It's not often we get second chances in life. But my new indie publisher, StoneGate Ink (StoneHouse Ink), is busy bringing out my two critically acclaimed but long OOP novels, As Catch Can (now re-titled to it's original, The Innocent), and Godchild!!! If you follow this blog you'll know that both these novels were originally purchased in major deal that quickly went array when talk of a corporate takeover infected the office like bubonic plague. The whole ordeal set me back professionally considerably, and many would have quit the game altogether, which I almost did. But you can't hold a Zandri down, and what the hell, I'm a writer; the author of the new bestselling, runaway, Cinderella story, 5-star, Blitzkrieg hard-boiled thrillers The Remains and Moonlight Falls. What else am I going to do with my life????
So without further ado, I give you an excerpt from the forthcoming The Innocent!!!!
PRAISE FOR VINCENT ZANDRI
"If you want a novel that runs wild like a caged beast let loose, Zandri is the man."
—New York Post
"Probably the most arresting first crime novel to break into print this season."
"A thriller that has depth and substance, wickedness and compassion."
—The Times-Union (Albany)
"Vincent Zandri explodes onto the scene with the debut thriller of the year. As Catch Can is gritty, fast-paced, lyrical and haunting. Don't miss it."
—Harlan Coben, author of The Final Detail
"A Satisfying Yarn."
"Compelling...As Catch Can pulls you in with rat-a-tat prose, kinetic pacing...characters are authentic, and the punchy dialogue rings true. Zandri's staccato prose moves As Catch Can at a steady, suspenseful pace."
—Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel
"Exciting...An Engrossing Thriller...the descriptions of life behind bars will stand your hair on end."
—Rocky Mountain News
"Readers will be held captive by prose that pounds as steadily as an elevated pulse... Vincent Zandri nails readers' attention."
"A smoking gun of a debut novel. The rough and tumble pages turn quicker than men turn on each other."
"The story line is non-stop action and the flashback to Attica is eerily brilliant. If this debut is any indication of his work, readers will demand a lifetime sentence of novels by Vincent Zandri."
—I Love a Mystery
"A tough-minded, involving novel...Zandri writes strong prose that rarely strains for effect, and some of his scenes...achieve a powerful hallucinatory horror."
"A classic detective tale."
—The Record (Troy, NY)
"[Zandri] demonstrates an uncanny knack for exposition, introducing new characters and narrative possibilities with the confidence of an old pro...Zandri does a superb job creating interlocking puzzle pieces."
—San Diego Union-Tribune
"This is a tough, stylish, heartbreaking car accident of a book: You don't want to look but you can't look away. Zandri's a terrific writer and he tells a terrific story."
—Don Winslow, author of The Death and Life of Bobby Z
THE INNOCENT (formerly AS CATCH CAN)
Nampa Idaho 83686
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”
Copyright © 1999 by Vincent Zandri
First eBook Edition 2010
First Paperback Edition 2000
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the Publisher, except where permitted by law.
Cover design by StoneGate Ink
Published in the United States of America
Other books by Vincent Zandri
Story goes, Vincent Zandri—prominent photo-journalist and globe-trotter—stumbled backwards into the story for this book, back in the nineties. He was working on the memoirs of some guy used to work as a prison guard at Sing Sing or Alcatraz or some such, when the basic premise of the novel As Catch Can came to him.
I don’t know if he ever wrote those memoirs. But in ‘99, As Catch Can was published and got all the accolades that a young writer always hopes for: it sold pretty well, the critics dug it, and there was even some vague stirrings of interest from the Cash Cow we call Hollywood. Riding on the success of As Catch Can, Zandri wrote another two novels and was well on his way to establishing himself as a major name in hardboiled fiction circles.
Then something happened, I dunno what. He dropped out. Some say Zandri—who, remember, is a sort of world-travelin’ action man type—was forced on the lam after seducing the wife of a prominent South-East Asian warlord. Some people were convinced he’d been murdered by a drug cartel after discovering a secret connection between them and the C.I.A. Others still were certain that Zandri had finally fallen into the bottle and was strapped up in some padded room in his hometown of Albany.
Thing is, no one really knew what happened.
Thing is, nothing happened.
Zandri had only been recharging, and re-acclimating himself to the new world of publishing. While he’d been away, working the day job as a picture-snapping super-hero, the industry had changed dramatically and even someone with as remarkable a track record as our hero had his work cut out for him getting a new book on the stands.
So he went to the small press, with his novel Moonlight Falls.
Out of necessity, Vin is a relentless self-promoter. By the sweat of his brow he made sure readers and critics noticed Moonlight Falls and his hard work paid off—Falls actually sold remarkably well for a small press release and was reviewed favorably all over the place. His next small press novel, The Remains, was even better and showed off Vin’s diversity and lean style beautifully.
I’ve told you all that to tell you this: The novel you hold in your hands (or on your Kindle, or whatever) is really As Catch Can, just with a new title and a fancy new cover. Our hero has come full circle, you could say. And I kinda envy you, about to read this book for the first time. It has all the wild enthusiasm of a young writer’s first crack at the genre, and it’s tough-minded and lyrical and unforgettable.
And, as a new starting place for Vincent Zandri, it’s more than a little symbolic. Vin has lots more stories in his head, and this “touching base” with his origins, I suspect, is just a prelude to even more great work.
Heath Lowrance, noir critic and author of The Bastard Hand
September 4, 2010
Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage; Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage. If I have my freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free, Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty. —RICHARD LOVELACE, 1649
GREEN HAVEN PRISON
Statement given by Robert Logan, the senior corrections officer in charge of the transportation of convicted cop-killer Eduard Vasquez at the time of his escape:
You wanna know about Vasquez, well I'll tell you about Vasquez. He looked like death twisted inside out. That dentist did a real job on him, or so I thought at the time. What I didn't know was that Vasquez was one hell of a faker, one hell of an actor. You should have seen him sitting in the backseat of that station wagon all bound up in shackles and cuffs—skin white, lips swelled, gauze stuffed inside his cheeks. Blood and spit were running down his chin. His eyes were glazed and puffed up. That toothache must have been a real headache now that A. J. Royale, the butcher of Newburgh, had gotten to him. No way could Vasquez escape. But then how could I make any sense out of the feeling I’d had since we'd started out? The feeling that told me he was going to make the break?
But here's how it really happened:
My partner, Bernie Mastriano, he drove the station wagon while I adjusted the rearview mirror to just the right angle so I could get a better look at Vasquez in the backseat without turning every ten seconds. He was sucking air like there's no tomorrow. His feet and hands were bound up and he was locked up in that cage and you could see the pain all over his face. He just put his head back on the seat, opened his mouth wide, let his tongue hang out like a sick puppy. He didn't seem so tough then. Seemed kind of stupid and pathetic, not at all like the crazy psycho who pumped three caps into the back of that rookie cop's head back in ‘88. Vasquez kept suckin’ up that air like it somehow relieved the pain from the hole Royale left in his mouth. Then out of nowhere he doubled over, threw his head between his legs, started heaving blood all over the floor.
Mastriano screamed, “I think he's having a freakin’ heart attack.”
I told him to shut up, stop the car.
“Heart! Attack!” he screamed.
“Damn it, Bernie,” I said, “pull the car over before somebody gets hurt.” Sometimes you gotta pound things into Mastriano's head. He pulled the wagon onto the shoulder of Route 84, killed the engine. Then he pulled Vasquez out of the car and laid him out on the field next to the road.
I was right behind him.
When I got down on my knees to see if Vasquez had swallowed his tongue, the black van pulled up behind the station wagon. The back doors of the van swung open. There they were. Three of the hugest dudes you ever saw in black ski masks, packing sawed-off shotguns.
Mastriano went for his sidearm. But he took a shot in the head with the butt end of a shotgun, hit the ground cold. I got up and went after the son-of-a-bitch. I guess I didn't see it coming either. I went down, right next to Vasquez. They kicked me in the face, in the forehead. See that purple-and-black welt above my eye?
One of those masked bastards knelt down, reached into my pockets, felt around for the keys to Vasquez’s handcuffs and ankle shackles. But here's what really got to me: When Vasquez was free, he jumped up. When those shackles were off, he spun around to his knees, got up, spit out that bloody gauze, let out a laugh. “Hey boss,” he said, you fell for the whole thing, hook, line, and sinker. Just like that, boss.”
I rolled over onto my side in the high grass, jammed my knees into my chest. I couldn't work up the air to talk. But my ears were still good.
“Lock ‘em up,” Vasquez said.
They cuffed Mastriano and me together with my own handcuffs, shoved us into the front seat of the wagon. Vasquez ordered one of his men to take the wheel. But before we pulled away, he leaned his head inside the open window.
“No hard feelings, boss. Hope this don't screw up the promotion.”
The last thing I remembered before waking up at the gravel pit was Mastriano's piece coming down hard on my head.
1997 WAS THE YEAR Green Haven Prison went insane. The winter hadn't produced a single snowstorm that lasted for more than an hour before turning to rain and slush, and what should have been covered with a velvety-smooth blanket of white went on being gray and lifeless and pitiful, as if God Himself saw to it that the twenty-five hundred inmates and corrections officers living and working inside nine concrete cell blocks never once forgot where they were and why they were put there in the first place.
But for a man living and working inside an iron house, you didn't take snow for granted. A fresh dose of snow always broke the endless monotony, pumping good vibrations throughout the facility so that even the hardest inmates showed wide ear-to-ear smiles on their scarred faces. And happy faces meant that, for maybe a day or so, you wouldn't have a prisoner shivved square in the chest with a homemade blade or a psyche case tossing a handful of human waste at an unsuspecting officer or an HIV-positive lifer spitting a mouthful of blood at his cheating honey or a nineteen year old scared-out-of-his-wits man/boy wrapping a sheet around his neck and tying it to the overhead light fixture. What you might get instead was two thousand men joining in song, the gentle hum radiating against the concrete walls like music by moonlight while flakes of white snow drifted slowly down to earth.
What we got that winter instead of snow was rain and slush and bone-hard, damp cold. From New Year's to Easter alone, we had six shivvings that resulted in four deaths and two badly rearranged faces. We had seventeen beatings that resulted in one death, and one inmate who (mysteriously) fell from the third-floor gallery in F-Block and who would now do life inside an infirmary, taking his meals through a feeding tube.
That winter we had two ODs, one death by hanging, an inmate who somehow got his wife pregnant during visiting hours, and another who acquired a good old-fashioned dose of the clap. To make a dismal matter even worse, we also had a group of twelve corrections officers who attracted national attention with their own arrests after a bachelor party turned ugly. The short of it was that my COs thought it would be funny to pelt unsuspecting passersby with raw eggs from the open windows of the school bus they'd rented for the occasion. One elderly citizen, who stood outside his car on a side street in Newburgh and protested, was given a special dose of humiliation. (As of this writing, his suit against Green Haven Prison and the State of New York is pending.)
But these were not the most serious things that happened during that winter.
We also had an increase in the inner-prison drug and contraband trade, in the form of pot, crack, heroin, liquid hormones, and assorted pharmaceuticals. I was personally forced to retire a record number of COs, not because I wanted them gone (I didn't have enough support staff to run the prison as it was), but because the Commissioner of Corrections for the State of New York had sent down his official mandate. And what's more, the winter of 1997 was the first I had spent without my wife, Fran, in more than twenty-five years—although by then nothing more could be done for her.
To add insult to an otherwise uncauterized injury, we had been cheated of our spring. Even the anticipation of spring rains and fresh muddy yards and good sleeping weather (there is no climate control inside a concrete prison cell) had been taken from the men who occupied the walls of Green Haven Prison. The heat of summer took over early with all the force of martial law, and what was supposed to be a “green haven” turned into a broiler oven. What little green vegetation there was within the concrete and razor-wire barriers turned brown and died. Even the baseball diamond cracked and heaved, like the blood that thickens and cakes on the upper lip after it oozes from the nostrils of a man's nose when his body writhes and convulses during an execution by lethal injection. (For anyone believing lethal injection is the humanitarian way out, think again. I’ve witnessed three, and during all three, the men convulsed, choked, snapped their own ribs, and bled from the nose and mouth.)
In May of the year 1997, my prison smelled only of low morale, treason, and pity. And it tasted of sweat, concrete, and human decay. And my God, it was hot. But as for me, Jack Marconi, the keeper . . . the warden ... the superintendent in charge of all things living and dying inside the iron house?
I did the only thing I could do under circumstances best left in God's hands.
I blamed the weather.
GREEN HAVEN REACHED THE boiling point on a sweltering afternoon in May with the escape of convicted cop-killer Eduard Vasquez. Since I couldn't very well blame the weather on a notorious killer who had practically been handed the keys to the front door, I found myself sitting on the edge of the desk in my office on the second floor of our administration building, holding my head in my hands. I had managed to take control of the situation as best I could so that it had been only twenty minutes since I’d ordered a general lockdown of the nine blocks. Now, instead of holding my head in my hands, I had to take the steps necessary to get my head together.
I’d just seen Robert Logan, one of the two COs held at gunpoint when Vasquez had escaped from their custody four hours before. Dan Sloat, my First Deputy Superintendent for Security and my second in command, was on his way downstairs to meet up with a detective from the Stormville PD. Stormville, along with the New York State police, were making preparations to head up the pursuit for Vasquez, at least to the outer fringes of their jurisdiction.
In the meantime, I had more pressing matters to attend to.
I turned to my secretary, Val Antonelli. “Whadaya mean the file's missing?”
“I mean Vasquez's file is gone, missing, outta here,” she said.
“Jeeze. Stormville’s gonna want information. Photos, rap sheets, next of kin. All of it.”
“Maybe Vasquez signed it out before he left this morning.”
“I don't need jokes, Val,” I snapped. “I need that file!”
“Raising your voice does not change the fact that it's hot in here or that the bacon cheeseburger I had for lunch is coming up on me or that Vasquez's file is missing.”
Val sat in my swivel-back chair in the middle of the room with her legs crossed tight at the knees, making last-minute corrections to her freehand transcription of Robert Logan's statement. “I'll see if a folder was signed out this morning,” she offered. “For all I know it's in the filing bin downstairs.”
“Try to get it before you leave tonight,” I said. Then working up a smile. “I’m asking, not telling.”
“We've got copies on microfilm anyway, boss,” she said. “So it really doesn't matter if the file's missing or not.”
I took a hot, sour breath and stared up at the cracks in the plaster ceiling of my fifty-five-year-old office—a square-shaped room inside a maximum security prison that had housed German POWs during World War II. Now it housed close to twenty-five hundred permanent inmates and transients on their way upstate to Attica or further downstate to Sing Sing.
Most of my prisoners were black and Latino. Kids mostly, with rap sheets so long they'd wear you out just getting past the list of youthful offences. Murderers and gangland killers and torture experts and organized professional killers. Some men with nothing on the outside but poverty and death, but some with beautiful cars and houses and beautiful women in furs who came to visit every day and bank accounts that would make the governor look like a pauper. Evil, mean-spirited killers, but likable killers, too. Tough killers and not-so-tough killers and killers who gave up being men altogether to take hormone injections, as if spending the rest of their God-given days inside five air-plane-hangar-size buildings were enough to eradicate the man, give birth to something distorted and freakish.
Inside the sweat-covered concrete walls and razor-wire fences you'd find weight lifters, junkies, drunks, health-food addicts, junk-food junkies, thin men, fat men, small and tall men, Muslims, Catholics, Five-Percenters, Buddhists, Jews, serial killers, man-eaters, kidnappers and child snatchers. You'd find bankers, accountants, lawyers, professors, teachers, architects, welfare cases, preachers, pimps, and you'd find high school graduates and college graduates and illiterate men who'd skipped school altogether and inmates so out of it they couldn't tell you what month it was. Not far down the gallery from them you'd find the queers and steers and crybabies with long French braids, false eyelashes, thick red lips, and tattoos of broken hearts on their freshly shaved butt cheeks. Men with names like Black Jack, Lizard Leonard, and Ricky Too-Sweet. Butchers with baby-blue teardrops tattooed on the soft skin below their left eyeballs (one for each of their victims); men who'd arrived in the 1940s with all the piss and spunk of youth and who now, in their old age, would never consider leaving the comforting walls behind. There were cons and jokesters and pranksters and victims of circumstance, and men who did nothing wrong at all except hire the wrong lawyer, and kids who suffered so much for their mistakes that at night you could hear the echoes of their sobs as they called out for their mamas and you'd gladly wrench your broken heart out of your chest if only it would get them a fair shake in life.
But by 1997 a new breed of inmate had infected Green Haven Prison, a new generation of criminal born of the sewers of New York and raised in the streets. Teenage men who never really had a mother or a father or a home or the chance for an education. Men, not boys, who seemed almost happy to go to prison because, for the first time in their lives, they felt safe and protected by the thirty-foot-high concrete walls. Men who enjoyed the prison life for the free sex, booze, food, drugs, and medical attention. Tough young men who freaked at the sight of a dentist's drill because they'd never seen one before. Young men whose life expectancy shot up dramatically from twenty-one to the ripe old age of forty because they now had iron bars and concrete walls to separate them from the killers they'd dissed along the way.
I was their warden.
I was their keeper, their mother and their father.
Which is why, for me, the matter of Eduard Vasquez's escape was such a serious offense. I had signed the release form allowing him to visit a dentist on the outside. As the keeper of Green Haven, I was directly responsible. It was my decision and my decision only. What I mean is, I could have said no. But then, I couldn't just deny a prisoner his right to proper dental care if that's what he wanted. That was the rule in New York State. As the keeper, my job was not rehabilitation. My job was to see that society was protected from its prisoners. But get this: It was also my job to see that a man who'd shot a New York City cop at point-blank range maintained a pearly-white smile.
I was well aware that Vasquez knew his rights. All the sharp inmates did. Fact is, they knew their rights better than did the men and women who incarcerated them. It was simply a matter of the prisoners knowing more about their civil liberties than did the guards who locked them down every night. At Green Haven Prison in the spring of 1997 ignorance ruled, and ignorance was never bliss.
And when it came to making an executive decision based on an inmate's civil liberties, there was never any right or wrong. There was only wrong and more wrong. But then, Vasquez had been a good prisoner. That is, he didn't go around stabbing or raping anybody. And I'd had no reason to believe he would escape. Anyway, I didn't make the rules in the first place, I only competed with them.
The hot sun poured into my office through the old double-hung windows. Even though Wash Pelton, the Commissioner of Corrections, had declared it a general cost-saving rule to leave the air conditioners dormant until June, I turned mine on and breathed in the cool, stale air.
I turned back to Val, watched her push up the sleeves of her cream-colored cashmere V-neck sweater.
“Okay, give it to me straight. You think Logan's statement is legit?”
Val straightened her legs and spread her arms to catch the cool breeze from the air conditioner. She stood up from the leather chair and stretched her short solid body by reaching for the stars. A habit of hers I never got tired of admiring. “In my opinion,” she said, “Logan is one lying son of a bitch ... if you'll excuse my French.”
I slid off the desk, stuffed my hands into my pockets. “My thoughts exactly,” I said. I was relying on my gut. I’d never had an escape before. I'd never had any choice but to accept the word of my officers as gospel, no matter what I suspected otherwise. Besides the missing file, I thought, the only thing to go on was Logan's unmarked face.
“You notice any marks on Logan's mug?”
“For a man who got smacked over the head with a gun,” Val said, stuffing her notepad under her left arm, “he seemed in pretty good shape.”
“Perfect shape. Other than that small bruise on his forehead.”
We said nothing for a second or two while the cold air filled the room like the invisible vapors in a gas chamber.
The phone rang.
Val took it at my desk. “Superintendent's office,” she said, looking directly at me with the wide eyes that told me someone I didn't want to talk to was on the line. “Pelton,” she said cupping her hand over the mouthpiece.
“Crap,” I whispered. “He wanted two more men cut from the staff by Friday. Two more men when I don't have enough officers now.” I removed my charcoal suit jacket from off the hanger in the closet, held it by the lapel.
“What do I tell him?”
“Tell him I'm not here. Something is definitely not right. I've got a missing prisoner, a missing file, and a possibly phony statement. I might even have a quack for a dentist. What I definitely have is a real problem when Pelton gets word I signed the release for Vasquez to walk.”
“What'll I tell Pelton about the escape?” Val begged, her palm pressed flat over the mouthpiece. “He's gonna want something. An explanation at least.”
I slipped on my jacket, pulling the cuffs to make the shirtsleeves taut. I looked into the small mirror on the back of the closet door, ran my hands through my black hair, pressed my fingers down over my mustache and goatee. “Tell him I had a dentist's appointment,” I said, looking into my own brown eyes but quickly looking away. “Then try to find Vasquez's file, even if you have to get it off the microfilm.”
“I can't tell him you went to the dentist.”
“Why not? I have teeth.”
“He'll know it's a lie. You know I hate it when I have to lie for you.”
“Okay, then tell him the truth.”
“That I don't want to talk with him right now because I don't feel like firing anyone.”
Val pressed her lips together, stared me down. She knew she had to lie for me whether she liked it or not. She
took a quick breath, composed herself, and took her hand off the mouthpiece. She brought the phone to her face, spoke slowly, barely moving her thick, red lips. “Mr. Marconi just left for the dentist, Mr. Pelton. Is there a message?”
As I opened the door to the office, she stuck her tongue out at me.
“You mad at me?” I whispered.
She raised her middle finger high, as if the tongue hadn't been enough.