[Fans of Agnes Quinn Carlyle will be pleased to know she will have a new sidekick–her own age–in Part V of The Magnolia Arms Chronicles: The Return of Hobson Paine. At long last, Agnes will have a friend to whom she will be the “older and wiser” one, the fount of knowledge with a wealth of life experience. Meeting Pepper Phipps’ last week was one of the purest and most astonishing moments of inspiration I have enjoyed as a writer. There’s no other way to say it: she sprang full grown into life “on paper” the moment I put her first and last names together. Here’s her opening scene.]
Toe-to-toe with her editor’s desk, Pepper Phipps started talking, the words spilling forth like a torrent of waterlogged debris over a crumbling dam.
When she finished, Joe Barney leaned back in his squeaky green vinyl chair.
“What did you say?” he asked, shoving his black-framed glasses on top of his bald head—never a good sign.
Pepper inched backward. When she bumped into the worn leather chair behind her, her knees buckled. She tottered and plopped down. Embarrassed, she backpedaled.
“All I meant was,” she said, breathy as a pneumonia patient, “I didn’t spend four years getting a degree in journalism to write about garden parties.”
Joe’s neck stiffened, teeth grinding.
“You wouldn’t know real journalism, Paige Evans Phipps, if it sneaked up behind you and bit you square—”
Taking stock of what he was about to say, he clammed up.
Pepper was also his goddaughter. That’s how he knew her middle name. An old Army buddy of her dad, Joe had pledged to help her as she began her fledgling career as a reporter.
“All I meant was,” she said, gripping the chair arms, “I’ve been working at Tyler City Press for nearly three-quarters of a year and I thought by now—”
“You’d be assistant editor?” he queried.
“No,” she said, on the cusp of whining. “But I want to work on a real story. Find something I can sink my teeth into.”
Worn out, Joe closed his eyes and exhaled. “Tell you what I’m going to do—”
He stopped himself again. If he said he was going to call her parents, as he had said…and done…for the last 9 months, she would say, ‘I’m 21. In charge of my own life now.’ He would respond, ‘I promised your father I’d keep my eye on you.’ She would counter, ‘And I appreciate that, Uncle Joe,’ then wiggle her head, correcting to ‘Mr. Barney,’ and on they would go.
He shifted gears. “I’m going to keep my eye out for a good assignment for you. Now get back to work.”
Pepper opened her mouth to say, Promise? But thought better of it and left his office.
Joe picked up the phone and dialed Pepper’s parents. Her mother answered.
“Hello, Clare,” Joe said, stifling a sigh. “Sorry to bother you so early in the morning, but Max said the next time—”
“What’s she done now?” Clare asked.
They talked for 20 minutes, ending their conversation with a plan to make Pepper someone else’s problem for a while.
Muriel Porter—Pepper’s aunt.