Karp was, as it happened, working late that day. His wife and daughter were out at his daughter's school for some event, and his seven-year-old twin boys were being taken out for pizzas by their nursemaid and her boyfriend. Karp was, in fact, a workaholic, but he thought he had it under control. Yes, he got to work at seven and worked weekends, but he dined with his family nearly every evening and saw his wife and children at least once each day. The job he had -- managing a system that ate three hundred thousand serious crimes each year including three murders a day, with over four hundred assistant district attorneys -- was frankly impossible to do; it would have consumed any three people. Nor was it one he particularly liked, although he had become fairly good at it. What Karp liked to do was try murder cases, and he was very good at that. With the recent increase in workload, Karp had acquired his own secretary, an Irish girl named Flynn, and a special assistant, a willing infant named Gilbert Murrow, and a nice many-windowed office in the DA's suite on the eighth floor of 100 Centre Street, the New York County courthouse.
Karp had never imagined himself as the sort of person who had special assistants, but he had swiftly become used to the pleasures thereof. Murrow was quiet, efficient, good-humored, and relatively free of the mental diseases to which special assistants were susceptible, such as megalomania and paranoia. He was fresh out of law school but had not taken the bar and was wondering whether, in fact, lawyering was really his thing after all, so this job suited both him and his boss. Murrow lived in a tiny cubicle outside Karp's office, summonable by a bellow.
Karp bellowed now. No answer. He punched the intercom button: "Flynn, where's Murrow?" No answer. He looked at his watch: five past six. They wouldn't have simply gone home without telling him, hence a mystery. Karp rose, stretched; a remarkable sight, this, for he was over six feet five inches tall, still reasonably lanky in his mid-forties. He walked out of his office, observed without surprise that Flynn was not at her desk, and proceeded to the DA's outer office, where he found that Mary Margaret O'Malley, the DA's secretary, was not at her desk either, which was rather more surprising. He recalled that the DA himself was busy upstate at some political do. There were sounds emanating from behind the paneled doors of the DA's office proper. Karp went in.
Murrow, Flynn, O'Malley, and a few other late-staying eighth-floor workers were grouped around the DA's huge TV. Karp noted with astonishment that O'Malley, a hefty woman with jaw and hair of iron, was dabbing at her eyes, although the rumor had it that O'Malley had shed her last tear on the occasion of JFK's assassination. A couple of anchors were on the screen, looking grave. Somebody's been shot, was Karp's immediate thought: the president, the DA...
"What's going on, O'Malley?" Karp asked.
"It's horrible, Butch," she said. "Unbelievable, in this day and age. I beeped him already, he should be calling any minute now."
Karp was about to ask again what was going on when the screen changed and flashed the startling Post front page: HORROR! Then, a talking head began talking about the decline of morality among the young and conflating the recent years of teenaged gunplay with the murder of babies: now the girls were getting into it, too, was the conclusion. Somebody flicked the remote at the screen, the channel changed to NBC, and Karp got to see the Jimenez tape, slowed down to provide more news, the Doberman tearing away a white blur that was clearly a baby's arm. Then the news moved on to other things, and the group stood around the noble office, gasping and murmuring.
Murrow said, to no one in particular, "This is a going to be a firestorm. Unbelievable!" Karp felt the eyes of the room on him. He looked at Murrow and frowned unconsciously, both because of the remark and because of Murrow's dress, which was a hairy tweed sports jacket worn over a navy sleeveless sweater, a foulard bow tie, tan whipcord trousers, and shiny Weejuns loafers. This was not how Karp thought junior staff members should dress. (Murrow had shown up for work one day in a red brocade waistcoat with shiny buttons. Karp did not say anything to him about it, but had stared at him throughout that day as if observing a particularly gruesome traffic accident, and the item had not reappeared.) Karp himself was not interested in clothes and always wore the same outfit: a dark, pin-striped, single-breasted suit, of appropriate weight for the season, a white shirt, a tie with some infinitesimal dark pattern, and highly shined black shoes. Despite this civilized apparel, Karp often looked as though he should be unshaven and wearing crossed bandoliers. He had the roundheaded, flat-faced, high-cheekboned, quasi-oriental look of his maternal ancestors, a rapacious band of Odessa Jews, horse traders, petty criminals, and head-breakers. His eyes were gray, with peculiar yellow flecks, and were used to good effect in his famous laser stare. Around the office, Karp was considered cold, and something of a stiff, since he failed to find incompetence amusing. It made him grind his teeth and look fierce and stare unforgivingly. Among his few close friends and with his family, however, Karp was a different man, humorous, a dead-on mimic, boyish, occasionally goofy, a peaceable man actually, and quite even-tempered. It was not his fault that he looked like Ivan the Terrible's first cousin. (His wife, on the other hand, looked like a Bernini angel, but she had a short fuse and occasionally shot people with a pistol in disagreements. Yet another thing that was not fair.) Meanwhile, Murrow, who did not understand this, writhed under the stare.
Copyright © 2000 by Robert K. Tannenbaum
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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