Nothing matters to Jakob besides film noir. Ever since he was six years old, when his nanny first took him to the cinema, he has known that filmmaking is his future. His first script, Little Girl Lost, is finished, and as he prepares for production, he feels destiny within his grasp. Nothing stands in his way but his father, a boss in the Quinsigamond underworld who wants his son to be a killer, not an auteur. Aspiring photographer Sylvia Krafft is trapped as well, bound by her husband’s rigid ambition and lack of artistic temperament. Undeveloped negatives inside a used camera lead Sylvia on a quest for the man who took the pictures, and she soon finds herself at Herzog’s Erotic Palace, a porno house where Jakob works. As the duo attempt to realize their ambitions, they journey into a twisted world where art and death are endlessly intertwined.
About the Author
Jack O’Connell (b. 1959) is the author of five critically acclaimed, New York Times bestselling crime novels. Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, O’Connell’s earliest reading was the dime novel paperbacks and pulp fiction sold in his corner drug store, whose hard-boiled attitude he carried over to his own writing. He has cited his hometown’s bleak, crumbling infrastructure as an influence on Quinsigamond, the fictional city where his first four novels were set, and whose decaying industrial landscape served as a backdrop for strange thrillers which earned O’Connell the nickname of a “cyberpunk Dashiell Hammett.”
O’Connell’s most recent novel was The Resurrectionist (2008). A former student at Worcester’s College of the Holy Cross, he now teaches there, not far from where he and his family live just outside of his hometown.
Read an Excerpt
The Skin Palace
By Jack O'Connell
A MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1995 Jack O'Connell
All rights reserved.
A woman's face appears on the screen. The face is as large as a house, as big as any three-decker in the city. Because of this enlargement, each wrinkle and fold in the skin becomes a dry riverbed, a crevice of incalculable depth. The woman's eyes are red and sunken, as if she's spent a lifetime weeping. After a time, her mouth opens and she looks out over the gravel parking lot and says, in the most wounded voice imaginable,
On October first, my daughter, Jennifer Ellis, disappeared while walking home from the Ste. Jeanne d'Arc elementary school on Duffault Avenue. Jennifer is ten years old. She is four and a half feet tall. She was dressed in her school uniform, a green plaid jumper and a white blouse. I implore you, if you have any information at all about what happened to my baby, please call the number on this screen. Please help me find my daughter. I beg you.
"God," Perry says, "I wish they'd stop showing that clip. It's on TV every night. I hear her voice on the radio driving to work every morning."
Sylvia takes a sip of wine and says, "Do you think they'll find her?"
"They've got to find her," Perry says. He takes a breath, uncomfortable with the conversation, looks across the parking lot and asks, "You think the line'll be bad at the snack bar?"
"No drive-in food," Sylvia says. "We'll both regret it in the morning."
Perry smiles, nods his agreement, lets his head fall back against the seat.
Sylvia would love to shoot his face this way. To frame it in exactly this light, exactly this expression. But she's learned. It makes Perry tense when she takes the camera out at moments like this. He smiles, but you'd have to hear the tone of his voice when he says, "Is it necessary to record everything?"
The answer is no, of course not. Most of life is more or less insignificant. But Sylvia's argument, her defense, would be that what she does with the camera has nothing to do with recording. Her intention isn't to nail down the image for some kind of documentation. She's not all that interested in that kind of history. She doesn't see things that way. And she'd have thought Perry would know that by now.
Anyway, Sylvia doesn't want an argument tonight. So she leaves the camera in the trunk of the car. But it's loaded with a fresh roll of Fuji. Just in case.
Perry had called her from the office around three. She was in the cellar, developing yesterday's shots from the Canal Zone. She was working on a print of Mojo Bettman, the guy without the legs who sits on his skateboard selling newspapers and magazines all day. Perry must have let the phone ring twenty times. Sylvia ran up the three flights of stairs and grabbed the receiver, pulling a little for air. Perry said, "The Cansino. Eight o'clock. Big News."
And then he hung up. He hates the phone. And he knew if he stayed on Sylvia would press for details.
She's not sure why he feels the need to be so dramatic. They've both been waiting for the big news for months. Perry's been aching for it. And Sylvia has been fearful of it. She doesn't like acknowledging that. It makes her feel vindictive and kind of spoiled, maybe mean-spirited. This news is what Perry wants. This is why he puts in all the hours. After she hung the receiver back into the cradle on the wall, Sylvia stood there for a second and tried to picture Perry as he heard the words. She's sure it was Ratzinger that took him to lunch. Probably at the top of the bank building, that restaurant that used to revolve. The firm has an open account there. Perry says Ratzinger eats there every day of the week.
She pictured them both holding club sandwiches in their hands, little leaves of purplish lettuce hanging over the corners of the toasted bread. Ratzinger dabbing mayonnaise off his lips with the rose-colored napkin. She pictured Perry nodding, that sort of slight, humble tilt of the head, as Ratzinger listed all the things they liked— the studiousness, the ease with the clients, the ability to work on the team.
She could see Perry clenching down on his back teeth, curling up his toes inside his wing tips, waiting for the moment when Ratzinger actually said the word, let it fall from his lips as the waiter cleared the coffee cups: Partnership.
They're in the backseat of the Buick and they've got the top rolled down. It's the same car Perry was driving on the day they met—a maroon '65 Skylark that guzzles gas. Last year they dropped a wad getting the floorboards replaced. Now, with Perry's big news, Sylvia is sure it's only a matter of time before he starts pushing for a Saab or a Volvo. For all she knows, Ratzinger may have already made the suggestion.
"This is the part I love," Perry says. So far there are about a dozen parts he loves.
"We're going down in the elevator," he says, "and Ratzinger waits for this guy to get out at the garage level, okay? And then he turns to me and he does this clap on the back, and the whole time there's no eye contact, you know. He's got his eyes on the floor numbers. And we get to the street level and before the doors open he says, 'and by the way, there'll be a little something extra come Fridays from now on.'"
He bites in on his bottom lip and slaps the driver's seat.
"A raise," Sylvia says.
He's nodding at the words. "This is the way these guys work, you know. He never mentions a figure, okay? Just a little something extra, you know. Make me guess. Make me wait for Friday so I can see the numbers."
"You deserve every dime," she says.
The Cansino Drive-in is one of the last of its kind in the country. In high school, Sylvia came here a handful of times with a packed carload of forgotten friends. It's gotten a lot seedier since then. The Buick is parked in the very last row of the lot where asphalt gives way to a scrubby dirt patch that dissolves into full-blown forest. The parking lot is half-filled with teenagers. Lots of pickup trucks with fat tires and skinny girls with blonde hair down to their behinds. The kids all sit in the truck beds around coolers of beer. They smoke cigarettes and make constant trips to the snack bar.
The movie's sound track is beamed at them over the radio. Those beautiful, ribbed-silver window speakers are long gone, but the white mounting posts they hung from still stand, circles of weed springing up through the posts' tear-shaped concrete foundations.
They're half-watching something called The Initiation of Alice. It's a pretty standard soft-core exploitation job by Meyer Dodgson. Lots of female nudity and beach locations, but nothing too explicit. Upon the screen, a topless coed is admiring her own reflection in an ornate, full-length mirror.
"I spoke with Candice, who got the same pitch," Perry says, "only from Ford. I knew Candice would be the other one they tapped."
"I remember. You said Candice."
"We both figure they'll run us around the track for a year, maybe a little less. Then they'll give us the title."
"Big day, Sylvia. I want to remember this day."
"You'll need some new suits."
He sits back, lets his shoulders slump a little.
"I want to buy you something, Sylvia."
"Okay, next movie's on you."
His voice goes lower and he reaches over and takes her hand.
"I'm serious. Something nice."
"A movie would be nice. I don't need—"
He waves away the thought. "I know you don't need," he stretches out the word. "This isn't about need. Isn't there something you want?"
She shakes her head, passes him the wine bottle and picks a licorice twist out of its bag.
"C'mon, I want to mark this occasion. If you don't help me out I'll pick out something on my own."
"Some awful piece of jewelry you'll keep in the box in the dresser ..."
She nods and squints at him and bites the end off the twist. He's referring to this enormous silver bracelet he gave her last Christmas, which makes her arm look like it just came out of a cast. But she knows the thing cost a fortune and feels guilty every time she opens her drawer to take out a sweater.
She says, "I thought we were going to start saving."
"We are, believe me. Second check starts the down-payment fund."
Perry's all hot for buying a house this year, but Sylvia loves where they live now.
"C'mon, give me some idea. I'll go out blind and buy earrings. It'll be scary. Don't make me do it."
He can still make her laugh. And he usually gets his way when he's being funny.
"Okay, there is something ..."
He's thrilled. He does a drumroll on his knees with his fingers and says, "Bingo."
"I was down in the Zone last week ..."
Already, she's said the wrong thing. Perry hates the Canal Zone.
"Yes," he says, dragging out the s, trying to prepare himself for anything.
"There was this ad. On a bulletin board in the Rib Room—"
"God," he says, forcing a smile, trying to make his distaste into a weary joke. "I hate it that you eat down there. I just don't think it's healthy."
She cocks her head to the side, purses the lips a little.
"Sorry," he says, annoyed with himself for jarring the mood. "Go ahead. An ad."
"It was a good price. I checked the catalogs. And they said it was in mint condition."
"A good price on ..."
She takes a breath and lets it out, "An Aquinas."
"An Aquinas," he repeats.
She nods, not sure whether to get defensive or laugh at herself, like it's the same old Sylvia and some things never change.
He says, "Another camera?"
"It's an Aquinas, Perry—"
"What does that make? Four, right? Four cameras?"
"Yeah, four. The Canon, the Yashica, and the Polaroid."
She stares at him, her mouth crooked like he's been sarcastic, but still inside the margin of funny. A beat goes by and his expression remains unchanged and she realizes he's being serious.
"The Polaroid? C'mon, Perry, that's like a twenty-dollar camera. I just use it for proofs. I just use it for taking note of something I'll want to do later."
"A Polaroid isn't a camera? A Polaroid suddenly doesn't count as a camera?"
"Okay, forget it," she says, looking up at the screen as the young woman in front of the mirror starts to rub sunscreen into her shoulder. "It was your idea. You brought up buying something."
He reaches across for her hand again.
"I meant, like, diamond stud earrings or something, I meant—"
She squeezes the hand and lets it go.
"Diamond stud earrings, Perry? When would I wear diamond studs? They'd clash with the decor down at Snapshot Shack."
Perry has begun to hate Sylvia's job. She works in one of those tiny film booths you see at the edge of every mall parking lot in America. To a degree, she understands his feelings. Those little huts are about five feet square. Barely enough room inside for you to turn around. She thinks just the sight of them gives a lot of people a kind of unconscious jolt of claustrophobia. And the particular booth Sylvia works in is even worse. It was built as an enormous scale replica of an old Brownie camera. But she likes the job. Right now, it's exactly what she wants to do. Maybe it's this visible lack of ambition, this absence of a career that bothers Perry. Maybe he can't envision turning to Ratzinger over lunch and saying, "Sylvia? She sells film from inside of a big camera ..."
"There'll be all kinds of places to wear them," he says. "Believe me."
"Look, I said forget it."
His eyes narrow a little. He shifts over to sit next to her. He doesn't want the night to go bad.
"Okay," he says, smiling, being indulgent. "Tell me about the ..."
"Aquinas," she says.
"Doesn't sound Japanese," he says, putting on a shocked expression.
"It's made in Italy," she says.
"It's about the best you can get."
He says, "Why go for a used one? Isn't it like a used car? Like you're buying someone else's problem?"
She smiles at him. He's trying. He has to force the interest in cameras. She knows that he'd rather be talking about house hunting. Or maybe even wedding plans.
"You want to guess what a new Aquinas would cost?"
"Not a clue."
She takes a deep breath. "Try over ten grand."
This genuinely shocks him.
She shakes her head no.
He leans forward and says, "The house I grew up in? Okay? My parents bought it for around ten grand."
"Yeah," she says, "but the Aquinas doesn't get water in the basement."
"How much are they asking for this used one?"
She smiles and shakes her head no again, but says, "The ad said fifteen hundred."
He stares at her and starts a slow nod and at the same time tries to hold off from smiling. He can't manage it and the smile breaks and he turns his attention up to the screen as Alice starts a long jog down a supposedly deserted beach.
Then he looks back and says, "All right, let's get it."
She starts to fight him. "Perry ...," she says with this small pseudo-whine to her voice that she can't stand.
He holds up a hand and says, "Listen, Sylvia, I want to get you something. I honestly do. And this is what you want."
She shrugs. "I'd have to check it out. I mean, I'd have to check the age and the condition. See what's included. Lenses. A case."
"You check it out. If it looks good, if it's what you want, write the check."
She stares at the side of his face, more excited than embarrassed.
"Really? I should really get it?"
She thinks she sounds like a teenager. Like her mother said she could use the car on Saturday night. But Perry seems suddenly delighted with himself. He turns to her, leans in and puts his arm around her.
"If it looks good," he repeats, "buy it."
He brings his mouth down to the side of her neck, kisses there a few times. Then he moves up to her ear and whispers, "I still want to get you the diamond studs."
In five minutes Sylvia's jeans are off and Perry's pants are down around his ankles and she's straddling him, riding him, her knees indenting the Buick's backseat as Perry watches the exploits of the surf-bimbette flashed up on the Cansino's huge and dingy screen.
And as Perry's breath starts to catch and Sylvia feels the muscles in his thighs buck and tense and release and tense again and he starts to make that suppressed-whine sound through his nose, she's thinking of the Aquinas. She's thinking of the first time she'll hold it up to her eye and pull something into focus.
She's thinking of the rush that will come when she presses down on the shutter release and opens the lens and imprints some flawless instant, some slice of life. Some instinctively chosen and absolutely perfect image.
She's wondering what it will be.CHAPTER 2
Until recently the Hotel St. Vitus served as a convent for a sect of Eastern European nuns known as the Sisters of Perpetual Torment & Agony, a cloistered Order always rumored to be on the precipice of papal destruction due to heretical word and deed. The nuns' catechistic practice somehow managed to splice their traditional Catholicism with a vague line of occultist teachings. No one in Bangkok Park knows exactly what the Sisters dabbled in, but there was loose talk of midnight rites during the equinox, a kind of earth-mother, druidic gloss layered over their prayers and chanting.
For their part, the Sisters almost seemed to encourage the dark rumors, never venturing out of the convent but for the weekly shopping trip to the all-night Spanish market. Even then they'd remain encased in a cloud of silence, their bodies wrapped head to toe in black wool habits, their faces obscured by hanging black-lace veils. They seemed to purchase bulk quantities of blood sausage, sweet red wine, and candles.
In public, Bishop Flaherty tolerated the Order with pleas for an understanding of the deeply spiritual quest the women had devoted their lives to, but during private lunches with his banker pals in the chancery dining room, Flaherty called them spooky old hags, and voodoo fanatics. And alone in his room, after his nightly prayers, the bishop looked out his window toward Bangkok Park and genuinely wondered if the witches had it in for him.
Officially, the Quinsigamond Police Department does not know what happened to the Sisters. The nuns no longer occupy their old convent. A week after their disappearance, the chancery released a statement that the entire flock had returned to Eastern Europe where their services were desperately needed. The statement made no mention of the rumor that the walls of the abandoned convent's chapel had been found covered with a mixture of human and animal blood. One of the Canal Zone's more hysterical news-rags offered speculation that all the sisters had been massacred and the FBI was blanketing the entire event. Another weekly announced there was no mass murder, but rather the nuns had splintered from the Church and become some kind of pagan-feminist terrorists, vanished into an undisclosed mountain region of South America for training and recruitment. The Spy never bothered to cover the story beyond the box ad in the real estate classifieds announcing that the diocese of Quinsigamond was offering the convent for sale at a very reasonable price.
Excerpted from The Skin Palace by Jack O'Connell. Copyright © 1995 Jack O'Connell. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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