Manhattan Flame (A Bridge & Tunnel Romance Book 2)

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  MANHATTAN FLAME

(A Bridge & Tunnel Romance)

 

Mira Gibson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Chapter One

 

The air was soft and warm, breezing off the Hudson River and blowing through her black curls, caressing her brown skin, and causing the gray, leather jacket she wore to billow out from her flowing pink tank top. Tasha Buckley was leaning against the railing that separated Riverside Park from calm waters, and angling her telephoto lens at the George Washington Bridge.

The lighting was perfect, dusk settling as the sun slipped behind buildings, an eerie mix of gray shadows swallowing stark amber light.

In the distance, a homeless man was hunched and fumbling his way along the railing, his gaze locked on the cobblestone path, as he hunted for cigarette butts long enough to smoke. She kept him in the corner of her frame.

Tasha had been waiting for him to straighten up, turn towards her. She wanted to capture the grief in his eyes, the destitute of his expression—his cheeks a pattern of creases, his mouth twisting downward, his hands dirt-stained and shaky—and the story his clothing told, as ratty and hole-ridden as his garments were. Her subject, downtrodden in the foreground, the bridge, majestic in the evening light... if she could document the contrast, lock it forever with the fast click of her camera, she would have yet another strong photo for her upcoming art exhibition.

“Come on, come on,” she said under her breath, pinching her left eye shut, while the right one studied the man through the viewfinder.

The plastic eyepiece was digging into her brow and cheek, and her arm was getting tired. Her camera—a Canon EF 400/2.8L with a 500 meter telephoto lens that looked almost as long as her arm—was meant to be mounted on a tripod due to its weight and sheer mass. But capturing life on the fly didn’t allow for the luxury of setting up her shot with such accessories.

Tasha held down the shutter release, taking rapid-fire photos of the homeless man and hoping like hell he would lift his face.

A strong gust of wind blew in off the water, rustling treetops, the branches of which arched over the cobblestone path they were on. It should’ve been enough to steal the man’s attention, cause him to glance up and around, but instead he turned his back to Tasha and started off in the opposite direction.

She lowered her camera, letting it rest against her stomach, though the weight of it caused the nylon strap around her neck to chafe.

Grabbing the railing, she gazed out at the river as if setting her sights on nature would wash her frustration away.

When she turned, hoping to find another homeless man or woman shuffling down the path, she saw only the shapes and shadows of trees and shrubs, a row of benches, a cluster of pigeons twitching around a discarded, half eaten bagel, the golden hour having escaped her.

She didn’t want to be a photographer’s assistant forever. Though it was a substantial step up from the photo lab where she used to work. The particular photographer she had been assisting was a condescending jerk and he never missed an opportunity to put her down.

Several times she had told herself not to build up her upcoming exhibition too much in her head. The higher your hopes, the further your fall, her grandmother used to say. But Tasha couldn’t help it. She didn’t have all the reason in the world to believe that showing her work there would be her ticket to a life independent of working for others, having a boss, depending on a paycheck at the mercy of a jerk, yet the truest and most innocent part of herself believed it.

She had four strong shots, already developed and framed in her Harlem apartment one neighborhood over. She needed six more. And time was running out.

Determined to get at least one solid photo before calling it a night, she walked along the cobblestone path, cutting south along the park and at times gripping the railing and gazing out at the water. It would be a hike, but if she could get down to the piers, she might have better luck with the homeless ferreting around trashcans for food. The cargo ships in the background could prove intriguing as well.

After five minutes, the park lamps began flickering on, one after the next as she passed each of them, and she smiled at the incidental timing. There were a few joggers out. They angled around her in wide arches, but for the most part the park was quiet and empty.

Soon the first pier came into view in the distance. With night having fallen it looked more like a streak of black floating on a dark, rippling surface. The moon was a sliver overhead and there wasn’t a star in the sky thanks to the bright cityscape of New Jersey across the water.

Tasha slowed, lifting her camera, and glanced through the viewfinder. There were enough lamps along the pier to provide a dim glow of light, but unless she was precise choosing the aperture, it wouldn’t matter what she photographed, nothing would come out in the darkroom.

“I need more than pigeons and a damned cargo ship,” she grumbled, sweeping the lens slowly across the pier.

At this point she would settle for a park custodial worker or security guard, but no one was around. The weather was too nice, she thought. People took advantage during the daytime, they were out and about, but as soon as darkness fell they had better places to be—a sidewalk cafe, a rooftop bar, a concert in Central Park.

She snapped off a few shots of the landscape, not that she would be able to use any of them—the theme of her photographs demonstrated the plight of those who had bottomed out. She didn’t want to take those run-of-the-mill China Town photos or display cheap shots of the homeless in any given shelter or soup kitchen. She wanted to show them as close to nature as New York City would allow and juxtapose their weathered faces with those of Manhattan's most elite if possible.

Just as she was about to give up and call it a night, the weight of her camera causing her arm muscles to tremble, she spied a man on the pier.

Draped in shadows, he wore dark jeans and a suit jacket, and when he paced down the pier and turned on his heel, Tasha adjusted the lens, bringing him into perfect clarity through the viewfinder.

She guessed he was in his mid or late forties, as she held the shutter down, taking rapid-fire shots. His face wasn’t as rough and aged by despair as she would’ve liked, but his expression made up for it.

Dark hair, dark eyes, he seemed to grimace, which accentuated his Eastern European features. She pegged him as Russian since their population was fairly high throughout the five boroughs.

He spat onto the pier and when he turned again, she trailed her camera down the length of his back, zooming the lens as tightly as it would go.

There was a discernible bulge at the small of his back where his suit jacket just barely met the waistband of his jeans.

Was that a gun tucked down her subject’s pants?

She snapped a few shots, knowing full well she wouldn’t be able to use them, and then zoomed out, her curiosity highly piqued at the second and third men who were now approaching him.

Lowering her camera for a beat, she eyed their dynamic.

The man looked scared and began groveling.

She lifted her camera, again pressing the rubbery eyepiece to her face.

In the split second it had taken her to do that much, the two men had swarmed her subject. One was holding him, arms hooked under his armpits, while the second man delivered blows to his gut.

Tasha held the shutter release down, snapping off shots in fast succession, but doing so made her stomach twist. What the hell was she doing taking photos of a man being beaten?

She let her camera fall, the weight of it snapping with the taut nylon strap around her neck, and found her cell phone after scrambling through her purse. She cued up 911, but her eyes darted up to the assault just as the two men shoved their victim towards the edge of the pier.

In an instant, her camera was in her hands, documenting the man as he was thrown into the water.

Watching with wide eyes, all breathing stopped, as she realized how limp he'd looked plummeting with a splash.

They killed him?

Shocked, it was as though she couldn’t think straight, couldn’t feel the cell phone in her hand or even remember that she was holding it. She stared at the remaining men as they discussed something before starting for the row of cars at the base of the pier.

Shaking off her anxiety, though her heart rate quickened to dizzying levels, she sent the call through and pressed her cell to her ear, but it didn’t even ring. She glanced at it and swore. She hadn’t punched in the last
1
. She tapped the screen, adding the digit and again, hit the send button, but just as the 911 Operator greeted her through the earpiece her cell cut out.

“Are you kidding me?”

Staring down at it in her hand, the screen was blacked out—dead—having lost its charge.

Tasha glanced up at the pier in the distance, as the men rounded one of the vehicles within the row of cars, and her heart skipped a beat. One of the men was standing with his hand on the door handle, his dark suit crisp along his robust frame, his shoulders squared, his eyes—too dark and far away too lock with—seemed to be staring in her direction.

Though she was petrified, some semblance of instinct took hold and she lifted her camera to her face, viewing him through the telephoto lens.

He was looking right at her.

 

Chapter Two

 

The overhead lights—fluorescent and buzzing like a hornets nest—had been grating on Officer Kevin Wright’s nerves ever since he’d walked into the precinct hours earlier at the start of his tour.

He rubbed his eyes then scratched the dark dusting of stubble along his jawline, vaguely aware that he was a few days overdue for a shave.

He was standing post at the front desk, and had been tending to civilians as they walked in to report bike theft, car theft, wallet theft—Christ, there was a lot of theft in Harlem—but luckily he had a moments rest, having just filed a form for an elderly man who claimed his neighbor had stolen four flowerpots from his stoop.

The lobby was empty, though the bullpen behind him was a chorus of barked orders and crass jabs—detectives and cops rushing to track down, follow up on, or otherwise ferret out leads on a variety of crimes.

Kevin rolled his shoulders back, his starched uniform pulling taut across his chest, the holster at his side digging in, but the stretch felt good, woke him up a touch, though those damned fluorescents were working against him.

He hadn’t so much asked for a cop’s life as gotten pigeonholed into it, hailing from a large family of police officers and firefighters, priests and drunks, classic Irish-Americans who had never made it out of the five boroughs and were shamelessly proud of that fact. Kevin was the youngest of four brothers and, following their lead yet avoiding his oldest brother, Mick’s pious inclination towards the cloth, he had joined the police academy six years ago. In all this time however, Kevin hadn’t managed to take the detective’s exam, move up the ranks, and make his old man proud.

It wasn’t that he wasn’t passionate about law enforcement, quite the opposite in fact. But he’d seen what the detectives in the 26th had become. He’d witnessed firsthand their bitterness, their callous attitude towards more violent crimes, the apathy and pessimism they’d let slip to the families of victims—a cruelty that inspired despair rather than hope.

He wasn’t ready to be part of it, not beyond working the desk, beating the streets, and cruising across town to pick up your run-of-the-mill petty criminal who wouldn’t likely do hard time but rather a few months of community service.

Deep down he knew that his dad—a weathered Irish hard-ass who thought sleeping more than four hours a night or working less than twelve made you a sissy—wouldn’t let him get away with this cushy version of a cop’s life for much longer. Hell, his brothers had already been busting his balls about it.

But the real barrier preventing Kevin from muscling down his apprehension and taking the damn exam was standing a good yard behind him, ripping Officer Taite a new one over misfiling a report, and causing the entire bullpen to tense.

Sergeant Patrick Reilly.

The man was a good friend of Kevin’s father, but it didn’t influence his treatment of the cop. At 6’4”, 280 lbs of pure muscle, and hair so white it looked as though the devil himself had singed the color right out of it, Reilly was a grisly bear with the energy of a teenaged boy and the rage of a steroid-pumping wrestler. Bottom line, the sergeant had never missed an opportunity to chew him out and then laugh about it with Kevin’s old man over beers at the local pub.

Keeping his head low and his wits sharp was how he’d been playing this. It had kept him in the game this long and would continue to do so, though at this point in the evening Kevin would rather slink off to his apartment, drink a beer, and watch basketball than sidestep his superior left and right.

He glanced at the clock on the wall above the entrance and quietly groaned that he had another four hours to go until a cold Bud would be in his hand.

He just wasn’t feeling it today. His police issued boots felt tight around his feet. His damned holster kept digging hard against his ribs. And it was stuffy as hell in the precinct. His brother’s advice popped in his head,
Get a girl, get laid
. Not Mick’s advice! No, that’d be hysterical—a priest encouraging sex. It had been Tommy, his firefighting brother who seemed to be in a constant state of reminding him that a girl was all he needed—
Get the blood flowing, the engine firing!

Kevin was starting to wonder if maybe he was right...

He’d been single for ages and yes it was for lack of trying. Whenever Kevin tried, it took about three minutes before the woman he had smiled at swayed her way across the bar, smirking her lips and usually fiddling with her hair or the hem of her shirt, nervous tells that revealed he’d have to try hard to mess things up. He had one of those faces that girls happened to like, and he was tall—6’2”. He spent time jogging and lifted weights at the gym when he felt like it. But for Kevin some critical motivating piece was missing from his mind or his heart or his soul. He didn’t feel like chasing something that would turn out to be fake, hollow, a waste of time in the long run. He’d had enough illusions.

He would wait for someone real.

“Wright!”

He flinched and found the sergeant over his shoulder with a form in his meaty hands.

“What the hell is this supposed to be?”

Kevin angled his gaze at the sheet in Reilly’s hand, sensing more than reading what it was. He caught the victim's name and the offense, which refreshed his memory enough to explain.

“The vic thought his neighbor stole his flowerpots.”

Sergeant Reilly narrowed his pale blue eyes down at him and if Kevin wasn’t mistaken, the man had started growling.

“Did I miss a field?” he guessed, his jaw so tight the words had sounded garbled.

“You’re missing the point, is what you’re missing. Can’t you spot a nut-job yet? This precinct doesn’t give a good goddamn about flowerpots.”

Of course it didn’t, he thought. All that mattered was rape, murder, child abduction... the golden trifecta of what any of them should spend their time on...

Except Kevin didn’t happen to agree.

“Theft is theft, Sarge.”

Reilly was holding his gaze in a way that made it hard for Kevin to breathe.

“You talking back to me?” he challenged, crowding him behind the counter. “Or is it that you’re itching to drive over to the bowels of Harlem and suss out this minor indiscretion? You want to question a building full of neighbors, in the projects no less, about some missing flowers?”

Kevin swallowed hard and snuck a step back. “If I have to.”

“Is that right?”

“I doubt anyone will admit it, but if a cop comes sniffing around, the culprit might think twice next time.”

“There is no culprit, Wright,” he said, disappointed. “Read the vic’s name.” He snapped the sheet in Kevin’s face. “Willy Blackwell’s out of his damn mind. He’s in here every other week claiming one of his neighbors has taken this or that worthless item. He’s what we call a time waster. If I send you over there for any reason it would be to arrest him for wasting police resources.”

Or maybe the kids in Willy’s building liked messing with him because he was old and grumpy and an easy target, he thought without uttering one word.

Instead, he said, “Understood,” and hoped the man would lumber back into the bullpen and chew someone else out for a change.

Reilly stared him down for a solid moment just to stir a fresh wave of anxiety through Kevin, or so he thought. It wasn’t until the brash sergeant finally did stalk off that Kevin let out a rocky breath, turned towards his post, and hoped like hell his tour would fly by.

As if in answer to his prayer, the glass entrance door of the precinct glided open and a young African-American woman stepped cautiously inside, her hair a wild design of black curls, her loose tee hugging the curves of her chest tightly where her leather jacket allowed a sense of her shape. Her thighs were thick, her eyes alert—and that was just the quick sense he got from her. As she approached the counter after glancing nervously around the empty lobby, Kevin afforded himself the vacation of studying her a bit more closely. 

Physically, she looked soft, yet her expression was hardened as though her dewy complexion, large angled eyes, and round mouth were cloaked in a tough attitude—gentle features stiff with the guardedness that comes from too many years in too rough a neighborhood.

His chest grew tighter the longer they looked at one another and it wasn’t until she set an abnormally large camera on the counter that he realized she even had such a thing with her.

“How can I help you?” He asked, a bit thrown by how concerned his voice sounded.

“I think I saw something,” she said in a hollow tone that seemed lost and out of sorts.

“Theft?”

“No,” she cut in then her lower lip began quivering and she muttered,
Damn
under her breath, stepping back and giving her hands a good shake before looking at them.

“Take your time.”

She let out a carefully measure breath, glancing discretely at her hands as if willing them to stop trembling. When she stepped up to the counter again, she pressed her palms flat onto it and Kevin noted their demure shape—long fingers adorned with several rings.

She gave an honest attempt at starting slowly and clearly from the beginning. “I was over at Riverside Park, damn,” she swore again under her breath. Plowing her long fingers through her hair, she corrected herself, explaining, “I was down at the piers, but I started at the park so I don’t know which pier I was at.”

“The first one? Twelve,” he supplied. “I know the area.”

Again, she exhaled, her eyes scanning the counter as though it would help her gain clarity.

“Hey,” he said softly, angling to catch eye contact. When he had it, he assured her, “Just tell me what you saw and we’ll go from there.”

“Right,” she breathed. “I think I saw these two business-looking guys kill some Russian dude and throw him in the river.”

Now that was a statement.

Kevin realized he was staring so he whipped around, pulled a homicide report form from the shelving unit and found a pen, and set both on the counter.

“Bear with me, I need to collect all of your information.”

“Anonymous,” she blurted out then cooled herself. “I’d rather make an anonymous report.”

Kevin leaned forward but not so much as to crowd her, and spoke firmly and deliberately. “This is serious. If you witnessed a murder, if that’s really what happened, then no, you don’t get to disappear into the night. There will be a full investigation and we’ll need to follow up with you.”

She looked reluctant, far too reluctant to cooperate, but he held her gaze anyway, and it finally registered that she was nearly as tall as him. Not that he should let himself get distracted by such a detail... maybe she was wearing heels, he hadn’t noticed one way or the other when she’d come in.

“Fine,” she told him, sounding defeated as she blew air through her teeth. “Tasha Buckley... here.”

She stole the pen from him, leaning over the counter and making slow work of identifying each field. He pointed, indicating the Name field, then the Address field, Home and Cell numbers and so on down the list, as she filled it out. Then he slipped the form away and took over again, entirely aware that she smelled faintly of lilacs. He didn’t know flower scents, not beyond lilacs since his mother had a bush in front of his childhood house on Staten Island.

“When did this happen?” He asked, stealing quick glances at her as she composed herself to answer.

“Just now. I was going to call 911 when it was happening but my cell died so I walked over here. It took me maybe ten minutes to walk.”

“Did you get a good look at these guys?”

“Good enough.”

“From how far away?”

She held his gaze and Kevin could tell he wasn’t going to like her response.

“Two, maybe three hundred yards.”

Ordinarily he would’ve laughed a civilian right out of the precinct. Only a hawk could see from that distance. If her allegation proved to be valid, he doubted she'd be able to ID the perp in a lineup. But there was something about Tasha—the glint in her brown eyes, the way she pressed her mouth, even her apprehension about being here in the first place told him that she wasn’t making this up.

“Give me a sec, alright?” he said before glancing over his shoulder to get a read on where the sergeant was skulking around.

Traumatizing Taite again, he should’ve known.

“I’ll be right back.”

It took more effort than he cared to admit to tear his gaze from her, but he broke free and wove his way through the bullpen until he reached Reilly, who was sloshing what looked like luke-warm coffee around in a cracked mug.

Speaking low, Kevin said, “I got a woman who saw a murder down by Pier Twelve. Says two men pushed another into the river.”

“People don’t die falling in the water,” he grumbled.

“She seems credible,” he insisted while keeping his tone even.

Reilly glanced past the hustle and bustle of his detectives to the woman beyond the front desk and Kevin caught the exact moment his sergeant had written the whole thing off.

And it was because Tasha was black.

Kevin could smell it. This type of dismissive racism had been brewing throughout the entire department ever since the day he’d started and it didn’t bode well for inspiring him to move up the ranks.

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