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"Jess? Heads up there, kiddo. We're back to you in five " Kevin Mulhally held up his right hand and went silent for the rest of the count. Four, three, two, one
Jessica Sunshine, her professional stone face in place, waited a single heartbeat after the producer pointed a finger at her and then smiled into the camera as if delighted to see her cable TV audience.
"And welcome back," she said smoothly, pushing a lock of blond hair behind her ear. "Again, tonight's special live segment of The Sunshine Report is devoted to this reporter's personal tragedythe loss of my father, retired police detective Theodore Sunshine, and the accusation that he murdered the wife of front-running Philadelphia mayoral candidate Joshua Brainard before taking his own life. And I'm here to tell you, folks, that accusation's a bunch of horse hockey pucks."
Jessica ignored the audible intake of breath from her sister Jolie, seated in the only other chair on the small carpeted dais that looked good on TV but was really threadbare in spots and still held a stain caused by Chickpea the Clown when he'd lost his three-martini lunch during his interview with her last month. Confront a guy in white-face with photographs of him buying a nickel bag behind the Dumpster outside the studio while filming a week's worth of his popular kiddie show and you just don't know what will happen.
"That sound you just heard," Jessica continued, "was that of my big sister, Hollywood star and general all-round good person, Jolie Sunshine, being horrified by her baby sister yet again, showing that those birth-order studies are truethe baby of the family is often the most prone to making waves. I don't know why they're shocked, either striving middle child Jolie or our perfect firstborn sister, Jade. I mean, really folks, you're not shocked, right? And you've only known me for two years. They've known me forever. Jolie," she said, swiveling her chair to face her sister, certain the camera would follow her, "do you disagree with anything I said?"
Jolie Sunshineslim, tall, brunette and looking coolly beautiful and at ease in front of the camera tipped her head to one side. "You mean, am I shocked? Hardly. Not when I spent several years answering the phone only to be asked if the mouth was at home."
Jessica laughed as she tossed back her hair once more. Jessica's greatest on-air assets were her spectacular good looksa face and body that could have helped her if, like Jolie, she had set her sights on Hollywood. Luckily, as she pursued a career in television journalism, she also brought along a sharp-as-tacks brain and more guts than most of the men in her professional orbit.
She just had never embraced the politics of news reporting, and didn't suffer fools gladly, which was why she was only tonight coming off a two-week on-air suspension for asking the wrong question of one of the targets of her always penetrating interviews. In fact, if she hadn't been able to deliver Jolie for her show, that suspension might have become permanent.
But, to Jessica, that was only a piddling little technicality, and she wasn't about to change the way she worked Or did her bosses really think she should have been happy being the weekend weather girl she'd been before she got her own show? With a last name like Sunshine, that gig had been pretty much a joke, anyway.
"The mouth? Ouch! Haven't heard that one in a while. Gee, thanks, sis. Now I suppose I'm going to have to live that nickname down all over again." As quickly as she had laughed, Jessica sobered. "Okay, that was fun, a bit of tension-easing, I guess you'd say. But let's get back to the reason you're here tonight, Jolie, the reason we're both here. Do you mind if I give a quick recap for anyone who might just be joining us?"
Jolie spread her hands in the graceful, eloquent way that kept every eye riveted on her when she was up on the screen at the local multiplex. "Go for it."
Jessica turned once more to look intently into the camera, her huge brown eyes reaching beyond the lens to make everyone munching corn chips while watching at home sat up and paid attention, knowing she was speaking directly to them.
She took a steadying breath as she collected her thoughts, and then went for it.
"When Teddy died, we all were devastated. But our grief turned to anger when he was denied the departmental funeral he so deserved, when his name was connected to the murder of Melodie Brainard. You see, before he was injured on the job and retired to head up the Sunshine Detective Agency with our sister Jade, Teddy had been one of Philadelphia's finest for close to thirty years. He'd earned his detective's shield and worked the homicide table, and had one of the highest clearance rates in the departmentmeaning, he took a lot of killers off the streets. He was good at what he did. He was damn good."
"Steady, Jess," Jolie whispered, and Jessica took hold of her sister's hand as the camera panned back to show the gesture. Good television; this was good television. Cable television, where a reporter could bend the rules when her name headlined the show. The part of Jessica that operated for the public knew that. The rest of her could have a good cry later, once she was alone.
For now, she'd play the camera.
"Okay, that's the recap. Now on to what we're here about tonight. Teddy was so good, so dedicated to bringing criminals to justice, that he continued to investigate cold cases even after he left the force, all of them about a dozen years old, cases he had worked on and had not solved. Those cases, those victims, ate at him, haunted him, and he longed to give them justice. Isn't that right, Jolie?"
"Our father always believed he stood for the victims, yes. And for their families, who wanted closure. Deserved closure."
"Right. He was working on four cold cases in the weeks before he died. We believe what Teddy learned about one of those cases is the reason he was murdered. Yes, murdered, with that murder made to look like a suicide. Tonight, I'm happy to report that Jolie Sunshine and her fiancé, Samuel Becket, have brought one of those cold cases to a conclusion. We'll talk more about what has been called the case of the Vanishing Bride in our next segment, but for now I want to tell you about the other three cases we're currently working."
She squeezed Jolie's hand. "Yes, that's what I said. The cases we're working. Jade, Jolie and I are picking up the pieces Teddy left behind, and we will solve these cases. We will find answers. We will clear our father's name. But we need your help. We've prepared a quick summary listing of the cases we're working on, and I ask that you also pay attention to the phone number that's been scrolling along the bottom of the screen the whole time I've been sitting here bending your ears. Kevin? Are the cases up now? Good man, thank you."
Jessica looked at a monitor to the left of the dais to check the order of the cases on the screen.
"Ah, I like the way you handled that graphic, Kevin, thank you. See the line through the Vanishing Bride case, folks? That's our solved case Jolie will tell you about shortly. It's quite a story! Next up is the Fishtown Strangler. I'm working that one," she said, allowing some pride into her voice. "Six women were raped and strangled in the Fishtown area of Philadelphia twelve years ago and the case remains open. No big surprise there, as the victims were all ladies of the evening, shall we say, and public interest in such cases dies in a hurry. It shouldn't. Murder is murder."
"No humans involved," Jolie interjected quietly. "Isn't that what you heard such cases are considered by so many, and how the victims are relegated to persons of no worth? I hate that. Everything about us that is human should hate that."
Jessica wanted to hug her sister. "That's why I'm so determined to solve this case, Jolie. Everyone counts. Next up is a very sad case, that of the senseless shooting death of a well-known Scholar Athlete, Terrell Johnson. Terrell's body was found on an inner-city Philadelphia basketball court, a bullet in his head. Again, no suspects. And, finally, a story that captured not only the heart of Philadelphia but of the entire country, the case of the Baby in the Dumpster. On your screen now is a forensic artist's computer generated projection of what that precious boy would have looked like today had his life not been taken, his little body tossed into a Dumpster like someone's unwanted garbage. God, that one gets to me. They all get to me."
Jessica's eyes were moist as she looked at the computer image and she didn't bother hiding her emotional response when the red light reappeared on the camera drawn up close to her. "We're not super-heroes, my sisters and me. We're not vigilantes, and we're not crusaders. What we are, my friends, is hurting, what we will continue to be until Teddy's name is cleared is mad as hell. And what we're not going to do is quit. Right, Jolie?"
"Right, Jessica," Jolie said, looking into the camera. "Our father is a victim, and like him, we're determined to stand for the victim."
"Good one, Jolie. So, my friends, my loyal viewers, again I'm asking for your help. Something in one of these cases led to Teddy Sunshine's murder. He scraped a nerve somewhere and paid with his life. We're asking you to contact us through that phone number still crawling by at the bottom of the screen. You can remain anonymous if you wish. Just call us and, as the saying goes, leave a message at the beep. One of the Sunshine GirlsJolie, Jade or myself will personally return your call, I promise."
She paused, closed her eyes for a count of three, and then looked once more into the camera. She thought she could feel her skin drawing tight across her cheekbones as she spoke from the depths of her soul. "And you. You out there, the person who framed Teddy and then murdered him to protect your own crime. Don't rest, don't sleep. Don't relax for a moment. Because we're coming for you. You can depend on it."
Jessica mentally counted to three yet again, her gaze intent on the camera lens, before ending quickly as she slowly turned her head away from the camera in her signature go-to-break move. "We'll be back in two minutes for more of my exclusive interview with Jolie Sunshine."
Jessica kept her profile to the camera until Ben called out, "And we're clear! Great, Jess, just terrific."
"Sure, he thinks so," Jolie said, sighing. "He's thinking great TV. I'm thinkingand I know every one else is thinkingwhy not just paint huge red-and-white targets on our backs? Cripes, Jess, working on the assumption, of course, that we're right about this, that you just invited Teddy's killer to come gunning for us, like we're looking for some shoot-out in the O.K. Corral, or something. You didn't tell me you were going to get so personal. You certainly didn't tell me you were setting up some sort of hot line so that anyone who wants to can kill time calling us to well, I don't know what sort of calls we're going to get, but I'm not very hopeful any of them will mean anything. And with me leaving for the Coast with Sam tonight, and then for Ireland in two weeks? We'll be filming on-site for at least two months. I won't even be here to help."
"Relax, big sister, nobody's going to come gunning for us," Jessica assured her. "That only happens in bad movies. Besides, now that we've declared ourselves, if any of us shows up dead, the police will know we were onto something."
"Gosh, and that would prove we were right, wouldn't it? How brilliant. Why didn't I think of that?" Jolie said, rolling her eyes. "Are you nuts?"
Jessica tilted up her chin as Marge the makeup artist patted some color onto her cheeks. "I think the jury's still out on that one. When are you and Sam taking off? Do you have time for a quick dinner with Matt and me once this is over? I'm really jazzed, and being jazzed always makes me hungry."
"Breathing makes you hungry," groused the woman on a perpetual diet for the cameras. "And no, we're going straight from here to the airport. Sam's having a basket of something delivered to the plane from one of his favorite restaurants. Probably something delicious and fattening, as he's always pushing at me to eat. I have a publicity interview tomorrow night I can't get out of, unfortunately. And don't change the subject. Do you really think going public like this is going to help?"
"One minute, Jess," Kevin warned her. "But first tell me something, okay? I get the old cases, those cold cases your dad was working on when he died. But how does Melodie Brainard fit in here? You know, the one they said your dad strangled?"
"And there's the problem. She doesn't fit," Jolie told him quietly as Jessica pursed her lips for a quick reapplication of lip gloss. "Does she, Jess?"
"Sure, she does. And we'll figure out how one of these days. Don't ask too many questions, Kevin," Jessica told him with a bravado she didn't feel. "Just be glad I could pull Joshua Brainard's name into the telecast, okay? We're going to get a lot of follow-up with this onesex, murder, politics, the big three. Cable and network, at least in the tri-state area. So don't look gift horses in the snout. Ready, Jolie?