Participation in our democracy seems to be driven by the instant-gratification worlds of Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, and the twenty-four-hour news cycle. We’re using modern technology to revert to primitive kinds of human relations. The media knows what sells—conflict and division. It’s also quick and easy. All too often anger works better than answers; resentment better than reason; emotion trumps evidence. A sanctimonious, sneering one-liner, no matter how bogus, is seen as straight talk, while a calm, well-argued response is seen as canned and phony. It reminds me of the old political joke: Why do you take such an instant dislike to people? It saves a lot of time.
What happened to factual, down-the-middle reporting? That’s hard to even define anymore, as the lines between fact and fiction, between truth and lies, gets murkier every day.
We can’t survive without a free press, dedicated to preserving that fine line and secure enough to follow the facts where they lead. But the current environment imposes serious pressures on our journalists, at least those who cover politics, to do just the reverse—to exercise their own power and to, in the words of one wise columnist, “abnormalize” all politicians, even honest, able ones, often because of relatively insignificant issues.
Scholars call this a false equivalency. It means that when you find a mountain to expose in one person or party, you have to pick a molehill on the other side and make it into a mountain to avoid being accused of bias. The built-up molehills also have large benefits: increased coverage on the evening news, millions of retweets, and more talk-show fodder. When the mountains and molehills all looks the same, campaigns and governments devote too little time and energy debating the issues that matter most to our people. Even when we try to do that, we’re often drowned out by the passion of the day.
There’s a real cost to this. It breeds more frustration, polarization, paralysis, bad decisions, and missed opportunities. But with no incentive to actually accomplish something, more and more politicians just go with the flow, fanning the flames of anger and resentment, when they should be acting as the fire brigade. Everybody knows it’s wrong, but the immediate rewards are so great we stagger on, just assuming that our Constitution, our public institutions, and the rule of law can endure each new assault without doing permanent damage to our freedoms and way of life.
“So, Mr. Powell, tell me your story again,” Samantha said. She was readjusting her gear in preparation for the next climb. Her climbing partner Stacie was working similarly on the other side of the tent. Andrew thrust his fists into his pockets where hand warmers embraced them with intense heat. He’d spent the last hour trying to explain his presence without jeopardizing the chances of gaining Samantha’s cooperation. Her reaction was tending towards skepticism so far.
“David and I work at the college together. The chancellor asked me to find him. He’s heading up a research project that is very important to us and it is nearing a very critical phase. Since he left unexpectedly without leaving a method for contacting him, I was sent to do it the old fashioned way, in person.” Not knowing just what Samantha knew about David or his work, Andrew was taking a risk by fabricating part of his story. But standing near the top of the mountain he felt he had to play every card in his deck now that he’d found his only lead. Failing to put Samantha’s piece of the puzzle in place could result in Andrew’s investigation coming to an abrupt end.
“And he sent you why?”
“She, Marie Marisol, thought I’d be a quick and inexpensive option. For starters I know David. I also have experience finding people. Add to that the fact that I’m relatively free during the summer term.”
“What kind of experience?” Stacie asked. She had been quietly but attentively listening since they’d met. Now her curiosity was apparently piqued by what he’d said.
“He’s a cop. I recognized your name. Aren’t you the Police Chief of South Hills PD?” Samantha asked. Andrew could see that Stacie was now giving him her full attention.
“I used to be. I’m retired from law enforcement now. I work at the police academy which is run under the auspices of the college, my current employer.” Andrew pulled his hands out of his pockets and held his palms open. Years of experience had taught him that if he was going to be able to establish rapport and build trust quickly, then his time to strike was now. Otherwise he might never succeed, even after the considerably longer investment of time that would have to be spent in the relationship.
“So after talking with family and friends my search has narrowed down to Samantha being the only person known to possibly be able to help locate David. We really appreciate any information you could give us. Anything at all, no matter how trivial, I’d like to know.” Andrew sat down on a cot and leaned on his elbows. Body language was a key tool for interrogators and he was careful with his now – lower the tension, hide any indication of desperation – but keep the conversation moving forward on the subject of David’s whereabouts.
Samantha, however, was clearly resistant as she asked, “If you’re saying David is missing, shouldn’t the police be involved?”
“The South Hills PD does have a missing persons case open. I am acting on their behalf. The current chief Kenneth Hand will confirm that if you call the number on his card here.” Andrew handed the card to Samantha who looked over at Stacie.
“So,” Stacie began, “the department found no evidence of criminal or suspicious activity at David’s home and there were no hits from his credit cards or cell phone I take it?”
Stacie nodded at Samantha and Andrew detected an unspoken message passing between them.
Samantha asked, “Why not just wait to hear from him? I assume that is what happens typically in these cases. He knows the importance of the project obviously since he’s in charge of it.”
Everything about his police instincts told Andrew that something was not right about Samantha’s reluctance to accept him. After years of dealing with interested parties an officer could recognize distinguishable patterns of behavior. Innocent or uninvolved witnesses did not act the way Samantha had. As sure as he was about Samantha’s behavior Andrew was also as sure that he had to get something out of her or all his efforts so far would be for naught.
“Well there is that yes,” he said calmly, slowing the pace of conversation, “But I’d hate to think that David might be in a situation where it’s not possible.”
“You aren’t suggesting that David is either in danger or has been harmed, is that correct?” Stacie asked.
“That is correct.” Andrew answered. He was trying to plant a seed without pressing down too hard on the earth above it. The question remained as to whether he had added the right amount of water.
Samantha appeared to have lost some color. Her eyes widened and she folded her arms tight around her. “Well what do you think? What should I do?” She was speaking to Stacie but pacing back and forth while doing so.
“I don’t know Sam. But if it were my brother, husband or boyfriend, and he was missing under similar circumstances, I’d want somebody like Andrew here to care enough to come all this way to find him. I like that in a man.”
Hearing those words caused Andrew to again take notice of this impressive woman. A mystery lay there he thought, and well hidden. He was motivated to stay around long enough to uncover those secrets. If for no other reason than the fact there was so much more to her that Andrew found attractive. Andrew stood, walked over to Stacie and smiled as he bowed before her.
“This is what I can tell you, Andrew is it? I don’t know where David is or how to reach him. I am expecting to meet him in three days though I can’t tell you where. That leaves you with two choices in my view. You can go home and wait until I meet David, and then let him decide whether or not to call you, but your problem is solved knowing you’ll eventually hear from him. Or you can tag along with us and see him when we do.”
Andrew turned back towards Samantha as she spoke that last sentence and uttered the only reply he could think of, “Thank you.”
Andrew sat stoically during most of the graduation ceremony. He was thankful that the program was primarily emceed by the lead class academy cadre along with drill instructors for each squad. However his sister Vera, seated to his left, made him feel somewhat less thankful and more akin to a mouse perched beside clipped cheese. She had apparently intended to take full advantage of the situation with him as her captive audience.
“You know why I came, Stone? It’s because the boy invited me. And I know I just had to be here, poor baby. If only Cassandra could’a been here to see him. Don’t say it Stone. I know. I know you and her ended your cordial relations years ago. But that shouldn’t matter on a day like this and under these circumstances.”
Andrew turned to Vera. Her dark complexion, short heavyset stature, and flat facial features would not support a case for proving their genetic connection. She was smartly dressed in a bright, salmon colored two piece ensemble. Her Pixie hairdo was black with gray streaks.
“Don’t tell me. Tell your nephew,” Andrew pressed.
“What do you expect? You left his mom.”
“Oh is that what it’s all about? Why didn’t I come to you sooner?”
“Watch yourself little brother. I whipped you when you was a little bitty thang and I’ll whip you just the same right in front of all these here people, yo’ son included.” Vera removed her sunglasses and looked hard at Andrew for added emphasis.
Andrew wrinkled a cheek at his sister’s vernacular use and it’s return to her southern Louisiana roots.
“I guess it’s my fault he dropped out of the United States Military Academy too?”
“I just don’t understand you sometimes. I just don’t. For a man of your accomplishments. You’re still just as hard headed, and thick skulled as you ever have been. How did I ever put up with you? How did Cassandra for that matter?”
“Your point in there somewhere? Did I miss it?”
“The boy is here, Andrew, now. Right there in front of you. He’s about to graduate and very soon he’ll be following in your footsteps. Any father would be proud.”
“Any father on speaking terms with his son, you mean.”
“He’s been through a lot. You know that better than anybody. Yet he’s surviving, more than surviving if you ask me.”
Andrew also knew better than to tell Vera that no, he had not, in fact, asked her.
“I got a job offer.”
Vera having brokered the deal, Andrew found himself making nice in a fancy restaurant for the obligatory dinner celebrating Jesse’s culmination. He’d been introduced to and seated across from Jesse’s date, Angela. He was contemplating her neon red miniskirt with matching tube top, one inch nails and lip gloss, as she sat beside Jesse, who was looking at Vera, but very much speaking to Andrew.
“I didn’t realize that you had interviewed,” Andrew said, nor applied he thought. “Tell us about it.”
“The California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement wants me as a Special Agent.” Jesse glared at Andrew.
“Impressive,” Andrew chose the diplomatic route, ignoring the invitation to confront his son or doubt his veracity. “That sounds quite unusual, a state investigation agency hiring directly from a local academy.” Andrew turned to Angela and tried to control the tension by including her in the exchange. “How is your pasta?”
“Delicious thank you. I just love shrimp.”
Seated in a mahogany booth behind red velvet drapes, the foursome was elevated above the main dining room. Andrew loved the privacy afforded by the layout almost as much as the food at Hamilton’s, which featured steak. As the odor of garlic emanating from her plate made his eyes begin to water, Andrew’s doubts about Angela grew with each passing minute.
“I guess it would,” Jesse continued, ignoring the culinary review. “You know how LAPD runs that undercover program in the L.A. Unified School District?”
“I did when I worked there,” Andrew replied modestly, having once supervised it and personally run the training program for field officers.
“Well it has done so well they want to do something like it at State College.”
“Who are they?”
“The Los Angeles Interagency Metropolitan Police Apprehension Crime Team. It’s a task force,” he added, presumably for the women at the table.
Andrew let out a slow whistle. Vera smiled at first, then her face went blank when Andrew did’t speak. Andrew realized that being at State College, the largest public university, as well as the closest to South Hills, a private institution, meant that Jesse would be nearby. He wondered if he was the only one capable of understanding the danger involved.
“Let me be clear, Jesse. You are going undercover as a NARC on a campus with over 40,000 students, within walking distance from South Hills?”
“Is there a problem?”
“South Hills, where you just finished the police academy, where you went to high school, where Angela and God knows how many people know you…”
“Hey, hold up.”
“…Where any number of them know who I am.”
“What’s that have to do with me?”
“Andrew,” Vera tried, putting a hand on his arm.
“Jesse,” she added, looking very flustered.
“So I guess you didn’t calculate the likelihood that your cover could be blown with such a high probability of being recognized?”
Jesse looked at Vera, then Angela. He could only have seen what looked like obvious concern from both. He turned toward Andrew but his eyes were cast down at the table.
“So what are you saying, I can’t take the job?”
“No. I’m not telling you what you can or cannot do. What I will say is that I wonder how careful you can be, under the circumstances, when you bring the whole covert operation up, in casual conversation, at a restaurant.”
Jesse stood, set his napkin down and walked from the room. Angela swallowed some shrimp and scampered after him, touching Vera on the shoulder with one hand, as the other clawed the hemline of her skirt in a futile attempt at modesty. Vera turned and looked at Andrew with her mouth open.
“What?” He raised both hands, like a suspect being held at gunpoint, and waited.