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In The Fraud, the most thrilling entry yet in Brad Parks's award-winning series, investigative reporter Carter Ross must chose who gets to live: him or his unborn child.
A rash of carjackings terrorizing Newark become newsworthy when one such theft ends in the murder of a wealthy banking executive. The affable, wisecracking Ross is assigned the story, but he's weary of only writing about victims of crime who happen to be rich and white. To balance his reporting, he finds a Nigerian immigrant of more modest means who was also killed during a recent carjacking.
When it turns out the two victims knew each other, sharing an unexplained round of golf at a tony country club shortly before their deaths, Carter is plunged onto the trail of a deadly band of car thieves that includes a sociopathic ex-convict. When his unborn child is put in harm's way, it becomes more than just a story for Carter. And he'll stop at nothing to rescue the baby-even if it costs him his own life.
Parks, a rising star on the crime fiction scene known for his mix of wit and grit, delivers his most emotionally resonant book yet.
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Read an Excerpt
By Brad Parks
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Brad Parks
All rights reserved.
It's the hypothetical question every parent considers at some point:
Would you give your life for your kid?
Would you dive in front of a speeding eighteen-wheeler to shove your daughter out of the way? Would you let your son take your heart when his number didn't come up soon enough on the transplant list? Would you place your head under the guillotine as part of some Faustian bargain wherein your child didn't have to?
Oh, I know what you're thinking, if you're a parent: yes, yes, yes, and yes. Even if it was just to spare yourself the agony of burying your own kid, you'd make that sacrifice every time. Or at least that's what you tell yourself you would do. What kind of selfish coward wouldn't?
But hold on a second. Don't answer yet. Because you still don't know everything. What if, just to increase the degree of difficulty, it was a baby who hadn't been born? A child who had not yet been named, whose gender you did not know, whose personality was a total question mark, whose eyes you had never gazed into, whose life had not taken shape in any meaningful way?
Would that change things? Make the decision tougher? Just a little?
Because, let's be clear, we're not talking about video game death, where you have nine more lives and all you have to do is press the reset button to cue up the next one.
We're talking about death everlasting. What Chandler called "the big sleep." What Rabelais called "a great perhaps." That thing where you lay down your mushy, mortal self, along with all your friendships and family ties, all your unmet ambitions, and all those bucket list items you still haven't kicked.
You trade it in for a baby you will never get the chance to meet, and then move on to ... well, that's the real sticky wicket, isn't it? For whatever we may believe and for however strongly we may believe it, none of us really knows for sure. Maybe heaven. Maybe hell. Maybe nothing.
That's the dilemma. And in case you're still thinking it's too easy, let me give this triple lindy its final twist:
What if the question wasn't hypothetical?
My name is Carter Ross. I am a thirty-three-year-old newspaper reporter whose baby is almost fully baked inside my fiancée's womb. Up until now, I have led a charmed existence of upper-middle-class ease and American suburban comfort, a life where I have been able to avoid difficult choices such as this and blithely assume my continued survival.
But in forty-three hours, that's going to come to an end. Because in forty-three hours, I am going to find myself outside a room with two dangerous people in it. They're both armed. Neither is a stranger to killing. The moment I confront them, they're going to shoot at me. They will be firing from a few feet away, a distance from which they can't miss. I might be able to stop one of them from pulling the trigger. I will not be able to stop both. My protection will be nothing more than two thin layers of cotton.
And the only way to save my baby — who will be denied his first breath if I don't do something — is to walk in and take the bullet.CHAPTER 2
There are certain young men nature wires for action. They are swift, lean, fearless, thoughtless. Good sense and impulse control have been sacrificed in favor of speed and acceleration.
The two young men huddled on opposite sides of a Newark, New Jersey, street corner, in the dark of a Newark, New Jersey, night, were two such specimens. They wore ski masks, the preferred headdress of criminals the world over. Their guns were drawn. They were about to make what could have been called a textbook approach, except textbooks were not written about this sort of undertaking.
The signal to attack was a quick, sharp whistle.
The first assailant angled in from behind the driver's side door, moving in a low crouch. The second came from the other side of the street, toward the passenger side door, in a run that was more upright.
The object of their assault, a top-of-the-line 2015 Jaguar XJ, was the lone car stopped at a red light that silently conducted traffic at the intersection of Mulberry and East Kinney streets.
The car's driver was a pudgy banking executive named Kevin Tiemeyer, weary from a late night out with colleagues. He had diverted his attention from the road in front of him to his iPhone, where he jabbed out a quick text to his wife: "Just left. Home soon. Love you."
He hit send. His wife would later tell the police she received it at 1:02 A.M.
The Jaguar's engine idled in a soft, low purr appropriate for a machine named after a great cat. The car was five months old and Tiemeyer loved it — loved the way it handled like an extension of its driver's will, loved the buttery softness of the leather seats, loved showing it off at the club.
His wife had fretted that they shouldn't be buying any new car, much less one with a $79,220 sticker price. The twins entered college next year. If he really wanted to replace his aging BMW with a Jaguar, fine, but couldn't he at least pick a less extravagant model? Or maybe a nice, low-mileage preowned one?
Tiemeyer told her not to worry so much, countering with an acronym the kids taught him: YOLO. You Only Live Once.
As Tiemeyer lifted his head from his iPhone, his peripheral vision registered the movement of the second man, the one coming in from the passenger's side. His reaction was instinctive and involuntary, an immediate racing of the heart and a dilating of the pupils. Those suddenly wide eyes took in the man's gun and ski mask, which was navy blue.
Then came three insistent raps on the driver's side window. Tiemeyer's head whipped around. Another gun. Another ski mask, this one black.
"Out of the car. Out of the car. Out of the car."
Black Mask delivered the order in rapid staccato. He had not bothered to pull open the door. He knew — from his rather extensive recent experience in this line of work — that the Jaguar, like nearly every luxury car manufactured for sale in the United States during the last ten years, automatically locked its doors the moment the vehicle exceeded five miles an hour.
It was a safety feature that, in this case, would do little to keep Kevin Tiemeyer safe.
"Let's go, let's go," Blue Mask urged.
Tiemeyer shifted the car into park. He took one last wistful gander at the beautiful crafting of the Jaguar's interior, shoved open the door, and swung his feet over to the pavement.
"Just relax," Tiemeyer said. "You can have the car."
"Damn right we can," Black Mask said, backing off slightly to give his victim room to disembark. "Now move it."
"Put your hands where I can see them," Black Mask ordered.
Tiemeyer stood and raised his hands in the air. The sleeves of his suit jacket slipped down a few inches in the direction of his elbows, exposing the Rolex that adorned his left wrist.
"We'll take that watch, too," Blue Mask said, coming around from the other side of the Jag.
"Wait, that's not ... that's not part of the deal," he said.
"Hell it ain't."
"No, no. You take the car, that's it. That's —"
"This ain't a negotiation," Blue Mask said, tilting the gun sideways and taking a few more steps forward. "Give me the watch, fool."
"No, you don't understand. This ... this was my grandfather's watch."
"Yeah? Well, it's mine now."
Black Mask had backed up further, jerking his glance between the two men, then up and down the street. It was still empty, but there was no guarantee it would stay that way. The Newark Police Department was overworked, but that didn't mean it was nonexistent. He started talking to his partner, "Come on, man. I told you last time, you can't keep doing this. Let's just —"
"Give me the watch," Blue Mask shouted, his eyes wide, his nostrils flaring. The barrel of his revolver was now a foot away from Tiemeyer's face, aimed at his forehead.
"Leave it," Black Mask said.
Attempting to exploit the rift, Tiemeyer started with, "Look, sir, can't we just —"
Blue Mask fired twice. Tiemeyer dropped, his expensive suit and his body crumpling simultaneously.
Blue Mask knelt by the man's inert form, unfastened the Rolex and pocketed it.
"Come on, let's go," he said.
From the small oval mouth hole of his black ski mask, the other man unleashed a stream of urgent profanity. He finished with, "Are you crazy?"
As both men scrambled into the Jaguar, Black Mask added, "You can't keep dropping bodies like this, man."
Blue Mask offered no explanation beyond, "He was disrespecting me."
It was said later that the only sin Kevin Tiemeyer committed was stopping for a red light in Newark.
That was not entirely true.
But given that the sentiment was uttered a few short steps away from his closed casket, it hardly seemed like the time or place to quibble.CHAPTER 3
You don't stop for red lights late at night in Newark, New Jersey. At least you don't if you know what's good for you.
In some neighborhoods — I'll be kind to the city I love and call them affluence-challenged — stopping at a red light after a certain hour signifies one of two things. One, I would like to buy drugs, please sell them to me; or, two, I am stupid, please rob me.
And in case my big talk about taking bullets and saving babies has made me sound brave, heroic, or especially glutted with courage, I should probably correct that misapprehension straight off: I'm basically a chicken. Have been my whole life. Proud of it.
As a self-respecting, dedicated chicken, I regularly performed what my colleagues and I at The Newark Eagle-Examiner referred to as "the Newark Cruise." When you saw a red light, you slowed well ahead of time, giving yourself room to ease up to the light while still maintaining a rate of speed that would deter anyone from approaching your car. Your hope was that it turned green while you made your steady advance. If you reached the intersection with the light still red, you took a glance around to make sure nothing was coming and then you gunned the engine.
But you never stopped.
The nuances of this widely practiced piece of civil disobedience were explained to me on my first day at the Eagle-Examiner by a sagacious veteran copy editor, who had survived many a late-night drive home by putting minimal wear on his brake pads. When I asked him whether he was worried about getting a ticket, he just laughed. Back then, I was a twenty-four-year-old cub reporter, wide-eyed at the prospect of working for New Jersey's largest newspaper. I didn't understand what was so funny.
Nine years later, having scaled to the position of investigative reporter and acquired a bit of my own wisdom, I get it. Even on the rare occasions when Newark's Finest did stop you for running a light in the small hours, it was mostly to ensure that you weren't using the city streets as a pharmacy or that you weren't armed for an insurrection.
Once they determined you had neither guns nor drugs, they let you go. Police in Newark had better things to do at that time of day than ticket minor traffic scofflaws.
Red-light cameras, installed at the insistence of a crusading celebrity mayor a few years back, had complicated matters slightly. By forcing drivers to come to a complete stop, they turned numerous city intersections into a carjacker's version of a turkey shoot.
The other issue at play was the growing sophistication of vehicle antitheft systems. Whereas yesterday's car thief could mesh together a few wires and quietly misappropriate your motorized carriage without bothering you, the current generation must forcibly take it from you with the keys still in it.
The irony is lost on no one: two innovations meant to improve safety and deter theft have had the opposite effect, leading to the proliferation of a crime than is far more violence-prone and confrontational than the one it replaced.
It's the law of unintended consequences, and in Newark it remains well enforced. Over the past five years, carjackings in Essex County, which includes Newark, had more than doubled. It had gotten to the point where the county, with eight hundred thousand people, was on pace to finish with some five hundred carjackings for the year. That's an average of more than one a day, nearly three times as many as all of New York City despite having just one-tenth of the population.
What made Newark such a carjacking hotbed was at least partly genetic. The city was the grand theft auto capital of America during the eighties and early nineties. Boosting cars was in its DNA. Newark's delinquents were well-schooled on the subject of car-swiping, whether it was to resell, for a joy ride, or to have a "clean" vehicle in which to commit another crime.
But there was also a lot of geography at play. These days, cars have VIN numbers etched in all kinds of hard-to-reach places, making them difficult to unload domestically. Hence, the more sophisticated carjacking rings sold their merchandise abroad — mostly Africa and some of the more lawless parts of Asia.
The easiest way to get their product to that marketplace was via the Port of New York and New Jersey, which straddled Newark and Elizabeth. If you stole a car in Brooklyn or the Bronx, it could take you an hour — and two bridges — to get it there. That was a risk. If you stole it in Manhattan, you had to go through a tunnel. That was suicide.
If you stole it in Newark, you could have it loaded onto an ocean-bound container ship before the police even knew to start looking for it.
I don't want to say we at the Eagle-Examiner had been ignoring this particular criminal epidemic. We had done a few perfunctory stories about the problem, dutifully reporting the numbers. But at the clinging-to-life anachronism that is a statewide daily newspaper, gone are the days when we had a fully staffed city desk and stuffed-to-the-seams suburban bureaus, ready to report on any threat to our readership. We had been forced to prioritize and up until one Tuesday morning, those priorities had not included deep inquiry into the subject.
The tragic shooting of a man named Kevin Tiemeyer during an apparent carjacking-gone-wrong was about to change that. It had happened too late at night — or I guess, technically, too early in the morning — to make it into any of that day's print editions.
But by the time the New York metropolitan area awoke, hungry for its daily helping of bad news, the shooting in Newark had become breakfast. And it had the look of lunch, dinner, and beyond, a meal that would be served until the public's appetite for it was fully sated or until we ran out of stuff to report, whichever came last.
As I hastily donned my workaday reporter's uniform of pleated slacks, a button-down shirt, and a patterned tie — all of which I carefully selected by closing my eyes and reaching into my closet — I listened to the latest on an all-news radio station. It began the top of the hour with the Tiemeyer story.
At this early stage, when the police had little information and were giving out even less, there wasn't much to report beyond the bare details of Mr. Tiemeyer's demise. He worked for United States Kinship Bank, better known as USKB, one of those huge banking conglomerates that seemed to have tentacles in anything that involved money. He drove a Jaguar. He was a married father of two who lived in tranquil Scotch Plains and had the misfortune to choose the wrong way home. A press conference was scheduled for later that morning. More details would be forthcoming.
I am aware there are critics of "the media" — two words some folks can't seem to say without a sneer — who would accuse us of sensationalizing crime simply to sell papers, attract Internet traffic, or drive ratings. These, after all, are the metrics with which we woo the advertisers who ultimately pay our salaries. I'm not naïve enough to deny that our news judgment is influenced by certain financial imperatives.
But I always remind these sneering detractors what's behind those paper sales, Web clicks, and TV eyeballs. It's that a large portion of the public — AKA citizens, AKA people, AKA you and me and, yes, even those media-bashers — are more likely to tune in for bad news than for good news. We have the statistics to prove it.
In that way, the media is really just a mirror, one that reflects back at people the things they most want to see. Believe me, if puppies and flowers pulled ratings, that's all you'd see on your nightly news. But the fact is, many ships made safe transatlantic crossings in April 1912, but more than a hundred years later people are still yapping about the Titanic.
So I was unsurprised when I received a text from my editor, Tina Thompson, requesting an audience as soon as I saw fit to report for work.
"I still don't understand why he didn't just do the Newark Cruise," I texted back.
I received her reply as I drove in. "I know. Law-abiding citizens are the worst."
* * *
The newsroom was mostly empty when I arrived, not because I was particularly early, but because this has become its natural state in recent years. Where once this large, open space was filled with clusters of seasoned reporters vigorously making New Jersey safe for democracy, there are now vast seas of unused desks, vacated by staff reductions that never seemed to end.
Excerpted from The Fraud by Brad Parks. Copyright © 2015 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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