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The Skin Gods

A Novel of Suspense

The Skin Gods by Richard Montanari
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BONUS: This edition contains an excerpt from Richard Montanari's The Echo Man.

With the breakneck pacing and intricate plotting of his most recent novel, The Rosary Girls, Richard Montanari established himself as one of the most exciting suspense writers working today. Now he proves himself a virtuoso with The Skin Gods, an explosive new thriller featuring Philadelphia homicide detectives Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano.

It is the steaming heart of summer in the City of Brotherly Love. Back on the force after taking a bullet during the arrest of a sadistic murderer, Detective Kevin Byrne warily returns to police headquarters. He cannot shake the memory of the Rosary Killer’ s innocent victims–or his growing sense that the evil has not been vanquished. And when he and his partner, Detective Jessica Balzano, are called in on a bizarre case, Byrne’s gravest suspicions are confirmed.

A madman, dubbed The Actor by the homicide unit, is meticulously re-creating Hollywood’s most famous–and most gruesome–death scenes. The first murder is caught on film, spliced into a rented VHS edition of the Hitchcock black-and-white masterpiece Psycho. But in place of Janet Leigh is a real-life woman, and this time, the blood is red and the knife is real. Soon, more thrilling classics are turned into terrifying snuff films and placed on video store shelves for an unsuspecting public to find.

The key to this horrific puzzle could lie with any of The Skin Gods’ supporting cast: the A-list Hollywood director, the ruthless executive assistant, the convicted mass murderer–or perhaps someone else who has made a sinister art of gruesome violence.

Hot on the psychopath’s trail, Balzano and Byrne descend into the mouth of madness and beyond, deep into the depraved underworld of S&M clubs and the porn industry, where the worship of flesh leads to malevolent evil. Before the final credits roll, the investigators will discover that none of The Actor’s victims are as innocent as they appear to be, and that the clue the police need to prevent future murders might be found in Detective Byrne’s own dark past.
Random House Publishing Group; March 2006
ISBN 9780345490957
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: The Skin Gods
Author: Richard Montanari
 
Excerpt
1

“What I really want to do is direct.”

Nothing. No reaction at all. She stares at me with those big Prussian blue eyes, waiting. Perhaps she is too young to recognize the cliché. Perhaps she is smarter than I thought. This is either going to make the task of killing her very easy, or very difficult.

“Cool,” she says.

Easy.

“You’ve done some acting. I can tell.”

She blushes. “Not really.”

I lower my head, raise my eyes. My irresistible look. Monty Clift in A Place in the Sun. I can see it working. “Not really?”

“Well, when I was in junior high we did West Side Story.”

“And you played Maria.”

“Not hardly,” she says. “I was just one of the girls at the dance.”

“Jet or Shark?”

“Jet, I think. And then I did a couple of things in college.”

“I knew it,” I say. “I can spot a theatrical vibe a mile away.”

“It was no big deal, believe me. I don’t think anyone even noticed me.”

“Of course they did. How could they miss you?” She reddens even more deeply. Sandra Dee in A Summer Place. “Keep in mind,” I add, “lots of big movie stars started out in the chorus.”

“Really?”

“Naturellement.”

She has high cheekbones, a golden French braid, lips painted a lustrous coral. In 1960 she would have worn her hair in a bouffant or a pixie cut. Beneath that, a shirtwaist dress with a wide white belt. A string of faux pearls, perhaps.

On the other hand, in 1960, she might not have accepted my invitation.

We are sitting in a nearly empty corner bar in West Philadelphia, just a few blocks from the Schuylkill River.

“Okay. Who is your favorite movie star?” I ask.

She brightens. She likes games. “Boy or girl?”

“Girl.”

She thinks for a few moments. “I like Sandra Bullock a lot.”

“There you go. Sandy started out in made-for-TV movies.”

“Sandy? You know her?”

“Of course.”

“And she really made TV movies?”

“Bionic Showdown, 1989. The harrowing tale of international intrigue and bionic menace at the World Unity Games. Sandy played the girl in the wheelchair.”

“Do you know a lot of movie stars?”

“Almost all of them.” I take her hand in mine. Her skin is soft, flawless. “And do you know what they all have in common?”

“What?”

“Do you know what they all have in common with you?”

She giggles, stamps her feet. “Tell me!”

“They all have perfect skin.”

Her free hand absently goes to her face, smoothing her cheek.

“Oh yes,” I continue. “Because when the camera gets really, really close, there’s no amount of makeup in the world that can substitute for radiant skin.”

She looks past me, at her reflection in the bar mirror.

“Think about it. All the great screen legends had beautiful skin,” I say. “Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo, Rita Hayworth, Vivien Leigh, Ava Gardner. Movie stars live for the close-up, and the close-up never lies.”

I can see that some of these names are unknown to her. Pity. Most people her age think that movies began with Titanic, and movie stardom is defined by how many times you’ve been on Entertainment Tonight. They’ve never been exposed to the genius of Fellini, Kurosawa, Wilder, Lean, Kubrick, Hitchcock.

It is not about talent, it is all about fame. To people her age, fame is the drug. She wants it. She craves it. They all do, in one way or another. It is the reason she is with me. I embody the promise of fame.

By the end of this night I will make part of her dream come true.





The motel room is small and dank and common. There is a queen-size bed, and gondola scenes on delaminating Masonite nailed to the walls. The blanket is mildewed, moth-eaten, a frayed and ugly shroud that whispers of a thousand illicit encounters. In the carpeting lives the sour odor of human frailty.

I think of John Gavin and Janet Leigh.

I paid cash for the room earlier today in my midwestern character. Jeff Daniels in Terms of Endearment.

I hear the shower start in the bathroom. I take a deep breath, find my center, pull the small suitcase out from underneath the bed. I slip on the cotton housedress, the gray wig, and the pilled cardigan. As I button the sweater, I catch a glimpse of myself in the dresser mirror. Sad. I will never be an attractive woman, not even an old woman.

But the illusion is complete. And that is all that matters.

She begins to sing. Something by a current girl singer. Her voice is quite pleasant, actually.

The steam from the shower slithers under the bathroom door: long, gossamer fingers, beckoning. I take the knife in hand and follow. Into character. Into frame.

Into legend.

2

The Cadillac Escalade slowed to a crawl in front of Club Vibe: a sleek, glossy shark in neon water. The thumping bass line of the Isley Brothers’ “Climbin’ Up the Ladder” rattled the windows of the SUV as it rolled to a stop, its smoked-glass windows refracting the colors of the night in a shimmering palette of red and blue and yellow.

It was the middle of July, the slick belly of summer, and the heat burrowed beneath the skin of Philadelphia like an embolism.

Near the entrance to Club Vibe, on the corner of Kensington and Allegheny streets, beneath the steel ceiling of the El, stood a tall, statuesque redhead, her auburn hair a silken waterfall that graced bare shoulders before cascading to the middle of her back. She wore a short spaghetti-strap black dress that embraced the curves of her body, long crystal earrings. Her light olive skin glistened under a thin sheen of perspiration.

In this place, at this hour, she was a chimera, an urban fantasy made flesh.

A few feet away, in the doorway to a shuttered shoe repair shop, lounged a homeless black man. Of indeterminate age, he wore a tattered wool coat despite the merciless heat, and lovingly nursed a nearly empty bottle of Orange Mist, holding it tightly to his breast as one might nestle a sleeping child. Nearby, his shopping cart waited as a trusted steed, overflowing with precious urban plunder.

At just after two o’clock the driver’s door of the Escalade swung open, spilling a fat column of pot smoke into the sultry night. The man who emerged was huge and quietly menacing. His thick biceps strained the sleeves of a royal blue double-breasted linen suit. D’Shante Jackson was a former running back for Edison High in North Philly, a steel girder of a man not yet thirty. He stood six three and weighed a trim and muscular 215 pounds.

D’Shante looked both ways up Kensington and, assessing the threat as nil, opened the rear door of the Escalade. His employer, the man who paid him a thousand dollars a week for protection, stepped out.

Trey Tarver was in his forties, a light-skinned black man who carried himself with a lithe and supple grace, despite his frame’s ever-expanding bulk. Standing five eight, he had broached and passed the two-hundredpound mark years earlier and, given his penchant for bread pudding and shoulder sandwiches, threatened to venture much higher. He wore a black Hugo Boss three-button suit and a pair of Mezlan calfskin oxfords. Each hand boasted a pair of diamond rings.

He stepped away from the Escalade and flicked the creases on his trousers. He smoothed his hair, which he wore long, Snoop Dogg style, although he was a generation-plus away from legitimately copping hip-hop fashion cues. If you asked Trey Tarver, he wore his hair like Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire.

Trey shot his cuffs and surveyed the intersection, his Serengeti. K&A, as this crossroads was known, had had many masters, but none as ruthless as Trey “TNT” Tarver.

He was about to enter the club when he noticed the redhead. Her luminous hair was a beacon in the night, her long shapely legs a siren call. Trey held up a hand, then approached the woman, much to the dismay of his lieutenant. Standing on a street corner, especially this street corner, Trey Tarver was in the open, vulnerable to gunships cruising up both Kensington and Allegheny.

“Hey, baby,” Trey said.

The redhead turned to look at the man, as if noticing him for the first time. She had clearly seen him arrive. Cool indifference was part of the tango. “Hey, yourself,” she said, finally, smiling. “You like?”

“Do I like?” Trey stepped back, his eyes roaming her. “Baby, if you was gravy I’d sop ya.”

The redhead laughed. “It’s all good.”

“You and me? We gonna do some bidness.”

“Let’s go.”

Trey glanced at the door to the club, then at his watch: a gold Breitling. “Gimme twenty minutes.”

“Gimme a retainer.”

Trey Tarver smiled. He was a businessman, forged by the fires of the street, schooled in the bleak and violent Richard Allen projects. He pulled his roll, peeled a Benjamin, held it out. Just as the redhead was about to take it, he snapped it back. “Do you know who I am?” he asked.

The redhead took half a step back, hand on hip. She gave him the twice-over. She had soft brown eyes flecked with gold, full sensuous lips. “Let me guess,” she said. “Taye Diggs?”

Trey Tarver laughed. “That’s right.”

The redhead winked at him. “I know who you are.”

“What’s your name?”

“Scarlet.”

“Damn. For real?”

“For real.”

“Like that movie?”

“Yeah, baby.”

Trey Tarver considered it all for a moment. “My money better not be gone with the wind, hear’m saying?”

The redhead smiled. “I hear you.”

She took the C-note and slipped the bill into her purse. As she did this, D’Shante put a hand on Trey’s arm. Trey nodded. They had business to attend to in the club. They were just about to turn and enter when something caught the headlights of a passing car, something that seemed to wink and glimmer from the area near the homeless man’s right shoe. Something metallic and shiny.

D’Shante followed the light. He saw the source.

It was a pistol in an ankle holster.

“The fuck is this?” D’Shante said.

Time spun on a crazy axis, the air suddenly electric with the promise of violence. Eyes met, and understanding flowed like a raging current of water.

It was on.

The redhead in the black dress—Detective Jessica Balzano of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Homicide Unit—took a step back and in one smooth, practiced motion, pulled the badge on a lanyard from inside her dress, and slipped her Glock 17 out of her purse.

Trey Tarver was wanted in connection with the murder of two men. Detectives had staked out Club Vibe—as well as three other clubs—for four straight nights, hoping for Tarver to surface. It was well known that he did business in Club Vibe. It was well known he had a weakness for tall redheads. Trey Tarver thought he was untouchable.

Tonight he got touched.

“Police!” Jessica yelled. “Let me see your hands!”

For Jessica, everything began to move in a measured montage of sound and color. She saw the homeless man stir. Felt the weight of the Glock in her hand. Saw a flutter of bright blue—D’Shante’s arm in motion. A weapon in D’Shante’s hand. A Tec-9. Long magazine. Fifty rounds.

No, Jessica thought. Not my life. Not this night.

No.

The world uncoiled, shot back to speed.

“Gun!” Jessica yelled.

By this time Detective John Shepherd, the homeless man on the stoop, was on his feet. But before he could clear his weapon, D’Shante spun and slammed the butt of the Tec into his forehead, stunning him, flaying the skin over his right eye. Shepherd collapsed to the ground. Blood spurted, cascaded into his eyes, blinding him.

D’Shante raised his weapon.

“Drop it!” Jessica yelled, Glock leveled. D’Shante showed no sign of compliance.

“Drop it, now!” she repeated.

D’Shante drew down. Aimed.

Jessica fired.

The bullet slammed into D’Shante Jackson’s right shoulder, exploding the muscle and flesh and bone into a thick, pink spray. The Tec flew from his hands as he spun 360 and collapsed to the ground, shrieking in surprise and agony. Jessica inched forward and kicked the Tec over to Shepherd, still training her weapon on Trey Tarver. Tarver, hands up, stood near the mouth of an alley that cut between the buildings. If their intel was accurate, he carried his .32 semi-auto in a holster at the small of his back.

Jessica looked over at John Shepherd. He was stunned, but not out. She took her eyes off Trey Tarver for only a second, but that was long enough. Tarver bolted up the alley.

“You all right?” Jessica asked Shepherd.

Shepherd wiped the blood from his eyes. “I’m good.”

“You sure?”

“Go.”

As Jessica sidled up to the alley entrance, peering into the shadows, back on the street corner D’Shante pulled himself into a sitting position. His shoulder oozed blood between his fingers. He eyed the Tec.

Shepherd cocked his .38 Smith & Wesson, aiming it at D’Shante’s forehead. He said: “Give me a fucking reason.”

With his free hand, Shepherd reached into his coat pocket for his two-way. Four detectives were sitting in a van, half a block away, waiting for the call. When Shepherd saw the casing on the rover, he knew they would not be coming. When he had fallen to the ground, he smashed the radio. He keyed it. It was dead.

John Shepherd grimaced, glanced up the alley, into the darkness.

Until he could get D’Shante Jackson frisked and cuffed, Jessica was on her own.


From the Hardcover edition.
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ISBNs
0345490959
9780345470973
9780345490957