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Isabel picked at the ragged threads that once hugged a shiny button on the front of her blazer. Hunched over her keyboard and sallow-skinned from too much fluorescent lighting, she had won computer solitaire three times before she bored of it entirely and listlessly reached for the mouse to click over to the wires to see what was not happening on this slow Labor Day weekend.
Staring at her flickering screen, either at words floating in front of her or at playing cards triumphantly dancing off a full deck, was a relief from the noise in her brain: angry shouts shifting into one another like a Rubick's Cube. "You disgust me," her husband called out as her father's voice interrupted with "You have no family" and "Why do you even bother?" Alex again: "You're nothing, you don't even register."
She shook her head to put the invisible squares back into place.
"Hey, Jack, check out AP wires. Princess Diana's been in a car accident," she called out across the newsroom to the assignment editor, her ring finger finding its way to her front teeth.
"Yeah, her Mercedes probably got a scratch and they're calling it a wreck," the overnight editor answered.
Isabel was filling in for the weekend anchor who wanted the holiday weekend off to spend with his family in the Hamptons.
"You think you can actually get away from this?" an unidentified voice snarled in Isabel's head.
She bit the skin around her fingernail.
"I don't know, Jack. Look how many 'urgents' they've entered. Why don't we call the London bureau and see what they know."
"Okay, let's," Jack replied bitterly, knowing that "why don't we call " was a direct order for whoever was on the desk to carry out the task.
You disgust me. Did you hear me? You disgust me.
Isabel shook her head again. To an observer it might have appeared she was dodging persistent mosquitoes.
As Jack hit the direct-dial button to London, the phones started ringing. Isabel picked up the first line.
"Isabel, it's John. I'm on my way in. Who've you talked to?"
"London just beeped me. You talked to Ted yet? I think he's making his way across town, too." Jesus.
"What did London tell you? Jack's on the phone with them right nowI haven't heard." Isabel felt a knot tighten in her stomach.
"It's bad. They said they're going to coordinate with Jack to feed video as soon as the freelancer in Paris gets to the bureau. The car's all mangled, though. Should be good pictures."
"What about injuries?"
"London said they don't know yet. Listen, kid, we may need you to do a special report. You okay with that?"
No. Jesus Christ, no.
"Sure," she replied. She had tried to sound convincing but was sure she'd failed.
"You sure? Ted's made the call that it's you and he's on his way in to make it happen. But say the word and we'll get someone else in. You don't have to do it."
"I'm fine, John." Isabel corrected her posture and took a deep breath in. "Seriously. Don't give it another thought."
I can't do this. Not right now. Not tonight. Please.
But John was dubious. "Who else is in the newsroom?"
"No one. Just me and Jack and a couple of editors in the backI don't know who."
"For chrissakes! Why hasn't Jack gotten backup in there? You're gonna need at least a couple of producers for now, until we can get our shit together and we know how bad this thing is. Lemme talk to Jack."
"Stand by." Isabel felt the thump of a headache gnawing its way to the front of her forehead. Her computer was beeping every two to three seconds with the same "urgent" wire report that Diana had been in a car accident. She signaled to Jack to pick up the phone. He already had a phone on each ear and was no longer sitting back in his chair but was pacing behind the assignment desk.
Calm down. This is my last chance. Last chance. Last chance. So let's dance the last dance to-oo-night. Yes it's my last chance .
"Buckingham Palace confirms that Diana, the Princess of Wales, was in a serious car accident earlier this evening in Paris. There is no confirmation yet on the extent of her injuries."
Isabel stared at the AP report on her computer. She squeezed her eyes shut, opened them again, and tried to pretend her peripheral vision was not narrowing.
"You think you can actually get away from this?" the voice asked again, its sinister laughter bouncing off the interior walls of Isabel's skull.
Not now. Please. Calm down.
Two seconds later the makeup artist backed away from her and then dabbed an extra bit of powder on her forehead.
"Okay." Ted Sargent was nervously arranging the two sheets of copy on the anchor desk in front of Isabel. "You got everything you need?"
"Yes, Ted," Isabel answered, her voice an octave higher than normal. "They're talking to me in my ear so, if you'll excuse me " She was unaccustomed to having the president of the network news division looking over her shoulder.
"Stand by, Isabel," the voice came into her earpiece. "We don't know when we're cutting in. Stand by."
Isabel had never done a Special Report. She turned in her seat and scanned the newsroom. Within minutes it had come alive, desk assistants, producers, writersmany of whom she'd never seen beforewere scurrying around, diving for phones, typing on their keypads, combing through hours of Diana footage for the best shots. She felt as if she were on a plane, taking off, the cabin pressure adjusting and popping her eardrums.
We are interrupting this broadcast to bring you an ANN Special Report. Just moments ago, Buckingham Palace confirmed that Diana, Princess of Wales, has been involved in what they are calling a, quote, serious car accident in Paris. The extent of her injuries and the nature of the accident are not yet known. Once again, Princess Diana was in a car accident roughly one hour ago in Paris, France. Buckingham Palace is characterizing it as serious. We will, of course, bring you more information as soon as it becomes available. Please stay tuned to your local ANN affiliate for further details. I'm Isabel Murphy reporting from ANN headquarters in New York.
Isabel's lips moved as she read the copy again to herself. Her heart was racing almost as fast as her thought process.
I'm anchoring a Special Report for the American News Network. Focus. I've got to focus.
"Chip?" Isabel spoke into her microphone at a whisper and barely moved her lips, which were now magenta, the blue fear freezing out the slash of her red lipstick. "Do I have five seconds to make a quick call? It's important."
"We're in standby mode so technically no, but since we're waiting for the break to drop out of programming if you do it quickly you've got about seventeen seconds until we're on alert. Go."
Isabel had already dialed the first nine numbers into the phone behind the anchor desk. She pushed the tenth on Chip's go-ahead.
"Hi, it's me," she said softly. "Just wanted to tell you two to watch ANN right now."
Her face fell as she listened into the phone. "But where is he? Oh. Okay. Well, bye."
Maybe he'll be home in the next few minutes. Then he'll catch it. Mom'll already have it on.
"Okay, Isabel." The voice in her ear was steady and commanding. "We're going live in one minute. Stand by."
You disgust me. You disgust me.
Isabel sat up straight in her chair and nervously touched her sprayed hair.
Calm down. Calm down.
"Isabel, you all set?" Ted was just behind the TelePrompTer facing the anchor desk.
Last chance. Last chance. For romance to-oo-night.
"Yes," Isabel replied, looking down at her copy (a backup in case the TelePrompTer were to break down). There was already an imprint of her sweating hand on the printout.
Maybe he's walking into the house right now.
Isabel's heart pounded even harder when the voice of her producer came back into her ear: "Thirty seconds, Isabel. Stand by."
Oh, God. Please, God.
Isabel watched Ted hurry in to the control booth from behind the camera. Last chance.
"In ten, nine, eight, sevencue musicfive, four, three, two." Good producers never say "one." Last chance.
Isabel looked into the camera and, for the first time in her career, froze.
Chip's voice was urgent in her ear: "Isabel! You're on!" Nothing.
Last chance last chance.
Isabel was no longer at the anchor desk, she was in a parallel universe, one in which Donna Summers sang the same song over and over and Isabel was able to watch herself spiral down a dirty tunnel and yet was powerless to stop her descent, her arms frantically grabbing at the sides of the darkening cone, trying to catch hold of a slippery side. Viewers, alerted to the emergency cut-in by a fancy graphic and urgent music involving trumpets and French horns, were now turning to other stations.
Ted Sargent ran out of the control booth toward the anchor desk, just off camera. "Isabel!" he hissed angrily.
You disgust me. The voices had broken throughIsabel no longer heard them as others but as herself. Did you hear me? You disgust me!
He ran back into the booth and yelled to the producer. "Throw up a graphic! Something! Cut to black! Jesus fucking Christ!" Ted looked up at the monitors running the other network broadcasts and saw that all were on the air with Special Reports about Diana. CBS was running video of her on an amusement park ride with her two sons. NBC had somehow gotten Tom Brokaw into the anchor chair in time. As precious minutes ticked by, ANN was missing the story. And with the evening news anchor out of town, all the network had was Isabel Murphy, who was spontaneously combusting on national television.
"Isabel, what the hell is going on?" Ted was one step away from reaching across the anchor desk and strangling his only hope. "Isabel! Jesus Christ, Isabel! Snap out of it!"
Isabel watched Ted's small calamari lips moving. His voice tangled up with others talking at her and confused her.
Chip, the man behind the voice in her ear, was in front of her. "Isabel? Do you need a doctor? What's going on?" Normally unflappable, Chip was nearly as frantic as Ted. This was the kind of thing that lost people jobs. Possibly the biggest news story of the year and Isabel was single-handedly wrecking the network's reputation.
"Isabel, you have got to listen to me." John Goodman, the senior producer on duty, was towering over her. His words were measured but powerful. "You have got to go live right now, do you understand? Whatever is going on, we can fix it when this is over. But right now, you have got to go live."
Isabel brought John's stern face into focus.
This is the man who hired me. The man who took a leap of faith in me when no one else would.
"Okay," she whispered through ventriloquist's lips. No one heard her but John.
"Okay? You'll do it? Okay?" he double-checked while nodding to Ted and Chip.
"Okay," Isabel said meekly.
I've got to do this.
Chip ran back into the booth.
He had left her earpiece on so she heard the voices thundering at one another in the control room. "This is a mistake, Ted. I told you I didn't want her in the chair tonight." Chip's voice.
"What, she's not used to live television? Give me a fucking break."
"Okay, Isabel, let's try this again." Chip had regained his composure. "In thirty seconds." Please. Please.
"Nice and easy." Chip was trying to soothe her. Please. Calm down. Please. Please.
"I have to protect my reporters, Sargent," Isabel heard John challenge Ted. "And I'm telling you, this is not a good call to make with Murphy right now! Where's Roberts? Get him in here."
"Fifteen seconds." The knot, ever-tightening in Isabel's stomach, threatened to erupt in vomit. "Ten, nine, eight, sevencue musicfive, four, three, two."
With the camera trained on her, Isabel opened her mouth to speak but closed it when no words came out. Please. Please no.
"No fucking way!" Ted shouted in the booth. "Go to a graphic." As Ted barked orders, Chip tried to coax Isabel one last time.
"Get her off the air!" Ted yelled. Isabel flinched at the volume of the words still piped through her ear. "Get her off the fucking air! She'll never make air again, if I have anything to say about it. Not on this network. She wants to go down, fine. But she's not taking this network with her, goddammit!"
So, let's dance the last dance let's dance the last dance.
"If you threaten her, I swear to God I'll make your life miserable," John warned Ted.
"She's over. She's finished," Ted ranted.
"If she is it'll be her choice, not yours," John volleyed back. "You hear me?"
"Do I need to remind you who you're talking to, Goodman?" Ted's voice a decibel lower.
"Just give her some room right now. Agreed?"
Look at you. You disgust me.
Ted looked through the glass door into the newsroom. His assistant was running across the room to him.
He opened the door. "What? You reach him?"
"He's five minutes away," she panted.
He turned back to John. "She's lucky Roberts is in town or I'd wipe the floor with her. Okay, Chip, let's get the desk ready for him. The computer's all booted up, right? Melissa, go down to the lobby and hold an elevator open for him. We got some water by the desk in case he's thirsty? Good."
Move. You have to get up now. It's over. Move.