Confined to a pediatric hospital at age six, the brutal death of his father at age seven, and always desperate for money, left a deep psychological imprint on Joe Belmont.
In spite of it, he mowed lawns, pumped gas, waited tables and worked hard in school. When he turned eighteen, he borrowed money, lived low, and worked himself through college and into medical school. Finally the end was in sight…
Then without warning his “saintly” mother was murdered in her modest home, and his uncle, his only living relative, died in a suspicious auto accident. Now, for no apparent reason, whoever killed them are trying to kill him.
From multiple hiding places within the Philadelphia neighborhood where he grew up, to the Jersey shore hospital where he was placed at bedrest for 12 nightmarish months, to the financial district of Zurich, Switzerland, Belmont desperately tries to unlock the secrets that have marked him for death. Only now is he realizing that his only hope of survival lies in the one place he has always avoided, the darkest corner of his own mind.
Even god rested on the seventh day, but not Theresa Belmont.
Six days a week, at six AM, she left our small row house in the Italian section of Philly, got in her rusty, ten-year-old Chevy and drove to the church shelter to feed the homeless. Then she buttoned up her frayed overcoat and went directly to her loser brother’s real estate office. There she made enough money to almost put food on the table. On the seventh day, when good old god slept in and had a late brunch, she taught Sunday school.
So when I was twelve, I stopped feeling sorry for myself and did what a boy with a weird mother and no father had to do… I worked my ass off delivering newspapers, mowing lawns, pumping gas and waiting tables. When I turned eighteen, I borrowed a lot of money, lived low, and worked myself through college and into med school. I know, yawn, yawn, just another hardworking success story. I only wish…
Because one night, like a blindside sucker punch, Saint Theresa was murdered gangland style. A week later, her brother, my only other living relative, was also murdered. And now, for no fathomable reason, the bastards are trying to kill me!
Why would someone murder a couple of paupers and why are they now trying to murder a twenty-four-year-old whose main asset is an assortment of furniture that even the mentally-challenged, fat guy at the Salvation Army would sneer at.
The real story is a mystery.
Karen, my lab partner, who’s into all this Freudian hocus pocus, thinks the answer is locked up somewhere deep in my unconscious. If our lives depend on me spelunking into my unconscious, we’re in deep shit. How can I get into a place that by definition is unavailable to the conscious mind? And by the way, wasn’t Freud the guy who got himself and a bunch of his patients addicted to cocaine before he discovered it was dangerous?
The more practical answer is to get a gun, learn how to shoot the frigging thing, and get the hell out of the City of Brotherly Love… But then what?
Two weeks ago
I’m tired, the kind of tired that comes from five hours of sleep in two days. My hip’s acting up, my head’s aching, and all I can think about is going home and crawling into bed.
As I squeeze between the narrowly placed tables, the tray of dinner dishes digs into my shoulder like a ninety-pound barbell. “Sorry it took so long,” I say, forcing a smile, and swinging my hair out of my eyes.
“Waiter!” A guy wearing a black cashmere sweater, Armani jeans and a diamond stud earring wags an empty bottle of Oak Hill cabernet in front of my face. He smiles self-importantly and winks at the attractive woman sitting across from him. A bottle of 2002 Oak Hill costs two hundred and fifty bucks… I nod and place the last dish, veal scaloppini with a side of linguini in marinara sauce, on the table.
On the way back to the kitchen, Tony, the owner, stops me. “Joey, some cops outside wanna talk.” His eyes meet mine and flit away. There is a sad look in those familiar eyes. This is my fifth year working for Tony… Why’s he looking at me like that?
“Cops wanna talk?” I say, not fully registering what he said.
Tony motions for Dino to cover my tables. He takes my tray and sadly shakes his head. “Sorry.” He reaches up and pats my cheek. “Sorry, Goombah…” What the hell?
I walk quickly through the dimly lit restaurant, past the crowded bar, and outside into the thirty degree December night. Somebody needs to tell Al Gore and the green gang to send some global warming our way…
Under the weathered canopy, leaning against the side of their Crown Vic, are two detectives. One is skinny with an elongated face, wearing an off-the-rack blue suit, pants too short and jacket too baggy. The other one, twenty pounds too heavy, is trying hard for cool — a black T, black pants, and an Armani knock-off jacket. As I approach, both walk towards me. Two tough guys not needing overcoats… “Joe Belmont?” Skinny asks, while Trying-hard-for-cool flicks a cigarette into the gutter.
Skinny blows into his hands and rubs them together. “I’m Detective Veniti and this is my partner Detective Walkowski. It’s cold as hell out here. Why don’t you come in our car? It’ll be more comfortable.”
“No thanks,” I say, finding myself taking deep breaths, and feeling perspiration forming on my forehead.
Veniti says, “Maybe there’s a quiet room inside the restaurant where we can talk?”
“On a Saturday night with every table jammed with Main Line and south Jersey pasta addicts? Just tell me what’s goin’ on.” I shove my hands deep into the thin black tuxedo jacket pockets, feeling the wads of crumpled cash — at least eighty bucks in tips.
Veniti coughs again. “It’s about your mother.”
“My mother? What’s wrong?”
Veniti shakes his head, a solemn look spreading across his face, his eyes drifting away from my eyes. “I know this isn’t a good way to say it. There really isn’t a good way… She’s dead, Joe. I’m sorry. She was killed.”
“Oh Jesus…” I mumble, taking deep breaths and wrapping my arms around my chest. My knees shake. It’s cold out here, but not so cold that my knees should shake. “Maybe there’s been a mistake. You sure it was Theresa Belmont? My mother?” My voice echoes, as though my ears are stopped up. The traffic light on the corner changes to green. The color is subdued, unnatural, covered by mist. I blink my eyes.
“We’re very careful about these things. I wish we could tell you more.”
“What happened? You said she was killed? A car accident?”
“Lieutenant Barneggi will explain it all. We’re sorry for your loss, Joe,” Veniti says softly, and opens the car door.
I shiver and take a deep breath. This has to be a mistake. I close my eyes and rub them.
“Joe, you need to get in.”
“I gotta tell Louie.” Across the street, a Philadelphia Inquirer truck pulls to a stop and a bale of newspapers lands on the sidewalk.
“Louie knows,” Veniti says, patting me on the shoulder.
“Look, I’ve got my own car,” I say, backing away.
“Joe, please come with us. The lieutenant is waiting.”
“Why? I’m gonna talk to Louie and get my car.”
Veniti looks over at Walkowski who nods. Veniti says, “It wasn’t an accident.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It was a homicide.”
“That’s all we can say. The lieutenant will fill you in on the rest.”
“My mother was murdered! You can’t be serious…”
“We’re sorry.” He motions again to the car door. “We want you to come with us.”
“What? Like I’m some sort of suspect?”
“No. It’s not like that. The lieutenant just wants us to transport you.”
“What’s the big deal if I drive myself?”
“Joe, you need to come with us.”
“…So, I have two choices. It’s either go with you… or go with you.”
We stare at each other, Veniti giving me some half-baked version of a tough guy look. It’s all bullshit, but I’m too tired and cold to keep staring. I give him one last half-hearted, fuck you glare, lower my head and slide on to the back seat. They drive? I drive? Who gives a shit? Let them support the damn Saudis’ oil machine. I take a deep breath and immediately start breathing through my mouth. How the hell do these yoyos stand it? Their car smells like the urinal in the old Vet before they built The Linc.
Across the street is Demetri’s Bakery. Eight hours ago I was devouring a sweet Ricotta cheese cannoli and washing it down with a slug of espresso. Now, only a bitter metallic taste fills my mouth.
I picture mom’s face — short brown hair with streaks of gray, sharp features, high cheekbones, dark complexion. Her eyes were bird-like, always moving, alert, never still.
The engine starts and the car pulls away from the curb. A few blocks away, a black and white crosses the intersection and disappears. It makes me think about jails, how being in one would be torture. Then I picture mom lying inside a coffin. The top is shut and it’s dark and cold inside that skinny box. Jesus Christ!
We drive through the maze of Little Italy, passing blocks of row houses, scores of storefront shops and restaurants, bars with men standing outside the entrance cigarettes dangling from their lips, corners where gang-bangers stand around burning trashcans, upscale townhouses on the waterfront — homes that easily sell for two or three million bucks. I see my reflection in the window; my eyes are open wide and my jaw is clenched. I look haunted and in shock. I feel like pounding on the window and telling Veniti to stop this fucking rolling urinal. I sit still, watching my frozen reflection from a place that seems very far away.
The police shortwave band squawks and Veniti mumbles something into the phone. He turns and smiles at me. I look out the window and ignore him.
I think about how mom and I lived together, just the two of us — a do-gooder freak and a workaholic. Then I moved a few miles across town to college.
* * *
The police station is packed. I lean against the back wall of the over-heated, waiting area. Veniti told me that Lieutenant Barneggi would be down in a few minutes. Walkowski never said a word, a mute Pollock in his fake Armani outfit, chain-smoking his way to the lung cancer ward…
Sitting a few feet in front of me is an old woman dabbing at her eyes with a wad of Kleenex. She glares at an obese man sitting to her left. On her right, curled up in a dirty blanket, is a three-year-old boy, his thumb in his mouth. In front of the main desk, a flashy woman straightens her dress and pushes a goodly portion of her breasts towards the officer who’s interviewing her. He barks something and she takes a step backward, her breasts almost popping out of her dress. A fat woman sporting a Bitches on Hogs, Harley T-shirt, slumps in a chair with her eyes closed.
A man with a twelve o’clock shadow, wearing a baggy, past-its-prime, woolen sport-jacket approaches. “Joe, I’m Detective Barneggi,” he says, extending his hand. “I’m sorry about your mother. Thanks for being cooperative.”
Cooperative? Is this guy a professional comedian? My lips are dry and my stomach queasy. I nod and shake his hand.
“Let’s go to my office where we can talk more comfortably. Okay.” It isn’t a question.
Barneggi, five feet eight inches tall in his black brogues, and I, six two, shortening my stride to keep pace with him, walk side-by-side. I rub my hip as we walk. Even after so many years, the damn limp returns when I’m too tired or too stressed.
The elevator, with a fuck you blue peckerheads, scratched in the shiny metal, opens onto the third floor. It’s a minor pleasure when a graffiti artist shows some creativity. Blue peckerheads borders on literary. We walk to a small, private office with a battered metal desk covered with stacks of manila folders surrounding a Dell computer and three white plastic chairs for the “guests”. Barneggi motions for me to sit down. I sit.
“Joe, you want coffee?”
A few minutes later, Barneggi hands me a chipped ceramic mug of black coffee. He sits down and takes a loud sip. His lips remain perched on the rim of the mug, like he wants to keep them warm. He looks expectantly at me.
I look at my coffee, start to say something, then change my mind.
Barneggi balances the heavy mug on a stack of folders, pops a cigarette into his mouth, and holds out the pack.
“No thanks,” I say, watching the lieutenant light up, take a deep breath, and exhale, the smoke forming a long stream that gently disintegrates somewhere near the ceiling next to the fluorescent lights. Mom still smokes…used to smoke. No amount of literature or reasoning could get her to stop. She was a stubborn woman, not at all stupid — on the contrary, very clever. She knew cigarettes were dangerous but just shrugged whenever I brought up the topic.
“You’re smart. My wife’s been on me for years to stop.” Barneggi takes another drag, parking the cigarette at the end of his lips. His wife should toss his ass out of the bedroom every time he takes a drag or has the audacity to serve coffee without cream.
I take a sip of the coffee and put the mug down. It tastes like burnt vinegar. On the credenza behind Barneggi is a family picture of the lieutenant standing in a snow-covered field with his wife and son. The boy is a half-foot taller than Barneggi and wears a South Philly High letter jacket. He looks like a basketball player, maybe a shooting guard?
I say softly. “I can’t believe this. I’ve been busy as hell and haven’t spoken to my mother since sometime last week. What happened, Lieutenant?” My hands are trembling. I intertwine my fingers and stretch.
“Joe, where were you between the hours of seven and ten this evening?”
“Where was I? At Zapata. The shift starts at five-thirty. Where else would I be?” What the fuck?
“Were you there the whole time?”
I take a deep breath and look closely at Barneggi. There’s a small razor cut on his chin and an errant black hair poking from his nose… Fucking blue pecker! “Lieutenant! What happened to my mother?”
Barneggi is silent for a few moments. Finally he says, never losing eye contact with me, “One of the officers spoke to your mother’s next door neighbor, the Solinas. They were the people who identified her. Told us where to find you. Shocked as hell, especially the wife. Said your mother was a saint.”
My heart is pounding.
Barneggi keeps staring at me. “She was shot.”
“Jesus. In her house?”
“That’s where you found her?”
He nods again, his expression watchful.
“Why would anyone want to shoot her?” The air’s hot and stuffy in the office. Perspiration drips from my forehead. I wipe it off with the back of my hand.
Barneggi shrugs. “I was hoping you could help us answer that question.” He continues to look directly into my eyes.
“I don’t know,” I answer, watching the particles of smoke spread throughout the room, thinking that at this exact moment I’m breathing a mixture of Barneggi’s exhaled carbon dioxide and cancerous tobacco particles into MY lungs. Didn’t the asshole bother to read the Surgeon General’s report; or go to the movies or notice the warning on every pack of cancer sticks? Is he a moron?
“What did you say?” Barneggi asks.
I speak louder. “I said I don’t know. She had no money, no jewelry to speak of, no fancy furniture or paintings. Doesn’t make any sense. She wouldn’t even let me buy her a new winter coat. Hers was at least ten years old.” I drag my forearm across my forehead, removing the perspiration. “Who do you think did it? Why?”
“You want some fresh coffee? You look beat to hell.”
“No.” I feel myself glaring at Barneggi. I don’t like the way the son of a bitch is looking at me.
“We’re out of cream, Joe. I didn’t forget. This new cup won’t be Starbucks, but it’ll be better than what I brought out. That crap was probably sitting on the warmer since this afternoon. But, if I didn’t drink it, I’d probably fall asleep.” Barneggi picks up my full cup and leaves the room.
I look out the window at the traffic down below. Even at eleven o’clock, Vine Street is busy.
“What kind of person was your mother?” Barneggi’s voice is startling. He puts the steaming mug on the desk in front of me.
I pick up the mug and stare into the murky fluid, at the gentle dark undulation, at the rising steam. I look across the desk at Barneggi. “Everyone loved her. She was always involved in charities at her church. Donated hundreds of hours of her time every year for as long as I can remember.”
“Sounds like your mother’s neighbors were right about her being a saint.” Barneggi has a fresh cigarette dangling from his lips.
I glance back out the window. The light patterns are hypnotic, cars barreling down Vine Street, streaks of yellow and red swirling about in the darkness. Where will I bury her? What the hell do I do for money? I close my eyes and involuntarily shiver. What kind of asshole thinks about money at a time like this? I grip the coffee mug and picture heaving it through the plate-glass window.
Barneggi gives me a quizzical look.
With a slight tremor, I put the mug back on the desk. Not much gets by this particular blue pecker.
“Joe, do you have any idea why your mother was killed?” Barneggi sounds frustrated. He fiddles with his pen, clicking it, bouncing it on top of the folders.
“No. Money was really tight. Like I already said, there was nothing worth stealing in her house.” I glance out the window at a car’s headlights as it disappears up Third Street. “She helped me out when she could. It was hard for both of us. Med school’s ridiculously expensive and living on loans and waiting tables is a pretty screwed existence. She did the best she could but there really wasn’t much. Never was. She believed that her calling was to help others and she donated her time to the church rather than work overtime for actual money.”
Barneggi’s expression didn’t change.
“Lieutenant, why are you looking at me that way?”
“Do you suspect me of killing my mother?” I’m sick of his not so subtle bullshit!
“Should I?” Barneggi casually steams his eyeglasses with his breath, then takes a bundled piece of Kleenex and rhythmically rubs each lens.
“Go to hell,” I say, my voice loud and harsh.
Barneggi doesn’t blink.
I stand so quickly that my chair topples over backward and bangs into the wall. “Well Lieutenant, I better confess and get it off my chest. Instead of taking a ten-minute break, I drove sixteen blocks to my mother’s house, shot her, and emptied out her purse. I thought that getting an extra twenty bucks was my due. Then I stopped along the way at Gino’s for a cheese steak, grilled onions and cheese of course, and came back to Tony’s and–”
“You know lieutenant, I better confess it all. In the end I’m sure I’ll feel much better and you’ve probably already checked with the airlines. I fly to Iran twice a month for training on how to be a suicide bomber. The last time I tried blowing up a kindergarten class the bombs didn’t go off so I threw pieces of chalk —-“
“Take it easy, Joe!” Barneggi holds up his hand like a traffic cop, the tone in his voice hardening.
“Take it easy? She was my mother. You take it easy! What gives you the right to accuse me of something this grotesque? This is fucking–”
“I’m just doing my job.”
“Doing your job? You think I killed her? My own mother! What are you a freaking sadist? You waste your time harassing me when whoever did this is somewhere out there.” I point toward the window, like maybe the asshole might fly by like Harry Potter.
Barneggi sighs, and actually looks like he’s grimacing. He motions me towards the chair. “Please sit down, Joe. I don’t really think you killed anybody. Besides, we know you were at the restaurant at the time of her death.”
I glare for another few seconds and then pick up the chair and sit down.
“Look, I know this is a rough time for you. I just had to cover all the bases.”
“Why do this if you knew I was at the restaurant?”
“We were ninety-nine-percent sure. The time of death isn’t always exact… Look Joe, I’m sorry. You can’t believe how many next-of-kin are involved in homicides.”
I nod without smiling.
Barneggi smoothes back his hair. “You been workin’ long for Tony?”
I take a deep breath and sigh. “I started with him when I was a freshman at Penn — weekends, and an evening here or there. Then I worked full-time in the summers and now in med school — mainly weekends but sometimes during the week…”
“Sounds tough going to med school and having to work as a waiter. No one helping you out financially?” Barneggi’s tone is caring, his look paternal. First the bad cop, then the good one… A hermaphroditic dog and pony show, but not a bad act. In spite of myself, I actually believe him.
“…Just me and you.”
“Tax dollars…federal loans.”
Barneggi looks down at his desk for a moment. When he looks back up, he says, “This wasn’t a simple robbery. We’re pretty sure these were professionals. Your mother was tied up, beaten, and then shot once in the back of the head. A hundred and twenty dollars was left in her purse.”
Bile rises in my throat. I bend my head down and take deep breaths, trying to gain control. How could this have happened? Why her?
“…Joe, we can finish tomorrow.”
“No, it’s okay.” I sit up, and focus on Barneggi’s face.
Barneggi hesitates for a few seconds then asks, “Where’s your father?”
“He died when I was eight.”
Barneggi nods and sighs. “Did your mother have any boyfriends? An angry husband? Anyone at work hold a grudge against her?”
“No enemies. Never remarried. No dates I know of. She worked at Vistas Realty — secretary-office-manager for my uncle, her brother Louis Donnati. He probably paid a fortune to an advertising firm to come up with the name.” Barneggi took another drag on his cigarette, and for the first time since seventh grade, I wanted a smoke.
“You don’t like your Uncle?”
“Louie’s all right, but not my type. Shiny silk suits, pointed loafers, gold bracelets…” I stretch my neck. “…Big old Lincoln Towncar that needs a new engine and a paint job, fat cigars — he says they’re Cuban, but who the hell knows… But, when you get right down to it, he’s my uncle. What the hell…” The image of mom lying in a coffin and Louie standing next to her, a cigar jutting from his pursed lips, flashes through my mind. If I knew where to reach him, I would.
“So he and your mother were tight?”
“Yeah. He’s out of the country. Somewhere in Europe? I’m not sure. Has been for two, maybe three weeks. When he’s gone she runs the office, but I don’t think much happens without him there or even with him there… Who knows?” I’m beat to hell and starting to have hot flashes from exhaustion.
Barneggi stands and hands me his card. “Let me give you a lift back to the restaurant. You need a good night’s sleep, and so do I.”
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2 thoughts on “CHASING BACKWARDS, A PSYCHOLOGICAL MURDER MYSTERY: Prologue and Chapter 1”
I just finished Chasing Backwards. I couldn’t put it down. The plot is interesting, with many twists and turns along the way. The characters are well developed, and you care about what happens to them. This is both a gripping mystery and an exploration of the protagonists ongoing nightmares. It is rare to find a novel that grips you from the beginning, and takes you on an exciting , adventurous ride. It left me wanting more. I was sorry it ended. Bravo, Dr. Smukler.
Very exciting! Well drawn likeable characters and a very interesting story. I highly recommend this book!