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 2 will appear Sept. 10.
Unlike his personal life, Frank’s personal spaces were never messy.
In the newsroom, the top of his desk stood out like a beacon in a sea of clutter. The other reporters stacked papers in dusty, ever-growing piles, brushed sandwich crumbs from their lips as they reached to answer the phone, and left behind rings of spilled coffee whether they put their cups down on their own desk or a colleague’s. Frank, by contrast, was tidy in such things. He kept his notes and clippings in folders and when he was done with his files always returned them to the place in his desk where they belonged. In the center drawer, there were brown paper hand towels from the men’s room, and one would always appear to wipe away a spill or to serve as a coaster if someone’s coffee mug needed a place to land on his desk.
It was the same at home. The first time Frank and I arrived at his apartment, I had the feeling we were entering a luxury hotel suite together—everything seemed just so. The wooden flooring in the entry hall gleamed, the framed photographs and citations along the wall were arrayed in rigid perpendiculars, and when he showed me into his living room, I looked down through a glass-topped coffee table at a red and black patterned carpet whose fibers seemed to have been sucked to a perfect vertical by a recent sweep of a vacuum cleaner.
In the space that was his professional life, Frank maneuvered carefully. It was a dubious position he held, relied on but not completely trusted by his white editors. His black sources were the same—they relied on Frank but did not completely trust him.
Frank was not the first black reporter the paper had hired, but at this point he had stayed the longest, and the paper was anxious to keep him around. To increase his compensation without running afoul of union work rules, the company had added the duties of “internship coordinator” to his regular reporting tasks, which is how Frank and I first got to know each other. The unstated but well understood goal of the internship program was to create a pipeline of minority, i.e. black, reporters for the paper. But as long as it was attracting “underrepresented” folks, in my case a white female, then Frank’s bosses were OK with his choices.
When we were alone, Frank could speak passionately about the importance of the program, how fresh faces looking at old problems from fresh angles would remake the world—and renew the profession, drawing new readers from all the hyphenated corners of society: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, even what he called “LBTQ-Americans.” Frank, like most of the black men I have known, was not entirely comfortable with people who questioned their gender or had others question it for them. He was the son of a Baptist preacher, and he had inherited the social values of his father, along with a tendency toward couching his thoughts in a cadenced multi-syllabic vocabulary that he must have absorbed on Sunday mornings, as well as during practice sessions on Saturday nights.
Frank had moved here after college, and while he looked black enough to his editors, on the street it was a different story. It had been tough going at first. He was raised outside of Atlanta, in a mostly black community that expected its young men and women to conduct themselves with a reserve bordering on disdain. The urban setting was a new experience for Frank, and as he made his way door to door in his crisp white cotton shirt that came shining past the lapels of his Brooks Brothers suit, “I looked like a damn salesman, selling burial insurance or such,” Frank had told me, in recounting the story that assured his stature in the newsroom and on the street.
“Sorry to bother you ma’am. My name is Frank Angleton Jr., and I’m a reporter for The Star,” he would say, assuming he could get someone to open the door to the porch stoop where he was standing. At the first couple of houses he made the mistake of using the word “witness” in the next sentence of his introduction, but after he had a series of doors slammed in his face, he switched to a more conversational approach.
“Another hot one today, isn’t it?” he would ask, and smile that Denzel Washington smile of his, somehow knowing and naive at the same time. Nearly always it was women who came to the door, not really young and not really old, not even middle-aged. Usually they were wearing jeans and a tank top, sometimes slippers but most often flip-flops. Usually they had just gotten up from a couch where they were dozing or watching television, and usually they were quite surprised, even intrigued, to find a nicely put together young man perspiring in their doorway.
“I have been looking for someone to talk to, and if you are not that person, you may still be able to help me. Could I ask you just a couple of questions?”
“You can ask.”
Frank thought back to what one of his journalism professors had told him about how to handle sources—the first thing is to get them talking, doesn’t matter about what, just loosen up their lips, get those jaws flapping. The trick was asking questions that were neither overly inane nor overtly threatening.
“Were you by any chance at home any day last week?”
This query usually drew a noncommittal kind of nasalized humming, not really a uh-huh yes or an unh-unh no. But that was enough for Frank.
“I was actually thinking about the mornings. Were you home any morning last week?”
“Might a been.”
“How about Monday? Was there any chance you were home Monday morning? Right around 9 o’clock?”
Even if she hadn’t been home, she would now know what Frank was after, and often the woman’s chin would lift up and to the left, as if she needed to get another look at this young man and re-evaluate what might be going on.
Everyone in the neighborhood knew what had happened on Monday, a day that was hot even before the sun was fully up and that was soon cloaked in a humid haze that settled in just above the roofline of the row houses that defined this part of Baltimore. A mile to the west, on the main north-south artery to downtown, commuters drove in crisp columns on well-paved streets. But there the stop-and-go of truck and bus traffic had worn deep ruts in the road, and it was a halting, bumpy ride made even more maddening by the out-of-synch traffic lights.
Tyrone T. Washington wasn’t expecting to die that morning. Sometimes riding his tricked out Harley at speed, he would feel that he was skittering on the edge between this life and the next one. And, yes, there were times when he would gather up his 250-pound frame in a show of threat that, especially when he had been smoking weed, he was more than willing to convert into violence. But today he was running an errand, dropping off some paperwork for a lady friend who had to be at work.
With sweat gathering across his forehead and running down either side of his face, he was just in a hurry to get this done and get back to his air-conditioned bedroom, and so he wasn’t paying quite as much attention as he should have when the black sedan in front of him came up short at the light and the front tire of his bike bounced up against its bumper.
“Shit,” he muttered, looking down at his gas tank. “That guy coulda made that light, and so coulda I.” Next thing he knew, the driver’s side door was opening, and he could see some white guy with a crew cut coming back to talk.
Gimme a break, he thought, as he prepared to dismount. We got nothing to say. Usually the sight of a hulking black man was enough to discourage conversation with a white person, but this guy seemed like he had something to discuss. It was only when Tyrone swung his right leg over his bike and stepped toward the driver that he saw the silver badge hanging from his belt and realized he had run into an off-duty cop.
“What you want?”
“You just hit my car, you stupid nig.”
Throwing his forearms out from his chest in a gesture that was a mixture of disbelief and frustration was the last conscious act of his life. A service revolver fired two quick shots, and Tyrone fell backward, knocking his bike clattering toward the curb.
Self-defense was the officer’s best explanation in a case like this and just to make sure there would be no doubt, Officer Hanrahan, still holding his pistol in his right hand, stepped back to reach under the front seat of his car, where he found a three-inch knife wrapped in a chamois rag. He unfurled the bundle so that the blade slipped out and slid across the asphalt toward Washington’s body.
Guy came at me with a knife, Hanrahan rehearsed in his head. I had to do it. I had to shoot.
Witnesses in a neighborhood like this weren’t going to be a problem. The white people in their cars would just keep going, moving faster to get away, and the black people on the sidewalk were not going to be believed, especially once the crime scene investigators got here and photographed the knife on the street just a few feet from the assailant’s body. Most of the people in this neighborhood had had their run-ins with the police and were not going to stick their necks out to defend the innocence of Tyrone T. Washington.
That was the problem that Frank was up against as he went knocking on doors. He needed to find someone who was at the scene, someone whose credibility would be unchallenged, someone who had the nerve to tell the truth. In Frank’s mind, he just couldn’t believe the police report. Where had the knife come from? It had a fixed-blade and would have had to be carried in a sheath. It just didn’t make sense that a motorcyclist would be riding around the city with a knife in his hand. The saddlebags had never been opened, and the only other place that Washington could have been carrying the knife was in his jeans, and given their tight fit around his thighs and waist, that also seemed unlikely.
Knocking on doors was one of Frank’s favorite metaphors. A reporter who was willing to do it enough was always going to find good stories, he would say. And he was right. And answering those knocks when they came on your door, that was the other thing a good reporter needed to do, he liked to say. You never know when a good story just may come across the transom. You needed to be willing to open up.
I’ve always thought about that part of his advice, but I haven’t always been able to take it. I still remember that phone call 13 summers ago, when, just as we were about to decide where we would meet for dinner, Frank said he needed to hang up because there was someone knocking at his door.
And I’ve always been convinced that whoever it was who was knocking that night was the person who stuck a knife in Frank Angleton’s gut and left his body in the shower with the water running.
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.