The Langeford Legacy #4
The Story of a Lifetime
by Doris Lemcke
During Georgia’s “Freedom Summer” of 1964, Boston journalist Laura Stainsby goes undercover as a nanny in Southeast Georgia to investigate a grudge-match US Congressional election between widowed plantation owner Patrick O’Grady II and wealthy Cadillac dealer, “Big Billy” Berens III. The line between truth and justice becomes a tightrope when a century-old family secret threatens Georgia’s most prominent family, forcing Laura to choose between the story of a lifetime—and justice.
Patrick O’Grady II has avoided his family’s political legacy to manage historic Langesford Plantation and raise his six-year-old daughter Danielle. When his father’s sudden death forces Patrick to run for his office, the campaign turns ugly and everything he holds dear is threatened. Can he trust the reporter who lied her way into his life to help him save an innocent man from a lynch mob, solve a murder, and preserve his family’s two hundred-year-old legacy?
Release Date: Auguts 11, 2020
Genre: Historical Romance
A White Satin Romance
On New Year’s Day 1964, I left my hard-won byline and the distinction of being the Boston Globe’s only female investigative journalist, for a staff writer job at the Atlanta Constitution. I told myself it was only temporary, certain I’d be writing Pulitzer-Prize winning articles about the escalating Civil Rights Movement in no time. But I was a twenty-six-year-old, divorced woman—anda Yankee.
By the end of June, I was still writing household hints and editing Adeline Grossbeck’s weekly “Cotillions and Courtships” society column—while Negroes were being beaten for wanting to ride at the front of the bus or eat at a drugstore lunch counter just a few blocks from the paper’s office. It was time to take a stand.
Though people had been fired for less, I walked into the office of the most fearsome Managing Editor in Atlanta without knocking. Despite the ceiling fan circulating hot, humid air from the open window, I was assaulted by the smell of old cigars, body odor, and stale coffee. David Winkler raised his head from the morning issue of the Atlanta Constitution. He peered at me above half-glasses balanced on the end of his bulldog nose and growled, “You want somethin’ Missy?”
I sat in the battered captain’s chair opposite him without an invitation and cleared my throat. “Yes, I do. It’s important.”
“It better be.” He folded his big hands over the headline announcing President Johnson’s upcoming signature on the Civil Rights Act. “You got sixty seconds.”
I checked the wall clock and plowed ahead. “When you put Arty Benton’s byline on my money laundering article last month, you promised me a shot at Civil Rights. While we say The Constitution ‘covers Dixie like the dew,’ Northern papers are scooping us in our own backyard. I...we...can’t wait any longer. I have a master’s degree in journalism and worked five years under Bob Healy at the Boston Globe I can...”
“Success takes time, girl,” cut me off.
“Laura. My name is Laura. Stainsby.”
Black eyes fixed on mine as he pointed a thick, ink-stained finger at my nose. “I know who you are, your fancy degree in journalism and your father, the famous Boston Senator. I also know more than I care to about that hack Healy at the Globe. You may have got this job because my publisher is a crony of your daddy’s, but you work for me. And while you work for me, you do what I tell you.”
Crap, the Damn Yankee thing. A century after Sherman’s March to the Sea, Atlanta still didn’t take well to Northerners. But I couldn’t back down. Sitting at my desk across the hall from Winkler’s office, I’d watched seasoned reporters go in swaggering and come out like beaten puppies. Only those who fought back survived. Winkler lied to me and stole my story. If I didn’t stand up to him, I’d never get a byline.
I pointed a finger tipped with English Rose polish at him. “I have earned my way. The money-laundering article about Lou’s Wash-Mart brought in the FBI and two indictments. And people trust a skinny brunette with a face that says, ‘tell me your life story’. I can get reactions about the Civil Rights Act from the street that none of your good old boys can. Reactions that sell papers. Lots of papers.”
His scowl made it clear he wasn’t about to let a Yankee woman report on Atlanta’s peacekeepers beating people trying to use a public bathroom instead of a bucket in the back of an alley. His thick fingers splayed over the newspaper’s front page, pushing his aging, line-backer body up to tower over me.
“You got some balls, Missy!”
Dropping heavily back into his chair, he raised the wood lid of a smuggled box of Cuban Partagas Maduros cigars—easily ten bucks a piece. He seemed to be an expert at using the simple act of lighting a cigar as both an intimidating and powerful diversion. Focused on the hand-rolled tobacco, he clipped the end and tilted it at an angle above a match he lit with his thumb. Raising the cigar to his lips, he drew the flame inside, savoring it for my last ten seconds before exhaling directly at my face.
“The Wash-Mart was a lucky break. But luck don’t make you a reporter.”
My eyes watered, but instead of pulling back and blinking, I leaned toward him. “Lucky break? Of all the newspapers in town, and fifteen TV networks in Atlanta, I was the only reporter who noticed that Lou’s Wash Mart had sporadic hours of operation, broken equipment, and customers who came and went without laundry. I spent six weeks pretending to be a late-shift waitress, convincing Lou to trust me alone in the building. But you know that. And we both know why you really won’t give me a chance.”
Raised salt-and-pepper eyebrows dared me to enlighten him and he suddenly became all the men in my life—my father, brothers, teachers—even my ex-husband during our short, unfortunate marriage. They all told me what I couldn’t do. And what I should do—because I was a ‘girl’.
Without considering the consequences, I again pointed at him. “You’re afraid a woman will out-scoop your pet, ‘good ole boy’ reporters.”
Ignoring the fury in his bulging eyes, I pushed on, “Six months ago, Adeline Grossbeck was mixing sodas at Woolworth’s lunch counter. What are her qualifications besides a set of double-D cups?”
The back of my dress stuck to the old wood captain’s chair and my legs felt like sausages stuffed inside my hose. I took a deep breath in the suffocating room, pushing back fine wisps of sticky brown hair, expecting him to throw me out of his office. Probably the building. Maybe even Atlanta.
Instead, a sly smile curved his colorless lips and he puffed two smoke rings into the air. We both watched them rise toward the ceiling to be chopped up by the fan. I nodded when he said, rather than asked, “You done?”
“Good. Now let me set you straight on a couple things Miss Stainsby. First, my reportersgrew up on Atlanta’s streets. They can get in where it counts for the story.”
By that he meant locker rooms in men-only athletic clubs.
“And Adeline’s a widow with kids. The downtown crowd likes what she says about their needy little girls lookin’ for boys with options.” He pointed the cigar at me. “Except for society pages and recipes, girls don’t belong in a newsroom. But I’ll admit you got a fire in your gut. And an eye for an angle that could make you a reporter someday—somewhere else.”
“Then you’ll give me an assignment?”
“But you just said...”
“I know what I said, goddammit.”
The cigar smoldered between his fingers as he walked to the front of his desk and rested a hip on the corner, glaring down at me with bloodshot eyes. “You been a thorn in my side for six months. Too big for your britches if you ask me. Reckless. Think you can go off on your own and break the rules to get a story. I’d have fired you after the Wash-Mart article, but you got my boss wrapped around your little Yankee finger.”
Thin, tobacco-stained lips rose slightly into more of a sneer than a smile and I braced for the worst. He’s going to fire me. Will Healy take me back? Or am I doomed to beg for a job at some small weekly paper in Kansas? I stared back until my eyes burned, but he blinked first.
“So, I’ll tell you what,” he said as if he’d just gotten a brilliant idea. “I got a call the other day from a lawyer Southeast o’ here. Near the coast. He’s lookin’ for somebody to verify incriminating evidence about a candidate in a grudge-match election. Since you think so highly of yourself, I’ll give you a chance—a last chance—to show me you’re a professional.”
I’d been a professional for four years and had learned from the best that sometimes you need to push the boundaries to get a story. In Boston, I’d posed as an unmarried woman trying to adopt a baby on the black-market. The exposé brought down the ring and put two people in prison.
And I didn’t trust his sudden generosity. “What’s the story?”
He stuffed the expensive cigar into an overflowing ashtray. “A Congressional election is comin’ up in District One. A Southern Democrat by the name of Edward O’Grady held the seat for years, his daddy too, and granddaddy before him. Comin’ home from a fund-raiser back in February, Ed and his wife drove ass-over-tea-kettle off a bluff, landin’ upside down on their own property.” He shook his head. “A terrible tragedy. Thelma O’Grady was a fine lookin’ woman.”
My heart raced at the possibility of investigating the mysterious death of a Congressman. “Do you suspect foul play?”
“I just told you it was an accident,” he snapped. “Try to stay on track.” He ambled back to his chair, tugging on the sticky center drawer of his desk. “Governor Sanders is waiting for the general election in November to replace him. Ed’s son, Patrick O’Grady II, stepped up to run for his seat and was unopposed until a few weeks ago.”
He slapped an over-sized campaign button into my hand. “This is his opponent.”
The open pin bit my palm and I looked down at the face of a man in his early forties, with a toothy grin and a hungry look in his eyes. ‘NEW BLOOD’ circled the top half with, ‘William Berens III,’ below.
“You Southerners sure like your Roman numerals,” I commented. “It looks like the Republican has one up on the Southern Democrat already.”
An eyebrow raised. “Don’t sass. You want the assignment or not?”
I fought the urge to shout, Hell, yes! and lowered my voice. “Perhaps. Tell me more—please.”
He dropped back into his chair, swatting a lazy fly strolling the rim of his stained coffee cup. “The O’Grady boy’s a widowed farmer and horse breeder with a young kid. Nothin’ more than a Democratic puppet running on his dead daddy’s reputation. Billy came from the other side of the tracks. Pulled himself up from nothing to become the biggest Cadillac dealer in the state. There’s bad blood between the families, including accusations of murder goin’ back generations.
There it was. He was throwing me into the middle of a political mud-slinging fight. Nothing good came from those. But that car accident interested me. “So, it’s personal,” I said. “And personal politics sell papers.”
“Isn’t that what you said you do?” he taunted me.
Still, there had to be something in it for him besides selling papers and getting me out of his hair for a few weeks. “Which candidate has the incriminating evidence? And what’s that about murder?”
He waved a hand. “Nobody cares about century-old murders. But Berens’ attorney says they have something on the O’Gradys that could finish ‘em in politics for good. Like any good lawyer, he needs somebody from the outside to verify it. He’ll pay you for the work and give us exclusive rights to publish.”
The plot just thickened. Winkler was using me to discredit the Democrat, O’Grady, and win the seat for his new buddies, the Goldwater Republicans. I’d heard him on the phone, complaining about Publisher, Ralph McGill’s, liberal, Southern Democrat editorials. Perhaps that was an ace I could hold for later.
For now, Winkler’s evil dark eyes challenged me. “You got the stones to dig up the dirt and dish it out—gir—Laura?”
I considered politicians, Democrat or Republican, Yankee or Cracker, to be much the same. They all start out with good intentions and big talk, until the gray areas take over, boundaries blur, and campaign promises get lost in party politics and cronyism. The sense of entitlement I’d seen in children from prominent political families, including my own, disgusted me. If O’Grady was covering up his family’s crimes for a free ride to Washington, I was more than happy to expose them.
“So, what’s Billy Three’s angle?” gave him my answer.
His smug smile made me a little sick to my stomach—or was it the cigar? Or the stale body odor that seemed to cling to him like the smoke of a bonfire does to a wool jacket?
“You’re the hot-shot reporter. Figure it out. If you pass muster, and the story’s good, I’ll pay you standard column rates. Maybe a byline.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but he beat me to it. “One more thing. Nobody comes into my office without an invite, and nobodydemands anything from me. If JoEllen wasn’t leavin’ to have her baby next month you’d have been on the street before this. But I’m a generous man, so startin’ now, you’re on spec for the Berens story. Take it or leave it.”
‘On speculation,” meant that if he didn’t like it, I’d be unemployed. But exposing the ugly underbelly of Southern politics—on both sides of the fence—could land me a Pulitzer. Or it could be a complete bust.
I sacrificed my ace in the hole to keep my job. “It’s a big risk. Even if the story’s good, McGill might not be keen on siding with your new Goldwater Republican buddies. And if Billy’s allegations are false and there’s no story....”
Both eyebrows raised at my mention of McGill’s reaction to his affiliation with the new, ultra-conservative wing of the Republican Party. And his jaw dropped just enough to let me know I’d blind-sided him.
I smiled. “Well, a girl’s gotta make a living.”
“I’ll give you Adeline’s job,” acknowledged my thinly veiled threat.
Adeline and I rarely exchanged more than a nod every week when she handed me her pathetic columns to re-write. I had no idea she was a widow with children. And even if she didn’t, I felt guilty for the tacky comment about her bra size. It wasn’t her fault men were pigs.
“No. I don’t want a widow with kids to lose her job.”
“No, she isn’t.”
“Divorced, no kids.” Nicotine-stained teeth peeked through a grotesque imitation of a smile. “Forget the girly sympathies and listen to your gut. Adeline got the job because of the double-Ds.”
He frowned at my mousey ponytail and small chest before reaching under the paper and handing me a coffee-stained napkin with a phone number scrawled across it. “This is the attorney’s name and number,” he grunted and leaned toward me. “You’ll be dealin’ with powerful men here. You might want to do somethin’ with yourself.”
As I warily took the grimy napkin between my thumb and forefinger, I knew I should be dancing with joy at investigating criminal allegations in a South Georgia Congressional election. If the charges by Republican Billy Berens III against the state’s most powerful Democratic dynasty were true, it could make my dream of a Pulitzer Prize a reality. So why did it feel like I’d just struck a deal with the Devil?