Empty Rooms Excerpt From New Novel by Jeffrey J. Mariotte

Empty Rooms cover

Jeff Mariotte is known for writing a number of Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics and tie-in novels, but under his full name, Jeffrey J. Mariotte, he also writes his own stories. His newest novel, published by WordFire Press, is out tomorrow. Empty Rooms is a “dark thriller” covering “gritty issues that include child abuse and Detroit’s economic woes”.

Empty Rooms introduces Detroit police detective Frank Robey, a comic book-loving former FBI agent-turned-cop whose obsession with the case of a missing child gives him no peace and Richie “Maynard” Krebs, a former cop whose encyclopedic knowledge of crime and criminals colors everything he does. Initially strangers, the two men form an unlikely partnership which becomes a close bond forged by their determination to hold onto their humanity while investigating the most heinous acts one person can do to another.

Empty Rooms cover

[Robey is] obsessed with the case of a missing child and unwilling to leave the city before she was found. When Richie unearths a possible clue in one of Detroit’s many abandoned homes, it puts him on a collision course with Frank — and with depths of depravity neither man could have imagined.

How do people who dwell in the darkest places — by profession or predilection — maintain their connection to the world of light and humanity? Richie and Frank will need every coping mechanism at their disposal to survive their descent into darkness and emerge unbroken on the other side.

Mariotte says the novel grew out of his experience writing a true crime book detailing the offenses of dozens of the world’s worst serial killers, sexual predators, cannibals, and other notorious criminals. “In researching that book I was surprised to learn about several times that my life’s path had brought me uncomfortably close to real serial killers, and I suspect that’s true of many people. Spending so much time immersed in the lives of murderers and madmen, I had to do something to pull myself out of that mindset, or I’d become hopelessly depressed. Then it occurred to me that homicide and sex crimes detectives have to deal with the reality of these acts on a daily basis and still stay sane. That realization was the genesis of Empty Rooms.”

Here’s an exclusive excerpt, selected just for us comic fans!


They met at Frank’s house. He had a spare bedroom that he used for a home office, and he kept copies of the Morton files there in white cardboard boxes. He carried in a folding chair for Maynard, and added a card table to spread files out on. The walls were empty, and he had tape and thumbtacks in case they wanted to stick anything up on them.

Richie looked around the house when Frank let him in the front door, just as nosy as any cop. “Nice place,” he said.

“Thanks. Architectural Digest has been beating down my door for years, begging to do a cover story.” He and Tiana had bought the place fifteen years ago, and there was nothing special about it except that he could make the payments. It was a good-sized brick house in the Middle Woodward neighborhood, essentially a two-story rectangle. Tiana had a knack for decorating, but after her death he hadn’t wanted to be surrounded by the things she had left behind, didn’t want to feel like he was living in a dead woman’s shadow. So he had undone many of the touches she had brought to the house and replaced them with his own, which tended toward comic book memorabilia. The result was comfortable, for him, but often made visitors look around for a pre-teen boy.

They went upstairs to the office. Frank took a pair of gold-rimmed glasses from a pocket, unfolded them, and put them on. He pulled the files from the cardboard box, fanning them out on the table. Richie jerked a thumb toward steel shelves at the back of the room, filled with long white boxes. “Bring your work home much?” he asked.

“That’s not work,” Frank said. “Those are comic books.”

“Comics? Like Spider-Man and all that?”

“Yeah, I got some Spidey stuff in there. Really more of a DC man, though. Superman, Batman, Justice League, those classic characters. But I have some Marvels, too. Even some of the indy stuff, and Archies.”

“Are they worth anything?”

“Some of them might be. That’s not why I keep them, though. I just like reading them and having them.” He indicated the blank walls. “I used to have a bunch of original comic book art hung up around the house. Neal Adams, Gene Colan, Joe Kubert, Barry Smith, Jim Lee. Hell, I have a Jack Kirby Captain America page.”

“Is that rare?”

“Classic as it gets.”

“Where is it?”

“Took it down, put it in a closet. I learned a lot from comics, about doing the right thing and being strong and brave. After I couldn’t find Angela Morton, I figured I had let my heroes down. I still enjoy reading the comics but couldn’t bear having those pages up on the walls, staring at me.”

“I’d love to see them sometime.”

Frank held Richie’s gaze for a few moments. He seemed sincere, and although he obviously knew little about comics, that didn’t mean he might not appreciate the artistry that went into them. The most unexpected part was that because Richie didn’t have an interest in comics, then his request, which didn’t seem to have been made from simple politeness, instead indicated an interest in being Frank’s friend. Frank had not gone into this looking for a friend — certainly hadn’t chased into the Morton house the other night expecting to find one. But if it happened, he didn’t think he would be disappointed. He got along with the folks on the job, but it wouldn’t hurt to know a guy who wasn’t actually a cop. “One of these days,” he said after a while. “Right now we got work to do.”

“Yeah,” Richie agreed, taking the offered chair. “I’ve been thinking about it non-stop, and the more I do, the fishier it all seems. We’ve got a girl who’s a prisoner in her own home. She’s abducted on a day when she was home alone with her father. Mom’s off at work, right?”

“Yeah.”

“And he’s not on the phone to nine-one-one in five seconds. Instead he’s calling friends of this girl who apparently doesn’t have friends, driving around the neighborhood by himself — none of which can be verified.”

“He actually did call a couple of her classmates’ homes. We pulled his luds. He made some calls, just not as many as he claimed.”

“He also said he was trying not to show emotion because he wanted to stay strong for his wife. But given our new information, a lot of his actions take on a different cast.”

“Such as? You sound like you’re trying to say something, Maynard, but you ain’t said it yet.”

“Frank, the guy had an adult playroom in his basement, with a secret viewing room. He kept his daughter locked in her bedroom. I shouldn’t have to spell it out. He’s a textbook sexual sadist.”

Frank shook his head. He didn’t want to think about that. As a cop he’d had to deal with plenty of horrible incidents. You couldn’t do the job without running headlong into examples of human beings treating each other worse than vermin. “No,” he said, sadness rasping his voice. “You don’t have to spell it. You think he killed her.”

“I think she knew something she wasn’t supposed to, or he was afraid she would tell somebody at school about things being done to her. Maybe she had told someone. Either way, he decided the only safe thing to do was to get rid of her.”

“So we should have been looking for a body the whole time?”

“I’m sure you were looking for a body, at least after the first twenty-four hours or so.”

“That was part of the detail, yeah.”

“Of course it was.” Richie thumbed through some of Frank’s files. “And the parents left town what, six months later?”

“About that. After things cooled down.”

“Where’d they go?”

Frank rifled through a file until he found it. “They left an address in Indianapolis. Like I said before, after a few months they stopped answering the phone, and anything mailed there came back as undeliverable. I had some Indianapolis cops go by the house, but it was just a rental that was already occupied by another family.”

“And nothing after that? No word from them?”

“The Bureau never could track them down. I check with contacts there every couple of years. They haven’t really kept up the search, but there has never been any sign of the Mortons. I thought they had accepted the reality that they’d never see Angela again, and didn’t want the reminders. God knows after I lost my wife Tiana, there were times I wanted to burn this house to the ground and move on.”

Richie waved a hand at the walls surrounding them. “You didn’t, though.”

“No. I decided I could move on emotionally, and it didn’t mean I didn’t love her. After a while, it wasn’t necessary to stop being reminded of her.”

“Because you’re sane,” Richie said. “And because you didn’t murder her.” He dumped some photographs from one of the file folders onto the card table. “She looks like a sweet kid. She didn’t deserve those parents. She didn’t deserve what they did to her.”

“Hell, no.”

“So we have to find them. Jarod and Barbara Morton got away with murder. So far. It’s time we brought them back.”

“The finding is gonna be the hard part. If either one was incarcerated anywhere, I’d know about it — my Bureau contacts would see to that. But they haven’t turned up anyplace.”

Richie fingered a tear sheet from The Detroit Daily News. On it was an advertisement for Jarod’s photo studio, Little Angels Photography. The ad featured a black-and-white photo of a blond girl who had to be Angela, taken when she was seven or eight. Feathered angel wings swelled from her back. The lighting was soft, from the right and slightly above her, casting shadows on the left side of her face and neck. The shadows were soft, too. Frank had looked at it a thousand times, thought it was nice, painterly. Other pictures were of an older Angela, up until her eleventh birthday.

“There aren’t any baby pictures,” Richie said.

“Nothing before that angel shot. These are the ones they gave us, and I tore out that newspaper ad when I saw the girl in it was Angela. I didn’t ask for baby pictures because I was looking for ones that would help us find her.”

“Yeah, you’re right. These are the ones the search effort would have needed.”

“Right.”

“You don’t have any idea where they might have gone after Indianapolis?”

Frank picked at his fingernails. “Not a clue.”

“We have to find out more about them. Especially Jarod. I don’t know that Barbara was even involved in what he did to Angela. She was the one who finally called the police, right?”

“Soon as she got home and found Angela missing.”

“Then Jarod’s the one we have to focus on. We have to learn whatever we can about him, and about Angela.”

“A little late for her.”

“It is,” Richie admitted. “But what if he and Barbara have had another kid?”

copyright 2015 Jeffrey J. Mariotte



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