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50 (rough draft)


In the dim light of early morning, Amaretto stood in the center of the room, hands warmed by a mug, sipping bitter coffee. “I need to talk to Morgan.” The words were lost, not meant for human ears. The groupings of photos and folders radiated from where she stood in no order she could discern. “How long have you been standing there?”

“A few minutes,” Sandalwood, a shadowed figure, answered from the hallway, stepping into the muted day.

“I made coffee.”

“I don’t drink coffee.”

“Coop does.”


“His shirt,” Amaretto stated, referring to the oversized tee she was wearing, her eyes taking in all the photos at once, turning in a slow circle.


With a sip, Amaretto offered a chin bob. “He looks dead.”

Sandalwood narrowed her eyes, following the chin bob. “He is. Does seeing a photo of an actual dead person disturb you?”

“The turkey dinner people over there,” Amaretto nodded to her right, “Were, well, shocking at first, but I wouldn’t say disturbing.” Again, the chin bob. “I meant this guy. He was creepier alive than he is in his dead photos.”

“I was going to ask how you knew him.”

How I knew him, not if I knew him.” She rolled her eyes. Oh, this woman is good. “Same Taser wounds as Markus. Who the fuck was he?”

“His name is Joseph Sampler but he was going under the name of Rupert Whitman.”

Amaretto smirked. “Funny guy.”

“How so?”

“I mean, with the name.”

“Part time bartender at The Crystal, a local bar. Is that where you met him?”

“Do I look like I could hang around a bar?”

Sandalwood nodded to the other side of the room. “You look older with your hair black and the makeup.”

“Not that much older. I never met him, really. Close encounter of the third kind.”



“Really, what?”

“You don’t know what that means?”

“No, I don’t.”

“He came up on me looking for a date. I was really in a bad mood that morning, so I put him down with extreme prejudice.”

“Extreme prejudice. Interesting way to put it.”

“Oh, Air, you’re just fucking with me now.”


“Have you ever seen a movie, any movie?”

“Eh, not too many, no.”

“What killed him?”


“Candy Man, Whitman Sampler.”

“The best I can gather, is a man walked into the bar, sat for a while, reached across the bar and snapped his neck.”

“The best you can gather.”

“One eye witness. She’s now not sure what she saw.”

“Drinking dulls the senses. That’s not easy to do.”

“Reaching across a bar and snapping a neck? No, certainly not. What did you say, extreme?”

“Extreme prejudice. You’re thinking the man entered the bar intending to murder the Candy Man.”


“Candy Man make a lousy Manhattan?”

“He seemed to be competent at his job.”

Amaretto rolled her eyes. “Why do you think he was murdered?”

“The story is there, under the photos. He had a brief affair with an underage girl.”

“Hump and dump.” Amaretto dropped to her knees, setting her mug aside, picking up the newspaper accounts and police file.

“Humped a few times. Dumped her, she got pissed and brought hell down to his life, burning his house down, almost killing his wife. He wasn’t convicted but was far from being acquitted.”

“How do I not know this story?”

North Jersey, not local.”


“A distant relative of his female vic and two other women withdrew $50,000 dollars recently.”

“The going price for a human life?”

“This one, anyway. I interviewed the women, scared the piss out of them, but they hung to denial. I couldn’t shake them. Coop doesn’t agree there’s a connection else I’d have Coop pick them up and sweat them.”


“Why, what?”

“This guy was obviously a bottom feeder and our society is much better off with him dead. Why do you have such a hard on to chase down the man who did a great public service? You could easier lock up Morgan and Jack for twenty years to life for what they’ve done to me and you’re not, so I know you’re not a crusader for truth, justice and the American way.”

“Did you tell Richard Bly to murder his parents?”

“What? Why would you even think that?”

“He was your boyfriend.”

“You just blew your investigator badge.”

Sandalwood narrowed her eyes.

“Oh, go ahead, take measure.”


“I do the same thing. I call it taking measure. For example, I asked Detective Fowler of the local cops if she knew her brat sold drugs and I watched her reaction. I took measure. She said no, but I was sure she does.”

“Fowler knows –”


“Brian sells drugs?”

Amaretto shrugged.

“He wasn’t your boyfriend.”

“No. And, you really don’t believe I had anything at all to do with the murder of his parents.”


“Air, you’ve offered to adopt me.”

“You knew him.”

“I did, not all that well. He was bullied all his life. The school said he was special needs, but I didn’t see that. He didn’t seem retarded, special or dumb. He took a liking to me, maybe to me. Maybe it was just I didn’t laugh at him or run the other way when he talked to me. I let him hang with me.”

“Why do you think he killed his parents?”

“I really have no idea. Where’s the file?”

Sandalwood pointed, sending Amaretto to her feet and across the room, retrieving a thick brown folder with an enlargement of Bly’s school photo on the front. Amaretto dropped cross legged, opening the folder.

“I don’t believe he was special needs, which doesn’t mean he wasn’t weird. I don’t mean that as a cut. Fuck, I’m weird, you know.” She held up a photo of a lipstick. “This is mine. I wondered what happened to it.” Shuffling through a stack of photos, she added, “Now he’s really set my creep-o-meter off.”

“The tissues and cigarette butts?”

Amaretto nodded, squinting at a photo. “What was in the box?”

“The inventory is there somewhere. Insurance papers, birth certificates, some money.”

Amaretto pushed tears off her cheek with the back of her hand. “He offered me an ounce of pot once. I didn’t bother to wonder where he got the money.”


“Not really. He wanted sex.”


“As it turns out, anal sex in particular.”

“With you.”

Amaretto set the file aside, covering her eyes with her hands. “Damn pregnancy. I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t see it. When he offered me the ounce, I suggested, given my smart mouth, that maybe if he gave me a pound, we could go out. To many people, mostly boys, going out means fucking.”

“A pound of pot?”

“It was an aside, I didn’t mean it. I was kidding.” Amaretto pulled the tee shirt to her face. “Fuck, fuck, fuck. That’s the missing piece. Fuck.”

“Are you okay?” Sandalwood asked.

Amaretto waved her off. “I knew Detective Banner of the Edgewood cops had something to do with Bly being in the bank.”

“Another bottom feeder.”

“Oh, you met him?”

“I first met him when he was having an argument with your Kyle Penrose.”

Amaretto froze, knowing Sandalwood took measure. “Fuck, Air!” She threw the Bly file across the room. “Fuck! Fuck!” She pulled the tee shirt to her face, crying, waving her free hand. “I love that I’m pregnant but I hate being pregnant.”


Detective Robert Banner pounded on the front door again.

“What?” Lindsay Fowler answered, swinging the door open.

“If you’d answered your phone –”

“I didn’t have it in the charger right,” she bit hard, her sarcasm not lost. “It’s Sunday. You’d better have a dead body.”

“What is it, Mom?” Brian Fowler asked from behind.

“Nothing,” Lindsay Fowler answered, stepping uncomfortably close to Banner, pulling the door shut behind her. “What do you want?”

“I didn’t like how we left things.”

“No kidding?”

“Look, we’re on the same side.”

“I’m not so sure what side you’re on anymore.”

“Platitudes and realities, Fowler.”

“In what reality does Markus get a pass? He’s little more than a dirty old man chasing little girls’ panties.”

Banner looked left and then right, leaning closer. “It’s a long game. He’s being cultivated.”

“I don’t even think I want to know what that means. I’ve let too much go these past few years.”

“Tragic, what happened to your husband.”

“Well, as least I have a good reason to need extra money.”

“We all have our own justifications for what we do. You fell down your rabbit hole. I jumped down mine.”

“What are you saying?”

Banner paused for a long time, watching Fowler. “Don’t get me wrong and don’t jump to conclusions. No one had anything to do with your husband hitting the floor, which isn’t to say that they weren’t willing to work the tragedy.”

They, who? Work the tragedy? What’s that even mean?”

Again, Banner looked left, then right, pursing his lips. “I’ve already told you too much. You’re going to have to sit down, fold your hands on your desk, do as you’re told and keep your mouth shut. Just do your job as you’ve been doing and when you’re directed to look the other way, look the other way.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Lieutenant Daryl Kay? He was going to get me fired?”

Banner looked toward his feet.

“Charge me?”

Banner shared a subtle nod. “And Brian.”

“How could I possibly be so far out of this loop?”

“Everything we’re talking about here stays here.”

“I’ll be okay?”

“As long as you understand that you’re in a perfect trap and the only person you’re going to fuck is yourself.”

“Can I stay just where I am?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“I don’t want to go any farther down the rabbit hole. And Brian.”

“Do just as I said: Sit down, fold your hands on your desk, do as you’re told and keep your mouth shut. The money you’ve been getting continues. Brian sells his pot and doesn’t get arrested. If a time comes you wish more, we can talk.”

“I don’t think that time will come. I feel the need for a long shower as it is.”


Melody Lark, bundled, wrapped in a blanket, sat on the balcony as the sun shone a red slit over the buildings across the river.

“Cold,” Randi Sconce stated the obvious, entering out onto the balcony, sliding the door shut.

“Maybe snow next week.”

“Snow for Christmas would be fun.”

Lark stared at the distant clouds floating across the horizon. “Uncle Duke’s having a holiday party on the twenty-second. We’re not going.”

“What happened.” Sconce sat, watching a tear trace down Lark’s cheek.

“I heard back.” She produced a hard copy from under the blanket. “It’s Duke’s photo that was in the paper.”

“The story?”

Michael Rodgers was detained briefly in connection with an investigation into an alleged teenage sex ring. The reporter I spoke to said everything fell apart when a whistle blower killed herself and the key witness disappeared.”


Stroking the back of her hand over her cheek, Lark turned to Sconce. “I’ve known Duke since I was six.” She waved the photo. “I knew him at this time. He was never anything but good and kind to all of us.”

“Except for when he was whoring up the girls.”

“I’m not sure that’s what he was doing, but I’m now leaning that way. I recall a couple of times Duke and Mom had yelling matches. Mom never told me over what, but it was when I was around twelve-years-old.”

“You don’t think –”

“I really don’t know what to think. I do think we should get a huge butterfly net and swoop up Amaretto Stayman if for nothing else other than her own good.”

“Lulu DeLite.”

“What about her?”

“She was seventeen when she knocked on your door.”

“Sure, she was, yes. I didn’t put her in front of the camera until her eighteenth birthday.”

“Some people may think you exploited her. Maybe even exploit all the women you use in your films.”

“Hold up a minute, Randi. Do you think I exploited, took advantage of Lulu?”

Sconce pursed her lips. “Depends on the weather.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Some days I fully understand the choices adults make are their choices to make. Other days, I look at the children around me, kids like Apple Stayman, and I wonder if we’re not responsible to help them make better choices.”

“Are you saying I’ve made bad choices?”

“I’m saying, I guess, if not for your mother and people like Duke, you may not have chosen a career having sex with people.”

“Even when I was twelve, I knew being in front of the camera was, for me, just a stop on the way to get behind the camera where the big bucks are.”

“When did you do your first photo shoot?”


“What age?”

“I never, ever got naked in front of a camera until I was eighteen.”

Sconce grimaced her smile. “That’s not what I asked. So you did do non-nude but maybe provocative modeling before you were eighteen.”

“Nothing illegal about that.”

“I understand. There’s right and there’s wrong. Right now, you and I are pushing the line around.”

“I do understand what you’re saying, what you’re getting at.”

“I want to bounce my forehead off my desk repeatedly. You saw video of the Stayman child blowing some old guy and what do we do? We check in with her, to see if she’s okay.” Sconce shook her head. “I like Apple. I may even be in love with Apple, or rather in love with her fire, her meddle.” Again, she smiled her grimace. “Apple saw October being abused by Paul Markus and bought pepper spray.”

“And, Randi, we do nothing.”

“I’m not sure what we can do without causing more harm.”

“I agree, we need to do something, but we need to be careful.”

“I want to do more about Uncle Duke than just not go to his party.”

“One dead, one missing.” Lark shook her head. “I can’t get my mind around it. The missing girls.”


“It was Duke that gave me the idea to check for missing girls in the time and places Markus lived.”

“He had to know you’d find the Michael Rodgers story.”

“Maybe not. The investigation fell apart. Duke could have thought I’d go with police reports, not newspaper files. I see another road trip coming up.”


“Sure, why not. Lulu did a bang up job the week I was out of town. I’ll turn things over to her. I’ll show my tits to Jim Avery and get him to put me on temporary staff.”

“Given what you have here –”

“Half kidding. I’ll present all this to Jim. It’ll make his mouth water more than my tits do. He’ll jump at the chance to put me on staff and send me on assignment. The work I did in Texas shows Jim I’m up to the task.”

“I really don’t mind that you show him, or anybody, your tits.”

“Depending on the weather.”

“Few things are black or white.”


Amaretto put her phone to her ear, glad for the distraction. “Good morning, John.”

“Are you crying?”

“Just a little, over nonsense. Just feeling a bit overwhelmed. I said something really stupid and now Bly and Little are dead.”


She waved him off, not that he would see her.

“I don’t hear any cars in the background,” John said. “I guess you didn’t camp out under the tree.”

“Weeping willow, and no. Air took me in.”


“The secret agent, the woman.”

“They’re both a little creepy, you know, standing off by themselves eating the burgers.”

“Neither have any social skills. We were better off. At least they both thanked you for dinner.”

“Offering me money was a bit much.”

“But, appropriate.”

“I talked to my grandmother last night.”

“How’d you do that?”

“What do you mean?”

“You couldn’t have driven there and back. You told me they don’t have a phone.”

“They have a landline for emergencies.”

“That makes sense. What was the emergency?”



“I was really pissed off that Mom and Dad dismissed you without a fair hearing. I really thought you’d sell the idea. It was only after the fact that I realized they’d made the decision before you even got here.”

“I just shrugged my shoulders. Like I told them, I’m not sure I’d take a chance on me.”

“Because I’m really fucking stupid, I went back at them after we had our burgers.”

“I need to teach you how to read eyes. There’s nothing you could have said.”

“I opened with you’re going to have a baby.”

“Big mistake.”

“It’s like you were listening at the window.”

“Let me take a wild guess: They attacked you with a sermon on extramarital sex.”

“Pretty much. It was thirty minutes convincing them that we do not have sex.”

“Your father’s still not convinced that you could resist my temptation.”

“How do you know these things?”

“People aren’t complicated. Sometimes, I wish they were.”

“Once I did convince them it’s not my baby, they went at you.”

“Unredeemable. Lacking morals. I’d really not be all that surprised, if I hit the right buttons, to see your father jump to his feet and scream, red-faced, abomination to the Lord.”

“He’s not quite that bad.”

“Push the right buttons, anyone busts out their raving asshole.”

“And, you thought my folks are among the nicest you’ve met.”

“I think I said well-adjusted, which maybe translates that your father was not likely to rape me and your mother was unlikely to make me fuck your uncle.”

“You have some mighty low standards, Apple.”

“That’s why I like you so much, not-apple.”

“I just rolled my eyes, but I bet you knew that.”

“I did.”

“So, why I called: “I talked to my grandmother on the phone. She was appalled that my parents, how did she put it? Turned you from the door.”

“That’s a Bible thing but also in other traditions, too. When the stranger comes among you, you don’t know if it could be a god dressed like a human.”

“Well, Joseph and Mary were turned away, too.”

“So, what else did Granny say?”

“How’d you know I call her Granny?”

“You do?”

“No. She was appalled that you were turned away. I told her that you lived in an unhealthy home. Get this, I said that you were a young girl in trouble. Granny said: You mean that she’s pregnant, to which I said, yes. She told me I was old enough to use grown up words.” 

“I like her already.”

“She said she would be glad to take you in, care for you.”

“I could go and live on the farm?”

“She said that given the circumstances, she could homeschool you this year. We could drive you up today.”


“Well, after the scolding, Mom and Dad want to help anyway they can.”

“Short of me living with you.”

“Well short of that. What do you think?”

“Air looks like a wounded puppy.”

“I do not!” Sandalwood objected.

“I can’t go today. I have to talk to Morgan.”

“About what?” John asked.

Sandalwood knitted her brows.

“Well, in some parallel universe, I am her daughter. I don’t want to drop off the face of the planet without letting her know I’m okay, not that I have any intention of telling her where I’m going.”

“So, I should tell them it’s a go?”

“Tell them I’m not saying no, but I’m not saying yes.”

“I think Granny will like that.”

Punching her phone off, she let out a long sigh. “Grandmother McIntire wants me to come live on the farm.” She looked up from her place on the floor, watching Sandalwood in the adjoining kitchen, Sandalwood working on a cup of tea.

“Sounds nice.”

“I didn’t have the heart to tell him no. He sounded so excited.”

“I figured.”

“Paul Markus –”

“Principal of your school, the man whose shirt had the Taser burns.”

Amaretto rolled her eyes. “Yes, Air, you don’t need give me a bio.”

“I was just letting you know that I knew who you were speaking about.”

“Paul Markus with Harry Fisher –”

“The assistant principal who punched you –”

With a sharp look, Amaretto stopped Sandalwood. “There’s video.”

“I did not know that.”

“I put Mace in Markus’ face –”

“You Maced him?”

“No. I suspected I wouldn’t have to, just present it. He ducked and covered like a seasoned pro. A couple of days later, Fishy, that’s what I call Fisher, came into class to bust me for having the Mace. Things got ugly. I hit him, he hit me back.”

“With extreme prejudice.”

“Now, Air, you’re catching on.”

“You have video, and he’s not in jail?”

“Fowler was standing right there, but that’s not my point. Like at my house with you and James Bond, I didn’t want to bring the fire, that Morgan would get caught in the backdraft. Fishy and Markus had me down the office recently.”


“They made me a really strange offer. They want me to be an enforcer.”

“What’s that even mean?”

“I’m really not sure. They said they had a list of troubled kids and if I take the offer, I’d have a talk with the kids, convincing the kids to be well-behaved.”

“Just how did they expect you to do that?”

“They didn’t spell it out, but they expect me to use any means possible to get it done.”

“Sure, okay. That is really strange. What did you say?”

“I said I’d think about it. If they could take my measure, they’d know my answer is no.”

“That’s a really good choice.”

“Maybe I should have told that story at the McIntire’s. They heard what happened in the bank, and thought I made a terrible choice.”

“What the fuck? Most people only dream of having a friend like you. So, what’s your point?”

“My point?”

“With the story. Why tell me?”

“Oh, right. The only people that know about that are Markus, Fishy and me. If something happens to me, I wanted someone in authority to know.”

“Consider it known.”

“You aren’t going to tell me nothing is going to happen to me?”

Sandalwood shared a sardonic smile. “Look around you. For example, the turkey dinner people, I assume because they’re carved up like a turkey –”

Amaretto nodded.

“One of the families is Coop’s mother and father.”


“Yes. So, I’m not about to assure you that nothing is going to happen to you. You might even get hit by a bus.”

“Meteor rock to the head.”

 “Can I see it?”

“My head or the meteor rock?”

“The video of you, what was it, with Fishy?”

“Oh, close encounter of the third kind. Sure, in my bag on the table, the Ipad. Files – fishy beat down. And, Miss official intern whatever private investigator?”


“Everything on that Ipad is private, so it’s off the record. You may view anything you wish, but for background only.”

“Understood. Why did you run into the bank?”

“Why is that important?”

“If you hadn’t, you wouldn’t be here in this moment with me ready to take responsibility for you and custody of you.”

Amaretto blinked repeatedly.

“I don’t mean some kind of synchronicity. When Coop and I saw the video, we knew you were something special. Sure, you have that connection to Whitman Sampler, but you don’t have any information of value in that case. And, you running into that bank isn’t what matters. It’s the fact that you did run into the bank. You must have been running across the street when you heard the gunshots. Why, Apple? Why did you run into the bank?”

“October Ferguson. My best friend, signaled me she was in trouble.”

Sandalwood watched the Ipad. “Holy shit, Apple.” She looked across the room. “The child you pulled off the floor?”


“Did you know that her identity was removed from all records and files, and even the video from the bank was altered.”

“No, I did not know that. The papers said it was a bank robbery gone bad. A blind guy driving by fast could see it wasn’t a bank robbery gone bad.”

“Do you know why?”

“Why what?”

“Why October Ferguson’s identity was removed from all the records of the event at the bank?”


And, there, Arianna Sandalwood had Amaretto Stayman’s tell and much, much more.











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