Bob Picotone had done his usual meticulous photographic job. The skeletons were so sharply etched that the editor of the Weekly Standard didn’t need to use the magnifying glass on his desk to examine the pictures. “They’re clearly different,” Jake remarked to Bob. “No two ways about it.”
“No way,” Bob agreed. “One is an Indian man who’s been there forever and the other is a white woman. I’ve no idea how long she’s been dead, but it’s not centuries or even decades. Maybe a couple of years, who knows?”
“Can we publish the photo?” Bob asked nervously. “It really tells the story.”
“No,” Jake said unhesitatingly. Half our readers will cancel their subscriptions if they see a corpse, make that two corpses, on the front page.”
“So run the story on the front page and put my photo inside.”
Jake hesitated. “They’re still not going to like seeing dead people in the community’s family newspaper.”
“God damn it, Jake, it’s news. Real news. How often do we get a chance to publish real news? Not just a garage sale or a shouting match at the town council but something important? A real mystery, a death, maybe a murder. That’s news. We’ve got to do it.”
Bob had worked for Jake for 10 years. The editor trusted his photographer’s skill. More important, he trusted his judgment. But Jake still hesitated. He was both editor and publisher of the paper, and sometimes the two roles conflicted. The commercial success of the paper could be the enemy of its editorial success. It was always a struggle which road to take. He remembered the Robert Frost poem, “Two roads diverged….”
Jake sighed. “OK, Bob, you win, but if half our readers cancel we might not have enough money to pay your salary.” The message: So take that, you idealistic fool.
In the day of the web, even a small town weekly newspaper has reach. Every week Jake posted the paper on Facebook and on his own website, and every week coteries of critics and admirers told him exactly what they thought of his newest effort. Often they would use email to forward stories about families and friends to others so that the paper became a kind of bridge between residents and those who had once lived in Cavetown but moved on to greener, or at least different, pastures.
So it was no surprise to Jake when on Friday, the day after his Thursday publication date, he started getting responses over the web. One surprise was the quantity, not just the usual dozen or so semiliterate comments but hundreds of verbose, sometimes literate and occasionally informative responses. The other surprise was that one of the comments was from District Attorney Clarence Ferlinghetti: “I know who the dead woman is. Can you come to my office tomorrow?”
Jake knew a story when he saw one. “Be there at 10,” he replied.
It is one of the oddities of the American system of justice that most prosecutors are politicians. They are elected by their constituents to make sure the people their constituents distrust or dislike are put in jail. Clarence was not just a politician, but also an effective one. He had been elected to three terms and seemed headed for his fourth next year. Not that life was all that easy for him. Most of the people in his district were working class or poor and they didn’t have much use for the rich swindlers and scammers who constituted most of the white collar criminals. On the other hand, it cost money, quite a bit of money, to run for office even in a poor district, and the people who paid for campaigns were the people who had the money to do it. So Clarence saw serving as district attorney, without committing political suicide, was always a balancing at between those who voted for him and those who paid for those votes.
He also saw it as a balancing act between what he had to do to get elected and re-elected and what he needed to do to be able to sleep at night and face himself in the mirror the next morning. That was often the toughest battle of all. The fight against himself was harder than any courtroom war against an aggressive defense attorney in love with his own voice. Clarence never tilted entirely in one direction or the other, toward conscience or cynicism, justice or corruption, pragmatism or idealism. He believed in balance, the golden mean, moderation in all things, including justice.
The first thing he told Jake and Bob when he met them was, “I come here seeking information. I just want to know what you know.”
Like any good editor, Jake immediately proceeded to ignore what he had just been told. “Before you ask me any questions, I have one for you,” Jake responded. “Is your office investigating the murder of this young woman in Cavetown?”
Clarence started to give the usual non-answer, “We don’t comment on investigations.” But he stopped even before he started. He’d known Jake for a dozen years and could see when the editor was determined. Now he needed Jake’s cooperation. Jake and Bob had more information than he did at this point. “You don’t ever get something without giving something,” was one of his mottos.
As Clarence hesitated, Jake bore down. “Yes or no. Please do me the courtesy of giving me a straight answer.”
Clarence had learned when to equivocate and when not to. He stared hard at Jake and finally said simply, “Yes, we have launched an investigation. That’s why I’m here.”
So a new chapter in Cavetown’s story began.
Next week, Part 6