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
"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
"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
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
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
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.
"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
"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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
“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
“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
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
“That’s not your judgment to make.”
“As an anchor it is my job to make editorial
“No, it is your job to listen to my editorial
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
“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
"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."