11

The door to Calderone’s room was ajar. Ed knocked on his way in, expecting to find him alone and out of it. He was neither.

“Oh, excuse me,” Ed stammered. “Sorry.”

He took a step back at the sight of a nurse leaning over Calderone, who was sitting up in bed. In the hospital gown, the larger-than-life magazine mogul looked surprisingly slight.

“Rosenberg?” Calderone exclaimed, sounding remarkably chipper. “It’s seven in the morning, for Chrissake.”

Ed reversed his retreat and stepped back into the room. The nurse fiddled with the IV bag hanging from a chrome pole and the tube running into Calderone’s arm. She pulled a tissue from the pocket of her uniform and dabbed her eyes. Was she crying? Calderone saw Ed notice.

“My sister-in-law, Christina. She works here. How long now, Tina?”

“Five years,” the woman sniffled, stuffing the tissue back into her pocket. It took a moment, then Ed recognized her from the party. She was Jimmy’s wife, the one who had come between Jimmy and the champagne and had quietly seethed as he groped the beauties in white.

“She thought she might save the cost of feeding me next Thanksgiving,” Calderone continued jovially, “but no such luck.”

“Ted,” Christina said, “that’s not funny.”

Her eyes glistened with tears. She fluffed his pillows and smoothed his covers.

“What doesn’t kill you,” Calderone replied, “makes you stronger. The doctor says I have a liver of steel. They’re letting me out tomorrow.”

“I’ll stop by later,” Christina said.

She gave him a sisterly peck on the cheek, squeezed his hand, and left.

“Can you believe her?” Calderone marveled. “Forty-three and still a fox. She was one of my first centerfolds. Worked for me in circulation before marrying Jimmy. When their youngest when to school, she became a nurse. She’s into all that alternative health shit. Look what she brought me—”

He turned to one side, slowly, to keep from disturbing the IV line. His free hand scooped a small bottle off the bedside table. He read the label.

“‘Milk thistle seed extract.’ Supposed to be good for the liver. Tina ought to know. She shovels it down Jimmy’s throat.”

“Your brother, right?”

“Yeah. Poor fuck’s got cirrhosis. Before he married Tina, his girlfriend was a bottle. Then he got hepatitis C. Only we didn’t find out until a few years ago. He was doing okay, but in the last year or so, he’s worse, shaky on his feet, fuzzy in the head. But still an ass-grabber, God love him. What Tina’s had to put up with, you don’t want to know. But Jimmy was born with a hard-on—and he’ll die with one.”

Here, Ed mused, was the born-again publisher of the magazine for committed couples waxing philosophical about his brother’s chronic philandering.

“So, what got you out of bed so early?” Calderone asked.

“Dar Gardner. You know she’s here?”

“Yeah. Doctor told me. Really glad she made it. I’d be in deep shit without her.”

“She’s my wife’s best friend—”

“Jolie, right?”

“Julie,” Ed corrected. “You know Dar’s husband, Todd?”

Calderone nodded.

“He called last night, said Dar was in the ICU. Julie took their boys to our place. I came up to be with him. Been here all night.”

“How’s she doing?” Calderone sounded genuinely concerned.

“It was touch and go for a while. But she pulled through and the doctor says she’ll recover. How are you doing?”

Calderone shrugged, opening the palm of one hand toward the ceiling. “Fine—for a guy who ate poison mushrooms. You know what they call ’em?
Death caps. Cute, huh? Last night, those mushroom cups. I had one.”

“This might be some horrible accident,” Ed ventured, “but there were death threats against your writer. I called the police.”

“Oh, so that was you. Doc said somebody did. My assistant’s trying to track down Grubman. But I’m really worried about Val. I saw her eat one of the mushroom things. I called her home, her cell—no answer.”

Just then, Ed heard a tinny rendition of the opening bars of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It was Calderone’s phone. Gingerly, he reached over to the bedstand.

“Hi, Suzy. Shit. How bad? Thank God. Where is she? Get over there. Anything she needs, get it. What about Grubman? All right. Call me if you hear.”

He flipped the phone shut, inhaled sharply, then exhaled deeply.

“Val’s at St. Mary’s.” It was a small hospital in the Haight by Golden Gate Park. “But she’s okay. Same deal, death caps. She got it about like me. My assistant’s going over there. No word on Grubman.”

A TV was mounted near the ceiling in a corner of the room. They both had the same thought. Maybe the morning news had something.

Calderone reached for the remote, but a wire tethered it to the wall. He yanked at it, frustrated, unable to reach the buttons.

“Fuck! Every hotel on earth has free-standing remotes, and this shithole has them chained.”

“Want a hand?” Ed asked.

“Got a wire cutter?”

Ed smiled. “I have a knife.”

He’d carried a Swiss Army knife since his favorite uncle gave him one for his bar mitzvah. He stepped around the bed, then stopped short.

“Oh, shit. No knife. They took it at SFO.”

Ed knew pocket knives were forbidden after September 11. But on a flight to a cousin’s wedding, he forgot to leave his knife home and it got confiscated.

Calderone shot him a sympathetic look, then struggled to his side and was able to work the thing. He flipped to Channel 5. Kim Nakagawa’s face, rounded by advanced pregnancy, filled the screen.

“In San Francisco, an investigative journalist is dead, poisoned just hours after claiming his life had been threatened.”

Ed gasped. Calderone pursed his lips. Kim looked shaken.

“Ira Grubman, of New York City, was pronounced dead at Davies Medical Center an hour ago. Doctors say the cause was poison mushrooms cooked into an hors d’oeuvre he ate at a party last night.”

Ed silently thanked his lucky stars that he’d passed on the tarts.

“The thirty-nine-year-old reporter claimed his life had been threatened in connection with his latest story, an exposé alleging that human breast milk is contaminated by toxic chemicals that harm infants. Grubman’s article appears in
Loving Couple, a new magazine based in San Francisco. Loving Couple is published by Ted Calderone and replaces his controversial twenty-two-year-old men’s magazine Full Disclosure, whose folding Calderone announced last night at the St. Francis Hotel at a gala party celebrating the launch of his new magazine. Also poisoned last night were Calderone, Valerie Kurtzen, the new magazine’s editor, and Darlene Gardner, its publicity director. They are being treated in San Francisco hospitals. Doctors say they are expected to recover. San Francisco police are investigating.”

Calderone hit the button and the screen went black.

“Poor guy,” he said.

“Horrendous,” Ed said. “You’re lucky to be alive.”

Calderone didn’t reply. He stared at the dark TV.

Ed glanced at his watch. Julie would be getting up any minute. He felt a sudden need to hear her voice, to make sure she was all right. He pulled out his phone.

“Take care of yourself,” Ed said, stepping into the corridor. As he dialed his phone, he overheard Calderone bark into his.

“Tina, do me a favor. Pick up some more of that liver herb, would you? Val and Dar could use it.”

Then Calderone made another call.

“Suzy? Yeah, I just heard. Some fucking world, huh? ... Listen, call Warren and tell him to print another three hundred thousand. That’s right: three hundred thousand. It’s going to
fly off the newsstand.”

Ed stopped dialing and listened.

Calderone dialed again. “Yo, Norm, I’m printing an extra three hundred K. You heard me:
three zero zero. Call all the accounts. Tell them it’s their lucky day. They’re getting the biggest bonus circulation in magazine history. Then call the accounts we didn’t land. Tell them they’re assholes. The gravy train just pulled out of the station without them.”