Read Eyes of the Innocent: A Mystery Online

Authors: Brad Parks

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

Eyes of the Innocent: A Mystery (7 page)

BOOK: Eyes of the Innocent: A Mystery
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“You looking for me?”

“Where is it?” he asked.

“By ‘it’ do you mean the beautiful story I have crafted that you cannot wait to put on A1?”

“Something like that, yeah.” Szanto said.

“Just about to file,” I assured him.

“Good. You got a quote from the mortgage company, right?”

I looked down at my shoes and tried desperately not to look sheepish.

“We, uh, had a little problem there,” I began.

Szanto didn’t wait to hear the rest. He burst out with a long string of language that would have made my grandmother cover her ears, finishing it with, “… and I told you to write it hard. We can’t tell this sob story where we make the predatory lender the bad guy and not reach out to the bad guy and give them the opportunity to tell the other side.”

“I know, I know,” I said. “I had Sweet Thang run up to the courthouse and pull the mortgage. But it was missing.”

“Missing?”

“Yeah. She said the computer file didn’t exist, and when she went to look for the hard copy, it wasn’t in the books. So we don’t actually know who the mortgage company is.”

Szanto considered this news for a moment as he gulped some coffee out of a large Dunkin’ Donuts cup he had been reusing for weeks, judging from the stains on it. He frowned at the coffee, like it had just told him to lose weight and stop smoking.

“This coffee is crap,” he said, then took another large swallow. He frowned again.

“Well, we can’t run the story without talking to the mortgage company, the broker, or someone to give it some balance,” he said. “I’m holding it.”

Holding a story means it’s not going to run in the next day’s paper. While that may not sound like such a devastating thing, it’s remarkable how quickly something that’s been held for a day becomes stale. It doesn’t actually lose news value to the outside world. But it does lose buzz within the building. By the next day, the cabal of editors who make the decision about where to place stories in the paper feel like they’ve already been hearing about your story for an eternity. And given their attention spans—think: salamander—they get bored quickly. So even though it would still be new news to readers, it’s treated like old news by the editors. What is surefire A1 material on Day One becomes back-of-the-book fodder on any day thereafter, and the next thing you know your brilliant narrative is just filling space above ads for assisted living facilities.

“Aw, come on, don’t do that,” I said. “What if I was able to find the guy who sold her the mortgage and get a comment from him?”

Szanto grimaced. “I told the future ex–Mrs. Szanto I wouldn’t be home late tonight,” he said.

There were already two ex–Mrs. Szantos. And with the way he treated his wives—giving them about as much care and attention as most people give their rental cars—it was pretty much assumed there would be more.

“How about this: if I can get the broker by eight, we run the story. After eight, it holds. Deal?”

“Fine,” Szanto said.

“Great,” I said, peeling out of his office before he could modify the arrangement.

I looked at the clock on the wall—6:07—and was actually feeling pretty good about things until I got back to my desk. That’s when I sat down and realized there was only one way I was going to find the goateed, shaved-headed, so-called Puerto Rican man: Go to the Baxter Terrace Public Housing Project after dark.

Don’t get me wrong, going to the projects any time of the day wasn’t exactly my idea of fun. There were certain dangers constant to Newark’s rougher projects—junkies were not known for keeping stringent track of time, and a junkie that needed money for a fix was always unpredictable. But at least during the day there were normal people out in the courtyards. Old ladies sat on stoops, kids played ball, mothers watched their babies. The dealers were still around, sure, but the regular folks could maintain at least a modicum of social order. It didn’t matter how hardcore a gangbanger was, he still respected a grandma—his own or someone else’s—sitting on a stoop.

But then, after dusk, the old ladies, kids, and moms would go inside, fully surrendering the turf to more insidious elements. The dealers. The gangs. The vagrants. People whose interests clearly tended toward the antisocial. There something primeval about what the darkness did to a city like Newark.

About the only thing I had going for me was the element of surprise. Absolutely no one expected to see a well-dressed white man striding confidently into the middle of that environment. Sometimes I could actually see guys startle as I rounded a corner. As long as I kept moving—and didn’t stay long enough for them to recover from shock—I really had nothing to worry about.

Or at least that’s what I kept telling myself as I went down to my Malibu and got it rolling in the direction of Baxter Terrace.

Slated for a demolition that was forever being delayed for one reason or another, Baxter Terrace was among the last of Newark’s bad, old projects—a relic of the failed experiment that was high-density public housing. When it was first built in the 1930s, people clamored to get into Baxter Terrace. It was segregated, of course—blacks lived on one side of Orange Street, whites on the other—but desired by both races. Tenants were chosen only after careful consideration by the tenants’ association.

After moving in, the residents—all of whom had jobs and made timely rent payments—were responsible for much of the maintenance. They cleaned the hallways and stairwells. They swept the sidewalks. They kept gardens full of flowers. The Newark Housing Authority, which owned and managed the properties, watched closely, evicting anyone who failed to toe the line. A resident who left for work without cleaning their dishes might come home to a note from the superintendent warning them not to let it happen again: dirty dishes might attract bugs.

It’s difficult to say whether the housing authority or the tenants were more responsible for the decline from that golden era of public housing. But sometime during the late 1950s, the quality of the tenants began slowly declining, with more on public assistance—and fewer who cleaned, planted gardens, or paid rent—every year. Management became less conscientious about the white glove inspections, which allowed tenants to become even more slovenly. The housing authority fell further under the sway of City Hall, which was becoming increasingly corrupt, and many of the cleaning jobs were of the no-show variety.

Plus, as fewer tenants paid rent, the housing authority had less of a budget for maintenance. And once you start to let things slide in a high-density housing situation, they go in a hurry. The rats, mice, and roaches get a foothold almost instantly. The garbage piles up. The small leaks turn into big ones.

The tenants’ association complained as things got worse, and the bosses at the housing authority eventually got tired of hearing it. So they busted up the tenants’ association.

That meant the tenants were no longer picking their own neighbors, which brought even more decline in the quality of the people moving in. Rent collection dropped further, which meant even less money for maintenance. And the tenants—who no longer had any collective voice or empowerment through which to improve conditions—stopped caring about the buildings, which only strengthened the various negative feedback mechanisms already in place.

Which was how you ended up with stairwells that smelled of urine, booze, and rat droppings; hallways that hadn’t seen a mop in years; and apartments where the humans fought an ever-losing battle with the pests that had taken up residence.

Perhaps the most apt description of Newark’s housing projects I’ve read came from
No Cause for Indictment,
a book by Ron Porambo about the Newark riots, which described the projects in the late 1960s: “If never visited, these dwellings cannot be imagined. Once seen, they can never be forgotten.”

And, if anything, the last forty years had only made them worse.

*   *   *

I parked my Malibu at the fringes of the projects, then plunged into the haystack to begin looking for the needle. It had been more than three years since Akilah Harris encountered this guy. He could be anywhere by now. Or he could be around the corner.

My entrance into the courtyard caused a small stir among the lookouts. I could tell because in the middle of February, in the dark of night, Baxter Terrace suddenly sounded like an Audubon Society refuge—birdcalls being the latest in urban drug-selling counterintelligence.

As had been explained to me by a dealer I got friendly with not long ago, the old alert system was very limited in what it allowed. If a lookout saw something that didn’t look right—whether it was a cop or just a well-dressed white guy like me—he did the same thing: he yelled “cops” or the radio code for an officer, “five-oh,” and everyone scattered. The guy sitting on the stash was forced to abandon his perch, making it vulnerable to being swiped by anyone who might have seen where it was hidden.

Birdcalls allowed much more information to be imparted to other members of the operation, without the visitor being aware of what was being communicated. So while a crow’s harsh cry could harken the arrival of a member of the city narcotics unit—a significant threat—the sweet song of a chickadee might signal an officer who was merely escorting a social worker to an appointment, allowing business to continue in guarded fashion. Someone like me, a stranger on unknown business, might warrant a whippoorwill’s call.

Where exactly a city kid learned what a whippoorwill sounded like, I have no idea. But these kids were nothing if not resourceful. It makes you wonder what they could have accomplished under different circumstances.

And now I needed their help. If anyone would know my mortgage hustler, it would be the drug hustlers who worked the same turf, albeit different clientele. My only other alternative would be to knock on doors until I found someone who knew the guy. But given what you often found behind those doors—the frightened, the aged, the mentally ill, the belligerent, the chemically addicted—I would be better off trying to work the dealers than to waste time on trial and error.

As I pressed farther into the courtyard, the birdcalls quieted down to a mild chatter. By now, everyone who needed to be aware of my arrival had been apprised. And yet, while they obviously knew where I was, I couldn’t see them. It was too cold for anyone to just be hanging out. I dug my hands into my pockets and kept peering into the darkness.

Finally, two figures emerged from one of the corner buildings. I took my hands out of my pockets—no need for them to think I was armed—and walked toward them. They were both late teens from the look of them. One was tall and slender, with a head full of thick braids jutting from under a stiff-brimmed black cap. The other was shorter, with a hooded sweatshirt pulled over short-cropped hair.

“Hey,” I said. “I’m sorry to bother you guys. I’m a reporter with the
Eagle-Examiner.
I’m looking for…”

They walked down the stairs just as I was approaching them, brushing past me wordlessly, staring straight ahead like I didn’t exist.

“Look, I’m not a cop,” I said, following them. “I’m just a newspaper reporter working on a story.”

“Nah” was all the one with the braids could say. And even that was muffled.

“Guys, I just need a little help here,” I said.

“Ain’t no snitch,” the one with the hoodie said.

The no-snitch mentality—which had long been the rule for dealing with law enforcement in the projects—had been expanded in recent years to encompass all outsiders. And reporters were most certainly included. It was, quite frankly, a huge pain in the ass. My intentions were almost always benign—in this case, I was trying to track down a lender who may have preyed on poor people—but convincing a hardened no-snitcher of this could be impossible.

More than anything, it just pissed me off. It wasn’t because it made my job harder. Okay, it was partly that. But it was mostly because the no-snitch mentality—and the decline of law and order it brought—had been almost as destructive to the community as the drug trade.

“You’re a moron,” I said once they were out of earshot.

Or at least I thought they were. Apparently, not all of today’s youth have ruined their hearing with loud music.

“What you say?” Braids said, turning around and stopping.

He looked more surprised than anything. I hadn’t really intended to create a confrontation with this kid—especially when I didn’t know how many friends he might have nearby—but there was no backing off now. By himself, he wasn’t much to be afraid of. It helped that I outweighed him by about thirty pounds.

“You’re a moron,” I repeated, walking toward him. “I’m trying to do a story that will help shine light on a scumbag who preys on people from the projects. But you’re such an ignorant moron all you’re worried about is snitching.”

Braids and Hoodie were momentarily speechless. They clearly had not expected anything resembling aggression out of the mild-mannered newspaper reporter.

“Damn, yo, he just called you
ignorant,
” Hoodie said.

“Oh, you’re ignorant, too,” I said, drawing in even closer. “Because you know where all this no-snitch crap has gotten you? As a black man in this country, you’re six times more likely to be murdered. But, wait, it gets even better, because as a young black man living in an urban area, you’re thirty times more likely to be murdered. Congratulations.”

I knew the first factoid to be true. I made up the second one. But I didn’t think there was much chance these guys were going to call me on it. At the moment, they were just gawking at the strange white man who came into the projects to spout numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“So go ahead,” I finished. “Keep not snitching. I just want both of you to remember this conversation so that when I write a story about one of your funerals someday, I can find the other one and say I told you so.”

*   *   *

From an outsider’s perspective, I’m sure what I was doing would not seem particularly wise: picking a verbal fight with two young men who were quite possibly involved in the local drug trade, quite possibly armed, and quite possibly ready to call in reinforcements who could quite possibly separate me from my face.

BOOK: Eyes of the Innocent: A Mystery
5.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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