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By Hank Phillippi Ryan
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 Hank Phillippi Ryan
All rights reserved.
It's statistically impossible that my mother is always right. So why doesn't she seem to know it?
Besides, it's demonstrably true that I'm not always wrong. I have twenty-one Emmys for investigative reporting — won number twenty-one after I was stalked by murderous thugs, threatened by insider-trading CEOs and held at gunpoint by a money-hungry sociopath who I proved was mastermind of a nationwide insider-trading scandal. Every one of them is in prison now. So I must have been right about a lot of things.
But at this moment, struggling for balance on a cushily upholstered chair at Mom's bedside in New England's most exclusive cosmetic surgery center, somehow I no longer feel like the toast of Boston television. I feel more like toast. Once again, I'm a gawky, awkward, nearsighted adolescent, squirming under the assessing eye of Lorraine Carpenter McNally. Two months from now, provided her face heals in time for the wedding, she'll be Lorraine Carpenter McNally Margolis.
"Charlotte," Mother says. "Stop frowning. You're making lines."
Millions of viewers know me as Charlie McNally. I'm not Charlie to my mother, though. As she's repeatedly told me, my news director, my producer Franklin Parrish, my ex-husband Sweet Baby James, admirers who hail me on the street, and certainly Josh Gelston when she meets him: "Nicknames are for stuffed animals and men who have to play sports." After that pronouncement, she always adds: "If I'd wanted a child named Charlie, I would have had a boy and named him that."
Mom and I do better by long distance. Most of our conversations begin with me telling her about something I've done. Then she tells me what I should have done. Then I ask why nothing I do is ever good enough. Then she insists she's not "criticizing," she's "observing." As long as she stays in her skyscraping lake-view condo in Chicago, we do a good job pretending we're a close-knit pair.
But here she is in my hometown, swaddled in a frothy peach hospital gown, surrounded by crystal vases of fragrant June peonies, reclining against down pillows. She insists that I shouldn't come visit her every day, saying she's sure I have better things to do. Patients "of a certain age" who have "extensive surgery" stay here through recovery, minimum fourteen days. So this is going to be an interesting couple of weeks. And by interesting I mean impossible.
At least Mom doesn't look as bad as I expected for a few hours after surgery. No bruises yet, no puffy eyes. She's got bags of what look like frozen peas Ace bandaged to each side of her face to keep down the swelling, and I can still see the little needle marks where her precious Dr. Garth injected Restylane to erase the lines in her forehead.
"All the pretty girls are doing it," she says. She would have given me her trademark raised eyebrow for emphasis, I'm sure, if she could move her eyebrows. "And if you don't make an appointment with the plastic surgeon at your age ..." Her voice trails off, apparently rendered speechless by my continuing refusal to face reality. She settles into her plump nest of pillows, adjusts her peas and pushes harder. "Charlotte, you know I'm right, and ..."
Keeping my face appropriately attentive, I begin a mental list of all the things I should be doing at nine-thirty on a Monday night instead of babysitting with my mother. Thinking about a blockbuster story for the July ratings. Calling Franklin to see if he's come up with another Emmy winner. Making sure I have a bathing suit that won't freak out my darling Josh, who has only known me since last October and has not yet encountered my forty-six-year-old self in anything but sleek reporter suits or jeans and chunky sweaters or strategically lacy lingerie. Under dim lights.
"And local TV is so — local...." Lorraine is reprising one of her favorite themes. Why is it, she wonders, that I've never wanted to move to New York and hit the networks? Or at least move home to Chicago, where she could set me up with a handpicked tycoon husband who would convince me to abandon my television career and become a tycoon wife? For the past twenty years I've told her I'm fulfilled by my career and am comfortable being single again. Mother makes it clear I'm wrong about this.
I look dutifully contemplative, nod a couple of times and continue my mental should-be-doing list. Feed Botox, who's probably already ripped the mail to shreds and tipped over her litter box to prove who's boss. E-mail best friend Maysie, who's at Fenway Park covering the Red Sox, and see what I'm supposed to bring to her annual Fourth of July cookout. Call Nora and make sure my younger sister will take her turn at mom-sitting when Mother finally goes home. Dig up a book about adolescent girls and see how experts suggest I deal with Josh's daughter Penny.
I've been to war zones, chased politicians through parking lots, wired myself with hidden cameras, even battled through the annual bridal gown extravaganza in Filene's Basement, but spending my summer vacation days with a surly eight-year-old and her blazingly attractive father? This may be my toughest assignment ever. Not counting the bathing suit.
"Look in the mirror," Mother urges. She starts to point, but then, after a quick scan, apparently realizes the flatteringly lit pink walls of her posh little room — which looks more like plush grand hotel than sterile hospital — don't have any mirrors.
She forges ahead, undaunted by reality. "Well, find a mirror, and look in it," she says. "Charlotte, this isn't a criticism, it's an observation. I'm your mother. If I don't tell you, who will? Your neck is, well, worrisome, and you'll instantly see how your cheeks are drooping."
Happily for our relationship, there's a soft knock on the door. As it opens, Mother's expression softens from imperious to flirtatious. Talk about worrisome. Still, I've got to give her credit for believing she's alluring in that frozen pea and Ace bandage getup. Wisps of her newly reblonded hair escape in a way she'd never allow if there were mirrors, but she's still got the McNally brown eyes and Gramma Nell's good posture. If it's true we become our mothers, I guess I'm not going to be so bad at sixty-eight. Plus, the nursing staff at the New England Center for Cosmetic Surgery is certainly used to women in the awkward stages of transformation.
"Miz McNally?" A romance novel cover-model wannabe in a white oxford button-down and even whiter pants consults the chart clamped to the foot of Mom's bed. His smile is snowier still. "I'm Nurse Justin. How are we feeling?" He clicks some switches on a bedside contraption, checking the heart and respiration monitors the center requires for every patient. Mom coos at him as he muscles a rolling bed table across her lap, pretending she doesn't want to take her latest round of pills because the painkillers make her "silly."
Nurse Justin is just one of the pill-dispensing glamour boys I've seen in the center's modishly fashionable nursing whites. Some are older and gray -templed, some younger with panache-y little ponytails, but they all look like they've just come from shooting the latest Ralph Lauren catalog, and only do this nursing thing in their spare time. I don't know how the center gets away with this obviously discriminatory hiring practice. Plus, who'd want a hunky guy seeing you as a before? Mother, apparently, is all for it.
I tune back in to her chitchat. It's about me.
"On Channel 3," I hear Mother explaining. "Charlotte, dear," she says. "I hope you're going to be on the news tonight. We'd love to watch you."
Not a chance, of course. It's now almost ten o'clock, and the news goes on the air at eleven. But Mother has never understood how television works.
"Nope," I say, smiling as if this isn't a ridiculous question. And, I grudgingly realize, she's just being a proud mom, which is actually very sweet. "I do long-term investigative stories," I explain to the nurse, just an amiable daughter joining the conversation. "I'm only on the air when we've uncovered something big. So, nothing tonight." I shrug. "Sorry."
Nurse Justin's face suddenly changes to a scowl, which is baffling until I see he's pointing at my tote bag. Which is ringing. "No cell phones allowed in guests' rooms," he says, still scowling. "Strict rules. We're all about patient privacy. And quiet. Cell phones are allowed only in the outer lobby."
I cringe. "Forgot to turn it off when I left the station," I say, which is true. I whap it to Off without even checking the number, figuring Justin will forgive me my first transgression, and whoever is calling will call back. His face begins to soften — and then my purse starts beeping.
I dive for the beeper they still make me carry, knowing full well I forgot to turn that off, too. I push the kill button, but the illuminated green letters that pop up are inescapable. CALL DESK, it demands. RIGHT NOW. And if that weren't attention-getting enough, a second screen flashes up at me. NEED U LIVE FOR ELEVEN PM NEWS.
Mom was right again.CHAPTER 2
"Who? What? When? Why me?" I leap from the cab, phone clamped to my ear. Roger Zelinsky, managing editor of the eleven-o'clock news, is giving me the lowdown in bullet points: attorney general Oscar Ortega. Announcing for governor. Lead story. Every other reporter out on assignment.
"You're going on the air live," Roger says. "Soon as Oz makes his move."
Oscar Ortega is often called "the Great and Powerful Oz," and word is he likes the nickname. The state's first Hispanic attorney general, he's a take-no -prisoners politician with a big-bucks machine behind him. If he's running for governor, he'll be tough to beat.
The parking lot outside Ortega's redbrick Beacon Hill office is full of scurrying TV types, scrambling to cover this breaking news. Technicians from the four network affiliates, the CW, CNN, a couple of local cable stations and the Emerson College journalism class have staked out spots for their imminent live broadcasts. Masts from a lineup of microwave vans poke into the star-scattered sky like huge yellow forks against the late June night. Technicians inside the vans, sliding doors left open to let in the breeze, briskly read out coordinates to colleagues back in their stations' control rooms, tweaking audio levels and confirming video feeds are clean.
"They're all set for you," Roger assures me. "We've already got a live signal. Find the truck. Thanks for being a team player, McNally. Just let me know when you're ready."
I trot through the maze of vehicles with the phone still tight to my ear. I know I have to hurry, but I can't be sweaty or out of breath on the air. There it is. With a fist, I bang on the window of Channel 3's ungainly blue-and-gold mobile studio, then wave at the crew inside the truck to announce my arrival.
"Found the van," I say to Roger. "Talk to you later."
It's got to be less than five minutes until airtime.
Photographers from the other stations are snaking out the extension poles of their powerful spotlights. The parking lot illuminates almost into daylight, as megawattage hits the fidgeting reporters anticipating their face time and their chance to bring home the lead story. Some on-the-air types mutter to themselves, practicing the scripts they've scrawled onto their notepads. Others preen in pocket mirrors, adding lip gloss or a final spritz of hairspray.
A row of cameras perch atop metal tripods like electronic flamingos, set up and ready to roll. One tripod is empty. Ours.
Not good. Not good. Not good. We've supposedly got a producer inside who'll bring me info, but so far no one's come out to give me the scoop. Not good.
I click on my cell phone to send a frantic Mayday. Just then, I see my photographer Walt Petrucelli, sweaty and disheveled in a baggy Channel 3 T-shirt and voluminous khaki shorts, muttering to himself as he lugs his camera from the trunk of a news car. Acting as if there's all the time in the world. The ring of keys yanking down one belt loop jingles as Walt clicks the Sony into ready position and gives one tripod leg an irritated kick into place. "Why me?" He questions the universe as he peers through his viewfinder, adjusting focus. "Buncha bullshit."
Walt looks up, does a double take as if he's seeing me for the first time. "Bringin' out the big shots, huh?" he says. "How'd you get the short straw, McNally?"
Ignoring him, I position myself in front of the camera. Using the lens as a mirror, I take a second to check my reflection. My high-maintenance blond bangs are reasonably straight, my trademark red lipstick reasonably applied, and the black suit I put on for work today — about a million hours ago — reasonably unwrinkled. As good as it's going to get.
Every mosquito and midge in New England dives and swoops across the klieg lights in front of me, probably deciding which ones will go on the attack during my live shot. Happy-go-lucky motorists out on Cambridge Street, also attracted by the lights, honk their horns as they drive by.
I twist an earpiece into place, clicking its cord into the control room connection box I've clipped onto the waistband of my skirt.
"Can they see me back at the station?" I ask Walt, tuning everything else out. I pat my lapel. Nothing. "Where's my microphone?"
Right now, a camera inside at the news conference had better be feeding video to the station. If this all works the way it should, the producer will put Ortega's announcement, live, on the news. I'll know what Oz says because I'll hear it on air through my earpiece.
Right now I'm hearing only silence.
"Yeah, yeah, hold your horses." Walt, molasses, finally clips a tiny black microphone to my jacket. "Control room's got you now."
A deafening shriek screams into my ear through the audio receiver, followed by a blast of static. Then, finally, a voice. Which I can almost understand. Then total silence. "Lost audio," I tell Walt, attempting to stay calm. "What's the control room trying to tell me?"
"Four minutes," Walt says.
I contemplate ripping out my earpiece, yanking off my microphone, and going home. I have no news release. I have no idea what's going on in the news conference, and I'm about to appear live in front of a million people. And, undoubtedly, Mother is one of them. They'll all watch this live shot crash and burn.
But maybe not. I see a familiar figure power through the revolving door of the A.G.'s office building. He runs across the parking lot toward me, skids to a halt and bends over to catch his breath, hands on his knees. Then Franklin Parrish saves my life.
"It's underway now," my producer says. "Oz announcing for governor." He looks up at me, one hand still on a knee, confirming. "The anchor's gonna toss to Oz's statement live, then come to you for the wrap-up."
"Three minutes," Walt intones.
In my earpiece, now thankfully static-free, I hear the audio of our newscast. I hear Amanda Lomax, her trademark throaty anchor-voice telling viewers of the surprise candidacy of Oscar Ortega, instant front-runner for governor. And then I hear Oz himself, basso profundo, begin to intone his platform. I imagine he's turned his crowd-pleasing charisma up to full blast. He's clearly not much for exercise, but with his dark wavy hair and killer smile, it's also clear he thinks he's irresistibly charming, and he may be right. Most women seem to vote yes, no matter what he asks for.
Walt holds up two fingers. "Two minutes."
Franklin blots his face with a pristinely ironed handkerchief, pushing his tortoiseshell glasses onto the top of his head, then pulls a piece of paper from his jeans pocket. "Okay, Charlotte. Here's the news release for y'all," he says, smoothing out the wrinkles.
This signals Franklin's just as tense as I am. He always calls me Charlotte, which, instead of carrying Mother's undercurrent of criticism, comes out sounding adorably like "Shaw-lit." But "y'all"? His otherwise usually subdued Southern accent only reappears when he's under pressure. Still, I've worked with him long enough to know he thrives on pressure.
"Just read it," Franklin instructs. "It's got the whole drill, law and order, convictions out the wazoo, death to infidels, all that. Y'all — you know the lowdown on this guy, right?"
I do, in fact. Oscar Ortega: recruitment poster for the prosecution — cool, hot, and politically connected. Known for his outrageous neckties and outrageous legal talent. Scholarship to Boston College. Scholarship to Yale Law. Could cross-examine blood out of a turnip. And some predict he'll step out of the attorney general's office, percolate for a term or two on Beacon Hill, then head for the Oval Office at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
"Thanks, Franko," I say, taking the release. Less than a minute to go. I'll read it through quickly, then use it to sum up when Oz is finished. Done it a million times. Like riding a bike. "No problem."
I can't see the words. I mean, I can see that there are words, but they're a complete blur. I glance over at Franklin, ready to ask if there's a problem with the copy he's offered. I can easily see the crease in his predictably impeccable jeans, the tiny polo pony on his pink knit shirt, even how the ten-o'clock stubble on his face darkens his coffee skin to espresso.
Excerpted from Face Time by Hank Phillippi Ryan. Copyright © 2009 Hank Phillippi Ryan. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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