WITNESS TO SLAUGHTER
Chapter One Exclusive
“Police! Don’t move.”
Jack froze. The hairs on the back of his neck stood to attention as the officer's light abruptly silhouetted him against the brick wall in front of him.
“Slowly. Clasp your hands behind your head and turn around.”
He remained on his knees and did exactly as the officer commanded. As a former cop, he knew the officer had her weapon aimed at his head, and she wouldn’t be afraid to use it if he didn’t do what she said.
Facing the officer, he squeezed his eyes shut against the light, turning his head away from the glare. Even though he knew the routine, his heartrate kicked up a notch waiting for his next instruction.
“Move this way.” The uneven pavement bit into his knees. “Far enough. Put your chest on the ground. Arms wide out to the side. Cross your ankles.”
Lowering himself to the ground, he kept his face slightly above the pavement and tried breathing through his mouth. The smell of rotting garbage, motor oil, and piss filled his nostrils, as did whatever else had been spilled, dragged, or dropped in the dark alleyway. Overlaying it all was the metallic scent of the woman's blood. His throat constricted as the taste of it hit the back of his throat when he inhaled.
The officer called for backup on her body-worn radio, and a moment later, Jack heard the approach of who he assumed was her partner.
"What have we got here, partner?" a male voice asked.
For a split moment, an image of Paul Travers flashed in his mind. He shook it off. Travers was dead.
"I got this," she told him.
Just under the light's glare, Jack saw the partner's feet stop beside the first officer. He was sure a second weapon was aimed in his direction by the additional light not flooding his vision. He squeezed his eyes shut and spun his head away.
"Are you sure? He's a big fucker."
"I said, I got this." There was no mistaking the angst in her voice. Trouble in Paradise? Perhaps not a partnership made in Heaven. This guy wasn't Travers, but he still sounded like an asshole.
Jack heard shuffling but the officers stayed where they were.
"So far, so good," she continued. "I’m going to cuff you now and bag your hands. Any trouble and my partner won’t hesitate to aerate your skull.”
Her partner kept the light trained on him while the female officer moved toward him. At his side, her heard her holster her weapon before grabbing and twisting his wrist upward in a control hold while bringing her knee down onto his shoulder. His wedding ring crushed against his fingers. It hurt. She had his attention.
Putting most of her weight on him, practically sitting on his head, his face was forced onto the filthy ground. She quickly snapped one a cuff onto the wrist in her hand. Jack knew she'd want the other wrist and presented it to her. His heavy leather jacket creaked in protest as she pulled up on his wrist to snap on the second cuff.
"I see you've done this before, so you know how this is going to go. Don't fight me and everything will go smoothly. I'm going to bag your hands now, then conduct my pat down." After sliding sterile bags onto his hands, she lifted off him, pulling on the cuffs to partially roll him over and patting down one side from the collar down, then the other, before putting her weight onto the back of his thighs and patting down his calves and checking his boots. She bagged his boots too before she rose off him and moved away. He heard her weapon come out of the holster again before she moved away from him. Both officer's lights were back in his eyes.
Hand and foot preservation bags were essential for preserving evidence in cases like this. Besides the obvious blood DNA, it was possibly gunshot residue transferred onto him when he tried slowing the flow of blood. He was pretty sure they'd eventually take his clothes.
This was all by the book. At any other time, with anyone else, he'd be impressed.
“Wanna tell me about this?” she asked.
Jack angled his head and through the light shimmers in his vision, he met the frozen gaze of the woman beside him.
What had happened?
It had been six months since he discovered that awful truth about his daughter's murder. It ate at him worse now than the previous years—since he'd discovered the gruesome scene in his home. Any evidence he'd hoped to preserve from that night had been destroyed when Travers had taken Maria Navarro there, and Jack had been forced to kill him. Forensics had destroyed it all, and Jack still didn't have any answers about his family. Zoë was dead, and Leah was still missing.
Was it possible Leah was still alive somewhere and remained hopeful he'd come for her, or had she given up hope? Or was she buried someplace she'd never be found?
As much as he hated admitting what Father Nick had suggested, could Leah have done that to their daughter, and Trax, and walked away?
Questions burned in his head like slow drip acid. He was sure he was going a little insane from it all. Wasn't that the purpose of torture?
The holidays were always the hardest on him—the gaudy display of Christmas lights, festive music echoing through the streets, the scent of sugar in the air from bakeries working overtime, the traffic on the streets, throngs of shoppers rushing around the city . . . and the long winter nights alone. There were days when it all sounded like buzzing and his head was the hive. It all ate at his sanity.
This time of year, the small apartment above Tommy Wong's Chinese Restaurant closed in on him, pressing in like a vice. He had to get out; he didn't care where he went. He just needed move, sometimes running, as if escaping the emotional prison he felt within himself. The briny fog that cooled off the city after a long, hot day had the same cooling effect on the fire he felt consuming his skin; the walking helped dissipate the ball of energy twisting his gut.
Tonight had been particularly rough on him. From the time he and Leah started dating, they'd always gone to the Union Square Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony that was held every year on the day after Thanksgiving. And when Zoë was born, they started bringing her too.
Yesterday had been Thanksgiving.
Even after losing his family, he still attended the event. If by some miracle Leah was still alive, there was a chance she'd be there—every year, it seems most of the city turned out. He'd lived in hope, but hope had abandoned him.
This year, he decided to stop going. If she was alive, Union Square was probably the last place she'd be. He tried coming to terms with the fact she probably never would. Why would she if she'd done that to their family and fled? She probably wasn't even in the city. He hated entertaining that thought, but after so long and absolutely no clues to go on, it seemed the only conclusion that she was guilty.
He still had questions. Like why leave the marinara simmering on the stove? And why didn't she just drop off Zoë at a neighbor with an excuse she had to run a quick errand, then just walk away? That right there told him Leah hadn't killed their child, but if someone had come into their home, why kill Zoë and take Leah? Why not kill her too?
It all churned inside him until his blood was on fire, burning him from within. Pressure built until he felt like he couldn't breathe. His heart pounded hard until he felt like he'd explode.
The intense, throbbing headaches were the worst. Bile churn in his stomach until he couldn't contain it anymore.
The black dog had become his constant companion; its teeth gripped his soul and felt like it was playing tug of war with his guts . . . pulling him, dragging him . . . toward his ultimate goal—that small, silver Parabellum round that would end it all, once and for all. Many times he'd sit at his desk, turning the round in his fingers, tears streaming down his face. Would he do it? Could he do it before he discovered the truth?
When he felt himself giving into the bullet's temptation, he forced himself out of the tiny apartment, with its oppressive walls squeezing in, and the Beretta screaming out at him.
Tonight, he'd very nearly spent that round. The only thing keeping him from making the ultimate decision was the fact he still hadn't found his daughter and Trax's killer. And he didn't know where Leah was. Whether she was guilty or not, he had to find her.
Find Leah, find the truth.
Jack didn't remember leaving the apartment, much less the path he'd taken. The black dog led him and he hadn't paid attention to where they were going until Union Square loomed before him, with the tree aglow in the center of the plaza. He vaguely remembered pushing his way through the hundreds of people, desperately searching for Leah—even knowing she wasn't there, and even after he'd told himself he wasn't going to go there. So, he'd kept walking.
It was when he stopped to get his bearings—looking for telltale landmarks—he heard a distinctive POP and instantly became alert.
Another POP. And then screaming. He ran in the direction he thought the gunfire had come from. He knew it was the right direction by the crowd of frantic people rushing against him.
A small light over a backdoor shone onto someone lying on the ground down a narrow opening between buildings. A tall, thin figure rushed into the shadows toward the opposite end of the alley.
Part of the problem when you don't care what happens to you is you make poor decisions. Jack's was to rush down the alley, to hell with the gunman who may still be lurking in the shadows. Jack was lucky he hadn't been shot too, but the darkness living within him always hoped his luck would run out.
He knelt beside the body. A woman. She was dressed in a long, red gown, but there was no mistaking the dark stain growing across her abdomen and the pool of blood flowing out around her.
His fingers slid across her carotid artery when he checked the pulse at her throat. Images of Zoë flashed in his mind, slumped in the highchair, warm blood still flowing from the wound in her neck. He'd just missed her killer, but by how long?
Jack swallowed hard and forced himself to concentrate on the woman. Her pulse was almost nonexistent, but she was alive. Her eyes slowly opened to look at him. Dark hair framed a face that was heavy with makeup. She was beautiful, in a 1940s glamor kind of way.
"You're okay. I've got you," he'd told her, trying to keep his voice hopeful, for both their sakes.
He examined the hole in her gown. Blood oozed freely. He had to stem the flow if she was going to survive this. He pressed the palm of one hand over the wound and felt around his jacket for his phone with the other. He didn't know if anyone had called 9-1-1 yet, but he couldn't take the chance no one had.
Where's the goddamn thing?
Then he remembered his phone still sat on his desk. He'd been in such a rush to get out of the stifling apartment, he hadn't thought to bring it with him.
"Damn it!" He gazed around him. The alley was empty. Anyone who'd heard the gunfire had run away from it. He was alone.
Something caught his eye beside the body. A kid's toy? He leaned over for a better look. "What the fuck?" It looked like a toy gasoline nozzle—white plastic with a black grip—but what the hell was it doing in the alley?
Sitting back on his haunches, his hand falling away from her wound, Jack thought he saw something—someone—in his peripheral vision, standing at the edge of the shadows beside the door. Just as he inhaled to call out to her, to call 9-1-1, light flashed around him—the same light still trained on him. He gazed at the woman. The blue eyes he now saw in the light held a blank stare. She was dead. At least she hadn't died alone.
His spidy senses played tug-o-war with the black dog. When he swallowed the Parabellum round, he'd die alone too.
“Hey!” the officer called, refocusing his attention. “I asked you a question.”
“I found her like this.”
“You’re covered in blood. Start again. What happened here?”
“I told you. I found her like this. I was walking home. I heard two distinct gunshots. When I got here, she was on the ground but was still alive.”
“And the blood,” she repeated.
Instinctively, his rubbed his fingers together. Inside the plastic bags, they were still slick with the woman’s blood. “I checked her pulse and tried slowing the flow of blood from her abdomen with my hand.” Jack now heard sirens. “I didn't shoot her.”
“That’s what they all say.”
"You just patted me down. Did you find a gun on me?"
"Doesn't mean it's not stashed somewhere in the alley."
He took a long, slow breath to try calming himself. “Look, officer. I’m ex-PD. Jack Slaughter.” He always hated when people pulled the Do you know who I am? card, but in this case, he'd make an exception.
The officer's voice noticeably changed. Was she surprised? “I’ve heard of you. I also heard you lost your shit after your wife was murdered.”
His eyes squeezed shut for a moment, trying to suppress the lump in the back of his throat threatening to eject itself. “My daughter was murdered. My wife is missing.”
“And your shit?”
Was she baiting him? “Yeah, I kinda did that. But it doesn’t mean I killed this woman.” Sirens echoed in the street before the cars screeched to a halt. Footfall in the alley told him the posse had arrived. Almost instantly, he was roughly yanked to his feet by a new pair of officers.
As he was led down the alley toward a waiting patrol car, he shouted over his shoulder, “Call Detective Ray Navarro!”