In the middle of the night, in war-torn Rwanda, journalist Roland Keene leaves his hotel to find armed rebels to interview. Some would call it a suicide mission. Roland would agree.
Keene has started at the bottom, living paycheck to paycheck, running from the bookie to whom he owes this and next month’s rent, and trying to make his mark at one of his shining city’s great papers. With no big breaks coming his way, though, Keene decides to make his own. He orchestrates a robberyone designed to cast himself as the herobut it goes all wrong and turns into a high-profile murder.
Despite everything, Keene’s role as a “white knight” gets him favor with the victim’s father, and a foot in the door of the newsroom. Immersed in the cutthroat world of investigative journalism, he breaks another storythis one of citywide corruptionbut also starts accumulating powerful enemies among his colleagues.
Though Keene’s work as a foreign correspondent keeps him on the roadand at arm’s length from his problemsit doesn’t stop him from being hounded by the people he betrayed on his way to the front page. What will happen to the great Roland Keene if his crimes are revealed, and to what lengths will he go to ensure his secrets never see the light of day?
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Today, fourteen more bodies were found. They were children, all of them, each carefully bound hand and foot, then lined up and shot in the back of the head. Their grave was a shallow latrine dug by the now retreating Hutu Interahamwe. That latrine — the sheer indignity of it — somehow made the discovery that much more grotesque.
I stand looking down on the crude blend of flesh, mud, and blood, and try hard to feel something. Anything will do. Pity is an emotion I lost long ago, so I check for anger, sadness — any of the usual suspects. But there is nothing.
Beside me, Vince heaves the camera to his shoulder and curses under his breath. I envy him. "Let's get this done, okay, Roly?" he says to me quietly, and I nod and turn to face him. He snaps on the light above his lens and gives me a three count followed by a sharp stab of his index finger. A sudden breeze snatches away the smell wafting from the pit behind me, and I breathe the clean air like a man surfacing from too long under water.
I fall smoothly into my role, as I always do, and gaze for a moment at the gaping hole behind me before turning back and fixing my carefully trained expression on the camera. "Behind me," I begin, with just the right amount of despair loaded into my voice, "lie the bodies of fourteen children, each executed with a single bullet to the head, then buried in a military latrine." I pause the way we do, all of us, carefully aligning ourselves with the sentiments of the viewer, even glancing momentarily, almost imperceptibly, at the ground, as if reaching for composure. "These boys and girls, none appearing to be above the age of ten, can hardly be considered fair game in this conflict, yet it has happened again and again with apparent impunity — a systematic elimination of what have been called 'tomorrow's soldiers.'"
I carefully weave in all three of the levels demanded by my craft — the horror before us, the immediate context, the overarching perspective — then leave the report with an open-ended question on the future of this land. Later, back at the hotel, we'll edit in some footage shot back at the crossroads: a ten-year-old girl, filthy and half naked, staring blankly with her arms outstretched toward the bloating heap that was once her mother. It is horrific, heartrending stuff. It is journalistic gold.
"Shit," Vince says, his eyes running over the raped land. "Now this is what I'd call a real bullet story."
I nod once in agreement. "Yeah, the genuine article." A bullet story is what we call coverage that can get you killed. Bullet stories, if ever recovered, usually end up with posthumous Pulitzers and memorial dinners attached to them. Being here when this evil deal was struck would have most definitely been a bullet story.
I look around again at the shapes embedded in the sludge below me and realize with no satisfaction that this grisly scoop will probably add to the Roland Keene mystique. Once again it is Vince who snaps me out of my thoughts. "Let's get it wrapped up and on the feed before the hordes arrive."
By "hordes" Vince is referring to the other members of our illustrious profession, the other forty-odd journalists here in Rwanda — forty- odd who hadn't yet got wind of this particular atrocity. It was one of the perks of being hot — stories often made their way to you first, bypassing all the other journalists, good and bad alike. This one had come in the form of an old man with his gnarled hand thrust out shamelessly for money.
A mere US$50 bought the location, along with his version of the event. He could have gotten more, but he knew the clock was against him, and that sometime soon someone else would come along selling the same story. Checkbook journalism is generally frowned upon, at least in public, by my esteemed colleagues. There was a time when I frowned upon it, too. But now I just don't care, because it's effective, for the most part. Vince certainly doesn't like it — I can always tell by the little knot of muscle flexing in the corner of his jaw.
At the hotel we edit the piece together, then bounce it off a satellite so it arrives in a tidy newsroom seven thousand miles away. Vince gently brushes off my invitation for dinner once we're done. I won't see him again until later, probably downstairs in the bar, where he'll be laying it on thick about how we scooped the big boys again. He'll raise his glass in my direction, I'll do the same in return, and that'll be it.
In the dining room I eat alone, until a young correspondent from England comes over and asks to join me. Despite the fact that I've had only five years on the road, my high profile has made me the consummate veteran professional in his eyes. "You're Roland Keene, right?" he asks, scooching his chair in tightly. "I'm a huge fan. Nigel Hoddle," he says, reaching a hand across the table. "BBC. I hear you lads were at the center of it all again today, then." It's not a question, and his tone is lined with something approaching flattery.
"Yeah, pretty grim stuff. Kids —"
"I heard. Never seen anything like that myself. Not so far, anyway."
"So you're new to ... all this?"
"Yeah, mate. My first go outside the UK."
I chew on the rubber they're passing off as steak, hoping the fresh- faced boy in front of me loses interest. But he persists, apparently waiting for me to say something. Finally I do. "You guys having much luck?" is the gem I come up with.
"A bit, here and there. Nothing like the slaughter you covered today, though." There's a lingering question in there. An invitation to tell him something. He's waiting for me to set my cutlery down, to lean in close and pull him forward with a hooked finger and say something like: Okay, kid. You're in the field now, so here's what you need to know ... But there's nothing there.
The silence stretches and sags uncomfortably, but Nigel presses bravely on. "Reckon we're heading east in the morning — to the Tanzanian border — apparently there's trouble brewing there with people trying to flee the country. There's a small press convoy headed out. How about you, then?"
"That sounds pretty solid," I say, knowing full well I won't be following the horde.
More chewing of rubber and the attendant awkward silence. Finally Nigel gives up, and I see in his exit that there's a small fuck you in there just for me. "Well, cheers, mate. Great chatting ..."
None of the other veterans socialize with me, but I've always figured my disposition was probably as much a part of my mystique as my coverage quality. In my five years as a foreign correspondent I've learned a lot, and find that with every newsworthy atrocity I cover, I feel just a tiny bit more removed from my own dark doings. Today it's Rwanda, central Africa, but tomorrow it could be the Middle East, Europe, or Southeast Asia. It doesn't matter: white, black, yellow, or red — wanton violence is always in good supply.
Recent election results have stirred an ancient hatred, and all signs point to another bloody genocidal clash between the Hutu and the Tutsi. A good killing always catches the attention of the international media machine, and we dutifully clatter our way through customs with equipment cases and tripods, eagerly searching for the best of the worst. Our reputation — journalists as a whole — is that we are a tight-knit group, always looking out for each other. But the truth is something different; a thin veneer of collectiveness masks the reality of a story-thieving, source-corrupting, fact-perverting orgy where the knives come out early and find backs and throats aplenty.
Here in Rwanda, we all cram into the Intwan Hotel, a wreck of a place often haunted by journalists throughout the nation's history. The Intwan was once a grand affair, but was ransacked at the beginning of the genocide in '94. The majority of the structure has been left as it was, half burned and falling down, while a small section was rebuilt with something of an eye to economy. A very sharp eye.
My room is on the third floor, and as I make my way up the staircase of recycled fence wood, I can feel someone watching me. I don't think it's any special skill developed through my career in journalism, but instead a basic, rather poorly developed human trait. Surprisingly enough, I don't recall hearing anyone, as one might correctly expect thanks to the Intwan's questionable workmanship. Only the barrage of Africa's night chorus, the chirping, squeaking, clicking of the insects rises to my ears. I stop, halfway up the stairs, and turn.
She doesn't try to hide at all, in fact, I think she wants me to know she's there. She looks up at me for a moment with what I take for hatred, then turns and strides back into the bar with the Intwan creaking its own brand of disapproval. Donna Sabourin, the host for the television news magazine show Foreign Correspondent, has good reason to be angry with me.
She'd been a society reporter with the Star-Telegraph when I was working there, but it was no secret she was trying to land a spot on the international desk. She finally got her first real shot at the job and through an act of colossal insensitivity on my part — in the form of a few careless words — she never got it. How my comments got back to Donna I still don't know. But journalism is really just well-organized gossip, so I guess I'm not entirely surprised that she found out.
Yup, Donna is one of my great mistakes. If I were a biker, Donna's name would be tattooed on my arm in the middle of a big flowing ribbon through an even bigger blood-red heart.
I turn away from her and trudge on up to my room, then get that same feeling once again as I slide the key into the lock. I half turn and see her there again, arms crossed and lips tightly pursed. Again the creak of the building has failed to warn me.
"Hello, Donna," I say after a moment, unable to produce anything witty. In my mind I see her smiling, wrapped in my arms, the way it was when we were at our best. But the woman before me is bristling with hostility. The memory shrinks and disappears.
She closes the ten yards between us and simply stares at me.
I shift uncomfortably, and can feel my composure departing like a wet shirt peeled from my back. "What can I do for you?" Without my permission, a giddy smile creeps across my face — a dangerous habit I developed as a kid — and I realize with some regret that it will only infuriate her.
Her tongue darts out and sweeps once across her lips. "You think you're some big hotshot, don't you?" She is almost whispering. Nearly a hiss. "You think that the whole world owes you something."
This is a battle I am definitely not prepared for, so I reach for a look that says I am tired and really far too busy. "Listen, Donna ..."
"No." She flicks a finger at me. "You listen. I'm tired of your smug attitude, marching around like you're better than the rest of us. Everyone's sick of you."
Something in Donna's face telegraphs her intent, and suddenly, without any tangible reason, I know what she is here to say. I find myself washed with alternating waves of panic and relief. The panic rises through me like hot vomit, then changes just as swiftly to a giddying sense of relief.
"I know," she says.
"You do?" I reply. Again, the schoolboy smile.
"You're finished, Roly. You're done." Her voice is solid with the confidence of the righteous, and looking at her becomes a suddenly impossible task.
I pick at the peeling paint of my doorway, and watch the fleck flutter to the ground. "What are you talking about?" It is pathetic and hollow, and seems to quash any latent respect that Donna might have held for me.
"You think you're big in the news now? Just wait till I'm through with you." She works her mouth as if to remove a bad taste, then continues. "And I'm not doing it just to get even, Roly — and believe me, I'm due that — I'm doing it because you need to pay. That family needs to know the truth."
I push the door of my room open, step inside, and turn back to face her.
"Do you care to make a comment for the story, Mr. Keene?" she says, goading me. "Can I quote you, you son of a bitch?"
I stare at her one last time and hold the gaze, not through strength, but in an effort to collect myself. I read the entire story on her face, including the fact that the telling of it all will hurt her.
What she doesn't know is that there is no reason for her to feel any pain; I have already set my own plan in motion. I have always known this day would come, that I would ultimately be forced to confront my past.
Despite the surety of my plan, though, this confrontation with Donna strikes me, in an odd way, as a good thing. Her clear knowledge of everything is in fact an insurance policy: Her rage will make sure everything is public, even if I should falter or think of changing my mind. There is nothing left now but to go on.
I smile a cockeyed smile. "Thank you, Donna," I say, with so much sincerity that it registers for a brief moment on her face, displacing the anger with a fleeting confusion. I gather myself and gently close the door on her.
* * *
Vince is still down in the bar, and the flimsy door to his room is simple to pop open. Once inside, I load the camera with a fresh battery and stuff the keys to our rented Land Cruiser in my pocket. Then I set the letter down on his bed. I suspect that writing and leaving this letter is the only brave thing I have done so far. Perhaps ever. I leave it and move on to the practicalities at hand.
The Intwan is easy to leave without being seen — thanks to the charred back half of the structure — and I am soon on my way through the darkened streets of Kigali, past the still waters of Lake Luhazi on my way to Ngarama — a small village only a few kilometers past the scene of the slaughtered children. Not far after the lake, I am stopped by a police patrol and my hands grow clammy at the sight of the bright lights in front of me, and the silhouettes of men in combat gear with automatic weapons. I have no idea if it is the police, Hutu militants, or the Tutsi rebels, and my relief at seeing the silver coat of arms on the officer's beret must be apparent.
He flashes a perfect set of teeth as he looks at the press credentials I am thrusting out of the car, and speaks in halting English. "Whe' you go now?"
I start to answer but he speaks over me. "Very denjaraas. Lot pipples killed up dey. Lot pipples." His smile is insistent despite the warning he's giving me.
I nod gravely. "I'm a journalist."
"Lot jernlis, too," he says, then turns and shouts to the others by the car. They laugh and shout back things I will never understand. "Go if you wan'. Very denjaraas," he says again, stepping back from the car, still smiling.
I watch the patrol shrink in my rearview mirror, and feel a sense of abandonment as I round the bend and their lights blink out. In front of me, a pool of light surges with the motion of the vehicle, while at my sides the blackness of the forest hurries by. This far from town there is no ambient light, and the stars overhead are the brightest I have ever seen.
As I start into the hills, I know there will be no more police patrols and that the next group of armed people I come across will quite simply be in the business of killing. The group that had performed the execution of the children will almost definitely be in Ngarama — it is common knowledge that they have moved there, although no one has been foolhardy enough to go there and confront them. Until now.
Perhaps I actually have a chance of getting some useful material, especially since I'm coming in the night, and will therefore be unexpected. No one drives around at night in Rwanda these days. I hope to come across a small group, even an individual or two, who might be willing to answer a few questions on camera. Perhaps a little description of the dark deed itself. I play it through my mind that way a few times and almost start to believe it. The truth is, though, that I will probably be stopped, pulled from the Land Cruiser, killed, and left on the road to bloat with the morning sun. It is a common end for people foolish enough to travel this far into the country without the benefit of a military escort. But then again, that was half the point, wasn't it?
I lift my hand to my breast pocket and pat the letter folded there, the one Vince had given me when he arrived in Kigali yesterday morning, and realize that now is probably a good time to read it. I pull over in the darkness, open the letter, and read it by the yellow glow of the vehicle's map light. "So that's how they knew," I say quietly aloud, gently shaking my head at the revelation.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Journalist"
Copyright © 2017 Dan Newman.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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