CHAPTER ONE

Monday, June 17th, 2:19 p.m.   Natalie Daniels stood apart from the other mourners in the rear of Our Lady Victory Catholic Church, clutching a damp balled tissue.  Brilliant sunshine streamed through stained-glass windows far overhead, dappling the spray of white lilies on Evie's casket with iridescent color.  Beside her in the hushed nave Natalie could hear the soft whir of videotape rolling as her cameraman recorded the eulogy for posterity.  And for that night's edition of The KXLA Primetime News.

            "We all knew Evelyn as a woman who grabbed life with both hands," the elderly priest said.  "Whether she was winning ballroom dance competitions or skewering politicians for The Downey Eagle."

            The assemblage chuckled knowingly at the description but Natalie shook her head with a surge of bitterness.  Evie had to write for The Eagle, its circulation all of thirty thousand, because she got fired from KXLA.

            "Evelyn was a rule-breaker," the priest went on.  "And not only when she played bridge or golf or tennis."  The mourners' chuckle grew into a laugh.  "She broke the rules when she became the first woman reporter on Los Angeles television.  She broke the rules when she used the men's restroom because her station had no facilities for women.  And she broke the rules when for two decades she won countless Emmy awards and put her news department on the map."

            And still I had to fight to bring a camera here!  Natalie shook her head in disbelief, angry tears stinging her eyes.  Evie did so much for KXLA but what did the station do for her?  Fire her when she hit forty-five and ignore her death a dozen years later.  Natalie practically had to hijack a cameraman to cover her funeral.

            "Evelyn also cheated death."  The congregation quieted.  "We were friends for forty years but she did not share her burden until she could no longer hide cancer's ravages.  I am filled with admiration for her courage."  The priest's voice caught.  "She was a great lady, our Evelyn Parker.  And now she rests with God.  Let us pray."

            He began a lulling, singsong prayer and Natalie allowed her mind to drift.  How could Evie be gone?  Mentor, friend, relentless booster.  The person most responsible for launching her as an anchor, the person who hand-fed her the ins and outs of television news.  Natalie fought to control a sob that rose in her throat, her compulsion to maintain professional composure battling her grief.  I never thanked her enough.  And now it's too late.

            Flanked by altar boys, the priest moved toward the casket, framed at both ends by standing floral arrangements.  He sprinkled the coffin with holy water, all the while praying in a low monotone.  The warm air, laden with incense, seemed to thicken.

            In the distance Natalie heard a rumble.  She cocked her head, puzzled.  A thunderstorm?  In Los Angeles?  In June?

            The rumble intensified, grew closer.  Far beneath the church's stone flags Natalie felt the earth shudder.  One of the floral arrangements swayed like a drunken sailor, then toppled, clattering to the floor.  Involuntarily Natalie's hand flew to her throat.  No.  It can't be.  Not now.

            Her cameraman Julio turned to her, dark eyes wide.  Both mouthed the dreaded word.  "Earthquake!"  The next moment the ground shifted with such force that Natalie was thrown off her feet.  She dropped to her knees, powerless as she fell to keep her head from banging into a pew.  As pain ricocheted through her skull she was aware of people screaming and shouting, Julio beside her on his knees struggling to keep taping.

            And the noise!  Deafening, like a train pounding through her brain, or a 747 taking off right overhead.

            Seconds passed, the unreal undulation growing in intensity.  Suddenly the earth gave a particularly ugly lurch.  Seventy feet overhead the church's masonry vaulting groaned, then a stained-glass window burst from its frame, the sound a shotgun blast.  Shards of multicolored glass sprayed the congregation like so much deadly confetti, the screaming around Natalie growing frenzied and animal.

            She crawled under a pew, cramming her body into the smallest possible ball.  A vision of a man's dark, intense eyes rose in her mind.  Where is Miles now?  My God, I hope he’s safe.

            The image vanished in the next shock wave, as all at once the church was rocked by one apocalyptic spasm of noise and motion.  Votive candles rolled crazily across the flagstones, the sickly sweet smells of beeswax and incense mingling with acrid dust.  All Natalie could do was cling to the seesawing ground, her head banging repeatedly against the pew, the pain numbing.

            Then, as quickly as it started, the shaking stopped.

            For a moment she was immobilized, too dazed to do anything but remain in her crouch.  Seconds passed.  Around her she could hear people clambering to their feet, the priest appealing loudly for calm.  Slowly she began to believe that indeed, for the moment at least, the earth had settled grudgingly back into place.

            Natalie rose to her full height, struggling to think despite the pounding in her head.  The church had taken an unholy beating.  Now sunshine slanted through three gaping holes high in the nave, lighting the shards of stained glass strewn across the flagstones like crystals in a kaleidoscope.  Votive candles and prayer books lay in piles like abandoned toys, alongside chunks of gold-painted plaster.  But the heavens had worked their magic: she and Julio and their fellow mourners were intact.  Slowly her instincts as a newswoman scrabbled to the surface: Call the station.

            Natalie groped to find her cell phone.  Briefly she shut her eyes.  Oh, Evie.  Even your funeral got overshadowed by a news event.  Now you won't make air.  She conducted a quick personal inventory.  Her head throbbed as though she'd been attacked with a sledgehammer.  Her blonde hair was wrenched free of the neat French twist into which she habitually knotted it for air; dust streaked her black suit; somewhere she'd lost one of her pumps.

            But she was the beneficiary of a miracle, she soon discovered.  Her cell phone worked.

            Natalie jabbed the quick-dial button for the Assignment Desk and picked her way unsteadily toward the central door, trying not to cut her unshod foot on the broken glass.  She’d just wrenched the door open when a female intern answered her call.

            “My God,” Natalie breathed into the phone, momentarily forgetting herself, mesmerized by the spectacle across the street.  A concrete hulk that used to be a portion of the 210 Freeway now pitched at a crazy angle.  Bloodied commuters stood dazedly next to their vehicles, those that hadn't already skidded earthward teetering on the buckled concrete like Tinkertoys.  “It’s Natalie---” she began.

            The intern cut her off.  "Hold for Tony Scoppio."

            Natalie clenched her jaw.  Her new News Director, whom she would gladly return to whatever hole he'd slithered out of.

            He came on a beat later.  "Get your ass back here, Daniels.  Pronto."

            "If you've got juice back at the station I want to go live from here."  Natalie raised her voice above his instant protest.  “I'm at Our Lady Victory in Pasadena and we can see from here that the 210 at Sierra Madre Boulevard collapsed.”

            "No way.  We took a power hit but can get on faster from the studio than from the field."

            "No.  We shouldn’t pass on these pictures and we’re the only crew here!"

            Luckily they’d driven to the church in an ENG truck, which gave them live capability.  Julio edged closer, holding a handkerchief to his forehead.  He pulled it away to reveal a jagged gash.  Natalie arched her brow questioningly and without missing a beat he gave her a thumbs-up.  She returned her attention to the phone, over which she could hear Tony yelling at someone about power hits and generator breakdowns.

            He came back to her.  “Okay, Daniels, but if you're not ready to go live when we're back up, we're taking it from here without you.  Got it?"

            Natalie bit her tongue.  "Got it."

            "And don't say another word to me about that goddamn funeral."  He hung up.

*****

            Tony Scoppio leaned back in his chair and checked his digital stopwatch, which he'd started the moment he and Natalie Daniels had gotten off the phone.  Nine minutes, nine seconds.  And counting.  Still no power.

            He focused his eyes on the six television monitors that sat across from his desk, set to Channels 3, 6, 8, 10, 14, and his own, Channel 12.  It was his responsibility as KXLA’s News Director to keep an eye on the competition all day, every day, news emergency or not.  The early signs were that apart from the collapsed portion of the 210 and a widespread power outage, the temblor hadn’t wreaked much havoc on quake-hardened Los Angeles.  But a 6.2 on the Richter scale still qualified as an emergency.

            He did a quick scan.  Four of his five competitors were live on the air with quake coverage.  Meaning he got lumped with the perennial also-ran in L.A. TV news, Channel 14, the only other station in town incompetent enough still to be running a full-screen PLEASE STAND BY billboard.

            Shit.

            He threw down the remote with disgust and wiped his hands on the stained expanse of his yellow buttondown shirt.  What a shop he'd inherited.  The back-up system goes on the fritz and he's got a bunch of union hires who don't know a generator from Santa Claus.  And a princess anchor talent whining about going live from the field.

            Tony ran an impatient hand through what was left of his graying hair and pushed up the half-glasses that stubbornly refused to park on the bridge of his nose.  Sure, Natalie Daniels was good.  But not only did she cost him seven hundred fifty big ones a year, she had a body that a decade earlier had ceased screaming babe-alicious.  What with the blonde hair and the blue eyes, she looked good, but she looked good for a woman of forty.  That didn’t cut it in an era when “mature” for a local TV female started at thirty-five.  And the viewers of choice, the young guns who fit the demographic profile advertisers had wet dreams over, thought any local anchorwoman more than a decade removed from prom night was a prime candidate for retirement.

            Well, he'd been around KXLA two months now.  Long enough to get the lay of the land.  Long enough to start the ass-kicking.

            His eyes darted back to his own programming, drawn by the sudden onslaught of KXLA's pulsating news theme.  Finally those bozos got the generator going.  So who was gonna show up on the air?  Ken in the studio?  Or Princess from the field?

            Tony hiked the volume until the glass walls of his office vibrated.  In the newsroom heads swivelled but he didn’t give a good  goddamn.  He was boss and he liked news loud.  He pulled a yellow legal pad closer, poising a pen over its pale blue lines.  If Princess screwed up, he’d catch it.  And remember.  Because he needed ratings, and sure as hell wasn’t going to get them with an aging diva on his air.

*****

            At that moment several miles west of KXLA's Hollywood lot, Geoff Marner rocked back in his ergonomically-correct chair to gaze out his huge office windows, which traversed the entire wall and reached from Persian carpet to twelve-foot-high ceiling.  From the 38th floor penthouse of the Century City skyscraper which housed powerhouse entertainment law firm Dewey, Climer, Fipton and Marner, the windows gave off onto a stunning view of the Santa Monica Mountains, baking in garish California sunlight.  Long lines of cars snaked through the streets around his office tower, filled with people who apparently thought a moderate quake was good enough reason to quit work early.

            To Geoff Marner, that was a foreign concept.  His workaholism put paid to the stereotype of Australians as lazy, beach-loving party animals.  Oh, he loved the beach, and parties, putting in at least one appearance at each in any given week.  But those weren’t the arenas in which he passed the lion’s share of his time, not since he’d turned twenty-one and bid farewell to Sydney, the city he still considered the most beautiful in the world.

            He spun around to face the television across his mammoth office, his attention arrested by a pompous-sounding male announcer.  “This is a KXLA News Special Report.  Natalie Daniels reporting.”  Geoff hoisted his long legs atop his mahogany desk and clasped his hands behind his head to watch.       

            Suddenly she appeared, his A-1 client, in front of what looked to be a buckled freeway.  Good for you, Nats.  Terrific back-drop.  His face cracked the kind of smile typically induced by high surf and free time.  But then his grin faded.  She looked a tad the worse for wear.  He spied dust on her black suit and tendrils sprung loose from her hairdo.  Not to mention a bruise on her neck, which apparently she hadn’t even tried to hide with makeup.

            But then again, he realized, this was Natalie Daniels.  Her appearance was no doubt deliberate.  She was heightening the drama, as desirable in TV news as it was in entertainment.

            He raked a hand through his light brown hair and listened to her voice over the live pictures.  There was a great rawness to it, what with the camera hand-held and the word Live superimposed on the screen in can’t-miss red letters.  But not one word she spoke was out of place, not even as she guided viewers around the debris.  He grinned, relieved he'd thought to tape the segment.  An agent never knew when he'd need fresh material for a client's resume reel.

            Minutes passed.  Natalie conducted a few man-on-the-street interviews.  She’s a great ad libber, he thought for the umpteenth time.  Hell, she’s great reading from TelePrompter.  Agents died for clients like her.  He grinned again.  That’s my girl.

*****

            “If you’re just joining us, at 2:25 p.m. seismologists registered a magnitude 6 point 2 earthquake, the epicenter in Paramount, twelve miles south of downtown Los Angeles.”

            Natalie repeated what she knew, which wasn’t much.  She was about five minutes into her live shot and so far had run through what basics she'd gleaned from the wire-service reports and done a few quick-and-dirty interviews with petrified commuters who’d been on the freeway when it plummeted to earth.

            But it was good.  Nothing in TV news was grabbier than strong emotion and good pictures, and she had both.

            “The collapse here appears to be the only substantial damage suffered in the Southland,” she reported.  Out of the corner of her eye she could see the monitor Julio had set up, tuned to KXLA.  The screen was filled with a graphic map of the area instead of with her, which meant she had the luxury of reading from her notes. 

            “Go to Kelly in Santa Monica,” the director’s voice suddenly demanded in her earpiece.  “Tony wants you to go to Kelly.  Now,” he added.

            Her mouth kept moving but her mind raced.  To Kelly in Santa Monica?  Why would Scoppio want to go there?  Was there damage there she hadn’t heard about?

            She finished her thought then segued smoothly into a toss.  “For another perspective we go now to reporter Kelly Devlin in Santa Monica.  Kelly, what do you see from your vantage point?”

            In the monitor she watched Kelly appear, Kelly in all of her fresh-faced glory, dressed in an aviator jacket that managed to look at once battle-scarred and fashionable.  Kelly began to talk and gesture animatedly, then pulled someone next to her to interview, standing so close to him that she remained fully on-screen.

            Natalie rolled her eyes.  It’s the interview they want to see, not you, she thought, then forced herself to review her notes, scrawled in a slim, spiral-bound reporter's notebook.  A minute later she again raised her eyes to the monitor.  Kelly was waxing on, dark-eyed, full-lipped Kelly, standing in front of a grocery store.  But what damage?  Some Ragu jars fell off the shelves?

            Natalie frowned and lay a precautionary hand over her mike, though she knew it wasn’t hot.  “There’s nothing going on there,” she hissed at Julio.  “Do we have a line to Cal Tech?”

            He nodded.  He looked in pain.  The gash in his forehead had darkened from red to purple.

            Another thirty seconds ticked off.  Natalie glanced again at the monitor.  Kelly was on a tight shot, still chattering.  It’s my own damn fault, she thought, irritated.  I’m the one who taught her it's all about airtime.

            That was the name of the game, no question.  The more airtime a talent got, the more recognizable she became.  The higher her star rose.  The more money she made.  All of which in turn translated into still more airtime, and the happy continuation of the cycle.

            Another half-minute.  Kelly's brow was furrowed with concern, her chocolate brown hair blowing lightly back from her forehead.  Who was it who said Kelly had the best TV-news hair?  Miles.

            Miles.  Natalie hadn’t let herself think about him, but now his image resurfaced in her brain like a life preserver on water.  I wonder if he’s watching.

            She snapped to attention.  If he is, he’s seeing Kelly.  Knowing the director could see her from the control booth she stared meaningfully into the lens and motioned for her audio to be brought up.

            Nothing.

            She frowned and motioned again.  But it wasn’t the hum of her own mike she heard next, but the director’s voice.  “Tony wants to stay with Kelly."

            Natalie shook her head vigorously, mouthing the word no.  They should be going to Cal Tech!  This was ridiculous!  Why should viewers be held hostage to a report from a site with no damage?  

            Half a minute later she detected a slight hum and knew that finally her mike was hot.  “Thank you, Kelly,” she interjected in a commanding tone, not bothering to wait for a pause in the blather.  She noted with satisfaction the uplift of Kelly’s perfectly arched brows as, surprised, she stopped speaking mid-sentence.  A moment later Natalie could see in the monitor that she’d replaced Kelly full-screen.

            Good!  She did a quick re-cap, ready to toss to seismologists standing by at Cal Tech.

            “Wrap,” the director ordered in her ear.  “Tony wants you off.  All the latest at 10, blah blah, you know the drill.”

            What?  Natalie struggled not to lose her train of thought.

            “Now,” the director snapped.  “Ten seconds.”

            She felt a surge of frustration.  But there was no way to fight the edict so she shifted gears into goodbye mode.  “Please join Ken Oro and me tonight at 10 on The KXLA Primetime News---”  Julio had five fingers up.  “---with all the latest on the quake and the other news."  Three fingers.  "Thank you for joining us.”

            She stared into the lens until the director’s voice, now returned to some semblance of calm, filled her ear.  “Stellar as always, Natalie.  But get back ASAP.  Tony wants you in his office.”

            Julio grinned.  He’d heard the same directive via headset.  “He probably wants to be first in line to offer congrats.”

            Natalie pulled out her earpiece.  Right.          

*****

            Kelly Devlin stared at her gray-haired cameraman, her lower lip curling with distaste.  Why did the Desk always send her out with a geriatric shooter?  This one was so ancient it was a wonder she got even one decent frame of video out of him.

            “For the last time, Harry,” she spat the name, “we are going to use the dashboard in the next live shot.”  She pointed at the Honda Civic still wrapped around a light pole, its driver just spirited away by ambulance.  “It’s a goddamn coup that I found this, it’s the only thing in Santa Monica that’s got any blood on it!  What are you afraid of?” she taunted.  “You’d rather stay at the grocery store and shoot broken bottles?”

            Harry just stared at the ground and shook his head.  He looked fed up.  Well, so was she.

            Kelly abandoned her cameraman and stalked across Pico Boulevard toward the ENG truck, its mast high in the air.  Forget Harry, she ordered herself.  Worry about something important.  Like checking your makeup before the next live shot.

            She had to look perfect.  What everybody said about TV news was true: If it bleeds, it leads.  And she would lead The KXLA Primetime News tonight!  She was damn smart to have found an idiot who’d slammed into a light pole when the quake hit.

            Kelly climbed through the truck’s open sliding door and perched on one of the Naugahyde swivel chairs that faced the wall of knobs and monitors, tugging at her eighteen inches of black lycra skirt.  She pulled her makeup bag out of her satchel and dumped the contents onto the other swivel chair.  Swiftly she went through her routine, which in her two years as a reporter she’d honed to perfection: concealer for any imperfections (rare), base to even out her skin tone (olive), powder to keep the shine down (her one beauty cross to bear), three shades of brown shadow (the darkest at the outer corners to add drama), eyeliner (thick), mascara (thicker), lip liner and lipstick (dark and matte), and blush to highlight her cheekbones (high).

            Now for hair.  Kelly spread her knees and threw her head down between them, brushing from the nape the thick brunette mane she had cut every four weeks at seventy bucks a pop.  Every other week she trimmed the bangs herself to keep them at their sexiest (just above her brows).  At least that’s what the photog told her when she posed for Playboy’s CALIFORNIA COLLEGIATE issue, and he must've been right because she was the only girl to get a full-page spread.  Kelly pumped the hair spray then jerked her head back.  When her last boyfriend had seen that maneuver he’d told her she looked like a girl in a commercial.

            Commercial, my ass.  Kelly snorted and held her compact’s mirror close up to her face.  What she looked like was a primetime anchorwoman.

*****

            “Why did you cut Kelly off?” Tony demanded.

            Natalie stood in front of her News Director’s desk and listened to him hurl the question like an accusation, trying hard not to let her jaw drop.  She’d just hauled ass to anchor a brilliant interrupt and what did Tony Scoppio do?  Demand to know why she’d cut off a cub reporter?

            “Kelly was in Santa Monica.”  Natalie kept her tone level, sensible.  “Miles away from the action.  We, on the other hand, were in front of a freeway collapse.  We---”

            “There was a helluva lot going on in Santa Monica.”

            “Broken windows and jars off grocery-store shelves!”

            “Car accidents,” Tony shot back.  “Collapsed walls.”

            “One car accident!  One collapsed wall!”

            “I don’t know who you worked for before but let me tell you how I run my shop."  Tony jabbed his thumb at his chest.  "I decide who goes on the air, and for how long.  I decide.  Not producers, not directors.”  He paused.  “And certainly not talent.”

            Natalie narrowed her eyes at Tony, enthroned behind his desk like a News Director buddha.  Anybody else would applaud her but he was attacking, using a pretext as thin as script paper.  "May I remind you that thanks to me we were the first station to air pictures of---"

            "We were the last station on the air!"

            "That is a function of technical problems that you haven't fixed."  More than any other news director she'd ever had, this guy made her blood boil.  "I honestly do not understand this.  This is not how this newsroom used to be run.  You---"

            He cut her off.  "You got that right, Daniels."

            She stared at him, momentarily silenced.

            "The way this newsroom used to be run," he went on, "it lost money.  And ratings were heading south.  Well, no more.  It's a whole new world and you better get with the program.  Or I’ll tell you what."

            He stopped and she waited, for what she couldn't imagine.

            "You’ll be off the program.”

            “Oh, come on.”  She scoffed at him.  “Kelly was doing a monologue on a non-event.  I made a judgment that it was time to---”

            “That’s not your judgment to make.”

            “As an anchor it is my job to make editorial decisions---”

            “No, it is your job to listen to my editorial decisions.”

            Her arms flew up in exasperation.  “Tony, I am not some brainless mouthpiece out there!  Of course I have to make judgments about what’s news and what isn’t, particularly in a breaking---”

            “Did it ever occur to you that maybe your judgment isn't what it used to be?”  He arched his brows.  “Maybe you're out of touch.  Maybe you've gotten soft from all those years behind the anchor desk.”

            "That is the most asinine thing I ever heard."  Natalie spoke  with as much dismissiveness as she could muster but felt as if the earth beneath her feet were again shifting.  She tried to maintain control by focusing on the weave in the industial-strength carpet.  It was the color of television static.

            “Now is as good a time as any to tell you."  Tony paused and something changed in the stale office air.  "As of right now I’m not planning to pick up the option on your contract.”

            Natalie felt as if a truck had careened into her lane of traffic and hit her head-on.  He wants to get rid of me?  She had to force herself not to reach for a seat.

            “The ratings aren’t what they should be,” he went on, his tone now so conversational they might have been discussing the weather.  “You’ve seen the numbers for the May sweep?”

            As if through a fog Natalie watched him grab a manila folder and slap it open.  Just happened to have it handy, she thought dazedly.  Then he tossed in her direction a sheet of paper with those don’t-lie columns under the heading NIELSEN.  But she didn’t take it.

            “Of course I’ve seen them," she managed.  "But the drop-off has a lot more to do with the stories you’re putting on the air than with how I’m anchoring.”

            “That's funny, Daniels.”  He grabbed the top folder from another pile.  “When I was News Director at KBTT in Dallas, before I came here, the stories I put on the air got us into first place.”  He held up a chart and grinned broadly“Want to try another explanation?”

            Her mind raced.  There were all sorts of reasons ratings dropped.  Ratings ebbed and flowed like sea water.  No newscast stayed number one forever.

            "I'm as frustrated as you are with the numbers," she told him.  "But mark my words, they'll rebound with the quake coverage."

            "Right."  Now his tone was dismissive.

            Natalie watched as the man who held her fate in his hands slapped his pile of manila folders shut.

            "Let's just see what happens with the numbers, Daniels."  He smiled at her.  "Let's just wait and see."



www.dianadempsey.com
beauty queen mysteries . women's fiction . en español
life and times . talk to me!

log out


Comments or Questions: Webmaster