Monday, September 21, 2009

First Chapter - The Dark Lighthouse by Jane Toombs


By Jane Toombs

Chapter One

Lisa Womack walked briskly along the midnight-deserted street, shoulder bag swinging, the sound of her heels clicking on the cement sidewalk echoing from the blank-faced apartment buildings. She'd fastened her long hair into a coil at her nape and wore a belted gabardine coat. Just common sense here in Manhattan not to leave loose hair or clothes that could be easily grabbed onto.

The dark trees of New York's Central Park loomed a block ahead, so she slowed her pace.

Hearing a car coming up behind her, she walked faster, careful to look neither right nor left. As the car pulled even with her, it matched her quickened pace. To the right, four stairs led to the glass doors of an apartment house. She measured the distance in her mind.

In case the car brought danger.

"Ms.!" The brusque voice came from the car.

Lisa glanced sideways, letting out her breath in a sigh of relief when she saw the blue uniformed officer in a police squad car.

"Ms.," he repeated. She had an impression of dark eyes scrutinizing her from a hawk-nosed face.

She slowed to a stop, turning toward the car and forcing a smile.

"I wouldn't walk here alone if I were you." The officer nodded to the dark trees less than a block away. "Not this near the park. Not after what's happened these last couple of months."

Lisa knew only too well what he meant. Four young women had been attacked in this section of the park since March and three of them had been raped and beaten. One so badly she died. Only the fortuitous arrival of a mounted patrolman had saved the fourth. Despite an intensive manhunt, the assailant was still at large.

"You could call a cab from the lobby of the Hudson Co-op," the officer suggested. "It's around the corner to your right."

"Thank you," Lisa told him.

The radio in the squad car crackled. The driver listened, grunted, then revved the motor, screeched into a U-turn and roared away with his lights flashing. For a moment Lisa stared after the receding taillights before she turned and walked on.

At the next cross street a cab eased around the corner and swung in her direction, a roaming gypsy prowling for business. The cab slowed, the driver glancing hopefully in Lisa's direction. When she shook her head he accelerated past, leaving a wake of exhaust fumes to foul the cool May night.

From the street corner across from the park she looked to her right, where the canopy of the Hudson Co-op extended over the sidewalk from the entrance of the converted nineteenth century mansion to Central Park West. A uniformed security guard stood vigil at the top of the steps with his hands clasped behind him.

After a moment's hesitation, Lisa straightened her shoulders and, raising her chin determinedly, crossed the street. As she stepped onto the curb a man's voice called to her. Startled, she whirled around. The doorman, a square-faced man no older than she, had left his post and was waving to her from beneath the end of the canopy. "Lady, you ain't going into that park." It was more of a statement than a question.

"It's shorter this way," she told him.

He shook his head and, even from this distance, she saw the concern on his face. She could well imagine what he was thinking: Why is such a vulnerable young woman here alone at this time of night? And why is she taking the risk of entering the dark and forbidding park?

"You from out of town, lady?" he asked.

Lisa almost smiled, knowing that, to a New Yorker, visitors were capable of untold acts of foolishness. She shook her head. "I live in the Village."

He turned from her with a shrug, the gesture saying he'd done his best so nobody could blame him for what might happen.

Ahead, a path curved into the park, the way shrouded in darkness despite the feeble rays from a globed light a hundred feet ahead. Lisa walked purposefully past a bench but couldn't help glancing at the headline on a discarded Post that was all too clear even in the midnight gloom: NO CLUES IN PARK RAPIST HUNT.

No, she wouldn't think about the assailant who might be lurking in there. Hiding in the midnight shadows of the trees. Waiting. Waiting for her. She refused to give in to the unease crawling along her spine, chilling her body with icy fingers of apprehension.

She shut away her fear as best she could and walked on. The glow from the great city surrounding the park reflected palely from clouds hovering overhead in the moonless sky but the light failed to penetrate to the path where Lisa walked beneath the over-reaching branches of trees and shrubs. This was an alien, rural world.

At least it was alien to her. She was a city person, much as her father had been. She loved the excitement of crowds, the pushing and shoving, the flowing masses of men and women rushing here and there. She reveled in the city's sounds, the strident clamor of taxi horns, the shouts of street vendors, the rumble of the subways. She enjoyed breathing the aromas of the metropolis, the sharp scents of food from the restaurants, even the fumes from the thousands of cars, trucks and buses.

Only when the wind came off the Atlantic and the tang of the eastern sea swept up the skyscraper-walled canyons did she feel a sense of unease. It was then the haunting memory returned and again she saw the white blur of the lighthouse through the twilight fog while her father worked frantically to restart the boat's outboard motor. Beneath a glowering sky, the sea around them roiled into white-capped turmoil.

Lisa shook her head, impatient with herself. The past was over and done with. She needed to pay attention to the here and now. The park wasn't really alien it was a part of the city, a place where she'd played as a child, skated in winter, rode along the bridle paths, fed the pigeons. During the day. The only time she'd been here at night was to sit on the grass with many other New Yorkers at open-air concerts during the summers. She'd never rowed on the lake, though. Boats didn't appeal to her.

Tonight was different. The path ahead darkened. The next lamp was out. A low hill rose to her left, trees loomed on her right. Refusing to alter her steady pace, she walked on with the only sound in the warm night the distant murmur of city traffic. In the hush she became aware of the throbbing beat of her heart and the rasp of her breathing.

Were those footsteps behind her? Or was it the faint echo of her own steps? No, the sound of the footsteps didn't quite match hers, failing by a heartbeat every few paces, to anticipate or follow hers.

When Lisa hesitated for an instant, the sound of footfalls pulsed plainly through the silence. Fear uncoiled in her stomach. Someone was following her! She walked faster and veered onto a left-hand path. The steps followed. She turned once more, to the right this time, increasing her pace until she was almost running.

From behind came a man's gloating laugh. Her breath caught in her throat. Resisting the impulse to break and run, she looked over her shoulder to peer into the gloom. She saw nothing. Again the laugh, high-pitched and inane. From farther away now. A drunken laugh. The footsteps receded until they faded into nothingness.

Lisa tried to deny the apprehension, the fear. Yet she couldn't, even though she'd never been easily alarmed. Here in the park the danger was real. Almost palpable. The tips of her fingers tingled. It was Central Park itself that alarmed her, she cautioned herself, this rectangular wilderness island in the center of the city, this attempt by landscape designers to interrupt the natural symmetry of stone, concrete and steel. She was a relative stranger here as she wasn't a stranger in the Village, on 42nd Street, or the lower East Side.

Another lamp beside the path beckoned from ahead, the light on the sidewalk and the grass creating a circle of seeming safety. She was some twenty paces from the light when the hissing started. Lisa tensed, imagining a snake coiled and ready to strike-a venomous, writhing reptile hidden in the concealing darkness.

Don't be ridiculous, she told herself. There were no poisonous snakes in the Park. Besides, she now realized the noise came from up ahead. Approaching.

Lisa stopped, puzzled by the sound. Then she saw its source. Of course, she should have known. A bicycle swooped toward her, its tires hissing on the pavement. The rider, hunched forward over the handlebars, was dressed in dark clothing with a black cloth cap pulled low on his forehead.

Relaxing, Lisa stepped onto the grass to let the bicyclist speed by. She frowned-although a headlamp was mounted on the handlebars, the lamp was unlit. It was dangerous to ride in the park at night without a light, someone could get hurt. More than the headlight was wrong. She couldn't make out the face of the onrushing rider, shadowed as it was by the cap. In fact, he didn't seem to have a face. She stared in surprise and growing consternation. The bike was almost upon her now. No face? The rider must have a face.

He had to be wearing some kind of mask, which meant only one thing. A shock of fear quivered up her spine, gooseflesh rose on her arms. Stepping farther away from the path, Lisa slid her hand into her shoulder bag.

The rider braked abruptly, making the bike skid across the pavement toward her. The man-muscular and compactly built-leaped clear of his falling bike and sprang at her, swinging his arm at the bag she held in front of her like a shield. His thrust knocked it from her hands, but the strap held and sent it swinging around in back of her. His fingers brushed her shoulder as he reached for her throat.

Lisa grabbed the visor of his cap and yanked it down, at the same time noting he wore a stocking mask that covered his face. Momentarily blinded, her attacker stumbled forward. She twisted from his grasp and ran, almost falling as she came to the fringe of trees. She sensed he was close behind.

Again she reached in her bag, found the container and pulled it out as she spun around. Fear fell away, replaced by grim determination. The man's cap was gone. The stocking over his head gave him the eerie look of an eyeless mannequin. He lunged at her. She pressed the nozzle and the Mace sprayed a steady stream into his face. He gasped in surprise, his hands jerked up to shield himself.

Lisa grasped the man's right wrist, yanked him forward and, while he was off-balance, flipped him onto his back on the ground. He grunted in pain, raising his arm, not to attack her again but almost in supplication, as a drowning man might fling his hand above the surface of the sea in a last attempt to save himself.

For a horrible moment she saw her father staring at her from the turbulent Pacific waters, once more she watched with a ten-year-old's terror and helplessness as he reached for the side of the boat in one last desperate attempt to stay afloat. Her fingers clutched his and she held to him until a wave smashed down on them, upending the boat, tossing her into the ocean and wrenching her father's hand from hers.

When she'd looked at the sea after the teen-aged boy had carried her to the shore, her father was gone. His body was never recovered-the Pacific Ocean had claimed him as its own.

Lisa forced the memory away. On the ground, her assailant was trying to roll over and get up. Crouching, she reached to him, found the pressure point on his neck and thrust down. His head jerked to one side and his body slumped into unconsciousness.

She stood, brushing off her skirt, trembling. Drawing in a deep breath, she slid her hand inside her bag and pressed the button that would summon help. Looking down at the helpless man, she leaned toward him to pull the stocking mask from his face.

Though she really didn't want to know what he looked like, she'd have to identify him, so she yanked off the mask and stared at his red hair and his freckled moon-shaped face with a scar running along the left cheek. Though she looked for only a few seconds, she knew she'd never forget him.

~ * ~

"You weren't able to call for help any sooner?" the reporter from the Times asked.

"There just wasn't time," Lisa said. "I never expected him to be riding a bike."

"Ummm." The reporter seemed to doubt her. "You were hired to find the rapist? To act as a decoy?"

Lisa sipped the precinct house's steaming black coffee, trying to be patient despite her fatigue, knowing the reporter was in a hurry to meet a deadline.

"One victim's family paid me a retainer. I'm afraid I can't give you their name."

The reporter shrugged, making a notation on her pad. "The cops aren't too thrilled, I gather, though they're putting a good face on it. This is twice in the last year you've stolen their thunder. 'New coup for five foot two Ms. Blue Eyes' was the way Eyewitness News put it. I'd say you were on a winning roll. "

Lisa shrugged. "As a private investigator I always cooperate with the police."

"In the long run." The reporter grinned and stood up. "Any plans for the future?"

"California," Lisa said without thinking, surprising herself. She paused before going on. "I'm planning on taking a vacation along the coast near Eureka."

The reporter made a note before jamming her pad into her totebag. "Live long and prosper."

Lisa smiled goodbye.

Eureka: the coast where her father drowned sixteen years before. Something about the attack in the park had triggered the memories she'd tried to repress. It seemed she'd known all along she had to go back, had to go to California again to try to find out what really happened so many years before.

Until she did, she'd find no peace, none at all.

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