CHAPTER 38

With police refusing to share the video, and no word from Brian Coughlie, with it being a Friday and another long, long weekend looming before her, Stevie elected to turn to viewers for help, knowing full well it would entail an enormous risk. Now in the eleventh day of Melissa’s disappearance, she felt she had no choice. She had never experienced the bright burning glare of the studio lights quite like this-they felt more like those used in interrogations in old black-and-white films, blinding and intimidating, meant to extract the truth.

With her own words spread out on the news desk before her and echoed on the TelePrompTers, with these words hers and not some news writer’s as they typically were, she found the anchor desk, the wireless microphones and the penetrating stare of the clear glass camera lenses suddenly terrifying. Jimmy Corwin looked on from behind the thick glass of the control booth, his agitated expression a mixture of stunned amazement, twisting curiosity and deep concern. It wasn’t every Friday morning that Stevie McNeal showed up at the station at

5:30 A.M. demanding a two-minute segment on the Wake-up News and another one-minute piece on the Seattle Today cutaways that frequented the national morning show. He had negotiated such appearances by her as part of their deal when he gave Stevie the container assignment, but he had never expected her to deliver.

An eerie silence enveloped the set; the morning crew were on pins and needles because they didn’t have down the peculiarities of how to manage the afternoon talent. Or so Stevie surmised. That along with her tired appearance and her lack of makeup. She wore only some lipstick. She had sent both the hair girl and powder boy packing-there would be no touch-ups between shots. She wore a dark cotton turtleneck that did not emphasize her curves. In fact, all of this, along with having her hair pulled back, meant that there was nothing suggestive about her whatsoever. The sexploitation of the news would have to wait for the next fresh face to come along. She was done with it.

Now, as the floor director’s fingers rhythmically counted down five. . four. . three. . Stevie turned inside herself searching for that sense of calm that she knew had always been there when she most needed it. The cameras were aimed on her, she reminded herself; the lights aimed on her; the hundreds of thousands of viewers hanging on her every phrase, every syllable, every nuance. Nothing compared with live television.

She was not thinking of the container series, she was not aiming to impress New York or Atlanta, she was making an effort to save a friend, a sister. Her Little Sister.

Mi Chow she had been called back then, for the name Melissa had not yet been given to her. Stephanie didn’t recall exactly how old they had been at the time; but she did remember that they’d been small enough that she had needed to stand to see out the side window of the chauffeur-driven Chrysler as it passed an open-air market, the craggy faces of the Chinese women and men hiding beneath the enormous straw hats, worn as protection against the unbearably hot sun.

Mi had occupied the center of the backseat flanked by Father and a beautiful English woman that Stevie had seen at Father’s parties. Stevie could still see this woman’s hat and black veil, her bright lipstick and dark blue dress. Shiny blue leather shoes with spike heels.

Stephanie saw bicycles and dust, heard the sound of chickens and smelled a noodle shop. This ride thrilled her to her core, for there was much whispering, much secrecy surrounding it, though this was something Stephanie only sensed.

Her aunt Su-Su was crying softly from the passenger side of the front seat, one hand stretched back but not quite touching Mi Chow. Tears ran down her cheeks.

‘‘Not to cry, Su-Su,’’ Stephanie said, but she cried all the harder with that. She glanced back at Father, whose enormous height, white skin, golden hair and broad brown mustache had once frightened Mi Chow to the point of hiding.

The open-air market passed in a blur of activity, bamboo crates and brilliant green vegetables. The lucky ones wore sandals, the rest went barefoot. The olive tunics were the same that everyone wore. Everyone everywhere. Only in the gigantic posters of the Great and Beloved Leader, and in the city, did people dress differently. Father wore a pin-striped suit, a white shirt, gold cufflinks and a broad red necktie bearing golden crowns. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and smoked a cigarette. He had a low commanding voice as he warned Stephanie to hold on tight.

The buildings streamed by in a colorful blur with the speed of the car. Stephanie let go of trying to fix to any particular image-shanties, corner markets, the bicyclists flowing like water around the car. Su-Su’s soft cries occupied her every thought-something was terribly wrong.

Father spoke aloud, and all at once Su-Su spun, leaned over the seat and took hold of Mi Chow’s hands. She whispered in Chinese, and Stephanie heard her say that Mi was not to be afraid, that Su-Su and Steph and Uncle Patrick loved her very much, and that Uncle Patrick was a great man, and that Mi should listen and obey this English woman who was to accompany her.

Father was too busy looking out the car window to take in any of this. He shouted frantically at the driver, who constantly checked with him in the rearview mirror. All at once the car swerved sharply and nearly struck a man on a bicycle. The tires ground to a stop, enveloping them in a cloud of swirling brown dust. The English woman lifted Mi to her lap as Father threw open the back door and climbed out. Together, the three of them, Mi clutching tightly to Father, disappeared into the dust caused by a second car that had pulled up behind them. This car had been the source of Father’s earlier distraction. There was much shouting and confusion.

Su-Su called out to her niece, ‘‘Be brave, child. Steffie and Uncle Patrick will be with you later tonight.’’

A car door shut loudly, the dust swirling around Father, who suddenly stood alone among the curious peasants.

‘‘I will see Little Sister tonight?’’ Stephanie asked Su-Su in Chinese.

‘‘Youtake long trip,’’ she replied. ‘‘A long, long trip across the ocean.’’

‘‘And you?’’ Stephanie asked.

The woman, already in tears, broke down and hid her face. ‘‘My child. .’’ she said, ‘‘my child.’’

Stevie thought of television cameras as the most powerful weapons in the world-they affected far more people than any bomb. It had taken her thirteen years to fully understand and take advantage of that power. She believed fervently that with just two minutes of the right air time, a person could change the world.

For her there were to be no more tedious interviews with INS directors, shipping company executives and politicians. Melissa’s early surveillance footage was both potent and incriminating. Coughlie had encouraged her to use the power at her disposal, and he was right. Klein had gone into hiding. Leads were running out. If she teased the police while calling on the public to help, she felt she could bring the police back to the bargaining table. She wanted that digital tape. She wanted Melissa back.

The floor director signaled her. The camera’s red light illuminated. She was live.

Good morning. Eleven days ago a reporter from this station,

Melissa Chow, went missing. This is a clip of her shot two

months ago that some of you may recall.

On the screen, Melissa stood high on a bluff, the Sound’s green waters in the background, her jet black hair tossed by the wind. A white passenger ferry slid into view as she said into the camera, ‘‘The state’s passenger ferry system has never carried more people more miles than it has over the past twelve months. But what of postponed maintenance schedules, hiring practices, rumors of embezzlement and drunken pilots. .?’’

The television screens across the state returned to a picture of Stevie at the anchor desk.

That is Melissa Chow. She is twenty-six years old. She is Chinese by birth. She speaks English with little or no accent. She stands five feet two inches and is approximately one hundred and five pounds. She is believed to have been investigating illegal immigrants at the time of her disappearance and is feared to be in grave danger. On the screen you are now seeing images she recorded prior to her disappearance. The first is of a licensing service office worker, Gwen Klein, who is presently wanted by police for questioning. This next shot is of an unknown male, in whom Melissa was clearly interested prior to her going missing. The dire circumstances of her disappearance speak for themselves. Police have few, if any, clues. Anyone having any information leading to her recovery will be rewarded ten thousand dollars cash by this station. .

Jimmy Corwin jumped out of his chair on the other side of the soundproof glass and threw his arms in the air, waving frantically. He then pulled at what little hair he had left and mouthed a series of shouted orders at his team. Stevie hoped they weren’t cutting her off and going to ad.

Any such information will be treated confidentially by the police. Your coming forward will never be made public, not ever- whether an innocent observer who happened to see something, or one of the very people responsible for Melissa’s disappearance. We want her back.

You, the people of Washington State, are the finest anywhere. We at KSTV have lost one of our own. We appeal to you, our community, for information-any information-that may help us bring Melissa home safely. The number on your television screen is a toll-free number that connects you directly to the police. It can be called from any phone, anywhere, twenty-four hours a day.

Please help us find our friend.

Thank you for your concern.

‘‘Clear!’’ the floor director shouted.

The hush that followed Stevie’s announcement was shattered by Corwin hollering over the intercom, his voice booming into the room.

‘‘Who the hell authorized that? That script wasn’t in the booth! McNeal, my office, this minute!’’

For the benefit of the microphone still clipped to her turtleneck, Stevie said calmly, ‘‘If the money’s a problem, Jimmy, don’t worry- I’m prepared to pay the reward myself. And if you want to talk to me, it will be in my office, but you’ll have to get in line. I have a hunch my phone is about to start ringing.’’

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