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That’s me. The eternal optimist.

I saw the information kiosk as soon as I stepped off the escalator: a brightly colored octagon surrounded by scantily clad young women handing out packs of cigarettes. I pushed past them, refusing three packs on the way, and squinted at the posted map of the convention center. “You are here,” I muttered. “That’s great. I already found me. The drinking fountain, on the other hand, would be exactly where?”

“Nonsmoker?” inquired a voice at my elbow. I turned to find myself facing Dennis Stahl of the Eakly Times. He was smiling and had a press pass clipped to the lapel of his slightly wrinkled jacket. “I thought you looked familiar.”

“Mr. Stahl,” I said, eyebrows rising. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“Because I’m a newspaperman?”

“No. Because this hall holds roughly the population of North America, and I wouldn’t expect to see my brother without a tracking device.”

Mr. Stahl laughed. “Fair enough.” One of the scantily clad young women took advantage of his distraction and pushed a pack of cigarettes into his hand. He eyed it dubiously before holding it toward me. “Cigarette?”

“Sorry. Don’t smoke.”

He tilted his head to the side. “Why not? I’d expect a cigarette to be the perfect capper on your ‘look at me, I’m hard as nails’ air of journalistic integrity.” I raised my eyebrows farther. He laughed. “Come on, Ms. Mason. You wear all black, carry an actual handheld MP3 recorder—I haven’t seen anyone use one of those in years—and you never remove your sunglasses. You really think I don’t know how to spot an image when I see one?”

“First off, I have retinal KA. The sunglasses are a medical necessity. Second ” I paused, smiling. “You got me. It’s an image. But I still don’t smoke. Do you know where the bathrooms are in this place? I need some water.”

“I’ve been here three hours, and I haven’t seen a bathroom yet,” he said. “But there is a cunningly concealed Starbucks at the end of one of the exhibitors’ rows, if you wouldn’t mind my walking you?”

“If it gets me water, I’m all for it,” I said, waving off another pack of cigarettes.

Mr. Stahl nodded, opening a path through the crowd with a sweep of his arm as he led me through. “Water, or a suitable substitute thereof,” he agreed. “In exchange, I have a question for you Why don’t you smoke? Again, it seems like the perfect capper to your image. Personal reasons?”

“I like having sufficient lung capacity to run away from the living dead,” I replied, deadpan. Mr. Stahl raised an eyebrow, and I shrugged. “I’m serious. Cigarettes won’t give you cancer, but they still cause emphysema, and I have no desire to get eaten by a zombie just because I was trying to look cool. Besides, the smoke can interfere with some delicate electronics, and it’s hard enough to keep most kits working in the field. I don’t need to add a second level of pollution to the crap they’re already trying to function through.”

“Huh. And here I thought that once you took cancer out of the equation, we’d be back to a world where every hard-hitting journalist was up to eight packs a day.”

The exhibitors’ row was packed with people selling things of every shape and size, from freeze-dried food guaranteed to stay good for the duration of a siege to medieval weaponry with built-in splatter guards. If you were looking for fluffier entertainments, there were the usual assortment of new cars, hair-care accessories, and toys for the kids, although I had to admit a certain affection for the Mattel booth advertising Urban Survival Barbie, now with her own machete and blood testing unit.

“That assumes every ‘hard-hitting journalist’ comes equipped with parents who don’t mind them living at home and stinking up the curtains,” I said. “What about you? I don’t see you lighting up.”

“Asthma. I could smoke if I wanted to. I could also collapse in the middle of the sidewalk clutching my chest, and somehow, that makes it substantially less fun.” He pointed to the end of the row. “There’s the Starbucks. What brings you out this way?”

“The usual: following the Senator around like a kitten on a string. Yourself?”

“A little bit of the same, on a somewhat more general scale.” There was no line at the Starbucks, just three bored-looking baristas leaning on the counter and trying to seem busy. Mr. Stahl stepped up to them and said, “Large black coffee, please, to go.”

The baristas exchanged a glance, but they’d clearly had their fill of arguing with men wearing press passes. One of them moved to start filling his order.

Glancing to me, Dennis asked, “Want anything?”

“Just a bottled water, thanks.”

“Got it.” He collected his coffee and handed me my water, passing a debit card to the barista at the register.

I dug a hand into my pocket. “What do I owe you?”

“Forget it.” He reclaimed his card and turned to head for an open table near the edge of the exhibit line. I followed, sitting down across from him. He smiled. “Consider it payback for the circulation figures I got off that little incident out at your encampment after the rally the other week. Remember?”

“How could I forget?” I pulled a bottle of prescription-strength painkillers out of my shoulder bag, uncapping them with my thumb. “That ‘little incident’ has been defining my life for weeks.”

“Got any juicy details for an old friend?”

It had been impossible to keep from releasing the fact that the screamers had been sabotaged. Even if we’d wanted to damage our ratings that way, the families of the victims could have sued us for interfering with a federal case if we’d attempted to suppress details. I shook my head. “Not that the press hasn’t already released.”

“The dangers of pumping industry sources,” Mr. Stahl said, and sipped his coffee. “Seriously, though, how have things been around the camp? Everything going smoothly?”


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