Brenda was waiting with Carrie and a couple of other Record-Herald staffers when Debbie returned from Camden with the papers about ten. Everybody was dressed grubby, including the usually snappy Carrie, but Brenda knew the rest of the afternoon would be messy.
Using two-wheeled carts, Kirsten and Mike took a stack of papers over and set it by the lunch table, where Sally and Janine started in on a stack of peel-off mailing labels. Over 5,600 papers would have to be addressed by five in the afternoon, or the post office would get nasty. The post office liked to have the 1500 or so papers for Spearfish Lake routes in hand not later than two or so, when the carriers came in off their routes and began to set up for the next day.
Soon, Carrie had the Saxmayer thumping away. Brenda was a little surprised to learn that the sweet lady could get extremely foul-mouthed at a twine jam-up – literally swearing like a trooper. Well, her husband, Gil, had been in the Army for twenty years, and Brenda figured that must have been where she picked it up.
Once that was under way, it was time for Brenda and Debbie to run the dealer route. "I'll drive, you count and run," Debbie offered. "I know where we're going."
It took about three hours to run the dealer route. The driver had the easy part of the job; all they had to do was drive from store to store, first in Spearfish Lake, then in Albany River, and then finally take the long run out to the three stores in Hoselton and Warsaw. The counter had to count out each bundle from numbers on a draw sheet on a clipboard, take the bundle into the store, count the previous week's returned papers, and get the clerk to pay them ten cents from each paper sold, then record the sales on the draw sheet.
It was a real hassle in Spearfish Lake, where there were about a dozen stores that sold the paper near to each other, too near for enough time to count papers between each stop. While Brenda ran into the store, Debbie counted papers for the next stop out in the van.
After the Spearfish Lake Super Market, the distance between stops lengthened out, and Brenda had to do her own counting. They worked their way slowly though the south outskirts of Spearfish Lake, then Debbie got out on the highway for the few miles to drive south to Albany River. For the first time since leaving the office, Brenda could get into the right seat of the van. "This is a real bummer," she complained.
"How'd you like to be the poor bastard on a daily and has to do this every day?" Debbie grinned. "Hey, this beats the living hell out of being a waitress. For something I never figured on doing, I got lucky."
"You didn't plan on working at a newspaper?"
"Never crossed my mind," the dark-complexioned girl admitted. "I was waiting tables in the morning out at the Spearfish Lake Cafe, out by the tracks. Mike goes out there for breakfast most mornings. Well, I kind of liked that job, I could bullshit with the customers, sass them a little, tell stories and joke like that. Breakfast customers are usually pretty glum. Well, anyway one day Mike said to me that anybody as smart and full of shit as I am shouldn't be waiting tables. I asked him what he thought I should be doing, and he said I ought to go down and interview for the ad sales job at the Record-Herald. I knew a little bit about computers, but not jack shit about advertising, but Kirsten and Sally said they didn't know anything about advertising when they started there, either, and they thought I could do the job. Let me tell you, it beats the hell out of waiting tables. The money's better and you're not on your feet so much."
"I was the grill girl in a fast food joint while I was in college," Brenda admitted. "I got damn tired of standing on my feet and flipping burgers. I hated it."
"I'd liked to have been able to stay in college," Debbie said wistfully. "But I had problems. I was living with my boyfriend. All he wanted to do was drink and screw, and that made it hard to study. The state has a nice college grant if you're an Indian, and after the casino got going, the tribe has matched it, but you have to keep your grades up. We had a lousy school out there, although it's improved a lot with the casino money. I really wasn't too well prepared for college. I think I could have kept my grades up, but all the shit I got from Kenny didn't help. I was working at the Spearfish Lake Cafe to try to pay for a semester on my own, to get my grades back up, but then I got this job at the Record-Herald. I've been taking some evening and online courses, but it's not the same."
"What were you studying?"
"Just general stuff. I wanted to be an RN; they make good money, but I never really got into the nursing program. Now I'm taking all computers and graphics and marketing, stuff I can use. Now, someone's going to have to make me a real good offer to get me out of the Record-Herald."
"Does seem like a good place to work," Brenda said. "A good bunch of people. I was having my doubts there last night for a while, but it worked out."
"Yeah, that's a barn burner," Debbie smiled. "I didn't bother to look at the flats this morning, so I didn't see it till it was in print, but boy, you sure ate Hekkinan a new asshole."
"He deserved it," Brenda snorted. "God, when I was in high school I got so sick of phys. ed. teachers who thought they were administrators that it wasn't funny."
"Hey, look," Debbie said. "Hekkinan isn't a bad guy. We all get attacks of the stupids every once in a while. God knows I have. Sometimes you get to catch yourself in time. I don't know if I told you, but I almost got married once, but I found out in time what a jerk Kenny was."
"Some men are like that," Brenda admitted. "Sometimes you don't find out until too late."
"Aw, shit, I should have known better," Debbie snorted. "Fortunately Kenny revealed himself for the drunken asshole he is before we tied the knot. I don't know what I ever saw in that asshole. Thought I was in love, but I must have had some smarts, because I decided I'd better live with him for a while before we got married. Well, one night, he beat me up pretty good, and I left him. He came to me later and begged me to come back, and I got softheaded and went back, but told him if he ever hit me again I was gone for good. Well, two or three months later, he did it again. He was real drunk, and I managed to knock him down and kick him in the nuts a couple times, and I kept my word. You got those thirty papers for McKee's Standard counted out?"
It was mid-afternoon before Brenda and Debbie got back to the Record-Herald. The route drivers were supposed to help with the mailing labels and loading the van for a trip to the post office, but Mike met Brenda in the mailroom with a message: "You've got a couple phone calls to return. The slips are on your desk."
Oh, boy, now it starts, she thought. She headed out to the front office, which was quiet with the Wednesday afternoon mailing madness. Even her computer was off, but there were two pink "While you were out" slips on the keyboard. One of them was from Lisa deLine, and the other from Harold Hekkinan. She didn't really want to talk to either one of them, but she knew there was no way that she could put them off very long. She glanced at the clock; school would be getting out soon. Oh, well, as far as she knew Lisa didn't have anything to be pissed at her personally about, other than the fact that the story she'd printed was exactly 180 degrees different from the rant that she'd made at the school board meeting. Not the best foot to get off on with the town lunatic, she thought. Quickly, she remembered the note in the Reporters Handbook, the one stating that the woman could talk your ear off for hours. Brenda wasn't really up for that; she was really in sort of an adrenaline drain after all the hassles and stresses of yesterday. But, what the heck. The note had been on top.
"Oh, Brenda, I'm glad you called," Mrs. deLine said. "I just wanted to say that you had a really good story on the situation over at the school. That was something that needed to be said. I tried to tell those idiots at the school board Monday night, but they just wouldn't listen."
"Well, it was something that needed to be said," Brenda said in total amazement. Lisa had gotten the original story totally backward and now she'd reversed course without realizing it, or at least admitting it. No wonder she had a reputation as a nut. She was.
"I'm just glad you brought it out," Lisa said. "Having hoodlums like that running around is not good for education. Maybe now something will be done."
"We can hope," Brenda shook her head, wondering how she was going to get out of this phone call. Maybe she should have called Hekkinan first.
"Look, there's some other things I should tell you about over at the school," Lisa continued. "But I've got to leave this instant to go pick up Cindy. Maybe we can do it some other time."
Thank goodness! A stay of execution, anyway. "Could be," Brenda said with relief. "It's good to know that I can call on you when I have questions about what's really happening at the school."
"Oh, feel free to do that any time," Lisa said. "But look, I really do have to run. Thank you again for your excellent story."
Brenda hadn't been expecting a compliment; a rant, yes, but not a compliment. She stared at the phone, wondering if it was for the story, or for the fact that she'd just taken a claws-out swipe at the school, no matter what the facts were. She could foresee more conversations with Lisa and wasn't looking forward to them.
And, she wasn't looking forward to the next phone call to Harold Hekkinan. "Brenda, I'm glad you called back," he said when he heard her voice. I want you to know that I talked to several kids this morning, including Ferguson, Ruoff, and Kohlenberger, all one on one."
Oh, oh, here it comes, Brenda thought. "And?"
"And, you hit it right square between the eyeballs," Hekkinan said. "I owe you an apology. I got lazy and screwed up, but I'll admit it."
"So, what happens to Ferguson and the others?" Brenda asked.
"I've got them on thirty-day administrative suspensions," Hekkinan explained. "That's the most I can write without board approval, but they will be on the board's agenda next month. That's plenty of time."
"The hell of it is, they'd probably just as soon have the time off," Brenda snorted.
"It's not quite that simple," Hekkinan said. "What with school and league rules, it effectively costs them all two years of football eligibility. You know what a big deal that is in this town. You're probably going to hear some complaints, but I want you to know they're not coming from me."
"Thanks, Mr. Hekkinan." Brenda smiled, genuinely surprised for the second time within five minutes, and this time more pleasantly. "But, what happens to the Bailey kid?"
"My hands are tied," Hekkinan said. "There is that state law, and I really can't do anything about it. But, I screwed the kid over. I owe him, and I need to make it up to him. We're going to set up a teacher-supervised home schooling program for him so he doesn't lose any class standing. He really is a pretty good kid, and he's on track to be in the top ten, maybe valedictorian. This way he still gets the chance." Hekkinan let out a sigh, and continued. "That really is a pretty sad story. He's being raised by his mom, dad's nowhere around, and she just hasn't been able to help with some stuff."
"Going to find a teacher to tutor him who can sort of take him by the hand, huh?" Brenda smiled. By God, this was working out better than expected.
"No finding involved," Hekkinan said. "I said I screwed the kid over and I'll make it up to him."
"You mean you're going to do it?" Brenda said suspiciously.
"Damn right," Hekkinan said. "I couldn't ask someone else, now, could I? Thanks Brenda. I'm sorry you had to kick me in the ass to get my attention, but sometimes that has to be done. Oh, and we're going to crack down hard on student behavior around here, starting right now."
"That's good to hear," Brenda smiled. "I'll be monitoring it."
"I expect you will," Hekkinan said. "When I talked to Mike this noon, he said you had about the hardest nose he'd ever seen on a junior reporter."
"I just try to do what's right," she replied.
"I'm sure you do," he said. "We'll see you around."
Well, son of a bitch, Brenda thought as she hung up the phone. The afflicted comforted, the comfortable afflicted. You couldn't ask for a heck of a lot more than that.
It was windy, cold and rainy on Thursday afternoon after work when Brenda headed down to the Women's Fitness Center. She hadn't seen Carole since Saturday afternoon – she'd been working in Camden part of that time, of course – but Brenda was pleased to see her waiting in the break room when she showed up. "There you are," Carole smiled. "How's the exercise program been going?"
"Pretty good," Brenda smiled. "I pushed the workout a little yesterday, and added about a mile to my jogging the day before."
"My, you're staying with it," Carole smiled. "You ready to get started?"
"Yeah, sure," Brenda said to the woman wearing the handcuffs. She still hadn't quite reconciled the sight to the friendly, placid woman that Carole seemed to be, but she was starting to. In any case, she was pleasant to be with, and after this week, Brenda could stand for a little serenity and exercise.
They started out on the exercise bikes, just taking it easy, easy enough that they could talk. "That was quite a story you had in the Record-Herald," Carole said.
"Yeah, that was a tough one," Brenda said. "It'd been a heck of a lot easier if I'd been here a while, and had some idea of who to call. But, I only got the break on it Tuesday afternoon, after work, so it was a little crazy there for a while."
"How'd that happen?" Carole asked curiously.
"Long story," Brenda admitted. "Something didn't smell right, even at the beginning."
"It's kind of dull on these machines," Carole said. "Why don't you tell me?"
So, Brenda went through the story, leaving out some stuff, or foreshortening pieces. She didn't mention Falconswing or Dragonslayer at all, for example; that was sort of a juvenile pleasure that Brenda wasn't sure she wanted this pretty, sophisticated woman to hear. Brenda had not settled in her own mind if Falconswing was Jason Bailey or not, but she was able to gloss over his tip. Things went pretty good until they got down to the part where she had to draw the line in the sand with Mike over running the story at all. "I kid you not, Carole," Brenda said. "I was looking for a bag or something to put the stuff from my desk in."
"That would have been a major heartbreak for you if it had happened, wouldn't it?" Carole said from the next bike.
"Yeah," Brenda said glumly. "That probably would have been the end of newspapers for me. But damn it, I was right, and I just couldn't let them hang that kid out to dry. He was getting screwed, and somebody had to stick up for him. I was about the only one left."
"I'm very impressed," Carole smiled. "I know you haven't been in your career very long, but the dream has been important to you. To put it on the line like that for someone you don't know, over a matter of principle – well, I don't want to sound critical or personal, but that's not the sort of behavior people expect from newspaper reporters."
"If newspaper reporters showed that kind of behavior more often, people might respect them more," Brenda snorted. "There's all too many people in the business who don't have principles at all. Sorry, I may have only been doing this a month, but I want to be a professional and do it right, just like you do in your job."
"Still, it's impressive," Carole said. "I'm proud of you."
Now that was a compliment Brenda was proud to take. There was something about Carole . . . handcuffs or no, it was nice to know she approved. "Just doing what needed to be done," she shrugged it off. "As soon as I smelled something fishy, I knew I had to follow up."
"Why's that?" Carole smiled.
Brenda couldn't tell if it was the psychologist working on her or not, but right at the moment, she didn't care. "Come on, Carole, think about it," Brenda said. "Hell, I was always the fat kid in school who got pushed around, patronized, never taken seriously. I know what that smells like, and I know what cover-ups smell like. I could smell it all over the place. I've been there and I've done that. I never had to pull a knife on someone, but there were a couple times I thought about taking a razor to my wrists."
"Seriously?" Carole frowned.
"Well, no, not seriously," Brenda said, wishing that she hadn't said it. After all, she knew that Carole worked with people who sometimes got suicidal, and she'd probably raised a warning flag. "Just thought a couple of times about how much simpler it would make things. But no, for all the pain my mother caused me, well, I don't back down easily when someone pisses me off. And God knows, I got pissed off enough in high school."
"I'll bet you did," Carole said placidly. Yes, the psychologist was at work, now. "Your anger still shows through. That's part of why you're here, isn't it?"
"You damn betcha," Brenda snorted. "I learned from my mother and in school that I don't like being pushed around, and I'm damn tired of being the fat kid. I suppose I'm a little obsessive-compulsive, so I figure I might as well be constructively obsessive-compulsive."
"Well, I am too, I guess," Carole smiled. "But I do try to channel it into productive areas."
Brenda looked over at Carole's wrists, encased in the Soliels. How about a lot obsessive-compulsive, she thought. But, I'm not going to say that. "You seem to do it pretty well." That sounded neutral enough.
"I suppose," Carole said. "You know, I had a totally different experience when I was in high school. I mean, I was a cheerleader, popular, and I suppose I gave some of the less popular kids problems that I shouldn't have, and I'm sorry about that now. But what with everything that has happened since, especially the last five years, I think I've seen the other side of the tracks enough to make up for it."
Brenda shook her head. Did she just say what I think she said? I mean, the meaning?
"Yeah, it gets pretty lonely when you're the outsider," Brenda said, testing the statement. "It's really hard when you don't have a friend to reach out to. I don't think I could have made it through high school without some of my online friends. And, most of them, I never even knew their names, just their handles."
"Yes, I've come to appreciate that," Carole said. "I mean, I know a lot of people, some of them are pretty nice. But you remember what I said last week about the guys my handcuffs don't weird out weird me out? I've learned the same thing applies pretty much across the board."
By God, she did! This beautiful, sweet, strange woman is lonely and looking for a friend! Who'd a thunk it? "I can see how that would happen," Brenda smiled.
Brenda had to go to a lot of public business meetings in the evenings, and they messed up a lot of things. She'd wanted to skip this one – it was really pretty unimportant, the City Recreation Advisory Board. Mike had tipped her off that there was a hassle brewing between the Little League and girl's softball over how a certain ball field was going to be set up – they used different markings, distances, and sizes, which were apparently incompatible. "Can I say BFD?" she asked Mike.
"Unfortunately, it is a big deal in this town, like it or not. There've been lawsuits between the two groups. They're usually pretty asinine, but people get wrought up."
Brenda still didn't want to do it. "Isn't this something Anissa should cover?" she asked.
"It probably is," Mike said. "But she's got JV football tonight. And I don't like to send Anissa to public board meetings. She's not a reporter, only a sportswriter. You know what I mean."
Brenda did. Actually, Anissa wasn't much of a writer, period, and someone always had to edit her copy pretty heavily; nowadays Brenda frequently got the job. But, as Mike said, it beat the hell out of the alternative, which was actually going to the games, wasting another night, and getting a bad case of bleacher butt in the process.
Right at the beginning, Mike had explained to Brenda that finding a sports reporter the last time had been almost as hard as finding a general reporter this time. Mike had covered games for months, hoping someone would turn up, but no one did. He was getting to the point of desperation when he finally noticed that Anissa Hodges was at every game he went to. Along with Brandy Evachevski, another of Carrie's daughters, Anissa had been one of Spearfish Lake High School's first two twelve-letter female athletes a decade before. She now was a stay-at-home mom who went to all the games – literally all the varsity games, and she only missed JV games if there was a conflict with a varsity game. If nothing else was going on, she'd go to a middle school game; in the summer, she went to little league games, city league games and soccer games, usually with a kid or three along with her. She was an impressively obsessed sports nut.
Mike thought that she could at least be able to give him reports on games that he had to miss, and it had worked out well. Anissa still wasn't much of a writer, and though much improved after a couple of years as the sports reporter – but she knew the games, and she knew the people better than Mike did. Anissa mostly worked from home, and only came into the office once or twice a week, usually with a small child in tow; most of her stories came in by e-mail. Mike told Brenda he figured he had Anissa at least until her youngest kid was out of school – and she was pregnant again, so that meant he'd be close to retiring. He might have to cover a game or two while she had the baby, but she'd thoughtfully managed to schedule her due date in the break between winter and spring sports, and she didn't have any problems breast-feeding a baby while covering a baseball game.
So, Brenda went to the meeting, but very unenthusiastically. The action started outside the city hall, even before someone showed up to unlock the meeting room, with the two groups arguing over the fairly incomprehensible intricacies of who got to use what field. The meeting sort of flowed into the conference room, and people settled around the tables, still arguing. Brenda soon quit taking notes – it was like having a half dozen Lisa deLines arguing with each other. Well, it couldn't have been that bad, but close. People changed positions in a flash, made statements and two minutes later denied they'd made them, and just plain didn't make a whole lot of sense. She'd left a very good exercise session and a very promising discussion with Carole early, gobbled supper, and raced over here to sit through this crap. She'd been in a pretty good mood when she'd left the Women's Fitness Center, but it was sinking fast and her asshole tolerance level had already hit bottom. She was just about ready to get up and leave anyway when someone piped up, "I move we adjourn."
That did it. "Hell, you can't adjourn," Brenda snorted in a loud voice.
The guy who made the motion looked at her quizzically, and said, "Why not?"
Brenda just headed for the door, saying over her shoulder, "Because you never called the damn meeting to order in the first place."
"It was a total waste of time," Brenda told Mike in the front office the next morning. "Nobody knows what they want and nobody can pin anyone down on what anyone else wants. They just want to squabble for the sake of squabbling."
"Sorry," Mike said. "It happens sometimes. You never know. No story, huh?"
"Not unless you want me to write what really happened. That might make a story."
"Better not, then," Mike grinned.
The phone rang. Usually, the drill was that Carrie answered the telephone, but if she wasn't at her desk, whoever happened to be around grabbed it. It rang a second time; Brenda shrugged, and picked it up. "Record-Herald," she said.
"Brenda Hodunk, please," a young voice said.
"This is she."
"Miss Hodunk, this is Jason Bailey. I just wanted to call you up and thank you. If you hadn't gotten involved, I don't know what would have happened."
She'd have liked to have talked to this kid in the beginning, but if you can't you can't. "I just did what needed to be done," she told him gently. "Are things going to be OK with you?"
"I think so, now," Jason told her. "I know I shouldn't have pulled the knife, but I'm still glad to be out of that hell hole for a while. Look, like I said, I don't know how I can thank you enough for what you did."
"Jason, you don't have to thank me," she started, just being polite, but then a thought struck her, something she'd almost said to Carole last night before their conversation veered off into another direction. "But you do owe me big time. You know how you repay me?"
"You pay it forward, not back. Look, sometime, somewhere, maybe tomorrow, maybe a year, maybe twenty years down the road, you're going to run across a kid who's getting the short end of the stick big time. You help that kid out however you can. That's how you repay me. Oh, and one other thing. You get them to make you the same promise. Fair enough?"
"Sure thing, Miss Hodunk." She could hear him smile through the phone. "I sure will."
"Can't ask for more," Brenda smiled. "Good luck, Jason."
Mike looked up from his front-office desk as Brenda sat the phone down. "The Bailey kid, right?"
"Right," Brenda smiled.
"What made you say that?"
Brenda sighed. "Look, Mike, I was always the unpopular, fat kid who got pushed around when I was in school. It was hell. But, damn it, us unpopular, pushed-around kids have to stick together or we're really screwed. I was just passing on a favor."