Excerpt

Blackout

Alex Segura

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Blackout, the latest from Alex Segura to feature his Miami detective Pete Fernandez, and his first prequel to the series, taking place during Pete’s high school days. In the following passage, we meet an intrepid high school newspaper editor facing difficulties with her ex-boyfriend.

Patty Morales turned right off the breezeway and walked toward A200, the student media classroom where the Southwest yearbook and newspaper set up shop. She didn’t like coming in on the weekend, but it meant the office would be quiet and she could get work done. It also got her out of the house, away from her parents. She knew her dad would leave. It was only a matter of when. Her parents fought daily. The arguments never got physical, but the tension and anger permeated everything around the house. Terse exchanges in the morning as the three of them bustled through the kitchen. Snide remarks from her mother as her dad tried to make conversation over a rare family dinner. Tiny fissures in their daily lives that would continue to grow into a bottomless canyon that would swallow them all. Patty knew her mom was difficult. Loud, brash, opinionated. It was what had drawn her father to her when they were first dating, she guessed. That attraction was gone now, replaced by anxiety and resentment, a silent battle fought under the cover of long, painful silences that seemed to stretch for days. It meant her father came home late and left early, if he came home at all.

It was the nights spent elsewhere that sealed it. Patty wasn’t stupid. She lived in the same house with her parents and heard the arguments, even behind closed doors. Patty felt the disdain that festered between them, replacing the warmth and love Patty had once thought immortal. Her father was spending most of his time elsewhere—and while her mother hadn’t discovered a smoking gun in terms of his fidelity, it still had created an irreparable rift between them, and Patty took the brunt of the collateral damage. Yet Patty wasn’t mad at her father. She loved them both and, even at the age of eighteen, understood that life was loaded with large swaths of gray. Her parents weren’t perfect. Neither was Patty.

Patty used the key the media advisor, Mrs. Vazquez, had given her and walked into the classroom. She flipped the lights on and moved toward a bridge-like workstation set up near the back of the room for the newspaper staff’s main editors. She sat in her usual seat and powered up her computer. As she waited for the Mac to awaken, her thoughts returned to her parents. She sighed deeply. Her house seemed forever altered—a place once bursting with memories of Nochebuena celebrations, birthdays, and anniversary parties had become simply the place where Patty slept.

Patty heard her beeper vibrate and grabbed her purse, sliding her hand inside the small brown bag. The pink pager’s thin display revealed a familiar—but unexpected—phone number: Danny Castillo.

From first kiss to drudging conclusion, the totality of their relationship felt more like a slapped-together TV montage than a true romance.

Patty wasn’t sure if she could even count Danny—the tall, brooding Columbus High quarterback—as her ex-boyfriend. It started and ended in a brief and blinding flash of activity. From first kiss to drudging conclusion, the totality of their relationship felt more like a slapped-together TV montage than a true romance. They met at her friend Soraya’s party a few months back. Mild flirting at first. His hand grazing hers as they sat on the long black couch. A lingering look as the conversation lulled to a stop. Shared sips from a lukewarm bottle of Corona. An ironic, awkward dance to Semisonic’s obnoxious earworm “Closing Time” as the host ushered the stragglers out. Then the buzzed, zigzagging drive home, during which he hadn’t tried a thing—no weaving lean-in for a kiss, no clumsy hand in her lap. Ever the gentleman, she mused.

The all-night phone calls started next. After dinner, she’d scurry to her room and close the door, knowing her parents were too caught up in whatever personal turf battle they were waging to think about her. It all seemed so frivolous now. But it had felt to Patty like she and Danny really talked, communicating on a deeper level—not just about school gossip or the music they were listening to or 90210-type bullshit, but things that felt substantial: what he wanted to do with his life, college, his family.

It seemed like a relationship, Patty thought, as she dropped the beeper into her purse and wheeled the creaky chair back toward the screen. She wasn’t exactly super-experienced when it came to dating, having spent her high school years thinking about college and doing the things that would get her there. Patty wanted an Ivy League school, but she’d settle for anything that guaranteed her ample distance from the sweltering summers and family drama of Miami.

They’d gone on dates, they’d hung out with his friends, and spent time together at his house while his parents were away. Not timetime, but they did stuff. More stuff than Patty had done before. The bristle of stubble against her cheek, his hungry mouth on hers, the heat that seemed to radiate from him. It had all been new, passionate, and special. It made Patty wonder whether the heat and her parents’ problems were good enough reasons to leave Miami, if Danny was going to stay.

The first doubt crept up on her like a toothache, more overt and bothersome as time passed.

The first doubt crept up on her like a toothache, more overt and bothersome as time passed. He’d invited her to go to church with him to some off-the-grid congregation she’d never heard of. Patty wasn’t religious, but she was Cuban, and that meant she was Catholic. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been to a church service except for Christmas Eve, Easter, or a funeral. It wasn’t part of her routine.

The church—or, God, in some form—had become a significant part of her father’s life, though. From what little she picked up from the wall between the rooms, she knew her father spent his time away from home doing something spiritual, which her mom did not approve of or think much of. She still worried her father was having an affair, but there was little evidence to back that up. The truth—that her mild-mannered, humble father had strayed from his wife to embrace God—was much more bizarre to Patty than an extramarital indiscretion.

With all that background noise going on at home, Patty didn’t have room for much more. So, she passed on Danny’s church outing and he seemed okay at first. Easy. Patty had enough to worry about, anyway, what with her entire home life crumbling before her eyes. She thought that’d be the end of it. It was—but not in the way she’d envisioned.

She opened PageMaker to mock up the next edition of The Lancer, Southwest’s somewhat monthly newspaper. She was the editor-in-chief, a fancy title that just meant she was stuck finishing up the things the editorial staff didn’t get to: copyediting stories, writing headlines, making sure the final proofs were delivered to the printer, and, on release days, lugging and dropping off stacks of newspapers to classrooms before school started. But she loved the work and enjoyed her staff—most of them, anyway.

Thinking about the newspaper’s core editors—news, sports, features, opinion, and arts—pulled her mind back to Pete Fernandez. She liked him. Not like-liked, because that spark just wasn’t there, but he was funny, smart, and focused when he wanted to be. He could have made a case for himself to be editor of the paper, but for whatever reason, he didn’t—allowing Patty to take over, unopposed. Not a bad guy, even if he’d made stupid decisions.

The prom thing had been strange, but not all that surprising. Patty could tell that Pete had the crush of crushes on her. The mixtapes slipped into her locker, how he’d turn away when she’d catch him staring in class. The occasional, not-so-surprise run-ins between periods. He was a sweet guy, but Patty wasn’t attracted to him. Didn’t dream of him as she doodled in her notebook or as she listened to the tapes he made her—which were a little heavy on the Beatles and Billy Joel and thick in terms of the message he was trying to send. He was her friend, and she was sad they’d graduate and part ways before they could become closer.

“It’s for the best,” she said to herself as she sent the double-page interior spread to print. It was a forward-looking piece on graduation, with updates on who’d been accepted where and some quotes from notable “student leaders” about how much they’d miss the purple-and-white building that made up Southwest Miami High.

Her beeper buzzed again and Patty groaned. What the hell did Danny want? It’d been almost a month since she’d broken it off and he’d seemed more than happy to never talk to her. Another buzz. The first message was Danny’s number, the next said 911. Emergency. Patty picked up the phone next to her computer. She dialed 9 to get an open line and then Danny’s home phone number, from memory. It rang once before he picked up.

“Hey.”

“Hi,” Patty said. “What’s up? You beeped me 911?”

“Yeah, I need to talk to you,” he said, his voice drowsy like he’d just woken up from a long nap. “I need to see you.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. I’m busy.”

“At the paper?”

Patty didn’t answer.

“I can come pick you up,” he said. “I have stuff to talk about. Big stuff. It’s important.”

She pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes. Be strong.

“Look, Danny, no,” she said. “I have shit to do and I haven’t heard from you in weeks. You didn’t even respond when I left you a voicemail about that cop—who, I swear, has been showing up all over the place. It’s creeping me out. So, yeah, I get it. We’re not friends. Which is fine. I told you I needed space, but you can’t have it both ways, okay?”

She heard him starting to respond as she hung up. But she put the receiver down firmly. She was done with the drama. The cojones on this guy, using 911 like that. She’d been worried for a second. Patty went back to work.

***

Patty finished up later than expected, but she felt satisfied. The sections were laid out and edited—only missing a game story on that night’s girls’ swim meet. Ryan would have the recap written in the morning and then Patty would figure out how to get the proofs to the printer so they could have the paper out by Tuesday. Not bad, Morales. Not bad.

She shut down her computer and grabbed her purse, looking around the large classroom to see if she’d forgotten anything or if she had to bring anything home. She grabbed a large binder from Mrs. Vazquez’s desk. It contained the proofs for the upcoming 1998 yearbook. The editor of the book, Hannah Aclin, a girl that Patty didn’t know well but was friendly with, had asked her to give the pages a once-over for style and consistency. She’d work on it tonight. Patty locked up behind her and walked down upper A wing, away from the breezeway. She didn’t hear the footsteps until she’d reached the middle of the hall, close to Mrs. Dymond’s classroom, where she took AP English. The steps seemed slow and hesitant, the person unsure they wanted to be seen. Creeped out, Patty turned around quickly to try to glimpse whoever was behind her. But the hallway was empty, and she felt stupid.

Then she saw it. The body. It was on the landing that separated the first half flight of stairs from the rest, near the school’s south exit.

“Been here too long,” she said. She was right, too. It was almost six and the Miami sun was fading into darkness, an orange smear sinking into a pink sky. She’d just gotten caught up in the work, she thought, and now it was time to go home and see what new spectacle awaited her. She made it to the stairs at the end of the hall. Then she saw it. The body. It was on the landing that separated the first half flight of stairs from the rest, near the school’s south exit. The man was lanky, crumpled and moaning, sounding like a trapped and wounded animal aware its time is up. He had his hands wrapped around his head, knees in his chest in the fetal position as he rocked back and forth. Patty realized she knew who it was, and took the stairs down two at a time to reach Danny Castillo. She didn’t see any injuries, but it seemed like he’d taken a nasty fall. The black-and-blue marks might show up later.

But I didn’t hear anything fall.

She reached for Danny’s shoulder. He hadn’t noticed her yet.

“Danny! Jesus,” she said. “Danny, what happened to you?”

She rolled him over and saw his eyes flutter. The middle of his white Columbus High T-shirt was soaked with a dark, spreading a stain of blood. His anguished sobbing stopped, and he seemed to freeze, his eyes locked on a distant object past Patty.

This can’t be happening.

But now the footsteps she thought she had imagined were back—louder, more confident. As she followed the sound, her eyes drifted down toward the hallway that lead to the first-floor A wing classrooms. That’s when she saw him, looking up at her and the fallen Danny. She let out a relieved sigh.

“Oh, thank God,” she said. “Help—help me with him? We need to get him to a hospital—I think he’s dying.”

__________________________________

From Blackout. Used with the permission of the publisher, Polis Books. Copyright © 2018 by Alex Segura. 




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