Chinese Philosopher (551 to 479 BC)
Our League of Imperfect Gentlemen was small in number yet populous with diversity, one whose myriad of talents would best befit our crime and assure its success.
A local TV meteorologist.
A popular radio DJ.
A regional magazine writer.
A dairy farm manager.
A bakery president.
A poultry guy.
A Weather Channel rep.
And a butcher.
Over the past two weeks, readers have become familiar with this twisted plot whose evil surfaced more than 20 years ago in the darkened recesses of a barricaded room from whence unshaven faces and stale smoke from stubby cigars read like a midnight murder-mystery as a distant clock toned the witching hour.
It was a bold plan.
It was a calculated plan.
But it was corrupt.
And we knew it.
Yet it happened.
It was simple. Embellish our mid-winter forecasts with threats of deep snows, inevitable sheets of ice and howling, subzero winds to the point that all sane men and women would rush in frenzied panic to their local grocery store and empty the shelves. It was instant sales volume and overnight wealth for the grocers, extra cash for the conspiring newsmen and weather hounds, and lead stories for front pages and broadcast intros.
But at what price?
How much kickback would the newsies demand that grocers kick in?
As previously confessed, I was among the motley crew ... the lone newspaperman who had sold his journalistic soul for ill-gotten gain. And it was I who sought more than chump change. I wanted my cake so that I could eat it too. But the biggest debate raged over the obvious — the price, and conspiratorial profit margins of milk, bread and eggs.
Nobody sitting around this table of culinary shame was an easy touch. Everybody wanted a lion’s share of the pie. As we struggled to reach The Agreement, I could tell my fellow conspirators were far more interested in taking than giving.
The thickening cigar smoke rose slowly, but not so as to unveil faces of the guilty.
“My forecasts ain’t cheap,” a throaty weatherman said in gravel tone. The smoke and dim light concealed his features. I couldn’t tell if he was local or Weather Channel.
“What’ll it take?” the firm-jawed grocer asked.
“One good, convincing forecast of 8 inches of snow will get you a penny per dozen eggs sold, 2 cents for a jug of milk and another cent for loaf of bread,” the grocer answered.
The room went silent. I broke the ice.
“That’s a lot of pennies,” I said. “But if your shelves empty out too fast in the rush, we lose. The bigger our cut, the better off we’ll be.”
“You guys deliver the forecast and we’ll restock ASAP,” the grocer declared. “I have contacts. Bread men. Milk guys. Eggers. They’re in the bag. We won’t run out.”
“You sell store-label generics?” the magazine guy asked.
The grocer frowned.
“What’s it matter?” he demanded.
“It matters,” the mag man retorted. “People ain’t dumb. Bread’s bread. If people can buy it for a dollar less, that’s what they do. I say we get a bigger cut on generic bread ... milk and eggs too. And anything else that don’t have a brand name.”
“No dice,” the bakery president interjected. “When the snow forecasts hit, our people will be up all night baking more bread. We’ll have to pay ’em overtime. We can’t give up more cut to you reporters.”
The room fell silent.
Fearing a stalemate, I made eye contact with the grocer whose eyes I could not see.
“You need us,” I reminded him.
He scowled but recognized truth.
“ ... A penny more,” the grocer offered.
“On everything?” the DJ quizzed.
The grocer wasn’t happy and the baker slowly nodded his ashen face.
“ ... Yeah,” came the grocer’s delayed reply.
“What about other stuff?” came a voice to my left. It was the dairy farmer. He sounded country.
“What other stuff?” the grocer demanded in a gruff way.
We knew what was coming.
“ ... Toilet paper,” the farmer answered.
“No!” the grocer screamed. “You checked the price of paper products lately?”
“How ‘bout just a cut on double-ply?” another deep voice suggested.
“Who are you?” the irritated baker asked.
“I thought we agreed no names,” the voice said.
“No names,” the grocer affirmed. “We agreed. This guy’s a butcher. But no names.”
“Is he a cut above the rest?” I smirked.
No one spoke.
I quickly regretted my insolence.
The butcher pulled a long, stained knife from his belt and placed it atop the table, and offered, “Yeah.”
“Never mind,” I gulped.
“No deal on anything paper,” the grocer repeated. “We have to draw the line.”
Shadowed eyes locked.
“Are we good?” the grocer asked, scanning the circle of gruff silhouettes.
All rose. And the room emptied. No handshakes. No smiles. Just nods.
The Agreement was sealed.
We knew what was to be done.
All accepted our selfish roles.
The evil weave we had strung.
Its dastardly influence now to become a cold part of each mid-winter.
That was more than two decades ago.
Since that late night of no return, each conspirator has pocketed more pennies than Peter Pan peanuts.
I among them.
But now it’s over.
And the truth shall set us free.
Our League of Imperfect Gentlemen, and The Agreement, lie in ruins.
And we the guilty shall pay the price.