PA L M SU N DAY, 1 1 : 5 5 PM
There is a wintry sadness about this one, a deep-rooted melancholy that
her seventeen years, a laugh that never fully engages any sort of
Perhaps there is none.
You see them all the time on the
street; the one walking alone, books
clutched tightly to her breast, eyes
cast earthward, ever adrift in thought. She
is the one strolling a few paces
behind the other girls, content to accept the
rare morsel of friendship
tossed her way.The one who babysits her way through
all the milestones of
adolescence.The one who refuses her beauty, as if it were
name is Tessa Ann Wells.
She smells like fresh-cut flowers.
"I cannot hear
you," I say.
". . . lordaswiddee," comes the tiny voice from the chapel. It
sounds as if I
have awakened her, which is entirely possible. I took her
early Friday morning,
and it is now nearly midnight on Sunday. She has been
praying in the chapel,
more or less nonstop.
It is not a formal chapel, of
course, merely a converted closet, but it is out-
fitted with everything one
needs for reflection and prayer.
"This will not do," I say."You know that it
is paramount to derive meaning
from each and every word, don't you?"
"Consider how many people around the world are praying at
moment.Why should God listen to those who are insincere?"
I lean closer to the door."Would you want the Lord to show you this
contempt on the day of rapture?"
"Good," I reply."What
It takes a few moments for her to answer. In the darkness of the
must proceed by feel.
Finally, she says:"Third."
I light the remainder of the votives. I finish my wine. Contrary to
many believe, the rites of the sacraments are not always solemn
but rather are,many times, cause for joy and celebration.
am just about to remind Tessa when, with clarity and eloquence and
she begins to pray once more:
"Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with
thee . . ."
Is there a sound more beautiful than a virgin at
"Blessed art thou amongst women . . ."
I glance at my watch. It is
just after midnight.
"And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus . .
It is time.
"Holy Mary, mother of God . . ."
I take the hypodermic
from its case.The needle gleams in the candlelight.
The Holy Spirit is
"Pray for us sinners . . ."
The Passion has begun.
"Now and at
the hour of our death . . ."
I open the door and step into the
MO N DAY, 3 : 0 5 A M
There is an hour known intimately to all who rouse to meet it, a
darkness sheds fully the cloak of twilight and the streets fall
silent, a time when shadows convene, become one, dissolve.A
time when those
who suffer disbelieve the dawn.
Every city has its quarter, its neon
In Philadelphia, it is known as South Street.
This night, while
most of the City of Brotherly Love slept, while the
rivers flowed mutely to
the sea, the flesh peddler rushed down South
Street like a dry, blistering
wind. Between Third and Fourth Streets he
pushed through a wrought-iron gate,
walked down a narrow alleyway,
and entered a private club called Paradise.
The handful of patrons scattered
about the room met his gaze, then
immediately averted their eyes.
In the peddler's stare they saw a portal to
their own blackened souls, and
knew that if they engaged him, even for a
moment, the understanding
would be far too much to bear.
To those who knew
his trade, the peddler was an enigma, but not a
puzzle anyone was eager to
He was a big man, well over six feet tall, with a broad carriage
large, coarse hands that promised reckoning to those who crossed
He had wheat-colored hair and cold green eyes, eyes that would spark
bright cobalt in candlelight, eyes that could take in the horizon with
glance, missing nothing. Above his right eye was a shiny keloid scar,
ridge of ropy tissue in the shape of an inverted V. He wore a long
leather coat that strained against the thick muscles in his back.
had come to the club five nights in a row now, and this night he
his buyer. Appointments were not easily made at Paradise.
The peddler sat at the back of the dank basement room at a table
although not reserved for him, had become his by default. Even
Paradise was settled with players of every dark stripe and pedigree,
clear that the peddler was of another breed.
The speakers behind
the bar offered Mingus, Miles, Monk; the ceiling:
soiled Chinese lanterns and
rotary fans covered in wood-grain contact
paper. Cones of blueberry incense
burned, wedding the cigarette
smoke, graying the air with a raw, fruity
At three ten, two men entered the club. One was the buyer;
other, his guardian. They both met the eyes of the peddler.And
The buyer, whose name was Gideon Pratt, was a squat, balding man
his late fifties, with flushed cheeks, restless gray eyes, and jowls
hung like melted wax. He wore an ill-fitting three-piece suit and had
long-gnarled by arthritis. His breath was fetid. His teeth, ocher
Behind him walked a bigger man-bigger even than the peddler.
wore mirrored sunglasses and a denim duster. His face and neck
ornamented with an elaborate web of ta moko, the Maori tribal
Without a word, the three men gathered, then walked down a
hallway to a supply room.
The back room at Paradise was cramped and
hot, packed with boxes
of off-brand liquor, a pair of scarred metal desks,
and a mildewed, ragged
sofa.An old jukebox flickered carbon-blue
Once in the room, door closed, the large man, who went by
street name of Diablo, roughly patted down the peddler for weapons
wires, attempting to establish a stratum of power. As he was doing
the peddler noted the three-word tattoo at the base of Diablo's neck.
It read: MONGREL FOR LIFE. He also noticed the butt of a chrome Smith &
Wesson revolver in the large man's waistband.
Satisfied that the peddler was
unarmed and wore no listening
devices, Diablo stepped away, behind Pratt,
crossed his arms, and
"What do you have for me?" Pratt
The peddler considered the man before answering him. They
reached the moment that occurs in every transaction, the instant
the purveyor must come clean and lay his wares upon the velvet.
peddler reached slowly into his leather coat-there would be no
moves here-and removed a pair of Polaroid pictures. He handed
to Gideon Pratt.
Both photographs were of fully clothed, suggestively
black girls. The one called Tanya sat on the front stoop of
her row house,
blowing a kiss to the photographer. Alicia, her sister, vamped
beach in Wildwood.
As Pratt scrutinized the photos, his cheeks
flared crimson for a
moment, his breath hitched in his chest. "Just . . .
beautiful," he said.
Diablo glanced at the snapshots, registering no
reaction. He turned
his gaze back to the peddler.
"What is her name?"
Pratt asked, holding up one of the photos.
"Tanya," the peddler
"Tan-ya," Pratt repeated, separating the syllables, as if to sort
essence of the girl. He handed one of the pictures back, then glanced
the photograph in his hand. "She is adorable," he added. "A
one. I can tell."
Pratt touched the photograph, running his
finger gently over the
glossy surface. He seemed to drift for a moment, lost
in some reverie,
then put the picture into his pocket. He snapped back to the
back to the business at hand. "When?"
"Now," the peddler
Pratt reacted with surprise and delight. He had not expected this.
"She is here?"
The peddler nodded.
Gideon Pratt straightened his tie, adjusted the vest over
his bulging stomach, smoothed what little hair he had. He took a deep breath,
finding his axis, then gestured to the door. "Shall we?"
The peddler nodded
again, then looked to Diablo for permission.
Diablo waited a moment, further
cementing his status, then stepped to
The three men exited the
club, walked across South Street to Orianna
Street. They continued down
Orianna, emerging into a small parking
lot between the buildings. In the lot
were two vehicles: a rusted van
with smoked-glass windows and a late-model
Chrysler. Diablo put a hand
up, strode forward, and looked into the windows
of the Chrysler. He
turned, nodded, and Pratt and the peddler stepped up to
"You have the payment?" the peddler asked.
Gideon Pratt tapped
The peddler looked briefly between the two men, then reached
the pocket of his coat and retrieved a set of keys. Before he could
the key into the van's passenger door, he dropped them to the
Both Pratt and Diablo instinctively looked down, momentarily
In the following, carefully considered instant, the peddler bent
to retrieve the keys. Instead of picking them up, he closed his
around the crowbar he had placed behind the right front tire earlier in
evening. When he arose, he spun on his heels and slammed the steel
into the center of Diablo's face, exploding the man's nose into a
scarlet vapor of blood and ruined cartilage. It was a surgically
blow, perfectly leveraged, one designed to cripple and incapacitate
not kill. With his left hand the peddler removed the Smith &
revolver from Diablo's waistband.
Dazed, momentarily bewildered,
operating on animal instinct
instead of reason, Diablo charged the peddler,
his field of vision now
clouded with blood and involuntary tears. His forward
motion was met
with the butt of the Smith & Wesson, swung with the full
force of the
peddler's considerable strength. The blow sent six of Diablo's
the cool night air, then clacking to the ground like so many
Diablo folded to the pitted asphalt, howling in agony.
warrior, he rolled onto his knees, hesitated, then looked up,
"Run," the peddler said.
Diablo paused for
a moment, his breath now coming in staggered,
sodden gasps. He spit a
mouthful of blood and mucus.When the peddler
cocked the hammer of the weapon
and placed the tip of the barrel to his
forehead, Diablo saw the wisdom of
obeying the man's order.
With great effort, he arose, staggered down the road
Street, and disappeared, never once taking his eyes from the
The peddler then turned to Gideon Pratt.
Pratt tried to strike a
pose of menace, but this was not his gift. He
was facing a moment all
murderers fear, a brutal computation of his
crimes against man, against
"Wh-who are you?" Pratt asked.
The peddler opened the back door of
the van. He calmly deposited
the gun and the crowbar, and removed a thick,
cowhide belt. He wrapped
his knuckles in the hard leather.
"Do you dream?"
the peddler asked.
"Do . . . you . . . dream?"
For Detective Kevin Francis Byrne of the Philadelphia Police
Homicide Unit, the answer was a moot point. He had tracked
Gideon Pratt for a long time, and had lured him into this moment with precision
and care, a scenario that had invaded his dreams.
Gideon Pratt had raped and
murdered a fifteen-year-old girl named Deirdre Pettigrew in Harrowgate Park, and
the department had all but given up on solving the case. It was the first time
Pratt had killed one of his victims, and Byrne had known that it would not be
easy to draw him out. Byrne had invested a few hundred hours of his own time and
many a night's sleep in anticipation of this very second.
And now, as dawn
remained a dim rumor in the City of Brotherly Love, as Kevin Byrne stepped
forward and landed the first blow, came his receipt.
Twenty minutes later they were in a curtained emergency room
Jefferson Hospital. Gideon Pratt stood dead center, Byrne to one side,
staff intern named Avram Hirsch on the other.
Pratt had a knot on his
forehead the size and shape of a rotted plum,
a bloodied lip, a deep purple
bruise on his right cheek, and what might
have been a broken nose. His right
eye was nearly swollen shut. The front
of his formerly white shirt was a deep
brown, caked with blood.
As Byrne looked at the man-humiliated, demeaned,
caught-he thought about his own partner in the Homicide Unit,
daunting piece of ironwork named Jimmy Purify. Jimmy would have
this, Byrne thought. Jimmy loved the characters, of which Philly
have an endless supply. The street professors, the junkie
hookers with hearts of marble.
But most of all, Detective Jimmy Purify loved
catching the bad guys.
The worse the man, the more Jimmy savored the
There was no one worse than Gideon Pratt.
They had tracked Pratt
through an extensive labyrinth of informants,
had followed him through the
darkest veins of Philadelphia's netherworld
of sex clubs and child
pornography rings. They had pursued him with the
same sense of purpose, the
same focus and rabid intent with which they
had stepped out of the academy so
many years earlier.
Which was just the way Jimmy Purify liked it.
him feel like a kid again, he said.
In his day Jimmy had been shot twice, run
over once, beaten far too
many times to calculate, but it was a triple bypass
that finally took him
out. While Kevin Byrne was so pleasantly engaged with
James "Clutch" Purify was resting in a post-op room in Mercy
tubes and drip lines snaking out of his body like Medusa's
The good news was that Jimmy's prognosis looked good. The sad
was that Jimmy thought he was coming back to the job. He wasn't.
No one ever
did from a triple. Not at fifty. Not in Homicide. Not in Philly.
I miss you,
Clutch, Byrne thought, knowing that he was going to meet
his new partner
later that day. It just ain't the same without you,man.
It never will
Byrne had been there when Jimmy went down, not ten, powerless
away. They had been standing near the register at Malik's, a
bricks hoagie shop at Tenth and Washington. Byrne had been
their coffees with sugar while Jimmy had been macking the
Desiree, a young, cinnamon-skinned beauty at least three musical
Jimmy's junior and five miles out of his league. Desiree was the only
reason they ever stopped at Malik's. It sure as hell wasn't the
One minute Jimmy had been leaning against the counter, his
girl rap firing on all eight, his smile on high beam. The next minute
was on the floor, his face contorted in pain, his body rigid, the fingers
his huge hands curling into claws.
Byrne had frozen that instant in his
mind, the way he had stilled few
others in his life. Over his twenty years on
the force, he had found it
almost routine to accept the moments of blind
heroism and reckless
courage in the people he loved and admired. He had even
come to accept
the senseless, random acts of savagery delivered by and unto
These things came with the job: the steep premium to justice
was the moments of naked humanity and weakness of flesh, however,
could not elude, the images of body and spirit betrayed that
beneath the surface of his heart.
When he saw the big man on the
muddied tile of the diner, his body
skirmishing with death, the silent scream
slashed into his jaw, he knew
that he would never look at Jimmy Purify the
same way again. Oh, he
would love him, as he had come to over the years, and
he would listen to
his preposterous stories, and he would, by the grace of
God, once again
marvel at Jimmy's lithe and fluid abilities behind a gas
grill on those sweltering
Philly summer Sundays, and he would, without a
moment's thought or hesitation, take a bullet to the heart for the man, but he
knew immediately that this thing they did-the unflinching descent into the maw
of violence and insanity, night after night-was over.
As much as it brought
Byrne shame and regret, that was the reality of
that long, terrible
The reality of this night, however, found a dark balance in
mind, a delicate symmetry that he knew would bring Jimmy
peace. Deirdre Pettigrew was dead, and Gideon Pratt was going to
the full ride. Another family was shredded by grief, but this time
killer had left behind his DNA in the form of a gray pubic hair that
send him to the little tiled room at SCI Greene. There Gideon
would meet the icy needle if Byrne had anything to say about it.
course, the justice system being what it was, there was a fifty-fifty
that, if convicted, Pratt would get life without parole. If that
to be the case, Byrne knew enough people in prison to finish
the job. He
would call in a chit. Either way, the sand was running on
Gideon Pratt. He
was in the hat.
"The suspect fell down a flight of concrete steps while he
to evade arrest," Byrne offered to Dr. Hirsch.
wrote it down. He may have been young, but he was
from Jefferson. He had
already learned that, many times, sexual predators
were also quite clumsy,
and prone to tripping and falling. Sometimes
they even had broken
"Isn't that right, Mr. Pratt?" Byrne asked.
Gideon Pratt just
stared straight ahead.
"Isn't that right, Mr. Pratt?" Byrne
"Yes," Pratt said.
"While I was running away from
the police, I fell down a flight of
steps and caused my injuries."
wrote this down, too.
Kevin Byrne shrugged, asked: "Do you find that Mr.
are consistent with a fall down a flight of concrete steps,
"Absolutely," Hirsch replied.
On the way to the
hospital, Byrne had had a discussion with Gideon
Pratt, imparting the wisdom
that what Pratt had experienced in that
parking lot was merely a taste of
what he could expect if he considered a
charge of police brutality. He had
also informed Pratt that, at that
moment, Byrne had three people standing by
who were willing to go on
the record that they had witnessed the suspect
tripping and falling down
the stairs while being chased. Upstanding citizens,
In addition, Byrne disclosed that, while it was only a short ride
the hospital to the police administration building, it would be the
few minutes of Pratt's life.To make his point, Byrne had referenced a
of the tools in the back of the van: the saber saw, the surgeon's
the electric shears.
And he was now on
A few minutes later, when Hirsch pulled down Gideon Pratt's
and stained underwear, what Byrne saw made him shake his head.
Pratt had shaved off his pubic hair. Pratt looked down at his groin,
back up at Byrne.
"It's a ritual," Pratt said. "A religious ritual."
exploded across the room. "So's crucifixion, shithead," he said.
"What do you
say we run down to Home Depot for some religious supplies?"
At that moment
Byrne caught the intern's eyes. Dr. Hirsch nodded,
meaning, they'd get their
sample of pubic hair. Nobody could shave that
close. Byrne picked up on the
exchange, ran with it.
"If you thought your little ceremony was gonna stop us
from getting a
sample, you're officially an asshole," Byrne said. "As if that
was in some
doubt." He got within inches of Gideon Pratt's face. "Besides,
all we had
to do was hold you until it grew back."
Pratt looked at the
ceiling and sighed.
Apparently that hadn't occurred to him.
Byrne sat in the parking lot of the police administration building,
braking from the long day, sipping an Irish coffee. The coffee was cop-shop
rough. The Jameson paved it.
The sky was clear and black and cloudless above
a putty moon.
He'd steal a few hours sleep in the
borrowed van he had used to lure
Gideon Pratt, then return it to his friend
Ernie Tedesco later in the day.
Ernie owned a small meat packing business in
Byrne touched the wick of skin over his right eye. The scar felt
and pliant beneath his fingers, and spoke of a pain that, for the
was not there, a phantom grief that had flared for the first time
years earlier. He rolled down the window, closed his eyes, felt the
of memory give way.
In his mind, that dark recess where desire and
revulsion meet, that
place where the icy waters of the Delaware River raged
so long ago, he
saw the last moments of a little girl's life, saw the quiet
horror unfold . . .
. . . sees the sweet face of Deirdre Pettigrew. She is
small for her age, naïve
for her time. She has a kind and trusting heart, a
sheltered soul. It is a sweltering
day, and Deirdre has stopped for a drink
of water at a fountain in Harrowgate
Park.A man is sitting on the bench next
to the fountain. He tells her that
he once had a granddaughter about her age.
He tells her that he loved her very
much and that his granddaughter got hit
by a car and she died.That is so sad,
says Deirdre. She tells him that a car
had hit Ginger, her cat. She died, too.The
man nods, a tear forming in his
eye. He says that, every year, on his granddaughter's
birthday, he comes to
Harrowgate Park, his granddaughter's favorite
place in the whole
The man begins to cry.
Deirdre drops the kickstand on her bike and
walks to the bench.
Just behind the bench there are thick bushes.
offers the man a tissue . . .
Byrne sipped his coffee, lit a cigarette. His
head pounded, the images
now fighting to get out. He had begun to pay a heavy
price for them. Over the years he had medicated himself in many ways-legal and
not, conventional and tribal. Nothing legal helped. He had seen a dozen doctors,
heard all the diagnoses-to date, migraine with aura was the prevailing
But there were no textbooks that described his auras. His auras
not bright, curved lines. He would have welcomed something like
His auras held monsters.
The first time he had seen the "vision" of
Deirdre's murder, he had
not been able to fill in Gideon Pratt's face. The
killer's face had been a
blur, a watery draft of evil.
By the time Pratt
had walked into Paradise, Byrne knew.
He popped a CD in the player, a
homemade mix of classic blues. It
was Jimmy Purify who had gotten him into
the blues. The real thing, too:
Elmore James, Otis Rush, Lightnin' Hopkins,
Bill Broonzy.You didn't
want to get Jimmy started on the Kenny Wayne
Shepherds of the world.
At first Byrne didn't know Son House from Maxwell
House. But a lot
of late nights at Warmdaddy's and trips to Bubba Mac's on
the shore had
taken care of that. Now, by the end of the second bar, third at
he could tell the difference between Delta and Beale Street and
and St. Louis and all the other shades of blue.
The first cut on
the CD was Rosetta Crawford's "My Man Jumped
Salty on Me."
If it was Jimmy
who had given him the solace of the blues, it was
Jimmy who had also brought
him back into the light after the Morris
A year earlier,
a wealthy young man named Morris Blanchard had
murdered his parents in cold
blood, blown them apart with a single shot
each to the head from a Winchester
9410. Or so Byrne had believed,
believed as deeply and completely as anything
he had understood to be
true in his two decades on the job.
interviewed the eighteen-year-old Morris five times, and each
time the guilt
had risen in the young man's eyes like a violent sunrise. Byrne had directed the
CSU team repeatedly to comb Morris's car, his dorm room, his clothing. They
never found a single hair or fiber, nor a single drop of fluid that would place
Morris in the room the moment his parents were torn apart by that
Byrne knew that the only hope he'd had of getting a conviction was
confession. So he had pressed him. Hard. Every time Morris turned around,
Byrne was there: concerts, coffee shops, studying in McCabe Library. Byrne had
even sat through a noxious art house film called Eating, sitting two rows behind
Morris and his date, just to keep the pressure on. The real police work that
night had been staying awake during the movie.
One night Byrne parked outside
Morris's dorm room, just beneath
the window on the Swarthmore campus. Every
twenty minutes, for eight
straight hours, Morris had parted the curtains to
see if Byrne was still
there. Byrne had made sure the window of the Taurus
was open, and the
glow of his cigarettes provided a beacon in the darkness.
sure that every time he peeked he would offer his middle finger
the slightly parted curtains.
The game continued until dawn. Then,
at about seven thirty that
morning, instead of attending class, instead of
running down the stairs
and throwing himself on Byrne's mercy, babbling a
Blanchard decided to hang himself. He threw a length of
towrope over a
pipe in the basement of his dorm, stripped off all his
clothes, then kicked
out the sawhorse beneath him. One last fuck you to the
system. Taped to
his chest had been a note naming Kevin Byrne as his
A week later the Blanchard's gardener was found in a motel
Atlantic City, Robert Blanchard's credit cards in his possession,
clothes stuffed into his duffel bag. He immediately confessed to
The door in Byrne's mind had been locked.
first time in fifteen years, he had been wrong.
The cop-haters came out in
full force. Morris's sister Janice filed a
wrongful death civil suit against
Byrne, the department, the city. None of
the litigation amounted to much, but
the weight increased exponentially
until it threatened to break him.
newspapers had taken their shots at him, vilifying him for weeks
editorials and features. And while the Inquirer and Daily News and CityPaper had
dragged him over the coals, they had eventually moved on. It was The Report-a
yellow rag that fancied itself alternative press, but in reality was little more
than a supermarket tabloid-and a particularly fragrant piece-of-shit columnist
named Simon Close, who had made it personal beyond reason. For weeks after
Morris Blanchard's suicide, Simon Close wrote polemic after polemic about Byrne,
the department, te police state in America, finally closing with a profile of
the man Morris Blanchard would have become: a combination Albert Einstein,
Frost, and Jonas Salk, if one were to believe.
Before the Blanchard
case, Byrne had given serious consideration to
taking his twenty and heading
to Myrtle Beach, maybe starting his own
security firm like all the other
burned-out cops whose will had been
cracked by the savagery of inner-city
life. He had done his time as interlocutor
of the Bonehead Circus. But when
he saw the pickets in front of
the Roundhouse-including clever bons mots such
as burn byrne!-he
knew he couldn't. He couldn't go out like that. He had
given far too
much to the city to be remembered that way.
And he waited.
There would be another case to take him back to the
Byrne drained his Irish, got comfortable in his seat. There was
reason to head home. He had a full tour ahead of him, starting in just
few hours. Besides, he was all but a ghost in his own apartment
days, a dull spirit haunting two empty rooms. There was no one there
He looked at the windows of the police administration
amber glow of the ever-burning light of justice.
Pratt was in that building.
Byrne smiled, closed his eyes. He had his man,
the lab would confirm
it, and another stain would be washed from the
sidewalks of Philadelphia.
Kevin Francis Byrne wasn't a prince of the
He was king.