Another speaker came to the podium. Joe Wilcox leaned close to his wife and muttered just loud enough for her pretty ears only, “Another speaker.” He shifted position in his chair and twisted his neck against a growing stiffness and full-blown boredom. With them at a front table were three couples, others from The Washington Tribune and their spouses who’d agreed to attend the awards evening with the Wilcoxes out of friendship, or obligation, or maybe a little of both.
The dinner was an annual event for the Washington Media Association, whose members came from the ranks of Washington, D.C.’s, print and broadcast journalists. Like most such groups, its leadership was fond of bestowing awards on deserving members and on their chosen profession, giving that same leadership a reason for taking to the podium to express their views on many things, mostly political. An occasional, usually accidental, bit of humor provided blessed audience relief from those who spoke endlessly, others longer.
At least they’re getting to the awards, Wilcox thought as the speaker said “In conclusion” for the third time. Wilcox looked to a table at which his daughter, Roberta, sat. She was the reason Joe and Georgia were there.
The speaker at the podium finally did conclude, and the bestowing of awards commenced, twenty-two in all. Three weeks later—or so it seemed—Roberta was the sixteenth recipient called to the podium to accept the award for Best Local Investigative Reporting—Broadcast, accompanied by the producer and the director of a TV series they’d done on corruption within the Washington MPD.
“Doesn’t she look beautiful?” Georgia said.
“Of course she does,” Wilcox replied. “Because she is.”
Roberta Wilcox did look stunning that evening in a stylish pantsuit the color of ripe peaches. But it was radiance from within that created a virtual aura around her, enhanced by a bright smile that had lit up the nightly news since she’d joined the station three years earlier. “The best-looking newscaster in D.C.” was the consensus. She usually wore her auburn hair pulled back when on the air, but this evening she’d let it down, framing an oval face with inquisitive raisin-brown eyes, her skin fair but not pale, her makeup tastefully underapplied. She thanked the station for having given her the freedom and support to pursue the exposé, read helpful names from a slip of paper including the producer and director, and ended by crediting her parents for having instilled in her the natural curiosity necessary to get the job done. “Of course,” she added, “I come from good reportorial stock. My father is as good a reporter as there is in this city.” She watched him wince, tossed him a kiss off her fingertips, and led her fellow award winners back to their table.
It was announced from the podium that the evening had come to an end, and most of the three hundred men and women left their tables to mingle, gravitating to familiar faces and offering congratulations to the winners, and to their families.
“How’d an ugly guy like you end up with such a knockout of a daughter?” a Trib reporter asked Wilcox, accompanied by a laugh and a slap on the back.
“Her mother’s genes,” Wilcox replied, nodding in the direction of his wife, who’d gone to Roberta’s table to talk with her and her celebrating tablemates.
“Must be,” Wilcox’s friend said. He lowered his voice. “What do you think of Hawthorne getting an award?” Gene Hawthorne, a Trib Metro reporter, had been cited for a three-part series he’d done on a local bank’s illegal payoffs to a district official.
Wilcox shrugged, which accurately reflected what he was thinking. Hawthorne, in his late twenties, did not rank high on his list of favorite people. Wilcox wasn’t alone in his negative view of the abrasive, aggressive young reporter who had a penchant for rubbing colleagues the wrong way, his knife always in search of an unprotected back, it seemed, and there were few toes fast enough to avoid being stepped on. Equally galling was the backing he received from the Trib’s ranking editors and management, who obviously viewed the young, smug, sandy-haired, self-possessed reporter as a rising star, which, of course, he was, a bit of news that wasn’t lost on anyone at the Trib, Joe included.
He saw in the young reporter something of himself years ago when he’d come to The Washington Tribune, brimming with ambition and possessing the energy to fuel it. But it had been different at the paper twenty-three years ago. Then, there were still plenty of grizzled veteran reporters from whom to learn, men (almost exclusively) who lived the life of a reporter as portrayed in movies and plays, characters straight out of The Front Page, their heads surrounded by blue cigarette and cigar smoke, pints of whiskey in their desk drawers, the rattle and clank of their typewriters testifying to their daily output, spoken words tough and profane, written words sharp and to the point. There weren’t many of them left. The younger Trib reporters, including Wilcox, had been hired to supplement that veteran staff. But eventually Gene Hawthorne and dozens of men and women like him had been brought in to replace the over-fifty crowd. There had been a flurry of buyouts offered over the past few years, and many newsroom veterans had jumped at the severance package with its generous cash settlement, pension options, and health and life insurance. In came the new blood, working at half the pay of the reporters who’d gone on to their retirement, or in many cases new jobs. One of the Trib’s top economics reporters had left on a Friday; his byline appeared over an article in the Trib the following Monday, written for a wire service that had eagerly hired him.
It just wasn’t the same anymore for Joe Wilcox. He was now a member of the dinosaur club himself and was viewed with a certain barely disguised scorn by Hawthorne and his cadre of young hotshots. Joe was two years from fifty-five, the buyout age, with the lapel pin certifying that he’d given The Washington Tribune the best twenty-five years of his life.
Roberta and Georgia approached and Roberta gave him a hug. She was taller than her father.
“Thanks for the plug,” he said.
“I meant it,” she said.
“You look great, honey. Congratulations. That was a hell of a piece you did.”
“I wonder if anyone at MPD will ever congratulate me,” she said.
Wilcox laughed. “I’m sure the police are preparing a proclamation as we speak naming you honorary cop of the year.”
“I know it was awkward for you,” Roberta said, her expression as serious as her words.
“They’ll get over it,” he said. “I still have friends over there who agreed with you. They all suffer when a few foul balls taint the entire force.”
“But if they knew you’d fed me some of the information I used—”
“Which they won’t. Don’t give it another thought, sweetie.”
“Anything new on Kaporis?” she asked.
His response was a shake of his head, and a tiny smile for a thought that came and went. This daughter-journalist had not asked the question out of natural curiosity.
Like her father, Roberta Wilcox had been reporting on the killing of Jean Kaporis, a young woman who’d joined The Trib less than a year ago, fresh out of the University of Missouri’s school of journalism. Kaporis had been assigned to the paper’s “Panache” section, helping cover the city’s vibrant social scene: the weddings of those whose names were well known enough to justify coverage, fundraisers—a day didn’t pass in Washington when someone wasn’t raising funds for something deemed worthy of their time and effort, important or whimsical—and ideally a scandal among the rich and famous and thin, a political faux pas, a fatuous misstep that would leave readers tittering. It wasn’t the sort of assignment she preferred, but she knew it represented a starting point for many newly hired female reporters, and she threw herself into it, hoping her work would capture the attention of someone in a position to move her into hard news.
That kind of break hadn’t happened during her time at The Trib. But she had one advantage. She was lovely. Male heads turned and pulse rates sped up whenever she sauntered through the newsroom wearing skirts, sweaters, and blouses that accented her ripe body, donning a linen blazer in summer now and then as a nod to corporate correctness. No doubt about it, Jean Kaporis was a splendid example of young womanhood, every curve and bump properly placed, good genes in ample evidence, and especially a pleasant, willing personality to go with it, all of which attracted many people to her—including whoever had strangled her to death.
A maintenance man found her early one morning a month ago in a secluded second-floor supply closet at the far end of the main newsroom, bruises on her neck, pretty mouth going in the wrong direction as though someone had removed it and carelessly pasted it back on. The autopsy reported that she’d died from manual strangulation, her throat and larynx damaged from pressure exerted by her assailant’s hands and fingers. The presence of petechial hemorrhages in the mucous membrane lining the inner surface of her eyelids provided presumptive evidence of strangulation. She’d bitten her tongue, a not-uncommon occurrence with victims of strangulation. The struggle with her attacker had been brief. Although laboratory analysis indicated she’d engaged in sexual intercourse within twenty-four hours of death, there was no outward sign of having been sexually assaulted.
“No, nothing new,” he told his daughter. “They’ve been questioning everyone at the paper. Makes sense.”
“No ‘ands,’ Roberta. That’s all I know. Maybe you know something you’d like to share.”
She shook her head.
“Let you know if anything breaks,” he said.
She smiled and squeezed his arm. “And I’ll do the same.”
“Back to the house for a drink?” Georgia asked their daughter.
“Thanks, no, Mom. I promised the guys from the station I’d go out with them.”
“Ah, youth,” Wilcox said. Wasted on the young. To his wife: “What say we call it a night?”
Georgia nodded and kissed her daughter on the cheek. “Not too late,” she said. “You need your beauty sleep.”
“I know, I know, but—”
“Not too late,” Joe Wilcox echoed, a wide grin crossing his craggy face. “And eat breakfast. You should always start the day with a good breakfast. Diane Sawyer does.”
As the Wilcoxes and hundreds of others poured out of the Washington Hilton and Towers on to Connecticut Avenue NW, they were confronted with a chaotic crime scene. A half-dozen marked police cars, lights flashing and radios crackling, had blocked off the wide thoroughfare. Yellow crime scene tape marked an area of the sidewalk almost directly in front of the hotel’s main entrance. A body covered by a white cloth lay on the sidewalk inside the taped-off section.
A colleague from a competing paper, with whom Joe had covered myriad crime scenes, came up to the couple.
“What happened?” Wilcox asked.
“A drive-by. Middle-aged white guy.”
“He’s dead?” Georgia asked.
“Very.” To Joe: “You covering?”
“No. Night off. This is the same spot where Hinckley shot Reagan back in eighty-one.”
“That’s right,” said the reporter, making a note in his pad. “Forgot about that.”
“Let’s go,” Georgia said.
Wilcox took a final look at the body, shook his head, took his wife’s arm, and maneuvered through the crowd in the direction of the parking garage. As they pulled onto the street, Georgia said, “If you want to go back, Joe, I’ll drive home. You can take a car service.”
“Thanks but no thanks. I’m not missing anything. There’ll be another murder to cover tomorrow. There always is. No, this is Roberta’s night, and I don’t want anything to spoil the memory of her up there getting her award. Damn, she looked good.”
It was, he knew, what his wife wanted to hear. She squeezed his thigh and said, “Let’s stop for ice cream. I’m in the mood.”
“Then ice cream it’ll be.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Murder at the Washington Tribune by Margaret Truman. Copyright © 2005 by Margaret Truman. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.