She didn’t look like a murderer. That was my prevailing thought. I’d worked the New York Post’s crime beat for eight years and none of the killers I’d met dyed their brunette roots blonde, with precision. And, I’d never saw one wearing a perfectly fitted Versace pants suit with a lightly starched white shirt that hinted B cup cleavage.
The hotel room was cold. Allison Keen was having a morning that would make anyone sweat, so I didn’t blame her for keeping the air conditioning low. Her day started in prison, being transferred from a maximum security facility on the outskirts of Milan, Italy. She arrived to a courthouse amidst hundreds of cameras and journalists with the possibility of spending the next twenty-eight years of her life in prison, on top of the two she’d already served.
Allison Keen didn’t notice I’d entered the room. She listened to an iPod, swaying her slender figure from side to side, grooving to a song she knew by heart. I’d invaded her personal moment, so I waited for her to notice me. During a spin move, she caught my gaze. I addressed her with a sheepish wave.
“Hey, I’m sorry.”
She shrugged her shoulders and bit her bottom lip in a cute, nervous style.
“There’s no iPod or radio where I’ve been. I’m getting back into music.”
You knew when Allison Keen smiled. It interrupted your thinking. It was wide, like a crescent moon. I placed my notebook, camera bag, and cell phone on a mahogany desk. The accommodations at Milan International Hotel were much better than the prison Allison had been housed and the motel where I was staying. I tried to chip away at the ice between us.
“I like music, too. My CD collection is large. What are you listening to?”
Allison grinned even wider. I gathered she hadn’t been asked a warm and intimate question as that in a while.
“It’s Blue October. It’s their first album, I think. My sister downloaded it for me. I’m just listening to a couple of songs over and over. Right now, anything is better than Italian radio. You’re Brenda, right, from the New York Post?”
I smirked. Not because she got my name wrong, but because talking about music shaded the fact that she’s a convicted felon, waiting to have her appeal heard. I wasn’t uncomfortable. Allison Keen just didn’t seem like a murderer.
“My name is Breann Lucos. I’ve been talking to your parents, sister, and lawyer. They said you were okay with me interviewing you before the appeals hearing and hopefully after.”
Allison took out the the ear buds, walked to the mirror and looked over her pale countenance. Despite needing some sun on her face, she was very pretty. Allison was the kind of beauty that didn’t just win prom queen but also ends up on a movie screen.
“Breann, you look tired, too. Did you fly in last night?”
She’s was awkward. I wasn’t insulted because I looked like hell. I realized what Italian prosecutors saw in the stunning American girl from Portland, Oregon who was studying abroad for a year before the crime. Allison didn’t talk, she spit words. I didn’t have to like her; I just had to get a feel of her for a story.
“Yeah, I’m exhausted. I was chasing some stuff in states.”
Allison sat on the edge of a king-sized bed, sighed, and patted the tight-sheeted mattress.
“Maybe we should do this interview in bed?”
I didn’t answer. I shelved my infatuation and thought about my questions. She picked up on my change in attitude.
“Oh God, I’m joking. I’m kind of shot out. This whole thing has been unbelievable. I’ll sit at that desk. You sit, where ever.”
I opened my phone, hit the record button, and scribbled some notes about Allison. I asked my first question.
“Tell me how you’ve handled the last two years in solitary confinement.”
Allison looked out the window. The November sun bounced off her alabaster skin. Her smile disappeared.
“Prison approved books, pants with no strings, an hour in the sun; these are a few of my favorite things.”
The awkwardness shifted to me. I closed my notebook and but didn’t turn off my phone. Regardless of her appeal, convicted murderer Allison Keen would live her life with regret.
“Allison, there’s a song called Italian Radio on that downloaded album. The last line is something like ‘put out your hand to meet my new lady, she’s rock and roll and she’ll save me’. I don’t know what’s going to happen. But, you might want to think about what will save you. I’m going through something similar. ”
Allison Keen looked through me. It was a hollow, dead stare. For the first time, she looked like she could be a murderer.
I wanted to ask her if she had plotted with her European boyfriend of 3 weeks to rob her British student roommate, Saffron Poe, and stab her seventeen times in the face and chest.
Instead, I stared back. She pulled blonde strands of hair around her left ear and frowned.
“What are you going through, Breann?”
I volleyed the conversation.
“Three months ago, I found out I wasn’t who I thought I was. I’ve spent a lot of time, money, and emotion trying to figure out everything. It changes you, doesn’t it?”
Allison Keen smiled, again, because she got my question. Her smile was over-the-top expressive, like a jack o’lantern, but white and pink with dimples highlighting the corners of her mouth. When she wanted, Allison changed her aura. It showed remarkable transformation from dark to sunny in seconds.
“My family is amazing. They believe me. Well, they believe in me, I should say.”
Her use of words told me everything. She wanted me to believe her. I looked down at my phone. It was less than an hour till her hearing. The courthouse is across the street. There wasn’t anything I wanted to know about Allison Keen until she was acquitted or not.
“I think we should go downstairs, Allison. Can we talk after the judgment, regardless?”
Allison put out her right hand. Her fingers were long, thin and immaculately manicured. I wondered if they could have gripped a butcher knife. I imagined her holding Saffron Poe’s arms down. Then, the grin hit me and I extended my right hand without thinking further. Her grip was light and girlish, which I unexpected.
“Breann, I want to talk to you. You have my word that it will happen.”
Allison looked away, like she was shutting down. I decided to save my harder questions for later. I turned and walked to the door.
“Breann, you know, I’m not what they say I am. I want you to understand how difficult it is being an American in another country and people thinking you’re evil.”
I couldn’t help myself. I leveraged our rapport and blurted.
“Did you do it, Allison? Did you murder Saffron Poe?”
Tears the size of dimes formed in her teal blue eyes. They waved out of her mascara.
“No. I wasn’t in the apartment. I didn’t like her, but I didn’t hurt her.”
My reaction surprised me. I took two steps toward the bathroom to get her tissues. I stopped and pointed at the door. She nodded for me to leave. As I closed the door and backed up against the hotel hallway, my head pounded. A searing pain spread across my chest. I caught my breath and walked downstairs to the hotel lobby.
I love journalism, but it’s dying a slow death in the United States. In Europe, especially Great Britain and Italy, it’s been on life support for decades. I graduated from college in the early 1990s and my first job was with a newspaper in my native state, New Jersey. By then corporations owned the major television networks, newspapers, and radio stations. The idealism of Woodward and Bernstein kids like me had been ground in fine cynicism. Tabloids and papparazzi were multi-million dollars superstars while rank and file reporters like me were just rank and filed.
Tabloid people loitered around stories like Allison Keen’s appeals hearing like rats hung around sewers. I noticed one those rats. She was a long-time friend of mine named Greta Jorgenson. Greta was a tall, gregarious, and heavily made-up reporter for England’s most infamous tabloid tv station and magazine company, Channel Seven. She looked and talked like a Spice Girl. I referred to her as Trashy Spice. Her burgundy hair, held in place by a white head band, bounced toward me in the lobby.
“Bre, You talked to her didn’t you? I just tweeted that an American reporter is rumored to be meeting with Allison Keen.”
Trashy Spice didn’t faze me. Her harmlessness was matched by her generosity. Greta loved buying meals. I took advantage.
“I’m craving eggs and bacon. You think that place next to the courthouse can feed us in less than 30 minutes?”
Greta curled her rose lipsticked mouth. She lied about her age, but I knew she was about 40. The lines in her forehead revealed as much. Her personality was irresistible. Trashy Spice shrugged her shoulders, grabbed my left arm and walked me through the hotel doors.
The cafe was open air, as most were in Milan. The day’s clientele was mostly media. I chose my words with caution. I trusted Trashy Spice but I didn’t hold the rest of the crowd in high regard. Trashy touched my left hand.
“You look sickly, Breann. Do you have the flu?”
I couldn’t tell her what’s really wrong with me, because that story was for me to scoop the world. I provided the same vagaries I’d given Allison Keen in the hotel room.
“Greta, I’m fine. Jet lag and just getting over something from back in the States. After I eat, I’ll get some color back.”
She looked around the cafe to see who might be looking at us.
“So, Bre, off the record, tell me about her. Is she cold and calculating like my country thinks, or sweet and innocent with bloody rainbows sprouting from her lips like silly America believes?”
I loved Trashy Spice’s accent. She was so street London, borderline-line Cockney, but she’d spent so much of her adult life hanging with celebrities, politicians, and the jet set that she’d almost perfected Kate Winslet’s upper class dialect in certain settings. She flipped her hair around her fake-tanned neck.
“Greta, it’s always somewhere in between. You know that. If you tweet or mobile blog any of this I will perform your next facelift right now with this butter knife.”
Trashy Spice grinned, put her phone on the table, and stopped looking around for gossip.
“Only Botox around the forehead and eyes, dear. Tell me what’s going on with you, Breann. I know you took a leave of absence from your job earlier this month. It’s your health, isn’t it?”
I wondered what Greta’s reaction would be if I told her what was going on inside me. I felt the magnet move in my shoulder again. Pain shot across my chest. I held a gladd of water near my mouth to take attention away from my cringe.
“Right now, let’s just say it’s a flu thing, but I’m not contagious. So, are we betting dinner on Allison Keen’s verdict?”
Trashy Spice fell back into tabloid reporter form. She checked her phone and watched the other reporters.
“Bre, I think they’re going to let her go. It’s a saving face sort of bullshit with Italian authorities. They’ve got little evidence on the boyfriend, Michelo Andolini, which means the evidence they have on the prickly princess Allison Keen is questionable. Of course, that doesn’t fit the London media’s narrative. I will be reporting that Allison Keen is a stone cold killer who got away with murder because she’s pretty and American.”
I laughed. What Greta did for a living was show business. What I did was writing. Neither of us preached, nor did we show pretension. We ordered, chatted about old times, and ate. Greta paid the waiter. We rose from the table. She hugged me and ran her short fingers over my pale skin, pushing my brown hair away from my cheeks.
“My dear, Breann, take better care of yourself. You’re feverish. Do you want me to show you to a physician after this hearing?”
I rolled my eyes and gathered my things. She squeezed my left hand with affection. I owed her an answer.
“I’m fine Greta. It’s nothing a few bottles of wine and The Smiths’ Meat is Murder album can’t help. I’m staying at Di Brilare.”
Trashy bit her bottom lip and purred.
“You need sleep, Bre. If the little twit gets off, room service is on and with me.”
We walked into the Milan morning sun as it baked the 814-year-old courtyard.
It’s a week before Thanksgiving. The family hoped Allison Keen would acquitted and freed so she could celebrate the holiday in the United States for the first time in three years. I saw Allison’s mother, Diane, sitting in the lobby of the courthouse talking on a cell phone. She’s about fifty-years-old, but the stress of the past couple of years had aged her. Diane Keen motioned me over and hung up her call.
“Breann, I’m glad I caught you before you went into the court. I traded text messages with Allison’s lawyer. He said that she’d be available for another interview when the jailers allowed her to speak. Of course, I’m hoping that’ll be very soon.”
Her hands shook and her lips quivered. Graying blonde hair moved around her face as she forced a smile and stood. She was tall, almost 5’10′, but her slouch makes her seem smaller.
“Thank you Mrs. Keen. I’ll either be here or at my hotel.”
Journalists, cameramen, and other media people converged on the lobby. Diane Keen shrank with fear. I placed my right hand in the middle of her back and we moved to the stairwell. Inside the hallway, she started to cry.
“Thank you, Breann. You are so kind. You don’t seem like a reporter.”
I felt awkward. The truth was more selfish. I wanted her to lead me to a front row seat.
“Mrs. Keen that might be the nicest thing anyone has said to me today. Let’s find the bailiff and see if he can get you behind the lawyer’s table.”
Time slowed. The courtroom was full. A panel of eight robed jurists sat high above the lawyers, defendants, and room visitors. I took a seat in the second row, behind a security detail and the Keen family. The first person the jailers brought in was Allison Keen’s ex-boyfriend Michelo Andolino. He was convicted two-years earlier of murder and conspiracy. Only twenty-three-years-old, he looked almost thirty. Prison had been hard on him. He’d built his body but his face was gaunt. His brown eyes were dead in the pupils. He looked like a six-foot-tall buff scarecrow. He was seated next his two attorneys at a table to the right side of the jurists. I leaned into the security detail chief, a forty-three-year-old black-haired man named Hugo Ruegerro.
“Hugo, Michelo Andolino wasn’t cuffed or chained. Does that mean Allison Keen won’t be either?”
Hugo looked like an ex-rugby player. He was missing two back teeth, and his face was like weathered rock. Yet, his personality was always sweet and relaxed.
“Breann, you need sleep. You look so tired and fevered.”
He sighed and lowered his voice.
“No, the lawyers negotiated that the defendants wouldn’t be chained or cuffed. They think it’s prejudicial.”
This is startling news. In Italian law, the convicted were never given special treatment. It’s a sign Allison and Michelo would be acquitted. I grabbed my phone and tweeted the information, then texted Greta, who was outside the courtroom. Allison was surrounded by four bodyguards, two lawyers, and her father, Mercer Keen. Everyone in the room began to murmur. The sound built. Allison was emotionless. She gave a slight smile to her mother and sat at her table. The hearing started. Seventeen minutes later, after a review of the case, the words reverberated in Italian and English.
“This court rescinds the charges of murder and conspiracy due to a lack of evidence.”
Allison Keen and Michelo Andolini were freed. Michelo cried and hugged his family. Allison just stood and widened her blue eyes. There were no tears, no expression, and no emotion. Then, as noise and movement broke over her like a wave, she folded her arms and smiled. It was a broad, expansive smile. The oddness was unbelievable. Her mother, lawyer, and a court officer tried to move her arms. Allison stood, frozen in awkward relief or perhaps, something else. I wrote, then tweeted and texted. The security people forced Allison Keen toward the back of the court and into a room. Diane Keen saw me and mouthed the words “talk soon”. I was aghast at Allison’s reaction. Hugo found me.
“Get to the jailer’s office or the stairwell. The lobby is blocked.”
I looked down at my phone and saw a text from Greta.
“Wine and room service is all mine, love.”
I smiled and followed Hugo’s men through the chaos.
My chest pounded and my shoulders ached. The magnet inside me moved and dizziness overtook me. A few feet from the jailer’s office door, I collapsed.
A chill woke me. I laid on a couch beside the jail cells the court used to stage prisoners. Allison Keen’s voice surprised me.
“Brenda, are you ok? Thanks for being sick; it put me back in jail.”
My camera, computer bag, backpack, and other items were next to me. Nothing was missing. There was seven feet between the couch and the cell Allison sat inside. I was dizzy but conscious.
“Are you being sarcastic or am I new evidence? And it’s Breann, Allison.”
She leaned into the bars. Her blonde hair was pushed back away from her face with a hair band the color of the gray cell.
“Oh, I’m joking, Breann. Sorry, I’m so weird with names. Since you passed out and there wasn’t enough security for me and Michelo. I volunteered to stay here for a few minutes. It’s safer than out there. I think they’re getting you a doctor.”
I reached for my phone and hit the record button. I found a yellow legal pad and a pencil.
“Allison, how does it feel to be a free woman? Were you surprised? You seemed satisfied.”
She changed expressions. Her pretty, almost angelic face was replaced by a scowl.
“I guess we have to do this now. I gave you my word. Satisfied is how I would describe it. I knew they didn’t have the evidence.”
I was struck by her confidence. It didn’t seem natural for someone who’d spent two years behind bars.
“What made you so sure? Was in because Michelo’s case was so weak?
Allison changed expression again. She turned her back to me and pushed herself against the steel poles. She was pensive.
“Michelo was my boyfriend less than a month. We just had a good time together. He was such a cliché. Poor Euro boy from the country trying to pick up an American girl in a bar. Oh God, Breann. Men are just so simple, aren’t they?”
I touched my forehead. The fever had broken but my headache was incredible. I focused on her tone. It was so wicked.
“Who killed Saffron Poe, Allison? Was it Michelo’s friend Yanick Kolo?”
Kolo was serving eight years in an Italian prison for theft. He was in the apartment the night Saffron Poe was murdered. Allison’s defense was that Kolo committed the crimes and framed Allison and Michelo.
“Saffron and Yanick were screwing. He’s trash, but not a killer.”
Hugo Ruegerro and his security guards came into the office. They moved with speed and precision. Hugo touched my arm.
“Breann, sweetheart, I’m so sorry for your illness. We have to move the Ms. Keen to her hotel. We’re having trouble finding a physician among the mindlessness. Forgive me.”
I grit my teeth and damned the missed opportunity. I looked at Allison and she was back to being the sweet student from Portland, Oregon with sparkling blue eyes and perfect bottle-blonde hair.
“Hugo, I’m fine. I was just faint. It’s jet lag and bad tea.”
They opened the cell door and Allison followed them out. She turned to me and whispered.
“You know what happened, don’t you?”
I felt sick again but stayed on my feet. I don’t know happened and it’s making me crazy.
Two hours later I arrived back at my hotel. The day had spun out of control. The streets were filled with people protesting the hearing. Half of Italy appeared to be against Allison Keen, the other half just wanted it all to go away. Greta Jorgensen interviewed Saffron Poe’s family. On the television in my hotel lobby I watched Writey Spice as she poked the grieving Poes until Saffron’s mother screamed into Greta’s face “Americans get away with everything!” Writey Spice was adding zeroes to her bank account. I got a text from Allison Keen’s lawyer.
“Meet us in Allison’s hotel ASAP.”
I hailed a taxi and reached her hotel within ten minutes. No one spoke. They shepherded me into the same suite I first met Allison. She sat on the bed. Next to her waist are several folders. Some were blue, some were manila, and two were red. Papers were inside of each.
“Hey, Breann. I got it right this time. You have to like me now.”
The expression was awkward, smiling Allison. But, there was something missing behind her eyes.
“I’m a writer, too. My sister and I researched your work with the New York Post. I also read the book you wrote, Bad Date, about Rex McKissic.”
Rex McKissic was a twenty-five-year-old Wall Street commodities broker who, a week before 9/11, was put on trial for murdering a Columbia University college student named Hope Nathanson. The defendant and the victim were young, good-looking and raised in privilege. The case divided the social upper crust of New York City. The book I wrote was critical of the prosecution for trying McKissic in the media, while pursuing a very circumstantial case. The situation a decade earlier was similar to what was going on in Italy. Rex McKissic and Allison Keen could have been brother and sister. Their personalities are stark in similarity.
“Rex McKissic said he was innocent and was acquitted too. Do you think you’re like him, Allison?”
Allison stood, picked up her folders and walked to the desk where she sat earlier in the day. She pulled her hair behind her ears and rolled her eyes in my direction.
“You think I came to Italy to party, don’t you, Breann?”
The pain in my chest and shoulders subsided for the first time in days. I walked to the desk and set my things down. I stood inches from her.
“It doesn’t matter what I think. I’m a reporter, nothing more.”
Allison’s eyes sharpened. She curled her lips and hissed.
“Every day for the last two years, two months, thirteen days, and six hours, I’ve documented my life. It’s all here. I want the world to know that I was college student who wanted to learn, not some slut who wasted her parent’s money like Saffron Poe!”
I calculated my words. Sometimes the victim is to blame. In Rex McKissic’s case, Hope Nathanson took him to a swinger’s party, they took ecstasy, and he couldn’t remember half the night. He woke up next to a lifeless body, Hope was dead as a result of strangulation, maybe from rough sex. Hope’s lifestyle was the centerpiece of the defense’s strategy. It backfired, the jury didn’t like Rex. A year later the case was overturned.
“Someone else killed Saffron, didn’t they, Allison? You’re covering for them. You two fought a lot because you were studious and she partied. She brought around sketchy guys like Yanick and Michelo. You want me to find the person.”
Allison Keen stood and straightened her shoulders. She adujusted her Versace outfit, extended her right hand, and smiled. I accepted the handshake.
“I like you Breann. You don’t judge, you understand. My parents are willing to pay, although you’ll probably refuse money because you’re a journalist. Those are copies of everything I’ve written. I want time with my family. Read them, please. I’ll call you when we get back to the States. I promise.”
The red-orange glow of Milan’s sunrise came through white curtains and hit me between the eyes as I reached for my vibrating cell phone on the hotel room night stand. A small hand with short fingers gently pressed against my bare back.
“Don’t answer it, love. What you wrote yesterday will satiate the masses for now. You can tell them the whole truth later.”
Greta’s bedside morality made me laugh. I turned on the Italian Radio next to the bed and fell into her arms.