The Scarlet Oak

Book Award Sub-Category
Award Category
Golden Writer
Logline or Premise
Murder, Spies, and Spirits.
First 10 Pages

Chapter One

An odd coolness swept across Finn’s back as he stood at the edge of the empty road. Though it was barely noticeable, it did cause him to glance over his left shoulder toward the roadway, half expecting to see a passing car and feeling somewhat surprised he didn’t. Yet, there was no mistaking that ethereal chill he felt against his skin as if he had, or the scant sent of a pleasing fragrance that seemed to follow. He rubbed the few standing hairs at the nape of his neck, quickly dismissing the uncanny coldness, knowing the infrequency with which cars drove on Mill River Road at this hour of the morning. Diligently, he returned his investigative focus back to the emergency-service cop who was less than a hundred and fifty feet away in the trampled grass of the private horse pasture, the last of the police support units responding to his crime scene. Finn’s concentration drifted while he eyed the cop working the hydraulic control levers of the flatbed that guided the dead boy’s car onto the police transport, in preparation for the trip to the evidence garage.

A few hours earlier, the local fire department’s emergency medical service crew was first to arrive at the scene, and quickly realized they weren’t needed. As did the police paramedics, who remained only long enough to make the official death pronouncements.

Doctor Collier from the county medical examiner’s office was just as quick, though after staggering like a big-footed clown through the ankle-high pasture grass to his waiting car, provided his professional street-level diagnosis to Finn. Lowering his driver’s door window while avoiding direct eye contact with Finn, Collier managed an inebriated slur of the obvious. “They’re both dead, Detective! Call for the wagon and basket, tag’em and bag’em, have them shipped to the shop, I’ll do both autopsies first thing…” He trailed off, as if he had suddenly thought of something more important. Collier started the car’s engine, and wove back onto the empty roadway, his vehicle soon absorbed into the night’s darkness, as the taillights faded from view.

Shaking his head with frustration, Collier’s elusive response to the teenage bodies wasn’t something new for Finn, Collier had a history of struggling with the obvious.

A hardened, ten-year veteran of the county police department, Finn joined shortly after completing a highly active, three-year stint with the U.S. Army as an airborne ranger. Two extended combat deployments earned him numerous decorations for bravery. His six-foot frame balanced a steady weight of 165 pounds on a solid, well-toned athletic body. Thick, mahogany brown hair complemented a steady, no-nonsense glare from a set of slate grey eyes that added to his determined look. His soft cheekbones were in contrast to the ever-present spear-shaped piece of wood barely visible in the little crease at the corner of his lip.

To many, that toothpick was symbolic of Finn’s hard-boiled detective character, intensified by an indifferent attitude toward just about everyone and everything, living or dead. But they’d be wrong, only to a degree. The toothpick didn’t make him hard-boiled, or indifferent, it was a coping tool of sorts. That tiny sliver of wood was part of Finn’s well-being, his physical crutch for managing a life of anxiety. Safer than smoking, though just as addictive. Without his toothpick he’d be just another one-legged contestant in some nameless ass-kicking contest.

Standing at an elevated perch on the road’s edge, next to the uneven, rocky gravel of the shoulder, Finn eyed the shadowed silhouette of the lone uniformed police officer standing guard on the southbound lane, waving his flashlight, guiding the crime scene unit’s van inside the protected space, just short of the inclining curve of the road behind the strategically placed orange pylons.

Both youthful-looking techs were clad in the department’s official one-piece royal blue work coveralls, with the identifying white block letters CSU affixed to the back. Finn watched as they exited their van and casually glanced in the direction of the four large LED flood lights that illuminated the dead kid’s car and the two cold, lifeless bodies in the vacant pasture. Neither bothered to cross over the dry ravine or up to the broken horse fence for the slightest glimpse of a professional observation, or even for a curious peek at the bodies. He overheard one of them loudly claim, “It’s clearly just an accident, if anything, this scene belongs to the Fatal Accident Reconstruction Team!”

“Maybe you’d like to examine the scene before you classify it?” Finn said sternly.

“Must be a slow night in homicide!” the first crime scene cop remarked to the other, before he shot Finn a cynical eye and a shitty smile.

“Why is homicide interested in a car accident?” the second tech asked Finn as they swaggered slowly up the darkened roadway toward him.

“Who said it was a car accident?” Finn responded, sending a quick blast of blinding light from his flashlight into their eyes.

“What, you think it’s something different?” the first tech volleyed back, shielding his eyes from the glaring illumination with an open palm.

“We don’t even need to inspect the car. Any rookie can see from here that the driver was going too fast, lost control, crashed through the fence, landed in that field, then hit that giant tree. Case closed!” he added with a salty smirk before turning again to his partner as they broke out in laughter in unison.

“I need you guys to process this scene,” Finn declared.

“It’s only an accident, Finn!” the first tech replied, pointing at the broken fence.

Finn coaxed them into taking a few photos. They reluctantly complied, but only as a courtesy, and without leaving the roadway. Finishing with a cluster of useless blacked-out photos that could have very well been taken from inside of a lightless broom closet, instead of the required array of photos necessary for a double-homicide investigation. Grudgingly, after being ordered by Finn again, the two techs submissively yielded a couple quick, triangular measurements of the road’s elevated surface in relation to the sharply curved arc of the roadway, calculated against the height of the damaged horse fence, before they sped off to give some other detective their unsolicited crime-solving advice, or to finish the rest of their shift in the coop.

The warming rays of the early-morning September sun, beginning its slow climb to the top of the giant blue spruces along the roadside, adjacent to the open horse pasture, were welcome against his tired face. Evenly spaced giant Colorado evergreens, intentionally planted as saplings many years before, now served as a privacy barrier from the passing vehicle traffic, while also serving as a relief from the hot summer sun and the cold, wet winters of Long Island’s North Shore for the rare and priceless thoroughbreds that occasionally roamed that side of the private horse pasture. The western side of the pasture was bordered by unpassable, barbed-wire-sharp thorny branches of dense thickets, set before a row of tall sycamores, that lay just beyond the wooden fence line. The southern end of the pasture was tightly sealed with thick, tall, English-style privet hedges that ended at the southwest corner of the pasture, providing just enough room for the wide-swinging, metal-tubed paddock gate that led from the estate’s stable into the pasture.

The rising eastern sun gradually burned away a thin, curling layer of morning mist that coated the tips of the remaining undisturbed sweet grass in the horseless pasture. And only now returning to an autumn of clean, crisp, cool air, following a night of controlled chaos with the many different emergency responders and their wailing sirens converging from every possible direction, while Finn watched from a safe distance on the other side of the roadway. Their vehicles illuminated the entire crime scene with mesmerizing red and blue wigwags, and sending blinding strobes of fiery white daggers into the endless darkness. Finally, leaving a lone Emergency Service Unit officer with his flatbed tow truck to crush and twist the ankle-high sweetgrass into crude field art as it maneuvered over and around the tire impressions made by the dead boy’s car.

Nearing an end to a mentally exhausting night, Finn’s tired eyes deliberately scanned every inch of the crime scene. After he’d watched the night bagman from the morgue tag, bag, and remove the lifeless bodies from the serene horse pasture, while trying to imagine what had taken place earlier to these two kids. He was unable to suppress the nagging suspicion, deep within his restless gut, that this secluded horse pasture wasn’t your everyday bucolic horse pasture, that it was concealing more secrets then it revealed.

He’d gone over everything in and around the pasture and roadway not once or twice, but three times. Still, he couldn’t come up with even a basic explanation of what caused the car to leave the roadway, let alone who could have wanted these kids dead?

This was one of those times he’d wished he could shake some magical evidence tree for a rock-solid lead, or jog loose an anonymous eyewitness that would give the investigation a little traction. The longer he studied the crime scene, the more he wondered if this was all he was going to get. Though he knew all murder scenes concealed their own special kind of secrets, they just needed to be exposed. He had nothing—no trace evidence, and no known witnesses. There was only the obvious: one car, one giant tree, and two murdered teenagers in a vacant private horse pasture in the middle of an affluent area on the North Shore of Long Island.

Chapter Two

Mill River Road was dangerous to navigate at any time of the day, in the best of weather, with its treacherous switchback design and harrowing hairpin turns. Which is why it was seldom used, except by those who either lived near the road or by locals who resorted to using it out of frustration from the perpetual buildup of heavier traffic on the more commonly used four-lane Pine Hollow Road just two hills over to the east.

Finn was familiar with both roads. He knew Mill River Road started less than a quarter mile away from where he stood, as it branched off Lexington Avenue and traced south along the east side of a small, shallow freshwater pond that long ago had been fed by the narrow, fast-moving Mill River.

As a teenager Finn navigated this road countless times, in daylight and dark, and in all the seasonal weather. Though it’d been a long time since he had physically walked or even stood on any part of this road.

The landscape around the crime scene took on a clearer focus as the day began to brighten. It also resurrected memories of his past that slowly seeped into his thoughts as he gazed around at the dangerously blind curve of the now-empty roadway, with thoughts back to his youth, to Saint Xavier’s.

Remembering the claustrophobic shock that physically froze him in place as Father Dom closed the thick wooden door of the alter box squarely behind him with a solid echoing thud, sending prickly little vibrating waves of fear throughout his small body. Followed by another wave of terror as the loud metallic click of the thick, medieval-style bronze padlock was heard on the other side of the wooden door.

Even now, he could vividly hear Father Dom’s voice, in his barely distinguishable English. I do this, my child, for your own good. This will build your character. It will give you strength. It will make you mentally strong. You’ll need this, I promise you, because you are the Final One.

The horse pasture along the seldom-used rural roadway finally lay quiet and peaceful in the early autumn morning. The landscape was so picturesque that it could have very well graced the front cover of one of Long Island’s most popular equestrian magazines. And it probably had, he thought.

The area had not changed much over the years, not that he could remember, from his obligatory after-school walks to his part-time job. Father Dom saw to it that every one of his boys had a job, and Finn’s was at the top of Mill Hill, at the Whitney estate.

Standing on the road that was so familiar to him, his thoughts unwittingly shifted focus from the crime scene back to his youth, a time in his life he so desperately tried to forget, to block from his memory. A time he wanted to consider nothing more than one of life’s misfortunes, though it somehow always seemed to linger just below the surface, waiting to be resurrected by some unforeseen event or jostled loose by one of his senses, forcing him again to come face to face with those wounds.

At times, like this morning, as he stood at the side of the road, he consciously admitted to himself that he missed the pleasant scent of sweetgrass blending with the fresh, rich, damp earth as it wafted from the vacant horse pasture, mixing with a warming autumn sun. It woke one of the few enjoyable thoughts of his past that he remembered so vividly.

Those reflective flashes from his youth only rekindled the telling and imperious images of Father Dominic Fabiano of Saint Xavier’s Home for Boys, Finn’s home. Father Dom, as he insisted on being called, never cared much for the people in the little hamlet of Oyster Bay referring to Saint Xavier’s as an orphanage, while others simply regarded it as an asylum for boys, some even referring to it as “that group home on the hill.” There never were any girls housed there, leaving Father Dom to proudly insist on calling Saint Xavier’s simply a home for boys.

Given that no child had ever been offered for adoption, it never really qualified as an orphanage. Father Dom, their patriarch, was a tall, thin, lanky, middle-aged Jesuit priest with a milk-toned complexion and a long, narrow, oval-shaped face. When closed, his paper-thin lips gave his face the appearance that his lips had mysteriously slipped away from the space just below the long splinter of a nose. His short, straight white hair blended well with his aged complexion, contrasted against the small birdlike piercing dark eyes that were shaded by unusually thick dark bushy eyebrows.

Father Dom carried himself with a pious gait, slow and deliberate, but his speech was laced with a thick, heavy Italian accent. Causing his expressed commands or requests to be misunderstood or misdirected by most of the boys in the home. Many of the older boys, the tougher ones, would just flash the priest a bewildered stare as they cocked their heads to one side, like an attentive dog.

On first impressions, to most outsiders, Father Dom was simply a warm and spiritually inviting member of the clergy. But, to Finn and the rest of the boys at the home, he was more than just a life’s provider and spiritual leader, he was also their savior, their protector, their guiding father.

The mere thought of Father Dom’s unique method of character building caused Finn’s mind to unintentionally return to one sunny afternoon at Saint Xavier’s, when he had just barely turned eight years old. It was the first time Father Dom locked him inside the smelly, dank, subterranean human crate he referred to as his alter box—appropriately named for altering one’s personality.

“Why, Father Dom? Did I do something wrong?” Finn remembered asking shyly, his eyes lifted upward to see Father Dom’s shadowed face through the thin crack of the wooden door.

“No, my son, you haven’t done anything wrong,” Father Dom replied.

“Are you mad at me, then, Father Dom?” Finn questioned, his lower lip beginning to quiver.

“No, no, my son, I’m not mad at you either,” Father Dom said with a deep pain to his voice. “You’re too young now to understand, but this will be a great benefit to you when you are older.” adding “I have been blessed with the responsibility of guiding you in God’s divine ways, in preparation for a most important, and noble, but extremely dangerous, task that you have been foreordained to endeavor. Together we will build your mental and emotional strength, so you will be skillfully prepared for the task that awaits you. Remember how I taught you to reflect?” Father Dom asked.

Finn nodded his head. “It’s really dark in here, Father Dom!”

“This is your time to reflect, to pray. It will make you strong in so many ways. Your life will depend on this someday, I promise you. When your time comes to leave Saint Xavier’s, you will witness the devil’s work, the evils of this world, and you will be guided on a righteous path. Your time here in the alter box will help you chart that course.”

The sound of the padlock’s shackle being latched before it fell with a hollow thud against the heavy wooden door, was the last thing he remembered hearing for two solid days. Save for Father Dom’s rigid footsteps as they faded through the hollowed subterranean passageway, away from the modified coal bin hidden deep within the crypt of the home’s damp, cold stone building.

Finn would never admit, even to himself, that he was scared. He’d never been alone— really alone—before, and he was beyond confused. Why had Father Dom designed such a scary method to develop and guide him against the evils of the devil? What was this lesson? He didn’t like being in the dark. Even at this early age he believed things could happen in the dark that would never happen in the light.

That was Finn’s first frightful experience in the blackened alter box. Over the next ten years he would spend many more lonely days and nights of imposed reflection in that box. His recollection of it was so vivid that he would pulverize the wooden toothpick lodged in his mouth at the mere thought of being locked in that smelly, damp subterranean abyss.

It left scars, invisible scars, though none deeper than his paralyzing claustrophobia. Now he couldn't sleep without a night light, or with his bedroom door closed.