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 Sixteen will appear Dec. 17.
“You’ve got to talk to Frank. I’ve got a problem, and you’ve got to help me.”
This was weird. Lynn had come striding across the newsroom right at me, as if I was the only person on earth who was in a position to do what she needed.
We hadn’t talked much in the last few days, after her blaze of glory on the Spot fire. She had crushed me, and it was my fault. She had been lucky, and she had been good. I tried to make it seem like I was really happy for her, but I’m certain that my expression of congratulations sounded as forced and as false as it was.
“Really, I need you to talk to Frank for me.”
This was scary. I had been with Frank a few times, and we had passed cryptic notes in the newsroom over the last few weeks. But I thought we had been pretty discreet. I couldn’t imagine how Lynn had found out that we were lovers.
“Why me? Why do you think I have any special in with him.”
“You?” she nearly snorted, as she wrinkled her nose and jerked her head away from mine. “It’s not you so much. I’m asking all the interns. I think we need a united front.”
This was getting stranger by the second.
“A united front? On what?”
“On contest entries.”
So that’s what she wanted. She wanted me to tell Frank about how great her front-page performance had been and how he had to make sure that he entered it in the state newspaper contest. Before I could even start to put into words why I thought her request was completely inappropriate and out of the question, she went on.
“Look, I know this sounds weird. But Frank thinks we should enter my fire story, or stories, for that stupid newspaper convention. And I don’t want him to. But he won’t listen.”
“Why wouldn’t you want to enter your stuff. You know you’d win.”
“I can’t give you a good explanation. It’s just something that I don’t think I’m ready for. And I don’t think Frank should be allowed to force me to enter.”
“Well, I guess it looks good for him to have one of his interns win.”
“I just don’t think it’s fair, and I know you don’t get to spend a lot of time with Frank, but could you try to do me this one favor? Just grab him in the hall or something, and tell him that you don’t think he should enter my stuff.”
Lynn’s plea put me in an awkward spot. I imagined myself saying, “Hey, Frank, don’t enter Lynn’s great story in the contest so I can win.” That would certainly be professional.
On the other hand, she seemed pretty wound up, without an ounce of the California cool that she usually exuded. “OK, if I see him, I’ll try to say something.”
A lot of people came to think of Frank as ambitious bordering on ruthless. It’s true he was ambitious, and he managed to hang on to a kind of aggressive competitiveness that a lot of reporters start with but manage to lose over time. When he wanted something, he wasn’t afraid of going after it.
But there was another side of Frank that most people didn’t see and that explained his mulish stubbornness once he made up his mind. Frank worked really hard, and he didn’t rush to conclusions without doing his research and considering the alternatives.
In Lynn’s case he had called some of his “affirmative action” contacts at other papers and spoken to a friend of his, a Chinese-American reporter born in Taiwan, raised in New York City, and now working in Washington.
“It’s called false modesty, Frank. All of us Asians are taught it. But I don’t think she really means it,” the reporter-friend said by phone. “I mean, who wouldn’t want to get an award?”
“Maybe she thinks it’s too small-potatoes or something,” Frank offered “It’s just a statewide competition, and, honestly, there isn’t much competition in this state.”
“Frank, I just think she’s trying to be polite, model minority and all that. She’ll thank you when she’s holding that plaque. She’s just an intern–you need to make up her mind for her.”
Even after Frank told me about that conversation, I wasn’t convinced. “Something’s screwy, Frank. I’m not sure you should enter her story.”
Frank shot me a look that made by feel like a jealous 8-year-old. For me, that was the end of the discussion. Frank’s determination to do things that he had decided were the right things had brought him a long way. Who was I to question his approach?
Back on the Hanrahan story, the road from Ft. Benning interview to front-page expose had one more major detour. For a while it must have looked to Frank that all of his efforts were a waste.
He had as directed written up the story, or at least the part of the story that he wanted to tell, with the places marked where he would go back to Hanrahan, the Police Department, City Hall, and community leaders for their reax quotes. With just the Sgt. Greene material and the background, the story was already 20 inches. Frank put his copy into the newsroom editing system and pressed the buttons that would forward the text to the city editor and to Corker.
As expected it took about three and a half minutes for the city editor to skim the story and then pop up from his chair and walk over to Corker’s office. From his desk Frank could see the two engaged in conversation. Most of the reporters figured that Corker kept the blinds open in his office so that he could look out on the newsroom and see who was working and who wasn’t. But this arrangement also provided a disconcerting view on how decisions were made at the Star.
Frank could see from the body language of the two men that something was wrong. It looked like maybe they were confused about what the story was saying. Frank pulled the story back up on his computer screen to make sure that he hadn’t left out any key words or transitions. It was all there, in plain language–city cop kills unarmed man and then tries to manufacture an excuse with a phony weapon planted by the corpse.
Frank’s phone rang, and he picked it up, expecting to hear Corker’s voice summoning him in for a summit conference about his story. Instead it was the security guard in the front lobby.
“Mr. Angleton, that lady, the blonde lady, is here. And she’s wearing that raincoat again, sir.”
“Well, I’m busy, right now. Tell her to go away.”
“She said she needs to see you. She says she has a hot tip.”
“Tell her to go away.”
The security guard was a holdover from an earlier era at the Star. He wore a long blazer, rather than a guard’s uniform and looked like a kindly butler, with the knowing and observant face you might expect to see as the door to the big house swung open on a Southern plantation. He was just one of the many ways the Star insisted on demonstrating its place of privilege, and antiquated perspective, in the city’s social and economic structure.
“Please, ma’am, Mr. Angleton is not available right now. Could you I ask you to just leave?”
The guard winced his eyes closed, knowing what was going to come next. The woman’s raincoat had a row of snaps running up the front. With a rapid motion, she flashed the coat open, exposing her naked body for a second and then pulling the fabric back close to her skin.
“I’ll be back,” she purred, before turning on her high heels and stepping across the marble floor of the lobby and out the door.
“Corker wants to see you,” Frank took his face out from behind his hands and looked up at the city editor, straining for a hint of where their conversation might be heading. “He’s not happy.” The city editor often played this role of go-between, and it seemed to match his talents: not much here, not much there. His one claim to fame was that he had once worked at a major national magazine, a detail that he couldn’t resist reminding everyone about. “When I was at Time, we never did it like this,” he would say, or, “All I can tell you is that I know what it’s like to have done Time—got it?”
To be sure there were plenty of reasons for Corker to be unhappy. Frank knew he had been insubordinate about not dropping the Hanrahan story, and he had ruffled a few feathers on the desk by arguing about changes that had been made to his copy without his OK. There also were a couple of stories that Frank had promised but not yet delivered.
“You’re putting your thing in too many places, too many places it doesn’t belong.”
This was definitely not what Frank was expecting. He thought he had been hired, after all, to ferret out stories that, face it, white reporters didn’t have access to.
“I, I don’t understand. I thought that was what I was hired to.”
Corker stared hard at Frank for a count of three and then bellowed: “You’re sticking your black thing in too many places where it doesn’t belong. It had better stop right now.”
Corker was standing behind his desk and leaning across it. “There’s plenty of ass in this city for you to have all you want. But there’s some of it that’s off limits. You need some bad enough, you can find it in the mailroom, or down in the bullpen where they take classified ads. You understand me? ”
“No sir. I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“Dammit Angleton there’s a white girl coming to our lobby every morning, sometimes afternoons, too, looking for you. And when Security tells them you aren’t available, she always does the same thing. She opens up her coat and shows them everything she’s got.”
Corker straightened back up and with his arms hanging down started pointing with his hands, forefingers outstretched, toward his groin. Because of the size of his belly, he had to curve his arms around it.
“Everything, Frank, even down there.”
“Mr. Corker, I think I can explain.”
“Frank, I don’t want an explanation. I just want it to go away.”
That was just as well, because Frank didn’t really have an explanation. What could he say?
“And one other thing, Frank. We’re not going to run that Hanrahan story.”
“Why not? It’s solid. It’s what you hired me to do.”
“Frank, we did not hire you to set off a race riot in this city. And that’s what we would get if we ran that story. It’s completely one-sided and unsubstantiated.”
“It’s all on the record. It’s all true.”
“You got it on tape?”
“No, but it’s in my notes.”
“Notes are nothing in a case like this. What if your guy recants, says he was misquoted, taken out of context? The city’s in flames, and we’re to blame.”
“Mr. Corker, I completely disagree.”
“You can completely disagree all you want, but it won’t change my mind. It would be one thing if this was coming from the DA or some official source. But that’s not what you got. I just find it hard to believe that you are the only one who has found this Wonder Witness. Leave that kind of stuff to the police.”
Frank had never been spoken to like that in his life. The son of a pastor, star student, president of his fraternity, Frank was used to a certain deference. He had expected some hostility in the newsroom, and he thought he had dealt with it pretty well. What he hadn’t expected was to run into a brick wall of thick-headed ignorance and smug self-assurance.
He looked into Corker’s face and studied the flabby jowls and the weak receding chin. The eyes that had once seemed sympathetic, even kind, he could now tell were just empty ovals, incapable of insight and used only to reflect back what they looked out upon.
Corker had sat back down, and now he turned his blank face toward the paperwork on his desk.
“Leave the white women alone, Frank. There are just some things that are off limits.”
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.