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 Fifteen will appear Dec. 10.
“Oh shit,” I said, as Frank emerged into the kitchen after taking his shower. “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.”
Frank was taken back by my furious intensity, but the wrath was entirely self-directed. “What a stupid lazy bitch I am.”
“What’s the matter with you?”
Frank’s confusion was completely understandable. I had gotten up first, cleaning up while he slumbered and setting out on a short neighborhood shopping excursion to pick up a few things to eat.
I figured he would be famished after that night’s perfomance. I had to laugh to myself that I couldn’t come up with a better cliche than fireworks to describe the experience—lots and lots of oohs and aahs. I was ready for more in the morning, but I could tell that he was still deep asleep, and so I decided to surprise him with some Sunday brunch. I wasn’t much of a cook in those days, but breakfast I could do.
There I was standing in line at the checkout, and I couldn’t miss it, The Sunday Star in all its glory. The front page was emblazoned with a rare (in those days) color photo of a building fire and a six-column streamer headline: “Spot Goes Up in Burst of Flame.”
It turns out that Frank’s bed hadn’t been the only place that was burning Saturday night.
The Spot was a seedy downtown strip joint, far past its mid-century glory but still a draw for out-of-towners and famous for nightly performances by Shaboom Lagraza, its impossibly well-endowed headliner of some fantastical mixed Italian-Syrian heritage.
Shortly before midnight, “in a brazen act of arson,” as the Star so breathlessly put it, someone had rolled a “mini-Molotov cocktail” across the front lobby, which exploded in flame, setting off a fire alarm and the sprinkler system and sending the handful of patrons, waitresses, and performers scurrying into the street.
A few minutes later the arsonist, or a confederate, appeared in the alley way entrance to the kitchen and tossed a full-sized gas bomb. The conflagration that followed must have seemed like some movie FX with screaming sirens of fire trucks descending on a 10-alarm blaze in the background. Back in the city room, the police scanner crackled to life, and Lynn Ling swung into action.
“I mean shit, Frank, she wrote the whole shitting front page. She’s got the main piece, and two freakin’ sidebars.”
Frank took the paper in his hands and started reading. “Hmm. Y’know this is pretty good.”
I knew. I knew. I had already read it all.
He went on: “Listen to this–she’s even got a money quote: ‘I’ve been hot and wet on stage before, but never like this,’ Ms. Lagraza said as she stepped into a black Lincoln limousine that whisked her from the scene of the crime.”
“Oh, come on, Frank. People don’t talk like that.”
“Maybe not, but it’s still a great quote. Even if Shaboom didn’t say it, she probably wishes she did. I don’t think we’ll see a retraction on that one.”
Up in smoke—there went my career at the Star, and just because I thought I was too good to swing a Saturday night shift. If that fire had happened during the regular work week, the paper would have put have a dozen reporters on it. Instead Lynn had covered the whole thing by herself, with sidebars (!), and on an impossibly tight deadline. The girl had permanent hire written all over her.
Frank could be incredibly intuitive and sensitive, particularly when he had you in his arms and underneath that muscular body of his, but he could also be incredibly insensitive, and he picked this time to prove it.
“You know the state newspaper convention is coming up. This would have to take first prize in the breaking news category, maybe even best in show.”
“What are you saying?”
“Corker is on a big kick this year. He says we haven’t been winning enough awards lately.”
“Great, Frank, and y’know where that would leave me. I’d be the odd intern out, the one who doesn’t get hired at the end of the summer.”
“Oh calm down. You got your big story, and now Lynn’s got hers. Winning an award isn’t gonna change things. That much.”
Along the way to being a Pulitzer finalist, Frank had won smaller awards, regional and specialist citations for exposing the way the local police did their jobs. He knew that winning awards was fairly common, but he also knew that having one on your wall was sure to be a boost to your career, and maybe some insurance if the time should come when you had to defend your work. There had come a time when there were questions raised about Frank’s, shall we say, techniques, and it probably helped a lot that he had his awards.
Frank didn’t completely cross the line, but he did venture into a gray area, a seriously gray area, one of those parts of the journalistic landscape that journalists don’t even like to admit exist. Maybe the easiest way to think about it is in terms of arithmetic—addition and subtraction.
Reporters don’t need to be told even a first time that you can’t make things up, that you can’t do any addition to the facts that you find. But subtraction is another matter. We subtract all the time. We have to subtract because there’s no other way to tell a story. If you left in all the details, your story would be impossibly long and impossible to understand. So you subtract, a part of a quote here, a piece of background info there, and so on.
When Frank got back to the newsroom from Ft. Benning, he could barely contain his excitement. “I’ve got it. I’ve got it. I’ve got it,” he told the city editor.
“Got what? An STD?”
“No, I’ve got my on-the-record quote from a named source who says that Hanrahan had a knife.”
“Hanrahan had a gun, Frank. He killed that biker with a gun. What’s the matter with you?”
“No, no, no. I know he had a gun. But then he grabbed a knife and throw it at Washington’s body, to make it look like he was being threatened, like he was acting in self-defense.”
“Frank, that’s not the story we sent you out on.”
“You’re right—this one is better, much better.”
“Write up what you got, and we’ll take a look. But I gotta warn you—Corker’s not going to be happy. And don’t call anyone for reax. We don’t want anyone else to know what we’re working on.”
“I didn’t care what some editor thought. I felt like I was on fire,” Frank told me years later. “I mean this was strong stuff, a war hero calling out the city cops. I just knew it would shake things up.”
Of course the only way Frank got to that version of the story was by subtraction, leaving out the fact that Sgt. Greene thought Washington was a thug who had threatened the police officer, leaving out the fact that Sgt. Greene said he would have pulled the trigger himself. Frank’s story was true, as far as it went. It just didn’t go as far as a lot of people would think it should have.
This was part one of Sgt. Greene’s possible motive for murdering Frank. Frank distorted the story the soldier had told because he wanted to get to a bigger story, how a cop had killed an unarmed man, a black man who was out running an errand and anxious to get back home before the worst of a summer day’s heat.
In doing his subtraction on the story, Frank was also taking something away from Sgt. Greene, the fuller story that he thought was true and that he thought he owned because he had lived it. Frank did that more than once, taking something away from somebody, something that mattered a lot to that somebody. Frank always said that if your intentions were true that you were sometimes justified in doing things that other people might not understand.
Officer Hanrahan was sure that his wife would never understand why he had placed the knife next to Tyrone T. Washington’s body, which is the reason why he had not yet provided her with that particular detail. Explaining why he had gone downtown to get a black lawyer and ended up with a Black one instead was something else she probably wouldn’t understand, and Hanrahan wasn’t looking forward to telling her.
She was Italian, and he was Irish. They were a mixed-marriage in their day. But it was different from what was starting to happen today. They both came from the same part of town, in parishes that were right next to each other. The same religion, too. Hanrahan had recently seen a black guy not just holding hands with a white woman but putting his lips on hers. He didn’t know whether to puke or put them both in cuffs.
He saw a lot of things like that that he didn’t share with the wife. There was just no point in upsetting her. The Irish might be famous for their tempers, but the Italians weren’t so bad either. Mostly they held it in, but they were like volcanoes—when they erupted, watch out. It was not a pretty sight.
“Joey, we talked about how important it was for you to get Wilkins on your side.”
“I know, I know, but he wouldn’t meet with me.”
“That’s not right—you made an appointment.”
“Well, he had to go out of town, or something. Jim Black’s a good lawyer. He’s helped a lot of cops.”
“Jim Black ain’t black, and that’s what matters.”
Officer Hanrahan knew what was coming. This was just the early rumbling before the lava got flowing.
There was an arc to these episodes: a slow start then a full-pitched screamfest that usually ended in something, a plate or a glass, getting broken. The kids were out of the house, which meant that there wasn’t anything to hold her back.
“Y’know, Joey, these last couple of weeks have been pretty hard on me, too. I been quiet about it, but you know I get looks when I go out. The kids, too. I guess I’m just supposed to sit there and take it. Is that what you think? Is it?
Double questions like that were a bad sign. Her temper was about to shift gears.
“You had those beer cans in your car—didn’t ya? Didn’t ya?”
“They’re gonna say you were drinking. You know that—doncha? Doncha?” The late summer light slanted through their kitchen window. The worst of the heat had broken, but there was still enough lingering in the air to bring out a sweat across his wife’s forehead. She was pacing now, and punctuating her questions by throwing her arms out across her body. “What have you got to say about that? What?”
He hadn’t told her about the beer cans in the car. She must have heard that from talking to one of the wives. A couple of other cops lived nearby, and sometimes the wives knew more about what was being said down at the station house than their husbands did.
“I was recycling. That’s all. We can use the money. You know that. ”
“What I know is that normal people throw their cans in the garbage. Why do you think that’s such a good idea? Why? Why?”
A triple question meant they were getting close to the end of the conversation.
Officer Hanrahan stood across the kitchen in the doorway leading to the dining room. He knew the drill. There was no point trying to make excuses or trying to explain. These tantrums never came to anything, but they also didn’t usually end until something was thrown through the air, usually at him.
That’s why he was surprised when she reached into the drawer next to the sink and took out the knife that she used to chop onions, a big chef’s cleaver.
“You know what else they’re saying, Joey? You know what? You know what?”
She had the knife in her hand now, and she cradled it underhand, and then cocked her hand back behind her as if she were at the bowling alley.
The knife came skittering across the linoleum and spun to a stop next to Officer Hanrahan’s left foot.
“They say you did that, Joey. Didja? Didja? Didja? Ya gotta tell me.”
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.