An intoxicating psychological crime thriller…
by PJ McILVAINE
Decades after a brutal childhood trauma, a famous novelist finds his life shattered once again, in this unsettling psychological mystery thriller.
After years of turmoil, Brooks Anderson is sober and has a stable life with his wife and two kids. He should be enjoying life, but the persistent nightmares and sleepwalking tell a different story.
As hard as he’s tried, Brooks can’t run away from the defining event of his life: the senseless murders of his mother and brother during a vacation in Montauk. An eight-year-old Brooks was the sole survivor of the carnage, which left him in a catatonic state. He buried his pain and eventually overcame his demons. Or so he believed.
Now an unscrupulous journalist is threatening to write about the deaths. Fearful that the truth will be twisted to suit sordid ends, Brooks decides to write his own book, despite the grave misgivings of his agent, wife, and father.
However, when the journalist is brutally killed, Brooks finds himself in the authorities’ crosshairs. To prove his innocence and exorcize the past, he digs deeper into his psyche and that fateful summer. His relentless pursuit of the truth soon leads Brooks down a slippery slope that challenges everything—and brings him face-to-face with the real monster of Montauk.
He wants to Remember. He’ll wish he could forget.
It’s funny/not funny the things you remember about the worst day of your life.
It was a hot, humid, hazy, August afternoon.
We had hot dogs and baked beans for dinner. Later, I had a cosmic orchestra of gas and flatulence. Mom thought it was hilarious. Palmer accused me of being a show-off. He wasn’t entirely wrong.
Afterward, as we did every Sunday night, we watched The Ed Sullivan Show.
I drifted off to sleep as rain pelted the roof. The sky blinked off and on like a flashlight. The roar of thunder filled all the empty spaces.
My brother Palmer—forever thirteen—shook me awake, his hands red and sticky. I thought it was from a cherry ice pop—but I know now it was blood. Our mother’s blood.
“Hide, Brooks.” Palmer took in a huge gulp of air. “You know where. And don’t come back, whatever you do. The monster. He’s in the house.”
I ran up to the dunes at Ditch Plains Beach as fast as my stubby legs could carry me, soaked and chilled to the bone.
A week later, I woke up in a hospital bed. A nurse jabbed me with something.
My father gripped my hand. “You’re all right, son,” he whispered. “It’s over.”
But of course, it wasn’t. And I was far from all right. I didn’t know it then, but I do now. You have no idea how deep the rot goes until you bite into the apple and see a wriggling worm.
Sheldon Adler, my agent at Crown-Hawkins and my brother from another mother, is late as usual. No fucking surprise there. When you’re meeting Sheldon, you have to tack on an hour at least. I’m at our usual table at La Bonne Grenouille, the best little French bistro in Manhattan that no one has ever heard of, sipping a glass of ice-cold watermelon seltzer. Sheldon has been my literary agent—no, make that literary savior—since he read my first published short story that didn’t involve erect penises in The New Yorker. He contacted me out of the blue and suggested Hey, why don’t you write a book and I’ll sell it? I wrote Fallen Angels in twenty-four days in a drug haze. When it was finally published, it sold less than two hundred copies, but Sheldon was so fucking proud you would’ve thought it sold two million. I resigned myself to being a failure. Months later, the book was plucked out of obscurity by the senior literary critic of The New York Times and nominated for a Pulitzer. A tabloid dubbed me “The Heroin Hemingway.” The name stuck, even though I’ve been sober and drug-free for more than twenty-five years.
Sheldon got me my first million-dollar advance. He’s the wolf that other wolves hire, and his reputation is well-earned. My biggest supporter, he stayed with me through the lean, mean years when I wrote truly terrible books. Despite my abysmal marital track record, I’m extremely loyal. I wouldn’t dream of leaving Sheldon and believe me, other agents have tried to poach me. And unless I did or said something unacceptable that blew up on social media—which is why I don’t have any social media accounts—Sheldon wouldn’t kick me to the curb or toss me under the bus. All my skeletons are out there. Well, most of them.
A portly man with a vague resemblance to the great Mafia chronicler Mario Puzo, Sheldon huffs his way to our table. I can’t say it to his face, but Sheldon needs to lose forty—make that fifty—pounds, if not for himself, then for his young children. I’m sixty-five and I can still fit into the jeans I wore when I was nineteen. It takes discipline and willpower, of which I have plenty to spare.
After we order and exchange our typical innocuous pleasantries about the weather, politics, and soccer, for we’re both rabid fans, Sheldon downs a gin and tonic. It’s his first of the day and not his last. “Brooks, how is the book coming along?” he booms in a guttural Brooklyn accent that has other diners turning their heads.
“Great,” I reply cheerfully. “It couldn’t be going any better.
Gold, pure gold.”
He tilts his head. “Cassie says you haven’t been sleeping well.”
Cassie’s my third and—if I have anything to say about it—last wife. She interviewed me for a puff piece and months later, when the pregnancy test was positive, I knew I’d met my Waterloo, no thanks to Abba. An abortion was out of the question. Now we have two children under six, our lives are a merry-go-round of sweet chaos. Last fall, I had a vasectomy so there will be no more miniature Andersons polluting the planet.
I finish my seltzer and signal for another. “You know I never sleep well when I’m writing. I do my best work after midnight.” In the old days, that didn’t necessarily apply to writing.
The waitress delivers our meals: me, a grilled chicken Caesar salad with extra feta, and Sheldon a porterhouse with crispy julienne potatoes and parmesan creamed spinach. I eye his steak with unconcealed envy, but Cassie’s always after me to eat healthier. I sigh and add more dressing to my salad. Cassie would be pleased.
“Yeah, I know. You have the constitution of fucking Secretariat. You did drugs with Keith Richards and Lou Reed.” Sheldon cut into his steak; it’s not just blue, it’s bloody raw. Just looking at it makes me queasy. “But this is different. You’re writing about your goddamn family.”
“I can be objective.”
Sheldon puts his fork down. “Not about this, Brooks. Come on. The cold-blooded executions of your mother and brother—”
I suddenly lose my appetite. Sheldon means well. Cassie does, too. But this quasi-intervention is the last thing I need. “Sheldon, you know as well as Cassie that I had no choice. I wasn’t going to let that fucking guttersnipe drag my mother through the mud.” The fucking guttersnipe in question is Marshall Reagan (no relation to the former president), a douchebag posing as a journalist. His brand is writing scandalous, unauthorized biographies of the rich and famous because he knows he can get away with it. No dirt, no sleaze, is beneath him. And when he can’t find anything salacious, he makes shit up and pulls it out of his ass like saltwater taffy.
“You don’t know that.”
“Oh, but I do know. I know exactly the angle he’d take. That my mother was having an affair with Julian.” Julian Broadhurst, born in Lancaster, England, in 1942. An artist who was supposedly the protégé of Peter Max. Julian had long blond hair and drove a robin’s-egg-blue Aston Martin. Palmer and I loathed him. “And when Mom wanted to end it, he killed her. But that wasn’t enough, fuck no. When my brother tried to protect her, Julian killed him, too.” I shake my head, the bile percolating like a fresh pot of coffee. “My mother was brilliant. Graduated from Mount Holyoke with honors. And she was utterly devoted to my father. To us. The idea that she’d have a summer fling with that bohemian scumbag—” I choke on the words (or is it a sliver of chicken that went down the wrong pipe?). “And you know damn well that when that cocksucker Reagan’s done tarring and feathering her, he’ll start in on my father, who has been nothing less than a fucking saint. Saint Bernard.” I rap my fist on the table. “It’s fucking ludicrous.”
Sheldon nods, sympathy oozing from every pore. “All I’m saying is that you have a lot on your plate. The book. The next book. Your father’s gala. You’re writing a speech for that, right? Jesus fucking Christ, Brooks. You’re not Superman. It’s bound to take a toll on you.”
“So, what are you suggesting? I can’t return the advance. It’s already spent.” Six million gone in a heartbeat. Lawyers. Trust funds. The new house in Water Mill. And I was finally able to get my ex-wives off my back with a tidy lump sum. For the first time in years, no alimony to shill out every goddamn month. All thanks to Sheldon, who hadn’t budged an inch during the multi- house book auction. He earned his commission ten times over.
“No one’s suggesting that. That’s crazy.” Sheldon’s halfway through his steak. “But we can ask to push the deadline back by a couple of months.”
“No.” I’m a stubborn son of a bitch. If there’s one thing I’m known for, it’s living up to my contractual obligations. I’ve never missed a deadline. I could be fucking pushing up daisies and I’d still deliver.
Sheldon sighs. “Why are you being so goddamn obstinate?” “I’m well into the book now, it’s just a matter of research.” “Really?” He gives me a side-eye. “Cassie says you’ve barely written the first chapter.”
I’m annoyed. Mostly because Cassie’s right. “It’s all in my head, Sheldon. Don’t worry.”
“Well, I do. Worry, I mean.” Sheldon furrows his bushy eyebrows; he looks like a caterpillar on meth. “I know how good you can be, Brooks. But you push yourself way too hard.”
I make a half-hearted stab at my chicken. He could’ve added— but tactfully didn’t—that he also knows how bad I can be. My books still sold phenomenally well, even that fucking godawful picture book Rocco the Stinky Raccoon, nominated for a Caldecott. I was ecstatic when it didn’t win.
By the time we say our goodbyes, it’s three o’clock. If I hurry, I can see the kids for a minute before they’re trundled off to gymnastics or karate or whatever activity Cassie has planned. Mark loves Star Wars and Hulk. Audra’s obsessed with unicorns. I buy them far too many toys. I love my children desperately, but I don’t pretend to understand them. That’s Cassie’s deal. She’s the hardass. I’m the marshmallow man.
We live in the Dakota on the UWS (upper west side) close to Central Park. Our apartment has a bird’s-eye view of the park. The Dakota’s where John Lennon was shot. We still have tourists who make pilgrimages. I wasn’t there the night it happened, but I’d like to think I’d have stopped Mark Chapman in his tracks. I’d bought into the Dakota with the advance I’d gotten for Fallen Angels. I never would’ve been able to afford it otherwise. That book’s the gift that keeps on giving. It’s been optioned by movie production companies at least a dozen times but it’ll never get made. I’ve reconciled myself to that.
“Daddy’s home!” I shout as I enter the foyer.
The kids always run to see what I’ve bought. Today I have a Baby Yoda electronic gizmo for Mark and a big unicorn doll for Audra. But no excited squeals greet me. Instead, there are two packed suitcases by the door. I walk into the living room and marvel once again at our panoramic views of Central Park.
Cassie, her eyes red, sits on the sofa.
“Bad day with the kids, baby?” I bend down to kiss her. She turns her head. This isn’t a good sign.
“Where are the munchkins?” I toss my suit jacket on a chair. “With my sister in Providence.” Her voice is flat.
I’m surprised. Tammy’s coming down on the weekend. Why would she have come early and taken the kids?
Cassie stares at me. If her eyes were bullets, I’d be a corpse. “Dr. Schultz’s office called. They said you missed your six-month check-up.”
Dr. Schultz. Shit. I try to act casual but my heart thumps like a boom box. I can talk myself out of this one. I’ve done it before. “Damn, I guess I forgot to give them my new cell number. I’ll call in the morning, they’re probably closed now.”
“Kind of like how you forgot to tell me about your vasectomy?” Her voice rises an octave.
I cringe. I’m in for it now. And I fucking deserve it. “I’m not stupid, Brooks.”
No. That’s one thing Cassie isn’t. She’s brilliant in every respect, far more than I could ever hope or aspire to be. I’m painfully aware that I’m the reason she hasn’t gotten the jobs and accolades. I’m the anchor that weighs her down. “We talked about it, Cassie.”
“No. You talked about it. Not me. Not ever.” Cassie’s so mad her body trembles. “Who else knows?”
“Of course. I bet he was thrilled.” My father wasn’t in favor of this marriage. It was nothing against Cassie. He’d been against all my marriages. When I told him Cassie was pregnant, he was apoplectic. You can’t be serious, he said. You’re too old to be a father. And too fucked-up, he could’ve added. But he eventually came around.
“Nobody. I mean, nobody important,” I stumble. “Look, I’m sorry.”
“Sorry that you had it done or sorry that I found out?”
The truth was both, but I’d done enough damage for one evening. “Baby, I admit, it was a stupid thing to do. I wasn’t thinking clearly. But you know, maybe not going to the check-up was a good thing. Maybe it didn’t take. And if it did, I can get it reversed. If they can reattach a penis, they can fix this, right?” I nervously chuckle. That’s my default posture. When in a difficult situation, I make a feeble attempt at humor. Usually, it worked. Not this time.
“I’m going to stay at Tammy’s. I don’t know for how long.”
I try not to make a face and fail. Tammy hates me. Well, maybe hate is too mild: detests, loathes, abhors. Tammy would revel in this. “Please, honey. Don’t do that. We can work this out.”
Cassie holds up her hand. “Since you began this book”—the book she and Dad were vehemently against from the start, probably the only thing in the universe they agree on— “you haven’t been the same.”
“That’s not true,” I protest.
“It is true even if you don’t want to admit it. You got the book advance and then a vasectomy. And you don’t see that’s a huge problem? What about last night?”
I give her a look. “What about it?”
“I found you in Audra’s room at two in the morning. Over her bed holding a baseball bat.”
What? I shiver as if I’ve fallen through a river of ice. Water fills my lungs, and I can barely breathe. “That’s preposterous!” I gasp.
“Muttering about monsters. And it wasn’t the first time.” She shot me a look I knew all too well from my boarding school days. I hated it then and I hate it even more now. “You almost had me convinced that writing about what happened to you would be a catharsis. Exorcizing old ghosts and demons. But the opposite is happening, and it scares the shit out of me. It kills me to say this, but I have to protect the kids and I’m not sure they’re safe around you right now.”
Cassie’s words hang in the air. Jesus fucking Christ. Talk about a gut punch. The kids aren’t safe around me? I adore Mark and Audra. I’d die for them in the blink of an eye, with no hesitation. I cut Mark’s umbilical cord. I spent weeks in the neonatal unit with Audra. I changed diapers, I rocked them to sleep, they lacked for nothing materially. “You don’t mean that,” I retort. “You’re upset and angry about the vasectomy.”
“That’s a separate issue. But fuck yeah, I’m angry. I’m fucking livid.”
No one says “fuck” quite the way Cassie does. To my shame, I feel myself getting hard. Embarrassed, I cover myself with a sofa pillow and hope she doesn’t notice.
She does and averts her eyes. “This is a problem, it’s a huge fucking problem. This is beyond my field of expertise, Brooks. I’m a freelance editor, not a therapist.”
“Therapists,” I jeer. I’d had my fill of them. Never again. They’re the modern-day equivalent of leeches. “I sleepwalk. You knew that from day one. I never hid it.”
“This is more than sleepwalking. I want to help you, but I can’t if you won’t admit it’s a problem.”
“And your way of helping is talking to Sheldon?”
“Not just Sheldon. I spoke to Bernard, too. He’s worried about you. He’s noticed the change in you, we all have. Your father and I, we’re never going to be best friends, but I’m telling you, we’re united on this.”
My throat tightens as if someone’s wrapped a cord around my neck. I’m that eight-year-old kid shivering in the dunes, peeing on myself. “It’s been a rough winter. When I’m writing I can be an ogre. Maybe this vacation is what you and the kids need. The kids—” I stop myself. “I’ll call them in the morning. Better yet, why don’t I drive you there and I can tell them goodbye in person.”
Cassie picks up her handbag, the one I gave her last Christmas. A trendy, expensive designer label. To me they all look alike, so I asked the saleslady to give me the most popular one. I take that to mean Cassie isn’t entirely through with me yet. My marriage hung on this fucking bag. That’s how desperate I am. “I can drive myself.” Of course she can. We got his and hers matching Priuses with the book advance.
Cassie walks to the front door.
I follow and sniff her perfume like a love-sick puppy. “It’s getting late. Why don’t we order a very expensive meal, chill out with an old Bogie movie, and you can leave first thing.” I smile, in full Errol Flynn rogue mode.
Determined, she shakes her head. “You can’t fuck your way out of this one, Brooks.” She slams the door behind her so forcefully that my framed certificate from Caldecott falls off the fucking wall.
Immediately, my cell phone buzzes. I ignore Dad’s call. I’m not in the mood for another St. Bernard lecture on what a fucking mess I’ve made of my life. It’s suddenly very hot in the apartment. Or is it me? I tell Alexa to lower the temperature by five degrees, her calm demeanor a stark reminder of how quiet the apartment is without the kids screaming in the background. He pulled my hair! She grabbed my crayon!
I go upstairs into my writing lair. I must compartmentalize what just happened, otherwise, my head will detonate into a thousand pieces. Cassie and I have weathered worse. She’ll come back. She has to. I’ll call Dr. Schultz and fix this mess. For now, I must work on Dad’s speech. I pull out the desk chair and find it’s already occupied by one of Audra’s unicorn dolls.
Dad’s receiving a prestigious humanitarian award from the United Nations. Now pushing eighty-two or eighty-six depending on how many martinis he’s drunk, he’s evolved into an elder statesman on retainer as a crisis handler/negotiator. He advised LBJ on Vietnam. Nixon, too, although Dad couldn’t stand the prick. Dad begged Ford not to pardon Nixon because the voters and history would judge Ford harshly. Dad was right. Clinton made him a Special Envoy to Sarajevo. GW Bush called on him to head the 9/11 Commission, but Dad declined due to other “commitments”. Obama had him on speed dial. Dad has brokered peace agreements between nations and factions that were considered impossible. No one deserves this award more. I’ve been allotted roughly fifteen minutes to tell the world how I feel about him. I’d need fifteen years.
I touch a computer key. In Google Drive, the opening lines to my father’s speech flash on. “My beloved father, Bernard Stewart Anderson, is a generous, kind, honorable, decent man who embodies everything fine and good in this world. A man who has earned the respect of world leaders no matter their political persuasion. A man who goes out of his way to help the weak and oppressed. And he’s also a man who bore the ultimate tragedy with dignity and grace. No one knows Bernard Anderson better than I, his surviving son.”
Excerpted from A GOOD MAN by PJ McIlvaine, © 2023 by PJ McIlvaine, used with permission from Bloodhound Books.
PJ McILVAINE is the author of A GOOD MAN (Bloodhound Books, August 2023), and THE CONUNDRUM OF CHARLEMAGNE CROSSE (Orange Blossom Books, September 2023). Her Showtime original movie My Horrible Year was nominated for a Daytime Emmy. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Newsday, and elsewhere. She lives on Eastern Long Island with her family and Luna, a pampered French Bulldog. You can find her online at pjmacwriter.com.
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