Read-a-Chapter: ‘Sweet Karoline,’ by Catherine Astolfo

Read a Chapter is *NEW* added feature at As the Pages Turn! Here you’ll be able to read the first chapters of books of all genres to see if you like them before you buy them. Today we are featuring the psychological suspense, SWEET KAROLINE, by Catherine Astolfo. Enjoy!

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“I met Ethan on the day that I killed Karoline.” But is Anne Williams really a murderer? Or was her best friend’s death a tragic accident for which Anne blames herself?

This compelling central character embarks on a rollercoaster ride of self-exploration that causes the reader to breathlessly follow her. Throughout an emotional breakdown in the present, sprinkled with flashes of the past that brought her to this point, Anne questions her own decisions, her lifestyle, and those of the friend she thought she knew.

The gripping twists of Karoline’s duplicity are vicious and deplorable. Entangled in the arms of the homicide detective who helped rule the case a suicide, Anne learns about love and decides to trace her complicated past. The journey uncovers dark family secrets, an unusual history, and criminal treachery. Anne must answer the classic question, “Who am I?” amidst a backdrop of racial tension, lies and hidden chronicles. Eventually she has to confront a deadly threat before the entire story becomes clear. Can she survive this maelstrom of revelation and betrayal with her sanity intact?

Title: Sweet Karoline

Genre: Psychological Suspense

Author: Catherine Astolfo

Website: www.catherineastolfo.com 

Publisher: Imajin Books

Purchase on AMAZON

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Chapter One

I met Ethan on the day that I killed Karoline.

Other than a few minor adjustments, I believe that I have handled her murder exceedingly well.

The state of my car, for instance, has become something of a nuisance. Bits of tissue, used napkins, paper cups and pop cans litter the floor at my feet or fly out the window as I drive along. I am invariably subjected to a barrage of honking whenever I reach a red light.

People these days have no patience. They ought to understand that I am busy examining the stray bits in my car. Some of them are works of art. I don’t notice the change to green because they are so infinitely interesting.

This study of creative possibilities has become somewhat of an obsession. In the back of my mind I know that all I have to do is clean it up. Yet the thought of actually tackling the onslaught of debris leaves me inert and helpless.

Ethan offered recently to take me to the car wash. He’d help me dump the debris and vacuum the inside, but I have seriously considered the idea that I may be destroying a future Picasso. I have thus far refused his proposition. Not that I have shared my vision of a Picasso with him, of course. I just say that I never have time.

I have acquired a habit of going shopping. I make lists of things in my mind—groceries, toiletries, cosmetics, medicines, vitamins or clothing—that seem absolutely essential to the arrival of tomorrow. But once inside the pharmacy, the clothing store or the shopping center, the bright lights mesmerize me. My eyes blur and I can’t for the life of me remember what I have come for.

When I do buy something, I am left vaguely dissatisfied, certain that I could have gotten a better bargain somewhere else had I only looked a little longer. Depressed because I had to use my credit card again and this purchase will become just one more thing to do. Write the check. Buy the stamp. Walk to the post box. Mail the envelope.

The little, unfinished things do sometimes bother me. Dirty laundry is piled up in the closet. The bed is always unmade. In the bathroom, the ceiling is slowly cracking from some unspecified leak that I have failed to report to the superintendent. The drapes in the living room neither open nor close anymore.

At first I tended to watch television all night long, despite the fact that the next day I was a zombie. After I decided to go on an extended sick leave, it didn’t matter. I started to sleep all night and all day, never moving unless forced to by some phone call, knock at the door or the call of nature.

I spend hours at the sink. For some reason, the suds and the water are calming. So far I have washed every dish, bowl, and ornament in the apartment two or three times. I reenact advertisements for the latest dishwashing liquid, showing off my lovely long fingers and hands to, well, myself. I speak in a sing-song voice to the imaginary audience, telling them how kind the dishwashing liquid has been to my hands over the years, encouraging them to run right out and buy this product before it disappears from the shelf.

After I’ve allowed the water to swirl down the drain, I shift to spending hours in front of the little mirror that hangs in my kitchen. People tell me that I am a very beautiful woman. On good days, when I feel haughty and happy, I can gaze into the polished glass and agree with their assessment. On other days, I notice the nose that’s a little too upturned. The lips that protrude a bit too much. The dark birthmark above my left eyebrow. The ears that don’t lie flat against my head. I have no idea why I am considered flawless, for I have many perceptible flaws, both inside and out.

My father is white and my mother is black with some Native American thrown into her background. My parents have always bragged that I inherited all the great physical features of those races. Their perspective is far less critical than mine. They focus on all the positives. Naturally wavy hair. Large brown eyes with long curling lashes. High, full cheekbones. A small, pert nose. Lips just thick enough to be called luscious.

I am one of those fortunate people who can eat all day and not gain an ounce. Thus I am described as tall and lean as opposed to thin. I have full breasts and a narrow waist. I am a fast runner and good at any sport I attempt. In Hollywood, I am considered full figured.

My skin is a light brown, the color of coffee with cream I guess you would say, that makes me look as though I’ve just stepped out of a tanning bed. Heads literally turn to stare at me in the street, from across a room, or on the subway. Male and female. To me, it’s a constant source of surprise, chagrin and exasperation.

Lots of people, especially women, have jealously told me that I should be grateful for my looks. But I hate being identified as beautiful. Men tend to stare only at my chest when they talk to me. Or they show me off like some trophy and do not bother to ask my opinion on anything. I have been approached in bars and stores alike. Even in this land of plastic enhanced faces, I literally cannot go anywhere without being stared at or even followed. Most people, in fact, are convinced I am a movie star or model. These are not careers I’ve ever wanted.

I have often been stalked, thus the three sets of locks on our door. Our telephone number is always unlisted and has to be changed once some obsessed man discovers it. When you are lovely on the outside, it’s always difficult to entice people to look for the true person underneath. I’m learning through Ethan that it’s exactly the same for truly ugly people.

Over the years, I learned to live at the surface. It wasn’t hard to do in Los Angeles, where even the air is insipid.

I would prefer to be considered intelligent, but that’s probably not an attribute anyone would mention when they speak of me. I worked very hard to acquire the position of Executive Assistant at Grace Film Productions, which is where I was employed up until last month. I was one of the very lucky ones who loved what I did every day and rarely considered it an effort. My former office is surrounded by windows and is fairly well designed. My desk is large and my chair comfortable. The office building, which houses Grace as well as several other companies, is an architectural beauty. All blue glass and steel, round and elegant, surrounded by greenery and topped with a beautiful grey crown that’s actually an enormous rooftop patio. The front doors open with a swish. The security desk is classy, the carpet plush. The employees are welcoming and friendly. In the lobby and elevators, hushed music fills the air to calm nerves on the way to hear someone’s decision on the success or failure of a movie script.

Grace Films takes a script all the way from the editing stage to production. Sometimes my employers are heavily involved in the resultant movie and sometimes they take an Executive Producer role, basically handing the project off to other producers for the detailed work. My position requires juggling numerous prickly clients, writers, producers, and even actors, who are either nervous or over-confident artists.

I also organize the lives of my bosses, who have enormous egos and expect everything to be done yesterday. I am able to handle details and disasters with a calm, objective exterior and an inner patience that stems from my adoration of talented people. Or, as Karoline would tell you, my love of power.

I frequently go on set to distract or pacify our clients. I learn about their backgrounds, families, likes and dislikes, and treat them accordingly. Some of my employers have become my friends. Some of the writers and directors and actors are now my dependents.

When my bosses are on location, I am solely responsible for answering the myriad of calls and managing the frantic problem solving. I am able to handle the stress of my position quite serenely. Or, make that, I used to be able to…

I am aware that looks are part of the charm. I can give the clients a smile and they are instantly under my spell. Mine was the first voice they heard. The first face they saw if they got that far. I was often the one to give them the bad or good news about their scripts. In fact, I was the one who often read the first scenes to see if it was worthy of being handed to our producers.

In the good times, I did feel grateful for my appearance. I learned to use it to my advantage. Happiness and overconfidence would swell like the ocean tide warming the shore. I had been taught by my parents to be self-centered and proud. I lived a hedonistic lifestyle, unaware that there could be any other way to live.

In the very recent past I loved getting up in the morning. On weekdays I looked forward to traveling into the city. I would hop out of bed, anticipation fuelling my energy level, already going over the day in my head. Living in Pasadena meant rising very early, but it was worth the long commute, the clogged roads, the incessant weaving in and out of traffic.

Our little section of L.A. County is green, safe and friendly. I’d go for a quick run most mornings. When it was too hot or, infrequently, rainy, I’d swim or work out in the gym. It’s amazing the number of people I used to meet jogging on the street, doing laps in the gym pool or running on the treadmill.

Our apartment building is like a village. Everyone knows everyone and all their business, too. When someone dies as ostentatiously as Karoline did, the gossip is rampant. Now my fellow residents avoid me as though I have an infectious disease or have changed places with an alien life form who speaks no discernible language.

On weekends, there was always something going on. Every Friday night I’d be in a bar, toasting and talking over the week with my colleagues at Grace, before I hopped back into the car. In the past, Karoline and Giulio would either come drinking with me or they’d be off with their own colleagues and we’d meet in the parking lot.

Saturdays and Sundays were usually untouchable. Film stars don’t want to work on weekends. Whenever Karoline was away for the weekend on business, which was often, I hung out with Giulio or stayed home reading scripts. We had settled into a comfortable, satisfying routine that lasted until Italy. My life didn’t often involve worrying about men or going out on a date.

I have not had many happy or haughty days lately, that’s for sure. I no longer get up from bed eager to start the day. In my little mirror I see only the lines below my lip, etched by worry and stress. I see the dark shadows under my eyes created by sleepless nights or pills that cause unconsciousness but not rest. I am jumpy and pimples have sprung up out of the unnatural hormones racing through my fearful body. I spend much of the day gazing at the distortions of a face that used to be peaceful, content, ambitious and young.

Recently I hadn’t even answered my mother’s telephone messages. My mother and father still live in Bell Canyon. I haven’t really let Mom in on the aftermath of the tragedy, not the details at least. I don’t want to worry her. She is a well-meaning mom, despite the fact that I spent half my life being ashamed of her. I’m not sure she ever knew of my treachery, but somehow I cannot bring myself to turn to her, or to my Dad, for comfort. Although I am not deserving of their support, my main reason for avoiding them is that they are part of the betrayal. They have a mutual treachery of their own.

Another thing I used to love is our apartment. It’s part of a Moorish-Spanish designed collection of buildings that boast a beautiful stone façade, light brown stucco walls and rounded bay windows. Every balcony is bounded by gorgeous wrought iron, except for ours, which has rather high stone walls instead. The only drawback is that we have to stand up to see any view.

I used to shiver with delight and pride every time I entered the stone archway that graces the front entrance. Now I shiver for a wholly different reason.

Karoline and I lived in the top of two turrets that face the garden-side of the complex. In the 1940’s, her Jah-jah and Boosha—don’t ask me the real spellings of the Polish words—came to California to live on streets of gold. As soon as Jah-jah died, Boosha hightailed it back to Poland.

By then, Karoline’s mother was already married and residing in Bell Canyon. Halina’s brothers went back to the old country, too. Maybe that’s why she got pregnant so quickly and so young. Otherwise, she would have been alone.

For years Boosha rented out the old family apartment. The income must have been pretty good, because she never bothered to sell it. When Karoline, Giulio and I acquired jobs in L.A., Karoline wanted to buy her family’s old place. Boosha said yes, they worked out a rent-to-buy arrangement and here we are. Rather, here we were.

Unlike newer buildings that are all boxy and small, the rooms in our apartment are huge, aside from the galley kitchen. We have a generous dining area in which Karoline and I used to have dinner parties for up to ten people. Our living room is enormous, with windows that span its entire length. The two bedrooms are in the rounded section of the turrets, which makes them interesting though hard to decorate.

Since her death, I am often reminded of the night I saw Karoline in bed with Glenn. Every time I opened her bedroom door, her eyes seemed to be there still, staring at me with that steely look from beneath the flabby man whose mantra was more porn than romance. For months her door has remained shut. I walk around it, avoiding the waft of air from under the frame.

Mature trees and palms lean toward us from the side garden, giving us cooling breezes that almost negate the need for air conditioners. We can just see the mountains if we peer around the edge of the balcony.

We are tucked slightly away from the busy street, so we don’t hear the traffic much at night. There’s a sidewalk underneath that runs along a big square yard that residents can enjoy. Across the street on this side is a huge park.

Karoline decorated the apartment because she has—had—a knack for design. She went with bright, bold colors and accessories, big comfy furniture and artifacts from our various journeys spread carefully throughout. Pictures have been placed with an eye for artistic showcasing. We have two carpets from a trip to Turkey that massage your feet as you pad down the hall to the bathroom or through the living room. We even have a small CoJon painting on the entrance wall.

Nowadays, the paint seems dark and gloomy. The nooks and crannies are full of ghosts. The door to the second bedroom remains closed and the balcony is off limits. The yellow crime scene tape still flies in tatters around the railings. I spend my time in my bedroom, bathroom, or the kitchen, terrified to spread out, ashamed to sit on the couch. I skirt around the carpets, my bare feet stubbing the hardwood. I refuse to look toward the windows, afraid I might see her face reflected in the glass.

I would move if I could work up the energy or if I had anywhere else to go.

There’s a picture of Karoline on the end table that glares out at me every morning as I slide past the living room into the kitchen. I used to love that image, thought of it as a true portrait of the person she was. She looks very pretty in this particular exposure, although she wasn’t really good looking. Her teeth protruded quite dramatically and, unfortunately, she never seemed motivated to get them fixed. Her hair was a mousy brown and had that wispy thinness that made her appear somewhat balding. She was very short with a body that looked childlike when she was young, but gave her a dumpy appearance in her thirties.

Karoline never wore make-up or selected clothing that enhanced her figure in any way. She gave the impression that she had no interest in the external. I loved Karoline for this reason in particular and for lots of other reasons, too.

Dear Diary,

Such an inane, cliché-ish way to start, but I can assure you there will be nothing cliché or inane about the thoughts within these pages. I read recently that keeping a journal is healthy. I am discovering that I love being able to explore random ideas without censure. Put feelings and facts down on paper. Pardon the lack of order, Dear Diary, but it’s about me, not you.

 

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