Chapter One

Brianne

Summer 2017

Today starts like any other day since January. I wake up, check Twitter, curse unrepeatable words under my breath, and furiously fire out some serious fact-checking into the digital universe. This morning’s outrage is about keeping national parks financially accessible. I do a quick ten-point tweet thread about the measurable cost to raising admission fees, then retweet a bunch of related articles by journalists I respect. All before I get out of bed. Before I shower and dress in my National Parks Service uniform.

The day continues as usual until late morning. That’s when the messages started flooding in. I try to ignore them, I don’t even open them after a while, but I can see enough from the preview that I know this is bad.

Very bad. Like, the jig is up.

My stomach twists as my phone vibrates with another email alert. I don’t check it, though. I’m driving a work truck—although I wouldn’t check my phone even if I were driving my own car.

I am a law-abiding, safety-conscious, reliable employee.

With the minor exception that I also have a secret Twitter account which I’m totally not allowed to have, which I use to correct misinformation about the environment and the National Parks Service, and also to reveal the ongoing cuts that are secretly slicing away from the budget, decimating the Department of the Interior.

Actually, decimating is probably an understatement now.

I should tweet that out. Right after I find my boss, quit my job, and run for the hills.

My pulse, already racing, jumps another notch to full-on panic as I turn the corner and skid across the gravel parking lot beside the ranger office Marcus Dane is working out of today.

And he’s already standing on the porch, either because he knows what’s happening, or my relatively high-speed approach alerted him. Either way, I am not cut out to be a super spy. Or an ordinary spy, either. The CIA would take one look at me and laugh their heads off.

I’m not even cut out to be an arm-chair resistance fighter on Twitter, apparently. After I turn the truck off, I peek at my phone through one eye, the other shut tight as can be. Like that will protect me from the inbox of persistent messages.

They all say the same thing, basically. Reporters and producers poking at my identity, asking for comment.

I held my breath in the summer when a reporter showed up and poked around Marcus, thinking he was responsible for the Alt Nat Park Service account. But she turned out to be really cool, and the story she filed wasn’t about me—or even him—in the end.

I thought that was the end of it. Marcus taught me how to be safer online, to use encrypted apps. Summer faded to fall, and by some small miracle, my contract was extended. I should have known it couldn’t last.

I’m shaking as I get out of the truck, phone glued to my hand. I’m going to be leaving an already stretched-tight park staff a little worse off, because they won’t be able to replace me.

But it’s either quit or be fired, and the latter will turn me into a national spectacle. Or a quiet scape-goat with a black mark on my record which precludes me from ever working for the federal government again, and since I’m a scientist, that’s a big chunk of future jobs I’d like to maybe keep on the table.

From the grim look on Marcus’s broad, bearded face, I know he knows what’s happening, and I know he’s not happy.

“I’m sorry.” My voice is shaking.

He points into the cabin.

Right. Not out here, where the last hikers of the season might witness the spectacle of one park ranger sobbing apologetically to another.

I walk in first. His office is Spartan and neat. I’ve always liked coming up here. Of all the full-time park rangers, he’s my favorite, and not just because he figured out early on what I was doing and instead of firing me, he taught me to cover my ass.

Behind me, he shuts the door forcefully. Not a slam. No, he’s got more control than that. But he’s not happy.

Neither am I. “I’m sorry,” I say again.

“Save it. We knew this might happen, and we don’t have a lot of time. Your name is out there now. Who’s contacted you?”

“Who hasn’t?” I type my password into my phone and hand it over so he can scroll through my inbox. “There are dozens of emails. All came in over the last hour. I’ve dodged a bunch of phone calls, too. And I haven’t looked at Twitter.”

“Don’t.”

“Right.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Head out of town for a bit. Look for another job, because I need to quit before this turns into a three-ring circus.”

He rubs his hand over his jaw and gives me a dark, indecipherable look.

Is it too much to ask for a reference? Hysterical laughter tries to bubble up inside me and I quash it hard. 

“I’ll be fine,” I say, my voice shaking. But I believe it, deep down. “I…uh…I have some contacts from school. I can probably find something in a few months.” I wince at the dent that’ll put in my meagre savings.

“Do you have a passport?”

Holy shit. My eyes go wide and my mouth drops open. Does he think I need to skip the country? That seems excessive. “Passport?”

“I have a cousin. In Canada. She’s a landscape photographer and could use a billy goat of an assistant, if you want a temporary job.”

Did he just call me a billy goat? I think he did. But he also offered me a life-line, and I’m not sure I deserve that. “You don’t need to help me. I’ve caused you enough trouble as it is.”

“I’m not offering this unselfishly,” he says dryly, his eyes never leaving my face as he rounds his desk. “I don’t want a horde of reporters coming out here. One was enough.” The first sentence is swift and hard, unyielding. The second, however, is laced with uncharacteristic fondness.

That’s always how Marcus talks about his girlfriend, Poppy. The reporter who came hunting for him, and left with a very different outlook on…well, probably everything. They’ve been dating ever since. Long-distance, because love doesn’t change the fact they both have jobs and commitments in two different corners of the country.

He hands me back my phone, then picks up a business card from his desk. “Do you want to get your version of the story out there?”

“I don’t know.”

He nods. “I get that. But if you do, you could give an interview to Poppy. I don’t know what she’ll ask you—she might not go easy. But she’ll find the truth and make sure it’s told.”

I take a deep breath. “I guess that’s all I can ask at this point.”

He passes the card over to me. “She should be able to take your call now. I’ll step outside and give you some privacy.”


 

Keep reading in chapter 2

copyright Ainsley Booth, 2017

Ainsley Booth is an alter-ego of Gigi Ford. All rights reserved.