This is a brilliant mystery by Chris Knopf, revolving around an ex-boxer, Sam Acquillo, who becomes the major suspect in a murder. The enigma continues as the protagonist tries to proof his innocence and reveal the real killers identity.
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Chris Knopf is an award-winning copywriter and principal of marketing communications agency Mintz & Hoke. He lives with his wife in Avon, Connecticut and Southampton, New York.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The evening started innocently enough, Amanda’s outfit notwithstanding.
It was dinnertime at the big place on Main Street in Southampton Village. Winter and early spring had been colder than usual, until around April when it snapped out of it and turned into July, at least for a week. The place had a full wall of mahogany doors that opened to the street, so you could feel like you were eating on the sidewalk and still be within the confines of the restaurant. For the first time that year they were swung open to catch the inaugural sea breeze, rich with oxygen and hopeful expectations.
The warm weather had the row of tables next to the big open doors in such demand they could have been traded on the commodities market. This being Southampton, probably half the guys in the place knew how to do that. All I knew how to do was bring along Amanda, which usually guaranteed the most prominent table in the joint.
The other people there were locals like me who’d suffered the lousy weather with heads down and shoulders braced against the wind. Working people who knew they were forever living at the edge of possibility, with catastrophe and redemption within easy walking distance. The Friday night mood was celebratory and the noise agreeably deafening. The waitstaff was having a nice time managing the surging crowd, sustaining friendships and personal commitments while keeping up with orders for Campari and soda and crab-stuffed filet mignon.
We’d started out at the U-shaped bar. The bartender was a fresh hire, but I knew him from other gigs around the Village. I was helping him analyze the impressive range of vodkas his new employer kept behind the bar. This evolved into a blind taste test to determine the relative merits of the domestic product versus imports from Sweden, Poland and Russia.
Amanda had started out with her usual pinot noir, but was soon swept up in the competition. Being new to the game, it wasn’t long before her critical judgment began to erode.
“Now I know why it’s called a blind test,” she said as I helped her into her seat at the table. “I’m half-blind already.”
“It’s all in the training.”
Whoever made Amanda’s dress had apparently forgotten to add the back, conserving even more material around the neck and hemline. I liked the way it looked, but I was more distracted by her green eyes and extravagant head of reddish brown hair.
“You must have a winner in mind,” she said.
“A clear one.”
We hadn’t been out much lately. I’d been working long hours on a big house on the beach for most of the winter, but the end was in sight. More importantly, Frank Entwhistle had thrown a bonus on top of my week’s pay to cover a string of ten-hour days. Amanda had also been busy with a pair of knockdowns she had going over on Jacob’s Neck. So even if the weather hadn’t decided to turn tropical, there was reason enough to act like the world was a convivial place.
The air flowing in from the sidewalk had lost a lot of the heat gained during the unseasonable day, but neither of us cared–our blood thickened to the viscosity of crude oil by months of outdoor labor. Amanda had always worked in an office before turning owner-builder, but she wasn’t the type who hid out in the pickup truck with a clipboard and cell phone. More of an on-site operator, she was up and down ladders, schlepping material off trucks, sweeping up sawdust and tossing cut-offs into the dumpster.
She’d inherited Jacob’s Neck on the Little Peconic Bay two years earlier–the whole peninsula–and most of the peninsula next door called Oak Point. In between was a lagoon, at the base of which was an abandoned factory owned by the company that owned all the property. Her father had owned the company, so that’s how that happened.
One thing she didn’t own was my cottage or the land under it, which was at the tip of Oak Point. But she did own the house next door where she’d been living since moving into the neighborhood. All the houses that came with her property had been built as rentals in the middle of the last century–single-story, asbestos-shingled and modestly appointed. It took almost a year for her to figure out what to do with it all. Property values in Southampton had been heading skyward for years, and showed no signs of abating. Especially waterfront. There had been plans once by other people to bulldoze the whole thing, reconfigure the lots and build 8,000-square-foot miniature mansions. There was even more demand for that sort of thing now, but Amanda had grown up in one of those rental homes.
“I’m already set for a lifetime,” she’d told me. “Do I want to obliterate part of my past so I can be set for two or three more?”
Two of her places had become available for rehab when the renters moved out, giving her a chance to ease into the project. I helped her find a contractor and connected her with reliable surveyors and appraisers, but that was all either of us wanted me to do. We had enough to sort out without stirring money into the mix. Especially since she had a lot of it and I had enough to maybe cover expenses for the next two or three months. After you factored in the cost of a meal at the big restaurant on Main Street.
I was about to finish off my baked stuffed salmon when something over my shoulder made Amanda frown.
“What?” I asked her.
She looked back at me with a forced smiled.
I turned around and looked at the crowd thickening around the U-shaped bar.
“Who?” I asked.
“Nobody,” she said, but then the frown came back. She reached for her wine glass.
I turned around again and saw Robbie Milhouser walking toward us. It was kind of a rolling walk, the consequence of the weight he carried around his waist, which he almost got away with because the rest of him was also pretty big. He would have had an ex-football player’s physique if he’d ever had the ambition to play football. Heavy arms, thick neck and large hands. Wide shoulders stuffed into a blue blazer a size too small. Just north of forty, he had dark brown hair, which he wore long and shaggy, as if still in pursuit of his unsuccessful college career. Somewhere buried inside his hand was a Scotch on the rocks.
“Check out Amanda Battiston,” he said, approaching our table.
She sat back in her chair and looked up at him, pondering a response.
“Robbie,” she said, in a voice you could use to make ice.
“Can you believe her?” he asked me.
“Most of the time,” I said, truthfully.
“I drove by that job of yours over on Jacob’s Neck,” he said, as if that was a welcome event.
“We’re doing our best,” she said.
“He working for you?” he asked her, pointing at me, then giving me the privilege of a glance. “I thought you were with Frankie.”
“I am. But I wouldn’t call him Frankie.”
Robbie grinned at the thought of irritating Frank Entwhistle, whose quiet, levelheaded ways could fool you into thinking that would be a safe thing to do.
“Roy really fucked the duck, didn’t he?” Robbie said to Amanda. She gave a stiff little jolt I could feel transmitted through the table.
Roy Battiston was Amanda’s ex-husband. Roy, Robbie and Amanda all went to Southampton High School together, about twelve years after me. Roy had tried to take control of Amanda’s inheritance before she even knew she had one, which was one reason he was now an ex. And also why the next place he’d graduate from was called Hungerford Correctional Facility.
“Let’s pick this up where it got left off,” he said to Amanda, dropping his bulky frame into the chair next to me. He had plenty of room, but somehow got one of his elbows half-stuck in my meal.
“I didn’t think there was anything to leave off from,” she said to him.
“Ah, come on. You know about my job over on Bay Edge Drive,” he said.
“Is that where it is?” said Amanda, though she knew the place. We’d drive by it on the sand road that takes you over to my friend Paul Hodges’s boat, and would occasionally stop in after the crew was gone to check on their progress. It was once a small bayfront cottage, like mine. The owners had bulldozed it and for some incomprehensible reason hired Robbie to build some warped approximation of a French château. From a part of France heavily influenced by the architectural vernacular of Staten Island. I showed Amanda how they were using the wrong substrate for a stucco exterior. Cheaper and easier to construct, but likely to fail in less than five years. Which I suppose would outlast some of Robbie’s other failures.
“Well you gotta come over and see this crew I’ve got,” Robbie said to her, undaunted. “These guys’re keepers. People want me on those houses on the ocean, but I’d rather stay
in North Sea.”
He leaned further into the table, his elbow now nudging the edge of my plate toward my lap. I pulled it out of his way.
“I’ll see,” said Amanda. “I’m pretty busy.”
“These guys’re all from Up Island. Seen everything. Experienced. You can’t get that from these local yahoos. You know what I mean?”
“Not really,” said Amanda. “Why don’t we ask my dinner date. A local yahoo if I’m not mistaken.”
Robbie ignored me.
“You know we got to talk about this,” said Robbie. “You got the work, I got the crews. Can I buy you a drink?”
He waved over a waiter, ignoring her attempt to refuse the offer.
“What is that, vodka?” he asked, pointing to her last test subject, only half-consumed and now fully watered down by the melted ice. “Pretty hard core. Bring her another one,” he said to the waiter, who looked at me curiously. I shook my head, so he left.
“Hey, Killjoy,” said Robbie to me. “Who asked you?”
I used to work for Robbie’s father when I was in high school. He managed a gas station for a while out on County Road 39. I didn’t think much of the old man, but I barely remembered his son. Lately I’d seen Robbie around the Village driving a big white pickup with a chrome diamond-plate tool chest mounted in the bed. He’d sometimes insert himself into the easy banter that went on among the tradesmen at the deli or the counter at the lumberyard when we all lined up to order material or clear our tabs. Not my kind of thing, so I just kept my distance.
“I’m all set, Robbie,” said Amanda.
“Thanks to Mr. Happy spoiling the fun,” he said, looking at me with a smirk. “What’re you, the father figure?”
Now that he was facing me I could smell the sugary stink of alcohol on his breath. He was at least half in the bag which, given his personality, could only make a bad situation worse. Amanda had grown up without her father. Robbie likely remembered that.
“Actually, Sam’s my bodyguard,” said Amanda.
Robbie snorted. “Whoa, scary,” he added, turning his head back to Amanda and sliding his elbow in such a way that I couldn’t stop it from dumping the remains of my baked stuffed salmon into my lap. Amanda watched me flick pieces of pink fish off my trousers while Robbie continued to press her about a potential partnership.
“You don’t have to say anything now,” he said, his voice lowered in a theatrical imitation of discretion,
“just keep thinking about it. We could plan out half a dozen of those shacks at a time. I’ll give you, like, a volume discount. You want to meet Patrick? He’s one of my guys. He’s right over there.”
Before she could stop him, he yelled, “Yo, Patrick!” over the burble of restaurant conversation.
Patrick was a tall guy, taller than Robbie, and leaner and harder. He was wearing an expensive dress shirt without a tie, and blue jeans. His hands were thick and flecked with scratches and sores. His reddish blond hair was formed into tight natural waves, the kind you hardly need to comb.
“Hey, Patrick, this is Amanda Battiston. We’re old buddies. She’s the one doing those knockdowns on Jacob’s Neck. I told you about her, didn’t I? Owns the whole fuckin’ peninsula.”
Patrick stood between Robbie and Amanda and offered her his hand. She took it tentatively, looking over at me. Patrick followed her eyes.
“Oh, yeah, and this is Sam Aquinas,” said Robbie. “Amanda’s bodyguard, or so I’m told.”
“Acquillo. Aquinas was the saint. No relation.”
Patrick was still holding Amanda’s hand. She tried to pull it back.
“Bodyguard? There’s a gig I could do. Body like that, do it for free.”
Amanda looked at me again. I half-stood, reached across the table in front of Robbie and got a grip on Patrick’s forearm. It had a lot of tough meat on it, not unusual for a carpenter.
“Her name is Amanda Anselma,” I told him. “Battiston’s the ex-husband. You let go, then I let go.”
Patrick looked unsure of what to do. I dug my thumb between the ribbons of muscle and ligament in his arm. A wince passed over his face and he nodded. He released his grip and I followed suit. Robbie leaned back to look at me, as if trying to get my face into focus.
“That was interesting,” he said as I sat back in my chair.
“What do you say, boys?” I said. “Time to move along.”
“You know this guy?” Patrick asked Robbie, rubbing his arm.
Robbie was still a massive and unyielding presence at our table. I had my plate back in front of me and used it to push his elbow out of the way. Amanda was looking out at the street through the open doors, as if hoping something would happen that would rescue us from the situation.
“We’re waiting,” she said, calmly.
Robbie muttered some sort of profanity.
“You know me, Amanda,” he said to the back of her head. “For a long time. For a very long time. I’m serious about this. It’s totally in both our mutual benefits.”
She turned her head far enough to lock eyes with me.
From the Hardcover edition.
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