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Jack Marconi is back. In The Guilty, Jack finds himself investigating a local restaurateur who’s not only obsessed with the sexy, dark romance novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, he’s accused of attempting to murder his school teacher girlfriend. As the now brain-damaged young woman begins recalling events of that fateful winter night when she was allegedly pushed down the front exterior stairs of a West Albany mansion, she becomes the target of the angry foodie/sex-obsessed boyfriend once again. Only this time, he’s cooking up a plot to keep her silenced forever.
In the Beginning…
…she falls for him as fast and hard as a plane crash. He has that devastatingly immediate effect on her, and she swallows up everything about him, like a woman dying of an incurable thirst.
But then, he is so different from her now, ex-husband.
This man…this ambitious young man…he is so different from the tight, pit-in-the-chest-loneliness relationship she’s endured for six long years. This man isn’t at all like the man she married. This man is kind with his words, caring in his actions, tender with his touch. When he makes love to her, he does so unselfishly and with a power so focused on she and she alone, it takes her breath away.
There are other wonderful things about him.
He is kind to her little boy. He’s the kind of man to buy the little guy a train set for no reason at all other than it’s a beautiful sunny Sunday. He plays with the boy. Cowboys and Indians. Reads with the boy. Carts him off to the movies. Shares Happy Meals with him. In some cases, he is more dad than his real dad.
He is exceptionally handsome, in possession of the deepest green eyes she’s ever before seen on a man. A tall, slim but not skinny, muscular build, and thick, wavy, red/blond hair that just screams for her to run her hands through it. She considers herself an attractive young woman with her shoulder-length brunette hair and deep-set brown eyes. But not deserving of a man with his out-of-this-world looks. She feels blessed.
Unlike her ex, who is a writer, time to him is not a commodity or something to be greedily horded. His generosity and selflessness seems to know no bounds, as if God placed him on this earth for she and she alone.
It’s the same when it comes to money.
He’s taken her places her husband couldn’t begin to afford. Weekends at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City. A full week in Paris. Deep sea fishing and nude sunbathing in Aruba. Dinner at the most expensive restaurants, and shopping at the best stores. Garnet Hill, West Elm, Bloomingdales, Prada…He even bought her a new car. A fire engine red Volvo station wagon which he claimed would be a safer ride for she and her little boy than her five year old Toyota Carolla.
For the thirty-eight year old grammar school teacher, he is like a green-eyed dream come true. A knight in pure shining armor who has rescued her from a life of never quite making ends meet, from a husband who chooses career over family, from days filled with boredom and nights chilled by despair. For the first time ever, she has snagged the man of her dreams and she is not about to let go. She will do anything for him.
But then things change.
Not in a dramatic, earth shattering way. But subtly. He begins to ask her to do things for him. Things that surprise her when they come out of his mouth. Especially when he asks her to do them with a smile on his face.
She’s never before heard of people doing the things he’s talking about. Correction…she’s heard of them before, but only if she’s happened to see them on late night cable TV or read about them in some shady, bestselling erotica novel. But then, the things he’s talking about are worse than those things. They involve other things besides human flesh on human flesh. They involve tools of wood, glass, leather and steel. They involve chants and pain and spirits summoned from anywhere but heaven. He doesn’t demand for her to do these things with him. He merely asks her to explore the idea of them with him. To explore the possibilities. To explore the depths of her sensuality. In a word, he feels the need and the want to share her.
She feels at once shocked and afraid. But then she feels confusion too. She reasons with herself that perhaps he is just being playful. Deviant, but playful. That there is no harm in what he is suggesting. She’s an adult and so is he. So long as it happens amongst consenting adults, what harm can come of it? Still, she resists.
But he keeps asking her to share herself. Day after day. Night after night. He never lets up. Her beautiful man, he is determined.
Other changes begin to occur.
His already thin physique becomes thinner, more veiny, his muscles more pronounced. The retinas in his striking green eyes always seem to be dilated now. As if he were secretly experimenting with some new drug or drugs. He rarely trims his fingernails, preferring now to grow them out like claws. And his teeth: He’s doing things with his teeth. Having his incisors sharpened so that when he opens his mouth, he resembles a vampire.
The changes cause more and more anxiety in her. But she chooses to ignore it. He is still so kind to her. To her boy. So loving and protecting. She doesn’t want to ruin what they’ve built together. She doesn’t want to break the spell. She decides to keep her mouth shut and carry on like her life is all wine and roses.
Then one day he reveals a secret.
He takes her by the hand, leads her downs the stairs into the basement. There he reveals a hidden room.
He reveals the room to her and all the room contains.
It makes her dizzy at first. So dizzy she thinks she might pass out. There are the four windowless, red-painted walls, the concrete floor with the drain positioned in the middle, the strange devices hanging on metal hooks, the video cameras, the lights, and the strangest thing of all: a large, heavy wood, spinning wheel balanced atop a ball bearing-topped pilaster. A wooden wheel with four heavy leather straps attached to it that can accompany a fully grown human being. Standing inside the door opening, she feels as if she is looking into a medieval dungeon.
“I had this constructed for us,” he whispers. “Because I love you.”
Her knees grow weak, her legs wobbly.
She fears she will faint.
But then he takes her into his strong arms and smiles that smile. That’s when he tells her wants to show her something else. Something very special. Releasing her he raises up the sleeve on his right arm to reveal a long, white, gauze bandage held in place with strips of white surgical tape. Reaching out with his left hand, he slowly, tenderly, peels away the bandage. What he exposes is as shockingly wonderful as that room is shockingly frightening.
It’s a new tattoo.
But not just any tattoo.
This tattoo contains no artistic rendering. No red hearts with arrows piercing them. No Indian heads. No tribal insignias, wings, crosses, dragons, stars, or angels. This tattoo contains only a name.
SARAH…inked in deep black, with rich scarlet droplets of blood dripping from each letter.
For her, the tattoo isn’t just decorative body paint. It is instead a declaration of the purest love. The tattoo means he is declaring his devotion and his love for all eternity.
“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want,” he says, his blue eyes shifting from her, to the sex room, and back to her. “I’ll understand completely. If you like, I can close up the secret room for good.”
She slowly turns away from him, focuses on the heavy wood wheel, and as much as it pains her to even contemplate being strapped to it with other people watching…watching and doing things to her and themselves…she can’t help but begin to feel a hint of excitement beginning to run through her veins and between her legs. It’s as if in the revelation of this basement space, along with her lover’s new tattoo, a tiny door inside her has been pried open. The room and all it contains, might still bring out the fear in her, but her love and desire for him is so much stronger.
“If it will please you,” she whispers, “I will do it for you.”
With that, he once more takes her into his arms, holds her hard against his chest, his hands forming tight, angry fists, his sharpened incisors biting down into his lip, piercing the flesh, drawing blood.
“Till death do us part,” he whispers into her ear.
Harold Sanders didn’t look like a world renowned architect who was said to be richer than God. He looked more like the grand master or head priest for one of those new, pray-for-profit, storefront Christian churches you see springing up all over the suburbs these days.
But then what the hell did I know?
I was neither world renowned nor was I rich and I only believed in God when it was convenient. Like when someone had the business end of a pistol barrel pressed up against the back of my head for instance.
I guess, in some ways, not being rich or famous made me feel sort of sad, but in other ways provided me with an odd sense of comfort. As if in all my anonymity and humble earnings was planted a kind of peace and, dare I say it, Zen. Who wants to be rich anyway and not have to work for a living? I wouldn’t know what the hell to do with myself.
I was still trying to convince myself that it would suck to be rich and failing miserably at it when Harold Sanders crossed his long thin legs and cleared his throat. Not like it required clearing. More like he was insisting upon my undivided attention without having to actually ask for it. And considering he was the only other person occupying the room besides myself, and knowing how deep his pockets must be, I gave it to him.
“Naturally, I’ve done some checking up on you, Mr. Marconi,” he said with a tight-lipped smile, his tone patronizing. Like an elementary school principal to a newly arrived fifth grade transfer. For a brief instant, I felt like reaching across my desk and backhanding that smile right off his cleanly shaved face. But then I once more reminded myself of those deep pockets.
We were sitting in my first floor converted warehouse office space/apartment with the door shut and the view of a sunbaked Sherman Street looking positively magnificent through the old floor-to-ceiling, wire-reinforced, warehouse windows. It hadn’t rained all summer long and what had originally been termed a “temporary dry spell” by the Albany meteorologists had evolved into a full blown drought, complete with a lawn watering moratorium and hefty fines or, even jail time, for those who broke them. It was so hot and dry in the city that the drug dealers who almost always hung outside my front door rarely bothered coming out during the overheated daytime hours. A situation which must have pleased the very rich and very accomplished Mr. Sanders upon his arrival to my downtown address in his brand new black BMW convertible.
“Please call me, Keeper,” I said while painting on my best shiny happy smile. “All my friends and enemies do.”
“You survived the Attica uprising as I understand it,” he said, re-crossing his legs. Like I said, he dressed himself in the manner of a new wave priest or maybe even a successful pop culture artist like Richard Prince. But not poorly. If I had to guess I would say his black leather lace-up boots, matching black gabardine slacks, and cotton blend T-shirt didn’t originate from the local Gap outlet. More like a high-end clothier in Florence, Italy. The same place he would have purchased his round, tortoise shell eyeglasses, and maybe even the same place his thick, shoulder-length salt and pepper hair was coiffed. I tend to notice these things since giving up the prison warden life to become a laminated license-carrying private dick.
I leaned back in my swivel chair, locked my hands together at the knuckles, brought them around the back of my head for a head-rest.
“I was just a kid fresh out of high school. A brand new corrections officer. Attica was the largest American versus American slaughter since the Civil War. Not counting the abominable Indian wars of course, which were much worse. From a genocidal point of view.”
He smiled. Probably because I’d somehow managed to use the words abominable and genocidal in the same sentence.
“Why so young?” he asked.
“I didn’t feel the college path was right for me, and I definitely didn’t want to go to Viet Nam, so my dad pulled some strings.”
Sanders smiled, like we were both a part of the same old boy crony circuit of which I most definitely was not. What I didn’t tell him is that I would go on to score an undergrad degree in English. Took me six years of night classes, but I got through it.
“Sometimes it pays to have parents who can afford us a proper start in life, even if that start is on the nice side of a set of iron prison bars.”
“My dad was a construction worker,” I said. “He used to get drunk and lose at poker to the guards from Coxsackie Correctional.”
Sanders smile melted into a sour puss, like he’d just farted by mistake. Made one wonder if he was as liberal as he appeared. Or maybe he just liked to portray himself as a liberal.
“Just as well,” he said. “Both my lawyer and the Albany police force spoke highly of you. Said you were a fine prison supervisor and now you are a very competent and very mature private detective.”
“Awe shucks. Now you’re embarrassing me.”
“They also said you were a bit of a jokester.”
“You mean like a wise ass.”
“Yes, indeed. Must be a requirement in your profession.”
“You have no idea,” I said, bringing my hand around and adjusting the ball knot on my tie so that it hung Lou Grant low under my white, open-necked button-down. “So how can I be of service today?”
He reached down towards his black booted feet, took hold of a leather briefcase that didn’t have a handle or a shoulder strap. He flipped open the fine leather lid and slid out a collection of newspaper clippings bound together with an alligator clip. He handed them to me from across the desk. I leaned forward, reached my hand over the desk and took them from him.
“You’ve no doubt heard about my daughter, Sarah, and her recent troubles,” he said. “Troubles with her fiancée, the restaurateur, Robert David, Jr.”
I knew that if I told him I had not heard about his daughter’s troubles that he would find me ill informed, and therefore no longer a candidate for whatever job he wanted me to take on. So, considering his expensive tastes and the fact that he might consider laying a hefty retainer on me, I played along.
“I’m sorry,” I said, taking a bit of a gamble. “I know how hard things must be for you as of late.”
“Thank you,” he said, genuinely pleased with my reaction. Score one for Keeper Marconi, former English major.
While we were quiet for a reflective moment, I did my best to speed read the first couple of graphs on the top-most clipping which bore the headline: MANNY’S OWNER UNDER INVESTIAGTION IN FIANCEE HEAD INJURY CASE. It was about Sarah Levy, now divorced from the local writer, Michael Levy. Seems she’d taken up with the aforementioned young restaurant owner and gotten herself into some trouble which culminated in her landing in the Memorial Medical Center in a coma after suffering severe head injuries.
Truth be known, I had indeed heard about this case after all. It made the local vine not necessarily because of Sarah’s injuries, which were very bad, but because of the suspicious nature under which they might have been sustained on the property of one of Albany’s richest and most eligible bachelors.
“You think Robert David Jr. hurt your daughter on purpose?” I posed to Sanders.
“The young man claims that she slipped on the ice outside his West Albany home at two in the morning. Which would be a fine explanation had he immediately called 911. She was unconscious and bleeding from a ruptured cranial cap for God’s sakes.”
Ruptured cranial cap…
“But he didn’t,” I said, staring down at the photo of the happy couple that was published along with the top-most article. He was young and clean looking, with wavy if not curly reddish/blond hair and striking, if not spooky green eyes. She was also bright-eyed, her brunette hair long and lush and parted neatly over her left eye which was brown. The two reeked of optimism and youth, even if the paper cited David’s age as forty one and Sarah’s as thirty eight. Not exactly the youth of the world but then, love is a many splendored thing. Until the splendor spoils. Or in this case, splits it head open.
“Why didn’t he call 911?” I said.
“I wouldn’t be sitting here if I knew that.”
“Who have you been speaking to at the APD?”
“A detective by the name of, Nick Miller. While they have obvious evidence of a violent event, they have no leads or evidence of a violent crime having been committed. See how that works, Mr. Marconi? On top of all that, the Davids are exercising their 5th Amendment right, which means they have the right to remain silent. That’s exactly why he suggested I contact you.”
“So I can do his work for him,” I said, not without a grin.
“Perhaps that is a secondary motive on Detective Miller’s part. As I understand it, the police force is over-extended these days and the wealthy Davids rather generous in their annual police benevolence contributions.”
“I’m shocked that you’d suggest the Davids purchase their own particular brand of Albany law and order.”
He re-crossed his legs again. Did it with class and more than a little bit of joie de vivre.
I sat back in my swivel chair again. Did it with blue collar toughness and cynicism. Keeper the hard-ass gumshoe.
“Your daughter is recovering from her injuries?” I pressed.
“She is currently in Valley View Rehabilitation Center in Schenectady. She has no short term memory nor any recollection of the event which occurred nearly six months ago now.”
“Is she still engaged to Mr. David?”
“They have since ended their engagement,” he said, his Adams apple bobbing up and down in his neck.
“Who ended it?”
“The young man did. It was the polite thing to do. Under the circumstances.”
“In other words, you’re suing the shit out of him.”
More bobbing of the Adams apple along with some rapid eye blinking. I’d definitely stepped on the architect’s exposed nerve endings.
“Yes, I’ve entered into a civil suit with him.”
“How much you going after?” I said, leaning back up against my desk, grabbing hold of a Bic ballpoint, jotting down the words, “law” and “suit” in neat Keeper Marconi scribble. Felt good putting that English degree to work.
“Forty million,” he said, with all the casualness of a man revealing the score on a Yankees/Red Sox double-header.
“I see,” I said. “Your lawyer’s name?”
“I don’t think–”
I slapped the pen down, raised up my head, my brown eyes locked with his bespectacled gray/blue eyes.
“Look, Mr. Sanders,” I said, “if we’re going to work together, we have to get something straight right off the bat. I’m going to have to trust you and you’re going to have to trust me. I’m going to be asking a lot of personal questions of you, your wife, your grandmother if you got one. I might even interrogate the family dog. For sure I’m even going to interview your daughter for what it’s worth. But the point is, when I ask you a question, I expect a straight answer and I expect it immediately. Got it?”
He swallowed something. It looked like fear or respect or both. I went with both.
“My lawyer’s name is Terry Kindler,” he said. “And I don’t have a dog at present.”
I sat up straight, picked the pen back up, jotted down the name “Kindler” even though I’d personally known the litigator for years. Marconi the conscientious.
“I’m going to need to talk with Kindler right away. Miller too. In the meantime, you have any theories as to what happened on that cold night in February? The love birds been fighting? They not been getting along the way the soon to be betrothed should?”
“I believe Robert David Jr. hit my daughter over the head many times with a blunt object and did so in a heavily inebriated state. He then tried to cover it up by saying she fell on the ice.”
“Why was she trying to leave at two in the morning on a cold winter’s night? She have children from her first marriage?”
“A sweet little boy, Sam. But he was staying with his father.”
“The novelist,” I said.
“Yes, the novelist. I suspect she was leaving because they were fighting. Robert has himself one heck of a temper.”
“Yes, it is so. A devilish temper. I believe he hit her and nearly killed her. But instead of calling 911, what does he do? He calls his father, Robert Sr., who drives to the house, stuffs my daughter into the back seat of his car and then proceeds to the emergency room not at the more capable Albany Medical Center, but to a smaller, very incapable hospital on the outskirts of town.”
“Memorial Medical Center,” I say. “North Albany.”
“Stinks,” I said.
“Overwhelmingly,” he said. “Positively pungent.” The way he pronounced “pungent” was with a hard G. An English major notices these things.
“Two hundred per day, plus expenses. Under normal circumstances, I request a retainer of twenty-five hundred. I consider these normal circumstances.”
His eyes went wide, but only for a brief second.
“Seems a little…excessive.”
“Not if you’re a world famous architect who makes millions and who’s looking for forty million more.”
We both chewed on that for a while, staring one another down from across my desk. Until he slowly grew a smile, obviously interpreting my crack as a compliment masked in sarcasm. He cocked his head forward as if he was going to have to be good with my prices or else hit the bricks.
“Get what you pay for I suppose,” he said, reaching into leather satchel, pulling out his checkbook and a genuine Mont Blanc pen.
“Money sings like an angel, Mr. Sanders,” I said, “and I love to listen to those angels.”
He wrote out the check, leaned forward, set it onto my desk beside the newspaper clippings. Then he stood back up.
I got up, came around the desk. I asked him for a card. He found one in his wallet and handed it to me.
“My cell is on there. Call me day or night. I’m not travelling right now, so you can find me either at my Albany office or at my home in Bethlehem just outside the city.”
I didn’t need for him to explain where the little town of Bethlehem was located. I knew it as a rich suburban haven filled with upwardly mobile and liberally educated white people like Sanders. I took a quick glance at the card.
Sanders Architects, Engineers, and Interior Designers. Offices in Albany, New York City, and Hong Kong. I thought about my own humble business. Marconi Private Detective Services. Office inside a formerly abandoned Sherman Street warehouse in downtown Albany, where the locals sold cocaine and ecstasy right outside my front solid metal door. But I wasn’t complaining. At least it was all mine. My little kingdom on this big blue bitter earth.
I stuffed the card into the interior pocket of my blue blazer, my hand brushing up against the butt of my shoulder-holstered Colt .45, model 1911.
“I’ll be in touch,” I said.
He held out his hand. I took it in mine and squeezed. Soft, thin, sweaty…Maybe even metro-sexually sweaty.
“Oh my,” he said. “You must work out.”
“I train with weights and run.”
“Explains your exceptional shape for a man having solidly reached his middle years.”
“I try and I still feel like I’m twenty one.”
“Keep trying,” he smiled, releasing my hand. “We don’t get any younger.”
“Not unless India is right about reincarnation.”
I was still staring down at the perspiration Harold Sanders left behind on the palm of my hand as he casually exited my office.