When the murder of a “nobody” triggers an avalanche.
Every human life is supposed to be important. Everyone
should matter. But that’s not the case in the cutthroat TV
news-rating world where Clare Carlson works. Sex, money, and
power sell. Only murder victims of the right social strata
are considered worth covering. Not the murder of a “nobody.”
So, when the battered body of a homeless woman named Dora
Gayle is found on the streets of New York City, her murder
barely gets a mention in the media. But Clare—a TV news
director who still has a reporter’s instincts—decides to dig
deeper into the seemingly meaningless death. She uncovers
mysterious links between Gayle and a number of wealthy and
influential figures. There is a prominent female defense
attorney; a scandal-ridden ex-congressman; a decorated NYPD
detective; and—most shocking of all—a wealthy media mogul
who owns the TV station where Clare works. Soon there are
more murders, more victims, more questions. As the bodies
pile up, Clare realizes that her job, her career, and maybe
even her life are at stake as she chases after her biggest
THE RULES ACCORDING TO CLARE
Every human life is supposed to be important, everyone
should matter. That's what we all tell ourselves, and it's a
helluva noble concept. But it's not true. Not in the real
world. And certainly not in the world of TV news where I work.
Especially when it comes to murder.
Murder is a numbers game for me. It operates on what is
sometimes cynically known in the media as the Blonde White
Female Syndrome. My goal is to find a murder with a sexy
young woman victim to put on the air. Sex sells. Sex, money,
and power. That translates into big ratings numbers, which
translates into more advertising dollars. These are the only
murder stories really worth doing.
The amazing thing to me is not that there is so much news
coverage of these types of stories. It's that there are
people who actually question whether they should be big news
stories. These critics dredge up the age-old argument about
why some murders get so much more play in the media than all
the other murders that happen every day.
I don't understand these people.
Because the cold, hard truth—and everyone knows this,
whether they want to admit it or not—is that not everybody
is equal when it comes to murder.
Not in life.
And certainly not in death.
It reminds me of the ongoing debate that happens every time
Sirhan Sirhan—the man who killed Robert F. Kennedy—comes up
for a parole hearing. There are those who point out that
he's already served fifty years in jail. They argue that
many other killers have served far less time before being
paroled. Sirhan Sirhan should be treated equally, they say,
because the life of Robert F. Kennedy is no more or less
important than the life of any other crime victim. Me, I
think Sirhan Sirhan should be kept caged up in a four-foot
by six-foot cell as long as he lives—which hopefully will be
to a hundred so he can suffer every minute of it. For God's
sakes, people, he killed Robert—freakin'—Kennedy!
And so, to those who think that we in the media make too big
a deal out of some of these high-profile murder stories, I
say that's completely and utterly ridiculous. I reject that
argument completely. I won't even discuss it.
Now let me tell you something else.
Everything I just said there is a lie.
The truth is there really is no magic formula for murder in
the TV news business. No simple way to know from the
beginning if a murder story is worth covering or not. No
easy answer to the question of how much a human life is
worth—or what the impact will be of that person's death by a
When I started out working at a newspaper years ago, I sat
next to a veteran police reporter on the overnight shift.
There was an old-fashioned wire machine that would print out
police slips of murders that happened during the night. Most
of them involved down-market victims in bad neighborhoods
whose deaths clearly would never make the paper.
But he would dutifully call the police on each one and ask
questions like: "Tell me about the body of that kid you
found in the Harlem pool room—was he a MENSA candidate or
what?" Or, "The woman you found dead in the alley behind the
housing project—any chance she might be Julia Roberts or a
member of the British Royal Family?"
I asked him once why he even bothered to make the calls
since none of these murders seemed ever worth writing about
in the paper.
"Hey, you never know," he said.
It was good advice back then, and it still is today. I try
to teach it to all my reporters in the TV newsroom that I
run now. Check every murder out. Never assume anything about
a murder story. Follow the facts and the evidence on every
murder—on every crime story—because you can never be certain
where that trail might take you.
Okay, I don't always follow my own advice in the fast-paced,
ratings-obsessed world of TV news where I make my living.
And usually it does turn out to be just a waste of time.
But every once in a while, well . . .
Hey, you never know.
The news meeting at Channel 10 was my favorite part of the
day. That's when we talked about the stories to decide which
ones to put on the air.
"Here's your talker of the day, Clare," said Maggie Lang, my
assignment editor. "A guy goes into the hospital for
hemorrhoid surgery. He's real nervous and has a lot of gas
buildup. While he's on the operating table, he involuntarily
lets go of a big fart. An oxygen unit catches fire, there's
an explosion and the entire operating team gets blown
backward by the force of the blast."
"Boom!" I said.
"The poor schmuck's lying there with half his rear end gone.
The hospital's looking at a big malpractice suit."
"I guess the operation backfired, huh?" one of the editors said.
"Maybe we should start calling New York the windy city now
instead of Chicago," another one quipped.
Everyone at the meeting laughed.
"All right, we'll use it," I said. "But do it short and play
it straight. No giggling on air, no bad puns. We'll play it
at the very end of the newscast."
My name is Clare Carlson, and I'm the news director at
Channel 10 now. But I used to be a reporter. Not an on-air
TV reporter, but a real reporter at a newspaper that sadly
doesn't exist anymore. I was a pretty damn good reporter
too. Even won a Pulitzer Prize a long time ago. Yep, Clare
Carlson, Pulitzer Prize winner. That's got a nice sound to
it, huh? And I still think of myself at heart as a reporter,
not a news executive. I guess that's why I liked this
meeting so much. It gave me a chance to get away from budget
planning, ad sales, rating demographics and—at least for a
little while—just be a journalist again and worry about the
"What's our lead story going to be?" I asked everyone.
"Probably the chaos at Penn Station," Maggie said. "There
was another derailment there this morning. No one really got
hurt, but they had to cancel most of the trains. The delays
getting in and out of the city are supposed to extend into
the evening rush hour too. There's great video of angry
commuters packed in there waiting for the trains—yelling at
conductors, demanding answers, chanting for someone to be
fired over this latest commuter mess there. One of the angry
passengers even assaulted an information clerk who couldn't
give him an answer as to when his train might be running
again. That video's already gone viral on social media. We
could start off with it and then go with all the other
commuter chaos footage."
I looked around the room.
"Does everyone agree that's a good story for us to lead the
broadcast with tonight?" I asked.
"Yes," said Dani Blaine, one of the Channel 10 co-anchors.
"No," said Brett Wolff, the other co-anchor.
"Well, that about covers all the possibilities," I said.
Brett and Dani didn't like each other. Well, that's not
totally true. Actually, they did like each other . . . a bit
too much. A few months earlier, they'd engaged in a torrid
off-camera love affair. But then Brett broke it off, and so
there was a lot of anger and bitterness and sexual tension
between them now. They were still professional on the air
but feuded constantly behind the scenes. The bottom line
here though was they were one of the most popular anchor
teams in town, so I had to make it work. Just another fun
part of my job.
"We led with trains delays all last week," Brett said. "Do
we really want to do that again?"
"We had our highest ratings in months too," Dani pointed
out. "More viewers, more website hits, more social media
response and an overall bigger market share than anyone else
"Uh, I think she just answered your question, Brett," I said.
Score one for Dani.
I turned to Steve Stratton, our Channel 10 sports guy.
"What's going on in sports?" I asked him now,
"The Jets have offered their first draft choice $50 million."
"Yeah, but that's not really the story. The story is the guy
turned it down."
I told Stratton to come up with some kind of visual graphic
to put on air that broke down $50 million into numbers that
people would understand. How many houses could you buy with
it? How many cars? How many boats? How many college
educations? How many doctor visits and trips to the dentist?
I wanted our viewers to understand the enormity of the sum.
"What else is there?" I said.
"The mayor's office says they have a new plan to balance the
budget by the end of the year," an editor suggested.
There were groans around the room. Budget stories didn't
translate well into TV news. They didn't translate well into
any kind of news.
"Didn't they say that last year?" someone asked.
"They said it during the Giuliani administration," I said.
"Well, the mayor also has an appearance scheduled this
afternoon at the groundbreaking ceremony for a pool in the
Bronx. With the new Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. In a
"The mayor or the model?" an editor laughed.
"Now we're talking real journalism," another one said.
"Can he bring the swimsuit chick to the next budget
meeting?" someone suggested.
The news meeting usually went on for nearly an hour. I
always tried to keep it like this—free-wheeling, funny,
encouraging people to speak up and throw out their ideas. We
went through a lot of other possible stories—police stuff,
weather, some features and everything else needed to put out
a TV newscast.
I was just about to wrap up the meeting when Maggie Lang
said she had another story she wanted to discuss.
"It's a crime story," she said.
"Crime is good," I told her.
"A woman was murdered."
"What's her name?"
"I don't know."
"So what's the angle?"
"She was a homeless woman."
There were groans around the room. Even louder than for the
budget story. I wanted to groan too, but I didn't. Maggie
was young—still in her twenties—but I probably trusted her
more than anyone else at the station.
"Look, we're always doing stories about the homeless issue
in the city," Maggie said. "But always just people talking
numbers and political positions about the issue. This is the
real thing. A woman who was murdered on the streets of New
York City. Sure, no one cares about her, right? But someone
must have cared about her once. What if we do a profile on
this woman—find out how she wound up dying alone the way she
"I knew her. Well, that is I used to see her on the street.
You probably did too. She would stand in front of the coffee
shop down the street from our building and hold the door
open for people in hopes of getting a handout. I went inside
the coffee shop and asked the people there about her. They
didn't know her name either. But they said she used to call
herself Cinderella. No one knew exactly why.
"She was found stabbed to death in the vestibule of a bank a
few blocks away. They have no idea who killed her or why,
and they probably never will. She's just another forgotten
homeless person dead on the streets. But what if we make her
more than that? What if we turn her into a symbol of
everything that's wrong and tragic and needs to be fixed
about the homeless people we see all around us?
"Maybe there's even an interesting story to her too. Clare,
you always preach to us about how there's a story to every
murder. All we have to do is find it, you tell us. Let's
find out the story behind this woman. Who was she? Why did
she call herself Cinderella? Where was she and what was she
doing before she started living on the street?"
Maybe it was the fact that Maggie threw my own words back at
me, which made it tough for me to argue about what she was
Maybe it was the name "Cinderella" that intrigued me too.
Maybe it was my reporter's curiosity and desire to do some
real journalism again, to escape however briefly from the
confines of TV news.
Or maybe it was a combination of all these things—plus a bit
of luck—that convinced me to do what I did next.
"Okay," I said finally. "Let's find out the story of
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Clare Carlson Mystery
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