An excerpt of Cliff Walk, a Liam Mulligan thriller by Bruce DeSilva (available May 22, 2012).
Prostitution has been legal in Rhode Island for more than a decade; Liam Mulligan, an old-school investigative reporter at a dying Providence newspaper, suspects the governor has been taking payoffs to keep it that way. But this isn’t the only story making headlines . . . a child’s severed arm is discovered in a pile of garbage at a pig farm. Then the body of an internet pornographer is found sprawled on the rocks at the base of Newport’s famous Cliff Walk.
At first, the killings seem random, but as Mulligan keeps digging into the state’s thriving sex business, strange connections emerge. Promised free sex with hookers if he minds his own business—and a beating if he doesn’t—Mulligan enlists Thanks-Dad, the newspaper publisher’s son, and Attila the Nun, the state’s colorful Attorney General, in his quest for the truth. What Mulligan learns will lead him to question his beliefs about sexual morality, shake his tenuous religious faith, and leave him wondering who his real friends are.
Cosmo Scalici hollered over the grunts and squeals of three thousand hogs rooting in his muddy outdoor pens. “Right here’s where I found it, poking outta this pile of garbage. Gave me the creeps, the way the fingers curled like it wanted me to come closer.”
“What did you do?” I hollered back.
“Jumped the fence and tried to snatch it, but one of the sows beat me to it.”
“Couldn’t get it away from her?”
“You shittin’ me? Ever try to wrestle lunch from a six-hundred-pound hog? I whacked her on the snout with a shovel my guys use to muck the pens. She didn’t even blink.”
To mask the stink, we puffed on cigars, his a Royal Jamaica, mine a Cohiba.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” he said. “The nails were painted pink, and it was so small. The little girl that arm came from couldn’ta been more than nine years old. The sow just wolfed it down. You could hear the bones crunch in her teeth.”
“Where’s the hog now, Cosmo?”
“State cops shot her in the head, loaded her in a van, and took off. Said they was gonna open her stomach, see what’s left of the evidence. I told ’em, that’s two hundred and fifty bucks’ worth of chops and bacon wholesale, so you damn well better send me a check ’less you want me to sue your ass.”
“Any other body parts turn up?”
“The cops spent a couple hours raking through the garbage. Didn’t find nothin’. If there was any more, it’s all pig shit by now.”
We kept smoking as we slopped across his twelve acres to the sprawling white farmhouse with green shutters where I’d left my car. Once this was woodland and meadow, typical of the countryside in the little town of Pascoag in Rhode Island’s sleepy northwest corner. But Cosmo had bulldozed his whole place into an ugly mess of stumps, mud, and stones.
“How do you suppose the arm got here?” I asked.
“The staties kept asking the same question, like I’m supposed to fuckin’ know.”
He scowled as I scrawled the quote in my reporter’s notebook.
“Look, Mulligan,” he said. “My company? Scalici Recycling? It’s a three-mil-a-year operation. My twelve trucks collect garbage from schools, jails, and restaurants all over Rhode Island. That arm coulda been tossed in a Dumpster anywhere between Woonsocket and Westerly.”
I knew it was true. Scalici Recycling was a fancy name for a company that picked up garbage so pigs could reprocess it into bacon, but there was big money in it. I’d written about the operation five years ago when the Mafia tried to muscle in. Cosmo drilled one hired thug through the temple with a bolt gun used to slaughter livestock and put another in a coma with his ham-size fists. He called it trash removal. The cops called it self-defense.
I’d parked my heap beside his new Ford pickup. Mine had a New England Patriots decal on the rear window. His had a bumper sticker that said: “If You Don’t Like Manure, Move to the City.”
“Getting along any better with the folks around here?” I asked as I jerked open my car door.
“Nah. They’re still whining about the smell. Still complaining about the noise from the garbage trucks. That guy over there?” he said, pointing at a raised ranch across the road. “He’s a real asshole. That one down there? Total jerk. This whole area’s zoned agricultural. They build their houses out here and want to pretend they’re in fuckin’ Newport? Fuck them and the minivans they rode in on.”
A prowl car slipped behind me on America’s Cup Avenue, and when I swung onto Thames Street, it hugged my bumper. A left turn onto Prospect Hill didn’t shake it, so when I reached the red octagonal sign at the corner of Bellevue Avenue, I broke with local custom and came to a complete stop. Then I turned right, and the red flashers lit me up.
I rolled down the window and watched in the side mirror as a Newport city cop unfolded himself from the cruiser and swaggered toward me, the heels of his boots clicking on the pavement, his leather gun belt creaking. I shoved the paperwork at him before he asked for it. He snatched it without a word, walked back to the cruiser, and ran my license and registration. I listened in on my police scanner and was relieved to learn that my Rhode Island driver’s license was valid and that the heap I’d been driving for years had not been reported stolen.
I heard the gun belt creak again, and the cop, whose nametag identified him as Officer Phelps, was back, handing my paperwork through the window.
“May I ask what business you have in this neighborhood tonight, Mr. Mulligan?”
Ordinarily, I don’t pick fights with lawmen packing high-powered sidearms. Anyone who’d covered cops and robbers as long as I had could recognize the .357 SIG Sauer on Officer Phelps’s hip. But he’d had no legitimate reason to pull me over.
“Have you been drinking tonight, sir?”
“May I have permission to search your vehicle?”
Officer Phelps dropped his right hand to the butt of his pistol and gave me a hard look.
“Please step out of the car, sir.”
I did, affording him the opportunity to admire how fine I looked in a black Ralph Lauren tuxedo. He hesitated a moment, wondering if I might actually be somebody; but tuxedos can be rented, and a somebody would have had better wheels. I put my palms against the side of the car and assumed the position. He patted me down, sighing when he failed to turn up a crack pipe, lock picks, or a gravity knife.
When he was done, he wrote me up for running the sign I’d stopped at and admonished me to drive carefully. I was lucky he didn’t shoot me. In this part of Newport, driving a car worth less than eighty thousand dollars was a capital offense.
I fired the ignition and rolled past the marble-and-terra-cotta dreams of nineteenth-century robber barons: The Breakers, Marble House, Rosecliff, Kingscote, The Elms, Hunter House, Beechwood, Ochre Court, Chepstow, Chateau-sur-Mer. And my favorite, Clarendon Court, where Claus von Bülow either did or did not try to murder his heiress wife by injecting her with insulin, depending on whether you believe the first jury or the second. Here, sculpted cherubs frolic in formal gardens. Greek gods cling to gilded cornices and peer across the Atlantic Ocean. Massive oak doors open at a touch, and vast dining rooms rise to frescoed ceilings. A few of these shrines to hubris and bad taste have been turned into museums, but the rest remain among the most exclusive addresses in the world, just as they have been for more than a hundred years.
Men who ripped fortunes from the grasps of competitors built the Newport mansions. Cornelius Vanderbilt, who stitched the face of America with rails and ties. Big Jim Fair, who dug silver out of Nevada’s Comstock Lode. Edward J. Berwind, who fueled American industry with Appalachian coal. They were doers, and they built these forty-, sixty-, and eighty-room monstrosities as retreats, playgrounds, and monuments to themselves.
But that was generations ago. Today, those who live in the mansions are scions of the doers, living on somebody else’s money in somebody else’s dream. They try to keep the Gilded Age alive in a blaze of crystal chandeliers, the scent of lilies drifting over elegantly attired dinner guests. And they keep the likes of me out with ivy-covered walls, hand-wrought iron gates, and a vigilant local constabulary.
Except tonight. Tonight, I had an invitation.
Just past Beechwood, the Astors’ Italianate summer cottage, I slid behind a shimmering silver Porsche in a line of cars drifting toward the gilded iron gate to the grounds of Belcourt Castle. One by one, they turned into the torch-lit, crushed-stone drive: a Maserati, a Bentley, a Ferrari, a Lamborghini, a Maybach, another Bentley, and something sleek that may have been a Bugatti, although I’d never seen one before. Trailing them was a poverty-stricken sad sack in a mere Mercedes-Benz. I wondered if Officer Phelps had hassled him, too.
Up ahead, liveried valets opened car doors, grasped bejeweled hands to help ladies from their fairy-tale carriages, climbed in, and floated away to distant parking lots. Then a nine-year-old Bronco with rust pocks on the hood, a crushed passenger-side fender, and a diseased muffler rumbled up, and I got out.
“Be careful with it this time,” I said as I flipped the keys to a valet. “Look what happened the last time you parked it.”
I strolled through the courtyard to a heavy oak door where an emperor penguin with a clipboard was checking the guest list. He studied my engraved invitation and scowled.
“Surely you are not Mrs. Emma Shaw of the Providence Dispatch.”
“What gave me away?”
“Do this job as long as I have,” he said, “and you develop a sixth sense about this sort of thing.” He looked me up and down. “I can see that your eyebrows haven’t been plucked lately.” He paused to rub his chin with his big left wing. “And your perfume is a little off. The last dame to walk through here was wearing Shalimar. You smell like Eau d’Cigars.”
“You don’t know any women who smoke cigars?”
“Not the kind made out of tobacco,” he said. From his snicker, I could tell he took special pride in that one. “I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t admit you.”
“Oh yeah? Well, this isn’t the only mansion in town, buster.” I turned away to retrieve Secretariat, my pet name for the Bronco.
I’d drawn the assignment to cover the annual Derby Ball after Emma, our society reporter, quit last week, taking a buyout that trimmed thirty more jobs from a newsroom already cut to the marrow by last year’s layoffs. Ed Lomax, the city editor, had pretended he was doing me a favor.
“I can guarantee you the cover of the ‘Living’ section,” he said.
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “We can no longer afford to have our baseball writer travel with the Red Sox. We don’t have a medical writer or a religion writer anymore. Our Washington bureau is down to one reporter. And this is a priority?”
“The ball is the final event of the weeklong Newport Jumping Derby,” he said. “It’s one of the biggest hoity-toity events of the year.”
“So they say, but who gives a shit?”
“Other than the horses?”
“I’m a little busy with real stories right now, boss. I’m trolling through the governor’s campaign contribution list to figure out who’s buying him off this year. I’m looking into the toxic waste dumping in Briggs Marsh. And I’m still trying to figure out how that little girl’s arm ended up as pig food last week.”
“Look, Mulligan. Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do. It’s part of being a professional.”
“And I have to do this particular thing because . . . ?”
“Because the publisher’s seventeen-year-old niece is one of the equestrians.”
But if I couldn’t get in, I couldn’t be blamed for not covering it. Lomax didn’t need to hear how readily I took no for an answer. I’d almost made it out of the courtyard when I heard high heels clicking behind me and a woman’s voice calling my name. I quickened my pace. I was asking a valet where I could find my car when the high heels clattered to a stop beside me and their owner, a tiny middle-aged woman who’d had one face-lift too many, took me by the arm.
“I am so sorry for the confusion, Mr. Mulligan. Your Mr. Lomax called to say you would be taking Mrs. Shaw’s place, and I neglected to amend the guest list.”
“And you are . . . ?”
“Hillary Proctor, but you can call me ‘Hill.’ I’m the publicity director for the Derby, and I am honored that you are joining us this evening. I do hope my lapse hasn’t caused you any embarrassment.”
“Look, Hill,” I said as she escorted me past the shrugging penguin and into the mansion’s antechamber, “I’m supposed to write about the important people who are here and describe what they are wearing, but I can’t tell the difference between a Vanderbilt draped in a Paris original and a trailer park queen dressed by J.C. Penney.”
“Of course you can’t. You’re the young man who writes about mobsters and crooked politicians. I love your work, darling.”
“So you’re the one,” I said.
“Oh, I do love a man with a sense of humor. How would you like to be my escort for the evening? I’ll whisper the names of the worthies and what they are wearing in your ear, and the gossips will be all atwitter about the mysterious man on my arm.”
“That’s a very gracious offer, Hill, but I like to work alone. Do you think you could just jot everything down while I wander around and soak up a little color?”
“Certainly,” she said, not looking the least bit disappointed.
I handed her my notebook, strolled across the antechamber, and stepped into a huge dining room with a mosaic pink marble floor and a wall of stained glass windows that bristled with Christian iconography. Men in tuxedos and women in ball gowns were loading china plates with shrimp, roast beef, and several dishes I couldn’t identify, all of it tastefully displayed on a sixteen-foot-long walnut trestle table. The room was illuminated by nine crystal chandeliers. The grande dame who owned the house liked to boast that the largest of them had once graced the parlor of an eighteenth-century Russian count. The hunky plumber she had impetuously married and then divorced tattled that it had actually been scavenged from a dilapidated movie house in Worcester, Massachusetts. I made a mental note to include that tidbit of Newport lore in my story.
The Dispatch’s ethics policy prohibited reporters from accepting freebies, but the roast beef looked too good to pass up. I scarfed some down and then followed the sound of music up a winding oak staircase to the second floor. There, four chandeliers blazed from a vaulted cream-colored ceiling that arched thirty feet above a parquet ballroom floor. A fireplace, its limestone-and-marble chimneypiece carved to resemble a French château, commanded one end of the room. The hearth was big enough to roast a stegosaurus or cremate the New England Patriots’ offensive line. At the other end of the room, a band I wasn’t hip enough to recognize played hip-hop music I wasn’t tone-deaf enough to like.
I snatched a flute of champagne from a circulating waiter and circumnavigated the dance floor, spotting the mayors of Newport, Providence, New Haven, and Boston; the governors of Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, Kentucky, and New Jersey; one of Rhode Island’s U.S. senators; both of its congressmen; three bank presidents; four Brown University deans; twelve captains of industry; two Kennedys; a Bush; and a herd of athletic-looking young women. I found a spot against the wall between a couple of suits of armor and watched the mayor of Boston try to dance the Soulja Boy with a teenage girl whose last name might have been Du Pont or Firestone. When a waiter glided by, I nabbed another flute, but it just made me thirsty for a Killian’s at the White Horse Tavern. After observing the festivities for a half hour, I figured I’d seen enough.
I was looking for Hill so I could retrieve my notebook when I spotted Salvatore Maniella. He was leaning against a corner of the huge chimneypiece, as out of place as Mel Gibson at a seder. What was a creep like him doing at a swanky event like this? I was still lurking a few minutes later when our governor strolled up and tapped him on the shoulder. They crossed the ballroom together and slipped into a room behind the bandstand. I gave them twenty seconds and then followed.
Through the half-open door I could make out red flocked wallpaper, a G clef design in gold leaf on the ceiling, and a grand piano—the mansion’s music room, which the current owner had proudly restored to its original garishness. Maniella and the governor had the room to themselves, but they stood close, whispering conspiratorially in each other’s ears. After a moment, they grinned and shook hands.
I slipped away as they turned toward the door.
In the morning, I ordered a large coffee and an Egg McMuffin at the McDonald’s on West Main Road in Newport, took a seat by the window, and opened my laptop to check the headlines. I’d have preferred to hold a newspaper in my hands, but the Dispatch, in another cost-cutting move, had stopped delivering down here.
A federal judge had dismissed the labor racketeering indictment against our local Mob boss, Giuseppe Arena, because of prosecutorial misconduct. Someone had taken a potshot at the medical director of Rhode Island Planned Parenthood, the rifle slug crashing through her kitchen window and burying itself in her refrigerator. A pair of loan sharks, Jimmy Finazzo and his baby brother, Dominick, had been arrested for executing a deadbeat in their Cadillac Coupe de Ville while they were being tailed—and videotaped—by the state police. The video was already on YouTube. And the coach of the Boston Celtics, who were training at Newport’s Salve Regina University, announced he’d canceled a team tour of the Newport mansions after realizing most of his players owned bigger houses.
My story on the Derby Ball was on the paper’s Web site, too. I’d pecked it out late last night at the White Horse, making liberal use of the names and gown descriptions Hill had jotted in my notebook. Sue Wong, Adrianna Papell, and Darius Cordell, I’d proclaimed, were the hot designers this season. I had no idea who they were, but I figured Hill could be trusted. Three Killian’s later, I’d checked myself into a Motel 6, the cheapest bed to be found in Newport, and filed the story over the landline.
After breakfast with Ronald McDonald and the Hamburglar, I slid Buddy Guy’s Heavy Love into the CD player and pointed the Bronco back toward Providence. I was halfway across the Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge, named for an Italian navigator who explored Narragansett Bay in 1524, when Don Henley interrupted some great blues with his thin tenor:
“I make my living off the evening news”—the ringtone that signaled a call from Lomax.
“On the way back?”
“Be there in less than an hour.”
“Step on it. Obits are piling up, and I need you to cover a press conference at the health department at noon.”
“Good job last night, by the way. I had no idea you knew so much about fashion.”
“Yeah. I’m full of surprises.”
I flipped the cell closed and let up on the gas. Knowing what was waiting for me, I was in no rush to get back to the newsroom. I set fire to a Partagás with my lighter, cruised north on Route 4, and let my mind wander back to last night.
Salvatore Maniella. He’d gotten his start in the sex business in the mid-1960s when he was an accounting student at Bryant College, talking coeds out of their clothes, snapping their pictures, and publishing them in his own amateur skin magazine. Today he was said to control 15 percent of the porn sites on the Internet, although no one could say for sure. According to some experts, Internet porn is a ninety-seven-billion-dollar-a-year business worldwide—bigger than Microsoft, Apple, Google, eBay, Yahoo!, Amazon, and Netflix combined. Chances were Sal didn’t have to rent his tux by the day.
Sal had also broken into the brothel business in the 1990s after a clever lawyer actually read the state’s antiprostitution law and discovered it defined the offense as streetwalking. That, the lawyer argued, meant sex for pay was legal in Rhode Island as long as the transaction occurred indoors. When the courts agreed, entrepreneurs leaped through the loophole, opening a string of gentlemen’s clubs where strippers peddled blow jobs between pole dances. Maniella owned three of them, but the clubs were never more than a footnote to his pornography empire.
I was rolling slowly through North Kingstown and thinking about Sal when my police scanner started squawking. Both the Newport cops and the Rhode Island State Police were worked up about something. When I caught the gist, I turned around and floored it back to Newport.
In the harsh light of morning, Belcourt Castle wasn’t as elegant as it had appeared the night before. The concrete cherubs and Grecian urns in the formal garden were crumbling from decades of acid rain and hard New England winters. Chocolate brown paint was peeling from window sashes. The side yard was a jumble of broken marble columns, refuse from restoration projects that had been started and then abandoned. Slate shingles that had tumbled from the roof littered the grass. I parked in the deserted drive and fetched my Nikon digital camera from the back. Don Henley started yowling again, but I let the call go to voice mail as I trotted through the mansion grounds toward the sea.
Newport’s famous Cliff Walk is just what it sounds like. It skirts a rocky, guano-slick precipice that tumbles seventy feet to the mean high-tide line and another thirty feet or so to the shallow floor of the bay. From hoi polloi Easton’s Beach in the north to exclusive Bailey’s Beach in the south, the walk is a three-and-a-half-mile public right of way, much to the dismay of mansion owners who are compelled to share the spectacular ocean views with the rest of us. Occasionally, the patricians express their displeasure by trucking in boulders to block the path.
For much of its length, the walk is smoothly paved, and in places there is a guardrail; but those who press on past the Vanderbilt Tea House must negotiate crumbling paving stones, scramble between boulders, and maintain footing on slippery shelves of granite and schist. The late Claiborne Pell, a Newport aristocrat who represented the state in the U.S. Senate for thirty-six years, took a tumble here once while jogging and was fortunate he didn’t go over the edge. The careless, the drunken, and the just plain unlucky fall with some regularity, and from time to time one of them gets killed. Judging by the chatter I’d overheard on the police radio, this was one of those times.
As I approached the Cliff Walk, the press was already swarming. Three bored Newport uniforms, arms folded across their chests, had the entrance blocked with yellow crime scene tape. Logan Bedford, a reporter for Channel 10 in Providence, was using them as a backdrop for one of his I’m-not-sure-what’s-going-on-here-but-I-have-great-teeth stand-ups.
I swerved south, trespassed across forty yards of very private property, scaled a fence, fought through a tangle of dense brush, and emerged on a slab of rock overlooking the sea. Below, a dozen sailboats tacked in the light morning breeze. Above, a state police helicopter hovered. About thirty yards to the north, a uniformed Newport cop was waving his arms at a pair of tourists, ordering them to turn around and go back the way they had come.
Seagulls had strafed here, and the footing was treacherous. My cell played Lomax’s ringtone again, but I ignored it. I crept as close to the edge as I dared, raised my Nikon, and studied the scene through the 135mm lens.
A body, its arms and legs splayed like a starfish, sprawled faceup on a partially submerged, blood-spattered boulder. Three men in plain clothes—I figured them for two detectives and a medical examiner—were squatting beside it, one taking photographs and the others collecting bits of evidence and dropping them into clear plastic bags. The ropes they’d used to rappel down still dangled from the cliff. The tide was coming in, waves tossing foam on the investigators’ trousers. In a few minutes, the scene would be underwater.
I snapped some photos, hoping for one or two usable shots. A real photographer would have done better, but as usual I didn’t have one handy. Our photo department had been depleted by layoffs.
A couple of uniformed state troopers lowered a steel basket down the cliff face. As the detectives lifted the body and strapped it into the basket, I could see that the victim was dressed in a tuxedo. I took a few more pictures, but the Newport uniform who’d been shooing the tourists was heading my way now, his boots clicking on the stone path.
“Good morning, Officer Phelps.”
He threw me a puzzled look, then nodded in recognition.
“Mulligan, right? From last night?”
“Why didn’t you tell me that when I pulled you over?”
“Would it have made a difference?”
“Ahhh . . . guess not.”
We stood quietly for a moment, looking out over the sea. Phelps pulled a granola bar from his pocket, tore the shiny green wrapper, and took a small bite.
“Beautiful place to die,” he said.
“That it is. Maybe that’s why people come here to jump.”
“This guy was no jumper.”
“Didn’t fall, either,” he said.
“And you know that because . . . ?”
“I could tell right off,” he said, “just from the position of the body.”
“Because he never tried to break his fall,” I said.
“You noticed that, too, huh?”
“Yeah. It’s a natural reaction. Even suicides usually do it. This guy just went over backwards and landed on his spine.”
“There’s some other stuff that seems suspicious, too,” he said.
“Like the through-and-through bullet wound to his throat.”
That explained the state police. They wouldn’t have shown up for a jumper.
Phelps broke a crumb from his granola bar and tossed it into the air. A gull swooped in, snatched it, and dived toward the surf. “I suppose that just encourages them,” he said.
“Hey, everybody needs a little encouragement.”
“Yeah? Well, the state cops said I should encourage you to stop taking pictures.”
“Uh-huh. Also said to confiscate your camera.”
“And fuck them,” he said. “They strut in here, bigfoot our case, treat us like errand boys. If they want your camera, they can come get it themselves. Far as I’m concerned, take all the pictures you want.”
“Got an ID yet?”
“We’re off the record, right?”
“The state cops ain’t big on sharing, but from what I overheard, there was no identification on the body.”
“Who found it?”
“Couple of early morning joggers spotted it and called 911.”
“Anything else you can tell me?”
“Yeah, but it don’t make no sense,” he said.
“The staties keep mumbling about salmonella. Seem pretty excited about it. What the hell does food poisoning have to do with anything? This dude got shot.”
“Salmonella? You’re sure that’s what they said?”
“What it sounded like.”
“Dirty Laundry” started playing again. I pulled the cell from my jacket pocket, told Phelps I had to take the call, and strolled out of earshot down the Cliff Walk.
“Been trying to reach you for an hour,” Lomax said. “Why the hell aren’t you answering the phone?”
“I’ve been a little busy.”
“Listen, I need you to get your ass back to Newport. There’s chatter on the state police radio, something about a body at the bottom of the Cliff Walk.”
“Already on it,” I said.
“Guy in a tuxedo got shot and went over the edge.”
“None on the body, but the state cops seem to think it’s Sal Maniella.”
“So Salmonella finally got what he deserved,” Lomax said.
“Looks that way.”
“ID good enough to go with?”
“Not even close. I got it secondhand from a Newport cop who eavesdropped on the staties and thought they were talking about food poisoning.”
“Okay, but stay on it,” Lomax said, “and for Chrissake stay in touch.”
Next morning I took the elevator to the Dispatch’s third-floor newsroom and tiptoed through a graveyard. By the windows that looked out on Fountain Street, a couple of technicians were dismantling Dell desktops. I could still picture Celeste Doaks, the bespectacled religion writer, hunched over one of those keyboards, cringing as Ted Anthony, the overweight medical writer, passed gas from his latest burrito. Malcolm Ritter, so damned good he had me understanding science, was always hidden behind a tower of books that couldn’t muffle his asthmatic sniffs. Sometimes Mary Rajkumar, the travel babe, breezed in on her way to or from someplace exotic, reminding them that there was a life outside the newsroom. But none of them wanted to be anywhere else. Now two bored techs were pulling the plugs on their life’s work.
I logged on to my computer and was skimming my messages when I sensed someone hovering. Whoever it was waited patiently, hesitant to intrude on my work. Someone genteel, then, and well mannered. Had to be the publisher’s son. Anyone else would have had the sense to butt in. If I ignored him, maybe he would go away. I finished with my messages and reached for the phone.
“Excuse me, Mulligan. May I have a word?”
Aw, crap. “What is it now, Thanks-Dad?”
“I’d prefer that you stop calling me that. My name is Edward.”
“So file a grievance.”
“I just wanted to tell you that your Cliff Walk photographs were excellent.”
“No, they weren’t. Only good thing about them was that they were in focus.”
“Well, I liked them.”
“Maybe if your daddy hadn’t laid off most of the photo staff, we could have had some professional pictures to go with the story.”
He sighed. “It’s not like he had a choice, you know.”
Edward Anthony Mason IV was Rhode Island aristocracy, the scion of six inbred Yankee families that had owned the Dispatch since the Civil War. A year and a half ago, he’d been awarded a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia, returned to Rhode Island, and moved back into the oceanfront Newport McMansion where he’d been raised. He’d been working as a reporter here ever since, learning the business that would soon be his by birthright. By the look of things, there wouldn’t be much left of it by the time his daddy relinquished the corner office on the fourth floor. Given the size of Mason’s trust fund, I wasn’t about to start praying for him. In fact, I wanted to hate his privileged ass. But I didn’t.
Mason had taken to hanging around me, eager to learn the things about street reporting that they didn’t teach at Columbia—which was just about everything. Sometimes he got underfoot, but he was starting to pick up a few things.
“My father,” Mason was saying, “deeply regrets the recent staff reductions, but they were necessary to preserve the financial health of our family newspaper.”
“Yeah? Well, it’s not working. The Dispatch is circling the drain.”
“Perhaps, but it’s hardly Father’s fault. Every newspaper is having difficulties.”
“Of course they are,” I said, “and do you want to know why?”
“I’d welcome your opinion on the subject.”
“Because they are run by idiots.”
“A bit harsh, don’t you think?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Newspapers have fallen victim to forces that are beyond their control,” Mason said.
“Bullshit,” I said. “When the Internet first got rolling, newspapers were the experts on reporting the news and selling classified advertising. They were ideally positioned to dominate the new medium. Instead, they sat around with their thumbs up their asses while upstarts like Google, the Drudge Report, the Huffington Post, and ESPN.com lured away their audience and newcomers like Craigslist, eBay, and AutoTrader.com stole their advertising business. By the time newspapers finally figured out what was happening and tried to make a go of it online, it was too late.”
Mason stroked his chin, thinking it over.
“People like your daddy forgot what business they were in,” I said. “They thought they were in the newspaper business, but they were really in the news and advertising business. It’s a classic mistake—the same one the railroads made in the 1950s when the interstate highway system was being built. If Penn Central had understood it was in the freight business instead of the railroad business, it would be the biggest trucking company in the country today.”
“A provocative analysis,” Mason said. “Perhaps you might expand it into an op-ed piece.”
“Already did. Your daddy declined to print it.”
“Maybe if I had a word with him . . . ”
“Don’t bother,” I said. “Writing about it isn’t gonna change anything. What’s done is done, and now thousands of journalists who devoted their lives to reporting the news are paying the price.”
Mason fell silent for a moment, then said, “Did you know this is Mark Hanlon’s last day?”
“He doesn’t want us to make a fuss.”
“So he told me.”
“Doesn’t seem right.”
“It’s the way he wants it, Thanks-Dad.”
“Lomax says he’s the best feature writer the Dispatch ever had.”
“Without a doubt.”
Earlier this week, while perusing the obituary page, Hanlon noticed that the death of a seventy-seven-year-old Pawtucket woman had been given only three lines. It was the shortest obit he’d ever seen in the Dispatch, and it offended him. So he talked to her only son, found the friends she worshipped with at St. Teresa’s, tracked down people she once made G.I. Joes with on the assembly line at Hasbro, and wrote a story that celebrated her life. The lead was typical of his elegant, unadorned style: “This is Mary O’Keefe’s second obituary.” It was his final story for the Dispatch.
I stood and looked toward his cubicle near the city desk. He was still there, going through drawers and placing a few personal items in a shoebox. At fifty-four years old, he’d reluctantly accepted the paper’s early retirement offer, knowing it was better than the alternative. I watched as he pushed back from the desk, rose on long, storklike legs, and shrugged on his denim jacket. Then he turned in a slow circle, looking the place over one last time.
Mason began to clap, the sound like gunshots in the cavernous space, and my opinion of him ticked up a notch. Lomax looked up from his computer screen, annoyed by the racket. Then he realized what was happening, pushed himself up from his fake leather throne, and joined in. One by one, throughout the football field-size newsroom, the survivors of the latest bloodletting got to their feet for a standing ovation. Marshall Pemberton, our fish-faced managing editor, rarely ventured from his glass-walled office that resembled an aquarium, but for this he made an exception. He waddled out of his door to join the tribute.
Hanlon lowered his head, tucked the cardboard box under his left arm, and trudged to the elevator. He stepped in, and the door slid shut behind him. He never once looked back.
Pemberton shook his head sadly, slipped back into the aquarium, and closed the door behind him. Once, he had managed the news department at one of the finest small-city newspapers in America. Now he was like a physician trying to keep his patient alive while the family debated whether to pull the plug.
Copyright © 2012 by Bruce DeSilva
Bruce DeSilva spent forty-one years as a journalist before writing Rogue Island, his first novel, which won the 2011 Edgar Award for Best First Novel and the 2011 Macavity Award for best debut. Formerly the Associated Press’s writing coach, responsible for training AP journalists worldwide, DeSilva is now a master’s thesis advisor at the Columbia University School of Journalism. DeSilva and his wife, the poet Patricia Smith, live in Howell, New Jersey, with their granddaughter, Mikaila, and two enormous canines, a Bernese Mountain Dog named Brady and a mutt named Rondo.