Live at the Scene Query and Chapter Excerpt


Live at the Scene is an investigation in the most literal sense. When cub TV reporter Cadence and her cameraman Drew are assigned to a disturbing kidnapping case near Sacramento, Cadence discovers she’s not content to sit back and trust in the small town cops. She launches her own investigation, and in the process, scrutinizes journalists’ complex roles as both voyeurs for the public, and trusted filters. And because one of the missing boys has a troubled past she can’t help but identify with, she begins to examine her own history as well. The investigations come to a tumultuous climax the night nine-year-old Trey Kelly’s body is discovered and Cadence breaks down in tears on camera. But the story doesn’t end there. The suspected killer is willing to grant just one journalist a jailhouse interview: Cadence.

While Live at the Scene is dominated by the heavy themes of exploited innocence and morality in journalism, Cadence drives a lighter side of the novel too. We follow her neurotic daydreams, her interactions with her comical tortured-artist sister, and her struggle to engage in a serious relationship with Drew.

The book was inspired by the brutal 2009 killing of Sandra Cantu in Tracy, California. I was working as a writer at KNTV at the time, marveling at how our reporters could spend all day soaking in the details of the case and then go on camera calm, collected, dry-eyed. I still work at KNTV as a writer and producer. I also have a master’s in creative writing from Saint Mary’s College of California. The complete 109,000 word manuscript of Live at the Scene is ready for review and I would love to send it to an agent with serious interest. An excerpt of the first chapter is below.



Chapter One

 

News 9 had been making cutbacks for months, firing people in a slow but steady, rigged lottery. Walking past the empty work spaces, stripped of every hint of personality, the computer screens dark, Cadence felt like she was touring the fresh graves of people whose funerals she should have attended.

Gone was the stench of wet dog around Fletcher’s desk. Every time it rained, his wife wouldn’t let the dog in the house because she claimed the miniature Sheltie smelled like a sewer when wet, so he’d brought her to work. Gone was Jill’s massive collage of take-out menus, Rafael’s stash of Red Vines, and Kimmie’s drawer of extra sweatshirts because it was always so “effing scalp-shrinking freezing in this place.” Gone were the flashing lights on the phones, signaling that the people who sat there had messages, were wanted, needed, an integral part of The Ship.

Cadence had just settled into her cubicle and was about to dial into the mid-day conference call when Sheila came hurrying up, a harried expression on her face, her hands-free headset askew. “For the record, I think you’ve been doing a great job.”

“What?” Cadence slowly set her phone’s receiver back in its cradle.

“Maxine wants to see you right away.”

          “Did she say why?”

          “No. No, no. I just realized I don’t tell you that enough.” Her headset lit up. “I’ve got to get this.” Sheila leaned down to squeeze Cadence’s shoulder before backing away.

          This is it, Cadence thought, adrenaline coursing from the pit of her stomach out to her limbs. They’d offer her a measly severance package, have a security guard watch while she gathered her laughable belongings from her cubicle—her one remaining box of Cracker Jacks, her unopened packet of paper clips, her broken umbrella, her emergency box of tampons, and the box of instant coffee packets she’d never had time to use. They’d ask for her press badge, feign deep concern and promise to call the minute something opened up. After a year-long job search, she’d finally land something at Safeway, the pay forcing her to move into the West Oakland warehouse her little sister squatted in, where she’d live a bleak existence as an outcast, a “square” among hip young artists with a tendency to overuse the word ostensibly, and with complete obliviousness to necessities like bathing and respecting personal boundaries.

Maxine smiled over her glasses before Cadence could even knock on her door jamb. “Close the door, would you?” Maxine had taken over after the old news director preempted being fired by accepting a job in Florida. On first seeing her, Cadence had decided that Maxine must have been a giraffe in a past life—not that she believed in past lives, necessarily. The woman’s limbs and neck were long and slender, and the smallness of her head was accentuated by an extreme pixie cut. She munched gum whenever she wasn’t eating, and walked slowly, as if maintaining her balance took effort.

          At the moment, Cadence’s own movements felt mechanical, slightly out of her control. She caught a few people craning their necks from across the newsroom as she swung the door shut. She knew what they were thinking. There goes another one. Dead journalist walking. She cursed herself for all the times she’d secretly wished for this liberation.

          “Are you feeling okay? You look like you have a headache or something.” Maxine rearranged the papers on her desk.

          “No headache. I guess I’m just a little worried about what you have to tell me,” she said, sitting down on Maxine’s loveseat and smoothing her already smooth skirt over her thighs.

          “How long have you been at News 9?”

          The snapping electricity bolting through Cadence’s veins thickened to steady static. “Almost two years now.”

          “And how would you characterize your work?”

          Leftovers. Fluff. Kickers. Feel-good drivel. “I would describe my assignments as human interest.”

Maxine leaned forward and clasped her tentacle-like hands on her desktop. “Okay. And do you enjoy human interest?”

“Yes, very much.” Cadence bobbed her head up and down. Reporting was what she knew how to do. It was what she was good at. It was what kept her from going insane—the newness of everything, the variety, the rush of going places, seeing things, meeting people, engaging with the real world.

Maxine sighed. “Well, here’s the long and short of it. Your writing and your presentation could use some work.” She picked up a stapled pack of papers in front of her. “Let’s look at an example from a few weeks ago. Remember the story about squirrels overrunning the parks up in Walnut Creek? Here’s how you started off your package: ‘Residents of an East Bay enclave are taking action, after the city council ordered toxic pellets scattered at local parks to decimate the Sciuridae population. What are Sciuridae? In short, medium-sized rodents, including squirrels, chipmunks, and prairie dogs. City leaders are bemoaning the volume of Sciuridae fecal matter. They say it not only creates a cosmetic nightmare in parks, but presents a city-wide health debacle. However, pet owners and parents are furious. Two Chihuahuas and a Miniature Sheltie fell seriously ill last week, and their owners blame the pellets, which do have the propensity to smell and look like food. Parents say it’s only a matter of time before a toddler consumes one.’”

          Maxine paused.

Cadence plucked at the bottom edge of her skirt, holding her breath. Okay, so she may have been pushing it with Sciuridae. And enclave. And bemoaning, and propensity. And fecal matter.

          Maxine pressed on. “This is the beginning of your package on that Aguilera concert. You wrote, ‘Christina Aguilera embodies the staples of every pop sensation: sex appeal, powerful vocals, and a stage presence that apparently, even San Francisco denizens can’t resist. Tens of thousands were anticipated to attend her free outdoor concert at Candlestick Park this weekend. But a spate of unpredictable weather forecasts spurred promoters to move the event indoors, where a limited number of seats are available. The development has quashed the monetary ambitions of nearby business owners, left fans morose, and prompted Aguilera, perhaps, to wish she were indeed a genie in a bottle, with the power to banish the clouds from the sky.’”

Maxine paused again. Cadence met her eyes and endured the incredulity. Jesus, she knew better. Why had she done it? Shit. She knew why. She’d been embarrassed they were even covering some vapid pop star's concert, and bored out of her mind.

Maxine cleared her throat. “Now this last example is a talkback you had with Blair from the mustache competition. I pulled it up on the computer.”

          Cadence remembered the fundraiser. The “Stache Bash” they’d called it. Mildly funny, a good cause, but she’d wanted to cover a debate at UC Berkeley on whether legalizing marijuana could fuel California’s economic recovery. They’d looked at her like she was nuts, of course, and explained the mustache thing was much more “EBA” than a “video-poor” debate on a “tired issue.”  EBA stood for Exclusively Bay Area.

          Maxine scooted her monitor around for Cadence to see, then pressed play on the clip’s toolbar. The video started with a “two-box,” Blair at the anchor desk framed in a box on the left hand side of the screen, Cadence standing in a box on the right hand side of the screen. Behind her, on a stage, a dozen men in mustaches and beards milled around, setting up furniture and decorations.

“Have you run across any contenders for the grand prize, Cadence?” Blair asked, smiling her charming, lopsided smile, teeth perfectly white.

“Uh, I don’t know if I’m qualified to judge, Blair,” Cadence said, looking stiff. “But as I said, this competition is slated to last until at least one in the morning. The proceeds go to the Cancer Research Institute. The organization chooses a different charity each year, and this year’s choice is in memory of the 2008 winner, who died of liver cancer last year.”

Blair’s smile melted. “Okay. Thank you, Cadence.”

Cadence gave a curt nod.

The clip cut to a close-up of a slightly baffled Blair, who began the next story: “And the U.S. postal service is getting flack tonight over the looks of its lady liberty stamp… No mustache, but it turns out the photo is of a Statue of Liberty replica in Las Vegas instead of the real deal.” Maxine froze the video. “You’re at a mustache competition, not the morgue. Joke around, be light-hearted, get creative. How is Blair supposed to transition from you, all doom and gloom, to a stamp photo mix up? Do you need another example?”

Cadence shook her head and gave a little cough.

“Do we need to pick apart the squirrel story? Or Aguilera? Or are they self-evident?”

Straightening, Cadence uncrossed her legs, pushing her heels hard into the carpet. “I do see what you mean. But—”

          “I get it. You want to be taken seriously. You want to sound intelligent. Believe me, I get it. I used to be a court reporter in Dallas. My first year I said something like ‘Mr. Jones is charged with a medley of crimes, ranging from bla bla bla to bla bla bla.’ I get back to the station and the News Director calls me over and asks ‘is this what a medley of crimes sound like?’ and starts singing the Looney Tunes music at the top of his lungs. You know, the music before those old Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons?”

          Cadence forced a smile. “I, uh, also try to take the demographics into consideration. The Bay Area demands a higher level of sophistication, wouldn’t you agree?”

          “I can see your point. But the ratings clearly show the smart cookies just aren’t watching us. They get their news from the papers online and from NPR. So you need to tone stuff down. Some of this is plain ridiculous.” Maxine waved the stack of papers in the air and when she spoke again, her voice was barbed. “And borders on sabotage. I think you know better. Taking out your anger from being assigned soft news or EBA stories is unprofessional, tacky, makes the station look bad, and reflects most poorly on you. I won’t tolerate it.”

          Cadence waited for the final nail in the coffin.

“This is what I’m thinking,” Maxine said, leaning forward again, elbows on her desktop. “We’ll try you out on some harder news. But in the meantime, you need to work on coming down off your high horse. Sexing things up. Really speaking directly to the viewers.  And quelling the impulse to cover everything like it’s the apocalypse.”

          “Okay.  I mean, yes. I can do that.”

          “Cadence, you are so good at showing the viewers you care when you’re interviewing people. Your body language, your expressions, your tone of voice say it all.  It’s pure empathy. Now get the words in your packages and live shots to match that.”

          Cadence nodded. “Yes, yes.”

“And I want you to run your scripts by me every night. And I want you to take a writing course. I’ve got this friend at the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto. She’s got all kinds of classes. Sign up for one. Whatever you want.” She scribbled a name and website on a sticky note and slapped it on the edge of her desk. “Now, after four weeks I’ll re-evaluate your scripts. If nothing’s changed, I may decide to have you do some more coursework, of my choosing, or we can find another role for you. Of course, if you don’t like this plan, there’s always the severance package. Any questions?” Maxine chomped her gum slowly, eyebrows raised.

          Cadence imagined Maxine straining for a lush bunch of leaves on the African savannah. She didn’t need a writing course. She knew how to write. This was a matter of conforming, of succumbing, of playing the role instead of fighting it. This was a test. She leaned forward and peeled the note off Maxine’s desk.

***