Authors: Brad Parks
Once Jackman was escorted out and order was restored, the actual performance began and things got a lot less interesting. The orchestra was from somewhere in Europe—the Netherlands, perhaps, or maybe Belgium … I honestly don’t know how anyone (besides the Dutch and the Belgians) keeps those two countries straight.
After the first piece, Tina was chirping about how some well-respected music magazine—not
apparently—had named the orchestra the best in the world. They certainly passed the Carter Ross Classical Music Test: I drifted off during the first movement of the second piece. Call me boorish or uncultured, but I’ve always found falling asleep at the symphony to be one of life’s greater pleasures. And if you look around at any of your finer concert halls, you’ll see I’m not alone.
At intermission—or, as I delighted in calling it, “halftime”—I convinced Tina we had received enough refinement for one night and that, as newspaper people, it was time to get back in touch with our more populist roots. So we snuck out and made our way down the street to Kilkenny Alehouse, a comfortable establishment with a beautiful wooden bar, an array of flat-screen televisions, and a plethora of beer on tap. My kind of place.
Tina stuck with white wine as I bounced between ales. We put away several rounds, yammering about the miserable state of our chosen profession. But, at the same time, Tina and I had long since decided that if the ship was going to take us down, we might as well keep dancing on the decks until it slipped under the water.
Then we started trading war stories, remembering our brushes with disaster, recounting our triumphs. Even though the bar was all but empty on a Monday night, Tina and I had pulled our chairs together as if a crowd of people had forced us into close quarters. The contact was delicious. Tina’s legs kept brushing against mine. Her hands took turns resting on various parts of my person. And her brown eyes, which had gone just slightly watery as a result of the wine, glowed with particular intensity.
I wasn’t sure how many hours had passed by the time we teetered out. But a hot July day had given way to a pleasant, temperate summer evening. The air was so perfect—neither too hot nor too cold—it was almost like it didn’t exist. And a nearly full moon hung above us, large and lanternlike.
As we made our way down the street, toward a car neither of us had any business driving, Tina had draped herself on my right side, with one arm wrapped tightly around mine and a hand on my chest.
The next thing I knew, we had veered into the darkness of a small alleyway and we were kissing. It was unclear whether I had pinned Tina up against the brick wall or she had pulled me there. Either way, I had one arm wrapped around her, cushioning her against the bricks. My other hand was running up and down her side, making the wonderful journey from her upper thigh, to the curve of her hip, to her rib cage and then back again.
Her hands, meanwhile, were planted on my ass, which she was using as a handle to draw me even closer to her.
I had no idea what was happening, nor did I care to stop and examine it. Our mouths just felt too good together. She started letting out these little moans and I heard myself doing the same. My hand had reached her firm, small breast, which I could easily feel through the thin fabric of her dress. Tina had been grinding our lower bodies into each other, with the expected results, then separated just enough to begin fumbling with my belt buckle.
Then suddenly she wasn’t.
“Oh my God, this can’t happen,” she said, turning herself perpendicular to me and taking perhaps two steps away.
“Sure it can,” I said, moving toward her and putting both arms around her shoulders. “Neither of us should be driving anyway. Let’s just get a hotel room and enjoy this.”
“No, I … That can’t happen,” she said, breaking out of my grasp.
“Why the hell not? We seem to do this all the time. Maybe that ought to tell us something.”
She looked down at herself to make sure her dress was properly adjusted, then started walking purposefully—if drunkenly—back toward the NJPAC. The show had obviously been over for a while, but there were still a few police officers around directing what traffic still lingered in the area. I let her stalk away for a moment, then caught up to her as she crossed Broad Street.
“Hotel,” I said.
“We can’t. I’m your editor.”
“Great. I’ll find a new one.”
“That’s not the point,” she said, walking faster.
“Then what is the point? We’ve been doing this dance for a while now. You keep telling me you want to have a baby with me. I keep telling you I don’t just want to be a sperm donor daddy. Let’s compromise: we’ll have the baby and do all the other stuff that goes with it, too.”
“You’re just drunk and horny. You don’t mean that—”
“I do, too,” I cut in.
“And even if you did, I don’t want that. I’ve told you that. I’m not the girl you or anyone else is falling in love with.”
“And why not? I have feelings for you, and I know you have feelings for me. Why don’t we give them a chance?”
She was making bad time in her high heels, and finally, in one remarkably fluid motion, she took them off and transferred them to her left hand. She broke into a fast jog. It was all I could do to catch up with her and gently grab hold of her arm.
“Tina,” I demanded. “Why not?”
She wheeled around and, for a moment, I thought I was going to get eight inches worth of high heel embedded in my face. Instead, I heard:
“The first guy I fell in love with was a total jerk. The second guy I fell in love with was even more of a jerk. And then, just to confirm it wasn’t a fluke, the third guy I fell in love with turned out to be a jerk, too. After a while, I started thinking maybe it wasn’t them. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m toxic. Maybe I just turn them into jerks.”
“Now you’re the one who’s sounding drunk. Let’s get a hotel room and—”
“I’m toxic. Don’t you get that? You’re a great guy, Carter. I want to have a baby with you more than anything, and I hope it’s a boy who turns out to be just like you. But I don’t want to fall in love with you, and I don’t want you falling in love with me. I don’t want to turn you into just another jerk.”
With that, she ran to an idling taxi, leaving me standing on a sidewalk just outside NJPAC, a small cadre of bored cops looking at me like I was prize idiot for letting a beautiful woman get away.
I remained there for a little. Then I flagged down my own cab, giving the driver my address in Bloomfield. I arrived home to find Deadline in his usual spot (the exact, geometric middle of my bed) and shoved him aside so I could begin the predictable tossing and turning.
Strangely, though, it wasn’t the thought in the front of my mind that kept me awake. It was the one wedged off to the side. Of all things, I kept playing over my conversation with Jeanne Nygard:
She was having problems at work … Nancy had reason to fear for her life … It wasn’t an accident.
Could someone really have wanted to kill a waitress/delivery girl? Somewhere in the midst of my fitfulness, I resolved to indulge my curiosity by looking into it for a day, maybe two, if only so I could put it to rest.
* * *
The next morning, I saw that Jeanne Nygard had been thinking about me, too. When I retrieved my phone from the pants I had been wearing the night before, it told me I missed a call from her 510 area code number. She didn’t leave a message, so I decided—in keeping with my hard-to-get tactic—I wouldn’t call her back.
Instead, I shook off a minor hangover, quickly ran through my shave-shower-breakfast routine, and caught a bus into downtown Newark. In addition to retrieving my car, I had to go into the newsroom and make an appearance in Tina’s office. I was entered in an event at the Awkward Olympics: the About-last-night-athalon.
Tina was obviously gearing up for the competition as well because I was still on the bus when I received an e-mail from Thompson, Tina. The subject: “Good Morning.” The body: “Come see me when you get in.—TT.”
I considered dawdling but then decided to get it over with. As soon as I arrived at the nest, I forced myself toward her office.
“Hey,” I said, tapping on the glass but not wanting to enter without being asked.
“Come on in,” she said.
I complied. Figuring we had parted ways around midnight, and it was now ten
, it had given us both ten hours to sober up and start feeling abashed about the evening’s events. Tina was wearing a subdued light blue blouse, a chagrined expression, and puffy dark smudges under her eyes. Plus, the woman who never drank coffee—she told me caffeine wasn’t good for developing fetuses and she didn’t want any coffee in her system when she conceived—had an extra large Dunkin’ Donuts cup in front of her.
“I’m sorry I just ran off without thinking of how you were going to get home,” she said. “That was awful of me. I—”
“It’s okay, Tina. I took a cab, too.”
“Still,” she said. “I was halfway back to Hoboken by the time I realized what I did. I almost told the cab to turn around, but then I thought you’d probably rather walk than see more of me.”
“It’s okay, really.”
Tina smiled weakly, then took a long pull on her coffee. I glanced at the side wall of her office, which contained a dry erase board filled with story ideas we would probably never get around to doing. Then I stared at the small stack of newspapers behind her. Tina, meanwhile, was straightening paper clips on her desk.
“So you, uh, made it home okay?” I said, just to say something. Obviously, she did make it home okay, because otherwise she wouldn’t be sitting in her office, making pointless small talk while an eight-hundred-pound gorilla was doing jumping jacks in the corner.
“Yeah,” she said. “You?”
I coughed gently into my hand and stretched out my legs. Tina twisted to her right until two of her vertebrae made a popping sound, then twisted back to her left. The gorilla switched from jumping jacks to mountain climbers. I guess he was working on his core strength.
“See?” Tina said, finally breaking the silence. “This is why we can’t sleep together.”
“I meant what I said last night,” I blurted. “I think we should give our relationship a chance.”
“We’re not having that conversation right now.”
“Tina, that kiss—”
“We’re definitely not having
conversation right now.”
“Okay, when are we having that conversation?”
“I don’t know. Maybe never.”
“No,” she said sharply. “We’re not doing this.
She punctuated the “please” with an emphatic jerk of the head, like she wanted to create a page break between that conversation and a new one.
“So how do we move forward from here?” I asked.
“The same way we did yesterday. I’m your editor. You’re my reporter. That’s the real reason I called you in here. I have a story I need you to work on.”
“Oh,” I said, a little taken aback. It was the last thing I expected to hear. Tina plowed forward:
“We’re getting word there’s a bear in Newark.”
“A bear. As in the furry, forest-dwelling creature. Except this one isn’t in a forest. It wandered into Newark overnight and is now rambling around Vailsburg.”
“I actually have something I’m working on at the moment. Mind putting someone else on it?”
“Have you looked around the newsroom lately, Carter? I would put ‘someone else’ on it, but ‘someone else’ took a buyout three years ago, and ‘the other guy’ got laid off last year,” she said, not bothering to hide her annoyance. “We need a writer on this thing. If we get the right art, this could lead the paper. You know how Brodie loves animal pictures.”
I did. It had just been a long time since that particular partiality—which ran the gamut from bears to dogs to escaped pet alligators—had been my problem. Those kinds of stories were generally farmed out, as it were, to bureau reporters or interns, not members of the investigative team. And yeah, maybe it was a little bit of a diva move, trying to duck this assignment. But I didn’t get into journalism so I could write searing exposés on zoo animals.
“What about Hays? Can’t he do it?”
“Hays is the only full-time reporter we have covering every crime between here and Morristown. And besides, he’d end up writing this as straight news.”
“What about Whitlow?”
“Whitlow is on vacation.”
“Stop it, Carter,” she snapped. “You don’t make the staffing decisions around here, and you certainly don’t get to second-guess them. I’m your editor and I’m telling you this is your job. End of conversation.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. This is the stupidest—”
“End of conversation. Go.”
Tina buried her attention in her computer screen, as if to emphasize our dialogue had, indeed, come to a close. I couldn’t help but feel this was personal. I had crossed some kind of boundary with Tina last night, gotten a little too close to someone who preferred to maintain a rather generous buffer zone. Saddling me with a stupid daily story was her way of planting me firmly back on the other side of the line.
“You can take an intern with you if you want someone to help with the legwork,” she said, without making eye contact. “I don’t think Lunky has anything to do right now.”
“Aww, come on—Lunky?”
“Yeah, you know, the big—”
“I know who he is. I’ve also heard he can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.”
“Probably true,” Tina said. “So I suggest you don’t share your Bubblicious with him.”
* * *
If Tina thought I was going to waste my day dodging piles of bear scat in Newark, she had another think coming. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t beneath using interns to do my work for me. And so, in giving me Lunky, she had unwittingly provided me an escape from this lowly task.
“Lunky” was the clever nickname the editors had given to Kevin Lungford. He was one of the newest members of the ever-rotating battery of indentured servants who have become increasingly predominant in most newsrooms, mostly because of their remarkable ability to subsist on salaries that qualify as human rights violations.