“I’m just a crummy waiter, for crap’s sake,” the man on the other end of the line had said less than an hour ago. “People like them don’t even notice me in the room.”
If he was for real, somebody had noticed. The gruesome photograph in my e-mail came with a terse message. Twenty-stories is a long way down, stay out of this, bitch. The picture was a high resolution digital photograph, a bloody close-up of a man I’d never met, who insisted that his story could not be told over the telephone, any telephone. Way too weird, probably some kind of hoax.
“My God, Tobi. What is that?” The squeaky nasal voice came from a junior production assistant. One of the wide-eyed waifs who usually lasted long enough to find out that working in television actually meant working.
“Just spam.” I clicked a button on the mouse and the picture disappeared, replaced buy the York Broadcast Network KYBN5 logo. I swiveled my chair and looked across the desk at the young woman, who looked unnaturally pale. “Really,” I said. “There’s nothing to it.”
“It looked horrible.” She grimaced and put her slender black-nailed fingers on my desk for support. After a few deep breaths, the peachy color returned to her face and she smiled in a way that reminded me of myself twenty-five years earlier.
“What do you need?” I asked.
“You’re due in make-up.” She looked once more at my computer screen. “I guess there are some disadvantages to everyone in the world knowing who you are and where you work.”
I didn’t tell her that the message had come to my personal email address, one that was known to a dozen people at most. “Can you have one of our information technology guys come see me in the makeup room?”
After she left I opened the email again and checked to see the originating address. I wrote it down and folded the paper then jammed it into the pocket of my cut-off jeans, worn thin in places, but what the hell — I’m single. Again. On the threshold of fifty, okay past it by a couple of years, I can still fill a pair of jean shorts in a way that can turn heads. With another click of the mouse, I put the computer to sleep and then headed down the stairs to the studio complex.
Fifteen minutes later, I sat behind the center of a glass-topped desk built for three looking at my own image in a high-definition television monitor. My name, Tobi Monahan, crawled across the bottom of the screen as the canned voice and music of the intro tape played through the angel in my ear. To the eye of the camera, I wore a gunmetal-colored cashmere blazer, five hundred bucks at Nordstrom, over a silk shirt custom tailored to bring out the sky-blue hue of my eyes. Nineteen more, just like it, hung in the closet of my downtown loft. Only the jacket changed. The bulky desk hid my tattered jean shorts and Crocs from every possible camera angle.
In Britain, they call us newsreaders, a subtle term steeped in accuracy. YBN calls me an anchor, a word not lost on me as I sit immobile, waiting for the wagging fingers of my floor director ten feet away.
“Ten seconds,” my angel squeaked. The device fit comfortably in the canal of my right ear, a thin wire sneaking under the collar of my blaze to a receiver pack on my belt. The director, technical director, and line producer could speak to me at any time during the broadcast.
“Five seconds,” the floor director spoke into her microphone and extended all five fingers of her right hand.
“Four,” she closed her thumb. “Three,” as she folded her little finger. Without another sound, she bent her ring finger and middle finger a second apart, then after one, she pointed at me with a nod.
I smiled and looked at the Teleprompter lens in front of the camera. With less than a second’s hesitation, I realized that the words on the screen were not those that I had prepared half an hour earlier. A bit daunting — finding out the story at the same time your audience does. I began to read as my image on the monitor dissolved into the close-up photograph of a young Hispanic man wearing a waiter’s uniform.