Dead Air

Chapter One

 

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Someone was watching her again.

Renee Altman was in a Century City mall store, fingering the rim of a champagne goblet, when she had the familiar, prickly sensation. Lifting the goblet, she turned and pretended to examine the facets so that she could see who was staring at her.

No one. Just nerves.

At the register she waited while the clerk, who seemed to take forever, rang up her purchase. Then she made her way out of the store and strode in the crisp, late morning air toward the escalator. The salty smell of freshly popped corn wafted towards her from a snack cart up ahead, and she was tempted to stop for a bag when she felt eyes on her again.

Fear fluttered in her stomach, and now she was angry. She whirled around—what the hell did he?—and almost stepped on a small leashed dog leading a heavy-set, middle-aged couple whose eyes widened with alarm.

The dog yelped. The man and woman scowled at Renée.

Her face was hot with embarrassment. "I'm so sorry."

Forcing herself to smile, she searched out of the corners of her eyes but saw no one looking at her. Either she'd imagined the whole thing, or whoever was following her had ducked into a shop or been swallowed by the throng of mall visitors strolling past her, mostly in pairs; talking, laughing, swinging their shopping bags with a carefree motion that filled her with envy. The woman had stopped scowling. She cocked her head and was squinting at Renee.

"You ought to be more careful," the man grumbled. "You could have—"

"You're Dr. Renee!" the woman squealed. Beaming, she poked her companion's arm with a long, sculpted red fingernail that could have drawn blood. "George, this is Dr. Renee Altman!" Back to Renee: "I almost didn't recognize you—your hair is blonder than it looks in pictures. You're prettier, too, and younger," she continued without taking a breath. "I listen to your show every day. It's just wonderful. I can't believe. . . ."

On and on and on until Renee thought she would scream. Still scanning the crowd, she only half listened as the woman piled compliment upon compliment—"so insightful. . . really change a person's whole life. . . moral courage so lacking these days."

She noticed that the woman had stopped talking and was waiting for a response. "That's very nice of you to say," Renee murmured, hoping her comment would satisfy, and saw the woman's full face dimple with pleasure.

"Well, it's all true! I talk about you all the time. Don't I, George?"

"Uh-huh," from George, who seemed unimpressed with Renee's celebrity. So did the dog. He was tugging on his beaded leash and yipping, his tail furiously fanning the air.

"My friends are going to die when I tell them I met you!" The woman dug into a large, ugly, black-and-orange patent tote and fished out a notepad and squiggly-shaped pen. "Would it be a terrible imposition. . . ." She smiled shyly.

"I'd be happy to," Renee said, relieved that the woman hadn't asked for advice. I have a problem, Dr. Renee. . .

"Make it ‘To Irma,'" the woman instructed, shy no more. She thrust pen and pad at Renee. "That's with an i, not like Bombeck. It's so sad she died. Now she was bright, and funny. . ."

1. It was a quarter to twelve when Renee arrived at KMST's studio on Sunset, east of Cahuenga. She inserted her ID card into a slot above a call box, silently urging the electronic black iron gate to slide open faster; moments later, her white Lexus parked on the lot, she hurried toward the two-story, gray stucco building, where she inserted her card into another slot and gained entry into the lobby.

She exchanged quick hellos with Roland, the Don-Knotts skinny guard sitting behind the tall reception module. He nodded when she showed him her ID, a formality she'd sometimes found silly but now welcomed, and though she knew the security was ample, she wished Roland were taller and looked more formidable.

In the recording booth Ted Harkham, who hosted the nine AM to noon segment, had stretched out his shoeless feet, ankles crossed, on the hexagonal wood-tone table and was eating a tuna sandwich while the station ran a pre-taped fifteen-minute news capsule. Harkham was short and overweight and practically bald, but this was radio, not television, and he had a great voice and a quick wit, and energy that crackled through the air waves.

He greeted her arrival with an exaggerated sigh. "And here I was hoping I'd finally get to cover for you. I just lost a dollar to Alicia—she said you'd make it on time." Shoving the rest of the sandwich into his mouth, he swung his legs off the table and stood, brushing crumbs off his shirt and slacks.

She smiled with a warmth she didn't feel. "Thanks, anyway. Sorry about the dollar." By Ted's standards she was early. He generally breezed into the recording booth at five to nine—once in a while, a minute or so after—but she liked to arrive at least forty minutes before her show.

"I'll corrupt you yet." He winked and cleared the table, sweeping newspapers and index cards into an overstuffed, worn brown briefcase, then slipped his feet into his loafers and picked up a Nestlé chocolate bar.

"See you tomorrow," she said, wishing him gone.

"Talk the talk." Grabbing the briefcase in one hand, he saluted her with the chocolate bar and left. The room still smelled of tuna. She sat down and was relaxing against the faint indentations Ted had molded into the chair when the door opened and Alicia, the thirty-two-year-old producer who screened the show's callers, entered. She was tall and large-framed and sometimes complained about her size, but Renee thought she moved with a cat-like grace. Her eyes were cat-like too, amber agates in almond-shaped seas of white made whiter by the deep mahogany of her skin. Wavy dark brown hair, brushed into a sleek knot, rippled against her skull.

"Cutting it close," Alicia remarked, sounding relieved and surprised. Her eyes flicked over the shopping bag at the side of Renee's desk.

"Don't complain. I heard you made a buck." She flashed a quick smile. "I stopped in Century City and lost track of time. Sorry I worried you."

"I was worried. I called your house, but Blanca said you left over an hour and a half ago. Pollin's been asking, where are you." She placed a hand on a shapely hip. "Why didn't you use your car phone, girl?"

She was speaking in the soft South Central L.A. cadence she sometimes used, playfully, with Renee, the cadence she'd worked hard to erase. Her professional voice was low and throaty ("I could've been a top 900 phone girl," she often said, laughing), and perfectly "white." She'd told Renee when they first met that she loved the stares of people trying to pretend they weren't shocked to see she was black.

"I wasn't thinking. I should have called," Renee said, piqued by the screener's persistence. "How's Trey?" she asked, referring to Alicia's seven-year-old son.

"Croup's better, so I got to sleep some last night, but not enough." She yawned as if to prove her point. "I hope Brynn and Tyler don't get it."

Renee nodded. "Tell Pollin I'm here?"

"I already did." She placed a sheaf of papers on Renee's desk.

Newspaper clippings and faxes from Renee's listeners. Renee liked to scan them every day for interesting material or comments to share with her radio audience, but with eight minutes left until air time, she'd be able to skim only one or two. On top of the faxes was a printout with last quarter's Arbitron ratings.

"Point seven percent?" Frowning, Renee kicked off her flats and flexed her toes.

"It'll pick up," Alicia said too brightly. "There's a piece from the Sun-Sentinel on deadbeat dads you may want to use."

Ordinarily, they would have talked about this—Alicia's ex-husband had left her stranded two years ago with three young children and no support. But today Renee nodded absentmindedly. Point seven percent share of the Los Angeles audience. With ninety-nine radio stations in the greater L.A. area vying for listeners, two percent was considered good. Anything less than one percent was worrisome, even for a small station like KMST. Point seven percent wasn't nearly enough to satisfy the program director, who had called Renee in three months ago to discuss her slipping ratings.

"You have to be a little tougher," Max Pollin had advised, again, in a tone just short of a warning. "Use a little more humor. And a little more warmth when you greet the callers."

Be tough. Be funny. Be warm. What he hadn't repeated, but had clearly meant, was: Be like KFI's Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the number one talk show host who was besting Rush Limbaugh. Well, she wasn't Dr. Laura. She'd never promised she would be. She'd argued strongly six months ago against being switched from the nine-to-twelve slot to the twelve-to-three that Dr. Laura dominated. (Had Ted engineered that? she wondered again.) Argued for more than one reason. Now the ratings were down, and it didn't matter what she'd said. The buck stopped with her. She crumpled the printout and tossed it into the trash can at her feet. Alicia was looking at her thoughtfully.

"Something else?" Renee asked more brusquely than she'd intended.

"You okay? Aside from the ratings, I mean."

"I'm fine." She smiled but knew she wasn't fooling Alicia, who had been her producer ever since Renee had started at the station three years ago, and was expert at culling the interesting callers from the seriously disturbed and the boring and the ones who wanted to rant at Renee.

Alicia returned to the screener's booth. Renee put on her headset. From the shopping bag, she pulled out a small pewter frame (buying it had seemed so important this morning) and slipped in the photo of her blond, six-year-old daughter, Molly. Her chest tightened as she gazed at the smiling face. She positioned the frame on her desk, then started to skim the first article but found it hard to concentrate. She glanced again at the photo, then sat, staring into space.

"Two minutes, Renee." Alicia waved through the Plexiglas window.

Renee waved back, startled to learn that five minutes had slipped by. Focus, she told herself sharply. She thumbed quickly through the papers and pulled a promising story, highlighting in yellow the sections she liked.

"Thirty seconds, Renee," the sound engineer's voice squawked through the headset. "I'm ready."

Looking up, she saw Max Pollin standing behind Alicia. Their eyes made contact; the program director smiled and gave Renee a thumbs up. Jerk, she thought, returning the gesture.

"Twenty seconds."

Pollin disappeared from view.

"Intro music. Ten. . .eight, seven. . . . And you're on."

Renee squared her shoulders. "Welcome to Talking With Dr. Renee. This is KMST, AM 612. I'm Dr. Renee Altman, and I'll be here with you today, and every weekday, from twelve to three. The toll-free number is one eight hundred. . . ."

She spoke about teenage pregnancies, read aloud from an article on the subject that had appeared in the New Yorker. Then she scanned the small computer screen in front of her which displayed the data Alicia had entered: Name, age, and location of the caller; the line the caller was on (there were six lines altogether); a brief description of the nature of the call.

Line three was Cynthia from Westminster, forty-nine, daughter sleeping with a fiancé. A good call to start the day.

"Cynthia, welcome to the show." Renee pressed line three. Lots of warmth there, if Pollin was listening. "Dr. Renee?" The voice was thin, quavering. "I can't believe I'm really talking to you. I listen to your show all the time."

A typical caller's reaction—after three years, Renee still found it gratifying. "What's on your mind, Cynthia?" she asked cheerfully.

"Sorry. I'm a little nervous." The woman laughed with embarrassment. "Our daughter and her fiancé are planning to spend Thanksgiving weekend with us, and she wants him to stay with her in her room. My husband and I aren't comfortable with that."

"Du-u-u-h. Cynthia, if you're a regular listener, you know I don't approve of unmarried sex. So for me this is a no-brainer. As for your position—it's your house, your rules."

"That's what my husband says. The thing is, our daughter moved out of state two years ago because we weren't getting along, and this is the first time she's coming home. And she's stayed with her fiancé at his parents', so it's kind of hard for me to argue this. They are engaged."

"And tomorrow they could get unengaged. Don't let his parents' weakness pressure you, Cynthia, and don't sacrifice your principles to fix a relationship with your daughter. It won't work."

"She says she won't come home unless they can stay together in her room, Dr. Renee. She's very stubborn."

"And you want to encourage that behavior? It's emotional blackmail, Cynthia. Tell your baby girl you love her, you'll be disappointed if she won't come, and you hope she'll reconsider so you can all share a wonderful weekend. But don't sigh and don't cry, Cynthia. And don't let her smell your fear."

The woman sighed. "You're probably right. It's just hard to say no, ‘cause we really want to have a relationship with her. So you don't think we should compromise at all?"

"Cynthia, I've said five times what I think. Am I talking to myself?" How's that for tough? she thought, wondering again if Pollin was listening. "So figure out what you want, Cynthia," she said in a kinder voice, "and then you'll know what to tell your daughter. Good luck."

Renee scanned the computer screen and pressed another line. Gerald, forty-two, calling from his cell phone about a spoiled son. "Hi, Gerald. Welcome to the program. . . ."

Three hours later she was drained of energy and advice. After signing off, she phoned home and talked with Molly, whom the housekeeper had picked up from school. She debated going to Pollin's office to discuss today's show, which she thought had gone extremely well.

Better not. No point showing him she was anxious.

She collected the faxes that had come in during the show, said her good-byes, and left the building, her temples throbbing from another tension headache. Inside her car, she was grateful for the quiet and the delicious solitude and the tactile comfort of the butter-soft tan leather that sighed under her. She started the engine, then switched on the radio to drown out her thoughts. Traffic was light, and she was home in half an hour. Unlocking the door, she heard Molly's "Mommy!" before she saw the six year old bound into the hallway, her blond curls flying. The housekeeper was right behind her, padding quietly across the marble floor, a feather duster in her hand.

"Hey, sweetheart." Renee swooped Molly up and hugged her tightly. She smiled at the housekeeper. "Hi, Blanca. Everything's okay?"

"Muy bien, Mrs. Renee. Molly is excited for you to come home," the short, heavy-set woman said in a lilting Hispanic accent. "Every minute she is running to the door to see if you are here. Is that not right, chiquita?" A broad smile lit her round, freckled face and revealed a gap between her small, uneven top front teeth.

"Are you happy to see Mommy?" Renee nuzzled Molly's neck, which was slightly sour with perspiration. "How was school?"

"You got a present! Come see!" The little girl squirmed in Renee's arms, all elbows and knees. Renee put her down and followed her into the kitchen. An oblong box wrapped in glossy white paper and topped with a white bow was sitting on the granite ledge that separated the kitchen from the breakfast room.

"Open it, Mommy!"

No outer wrapping, so someone must have dropped it off. She'd ask Blanca.

"Who is it from, Mommy?"

"Let's find out." Molly's excitement was infectious. Grinning at her daughter, Renee tore at the wrapping, exposing a plain white box. Inside were two crystal goblets, one with a snapped stem. . .

"It's broken, Mommy!"

. . . goblets identical to the one she'd been admiring this morning. Nestled in the bowl of the damaged goblet was a small white card.

HOPE YOU'RE HAPPY, DR. RENEE. . .

 

Look for Dead Air (ISBN: 0-380-80701-7) at abebooks or half.com. Or check the Deadly Directory at the Cluelass website for a list of bookstores that carry out-of-print and used titles.

 


 

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