Because I can’t stop the ideas in my head from disappearing, I write them all down. In detail. Then I go back when I have time and flesh them out until I get them where I think I can start writing.
I have finally started writing the first installment in the Ash Night series, and I wanted to share the first chapter. As always, I welcome any feedback.
He walked. The thought enraged me. Baffled me. Behind the half empty glass of beer that I had been nursing for the last twenty minutes, I was a tornado of anger, sadness, desperation and hate. I hung my head over my beer and leaned on the edge of the bar. The guy sitting next to me kept trying to start a conversation. He wore a brown overcoat, even though it was the middle of summer. Definitely a woman’s coat. It smelled like mothballs. He probably stole it. Every time he leaned close I got a waft of his beer-soaked breath and what must have been a week’s worth of body odor. I kept giving him my best ‘leave me alone’ look, but he was obviously too drunk to notice. The steady noise of the bar’s patrons became white noise in my head.
The NYPD had been pursuing a serial rapist for three months with almost nothing to go on. The pressure from the brass was stifling, but there were no leads. The guy was careful. There were never any witnesses. None of his victims ever saw his face. And he never left any DNA evidence. But that was before a victim was murdered after the act. Tiffanie Borowicz. A secretary on her way home from a law office in Brooklyn. That’s when everything got turned up a notch. When the rapist became a murderer too. That’s when the case landed on my desk. In Homicide Division. My home sweet home for the last nine years. Correction, former home sweet home.
Once the bastard slipped up and started killing, it was clear that upping the stakes gave him a thrill, because he kept doing it. He used a knife. A knife was quiet and personal. But the extra excitement meant he wasn’t as careful as he had been before. He got sloppy. It only took us five weeks to pin the guy down. In that span, he had killed three more girls, but we got him. Frank Diluca. A twenty-three year old kid. A five foot ten inch bean pole of a kid who worked at a coffee shop in Brooklyn and still lived in the basement of his mom’s brownstone.
And then the case went to trial. And we shot ourselves in the foot, apparently. A small bit of mislabeled evidence was deemed inadmissible. The smallest technicality. But it was enough. Diluca walked out of the courthouse a free man. A guilty, murdering, rapist piece of crap. And he just walked.
I drained the last of my beer and tapped the bottom of the glass against the bar, signalling for another. The bartender was a rough looking woman. Heavyset, probably in her forties, but looked to be in her late fifties. Her hair was a mess. My guess is she cuts it herself. And she certainly didn’t have a cheery disposition. Good thing I didn’t frequent the place. It was my first time in there. I went off instinct. I’m not exactly sure why. I lived all the way in Queens. So what was I doing in this dark, musty bar in Brooklyn? As soon as the question entered my head, I got my answer. Over the constant buzz of the drunks and dirtbags in the bar, I heard a distinctive voice come from the front door. Every hair on the back of my neck pricked up. I had heard that voice in my sleep the last few weeks. I leaned over the bar a bit so I could see the door through the crowd. Yep. There he was. Frank Diluca, plain as day.
He was still wearing the same pressed gray suit that he had on in the courtroom. The tie was gone. He met a couple friends just inside the door. They were laughing and talking loudly, congratulating Diluca on his big win today in court. Did they know he was really guilty? Did they even care? I sunk back into the barstool where I had been sitting for hours. I tapped my glass and motioned for another refill.
I sat and stewed over the day’s events. We had met with the District Attorney one final time before the scheduled court appearance. We went over everything. The chain of events. The evidence. How could we have missed something so devastating? After the meeting, I sat outside the courtroom for two hours instead of getting breakfast or running back to the precinct to check in. I just waited. I wanted this one behind me. I wanted it to be done. Something about this kid really pissed me off, and I wanted him gone. But it only took the defense thirty minutes to show that the evidence had been mishandled. A case was made for an improperly obtained confession. They used it as a stepping stone to destroy the entire case that had been put together against Diluca. Motion for mistrial? Granted. End of story.
After that, I let my temper get the better of me. I stormed into the precinct, hell bent on finding a scapegoat for my anger. I found the captain, who was not having it. He wasn’t taking anything lying down, especially from me. A shouting match in the bullpen ended when I threw my shield at him. I hit him square in the chest with it and slammed my department-issued weapon on the nearest metal desktop by the time my badge hit the floor. I was done with the scum of the city slipping through the cracks in the system. I didn’t know where I was going. I had no plan. I wasn’t thinking ahead, or weighing consequences. I just left. And somehow I ended up at this bar in Brooklyn. In the bar that Frank Diluca frequents at least four times a week.
I was taking a long draw on my umpteenth beer when someone pushed past me to get to the bar. Half of my beer ended up in my lap. I looked down at my soaked shirt, pants, and shoes. The rage bottled up inside me was bubbling to the top, and I was going to take it out on this idiot. Before I even raised my head, I saw the guy’s neck firmly in my grip, choking the life out of him. Bashing his head against the counter a few times. Really working out my anger on the idiot who was stupid enough to piss me off. On probably the worst day of my life. My adrenaline was pumping, and I was gritting my teeth. But there was that voice again.
“Well! If it isn’t Detective Night! Such a pleasure to bump into you in here.” Diluca stood at my left elbow. He was so close I could see the brown flecks in his blue eyes. Sitting on the barstool, I was eye-to-eye with him as he stood next to me. I stared at him with a blank look.
“Oh, wait,” he said, looking behind him at his two friends. He was pretending to be worried and sad. “Didn’t you quit your job today? I hope it wasn’t because of me.” He smiled as he spoke. He was enjoying this. Inside I was exploding with the urge to choke the life out of him right there on that bar. But the bar was full of people, and he had friends. And who knows how many of these people would have jumped in if they knew a neighborhood kid was getting choked out by a cop in their bar. Not to mention how difficult it would be to explain away an altercation between me and the guy who had just walked free on a case I led for more than a month. In a bar miles away from where I should have been. So I swallowed the lump in my throat and stared at him some more.
“Man, that’s a real shame,” he continued. He leabed his left elbow on the bar. He was daring me to make a move. He was getting bolder the longer I let him get away with talking. “We need good, hard-working cops like you to serve and protect us!” The sarcasm oozed from his crooked teeth.
I stood up from my barstool. Fear and anticipation swept over Diluca’s face. He took a half step back, expecting me to take a swing. But I didn’t. I turned away from the bar and pushed through the crowd that had gathered. I needed to get out of the situation before I made it far, far worse. So I walked to the bathroom in the back of the bar. Behind me, Diluca said “that’s right, punkass. Walk away.” I did just that. I stepped inside the bathroom and closed the door. I didn’t need to go. I just needed a place to gather myself. I felt like I had been holding my breath for the last ten minutes.
It took me a minute or two to control my breathing and slow my heart rate back to normal. I was leaning back against the wall, next to the only door to the bathroom. Focusing on your immediate environment will help calm the nerves, so I took in my surroundings. Aside from the hum of people on the other side of the door, the bathroom was quiet. I half expected Diluca and his buddies to follow me in there so they could attempt to kick my ass, three-to-one. They were definitely no match for me, especially in these close quarters. They would have failed miserably. But that was the last thing I needed. Fortunately, there was nothing. Just the hum of the bar. Then a loud slam of a door on my right, on the other side of the wall. The women’s room was on my left. Could that be a back door to the bar? That might be the smart thing to do. Avoid the powder keg in the next room and just slip out the back.
Evidently I didn’t have enough beers in me to talk myself out of the smart move. I turned and opened the bathroom door and stepped out. Nobody seemed to be waiting for me. Diluca and his buddies were playing pool at the front of the bar. They had forgotten about me, or at least didn’t care anymore. I looked to my left and saw the back door. I thought about it again, then decided I was doing the right thing. I pushed the door open and stepped outside into the warm night. The door slammed shut behind me. The hum of the crowd in the bar was completely gone. I was standing in an alley, next to a dumpster. The bars would stay open another three hours. I could have made it back to Queens and uncorked the bourbon sitting on my kitchen counter before one o’clock. But I didn’t have anywhere to be in the morning. I wasn’t going back to the precinct. There was no justice in the system anymore.
I suddenly had the urge to wait until the bar closed. Diluca was fresh off a huge victory. He would be feeling amped up. Powerful. Unstoppable. So I would follow him and make sure he didn’t find a new victim tonight. That was the least I could do. I walked around to the front of the building and found a storefront with a poorly lit entry and a view of the bar’s front door. The entry was big enough for me to sit in and keep mostly in the shadows. I sat in the darkest corner and leaned against the brick opening that led to the glass door. The entryway only offered a five foot by five foot shelter between the sidewalk and the locked door, but it was enough. Any passerby would see me as a vagrant and ignore me. I pulled the hood of my jacket over my head, let my body sink into the dark corner, and waited.
The bar was almost empty before Diluca came out with his friends. They were hammered. Diluca’s suit jacket was thrown over his shoulder, his other arm wrapped around one of his buddies. They were trying to steady each other. The third guy laughed and carried on with them, but kept turning and looking up the street. He looked like he was waiting for someone. Maybe they had called a taxi. My heart raced at the thought. If they got into a taxi, I wouldn’t be able to follow Diluca. Less than a minute after they exited the bar, a taxi came around the corner and slowed as it approached the curb.
There was nothing I could do. A confrontation in the street would be worse than if I had just bashed his face in inside the bar. I didn’t have a car to follow in. I started to panic. I wasn’t even sure why. I didn’t have a plan except to follow him. I couldn’t arrest him. I wasn’t even sure if he was on his way to do something terrible. Diluca and his pals could have just been getting in the cab and going home to sleep it off. So why did I feel like I was missing an opportunity?
The guy closest to the curb got in the backseat as soon as the cab stopped. Diluca and the guy he was holding up bent down to get in the back as well. Then Diluca stood up and closed the door. He patted the roof of the taxi twice with the palm of his hand and waved through the back window as the car pulled away from the curb and drove his friends away. He wasn’t going home. He was walking. I still had a chance to follow him. And now I had even more reason to think he might be up to something. If it were something simple like going to get a slice of pizza, he would have brought his buddies too. Diluca swung the jacket off his shoulder and put it back on. He pulled something out of his left pant pocket, then put it back in. I couldn’t see what it was, but he seemed satisfied. He started walking east, away from the bar.
I waited until Diluca was about two blocks away before I left my dark corner and started following him. I stayed on the opposite side of the street from him. There weren’t many people on the street at this time of night, so I needed to stay as far back as I could. He crossed the street and turned north onto Coney Island Avenue. I hurried to the corner so I wouldn’t lose him. He was only one block away now. I had to slow down and increase the distance between us when he reached Machate Circle at the southwest corner of Prospect Park. There was no cover around the traffic circle. I would have to watch him and see which way he went before continuing on. He stayed on the sidewalks and crosswalks until he reached the other side of the circle. Then he turned into the park on one of the footpaths.
I picked up my pace to a slow jog. I needed to cross the circle and reach the edge of the park before I lost him in the trees. There wasn’t much traffic, but I still had to weave in between a few taxis and a late-night delivery truck. Once I got to the footpath, I took a second to catch my breath and look around. The beer down my front had mostly dried, but the stink was foul. I tried to ignore it. I was standing near Prospect Lake on the outer loop for runners and joggers. I was surprised to see that people were actually out jogging so late at night. Or so early in the morning. Whichever it was for them. To the north, I saw Diluca’s gray suit just as he turned a corner off the outer loop and onto a path leading around the north side of the lake. I continued jogging up the path. There were a lot of trees along the paths. I needed to close the distance so I didn’t lose him. There’s only one reason why a predator like Diluca would be touring Prospect Park at three in the morning. He was looking for his next target. His next victim. The inner and outer loops were wide and open for joggers and runners. He wouldn’t be able to grab someone from there. He needed a smaller footpath. There were several of them about two hundred yards ahead, on the north side of the lake just past the well house. All leading off the inner loop. Away from the streets surrounding the park. And there were lots of trees casting shadows. It was almost the darkest part of the park.
I slowed back to a walk once I had Diluca in sight again. He was walking about a hundred yards ahead of me. A petite woman in running pants and a sweatshirt jogged past Diluca. She was heading toward me. As she passed him, Diluca turned to watch her backside as she moved away from him. I was right in his line of sight. A shot of panic tore through my chest. I ducked to the right, hiding in the shadows so he wouldn’t see me. I waited for the woman to pass me before I poked my head out to find Diluca again. He had continued walking. I emerged and crossed the path to the north side. The path made a slight curve to the north, so I would have better cover on that side. As the path began to straighten, Diluca disappeared into the trees, maybe a hundred feet shy of a large clearing. There he would wait for another woman to jog or walk by and grab her.
I crossed back to the side of the path he was on and crept along the edge of the paved surface until I was within fifty yards of where he had disappeared. I would be too exposed if I continued from there, so I moved to the edge of the trees and continued forward. Slowly. I had to be quiet. The traffic noise from outside the park was almost completely gone. A slight breeze in the trees overhead and the rushing of blood in my ears were the only sounds I could make out. I continued to slow down. My forward movement was almost imperceptible. There was little moonlight to work with. I didn’t want Diluca to hear me coming, but I definitely didn’t want to trip over him.
I finally saw his silhouette in the bushes. He was only twenty feet in front of me. His eyes were aimed up the path. Away from me. Smart. If he tried to grab someone moving up from my direction, they would see him before he could even get close. But the sharp right curve ahead allowed him better concealment. He could jump out and take his prey with little to no warning. He was crouched down next to a tree. Still as a statue. This wasn’t his first time. I crept closer. I would need to be within ten feet of him to pounce before he would have time to react. The closer I got, the more I had to concentrate on being silent.
Footsteps broke the silence. Quick and steady. It was a runner coming down the path. I saw her as she rounded the curve toward us. Even in the low light, I could tell she was fit. She had a short ponytail dancing back and forth behind her head as she ran. I knew Diluca would like her. All of his victims had been in their twenties or thirties. All had been attractive and fit. This woman would definitely fit the profile.
I turned my attention back to Diluca. The statue had come to life. He was standing up straight, pressed against the tree he was hiding behind. He reached in his pocket and pulled something out. It was too dark to see, but my guess was a knife. He was about to attack. It was now or never.
Diluca took a slow step forward in preparation for a sprint to his target. I stood up straight and charged forward. He saw me a fraction of a second before I crashed into him. Surprise and panic paled his face. His eyes were wide as we smashed into the tree, my full weight pressing him against the hard trunk. He let out a small painful ‘oof’ and I felt at least one of his ribs crack. As he began to sink down against the tree, I slapped my hand over his mouth and moved my body around him. I held his head and neck, my hand keeping him silent. His body was completely under my control. I glanced back at the path. The woman had passed right by us. She was more than fifty yards down the path now. She hadn’t heard a thing.
Diluca struggled against my grip and clawed at my sleeve. He was mumbling frantically into my cupped hand. His left side was still pressed against the tree. I tightened my grip. His panic hit a fever pitch. He began flailing and kicking. Struggling to get free. I thought of the women he had raped. The women he had killed. About Tiffanie Borowicz. A secretary who was just on her way home from work. I thought about the courtroom. The system that had failed all those victims. My anger fueled the adrenaline already pumping through me. I squeezed harder and leaned forward, pressing Diluca’s body as hard as I could into the tree. I pushed and squeezed as hard as I could, until I heard the satisfying crunch of the bones in his neck. It sounded like someone stepping on gravel. Diluca’s body went limp as he exhaled his last breath. I released my grip and let his body slump to the ground at my feet. I felt invigorated. Relieved. To my surprise, I wasn’t panicking. I didn’t feel bad. I hadn’t planned this. Not exactly. But now I knew what had to be done.
I searched the ground around Diluca’s body and found the knife. He had dropped it when I first slammed him into the tree. I pocketed it and looked around for anything else he might have had. Satisfied, I grabbed his arms and sat him upright. I squatted down and lifted his body onto my shoulders. I couldn’t very well walk down the running path with a dead man on my back, so I turned and went deeper into the trees. I only had to carry him about twenty yards before I reached the water. An arm of Prospect Lake that stretched north of the main body. I thought about taking his wallet so he wouldn’t be quickly identified, then decided against it. I didn’t care if he was identified. Justice was done here. If it wouldn’t have landed me in prison, I would have shouted it from the rooftops. But I had a plan now.
I laid Diluca’s body in the soggy earth next to the water, then rolled him over onto his face. I didn’t want to move him into the water. I would have been soaking wet. Easily identifiable as I walked out of the park. So I left him there. Dead. Face down in the mud. Right where he belonged.