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Jason Pinter

The Guilty

Prologue

They say it's better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.

I disagree.

I've lost before. I lost the affection of my parents before

I was old enough to know that the world looked upon an estranged child with sad eyes. I lost my first love because

I was too cowardly to protect her. I nearly lost my life due to circumstances beyond my control. All of those losses created holes in my life. Holes I've attempted to patch up, to cover, but they'll always be there, even if they don't leave a mark on the surface.

Doesn't mean I can't try to forget. Through life. Through work.

Through Amanda.

If she wasn't here, lying next to me in our bed, her head inches from mine, I wouldn't be here at all. It's not that I'd be back in Oregon, paying my dues at the news desk of the

Bend Bulletin, skiing at Mount Bachelor, thirsting through thirteen inches of annual rainfall, and paying two hundred bucks a month in rent.

If she wasn't here, I would either be rotting in the ground Jason Pinter somewhere or in a jail trying to stay alive while cursing a simple twist of fate.

Her soft brown hair cascading down her back, eyes so bright and big I get lost in them.

One year ago I was running for my life. A total stranger saved me. Without her, everything would have been lost.

And God help me I can't lose her, because I don't have the strength to patch that kind of hole.

So as I lie here, watching Amanda's chest rise and fall, all

I can do is hope I'm here to witness every last breath of her life. And hope that, finally, the stories I report won't be my own.

1

The limousine pulled up to the curb outside the Kitten

Club, and like a cult waiting for its leader, dozens of heads turned at once. Hundreds of eyes widened. Pulses sped up, hearts raced.

A black-clad bouncer stepped to the limo and opened the door. A slender leg stepped onto the curb. Then it stopped, its owner making sure the cameras had time to swallow up every inch of perfect skin. Then another leg slipped out. The crowd moaned, her body glitter giving the girl's normally pale skin a translucent glow. The crowd gasped as her full form emerged.

Those who weren't too stunned to move pressed against the velvet ropes, the bouncers going into full push-'em-back mode.

Flashbulbs popped by the dozen. She flashed that millionwatt seductive smile, the one that had seduced and captivated people all over the world. They shouted at her. Nothing she hadn't heard before. Yet as she stepped onto the red carpet, rolled out just for her, listening to the throng of fans chanting her name, Athena Paradis couldn't help but feel that the world had given itself to her.

She waved to the dazed crowd, stopped to sign a few autographs and blow air kisses through ruby lips, laughed at the Jason Pinter mismatched chunky schlubs who would be fantasizing about her that night as they lay alone in the dark.

One-thirty in the morning, but the flashes and strobe lights made it seem like broad daylight. It was just late enough for the party to be in full swing, just late enough to make sure she'd be the last memory in a night her fans would never forget.

Despite her seeming nonchalance, Athena spent many nights in breathless anticipation of these delicious moments when all eyes would be on her. Hearing digital cameras beeping, fingers tapping on cell phones as flabbergasted fans sent grainy images to their friends. Young men trying to give her the same lame sultry looks she'd seen and laughed at a million times. Yet she would always smile just enough to make them think they had a chance.

This was Athena's world, her oyster, and it was delicious.

Everyone else watched from outside the snow globe, hoping that one special night they too might be touched by her magic.

In three days, Athena Paradis would release her very first album, The Goddess Athena. Her promotional tour was in full swing, and tonight at the Kitten Club was a prime stop. She was scheduled to guest DJ, spin and sing tracks that had never been heard outside the recording studio (created with the gentle touch of some very talented-and patient-sound producers, vocal coaches and technicians). Athena's autobiography, HOW

YOU CAN BE LIKE ME, was ghostwritten by a pleasant sixtyyear-old Jew named Herman Goldstein. It spent eight weeks on the New York Gazette bestseller list. Her signings all required extra security. Herman wasn't allowed to attend.

Three bouncers the size of minivans controlled the crowd.

The mayor's office had sent several off-duty cops just in case.

Athena's manager and publicist had called Mayor Perez's office nonstop requesting massive police protection for their twenty-two-year-old gold mine, but the second-termer refused. Not that he didn't want to help. The mayor was well known for his reliance on sizzle over steak, providing a good show to distract people from their everyday woes. He'd written three self-help books and was constantly photographed alongside celebrities, including Athena Paradis. But the police union was busy negotiating a new contract, and they were squeezing him hard. Adding additional unnecessary force tonight would only cost overtime the city couldn't afford.

Every nightclub Athena graced with her presence would fatten her bank account by fifty thousand dollars. The hotter-or more desperate-the club, the more they paid.

Most promoters, like the Kitten Club's Shawn Kensbrook, tripped over themselves to pay Athena ungodly sums of money for a simple appearance. She would show up, pose for the camera, down a few kamikaze shots, dance on the bar, and within a week the patronage tripled. Best advertising in the world, and a hell of a lot more entertaining than an ad in a movie theater or those worthless postcards.

Tonight, though, wasn't about appearance fees. If she seduced the crowd, it would be worth its weight in platinum for her album.

Athena sauntered past the throng of gawking men and starry-eyed women, slipping into the pulsating darkness. Her entourage was immediately met by Shawn Kensbrook, club promoter extraordinaire and co-owner of the Kitten Club.

Just three years ago, what was now the Kitten Club had been an abandoned warehouse in Manhattan's meatpacking district. It was destined to be torn down by developers or vermin, whichever got there first. Kensbrook was able to mount an army of backers to buy what was widely considered a sinkhole. Through his A-list Rolodex, Kensbrook turned a pile of rubble into Gotham's hottest nightspot since the heyday of Limelight. Its clout had grown to the point where New York Magazine had referred to it as 'The Oprah

Winfrey of music promotion.' If you had to jump on one couch to get maximum exposure, the Kitten Club was the place to jump.

Shawn was decked out in a wool Versace suit that ran

$2,200 and burned off a thousand calories a night. Shawn had purposefully bought it a size too small, the

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