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Don't Touch That Dial!
In the cutthroat world of evening news, where "if it bleeds it leads" is the industry’s lifeblood, the dead-last BCN network is hemorrhaging viewers. On the chopping block is million-dollar anchor Kitty Coughlin, who is one ratings point away from early termination. But when a group of armed men hijack her plane and stage a spectacular near-miss of one...
Don't Touch That Dial!
In the cutthroat world of evening news, where "if it bleeds it leads" is the industry’s lifeblood, the dead-last BCN network is hemorrhaging viewers. On the chopping block is million-dollar anchor Kitty Coughlin, who is one ratings point away from early termination. But when a group of armed men hijack her plane and stage a spectacular near-miss of one of America's most famous landmarks, Kitty's eyewitness account helps BCN achieve a remarkable ratings rally.
Kitty is riding high...until the ratings bubble bursts and her career goes back on life support. Then the next catastrophe strikes.
Wherever Kitty Coughlin goes, disaster -- and ratings gold -- follows. Is Kitty's uncanny ability to be at the center of the news storm sheer dumb luck or very bad news?
Harold W. Smith of the supersecret agency CURE knows a thing or two about disaster management. He sends in Remo Williams and the remarkable Chiun to tune in, turn off, and pull the plug on whoever is putting Americans at risk.
At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
Everyone wanted her dead.
The jackals were circling her body and had been for so long now, she had forgotten what her world was like without them. She was not yet dead, not even cold, but the snarling, salivating pack was sniffing around as if it had found a fresh antelope carcass deep in the tall grass.
It had not always been so. She seemed healthy way back at the very beginning although it was so long ago she could scarcely remember now. But even then things were not as rosy as they had seemed. After only one day the bleeding had started. In a week the floor was stained red and the animals that fed off carrion were sneaking in, tearing off pieces of her flesh. Nibbling, nibbling away at a body still standing but wobbling on unsteady high heels.
KITTY COUGHLIN RATINGS DISASTER!
IS BCN ALREADY GROOMING KITTY'S REPLACEMENT?
OUR TOP STORY: KITTY #3 AND FALLING
COUGHLIN'S RATINGS BLEED CONTINUES
Those headlines came at the end of just her first week as the first woman to solo anchor a network evening newscast. The press got worse in her second week. In the third week she stopped reading the reviews and threatened to fire anyone who brought to work any newspaper that dared to devote so much as an inch of column space to the growing ratings disaster. This edict, among many others, further damaged the swelling tide of negative opinion about her among the staff at the Broadcast Corporation of North America world news headquarters in New York.
Naturally, the talk of dissent in the ranks made all the trade papers. It was no secret that the regular news staff hated her. One famous old-timer at the network, an octogenarian who had temporarily held the evening news anchor post until Kitty was wooed to the center chair from a rival network, now regularly fed stories of behind- the- scenes disaster to a hungry print media. A well- known female journalist on a BCN weekly news magazine program, a woman Kitty knew socially and who had been friendly before Kitty became the most famous female news face at the network, would no longer speak when they passed in the hallways. These days it was all icy glares and vile dinner party gossip
Everyone was waiting for her to fail, longing for the day when the network finally came to its senses and pulled the plug on the ratings bleed over which Kitty had presided.
If the bigwigs concluded that it was better for their bottom line, she knew that even her multimillion- dollar contract would not save her from the unemployment line. At fifty- three she'd be a jobless pariah, damaged goods forced to move out of her tony Park Avenue apartment and into some cold-water skid-row tenement. She made a mental note to wear a more sensible pair of Prada shoes her first day in the soup line.
"Ow. Dammit," Kitty Coughlin muttered as she strode through the gleaming automatic doors at New York's LaGuardia Airport. Leaning against the doorframe, she stuck a finger down inside the tight back of her left shoe.
"Is something wrong, Ms. Coughlin?" asked the nervous young man who accompanied her.
"No, I always stick my hands in my shoes and hop to the plane for good luck, you moron."
She had stopped dead to adjust the shoe and was blocking the entrance so that a husband and wife with two children and an armload of luggage were bunched up behind her. "There's another door right there, Gomer," Kitty snarled at the man, who until now had been offering a friendly smile. "Go around. Jesus. Idiot tourists."
The man's smile faded and he ushered his wife and kids around a railing to an adjacent door. "So, you still getting hammered in Boston by Malcolm in the Middle?" the man queried as he and his family passed Kitty into the building. His wife shushed him but Kitty noted that he was smiling once more as he hurried his family across the busy terminal.
"Does every nitwit in the world know my goddamn ratings?" she growled, tugging her finger angrily out of her shoe.
Her once charmed life was a thing lost in the distant mists of hazy memory. A darling only child, the apple of her parents' eyes; a sorority sister at her exclusive college; an internship at a Washington TV station thanks to her school ties; and up, up, up until she had reached what at the time was the pinnacle of her profession for a woman long on legs and short on talent, cohost of a network morning news and entertainment show. Life had been so easy for so long that her brain could not comprehend adversity, which was why she had taken the job as solo anchor for the BCN Evening News. If she had only had some clue that things might get sticky, that the print press would turn on her, that her coworkers would despise her, that the viewing public could fall out of love with her, she might never have taken the job.
But she vowed that she would not let it get to her. Her therapist had told her she should visit her happy place in times of stress. But the idyllic, sunny field in her mind was filled these days with snakes and on the lake front of her imagination sharks with legs had started scuttling up out of the shallow water. She had spent so much meditation time lately stomping on snakes and kicking sharks in their snub noses that she had given up hope of finding a happy place even in her mind.
Yet all the hatred, the backstabbing, the resentment would not get to her. No way. She would not allow it. She was rock. Unmovable, unassailable. Let them give her their worst, she would not be shaken.
"If only these goddamn shoes fit right, everything would be fine," she snarled at no one and everyone.
Walking was murder in these things but no matter how tight they pinched she would not stumble, especially in a public place like an airport.
In the darkest crevices of her worried mind she might be wobbling, but only in her mind. In real life Kitty could not afford to give even the appearance of physical unsteadiness. Her ratings were miserable, but if she wobbled, stumbled or fell and-God forbid-someone got the image on a cell phone and disseminated it to her enemies, it would be seen as a sign; a physical manifestation of the precarious position she was in at her job. Another headline.
KITTY COUGHLIN TRIPS AS RATINGS DIP!
In this age of the twenty- four- hour news cycle, where anchors not only reported the news but were themselves the topic of discussion on countless panel shows, Kitty would not willingly give the piranhas something to feed on. The pundits would claim even her unconscious knew she was ready to topple. At that point a nudge, perhaps in the form of some supermarket tabloid exposé, and the jackals would have the feeding frenzy they had been hungering after for over a year.
As she walked through the terminal, the prospects of a new round of bad press made her lightheaded.
No. There would be no wobbling, no stumbling. Certainly she would not fall. She would absolutely not give the jackals, the hyenas, the vultures the satisfaction. If she had been a dedicated leftist, she might even have recalled the lyrics to the old labor union song, "We are fighting for our future; we shall not be moved." But in truth, she was not a leftist. She did not really understand political left and political right and such nuances but instead took her political cues from nineteen- year- old bimbo actresses, rock singers with tattooed genitals, and rap artistes whom she liked to interview whenever they were out on bail. Beautiful people all. With beautiful identical ideas of love and peace and brotherhood, which Kitty Coughlin rarely understood but always loudly supported. Beautiful people. And Kitty Coughlin was proud to be one of them and she would hold her head up high and the world be damned before she would show any weakness, especially to the slimy peasants who seemed to infest today's world.
Her high heels clicked with renewed ferocious purpose as she went to check in. "Washington bureau has a limo all arranged," said the nervous young BCN Evening News assistant who dogged her steps. His short legs had a difficult time keeping pace with her long, certain strides. "It'll be at the airport when you land," he said, panting as he tried to keep up. "They've found someone new for sound just like you asked."
"They better have," Kitty Coughlin snarled. "Last moron
those bozos stuck me with made me sound like Daffy Duck."
Since she was a VIP, Kitty was allowed to skip the line. Ordinarily she was in first class long before the deadweight in the back boarded, but today she noticed that the proles seemed to be moving along faster than usual. For some reason there were not the usual security delays. She only noticed two security officers on duty and they appeared to be arguing with one another, oblivious to the passengers filing through the scanners single file. She saw her own camera crew pass through without having to open their bags of equipment for inspection. At the rate they were moving, the nobodies would all be aboard before her.
"Your FEMA interview is all set for three this after - noon," her assistant said, oblivious to the rapidly moving line at his back. He pulled some 3 x 5 cards from his pocket. "Here's the questions. Mr. Maddox has gone over them and given his okay."
Kitty snorted. "Ah, yes, Uriah Maddox. The great savior of the BCN Evening News with Kitty Coughlin."
"Um . . . yes," said the young man. "Anyway, Washing - ton production staff already has copies. Mr. Maddox had me pass them along. They'll add if they have others."
"Yeah, I know the drill." She snapped her fingers. "Give me those. I don't have all day."
Her assistant handed over the cards as well as her small overnight bag which he had carried from the car. She detected a hint of relief in his shoulders as he turned to leave. He was looking at a whole day in New York without Kitty Coughlin. The rest of the Evening News staff back in Manhattan was probably popping champagne corks already.
She wished her Botox- saturated face would permit her to scowl as she hustled through the non ex is tent VIP security, through the connecting air tunnel and onto the waiting 747.
Flying commercial was just the latest indignity she was being forced to endure. When BCN was wooing her away from a rival network where she had cohosted the morning entertainment- news program for nearly two decades, Kitty had been feted like a queen on private BCN jets. But these days corporate never missed an opportunity to remind the news division that they were keeping careful watch on the wounded and bleeding bottom line.
Kitty found her seat at the middle of the first class section of Flight 980, stashed her bag in the overhead compartment and slumped angrily into her seat. She kicked off her uncomfortable shoes and massaged the fresh blister on her left heel.
She ignored the pi lot's voice on the intercom. When the stewardess began offering unintelligible advice on the scratchy public address system, Kitty was studying her notes. She was still going through the 3 x 5 cards as the plane taxied, gained speed and then tore off down the long runway.
Uriah Maddox, the executive producer of the evening news and Kitty's nominal boss, had added two handwritten questions about Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans and why the federal emergency management gang had assisted the hurricane in destroying the city. "Way to stay topical, Uriah," Kitty grunted as the 747 rose into the clear blue spring sky. "Maybe while I'm at it, I'll ask them about FEMA's response to the sinking of the Titanic."
The most important questions related to FEMA's preparedness for the global warming crisis. There were seventeen individual global warming questions. There was a question about FEMA and global warming and tornados in Kansas. There was a question about FEMA and global warming and blizzards in the Northeast. Kitty placed on top the card that asked what FEMA's plan was if half of the Antarctic ice sheet broke away thanks to global warming, floated north and lodged in the Gulf of Mexico.
She was tapping the cards back into a neat little pile and wondering if this would be her last interview before the suits came to her office and told her she was finished, when she suddenly became aware of a commotion behind her.
Several people gasped in unison. A woman screamed.
"Stay in your seats!" a voice commanded.
Seat belts unbuckled as people up front craned to see what was going on in back. Kitty fumbled her belt loose but did not have time to peer over the seat.
Several things happened seemingly at once.
First there was hustling in the aisle. A frantic stewardess ran past Kitty's seat toward the cockpit.
"My God, oh my God!" the woman cried.
This was followed by a loud pop and the stewardess was suddenly sprawling forward, a red splotch staining the center of her otherwise spotless white blouse.
More screams. Panic exploded throughout the first class section as three men raced up the aisle, guns clutched in their gloved hands. Each man wore a large backpack. The lower half of their faces up to the eyes was covered with a black mask. Blue baseball caps were pulled down low, leaving only a narrow gap for their nervous eyes to dart around the cabin.
Two of the masked men paused to shove someone into the empty seat next to Kitty. It was her cameraman. His skin had gone pale under his three- day growth of beard. The anxious young man had been collected from the coach section and was now fumbling his camera to his shoulder. He aimed it at the two men who loomed over BCN's star anchorwoman.
"It's her," one hissed to another. He was short and at least one hundred pounds overweight. A moist circle of sweaty drool stained his mask over his mouth.
The second one was much thinner than the first. There were acne boils on the visible skin around his eyes. He shoved a pen and a glossy photograph into Kitty's hands. "Could you do me a favor?" asked the man with the gun politely.
It was such an incongruous thing given the circum - stances that Kitty autographed the photograph out of habit. When she was finished, the skinny man muttered something about auctioning off the signed publicity photo as he snatched it back and shoved it into the pocket of his jacket.
"Thanks," he said, taking off up the aisle.
"Keep filming," the fat man ordered the cameraman.
The two men hustled forward, climbing over the body of the dead stewardess on their way to the closed cockpit door where their comrade was waiting.
Kitty could not believe what was happening. It was a hijacking. An honest-to-God hijacking and she was in the middle of it. This was the sort of thing trained newspeople waited a lifetime for. Unfortunately news reporting in the trenches was not Kitty's area of expertise and the fact that one of the hijackers had asked for her autograph in the middle of it had thrown her completely off stride.
"What should I do?" the cameraman asked.
Kitty pulled out her prepared note cards. "Uh . . . uh . . ." She fumbled through the cards and pulled out the only one that even came close to planes. It was a question for the FEMA director asking what his agency planned to do to respond to the crisis of a diminishing worldwide bee population, a direct result of global warming. She gave up on the cards. "How the hell should I know?" she snapped. "Just point that thing at them and keep shooting."
There was at least one more hijacker in back. Kitty could hear a man over her shoulder barking orders. The men in front were arguing before the locked cockpit door.
"You just blew her away, man," the fat one said. He glanced back at the dead stewardess. His dark mask was stained darker with heavy sweat.
"Shut up," said the hijacker who had asked for Kitty's autograph. "I had a perfect 100 feedback and he blew it. I explained to him that 'near mint' means an album dust jacket might have some corner wear but he's relentless. We do this and he promised to delete it."
"Our seller ratings aren't our biggest worries anymore," the other one said. Kitty had no idea what their babbling could mean. She watched them stick a small square object to the cockpit door. "What are they doing?" she whispered to her cameraman. But when she looked over she found the man had slipped from his seat and was down on the floor, his camera held over his head like a protective shield. "Get that camera back up here," she hissed. "Wait. They're stepping away from the door. Why are they hiding behind those seats? There's some kind of little lights blinking on that box they stuck to the door. You don't think it could be-"
If Kitty finished her question, the words were swallowed up during the abrupt .ash of light and accompanying explosive roar. The explosion at the front of the cabin launched flaming shrapnel back across eight rows of seats. Men and women dove for cover. A prosperous- looking middle- aged man across from Kitty caught a chunk of metal in the center of his broad forehead. There was very little blood as he collapsed dead back into his seat.
A large chunk of blasted metal launched up and embedded in the ceiling. Kitty's cameraman quickly scrambled back to his seat and aimed his camera forward.
The echoing explosion continued to scream in Kitty's ears even as the hijackers swarmed the cockpit. The screaming continued over the sounds of muffled pops. Only when the dead or wounded flight crew was dragged out into the galley and the screaming had not subsided did Kitty realize that the noise was no longer from the explosion but from her own throat. She covered her mouth but the screams still came. At one point her cameraman swung the camera toward her. There was BCN's fifteen- million- dollar- a-year newswoman, face drained of color, eyes like dinner plates, hands plastered over her mouth like a sitcom house wife who had just seen a mouse in the laundry room. And still she screamed.
The plane veered in midair.
Kitty had never felt a large plane move like that. It was wrong. Too fast, too sharp a turn. The plane bucked under her feet like a bronco out of chute.
The cameraman trained his lens on the section of ceiling where the largest chunk of cockpit door had lodged. The sharp five- foot section of metal was rattling. It seemed like the plane was reabsorbing the door. Kitty realized that was ridiculous as soon as the thought occurred to her. But the section of metal was definitely growing smaller, disappearing inch by inch. It was as if it were burrowing its way through the skin of the craft. For a sick moment she swore she could see a sliver of natural light.
The plane banked hard, the chunk of door abruptly slipped like a knife through butter, and a section of ceiling was suddenly missing from behind the cockpit. The ugly rip of metal was overwhelmed by the deafening roar of the wall of air that blasted through the new- formed hole.
Oxygen masks dropped down from hidden compartments and bobbed like a hundred living legs of some monstrous hidden centipede. The wind shrieked through the opening, catching up anything loose in a violent tornado swirl. Papers, coffee cups, and soda cans were blasted backward. Through her own screams, Kitty scraped away an in- flight magazine that had slapped against her face.
A silent flash beside her and something huge briefly darkened the window to her right. The curved white section of torn- away fuselage slipped from the window and banged silently against the wing. Through her window Kitty saw it tumbling end- over- end toward the eastern shore of the gleaming black East River.
Some passengers struggled to yank on their oxygen masks although at such a low altitude Kitty managed to suck down so much air that she did not grab at her own bobbing mask. Somehow through her endless screams she had managed to fumble her seat belt back on and now she held on for dear life.
The river grew larger and fell away. An ugly upright block of blue glass loomed into view. Kitty held her breath thinking "This is it." But the familiar facade of the U.N. building, fell away. The plane seemed to struggle to maintain altitude.
The plane banked right in a loop that brought its shadow over city hall. On the ground the turn appeared lazy, a slow crawl northeast until it was roughly following the choking morning traffic on Park Avenue.
Kitty had never seen the city from this vantage point. Wind thrashing her hair, she spotted familiar landmarks including the black granite monolith that was the BCN building which she had left an hour and a half before.
And then the real target became clear.
In 1972 it had ceased to be the tallest building in New York City when the first World Trade Center tower was completed. But on a terrible September day in 2001 it had regained its former standing in the most horrifying, most unimaginable way possible.
The art deco facade of the Empire State Building was a magnet drawing the plane inexorably forward.
One of the most famous buildings in the world. Soon to be reduced to a pile of collapsed brick and twisted metal.
Yelling at the cabin. Some of the male passengers tried to rush the trio of hijackers who were guarding the cockpit door. Gunshots. Loud pops-loud enough even to be heard over the roaring wind—and the passengers dropped along with the dead stewardess, more corpses clogging the aisle.
The plane rolled. The seat belt cut deep into Kitty's belly forcing the wind from her lungs. The wings shuddered, rattling the fuselage as the air spilled off the plane's skin. A violent turn.
Faces in windows. Kitty could hardly believe she could actually see the faces of men and women in the windows of the Empire State Building. They looked on in horror as the plane made its last terrible roll.
Passengers not held in by seat belts fell to Kitty's side of the plane. Her cameraman collapsed over her, clunking her in the chin with his camera.
A child. Not more than seven years old. She saw his face distinctly in a sixtieth- story window as the ugly shadow of the wounded plane passed like the angel of death across the west side of the Empire State Building.
And then the plane cleared Manhattan's most famous landmark and began to ascend. Some last minute change of heart, perhaps a technical problem, maybe the hand of God . . Kitty did not know why the plane did not slam the building. She only knew that the plane was soon flying level once more and that the hijackers were spilling back out of the cockpit.
Two of the cabin crew had survived the attack. One appeared uninjured but for a bleeding bruise to the side of his head. Another had used his necktie to tie off the bullet wound in his thigh. The men were freed and allowed back inside the cockpit. They did not attempt to engage the hijackers, merely battled through the gale wind back to their stations. The hijackers went to work once more.
More explosive charges. Two doors blown open on the plane. More wind, more screams. The hijackers fell one by one out the open doors.
Kitty thought she was witnessing some sort of ritual mass suicide. She lost sight of the tumbling men for a few seconds. Moments later she spied them, four dark parachutes drifting toward the Hudson River.
The tension of the next dozen minutes was as nothing compared to the preceding twenty. A heroic stewardess raced along the cabin making certain all passengers were buckled in and braced for the crash that never came.
Twenty- seven minutes after it had taken off, the plane made a textbook landing on its own wheels in a pile of emergency foam at LaGuardia Airport.
The emergency chutes were inflated and deployed and the shaken passengers herded to the exits where they slid down into piles of white foam. Kitty slipped down the chute, skinned her blistered heel on the tarmac as she got to her feet and did not care that she was covered in foam as she stumbled to the mass of reporters that had been herded together behind the row of emergency vehicles. She spied a camera that bore the BCN logo.
"Microphone!" she screeched. In two minutes, mic in hand, she had wiped away most of the foam, smoothed her hair and was staring into the camera's unblinking eye. "This is Kitty Coughlin, reporting live from LaGuardia Airport where many people, myself included, are grateful to be alive."
BCN went live with the story of the hijacking. It was the first day of May, and so the event became known as MAYDAY ON MAY DAY! With Kitty on the scene of the near disaster, offering a firsthand account of the morning's events, BCN's coverage left the other major network news divisions in the dust.
The footage taken by Kitty's cameraman was smuggled from the airport and raced in a satellite news van to the BCN studios before the authorities were even aware it existed. "They want it, let 'em get a court order, and good luck getting it out of my safe," Uriah Maddox, BCN's executive producer, said. "Till then, it's our exclusive. Our beautiful, solid gold ratings exclusive."
Within an hour the footage taken aboard ill- fated Flight 980 was being packaged in digestible, two- minute bites, and for the first time since Kitty Coughlin's very first night in the anchor chair viewers were flocking to BCN, which had suddenly regained its reputation as the Diamond Network.
A careful viewing of the footage would have revealed that the passengers in some of the camera's sweeping background shots looked somewhat different from shot to shot. That was because BCN had quickly and quietly rented a hangered plane at Newark Liberty International Airport and restaged all of Kitty's reaction shots. BCN could not let the world witness its anchor star crumbling under pressure. Kitty's panicked screams were the first thing to fall to the cutting room floor. In the meantime, men and women were ordered on buses from the offices of BCN Evening News with Kitty Coughlin. Clothes were scrounged from the wardrobe departments of BCN's New York- based soap operas and, as best as could be managed, the news employees were dressed to match the clothing worn by passengers in the real footage.
A few strategic snips of the action footage in the editing booth and a few splices here and there of fresh material, and there was Kitty Coughlin, calm and confident, the steel-spined anchorwoman facing down adversity with the calm of an Edward R. Murrow, the wit of a David Brinkley, the steely- eyed gaze of a Howard K. Smith.
For the first time in a fifteen- month- long career nosedive, Kitty Coughlin was sitting pretty on a ratings gold mine.
But Kitty, above all others, should have known that television news was a fickle business.
The next day a story that had been percolating up into the national consciousness from down in Miami exploded onto the nightly network news. During the previous week, several old ladies had been violently mugged by a young thug on an orange bicycle. It had happened again but this time there was videotape. In some grainy footage obtained from an ATM, a young man in a hood and dark sunglasses knocked the walker out from under a ninety-seven-year old woman, kicked her in the ribs and stole the ten dollars she had withdrawn to buy ice cream sandwiches for her visiting six- year- old great- grandson. Hard news was a thing of the past. Human interest stories were the new bread and butter of the news game so the footage of the little old lady assault abruptly supplanted the story of Flight 980 and the Empire State Building's near miss, BCN's live exclusive became quite literally yesterday's news, and Kitty Coughlin's ratings plummeted back into the cellar.
And in a BCN editing bay high above Forty- third Street, BCN's first solo female news anchor watched some anonymous little punk peddle away on his Schwinn two-wheeler, carting off not only some old bat's ten dollars but Kitty's career as well.
As the old lady rolled in helpless silent tape- recorded agony on the floor of the automated teller booth, Kitty raised her eyes to the uncaring heavens and a thoughtless God that would allow such a terrible calamity to take place and howled, "Why can't I catch a goddamn ratings break?"
Excerpted from The New Destroyer: Killer Ratings by Warren Murphy. Copyright © 2008 by Warren Murphy. Published in August 2008 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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