“You know, they call it ‘the most dangerous eight seconds in sport’? That’s how long most of these rides last, before the bull throws them off. All these ‘rodeo clowns’ have to run in and distract the thing, so it doesn’t – HEY!”
The van lurched and jolted sickeningly, throwing her sharply forward. The tablet PC on the dash clattered to the floor and rolled underneath the seat. If it wasn’t for the seat belt holding her in place, she might well have followed it.
“Mikey!” She complained, gesturing in the driver’s direction with the dark-brown pencil in her left hand. “Are you having fun, playing connect-the-dots with every pothole and rock on the road?”
“Oops.” The man in the driver’s seat cast a sidelong glance in her direction, a smirk on his lips. “Are you having fun, trying to research our guy at the same time as doing your make-up?”
“They’re both equally important.” With a sigh of resignation she placed the kohl liner pencil between her teeth and leaned forward, almost bending double as she reached around under her seat looking for the tablet. She was about to give it up as a lost cause when her fingers brushed across the warm chrome casing and with a triumphant grunt, she retrieved it.
“You’d better not have busted that thing,” Mikey glanced her way before returning his attention to the road ahead. “You know how old man Minas gets when we mess with company-issued equipment.”
“I’d better not have busted it? Me?” She passed her sleeve over the device, front and back, and returned to it its clip-stand on the dashboard. She couldn’t be too angry with the guy; he was her driver, cameraman, editor, and one of her best friends to boot. “It’s fine, so it doesn’t matter! But give me a warning next time you see one of those baby canyons in the road, so I don’t go taking my eye clean out.”
If it wasn’t for the way that artificial lights and an HD camera conspired to make anyone unfortunate enough to be caught between them look like they’d just crawled out of the grave, Staci Wilder wouldn’t even have bothered with the powder and paint at all. But, it was all part of the job. Asking the right questions of the right people would only get her so far, if the viewers at home were getting all bothered about messy hair or dark circles under the eyes. It didn’t matter that the two of them had been stuck in traffic between Jackson and Biloxi for six hours, that she’d only been given an hour’s notice, or that it was her first big assignment. The people watching at home didn’t know – couldn’t possibly know – any of that. ‘You can’t argue with the cards you’re dealt’, her mother always said. ‘But if you know the art of bluffing, you can still win every time.’
“So, what have you learned about our guy?” The van slowed as Mikey wove around a truck pulled up at the roadside with its hood popped, smoke billowing from the engine. “Between bouts of beautifying yourself, that is.”
“Steve Law? Typical all-American success story.” She adjusted the fold-down mirror. Pursing her full lips in concentration, she brought the blunted tip of the kohl pencil to the lash-line of her right eye and cautiously returned to finishing her quick-and-dirty make-up job. “He’s ranked 21st in the world on the Professional Bull-Riders circuit, and is only on the way up. If he comes out on top in tonight’s event, he’ll have won his last ten. His brother Seth is riding tonight too, but Steve is the one everyone is watching.”
“Why do we care, though? We – Pothole incoming!”
“Thanks!” Staci braced herself for the inevitable jolt. “We care, because Biloxi’s his home-town. So if his winning streak continues, we’ve got ourselves a classic local hero story.”
“Since when have we carried stories about bull-riders, though? What’s so special about this guy?”
“That’s a question I’ve been wondering, myself.” She couldn’t stop herself grinning, just a little. “I’m pretty sure it’s only because he’s cute as hell.”
“Damn, I’ve known our Steve since he was fresh outta high-school, and he’s always been a real talented guy.” The old man in the cowboy hat leaned back against the barrier that separated the crowd from the ring, and flashed a wide smile right at the camera. “We always knew he was gonna be going places!”
Sure you did, Staci thought, smile never wavering under the scorching lights. Everyone always says that, when a local kid makes good. “So!” She almost had to shout to be heard over the clamor of the crowd. “What do you think of his chances for making this his third time at taking first place with the judges, here in Biloxi?”
“Oh, he’ll make his mark, I got no doubt about it, at all! Everyone knows, Steve’s a natural at this sport – no matter what Starbucks throws at him, he’ll always be one step ahead!”
‘Starbucks’. The name of the bull that Steve Law was slated to be riding that night. From the way everyone talked, it was as if the animal was almost as important as the man riding it. It was just another oddity that Staci didn’t understand; how could they all make such a big deal out of a beast that, under different circumstances, most of them would be happy to slap in the middle of a sesame seed bun?
“Well!” She shot the man her best smile, a wasted effort since he was squarely focused on the camera. “With a home-crowd like this, I’m sure he’ll do it!”
Turning to Mikey, she signaled for him to cut; the too-bright smile dimmed instantly as she sighed, and fanned herself with her hand. Was there enough time to get another quick spot with one more member of the audience before the man himself made his appearance? Probably not. “Thanks for your time, sir.”
“Not a problem, darling!” The old duffer in the hat switched his attention back to her, his smile widening. “Always got time for a pretty thing like yourself. How’s about you and me-”
“Staci, we got to get into position for the main event!” Mikey cut in quickly, gesturing towards an open space to the side of the press area. “Let’s go!”
Bless you. “I hope you enjoy the show, sir!” With a quick wave of her hand, Staci was already in motion, weaving through the crowd with her cameraman in tow. “Thanks for that,” she told him in a low voice. “I don’t think I’m ever going to get used to the ones who think that the smiley-happy act is for their benefit, and not for the camera.”
“Oh, he probably knows.” Mikey responded with a shrug. “Just trying his luck, is all.”
“This looks perfect. Here – let’s get in by the barrier.” With just a little elbow and a lot of maneuvering, Staci led Mikey to the best vantage point she could find. The bigger sporting networks had the best spots, of course; but that wasn’t going to stop her from getting the footage she needed to make this report good enough to run with. “How’s this?”
He gave her the thumbs up, and positioned the camera squarely. She moved to his side, one hand on the barrier, braced to ensure that anyone who was going to jostle Mikey and ruin the shot would have to get past her, first. “As soon as his ride is done, pan over to me, okay? I’ll say a little something-something about how amazing it all was, and we can get everything in a one-shot with the crowd going crazy all around us. Sound good?”
“Sounds like you got everything covered. He’s coming out of that chute on the far left, yeah?”
“Yeah.” She pointed to where the sturdy gate blocked off the moving figures inside, getting ready for the door to spring open and unleash the bull and its mount into the ring. “Michael Yeung, you better make sure you’re focused on the right spot, or I will slap you silly. Got it?”
“You sound like my mother! And my mother is batshit crazy!”
“I’ll be batshit crazy if my first real assignment gets screwed because our money-shot winds up being a stretch of sawdust and the feet of a rodeo clown.”
The voice of the announcer boomed out over the PA system. The crowd began to applaud, even before the gate slammed open. These people really love this guy, huh? She thought, shading her eyes from the floodlights. I guess-
Then the gate was open and out lurched the pale, bucking form of the bull, and the rider dressed in black. Holding on with only one hand held tight to a rope wrapped around the beast’s body, the other hand held aloft as if to wave on the cheering crowd who rose to their feet as one. His fingers were forked in a peace-sign as the bull spun around and threw itself into the air, landing back on all four feet only to launch itself skyward yet again; heavy shoulders bunching and back arching as it kicked its feet and stamped.
The rider stayed on its back, swinging his weight easily to counter the frantic pace of the beast. The buzzer that signaled that the first eight seconds had passed sounded, and still, he stayed on.
And people do this for fun! Staci took a half-step away from the barrier as the beast drew closer, spinning with the force of a captured tornado. Her back collided with a stocky man who had both his arms thrown up into the air and just for an instant she was convinced that the bull was going to smash into that barrier, take it down, and crush her beneath it –
Then the rider slipped from its back and onto his feet, striding away from the thrashing beast as brightly-dressed rodeo clowns ran forward and caught the attention of the bull; suddenly calm, it lowered its head and snorted, forelegs spread apart.
Those railings are made to take a hit, she told herself as the fluttering of panic settled down again, settled down like a flock of butterflies coming to rest. But damn, that was something!
The crowd hollered and applauded, stamping its feet as the bull trotted away towards the exit chute. The rider they were all praising turned slowly around, grinning widely as he brought his own hands together as if he were, in turn, applauding the crowd.
He stood only ten feet from where Staci and Mikey had set up their camera, and as he completed his turn he was facing their way. His grin was all perfect teeth, tanned skin and five o’clock shadow on a handsome face shaded beneath his wide-brimmed old hat. In that Stetson, black shirt and waistcoat, he looked like something from another time and place. A hero from an old black-and-white Western.
Out of the corner of her eye she caught a blur of frantic movement and she turned her head, startled out of her reverie; and saw the camera turned her way, Mikey signaling wildly. Oh, damn! I clear forgot that I asked him to pan over – damn!
She snapped back into reality, a wide professional smile lighting up her face as she turned her whole body to face the camera. “And that was Steve Law! Born and raised right here in Biloxi, sending the crowd wild with one amazing ride!” It took a whole lungful of air to give her voice the power it needed to be heard above thousands of cheering people. Keep calm, look cool.
She tilted her head to one side, a strand of hair falling over one eye. Vaguely she was aware that she was gripping the microphone just a little too tightly. “A ten-second ride, lasting long past the buzzer! Like everyone says, he makes it all look so easy! Hopes are high that he’ll make a real mark at the PBR Championship Finals later this summer!” Did that sound like I know what the hell I’m talking about? Because, I really don’t! “This is Staci Wilder with JMN News, reporting from the Mississippi Coast Coliseum!”
It felt like her cheeks were about to split as she held that smile just long enough to be sure that Mikey had enough to edit with; then finally she relaxed with a deep sigh, wiping her hand across her forehead. “Wasn’t that something?”
“And you were telling me not to mess up the shot!” Mikey rolled his eyes as he flipped out the built-in screen to check the footage. “I got two clear seconds of nothing but you, giving him the googly-eyes!”
“I did not have googly-eyes!”
“Whaaaaaatever,” the camera operator drawled, stepping to one side to let a slab-shouldered old cowboy past. “So what now, boss?”
I like it when he calls me ‘boss’. “We gotta get an interview with the guy, of course! So let’s go!”
“Googly-eyes, I tell ya.” His voice was just loud enough for her to catch as she slipped by him, heading towards the backstage area. “I know that look.”
They weren’t the only ones with a mind to get a few minutes with the man of the moment, it seemed. Other news crews had already set up shop, and the press had to compete against the average well-wisher. At least it wasn’t quite as blazingly hot in the shaded area around the back of the arena.
“I’m staying put, for as long as it takes.” More than anything Staci wanted to lean back against the wall, and let the cool sheet steel take a little of the warmth off her back – but she knew that if she moved away to the side they could kiss good-bye to any chance of being front-and-center when Steve Law finally showed his face. “Though I swear, I’m getting a blister the size of the State fair.”
“That’s what you get, for wearing heels.” Mikey rubbed at the back of his neck, tired from hauling around their equipment all night. “You know, the camera can’t see your feet, right?”
“I need those extra inches. The Good Lord didn’t exactly bless me in the vertical department, you know.” She could feel the back of her silk shirt clinging to her skin. I gotta remember not to turn my back to the camera. When changing into her outfit earlier, all she’d cared about was how the white fabric made a pleasing contrast with her darker skin; but now she was feeling conspicuously overdressed among the cowboy boots and plaid shirts. “The smell of those hot-dogs is just about driving me crazy.”
“Ol’ Steve isn’t worth the wait, ma’am.” She turned her head to see a man in his mid-twenties leaning against the wall like an outlaw, arms crossed over his red shirt, hat pulled down over his eyes. “On the other hand, those D. Walker hot-dogs are damn fine specimens of their kind, so I hear.”
I know him. Staci’s eyes narrowed, even as a slow smile started to stretch her lips. I’m sure of it. “I don’t believe we’ve met, Mr…?”
“I’m Seth.” He tipped his hat, and extended his hand in her direction. “Not Mr Seth, just Seth. And who might you be?”
“Staci Wilder, JMN News.” As she took his hand and shook it, her eyes never left his. The square jaw, the dark eyes and straight eyebrows – the resemblance was striking. “Seth Law, right? Steve’s brother? I was hoping to get a spot with you, as it happens!”
“Were you now?” He shot her a knowing smile. “I’m pretty sure, it’s my rising-star big brother that you’re really wanting to talk to.”
“Not at all!” The response was quick, automatic, as practiced lies often are. The moment it passed her lips it left a nasty taste in her mouth, and her own smile faltered. “Well, that’s not entirely true. My boss wants us to have a few words with Steve, but really, I don’t know anything about bull-riding. I didn’t have a clue who any of you were before this morning, so I haven’t exactly got stars in my eyes.”
“You don’t say?” He looked her up and down, from her head to her heels. “And here was me, thinking that you looked just like the kind of girl who grew up on a farm.”
“Are you making fun of me, Mr Seth Law?” From the corner of her eye, she saw that Mikey had swung the camera around and was catching every word of this on tape. “Would you mind giving us a few minutes of your time, to answer a few questions?”
“I’d rather not.” His shoulders lifted in a casual shrug. “Always been a little camera-shy, myself.” Perhaps the disappointment that Staci felt showed on her face, because he bit his lip, looking thoughtful. “But hey, if you want, I can get you a few moments with ol’ Steve. He’s a sucker for a pretty face and a little attention.”
Staci’s eyes lit up at the sound of that. “If it’s not too much trouble! It’d surely make my boss a very happy man!”
And me, too. But shh. It’ll never do, to look too eager.
He pushed himself up and off the wall, and nodded in her direction. “Well, if you and your man there want to follow me…” With a casual gesture of the arm he beckoned them to stay close as he turned and walked away, not towards the backstage door – but the exit, nodding to the burly guard who stood in front of it.
I hope he’s not going to prank us – just show us outside and then shut the door, locking us out while twirling his mustache like a villain. Taking a deep breath, she shot a glance towards Mikey before following Seth. No, he couldn’t do that. He doesn’t even HAVE a mustache. Surreptitiously she crossed her fingers as the door opened and let in a blast of cool air, following Seth Law outside into a late evening beneath an indigo sky, lit by bright sodium lamps.
And walked right into the middle of an argument.
“It doesn’t even bother you?” Twenty feet away from the exit door, a tall blonde in a neat Grey skirt and frilled red blouse ranted at a broad shouldered figure, her voice carrying easily over the muted sounds of the crowd inside. “You’re happy to show-boat and play the big-man hero, despite everything?!”
Well, damn, the young reporter thought. Is Mikey still filming all of this? She looked towards him and saw that both he, and the camera, were pointedly facing away from the scene; but the little red light that signaled that the camera was recording was still on. “Um, Seth?” She kept her voice low, not wanting to call attention to herself. “Should we, ah, come back later?”
He shot her a lopsided grin as the woman with the shock of champagne-blonde hair stamped her foot in annoyance, and turned their way. “Fine!” She snapped. Kitten-heels clicked as she strode purposefully along, passing the little group by the door – and then stopped, gray eyes fixing onto Staci. If she hadn’t been wearing such an ill-tempered look on her face, she could have been a catalog model. “More idiots coming to give him the spotlight? Well, I wouldn’t bother! He’s not half the man he pretends to be, sweetheart.”
Then she turned to Seth, and her entire demeanor changed like a light switch had been flipped. “Hiya, Seth! Always nice to see you.”
“Likewise.” Eyebrows twitching upwards, his expression never shifted from polite amusement. “Always a pleasure.”
With a gracious gesture he moved out of her way; she nodded her head once and left through the door that they’d only just arrived through, striding quick and fast like a cold breeze in high-class clothing.
“Well, that was… Something.” Staci wasn’t entirely sure what to say about that. Even if she’d been doing this job for ten years, she doubted she’d ever know quite how to act after walking into the middle of a skirmish like that. It was just so – so awkward. But surely, she had to say something? A professional woman like herself needed to always have an answer for everything, right?
Thankfully she was saved from blurting out the first thing that came to mind by a rich, deep voice echoing out from the half-light. “Well, I do apologize about that.” The tall figure who had been reclining against the wall straightened up, and walked their way with a slow, confident stride. “Can’t tell a lie and say that this is the way I like to be introduced to a strange face or two. I’ve never been one for the personal dramas. Judging from that camera you two are truckin’ around with, it might just be that such things are more your cup of tea than mine.”
Up close like this, he seemed much taller than he had been when standing in the arena; at around six-two, he stood a clear ten inches taller than Staci did. Every inch was built of lean, solid muscle, with wide shoulders and big hands – and just like before, she found herself almost believing that he wasn’t real at all. That maybe, he was a silver-screen cowboy from a time that existed only in celluloid, a ghost from the wide dusty plains and blue skies of a film-maker’s vision.
This is it. After two years of unpaid internship and another three years working on obituaries and grocery-store openings, her break was finally here. Remember what you have to do, she told herself. Get him good and softened up, before slipping into a few questions. “Congratulations on your winning ride, Mr Law. I’m Staci Wilder from JMN News. How does it feel, breaking your own record right here in your home-town?”
There was a slight pause as he met her practiced, breezy faux-charm. “You’re all business, you.” He looked over to his brother, and the two shared a knowing smile. Staci wondered what lay behind that look. Just – answer my questions, please! “Let’s start at the beginning. Nice to meet you, Miss Wilder. I’m Steve.”
Just as Seth had done, he extended his hand towards her, eyes shadowed beneath his cowboy hat. Slowly she reached out and found her small hand enveloped in his – his fingers were strong, his skin warm and slightly rough to the touch. Staring up into the darkness cast by that old hat, she found herself trying to look back into the eyes that she instinctively felt were on hers. “Hi, Steve.” Her voice felt as small as her hand did, and equally lost within his expansive presence. “It’s good to finally meet you. Might…. Might I ask you a few questions?”
“Like I could refuse a pretty lady who asks so nicely.” He released her hand, and tucked his own into the pocket of his black jeans. “Fire away.”
“How – ah-” For an awful, gut-wrenching second her mind went as blank as a cloudless sky. Then the words came, all in a rush. “How did it feel, breaking your own record?”
“Right here, in my home-town?” As he filled in the missing part of the question, he nodded thoughtfully; as if those words were mere coincidence. “It felt good, of course. Just like I’d always dreamed, ever since I was a boy.”
It wasn’t quite the answer that she’d expected. Sure, the words were all there, but there was a strange lack of feeling – as if none of this was a surprise to him. Not at all. “So, what comes next for you?”
“Have you ever gotten everything you’d wanted, everything you’d planned for, and then found that the world just keeps on rolling around the sun?”
What…? Staci’s smile faltered, her eyebrows drawing together quizzically. “I, well – can’t say I rightly have?” The quick-moving and confident speech of the professional, aspiring reporter was gone. Just like that, she was left grasping for the right thing to ask.
“It’s the most peculiar feeling. But not a bad one, I’d say.” A casual shrug tilted his shoulders, a half-grin lighting his face. “I guess, I should tell you how I’m gearing up for the Championship in Vegas. But really, all I’m thinking of is getting back to my bed, and waking up tomorrow for a day’s work on the ranch. Winning titles is a grand thing, but honoring our family’s legacy is what really matters.”
They own a ranch? What am I saying, of course he does. Just look at him! “I’ve never been to a ranch!” The moment the words left her lips, she could have kicked herself. This was rapidly starting to sound like less of an interview, and more like a casual conversation over dinner. A casual conversation where she fumbled her words and embarrassed herself horribly. Come to think of it, that was how many of her dates tended to go.
Her thoughts raced, dizzyingly fast. Get us back on topic girl, before you blow it! “You’re a hard-working guy, Steve! Have you got a message for all of your fans here in Biloxi?”
“Let me see… Keep supporting the PBR!” For the first time he looked right at the camera, taking his eyes from Staci. “But really, thank you all. I’ve been all over America, and one day away from Biloxi is one day too long.”
“Well. Thank you, Steve! It’s been wonderful chatting with you! And good luck on your road to the Championship!” This… Hadn’t gone quite as smoothly as she’d expected, and she could feel the tension in her shoulders and face as she turned back to the camera. “This is Staci Wilder for JMN News, at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in beautiful Biloxi. Good night!” Her smile froze into place for endless, aching seconds until Mikey signaled that the take was done. Her entire body sagged and she heaved a deep sigh from the bottom of her lungs. “Phew.”
“Are you alright, Miss Wilder?” Steve’s low voice murmured. “You seem a little tense.”
“You could say that.” Now that it was done – now that she knew there was nothing more that she could do – a strange and giddy lightness flooded her senses. Mikey’s puzzled expression told her everything she needed to know about how well it had all turned out. “Truth is, I don’t know anything about bull-riding. So I feel like a real fish out of water, and just about as flailing.”
“I think you did a wonderful job.” His tone was so reassuring, she could almost believe it; and it coaxed a smile from her, looking up into his eyes. “Here.” He reached up, and took the cowboy hat from his head, setting it on her own. He had a gentle way to him, despite being such a big man. “Have this as a souvenir, ma’am. If you got time before you’re on your way, why don’t you come on over to the Double Thunders tomorrow? I always got time to talk a little while about this little sport that I play at.”
Self-conscious and a little flustered, her hand stole up and touched the brim of the hat as if to check that it was really there. It was too big, of course; and it smelled faintly of some light and musky cologne. “The – the Double Thunders?”
“That’s our ranch,” Seth spoke up. That sent blood flushing to her cheeks; she’d almost forgotten that he was there. “You ask just about anyone, they’ll point you our way.”
“I’d like that!” The answer came too quickly, sounded too enthusiastic. “Perhaps we will.” She paused, grasping for the next thing to say. “Thank you for the interview – both of you. And, well. I hope you get to clear the air with your girlfriend, too.”
From the corner of her eye, she saw Mikey’s eyebrows shoot up as if they were propelled by jet-fuel, and Steve chuckled good-naturedly. “Ah, Dawn’s my ex-fiancee. I doubt the air will ever really be clear, where that one is concerned.”
She opened her mouth to speak some silly platitude, about there always being more fish in the sea, about how someone like him would surely find someone else; but thankfully common-sense reasserted itself. “Well, ah. Thank you again for your time!”
“The pleasure is ours.” With a polite little incline of the head he stepped past, always keeping two feet of space between the two of them. “Come see us, y’hear?”
“Good night, guys.” Seth added as he turned, and headed to the door that led back inside. “Later!”
It wasn’t until the door closed behind them that Staci finally let loose the breath that she’d never even realized she was holding. “Whew! Thank the Lord, that’s all done with.”
“A consummate professional,” Mikey replied, dryly. “I think you might just win a Pulitzer for your insightful and probing commentary. ‘I’ve never been on a ranch before!’ Truly, inspiring stuff.”
“Shut up!” She raised her fist to punch him in the arm, and then remembered that he was holding several thousand dollar’s worth of camera equipment. “You’re a real shithead, Mikey!”
“And you’ve got a crush on Steve Law, but hey. I’m sure that no-one will notice.”
“Of course I don’t.” Scowling, she crossed her arms over her chest. “In fact, I’m starting to think that what’s-her-name might have had a point.”
“You’d think that someone who had this record-smashing victory would be a little surprised about it, wouldn’t you?”
With a grunt, Mikey shifted the heavy camera from his shoulder and held it under one arm while rubbing his neck with his free hand. “That’s true. Seemed like no big deal to him, didn’t it?” He glanced over his shoulder in the general direction of the car lot; it seemed that he was starting to think about getting back to the van, and to their hotel rooms for the night. “You got that look about you. That look a cat gets, when it knows there’s a mouse hiding behind the furniture. So, what’s on your mind?”
“Well.” Staci shifted her weight from one foot to the next, feeling the sting of her blistered feet. “I’m still working on that. But let’s just say – I think we’ll be stopping by that ranch, tomorrow.”
“Aw, hell no!” Mikey groaned. “I gotta be back in Jackson by eight! I’m due to be… Meeting someone.”
Staci cocked her head to the side, narrowing her eyes playfully. “Mikey got a date?”
“Hell yeah, Mikey got a date. Sort of. Look, all I know is, I really like the guy and the last thing I wanna do is show up late. So whatever you’re planning – have a heart, and don’t break mine.”
“Don’t worry!” She replied, airy, reassuring. “It’ll all be just fine. Come on, let’s get ourselves to our rooms for the night, so you can get your beauty sleep.”
There was something about a clean, bright hotel room that always made her feel as if she were a princess, or a CEO; in this day and age, perhaps they were much the same thing.
Her phone felt pleasantly warm against her ear as she listened to the sound of the ring-tone on the other side. With a sigh she collapsed across the white linens spread across the double bed, bare legs crossed at the ankle. After a few beats, the call was answered.
“Hey, Tina! This is Staci Wilder.” Studying the ceiling above, she noticed that the plaster had been smoothed into the shape of sea-shells. Pretty. “Is Mr Minas in tonight? I’m out in the field, and there’s something I need to ask him.”
Moments later she was again listening to the sound of the dial-tone, before a familiar, lightly-accented voice answered. “Staci! I wasn’t expecting to hear from you, this late.”
“Hey, boss.” Despite herself, she grinned a little. The head of JMN News had never been anything but kind and warm-hearted towards her; more like a father, than an employer. “I know it’s late. I’m sorry about that. But there was something I wanted to ask you.”
“And what would that be, my dear?”
“Well – it’s about this story. The bull-rider guy, remember? Now, it might be nothing, but the more I think about it, the more I think it might be something. And I was wondering if Mikey and I might be allowed to stay on a few more days, to follow it up.”
“Go on. I’m listening.”
She drew a cautious breath. No matter how well she got along with the boss, he wasn’t the kind to throw money away on a story that wouldn’t be worth the run-time; she had to sell the possible story to him, and sell it well. “This guy – Steve Law. Now, he’s a real charmer, don’t get me wrong. Kind of a sweetheart, and his brother, too. But, when I was interviewing him, there was something… Something not quite right there. And I’m not the only person to notice.”
“Ah. I see. What kind of ‘not right’ are we looking at here? Drugs? An affair?”
“Better’n that.” I think I got him hooked. Now…. Just gotta reel him in… “Just about everyone we interviewed said the same thing. “He’s such a natural, he makes it look easy.” And we ran into his girlfriend – well, ex-fiancee – and she said something about how he’s not half the man he pretends to be.”
Staci rolled over onto her stomach, almost tangling herself up in the hotel bathrobe. “Then, we hear about how he runs a local cattle-ranch with his brother. He rides cows, he tends cows – well, bulls. Same thing! And I’m starting to think. Maybe there’s something more, to all of this.” Her fingers tapped lightly on the coverlet as both her words and her thoughts began to race. “This winning streak and all this success – our home-town hero might be finding a way to tip the odds in his favor. Can’t be entirely sure, but – I think, his ex knows more than she was letting on. Maybe he’s cheating his way into the finals.”
A brief pause on the other end of the line. “A fallen hero. Professional misconduct. It’s always something worth following up on.”
Alone in her room, Staci grinned triumphantly; Mikey might have to miss his date tomorrow night, but it was all for the good of the story. She was sure he’d understand once the accolades rolled in.
“Thanks, boss!” Having gotten clearance to follow up the story, her mind was already busy planning out her next move. “If Steve Law really is a cheater, I’m going to find out. And I’ll tell the world exactly what he really is.”
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