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.

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.