My Book Excerpts

A Constellation Of Stars


Sergeant Frank Driscoll, my lead protagonist:


The scene:

Frank and his colleagues are at the scene of the young woman’s murder on West 48th Street. After having interviewed witnesses, including the hookers, the detectives have unhappily concluded that the shooter has hidden himself in the basement of the building. And no one likes searching for a trapped rat.

“The other hand, gentlemen,” Frank reminds them, “we could be wrong.

Maybe he did come out and wasn’t spotted.”

They all look at him doubtfully, while wishing it were so, and then all heads turn to gaze at the doorway being thoroughly dusted by the Crime Scene Unit man who apparently feels their stares and says to them: “What?”

* * *

Frank describes the layout of the basement and as he recalls it, it does not sound good to any of them. The detectives and Gus (Gus, a patrolman) retrieve their armored vests and flashlights from their cars, remove jackets and don the vests. Three patrolmen are left outside. Frank wears a right hand belt holster on his left hip. He draws his 9mm pistol, as do the others, and they go through the lobby and basement door and down a flight of stairs that is lit by a single blinking overhead fluorescent which hums and threatens to quit. Big Gus is left at the bottom to block the one way out. The rest of what they can see is dimly lit by unevenly spaced incandescent bulbs with pull strings. It is very quiet. An overhead pipe leaks a drop of water every second or two, and there is a faint smell of burnt garbage.

“Shit,” says Nelson as he sweeps his flashlight back and forth.

“Ditto,” says Frank.

“What kinda fuckin’ way is this to light a basement,” says Donnelly.

“I’d like a machine gun,” says Nelson.

“I want my mommie,” Cannella says.

“Okay, guys,” Frank says. “Voices low.”

As they move farther in they discover a couple of light bulbs have been turned off. They pull the strings and one comes on with a dull glow, while the other doesn’t. Nelson reaches up, finds it is loose, tightens it ‘til it comes on as dull as the other.

From what they can see, the basement has three passageways. A straight one down the center with four storage rooms, two on either side, and one passageway on either side of the men, going left and right, each turning and paralleling the center passage and, Frank guesses, turning at the other end to meet again at the center. He recalls the super telling him, there was a furnace room and more beyond.

Frank says just above a whisper, “Donnelly, you take the left. Nelson go right. Cannella and I’ll do the center together so we can check the storage rooms either side.”

“And when you get to the end,” Frank adds, “ don’t be trigger happy. The person you shoot may be your friendly detective.”

There is no laughter as they separate.

Frank and Cannella extend their flashlights and weapons out in front of them like shields. When they reach the first storage rooms, he sees there are poured concrete openings without the complication of locked doors, which pleases him. Cannella, on his left, sweeps his flash inside looking for an overhead bulb. Frank gives a quick look over Cannella’s shoulder and sees it is crowded with low stacks of opened boxes, not great to hide in back of, but still possible if you stretch out on the ground. “Careful,” he says to his partner’s back. He waits, to give cover, until Cannella pulls the bulb’s string and lights the room.

Frank’s first room, holding an old baby carriage and a bike missing one wheel, is otherwise clear, so he walks on. At his age, he is generally not one to take too many chances, having had enough of this shit in vice, and as a narc, when he was young. He moves slowly, hating this situation, edging up to hoping the killer has gotten away. He hears Cannella bump into something and curse softly. He finds a broken light bulb, sees its crushed shards on the floor and steps around them. A coincidence? Maybe, maybe not, he thinks, as he continues on and under another that he sees in the spot of his flash. Not broken. He pulls the string as he walks, finds it doesn’t work as he keeps moving forward into what now becomes entirely dark. Spooky is the word he thinks of as he tries to be as quiet as possible. He hesitates as a large rat runs ahead of him, skittering to duck his following spot, and he hears its scratchy little feet as it corners at the end. He feels fine shards of broken glass that crunch lightly underfoot, and when he raises the spot of his flash to the ceiling he discovers the remnants of the bulb in its socket. Damn! A second one. No coincidence. Not two of them. The shooter’s here, and the fucker likes the dark, the advantage. He moves forward at a slight crouch wishing he were invisible. The sonofabitch knows we’re here, is gonna feel trapped. The whole idea of a cornered bad guy scares the shit out of him. Why are the others taking so long? Where the hell is Cannella? What the fuck’s he doing back there? At the second storage room he looks ahead and sees a waving crisscross of flashlight beams which tell him Nelson and Donnelly have reached the end of their passageways. Behind him in the near distance he hears Cannella coming toward him, calling to him in a whisper.

Frank knows shootouts are so god damned sudden a man can be dead before he can pull the trigger; gutshot bloody with an inspector’s funeral and a medal for his wife. He can hear the fucking bagpipes as he prays the mother’s not in there. Nevertheless he stands to the side of the dark room’s opening and pokes his gun and flash inside for a quick look-see. He spies an overhead light bulb, not on but intact, and two items: an old dresser and a large pine crate, both close to the far wall. It seems okay but he is sweating anyway as he signals to Cannella he’s going in, figuring he’ll slip in close to the left wall and move along the side until he can check the rear of the crate and dresser. A simple plan.

As Nelson moves up to give him cover, Frank crouches low and steps into the opening, placing the spot of his flash on the crate, above which his mind records in the smallest part of a second, two gun barrels, and Frank cries “Shit!” as the barrels spark with suppressed coughs and Frank simultaneously drops his flash and falls back hard on his ass and finds himself firing, firing, firing, while holding his right wrist with his sweaty left hand—again and again amidst ricocheting whines until he clicks, clicks, and hears the last click of Cannella’s gun, and it echos to quiet. Several drops of piss have dampened his briefs. “What the fuck!” he manages to whisper with a mouth so dry it barely works, surprised he is still alive as Cannella drags him still on his ass out of the line of fire as Nelson and Donnelly come running, Nelson yelling “Frank! Cannella! You okay?” The floor is slippery with shell casings.

Searching Frank’s face, Nelson’s flashlight dazzles his eyes, as Frank says, “I think I’m okay,” without being sure, being so numb from shock and adrenalin rattling his brain. He looks up at Cannella and says, “What about you?” and Cannella, short of breath from excitement, replies, “Ruined my new shirt!” as his hand comes away from his upper arm with a small trace of blood on fingers revealed in the spot from Donnelly’s flashlight. “Barely grazed,” he says, “but the shirt pisses me.”

Gus runs up with his gun drawn and his calmed by Cannella telling him, “We’re good, we’re good.”

Donnelly and Nelson are wide-eyed as they study their friends with flashlights held in shaking hands. Satisfied the two are still whole, they peer into the quiet darkness of the room, flash their lights inside. Frank, who’s still sitting on the concrete floor, feeling dumb and incompetent, advises them: “Two guns! He’s got two!”

“Throw out your weapons, asshole!” Nelson shouts. No response. “Do it now, you shit!” Nothing. Nelson, covered by Donnelly, goes in first, followed by Donnelly, each going along a wall and coming up to the crate from opposite directions. “Don’t fucking shoot each other!” yells Cannella as he watches.

“He’s down for good!” Nelson shouts. “The cocksucker’s out! You got him real good, guys. Well, two times, anyway. I mean the fucking wall’s a mess back here. Must be twelve—thirteen hits.” Trying to joke he says, “You guys’re lousy shots,” his short laugh hollow with leftover panic.

Frank’s nose smarts from the firecracker smell and his ears are ringing. His empty gun rests on the dirty floor between his loosely parted legs. He picks it up and slips it into his holster and then rises up on wobbly legs. His heart is banging in his chest, and muscles along the left side of his back jump nervously as if something inside wants out. He worries about puking and wonders how any heart can take all this pounding.

Donnelly pulls the overhead string and the room blossoms into pale ochre. The men see the crate is grievously splintered. “Fucking dumb luck we made it,” Cannella says to Frank who nods stupidly as they walk into the room and look behind the crate to see a fiftyish white man sporting a full mustache, collapsed like an abandoned puppet. Gunsmoke hangs in the yellow air like country mists, shredded by men and flashlight beams as they move about the room. Nelson retrieves the two silenced pistols, both twenty-twos. He frisks him and finds no other weapons. He says, “Two holsters, one at his waist and one at the ankle.” Cannella searches for a pulse as the man’s eyes blink twice and Cannella says, “We got a live one here” and cuffs him.

Gus says to Frank, “How the hell did he miss you?” his eyes roving about, then examining Frank as if to find an undiscovered wound.

“Don’t know, Gus,” says Frank, wondering how he can feel so depressed, and so excited, at the same time. “Just the dumb luck of the Irish, I guess,” he finishes.

Cannella nods his head silently, seriously, too close to death to attempt another Joke. When he tries to place his cigar between his lips with a shaking hand, he misses and it breaks against his cheek. He pockets it sheepishly and tells Gus to call for the medics.

“So why in hell did he hit Nadia Petrova?” Nelson asks no one in particular, and no one answers.

When Frank goes down on one knee to search the man for an I.D., and glances right, he is startled by the light coming through the bullet holes in the open hollow darkness of the crate, the points of light seeming as indifferent and bright, despite the dullness of the room beyond, as a constellation of stars.

(To reach my HOME PAGE: hover & click the America, America… title atop this page.) COMMENTS are welcome, below.

Martin J. Ryan

Categories: My Book Excerpts

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