Mencken Joins the Baltimore Star

The following is a rough draft of a story that may or may not become part of my upcoming novel, Mencken and the Lost Boys. Currently, it resides in the chapter four spot. (The featured image was found at unsplash.com.)

————-

Stepping off the elevator, Mencken’s palms began to sweat as he approached the receptionist’s desk. He jammed his fists into the pockets of his blue jeans and tried to avoid eye-contact with the small woman sitting behind the desk. He remembered the last time he’d seen her. She’d tried to stop him from entering the office and he’d pushed her down.  Hope filled his chest to see that she was focused on the computer screen in front of her, typing furiously. Maybe she wouldn’t recognize him.

“Um, hello,” Mencken said. “I’m.”

“Mencken Cassie,” the receptionist interpreted as she glanced up at him. “They’ll be no need to throw me to the ground today,” she said as she reached into the drawer on her right and withdrew a badge on a blue lanyard and held it out to him.

“I’m really sorry about that,” Mencken said, looking down at his shoes as he accepted the badge.

“Mr. Winchell is waiting for you in conference room C. It’s the third room from the left,” she said as she returned to her work.

Mencken held the badge out in front of him and stared at it. It looked like a credit card. Written across the top in blue were the words “Baltimore Star.” His name was in smaller black letters underneath. Mencken sighed.

“You can go on in, Mr. Cassie,” the receptionist said. “No one is going to try and stop you this time.”

Mencken sighed again.   “It’s just, I never thought I’d be taking a desk job,” he said.

The receptionist laughed, shook her head, and looked up from her computer. “My name’s Amira,” she said, holding out her hand.

Mencken shook it. His large hand swallowed her’s. “Mencken,” he said.

Squeezing his hand, Amira said, “Don’t think of this as taking a desk. Try to think of it more as joining a team.”

“Yeah,” Mencken said. “I think I can do that.”

“Good,” Amira said as she returned to her typing.

Mencken looked at the badge again. Biting the inside of his lip, he slipped the lanyard over his head and pushed open the glass door that led to the bullpen.

“Enjoy your first day,” Amira called.

The main room of the Baltimore Star was dominated by rows and rows of light blue, shoulder high cubicles. Like prairie dogs surprised by a loud noise, when the door closed behind Mencken, heads of journalists popped up from all over the room. Realizing Mencken was no one of importance, they all retreated back to their desks without a word.

The large center room was lined with glass walled offices. Mencken’s eyes went to the large conference room in the back right corner and remembered how he’d interrupted a meeting and broken down in tears the last time he was here. He rubbed the back of his neck. It was still tender from the beating he’d taken two weeks ago during the battle on Federal Hill.

Scanning down the row of glass offices, he found the one labeled C and crossed the room to it. It was the only one of the rooms that had the shades drawn. Mencken tried the door, but it didn’t budge. Examining the handle, he noticed a card reader to the left of it. Waving his new badge in front of it, he smiled as the card reader beeped, the light at the top turned from red to green, and the lock on the door clicked.

Mencken entered the room and flicked the lights on. The fluorescent bulbs above flickered to life. He made sure to close the door behind him. The office was plain. The walls on Mencken’s left and right were floor to ceiling whiteboards that had recently been cleaned. In the middle of the room was a white table that sat six – two on each side and one on each end. On the table was a white folder with Mencken’s name on it.

Taking his backpack off and sitting it on the table, Mencken ignored the photo and looked instead at the window across from him. The wall-sized window likely offered a stunning view of the east side of the city, but Mencken couldn’t see it because the window was covered with pictures and names. On the left side of the window, there was a pyramid of photos and names. The pyramid was divided into four sections.

On the far left were photos of known gang leaders. On the bottom were twenty low-level thugs, each identified by either a name or nickname and a location: “Chuck ‘E’ Easton. Harlem Park.” “Little David. Garwyn Oaks.” “Anton Marks. Claremont-Freedom.”  The rows of dealers and gang members decreased in number until there were only two pictures at the top: a photo of an older, goateed, dark-skinned man in a black jogging suit with the name “Agamemnon” written under it, and a photo of a thin, lighter skinned man in a tan suit with the name “Hannibal” under it.

The center section of the pyramid only contained seven headshots. Each looked like they’d been taken off marketing websites. There was a picture of Samson Black, the obese City Council President, a photo of John Hammerjam, the CEO of Rebuild Baltimore, a flattering picture of Sarah Atkinson, the CEO of Baltimore Development Incorporated, Rufus Gilford, the CEO of the Gilford Development Corporation, and Hoon Gahn, Gilford the owner and operator of the newly constructed Highlife Casino and Hotel. To the left of those was a picture of Ronaldo Glass, the current CEO of Baltimore City Schools. It was the final picture surprised Mencken. On the right of the middle section, with a large red X through it, was a picture of Alexander Cleveland, the recently deceased State’s Attorney in Baltimore.

Mencken breathed deeply and rubbed his neck as he thought about the crime scene he’d walked into. He remembered the blood-soaked body of Alexander on the floor of the entryway. Images filled his mind of Tarmara, Alexander’s wife, sitting on the couch, her throat cut, her eyes missing, with her dead one-and-a-half-year-old in her lap. The memory caused a knot to form in Mencken’s throat and chills ran up and down his spine.

Shaking off the image, he examined the right side of the pyramid on the window. It was filled with pictures of police officers. They were organized more haphazardly. There were probably twenty-five altogether. Mencken skimmed the section quickly. He was relieved there wasn’t a picture of Detective Rosie Jimenez, his girlfriend.

Mencken took a seat at the table and took the entire pyramid in. It was far more detailed than the one he’d made in his apartment. There were twice as many pictures and an additional fifty names; but just like the one at his apartment, at the top was a large question mark.  He stared at the empty space wondering who exactly could have put together such a massive organization.

Mencken flinched when the door behind him beeped and unlocked. He leaped to his feet to greet whoever was entering.

First through the door was the newspaper legend, Richard Winchell. Dressed in rumpled gray slacks, a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, horn-rimmed glasses, and an unmemorable tie, Winchell looked every part the hardened newspaper editor. “Good, your card works,” Winchell said as he briskly shook Mencken’s hand and then stepped past him to the nearest whiteboard.

Following Winchell was a stocky, clean-shaven, thirty-something man wearing a blue button down, dark khakis, and a lanyard that matched Mencken’s. Smiling and shaking Mencken’s hand, he said, “Don Angelus. Crime beat.”

“Mencken Cassie,” Mencken said.

“You’ve already met,” Winchell said as he searched the floor for a marker.

“Last time you were here,” Don said.

“Oh, right,” Mencken said.

As Don moved to the other side of the table, a third person entered the room. She was lean and there was a fire of determination in her eye. Her short afro was filled with fading blond highlights. She wore a purple t-shirt, a lanyard like Mencken’s, and jeans. When she smiled, Mencken noticed the space between her middle teeth. “Josephine Weld,” she said shaking Mencken’s hand. “City hall. You can call me Joe.”

“Mencken Cassie,” Mencken said.

“Don’t worry,” Winchell said, finally emerging from the floor with a green marker in his hand. “You haven’t met her yet.”

“Nice to meet you,” Mencken said with a smile.

“Hey,” Winchell said tapping the folder on the table with the marker. “You sign this yet?”

Mencken turned and took his seat. “Um, no. Not yet,” he said, opening the folder.

Winchell turned his back to Mencken and began writing on the board. Don and Joe both began opening laptops. “Well,” Winchell said. “Get to it.”

Mencken opened up to the first page and began filling in his tax information.

“Not that page,” Winchell said snatching the papers from Mencken. “I don’t care about that page,” he said as he rummaged through the folder. Turning to page five, he pushed the folder back to Mencken. “This page,” he said, banging on the top sheet of paper with his marker. “This is all I care about.”

Mencken quickly read the page. “What?” he said. “This says I can’t blog anymore? Or publish anything without your approval?” Pushing away from the table he said, “I’m not signing that.”

Joe snorted a laugh.

Winchell turned around from the whiteboard and pointed his marker at Mencken. “Now you listen to me,” Winchell said. “Around here, we’re professionals, and we behave like goddamn professionals. That means we vet our stories. We don’t just get one source and then publish whatever bullshit we dream up. We’re patient. We corroborate. We confirm. We look at a story from every angle. And only then, when we know we’ve got all the facts, do we publish. We’re not writing for click bait. We’re not in this for views or hits or tweets or likes or whatever other shit they come up with next. We’re goddamn journalist and we report the goddamn news. You see this story here,” he said, pointing his marker at the pyramid on the window. “We’ve been on this damn story for six years. Yes,” Winchell said as he turned back to Mencken, “we were on it for a year before you even got a whiff. And then you roll in publishing every goddamn crumb you find and make everything infinitely more difficult. So if you’re going to come under my roof, you’re going to be a goddamn professional and act like a goddamn journalist. So you decide, are you ready to put on your big-boy pants and learn to be a real journalist or you want to go back out there and keep farting around on your own?”

Mencken snatched the pen off the table and signed the bottom of the document.

“Good move,” Winchell said, turning back to the whiteboard.

Mencken watched the old man with excitement. If there’d been any doubt, after that speech, Mencken knew that Richard Winchell was everything he hoped to become.

“Mencken,” Winchell said as he continued to write. “How different is our pyramid than the one you have in your apartment?”

“Yours has more people on it,” Mencken said. “And more pictures.”

“Damn straight,” Don said with a smile.

“Damn straight,” Joe agreed.

“But I’ve got nine city council people on mine,” Mencken said.

“They all work for Black,” Joe said. “They don’t know much about why they do what they do. That’s why Black summoned you to his house. You were picking off his pawns.”

“How’d you know about that?” Mencken said with a laugh.

“Tell him, Don,” Winchell said, turning around and crossing his arms.

“Because we’re the goddamn Baltimore Star,” Don said. “If a frog farts on Pratt, we know about it.”

“Damn straight,” Joe said.

“Damn straight,” Winchell agreed.

Mencken smiled so wide his cheeks hurt.

“What are you grinning about?” Winchell said.

“I’m just really happy to be here,” Mencken said.

“Damn straight,” Don said, offering Mencken a fist bump.

Mencken returned it with enthusiasm.

“Now,” Winchell said, moving to the side so the rest of the team could see the board. “We’ve got two, high profile, unsolved murders.” On the board, he’d created a t-chart. At the top on one side was The Clevelands and at the top on the other side was Anita Dickson. “What do we know?”

“No gunshots,” Don said. “Both were stabbed.”

“Anita was beaten too,” Joe said.

“Both women were missing their eyes,” Don said.

“And both times, Mencken got a tweet from the killer,” Joe said.

Winchell paused before writing Joe’s suggestion, “Do we actually know it was from the killer?”

“We don’t know who it came from,” Mencken said.

Winchell wrote “mysterious tweets” on both sides of the t-chart. “What else?” he said.

“Both were attacked in places they frequented often,” Mencken said. “The Clevelands at home and Anita at her gym.”

“And there were no signs of struggle,” Don said. “Anita was taken from the hospital with even a scream and if Mencken hadn’t shown up, no one would have found the Clevelands for a week.”

“Both were killed to advance the Cabal’s agenda,” Mencken said.

“Cabal?” Joe said.

“That’s what Mencken calls the Legion of Doom,” Don said, motioning to the window.

“I like Legion of Doom,” Mencken said.

“Thanks,” Don replied.

“What’s the agenda?” Winchell said, staring at the t-chart.

“Alexander was coming after a few of the development corporations and Anita’s school needed to be done away with,” Mencken said.

“Killing Anita isn’t going to get rid of her charter school,” Don said.

“And Alexander wasn’t going after the Legion. He was one of them,” Joe said.

“He’s not on my board,” Mencken said.

“Joe learned from a source in the State’s Attorney’s office that Alexander was throwing the case. The development fat cats were going to get off,” Winchell said.

“Giving them double jeopardy,” Joe said.

“Damn,” Mencken said. “I didn’t know that but it explains some things.”

“That’s why we work as a team,” Winchell said.

“There was a kid involved in Anita’s killing,” Mencken said. “I’d say he was either a big ten-year-old or a small teenager or somewhere in between.”

“Alright, kid,” Winchell said ask he wrote the word on the board. “Anything else?” He waited but no one spoke. “The eyes are the key,” he said. “Why’s he taking the women’s eyes? That’s not new. Don, go digging. Somewhere this has happened before. It’s too precise for this to be the first time. Joe,” he continued. “Go see what you can find on Dickson. There’s something there.”

“Her school is having a memorial service tomorrow night. I was going to go,” Mencken said.

“Great,” Joe said. “I’ll tag along. Maybe we can find something.”

“Be gentle,” Winchell said. “People are grieving.”

“You know me, boss,” Joe said.

“Yeah,” Winchell said. “Mencken, don’t let her talk to anyone who’s crying.”

“You got it, boss,” he said, landing softly on the last word.

Don offered him another fist bump, which Mencken accepted with a smile.

“Mencken, see if you can get something out of that girlfriend of yours. But remember, you’re with the Star now. Cuddle with her all you want on your own time, but when it comes to this story, give her nothing and take from her everything.”

Mencken swallowed.

“I mean it,” Winchell said, pointing the marker at him. “We give information to the police when someone is in danger or when we’re goddamn ready.”

“Damn straight?” Mencken said, testing the word.

Joe and Don laughed.

“Damn straight,” Don said.

Joe clapped Mencken on the back and said, “You’re going to do just fine.”

“And Mencken,” Winchell said, leaning against the wall, “what’s said in the room stays in the room. Trust no one. Understand.”

“Got it, boss,” Mencken said.

Turning toward the pyramid, Winchell put his hands on his hips and looked it over. “Don,” he said. “How do the police find out what’s happening in Baltimore?”

“They read the goddamn Baltimore Star, boss,” Don said.

“Joe,” Winchell said. “How does the mayor find out what’s happening in Baltimore?”

“She reads the goddamn Baltimore Star, boss,” Joe said.

“Mencken,” Winchell said. “Where do you work?”

“I’m a reporter for the goddamn Baltimore Star, boss,” Mencken said.

“Damn straight,” Joe said.

“Damn straight,” Don said.

“Damn straight,” Mencken said.

“Damn straight,” Winchell said. “Now get to work and let’s catch these sons-of-bitches.”

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