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EXCERPT from Lunatic (The Kensington Killers, Book One)
The darkened sidewalk smelled of exhaust fumes and dank trash, which the brutal downpour seemed to magnify, kicking up all kinds of odors.
Vehicles rushed down the avenue in both directions, headlights blazing, tires bouncing over potholes and splashing puddles. The swishing sound of never ending traffic in concert with the dull hum of the city.
Danielle Foster angled her flimsy umbrella against the stiff wind, its nylon canopy taking a beating, as she shuffled along Caton Avenue, galoshes sloshing through puddles, the plastic bag of diapers in her left hand slick with rain. The front of her jeans were uncomfortably damp, but stealing twenty minutes to herself made it worthwhile. She fought the urge to hunch her shoulders and instead embraced the bad weather, as a sixteen wheeler growled by, the sound of its engine diluting the usual street noises—intermittent honks, shouted disagreements billowing out from the bodegas and five-and-dimes that kept their doors propped open despite the thrashing downpour. The truck driver seemed anxious to find the interstate. He was miles off course.
Though she felt pathetically grateful for the walk, the sinister weather tugged on her mood.
The neighborhood of Kensington, Brooklyn was a gritty, residential grid comprised of rowhouses, pre-war brick apartment buildings, and detached one-family Victorians, the latter of which seemed eerily out of place. Convenience stores, Chinese take-out joints, and the occasional bar added to the hodgepodge personality of nearly every intersection, though Danny had come to appreciate the esthetic. It wasn't pretty, but neither was she.
As she came to the curb, stopping at the crosswalk signal, asphalt rumbled beneath her feet. The F train was barreling through the tunnel underground, a familiar sensation.
Trotting up beside her, a pair of teenagers—sopping wet, hiding under hoodies, cackling at the sting of chilly rain assaulting them—took turns pushing the crosswalk button, an act of good faith they couldn't live up to. When they darted into the street, eyeing oncoming cars and jogging in-between, Danny held her breath until they had safely reached the other side.
No sooner than they did, the crosswalk signal changed. It was an effort clearing the gutter where grimy water rushed towards a storm drain. Hurrying through the intersection, she came to another stream, but hopped onto the curb. As long as the wind didn’t change directions and snap her umbrella inside out she wouldn't grumble. At least she was stretching her legs, getting some air, no longer cooped up in her apartment where her son’s cries—the ear splitting screams of a tantrumming infant—had a way of blaring through the baby monitor moments after she had put him down.
At the next corner the wooden sign for O’Toole’s was swaying in the wind, rain spitting off it. Guardedly, she slowed her pace, nearing the cloudy windows and spying the off-duty cops inside, who were huddled around their favorite tables, pounding pints as though they were one drink away from forgetting how rough it could be—serving and protecting a city that considered them the enemy.
She felt naked without her gun at her hip, an outsider in her own world.
Offering one another feigned smiles, a consoling shoulder squeeze here, an arm jab there, they exchanged monosyllabic remarks, but Danny looked past them to the man behind the bar, though rain streaked down the glass, obscuring her view.
Without realizing it, she wriggled her hand through the plastic bag's handle, the diapers inside banging against her raincoat, and touched her stomach, watching him—the one who had gotten away.
He threw a dishrag over his broad shoulder, delivering another damp stain to his gray tee-shirt, and plowed his fingers through his salt-and-pepper hair, his gaze down, face in profile as though he couldn’t quite commit to the tale that one of his buddies was telling him from across the counter. His deep-set eyes narrowed curiously—the story was getting interesting —and when he glimpsed his friend, his thick eyebrows shot up to his hairline, lip curling into a wry smile.
Danny knew that look. A booming laugh would come next, then his slate-gray eyes would liven. Maybe he'd straighten his spine and fold his arms skeptically, making the most of his six-foot height as if to challenge—you serious?
He had the build of a firefighter, because he used to be one; the busted nose of a bar owner who had broken up his fair share of fights. The burn mark running down the side of his neck was among her favorite battle scars. His body was a playground of old cuts, bones that had healed badly, injuries that acted up when the air turned damp and nasty like tonight. But that was as much as she knew about him—physical intimacy, emotional alienation. Though a few details had slipped out over the months. Divorced. No children. Born and raised in Brooklyn, and hardened because of it, which summed up the extent of what she knew about him.
It hadn't been enough.
She had missed the signal more than once so when it flipped, she started through the crosswalk, cutting up Ocean Parkway where brick rowhouses lined the block, hers among them.
Rain bounced off the stoop steps, as she lumbered up to the entrance door, her sopping jeans giving very little at the knees.
With stiff fingers, she clumsily fit her key into the lock and just as she pushed into the dingy entryway, a sharp gust of wind snapped her umbrella inside out and a sheet of rain sliced down the back of her neck.
She set the wet plastic bag of diapers on the tiles in favor of collapsing her umbrella, as the door slapped shut behind her.
On the opposite side of the cramped lobby, the building super, Camil Usov—a cranky old Russian who'd mastered the art of grumbling complaints under his accented breath—loosened his hold on the mop he was gripping as if the water she'd brought in with her had defeated him. Something Russian slipped out through his frown.
He shuffled over, carrying a yellow wet floor sign, which he set beside her, his way of cautioning her about the slippery tiles, and commented, “Nasty out.”
As she picked up her plastic bag, having wrestled her mangled umbrella into shape, she commiserated, mentioning, “It’s not going to let up until May.”
“Good for the baby, eh?” he said, mopping at her heels as she made her way to the stairwell door. “Rain lulls baby right to sleep.”
Whipping the steel door open, she smiled companionably and said, “Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Camil scratched his jowls, the pricks of stubble on his sunken cheeks, and asked her to be careful on the stairs.
The door slammed shut behind her, sending an echo through the stairwell. She clamped her umbrella under her armpit and heeded his advice, holding the railing as she climbed to the second floor where he had laid out mats so the tenants wouldn't slip and break their necks.
When she entered her threadbare apartment—weathered hard wood floors, wall paint peeling, sooty windowsills, and tarnished appliances, though she cleaned regularly and kept the place homey—her ears perked up, but by some miracle Gregory wasn't crying.
Her mother, Nora wasted no time setting the baby monitor on the end table, springing off the couch, and making herself useful, all the while her dainty features pinched with marked concern.
“You didn’t take any detours, did you?” she asked as she took the plastic bag from Danny.
It was a loaded question, but she said, “No, Ma,” knowing that the truth would only incite an argument, as she started towards the living room. Her galoshes snicked over the wooden floor, which reminded her to kick them off.
“You went to Kumar’s on Ditmas, right?” Nora went on, helping Danny out of her raincoat once she'd rounded back. Gingerly, she shook it free of rain, holding the coat away from herself so she wouldn’t sprinkle her cardigan or corduroys—Nora liked to keep her clothes nice since, in her words, she didn’t have much. “Diapers are fifteen cents less there, I told you that.”
“Yes, Ma, I went to Kumar’s,” she lied.
After hanging the raincoat on a rack, she straightened Danny’s galoshes against the wall like a knowing chambermaid, and trailed after her into the living room, her every criticism veiled in tender, loving care. “Your hair is damp. You should’ve let me go out. Look at your jeans. They’re sopping.”
“I needed to stretch my legs,” she reminded her, scrunching her mop of graying-brown hair where it had grown out on top. She kept the sides short rather than covering the worst of the gray.
Nora padded around the islet and into the kitchen, set the wet plastic bag on the counter, and began filling a teakettle, angling the spout under the sink faucet.
“I didn’t tell you,” she said, shutting the water off and placing the kettle on the front burner. She turned the dial and after the stove clicked, a flare of fire puffed out and she went on, “Nance is free tomorrow night.”
“My hair looks fine,” she bristled softly. Bickering would wake the baby not that she wasn’t overdue for a trim.
“I want to treat you,” she pressed, facing Danny with her most convincing smile. “What’s wrong with getting the color done? She’ll give you a blow out and do your nails as well.”
Same old song and dance.
Danny's appearance caused Nora almost physical pangs of remorse. She nagged constantly about her daughter's lack of personal preening, a deficiency that Danny attributed to, quite frankly, not giving a fuck about her looks, at least not since Tommy had walked out of her life. Nora, by contrast, poured every last penny she earned into sprucing up and maintaining her modest style, which came as a strange sacrifice considering her babysitting wages.
“You deserve it,” she went on. “And Nance will come here so you don’t have to leave Gregory.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“I’d like to see you grow out your hair, get some long layers framing those big eyes of yours. Your such a pretty girl, but no one would know it the way you carry yourself like a tomboy.”
“Thanks, Ma,” she said dryly, as she pulled the diapers from the plastic bag. She liked her hair short so perps couldn’t grab it, but that logic had never worked on her mother.
“And you could dress a little nicer, too,” Nora added. “Your stomach will go down. You can’t hide under that floppy sweater forever. There’s a big Spring sale happening at K-Mart.”
Danny wasn’t wearing the sweater because of her stomach, but because she had been lactating at the most inopportune times and was tired of changing her shirt.
Feeling boxed in to agreeing, she conceded, “Then let’s hit the sale,” and offered her mother a tired smile.
It was worth it just to see Nora brighten. She clapped her hands together then touched her blonde, wavy hair, which was also in need of a trim since it brushed her frail shoulders.
The kettle whistled so she plucked it off the burner, asking, “Chamomile or...” She was hunting through the cabinets now, her expression drooping at the slim options. “Well, chamomile's all we've got. Lipton or Stash?”
Danny clamped the diapers under her armpit, joined her mother at the counter, and hooked her free arm around Nora's bird-brittle one, teasing: “These brands are terrible.”
At 5’10” she had a solid five inches on her mother so she nuzzled the top of her head, as Nora elbowed her, letting out a little laugh. “Oh, stop.”
“What would I do without you, Ma?” she said, starting for the baby’s room.
“You know I love helping out,” she called after her.
The room was dim and quiet except for the sound of rain ticking against the window. As cars drove along the street outside, the flare from their headlights crept across the green walls. She stepped softly so she wouldn’t wake her son and placed the diapers on the changing table then neared his crib.
He looked so small swaddled under his fleece blanket. His closed eyes were as puffy as the day he'd been born and in the three weeks since his birth he had lost the full head of dark hair that he'd come into the world with. It was hard to imagine this tiny creature would one day be a grown man, would one day tower over her, challenge her and love her and drive her crazy at times.
At the risk of stirring him, she gently caressed his bald head.
He felt cool.
It gave her pause.
Angling over him, she cupped his cheek.
He didn’t move.
His narrow mouth looked slack and as her heart rate spiked she placed her finger under his button nose.
He wasn’t breathing.
Her mind whirled, launching into sudden panic. She threw the blanket off and pressed her palm against his chest. She couldn’t feel his heart thump.
“Mom!” she yelled, scooping her son’s limp body out of the crib. He flopped against her chest, as Nora rushed into the room.
“Call an ambulance!”
“What?” she asked, the urgency in Danny’s tone disorienting her. She groped for the light switch.
“Get the phone,” she ordered. “Call 911.”
As Nora rocketed down the hallway and into the living room, Danny began patting Gregory’s back and gently bouncing him. Her mind felt paralyzed. A sob stuttered out of her. This couldn’t be happening.
Her mother appeared in the doorway, phone pressed to her ear, a look of stunned dismay on her aged face, and in a confused frenzy she recited the address.
Danny shouted over her, “He’s not breathing!”
“He’s a newborn,” Nora relayed to the 911 operator then asked Danny, “Is he blue?”
“I can’t feel his heart! What happened? When did you last check on him?”
Nora began stammering, “He was quiet. I... I don’t know, not since before you went out.” Into the receiver she demanded, “Send help!”
“What do I do?” she pleaded, tone shrill and cracking, but when she locked eyes with her mother, Nora had no suggestions.
Her mouth drifted open. The phone slipped out of her hand and hit the floor, busting apart.
As Danny held her infant tightly, sirens blaring in the distance, she knew it was too late.
***Author's note: all books in the Kensington Killers series can be read as a stand-alone.***