Authors: Keith Hartman,Eric Dunn
I leaned in and highlighted some parts of the screen for her.
"The interesting parts in this survey are questions 4, 11, 16, and 18."
Sandy read them over.
"#4. Rate the following people in terms of how much you like them.
#11. Rate the following people in terms of how much you trust them.
#16. Rate the following people in terms of how much you would enjoy spending an hour with them.
#18. Rate the following people in terms of how much you would like to have them as a friend."
She finished and shrugged.
"So put two and two together. Stonewall knows that he's not coming back. At least not anytime soon. So he needs somebody that can take over his old job as the lead anchor on the evening news and the public face of the network. But it's got to be somebody that the public likes. And more importantly, someone that they trust. Hence, all these new questions on the survey. You want to know what the audience said?"
She nodded yes, and tried to look less excited than she was. I tapped an icon on a corner of the notebook and opened up the results. Sandy had won hands down in all categories amongst all age ranges and demographic groups. In the composite "Trust" category, she received the highest ranking from more than fifty percent of the respondents. Her next closest competitor had gotten less than twenty-five.
Her eyes lit up, and she stared at the numbers for what seemed like a minute, a smile spreading across her face. Then she turned to me.
"So why show me this?"
"Because I just finished showing these results to the #2 candidate, and he wasn't too happy about them."
Sandy glanced at the poll and noticed who had gotten that twenty-five percent of the "Trust" vote.
"Trent Reed? But he's not even on any of our programs."
"No, but he's been doing a lot of press conferences and talk shows. He's been very visible for the last few months. He's a strong public speaker, and people are starting to associate his face with the network. And..." I leaned in closer, "...he knows that the real power in this network comes with being the presence in front of the camera. He wants the top job."
"But he won't get it. Because the audience trusts me more. Right?"
"For the moment, yes. Reed seemed surprised by that. Apparently he thought that you were too young and that the viewers wouldn't accept you in a more serious role. He said that he didn't want to show the numbers to Stonewall until he is sure what they mean."
"What they mean?"
"Yeah. He seems to be expecting the polls to take a sharp turn in his favor over the next few days."
"Why would that happen?"
"Well, I was wondering that myself, so I talked to a couple of friends over in the newsroom. Um... have you looked over your copy for tonight's news?"
"Yeah. I've got a great story on..."
"You might want to re-read it. I think you'll find that they've made some last minute changes."
Sandy grabbed a notebook off her makeup table and called up the script.
"What? They've cut my piece on teen missionaries in China! I worked my butt off on that story! Now they've got me doing some piece on... how Stonewall was framed?"
She read on.
"Witch on the scene... Traded bodies with Stonewall... used his body to commit murder while he used hers to try and stop... Jesus, who wrote this crap? Even I can't figure out what they're trying to say."
"What they're trying to say is that you're willing to lie to protect Stonewall. Look, I don't know what your feelings are for the old guy, but if you go out and lead some charge in his defense, your trust ratings are gonna fall through the floor. Right now, the big thing you've got going for you is that people trust you. Everyone figures you're too young and sweet to be mixed up in any of Stonewall's plans. But you go out there and deliver that story and... well, the audience is gonna think twice before they believe anything else that comes out of your mouth."
"But what am I gonna say?"
"Anything but that copy they're handing you. Pretend you didn't get the changes. Tell 'em you didn't have enough time to practice it. Tell 'em that you're in love with the piece on Chinese teenagers and you won't do anything else. Throw a tantrum if you have to. You're a star, you're entitled to be a little temperamental. But whatever you do, don't read that speech."
"But what if Trent fires me?"
With ratings like yours? Sandy, he'd never be able to justify it to Stonewall. Just hold your ground and you'll be fine."
"Yeah, you're right. What was I thinking?"
"Reed will keep the pressure on you for a few days. But eventually Stonewall will get his hands on the survey results, and then no one will be able to touch you."
"Yeah," Sandy said, grinning.
Then an ugly thought occurred to her. She looked at me and her eyes narrowed.
"Wait a minute. Why are you telling me all this? What's in it for you?"
I smiled at her reassuringly. Sandy still had a lot to learn. That should have been the first question she asked, not the last.
"Well, for one thing I'm not happy about the way that Reed is doing this," I said. "I've never liked cheats. And for another, I can read the numbers. You're going places. And I'd like to have a friend in those places."
Sandy nodded knowingly . It was an explanation she liked.
I stood up.
"I'll let you get ready for the evening news. Oh, and one last thing-- You should probably start thinking about what you want to do with the anchor position once they give it to you."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, Stonewall had his own style when he was the lead anchor. You know, with his political tirades and Satanic phone-in segments and such. But there's no reason you have to do things the same way. You might try going to more of a talk show format, something that would let you interact with the studio audience and capitalize on your people skills. I'd be happy to give you some ideas if you want to talk again."
"Yeah. Maybe we should do that." I nodded in agreement and took my leave. The blond muscle boy and the notebook lady were waiting out in the hall, looking a little perturbed that I was weaseling in on their meal ticket. I ignored them, and made my way to the elevator.
Down on the ground level I headed for the back of the building and slipped out an emergency exit. From there, I had to circle the block to get to the parking garage. It was an indirect route, but still faster than trying to elbow my way through all the Justin Weir fans out in Freedom Plaza. Reverend Stonewall had shown particularly bad judgment in tossing the singer off his own building. At the very least, he could have murdered the guy out in the woods somewhere, so that the pilgrims wouldn't create a traffic jam for everyone trying to get in or out of the tower. There's just no excuse for sloppy planning like that.
For a while it had looked like Weir's fans might get bored with their vigil and go home. About a month ago, the numbers had started dropping, and it had gotten so a person could actually walk across the plaza unmolested if they waited till after 9 pm or so. And then the Graffiti Poet had hit.
The folks at BNN were still trying to figure out how he did it. All anybody knows is that when the pilgrims started thinning out late one Thursday night, they discovered a poem painted on the plaza floor in two foot tall letters. It hadn't been there the day before, and it hardly seems possible that someone could have painted it there while the crowd was milling around, walking over the letters and such. But nonetheless, there it was. A little ditty on searching for God in all the wrong places. The fans had immediately decided that it was a miracle and that Justin Weir was sending them song lyrics from beyond the grave.
Since then, the poet had struck at odd times and in very odd places. Once, he even got into BNN's system, and replaced the end credits on the evening news with the scrolling text to one of his poems. I couldn't help wondering who was behind him. He obviously had some technical sophistication to be able to pull off these kind of stunts. And by inciting Weir's fans, he had kept their hatred for Stonewall burning white hot, making any rapprochement between BNN and the under twenty-five demographic next to impossible.
At the garage I grabbed my car, and drove the six blocks to the Hilton. The Christian Alliance had rented one of the business suites there as a temporary office. I parked the car, took the elevator up to the top floor, and presented myself at their door. A blond kid with a crew cut and a Christian Militia arm band lead me into the back room, where I found Calvin Walker laughing over something on a monitor.
"Natalie, you gotta come see this," he said, waving me over.
I leaned across the desk to get a better view. On the monitor was an image of the I-75-85 Connector that runs through the center of Atlanta, with the Microsoft News Service logo in the corner.
"Uh, Calvin? I don't know how to break this to you and Microsoft, but a traffic jam on the Connector is hardly a news event."
"No, wait. You'll see."
After a few seconds, the image shifted to a close-up on one of the big digital signs that hangs over the Connector. Only instead of flashing a traffic advisory, it was flashing the words:
And no exit that will take you,
To that spiritual breakthrough,
Though you shift from lane to lane and...
Wow. The graffiti poet again? Boy, this guy gets around.
"Another message from our friend the poet?" I asked.
"Yep!" Calvin said, chuckling. "He's got 'em all set up like those old Burma Shave signs, flashing a new stanza every quarter mile. People have been driving onto the interstate just to read 'em."
He paused, savoring the moment.
"Boy, this must be driving Trent crazy," he said.
"Well that, and the fact that his company's going bankrupt. And that drubbing you gave him on Crossfire last night probably didn't improve his mood. I particularly liked the part where you called him 'the vile servant of a twisted master'. Nice delivery."
"Thanks. I practiced it with my dialog coach."
"Yes, all things considered, it has not been a good week for Mr. Reed."
"I wonder if it could get any worse?" Calvin asked, with a gleam in his eye.
"You know, it just might," I said, sitting down on his desk. "In about half an hour he's going to get into a nasty little fight with Sandy Roberts, his top remaining star. He's going to call her something like a 'turncoat Judas', and she's going to accuse him of trying to wreck her career."
"Pity I can't be there to watch."
"Yes, well life is full of disappointments, Calvin."
He chuckled again.
"For some of us, more than others."
He leaned back in his chair, a look of utter contentment on his face.
"So, Natalie. Should I offer Sandy the anchor job tomorrow? Or is that too soon? Maybe I ought to play it cool and wait a week. What do you think?"
"I think you should stop being cocky and wait till you actually own the network."
Calvin's smile broadened a notch.
"You know something I don't?" I asked.
He reached into his desk drawer and handed me a notebook. There was a legal document on it, dated the 24th. It took me a few seconds to skip through the boiler plate and get to the meat of it.
"Mrs. Stonewall is filing for divorce tomorrow?"
"I believe that she now prefers to be addressed by her maiden name, Beaumont."
"Whatever. Well, I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise. Stonewall has all but admitted to adultery. And I can't imagine the murders helped."
"Yes, well I don't know how Mrs. Beaumont feels about all that. But I do know how she feels about watching their joint marital assets get sucked up by the Reverend's legal bills."
"And you know about this filing... how?"
Calvin's smile dimmed just a notch as he put on his poker face. He was trying to hide something from me.
"Ms. Beaumont and I have spoken a few times, since the Reverend's arrest."
"Have you, now?"
I took a second to do the math. Mrs. Stonewall was a woman in her fifties who had recently discovered that her husband was both an adulterer and a murderer. Calvin Walker was a man in his thirties, easy on the eye, and her husband's mortal enemy. A decent bookie would give me two-to-one odds that they were sleeping together.
Well, no point in letting Calvin know that I was on to him. I needed to change the subject. I nodded to his monitor, which was still running footage of the street signs on the Connector.