Burnoutby Jeannine Kadow
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Fire that burns the flesh, sears the soul, and frightens you awake at night. Lacie Wagner know fire. She has the scars to prove it. And the nightmares. Nightmares that began with the horrific fiery accident that destroyed her hands and took her father's life. Nightmares filled with a stranger's face and whispering voice promising that she too will burn alive.
Determined to move beyond her fears, Lacie has risen to the top of her field as a hard-hitting Washington D.C. news anchor. By day, she is able to escape the torment of her dreams by losing herself in work. But one cold Thanksgiving weekend, as snow falls on the city, Lacie hears the nightmare voice in her waking hours, warning her that "The Dead Time" is near.
It happens on the heels of a breaking story about another woman' stragedy: A U.S. Navy officer has plunged to her death in the Bering Sea. Then Lacie's own world is suddenly shattered: Her daughter disappears without a trace and Lacie discovers that her nightmare man is terribly real. He is an unknown enemy closing in, unleashing a firestorm of terror, using flame as a weapon to stalk and terrorize Lacie, to destroy everyone and everything in her life.
Turned away by police who do not believe her story, Lacie reaches out to iconoclastic FBI loner Jack Stein for help - literally pulling Stein into the line of fire too.
Stein is a killer-hunter, but he has never come up against a killer like this - one who reaches right into Jack Stein's soul, revealing his tragic secrets and shames, pushing Stein into the emotional limit, willing him to break. Stein counters in a powerful psychological pas-de-deux, using the killer's own behavior as a weapon, peeling away the unkown layers of his enemy, finding logic in seemingly illogical violence, putting a face and a name to a man who swears he has neither.
The key to his identity is buried in Lacie's fire seared past - a past too terrifying to remember, a past she cannot reach. Stein must find a way to guide Lacie into that past, deep into a memory gone black, to learn the killer's motive and understand what in God's name Lacie has done to deserve a living Hell on earth.
The enemy is a master of illusion, using cunning and artifice to draw Lacie and Stein in close, where they must literally fight fire with fire in a white hot climactic battle of good versus evil, high up in the winter frozen Tetons, where the stakes have been dramatically raised and the depth of the killer's madness is fully revealed.
A novel filled with stunning twists and turns and harrowing drama, delivered in an explosive runaway plot. Burnout marks the arrival of a gifted new voice in contemporary suspense fiction.
- Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
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- 4.24(w) x 6.68(h) x 1.14(d)
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The dream came that night, as it often did, scaring me awake to the sound of my own voice crying out, my heart slapping hard, my breath shallow and dry, my body shaking with fright. It was the face, always the face, the same nightmare face, pale thick lips, limpid eyes, thin copper hair hanging dull and flat to his skull, and the sour sick smell of his breath as he whispered to me, filling my head with his voice: Lacie, touch the flame, reach out and touch the fire.
I jerked to an upright position in bed and opened my eyes. I was alone. I had been waking alone for years, but when the nightmare came, I wanted someone there next to me, to stroke my hair, to shush and hold me, to rock the terror away. The sky outside my window was still dark, the bedside clock glowed 5:00. The sheet were a messy tangle, damp with my own nightmare sweat. I shoved them aside and got up.
The nightmare stayed with me through my shower and stand-up breakfast of tepid black coffee and dry wheat toast. I dressed quickly in a black turtleneck sweater, black wool pants and matching jacket then stepped into a pair of glossy black crocodile shoes. The three-inch inch heels were too high for comfortable walking, but I didn't care. They put me over the six-foot mark, which gave me confidence. And I didn't plan on walking much anyway, just holing up behind my desk and losing myself in a three-part investigative story scheduled to air the following week.
I worked for WRC-TV, the NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C. anchoring the six o'clock news. I was one of the rare anchorswho wanted to do more than just read the news. The entire process from start to finish was what thrilled me, going out and finding the news, hunting it down, digging it up, and then in pictures and words telling my audience the story. The story was everything. I had a natural gift for anchoring and a passion for reporting, and was blessed with a lush new contract that guaranteed me both.
I grabbed a heavy wool coat, slipped on a pair of gloves, and stepped out into the dark November morning, locking the door to my town house behind me. A light dusting of snow covered the ground and heavy clouds above promised more. The cold stung my ears and eyes. Winter had arrived early. I picked my way down the walk, skidding across ice patches, swearing quietly, regretting my impractical choice of footwear.
I hailed a passing taxi, ducked inside, and gave the station address. We sped quickly across town, silent and alone on the snowy streets. In the east, the rising sun brightened clouds to the color of steel. Street lamps sputtered out. Fat wet flakes fell from the sky. The cab wipers slapped back and forth in a steady rhythm, and suddenly I felt tired, wishing the holiday weekend was over.
"Nice Thanksgiving?" the old black driver asked, sneaking a long look at me in the rearview mirror.
I was used to those secret looks. Most people in town recognized me even though I was relatively new to D.C. My face was plastered on fifty billboards in the metropolitan area. All the local papers had done profiles about me, chronicling my career and whatever tidbits they could dig up about my private life. There was enough there worth digging for, plenty of publicly documented tragedy that kept the tabloids pumping. Mine was the success-against-all-odds kind of Cinderella fable America craves.
The driver cleared his throat, and I knew he took my silence for rudeness. I smiled at him brightly. "I had a wonderful Thanksgiving."
"Turkey and potatoes, all the trimmings?"
"All the trimmings," I lied with my big fake smile.
It had been a lousy Thanksgiving, spent alone, eating a chopped salad in my office, reviewing the stories I would read on the late news. I had volunteered. There was no reason not to, no reason to stay home. My daughter, Skyla, was up in Manhattan for the holiday with her father, as we had civilly agreed so many years ago when I walked out on him for good, taking our baby with me. Jerry was a lousy husband. The list is a long ugly one, and I haven't trusted men much since.
Jerry turned out to be a surprisingly wonderful father, but like so many things, he was better at it part-time than full-time, and Thanksgiving was included in the part-time deal. All in all, things were working out well. I just had to suffer through the rough spots, the every-other-weekend thing, the two summer months, and the blasted holiday splitting that left me daughterless, alone, and unhappy.
My new town house felt too big and too quiet without Skyla's laugh and dazzling presence. Thirteen years old and she was someone. She was the best of Jerry and mehis effervescent ebullience tempered by my pragmatismmixed into something altogether new and original. Thinking of her made me smile. Today was Saturday Monday, she would be home.
With none of the weekday rush hour to contend with, the cab driver made good time across town. He was still sneaking looks at me, his curiosity eating away at him. I could tell he was screwing up the courage to ask me the usual question. He pulled to a smooth stop in front of the station and turned around in his seat. His gaze dropped down to my hands, but they were gloved and hidden. Disappointment flickered across his old weathered face. "I read about them," he said pointing shyly.
I fumbled for my wallet.
His watery eyes were wide, fixed on my hands. "They hurt much?" he asked, with a kind of wonder in his voice.
"Can you really type?"
"Sort of," I snapped, holding out a ten.
"I don't mean to pry, Miss Wagner, but you're an inspiration. You remind folks how good we got it, just to be in one whole piece and all." He smiled at me shyly, and his big worn fingers brushed my glove.
My cheeks flushed. I paid the meter plus five for his sincere words and stepped out into the fast-falling snow, thankful to be out of the cab, away from sympathy and curious eyes. My hands embarrassed barrassed me. They were burned in a car accident fire when I was ten. My father was trapped in the car and burned to death that night. I was lucky. They say some passing stranger lifted me free in time to save my life, but not my hands.
My hands were and still are horribly, hopelessly disfigured. They flame ate all the way through to bone, then went on to chew away muscles and tendons too. Even after all the plastic surgery over the years, my hands are monstrous appendages. Shockingly hideous. They disgust me, but they are mine. I have never learned to accept them.
I am tall and slim. A hundred and five pounds stretched over a five-nine frame, so light sometimes I think I'll float away. My hips are narrow and straight like a boy's, and my long legs are hard from running. I like the discipline of the sport, the solitude of it. I run in every kind of weather, as if one day I'll run right out of my body into a new one, untouched by fire.
Until that impossible day, I live with my hands and my fear of fire. I do not stand near fireplaces or allow candles on the table. The tiny flames of birthday cake candles scare me, as does the strike of a match or a butane lighter's weak bluish fire. Charcoal barbecue grills, wood ovens, cherries jubilee served flaming at the table, crêpes suzetteeven the sun. I prefer winter when clouds mask the sky and dim the sun to a soft watery gray.
I welcome cold and fear heat. I take tepid showers and drink cool coffee. In my new town house, I bricked up the four fireplaces and replaced gas stoves with electric. Even a tiny sputtering pilot flame scares me. Fire of any size takes me back to that terrible night of the crash, to my father's live body burning to death in the seat next to me. In a crazy attempt to pull him free, I plunged my hands into the flames. When I pulled them out, they were two torches glowing red in the black Massachusetts night. The smell of my own burning flesh still wakes me at night. When I see fire, I smell death.
The last three fingers on each hand will not straighten. They curl in, toward the palm, and are stubbornly stiff. My thumbs are stumps, amputated at the knuckle. My index fingers somehow remained whole and somewhat straight, though weak. Dozens of operations and painstaking skin grafts have failed to make my hands appear normal. The flesh there has many colorsvivid red, baby pink, snow white. The scars are numerous and vary in texture from rigid waves of puckered skin to translucent waxy smooth patches. Deep channels run across my palms in places where no amount of grafting and collagen implants could replace dead tissue.
Reconstructive surgery has progressed in the twenty-four years since my accident. There are new techniques now, improvements could be made, but I can't go through it all againthe pain of skin grafts, the long healing and the huge hope, then unwrapping my hands like gifts, watching bandages fall away, only to see ugliness where I'd hoped beauty might be.
Technically, I am handicapped. I cannot hold a pencil easily and rarely try anymore. I can type, in a manner of speaking, but it is not pretty to watch. I jab at the keyboard, using my two straightest fingers, alternating, left right left right, painfully stabbing the words out, letter by letter. In the beginning, it took me hours to type a paragraph, ten minutes to spell my full nameLacynda Wagner. You cannot appreciate the manual acrobatics it takes for me to type those thirteen letters without looking and fast.
There is another female anchor out West with maimed hands but she was born with hers. She was a Thalidomide baby. It was a terrible trick of medicine that twisted her palms and gave her flippers for fingers. Like me, she has been commended for her courage and determination in overcoming her disability. Unlike me, her hands do not embarrass her. She does not wear gloves. She displays her hands naturally on the nightly news, shuffling papers and clapping them together when someone on the set says something funny. They are part of me, she has candidly said, with her winning white smile.
I wish I could be like her, but know I never can. I do not display my hands, not for my loyal news audience or People magazine or even for my curious but well-meaning news director. I wear gloves in public and on the air. Always. Even in summer. I hide my hands from the world and mostly from myself. They are a bitter visual reminder of the accident and the man who, later, set out to destroy my life.
But that early November morning, standing in the falling snow on the last peaceful Saturday I would have for a long time, I didn't know of him and I certainly didn't know he had already started his deadly game. I lingered there on the sidewalk in simple ignorance tasting snowflakes when I should have been tasting fear.
WRC-TV took up a sizable chunk of a city block in a somewhat respectable part of D.C. I admired the building for its Old World charm. It was white and pretty, with big bay windows and a peaked roof. A hundred years before, it must have been a graceful residence on a graceful street, but now there was nothing like it in sight, only a crowd of rust-stained office buildings and fast-food drive-thrus.
I walked carefully up the slippery walk to the station entrance and rapped on the locked plate glass door. The night guard shuffed over and let me in. The lobby was drawing room cozy with fine polished wood and overstuffed chintz sofas. Poster-sized framed pictures filled the walls showcasing NBC network series stars and the WRC Action Six news team.
I breezed by my own picture, tapped it once for luck, and wound through a maze of corridors, to the newsroom in back, humming as I went. I had been at WRC for six months. It was a significant jump from Norfolk, Virginia, and it was my big break. I hoped WRC would lead me straight to a network slot in New York, where Skyla could move easily between parents, and where Jerry Costello, Attorney-at-Law, would see my face on the network news each and every night of his egotistical self-centered life.
I grinned thinking about it. Jerry was a good man, he just wasn't good for me and his last words when I walked out proved it: "Just wait, Lace. You'll be back, begging me to take you in. It's a hard world out there. You'll never make it on your own. You need me, you goddamn need me!" He could never understand why I was consumed with finding my own identity when his was big enough for two.
The newsroom was empty. Computer screen-savers flickered in the dark, fax machines were still, telephones quiet, and the studio deserted. I switched the lights on in my spacious private office, hung up my coat, and logged on to my computer, expecting e-mail from Skyla. When she was up in New York, we exchanged five or six cyber messages a day, and talked in the evening when my newscast was over.
I had spoken to Skyla on the Thursday of Thanksgiving and received two e-mails Friday morning but somehow missed talking to her later. I had called several times throughout the evening but got Jerry's answering machine. Assuming he had taken her to the theater or a late show, I left one last loving message Friday night, then fell into bed, into a restless troubled sleep until the whispering voice finally scared me awake.
Lacie, Lacie, do you remember the flames that night? Can you see them, touch them, feel them licking your skin raw?
I shook myself and scrolled through my new e-mail. There was nothing from Skyla. Still edgy from the nightmare, I grabbed the phone and dialed Jerry's apartment, not caring about the ungodly early hour. His machine picked up. I left a curt message for him, and tried his Hamptons beach house, where I got another maddening tape. "Hi! Jerry's not here! Leave your message after the beep." I imagined his voice reverberating in the big empty rooms out there, the dunes sifting up in the wind, tight to the deck.
I left a second curt message and hung up, upset. Jerry always answered the phone. Even if he was in a dead sleep. Even if he was with a woman. Especially when he was with a woman. It was one of his power plays. He couldn't resist knowing who was calling him. The only reason no one answered was because no one was home.
He had probably whisked Skyla up to Vermont to ski for the weekend. He was impulsive and not always good about communicating, often taking her away and forgetting to tell me. I cursed Jerry, but when I thought of Skyla's long silvery blond hair billowing out behind her on the long run down the mountain, my anger faded.
I wrote Skyla a funny note with a new lawyer joke she could use on her dad, sent it zinging out into cyber-space, then settled down to work, hoping a good full day would calm me down.
I was wrong. Mid-afternoon, the newsroom was noisy and busy for a Saturday, with reporters milling around, phones ringing nonstop, the hum of fifty computer terminals, and faxes spooling in. It was loud and boisterous, but not loud enough to drown out the whispering voice of my dreams.
My phone rang at two. I picked up on the first ring, hoping it was Skyla.
"Afternoon, Lace. Max here."
I put my feet up on my desk, leaned back in my chair, and smiled. Max was my uncle, my father's brother, and he was determined to help me any way he could. He was a high-ranking officer in a top-secret military division called the Delta Force. His position gave him access, information, and contacts throughout the government, not just the Pentagon. In short, he was my guardian angel and the perfect source. "What do you have for me?" I asked, tapping my pencil in anticipation.
"A story that hasn't been released yet."
"My favorite kind. Government?"
"Home turf," I quipped. Norfolk had an important Naval base, and during my years reporting there I acquired an excellent understanding of aircraft carriers and fighter planes. "When does everybody else get this?"
"In seven hours. You've got an exclusive for the six o'clock news."
"I'm all ears."
"An F-18 went down last night over the Bering Sea, north of the Aleutian Islands, midway between Russia and Alaska."
The Navy had lost a number of jets in the past year, not enough to be considered a scandal, but enough to raise a few eyebrows. "What was it this time?" I asked. "Faulty ball bearings? Shoddy maintenance? Or did a Russian MIG accidentally shoot it down?"
"Stranger than that."
"A female officer on board the carrier said she caused the accident."
I dropped my legs from the desk and sat up straight, smelling several stories at once. "That's a loaded sentence, Max, Inferences of sabotage, not to mention the newsworthy gender thing."
"It gets better. After she confessed, she tossed herself overboard."
My stomach tightened. "What?"
"You heard me. She jumped."
"You sure she didn't fall in?"
"They find her?"
"Nope, she's fish food by now."
"Sorry. They found her flotation jacket. The jackets all have built-in life vests. If she'd kept it on, they might've been able to save her."
"You lost me."
"Linda Severino took her flotation jacket off, Lacie. She took her flight suit off too. She wanted to die."
"Start at the beginning."
He told me as much as the Navy knew. The carrier was on special assignment in the Bering Sea, well out of the normal season of passage through the strait. The flight deck carried a full regiment of aircraft flying nightly training missions. The ship was in what the Navy calls "Blue Water," which simply means it was out in the middle of nowhere. The closest piece of land was a tiny heap of treeless rock, one in the string of the inhospitable Aleutian Islands.
Weather conditions were abysmal, as they always are in the Bering Sea. An Arctic current runs down from the north and eventually smacks into warmer water rushing up from southern Alaska. The two meet, creating great blankets of fog hundreds of miles across. If it's not the fog, it's the cold, drifting ice chunks big as football fields, or monster waves. The Bering Sea is not a gentle place, especially in November. The average water temperature dips to thirty degrees and the waves run ten to twenty feet high in calm weather. In storms, they become solid walls of water, forty feet high. There must have been some compelling reason for a Nimitz-class Naval carrier to brave the Bering Sea in November, but that was not the focus of Max's story.
The sky was crystal clear, Max said, and the sea rough with ten-foot chop. The accident occurred three hours into the routine flight operations of twelve squadrons rotating through the night. The F-18 was heading back in to the carrier, preparing to land, when an engine burst into flame. The controls failed and the election seat jammed. The pilot couldn't get out. A hundred and twenty sailors and officers on deck watched in horror as the flaming jet dropped out of the sky with the pilot trapped inside. The female officer claimed she had sabotaged the plane. She jumped overboard moments later. A rescue chopper was sent out to save her.
"I've got a copy of the carrier's air traffic control tape," Max said. "Listen to this."
Initially, the helicopter pilot's voice was calm as he radioed the ship: "Home base, this is Night Spotter One. We've got a home run. She's alive and moving. We're sending the harness down."
"Home plate, this is Night Spotter One. The harness is in the water and she's holding on. Our diver is standing by, ready to drop down if she needs help, but she's got the harness and looks A-OK."
"Good work, Night Spotter."
"Home plate, this is Night Spotter One." The pilot sounded worried now. "Something weird's going on here. She's still got the harness but she's taking her flotation coat off. No, she's taking her flight suit off too. But she's still hanging on to the harness."
The pilot's voice changed. He was talking fast and sounded incredulous. "Jesus Christ! I don't fucking believe it! She pushed the harness away and dropped her float coat! She's gone under! The diver is in. Repeat, Home Plate, the diver is in. He's going after her."
"Continue your efforts, Night Spotter!"
"Home Plate, this is Night Spotter One. The diver's on the spot she went under. He's searching."
"Continue your efforts, Night Spotter!"
"We're sweeping the area with light, but don't see her. The diver's up. He's empty-handed."
"Continue your efforts!"
The back-and-forth went on for twenty frantic minutes. Then, the tired voice of the helicopter pilot called in one last time. "Home Plate, this is Night Spotter One. There's no sign of her. We lost her. Repeat. We lost her."
The tape ran silent. Empty air and the hiss of tape heads.
Max tame back on the line. His voice was low. "Do you understand what you just heard. Lacie?"
"She took her flotation coat off, just like you said, and she deliberately let go of the rescue harness."
"She wanted to die. Drowning's not a pretty way to go."
I couldn't think of any way to go that was pretty, but I kept that observation to myself. "Can you e-mail me the audio tape as a sound file?"
"Good." I wanted to play a portion of the tape for my news audience. "Tell me about the woman."
"Thirty-four years old."
My age, exactly.
"She was a high-ranking officer," Max continued. "Lieutenant Commander in charge of all the Landing Safety Officers on board. It takes ten years' flying and a perfect record to win that job. Her name was Linda Severino."
"The name's familiar."
"It should be," Max said. "Her father's John Severino."
I whistled, remembering bits and pieces of political legend. In the late sixties, John Severino was a high-profile senator from Virginia. He was a dazzling political strategist and gifted speaker, a man so charismatic and popular, he could have been President one day. But something happened and he suddenly vanished from the public eye. I couldn't remember why.
There was another reason why I recognized Linda's name. "Max," I said breathlessly, "when I was a kid, that last summer at camp before the accident, Linda was there."
"Do you remember her?"
"Try," Max pressed. "It's a great angle for your story."
I closed my eyes and concentrated. The accident that killed my father and destroyed my hands occurred the night he was driving me home from that summer camp. Whenever I tried to think back to that summer, I went blank. It was a black hole in my psychic universe. Names and faces flashed by from time to time, but nothing more. It was as if my mind repressed everything associated with the accident.
"It's no use," I said, opening my eyes. "I can't remember much. Just that she was one of the girls there."
"Well, Linda Severino grew up into one hell of a woman. A chip off the old block. She was an F-18 pilot and the head of her squadron. Career Navy flyer. A gifted flyer too. She flew in the Gulf War and came home covered in decorations. Meritorious, bravery, you name it. She was one of the best and brightest officers the Navy had. Linda Severino was not the kind of woman to act crazy like she did last night."
"You said there were witnesses?"
"A dozen right there on the landing platform with her, including her commanding officer, Dick Johnson. Tough son of a bitch. He's the commander of the entire carrier air group. He said her exact words were these: I did it. I rigged the fire. He made me do it. I had no choice. No one was supposed to die."
"He made me do it. What did she mean?"
"No one knows."
"What about family or friends? Any insight there?"
"Her father's an invalid and a recluse. Rumor has it he's got serious mental problems of his own. Mother's dead. No brothers or sisters, just her husband, Jeff Hoag. Linda kept her maiden name Hoag was informed of the accident early this morning. From what I heard, he was totally unglued and mostly incoherent. A lot of gibberish about Linda suffering from nightmares full of whispering voices and repetitive dreams of planes exploding in midair. He calmed down enough to say Linda had post-traumatic stress syndrome from her combat missions in the Gulf War. He claims she had a lot of guilt from the killing she did over there. But, he swears Linda was totally competent and said there's no way in hell she would've rigged the plane to go down."
He was silent for a long moment. I pictured his big bearish face, the heavy cheeks and thick eyebrows scrunched up while he tried to understand Linda Severino's bizarre and seemingly inexplicable act. Max was a pilot too, and he certainly had an opinion about what had happened.
"Max? What are you thinking?"
"Lacie, I think she did it," he sighed. "I think she tampered with that F-18's fuel line, fixed it so it would catch fire. She had the access and the know-how. She wasn't counting on the ejection seat jamming. That was a freak occurrence. She figured the plane would catch fire, the pilot would get out, and the plane would go down."
"That's what you have to find out. Maybe she really was crazy."
"Or, if there was this mystery man who made her do it, then you have yourself a hell of a big story, Lacie. This could be the big one you've been waiting for."
We talked a while longer, then said good-bye.
Max was wrong. The big story was coming right at me. It was hours away and it wasn't the story of Linda Severino or her husband or the unfortunate pilot.
It was my story. All mine.
I settled down to work at my computer, keeping my gloves in my lap, as I always do, so I could slip them quickly on if someone came in. I spent the rest of the day making calls, searching archives, typing bare-handed and bold, working the Severino piece into something exciting. I snaked my way through the Navy bureaucracy, wheedling information out of reluctant officials and precious sound-bites out of Linda Severino's friends and family.
Linda Severino was everything Max had said and more. She was highly respected by the men she worked for and by the men who worked for her. She had dozens of friends, and very little family. Like me, she was an only child. Her mother was dead, but John Severino was still alive. The Washington Post archives were full of information about the former senator. As the old news stories scrolled across my screen, I shivered.
In the early seventies, the Senator's car slammed into a cement wall, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down and covered with third-degree burns over ninety percent of his body. After the accident, the public man turned private, cut off all contact, and dropped out of sight. I was unable to find a phone number for him, or even a mailing address. James Severino did not want to be found.
Linda must have loved her father deeply. Friends said she kept her maiden name out of pride. Jeff Hoag, I learned, was a pilot too career Navy like Linda. My source at the Navy told me Hoag resigned two years earlier and flew commercial for American Airline out of D.C. The job gave Hoag plenty of time off to take care of their baby girl while Linda was at sea. One of Hoag's friends told me Linda had promised her husband this mission was going to be the last. She was going to quit flying, stay at home, and be a full-time mom.
Jeff Hoag was my last and toughest call. I hated intruding on the privacy of grief.
Hoag agreed to talk to me. He sounded shell-shocked, but containeduntil I probed him gently about Linda's wild self-accusation. Then he exploded.
"Goddamn all of you! Nobody understands! Linda was under a lot of pressure, but I swear to you on our child's life, my wife was competent. One hundred percent competent. She wasn't crazy, she wasn't depressed, and there's no way in hell she would've rigged that plane to go down. No way!"
"Then why do you think she said she did, Jeff? And why did she jump?"
"I don't know," he wept. "None of us will ever know."
That was the sound bite I needed. I thanked him softly and said good-bye.
Next, I pulled the stock footage I needed to make the story come to life: video of Linda proudly accepting a medal of honor at the White House, shots of a Nimitz class carrier, courtesy footage from PBS of the Bering Sea in winter, and newsreel clips of Linda fighting in Desert Storm. An able editor spliced them all together and, finally, I recorded my narration.
When the piece was done, I raced out of the editing bay to the news director's office and rapped on the glass partition. Harry Worth was hunched over his desk smoking, red-lettering a story, and shouting into the phone at the same time, fueled by his usual high-octane mix of nicotine and coffee. He waved me in with the cigarette and signaled for me to wait while he finished his phone call.
Harry Worth was a lion of a man dressed in a custom-cut navy blue suit, red silk suspenders, and shirt so white it glowed. Thick white hair swept back from his high forehead. His powerful face showed his sixty-odd years of age, but on Harry age looked good. Sharp brown eyes missed nothing, lips were full and sensual, and his voice was memorable with a resonant low timbre. He was long and lanky, but had a paunch even his thousand-dollar suits couldn't hide. He spent too much time in the newsroom and not enough time playing sports.
Harry Worth commanded respect. He was one of the most talented and highly paid men in the news business, with a long and renowned network career. I admired his newsman's instincts, his work ethic, honesty, and everything else about him. After six short months at WRC, I considered Harry Worth a friend, and knew the feeling was mutual.
He cut the phone call short, smacked the receiver down, and ground his cigarette out. "What is it, Wagner?" He knew by the look on my face I had a winner.
"Tonight's lead. A WRC exclusive."
When I finished telling the story, Harry rocked back in his chair and sucked on his cigarette.
"People jump for three reasons," he mused. "Guilt, insanity, or despair. Hoag claims his wife wasn't depressed or crazy enough to kill herself. He also claims she wasn't guilty because he says she wouldn't have sabotaged the plane. But one thing's clear. Her jump is directly related to that plane going down. What if she did rig the plane? The big question there is why? Why on earth would she have done such a thing?"
"Two possible answers, Harry. Hoag could be wrong. Maybe Linda's experiences in the Gulf War did leave her unbalanced. Maybe sending a plane down in flames was a strange kind of symbolic act to purge her tortured soul. A final act before leaving the military."
"Or, someone really made her do it. Either way, it's a big story and we've got it first."
Harry grinned. "You're a one-woman rescue squad, Lacie Wagner. You're my dream come true. Have I told you that lately?"
"Yesterday, Harry. You told me yesterday."
Harry had reason to be appreciative. He had been brought in to fix WRC's local news, which was losing in the ratings to everything in town, including Leave It to Beaver reruns. Harry's first move was to hire me. I took the job with two stipulations. My hands, even gloved, would never appear on camera. And, I did not want a co-anchor. I worked alone. In a town of Barbie and Ken anchor teams, the WRC Evening Newss was all mine. Six months and one huge promotional campaign later, we were in first place. As far as Harry was concerned, the credit for first place was all mine too.
He pushed a sheaf of ratings across the desk. "The numbers just keep getting stronger every day." He leaned back in his chair and beamed. "You've done a hell of a job."
"Under your guidance," I reminded him. "You built a new set, hired a new team of reporters, and put better stories on the air than the other stations."
"It's not the reporters or the stories," Harry insisted. "It's you. You have the face of a star, and that's what this town wants. A star. The camera loves you. You're all cheekbones and eyes. Hell, eyes make the anchor. They convey a world of wordless emotion to the audience. Sympathy, outrage, indignation, empathy, mirth. An anchor's eyes are more important than the voice. But you've got the eyes and the voice, and the ambition to make it all work."
I had ambition all right. Success was a way of proving that despite my disability, I was strong and able. I was a loner and Harry openly admired that. Outside of weekly dinners with Harry, I never socialized with the news staff. I knew they said I cared more about winning than being liked. They were right. After leaving Jerry, I moved stubbornly forward, staying focused on two things: my daughter and my career.
"You're network material," Harry was saying, shaking the ratings at me.
"From your lips to God's ears."
I turned to leave, then looked back at Harry. Something in his expression stopped me. The lion was gone. For an instant, he looked deflated. His shoulders sagged and his head appeared too big for his rangy frame.
"Harry? You want to talk about it?"
"Ego," he mumbled.
"My fucking ego. Watching you reminds me of my youth, Wagner, when I was the star anchor, shaking things up the way you are. I love news and I love running the newsroom, but I've got to tell you I loved nothing more than being on air. Sometimes I just feel old when all I want to feel is youngto shake things up like I used to. Guess I should just be goddamn glad I'm alive, right?"
"Alive is good, Harry." I touched his big hand with my half-filled glove, then wound my way through the newsroom to my own office. I closed the door, shutting out the newsroom sounds I loved, the radio static, the shouting, the clack-clacking of faxes, the snapping of computer keyboards, doors whooshing in and out, phones ringing.
I sat not knowing that one day soon I would think: Harry! Shake up nothing!
Sometimes the shake can kill you.
The weekend producer rapped on the door and pointed at the clock. It was ten minutes to six. I was needed on the set.
I opened with the Severino story. When it was over, I spoke with deliberate intimacy about the pain of loss and the difficulty of learning to accept the unacceptable. I hinted that there would be more startling surprises and shocking revelations in the search for the truth about what happened to Linda Severino. The story was strong, meat in an otherwise soft newscast. Thirty minutes later, I closed: "Lacie Wagner, WRC-TV Action News, wishing you a good holiday and a very good night."
The hot studio lights faded as the floor crew drifted out. I sat in the semidark, thinking about Linda Severino, wondering what she was thinking when she took her flotation jacket off. I wondered how long it took her to die and if, at the last minute, she fought to stay alive. Everyone I had spoken to told me how courageous and fearless she was. I wondered if she was afraid when she jumped, and I tried to guess what her thoughts were in the final moments, in the false sweet euphoria hypothermia brings.
I thought of her husband's statement. How he described her troubled sleep as racked with recurring nightmares and whispering voices. Were the whispering voices ripe with threat? Did coal-stoked eyes burn bright in her sleep while wide wet lips promised flames and death and the stink of freshly burned flesh?
Were her nightmares like mine?
I stepped out the rear studio door and walked without my coat into the frigid night.
It was pitch dark, as black as a deep dreamless sleep; the kind never had.
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Meet the Author
Jeannine Kadow was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. She earned her bachelor's degree in television journalism at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia Missouri. Jeannine worked as a television news reporter and anchor, then moved on to a high powered career at Warner Brothers in television syndication. She left Warner Brothers to devote her full time to writing, and lives now in New York and the South of France.
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