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Excerpt from DEAD AIR
She’d been found out. There was no other explanation.
On any other night, Kaitlyn Ashe would relish the breathtaking view of the Philadelphia cityscape. The twinkle of white streetlights, red, yellow, and green traffic lights, and the white and red hues from car lights on the streets below looked like a swirling star field, constantly changing as if at the whim of a fickle god. From the twentieth-floor broadcast studio, she could look down upon Center City, could see as far east as the Walt Whitman Bridge, and across the Delaware River to the distant lights of Camden, New Jersey. Yes, every other night, this view was mesmerizing. But not tonight. Tonight, Kaitlyn Ashe trembled at the thought that someone out there knew her, knew her secret, and was making damn sure she didn’t forget it.
The past had come a step closer each time another letter arrived. Her fingers tightened their grasp on the latest; the crumpled paper creased with crisscrossed lines and folds. It was a cliché. The mysterious correspondences consisted of letters and phrases torn from newspapers and magazines, crudely pasted onto plain paper. Always the same message, always the same signature.
Behind her, music played softly. She turned away from the window and moved around the waist high L-shaped counter in the middle of the room and slid onto the tall stool behind the control console. Kaitlyn leaned forward, glancing at the needles on the VU meters that jumped and pulsed to the music’s beat. She touched one of the ten slider controls and adjusted the volume to remove some mild distortion.
Kaitlyn watched the onscreen clock count down to the end of the current song. Fifteen seconds to go. She slid the headphones over her ears and drew the broadcast microphone to her mouth. She tapped the green button on the console and pushed the leftmost slider upward.
Kaitlyn leaned into the microphone. “Taking things back to 2005 with Lifehouse on WPLX. That was You and Me, going out to Jamie from Kristin, Tiffany from Steve, and to Tommy - Jackie still loves you.” She glanced again at the clock in the upper corner of the computer screen. “It's ten past ten. I'm Kaitlyn Ashe with Love Songs at Ten. 888-555-WPLX is the number to get your dedication in tonight. I've got Adele lined up, as well as John Legend on the way next.”
Her fingers darted over the control console, tapping buttons, and moving sliders. Kaitlyn took the headphones off. As a commercial for Ambrosia—her favorite seafood restaurant in downtown Philadelphia—played, she stared at the crinkled letter that rested beside the console. She read it once again beneath the dim studio lights. Her eyes focused on the name at the bottom. The Shallows. She shivered. Who knew? And how much did they know?
Kaitlyn slipped a green Bic lighter from her pocket, lit the edge of the letter, and pinched the corner as the flames swept up the paper. She’d stolen the lighter from Kevin O’Neill’s desk. She knew the midday DJ would never miss it. He had half a dozen more where that one came from.
She dropped the paper into the empty wastebasket, and watched the fire dwindle into nothingness, leaving behind blackened flakes. A faint trace of smoke hung in the air, then dissipated quickly. She wrung her hands and sighed. There’d be another waiting in her station mailbox tomorrow, just like the four others that she’d received, one each day this week. She was certain of it.
The flash of green lights caught her eye, and she looked down at the studio telephone. All four lines were lit up. She hesitated for a moment, then tapped the first line. “WPLX, do you have a dedication?”
“Yeah, I'd like to dedicate my weekend to kissing your body from head to toe.” The smoky voice echoed through the darkened studio.
Kaitlyn laughed, and felt her face become warm with embarassment. “Brad!”
“How goes it, babe? Having a good night?”
She forced a smile, trying to sound upbeat, just as she’d learned in her voice-over classes. “It’s not too bad.”
She cursed under her breath. She never could hide things from Brad. “I got another letter today.”
The line was silent for a moment. “Same message?”
She glanced at the computer, then back at the phone. “Yeah. Exactly the same.”
“You should call the police.”
It was the same suggestion he had made a month ago, when the letters started arriving on a weekly basis. The same one he made every night this week. Kaitlyn had shrugged it off as just some crank. “You get those in this business,” she’d told him.
“Still no idea who sends these letters? Or what they are about?”
She hesitated for a second before replying. “No idea,” she lied.
“You need to tell someone. If not the police, at least tell Scott.”
Kaitlyn frowned at his remark. The last thing she wanted to do was tell her program director, Scott Mackay, about the letters. His overly protective nature would mean police involvement for certain. “I can’t tell Scott. He’d place an armed guard on the studio door.”
Brad laughed. “Would that be so bad?”
“There’s no point. It’s probably some infatuated teenager.” She knew how ridiculous the words sounded even as they escaped her lips. No teenage listener would know about the Shallows.
“Do me a favor, watch yourself tonight when you go home.” The concern in his voice was evident. If she asked, he’d be there in a moment to escort her home. But she couldn’t do that to him. Not without revealing something she’d worked so hard to bury in her own past.
Kaitlyn said, “I will. Promise.”
“How’s the rest of the night going?”
“It's been crazy. Lots of lovers out there tonight. I can't even get them all in. Just not enough time.”
“I wouldn't expect any less from the most listened to night show in Philly.”
With a glance at the computer screen, Kaitlyn noted where she was in the commercial break, and then turned back toward the phone. “What are you up to, sweetie?”
“Working my way through a couple briefs. I've got to have these ready for review by tomorrow.”
“Sounds like a late night.”
He sighed. “Probably.”
Kaitlyn sensed fatigue and frustration in his voice. She knew nothing about corporate law other than what Brad had told her. The reams of paperwork and bewildering legalese seemed boring and unappealing. She knew he had a lot on his plate and hated to see him work as hard as he did. A mischievous smile crossed her lips. “If you want, I could slip over later tonight, and help you with your briefs.”
Brad's chuckle echoed through the studio. “That'd be nice, really nice.”
She leaned closer to the speaker phone and spoke almost in a whisper. “You know you want to.” She added a sensual emphasis to each word. “It’ll make you feel good.”
“That’s not fair.” He paused, then asked, “Can I take a raincheck? I need to get these done.”
Kaitlyn glanced again at the computer and reached for her headphones. “Hang on.”
Her fingers clicked on the microphone, and, out of the commercial break, she gave a quick weather forecast before starting the next song. Then she turned off the microphone and turned back to the phone. “Are we still on for lunch tomorrow?”
“Absolutely. Just you and me in a dark corner at Toscana's.”
Looking down at the phone, she noticed that the other three lines were still flashing. “I've got to go, sweetie. Love you.”
“Love you too. Talk to you later.”
When he'd hung up, Kaitlyn turned to face the window and gazed out across the cityscape. The lights below seemed brighter somehow, a little more stunning than before. She sighed with deep satisfaction. There was something about Brad’s voice that always relaxed her and quelled her fears. He was trusting, gentle, and loving. She was lucky to have him. For four weeks, he accepted her word that she knew nothing about The Shallows, or why anyone would send her these letters. Brad may have suspected that she was lying, but he never pushed her. It would all come out eventually. She couldn’t go on being dishonest indefinitely. She just needed time. Time to figure out how to explain that she wasn’t who she pretended to be.
Kaitlyn turned back to the computer to check the playlist. Her gaze froze, and she frowned. REO Speedwagon was coming up on the list. Her shoulders gave a momentary shudder.
The impact of the song title had diminished over the years. She'd almost reached the point of being able to play it as opposed to deleting it from the playlist whenever it showed up. Until recently, it only invoked the briefest of memories. She would twinge at the brief reminder and use the song’s deletion as a way to purge herself of her past.
That, however, was then. The arrival of the letters had changed everything. Now, the sheer appearance of the song frightened Kaitlyn, reminded her that her past was catching up. Some secrets can't stay hidden forever. She'd hoped the anniversary would pass unnoticed again this year. But with only three weeks to go until that date, someone was making sure that she remembered every detail.
She jabbed the delete key and a sense of relief washed over her as the song vanished from the screen. Breathing slow and deep, she allowed her uneasiness to subside. Then, she leaned toward the phone and clicked the next blinking line. “WPLX, do you have a dedication?”