Divorce a husband, lose a career … grapple with a murder
TV journalist Elizabeth Danniher will tell you she committed two sins — she didn’t stay young, and she made an enemy of a powerful news executive — her ex. She used to break national news. Now her top story as the “Helping Out” reporter at dinky KWMT-TV in Sherman, Wyoming, is getting a defective toaster repaired.
Tough, funny and determined, Elizabeth wrestles with isolation, keeping a professional edge, and an evolving self-image. Is Wyoming — the land of cattle, cowboys, tumbleweeds, and fewer than six people per square mile — her new home or a road to permanent obscurity?
Soon she’s in a battle of wills with ex-football player turned journalist Mike Paycik, who sees her as a handy rung on his career ladder. And there’s the matter of a deputy sheriff—missing or murdered? Elizabeth finds herself investigating at the insistence of a girl who’s set on proving her father’s innocence. Not that enigmatic rancher Thomas Burrell makes investigating easy.
But Elizabeth won’t fade to black without a fight, no matter how final some might want to make her Sign Off.
Targeted Age Group:: adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I liked the idea of somebody at crossroads — a woman of a certain age in a profession that’s difficult and hard on women of a certain age.
So, I set SIGN OFF in the TV newsroom, which opened up a lot of things because of the pressure on women in news to be younger and attractive. I also wanted my lead character to be facing multiple issues. She’s newly divorced and part of the reason she gets landed in Wyoming is a vindictive ex. She’s had a real disappointment in him that goes deeper than the divorce and she’s questioning herself in a lot of ways. What is she good at? Has her success been hers, or was it her husband’s? She’s got all these questions and then she’s plunked down in the middle of Wyoming, a place she knows nothing about.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Most of my novels start with characters that just come to me. I might have no idea what is the character’s name or profession or anything else, but I know they wear a brown bomber jacket and have a dog. And that cannot ever change. That’s what they brought to me.
So, as you can see, I write out of sequence. Scenes come to me and I hear voices. (Please don't send someone to haul me off! 🙂
The first SIGN OFF scene was of a woman going out to see a man at his ranch. I didn’t know her name, didn’t know his name. I just had a sense of this situation. I write it down, look at it and go, well, okay, why is she there? Who is she? Oh, okay, she has to be… And it evolves from there.
Now, I had done extensive research in Wyoming before writing a series of romance novels based there. I visited many ranches, small towns and parks, and stopped at just about every roadside historical marker. Many of the people I met along the way appear in some form in the Caught Dead in Wyoming series. And for some of the newsroom blowhards, I had a well of former bosses and supervisors from my journalism days to draw from.
I’d heard about the Redus [murder] case–it was hard not to in KWMT’s newsroom–but it didn’t occupy a lot of my attention. I had my own concerns.
Concerns like figuring out how come LL Bean and Harry and David had no trouble with my change of address, but my ex-husband’s lawyer couldn’t master the concept. Like finding more congenial surroundings (no matter how temporary my stay in Wyoming might be) than the hovel masquerading as a house that I was renting. Like adjusting to a landscape that looked as if it came out of the head of a science fiction writer. Like acclimating to co-workers who treated me either as visiting royalty or a particularly nasty-tempered shark circling their very private swimming hole.
As eighteen second-graders from Lewis and Clark Elementary School and three harassed adults scattered through the KWMT-TV newsroom’s maze of dented desks and mismatched chairs, I was specifically contemplating how to handle anchorman Thurston Fine, who’d botched the intro to my package the night before.
At five and ten. Who needs DVR when you have Thurston Fine?
Fine was KWMT’s star – of the variety used for a kindergarten pageant. A pattern traced out on cardboard, covered in tin foil and pinned up–glossy, neat and flat. He so obviously ascribed to the shark school of thought that I found myself looking around for Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss whenever we met. Fine hadn’t stuck a javelin down my throat–yet–but I figured he was looking for the right opportunity.
As a stop-gap measure he had undermined me, on air and off for the past month.
Last night he’d pulled one of the oldest tricks, stopping, as if he’d decided to leave off the last line of his script, then stepping on my first words as I tried to launch into my intro to the piece.
A good news director would have handled it.
KWMT’s news director was Les Haeburn.
Insert philosophical shrug.
“Helping Out” wasn’t Emmy material. It wasn’t even material enough under Haeburn’s dominion to keep me fifty percent occupied. Maybe I would change that, or maybe I would decide I liked it like this. More likely, it would become moot before long. In the meantime, I had plenty of free time to contemplate the niceties of taking a hunk out of Fine’s leg. Figuratively, of course.
That’s what I was doing when a thin girl with wispy brown hair falling straight at either side of a square face stepped in front of my new professional home, third battleship-gray desk from the windows. Sitting on a chair that only swiveled to the right put me eye-level with this detachment from the second-grade horde.
“Everybody went that way.” I pointed toward the control room door. She wouldn’t want to miss the comedy of Les Haeburn’s steady-hand-at-the-helm routine. Though it might take a somewhat more jaded outlook than a second-grader possessed to see the humor.
Her voice was assured. Her eyes, so dark brown they seemed to be all pupil, stayed on me.
Apparently, she had a need other than reattachment.
“Uh, the bathroom’s over there.” I pointed again.
“I know.” She didn’t move.
Enough of my contemporaries had beaten the biological clock lately that I knew the ground rules about diapers and babies, but where in the developmental continuum trips to the bathroom became a solo venture remained foggy.
“I’ll get your teacher and–”
“You’re Miss Danniher.”
Being recognized is not necessarily the thrill some people imagine. This time, however, a reprieve from potential bathroom duty offset the discomfort.
As my ex-husband took to saying, everything’s a trade-off.
“Yes, I am.”
“On TV. Mrs. George from next door said you’re a consumer advocate.” The girl said the final two words carefully. “So I watched.”
That surprised me. From the little feedback we’d gotten to “Helping Out,” I didn’t think it had any viewers, and here was evidence of two.
When I’d received the assignment, I checked with a few connections, who all said the consumer affairs beat was hotter than ever. But in the four weeks I’d been on-air, I’d gotten a grand total of seven phone calls from viewers, and four were from Ed Radey, who didn’t like his wife’s cooking and wanted me to “help out.” I could come cook or I could take them to dinner, he wasn’t particular.
The girl’s stare intensified and her thin body leaned over the desk toward me, turning down the corners of the Sherman Independence where it extended beyond the edge. “You help people. You got that man to fix that woman’s toaster.”
“Yes, but not everythi–”
“You told people with problems to tell you and you’d help them.”
The segment tag actually says “KWMT-TV will consider your problem as a potential topic for ‘Helping Out.’ ” I opened my mouth to educate this girl in the denim blue sweater and faded red plaid shirt on the importance of qualifiers such as “will consider” and “potential.” She didn’t wait.
“You’re going to help me.” Not a single qualifier.
“What we do in ‘Helping Out’ is look into your problem and – if we can – we try to find a solution that’s satisfactory to you and the other party.”
“You’re going to help me.”
“Now wait a minute–”
“You’re going to help me keep going to the Circle B and seeing Daddy. He needs me.”
“Someone’s trying to keep you from seeing your Daddy? Who?”
I am not a softy. It was simply the reporter’s instinct to ask questions kicking in.
“Mom and Mr. Haus. He’s her lawyer.”
“Are your parents divorced?”
A solemn nod. “But Mom wants Mr. Haus to get the judge to say Daddy can’t see me anymore.”
Her dark brown eyes might not show color, but they revealed emotion. Mom better not be hoping for roses this Mother’s Day from this offspring – maybe thorns, but definitely no roses.
“Why do you think your mother doesn’t want your father to see you?” Possibilities arose in a mental film clip of too many horrifying news stories. But this child wasn’t wary or withdrawn. And the only fear she seemed to harbor was of not seeing her father.
“She’s mad at him. She’s always been mad at him. Even when I was a baby.”
A woman using a child to punish an ex-spouse? Not unheard of. But why move to cut visitation now if she’d been angry all along?
“Your mother and Mr. Haus think they can get the judge to say your father can’t see you?”
“Yes.” After the single word, her teeth clamped over her bottom lip. Not to stop trembling–it wouldn’t have dared–but to prevent something from escaping.
Nothing gets a reporter’s juices going like somebody keeping a secret. Even somebody younger than my favorite pair of jeans.
“Why do they think that?”
Not a flicker of reaction.
“You know, I can’t help if you don’t tell me the whole story. Just like Mrs. Atcheson with the toaster. She told me everything–when she bought it and where and how much she paid.” A wary blink. “But if you’re not going to tell me, I guess you don’t really want my help. Of course you said you wanted my help, but that’s up to you–”
“He didn’t kill him.”
“What?” If Mrs. Atcheson’s toaster had turned into a Veg-o-Matic before my eyes, I couldn’t have been more surprised. “Who didn’t kill who?”
(I know, I know – it should be who didn’t kill whom – so shoot me.)
“They said he did and they put him in jail, but the man said they couldn’t say Daddy did, so they let him go. But Mom said they couldn’t say Daddy didn’t, so maybe the judge will say Daddy can’t see me. Ever.”
On the edge of my consciousness the sound of a door opening registered, but my attention stayed on the intense, square face leaning toward me.
“Let me get this straight. Your father was accused of killing somebody. But he was released. And your mother’s using the accusation to try to get the judge to rescind his visitation–” Remember the audience. “–To say he can’t see you anymore.”
“Yes. So you have to stop her and Mr. Haus.”
“Tamantha Burrell! What are you doing? The rest of the class is on the bus. You know you’re supposed to stick with the group.”
The least harassed looking of the three adults (likely the teacher since teachers build harassment immunity while parents move on to the germs of a new age) swept up to the thin girl. Smiling at me, she snagged my visitor–Tamantha Burrell, by name, and that information filled in several gaps–in obvious preparation for a speedy exit.
“You tell this nice lady how sorry you are for bothering her and how much you’ve enjoyed seeing how people like her work behind the scenes on a television station.”
Teacher clearly hadn’t followed Tamantha’s lead in watching “Helping Out” and didn’t have the foggiest who I was. She started drawing the girl away.
Tamantha held back long enough for parting words–not the ones her teacher had recommended but a repetition of her unequivocal order:
“You do it.”
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