Prologue: Behind the Scarlet Door
Johnny was twenty-two years old and only wanted to have sex. Other things, too, he was sure of that, but they receded so far into the background haze of his conscious state that they generally went unregistered. That’s what had driven him, post–high school, from Massachusetts to Manhattan, where he was ostensibly a stagehand but really just a dude hanging around the theater scene to meet beautiful, smart, talented women drawn to the promise of the Big Apple.
He’d lucked into a square jaw, a decent fastball that gave him athlete cred, an ounce of acting ability from his mom, and if he worked out twenty minutes a day, he could keep a six-pack. It seemed unfair, almost, the advantages the world had given him, and he wanted to make sure he was respectful of those gifts. And grateful.
Lacey was all-American—round face with dimples, long hair with bangs, curves all day. She was young and firm and he was young and firm, and he knew enough to know that he should appreciate every red second of this phase of his life. Johnny Seabrook, a helluva wasp name for a kid whose grampa was a carpet installer. The real family name, Schetter, was changed at Ellis Island for obvious reasons. It had taken his family four generations to get from Needham across Wellesley Avenue. As academic as they were now, they still had blue collar running in their veins. That’s what Johnny loved so much about New York. Everyone there was dying to reinvent themselves, and they were all happy to embrace whoever you wanted to be as long as you returned the favor.
He and Lacey had fast and furious sex whenever they could. Over lunch break. On his futon at night, pausing to watch a movie, then twice more before falling asleep. She was great, soft, and her hair smelled like green apples and money. She came from the Hamptons and was hooked into that party scene, too, which he’d only gotten a glimpse of on reality TV shows. But it seemed like that’s where it was at, “it” being the future he’d been aiming at for as long as he could remember.
They’d only been seeing each other a few weeks when she’d rolled over after one of their midday trysts and mentioned a party out there over Labor Day. Some rich finance dude who kept a constant party going, like that Gatsby guy from the novel. Lacey wasn’t gonna be around, a family trip to the French Riviera, which to Johnny was as fantastical a place as the fifth moon of Jupiter. But she was fine with his going without her, even booked him an Uber through her account ’cuz she knew he didn’t have the dough. She said a few of her girlfriends would be there and it was cool if he wanted to get with them because it’s not like she wasn’t gonna be hooking up with French guys.
New York women, man! So different from the Boston folks he came from, with their New England rigor, Puritan practicalities, and flinty work ethic.
The place was on Billionaire’s Row, Lacey said, and when he asked for the address, she replied with a word: Tartarus. Some of the places there were named, she explained, like on the Cape. He didn’t have any paper in reach, but he found a loose marker on the floor next to his futon so he’d written it down on the white midsole of his throwback Vans.
The next Saturday a bit before ten at night, the Uber dropped him off at the end of a winding road that looked like some kind of royal drive. These weren’t oceanfront houses so much as coastal palaces. A wide-open vista overlooking Shinnecock Bay on one side, soft sand beaches on the other. Even at this hour, Johnny could hear the crash of waves and the cries of Behind the Scarlet Door 3 seagulls pinwheeling in the southwest summer wind. He could taste the sea.
He followed the folks streaming up Meadow Lane to an enormous house with a private dock. Cliques and clusters, the young and gorgeous mixed with the mature and well-preserved. An old-fashioned wooden sign announced it as Tartarus, the wide letters painted with a tartan pattern like from a kilt. Moonlight glinted off the quartz stone of the circular driveway, and valets in red vests were lining up vehicles worth more than his parents’ house. He was swept along with a cluster of little-black-dress types through a foyer the size of his apartment building, past a tumbling waterfall feature, and then out into the backyard, where the party was in full swing. A squat man with Warhol glasses—some famous designer?— wheeled and offered him and the women a snort of something from a no-shit silver spoon.
Johnny figured it would be rude to decline.
The party swirled and eddied, and the lights were oh so bright, and he was laughing hard, and anyone whose eye he caught laughed with him.
Chinese paper lanterns tugged at their strings overhead, casting a reddish glow. There were snow crab claws in bathtubs of ice, cheerful bright capsules passed on hors d’oeuvres trays along with fennel puff pastries, the best cover band he’d ever heard throwing down some serious eighties rock. In the churn of the crowd, he thought he spotted that one supermodel and then the journalist who’d had that scandal with the wine bottle. There was that politician—senator? congressman?—he remembered from the news. All those household names in clusters, joking and drinking and snorting and groping.
Someone was getting head on the diving board.
Rich people, man!
Two appetizer poppers down and halfway through his third gin and tonic, he bumped into someone and almost spilled right down her plunging neckline. He had to force his eyes north. She was a goddess, hair picked out in an Afro, bronzed skin, loose backless summer dress. Her cheekbones were accented with fierce strokes of makeup, and she was so attractive it made no human sense.
It felt wrong to even be looking at her.
“Wow,” he said.
She gave a regal half turn, her bare shoulder nearly clipping his chin. On the back of her neck was a blue-and-gold awareness ribbon tattoo with small vertical lettering on the left tail: BOSTON STRONG.
Johnny felt his heart lift; it was as good an in as he was gonna get at a party like this. “You’re from Boston, huh?” He tapped his chest with his thumb. “Wellesley. You come in for the party?”
She regarded him. “Don’t you get it?”
“You’re a toy like me. I’m not looking for another toy. I’m looking for an owner.”
A cigarette girl passed between them strapped to a tray sporting cannabis cotton candy and a medley of joints, and then the goddess was gone in a ninja poof, and he wondered if she’d even been real. He was laughing now. It was so ridiculous that he, Johnny Seabrook, number-two high-school pitcher from the not-too-rich part of Wellesley, was here among the clouds and the stars.
The old guys had money, that was for sure, but he knew he was cuter than he deserved to be, so he had that going for him, at least. Sure enough he caught the eye of a redhead in a red satin dress across the way, and he hoisted his glass for a toast before realizing he’d set it down somewhere. She wiggled a finger at him, and he followed her into the house. They played grown-up hide-and-seek, Johnny pursuing her through the crowd from room to room. God knew the mansion was set up for it, with nooks and crannies, secret passages, hidden rooms behind bookcases. There was crazy shit going on everywhere—metal tubs full of champagne, tables brimming with oysters, a half-clothed orgy on the leather couches of a library. At every turn there was another guy in a tux balancing a tray of cocktails. Johnny drifted through a miasma of pot smoke, the good stuff that tasted like live resin. The contact high compounded his other highs until he felt like he was floating through the halls.
He lost track of the girl in red and then of what room he was in and then of his face, which felt rubbery, like something stretched over his skull.
He came back into himself sprawled on a pool table with a ruddycheeked man with wobbly jowls beaming down at him—the anchor on that one morning show—and then he realized the guy’s chin was wet and he had his hand shoved down Johnny’s 501s. Behind the Scarlet Door 5 He tried to say, “No,” but it came out babylike—“Nuh”—and then he was stumbling out of the room trying to fasten his belt, the floor refusing to stay steady underfoot. Everything had taken on a horrible cast, like he’d telescoped in beyond where freedom was fun into the place where it became limitless, dizzying, terrifying. He was crying, and he wanted his high-school room with his Red Sox banner on the wall and his mom and dad and his nerdy-cool baby sis who had so many opinions and most of them right, and he felt so far from home.
And he thought about what his parents would say and his teachers, too, and how he’d brought this on himself, thinking that he could be a big man in the world, that he could have this much fun without consequences, and it was all so dirty and awful. And it was his fault for catching a ride to God knew where on the word of some girl he only half knew, and he’d taken all sorts of shit into his body without thinking about it, and now he was getting what he deserved.
Disoriented, he staggered from room to room but didn’t seem to get anywhere. The mansion was like one big maze where everything led to everything else. And he was crying now and thought about how he couldn’t tell anyone what had happened and he wouldn’t want to drink ever again or see people and he couldn’t go home and face his parents and partygoers were looming before him on the stairs, their faces ballooning. A woman in a platinum-blond wig ran a fingertip down his cheek and then sucked his tears off her print, and then he was running up instead of down just to get away from her.
Two security types on the landing of the third floor—one obese and sloppy, the other gym-hardened with pristinely coiffed hair—were distracted with a woman vomiting pyrotechnically into a floor vase. Johnny slipped past, unnoticed. He blacked out a moment and then . . .
. . . the artwork sliding off the walls, but it was quiet at least. He just needed to catch his breath. He realized he was probably near the master suite—wing?—of the house, since no one was up here, and he felt his gorge rising suddenly. There was a big door with no handle that was upholstered with fancy scarlet fabric like a couch, and he figured it might be a rich-person bathroom, so he shouldered into it, but it didn’t open and he didn’t want to barf on the marble tiles, so he hit it again hard, and it popped open and he spilled inside, landing on a shag carpet and . . .
. . . couldn’t believe what he was seeing, a man cocked back in his chair, head thrown back, lips rouged with pleasure, bathed in the light of a hundred sins . . .
. . .
. . . spinning around in the chair, face twisted with fury . . .
. . .
. . . like a punch that went straight through his shoulder blade and out the front . . .
. . .
. . . spewing vomit as he stagger-slid down a tight servant’s staircase . . .
. . .
. . . someone chasing, shouting . . .
. . .
. . . tripping and then falling down step after step . . .
. . .
. . . memory of stumbling into the wrong room, what he had seen there, no one was supposed to see . . .
. . .
. . . fresh air hit him, and he mostly woke up.
Blood trickling from his ear, left knee staved in, crimson blotch spreading at the breast of his cheap button-up shirt, Johnny gasped for oxygen as he tumbled out through French doors to the side of the mansion, his Vans skidding on a stretch of curated Bermuda grass.
The desolate side yard was unlit—no doubt by design.
No signs of life, the mansion so large that the backyard was a good quarter mile away. The cover band was giving the Boss a run for his money.
—liddle gurl is yer daddy home, did he go ’n’ leave ya all alone—
He couldn’t go there. He couldn’t trust any of these crazy rich people.
Help, he said, or at least he thought he did, but the word was still inside his head.
His belt remained unbuckled, and the shame of what he’d allowed to be done to him swelled up like a wave, threatening to pull him under. He couldn’t get help, couldn’t talk about this ever.
Ahead, a rise of trees partially blocked the putting green of the neighboring estate. The house looked a mile away, as distant as a castle on a Behind the Scarlet Door 7 hill. The wind had shifted from the north, bringing from the bay and marshland the stomach-turning stench of low tide, fresh salt air turned rotten.
Drunk with pain, Johnny swung his head toward the front of the mansion, his vision bright and woozy, the edges of things blending together. A spill of light glowed around the side from the massive circular driveway.
The valets. He could trust the valets.
Footsteps behind him, hammering down the stairs, approaching thunder. He wobbled a bit, fingers splayed on his torso over the wetness where chest met shoulder. The bullet hole seeped more blood, dark like ink. Had he . . . had he really been shot?
—and the Boss was singing about a knife, edgy and dull and—
He moved toward the valets, fumbling his iPhone from his pocket, thumbing the three digits, but his fingers were numb, insensate, and the slick case slipped from his hand and tumbled before he could press call.
He took a knee to pick it up, but then he couldn’t rise and blood was drooling from his bottom lip and he was crying and the news anchor’s ruddy face filled his mind and he understood for the first time in his charmed life what it meant to feel violated, demeaned, and he couldn’t imagine talking about it ever or about what he’d seen behind the scarlet door, and then the footsteps were coming up behind him, soft on the lush grass, and a shadow stretched slender and sinister beneath the susurrating leaves.
He could see his own face reflected up in the obsidian screen of his phone just beyond his reaching fingers, and then he saw another face appear over his shoulder, the face of the man from the room behind the scarlet door.
Somewhere the backyard band kept ooo-ooo-ooo-ing, and it was floating there, that awful face, inhuman and blank like a ghost’s, the rest of the body lost to shadow, and Johnny whimpered and drooled blood and strained for the phone in the grass, his fingertips brushing it, the screen coming to life, that green call circle right there millimeters from his fingertips.
But then he heard a thud, and his hand went hot with pain.
He saw that it had been staked to the lawn.
He opened his mouth, but all that came out was a rush of air, and then the man grabbed his hair and a voice whispered in his ear, “Naughty boy.”
The knife slid up and clear of Johnny’s hand with a tug, and then his head was yanked back further, baring the throat, and sensation blended with song, his heart pounding like the distant music, his ears thrumming to the rush of percussion, his nerves on fiii-ire.
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