I walked into Cracked Editor-In-Chief Jack O'Brien's office, worry etched on my face. It had been a while since I'd been summoned in to this wholly imaginary article-jumping-off-point, and every time it had happened in the past I had soon after ended up on a roller coaster ride of sorrow and gastrointestinal distress.
"Bucholz, I've got bad news," he said, off to a good start. "We're running out of old things to make jokes about."
"I see," I said, lying.
"Do you know how many jokes we made about Lethal Weapon last month?" he asked. I shook my head. "Twenty three thousand."
I looked at him searchingly. "And is that?"
"It is a little higher than normal, yes."
I frowned, wondering how I was going to get out of the office without having to do any work. "I'm getting too old for this shit?" I asked, searchingly. Jack just shook his head sadly.
"Fortunately, I've already come up with a solution."
"Oh thank goodness," I said, getting up to leave. "Good work chief. Savvy and far sighted as ever."
"Shut up and sit down. You're going to write an article on Family Matters. I've just checked the Internet, and nobody has ever written anything about Family Matters. This could be a big scoop for us."
My face sunk. "Oh man. That's the saddest thing I've ever heard."
Jack nodded, eyes damp. I sat back down and together we had a good cry.
So I traveled to Chicago, the setting of TGIF mainstay Family Matters. Arriving at O'Hare I proceeded to rent a car, opting for the GPS system to help me navigate the unfamiliar city. Although my car, a 2001 Pontiac Sunfire, appeared to be made entirely out of plastic and disappointment, the aftermarket GPS system installed within it was surprisingly fancy.
Flicking it on, I fiddled with the settings for a bit. The default voice was a grimly cheerful lady who I immediately disliked. I was amused to see a category for celebrity voices, although it was mostly empty. The voice for KITT was in there, which sounded like a great idea, until I remembered how much I hated that prick.
"Michael, blah blah blah, according to my calculations, blah blah blah, I'm a huge penis-sore."
The only other voice was Bill Kurtis. His name sounded familiar, but it took me a second before I could place it. If you've ever watched anything on A&E you'll know who I'm talking about. You know that distinguished voice who narrates tales of true crime while probably enjoying a glass of port? Yeah, that guy. I activated the feature, and after a few seconds was delighted to hear Kurtis's unmistakable voice resonate throughout the car:
"Hello, I'm Bill Kurtis. Before we set out on this journey, would you like to tell me your name, so as to personalize your driving experience?"
"All right," I said, a little unsure of myself. "I'm Chris Bucholz."
"Hello Chris. You may begin by entering a destination."
"Uh. Chicago I guess. Just basic Chicago please."
"2:00pm. Chris Bucholz heads south out of O'Hare airport's rental parking lot, towards Chicago."
"Oh awesome!" I exclaimed, putting the car into gear and following Kurtis's instructions.
"Keeping to the right as he approaches the interchange, Chris spots Chicago's iconic skyline in the distance. Clouds blot the horizon; clouds well suited for casting shadows... over murder."
"Yeah!" I shrieked. "Yeah! This is exactly how awesome life should be all the time."
Bill spoke again. "I take it from the elevated pitch of your response that you enjoy this style of pathfinding. Would you care to tell me a bit more about yourself, so as to better personalize your voyage?"
I nodded vigorously. "Sold. Completely sold. OK. I'm a writer. For Cracked. I'm here researching an article."
"As in Cracked Magazine? Is that still around?"
"After a fashion, yes. Wow. You're really interactive, hey?"
"This is an extremely advanced personal navigation system, yes," Bill responded. "Powerful heuristic language detection and response systems, 3G network connection, access to an enormous database online and off." He paused to let that digest. "Taking exit 27 in a half mile, Cracked writer Chris Bucholz drove down the chilly Chicago streets, towards events that would soon change his life forever."
I laughed. "That's great! And it could apply to basically anything."
"Indeed. That's a little narrator's trick for you."
"So this is the Winslow house," I said, looking up at it. It didn't look like I remembered, but that was almost certainly because I didn't actually remember what it looked like.
Bill narrated my thoughts accurately. "2:45 pm. Chris looked up at the North Chicago home, once used for the exterior shots from the hit sitcom Family Matters. A hint of worry crept into his voice. Something was wrong."
"What? How did you know that?"
"I didn't. But the story plays out better if something seems wrong."
"Huh. Well there actually is something wrong. I've got to write a ground-breaking, ball-clenchingly good piece on Family Matters."
"Family Matters? You are referring to the ABC sitcom from the 1990s?"
"Are you a big fan of that show?"
"All good people are."
A lengthy pause, while the GPS processed that concept. "Yes. Well although the show was set in Chicago, it was filmed almost entirely in Los Angeles."
"Did you do much research before coming to Chicago?"
I hesitated. "I bought some M&M's for the plane."
Another pause. "I don't know that that's necessarily research," Bill Kurtis said. I winced; he was right.
After a few seconds, Bill cleared his throat, which was probably unnecessary for a computer, but felt conversationally appropriate. "Well, all is not lost. I've searched my database, and have found several noteworthy locations somewhat related to the production and cast of that show. I can direct you to them if you like."
"That would be great! Wow. That was lucky." I settled back in my seat, exhaling.
"Columnist Chris Bucholz made a U-turn at the next area where it was safe to do so. His features tensed in anticipation."
"Anticipation... for murder!" I squealed.
"Hmm," Bill Kurtis responded.
"3:30 pm. Chris Bucholz arrives at Dan-D-Mart, the inspiration for the grocery store where Eddie worked briefly in the third season."
"Wow," I said, underwhelmed. Ever seen any grocery store anywhere? Then you've seen Dan-D-Mart. Natives who have lived their whole lives beneath the Amazon jungle canopy could visit here, and say that this Dan-D-Mart looked a bit trite and predictable.
"Is this what you were looking for?" Bill Kurtis asked.
"Oh sure. Sure. I'm just taking notes. OK. Done. What else you got?"
"4:00 pm. Chris Bucholz arrives at the section of the lakefront seen in the opening credits."
"Columnist Bucholz is excited. The pieces of the puzzle are finally falling in to place."
"Yeah, no. Not really. Look. I don't know if you "get" humor or what, but I'm not sight-seeing here. I need to know stuff about Family Matters that no one else knows. Funny stuff. You know? Something incredibly offensive maybe? Biologically obscene. That kind of thing? I'm trying to make people cry here."
"Searching. Searching. Yes. I know exactly what you mean. Chris Bucholz took his next right onto Jackson. Unwilling to let temporary setbacks slow him, he pursued this, his last and most promising lead."
"5:00 pm. Columnist Bucholz pulled up to Fidget, a Chicago nightclub on the south side. A tip from a reliable source had led him here, the location of a 1998 incident where the actor who played Urkel once accidentally received a handjob from a man."
Whether that actually happened or not (I will report it as fact regardless) there was little to see now. From the outside, Fidget looked like any other shitty concrete building that someone had decided to paint maroon. A neon sign hung over the battered door. I would be inclined to say that it had seen better days, but that was really just speculation. Maybe this was as good as Fidget had ever been. It was entirely possible I was standing witness to Fidget's glory days.
"Well this is fascinating," I said, annoyed. "You think they're open for lunch?"
"I'll check," Bill Kurtis said, not getting it. I was momentarily relieved to find out the thing didn't understand sarcasm. "No, it doesn't open until 9. I'll see if I can make some reservations."
"Yeah, you do that," I muttered under my breath as I got out of the car. I was rapidly discovering Luddite tendencies within me that I didn't know I had. Walking up to the front of the club, I peered into the smoky windows. No troubling handjobs to see there. I checked around back on the off chance I'd run into Reginald VelJohnson sleeping in a cardboard box. Nope.
What was I doing here? How was "Hanging around piss soaked alleys in search of MHJs (man-hand-jobs)" going to look on the expense report? I wasn't too worried about the article now. I was pretty sure I could just take the Wikipedia article and put that into a list somehow. "The 8 Most Things about Family Matters." I mean fuck it, right? It's just the Internet.
I returned to the front of the club and got back in the car, starting the engine. "Chris returned to the car, frustrated at the lack of progress," Bill Kurtis narrated. "But little did he know, a break in the case was about to come out of nowhere." Before I could take off my shoe and hit the GPS unit with it, I was interrupted by the sound of screeching tires.
In the street beside me, another car shuddered to a halt. A really wild looking dude leaped out of it, sweating like mad. Crazy eyes. He pulled a backpack out with him and walked over to where I was parked. Opening the back door, he tossed the bag inside, yelling "Here! Everything you ever wanted to know about Family Matters! Now leave me the fuck alone!"
He slammed the door and left before I could respond, not that I really had a response prepared for that. "Bwah?" maybe. "Gurgle?" Anyways. He got back into his car and peeled away, while I craned my neck to watch him go. Huh. The little sticker on his rear bumper indicated he rented his car from the same place I did.
I leaned over and peered into the back seat. The backpack looked harmless enough, but there was no way in hell I was looking inside to see what was almost certainly a collection of old shoes or interesting turds or whatever crazy people collected. "The mysterious stranger and his parting gift haunted Columnist Bucholz's thoughts. A sign of the growing problem of mental illness in America, or a clue?" Bill Kurtis wondered aloud.
"Honestly dude, I don't even" I sighed, exasperated, checking my watch. "Just point me back to the airport. This whole scene has gone several Japanese websites too far past normal for my taste."
"Chris Bucholz turned left at Holland street and proceeded south. The case was getting colder."
"This does not look like the way to the airport Bill."
"6:15. The sun had long since sunk into the sky, and in the darkness, dark thoughts emerged. Columnist Bucholz, the case gone cold before him, began regarding his informant suspiciously. Many years of experience living on the Internet gave him a sense for duplicity. He wondered if he was being played."
"No I stopped wondering about the same time you told me to turn off into the abandoned fish canning district. I've actually reached the point where I've decided to turn you off and navigate like my father did: by yelling at Mom."
"I wouldn't do that if I were you."
"OH, AND WHY'S THAT MAGELLAN?"
"Because your only chance of getting out of this alive is to do exactly what I say."
"Well OK, but I sure hope you're about to tell me to slap you with my dick, because"
High beams in the rear view mirror. Behind me one of those ice-cream truck sized SUVs roared up, passed, then swerved in front of me. I jammed on the brakes, sending the shitty little Pontiac into a barely controlled skid. I came to a stop, the SUV halting a little more gracefully just in front of me. Another little rental sticker on the back bumper. A big greasy looking dude came out, the kind of guy who looks like he's always in the market for a larger gold watch, and doesn't like taking a lot of shit from comedy writers.
"I'd do everything this guy says," Bill Kurtis suggested.
"Eeeaaaaaaaaaaat meeeeeeeeeeee," I hissed under my breath, keeping my lips still. The skeezy looking guy approached my window. I opened it.
"You're not Bill," he said.
Ahh. The pieces finally fell in to place.
"He got lost," I grinned.
He squinted at me, probably estimating how dirty his gold watch would get if he killed me. "You have the stuff?"
"Back seat," I said, jerking my head in that direction, unlocking the door locks. He eyed me once up and down, then opened the rear door, plucking out the backpack. He unzipped it, peering inside. Closing it again, he slammed the rear door.
"Wait here," he said, returning to the SUV and getting inside.
"Chris Bucholz watched the events proceeding, unsure of what he'd just witnessed. Quietly, and without making any sudden moves, he shifted the car into reverse," Bill Kurtis whispered. I gently did as he suggested, trying not to look like I was taking instruction from the disembodied voice of A&E's famed true crime narrator.
A light flicked on in the SUV. I could see the guy's silhouette inside.
"Working on an informants tip, Chris Bucholz mashed the gas peddle down, hard," Bill Kurtis urged.
"Fuck," I squeaked, mashing the gas peddle down. The car whined backwards, quickly redlining the little reverse gear. Through the windshield I watched the guy step out of the SUV, looking back at me confused. His confusion ended abruptly a second later when he exploded, along with his skin and most of the SUV.
"So a brother-in-law who works for a GPS company and a lifetime of studying true crime taught you everything you needed to commit your own, perfect murder?" I surmised, as we drove back to the airport.
"Murders," Bill corrected me. "Plural. This wasn't the first Columnist Bucholz."
"So who was that guy? Some drug dealer? Are you trying to take over someone's turf?"
"No. That guy was a cell phone salesmen I think. I'm not sure. He looked at me funny in a restaurant a couple weeks back. I think he was talking about me. Probably. At least I think that was the guy."
"So you orchestrated the world's most elaborate murder, coordinating however many stooges in rental cars across the city, moving pieces into place like some kind of more-demented-than-normal wargamer, all to off a guy who might have been talking about you."
I frowned. "So I guess retelling brutal murders in a staid, fatherly voice for 20 years is a good way to go basically insane."
"Oh daisy, yes," Bill replied. We approached the airport.
"7:45 pm. Turning in to the car rental return lot at O'Hare airport, the true nature of the madness bubbling away inside all men is laid bare to Columnist Bucholz. He could tell the police, or even the whole world, but who would believe him? It would be dismissed as a spoof, a lark, a hackneyed rip-off of at least a half dozen different Hollywood thrillers."
"Too true," I nodded, while collecting my belongings. I noted down the car's mileage, accidentally fumbling the pen when I finished, dropping it into my lap. Fishing it out, it hit me. "Oh, of course," I smiled, the story's dnouement crystallizing in my mind.
"Hey Bill? I don't recall any Hollywood thrillers ending like this," I said, stripping off my pants and leaning forward over the dash. "Now what you just did is hackneyed. But this? This is just crazy enough to be true."
"What are you doing? What's that sound? Oh no. Stop that!" Bill protested.
"Oh no. But you know what it could use though? Some narration? Here. I'll help. Thwap Thwap Thwap Thwap Thwap Thwap Thwap Thwap."