Wednesday, January 12, 2000
Something evil had taken root in Ashland, Oregon. And with it, an uneasy feeling grabbed hold of Detective Winston Radhauser and wouldn’t let him go. If someone didn’t intervene, that evil would continue to multiply until the unthinkable happened.
He stood inside the twelve-by-twelve-foot stall of Mercedes, his wife’s mare, and dug his manure fork into the sawdust. Trying to ignore his uneasiness, he reminded himself he was on vacation. The only job he needed to worry about today was keeping his wife, Gracie, happy. And helping out with four-year-old Lizzie and their newborn son. But that didn’t change one basic fact. Radhauser was restless and eager to return to work.
From the juniper bushes on either side of the double barn doors, a mourning dove released its lonesome call. He grabbed the fork again. One thing he knew for certain, part of keeping Gracie happy involved a clean barn. He scooped up another load. It was a cool morning and the vapor from his breath rose in the air in front of him. He shook his fork, releasing the sawdust, then tossed the manure into his wheelbarrow. Before he’d spent any time around horses, Radhauser believed mucking out stalls would be a stinky job, but either he’d gotten used to it or there wasn’t any truth to that belief. The barn smelled, as it always did, like cedar, alfalfa and sweet feed laced with molasses.
When his cell phone rang, he dropped the fork, then pulled off his right glove, yanked the phone from his jacket pocket and answered.
“I need you to get down to the ER and check something out,” barked Captain Felix Murphy, his boss at the Ashland Police Department.
“It’s 8 o’clock in the morning, Murph. And I’m on vacation.” Technically, Radhauser was taking time off to be with Gracie as she recovered from the cesarean delivery of their son, Jonathan Lucas Radhauser, and started treatments for her breast cancer. Because it was diagnosed during the pregnancy, they’d done a radical mastectomy, then taken a chance and waited until after the birth to begin chemo and radiation. “Besides, you know Gracie is scheduled to start her chemotherapy treatments today.”
“Not until 2:30 this afternoon, right? You’ve got plenty of time to handle this.”
There was nothing he’d rather do, but there’d be hell to pay with his wife if he did. “Send Vernon. I’ve got my hands full here taking care of Gracie and the barn.”
“Look, I know I signed off on your three weeks, but Vernon’s out with a strep throat and we’ve got a real mess on our hands.”
Captain Murphy had been on edge ever since he found a hate flyer taped to the station window a couple weeks ago. The following day, two cars were reported vandalized—racist and anti-gay slogans had been painted in red on their windshields.
“A Doctor Landenberg called,” Murphy said. “He just admitted a high school boy, delirious with fever and a white cell count off the charts.”
“Sounds like a serious infection,” Radhauser said. “But what’s it got to do with us?”
“The doctor was suspicious. Said his mom brought him into the ER after she tried to get him into a tub of cool water to bring down the fever. That’s when she saw it. A brand singed into the skin of his abdomen. And the kid won’t tell anyone how or where he got it.”
“A brand? You mean like for cattle?” Radhauser struggled with disbelief, trying to make sense of what he just heard.
“Yeah,” Murphy said. “Branded, like a damn heifer. Doctor Landenberg thinks the kid was assaulted. A hate crime because the boy is gay. But the kid won’t talk.”
“What did the brand say? Was it initials? A logo of some sort? Something we can identify.”
“The doctor was pretty closed-mouth about the specifics, but he sounded upset. Come on, Radhauser. You know as well as I do, this could turn into our worst nightmare. You’re good with kids. I need you on this.”
He took a step back, then leaned against the barn wall and closed his eyes, the cell phone resting in the palm of his hand while Murphy babbled on.
Radhauser thought about the hate-filled messages he’d ripped from tree trunks near Lithia Park playground when he’d taken Lizzie last Saturday.
America Should Be White Again.
God Hates Faggots.
In The USA, Christians Rule.
His skin had gone clammy as the messages sunk in. What the hell was happening? In 1921 the Ku Klux Klan had planted itself in Oregon and its invasive roots spread out across the state. Cross burnings in Ashland and other larger cities were not uncommon. But times were different now. This was the beginning of the twenty-first century, not Selma, Alabama, in 1963.
Ashland was a picturesque town set in the foothills of the Siskiyou and Cascade mountain ranges, just north of the California border—a place known for, and proud of, its diversity and its world-renowned Shakespeare Festival. It was a little bit of England, set down in southern Oregon. A town where Radhauser and his wife, Gracie, planned to raise their growing family. A place four-year-old Lizzie, and two-week old Jonathan, could grow up safe and free of prejudice.
But behind the scenes there were factions who believed being white, Christian, and heterosexual were all that mattered. Radhauser had wadded up the flyers he’d found in the park and hurled them into the trash barrel, but hadn’t been able to erase them from his mind.
He put the cell phone back to his ear and told Murphy about the flyers.
Hard to believe this was the same Ashland that only a year and a half ago held candlelight vigils for the gay college boy, Matthew Shepherd, who’d been beaten and tied to a fence in Wyoming. Every night for a week, concerned residents had flocked to the park, stood quietly, sang and prayed, candles lit, while Shepherd fought for his life and lost.
Murphy didn’t give up. “And this kid might not be the only one. Doctor Landenberg said a girl came in about a week ago with something similar. He wasn’t on duty, but saw the chart.”
Radhauser’s eyes shot open. “What the hell’s going on here?”
“I wish I knew,” Murphy replied. “I don’t. But we need to find out. And fast. His name is Logan Caldwell. How soon can you get over to the hospital?”
Radhauser felt it surge up again—his need for justice. “Okay, I’ll do the initial interview, but I can’t take on a new case right now. Gracie would kill me. Give me an hour. I’ll call her mother and see if she can come early to help with the baby.” He wanted to be with his wife, knew she needed his help, but he also wanted to be on the job—to put a stop to what was happening in his town before it escalated into something worse.
Who was he kidding? It had already escalated. Flyers hung in other places, too, stapled to telephone poles along Main Street. And flyers were one thing—annoying, but not violent. Now, at least one kid, maybe another, was branded and too terrified, or ashamed, to talk about it.