“Hi, you’re on the air with AJ Palladino, the People’s Champion.” I couldn’t help but cringe every time I chirped the greeting, but the sta- tion manager insisted on using the title foisted on me by People maga- zine, so I had no choice.
Unlike my freelance research work, this radio gig kept food on the table and a roof over our heads. Small price to pay. Didn’t mean I had to like it.
“AJ, hi again!” came a woman’s voice. Happy, unlike many of my callers. “It’s Martha. Martha from Pennsylvania.”
The computer screen in front of me lit up with Martha’s history and her previous calls. But I didn’t need to read the details. As soon as I heard her name and voice I remembered. “Martha from Deercreek. You were having some problems with a fish kill in your stream, if I recall?”
“You remember! Thanks to you, we’ve been able to finally get things put right.”
“We found you a contact with your state Department of Environ- mental Protection, and I think the local Ag-extension was going to help set up monitoring for your well?”
“The Ag-extension folks were so helpful. Turns out we weren’t the only property affected. Two more farms downstream were as well. And the DEP, well, there was some hassle there at first, but I did what you
said, I kept calm and just insisted that they do their jobs and investigate.
And you know what? Turns out it was a dry cleaner from in town. Too cheap to pay to safely dispose of all those chemicals, he thought he could come out here and pump them into our creek! But they caught him, red-handed. And now he’s paying to clean it all up—him and the state. Anyway, I wanted to thank you for all your help. It means the world to me and my neighbors.”
It wasn’t often that people took the time to call back and say thanks, so of course I smiled and gave my producer a double thumbs-up. “Thank you, Martha. Without people like you being willing to take a stand for what’s right, guys like your dry cleaner would get away with destroying our environment and our communities just to save them- selves a few bucks. You’re a real people’s champion.”
My producer cued the cheers, applause, and celebratory sound ef- fects. We signed off from Martha and took the next call. “Hi, you’re on the air with AJ Palladino, the People’s Champion.”
“You’re the one who took on Capital Power, won all that money for those folks?” This guy didn’t sound near as happy as Martha.
“I helped. It wasn’t about the money, though. It was about helping the people whose families suffered after their water was contaminated by Capital Power.” I chose my words judiciously. The court case was fa- mous, over and done with for four years, but every day someone just had to remind me of it—and of how far I’d fallen since.
Cinderella, the day after the ball. When she learned the prince didn’t put the toilet seat down, the royal horse stalls needed mucking, and glass slippers weren’t the most practical attire when running your ass off all day long in a palace with marble floors.
“What about helping all us people out of work now that Capital de- clared bankruptcy? You gonna go to court for us? Fight for our right to feed our families?” His words skidded together, building momentum like a NASCAR driver spotting the checkered flag.
“Sir, I’m not a lawyer—”
He drowned me out before I could finish my routine disclaimer. “No, you’re just the bitch who took my job and my house, and now I can’t even look my wife and kids in the eye. We’re living in a tent. A god- damn tent! All because of you—”
I signaled my producer to record and trace the caller’s location. Sit- ting up straight, I pressed my headset hard against my ear, as if I could channel the intentions behind his words.
“Sir, tell me more. How many kids do you have?” I tried in vain to en- gage him. Some were like that—they’d phone in to rant and vent and call me names that had the producer tapping the bleep button faster than a telegraph key. Those shows always made the station manager grin as ratings spiked. Usually I gave as good as I got. But something about this guy. . . .
“What do you care? The People’s Champion, my ass. This is all your fault. Remember that, bitch. All your fault.”
A blast thundered through my headphones. I tore the headset off, my ears ringing so loud I didn’t realize I was shouting. “Sir, sir! Are you all right? What happened?”
The ON THE AIR light faded to black. I climbed off my stool, my bal- ance wobbly. “Did you find him? Is he okay?”
“We’ve called nine-one-one. There’s nothing more I can do.” My producer was calm as he switched out PSA spots to fill the dead air.
“That was a gunshot.”
The switchboard lights danced like firecrackers. He ignored them. We wouldn’t be taking any more calls. Not today. Maybe not ever.
Sinking into the chair beside him, I cupped my ears, trying to muffle the screeching echo still rattling my fillings. “He’s dead, isn’t he?”
The direct line rang. He answered it, listened, then said, “Thank you,”and hung up.
“Tell me.” I wanted to throw up, needed to throw up, just to have an excuse to curl up alone in a bathroom stall, but instead I hung on to the arms of the vinyl chair, squeezing all my hope into their faux-leather padding.
“You can’t blame yourself,” he said in a tone meant to be kind.
I squeezed my eyes shut, blocking out the sight of his lips moving, letting the echo of the gunshot stampede through my brain.
Copyright © 2011 by Erin Brockovich
Published by Vanguard Press
A Member of the Perseus Books Group
All rights reserved. ISBN: 978-1-59315-625-1
|CJ LYONS MD|
As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge thrillers. In addition to being an award-winning, bestselling author, CJ is a nationally known presenter and keynote speaker. CJ has been called a "master within the genre" (Pittsburgh Magazine) and her work has been praised as "breathtakingly fast-paced" and "riveting" (Publishers Weekly) with "characters with beating hearts and three dimensions" (Newsday).So it is no suprise that she teamed up to co-author Rock Bottom with activist Erin Brockovich, a master in her own field.
Her award-winning, critically acclaimed Angels of Mercy series (LIFELINES, WARNING SIGNS, URGENT CARE and CRITICAL CONDITION) is available now.
You can learn more at http://www.cjlyons.net/ and for free reads, "Like" her at http://www.facebook.com/CJLyonsBestsellingThrillerAuthor
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