After getting the green light from her network to launch an investigative news show, Erica flies to Bismarck, North Dakota, to investigate Take Back Our Homeland, the largest secessionist group. What she finds is profoundly disturbing—a growing threat to the future of our union.
Back home, her husband Greg is drinking more and talking less—and taking an unusual interest in the glamorous author Leslie Burke Wilson. Erica’s teenage daughter has also begun acting out in troubling ways.
Then she discovers a potential informant murdered in her Bismarck hotel. Take Back Our Homeland might be even more dangerous than she had thought—and she’s unwittingly become one of the key players in the story. Her fear and anxiety escalate—for her marriage, her daughter, and her own life.
Bestselling novelist and former legal analyst for Fox News Lis Wiehl takes us behind the anchor’s desk in this gripping look at high-stakes reporting in a country torn apart.
“BREAKING NEWS! Lis Wiehl has written another blockbuster—using her insider’s eye to nail the dangerous mix of media and politics. The Separatists is bold, timely, thrilling and a simply stunning read.” –Linda Fairstein, New York Times bestselling author
“Political high jinks and unusual escapades always mark a Lis Wiehl novel. Eric Sparks is a highly trained, top-notched, alpha-female—totally reminiscent of her creator. This one is a smart, sexy, reflective read and I highly recommend it."
—Steve Berry, New York Times bestselling author
About the Author
Lis Wiehl is the former legal analyst for Fox News and the O'Reilly Factor and has appeared regularly on Your World with Neil Cavuto, Lou Dobbs Tonight, and the Imus morning shows. The former co-host of WOR radio's "WOR Tonight with Joe Concha and Lis Wiehl," she has served as legal analyst and reporter for NBC News and NPR's All Things Considered, as a federal prosecutor in the United States Attorney's office, and was a tenured professor of law at the University of Washington. She appears frequently on CNN as a legal analyst. She lives near New York City.
Sebastian Stuart has published four novels under his own name, including The Hour Between, winner of the Ferro-Grumley Award and an NPR Season’s Readings selection. He has also co-written national and New York Times bestselling books. As senior editor of e-book publisher New Word City, Stuart has written over two dozen original non-fiction e-books.
Read an Excerpt
By LIS WIEHL, Sebastian Stuart
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2017 Lis Wiehl and Sebastian Stuart
All rights reserved.
ERICA SPARKS IS STRIDING DOWN the hallway at GNN, heading for the executive conference room. She's got a big ask, and the half dozen men and women she's about to face have the power to grant it. She's keyed tight and her heart is thwacking like a metronome — there's a lot at stake. Yes, her nightly show, The Erica Sparks Effect, is still at or near the top of the ratings, but she's getting antsy stuck behind a desk night after night. She's beginning to feel more like a newsreader than a journalist. And that's just not acceptable.
She walks into the conference room, with its walls of windows looking out at midtown Manhattan, the buzzing heart of the American news business.
Remember that word, Erica.
It's a word that Greg, her husband, drilled into her as he helped her with the pitch. They may not be working together at GNN anymore — Greg has started his own consultancy, which has led to some major friction in the marriage — but the man knows how the industry works inside out.
"Good morning, Erica," Mort Silver, the head of GNN, says. He's sitting at the head of the table looking avuncular and self-important. On one side of him are the CFO and her top lieutenants, on the other the COO and his. They're all poker-faced and expectant.
"Good morning, Mort." Erica nods and smiles. It's a tight smile. She's anticipating some resistance to her proposal. She's girded.
Charm, Erica, charm. You attract more flies with honey.
"Good morning, everyone," she says, this time with a warm smile, the smile that has helped her win millions of loyal viewers. Without waiting for an invitation, she sits at the end of the table opposite Mort, whose eyes narrow. She's going to take this meeting by the horns.
"Coffee, water, how about a little nosh?" Mort asks.
Erica hates these silly niceties. She looks at the plate of soggy Danish. Man has evolved. Why do depressing Danish platters persist?
"I'm fine, thanks. First of all, thank you all for coming. I hope everyone knows how committed I am to GNN. This is my home." If there's one thing Erica doesn't romanticize, it's home. Home is where the pain was. "This network has given me extraordinary opportunities." She takes a pause and slows her cadence. "And I think the benefits have flowed both ways." She takes another pause to cue up the money shot. "Now I want to take our relationship to the next level."
The suits around the table remain impassive. Considering the millions she pumps into the network's bottom line, Erica was hoping for an encouraging smile or two. But this is a don't-rock-the-boat-or-kill-the-goose crowd, paid to keep the gravy train running on time. What a bore.
Erica stands up. Mort tries to disguise his discomfort.
Sorry, Mort, but go-along-to-get-along isn't my style these days.
"I feel very strongly that fearless, muckraking journalism is a lynchpin of our democracy. It has been for our entire history. The Founding Fathers understood how crucial a free press is, and they wrote its protection into the Constitution. In the search for the truth there can be no sacred cows. And I feel that all the news networks have been intimidated and defanged by political pressure, corporate pressure, ratings pressure."
Erica turns and takes a few steps, letting the tension in the room build. Then she wheels around. "Look at the Iraq War. It was based on lies. Lies that the press for the most part accepted, cowed by the bullying and belligerence of the White House. And our nation is still paying a price for that acquiescence. This isn't theoretical or hypothetical." Erica can feel her emotions rising, anger and sadness — she is passionate about our veterans.
"Tens of thousands of young men are scarred forever, missing their limbs, their eyesight, their sanity. Disfigured, disabled, and traumatized. Their lives have been reduced to endless struggle. I remember one vet I interviewed when I was working at a local station up in New Hampshire. His name was Ryan Taylor. He was nineteen years old. His family had no money, and he'd enlisted so he'd be able to pay for college. He was sent over to Iraq, and one cold morning an IED exploded beside his patrol. He was blinded and lost both arms below the elbow." Erica feels another wave of emotion sweep over her — she will never forget the despair on Ryan Taylor's face. She never wants to forget it.
Around the table, eyes look down, papers are shuffled, someone coughs. This wasn't what they were expecting first thing on a Thursday morning. Too bad.
"Ryan Taylor's happiness, his future, was snatched away from him. And we in the press bear some responsibility. We didn't do our job. And that's why I asked you here today."
Now the room is pin-drop silent, statue-still. Erica slowly sits down, leans forward on the table, lowers her voice. "I would like GNN to be in the forefront of a new American journalism. One that is truly fearless and follows a story wherever it leads — even if it's right to the Oval Office. I propose a monthly, single-issue program dedicated to finding the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Each month we'll cover a different subject, and we'll go deep, toppling pedestals and speaking truth to power." Erica slowly scans the faces around the table, looking each one in the eyes, bringing them on board.
"I'd like to call it Spotlight — on whichever topic we're covering that month. Corruption. Malfeasance. Greed. Lies. We won't go searching for the controversial and sensational, but if we find it we won't look away."
The room remains quiet. Mort eyeballs Erica, and she sees a mix of skepticism and admiration in his eyes.
Time to hit the bottom line. "I believe we can make great television together. Television that, not incidentally, will have sponsors clamoring for ad time. Television that will also, quite frankly, keep me engaged." It doesn't hurt to remind them that she's the network's number one asset. Erica leans back and softens her voice. "You'll all find a mock-up of Spotlight's budget and organization in your mailboxes. As well as a half dozen potential stories." She stands. "I want all of us here to be part of something we can be proud of, something bigger than ourselves. At its best I hope Spotlight will not only report news, it will make news." Erica pauses. "And maybe even history."
Without loosening the screws, she smiles at the room, a welcoming, even conspiratorial smile. The expressions that meet her are 180 degrees from what they were ten minutes earlier — there are nods, murmurs of approval, smiles of encouragement. "Thank you for your time, and I'm hoping to get a green light within forty-eight hours. Now, I've got a show to prepare."
Erica strides back down the hallway with only one thought: Onward!CHAPTER 2
IT'S LATE THE FOLLOWING AFTERNOON, a little more than two hours before the start of her show, and Erica is in her office at GNN. She's going to lead with a horrific story — the sinking off the coast of Greece of a boat carrying over six hundred Libyan refugees, drowning all onboard. The dead bodies are washing ashore in waves. It's a big story with powerful visuals, one more sad chapter in the largest refugee crisis since World War II. On her computer screen Erica watches footage of the lifeless bodies bobbing in the surf. It's the children that get to her the most; she imagines their last uncomprehending moments as the boat listed, took on water, and then sank in a matter of minutes. And their doomed parents, unable to protect them. Sometimes it feels as if the world is coming apart at the seams.
Erica turns from the screen, picks up her well-worn playing cards, and deals a hand of solitaire — something about the tactile feel of the cards and defined parameters of the game always helps to calm and center her. The world may be a swirl of chaos, but her cards are manageable and familiar. Why hasn't she heard from Mort Silver? Her presentation was flawless. But she knows those people have built their careers on caution. Give them a little more time. Yes, the start-up and production costs of Spotlight will run into the millions. So what? The rewards for the network, both monetary and in prestige, are worth it. Still ... her left leg is bouncing and she feels that familiar restlessness, the one that's tinged with claustrophobia, anxiety, and even panic. It's been her constant companion since her childhood in that leaky doublewide in rural Maine, soggy with booze and pot and pills and mold and rage. Her restlessness drives her, yes — but sometimes it drives her all the way to the edge.
Erica loses the hand of solitaire, stands up and paces, goes to the window. She looks down at the city below — Sixth Avenue is jammed with pedestrians who look like they're moving in three-quarter time, trapped in a blazing hazy, sticky May day when the temperature is approaching ninety-five. Didn't May used to mean flower buds and birdsong? Maybe most disturbing is that temperatures in the low forties are projected for the weekend. When it comes to the climate, all bets are off. And yet still the ostrich chorus denies the science and stymies action. Erica thinks of Jenny, her thirteen-year-old daughter, who lives in Massachusetts with her father. Last summer her favorite swimming hole was closed due to a toxic algae bloom triggered by the brutal heat. This is an issue Spotlight won't shy away from. But why hasn't Mort called? What will she do if they nix her proposal? She has no Plan B.
Erica turns away from the window and goes into her small galley kitchen. She turns on the coffeepot and then turns it off again. More coffee is the last thing she needs. She opens a cabinet, and there sits a package of sublime macaroons, those little brightly colored French ones that melt in your mouth. But she needs a sugar rush — and its inevitable headachy crash — even less than she needs coffee. She shuts the cabinet and turns away, then she turns back, opens the cabinet, reaches up and grabs the package, tears it open, and devours one macaroon. Then another. Then a third (they're so small). Feeling triumphantly defiant, she goes back to her desk.
She's been able to book former secretary of state John Kerry and United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon to discuss the refugee crisis. Now she needs to work on asking them the right questions. Erica prides herself on really delving into an issue, engaging both her viewers and her guests. Just as she's starting to write out questions, Eileen McDermott, her lead producer, appears in her doorway.
Eileen is tall and thin, with enormous darting eyes behind blocky black-framed glasses; her thick auburn hair looks like an afterthought, and her blouses are perpetually half untucked from her pants. But she keeps The Erica Sparks Effect running like a well-oiled machine. Right now she looks alarmed. "Supreme Court Justice Mark Rothman was killed in a car accident."
Erica goes still for a moment and then, "When? Where? How?"
"About an hour ago, in Richmond, Virginia, blindsided by a drunk driver making an illegal U-turn."
"Is there footage?"
"Of the aftermath, of course, but none of the actual accident. At least none has turned up yet, and there are no surveillance cameras at the intersection."
"Shoot me every detail we have, including Rothman's bio. I'll start writing a new lead."
"We'll move Kerry and Ban Ki-Moon to the second spot and cut the segments on the Zika virus and that secessionist standoff in Texas. We can run them tomorrow," Eileen says.
"Rothman was the court's one centrist, the fulcrum between the left and right. We can't ignore the politics of this," Erica says. "President Winters has an opportunity to reshape the court for a generation."
"Will she pick a tough conservative to appease the right wing of her party or stay true to her moderate instincts?"
"She's going to be under enormous pressure from the right," Erica says. "Who can we get to comment on Rothman, and on the decision facing the president?"
"I can think of a couple of dozen senators who would jump at the chance," Eileen says.
Moths to a flame, senators to a camera. They bore Erica with their predictability, always toeing the party line. She wants to go deeper and book a guest who could put the challenge facing President Winters in historical context. "How about Leslie Burke Wilson?" Wilson is one of the country's most admired historians and writers, Pulitzer Prize and every-other-prize winner, bestselling author, and one of Erica's idols.
"She'd be perfect, but she's tough to book. She doesn't like to spread herself too thin," Eileen says.
"Can you get me her contact info?"
Eileen is already out the door. Erica takes a moment to gather her thoughts. She remembers Justice Rothman — humble, thoughtful, universally respected, with a fair and brilliant legal mind. The nation has lost one of its preeminent jurists, his family has lost a man they love, and here she is, focusing on the politics of his death and the best way to report it. Erica exhales. The morbid truth is that for journalists, death is one more story that has to be covered. And covered well.
Shirley Stamos, Erica's assistant, appears in her doorway. Shirley has proved herself invaluable — she has an uncanny knack for knowing what Erica needs before Erica does, and she's always happy to work late and take on tasks that border on drudgery. Around forty-five, plump and slightly matronly, with short gray hair and a round face that has never known makeup, she's a very private person. All Erica knows about Shirley's personal life is that she lives alone in Kew Gardens.
"Jenny is on the line," she says. "Are you available?"
This isn't the best time for Erica to take a call from her daughter, but if she doesn't she'll have one of her bad-mother guilt attacks. She nods at Shirley, who leaves. Erica picks up her phone. "Hi, honey. Can't wait to see you this weekend."
"Do you mind if I bring a friend?"
"Of course not. Who is it?"
"Her name is Beth. She's in my class."
"Look forward to meeting her."
"She has a YouTube channel with thirty-five thousand followers."
"That's impressive. What does she focus on?"
"Mom, all YouTubers focus on themselves. That's the deal."
"You mean she just sits there and talks about herself?"
"Yeah, pretty much. I mean, she gives her opinions on music and movies and clothes and boys and stuff. We were thinking it might be fun to do a segment with you."
"Yeah. Maybe makeup tips or visit the station or something."
"My GNN contract is an exclusive. And they enforce it." Erica notes that Leslie Burke Wilson's phone number just appeared in her in-box.
"I guess you're super busy."
"A Supreme Court justice was killed today. It's a big story."
"Get to work!" Jenny says with a laugh. A laugh with an edge.
"Greg will pick you up at LaGuardia. Love you." Every time Erica thinks her relationship with Jenny is on an even keel, it gets thrown off-balance, usually by the demands of her job. But Jenny seems fairly happy, and she's doing well in school. They see each other for at least two weekends a month — and with Jenny racing into adolescence, she seems more grown up every visit. It makes Erica both proud and sad. But she has no time to dwell on it right now. She dials Wilson's number.
"Is this Erica Sparks?" Leslie Burke Wilson asks.
"It is. Thanks for taking my call."
"I'll get right to the point. Is there any chance you could come on my show tonight to discuss Rothman's death, President Winters's options, and how former presidents have dealt with similar crises?"
"I have a benefit for the public library tonight. I'm on the committee."
Erica fiddles with a pencil and then says a mild, "I understand ... It's just that I feel you're uniquely qualified. Your biography on Oliver Wendell Holmes is a classic."
Leslie Wilson laughs, a throaty laugh that sounds sophisticated and ironic. "You know how to reel them in, don't you, Erica? I am intrigued by which direction the president is going to take the court."
"I'd love to hear your thoughts, and so would my viewers."
There's a short pause and then a snippet of that laugh again. "So I'll arrive late at the benefit. No one will notice. And if they do, who cares? What time do you want me at the studio?"
"No later than seven thirty. And I owe you."
There's another pause, and then Wilson says in a lower voice, "That's one chit I'll be sure to call in."
In addition to her intellectual accomplishments, Leslie Burke Wilson is known for being a member of New York's cultural elite. She's pals with the nation's most respected writers, actors, artists, entrepreneurs — the beating heart of the most exciting city in the world. Her husband, Stan Wilson, founded the cutting-edge ad agency. Definite power couple.
Excerpted from The Separatists by LIS WIEHL, Sebastian Stuart. Copyright © 2017 Lis Wiehl and Sebastian Stuart. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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