GM - Story #3

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Chapter 29

The stage at the Waldorf Astoria Main Ball Room glowed gold and red. The brightness of the overhead spotlights created a field of energy atop the elevated stage which jutted out toward the crowd below. Applause filled the room and sounded like a river tumbling past a rocky ravine. Her name echoed off the 40-foot ceiling and blended into the grinding applause below. The hugs and kisses of her family and friends blurred and she felt nearly dizzy as she stepped into the plush red carpeted aisle and made her way down the incline.

In her 26 years, Missy Davidson never imagined she would reach a level of national acceptance in her field, never mind receiving an award of this magnitude. As she hunched down to hike her dress above her shoes and carefully place the ball of each foot squarely on the stairway to the podium, she reflected on the strange and exciting journey she had taken since the fateful day in Iowa earlier that year.

She recounted the events leading up to her big evening as she approached the stage. CNN, FoxNews and the networks had largely glossed over the UNI bombing story. The lack of casualties and the relative obscurity of the Iowa backdrop caused the Q-rating of the event to drop, and therefore the airtime to decline. They had covered the most sensational aspects of the story quickly and intensely, featuring supposed experts on terrorism. Some of them cast wide-ranging theories on the involvement of Senator Johnson’s car and the confusion that arose in the weeks after the event as to whether it had been reported stolen before or after the bomb detonated.

Up until she broke the ultimate story about Jaio, nobody figured out the identity of the mysterious hero who helped free the 54 students trapped in the rubble or the driver of the stolen getaway car. In fact, almost as many of the experts painted the stranger through the lens of conspiracy, theorizing that he perpetrated the bomb himself and then saved the students as a cover. As with the 24-hour news cycle, the story disappeared from the priority scale in favor of the shooting on 7th Avenue and the continued escalation of tensions throughout the Middle East.

But as the coverage faded, Jameis counseled his protégé to take her time in constructing her follow-up stories. They decided to delegate the task of keeping up with CNN on the 7th Avenue angle to a beat reporter out of Boston. Jameis stayed behind in Iowa to embed with Father Francis and the Johnson family. He worked to convert the story about Churchville, the Hornidays and their support of Jaio, the alleged “Son of God” into a book, which he titled “Second Coming”.

Jameis decided that Missy would work with Henry Lucas and his newly formed foundation to write the news feature stories that would launch Jaio as the new Messiah. He would coach her through it, but her name would appear as the byline.

Jameis’ plan was to ingratiate himself to the Father and to Melanie, gain their trust, learn about their history and plans with Jaio and help Missy break the story through a series of investigative pieces outing Jaio to the world. He would work the Iowa-based part of the story, turning over his research, content and quotes to her. Missy would complete the New York side of the story by allying herself with Henry’s new organization and to some degree taking limited editorial direction from Jaio’s new group of managers and handlers.

To succeed, they needed Melanie to agree to the exposure of her family and her connection to the new Messiah. And they needed Henry to ramp up his organization to be able to handle the PR. They quickly figured out that Melanie held the leadership position in Iowa over Father Francis. The elderly priest, while devout and goodhearted, followed her lead, lending support and credibility as a man of the cloth. Melanie’s approval would enable the Iowa-based coverage to move forward.

Convincing Henry that his organization and the world was ready for the news took a slightly defter hand. But Jameis quickly observed the human nature angle and figured out that the presence of a cute, smiley reporter would soften Henry just enough to open his mind to their vision of Jaio’s outing.

Melanie struggled with the decision to allow Jameis such access to her family and friends and insight into to her connection and involvement with Jaio. She had come to love and protect him like a brother or a son. She prayed to God. She asked her family what to do. Ultimately, she presented the option to Jaio. She sat with him over an iced tea and some buttermilk biscuits and talked through what would happen once Missy’s stories reached their audience.

“You won’t be able to walk down some city streets without being mobbed by people,” she fought through tears. “Some will absolutely love you. And some will hate you to your core.”

She tried to stifle her tears, but she felt as if one of her children were leaving to enlist in the military during a war. She knew he would never return the same once the tidal wave struck.

“It will be dangerous,” she continued. “Almost as dangerous as in the Middle East.”

Jaio barely spoke in response. His eyes reassured her. He put his hands on her and nodded.

“Maybe more so,” he concurred.

“You could be killed,” she continued, wiping the tears from her cheek.

He hugged her, thanked her and warmed her with his smile.

“We are ready.”

Missy proved effective at gaining the trust of the single, older Henry Lucas. She played with his daughter Olivia when she visited the office and took her to long lunches in the city. She took the little girl shopping for toys and clothes in the afternoon to help Henry focus on his work. She even picked up the occasional coffee, Italian sub and dry cleaning for him. In exchange, he gave her his time and attentiveness. He trusted her with his plans and allowed her editorial freedom to craft the stories in her own, artistic manner with minimal limitations.

She also developed a positive rapport with Jaio, listening intently to his webinars and speeches and engaging in long dialog about his philosophies and teachings. In the end, her ability to persuade Jaio that he needed a bigger stage for his message – with considerable strategic assistance from Jameis – convinced the whole brain trust, including a reluctant Cael Block to allow her to publish her explosive exclusive on the CSM web site.

The feature series headlined by Missy Davidson with contributions from Jameis was entitled “Would you Believe?”. It asked readers if Jesus, Moses, David, Abraham or Mohamed - or any other influential figures from scriptures of the world’s major religions - were to return to earth and seek followers to reject their current ways and subscribe to a new dogma, would they choose to believe?

The initial article soft launched to the CSM web site implied, without naming him directly, that an influential preacher out of the Midwest had convinced several communities and religious leaders that he may, in fact, be the second coming of the son of God. Without revealing Olivia’s identity, she described the curing of a small child’s previously incurable condition. She quoted Father Francis and several other religious leaders and scholars, testifying on the possibility of Jaio’s role as the new Messiah. She provided detailed records of the astronomical number of followers and visitors that had attended his webinars and podcasts. She pointed out many of the unfathomable evils in the world – bombings, acid attacks, genocide, beheadings, and she skillfully challenged her readers to provide a reason why God would NOT eventually send a new messiah to save our society.

Missy poured her soul into the piece. The writing sparkled. The story resonated.

However, about the same number of readers accessed her article on line as a contribution to the Lifestyle section about a bubbly pop singer whose new album debuted at #1 on the charts that week.

But when the first article graced the top half of the CSM printed publication and dropped at convenience stores and gas stations across the country, it attacked the public consciousness like a tornado in a trailer park.

Henry, Missy and Jameis remained cagey about their release of information and tried to maintain a slow burn of material with their rabid suitors. The financial offers to appear on news magazine television shows and network broadcasts flooded their inboxes. But they worked closely with Henry and his growing staff of PR agents to disseminate what they wanted the world to know in their strategic timeframe.

In the articles, Missy only revealed Jaio’s identity slowly. She referred to his handlers and helpers, but not by name and did not indicate his whereabouts. She referenced rallies he had conducted in the near past and quoted his videos. She called him “J” and did not expose his more explosive past in the Middle East.

The repeating monthly series chronicled Jaio’s visits to churches, temples, mosques, universities and community organizations to spread his word.

Along the way, Missy granted interviews with the New York Times, LA Times, USA Today and the Associated Press and deflected requests to speak directly with her new Messiah to Henry, who became the world’s most well-known spokesperson virtually overnight.

The articles generated continued buzz and voracious coverage by the major news outlets. She engaged in visits to several morning talk shows and her concept floated through the social conscience for a while before eventually wavering over time.

But Missy and Henry read their audience perfectly and just as the first hint of decline in interest began, they turned up the heat. With approval from Henry and Melanie, they revealed Jaio’s name and connected him to the Miracle in the Middle East. They further connected him to the bombing at UNI and included stills from Bethlehem juxtaposed against the still from the university parking lot camera. Shrewdly, they published the story just in time for the cut off to be eligible for a Pulitzer. They still held back any details of where to find Jaio or who worked with him. But the last article in their series caused uproar.

She and Jameis fielded inquiries from all the major networks that had previously toasted them in pursuit of the initial stories.

Publishers like CNN, FOXNews, USA Today, New York Times, New York Post and LA Times all dug up their video capture of Jaio holding the beam of the burned out Performing Arts Center in Iowa with headlines such as; “Modern-Day Messiah”, “Miracle Man” and “Second Coming?”.

Opposing camps of supporters and detractors made pilgrimages to the CSM office in Boston. Protesters picketed outside the doors to the newsroom and Boston City Police had to rope off the believers from the haters. Missy could no longer shop at her grocery store without being mobbed by the press. Online trolls referred to her as a “whore” and “Satan’s daughter”. She received anonymous death threats. The CSM web site faced constant Denial of Service attacks, shutting it down periodically for hours at a time. The phones in the office rang 100 times more frequently than prior to the series. The situation came to the point where they had to outsource to a crisis call center to handle the volume.

As many vile threatening calls that came in, even more inquiries requested information on how to meet Jaio, gain access to his videos and take part in his rallies.

Cael had argued against seeking mass publicity over the security concerns, but had been overruled by Melanie and Henry, who both felt giving him his voice and sharing him with the world was more important. Jaio, himself, had placed his hands-on Cael’s shoulders and whispered something that only Cael had heard. His words soothed Cael’s trepidation and he acquiesced to the idea of allowing the story.

“We can’t live in fear,” he agreed, closing his eyes for a moment to contemplate the challenge he would face in securing Jaio’s safety and the ongoing well-being of the entire team. “That’s the whole point of Jaio’s mission.”

Cael continued to shelter Jaio in Greyson’s apartment, sequestering him as the story spun and swirled across the streets of New York. He worked out a security protocol where, in an emergency, he could take him out the back of the apartment building, up the fire escape by the alley to the roof of the parking garage. From there, they would take any one of the black Town Cars that Henry leased to match Greyson’s. Cael, Greyson, Ruben and sometimes several others would conduct a coordinated series of overlapping driving routes to confuse and diffuse any potential followers. And despite the roving eyes of the entire world, they managed to keep Jaio’s comings and goings an ongoing mysterious secret.

Cael continued his dialog with Winger and they worked together to systematically cycle through anyone in their circle that could possibly have an inside track on disrupting Jaio’s operation.

The story escalated exponentially from the US to Canada, Europe, the Far East and the Middle East, garnering both positive and indignant commentary from religious and civic leaders across the globe.

Henry’s foundation financed an expanded footprint of influence, increasing the radius of Jaio’s visits to both coasts. Jaio also pondered a return to other parts of the world, especially the Middle East.

The foundation, which consisted of a few of Henry’s most trusted advisors and faithful human assets that had worked for him over the years grew like a hot technology start-up. Passionate volunteer supporters emerged like zombies donating their time and efforts to help promote Jaio’s cause. The charitable reach of the organization expanded to nearly every American city. Financial donations flowed like Casino winnings. In partnership with Henry’s leadership team, Cael, Ruben and their unknown, unseen crew, Gina continued to serve as Jaio’s personal assistant. Previously, Melanie had played all these roles herself, but Jaio’s mission and influence grew so rapidly, that it now took a whole organization to manage him.

As an innovative component of their feature series, Missy and Jameis set up countless video interviews with everyday Americans asking them the question; “Would you believe?” and cataloging their answers. They segmented the respondents by ethnicity, gender, age, religion and geography and reported on the data they observed. They represented as much of the actual feedback as they could possibly work in, featuring individuals who were willing to provide their opinion and be quoted.

In one memorable interview, an old catholic woman from Brocton, Massachusetts broke down in tears at the prospect that Jesus would come back to save her soul. In another, a single mom from the Bronx scoffed at the thought, calling Jaio a “publicity whore”. The term “crackpot” came up an inordinate number of times and Missy joked in her article that she may have broken a record for the most uses of the obscure term in a single news feature.

One of the most striking interviews was with a potato farmer in rural Georgia who became so incensed at the thought of some “crackpot” falsely claiming to be the son of God, he wanted to kick the shit out of him to teach him a lesson about messing around with people’s faith.

Missy replayed in her mind the hundreds of videos they recorded. She thought of the 60-year-old semi-retired construction worker from Dayton, Ohio who stared at her with a pained expression on his face.

“I want to believe,” he said, looking at her as she sat just off-camera. “I really do. But I just can’t bring myself to change from what I have believed all my life that there is one God and one Jesus. Accepting this new person into my belief system is too new and different. I’m afraid to get burned. But I’m also afraid to miss the boat. I just don’t know what to think.”

Missy couldn’t forget the strain in his eyes and feeling the same struggle. Her parents had called her blasphemous for even writing the articles and she pictured herself, as she had in her childhood, burning in hell for failing to follow the will of her God – or rather– her parents’ God.

“I’ve believed what I believe since I was a kid,” she recalled a Jewish father of four in his mid-forties saying. “I can’t change that now. I’m committed to the faith I have always known. And I believe it is the only truth.”

And yet, each time she came across another video subject that had decided to follow Jaio’s teachings, she couldn’t help noticing the peaceful calmness they exuded.

“Why not?” asked one of the Boston University students they had interviewed. “I mean, we’re all just guessing anyway. So, if he has a message of tolerance and unity and connectedness between the billions of people in this world, then why not listen to him. Who really cares if he is or isn’t the true son of God. If he has a message that can give people direction in life and help us all learn to be better people, why not log in and listen to his videos. Why not? Right?”

That last word “Right?” lingered in the air like a challenge to her to reexamine her own faith. After all, Missy grew up in a religious household. Her parents quoted the Torah with some regularity when they really wanted to take a moral stand. She internalized what she had learned from temple and incorporated it into her moral code. For a Jew to accept a second coming, when they don’t even recognize the first, was a big hump for Missy to climb. So, a major part of her heart rejected Jaio as an outsider to that belief system and a threat to the assumptions she cast into the stone tablet of her mind.

And yet, her religious studies in college had opened her eyes to all the other options and to the remarkable commonality between most religions. Plus, as a young person entering the adult phase of her life, many of her friends took a much more secular view of society and social interaction between people. And yet, she didn’t perceive them all to be sinners who would burn throughout eternity.

Technology, she observed, had morphed into a sort of religious code in and of itself. Use of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Yelp and all these other social connectivity tools had truly united a new, more Humanist world and removed barriers between different types of people from varying backgrounds. Suddenly, a devout Roman Catholic from the Northeast could share feedback about their favorite movie, restaurant or book with a Buddhist from the other side of the world, or with a Muslim from a mile away or with a gay atheist from an island in the middle of the Pacific. And the technology allowed this interaction not between types of people, but simply between individual human beings with nothing more than an opinion to share and a connection to make.

The applause simmered as Missy settled behind the podium. She cast aside her flashbacks and squinted in the blaring lights that assaulted her eyes and obscured the hundreds of her peers that had assembled to hear her speak.

“First, I have to acknowledge and thank my boss, my mentor, my partner and my good friend Jameis Thomason,” she spoke slowly, clearly and deliberately, thanking the board for awarding the Pulitzer to them for their work and gushing at how honored she and Jameis were to receive the prestigious award. “Jameis could not be here to accept this award with me as he has left the country in pursuit of a deeper, more personal search for his own answers to these questions we have all asked ourselves. He’s written a book that drops very soon. I hope everyone will read it. It’s all about how Jaio managed to gain popularity since his first steps here in the United States. Jameis hopes to complete a follow-up based on his journey through the Middle East where, Jaio grew up and emerged as a leader. I wish him the best of luck. And I miss him.”

Missy delivered her speech with precision, wit and humility. Both precise and concise as her 10th grade English teacher had taught her to communicate, she recapped the events leading up to publishing the series and thanked her sources both named and unnamed. And she thanked Jaio especially for inspiring so many people across the world, including herself. She paused and called for order in consuming Jaio’s message of peace and love. She cautioned people not to take his vocation as a threat, but as reinforcement of the common values that bind all religious philosophies and teachings

“I would like to close my acceptance by announcing that I will be leaving the Christian Science Monitor as Associate Editor and Senior Writer,” Missy pressed through the gasp from the audience below. She took a deep breath and continued her thought, doubting herself at each word. Her stomach felt as if she had just leapt from the top of the Prudential Building. But she had determined to push through the excruciating decision she had made following her last interaction with the main subject of her series.

“Join me,” Jaio had said, with his hand extended. “Join us.”

Missy glanced at Henry seated in the front row, who would become her new boss in just a few weeks. He nodded in approval and she continued her announcement.

“I will be joining a new team of brave and dedicated volunteers who have helped Jaio to succeed in building his following and sharing his message with the world,” Missy paused. “I’ve decided to join Jaio. And I hope all of you will join him too.”

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