Investigative reporter Charlotte McNally is an expert at keeping things confidential, but suddenly everyone has a secret—and it turns out it is possible to know too much.
Her latest scoop—an exposé of a dangerous car scam, complete with stakeouts, high-speed chases and hidden-camera footage—is ratings gold. But soon that leads her to a brand-new and diabolical scheme. Charlie's personal and professional lives are on a collision course, too. Her fiancé is privy to information about threats at an elite private school that have turned deadly.
Charlie has never counted on happy endings. But now, just as she's finally starting to believe in second chances, she realizes revenge, extortion and murder may leave her alone again—or even dead….
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By Hank Phillippi Ryan
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2010 Hank Phillippi Ryan
All rights reserved.
I can't wait to tell our secret. And I'll get to do it if we're not all killed first.
We're ten minutes away from Channel 3 when suddenly the Boston skyline disappears. Murky slush splatters across our windshield, kicked up from the tires of the rattletrap big rig that just swerved in front of us on the snow-slick highway. Eighteen wheels of obstacle, stubbornly obeying the Massachusetts Turnpike speed limit.
I brace myself once again. During this afternoon's teeth-clenching, bone-rattling, knuckle-whitening drive, I've learned how J.T. feels about speed limits.
"Fifty-five is for cowards!" he mutters. My new photographer powers our unmarked car into the passing lane, sloshing what's left of my coffee and almost throwing me across the backseat. Franklin, seemingly oblivious to our icy peril, is in the front seat clicking on his newest phone gizmo. As usual these days, my producer's deep into texting.
"Thanks, I'm fine back here," I call out, blotting the milky spill from my just dry-cleaned black coat. I don't even attempt to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. J.T. Shaw may be a hotshot when it comes to news video, but he apparently learned his driving skills chasing headlines in the network's Middle East Bureau. Now, even though he's back stateside shooting my investigative stories, he still thinks he's driving in Beirut. Where they don't have ice. Or speed limits.
Eight minutes away from Channel 3. Eight minutes away from the rest of my life. I hope I make it.
I look at the still-unfamiliar emerald-cut diamond on my third finger, left hand. Even in the fading winter light, it glistens, catching the January sunset, fire in the center. I'm strapped into the backseat of a deathtrap news car, but memories still spark the beginnings of a smile. Josh handing me the heart-stoppingly iconic robin's-egg-blue box. The creak of the tiny hinges as I opened it. The twinkle, the love, the passion in his hazel eyes as Josh slipped the glittering surprise onto my finger. Charlotte McNally, soon-to-be married lady. The family of investigative reporter Charlotte Ann McNally, age forty-seven, of Boston, announces her engagement to Bexter Academy professor Joshua Ives Gelston, fifty-two, of Brookline ...
"Charlotte! Get the license number!"
Snapped out of my bliss by the squeal of brakes, I look up to see Franklin twisted over the front seat, pointing out the back window. And then I hear a skid. Metal on metal. A horn blaring. Then another one. Then silence.
"It looks like a — blue? Black? What kind of car?" Franklin's squinting through his newest pair of eyeglasses, these rimless, almost invisible. He's jabbing a finger toward the highway behind us. We're going at least seventy now, speeding away from whatever he's looking at. "Over there, across the Pike. Right lane."
I follow his finger, unsnapping my seat belt and yanking my coat so I can face backward on the seat, knees tucked under me. My turn to squint. "The guy in the —? I think it's blue. Some sort of sports car? Going too fast — he's crazy. All I can see is taillights. What happened?"
Then I see what's on the side of the road. The puzzle pieces snap together. And the big picture means J.T.'s Indiana Jones driving ability may come in handy. Problem is, we're going in the wrong direction.
"J.T.! Check it out in your rearview." Using one finger, I poke him in the shoulder. "Behind us. Other side of the Pike. Looks like a hit-and-run. A car ran into the guardrail. Any way to get us there? Like, right now?"
I grab the leather strap above my seat, preparing for the inevitable g-force. Traffic accident? Definitely. News story? Maybe. But I'm a reporter and it's my responsibility to find out.
Keeping my eyes on the accident scene, I use my free hand to grope through my bottomless black leather tote bag for my phone. I know it's in there somewhere, but I can't take my eyes off the crash to look for it. Why are we still speeding away?
"J.T.? Listen, we've got to turn around somehow. Come on, just do it! Franko, you call 911, okay? My phone is —"
With a blare of the horn, J.T. swerves us across two lanes, skidding briefly in the slush and splattering ice pellets across our windows. I'm thrown across the seat again, grabbing to get my seat belt back on before I'm the next casualty. So much for getting to the station on time. And this was my idea.
J.T. checks his rearview, his expression hidden behind his oversize sunglasses, then jounces us across an emergency lane in a who-cares-it's-illegal U-turn. With a two-handed twist of the steering wheel, he bangs the gas to speed us in the opposite direction.
"We're approaching mile marker 121," Franklin is saying into his phone. He's braced for the ride, one hand clamped on the dashboard, and his voice is terse. "Mass Pike. Westbound. Car in the ditch."
We're almost there. Off the road, skewed and tilted at an angle that telegraphs disaster, there's a set of taillights that's not moving. The trunk of the blocky sedan is open. I can't see the front of the car. And I can't see anyone getting out.
"Tell them the guy who caused it left the scene," I instruct. My fingers touch my own phone. "Tell them — blue or black. Sports car. Headed west. Fast. And no movement at the crash site. And no fire. Yet. I'll call the assignment desk. Let them know we're on the scene." And we'll be late getting back, I don't say.
Josh should be used to it by this time. And he — generally — understands a reporter can't control breaking news. Thing is, being late today has some extra baggage. In two hours we're supposed to be breaking our own news: telling Penny she's getting a new stepmother. Me.
The nine-year-old was at Disney World with her mother and stepfather when Josh and I got engaged. This week, still on school vacation, Penny's back with Josh. Now it seems like our news, Reality World, will have to stay secret a bit longer. My mother knows, of course. And Franklin. He and I have no secrets. Working as a team, sharing an office, there's no way.
Franklin and I usually handle the blockbuster stories, long-term investigations, Emmy caliber. Two months ago, we pulled off a showstopper, revealing international counterfeiting and FBI corruption. But after twenty-plus years in the biz, I know local news demands local news. And a hit-and-run tragedy could lead the show. I punch 33 on my cell phone's speed dial.
Clamping the phone to my ear with my shoulder, I rip off my black suede heels and yank on the flat snow boots I always carry this time of year in a red nylon Channel 3 pouch. Yes, I'm a pack mule. But I can't be worrying about slush on suede. Or cold feet.
Notebook. Pencil. And finally, the assignment desk picks up.
"Channel 3 News ..."
"Hold some time on the six," I interrupt. "It's Charlie McNally. Got a pen? Tell the producer. Spot news on the Mass Pike. Hit-and-run. Car in a ditch. Casualties unknown. Franklin Parrish is with me. J.T.'s shooting. More to come. Got it?" I hang up in the middle of "Okay" and open the car door.
A blast of January hits me, and I scramble to keep my balance in the frozen slush of the rutted roadside. A quick check of my trademark red lipstick in the car's side mirror also reminds me my hair's brownish roots are invading their painstakingly blonded camouflage. Flipping open my spiral notebook and edging across the breakdown lane, I look over my shoulder to make sure J.T. has his camera out and rolling.
"Right behind you, Charlie," J.T. says. He slams the trunk closed with one hand, and aims the camera at a pile of still-white snow, hitting the white-balance button to make sure our video is set to the right color. His leather gloves have the fingers cut off, allowing him to make the tiniest adjustments in video and sound.
"You got your external audio potted up?" Franklin asks.
I can't believe the boys are bickering again. J.T., battered leather jacket and broken-in jeans, foreign-correspondent cool and with a network résumé, is my age, but he's still the new guy at Channel 3. Franklin, pressed and preppy in Burberry camel hair, is ten years J.T.'s junior, but still holds station seniority. Picking my way toward the car, I turn to watch, half amused, half annoyed, as they continue their battle for turf. Can't we all just get along? Men.
J.T., aviator sunglasses now perched in his sandy hair, throws Franko an are-you-kidding look, but gives the camera's built-in microphone a tap just the same. He checks to make sure the needle on the audio meter is moving. "Rolling with sound, Charlie," he announces.
Franklin waves him off. "Just doing my job, pal."
"Me too, brotha," J.T. says.
Franklin hates when a white person calls him "brother." And J.T. knows it.
"Guys?" I interrupt the escalation of World War III. "The car? Someone's inside?"
We all head in the direction of the still-silent accident scene. All I can hear are our footsteps and the hissing splatter of cars streaking by on the crowded highway. Then I see the whole picture. The mangled car, its front end tangled in a now-twisted metal guardrail, is perched precariously over a shallow embankment. The hood of the dark red sedan is tented, crumpled, a discarded tin can. Tires in shreds. Something hot is hissing onto the snow beneath the chassis. I know the longer nothing moves, the more likely the news inside is bad. "Come on," I say softly. "Get out of the car."
And then, a quiet sound. Like a — cry. A baby. Crying.
"Guys?" I stop. Listening. But all is silent again. "Did you hear that?"
And then, the car's front door creaks open. Driver's side. Slowly. The car shifts, briefly, then settles back. No one gets out.
I flash a look at J.T.
J.T. holds up a reassuring hand, his eye pressed to the viewfinder. "Rolling," he mouths.
Franklin points to me, then J.T., then to the car. He raises one eyebrow. We don't want to say anything out loud — it'll be recorded on the tape.
The crying starts again. Getting louder. Where's the ambulance? And then I see what J.T. is capturing on camera.
A man hauls himself, hand over hand, out of the front seat. He leans against the open door, parka to window, and presses one gloved hand to his bleeding forehead. He's thirtyish, suburban. His pale blue puffy jacket, striped muffler and jeans are spattered with blood. "Gabe," he says. "Sophie."
He gestures toward the car, then crumples onto the front seat, planting his salt-stained Timberland boots in the snow. Red drops plunk onto the white, then one splats onto his tan boot. "I'm okay," he insists, waving a hand. "Just dizzy. Head on the steering wheel. Please. Gabe and Sophie."
"Sir?" Franklin says, stepping closer. "We called 911 and ..."
I'm already yanking open the passenger-side rear door. A boy, five years old maybe, in chunky mittens and red parka, is still in his booster seat, seat belt on. His cheeks are wet. His eyes are wide. The crying is coming from beside him. There, an unhappy toddler in a pink hat, squirming in her flowered sweater and matching snow pants, is strapped into a padded baby seat.
"Are you the doctor?" the boy asks me. "Daddy said you would come."
"Hi, Gabe. I'm Charlie," I say. Am I supposed to move him? I glance at the driver's seat. In a newish car like this, I would have expected air bags in the front. "Everything is going to be all right, sweetheart. The doctor will be here in one second to get you out. Is that your sister? Do you hurt anywhere?"
"I was in a crash, so I cried a little," Gabe says. He's earnest, his brown eyes trusting. "But I'm a big boy. And I always wear my seat belt. So I don't hurt. Is my daddy hurt? Sophie is crying. She always cries. She's only one years old."
"Your dad is fine, that's a good boy," I reassure him. Little Sophie begins to wail full blast. Her blanket is on the floor of the car. I can't leave her there. Where is the ambulance? What makes a car blow up?
"Gabe? If I unhook your seat belt, can you get out? I'm going to get your sister, and then we'll all walk away from the car. Can you do that?"
If I move the kids, am I going to make this worse? Neither seems really hurt. And the ambulance must be on the way. And except maybe for the hit-and-run element, this is not much of a story. Luckily for all involved. But we have to wait for the EMTs, at least. And maybe the cops, too, since, technically, we're witnesses.
"I want out." Gabe, his face suddenly racked with uncertainty, elongates the final word into a mournful plea.
I reach over, unclick four pink webbed straps from around the now-quieting Sophie and ease her out of the baby seat, grabbing the yellow chenille blanket from the floor and wrapping it around her as I back out the door. Sophie sniffles, once, then I feel her little body burrow into my shoulder. On the other side of the car, her father is standing again. Where's the ambulance?
"The kids are fine," I call to him across the car. "We'll come to you."
The sky is steel and ice, promising another bitter night. I tuck the blanket closer around Sophie, and wiggle my fingers toward Gabe. "Take my hand, honey. Can you get down?"
Gabe slides off the seat and grabs my hand. His lower lip gives the beginnings of a quiver. "I want to see my daddy," he says, looking at me.
"Absolutely," I say. "And we can tell him how brave you are."
* * *
This has got to be the strangest interview I've ever done. The EMTs finally arrived, pleading "wicked traffic" and "buncha jerk" drivers. They checked the kids, plastered Declan Ross's forehead with a gauze-and-tape bandage, pronounced everyone fine and took off. Now Sophie's nestled peacefully over my shoulder, her little breath sounds snuffling into my ear. Franklin and Gabe, holding hands, are watching as I use my non-Sophie hand to hold the Channel 3 microphone, its chunky logo red, white and blue against the gray slush. I know we probably won't use my interview with Declan Ross, or even the video J.T. shot of the victims' car — Franklin's already informed the assignment desk it's too minor to make air.
And I'm yearning to leave, meet up with Josh, share our celebratory dinner. Take a step closer to becoming Penny's mom. But we're here, and my years of experience dictate it's easier to erase an interview than regret not doing it. Better to be safe than scooped. Your job could depend on it.
"So just to be clear," I say, bringing the microphone back in my direction, "this car is rented because yours is in the shop?" I flip the mic back to Ross.
"Yes, ours was recalled. Just a day ago. For bad brakes," Ross says. His eyes are clear again, and he's the picture of a middle-class dad with kids. And a bandage. "We got a, well, somewhat frightening letter from the manufacturer, indicating we should bring it in to have the brakes looked at. So, of course, we did. My wife dropped it off yesterday, got this rental. Gabe and Sophie, we're certainly not going to risk —"
He breaks off, looking at his son. I can see his eyes welling. His yuppie-casual clothes are still ominously smeared with browning red. No question this family had a narrow escape. "Gabie, you okay?"
"You're on TV, Daddy," Gabe says. "And Franklin says I get to see a tow truck. And a police."
"So what happened?" I continue, getting him back on track. My calculation, we've got only a few minutes of daylight left. And according to the EMTs, the state police should arrive any second.
"A car — switched lanes. Cutting me off. Nothing I could do. I saw him barreling toward the tollbooth. Boston drivers ..." He pauses, and I can see his hands clench into fists.
Sirens approach. The cops.
"Did you get any identification? Of the car?" I ask. Just making sure. "License plate? Make? Color?"
"No," Ross begins, "I —"
"It was a blue car."
Gabe, still holding Franklin's hand, is standing on one foot, then the other. "Like my Matchbox car, Daddy," he says. "I saw it."
Two state troopers are out of their cruiser, doors slamming, almost before the gray and black Crown Vic comes to a halt. Hulks in stiff steel-blue uniforms, opaque sunglasses, massive leather belts armored with weapons, and high-polish boots, they stride toward us, shoulder radios squawking static.
Gabe takes a step back, mouth open, then runs to his father, his little arms circling one blue-jeaned leg in a death grip, his face buried in his father's thigh.
"Everyone all right here?" One trooper's embossed metal nametag says Scott Maguire.
Maguire, I say to myself, remembering it. Again, better to be safe.
"We're fine, Officer. We just need a tow truck," Ross says, smoothing Gabe's hair. He smiles at me, then points. "And I need my daughter back."
Excerpted from Drive Time by Hank Phillippi Ryan. Copyright © 2010 Hank Phillippi Ryan. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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