Between the time they had returned from Montana and the day Nora had fallen ill, James had beaten Nora senseless. Tristan had often heard anguished cries from their bedroom, which suggested that James was either forcing Nora to have sex against her will or reprimanding her with the end of his belt.
Tristan would often approach the door, trepidation coating his steps forward in molasses, but before he ever reached the room, Evangeline was always there to drag him away. Tout ira bien, mon ange, tout ira bien!
Tristan knew that things would never be alright between his parents, so one afternoon he called the police. But the commissioner was one of James’s best friends, so no one ever showed up at their door. Later that night, when everyone was asleep, James entered Tristan’s bedroom and locked the door.
Tristan woke up immediately. When he spotted James, he bolted upright in bed, his heart racing. In the dimmed light, James’s eyes gleamed maleficently, darting from one corner of the room to the next, as though checking to make sure no one else was with them. He licked his lips in anticipation.
“I’m not happy with all the commotion you’ve been creating, you know,” James croaked in a low, guttural voice.
Tristan could tell his father had been drinking and suddenly, his nightmares had all come true, right before his very eyes. He held his hands tightly together, so James would not notice he was trembling.
“First you made that mess in Montana and today you called the police.” James shook his head and slowly approached the bed. “You’ve been a burden, Tristan, and every time I look at your pretty face I feel like hurting you or your mother.”
With a horrifying sensation of déjà vu, Tristan watched James remove his belt.
“One of you will have to pay for all that. Who do you think it should be—you or her?”
After a brief silence, Tristan swallowed a sob and said, “Me. Beat me.”
This time, instead of facing dead leaves in a forest, Tristan faced a pillow on his bed. The beating ended in fourteen slaps, but it felt like it had gone on forever. What most terrified Tristan, however, was not the physical pain. After James had finished, he told the boy to remain on his stomach. He then squatted near Tristan’s face, and examined the tears streaming down his cheeks.
“In this world, Tristan, a man is either on top, dominating—or underneath, like the faggot you saw in the bungalow. You, my boy, are weak.”
Tristan screamed and tried to extricate himself, but James had a rough hand over the boy’s mouth. He pinned Tristan to the mattress, embedding his knee deeply into the boy’s back.
“Shhhhh…” James’s breath smelled like brandy. “Tell anyone and I will hurt your mother so badly you won’t recognize her. And you know what my police buddies will write on the report? That she fell down the stairs.”
Tristan remembered his mother’s muffled screams earlier that night and released the tension in his muscles. As James’s hands moved down to Tristan’s shorts, the boy closed his eyes and forced his mind to wander. He was a good boy; he went to church every Sunday. If James owned the police, God would intervene, or perhaps the superheroes of his comic books would come to his rescue. But by the time James had left, Tristan was alone on his blood-stained linen, with his thigh branded like cattle by James’s cigar.
Through the closed door, Tristan heard his mother’s voice. She had awoken and decided to check on Tristan.
When Nora found her husband leaving Tristan’s room, zipping up his pants, she screamed. “What were you doing in there?!”
“Having fun, honey. That’s all I do. Now let’s go back to our room.”
“No! I want to see my son!”
The first of Nora’s breakdowns occurred that night, and she was never the same since.
Tristan traced the scar with his index finger, remembering every detail of that night. His heart filled with a bottomless rage, and he knew immediately that he had to kill James. But the idea of confinement forced him to hesitate; no good would come from him locked away in a box. So Tristan controlled himself. He spent the rest of that night awake, wondering why his father no longer molested him. Did he have some sort of ulterior motive behind this newfound civility of his?
Tristan went to the bathroom and looked at his reflection in the mirror. His mother’s eyes were the same as his, in color and shape. He almost saw her in that mirror, peering back, begging for revenge.
Tristan’s past before his mother’s death was unraveling, day by day, like a thimble of thread on a slow-turning wheel. But he recognized that he was much colder than before, more rational and calculating. It would be hard to face James the following day, but Tristan decided it would be more beneficial to pretend he still did not remember anything. Once, he would have resented crooked cops. He’d loved the stories where the heroes fought for good, always triumphing over evil. But now he was grateful that this didn’t always happen. In the real world, one did not have to be good, just clever enough not to be caught.
Three weeks later, Tristan Donovan and Douglas Harris attended the juvenile court hearing, accompanied by their respective parents and a few witnesses from school. The psychiatrist was ready to present the judge with his evaluation of Tristan’s behavioral status. While useless as a doctor, Tristan felt that the man had created a diagnosis that would work in his favor.
“Tristan Donovan had a psychotic episode, Your Honor,” the psychiatrist began. “After evaluating the case and speaking to him personally, I have to conclude that he attacked Douglas Harris because Harris made a sexually offensive comment about Donovan’s drawing. The piece reminded him of his mother who died under traumatic circumstances, to which Tristan was a direct witness. In fact, he had tried to save her, and had nearly died himself. At the time of the recent episode with Douglas Harris, Tristan believed he was defending her honor.”
There was some quiet laughter from the audience, and the doctor proceeded. “I’m not saying he is insane. He knows the difference between right and wrong. But a lot of things, including genetic factors, may have contributed to what he did. Tristan Donovan has suffered from a recent trauma to the brain, and Mrs. Donovan suffered from schizophrenia. It’s still too early to determine the extent of Donovan’s problem and whether it will reoccur, but statistically, people with a predisposition to mental illness may start to present symptoms after a considerable blow to the head. As he has no history of violence, my recommendation is that he attend a series of psychiatric follow-up sessions with the possibility of medication.”
The judge thanked the psychiatrist, and then addressed the courtroom. “I understand that his accident and his mother’s death have immensely affected Tristan Donovan’s emotional stability. However, in the interest of Douglas Harris’s safety, as well as that of the other students, I am forced to uphold Donovan’s suspension from school for the next three months. Since no mental dysfunction can be proven at this time, I will allow him to stay home, where he will undergo weekly psychiatric evaluations. At the end of the probation period, should the evaluations be positive, he will have legal permission to return to social life, including school.”
Tristan smiled to himself. It was exactly as his father had predicted. He just hoped that the new psychiatrist was more open-minded. He no longer wished to share his secrets, but there were still gaps in his memory that perhaps an expert in the human mind could help him fill.
On his way out of the courtroom, the dean of Tristan’s school approached him to say he had already been expelled, regardless of the outcome of his therapy. James tried to protest, but the dean was in the right; the board of a private school had the autonomy to choose who attended its institution, and students had been expelled for much less.
At that moment, Tristan promised himself: I’ll do a lot worse, but it’s the last time they’ll catch me.
James’s big hands guided Tristan to the car. “Shit, Tristan! Why did you have to get involved in this goddamned fight?!”
In order to contain his hatred, Tristan had spent the past few weeks building an emotional wall between himself and James, and it had become much easier to ignore him.
James hardly noticed Tristan’s silence, as he continued in his rant. “If these assholes think they will ruin your future at Yale, they are bloody wrong!”
Realizing the extent of James’s connections, Tristan decided that inheriting his family’s multi-million dollar business could be a great opportunity. Perhaps it would even help him with his personal vendetta one day. Lawyers were actors in disguise. If there was no divine justice, and society’s law was such a failure, with a good brain and a lot of money, he could do whatever he wanted and escape punishment.
For the first time, Tristan was happy about having to following in James’s footsteps. He knew James would use all his powers to ensure that this new psychiatrist would provide a positive evaluation. After all, Tristan was James’s only heir, and even if he were a bit insane, his father would still guarantee that he would become a lawyer and run the family firm.
Doctor Isaac Broderick was definitely smarter and more interested in Tristan’s case than his predecessor. When he read that Tristan didn’t see the woman in the painting as his mother, he was intrigued to discover whom he thought she was. Tristan didn’t have a direct response, but this intrigued Broderick further. He was ready to extract the truth using alternative methods.
Tristan resisted every step of the way. He didn’t care what the psychiatrist was trying to unearth; Tristan only wanted to know what the Phoenix had refused to tell him: the memories that were lost in the accident.
Just before his fourth session with Broderick, Tristan approached James and asked, “What should I say today? This doctor won’t stop pushing me!”
James was rushing out of the door for an important meeting and answered him over his shoulder. “Say whatever you like. Everything has been taken care of.”
This perked Tristan up a little. James used to say those words whenever he had bought somebody off. Once the evaluations lost their meaning, Tristan was open to whatever the doctor had in store for him. That morning, Broderick noticed the definite change. Tristan was much more cooperative, so Broderick decided to take things further.
“How about we try hypnosis?”
Tristan agreed but chose to keep it from James. If he revealed anything damaging to James’s reputation, he’d have hell to pay.
Broderick was a competent doctor who really cared for his patients. When Tristan had told him about the Phoenix, he suspected the boy was hallucinating, or had developed some sort of obsessive delusion. But Broderick also knew that because of their agreement, he could not go to James to discuss the subject or a treatment for Tristan. So he limited himself to helping the boy recover his memory.
By the end of the three-month probation period, Broderick felt he had done his job. He had nearly learned almost the entire truth behind Tristan’s illness, and through the hypnosis sessions, Tristan was able to piece together all of his memories. He just chose to omit the most important part from the good doctor —the details of the afternoon his mother died.
Now overwhelmed with guilt, Tristan was more determined than ever to carry out what the Phoenix had demanded. Once he was allowed outside of the house, the first thing he did was buy a print of Venot’s painting. He took the print with him when he moved to his new school in Connecticut and kept it hidden in the back of his closet. He would talk to the Phoenix every day, begging her to appear to him in flesh and blood, and to offer him the chance to make amends.
After almost a year of speaking to the Phoenix without reply, Tristan’s hope had dissolved into fragments of pity and helplessness. He realized then that no one could help him. His sins were his sins, his battles were his battles. It was no one’s responsibility to take care of him—he should have known better. He ripped the print to shreds and burned it in a waste basket. Mesmerized by the licking flames, he started to plot his revenge.
Since the coma, James had not laid a finger on Tristan. Gradually, however, James had begun to abuse him verbally, not realizing that he was reverting to his true nature. Tristan smiled at this and bided his time: he would remain diplomatic, acting as his obedient, blissfully unaware son. The new coldness inside him had made it easy to act out this role, but it had also led him to fantasies of murdering his father. He was now old enough and smart enough to do so. The problem was that too much money was involved. Tristan was James’s sole beneficiary, and he did not need a law school diploma to know that if his father were murdered, he would be a prime suspect.
At his new high school in Connecticut, Tristan worked hard to embody a good-guy persona. He acted out the sweet, good-looking young man, completely stable, excruciatingly normal. When asked about his previous school, he simply nodded, smiled, and joked that he had cut some kid’s fingers off. He was an instant hit. Brains, money, and a good sense of humor—he delivered the whole package.
Tristan was no fan of basketball, yet he joined the team to befriend the popular guys. By the time he was sixteen, he knew just about every popular girl’s number in town. As for sex, Tristan learned about that from a library assistant twice his age. He felt nothing for her, but was fascinated by the new skills he was acquiring in her bed, so he kept coming back.
To all outward appearances, Tristan seemed content. But there was an itch gnawing at his insides, pushing him toward taking larger risks and inflicting pain. He was an avid reader and a fast self-learner. He developed a special interest in chemistry and whenever he was alone in town, he secretly browsed for books about drugs, anesthetics and poison. He added a dash of creativity to the subject by reading thrillers and true crime stories that now filled the shelves of his room. Criminals who managed to outsmart the authorities totally fascinated him.
Inspired by these novels—and keeping in mind his future career as a defense attorney—Tristan learned how to commit smaller crimes without leaving a trace. He stole a boy’s expensive watch, planted cocaine in another’s locker, and managed to have a teacher fired by producing fake evidence that the man was trying to seduce a student. The more Tristan fooled everyone, the bigger his playground grew. Throughout his high school years, he orchestrated countless small atrocities against classmates and teachers, and no one ever suspected him.
Tristan knew James was the source of his cruelty, as much as he was the target of his hatred. But since he could not hurt his father, he needed a release valve or he would burst. His cruelty had rendered him a brief power, but he felt no sense of accomplishment.
His physical energy also seemed endless. Tristan swam and practiced kickboxing for several hours a day, but by the time he graduated, the itch inside his chest barely let him sleep. It haunted him with worse nightmares than those he had during his childhood. And it kept pushing him into unknown territory, until one night, when he met his first victim.
Since Nora’s death, Tristan had spent part of his summer vacation with James in the Bahamas. Now eighteen, he was six-foot-two, slim and muscular. His straight, black hair framed a face with remarkable features that invariably caught women’s eyes for being both angelical and masculine. He had a straight nose, a strong jaw and high cheekbones. But his secret weapons were a sweet smile of white, even teeth and an innocent pair of eyes that alternated between honey and green, depending on the light. Tristan appeared to be two or three years older, but to ensure his access into night clubs, he always armed himself with a fake ID.
He specifically liked to frequent a bar on Paradise Island that was usually filled with American tourists and high-class prostitutes. He enjoyed hanging out with these women after tense discussions with James. Somehow they helped him unwind and he didn’t need to fake it, like when he approached girls at his school. He could make it clear that he was willing to pay for sex and could spend a stress-free night dancing and drinking with them.
Three nights that week Tristan had noticed a beautiful, young brunette who was always in the company of a different man. Every night she had looked at him over their shoulders and smiled. After two years of perfecting ways to attract women and gain their trust, Tristan had discovered manipulation was one of his favorite games. That night, his challenge was to see how far he could go with the prostitute, just by using his looks and conversation rather than his wallet.
Instead of approaching her, he sat at the bar alone and waited for her to spot him. As she did, he raised his glass to her, gesturing that the seat near him had been saved for her. A forty-something American man had his arms wrapped around the woman’s waist, his back facing Tristan, and she shook her head, as if saying that she was busy.
Tristan wrote a note and had the barman deliver it to the girl. I’m leaving tomorrow. Dump him. I’ll make it worth it.
Ten minutes later they were making out in his car, and the prostitute hadn’t even mentioned the word money yet. Tristan switched between passionate and romantic, teasing and then drawing back, as if he were a respectful boy struggling not to go too far on a first date. Playing the gentleman had worked with every hesitant girl he had seduced so far and he was about to find out if a professional would fall for it, too.
The young woman clearly appreciated Tristan’s tender treatment. Her skin burned with desire and although she had bills to pay, she was quite tempted to let him have her right there, just for the fun of it. But before they could go any further, the man she had left for Tristan pounded on the window of the SUV.
“You whore! You said you were feeling sick and had to go home, but I see you had better plans, huh? Is he paying more or is it just his pretty face?”
“Go away!” the prostitute screamed, bored. “I gave you back your money!”
“What did you say, whore?” the man slurred. He was obviously drunk. He banged on the window again.
“I gave you back your money!” she screamed louder. “Leave me alone, you idiot!”
Tristan opened the window and looked up at the man. He hated the types who thought they could be rude just because they were physically strong. They reminded him of his classmate, Douglas Harris.
“Please step away from the car, sir,” Tristan said dryly. “There are plenty of women inside.”
The man scoffed. “Please, sir?! You think you can take my girl and then smooth me up by showing some fucking manners?”
Before Tristan could react, the man grabbed him by his collar. “Why don’t you come out here, boy, and show me how tough you are?”
Tristan’s eyes remained cold as he shook the man’s hand off him. “I have nothing to prove to you.” He raised the window and started the car. “I’ll take you home,” he told the girl. “This guy wants trouble.”
“You fucking coward!” the man cursed as Tristan pulled away. The man picked up a heavy stone and threw it at Tristan’s car, smashing the taillight.
The prostitute lived in a very poor neighborhood in mainland Nassau. As they crossed the bridge, leaving behind the glamor of Paradise Island, she explained to Tristan that she could not invite him into her home because she lived with her sister and nephew. But when they reached their destination, she made it clear that he did not have to leave right away. She told him to park in her backyard and they had sex in the backseat.
So far, Tristan’s seduction tricks had worked flawlessly. This was going to be a cakewalk.
On his way back home, Tristan wondered why he had not beaten the man who had bothered them earlier. It used to be fun knocking off arrogant drunks in places where no one knew him. He had done it in Paris, Saint-Tropez and London. But the truth was he was leaving his teen days behind and things that used to give him an adrenaline rush no longer offered him the same thrill. Not the fights, not the cocaine, not the games he played. He wished he could kill James and find his peace.
In the midst of his reverie, Tristan heard a siren and glanced in his rearview mirror. The flashing lights had simply materialized from out of the dark. Cops. He was not speeding, but the police officer gestured for him to pull over. Tristan did as he was told and waited inside the car, keeping his hands visible on the steering wheel.
Slowly, but with a lot of attitude, the police officer approached Tristan’s window. He was a muscular black man, with small eyes and a flat nose that seemed to have been broken more than once.
Tristan opened the window. “Anything wrong, officer?”
“Your taillight is broken,” the man said in a thick pigeon accent.
Of course. “Sorry. It just happened, but I’m heading home now and it will be fixed by tomorrow.”
The man gave him a sardonic smile. “Another rich American. Of course. You guys think you can come to my island, build a fancy house and stay above the law, right?” He turned serious. “Your documents.”
Tristan had been so distracted when he left the bar with the prostitute that he had forgotten to hide his fake ID. He presented the vehicle’s registration first, intending to fish his real driver’s license out of his wallet while the police officer was distracted. But the man kept his eyes on him. The fake ID with the name Joseph Conrade was on top of his real one. Left with no choice, Tristan handed over his open wallet, hoping the policeman would not find the other one underneath.
The man examined the vehicle’s documents in James Donovan’s name, and then Tristan’s fake license. “You said you were going home, Mr. Conrade. What’s your relationship with the owner of this car?”
“He’s my uncle.”
The police officer nodded, but did not retrieve Tristan’s documents. “And how was your taillight broken?”
Tristan found it unwise to mention that he was at a bar, much less to tell the whole story. “I was with a girl, on the beach. We went for a walk and when I returned I noticed that—”
“Cut the crap! Do you think I’m stupid? You were partying and on your way out you hit something. That’s all you Americans do here. You party and cause trouble!” The man leaned forward, near Tristan’s face, and then added, “And as I suspected, you’ve been drinking. Step out of the vehicle.”
“Now! And keep your hands where I can see them!”
Tristan imagined what James would do if the officer called him, informing him that his son had been arrested. Slowly, Tristan opened the door and stepped out, trying to think of a way to flee the situation.
“Do you have any drugs in your possession?” the man asked.
“Raise your arms. I have to search your pockets.”
Tristan had heard James’s friends mention that some police officers on the island were quite corrupt. He hoped this one was just causing trouble to make some easy money.
“Officer?” Tristan asked carefully, as the man patted him down. “I have no drugs and I am not drunk. I just had a beer. Is there something I can do so you can let me go?”
The man pushed Tristan against the car, his eyes blazing with anger. “You son of a bitch! Are you trying to bribe a man of the law?”
Tristan just stared at him, apathetic to the man’s burst of energy. This drove the officer into a frenzy.
“You are coming with me now! And I will add speeding to your charge.”
“That’s not fair! I wasn’t speeding!”
The man twisted Tristan’s arm and turned him around, forcing him to lean against the car.
Tristan’s mind was suddenly back in the forest in Montana. He could clearly hear James’s voice.
You will do as I say. You belong to me.
“Now place your hands behind your back!” screamed the officer. “I will handcuff you.”
Tristan stood still and the man pushed him against the car.
“Are you deaf?!”
Now Tristan was in his room, lying on his stomach and James was saying, In this world, Tristan, either a man is on top, dominating, or underneath, like the faggot you saw in the bungalow… You are weak…”
When the policeman pushed him against the vehicle again, the dark curtain dropped with a definitive thud.
With his elbow, Tristan hit the man’s nose hard enough to disorient him. What came next was a flurry of elbows, fists and knuckles. The police officer was caught completely off-guard. He had no time to reach for his gun and soon was on the ground, his ribs broken, his face bathed in blood, with a pair of strong hands around his neck.
The last thing he saw were the honey-colored eyes of the predator who was robbing him of his life.