by Clay Jacobsen


Monday, February 5th
Chicago, Illinois
8:57 P.M. Central

The six men sat around the oval conference table, the seventh chair remained empty. No one spoke. They had arrived within five minutes of each other. Each had stepped out of a limousine driven to the back door of the Drake Hotel in downtown Chicago, walked directly down a dingy hallway to the service elevator, stepped in and pressed the button for the top floor.

Now they waited. The warm room contrasted with the icy weather blowing off Lake Michigan outside. Three men smoked, two puffed cigars, one dragged on a cigarette. Of the others, one sat quietly with his hands clasped in his lap, another tapped his fingers on the table, and the last one nervously bit at the cuticle of his left index finger. Each of the them was rich beyond blue-collar comprehension. But their meeting wasn't about money. It was about power.

Down below, the final black stretch-limousine turned off Lake Shore Drive, it's tires crunching through the ice of the back alley before stopping beside the service entrance. The door opened, allowing a whirlwind of snow to fly into the climate-controlled vehicle. The occupant just smiled at the brief discomfort as he made his way out of the limo, through the biting wind and into the hotel.

Walking down the same darkened hallway the others had walked just minutes before, he reflected on the path that had brought him to this place. In the beginning, he wasn't sure if his scheme would work, but it had--beautifully. And with each small success, the vision had changed, his goal had grown to a magnitude he couldn't have dreamed possible when it all started.

The six looked up with expectation as the main door to the conference room opened and he stepped inside. None of them knew why the meeting had been called. They had assembled only once before, years ago when their association had begun. Everyone knew the risk was too great to be seen together--at least it had been until this night.

He made his way to the head of the table and began. "It's been many years since we first met. Since then, I've turned each of you," he paused, dramatically emphasizing his next words, "into millionaires."

The men held their gaze on him, several nervous smiles adorned the faces around the room. It was true. Each of them had accumulated great wealth and even greater power, all because of their loyalty to the man standing before them. In different situations, the six men seated around the table would control any room they occupied. Not here.
"I don't expect any great accolades," he continued, “but I do demand your unquestioned loyalty." A smile creased his lips as his eyes scanned the room. Within this group, names were never used. From the moment of the group's inception, each had been assigned a number--one through seven.

The man seated directly across the table did everything within his power to remain absolutely still. The leader's eyes stopped as he looked directly at him; the intensity of the stare pierced through to his soul. Number four felt his stomach drop. Beads of perspiration began sliding down from the pits of his arms underneath his starched white shirt. He knows, he thought in total fear. After all I've done to be so careful, he knows!

"We've accomplished unbelievable results with our affiliation." their leader acknowledged. "I couldn't have done it without each of you." His six-foot-three-inch athletic frame seemed to stretch taller as pride welled up within him. He looked upon the group seated around him as if the men were family. Closer to him than his own son had been, these were men he'd mentored over the years and made what they were today. It made his next step that much more distasteful but necessary none the less.

"Before we get down to business, let me offer up a toast to all of you." He reached to the table in front of him where a glass of champagne rested. There was a similar glass placed before each of the men around the table. He picked his up, "Please, stand with me."

The men scooted their chairs back and stood. Number four was the last to move, finally finding the nerve to join the others on his feet. Maybe he doesn't know after all, he thought.

The leader beamed as he brought the glass up high toward the center of the table. "To each of you--may we forever be successful, rich beyond our wildest dreams, and so powerful that no one can touch us. To The Circle of Seven."

"The Circle of Seven." They responded in chorus. Each brought the glass of champagne to his lips, taking sips with all the honor and pride that could only be found in belonging to this most secret of groups.

Time stood still for a moment as each man proudly smiled around the room, acknowledging each other's success. Suddenly, the sound of shattering glass filled the room.

Number four's hands suddenly clutched at his chest. A searing pain overwhelmed him. His face turned a dark shade of red as he struggled for breath. The terror returned. He thought about all that he had put in jeopardy: his company, his wealth, his wife, his daughters, and grandchildren. He loved them so much--then his fear-struck eyes locked onto the man standing at the head of the table. The stricken man caught a glimpse of the smirk that crossed Number One's face the second before he crumpled to the floor.

Not a soul moved.

Their leader broke the silence as two men quietly entered the room and quickly carried number four out the door. “As I said earlier, I do demand your unquestioned loyalty."

He slowly took in the five men left standing around the table. Each nodded a sign of their allegiance as his eyes passed from one to the next.

“Now, gentlemen," he continued without missing a beat, stretching his arm out toward the door behind him, "I'd like to introduce you to our new Number Four."

The door opened and in stepped the newest member of The Circle of Seven. Without fanfare he walked around to the end of the table and took his position.

“Let’s get down to business," their leader smiled.

Chapter 1

Wednesday, February 7th
Hollywood, California
National Studios
10 A.M. Pacific

"OK everybody, let's settle," Frank Russell called out over the noise of the crowded room. The weekly "pitch" meeting for the staff of Across the Nation was being called to order. Russell, a former down-in-the-trenches reporter for NBC news two decades ago, was now the executive producer for National Studios' live Sunday night news-magazine show, the new network's answer to60 minutes and Dateline.

"First on the agenda--we're heading into sweeps," Russell bellowed as he took his seat at the head of the table. "That means we're pulling out all the stops--titillation and sensationalism galore. I don't need to stress to you how low our ratings have been, do I?"

The men and women assembled before him knew all too well the importance of ratings. The show was in its first season, barely holding onto its Sunday night time slot. If the National executives hadn't been so busy creating an upstart network after the success of its flagship late-night John Harold Show, their jobs might already have been lost.

Russell ran his hands through what little hair still clung to his scalp as he looked around the room. They are all so young, he thought. Trying to rally his team to the level of the competition challenged him. Russell knew he had good people who were producing a solid show, but they needed a break-that one sensational story that would scoop all the networks and put them on the map. That would give the show, and just as importantly, his career, the boost it desperately needed.

Around the table, along with his personal assistant and the script supervisor, sat the bulk of his creative force-four teams consisting of a producer and an investigative reporter. Lacking the budget of the major networks meant that each of them had to complete a segment for every show, so they were constantly researching three to four stories ahead while still completing their current one.

"Anybody have any problems with Sunday's segments?" Russell paused as he glanced across the room for any response.

"We're having difficulty getting footage out of India." Stan Jeffries spoke out. Stan's assignment for Sunday was the massive earthquake that had struck the heart of India the week before, adding to that nation's tragic struggle with its worst drought in over a hundred years.

"See me after the meeting," Russell instructed. "I've still got some friends at NBC, we'll get something. Anybody else?"

No one spoke up, so he continued, "Good. Then let's hear some ideas for sweeps--"

Samantha Steel spoke up first. "Jeff and I have been mulling over one," she said, acknowledging the producer assigned with her. Their team primarily covered entertainment stories-profiles on celebrities, hit television series or the behind-the-scenes action of a motion picture.

Russell grinned. It was just like her to be the first one out of the blocks. Sam had a drive to succeed like no one he'd seen before; she also had a lot to learn. But she hadn't been hired for her journalistic expertise, Russell knew, because he'd made the decision. She became a member of his team for one reason alone, the magic that happened when she was in front of a camera. He saw it last year when he caught her on the ABC affiliate covering the murder of a prominent Hollywood director. Samantha had a presence about her that was sensuous-the full head of blonde hair hanging down to her shoulders framing the exquisite face, combined with a body that had the right amount of curves in all the right places; yet on-the-air she exhibited amazing poise, intelligence and grace. What had astonished the studio executives was the high marks she received from the females in their focus groups, uncommon among on-air talents with her beauty.

"If we really want to get some ratings," Sam continued with a devilish grin. "let's do a story on adult Internet sites by creating our own Web page." She paused, watching the reaction around the room. Everyone seemed enticed by the idea except for one reporter, Mark Taylor, who had lowered his head into the palm of his right hand and rubbed at his temples.

"Internet porn is huge." Sam's producer, Jeff Edwards, picked up the sales pitch. "What we want to do is create a Web site, nothing hard-core, just nudity. But advertise celebrities--starting with our own Samantha here. It'd be a great hook."

Sam glanced around at the staff with a huge smile. The boost this story could give to the show's ratings was just a small portion of her plan. She hoped the stunt would also increase her chances of breaking into the acting career she so desperately craved.

"I guess I asked for something sensational," Russell responded dryly, "but what's the story angle? Not that having Sam unclothed wouldn't be marketable."

A few chuckles could be heard around the room, but Sam kept her somber tone. She was prepared for Russell's question. "We want to see how many hits a site like this gets. If we can work it out with legal, we also want to set up a pay area to see what kind of income can be generated. We can donate the money to a charity or something....." Samantha accented with a wave of her hand.

"Plus we've got a computer whiz-kid who's helping us design a survey as well. I'm sure we'll get some interesting demographic information on those that visit the Site. Once we've analyzed that data, there's no telling where the story will go."

Repulsed and intrigued at the same time, Russell wondered how the journalism profession he had grown to love and respect over the span of his career had come to this. But as an executive producer for a struggling show, he had to look at what could keep the show on the air. It was the perfect story to promote for sweeps. "Jeff, I want this plan checked out thoroughly by our lawyers before I'll give the green light." He turned toward Sam with a sly grin spreading across his face. "Are you sure this--exposure--won't adversely affect your credibility as a journalist?"

Sam shook her head, "Not if I handle it right. I actually think it will do just the opposite."

Russell nodded. If anyone could pull it off, she could.

Mark sat across the table, his gut churning. He was appalled by the idea. He knew he should speak up--protest somehow. He squirmed in his seat, trying to think of a way.

"Is something bothering you Mark?" Russell asked him.

"No," He blurted out nervously. "I guess if we want titillation, that would do it."

"I think it's a great idea." Tad Forrest, the show's male counterpart to Samantha's model-like beauty jumped into the conversation. Young, tall, and slim with jet-black hair, Tad had the GQ look and a wonderfully smooth delivery on nthe air. He was also gay. Ironically, the network had pegged him as the perfect reporter to bring in the female demographic. "It seems like it'd be a perfect hook to grab some viewer attention and maybe get our show out of the ratings cellar. You know, I might do some modeling as well."

Mark looked around the room as heads nodded. There didn't seem to be anyone who felt about the issue the way he did. He sighed and let the matter drop-as usual.

Mark Taylor had started out with the studio as a production assistant fresh out of the Marines after Desert Storm. He'd always wanted to be a television journalist and this job was his first big break. He didn't have Tad's elegant features. He was shorter and stockier, with a slightly crocked nose left over from a bone-crushing collision while trying to tag out an opposing player at home plate during a high school baseball game. His wavy-brown hair wasn't always combed to perfection either, but his determination and drive made him a formidable reporter.

The idea of allowing the integrity of the show to be compromised for the sake of ratings irritated him. And it wasn't just the passioned journalist in him crying out. Mark was a Christian but he’d learned quickly in Hollywood that things went a lot smoother when he kept his spiritual convictions to himself. Not a person in the room knew about Mark's faith, not even his producer, Jennifer Williams. He wasn't proud of the fact, but he thought it was what was needed to keep his career on track.

"Did you have any ideas for us Mark?" Russell asked, moving the meeting along.

He looked down at his notes, "Well, I've been taking a look recently at how politicians appear to be catering to opinion polls."

In contrast to the enthusiastic response the group had given Sam's idea, they now sat in stoical silence. Samantha eyed him. A sarcastic edge rose in her voice, "A political story-there's something new. What angle could there possibly be that we or some other show hasn't already run into the ground?"

"Well, I'm not sure yet. I haven't had time to sit down and work this through. If you look at the headlines lately, it seems like everything is being run by the polls. Instead of leaders with ideas, we've got politicians taking surveys before they make up their minds on what to order for dinner. Nobody is taking the firm stand of doing what they believe is right. They just look for what's going to give them a favorable approval rating."

"You can't watch the network news without hearing that some percentage of Americans approve or disapprove of somebody or something...” Mark paused, searching for words. The idea had been brewing in the back of his mind for weeks, but his thoughts weren't solidified yet. He wasn't ready to pitch it; he was blowing the opportunity.

"Well if you can come up with a new angle, go for it," Russell said, unconvinced. "But while you're at it, I need you and Jennifer to handle this." He slid a folder across the table to Mark.

Written across the top in bold letters were the words Promotional Department/The Single Life. Mark knew what was inside the folder before he opened it. The Single Life was one of the new sit-coms on the network--an ensemble cast representing the young Generation X. From his point of view, a rip off of Friends, but with less morality. Mark shook his head and looked at Jennifer for help.

"You want us to do a piece on one of National's own shows?" Jennifer asked.

"It came down from the head of the network as a strong recommendation, if you catch my drift," Russell said. "They're pushing this show during sweeps and want us to do a profile on it. All you gotta do is go out and shoot some back stage footage-a few talking heads-maybe do a bit of background on any of the cast who had recognizable credits before this show. Remember, it'll be for sweeps, so you know what angle to look for."

Mark fumed, but tried to keep his temper under control. "I thought this was Sam's area. Why are you throwing it to us?"

Russell looked at Mark over his bifocals. His classic posture that communicated, I'm the boss, don't argue with me.

"Samantha's going to be busy making this Internet thing work," he said coldly. "This will help lighten the load for her and give you two something to do."

Mark knew that was the end of the discussion as he opened the folder and thumbed through the information. This wasn't how he dreamed investigative journalism would be. He'd never even watched an entire episode of The Single Life. His fingers flipped from page to page as the biographies and glossy photographs of the cast flashed by, but his mind went elsewhere-working to find the right angle for the polling story. In spite of the disappointment he held in his hands, he felt a trickle of excitement-the kind that came when working on something that mattered, something that took some digging to get to the truth, something big.

White Plains, New York
2:54 P.M. Eastern

Tears streamed down Virginia Franklin's face. Dr. Weston had just told Laura that she had lost the baby. They'd done everything medically possible after the accident, but the damage had been too great. Virginia was shattered, she'd watched Laura grow up from a little child-every weekday from two to three in the afternoon on her favorite soap opera. The telephone interrupted her moment of grief.

"Hello," she managed to get out through her tears.

"Hello, is this Mrs. Franklin?"

"Yes it is. Who is this?"

"My name is Tami, Mrs. Franklin. I'm with Research International and we're conducting a nation wide opinion poll. Would you have a couple of minutes to answer some questions for us? It'd be very helpful."

Virginia sniffled, "You're not trying to sell something, are you?"

"No ma'm. We just have a few questions to ask you, that's all. It'll only take a couple of minutes."

"Well, I guess it's OK then. I don't get too many calls you know."

"Fine," Tami answered as she looked at the first question on her computer screen. "Are you a registered voter?"

"Of course I am,” Virginia responded proudly.

"Did you vote in the last election?"

"Well, no, I didn't. I think I had car trouble or something that day. Yeah, that's what it was."

"OK, I understand." Tami responded, "Now I'm going to mention some names, and I want you to tell me whether your impression of the person is favorable, unfavorable, or you don't know enough about the person to make a judgment. The first person is President McNeil."

"Well, I'm not sure what you mean?"

"I'm not able to give you any help Mrs. Franklin," Tami said, "I'm just supposed to read the questions, not explain them."

"Oh my, well I guess he's all right." Virginia finally responded.

Tami clicked the favorable box on her computer screen, then continued down her list of names; most of which Virginia didn't recognize, but she managed to throw in a couple of favorable and unfavorable opinions along the way so she wouldn't look too silly.

"And the final question, Mrs. Franklin. In light of the fact that Social Security is in danger of going bankrupt, would you say you have a favorable, or unfavorable opinion of the job Congress is doing?"

"Oh my," Virginia nearly dropped the phone. All she had left was her Social Security since Edmond had died two years earlier. "I would definitely say unfavorable. I couldn't live without that money."

Tami smiled as she checked the final answer. "Thank you so much, Mrs. Franklin. You’ve been very helpful."

National Studios
12:30 PM Pacific

Mark sat at his desk, partitioned from the rest of the staff by three gray temporary walls that reached only half way to the ceiling. The cubicles resembled a newsroom more than a modern production office for a television series. It was Russell's design, a throw back to the hay-day of early print journalism. Mark couldn't picture Dan Rather or Diane Sawyer working out of similar conditions.

He was still seething from the "pitch" meeting. How could Russell have assigned him that ridiculous segment on The Single Life? A fluff piece like that should be shown on a show like Entertainment Tonight not on Across the Nation. And if National Studios had to cover it, Sam should be the one assigned to it, not him. The more he thought about it, the angrier he became. He stood up and looked over his "wall" to the corner where Russell's office was located. Samantha had just stepped out, sporting a huge smile. That woman gets everything she wants around here.

He was on his feet and walking that direction before he knew what he was doing. He found himself knocking on Russell's door without having a clue what he was going to say.

"What is it?"

Mark opened the door and peeked inside. "Do you have a minute?"

Russell stopped scribbling on some papers and looked up at him. "That's all I've got, I'm supposed to be at a meeting across the lot."

Russell had the only real office. A window that looked out over a grass area near the studio's day-care center. Impressive pictures of Russell with presidents, studio executives and high profile entertainers decorated the walls.

Mark stepped into the room, closing the door. "I'm having a hard time with something."

"What's that?"

"I've got some reservations about the story Samantha proposed."
Russell set his pen down and looked right at Mark. "OK, let's have it."

Russell's undivided attention added to Mark's anxiety. He swallowed hard, then began, "It's just that I think it cheapens the show's credibility. If we're trying to establish Across the Nation as a serious journalistic presence, how do you reconcile putting her story, pictures and all, on the Internet, much less on the air?"

Russell looked down at his watch and shrugged. "Have a seat," he said, waving to the chair in front of the desk.

Mark sat down, hoping he hadn't made a big mistake. Russell leaned back in his chair and let out a long sigh. "I admire you Mark; I really do. You're young enough to have an idealistic view of this business."

Mark squirmed in his chair. He suddenly felt like a sixth grader being called in by the principle.

"I unfortunately, am not," Russell continued. "You have a great deal of journalistic integrity and I want you to do everything in your power to hold onto it. Because in the midst of this business, you're going to be stretched and pulled all sorts of directions you don't want to go. You're going to be told to cover stories you loathe, just like the one I stuck you with a few minutes ago."

Mark agreed, but said nothing.

"And do you know why?" Russell paused.

Mark remained silent.

“Ratings, that’s why,” Russell answered his own question. "You see, if we don't generate ratings-if people aren't tuning into our show-then we won't be on the air anymore. Don't fool yourself. We're not journalists; we're salesmen."

Mark's eyes darkened. The last line caught him off guard.

"We sell soap, cars, beer, cereal, even vacations to Tahiti. You take everything we do around here and it all boils down to that--we sell things. We do a show and companies use it to sell stuff. There was a time years ago when I first started with NBC that the news division was separate from the entertainment division and the bean counters kept to themselves. Unfortunately, those golden days of TV journalism are over. We're all salesmen. Do I think Sam's idea is worth a hoot as a journalist? Of course not! And don't insult me by thinking I would either."

Mark opened his mouth to speak.

"Hold that thought for a second and let me finish." Russell continued. "But will Sam's idea create some controversy? Will people watch just to see how much of her body we're going to put on the air? Will the ratings go up? A resounding ‘you betcha’ on all three accounts. I don't make the rules, I've just learned to follow them. We've got a struggling first year show here. If we're going to have a chance at a second year, we need to get people watching. It's that simple."

Mark faced a flood of emotions. In the six months that he'd been working on the show, he'd grown to respect Frank Russell, the journalist. Mark had not seen this side of him before, and the cynicism was frightening.

Russell got out of his chair, stepped around the desk and sat on the edge facing him. "That's reality Mark. You've got a wonderful passion for journalism. Don't let it die. You've done some good pieces since we started this show. But you've got to learn to drudge through all the garbage and put up with whatever it takes to keep this show going. Then, when "the story" comes along, the one that will create a fire in your gut so hot you won't be able to put it out, we'll still be on the air and you'll have the platform to present it. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Mark was speechless, so he just nodded an affirmative.

"Good. Now you let me worry about Samantha's segment. And as much as it may displease you, you're still assigned The Single Life. It's a fluff piece. Take advantage of it."

Russell stood up again, pulling Mark by the elbow and leading him to the door. "Use the time wisely. Look into this polling thing you mentioned. See if you can find the right angle. Then, with any luck, we'll still be alive for you to get it on the air."

Mark's mind was still reeling as he walked past the sound stages on his way to the cafeteria shortly after one o'clock. At National, the commissary was split into two sections. Enter the door on the left and you were in a beautifully decorated restaurant with menus and full-service waiters, generally reserved for the top executives and the celebrities. The door to the right that Mark stepped through opened onto a typical cafeteria-style lunch room.

Mark ordered a sandwich from the deli line, then picked it up with a Pepsi and a bag of chips, and made his way to the cashier. Stepping back out to the seating area, he scanned the room for a free table, hoping to eat alone. Just his luck with the way the day was going, there wasn't one.

"Mark, over here." He heard his name called over the low hum of conversation scattered throughout the room. A few tables away sat Rick Treadway and Cassie Petterson at a table for four. Rick waived Mark toward the seat next to him.

Mark forced a smile and headed their way. Rick and Cassie worked on The John Harold Show. Rick was the director, Cassie was the producer and a more attractive couple would be hard to find. Cassie’s wavy brunette hair hung gently over her shoulders, and large hazel eyes accented her girl-next-door face. Rick was taller than Mark, stretching just over six feet. His dark hair, which was usually ruffled from what he termed “headset hair”, gave him a boyish charm.

"Thanks for the invitation," Mark said as he set his tray down. "I don't think there's an empty table in here."

"You're welcome," Rick answered. "I think there are a couple of films in production this month. We had to wait for this table.”

Mark angled his head toward a man at the table next to them attempting to wolf down a cheeseburger while wearing a strange alien costume, some kind of extraterrestrial amphibian. "From the looks of it, I'd say one of them is a science fiction movie."

The three laughed as the actor reached out for some salt and the fin on the arm of his costume scattered his french fries across the table.

"How's it going, Mark?" Cassie asked, still giggling.

"It's going OK," Mark lied. "We just got out of a long pitch meeting looking ahead to those exciting sweeps."

"I know how that can be," Rick said.

"I'm sorry to have to run so quickly," Cassie apologized as she scooted her chair back and stood up. "But I've got a talent meeting in a couple of minutes. It was nice to see you Mark.
Rick stood up with her, "I can stay a few minutes; we don't go on camera until two. I'll walk Cassie out and be right back."

"Good-bye Cassie," Mark said, then bit into his sandwich as the two headed toward the door.

"He's down about something," Cassie whispered to Rick as they walked.

"How do you know that? He said everything was fine."

"Trust me, call it women's intuition or the Holy Spirit, but he's troubled." She reached up with her hand and brushed Rick's cheek as she smiled at him. "See if you can help him--he might need a friend right now."

Rick smiled, "You're amazing," he said as he gave her a brief hug and kiss before she headed for their office. He paused to watch her walk away. It never ceased to amaze him--whenever he thought he could not possibly love her more than he already did, she'd do something like this to prove him wrong.

The two had been dating exclusively since they had first met last March. Cassie had been the assistant to the producer on The John Harold Show when the previous director turned up dead from an apparent suicide. Rick landed the vacant job, and their relationship developed quickly, even during the intense time when it was discovered the previous director had actually been murdered. Now less than a year later, Rick couldn't imagine life without Cassie by his side. As she turned the corner and disappeared from view, Rick felt an acute sense of loss even though he'd see her again in a few minutes. Funny how she affects me that way, he thought.

Arriving back at the table and sinking into his chair, Rick didn't waste any time. "So what's bothering you?"

Mark looked up in surprise, "What makes you think something's bothering me?"

"Cassie." Rick grinned, realizing she was right again. "She has a keen sense for these things, you know. I can't hide anything from her."

Mark smiled. Rick's light-heartedness was infectious. "It's just this job sometimes..." he sighed. He had wanted to have a quiet lunch to get away from his frustrations, but maybe it would be better to talk about it. He'd developed a casual friendship with Rick, running into him on the lot occasionally. He seemed to have a sympathetic ear.

"I can't believe what's happening with our show over this ratings thing."

Rick laughed, taking Mark by surprise.

"I'm sorry," Rick apologized, "It's just that as bad as our meetings can be during sweeps, I can imagine what it would be like with your type of show. Lot's of sex, violence or both?"

“Mostly sex this time. Do you know Samantha Steel?"

Rick nodded his head, "Oh yeah. I've run into her a time or two."

"Oh Rick, I'm sorry. I totally forgot," Mark said slightly embarrassed, forgetting about the history between Rick and Samantha. It was during the time of the investigation into Bennet’s death that Samantha had erroneously reported that Rick had committed the murder.

Rick laughed it off. "Don't worry, that's ancient history. What about her?"

"She's got this crazy idea to have our show run an adult Internet site, with her as the principal model."

"That sounds like Sam," Rick smiled.

"Yeah. I was upset that our show would even consider it. But everyone there thought it would get fantastic ratings."

"The problem is, they're probably right." Rick added.

Mark continued, encouraged to be able to talk with somebody who agreed with him. "I think we're really crossing a line to cover a story like that just for ratings."

"Did you say anything?"

Mark lowered his head. "No. not during the meeting. I wanted to, I really did. I just didn't know what to say, or how to approach it. No one would have agreed with me."

"Don't let it get you down," Rick said. "That's a tough time to speak up. I know a year ago, I probably wouldn't have said anything either."

Mark looked up, their eyes meeting. "You're kidding."

"No, actually I'm not." Rick answered, holding his gaze. "Let me ask you this, why do you think you didn't speak out if it bothered you so much?"

Mark thought for a second. "I've always been afraid...." he paused as he noticed a man coming up behind Rick.

Rick turned around as a hand touched his shoulder.

"Hey Rick," Chad Overton, Rick's associate director, said. "Hate to interrupt, but we'd better get back to the stage. We're on camera with Shania in a few minutes."

Rick looked at his watch. "Thanks Chad. I didn't realize how late it was.” He turned back to Mark, smiling as he stood to go, "Shania--speaking of ratings, huh? Look Mark, we need to spend some more time on this but I've got to run. Do you want to get together after the show?"

Mark was surprised to realize he was disappointed they couldn't talk more. "Yeah, I'd like that, but it depends on how things go at the office. I'll stop by the show if I'm free."

"Great. You know Reggie don't you?" Rick asked. Reggie was the lead security guard assigned to The John Harold Show-a former football player on the Los Angeles Rams teams of the 1980's and a great friend to Rick and Cassie.

Mark laughed, "Everybody knows Reggie."

"You're right. I'll tell him to expect you then. I hope it works out. IIf not tonight, then soon, OK?" Rick turned to follow Chad.

Mark agreed, picking up his Pepsi and taking a long swig. He hoped the rest of the day would brighten up. Right now, he felt like he had fallen into a deep, dark hole, and getting back on top seemed next to impossible.