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Excerpts

Image courtesy Knopf

The Thousand

An excerpt of Kevin Guilfoile’s new novel, The Thousand, about a group of mavericks safeguarding and exploiting the secret teachings of Pythagoras.

Phillip Truman was twenty-two years old, with hair like indigo silk, black marbles for eyes, and a slim body fitted for thousand-dollar slacks. As of last October 7, when a vacationing Baltimore teenager sneaked out of her family’s suite at Mandalay Bay to attend Truman’s party on the seventeenth floor, he was also an alleged rapist, which was why Canada Gold, on the afternoon of her otherwise uncelebrated twenty-fourth birthday, had followed him through the doors of the most expensive French restaurant in downtown Las Vegas.

He sat facing her in an upholstered booth along the wall, maybe twenty yards away. While he waited for the rest of his party, he drummed his thumbs expertly against the face of his BlackBerry, casually answering his e-mail the same way nonrapists would. Nada didn’t own a BlackBerry, or even a computer. Her unassisted senses already input as much information as a mind was equipped to handle. Maybe more.

Free on bond with his daddy’s cash, Truman was in sexual predator limbo—his sin committed, he now relied on the petitions of others to save him. Since the night of his arrest, Truman’s primary advocate had been a Vegas lawyer named English Judson. Fedoraed, mustachioed, only slightly less infamous (and far less handsome) than his client, Judson had a turbulent history with Canada, which would be a kind way of saying they disliked each other profoundly. In reference to Judson, she often used the word despise, usually followed by “his ugly, arrogant guts.”

She knew many things about Judson—such as the sort of jurors he preferred when his client was guilty, as well as the Vintage Porto he always ordered when one of those grateful, guilty clients had his hand on the check. She could name his least-favorite jazz singers and the poets he loved the best. She knew the brand of fuel additive he put in his Porsche and that behind his back his partners said he looked ridiculous driving it. She could tell you that Judson liked cats better than dogs and both cats and dogs better than children. She knew he adored his wife but hated her friends.

She knew he’d sent someone to break into her apartment and run his hands through her underwear.

Some of this information was important. Most of it was not. But if English Judson were the person Truman was waiting for, as Canada suspected he was, then her stakeout would be over as soon as the valet took temporary custody of that Porsche and Judson glanced around the uncrowded restaurant for confirmation that he was being noticed. If he spotted her, he would take this meeting somewhere else.

After placing a pile of singles next to her half-finished Diet Coke and lemon, she walked to the ladies’ room where she washed her hands, counting slowly to ten as the warm water rinsed away liquid soap. She smelled her wet fingertips—Rosemary—and looking into the mirror, she assessed the young woman she saw there. She counted that woman’s friends, which took less time than washing her hands. She counted her failed romances, which took slightly longer. She counted the one-night stands—longer still. She counted her personal and professional prospects, which took literally no time at all.

“NAH-duh,” she whispered.

For all the details Nada’s remarkable senses were able to track, the most salient aspect of the world she observed was that she was not in it.

For this reason, she often found mirrors comforting. Leaning this close to a big mirror, her breath fogging and refogging the glass, she could make the universe small. In the mirror she could create a world inhabited by no one but Canada Gold.

A small flat screen inside the mirror murmured incessantly, as all televisions had for several weeks now, about the plane crashes in Florida. Two airliners, a United flight destined for Houston and an American flight en route to Boston, leaving within minutes of each other from the Fort Lauderdale airport, had crashed shortly after takeoff, their overlapping debris fields providing shocking panoramas for news helicopters and widespread nightmares for TSA investigators neck-deep in the swamp. Every airport in the nation had been shut down for twenty-four hours and no flights were planned out of Fort Lauderdale until they pieced together the still-smoldering puzzle on the ground. Saturation news stories were a special torture to Nada, the minutiae of tragedy replayed over and over, indelible details scribbled on top of themselves again and again and again.

After her father’s murder, she saw a therapist, who had asked about her special gift. Nada replied that it was more like an unforeseen consequence. A side effect. A superpower. Even now, less than a mile away in her new and almost empty apartment, somewhere among her few possessions, was a treasured reprint of The Amazing Spider-Man #1. Her own story wasn’t unlike that of Peter Parker, who was bitten by a radioactive arachnid and subsequently discovered he possessed odd and useful abilities. She and Peter were both afflicted when they were in their teens, and Nada’s spider still had its teeth stuck into the back of her head.

And like Peter, her powers came packaged with complications.

She calculated the time. She had followed Phillip Truman into the restaurant at 11:46, meaning the reservation was probably for noon. Another thing she knew about Judson: He was never late. She had been in this bathroom exactly five and a half minutes, and by now Judson should have taken a seat across from his client, with his back to the bar. She dried her hands with a thick paper towel.

“She’s a freak of nature, and my firm has been burned by her so many times, we seriously discussed conducting all our business in Navajo.”Nada closed the restroom door with a soft click and returned to her chair. Judson was seated as she’d hoped, but he was facing her, settled into the booth next to his client. Like a lover, she thought, perhaps only because Judson would find the idea so offensive.

He spotted her and stretched his thin lips into a delighted line as he pulled his napkin from the table and dropped it across his tiny lap. Exposed and defeated, Nada clutched the icy glass that held her drink and raised it to him in sarcastic surrender.

Judson leaned into Truman, his face square to Nada’s.

“Have you been talking on the phone since you arrived?”

“No,” the rapist replied.

“Good.” Judson pointed toward the bar. “You see that attractive young lady with the auburn hair, staring right at us?” Truman sneaked a glance at her and nodded briefly. Judson said, “Her name is Canada Gold, and despite the fact that she has never been to law school—doesn’t even have a bachelor’s degree—she was, very briefly, one of the most sought-after jury consultants in the state of Nevada. Do you have any idea why? Of course you don’t. If you did, you would have sprinted from this restaurant the second you spotted her.

“You see, Phillip, Ms. Gold, who grew up in the same house as a coldblooded killer, possesses a unique set of abilities. She reads lips in two languages. She can hear conversations from across a crowded room. Allegedly, she has a photographic memory, and I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that her idle thoughts can bend spoons. She’s a freak of nature, and my firm has been burned by her so many times, we seriously discussed conducting all our business in Navajo.”

Truman looked again at her. Nada sipped her Diet Coke, winking at him over the rim of the glass. The rapist jerked his head down, while Judson never took his eyes away from hers.

“These are talents certain unscrupulous attorneys find very useful,” Judson was saying. “Some of her associates, perhaps even in the district attorney’s office, paid Ms. Gold for information she obtained by spying on opposing lawyers and their clients. For stealing privileged information they couldn’t otherwise obtain.” Truman opened his mouth silently and wide, like a hungry baby chick. “You don’t believe me? Why don’t we test her?” Judson reached his arm across the younger man’s shoulders and put his mouth very close to the rapist’s ear. He whispered, “Ms. Gold, can you understand what I’m saying to my client right now?”

The lawyer’s lips moved in exaggerated slow motion: Canada. Gold. Is. A. Loathsome...

The last word had one syllable, which began with the thick part of Judson’s tongue against the rear of his palate and ended with the tongue’s bow striking just behind the upper incisors.

Nada grabbed the bartender’s pen and scribbled on a napkin, which she then held up with her left hand while extending a middle finger at the end of her outstretched right arm. She didn’t know if Judson could read the message from his seat, so she left it on the bar for him to find later and lifted her yellow purse and thanked the bartender, who seemed amused and confused and perhaps aroused in equal parts.

Judson continued, his voice apparently just above a whisper but his opinions still largely for Nada’s benefit. “There isn’t a Vegas attorney worth a nickel an hour who’d recite the alphabet to his client without first checking to make sure Canada Gold’s not within a hundred yards. So the retainers have dried up and she spends her days counting cards at blackjack tables and, it seems, harassing wrongly accused young men such as yourself. Do you know how pathetic you must be to become an outcast even among poker players? Nevertheless, if you don’t want every goddamn detail of your personal life to get back to the assistant district attorney, then every time you flap your lips in public, you put your fucking hand over your fucking mouth. Do you understand me?”

Truman looked terrified. A minor victory, Nada thought.

As she was escorted to the door, ten new digits encoded into the seemingly limitless bank of recorded facts inside her brain, Nada wondered how it was possible that a cowardly scumbag like Phillip Truman had so many friends willing to protect him.

Once again, Nada counted her own friends in her head. Friends as good as the rapist’s friends. One. Two.

“Pathetic,” she said to the perplexed maître d’ as she stepped into the revolving door. “Just pathetic.”

 

* * *


The building was an unremarkable rectangle of pale masonry and mortar, with metal doors and small single-paned windows fronted by a thin line of waxy shrubs. Inside were partitioned offices, rehearsal rooms with molded plastic chairs and aluminum music stands, and a gymnasiumsize performance space lined with an assortment of donated and used instruments. Still, Chicago’s third Solomon Gold Memorial Youth Center represented new construction, which, amid the neglected three flats and bodegas and storefront churches of West Division Street, was unusual enough to warrant a dedication ceremony even the mayor cleared his schedule to make.

The mayor, Reggie thought. Christ, if only he knew.

Gold’s widow, Elizabeth, was addressing the medium-size crowd of passersby, neighborhood activists, children in yellow prop T-shirts, and television crew persons. “Solomon would be so proud,” and so forth. The woman must have loathed her husband at the end of his life but was nevertheless forced to praise him in death.

It was something she and Reggie had in common.

“Solomon would have loved this place,” said Elizabeth to the crowd. “He loved children.”

Attractive in her advancing age, Elizabeth Gold was a strong woman with broad shoulders and thin ankles and radical curves in between. During the trial, Reggie had often marveled at the physical differences between Solomon Gold’s wife and his lover. Erica Liu had been such a tiny thing. In photos, she seemed so small next to her instrument that the cello almost looked like it were playing her. Elizabeth Gold had small eyes and an impossibly small waist, but everything else about her—butt, tits, hands, and hair—was outsize. And all sexy, Reggie thought. As she spoke just in front of him and to his left, it took every bit of his concentration not to let his eyes follow the looping S shape that began just under her toned arm and ended at the bottom of her big round ass.

Reggie heard a cough, a sniff, a swallow, a breath, a single boot step.Reggie often wondered why Elizabeth had kept his client’s surname through two unsuccessful marriages, given how consuming her hatred of Solomon must once have been. Perhaps she just enjoyed the celebrity attached to the Gold name—the attention in charity boardrooms and the privilege of good tables in restaurants. Or maybe, Reggie realized, in fifteen years with a personality as strong as Solomon’s, her transformation into Elizabeth Gold had become irreversible. It would have been as unthinkable for her to become Elizabeth Kennedy again as it would be for a butterfly to go back to being a caterpillar.

And then there was the child they’d had together. As far as Reggie could determine, the Gold name was the only connection Elizabeth and Canada still had.

A founding board member of the Solomon Gold Foundation, Reggie attended half a dozen of these things each year—fund-raisers, tribute concerts, school dedications, and, last year a spelling bee. Despite the always-pressing needs of his wealthy and celebrity clients, Reggie never missed a Gold Foundation event. At every one, seated in a conspicuous position of honor, often next to Elizabeth Gold or his own lovely wife, he hoped his eyes wouldn’t hint at the scenes reconstructing in his mind—scenes from the night ten years ago when Reggie had been wounded and his best-known client, the acclaimed conductor and composer and accused killer, Solomon Gold, was murdered in his own home.

The case had been closed the next day when Erica Liu’s father, Michael, the primary “person of interest,” killed himself without leaving a note. There was no trial, no further investigation. Solomon’s murder could have been a crime of passion, or rage, or an assassination, or a revenge killing, or even self-defense. All these years later, Reggie still didn’t know for sure.

He knew it wasn’t an accident.

Exactly two weeks after the acquittal, the phone had rung in Reggie’s LaSalle Street office. It was just before eight and the Polish-speaking cleaning crew, hunchbacked over their vacuums and buckets, had just started their systematic march through the halls. Reggie had spent much of the early evening drinking too quickly from a twelve-year-old bottle of Maker’s Mark and staring helplessly at a pile of pink message slips, an accumulating record of calls from a dead girl’s father.

“Let’s meet,” Gold said.

Reggie had no desire to see his client. He knew it would be impossible to look into Gold’s face without seeing Erica Liu’s lifeless body reflected in his dark eyes. He wouldn’t be able to shake Gold’s powerful hand without conjuring Erica’s long, thin neck squeezed between its fingers. Reggie had represented bad people before, but a case had never affected him this way. Never given him headaches and a temperature and sleepless nights and the chronic shits. Maybe it was the public nature of the trial. More likely, it was the fame and success that were coming to Reggie in its wake, the dividends that would be paid at the cost of one dead girl and one smug and carefree killer. Before Gold, he’d never regretted taking on a guilty client, never been depressed about winning a case. Never felt this combination of shame and guilt and anger and fear.

Never been rewarded so abundantly for helping a murderer walk out of prison.

“The trial is over, Solomon,” Reggie said. “You need a divorce lawyer now.” He thought about hanging up, but he knew Gold would only call back again and again until he had what he wanted.

“Just to talk,” Gold said. “I can’t talk to these people. I can’t talk to anyone.”

Reggie had no idea whom he meant by “these people.” Whoever they were, they probably weren’t bound by confidentiality. Do enough bad things, keep enough secrets, and eventually you can’t hold a decent conversation with anyone but your own lawyer.

“I have one more thing I need to discuss with you,” Gold said.

Reggie let a disbelieving snort escape the cavity behind his nose. One more thing. The horrible truth about Erica Liu’s death would always bind them together. Secrets like that were shackles. Reggie’s sworn obligation to his client meant he would never be rid of Solomon Gold, and Gold’s acquittal meant he would never be done with Reggie.

Locking his office, Reggie waved good night to a group of young associates pecking at a large take-out carton with chopsticks—their night, like his, was only beginning—and took an elevator to the lobby and another to the parking garage. It was more than half empty, but the echoes of the heavy metal doors and his thick soles against the concrete felt different to Reggie. Duller, less reverberating.

He wasn’t alone.

Quickening his stride, Reggie scanned the cars and saw shadows in every one, shadows that disappeared at his glance, only to rematerialize when he turned his head. He heard a cough, a sniff, a swallow, a breath, a single boot step. He smelled onions and garlic, motor oil and urine. When he was within ten yards of his own Audi, he broke into a run, squeezing the car remote five, six, seven times. He started the car and locked the door, then screeched his tires around nine levels of garage as fast as the turns allowed.

He was breathing in gulps. His heart ran laps in his chest. Reggie glanced in his rearview and saw nothing.

Still unbuckled, he worked sweat from his hands into the leather wheel cover. He hated Gold. Hated him for what he had done to Erica Liu and for what he continued to do to Reggie Vallentine. A jury had found his client not guilty, but Reggie’s own guilt could not be dismissed as easily. He knew now how mob lawyers felt. Despite what they tell you in law school, with a certain kind of defendant there seems to be little difference between representing him and becoming him.

“Son of a bitch,” Reggie said out loud, and as he accelerated north onto nearly empty Lake Shore Drive, his anger was like bubbling pop in a shaken can. For months it had been waiting to explode.

Although he’d accepted his client’s guilt midway through trial prep, Reggie had decided to remain as Gold’s defense counsel. A conviction is worthless if it hasn’t been challenged by a vigorous defense, he’d reminded himself. And he couldn’t be known as a lawyer who turned against guilty clients, even repugnant ones. Especially repugnant ones.

As weeks stretched into months and then a year, he recognized insane rages across Gold’s face in short glimpses. Like a shark’s, the composer’s attention almost always came in the form of attacks—unrelenting verbal assaults that seemed to carry the threat of violence. Other people were invisible to Gold unless they offered a service he required. Reggie wondered if this was what had happened to Erica Liu. When Gold no longer needed her, she just disappeared. Became invisible to him. Dead to him, as they say. It must have been very easy for Gold to kill someone who, in his own twisted mind, had already expired.

When he exited the LSD at Fullerton, he was minutes away from a horrible, fateful meeting in Solomon’s graystone on the park.

A decade later, after he stepped behind the podium on West Division to enthusiastic applause, Reggie gestured once at the crowd with his good arm and bowed his head respectfully to the dead man’s widow and told the audience how much Solomon Gold had treasured Chicago, the city where he had been born, educated, unjustly tried, and tragically murdered.

He told them the work of the Gold Foundation was just a small example of the limitless good that can take root in the barren soil of senseless tragedies like the killings of Erica Liu and of the great composer whose name was being affixed to this building today.

Then Reggie Vallentine, the man who had murdered Solomon Gold, touched the old wound in his right shoulder and told them they were all blessed.

Excerpted from The Thousand by Kevin Guilfoile. Copyright © 2010 by Kevin Guilfoile. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.