This story is by Sheila Lischwe and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
“You can’t do this.” Angela backhanded the script. Her boots hit the floor and she stomped across the room to WNYK’s recording studio where Devin was about to go on-air, live, with an unauthorized exposé that threatened to shred a woman’s life.
Devin, headphones on, oblivious to the comment or the rapid approach of her producer, adjusted audio dials on the computer soundboard.
“Dev, this is completely unethical. It’ll kill this woman.”
“Jesus, Ang, take it easy,” Devin says, peeling the headset off. “We’ve gotta use this. It’s huge. It’ll put this show into “Serial” territory. We air in ten. I’m doing it.”
“Are you kidding me? You can’t blurt out someone’s lifelong secret for ratings. She’s been a hermit all her life. You snuck these script edits in without station approval. Lloyd and Chip are on their way down now. You’re walking on a dangerous cliff, Dev. You’ve always taken the high road. Don’t let greed pull you into the swamp.”
Devin felt herself wince. This was supposed to be her big win. She needed to think. Quickly.
Angela ran a hand through her hair, combing brown-grey waves back from her face. “My God, Dev, this podcast has turned you into somebody I don’t recognize anymore. We promised Kelly she’d be anonymous in this. She’s probably had PTSD all her life, and…if you go forward with this…”
Devin stared at the Adobe Audition screen, checking her watch.
“Look,” Devin said, “it’s not all about ratings and fame. This will break this case wide open. Find the truth. Find Margaret’s real killer. Don’t we have an obligation to figure out who the hell bludgeoned that poor woman? Why is it okay for Kelly to keep what she saw a secret for 43 years while the real killer walks? We’re public radio, for Christ’s sake.” Devin swiveled back to the keyboard.
“Because we don’t have permission. Kelly told you what she saw in confidence, well before this podcast. You and your mother prodded her into fessing up. She’s resisted everything about this show, this investigation, and only gave us information because we promised her anonymity.”
Lloyd Raeman and Chip Floyd charged in, shirtsleeves rolled up, arcs of perspiration under their arms.
“Do you have any…any… idea how many ways this violates NPR’s ethics code?” Lloyd stuttered, his face blister red.
“Dev, we’re looking at a lawsuit if you do this. And potentially loss of our charter. You’re pushing the journalistic privilege too far. We know Kelly saw a woman, not a man that night. Her sister was coached. Nobody thought to ask the six-year old what she saw. Kelly admits she has no idea who the person was. We can follow that trail as an anonymous tip. Why do we have to name her?” Chip looked pleadingly at Devin. Reporters in the newsroom beyond were turning their chairs, sensing the crisis unfolding inside.
Stillness. From outside, it looked like a mannequin challenge.
The squeaky wheels of Devin’s chair broke the weighted silence. She rolled over to the small storage cabinet, lifted out her leather satchel, rustled through it, pulling out a small bubble-wrap mailer. From that, she tugged a business envelope yellowed-with-age, rolled back and gingerly placed it on the desk.
“This is why.”
She opened the envelope and pulled out a faded Polaroid. Chip, Lloyd and Angela leaned into the desk for a closer view.
At first, it was hard to tell what they were looking at. A jumble of small, pajama-clad arms and legs filled the square. Large red, green and blue circles brought recognition: a game of Twister. In the glow of Christmas tree lights, an angel dangles from a branch. Party hats, noisemakers, popcorn and tinsel littered the olive-green shag carpet.
“This is my mother.” Devin tapped a torso seemingly connected to a mop of pumpkin-orange hair. “This is Kelly, this is Kim.” Her eyes lingered on the picture before continuing.
“Margaret took this, probably an hour before she was murdered. She was babysitting my Mom and the Lewis girls on New Year’s Eve. The camera was a Christmas gift. My Mom brought the picture home with her when my grandmother picked her up that night. She thinks it was around 9:30.”
Devin pulled a second Polaroid from the envelope and laid it next to the first one.
White metal wall cabinets are visible through the doorway leading from the living room to the trailer’s tiny kitchen. The lighting was low, except for a sunburst cast by the outside porch light. The inside door was open, revealing the grey metal crosshatch of a screen door. The angel ornament hung in the upper left of the picture. To the right was a small, green kitchen table.
“What’s your point, Dev,” said Lloyd. “You’re five minutes to air.”
Devin aimed a laser pointer at the lower right of the Polaroid.
“What do you see?”
They leaned in closer, squinting, heads tipping left and right.
“The hand. See the hand? Right here?”
The red dot circled a flesh-colored object resembling a miniature cow udder, the middle portion barely grazing the top of the green table.
“Three fingers,” whispered Angela. “Three…fingers.” Chip and Lloyd looked closer. They straightened, looked at each other, then at Devin.
“Kelly knows whose hand that is. She told my mother. But she refuses to talk. She needs to talk. None of her family is around anymore to shush her. If I don’t call her out on this show, we’ll never know who killed Margaret.”
Angela rested her hands on Devin’s shoulders. “Dev, take this to the police. Let them investigate. There’s too much risk for the station, and, honestly, if Kelly’s as fragile as we think, it could ruin what little life she’s been able to piece together. There’s no way she could withstand the public attention if we announce to the world who our anonymous tipster is. We’d have blood on our hands if she were to…to do something to herself. We know she’s tried.”
“Ang, the police won’t do anything without a known witness. Hell, most of their fathers were part of the cover-up to begin with. We’ve already received “cease and desist” emails from some of these people. There’s something ugly here, and Kelly is the key to solving this thing for good.”
Lloyd paced back towards Devin. “If you reveal your source’s name today, you’re done here. No more podcast, no more job.” With that, he walked out of the studio, Chip in tow.
The sting of Lloyd’s words hung in the air. Devin checked her watch. One minute to air. She adjusted her headset.
Angela rounded the desk, sat across from Devin and donned her headphones.
Thirty seconds. Devin pulled the mic down and adjusted it in front of her mouth. She positioned the cursor over the record icon. She and Angela exchanged a final glance.
Outside the studio, a ring of reporters stood, coffee cups in hand, watching the two women at the broadcasting desk.
“ON AIR” blinked solid red.
“THIS…is Conspiracy of Silence…a podcast investigating the brutal murder of Margaret Walker on New Year’s Eve 1973.”
Devin leans into the microphone.
She tosses the script aside and begins.
“Dear Listeners, this will be the last episode of Conspiracy of Silence. I know we’re only half-way through the series, and I know my teaser this week promised breakthrough evidence that would lead us to Margaret’s killer. But I’ve had a change of mind. And heart.”
She lowers her head for a moment.
With a heavy sigh, Dev continues. “I’ve been straddling two worlds, lately. One tempting me with fame the more popular this podcast gets. The other, my respect for the high standards of this profession. I know from your thousands of emails that you, too, want Margaret’s killer found. But we can no longer use this platform. We must take a different approach.”
Angela’s eyes widened. The reporters outside inched closer to the glass wall.
“And this…this is where you come in, Dear Listener. Right now – and I do mean right now – go to the Show Notes on our website and download the file labeled “Evidence.” Do this immediately, because my employer will shut the site down as I broadcast this.”
Angela busily tapped her iPhone.
“Everything in the file is available to the public. But you know how hard it was for me to get most of these documents.”
“There are also two Polaroid pictures. These hold the key to solving Margaret’s murder. Look closely at the hand in the kitchen picture. This is information we never had before.”
Station employees stood three deep outside the studio.
“Let me end with this: Elie Wiesel once said, ‘Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented’. To the one person who has been silent for 43 years, it’s time to share what you know. Please. Please share what you know. For Margaret.”
Devin clicked the Stop button, removed her headphones and left the studio.