first bid for election. He never made his personal opinions of Mike a secret. Betsy Carlyle, wife of Fire Chief John Carlyle, was a friend of the Novak family for years. She was both elated and relieved to have Mike as mayor, she saw him use that same youthful exuberance that cleaned up the beach to shut down the mall project and fix Main Street.
"Well I'm sorry Betsy," Councilman Veronica Wesley jumped in. "I'm afraid that I have to agree with Herbert. "I think an outdoor swimming pool provides the perfect alternative to the madness of the beach. Not everybody wants to deal with screaming brats throwing sand, the stench of barbecue and having to cut through miles of people lining up for the concession stands just to get to comfort station!" Veronica was the owner of the Princess Salon & Spa, and rumored to have shared sheets with Red Beauregard back in her debutante heyday.
"Hmph!" Came a snort from Veronica's left. "This coming from a woman who owns a tanning bed!" Councilman Jake Potter, owner of Potter's Collision and father of Sheriff's Deputy Drew Potter.
"For your information that tanning bed is in my salon!" Veronica's voice became a deadly sotto voce and the surgically smoothed pads of skin around her eyes pulled ugly taut when she narrowed them. Charlotte noticed how her forehead didn't move. "And I don't see any color on your pasty face, Potter. Just the grease!"
"Now you just hold up!" Jake shot up from his chair kicking it against the wall. Veronica did the same standing nose-to-nose with him in her stilettos.
"Jake! Veronica!" Councilman Jerome Logan shouted. "Quit acting like children for Crissakes!"
"I wouldn't go there, Jerry. You've been acting more like your shoe size than your age." Councilman Tim Sanford challenged.
"Why don't you shut your fat trap /Timbo!/" Things deteriorated into chaos rapidly. Fists flew between Jerome and Tim; Veronica whacked Jake repeatedly with her /Channel /bag until Betsy butted in tearing at her hair then slapped her across the jaw. Herbert cowered under the dais. Mike couldn't have looked more in the middle than he already was.
"I've gotta do something!" Charlotte tried shouting over the violent cacophony.
"Like what?" Greta yelled. Charlotte whipped her head back and forth searching for something-anything- that could get their attention. Finally she ran out into the corridor and saw on the security guard's desk a plastic pitcher filled with water, his glass was turned upside down to prevent dust from getting inside. She grabbed the pitcher and fled back to chambers. Outside a Rolls Royce and a red Aston Martin pulled up to the curb in front of Town Hall. Monique La Belette climbed out of her Aston Martin and her parents followed suit exiting the /Rolls/.
"Wait here, Bertrand." Yvonne La Belette instructed the chauffeur.
Charlotte burst through the double doors to the chamber and sped up the aisle as if she were doing the shot put hurling the pitcher with all her strength at the dais. Unfortunately Charlotte overshot the mark and instead of hitting the front of the dais, it bounced off the ledge and hit Mike instead, drenching him in ice water from head to toe.
"Oh Lordy!" Yvonne exclaimed from the back of the chamber, her husband and daughter stunned to see the council brawling, Mike soaked and Charlotte with a guilty expression. Futilely Mike brought down his gavel and dropped himself into his chair.
"I believe Miss Stratemeyer wants to have the floor."