Carter Ross, investigative reporter for the Newark Eagle-Examiner, is reporting on the latest tragedy to befall Newark, New Jersey, a fast-moving house fire that kills two boys. With the help of the paper's newest intern, a bubbly blonde known as "Sweet Thang," Carter finds the victims' mother, Akilah Harris, who spins a tale of woe about a mortgage rate reset that forced her to work two jobs and leave her boys home alone. Carter turns the story into a front page feature, but soon discovers Akilah isn't what she seems. When Newark councilman Windy Byers is reported missing, Carter must plunge into the murky world of urban house flipping and Jersey-style political corruption, aided by his usual mix of humor and street smarts.
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I made at least four mistakes that Monday morning, the first of which was going into the office in the first place. There's an old saying among newspaper reporters that news never breaks in the newsroom. So if you're not currently working on a story, you ought to be out finding one. If you hang around the newsroom with nothing to do, you put yourself at extreme risk of being assigned something to do by an editor. And — ask any writer, anywhere — editors are approximately ninety-eight percent full of stupid ideas.
Which leads to my second mistake: wandering by the open office door of my editor, Sal Szanto. I'm an investigative reporter for the Newark Eagle-Examiner, New Jersey's largest newspaper. My last story had been what we in the business call BBI. Boring But Important. It was a piece about patronage hiring in a nearby county government. (My suggested headline, "County Keeps Nepotism in the Family," was rejected as being too cheeky.) The thirteen people who actually bothered to read it — the same thirteen people who read all our BBI's — were very impressed. To everyone else who picked up our Sunday paper, I suspect it was merely an impediment on the way to sudoku.
Either way, it was now yesterday's news, making me an investigative reporter momentarily lacking anything to investigate.
And so we arrive at my third mistake: not feigning deafness when Szanto croaked out my name.
That's "Carter Ross," for those who don't understand the peculiar dialect of my fifty-something, chain-smoking, antacid-devouring, coffee-guzzling editor. Szanto has difficulty pronouncing vowels when he's upset, stressed, or tired — which, with the way newspapers have been going the last few years, is most of the time. It usually takes him a couple of sentences to lift his vocal cords out of the gravel and start speaking coherently.
I took that to mean "Have a seat." So I did. Szanto cleared his throat.
"You read the fire story this morning?" he growled. "The thing with the two kids?"
A fast-moving fire at about nine o'clock the night before had swept through a house on Littleton Avenue in Newark, killing two little boys, Alonzo and Antoine Harris, ages four and six. The Newark Fire Department was offering no theories about what started it. The whereabouts of the mother, Akilah Harris, was unknown as of press time — which did not exactly speak well of her custodial abilities.
We had given the story the usual tragedy treatment, with a large photo of the blackened house along with smaller headshots of the little boys — smiling school portraits — along with a story gang-written by the herd of semisupervised interns we have working on the weekends. During my eight years at the paper, we had probably written variations of the story fifty times — albeit with changed names, dates, and places — so maybe I should be more callous about it by now. But it still rips my guts out.
"Yeah, I read it," I said. "What about it?"
Szanto had this look on his face I couldn't quite place. Just like Eskimos have fifty different words for snow, Szanto has at least that many pained expressions. Parsing them takes a certain amount of expertise. The difference between "I'm pained because an intern just handed me a story that might as well be in Farsi" and "I'm pained because I ate hot wings for lunch" could be as subtle as a slight lowering of the lip or an extra furrowing of the brow.
In this case, it was neither.
"Brodie wants a space heater story," he said.
Now it was my turn for a pained expression. Brodie is Harold Brodie, a living newspaper legend who had presided over our newsroom as executive editor for the last quarter century. Now in his late sixties, he was basically a nice man, with a high-pitched voice and eyebrows that could use some serious manscaping. He was small and fragile in a way that sort of reminded everyone of their grandfather. As a leader, he was the most benign of dictators. And, more or less, everyone loved him.
But he was still an editor, and as such he was as prone to stupid ideas as any other editor. Plus, he had this tendency to get fixated on certain subjects.
Space heaters was one of them. Like many of the nation's more depressed cities, Newark had its share of unimaginably horrid slum buildings where the heat may or may not be working — thanks to busted boilers, pilfered pipes, or landlords who decided the best way to combat the high cost of heating oil was to abstain from buying any.
One of the ways tenants survive this injustice is to plug space heaters into their already overloaded electrical sockets and leave them on 24-7. Fire-safetywise, you'd do just as well tossing an unsupervised ten-year-old into a room with oily rags, lighter fluid, and matches.
As a result, we write about the perils of space heaters at least once every winter. The only surprise was that December and January had been so mild we made it all the way to February without running our annual offering.
"Did a space heater have anything to do with it?" I asked.
"How the hell should I know?"
"But —" I started.
"I don't care," Szanto snapped. "Brodie asked for a space heater story, so write him a damn space heater story. You know how he gets."
I did. Some editors cajoled writers into doing stories with threats or loud demands. Brodie went more for the Chinese water torture approach, drip-dropping in on you until you just gave in. Sometimes, when he approached you from behind, he jingled the change in his pocket just so you knew he was there. Most longtime Eagle-Examiner reporters, trained by years of Brodie jingling, stiffened reflexively when they heard nickels and quarters banging together.
"Can't we just reprint one of the old space heater stories?" I asked. "I seem to recall from the archives the nineteen eighty-eight space heater story was a classic — fruity yet full-bodied, with hints of singed circuit breaker."
Szanto hit me with pained look No. 28 — upturned lip, creased forehead — and I gave in.
"Fine," I huffed. "A space heater story."
I went to lift myself out of the chair.
"I want you to work with Sweet Thang," he said.
I sat back down. Sweet Thang was what Szanto — and most of the other cave-dwelling editors in the building — called our newest intern, a honey-haired twenty-two-year-old Vanderbilt graduate whose real name was Lauren Somethingorother.
Between her button nose, bright blue eyes, and a torso that rather nicely filled out a sweater set, she hadn't lacked for mentoring from some of the men in the office.
The only problem was, there was a rumor out she had gotten the job because her father and Brodie golfed together at their country club. So while working with her would improve the scenery, it did come with certain dangers.
"Do I have to?" I asked.
"Just make her feel like she's doing something important, then when it comes time to write, make sure she's in a different county from your keyboard," Szanto said.
It was only a stupid space heater story. I could knock it off in a few hours and then move back to real journalism. As I left Szanto's office, I told myself it would be simple enough.
That, it turns out, was my fourth mistake.
With something short of my usual zeal, I moseyed across the newsroom and found Sweet Thang sitting in the area occupied by an ever-changing cast of interns. Newspaper economics have been so bad so long that our place, like most places, has a hiring freeze that is now old enough to enroll in the third grade. There have been buyouts, some more voluntary than others, and the threat of layoff is constant. The only people left behind are the foolish (people like me, who love the business too much to leave) and the desperate (people who can't find anything else and cling to the newspaper like bilge rats to driftwood).
Whenever a full-time staff member leaves, taking their high-five-figure or low-six-figure salary with them, they are replaced by an intern who is paid wages that would shame an Indonesian sweatshop. Really, they ought to do these kids a favor and tuck food stamps in with their paychecks each week. Still, the kids keep on coming to us, in ever-increasing numbers, to soak in all the valuable news-gathering "experience" — read: overwork — we provide them.
Given their low lot in life, I always go out of my way to be friendly to the interns. If nothing else, they're good for entertainment.
"Hi, Lauren," I said, as I walked up to her.
She looked startled.
"Oh, my goodness, you know my name?"
"Yeah, I'm —"
"You're Carter Ross!" she said, flashing a smile that surely weakened the knees of many a Vanderbilt frat boy. "You're, like, the reason I wanted to come to work here. When I read your Ludlow Street story, I told my dad, 'Dad, I totally have to work at the Eagle-Examiner.' Oh, my goodness. I even tweeted about your story so all my friends would know about it. And they all retweeted it. And we looked for you on Twitter, but you're not there, so we just tweeted round and round until we were tweeted out."
"Lauren?" I said, mostly to stop the river of words spouting from her mouth. Instead, I only diverted it.
"You can call me 'Sweet Thang' if you want to. I know that's what everyone calls me behind my back. I'm okay with it. I mean, it's not, like, flattering or anything — I don't think of myself as a Sweet Thang. I actually took courses in women's studies and stuff. All I'm saying is, it's not like I'm going to Human Resources or anything, because it's like my dad told me, 'A newsroom is still a man's world. You have to have a tough skin.' But then he also told me if anything got really bad, we could just tell Uncle Hal — sorry, Mr. Brodie — and he would take care of it. But I don't think being called Sweet Thang is like an insult or anything, it's more like —"
"Lauren," I said again.
"Oh, sorry," she said, looking downward. "I only babble when I get nervous. I'm so sorry. I'll stop. Oh no, now I'm babbling again. Okay. That's it. Stop."
She put her hand over her mouth and looked up at me.
"Szanto wants us to work together on a story."
"You and me? Together?"
"Oh, my goodness, that's so perfect," she gushed. "Oh, my goodness, teach me everything. I want to learn. I want to write just like you. You're totally my favorite writer at the paper, you don't even understand. The only writer I ever liked as much as you was Judy Blume, but that was when I was nine after I read Freckle Juice, and it was a totally different thing. Oh, my goodness, I have to shut up. So what story are we working on?"
The words were coming so fast it took me a second or two to realize she had, somewhere in there, formed a question I was expected to answer.
"It's a follow-up to the fire story today," I said.
"Oh, my goodness, that story was like the saddest thing ever. Can you believe those two poor little boys dying like that? I just about cried when I saw their pictures. Did you see their eyes? They were just beautiful little boys. I mean, I would have almost cried even if they were ugly. I don't want you to think I'm superficial or anything. I'm just saying —"
I held up my hand like a crossing guard halting traffic.
"Sorry," she said.
"Anyhow, it's supposed to be a story about the dangers of space heaters."
She tilted her head.
"What do space heaters have to do with the little boys?"
"At the moment, nothing," I said.
"No one from the fire department mentioned anything about space heaters."
"So how are we going to ...?"
"I don't know," I snapped. "Stop asking so many questions."
The bright blue gaze dropped down to the desk. The heart-melting smile vanished. Even the bouncy, honeyed hair seemed to droop. I felt like I had kicked a puppy.
"I didn't mean ... look, it's just ..." I said, groping for the right words. "See, sometimes, Brodie — uhh, Uncle Hal — he gets these ideas in his head that a story exists whether or not it actually does. But because he calls the shots around here, we sort of have to humor him."
"Well," she said, considering this new information carefully, "I don't think Uncle Hal would have us write a story that isn't true."
"Oh, me neither," I said, hoping she wouldn't hear the irony in my voice.
"Cool. So what do we do now? Where do we start?"
She looked up at me expectantly. The bright blue eyes were shining again. She plopped her elbows on top of her desk, leaned over and rested her chin in her palms, treating me to a rather unfettered view down her scoop-necked top.
I sat down to remove myself from temptation. Had I not resolved to maintain a perfectly professional demeanor around her, I might have enjoyed that vista. There was no denying the young lady was rather fetching — I mean, if you like shapely twenty-two-year-old blondes, that is — and she had a wholesomeness about her that put certain unwholesome thoughts in my head. As a tall, nearly broad-shouldered, thirty-two-year-old single guy with a reasonable body mass index and no facial disfigurement, I could entertain the thought she wasn't repulsed by me.
But while there's no official policy at the Eagle-Examiner against fraternizing with the interns, there were at least three factors to consider. One, Uncle Hal might decide his paper needed one less investigative reporter if I made a play for his buddy's little girl. Two, I had some unresolved romantic issues with Tina Thompson, our city editor, and I suspected she would not be impressed if I summited Mount Intern. Three, I was getting exhausted just trying to listen to her for five minutes; an entire evening's worth of conversation and flirtation might make me slip into a coma.
All in all, it seemed like enough reason to leave Sweet Thang to the Sigma Alpha Epsilons.
"Do you want me to call the fire department?" she asked. "Or find a national expert on space heaters? Maybe there's a space heater awareness group out there? Or a space heater safety nonprofit or something? I want to do this story exactly how you would do it. How would you start?"
I was tempted to tell her I planned to start like any self-respecting reporter approached a story in which he has absolutely no interest: waste time chatting with colleagues, return several lengthy personal e-mails, take an extended lunch, check in with old sources on completely unrelated matters, then start making phone calls around three o'clock when there was absolutely nothing better to do.
But that didn't seem like the kind of example I should be setting for an impressionable young person.
"Well," I said. "I like to get a feel for what I'm writing about first. Visit the scene. Take in the sights. Talk to some neighbors. So what do you say we make a little trip out to Littleton Avenue?" The question was barely even formed and she was already grabbing a notebook and her car keys.
"Can I drive?" she asked.
"That depends. What kind of car do you have?"
"It's the cutest little BMW. My dad got it for me for graduation. It's red. I call him Walter. He's got an iPod dock and everything. I just love him."
I immediately got this image of Sweet Thang bopping through the hood in her shiny red BMW, blasting Taylor Swift on Walter's speakers. The carjackers would play rock-paper-scissors to determine who got dibs.
"No," I said. "Better let me drive."
My car is a five-year-old Chevy Malibu. It has traveled some undetermined distance beyond a hundred thousand miles: dead speedometers tell no tales. I bought it for a suspiciously low price from a used car dealer in Newark. I'm not saying the guy was unscrupulous, but the title work looked like it had eraser marks on it.
It wasn't exactly a chick magnet. But the Malibu had certain benefits that were practical — no, essential — when operating in a rugged city like Newark. You didn't have to worry about it getting beaten up by the potholes because it was already beaten up. You could leave it unlocked with the motor running outside a chop shop and not have to worry about it being there when you got back. And when it comes to blending into the hood, it does just fine.
Which is good, because in most Newark neighborhoods, I don't exactly blend. It's not just that I'm white. It's that I'm a peculiar subset of the white race, one that disappeared from Newark long ago: a purebred, stiff-upper-lipped, can't-dance-a-lick WASP. I've got carefully parted brown hair, blue eyes, and a way of walking and talking most inner-city black people just find funny. I wear well-pressed shirts — usually white or blue — with pleated slacks and a tie with a half-Windsor knot. Even white people tease me about how white I am.
Excerpted from "Eyes of the Innocent"
Copyright © 2011 Brad Parks.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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