Carter Ross, the sometimes-dashing investigative reporter for theNewark Eagle-Examiner, is back, and reporting on the latest tragedy to befall Newark, New Jersey, a fast-moving house fire that kills two boys.
With the help of the paper's newest intern, a bubbly blonde known as "Sweet Thang," Carter finds the victims' mother, Akilah Harris, who spins a tale of woe about a mortgage rate reset that forced her to work two jobs and leave her young boys without child care. Carter turns in a front-page feature, but soon discovers Akilah isn't what she seems. And neither is the fire.
When Newark councilman Windy Byers is reported missing, it launches Carter into the sordid world of urban house-flipping and Jersey-style political corruption. With his usual mix of humor, compassion, and street smarts, Carter is soon calling on some of his friends--gay Cuban sidekick Tommy Hernandez, T-shirt-selling buddy Tee Jamison, and on-and-off girlfriend Tina Thompson--for help in tracking down the shadowy figure behind it all.
Brad Parks's debut, Faces of the Gone, won the Shamus Award and Nero Award for Best American Mystery. It was heralded as an engaging mix of Harlan Coben and Janet Evanovich. Now Parks solidifies his place as one of the brightest new talents in crime fiction with this authentic, entertaining thriller.
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February 01, 2011
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Excerpt from Eyes of the Innocent by Brad Parks
I made at least four mistakes that Monday morning, the fi rst of which was going into the office in the first place. There's an old saying among newspaper reporters that news never breaks in the newsroom. So if you're not currently working on a story, you ought to be out finding one. If you hang around the newsroom with nothing to do, you put yourself at extreme risk of be?ing assigned something to do by an editor. And--ask any writer, anywhere--editors are approximately ninety-eight percent full of stupid ideas.
Which leads to my second mistake: wandering by the open office door of my editor, Sal Szanto. I'm an investigative reporter for the Newark Eagle-Examiner, New Jersey's largest newspaper. My last story had been what we in the business call BBI. Boring But Important. It was a piece about patronage hiring in a nearby county government. (My suggested headline, "County Keeps Nepotism in the Family," was rejected as being too cheeky.) The thirteen people who actually bothered to read it--the same thirteen people who read all our BBI's--were very impressed. To everyone else who picked up our Sunday paper, I suspect it was merely an impediment on the way to sudoku.
Either way, it was now yesterday's news, making me an inves?tigative reporter momentarily lacking anything to investigate.
And so we arrive at my third mistake: not feigning deafness when Szanto croaked out my name.
That's "Carter Ross," for those who don't understand the peculiar dialect of my fifty- something, chain- smoking, antacid-devouring, coffee-guzzling editor. Szanto has difficulty pronounc?ing vowels when he's upset, stressed, or tired--which, with the way newspapers have been going the last few years, is most of the time. It usually takes him a couple of sentences to lift his vocal cords out of the gravel and start speaking coherently.
I took that to mean "Have a seat." So I did. Szanto cleared his throat.
"You read the fire story this morning?" he growled. "The thing with the two kids?"
A fast-moving fire at about nine o'clock the night before had swept through a house on Littleton Avenue in Newark, killing two little boys, Alonzo and Antoine Harris, ages four and six. The Newark Fire Department was offering no theories about what started it. The whereabouts of the mother, Akilah Harris, was unknown as of press time--which did not exactly speak well of her custodial abilities.
We had given the story the usual tragedy treatment, with a large photo of the blackened house along with smaller headshots of the little boys--smiling school portraits--along with a story gang-written by the herd of semisupervised interns we have work?ing on the weekends. During my eight years at the paper, we had probably written variations of the story fifty times-- albeit with changed names, dates, and places--so maybe I should be more cal?lous about it by now. But it still rips my guts out.
"Yeah, I read it," I said. "What about it?"
Szanto had this look on his face I couldn't quite place. Just like Eskimos have fifty different words for snow, Szanto has at least that many pained expressions. Parsing them takes a certain amount of expertise. The difference between "I'm pained because an intern just handed me a story that might as well be in Farsi" and "I'm pained because I ate hot wings for lunch" could be as subtle as a slight lowering of the lip or an extra furrowing of the brow.
In this case, it was neither.
"Brodie wants a space heater story," he said.
Now it was my turn for a pained expression. Brodie is Harold Brodie, a living newspaper legend who had presided over our newsroom as executive editor for the last quarter century. Now in his late sixties, he was basically a nice man, with a high-pitched voice and eyebrows that could use some serious manscaping. He was small and fragile in a way that sort of reminded everyone of their grandfather. As a leader, he was the most benign of dictators. And, more or less, everyone loved him.
But he was still an editor, and as such he was as prone to stupid ideas as any other editor. Plus, he had this tendency to get fixated on certain subjects.
Space heaters was one of them. Like many of the nation's more depressed cities, Newark had its share of unimaginably hor?rid slum buildings where the heat may or may not be working-- thanks to busted boilers, pilfered pipes, or landlords who decided the best way to combat the high cost of heating oil was to abstain from buying any.
One of the ways tenants survive this injustice is to plug space heaters into their already overloaded electrical sockets and leave them on 24-7. Fire safetywise, you'd do just as well tossing an un?supervised ten-year-old into a room with oily rags, lighter fluid, and matches.
As a result, we write about the perils of space heaters at least once every winter. The only surprise was that December and Jan?uary had been so mild we made it all the way to February without running our annual offering.
"Did a space heater have anything to do with it?" I asked.
"How the hell should I know?"
"But--" I started.
"I don't care," Szanto snapped. "Brodie asked for a space heater story, so write him a damn space heater story. You know how he gets."
I did. Some editors cajoled writers into doing stories with threats or loud demands. Brodie went more for the Chinese water torture approach, drip-dropping in on you until you just gave in. Sometimes, when he approached you from behind, he jingled the change in his pocket just so you knew he was there. Most longtime Eagle- Examiner reporters, trained by years of Brodie jingling, stiffened reflexively when they heard nickels and quarters bang?ing together.
"Can't we just reprint one of the old space heater stories?" I asked. "I seem to recall from the archives the nineteen eighty-eight space heater story was a classic--fruity yet full-bodied, with hints of singed circuit breaker."
Szanto hit me with pained look No. 28--upturned lip, creased forehead-- and I gave in.
"Fine," I huffed. "A space heater story."
I went to lift myself out of the chair.
"I want you to work with Sweet Thang," he said.
I sat back down. Sweet Thang was what Szanto-- and most of the other cave-dwelling editors in the building--called our new?est intern, a honey-haired twenty-two-year-old Vanderbilt gradu?ate whose real name was Lauren Somethingorother.
Between her button nose, bright blue eyes, and a torso that rather nicely filled out a sweater set, she hadn't lacked for mentor?ing from some of the men in the office.
The only problem was, there was a rumor out she had gotten the job because her father and Brodie golfed together at their country club. So while working with her would improve the scen?ery, it did come with certain dangers.
"Do I have to?" I asked.
"Just make her feel like she's doing something important, then when it comes time to write, make sure she's in a different county from your keyboard," Szanto said.
It was only a stupid space heater story. I could knock it off in a few hours and then move back to real journalism. As I left Szanto's office, I told myself it would be simple enough.
That, it turns out, was my fourth mistake.
With something short of my usual zeal, I moseyed across the newsroom and found Sweet Thang sitting in the area occupied by an ever-changing cast of interns. Newspaper economics have been so bad so long that our place, like most places, has a hiring freeze that is now old enough to enroll in the third grade. There have been buyouts, some more voluntary than others, and the threat of layoff is constant. The only people left behind are the foolish (people like me, who love the business too much to leave) and the desperate (people who can't find anything else and cling to the newspaper like bilge rats to drift wood).
Whenever a full- time staff member leaves, taking their high-five-figure or low-six-figure salary with them, they are replaced by an intern who is paid wages that would shame an Indonesian sweatshop. Really, they ought to do these kids a favor and tuck food stamps in with their paychecks each week. Still, the kids keep on coming to us, in ever-increasing numbers, to soak in all the valuable news- gathering "experience"--read: overwork--we provide them.
Given their low lot in life, I always go out of my way to be friendly to the interns. If nothing else, they're good for entertain?ment.
"Hi, Lauren," I said, as I walked up to her.
She looked startled.
"Oh, my goodness, you know my name?"
"You're Carter Ross!" she said, flashing a smile that surely weakened the knees of many a Vanderbilt frat boy. "You're, like, the reason I wanted to come to work here. When I read your Lud?low Street story, I told my dad, 'Dad, I totally have to work at the Eagle- Examiner.' Oh, my goodness. I even tweeted about your story so all my friends would know about it. And they all retweeted it. And we looked for you on Twitter, but you're not there, so we just tweeted round and round until we were tweeted out."
"Lauren?" I said, mostly to stop the river of words spouting from her mouth. Instead, I only diverted it.
"You can call me 'Sweet Thang' if you want to. I know that's what everyone calls me behind my back. I'm okay with it. I mean, it's not, like, flattering or anything--I don't think of myself as a Sweet Thang. I actually took courses in women's studies and stuff . All I'm saying is, it's not like I'm going to Human Resources or anything, because it's like my dad told me, 'A newsroom is still a man's world. You have to have a tough skin.' But then he also told me if anything got really bad, we could just tell Uncle Hal--sorry, Mr. Brodie-- and he would take care of it. But I don't think being called Sweet Thang is like an insult or anything, it's more like--"
"Lauren," I said again.
"Oh, sorry," she said, looking downward. "I only babble when I get nervous. I'm so sorry. I'll stop. Oh no, now I'm babbling again. Okay. That's it. Stop."
She put her hand over her mouth and looked up at me.
"Szanto wants us to work together on a story."
"You and me? Together?"
"Oh, my goodness, that's so perfect," she gushed. "Oh, my goodness, teach me everything. I want to learn. I want to write just like you. You're totally my favorite writer at the paper, you don't even understand. The only writer I ever liked as much as you was Judy Blume, but that was when I was nine after I read Freckle Juice, and it was a totally different thing. Oh, my goodness, I have to shut up. So what story are we working on?"
The words were coming so fast it took me a second or two to realize she had, somewhere in there, formed a question I was ex?pected to answer.
"It's a follow-up to the fire story today," I said.
"Oh, my goodness, that story was like the saddest thing ever. Can you believe those two poor little boys dying like that? I just about cried when I saw their pictures. Did you see their eyes? They were just beautiful little boys. I mean, I would have almost cried even if they were ugly. I don't want you to think I'm superficial or anything. I'm just saying--"
I held up my hand like a crossing guard halting traffic.
"Sorry," she said.
"Anyhow, it's supposed to be a story about the dangers of space heaters."
She tilted her head.
"What do space heaters have to do with the little boys?"
"At the moment, nothing," I said.
"No one from the fire department mentioned anything about space heaters."
"So how are we going to . . . ?"
"I don't know," I snapped. "Stop asking so many questions."
The bright blue gaze dropped down to the desk. The heart-melting smile vanished. Even the bouncy, honeyed hair seemed to droop. I felt like I had kicked a puppy.
"I didn't mean . . . look, it's just . . ." I said, groping for the right words. "See, sometimes, Brodie--uhh, Uncle Hal--he gets these ideas in his head that a story exists whether or not it actually does. But because he calls the shots around here, we sort of have to humor him."
"Well," she said, considering this new information carefully, "I don't think Uncle Hal would have us write a story that isn't true."
"Oh, me neither," I said, hoping she wouldn't hear the irony in my voice.
"Cool. So what do we do now? Where do we start?"
She looked up at me expectantly. The bright blue eyes were shining again. She plopped her elbows on top of her desk, leaned over and rested her chin in her palms, treating me to a rather un?fettered view down her scoop-necked top.
I sat down to remove myself from temptation. Had I not re?solved to maintain a perfectly professional demeanor around her, I might have enjoyed that vista. There was no denying the young lady was rather fetching--I mean, if you like shapely twenty-two- year-old blondes, that is-- and she had a wholesomeness about her that put certain unwholesome thoughts in my head. As a tall, nearly broad-shouldered, thirty-two-year-old single guy with a reasonable body mass index and no facial disfigurement, I could entertain the thought she wasn't repulsed by me.
But while there's no official policy at the Eagle-Examiner against fraternizing with the interns, there were at least three fac?tors to consider. One, Uncle Hal might decide his paper needed one less investigative reporter if I made a play for his buddy's little girl. Two, I had some unresolved romantic issues with Tina Thompson, our city editor, and I suspected she would not be im?pressed if I summited Mount Intern. Three, I was getting exhausted just trying to listen to her for five minutes; an entire evening's worth of conversation and flirtation might make me slip into a coma.
All in all, it seemed like enough reason to leave Sweet Thang to the Sigma Alpha Epsilons.
"Do you want me to call the fire department?" she asked. "Or find a national expert on space heaters? Maybe there's a space heater awareness group out there? Or a space heater safety non?profit or something? I want to do this story exactly how you would do it. How would you start?"
I was tempted to tell her I planned to start like any self- respecting reporter approached a story in which he has absolutely no interest: waste time chatting with colleagues, return several lengthy personal e-mails, take an extended lunch, check in with old sources on completely unrelated matters, then start making phone calls around three o'clock when there was absolutely noth?ing better to do.
But that didn't seem like the kind of example I should be set?ting for an impressionable young person.
"Well," I said. "I like to get a feel for what I'm writing about first. Visit the scene. Take in the sights. Talk to some neighbors. So what do you say we make a little trip out to Littleton Avenue?"
The question was barely even formed and she was already grabbing a notebook and her car keys.
"Can I drive?" she asked.
"That depends. What kind of car do you have?"
"It's the cutest little BMW. My dad got it for me for gradua?tion. It's red. I call him Walter. He's got an iPod dock and every?thing. I just love him."
I immediately got this image of Sweet Thang bopping through the hood in her shiny red BMW, blasting Taylor Swift on Walter's speakers. The carjackers would play rock-paper-scissors to deter?mine who got dibs.
"No," I said. "Better let me drive."
My car is a five-year-old Chevy Malibu. It has traveled some unde?termined distance beyond a hundred thousand miles: dead speed?ometers tell no tales. I bought it for a suspiciously low price from a used car dealer in Newark. I'm not saying the guy was unscru?pulous, but the title work looked like it had eraser marks on it.
It wasn't exactly a chick magnet. But the Malibu had certain benefits that were practical--no, essential--when operating in a rugged city like Newark. You didn't have to worry about it getting beaten up by the potholes because it was already beaten up. You could leave it unlocked with the motor running outside a chop shop and not have to worry about it being there when you got back. And when it comes to blending into the hood, it does just fine.
Which is good, because in most Newark neighborhoods, I don't exactly blend. It's not just that I'm white. It's that I'm a pecu?liar subset of the white race, one that disappeared from Newark long ago: a purebred, stiff- upper- lipped, can't-dance- a-lick WASP. I've got carefully parted brown hair, blue eyes, and a way of walk?ing and talking most inner-city black people just find funny. I wear well-pressed shirts--usually white or blue--with pleated slacks and a tie with a half-Windsor knot. Even white people tease me about how white I am.
So I'm perfectly aware, when I enter many parts of Newark, that I create a little bit of a scene. Some people, assuming I'm lost, will approach and ask if I need directions. Most merely stare like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man just went past.
People have suggested to me that if I acted like I have some street in me--wear hip-hop clothes, drop certain colloquialisms into my vocabulary, get a haircut that didn't look so Leave It to Beaver-- black folks might open up to me more easily.
But I don't believe that. You can only hide who you are for so long. The simple truth is, I grew up in Millburn, a proper New Jersey suburb that is only a few miles away from Newark geograph?ically but a full country away demographically. From the time I grew out of onesies, my mother dressed me in collared shirts. My upbringing featured things like tennis camp, Broadway musicals, and trips to Europe. I went to Amherst, a small, expensive, exclu?sive liberal arts college that doesn't exactly do much for one's street cred. I'm pretty much what black folks refer to as The Man. If I pretended otherwise, I'd come off as a fraud. And no one--of any race, gender, or creed--wants to talk to a fraud.
Besides, I like half-Windsor knots.
And, funny as it may sound to my fellow WASPs, I like New?ark, too. And not just because of the gentrification that is slowly (very slowly) taking root or because of the new, shiny stuff being built downtown. I like the old parts of the city, too--the old neigh?borhoods, the old churches, the old stories that seem to be lurking around every corner. Say what you will about Newark, but it's got character. And heart. Two things we could all use more of.
So I didn't mind that as Sweet Thang and I pulled up to the scene of the fire on Littleton Avenue, two old guys on a nearby porch openly gawked at us. The Man--now with a bubbly blonde anchor in tow--tends to have that effect.
The air was still acrid from the fire, with that wonderful aroma of burned plastic and toasted toxin wafting about. Even if I didn't have the address, my nose could have led me there.
The house wasn't at all what I expected. Usually, when fatal fires broke out in Newark, they were in nasty, tottering, ninety- year-old tenements, the kind of places that had been fire traps for so long you wondered how they hadn't burned down sooner.
But this one was a relatively new construction, one of those architecturally challenged boxes that started popping up around Newark at the turn of the new century. It had been quite a mo?ment for a long-depressed city. Real estate developers had finally discovered that, for all its ills, Newark is still just a twenty-minute train ride from Manhattan. Soon, builders were falling over them?selves to snatch up the abundance of empty lots and toss up one- and two-family houses.
At the peak of the boom, new two-family houses were going for more than $400,000, an astounding number to Newark resi?dents who remembered the not- so-distant time when they couldn't even give away their houses. Then the bubble popped, the foreclo?sures began hitting in waves, and it was back to reality.
Still, the city's housing stock had been at least partially trans?formed. And most folks figured it would take a few years before the new construction started looking--and burning--like the old tenements.
"Well, I'll be damned," I said out loud.
"What?" Sweet Thang asked. She had been yammering non?stop on the way out--can't for the life of me remember about what-- but had been quiet since we left the car.
"Check this place out," I said. "It's nice."
Sweet Thang looked at me, looked at the house--with its soot- streaked siding, blackened window frames, and scorched roof-- then looked back at me like she couldn't believe she had placed me next to Judy Blume in the writing pantheon.
"Well, okay, maybe nice is no longer the right adjective," I said. "But it used to be nice. It couldn't be more than a few years old. It's got its own driveway, a garage, this nice sturdy gate here."
I shook the gate for emphasis. She whipped out a pad and started taking notes. I could get used to having my own steno g?rapher.
"Look at the landscaping," I said, gesturing to some well- manicured shrubs. "At one point, someone cared about the way this place looked. I bet there used to be border flowers planted in front, maybe some impatiens. No, no, make that marigolds. Too much sun for impatiens."
Sweet Thang wrote down every word, like I was dictating the next coming of Ulysses. I unlatched the gate and walked closer, with Sweet Thang trailing behind, still scribbling madly. The front door was . . . well, there was no front door. The firemen must have busted it off its hinges.
"Come on, let's go in," I said, walking up the front steps.
"Are we allowed?"
"You're not in homeroom. We don't have to raise our hands and ask for a hall pass to use the bathroom," I said. "Besides, I don't see anyone here telling us not to. As far as I'm concerned, an open door is an invitation."
Sweet Thang bit her lower lip and let out a whiny "But couldn't we get in trouble?"
"In trouble?" I asked. "For all we know, there's a melted space heater in one of those kid's rooms. That space heater is our smok?ing gun, literally and figuratively. Can't you just see it? With the charred teddy bear leaning up against it? Isn't that the perfect start to our story? It could be. But I guess we'll just have to go back to the office and tell Uncle Hal we're not sure if a space heater had anything to do with this fire because we were afraid we could get in trouble."
"Fine," she huffed and charged past me up the steps.
Interns, I chuckled to myself. So easily goaded.
I pulled a pad out of my pocket and began jotting down a few notes when, from inside the house, I heard a loud thud.
Then Sweet Thang screamed.