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Prime Time

Prime Time
 Praise 

EXCERPT

I can't breathe. I can't drive. I have to think. I have to pull over. I look at my watch and calculate: no time. No time to stop, and no time to panic.

I read somewhere that new pilots aren't allowed to fly at night because they can't tell which way is up. They fly through the darkness, instruments useless, their horizon lost, totally confused and incapable of telling whether they're upside down.

As I head toward my destination, I know just how they feel. Could I have been completely and totally duped?

I reconstruct our evening, seeing in neon lights each moment when the diabolical Josh, suave manipulator of honest truth-seeking reporters, pulled the pashmina over my eyes.

Didn't know Mack Briggs? Of course he did. Didn't know why Brad was asking about the emails? Of course he knew. Didn't know the origin of the SPAM? Sure he did. Didn't know what was going on at Aztratech? Didn't know Brad was ready to blow the whistle? He was probably in on the whole thing, whatever it is.

I hit the steering wheel with the heel of my hand, annoyed with myself. And Brad and Josh met at a big dinner party, I remember. Probably hosted by Wes Rasmussen.

It's so frighteningly clear he was trying to figure out how much I knew. And I was so—lusting—for romance and affection, I didn't even see through the deception.

I close my eyes in self-loathing, before I remember that I'm driving and that closing my eyes is not the best idea.

And there's my exit.

***

When I arrive at the cemetery, a long, slow-moving caravan of cars is snaking down a narrow unpaved road, each car puffing up a plume of gravel dust as it curves past a stone and masonry sign that says "Eventide." I ease my Jeep onto the end of the line, and pushing my conscience out of the way, flip the switch to turn on my headlights.

It's Mack Briggs' funeral procession, and now I'm part of it.

The cars line up to park, one after the other, on the side of a grassy rise. Beyond that, I see a dark green canopy set up on metal poles, rows of folding chairs underneath. The first arrivals file into the seating area, men in substantial overcoats, hatless, braving the cold. Women wrapped in extra shawls and close-fitting hats against the increasing chill, their faces somber and serious, some holding flowers and little prayer books. A little boy carrying a firetruck stumbles a bit in the gravel, and as he grabs the hand of the man walking next to him. I can tell they've both been crying. A flock of gray birds wheels gracefully over the mourners, gliding through the dusky sky then leaving the cemetery silent.

It's almost time for me to turn into the parking area, but now, sneaking into someone's funeral, my conscience kicks its way back in. Questioning my own motives and attempting to retrieve my moral compass, all I can think about is getting out of here. This is a hideous invasion of privacy. This is why people hate reporters. It's shocking, unacceptable, certainly a no-refund no-exchange ticket to hell and eternal damnation.

But I can save myself. All I have to do is say, I made a mistake. I'm in the wrong place, forgive me, I thought this was someone else's service. I'm so sorry, big adios, and exit.

But, I hafta know...

I look up, and a dark suited attendant is waving me into the next spot. I follow his directions, lock my better judgment in the glove compartment, and get out of the car.

Staking out a spot behind the rows of folding chairs, I try to stay hidden by an ancient maple tree. No one seems to notice me, but problem is, I can only see backs of heads, which is no help at all in my search for suspects. I thought I might recognize someone or get some clue by coming here, like the FBI agents who shadow the edges of organized crime funerals to see if some fugitive mob boss, inexorably drawn to the burial of his arch rival, sneaks out of hiding to savor a final moment of gangster revenge. So much for that idea.

And who do I even think is going to show up at Mack Briggs' funeral? I reconsider my theories, as a plumpish red-faced minister begins to read from Ecclesiastes. I almost smile. Wouldn't it be too funny if he started reading from the book of Numbers?

Because that's the key. If there's someone here who I can link to both Briggs and Brad Foreman, then that is the someone who is going to be the key to the SPAM mystery. It would have to be someone who knew about Brad and what he thought he'd uncovered with those refinancing SPAMS. Someone who also knew Brad had written to Mack Briggs asking for advice.

The minister looks up from this Bible, scanning the group, squinting with stern disapproval. The mourners look at each other, concerned and upset. I suddenly hear why—someone's cell phone is trilling, muffled slightly but still a disastrous breach of etiquette for some poor—

I dive for my purse, whirling to put the tree between me and the service. It's my phone. I plow though my bag and smash the off button without even looking at my caller ID. Good work, I congratulate myself. Subtle.

I lean against the tree, holding my breath. A moment's pause, and the minister continues. I wait, envisioning some black-suited funeral home goons picking me up by the elbows and throwing me head over heels out of the cemetery.

I'm clammy with my imminent doom. No one at the station even knows I'm here, so Kevin O'Bannon can totally cut me loose, point to some clause in my rapidly expiring contract that says I'm legally on my own if I do something that he, the news director, doesn't know about. I'll be instantly fired. I see my entire life savings, including my plastic surgery fund, heading into the coffers of lawyers and going to pay huge fines.

Course they don't teach in J-school: Deniability 101: Make sure you get permission for everything.

I tentatively creep out from behind my tree, peering around the edge to see if any goons are on the hunt. But the minister's head is bowed again, and it sounds like he's nearing the end of the service. The mourners seem to be focused on their sorrow and not some misfit with a cell phone. No goons in sight.

I echo their murmured "Amen," and then watch the group move to pay their final respects as the casket is lowered. I'm almost in the clear. No lawsuits, no headlines. I'll just hang here until the funeral is over and pretend the whole thing never happened. I admit I still haven't seen anyone I recognize, which is a bummer, but on the bright side, no one has recognized me, either.

"Charlie McNally?"

Busted.

Someone's benign-looking grandmother is headed in my direction, walking carefully in the damp leaves that have fallen on the browning grass, and she's calling my name.

There's no escape. If I'm lucky, she's a Channel 3 watcher up from Boston. I'll just pretend I'm covering the funeral, and she'll never know.

"Charlie McNally?" she repeats.

"Yes?" I say. I race through my mental Rolodex. Is this someone I'm supposed to know? I don't have time to play the identity game with funeral-attending news fans.

"Charlie McNally, the reporter for Channel 3?"

I knew it. Now she'll tell me how much better I look in real life than on camera, how the camera adds ten pounds and ten years, like I don't know that. I appreciate fans, but let me out of here.

"Yes?" Ten seconds. I'll give her ten seconds.

She's still smiling, but two dark-suited factotums seem to materialize at her side. Disturbingly like those funeral goons I worried about. The men hover, one on either side of her, like bulked-up robots programmed to protect and defend at any cost.

The woman somehow loses her grandmotherly look. Her placid face hardens into brittle, her eyes narrow, sizing me up.

This is no fan.

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© Hank Phillippi Ryan