Blessed are the Dead
Another boyfriend pissed off at me over a dead body. Or in this case, two dead bodies. The silence on the other end of the line confirms it.
Snapping my cell phone shut, I swipe my keycard and hurry in the back door at the newspaper office. The smell of fresh pizza makes my stomach grumble as I pass the cafeteria, but there’s no time to eat. Deadline is looming. I forget about my limping love life—the clock is ticking. The paper goes to bed in three hours, so I’ve got to hustle.
Entering the newsroom, a jolt of excitement surges through me. It’s that special friction, that palpable energy in the air that is always present close to deadline. Giant windows, black with night, reflect the bustling activity around me. A big-screen TV with its volume muted dominates one wall, and smaller TVs hang from the ceiling throughout the room, blaring local and national news. The room smells like burned broccoli and musty books but still manages to always feel like home. It’s where I’m meant to be.
“Giovanni, you got seventeen inches,” my editor, Matt Kellogg, hollers. Nobody at the Bay Herald ever calls me Gabriella. In the news business, you are your last name. Luckily, I like mine.
I want more space, but there’s no use arguing. He’s right. It’s sad, but it’s the same old story we’ve all seen before—big-living San Francisco businessman up to his Gucci eyeglasses in debt kills his wife, then turns the gun on himself.
The momentum of the newsroom engulfs me, sending adrenaline soaring through my limbs. The space hums like a beehive. Deadline is the one time you can find nearly every metro reporter at a desk. Most are pounding the keyboard, flipping through notebooks, or talking on the phone, getting last-minute quotes for their stories. Our desks are in gray cubbies with low walls so we can see each other and the rest of the newsroom.
I catch snippets of different conversations floating in the air. Our political reporter is losing patience with someone on the other end of the phone line.
“Now come on. You know that’s a bunch of bullshit,” she says. “We’ve known each other for ten years, Jeff. You never once said it was off the record. You know the game. You know the rules. This isn’t amateur night here.”
Across the room, the sports department erupts in cheers as an Oakland A’s batter hits a home run on the big screen. One of the investigative reporters slams down his phone, stands up, pumps his fists into the air, and yells to no one in particular, “Fuck yeah. Fuck yeah, you motherfucker. I knew I’d catch you in a lie. Now it’s going in the paper, you douche bag.”
Nobody except the reporter right beside him even looks up. He only does so to scratch his chin. I keep walking. A veteran reporter lifts his head. “Thought you had a hot date.” We both like to cook, and I had tantalized him earlier with descriptions of the birthday dinner I was going to make for my boyfriend.
“Murder-suicide,” I say. He nods and turns back to his computer.
My teeth clench when I see May DuPont, the night police reporter, at the cop reporter’s station, two desks with a stack of police scanners between them.
I try to straighten my skirt and smooth my hair before I get to my desk. It’s useless. It’s been a long day. I’ve already filed two stories for tomorrow’s paper—a car crash and a brush fire—and the traces of hiking after firefighters cling to me. My hair smells like smoke, and small bits of grass have adhered to my sandals.
Each morning, I dress nice in an effort to create la bella figura, like my Italian mother taught me. But by the end of the day, this is what I’ve become—smelly, rumpled, and bedraggled.
May, a waiflike twenty-four-year-old is—as usual—dressed in a Brooks Brothers shirt and crisp slacks. A getup she was probably born wearing. She’s an upper-crust heroin-chic girl—pretty much the opposite of me. My boyfriend, Brad, says Sophia Loren’s got nothing on my curves. It sounds great in theory, but the truth is even at my fighting weight, all that extra padding makes me feel like an elephant next to girls like May.
I give her a cursory hello before I log onto my computer.
“I’m writing a story you missed about a bank robbery,” she says without looking away from her computer screen. “The editors might put it on the front page. It was a take-on style.”
“It’s called take-over,” I say.
May’s fresh from her master’s program in journalism at Berkeley. The gossip in the newsroom is that her dad is sleeping with the executive editor, Susan Evans. I stare at the huge pearl studs in her ears.
Every night, May manages to dig up some crime that slipped by me during my day shift, and she makes damn sure the editors know I missed it. She’s only been at the paper seven weeks, but I already get the feeling she thinks my job is the next rung on her ladder to success.
Her job—the night cop reporter—is the lowest beat at any paper. I’ve been there. But I also put in the time to get where I am today—the day cops reporter. And it involved working long hours for near-poverty wages at several rinky-dink newspapers. I didn’t have the luxury of attending grad school, then being snatched up by a big daily paper because my dad’s screwing the editor.
May’s mother is dead, and I’m sorry for that, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to hand over my job. She’s not the only one who’s had to deal with tragedy around here.
“You have black stuff on your forehead,” she says, getting up and heading to the copy desk.
Must be soot from the fire. I’m about to grab my compact mirror when something on the police scanner makes me pause. The crackle of the scanners switching from channel to channel is a comforting sound, like white noise, that usually fades into the background if it’s just routine radio traffic.
This time, the officer’s high-pitched and out-of-breath voice calling in a felony traffic stop alerts me. The scanner frequency shows it’s Berkeley PD. Within a moment, the officer is calling Code 4—all clear—so I turn back to my computer. But then I hear something that makes my fingers freeze on the keyboard.
“Rosarito PD says the girl’s eight years old. Mom says she never came home—” More routine traffic about the felony stop interrupts the dispatcher’s voice.
My stomach is doing loop-de-loops as I lean over and try to see which department was talking about the girl. I punch in the frequency for Rosarito PD on the other scanner, but the channel is quiet.
I dial the Rosarito Police Department watch commander—the sergeant on duty overnight while the main office is closed. No answer. He must be out on the streets patrolling, so I leave a message, saying I heard something about a girl who didn’t come home today.
In my years as a reporter, every instance of a possible missing child has ended up being a misunderstanding. Most times the kid lost track of time or didn’t tell someone he wasn’t coming straight home.
In the silver-framed photo hidden in my desk drawer, Caterina’s pink lips and dark eyes are surrounded by a halo of black hair. My sister looks solemn, wise, and beautiful, even though she’s only seven. I remember thinking she looked like a bride when I pulled myself up to look into her casket and saw her lying there in the lacy white first-communion dress and veil she never had a chance to wear.
What I heard on the scanner made my face flush and my insides somersault, but I know it’s rare that a child is kidnapped and killed by a stranger. Every once in a while, I hear something like this on the scanner, and it ends up being nothing. I hope this little girl just forgot to call home. I make the sign of the cross, and May, sitting back down, gives me a snarky look.
The clock shows it’s 9 p.m. I’m running out of time. I got the basic details about the murder-suicide at the press conference earlier except for the identities of the dead. A source at the morgue slipped me the names, but I’m going to have to get one more off-the-record confirmation before Kellogg will let me run with them. I dial homicide detective Lt. Michael Moretti and speak fast before he can protest, reeling off the two names I have.
“If I print them, will I be wrong?”
“You were at the press conference. You heard me. We’re not releasing the names. Sorry, kiddo.”
At twenty-eight, I’m too old to be his daughter, but he always calls me that. Moretti and I bonded a long time ago on the Italian-American thing, but his blood pumps blue. He’s been a cop longer than he hasn’t. It took years for him to believe me when I said I’d go to jail rather than give him up as a source.
“I don’t need you to tell me the names.” I try to sound as logical as possible. “I just need to verify them. Besides, you know the Trib is going to run the names.”
I cringed earlier when I saw a reporter from the San Francisco Tribune at the crime scene. When the bigger paper swoops into our territory and scoops us, my editors don’t like it. I hate it.
Moretti makes a guttural sound. “Did you see those gray hairs on my head tonight? About ten are from you. Don’t you have anyone else you can pester?”
I do. I have some crack sources—cops who call me, and say, “Hey, there’s a dead body in Civic Park, try not to beat the homicide detectives there.”
But this is Moretti’s case.
“Another cop already gave it up,” I say to convince him. “I just need confirmation. How about this? If I have the names right, don’t say anything.”
Silence. I wait a few beats, twirling the phone cord around my fingers.
“Okay, I’m going with it,” I say, bright and cheery. “Thanks. Anything else going on tonight? Heard something about Rosarito.”
He takes a minute to answer. “You didn’t hear this from me.”
“I know, I know.” I roll my eyes even though he can’t see me.
“An eight-year-old Rosarito girl didn’t make it to school today —”
“What?” My stomach gurgles and churns. Sweet Jesus, if Moretti knows about it, this might be the real thing.
“She hasn’t even been gone twenty-four hours. Too early to say if it’s legit or not. Rosarito PD hasn’t issued an AMBER Alert. They’re waiting to find out if she turns up at grandma’s or a classmate’s house.”
He’s right. It’s probably nothing. But dark memories overwhelm me. I do some deep breathing to try to relax, but my heart is racing. I’ve avoided a story like this so far. I don’t know if I’m ready. I don’t know if I will ever be ready.
“Listen, gotta go,” Moretti says. “Remember, you and I didn’t talk tonight. Omerta.”
“Very funny,” I say, but he’s already disconnected. Omerta, an Italian word, refers to the Mafia’s code of silence.
I hang up and dial Kellogg. “Rosarito cops might have a missing kid.”
“Yeah?” He sounds interested. “You got this confirmed?”
“Not yet. Working on it.”
“Get it nailed down.”
I have no sources in the Rosarito Police Department. Because the city lies on the periphery of our paper’s coverage area, we only report unusual or high-profile crimes that occur there. The watch commander hasn’t called me back, so I punch in the number of the department’s public-information officer. She works banker’s hours, but if a child is missing, she might be there. No answer.
I dig up an old file of Rosarito cop numbers and find a main number for investigations. Nothing. Only voice mail. Then I try an old reporter’s trick and start dialing numbers, each time changing the last digit of the main number. It works. Although no one picks up, I leave messages for six detectives.
I try the watch commander’s line one more time, then call 911 dispatchers in Rosarito to ask if they can track him down. The dispatcher is in a good mood. “Sure, I’ll send the sergeant a message for you,” he says.
With an eye on the clock, which is nearing ten, I dial Kellogg. “I can’t get anyone from Rosarito to confirm a missing kid. Can’t we go with it anyway, citing an anonymous source? My source is solid.”
“No can do. Evans would kick up a shitstorm.”
Kellogg used to be ballsy. He never cared what senior editors would think or say. That is, until Susan Evans was hired as executive editor two years ago. I heard he was up for the job, but they hired her instead. Ever since, he’s been walking around mopey and fearful like a puppy that was kicked. I miss the old Kellogg.
“It’s late,” he says. “I needed your story half an hour ago. Get cracking, Giovanni. You can track down the missing kid—if there is one—tomorrow.”
He’s right about one thing—it’s past deadline. I stare at the blank screen and try to figure out a lead. If you don’t draw a reader in with that first sentence, you’ve lost him. Editors have drummed this into my head for years. I’ve trained myself to come up with a lead driving back to the office on deadline, but tonight my mind kept wandering to Brad eating his birthday dinner alone. And now, in the back of my mind, much further back than I’m willing to go right now, a little girl’s familiar face peers out at me. I shake the image off and try to concentrate. May’s voice beside me makes it even harder.
“Oh, stop it,” she says. She laughs and fiddles with her silky scarf. “I do not. I’m usually in bed by then. Let me know if you make an arrest tonight. I would love to put it in the paper with your name as the arresting officer. Talk to you soon.”
I close my eyes and tune out her girlish giggle, thinking about the man who killed himself and his wife tonight. And even though it would kick my story to the front page, I leave out the most salient detail about the slaying—the man was wearing nothing but lipstick and high heels when he offed his wife. My morgue source slipped me this sensational little morsel. Although I know I’ll get in trouble with the editors if I leave it out, and the Trib has it, I can’t do it. As soon as I found out the couple had small children, I knew I wouldn’t print it. Those kids are going to have enough to deal with as it is.
I try to imagine the wife’s last moments of terror. The details of her frantic 911 call revealed she was hiding from her husband in a closet. I’m sure she prayed the police would show up and save her, like in the movies. One thing I’ve learned is that the world is rarely like what you see on the silver screen. The most outlandish and nightmarish stories are the ones that happen in real life.
I file the story in the editing queue and hope I’ve scooped the Tribune on the murder-suicide story, especially by getting the names confirmed. Tomorrow, I’ll try to find out more about the couple for a follow-up story.
When I became a police reporter, I decided that every single person I wrote about deserved more than just their name in the paper when they died. Every time I sit down with a family who has lost a loved one, I give a shit. And they can tell. The shitty part is that I feel like a fraud. Maybe because I’m forging a relationship that is not real. Maybe it’s something else. Even though I really do care—it still boils down to my trying to get a scoop and a front-page story.
Sometimes I wonder why anyone grieving would ever talk to someone like me. Maybe they sense the darkness I keep hidden deep inside. Maybe there is something in my eyes that shows I’ve already been to hell and back. I sit on their couches and take notes as they cry into tissues and flip through photo albums of the loved one they lost, sharing intimate memories with me—a stranger.
Before packing up, I make one last call to the Rosarito watch commander. He doesn’t answer. I grab my sweater and bag. Before I leave, I force myself to turn to May, who looks at me with a little smirk.
Seeing her smarmy look makes me hesitate. Although the thought of writing about a missing child sends waves of panic through me, I also don’t want May to get a scoop based on a tip from my sources.
Unfortunately, I know I need to cover my ass with the editors by giving her a heads-up.
“Keep an ear out for a missing kid in Rosarito.”
“Another story you missed?”
I stop and narrow my eyes at her. “It’s a tip. From a source. Do you know what those are? They’re what you get when you prove yourself. They take years to develop, so maybe someday you’ll get your own source. Or maybe not. Cops don’t trust just anybody.”
And I don’t trust May as far as I can toss her little waiflike body. The first week she was here, she “forgot” to give me a press release I’d been waiting for all day about a big drug bust by the DEA. It was the final piece I needed to top a story I’d been working on all week. After I left, she wrote up the information from the press release and put her byline on the story instead of mine. When I confronted her, she lied about when the press release had come over the fax. My source later told me he’d sent it earlier in the day, and the time stamp on the release backed him up. When I complained to Kellogg, he simply shrugged and changed the subject.
Tonight, I stare at May for a few seconds and walk away before I completely lose it. I hover nearby as Kellogg reads my story.
Kellogg’s six-foot-tall body is scrunched into his cubicle, like a giant brown teddy bear among the dolls at a child’s tea party. I stand beside his desk staring at the pictures taped to the fabric wall of his cubicle: school photos of his two sons, who live with their mother. They go to some fancy private school in Marin County. His ex manages to squeeze every penny she can out of Kellogg, claiming she needs it for the kids. He sleeps on the couch in his one-bedroom apartment to make sure his boys feel like they have their own bedroom at his place.
I wait, shifting from foot to foot. Finally, he’s done.
“Looks fine. No questions.”
I turn to leave, but he stops me.
“You couldn’t get the missing kid confirmed?”
I shake my head no. When I see the concerned look in his eyes, I wait, wondering if he has something else to say. But he immediately turns to his black-and-green screen. He’s onto editing another story.
An odd mixture of frustration and relief flutters through me as I walk to my car. Although I want to avoid writing about a missing kid, my failure tonight amounts to my missing a scoop on what could potentially be a huge story on my beat. And underneath all those emotions, there is also a tiny flicker of worry gnawing at me when I remember the look in Kellogg’s eyes.
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