Prime Time by Hank Phillippi Ryan is the first book in the Charlotte McNally series following reporter Charlotte McNally as she investigates a story about email, murder, mayhem, and a multimillion-dollar fraud ring (Available February 9, 2016).
In the cutthroat world of television journalism, seasoned reporter Charlotte McNally knows that she'd better pull out all the stops or kiss her job goodbye. But it's her life that might be on the line when she learns that an innocent-looking e-mail offer resulted in murder, mayhem, and a multimillion-dollar fraud ring.
Her investigation leads her straight to Josh Gelston, who is a little too helpful and a lot too handsome. Charlie might have a nose for news, but men are a whole other matter. Now she has to decide whether she can trust Josh…before she ends up as the next lead story.
Between the hot flashes, the hangover and all the spam on my computer, there’s no way I’ll get anything done before eight o’clock this morning. I came in early to get ahead, and already I’m behind.
I take a restorative sip of my murky-but-effective vending machine coffee, and start my one-finger delete. Away go the online offers for cheap vacations, low refinancing rates and medicine from Canada. Adios to international driver’s licenses and work-at-home moneymaking schemes.
At least I’m not the only one here. Downstairs in the newsroom, overcaffeinated producers working the graveyard shift click intently through the wires, scanning their computers to find stories for the noon newscast. The sleek new anchorwoman, Ellen Cavenagh, doesn’t have to be in her chair for the local news update until 8:24, so the “new face of Channel 3,” as the promos brand her, is probably in her dressing room perfecting the shimmer level of her lip gloss.
Ellen’s essentially a supermodel with reading skills, and I applaud anyone who can come out so cover girl so early in the morning. But as the station’s investigative reporter, I spend most of my time tracking down sources and digging through documents. As a result, I don’t always have to look TV-acceptable.
Good thing. At forty-six, it’s possible my “hot flashes” owe more to the station’s eccentric heating system than to a sudden dive in hormones. But facing reality, facing the camera takes a lot more time than it did twenty years ago. And considerably more makeup. Still, as long as they’re not calling me “the old face of Channel 3,” I figure I’m in the clear.
Today I’m planning total off-the-air mode. My usually high-maintenance hair is twisted up with a pencil and I’m on a hell-or-high-water mission—come up with a blockbuster story so Channel 3 will win the November ratings contest and I can keep my job.
I was initiated into ratings worship my first day at the station. Back then I was very eighties in my high-necked blouse and cameo brooch. Big eyebrows. Big shoulders. Big dreams.
“Here’s a course they don’t teach you in J-school,” my news director said, gesturing me into his office. “Bottom Line 101: TV News Is Not All About Journalism—It’s All About Money.” Then he clicked open a computer spreadsheet, revealing a screen filled with tiny numbers.
“These are ‘the overnights,’” he intoned.
I remember thinking: Who’s staying overnight? Luckily, he continued before I could actually ask such a naively newbie question.
“The overnight numbers arrive electronically every morning,” he went on. “They show us how many viewers watched each newscast the day before. It’s a contest. Whichever TV station gets the highest viewership ratings gets to charge the highest rates to advertisers.”
He nodded, narrowing his eyes, and pointed to me.
“You win—especially the all-important November ratings—and you’re in the money,” he pronounced. “You lose, you’re a goner.”
As it turned out, he’s the one who’s gone, but I’m still front-lining in the ratings wars. And that’s why every fall for the past twenty or so years, I’ve had to dig up a big story, a heavy hitter, one that’ll get a ratings home run. Score, and my job is safe for another year. Strike out, and I could be shipped away from Boston and sent to cover the news in some small-market backwater. So far, I haven’t had to call my agent or a moving company.
But now, because the arrival of my new boss has unfortunately coincided with the arrival of my contract expiration date, I’ve got to come up with a bigger story than ever.
If I don’t, news director Kevin O’Bannon may be tempted to hire some half-my-age Cyndi from Cincinnati for half my salary. Everyone at Channel 3 will get one of those transparent “Charlotte McNally has decided to leave Boston to pursue other opportunities” e-mails.
They say you’re only as good as your last story. Fine. My last story was a three-part series on State House bid-rigging that gave a few slimily corrupt politicians a new job making license plates. November ratings? Bring ’em on.
“Charlie—hey, Charlie. You here?”
I look up from my spam deleting. Someone’s crashing open the heavy glass double doors that lead into the Channel 3 Investigative Unit. And they’re looking for me.
My brain starts to buzz. Maybe there’s breaking news. Maybe I’m the only on-air type here. Face time is always good. More likely, though, whoever it is probably wants me to go interview the latest lottery winner or something equally predictable. Dog falls in well. Tree falls on house. Ratings-grabbers, I suppose, but not what I call journalism.
I briefly contemplate hiding under my desk, but a quick assessment tells me that won’t work—my collection of backup shoes occupies all the available space. Besides, my news Spidey-sense is pinging into high. I remember when Mom caught me reading the last chapter of my Nancy Drew first. She was bewildered, but as nine-year-old me explained, I hafta know what happens. All these years later, I’m still incurably curious. And now, maybe “what’s happened” is actually something newsworthy.
“Yup, in here,” I call out. If it’s the saving-the-dog-in-the-well gig, I’ll just say no. Let ’em fire me. I touch my wooden desk to defuse the jinx. Didn’t really mean that.
Teddy Sheehan, his shirttails out and khaki pants already splattered with coffee stains, arrives in my doorway with a look on his face I instantly recognize: producer emergency. He bats his plastic water bottle against his leg, making a little pocking sound that punctuates his obvious agitation.
“I can’t find Ellen,” he says, inspecting my tiny office as if she might be lurking there. “She’s supposed to be on the anchor desk for the next newsbreak, but she’s nowhere. It’s crazy. If I can’t find her—”
I know where this is headed. A jolt of news adrenaline erases my ill-advised third-glass-of-white-wine hangover. “No problem,” I assure him. “Let’s go.”
The instant the network commercial ends, someone has to read the script from the teleprompter. This morning, it appears that someone is going to be me.
We racket down the stairs to the newsroom. Four minutes till airtime.
Teddy stops suddenly, and turns to stare at me, pointing at my do-it-yourself up-do. “The folks at home are not going to buy the pencil-in-the-hair look,” he says. His panicked expression reappears. “It’s early, but nobody’s that sleepy. Can you do anything to…?”
My eyes go wide, picturing myself. He’s right. Not only is my hair a big Glamour “don’t,” I have on zero lipstick. This is supposed to be the morning news, not night of the living dead. And now it’s three minutes to airtime.
Ten years ago, Teddy would have said, “Don’t worry, Charlie, you’re the best-looking investigative reporter in town. Just get your little blond self into that anchor desk and let the camera love you.”
Today he says, “Never mind.”
Teddy careens into his desk chair and types out the new production info for the control room as he dictates the same instructions out loud to me. “We’ll run the opening animation graphics, then go straight to videotape. You just voice-over the pictures, then hand it off to weather—it’s Becca this morning. Just read. We’ll never see you on camera.”
He glances at the digital clock ticking relentlessly over the anchor desk, and goes pale. “It’s less than a minute to air. Do it!”
I dash to the desk and plug my earpiece into its black box so I can hear the director in the control room. As I clip the microphone onto the sweater tied around my shoulders, I pray the video actually rolls, so our million or so viewers don’t wake up to the alarming vision of Charlie McNally without mascara or lipstick.
I settle in the chair, all plugged in. Just one thing missing. A big thing.
“Where’s the script?” I yell.
The camera operator points to me. “On the air in—thirty seconds,” he says calmly.
“No script!” someone calls out from under the stairs.
That’s a very bad sign. Under the stairs is where the …
“Yo, Charlie, printer’s broken,” I hear someone yell back to me. “Just read the prompter.”
I should have hidden under my desk. The prompter had better work or I am going to kill someone.
My heart sinks. This is what I get for coming in early. All I wanted to do was get a head start on my story. Now, instead, I’m going to be humiliated in front of millions of—
“In five, four…”
The teleprompter flashes into life. The floor director gives me a quick finger point. Showtime.
“Good morning, this is Charlie McNally in the newsroom.”
I’ve never seen the script that’s rolling by in front of me before, I’m just reading it cold. But after twenty-some years in the business, my brain can read a line or two ahead of my mouth.
“Topping the news this morning, investigators searching for the cause of a fire overnight in Allston. Witnesses say the apartment was being used as an off-campus dormitory for Morrison College.”
Hmm. There’s a possible story, the reporter track of my brain muses. Wonder if that’s legal, stashing students in some apartment and calling it a dorm. Wonder if we could sneak a hidden camera inside.
I keep reading.
“Big traffic problems on the Expressway this morning. Commuters stalled for up to half an hour, as a truck filled with twenty-pound bags of ice skids and rolls over…”
Is there a story here, too? Wonder if the driver was drinking? Had the truck been inspected?
I keep reading.
“Finally this morning, police are asking for your help in finding a Lexington man reported as missing earlier this week. His wife released this picture of forty-one-year-old Bradley Foreman. You see it now on your screen—”
I glance at the monitor, confirming. Good job, control-room guys.
“He’s described as around six feet tall, brown hair and eyes, medium build.”
That’s helpful. Medium everything. Must be a slow news day if this is a story.
I keep reading.
“His wife says she last saw Foreman when he left for work Thursday morning, but his colleagues at Aztratek Pharmaceuticals say he never arrived at their Boxford office complex.”
The minute my mouth says Aztratek, some part of my brain goes into alert mode. It shoots me a definite wakeup message, but there’s no time to listen.
I keep reading.
“If you see this man, police say, please call Lexington police.”
I change my voice to perky and check the monitor for the weather map. It’s there.
“Now, the weather. Channel 3 meteorologist Rebecca Holcomb has all the weather info you need. Becca?” I see the camera shot switch to Becca. I’m done.
“Thanks, Charlie,” the director’s voice buzzes into my ear. “You’re clear.”
I yank out my earpiece and unclip the microphone. Teddy’s right behind me, way less freaked than five minutes ago.
“That was perfect, Charlie,” he says. “You’re the best.”
“La-di-da.” I give a dismissive little wave. “All in a day’s work.”
I rummage under the anchor desk to retrieve the shoes I kicked off, and Teddy turns to go back to his workstation. Because of me, he’s not going to get nailed for missing the local newsbreak. He lives to produce another day. But I’m suddenly wondering if my tomorrows are numbered.
I stay in the anchor chair, chin in my hands, staring at the now-opaque camera lens. Not good. What I thought could be a career-enhancing chunk of face time didn’t show my face at all. They actually had to roll video to make sure no one would see me. Not good. Without a moment’s hesitation, Teddy erased me. Made me invisible. Brenda Starr’s just as photogenic today as she was thirty years ago, but this ain’t the comics. My flesh-and-blood future is beginning to scare me, much more than reading the news, cold, with no makeup.
Since I’m married to my job, what happens when the camera doesn’t love me anymore? Will a career divorce leave me a media old maid?
A T-shirted assistant director, coiling his headphone cord, walks up, surprised I’m still at the desk. “We’re done, right?” he asks.
I nod, but I’m smiling a smile I don’t feel. What’s more, I’ve just thought of something else not good.
“Hey, Teddy,” I call. I put my shoes back on, pulling up one elastic strap over my heel as I hop across the newsroom floor toward his desk. “Hey, Ted!”
He turns around, quizzical.
“Ellen,” I say, regaining my balance. “Where’s Ellen?”
Teddy scratches his head and looks off into the distance. “Dead,” he mutters.
I know this is just TV-producer frustration. He’s not really expecting the worst. But “missing your slot” is a massive newsroom mistake, almost as unforgivable as getting scooped. If Ellen’s not dead, her excuse had better be good.
* * *
Back in my office, my once-hot coffee is now barely warm. I risk a chalky sip and stare at my computer screen.
I know I should focus on finding my big story. Check out those off-campus dorms or the uninspected trucks. And I’ve got to remember to run those ideas by my producer, Franklin, when he comes in. But my mind just won’t let go of the missing “medium” guy from the pharmaceutical company. Some part of my brain alerted on that Aztratek name like a K-9 dog at a crime scene, and my instinct says that’s not something to ignore.
Tapping my fingers on the desk, I delve into my memory bank. Where have I heard of Aztratek? And it was—Brandon? Bradley? Foreman? How am I supposed to figure this out? Or how am I supposed to figure out if there is anything to figure out?
What if this is the biggest story ever, and I’m missing it? I need …
Makeup. If I look better, I’ll think better. I take my little mirror from the wall and prop it on my computer keys so it leans against the monitor.
Brown eye shadow. More black mascara than Mom would think necessary. A little bronzing blush where my cheekbones ought to be, and then my trademark red lipstick. I went through a phase of Vixen, moved through Rage and now I’m loving Inferno. Seems as if even the makeup marketing honchos are capturing my sudden free fall into old age. Which comes first, the wrinkles or the lipstick name? If my next favorite is Reincarnation I’m really going to worry.
One last glance in the mirror. Great. Now I still look like a tired person, just a tired person wearing makeup.
I park the way-too-unsympathetic mirror on the floor and click open my e-mail again. I’ve got to go back to basics. What investigative reporting is all about. Not how you look, but how you look for answers. Relentless inquiry, focus on details, The Quest. I sit up straighter as I type my way through my fancy e-mail search system, my caffeine-fueled brain charging toward the light. I remember. His name is Bradley Foreman. Nothing can stop me now.
A tiny hourglass flips over and over on the screen. Any second now, all will be revealed.
No matches found.
My shoulders slump. No Bradley Foreman has ever e-mailed me. The next search informs me I’ve never gotten an e-mail that mentions a company called Aztratek Pharmaceuticals.
But I’ve got Google. And I’m feeling lucky.
The cursor beckons. I type “Aztratek.”
According to the screen, my search takes 1.7 seconds.
“Do you mean Aztratech?”
Google is so patronizing.
What I meant was, whatever the company the missing Bradley Foreman worked for. Works for, I correct myself, choosing the more optimistic words. I click on yes.
Aztratech Pharmaceuticals. It pops up instantly. Images opening and closing, sleek logos, hip graphics. It looks legit, but I have no idea what any of it means. I click on “About us.”
Aztratech Pharmaceuticals, 336 Progress Drive, Boxford, Massachusetts. I smile. That’s the one.
And—do I smell coffee?
“Hey, Charlotte—heard you on the newsbreak! What the hell is up with that?”
Franklin, predictably immaculate in a pressed pink Polo knit shirt, tortoiseshell sunglasses hanging over the top button, puts a steaming latte on my desk. “Room service,” he says. “Triple venti non-fat. Thought you might be needing it.”
Franklin is the only one, except for my mother, who calls me Charlotte. With his rural deep-South drawl it comes out like Shaw-lit. I still smile every time I hear it.
Franklin Brooks Parrish, age fifteen years younger than I am, is the latest in a longish line of investigative producers who’ve shared my office. I’m embarrassed to admit he’s one of the few of color the station has hired. Louisiana State undergrad, a culture-shocking jump to Columbia Journalism School, then first TV job at some little station in Charleston, another in Albany, then CNN Investigates, then here to Boston. All part of the market-climbing odyssey necessary for TV success.
He doesn’t know I know he’s already putting together résumé tapes. I also know he’ll leave me when network bigwigs offer New York. TV relationships—don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t get attached. And I’m very comfortable with temporary. Still, I’ll miss Franklin when he goes.
“Hey, Franko, thanks so much for the replacement coffee. How do you already know just what I need?”
“No prob,” Franklin replies. Master of multitasking, he’s already opening his e-mail, checking his phone messages and clicking on our office TV. He’s a computer wizard, so organized he arranges his books by the Dewey decimal system. Give Franklin the half-full/half-empty test—he’ll find out who the glass belongs to, what’s in it and whether it’s contaminated, illegal or the product of some political corruption. He’s also as much a goal-oriented perfectionist as I am.
I fill him in on the missing Ellen, as well as the missing Bradley Foreman. “So, bottom line,” I finish. “After all that, I’ve accomplished zero. Except, listen. Have you ever heard of a company called Aztratech?”
Before Franklin can answer, I look up as the glass doors to the investigative unit swing open again. This time no one’s running, so that’s good. Then the shadow of doom falls across my desk. That’s bad.
Overpermed, makeup challenged and clipboard in hand to signal how important she is, it may be that assistant news director Angela Nevins doesn’t hate just me. It may be she hates everyone. But she’s at my door.
“Charlie, Franklin, good morning. Great job on the newsbreak, Charlie. Thanks for bailing us out.”
Angela has apparently read in one of her management manuals that it’s productive to begin potentially contentious conversations by using some sort of a compliment. Softens up the peons for what’s to come.
I don’t dare glance at Franklin because one of us is sure to roll our eyes and make the other laugh. Plus I can never forget that even though on paper Angela’s my boss, she’s at least five years younger than I am. Maybe six. That she’s allowed to tell me what to do is unrelenting torture.
“And what made it even better you were here,” she goes on, attempting some replication of a smile, “is that since Ellen is out of the picture now—”
Franklin sees an opening and pounces. “Yeah, Angela … what happened to Ellen, anyway?”
Angela’s smile disappears. “We’re looking into it,” she says. “I’m sure it’s—”
Franklin interrupts, wrinkling his forehead in concern. “Is she…?”
Angela turns her back as if Franklin doesn’t exist and picks up where she left off with me. “Since Ellen is out of the picture now,” she continues, “we need you to handle an interview we’ve arranged with the wife.”
Am I supposed to know what she’s talking about?
“What wife?” I say out loud.
I get one of those “I can’t believe you reporters are so dense” looks.
“The accident victim’s wife.” Angela looks down at her clipboard, taps on it with her pencil. “Bradley Foreman? Aztratech? He’s dead. Car accident. Apparently went off the road in Thursday’s rain. His wife told the assignment desk she’d talk. But we’ve got to move quickly, before some lawyer shows up and orders her to keep quiet. So, Charlie, you’re the only reporter here at the station. If we wait for the next one to arrive, we may lose the story.”
This is simply unfair. She’s assigning me vulture patrol. I loathe vulture patrol. I paid my on-the-street dues for years, trying to convince the brokenhearted and miserable there was some noble reason they should go on camera. I’m supposed to be done with all that now. But because I’m here early, I’m the only reporter who’s available. And as a result, I’m the one who’s nailed.
Course they don’t teach in J-school: The Early Bird Gets the Work.
I look at Franklin in defeat. He’s already looked up the Foremans’ address in Lexington, and hands me directions with a sympathetic smile.
“I’ll check into that Aztra company,” he says. “No problem. Have fun, y’all.”
“Fine,” I say. I shift into all-business-brusque-reporter mode, knowing Angela will relish her power play even more if she thinks she’s upset me. “Who’s my photog?” I ask. “And where do I meet him?”
Angela tilts her head, narrowing her eyes at me. “You can fix your hair in the car, I suppose. Not that it’ll matter—we don’t need you on camera anyway. We’ll just hand off your interview to the morning reporter. Oh, and your cameraman’s Walt,” she adds. “He’s already waiting for you.”
I see Franklin smothering a smile.
“Let us know what you get,” she goes on. “We’ll certainly want the interview on the noon news.” She flutters her fingers and turns away. “Ciao, newsies.”
My brain bursts into flames.
The noon news? I’m supposed to drive all the way to Lexington with a passive-aggressive lunk of a photographer who has the social skills of a petulant teenager, do a compassionate, thoughtful interview with a grieving widow, and then get back to the station in time to get something coherent, relevant and interesting on the noon news?
Fine. I can do that.
But news flash: at this rate I’m never going to find my big November story. TV news is the real reality TV. If this is the year I blow it, it’s also the year I’ll get voted off the island.
Copyright © 2016 Hank Phillippi Ryan.
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Hank Phillippi Ryan is the investigative reporter for Boston's NBC affiliate, and has won thirty-three Emmys and thirteen Edward R. Murrow Awards.
The author of eight crime fiction novels and numerous short stories, Ryan has won five Agatha Awards, in addition to two Anthonys, two Macavitys, the Daphne du Maurier, and Mary Higgins Clark Award.