f there had only been one dead body that day, I never would have heard about it. From a news standpoint, one dead body in Newark, New Jersey is only slightly more interesting than planes landing safely at the airport. Assuming it's some anonymous gangbangerand in Newark it's almost always an anonymous gangbangerit's a four-paragraph story written by an intern whose primary concern is finishing quickly so he can return to inventing witty status updates on Facebook.
Two bodies is slightly more interesting. The intern has to come up with eight paragraphs and maybe, if there's someone unfortunate enough to be hanging out in the photo department when an editor wanders by, a picture will run with the story. Three bodies is worth a headline and
a picture, even a follow-up or two, though the interest peters out quickly enough.
But four? Four means real news. Four gets a town buzzing, even a town as blood-jaded as Newark. And four bodies is what I was contemplating that Monday morning in early December as I arrived at the offices of the Newark Eagle-Examiner
and opened up the paper.
We had managed to cram a quick story about it in our late edition. It was done by our nightshift re-write guy, a man named Peterson who delighted in hyperbolizing gritty crime stories. He quoted a Newark police spokesman saying four victims, each with a single bullet wound in the back of the head, had been found in a vacant lot next to a church on Ludlow Street.
The police spokesman didn't provide much color, so Peterson created his own, describing the "brazen execution-style slayings" as having "rocked an otherwise quiet Newark neighborhood." The bodies, he wrote, had been "stacked like cordwood in a weed-choked plot." The Newark police had not released the names of the victims, because next-of-kin had not been notified, so Peterson referred to them as "four John Does" with every chance he got.
I was making it through the last of Peterson's compositional flourishes when I heard my editor, Sal Szanto.
"Crrttrr Rssss," Szanto growled. From experience, I knew he was at least attempting to say my name, Carter Ross.
"What's going on, boss?" I said, lurking in his doorway.
Now in his early 50's, Szanto often had trouble with vowels until his voice warmed up a bit. No one could say which of his vicescoffee, cigarettes or antacid tabletshad taken the letters away.
Sit down. I think. As I entered the office and took the chair across from his desk, Szanto turned away and held up his left hand while coughing forcefully into his right, his jowls jiggling at the effort. He stopped for moment, started to speak, then hacked a few more times until he finally dislodged the morning phlegm that had rendered him all but unintelligible.
"Ah, that's better," he said. "Anyway, Brodie is really pitching a tent over this Ludlow Street thing."
As far as anyone knew, Harold Brodiethe legendary Eagle-Examiner
Executive Editor who was now pushing 70had not gotten an actual hard-on in years. He got stiffies for stories and, sadly for Mrs. Brodie, nothing else. And although they were erections only in the figurative sense, the impact they had on the rest of us was very real. When you heard the phrase, "Brodie has a real hard-on for this one"or any number of colorful derivations on that themeyou knew it was trouble. Once turned on to a story it could take days for the old man to tire of it. And, in the meantime, he was going to harass everyone in the newsroom on a half-hourly basis until he got the story he imagined existed.
"I've already sent Whitlow and Hays down there. They're going to do the daily stuff," Szanto said, then aimed a stubby finger at me. "You're going to get to the bottom of what the hell happened down there."
"And how am I going to do that?"
"I don't know. You're my investigative reporter. Figure it out yourself."
I enjoy the title "investigative reporter" because it impresses women in bars. And I was proud to have earned the job at an age, 31, when some of my peers were still slaving away on backwater municipal beats in far-away bureaus. But it's just a line on a business card. It's not like there are files marked "for investigative reporters only." It certainly hasn't made me any smarter.
"So what do we know, besides 'four John Does stacked like cordwood in a weed-choked plot?'" I said, mimicking Peterson's style.
"That one of the John Does is actually a Jane."
"Yeah," Szanto said, wincing as he sipped his still-too-hot coffee. "The police already called to bitch about that this morning."
"So what do you think Brodie wants from this?" I asked.
"You know exactly what he wants: A fascinating story with great art that gives us all piercing insight into the woes of New Jersey's largest city. And he wants it tomorrow."
"How about you give me a week and I'll try to turn in something that doesn't read like it was written by a lumberjack?"
"Hey, if it gets Brodie off my ass, you can rewrite Tuesdays With Morrie
for all I care," Szanto said.
"Yeah, maybe I'll do that," I said as I departed his office.
"Tk Hrrrndzzz," Szanto hollered after me.
"Hear that?" I asked Tommy Hernandez, the aforementioned Facebook-obsessed intern.
"Yeah, it sounds like a lawnmower that won't start," he said, then looked at me with something far beyond disdain.
"How many times do I have to tell you that a wristwatch is an accessory and it should match your belt?" he demanded.
Tommy is only 22, but he's blessed with the great reporter's instinct of noticing every small detail. He's handy to have on the streets, because he's second generation Cuban-American and speaks flawless Spanish. He's also gay as the Mardi Gras parade.
"Come on, Tommy," I said. "Let's go embrace another beautiful day in Newark."
© Brad Parks
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