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The newcomer—Rick—returned the smile with one that looked substantially more sincere, and even, I thought, slightly relieved. “Ah, Buffy,” he said. “You, meanwhile, look like you’re wearing your boyfriend’s clothes again. I hope this one is at least a Catholic?”

“That’s between me and my prayers,” she said, blowing him a kiss.

I turned to eye him, pulling my sunglasses far enough down my nose to make my expression plain. “I take it you two know each other?”

“No, I just call every strange blonde I see ‘Buffy.’ You’d be amazed how often I’m right.” He offered his hand. Buffy snorted, amusement evident, and retreated to her closet.

I could pursue that line of questioning later. “Well, you’ve tagged our Fictional, and I know you know who I am. Care to even the odds?” I took his hand and shook it.

His grip was firm, but not overly so. “Richard Cousins—Rick to my friends. Newsie, currently unaffiliated, although I’m hoping we’re about to change that; my biases are registered with Talking Points and Unvarnished Truth.”

“Huh,” I said, releasing his hand. Talking Points and Unvarnished Truth are two of the larger blogger databases; anyone can register a bias page with them and get it certified. Still, their signal-to-noise ratio is surprisingly good, largely because they self-police on a constant basis, looking for people who claim one set of biases while espousing another. “License level?”

“A-15. Wagman required it when she started aping your boy.” He produced a data pad from inside his coat. “My credentials are there and ready for link, along with my most recent medical records and blood test results.”

“Fabulous.” I slid the data pad into the docking slot on my terminal. Files promptly filled my screen. I skimmed them as I unhooked the pad and passed it back to him. “No publications before two years ago, but you’re already reporting at an A-15 level? I don’t know whether that’s impressive or suicidal.”

“I vote ‘blackmailed the license committee,’ ” contributed Shaun.

“Actually—” said Rick.

“Open the file on his print media pubs,” said Buffy, emerging from the closet. “That’ll explain everything. Won’t it, Ricky?”

“Print media?” Shaun’s eyebrows shot upward. “Like magazines?”

“Try newspapers,” said Buffy, eyes on Rick. I had to give him this much: He was taking her poking with good grace, and he wasn’t squirming. Yet. “That’s why he’s such a golden oldie.”

“Newspapers,” I repeated, disbelieving, and pulled up the next page in his file. The rest of his credentials filled the screen. I slid my glasses back up to cover my surprise. “Here we go—Buffy’s right. Staff writer, St. Paul Herald, five years. Field reporter, the Minnesota News, three years. How old are you?”

“My recertification to virtual media was fully processed eighteen months ago. I got on Wagman’s team fair and square,” said Rick, before adding, “And I’m thirty-four.”

“Fair and square means, what, you got on by waiting for her to realize Ryman had the right idea and then chasing her ambulance?” asked Buffy sweetly.

“All right, that’s enough.” Removing my glasses, I looked from Rick to Buffy and back. “What’s the story, you two?”

“Richard ‘Rick’ Cousins, Newsie, stated biases are left-wing Dem without crossing any lines into actual psychosis, solid writer, good with deadlines, not too adept at use of imagery, and the bastard beat me in an essay contest six years ago,” Buffy said.

“You can’t hold that against me,” Rick protested. “It wasn’t a teen competition. You were sixteen.”

“I can hold anything I want against you,” said Buffy, glowering at him before her face split in a wide grin. “You didn’t say you wanted the files on Rick, Georgia. Finally looking for a real story, you perverted ambulance chaser?”

“Don’t flatter yourself, Buffy. Any story you’ve had your hands on can’t possibly be real,” Rick countered.

Shaun and I exchanged a look. “Think they know each other?” he asked.

“Getting the feeling. Buffy?”

She looked, briefly, like she didn’t want to explain. Then she shrugged and said, “After Rick beat me, we started writing. He’s a pretty cool guy, once you get past the part that he’s older than the dawn of time.”

“I choose to take that in the spirit in which it was offered,” said Rick. “Especially since it comes from someone who thinks Edgar Allen Poe is socially relevant.”

Buffy sniffed.

“Right, you know each other,” I said. “How’s his bribe? Do we hire him?”

“He’s got good footage of Wagman from the last six months, a couple exclusive interviews, and a full recording of her chief of staff making the resignation calls,” Buffy said.

I shot Rick a startled look.

He grinned. “He didn’t say I had to stop taping.”

“If I was interested in boys, I’d kiss you right now,” said Shaun, deadpan. “George, in Newsie-speak, what does that mean for ratings?”

“Three percent increase for starters, more if he can write well enough to sustain an audience. Rick, we can take you as a beta, you get your own byline but you run everything through me or my second, Mahir Gowda, no direct access to the candidate; if Ryman doesn’t get the nomination, you’re on a six-month base contract. I can e-mail you the legalese.”

“And if he does get the nomination?”


“If he gets the nomination—which he will—what do I get?”

I smiled. “You get to stay with us until the bitter end, or until I fire your ass, whichever comes first.”

“Acceptable.” He held out his hand.

I shook it. “Welcome to After the End Times.”

Shaun clapped him on the back before he had a chance to let go. “More testosterone on the field team! My man! What do you think about poking dead things with sticks?”