TWO

Philadelphia Police Headquarters Eighth and Race Streets, Philadelphia Wednesday, September 9, 4:04 P.M.

“On behalf of the department, Sergeant Byrth, allow me to say that it’s an honor for us to be able to help out our Texas brethren in any way,” Lieutenant Jason Washington intoned as he shook the Texas Ranger’s hand. “Any friend of Liz Justice, et cetera, et cetera. And I have the utmost confidence that Sergeant Payne here will see to it that you have everything you need during your visit to the City of Brotherly Love.”

Payne, as he’d promised Washington on the phone, had brought Byrth to the Homicide Unit on the second floor of the Roundhouse. The three were in Washington’s glass-walled office.

“I appreciate that very much, Lieutenant,” Jim Byrth replied.

“And, please, call me Jason,” Washington said, waving them both into chairs.

Byrth nodded once. “Only if you’ll call me Jim.”

“Very well, Jim.” Washington paused, and looked to be gathering his thoughts. “I have some understanding as to why you’re here.”

“Yes, sir,” Byrth said, but his inflection made it more of a question.

“And I’m afraid you may have arrived a little late,” Washington went on.

“I don’t follow you.”

“Just shy of noon today, one of our Marine Unit vessels recovered the headless body of a young Hispanic female from the Schuylkill River.”

“Fuck!” Byrth angrily blurted. His face was clearly furious-his squinted eyes cold and hard, his brow furrowed.

“Sonofabitch,” Payne added with his own look of disgust.

Byrth then relaxed somewhat and said, “Jason, please forgive that outburst, it’s just-”

Washington motioned with his right hand in a gesture that said, No apology necessary. “That word has been thrown around here once or twice. Even I, in a fit of anger or frustration, have been known to make use of it.”

“I’m not apologizing,” Payne said. “That’s just despicable. What animal does that? And to a young girl?”

“I want this guy bad,” Byrth said.

Washington looked Byrth in the eyes a long moment, then said, “As unsettling as the thought is, there’s always the possibility that it’s another doer. But whoever did it, I agree with you, Jim. We both, as you say, want him bad.”

“Any details on the victim yet?” Payne said.

“Very little, Matthew,” Washington said. “Only that she was found in a black garbage bag weighted with dumbbells. Apparently, the current had pushed her onto a shoal in the river.”

“Jesus!” Payne said, shaking his head. Then he said, “Has the media got its hands on the story?”

Washington shook his head. “We’ve squashed it.”

“Story like that is going to get out,” Payne said. “It’s too sensational.”

“Agreed,” Byrth said. “And it’s just what we don’t want. It’d be better if the doer thinks she’s still at the bottom of the river.”

“Jason,” Payne then said, “I’ve been giving Jim background on what a typical boring day it’s been around here today-”

Washington grunted.

“-and,” Payne went on, “I’d planned on giving him an overview of what we have in the way of working cases and of assets he might find helpful. I thought that part of that would be showing him the Executive Command Center. Now, with this news, that seems essential. You see any problem with us using the ECC?”

Washington was quiet a moment as he considered that.

Then he picked up the phone and punched a short string of numbers.

“Commissioner Walker? Jason Washington. Sorry to bother you, sir, but I have what I fear may be an unusual request.” He paused to listen. “Yes, sir. I do appreciate that. But I thought it best to ask, if only to give you a heads-up. Commissioner Coughlin has Sergeant Matthew Payne-” He paused again, having apparently been interrupted. Washington’s eyes glanced at Matt as he went on: “Yes, sir, that Payne. As I was saying, the commissioner has Payne working a special project. And Payne has requested access to the ECC.” He paused to listen, then added, “Understood, sir. He would of course relinquish control if it were needed by the police commissioner or others.” He listened, then finished by saying, “I will indeed tell him, sir. Thank you for your time and your help.”

Washington hung up the phone and looked at Payne.

“Okay, Matthew, the ECC’s laid on for you. All you need to do is call up there first to make sure that either Corporal Rapier or his assistant is available to run the machines. And in the event something comes up, you’re to relinquish use to whoever needs access.”

“Got it,” Payne said as he began to stand. “Thank you, Jason.”

“Just stay out of trouble, Matthew.” He looked at Byrth. “You do realize you’re running with dangerous company, Jim?”

Byrth smiled.

“I’ll take my chances,” he said as he stood up. “Thanks again for your hospitality, Jason.”

Washington leaned back in his chair as he watched Payne lead the Texas Ranger across Homicide. Payne stopped at an unoccupied desk and used the phone to call Corporal Rapier.

That Byrth is an interesting man, Washington thought.

But there was something in his eyes when he said, “I want this guy bad.”

What could that be about?

Or am I projecting something on him that’s not really there?

Because I also really want this doer bad.

Corporal Kerry Rapier was at his electronic control console when Sergeant Payne and Sergeant Byrth entered the Executive Command Center on the third floor.

“Hey, Matt!” Rapier said. “So you’re coming to play with my toys?”

“I’ll let you play with them, Kerry. We’ll just watch.” He looked to Byrth. “Sergeant Jim Byrth, this is Corporal Kerry Rapier.”

The big Texan held The Hat in the crook of his left arm as he nearly crushed the right paw of the tiny blue shirt.

“Pleasure,” Byrth said with a nod.

When they had finished, and Rapier was flexing his hand to get the blood flowing again, Rapier said, “You’re not from around here, are you, Sergeant?”

Payne said, “Jim’s a sergeant with the Texas Rangers.”

Byrth shifted The Hat under his arm and looked around the room. “Nothing gets past you, does it, Corporal?”

Rapier grinned.

“Glad you noticed,” he said. Then, with a tone that showed professional pride, he began: “We have one of the finest command centers in the country-”

“For which we have you in part to thank, Jim,” Payne interrupted.

“How so?”

“Your tax dollars. The fine folks in Washington sent us all kinds of federal funds to ramp up for the protection of the Democrats’ national convention here.”

“How damned kind of them,” Byrth said dryly.

Rapier went on officiously: “We have approximately four million dollars invested in all of the electronics. That is just in this room and what’s on the roof. There’s another couple million worth of commo equipment-cameras to radios-in the field. We can accommodate fifty-two officers at these conference tables, and another forty in the seating along the walls.”

“That’s one helluva crowd,” Byrth said.

Rapier nodded. “That’s capacity, from Philly cops to the feds. We generally run with maybe half that many people, all Philly cops. The Secret Service, FBI, and DHS have their own war rooms in Philly, of course.”

“Of course,” Byrth said, shaking his head.

Rapier waved at the banks of frameless flat-screen TVs. They were dark.

“Sixty-inch high-definition LCDs, nine to a bank, with the capability of up to twenty-seven unique video feeds. We can have live feeds from all sorts of unclassified and classified sources, everything from our helos in the sky down to the bomb squad robots. All absolutely secure.”

He moved his hands over the control console.

“Let me show you the various live video feeds,” he said.

He threw a bank of switches. The darkened flat-screen TVs all blinked to life.

When the main screen of nine flat panels lit up with a single huge image, Payne could not help but let out a laugh. He thought he was going to wet his pants.

Rapier looked up from the console-and his face lost all color.

“Dammit!” Corporal Kerry Rapier said. “I’m, uh, I’m really sorry about that, Sergeant Payne. Particularly it happening in front of a Texas Ranger.”

“What is that?” Byrth said.

Rapier looked somewhat nervously at Payne.

Payne grinned. He turned to Byrth and said, “Looks to me like an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Right, Kerry?”

“Yeah,” Rapier said, clearly embarrassed. He gestured to a notebook computer on the console. “I’ve got the series saved on my personal laptop’s hard drive. It’s wired to the console here. When you called just now, I was on my afternoon break and watching…”

“No harm done, Kerry,” Payne said, still grinning. “I’m actually a fan, too. Especially of Sweet Dee.”

The sitcom revolved around a boneheaded crew of schemers trying to run an Irish bar called Paddy’s Pub-the worst bar in South Philly, if not all of Philly. Corporal Kerry Rapier glowed at Payne’s mention of the name of the white-hot but dim-witted blond main character.

Payne described her to Byrth.

“Ah,” Byrth said. “She’d be what a buddy of mine would call ‘a radio station.’”

“A what?”

“One anyone can pick up, especially at night,” Byrth said with a grin. “You know, naturally horizontal.”

Payne and Rapier chuckled.

Rapier punched a button on the console and the main bank of TVs with the show on it went dark.

Payne then said: “How about punching up whatever you have on the girl they pulled out of the Schuylkill.”

“So, you heard about that?” Rapier said. “They’ve put that case on a need-to-know basis.”

“I know,” Payne said. “And we’re on that need-to-know list.”

Rapier considered that a moment, then nodded. There was no need to call and have it confirmed. Everyone knew Sergeant Payne was Homicide-and with friends in high places. Even if he wasn’t on the list, Rapier figured he’d probably have quietly honored Payne’s request anyway.

Rapier then manipulated switches on the console, and the aerial image of the river with the Marine Unit’s Boston Whaler came up. The shot was frozen.

In the lower right-hand corner of the screen, a block of text popped up:

Schuylkill River at Grays Ferry Avenue Bridge 1158 hours, 24 Sept “As you can see by the time stamp,” Rapier said, “this is from earlier, during the recovery of the body.”

He threw another switch, and the image went into motion. The silver twenty-four-foot-long Boston Whaler, its light bar flashing red and blue, slowly moved backward. A shoal in the river became visible. The vessel then turned. The camera captured images of the officers onboard the boat pulling in a very full and very large black trash bag.

“Jesus!” Payne said.

“Yeah,” Rapier said. “Disgusting, huh? Toss away a human being like so much trash.”

“Is there anything else, any other details, on this case besides what’s on the text block?” Byrth said.

“Very little,” Rapier replied. “There are some shots of the medical examiner coming on the scene, but nothing of note. Javier told me…” He paused and looked at Payne.

Payne said, “Javier Iglesia. I know him.” He looked at Byrth. “He’s a technician in the Medical Examiner’s Office. Good guy, even though his humor runs on the really dark side.”

Rapier then went on: “Javier told me the body is that of a Hispanic female. He said he’s guessing that she can’t be even twenty years old. They haven’t done the autopsy yet. But they did take her fingerprints, and ran them.” He looked at his wristwatch. “That was almost two hours ago, so we should know at any time if we got a match on IAFIS.”

The Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System was run by the FBI. With more than 55 million subjects-voluntarily submitted by local, state, and federal law-enforcement agencies-it was the largest biometric database in the world. Accessible twenty-four/seven year-round, it could on a good day provide a response to the submission of a criminal ten-print fingerprint within a couple hours.

“With any luck, we’ll get a hit,” Corporal Rapier said. “Then it’s ‘In God We Trust-everyone else we run through NCIC.’ ”

Byrth chuckled.

“Amen to that,” he said.

Like IAFIS, the National Crime Information Center also was maintained by the FBI and available to law enforcement at any time. Its database contained critical records on criminals, including fugitives, as well as stolen property and missing persons. The data was provided by the same sources as those feeding IAFIS, plus whatever courts were authorized to contribute and some foreign law-enforcement agencies.

Then Byrth said, “If the doer is who I think it is, I wouldn’t hold your breath on getting that hit, Corporal.”

“Can I ask why?” Rapier said.

“The guy I’m hunting likes to lop off the heads of undocumented aliens. My money is on the real possibility that this poor girl has no paper trail.”

Rapier looked at him but didn’t know what to say. He looked to Payne.

“There was one other thing Javier did say,” Rapier added.

“What?” Byrth immediately said.

Rapier looked to Payne, who made a face that said, Well? “He noticed something unusual as he casually inspected the body before putting it in the body bag,” Rapier said.

“What?” Byrth repeated.

“Grass clippings. Javier told me that it was weird but there were some grass clippings, you know, where her head had been.”

“That is weird,” Payne said. “Maybe she was dragged through grass at some point? Or they were in the garbage bag?”

“No, not loose clippings,” Rapier said. “More like deep in the bone. Like what cut her was a tool that had had grass on the blade. And that grass got embedded.”

Payne looked at Byrth, who raised his eyebrows and made a face that said, Hell if I know…

They were all silent a moment. They looked absently at the other two banks of TVs. These showed the local and cable news show broadcasts, and the DOT highway and city traffic shots. Payne scanned the feeds. He found the ones of the Philly Inn, the Reading Terminal Market, and the Temple University Hospital. Their imagery was frozen.

“Anything else in particular you wanted to see?” Corporal Rapier said.

“Panel eighteen,” Payne said. “Is that what I think it is?”

Rapier punched a button on his console and the image on panel eighteen was replicated on the main bank of TVs, taking the place of the body recovery by the Marine Unit on the Schuylkill River. And Rapier punched another button, unfreezing the somewhat grainy black-and-white exterior shot of the Temple University Hospital.

Payne turned to Byrth as the cars and people began moving.

“This is the hospital I told you about,” Payne said.

Then the Hispanic assassin in royal blue scrubs kicked open the exit door and ran down the street.

“And that’s the sonofabitch I shot this morning!”

They watched the scene unfold.

When it was over, and started to loop, Byrth whistled.

“Pretty impressive, Marshal Earp. And that was a nice dodge of that taxi.”

“Not really,” Payne said. “I mean, I didn’t get the sonofabitch off the street.”

“Internal Affairs came and got a copy of that,” Corporal Rapier said. “I don’t know squat about how they do their job-I’ve heard some good stories, some horror ones-but that loop should get you cleared quickly.”

“Thanks, Kerry. I certainly hope so.” He looked back at the other banks of screens. “Can you put up the Philly Inn?”

Rapier did. And then for Byrth’s benefit, Payne went over the main facts of that scene. Rapier filled in any gaps. Then they did the same with the Reading Terminal Market scene.

When they had finished, Byrth grunted. “Almost as busy as one of our days just on the south side of Houston.”

“Still no surveillance imagery from the Reading Terminal Market,” Rapier then said. “But there are new images of evidence from the scene.”

“Such as?” Payne said.

“Still digital photos of the spent shell casings. And the drugs. Let me punch it up.”

Rapier manipulated the console and the main image replicated the smaller one from panel number sixteen. The image of the Reading Terminal Market on-screen now was updated with a still shot taken at the crime scene. It even included rubber-gloved investigators working it.

The text box popped up in the right-hand corner, and Payne’s eyes went to the text, which read:

Cause: Shooting. one hundred percent probability drug-related. heroin-based product recovered at the scene. also 42 5.7- x 28-mm shell casings and 10 9-mm shell casings, and a Rwuger P89 9-mm semi-auto pistol.

Payne noticed that the underlines looked like they were hyperlinks. Rapier was manipulating an on-screen cursor over them.

“Those are hyperlinks?” Payne said.

“Yeah. As the information is added to the master case file, the links are added. These links weren’t there earlier. This is sweet. Watch.”

He clicked on RUGER P89 and an image of the pistol popped up as an inset. Along the bottom of the image frame was a series of digitized buttons.

The pistol was on a concrete floor, an inverted V plastic marker beside it bearing a black numeral 44. The pistol’s slide was in the full-back locked position, indicating the semiautomatic had fired all of its bullets.

“They shoot these with digital cameras, taking four overlapping angles so we can construct on the computer a three-dimensional rendering. Watch.”

He worked the joystick on the console. The pistol practically spun on the screen, allowing almost all angles of view.

Payne said, “Now, that’s pretty cool.”

“Yeah,” Rapier said proudly. “And if there’s detail on the evidence, you can drill down. Like this…”

He moved the cursor to the series of digitized buttons. He clicked on the one with a question mark on it. A text box popped up over the image of the pistol. It was translucent; they could still see the pistol. The text read:

Ruger P89 9-mm semiautomatic pistol.

Serial Number R34561234

Sold 02 JUN Seller: Philadelphia Archery and Gun Shop, 831–833 Ellsworth Street, Phila., Penna.

Buyer: Harold Thompson, 1201 Allendale St, Phila., Penna.

Notes: Owner Thompson Reported Weapon Stolen 15 AUG from Owner’s Personal Vehicle Parked in Front of Allendale St. Residence.

“Jesus,” Payne said somewhat disgustedly. “Another careless owner lets his gun get stolen, and not two weeks later it kills innocent people. Another reason why citizens probably shouldn’t be allowed to have guns.”

Byrth raised an eyebrow. “I take it you don’t believe in the Second Amendment, Matt?”

“To a degree. But with all the illegal guns and shootings in this city? Are you kidding me?”

Rapier said, “Matt-”

Byrth interrupted him. “That didn’t answer my question. So you’re telling me that the guns are the problem? You just said ‘it’ killed.”

Payne looked at him a long moment.

“You’re telling me,” Byrth pursued, “that if a law were passed that miraculously made every gun go away-poof! — all the problems would disappear, too?”

“It wouldn’t hurt,” Payne said more than a little lamely. He motioned toward the TV. “This gun wouldn’t have been on the street.”

“Matt-” Rapier began again.

“Let me see if I can finish that thought,” Byrth interrupted him again. “Only cops should have guns, right? Because only they can use and care for them reasonably. Because cops never make mistakes.” He paused. “I guess you missed that little anecdote from the Super Bowl. The FBI boys at the Holiday Inn?”

Matt shook his head.

Byrth explained: “The hotshots left their cache in the van in the parking lot. Long about oh-dark-thirty, while they were having sweet G-man dreams of their hero J. Edgar Hoover, their van got burgled. The thief made off with four.308-caliber sniper rifles, a pair of fully auto M4 carbines, and-you’ll appreciate this, Marshal-a pair of Springfield.45s. The thief then sold ’em all to his cousin the drug dealer.”

“Jim, I’m not suggesting that that doesn’t-”

“Wait,” Byrth interrupted, putting up his hand, palm out, “I’m on a roll here. And maybe you missed that hilarious video clip of the DEA agent with the dreadlocks. He’s in a classroom setting, wearing the obligatory T-shirt with the big D-E-A lettering in case anyone should forget who they are. And he’s warning the students how dangerous guns are, that only the select few should have access to them. Then, to demonstrate, he pulls out his Glock-and promptly puts a round through his foot. Then he commences with what we real professionals call the I-Just-Shot-Myself Silly Dance.”

“Hey, I’ve got that on my laptop, attached to an e-mail,” Corporal Rapier said. “It is pretty funny. Want me to punch it up on-screen?”

He immediately regretted speaking when he saw Payne’s expression.

“Matt,” Byrth said, “I’d suggest you do a little research. Take a look, for example, at our friends in England. They passed a law that pretty much turned every citizen’s gun into scrap metal. And you know what then happened? Crime went up. So now the brilliant political minds in Parliament that brought gun control are tinkering with a law banning the carrying of pocketknives. Why? Because that’s become the punks’ new assault weapon of choice.”

“That’s a bit of comparing apples and oranges.”

“Is it really? And when they ban pocketknives, what next? Cardboard box cutters? Those came in pretty handy on the aircraft that the terrorists hijacked on 9/11. The problem is not the weapon.”

“Look, Jim, I take your point,” Payne said. “I still maintain, however, that this Ruger would not-”

“Matt,” Rapier now interrupted, “I’ve been trying to tell you that Harold Thompson is a Twenty-fourth District blue shirt.”

Payne did not say anything for a very long moment. Then he laughed.

“Okay, okay. I surrender.”

Jim Byrth sighed, then said, “Matt, I apologize for all that. I’m the guest here.”

“No apology necessary. I guess I deserved that,” Payne said. He smiled. “Besides, I’ve been known to let loose with some strong opinions myself. Political correctness be damned.”

He looked at Rapier. “Let’s get back to the images.”

“You got it,” Rapier said, and clicked on 5.7- X 28-MM SHELL CASINGS.

An image of scattered spent shell casings popped up in another inset.

“That 5.7-millimeter round was developed by FN to pierce body armor,” Rapier said. “You don’t see many of them.”

“That’s because there’re only about five weapons chambered for the five-point-seven round,” Byrth said. “If we find one, odds are those casings will belong to it. Click on the smack link, would you?”

They watched as Rapier moved the cursor to HEROIN-BASED PRODUCT. The image of the white packets scattered on the concrete floor appeared.

“Is that the best shot?” Byrth said. “Can you do what you did with the three-dimensional shot of the Ruger?”

Rapier clicked on a button that had a plus sign on it. The image zoomed in on one of the white packets. Then he used the joystick to turn the packet so that they had a better view of it.

The packet had a rubber stamp imprint in light blue ink of a cartoonish block of Swiss cheese. To either side of the cheese block were three lines that shot outward. Above the cheese was a legend in blue ink.

“Queso azul,” Payne read, then said, “That’s the blue cheese you told me about.”

“Bingo,” Byrth said.

“What’s blue cheese?” Rapier said.

“Cold medicine mixed with black tar heroin and sold to kids at two bucks a bump,” Payne said. He looked at Byrth and asked, “What’s with the three lines on either side? They look like cartoon sun rays.”

“Whiskers.”

“Whiskers?”

Byrth nodded. “El Gato. Cat whiskers. That’s his product. So it’s here. But where the hell is he?”

“Jesus,” Payne said. He added, “You think he shot up the market?”

“Could’ve been anyone,” Byrth said. “Anyone with a five-point-seven weapon. It’s certainly not outside the scope of what the bastard is capable of doing.”

Payne was looking back at the bank of screens with the various TV news broadcasts. The feed from the local FOX News channel showed images of the Philadelphia Fire Department at work. Firemen were battling extraordinarily large flames from two vehicles ablaze in a vacant lot adjacent to run-down row houses. Between the roaring fires and the wall of water being pumped at them, it was difficult to distinguish what type of vehicles they were.

Text along the bottom of the screen read: EARLIER TODAY IN WEST KENSINGTON, FIREFIGHTERS FOUGHT TO EXTINGUISH THE FLAMES FROM TWO VEHICLES. AUTHORITIES SAY ARSON WAS THE CAUSE.

Matt felt a vibration in the front pocket of his pants. He pulled out his cellular phone and saw that he had a text message. The color LCD screen read: AMY PAYNE-1 TXT MSG TODAY @ 1730.

He went to it: AMY PAYNE

We still on for Liberties… 6ISH?

Payne looked again at the time stamp.

Five thirty.

That’s right. She said meet at six.

We can still beat her there.

He typed and then sent: see u @ 6 “I think we’re finished here for now, Kerry,” Payne said, slipping the phone back into his pocket. “Thanks for your help.”

“Anytime.”

Payne looked at Jim Byrth.

“How about we go get a few fingers poured of your choice of adult intoxi cants? If we get to Homicide’s unofficial favorite spot early enough, we can enjoy our beverages before She Who Is Always Right arrives. Then we can bounce some of this off her.”

Byrth nodded appreciatively. “I could use a little something to cut the dust, Marshal.”

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