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Her producer was tiptoeing around bad news. Dinah could see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice. After a decade of working in TV journalism with basically the same news team, she'd learned to recognize the signs.
Ray Mitchell was an outstanding producer, but he was lousy at subtle communication. Barking out directives was more his style. In fact, he belonged in another era, one of hard-drinking, cigar-smoking journalists and legendary war correspondents such as Ernie Pyle, Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather. They had brought battle coverage to new heights through shrewd performances. Watching Ray try to sheepishly soft-pedal whatever was on his mind was painful.
"What is it you're trying so hard not to tell me?" she finally asked. "Is there something wrong with the piece I just turned in? It was a great interview."
The pictures had been good, too, even if they weren't as great as her previous cameraman's would have been. But they were better than adequate.
Ray looked even more uncomfortable. "For somebody else, maybe," he said with the familiar bluntness Dinah had always respected. "Not for you."
On some level Dinah had been anticipating that comment. Still, she stared at him in shock. She wasn't used to being even gently criticized for her work. The many years of accolades from her colleagues in the field and her superiors in their lofty New York towers made her expect praise. "What are you saying, Ray? Just spit it out."
It was hot as blazes without air-conditioning in their makeshift newsroom, but Dinah knew that wasn't the reason Ray needed to mop his round face with a handkerchief. He was so nervous that he looked miserable.
"Okay," he said eventually. "You want the truth, here it is. You've lost your edge, Dinah. It's understandable, given what happened a few months ago, but"
Dinah tuned him out. Nobody ever mentioned the incident in front of her anymore. Not being able to talk about what had happened had been difficult for Dinah. Whenever she brought up the subject of that tragic nightmare, everyone's eyes filled with pity as they murmured soothing nonsense and then cut off any further discussion.
That was partly because for weeks after the episode, Dinah had listened dry-eyed to everyone's sympathy or made the kind of impersonal, caustic comments that all reporters made to keep their fears and grief at bay. They'd all taken their cues from her and had stopped discussing it. Now that she was finally able and eager to talk, their grieving was over and they didn't want to be reminded that only through the grace of God had they not been on that deadly roadside. They no longer wanted to face their own mortality, or consider the risks inherent in this hellish assignment.
War correspondents were a special breed of journalists. The burnout rate was high for those who favored ambition over self-preservation.
"They're asking questions in New York," Ray continued.
That got her attention. "What kind of questions?" she asked testily. She'd grown complacent about the network's hands-off approach to most of her pieces.
"They want to know whether you shouldn't be taking a break, you know, just until you've had time to deal with what happened," Ray said carefully. "You're due some time off, anyway. More than a little, in fact. No one can remember the last time you took a vacation."
Her stomach sank. A break was the last thing she needed. Work defined her. It motivated her to get out of bed in the morning. Turning in one supposedly sub-par interview when she'd given them dozens of prizewinners and nearly single-handedly earned the upstart cable news operation industry-wide respect deserved better than this treatment.
"I don't need time off," she said flatly. "I need to keep working."
"How about a different assignment then?" Ray suggested. "Go to the London bureau for a while. Or Paris. Maybe even Miami. Now there's a cushy one. Sunshine, palm trees and beaches."
The image didn't impress her. In the days immediately following what she still thought of as the "incident," she'd considered quitting. But then she had realized that this was the only work she truly wanted to do. If it was harder, if she was scared every minute of every day, she was determined to overcome her fears. Now when she walked out of the hotel and into uncertainty every single day she considered her actions a personal tribute to the bravery of every correspondent who'd died while making sure that the world had a close-up view of the action.
"Come on, Ray. I'd be wasted in London or Paris.
And you can forget about Miami," she said with a shudder. "Covering war is what I do. And I do it better than ninety percent of the other reporters around."
He looked at her with concern. "Until recently you were better than all of them."
"And I will be again," she insisted. "I just need a little time to " What? Adjust? Not possible. Go on? Maybe. That's what she was aiming for, one day at a time.
"Wouldn't it be better to take that time someplace else?" he asked, trying one more time. "You've paid your dues, Dinah. You were due for a break before any of this happened. We talked about it, remember? I thought you were planning to go home, see your folks. Why not do it now? People rotate in and out of here all the time because nobody can live like this without getting their heads all screwed up. You're not Superman. Why should you be any different?"
Because if she left now, everyone would see it as a sign of weakness, she thought. They would think she'd folded in a crisis and she wouldn't allow anyone to see her that way. She was used to commanding respect.
Ray went right on. "I'd think you'd want a chance to see your family, do something normal for a while. Weren't you looking forward to that?"
She had been, but not any longer. Things had changed too drastically. Working was what she needed to do if she were to remain sane and maintain her self-respect. She wasn't sure she wanted to go home until everyone there had forgotten whatever they'd heard about her. She didn't want to face all the questions back home just yet.
"Not now, dammit!" she said more sharply than she'd intended. "Forget it, Ray! I'm not going anywhere." Alarm flared in Ray's eyes. "This is what I'm talking about. You never used to snap, no matter how tense things got. You're not yourself, Dinah, and I'm worried about you. I don't want you coming unglued on air one of these days."
She stared at him with sudden understanding. "That's why I've done so few live shots lately, isn't it? You're afraid I'll lose it."
He regarded her with obvious discomfort. "It's a chance I'd rather not take," he admitted. "For your sake, not the network's. I don't give a damn what they think."
She suspected that much was true. Ray had always been an ardent advocate for his team. He babied his reporters and cameramen as if they were his own kids. He'd go to bat for them with the powers-that-be in New York whether it was in his own best interests or not.
Because she had faith in his motives, she deliberately forced herself to calm down before she replied. "You're being an old fussbudget," she accused lightly. "I'm fine. If that changes, if I think I can't do the job anymore, I swear I'll let you know."
Ray looked doubtful. "You've never known your own limits, because you never had to set any for yourself. You did whatever it took."
Listening to him, she felt guilty. If Ray knew what a struggle it was for her to walk out of the hotel on every assignment, he'd be even more adamant about sending her away.
"I still do whatever it takes," she told him, knowing that much was true. It just cost her more. "Come on, Ray. Cut me some slack here."
"That's just it. I have been cutting you a whole lot of slack."
This was another shock, and it was more humiliating
than the first. She regarded him with dismay. "What are you talking about? Are you saying I'm not carrying my weight?"
He regarded her with discomfort. "Okay, here's the plain, unvarnished truth. And listen up, because you need to hear this. We've missed some stories, Dinah. Things that never should have gotten past us. Everyone up top has been ignoring it, because of the circumstances, but they're getting impatient back home. It's been a few months now. I'm not going to be able to hold them off much longer. The decision of whether you stay or go could be taken out of my hands and yours."
Dinah tried to think of stories they'd missed. She hadn't paid that much attention to the competition and what they were reporting. With her contacts, she'd always been so far out in front, she hadn't needed to. Was it possible that the other journalists were taking advantage of her distraction? Maybe so, she admitted truthfully.
"Okay, that stops now," she promised Ray, filled with a renewed sense of determination. "I'll be back on top of things from here on out. If I'm not."
He met her gaze. "If you're not, you're going home, Dinah," he said flatly. "Whether it's what you want or not."
The unflinching warning shook her as nothing had in weeks. "It won't come to that," she said grimly.
All she had to do was push those godawful images out of her head and focus on the here and now. She'd put aside horror in order to do her job a thousand times through the years.
She could do it again, she told herself staunchly. She was going to get it together and come back better than ever. She owed it to the viewers who counted on her to tell an honest, objective story on the nightly news. She owed it to the network that had given her a chance when she was barely out of journalism school.
Most of all, though, she owed it to herself. Without this job, who the hell was she?
Two weeks after her conversation with Ray, the sound of her cell phone ringing at 4:00 a.m. sent Dinah diving under her hotel bed. It wasn't the first time she'd become skittish over nothing, but the incidents were becoming more frequent and more dramatic.
So were the nightmares that woke her in a cold sweat. She hadn't had a decent night's sleep in weeks. It didn't take a genius to tell her she was suffering from posttraumatic stress syndrome, but she'd been convinced she could weather it on her own through sheer will. It wasn't working.
Eventually, she crawled out from under the bed, still shaking, and sat on the floor in the dark with her knees pulled up to her chest, waiting for the worst of the panic to ease.
Maybe Ray was right. Maybe she couldn't continue working right now. But what could she do instead?
Home. When Ray had mentioned it, she'd been dismissive, but now she recognized a surprising hint of longing whenever she thought of that simple word. She had always thought of home with a sort of detached nostalgia. Home was where she came from, not where she wanted to be. Just a couple of weeks ago, she'd hated the idea of returning.
Suddenly, though, the images of South Carolina Low Country were appealing. Trees draped with Spanish moss, and the sultry summer air thick with the scent of honeysuckle seemed idyllic. It was certainly as far removed from the tumultuous, horrific world of Afghanistan as she could possibly imagine.
Not that she'd appreciated it all that much when she'd been growing up on the outskirts of Charleston in what she'd considered little better than a mosquito-infested swamp. She'd hated the slow pace, the unhurried speech, the steamy nights when it was almost impossible to catch a decent breath of air. She hadn't been able to leave her overprotective parents quickly enough.
Being the debutante daughter of Dorothy Rawlings Davis, a woman able to trace her roots back to the first ship to dock in Charleston, and Marshall Davis, a man whose granddaddy had amassed a fortune in South Carolina banking, gave Dinah a skewed view of her own importance. She'd been wise enough to recognize that and to rebel against it. Her brother hadn't been so lucky. He'd drifted along, not only in his daddy's shadow, but that of all their proud ancestors. Tommy Lee had nothing he could point to with pride and call his own.
Dinah hadn't been content to inherit her place in the world. She'd wanted to make one for herself. She'd needed to prove that she was as capable, as independent and as fiercely strong as the toughest of her ancestors. She wanted to be a successful woman first, a Southern woman second. Anyone who'd grown up in the South knew there was a difference.
She'd chosen television journalism for a career because it was a profession with noble ideals, and she'd taken assignments that had placed her in the line of danger just to prove that she could stand tall next to the brightest and best in her field. It wasn't enough to be good. She was determined to be outstanding, the correspondent viewers relied on for learning the truth behind the headlines.
For ten years Dinah had accomplished exactly that by covering unfolding events in Chechnya, the Middle East, and lately Pakistan and Afghanistan. Whenever or wherever news was being made, Dinah was there.
Her last assignments had been the most challenging. It had been impossible to calculate the risks, impossible to find trustworthy sources, impossible to predict whether she would live long enough to get the story on the air. Many said it took a danger junkie to accept such assignments, but she'd never seen herself that way. She simply had a job to do. The risks were worth it because events that unfolded without the glare of news cameras often led to untold horrors and chilling secrecy.
Yet in all of her thirty-one years she'd never had such terrifying dreams. She figured she'd come too close to the edge and seen too much. She'd lost friends this time, some of the best and brightest in the business. That had sucked the life right out of her.
Maybe Ray had been right. Maybe it was timepast timefor her to go home. There was nothing left to prove here.
As she crouched beside her hotel room bed after being frightened by the unexpected ring of a phone, her heart finally slowed to a more normal rhythm. In that instant she realized that she couldn't get home fast enough. If she stayed here any longer, she'd come completely unglued.
Later that morning when Dinah told Ray what she'd decided, she was hurt to see relief and not regret in his eyes.
"It's for the best," he assured her. "It's not forever," she replied because she needed to believe it. "A few weeks, a couple of months at most."