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Half-Past Dawn

A Thriller
By Richard Doetsch

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1
FRIDAY, 6:00 A.M.


HALF-PAST DAWN, THE WORLD slowly came to life. The sun crept along the freshly cut grass, over the scattered toys on the back lawn, and through the rear windows of the modest colonial house, the country kitchen filling with morning light as it danced over cream tiles and a wide-plank oak floor.

A tall man walked into the kitchen, his black hair mussed and astray, his lean, muscular body wrapped in a blue robe. His face was strong and intelligent, but carried a certain toughness, while his dark brown eyes had the appearance of seeing far more years than the thirty-nine he had lived.

A Bernese Mountain dog ran to his side, and he crouched down, running his hands through the large dog’s black, brown, and white coat, rubbing his belly and behind his ears. “Hey, Fruck,” he whispered. He always loved giving his pets obscure names that never failed to become conversation starters.

He reached into the fridge, grabbed a Coke, popped it open, and drank half of it as if it were desperately needed air for his lungs. He wasn’t a coffee guy, never had been, preferring his caffeine jolt cold and sweet. He looked around the kitchen, at the overflowing garbage he had promised his wife he would take out more than a day ago, at the ever-growing stack of bills by the phone, and finally, at the lack of bagels, cream cheese, and newspaper on the counter.

Heading through the hallway of the small house, he opened the front door to find the newspaper on the slate step. He picked it up, tucked it under his arm, and took a long, deep breath of the summer morning air. There was a crispness to it, fresh and clean and full of hope. Fruck charged by him, through the door, and out onto the lawn, jumping around in hopes of an early-morning romp. But that would have to wait.

Jack went back to the kitchen, tossed the newspaper onto the counter, and opened the garage door. He shook his head in bemused understanding as he saw his wife’s freshly washed blue Audi parked there. He walked over to it with a smile on his face, opened the door, looked at the gas gauge, and laughed. Empty. Which explained why his white Chevy Tahoe was gone. It had been a forever pet peeve; she would drive on fumes before pulling into a gas station. The following day, without a word, Mia would snatch his car, leaving him to roll the dice on making it to the gas station and come up with an explanation for why he was late for work again.

Mia had always been a morning person, up at 6:00, down to the deli by 6:15 for coffee and bagels, back home, lunches made, the girls packed off to the bus by 7:00 and gone. Mia had probably been up at 5:30, accomplished a day’s worth of work, and was already on her way to the city.

Jack Keeler hadn’t seen 5:30 except from the other side of sleep, when he would crawl into bed and pray for the sun to skip its rise for the day. He always seemed to hit a second wind at 9:00 p.m., his mind kicking into overdrive as thoughts about work and life suddenly became clear. But at 6:30 every morning, his body would wake, whether it had taken in eight hours of sleep or two. Of course, the pain factor would determine if it was a one- or two-Coca-Cola morning.

He grabbed a second can from the fridge and headed upstairs, peering into Hope and Sara’s room—the pink beds made, toys tucked away, the room cleaner than it had been in weeks. The five-and six-year-old Irish twins were inseparable and loved nothing more than climbing all over Jack at night when he arrived home from work. It had been a ritual since they could crawl and was topped only by their love of the ocean.

Jack cut through his bedroom and into the bathroom. As he brushed his teeth, thoughts of the day began to filter in: what awaited him on his desk, what needed to be dealt with. Leaning over the sink, he finally looked into the mirror … and was confused by what he saw.

Above his right eye was a scabbed-over wound, a wound he had no recollection of getting. He ran his finger over it, the sharp, stinging pain shocking him. He leaned closer to the mirror to examine it and noticed the other scrapes along his cheek and neck—not as dramatic but surely something he would have remembered getting.

As he began to probe his memory, something on his left wrist caught his attention. A dark marking on his skin peered out from beneath the sleeve of his terry-cloth bathrobe. Fearing another wound, he quickly slid the sleeve up, only to reveal the last thing he expected.

The tattoo was detailed, intricate, created by an artist’s hands. The design covered his entire forearm, running from wrist to elbow. The ink was of a single dark color, just short of black. The tattoo appeared to be an elaborate woven design of vines and rope, but upon further examination, lettering of a language he had never seen came into a focus like an optical illusion revealed to the mind’s eye.

As he studied the detail, his mind searched back, and the absence of memory scared him. He had no recollection of needles on his skin, of being drunk, of being a fool. He did have a tattoo of a dancing skeleton on his right hip, a drunken mistake made when he was eighteen. He and two friends had them done at three in the morning on the Jersey shore, the alcohol-induced foolishness of youth. To this day, only Mia and four ex-girlfriends were aware of its existence; not even his parents knew. But the small skeleton on his hip was forever undercover; the markings that covered his arm couldn’t be concealed, couldn’t be hidden for long.

Jack turned on the hot water, running his arm through the scalding stream, the underlying skin growing crimson, making the artwork pop. He rubbed his forearm with a bar of soap, grabbed the washcloth, and scrubbed his skin raw. But it was to no avail. The markings were deep … and permanent. Mia was going to be furious.

But the surprise of the tattoo and the facial wounds was quickly forgotten as he removed his robe.

The shock of what he saw sent panic running through him, and he nearly collapsed to the tile floor. The wound was like nothing he had ever seen—black, haphazard stitches holding a dime-sized wound together, dark blue bruises radiating out from its center.

He tilted it toward the mirror and felt nausea rise in him. Something had pierced his shoulder just below the lower left collarbone, and he had no memory of it. There was no question; the improvised checkerboard stitches were not done by a physician. He ran his finger close to it and nearly doubled over in pain, as if he had just felt the bullet make contact.

Without thought, he reached into the cabinet and grabbed the bottle of peroxide, poured it over the wound, and then applied a wide mesh bandage over it. He raced to his closet and quickly dressed in a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved button-down shirt. As he slipped on a pair of shoes, he saw a pair of dress pants, muddy and wet in a ball in the corner. Picking them up only proved to cloud his mind further as they were torn and ruined. He couldn’t remember wearing them, but when he reached into the pockets, he found them filled with his personal effects, proving that, despite his lack of memory, he had worn them recently.

Jack pulled out his wallet from the wet pocket and checked its contents: nothing missing. He found twenty dollars, some change, and the small blue jewelry box that Mia had given him the week before. Opening it, he found it to contain not the cross she had bought him but her pearl choker, the one he had given to her on her birthday three months earlier. Without further thought, he tucked it all in his pocket and raced downstairs.

He picked up the phone and quickly dialed Mia’s cell. Usually known for a calm demeanor and a clear head in a crisis, Jack was in a full-blown panic, his mind on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He had no recollection of receiving the wounds on his body, no memory of what had occurred the night before or even yesterday, now that he thought on it. His mind was slipping through his fingers, and there was only one person he could turn to.

Mia’s cell phone rang once, twice, three times before going to voice mail, and just as Jack began to leave a message, his eyes were drawn to the kitchen counter … to the newspaper that lay there.

He zeroed in on the large center photo, the artificially lit nighttime photo of a bridge, the guard rail missing, black tire marks on the roadway disappearing over the edge.

And above it all, the headline screamed across the page:

New York City District Attorney Jack Keeler Dead

© 2011 Richard Doetsch

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