Among the many reasons I enjoy being a newspaper reporter—not the least of which are the freedom, the fun, and the constitutionally protected right to announce when people are acting like idiots—one of the small-but-important pleasures is what I’m doing each morning at eight thirty-eight.
At 8:38 A.M., I imagine most gainfully employed, industrious members of our society are already enjoined in the struggle that is their daily grind. They have attended to their grooming needs, squeezed themselves into their workaday uniforms, rushed through a meal that puts the “fast” in “breakfast,” and made the necessary concessions to their caffeine addictions.
At 8:38 A.M., they are inhaling the carbon-tinged exhaust fumes from the car in front of them on the Garden State Parkway; or they are recovering from the latest skirmish in the ongoing Battle of No, You Cannot Wear That to School; or they are checking their e-mails, looking at their schedules, and generally girding themselves for all that is to come.
At 8:38 A.M., I do solemnly swear that I, Carter Ross, am asleep.
In my profession, this is not necessarily a sign of sloth. Editors typically have established hours, but reporters adapt their schedules to the demands of their beat. Courthouse reporters are at the whim of their trial; education reporters learn to make calls during the school day; sports reporters, the vampires of the journalism world, primarily work at night. As an investigative reporter, I don’t have a beat per se. No one expects to see me in the office at any particular time of the day, and certainly not at 8:38 A.M., when most self-respecting American newsrooms are devoid of all but the barest minimum of personnel. Anywhere from ten to eleven is considered a more fashionable arrival time. So I pretty much get up when I feel like it. I have a need to set an alarm maybe five times a year.
I often make up for it on the other end because while my day may come in like a lamb, it often goes out like a lion, with sources and editors and deadline all screaming at me simultaneously. My employer, the Newark Eagle-Examiner—New Jersey’s largest and most tenacious disseminator of responsibly vetted information—always gets its pound of flesh out of me.
Nevertheless, if I do happen to wake up when there is an unsightly number (like an eight or, God forbid, a seven) leading the digital clock by my bedside, I take pride in rolling over and snoozing until I see a more proper number (like a nine or a ten). The main characters in my life—be it my colleagues, my friends, or Deadline, the cat who reliably joins me in my morning slumber—know this about me.
So it came as something of a surprise when I became aware that my landline, the number almost no one used anymore, was ringing one sunless Monday morning in March at exactly 8:38 A.M.
“Hello?” I said, sounding a bit guttural.
“Carter, it’s Katie Mossman.”
Katie was one of the editors on what was formally called the Nonstop News Desk, which had been created a few years back to feed the insatiable content beast that is our Web site. Informally, we reporters called it the All-Slop News Desk—“the Slop” for short—because that’s about what we shoveled into it.
“What’s up, Katie?”
“We got a dead Newark cop,” she replied, and I immediately sat up in bed and grabbed a notepad.
For as much as law enforcement and media sometimes find themselves at odds, we in the Fourth Estate recognize that those who are sworn to uphold the law not only perform a vital function for public safety but represent all of us in doing it. An attack on one of their number is an attack on everyone. Police officers who die in the line of duty are heroes and are treated as such. In other words, dead cops equal big news.
“Okay. What do you need from me?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think we have a game plan yet. I just called Tina to tell her about it and she said I should call you and, quote, ‘Get his sorry ass out of bed.’”
As the assistant managing editor for local news, Tina Thompson was my boss. She and I also had a fairly complex, on-and-off relationship (currently: off). In both roles, she was not especially shy about expressing her needs.
“You can tell her it’s out,” I said. “What’s this cop’s name?”
“From what we’re hearing, it’s Darius Kipps. K-I-P-P-S. Detective Sergeant Darius Kipps.”
The name meant nothing to me. While I wasn’t strictly a cops reporter, I had a decent number of contacts in the Newark Police Department. Still, there were more than a thousand cops on the force and I knew only a fraction of them.
“What happened to him?”
“We don’t know that yet, either. The Newark PD hasn’t announced any of this. We’re just getting this from sources. We haven’t even put it online yet because we don’t have it confirmed.”
“So how do we know this mystery cop is dead?”
“One of the photogs was listening to the scanner this morning and said there was a lot of chatter about something going down at the Fourth Precinct. We figured it out from there.”
I knew the Fourth Precinct well. It was in the Central Ward, in the heart of a Newark neighborhood that had been making news, not all of it good, for a long time.
“Got it. What does Tina want from me?”
“Plans are still being formed. At this point, she just wants everyone in here. It’s one of those all-hands-on-deck things.”
That, of course, was the reaction of most editors to a big story. Gather up your reporters—they sometimes referred to us as “resources” so we wouldn’t be confused with human beings—and then figure out what to do with us later. It usually just meant we’d be bumping into one another all day long.
But, in truth, the only thing worse than doing all that bumping was being left out of it. I told Katie her message had been delivered, then hung up. There would be no dawdling in bed on this day. Anyone with reporter’s blood flowing in his veins—and I fancied myself as having a lot of it—wanted in on a story like this.
* * *
As a thirty-two-year-old bachelor with no significant encumbrances, I can be showered, dressed, and ready to ramble in fifteen minutes. Twelve if I really push it.
I streamline this process in several ways. One, there is nothing complicated about my hair. It’s brown and short—never more than four weeks away from being cut—and I part it on the side, the same way I’ve been doing it since I was old enough to hold a brush.
Two, my morning routine involves a bare minimum of lotionry and potionry. I’ve been told the modern male ought to concern himself with hair product, moisturizer, cologne and/or body spray, and perhaps a half-dozen other products from the health and beauty aisle, all carefully applied and then painstakingly primped. Me, I wear deodorant (primarily out of consideration to my fellow man).
Three, my wardrobe is, quite deliberately, the most boring thing you’ve ever seen. I have two possible colors of pleated slacks (charcoal and khaki), two colors of shirt (white and blue) and three colors of necktie (red, yellow, or blue). And if you notice, any of the twelve resulting color combinations match just fine. So I can pretty much dive into my closet and grab blindly for anything that’s clean, knowing I can’t miss.
The end result of all this is not particularly inspiring—I make a Land’s End catalogue look avant-garde by comparison—but it works for me. You have to know what flavor of ice cream you are in this world, and I am vanilla.
On this day, my closet dive yielded the racy blend of khaki pants, a white shirt, and a blue tie. I tossed a bit of kibble in a bowl for Deadline—not that he would be awake to eat it for another few hours—then opened my laptop.
I had no intention of going into the office to be one of Tina Thompson’s “resources,” which would just involve sitting around a conference table until someone told me to do what any good reporter should have been doing all along. Sometimes editors just get in the way like that.
So I got to work. After about five minutes of accessing a few of the databases on which a reporter makes his living, I learned the late Darius Kipps had been with the Newark Police Department for twelve years and three months. He was thirty-seven years old, having celebrated his birthday on the first of March. He was making $93,140 a year, which is not unusual in a state with the nation’s highest paid police officers. He had a variety of addresses associated with him—some in Newark, some in Irvington—but seemed to have settled in East Orange.
Sure enough, when I checked the East Orange property tax records, I found a dwelling owned by Noemi and Darius Kipps on Rutledge Avenue.
And that, I had already decided as I closed the lid on my laptop, was where I needed to be.
This was something of a calculated gamble on my part. Without knowing how Darius Kipps met his untimely end, there was no telling what would figure prominently in our story. But, sadly, I could proffer up a reasonable guess. He was a detective, which is usually a pretty safe place for a cop. Unless, of course, you’re undercover. Then you’re just as exposed to danger as anyone else who tries to make a life on the streets. If not more so. All it takes is some punk deciding you looked at him the wrong way and, not knowing you’re a cop, pulling the trigger.
Or maybe something else had befallen Detective Sergeant Kipps. Point is, we had cops reporters who were in a better position to figure it out, leaving me to work other angles. And in a story like this, it was safe to assume that the grieving widow, Noemi Kipps, would be one of those angles.
That meant every minute counted. This was not necessarily out of any concern for the paper’s production schedule. It was all about the competition or, more accurately, the lack of it.
A Newark police officer killed in the line of duty would inevitably attract the attention of every television and radio station in the Greater New York area, which only happens to be the biggest media market in the country. All of them would know a grieving widow was a big part of the story, too. And since they have access to the same databases I did, they, too, would soon be heading in the direction of Rutledge Avenue in East Orange.
The cumulative effect of all those reporters would be something like cattle in a field. Put one cow in a small pasture, and what you have is a nice, green plot of earth. She can roam freely, nibbling grass as she feels like it, and generally has a pretty good time of things. Put a whole bunch of cows in that same field, and what you have in fairly short order is a big, stinky, muddy mess. And none of the cows feel like they’re getting much of a meal.
So the trick is to be that first cow, then find a way to lock the gate so the rest of the herd can’t get in.
Bidding Deadline farewell—he would miss me, but only due to the absence of body heat—I went out into the gray morning, hopped in my car, and began the short drive from my home in Bloomfield to the Kipps household in East Orange.
Along the way, I called Tina. There was a time when Tina and I had a fairly simple understanding: she simply wanted my seed. After two decades of using her beauty and cunning to run roughshod over the male species, cycling through its representatives in a series of relationships that lasted anywhere from one night to one month, she had reached a point where she realized her baby-making years were running short.
She was far too practical and goal-oriented to engage in the imprecise business of courtship, so she mostly judged men on their potential to pass certain desirable characteristics onto her offspring. She was looking for a partner with blue eyes and broad shoulders (check). She wanted him to be at least six feet tall (I’m six foot one). And she was looking for a certain kindly, easygoing disposition (howdy, friend). Hence, she decided I was the ideal sperm donor—and that rather than making the swap in a laboratory, we might as well do it as nature intended.
She made it clear it was a no-strings-attached proposition, that I could taste the fruit without buying the orchard, as it were. The only problem was, I sort of wanted the orchard. So we had reached an impasse in our relationship: namely, I wanted one and she didn’t.
Then she got promoted and became my editor, which imposed further impediments to the possibility of our getting together. So we sort of decided to cool it. I say “sort of” because nothing felt very cool when we wound up together after work, especially after a drink or two.
Then, in an unexpected development, I got tired of all that will-they-or-won’t-they stuff and started dating Kira O’Brien, a new librarian in the newspaper’s research department. Actually, I’m not sure you could call what we did “dating.” But that was another story.
Point is, things had been a little strained between Tina and me. She answered her cell phone with a testy: “What do you want?”
“I’m heading to East Orange.”
“What’s in East Orange?”
“The widow Kipps, from what I’ve been able to learn,” I said.
“Who told you to go after the widow Kipps?”
“No one. But I live about five minutes from her. I can make it there and try to get her talking before every television station in New York has a hairpiece and a microphone camped on her front lawn.”
Tina didn’t respond for a second or two. I’m sure she was trying to find some reason my plan was a bad one—because that’s sort of the way things had been going between us lately—but there were really no nits to pick.
“Fine,” she said. “Don’t screw it up.”
* * *
Knocking on the door of a woman who has just lost her husband—and then having the nerve to ask her all about it—is certainly not one of the cheerier parts of my chosen profession. Done poorly, it can leave you feeling like some exploitative, soul-sucking parasite who feasts on the misery of others. Some reporters flatly loathe the task, even citing it as a reason for leaving the business.
But, strange as it sounds, it might be one of the things I find most satisfying. It’s not that I enjoy other people’s suffering or that I find the whole business any less discomfiting than anyone else.
It’s that I see it as an opportunity to do some real good, in my small way. One of the fundamental things I believe as a writer is that words have the power to move people. They can make us feel angry or hateful or sad, sure. But they can also uplift us. They can provide hope. They can even comfort a grieving family.
And that’s what I went into a situation like this trying to do. I believed I could wade into the agony of the Kipps family, and by writing a sympathetic story about Darius—something that captured the best of the man, his service to others and the sacrifice he made—I could make things a little better. Maybe not right away, when everything was still so fresh. But maybe someday it could be something his widow could look at and read with a smile on her face.
With this in mind, I made the turn onto Rutledge Avenue, a street lined with mature trees and cracked sidewalks. East Orange could be a rough town, having long ago been overtaken by the same urban malaise that blighted much of Newark. But this was one of the more livable areas. The definition of “livable” was, of course, that the dope fiends, dealers, and delinquents tended to stay at least a few blocks away.
I slowed as I reached the Kippses’ residence, an aging two-story brick duplex with a flower bed full of dead leaves that had accumulated over the winter. There were no window treatments on the second floor, which gave the house an unoccupied look. Except, of course there were lights on. So obviously someone was home. I parallel parked, noting—with relief—the lack of vans with television logos on them. At least for now, it looked like I would have the place to myself.
Walking up a short concrete pathway toward the house, then up the brick steps onto a small front porch, I felt the usual excitement. You never really knew what you were going to get when you knocked on one of these doors. I could be welcomed into the home with open arms, tossed into the street on my ass, or anything in between.
So I knocked, then held my breath.
The door was answered by a medium-height, slender African American woman with dark smudges under her eyes. She was wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail. Her feet were bare. She looked like she hadn’t slept that night. Or the previous night. Or, for that matter, the previous month.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“Hi, I’m sorry to trouble you. I know this is a difficult time,” I said as apologetically as possible. “I’m a reporter with the Eagle-Examiner. I’m here to write a tribute to Darius.”
The word “tribute” was deliberate, of course. If I said I was there merely to write a “story,” there would still have been some doubt as to my intentions. I wanted to make it clear I was coming in peace.
“Oh,” she said, like this surprised her.
“I’m Carter Ross. Are you Mrs. Kipps?”
“Yes. I’m Noemi”—she pronounced it no-em-mee—“but call me Mimi. Everyone else does.”
“I’m very sorry for your loss,” I said.
“Thank you,” she said, opening the door a little wider.
And, just like that, I was in. I walked into a living room filled with older women, most of them substantially larger than Mimi, all of them staring at me, all of them black.
I always get a kick out of white people who complain that blacks are “obsessed” with race and talk about it too much. If those white people could, just once, walk into a room like this, where suddenly they were the Other Race, they’d understand the “obsession” just a little better. Because you know what? We can all say we’re color-blind, and we can claim that race doesn’t matter in an America that has elected a black president.
But that’s foolishness. Race matters. It mattered at my prep school, where in a student body of five hundred there were maybe fifteen black kids, thirteen of whom had been brought there to play football or basketball. It mattered at my alma mater, Amherst College, where we were all supposedly enlightened multiculturalists, yet we still fell back into the easy comfort of our groups, black, brown, white, and yellow. It matters in my workplace, where editors have been known to pair reporter and assignment based on skin color, simply because you just couldn’t send a white reporter to write Story X, or you really had to send a Hispanic reporter to do Story Y. And until some distant time many centuries from now when there is a truly American race—when we’ve all interbred enough that the races are no longer distinct—it will continue to matter everywhere else in our society, too.
So I was the white guy in the room. And not just any white guy. I’m a purebred WASP, straight off the not-so-hardscrabble streets of Millburn by way of tennis camp. My quick read told me Mimi didn’t have a problem with white guys. She had bought the “tribute” line. But these other black women were still undecided. They were eyeing me with a mix of curiosity and hostility, their protective instincts fully engaged.
“This is the man from the newspaper,” she announced. “He’s here to write about Darius.”
“I just want to be able to write about what kind of person he was,” I interjected, “tell some nice stories about him.”
Mimi proceeded to introduce me to the six women in the room, a series of aunties and cousins whose names I didn’t quite register. I’d get them later. I didn’t even have my notebook out to write them down. For now, it was more important to smile pleasantly, make good eye contact, and shake a hand if it was offered to me.
Then she led me around to the corner, where there was a crib, one of those portable Pack ‘N Play things. Inside, a shriveled-looking baby slept soundly.
“This is Jaquille,” she said. “Darius’s son. He’s five months.”
That explained the raccoon eyes Mimi was sporting. I thought she looked like she hadn’t slept for a month. She probably hadn’t, with this little guy in her life.
And I do mean little. Since I hadn’t entered the reproductive portion of my life—Tina’s entreaties having been unsuccessful—I didn’t know from babies. But this one looked awfully small.
“He was born two months premature,” Mimi said, reading my mind. “He weighed three pounds, four ounces. He was in the hospital the first two months, because of some stuff with his lungs. But he’s fine, now. He’s up to nine pounds.”
“He’s beautiful,” I said, which was a flat-out lie. Like most newborns, Jaquille looked like a spindly legged alien with a human diaper attached to him. But saying that didn’t seem like it would ingratiate me to Jaquille’s mother.
“Darius was so proud of him. We have a daughter who’s seven, and he loves her like any dad loves his little girl. But he always wanted a boy. He said a man’s gotta have a son. So we tried and tried. Darius only had one testicle.”
Now there was a piece of information that likely wouldn’t be making it into the next day’s paper.
“And we were wondering if maybe that had something to do with it,” Mimi continued. “We had him tested, and his count was pretty low.”
Yet another piece.
“But we kept trying and praying. I had just about given up, but then God heard our prayers and gave us a son. I always thought of him as my miracle baby.”
Mimi stared at Jaquille, while I furtively studied Mimi out of the corner of my eye. She had this calm about her that was almost eerie. A woman who loses her husband and is suddenly left to raise two children, one of them an infant, by herself? She ought to be oozing tears, snot, and despondence.
Instead, she was gazing down at her baby beatifically, like the Virgin Mary in a Renaissance frieze. She must have still been in shock, the tragedy so new her mind couldn’t yet process it.
One of the aunties, the one sitting in the corner, picked up the dialogue where Mimi left off: “You should have seen Darius with that boy. He visited him in the hospital every morning after his shift ended. He would just go in there and talk and talk and talk. He’d say, ‘You gonna be a Eagles fan, just like your daddy. And you gonna root for the Sixers, just like your daddy. And we gonna watch baseball together. And I’m gonna teach you to catch a ball and throw a ball. And you’re gonna be real smart. And you’re gonna go to college. And your daddy is going to be so proud of you.’”
Mimi chimed in: “Darius said our boy came out small, but he was going to love him so much he couldn’t help but get big. He was just going to fill that little boy up with his love.”
I looked down at Jaquille, the erstwhile miracle, and tried to swallow the cantaloupe that was suddenly growing in my throat. Right then, I knew what my story was going to be. It would be written as a letter to Jaquille, to be read on the day he graduated from college. And it would tell him all about the father he never got a chance to know.
* * *
Over the next few hours—as a succession of relatives, friends, and neighbors wandered to the house to offer their respects—I learned about who that man was.
Darius Kipps was born in Camden and grew up in nearby Pennsauken. Both places were in South Jersey, which explained why he rooted for all those Philadelphia teams. His father had been a cop, too, putting in twenty-five years with the Camden PD and retiring with a trunk full of commendations, which told me a little something about the tree from which Darius had fallen. Camden has long ranked in the top ten as the toughest American city in which to be a cop.
As a teenager, Darius was a bit of a prankster but also a natural leader, so he became the ringmaster of a group of quasi-misfits, who liked to party a little too much. It didn’t sound like they were bad kids, by any stretch. But it was subtly explained to me there may have been a mailbox or two that succumbed to Darius’s idea of a good time. I also heard an account of how he organized a group of fourteen guys to lift a principal’s car and move it back to the Dumpsters behind school. The distraught man ended up reporting it stolen before someone finally let him in on the gag.
After Darius graduated high school, he tried a variety of jobs, none of which really fit him. And finally he went to school and got an associate’s degree in criminal justice: police work was in his blood, after all. He took the police exam and posted a high score, such that he had a number of job offers—well-qualified black candidates were always in demand from departments looking to improve their diversity. His family urged him to accept an offer from one of the cozy, suburban police departments, where he wouldn’t have to dodge the same dangers as his father.
But Darius wanted to be where the action was. He wanted to be where he felt he could do the most good. He chose Newark.
Smart and hardworking, with those natural leadership skills, he rose quickly through the ranks, never going long without moving up. After a few years on patrol, with his potential obvious to all, he earned his detective’s shield. A few years after that, he aced his sergeant’s exam and got that promotion, too. Lieutenant couldn’t have been far away.
He was the kind of cop who kept the scanner on at home and listened to it as background noise—the way some people keep the television on—just so he knew what his fellow officers were up to. And if he heard something that sounded like trouble and was close? He stored his gun and his shield by the door so he could grab them quickly on the way out. He had once nabbed a carjacker that way. It was the kind of commitment to the job that had earned him commendation after commendation, just like his old man.
But he didn’t just look out for other cops. I heard another story about a witness he worked with during one of his cases. The kid had been shot up pretty badly and was in the hospital for a while. Darius kept visiting the kid, finding different ways to cheer him up, and kept doing it even after the case was closed. Last anyone had heard, the kid had recovered and Darius had helped him get a part-time job with Newark Parks and Recreation.
Meanwhile, it seemed the former prankster matured into a level-headed, responsible young man. Around the time he started working as a cop, he met Mimi, fell for her, and fell hard. They had been introduced through a friend of a friend. She had heard of his reputation as a hard-partying boozer, and being a teetotaler herself, she told him she couldn’t date someone who used alcohol. He quit cold turkey. They were married within a year.
“He said we were soul mates, so there was no point in waiting,” Mimi said.
A few years into the marriage, they had their daughter, Jasey. They bought the duplex in East Orange because Darius felt a family ought to have a house to call home. He took to fatherhood quickly, doting on his daughter.
“He’d kill me if I told you this,” said the corner auntie, “but he let that little girl paint his fingernails and toenails. He’d be running around before work, looking for the nail polish remover, trying to get that stuff off. Sometimes he ran out of time. I’m sure the guys down at the station just loved that.”
It sounded like Jaquille’s birth had cut into father-daughter time quite a bit. But once things settled down, he had talked of surprising Jasey with a family trip to Disney World as a present from her new baby brother. He had also been talking about moving his growing brood to a single-family house, maybe in a town with a better school system.
“He was all for the kids,” Mimi told me. “He was always saying, ‘It ain’t about us no more.’”
All in all, he seemed like a heck of a guy. I’m sure some of the stories were being embellished for my benefit, but I didn’t mind. Telling lies about the recently deceased is a long-standing tradition in our—and many other—cultures, and I wasn’t about to take too hard a look at them. As a reporter, I’ve learned to make a distinction between lies that could hurt someone and those that won’t. If I ended up making a slain police officer smell a bit rosier in death than he had in real life, it was hard to see who would be injured by that.
Throughout my interviewing, the phone in my pocket buzzed intermittently—no doubt Tina calling, looking for an update—but I wasn’t about to answer it. I was getting great material out of these people, and I didn’t want to break the spell.
The only mildly surprising thing is that none of the people knocking on the front door of the Kipps house were fellow members of the media. I would have thought for sure the rest of the horde would have learned about the dead cop and descended, locustlike, on the widow Kipps. It was hard to keep the lid on a story like this.
But there was no one. So as noontime came and went, I kept adding more good stuff in my notebook until, having filled it, I announced it was getting time for me to go. Mimi gave me her cell number, which I stored in my phone with a promise to keep in touch.
The last thing Mimi showed me was a picture of Darius with his kids at his birthday party a week earlier. There was a conical paper hat perched crookedly atop his bald head and secured with a thin white elastic band. His smile seemed to take up the entire photo. He was a burly guy, and the children practically disappeared in his arms—his infant son cradled tenderly in one, his daughter tucked in the other. They were arms that held and loved, arms that offered comfort and protection, the arms of a man who considered himself a father and a guardian.
“You can keep that if you want,” Mimi said, handing me a printout, which I slipped in the back of my notebook. “I made a bunch of copies this morning. That’s really how I want people to remember him. I can’t believe he only had a week to live in that picture.”
It gave me the opening to finally pose the uncomfortable question, the one I nevertheless had to ask: “What has the Newark Police Department told you about your husband’s death?”
“They didn’t tell me anything,” Mimi said.
“What do you mean?”
“The chaplain came out last night and told me Darius wasn’t coming home, that he had died, and that’s all I’ve heard so far. I don’t know the details yet. I’m not sure if I even want to know. My husband was in law enforcement. I … we all, all of us wives, we talk about this and we prepare for it. We hope it never comes, of course, but we have to prepare. However he died, it doesn’t change who he was in life. And that’s what I want to think about.”
* * *
When I got back out on the street, my phone told me I had missed five calls, all of them from Tina. She had left no voice messages, just a text: “No story. Come back in.”
“The hell there’s no story,” I said out loud to my phone. In what parallel universe was she living? I had a notebook crammed with material that begged to differ.
In a huff, I called her but got voice mail on both her work and cell numbers. Which was just as well. Some arguments were better had in person.
My car was, unsurprisingly, still sitting where I parked it. For some people, this is not a given. Newark and its surrounding environs are somewhat notorious for car thefts, having raised some of the nation’s leading automobile pilferers for several generations now. But that is one of the only things I don’t have to worry about when it comes to my ride, a six-year-old Chevy Malibu. Anyone who cared enough about cars to steal one would be embarrassed to be seen in mine.
I picked it up used when it was merely a three-year-old Chevy Malibu and it has since handled all the punishment I have given it, and then some. I’d love to brag how many miles it has on it, but the truth is, I’m not sure. The odometer has been stuck at 111,431 for a while now. I would worry about how that’s going to affect the resale value, except I don’t think the junkyard I’m eventually going to push it into will much care.
Nevertheless, the Malibu faithfully delivered me to the Eagle-Examiner newsroom, into which I stormed, still spoiling for a fight. I didn’t even bother stopping at my desk. I went straight to Tina’s office, where I found her sitting in her usual loveliness.
Tina is thirty-nine, but she’s got the body of a twenty-year-old. Make that: a twenty-year-old Olympian. She’s long and lean, spends her prework time jogging and her postwork time doing yoga. In between, she sits around the office wearing short skirts that make me glad I’m straight. She has curly brown hair, which on this day she had clenched in one of those claw thingies. It had the effect of showing off her neck and shoulders, which also made me happy for my heterosexuality.
Still, this was one time I hadn’t come into the office for the view.
“What do you mean there’s no story?” I said, bursting in without knocking. “I just spent close to four hours recording the life and times of Darius Kipps in my notebook, and it’s good stuff.”
“Suicide,” she said, without looking up from her computer screen.
“It was a suicide,” she said, this time at least lifting her eyes.
“What do you mean, suicide?”
“I mean suicide. It’s a fancy word we use for people who kill themselves.”
“No, I…” My voice trailed off. “Damn. This guy just didn’t seem like the type. Not even a little.”
“Well, the cops still haven’t announced it yet. They’ve shut down all information, put a muzzle on the PIO, the whole thing—which is as good a sign as anything it’s probably a suicide. They haven’t even confirmed one of their officers died. But one of Hays’s sources gave it to us off the record.”
Hays was Buster Hays, our most senior reporter and a certified pain-in-the-ass. But he also had sources that reached from the FBI all the way down to the Cub Scouts. If one of his moles told us something, it was usually pretty reliable. Buster never had to rely on the Public Information Officers for his stuff. If anything, the PIOs asked him what was going on.
“Apparently the guy went into the shower stall at the Fourth Precinct and blew his head off,” Tina continued. “He even turned the water on before he pulled the trigger so there wouldn’t be as much to clean up. Thoughtful guy.”
“Wow. His family doesn’t have a clue yet. When I left, I told them I’d be writing a big, beautiful tribute to the dead father and husband.”
“Yeah, well, you know how Brodie feels about suicide, so…”
I knew, all right. Harold Brodie, the paper’s executive editor for something like thirty years, had been there long enough that his pet peeves had solidified into hardened rules. And one of the rules at the Eagle-Examiner is that we never wrote in any depth about suicides. Brodie felt giving the subject extensive ink would “glorify” it. If Darius Kipps had been killed in the line of duty, it would have been worth several days of front-page stories in Harold Brodie’s newspaper. Dying by his own hand, Kipps would get no more than a brief obituary buried inside the county news section.
Still, it just wasn’t adding up. Sure, I had gotten a somewhat slanted view of Darius Kipps, one provided by loving friends and family. But he didn’t seem like a man awash in inner torment. He had a wife he was nuts about, a job he enjoyed, a daughter he doted on, and a brand-new baby—the son he always wanted. What guy like that decides his brain matter would look better splattered all over a shower stall?
I was turning it over so vigorously I made a crucial mistake because I said the following out loud: “Hey, would you mind if I spent a little time nipping at this thing? I know we’d have to keep it off the books, for Brodie’s sake, but this just doesn’t feel right.”
The mistake, of course, is that I should have just gone ahead and done it without telling Tina. Holding back information from one’s editor is one of the privileges of being a reporter. In some ways, it is as necessary to good journalism as steno pads. It allows you to travel a road for a few days on what could be a loser without anyone in charge being the wiser that their precious resources—there’s that word again—were being squandered.
Often the road dead-ends. But every once in a while it leads to a major score, which you only got because you were willing to waste a little time on it. Except now I had deprived myself of the opportunity.
“Why doesn’t it feel right?” she asked. “Because his mom told you how happy he was as a little boy playing with his G.I. Joe?”
“Come on, Tina, it—”
“No, you come on. I know you spent the morning with his family, but we’re going to have to write that off. You’ve got that public housing story to finish.”
“And I will. I’m mostly just waiting for documents anyway. I could keep juggling that while I plug at this for a few days.”
Tina shook her head. “Brodie is really hot for that project. I told him we might have copy by the end of next week and—”
“Then I’ll get you copy by the end of next week. I can do both without—”
“No, you can’t. I can see it in your eyes. You’re going to spend all your time chasing this fairy tale while—”
“It’s not a fairy tale! Look, I know Brodie’s thing about suicide. But I’m saying this is one of the times when we should ignore it. Can’t you just trust me that I’ve been around long enough to have decent instincts?”
“Was I talking too quickly for you before? Let me slow it down for you: nnnooo,” she said, sounding like an annoyed cow. “You have important work to be doing on a real story. I’m not going to have you wasting time on a nonstory.”
“A nonstory, huh? You’re really so certain—based on all you know about Darius Kipps—that this might not be something?”
“Monkeys will fly out of my ass first,” she said. “As a matter of fact, I’m so certain I don’t want you spending another second on that, I want copy on the housing project story by the end of this week so I can read it over the weekend. So you might as well get out of here. You’ve got work to do.”
“Fine … fine! I’m going to have lunch now! And you can’t stop me!” I said defiantly as I stood up.
But Tina was already ignoring me.
* * *
I scooted out of the building and walked down the street toward my favorite pizzeria, a place where I often went to sort messy mental laundry. I’m not sure if it was the two steaming slices or the cold Coke Zero, but somehow it always helped me gain perspective on things. Plus, Pizza Therapy is a lot cheaper than counseling.
Except this time I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about Darius Kipps. Eventually, I began flipping through my notebook to look for something I might have missed—and to imagine what might be missing. Did happy-go-lucky Darius have a quiet, brooding side no one talked about? Was all that drinking he did in his early twenties self-medication of some kind? Was there some hurt in his childhood no one wanted to tell me about?
Midway through my flipping, I bumped into that photo of Darius at his birthday party. I sat there, studying it for a good three minutes, looking at his wall-to-wall smile, a smile with seemingly no reason to end.
A reporter comes to understand that H. sapiens is a highly unpredictable creature; that our large, cunning brains make us capable of a greater range of behavior than any other animal on the planet; and that the ability to hide our emotions, from others and even ourselves, is one of our defining traits. How many times had a neighbor told me that so-and-so “never let on” or “she seemed so upbeat” or “he must have just snapped.”
It happened all the time. But had it really happened to Darius Kipps?
Finally, just to sate my curiosity, I grabbed my phone and called Newark Police Department Detective Rodney Pritchard. When I met him, Pritch—as everyone called him—had been in homicide. He had recently switched to the Gang Task Force, though since gangs were responsible for most of the homicides in the city, I’m not sure there was much difference. We had done a couple of stories together, including several that made him look pretty good. We had developed a relationship where he knew he could whisper sweet somethings in my ear without having to worry about it coming back to him.
He answered his phone on the second ring, saying, “Hey, if it ain’t Woodward N. Bernstein!”
Pritch was under the belief that the famous Washington Post reporting duo of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein was actually one person. I never bothered correcting him.
“Not too bad, not too bad,” I said. “Though I did just come from Darius Kipps’s house.”
“Oh, you heard about that, huh?”
“Yeah. We’re getting word he offed himself in a shower stall at the Fourth?”
“Yeah, man, that’s the word. It’s sad. Dude just had a baby and everything.”
“You knew him?”
“Yeah. Before I came downtown, I was in the Fourth with him. I was already detective when he was hired on patrol, so I only knew him a little. He made detective not long before I went downtown, so we never worked a case together or anything. But, yeah, I knew him.”
“What’d you think of him?”
“Good dude. Real good dude. He was one of those cops who was all about the law, you know?”
“What do you mean?”
“There are guys in the department who look at the law like it’s an impediment. You know, like, ‘We’d really be able to clean up this city if it weren’t for the damn Fourth Amendment.’ But Kipps, he wasn’t like that. He understood the job was about upholding the law, even when the law didn’t make sense. You know what I’m saying?”
“Maybe,” I said. “Give me an example.”
“Like, say a scumbag you put away got off on some technicality or got himself some slick defense attorney who was able to get armed robbery down to PTI”—pretrial intervention—“or something like that? Some guys get really pissed, go on and on about how the system is effed up. Not Kipps. He took that stuff in stride. He understood that the law was there to protect everyone—even criminals sometimes. He wanted to bust ’em as bad as anyone. But he wanted to do it the right way. He treated everyone with respect. It’s like, if you were going to play good cop, bad cop with a suspect, Kipps was always going to be the good cop. You know what I mean?”
“The good cop,” I repeated. “Okay, I hear you. So what do you make of this, then?”
“What do you mean?”
I had been fidgeting with my empty Coke Zero bottle, the label of which was now completely removed. I took a deep breath and said: “I don’t know, Pritch. It just strikes me as a little off. I didn’t know the guy like you did. But I just spent the morning talking to his family and he didn’t seem like type to do something like this. There’s the new baby. He was talking about buying a new house. Heck, he was going to be taking his kids to Disney World. Those are pretty optimistic things, you know? Is there something here I’m missing? Something his family didn’t know or wouldn’t tell me? I’m not writing it. This is just my own personal curiosity at this point.”
“I know what you’re saying. But I’ll tell you what, this job”—he pushed out a large gust of air—“it chews you up. Being a cop, you see some stuff, man, especially in this city. Some guys, they can put a good face on it for years. They laugh it off and seem to be good family men, but inside it’s eating at them the whole time, you know? Some guys start drinking or they let it ruin their marriage. But other guys? It just gets to be too much. Then one day they go off and swallow their gun.”
“You think what’s what happened here?”
I continued folding and refolding the Coke Zero label as I waited for Pritch to answer.
“Well, probably, yeah,” he said at last. “I don’t know nothing. And I don’t want to go giving Woodward N. Bernstein a big scoop. But…”
“Well, the Fourth is … like I said, I came up in the Fourth, so I know it pretty well. And it’s tight. Especially the black officers, no offense,” he said, as if I would somehow be offended I had been left out. “The brothers of the Fourth stick together.”
“So I’m just hearing some weird stuff, is all. Stuff I never thought I’d hear coming from the Fourth. I went over there this morning, just to pay a visit to some of the guys I still know over there, see how they were doing with it, and…”
“You ain’t writing this, right?”
“No. My paper doesn’t write suicides. It’s kind of a policy.”
“Okay. Well. Shoot, man, I shouldn’t even be talking about this. But they were saying Kipps might have been dirty.”
“Dirty? Dirty how?”
“I don’t know. But word is out he recently had contact with Internal Affairs. And a cop who’s spending time with IA, man, that doesn’t always look good.”
“Yeah, I guess not. Did anyone say specifically what it might have been? There’s all different kinds of dirty.”
“No. No one said. And I didn’t ask,” Pritch said. “The truth is, I don’t even want to know. The man is dead. Leave it at that.”
“Of course, of course,” I said as another call started ringing through on my phone. I took a glance at the screen.
It was Mimi Kipps.
“Pritch, I gotta run. Darius Kipps’s widow is calling on the other line.”
“Oh, geez,” he said. “Well, remember: I didn’t tell you nothing and you don’t know nothing, especially not about Kipps being dirty. That’s the last thing that woman needs to hear. She’s going to have it hard enough.”
* * *
As I clicked from one call to the other, I realized there was no good way to handle this. I couldn’t exactly continue the charade that I was going to be writing a glowing thousand-word paean to the life and times of Sergeant Kipps when I knew there were going to be about three paragraphs in the next day’s paper. At the same time, if the Newark Police Department hadn’t informed Mimi Kipps about the nature of or circumstances surrounding her husband’s death, I sure wasn’t going to tell her.
But I was spared at least part of that quandary when Mimi started off our conversation with: “He didn’t kill himself.”
“Mimi?” I said, just to make sure it was her.
“Yes, this is Mimi Kipps, and I want you to know: my husband did not kill himself. I don’t want you writing it that way. I don’t want anyone talking about him that way. I don’t care what the Newark Police Department or anyone else has to say about it. There is no way he did what they’re saying he did.”
The preternaturally calm Mimi Kipps I had met earlier this morning was gone. This version was spitting sharp stuff.
“I know my husband,” she continued. “And I know how he felt about suicide. You know what he called people who killed themselves? Cowards. Every time he responded to a suicide call—and he would catch them from time to time—he would always say the same thing: ‘That’s the coward’s way out.’ Especially when it was a man with a family. He’d said, ‘That man had no right to do that to himself and leave those kids behind without a daddy.’”
I had already left the pizzeria by this point. The Green Street headquarters of the Newark Police Department was right around the corner, but I wasn’t walking in that direction. I was going toward the Eagle-Examiner parking garage. I could tell Mimi and I needed to chat in person.
“Do you know why that chaplain didn’t give me any of the details earlier this morning?” she interrupted. “Because the higher-ups down at Green Street were debating how to word the press release. A stupid press release. They didn’t want to use the word ‘suicide’ because they thought it would make the department look bad. So they settled on ‘self-inflicted gunshot wound.’ As if nobody knows that it means the same thing. They were just out here, showing me a copy of it before they sent it out. Can you believe that? All they care about is how they’re going to look to the media. I threw them out of the house. It’s bull. It’s bull. No matter what they call it. There’s just no way. And I don’t want you writing it.”
“Mimi, I’m coming out to see you right now,” I said. “Can you just sit tight? I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
“I’ll see you,” she said and ended the call.
I reached my car and tried to put my head in order as I drove back toward East Orange. On the one hand, there was what Pritch told me about Internal Affairs. Was Darius Kipps dirty? He had been talking about buying a new house, taking his kids to Disney. A guy making ninety grand a year might be able to swing those kinds of outlays on his own, depending on his other expenses. Or it might have been a sign he was supplementing his income in some less-than-legitimate fashion. And once he got caught, the decorated cop—who was the son of a decorated cop—couldn’t handle the shame. So he arranged himself a hasty exit.
On the other hand, I had my gut—and Mimi Kipps’s loud, insistent voice—saying that suicide didn’t fit. You didn’t spend hours at the hospital telling your infant son how he was going to root for the Eagles someday if you didn’t plan to stick around and do it with him, right? And there was also what I had learned about Kipps being an all-about-the-law police officer. Cops like that didn’t go bad, did they?
The bottom line was … well, there was no bottom line. I had no real idea what happened. And perhaps I should have let it drop—I had a big story about a public housing project to hand to Tina by the end of the week, after all—but part of being a reporter means never turning off your natural curiosity. There was nothing wrong with spending an afternoon indulging it a little bit.
I arrived at Rutledge Avenue to find it looking much the same as it had when I left it a few hours earlier. There were still no news vans, which now made sense—a suicide wasn’t good material for them, either. I walked around a group of friends and family on the sidewalk, some of whom were smoking cigarettes, nodding at them as I passed.
Mimi answered the door, but there was a different vibe to her, a certain set of the jaw, a certain look in her eye. Earlier in the morning, I thought she had been in shock. Now I was beginning to recognize she was simply made of tougher material than most. This woman was going to keep holding it together as long as she needed to. She was a single mom now, after all. And if there’s one thing working in the hood has taught me, it was to never underestimate a single mom.
“Thanks for coming,” she said, opening the door so I could enter. “You have good timing. There’s someone you really need to talk to.”
I looked around the living room, which was empty.
“Follow me,” she said, walking toward the back of the duplex.
She led me down a narrow hallway into a brightly lit kitchen with cheerful yellow cabinets and white linoleum floors. In the middle of the room, there was a small folding table with three matching plastic chairs. A thirty-something man sat on the far side. He had short-cropped hair that was just beginning to go gray. He wore jeans and a tight-fitting sweater that made it clear he was proud of the time he spent in the gym. A half-finished cup of coffee sat in front of him. Next to him was another half-finished cup and a chair that had been pushed out. He and the widow Kipps had obviously been sharing a beverage.
“This is Mike, Darius’s partner,” Mimi said, walking around behind him and draping a hand on his shoulder for a second. “Mike, this is the reporter I was telling you about.”
We nodded at each other.
“I’m going to take a shower before the baby wakes up,” she said, then looked at Mike. “Tell him what you told me.”
She backed out of the room, leaving me alone with a man who, I got the distinct feeling, didn’t like guys who carried notepads for a living.
* * *
Although we serve vital functions in our respective ways, cops and reporters are oftentimes the oil and water of a democratic society. We just don’t mix all that well.
The antagonism arises from a variety of fundamental conflicts—the short version: they like to keep things secret and we don’t. While our differences could be overcome, it always took some effort. And I could tell in this guy’s case, it would take more effort than most.
My instant read was that he fancied himself a tough guy and he would only respect other tough guys. This was a bit of a problem for me seeing as, under most circumstances, I’m about as tough as sun-warmed gummy bears.
But I could pretend otherwise. So, without saying a word—because tough guys are taciturn—I pulled out a plastic folding chair and sat across from him. I narrowed my eyes and reclined slightly because tough guys squint a lot and don’t care about impressing anyone with good posture. And then I sat there. Just sat there. Because I was tough. Very tough.
It took all my energy to do this, of course. My natural tendency toward glibness made me want to fill long silences like this one. But I focused and kept my lips pressed together.
Finally, after an eternity of pretending to be tough—and I’m talking a good forty-five seconds here—he said, “You want some coffee?”
I didn’t. Not even a little. I hate coffee. I don’t like the flavor of it when it hits my tongue, and then—as if to reassure me of my first impression—it floods my mouth with this bitter, acidic aftertaste. I’d rather drink a stranger’s toothpaste scum. So I said, “Coffee. Sure.”
Because I’m that tough.
“How you want it?”
“Black,” I said, because I knew that’s how tough guys were supposed to take their coffee.
Mike got up from his seat and poured from a clear pot of dark brown liquid into a Halloween mug, complete with black cats and witches. It was not exactly a tough guy mug. But I accepted it and tried not to wince as I took a tough guy–sized swallow. Then I set the mug down and continued our modified staring contest, which seemed to involve not actually looking at each other.
“Mike Fusco,” he said eventually.
Feeling like I won some important victory, I replied, “Carter Ross.”
He looked aside, as if he had nothing more to say. So I figured I’d let him win a round, adding, “Sorry about your partner.”
“Yeah, it’s rough,” he allowed.
I paused, so as not to make our conversation feel rushed, then asked, “How did you find out?”
He shifted in his seat. From somewhere upstairs, I heard the shower turn on.
“I’m only talking to you because of Mimi,” he said. “My name doesn’t go anywhere near your story. We clear?”
“Sure. We can be off-the-record. To be honest, I’m not sure I’m going to be writing anything. We don’t write about suicides.”
I stopped there, curious if he would object to the word. But he didn’t bite.
“So how’d you find out?” I said again.
“Well, I heard the gunshot like everyone else. I was at the precinct when it happened.”
Fusco shrugged. Nothing more, nothing less. Just a shrug. But it was a shrug that told me he knew more than he was letting on. For whatever reason, cops don’t like to be the first one to tell reporters anything. But once we already know something, they don’t mind expanding on our understanding—if only because it galls them so much when we get things wrong.
So I tried to make it clear that I already knew some stuff, in hopes he would help me learn more.
“We’re hearing he went into a shower stall and turned on the water before he pulled the trigger,” I said.
Fusco didn’t respond. I was going to have to draw him out a bit.
“I spoke to a cop I know earlier this afternoon,” I said. “He told me the talk around the Fourth is that Kipps was dirty.”
Before I could react, Fusco leaped up, slamming his chair to the floor, then lunged across the table at me. He grabbed me by the shirt and tie, to make sure he had my attention, then unleashed a series of expletives—most of which involved fornication, defecation, or my mother. The diatribe finished with, “… so don’t you ever say crap like that again!”
Because I was a tough guy, I had willed myself not to flinch. I just let him slowly release his grip on my shirt. He sat back down on his own side of the table.
“It was only a question,” I said quietly.
“Yeah, well, it’s crap, okay? Kipps was clean. Totally clean. Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know jack. You put that in the newspaper and you’ll be printing a lie.”
“Noted,” I said. “Were you with him at any point last night?”
He glared at me a little more, his nostrils flaring, his overdeveloped chest rising and falling before he finally answered. “Mimi called us partners, but that’s not exactly true. The precinct doesn’t really have assigned partners. It’s more, there are certain guys who often get the same shift—Kipps and I were mostly four to midnight—and sometimes you end up working with them on bigger cases.”
“Were you guys currently working on anything together?”
Fusco shook his head. “I saw him when our shift started. I had a backlog of reports to write, so I stayed at the precinct. He went out. I didn’t know where he was going. I never saw him again. The next thing it was maybe eleven or so, I hear that gunshot and…”
“Did you go down there to take a look?”
Fusco’s head shook again.
“You know what he had been working on?” I asked.
“Run-of-the-mill stuff. Nothing big.”
He accompanied this revelation with another shrug.
“So what’s this thing Mimi said you should tell me?” I asked.
My answer, at first, was only a stare. There was some kind of battle going on between his ears. I could tell he wished Mimi had kept her mouth shut. Finally, he coughed into his hand, turned his head, and said, “Kipps was drunk.”
“What do you mean?”
“Some of the patrol guys said they found him passed out by the station with an empty bourbon bottle and puke all over his clothes. They dragged him back inside and tossed him in the shower to help him sober up. I guess they put him in with his clothes on because he was such a mess. So he must have still had his gun on him. The next thing they knew, blam.”
Fusco pantomimed a gun to the head, in case I didn’t know what “blam” meant.
“You told Mimi that?”
“I did. The higher-ups weren’t going to tell her and I felt she had a right to know.”
“And she’s taking that as evidence her husband didn’t kill himself?” I asked, wondering if Fusco was going to jump across the table at me again.
But he just gave me another unreadable shrug. “Kipps didn’t drink,” he said.
“Yeah, but if you had decided to kill yourself, why not go out and get good and plastered one last time?”
“That’s what I said. But Mimi…”
“She said he hated bourbon. She said back in the day he drank vodka, or tequila, or maybe rum. But never bourbon. I guess he had a bad experience with it when he was young. She said he couldn’t even stand the smell.”
“That make sense to you?”
“I knew Kipps for ten years and I never saw him touch anything. So I wouldn’t know.”
It was hardly what I would call conclusive evidence. And Mimi Kipps would not be the first widow to use anything to convince herself—and others—that her husband’s death wasn’t a suicide.
But it was one more thing that didn’t quite fit.
“Okay, so you’re a detective,” I said. “Was this a suicide?”
He didn’t answer.
“You’re investigating this, aren’t you?” I said.
Again, no answer. But he also didn’t contradict it.
“When Mimi gets out of the shower, tell her I had to run,” he said, standing up.
I took out a business card, held it out for him, and said, “Maybe I’m investigating this, too. Let’s keep in touch.”
He didn’t respond directly to my suggestion. But on his way out, he took my card.
Copyright © 2013 by Brad Parks