“So,” says Ray, “the stalking pilot.”
J.P. sighs. “It’s a clusterfuck, Ray.”
We all lean forward in our conference room chairs. As a rule, J.P. doesn’t curse.
“Can we save it?” Ray asks.
“I’m not sure.”
“So what’s up?” says Ray. “What’s up?” Ray tends to sniff when he means to nod and to say something twice when it only needs to be said once.
“It’s not pretty,” says J.P. “The network might could promote it for train-wreck ratings. But it might make the division go kaput.”
“Now I’ve gotta hear it,” says Carla. “Doubleyou tee eff?”
J.P. lets out a long breath between the fat edges of his lips. “Well,” he says. “I don’t exactly know what went wrong.”
“Cut the foreplay,” says Ray, not unkindly.
“It might’ve been because we lied to the guy. Craig.” As if Ray hasn’t said anything. “We told him that the girl, Lindsey, was going to be in on everything, you know. So he wouldn’t think he’d get in trouble with the police. Or get hurt. That might’ve been why it went haywire.”
“It’s a white lie, right? We didn’t approach Lindsey, but Cortez, my line producer, she said she didn’t think we had to. She thought anyone with sense would know this whole thing was a setup.”
Austin and Carla both nod.
“Like who could see a crew filming right near where she and her date are having dinner at the smallest goddamn restaurant in Sherman Oaks and not think something’s up?” Goddamn, we think, a little thrill, like hearing it in a classroom. “And that bull hunky he sold her about being an electronics salesman. Showing her those button cams. He all but showed her the button cams he was wearing. And Craig wasn’t the best actor on the planet, either, so we thought—”
“Wasn’t?” Carla darts in.
“He’s—I’ll get to that. Point is, we didn’t shove a contract under the girl’s nose, but we didn’t think we needed to.”
Ray sniffs twice, so J.P.’s in the clear for now.
“They go out for a few weeks. We get swell footage. Carla can tell you, she saw some rough cuts last week.”
Carla nods again. J.P.’s voice is getting reedy, something none of us knew was possible. We knew he enjoyed exec producing, but he missed his calling as one of those In a world . . . trailer V.O. guys.
“Then Craig gets creepy, right on schedule. He starts talking about their future. Starts calling her mom and asking how it’d be if Lindsey eloped with him. Calls her boss and spins all kinds of lies to try and make them fire her. Cortez was really good with this stuff, Ray. Really creative. Don’t give her the brunt of—” J.P. sighs and rubs a finger under his nose, brusha-brusha-brush. Is this drama? On purpose? J.P.’s been in television a long time.
“She breaks up with him. Again, right on schedule. Tells him he’s coming on too strong, just like we thought. Great footage, he cried and everything. It was looking good. So, phase two, he starts watching her house. Starts leaving her ten voicemails a day and maybe fifty texts.”
All this time, Marianne is sitting hunched over the table, playing with her Sharpie. Not watching J.P. None of us know what’s up with her. It’s like J.P.’s pitching it (and he’s a fantastic pitchman), everything that’s happened on his pilot, and his face and his hands and his curse words and his reedy voice are making us breathe quietly enough to hear every syllable. It’s a story you don’t hear in a conference room at Fox every day. And she doesn’t seem to care. But if the rumors about Marianne and Ray are true, maybe she’s just careless in general. She hasn’t been around long enough for us to get the measure of her.
“Lindsey goes to the cops, but they can’t do anything for her. No proof of bodily harm as yet. He’s just watching her, just annoying her. Not actually threatening her.” J.P. takes out a roll of LifeSavers with most of the foil frayed off and crunches into one. Carla winces. “Then, last night, he goes over there. Goes to see her. It’s Ed McMahon time, right? This is the moment, tell her she’s the star of a reality pilot, that her and Craig are costars, that they’re gonna be famous.” The LifeSaver gives him a faint lisp.
There is a pause and then Ray sniffs with less vigor than before. Marianne is still toying with the Sharpie, her rubied fingernails making little intermittent clicks on the plastic.
“He’s outside the door for like twenty minutes. Moaning. Begging for her to let him in. He ad-libs all kinds of shit.” Shit, yet! Yikes, J.P. “I don’t know where he even came up with half of it. Let me in, let me in, let me in. We’re about to call it off when Lindsey finally opens the door.”
“So you got her on the porch,” says Ray.
“No, boss. We—”
“Did you get footage after he went in the house?”
“Christ, I wish we had,” says J.P. He’s pale. “We didn’t wire him up. It was the sting, we didn’t think he’d need any gear. But he slipped in her door like a bunny rabbit and Cortez didn’t have time for anything else.”
“Cortez didn’t go after him?” Ray asks, and there’s a little rumble in his voice. We are all quiet as mannequins, except for Marianne’s damn Sharpie squeaking and clicking as she twists the cap on and off.
“Look, Ray,” says J.P., but doesn’t finish. The two men stare at each other for a minute. The room seems chillier than the standard 72.
“I don’t know what happened in there. Like I said, maybe if we hadn’t told him she was in on it, whatever it was would’ve gone down differently. But a few minutes later the girl comes running out of the house with blood on her, screaming like hell. Cortez caught her and took her inside, waited with her while Benny called 911—”
“Benny was on that shoot?” Carla interrupts. “I thought he was on Alien Autopsy 8 this week.”
“He finished up early,” says Marianne, in the quietest voice any of us has ever heard in this conference room. “He said he wanted to work the Stalker set. He wanted to see what would happen.”
She grips the Sharpie whitely. All eyes are on her, although none of us could say why. What she’s said is hardly earth-shattering. Everybody likes Benny’s enthusiasm for our projects.
After a stutter of silence, Ray asks why anyone had to call 911, and we’re all a little mad at Carla for distracting us from the same question.
“Because she stabbed him,” J.P. says. “Lindsey fucking stabbed Craig. She cut him up like a side of beef. With a kitchen knife.”
“Jesus,” mutters Austin.
Ray folds his fingers over his belly, but his eyes are iron. “How bad is it?”
J.P. fiddles with tiny scraps of silver paper. “He’ll live. In a coma. His modeling career’s over, that’s for sure.”
“Liability?” says Carla.
“I don’t know. Ask legal.” J.P. tears into his roll of LifeSavers for another. A few of us remember J.P. as a smoker, fifteen years ago now, before American Stalker was any kind of glimmer in Ray’s mind. Or Carla’s. Or someone else’s. No one can remember at this moment whose actual idea it was.
Ray’s eyebrows are knotted. “Okay,” he says. “Thanks, J.P. Thanks.” He scatters his gaze on the rest of us. “Anybody? Think we can save it?”
“Save it?” says Marianne. We all jump. “Save it? You want to air something that drove a woman to murder? That nearly cost a man his life?”
“We’ve spent a month of production on it, Marianne,” Ray says. “I can’t just—”
“Yes, you can,” she says. “You can axe it, and you can pay that man’s hospital bills and that poor woman’s therapy bills. And you can think a little harder next time about exactly where the bar for decency is set. And whether or not you want to limbo under it completely.”
Well. Now we know what she was rehearsing all that time she was screwing with her Sharpie. A few of us wonder again whether she’s sleeping with Ray, and whether this means that she has his ear. Only two of us know that she isn’t and doesn’t.
“Fine,” says Ray. “Fine. I’ll axe it. I’ll axe it.”
“Thank you,” says Marianne. She picks up her notebook and her Sharpie. “I’m going home. I need to call my fucking shrink.”
After she’s gone, the rest of us look at the table or out the window for a minute. The words decency and limbo hang about like odors.
“So,” says Carla, “can we save it?”
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in JMWW, Role/Reboot, Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at The Fictator.