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 Fourteen will appear Dec. 3.
The city had a mayor who had been the mayor a long time and knew he wasn’t going to be mayor for much longer. Watching the election cycles go around, he figured he needed to win one more term in office and then two years later make a move on the Statehouse. As governor, he would become a possible player on the national scene and who could know what that would mean, perhaps even a trip to Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation’s capital?
But there was still the problem of getting re-elected, a white man running in a city that was no longer majority white. The mayor had done right by many black neighborhoods and built up a store of goodwill. But he knew every morning when he woke up he was still white, while the city was not. There was a lot of suffering in many black neighborhoods, the mayor knew, and while the residents liked him personally, they did not like white people generally. All it would take would be some kind of news story, like that Driving While Black series that the Star did a few weeks ago, to stir people up and convince them that their problem was a white mayor, that it was time for one of their own kind to run City Hall.
The mayor has tried to build a bulwark against this sort of thing, by appointing blacks to cabinet positions and forging alliances with elected black officials, like the one in his office right now, the district attorney, Shirley Langdon.
“I don’t think you quite appreciate, Mr. Mayor, the kinds of problems that a case like this presents for my office.”
“I know, I know, Shirley-girl. The DA has to work with the cops. They’re the ones who bring you your cases. They’re the ones you rely on to testify in court. I’ve heard all that about a million times.”
The mayor had a habit of talking down to people, making fun of their names. It was a part of his persona, and Langdon knew there wasn’t any point in taking offense.
“So what you’re telling me, Mr. Mayor, is that I need to take this relatively weak case of a police shooting….”
“Ms. Langdon—you are the prosecutor and I a mere mayor. I would never presume to tell you how to do your job.”
She knew immediately that this was cover in case questions came up in the press. The mayor could insist that there had been no political interference coming from City Hall. But she also knew the election calendar. A high-profile prosecution would be all over the newspapers in the weeks leading up to the vote. Black people would feel that the city government was on their side, and the white people would have no choice about how to cast their vote. White incumbent or black challenger? That would be an easy call.
“But,” the mayor continued, “we do know that empty beer cans were found in the officer’s car, and we do know that he has had a bit of a drinking problem.”
Those were investigative details that supposedly were known only to a few people in her office and a handful of cops. The Star had made a stab at getting the crime scene report but had given up without too much effort. Now it seemed like the mayor was prepared to spill the beans to force her hand.
“Mr. Mayor, before you go too far down that road, I think you need to be aware that those beer cans had been flattened and were dry when we looked at them. It looks to us like Officer Hanrahan was just doing some recycling.”
“Empty beer cans, Shirley-girl, empty beer cans. I think you know how the Star would play that one. They love to make the cops look bad, and the ones we’ve got in town are stupid enough to help them out at every opportunity.”
Langdon hated the case. She hated the racial aspect of it, she hated going after law enforcement, but most of all she hated what she saw as the unwinnability of it. In criminal court she had to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Hanrahan had acted improperly.
A good defense lawyer, or even a mediocre one, would have little trouble putting Hanrahan up on a hero’s pedestal and picking her case apart. Even if her investigators found a witness to testify that Hanrahan acted with murderous intent, it would likely be someone from the neighborhood who would get tied up in knots on the witness stand and lose all credibility.
Langdon’s professional judgment was that this case would be better handled administratively, with an internal review of an officer discharging his weapon. A little wheeling and dealing with the chief of police, and she could get what she thought Hanrahan deserved, a discharge from the force. If he walked out of the courthouse a free man, he would be untouchable, back on the street and a menace to city residents, at least to the black ones.
Wee Willie Wilkins was meanwhile conducting a similar analysis of the case, but he had one piece of information that Langdon didn’t have. Wilkins knew that Hanrahan had contacted his office, a place that had earned its reputation as where criminals go to beat the rap. If Hanrahan was coming to him, Wilkins thought to himself, Hanrahan was just about admitting his guilt.
“If he wasn’t a criminal, he wouldn’t need me,” the lawyer said to his receptionist,” a chesty white girl named Suzannah Morgenstern whom he kept around as a visual distraction and also to demonstrate to any visitors that he took an enlightened view of the races. He wanted the world to know that he had transcended his ghetto background and that some of his best friends were white people. He could even hire one to sit out front and be the first face that prospective clients would see.
Indirect lighting, ficus trees, off-white paint, and cherry wood moulding and chair rails along the walls were the cues that Wilkins had selected to make his office look, as he liked to say, “corporate.” He paid for Suzannah’s wardrobe, too, specifying that he wanted her skirts and sweaters tight enough “to show every freckle” on her skin but also specifying that she buy designer labels without waiting for them to wind up on the discount racks.
Suzannah’s behind was part of his business strategy, he figured, and it seemed to be working. She would greet clients from her desk, seat them in the waiting area, offer them coffee or tea, and, when the time came. escort them back to Mr. Wilkins’s office.
If they were men, and they were nearly always men, she would know where their eyes were falling—she could also most feel their gaze upon her well-rounded rump as she led the way down the corridor. And when they had taken their seats in front of a desk the size of an airplane wing, she would cheerily call out “Is there anything else, Mr. Wilkins?” before making a quick, tight turn and then doing a short pageant walk back out the door: heel, toe, heel, toe, swinging her feet back and forth across an imaginary line on the floor.
“Oh, Suzannah,” Wilkins would say, sometimes to himself and sometimes loud enough for a client to hear. “Don’t you cry for me.” It was a little joke that he never tired of. It amused him to think of her presence in his office as a kind of modern-day minstrelsy, a performance he arranged for the enjoyment of the white folk while he was putting their money in his pocket.
Officer Hanrahan, however, was not among those who would take the walk down the hall to meet with Wee Willie Wilkins. The lawyer had sized the situation up like this: The case itself was plenty winnable, but it was not one he needed to take. He could deliver this bad news in person, but if he spoke with Hanrahan, even for just a few minutes, he could be seen as entering into a lawyer-client relationship, one that might make it awkward for him down the road if the time should come make a public statement about the case.
“The man wants a black lawyer. We’ll see that he gets a black lawyer,” he said to his secretary as he instructed her how to handle Hanrahan when he came in for his 10 o’clock appointment.
“Oh, Mr. Hanrahan,” Suzannah smiled, “I am so sorry but Mr. Wilkins has been unexpectedly called out of town and won’t be able to meet with you. He said he knew that you have an urgent need for a lawyer, and he wanted me to give you this.”
With that she handed him a card that read, “James J. Black, Esq.” Below that it said: “Specialist in Criminal Defense.”
Hanrahan knew all about Black. He made old school look like it had just been invented. A belt and suspenders guy who needed both to keep his pants up around his enormous middle, Black rarely lost a case. From his shiny Italian shoes to his long, white comb-over everything about the man said huckster, and yet he had a way of connecting with juries, slyly demolishing eyewitnesses, and slowly getting under the skin of his prosecutor antagonists.
“I was kinda hoping to get a black attorney,” Officer Hanrahan said forlornly. “But not like this.” He could feel the control he once felt over his future slipping away, and his shoulders slumped in disbelief. He suddenly felt as if the air in his lungs had escaped and there was no way to replace it.
I imagine Lynn Ling felt about like that when she picked up the paper the day of my pension fraud scoop. As the summer had gone along, it had begun to feel like maybe only three out of the four interns were going to be offered permanent jobs at the end of our tours of duty. Some days it seemed like all four of us were in, but then other days I got a sense that there were only three openings.
Charneega and Jose were in, without a doubt, leaving Lynn and me to contest the final slot. The media machine does a lot to build our perceptions about race, and it acts on what it thinks is true about race. Darker skinned people faced greater disadvantages, so the thinking went, and so deserved more help. Asians were the “model minority,” high achievers all no matter where their families came from and what their backgrounds were–industrialists from Taiwan, Japanese internment camp survivors from Southern California, clergy from the Philippines, boat people from Vietnam.
The thing of it is was that Lynn wasn’t a white person, and so she had the upper hand. I’m sure that’s how she read the situation. I know that’s how I read it. Plus she worked around the clock, and, as much as I hate to admit it, she was good at what she did.
She was a regular copy machine, churning through one assignment after another and then coming back to ask for more. It was mostly routine stuff, but there was a lot of it: NIMBY opposition to a new shopping center, a federal grant for suburban sewer upgrades, talking to local Pakistanis after some earthquake in the Punjab or some place.
Me, I was more likely to take my time with things, and when I had finished with a story I felt I had earned some time off. I noticed that most of the big dogs in the newsroom were good for no more than three bylines a week, and I didn’t see why an intern should be expected to do more. After the pension story, I was starting to feel that I had earned that third full-time job even though I was getting more and more of those “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately looks” from the city editor.
I think he was trying to give me a chance to redeem myself for taking most of the week off when he came over to see if I was available to cover an overnight shift on Saturday. “It pays time-and-a-half, and there probably won’t be any news. You’ll snooze the whole time and make the easiest money in your life.”
Frank and I didn’t have firm, firm plans for Saturday, but I had a sense that we would end the evening together, and I didn’t plan to give that up. “Gee, I don’t know. Have you asked Lynn? I think she was looking to earn some extra cash.”
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.