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In a downscale apartment complex off I-5 in Chula Vista, I negotiate the sale: $750 for exclusive shots of a bikini model who’s done her last photo shoot.

These cozy images of the woman and her old boyfriend at Solana Beach may be the last ones taken of her alive.

I’m a freelance TV producer, working for a syndicated entertainment show. In the process of completing the assignment, it’s also been my good fortune to hose a major television network, which has already scored a set of the prints. But they’re being held for a weekly television newsmagazine, which won’t air until tomorrow. Bad mistake.

It gets worse for the competition. The cheap bastards haven’t locked up the photo rights. My syndicated show quickly makes a deal. The images will be broadcast in a few hours, scooping the network.

In Los Angeles, my bureau chief is ecstatic. Over the phone he crows, “We really put the boot up their asses this time.”

Moments like this burnish my reputation as the go-to guy for stories in San Diego. But I’ve also angered the media gods, who have ways of demonstrating displeasure with a lowly day-hire who crosses them.

When a national story breaks in San Diego, and there’s no time to send a crew from L.A., I get a phone call. Or maybe a news outlet needs a door-knock, a document run, or other off-camera chores. This is menial labor in the glamorous media world, but it’s embarrassingly easy. No tapes to log, no scripts to write. Just fax or FedEx the raw material and everybody’s happy.

The overnight jobs are more challenging. Producing a network live shot means arriving with the satellite truck, usually at 2:00 a.m. The morning shows don’t hit on the East Coast for two hours after that, but start times are non-negotiable. Waking up at 1:00 a.m. always hurts. Plus, it’s no fun dealing with some of the staffers for these early shows, who are truly disturbed.

I go to bed early the night before. Fearful that I’ve overslept, I jolt upright several times to look at the clock. When I finally get some decent REMs going, the alarm startles me. I’m instantly awake, thanks to a massive adrenaline dump. I splash water on my face and get dressed quickly. It takes me one second to style my hair. It’s called a ball cap.

Forget about the shower or the makeup. As a freelance producer, I never appear on-camera. There are many others who toil behind the scenes, but a temp like me is an amoeba in the national media’s food chain. As the lowest form of life, I wait for my superiors in New York to scream when something goes wrong on the shoot. The control room keeps a phone line open, waiting for those opportunities.

This morning, I’m at the zoo, where one of the pandas recently gave birth. There’s a major problem just before airtime. Bai Yun, which means White Cloud in Chinese, won’t come out of her enclosure. Across the country, this infuriates a guy named Jim, who’s communicating with the crew in San Diego. He starts yelling at me.

“You just blew through the tease, Kevin. I hope you’re happy.”

“Sorry. We’re doing the best we can.”

“Sorry? Sorry? What good are you? If you can’t handle this job, we’ll find another producer.”

Good luck with that, pal, at fricking 4:30 a.m. He must have forgotten about the time difference. The West Coast is still sleeping. Sadly, this includes Bai Yun.

I hold the phone away from my ear, hoping Jim will punch himself out. I look around the fake jungle, shrouded in darkness. It’s surreal. I tune back into his rant.

“…do something, Kevin. You’re talking to a very upset person in New York.” He’s more like a deranged poodle, frothy and shrill. But I know what he wants. I’m supposed to get angry with the zoo’s PR guy and the panda expert, both of whom are standing right next to me. These poor bastards had to get up in the middle of the night, too.

“Hey!” I say to them, speaking a little louder than usual. Maybe I can trick Jim into thinking I’m furious. “New York wants to know if there’s anything you can do.”

The zoo people look at me like I’m an idiot.

“Well, they’re wild animals,” the panda expert says. “Their behavior is unpredictable.”

I want to debate the primal instincts of any animal named after condensed water vapor. My cat, a serial killer of lizards, rats, and even small cottontails, could take a panda. Jim, who has been monitoring the conversation, is also unimpressed.

“We’ve done wild animals before,” he says. “We’ve never had a problem, Kevin. Do something.”

I can’t recall now if Bai Yun ever came out of her enclosure. What I do remember is speaking to Jim on my cell phone later that morning, following his miraculous recovery from an aneurysm. He doesn’t mention the pandas. It’s as if the blown live shot never happened. Instead, we discuss some procedural nonsense about using different telephone numbers to reach the control room in New York. I take notes. The sad truth is that I will work with this clown again. As I head to my bedroom for a nap, I wonder if Jim is a master at compartmentalizing or just one miserable human being.

When I’m not freelancing, I’m home working on a novel. During breaks, I talk with my neighbor when I see her outside. “Right now, a celebrity is doing something incredibly stupid,” I say. “I just hope it’s in San Diego. That way, I get paid to cover it.”

“I never thought of it that way,” she muses. The poor lady is accustomed to my bottom-feeder cynicism.

I need another Tiger Woods or Jesse James. Both of those bad boys had lovers in San Diego County. Bimbo eruptions are the best, especially if there’s juicy evidence. What, those text messages didn’t get erased? Cha-ching.

I join the Tiger beat and the James gang for a day each. This amounted to the usual media clusters, clogging up neighborhoods like an occupying force. Everybody was looking for a unique angle, but we all got the same thing: basically, nothing.

It’s a lot more fun when you’re snatching somebody else’s exclusive, like my gotcha with the bikini model. It takes two trips to cajole the woman who has the photos, but I finally convince her to sell them.

“I already gave them to the network,” she reminds me.

“They didn’t give you any money, so you don’t have a deal with them. They’re exploiting you.” There’s genuine anger in my voice. I’m pissed at the jackals in New York who rely on the public’s inexperience in dealing with national media.

It’s their hypocrisy that really gets me. I hear the sanctimonious denials of checkbook journalism, but I received a $400 finder’s fee for hooking up another newsmagazine with photos of the adolescent Kristin Rossum. She was the toxicologist at the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office who poisoned her husband in the infamous “American Beauty Murder.” The forensic femme fatale is serving a life sentence, though she is appealing her conviction.

I mix it up with a second network over the Rossum story. A female producer asks me to take notes during the murder trial, which lasts for weeks.

“Do you have any idea how extraordinary it is for you to be working for us under these circumstances?” she demands, sensing my lack of deference. She’s based on the East Coast, one of the feudal lords who rule the media fiefdoms. I’m in San Diego, a clueless serf.

Her partner at the newsmagazine gets tweaked when I recommend a local cameraman to spray some video outside the courthouse. He’s freelanced for other big-name outfits, but she’s never heard of him.

“I can’t deal with this,” she whines.

The bikini model won’t be nearly as big as Rossum was, though the bathing beauty has her own salacious kick: her body, stuffed in a suitcase, was so mutilated that pathologists identified the corpse by serial numbers on her breast implants. That’s why the syndicated media love the story. It’s another nice payday for me, if I can keep the deal from going sideways.

The Chula Vista woman with the $750 portfolio is worried. “I just don’t want to get in trouble with the network,” she says.

“Give them my number. I’d love to tell them exactly what I think of the way they treated you.”

I never get the chance. By the time I return from copying her prints, which I scanned and emailed to the syndicated show, I’ve become the bad guy. The newsmagazine is now offering more money than the woman has already accepted from my bureau chief. Naturally, she wants the extra cash.

“But you didn’t have anything before I showed up,” I explain patiently. “The network is the one that’s screwing you. We’re the people who are treating you fairly.”

“No, you’re taking advantage of me. I never agreed to anything.”

I apologize, but she’s the one who should be thanking me. It’s pointless to continue the discussion. This frazzled woman doesn’t understand how she’s getting abused again. The gutless TV execs in New York are using her to cover up their own incompetence.

I drive home to North County. The bureau chief in L.A. calls with even more distressing developments.

“Kevin, I have to ask you a question: Did you steal those photos?”

“No, I’m better than that.”

“Oh, I know.” He’s laughing, so everything’s cool. “Their lawyers called our lawyers,” he continues. “They’re claiming that Kevin Koch grabbed the shots out of the lady’s hand and ran out the door.”

The vicious lies about my behavior aren’t as comical as the mishandling of my last name. It’s Cox, not Koch.

“They couldn’t get one frigging fact right?”

We chat about the network’s pathetic tactics. There’s a perverse pleasure in being labeled as thieves. If the newsmagazine’s attorneys are lashing out like this, we must have really nailed them with our Doc Martens.

Like most legal blustering, it all evaporates. Later that afternoon, the bureau chief calls back. I’m not being accused of a felony anymore. The woman in Chula Vista is happy. She’s undoubtedly realized that she’s $750 richer, thanks to a freelancer named Koch.

I’m working another job for the syndicated entertainment program, following up on the guy who kidnaps a teenager from Utah named Elizabeth Smart. Apparently, the perp gets on I-15 and keeps heading south, because he ends up in Lakeside. When he hits the streets — in a beard and a bathrobe — a woman in her car takes home video of the spectacle through the windshield, complete with a hilarious audio track.

On the tape, she makes up a name for the hairy freak: Osama bin Dairy Queen, because the dude is standing outside the fast-food joint. “He’s a very scary man,” she adds.

That clip, maybe a couple of minutes long, was worth $1500 to the amateur newshound. I feel sorry for the local affiliates who can’t keep up when my bureau chief in L.A. whips out his wallet. He is also buying lunch today to celebrate our East County score. I join the crew from the bureau as we chauffeur the four-figure videographer around town so the competition can’t find her.

As we’re cruising west on I-8, my cell phone rings. It’s an assignment editor at a TV station in San Diego, where I once worked as a reporter.

“Where are you right now?” he asks, a blast from the past: that was his opening line as he prepared to launch me like buckshot at stories from Oceanside to San Ysidro.

“I’m going to feed the Lakeside video.”

“Is there any way I could get a copy?” He’s pleading because his bosses are all over him. I know the players and can imagine the scene. I haven’t been gone that long. But they’re SOL because my syndicated show appears on a different affiliate in the market, and I can’t share with them. Even if I could, the locals don’t have that kind of coin. I’m not about to cheat the woman who bagged Osama bin Dairy Queen.

But my former employer would have the video, if I hadn’t been fired. The irony is as delicious to me as my combo plate at the Mexican restaurant near Montgomery Field, where the L.A. bureau treats the stringer and the rest of us to lunch.

As on-air talent in San Diego, I only lasted for five years, which is nothing in this market. Some of the locals hang on for decades. That’s a lot of Mother Goose parades.

I was a short-timer because I sabotaged my career. When the Russians detain a Qualcomm tech and accuse him of espionage, I cover the story. It’s like the Cold War all over again, so I’m reminiscing about the Reagan era. I attend a news conference where Irwin Jacobs, the company’s founder, makes an appearance. Everybody is properly deferential, except for me. I make a joke about the health of his overseas employee, behind enemy lines.

“Yeah, he’s got a cold. You know, like Yuri Andropov.”

It takes awhile for everybody to get the reference to the dead Soviet leader, who disappeared for months with major health problems while the Kremlin insisted he wasn’t really that sick.

Jacobs groans. So do his underlings. I shrug and mumble an insincere apology.

A few years later, I’m one of the presenters at a ceremony to hand out local Emmys. We’re at Sea World, dressed in formal wear for dinner and the awards. There are lots of cutbacks going on at my station. Even though I compete vigorously with my coworkers for the best stories, I still respect their professionalism. In honor of the recently departed, I make a sardonic remark about nobody being left to show up for work next week. More groans. Another shrug.

I wind up in the assistant news director’s office. “We are very disappointed in your comments,” he says. I’m officially a troublemaker, but at least I’m a productive one. I uncover another exclusive angle on the Kristin Rossum story, which I broke when I was still working at my station.

But my editor isn’t offering me extra air time as a reward. She wants me to cover a brush fire instead. We’re not talking about the major conflagrations that burn half of San Diego County. This is one of those smoldering jobs by a highway, covering an acre, maybe two. I can’t believe she’s serious. I start yelling, just like Jim at the network.

“I’ve got a story that nobody else has, and you’re telling me to cover a stupid brush fire?” My voice easily fills the newsroom. My coworkers stop typing and turn to watch. The editor backs down. I’ve seen anchors pitching fits that are much more impressive, such as throwing a coffee cup through an office window. My muted performance involves no projectiles, but management decides not to renew my contract.

I’ve been gone from the station for a few years when I see my old manager at a crowded social event. He’s the big boss who runs everything. I remember that his kid is an athlete, so we talk sports for a while. Our wives pretend to be fascinated. Eventually, we get around to my termination, as regrettable and untimely as it might have been.

“Hey, if you weren’t screwing me, you’d be screwing whoever was in my place,” I say. My wife smirks. She worked for him, too, and feels equally violated.

“Well, I don’t know about that,” he mutters. I tell him that he’s actually done me a favor. I’ve been liberated to write my novel, which satirizes not just the news business but the famous, wealthy, and powerful. That describes the countless buffoons I’ve met during my career.

“You’re all in it,” I say to El Jefe, as if I’m doing him a huge favor. But he’s too much of a pro to react. We shake hands and it’s over.

There is a station manager in my novel, though the big boss won’t recognize himself. Any resemblance, of course, would be purely coincidental. Other real-life characters play themselves, as I combine the gritty headlines of true crime with the hyper-realism of gonzo fiction. There are references to the high-profile murder cases I covered, including Andrew Cunanan, the serial killer from Hillcrest. His cross-country spree ended with the murder of Gianni Versace in Miami. A day later, I’m standing in front of the designer’s mansion in South Beach, doing satellite live shots.

I use other local references in my fictional settings, such as the coyotes that live in my neighborhood. Their brazen suburban banditry — Fluffy was here just a minute ago — is an irresistible plot development. Turns out that a pomeranian, which belongs to the wife of my make-believe station manager, perishes when Wile E. wants a snack. Jake Elliott, the main character in my novel, roots for the predator, not the prey.

One afternoon, my cell phone rings. I see the 310 area code, which means the syndicated TV show is calling again. The L.A. bureau chief, who has a great Australian accent, gives me an assignment at a strip club. The hook: a celebrity mom allegedly once graced the pole in San Diego. As I trade double entendres with the boss, I’m hoping he’ll send me to Cheetahs. I teach a journalism class at Mesa College, and one of my students tells me she works there.

It might be a little awkward, seeing her naked. But I won’t be as creepy as one of the regulars she describes, a guy who says she looks like his niece. He asks for a private dance but wants her to call him “Uncle.”

I would keep it strictly academic. She would call me Professor Cox, and I would call her Miss Smith.

When the bureau chief mentions a different club, I’m disappointed. I meet the crew and we ride together. The shoot is in a rough neighborhood off the 805 — we drive past houses with bars on the windows. We arrive and meet up with the strip-club manager. But he can’t deliver on a promise he made to the L.A. bureau. There is no paperwork with the celebrity mom’s signature on it.

Without proof, the story will be killed, but we interview one of the strippers anyway. We also talk to the manager. With his pinstriped white suit and shaved head, he looks great on camera. To make the shot even better, I ask another stripper to dance in the background. She’s still wearing lingerie, and the stage is far enough from the lens that she’s not recognizable anyway. With those limitations, I don’t expect her best work, but her listless shuffle reminds me of the morning coffee line at Starbucks.

As we’re packing up our lights, the stripper asks the camera operator for a $100 tip. He laughs, thinking that she’s joking. She’s not.

The manager pulls me aside. I smell nicotine mixed with his cologne, plus hints of desperation from the girls who are constantly rubbing against him.

“Hey, I gotta tell ya something,” he says. His voice is straight bourbon. “I’ve turned down more [sexual favors] than most guys get in their entire lives.”

He uses much more descriptive language, which I won’t repeat here. But the unedited version is in my novel, on page 231. ■

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