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02.10.10

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What Would Aesop Do?

'Unlisted Creatures,' the further adventures of Sally Smart, cub reporter

By Juliane Poirier


Sally! Will you come in here for a second?"

Sally Smart gave a startled twitch and looked up from her keyboard. Her hot-headed boss stood in his doorway, arms crossed and frowning. Bill Boiled, editor of The Weekly Planet newspaper, was never a cheerful guy. He honored the notion that editors must speak in gravelly voices and act very grave, as they did in last-century comic books and in old paperback novels about mysterious crimes. Nobody messed with Boiled.

Years ago when a flippant cub reporter laughingly told Bill to lighten up, the news room had gone silent; the culprit was called into the editor's office for a meeting with the door closed. The more experienced reporters had gleefully told Sally this tale, knowing she'd blanche when they told her the kid never came back to work. Getting called into Bill's office was a terrifying thing, Sally knew. She stood and pushed her chair under the desk, wiping sweaty palms into the chair upholstery. A few other cubicle inhabitants gave her sympathetic looks as she passed from the newsroom into the office. The door closed behind her.

"Yes, Mr. Boiled?" Sally tried to act composed. "Sit down," he ordered, waving a hand at the only free chair. "And quit calling me Mr. Boiled. If you've worked here longer than a month, my name is Bill." Sally sat. The boss's office was a shrine to the past—a battered Nikon camera rested on a black Royal typewriter with a five-and-a-half-inch floppy disk stuck among the keys. In the hatband of a gray fedora was tucked a sheet of notes, the kind reporters used to take in small notebooks. Sally expected to see a trenchcoat, and was not disappointed; she spied one hanging on a coat rack with a tattered copy of Captain Marvel sticking out of the pocket.

"Sally, what the hell is this?" Bill pointed at his computer screen where her trip to the Southwest borderlands was outlined on a travel request form. "Who the hell is out in the desert and what are you digging for out there when you should be covering the green beat?"

Sally twisted a strand of blond hair as she spoke. "Oh, Mr. Boiled—I mean Bill. It's not a person. It's two species. I'm going to investigate the white-sided jackrabbit and the Sonoran desert tortoise. They're endangered and need federal protection."

"Sally, this is marginal news," Bill said. "Animals disappear every minute. We need a big story, a real heart-thumper."

Sally's face paled. She drew herself up in her chair, unable to stop herself. "Mr. Boiled," she said, voice quavering, "I mean, Bill. This is a big story. It's, it's . . ." She glanced at the rolled copy of Captain Marvel. "It's a planned affront to justice, a crime about to happen!"

Boiled sat up straight. "Did you say 'crime'?"

"Yes," Sally said. "Animals don't have to disappear forever. Over 99 percent of all species ever listed under the Environmental Species Act are still here. So if we don't list them, we may be guilty of condemning them to certain death. Did you know that people are prejudiced against ugly animals, and the only way anything gets listed anymore is if it gets a nominal make-over or gets smuggled in with a good-looking animal?" Sally's voice rose. "That's the Bambi syndrome. But it's a hard, cold fact, Mr.—uh, Bill. My article might inspire the Fish and Wildlife Service to list and save the tortoise and the hare, which might lead to saving the less attractive but just as valuable species who share the borderlands."

Sally was so worked up her face was red. "Boss, I know I must write this story because I asked myself, 'What would Aesop do?'" She took a calming breath and looked him in the eye, knowing her job was on the line. "Now," Sally said, "I am asking you, Bill: What would Captain Marvel do?"

The editor of the Weekly Planet looked away from her and gestured toward the door. In his gruffest voice, Bill Boiled said, "Go on. I want the copy on my desktop Monday morning."


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