Take a sneak preview of chapter one of Mirrored!

Chapter 1

          It was springtime in New York City, but I didn’t see as many of the beautiful flowering blooms of azalea shrubs or pink and white blooms of the dogwood trees here as I did growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina. The air back home had the added sweet aroma of honeysuckle and jasmine, but I could still feel springtime in the air as I walked briskly down the sidewalks of lower Manhattan looking like a working-class Paula Patton channeling Audrey Hepburn in a black and white striped blouse, black pencil skirt, and red heels. The air wasn’t all that fresh above ground, but it sure beat the smell of urine in the subway station.

          I stopped at Midtown Bagels to grab my usual breakfast of a bagel with cream cheese and a coffee, black, cream, two sugars. I’d become such a regular that Luiz, a short stubby looking, olive skinned man already knew my order. He tapped in the amount I owed on the cash register and then, with a big grin on his face, handed me a bag containing my breakfast.

          “How are you today, Luiz?” I asked. I should trip him up one day and order something different.

          “Good, good,” he said as another customer approached, interrupting him before he got a chance to say more. I looked back to wave, but his attention was focused on helping other customers that had started to flow into the shop.

          New York City was unlike any city that I’d ever been to. Tall buildings invading the sky, cars jammed in traffic with drivers laying on their horns, the smell of food coming from street vendors, street hustlers trying to lure pedestrians to either play card games or to buy their wares, and crowded sidewalks where everyone seemed to be in a hurry to get somewhere or another.

          I was in a hurry, too, still trying to distance myself from my divorce from Michael after three years.

                                                                              ******

          As I sat at my desk going through my notes and preparing to go to the 23rd precinct in Harlem to interview Detective Andre Moore, my boss, Ryan Blackman, poked his head inside my cubicle to see if I needed any help.

          “Ms. Watkins, this is your first field assignment,” Ryan said, seeming to be trying to read my facial expression. “I want to make sure you’re prepared for this interview, especially with the nature of the case. I need to know you can handle the details. I can’t afford any fuck ups. I want to be the first to run this story, and I need everything you can dig up on this one. I had to pull a lot of strings to get you this interview. Don’t make me regret it.”   

          Ryan Blackman was an Irish man in his late sixties, stocky, with silver hair and a thick mustache, bright blue eyes, and a kind smile. He could be tough, but he also had a gentle side. He was shrewdly intelligent, and I figured I could learn a lot from him. He had taken over the newspaper, News Today, when his father died of lung cancer seven years ago. He had extensive experience as a field reporter, but running a newspaper meant he had to take on new skills. Since Mr. Blackman had worked alongside his father before he became ill, he had gotten to know a little something about running a newspaper.

          There were rumors going around the office that the newspaper was in bad financial shape, and if it didn’t get any financial backing, it would go bankrupt. I hoped it was just a rumor, but I wasn’t worried about it too much because my plans didn’t include staying there for long. It had been the only place that would hire me with no journalism experience, and besides, my ultimate goal was to own and publish a fashion magazine.

          “Ms. Watkins, this story has a deadline, so don’t waste valuable time, and I want your write-up on my desk by the close of business today,” Blackman said, impressing upon me the fast-paced nature of the business.

          Before I could respond, he disappeared from sight down the long row of cubicles. My mother used to say, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle, baby.” I was praying that this was one of those situations. I swallowed hard, still wondering if I was taking on more than I could handle.

           I was assigned a story on a brutal rape-homicide that had occurred in Harlem. Someone had brutally raped and then stabbed a sixteen-year-old girl twenty-two times in the apartment complex where she lived with her single mom and two younger brothers. I decided to skip lunch, afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep any food down when I heard the gruesome details. Just the thought of what had happened to that young girl made me nauseous. Growing up in an upper middle-class neighborhood in Charlotte, North Carolina, I hadn’t had any experience with violent crimes like this. In fact, I couldn’t remember even seeing a policeman come into the neighborhood. I had lived in an area where our neighbors were lawyers, doctors, and bankers.

          My father was a cardiologist, and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. Mom had attended college and had gone on to get her master’s in education. She taught elementary school for a few years until she became pregnant with me. When I was three, my mom became pregnant again. I later learned that her pregnancy had been normal and healthy until a few weeks before her due date. When she didn’t feel the normal movements of the baby one day, she became concerned, and my father rushed her to the hospital. The emergency room doctor did an ultrasound to check for the baby’s heartbeat—and there was none. The baby had died. I was much too young to remember anything during that time but could imagine the heartache my parents had endured. My mother never tried to have another child after that experience. I guess it was just too painful.

           I grabbed my purse and briefcase and headed to the elevator. While waiting for the elevator to come, I took a quick look in the mirrored wall adjacent to the elevator doors and noticed a button had come undone on my blouse. Better fix this—don’t want Detective Moore getting any bright ideas. I ensnared the offending button on its buttonhole.

          The doors to the elevator opened, and I stepped inside, pressing the button to the lobby. As the door closed, Stanley Pittman stuck his hand in, preventing the door from shutting. Good grief. I avoided eye contact as I was not up for a conversation with this egotistical, chauvinistic jerk. Unfortunately, my tactic didn’t work.

          “Well … hello, Ms. Watkins,” he said, emphasis on “Ms.”

          I shot him a look of annoyance but didn’t utter a word.

          Judging from the smirk on his face, he seemed to enjoy the fact that his presence annoyed me. Damn it! Why do I let this piece of slime get under my skin? Although physically he looked like a male model right off the pages of a magazine—tall, tan, toned, sandy blonde hair, brown eyes, and a bright smile full of beautiful white teeth—his personality and demeanor were nothing short of ugly. I think the man actually loathed women, taking every chance he could get his hands on to belittle and sabotage them in some way. I felt sorry for the fools who got caught up in his looks and his false sense of charm.

          Stanley Pittman had come to work at the newspaper about a year ago as a photojournalist. Considering his arrogance, I would have thought he would have been more comfortable in front of a camera than behind one.

          “So … um … where are you headed?” he asked, a plastic grin on his face.

          As the door to the elevator opened. I turned to him and said, “I don’t see why that would be any of your business.” I exited the elevator and moved through the revolving doors that led out of the building.

           People still filled the sidewalks, cars still jammed the streets, and drivers still honked their horns. I headed down the subway stairs to catch the Lexington Avenue line uptown to East Harlem, better known as Spanish Harlem and El Barrio. Surprisingly, I was able to find an empty seat on the train. I pulled out my compact mirror to freshen up my makeup, dabbing a little translucent powder on my nose and forehead to take the shine away. Retrieving my notes from my briefcase, I scanned them quickly to be sure I’d captured all the pertinent information about the case.

           I’d never been inside a police station before, but I could say that the building was much larger than the police stations I’d seen on the news while living in Charlotte. As I reached the door, scenes from the television show Law and Order flashed through my mind. I entered the building and saw a male police officer in uniform sitting at a desk out front. There were desks in the area behind him—some empty and others occupied with people typing or on the telephone. No, I decided. It was nothing like Law and Order. No police detectives gathered at a desk discussing a case with their captain.

          Detective Moore had instructed me to inform the desk sergeant that he was expecting my visit. I was about to approach the man at the desk in front of me, assuming he was the desk sergeant, when a uniformed police officer walked up and said, “Serg, we have a problem—one of the perps in the cell claims he’s sick.” The officer at the desk noticed my presence and lifted one finger to the other police officer, indicating he would be with him in a moment.

          “Can I help you, miss?”

          “Um … yes … I’m Nicole Watkins. I’m a reporter with News Today. I’m here to see Detective Andre Moore. He’s expecting me.”

          He looked at me expectantly, “I need to see some ID.”

“Oh, of course,” I said as I dug into my purse to get my associated press identification card.

          He looked at it and held it as he picked up the telephone receiver and dialed a number. “Moore? Davidson here. You have a visitor. A Ms. Nicole Watkins from the newspaper.” He doodled on a sheet of paper on the desk as he waited for a reply from the detective. “Yeah, I see. Okay … I’ll send her up.” He hung up and gave me back my ID card. He pointed to a door that led to a stairway. “Go through that door and up the stairs to PDU … I’m sorry, Police Detective Unit. That’s the Detective Bureau. Detective Moore’s office is two doors down on the right when you come out of the stairway.”

          I thanked him and proceeded in the direction of the stairs. Exiting the stairwell, I stood in a long hallway with several offices. My footsteps echoed on the uncarpeted floor with each step I took. The décor looked a little dated. The doors to the offices were labeled with the detectives’ names. As I reached the second office from the stairway, I saw that the door stood open.

          The name on the door read Detective Andre Moore. A man stood inside, his back to me. I was sure he’d heard me clacking down the hall, but he was deeply engrossed in his phone conversation and didn’t turn around. From behind, he looked about 6-4. He wore black slacks and a burgundy polo shirt, and I could see that his body was in great shape—athletic and toned. I couldn’t help myself from zeroing in on his firm butt.

          He moved around to the other side of his desk and turned to face me, and I found myself suddenly breathless. He was the most beautiful man that I’d ever laid eyes on. I know that men aren’t usually described as beautiful, but he was definitely more than handsome. Thick, shiny dark hair, yellowish-brown skin, hazel eyes … and those lips! I could almost taste them. His eyes met mine, and I felt my heart race.

          He motioned for me to come in and have a seat.

          I stood paralyzed for a few seconds. I remember reading about this kind of attraction in romance novels but never believed the hype. I pulled myself together, hoping that he hadn’t noticed my flushed face, and sat down in one of the chairs in front of his desk.

          He hung up the telephone, stood, and reached over to shake my hand. “As you might have already guessed, I’m Detective Andre Moore, but please, call me Andre.”

          I blushed as I lifted my hand to touch his. For a moment, words got stuck in my mouth. I cleared my throat. “I’m Nicole Watkins. Nice to meet you.” I reluctantly released his hand.

           “Can I get you something to drink, Ms. Watkins? Water? Soda?”

          My nerves seemed to be taking over. I’ve got to put this schoolgirl silliness to the side and do the job I’m here to do. “No, thank you. I’m ready to discuss the case. Oh, and please call me Nicole.” Darn, why did that slip out?

          Detective Moore had the case file on his desk, and I grabbed my notebook and a pen from my briefcase so that I could take notes as well as review the questions I needed to ask about the case. I looked up to find him watching me. I couldn’t quite read his expression—he gave nothing away— and his eyes returned to the file on his desk. There was something about the way he looked at me that stirred my soul.

          He proceeded to describe the case from its beginning, going over the reports of the officers who had first arrived at the murder scene. Mrs. Rojas had discovered the body of her sixteen-year-old daughter Vanessa lying in a pool of blood in one of the bedrooms of the apartment, her body covered with stab wounds and bruises. .

          Andre removed a couple of pictures from the folder and handed them to me. “Here, take a look at these. This is what that monster did to this poor girl.”

          I took the pictures, feeling hesitant and uneasy.  Taking a deep breath, I tried mentally to prepare myself, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. There in the pictures, a young girl lay with bruises, blood, and multiple cuts all over her small, naked, lifeless body. The bedcovers were stained with blood. I couldn’t bear to look anymore and handed the pictures back to him.

          “What kind of person does that to another human being, much less a child?” My voice sounded strangled. Dizziness enveloped me as I visualized that brutal scene in my head. I hoped it wasn’t noticeable.

          Before I could recover, Andre pushed away from his desk and rushed over to me. Kneeling beside me and placing his hand on my forearm, he asked, “Are you okay? Can I get you some water? I apologize—I should have warned you about what was in those pictures. We don’t have to continue.” He seemed to have a look of genuine concern in his eyes.

          I inhaled deeply, trying to gulp as much air as possible. “I’ll be fine, I just need a minute.” I said, regaining my composure.

          “Ms. Watkins … um … Nicole, we don’t have to do this now … I—”

          Remembering Blackman’s warning that he had pulled a lot of strings to get this interview, I decided that now was not the time for me to get emotional. I had to suck it up and get this done.

          “Detective, I’m fine. Really I am. Let’s continue.”

          Still kneeling next to me, looking into my eyes, he asked, “Are you sure you’re okay? Even veteran police officers have a hard time dealing with crimes as horrific as this one.”

          I shifted in my chair. “I’m fine. Let’s do this. I’ve got a deadline to meet.”

          He stood and moved back behind his desk. He tucked the pictures back into the folder and glanced up at me.

          “Go on, Detective.”

          He raised his eyebrows. “Not comfortable calling me Andre?”

          I glanced away for a second, not sure how to answer his question because on some level I did feel uncomfortable calling him Andre—but I didn’t know why. “Well, if it’s going to help speed this along, Andre it is.”

          I don’t know why I was being so defensive toward this man who had been nothing but a gentleman toward me since I arrived in his office. Maybe I was feeling a little vulnerable because he had witnessed my emotional reaction to those ghastly photos. I just couldn’t imagine coming home and finding my daughter … It suddenly struck me to ask who had called the police.

          “How were the police notified? I mean ... who made the call?”

          Detective Moore shuffled through the pages of the report. “Some neighbors heard the screams and called nine-one-one, but before the police arrived, her mother had come home from work. Apparently, the victim was supposed to have picked up her younger brothers from school but never showed up. The school had called the mother to let her know.”

          My stomach felt queasy. “What an awful thing for a mother to stumble upon, poor woman.” I looked at Detective Moore as another horrible thought crossed my mind. “What about the children? Vanessa’s two younger brothers. Were they there when the mother went into the apartment?” I was almost afraid to hear the answer.

          He looked up at me, and the sadness in his voice matched the look in his eyes. “No, the little boys were with a neighbor,” he said, seeming to maintain a stoic expression. “The mother stated that when she arrived at the apartment, the door was unlocked, which wasn’t normal. She said she had a bad feeling about it and thought that it best to let the boys wait at a neighbor’s apartment while she went in to check on her place. She thought she might have been robbed because her place had already been broken into twice in the past year.”

          Why such sadness from a homicide detective who had probably worked a zillion homicide cases? “Detective ... uh ... Andre, may I ask a question?”

          He looked at me expectantly. “Sure, isn’t that why you’re here? To ask questions?”

          I smiled. “I guess I deserved that.”

          Smiling back at me, he asked, “What is it? What do you want to know?”

          Rolling my pen between my fingers, I asked, “How long have you been a homicide detective?”

          He leaned back in his chair, seeming to give some thought to the question. “I’ve been working on homicide cases for about ten years now. I’ve seen it all, but this case is different.” He seemed to wander off in thought for a minute. “Why do you ask?”

          I crossed one of my legs over the other and studied him for a moment. “Surely you’ve seen cases similar to this. What makes this one so special? Is it the victim’s age?”

           He opened one of the drawers to his desk and appeared to be taking something out but changed his mind and shut the drawer again. “You’re probably right. I guess that’s what makes it different.”

          I silently wondered what he’d been about to take out of that drawer, and I had the feeling that it was more than the age of the victim that was disturbing him. Did he know this family personally? No, that couldn’t be it. He had seemed detached when discussing the case until I had asked the question about the children. Snapping out of my reverie, I continued to ask a few more questions from my notes, and he offered more details, all of which would be really helpful for my story.

          “Andre, would you mind describing the neighborhood where this took place? I’m fairly new to New York, and I’m still learning about the various neighborhoods. I’d like some specifics on the scene of the crime for my article.”

          He grinned. “So where are you from? How long have you lived in New York?”

          Why do I get the impression that he’s fishing for information about my personal life? Well, I suppose it’s my own fault—I kind of set myself up. Then again, maybe a part of me wants him to know. “I’m from Charlotte, North Carolina. I moved to New York about three years ago after ... uhhh ... never mind.”

          He raised an eyebrow. “After what? You were about to say more.”

          I was not about to discuss my divorce with Detective Moore. “And I also said never mind. It’s nothing. Now would you mind giving me some information about the neighborhood?”

          He stared at me for a moment with those beautiful hazel eyes, and I felt my body warming. “I can do better than that.”

           Had his voice deepened when he said those words, or was it my imagination? I found myself hypnotized by his eyes—I swear I could see his lips moving, but I wasn’t hearing a single word that came out. Then I came to my senses.

          “Uhh ... huh?”

          He grinned. “You seemed pretty spaced out for a minute there. You okay?”

          My face felt flushed. “Yes, I’m fine.”

          He picked up his phone and started dialing. As he did so, he said, “I’m going to get clearance for you to ride with me over to the Lincoln Houses. This way you can actually see where the victim lived.”

           I nodded in appreciation and gathered my things while he was on the phone.

          He finished his phone call and looked up. “Just give me a minute to clear my desk, then we can head out. Would you like to stop to get something to eat on the way? I haven’t eaten lunch yet, and judging from the time you arrived in my office, you haven’t, either.” He stood and grabbed some keys from his desk drawer.

          I stood as well. “I’m not sure I have time for a break. I have to get back to the office as soon as we leave the Lincoln Houses. This story has to be on my boss’s desk before I leave work tonight.”

          As we exited his office, he closed the door behind us. Neither of us spoke. The only sound was the clicking of my heels against the hard, shiny floor. It was definitely an uncomfortable silence. We walked past the stairway I had used earlier and down the hall to a door leading to another stairway. Taking the stairs down, we arrived at a door that exited into a lot where several cars were parked, including two police patrol cars.

          Detective Moore waved to a uniformed officer standing near one of the cars. The police officer waved back.

          I kept pace with him until he stopped at one of the unmarked cars. The silence between us was killing me. I guess I could have struck up a conversation, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. Was he upset that I had turned down his offer for lunch? He came around to the passenger side of the car and held the door open for me.

          “Thank you,” I said as I slid into the front seat of the car.

          When he got into the driver’s seat and turned the key in the ignition, he looked over at me. “I absolutely have to stop for something to eat. How about if we grab something on the way and eat in the car?”

          I had to admit I was hungry, but I didn’t want to waste any time because I had to get back to the office. I also had to factor in the amount of time it would take to travel by subway.

          He must have read my mind because he interrupted my thoughts. “I’ll drive you back to your office, Nicole.”

I looked at him, biting my lip. “I wouldn’t want you to go out of your way.”

          He glanced at me before steering the car out of the lot. “Not a problem. It would be my pleasure. So what would you like to eat?”

          “A salad will be fine,” I replied.

          “A salad?”

          Yes.”

          “A salad. Really? You trying to watch your weight?”

          Do I tell him that I really like salad? “Well …”

          “You don’t need to,” Andre said. “I think you look just fine to me.”

          I blushed. “Thank you.”

          Do I return the compliment? I hardly know the man.

          But I do believe I want to know him more …