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[ ONE ] West Rittenhouse Square Center City Philadelphia Thursday, January 5, 1:55 P.M.
“Target is moving,” the man behind the wheel of a white Chevrolet panel van called back through the partition after reading the burner phone’s text message. “Get ready.” The driver—a short, small-framed, skinny male in his mid-thirties who wore faded blue overalls and a black woolen knit cap—had parked almost an hour earlier at the curb in front of the iconic Smith & Wollensky steak house. After walking around the van and placing two reflective orange safety cones at the front and rear bumpers, he had returned to the driver’s seat and waited for the signal on the throwaway mobile telephone. The position gave him an unobstructed view twenty yards up the red-bricked drive to the valet kiosk and the entrance of The Rittenhouse, a high-rise that housed a five-star hotel and ultra-luxury condominiums. If Center City was considered the wealthiest section of America’s fifth-largest city—and it unequivocally was—then The Rittenhouse, overlooking the heavily treed and expensively landscaped Rittenhouse Square Park, which William Penn first designed in the seventeenth century, was without question one of the city’s classiest addresses. The white panel van had magnetic three-foot-square signage on its front doors that read keycom cable tv install contractor, penna. license 3-246. Just to the left of the passenger door signage, midway up the body of the van, was a chromed, twelve-inch-square door, above which was a sticker with red lettering: a/c power 110 volts only! Inside the back of the van, behind the chromed door, sat an obese, olive-skinned forty-year-old with a puffy, pockmarked face and thinning, greased-back hair. He wore a gray hooded sweatshirt and heavy denim workman’s overalls and was slumped in a heavy chair that had been salvaged from an Italian restaurant’s dumpster. The wooden chair was bolted to the metal floor of the van directly behind the passenger seat, the chair’s back to the partition. Across his lap he held a black Remington twelve-gauge pump shotgun that had a short polymer pistol grip mounted in place of the longer standard shoulder stock. “What’s he doing?” the obese man said. “It’s they,” the driver said. “Target’s got some jagoff with him.” Approaching the kiosk were two well-built, clean-cut men in their early thirties, one blond and the other dark-haired, both over six feet tall and dressed somewhat identically in sweaters, blue jeans, and pointed-toe Western boots. The man in the back chuckled. “Sucks to be that guy,” he said. He fought the urge to crack open the chromed door, from which they had removed the original plug receptacle, and have a quick look. “They’re getting their car at the valet stand,” the driver said. “About damn time,” the obese man replied, then inhaled deeply. “This smell of grilled steak is making me starved.” “Tell me about it,” the driver said, nervously drumming his gloved fingers on the steering wheel. “We’re gonna eat like kings after this job.” The driver watched as one of the three valets—That really is one fine-looking bitch to be parking cars, he thought—trotted to the far leg of the A-shaped drive, where more than a dozen vehicles were neatly backed into a row of parking slots along the drive’s exit. She passed a silver Bentley Mulsanne sedan, which was at the far end, and a red Aston Martin Vanquish coupe before getting into a glistening black Cadillac SUV. “It’s an Escalade,” the driver said. “And that Caddy’s brand-fucking-new. Still got the window sticker on it.” She quickly maneuvered the enormous SUV around the fountain in the center of the drive and brought it to a stop in front of the two tall men at the kiosk. The valet hopped down from the driver’s seat and stood erect, putting her right hand, palm out, against her lower back as she held open the door with her left. One of the male valets went to the front passenger door, opened it, and assumed the same erect stance. The dark-haired male came around the SUV, handed the valet what looked like a tip, then got in behind the wheel. “Target is getting in the passenger seat,” the van’s driver said, starting the engine and pulling the gearshift down into low. “Got it,” the obese male replied, then, after a moment, grunted and added, “Not that it’s gonna matter much where the bastard sits.” The man in back then began shuffling his feet in order to sit up in the chair. He racked the action of the shotgun, loading a round of double-aught buckshot into the breech with a solid, metallic Ka-Chunk-Chunk! He then rotated the weapon onto its side, dug his gloved hand into a pocket, came out with another round of double-aught, and shoved it through the slot in the bottom, topping off the magazine tube. The van driver saw the brake lights of the Escalade illuminate, then the backup lights briefly flash once, indicating the vehicle was being shifted into drive. The SUV started rolling—then, twenty feet later, its brake lights lit up again and it came to a stop. “What the hell?” the driver said. “What?” the man in back said. “Hang on.” Beyond the kiosk, a tall blonde in a long dress emerged from the building. She looked to be in her thirties, and moved quickly toward the SUV. When the passenger reached his arm out the window, she handed him a thick envelope. Then the blonde blew a kiss, smiled and waved, and turned back toward the building. “Okay, finally we’re going!” the driver said. As he began taking his foot off the brake, he quickly checked the mirror on his door for traffic—and saw a black Porsche 911 fast approaching with its right-turn signal blinking. “Shit!” he said, pressing hard on the brake pedal. The Porsche’s horn briefly sounded twice, then the car cut across his front bumper and went up the drive, pulling in behind the Escalade. The SUV began to circle the fountain at the top of the drive. The van driver checked his mirror again and saw a line of four cars. “Aw, come on . . .”
“While that might be a valid point, Chad, right now I really don’t give a damn what my doctor says,” Matt Payne said, steering the 911 into the just vacated spot in front of the valet kiosk. He was talking on his smartphone via the Porsche’s audio system, the device plugged into the car’s USB port. “The incision where they worked fixing the bullet damage still oozes a little, mostly around the sutures, but I’m getting better.” Payne was a lithely muscled twenty-seven-year-old who stood six-foot and a solid one-seventy-five. He had deep, intelligent eyes and dark, thick hair that he kept clipped short. He wore a white, long-sleeved knit polo shirt and khakis, with brown suede chukka boots and a navy fleece jacket. Under the jacket, a Colt .45 ACP Officers Model semiautomatic pistol hung beside his left bicep from a leather shoulder holster. A bifold wallet held his Philadelphia Police Department ID card and badge. “I’m really on Amanda’s shit list right now,” Payne went on. “If I’m going to surprise her with this condo that just got put on the market, I’ve got to do this meeting now—before someone goes and leases the damn thing out from under me. Then I can just get the rest of my stuff that wouldn’t fit in Amanda’s out of my place around the corner.” To meet a City of Philadelphia requirement that members of the police department reside within the city limits, Payne had been paying his father a pittance to live in a tiny apartment in the garret of a brownstone overlooking Rittenhouse Square. The mansion, which had been in the Payne family since being built one hundred fifty years earlier, had had its three lower floors converted to modern office space and now housed the Delaware Valley Cancer Society. Watching the valet trot over to his door, Payne put the Porsche’s stick shift in neutral and reached between the seats and pulled up on the hand brake. He left he engine running. “I’ve got to go. Call you later,” he said. He broke off the connection by tapping the icon on the in-dash multifunction screen, then unplugged the phone from its cradle in the console. The valet pulled the door open and assumed the erect stance. “Welcome back, Mr. Payne,” she said. He stepped out of the vehicle, wincing at the sharp pain from the wound. The valet noticed. “Are you all right, sir?” she said, her facial expression one of genuine concern. “Yeah, fine. Melody, right? Thanks for asking. Indigestion, I think.” He smiled at her—then, hearing the squeal of tires spinning behind him, jerked his head toward the street. Payne saw that the white panel van he had just passed was racing away from the curb, an orange traffic cone flying off its front bumper. And, a moment later, he watched it screech to a dead stop in front of the Cadillac Escalade, which was approaching the brick drive’s exit, about to pull onto the street. The Escalade, its path now blocked, also screeched to a stop. Payne then saw a chromed door in the side of the van swinging open. A black tube poked out of the hole. What the hell? “Everyone get down!” Payne shouted, pulling the valet prone behind the nose of the Porsche and using his body to shield her. He reached inside his jacket and tugged the .45 from the shoulder holster. At that exact moment there came the Boom! of a shotgun blast. Payne heard the distinctive sounds of the piercing of metal and the shattering of glass. There were screams as people ran for cover, many fleeing into the park. Payne looked over the Porsche’s hood when he heard the Escalade’s engine roar. He saw the SUV surging toward the van. There then came another shotgun blast right before the SUV rammed the van. The Escalade bounced off it, careened to the right, and accelerated down the street. The van, tires squealing, raced after the Escalade. Payne scanned the area as he got to his feet. With his free left hand, he helped Melody stand up. He walked her quickly over to the kiosk, behind which the others were crouching. “You okay?” he said, releasing her arm. “Yeah. Think so,” she said, her voice shaking. “Thanks.” Payne, running back around the Porsche, scanned the area. He did not see anyone injured. But he clearly saw that the passenger door windows of the Bentley were shattered and there was a defined bullet hole in its crazed windshield. That’s not from birdshot, Payne thought. That’s buckshot. He then heard behind him a woman yelling: “What’s happening? Was that Johnny?” Payne turned and looked. Jesus. Is she fucking nuts? It was the tall blonde he more or less recalled walking away from the Escalade when he had pulled up. He had not paid her any particular attention; Center City crawled with really good-looking women and he had been distracted by his phone conversation. But now he saw that she was extremely attractive and elegantly dressed. Her sweeping dress and long hair flowed behind her as she rushed out from the high-rise and past the kiosk. “Police!” Payne shouted at her from beside the door of the Porsche, which was still open. He held the .45 in his right hand, muzzle up and trigger finger along its slide, and pointed with his left toward the building entrance. “Stay back!” As the woman passed Melody, the valet intercepted her and tried persuading her to return to the building. Payne squeezed in behind the wheel, wincing again at the sharp pain. After putting his phone and pistol on the passenger seat, he threw the stick shift into first gear, hitting the gas pedal while dumping the clutch. The 911 leapt into motion and went screaming around the top of the drive. He caught a glimpse of the attractive blonde forcing her way past the valet and heading toward the street. Payne shook his head. She must be crazy . . . or have a death wish. He laid steadily on the horn as he approached the brick drive’s exit and then turned onto the street. Ahead, the battered van now was racing almost side by side with the SUV. The two vehicles were quickly nearing the T intersection that was at the southwest corner of Rittenhouse Square. A line of nineteenth-century buildings loomed directly ahead. Around the corner was the brownstone with bronzed signage reading delaware valley cancer society. There’s no room for both to make that turn, Payne thought. Damn—they could hit my place. Payne then saw the black tube again slide out of the chromed door on the right side of the van. He waited for another shotgun blast—but then the Escalade swerved hard into the van. The impact caused the van to go up on the sidewalk and almost into the park. The Escalade then sharply veered right. The driver overcorrected—and the SUV slid sideways, its right tires clipping the opposite curb, causing the SUV to tip and then roll onto its roof. Sonofabitch! Payne thought. Sparks sprayed out from the Escalade as it slid down the street and then onto the sidewalk. It struck a tree and a lamppost, causing it to spin. Its rear end then slammed into the heavy stone wall of one of the two-hundred-year-old buildings. The impact compressed and then ripped open the fuel cell. Gasoline flowed out, then erupted in flames. The white van braked and skidded sideways as it returned to the street. It then managed to make the left turn, passing within feet of the upside-down SUV. Billows of dense black smoke now rose above the thick orange-and-red flames coming from the rear of the vehicle. Payne had just decided on the closest spot ahead that he could park in order to extricate whoever was in the SUV. But then he saw two blue shirts—Philadelphia police officer, detective, and corporal ranks wore uniforms with blue shirts; higher ranks, including the commissioner, wore ones of white—run out of the park and approach the scene. They passed more people who were fleeing into the park. One of the officers was yelling into the Police Radio microphone clipped to the epaulet of his shirt. Nearing the intersection, Payne waited until the last second before braking hard and downshifting, then shot through the turn, the all-wheel-drive sports car hugging the street as if it was riding on rails. He accelerated quickly after the van. Ahead, more people bolted from the crosswalks and sidewalks as the van approached Eighteenth Street. The van then made a right onto Eighteenth, tires squealing again as its rear end fishtailed.