By Sandra Brown
Published by Simon & Schuster
October 2003; 0-743-24552-0; 416 pages
Up until six minutes to sign-off, it had been a routine shift.
"It's a steamy night in the hill country. Thank you for spending your time with me here on 101.3. I've enjoyed your company tonight, as I do each weeknight. This is your host for classic love songs, Paris Gibson.
"I'm going to leave you tonight with a trio of my favorites. I hope you're listening to them with someone you love. Hold each other close."
She depressed the button on the control board to turn off her microphone. The series of songs would play uninterrupted right up to 1:59:30. During the last thirty seconds of her program, she would thank her listening audience again, say good night, and sign off.
While "Yesterday" played, she closed her eyes and rolled her head around on her tense shoulders. Compared to an eight- or nine-hour workday, a four-hour radio show would seem like a snap. It wasn't. By sign-off, she was physically tired.
She worked the board alone, introducing the songs she had selected and logged in before the show. Audience requests necessitated adjustments to the log and careful attention to the countdown clock. She also manned the incoming telephone lines herself.
The mechanics of the job were second nature, but not her delivery. She never allowed it to get routine or sloppy. Paris Gibson the person had worked diligently, with voice coaches and alone, to perfect the Paris Gibson "sound" for which she was well known.
She worked harder than even she realized to maintain that perfected inflection and pitch, because after 240 minutes on air, her neck and shoulder muscles burned with fatigue. That muscle burn was evidence of how well she had performed.
Midway through the Beatles classic, one of the telephone lines blinked red, indicating an incoming call. She was tempted not to answer, but, officially, there were almost six minutes left to her program, and she promised listeners that she would take calls until two A.M. It was too late to put this caller on the air, but she should at least acknowledge the call.
She depressed the blinking button. "This is Paris."
"Hello, Paris. This is Valentino."
She knew him by name. He called periodically, and his unusual name was easily remembered. His speaking voice was distinctive, too, barely above a whisper, which was probably either for effect or disguise.
She spoke into the microphone suspended above the board, which served as her telephone handset when not being used to broadcast. That kept her hands free to go about her business even while talking to a caller.
"How are you tonight, Valentino?"
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Yes. You will be."
The Beatles gave way to Anne Murray's "Broken Hearted Me."
Paris glanced up at the log monitor and automatically registered that the second of the last three songs had begun. She wasn't sure she'd heard Valentino correctly. "I beg your pardon?"
"You will be sorry," he said.
The dramatic overtone was typical of Valentino. Whenever he called, he was either very high or very low, rarely on an emotional level somewhere in between. She never knew what to expect from him, and for that reason he was an interesting caller. But tonight he sounded sinister, and that was a first.
"I don't understand what you mean."
"I've done everything you advised me to do, Paris."
"I advised you? When?"
"Every time I've called. You always say -- not just to me, but to everybody who calls -- that we should respect the people we love."
"That's right. I think -- "
"Well, respect gets you nowhere, and I don't care what you think anymore."
She wasn't a psychologist or a licensed counselor, only a radio personality. Beyond that, she had no credentials. Nevertheless, she took her role as late-night friend seriously.
When a listener had no one else to talk to, she was an anonymous sounding board. Her audience knew her only by voice, but they trusted her. She served as their confidante, adviser, and confessor.
They shared their joys, aired their grievances, and sometimes bared their souls. The calls she considered broadcast-worthy evoked sympathy from other listeners, prompted congratulations, and sometimes created heated controversy.
Frequently a caller simply needed to vent. She acted as a buffer. She was a convenient outlet for someone mad at the world. Seldom was she the target of the caller's anger, but obviously this was one of those times, and it was unsettling.
If Valentino was on the brink of an emotional breakdown, she couldn't heal what had led him to it, but she might be able to talk him a safe distance away from the edge and then urge him to seek professional help.
"Let's talk about this, Valentino. What's on your mind?"
"I respect girls. When I'm in a relationship, I place the girl on a pedestal and treat her like a princess. But that's never enough. Girls are never faithful. Every single one of them screws around on me. Then when she leaves me, I call you, and you say that it wasn't my fault."
"Valentino, I -- "
"You tell me that I did nothing wrong, that I'm not to blame for her leaving. And you know what? You're absolutely right. I'm not to blame, Paris. You are. This time it's your fault."
Paris glanced over her shoulder, toward the soundproof door of the studio. It was closed, of course. The hallway beyond the wall of windows had never looked so dark, although the building was always dark during her after-hours program.
She wished Stan would happen by. Even Marvin would be a welcome sight. She wished for someone, anyone, to hear this call and help her get a read on it.
She considered disconnecting. No one knew where she lived or even what she looked like. It was stipulated in her contract with the radio station: She didn't make personal appearances. Nor was her likeness to appear in any promotional venues, including but not limited to all and any print advertising, television commercials, and billboards. Paris Gibson was a name and voice only, not a face.
But, in good conscience, she couldn't hang up on this man. If he had taken to heart something she'd said on air and things hadn't turned out well, his anger was understandable.
On the other hand, if a more rational person disagreed with something she had said, he simply would have blown it off. Valentino had vested in her more influence over his life than she deserved or desired.
"Explain how it's my fault, Valentino."
"You told her to break up with me."
"I never -- "
"I heard you! She called you the night before last. I was listening to your program. She didn't give her name, but I recognized her voice. She told you our story. Then she said that I had become jealous and possessive.
"You told her that if she felt our relationship was constricting, she should do something about it. In other words, you advised her to dump me." He paused before adding, "And I'm going to make you sorry you gave her that advice."
Paris's mind was skittering. In all her years on the air, she'd never encountered anything like this. "Valentino, let's remain calm and discuss this, all right?"
"I'm calm, Paris. Very calm. And there's nothing to discuss. I've got her where no one will find her. She can't escape me."
With that statement, sinister turned downright scary. Surely he didn't mean literally what he'd just said.
But before she could speak her thought aloud, he added, "She's going to die in three days, Paris. I'm going to kill her, and her death will be on your conscience."
The last song in the series was playing. The clock on the computer monitor was ticking toward sign-off. She cut a quick glance at the Vox Pro to make certain that an electronic gremlin hadn't caused it to malfunction. But, no, the sophisticated machine was working as it should. The call was being recorded.
She wet her lips and took a nervous breath. "Valentino, this isn't funny."
"It isn't supposed to be."
"I know you don't actually intend -- "
"I intend to do exactly what I said. I've earned at least seventy-two hours with her, don't you think? As nice as I've been to her? Isn't three days of her time and attention the least I deserve?"
"Valentino, please, listen -- "
"I'm over listening to you. You're full of shit. You give rotten advice. I treat a girl with respect, then she goes out and spreads her legs for other men. And you tell her to dump me, like I'm the one who ruined the relationship, like I'm the one who cheated. Fair's fair. I'm going to fuck her till she bleeds, then I'm going to kill her. Seventy-two hours from now, Paris. Have a nice night."Copyright © 2003 by Sandra Brown Management Ltd.
Reprinted with permission.
Since moving to Austin to ease the pain of tragic mistakes, Paris Gibson has led a life of virtual isolation, coming alive only at night when she hosts her popular radio show. Then one listener -- who identifies himself as "Valentino" -- tells Paris that the girl he loves jilted him because of Paris's on-air advice. He intends to exact revenge by killing the girl and then coming after Paris. In a race against time, Paris is thrust back into the public eye and allied with the police -- including crime psychologist Dean Malloy, the very man she had moved to Austin to avoid. Desperate to stop the sinister Valentino from carrying out his terrible threats, Paris must also confront her own demons....HELLO, DARKNESS is Sandra Brown's most spine-tingling thriller to date.(back to top)