Disclaimer: Twilight characters and situations are copyright Stephenie Meyer. This plot is mine, and you may not hijack or copy it without my permission.
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Sitting in a Dead Man's Chair
Thursday, 5:49 PM
"Where the fuck have you been?" Walter's eyes were watery and furious, his melon of a head shiny with the patina of nerves and authority. "Get your ass into makeup. No - wait - Charlene!" he screamed for the girl, who came flying across the studio with a pink tackle box in one hand and a sponge in the other. "Do her standing so Steve can mic her. Steve, get a mic on her five minutes ago. Jesus fucking Christ, this is New York, not Omaha or wherever the hell you're from. I shouldn't have to put up with this shit. What the hell about 'live network feed' do you not understand? It's my nuts in a sling if that chair is empty, you get me?"
Under normal circumstances, and were it directed at another person, the tirade might have rattled even the most seasoned pro and possibly cost the floor director his job. But I wasn't listening anyway, so Walter's magnificent spew was wasted on me. My thoughts were elsewhere, out of the building which housed the studio and precisely 42 blocks south and three avenues over.
Charlene, whose real name was actually Charlotte, tucked tissues into the collar of my blouse before applying Studio Fix to my face. "This is a big deal, Bella - you should pretend to give a shit, you know," she whispered.
I shrugged. "I'm not here to make his life easier. Are you finished?"
Charlotte surveyed my face as she finished sponging my forehead. "You'll do. Better sit down and let them test that blouse - what the hell made you wear it?"
I looked down at myself. "Crap. Oh, well. It's supposed to be a lucky color, right?"
"Won't be much luck involved if you look like a floating head against the green screen," Charlotte grinned, grabbing the tissues away from my neckline.
"I am a floating head tonight," I muttered.
"You. In the chair," Walter whispered, but it was the kind of whisper that's really just a scream with the volume knob twisted to the left. I ambled onto the set and my ass met the chair he was so concerned about, but my eyes were still focused on the pages I was holding in my left hand. Someone bent over me, straightening the collar of my blouse and dragging the coil of my earpiece discreetly under my hair.
"Five minutes," a voice in my ear announced. Ben, our director, affectionately nicknamed "OVOR", or "Official Voice Of Reason". "Bella, we're blowing out the lead on the weapons bill and going with the Secretary's address to the U.N. instead. Are you good?" I nodded my head. "Okay - just give the guys in control a level check, because they can't read nods."
Looking up, I grinned at the booth with the tinted glass. "I'm a happy hungry hippo," I said randomly. "Walter's got anal warts and a suspicious rash where no suspicious rash should ever be. Call his wife and tell her to start the antibiotics." There. Lots of sibilants to make sure the levels were right and clean.
The sound engineer's voice drifted into my ear with an appreciative laugh. "Gotcha," he said.
The prompter built into the set desk shimmered to life with white-on-black text. Moving my sheaf of papers to one side, I tapped them to straighten them into a neatish pile. "Hey, Ben? So we're going with Secretary's address, weapons bill, unemployment in the heartland, Hague protest, break, right?"
"Right. I'm going to slot in the piece about cleanup from the hurricane in the Gulf following the break, and then we've got a report from the CDC about swine flu and Mexican border states."
"Who's responsible for the input on the prompter? They misspelled the Iranian president's name twice, which doesn't seem like an accident. How difficult is it to spell Ahmadinejad?"
"Gee, I don't know, Bella - probably less difficult than it is to say it," Ben answered me with calm sarcasm. "Quit clowning around. We're on in two."
This wasn't my first time in the anchor chair. I sat in most weekends, and had for the past year, also filling in during holidays when the professional talking head was taking a break from his exhausting job being somber and elder-statesmany. This night was different, though. The sudden death the previous morning of Dan Reynolds, the trusted face behind the network's nightly national news program, threw everything into chaos. The network executives were scrambling to find a replacement, but in the meantime, my presence in the New York bureau and my previous experience in the chair made me sort of a natural choice to pinch-hit until Dan's replacement could be found.
It's not as though I didn't realize what a great opportunity it was to be the face of the network's nightly news. The broadcast had huge numbers and blew the two competing networks' news programs out of the water. At that moment, I was sitting in what was arguably the most important chair in the news business of the entire planet, because the broadcast would be repackaged and fed to networks across the globe as the official "word from America".
None of that was lost on me, but it didn't shake me, either, because it wasn't as though I would permanently occupy this chair in the foreseeable future. I didn't want to be The Empty Face, and was honest enough about my looks to know that the network would never seriously consider me for the position in the first place. Too young. No gravitas. Female. Little brown thing, neither blonde enough nor elite enough to do the job the way they probably wanted to see it done. It didn't matter, anyway. I cared about finding the news, and that was pretty much ALL I cared about.
"Thirty seconds to air," Ben's voice told me. Walter stalked among the camera ops as they adjusted the pneumatic pedestals for the three set cameras, hopping over the triax cables like a portly Michael Flatley. The studio lights beat down on my head, heating up the air to Saharan levels.
"Live in five, four, three, cue open." The urgent beat of the network news theme song played out in the studio, and Walter pointed his Jimmy Dean breakfast link of a finger at me. Camera Two was hot, the red light at the top blinking a warning that anything and everything I was about to do would be a two-second delay from airing in living rooms, offices, airports, bars, and hospitals all across the nation.
"Good evening from New York, I'm Isabella Swan," I said to the light on Camera Two. "U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the Assembly this afternoon with increasing concerns over the validity of the results from the recent elections in Iran."
I followed the script on the prompt, having by then mastered the trick of scanning three sentences in the blink of an eye and repeating them back to the camera without making the act obvious in any way. I had written none of the words I was reading, and that made me angry. No real part of me was engaged in this transfer of information. I considered the prompt screen as I waited for the U.N. piece to finish and the camera to return to my face. In my own way, I was just watching the news that night, too.
And I hated it.
The rest of the broadcast was uneventful, and Walter released me from the chair shortly after I signed off at seven. "You're such a cocky little rookie, aren't you," Walter couldn't help muttering as I wandered by. I tilted my head in his direction, trying to make up my mind whether or not it was worth the effort to pay him back with his own coin, but after a minute I just shrugged my shoulders again and walked on.
"He's so bald," Charlotte smiled. The statement was half-insult, half-explanation. I grinned at her and left the studio, anxious to get back to my home - my family, my fortress, my comfort and my obsession - the newsroom on the fourteenth floor.
"Hey, meat," yelled Tyler as I stepped off the elevator. "You almost looked like a girl tonight. You know, kinda doable. Half of us are beginning to change our minds about you."
"Oh, I hope it's the right half," I answered. "Pretty much whichever half you're not in would be the right half, you donkey."
"Jesus, was that a Gordon Ramsay comeback? At least now I know what you're doing with the three hours a day you're not here. You TiVo Paula Dean, too?"
"I'd insult you in your native tongue, but I don't speak imbecile."
"Keep talking about my tongue, Swan - you know you want it."
"Mmmm, fried, with a side of onions," I finished, and we both grinned. The eight full-time staffers in the newsroom were my adoptive brothers, and as much as I loathed the locker-room mentality they shared, they had taught me a lot about pulling information from hidden corners. It was not an easy place in which to make a home and a name for yourself, but after an extended and really quite ruthless hazing period, the boys had accepted me as one of their own and raised me the way that a mother cat might raise an orphaned rabbit. I was different, but still somehow family.
Newton had his feet slung over my chair; he was eating a bag of kasugai nuts and playing "presidential nicknames" with Eric. "Firecrotch," he challenged.
"Jefferson," Eric scoffed. "Come on, make me sweat a little."
"Hello and fuck off," I said as I neared my desk. "If you need a hassock, use Paul's head." Mike reluctantly removed his feet from my chair and I collapsed into it, dumping my well-worn messenger bag on the floor next to me. "What's the news, gentlemen?"
Tyler sat on the edge of my desk and grabbed the bag of nuts from Mike's hands. "We think something might be going down with the ATF and the Michigan militia. Sam's contact at the bureau was eager to talk this morning, but he's been locked down solid since around two o'clock. Have anyone you can work over there?"
"Sure. Want me to shoot and write the story for you, too, so you can sign your name to it and take the rest of the night off?"
"Don't be that way, baby. Just pour some of your sugar down the wire and see if anyone wants you bad enough to give us a lead."
I sighed. "Fine, I'll make a call - but then I need you all to scram." As I said the words, I knew they were a mistake, and braced myself for what came next.
"Oh, busy, are we, Swan? I know it can't be personal, because you don't do personal, so that means you're working on something. Share." Tyler, Mike, and Eric stood around me in a testosterone triangle, but I was unimpressed.
"Not a chance," I smiled. "You call me meat, you don't get to tag along. Besides, it might be nothing. It's probably nothing."
But the guys knew better than that, because my "nothing" usually turned out to bump lead stories at the last minute.
Tyler decided to take a different tack with me, kneeling in front of my chair and pouting. "Aww, come on, gorgeous. You know we can help you. We just want to help. Let us play too, please?"
He batted his eyelashes at me, and I laughed. "You're ridiculous. I promise I'll share when I have a better idea of what's going on, and that's the most you're getting out of me right now. Go find your own leads and leave a girl alone."
I shooed them away and powered up my laptop. I only used the desktop computer for rounds of four-suit spider solitaire and random web surfing, because while I loved the guys in the newsroom, I didn't trust them to keep their noses out of my business for as long as it took me to visit the ladies' room. Remembering my promise, I dialed a contact at ATF to see if I could get him to squirm a bit on Michigan. Sometimes, it was what they didn't say that proved even more important than what they would say.
Fifteen minutes later, I gave Tyler an update from my friend at the bureau. Four SWAT teams had been deployed from the new ATF fortress in Washington's NoMa district, destination classified. And here's where the unspoken stuff came into play, because while my contact wouldn't confirm where they were headed and I was far too slick to pose a direct question to him in the first place because putting him in that position would have slammed the gate in my face forever, he did mention that there were no sanctioned flights of more than two hours on the log. I promised him rounds of dirty martinis at Bar Rouge the next time I was in town, and we ended the call as the best of friends.
All three men in the newsroom jumped into action, abandoning me as they scrambled over AP wire reports to make sure nobody else had picked this up yet. Newton was on the horn with Victor, the executive producer, trying to arrange a nine PM flight to Detroit with a crew.
I tapped the side of my laptop keyboard, deep in thought. The text I got from Renee right before air tonight was cryptic and disturbing, but I had no way of following up on it at the moment. It would have to wait until morning. Opening my browser, I typed "NYC area mental institutions" into the search bar and hit "Enter". I could immediately discount most of the public facilities, because there was no way the Brandons would have permitted their daughter to bunk with the street nuts at Bellvue Psych. Would they want her on Long Island? In Westchester? Jersey? It would definitely be local, wherever it was. I amended the search to include "Private" and came up with six possibilities, which I sent to my iPhone.
Tyler, Newton, and Eric disappeared from the newsroom while I worked, presumably on their way to Detroit. The room was quiet now, as quiet as it ever got, giving me too much time to think about things I would rather have avoided. Fortunately, the overnight guys would be wandering in shortly like randy buffalos.
Ben strolled into the bullpen and swung his head around. "Just you, Swan?" I nodded and motioned for him to pull up a desk corner. When he didn't say anything else after a moment or two, I looked up from my screen to see what he needed.
"Listen, Bella, I like you," he said.
I laughed at him. "Isn't that going to be a problem with Angela? She doesn't look like the type to share."
He rolled his eyes. "Be serious for five minutes. You're coming to Dan's memorial service tomorrow, right?"
"Of course. Two o'clock at Riverside. I'll be there."
"I shouldn't be doing this, but I'm going to give you a heads-up. The brass are probably going to approach you about taking the chair on a permanent basis - but there's a catch."
"What's the catch? I have to dye my hair blonde and get a lobotomy? Okay, I'll stop," I amended, holding my hands up in surrender as the expression on Ben's face once again morphed into irritation.
"The catch is that they want to rework the show and deliver the broadcast with a team instead of just one anchor."
I furrowed my brow at him. "So, two anchors? Why? What's the benefit?"
Ben shrugged his shoulders. "If I had to guess - and I do, because it's not as though they've asked for my opinion on the subject - I'd say that the team approach makes the news more accessible to the average viewer. People don't seem to want their news from a lone voice of authority anymore. That's a decades-old model, one that worked when Americans still believed that politicians were above reproach and nobody cheated in baseball. Today, not so much. I think they're hoping to create a more modern dynamic. With a team, there's an unspoken give-and-take that looks friendlier and more authentic to people, because the sharing of information usually doesn't occur in a vacuum in the real world."
"So if you're right and they're seriously considering me for one chair, who are they looking at for the other chair?"
"No idea. I know they were talking about getting a real investigative journalist for the gig, like a Woodward, on the younger side. Maybe not as young as you are - within a decade or so, though. They're looking for vitality, but with serious news chops. Think Anderson Cooper."
"Ben, you know that if Coop wasn't improbably well-groomed and sensitive, I'd be all over him."
"I hear his apartment is decorated entirely in shades of white," Ben grinned.
"Yeah, I've got no chance. I know it. Don't rub it in."
"So I don't know who they're looking at for the job, but I can guarantee it'll be a serious journalist, not a hothouse flower like Dan," Ben continued. "My hand to God, if I had a clue I'd share it with you."
"Do you think they'll go to print guys, or are they only looking at people who've been on camera before?"
Ben scratched his head. "Honestly, I don't think camera experience is going to outweigh the vibe they're aiming for. They don't want a pretty, empty head. They want a news guy, someone in the mold of Cronkite or Rather, but of course he can't be a total troll, either, because if there's bad news coming, it's easier to take from a handsome face. Christ, look at what happened when Nixon debated Kennedy."
"I'm having a tough time figuring out why they'd seriously consider me for the chair," I confessed. "I'm an understudy, and I don't want the gig if it means I'll be pulled out of the bullpen and dumped in an office somewhere, spending my days with stylists who'll wash my hair for me."
"Hear them out," he advised. "You can always say 'no'. You'd be a fool to, but that's your choice. Don't tell me you don't dream about being Christiane Amanpour every night, because I know better."
"I'm not denying it. But there's a world of difference between Christiane Amanpour and Barbara Walters, and I don't want to be Barbara Walters."
"Yes, there is. Barbara could buy a small nation with her salary, speech defect or no speech defect."
I put my hand on Ben's shoulder and squeezed his bicep. "Thanks, Ben. I really appreciate the warning. If I do end up in the chair, I promise to make bald Walter's life so miserable that he runs screaming back to whatever local news program he terrorized before he was dumped on us."
"Keep this info on the QT, Swan. I just didn't want you to be blindsided tomorrow if it happens." I nodded my head and smiled at him, and he patted my back before he walked away.
Well, hell.On the downside, committing to the broadcast every night meant less time doing what I loved to do best, which was chasing a story and wrestling it to the ground, tickling all the truth out of it until it begged for mercy. On the upside, real fame, and with time, the power and budget to go after whatever story I wanted to get. Sharing the desk meant halving the workload, in theory. The focus wouldn't be solely on me. And if they were serious about bringing in a real journalist, this could keep me on my game and actually be kind of fun.
I mentally scrolled through the list of possible candidates in my head. I followed news the way other people followed sports or celebrities. I could tell you who broke which major stories, who won which Polk, which Peabody, which Pulitzer, which year. Anyone can report on war and scandal, but to do so with an eye for the poetry in the madness is an art, and most of the embedded journalists I'd met wore their flak jackets like a fashion statement. Serious journalists, at least by my definition of the term, were woefully few and far between. I was about the news even when nobody was watching me.
Would the brass try to lure Coop away from CNN? It would be a dream date for me, all social implications to the contrary, because I recognized that he understood the fever to know. What would prompt him to surrender half the spotlight to a virtual unknown, though? Richard Behar was a little outside the decade parameter, but he'd be great too. On the print side, maybe David Barstow? Again, easily older than me by more than a decade, but the Pulitzer and his work at The New York Times certainly made him convenient and noteworthy, and I'd met him on more than a few occasions. I was frustrated that it had never occurred to me to delve too deeply into the ages and lives of the wire reporters I respected, but I had always been drawn to their words and not the way they looked. They were men and women who told the hard truths that nobody else wanted to look for. They spoke for those who had no voice. What they did changed lives and circumstances every day of the year, without guns, or votes, or money. They just told the truth as they found it, and often the world shifted to accommodate that uncovered reality.
The tiny clock at the bottom of my screen announced that it was after ten. Sighing, I packed up my laptop, shoved it into my messenger bag, and trudged over to the elevator. Dan's memorial service the following day would do him proud. It was destined to be full of false praise, political jockeying, and ass-kissing. it would mirror the life of the man we were gathered to honor. Dan was a haircut. If the network was serious about making the kind of change Ben was talking about, they'd need more than a haircut to get the job done.
Renee still hadn't answered my text from earlier, so I tried calling her. She picked up on the third ring. "Mom?" I said, ending the word far more loudly than I began it, because wherever she was, it was noisy as hell.
"Honey," she answered, hiding a clever little reminder in the greeting that she preferred it when I used her first name instead of the title to which she is genetically and biologically entitled, because she still doesn't see herself as being old enough to be anyone's mother. My fleeting thought was that surely menopause must have been a hint on the subject, but this was well-traveled ground between us, and something I really didn't want to revisit any time soon.
"Any updates on the Alice situation?" Alice. My sweet soul sister. The guilt hit me squarely in the solar plexus as I realized we hadn't spoken for almost a month. How could I ever be too busy to spend time with her? She was always busy too, though. And yet, had I stayed in better contact with her, I wouldn't be hearing about this latest development from a woman who was more than 2,000 miles removed from the situation.
"Hang on," she yelled into the phone. I heard some bustle in the background, and then suddenly her end of the line got far more quiet. "Ah. I'm outside. Can you hear me better now?"
"Yeah. So what's going on?"
"I honestly don't know. I have the information second-hand as it is. You remember Cerrita, that awful woman who lived next door to us when you were all in high school? She's in Port Townsend now. Anyway, she called me to gossip about it. I have no idea how she heard about it - it's not as though she and Margaret were ever really close, and it must be - what? - a decade or so since the Brandons moved out of Forks. She seemed pretty sure about the fact that it happened sometime late last week."
"Did she say where they'd taken Alice? Is it somewhere here in New York?"
"No, she didn't say, but I can't imagine they put her on a plane. From the sound of things, she was really out of it. Poor girl," my mother murmured. "Are you going to call Margaret? I think you should at least make the effort to see if you can visit Alice, wherever she is. You two could always cheer each other up when things were bad."
I rolled my eyes and tried to get a grip on my irritation. "Of course I'm going to try and visit her. I just wish I'd known about it sooner. I'll call them in the morning - it's too late now. Are you okay? Where's dad? Where are you?"
She laughed. "Charlie's at a PBA meeting in Port Angeles. I'm in Seattle for the week with Patty and Rags - there were two new art exhibits we wanted to catch and now we're at this crazy club with a bunch of Patty's old college freaks."
"Well, don't let the frat boys there bring out your inner cougar," I grinned. "And don't let Rags drive, because she's a lunatic. Take a cab."
"Cab, schmab - we'll stumble back to the hotel like the respectable drunks we are. It's only two blocks from here."
"Mom - Renee - really, don't make me worry about you, too. I'm freaked out enough about Alice as it is. Please take a cab."
"Sure, honey, whatever you say. I should get back inside. Is everything okay with you?"
"I'm fine," I answered, debating over whether I should tell her about the possible anchor gig. I decided against it because I knew that she wouldn't focus on it now anyway, and there was no point in saying anything until I knew whether or not Ben's intel was accurate. "Take care, okay? I'll call you guys over the weekend. Love you."
"Love you too, little girl. Be good. Hey - hold the door!" I could hear her drift away from the conversation as she hung up on me.
After crawling home to my small one-bedroom on 67th and Second, I nuked a little leftover pasta for dinner and tried to shut my mind down for the next few hours. There seemed to be too much going on and yet oddly, at the same time, not enough was happening. I missed Alice, and I was scared to find out how far she'd slipped this time. I was nervous about the memorial, and what I'd say if the execs actually offered me a shot at the chair. I wondered who might be tagged to sit next to me if I said 'yes' to the opportunity. And if I was being brutally honest, I worried a little bit about my guys locking horns with the Michigan militia, because those people were hardcore and they hated journos the way Yankees fans hated Red Sox fans. I wished I were on the shoot with them.
When I finally fell asleep, I dreamed confusing dreams about skydiving. My parachute was strong, but my arms were tied behind my back.
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A/N: Hey there - welcome back (or really just plain 'welcome', if this is your first trip on the crazy train). Okay, this one's going to be a slow burn, so please strap in and settle back. I swear to you that once we get the ball rolling, there will be action! and snark! and romance! and tap dancing! and particle physics!
Thank you for joining me.