by Carmen Ruggero
Alex sorted through his notes first thing in the morning. His daily assignments were the usual tidbits: court hearings, budget committee meetings — nothing that would feed his youthful journalistic appetite. With his first dose of caffeine, just before heading out to work, he had browsed through the Daily Tribune’s early edition.
“What the hell am I doing here? Just look at what makes the front page!” he shook the paper in his hand. “Homeless puppies, high-school track meets — garbage! Oh here’s a whole column inch worth of news.” He read aloud:
Gary Jones goes free. City Attorney Adam Richer refused to issue an indictment on the Jones murder case for lack of evidence. Gary Jones had been charged with murder in the first degree for the death of his wife Serina Jones. “The evidence was not enough to warrant an indictment,” Richer said.
When questioned about the murder weapon found in Jones’ possession at the time of his arrest, Richer refused further comment.
His eye fell on the next column: “Well, I’ll be darned! There’s actually two of them, and I didn’t write either one — how about that?”
We aim to maintain order in our city: said Chief of Police Earl Simpson. Simpson had been under public scrutiny since the arrests made in connection with the robbery of several local convenience stores last spring, when his men were accused of using excessive force. “If people don’t like the way I run things, they’re free to move — I aim to keep this town crime free,” Simpson added in defense of his department. The officers involved declined to comment.
Alex arrived at the Daily Tribune just in time for the staff meeting. As usual, the social page took half the time allotted. Everything else was rushed, and off to work they went. What the hell, it pays the rent, he thought. But not much else. He’d just had to ask for another deferral on his student loans, lived in a lousy rat hole he called home and had a steady diet of canned dinners.
“All that money wasted on an education — journalist, my foot! I’m nothing but a damn messenger.”
Alex was full of pep and ambition. He was a natural journalist, with an insatiable thirst for digging and a never-ending curiosity. This was his first job offer right out of college, and he thought a small-town newspaper would be good training ground. He was right in principle, but didn’t realize that his drive was making the locals uneasy. He had what they labeled ‘that big city edge’, and often stepped on some very delicate toes.
“Take it easy, guy,” one of his co-workers advised. “There’s nothing worse than a small community turning on you. Slow down, win them over.”
Things in Sunnyvale had worked the same way forever, and Alex should have taken the hint, but he had ants in his pants and just couldn’t leave things alone.
His eye fell on the two articles he had read side by side that morning, and he felt angry.
“A murder suspect goes free without further investigation, some kids get beaten to a pulp, and we just let it drop at ‘no comment’?” he asked his editor John Miller.
“Drop it.” Miller said, “It’s yesterday’s news.”
“Don’t we ever follow up? What happened to the how, when, where, who...”
“And so what! It’s over and done with — he couldn’t be indicted.”
“What about the murder weapon — it was found on his person; doesn’t it deserve a question or two?”
“We were told it proved not to be the murder weapon. The blade was clean, and didn’t conform to the size of the wounds.”
“Then why wasn’t that stated in the article?” Alex questioned. “All it said was, ‘Richer refused further comment’ — it’s not the same thing.”
Miller stared at him through the bifocals at the end of his nose.
“This isn’t New York, guy. In Sunnyvale, we know when the goose is cooked. Now, I said drop it.”
Alex was troubled by Miller’s passive attitude and his quickness to dismiss the subject. Either Miller knows something I don’t, or he got his degree in journalism from the Sears toy department, he thought.
Alex wasn’t one to give up easily. He didn’t want anyone at the newspaper to see him nosing around, so early Saturday morning he went to the library and took a look at back issues of The Daily Tribune. He searched for anything that might lead to the Jones’ case. Neighbor complaints, spousal abuse, financial problems, anything. But after spending hours at the library, he came out empty-handed.
Was it just his urge to land an exclusive? Nahh, that was too easy. He wasn’t sure of what exactly was eating him, but he couldn’t leave ‘no comment’ alone. He decided to take a walk through Jones’ neighborhood.
Ernest Wilson, who lived three doors down from Gary Jones, was out mowing, and Alex approached him.
“Sorry — wish I could help,” Mr. Wilson, was out of breath from pushing the mower. “Serina was a nice lady, we’re all deeply sorry for what happened.”
“Did you ever overhear any fights at their house?”
“Sorry,” he shook his head. “I really can’t help.” Mr. Wilson’s apparent discomfort intensified Alex’s curiosity, but he decided not to pursue his questioning.
“Have a good day, sir.”
“You, too, son,” said Mr. Wilson.
Three days later, Alex spotted something interesting. The obituaries on page eleven, in very small print, read: “Gary Jones was killed on April 28 in a hunting accident, in Talawake County. The family requested his body be cremated. There will be no funeral services.”
It also listed the names and addresses of his survivors. Alex thought he would pay them a visit, but first decided to make a nocturnal trip to the Tribune, and take another look at the archives. Again, he found no leads on Gary Jones, but he stumbled on something else that made him think he was barking up the wrong tree. He went back three years into the archives. Richer had refused to indict every single murder case on the grounds of insufficient evidence.
Worst-case scenario: we have a crooked city attorney. There has to be more to it, he thought.
Then he flashed on the fact that Gary Jones had made headlines a few days back, but his death did not appear on the news page. It should have; it was news. Instead, it ran inconspicuously on the obituary page.
“Food for thought,” he said to himself. “Now what?”
Tossing and turning, he couldn’t go to sleep that night. He smelled a story, and couldn’t let go of it; he had ‘no comment’ stuck in his brain. He was about to shower that morning, when it hit him so hard it almost knocked him over.
“Why didn’t I think of it last night?”
* * *
A very ripe orange sat on his desktop with a small note pinned to it: “Mind your own business.”
“Did any one see who left this on my desk?” he asked around, but his co-workers all shrugged, claiming ignorance.
“I just got here, guy,” said Robert, the staff photographer.
“Hey, Miller, what’s this?” Alex waved the orange in front of Miller’s face.
“Looks to me like an orange. Don’t they have those in New York?”
Alex stormed out of Miller’s office. “Damn! I wish I was back there.”
That evening Alex went back to The Daily Tribune. He had to follow up on that thought that almost knocked him out of the shower. He crossed-referenced every case Richer had dismissed with the obituaries at around the same time. Every one of those accused but not indicted or convicted had met with an accidental death across the county line. All of them had been cremated.
“Holy crap!” he exclaimed under his breath.
Several days later, Alex was looking for something in the hard files when he spotted a drawer labeled ‘Operation Orange’. He didn’t remember seeing it before; in fact, he knew he hadn’t seen it before. He left it alone, but returned to the office that night. That file stuck out like a sore thumb, an invitation to trouble, it begged to be opened.
It contained information on all the murder cases that had been dismissed, going back three or four years. It had names, places of employment, favorite outings, times of travel, phone numbers, family members, location of death. “Operation Orange.”
“What the hell is going on?” Alex couldn’t believe files containing such sensitive information were that conspicuous.
The following morning he confronted Miller with his usual toe-crushing pep.
“What’s ‘Operation Orange’?” he demanded.
“What were you doing in that drawer?” Miller pushed his bifocals up the ridge of his nose, pretending surprise.
“You mean to tell me that file drawer has always been there with a name like ‘Operation Orange’ and I never saw it before?”
Alex took a moment to think. He had the feeling he was being had.
“I was trying to file something — got in the wrong drawer by mistake — I didn’t see what was in it.” He was lying. Those files were meant for him to find, and he knew it. What was Miller’s game anyway?
“Just stick to your assignments.” Miller said, and resumed working.
It was like leaving a candy dish on the table and telling the kid to wait till after supper. Sure, Alex was going to leave it alone. That evening, he went back to the Tribune.
“There’s more here than meets the eye.”
On a whim, he looked up the articles run on the convenience store robberies; looked up the names of the officers involved and checked them out in the city archives. Thomas Elliot, the officer most frequently cited for use of excessive force, was a Vietman veteran and Purple Heart recipient. He had graduated from the police academy with honors and had a perfect record in fifteen years of service. Alex checked all the other officers involved. They all had equally spotless records. Any charges of misconduct were dropped every time.
Those two articles he had read a couple of days ago, though isolated, somehow connected for him. He just didn’t know why. And Alex still wasn’t sure of what he was up against.
On his way home that evening and for the rest of the week, Alex had the feeling that he was being followed, but he never saw anyone.
I’m getting paranoid. Get it together, man, he thought.
Meanwhile, mystery oranges continued popping up on his desk, his locker, his chair, all with notes pinned to them telling him to back off. It only added fuel to the fire.
An older gentleman, rather pleasant in appearance, knocked on Alex’s door, one evening.
“Are you Alex Morgan, of the Daily Tribune?” The gentleman asked.
“Yes sir, I am.”
The man handed him a sealed orange envelope and left without saying a word. There was a note inside: OPERATION ORANGE — WE’LL FIND YOU.
One day, while he was having lunch at a local restaurant, a very clean-cut man of medium height approached his table. His bright orange tie caught Alex’s attention.
“Alex Morgan?” the man asked.
“That’s me, what can I do for you?”
“May I join you briefly?” The man didn’t wait for a reply and sat across from Alex.
“‘Operation Orange’,” he said to him, “and the question is, I believe, what can we do for you?”
“I.. ah.. hm... don’t know what you’re talking about.” Alex was not very good at playing dumb.
“Yes you do, and we’d like to satisfy your curiosity. Only one catch: you can never print this information. You can never tell. Understood?” The man’s voice was firm but non-threatening.
Alex knew there was no point in pretending. “Understood,” he responded.
“Fine. My name is Thomas Elliot.”
Alex recognized his name. He was one of the officers implicated in the excessive force charges related to the convenience store robberies. He was so well mannered. Who would suspect?
“Meet us at Adam Richer’s residence let's say, Saturday afternoon, at about 2:00 pm?”
“I’ll be there.”
Alex had the feeling that he had discovered something bigger than a few small town cops gone bad. He didn’t know what to expect now, but he was certain that he couldn’t back out of it.
* * *
Richer’s residence had the look of unpretentious wealth. The disarray of toys and bicycles on the front yard made one think this is a family man.
How can these people be criminals? Alex thought as he knocked on the font door.
“Come on in, you are expected.” Thomas Elliot greeted him with a handshake.
Elliot escorted him to the library, and told him to wait there. Alex’s gaze traveled through the book stacks with a tinge of jealousy. He thought about his paperback collection; he had only dreamed of owning a library like that, and for a moment forgot his reason for being there.
“Welcome,” said Richer, making his presence known.
“Good afternoon, sir, glad to meet you.”
“Please sit down,” Richer offered. “Would you like a drink — Thomas, would you...?”
“No thank you.” Alex interrupted. “I don’t drink.”
“Well, then, let’s get this conversation underway. Thomas explained to you that this is information you may never reveal. Correct?”
“Yes sir, he did.”
“I know you are a journalist, and a young one at that, and you may be tempted to break through with an exclusive. But, you’ll have to suppress the urge.”
“I understand.” Alex didn’t understand, but he was all ears. He also had the acute feeling his life had just taken a drastic left turn.
“We are a group of people,” Richer began, “not unlike yourself, I’m sure, who would like to see the justice system work in favor of law-abiding citizens. Are you with me so far?”
“Good. Well, the system doesn’t work, and victims continue to be victimized. So, we came up with a system of our own. ‘Operation Orange’ works every time.”
Journalism school had not prepared Alex for what he was hearing. He certainly did not expect it in such a small community. He had left college with the illusion that some day he would make his mark on the annals of journalism. Now he feared it might land him in prison writing obscure poetry.
“Let me tell you how it works.” Richer’s expression hardened. “Many hard criminals are walking the streets because guilty verdicts are overturned on technicalities, or they’re paroled because there’s no room in prison to hold them all. It makes a joke out of law enforcement. I like to know that my family is safe, that all innocent people are safe. That’s why we created ‘Operation Orange’.”
“How it works,” Elliot’s abrupt interruption came from across the room, “is that we make damn sure they get off on technicalities. We muff the evidence, and then we simply hunt them down and kill them.”
The room was overtaken by a chilling silence. Alex came to understand the expression ‘frozen stiff’.
“Are you sure you don’t want a drink,” Richer asked Alex, who looked like he’d just seen a ghost.
“I’m positive sir, I’m just listening.” He gulped.
“We use our cell phones,” Richer continued, “to call the officers who are off duty that day, and simply say ‘Operation Orange’, we give them time and location. They know what to do.”
“I wonder sir,” Alex was a little short of breath, “why tell me all this? Why not just keep me from having discovered as much as I did, just run me out of town? Those files at the Tribune...”
“Handy weren’t they?” Elliot interrupted. “Your editor placed them there — oh yes, he’s with us; he tipped us off to your curiosity. We wanted you to find those files.”
“Why not just approach me?”
“That would have been too easy,” Richer laughed, “you’d have made waves. No, we wanted your curiosity to lead you here.”
“May I ask why?”
“Because now you’re involved and you, dear boy, are going to help us.” Richer’s smiled.
“Help you, how?”
“You are going to start discovering bodies and will begin a series of investigative articles pointing the authorities away from us. All you have to do, is lie a little. It pays better than the Daily Tribune, I promise you that.”
The leaden silence between them was broken when Richer continued.
“We’ll pay you ten thousand dollars per article, and we are prepared to hand you a retainer of fifty thousand. What do you think? It will take care of those student loans, buy you a steak dinner or two.”
Alex knew he was selling out his journalistic principals, along with all the human values he had always lived by, and that his dreams of glory had just gone down the tubes. But he was smart enough to know that he had no way out of this.
“That would be fine, sir.” He gulped again.
“Great. We figured you would accept,” and handed Alex a check. “Your first assignment will be next Sunday morning. Look up Morrison County Forest on the map. Until then, go to work as usual. And make sure you cash that check,” he said, with a crooked smile. “We’ll be in touch.”
“One question sir,” Alex asked trying to catch his breath.
“What’s that?” Richer raised his brows.
“What’s the meaning of orange?”
“It’s the color hunters wear.”
Richer watched Alex walk across the toy- and bicycle-cluttered lawn.
“Damn rookie, couldn’t keep his Yankee nose out of things.” He picked up his cell phone and dialed. “‘Operation Orange’, Morrison County Forest, next Sunday morning. Let’s go hunting, boys. We don’t need a rookie journalist in our midst.”
Copyright © 2007 by Carmen Ruggero