August may be the month we need thrillers the most: summer fun is winding down, in many parts of the world it’s too hot to do much more than read, and we’re stuck in the doldrums before the start of back-to-school season and the bracing air of autumn. Luckily, the thriller writers of the world have heard our subconscious […]
In Philadelphia—suffering among the country’s highest murder rates—the tension between the Philadelphia Police Department and its Citizens Oversight Committee has long been reaching a boiling point. That turmoil turns from bad to worse shortly after the committee begins targeting police shootings—especially those of twenty-seven-year-old Homicide Sergeant Matt Payne, the “Wyatt Earp of the Main Line”—and then the committee’s combative leader is found shot dead point-blank on the front porch of his run-down Philly row house.
As chanting protesters fill the streets, the city threatens to erupt. Payne, among many others accused of being complicit in the leader’s death, becomes quietly furious. He suspects there’s something deeper behind it all, but what? Ordered to stay out of the line of fire, he struggles ahead to do what he does best—his job. He’s been investigating the murder of a young family. A reporter, working on an illicit drug series for Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Mickey O’Hara, has been killed with his wife and child, a note stapled to his chest warning that the drug stories are to stop. Period. While Payne knows that he, like his pal O’Hara, cannot back down, he also knows that they damn sure could be among the next to die. . . .
About the Author
William E. Butterworth IV has worked closely with his father for more than a decade, and is the coauthor of many books with him, most recently The Last Witness and Hazardous Duty.
Date of Birth:November 10, 1929
Place of Birth:Newark, New Jersey
Read an Excerpt
(and William E. Butterworth IV)
(and William E. Butterworth IV)
(and William E. Butterworth IV)
(and William E. Butterworth IV)
(and William E. Butterworth IV)
(and William E. Butterworth IV)
(and William E. Butterworth IV)
(and William E. Butterworth IV)
(and William E. Butterworth IV)
(and William E. Butterworth IV)
(and William E. Butterworth IV)
(and William E. Butterworth IV)
(and William E. Butterworth IV)
Broad Street and Erie Avenue, North Philadelphia
Monday, December 17, 8:45 P.M.
Matt Payne impatiently squeezed past the small groups of passengers that had just gotten off the subway train cars of the Broad Street Line, and moved with purpose down the tiled concourse toward the exit.
The muscular twenty-seven-year-old was six feet tall and a solid one-seventy-five. His chiseled face had a two-day scrub of beard. Behind black sunglasses, dark circles hung under sleep-deprived eyes.
He wore a Philadelphia Eagles ball cap and a gray hooded sweatshirt with the red TEMPLE UNIVERSITY logotype. Concealed inside the waistband of his blue jeans, at the small of his back, was an Officer’s Model Colt .45 ACP semiautomatic pistol. And in his back pocket, in a black leather bifold holder, were his badge and the Philadelphia Police Department–issued card identifying him as a sergeant of the Homicide Unit.
Taking the subway, which Payne had boarded at the City Hall station after paying the $2.25 fare, hadn’t been his first—or his second—choice. But considering his options at the time, it had seemed the fastest.
And with leads in the killings all but dried up, he had no time to waste.
After exiting the concourse, he took the steps, two at a time, up to street level, then started across the deep gray slush of snow and melted ice that covered the sidewalk.
At the newsstand shack on the southeast corner of Erie and Broad, he quickly tugged a newspaper from a stack topped with a chunk of red brick, stuffing it beneath his left arm, then peeling from his money clip a pair of dollar bills. He handed the cash to the attendant—a heavily clothed elderly black man with leathery hands and a deeply wrinkled face and thin beard—and gestured for him to keep the change.
Payne turned and glanced around the busy intersection.
The storefronts were a blend of bars and fast-food chain restaurants, banks and pharmacies, barbershops and convenience stores. Payne thought that the facades of the aged buildings, as well as the streets and sidewalks, looked much like he felt—tired, worn out.
On Erie, halfway down the block, Payne saw the coffee shop he was looking for—tall stenciled lettering in black and red on its front window read THE DAILY GRIND—then grunted.
On the second floor, above the diner, was a small, locally owned bookstore that had signage advertising WE SHIP TO PRISONS. Directly across the street, a new billboard on a rooftop had in bold lettering REPORT CRIME TIPS! LEX TALIONIS PAYS CASH REWARDS UP TO $20,000—800-LEX-TALN, and, in a strip along the billboard’s bottom, the wording MAKE A DIFFERENCE—BECOME A PHILADELPHIA POLICE OFFICER next to a photograph of the smiling faces of attractive young women and men attending the police academy.
Payne walked quickly to The Daily Grind.
As he pulled on the stainless steel handle of the diner’s glass door, then started to step inside, he almost collided with a grim-faced heavyset Latina in her twenties carrying three waxed paper to-go coffee cups. He made a thin smile, stepped back, made a grand sweep with his free arm for her to pass through the doorway first, then went inside.
It was a small space, permeated by the smell of fried grease and coffee. The only seating was at a stainless steel countertop at the back that overlooked the open kitchen. Elsewhere, customers could stand at the nine round high-top tables and at the worn wooden counter that ran at chest height along the side walls and the front windows.
There were just two customers now, both older men who were seated at opposite ends of the back counter and busy with their meals. An enormous coal-black man in his forties, wearing a grease-stained white apron tied over jeans and a sweaty white T-shirt, stood stooped at the gas-fired grill, his large biceps bulging as he methodically worked a long-handled wire brush back and forth. Flames flared up with each pass.
The cook stopped, looked over his shoulder, saw Payne, called out, “Hey, man, he’ll be right with you,” then turned back to scrubbing the grill.
At the far right end of the counter, under a sign reading ORDER HERE/PAY HERE that hung from the ceiling tiles by dust-coated chains, was the cash register. And just beyond it was a faded emerald green wooden door with TOILET FOR PAYING CUST ONLY!! that appeared to have been handwritten in haste with a fat-tipped black ink permanent marker.
The bathroom door began to swing open, and a brown-skinned male in his late teens stepped out, drying his hands on a paper towel.
Daquan Williams was five-foot-eight, extremely thin, and, under a ball cap with THE DAILY GRIND in stenciled letters across its front, his shoulder-length wavy reddish-brown hair was tied back with a rubber band. He wore black jeans and a tan T-shirt that was emblazoned with a coarse drawing of the Liberty Bell, its crack exaggerated, and the wording PHILLY—NOBODY LIKES US & WE DON’T CARE.
The teenager made eye contact with Payne, nodded just perceptibly, then looked away as he went to the rack of coffeepots. He pulled a heavy china mug from a pyramid-shaped stack, filled it with coffee, then carried it to Payne, who now stood by a window in the front corner of the shop, opposite the door, watching the sidewalk traffic over the top edge of the newspaper as he casually flipped its pages.
The teenager placed the steaming mug on the wooden counter beside a wire rack containing packets of cream and sugar.
“Thanks, Daquan,” Payne said, then yawned widely as he reached for the coffee. “I really need this.”
He held out a five-dollar bill.
Daquan didn’t take it. He nodded toward the enormous cook cleaning the grill.
“Boss man say you don’t pay,” he said, keeping his voice low so as not to be overheard.
“I appreciate that, but I like to pay my way.”
Payne put the money on the counter, then sipped the coffee.
Daquan nodded. He took the bill.
Payne glanced at Daquan’s left ear. What looked like a new diamond stud sparkled in the lobe. Payne considered mentioning it, but instead gently rattled the newspaper cover page.
“So,” Payne said quietly, “what do you know on this hit?”
Daquan’s eyes shifted to the front page of the newspaper, and his facial expression changed to one of frustration.
The photograph showed, behind yellow tape imprinted with POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS, two members of the medical examiner’s office standing at the rear of a white panel van. They were in the process of lifting through the van’s back doors a gurney holding a full body bag. Splashed across the image was the headline: #360. ANOTHER MURDER, ANOTHER RECORD.
The teenager, head down, quickly turned on his heel and marched to the cash register. He punched in the coffee, made change, then carefully closed the cash drawer as he scanned the front door and windows. Then, from beneath the register, he pulled out the busboy cart and rolled it to the front of the diner.
“Your change,” he said in a normal voice, holding the money out to Payne.
“That’s your tip. Keep it.”
Daquan stuffed it in the front pocket of his jeans as he immediately turned his back to Payne. He busied himself clearing the small plates and cups from the nearest high-top table.
“What about the drive-by?” Payne pursued, again speaking quietly as he flipped pages.
“I really can’t say,” Daquan replied, almost in a whisper, without turning around.
“Can’t?” Payne said. “Or won’t?”
“Peeps talk, they get capped. That’s what happened to Pookie. Law of the street. That’s why I texted you now, after they came—”
“Who did it?”
“That’s just it—I don’t know,” he said, then looked over his shoulder at Payne. “Matt, I didn’t even know the dude. They’re threatening me over something I don’t know.”
“Any guess who did do it?”
Daquan turned back to busing the table and shrugged again.
“I heard word that King Two-One-Five knows,” he said.
Payne thought: Tyrone Hooks knows—or ordered it done?
He pulled his cell phone from the back pocket of his jeans, rapidly thumb-typed and sent a short text message, then tucked the phone back.
“When’s the last time you saw your parole officer, Daquan?” he said, picking the newspaper back up.
“Few days ago.”
“It go okay?”
“How’s school coming?”
“Hard, man. Just real hard.”
“One day at a time. You’ll get that GED.”
Daquan then pulled a hand towel and a spray bottle of cleaner from the cart and began wiping the tabletop.
Payne said, “Nice diamond stud. Is it real?”
Daquan stopped wiping.
“Uh-huh. S’posed to be, anyway,” he said, made two more slow circles, and added, “Got my momma something nice for Christmas, and this earring, it was part of the deal.”
“Really,” he said, then moved to the next table. “You know, I’m trying to get my life straight, staying away from the street. You think I like busing tables? Only gig I could find.”
“I know. Remember?”
“Yeah, of course I remember. You know I appreciate the help, man.”
“Keep your nose clean, make it through the probation period, and we’ll work on getting your record cleared. Have the charge expunged. Then we’ll find you something else. Right now, this is good, honest work.”
“You should be proud. Your mother told me she is. Especially now, after Dante’s death . . .”
At the mention of his cousin, Daquan looked over his shoulder at Payne.
Payne saw deep sadness in his eyes. They glistened, and it was obvious that he was fighting back tears.
“I can’t get past that, Matt. We were real close, you know, going way back. Now he’s gone, and I’m here.” He looked down and rubbed his eyes. “But I’m really not here. I’m just a shell walking around.”
Daquan lifted his head, looked at Payne—then his eyes immediately looked past Payne, out the window.
Payne saw the sadness in Daquan’s face suddenly replaced with fear.
“Shit!” Daquan said. “They’re back!”
He grabbed the busboy cart and started pushing it quickly to the back of the diner.
Just then, as Payne turned and looked out the window, the glass front door swung open.
Two teenaged black males wearing thick dark parkas marched in, the first one, tall and burly, raising a black semiautomatic pistol in his right fist.
Payne dropped the newspaper and quickly reached behind his back to pull his .45 out from under his sweatshirt.
Daquan shoved the busboy cart at the pair and then jumped behind the back counter as the tall, burly teenager fired three shots.
The sound of gunfire in the small diner was deafening.
Payne leveled his pistol at the shooter as he shouted, “Stop! Police! Don’t move!”
The ringing in Payne’s ears caused his words to sound odd.
The tall, burly teenager turned and tried to aim at Payne.
Payne instinctively responded by squeezing off two rounds in rapid succession.
The heavy 230-grain bullets of the specially loaded .45 ACP cartridges left the muzzle at a velocity of 1,300 feet per second, and almost instantly hit the shooter square in the chest. Upon impact and penetration, the copper-jacketed lead hollow points, as designed, mushroomed and then fragmented, the pieces ripping through the teen’s upper torso.
The shooter staggered backward to the wall, dropping the gun when he struck the wooden counter there.
The second teenager, who had frozen in place at the firing of the first shots, immediately turned and bolted back out the glass door.
The shooter slid to the floor.
As Payne rushed for the door, he kicked the shooter’s gun toward the back counter. The two customers there were lying on the floor in front of it. The one to the left was curled up in the corner with his back to Payne and, almost comically, shielding his head by holding a white plate over it. The one on the right was facedown and still. Blood soaked the back of his shirt.
The enormous cook, who had ducked below the counter, now peered wide-eyed over its top.
Payne shouted, “Call nine-one-one!” then threw open the door and ran out.
Daquan, blood on his right hand as he gripped his left upper arm, crawled out from beneath the cash register.
Daquan hesitated a moment before moving toward the shooter, who was motionless. He picked up the small-frame semiautomatic pistol from the floor.
The cook stood and shouted, “Daquan, don’t!”
Daquan went out the door.
He turned right and took off down the sidewalk, following Payne.
The storefronts along Erie Avenue gave way to a decaying neighborhood of older row houses. Daquan Williams watched the teenager dart into traffic and dodge vehicles as he ran across Erie, headed in the direction of a series of three or four overgrown vacant lots where row houses had once stood.
He saw that Matt Payne, arms and legs pumping as he picked up speed, was beginning to close the distance between them.
“Police! Stop!” Payne yelled again.
The teenager made it to the first lot off Thirteenth Street, then disappeared into an overgrowth of bushes at the back of it.
Payne, moments later, reached the bushes, cautiously pushed aside limbs, swept the space with his pistol, and then entered.
Daquan started to cross Erie but heard a squeal of brakes and then a truck horn begin blaring. He slid to a stop, narrowly missing being hit by a delivery box truck. It roared past, its huge tires splashing his pants and shoes with road slush from a huge pothole. A car and a small pickup closely following the truck honked as they splashed past.
Daquan finally found a gap in traffic and made his way across.
He ran to the bushes, then went quickly into them, limbs wet with snow slapping at him. One knocked his cap off. The dim light made it hard to see. After a long moment, he came out the other side, to another open lot. He saw Payne, who had run across another street, just as he disappeared into another clump of overgrowth at the back of another vacant lot between row houses.
While Daquan ran across that street to follow, a dirty-brown four-door Ford Taurus pulled to the curb in front of the row house bordering the lot. Daquan dodged the sedan, running behind it, then started across the lot.
Ahead, from somewhere in the overgrowth, he heard Matt Payne once again shouting, “Stop! Police!”
This time, though, was different.
Almost immediately there came a rapid series of shots—the first three sounding not quite as loud as the final two.
Daquan heard nothing more as he reached the overgrowth and then, while trying to control his heavy breathing, entered it slowly. He raised the pistol and gripped it tightly with both hands.
More snow fell from limbs onto his soaked T-shirt and jeans. He shivered as he stepped carefully in the dim light, listening for sounds but hearing only his labored breath. He finally reached the far side.
He wiped snow from his eyes.
And then his stomach dropped.
Matt Payne was lying facedown in the snow.
The teenager, ten feet farther into the vacant lot, was making a blood-streaked path in the snow as he tried to crawl away.
Then he stopped moving.
“Matt!” Daquan called as he ran to him.
Payne turned his head and, clearly in pain, looked up at Daquan.
“Call nine-one-one,” he said. “Say ‘officer down . . . police officer shot.’”
Daquan, now kneeling, saw the blood on the snow beneath Payne.
His mind raced. He looked at the street ahead.
There ain’t time to wait for help.
I’ve gotta get him to it. . . .
“Hang on, Matt.”
Daquan then bolted back through the overgrowth of bushes.
As he came out the far side, he saw the driver of the Ford sedan, a heavyset black woman in her late fifties, leaning over the open trunk, looking over her shoulder as she rushed to remove bulging white plastic grocery bags.
He ran toward her and loudly called, “Hey! I need your car . . .”
The woman, the heavy bags swinging from her hands, turned and saw Daquan quickly approaching.
Then she saw that he was holding a pistol.
She dropped the bags, then went to her knees, quivering as she covered her gray hair with her hands.
“Please . . . take whatever you want . . . take it all . . . just don’t hurt me . . .”
Daquan saw that a ring of keys had fallen to the ground with the bags.
“It’s an emergency!” he said, reaching down and grabbing the keys.
Tires squealed as he made a hard right at the first corner, going over the curb and onto the sidewalk, then did it again making another right at the next intersection. He sped along the block, braking hard to look for Payne down one vacant lot, then accelerating again until braking at the next lot.
He finally found the one with Payne and the teenager—Payne was trying to sit upright; the teen had not moved—and skidded to a stop at the curb.
Daquan considered driving across the lot to reach Payne faster, but was afraid the car would become stuck.
He threw the gearshift into park and left the engine running and the driver’s door open as he ran toward Payne.
He saw that Payne was holding his left hand over the large blood-soaked area of his gray sweatshirt. And, as Daquan approached closer, he saw Payne, with great effort, raise his head to look toward him—while pointing his .45 in Daquan’s direction.
“Don’t shoot, Matt! It’s me!”
“Daquan,” Payne said weakly, then after a moment lowered his pistol and moved to get up on one knee.
Daquan squatted beside him. Payne wrapped his right arm around Daquan’s neck, and slowly they stood.
“This way,” Daquan said, leaning Payne into him and starting to walk.
The first couple of steps were awkward, more stumbles than solid footing, but then suddenly, with a grunt, Payne found his legs.
They managed a rhythm and were almost back to the car when Daquan noticed a young black male in a wheelchair rolling out onto the porch of a row house across the street.
“Yo! What the fuck!” the male shouted, coming down a ramp to the sidewalk. “What’d you shoot my man Ray-Ray for?”
Daquan said nothing but kept an eye on him as they reached the car and he opened the back door. He helped Payne slide onto the backseat, slammed the door shut, then ran and got behind the wheel.
“Yo!” the male shouted again.
As Daquan pulled on the gearshift, he could hear the male still shouting and then saw in the rearview mirror that he had started wheeling up the street toward the car.
And then he saw something else.
“Damn!” Daquan said aloud.
He ducked just before the windows on the left side of the car shattered in a hail of bullets.
And then he realized there was a sudden burning sensation in his back and shoulder.
He floored the accelerator pedal.
Daquan knew that Temple University Hospital was only blocks down Broad Street from Erie Avenue. He walked past it every day going to and from his job at the diner. It wasn’t uncommon for him to have to wait at the curb while an ambulance, siren wailing and horn blaring, weaved through traffic, headed to the emergency room entrance on Ontario Street.
Driving to the ER would take no time. But Daquan suddenly was feeling light-headed. Just steering in a straight line was quickly becoming a challenge.
He decided it would be easier to stay away from Broad Street and its busy traffic.
He approached Erie Avenue, braked, and laid on the horn as he glanced in both directions, then stepped heavily on the gas pedal again.
His vision was getting blurry, and he fought to keep focused. He heard horns blaring as he crossed Erie and prayed whoever it was could avoid hitting them.
By the time the sedan approached Ontario, Daquan realized that things were beginning to happen in slow motion. He made the turn, carefully, but again ran up over the curb, then bumped a parked car, sideswiping it before yanking the steering wheel. The car moved to the center of the street.
Now he could make out the hospital ahead and, after a block, saw the sign for the emergency room, an arrow indicating it was straight ahead.
Then he saw an ambulance, lights flashing, that was parked in one of the bays beside a four-foot-high sign that read EMERGENCY ROOM DROP-OFF ONLY.
Daquan reached the bays, and began to turn into the first open one.
His head then became very light—and he felt himself slowly slumping over.
The car careened onto the sidewalk, struck a refuse container, and finally rammed a concrete pillar before coming to a stop.
Daquan struggled to raise his head.
Through blurry eyes, he saw beyond the shattered car window that the doors on the ambulance had swung open.
Two people in uniforms leaped out and began running toward the car.
Daquan heard the ignition switch turn and the engine go quiet, then felt a warm hand on him and heard a female voice.
“Weak,” she said, “but there’s a pulse.”
“No pulse on this guy,” a male voice from the backseat said. “I’m taking him in . . .”
Then Daquan blacked out.
TWO DAYS EARLIER . . .
Fifteenth and Arch Streets, Philadelphia
Saturday, December 15, 9:55 A.M.
The moment she caught a glimpse in the distance of the iconic steel sculpture towering above the park’s granite fountain—the pop-art twelve-foot-tall bright red letters stacked like so many children’s blocks to spell LOVE—Lauren Childs knew that she absolutely had to be photographed in front of it.
All morning the nineteen-year-old had taken shots with the camera on her cell phone, and then uploaded her favorites to Facebook for her friends to see. She knew that this photograph would be the best yet.
She didn’t know it would be her last alive.
Lauren Childs and her boyfriend, Tony Gambacorta, had come down from Reading, about sixty miles north of Philly. They’d met there in September, as sophomores at Albright College, and began dating almost immediately. Tony, tall and olive-skinned with dark good looks, had been taken by the outgoing personality of the petite fair-skinned blonde with the pixie face. Lauren was open to almost any adventure, and the day trip to Philadelphia had been her idea.
“I want to soak up the holiday magic of the city,” she had told him.
After some window-shopping along Walnut Street in Center City—what the city’s tourism advertisements touted as “the Fifth Avenue of Philadelphia”—they had walked to JFK Plaza, commonly called LOVE Park, which covered an entire tree-filled block across the street from City Hall.
A festive holiday crowd packed its German-themed Christmas Village, which was patterned on Nuremberg’s sixteenth-century Christkindlesmarkt. Rows of Alpine-influenced wooden huts offered traditional German food and drink and holiday wares, and there were live performances by string quartets and dancers in authentic period outfits.
Tony had bought Lauren a genuine Bavarian felt hat, dark green with a brown feather in the hatband, which she now wore at a rakish angle while sipping a warm cup of Glühwein, red wine spiced with clove, cinnamon, and orange. He wasn’t sure if it was the alcohol or the weather—it had snowed heavily the previous night and looked like it might again—that caused her high cheeks and perky nose to glow with a cute rose hue.
Lauren, looking more closely at the area surrounding the sculpture, realized that her idea was far from an original one. There clearly was a line of at least twenty people waiting for a turn before the artwork and the lit Christmas tree behind it. The line wound around the circular granite fountain behind the piece. But she didn’t mind.
She pointed at it.
“What?” he said.
“I want a photo of us in front of that, Tony,” she announced, tilting her head back to look up at him, her bright eyes beaming beneath the brim of green felt.
Over a tight long-sleeved black top she wore a sleeveless white goose-down jacket. Tony, in brown corduroy pants, flannel shirt, and a fur-collared black leather bomber jacket, had on a floppy red-and-white Santa hat.
“Of course you do,” he said, and smiled at her. “You want a photo with everything.”
“Let’s go, then!”
She grabbed his hand and led the way, weaving through gaps in the heavy crowd. As they went, Tony caught the smell of meat grilling, then looked around and saw a trail of smoke drifting up from a wooden hut. Its signage read BRATWURST MIT SAUERKRAUT. He suddenly felt hungry.
They reached the back of the line for the sculpture. After a moment, Lauren realized that it was moving faster than she’d expected. And then she saw why, and smiled: The people in line were helping each other. When someone was ready to pose in front of the artwork, they would hand their camera to the person in line behind them, who then stepped up to take their picture. Then that person would take their turn, and the next in line would take that person’s photo.
Not ten minutes later, Lauren and Tony were kissing in front of the LOVE artwork and the forty-something woman who’d joined the line immediately after them was snapping their picture with Lauren’s cell phone.
Lauren retrieved her phone and thanked the woman. Then, inspecting the images and smiling from ear to ear, she and Tony moved away from the sculpture. After a few steps, Lauren stopped beside the fountain.
“Hold this, babe,” she said, handing him her cup. “This shot is amazing. I want to post it!”
As her fingers flew across her cell phone, she said aloud what she was typing: “At LOVE with my Love in the City of Brotherly Love! Love, love, love this place!”
She looked at him and smiled.
“I’m so happy,” she added.
He leaned over and kissed her rosy cheek.
“And I’m happy you’re happy,” he said, then added: “How about hungry? Those brats back there smelled great.”
“Sure. I can always eat,” she said, taking back her Glühwein and grasping his hand. “Lead on.”
Lauren sipped her wine as Tony worked a path through the thick crowd. It was tight, and he repeatedly smiled politely and said, “Excuse us,” as they brushed past. At one point, he found a gap. He took it, and a moment later bumped shoulders hard with someone he passed. He didn’t see who it was, but he certainly heard it was a male when the guy muttered, “Asshole!”
Still, Tony replied, “Sorry,” and kept moving—until a split-second later he heard Lauren make a terrible moan and felt her grip loosen. She suddenly stopped.
Tony glanced back and said, “You okay?”
At first Tony thought that Lauren had spilled the cup of red wine on herself. But then he saw that the stain on her white jacket was a bright red—and that it was spreading quickly.
She had a look of pain and confusion in her eyes. She slipped down to the granite.
“Lauren!” Tony said.
A woman screamed and backed away as he dropped to his knees and held Lauren. The crowd formed a circle around them.
“Please,” Tony yelled, looking up over his shoulder, “someone call an ambulance!”
Not a minute later, the crowd parted as a uniformed Philadelphia police officer came running up.
“Hang on, Lauren,” Tony said, stroking her head as she just gazed back. Her face had turned pallid, the rosy color on her cheeks and nose gone.
The officer got down on one knee. “I radioed for paramedics. Be here any moment. What happened?”
“I— I don’t know,” Tony said, a tear slipping down his cheek. “We were just walking, then . . . this.” He waved his hand helplessly at the blood-soaked jacket.
“What’s her name?” the officer said, placing his ear close to her nose and mouth.
Tony heard her make a gurgling sound.
“Lauren,” he said.
“Lauren, can you hear me?” the officer said, then raised his voice: “Help is coming! Hold on! Talk to me, Lauren!”
There was no immediate response.
But then a trickle of blood escaped the corner of her mouth and her nostrils. Her eyes became glazed.
The officer put his right index and middle fingertips to the side of her neck for a long moment.
“Oh, shit,” the officer said softly.
Tony jerked his head to look at him.
The officer met his eyes, then looked at Lauren, and slowly shook his head. “I’m really sorry . . .” he said, then automatically crossed himself, touching his right fingers to his forehead, his chest, and then his left and right shoulders.
There were gasps from the crowd.
Tony struggled to breathe. Tears now flowed down both cheeks.
“But . . . but . . .” he said, then cried out, “Lauren!”
Slowly rocking her, he buried his face in her neck and began sobbing.
Sixth and Race Streets, Philadelphia
Saturday, December 15, 10:20 A.M.
Not a half hour later and a dozen blocks away, Melanie Baker, an attractive thirty-two-year-old brunette, had just helped her daughter, Abigail, climb off the seat of a fiberglass replica of a giant bald eagle in flight on the Liberty Carousel.
“Santa now! I want to see Santa!” the six-year-old said, pointing across the snow-covered park to the big white tent nearby. It had a huge sign reading NORTH POLE and a pair of twenty-foot-tall striped candy canes marking the entrance. Elves in green outfits seemed everywhere, most handing out real candy canes to the children.
Melanie looked over her shoulder, scanning the heavy crowd. She glanced at her cell phone and saw that her husband had just sent a text: “Almost there.”
Having forgotten his wallet, he had run a dozen blocks to retrieve it from their apartment in the Northern Liberties section, just north of Center City.
Melanie adjusted the fleece stocking cap, a white one dotted with little green Christmas trees, over Abigail’s sandy blond hair as she looked in her eyes. “You want to wait for Daddy?”
Abigail shook her head. “Santa now? Please?” She pronounced it peas.
Melanie glanced at the big white tent and thought, Well, they probably have heaters in there.
“Okay, Abby, okay,” she said, smiling. “Daddy can catch up. Let’s go see Santa.”
Melanie walked Abigail over to where they had left their stroller with those of the other visitors. She slipped her handbag over the right handle and, holding Abigail’s hand, pushed the stroller through the gate in the low black iron fence that surrounded the carousel. Then they went onto the brick walkway and joined the crowd of families headed to the white tent.
Franklin Square, dating back to 1682, was one of the five original public spaces that William Penn designed when laying out the city. It had gone through rough periods over the years—the worst most recently in the 1960s, when it was a squalid area all but abandoned to the homeless for years on end.
But now the park—which legend held was where in 1752 Ben Franklin had flown the kite dangling a key in a storm and captured electricity from lightning (others said he flew it from the spire of Christ Church a few blocks away)—had again become a family-friendly spot. It featured the city’s only miniature golf course, the carousel, and playgrounds, and, now for the holidays, a child-pleasing Christmas light show that flowed out from the ten-foot-tall kite “flying” above the water fountain and the big white North Pole tent for visits and photographs with Santa Claus.
Abigail was now anxiously pulling her mother toward the tent. They passed the path that led to the miniature golf course; it was roped off, and a sign read CLOSED FOR MAINTENANCE. A loudspeaker on top of a pole on the corner filled the air with the Philly Pops orchestra performing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Standing under the speaker, a green-costumed elf—Melanie noticed he was a young teenager with a bad case of acne—handed out candy canes.
The teenaged boy handed one to Abigail, who said, “Thank you!” then looked up at her mother, grinning as she waved it like a trophy.
“Almost to Santa!” Abigail said, and tugged again on her mother’s hand.
“Almost,” Melanie said, then heard her phone going off. It was the ring tone of Sinatra singing “Fly Me to the Moon” that she recently had linked to her husband’s cell phone number.
“Let’s go faster, Mommy!”
“Hang on, Abby, it’s Daddy calling,” Melanie said, steering the stroller off the crowded brick walkway.
They stopped short of where a great big man with light brown skin sat hunched over on one of the park’s wooden benches. He wore jeans and a black hooded sweatshirt, and was sweating and clearly trying to catch his breath.
As Melanie quickly reached with her free hand into her purse to dig out the phone, the sudden motion made the stroller tip backward. It gained momentum, then slammed to the ground, causing the purse to spill most of its contents, including the phone, which had stopped ringing. The stroller handle also knocked the candy cane from Abigail’s hand, crushing it.
“Damn it!” Melanie blurted, then let go of Abigail’s hand and bent over to pick up everything. The phone began ringing again and she grabbed it first, and answered it: “Hey, meet us at the North Pole tent.”
She listened as she refilled her purse, then said, “I’ll ask her, but she really wants to see Santa,” then turned around to Abigail.
A deep chill shot through Melanie.
Abigail wasn’t standing there.
“Abby!” she called out, standing up and frantically looking around.
Melanie then looked over at the white tent, and walked quickly toward it, scanning the crowd as she went.
Where could she have gone?
Sick to her stomach, Melanie suddenly felt on the edge of throwing up.
She inhaled deeply, then slowly let it out as she looked back to where the stroller lay on the ground. Then she looked farther back—and in the crowd caught a glimpse of a white-and-green cap.
Oh, thank God!
Abigail was walking toward the teenager in the elf costume.
“Abby!” Melanie yelled, running after her.
Abigail kept walking. Melanie thought that the Christmas music blaring from the loudspeaker caused her not to be heard.
Melanie then noticed that the big man who’d been on the wooden bench was also walking toward the teenager in the elf costume, who now was bent over his candy bag.
Then Melanie couldn’t believe her eyes—the big man suddenly reached down and took Abigail by the hand, pulling her around the pole that roped off the path to the miniature golf course.
“No!” Melanie yelled from deep down.
And then in the next instant, Abigail disappeared around the corner.
Melanie screamed, “Help! He grabbed my daughter!”
As people in the crowd began to comprehend what Melanie was saying, a path opened for her, some horrified parents pulling their children into their arms and holding them tight.
The teenager in the elf costume saw Melanie running and yelling. Then he realized that she was looking at him, and pointing past him.
Melanie again screamed, “He grabbed my daughter!”
The teenager looked around the corner, then bolted down the path after them.
A minute later Melanie rounded the corner where the teenager had been standing. The huge loudspeaker began playing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
Melanie’s lungs burned. She had been running down the empty path for what she thought felt like forever. Her mind raced—What will happen to Abby? What if I never see her again?—and then she told herself to think positive thoughts.
I’ll find her. I have to find her.
She came to a sharp curve—and wondered if she was hallucinating.
“Oh my God!” she said, and felt herself running faster than she thought possible.
Abigail, alone, had suddenly appeared around the curve and was walking toward her.
“Come to me, Abby!” Melanie cried, her arms outstretched.
It wasn’t until Melanie held Abigail tightly that she noticed there was blood—it had smeared off the back of Abigail’s winter coat. Melanie frantically pulled off the coat and checked her daughter for wounds. She found none.
Melanie then heard the heavy footfalls of someone running up behind her.
She quickly turned to look.
Two Philadelphia policemen were coming down the path.
3001 Powelton Avenue, Philadelphia
Saturday, December 15, 10:22 A.M.
“Tim, I asked that there not be any more talk about any death threats,” Emily O’Brien said, crouching and pouring water from a plastic pitcher into the Christmas tree stand.
She looked over her shoulder. Her husband leaned against the door frame to the kitchen. He wore a faded navy cotton bathrobe, under which a white T-shirt was visible, and he had his bare feet stuffed into fleece-lined slippers.
“Okay, Tim? Please? Nothing came of the others, and I don’t want that awful feeling of being afraid again. Especially during the holidays.”
Emily, an attractive redhead with pale, freckled skin, stood and crossed the room to him. Getting up on tiptoes, she tenderly kissed her husband of twenty months.
At six-foot-three and two hundred thirty pounds, Tim O’Brien was beefy but soft, a teddy bear of a guy whose idea of a workout was pounding down a couple—or more—pints of Penn Pale Ale after an intense day of researching and writing investigative news stories. Now, having just awoken after a late night out, the reporter’s big hands were wrapped around a steaming mug of black coffee that he cradled to his chest.
“This should be a happy time,” Emily went on, smiling as she met his dark eyes.
“Em, I’m simply repeating what I was told at the office. Just be careful. You should always—not just now because of the threat—be conscious of your surroundings when you’re out. Don’t be distracted by your phone, texting, talking, whatever. The security guys at work call it—”
“Situational awareness,” she interrupted. “I know. I remember from the last two threats after your stories ran.”
He grunted, then leaned down and, dropping a hand to her lower back and pulling her in against him, kissed her deeply. After he let her loose, she smiled and squeezed past him, heading into the kitchen with the empty plastic pitcher. He admired her beautiful figure—wondering when it would start showing signs of her pregnancy—then quickly took two steps after her and swatted her swaying buttocks.
She jumped and squealed, then looked back over her shoulder.
“You’re bad,” she said.
“I do love you, Em. Just want you safe.”
She blushed, then playfully wagged an index finger at him. “But I love you more!”
Tim O’Brien smiled and gently shook his head. Then he took a sip of coffee and for a long moment seriously considered grabbing Emily by the hand and tugging her back to what he figured was probably still a warm bed.
Then he felt a different call of nature, an urgent one.
He glanced at the front door of the eighty-year-old row house that was in the University City section of Philly, just across the Schuylkill River from Center City. The upper third of the wooden door, like those of the other ten homes on their side of the block, framed a glass pane. When they’d moved in—they’d been renting since their senior year, hers at Drexel and his at Penn, both institutions a short walk away—Emily had hung beige lace over the window for some semblance of privacy.
Now, through a gap in the lace, Tim could see a wall of steady snowflakes. He felt a draft as an icy wind whistled in through the door frame. His eyes went lower and he saw, more importantly, that the door’s new heavy-duty dead bolt still was locked.
Tim quickly turned and headed for the half-bath off the hallway.
The tiny room was chilly. Pulling the door shut with his left hand, he flipped the wall switches for the light and exhaust vent with his right elbow. The single bulb in the fixture over the mirror flickered on, then glowed steadily as the old exhaust fan rattled to life in the high ceiling.
Maneuvering his big frame in the cramped space, he hurriedly put the coffee cup on the floor, grabbed the copy of Philly magazine off the cracked porcelain lid of the water tank, adjusted his bathrobe accordingly—then grimaced as he settled onto what felt like a frozen plastic seat.
A few minutes later, as Emily washed and dried plates and glasses and returned them to the cupboard, she thought she heard the sound of knocking. She eased the last dish onto the stack on the shelf with a light clank, then turned her head to listen. Almost immediately there came the sound of rapping on the wooden front door.
“Tim, babe?” she called out over her shoulder. “Can you get that?”
When he didn’t answer, she sighed and walked out of the kitchen. She glanced around the living room, found it empty, then heard the unmistakable rumbling of the bathroom vent fan.
He could be in there for days, she thought, then, as knuckles rapped loudly on the glass pane, quickly turned to look at the front door.
Wiping her hands on a kitchen towel as she walked toward the door, she could make out through the window, silhouetted against the snowfall, the dark forms of two Hispanic-looking men standing on the covered porch. They wore identical uniforms, faded navy blue, that Emily thought looked vaguely familiar. Coming closer, she then saw the company logotype on the breast pocket of one man’s jacket—a cartoon cockroach on its back, legs stiff in the air, bulging Ping-Pong ball–like eyes with black Xs, and the words PETE’S PEST CONTROL.
Did Tim call for the bug guy?
When she pulled back on the beige lace window cover, the larger, heavyset man who had been knocking on the door noticed. He then held up a clipboard and pointed to what looked like a standard order form on it. Emily had a moment to make out, under another representation of the cartoon cockroach, a handwritten “3001 Powelton Ave, U-City” but little more before he pulled it back. The other man had what looked like an equipment bag hanging from his shoulder, his right hand inside it.
He must have, she thought, reaching for the latch of the dead bolt, either him or the landlord . . .
Tim jerked his head when he thought he heard a muffled scream. A moment later, he definitely heard and felt a thump reverberate on the hardwood flooring and then heavy footfalls moving quickly through the house.
What in the hell . . . ? he thought, dropping the magazine and quickly getting off the can.
Then he clearly heard Emily cry out in pain. And then glass breaking and another thump.
“Emily!” he called as he reached for the doorknob.
The bathroom door exploded inward, a dirty tan leather boot splintering the wood. Tim saw that the toe of the scuffed boot was coated in blood. The boot kicked again at the door, holding it wide open.
Filling the doorway was a heavyset Hispanic male in a blue uniform. His face had a hard, determined look—and his right hand held a black, long-bladed weapon. The blade also was wet with blood.
A machete . . . ?
The blade flashed as the man swung it up, then quickly down, striking Tim.
Tim did not immediately notice any pain. But there was an odd smell, almost a metallic one, and a strange warm moistness on his torso. He looked down at his open robe—and saw his T-shirt was slit, a bloody gash along the center of his big belly and a tangle of what looked like bluish-white tubing bulging out from the gash.
Then he heard the man make a deep primal grunt, saw the blade flash again—and for a split second felt something strike hard at the side of his neck.
And then Tim felt . . . absolutely nothing.
Office of the Mayor, City Hall Room 215
1 Penn Square, Philadelphia
Saturday, December 15, 12:36 P.M.
“The bastard killed one of Santa’s elves, Mr. Mayor!” James Finley said, his usually controlled voice now practically a shriek. The frail-looking forty-year-old—he was five-foot-two and maybe a hundred pounds—was head of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Office. “‘Murderer Savagely Slits Throat of Santa’s Elf!’ That’s how the media will play this. And there’s no way we can put a happy face on that!”
From behind his massive wooden desk, Mayor Jerome H. Carlucci, who was fifty-nine, looked at Chief Executive Adviser Edward Stein, Esquire—a slender, dark-haired thirty-year-old who was writing notes on one of his ubiquitous legal pads while leaning against the door frame that led to his office—and then looked to the couch at First Deputy Police Commissioner Dennis V. Coughlin, fifty-one, who met Carlucci’s eyes and raised his bushy gray eyebrows in a gesture that the mayor read as What can I say? There is no way to put a happy face on that.
The close relationship between Jerry Carlucci and Denny Coughlin—they looked as if they could have been brothers, or at least cousins, both tall, heavyset, large-boned, ruddy-faced—went back decades to when Carlucci and Coughlin had been hotshot young cops being groomed for bright futures. Carlucci often boasted that before being elected mayor he’d held every position on the Philly PD except that of policewoman.
Stein and Finley were recent additions to the Office of the Mayor. Neither had been there quite a month.
Finley was pacing in front of the large flat-screen television that was on the wall of the mayor’s elegant but cluttered office. Tuned to Channel 1009, which was Philly News Now around-the-clock coverage on the KeyCom cable system, the muted television showed a live camera shot of Franklin Park.
Behind the intense, goateed, middle-aged African-American reporter speaking into the camera lens was a yellow POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS tape strung across a snow-crusted brick walkway. A uniformed policeman was holding the tape up as two men wearing medical examiner office jackets wheeled under it a gurney carrying what clearly was a full body bag. A small crowd of bystanders watched from the far side of the yellow tape.
Finley, pointing at the screen with his cell phone, went on: “I don’t know how badly this is going to play out, but it’s already absolutely disastrous. God only knows what that monster was going to do to that little girl. A kidnapped child—now that’s a PR nightmare. A horror story that would have media legs forever. And if she were found dead . . . ?”
The image then switched to a live shot of JFK Plaza. Another reporter, this one a large-bosomed blonde in her late twenties, made a solemn face as she spoke into her microphone and gestured toward more yellow crime scene tape in the background.
“And this!” Finley said, pointing to the television again. “Right across the damn street”—he dramatically jabbed his free hand’s index finger in the direction of the park—“a beautiful young woman’s life tragically cut short . . .” He stopped when he realized the word he’d used. “Tragically ended, I should say.”
Finley held his cell phone at shoulder level, waving it as he went on: “Both of the stories are being spread all over social media with the key phrase ‘Stop Killadelphia.’ I can’t repeat the disgusting things people are saying about us. Especially after what that poor girl had just posted—‘My Love in the City of Brotherly Love’ with a beautiful romantic picture—before being murdered in broad daylight! For christsake, it’s Christmas! What is wrong with these people?”
Mayor Carlucci, looking at the city’s new public relations head, thought, Finley’s not suggesting there’s a better time for murdering someone?
But I guess he does have a point.
He can be a real pain in the ass, but Stein swears he’s clever as hell and apparently good at what he does.
Not that that matters to the families of the dead kids.
The mayor then wondered how much of Finley’s dramatics could be attributed to genuine emotion—his hysterical fits already bordered on legendary—or be blamed on alcohol, or both. Finley had announced that he had been enjoying brunch with friends just blocks away in his Washington Square West neighborhood, with plans to walk the shops along Walnut Street for Christmas gifts afterward, when the news broke.
“Our new tourism campaign, well, this is just going to kill it.” Finley paused again. “Oh, damn it, I’m so upset I cannot think or speak properly. And it’s my job to use the proper words.” He gestured at the television once more. “This is going to scare off countless people. Look at this crime scene tape next to one of our most popular tourist attractions. Who wants to celebrate where someone’s been murdered? Or become the next murder victim? This insanity keeps getting worse.”
The room was quiet for a long moment.
“He is right, Mr. Mayor,” Ed Stein said, looking up from his legal pad and tapping it with his pen. He wore a well-cut conservative gray two-piece suit with a white dress shirt and a striped blue necktie. “It is worse. For starters, we’re now at three hundred sixty-two killings for the year. Four more than last year’s total, and it would appear racing for an all-time record.”
Carlucci met his eyes. Stein, who had proved to be both exceptionally sharp and a voice of reason, was starting to grow on him. But the mayor damn sure did not always like what Stein had to say.
Stein picked up on that and shrugged, adding: “It’s why I’m here. It’s why we’re all here.”
While Edward Stein and James Finley were officially listed as being executives on the City of Philadelphia’s payroll, they fell under a unique provision of the law. The mayor, at his discretion, was permitted to have as many staff members as he deemed necessary for the good of the city—as long as the total of their salaries and pension liabilities did not exceed that of his office’s budget for personnel. To that end, Stein and Finley were each receiving a city payroll check once a year in the amount of $1.
Their real income, not including bonuses and stock options, was in the middle six figures—as appropriate for their level as senior vice presidents of a major corporation—and was paid by Richard Saunders Holdings, which had its headquarters at North Third and Arch Streets in Old City.
Thus, the reality of it was that they were on loan to the city by local businessman Francis Franklin Fuller V.
The forty-five-year-old Fuller traced his family lineage to Benjamin Franklin. He enthusiastically embraced everything that was Franklinite, starting with “Richard Saunders,” the pen name Franklin used in writing Poor Richard’s Almanack. Fuller even physically resembled his ancestor. He was short and stout and had a bit of a bulging belly. Tiny round reading glasses accented his bulbous nose and round face.
Fuller had been born into wealth, and had built that into a far larger personal fortune, one in excess of two billion dollars. Under his main company, Richard Saunders Holdings, he owned outright or had majority interest in KeyCargo Import-Exports (the largest user of the Port of Philadelphia docks and warehousing facilities), KeyProperties (luxury high-rise office and residential buildings), and the crown jewel, KeyCom, a Fortune 500 nationwide telecommunications corporation.
His Old City headquarters also housed a nonprofit organization that he funded. A devout believer in the Bible’s “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” Fuller chose the name Lex Talionis, which came from the Latin phrase for “Law of Talion” and essentially translated as “an eye for an eye.”
Tragedy had struck Fuller’s family five years earlier. His wife and young daughter, after making wrong turns and driving their Mercedes-Benz convertible into North Philadelphia West, had become collateral damage, killed in a hail of buckshot from the crossfire of a drive-by shooting. The gunmen were never caught.
A frustrated Fuller responded by setting up Lex Talionis and endowing it with an initial five million dollars. Every Friday—“Payday Friday,” Fuller came to call it—he ran advertisements in local media and all his KeyCom cable channels: “Lex Talionis will reward twenty thousand dollars cash to any individual who provides information that leads to the arrest, conviction, and/or removal from free society of a criminal guilty of murder or attempted murder, rape or other sexually deviant crime, or illicit drug distribution in the City of Philadelphia. Tipsters are provided a unique code to keep them anonymous. Lex Talionis works with the Philadelphia Police Department and courts to protect the identities of those providing the information, ensuring their anonymity.”
Carlucci had not liked it—in large part because it had been almost immediately effective, and thus embarrassed the leader of the East Coast’s second-largest city. At any given time, Philly had approximately fifty thousand criminals “in the wind”—robbers, rapists, junkies, and other offenders who’d jumped bail by ignoring their court date. They then became wanted on outstanding warrants. While some had fled the city, many remained. And when Fuller put a bounty on their heads, the fugitives—either dead or bound and gagged in some makeshift manner—were being dropped at the doorstep of Lex Talionis, and the rewards were promptly being paid.
It wasn’t that Carlucci didn’t want the criminals behind bars—or, in the case of known killers, in a grave. What the longtime law enforcement professional didn’t like was that the cash reward caused civilians to take the law into their own hands.
Carlucci had to use his iron fist—declaring that anyone who did not include the police department in apprehending the criminals would themselves be arrested and prosecuted, and then did so—while at the same time carefully bringing Lex Talionis more or less under the purview of the police department.
Shortly thereafter, Fuller, uninvited, had appeared at Carlucci’s office.
You arrogant sonofabitch! Carlucci thought as he watched Fuller push past the mayor’s secretary and then wave her off. The last thing I want to do is make nice with you.
“No interruptions, please,” Fuller said to the secretary as he closed the office door behind him.
He turned and looked at Carlucci.
“Jerry, I have two words for you.”
Carlucci was on his feet and coming out from behind his desk with his right hand outstretched.
“Frank, to what do I owe the pleasure of this surprise?”
“Hold the bullshit,” Fuller said, sticking his hand up, palm out. “I’ve got a busy day.”
Fuller then gestured with the same hand for Carlucci to take his seat. Fuller settled onto the couch.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for W. E. B. Griffin
“Griffin is one of those writers who sets his novel before you in short, fierce, stop-for-nothing scenes. Before you know it, you’ve gobbled it up.—The Philadelphia Inquirer