Exclusive Excerpt: Simple Justice by John Morgan Wilson

Excerpt:

“The kid – pardon me, the eighteen-year-old young man – fled the scene. The witness got his license number as he sped away. The cops traced it to his parents’ house in Echo Park. Found him in his bedroom, earphones on, listening to Latin rap, whatever the hell that is.”

“Rap – I believe that’s a capital offense right there.”

“There was blood on a sleeve of his shirt.”

“Maybe he cut himself shaving.”

“Judging by his mug shot, I doubt he shaves yet. Not too big, either, which is probably why he used a gun. Or maybe they all do that, now that fists are out of fashion.”

Harry raised his eyebrows, awaiting a rejoinder. I didn’t have one. I was already mulling what Men’s Central Jail must be like for an inmate of small stature, with a youthful face. That’s where he’d be imprisoned by now, transferred from Metropolitan Jail following his arraignment. With nearly 7,000 suspects and convicts packed into a building designed for 5,000, Men’s Central, operated by the county, was among the largest jails in the world, with a quarter of the inmates convicted of or awaiting trial for violent crimes, and enough certifiable mental cases to make it a veritable asylum. The kid was lucky, I thought, to have a gang affiliation for protection. On the other hand, if he’d murdered someone in cold blood, maybe he was getting his due. Either way, it wasn’t my concern.

“For what it’s worth,” Harry went on, “the blood type from his shirt matches the blood type of the victim.”

“They processed it that fast?”

“Rushed it through, using the new science. Victim’s stepfather golfs with the Chief, which didn’t hurt. I’ve got an old source at the lab who owed me a favor. Called me an hour ago. We can’t break it until after the PD’s news conference tomorrow, but we’ll scoop the Times again. Like we did today, thanks to some smart reporting by Alex Templeton.”

“What about a weapon?”

Harry and I were falling into a familiar pattern, working out what might or not be a story I felt was worth chasing. Not a balance of power an editor likes, but Harry put up with it in our glory days, because I was good at what I did and he knew I’d jump to one of the big papers back east if I started feeling constricted or bored. It was a game we’d played many times, with well-defined roles. Harry was the brusque, curmudgeonly editor, skeptical as all good editors should be, but essentially a product of his conservative Midwest roots, a believer in the safety of the status quo, in well-established boundaries and institutions. I was the hell-raising reporter, two decades younger, unapologetic about loving men, raised in the East in a home where alcohol and violence provided my most vivid memories, distrustful of authority as a rule. That undercurrent of tension between Harry and me had been a constant. In spite of it, or perhaps because of it, we’d hammered out dozens of attention-grabbing articles at the Times, “damn fine articles,” as Harry once called them, in a rare moment when he wasn’t grousing.

What was different now was that Harry was no longer employed as an editor at the mighty Times but instead at the barely profitable and far less respectable Sun, struggling to put his career back together. And I was no longer in the trade, with little of interest beyond my private thoughts and extending as much time as possible between drinks, which rarely made it past the early evening hour.

I also had no idea why Harry was here, telling me about the murder of a man I’d never heard of outside a gay bar in Silver Lake I hadn’t visited in years. Perhaps he thought I could provide special sources or contacts, but I didn’t want even that much involvement with Harry or the newspaper business or anything else beyond these walls.

“Templeton says the cops have all the evidence they need,” Harry said, sounding suspiciously blithe. “The weapon’s a moot point.”

“A moot point?”

He shrugged. “The kid confessed.”

“Open and shut, I guess.”

“Even bragged about it. Like I said, some kind of gang ritual. Templeton’s working on an update for tomorrow.”

“Not content with that scoop in this afternoon’s edition?”

“It lacked some details you would have dug up, but at least we beat the LAT.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “Banner headline, front page. ‘Gay Man Gunned Down by Wannabe Gangbanger.’ A dead faggot, ripe for exploitation, then quickly forgotten.”

“Don’t get too dizzy up there on your high horse.”

“The Sun has a grand tradition for sleaze and sensationalism, Harry. Two days tops, and you’ll have that reporter of yours chasing some other sleaze fest.”

“We’ll follow up as events warrant, treating the story with the respect it deserves.”

“A queer, murdered outside a gay bar in a working-class neighborhood that’s largely Hispanic? Since when has the Sun considered such things worthy of respect?”

“You haven’t read the Sun recently, have you?”

“Nor any other newspaper, so don’t feel bad.”

“I’ve been making some changes. Moving away from the tabloid stuff. I figure this murder gives us a nice hook for some in-depth reporting. Maybe even a series.”

“Because of its socioeconomic implications?”

“If you want to use five-dollar words.”

“What’s the kicker, Harry? Why this particular story?”

He removed the unlit cigarette from his lips, rolling it thoughtfully between his fingers. “The victim’s stepfather is Phil Devonshire, the golf pro. Plays on the senior tour now, still has an endorsement deal or two, sits on half a dozen corporate boards. Mother’s Margaret Devonshire. Comes from old Pasadena money, heavy into philanthropy. Perched up in Trousdale Estates, looking down on Beverly Hills.”

“Wealth, social status, and the right zip code.” I shrugged, smiling a little. “Makes all the difference, doesn’t it?”

“It does make a difference, whether you like it or not. Poor people dying violently has never been big news.”

“Unless the victim is white, female, and mutilated, preferably with crime scene photos?”

“Give it a rest, Ben.”

I suddenly felt edgy and impatient, and it wasn’t just my need for a drink. I didn’t like all the journalism talk, as if I was still part of it.

“What’s this really about, Harry?”

He slid off the chair, stood by the front window, and stared out across treetops to the Pacific Design Center: a bold glass monolith in two sections, one cobalt blue, the other deep green, jutting in odd shapes into a sky scoured clean by the winds, with a third building of red glass still at the blueprint stage. West Hollywood on the rise, with lots more planned, as developers found legal ways to funnel campaign cash to compliant councilmembers.

When Harry spoke again, the combativeness was gone from his voice. It was the sound of a tired man now, worn out not from the day but from the years.

“I want you to put together a short feature,” he said, still looking out. “I want your byline back in print. Maybe long term, if it works out.”

His proposition was so preposterous I took it at first for a lame joke. Half a minute passed before he turned to face me. I hadn’t seen him look that vulnerable since his third wife left him the day he turned fifty, placing a note next to the cake and taking the dogs.

“All I want is a sidebar,” Harry said. “A short piece to go with a deeper follow-up later in the week. Templeton will handle the facts, you’ll add the perspective.”

“How long have you been delusional, Harry? Taking your medication?”

“I don’t need much. Fifteen column inches would do it. Your personal take on gay-bashing, anti-gay violence. Why it happens, what it means.”

“Let Templeton write it.” “She’s barely a year out of grad school. A good reporter, but –”

“Straight.”

“Young, inexperienced.”

“You’ve got other staffers at the Sun who can handle that piece.”

“Maybe you focus on the victim, flesh him out. Maybe you try to get inside the head of the gang-banger. You can work it any way you want. It wouldn’t take much time. You were always a fast writer. You could wrap it up in half a day.”

“I’m not talking about time, and you know it.” I slid off the bed, agitated, and angry with myself that it showed. “Even if I wanted to write that piece, which I don’t, you’d never get it in the paper.”

“We’ll run it deep inside section one, with the jump. Slip it in, no fanfare.”

“You can’t put my name on an article and expect it to have any credibility.”

“I’ve already cleared it with management. If it’s handled right, the guys upstairs think it’s got some good promotional value.”

“Running an article by a reporter who won a Pulitzer for a series he fabricated? That’s good promotion?”

More About Author John Morgan Wilson

John Morgan Wilson is a veteran journalist, TV news and documentary writer, and fiction writer. SimpleJustice (1996) launched his Benjamin Justice mystery series, earning an Edgar Allan Poe Award (AKA “the Edgar”) from Mystery Writers of America for Best First Novel. Three other Justice titles in the eight-book series won Lambda Literary Awards for best gay men’s mystery; six were nominated. His short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, AlfredHitchcockMysteryMagazine, Blithe House Quarterly, and numerous anthologies. For thirty years, he served as an instructor with the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. He lives with his longtime companion (no husband), artist Pietro Gamino, in West Hollywood, California, the primary setting for the Benjamin Justice series.