What Ever Happened To Smoking? (A Crime/Conspiracy Short Story)

When a journalist is kidnapped and forced to suppress his article on alcohol’s connection to cancer, he stumbles on a conspiracy far more disturbing than he could have ever imagined.

Written by Gregory Patrick Travers

She sits across from me and shifts in the booth, adjusting her posture until her neck is plumb as a giraffe. It’s been two years since our divorce and I’m still thankful I no longer have to hear her lecture me about my slouch.

Our waiter notices the break in our conversation and stops at our table with a fresh pot of coffee, inquiring if we are in need of a top off. Mable’s expression flattens and she responds by putting her hand over the top of her mug and shaking her head, her eyes remaining on her plate. I smile at the young man and move my mug closer to him. After I’m filled I thank him and he leaves us alone. When he’s gone Mable’s eyes rise again and a smile, or something resembling a smile, returns to her face.

“I mean, sure. He makes a lot of money. But that’s not why I’m with him. I mean, I married you, right?” She laughs as if recalling some embarrassing childhood memory. “But he’s just so driven and caring. You should meet him. I know you two would get along.”

What she really means is, “You should meet him because I’d love to show you how much better he is than you.”

Over the years I’ve come to decipher Mable’s coded language. When she says that money doesn’t matter it’s because she wants you to know she has it. When she talks about how much she hates doing yard work it’s because she wants you to know she owns a home. When she tells you she needs some time apart to think it’s because she’s fucking the Health Minister and filing for divorce. That’s the thing about Mable. Her smile is sweet and her skin is soft, but her soul is empty and her heart is black. Her wardrobe is polite and professional, but her mind is stormy and vulgar.

I don’t miss her anymore. I haven’t in some time. I’m not even sure why I continue to meet her on these pointless bi-weekly coffee dates. I guess, despite how much I’ve grown to despise her, I am still very much her dog. I come when she calls and I sit when she tells me to.

“I’m sure we would,” I say with a forced grin before taking a sip from my coffee.

“So, what about you?” she asks, finally turning the topic from herself. “Been keeping busy?”

Unfortunately, I have no new purchases or love interests to dance around. I want to tell her about the article I’m working on but I don’t, knowing it will only circle around to how much her Health Minister boyfriend has done for cancer prevention. But she doesn’t need to tell me. I already know. Everyone does. With the election season approaching the Liberal Party has done their very best to remind the public how vital the government’s role has been in the ongoing campaign to rid the country of smoking. They hadn’t succeeded yet, but in the last year they had passed bills that banned smoking in parks, patios and basically anywhere that wasn’t in the privacy of your own home.

“I’m doing okay,” I answer convincingly. “Busy with work.”

“Good. Stay busy. You unravel when you have too much time on your hands.”

I decide to validate her delusion that she still cares about my well-being and choose not to respond. It would only start a fight to which my chances of winning are super-model thin.

Shortly thereafter, we pay our separate bills and go our separate ways; her to the parking lot, me to the bus station.

The waiting cubicle at the bus stop is full. An old, wrinkly man sits squished between the glass wall and an obese, ginger-haired lady surrounded by her bags of groceries. Three teenage girls of ebony complexion fill up the remaining standing space. One of them braids the hair of her friend while the third rehearses dance moves, singing loudly to herself and the rest of the street. Their eyes narrow and sneer at the sight of me.

I don’t mind. After my lunch with Mable I am in need of a cigarette. I step to the edge of the curb, pull out a smoke from my pack and light up. After a couple of puffs I hear a sharp succession of coughs from behind me. It’s the ginger-haired lady—glaring at me with fire in her eyes. She looks at the no smoking sign painted on the glass, then back to me. I want to smile and say, “It’s not the second-hand smoke that’s gonna kill ya, sweety. It’s the first-hand fistfuls of that party pack of Twinkies on your lap.”

But my spiteful train of thought is quickly derailed by the harsh squeal of tires behind me. I turn around just in time to see a white cube van hop the curb with a thud, nearly running me flat over in the process. I stand there, frozen in shock. Even as the side door slides open and two men dressed in all black and ski masks jump out at me I can’t muster the thoughts needed to prepare an escape. The short one grabs me and pulls me towards him. My cigarette falls from my lips. With the help of his vertically gifted assailant they lift me off my feet and shove me inside the van.

***

After what seems like a few hours tied to a chair in a room with nothing but the electrical buzz from the fluorescent lights flickering above to keep me company, the door opens and two men walk in. By their shape, I assume they are the two men who accosted me, though their masks have been removed. The short one is a balding, pale sort with crooked teeth and a loose, wobbly chin. The tall, skinny one is just as dentally ill-equipped but his facial features are more handsome than his tiny counterpart.

Though I’m embarrassed for my cowardice, I plead my case to my captors, “Please! You have the wrong guy! There must be some mistake! I’m not who you think I am!”

The tall, skinny one pipes up first. “How do you know you ain’t who we’s lookin’ for if you don’t know who we’s looking for?”

“I thought you journalists were supposed to be smart,” says his short companion.

The tall one follows, “Your name is Ryan Seawell, is it not?”

For a second I think about denying it. But my wallet is in my back pocket with all of my ID’s and I don’t want to know what these guys do to liars.

“Yes. That’s me,” I say.

The tall one smiles, vindicated. “And you’re a freelance reporter, is you not? Currently working on an article for the Gazette about alcohol’s connection to cancer, is you not?”

“At least you were working on that article,” says the short one. “Something tells me you’re about to have a change of heart.”

It suddenly dawns on me why these guys brought me here. For a second I feel important, like I’m deep throat from Watergate. Then the short one pulls a gun on me and I don’t feel so important anymore. Nothing does, actually. All I feel is regret for getting into this lousy line of work.

I got into freelancing so I could cover the exciting stories. So I wouldn’t have to be in an office, working some mind-numbingly boring job. But staring back at this ugly bastard pointing a gun in my face, a boring job doesn’t seem so bad. Give me the sore ass and the carpal tunnel…just get me the fuck out of here.

“Look,” I start. “I don’t know who you guys are, but if you don’t want me to write that article than I won’t. I swear. I could give a shit about the article. You have nothing to worry about, believe me.”

The short one lowers his gun and gives a satisfied grin. “A change of heart. Good for you.”

The tall one pulls out a switchblade and flicks it open, walks behind me and cuts me free of my restraints. I feel the blood rushing back to my hands.

“Just remember,” adds the short one. “We know who you are. We know where you live. Don’t disappoint us.”

***

At home, I sit on the couch and flip mindlessly through the television stations. Now that my life isn’t in immediate danger my mind starts to wander, trying to make sense of the events that had taken place earlier in the day. Someone out there doesn’t want the public to know about alcohol’s relation to cancer. The only thing I can’t figure out is why does my article matter? I mean, the science is available for anyone to see if they took the time to look for it. But maybe that’s my answer right there. When my article went to print people wouldn’t have to look for it anymore. It would be right there in front of their faces in black and white.

I stop at a channel where the Health Minister and Mable’s new toy, Troy Markinson, is being interviewed on a daytime television talk show. I forget the name but it doesn’t matter. They’re all the same—garbage. The host, a middle-aged blonde woman, sits crossed-legged in a white skirt, holding her cue cards and gazing at Markinson with beaming admiration. He sits across from her in an expensive but plain suit, his salt and peppered hair well-groomed and his smirk confident and downright infuriating.

I don’t know why I find myself disliking him. My feelings for Mable have long since dimmed. Maybe it just bugs me that someone had succeeded where I had failed. Despite my distaste, I keep the channel where it is.

“Not only are you the youngest MP to sit in the House of Commons,” says the host; Emily something. I recognize her now. She used to be a judge on one of those singing competition shows. “But it is under your Liberal government that we’ve seen a decrease in public smoking by over forty percent in the last three years after your bill was passed making it illegal to smoke in public parks, patios, construction sites and more. Your aggressive stance on anti-smoking has earned you the nickname “The Smoke Buster”. I think most of the country is thankful for the progress has been made in the quest for better health.”

“Well that’s just it right there, Emily,” he replies. “Health. That’s my job and I take it very seriously. 48,000 people die a year in smoking-related deaths and that’s a number that is too big to ignore. I think the country, for the most part, has woken up to the dangers of smoking and that has made this process a lot easier. The people want to see an end to cancer and this bill prohibiting smoking in public areas is a good first step to seeing that happen.”

“And the future is looking bright indeed,” says Emily. Her eyes drift from Markinson to the camera. “Stay with us for more health talk with Health Minister Troy Markinson. We’ll be back after this word from our sponsors.”

I can’t help but chuckle when the commercial that follows is an ad for Absolute Vodka. But then I get to thinking and something occurs to me. How come there are no goons with guns trying to suppress the dark side of smoking? They have warnings on the pack, countless anti-smoking ads, they’ve taken it out of movies and banned all advertisements and sponsorships. Why, when the number of fatalities between the two vices was so comparable, did one get chastised and shit on while the other was revered and celebrated. Something told me the answer might be a better article than my original idea.

But you can’t write the article, says a voice in my head. Or else bad guys will kill you.

But if you don’t write the article you won’t have rent and you’ll be out on your ass, says another voice.

They both make valid points.

I decide it couldn’t hurt to learn a little more and I pick up the phone and dial the number of an old friend…

***

“Mr. Green will see you now,” says the smoking hot Asian girl at the receptionist desk. I thank her and get up from the couch in the waiting area of the Darts sales office. The whole building is modern and upscale; making me wonder how they afford such lavish conditions after smoking’s been hit with all the bad publicity in the media over the last decade.

Timmy meets me at the door, dressed in pressed khakis and a Calvin Klein collared button-up. I haven’t seen him since high school. He looks great. A lot better than I do.

“Ryan Seawell,” he says with a fond grin and a hand on my shoulder. “It’s good to see you. Come on in, bud.”

I follow him into his office and take a seat across from him at his desk. I can’t help but feel a little insecure at how well he’s done for himself. His décor is just as respectable as his ensemble.

“I’m glad you called,” he says as he sits back in his leather chair. “It’s been a long time. How’s Mable? You guys pop out any kids yet?”

“Actually, we got divorced two years ago…”

He winces. “That’s a shame…she was a tiger-cat.”

“Speaking of tiger-cats, that secretary you got out there is crazy hot…”

He shrugs. “Yeah. I fucked her. Whateves…So you said you had some questions for me?”

“Yeah,” I say, starting to relax. “The craziest thing happened to me today. I’m working on an article for the Gazette about alcohol’s connection to cancer and this morning I was kidnapped by these two very strange gangsters who threatened to kill me if I published the article.”

“Shitty…”

“I guess what I want to know is, how does smoking still make money even after all the studies proven how bad it is for you?”

Timmy leaned back in his chair and put his fingertips together. “We’ve definitely taken a hit, that’s for sure. In the sixties over seventy percent of the population smoked. Now it’s more like seven. But we always find more avenues for sales. Developing countries, for one. I make way more sales internationally than I do domestically. They don’t really understand the science yet. Coca-Cola does the same thing…” He stopped and caught himself. “This is friend talk. Don’t be putting this in your article and fucking up my life, Ryan.”

I chuckle softly. “I won’t. But I don’t get it…Drinking kills more than 11,900 people a year. It causes all sorts of cancers, not to mention the people who die in drunk driving accidents or the people who suffer physical, mental and sexual abuse because of it. How come alcohol doesn’t have the same reputation?”

“Well that’s simple,” says Timmy. “You have to pay to play. The alcohol industry is putting a lot of money in the pockets of politicians to keep mum on the whole thing. The cigarette industry used to do the same. That’s why even after these studies started to come out, the argument always remained that the science wasn’t proven. A lot like global warming.

“But in the nineties, the tobacco companies realized that they didn’t have to give out any kickbacks for people to smoke and so they cut off the money train. The government didn’t like that and that’s when the Master Settlement Agreement happened in ’98 and the tobacco industry got sued for billions. From then on it’s been nothing but bad press. They released all the information they had been keeping under wraps and our industry learned a hard lesson for trying to take on the big boys. Obviously, the alcohol industry has learned from our mistakes. That’s probably why these guys are out to shut you up.”

“You think the Health Minister knows about this?”

Terry laughs. “Duh. That kickback money is probably going directly into his bank account.”

I get up and shake Timmy’s hand. “Thanks, Tim…It’s been nice talking to you again.”

“No worries, Ry-Guy,” he says. “I hope you don’t get killed. The truth now and days will do that a lot faster than a cigarette.”

***

I sit on the curb in front of Mable’s house smoking a cigarette. When she pulls up into her driveway she shakes her head and smiles, putting the car in park.

“Still smoking I see,” she lectures as she exits the vehicle. She’s wearing those oversized sunglasses that I hate and her Louis Vuitton handbag dangles loosely from her wrist of one arm while she jingles the keys in her other hand. “What’s a matter? Lunch wasn’t enough?”

“I got some news about your boyfriend,” I say, flicking my butt onto the road.

“Well, do you now,” she says curiously. “Come inside. I’m dying for a drink.”

I follow her into her house, a three bedroom townhome, built recently and equipped with all the modern amenities. As I tell her about all that I’ve learned she goes to the cupboard for a glass, the fridge for some ice and then to the bottle of whiskey on the counter to finish it off. By the time she takes her first sip, I’ve finished my piece.

“You think my boyfriend is taking bribes from the alcohol industry?” she says, almost humoured by the idea.

“I don’t think,” I say. “I know. Two guys with guns kidnapped me today, trying to force me not to write my article on how the IARC has labelled alcohol a class one carcinogen.”

“I see,” she says. She clearly doesn’t believe me.

I continue on anyway. “You gotta lose this guy. He’s trouble.”

Mable puts her drink down on the counter and looks down at her feet as if trying to figure out the best way to say the words in her head. “Look, Ryan…I know our divorce has been hard on you. But I don’t feel that way about you anymore. I see you as a buddy. Like someone I’ve known for a really long time.”

She thinks I’m saying all this to try and win her back. She doesn’t realize how off base she is. I want to tell her how much I can’t stand her, how the divorce was the best thing that ever happened to me, how the only reason I still keep in touch is out of some missed placed loyalty to whatever little good times we used to have. But I bite my tongue. Despite how strong she likes to portray herself, inside I know she’s like a glass vase; transparent and easily shattered.

“Get over yourself,” I say. “This is a serious issue and a potentially groundbreaking story. I just don’t want you to be on the losing end of it, that’s all.”

“Well, thanks for your concern,” she replies dryly. “But if you don’t mind, I need to take a shower, and the days where you used to join me for that kind of thing have long since passed. So please—to the bus stop with you.”

***

I stand at the entrance to my kitchen waiting for my microwave dinner to beep while at the same time trying to keep my eye on the television playing another rerun of Family Guy. It’s crazy how you can think you’re going to die one minute and then eight hours later go back to completely wasting your life. But I managed to do it pretty seamlessly.

With a telling succession of beeps, my frozen lasagna signals its completion. I open the microwave and pull out the steaming cardboard package, taking a fork from out the drawer and dropping it into the steaming saucy mess.

Back in the family room, or in my case, the “lonely room”, I plop on the couch, ready for another few hours of bad cartoons and Dateline documentaries. Despite having a gun put in my face earlier in the day, I’m still eager to hear about other people being murdered.

Just as I’m about to shovel the first forkful of lasagna in my mouth, a loud banging comes from behind me and the door to my apartment swings open violently. The two men who accosted me earlier enter my foyer pointing their guns at me. I stand up. The lasagna and my fork fall from my hands onto the carpet. I don’t think about it. In a moment my brains might be right there on the carpet with them.

“Long time no see,” says the short, balding one. He’s smiling at me like we’re old friends.

“I told you,” I stutter. “I won’t write it. Please…”

“There’s someone with us who don’t quite believe you,” says the tall one.

Before I can wonder who they’re talking about, a third intruder enters my apartment. Health Minister, Troy Markinson.

He grins at my bewilderment. “Hello, Mr…Seawell, is it?”

I nod for lack of a clever response.

“You obviously know who I am?”

I nod again.

He steps around the couch, followed by his two goons. “Good,” he says. “My girlfriend tells me that you are of the mind that there might be some dirty money switching hands between the alcohol industry and myself. I found this rather interesting and decided that we should discuss this further.”

He motions for me to sit down. I do as I’m told and he takes a seat next to me, but not before dusting off some Dorito crumbs from the cushion. Once seated, he continues, “There’s been a lot of politicians through the years that have been caught with their hand in the cookie jar by some nosey whistleblower, but that’s not going to happen to me. I won’t let it. See, that’s the difference between men like you and men like me. You let the world shit on you so much that you start to think it’s normal. You start to look at people who aren’t getting shit on and get suspicious because in your world getting shit on is a part of life. But that is not my world. In my world, you take what you want because no one is going to hand it to you. In my world, if you get shit on—it’s your own damn fault. And now that you know a little bit about my world, tell me…do you think there’s any shot whatsoever that I am going to let you shit on me?”

At this point, I think I’m done for. His gangster monologue is finished and I figure all that’s left is for me to catch a bullet in the back of the head. Then I hear a woman’s voice from the front door saying, “I can’t believe it…”

It’s a familiar voice. Mable’s voice.

Both mine and Markinson’s heads turn to see Mable at the door. She has one hand on her hip and the other behind her back. On her face is a look I’ve seen many times before. Utter resentment.

Markinson doesn’t even try to explain. He looks to his goons and says, “Grab her. Close the door.”

The two goons swoon in on Mable. But just before they have her in their grasp, she reveals the hand hidden behind her back, holding a small can of mace. She presses down on the trigger and sprays them both in the face. The two of them scream out in pain; the tall one dropping to his knees and the short one running blindly into the wall.

Markinson’s attention is pulled away and in that split second I reach down on the carpet and pick up my fork. I swing in an uppercut motion and drive the fork directly into the underside of his chin. High pressured squirts of blood shoot out from the wound. He drops to the floor, twitching in shock. I don’t stop to see if he’s okay. I jump over the couch, grab Mable by the arm and race out of the apartment without looking back.

TWO WEEKS LATER

I sit across from Mable in our usual booth, picking at the last of my hash browns. Our waiter notices the break in our conversation and stops at our table with a fresh pot of coffee, inquiring if we are in need of a top off. Mable’s expression flattens and she responds by putting her hand over the top of her mug and shaking her head, her eyes remaining on her plate. I smile at the young man and move my mug closer to him. After I’m filled I thank him and he leaves us alone. When he’s gone Mable’s eyes rise again and a smile, or something resembling a smile, returns to her face.

“So, how come I haven’t seen that article in the Gazette? I’ve been looking for it,” she says with a wink.

“The editor says there’s not enough evidence to show Markinson’s been taking bribes. So they decided to run the story about the Minister of Education who sent his mistress a dick pic. I guess the public cares more about people showing dicks than people being dicks…” I take a slow sip of my coffee and relax back in my seat. “Oh, well…at least I got paid. Have you heard from Markinson since?”

“He’s still recovering from when you made him explode like a pizza pocket. But after those two thugs got sentenced one of his assistants called me to try and get me to keep silent on the whole thing. I told them if he or they ever try to contact me again I’ll release the picture of his dick I took when he was sleeping and he’ll be the next politician shunned out of office.”

“You took a picture of his dick?”

“No. But he thinks I did.”

I chuckle softly. “It’s amazing…”

She blows on her coffee. “What is?”

“I spent all this time and energy trying to unravel this big conspiracy and all it took to defeat this guy was the threat of a dick pic.”

She shrugs. “It’s pretty small.”

“Nothing says social justice like outing an asshole’s tiny pecker.”

Mable raises her mug to mine. “Cheers to that.”

The End

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