The Celluloid Files: 6
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Right there, smack in center justification and black and white print was a picture of me. I was exiting S. O. Teric’s, glaring at the sidewalk, my hands in tight fists. Of course, I looked that way because I wanted to wring Ivy’s neck, but the casual observer wouldn’t know that.
“Eccentric’s Heir Brings Stormy Weather,” the headline read. According to the article, I was the worst thing to strike the pavement since the tornado of ’73. A herald of dispossession. A lone rider of the Apocalypse. In those exact words.
For a minute or two I stood there – really, it could have been half an hour, I lost all perception of time – trying to force the words to make sense. My name, my picture. A horsewoman of the Apocalypse? The absurdity made me laugh. I heard a note of hysteria in it and forced myself to calm down. The grief, the exhausting trip, the blustery way my first foray had gone, all swirled together in a maelstrom of barely controlled emotion. This addition didn’t help.
How in the world had someone snapped my picture without my noticing, anyway? What did this A. Archer possibly know about me? I gave no interview. The only thing I had said about the store was that I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. Certainly nothing close to, “…intends to blow this bit of our beloved town into the wind like a child with a hapless dandelion.” The falsehood galled me, but the underlying condescension? That just pissed me off. The reporter intimated I was nothing more than a child who didn’t know any better. Without ever meeting me. Without as much as a hello between us. Who was this reporter to judge me on first sight?
Standing there in my aunt’s front yard, the grass tickling my bare ankles, I snarled. An odd sight for the woman jogging by on the sidewalk, surely, but I couldn’t help it. My only course of action was to march down to the newspaper office and A) set the record straight, B) demand a retraction, and then C) punch A. Archer square in the nose. Maybe a knee to the crotch. I’d have to wait and discover the demands of the situation before I decided, but that didn’t stop me from playing it out in my head over and over again.
Armed with the re-rolled newspaper, I stalked to my car, jumped in, and roared out of the driveway. Well, maybe not roared. Automatics don’t usually roar. But I know in its mechanical heart, the vehicle was right there with me.
I stopped by Goldilocks to ask for more directions. It being lunch time, the salon was empty except for the tall spindle of a woman. She chatted just as much as she had the day before, but I could tell she was more than a little afraid of me. Her eyes kept darting to something on the high, glossy counter that housed the register. It had to be a copy of the Goode County Gazette.
With her directions scorched into my brain, my sympathetic SUV and I tore out of town at ten over the speed limit. No doubt the drive between Meadowhaven and the nearby college town of Goodeward was lovely. There were likely towering pines, shuddering aspens, and various woodland creatures that could have caught my eye. I didn’t see any of it. In fact, I wasn’t really sure how long the drive took or whether I had followed the directions properly until I found myself beside a large sign welcoming visitors to Goodeward College. The real trick would be finding my way home, but that would wait until justice had been served.
The Goode County Gazette resided in a low building in red brick with black steeples for a roof. It looked entirely out of place providing a backdrop to college kids smoking on the street corner, their textbook-laden bags making them all slightly stoop-shouldered. A shirtless guy on a bike nearly ran me over as I got out of my car, throwing me a dirty look over his shoulder as he darted away. It only added tinder to the fire of my anger.
As much as I wanted to become the storm the article accused me of being, I’ve always had a spiteful streak. It comes with the family. I put it to underhanded use as a kid, and I didn’t shirk from the dubious duty now. Rather than rage up the cobbled walkway, I shook my hair out over my shoulders, made sure my dress fell straight and tight in all the right places, grabbed the offensive rag labeled a newspaper, and strode to the front door with a little extra sway.
Just as my fingers touched the polished black handle, the door swung out at me, nearly clocking me in the nose before I got out of the way. My quick backpedal landed my thin heel on a seam in the cement and I felt my ankle twist. Down I went, as ladylike as I possibly could. I managed to not flash anybody (at least, that was what I told myself), but my left hand landed in a muddy bit of grass while my right scraped hard on the walkway. I felt the bite of the concrete on my knuckles and then my elbow.
“Criminy! That was a spill for the record books. You okay?”
I hopped up to my feet with equally record speed, determined to keep my dignity intact. “Yeah,” I said, making sure my dress was where it was supposed to be. “Or I will be once I find a bathroom.”
The guy before me looked like a London Fog commercial in Toon Town – the trench coat on his skinny frame hung a little too loosely, the brightly colored bowtie looked ready to start spinning the second he cracked a joke, and the short-brimmed fedora perched atop his head was only missing a press pass tucked into the band. He reached out to help me, but I was on my feet too fast. A long, awkward moment passed between us before he chuckled at himself. “Hey, I’m really sorry. I keep trying to convince the bossman to change out the doors. Like wearing sunglasses on a cloudy night while wielding a glass riot shield.” He opened the door again, holding it wide for me. “The lady’s room is just…”
He trailed off, and it didn’t take one of Aunt Nora’s psychics to see what drew his attention. A crowd had appeared at the end of the street, picket signs raised as they marched along the pavement toward us.
Stop the spread!
Just say no to MVR!
For a moment, I thought there must be a new std I’d never heard of taking over the campus. Then I heard the chant accompanying the signs, and my interest climbed: “Pull out the stops, we won’t shop!”
I tried to shake the mud off my hand as I glanced at Daffy Duck, Ace Reporter. “Are they protesting shopping?”
“Sort of. It’s a Tolkien-esque tale, really.”
“Full of orcs and singing and second breakfasts?” I asked, gauging that my nerdiness would land well before I opened my mouth.
He chuckled again, this time giving me a shy sort of smile. “I meant that it’s long and full of small folk who will win the day.” A dreamy sort of look entered his eyes as the college crowd assembled on the green across from the news office. “A story worth the telling…”
My elbow and hand throbbed and stung. Worse, I couldn’t do anything about it with all the mud on my other hand. Five minutes before, I had wanted nothing so much as to yell at someone and Daffy Duck had given me plenty to shout over. Yet I heard myself say encouragingly, “So go tell it.”
The dreaminess vanished, replaced by a look like he’d run over my brand new puppy. “I should really help–”
I cut him off and hobbled through the door he still held. “I’m okay. You go, I can clean myself up just fine.”
“If you’re sure…”
“I am.” I gave him an assured smile, even if I didn’t feel it. “Go get your story, newsman.”
“Oh, it’s Cagney,” he said, extending his hand before he realized I wasn’t going to be able to shake back. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his trench and grimaced. “Cagney Keaton.”
“Annika,” I said, moving toward the lady’s room in the front hall.
He let the door fall closed, but a glance over my shoulder caught a look of surprised indecision on Cagney’s youthful open-book face.
I smiled to myself as I slipped into the bathroom. Apparently, I was a big enough story to warrant…well, a story. That thought brought back my whole purpose here in one big, fell swoop. I’d been so surprised by getting dumped on my ass that I had lost all my righteous wrath and momentum, leaving me cold and deflated.
My reflection, at least, still looked decent. That is, assuming a person ignored my scraped hand, the elbow it took five minutes and two wet, clammy paper towels to get to stop oozing, and the mud I couldn’t seem to get out from under my fingernails. The altercation with the door had at least given my blue eyes a wide, softly surprised look that I could use to my advantage. Well, assuming A. Archer had a taste for soft blondes with a damsel-in-distress vibe.
That was a lot of assuming, and nowhere near the sort of woman I wanted to be when I confronted my slanderer, besides.
“We live to battle another day,” I said to my reflection. We shared a beleaguered smile before I did a quick check of my dress again. Then, shoulders squared to pretend a length of dignity was still at my command, I stepped out of the bathroom.
Which, of course, was when I finally realized my ankle didn’t much care for being twisted. Add to that a slight lip between the bathroom tile and the wooden flooring of the hall, and I proved my capacity for self-destructive behavior by tripping, flailing, and falling.
This time, rather than land unceremoniously on the ground, a pair of strong male arms caught me. The smell of expensive cologne stole what little I had left of a brain and I blinked up into a face full of grinning charisma.
“I’ve been meaning to get that fixed,” he said, pausing just a little before setting me back on my feet. To my surprise, my heels put me about an inch taller than his frame, which was possessed of that handsome sort of stockiness that was a matter of build instead of weight.
“B-being in the right place at the right time?” I asked, a little breathless. From my near-fall, of course.
He crossed his arms over his chest, straining his suit jacket in that sexy way suits do when they’re properly tailored. That was when I noticed my beat-up fingers had been halfway petting the delicious, expensive fabric of that same suit. The bottom dropped out of my stomach as I snatched my hand back.
“What can I do for you, Miss Ambray?” the man asked, the steel of business underpinning his tone.
“I’m looking for…” I blinked. “You know who I am?”
“The goings-on around Meadowhaven are my business.” He extended a short-fingered, possibly manicured hand to me. “Thomas Goode, editor of the Gazette.”
My hand was already in his, appreciating the strength of his grip when my brain caught up. “Goode? As in Goode County?”
“And Goodeward, complete with university. My family founded the town.”
“Ah,” I said, full of intellect. That explained the money that seemed to roll off the man in waves.
After a few moments wherein I mentally kicked myself for being the biggest idiot around, he said, “Looks like you’ve been in a bit of a fracas.”
“What?” I was desperately trying to pull my brains back together, and failing miserably.
He lifted my hand, still in his, with its cement-scraped knuckles. The warmth in my face heated to incendiary proportions. I pulled my hand away and used it to smooth my dress in a fit of nerves.
“Oh, I, um, twisted my ankle on the way in. Nothing big.”
“On newspaper property? That’s unfortunate. Why don’t we go up to my office? We can discuss whatever it is you’re here to discuss, and you can get off that ankle.” He gestured further into the building, indicating I should go first.
I glanced from his hand to the hallway beyond, but couldn’t bring myself to look him in the eye. “It’s really nothing,” I mumbled.
“What brought you here is, or the fall?”
“Neither. Both. Um…” I let out a laughing breath.
That grin never faltered. It was getting to be a little unnerving, a little too practiced. “Please, Miss Ambray. You came all the way out here. The least I can do is provide a chair while we discuss the particulars of why.”
If my ankle had been its usual self, I might have run. After two falls, scraped and bruised and feeling like an idiot, the last thing I wanted to do was have a conversation with a man who probably spent the equivalent of my inheritance every year. One whose great-great-however-many-grandparents founded a whole town. And whose suspenders so nicely defined his chest beneath the kind of suit I wanted to…
I shook my head to clear it, tucked a lock my hair behind my ear, and stuttered, “A-all right.”
“We’ll take the elevator,” he said. “It’s an antique, but it gets the job done.”
I simply smiled and stared at the floor, because the thought in my head was not one I wanted to come out of my mouth.
When the brass grate closed in front of us, I closed my eyes and wished for the elevator to collapse beneath us and put me out of my misery. Except that made it all worse, because it brought one image to the forefront of my mind’s eye – tomorrow’s headline in big, bold letters:
Doomsaying Irrelevant – Eccentric’s Heir Too Mindless To Matter
My second day in town, and I was already in over my head.