Dope smuggling, prostitution and murder preoccupy Sgt. Matt Payne of the Philadelphia PD in the uneven ninth Badge of Honor novel from bestseller Griffin and son Butterworth (after Final Justice). Payne, known as the Wyatt Earp of the Main Line because of his involvement in so many shootings, receives a call from an old pal, Chad Nesbitt, who tells him that a mutual friend, Skipper Olde, is somehow involved in a catastrophic fire. Matt doesn't care about Skipper, but Skipper's girlfriend, whom Matt had a crush on in high school, has been badly burned. Meanwhile, 21-year-old Juan Paulo Delgado, "El Gato," is going about his usual business of pimping, beating and beheading undocumented Mexican women. Sophomoric, jokey dialogue and intrusive author lectures will lead many readers to tire of the whole business long before the evildoer receives his just and expected reward. Author tour. (Aug.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The Traffickers (Badge of Honor Series #9)by W. E. B. Griffin, William E. Butterworth IV
Griffin's popular Badge of Honor police series returns, with a story of murder and lawlessness as compelling as today's headlines. "Griffin's books sell millions. They deserve it!" (Houston Chronicle) See more details below
Griffin's popular Badge of Honor police series returns, with a story of murder and lawlessness as compelling as today's headlines. "Griffin's books sell millions. They deserve it!" (Houston Chronicle)
Read an Excerpt
7522 Battersby Street, Philadelphia Wednesday, September 9, 1:55 A.M.
Tony Harris returned to his bed, silently cursing himself for not having hit the john before he’d crawled under the sheets two hours earlier. Harris—a thirtyeight- year-old homicide detective in the Philadelphia Police Department who was slight of build and starting to bald—then clicked off the lamp on his bedside table. As he put his head on his pillow and sighed, wondering when—or even if—he’d start to drift off back to sleep, a monstrous BOOM shook the house. It reverberated through the darkened room, knocking loose a picture frame from the wall, its glass breaking when it hit the floor.
“Holy shit!” he said aloud, sitting bolt upright and clicking on the lamp. He looked toward the front window.
What in hell was that?
Did a damn gas leak just blow up the middle school?
Austin Meehan Middle School was a half-block down the tree-lined residential street.
Harris quickly got out of bed, crossed the room, and pulled back the curtain to look out the window. On either side of Battersby, the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood had a series of nearly identical, neatly kept comfortable two-story brick duplexes with large lawns. The homes—some of which now with their lights flicking on—had stone façades on the front and garages in the rear, on a common alleyway. Because Harris’s garage served more as a storage unit than a car park, he left his city-issued Ford Crown Victoria sitting at the curb in front of his house.
It took Harris no time to locate the direction of the source: In the sky some blocks to the east, he saw a bright glow that he recognized as that from an intense fire.
Maybe a gas station on Frankford went up? he wondered as he automatically started picking up his clothes from the chair where he’d tossed them at midnight. He quickly pulled on his wrinkled pants and short-sleeved knit shirt, then slipped on socks and shoes. He watched as the glow from the fire seemed to pulse even brighter, as if the fire were being fed more fuel. “Jesus!” he said aloud.
Harris double-checked that he had his wallet and badge and pistol, then ran down the stairs as fast as he dared and out the door.
He drove the Crown Vic up Battersby, turning right onto Ryan Avenue, then followed it the seven blocks to Frankford Avenue, where Harris could clearly see that the intense glow was to the south. He was about to make the turn when he heard the wail of sirens—and then the huge horns blaring—of two fire department emergency medical vehicles. The red-and-white ambulances flew up on the intersection, braked heavily as they lay steadily on their horns, then accelerated through it.
Harris checked for any other vehicles headed for the intersection. He saw that it was clear and turned to follow the ambulances.
As he went south on Frankford, the sky became a brighter orange-red mingled with black and gray smoke. And then, down on the left side of the street, he saw the first of the flames. They were coming from the back of the Philly Inn, an aging two-story motel that had been built long before Anthony J. Harris had been born at Saint Joseph’s Hospital.
He pulled into a parking lot to the north of the motel, to where he had a better view of all the activity. He also enjoyed more than a little of an olfactory assault from the awful smell filling the air and now entering the car via the dash vents.
That’s the smell of burning wood, for sure, and plastics. But I’d bet that’s also a bit of human flesh . . . you can damn near taste it.
Philadelphia Fire Department Engine 36, from the station just up Frankford, already was on the scene. It had hoses snaking everywhere and the firefighters were laying down an impressive amount of water. Other firemen were going door to door, methodically clearing the motel’s rooms and herding what people they found inside to a parking lot to the south. Doors that no one answered were busted open with twenty-eight-pound metal battering rams and the hammer-headed pry bars called Halligans.
The pair of ambulances that had flown past Harris at the intersection were parked close by, their paramedics pulling out equipment—first-aid kits, backboards—with a well-practiced efficiency. A minute or so later, Engine 38 came roaring in from its station a mile away on Old State Road—followed by an articulated ladder fire truck, which Harris thought a bit of overkill for a lowly two-story structure.
But, hell. Can’t blame them.
Everyone loves a little adrenaline rush, especially these guys getting to play with all their toys.
And this damn fire seems to offer plenty of excitement.
It’s got my pulse beating. No way I could go back to sleep now.
Harris noted that the Philadelphia Police Department was well represented, too. Cruisers practically surrounded the place. There was even a flatbed wrecker from the Tow Squad, which was being waved toward the back of the motel. Harris looked to where the wrecker was being routed and saw a half-dozen firefighters working feverishly at an SUV. It was on the backside of the motel, at a room with its door blown outward, where the flames appeared to be the hottest.
And where the blast took place.
The firemen were in the middle of a row of vehicles parked outside the motel rooms, and were inserting a heavy fire-resistant blanket in through the framework that once held the SUV’s front windshield.
The wrecker raced up to the back bumper of the SUV, and a heavy-linked stainless-steel chain was quickly slung from the SUV’s bumper to a tow hook bolted on the front frame of the wrecker.
The driver ground the gearshift into reverse and carefully took up the slack in the chain. At a firefighter’s rapid hand signals and shouts of “Go! Fuckin’ go, go, go!” the diesel engine then roared and the wrecker started tugging the SUV away from the fire.
The wrecker didn’t slow until it had slid the SUV practically in front of Harris’s Crown Vic, leaving a trail of black tire marks across the parking lot.
That’s one of those really fancy Mercedes-Benz SUVs.
What the hell is it doing here?
And how the hell is it connected to that explosion?
There’s absolutely no question it has to be. . . .
One of the emergency medical vehicles then pulled alongside the passenger side of the SUV. Floodlights mounted on the side of the unit were switched on, brightly illuminating the SUV. Two firefighters almost instantly appeared, carrying a heavy metal device with hydraulically powered pincers that Harris recognized as the Jaws of Life. The rescue tool proceeded to cut the right side of the Mercedes to pieces as other rescuers worked feverishly from inside the left-side doors to stabilize whoever was unlucky enough to be in the vehicle. There suddenly was more shouting at the motel, and when Harris turned his attention to it he saw the impossible—a man on fire came staggering out of the motel room that had the blown-outward door.
One fireman rushed to the man. As he tackled him to smother the fire, a fire hose was trained on the both of them, instantly flooding the flames. Then the fireman stood and seemingly effortlessly slung the man over his shoulder. He ran with him—slipping twice—to the second ambulance, where the paramedics waited, ready to go to work.
Forty-five minutes later, twenty minutes after the motel fire had been brought under control if not put out, Harris watched the emergency medical personnel remove from the SUV someone they’d strapped to a rescue backboard. The victim looked to Harris to be a young woman. She had IV hoses dangling from her arm and wore an oxygen mask. Five minutes later, the doors of the ambulance slammed shut, and its siren wailed as the unit began to roll. As if on cue, the other ambulance did the same only a minute later.
Harris scanned the motel and saw that the firemen were putting what Harris thought of as their toys back in their trucks. And he saw that the yellow and black police line—do not cross tape was being strung up, signifying the scene was being turned over to the police.
Well, now that all the excitement’s over, Harris thought, reaching for the door handle, professional curiosity overwhelms me.
The Philly Inn
7004 Frankford Avenue, Philadelphia Wednesday, September 9, 1:15 A.M.
Forty minutes earlier, Becca Benjamin, despite having to wait in her silver Mercedes-Benz G550 at the back of a lousy Northeast Philly motel, had just reminded herself that she could not believe how much her luck had changed. Becca—a trendy twenty-five-year-old brunette with olive skin who was five-foot-seven and just under 140 pounds, having recently started winning her battles to keep the bathroom scale from tipping 150—not only had reconnected with her prep school boyfriend two months earlier but they had found that they still enjoyed what first had brought them together: partying, mostly booze-fueled but with the occasional recreational drug.
They had first dated nine years ago when in the Upper School at Episcopal Academy. She had been a voluptuous sixteen-year-old in IV Form (tenth grade) and J. Warren Olde, known as “Skipper,” then eighteen and in VI Form (senior year), had begun flirting with her in the back row of an International Politics class. He was taking it for the second time, having yet to meet even the lowest threshold of the academic standards for passing the required course.
Skipper had a slender athletic build—he was a star player on the academy’s championship lacrosse team, a midfielder who seemed to float effortlessly from one end of the 110-yard field to the other—and stood five-ten. His sandy hair was cut to his collar, with long bangs that he regularly swept out of his eyes. He was genuinely gregarious, quick with a laugh. And Becca, herself outgoing, had been immediately taken by his attentions.
Their relationship had lasted, though, only until the end of the school year. It had been a wild ride—literally—as an inebriated Skipper, driving Becca home after a graduation party, had misjudged a Dam View Road curve—actually wound up going down an estate’s driveway at a high rate of speed—and put his little Audi in Springton Reservoir. Becca wound up with a broken collarbone and a trip to the Riddle Memorial Hospital emergency room in Media.
The Benjamins and Oldes—both families of significant means and, accordingly, connections with which they arranged to get the incident forgotten in the legal system, if not in their own tony community—were not amused. His parents declared Becca a wild child, albeit one in a woman’s body, while her parents deemed the older boy a bad influence, unfit for their impressionable sweet sixteen-year-old—and thus absolutely off-limits.
Neither Becca nor Skipper was thrilled about the forced separation. But then, while Skipper’s angry old man was still dealing with the lawyers and having the sports car fished from the reservoir, Skipper’s mother had sent him off early to the small private university he’d been set to attend in Texas—her alma mater in her hometown of Dallas. And so neither teenager had been prepared to fight the inevitable. They’d agreed to stay in touch, but even that turned out to be short-lived. They simply lost contact.
Then, two months ago, at a Fourth of July party on the Jersey shore thrown by a mutual friend from their prep school days, they’d run into each other. Becca had first noticed Skipper—who’d been standing beside the beer keg cooler on the beach—mostly because he wore, in addition to flowery Hawaiianstyle surfer shorts and aviator-style sunglasses, a frayed straw cowboy hat and a white T-shirt emblazoned with a running red horse and block lettering that read s.m.u. mustangs lacrosse.
They had found that their outsized personalities were still in sync—with their appetites somewhat matured—and they damned near immediately picked up where they’d left off years before.
The party was back on.
Now Becca sat in the front passenger seat of the boxy Mercedes SUV; she’d had Skipper drive because she’d been shaking too much from the drugs. She hated that downside, which included her being stressed, as she was now. But she told herself there was no question that the upside’s euphoria was worth it, not to mention the added benefit of a killed appetite that helped her finally lose—and keep off—those damned ten-plus pounds.
Despite the night, she stared through dark bug-eyed sunglasses at the motel door to Room 52. Then she punched the map light switch in order to read her wristwatch. The white-platinum diamond-bezel Audemars Piguet had cost her parents more than most of the battered work trucks and cars parked near the Mercedes were worth, never mind the six-figure sticker of the SUV itself. Her arm twitched a little, but she could tell by the position of the watch’s hands—there were no numbers, just four dots of diamonds, twinkling in the map light, to represent the 3, 6, 9, and 12 on the face—that it now was just after one-fifteen.
Her hands and feet were cold—another side effect from the drug—so she sat with her feet tucked under her thighs, her arms crossed, with her hands resting and warming in her armpits. She wore cream-colored linen shorts and a tan silk blouse that was cut low in the front, revealing her ample bosom, which now was rising and falling more rapidly than normal.
He’s been in there fifteen minutes.
He said it’d take only one: “In and out, baby.”
What’s taking so long?
Is he okay?
Should I go in?
Hell no, I shouldn’t go in—who knows who’s in there?—and I sure as hell don’t want to go in that fleabag room.
But what if he’s not okay?
Her cellular phone, resting on her lap, simultaneously vibrated briefly and made a ping sound, announcing the receipt of a text message. “Damn!” she said, startled. It caused her to uncross her arms and kick out her feet.
She quickly glanced at the phone’s screen, thinking the text might be from Skipper. She saw—barely, as her sleep-deprived eyes had trouble focusing on the backlit small print—that it was from her girlfriend Casey, who was asking where r u??
Becca threw the phone onto the leather-covered console between the front seats and sighed loudly.
She looked back at the motel door, wondering if she should shoot Skipper a text message. Maybe something along the lines of WTF???
Yeah, Skipper—What The Fuck?
The only movement she saw was from the motel room curtain, which was pulled closed over the open window and gently swaying, as if being blown by a breeze.
She crossed her arms and tucked her feet back under her and closed her eyes. After a while, she glanced at her watch again.
That’s it. I’m going in there.
She had just clicked off the map light and reached for and found the button that would release her seat belt when the door of Room 52 swung open. Out came Skipper Olde, holding a white handkerchief over his nose and mouth. Olde wore a baggy navy blue T-shirt, khaki shorts, and sandals, and his aviator sunglasses hung from the front of the collar of his T-shirt. At twenty-seven, he still had his athletic slender build and his sandy hair collar-length, but no bangs, as he was thinning noticeably on top.
He pulled the motel door shut, then stuffed the handkerchief in his pants pocket. He glanced at the Mercedes, and Becca saw him flash his usual happy-go-lucky grin at her.
He quickly walked to the driver’s door of the SUV and got in. She then hit the button that simultaneously locked all the doors.
“What happened?” Becca said softly. “I was worried. I was just about to come after you.”
“Sorry, baby. They were having a little trouble in there.” He reached into his T-shirt pocket and pulled out a white plastic bag, heat-sealed at each end, that was about the size of a single-serving sugar packet. “I should’ve brought this out to you first, then helped them.”
She pulled the bug-eyed sunglasses from her face and slipped them up on the top of her head.
Skipper Olde placed the white bag beside her cellular phone on the leathercovered console. She looked at it, then at Skipper, then nervously glanced out the darkened side windows, then the rear ones, to see if anyone was watching them.
“Go on,” he said, smiling. “It’s yours.”
She smiled back weakly, then leaned over in her seat and kissed him quickly on the cheek.
“Thank you,” she said, picking up the packet, then biting off a corner and removing the cut stub of a plastic drinking straw from it. She looked at Skipper. “What about you?”
He looked a little embarrassed, then nodded toward the motel room. “I had a bump when I first went in. And there’s more cooking. That’s what they were having trouble with.”
He nodded at the pouch she held and said encouragingly, “Go on, baby. It’ll take your edge off.”
She smiled slyly and said, “You don’t have to tell me twice.”
Becca Benjamin—who at age fourteen had been the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s top Girl Scout cookie salesgirl, which she later listed under accomplishments on her University of Pennsylvania application to the Wharton School’s master of business administration program—straightened herself upright in her seat. With the effortlessness of one who’d had some practice, she cupped the white packet with her hand so that it could not be seen, then took the straw stub and slipped an end in the hole she’d bitten, then placed the other end halfway up her right nostril. She pinched her left nostril closed and snorted.
“Shit, that burns!” she said after a moment, vigorously rubbing the outside of her right nostril after removing the straw.
But Skipper saw that she was smiling.
He also saw that all of the off-white powder had not been fully ingested. Some, mixed with mucus, was trickling toward her upper lip. With a fingertip, he wiped it from there, then licked it off his finger and grinned at her. She shook her head in mock disgust.
His cellular phone rang, and when he looked at its screen, he said, “Damn!” then answered it by saying, “Sorry. Running late. Give me ten minutes. It’s still in the office safe.” He listened for a moment, added, “No, no, I want you to have it before Becca and I leave town,” then hung up without another word. He put the phone on the center console.
“I need to go inside and put together some more,” Olde said as he opened the driver’s door. He looked back in at her, said, “I’ll be right back, baby. Promise.”
She held up her left index finger and said, “Wait a sec.”
She then snorted through the straw again, working it around the packet as she did so. Then she held out both to him. “Don’t need this empty bag in my car.”
Wordlessly, he took it and the straw, then got out and closed the door. Becca hit the master locking button for the doors as she watched him go into the room. The motel lights hurt her dilated eyes, and she pulled the sunglasses from her hair and slid them back over her eyes.
Skipper’s cellular phone started ringing again. She grabbed it, then held down the button on top labeled “0/1,” turning it off. Then she reached for the switch on the door that manipulated her seat’s position, reclined the seat back almost flat, and lay back while enjoying the sudden pleasant flood of warmth that the methamphetamine triggered by tricking her brain into creating the chemical dopamine in overdrive.
The Philly Inn
7004 Frankford Avenue, Philadelphia Wednesday, September 9, 1:40 A.M.
Skipper Olde unlocked and entered the motel room, which had the cat piss stench of ammonia and stank of other caustic odors. He put the handkerchief back to his face and quickly stepped around a heavy cardboard box that had been moved by the door. Then, tripping over the coil of clear surgical tubing next to it, he let loose with a long, creative string of expletives.
That caused the two Hispanic males in their twenties at the stove of the kitchenette in the back of the room to laugh from behind the blue bandannas tied over their noses and mouths.
And that in turn caused Skipper to bark, “Fuck you two and the cocksucking donkey you rode in on!”
Then he laughed, too.
The pair grunted and shook their heads, then turned their attention back to the stove.
Olde—stepping past the box fan with its switch set to high to help the window unit circulate the air, and causing the tan curtain to sway—looked around in an attempt to find an obvious path to follow to the kitchenette. It wasn’t that the motel room was small. The problem was that the room was packed, to the ceiling in places, with boxes and barrels and assorted materials. It was what could be described as a haphazard-warehouse-slash-makeshiftassembly- line.
The Philly Inn’s management advertised the facility as modern. But in fact it had been built more than fifty years earlier and was an older two-floor design—“low-rise,” its advertisements called it, playing on the nicer image that tended to come to mind with the term “high-rise.” It was of masonry construction, each of the 120 rooms basically an off-white rectangular box with a burgundy-painted steel door opening to the outside, a plate-glass window (with tan curtain) overlooking the parking lot, and, under the window, an air-conditioning unit.
In its heyday, the Philly Inn had served as short-term, affordable lodging for traveling salesmen who used it as their base on U.S. Highway 13—which was what Frankford was also designated—and for families who took their vacations in Philadelphia, enjoying the historic sites and museums in the city, and the entertainment of the various themed amusement parks nearby.
Each large room—all identical and advertised as “a De-Luxe Double Guest Room”—had a thirty-two-inch TV on the four-drawer dresser, a round Formica-topped table with four wooden chairs, two full-size beds separated by a bedside table with lamp and telephone (though the phones mostly went untouched, as an additional cash deposit up front was required to make local and long-distance calls). The mosaic-tiled bathroom held a water closet and a tub-shower combination. And taking up all of the far back wall was an ample kitchenette with a three-burner electric stove and oven, a single sink, a full-size refrigerator, and a small countertop microwave oven secured to the wall with a steel strap so that it might not accidentally wind up leaving with a guest at checkout.
Depending on one’s perspective, the Philly Inn wasn’t exactly seedy. Skipper Olde himself had spent the night there more than a few times, though it had been mostly out of necessity, as he’d been far from sober enough to drive. But it damn sure was sliding toward sleazy. It had long ago lost the steady business of the salesmen and families on holiday to the shiny new chain hotels nearer Philadelphia’s Northeast Airport, mere miles to the north, and on Interstate 95.
Now the Philly Inn had an entirely different demographic of guests, ones who tended to stay more long-term. The motel had become temporary housing for those who needed some really cheap—but livable—place to stay during the period, say, after having sold their row house and not yet able to move into the next one, or while waiting for family members or friends who were receiving medical treatment at the many nearby hospitals, such as Nazareth, Friends, Temple University, even the Shriners for Children.
The Philly Inn’s posted rack rate was still the same seventy-five dollars a night that it had been for at least the last decade. It was, however, not unheard of for management to agree to a negotiated rate of as little as twenty-five bucks a night, even less for those staying thirty days or longer and paying—usually with cash—each week in advance.
There still were quite a few couples or families staying as guests for days or even as long as a week. But there were many more long-termers. These latter ones were mostly transient laborers, men working in construction—you could tell them by all their pickups in the parking lot late at night—and other seasonal work, such as mowing the countless lawns of suburban offices and homes, and harvesting the fruits and vegetables of the farms nearby and the ones across the river in New Jersey.
The motel management was as conscientious as it could be about keeping some separation between the workers and the families, assigning rooms to each in their own part of the motel and leaving vacant rooms between as a buffer. But as far as the owner of the property was concerned, none of that really mattered. The reality was that the Philly Inn’s days were numbered. Its demise was inevitable, and about the only real reason the damn place had not been boarded up—or torn down completely—was that it could be made to show a profit. Enough to cover the bills, from its utilities to the assorted taxes levied upon it, which was not the same thing as saying that the motel did in fact earn a profit.
Its owner—Skipper Properties LLC, of which one J. Warren Olde, Jr., served as managing principal—had bought the place in a deal that included two other aged motels and a string of laundromats.
Skipper Properties LLC already had plans drawn up to build fashionable condominiums on the ten acres of land presently occupied by the Philly Inn. Being a self-proclaimed civic-minded company, Skipper Properties LLC was trying to jump-start a gentrification of the area. It was arguably mere coincidence that the company had also quietly bought up nearby parcels, including practically stealing a strip shopping center, to flip later at a huge profit.
Skipper Properties LLC announced that this so-called jump start would take place just as soon as His Honor the Mayor of Philadelphia convinced the goddamned lamebrain city council to come to its senses and grant said civicminded Skipper Properties LLC the “fair and just” tax abatement and other incentives that had been requested so as to make such a project viable—which was to say profitable—and build a more beautiful city.
There were secondary reasons that Skipper Olde was in no hurry to tear down the place—ones he certainly was not in the habit of sharing freely. Chief among these was that the inn was a mostly cash business now, and books were easily cooked when a lot of cash was involved. Also, most of the laborers living at the inn and at the two other aged motels the LLC had bought earned that cash by laboring for companies that were more or less indirectly controlled by Skipper Olde. Though, again, with Skipper not sharing such information freely, particularly with his silent partner-investor, and keeping those connections at arm’s length, few knew many, if any, of those details.
So, as far as Skipper Olde was concerned, the how and why of that, if shared with others, would only create problems for him. The bottom line was that the various companies had plenty of work for the laborers, and the laborers were ready and willing to do it—and for low wages. But they could not do so if they had no place they could afford to live on a semipermanent basis. Thus, the Philly Inn—the vote of the damned Philadelphia city council notwithstanding—was worth more standing as-is than demolished. For the time being.
Skipper Olde began blazing a path through Room 52 by pushing aside a stack of cardboard boxes—one box was labeled 4 ROLLS POLY TUBING, ALL-VIRGIN FILM, USDA- AND FDA-APPROVED, 2-MIL 1-IN X 1,500-FT, the other BUN-O-MATIC COFFEE FILTERS—ONE (1) GROSS.
As he squeezed past a short wall of more than a dozen boxes stacked three and four high, some imprinted with LEVITTOWN POOL & SPA SUPPLY. handle with extreme care! HYDROCHLORIC ACID. 2 1-GAL BOTTLES, THE WALL WOBBLED.
He called out to the pair standing at the kitchenette stove: “Hey, you amigos need to move these. If this fucking muriatic acid spills, it’ll eat you to the bone!”
He pointed to two plastic orange jugs, at the foot of the beds, that were stenciled in black ink hypophosphorous acid. hazardous! use only in well-ventilated area!
“Same with that shit!” he added.
Then he worked his way around the stacks of clear plastic storage bins containing various boxes of single-edge utility razor blades, some plastic gallon jugs of iodine, and heavy polymer boxes of lye.
At least that caustic soda is safe in those thick plastic boxes.
One clear plastic storage bin held gallon cans of Coleman fuel, refined for use in camping stoves and lanterns. Yet another was filled with ten or so smaller tubs of white pellets, hundreds of pills per tub, on top of which was a commercial-grade stainless-steel blender coated in the white dust of the pellets. And, beside a home-office paper shredder, which was overflowing with confetti, was a pile of opened plastic blister packs common for holding individual doses of medication.
When Olde reached the kitchenette, he wasn’t surprised to see that one burner of the electric stove was still in pieces—the crusty coil cracked in at least three places—as the damage had been done by his hand when he’d tried getting it to work during his earlier visit to the room.
The other two burners each now held a large nonstick skillet and clearly were working just fine. Not only was the milky fluid in each at a fast boil— giving off a remarkable mist that floated up and hung heavily over the stove— but the thermometers clipped to the lip of each pan indicated a temperature of 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
The two Hispanic males, both wearing blue rubber gloves, now paid Olde no attention. They carefully poured a honey-yellow fluid from a square Pyrex glass baking dish into a paper coffee filter that had been placed over the mouth of a Mason jar.
There was a line of the heavy glass jars, ones with lids screwed on. These contained various colored fluids at different stages of a separation process, with solids settling to the bottom and the fluids rising to the top. After filtering the honey-colored fluid and spinning on a lid, the Hispanic males then methodically went about measuring and adding fluids to the various other jars, then resealing and shaking them, then letting them settle and cool, then using the surgical tubing to siphon off the top fluids.
Skipper Olde walked over to the folding table that had been positioned beside the stove. It had been set up as an assembly station. On it was a plastic bowl containing some partially crumbled whitish cakes and a plastic measuring spoon imprinted with “1 tbspn” on the handle. Next to that was a one-foot-square glass mirror that had some residue of the whitish powder on it, an electronic scale with a digital readout in ounces and grams, a package of the single-edged razor blades, and a quart-size plastic jar of methylsulfonyfoylmethane—labeled “MSM dietary supplement.” And there was an unwrapped spool of the flat plastic tubing, right next to which was the wandlike iron that first snipped the tubing into single-serving-size packets, then was used to heat-seal them closed.
Skipper Olde smiled. When he’d been in the room earlier, there had been nothing in the plastic bowl on the folding table. Now he was in business. He pulled one of the wooden chairs to the table, then with the measuring spoon scooped up some of the crumbled cake from the bowl and put it on the mirror. Using a razor blade held by a ten-inch-long polymer handle, he quickly chopped at the powder, turning what little clumps and chunks there were into a fine powder.
He then bypassed the usual next step—mixing in the MSM to cut the pure meth, then measuring out “eight balls,” exact portions of one-eighth ounce, each bringing these days $200 “retail” on the street. Instead, he used the razor blade to shovel the neat pile of powder—easily a half-ounce—into a white packet he’d snipped from the roll of plastic tubing. He then sealed that packet shut and repeated the process, filling three more and putting them in his pocket. That’s about two ounces, he thought, then grinned. Uncut, an easy fifty Franklins. But I hope the bastard’s got something smaller than all hundreds, even though they’re easier to carry than bricks of twenties.
Skipper Olde then got up and walked over to the two Hispanic males. Olde glanced at the broken coil on the stove.
“One last try,” he announced, which earned him dubious looks from the Hispanic males.
He turned the dial that controlled the burner’s temperature, setting it to low so that in the event he was successful he wouldn’t burn the shit out of his fingers. Then he grasped the cracked coil and jiggered it, pulling its plug end from the receptacle on the stovetop, then reinserting it, then jiggering it again with more gusto.
“Fuck it,” he finally said, frustrated. He smacked the coil, breaking it in pieces. “One of you go get one from another room’s stove.”
Then he nodded at the bathroom.
“I’m hitting the baño and then it’s adios, pendejos!”
As Skipper Olde entered the bathroom, a crackling sound came from the plug receptacle of the broken coil on the stove, followed by an enormous electrical spark.
The spark immediately met the rising mist of phosphine gas that was being released by the overheated hypophosphorous acid in the milky fluid of the pans. And that instantly triggered an intense explosion—making Skipper Olde’s declaration of “Goodbye, assholes” profoundly prophetic.
At almost the same time, Becca Benjamin, feeling flush from her quickened heart rate, was enjoying the warmth coursing through all parts of her body. With the meth heightening her urges, she’d been entertaining the thought of a nice romp with Skipper in her Center City luxury loft overlooking the Delaware River—Or maybe right here right now in the backseat—and gently stroked herself through the front of her cream-colored linen shorts.
Let’s go, Skip.
She glanced at her watch.
She pushed the lever on the door that caused her seat back to begin returning upright. Then, as the motel window came into view, there was suddenly a horrific blinding flash, followed immediately by the plate glass exploding outward and a concussion that rocked the box-shaped Mercedes.
In what seemed like a dream, Becca felt the vehicle shake violently, then watched the windshield go from clear to crazed as shards of plate glass struck it, and then felt the crushing sensation of the windshield, blown free of its frame, as it pushed her against the seat back with such force that the seat back flopped back with her to the reclined position.
And then her world went black.
The explosion had triggered the vehicle’s alarm system and, as the chemicalfueled flames from the motel room roared and there came the thuuum! thuuum! thuuum! sounds of the secondary smaller explosions that were the cans of Coleman fuel cooking off one after another, the horn of the Mercedes bleated its steady warning.
Delaware Cancer Society Building, Fourth Floor Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia Wednesday, September 9, 4:46 A.M.
“Oh shit,” Matt Payne muttered as he put down the stainless-steel thermos. Payne, a twenty-seven-year-old with dark intelligent eyes and conservatively cut dark thick hair, was sitting—shirtless, wearing only boxer shorts on his lithely muscled six-foot, 170-pound frame—at the notebook computer on the desk of his Center City apartment. He stared at his cellular telephone, which had caused him to utter the obscenity. It was vibrating and, on its color LCD screen, flashing: soup king—1 call today @ 0446.
Not good, he thought.
With his body clock still not reset to local time after his return from France, Payne had been up since four and, counting the last drops from the thermos, drunk five cups of coffee.
Near the computer were a pair of heavy china mugs. The one that actually held coffee was navy blue with a crest outlined in gold that had gold lettering reading philadelphia police and honor integrity service and, above the crest, in gold block letters, DETECTIVE MATTHEW M. PAYNE. The other cup— with a chip on its lip, and holding pens and pencils—was black and emblazoned with the representation of a patch. The center of the patch had the likeness of the downtown Philadelphia skyline, complete to a statue of William Penn atop City Hall, behind which stood a black-caped Grim Reaper with a golden scythe. Circling this scene was, in gold, the legend philadelphia police homicide division.
Sergeant Payne, Matthew M., Badge Number 471, Philadelphia Police Department, was in fact on leave from the department in general and its homicide unit in particular.
That Matt’s relationship with the Philly PD—with police work—had created a quandary for him was one hell of an understatement.
On one hand, being a cop was in his blood; his family had a long history with the cops. A long and tragic history. When Matt was still in the womb, his natural father had been killed in the line of duty. Badge 471—assigned to him only recently—had belonged to Sergeant John Francis Xavier Moffitt when he’d been shot dead while answering a silent burglar alarm. And, five years ago, Matt’s uncle, his father’s brother—Captain Richard C. “Dutch” Moffitt, commanding officer of the Philadelphia Police Department’s elite Highway Patrol— had been off-duty at the Waikiki Diner on Roosevelt Boulevard when a drug addict tried robbing it. Dutch was killed when he thought he could talk the hopped-up punk into handing over the .22-caliber pistol.
Yet, on the other hand, Matt had been indisputably raised in a life of privilege. Fact was, he did not have to work at a job—and certainly not risking his life as a cop—thanks to an investment program established for him at age three. It had made him a very wealthy young man, and for that he could thank the man who’d adopted him.
Following the death of Matt’s natural father, his mother had had to find employment, and after taking classes she’d become, with some effort, an assistant at Lowerie, Tant, Foster, Pedigill, & Payne, one of Philly’s top legal firms. Soon after, the young and attractive Patricia Moffitt came to meet Brewster Cortland Payne II, son of the firm’s founding partner. “Brew” had recently become a widower, one with two infants, his wife having died in an automobile accident on the way home from their Pocono Mountains summer place. One thing led to another with Patricia, and Brewster Payne had then felt it necessary to leave the firm to start his own, particularly after his father expressed his displeasure of “that gold-digging Irish trollop” by boycotting their wedding. The union of Patricia and Brewster produced another child, a girl they named Amelia. It was not long thereafter that Brew approached his wife with a request to adopt young Matt, whom he loved as his very own flesh and blood. Matthew Mark Payne had grown up on a four-acre estate on the uppercrust Main Line, attended prep school, and from there went on to the Ivy League, graduating summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania. And, accordingly, it was more or less expected, certainly reasonably so, that Matt would go on to law school, and from there very likely join the prestigious Philadelphia law firm of Mawson, Payne, Stockton, McAdoo & Lester. Matt, however, had felt the pull of service to his country, and went out for the United States Marine Corps. Yet when he’d failed the Corps’s precommissioning physical examination—thanks to a quirky complication of his vision one no one knew he suffered from, nor had cared about since—everyone then was convinced that the writing was on the wall: He’d now simply go back to school.
Everyone but Matt, who confounded them all by taking, just after his Uncle Dutch had been killed, the civil service exam for entry into the police department.
Matt’s passing the exam shocked no one—he was as far as anyone knew the first, very possibly the only, summa cum laude university graduate to apply to the department—but many were surprised at his passing muster during his thirty-week stint in the demanding Police Academy.
And that had really worried more than a few, because there was talk that the only reasons he’d joined the cops was to prove his manhood—failing to make it into the Marines had damaged more than a little pride—and to avenge the deaths of his natural father and uncle. And, further, behind the worry was the genuine fear that not only would walking a police beat leave Matt, the product of such a privileged background, less than satisfied, it damn well could leave him hurt, or dead.
One such person who’d shared this fear was then–Chief Inspector Dennis V. Coughlin. The last thing Coughlin wanted to have to do was tell Matt’s mother that there’d been another shooting—Denny had been the one who knocked on her door and delivered the news that John Francis Xavier Moffitt, her husband and his best friend, had been killed in the line of duty. Coughlin had toyed with the idea of hiding Matt in the School Crossing Guard Unit and getting him bored to tears helping snot-nosed second graders make it to the next curb—making Matt bored and pissed off enough to quit the department—then decided it was safer to have him assigned to a desk as administrative assistant to Inspector Peter Wohl. Wohl, it was hoped, would keep an eye on him and make sure he suffered in the line of duty nothing worse than a paper cut.
And that had worked. But only for a short time. A very short time. Neither Matt’s godfather (Coughlin) nor his rabbi (Wohl) on the police force, despite all their efforts to the contrary, anticipated that Officer Matt Payne would find himself in shoot-outs with bad guys—and they sure as hell had no idea that he’d ultimately come to be known as the Wyatt Earp of the Main Line.
First, with not even six months on the job, he’d been off-duty when he spotted the van used by the doer whom the newspapers had dubbed the Northwest Serial Rapist. Matt had attempted to question the van’s driver, at which point the driver had tried to run him down. Matt responded by shooting the sonofabitch in the head. Then, in the back of the van, he’d found the rapist’s next victim—a neatly trussed-up, and naked, young woman.
The reaction of Matt’s godfather and rabbi—and damned near everyone else on the force—was to quietly declare Matt impossibly lucky that (a) he’d stumbled across the rapist and (b) that he hadn’t died from the blunt-force trauma of the van’s bumper.
And so they redoubled their efforts to keep Matty safe until he came to his senses, recognized that he damned well could have been killed, and rejoined civilian life.
But not a year later, in the middle of a massive operation designed to arrest a gang of armed robbers on warrants charging them with murder during a Goldblatt’s Department Store heist, Matt again made headlines. He’d been assigned to sit on a Philadelphia Bulletin reporter in an alley that was deemed to be a safe distance from where the arrests were going down—for the reporter’s safety but, conveniently, for the safety of the reporter’s “escort,” too.
The foolproof plans unraveled when one of the critters, who hadn’t been made privy to the foolproof plans, stumbled into the “safe” alley and started shooting it up. One of the ricocheting bullets grazed Payne’s forehead, and he returned fire.
In the next edition of The Philadelphia Bulletin, the front-page photograph (“Exclusive Photo By Michael J. O’Hara”) showed a bloody-faced Officer Matthew M. Payne, pistol in hand, standing over the fatally wounded felon. Above the photograph—written by Mickey O’Hara, who well knew Payne’s background, as he’d written the Bulletin piece on Dutch Moffitt’s death—was the screaming headline “Officer M. M. Payne, 23, The Wyatt Earp of the Main Line.”
And again came the quiet accusations, particularly considering that the vast majority of cops over the course of a twenty-year career on the beat never found cause to pull out—let alone fire—their service weapon at a murderer or rapist or robber.
Yet here was a cop—a goddamned Richie Rich rookie at that!—with two righteous shootings proverbially notched on his pistol grip.
It didn’t help that not long afterward, Matt Payne had taken—and passed, the summa cum laude college boy’s score having placed him first—the exam for the rank of detective.
The quiet accusations gave way to those on the force who made it loud and clear that they regarded Matt Payne as a rich kid who was playing at being a cop, and whose promotions and assignments were thanks to his political connections, not based on his abilities.
And then there were those who weren’t quite so accommodating and mindful of their manners—and more than happy to share their opinions directly to Matt’s face.
There hadn’t been a helluva lot that Payne could do about them, of course, except just stick it out and do his job to the best of his ability. And Matt had found that he not only liked being a cop but thought that he was good at it, further proof of that having come twice in the last six months.
The earlier episode had involved one Susan Reynolds, a beautiful blue-eyed blonde with whom Payne saw himself winding up living happily-ever-after in a vine-covered cottage by the side of the road. However, Susan, blindly loyal and trying to protect an old girlfriend, stupidly got caught up in a group that included Bryan Chenowith, a terrorist hunted nationwide by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Payne set it up for Philly’s FBI special agent in charge to take down Chenowith behind the Crossroads Diner in Doylestown. They bagged the bad guy—but not before Payne saw his dreams with Susan literally die when the lunatic Chenowith cut her down with a stolen fully automatic .30- caliber carbine.
The second episode had happened in the last thirty-odd days, and the Wyatt Earp of the Main Line again had made headlines.
Payne and his date had been in his Porsche 911 Carrera. They were headed for his apartment, about to leave the parking lot of La Famiglia Ristorante, when they came across a middle-class black couple who only moments earlier had left the restaurant and been robbed by two armed men. The doers had pistol-whipped the husband, knocking out teeth, and had gotten only as far as the end of the lot.
Sergeant Payne, Matthew M., Badge Number 471, Philadelphia Police Department, automatically gave chase—and almost immediately his car took the brunt of two blasts from a sawed-off shotgun. Payne then pulled his Colt .45 Officer’s Model pistol and put down the shotgunner with a round to the head and severely wounded the accomplice, who had fired at Payne with a .380- caliber Browning semiautomatic pistol.
Payne’s date—the extremely bright and attractive Terry Davis, a heavy hitter in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles—had not been badly hurt, but their budding relationship died in that parking lot.
While Matt Payne’s shootings were all righteous ones—ones in which he not only was found to be justified by the system but also ones in which he’d been hailed a hero by the public—they haunted him.
And this last shooting had put him over the edge.
It set up a series of events that found him hospitalized and briefly under psychiatric care. After careful examination—and a more or less completely clean bill of health—he was ordered to take a thirty-day leave of compensatory time. The purpose of this leave was (a) to fulfill the prescription for recovery that the psychiatrist said was necessary for such an overworked and overstressed police sergeant, and (b) to be a period of reflection, in which said police sergeant could consider if he might be better suited to another career path at the somewhat tender age of twenty-seven, such as that of a lawyer.
Sitting at his computer in his Rittenhouse Square apartment, Matt Payne had begun his morning—after making coffee and filling the thermos—reading emails and the online edition of The Philadelphia Bulletin. Then he’d moved on to reviewing the files saved from websites he’d studied the previous night. These had extolled the virtues of various law schools he’d looked at across the country, from Harvard Law—a short scull ride from the Atlantic Ocean via the Charles River and Boston Harbor—to Pepperdine Law, overlooking the surfers in the Pacific Ocean at Malibu. He also had a yellow legal pad on which he’d listed the pros and cons for each of the schools he was considering—or not considering, as there were more schools marked through than not.
And, just as last night, they had begun to bore the shit out of him.
About the time he had poured coffee cup number three, Payne started clicking on another website that he found far more exciting: 911s.com. It had, among other things, a search engine that required the user’s home zip code. Payne had first punched in and searched his home zip code, 19103, and almost instantaneously was offered a listing of twenty one-year-old and two-year-old Porsche 911s offered for sale by dealers and brokers and individuals within twenty-five miles of his apartment.
He scrolled through the list, clicked on a few Carrera models, idly wondering as he read the pages how much of their histories were truly factual—“Only 10,250 pampered miles! Always garaged! Never driven in rain!”—and how many of the cars actually, say, had been raced from Media down I-95 to Miami Beach, or run in last month’s Poconos Mountain Off-Road Rally then hosed off for resale before the tires—as the stand-up comedian Ron White was famous for saying—fell the fuck off!
Matt had grinned at the thought of the comedian’s shtick—not a day went by, especially when on the job, that he couldn’t apply at least one of White’s hilarious observations to a particular situation, most often “You can’t fix stupid”—and then he had thought: Or an even worse abuse—the cars used as daily commuters, rain or shine.
Porsche actually built their cars to fly down the highway at the hammers of hell. Stop-and-go traffic is the equivalent of a slow death.
Especially in salt-laced snow sludge.
Figuring he would search major cities that had no snow, and thus no road salt to rust out body panels, he’d punched in 90210, 85001, and 75065, and read the results from those. They belonged, respectively, to Beverly Hills, Phoenix, and Dallas. And each offered three times as many 911s as did 19103.
Ones with no road salt.
Maybe I could get one shipped back here.
Or maybe go get one, and drive it back here at the hammers of hell. Now that would be fun . . . .
He then punched in 33301, which was one of Fort Lauderdale’s zip codes. In the search field that asked for a radius in miles from that geographic point, he’d typed in “50.”
Fifty miles easily covers Miami to the south and Palm Beach to the north.
Then he’d chuckled as he clicked the search button.
And plenty of Everglades swamp to the west and Atlantic Ocean to the east. If there’s a Porsche in either, it’s going to be worse off than my shot-up Carrera. Maybe I should donate mine as an artificial reef. It’d sink like a rock with all those shotgun pellet holes. . . .
It took a long moment for the page to completely load on his computer screen.
Jesus! Look at all those Porsches for sale!
Ninety Carreras alone!
Who the hell is buying them?
He took a sip of his coffee.
Stupid question. Who the hell else?
All the goddamned drug-runners.
It had been then that his cellular had started to vibrate, flash Soup King— and cause him to worry.
Matt Payne looked at the cellular phone and said aloud, “What’s he want at this hour?”
Payne told himself that it wasn’t the time of day that bothered him; rather, it was what it suggested. For as long as he could remember, certainly since his early teen years, his parents had told him that calls in the late of night or early morning almost never announced good news. And his experience as a Philly cop sure as hell had only proved their point, time and again.
Maybe he accidentally hit my auto-dial number?
And if that’s the case, and if I’d been sound asleep, I’d be pissed he’s waking me up.
Payne had been pals with the “Soup King”—Payne’s nickname for Chadwick Thomas Nesbitt IV—since they were in diapers, when Chad was merely the Soup Prince-in-Waiting. Later, they attended prep school together before both graduating from the University of Pennsylvania.
Had Payne’s cellular phone volume not been muted, the phone, having linked “Soup King” with the audio file Matt had saved to its memory chip, would have blared from the speaker their alma mater’s marching band playing:
Tell the story of Glory Of Pennsylvania Drink a highball And be jolly Here’s a toast to dear old Penn!
The Soup King crack came from the fact that Chad’s family was Nesfoods International—his father, Mr. Nesbitt III, was now chairman of the executive committee—having succeeded his father, who’d succeeded his—and Chad was recently named a vice president, having worked his way up in the corporate ranks, just as his father and Grandfather Nesbitt had.
And Matt’s father and Chad’s father were best friends.
Chad never had lacked in the self-esteem department, and Matt often found it his duty to help keep him grounded.
Payne grabbed the phone from its cradle, which automatically answered the call. He put it to his head and by way of greeting said: “My telephone tells me that the Soup King is calling at four forty-six in the morning. Why, pray tell, would anyone—friend or foe or vegetable royalty—wish to awaken a fine person such as myself from a peaceful slumber at this ungodly hour?”
“Matt? Are you awake, Matt?”
Payne pulled the phone from his head and looked at it askance; it was as if Nesbitt hadn’t heard a word he’d said. He put the phone back to his head and replied: “Such a query calls into question the intelligence of one who asks it. Because, it would follow that if one were to telephone a person, and said person were to answer, then, yes, it could be presumed that that person was awake. Or perhaps rudely awakened.”
Nesbitt didn’t reply.
“Actually, you’re lucky,” Payne went on. “I wasn’t rudely awakened. I was, instead, accomplishing multiple tasks, from plotting my future to looking for a new car. All with the wonders of this miraculous thing called the Internet that’s ready at any hour of the day or night. I don’t know about you, but I think this Internet thing might be around for a while. Wonderfully handy. And you can go anywhere on it, even in just your underwear.”
Nesbitt either ignored the ridiculous sarcasm or again didn’t hear what he’d said.
“Look, Matt. I need your help. This is bad.”
Payne thought that Nesbitt’s voice had an odd tone to it, and that caused a knot in his stomach.
“What’s bad, Chad?”
Nesbitt did not address the question directly. “I’d heard—Mother said at dinner last week—are you still a cop or not?”
“Well, the days of the Wyatt Earp of the Main Line very well may be numbered. I’m thinking of taking a road trip. Any interest in—”
“So,” Chad interrupted, “does that mean no?”
“No. It means technically, yes, I’m still a cop. The real question, though, is: ‘Will I continue to be a cop?’ I’ve been put on ice to take time and consider just that—”
“Dammit, yes or no?” he interrupted.
“Yes. What the hell’s got you upset? And at this hour?”
“Can you meet me?”
“Now. Remember the Philly Inn? On Frankford?”
No way in hell could anyone forget a party like we had that night—what?— ten, eleven years ago.
Damn. Has it been that long?
“Sure, Chad, I remember. Who could forget Whatshisface diving off the roof into the pool?”
“What? Oh, right.” His voice tapered off. “Skipper did that . . .”
“Yeah, that’s who it was. So, what happened? Did Daffy finally have enough and throw you out?”
Daphne Elizabeth Browne Nesbitt was wife to Chadwick Thomas Nesbitt IV, and Matt was godfather to their baby girl, Penelope Alice Nesbitt, named after the late Penelope Alice Detweiler, with whom, before she shot up her last vein of heroin, causing her to breathe her last breath, Matt had fancied himself in love.
Payne heard only silence, then said, “What’s the room number?”
“No. I’m at the All-Nite Diner, by the shopping strip just south of it. Thanks, pal.”
“Be there in—” Matt began but stopped when he realized the connection had been broken.
2512 Hancock Street, Philadelphia Wednesday, September 9, 5:01 A.M.
Hancock, off Lehigh Avenue, was only a couple miles southwest of the Philly Inn. It was in the section known as North Philly, which of course was due north of Center City—downtown proper—hence North Philly’s name. If the area around the Philly Inn could be described as seedy and sliding to worse, then it would be no less than a kind and charitable act to call North Philly, particularly the more and more Latino neighborhood containing Hancock Street, a miserable godforsaken slum with zero to zilch chance of redemption.
And in a dilapidated row house on Hancock, Ana Maria Del Carmen Lopez—a petite pretty seventeen-year-old Honduran with light-brown skin, long straight black hair, dark eyes, and soft facial features, including a smattering of freckles across her upper cheeks and pixie nose that made her appear even younger—was startled awake from an uneasy sleep by sounds outside her open second-story bedroom window.
Ana was lying with two younger girls from Mexico on a dirty mattress on the wooden floor of the bedroom. She first heard the familiar rattling of a lawn care utility trailer, then the squeaking springs of the dirty tan Ford panel van pulling it over the curb, across the sidewalk, and through the open gate of the vacant lot next door—where two abandoned row houses once stood before burning and being torn down—and then the white rusty Plymouth minivan with its darkened windows that followed the van and trailer into the lot.
Ana’s pulse quickened as she then heard Latin music coming from another vehicle that was accelerating up Hancock Street. While she was not surprised, she was scared. This had happened nearly every night for the two months she’d been here: One of two vans would bring the girls and others back to the house—she wasn’t sure why they had the trailer of lawn mowers out so late—and El Gato would be right on their heels to collect the cash. If everyone was lucky, he then would just take the money and drive off into the dark humid night.
At five feet eleven inches tall and 180 pounds, twenty-one-year-old Juan Paulo Delgado moved with the grace and power of a big cat—thus his nickname, “El Gato.” He had the toned, muscular body of one who worked out regularly with gym weights, which he’d learned to perfect during a short stint in the prison system. He was as fastidious as a cat in his appearance, keeping his black hair cut short and neat, his face clean-shaven, his body—with one exception—absolutely unmarked.
The exception was a small black tattoo—a gothic block letter D with three short lines on either side representing whiskers—at the base of his palm. The location made it more or less unnoticeable to the casual observer unless El Gato chose to show it. It was the same tattoo he convinced each of the girls to get when he first met them—“To show my love of family,” El Gato told them. But each girl’s whiskered D was tattooed on the neck behind the left ear, at the hairline.
The girls—at first, while they still were under his influence, desperate to believe his bullshit ruse of “love of family”—had enjoyed flashing the tattoo by pulling back their hair and smiling appreciatively, if not seductively, at El Gato.
And Juan Paulo Delgado had another catlike trait: He carried himself in such a way that one moment he could be all charm, his deep, dark eyes almost smiling—then the next moment his short Latin temper turned him intimidating, his eyes cold and hard. When his anger erupted, it made him seem much older than his twenty-one years.
Ana felt the two other girls, Jorgina and Alicia, both fourteen years old and with attractive features somewhat similar to hers, snuggle in closer for protection. Yet they all knew that there would be no protection from whatever was to come.
Of course they know, she thought. And they, too, are scared.
My bruises are almost gone.
Theirs are still dark, still fresh and with much pain . . .
There was the grating of the wooden slats of the gate as it was being slid closed on the vacant lot. And when that was done—and only after the gate was closed and its chain locked—there came the slamming of the van’s front doors and the sliding open of the rusty side doors of the minivan for the half-dozen girls to exit.
Footsteps could be heard as the girls were herded through the backyard to the back door of the row house, then into their bedrooms. There they, like Ana and Jorgina and Alicia, were kept more or less warehoused, guarded under lock and key until sent out to work—which could be any hour of the day or night.
Ana did not think that the round-the-clock watch was really necessary. If the fear of being beaten again was not enough to keep the girls from trying to get away, then the threats made against their families certainly was. Proof of that was that almost no one tried to get away.
No one but Rosario, may the Holy Father protect her wherever she ran off to.
And then there were the other invisible barriers, among them not having any papers proving who they were—those girls who actually had, for example, a birth certificate had them taken by El Gato “to keep them safe.” Also, the girls could speak only Spanish—and with no real formal education could barely read it—and so they had no understanding of exactly where they were and especially where they could go. Certainly not to the police, whose screaming woop-woop sirens they heard piercing the night. Back home, they’d learned policía could not be completely trusted.
And so the fear of the unknown was as strong a deterrent as any of the iron shackles or guarded doors.
Ana listened closely for what would happen next.
Usually, El Gato simply stopped in the street, and Amando or Omar or Eduardo or Jesús handed over to him the cash—usually in a backpack—and exchanged a few words—or none—and then his Chevrolet Tahoe accelerated up Hancock and made the turn onto Lehigh Avenue as he headed toward his nice converted warehouse apartment in Manayunk, a gentrifying middle-class section on the banks of the Schuylkill River in Northwestern Philly.
Occasionally, however, he came into one of the houses and dealt with whatever problem there had been that night—most often a girl who had not performed for a client as expected or another who needed “encouragement” to work.
El Gato, Ana thought, always says he does not like raising a hand to us girls. But I think the reason is not because he doesn’t like to hurt people—I think he does, and pray that God may punish him—it is because the marks he puts on us make the men not want to pay.
So we stay locked up till the marks go away . . .
Ana heard the sounds of tires climbing the curb—El Gato liked to park his SUV off the narrow street, its right-side wheels crushing the weeds growing in the sidewalk cracks—then the engine being turned off. Next came a door being opened and shut, followed by a short honk that reported a button on the remote had been pushed to lock the SUV’s doors and activate its alarm.
Ana suddenly realized that the sounds had caused her palms to sweat and that she had begun to slightly shake. She felt one of the girls, who apparently recognized the shaking for what it was, rubbing her back in a calming fashion.
Dear God, please do not let him come up here.
I told him again and again I do not know where Rosario went.
Another beating will not change that.
She next heard the unlocking of the front door, then the heavy footfalls quickly pounding up the flight of wooden steps. Finally, the bedroom door swung open.
Faint light from the streetlights up Hancock bled in through the open window, which had been wedged open to provide the room with some—any— air circulation on the hot humid night. El Gato was dimly lit in the doorway.
Maybe with my bruises almost gone he is taking me to work?
Please, no . . .
As El Gato approached the bed, she saw something fall from his hand, then heard it make a soft bump as it hit the wooden floor. Ana suddenly curled up defensively in the fetal position. Then, when he grabbed her by the collar of her T-shirt, the two younger girls back-crawled off the mattress to a dark corner of the room.
“No . . .” Ana softly said, and whimpered in anticipation of what was about to come.
Breathing heavily, Juan Paulo Delgado hovered ominously over her. Ana smelled the alcohol on his breath, some beer probably and what had to be tequila. She could visualize his cold hard eyes in the dark even though she could not clearly see them. Then she heard him grunt—and saw his right arm in silhouette suddenly swing back, then forward, his palm finding her face. As she recoiled, her T-shirt ripped in his left hand.
“No mas! No mas, por favor!” she cried out, wishing that this all was just another nightmare. But she then felt the sting of his backhanded slap, and she understood with painful clarity that this was building to be the real thing. Again.
“You fucking bitches! Every one of you!” Delgado yelled in English, then swung again, this time striking her with a balled fist. He switched to Spanish:
“I helped you, made you family, and how do you repay me?”
Ana looked away from El Gato, trying to hold her small hands to her face as protection.
“You want to see your cousin?” he went on in Spanish, and hit her again.
“I take you to Rosario! I’m through with the both of you!”
Ana began to sob. She did not understand; for months now she had been doing the disgusting work for El Gato, selling her body to repay her passage debt—and now her room and board—to him. As had Rosario. And it was not Ana’s fault that Rosario had had enough and finally run off. Though Ana knew that it was futile to try to make that point now.
El Gato again cursed her, and her cousin, then hit her again. The salty taste of sweat on Ana’s lips now mingled with a metallic one—and she recognized the warm sticky fluid as her blood.
As El Gato yelled—there was a furiousness in his voice that she had never before heard, even during the other beatings—she silently prayed, Holy Mother of God, please make him stop.
But he began striking her repeatedly, the sickening thuds of his fist on her face triggering whimpers of sympathy—or fear, or both—from Alicia and Jorgina, who were clinging to each other in the corner of the bedroom.
Then she stopped sobbing, made an awful groan, and went limp.
And Ana Maria Del Carmen Lopez’s prayer was answered; he stopped beating her.
Alicia and Jorgina, fearful El Gato would turn and unleash his fury on them, tried to silence their whimpering. They watched in the dimness as he walked back to the doorway, picked up what he’d dropped on the floor, then returned to Ana.
The sound of a strip of heavy tape being ripped from its roll came next. Delgado applied that over Ana’s mouth and nose. He then took the roll of heavy tape and wrapped her wrists behind her back, then bound together her ankles. He threw the roll of tape back on the floor, then grunted as he dragged Ana’s limp body out the door and let it fall with a dull thud.
A moment later, he came back into the room.
Alicia and Jorgina recoiled.
El Gato walked over to them in the corner. He got down on one knee and in Spanish softly said, “It will be okay now,” then reached out with his left hand and stroked Alicia’s hair, his fingers brushing her tattoo in the process. Then he pulled from the front pocket of his blue jeans two paper packets and tossed them to the floor by the girls. Without looking, the girls knew what they were.
Each small packet—the size of a business card—was white and had a rubber stamp imprint in light blue ink of a cartoonish block of Swiss cheese, on either side of which were three lines that shot outward—not unlike the lines of their D tattoos—and above the cheese the legend Queso Azul.
“If you’re good, and I know you will be, I will bring you more,” he said, then stroked Jorgina’s hair and stood and left the room.
Alicia and Jorgina heard the thump, thump, thump of El Gato dragging Ana down the stairs. Then the back door opening, then the sliding of the minivan door, then the grating of the wooden slat gate of the lot. There was a banging of metal tools in the lawn care trailer, then the slamming shut of a minivan door.
The Plymouth spun its wheels in the dirt and gravel of the lot, the tires chirping as it quickly drove off the sidewalk and up the street.
In the now eerie silence of the dirty bedroom, fourteen-year-old Alicia and Jorgina clung to each other and started crying uncontrollably.
After a few minutes, Jorgina reached for one of the paper packets. She opened the flap at the end, took the tiny straw from inside, put that to her nose, and snorted the brown powder contents of the packet.
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