A Good Girl (early Beta page)

The next book I’m working on is tentatively titled “A Good Girl.” On this page, just for my newsletter readers, I’ll be posting the early chapters of the book. Please send me an email to give me feedback on the early draft. Tell me any reactions or thoughts you have, or answer the questions at the bottom of each chapter. If you send me feedback, I’ll enter you in a drawing to win a free download of the finished book once it’s published. Thanks in advance for any feedback you can offer. Or, if you just enjoy reading a rough draft.

Note: Please DO NOT DO ANY COPY EDITING. This is a rough draft that will go through ten more revisions and a professional edit. I do not want you to correct punctuation, grammar, word choices, etc. I’m interested in big-picture feedback about how you react to the story and the characters, not whether you think I should have used a semi-colon. Happy reading.

{In Chapter 1, the reader witnessed two murders in Washington Square Park in Manhattan. Angelica, a young college student, was being accosted in the park by two men. Javier, on his way home after a basketball game, came upon the scene and saw a girl in trouble. He tried to intervene and got into a knife fight with one of the men — a guy he knew as “Duke.” During the fight, Angelica dug a little gun out of her purse and threatened Duke. Duke disarmed her, then shot her with his own gun. Javier ran, but twisted his ankle. Duke and his accomplice caught up with Javier, then Duke put Javier’s knife back in his hand (still carrying some of Duke’s blood from the earlier fight), then shot Javier with Angelica’s gun. An NYU security guard heard the first gunshot and called it in, then found the scene by the big tree known as the Hangman’s Elm. He found Angelica dead, and found the athletic bag left behind by Javier. If you have not read chapter 1 yet, you can find it below, after Chapter 2, which is placed here for the ease of readers who already read the first chapter.}

Chapter 2 — Dream Job

HANNAH’S PHONE STARTED PLAYING “Takin’ Care of Business” at 9:15 p.m. Friday night. She was on a date – a first date – with a guy she actually liked, which was unusual. Not sure how the evening would work out, she wore a conservative green dress with a high neckline and half-sleeves. Her brown hair, which she kept in a ponytail most of the time, was hanging in loose curls around her shoulders.

            “I’m really sorry, but this is my boss. I need to answer,” she was already halfway out of her chair. She had mostly talked about her job during cocktails and dinner, so her date couldn’t have been that surprised.

            “We’re not sure who the victim is, but our report is a young White female,” David Butler, Hannah’s Managing Editor said urgently. “Since it’s near NYU, she could be a student, but it’s for sure a shooting, so a murder. Terry is on his way in the van with William White. We want to do a live remote for the eleven o’clock. First segment. Can you get there?”

            “Absolutely,” Hannah’s voice had more excitement and emotion than at any time during her date.

“You’re not my first choice, but nobody else is available. Don’t give me another Lower East Side baby. Got it?”

Hannah cringed and bit her tongue. It was useless arguing with Butler that it wasn’t her fault. The witness she put on camera two weeks earlier claimed he saw the baby’s mother in the window just before the child fell. She had no way of verifying it. It turned out he was on camera outside a strip club ten blocks away at the time. The network was embarrassed. The guy was also the woman’s ex-husband and had a grudge, although the injured child was not his. It was a mess. “I won’t let you down, sir.”

She ended the call and hurried back to the table, making her excuses and giving Erik a peck on the cheek. “This is my life. It’s exciting, but sometimes inconvenient. Can we try again?” She grabbing her sweater, blew him an air kiss, and hustled away. Dave sat, stunned, before returning to his linguini alfredo, reaching across the tiny table to stab a bit of Hannah’s abandoned Bronzini.

            Hannah waited on the Sixth Avenue curb, outside Possa Notte and lit a cigarette. She hadn’t wanted to endanger a first date by smoking while Erik was around, but now she was working. As soon as an empty yellow cab pulled over, she tossed the butt and climbed in.

            One hour and ten minutes later, Hannah walked down the cobbled sidewalk running along the north side of Washington Square Park, holding the elbow of a young woman in a pink sweatsuit and matching flip-flops. The girl, Tina Martin, was the freshman year roommate of the shooting victim, Angelica Monroe. Tina’s blonde hair was pinned up with a plastic claw clip. She had no makeup and looked like she was ready for bed. Hannah guided Tina through the growing obstacle course of broadcast media equipment. Since the initial police calls about a gunshot in Washington Square Park, and then the report that a young woman was killed, a swarm of media had descended on the area. Black power cables snaked across the sidewalk every ten feet, connecting to aluminum spiders with flood-light eyes that illuminated the earie scene. Hannah and Tina passed six broadcast vans before arriving where her cameraman and driver, Terry, had staked out their position. Terry, one of the early media vehicles on the scene, had grabbed a location on the curb next to an access path into the park, under a streetlight. Any extra light for your camera shot was gold for a nighttime live remote.

            Hannah had wheedled the victim’s identity out of the university security guard who found her body near a large tree called the Hangman’s Elm. Ignoring proper crime scene protocol, the guard had searched the girl’s purse and found her NYU identification card. Hannah had implied, without promising, an on-camera opportunity to a Black woman wearing a university uniform who kept shoeing curious students away from the park entrance nearest to the student dorms. Figuring that the grapevine among the local staff would be both accurate and accessible, she learned the name and likely location of Joe Turner, the retired cop who was first on the scene. A shy smile and a fifty-dollar gratuity convinced Turner to give up Angelica Monroe’s name. She then had worked Instagram and Twitter to find photos of Angelica. There were plenty, one of which was with Tina, whose name was tagged. Paydirt.

Tina was, at first, reluctant to talk about Angelica. “I was, like, only her roommate. It’s not like I knew her that well. You’d be better off talking to Sarah Lichtenstein. She was Angie’s bestie. I’m really not the best person.”

Hannah made a mental note of the name for future consideration, but it was far too late to start tracking down another student. “Don’t be modest. You lived with her for a year. You can certainly tell our viewers how crushed you are about losing her at nineteen. I’m sure she was a good friend and a kind person, right?”

Tina fidgeted, clasping her hands behind her back. She wasn’t making eye contact. Hannah couldn’t be sure if her reluctance was trepidation about being on camera or something else. She didn’t have time to psychoanalyze the girl. “Look, right now everybody is speculating about Angelica and what happened. You will be the first person who knew her to go on camera and tell people. You don’t get many chances to be the star witness. Can I count on you?”

“Can I change into something nicer, and put on some make-up?”

“You look great just as you are,” Hannah lied. She wanted the girl to look natural, even disheveled. It would lend credibility to her interview. She also worried that other industrious producers working the campus would come up with Tina’s name also, or find Sarah Lichtenstein or some other “best friend” and get her, or him, on camera more quickly. Speed was the name of the game. The first interview was, by definition, the best one – until something better came along. “We need to hurry if we’re going to make it in time for the eleven o’clock top story. Just grab a sweatshirt or something, in case you get chilly.”

            Five minutes later, as they walked past a barrier of yellow crime scene tape, Hannah prepped Tina for her on camera appearance. “Our remote anchor, William White, is a wonderful guy. You’ll like him. He’ll lead you through the interview, so don’t worry. We want you to talk about Angelica. It’s a tragedy. We want our viewers to know her through you. Just explain what a wonderful person she is – was – and about your feelings now that you know she is so suddenly gone. It must be awful thinking that a classmate could be murdered just steps away from your dorm room.” Hannah stopped talking long enough to gauge Tina’s demeanor and mood. The girl’s eyes looked like golf balls with dime-sized black pupils. Panic. Hannah wanted sadness. She changed her approach and asked Tina whether Angelica had a boyfriend. She tapped two times on the breast pocket of her pale blue blazer while waiting for a reply. William White, who was listening to the conversation on an open line from Hannah’s mobile phone, would know she was two minutes away.

            “Um, I haven’t really hung out much with Angie this school year. She lives in a dorm up by Union square and we don’t have any classes together. She had a guy last spring named Tony, but I haven’t seen him on Angie’s Instagram lately, so he’s probably not around anymore.”

            Hannah escorted Tina around a barricade sheltering two black & white police cruisers, both with their flashing blue and red lights twirling. “What about her family? Where’s Angie from?” She easily fell into calling the dead girl “Angie,” to make Tina more comfortable.

            “From Westchester somewhere,” Tina responded, clearly probing her memory for the name of the town, lost in the avalanche of information absorbed by a college student. “I’m not sure I should be giving out personal information.”

            “That’s very conscientious of you, Tina. I agree. What’s important is that you tell people what kind of person Angie was.” Hannah desperately wanted to squeeze a home address for Angelica out of her former roommate, but the immediate interview was far more important. Addresses could be learned now that they had a name. They were only a few steps away from Terry’s campsite and their primo interview location. She was confident that Tina would not need much prompting to conjure some genuine tears when the lights came on – as long as they didn’t prep too much.

She stopped where Terry had marked a huge “X” on the sidewalk stones with yellow duct tape. Behind the mark, a four-foot high stone wall, with trees beyond draped with crime scene tape, made a perfect background for the live shot. Hannah stood on the yellow mark with Tina, consoling her and building up her confidence about being on camera. Finally, when Terry gave her the signal, William White emerged from the van and walked to the designated spot, while Terry focused the HD camera, mounted on a tripod. The flood lights brightened as William White stepped into the illumination, holding a wireless microphone.

            Hannah stepped aside, giving Tina a raised thumb of support, and moved behind Terry. Her phone vibrated. “Hey,” she answered, knowing from the caller ID that it was Dave Butler on the other end.

            “Are you ready? We want about two minutes and thirty seconds at five past eleven.”

            “All set, Boss. Did you get my notes?”

            “Yeah. Nice work. How the hell did you get the dead girl’s roommate?”

            “I’m just that good. That’s why you called me. And she’s last year’s roommate. Let’s get that right in the lead-in.”

            “Fine. Fine. We have it. You’re sure she’s legit?”

            Hannah bit her lip. “Yes. It’s based on photos on Instagram. She’s solid.”

            “Tell White to get a second segment after you’re done live. We want five minutes for the overnight. You got any other witnesses?”

            Hannah held the phone away from her ear, slowly counting to five. It was a technique one of her journalism school professors taught her to avoid blurting out something she would regret later. “No, boss, I’ve been fully occupied securing you the scoop of the night. It may take me another half hour to get an interview with the killer.” The silence on the other side of the call, rather than a burst of laughter, immediately signaled that her sarcasm was not properly appreciated. “But I’ll keep digging, as soon as we finish the live segment.”

            “OK. You did good tonight, Kid. Keep it up.” The line went dead. Hannah smiled, despite being pissed off. She hated that it made her so happy to get a small nugget of recognition from Butler. She ducked into the van while pulling a folded sheet of paper from her back pocket. She slid the waiver and release form into a manila folder she extracted from a short two-drawer file cabinet. Tina’s legal authorization for the network to broadcast her interview, and giving away the worldwide rights to all future use of the video, was secure.

The bright red light atop the camera flashed. William White thanked the studio anchor and launched into Tina’s interview. As Hannah had hoped, Tina looked like she had been ready for bed, but agreed to be interviewed in her night clothes because she was so mortified by her friend’s tragic death. She told the camera how “Angie” loved animals and wanted to be a veterinarian. When asked to recall her favorite memory of Angelica, Tina’s tears flowed like a spring rain. Through her obvious grief, Tina said Angie was popular and a friend to everyone. She could not understand how anyone would want to hurt her. It was gold.

One minute in, a semi-circle of journalists and producers from their rival channels had gathered around to listen. Several broke out steno pads and scribbled notes. That truly made Hannah Smile. When a tall brunette with an earpiece held up her phone in the direction of the shoot, Hannah grabbed an aluminum pole attached to the side of the van and extended its telescopic segments. A two-foot square Mylar flag bearing the AMERICAN CABLE NEWS network’s logo hung limply at the end in the still air. Hannah positioned the flag at the end of the now twelve-foot pole in front of the woman’s phone, drawing a menacing stare while Hannah wagged a reprobative index finger at the reporter for attempting to obtain a pirate video of her exclusive interview. The woman lowered her phone with a scowl, prompting Hannah to withdraw her pole. Several colleagues chuckled softly, giving appropriate deference to the interview in progress.

            When William White signed off after a 2:35 live segment, the crowd of onlookers surged forward, eager to get their own shot at Tina. Hannah and Terry flailed their arms, motioning the hoard away as William White spoke in hushed tones to Tina, explaining that they were going to do a second segment, this one longer, which would be edited together with the first segment for airing overnight. Terry returned to the back of the camera while Hannah shooed the onlookers back out of the shot.

            When the second segment was finished, including one do-over clip to allow William White to re-shoot a flubbed question, Hannah hustled Tina into the news van, got her a bottle of water and a Snickers bar, and told her what a great job she had done. They shared pulls from a box of tissues. William White came in and posed with Tina for a selfie. Terry packed the impossibly expensive camera into a locked case in the back of the van, then joined the group inside, telling Tina that he would use the van’s satellite dish to download a video clip of her live interview, which would take a few minutes. The group chatted amiably, William White asking about herself, her studies, and generally flirting. He was an expert flirter. Tina, who had been nervous in front of the huge camera, relaxed and developed moony eyes as William White lavished his attention while making eye contact with Hannah and nodding almost imperfectively. They both knew that every minute was precious. The longer they could keep the girl on ice, the later it would get in the 11:00 p.m. news programs and the more the rival stations would have to settle for rerunning a licensed clip of the interview that just finished. Five more minutes and it would be too late for anyone else to get a live shot. As good a story as the murder was, nobody was going to cut into the 11:30 late night shows for a live interview with the victim’s friend. Hannah had a scoop and wanted to protect it.

            Terry stepped in to give Tina a quick tutorial on how to open and play the video file he had just downloaded. Tina assured him that she knew how to play an mp4 file, but Terry insisted on popping a flash drive into his laptop and demonstrate for her. Hannah and William White stepped out of the van to get some air. A few print reporters hung around, hoping to get some time with Tina. William White unbuttoned his dress shirt and pulled his necktie down three inches. “That was fantastic! We totally nailed it. You got us the absolute best interview. I’m sure there wasn’t a dry eye in the studio. This Angelica girl is as tragic as it gets.” He stepped toward Hannah with his hands spread wide, angling for a hug.

            Hannah extended a hand, holding him at bay. “Don’t seem too happy that she’s dead, William. The people want to see you cry, not pop the champagne.” William White pushed through her outstretched arm and grabbed her shoulders with his manicured hands. He leaned in to kiss her as her elbow bent. She turned her head and winced as he planted his lips on her cheek, then released his grip and turned away with a smile, walking around the front of the van and disappearing beyond.

Hannah joined Terry and Tina, then took the young woman by the elbow and led her away as several print reporters shouted questions and held out microphones and digital recorders. Hannah hustled her back to her dorm as the local television crews broke down their equipment and lowered their satellite dishes at the ends of their telescoping towers like an anemone retracting at a child’s touch. At the door of Tina’s building, Hannah Said, “You did great. Thank you so much. I have your email, so I’ll send you an mp4 file of both interview segments tomorrow. I can’t force you to refuse to talk to any other reporters, but remember that you don’t have to. You don’t have to answer your phone or your dorm room door. You don’t have to talk to anyone you don’t want to.”

            Tina looked at her with tear-stained cheeks. “Thanks. I’m so drained. I can’t believe Angie’s dead. I just want to go to bed.”

            “You do that,” Hannah soothed, scooting her through the door, past the now much more alert student on security duty and the uniformed guard who had been assigned to the suddenly under-siege building. Hannah smiled at several colleagues from rival stations and several print reporters, who flashed expressions conveying congratulations, admiration, jealousy, and contempt all at once.

            Back at the van, Terry had packed up the lights and was leaning against the front of the vehicle, smoking a cigarette. “Can I bum one?” Hannah held out her right hand without waiting for a response. It was a familiar dance. Terry bumped his pack and offered the extended butt. “Thanks.” She used her own lighter. She had half a pack in her bag inside the van, but smoking Terry’s didn’t count against her self-imposed limit of five per day.

            “You going home?” Terry asked between drags.

            “Not sure. You?”

            Terry blew out a perfect foot-wide smoke ring that drifted toward the crime scene tape attached to the gray stone wall separating the park from the street. “I’m gonna stay. This location is too good to give up. I’m sure the morning show will want a shot, even if there’s nothing to update.”

            Hannah nodded. Terry was dedicated, and he was right about the prime location. If they moved the van, three others would battle for the turf. It was best to dig in. The no parking signs would not be enforced as long as the media circus was in town. Now that her shoot was finished, Hannah surveyed the scene. Two reporters stood in pools of bright light doing live shoots for local broadcasts in more western time zones, or possibly taping pieces for later showing. They were so close to each other that they had to angle their cameras in order to avoid having their neighbor in the shot. She counted eight news vans parked along the street, five with their satellite dish antennae still extended skyward atop telescopic towers that swayed in the light breeze like great sunflowers.

            A clump of uniformed officers approached the narrow park entrance next to their van, prompting Hannah to step forward to watch. Inside a small circle of blue, a middle-aged man wearing a faded blue sports jacket and a woman in a skirt-and-jacket combo marched toward the yellow tape, then ducked under and paraded into the park, now lit by dozens of portable lights. “Those are the detectives,” she said in Terry’s direction. She stepped toward the park entrance, but was stopped by two officers who held out their palms, without speaking. The press was not allowed behind the tape while the investigation was ongoing.

            Hannah returned to the van. It was nearly midnight, but the scene was still buzzing with activity. There were more media than cops. “I think I’ll stick around a while and see if the detectives have anything to say.”

            Terry shrugged. “William White already left, so you have nobody to do an on-air.”

            “That’s fine. I’ll save whatever I get for the morning.”

            “Suit yourself.” Terry tossed his spent cigarette on the pavement and crushed it out with a clunky black shoe. “I’m going to try to get some sleep while I can.”

            “Great.” Hannah gave him a pat on the shoulder. “Fantastic work today.” Terry grunted as he disappeared inside the van, which was equipped with a hammock in addition to a mini-fridge. She shook her head slowly at the media feeding frenzy all around her. She needed a big story, and needed to make her boss forget about the Lower East Side baby. She snuffed out her cigarette and sat down in a folding canvas chair Terry had left out next to the van door, helping to mark their territory. She mumbled to herself, “This is going to be great.”

Beta Reader Questions:

  1. Did you make a connection with Hannah here in chapter 2, or are you feeling ambivalent about her and what’s going to happen to her or how she’s going to play a part in the story?
  2. Is there too much detail here about the story-gathering process for a TV news producer, or were you interested in how that all played out?
  3. What is your first impression of Hannah? Do you think she’s a soul-less tool of the network, an ambitious woman who would do anything to get ahead, an idealistic champion of the truth, — or is it too early to tell. And, do you care yet?

Chapter 1                            Friday in the Park

JAVIER HEARD A SCREAM. He was on his way home after leaving the basketball court at Sixth Avenue and 3rd Street. His pick-up team had won three straight games. He could have remained on the court for another, but he promised his mother he would be home by 10:00. His boss at the supermarket wanted him stocking shelves by 6:00 a.m. and didn’t permit late arrivals. He took his usual route, cutting through Washington Square Park on his way to the low-income housing project on 6th Street, between Avenue C and the FDR drive. The courts in the park along the East River were closer to home, but the college scouts only watched the Sixth Avenue games, where the best street players dazzled the spectators. The scream stopped him as he jogged along a dirt path between the trees, thick with new spring blossoms.

            Looking left, toward the big tree known as the Hangman’s Elm, he tried to convince himself that the sound might not have been a cry of distress – and that it might not have been from a woman. People yell for all kinds of reasons. A dropped cell phone or a mean Tweet could prompt one. He resolved to ignore it and keep going. Spring pollen hung in the still air, leaving a pungent smell that mixed with the Italian sausages, grilling on a rolling food cart a few hundred yards to the south. Two strides later, he heard it again – this time louder and more clearly a cry of pain and distress; almost certainly from a girl. His mother would be unhappy if he was late. She would also be unhappy if she knew he ignored a cry for help. She had a mantra, repeated often enough to be part of Javier’s psyche: “A person is defined by the actions they take, and by the actions they choose not to take.”

            He made sharp left, his shoulder bag containing his hoops gear swinging a wide arc around his body as he carefully made his way through the bushes toward the sound.

            When he emerged as quietly as he could into the clearing around the big Elm, two male figures stood with their backs toward him. They were dark-skinned and both wore blue jeans and t-shirts. One had on a baseball cap. Beyond them, a White girl slumped forward toward the taller of the two. The girl’s gold-colored top was ripped mostly off, partially exposing her pale breasts. The shorter man, wearing a white t-shirt, turned sideways. Javier recognized the guy, who had his left hand on the girl’s head, forcing her down. She fell to her knees, turning her face away from her tormenter and toward Javier. He saw the terror in her eyes. A red swath across her cheek spoke volumes about whether she was a willing participant. She grunted as her knees hit the hard dirt, then said something that sounded like, “Please.”

            Javier dropped his shoulder bag at the edge of the brush and stepped forward, calling out, “Hey!”

            The two boys snapped their heads around, bending their knees, ready to run if the voice belonged to a cop. The odor of newly spread mulch mixed with the usual park smells of weed and urine. Javier was sweating from his run from Sixth Avenue. He felt the thump of his own heartbeats, now faster than during his recent hoops games. There were no lights in this section of the park, but in Manhattan it’s never truly dark. Javier recognized Lui, the boy closest to him in the black shirt. He also recognized the guy with his hand still on the girl, who went by Dude, although Javier doubted that was an actual name. Not a guy you normally would want to pick a fight with. Javier drew in a breath, then called out, “Yo! Looks like the girl ain’t into you, Dude. Maybe let her get up and go home and we’ll all be cool. Whaddaya say?” As he spoke, Javier dipped his right hand into the pocket of his New York Knicks sweat pants and loosely clasped the knife he kept there during his trips across lower Manhattan.

            Dude planted the back of his hand against the girl’s face, sending her sprawling against the smooth trunk of the big Elm. Then he took three quick strides toward Javier as his companion stepped aside. Javier figured there was a 50/50 chance Dude would recognize him, but wasn’t sure if recognition would be helpful.

            Dude waved his arm and called out, “Why don’t you mind your fucking business and walk away, mister basketball?”

            Recognition confirmed. Javier kept his hand in his pocket, but made an effort to relax his shoulders and smile. “Hey, man, I’m sorry I interrupted you. I heard the girl scream and thought she might be in trouble.”

            “She is. And now so are you.”

            Dude’s calm voice made Javier grip his knife tighter and rest his thumb on the pin that would extend the blade. Fighting a guy like Dude was not on his agenda for the evening. He figured Dude would have a gun. He remembered the old adage: don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. Too late. He raised his left hand. “It’s cool. It’s cool. I don’t want no problems, bro. You got this under control. I’m outta here.” He backed away one step.

            Dude took two steps forward, prompting Javier to pull his right hand out of his pocket. His blade extended with a swish and a loud click as it locked in place. Dude stopped, a sneer curling his lip. Javier shifted his weight nervously, seeing that his opponent seemed amused rather than intimidated by the switchblade. At this point, getting away in one piece became the goal. He thought about turning and sprinting away, figuring that he could easily outrun Dude. Being branded a coward didn’t concern him. But his best Air Jordans were in his shoulder bag, on the ground ten feet behind him. He couldn’t afford to replace them. He needed to distract Dude, or put him on the ground long enough to grab his bag and run. A bead of sweat formed on Javier’s nose, refusing to drip away. He had to leave it be, with all his senses focused on survival.

            When Dude moved forward, his companion circled to the left, keeping Javier at the point of a triangle. Javier didn’t recognize the other guy. He was taller, wearing a black t-shirt bearing a silver logo too faded to make out in the dim light. He didn’t seem to have a weapon, at least not visible. Since Dude was clearly the leader here, protocol in the structured world of street confrontations dictated that the second man would not interfere – until asked. The alpha male needed to handle the situation on his own first.

            Dude reached into the front pocket of his jeans and pulled his own knife. Javier let out a long breath. At least it wasn’t a gun. Javier faced his opponent, balanced equally on both feet and crouched at the waist. Good defensive position in a basketball game, and a solid stance in a knife fight. Dude flipped open his blade, then charged. Javier pivoted left and spun, extending his knife and swiping toward Dude’s leg. He had been in enough fights to know that guys tended to protect their head and chest, but often left their lower body vulnerable. Dude fell into that category. Javier’s blade sliced through Dude’s jeans and drew blood from his thigh.

            Dude howled. Javier backed away quickly, toward his bag. Dude gathered himself, grimacing, but realizing he was not seriously hurt. A voice made him stop and spin around. The girl, her shirt now raggedly draped across her chest, held a tiny silver pistol in her extended hand.

            “Let him go!” she squeaked out the words between gasping breaths. Her gun hand trembled. She pointed the .22 toward Dude, standing less than fifteen feet away. It was a small gun, but at that range it could do serious damage. Dude lowered his knife, now ignoring Javier. Black t-shirt moved back toward the girl, away from Javier.

            “Well, look who’s got a little bitty gun, Luis.” He smiled and held his hands out to his sides. Dude made eye contact with LUIS and nodded his head.

            Luis yelled, “Hey!” and held up his hands, then dove to his left, in case the girl fired. At the same moment, Dude lunged right, putting a hand on the ground and executing a shoulder roll. The girl had swung the gun in Luis’s direction when he yelled. Now, she pivoted back toward Dude, who bounced up and thrust his left hand toward the girl. A cloud of brown dirt, which Dude had scooped up, sailed past the pearl handled pistol and into the face of the bedraggled young woman. She screamed and closed her eyes as the park grit mingled with her tears.

            Dude didn’t hesitate. He lunged forward and slapped the pistol from the girl’s hand as she fell backwards. He grabbed the back of the girl’s head with his left hand as he retracted his blade and returned it to his jeans pocket. Then, he reached around his waist, under his long white t-shirt, and extracted a gun from his beltline. It was sleek and dark, but looked more plastic than metallic. He held it sideways at the end of his arm, inches from the girl’s head.

            “You don’t want to be pointing guns at people. It’s dangerous.”

            The sound of Dude’s gun firing was more muted than Javier expected, like a firecracker . The girl’s reaction, however, was exactly what haunted Javier’s nightmares. She breathed in a hooting breath as she fell backwards.

            Javier knew he should have run the moment Dude was distracted, but the scene in front of him kept him planted in place. It had taken less than fifteen seconds. Seconds he couldn’t get back. He turned away, reflexively retracting his blade and returning the knife to his hip pocket as he dashed toward his shoulder bag.

Dude lowered his gun and stood over the girl for a moment, then spun around and called to Luis. “Grab the punk! I don’t want no witnesses.”

            Javier’s bag was only a few feet away, but he calculated the distance he could get ahead if he abandoned it. He ran. Dude had a gun, which trumped his Air Jordans. His right foot skidded in the loose dirt. He fell to one knee, then found his traction and leapt forward. Luis got to him before he could take his second full stride. The guy tackled him, rolling to the ground in heap. He was heavier than Javier, who squirmed away on his hands and knees. He took a skipping step just as Luis grabbed his foot, throwing him off balance. He landed on his other foot on the edge of a rock, twisting his ankle sideways. He heard a sickening sound like a mooring rope grinding against a dock and felt a searing pain shoot up his lower leg, but took his next stride and powered away as fast as he could manage.

            Dude and Luis followed. They were not in great shape, but Javier’s ankle protested with every stride. He was limping – trying to not bend his ankle as he ran. He made it to the paved path near the fountain at the center of the park and headed east. A few clusters of people sat on the edge of the fountain. A hot dog vendor stood next to his cart at the corner of the square. No cops. Nobody he could count on to protect him from Dude, who was gaining on him. He darted to his left, into the trees and darkness, hoping to avoid detection. Then he tripped and fell to the ground. He rolled, fighting the pain in his ankle. When he retained his feet, Luis arrived and tackled him again. This time, he and Dude held him down. They punched and kicked Javier savagely. A sneaker smashed against his rib with a crunch and a wave of pain. Another kick landed against his cheekbone, jerking his head. The pummeling continued until he lost consciousness.

* * *

Javier remembered diving off the granite cliffs at the southern tip of the Bronx into the icy Harlem river. It was a hazing ritual for the street gang he used to run with. Anyone not brave enough to jump was shunned. Those with the balls to take the plunge were accepted, once fished out of the dank water. Even though he was only fifteen, it was the day he thought of himself as a man. It was a memory about which he frequently dreamed. He opened his eyes, searching for his bearings. His side ached. He couldn’t feel his nose. he remembered the girl, and Dude, and being tackled. He felt himself being propped up. A jolting pain raced up his back into his left shoulder. His mouth wouldn’t open to allow a cry of agony to escape.

            While Luis held him up by his broken arms, Dude stood in Javier’s blurry field of vision. Luis used his dirty t-shirt to wipe the hilt of Javier’s switchblade, then pressed it into Javier’s hand, forcing aching fingers to grip the polished surface. He whispered, “Sorry, man,” into Javier’s ear as he pressed the catch to extend the blade, some of Dude’s blood still clinging to it, which then dripped to the ground from Javier’s limp hand.

            Dude, standing only a few feet away, pulled the trigger of the little .22 pistol he had taken from the foot of the Hangman’s Elm. The shot was surprisingly loud, echoing around the concrete environs of the urban oasis. Dude pocketed the gun as Javier’s limp form collapsed on the soft spring grass.

* * *

Joe Malone heard the bang inside his guard house. It was barely a shed, really, plopped down at 4th Street & MacDougal, the southwest corner of Washington Square Park in Manhattan. Joe, working for New York University on a Friday evening, was moonlighting from his regular gig as a security guard at the Citi Bank on Church street. He had put in his twenty years at the NYPD and was supposed to be enjoying his retirement while working the cushy bank assignment he had lined up years earlier. Divorcing his wife had left him with an account balance that required supplementing his income. If he were still on the force, he would have enough seniority to pick his shift and assignment, and he’d be getting overtime for working on a Friday night. Retiring had been his worst decision. Or maybe leaving his wife for a woman who dumped him six months later was a worse call. Now, he had to make another decision.

            He knew that sound. A gunshot has a specific aural texture and echo off the surrounding buildings, even when it comes through the trees from inside the park. The inside of the park was not his jurisdiction. The university wanted him in his little shack on the sidewalk, to make the students feel safe as they strolled up and down the cobbled sidewalks between the bars and clubs and restaurants. If there was a fight or a purse-snatching on the street, he was expected to emerge from his shelter and take action. The stone wall separating the park from the street was his boundary. Inside, in the dark shadows under the city-owned trees, the NYPD had jurisdiction. As university security, Joe was supposed to call the local precinct or 9-1-1 if there was something happening inside the park, unless he was actively chasing someone with probable cause of having committed a crime. Those were his orders.

            Joe was lousy at following orders. He slid off his chair and stretched his back as he wandered out of the shed and tipped his head up to hear if there was another shot. The sounds of city traffic, the rumble of a truck speeding up nearby Sixth Avenue, a distant siren, and the buzzing chatter of happy and drunk college students and Manhattan residents drown out any sounds coming from the park. The lights on the street gave way to shadows on the far side of the wall. Nothing. No second shot. He dialed the precinct and spoke to the desk sergeant. “This is Joe Malone. NYU Security at 4th and MacDougal. I have a probable gunshot inside Washington Square Park, likely to my north. Please send a unit over to check it out. . . . Yes, I know the difference between weapons fire and a car backfiring. I’m retired NYPD. Just send a car.” He punched END and again tilted his head, listening. Nothing. “Fuck it.” He walked quickly through the gap in the wall, pulling out his two-foot-long tactical flashlight that served as a Billy club as well as a light.

            He walked along a well-worn path toward the north, still listening. The street sounds were muffled here, behind layers of shrubs and trees. The pool of light from his flash filled in the shadows. He moved toward what he knew was a clearing around a huge tree, known as the Hangman’s Elm. It was a spot where people gathered in the daylight, and where patrons looking to score some weed – or more – hung out after dark. He wasn’t there to bust small-time drug dealers, or their customers. But he figured the shot he heard had come from this direction, and the clearing was as good a place to start as any. Another bang caught his attention. Farther away, toward the west. Another shot? He looked around to satisfy himself that he was still alone. Emerging through a gap in a line of thick shrubs where the path narrowed, Joe shone his light toward the Hangman’s Elm.

            That’s when he saw a flash of yellow and a dark shape on the ground. He walked toward it, shining the light all around the area at the silent dirt, trampled by hundreds of New York feet. When he was close enough to be sure of what he was seeing, he rushed forward. It was a girl. On the ground; not moving. She was face-down. He knelt in the dust, not worrying about what evidence he might be trampling. Sticking the flashlight under an arm, he reached out and nudged her, in case she was just sleeping. She wasn’t. He rolled her over, watching the gold top she was wearing fall away in shreds from her chest. His eyes jumped to the dark hole in her forehead. She wasn’t going to need an ambulance.

Beta Reader Questions:

  1. — How engaged are you in the story after this first chapter? Are you intrigued? Are you wondering what really just happened? Are you excited about reading the next chapter?
  2. — What is your first reaction to the victims? Sympathetic? Negative? Confused?

Thanks in advance for any other feedback you care to provide.