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)
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)
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.
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7522 Battersby Street, Philadelphia
Wednesday, September 9, 1:55 A.M.
Tony Harris returned to his bed, silently cursing himself for not having hit thejohn before he’d crawled under the sheets two hours earlier. Harris—a thirtyeight-year-old homicide detective in the Philadelphia Police Department whowas slight of build and starting to bald—then clicked off the lamp on his bedsidetable. As he put his head on his pillow and sighed, wondering when—oreven if—he’d start to drift off back to sleep, a monstrous BOOM shook thehouse. It reverberated through the darkened room, knocking loose a pictureframe 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 residentialstreet.
Harris quickly got out of bed, crossed the room, and pulled back the curtainto look out the window. On either side of Battersby, the Northeast Philadelphianeighborhood had a series of nearly identical, neatly kept comfortabletwo-story brick duplexes with large lawns. The homes—some of which nowwith their lights flicking on—had stone façades on the front and garages in therear, on a common alleyway. Because Harris’s garage served more as a storageunit than a car park, he left his city-issued Ford Crown Victoria sitting at thecurb in front of his house.
It took Harris no time to locate the direction of the source: In the sky someblocks to the east, he saw a bright glow that he recognized as that from an intensefire.
Maybe a gas station on Frankford went up? he wondered as he automaticallystarted 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 seemedto 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, thenran down the stairs as fast as he dared and out the door.
He drove the Crown Vic up Battersby, turning right onto Ryan Avenue, thenfollowed it the seven blocks to Frankford Avenue, where Harris could clearlysee that the intense glow was to the south. He was about to make the turn whenhe heard the wail of sirens—and then the huge horns blaring—of two firedepartment emergency medical vehicles. The red-and-white ambulances flewup on the intersection, braked heavily as they lay steadily on their horns, thenaccelerated through it.
Harris checked for any other vehicles headed for the intersection. He sawthat it was clear and turned to follow the ambulances.
As he went south on Frankford, the sky became a brighter orange-red mingledwith 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 PhillyInn, an aging two-story motel that had been built long before Anthony J. Harrishad been born at Saint Joseph’s Hospital.
He pulled into a parking lot to the north of the motel, to where he had abetter view of all the activity. He also enjoyed more than a little of an olfactoryassault from the awful smell filling the air and now entering the car via thedash 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 firefighterswere laying down an impressive amount of water. Other firemen weregoing door to door, methodically clearing the motel’s rooms and herding whatpeople they found inside to a parking lot to the south. Doors that no one answeredwere busted open with twenty-eight-pound metal battering rams andthe hammer-headed pry bars called Halligans.
The pair of ambulances that had flown past Harris at the intersectionwere 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 byan articulated ladder fire truck, which Harris thought a bit of overkill for alowly two-story structure.
But, hell. Can’t blame them.
Everyone loves a little adrenaline rush, especially these guys getting to play withall 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 wreckerfrom 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-dozenfirefighters 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 thehottest.
And where the blast took place.
The firemen were in the middle of a row of vehicles parked outside themotel rooms, and were inserting a heavy fire-resistant blanket in through theframework that once held the SUV’s front windshield.
The wrecker raced up to the back bumper of the SUV, and a heavy-linkedstainless-steel chain was quickly slung from the SUV’s bumper to a tow hookbolted on the front frame of the wrecker.
The driver ground the gearshift into reverse and carefully took up the slackin 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 SUVaway from the fire.
The wrecker didn’t slow until it had slid the SUV practically in front ofHarris’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 passengerside of the SUV. Floodlights mounted on the side of the unit were switchedon, brightly illuminating the SUV. Two firefighters almost instantly appeared,carrying a heavy metal device with hydraulically powered pincers that Harrisrecognized 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 theleft-side doors to stabilize whoever was unlucky enough to be in the vehicle.There suddenly was more shouting at the motel, and when Harris turnedhis attention to it he saw the impossible—a man on fire came staggering outof the motel room that had the blown-outward door.
One fireman rushed to the man. As he tackled him to smother the fire, afire hose was trained on the both of them, instantly flooding the flames. Thenthe fireman stood and seemingly effortlessly slung the man over his shoulder.He ran with him—slipping twice—to the second ambulance, where the paramedicswaited, ready to go to work.
Forty-five minutes later, twenty minutes after the motel fire had been broughtunder control if not put out, Harris watched the emergency medical personnelremove from the SUV someone they’d strapped to a rescue backboard. Thevictim looked to Harris to be a young woman. She had IV hoses dangling fromher arm and wore an oxygen mask.Five minutes later, the doors of the ambulance slammed shut, and its sirenwailed as the unit began to roll. As if on cue, the other ambulance did the sameonly a minute later.
Harris scanned the motel and saw that the firemen were putting whatHarris thought of as their toys back in their trucks. And he saw that the yellowand black police line—do not cross tape was being strung up, signifyingthe scene was being turned over to the police.
Well, now that all the excitement’s over, Harris thought, reaching for the doorhandle, 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 silverMercedes-Benz G550 at the back of a lousy Northeast Philly motel, had justreminded herself that she could not believe how much her luck had changed.Becca—a trendy twenty-five-year-old brunette with olive skin who wasfive-foot-seven and just under 140 pounds, having recently started winning her battles to keep the bathroom scale from tipping 150—not only had reconnectedwith her prep school boyfriend two months earlier but they had foundthat they still enjoyed what first had brought them together: partying, mostlybooze-fueled but with the occasional recreational drug.
They had first dated nine years ago when in the Upper School at EpiscopalAcademy. 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 (senioryear), had begun flirting with her in the back row of an International Politicsclass. He was taking it for the second time, having yet to meet even the lowestthreshold of the academic standards for passing the required course.
Skipper had a slender athletic build—he was a star player on the academy’schampionship lacrosse team, a midfielder who seemed to float effortlessly fromone end of the 110-yard field to the other—and stood five-ten. His sandy hairwas 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 homeafter a graduation party, had misjudged a Dam View Road curve—actuallywound up going down an estate’s driveway at a high rate of speed—and put hislittle Audi in Springton Reservoir. Becca wound up with a broken collarboneand 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 inthe legal system, if not in their own tony community—were not amused. Hisparents declared Becca a wild child, albeit one in a woman’s body, while herparents deemed the older boy a bad influence, unfit for their impressionablesweet sixteen-year-old—and thus absolutely off-limits.
Neither Becca nor Skipper was thrilled about the forced separation. Butthen, while Skipper’s angry old man was still dealing with the lawyers and havingthe sports car fished from the reservoir, Skipper’s mother had sent him offearly to the small private university he’d been set to attend in Texas—her almamater in her hometown of Dallas. And so neither teenager had been preparedto fight the inevitable. They’d agreed to stay in touch, but even that turned outto be short-lived. They simply lost contact.
Then, two months ago, at a Fourth of July party on the Jersey shore thrownby 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 Hawaiianstylesurfer shorts and aviator-style sunglasses, a frayed straw cowboy hat and awhite T-shirt emblazoned with a running red horse and block lettering thatread s.m.u. mustangs lacrosse.
They had found that their outsized personalities were still in sync—withtheir appetites somewhat matured—and they damned near immediately pickedup 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’dhad Skipper drive because she’d been shaking too much from the drugs. Shehated that downside, which included her being stressed, as she was now. Butshe 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 finallylose—and keep off—those damned ten-plus pounds.
Despite the night, she stared through dark bug-eyed sunglasses at the moteldoor to Room 52. Then she punched the map light switch in order to read herwristwatch. The white-platinum diamond-bezel Audemars Piguet had cost herparents more than most of the battered work trucks and cars parked near theMercedes were worth, never mind the six-figure sticker of the SUV itself. Her armtwitched a little, but she could tell by the position of the watch’s hands—therewere no numbers, just four dots of diamonds, twinkling in the map light, torepresent 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 shesat with her feet tucked under her thighs, her arms crossed, with her handsresting and warming in her armpits. She wore cream-colored linen shorts anda 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’twant to go in that fleabag room.
But what if he’s not okay?
Her cellular phone, resting on her lap, simultaneously vibrated briefly andmade a ping sound, announcing the receipt of a text message.“Damn!” she said, startled. It caused her to uncross her arms and kick outher feet.
She quickly glanced at the phone’s screen, thinking the text might be fromSkipper. She saw—barely, as her sleep-deprived eyes had trouble focusing onthe backlit small print—that it was from her girlfriend Casey, who was askingwhere r u??
Becca threw the phone onto the leather-covered console between the frontseats and sighed loudly.
She looked back at the motel door, wondering if she should shoot Skippera 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 waspulled closed over the open window and gently swaying, as if being blown bya breeze.
She crossed her arms and tucked her feet back under her and closed hereyes. 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 buttonthat would release her seat belt when the door of Room 52 swung open. Outcame Skipper Olde, holding a white handkerchief over his nose and mouth.Olde wore a baggy navy blue T-shirt, khaki shorts, and sandals, and hisaviator 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 pantspocket. 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 tocome after you.”
“Sorry, baby. They were having a little trouble in there.” He reached intohis 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 broughtthis out to you first, then helped them.”
She pulled the bug-eyed sunglasses from her face and slipped them up onthe top of her head.
Skipper Olde placed the white bag beside her cellular phone on the leathercoveredconsole. She looked at it, then at Skipper, then nervously glanced outthe darkened side windows, then the rear ones, to see if anyone was watchingthem.
“Go on,” he said, smiling. “It’s yours.”
She smiled back weakly, then leaned over in her seat and kissed him quicklyon the cheek.
“Thank you,” she said, picking up the packet, then biting off a corner andremoving 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 whatthey 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 ofPennsylvania’s top Girl Scout cookie salesgirl, which she later listed underaccomplishments on her University of Pennsylvania application to theWharton School’s master of business administration program—straightenedherself upright in her seat. With the effortlessness of one who’d had somepractice, she cupped the white packet with her hand so that it could not beseen, then took the straw stub and slipped an end in the hole she’d bitten, thenplaced the other end halfway up her right nostril. She pinched her left nostrilclosed and snorted.
“Shit, that burns!” she said after a moment, vigorously rubbing the outsideof 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. Sheshook 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 stillin the office safe.” He listened for a moment, added, “No, no, I want you tohave 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 openedthe 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 packetas she did so. Then she held out both to him. “Don’t need this empty bag inmy 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 gointo the room. The motel lights hurt her dilated eyes, and she pulled the sunglassesfrom her hair and slid them back over her eyes.
Skipper’s cellular phone started ringing again. She grabbed it, then helddown the button on top labeled “0/1,” turning it off. Then she reached for theswitch on the door that manipulated her seat’s position, reclined the seat backalmost flat, and lay back while enjoying the sudden pleasant flood of warmththat the methamphetamine triggered by tricking her brain into creating thechemical 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 catpiss stench of ammonia and stank of other caustic odors. He put thehandkerchief back to his face and quickly stepped around a heavy cardboardbox that had been moved by the door. Then, tripping over the coil ofclear surgical tubing next to it, he let loose with a long, creative string ofexpletives.
That caused the two Hispanic males in their twenties at the stove of thekitchenette in the back of the room to laugh from behind the blue bandannastied over their noses and mouths.
And that in turn caused Skipper to bark, “Fuck you two and the cocksuckingdonkey you rode in on!”
Then he laughed, too.
The pair grunted and shook their heads, then turned their attention backto the stove.
Olde—stepping past the box fan with its switch set to high to help thewindow unit circulate the air, and causing the tan curtain to sway—lookedaround in an attempt to find an obvious path to follow to the kitchenette. Itwasn’t that the motel room was small. The problem was that the room waspacked, 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 factit had been built more than fifty years earlier and was an older two-floordesign—“low-rise,” its advertisements called it, playing on the nicer image thattended 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 aburgundy-painted steel door opening to the outside, a plate-glass window(with tan curtain) overlooking the parking lot, and, under the window, anair-conditioning unit.
In its heyday, the Philly Inn had served as short-term, affordable lodgingfor traveling salesmen who used it as their base on U.S. Highway 13—whichwas what Frankford was also designated—and for families who took their vacationsin Philadelphia, enjoying the historic sites and museums in the city, andthe entertainment of the various themed amusement parks nearby.
Each large room—all identical and advertised as “a De-Luxe DoubleGuest Room”—had a thirty-two-inch TV on the four-drawer dresser, a roundFormica-topped table with four wooden chairs, two full-size beds separatedby a bedside table with lamp and telephone (though the phones mostly wentuntouched, as an additional cash deposit up front was required to make localand long-distance calls). The mosaic-tiled bathroom held a water closet anda tub-shower combination. And taking up all of the far back wall was anample kitchenette with a three-burner electric stove and oven, a single sink,a full-size refrigerator, and a small countertop microwave oven secured to thewall with a steel strap so that it might not accidentally wind up leaving witha guest at checkout.
Depending on one’s perspective, the Philly Inn wasn’t exactly seedy. SkipperOlde himself had spent the night there more than a few times, though ithad 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 hotelsnearer Philadelphia’s Northeast Airport, mere miles to the north, and on Interstate95.
Now the Philly Inn had an entirely different demographic of guests, oneswho tended to stay more long-term. The motel had become temporary housingfor those who needed some really cheap—but livable—place to stay during theperiod, say, after having sold their row house and not yet able to move into thenext one, or while waiting for family members or friends who were receivingmedical 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 anight that it had been for at least the last decade. It was, however, not unheardof for management to agree to a negotiated rate of as little as twenty-five bucksa night, even less for those staying thirty days or longer and paying—usuallywith cash—each week in advance.
There still were quite a few couples or families staying as guests for days oreven as long as a week. But there were many more long-termers. These latterones were mostly transient laborers, men working in construction—you couldtell them by all their pickups in the parking lot late at night—and other seasonalwork, such as mowing the countless lawns of suburban offices and homes,and harvesting the fruits and vegetables of the farms nearby and the ones acrossthe river in New Jersey.
The motel management was as conscientious as it could be about keepingsome separation between the workers and the families, assigning rooms to eachin 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 reallymattered. The reality was that the Philly Inn’s days were numbered. Its demisewas inevitable, and about the only real reason the damn place had not beenboarded up—or torn down completely—was that it could be made to show aprofit. Enough to cover the bills, from its utilities to the assorted taxes leviedupon it, which was not the same thing as saying that the motel did in fact earna 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 includedtwo other aged motels and a string of laundromats.
Skipper Properties LLC already had plans drawn up to build fashionablecondominiums on the ten acres of land presently occupied by the Philly Inn.Being a self-proclaimed civic-minded company, Skipper Properties LLC wastrying to jump-start a gentrification of the area. It was arguably mere coincidencethat the company had also quietly bought up nearby parcels, includingpractically stealing a strip shopping center, to flip later at a huge profit.
Skipper Properties LLC announced that this so-called jump start wouldtake place just as soon as His Honor the Mayor of Philadelphia convinced thegoddamned lamebrain city council to come to its senses and grant said civicmindedSkipper Properties LLC the “fair and just” tax abatement and otherincentives that had been requested so as to make such a project viable—whichwas to say profitable—and build a more beautiful city.
There were secondary reasons that Skipper Olde was in no hurry to teardown the place—ones he certainly was not in the habit of sharing freely. Chiefamong these was that the inn was a mostly cash business now, and books wereeasily cooked when a lot of cash was involved. Also, most of the laborers livingat the inn and at the two other aged motels the LLC had bought earned thatcash by laboring for companies that were more or less indirectly controlled bySkipper Olde. Though, again, with Skipper not sharing such information freely,particularly with his silent partner-investor, and keeping those connections atarm’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 sharedwith others, would only create problems for him. The bottom line was that thevarious companies had plenty of work for the laborers, and the laborers wereready and willing to do it—and for low wages. But they could not do so if theyhad no place they could afford to live on a semipermanent basis.Thus, the Philly Inn—the vote of the damned Philadelphia city councilnotwithstanding—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 stackof cardboard boxes—one box was labeled 4 ROLLS POLY TUBING, ALL-VIRGINFILM, USDA- AND FDA-APPROVED, 2-MIL 1-IN X 1,500-FT, the other BUN-O-MATICCOFFEE FILTERS—ONE (1) GROSS.
As he squeezed past a short wall of more than a dozen boxes stacked threeand four high, some imprinted with LEVITTOWN POOL & SPA SUPPLY. handlewith extreme care! HYDROCHLORIC ACID. 2 1-GAL BOTTLES, THE WALLWOBBLED.
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 tothe bone!”
He pointed to two plastic orange jugs, at the foot of the beds, that werestenciled in black ink hypophosphorous acid. hazardous! use only inwell-ventilated area!
“Same with that shit!” he added.
Then he worked his way around the stacks of clear plastic storage binscontaining various boxes of single-edge utility razor blades, some plastic gallonjugs 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 foruse in camping stoves and lanterns. Yet another was filled with ten or sosmaller tubs of white pellets, hundreds of pills per tub, on top of which was acommercial-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 individualdoses of medication.
When Olde reached the kitchenette, he wasn’t surprised to see that oneburner of the electric stove was still in pieces—the crusty coil cracked in at leastthree places—as the damage had been done by his hand when he’d tried gettingit to work during his earlier visit to the room.
The other two burners each now held a large nonstick skillet and clearlywere 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 of450 degrees Fahrenheit.
The two Hispanic males, both wearing blue rubber gloves, now paid Oldeno attention. They carefully poured a honey-yellow fluid from a square Pyrexglass baking dish into a paper coffee filter that had been placed over the mouthof a Mason jar.
There was a line of the heavy glass jars, ones with lids screwed on. Thesecontained various colored fluids at different stages of a separation process, withsolids settling to the bottom and the fluids rising to the top. After filtering thehoney-colored fluid and spinning on a lid, the Hispanic males then methodicallywent about measuring and adding fluids to the various other jars, thenresealing and shaking them, then letting them settle and cool, then using thesurgical 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 bowlcontaining some partially crumbled whitish cakes and a plastic measuring spoonimprinted with “1 tbspn” on the handle. Next to that was a one-foot-square glassmirror that had some residue of the whitish powder on it, an electronic scalewith a digital readout in ounces and grams, a package of the single-edged razorblades, and a quart-size plastic jar of methylsulfonyfoylmethane—labeled “MSMdietary 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 intosingle-serving-size packets, then was used to heat-seal them closed.
Skipper Olde smiled. When he’d been in the room earlier, there had beennothing 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 measuringspoon scooped up some of the crumbled cake from the bowl and put it on themirror. Using a razor blade held by a ten-inch-long polymer handle, he quicklychopped at the powder, turning what little clumps and chunks there were intoa fine powder.
He then bypassed the usual next step—mixing in the MSM to cut the puremeth, then measuring out “eight balls,” exact portions of one-eighth ounce, eachbringing these days $200 “retail” on the street. Instead, he used the razor bladeto shovel the neat pile of powder—easily a half-ounce—into a white packet he’dsnipped from the roll of plastic tubing. He then sealed that packet shut andrepeated the process, filling three more and putting them in his pocket.That’s about two ounces, he thought, then grinned. Uncut, an easy fiftyFranklins. But I hope the bastard’s got something smaller than all hundreds, eventhough 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 theHispanic males.
He turned the dial that controlled the burner’s temperature, setting it tolow so that in the event he was successful he wouldn’t burn the shit out of hisfingers. Then he grasped the cracked coil and jiggered it, pulling its plug endfrom the receptacle on the stovetop, then reinserting it, then jiggering it againwith more gusto.
“Fuck it,” he finally said, frustrated. He smacked the coil, breaking it inpieces. “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 theplug receptacle of the broken coil on the stove, followed by an enormous electricalspark.
The spark immediately met the rising mist of phosphine gas that was beingreleased by the overheated hypophosphorous acid in the milky fluid of thepans. And that instantly triggered an intense explosion—making Skipper Olde’sdeclaration of “Goodbye, assholes” profoundly prophetic.
At almost the same time, Becca Benjamin, feeling flush from her quickenedheart 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 anice romp with Skipper in her Center City luxury loft overlooking the DelawareRiver—Or maybe right here right now in the backseat—and gently strokedherself 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 returningupright. Then, as the motel window came into view, there was suddenly ahorrific blinding flash, followed immediately by the plate glass exploding outwardand a concussion that rocked the box-shaped Mercedes.
In what seemed like a dream, Becca felt the vehicle shake violently, thenwatched the windshield go from clear to crazed as shards of plate glass struckit, and then felt the crushing sensation of the windshield, blown free of itsframe, as it pushed her against the seat back with such force that the seat backflopped 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 chemicalfueledflames from the motel room roared and there came the thuuum! thuuum!thuuum! sounds of the secondary smaller explosions that were the cans of Colemanfuel cooking off one after another, the horn of the Mercedes bleated itssteady 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 cutdark thick hair, was sitting—shirtless, wearing only boxer shorts on his lithelymuscled six-foot, 170-pound frame—at the notebook computer on the deskof his Center City apartment. He stared at his cellular telephone, which hadcaused him to utter the obscenity. It was vibrating and, on its color LCDscreen, 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 actuallyheld coffee was navy blue with a crest outlined in gold that had gold letteringreading philadelphia police and honor integrity service and, above thecrest, 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 emblazonedwith the representation of a patch. The center of the patch had thelikeness of the downtown Philadelphia skyline, complete to a statue of WilliamPenn atop City Hall, behind which stood a black-caped Grim Reaper with agolden scythe. Circling this scene was, in gold, the legend philadelphia policehomicide division.
Sergeant Payne, Matthew M., Badge Number 471, Philadelphia Police Department,was in fact on leave from the department in general and its homicideunit in particular.
That Matt’s relationship with the Philly PD—with police work—had createda quandary for him was one hell of an understatement.
On one hand, being a cop was in his blood; his family had a long historywith the cops. A long and tragic history. When Matt was still in the womb, hisnatural father had been killed in the line of duty. Badge 471—assigned to himonly recently—had belonged to Sergeant John Francis Xavier Moffitt when he’dbeen 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 drugaddict tried robbing it. Dutch was killed when he thought he could talk thehopped-up punk into handing over the .22-caliber pistol.
Yet, on the other hand, Matt had been indisputably raised in a life ofprivilege. Fact was, he did not have to work at a job—and certainly not riskinghis life as a cop—thanks to an investment program established for him at agethree. It had made him a very wealthy young man, and for that he could thankthe man who’d adopted him.
Following the death of Matt’s natural father, his mother had had to findemployment, and after taking classes she’d become, with some effort, an assistantat Lowerie, Tant, Foster, Pedigill, & Payne, one of Philly’s top legal firms.Soon after, the young and attractive Patricia Moffitt came to meet BrewsterCortland Payne II, son of the firm’s founding partner. “Brew” had recentlybecome a widower, one with two infants, his wife having died in an automobileaccident on the way home from their Pocono Mountains summer place. Onething led to another with Patricia, and Brewster Payne had then felt it necessaryto leave the firm to start his own, particularly after his father expressed hisdispleasure of “that gold-digging Irish trollop” by boycotting their wedding.The union of Patricia and Brewster produced another child, a girl theynamed Amelia. It was not long thereafter that Brew approached his wife with arequest 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 uppercrustMain Line, attended prep school, and from there went on to the IvyLeague, graduating summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania.And, accordingly, it was more or less expected, certainly reasonably so, thatMatt would go on to law school, and from there very likely join the prestigiousPhiladelphia law firm of Mawson, Payne, Stockton, McAdoo & Lester.Matt, however, had felt the pull of service to his country, and went outfor the United States Marine Corps. Yet when he’d failed the Corps’s precommissioningphysical examination—thanks to a quirky complication of his visionone no one knew he suffered from, nor had cared about since—everyonethen was convinced that the writing was on the wall: He’d now simply go backto school.
Everyone but Matt, who confounded them all by taking, just after hisUncle Dutch had been killed, the civil service exam for entry into the policedepartment.
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 tothe department—but many were surprised at his passing muster during histhirty-week stint in the demanding Police Academy.
And that had really worried more than a few, because there was talk thatthe only reasons he’d joined the cops was to prove his manhood—failing tomake it into the Marines had damaged more than a little pride—and to avengethe deaths of his natural father and uncle. And, further, behind the worry wasthe genuine fear that not only would walking a police beat leave Matt, theproduct of such a privileged background, less than satisfied, it damn well couldleave him hurt, or dead.
One such person who’d shared this fear was then–Chief Inspector DennisV. Coughlin. The last thing Coughlin wanted to have to do was tell Matt’smother that there’d been another shooting—Denny had been the one whoknocked 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 CrossingGuard Unit and getting him bored to tears helping snot-nosed second gradersmake it to the next curb—making Matt bored and pissed off enough to quitthe department—then decided it was safer to have him assigned to a desk asadministrative assistant to Inspector Peter Wohl. Wohl, it was hoped, wouldkeep an eye on him and make sure he suffered in the line of duty nothing worsethan 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 policeforce, despite all their efforts to the contrary, anticipated that Officer MattPayne would find himself in shoot-outs with bad guys—and they sure as hellhad no idea that he’d ultimately come to be known as the Wyatt Earp of theMain Line.
First, with not even six months on the job, he’d been off-duty when hespotted the van used by the doer whom the newspapers had dubbed the NorthwestSerial Rapist. Matt had attempted to question the van’s driver, at whichpoint the driver had tried to run him down. Matt responded by shooting thesonofabitch in the head. Then, in the back of the van, he’d found the rapist’snext victim—a neatly trussed-up, and naked, young woman.
The reaction of Matt’s godfather and rabbi—and damned near everyoneelse on the force—was to quietly declare Matt impossibly lucky that (a) he’dstumbled across the rapist and (b) that he hadn’t died from the blunt-forcetrauma of the van’s bumper.
And so they redoubled their efforts to keep Matty safe until he came to hissenses, recognized that he damned well could have been killed, and rejoinedcivilian life.
But not a year later, in the middle of a massive operation designed to arresta gang of armed robbers on warrants charging them with murder during aGoldblatt’s Department Store heist, Matt again made headlines. He’d beenassigned to sit on a Philadelphia Bulletin reporter in an alley that was deemedto be a safe distance from where the arrests were going down—for the reporter’ssafety but, conveniently, for the safety of the reporter’s “escort,” too.
The foolproof plans unraveled when one of the critters, who hadn’t beenmade privy to the foolproof plans, stumbled into the “safe” alley and startedshooting it up. One of the ricocheting bullets grazed Payne’s forehead, and hereturned fire.
In the next edition of The Philadelphia Bulletin, the front-page photograph(“Exclusive Photo By Michael J. O’Hara”) showed a bloody-faced OfficerMatthew M. Payne, pistol in hand, standing over the fatally wounded felon.Above the photograph—written by Mickey O’Hara, who well knew Payne’sbackground, as he’d written the Bulletin piece on Dutch Moffitt’s death—wasthe screaming headline “Officer M. M. Payne, 23, The Wyatt Earp of theMain Line.”
And again came the quiet accusations, particularly considering that the vastmajority of cops over the course of a twenty-year career on the beat never foundcause to pull out—let alone fire—their service weapon at a murderer or rapistor robber.
Yet here was a cop—a goddamned Richie Rich rookie at that!—with tworighteous 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 examfor the rank of detective.
The quiet accusations gave way to those on the force who made it loud andclear that they regarded Matt Payne as a rich kid who was playing at being acop, 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 mindfulof their manners—and more than happy to share their opinions directly toMatt’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-eyedblonde with whom Payne saw himself winding up living happily-ever-after ina vine-covered cottage by the side of the road. However, Susan, blindly loyaland trying to protect an old girlfriend, stupidly got caught up in a group thatincluded Bryan Chenowith, a terrorist hunted nationwide by the Federal Bureauof Investigation. Payne set it up for Philly’s FBI special agent in charge totake down Chenowith behind the Crossroads Diner in Doylestown. Theybagged the bad guy—but not before Payne saw his dreams with Susan literallydie 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 theWyatt Earp of the Main Line again had made headlines.
Payne and his date had been in his Porsche 911 Carrera. They were headedfor his apartment, about to leave the parking lot of La Famiglia Ristorante,when they came across a middle-class black couple who only moments earlierhad left the restaurant and been robbed by two armed men. The doers hadpistol-whipped the husband, knocking out teeth, and had gotten only as far asthe end of the lot.
Sergeant Payne, Matthew M., Badge Number 471, Philadelphia Police Department,automatically gave chase—and almost immediately his car took thebrunt of two blasts from a sawed-off shotgun. Payne then pulled his Colt .45Officer’s Model pistol and put down the shotgunner with a round to the headand 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 hitterin 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 henot only was found to be justified by the system but also ones in which he’dbeen 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 underpsychiatric care. After careful examination—and a more or less completelyclean bill of health—he was ordered to take a thirty-day leave of compensatorytime. The purpose of this leave was (a) to fulfill the prescription for recoverythat 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 sergeantcould consider if he might be better suited to another career path at thesomewhat tender age of twenty-seven, such as that of a lawyer.
Sitting at his computer in his Rittenhouse Square apartment, Matt Payne hadbegun his morning—after making coffee and filling the thermos—reading emailsand the online edition of The Philadelphia Bulletin. Then he’d moved onto reviewing the files saved from websites he’d studied the previous night. Thesehad 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 CharlesRiver and Boston Harbor—to Pepperdine Law, overlooking the surfers in thePacific Ocean at Malibu. He also had a yellow legal pad on which he’d listedthe 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 startedclicking 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 almostinstantaneously was offered a listing of twenty one-year-old and two-year-oldPorsche 911s offered for sale by dealers and brokers and individuals withintwenty-five miles of his apartment.
He scrolled through the list, clicked on a few Carrera models, idly wonderingas he read the pages how much of their histories were truly factual—“Only10,250 pampered miles! Always garaged! Never driven in rain!”—and howmany of the cars actually, say, had been raced from Media down I-95 to MiamiBeach, or run in last month’s Poconos Mountain Off-Road Rally then hosedoff for resale before the tires—as the stand-up comedian Ron White was famousfor saying—fell the fuck off!
Matt had grinned at the thought of the comedian’s shtick—not a day wentby, especially when on the job, that he couldn’t apply at least one of White’shilarious observations to a particular situation, most often “You can’t fixstupid”—and then he had thought: Or an even worse abuse—the cars used asdaily 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 roadsalt to rust out body panels, he’d punched in 90210, 85001, and 75065, andread 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 thatwould 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 allthose shotgun pellet holes. . . .
It took a long moment for the page to completely load on his computerscreen.
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 atthis 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 hisearly teen years, his parents had told him that calls in the late of night or earlymorning almost never announced good news. And his experience as a Phillycop 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 ChadwickThomas Nesbitt IV—since they were in diapers, when Chad was merelythe Soup Prince-in-Waiting. Later, they attended prep school together beforeboth graduating from the University of Pennsylvania.
Had Payne’s cellular phone volume not been muted, the phone, havinglinked “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
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 NesfoodsInternational—his father, Mr. Nesbitt III, was now chairman of the executivecommittee—having succeeded his father, who’d succeeded his—and Chad wasrecently named a vice president, having worked his way up in the corporateranks, 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 oftenfound it his duty to help keep him grounded.
Payne grabbed the phone from its cradle, which automatically answered thecall. He put it to his head and by way of greeting said: “My telephone tells methat 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 personsuch 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 ifNesbitt hadn’t heard a word he’d said. He put the phone back to his head andreplied: “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 personwere to answer, then, yes, it could be presumed that that person was awake. Orperhaps 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 fora new car. All with the wonders of this miraculous thing called the Internetthat’s ready at any hour of the day or night. I don’t know about you, but I thinkthis Internet thing might be around for a while. Wonderfully handy. And youcan go anywhere on it, even in just your underwear.”
Nesbitt either ignored the ridiculous sarcasm or again didn’t hear whathe’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 causeda knot in his stomach.
“What’s bad, Chad?”
Nesbitt did not address the question directly. “I’d heard—Mother said atdinner 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 considerjust 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 theroof 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 enoughand throw you out?”
Daphne Elizabeth Browne Nesbitt was wife to Chadwick Thomas NesbittIV, and Matt was godfather to their baby girl, Penelope Alice Nesbitt, namedafter the late Penelope Alice Detweiler, with whom, before she shot up her lastvein of heroin, causing her to breathe her last breath, Matt had fancied himselfin 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 connectionhad 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 PhillyInn. It was in the section known as North Philly, which of course was due northof Center City—downtown proper—hence North Philly’s name. If the areaaround the Philly Inn could be described as seedy and sliding to worse, then itwould be no less than a kind and charitable act to call North Philly, particularlythe more and more Latino neighborhood containing Hancock Street, a miserablegodforsaken slum with zero to zilch chance of redemption.
And in a dilapidated row house on Hancock, Ana Maria Del CarmenLopez—a petite pretty seventeen-year-old Honduran with light-brown skin,long straight black hair, dark eyes, and soft facial features, including a smatteringof freckles across her upper cheeks and pixie nose that made her appear evenyounger—was startled awake from an uneasy sleep by sounds outside her opensecond-story bedroom window.
Ana was lying with two younger girls from Mexico on a dirty mattresson the wooden floor of the bedroom. She first heard the familiar rattling ofa lawn care utility trailer, then the squeaking springs of the dirty tan Fordpanel van pulling it over the curb, across the sidewalk, and through the opengate of the vacant lot next door—where two abandoned row houses oncestood before burning and being torn down—and then the white rusty Plymouthminivan with its darkened windows that followed the van and trailerinto the lot.
Ana’s pulse quickened as she then heard Latin music coming from anothervehicle that was accelerating up Hancock Street. While she was not surprised,she was scared. This had happened nearly every night for the two monthsshe’d been here: One of two vans would bring the girls and others back tothe house—she wasn’t sure why they had the trailer of lawn mowers out solate—and El Gato would be right on their heels to collect the cash. If everyonewas lucky, he then would just take the money and drive off into the darkhumid night.
At five feet eleven inches tall and 180 pounds, twenty-one-year-old JuanPaulo 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 outregularly with gym weights, which he’d learned to perfect during a short stintin the prison system. He was as fastidious as a cat in his appearance, keepinghis black hair cut short and neat, his face clean-shaven, his body—with oneexception—absolutely unmarked.
The exception was a small black tattoo—a gothic block letter D with threeshort lines on either side representing whiskers—at the base of his palm. Thelocation made it more or less unnoticeable to the casual observer unless El Gatochose to show it. It was the same tattoo he convinced each of the girls to getwhen he first met them—“To show my love of family,” El Gato told them. Buteach girl’s whiskered D was tattooed on the neck behind the left ear, at thehairline.
The girls—at first, while they still were under his influence, desperateto believe his bullshit ruse of “love of family”—had enjoyed flashing the tattooby pulling back their hair and smiling appreciatively, if not seductively,at El Gato.
And Juan Paulo Delgado had another catlike trait: He carried himself insuch a way that one moment he could be all charm, his deep, dark eyes almostsmiling—then the next moment his short Latin temper turned him intimidating,his eyes cold and hard. When his anger erupted, it made him seem mucholder than his twenty-one years.
Ana felt the two other girls, Jorgina and Alicia, both fourteen years old andwith attractive features somewhat similar to hers, snuggle in closer for protection.Yet they all knew that there would be no protection from whatever wasto 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 slidclosed on the vacant lot. And when that was done—and only after the gate wasclosed and its chain locked—there came the slamming of the van’s front doorsand the sliding open of the rusty side doors of the minivan for the half-dozengirls to exit.
Footsteps could be heard as the girls were herded through the backyardto the back door of the row house, then into their bedrooms. There they, likeAna and Jorgina and Alicia, were kept more or less warehoused, guardedunder lock and key until sent out to work—which could be any hour of theday or night.
Ana did not think that the round-the-clock watch was really necessary. Ifthe fear of being beaten again was not enough to keep the girls from trying toget away, then the threats made against their families certainly was. Proof ofthat 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 havingany 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, thegirls could speak only Spanish—and with no real formal education could barelyread it—and so they had no understanding of exactly where they were andespecially where they could go. Certainly not to the police, whose screamingwoop-woop sirens they heard piercing the night. Back home, they’d learnedpolicía could not be completely trusted.
And so the fear of the unknown was as strong a deterrent as any of the ironshackles or guarded doors.
Ana listened closely for what would happen next.
Usually, El Gato simply stopped in the street, and Amando or Omar orEduardo or Jesús handed over to him the cash—usually in a backpack—andexchanged a few words—or none—and then his Chevrolet Tahoe acceleratedup Hancock and made the turn onto Lehigh Avenue as he headed toward hisnice converted warehouse apartment in Manayunk, a gentrifying middle-classsection on the banks of the Schuylkill River in Northwestern Philly.
Occasionally, however, he came into one of the houses and dealt withwhatever problem there had been that night—most often a girl who had notperformed 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 hedoes, and pray that God may punish him—it is because the marks he puts on usmake 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 hisSUV off the narrow street, its right-side wheels crushing the weeds growing inthe sidewalk cracks—then the engine being turned off. Next came a door beingopened and shut, followed by a short honk that reported a button on the remotehad been pushed to lock the SUV’s doors and activate its alarm.
Ana suddenly realized that the sounds had caused her palms to sweat andthat she had begun to slightly shake. She felt one of the girls, who apparentlyrecognized 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 footfallsquickly pounding up the flight of wooden steps. Finally, the bedroom doorswung open.
Faint light from the streetlights up Hancock bled in through the openwindow, 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, thenheard it make a soft bump as it hit the wooden floor. Ana suddenly curled updefensively in the fetal position. Then, when he grabbed her by the collar ofher T-shirt, the two younger girls back-crawled off the mattress to a dark cornerof the room.
“No . . .” Ana softly said, and whimpered in anticipation of what was aboutto come.
Breathing heavily, Juan Paulo Delgado hovered ominously over her.Ana smelled the alcohol on his breath, some beer probably and what hadto be tequila. She could visualize his cold hard eyes in the dark even though shecould not clearly see them. Then she heard him grunt—and saw his right armin silhouette suddenly swing back, then forward, his palm finding her face. Asshe recoiled, her T-shirt ripped in his left hand.
“No mas! No mas, por favor!” she cried out, wishing that this all was justanother nightmare. But she then felt the sting of his backhanded slap, andshe 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, thenswung 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 faceas 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 beendoing the disgusting work for El Gato, selling her body to repay her passagedebt—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 knewthat 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—andshe recognized the warm sticky fluid as her blood.
As El Gato yelled—there was a furiousness in his voice that she had neverbefore heard, even during the other beatings—she silently prayed, Holy Motherof God, please make him stop.
But he began striking her repeatedly, the sickening thuds of his fist on herface 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 beatingher.
Alicia and Jorgina, fearful El Gato would turn and unleash his fury onthem, tried to silence their whimpering. They watched in the dimness as hewalked back to the doorway, picked up what he’d dropped on the floor, thenreturned 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 heavytape 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 draggedAna’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 andin Spanish softly said, “It will be okay now,” then reached out with his left handand 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 packetsand tossed them to the floor by the girls. Without looking, the girls knew whatthey were.
Each small packet—the size of a business card—was white and had a rubberstamp imprint in light blue ink of a cartoonish block of Swiss cheese, on eitherside of which were three lines that shot outward—not unlike the lines of theirD 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 draggingAna down the stairs. Then the back door opening, then the sliding of theminivan door, then the grating of the wooden slat gate of the lot. There wasa banging of metal tools in the lawn care trailer, then the slamming shut of aminivan door.
The Plymouth spun its wheels in the dirt and gravel of the lot, the tireschirping as it quickly drove off the sidewalk and up the street.
In the now eerie silence of the dirty bedroom, fourteen-year-old Alicia andJorgina clung to each other and started crying uncontrollably.
After a few minutes, Jorgina reached for one of the paper packets. Sheopened 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.
Meet the Author
W. E. B. Griffin is the author of seven bestselling series: The Corps, Brotherhood of War, Badge of Honor, Men at War, Honor Bound, Presidential Agent, and now Clandestine Operations. He lives in Fairhope, Alabama, and Buenos Aires, Argentina.
William E. Butterworth IV has been a writer and editor for major newspapers and magazines for more than twenty-five years, and has worked closely with his father for several years on the editing of the Griffin books. He is the coauthor of several novels in the Badge of Honor, Men at War, Honor Bound, and Presidential Agent series. He lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.
- Coppell, Texas
- Date of Birth:
- November 10, 1929
- Place of Birth:
- Newark, New Jersey
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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What could have been an interesting continuation of his badge of honor series is instead an erratic and awkward storyline. The author insists on recounting previous incidents and information from prior novels; many of which have no real bearing on this story. A glaring flaw in the plot regarding the near decapitation of one of the characters is never explained; indeed scrutiny of the timeline reveals that it never could have happened. One has to assume the author threw it in for shock value and then forgot about it. The conclusion felt rushed and was not of the same quality as Griffin's previous works; all in all, it left a lot to be desired.
I love the books of WEB Griffin, and re-read all of them at least every couple of years. I am somewhat less enamoured of the ones being written by/with his son. The Traffickers was a good read, but shows many signs of having been written in haste and edited carelessly. Typos. Missing words. Major example (this is a paraphrase): There were four women in the room. Three of them were fifteen or under. The third was eighteen. That was written in haste and apparently edited not at all. I love the Badge of Honor series, but it has had continuity problems since the beginning. That being said, I hope there is at least one more book in this series, in which Matt Payne's grandmother Moffett gets put in her place once and for all.
First off, I am a huge Griffin fan. That being said, the editors of G.P. Putnam and especially the editor(s) of this book should be shot. riffin has been a cash cow for Putnam-Penguin for almost 30 years and deserves a far better editing effort than has recently the case. This story is disjointed, poorly structured and faintly ridiculous. There are glaring discrepencies, plot points abruptly terminated, and an absolutely ridiculous romance. If you have been waiting for this book and absolutely have to read it now, I won't blame you for shelling out the money for it (I obviously did), but I would recommend the library, waiting for the paperback (probably out sometime in january) or even better yet pick it up off the remainder rack in about 18 months.
"Let Me Count The Ways..." Loved all the Griffin book series The BADGE OF HONOR series WAS wonderful, until the son of W.E.B. became involved. From this point on, , to quote Charlie Brown; "Good Grief!"with emphasis on the grief. Someone in there loves the expression, "Write This Down..," and uses it repeatedly. The same expression can also be found in the HONOR series with Cletus Frade as protagonist. Other glaring problems: (a) Introduction of the range character with no development except for his hat and a hide-out gun; (b)Matt suddenly changing his characterfrom a focused, motivated, solid man to a maudlin fool; and (c) a terrible affectation by the author(s) with listings of reasons for something using (a), (b), (c), (d) repeatedly (15-20 times)instead of letting the language flow. Result is Lazy, sloppy, page-filling, confusing, and grating on the overall read. Toss in the text messaging, etc, and it becomes a task.. The ending was absolutely ridiculous, because the Payne character would not have reacted like a love-sick, weepy school boy, and no one would have accepted the denoument used to solve the El Gato problem Individual books in this series, like all of them, are written to stand alone, which accounts for the repitition of characters' histories. I understand the reasoning here...as long as the facts are not confused and erroneous. This reminds me of what happened when Ian Fleming died and the publishers tried to find someone to ghost write more books in the series. The result was muddled, and like a "near beer" of novels...close, but not equalling the prior books which were page-turners. I;ll continue to buy his books, but I've also gone to the WEB Griffin website and complained about these very things...maybe someone out there is listening.
Based on the previous attempts by his son to join him this book is right up there or actually right down there. I have come to believe that maybe the son is writing the book and not the father. In a prior review "hamptons657" stated that maybe there should be a gun battle and they can kill off some of the characters. The only one who should be killed off is the SON. If it wasnt for finding glaring mistakes reading this book would be very boring. In the beginning the author talks about how Matts mother met his adoptive father the only problem is that he was with two children one of them was his daughter Amy not as the author stated the he had the daughter with Matts mom. In another scene he talks about the mayor, I'm not sure who he was talking about since Jerry C was no longer the mayor in Final Justice.
This is a good seris but startubg to get stale, as the lsat 3 books seem to be the same, Det Payne finds hot girl, soves csae that only he can find the answers too
A minor league Mexican drug lord know as El Gato, The Cat, brings his drugs, including Cheese, and his underage girls to Philadelphia. El Gato is attempting to copy The Executioner, a real drug enforcer, by whacking off the heads of girls who disobey him. A huckster from a good Philadelphia family who is always working an angle, gets into the meth drug business, but things don't work out. Matt Payne and the gang from homicide become involved. A Texas Ranger joins the group. "The Hat" was funny the first time it was used, but its value diminished with each following use. The story is confined to a two day period, which limits the author's ability to create and tell a good story. Just how much can occur in 36 hours to a limited number of people in one place? The Gulf Cartel, Zetas, and the Executioner were mentioned near the end of the story. "Cheese", a drug used to hook children on heroin is used effectively in the story. The author(s) spent too much time on conversations and text messages between characters, and not enough on expanding the story. America Reborn has a much more exciting drug cartel story line as a sub-plot.
Not as good as previous books, but a good read non the less
Mr. Griffin has always been a "revisionist" in his series, but this particular series is the most blatant to date. He stated the series in the 1973 but with the book prior to this one moved it up to present days. With this book he kept up this practice even though it has been several years since "Final Justice," book number eight, came out the plot takes place just after that novel ends, however the technology in this book is today's. Also this one does not show the usual plot development and characters I have come to expect from Mr. Griffin. My feelings are that most of the writing is now being done by his son not Mr. Griffin. That is somewhat understandable I guess. However if this is any indication, the son is no where near his father as an author.
Badge of Honor is a great series, and this book is right up there. Matt as usual is in the right place at the right time. He finally likes a girl I actually like and think is right for him. Anyone who has watched the intensity with which a twenty something young man can text his girlfriend will relate to that as well. As always, could use better editing, hey I'm available! At least I know who the mayor was in the last book of the series, and that in the original book Matt has two step-siblings and one half-brother. Glad I bought it though, instead of waiting for the library copy. I'm really looking forward to the next Honor Bound series as well. I loved Death and Honor. Except for the last presidential agent book, I think father + son rock.
W.E.B. Junior (W.E.B. IV) is getting better & reads more and more like Daddy W.E.B. At first, I was bothered when the series took the 87th Precinct route of always being current, no matter how much time has passed, but it works for me now. For those not familiar with the series, it began in 1977 (written in the mid-80's) and, several volumes in, jumped to current (as the books are written) so that, although only five years have passed in the novels, they have moved from the 70s to today. Although some of the recurring characters are missing, it's a good police procedural written in Griffin's in-depth, just-in-case-you-didn't-know-this-little-tidbit style. And a new love-interest for Matt Payne makes one wonder what future troubles lie ahead for her (he has amazingly bad luck with girlfriends).
Leave your son out of the writing process. Please!! Too hastily written and like one reviewer too many typos, redundancy, et al.
I will be short with my thoughts on this book. Do not buy, you will be disappointed that W.E.B has let this book go out with his name and could very well discourage you from reading any of his other books.