The Player by Brad Parks is the fifth book in the Carter Ross series that follows the reporter as he investigates a suspicious disease, and in doing so, becomes sick himself (available March 4, 2014).
Carter Ross is an investigative reporter with the Newark Eagle Examiner. He’s got story trouble and girl trouble and he’s not sure which is worse. Then what seemed to be a tip from a crazy person may turn into a story of a lifetime.
Edna Foster and her neighbors are getting sick – their bones were breaking for no reason and they had sudden flu symptoms. And then Edna went into renal failure and died. Her granddaughter, Jackie, a Rutgers pre-med student, reaches out to Carter for help.
“Hi Mr. Ross, my name is Jackie Orr,” came the voice on the other end. It was the voice of someone young, black, and determined.
“Hi Jackie, what can I do for you?”
“Do you ever do stories about people getting sick?”
“That depends,” I said. “Who’s getting sick?”
“What do you mean ‘everyone’?” I asked. So far, so good: kooks often insisted that whatever troubled them also afflicted others.
“Well, first it was just my grandmother. Or we thought it was just my grandmother. But then it turned out to be the whole neighborhood.”
“Sounds like you need a lawyer more than you need a newspaper reporter,” I said.
“I tried that. I tell them people are sick and they’re interested. But once they hear it’s not some open-and-shut mesothelioma case, they don’t want anything to do with it. I talked to one lawyer who sounded a little interested, but then he wanted a fifty-thousand-dollar retainer. If we had fifty thousand dollars, we wouldn’t be bothering with lawsuits. We’d just move. Our case is a little more complicated than anyone seems to want to take on.”
I felt myself sitting up in my chair and paying closer attention. There are certain words kooks tend not to use. “Mesothelioma” is one of them. So while that was a little disappointing – no kook call for me today – it was also more promising from a journalistic standpoint. As a newspaper reporter, I have a certain bias towards the disenfranchised, disadvantaged masses that others, not even sleazy lawyers, want to listen to. Maybe it’s because, deep down, I fancy myself a good-hearted human being who wants to help the less fortunate. Or maybe it’s because the Pulitzer committee shares the same bias.
The author has created fantastic underdogs that you can’t help but cheer on and hope that justice prevails. He certainly sucked me into his story and I was glad to come along for the ride. The main characters have their quirks and are likeable, and Carter Ross seems like someone I could hang out with at the local sports bar and have a beer.
After Carter and his intern, nicknamed Pigeon, interviewed some of the sick people at Edna’s old house, he began calling the illness the Ridgewood Avenue Mystery Disease. Suddenly, he and Pigeon experienced a sudden onset of the flu, just like the Ridgewood residents. Carter determined it must be something in the air, because neither he nor Pigeon ate or drank anything while there at Edna’s house.
The Ridgewood Avenue area was mainly industrial and there was a large scale commercial construction project going on right there – McAlister Arms. Could this big, bad developer be the culprit?
New Jersey’s reputation as a toxic-waste dump is both unfortunate and, largely, unfair. But it’s not entirely unwarranted. Fact is, there was all kinds of unimaginable goo lurking under our state’s surface. Was something from long ago finally working its way to the surface? Had it been on top all along and was just now being stirred up? Whatever it was, some trace amount of it must have wormed its way into people’s lungs. Including mine.
Carter decided to go right to the source and visit Vaughn McAlister, son of real estate mogul Barry McAlister. McAlister Arms was his brain-child and he was proud of it. Vaughn was good looking and smooth. He wanted a good publicity story for his new development so he was willing to talk. Carter wanted to ask some pointed questions about the Ridgewood Avenue Mystery Disease, so he was willing to listen.
“I don’t even want to know what you must be doing to get that site ready for construction. I know there used to be a bunch of factories down there. They must have left all kinds of awful stuff behind, huh?”
I was hoping he would give me some kind of lead for what might be making these people sick. Something like, Oh yeah, we found a big pool of hexavalent chromium just yesterday. Or, yes, they used to make lead paint on that site.
Instead, he just said, “Oh, well, that’s all been cleaned up already.”
“It has? Because I heard there were some people getting sick down there. A whole group of folks from the neighborhood, actually.” I said again as an aside.
He absorbed this information, which didn’t seem to cause a single hair on his perfect head to move askance.
“Well, they’re not getting sick due to anything coming from us. Our remediation process was overseen by a Licensed Site Remediation Professional in strict accordance with state Department of Environmental Protection standards…..They gave us six million dollars to clean up the site. That was done a while ago. We got it certified and everything.”
Ross left disappointed. He was sure he had the guilty party, but since the state supervised the cleanup, he needed to look elsewhere to point his finger. But then, only a few hours later, Carter sees Vaughan lying dead on the lot of his precious development. Someone was not happy with Vaughn McAlister and they took it out on his head.
This is where the sinister trio of villains finds its way into the story I love a story with lots of villains, and this one has plenty of them from the greedy developer, a New Jersey mob boss and hired goons with a secret client. Just when I thought I knew what was going on, there was a plot twist that took me in a completely different direction. I did not see the end coming.
They rode past the house twice. Any more than that and someone might notice.
There were three of them- two thick guys and a thin guy, the same crew that had been hired to do the first…job
Two passes turned out to be enough. The place was exactly as their employer said it would be: a two-story Tudor on a private lane, reasonably secluded, with enough trees that it couldn’t really be seen by its neighbors. At least not until the leaves fell.
Still, they didn’t want to take any chances. So they stole a car, taking it from the parking lot of the West Orange train station. It was a Buick, at least fifteen years old- the kind that are easier to steal, because the antitheft safeguards hadn’t gotten too sophisticated yet. They aimed to have it back before the owner would even be aware of what had happened.
In truth, arson wasn’t really their specialty. They knew guys who were real artists at it, guys who could make it seem like a wire had shorted or an oven had been left on. Neither the two thick guys nor the thin guy knew ay of those tricks.
…..Cook everything. And leave the body behind.
This book was fast paced and kept me up far too late on several evenings. I confess that it was my first book by Brad Parks, but it won’t be my last. I found myself cheering for Carter Ross, both in his investigation and screwed-up love life. The book was also full of well-placed humor and I found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion.
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Kim M. Hammond is an avid mystery reader and aspiring writer who hails from Cleveland, Ohio. She also guest blogs at Mystery Playground.
Read all posts by Kim Hammond for Criminal Element.