“Where the hell did you get this?” Josh Pinner’s editor yelled from across the room. He was pointing at a screen that must have had one of Josh’s stories on it.
Josh knew the drill. He got up, and started walking over to Colton’s desk. He had screwed up or something, didn’t get the angle right.
The editors at The Rumpus were impossible. Every story had to be crazier than the next, to keep people reading. You could have an exclusive video of the president of the United States using a flamethrower to rob a bank with his low-life hooker girlfriend, and the editors would still feel like they had to sex it up somehow. Put in that he was hopped up on SpiceTabs or something, stuff you could never prove.
The reporters would learn to anticipate that, which made them start adding in their own crazy stuff in their stories. Then suddenly the editors would care about accuracy and the truth again, usually after someone complained about the story. Josh figured he was due for one of these talks as he made it to Colton’s desk.
“That story you did, ’This Is A Stick Up,” remember?” Colton asked. “Good story. What the hell is it about?”
“Did you read it?”
“I got a hundred words in and I don’t see any quotes from anyone,” Colton said. “So what gives? What’s it about?”
Colton insisted on quotes high up. That made reporters get out of the way and let the sources tell the story.
“It’s a different kind of story, based on a little bit of research,” Josh explained. “I was trying to explain why started fighting China, since no one else has explained it. So I looked at China’s behavior over the last few months. China’s been pretty pissed at us for a while now, for the last few years actually. They keep buying our debt, but they’re tired of not being paid any interest. They’re sick of it, started making noises that the deal sucks. So I figured that’s why the U.S. bombs China, to send them a message.”
“OK,” Colton said. “But do you have anyone saying it? Did anyone confirm to you that we’re at war because China wants us to pay interest again? If you have people saying it, all that stuff needs to go up higher.”
“No, nobody is saying it,” Josh said. “I’m constructing a motive for the U.S. to bomb China based on their financial relationship, but it’s just a theory based on the public record. I could ask around if you want, but I don’t expect anyone to admit any of this to me.”
“So you declare, on your own, that we’re fighting China because China was making all these noises about the debt?”
“Yeah basically,” Josh said. “Went too far?”
“No, it’s a great, great job. Tons of people reading it,” Colton said. “I mean, no one knows why we bombed China. It’s not like the government’s going to call you up and say you got it right, or wrong, or say anything.”
“But I’m also worried about becoming a financial paper,” Colton added. “It’s a little dry at the top. Some of this stuff is a little in the weeds. The debt, interest payments, all that garbage. Just be careful, don’t put people to sleep with that stuff.”
“Sure thing, boss,” Josh said. “But I felt like we need to branch out a little. All the bombing stuff is getting dull. We’re just counting the bombs now, there’s nothing new anymore except the number of bombs getting higher and higher.”
“Maybe make a chart, show the bombs going up each day, or each hour,” Colton said. “That could be good.”
“Sure, easy,” Josh said. “But I’m about to be done on the war stuff, if that’s OK. I figure the international people have it. There’s some crazy stuff going on domestically. Listen to this one: The CPSC is about to…”
“What’s the CPSC?”
“The Consumer Product Safety Commission,” Josh said. “Created like 80 years ago to save us all from faulty products.”
“Sounds dry again.”
“But listen,” Josh said. “The CPSC is about to require lollipop sticks to be redesigned so kids don’t accidentally choke on them. You’ll never believe the plan. They want lollipop manufacturers to...”
“No, wait,” Colton said. “That sounds great. But don’t tell me, surprise me. I want to read it in the story.”
“Sure thing,” Josh said. “It’s unbelievable big government bullshit.”
“Christ man, it never ends,” Colton said as he walked away. “Get on that ASAP. We’ll put all the World War III stories lower and lead with the lollipop thing.”
Josh went back to his desk and watched a small group of reporters crowding around a screen showing Dawson II, talking about the war. He was saying something about strong leadership, resolve. Just more trite, empty crap. Like the kind of stuff people say at a graduation ceremony.
Let those other guys have it. Let them write down all the crappy lines and try to make sense of it all in some story. Who cares? He was about to blow them all away with his lollipop story.
Josh took some time piecing together his story, which was really just a little bit to read and then some videos about lollipops and safety. But he loved how it turned out, especially the headline, which was the same headline he had just used for the debt story. Josh thought that was endlessly clever:
This Is A Stick-Up
By Josh Pinner
Oct. 3, 2051
The federal government is taking new steps to save Americans and their families from the deadly, untamed scourge of lollipops, the Russian roulette of candy that remains a menace to U.S. children because some kid may have choked on one, somewhere, decades ago, maybe.
Officials in Dawson II’s Consumer Product Safety Commission are considering a proposal that would require all lollipop sticks to be manufactured with a small, carbon fiber ribbon with a loop at the end. People would be required to put the loop around their wrist before eating the lollipop.
That way, if the lollipop were to somehow get stuck in their throats, they could pull it out with the carbon fiber.
What’s more, the plan would require parents to make sure children under 7 are using the loop. Failure to comply could result in fines and up to 30 days in prison.
The CPSC declined to answer questions from The Rumpus about whether the carbon fiber itself was a choking hazard to children.
Just the right amount of news and attitude. He even attached a video USDA had made years ago about how to safely eat candy. Jesus, a whole video on that. How many man-hours did that involve? What a stupid waste.
Colton eventually made that story the lead, and it blew away all the war stories for the rest of the day. Josh spend the afternoon writing a follow-up story that included quotes from Republicans who were already vowing to sue Dawson II over his lollipop regulation for infringing upon some part of the Constitution.
Josh spent the rest of the day calling into satellite beam shows to talk about lollipop sticks with hosts who were already getting sick of the war and wanted to liven things up a bit.
Hours later he looked up, and saw the night crew walking in. He had worked straight through lunch without stopping.
Enough was enough. Josh packed up, grabbed his coat, and headed to the elevator banks. He hit the ground floor, exited the building , and turned left toward his favorite sushi place.
“Hey Josh!” a voice cried from behind him.
He turned around and saw a pretty blonde running toward him in heels. Short skirt, unbuttoned blouse, overcoat thrown over her arm. She yelled again, “Josh!”
He figured she must be after some other guy named Josh, but she ran right up to him and stopped. She stood there, smiling at him and brushing all that blonde hair out of her brown eyes.
“Hey! You’re Josh, right?” she said, breathing heavily from her short run. He liked how her gasping for breath moved her whole blouse up and down. “I’m Cindy, I’m with The Rumpus as part of a fellowship program, out of Princeton.”
“Oh, hey,” he said as he unconsciously tried to neaten up his scraggly beard. Why was he growing this thing, anyway? “That’s right, I’ve seen you around a little. What kind of stuff are you…”
“Want to get dinner? I’m starving,” she said. She grabbed his arm and whisked him down the sidewalk before he could argue, not that he would have.
Cindy talked for the entire four blocks as she led him to a popular Italian place. What her major was, how impressed she was with Washington, D.C., how expensive everything was, how lucky she was to be at The Rumpus.
They ran into the Italian restaurant, and it was packed. But they managed to find seats at the bar, after the bartender moved a few people around. Cindy’s blonde hair made a convincing argument.
“We’ll get the big bowl of pasta to share, and a salad,” she told the barman, who expertly checked Cindy out and placed their order. Then she swiveled to him and it was all business.
“Josh, that story you wrote was crazy, and so important. The one about why we’re bombing China,” she said. “Do you realize what this means? It’s like a financial World War III. Whoever we owe money to, we just attack them. Can you believe the nerve of Dawson II?”
He smiled a little at her enthusiasm. There was nothing more self-righteous in the world as a college kid worried about some issue they just studied in class. But her face, and her whole body, made it bearable.
“Well, it’s a theory at least,” Josh said. “I can’t prove any of it, but the timing is suspicious. I mean, who knows what’s going on? China’s probably mad at us over lots of things. There could be ten reasons why we started dropping bombs on them.”
“But like you wrote, the connection with Japan,” Cindy said. “There’s too much in common for it to just be a coincidence. I’ll be right back.”
She took her bag and walked toward the restrooms. Josh scrolled through his messages for a bit, and the barman returned after a while with a giant bowl of spaghetti, and a salad. He laid out plates and bowls for each of them.
Cindy returned minutes later, and made an immediate move for the food.
“Aw, you didn’t have to wait for me,” she said. She dug in, and placed heaps of spaghetti on her plate, and just a little salad.
He watched her eat as he made himself his own plate. She was devouring it, but somehow, she still looked good, even though the pasta was drenched in thin, runny marinara sauce, a specialty of Washington. She was rolling up the spaghetti strands into neat little balls on the tip of her fork, and then delicately placing them inside her mouth, which was framed by subtle purple lipstick that matched her eyeshadow. All the color on her lips stayed in place. No red sauce on her chin, no slurping, not a spot of red on her white blouse. It was a marvel.
Where the hell did people learn to handle themselves like that? She was like a movie actress. The more he watched the more he didn’t want to eat anything.
He tried a few times to attack the spaghetti in a way that wouldn’t make a mess, but gave up and ate a few of the meatballs. Then he picked at his salad a little, and as he popped a few cucumbers into his mouth, he realized he needed to be ready to pick up the check. It might be $200 or so, dinner for two at such a nice place downtown. Fine, he’d expense it. Colton would understand.
“Why so interested in all this?” Josh asked Cindy when she started slowing down. Her plate was empty.
“Why?” she laughed as she folded her still-clean napkin in her lap. “It’s just the most important story ever. But also… I wanted to know if I could help. I’m studying finance, and I’m a good researcher. Do you think I could help? I assume you’re planning lots of follow-up stories on it, right?”
“Um, sure,” he lied instantly as he thought of his lollipop story. “I figure something this big, there will be plenty of chances to follow up, dig around. But I don’t even know what’s next. I couldn’t prove anything, it was just looking at some old statements, and…”
Cindy threw her napkin on the table, and entered some numbers into a small device at the table to pay for dinner. He noticed she tipped the bartender well: $70.
“Hey, let me get this,” Josh protested. “I can…”
“Come on!” she almost screamed. “I have some ideas. On the story.” She grabbed his arm and led him through the restaurant to the door. Josh figured he was pretty much being kidnapped at this point, and figured the look on his face showed it.
Cindy used her phone to signal for a ride with one hand as she led him across the street. A few minutes later they were in the car, heading north and west toward Georgetown. It was a warm night, and he worried he was maybe starting to smell like the gym from all the running around. But in the dark closeness of the cab, she smelled clean, and somehow looked clean.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“I have all kinds of data I’ve been keeping on federal debt sales,” she said. “I haven’t been looking for the stuff you uncovered, but I figure we can look for patterns. Maybe we can spot news stories with comments from China saying they don’t want any more U.S. debt, and match that up with declining Chinese purchases from the Treasury.”
“OK, sure. So, the library?”
“No!” she laughed. “My place. I have it all at home. You can stay over, right?”
“Stay over?” he asked. Was this for real? “Yeah sure. I can stay a little bit.”
“A little bit?” she laughed again. “This might take a while, late into the night. Unless you don’t have time.”
Then, in one of the greatest bits of acting Josh had ever seen, Cindy pretended to suddenly realize there might be some other problem with staying over.
“Oh no!” she said. “I’m sorry. If you have a girlfriend or something, and if this is inappropriate…”
“No, it’s fine,” Josh said. “I just have a fish at home that I have to feed every morning.”
“Oh great, we can definitely have you home in the morning,” she said. Did she say that dryly? Or did she just say it normally. Josh couldn’t even tell anymore.
She grabbed his hand and leaned in closer in the back of the car. God she smelled good.