“What do I think? I think all this X-Files crap’s nothing more than jerk-off fodder for teenage weirdos who never step foot out of their mommas’ basements into the light of day. That’s what I think. Oh, and I also think that you’ve gone from having a hard-on over it to getting your balls in a twist about it.” Frank Bueller poked Sam Brannigan in the chest to punctuate his words.
Frank wasn’t from much farther south than Casper, Wyoming, where he lived and worked, but he threw colorful ‘southern’ expressions around the Herald’s newsroom like X-rated confetti. Sam’s theory was that Frank felt it was something a newsman had to do, and with the man dating from pre-internet days, no one had been able to check up on his background and call him out on it originally. Having gotten away with it, once he’d made editor, he’d run with it more.
“Capisce, Brannigan?” Frank, also not of Italian background, added.
“Versteht.” Having a German grandfather meant Sam could cobble bits of other languages together too. “Well, thanks for that.”
Still staring hard at Sam, Frank blew air down his nostrils in true Frank ‘The Bull’ Bueller style. He turned to rap on the glass of his office window, signaling something to someone out into the bullpen, finishing his message by tapping on his wristwatch and holding up four fingers. “Look, Brannigan,” he said.
“Don’t tell me. Walk with you to the break room,” Sam muttered and stood aside for Frank to lead the way.
He’d been prepared for this tactic even before he took up the job here almost two years ago. If Frank was pitched an idea that didn’t grab him right away, he’d get the writer to go through it again while walking to the staff break room with him. A Casper Herald journalist had to be really fired up about his idea to sell it bigger and louder in public like that, which would convince Frank. If the journalist didn’t want to make a public pitch, he’d drop it, which would save Frank the work of rejecting it.
“And if it’s a yelling-down, explain and apologize for your screw-up and take your lumps right then and there in his office. Not the bullpen,” Sam’s father had also told him, having known Frank from their cub reporter days. Sam agreed with that. A public sales pitch was one thing, a public crucifixion another. Frank’s approach to staff development and mentoring was old-school.
Which was why him not shoving open his office door and barreling through into the public arena surprised Sam. Instead, Frank took a quick solo walk around his office, coming to a stop before the Herald’s wall of fame and its photo of award-winning journalist A.L. Brannigan, in all his late-eighties high hair and oversized-eyeglasses glory.
At least Frank didn’t cast a glance back at Sam, comparing and contrasting father and son. Sam’s strawberry-blond hair, while longer on top than at the sides, was more messy from running his fingers through it than piled high with product, and his glasses more nerd-hipster—the jury was still out—than the red statement frames his father wore in the photo.
“You ain’t totally happy here.” Frank spun around to accuse Sam. “Is it business news in particular or the Oil City in general?”
Hell. Sam glanced down at the carpet, half expecting to see he was standing in a black circle—he’d been put on the spot. “I’m grateful you gave me a chance after I graduated,” he started, wishing they had gone to the break room. He could use a glass of water right about now.
He knew he was lucky—not many grads went from college to a state’s largest print newspaper, whose daily and Sunday circulation was over twenty thousand and to which the Wyoming Press Association annually awarded the cup for best large newspaper in the state.
“And true, settling in Wyoming was never on my wish-list growing up, but I’m fine here in Casper.” It was a big enough city for him. “But while Casper’s a regional center of banking and commerce, I don’t intend to report business news forever, no.”
“Hey, I already started you working on energy-related stories,” Frank reminded him. He took another look at Alexander Brannigan. His photo didn’t show the Pulitzer Prize for Excellence in Public Service Journalism he’d won for his investigation into a Wyoming utility company whose shady cartel practice had allowed them to overcharge their natural gas customers for years, but Frank’s smile smacked of reminiscence for his former co-worker.
“We couldn’t keep him here after that,” he commented.
“So you got me. Hoping I’m a chip off the old block.” Sam regretted the words as soon as they came out of his mouth.
“Yeah.” Frank had probably never sugar-coated anything in his life. “Took you on as a favor. A legacy.” He gave a bull-like snort at the idea. “And you’re proving yourself. Your work ain’t all bad. It needs less ripping to shreds every story.”
“I— Thanks.” Sam meant it. That was praise indeed. And true. He was learning a lot here. More than he’d learned at Syracuse, in many ways. Frank’s dark-brown stare pinned him, demanding a fuller answer, so Sam tried to provide one. “Journalism…it’s more than a family thing, a legacy, to me. I wouldn’t have studied it if not.” Well, he’d double majored in Creative Writing too, but there was no point bringing that up. He’d only get accused of having an ‘itchy pen’.
Frank studied him for a few more seconds, then grunted. “So this is all about this cyber chatroom stuff you’re nuts-deep in?”
“ShareAlike? It’s a social news aggregation and discussion website network—” Sam started. Again. Only for Frank’s upraised hand to cut him off. Again.
“You don’t get enough of that virtual stuff with the computer edition?” Frank’s scowl lowered his brows right down to his flared nostrils.
Sam did work a lot on the Herald’s online paper, pushing for more frequent updates and integrated video and other multimedia content. Someone had to. Maybe that could be his legacy to the Herald. Well, it wasn’t as though he had a lot else to do. He was hardly out on a date every night. That scene had lacked any interest for him for a while now.
“These weirdo forums, with rednecks sighting Bigfoot and the wolfman, or whatever the latest craze is, after they get slung out of the bar…” Frank looked like he did when he ate spicy food. Sam expected him to rub his stomach to go along with the wince.
“So are the users heavy drinkers in rural communities who think they’ve seen something when they stagger out of the bar drunk, or teenage shut-ins who live in their mothers’ basements?” Sam looped back to Frank’s earlier pronouncement.
“Who the hell cares!” Frank sucked in a breath. “Nah, kid. You’re doing okay work in this uranium mine story. I think it’s gonna go big. Keep on that and keep pumping that environmentalist contact. Not these nutballs in chatrooms. You—”
Both Sam and Frank whirled around at Tony LeDoux’s urgent call from outside…at the same time as a tall, heavy-set guy shouldered Frank’s door open and barged in, more furious than even Frank on a Monday morning. He stopped on seeing Sam.
“Just the lying piece of crap I’m here to complain to your boss about!” he barked, squaring up to Sam.
“Frank Bueller, John Keef from Cheyenne, CEO of Logistics Transportation Inc.,” Sam said over his shoulder to Frank. Stubborn, he didn’t step aside for Keef, and so staggered a little when the guy shoved him aside to round on Frank.
“And he’s hella mad and hella strong,” Sam’s partner, Tony, added from the doorway.
“What’s this about, Keef?” Frank didn’t back down either. He also didn’t look in the least bit fazed.
“This piece of shit here wrote that bunch of lies about my drivers taking goddamn pills to stay awake and that I knew about it!” Keef yelled, gesticulating at Sam. “That I was okay with it—that I fucking encouraged it!”
“Mr. Keef’s logistics firm transports overweight and outsized components used in the wind power industry, you remember,” Sam filled Frank in. Not that there was any need, with the boss’ memory for details of stories, current and past. Frank regularly forgot his wife’s and kids’ birthdays and his own wedding anniversary, but never any specifics of stories.
“Oh yeah. They take the windmill blades to the landfill.” Frank nodded.
“Bueller, I’m here to tell you that if one of my employees—”
“Several,” Sam interrupted the CEO, using a fake cough to do so.
“—pops pills, I don’t know anything about it. That’s what I’m here about—I don’t give a crap about the blades,” Keef snarled.
“You don’t? Then why are you cutting corners to meet the disposal targets?” Frank snapped back. “Like making your drivers work double shifts because you’re not hiring enough men or got enough trucks?”
“What?” gasped Keef.
“What we ain’t figured out yet is if it’s because your business is in trouble or because you got greedy,” Frank continued, the verbal equivalent of a one-two punch. “But we’ll find out.”
He raised his voice over Keef’s strangled-sounding protests, his insistence that the lying bag of shit who wrote this garbage be fired before Logistics Transportation sued him, the editor and the paper if it dared print the story.
“Shout the odds all you like, big guy. I stand by my men. Which, heh, is more than you do. We gave you a chance by sending you the copy and requesting an interview—the story runs tomorrow,” Frank announced.
Shouting “The hell it does!” Keef charged at Frank, who absorbed the impact and grabbed Keef in turn.
“See this? This is more like it!” Frank, mid-grapple, called over to Sam and Tony who were backing out of the door. “More like the old days! Proves this is the sort of stuff you should cover!” He paused to block a punch from his enraged opponent and land one in Keef’s stomach. Both Sam and Tony winced. “This is the kind of story to get your nuts in a knot about!”
The two men’s struggle had Keef knocking into the door, hard enough to slam it shut.
“Should we…?” Sam started to ask but subsided. No one else looked concerned, and Frank certainly hadn’t.
“Guess we got Keef where it hurts.” Tony cocked his head at the office. He raised his hand for a high-five, but when Sam didn’t raise his, folded his arms instead. “You okay? Oh, The Bull shoot you down in flames?”
Sam didn’t bother replying.
“Funny. You’d think he’d be more into it when all that UFO and crop circles shit is so retro.” Tony cast a final look at Frank’s office and made for his desk. “Guess you should move on, then. You know what it means when a guy gets obsessed with something that crazy to this degree?” He waited until a couple of their co-workers looked up. “Means he needs to get laid!”
“Like I told you, you’re not really my type.” Sam spoke even louder than Tony had. “But keep trying, and I might get desperate enough to take you up on it one day.” He blew his partner a kiss.
“In your dreams.” Tony blew him a raspberry in reply.
“Oh, you are. Wanna hear what I did to you?” Sam would never back down and usually wanted the last word. “It involved scented body oil, furry pink handcuffs and a rolled-up copy of the Casper Herald…”
“Oh, Jesus,” Tony whimpered as Sam sat.
There was no malice in the exchanges he had with Tony, or any of the other writers, just a sense of familiarity, of having slipped into a role and playing it out, as if Sam had been there longer than two years. Most of the others had. Was he bored? He tried to follow the thought through. He liked the job, yeah. He enjoyed investigative journalism…but he liked features, and long pieces too.
A tiny beep sounded—the new message alert Sam had set up for the ShareAlike forum he visited. Okay, haunted. Maybe he was in a rut, and this was escapism—it had his heart beating quicker than the stories he chased for the Herald. He took discreet glances around and clicked onto the forum. Inaspectus had posted again! Sam scanned it. The guy, or woman, not only believed all the stories about the sightings in that one area but reiterated his own, the details the same.
Sam took off his glasses to rub his eyes. Did he really believe there was a wolfman—a beast on two legs, bipedal, as Inaspectus swore he’d seen it—loose in a small Wyoming town? Inaspectus claimed he’d been clawed by the mutant, and another user had a similar tale of a lucky escape from a ‘were’. Sam didn’t know why he was so into this crazy story…any more than he knew why he opened a map of the state to see where this place was. All he knew was that he was drawn there.
He looked up at two of the building’s security guards hurrying onto the floor, just as Frank kicked his door open and elbowed his visitor out.
“Thanks, guys. Take out the trash,” Frank instructed them. He handed the spluttering Keef over and pointed at Tony then Sam. “Write up the heated denial from the subject of the story, could ya? The piece is taking shape!”
“Sure, boss.” Tony grinned.
Sam spoke before he knew he was going to. “Oh, hey, could I have a couple of days off?”
“Sure!” Spreading his hands, Frank went to set his office to rights. Tony followed, glaring at Sam for having gotten in first.
Sam looked down at his mouse mat. A gag gift from a friend when he’d been packing to head to Wyoming, it said SAVE A HORSE, RIDE A COWBOY. Well, the big cities didn’t have many of the latter, but he knew where there’d be some.
Out in ranching country, where all these weird sightings had been…and where he was planning to go for the long weekend he was taking.
To the small town of Britton, Fallon County.