Gideon McCarthy is a disgraced reporter trying to work his way off the night cops beat. Scarred by personal tragedy, locked in a bitter custody battle for two young children, he believes his career is all but over. If he has any hope of redemption, he must solve a series of savage killings.
Prentice LaFontaine is McCarthy’s best friend, gossip extraordinaire and the black sheep of The Post, the Southern California newspaper for which they both toil. News, as he is known, wants the truth behind a multi-million dollar waterfront development.
Together they will solve a mystery behind a thirty-year-old mystery that may involve The Post itself. A taut thriller as well as a raucous exposé, Hard News delivers the newspaper in a way you will never forget.
General assignment reporter Prentice LaFontaine figured he could go to his grave happy if he ever managed to unravel the intricate mystery that was The Post. It troubled him constantly how the editorial staff, a dysfunctional pack of 175 neurotics, paranoids, egoists, eccentrics, and Ivy League graduates managed to put out a newspaper every day. He declined to consider his own status among the information freaks. He'd been at work nearly seven hours and had successfully avoided being given an assignment. There had been too many of his fellow workers to study today, too many gossip leads inside The Post to run down, too many power analyses to perform to risk being sent outside the confines of the newsroom.
Another hour and he was free. LaFontaine pretended to focus on the neon verbs, nouns, and adjectives glowing on his computer screen. Out of the corner of his eye he watched the city desk's editing drones continue their dizzying series of meetings, phone calls, and career-enhancing maneuvers. Four hours to deadline. The management spear-carriers of The Post's hard news operation already had that glazed veneer about them. Their expressions reminded LaFontaine of a movie he'd once seen about machines taking over human bodies. That's who they are, he thought to himself; they're the Stepford Editors!
LaFontaine adjusted the cuff of his purple pinpoint cotton shirt, ran his fingers lightly over his newly coiffed hair, checked his waistline, then patted himself on the left hand in congratulation. Stepford Editors! The phrase was bound to annoy the powerful and delight the downtrodden.
He reached past his papier-mache statues of Joe DiMaggio, to the edge of his desk. In bold red crayon it read: "ALL THE DIRT THAT'S FIT TO SPREAD." He smiled. He remained the undisputed champion. They didn't call him News for nothing.
"News! Where's that no-account McCarthy?" growled a gigantic black woman dressed in an orange-and ebony batik jumpsuit.
LaFontaine shuddered. Caught by a Stepford Editor. Only this one's eyes weren't glazed; they popped around inside her head like Ping-Pong balls.
"Ms. X-executive assistant city editor, do I look like poor Orpheus's keeper?" he replied in his deep Louisiana twang. "Probably at the night cops shop. It is four o'clock, isn't it?"
Her popping eyes slowed. Her lids drooped. Reporters like LaFontaine pissed Claudette Forbes off. Which wasn't unusual. The fact was that she had been pissed off since before Martin Luther King's assassination, at least since the Watts riots, maybe as far back as that white doctor's cold hand slapping her rump. So predictable were her daily fulminations that one day LaFontaine had compared her to the angry dead black nationalist and had given her the newsroom sobriquet of Claudette X. no one had the guts to call her that to her face. No one except News.
"There's been another body found in the desert," she said.
"So he'll actually get a byline," LaFontaine said. "Three months. It's about time."
"If we can find him," she said.
"Beep him," LaFontaine suggested.
"I have, three times."
"Then why bother me? Let me alone now, Ms. X. I'm busy, busy, busy."
"Not so fast," the editor said. "I want a follow-up interview to your development story."
"More drivel on that dreadful monstrosity?" he asked, affecting weariness. "It's only a construction project."
"Sloan Burkhardt's going to control twenty-two acres of downtown waterfront and to you it's only a construction project? You ever hear of urban renewal?"
"Such terms imply a greater good," News replied. "No such thing. With private development it's just one monument to ego replacing another."
Before Claudette X could respond, LaFontaine lowered his voice and whispered conspiratorially. "Speaking of edifices to ego, I hear Neil Harpster's bought a new home up in The Ranch and is shelling out thousands for landscaping, including a greenhouse. Anything to add?"
Her shoulders-massive and round from her days as a college shot-putter-tensed. "Prentice, you spent as much time digging up news as you do gossip about this place, you'd have won the prize by now."
"Heavens!" the general assignment reporter cried. "News win the Pulitzer? And become as respected and insufferable as our great editor-in-chief, Connor Lawlor? I think not, Ms. X."
Claudette X scowled. "I want you to arrange an interview ASAP, she ordered. "And if McCarthy calls in, tell him to get out to the desert, pronto!" News held his fist to his chest like a Roman centurion. "It shall be done, my liege."
Claudette X bolted back toward the city desk. Grudgingly, LaFontaine called Burkhardt's office. His secretary told News that the developer had a late cancellation in his schedule. He could see LaFontaine at six-thirty if it was convenient.
It wasn't convenient. It meant overtime, which News despised. But it was better than having to explain why he'd passed up a follow-up interview. He told the secretary he'd be there.
Which gave News an hour to waste. Not much time. But at least he'd be able to take inventory of this afternoon's goings-on. LaFontaine looked around. A warm prickly feeling came over him. Even after nearly twenty years in the business, the buzz, the whine, the screech of news gathering still managed to comfort and goad him.
Like The Beacon, its last remaining competitor, The Post occupied the entire twenty-first floor of a skyscraper, the base of which filled a city block. Divided into five main sections-Sports, Features, Business, Copy, and, the last and largest, City-to the uninitiated the newsroom more closely resembled an orgy scene for pack rats than the nerve center of the city's second-largest circulations, crinkled budget reports, forgotten indictments, unread press releases, unintelligible legal briefs, half-used white notebooks, and coffee cups sprouting mold; not to mention reams of wire copy, frayed police reports, transcripts of ancient court proceedings and the letters: letters from critical readers, and-the letters LaFontaine respected most-missives from the truly deranged; they were the only ones who seemed to understand the world these days.
Amid this paper jungle telephones rang, computer keyboards snapped and clacked, editors swore and pounded their fists, reporters begged for stories, reporters begged off of stories. Reporter and editor alike peered over their shoulders to make sure no one with clout coveted their jobs. Clerks bustled with shopping carts filled with interoffice memos. Fax machines cawed with the latest spin of every public relations flack in the city trying to influence The Post's current interpretation of truth, justice, and the American way.
LaFontaine peered over at a man in his fifties slouched before a computer terminal. A photograph of three monkeys was taped to the side of the machine. "HEARS ALL EVIL, SEES ALL EVIL, SPEAKS NO…" was scrawled underneath the photo in black Magic Marker. The man's complexion was sallow, his flesh spare, his knuckles bubbled with scabs. His brown hair hung crazily over his telephone headset. Behind his thick glasses, his eyes seemed to glow an unnatural red.
The Zombie was The Post's writer, had been for nearly twelve years, during which no one, not even LaFontaine, had heard him speak an intelligible sentence. How the Zombie managed to get accurate information from funeral homes, clergymen, and bereaved relatives-and then to fashion such beautiful, terse elegies to the dead-was one of the newspaper's many enigmas.
LaFontaine followed the Zombie's gaze to the series of glass-faced boxes that stretched along the north and south walls of the newsroom. The line of cubicles served as offices the The Post's top editors. The majority of reporters referred to the giant aquariums and their occupants as the "Glassholes." News prided himself on his more sardonic appraisal. Long ago he'd named the offices "Lobotomy Lane," for they were inhabited by a dozen post operatives. How else could they have risen to power in such an insane business?
Following his daily routine, LaFontaine studied the configuration of Lobotomy lane. He searched for clues to the shifting winds of influence. Some evidence was easily discerned. The raw power of each editor, for example, was determined by the proximity of this or her office to the northeastern and largest of the Glassholes, the one occupied by Connor Lawlor, The Post's owner, publisher, and editor-in-chief.
News, however, based his analysis on more subtle manifestations of clout: whether an editor visited another Glasshole or was visited; whether an editor warranted copies of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times each morning; who an editor lunched with and how often; whether an editor sat behind a desk during large meetings or sat in supplication before the real deal. This was the grist LaFontaine gathered, milled, and leavened with his own cynical critique. This was what made him the peerless gossip baker in the hot oven of the newsroom.
LaFontaine glanced again at the Zombie, the only person who studied Lobotomy Lane as much as he did. There he was, staring bullets at the offices. And what's this? He's breaking the tops off a bouquet of daffodils while he leers? That's a new twist.
What the Zombie must discern with such focus! Then again, pleasure. LaFontaine's mind swirled with the Zombie's possible motives, almost all of them cast in shades of flesh and blood. He shuddered, then checked the time. Half an hour to go. Maybe he'd head to Burkhardt's office early. He tossed his notebook into his alligator-skinned briefcase and snapped it shut.
But before he left he sneaked a peek under his desk to see if it was big enough to conceal him should the Zombie's magenta eyes ever start to slap side to side like excited atoms before the Big Bang.
In that pressure cooker atmosphere, a series of prostitute murders took place and the city formed a task force to try to catch the killer. Meanwhile, state investigators were looking into possible corruption within the San Diego police force. One prostitute, a young woman named Donna Gentile, testified against police officers before a grand jury. Very soon after, Gentile was found dead in the hills east of town. Gravel was shoved in her mouth, which was taken as a warning signal to other prostitutes not to talk. I was one of four reporters at the San Diego Tribune assigned to work these stories.
We spent weeks on the street at night tracking down prostitutes and others who had testified before the grand jury. We broke a series of high profile exclusives that rocked Southern California, including an interview with a prostitute who had been in hiding for more than a year. She told us she had overheard two officers, one of them a prominent lieutenant, discussing the contract killing of Donna Gentile.
At the same time, I was growing disillusioned with daily journalism. Increasingly I was growing frustrated at some of the hypocrisies I saw within the business of daily newspapering. Although as a group I found most of my fellow journalists to be honest, hilarious and hard working, I watched as a handful proved themselves guilty of some of the same kind of transgressions we so gleefully reported on the front page concerning judges, drug dealers, sports figures, celebrities and politicians.
I knew journalists who were alcoholics, drug addicts, extortionists, kleptomaniacs, tax evaders, wife beaters, adulterers, plagiarizers, bribe takers and on and on. But you weren't seeing stories about these people in the papers.
Hard News grew out my experiences reporting on police corruption and the Gentile case and my burning desire to pull back the curtain on the strange peccadilloes of modern journalists. I published that novel almost fourteen years ago and it's become something of a cult classic among reporters.
I still get e-mails from reporters at papers all over the country, journalists I've never met, who ask me how I could have possibly known so much about the weirdness that went on inside their own newsrooms.