The latest in the in the Joe Tesla series, The Chemistry of Death, comes out in one week, and I’ve been receiving positive advanced reviews. Readers are really responding to the story, but a few have said that the prologue is too scary. I’m posting it below, and I’d love to know what you think! (If it is too scary, don’t worry, Joe and Edison will show up in the very next scene, and Edison is never scary!).
October 27, last year
Tunnel near Platform 6
Under Grand Central Terminal
Ziggy smiled when the woman’s designer shoes slipped on the train ties. Those shoes were at home in the expensive club where he’d picked her up, but they were worse than useless down here in the subway tunnels.
He caught her ice-cold arm. He’d made sure she’d forgotten her coat when they left the club, and he knew he must feel warm to her, warm and safe. She would trust him. She let him steady her for a heartbeat before pulling away.
“Watch the third rail.” He pointed to the raised metal track that ran along the inside rail. “It’s dangerous.”
“I want to go back.” Her lower lip quivered, and she tucked it between even, white teeth. The drug was already affecting her. He’d given her a high dose because she hated the tunnels more than any other woman he’d brought down here.
“Put on more lipstick.” He held his breath, wondering if the drug had kicked in enough for her to comply. “You’ll feel better when you look better.”
She fumbled in her expensive purse and pulled out a hand mirror. She angled the mirror to catch the faint light. Her movements were clumsy but practiced.
Without looking, she pulled a shiny black tube from her purse. He knew the lipstick’s color even before she opened it.
Christian Dior 999. Classic red.
She pulled off the cap and twisted the base. He breathed in the lipstick’s heady perfume. The scent took him back to other lipsticks, other women, and how his mother had forced him to wear dresses and Christian Dior 999 lipstick when he was a little boy to punish him. He remembered how he had looked in the mirror in her high heels and long skirts, how the lipstick smelled on his own lips, the soapy taste of it.
He took a deep breath to ground himself back in this moment, this tunnel, this woman. He was in charge here.
With a trembling hand, she slid the lipstick across her full lips. He wanted to touch the gleaming redness, and he clenched the slippery lining of his pockets to keep his hands from reaching for her. These lips weren’t for kissing.
She dropped the case back inside her purse and straightened her slim shoulders. Her breasts pushed against the thin fabric of her dress. The sharp tang of vodka from her cosmopolitan obliterated the last traces of the lipstick’s delicate fragrance.
“Do you feel better now?” he asked.
Wide eyes stared back into his. “What’s wrong with your v-voice?”
“Nothing.” He dropped his voice back to its normal register, the one he used everywhere but here. Only in the dark tunnels under New York could he let the other voice go. But not yet.
She pulled her arm out of his grip. He let her. The drug would ensure her compliance. Even without it, she was too afraid of the dark to venture far.
She was so miserable. It was good of him to help her. He wished that someone would help him. He needed someone to be a friend to him like he was to her.
“It’s easy to get turned around down here.” He pointed to his right. “The platform is that way.”
That way was a dead end, but he doubted that she’d remember where he pointed anyway. The alcohol and his drug slowed her thinking. Her eyes darted back and forth, as if she might see something to show her what to do. She’d find no breadcrumbs in this deserted tunnel.
He rumpled his hair with one hand and smiled, showing his dimples. Women always relaxed at his boyish grin. “Come along with me?”
“Is it far?” She sounded like a little girl. Tremulous, uncertain, and trusting.
“Not far.” He wrapped an arm around her shoulders, and she leaned into his warmth. He stroked her cold arm, knowing how she would welcome the heat.
Together, they walked along the tracks. Her high heels clacked against the wooden train ties, but his dress shoes were silent. Nobody down here to notice either way, not at this time of night.
They were alone, but then, everyone was always alone. He never felt lonely down here. Aboveground he went to the crowded clubs and worked in a busy office. Surrounded by people, but always alone.
He would have been even more alone had anyone recognized his nature. He should have been cast out, a bad seed. He’d have cast himself out, but he lacked the nerve. So he helped others to do what he could not.
Her scream interrupted his thoughts. A rat stood on the tracks, not giving ground. Its black eyes glinted in the overhead light, and its sharp nose rose to sniff the air. It didn’t budge at the noise.
“It’s New York,” he said. “Rats everywhere.”
Humans had done that. They’d built a perverted world that was perfect for rats, better for rats than for men.
She stood rigid with one slender hand clamped across her red lips.
He bent and picked up a stone, but the rat melted into the shadows before he threw it. The rat feared him. In a lot of ways, rats were smarter than people.
They set off down the track. He put his arm around her shoulders again. Her movements were unsteady, her motor coordination compromised. He kept her upright and moving deeper into the tunnels.
“Your last boyfriend never took you on this kind of adventure, I bet.” He worked to use his regular voice. “He didn’t plan much, did he?”
She shook her head. “Slade was busy.”
He cupped her elbow. The skin was surprisingly rough. “You make time for important things. Important people.”
“I wasn’t important to him.” She lurched to a stop and looked up at him. Her pupils had dilated so much he could barely tell what color her eyes were. Maybe blue? “Not ever.”
“Why do you think that’s true?” He tucked a strand of long, blond hair behind her ear. She’d begun to look messy. That he could not abide.
“Because I wasn’t worth anything to him.” She saw herself clearly, probably for the first time. Friends and family always tried to talk a person through these moments, teach them lies to give them hope. But these dark moments had a bitter truth to them that was more potent than a thousand moments of false hope.
“Surely you’re worth something to others?” He squeezed her against his side. She was so tiny, barely larger than a child.
“To you, maybe?” Her voice quivered.
“It’s too soon for that.” He loosened his hold on her, but kept her close. “Plenty of other people love you. Your family. Your mother. Your father.”
Her face sagged. Her mother had died when she was a teenager, and her father had disowned her when she left their small religious town to seek her fortune in New York. He’d overheard her life story in the club where he’d picked her.
“Just Slade. And I drove him away.”
She might have driven him away, but it was Slade who had changed the locks on their shared apartment and left her neatly packed bags with the doorman. She came home from work to the doorman’s smirking face and a locked apartment door. So she’d dropped the suitcases in her office, changed, and gone out clubbing.
Ziggy had met her at his third club. She clearly needed someone and was willing to trade sex for a moment’s connection. Ziggy had taken over.
“There are more people in the world than Slade,” he said.
“Not for me.” She looked down at the buckles on her ruined red shoes. “What’s wrong with me?”
“Did Slade say anything was wrong with you?”
“We’d still be together if he didn’t see something wrong with me. See some giant flaw.”
“What did he see?” Ziggy put his hand on the small of her back and guided her forward, faster now. He had a train to catch.
“I don’t know,” she whispered. “But they all see it. My mother. My father. Now Slade.”
“There’s nothing wrong with you?” He raised his voice at the end, turning it into a question instead of a reassurance as he pulled her close. She trembled in his arms, scared, cold, and drugged.
“Yes, there is.” Tears ran down her cheeks, mixed with mascara. “What am I doing wrong?”
She was a beautiful, broken doll. He hoped her face wouldn’t be marred. “Maybe you aren’t doing anything wrong.”
She twitched at the sound of his voice. It had come out high-pitched again, like an excited child’s. He couldn’t force it back into its usual register. They were almost there. The voice had to come out.
“I’ve done something wrong,” she whispered. “I must have. Or else why would everyone run away from me? Why am I alone?”
“What’s wrong with a life lived alone?” he whispered back.
She dropped her head against his shoulder, and again, he smelled her lipstick. “Everything.”
The metal track vibrated against the toe of his Oxford. He didn’t have much time.
“You can live alone for years and years. Get old alone. Die alone,” he said.
She sagged against him. “I have to find someone.”
She tipped her head up toward him again and searched his eyes for hope. He didn’t give her any. “Won’t the next man turn away from you? Like your father? Like Slade?”
The train rattled closer, but she acted as if she didn’t hear it.
“He didn’t even say good-bye.” Ziggy let go of her, knowing how cold she’d feel when he stepped away, the dank tunnel air replacing the warmth where his body had pressed against hers.
He clutched her purse and its valuable contents in one hand.
Goose bumps rose on her chest and neck, and she wrapped her arms around herself in a lonely hug. Her lips moved as she repeated the last words he’d given her. “He didn’t even say good-bye.”
Ziggy backed into the darkness of the tunnel so he couldn’t be seen by anyone but her. So far as the train operator would see, she was alone on the tracks. His heart danced in anticipation. It was like Christmas morning, and he was a young boy looking at the gaudily wrapped boxes, ready to tear open the paper and discover the real treasure underneath.
“Stay,” he said, and she nodded her head like the good girl she was.
The headlights of the oncoming train illuminated her fragile form. Her silvery dress sparkled like tinsel, and her golden hair glowed like a halo. Tears glistened on alabaster cheeks. She was radiant.
White showed around her irises when she looked forward into the light, but he knew she would not jump away. Fear would pin her there. At first, he’d thought they feared the train, but now he knew differently.
They feared the light.
Brakes shrieked. Sparks flew from the tracks, skittered over the ground, and winked out. The driver was braking on instinct and prayer, but the car would not stop in time. Physics always trumped faith.
If Ziggy looked, he knew he’d see the driver’s face trapped in a rictus of horror. He didn’t look. Her death shouldn’t be seen as a horrible event. It was liberation.
The car slammed into her bright body and thundered yards down the track. The car took the light with it, and welcome darkness enveloped him. Bliss coursed through his veins. He threw back his head and moaned his ecstasy to the screaming brakes.
The air pulled in the wake of the hard metal cars stroked his cheeks, forced his eyes closed. He swayed back against the hard wall. The stone anchored him, and he didn’t fall. He took one shuddering breath and then another.
She’d been everything he’d hoped.
His ears rang in the sudden silence. The car had shuddered to a stop. When he opened his eyes, the red taillight shone on the spot where she’d stood. He had to leave her soon, but first he needed to see her one last time.
He crept from pillar to pillar. His shoes made no sound on the sharp stones.
Her broken body hadn’t left the tracks. Sometimes, they were thrown clear, and he could have one last look, but not today. The subway cars hid her from him, but he could smell the rich, coppery scent of her blood.
With a pneumatic whoosh, the door opened. The driver stumbled out and retched next to the tracks. Shakily, he stood again.
Ziggy melted into the darkness before the man’s smells could overtake him. He caressed the purse, the leather as smooth as her skin, the lipstick within practically glowing.
- His favorite.