Henry Parker’s life is looking up. He moved to New York City after landing his dream job as a reporter at the renowned New York Gazette, working alongside his idol Jack O’Donnell. Henry is smart. Ambitious. Determined. He’s ready to take the world by storm. But this dream life is about to turn into a nightmare...
When his first story goes horribly wrong, and a man ends up dead, Henry finds himself accused of murder. On his trail is a dogged cop who wants to see Henry behind bars, and a ruthless, demented assassin who wants to see Henry dead. Henry’s only hope of survival is a woman he barely knows, as they embark on a cross-country flight barely one step ahead of disaster. The only chance he has to clear his name is to find the truth about the bizarre murder, and to uncover a secret that some very dangerous people are willing to kill to conceal.
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One month ago
I watched my reflection in the doors as the elevator rose to the twelfth floor. My suit had been steamed, pressed and tailored. My tie, shoes and belt matched perfectly. I nervously eyed Wallace Langston, the older man standing next to me. My brown hair was neatly combed, the posture on my sixone frame ramrod straight. I'd bought a book on prepping for your first day at a new job. On the cover was an attractive twenty-something whose dentistry probably cost more than my college tuition.
Security downstairs had given me a temporary ID. Not yet a member of the fraternity, still a pledge who had to prove his worth.
"Make sure you have your picture taken before the week's up," the husky security guard with huge, red-rimmed glasses and a personality-enhancing cheek mole told me. "If you don't, I gotta run you through the system every day. And I have better things to do than run it through the system every goddamn day. You get me?"
I nodded, assured her I'd have the photo taken as soon as I got upstairs. And I meant it. I wanted my face on a Gazette ID as fast as the lab could develop it. I'd take it to Kinkos myself if they were backed up.
When the doors opened, Wallace led me across a foyer with beige carpeting, past a secretary's desk with the words New York Gazette in big, bold letters mounted on the wall. I showed her my temporary ID. She smiled with an open mouth and chewed her gum.
Wallace pressed his keycard against a reader and opened the glass doors. As soon as the silence was broken, I thought how strange it was that all my hopes and dreams were embedded in one beautiful noise.
To an outsider, the noise might seem incessant, cacophonous, but to me it was as calm and natural as an honest laugh. Hundreds of fingers were pounding away, the soothing rattle of popping keys and scribbling pencils drawing a smile across my lips. Dozens of eyes, all staring at lighted screens with type the size of microorganisms, reading faxes and e-mails sent from all over the world, faces contorted as though the telephone was a human they could emote to. Some people were yelling, some softly whispering. If I hadn't clenched my jaw trying to project confidence, it would have hit the floor like I'd stepped into a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
"This is the newsroom," Wallace said. "Your desk is over there." He pointed to the one unoccupied metal swivel chair among the sea of tattered felt, showing how every day I would be wading through greatness. Soon I'd be seated at that desk, computer on, phone in my hand, fingers rattling at the keyboard like Beethoven on Red Bull.
I was home.
If you're in media or entertainment, New York is your mecca. Athletes count the days until their debut at Madison Square Garden. For classical pianists, Carnegie Hall is their holy ground. Professional stripper — sorry, exotic dancer — yeah, New York is their Jerusalem, too.
It was no coincidence, then, that this was my holy land. The newsroom of the New York Gazette. Rockefeller Plaza, New York City. I'd come a long, long way to get here.
I briefly wondered what the hell a twenty-four-year-old with little more on his résumé than the Bend Bulletin, was doing here, but this was everything I'd worked for. What I was destined for. Wallace knew what I was capable of. Ever since my first page-one story in the Bulletin, the one that was syndicated in over fifty papers around the world, Wallace had been following me. When he heard I was accepted to Cornell's prestigious journalism program, he made the three-and-a-half-hour drive to take me out for lunch. And during my senior year, before I could even start to look for jobs, Wallace made me an offer to join the Gazette full-time.
The newsroom needs some new blood, he'd said. Young, ambitious kid like you, show the skeptics out there that thenext generation has its head on straight. There are other papers in this city, but if you want to chase down real stories instead of celebrities on vacation, you'll make the right choice. Make your mark, Henry. Make it with us. Plus, our first-year salary is five grand higher.
I drank three bottles of champagne that night, and passed out in John Derringer's shower with a Bic mustache and sideburns.
I felt Wallace's hand against my suit jacket. I hoped he didn't press too hard — my threads probably cost less than Wallace's haircuts. Yet though Wallace was my professional benefactor, the top shelf on my wall of professional hero worship was permanently occupied. That man was seated just a few feet away. But as far as being indebted to a person, right after my mother giving birth, Wallace hiring me was a close second.
We snaked through the skewed chairs and cups of cold coffee, past writers who were too busy to tuck their chairs in. This was how they worked. I loved it. I knew not to interrupt a reporter on deadline, and sure as hell didn't expect them to move. I was here to purify the blood of the newsroom, not to disrupt its flow.
I recognized some of the writers. I'd read their work, knew to look for their bylines. It was scary to think of them as my new colleagues. Not to mention how seldom they appeared to shave or shower.
I wanted them to respect me, needed them to respect me. But for now I was just a mark. A newbie. The guy all eyes would be on to see if he produced.
And then I saw him. Jack O'Donnell. Then Wallace pulled me forward and I remembered to breathe.
As we walked by, I let my hand swipe O'Donnell's Oxford blue shirt sleeve. A silent brush with greatness. I couldn't have been any less subtle than if I'd taken out his latest book, asked for an autograph, then smacked him across the face with it. Talk to him later, I told myself. Follow him to the bathroom. To lunch. Offer to shine his shoes, raise his kids, whatever.
Man. Jack O'Donnell.
Five years ago, if someone had said I'd be working fifteen feet from Jack I'd have kicked his ass for mocking me. A few years ago, Jack O'Donnell was profiled in the New Yorker. I had a copy of the article at home. I taped one page above my desk, underlined one quote, the quote that threaded its way through every story I ever wrote.
News is the DNA of our society. It shapes how we think, how we act, how we feel. It dictates who we are and who we become. We are all beneficiaries — and byproducts — of information.
Many people, myself included, credited the first injection of this strand of DNA to William Randolph Hearst. Hearst took over the San Francisco Examiner in 1887 at the tender age of twenty-three. The only guy who made me feel lazy.
Hearst was the first to truly sensationalize print media, splashing his newspapers with big, bold headlines and lavish illustrations. Conspiracy mongers blamed Hearst for inciting the Spanish-American war with his constant editorializing on the Spanish government's civil rights atrocities. As Hearst reportedly said to illustrator Frederic Remington, "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war."
Since then, it almost seems like journalism has taken a step backward. The scandal at the New York Times proved that. Some people laughed it off as an isolated incident. Others who knew their stories couldn't hold up to scrutiny quietly updated their résumés. And I followed the whole thing shaking my head, trembling in anger, wanting to shake up the system.
And if Jack's quote was accurate — as I believed it to be — when that blood became tainted, it could spread disease through every capillary of society. Liars and fabricators and egos the size of Donald Trump were popping up like rats in the subway, from men and women who were supposed to report the stories, not be the stories.
Just last week, a junior reporter at the Washington Post came to work jacked on amphetamines, two pots of coffee, with a deadline in six hours for a thousand-word story he hadn't written a sentence for. He cranked out the piece then returned home, punched his girlfriend, and took a header out of their fifth-story walk-up. Just more fuel for the fire.
I wanted to be the antidote, to pick up Jack O'Donnell's mantle, polish the surface and carry it with pride. I wanted to extract the venom that had poisoned journalism, to bring some credibility back to the newsroom in the wake of these lies. Jack O'Donnell had given me an unbreakable faith in what a good reporter could accomplish. And now here I was, within coughing distance of the legend himself. Time to put up or shut up, Henry.
After bobbing and weaving through jackets slung over chair backs and pens rolling along the floor like plastic dust bunnies, we arrived at my desk, a smile on my face as if it were opening day at Yankee freakin' Stadium. My desk was right by the window, overlooking the veranda that in the winter became Woolman rink. Prime real estate, baby. I could watch the multilingual tourists snapping away at the beautiful golden sculptures and international flags, people gazing at the fair city as though they never knew such architecture and panache existed. Sunlight poured over my workstation, glowing off the fresh-scrubbed walls, and I couldn't help but feel blessed.
"Welcome to your new home," Wallace said. "Comes fully stocked with, well, everything you see here."
"Any assembly required?" I asked.
Wallace leaned in, whispered, "Some of the old-timers, I guess you can count myself in there, keep a flask in their desk." I didn't know what to say. Was he serious? Wallace laughed, clapped me on the back. "You'll fit in just fine."
He leaned over and tapped the shoulder of the woman whose workstation was adjacent to mine. She spun around, her swivel chair well-oiled and squeak-free, and glowered at me. She was slim, blond and quite attractive. Late thirties, early forties, with a "what the hell do you want?" look on her face so convincing I couldn't help but think she practiced it in the mirror. She wore a pink tank top and black Capri pants, her hair pulled back into a ponytail. No wedding ring. And from the looks of it, no bra. If Mya asked what my co-workers looked like, I'd have to lie.
"Paulina," Wallace said stepping aside, allowing her to view me in full. "Meet Henry Parker. This is his first day on the job."
Paulina shriveled her nose. "He's taking Phil's old desk."
Wallace coughed into his hands, slightly embarrassed. "Yes, he's taking Phil's old desk."
Paulina scanned me as if reading a computer printout. Finally she extended her hand. I shook it, her grip limp and apathetic.
"Welcome to the mad house, new guy," she said.
"Thanks. I'm excited to ..."
"Tough luck taking Phil's old desk. You tell him what happened to Phil, Wally?"
Wallace sighed. "No, I haven't had the chance yet."
Paulina shrugged. "Bad karma, Henry." She looked at me inquisitively. "Henry. That's a strange name for such a young man. How'd you get saddled with that?"
"Saddled? I ..."
"What, your parents didn't like you?" My eyes hardened. Paulina could tell she'd dug too far, and her face became all twinkles. "I'm just playing with you, Henry. You've got a fine name. I like things that are different." She looked up at Wallace, apparently satisfied with my answers. "This is the kid from Oregon, right?" She looked at me again. "Wallace told me you were, quote, a prize find. That right?"
I tried to ease the tension. "Yeah, Kmart was having a blue-light special on junior reporters. Wallace got me at twenty-five percent off." Paulina's eyebrow cocked and she shook her head. Wallace turned away in shame. I gave myself a mental slap.
Paulina said, "That's not funny, Henry. You haven't been here long enough to get away with making shitty jokes."
"Sorry. From now on, only funny jokes."
"Or no jokes," she said.
"Or no jokes."
She smiled, much warmer now.
"Good." Paulina held up a pen, its nub chewed to a quick. I noticed several pairs of shoes under her desk. Shiny red dress shoes, worn sneakers, broken-in Birkenstocks.
"If you're smart, you'll keep a few good pairs of shoes around the office," she said. "You never know what kind of story you'll have to chase at a moment's notice. You need to be prepared at all times." Wallace nodded. I made a mental note to bring in my old Reebok pumps.
"Best of luck to you, Henry," she added. "Wally's a good guy. Listen to what he says."
Paulina turned back to her computer and began typing away.
"She's a fine journalist," Wallace said softly. "Paulina, here, found our hero of the day six times this month alone."
"Seven times, Wally," Paulina said. "If you fuck that up on my performance review I'll call my lawyer."
"Hero of the day?" I asked.
"Every day has a hero," Wallace said. "It's our page-one feature, the main attraction, the story that sells papers. One day it could be the war, the next it's the elections, the next it could be a man who keeps a Bengal tiger in his apartment as a pet or a celebrity discovered screwing his babysitter."
Paulina added, "Every day has a different hero. Simply put, it's that day's biggest news. Every day needs a hero. Without one, there's no news. We don't sell papers, the Gazette brings in no money, we all get canned, you're back in bumblefuck Oregon before the month is out. Plus, whichever reporter reports the most heroes over the calendar year gets a pretty nice bonus. So get cracking. There are a lot of rocks out there to turn over."
Wallace said, "Don't worry. You'll have your chance. For now, though, try to observe how your new colleagues work. It'll be hard to gain your footing and find your voice. Just remember everyone here started out exactly where you are. Mickey Mantle was an Oklahoma boy before he came to the Yankees. Pretty soon, you'll be finding your own heroes for us." He became serious, leaned in closer. "We're counting on you to find ones that matter."
Paulina chimed in, "Unlike Phil."
Wallace nodded resignedly. "Yes, unlike Phil."
I decided not to inquire about this Phil. It was newsroom gossip and I hadn't earned the right.
"Well, have a seat," Wallace said. "See how the old desk fits you."
Watching Wallace to see his reaction, I settled into my new chair. The seat wasn't meant for comfort, rather for a body that was constantly fidgeting, moving around. Designed more to keep you awake than keep you relaxed, and I was sure my spine would hate me for it.
"It's perfect," I said. Wallace laughed.
"Bullshit, but you'll get used to it. Let's have lunch Thursday. HR will send you info about benefits and 401k. Give me a holler if you need anything." Just then a voice rang through the office. Wallace's secretary.
"Mr. Langston! Rudy Giuliani on line two."
He muttered, "Shit, he's probably pissed about the piece on page five." Wallace gave me a quick pat on the back. "And Henry?"
"Don't wear a suit and tie again. You're a journalist, not a stockbroker. Lesson number one, your sources will want to feel you're on their level. Not a level above them."
As I settled in, Paulina turned to me, a cagey look on her face.
"And one more thing," she said.
"Remember one thing, and make sure you remember it good in every story you write. Ninety percent of this job is reporting good versus evil. And without evil, we'd be out of a job."CHAPTER 2
"Is a good space," Manuel Vega said, inserting a nicked key into the lock. He met some resistance, smiled as though it was intentional, then jarred the door open with his shoulder. After seeing — and rejecting — twelve apartments in barely a month, I prayed this one would fit in my budget. Not to mention fit me.
The stench of mildew immediately attacked my nose. Flecks of white paint spotted my coat where I brushed against the doorframe. A rasping noise, like the death throes of an elderly marsupial, emanated from the radiator.
Putting my hands in my pockets, I gritted my teeth. "And this is how much?"
"Nine seventy-five a month. Six months rent paid in advance."
It was manageable. Plus this was the only apartment I'd seen remotely in my price range and still on the island of Manhattan. Most were double the price and equal in size to my baby crib. Right now this apartment, nestled on the Northwest corner of 112th and Amsterdam, whose lone streetlamp seemed to share an electrical outlet with every hair dryer in the city, was the only one I could afford without turning tricks. And if I was going to work at a newspaper, a New York paper, I didn't want to live anywhere else but in the city. If I was in, I was in all the way.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Mark"
Copyright © 2007 Jason Pinter.
Excerpted by permission of Polis Books, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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