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Chapter no 23 – KCTV Studios

Lessons in Chemistry

ONE MONTH LATER

Walter Pine had been in television from almost the very beginning. He liked the idea of television—the way it promised people an escape from daily life. That’s why he’d chosen it—because who didn’t want to escape? He did.

But as the years wore on, he began to feel like he was the prisoner permanently assigned to digging the escape tunnel. At the end of the day, as the other prisoners scrambled over him to freedom, he stayed behind with the spoon.

Still, he kept on for the same reason many people keep on: because he was a parent—the lone parent of daughter Amanda, six years old, kindergartner at Woody Elementary, and light of his life. He would do anything for that child. That included taking his daily browbeating from his boss, who recently threatened he’d be out of a job soon if he didn’t do something about that empty afternoon programming slot.

Walter took out a handkerchief and blew his nose, looking at the cloth right after, as if to see what his insides were made of.

Phlegm. Not a surprise.

A woman had come to see him a few days back—Elizabeth Zott, mother of…he couldn’t remember the kid’s name. According to Zott, Amanda was causing trouble. No surprise; Mrs. Mudford, her teacher, claimed Amanda was always causing trouble. Which he refused to believe. Yes, Amanda was a bit anxious like he was, a bit overweight like he was, a

bit of a people pleaser like he was, but you know what else Amanda was? A

nice kid. And nice kids, like nice adults, were rare.

You know what else was rare? A woman like Elizabeth Zott. He could not stop thinking about her.

“Finally,” Harriet said, wiping her wet hands on her dress as Elizabeth came in through the back door. “I was starting to worry.”

“Sorry,” she said, trying to keep the rage out of her voice. “Something came up at work.” She threw her bag down and collapsed in a chair.

She’d been back at Hastings for two months now and the stress of underemployment was killing her. She knew people in high-stress jobs often longed for a simpler position—something that didn’t require heart or brainpower; something that didn’t prey on their sagging spirits at three in the morning. But she had learned that underemployment was worse. Not only did her paycheck reflect her lowly status, but her brain hurt from inactivity. And yet despite the fact that her colleagues knew she could run intellectual circles around them, she was expected to rah-rah whatever minor accomplishments they churned out.

But today’s accomplishment was not minor. It was major. The latest edition of Science Journal was out and Donatti’s paper was in it.

“Nothing earth-shattering.” That’s how Donatti had described his article a few months back. But the work was earth-shattering, and she should know. Because it was hers.

She read the article twice just to make sure. The first time, slowly. But the second time she dashed through it until her blood pressure skipped through her veins like an unsecured fire hose. This article was a direct theft from her files. And guess who was listed as a co-contributor.

She lifted her head to see Boryweitz watching her. He turned pale, then hung his head.

“Try to understand!” Boryweitz cried as she slammed the journal down on his desk. “I need this job!”

“We all need our jobs,” Elizabeth seethed. “The problem is, you’ve never done yours.”

Boryweitz peered up at her, his lemur eyes begging for mercy, but all he saw was a rogue wave just beginning to crest, its energy unknown, its true power untested. “I’m sorry,” he pleaded. “I really am. I had no idea Donatti would go this far. He photocopied all your files the first day you were back, but I assumed it was to familiarize himself with our work.”

Our work?” She managed not to reach out and snap his neck in two. “I’ll deal with you later,” she promised. Then she turned and marched down the hallway toward Donatti’s office, barely breaking stride to shove a meandering microbiologist out of her way.

“You’re a liar and a cheat, Donatti,” she said, bursting into her boss’s office. “And I promise you this: you won’t get away with it.”

Donatti looked up from his desk. “Zott!” he cried. “Always a pleasure!”

He sat back, taking in her fury with a kind of joy. This would have been the sort of thing Evans would have quit over for sure. If only he were alive to see this—but no, he had to ruin this moment by being dead already.

He listened with half an ear as Zott railed on about his thievery. The investor had called earlier to congratulate Donatti on his work—made some promising noises about sending more money their way. He’d also asked about Zott—whether he’d played any role in the research. Donatti had said no, not really—unfortunately, Mr. Zott had proved to be a bit of a washout; in fact, he’d been demoted. The investor had sighed as if disappointed, then asked about Donatti’s next steps, abiogenesis-wise. Donatti mucked around with some big words he’d gleaned from other parts of Zott’s research, all of which he’d have to ask Zott about later, after she’d calmed the fuck down and remembered she worked for him. God, it was hard being a manager. Anyway, whatever he said seemed to satisfy the rich guy.

But then Zott had to go and ruin everything by doing the one thing neither of them could afford for her to do. “Here,” she said, plopping her lab key in his coffee. “Keep your damn job.” Then she threw her ID tag in

the trash, dumped her lab coat in the middle of his desk, and stormed out, taking all those big words with her.

“You got four phone calls,” Harriet was saying. “The first was about becoming a Nielsen family. The other three were from a Walter Pine. Pine wants you to call him back. Says it’s urgent. Claims you and he had an enjoyable conversation about food—or no, no, I’m sorry, about lunch,” she corrected herself, checking her notes again. “Sounded anxious,” she said, looking up. “Professionally anxious. Like a well-mannered person, but on edge.”

“Walter Pine,” Elizabeth said, gritting her teeth, “is Amanda Pine’s father. I drove to his office a few days back to talk with him about the lunch issue.”

“How did the talk go?”

“It was more of a confrontation.” “Violent, I hope.”

“Mom?” a voice said, appearing in the doorway.

“Hi, bunny,” Elizabeth said, attempting to sound calm as she encircled her gangly child with one arm. “How was school?”

“I made a clove hitch knot,” Madeline said, holding up a rope. “For show-and-tell.”

“Did everyone enjoy it?” “No.”

“That’s okay,” Elizabeth said, pulling her close. “People don’t always like what we like.”

“No one ever likes my show-and-tell stuff.” “Little bastards,” muttered Harriet.

“They liked that arrowhead you brought in.” “No.”

“Well, next week why not try the periodic table? That’s always a crowd pleaser.”

“Or you could try my bowie knife,” Harriet suggested. “Let them know where you stand.”

“When’s dinner?” Madeline said. “I’m hungry.”

“I put one of your casseroles in the oven,” Harriet said to Elizabeth as she heaved herself toward the door. “I need to go feed the beast. Call Pine back.”

“You called Amanda Pine?” Madeline gasped.

“Her father,” Elizabeth said. “I told you. I visited him three days ago and got the entire lunch business straightened out. I think he understood our position, and I am certain Amanda will not be stealing your lunch ever again. Stealing is wrong,” she snapped, thinking of Donatti and his article. “Wrong!” Both Madeline and Harriet jumped.

“She…she brings a lunch, Mom,” Madeline said carefully. “But it’s not normal.”

“That’s not our problem.”

Madeline looked at her mother as if she was missing the point.

“You need to eat your own lunch, bunny,” Elizabeth said more quietly. “To grow up tall.”

“But I’m already tall,” Madeline complained. “Too tall.” “One can never be too tall,” Harriet said.

“Robert Wadlow died from being too tall,” Madeline said, tapping the cover of The Guinness Book of Records.

“But that was a pituitary gland disorder, Mad,” Elizabeth said. “Nine feet tall!” Madeline emphasized.

“Poor man,” Harriet said. “Where does someone like that shop?” “Height kills,” Madeline said.

“Yes, but everything kills eventually,” Harriet said. “That’s why everyone ends up dead, sweetheart.” But when she noticed Elizabeth’s mouth drop and Madeline slump, she instantly regretted her words. She opened the back door. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning before rowing,” she said to Elizabeth. “And I’ll see you, Mad,” she said to the little girl, “when you get up.”

This was the schedule she and Elizabeth had worked out ever since Elizabeth had returned to work. Harriet took Mad to school, Six-Thirty picked Mad up from school, Harriet watched her until Elizabeth got home. “Oh, I almost forgot.” She extracted a slip of paper from her pocket. “You got another note.” She gave Elizabeth a meaningful look. “From you-know-who.”

Mrs. Mudford.

Elizabeth already knew Mudford didn’t approve of Madeline. She did not approve of the way Mad could read, or the way she could kick a ball, or the way she knew a complicated series of nautical knots— a skill she practiced frequently, including in the dark, in the rain, without help, just in case.

“Just in case of what, Mad?” Elizabeth had asked her once, finding the child huddled outside at night covered in a tarp, rain coming in from every direction, a piece of rope in her hands.

Mad had looked up at her mother, surprised. Wasn’t it obvious that “just in case” wasn’t an option but rather the only option? Life required preparedness; just ask her dead father.

Although, honestly, if she’d been able to ask her dead father anything it would have been how he’d felt the first time he saw her mother. Was it love at first sight?

His ex-colleagues too still had questions for Calvin—like how he managed to win so many awards when he never seemed to be doing anything. And what about sex with Elizabeth Zott? She seemed like she’d be frigid—was she? Even Madeline’s teacher, Mrs. Mudford, had questions for the long-gone Calvin Evans. But obviously asking Madeline’s father anything was out of the question, not just because he was dead, but because in 1959, fathers had nothing to do with their children’s education.

Amanda Pine’s father was the exception, but that was only because there was no longer a Mrs. Pine. She’d left him (and quite rightly, Mudford believed), followed by a loud and public divorce where she claimed the much older Walter Pine was not fit to be a father, much less a husband. There’d been an embarrassing sexual connotation to the whole thing; Mrs. Mudford didn’t like to think of the specifics. But because of it, Mrs. Walter Pine ended up with everything Walter Pine had, including Amanda, whom, as it turned out, she hadn’t actually wanted. And who could blame her? Amanda wasn’t the easiest child. Thus Amanda went back to Walter, and Walter came to school, where Mrs. Mudford was forced to listen to his poor excuses regarding the contents of Amanda’s highly unusual lunch boxes.

Still, while conferences with Walter Pine were irritating, they paled in comparison to the sessions she had with Zott. Wasn’t it just her luck that the two parents she liked least she saw the most? Although admittedly, that’s how it always was. Child behavior problems started at home. Still, if she had to choose between Amanda Pine, lunch thief, and Madeline Zott, inappropriate question asker, she’d take Amanda any day.

“Madeline asks inappropriate questions?” Elizabeth said, alarmed, during their last meeting.

“Yes, she does,” Mrs. Mudford said sharply, plucking lint from her sleeve like a spider attacking its prey. “For instance, yesterday during circle time, we were discussing Ralph’s pet turtle, and Madeline interrupted to ask how she might become a freedom fighter in Nashville.”

Elizabeth paused as if trying to understand the underlying issue. “She shouldn’t have interrupted,” she finally said. “I’ll speak to her.”

Mrs. Mudford clicked her teeth. “You misunderstand me, Mrs. Zott. Children interrupt; that I can deal with. What I can’t deal with is a child who wants to change the discussion to civil rights. This is kindergarten, not The Huntley-Brinkley Report. Furthermore,” she added, “your daughter recently complained to our librarian that she was unable to find any

Norman Mailer on our bookshelves. Apparently, she tried to put in a request for The Naked and the Dead.” The teacher raised one eyebrow, her eyes zeroing in on the E.Z. machine-stitched above the breast pocket in a slutty-looking cursive.

“She’s an early reader,” Elizabeth said. “I may have forgotten to mention that.”

The teacher folded her hands together, then leaned forward threateningly. “Norman. Mailer.”

Back in the kitchen, Elizabeth unfolded the note Harriet had given her. On it screamed two words in Mudford’s handwriting.

VLADIMIR. NABOKOV.

She placed a serving of baked spaghetti Bolognese on Madeline’s plate. “Other than show-and-tell, did you have a good day?” She’d stopped asking Mad if she’d learned anything at school. There was no point.

“I don’t like school.” “Why?”

Madeline looked up from her plate suspiciously. “No one likes school.”

From his position beneath the table, Six-Thirty exhaled. Well, there it was: the creature didn’t like school, and since he and the creature agreed on everything, now he didn’t like school either.

“Did you like school, Mom?” Mad asked.

“Well,” said Elizabeth, “we moved a lot, so sometimes there weren’t schools for me to go to. But I went to the library. Still, I always believed going to a real school could be lots of fun.”

“Like when you went to UCLA?”

A sudden sharp vision of Dr. Meyers floated in front of her. “No.” Madeline cocked her head to the side. “Are you okay, Mom?”

Without realizing it, Elizabeth had covered her face with her hands. “I’m just tired, bunny,” she said as the words slipped out between her fingers.

Madeline laid down her fork and studied her mother’s stricken posture. “Did something happen, Mom?” she asked. “At work?”

From behind her fingers, Elizabeth considered her young daughter’s question.

“Are we poor?” Madeline asked, as if that question naturally followed the former.

Elizabeth took her hands away. “What makes you say that, honey?” “Tommy Dixon says we’re poor.”

“Who’s Tommy Dixon?” she asked sharply. “A boy at school.”

“What else did this Tommy Dixon—” “Was Dad poor?”

Elizabeth flinched.

The answer to Mad’s question lay in one of the boxes she and Frask had stolen from Hastings. At the very bottom of box number three lay an accordion folder labeled “Rowing.” When she first spied it, Elizabeth naturally assumed it would be filled with newspaper clippings recording the glorious wins of his Cambridge boat. But no; it was stuffed with Calvin’s post-Cambridge employment offers.

She’d skimmed the offers jealously—chairs at major universities, directorships at pharmaceutical companies, major stakes in privately held concerns. She’d sifted through the stack until she found the Hastings offer. There it was: the promise of a private lab—although all the other places had guaranteed that, too. The only thing that made the Hastings offer stand out from the others? A salary so low it was insulting. She glanced down at the signature. Donatti.

As she jammed the letters back in, she wondered why he’d even labeled this folder “Rowing”—there wasn’t anything rowing-like about it. Until she noticed two quick penciled notations at the top of each offer: distance to a rowing club and area precipitation. She returned to the Hastings offer letter

—yes, the computations were there, too. But there was one other thing: a big, thick circle drawn around the return address.

Commons, California.

“If Dad was famous, then he must have been rich, right?” Mad said, twirling her spaghetti around her fork.

“No, honey. Not all famous people are rich.” “Why not? Did they mess up?”

She thought back to the offers. Calvin had accepted the lowest one.

Who does that?

“Tommy Dixon says it’s easy to get rich. You paint rocks yellow, then say it’s gold.”

“Tommy Dixon is what we call a flimflam man,” Elizabeth said. “Someone who schemes to get what they want through illegal means.” Like Donatti, she thought, her jaw locking in place.

She thought back to another folder she’d found in Calvin’s boxes, this one full of letters from people just like Tommy Dixon—wackos, get-rich-quick investors—but also a wide assortment of fake family members, each of whom desperately wanted Calvin’s help: a half sister, a long-lost uncle, a sad mother, a cousin twice removed.

She’d skimmed the fake family letters quickly, surprised at how similar they were. Each claimed a biological connection, each provided a memory from an age he wouldn’t be able to remember, each wanted money. The only exception was Sad Mother. While she, too, claimed a biological connection, instead of asking for money, she insisted she wanted to give it. To help your research, she claimed. Sad Mother had written to Calvin at least five times, imploring him to respond. It was really rather heartless,

Elizabeth thought, the way Sad Mother persisted. Even Long-Lost Uncle had called it quits after two. They told me you were dead, Sad Mother had written over and over again. Really? Then why had she, like all the others, only written to Calvin after he’d become famous? Elizabeth assumed her ploy was to hook him, then steal his research. And why did she think this? Because it had just happened to her.

“I don’t get it,” Mad said, shoving a mushroom to the side of her plate. “If you’re smart and you work hard, doesn’t that mean you make more money?”

“Not always. Still, I’m sure your dad could have earned more money,” Elizabeth said. “It’s just that he made a different choice. Money isn’t everything.”

Mad looked back, dubious.

What Elizabeth didn’t tell Mad was that she knew very well why Calvin had eagerly accepted Donatti’s ridiculous offer. But his reason was so short-sighted—so dumb—she hesitated to share it. She wanted Mad to think of her father as a rational man who made smart decisions. This proved just the opposite.

She found it in a folder labeled “Wakely,” which contained a series of letters between Calvin and a would-be theologian. The two men were pen pals; it was clear they’d never met face-to-face. But their typed exchanges were fascinating and numerous, and lucky for her, the folder included Calvin’s carbon copy replies. This was something she knew about Calvin: he made copies of everything.

Wakely, who was attending Harvard Divinity School at the same time Calvin was at Cambridge, seemed to be struggling with his faith based on science in general, and on Calvin’s research in particular. According to his

letters, he’d attended a symposium where Calvin had spoken briefly and, based on that, had decided to write to him.

“Dear Mr. Evans, I wanted to get in touch with you after your brief appearance at the science symposium in Boston last week. I’d hoped to speak with you about your recent article, ‘The Spontaneous Generation of Complex Organic Molecules,’ ” Wakely had written in the first letter. “Specifically, I wanted to ask: Don’t you think it’s possible to believe in both God and science?”

“Sure,” Calvin had written back. “It’s called intellectual dishonesty.”

Although Calvin’s flippancy had a tendency to annoy a lot of people, it didn’t seem to faze the young Wakely. He wrote back immediately.

“But surely you’d agree that the field of chemistry could not exist unless and until it was created by a chemist— a master chemist,” Wakely argued in his next letter. “In the same way that a painting cannot exist until it is created by an artist.”

“I deal in evidence-based truths, not conjecture,” Calvin replied just as quickly. “So no, your master chemist theory is bullshit. By the way, I notice you’re at Harvard. Are you a rower? I row for Cambridge. Full-ride rowing scholarship.”

“Not a rower,” Wakely wrote back. “Although I love the water. I’m a surfer. I grew up in Commons, California. Ever been to California? If not, you should go. Commons is beautiful. Best weather in the world. They row there, too.”

Elizabeth sat back on her heels. She remembered how vigorously Calvin had circled Hastings’s return address in the offer letter. Commons, California. So he’d accepted Donatti’s insulting offer, not to further his career, but to row? Thanks to a one-line weather report from a religious surfer? Best weather in the world. Really? She moved on to the next letter.

“Did you always want to be a minister?” Calvin asked.

“I come from a long line of ministers,” Wakely answered back. “It’s in my blood.”

“Blood doesn’t work that way,” Calvin corrected. “By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask: Why do you think so many people believe in texts written thousands of years ago? And why does it seem the more supernatural, unprovable, improbable, and ancient the source of these texts, the more people believe them?”

“Humans need reassurance,” Wakely wrote back. “They need to know others survived the hard times. And, unlike other species, which do a better job of learning from their mistakes, humans require constant threats and reminders to be nice. You know how we say, ‘People never learn?’ It’s because they never do. But religious texts try to keep them on track.”

“But isn’t there more solace in science?” Calvin responded. “In things we can prove and therefore work to improve? I just don’t understand how anyone thinks anything written ages ago by drunk people is even remotely believable. And I’m not making a moral judgment here: those people had to drink, the water was bad. Still, I ask myself how their wild stories—bushes burning, bread dropping from heaven—seem reasonable, especially when compared to evidence-based science. There isn’t a person alive who would opt for Rasputin’s bloodletting techniques over the cutting-edge therapies at Sloan Kettering. And yet so many insist we believe these stories and then have the audacity to insist others believe them, too.”

“You make a fair point, Evans,” Wakely wrote back. “But people need to believe in something bigger than themselves.”

“Why?” Calvin pressed. “What’s wrong with believing in ourselves? Anyway, if stories must be used, why not rely on a fable or fairy tale? Aren’t they just as valid a vehicle for teaching morality? Except maybe better? Because no one has to pretend to believe that the fables and tales are true?”

Although he didn’t admit to it, Wakely found himself agreeing. No one had to pray to Snow White or fear the wrath of Rumpelstiltskin to understand the message. The stories were short, memorable, and covered all

the bases of love, pride, folly, and forgiveness. Their rules were bite-sized: Don’t be a jerk. Don’t hurt other people or animals. Share what you have with others less fortunate. In other words, be nice. He decided to change the topic.

“Okay, Evans,” he wrote, referring to a previous letter, “I take your very literal point about how ministering can’t, technically, be in my blood, but we Wakelys become ministers just like cobblers’ sons become shoemakers. I’ll confess: I’ve always been attracted to biology, but that would never fly in my family. Maybe I’m just trying to please my father. Isn’t that what we all do in the end? What about you? Was your father a scientist? Are you trying to please him? If so, I’d say you succeeded.”

“I HATE MY FATHER,” Calvin typed in all capital letters in what would prove to be their final exchange. “I HOPE HE’S DEAD.”

I hate my father; I hope he’s dead. Elizabeth read it again, stunned. But Calvin’s father was dead—hit by a train at least two decades earlier. Why would he have written such a thing? And why had Calvin and Wakely stopped corresponding? The last letter was dated nearly ten years ago.

“Mom,” Mad said. “Mom! Are you listening? Are we poor?”

“Honey,” Elizabeth said, trying to stave off a nervous breakdown—had she really quit her job? “I’ve had a long day,” she said. “Please. Just eat your dinner.”

“But, Mom—”

They were interrupted by the jangle of the telephone. Mad jumped from her chair.

“Don’t answer it, Mad.” “Might be important.” “We’re eating dinner.”

“Hello?” Mad said. “Mad Zott speaking.”

“Honey,” Elizabeth said, taking the phone. “We don’t give out private information on the telephone, remember? Hello?” she said into the mouthpiece. “With whom am I speaking?”

“Mrs. Zott?” a voice said. “Mrs. Elizabeth Zott? It’s Walter Pine, Mrs.

Zott. We met earlier this week.”

Elizabeth sighed. “Oh. Yes, Mr. Pine.”

“I’ve been trying to reach you all day. Perhaps your housekeeper neglected to give you my messages.”

“She is not a housekeeper and she did not neglect to give me your messages.”

“Oh,” he said, embarrassed. “I see. I’m sorry. I hope I’m not disturbing you. Do you have a moment? Is this a good time?”

“No.”

“I’ll be quick, then,” he said, not wanting to lose her. “And again, Mrs. Zott, I’ve rectified the lunch situation. It’s all fixed; Amanda will only be eating her own lunch from now on, again my apologies. But now I’m calling for another reason— a business reason.”

He went on to remind her he was a producer of local afternoon TV programming. “KCTV,” he said proudly, even though he wasn’t. “And I’ve been thinking of changing my lineup a bit—adding a cooking show. Trying to spice things up, you might say,” he continued, taking a stab at humor, something he normally didn’t do but did now because Elizabeth Zott made him nervous. As he waited for the polite chuckle that should have come from the other end but didn’t, he grew even more anxious. “As a seasoned television producer, I feel the time is ripe for such a show.”

Again, nothing.

“I’ve been doing research,” he blathered on, “and based on some very interesting trends, and combined with my personal knowledge of successful afternoon programming, I believe cooking is poised to become a force in afternoon TV.”

Elizabeth still offered no reaction, and even if she had, it wouldn’t have mattered because none of what Walter said was true.

The truth was, Walter Pine did not conduct research, nor was he aware of any trends. Factually speaking, he had very little personal knowledge of what made afternoon TV successful. As proof, his channel usually hovered near the bottom, ratings-wise. The real situation was this: Walter had an empty programming slot to fill and the advertisers were breathing down his neck to get it filled immediately. A children’s clown show had previously filled the now-empty slot, but in the first place, it hadn’t been very good, and in the second place, its clown star had been killed in a bar fight, making the show completely dead in the truest sense.

For the last three weeks, he’d been scrambling to find something else to take its place. He’d spent eight hours a day screening promo reels from countless would-be stars—magicians, advice givers, comedians, music instructors, science experts, etiquette mavens, puppeteers. Wading through it all, Walter couldn’t believe the drivel other people produced, nor could he believe they had the gall to commit it to film, put it in the mail, and send it to him. Had they no shame? Still, he had to find something fast: his career depended on it. His boss had made that abundantly clear.

On top of work woes, four times this month he’d been summoned in to see Mrs. Mudford, Amanda’s kindergarten teacher, who most recently had threatened to report him simply because, in a cloud of exhaustion and depression, he’d inadvertently packed his gin flask where Amanda’s milk thermos was supposed to go. He’d also sent a stapler instead of a sandwich, a script instead of a napkin, and some champagne truffles that time they were out of bread.

“Mr. Pine?” Elizabeth said, interrupting his thoughts. “I’ve had a long day. Is there something you wanted?”

“I want to create a cooking show for afternoon TV,” he said in a rush. “And I want you to host. It’s obvious to me that you can cook, Mrs. Zott, but I also think you would have a certain appeal.” He didn’t say it was because she was attractive. Plenty of good-looking people skated by on

their looks, but something told him Elizabeth Zott was not one of those people. “This would be a fun show—woman to woman. You’d be singing to your people.” And when she didn’t respond right away, he added, “Housewives?”

From the other end of the phone, Elizabeth narrowed her eyes. “I beg your pardon?”

The tone. Walter should have understood it and hung up right then. But he didn’t because he was desperate, and desperate people tend to overlook the most obvious signals. Elizabeth Zott belonged in front of a camera—he was sure of it—plus, she was exactly the kind of woman his boss would go nuts for.

“You’re nervous about the audience,” he said, “but there’s no reason. We use cue cards. All you have to do is read and be yourself.” He waited for a response, but when none came, he carried on. “You have presence, Mrs. Zott,” he pressed. “You’re exactly the kind of person people want to see on TV. You’re like a…” He tried hard to think of someone like her, but nothing came to mind.

“I’m a scientist,” she snapped. “Right!”

“You’re saying the public wants to hear from more scientists.”

“Yes,” he said. “Who doesn’t?” Although he didn’t and he was fairly certain no one else did either. “Although this would be a cooking show, you understand.”

“Cooking is science, Mr. Pine. They’re not mutually exclusive.” “Uncanny. I was just about to say that.”

From her kitchen table, Elizabeth envisioned her unpaid utility bills. “How much does something like this pay?” she asked.

He named a figure that drew the slightest gasp from her end. Was she offended or astonished?

“The thing is,” he said defensively, “we’d be taking a risk. It’s not like you’ve been on TV before, correct?” Then he outlined the basic pilot-series contract, pointing out that the initial term was six months long. After that, if it wasn’t working, that was it. Finito.

“When would it start?”

“Immediately. We want the cooking show to go live as soon as possible

—within the month.”

“You mean a science cooking show.”

“You said it yourself—they’re not mutually exclusive.” But a small bit of doubt regarding her viability as a hostess began to creep in. Surely, she understood that a cooking show was not actually science. Didn’t she? “We’re calling it Supper at Six,” he added, emphasizing the word “supper.”

On the other end of the line, Elizabeth stared into space. She absolutely hated the idea—making food on TV for housewives—but what choice did she have? She turned to look at Six-Thirty and Mad. They were lying on the floor together. Madeline was telling him about Tommy Dixon. Six-Thirty bared his teeth.

“Mrs. Zott?” Walter said, wary of the silence coming from the other end. “Hello? Mrs. Zott? Are you still there?

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