Read Eyes of the Innocent: A Mystery Online

Authors: Brad Parks

Tags: #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Crime, #Fiction

Eyes of the Innocent: A Mystery (3 page)

BOOK: Eyes of the Innocent: A Mystery
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“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.

*   *   *

I took the porch steps in two leaps and barreled inside the house to find Sweet Thang with a long kitchen knife at her throat.

The person holding said knife—a wiry, dark-skinned black woman—looked like she knew what she was doing with it. And when she saw me, her eyes opened wide and she pressed the blade even tighter against Sweet Thang’s neck.

“Step back,” she yelled, then took a fistful of bouncy blond curls and tilted back Sweet Thang’s head. “I’ll cut your little girlfriend here.”

Sweet Thang had gone stiff and silent. I suppose she didn’t feel like she was in a position to negotiate, so I did the talking.

“Take it easy,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “We’re reporters with the
We’re just here working on a story.”

You could see the woman’s mind whirring, trying to decide whether to believe me. Sweet Thang was holding up remarkably well under the circumstances.

“My name is Carter Ross,” I continued. “This is my partner Lauren.”

“It’s Lauren McMillan, but people call me ‘Sweet Thang,’ ” she squeaked.

Now the woman looked downright perplexed.

“Sweet Thang?” she said derisively.

Her brow furrowed deeper.

“Y’all messing with me?”

“Here’s my card,” I said, digging it out and inching toward her, holding it at arm’s length. When I got just close enough, she released Sweet Thang’s hair and snatched my card. She barely bothered to look at it.

“That don’t mean nothing. Anyone could fake that.”

“How about I give you my phone and you call information and get a number for the
. Ask whoever answers if a guy named Carter Ross works there.”

She removed the knife from Sweet Thang’s throat and pushed her at me, which brought us together in an awkward half hug.

“Don’t matter,” she said. “Ain’t no scrawny white boy and his shorty gonna give me no trouble anyway.”

Sweet Thang rubbed her neck, which didn’t appear to have blood on it. I was guessing this was the first time anyone had held a knife to daddy’s little girl’s throat. I was just grateful I didn’t have to explain to Uncle Hal how his buddy’s kid had been decapitated while in my care.

“You must be Akilah Harris,” Sweet Thang asked.

The woman eyed her.

“I’m very sorry for your loss,” Sweet Thang continued. “Those little boys were just so precious. I’m very, very sorry. I want you to know I said a prayer this morning for Alonzo and Antoine.”

What happened next has to go down in journalism history as the fastest anyone has gone from homicidal to hysterical. The mention of those boys’ names instantly caused this woman, who was evidently Akilah Harris, to crumble. She dropped the knife, brought her hands to her face, and started sobbing. And not just little sobs, either—big, gulping-for-breath, snot-everywhere sobs.

“They was … they was my little angels,” Akilah said between gasps.

Sweet Thang rushed to Akilah’s side, enveloping her in an embrace. Soon, Akilah was hugging her back and they were
crying. It was hard to make out who was saying what amid all the blubbering, but it was something along the lines of Akilah repeatedly saying “my babies” and “my angels” and Sweet Thang saying “I know” and “I’m so sorry.”

I suppose somewhere there was some tweedy journalism professor who would have said that what Sweet Thang was doing—dropping that wall between reporter and source, allowing herself to connect emotionally with Akilah’s pain—was a Very Bad Thing. But then there’s also a reason why those tweedy journalism professors fled to academia in the first place: they were sucky reporters.

You’ve got to get your sources treating you like a fellow member of the species, not an alien with a notepad. Legions of kids come out of J-school each year having been drilled endlessly about objectivity, balance, and other semiuseful subjects—much to their detriment. Some of them unlearn it quickly enough. But for others, the inability to get real with sources becomes a crippling affliction they carry throughout their journalism careers.

Should we teach kids about balance? Of course. Getting both sides of a story is one of the foundations of what we do. There are many areas—politics, court trials, business disputes, and so on—where we’re absolutely obligated to play it down the middle.

But there are also stories where, frankly, there is no middle. A mother’s pain over losing her children in a fire would be one of those stories. There’s no “other side” to tell. There’s just one woman and her profound tragedy. I believe telling that story in a sensitive, compassionate way makes the news—and all those who read it—a little more human.

They finally released their embrace.

“I’m sorry I almost cut you,” Akilah said, sniffling.

“It’s okay,” Sweet Thang cooed. “You thought someone was breaking into your house. I would have done the same thing if I were you.”

Now there’s an image: Sweet Thang threatening someone with a knife. I’m sure they taught all the Vanderbilt debutantes proper throat-slashing technique just in time for their cotillions.

“I wish I could invite you in for some coffee or something,” Akilah said. “But they cut off the electricity.”

“That’s okay,” Sweet Thang said.

“And I’m sorry the place is such a mess,” Akilah added.

It was such a perfectly absurd thing to say under the circumstances, we all laughed. From knife-wielding to crying to laughing, all in about ten minutes. At least this job isn’t boring.

*   *   *

My keen reporter’s instincts told me Akilah was in the mood to unburden herself of her story. And as the good little scribes we were, Sweet Thang and I were not opposed to letting her do so.

But while this was the time, it was not the place. Too much debris. Too much smell. Too much death.

I made the suggestion we head to African Flavah, a hole-in-the-wall diner on Springfield Avenue that just happened to serve the best breakfast in the city. Akilah was unsure for a moment until I sealed the deal by making it clear the
would be more than happy to pick up the check.

Akilah asked for a few moments alone in the house to collect herself. I told her we’d be waiting for her out in the car.

The fresh air felt good and smelled better. As I fired up the Malibu to get the heat going, Sweet Thang flopped down heavily in the passenger seat.

“I’m so sorry,” Sweet Thang said.

“What for?”

“For crying.”

“Yeah, so…?”

Obviously, there had been at least one tweedy journalism professor in her past.

“Isn’t that … unprofessional?” she asked, biting her lower lip in a way that still managed to be coquettish.

“No, I’d say it was great. You made a connection and now a grieving mother wants to talk to us—to you, I should say. That’s pretty much the definition of a good human interest story right there. How did you know she was the boys’ mother anyway?”

“I spent all morning looking at their pictures in the paper. They both look like her. The younger one could be her little clone.”

“Good catch.”

“Thanks,” she said. She leaned back in her seat and, because she apparently abhorred silence, asked, “So when do we ask her about the space heater?”

“Space heater?” I said.

“I thought we were doing a story about a space heater.”

“No. Oh, hell no. Lump the space heater story.”

“But what about—”

“Lump it.”

“But we’re supposed to—”

“Lump it.”

“But Uncle Hal—”

“Even Uncle Hal will realize this is much better than a space heater story. If we do this right, this could go on page one tomorrow,” I said. “Hang on, I’m just going to run inside and check on Akilah.”

Sweet Thang grabbed my wrist.

“Wait a second,” she said.

Her hand felt soft and warm and lovely. And for the briefest moment, I started imagining what it might feel like to have that hand situated elsewhere on my person.

“What is it?” I asked, reminding myself I was old enough to be her … well, her older brother, for sure. Perhaps even her youthful uncle.

“You’re going to do the interview, right?” she asked with big, imploring blue eyes.

“No. You are. You’re the one she obviously trusts. At this point, I’m just the guy driving the car.”

“But what do I doooo?” she whined.

“You’ll be fine,” I said, trying not to look at her. “When we sit down, just ask her what happened and then let the conversation flow. Be understanding. Make sure she realizes you’re not judging her. Cry all you want to. It’ll be perfect.”

“Oh, my goodness, thank you so much,” Sweet Thang gushed, and touched me again, this time on the shoulder. “I knew working with you was going to be the best thing ever.”

“Well,” I said, gradually trying to inch away but finding the Malibu had restricted my westward movement. “I’m sure we’ll have fun.”

we’ll have fun,” she said, fixing me with a serious look, placing her hand back on my forearm and giving my arm a pat.

Thankfully I saw Akilah coming out of the front door, which I used as an excuse to get out of the Malibu and wave for her. The air was cool on my face and I realized I was flushed. Carter Ross, star investigative reporter for the mighty
Newark Eagle-Examiner,
reduced to a blushing teenager by the wiles of one blond coed.

Akilah climbed into the backseat and soon we were pulling up alongside African Flavah. Granted, I’m probably not real typical of the clientele at African Flavah—and I have a hard time saying the name without sounding ridiculously Caucasian—but the restaurant’s owner, a guy named Khalid, was a buddy of mine and a real inspiration. Back in the mid-1990s, Khalid and his wife, Patty, had opened their diner in a row of burned-out, empty storefronts on a part of Springfield Avenue that still hadn’t recovered from Newark’s 1967 riots.

But their diner flourished. And soon, so did the neighborhood around it. A clothing store moved in a few doors up. A bodega and a barbershop opened a few doors down. Then came a small electronics store and a furniture store. It was a regular renaissance.

Along the way, Khalid and Patty’s diner became a local institution, one so revered that in all the years they had been in business, Khalid proudly told me, they had never been robbed once. It helped that Khalid treated all his customers with respect and dignity, which wasn’t always the case with business owners in the hood. The matching bulletproof security cameras—one inside, one outside—might also have something to do with it.

As we entered, Khalid and I exchanged greetings and before long we were seated in a booth along the wall with a pot full of coffee. Akilah attacked it like it was planning to run off.

In this different light—when she wasn’t threatening my colleague with a very large knife—she looked younger than I originally thought. Younger and prettier. Her body was slim but not without curves in the right places. Her hair was straight and pulled back into a no-nonsense ponytail, showing nicely formed cheek and jaw bones and a slender, graceful neck. There was definitely potential there. Throw on some makeup and a dress, and I bet she’d be a gal any guy would like to have on his arm.

Still, she had that ghetto hardness to her face. It’s a look that comes from learning at a too young age that only the strong survive and only suckers trust someone else to help them do it. You can see it in the way the eyes flit about, in the way the body seems constantly tense, in the way the brain always seems to be manipulating a set of odds.

Yet somehow Sweet Thang had slid underneath that tough, cynical exterior. Maybe it was because Akilah’s math told her that a white girl with a ridiculous nickname and nice clothes couldn’t possibly be out to hurt her. Maybe it was because she was too damn tired to keeping doing all the calculations.

Either way, Akilah’s reactions to Sweet Thang were different. She was allowed in, even when most others were not.

After we placed our order and handed back our menus, Sweet Thang looked at me imploringly one last time. I shook my head. She rolled her eyes. I nudged her under the table with my foot. She batted her eyelashes. I crossed my arms. She got the hint.

“So,” Sweet Thang said as gently as she could, “what happened?”

*   *   *

Akilah looked down at the table.

“I don’t even know. I mean, I know I shouldn’t have left them at home alone,” she began. “It’s my fault. It’s all my fault.”

Her eyes filled with water again. I grabbed a napkin for blotting. Sweet Thang took her hand.

Over the next hour or so, it all came out—sometimes in a torrent, other times in a tumble. It was one of those interviews that could have doubled as a therapy session. Sweet Thang nodded at all the right times, shushed when she needed to, supported Akilah’s every emotional need.

I was just the guy with the pen, furiously taking notes.

As I suspected, Akilah Harris’s twenty-four years on this planet had seldom been easy. Her father was never really in the picture. She said she was four when her mother died of a drug overdose. Akilah didn’t know what drug and didn’t provide many details. But I suppose, to a four-year-old, none of that would have been especially significant.

She had been taken in by an aunt who lived in the Baxter Terrace Public Housing Project, a grim collection of low-rise brick buildings not far from Interstate 280. It was not exactly what you would call a kid-friendly environment.

Akilah explained how she had gotten pregnant for the first time when she was sixteen, and the aunt—who was very religious and therefore very ashamed—basically disowned her. She dropped out of school to support herself and the child. With no other relatives in the area, she stayed with a succession of friends in Baxter Terrace. Then the baby died of a heart defect when it was less than six months old.

BOOK: Eyes of the Innocent: A Mystery
3.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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