When he hears residents of a Newark neighborhood are getting sickand even dyingfrom a strange disease, investigative reporter Carter Ross dives into the storyso deep he comes down with the illness himself. With even more motivation to track down the source of the disease, Carter soon hits upon a nearby construction site. But when the project's developer is found dead, and his mob ties surface, Carter knows he's looking at a story much biggerand with even more dangerous consequencesthan an environmental hazard.
Back in the newsroom, Carter has his hands full with his current girlfriend and with the paper's newest eager intern, not to mention his boss and former girlfriend Tina Thompson, who has some news for Carter that's about to make tangling with the mob seem simple by comparison, in The Player by Brad Parks.
About the Author
BRAD PARKS is the only author to have won the Shamus, Nero and Lefty Awards, three of crime fiction's most prestigious prizes. A former reporter for The Washington Post and The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger, The Player is his fifth novel. He lives in Virginia with his wife and two small children.
Read an Excerpt
Even in an era when American print media has plunged into inexorable and perhaps terminal decline, even at a time when tech moguls are buying up venerated news-gathering organizations with their equivalent of couch change, even with the likelihood of career advancement dimmed by the industry’s collective implosion, there are benefits to working for a newspaper that cannot be quantified by simple measurements like salary, benefits, or future prospects.
Kook calls are definitely one of them.
We get them all the time—from the drunken, the deranged, the demented—and they come in enough different flavors to keep us constantly entertained.
Some are just mild, low-grade kooks, like the ones who have newspapers confused with talk radio. They’ll call up and start ranting about whatever subject is bothering them—the governor’s latest cabinet appointment, the confusing signage that led them down the wrong exit ramp of the Garden State Parkway, the deplorable slowness of third-class mail—perhaps believing that if they just convince the reporter they’re right, the newspaper will immediately launch a four-part series on the subject, written from the caller’s particular point of view.
Then there are the conspiracy theorists, the ones who want us to “do some digging” into whatever fantasies they’re harboring at the moment, whether it’s that the local Walmart is importing illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in a garbage truck or that their town’s animal-control officer is more of a dog person than a cat person.
There are also the old people who just want to talk. To someone. About anything. They’ll call up with a “news tip,” and of course it turns out they are the news, and the tip is that long ago—during, say, the Korean War—they nearly lost three toes to frostbite. And now, particularly on the mornings when they still feel that little tingle in their big toes, they feel the world at large needs to know about it.
Then there are the other standbys: the prisoners who use their phone time to call us, usually collect, and convince us of the gross miscarriage of justice that led to their incarceration; the paranoid schizophrenics who believe their delusions are worthy of front-page headlines; or the poor confused souls who, thinking newspaper reporters must be omniscient, will call and ask the name of the program they were watching on television last night.
As a group, they land somewhere between pitiable—particularly when they’re obviously suffering from mental illness—and laughable. Except for the racists. We get a lot of those, too. They’re just despicable.
Sure, Internet chat rooms and social networking have siphoned off some of our kooks over the years—there are more outlets for people to express their crazy now than ever before—but we at the Newark Eagle-Examiner, New Jersey’s most widely circulated periodical, still get our share. Because the fact is, even with the increasing fragmentation of media, most people, even the nuts, realize a major daily newspaper like ours is still the best way to get serious attention for whatever cause or issue matters most to them.
Plus, we print our phone number in the paper.
Some reporters treat kook calls as nuisances. But most of us learn over the years to look forward to them. There’s just nothing like going through an otherwise ordinary day, pecking away at some humdrum story, when suddenly you become aware one of your colleagues is talking to someone who lives off the grid and has found one of the three remaining working pay phones in the state of New Jersey to call and explicate his worldview.
If the reporter who takes the call is in a certain mood, she’ll stand up in the middle of the newsroom and, for the benefit of those listening, start repeating key lines and questions in a loud voice, such as: “I realize you think Greta Van Susteren is trying to control your mind, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Wolf Blitzer is going to try as well.”
Or: “So you want to know if we’re going to be writing about the rash of robberies in your neighborhood because someone keeps breaking into your house and moving your broom.”
Or: “To make sure I understand this right, you’re saying the Battle of Gettysburg didn’t happen the way the history books said it did—and you know, because you were there in a previous life?”
The fun just never ends. So I have to admit I was mostly just looking for a good kook call on Monday afternoon when one of our news clerks wandered over to my desk and said, “Hey, I got a woman who says she has a big story for our investigative reporter. You want me to get rid of her?”
“Nah, I’ll take it,” I said.
I had just been killing time anyway, waiting for edits on my latest piece, a story about cash-strapped municipalities that were considering halting their recycling programs (corrugated waste products have seldom warranted so much attention). So when the forwarded call came through on my desk phone, I rubbed my hands together in anticipation, then answered with my most polite and officious, “Eagle-Examiner, this is Carter Ross.”
“Hi, Mr. Ross, my name is Jackie Orr,” came the voice on the other end. It was the voice of someone young, black, and determined.
“Hi, Jackie, what can I do for you?”
“Do you ever do stories about people getting sick?”
“That depends,” I said. “Who’s getting sick?”
“What do you mean ‘everyone’?” I asked. So far, so good: kooks often insisted that whatever troubled them also afflicted others.
“Well, first it was just my grandmother. Or we thought it was just my grandmother. But then it turned out to be the whole neighborhood.”
“Sounds like you need a lawyer more than you need a newspaper reporter,” I said.
“I tried that. I tell them people are sick and they’re interested. But once they hear it’s not some open-and-shut mesothelioma case, they don’t want anything to do with it. I talked to one lawyer who sounded a little interested, but then he wanted a fifty-thousand-dollar retainer. If we had fifty thousand dollars, we wouldn’t be bothering with lawsuits. We’d just move. Our case is a little more complicated than anyone seems to want to take on.”
I felt myself sitting up in my chair and paying closer attention. There are certain words kooks tend not to use. “Mesothelioma” is one of them. So while that was a little disappointing—no kook call for me today—it was also more promising from a journalistic standpoint. As a newspaper reporter, I have a certain bias toward the disenfranchised, disadvantaged masses that others, not even sleazy lawyers, want to listen to. Maybe it’s because, deep down, I fancy myself a good-hearted human being who wants to help the less fortunate. Or maybe it’s because the Pulitzer committee shares the same bias.
“You said it’s complicated. How so?”
“Well, we don’t know what’s making anyone sick.”
“Okay, so you don’t need a lawyer. You need a doctor.”
“Everyone is seeing doctors. Or at least the ones who have health insurance are. The doctors just treat the symptoms and send them home. They don’t have any answers.”
I didn’t either. But I was intrigued enough to have Jackie assemble herself and some of her ill neighbors to chat with me that afternoon. The headline MYSTERY ILLNESS STRIKES NEWARK NEIGHBORHOOD had a lot more promise for interesting journalism than MORRISTOWN WEIGHS COSTS AND BENEFITS OF RECYCLING NO. 6 PLASTIC.
Besides, as a reporter, I had learned to trust that little assignment editor in my head to tell me when I might be onto a good story. And my assignment editor was telling me, at the very least, that Jackie Orr was no kook.
* * *
Having gained a modest amount of seniority at the Eagle-Examiner—eight years counted as senior at a newspaper where most of the older reporters had been forced to take buyouts—I had wrangled myself a prime desk location in the corner of the newsroom.
It was strategic, inasmuch as it meant editors couldn’t sneak up on me. But more than that, it was panoramic, inasmuch as it afforded me a sweeping view of the magnificent and picturesque vista that was a daily newspaper in action. In a single glance, I could see the anguish of the photo editors who had eleven assignments to shoot and only four photographers to do the shooting; the boredom of the Web site writers who were still repurposing yesterday’s news until today gave them something interesting to do; the torment of the education reporter trying to make a story about teacher-pension reform sound interesting. And, okay, maybe it didn’t fit conventional standards for beauty—unless you found splendor in forty-year-old office furniture and fifteen-year-old computer terminals—but it was my view and I loved it all the same.
Along the walls were the glass offices, home to the higher editors who sometimes conspired to limit my fun but were otherwise a decent group, albeit sometimes in a cheerless, party-pooping, adjective-hating kind of way.
In the middle were the desks filled with reporters. There were a few duds among them, too, but by and large they were a magnificently contemptuous set of brilliant, irreverent, fascinating folks, the kind of people who almost always had interesting things to say and entertaining ways of saying it. And in a strange way I could never quite explain to outsiders—who didn’t necessarily understand how the cruciblelike forge of putting out a daily newspaper could bond people—I considered them my extended, mildly dysfunctional family.
Just beyond them was an area of the room known as the intern pod. If kook calls were one of the immeasurable benefits of life at a newspaper, the joy of working with interns was more quantifiable. Through the years, the newspaper industry had come to rely on an ever-growing collection of young, idealistic, energetic, just-out-of-college flunkies to do much of the news gathering that used to be done by more-hardened souls. And while you had to be careful not to let some of their naïveté get in the paper, they were fun all the same. At the age of thirty-two, I wasn’t exactly Father Time. But I had been in the game just long enough that I knew there was a value to seeing the world through the nonjaded eyes of an intern. It helped keep me young.
Some of our interns, like Tommy Hernandez, now our city hall reporter and one of my best friends at the paper, started in this lowly post and quickly graduated to more important beats at the paper. Others had come and gone, leaving only their colorful nicknames—Sweet Thang, Lunky, Ruthie—and a smattering of stories in the archives by which we could remember them.
They were, most of all, cheap labor and eager helpmates. So it was that my eyes wandered toward the intern pod, looking for an enthusiastic aide-de-camp. Jackie Orr had promised me a room full of sick people. Interviewing them one by one, which is what I’d need to do, would take time. Having the assistance of an intern, presuming it was one who had been properly potty trained, would double my efficiency and halve my time. Plus, much like with kook calls, there was always the entertainment factor to consider. Interns were nothing if not amusing.
This being the middle of the afternoon, the pod was only partially populated. Half of them were out being good little interns, chasing stories. As I sized up the half that remained, my gaze immediately fell on Neesha Krishnamurthy, a smart—if a little too smart—young woman who had come to us from somewhere in the Ivy League. Columbia School of Journalism, if memory served. Poor thing.
Neesha’s internship had thus far been distinguished only by an incident during the early days of her employment, when she stumbled across one of those only-in-Newark stories: a one-legged homeless man who had taken on a one-legged pigeon as a pet, training the bird to perch on his finger, arm, and shoulder.
Neesha somehow persuaded her editor to let her write a human-interest story about the guy—some kind of misguided effort to tug on the readership’s heartstrings with a tale of man and bird, bonded by their shared disability. Unfortunately for her, our Web editors thought it had what they liked to call “viral potential,” so they sent along a videographer. And he had the camera rolling during that priceless moment when Neesha got the bird on her shoulder and it confused her for its favorite statue, depositing a salvo of white glop on her arm.
One point three million YouTube hits had guaranteed that, for the rest of her days at the Eagle-Examiner, Neesha would be known as Pigeon.
Hence, I strolled over to the intern pod, sat down across from her, and said, “Hey, Pigeon, what’s up?”
She looked stricken. “How long are people going to keep calling me that?
“Well, that all depends on one thing,” I said, faux philosophically.
“How long you plan on being alive.”
She groaned. “What if I become executive editor someday? That would mean people would have to stop calling me Pigeon, right?”
“No, that would mean we’d have to stop calling you Pigeon to your face.”
“It’s so unfair!” she whined.
“No, unfair is being a pigeon in Newark, New Jersey with only one leg. What happened to you is just funny.”
She pouted. Pigeon could be considered attractive—lots of long, dark hair and long, dark eyelashes surrounded by rather flawless skin—but after a dalliance with the aforementioned Sweet Thang, I had promised myself to swear off interns. Plus, I had enough complications in my romantic life at the moment.
“Anyhow, I was wondering if you wanted to help me report a story,” I said.
“It doesn’t involve pigeons, does it? Because Buster Hays tried to trick me into a story about a—”
I interrupted her by laughing. Buster Hays was the oldest reporter left, the only septuagenarian in a newsroom whose median age was roughly twenty-four. He hung around mostly because he was far too cantankerous to give us the pleasure of seeing him quit.
“No, no. I’m serious,” I assured her. “No pigeons. No birds of any sort. I got a tip about a neighborhood in Newark where apparently a bunch of people are getting sick and no one knows why.”
“Oh, cool,” she said.
Yes, this was one who belonged in the Fourth Estate: only someone with a reporter’s sensibilities would describe mysteriously ill people as “cool.”
“Anyhow, there’s going to be a group of them gathered at a house this afternoon, and I was hoping you could help me interview them. You busy?”
“Well, sort of. But it can wait. Let me just go tell Matt where I’m going.”
Matt was her editor. And he was a decent enough guy, for an editor, but I didn’t need Matt knowing about this. There was too great a risk he would tell my editor, Tina Thompson, with whom I had a somewhat complex relationship. The less Tina knew about my activities at the moment, the better.
“Don’t do that,” I said. She looked confused, so I continued: “Intern lesson number one: when it comes to editors, it’s always better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.”
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Well, that depends. Do you want to be known around here for something other than bird poop?”
She followed me out of the newsroom without another word.
* * *
The address furnished to me by Jackie Orr was on Ridgewood Avenue, and as we made the short drive out there from downtown, I gave Pigeon a quick history lesson. Ridgewood Avenue used to be one of the South Ward’s great streets, located in the Weequahic section of the city, one of Newark’s great neighborhoods. Then someone got the fine idea to construct Interstate 78 through it in the late 1950s. It tore Ridgewood Avenue roughly in half, destroying the neighborhood and leaving behind a piece of the city that never quite recovered.
The house was located on the section of Ridgewood Avenue that survived just to the north of the highway, an odd wedge of real estate that had long been yearning for revitalization. It was a strange hodgepodge of residential and industrial, with everything from manufacturing and transportation companies to new public housing and old private housing, with some newly paved streets next to ones in such serious need of repaving you could see cobblestones under the asphalt.
Symbolically, nothing captured the area better than the South Ward Industrial Park. Originally conceived in the seventies as a $100 million economic engine that would employ more than a thousand residents, it was finally built in the late nineties as a $9 million facility that maybe—maybe—employed a hundred people and never did become the catalyst that anyone thought it would be.
Still, this being Newark, where urban renewal has been just around the corner for fifty years, there was a new project being touted as a neighborhood savior. Using eminent domain as something of a cudgel, the city had managed to scrape together a sizable piece of property across several city blocks, in the process leveling some abandoned factories and some houses that should have been abandoned but still had people living in them.
Then, with a variety of tax abatements and promises about streamlining approval processes, it had sold the parcel to McAlister Properties, a father-son development team who fancied themselves the Trumps of Newark. I was always a little unclear where the father, Barry McAlister, had gotten his seed money from—family? investments? bank theft?—but he and his son, Vaughn, had slapped their name on a couple of buildings in the city and, allegedly, they were going to toss up something sizable and shiny on this plot as well.
The last proposal I had heard about was for one of those mixed-use, mixed-income developments that have become all the rage among the urban-planning set. The numbers being touted by city hall always seemed to vary—anywhere from two hundred to three hundred affordable and market-rate residential units and 60,000 to 90,000 square feet of retail space—but it was, without question, going to be large. The total price tag was put somewhere around $120 million.
There were even rumors about a big-box store anchoring the retail space. A Kohl’s? A Target? It was, so far, a well-guarded secret. But Newarkers got giddy when they spoke of it. That was one of the real ironies of life in a depressed city: all the people wanted was the same kind of national franchises—with their homogeneous, cookie-cutter architecture—that people in the well-to-do suburbs desperately tried to keep out.
The development was currently being called McAlister Arms—not to be confused with McAlister Center or McAlister Place, which were office buildings located downtown—and it was located just off an exit ramp to I-78. The thinking was that shoppers might be enticed into the stores by the lower sales tax of an urban enterprise zone and that commuters might be enticed to move there by the easy access to the highway.
That was another irony: the very roadway that had first rent the neighborhood asunder was now being seen as a hope for helping to bring it back. Some of the locals thought it would really turn into a boon for the area. Others thought it would be another South Ward Industrial Park, a project that promised salvation and delivered something well short of it.
Either way, it had to be better than what was there now: a big, empty lot.
It turned out the neatly trimmed single-family house where Jackie Orr had her group congregating was within shouting distance of the McAlister Arms site—or at least it was shouting distance if you could make yourself heard over the rumble of trucks and other heavy equipment that were readying the site for construction. As I pulled into a parking spot, I saw an earthmover pushing dirt into a pile that a backhoe was then scooping into a dump truck. Elsewhere, a crane was stacking steel girders. It was like watching very large Tonka trucks in action.
“So what’s our plan?” Pigeon asked.
“Basically, you want to make like a doctor: ask them questions about what ouches, when it started ouching, and how it ouches. Then write down the answers. We’ll sort everything else out later.”
“Okay. Who’s keeping the spreadsheet?”
“Who said anything about a spreadsheet?”
She looked at me like I had caught the stupid virus. “Investigative reporters keep spreadsheets,” she said, as if quoting from a textbook. “It allows them to systematically track large volumes of data, identify emerging patterns, and draw conclusions based on their findings. It’s how modern investigative reporting is done.”
I made a show of stifling a fake yawn. “Really? Is that so? Says who?”
“Didn’t you go to journalism school?”
“Thankfully, no,” I said. Which is true. I had no formal training in journalism. And, frankly, I had never missed it. My undergraduate degree was from Amherst, a small liberal-arts college in Massachusetts where they had no journalism major and, in general, had tried not to teach us anything too useful. I grew more appreciative of how nonspecific my education had been with each passing year, as it became clear that in this breakneck world of ours, anything allegedly practical they might have crammed into me would have become quickly outdated anyway.
“Oh, well, I took several classes in investigative reporting and computer-assisted reporting,” she said. “I’d be happy to help you set up a spreadsheet.”
“Oh, no, thank you. Some of us reporters like to do their investigating a little more haphazardly.”
“Because studies have shown reporters who use spreadsheets are seventy-two percent more likely to clog their stories with meaningless statistics,” I said. “In fact, did you know that spreadsheets account for more than ninety-one percent of the deathly dull stories that get into the newspaper?”
She paused to consider these purely fabricated pieces of information as I turned off the engine. “You’re making fun of me right now, aren’t you?” she asked.
“Pigeon, you’re about to meet real people, not data points,” I said. “In my experience, human beings are too messy for spreadsheets. Stick around long enough and you’ll learn to love them for it.”
* * *
The woman who answered my knock on the door could not have been more than twenty-one. And if you told me she was fourteen, I would have believed that, too. She sort of resembled a mop held upside down: thin as the handle until her head, which exploded in a profusion of thick, black braids, loosely organized by a rubber band.
I smiled as she pulled open the wooden front door, noting she had not yet touched the clear Plexiglas storm door. She was going to size me up first, and that was fine by me. Newspaper reporters grow accustomed to being the Fuller Brush salesmen of the modern day: if we don’t make a good impression on the front porch, we’ll never get inside the house. For that reason, I’m always conscious of making my appearance as professional and noncontroversial as possible.
Hence, what the woman saw on the other side of her storm door was a smiling, six-foot-one, 185-pound WASP with the world’s most boring haircut, pleated khaki pants, a freshly ironed white shirt, and a necktie that looked like it had been picked out by the Republican National Committee.
If she had looked really carefully, she would have noticed I double-knotted my shoes.
“Hi. I’m Carter Ross. Are you Jackie?”
She adjusted a pair of bug-eyed glasses that were too big for her small face. They were at least twenty years out of style and might have been charity giveaways. Or maybe that’s just what The Kids were wearing these days. Either way, they gave Jackie an owlish look. I immediately pegged her as the girl in her high school class who spent lunchtime by herself in the corner of the cafeteria, reading fiction for pleasure.
“Yes, hi, Mr. Ross, thank you for coming,” Jackie said, opening the storm door.
“First of all, please call me Carter. Otherwise you’ll make me feel old. Second, this is my colleague Neesha Krishnamurthy. I hope you don’t mind I brought her along to help me do some interviewing.”
“That’s fine. Please come in.”
She showed me into a small entryway, with stairs immediately in front of me, a small living room to the right, and a kitchen in back. Nothing in the house looked to have been added within the last thirty years or so.
“Nice place,” I said, because politeness is sometimes more important than honesty.
“This is my grandma’s house,” Jackie said, then corrected herself: “Was my grandma’s house.”
Right. Was. In case I hadn’t already figured it out, Jackie added, “She just died.”
“Sorry for your loss. How old was she?”
“Seventy-seven. It was actually at her funeral that we started realizing how many people in the neighborhood had been getting sick. We had been so busy caring for Grandma we hadn’t noticed before that.”
I considered asking for more details about Grandma, but I was aware there was a room full of people just to my right. They were all from the neighborhood, which meant they were all African American, and I got the sense they were sizing up the white guy who had just walked in. I figured it made more sense to talk to the living now and get details about the dead later.
“There are more of us than what you see here,” she said, pointing me to the living room. “There are about twenty of us altogether. This is just who I could get on short notice.”
I turned into the room and took stock. There were eight people: six women and two guys, roughly thirty to seventy years of age. They tended to be more toward the pleasantly plump side, but otherwise they looked … healthy, I guess. Or at least healthy for Newark, which is not an especially well city to begin with. In modern-day America, taking care of one’s self requires money, good insurance, and ready access to primary care, none of which are things that people in a place like Newark tend to have.
“Hi, folks,” I said. “How is everyone today?”
The replies were mostly mumbled, the faces downcast. I think people sometimes have newspapers confused with television, or at least they were acting like they were on camera. This little cadre of convalescents was ill, and they were going to play that part as long as they were in my presence. Then again, since Jackie’s grandma had just died—perhaps of the same cause that was diseasing them—I suppose I shouldn’t have expected a pep rally to break out just because I had asked them how they were doing.
After the introductions and a few necessary niceties, Pigeon and I divided the afflicted, went into separate quarters—me to the kitchen, her to the small dining room that was connected to the living room—and began interviewing them.
What I heard four times over the next hour or so was more or less the same story, told in slightly different ways. People kept getting what they thought was the flu, except it was happening too often to really be the flu. There was no discernible pattern to how or when it happened. There was no reliable predictor of when it would flare up again.
The symptoms beyond that were a little more scattershot, everything from puffy eyes to aching feet to a persistent cough and respiratory distress. And that could mean anything from diabetes to allergies. Being that my medical training didn’t go beyond watching Scrubs reruns, it’s not like I could place them as all being related to, say, a failure in the endocrine system. Mostly because I couldn’t remember what the endocrine system actually did. I was proud of myself for even knowing we had one.
But there was one thing that caught my attention: broken bones. Three of the four people I talked to had fractured something recently, and they said others in their group had reported the same thing. That could just be coincidence, but I doubted it. Adults just weren’t that clumsy.
What I liked about broken bones, from a journalistic standpoint, was that it wasn’t the flu. A bunch of people who complained they were getting flulike symptoms too often felt like it could be an imagined thing, some kind of mass hypochondria. You couldn’t imagine breaking a bone. It could be confirmed with X-rays. It was incontrovertible.
Plus, it suggested something truly strange was going on.
They all had theories as to what that was. One woman swore it was the water: she noticed it was suspiciously cloudy just before the onset of her most recent outbreak. Another woman thought perhaps the local grocery store where they all shopped had applied some kind of chemical to its produce. The guy I interviewed thought it had something to do with the neighborhood’s proximity to I-78, which was more or less on top of them.
It was all possible, I guess. I just knew whatever it was had to be fairly local. The people I talked to didn’t really have a lot in common. They ate different diets, worked different kinds of jobs (or not at all), lived in different houses. But the one thing they all shared was the neighborhood. It didn’t take an epidemiologist to speculate that something very nearby—in the air, in the soil, in the water—was the culprit.
But I understood why the lawyers Jackie had talked to wanted nothing to do with her and her motley little group. Unless you had some kind of inkling to what this peculiar pathogen might be, it would take a lot of time—and money—to figure it out. That was assuming you ever could.
* * *
After finishing with our interview subjects, Pigeon and I dismissed them one by one, making sure to get their phone numbers and addresses in case we needed to ask them more questions. Jackie promised us more people if we could come back in the morning, after she had a chance to round them up. I told her Pigeon and I would be back, with bells on.
Once the last of the visitors departed, it was just Jackie, Pigeon, and I, standing in the living room.
“So I probably should have asked you this on the phone, but: how are you feeling?” I asked Jackie. “Have you been experiencing any of these symptoms?”
“Yeah, but only once. I don’t live here.”
“Where do you live?”
“Well, I grew up around here. I went to Shabazz,” she said, pointing vaguely in the direction of Malcolm X. Shabazz High School, a few blocks to the north. “But I live in New Brunswick now. I go to Rutgers.”
I was impressed. For kids from the expensive private school where I received my secondary education, Rutgers was a respectable safety school. For a kid from Shabazz High School, making it into Rutgers was like one of my classmates making it into Harvard.
“What are you studying?” I asked.
“Better you than me. What year are you?”
“I guess you could say I’m a junior and a half,” she said. “I’ll probably graduate a semester early.”
“How’d you swing that?”
“Summer school. I love Newark and I want to come back here someday and be a doctor—a pediatrician, actually. But for right now? I just need to be out of here during the summer. I don’t want to be hanging around on the bleachers when some whacked-out banger comes after me with a machete.”
I got the reference. A few years earlier, four college students, back in Newark for summer vacation, had been sitting on the bleachers at a nearby elementary school, eating McDonald’s and whiling away a summer evening, when they were attacked by a group of young men who may or may not have been going through initiation to the MS-13 gang. Only one of the four kids survived, and she still bears machete scars. One of the kids who was killed had been the drum major for the Shabazz High School marching band. He would have been a little older than Jackie. They might have known each other.
Jackie continued: “The only reason I was here so much this summer was because of my grandmother.”
“Right, of course. I meant to ask you a little more about her. What was her name?”
“Edna Foster.” She gave a thoughtful pause, then added, “She was the best.”
“She sounds like it,” I said, even though I didn’t know a thing about the woman. “Do you have a picture of her by any chance?”
“Uh, yeah, sure, hang on,” Jackie said. “There’s one upstairs. Let me go get it.”
Jackie departed the living room and disappeared upstairs for a moment, leaving me with a slightly bewildered-looking Pigeon.
“Why do you need to see what she looks like?” she asked, quietly.
“I don’t,” I said.
“Then why did you ask for a picture?”
“Because every good story needs a victim, and Edna Foster strikes me as a pretty good victim. So I need Jackie talking about her grandmother in a kind, loving way. If Jackie is looking at a picture of her grandmother while she talks, we’ll get better stuff. Photos can be very evocative that way. Now do me a favor and get your notebook back out and write down whatever this young woman says next, because I guarantee we’ll end up using it.”
Pigeon still looked to be a little circumspect—this was yet another thing that wouldn’t fit on her spreadsheet—but further conversation ended when Jackie came back down the stairs and into the living room.
“This is her and my grandfather,” Jackie said, handing me a framed snapshot of a man and a woman who looked to be around thirty, standing on a sidewalk. The man had his arm around the woman, who was tall and thin, like her granddaughter. If I had to put a date on the picture, I’d say 1965.
Jackie went on: “That’s a picture of them the day they bought this house. My grandmother was so proud of it. She was the first person in her family to own property.”
I knew enough Newark history to be able to imagine the backstory. The mid-1960s was prime time for white flight and blockbusting. Whole neighborhoods changed complexion virtually overnight, thanks in part to less-than-scrupulous Realtors who roamed through neighborhoods, knocked on the doors of the white families who lived there, and said things like, “Just wanted to let you know you have new neighbors … Yes, it’s a lovely family from South Carolina with eight kids … I hear they’re going to plant watermelons out back.”
Mr. and Mrs. Foster had probably bought this place from a nice Jewish family that couldn’t wait to hightail it to Livingston.
“My grandfather got killed during a holdup a few years later. My grandmother remarried but he died of a heart attack. I still don’t know how she managed to hang on to this place and raise three children by herself. She was tough.”
“What kind of work did she do?” I asked.
“She worked for the city, in the engineering department. She was a secretary. She talked all the time about how she was the first black woman they ever hired, right after Gibson got elected”—Ken Gibson was the city’s first black mayor—“and how it was hard sometimes, but she felt like she was going to make things better for her children and her grandchildren.”
“You sort of look like her,” I said, handing the picture back to her.
“Everyone says I act like her, too. She was the first in the family to buy a house. I’m the first to go to college. She just had … a lot of spirit.”
It was the word “spirit” that got her. Jackie half blurted, half sobbed it, then immediately tried to compose herself.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“No, no, it’s fine,” I said.
“I just don’t know what’s going to happen now. My family is … I mean, we’re no prize. I got a cousin in jail. I got another cousin who’s bangin’ so hard he’ll probably end up there soon. But it’s still my family, you know? When we get together, none of that stuff matters. It’s just the family and my grandma and this house. This house is like our center. This is where we always gather, for holidays and birthdays. And now without Grandma, I just don’t know…”
Jackie’s voice trailed off again. I saw out of the corner of my eye that Pigeon was getting down every word. It’s not that I wasn’t absorbed in Jackie’s story—I was—but I also remembered I had a story of my own to write. And it was in the best interests of Jackie and her sick neighbors that I write it well.
“So had she been in good health until recently?”
“Grandma? Oh yeah. She was like a dynamo. She finally retired maybe seven, eight years ago, but she hadn’t slowed down at all. She still gardened and walked and was really active with her church. And then suddenly, it was like everything went wrong.”
Jackie went through the symptoms her grandmother had experienced, and it was similar to what I had heard from the other victims. The flu. The swelling. Broken leg. Broken arm. Then it progressed to kidney failure, which might have been survivable except Edna Foster was too weak to put up with dialysis. Whatever this malady was had taken all the fight out of her.
“It just didn’t make any sense,” Jackie concluded. “And then at her funeral, people started talking, and it was like, ‘Oh, she had that? That’s strange, so do I.’ Or, ‘Oh, she had this? That’s weird, so does so-and-so.’ And maybe it’s because of all these pre-med classes I’m taking, but it just didn’t sound right.”
“So what made you want to take this on as your cause?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I guess I kind of thought it was what my grandmother would have done. But she wasn’t around anymore, so now it was up to me. As I told you, I called a few lawyers, but I couldn’t get anywhere with them. But I couldn’t just give up. So I guess I was hoping that if we got in the newspaper and got some publicity, maybe someone would take pity on us and want to help us. A big law firm that might be willing to take us pro bono. Or a doctor. Or the state, maybe. I don’t know. Do you think that might happen?”
“It might,” I said. “Or it might not. Obviously, I can’t make any promises about what happens after a story goes in the newspaper.”
“I know. I know. Look, Mr. Ross … Carter … Thanks for coming. Just to listen to those people makes them feel, I don’t know, like someone actually cares. I was beginning to feel like no one did.”
I looked at Edna Foster’s granddaughter, with her bug glasses, mop hair, and fierce pride. She was young enough and idealistic enough that when she saw something she didn’t think was right, she believed something could be done—and had to be done. And she had found a newspaper reporter who felt the same way.
“There’s a notion in journalism that one of the reasons we exist is to give a voice to the voiceless,” I said. “People in my business tend to forget that sometimes. But I guess I try to remember it’s part of the reason we’re here. It’s really one of our highest callings.”
* * *
Pigeon and I said our goodbyes and went back outside. The sun was getting low and I could hear the rush-hour traffic on I-78 zooming along behind me. But there was enough light that the guys at the construction site remained hard at it, their big machines making their usual racket and kicking dust into the air. I figured if they were still working, I should be, too.
“What are you doing?” Pigeon asked as I passed my car and walked in the direction of Hawthorne Avenue.
“I’m taking a walk,” I said.
“Just getting to know the neighborhood a little better.”
“But … why?”
I gave her a palms-up gesture. “Don’t know. It’s called ‘shoe leather journalism,’ Pigeon. Hopefully they taught you about that at Columbia.”
They must have, because Pigeon dutifully joined my tour. We walked along the sidewalks, some of them new, some of them old, all of them littered with occasional minefields of broken glass. I had spent enough years in Newark that I had long ago stopped trying to avoid them. My shoes had thick soles. Besides, if you closed your eyes and pretended you were down at the shore, the crunchy feeling under your feet was sort of like walking on seashells.
As we explored the neighborhood, Pigeon gave me the brief version of her life story. She grew up in Edison, New Jersey, in the burgeoning Indian community there. She was valedictorian at J. P. Stevens High, where she hung out with other smart Indian kids. Then she went to Yale, where she hung out with more smart Indian kids. Her parents had made it clear they hoped she would marry a future doctor named Ranjit. You couldn’t quite call it an arranged marriage; but he was Brahman and so was she, so it would sort of make everyone happy if she just went along with it. She said she probably would, even if she didn’t really have feelings for the guy.
Yet, somewhere during this perfect, by-the-book, Phi Beta Kappa life of hers, she had been permitted one rebellion: she went to journalism school. And now it sounded like she was trying to make the most of it, in her own self-limited way.
As she wound through her little narrative, I kept my eyes peeled for … well, actually, I have no idea. But it is my general experience in matters such as these that you never know what you’re looking for until you find it. Maybe there was some obvious source of local water contamination. Maybe one of the stoplights would be glowing radioactive orange. You never knew unless you kept your eyes open.
Except, in this case, all I really saw was a strange little Newark neighborhood that had been chopped off from the rest of the city. Interstate 78 formed a hard border to the south. The exit ramps filled the space to the east. To the west were some old brick warehouses that belonged to long-defunct companies, vestiges of Newark’s manufacturing heyday. To the north was the McAlister Arms site and those clattering construction vehicles.
It created a little island on the south side of Hawthorne Avenue that was perhaps five blocks long and one block deep. And all nine of our sick people—ten, if you counted Edna Foster—lived on that island.
It brought to mind a tale I had read about in a geography class I had taken at Amherst. It was about a midnineteenth-century doctor in London who was studying a cholera outbreak. This was in the days before germ theory had been developed, so no one understood the mechanism by which cholera spread. But by putting a dot on a map for each house that had a case of cholera, the doctor was able to determine that the outbreak seemed to be centered around one public water pump that all the houses had been using to get their water. The pump’s well turned out to have been dug a few feet from a sewage pit.
That doctor, John Snow, is considered the father of modern epidemiology. And, really, all I needed to do here is what he had done: find the equivalent of the water pump and then discover the sewage pit beside it.
By the time we completed our circumnavigation of the neighborhood, it was getting to be that time of night when the only white people meandering into that neighborhood were the ones there to buy drugs. I wasn’t in the market for anything stronger than pale ale, so Pigeon and I returned to my car and I got us pointed back to the office. My ride is a used—and I mean well-used—Chevy Malibu with at least 111,431 miles on it, though that may be a conservative estimate. The odometer has been broken for a while. Suffice to say that if cars could win Purple Hearts, mine would have been awarded several by now. Still, it delivered us safely back to the newsroom.
If only it could have kept me safe once I got there. I had barely stepped off the elevator when my path was blocked by the curly-headed figure that was Tina Thompson. In addition to being the managing editor for local news and my immediate editor, Tina happened to be one of the two women with whom I had recently experienced the pleasures of the flesh.
This was merely the latest development in a relationship that had a way of making me feel like I was the last person to know what was going on. Tina had, once upon a time, looked at me as the ideal mate, in a strictly biological way. She was a single woman of a certain age—that age being the last number that still begins with the digit 3—and she had decided she was going to become a mother.
Not a girlfriend. Not a wife. Just a mother.
And I was to be her source of sperm. Not a husband. Not a lover. Just sperm.
I had always balked at that potential arrangement. I have these antiquated ideas about nuclear familyhood and, besides, I actually—this is really old-fashioned, I know—like her. She’s smart and successful and passionate about life and a little nuts, all of which I found myself strangely attracted to. I tried to tell her this, though she seemed never to believe me. Instead, she tried to make herself seem tough and invulnerable, which only made me want to discover her vulnerable side that much more, which only infuriated her, which only charmed me further.
It never seemed to go anywhere beyond that. I had this long-harbored theory that we could make a great couple. She never let me test my hypothesis. And as a result we had reached this Balkan-style settlement where everyone left the table unhappy: I didn’t get a relationship, she didn’t get a baby daddy.
Then, without warning, she had decided motherhood, conventional or otherwise, was no longer in her future.
Then, with the possibility of procreation off the table, and with no apparent hope for any kind of relationship, we did the obvious thing couples who want neither children nor romance do: we had sex.
We hadn’t really discussed the implications of this act. She insisted there weren’t any and that I had been just a one-night booty call, a convenient way to fill a momentary craving. Ever since then, relations between us had chilled to temperatures not seen in Newark since the Pleistocene epoch. I can’t say I fully understood the combination of idiosyncrasies and undiagnosed disorders that was Tina Thompson, but I at least understood she liked her distance. And after our clothes-free comingling, she had decided I had gotten a little too close. She had been making a determined effort to push me away ever since.
Hence, my greeting from her was not, “Hello, Carter,” or, “Nice to see you, Carter,” or, “Have you had a good day, Carter?”
It was: “Where the hell have you been?”
“Out for a walk,” I said. Which was, technically, true.
“Oh, go ahead and play coy if you want. I saw Pigeon scurrying away just now. You know I’ll be able to beat it out of her in seven seconds flat.”
“Okay, so I was out working on a story. But it’s not fit for your eyes and ears as of yet.”
“Yeah, well the same could be said for that recycling story you wrote,” she huffed. “The unfortunate thing is that you turned it in anyway.”
“What’s wrong with the recycling story?”
“It’s a story about recycling but it’s total garbage,” she said. “In its current form, it’s not deserving of the fifty percent postconsumer content it would be printed on. It’s in your basket with comments marked on it. And it had better be returned to me—in a lot better shape—before you even think of working on anything else.”
She gave me a look people usually save for backed-up toilets, then departed.
* * *
A responsible employee—thoroughly chastened and properly ashamed—probably should have gone straight to his desk and pounded on the keyboard until his fingers were bloody. Or at least chapped.
Me? I mostly just got thirsty for a frothy, 6-percent-alcohol-by-volume beverage, preferably one that was a nice, dark amber color—especially if I could share it with someone who might provide companionship and conversation while I drank it. And perhaps side benefits later.
The person most likely to supply all those things was Kira O’Brien, so I wandered over to her desk to see if I could talk her into an evening with me. Not that it would likely take much convincing. If Tina is the Pat Benatar of my life—because she makes love a battlefield—Kira is the Cyndi Lauper. She just wants to have fun. That she also sometimes dyes her hair purple is just a coincidence.
By day, Kira is one of the Eagle-Examiner’s librarians. She is twenty-eight years old and looks like a proper Irish girl, with brown hair, blue eyes, and a wardrobe that appears to have been coordinated by Ann Taylor. She is quiet, conscientious, and diligent in assisting reporters with their research needs. She sometimes puts her hair up with a pencil. And even if she does it just to be ironic, it still adds to the overall effect.
Then night falls, and she leaves work and morphs back into her true form, which is ten tons of uninhibited impulsiveness packed into a ninety-eight-pound body. Among her body piercings are parts I have never heard my mother say aloud (hint: one of them rhymes with “Dolores”). She enjoys it when certain private acts are performed in areas that might make them available for public viewing. And her closet includes numerous outfits that most people would refer to as costumes. She’s the only woman I’ve ever met who, if you ask her to dress up as a vampiress, will ask you to narrow it down.
I’m adventurous enough that I can keep up with her. Sort of. One of these days, it’s entirely possible she’s going to get bored by me and my white and/or blue button-down shirts—even if I am seriously thinking about adding a third color to my repertoire one of these days—and leave me by the side of the road on her way to Comic-Con.
In the meantime, I just try to hang on and enjoy the ride. I hadn’t really decided what I felt about her, other than that I enjoyed her company. She had indicated that she felt pretty much the same way about me. During one of our rare serious conversations, she said she viewed her twenties as a time to have fun and “experiment.” She wouldn’t even think about settling down until she was in her thirties, an age she spoke of like it was a strange land she could only barely imagine visiting.
Beyond that, we had yet to have any kind of talk about where our relationship was or wasn’t headed—or whether we even had a relationship—and I sensed neither of us was particularly uncomfortable with that. If we had to name a magazine after our arrangement, we’d call it Vague.
“Hey, it’s good you’re here,” she said as I entered the library. “My shift ends at seven and I’m sort of under a time crunch to get out of here. It would help if I could get changed now, but I’m the only one here. Could you cover the desk for a second?”
“What if someone asks a question I can’t answer?”—which, in matters of library science, included just about everything.
“Just do what I do when I get stumped: pretend like the database is down and tell them you’ll e-mail them when it comes back up.”
“And you get paid for this?”
“Not well, believe me,” she said. Then she grabbed a bag from under her desk and hustled down the hall to the bathroom.
I sat at her desk, mercifully alone. It was getting to be the time of night when reporters either had what they needed or had resigned themselves to faking it.
Perhaps five minutes later, Kira emerged from the bathroom wearing a helmet and a full-body leotard that was the color of bubble gum and festooned with various insignia and patches. She looked like a storm trooper who had fallen into a giant cotton-candy machine.
“Okay, I give up, what are you supposed to be?” I asked.
“I’m Rose, the Pink Power Ranger,” she said, like it should have been obvious.
“I’m going to a Power Rangers revival,” she said. “I really prefer to be Lily, the Yellow Ranger. But last time there were like five Lilys and no Roses, and we couldn’t form into a Megazord. The forces of Dai Shi nearly defeated us. The only reason they didn’t is because there’s never been a Power Rangers episode where that actually happened. So we sort of won on a technicality. But it was a hollow victory.”
“Right,” I said.
“You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”
“Not in the slightest.”
“Didn’t you play with Power Rangers as a kid?”
“Guess not,” I said. I have dim memories of Power Rangers coming along, but I think by that point in my development, I had already moved on from things like LEGOs to larger, more challenging toys. Like redheads. If only I had been able to master them as thoroughly as I had the LEGOs.
“Oh, then you’ll totally have to come along and check it out. It starts at seven thirty but it’s in Jersey City, so we have to hurry. If I’m late, they’ll morph without me.”
“Well, we wouldn’t want that,” I said. “Let’s get out of here.”
Kira got a few curious looks as she threaded through the newsroom in full Power Rangers regalia. Chances were most of them didn’t know it was our otherwise mild-mannered librarian underneath the helmet.
Except for Tina. She knew. Which was fine with me. I had expressed my interest in a relationship with her in every way I knew how and she had rebuffed me every time. If seeing me walk out the door with another woman made her jealous? Well, this may sound small of me, but: good.
I allowed myself a quick peek at her as I rounded the corner. All I saw was Tina shaking her head.
* * *
We took my car and within half an hour I was in the somewhat uncomfortable position of being in a room full of people in leotards, not all of whom had bodies intended for spandex. Apparently, there was an overlap between people who liked Power Rangers and people who liked cupcakes.
I had thought being the only person at the party not in costume would shield me from inquiry, but it turns out they just assumed I hadn’t gotten into costume yet. As a result, I was pelted with questions about whether I was going to be one of the Jungle Fury Power Rangers or one of the Samurai Power Rangers—and what color I was going to be when that happened. My answer seemed to disappoint them. Apparently there’s no such thing as the Khaki Power Ranger.
By the time it was over, I had consumed enough of this concoction they called “Power Juice” that I tossed my keys in Kira’s direction and asked her to drive my zord—that’s what Power Rangers call their vehicles—to my dojo. Or whatever.
I had hoped that shortly after arriving at my house in Bloomfield, I would start to be able to answer that age-old question: what does the Pink Power Ranger wear under her costume?
Except by the time we got there, I was just drunk and sleepy and, more than any of those things, exhausted. The day had taken more out of me than I had thought. It was all I could do to make my legs move once the car came to a halt in my driveway.
Somehow, I trudged up to the house and into my bed. I’m not sure I remember much beyond that, other than being confused. What was my problem? Had I really had that much to drink? Had I just not eaten enough munchies at the party to sop up the booze I had poured into my stomach?
Whatever the answer, the night was pure misery. I couldn’t get comfortable. If I lay on my side, it hurt. If I lay on my back, that hurt, too. My stomach was no great shakes. The rest of me was all shakes.
I just couldn’t get my temperature right. At first I was freezing. Then I was too hot. I would wake up drenched in sweat, only to fall back asleep and wake up shivering.
I also kept having these strange, awful dreams. In one of them, I kept trying to file a story, only I couldn’t get my laptop to work. In another, I had been granted this exclusive interview, except I couldn’t find my notebook. Then I couldn’t find my pen. At a certain point, I couldn’t even tell whether I was awake or dreaming. I felt disoriented, whatever state I was in.
I’m not sure I got any real sleep. But when I woke up the next morning, Kira was still there. She was dressed in librarian clothes again and was lying next to me, a damp washcloth next to her.
“Good morning,” she said, when she saw my eyes were open.
“Uhhhh,” I groaned.
“You had a rough night,” she said, as if I weren’t already aware of it.
“I can’t believe I drank so much.”
“Oh, baby, this isn’t a hangover,” she said. “You’re sick. I took your temperature in the middle of the night and it was like 103.5. You have the flu or something. Do you have any Tylenol? I couldn’t find any in the medicine cabinet. It would probably make you feel better.”
I directed her to the assortment of pharmaceuticals I kept stashed under my sink. She returned with two pills and a glass of water. I accepted both gratefully.
“You’re a total sweetheart,” I said.
“I just wish you had let me know you were going to get sick. I could have brought my nurse’s outfit.”
“Rain check? Pretty please?”
She just laughed. As I chased the Tylenol with the water and lay back down, she began running her hand through my hair, which felt delightful. The drugs kicked in a little and I thought I might finally get some good sleep. I was just on the edge of it when a thought wriggled its way into my consciousness:
“Oh, crap,” I said.
“What?” she murmured.
“I totally forgot, Pigeon and I are supposed to do an interview this morning.”
I started to hoist myself out of bed, but Kira pinned me back down. For ninety-eight pounds, she was pretty strong. Either that, or I still belonged flat on my back.
“You’re not going anywhere,” she said. “Nurse’s orders. Pigeon can handle the interview by herself. She’s a big girl.”
I considered this and, more to the point, tried to talk myself into exerting the effort that would be required to rise, shower, drive to Newark, and be coherent. I failed to find the will to do any one of them, much less all four.
“Okay,” I said. “But let me call Pigeon and let her know I won’t be able to make it.”
Kira handed me the phone, and I hauled up her number in my contacts—and, yes, it was stored as “Pigeon.”
The phone rang once, twice, three times. Then finally I heard a thin, strangled, “Hi, this is Neesha.”
“Pigeon, it’s Carter. You sound worse than I feel.”
“I feel awful, too,” she said. “I was up all night. I think I’ve got the flu or something.”
I felt a small prickle at the base of my spine. And it wasn’t just from the chills. What were the chances that two able-bodied, healthy young people would simultaneously come down with the influenza virus during a time of year when it was not normally known to be circulating?
Very slim. I called in my regrets to Jackie Orr, telling her I had taken ill and asking her to reschedule until the next morning. And by the time I hung up, I was thinking, What if this isn’t the flu?
What if it was the same thing that killed Jackie’s grandmother?
Copyright © 2014 by Brad Parks