The following is an excerpt from A Special Detail: The Untold Story of a Reporter’s Suspicious Death, a work of fiction that the Oshkosh Independent is presenting in serial form. If you can’t wait to get to the end or would like to read the story in book form, it is available on Amazon. Chapter Eleven will appear Nov. 12.
Documents can be dull, documents can be difficult to get, documents can be downright impossible to understand.
But the thing about documents is that, unlike human sources, they don’t change their story. If you look at them in the evening, you will still find that they say the same thing the next morning.
That’s why documents are the “gold standard” of news reporting, although not many journalists seem to realize that, and even fewer readers. The truth is that if you are reading a news story that doesn’t mention documents, you are—whether you know it or not—flying a little too close to the sun. It could all come apart at any moment.
Documents, on the other hand, are the real deal, the best evidence, the truth that can set you free. It’s not that documents are always right, or even that they are necessarily true, but they stay the same. Because they stay the same, there is no “plausible deniability” available to politicians, government officials, or other masters of spin.
Documents are the anti-spin, the nail that drives hard through the skin and pins the wriggling corpus of a lie against the wall.
It was my City Council pension scoop that turned me into a document geek. Once I had deciphered what was really going on with the payout formula, it was just a matter of placing calls and being ready to take down the spluttering explanations, excuses, and exclamations of indignation. The story wrote itself.
It was pure fun. Usually a reporter assumes the role of mendicant, begging for scraps of information and pleading for sources to pick up the phone and call back. But when you have all the information you need, you are suddenly the one in charge, the one who gets to pick and choose who gets to be heard.
Once the desk and higher ups know what you are working on, they give you that special look that a golfer gets after sinking a 30-foot birdie putt: Wow, you are good. And, let’s be honest, there is a tingle that you feel when you are putting together a story like this.
It isn’t just some cerebral or even psychological pleasure that you get when you catch elected officials with their hands in the cookie jar. You can feel it down your neck, and you can feel it in your chest, and you can feel it along the inside of your thighs. As you go back over your lead, and your quotes, and you shift your graphs around until the venality and greed are ready to leap off the page, you have to work to keep a smile from breaking out across your face.
Things are never perfect, of course, and there was one person in the newsroom who was not happy when he got wind of what I was working on. At one point, I looked up from my computer terminal, and I could see Brett Russell, in—shall we say?—a state of extreme agitation waving his hands and—did I really just see that?—pounding the desk in Corker’s glass-walled office.
He was mad, and, as I found out later, he was mad at me, accusing me of stealing a story that he had been working on, just saving up for a rainy day.
“She’s a goddam intern, and you can’t let a goddam intern loose on a story like this.”
“Brett, she’s the one who brought it in.”
“She only has the story because I gave it to her.”
“Well, if you gave it to her, what are you complaining about?”
Brett was mostly mad because of the way he had found out I was working on the story. I mean I guess I could have said something to him when I realized what I had, but it wasn’t like he had been particularly helpful or collegial at City Hall. But I’m sure it was embarrassing to have the mayor call him about the story on the assumption that it must be veteran political reporter Brett Russell who was working on it only to have to meekishly admit that he had no idea what the mayor was talking about.
“The Big Foot got stepped on, and he was screaming mad,” was the way that Frank described it to me later. “Don’t fall for that hippie moustache, wire-rimmed spectacles look. Ol’ Brett would like you to think he’s a right-thinkin’ righteous white man, but deep down, he’s got no use for black folk or women in a newsroom.”
I wrote the story on Wednesday for Thursday’s paper. It was all over radio and TV on Thursday while I wrote a second-day follow, speculating about the political fallout from the mini-scandal and documenting the mayor’s insistence that he would block the fatter pension payouts. That came out on Friday.
Friday morning the editor of the weekly review section, Periscope, came over to my desk and asked if I could throw something together by mid-afternoon to run on Sunday.
“You don’t have to do any new reporting or anything,” he said. “It’s just a thumbsucker. Corker asked me to have something to go on Sunday, and Brett said he’s too busy.”
“Well, I think I have really said everything that I have to say about the situation. What was Brett’s angle going to be?”
The Periscope editor was someone who had been around the newsroom a long time. He knew all of the live bodies, and he knew where all the dead ones were buried. He paused for a moment as he gathered his thoughts, not sure whether I needed a tongue-lashing or just a little chuck under the chin.
“Let me put it to you this way. When Corker ‘asks’ me to run something in my section, he’s not really asking. And so when I come and ‘ask’ you to give me 20 or 25 inches, I’m not really asking you either. You done good on that story, sister, but you’ve also made yourself some deep, deep enemies. I wouldn’t push it any farther.”
He was right, of course. I was a one-hit wonder without any right to put on any airs. It wasn’t that Brett was too busy—he was too mad. And I’m sure he thought I would show my thoroughgoing unworthiness by writing something that was superficial and immature for the Sunday Periscope section.
“OK, I understand. How does 20 inches sound?”
That pension story was important to me from a professional standpoint. It got the attention of Corker and the other top editors and was almost certainly the reason I was offered a permanent position at the end of the summer. But it was even more important to me and my personal life.
After the Periscope editor left, Frank came over and invited me to lunch. I told him I’d love to, but I had to get my Sunday piece done.
“Tell you what—why don’t you meet me at the City Club when you’re done here, say around 5? We’ll have a drink, and then go somewhere for dinner. I think that’s the least I can do for such a fine, fine job you did this week.”
It was at dinner that Frank told me how he managed to sell Corker and the city editor on him going to Ft. Benning to write a “local” story about the businessman who was making a killing delivering cars to black soldiers at distant bases.
“They liked that whole black-white thing, how blacks and whites could come together and solve their problems. The funny thing is that I never wrote that story.”
This part came out later that night, that first time I was at Frank’s apartment. We had dinner at an Italian place, Capriccio’s was the name as I recall. It was Northern Italian cooking, so cream sauces instead of sloppy red marinara. At the end I had a cappuccino, hoping the caffeine would cut against the carafe of the house white I had consumed and help me stay steady on my feet when we left.
The conversation had been about, what else, the reporting game. Given what happened later that night, we were remarkably professional over dinner, me talking about what I had learned in j-school and where I hoped my career would take me. Frank, ace listener that he was, did mostly that: listen to me as my lips became looser and my tongue thicker.
By the time we got to dessert, there wasn’t much more for me to talk about, and so I started pressing Frank to tell me all of the details of how he got the story that brought down “Hangover” Hanrahan, “Paddy Boy” Hanrahan as Frank sometimes called him.
“I know this is going to sound like a line or something, but, really, I have all the clips in a big portfolio over at my apartment. It might be something we could look through sometime.”
It was a line all right, but perfectly baited for someone in my state of mind.
“I mean, if you are really interested in knowing all the boring details of how that went down.”
Frank struck me as the kind of guy who liked the action to come to him, and so while I would have hoped that our eyes would have met across the table as he invited me over to his place, they didn’t. Frank looked down at the tablecloth and pursed his lips, waiting for me to react.
I reached over to touch the bare skin of his forearm, where he had rolled up the sleeve of his shirt. “I think that’s a great idea—I’ll be right back,” I said and headed off to the ladies’ room.
A squirt of breath freshener, a dab of lipstick, and a double check of my Pill pack to make sure I hadn’t skipped—then I was ready to be squired to Frank’s apartment, for whatever the rest of the evening might bring.
The reason that Frank never wrote the story about the drive-away service for black soldiers was that his life got a lot more complicated when he got back from his trip to Georgia.
“You ever been stalked?”
I have to say this wasn’t what I was expecting to hear when we settled into the couch in Frank’s living room. He had produced an oversized portfolio that was a duplicate of the paper’s Pulitzer Prize entry for his reporting on the Hanrahan case and spread it out on the coffee table.
“The white girl, the naked white girl I told you about. All of a sudden when I got back from Georgia—she was everywhere I went. She had her clothes on, but it was weird.”
When I first learned that Frank had been murdered, this Farrah-lookalike was one of the first suspects who came to mind. She must have been obsessed with him, from what Frank said, to the point of even showing up at his place and trying to talk her way in. Frank said there was never any intimacy, any physical intimacy, but Frank sometimes said what he knew needed to be said without always making sure that the facts were there.
Facts, as John Adams once said, are “stubborn things” but they are also elusive things. The stubborn fact about Frank is that he is dead and I miss him every day, all these years later. The elusive fact is who killed him. Male? Female? Personal reasons, or professional ones?
Frank inspired passion, in the spiritual sense of having a purpose but also in a physical sense, a desire, a drive so intense that you could take leave of your senses.
Frank had calculated, correctly, that I would not be put off by his mention of his stalker. I was aroused, and faintly jealous, and being jealous, became the one who took the situation over, ranging my right hand across his shoulders and then pulling his head toward mine.
There was nothing in the police reports or the coroner’s report that would have specifically ruled out the possibility that Frank was killed by a woman, a woman he had spurned, perhaps, but who came back for more, a woman who knew his body well and how it would respond to just the right touch and how when he was done he could fade out so completely that he might not have even realized that the knife had entered his abdomen until it was it was too late.
A Special Detail is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental and completely unintentional.