Praise for The Hills Report:
“First time novelist Shawn Sprague has penned a well-plotted, well-researched thriller that opens with a bang and keeps readers hooked to the last page…the plot never slows and is jam packed with unforeseen twists and snappy dialogue…deserves to be on the shelves alongside novels by John Grisham and Dan Brown.” - Forward Clarion, Jill Allen (5 Stars)
“...A superbly written and riveting story populated by memorable characters that we would all recognize from our own cable “news” shows in a story that could be the stuff of today’s headlines.” - The
THE HILLS REPORT - Sprague - Copyright 2016
Katherine Galesko awoke and sprang upright on the edge of the couch. A door had slammed upstairs, unless she dreamt it. She had no idea which. After brushing a few strands of brown hair away from her face, she inhaled a deep breath and let it out slowly. She learned the technique long ago to calm herself and did it now without thinking. She unzipped the top half of her running jacket—the same one she was wearing when this nightmare began—and repeated the breathing routine.
A musky odor permeated the stale air, the smell conjuring memories of playing in her grandfather’s dank basement. The images released a painful wave of nostalgia, but they also provided a measure of comfort. Katherine wondered if Papa, dead now for over six years, was looking down on her. She felt certain he was.
She stared across the narrow room at a glowing television screen only a few feet from the wall. At eight feet by ten feet, the windowless cubby held a small couch and the television console, but little else. In the far right corner, an unfinished wooden door led into a rectangular bathroom housing a toilet and a tiny sink.
It had been six days, by her calculations, since they plucked her off the street near her off-campus apartment and dragged her into the van. Surely, they would rape and murder her, she had thought in those first horrible moments. But soon after came the sharp stab of the needle…then darkness. The next conscious thought was of being woken up in this very room by a man in a ski mask. In that instant, the reality of her situation became clear. She’d been kidnapped for ransom.
Her father, a venture capitalist and majority owner of numerous companies––including a pharmaceutical outfit worth billions––was one of the wealthiest men in
Katherine tried to shake the cobwebs from her mind as Gladiator played quietly on the television. It was one of only two DVDs in the room when she arrived. She’d already watched the film several times and could tell by the scene that she hadn’t been sleeping long. She heard faint footsteps above her and a knot twisted in her stomach. He’s coming down, she thought. A moment later, the light came on overhead, followed by the metallic click of the bolt lock.
“Where are you?” the man asked, as the door creaked open.
Katherine thought he sounded more like a bank manager than a kidnapper. “I’m on the couch,” she replied.
After gauging her location, the man opened the door several inches and peered into the room. When he saw her on the couch, he pushed the door all the way open and stepped inside. He was enormous––she guessed well over three hundred pounds. He wore his usual outfit: sweat pants, a pullover, and a navy blue ski mask. At least three people had taken part in the abduction, but he was the only one she’d seen since her arrival. She felt certain he was the same man who pulled her into the van.
"Stand up and turn around,” he said. “We’re going somewhere.”
They didn’t have daily conversations, but he usually tolerated a few questions as long as they didn’t have anything to do with her situation. For the first time, she noted a slight change in his voice, a hint of trepidation. He’s lying. Just then she noticed the duct tape in his right hand. “Where are we going?” she asked, trying not to broadcast the fear washing over her.
“I’ll tell you on the way,” he said. “Now turn around.”
His voice had returned to normal, but she knew it was another lie. He’d never shared any significant information before and wasn’t likely to start now. She turned around even as everything inside her begged her to lunge at his neck and bite down with all the force she could muster. She figured she could probably hurt him, but in the end, what good would it do? He was simply too large. Even if she was able to bite him or land a punch or two, her chances of escaping the room were next to zero.
He wrapped the duct tape several times around her wrists before tearing it off. “Okay, let’s go,” he said.
Despite her uneasiness, she allowed herself to wonder where he might be taking her. Maybe her father had paid the ransom. Maybe he was planning to drop her off at some remote location. She knew better than to ask about those possibilities, so she took another route. “Will we be coming ba—” was all she got out before he struck her in the jaw—a short crossing blow to the chin. Her knees buckled and she tumbled backward to the floor, her head bouncing off the carpeted concrete. Blackness threatened to engulf her, but she fought it off and rolled onto her side. He quickly forced her back down and scrambled on top of her, straddling her. She saw his fist plummeting toward her again and tried to turn away, but there was nowhere to go. The blackness returned, but this time she drifted toward it, wanting it. She felt powerful hands clamping down on her throat, but the sensation was fading quickly. She closed her eyes and a moment later saw her boyfriend’s face just a few inches away, his dark blue eyes staring into her soul.
With that final thought, twenty-year-old Katherine Galesko’s eyes rolled into the top of her head, and she slipped into unconsciousness. Thirty-four seconds later, she was dead.
Seven Days Later…Thursday
After the airing of today’s program, The Hills Report will have been running for eight weeks, a full seven weeks longer than most of his colleagues predicted. Everything started out surprisingly well, with ratings above expectations, but in the weeks that followed, the show began losing viewers at a rate Foti described as a “frightening hemorrhage.” Hills knew a lot of it had to do with a shortage of dramatic news stories, but it was also the beginning of summer. People were spending time outside playing with their children or doing their best to shed the pounds piled on watching the National Football League from their living room couches.
Whatever the reasons, reality was staring at Hills the way a cat stares at a hapless mouse just before delivering the deathblow. Even the recent obsession surrounding the abduction of Boston College junior Katherine Galesko wasn’t going to change that, even though it had spiked their ratings and probably bought him an extra week or two. Foti had caught him yesterday on his way out of the building to set up a meeting for this morning. Hills didn’t have to ask why. They’d been having weekly discussions about the state of the show, and the look on Foti’s face told him it was time for another. Hills knew Foti was in his corner, which could not be said about everyone at the network, but he also knew ratings were everything. Foti’s words on the day he offered him his own show said it all: “You can be the greatest host on the planet, but if you don’t draw an audience, we can’t sell advertising…and frankly, nothing else matters.”
Hills sat up in bed and the dull ache in his temples escalated into a vicious pounding working both sides of his head. Last night, eager to forget about his problems, he’d opened an expensive Napa Cabernet and proceeded to down the bottle as well as most of a second. He’d been saving the bottles for a special occasion, but in the middle of his despair, it was easy to rationalize that it was as good a time as any. Sitting in his bedroom with a nauseous stomach and a splitting headache, he wished he’d reconsidered.
Hills shuffled to the bathroom where he swallowed a couple Tylenol with a handful of water. He was six-foot-two and a shade over two hundred pounds. Three or four workouts a week kept him fairly toned, but he’d recently noticed the first signs of flab forming on his stomach. He rubbed his face and looked in the mirror, his bloodshot blue eyes staring back at him. At thirty-five years old, he still had all of his short brown hair, and his features were sharp and handsome—at least that was what he’d always been told. He swallowed another mouthful of water, stole one last glance at the fool who opened the second bottle, and stumbled back to bed.
Shelby Kollet tapped her mother on the lips for the third time in the last sixty seconds. “Wake up, Mommy,” she said. “Wake up.”
“Okay, honey, Mama’s up,” Samantha mumbled. The pair had gone to bed early the night before and slept for over twelve hours. Samantha rolled onto her side and kissed her three-year-old on the forehead.
“Oh, yeah, little one?” Samantha inched toward her daughter’s face until their noses were touching.
“I don’t think so,” Samantha said, smiling. She slipped her hand under the child’s arm and tickled her ribs.
“Yes, you do!”
“That’s it, you little stinker. You’re in trouble now.” She lifted
A few minutes later, Samantha carried
“Here she is, Grandma,” Samantha said. “She’s full of it this morning.”
“I heard her up there,” Emily Kollet replied. “I think I know how to take care of that.” She kissed
“I smelled it as soon as I woke up. I’m dying for a cup.”
“I put a mug out for you.”
“Thanks, Mom. You’re the best.”
Samantha left them in the foyer and walked into a spacious kitchen adorned with granite countertops and light brown cupboards. Sunlight streamed through the windows, giving the room a soft radiance. She lifted the ceramic mug from the counter and added a small amount of cream before filling it to the top with steaming coffee. She opened the back screen door and stepped out onto a raised wooden deck where a heavy breeze carrying the sweet, salty smell of the
Twenty-nine-year-old Samantha Kollet, an American-born actress who’d appeared in nearly thirty films since her debut at the age of eight, gazed out at the beach behind her parents’
Hills’s cab weaved through a scattered mass of pedestrians and rounded the corner onto Eighth Avenue. A hundred yards later, it stopped in front of the
Five minutes later, he unlocked his office door and stepped inside. It was filled with the usual basics including a desk, a small meeting table in the corner, a computer, and a telephone. A seventeen-inch flat-screen television hung on the wall. It was smaller than most of the other hosts’ offices, but it was well away from the on-air studios and the endless commotion that haunted that part of the building.
His meeting with Foti was scheduled for 11:30, but the plan was to arrive early so he could check his messages and catch up on the day’s news events before the production meeting for The Hills Report started at 12:30. He wondered how long it would take for Jackie or one of his other production assistants to stop by to say “hello” or to bombard him with their latest great idea. Typically it occurred within a few minutes of arriving, which is why he usually did his initial preparations from the relative safety of his apartment. Having once been a production assistant, he understood what they were trying to do, but it seemed as if he’d been handed the four most motivated assistants in the history of television news.
As he walked to his desk, he couldn’t stop thinking about the look on Foti’s face yesterday. They’d just finished the post-mortem—a quick meeting with his team to discuss what had worked during the show and what didn’t. Foti wasn’t usually in the building at that hour, but he caught Hills at the elevators on his way out. His expression told him a decision had been made regarding the future of the show, and it wasn’t good. A thought burst into his consciousness. I hope I still have a job after today. Losing his show had always been a real possibility, but until now, he never considered he might be let go all together.
There were some powerful individuals who resented his swift ascent to anchoring his own nightly news program. He’d heard the rumors, mostly second hand from one of his production assistants, and they all revolved around his connection to Foti. The truth was his general manager in
Topping this list was John Waterman, host of The Waterman News Hour. The show ran weeknights from 9:00-10:00 p.m. It was WNN’s highest-rated program and had been for Hills’s entire tenure. It took Waterman eight years to work his way from production assistant to host, and he held a grudge against anyone who made the trek more quickly. He especially disliked Hills, whom he considered “a less talented individual who’d been fast tracked.” For his part, Hills thought Waterman was a buffoon, but a dangerous one. He knew if Waterman was lobbying for his complete dismissal, Foti would have to at least appear to be listening.
Just then there were two quick raps on the door. Hills was about to say “come in” when the door opened and Foti leaned into the room. “Eric, good morning,” he said.
Hills could see he was in a much better mood than last night. “Good morning, William.”
"I’m going to have to move our meeting up a little. Why don’t you stop by my office in about ten minutes.”
The guillotine awaits, Hills thought. “Okay, I’ll do that.”
“Great, I’ll see you then.”
Hills reached the desk of Foti’s secretary, Melissa, and listened patiently as she explained to a caller that Mr. Foti was unavailable. When Hills first started at WNN, he heard a rumor that she and Foti had been caught in the act one night by the cleaning crew. As far as he knew, there hadn’t been a sequel, so apparently they’d learned to be more discreet. Foti’s indiscretions had attained an almost mythical status at WNN, and everyone suspected they were the main reason behind his impending divorce.
“Hello, Eric,” Melissa said. She smiled, revealing a row of flawless white teeth.
“Hello, Melissa. I’m here to meet with William.”
“He mentioned that you’d be coming by. He’s in there with John Waterman at the moment, but I don’t think they’ll be long.”
Hills detected a hint of disdain when she mentioned Waterman. Clearly, she didn’t like him either.
“You can have a seat, or you can stand here for a few minutes and keep me entertained.” She smiled again, awaiting his response.
Semi-flirtatious banter was their norm, but Hills felt preoccupied with the upcoming meeting and was fresh out of clever responses. Luckily Foti’s door opened and Waterman stepped out of the room.
“Eric, how are you?” he asked, his tone almost mocking. “Great show last night. I enjoyed it.”
“Thank you, John, I appreciate that.” What an ass, Hills thought. He doubted Waterman had watched even a single minute. He was suddenly sure he and Foti had just been discussing the fate of The Hills Report.
Waterman walked away without as much as a nod to Melissa. She looked at Hills and rolled her eyes. “Let me see if he’s ready to see you,” she said. She slipped into Foti’s office and returned a moment later. “Go right in, Eric.”
Hills stepped into the room and found Foti sitting behind a massive mahogany desk. The office, furnished with dark cherry cabinetry, was easily four times the size of his own. Foti bit into a bagel and motioned for Hills to sit in one of the two chairs in front of his desk. Hills crossed the room, passing a black leather couch on the right and a large conference table to the left.
“Eric,” Foti said, his mouth still half full, “I know you’re getting ready for your show, so I’ll keep it short. First of all, how are you? Everything going okay outside of work?”
Hills knew his personal life was the last thing Foti cared about. “I’m doing great. Thanks for asking.”
“We’ve already had a few conversations regarding the falling ratings.”
Here it comes. Hills nodded his head but kept quiet.
“For whatever reason, we’re continuing to slide in that time slot. It’s the same old story. We’re losing viewers mostly to MSNBC and FOX. I know you’re aware of all this, and I don’t have to tell you how the game is played.”
Hills knew three advertisers had already pulled their spots off The Hills Report.
“I’ve watched your shows. You know that. I think you’re doing a hell of a job. I think there’s just a combination of things happening beyond your control.” Foti leaned back in his chair and tapped his pen on the desk. “We’re pulling The Hills Report after next week. Next Friday will be the last show. I’d like you to continue on as a correspondent. We’ll also have you do some investigative reports like you’ve done in the past.”
Even though he’d known it was coming, it was still a jolt to actually hear the words. “I understand,” Hills said flatly. “I appreciate the opportunity you gave me and I’ll continue to work extremely hard.”
“I know you will. I never had any doubts about that. You’re the best reporter we have, and I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t mean it. You’ll get another shot down the road. We just need to find the right format for you.”
Hills was about to respond when Melissa beeped in. “Mr. Foti, your wife is on line two.”
Foti rolled his eyes. The gesture told Hills everything he needed to know about the state of their marriage. He’d only met Jill Foti a couple of times, but she had a certain warmth about her that seemed out of place in the ultra competitive world they lived in. Hills hoped she didn’t know about the incident with the cleaning crew. Having to go through a mistress just to speak to your husband sounded like cruel and unusual punishment.
“Actually, Eric, I better take this call,” Foti said sounding dejected. It was as if speaking to his wife was a battle lost.
The two men stood and shook hands. Hills walked toward the door, wondering if he really would get another shot at his own show. He couldn’t help but think he’d just blown his one and only chance.
“Eric,” Foti called out before Hills left the room, “don’t just get through your last week. Knock ’em dead. People will remember that.”
Samantha cleared the last of the dunes and looked up and down the coastline.
Shelby spotted the water and took off running. A few seconds later, she jumped into the foamy remnants of an exhausted wave and plunged her hands into the ankle deep water. She spun back toward Samantha, who’d approached to within just a few yards, with a look of utter surprise. “It’s so cold, Mommy! The ocean’s so cold!”
“I know, honey,” Samantha said, laughing. “The ocean is really cold here.”
“Why so cold, Mommy? It’s supposed to be warm!”
Samantha laughed harder. “It’s because we’re so far north, honey. You’ve been spoiled rotten. You’ve only been to beaches where it’s really warm.” In the last six months alone, she’d taken
Samantha watched her daughter play in the surf, pleased with how quickly she’d adjusted. Her father always told her she was the same way growing up, quick to adapt to almost any new situation. They had moved around a lot when she was very young, so there were always different surroundings to settle into and new friends to be made. As a result, she was never afraid of change and was always willing to try new things. That worked to her advantage when a family friend asked her to appear in a commercial for a local dentist’s office. Not only was Samantha a natural, she was also hooked. It wasn’t long before she was begging her father to take her to various auditions throughout the northeast. By then they were living year round in Cape Cod, so
Samantha set a small cooler onto the sand along with a canvas bag holding two towels and a beach blanket. She walked up to her daughter and sat next to her in the wet sand. Another wave moved in and flowed onto her bare legs. Samantha gasped but stifled it quickly. If my three-year-old can handle it, so can I, she thought.
“Mommy, I’m digging for sand crabs. Can you help me?”
“Of course, baby girl, I’d love to.”
“Papa told me to dig where the bubbles are.”
“Papa said that?”
“Yeah, he said that. And Papa’s smart.”
Samantha laughed out loud. “You’re right, honey, Papa is very smart.” She lifted the flap of the bucket hat and kissed her daughter’s sand-covered forehead before turning her attention back to digging. With the hot afternoon sun beating down on their backs and the cold
Hills strolled into the production meeting and greeted the seven other people responsible for the content of The Hills Report. They sat around a large, oval-shaped table in one of the four conference rooms scattered throughout the offices of WNN.
“Hello, Mr. Hills,” replied Rebecca Barton, executive producer of The Hills Report, and one of Hills’s closest friends at the network. A petite woman with angular features, Rebecca had ultra-light skin and short, jet-black hair. Hills liked to tell her she looked Goth, knowing the comment would always draw a scathing reply. He learned early on you had to have thick skin to work with Rebecca. She was merciless and her observations usually dead-on.
Several other people acknowledged Hills, including the two segment producers and all four production assistants. He slid into his customary seat next to Rebecca and started checking emails on his BlackBerry.
"Jesus, they’re still making those things?” Rebecca asked, pointing to the phone. It was a question she asked him at least once a week.
“Yeah, they still make ’em for people who actually work,” Hills replied, opting for his standard response. He was about to ask her about her son’s baseball game when Robert Mallery, the daytime executive producer, strolled confidently into the room. After Foti, Mallery was the highest-ranking executive at WNN.
“Good afternoon,” Mallery said in a jovial tone, which everyone knew could turn vicious at the first sign of a foolish mistake. “Katherine Galesko’s boyfriend,” he announced. “We start the show with him unless somebody can talk me out of it.”
A story broke two hours earlier, reporting that Katherine Galesko’s boyfriend had been accused of holding a young woman against her will two years ago. No charges were filed because the woman changed her mind after the initial complaint and refused to cooperate. At the time, the incident had been kept quiet, but a local reporter in Galesko’s hometown dug up the story. Everyone in the room nodded, including Hills, so Mallery wrote: Galesko’s Boyfriend at the top of a whiteboard in large red letters.
“I told you he did it,” Hills whispered to Rebecca.
“Of course, he did,” Rebecca replied. “He’s a man, isn’t he?”
“Were you able to get in touch with Galesko’s sister?” Hills asked.
“Not yet,” Rebecca said, “I’ll try again.”
“Okay, because remember we want to have her on today, especially with this new information.”
“Yeah, I generally don’t forget my own ideas.”
Hills laughed. “That’s right. Well, that’s why they pay you the big bucks.”
“Okay, that’s our opening,” Mallery said, halting the discussion. All the details could be worked out later. “What’s next?”
The meeting dragged on for nearly an hour and a half. The further the ratings slipped, the longer the production meetings became, but nothing seemed to make any difference. Aside from a few rough moments in the first week, the shows had been good and getting better. Hills had watched all of them at least twice. He knew a 7:00 p.m. time slot wasn’t helping any, with half the East Coast still eating dinner and most of the West Coast still at work, but the show wasn’t even holding onto its current audience. Some of it had to do with the ongoing shift to the Internet, but there was something else at work no one seemed capable of putting their finger on. Hills doubted they would ever discover what it was.
Jeff Baxter dropped his keys onto the table, then walked into the living room and turned on the television. He found CNN and sat on the edge of the couch. He considered making a martini but knew that was the last thing he needed. If he started drinking now, he wouldn’t be able to stop, and he couldn’t afford to lose control again. The CNN anchor announced they were going to commercial, so he changed the channel to WNN where he found a striking blond with impossibly large eyes staring into the camera.
“If you’re just joining us,” the woman said, “we have breaking news in the disappearance of
“Honey, I didn’t even hear you come in,” Amy Baxter said from the doorway. “What are you doing home so early?”
“I’m not feeling that great,” Baxter said, his eyes never leaving the television.
“Don’t tell me you’re getting it, too?” Just last week she spent six straight hours running from the bed to the bathroom.
“No, I don’t think it’s that. I just have a headache.”
“That’s how mine started, too. God, I hope it doesn’t ruin the weekend.”
Baxter turned toward his wife. “It’s nice to see you so concerned about me.”
Amy laughed, loud and unguarded. It was a sound he’d loved since the very first time he heard it. “I’m sorry, honey. It’s just the only weekend all summer that we don’t have anything going on. I was hoping we could do something fun tomorrow. Maybe go down to Caccitore’s and sit on the patio?”
“Yeah, that sounds good, honey,” Baxter said. His attention was back to the television and the huge, hypnotic eyes.
“So far there’s been no comment from either the Galesko or
“Should I call John and Anna to see if they want to meet us?” Amy asked.
Baxter continued staring at the television, now showing a photo of Katherine Galesko and Michael Taylor leaning into one another and smiling. They were lounging at a wooden table in what looked like a college bar. Baxter suspected there were two half-empty pints sitting somewhere close by. They looked like any happy young couple in practically any pub in
He found himself wondering what the two families were doing at this very moment. One was frantically organizing yet another fruitless search party, begging the media to continue their coverage. The other was pulling back from that same entity with equal urgency. The complex force, so compassionate and helpful only hours ago, had suddenly sprouted very sharp teeth and blank, hungry eyes.
They said no one would get hurt, Baxter thought. The words had run through his mind a million times since hearing about Katherine Galesko’s death. At first they had eased the guilt, albeit it ever so slightly. Now they just passed through his consciousness like dead fish flowing downstream.
“Honey, is everything okay?” Amy asked, her tone growing agitated. “I’ve asked you three times if you want me to call John and Anna to meet us tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry, honey. I’m a little preoccupied right now.”
“With the disappearance of a college student?”
“No, I’m sorry. Go ahead and invite them. That sounds fun.” If she had countered with, “invite them to what, sweetheart?” he wouldn’t have been able to venture a guess.
“Okay, I’m going to leave you alone. Maybe you should take a nap.” She watched her husband stare at the television for a few seconds longer before walking out of the room. He never responded.
End of Sample
THE HILLS REPORT - Sprague - Copyright 2016