Authors: Mark Arsenault
Poisoned Pen Press
Copyright Â© 2003 by Mark Arsenault
First Edition 2003
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2003100084
ISBN: 9781590580592 Hardcover
ISBN: 9781615950034 Epub
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.
Poisoned Pen Press
6962 E. First Ave., Ste. 103
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
This book is dedicated to Julia McCarthy,
who possessed nothing but an exceptional soul.
Monday, October 19
Eddie Bourque gulped the last of his bitter Arabica, then lifted the empty mug over his head and wagged it at the waitress. He put it down, exhaled noisily and looked out the window at the hard sleet slanting to the street. His flip-top reporter's notebook, on the table, was still empty.
“Just amazing,” continued Councilman Eccleston. “In the front of the spoon I see myself upside down. But when I look in the back,” he flipped the spoon, “I'm upside up.” He grinned, delighted, then pumped his eyebrows up and down.
“Councilman, you started to sayâ”
“In a minute, Eddie,” Eccleston said, turning the spoon.
The waitress filled Eddie's mug with black java that looked an hour past its prime. She left four shots of non-dairy creamer on the table and went away. Eddie added two creams and stirred the drink with his ballpoint.
Eddie's partner on the newspaper's political beat, Danny Nowlin, had assured him that the councilman had a tipâa tip so hot that Danny would have followed it himself if he weren't too busy on a long-term news feature. But two coffees into the interview, Eccleston had offered no sizzle, not even a news brief.
If Danny's going to dump Eccleston on me, I hope he's chasing a Pulitzer.
Five-term City Councilman Manuel Eccleston was sixtyish. He had greased-down ginger hair, a flushed, overscrubbed complexion, and an enduring dazed look about himâone part curiosity, two parts brain concussion. A former Lottery Commission hack, Eccleston had retired on a disability. Bum leg, blood clots, sciaticaâhe had claimed them all, which meant he could only golf where nobody knew him.
Eccleston flipped the spoon again. “You ever seen this trick?” he asked.
“No,” Eddie said. “It doesn't work for me.” Eccleston looked up, and Eddie pounced. “It must be tense times for you incumbents, three weeks before the election. The opinion polls have it close.”
It was an educated guess. Eddie had seen no pollsâno news agency had commissioned one, and the politicians guarded their own poll results like missile codes. But whenever eighteen candidates compete for nine open seats, there has to be a close race
Eccleston struck at the bait. “It's a crazy season, like they sayâall politics is
Eddie bit his bottom lip until it hurt. In political circles, Eccleston was known as Manny the Mangler for his regular assassination of the King's English. If the King were still around, Manny would hang.
Eccleston went through the election ticket, top to bottom, rating each incumbent's chance for reelection. He offered a rosy, but plausible, analysis: that Manny and four of his political allies would survive.
“So you think your block will keep its majority.”
Eccleston shook the spoon at Eddie. “We better. This city is at a critical conjunction.”
Manny was swimming near the hook, and Eddie didn't want to spook him. He shrugged, resisted the urge to reach for his pad, and inwardly begged for more.
The councilman leaned over the table. He said, “Government needs to take a lesson from business.” His breath smelled mysteriously like baking soda. “What does business do with employees who don't pull their own freight?”
Eddie bit his lip again.
Eccleston rapped the spoon on the Formica. “They fire 'em.” He leaned back. “And a certain neighborhood of this city ain't working out.”
That didn't make any sense. Eddie drained his mug. He said, “You can't fire a neighborhood.”
Eccleston's index fingers came together at eye level. “We have to think outside the box,” he said, as his fingers traced a triangle in the air.
Eddie reached for his pad, a narrow spiral notebook with a red “E” emblazoned on the cover. The councilman's eyes got big. “You're not writing this down, are you?”
“Got to,” Eddie said. “Forgot to wear a wire this morning.”
Eccleston gave a nervous laugh. He scratched his scalp with the spoon, and kept his voice low. “This ain't for the paper.”
“Councilman,” Eddie said, sounding like a disappointed father, “you didn't arrange this meeting to send me home empty-handed.”
Eccleston looked outside. He tapped the spoon in his palm. “The situation isn't ripe yet.”
Eddie got itâEccleston was playing defense. He wanted to tip Eddie to something juicy, off-the-record, with a conditional release date. Then, even if Eddie heard the news someplace else, he would be bound by the embargo, and the councilman could be sure the story wouldn't run before it was ripe.
Of course Eddie could refuse the deal and pursue the story on his own. But then there would be no guarantee he'd get it. Later, when he was ready, Eccleston would leak it to the TV stations.
Eddie looked in his coffee mug. He shook a last drop into his mouth. “You have me curious, councilman,” he admitted. “What's your timetable?”
“After the election.”
“Christ Almighty, this
big,” Eddie muttered.
Too big, he decided, to pass up. He tucked his pad and pen into his overcoat. “Okay, deal. Now empty your pockets, and make it good.”
It was an urban renewal project, Eccleston explained. A big one. Some of Lowell's powerbrokers were scheming a total makeover of the immigrant neighborhood known as the Acreâout with the low-income tenements, in with the luxury condos. Tearing down a neighborhood? That would be six months of screaming headlines, once the story broke.
Eddie drummed his fingers on the mug. He found himself looking forward to a controversy that would break a long string of ordinary days. “The neighborhood groups will hate this,” he predicted. “I can't imagine how much political heat this might bring.”
“If you can't take the heat,” Eccleston said, “then get out of the frying pan.”
Eddie bit his lip a third time. “Is Congressman Vaughn on board?”
Manny frowned. “Vaughn's a pain in the ass. But people are working on him.”
“The real question,” Eddie said, “is
is this happening?”
The councilman sat back. A smile spread across his face. He rubbed his finger and thumb together in the pantomime that means money.
“How much?” Eddie asked. “Who's getting it?”
Eccleston pulled an imaginary zipper over his lips.
“Come on, Manny,” Eddie pleaded, “that's the key to the goddam deal.”
Eccleston grimaced. “If anyone figured out I took a leak to the press, my butt would be in a sling.” He rubbed his chin. “But I might have something else you can write about later this week. I'll let you know.”
They finished their coffee over small talk. Eddie paid the tab and pocketed the receipt for his expense report.
As they stepped outside, Eccleston turned up his collar. “Remember,” he said, “you and I did not have this conversation.”
“Good man.” He leaned into the sleet and walked off.
Eddie strolled toward downtown with the sleet at his back. The Lowell Daily Empire Building rose behind a row of low brick offices.
The newspaper's ten-story tower is among the tallest buildings in downtown Lowell. But it stands out more for unique style than for height. The men who owned the textile factories of the Industrial Revolution built nineteenth-century Lowell mostly of red clay. Main Street is an alley between rows of interconnected brick buildings, three or four stories high. Most look like banks, handsome and serious, trimmed with granite arches and marble sash. But the theater magnate who founded The Empire in 1920 built his newspaper a limestone tower, ringed by black marble ledges at each floor.
A later publisher lit the tower's roof with fat tubes of neon gas bent into a letter “E” two stories tall. The Empire E flickered red like fire in a bottle.
Eddie took a shortcut through a cobblestone alley. Manny had dished a good tip after all, even if it wasn't on the record yet.
How hot is Danny's story if he took a pass on this one?
Eddie hadn't gone twenty paces when his pager buzzed. He checked the telephone number displayed on its screen, and then called the city desk on his cellular phone.
City Editor Gordon Phife answered. “Start hustling toward the cop shop,” he ordered. Phife's voice was all business. No silly impressions, no movie quotes, which were Gordon's trademarks. His serious voice was rare; it could make a routine assignment feel like the biggest story on the planet.
Eddie broke into a trot toward police headquarters. “I'm on it,” he said.
“Crack dealer shot up the basketball courts on Lila Street early this morning. A teenager got hit, not fatalâwe think. My police reporters aren't in yet and I goddam can't find Nowlin, so I need you to jam this one on deadline. The cops have a press conference scheduled for right now. If you get me a story by ten, we'll make the late editions and be on the street before the noon news.”
Eddie sped up. Sleet stung his eyes. “How much space do I have?”
“I'll hold a five-inch hole on page one, and maybe another six inches inside. I could yank an in-house ad if you need more, but I doubt you'll have the time for it.”
The police station was in view. Three television vans from Boston news stations were parked outside, their silver satellite antennas reaching thirty feet high. “Looks like everybody's here,” Eddie said. “Channels Four and Five, and that blow-dried asshole from Channel Eight.”
“Chuck Boden? The Empire's most famous former reporter?”
“Yeah, I've seen him on assignment, but haven't spoken to him since I've been back in Lowell.”
that TV tabloid hack?”
Eddie felt the sweat from his short jog, hot on his back. “Before you came, I
here with Chuck Bodenâ”
“You shittin' me?”
“âAnd I can tell you, he was all hair and ego back then, too.”
“Well, pop that guy in the head for me,” Phife said. “Then get back here with my story.”
Eddie laughed and hung up. Police headquarters was a two-story cement building with a few skinny windows, tinted black. He bounded up four stairs and slipped into the main foyer as the police chief stepped to a podium cluttered with microphones. There was a stack of press releases on a table. Eddie grabbed one and skimmed it. It was a simple story, and a good one: At three-thirty in the morning, a street dealer peddling cocaine mixed with crushed aspirin had an argument with an unsatisfied customer swinging an ice axe. The dealer insisted all sales were final, and whipped out a pistol. A stray bullet hit a teenaged runaway, and everybody ran like Prefontaine when the cops showed up.
The chief's remarks were vague and unhelpful. Eddie jotted down a few throwaway quotes about how hard the police were working to solve the case. During the Q&A, Eddie asked about the caliber of the gun and the number of shots fired. The chief ummed and ahhed, asked himself another question and answered that one. Eddie pressed, and the chief gave it up. It was a .40 caliber gun. And there were two shots. He refused to say if the police had found the pistol.
Eddie started to press him again, but Chuck Boden from Channel Eight cut him off.
“Chief,” Boden began, his voice a rich baritone. He looked away and paused a moment for drama. “If you could speak directly to the people who committed this terrifying act near the heart of this great city, what would you say? And what
you say to the residents afraid to come out of their homes while this shooter is still at largeâperhaps ready to strike again?”
The chief frowned and looked Boden over. The TV man had coiffed sandy hair, a square jaw and a deep tan, even in late October. His olive-colored suit tapered from his broad shoulders to his tiny waist. The chief said, “First, let me assure the residents that this violent act will not go unpunished. The detective squad is pursuing leads, and we're confident an arrest will be forthcoming. To the perpetrator, I'll say this. Turn yourself in, because we're going to get you.”
Boden smiled, all shiny white teeth. He had his sound bite.
The press conference broke up and Eddie went for the chief with more questions. Boden got to him first, and put a microphone in the chief's face. The Channel Eight cameraman filmed over Boden's shoulder, as Boden lobbed a few more softballs. When he was done, the cameraman walked around to film over the chief's shoulder. Boden pulled a comb from his pocket and dragged it once through his hair. Then he nodded in silence for the camera for ten seconds. That footage would be spliced over the chief's comments to give the illusion that their conversation was filmed simultaneously from two angles.
Eddie edged past the cameraman, keeping his back to Boden. But the TV man's voice boomed in his ear.
“Eddie Bourque?” Boden said. “I was so happy when I saw my old pal's byline back in The Empire.” His sarcasm was as subtle as his breathless news reports. “It's been what, seven or eight years? And look at you, right back where you started.” Even his
Eddie responded to Boden's uppercut with his jab. “Kicking your ass on stories around here is a habit of mine. You'll find I guard my news tips more carefully than I used to.”
Boden's grin fell. “Those were
tips,” he said, the words grinding in his throat. “You still can't accept that anyone could have beaten you to a story.” He caught himself, shook his head, and broke out a new grin, this one patronizing. “Anyway, it's great to have you back in the market. I'm sure they miss your reporting in Maine.”
“It was Vermont,” Eddie corrected, immediately regretting that he had acknowledged the slight. “Check my clips since I've been back. I'm a couple scoops ahead of you.”