It was only later that I came across Detective King and the Albert Fish case, and the numerous others the department conveniently files under similar headings—which is to say I didn’t start my career as the NYPD’s resident occultist. And I can’t say I ever intended it. It’s not like you know where you’ll end up when you step off the straight and narrow. But there was never any doubt why I went off. I had a clear reason. I wanted to save a child.
Alexandra Sacchi—Alexa to her friends—wasn’t a normal girl. She didn’t just have Down’s Syndrome but a severe form of autism as well. Not that she threw tantrums or had any of the other awful stereotypes. She could talk—when she wanted—with only minor impediment, and she liked to draw. She was good at it, in fact, and could render reproductions of just about anything she saw, even if only for a second, with near-photographic quality. But she did have trouble looking after herself. Food preparation, for example, always eluded her, which meant she ate a lot of junk. Her friends at the group home said they’d walk in and find her sitting silently by herself, drawing ghosts and monsters, surrounded by empty packages of junk food, chocolate-colored crumbs at the corners of her mouth.
Alexa’s mother was an alcoholic with a history of bad decisions and all of her children had been in and out of the foster system. It was during one such stay that Alexa’s foster parents noticed she spoke at length to imaginary people and talked about them as if they were real—normal behavior for kids under six, but Alexa was nine. When the adults suggested to her that the people weren’t real, Alexa got confused, then sullen. She had apparently assumed everyone could see and hear the same things she could, and when it was clear they didn’t, Alexa accused her foster parents of attempting to trick her. She became increasingly difficult and withdrawn, and there were occasional tense outbreaks. She changed homes once, but when that ended badly, no one would take her and she was hospitalized by the state before being placed in a monitored group home. After that, she would only occasionally acknowledge that the subjects of her near-photographic reproductions were anything other than artwork.
Four years later, Alexa was released to the custody of her older half brother, Dominic, the only sibling of five to survive and her only remaining family. Dominic, who went by “Dom,” was only twenty-six and had never had children, but he was married and had held a steady job selling cell phones for several years. I wanted to think the couple weren’t motivated by the monthly stipend from the state that came with custody, but honestly you just never know with people.
Unfortunately for Alexa, after her arrival, Dominic’s relationship with his young wife, Palmer Bell, turned toxic. Witnesses reported the couple started arguing, usually over Alexa. Police were called on two occasions, but other than noting the couple kept a lot of New Age and occult paraphernalia in the house, none of the officers had much to say. Run-of-the-mill “he said/she said” domestic disturbances, we were told.
Then, about seven years ago, on the night of October 24th, Dominic Sacchi called 911 and claimed he was being attacked by his sister, but when officers arrived, he recanted and said there’d been a misunderstanding and that the sliver cuts on his hands and face were the result of a kitchen accident. Two weeks later, Alexa was reported missing. She was found on the side of the road by a Massachusetts State Trooper and returned to New York. When she ran away a second time and then a third, Dominic got permission from her doctor and case manager to fit her with a GPS anklet, like they put on convicts and sex offenders.
The very next week, Dominic Sacchi didn’t show up for work. When one day turned to two, the police were called. They found the Sacchi apartment empty. The door was unlocked. There were dirty dishes in the sink, wet clothes in the washer, and a hair dryer still plugged into the wall. But no family.
Palmer was traced by her cell phone to a rent-by-week motel in Flushing, where she was alone and panicked out of her mind. Neither her husband nor her 15-year-old sister-in-law were anywhere to be found. Clearly distraught, she claimed Dominic had left, taking Alexa, after Palmer confronted him. Alexa, she said, had told her that Dominic had been sexually abusing her. It sounds horrible of course, but after repeated questioning, elements of Palmer’s story changed and the case was remanded to me and my then-partner, Craig Hammond, as a possible homicide.
Thing is, it’s hard to prove a murder when you don’t have a body, or even evidence of one. But when three days turned to four, and four days turned to a week, and a week turned to a month and there was still no sign of either Dominic Sacchi or his sister, everyone suspected the worst. Certainly, the more Hammond and I dug, the more we got the sense that there was definitely something very wrong. For one, we had no witnesses. To anything. No one would talk to us. They would never say that, of course. They would just say there was nothing to tell. But in my experience, everyone has something to tell. Even when they don’t know anything at all, people will fill your ears with gossip and speculation. Hammond and I got the distinct impression they’d been intimidated—at first we thought by Dominic, in an attempt to hide the sexual abuse. But the more we pressed, the more it seemed the person they really feared was his wife, Palmer Bell.
We did find one acquaintance, a former neighbor and dog groomer named Bea Bostwick, who’d had a falling out with the couple over their treatment of Alexa and who subsequently quit her job and moved to rural Ohio. Bea agreed to talk to us on the phone, but only off the record. She wouldn’t meet and wouldn’t testify, she cautioned. We said we understood and she proceeded to tell us a story that still gives me chills.
Bea said she saw Alexa outside the apartment one day, drawing, and went to talk to her. She said she remembered because the Sacchis had mentioned that Alexa hadn’t been herself lately, that she’d been acting strange and hadn’t drawn anything in weeks. As Bea approached, she noticed spots of blood on the back of the girl’s blouse. When she asked about it, Alexa casually reported that her sister-n-law had sewn a crystal into a cut in the middle of her back, where she couldn’t reach, which was too bad because it really itched. Bea was skeptical of course, given the girl’s mental condition, but when she asked Alexa why Palmer would do such a thing, she was told it was to suppress the evil presence that had possessed her and that she had a new necklace she was supposed to wear all the time, just like the GPS anklet—a disc of carved silver with a drop of obsidian in the center.
Bea bent to see what Alexa was drawing and casually touched the girl’s back, where she felt something hard. She looked under the girl’s shirt—over her protests—and discovered a long cut in the skin that ran along the spine, sewn shut with twine. There was a hard bulge underneath. Ms. Bostwick immediately opened the wound with scissors and removed a blood-covered crystal shard. But as soon as she tried to clean and bandage the gash, Alexa turned violent and nearly stabbed her with the scissors.
The girl ran home and Bea lifted the drawing on the ground. She described it in simple terms as a kind of hellscape: naked people, screaming and writhing, grew out of pits in the jagged face of a cliff that rose over a boiling lake of fire. The lake itself was empty save for one figure, at the center, standing calm and straight waist-high in the inferno. She said it was just a fuzzy silhouette but the figure was clearly looking straight out at the viewer, as if whoever it was could see out of the drawing and was watching her. And this, she reminded us, from a girl who could only reproduce on paper what she’d seen in the world.
The next day, Bea confronted Palmer Bell. At first she denied everything, but eventually she declared, in hushed tones, that it was in the girl’s best interests, that Bea had no idea what was going on, and that Alexa’s business was hers and Dominic’s and no one else’s. Bea said she was given a very vague threat, something about her needing to stop worrying about other people’s families and pay more attention to her own, lest anything bad happen, which she thought was odd given that she was both childless and single.
Two days later, Bea’s best friend, an eight-year-old black lab named Betty, who minded her every word, bolted out the door of their apartment as if driven by a terrible fright and was struck by a car and killed. Bea left her apartment the next day and never returned.
Everyone knew the girl was the key to the case. But Alexa had vanished without a trace. Her GPS anklet was found in the trash in a New Jersey service area. Her brother Dom was found in Delaware. He’d been dumped in a landfill after being strangled to death with the chain that held the silver talisman, which I found on the ground nearby.
Detective Hammond and I instructed Palmer Bell not to leave the state. When she did anyway, a warrant was issued, which was executed several days later in Ohio. Palmer was brought back to New York and charged with felony child endangerment and two counts of second-degree murder. But without any physical evidence, and without the testimony of Bea Bostwick, who staunchly refused every request, the prosecution had nothing but the secondhand accounts of some of the neighbors, and Palmer Bell was found not guilty and released. She fled immediately. Her current whereabouts are unknown.
To this day, the disappearance and presumed death of fifteen-year-old Alexa Sacchi remains officially unsolved.
I’m posting the chapters of my forthcoming urban paranormal mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS, in order until the book is released. A blend of hard-boiled whodunit and contemporary urban fantasy, it’s been described as “Tolkien meets Dashiell Hammett for dinner in the present day.”
You can sign up here to be notified when the book is released.
You can start reading in order here: The old ones are patient.
The next chapter is: Just don’t let your mom find it