Buck Williams arrived two hours later with a briefcase in one hand, a laptop case in the other, and a phone cradled on his shoulder. The other reporters were giving him looks and smiles. Verna and Alice had shared a quick discussion on what to tell everyone else and had decided to explain Buck’s condition rather than leaving them to figure it out when he began explaining the Carpathia story. He noticed their undue attention, but just grinned and waved like a rock star getting off a jet.
Alice saw Verna put on her patient face to greet him.
"Cameron," she said in a carefully emotionless voice. "I didn't expect you till Monday."
"Just checking in," he said. "You can call me Buck."
"I'll call you Cameron, if you don't mind, and --"
"I do mind. Please call --"
"Then I'll call you Cameron even if you do mind. I’m a bit busy right now, so you’ll have to sit tight for a minute.”
He turned to Alice and winked confidentially.
"You can call me Buck," he whispered.
"Thanks," she said, pointing to a chair beside her desk. He sat down.
“Thanks,” Alice replied, running a hand through her spikes.
“Does it take you long to do?”
“It reminds me of a hedgehog. Do you curl up to protect yourself when you sense danger?”
“Umm…not usually,” she replied.
“Can I touch it?”
“I guess,” said Alice, and burst into uncomfortable giggles. Flirting hadn’t bothered her before the event, but now it seemed kind of wrong. Was it because flirting reminded her of dating, which reminded her of marriage, which reminded her of children? Probably not. It was just that it seemed inappropriate to have fun in the wake of so much tragedy. Buck was incorrigible, though, and kept the not-quite-funny quips coming even as she blushed and began shifting in her seat. She thought informing him that he’d been given the corner cubicle with the coffee maker might shut him up, but he only laughed and replied, “Ha! I bet I won’t be able to fit my designer desk in there. You should have seen my old office. It was huge, like a palace. Floor-to-ceiling window looking out over Manhattan!”
Alice felt a wave of relief wash over her as Verna opened her door and announced, “Cameron, I can see you now.”
Alice couldn’t hear the exchange taking place in the editor’s office, but she could see Buck’s dark eyebrows arching in exaggerated witticism and Verna looking at him over the imaginary frames of the glasses she didn’t wear but should have. Her expression gradually morphed from patience to tooth-gritting endurance, and she finally stomped out of the office with Buck in tow to show him to his cubicle. Alice almost offered to take him instead—she was his appointed babysitter—but Verna’s look of barely concealed rage quieted her.
As he followed, Buck made silly faces at the rest of the staff, imitating Verna’s walk and chuckling at his own antics. The others stared at him in bemusement, shooting looks at each other that asked whether it was okay to laugh at the mentally ill man. She heard one of the staff reporters whisper to another, “I guess he’s under the delusion that he’s funny?” and the other reply, “No, he’s always been like that.”
From the other side of the office, Verna mentioned something about insubordination and Buck exploded with a reply that the people on the street could probably hear. "No, Verna, what's out of the question is you trying to vent all your frustration from who knows where in one breath. You know as well as I do that no one with an ounce of self-respect would put up with this. If I have to work out of the Chicago area, I'm going to work at home with a computer and modem and fax machine. And if you expect to see me in this office again for any reason, you'll get Stanton Bailey on the phone right now."
Verna strode back to her office with careful composure, picking careful replies that would prevent another childish outburst.
"I will get Mr. Bailey on the phone if I can, but you realize it's late in New York."
"He's always there, you know that. Use his direct, after-hours number."
"I don't have that."
"I'll write it down for you. He's probably interviewing a replacement for me."
As she strode through her office doors, leaving them swinging behind her, she informed Buck, "I'll call him, Cameron, and I will even let you have your say, but I am going to speak to him first, and I reserve the right to tell him how insubordinate and disrespectful you've been. Please wait outside."
Buck emerged with a mischievous grin.
"Did you hear all that?" he whispered.
"I can hear anything I want," she mouthed. She knew that Buck loved phone gadgets, so she explained, "And you know those new speakerphones, the ones that don't make you wait till the other person is done talking?"
"Well, they don't make it obvious you're listening in, either. You just shut off the transmit button, like this, and then if something happens to hit the speakerphone button, oops, then you can hear a conversation without being heard. Is that cool, or what?"
“Yeah, that’s great! Turn it on,” he urged.
“No! Leave Verna alone,” she chided, but he had already leaned close to the speaker as though he was listening.
“Bailey’s answering and asking what she wants,” he whispered. “Now she’s saying she has a problem with me. And he’s telling her to leave me alone because I’ve got important assignments to work on.”
Alice looked at Buck in compassionate confusion. Was he just joking, or did he really imagine that he was hearing the conversation?
“She’s saying I’m insubordinate. He’s telling her to remember that I’m their greatest asset and to treat me that way.”
Alice couldn’t help a snort of inappropriate laughter and clapped a hand over her mouth, immediately feeling horrible that she found it funny to listen to Buck describing the fantasy conversation that only he could hear.
“She’s saying he should support her. And saying that I’m being inappropriate. And he asks—hee hee—if I made a pass at her! Can you imagine? And he’s telling her that this regional stuff is a waste for me and if she doesn’t like my attitude, that’s her problem.”
The intercom buzzed for real. "Alice, send him in."
The exchange was short and appeared more polite than previously. Buck left Verna’s office, pausing to tease Alice’s hair annoyingly before picking up his briefcase and laptop and sauntering off.
Alice knocked quietly on the glass doors. Verna looked up and wearily called, “Come in.”
“Is there anything I can get you? Like another cup of coffee or something?”
The editor shook her head silently. Alice looked at her and thought of how Buck had laughed at the idea of anyone finding her attractive. She wasn’t old and she had fine, if severe features. She wore a beige pantsuit and kept her honey-blond hair pulled back in a knot, which, along with her sharp gaze, gave her a no-nonsense air, but none of that was the problem. The problem was that she was exhausted. After Lucinda’s disappearance, she’d pulled an all-nighter, along with most of the fragmentary staff, just to get things organized enough to begin thinking about what needed to be done. Since then, she’d been doing the work of two while trying to cover the biggest story in history in the midst of Chicago’s barely controlled chaos. Her eyes were sunken and her face had a drawn look. Buck had come bursting in looking fresh, like he’d just finished a light workday after a good night’s rest and a hot shower. It felt like an insult to everything they’d been through.
She asked Verna, “What did Mr. Bailey say?”
Verna replied, “I told him that, for the first five minutes he was here, he had been not only constantly impudent and disrespectful, but also loud and disruptive. I told him that Cameron was going to need constant supervision simply to allow the other reporters to work. He told me that he didn’t want to fire Cameron after already penalizing him, even if he had already been effectively eliminated from the staff. I mentioned that Cameron wanted to work from home. He said that would be fine.”
“So Buck won’t be back in the office?”
“Hopefully not. If you could go tell Jimmy that he can email Cameron his stories, that would be helpful.”
“Of course, Ms. Zee.”
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