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All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel
are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2012 by Bill Evans
All rights reserved.
A Tor Book
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010
Tor® is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
First Edition: June 2012
Printed in the United States of America
Jenna Withers could see more than fifty miles from the shotgun seat of
The Morning Show helicopter. None of it looked pretty. The farms and
forests north of New York City had turned to tinder. Mid-October was
as hot as mid-August had been, the third scorching year in a row.
Lakes and reservoirs were drying up and the rivers looked like they’d
slunk away from their banks, thieves in the night.
It was just as dry— or drier— on the West Coast and across the Sun
Belt. The hottest growing season on record. Much of the Midwest had
been singed, too, with farmers in Iowa and Nebraska losing 80 percent
of their corn crop. Food and fuel prices were rising as fast as the mercury.
Minutes ago Jenna; her producer, Nicole Parsons; and their crew
had choppered out of New York City, the heart of a drought emergency that had been declared two months ago. That was the second
highest level of official panic, right below drought disaster— conditions
so dire that they were bluntly unthinkable in a metro area of twenty
| BILL EVANS
No one in the Big Apple had escaped the vicious grip of the Northeast drought. Water for parks, golf courses, and fountains? Fahgeddaboutit. Let ’em brown, where they hadn’t burned. Car washes? You
gotta be kiddin’. Pools? You’re still jokin’.
Not even sprinklers to cool off the kiddies, and fire hydrants were
locked up tighter than Tiffany’s. Most of the water for everything but
drinking now came from the Hudson River, where crews worked 24/7
to pump out tens of millions of gallons. The water level had dropped to
historic lows. Sailors had to take extra steps to climb down from docks
to their decks, but this was a minor inconvenience to a city in survival
mode. A city that looked like it was on chemo.
Jenna, a meteorologist, didn’t need the Ph.D. after her name to tally
up the terror that could come from a cigarette tossed into the brittle
brush down below, where a single spark could turn the region crisp as
Southern California when the Santa Ana winds wicked all the life from
the land, before burning the mountainsides black. Merely looking down
at the devastation from the front passenger seat brought to mind the
scores of scientific studies linking high temperatures and high-pressure
systems to homicide and the full spectrum of urban violence.
The current condition was a classic summertime high. It had originated just east of Bermuda. For most of the past two months, it had
driven the polar jet stream north, into Canada, and the subtropical jet
stream south, below the Gulf of Mexico. That left the “Bermuda high,”
as it was aptly known, hunkered down like a big old bear at a beehive,
far too content to move.
“You finding our reservoir? I’m getting nervous back here.” Nicole’s
voice came through Jenna’s headphones. In the seat right behind her,
“Nicci” to those who knew her well, was the off-camera part of the
weather team. She was as short and dark-haired as Jenna was tall and
blond. They were the best of friends—real friends, not frenemies—
which was good because they were virtually joined at the hip, “married” in the parlance of network television.
“I don’t see it yet.”
Nicci shot back, “We’ve got to land somewhere and go live in nine
BLACKMAIL EAR TH
The countdown, thought Jenna. There’s always a frickin’ countdown.
Her stomach tightened as seconds flew by, softening only slightly when
their pilot, Harry “Bird” Stephenson, pointed to a huge empty bowl in
the earth that was their destination, a reservoir wrung dry of every last
ounce, as if a plug had been pulled on the whole works, but not a drop
had drained: All the water had burned into the sky.
Dust was rising now, engulfing the copter, swirling wildly as if they
were in Iraq or Afghanistan. Bird flew by instruments— eyes locked
on the panel, pudgy hands on the controls—and landed on the edge of
the dry lake bed with the softest bump.
With the engine shut down and the AC off, the glass bubble heated
up faster than a cheap lightbulb. Jenna started to sweat immediately.
Her blouse and panty hose felt like warm, wet leaves plastered to her
skin. Even the dust still eddying outside looked more appealing than
sitting in this sauna. But the instant she reached for the door, Bird took
“I don’t want that goddamn grit getting in here. It’s hell on the instruments. Give it a sec to settle down.”
“Bird,” Nicci said in her most urgent voice, “we’ve got about five minutes to get out, get set up, and get on the air. Five minutes, Bird. Let’s go.”
Nicci shouldered open her door, rousing Andi, the camerawoman,
from her open-eyed torpor. Andi cradled the high-definition digital camera in her arms as she started to climb out the left side of the
Jenna sucked in one more breath before heading into the chestchoking air. Ducking, she hustled out from under the still whirling
rotors, and spotted a man and his border collie in the drifting dust.
Not a happy pair. The guy stood stiffly, rifle by his side. That made
Jenna uneasy. She found little relief in glancing at Bowser. The dog
was poised next to his master, staring at Jenna from a pair of unblinking blue marbles. Eerie freakin’ eyes. Doesn’t the dust get in them? Jenna’s own eyes were closed to slits.
Squinting, she looked from beast to man. They looked like attitude
squared, an opinion only confirmed when he roared, “You didn’t even
see us, did you?”
| BILL EVANS
“I’m not the pilot,” she said calmly, hoping to soothe him. He did
have that rifle. How did we manage to miss them? she thought.
“You almost killed us.”
“I’m really sorry.”
“Everywhere we ran, that helicopter kept coming at us, and then we
couldn’t see a damn thing with all the dust. Four miles of open reservoir, and you just about planted that thing right on our heads. How
stupid is that?”
Jenna glanced at Bird, still sitting at the controls, staring straight
ahead. Leaving her to own up.
“Pretty damn stupid,” Jenna agreed. “Look, really, I’m sorry. I’m
Jenna Withers. I do weather for The Morning Show.”
“I know who you are.”
Now she noticed a pistol hung from his hip.
“Law enforcement?” she asked softly. Hoping. She’d grown up with
guns—her dear departed father had been a hunter and marksman all
his life—but years of city living had made her more wary of firearms.
But you’re not in the city, she told herself.
Before he could answer, Nicci snapped, “Weather girl”— only she
could get away with that moniker—“three minutes. Three. Ready?”
Jenna nodded, still hoping that the gunslinger was a cop because
presumably they possessed a strong measure of self-control with their
weapons. On the other hand, there had to be some really nasty FAA
regulations about almost landing a chopper on an officer and his fourlegged friend.
“Dairy farmer,” she heard him say in the next breath.
“Dairy farmer,” she repeated. That sounded friendly enough: Elsie
the cow, right? Reassuring. So was the lowered volume of his voice.
Which was good because she needed to focus on the live update, now
less than ninety seconds away. She pulled weather data up on her laptop screen, then checked temperatures for the region; this was a story
on the Northeast drought, so she didn’t need to worry about the entire
country on this go-round.
Pulling a tissue from her pocket, Jenna patted her face; sweat and
BLACKMAIL EAR TH
dust stained the tissue when she was done. Or was that tan stuff
makeup? She’d applied it during the flight, after all. Opening her purse,
she drew out a small mirror in a sleek black leather case that looked like
a notebook, and gazed at her face. The little case was a discreet way to
check her appearance without reinforcing the narcissistic TV talent
stereotype. The headphones had messed with her hair, but she straightened and fluffed it, then noticed that her eyes were red from the dust.
Andi peered through her viewfinder, then snapped together a wireless microphone and clipped it to the inside of Jenna’s blouse. The
camerawoman kept eyeing the farmer and his border collie. Jenna
understood the concern: Loonies were known to mess with live shots
in the city. But you’re not in the city, she reminded herself a second time.
And the dairyman didn’t look like a loony. Actually, he looked kind of
handsome, but she had to put aside his presence and turn her thoughts
to the work at hand, though in truth she figured that she could do an
update in her sleep. And given the schedule of a meteorologist on The
Morning Show—up at 2:00 a.m., on at 7:00 a.m.—she probably already
had on numerous occasions.
Besides, what she would say would play second fiddle to the split
screen that the show planned to use as her backdrop: empty, dusty reservoir cheek by jowl with old footage of the lake brimming with cool
water. The sweet “then,” the sour—and scary—“now.”
Cued, Jenna chattered to the camera, alternately smiling and turning serious as she boiled down the update to “hot and dry,” the daily
mantra since a high-pressure system had settled over the region five
weeks earlier. The stagnant weather had shown no more inclination to
move on than a two-ton boulder plopped on a trail.
She engaged in snappy closing patter with Andrea Hanson, The
Morning Show’s visibly pregnant host, a darling of viewers and a mainstay of morning television for the past five years.
The dairy farmer and his furry pal watched Jenna sign off. She felt
a familiar sense of relief when the camera went dark, then noticed that
Andi was back to keeping a wary eye on the guy with the guns.
| BILL EVANS
“Is the drought making dairy farming tougher?” she asked in her
most empathetic “the weather really sucks” voice, hoping to charm
away the tension. She unclipped the mike and handed it to Andi, who
pocketed it before heading back to the helicopter. Nicci had already
“We don’t need a drought to make dairying tougher, but the cows
are okay. They’re just moving a little slower.”
“They free range?”
“That’s chickens around here. Only thing free range these days are
the roaches. They love the heat. Ever been to Puerto Rico? Cockroaches big as your fist. They’re getting that way around here.”
Who did he remind her of? Somebody appealing. Tall as she was,
wiry, with smooth skin and sharp features. “What’s your name?”
“Dafoe. Dafoe Tillian.”
“Good to meet you, Dafoe.” He shook her hand, and she knew that
she had, indeed, charmed him, but try as she might, she could not
place his face.
The rotors whirled faster. Jenna climbed aboard and belted herself
in. Dafoe hurried away from the dust storm whipping up from the
lake bed, then turned around so quickly that even through a hurricane
of dust and heat he caught her staring at his retreat. She wanted to look
down, peel her eyes from his; but her body wouldn’t obey, and a smile
betrayed her even more.
As Bird flew them over the barren bowl, Jenna felt herself sink back
to earth: He’s a farmer, for chrissakes. You left that life.
She closed her eyes, catnapping till Nicci asked her to join a call to
The Morning Show’s executive producer, Marv Balen, or “the twit,” as
the two women called him in private. “He texted us a few seconds ago.”
Up ahead, the city’s skyline poked through the low-lying smog like
quills through a dirty old quilt. Jenna turned on her headset.
“We’re here, Marv,” Nicci said. “Go ahead.”
“We had three murders in the Bronx last night. Cops found the
victims about an hour ago. They think they’ve got the shooter. Word is
he snapped and started shooting his poker buddies when the air condi-
BLACKMAIL EAR TH
tioner went on the fritz. So that makes three more heat-related homicides this week.”
“So you want us to do the story?” Jenna said, hope as irrepressible as
“Noooo. One of our correspondents will. But don’t get ahead of me.
There’s more of the gore out on the West Coast. Fresno’s had a week of
one-hundred-ten-degree weather . . .”
Like we need you to tell us that.
“. . . and last night they had their fourth murder during that heat
wave. So you’re going to be our resident expert on how weather affects
“It’s not really my area of expertise, Marv, but—”
“Yeah, I know,” he interrupted, “but you can say that heat and high
pressure systems are linked to higher murder rates.”
The 101s of weather, Jenna thought.
“It’s a lot cheaper than flying a crew up to MIT to get some professor to spew,” Marv went on, “and you’re an author. You can spout off.”
He was referring, in his typically ham-handed way, to a book Jenna
had published seven years ago on geoengineering—how technology
could be used to combat climate change. There had been little interest
back then, but the publisher had reissued her volume three months ago
to great interest in both the academic and mainstream press.
“So talk about heat and murder, and don’t go throwing in a lot of
other stuff. Don’t complicate it. And Nicci, make sure she doesn’t go
yammering on about global fucking warming. We’re keeping it supertight.”
All stories had to be supertight these days: reports, live shots, updates, even the banter with Andrea Hanson. It was a presidential election
year, and the news hole for everything but polls, politicians, and pundits
had shrunk faster than a Greenland glacier.
Minutes after they’d landed in Manhattan and raced back to the
Weather Command Center, a crew hurried over from the Northeast
Bureau. The correspondent was an up-and-comer who put together
reports for The Morning Show as well as the evening news. He was all
| BILL EVANS
smiles and good cheer, which Jenna appreciated. Life was too short for
sneakiness and sarcasm—for people like Marv, in other words.
A cameraman set up quickly, positioning Jenna in front of The Morning Show logo. Product placement. As she finished answering the correspondent’s question about heat and homicide, Jenna spotted Cassie Carter,
the Weather Command Center’s frizzy-haired assistant, waving frantically for her attention. “It’s the White House,” Cassie said breathlessly.
“The White House?” Jenna asked. Nicci looked up from her laptop. “Is this a joke?” Jenna asked her. “Did you put Cassie up to this?”
“No, I didn’t.”
And she hadn’t, Jenna learned an instant later when she heard
“Please hold for Ralph Ebbing.” The White House chief of staff. In
seconds he came on the line.
“Good morning, Ms. Withers.”
“Good morning.” Her voice sounded as bright as one of her weather
maps. Still, she shot Nicci a final questioning look. Nicci gave an immediate shake of her head, but even without that, Jenna had heard
Ebbing on the Sunday morning talk shows often enough to know that
the voice on the phone really did belong to him.
“I’m sure you’re busy,” he said, “so I’ll get right to the point: We’d
like you to serve on the Presidential Task Force on Climate Change.”
“I’m very honored. Very. But I’ll have to check to see whether that’s
permitted. The network has rules about this. As you probably know,”
she hurried to add. Her heart was pounding.
“Absolutely. But I want you to know that we’d really like you to
Serve? The word had such an honorable ring to it. Jenna thought
about asking about per diem costs and transportation, but decided those
pesky questions were best left to one of Ebbing’s underlings—and after
she made sure that the network had no objections to her . . . serving. “I
should be able to get back to you in a day or two,” she said.
“We’d appreciate that greatly. We believe your expertise could be
helpful to our nation,” Ebbing said. “The vice president will chair the
task force, and if you could communicate with his chief of staff, that
would be best.” Ebbing gave her a phone number for his counterpart.
BLACKMAIL EAR TH
“On behalf of the president, I want to thank you for considering this
appointment, Ms. Withers. I hope you’ll serve.”
“Thank you. And I will if I may. I’ll let the vice president’s people
And then the conversation was over. Jenna kept the phone to her ear
after Ebbing hung up, savoring the request in silence for a few seconds
because she was all but certain that as a member of the news division,
she would be barred from taking any appointment to a governmental
body. Those were the network’s rules.
After a breath, she cradled the receiver and passed the bulletin to
Nicci and Cassie.
“Wow,” Cassie said. “Big, big wow.”
“The suits are never going to let me take it,” Jenna said to both
women, shaking her head. “They don’t want us doing that kind of
“Maybe you’re right,” Nicci said, “but you’re a meteorologist, and that’s
a little different.”
“I doubt they’ll see it that way.” Jenna shrugged. But she could take
solace, scant as it was, that someone had seen her as more than the morning weather bimbo. Not many years ago, the joke in male-dominated
newsrooms was that a woman’s sole qualification for a weather job was
whether her breasts reached from New York to Kansas when she stood
next to the map.
The phones started ringing and Nicci went to work. Cassie took a
message, hung up, and handed it to Jenna. “Just a guy who wanted to
talk to you—”
Another one. It seemed to Jenna that half a dozen guys called after
every show, most of them vowing to make her happy. Their means for
accomplishing this were notably unmentionable.
“He said you almost landed on him this morning,” Cassie finished.
“Really?” A lilt colored her voice. “What did he want?”
“He said just to talk.” Cassie rolled her eyes.
Jenna stared at the name: Dafoe Tillian. Before she could do more
than remember his rugged, pleasing appearance, Nicci cupped the receiver on her phone and said, “It’s Rafan on line two.”
| BILL EVANS
“Rafan?” Jenna sat up. He was an old boyfriend, one of the few real
loves of her life. “Where is he?”
“The Maldives, I guess. He says it’s pretty important.”
Jenna got on the line right away.
“I saw you on The Morning Show,” Rafan said in his accented English. “You do weather now.”
Had it been that long since they’d spoken? She’d been doing the
show for three years. She told him this gently, as if she might break his
heart all over again. They used to talk all the time: in bed, first thing in
the morning, at the beach, the market—
“Here, the weather gets hotter. The islands, they will disappear.”
“I know, Rafan. It’s so sad.” She’d been aware of the threat to his
country’s archipelago of twelve hundred islands since she’d started on
her doctoral work ten years ago. The Maldives had been her home for
several months of research. She’d look out and see nothing but islands
and Indian Ocean all the way to the horizon. Now the Maldives was
destined to become the first country to fall victim to global warming.
Seas rising much faster than the U.N.’s predictions had already claimed
coastline, and now had started claiming thatched houses. To see your
homeland washing away must be heartbreaking, she thought.
In recent years, the Maldivian president and his ministers had strapped
on scuba gear for an annual underwater cabinet meeting to dramatize
the plight faced by his country’s three hundred thousand people. To no
avail. Most Americans, Jenna had found, still hadn’t heard of the Islamic
nation, much less of its highly endangered status.
She listened closely to her old lover, but knew that if he was pitching
a climate story, he’d picked the wrong person. Especially in a political
year. But no, he was pushing a story that always had traction.
“Muslims here, they are angry. It’s not like before. Remember? We
would go to parties, have a good time. Here, it’s changing, Jenna. It’s
changing very fast. People say the West, your country, is doing this to us.
They say the decadence is killing us. Come see for yourself. I think they
will strike back. Soon.”
“What do you mean, ‘strike back’? How?”
“How do you think? How do you think?”
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