“Soy Yesenia Morales. Por KESP, buenas noches y cuídense.”
The camera’s red light winked off. At the floor director’s signal, Yesenia pulled out her earpiece and allowed her cheek muscles to relax for the first time in a half hour. The rousing Norteña music accompanying the commercial break was in sharp counterpoint to the uncertainty spreading from her chest to her limbs.
This was her last broadcast as temporary weeknight news anchor. Come Monday, Yolanda Salcedo was back from maternity leave. Unless Yesenia did something to kickstart her career, next week she’d be demoted to her regular weekend floating anchor position.
The last time she’d been on the edge of career implosion, she’d saved herself by busting that city-wide cockfighting ring wide open. But lightning didn’t strike twice.
Following the beckoning wave from her director, she stood and pulled at the fitted hot pink suit chafing around her breasts and hips. She had to work her way out of local Spanish language news to someplace where the women anchors weren’t gussied up like department store mannequins.
When the red light indicated they were back on the air, Hector’s arm slipped around her waist. She did the same, pretending to chat and laugh as they walked off the set.
“And we’re out,” the floor director called. She and Hector disengaged like the other had cooties. His shellacked hair and peach pancake makeup said one thing to her: dinosaur. It wasn’t that she didn’t like Hector García. He was a lovely old man from the Tom Brokaw reporting era, respectable, kind, honest. But he didn’t get the TMZ tabloid world journalism had become. As far as she could figure, they only kept Hector around to hold on to viewers from her mother’s generation.
She stalked to her desk, just another gray pressed wood rectangle in the cubicle farm of the newsroom, waving away the shouted invitations for Friday night drinks.
She sat at her cubicle only long enough to pack her bag and pull off the stilettos she had to wear now that the anchor desk was out. The station brass had replaced it with a Plexiglas stand no wider than a barstool. Gone were the days where she could hide jeans and sheepskin boots under a pressed wood desk. Yesenia stretched her cramped toes and massaged her aching foot after she eased the three inch pumps from one foot, then the other. She held back her groan of relief.
As decreed from up high, her whole body from head to toe was on display. But ratings were up, and that was good for everyone, from station owner on down to a lowly anchor. Viewers were all her bosses cared about these days. And if a little exploitation was what it took to get eyeballs on screens, then so be it.
Yesenia closed her eyes and visualized a weekend spent horizontal. Away from the anchor desk, she planned to fall into bed, and get up only when her mother summoned. Mascara glued her tired eyes together, making them hard to open. Time to get home and get the clown-like goo off. She could only hope the obligatory family dinner this week was Sunday instead of Saturday so she could rest up for whatever her mother and sister planned to throw at her.
Stapled packets of half researched stories littered her desk. One by one she shoved papers into her purse. The last stack was personal and caused her stomach to do a flip-flop. With shaking hands, she cursed her mother, the Catholic Church, and Cameron Becker; three factors that had kept her married but separated, when she should probably be divorced.
A Sale and Purchase agreement for her Ogden Drive apartment stared back at her. The building’s landlord was getting out of the rental business, converting the apartments in her building to condominiums. With little down payment, she could own a space of her own. But California’s Community Property laws and the mortgage company required that her husband sign off any right to the apartment.
She needed the signature of her estranged husband Cam. Nearly two years had come and gone with nothing more passing between them than cursory communication in April when tax season rolled around.
Maybe it was time to rip off the Band-Aid. She pulled her phone from her desk drawer. Fingering the contacts, she hit her husband’s picture. But as soon as the phone began dialing, she immediately disconnected the call.
Pulling her sneaker laces tight, she prepared for the fourteen-story descent from the station’s studios on the top floor of the Sunset Boulevard building.
She did not take elevators.
Her ready excuse was that she always needed to lose a few pounds. And given her mother’s penchant for dropping off carb-heavy handmade tortillas and tamales, that part at least was true.
“Yesenia.” The news director beckoned before she could make her escape. Nervous energy flooded her veins again.
She trudged the ten feet to Ernesto Barrero’s office. Ignoring his gesture to sit, she stood, trying not to shift her weight or show her fear of being fired.
“What are you working on?”
Nothing good, shot through her brain. But she was wise enough not to voice that thought. She sat heavily and made a show of ruffling through the papers in her bag.
“I have a few things coming together,” she started, forcing passion into their voice. “That scandal involving the county sheriffs and prisoner abuse. Hispanics were affected in greater numbers than anyone else.” Like a dancing minstrel, she continued.
“There’s also more on the Coliseum corruption scandal. Turns out there are other workers with grievances, mostly Mexican,” she said.
“That sounds great if this were Sixty Minutes. But we’re KESP. Sweeps are right around the corner. Our viewers are looking for sex, drugs, badly behaved rock and rollers.” He did an exaggerated shrug. “You know.”
“I’ve got some other irons in the fire,” she said, not mentioning those irons were cold, and the fire long banked.
“Yolanda’s coming back next week,” he said, changing the subject.
Moving to the three to eleven weeknight shifts to cover Yolanda’s maternity leave had been exhausting for the last three months. But even when she went back to her regular duties, she’d have more material for her reel. Maybe she could finally make that leap to a local English language station or national broadcasting on Telemundo. Be done with gotcha journalism. Chasing celebrities was one thing. Getting the dirt on reality show stars was a new low. Ernesto was looking at her oddly. Yesenia wondered how long she’d been quiet.
The constant anxiety that had sat in her belly for three months churning through the layers like battery acid, bubbled up. Her throat burned. “What does that mean for me?” Yesenia asked. Maybe she couldn’t pull the bandage off the wound of her dead marriage, but work was an altogether different beast. If she was fired, knowing now would be better than later.
“Don’t look so down. You did a great job on air. Had a meeting this morning with the higher ups and we’re thinking about trying something new.”
Even though she didn’t want to hang on his every word like a girl waiting to be asked to prom, she couldn’t help leaning forward.
“We want to add another woman anchor with Hector, change up the format.”
“Me?” God, now she sounded like that prom eager teenager as well, or Sally Field at the Oscars.
“Of course, you.” Ernesto said. “I didn’t want to tell you before, but the three month stint was mostly an audition.” He paused for effect. “You got the part.”
Glee replaced fear. A permanent addition to the nightly news would move her career to the next level. If being seen was the name of the game, then daily exposure was the best she could hope for.
“You’d have to wear dresses instead of suits, and keep the high heels.” Ernesto said as if exploitation were their every day stock and trade instead of hard news. “You interested?”
“Sí, yes,” she said without hesitation. She might regret it later, when push-up bras were her currency instead of investigative journalism. But for now, she was willing to stay put at KESP. A steady and hopefully increased paycheck would keep her mother and sister in the country. With a raise she could tuck a little more away for an immigration attorney who could finally get the rest of her family their papers.
Ernesto looked at his watch. “Damn. Past midnight. My wife’s going to kill me. Let’s talk on the way out.”
While snaking through the newsroom, they worked out most of the logistics of her new schedule.
He pushed the elevator button.
For the briefest second she closed her eyes. Avoid. Avoid. Avoid. The words pulsed in her brain like a strobe. Taking a deep breath to slow her heart rate, she put on her news anchor smile.
“I’ll take the stairs,” she said to her boss.
“You’re not fat, Yesenia.” Ernesto shook his head, muttering something about L.A. women under his breath.
“Exercise is good. Especially if I’m going to need a new wardrobe.”
She nearly lost the grip on her bag as sweat slicked her palms. With her free hand, she tried to be as cool as possible wiping the moisture from her upper lip.
“Let’s talk about compensation. It’ll be more private this way.” Of course, he wanted to finish the conversation—in an elevator of all places. That’s what normal people did. Pulling up her big girl panties, she stepped on, careful not to snag her shoe on the gap between the floor and the moving box. She needed money and Ernesto had the keys to the vault.
He punched the button with two arrows facing each other, and the reflective metal finally started to close them in. Less than a minute, and the descent to the garage would be over. In less than a minute, she could be richer.
“Damn. Forgot something. I’ll get off. Don’t want to keep you. Good night.” Ernesto said, then jabbed at another button. The doors whooshed open again. “We’ll talk Monday.”
Before she could push her way out and get off with him, the doors slid closed. She was alone. A single jerk and the box began its descent.
Her heart went from normal to attack range faster than a Porsche’s engine revved from zero to sixty. Post traumatic stress, her first therapist had diagnosed years ago. Sweat trickled under the wire of her bra and down her rib cage. The protein shake she’d had for dinner threatened to come up. Bitter bile made its way to the back of her throat.
Death was not a reasonable fear. Millions of people suffered panic attacks and recovered every day. She fumbled for her pills then stopped. The alprazolam took at least a half hour to work. An elevator ride had to be less than a minute. Yesenia gritted her teeth against the chatter she could feel prying her jaw apart.
Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath. Held it. Counted to five. Released it. Opening her eyes, Yesenia looked at the red number.
Only five floors to go.
“You watching the sexy news?”
“Fuck off,” Cameron Becker said to his on again/off again partner.
Jean Rivera was the only woman in the LAPD he could say that to and not be busted down a grade or two. They’d done hundreds of sting operations together when Rivera had been younger and didn’t mind dressing up like a hooker. And when he hadn’t minded being out on the streets all night, busting johns.
Thank God, they’d both wised up to the fact that street-level busts didn’t make a dent in the skin trade about the same time they’d gotten too old for all-nighters.
Rivera came around the break room table to stand next to him. She crossed her arms, mocking his stance. “You look like someone ate your Pop Tart.”
Cam uncrossed his arms and tried to do the casual dangle at the side thing he’d seen other men do. Didn’t work too well. He crossed them again, tighter this time. Stiff cotton pulled across his biceps. The commercial ended and his ex—his wife—came up on screen with Hector something or other joking with Jessie like he was her best friend.
“Ahhh.” Rivera drew out the single syllable for a full two seconds, her voice full of distaste. “It’s Yesenia.”
“She’s been anchoring every night,” he informed her.
“Finally made the jump from the weekend, huh?” Her voice held no admiration.
“Shh.” His heart did the same little skip it did the first time he’d met Jessie. He wondered, not for the first time, if they were ever going to get back together. In the two years apart, the problems that had divided them were less and less important. Jessie gave her signature send off; good night and stay safe. A minute later, her pompadour sporting co-anchor had his hands around her waist, escorting her off set while the credits rolled.
Hector had what Cam wanted, the ability to touch his own wife. Torn between jealousy and attraction, he picked up the remote and muted the set. He hoped Rivera couldn’t see the heat he could feel prickling his scalp. Meant his face was probably pinker than it should be.
“Hey! I was watching that,” Rivera said.
“No you weren’t.” He added a bark to his voice to hide his embarrassment. “Go home to your husband.”
“What about you?” Rivera turned on him, her brown eyes unrelenting. “Going back to your tiny studio in Noho?”
Because, what? Going home alone was a crime? “Yep.”
“Want to get a drink?” she asked, barely masking her yawn.
Cam hated the pity behind the invitation. Bachelors got invited to every dinner, barbecue, and holiday meal in L.A. A party wasn’t complete without one. He’d become an accessory—like a Louis Vuitton purse, but not nearly as in demand.
“Early to bed,” he deflected.
“Don’t you ever get lonely?” she asked.
Women. Why did they always want to pair you up? Occasionally he met a woman at a bar in the nearby arts district. They had a good time. That was it. He wasn’t looking to get into a new relationship. The old one still had a hold on him.
“Why aren’t you divorced yet?”
The muscle below Cameron’s right eye twitched. Excuses stuck on his dry tongue. For anyone else, he would have dragged out the usual litany; she was Catholic, he had better health insurance. But neither was true.
“Jean?” He lowered his voice to let her know he was serious. She may have been at his wedding. But this was a no-go zone.
Her eyes held his for a long moment. He tried to telegraph that she didn’t need to worry. Her eyes were unreadable. Rivera picked up her purse from where she’d rested it on the table. “See you in three.”
They’d worked the four-day, ten-hour compressed schedule this week. Unless there was a riot or natural disaster, they’d be back at work after a much needed three-day break.
A flash of red from the TV pulled him back to thoughts of Jessie. It was a commercial for the nightly news. A camera panned up his wife’s stocking-clad leg. The voice over urged viewers to tune in again. Noticias my ass. There was nothing newsworthy—
“Shit!” Rivera dropped her purse and braced her arms against the door frame.
He heard the rattle of metal and glass before he felt the floor move under his feet. One part of his brain registered that Rivera was safe. For the moment. His training took over. He pulled her under the table, waiting out the shaking.
Ten seconds. Cam ticked off each one in his mind. As quickly as it had begun, it ended. Everything stopped moving as if nothing had happened. The way his heart had accelerated when seeing Jessie minutes ago had nothing on the pounding in his chest, ears, and throat. Blood had expanded too much for his vessels, they were so tight with pressure.
“Let’s go!” He moved to his designated command post.
Sergeant Sikes barked out orders.
“Rivera, Becker. You have Fountain, Highland, Beverly, Crescent Heights.”
Cam committed those perimeter blocks to memory. The minute the Sergeant was done, he booked it to the supply room, grabbed the first pool keys he could find, and ushered Rivera out the door.
Everything shook. Yesenia’s brand new sneakers slid around like she was on ice. She could barely keep her footing in the tiny elevator. The building rolled back and forth like a marble on a boat, and she went with it. Like Mexico City, the building was going to come apart. Was that the sound of cracking, stucco hitting pavement? Were windows shattering all around her? Minimal sound pierced the sealed box, got past her thundering heart and harsh breath.
Vowing to keep her head, Yesenia spread her legs hip distance apart, brought her head to her knees, wrapped her arms around her legs, and tried to stop the compulsive swallowing of the saliva pooling in her mouth. Uttanasana, the forward fold was to calm the nausea, ease the panic that had bubbled up in her throat for the second time tonight.
The carpeted floor welcomed her like a mother’s arms. To hell with coping mechanisms. This was life or death. And death was looking more likely with each passing moment.
She was going to die.
In an earthquake.
Like her father.
God was vengeful.
When there was no further movement for seconds, or minutes, or years, she pawed through her bag for her phone. Pressing the home button cast dim light in the elevator. Weren’t there emergency lights in these things? How was she in the only elevator in the world where the emergency mechanism failed? She had been right to never trust these contraptions. Especially in Los Angeles, the least disaster-prepared city in the world. After New Orleans.
If she could tell herself that small joke, maybe she wasn’t going to die. Not yet.
Taking another deep breath of synthetic carpet, she pushed herself up to sitting and gripped her phone hard. The cool glass of her phone against her palm eased the panic a tiny bit more.
She pressed the small circle lighting up the digital display that had always signified connection with her family, friends, work. A tiny circle spun near the top of the phone, mesmerizing her with its perfection. Lazily, dizzily, the phone sought connection with a cell tower.
Her mother and sister would be in a panic if she didn’t reach them soon. What if they were hurt, their little house crumbled down around them? She couldn’t get to them, help them.
The memory of her father’s death busted out of the carefully placed closet she’d locked it into. She chanced a look at the ceiling. No pillar bisected it in the way it had separated her from her father in Mexico.
Fear stole her breath. No way was she going to die like her father. With no connection showing on the phone, she dialed anyway. That worked sometimes when she was way out in the field. Some kind of magic would make the phone connect to a tower. If it could work in Sun Valley, a Hollywood elevator shouldn’t be a problem.
She punched in the number.
The phone dialed.
She couldn’t help her family if she couldn’t help herself. One deep breath later, she clawed her way up the wood and brass. She pressed her phone on again. A flashlight didn’t require a signal. Words had been long rubbed off the emergency button.
That single red plastic protrusion had been her one line of defense against panic. Her very rational therapist had told her that if she were ever overcome, press the button and someone would come to Yesenia’s rescue.
Like so much else in L.A., the buttons were for show. Her therapists had said her fear was irrational. But she’d known. She knew.
Defeat pulled her back down to the carpeted floor. She shifted from one side to another, trying to keep her stockings from sticking to her thighs. With the movement, a prickle started on her scalp. A bead of water dripped from her nose. She wasn’t crying…yet.
The air conditioning must have been off. It would be one of the first non essential systems to go. Suddenly, she couldn’t take it a moment longer. The side zip fitted gabardine top was the first to go. Then the skirt. Not giving a crap about runs, she skimmed the stockings from her legs.
The laugh that bubbled from her throat could have been hysteria. She chose to believe it was humor. If she was ever rescued, she’d be in a see-through camisole, bra, and thong. Great. Another laugh escaped her lips. She could only hope the paramedic wasn’t a fan with a cell phone. The last thing she needed was to see her sweaty, panicked, half-naked self on TMZ. Not that she was that big of a celebrity. But after that other television news reporter started dating the mayor, Spanish language anchors had bigger profiles.
If she was thinking about tabloids and not her imminent death, maybe things were looking up. The elevator jerked, and her phone dropped to the floor, plunging her into darkness.
Rivera glanced his way, communicating without words. He nodded in agreement. L.A. was never like this, especially on a Friday night. The streets were eerily quiet.
“Staying put for the moment,” he said.
“We can only hope.” Rivera glanced at the laptop, the map of their sector zoomed in on the screen.
They started on Beverly. There were quite a few valets standing quietly. The busy upscale Friday night crowd had either left before the quake, or were waiting out aftershocks.
He pulled over where a tight knot of citizens stood. “Can you check this out?”
Rivera gave him a strange look. Protocol dictated they step out of the vehicle together.
He held up his phone. “Wanna check on Jessie.”
While Rivera, hands on hips, her jacket spread so that her shoulder holster was visible, interrogated the crowd, he dialed his wife.
He didn’t leave a message. What could he say to a women deathly afraid of seismic activity?