by Norsebard




This hard-drivin' action drama belongs in the Uber category. All characters are created by me though they may remind you of someone.

This story contains a vast amount of genre-typical profanity. Readers who are easily offended by bad language may wish to read something other than this story.

This story contains plenty of dramatic scenes typical of the genre and the occupation of the lead characters. Readers who are disturbed by this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.

All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.



Written: January-February 2019.

- Thank you very much for all your hard work, Phineas Redux :)

- This is the third part of the main Carlyle trilogy. The first two stories (Ea$y Come, Ea$y Go and White, Red & Blue) can also be found right here at the Royal Academy Of Bards. The three stories should be read in chronological order because of certain details and characters that are carried over to the following one.

As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D

Description: Over the course of six-and-a-half hectic days and nights, the lives of five women suddenly connect as they all cross paths with three professional gangsters who'll stop at nothing to carry out the plans of their ruthless mob boss. A gofer for a crime syndicate, a pair of easy-going street-hustlers, a disillusioned patrol cop and a senior nun with the Order of the Sisters of Mercy all find themselves drawn into a web of action, drama and near-tragedy in the sprawling metropole of Carlyle - the City That Never Sleeps…





October twelfth; ten past midnight. It was only five degrees above freezing, and a chilly breeze and intermittent, spitting rain made being outdoors an unpleasant and uncomfortable experience.

Most residents of Greater Carlyle had dug their winter clothes out of their wardrobes as the usual suspects of the chilly season had ganged up on the bustling metropole. The summer had been unusually hot and humid; the winter would inevitably be cold. Snow had yet to fall, but everyone knew it would only be a matter of time before the wet, white flakes would cover the rooftops, the parks and the intricate cobweb of streets cris-crossing the city. For the latter, the pretty powder would soon turn dirty, then slushy to mirror the sorry state of the rest of the concrete jungle and the people living in it.

The stores selling warm clothes found no better business in Carlyle than around the neighborhood known as North Tijuana. The natural center of attention for Spanish-speaking blue-collar workers hailing from all over the Americas was as far removed from the arid, scorching hot city that had lent it its name as was humanly possible - it showed in the countless layers of warm clothing worn by all and sundry who dared to venture outside in the near-freezing temperatures.

East Sixteenth Street was close to the depressing decrepitude of Skid Row, but the zones were so different they might as well have been on different planets. Home to proud, tough working-class citizens, North Tijuana was a squeaky-clean neighborhood where the residents took great care of each other and their surroundings. Volunteers would patrol the streets at regular intervals to make sure no riff-raff would spill over from Skid Row and into their little corner of the universe. The residents worked long hours in hard jobs to support their multi-generational families, and they would not accept anyone from beyond the zone to exploit them for criminal activities.

Still, even the tireless efforts of the volunteer patrols could not stop the basic human needs from existing, or even blossoming given the right nurture. Wherever needs arose, the appropriate service would soon follow: drugs were delivered by bicycle couriers rather than scruffy pushers with greasy hair and pasty skin. Male and female sex workers came by taxi cab rather than being propositioned under the street lamps, and gambling addicts would be visited by their bookmakers' agents when they wished to place bets on the horses, the greyhounds or just the Numbers game instead of visiting dangerous, seedy establishments.

An old wisdom among experienced and rookie gamblers alike said that for each winner, fifty would lose their shirt, ten would lose their teeth and one would lose his or her life.

Thus, it came as no surprise to anyone who had ever placed a bet on anything when a black Lincoln Navigator SUV featuring tinted windows and chrome wheels turned off Beauregard Street and trickled along East Sixteenth. The elegant though bulky vehicle belonged to the DiSorrento crime syndicate; everyone knew that, and everyone knew that violence would soon follow in the wake of wherever one of the SUVs appeared.

It never drove faster than ten miles per hour as the driver seemed to search for the exact address. The SUV soon came to a halt and slotted into a gap between two family cars.

Patricia 'Patty' Hawkins put the shifter into neutral and turned off the engine. The windshield wipers slid down into their lower stop; the spots of rain had eased off so there was no need for them any longer.

Silence spread at once. She used the moment of quiet before the inevitable storm to look out onto the street that was illuminated by a handful of well-maintained lamp poles. The lateness of the hour and the blue-collar nature of the neighborhood meant that only a few lights were on in the apartments of the seven-story brownstone across the strip of asphalt. Some were steady; some flickered on and off like they were being produced by a television set.

The wispy columns of pale-gray steam that rose from the street's grated rain gutters and many manhole covers proved how chilly it was. A taxi cab driving slowly down the street looking for fares disturbed the air and created impressive vortexes among the pale-gray clouds. The swirling patterns lingered for several long moments before the rising warm air brought everything back to normal - then another taxi cab disturbed them all over again.

Patty took her hands off the steering wheel to flex her fingers. Though she wore black leather gloves, her digits were colder than ice. Not even the SUV's air-conditioning unit going at maximum heating could defeat the chill that ran through her bones. She needed to swallow several times to combat the rising bitter tide brought on by the nervousness and dark thoughts coursing around inside her.

She was a murderer, she was a pill addict, she was homeless and she wished she could be anywhere else in the world at that exact moment in time doing anything but what she was expected to do. She was also at the mercy of a leader of a crime syndicate who had no scruples, no heart and no intentions of ever letting her go, so she knew her wishes would never be granted. She was twenty-seven and she doubted she would ever reach twenty-eight - and she knew for a fact that the term 'natural causes' would not appear on her death certificate.

She had been considered a cutie earlier in life; the pills she consumed like candy - stolen prescription medicine for the most part - had robbed her of her prettiness and had replaced it with dull eyes, a grayish complexion and prematurely aged skin. She was featureless, gaunt and skinny like a starved dog. The dark circles under her eyes had become permanent from her chronic lack of sleep.

Whenever she tried to rest, the images that plagued her mind from the worst of her past misdeeds would begin to play like an X-rated horror movie: the gruesome thump when she had plowed her stolen pickup truck into a dark-clad woman appearing out of nowhere still played in her ears. That and the horrible images of blood being splattered all over the windshield would remain with her until her dying day; she was sure of that, and she was sure that day would soon come.

It had been six weeks since that night, but she had revisited the horrific scene a thousand times if not more. She should not have been driving that fast, but her orders were to be at a certain point at a set time. She should have stopped to check up on the victim, but she could not be caught driving a stolen vehicle. Ultimately, the pickup was too damaged to continue so she had been forced to dump it at the railroad tracks under the Twenty-sixth Street bridge - and the leader of the crime syndicate had used the tragedy as a blackmail bargaining chip against her ever since.

In the intervening weeks, she had been sent to do one filthy job after the other as punishment for fouling up her simple task; each job was dirtier and more brutal than the one preceding it, and the grimness grated so much on her soul she had needed to up her consumption of pills to nearly four times the amount she had used before the fateful traffic accident.

A grunt from the fellow in the passenger seat brought Patty back to the present. Sighing, she turned her head to look at him. The man of Romanian blood had the face, stance and disposition of a rabid mastiff: A bullneck, a pair of unpleasant eyes, an ungainly jaw and brow, and a nose that had been flattened from participating in countless brawls and violent assaults. A four-day stubble graced the hairy parts of his round head; his cheeks and chin saw fuzz of a similar length.

At a height of five-foot-seven, a width of three feet across his beefy shoulders and a weight of two-hundred-and-fifty pounds, Bogdan Marinescu was nobody's dream son-in-law; not that he cared.

"Let's go," he said as he grabbed the wooden baseball bat that he had placed between his legs. The countless nicks and dents it carried proved it had lived a hard life on the front lines. At some point it would break in two from its owner's enthusiastic swinging just like the scores of other bats that preceded it.

Patty clenched the steering wheel hard which made her leather gloves produce a squeak from the added pressure. Her heart rate increased as the inevitable moment of brutality came nearer. "I'm staying r- right here…" she croaked, looking across East Sixteenth Street at the brownstone they were about to visit.

"The fuck you are. I said, let's go," Bogdan continued, opening the door and stepping outside.

The cold breeze that entered the Lincoln swirled around Patty's legs and made her shiver. Like Bogdan, she was dressed in dark clothing to be able to appear out of the darkness like an avenging angel - or devil.

Her associate came around the front of the Lincoln with the baseball bat ready to be used. When it became clear the driver had not yet moved from her position behind the wheel, Bogdan let out another grunt before he thumped his knuckles on the driver's side window.

Patty wiped her mouth on the back of a trembling hand. Conflicting emotions of strong resentment and even stronger resignation fell over her like a wet blanket. Letting out a deep sigh, she reached for the little lever that would open the door.


Even at twenty minutes past midnight, the city of Carlyle was far from quiet. Someone was watching a Spanish TV station on the first floor of the brownstone, and further up, someone else listened to fiery, fast-paced traditional music.

Beyond that, all the usual creaks, groans, bumps and bangs that could be found in any metropole continued to be created even in the darkness of night, and the background noises wafting over from the busy Beauregard Street churned on incessantly. A police siren cut through the night somewhere in the far distance, and it was even possible to catch a faint echo of the brass bells used by the freight trains though the railroad tracks were ten blocks away to the north.

The two thugs crossed East Sixteenth Street at a leisurely pace. Bogdan Marinescu was in no hurry; Patty could not move her legs any faster since her knees were knocking too hard at the prospects of what was to come.

Bogdan soon opened the door to the stairwell and stepped inside. He held it open for his associate who joined him at the foot of the stone staircase. As expected in North Tijuana, the stairwell was neat, tidy, squeaky clean and free of graffiti of any kind. A flowery scent lingered in the air from the last time the steps and floor had been washed; it was a far cry from the foul stenches of human waste found in every single stairwell on Skid Row.

A notice board that had been put up near the door to the street carried a multitude of colorful notes and even kids' drawings; all were in Spanish so Patty had no chance of reading any of them. Next to the notice board, a system of aluminum mailboxes had been put up on the wall so the mail delivery or newspaper couriers would not have to waste time moving up the seven stories in case the residents on the top floor were on their list.

All mailboxes were adorned by stickers with the last names of the people living there. Bogdan Marinescu let out an unamused grunt as his beady eyes ran over one traditional Spanish surname after the other. Another grunt followed when he found the one he was looking for: J. Ma. Vasquez. It appeared the man they were there to visit lived on the third floor.

Taking the baseball bat with one hand, he grabbed hold of the shoulder of Patty's dark jacket with the other. "Third floor," he said before shoving her up the staircase.


Upstairs at the correct floor, they walked down a dark and quiet hallway to find the apartment they were looking for. As they moved away from the stairwell, LED panels installed in the ceiling flickered to life to bathe everything in bright light. Bogdan grunted again as he looked up at the LEDs. His ungainly face told a tale of wanting to smash each and every one of the lamps with his bat.

The proper apartment was soon found; the 'J. Ma. Vasquez' on the door confirmed it. Patty kept well back while the goon she worked with put his ear to the door to check for some of the familiar sounds that had the potential of making their nasty business more difficult: like a dog barking, a voice talking into a telephone or even someone working the action on a firearm.

When none of the above filtered through the fireproof door, Bogdan took a step back and rolled his beefy shoulders. After his fat finger had pressed down on the electronic bell that was situated on a small panel next to the door, he hunched over to be ready for playing his favorite game of all.

Several moments later, the door was unlocked and cracked ajar. A brown eye appeared in the narrow crevice between the fireproof door and the jamb; the eye soon turned wide. No less than two sturdy safety chains had been added to prevent anyone from forcing their way in, but the chains had not been designed for a bruiser like Bogdan Marinescu.

"José Maria Vasquez?" the enforcer growled.

"Y- yes…?"

Not a single second went by before Bogdan took a deep breath and used all his considerable bulk to crash open the door. Both safety chains were ripped from their mountings as the door flew open and smashed into the wall behind it. The violent motion sent a framed picture flying off a nail and onto the floor where the glass cover cracked in half.

A baby started crying in another apartment down the hallway; a dog began to bark somewhere else. The large thug cared little about any of that as he raced into the apartment and grabbed hold of the resident's collar with his free hand.

Patty's breathing came in rapid gusts from watching the ugly scene unfold. Her pulse threatened to go through the proverbial roof from knowing she had to join Bogdan in the mayhem or else she would be the one at the receiving end of his attentions later on.

On knocking knees, she followed her associate into the apartment. Bogdan had already thumped the poor resident once which had thrown the Spanish-speaking man onto the floor bleeding from a lacerated lip.

"Ya dirty Mexi-fuck!" Bogdan growled, thumping the tip of his boot into Vasquez' side - that it seemed to cause considerable pain only spurred him on. "You owe DiSorrento two thousand fuckin' dollars, ya hear me? Two thousand fuckin' dollars! This is payday, motherfucker!"

Patty closed the ruined door and pressed herself against it to be as far away from the violence as humanly possible. She stared wide-eyed at the crimson blood that trickled down from the corner of the brown-skinned man's mouth; her mind was instantly invaded by a flashback of the blood that had been splattered over the windshield on that night in September.

"I d- don't- don't have it! N- not all of it… only s- some of it… f- four- hundred… I h- have four-hundred dollars… please! Please, Mister…" Vasquez cried, trying to protect his face, ribs and crotch all at the same time.

A brief shimmer of a smile spread over Bogdan's face like the negative statement was all he had ever wanted to hear. Wasting no time, he twirled the baseball bat and went to work on José Maria Vasquez.

As the grotesque thumping, groaning and splattering of blood grew to sheer unbearable levels, Patty flung open the door and ran into the hallway beyond it. Even there, she could hear the baseball bat striking flesh and breaking bones, so she ran down the first part of the staircase on legs that were so rubbery she was surprised she could even stand up, much less run.

Storming outside, she crossed East Sixteenth Street to get to the Lincoln. Once inside the SUV, she grabbed a plastic bottle of hospital-strength pills that she had put in one of the trays. The lid was soon dealt with as was an entire handful of the little, white pills. They would numb her mind and send her into a state so fuzzy she would have no idea if she was still on planet Earth or not.

The sounds of torture continued playing in her ears. Again and again, she heard the baseball bat striking the man on the floor; again and again, she heard his pained groans that grew weaker as unconsciousness claimed him. The sounds were joined by the horrific crunching as the woman she had mowed down struck the front of the stolen pickup. Enough blood had cascaded over the windshield to necessitate turning on the wipers. The body had flown through the air as Patty had raced from the scene - she had watched it tumble side-over-side in the rear view mirror. She had stopped the truck, but only briefly. Then she had stood on the gas pedal again to get away.

Other images from her days as an unwilling associate to the unrestrained madman Bogdan Marinescu joined in as well: An elderly Numbers gambler had received a pair of broken arms for not paying his debts on time. A woman had dared to mouth off when they had visited her. Bogdan had cracked her jaw with a smile on his lips. A young father had been behind on his gambling debts - the brutal thug had rearranged the man's face without remorse. That the man's wife and five-year-old son had watched the torture screaming in horror had only seemed to spur him on.

Each job had been dirtier than the one before, and even though Patty had begged, pleaded and done everything but fall down upon her knees to lick the shoes of the big boss, she was stuck in the living nightmare to pay for screwing up her simple assignment.

Glimpses of many other acts of cruelty and violence ran through Patty's mind, but the pills soon began to work which added a level of fuzziness to the horrid images. When the steering wheel in her hands turned soft and floaty and the darkness of the night seemed to gain a vaguely pinkish hue, she knew she had entered a state where she could let go and allow the world to continue without her.


Patty was still tripping when Bogdan came down to the Lincoln five minutes later. After stuffing four one-hundred dollar bills into a pocket, the enforcer yanked open the driver's side door clearly intending to growl at his companion for running away. The dull, unfocused look in her eyes made him clam up and grind his jaw.

Instead, he grabbed her by the arm and forcibly removed her from the driver's seat. Slamming a coarse hand against her cheek and neck, he pressed her up against the side of the Lincoln and leaned in so they were only inches apart. "You fuckin' coward… the boss will hear about it," he hissed in a low, dangerous tone. "Why-da-fuck the boss keeps protectin' ya, I'll never fuckin' know. If it was my decision, I'd just do ya up but good and leave ya to die."

Patty opened her mouth and tried to reply, but the words could not penetrate the fuzzy clouds in her mind. Her dull eyes just looked at the mastiff-like man in front of her like she was wishing that he would put her out of her misery by carrying out his evil plan.

Bogdan bared his teeth in disgust. A moment later, he slammed his stoned associate against the Lincoln once more before he gave her cheek a rough pat. "We're done for tonight so get your skinny ass inside, you pathetic piece of shit."

Nodding at the man's words, Patty had to lean against the side of the Navigator all the way around the back of it to stay erect. It took her so long to figure out how to operate the door handle that Bogdan reached over to open it for her. He growled at her as she sat down on the cool leather seat, but she was past caring by then.


The hazy conditions in Patty's mind had cleared enough for her to be aware of her surroundings once Bogdan Marinescu drove off the southern stretch of Avenue F and onto East Twenty-second Street.

Not long after, the driver - who was still grumbling over the cowardly tendencies displayed by the drug-riddled fool he had been saddled with - let the bulky Lincoln thump over the curb by a gas station. The four vacant pumps at the well-lit forecourt were soon left behind as the large vehicle trickled along a narrow alley to get to a cast-iron fence that sported a row of fearsome-looking spikes at the top.

After a few honks, a section of the fence was opened by a beret-wearing man clad in black clothes meant to mimic army fatigues. The sentry, who carried an Uzi submachine gun over his shoulder on a Nylon strap, nodded at the SUV as it drove past him.

Bogdan continued into an open area that was home to a cluster of flat-roofed, one-story buildings that had seemingly been put there at random. From the early part of the 1960s to the final few years of the 1990s, the zone had been a popular center for small, independent auto repair shops and the like, but the increasingly stringent environmental demands put on the small businesses by the politicians at City Hall and elsewhere had driven them all away.

The entire zone had a look of being just one doodled signature away from getting slated for condemnation: there were plenty of forlorn, rotten buildings with dangerously sagging roofs and gaping holes where panes of glass had once been. Tufts of grass and weeds of all kind rose from the numerous cracks in the concrete driving surface, and it was clear from the penetrating smell of urine that stray cats - and most likely stray people, too - had used it as a litter box for years.

And yet, it was all a perfect cover for the true nature of the activities going on there. A closer look would reveal that several of the buildings seemed to be in far better condition than at first glance: the simple fact that other armed sentries were patrolling on the roofs and around the concrete courtyards proved that something went on there that could not stand up for scrutiny by the all-seeing eye of the law.

A grayish-white, flat-roofed building with no discernable external features other than boarded-up windows appeared to play a central part in the devious ploy. Not only was there a sheen of light running along the lower rail of a metal door, faint sounds of many voices could be heard escaping the tightly-wrapped windows.

Several vehicles were parked outside the building; a luxurious Lincoln Continental sedan featuring black-tinted windows and chrome wheels among them. A pair of black Navigators matched the looks of the one returning to the fold. Bogdan soon came to a halt next to the other SUVs and turned off the engine. He stared daggers at Patty who seemed almost back to normal after her trip orbiting Jupiter.

No words were necessary, so Bogdan exited the Lincoln and went around the back. After opening the rear hatch, he grabbed his beloved baseball bat from the protective matting - there was no point in getting cheap blood on the expensive upholstery - and walked over to the door. Before he knocked, he turned back to send another volley of daggers at his associate.

Patty sighed and vacated the leather seat. Her legs and face were still rubbery from her recent tripping, but the chilly October air gave her a free pick-me-up that helped improve her condition. Once she was at Bogdan's side, he thumped the butt of the baseball bat on the metal door and stepped aside.

The door was soon opened by yet another armed sentry to reveal one of the cornerstones of the DiSorrento syndicate: a gambling den not unlike the speakeasies found in the Prohibition era back in the 1920s.

The former auto repair shop had been converted into a gambler's paradise with more than twenty round and square tables offering games of every kind. To fit with the gambling theme, a green felt carpet covered the concrete floor, and the numerous wall-mounted lamps looked as if they had been stolen from a Las Vegas casino - or possibly a Las Vegas bordello.

In addition to the thick planks covering the outside of the windows, green curtains had been put up on the inside so the inevitable sounds of winning and losing could be stopped from traveling too far. Video cameras installed everywhere in the ceiling made sure that only a few would even dream of cheating the house, and mingling guards armed with black sunglasses, crew cuts and Glock Seventeen pistols were at hand to convince the boldest and/or most desperate to behave or else.

Though several old-fashioned fans mounted in the ceiling worked overtime to keep the air flowing, the wall of heat created by the high-tension environment slapped Patty across both cheeks as she entered. Her diaphragm performed a dry heave as her sensitive system was assaulted by a vile concoction of beer, bourbon, rum, wine and fresh sweat. She stalled, but Bogdan gave her a shove from behind so she had to walk on into the den.

The gambling club's mahjongg tables were occupied chiefly by the residents of Chinatown and New Seoul; high-stakes poker seemed to be a hit among the African-American contingent of the gamblers as they flocked to those tables. The Hispanic neighborhood of North Tijuana was mirrored at the table offering a version of the traditional game known as conquian, and the stereotypical loud Italian-Americans from Neo Palermo enjoyed rambunctious rounds of dominos. A group of elderly white men stood around a craps table throwing dice, and there was even a blackjack table set up for those who preferred to count to twenty-one. Every color, every creed and every religious persuasion was welcome as long as the individual in question was willing to part with his hard-earned dollars - and nobody seemed to have a problem doing just that.

A wide, shiny bar counter had been set up at the far end of the club. Six tall barstools had been put up in front of it, but they were all vacant at present. Two bartenders were busy mixing drinks or pouring shots from bottles of spirits they took from well-stocked shelves on the wall; whenever a tray was full, shapely waitresses wearing a great deal of makeup but very little in the way of clothing sashayed through the room to deliver the alcoholic beverages to the gamblers ordering them.

The waitresses were the only women there - apart from Patty - which left them at the mercy of the gamblers' roaming eyes and hands. The smiles they were obliged to wear to keep everyone happy and content were strained to their breaking point.

Patty received another hard shove in her back which told her she should walk over to the bar. One of the waitresses winked at her as she fumbled onto one of the barstools, but she did not reciprocate the gesture. Closing her eyes to try to shut out the world, she rubbed her tired face in the hope it would improve her mental state. When she opened her eyes once more, the world was still just as rotten as she had left it. It made her sigh.

"Wait here while I talk to the boss, ya worthless piece of shit," Bogdan Marinescu said and gave Patty's shoulder yet another shove that nearly made her slide off the barstool.

Patty tracked the enforcer walking over to a door at the back of the club; after knocking, he was let in by a pair of armed guards who looked even meaner than he did. Sighing, she turned back to the counter. The bartender came over to her expecting her to buy a drink of some kind, but she turned him away by shaking her head. She had so little money left alcohol was out of the question.


Five minutes went by. Bogdan had yet to return, so Patty shuffled around on the tall barstool to take in the colorful sight of the many gamblers. As her eyes roamed across the many people present, an Asian man in his mid-thirties jumped up from his chair at one of the mahjongg tables while yelling something in a language that could be Chinese or Korean - she was unsure which.

The armed guards went into a state of high alert at once, but the tension soon fizzled out when it became clear that the man was simply happy for winning a round of the traditional Far-Eastern board game. He sat down again and scooped up a large pile of crumbled-up dollar bills that he proceeded to stuff into his shirt pockets.

A group of Patty's fellow criminals occupied a booth at the far side of the gambling club. A full ashtray and a handful of empty beer bottles littered the round table in front of them, but the scantily-clad waitress who tried to clean up the mess had a hard time getting past the roaming hands that insisted on stroking her rear and even up the insides of her thighs. Though she got the job done eventually, the pained expression etched onto her face as she walked away proved how much she detested the men and their actions.

The group consisted of four bad guys. One, the least dangerous-looking of them, soon left the table and indeed the club as a whole; he was no doubt going to cruise the mean streets on the look-out for a quick buck. The remaining three sent a strong chill down Patty's back as she continued to keep an eye on them.

They were all in their early-to-mid thirties. They all wore expensive, elegant shoes and clothing but none of the flashy accessories often found on the real 'made men' - no gold cufflinks or tie-clips, and no diamond-studded wristwatches. One was Caucasian though with a faintly olive complexion that could be from the Middle-East; his dark hair was slicked back. One was a medium-dark-skinned Latino with a neatly trimmed mustache and a head full of Medusa-like curls, and one was a pale-skinned African-American whose shaved head glinted under the lights.

She knew little of them or their background - just their surnames Weissman, de la Cruz and King - but it only took a single look at their hard faces and no-nonsense body language to work out they were the real deal and not some low-rent, would-be-tough-guys who simply acted like they were the baddest daddies to ever walk the planet.

King, the African-American, spoke to his companions who both nodded; Weissman, the olive-tinted Caucasian, zoomed in on Patty's location and locked eyes with her.

Looking away at once, she spun around on the barstool to get out of the firing line of the intense glare sent her way by a pair of unpleasant eyes. It had not been aggressive as such, but she had seen enough to know that severe violence - aimed at her - could follow at the snapping of fingers.


Another five minutes went by before Bogdan Marinescu came out of the back office. The enforcer soon strode over to the bar counter where Patty was still waiting for him. As always, he gave her a hard shove to prove his disgust with her entire being. "The boss wants to talk wi'cha. Have fun in there, ya dumb fuck," he said before he moved away and left the gambling club.

Patty's heart went into overdrive as the deeper meaning of the brief message filtered through to her. She slid off the barstool while taking several deep breaths to get her insides under some semblance of control. The plastic bottle of hospital-strength pills appeared in her hand as if by magic. She knew she would need all the support she could get, so she popped two of the white helpers into her mouth and gulped them down with the last drops of saliva she could produce.


The room at the rear of the gambling palace was far less glamorous than what anyone would have expected - especially considering the esteemed person presently residing on a swivel-chair behind a non-descript desk - but the entire concept of having the club in the run-down area was to keep it low key and out of the spotlight of prying eyes. It would be a criminal waste of money for the big boss to have a grand, permanent office there since everyone involved knew that the cover might be blown and that they might need to vacate the premises at a moment's notice.

Essentially just a glorified storage room that had been equipped with a few extras, the back office had dark-brown, worm-eaten planks as the ceiling and the floor. The plaster walls had seen better days as large cracks zig-zagged all over them, and an ancient air-conditioning unit meant to slot into one of the windows stood forlornly underneath its old working place. A mixture of fresh, expensive perfume and stale tobacco smoke from years gone by created an odd ambience. The sole light was provided by a naked bulb suspended from the ceiling that cast a dim, brownish tone over the proceedings. In short, it was a strange place for any crime big-wig to spend as much as a minute, but the lure of counting the evening's loot would always trump the lack of creature comforts.

Thus, the storage room was graced by the presence of four people: an armed guard, Patricia Hawkins, a secretary and finally the undisputed boss of the DiSorrento crime syndicate.

Patty gulped hard as she stepped inside with the guard at her back; the metal barrel of the Uzi was pressed into her ribs. The guard soon used his free hand to shove her forward. After the gruff-looking man had moved his automatic weapon around so it would stay out of the way, the door was soon slammed shut trapping her there.

Several piles of green dollar bills had been laid out on the non-descript desk's old-fashioned blotting pad. Ones, fives, tens, twenties and one-hundreds were tapped into orderly stacks by a pair of slender fingers before they were put into envelopes for easy transport.

The slender fingers belonged to an elegant dusty-blonde in her mid-forties. Dressed in an expensive maroon skirt-suit, the woman wore her puffed hair to the collar so her exquisite golden earrings would twinkle in the light created by the dim bulb in the ceiling. Her features were dominated by her luscious lips and a pair of pale-blue eyes that almost had an angelic quality to them.

Once she had finished counting the evening's profit that Bogdan Marinescu had brought her, she handed the envelopes to her secretary; then she leaned back in the creaking swivel-chair, crossed her long legs and folded her hands in front of her like in prayer. "Good evening, Patricia," the woman said in a voice that was deceptively warm.

The pale-blue eyes revealed the woman's icy core by pinning Patty to the spot with such strength she could barely breathe. "G- good ev- evening, Miss DiSorrento," Patty stammered, taking a fumbling step forward.

Dorothy Lorraine DiSorrento was literally like no other crime boss in Greater Carlyle. Not only was she the only woman among the elite group of five, she was a full generation younger than any of them. She had arrived in Carlyle upon her marriage to Don Martino DiSorrento; when he died as the result of an unfortunate accident while on a fishing trip to the Bahamas only a short year later - a spear-fishing harpoon had accidentally discharged into his chest - she assumed the throne of his syndicate and joined the group known as the Board of Directors. At that point in time, the board had consisted of eight bosses, but a few had fallen by the wayside due to internecine squabbles since then. That Dorothy DiSorrento had claimed their territories as her own came as no surprise to anyone.

The swivel-chair creaked as the boss rose to her full height of six-foot-three in heels. She moved around the non-descript desk with the grace of a wolf on the prowl before she placed half her skirt-clad rear on the only clean corner. "So… what's that Bogdan told me of you running away from the job you were sent to do?" she said, once more folding her arms across her chest.

There was no point in lying about it, so Patty broke out in a jerking shrug. "I… I j- just couldn't take it anymore… I… I needed to-"

"Mmmm. Say no more." A charming but deadly smile spread over DiSorrento's lips as she studied the younger woman standing before her.

To Patty, the smile resembled the one a ferocious predator would make just before it went in for the kill. She gulped hard and tried to steel her backbone just in case the Big Boss had something nasty prepared for her. "Bogdan enjoys maiming a little too much…" she mumbled.

"You're talking about one of my most trusted employees, Patricia. One who always delivers. I'd watch my tongue if I were you," Dorothy DiSorrento said in a voice that had lost most of its already thin veneer of civility.

Getting up from the corner of the desk, the boss strolled around the non-descript office like she was plotting a good, juicy exit for Patricia 'Patty' Hawkins for failing her easy task. Now and then, a dangerous smile spread over her lips as she took in the increasingly nervous expressions that flashed across the younger woman's face.

Patty could not be counted among the bravest of souls even on her best days, and the present confrontation was murder to her sensitive being. When she was unable to handle the rapidly mounting tension any longer, she slammed her eyes shut and let out a trembling breath. Reaching up, she rubbed her dead-tired brow. "Miss DiSorrento, do you need me for anyth-"

"Yes. There's something I want you to do for me," the boss said in a strong voice as she came to a halt. By now, not a single trace of civility remained - it had been fully replaced by an ice cold undertone promising a swift but messy death if the young woman standing before her fouled up again. A cold chuckle left her luscious lips; it even made a shimmer of a smile play across them. "A while back, I graciously lent a quick-draw day trader a few dollars when he was down on his luck. Well, his luck changed for the better when commodities went back into the green just recently. But would you believe, the crook has stopped taking my calls. Now isn't that just disrespectful?"

"Y- yes, Miss DiSorrento…"

"I want you to fire him up a little so he'll pay back the loan," Dorothy said while a wicked gleam played in her eyes. She let the words sink in before she cocked her head to shoot her guest an intense glare. "Literally. I want you to torch his new home. Tomorrow night while he and his pretty, little family are sound asleep. Just to frighten them, you understand."

Patty's jaw slipped down to her chest as the horrendous implications of the assignment dawned on her. "I c- can't do that!" she croaked in a strangled voice. Clenching her fists, she pulled them to her chest. The world around her started spinning like it did when she had popped one of her favorite pills, but this particular event was caused by the boss' words rather than chemicals. "Th- they might die… I'm- I won't become a killer for you…"

"But my dear Patricia, you already are!" Dorothy DiSorrento said in a honeyed voice. "Did you forget that poor, poor woman you ran over? Tsk, tsk. The police sure haven't forgotten. Vehicular manslaughter will automatically earn you the electric chair. Or the needle… whichever they actually use in this state."

"No… no, I- I can't-" Patty said, shaking her head slowly.

"You can and you will. Or perhaps you would like to talk to the police about that night in September?" Dorothy said as she strolled back to the desk. She thumped her hand onto the blotting pad like she was trying to illustrate her point. "The info I have on you would make the District Attorney drool. It's the perfect starting point for building a rock-solid case against you."


"Oh yes. Who knows, I may end up mailing it to him out of sheer frustration over your annoying lack of commitment. Of course, if you're persuasive enough tomorrow night and the day trader repays his loan, I'll put your file back into the shoebox where I keep it." The message was accompanied by a wink that seemed as cold as the words.

Patty's chin trembled as she took in the hard, unwavering expression on DiSorrento's face. The boss' words soon made her world start spinning for real. The diabolical assignment swirled around in her mind and threatened to make her keel over; she needed to fumble forward and grab hold of the desk simply to remain in an upright position. After a short while, she broke out in a jerking nod to appease the Grim Reaper-like human being opposite her.

"Excellent! I knew you'd see it from my point of view," Dorothy DiSorrento said while displaying a cold grin. She reached under the desk's top to press a button. Moments later, the door to the gambling club opened to reveal one of the armed guards.

No further words were exchanged before the guard escorted Patty out of the office and back into the loud, smokey, smelly gambling den. She was dazed and confused, and all she could think of on her way past the many tables, croupiers and gamblers was to down a handful of pills so she could float back into the safe zone in her mind where no evil - but those that were already there - could find her.


The guard escorted Patty all the way out to the cast-iron fence. Once there, he gave her such a hard shove that she was unable to stay on her feet; she landed hard but experienced a pinch of good fortune for a change by not getting hurt. As she picked herself up after being sprawled on the hard ground, the man's mocking laughter rang in her ears. She walked away without looking back.

The weather had made a turn for the worse while she had been inside the gambling club. Not only had the chilly winds picked up, heavy clouds had zeroed in on Greater Carlyle and were presently dumping plenty of ice cold droplets onto its many rooftops, sidewalks and long-suffering residents.

Patty sighed and flipped up her jacket's collar - not that it would offer her much protection from the rain or the chilly wind. She donned her gloves but still stuffed her hands down her pants pockets; then she began to shuffle off down East Twenty-second Street to get to Avenue F. She already trembled from hearing the grim details of what was expected of her, and the cold precipitation and even colder gusts of wind that swirled around her legs and body only worsened her condition.

A few minutes later, a black stretch limousine featuring black-tinted windows and chrome wheels like the other vehicles belonging to the DiSorrento syndicate rolled past her with its large-displacement engine burbling merrily in the October night - it seemed the predator had had enough of spending time among her subjects and was headed back home to her grossly expensive, fifty-bedroom palace in the northern suburbs of uptown.


Patty spent the better part of an hour and a half walking through Carlyle's chilly, desolate connecting streets before she appeared at the corner of East Thirteenth and Sunderland. The southern part of the major artery greeted her with its regular sleaziness: triple-X marquees and bright, garish lights could be seen everywhere. It was known as the Party Mile, and even at twenty to three in the morning, it lived up to its name and reputation.

The sidewalks were full of revelers in various states of intoxication, and the busy four-lane street still saw plenty of cars, taxi cabs, delivery vans and other types of vehicles. An ambulance siren cut through the rainswept darkness somewhere further up the street. Soon, a garishly painted GMC Savana belonging to Pettersson's Nine-Nine-One Ambulance Service blasted past going southbound in the outer lane. A police cruiser followed it at a safe distance with its emergency lights flashing but without using its siren.

As always, seeing emergency vehicles in action sent a strong current of guilt through Patty's soul. Closing her eyes saw her back behind the wheel of the stolen pickup truck on that fateful night in September. She hit the black-clad woman who had appeared out of nowhere. The hideous thump. The blood. It was all there, right in front of her.

Once a modicum of peace had been restored to the street and her mind, Patty opened her eyes to return to the present. Before Sunderland Street could return to its customary state of abject congestion, she ducked and weaved around the many vehicles to cross the four lanes.

With her eyes glued to the sidewalk and her gloved hands thrust firmly down into her pockets, she walked past the triple-X movie theaters and the countless shops selling all kinds of toys and accessories for the open-minded to get to her far more civil destination.


It took Patty another twenty-five minutes to reach a white, flat-roofed barrack three blocks further north on Sunderland Street. The shelter was part of the Mission run by the nuns belonging to the Order Of The Sisters Of Mercy, and it was her preferred place to stay whenever the temperature was too low for her to spend the nights outside.

A drawn-out, pained groan escaped her lips when her eyes fell on a piece of cardboard that had been pinned to the window in the front door. It said that the shelter had reached its full capacity for overnight guests and could not accept any further visitors. For those seeking a bed for the night, other shelters on Beauregard Street, Ralston Street, Bangalore Street, Belvedere Street, Cassandra Street and West Sixty-third Street were still open.

Patty just stood there, staring wide-eyed at the evil piece of cardboard like she hoped she could will it into changing its depressing message. After a few minutes, she let out a quiet sob but rubbed her mouth at once with an angry gesture. Crying about it would get her nowhere. She would simply need to look for somewhere else to spend the night.

Sighing, she left the flat-roofed barrack behind and continued heading north on the busy sidewalk. The many people around her and even the garish nature of Sunderland Street itself seemed to mock her. To combat it, she reached into her jacket pocket to find the plastic bottle containing her stolen medicine.




Every neighborhood in the grand metropole of Carlyle had its own hierarchy, even the legendary - or aggravating, depending on the person asked - artists' colony that occupied forty city blocks or so between Cassandra Street to the west, Belvedere Street to the east, West Thirteenth Street to the south and West Nineteenth Street to the north. The vast maze of ruler-straight streets that ran as an intricate, angular cobweb around Victory Park was home to countless infrequently-straight bohemians of every color, class and conviction.

Baby strollers were popular accessories among certain groups of the younger bohemians, especially in and around Victory Park that often resembled a gigantic kindergarten when the weather was good. Plenty of families with small children lived in the various streets in the zone, and the primary, elementary and high-schools favored by the residents were always to be found at the top of the ranking lists issued by City Hall.

On the rare occasions when a school slipped a spot or two down the list, the most well-off, most eloquent and most self-centered of the parents would raise enough of a ruckus in the media to make sure their politician pals would hear them so more tax dollars could be transferred into strengthening the school's position - that the schools near Skid Row had far more use for the tax dollars in their daily struggle with poorly integrated, maladjusted or even illiterate pupils seemed to be conveniently pushed under the rug.

The streets of the artists' colony saw the largest amount of bicycles and electric-powered cars in any of the neighborhoods of Carlyle, and it was really only when the occasional taxi cab came by - or when garbage trucks lumbered past spewing out plumes of black diesel smoke - that the familiar sounds of internal combustion engines could be heard. Even street-food vendors used bicycles equipped with appliances for heating or cooling that would keep the soy-bean burritos hot and the vegan ice cream cold. It came as no surprise to anyone living there when a media survey showed that the bohemian district was the only neighborhood in all of Greater Carlyle where the sales of spring water and carbonated mineral water outnumbered even diet sodas at a ratio of four to one.

Cafés selling organic, sugar-free, low-fat, vegetarian or vegan pastries and beverages occupied many of the street corners, and they were joined by microbreweries, world food stores, arts-and-craft stores and every other kind of establishment that sold items the members of the creative class loved to buy. Living room swap-meets - like tail-gate parties elsewhere in the country - was the latest fad among the residents, but it had yet to catch on fully since home-trading of second-hand items meant the local stores would suffer from greatly reduced income, and nobody wanted to see the big-bucks corporations move in where mom-and-pop stores had been.

The upper echelons among the bohemians owned the penthouses and art-studio lofts of the five, six and seven-story brownstones in the area - they were typically authors who had solid book contracts with the major publishing houses, or lauded painters or sculptors who had already been the focus of at least one exhibition at the Carlyle Museum of Modern Art. Just below them, not just metaphorically but literally as well, came the exponents of the performing arts like actors or musicians.

Esoterics, mystics and gentle occultists, neo-hippies, original hippies and other great enthusiasts of all things organic could be found on the next floors down from the top. They were only too happy to be some distance away from the stifling bourgeois conformity of the famous people living in the penthouses and lofts, although they did envy the latter group's ability to draw on their networks whenever it was time to hold another fundraiser for the newest worthy cause, or the legendary street parties that often took place during the summer months.

The lower floors saw all the regular Joes and Janes who had regular jobs that required they got up at dawn, toiled hard the entire day and returned home after dusk. Most of that group of residents had moved there because they had felt less than welcome in some of the more conservative neighborhoods; a few had arrived as better halves of relationships, and the final few lived there because they wanted to sample the bohemian lifestyle even without being part of a minority.

And then there were people like 'Shady' Shaye LaSalle and her long-time, long-legged girlfriend Jennifer 'Stilts' Mulroney. Although they felt right at home with everybody, they were neither true bohemians nor were they among the creative class, or even among the regular Joes and Janes.

Shady and Stilts were easy-going street-hustlers who spent at least ten hours a day seven days a week pounding the beat around Greater Carlyle trying to make a dishonest buck by performing bogus palm readings, or luring unsuspecting passers-by into playing rigged games of Diamonds, or performing song-and-dance acts of sentimental songs from the old country, or selling found objects to the pawn shops, or a hundred other things that would put some much-needed coins in their pockets.

They shared an inherited apartment that did not feature a grand view of the metropole's glorious skyline or even a view of the much-loved Victory Park, but of rusty trash cans, old furniture with springs sticking out of them, dried-up flower beds and whatever else occupied the square space in the inner courtyard of the five-story brownstone on West Sixteenth Street.

'Shady' Shaye LaSalle's mouth was wide open to allow the yawn that had snuck up on her to escape and seek better fortunes elsewhere. Smacking her lips, she pulled the bedroom curtains aside to take the first gander at the new day. It was ten past eight in the morning on October twelfth, and the two inches of clear blue sky she could see past the upper floors of the brownstone promised that it would be a fine day. A few itchy sleepies cried out to be scratched, so she did exactly that through her oversized winter T-shirt that carried an image of the legendary Warner Bros. cartoon character Yosemite Sam.

Shady was twenty-nine with the big three-oh looming large and intimidating in the middle of January. She was on the short side of things at five-foot-two in socks, but she had a natural feistiness to her that offset the disadvantages of her modest height. Her hair was a golden-blond mop that she had long since given up on - whatever she did to it, it flat-out refused to be shaped into anything resembling a stylish hairdo. Not that it mattered during the cold months because she always wore an insulated beanie hat that she had bought for three dollars fifty at her favorite thrift store.

Being an incurable coffee hound, especially in the morning, she was unable to perform any basic functions before she'd had her first mug of rocket fuel, so she stuck her bare feet into felt slippers and shuffled into the kitchen. Once there, she prepared the percolator so it would be ready with the liquid gold whenever she had time for it.

She shuffled back to the bedroom and the queen-sized bed that occupied so much space in the tiny room that she had to step up onto the mattress whenever she needed to get to the other side. The pair of bare feet that stuck out from beyond the lower hem of their winter duvet made her grin. The feet and the rest of the endless legs they were connected to belonged to her girlfriend of seven years, the oh-so-cute Jennifer 'Stilts' Mulroney a.k.a. Mahawney a.k.a. Mahony a.k.a. Monaghan - in their line of work, having a few aliases had never hurt anyone.

Stilts had already gone past the big three-oh, but the added maturity had only added to the tall woman's looks. Shady grinned again as she pictured Stilts' body that carried a very nice pair of everything she had two of. Dark hair and blue eyes had always been a winning combination, and especially so in connection with Shady's golden-blond hair and greenish eyes. They were good apart; they were dynamite together.

The bare feet were too good to ignore so Shady crouched down and found a duck feather that had escaped the winter duvet. A little tickling here, a little tickling there and a little more tickling back at the first spot made the sleeping woman stir and let out a yawn that was just as loud and insistent as Shady's had been earlier. The bare feet were pulled back up under the duvet but put a pair of long arms came out instead. Soon, the lump under the duvet wiggled this way and that to stretch out for the coming day's activities.

"Morning, Sweetums," Shady whispered as she climbed up onto the queen-sized bed. Resting on her knees, she reached out to caress the human-shaped lump until the person underneath would pull down the top end of the duvet. It happened sooner than she had hoped for; when Stilts' sleepy face came into view, Shady crawled up there to place a kiss on the gently parted lips.

"Mmmm… morning," Stilts mumbled. She seemed to fall asleep again for a few moments, but stirred once more and broke out in the widest yawn seen for many a year. Smacking her lips, she rubbed her eyes to look at the clock on the bedside table. "Oh… it's already a quarter past eight…"

"Yeah, I slept in," Shady said with a grin as she continued to caress the parts of the big lump that were hidden beneath the duvet. "Musta been because of last night. I've always said the best sleeping aid is an orgasm."

Stilts snickered and pulled her girlfriend down for another kiss or two. "Can't argue with that. You do look kinda refreshed today. Have you had some coffee already?"

"Naw, not yet. But the perco is on… I can hear it burblin' as we speak."

"Nice. What's the weather like today?"

"The sky is clear right now, but you know… I'll bet there'll be showers later on. And it's probably chilly, too."

"Yeah," Stilts said and broke out in another yawn. "So… why don't you pour down some rocket fuel and then hit the showers while I whip up some oatmeal for breakfast? Then I can use the last of the hot water afterwards."

Shady grinned and placed a quick kiss on her girlfriend's nose. "Sounds like a plan, toots!"


"Step right up, folks! We have plenty of room for ev'rybody! The young, the old, the hot, the cold, the reluctant and, yes, the bold!" Shady cried after she had thrust her right arm in the air. Her left was firmly ensconced on her hip which gave her an appearance of a ballerina - if a ballerina had ever been dressed out in lined winter boots, men's long johns, sweatpants and heavy-duty cargo pants from the army-navy surplus store, and an insulated undershirt, three T-shirts, two sweaters, a hoodie, a dark-brown, double-layered sweater and finally a pair of home-made fingerless gloves.

When the first potential customers looked her way, she waved her beanie hat in a most impressive fashion like she was a proper carnival crier of old and not just a street-hustler. "Come this way, fair Ladies and Gentlemen! We welcome all and not just the fit. If you place a coin on our table, we promise to take good care of it. The rich can place two if they so desire, but it is a treat we do not require. One coin shall suffice… after all, you are more than welcome to play twice!"

The traditional spiel sent a ripple of laughter through the people watching Shady; she knew it meant she had them right where she wanted them. All she needed now was for one of them to step ahead and place a bet.

She and Stilts - who was dressed similarly save for an ex-US Navy all-weather jacket instead of the double-layered sweater - had put up a Diamonds table on West Fourteenth Street next to a so-called beer house owned by a microbrewery. Ever since the establishment had received rave reviews in the September edition of the High Fashion & Fine Cuisine glittery magazine, the number of daily guests at the beer house had nearly tripled which offered the perfect backdrop to a little game of cards.

Even now in the inevitably flat period between breakfast and lunch, several interested people lined up at the table to see what was going on with the two women and the stack of cards on the table. "That's right, fair Ladies and Gentlemen!" Shady continued as she pointed at their foldable table, "this is the legendary Diamonds game! Take a step closer and try your luck!"

Shady was the crier luring in the unsuspecting players, and Stilts sat at the table holding the cards ready for whenever the first one would go ahead and try his or her luck. The rules of the game were simple: the person would place a bet that a certain card from the lower end of the diamonds suit would appear in one of four piles on the table. It inevitably did which lured the player into placing another, perhaps higher, bet that a card of a higher rank would show up.

Everything was rigged so there was no risk of Shady and Stilts ever losing big. The players would always win the first few hands to build their confidence, but they would inevitably hit the proverbial brick wall once they reached the higher end of the suit. Over the years, one or two players whose good fortune had astounded even the experienced hustlers had made it up to tens or jacks before Stilts had performed a sleight-of-hand trick that meant the next one would never appear even if they played until doomsday - it was a rare occurrence, and one that Stilts hated to perform since it was a direct cheat rather than gentle scamming.

It may have been a scam, but the bets were never larger than a dollar or two so Shady and Stilts had no qualms about performing it. The game was one of the cornerstones of their daily activities since it never failed to produce the coinage they needed to pay their rent and their food.

The owners of the shops, bars or restaurants that were brought into use as people-magnets for the two intrepid, and entrepreneurial, street-hustlers rarely had anything good to say to them: the conversations were typically variations of "Get lost before I call the cops!" Other storeowners had fewer objections, but none had ever come out to say that Shady and Stilts were welcome to stay for as long as they would like.

On this day, they were only allowed to have their table set up at the beer house for a short ten minutes before the proprietor came stomping out onto the sidewalk wielding his telephone. The ten-minute period had been enough for four passers-by to try to score big - none had - so the amount of loot that had been scooped up from the lost bets was already satisfactory. "You! You people there!" the man barked.

When Shady did the age-old 'who, me?' routine by pointing at her chest and looking over her shoulder, the man's complexion gained another few shades of crimson. "Yes, you! Pack up at once and get the hell outta here! Now! Before I call the cops! Don't think for a second I won't!" he barked, holding up the expensive, white smartphone like it the was torch on the Statue of Liberty.

Since Shady and Stilts were never in any rush to meet the boys and girls wearing badges, nightsticks and sidearms, they always left when told to. They had done it so often they had it down to a fine art: Stilts packed the marked cards and put them into an old cigar case for safekeeping. Then she got up from the camping chair, folded it in half and stuffed it into a huge gym bag that they had bought in a thrift store. The cloth tabletop supported by a single, wide plank of balsawood was rolled up and put into the bag as well. The final item on their well-rehearsed packing-up-plan was folding up the table - formerly a light-weight clothes-dryer they had bought for six dollars fifty in the same thrift store where they had found the gym bag - and putting it over Shady's shoulder so the burden was spread equally between them.

Once the lengthy plan had been completed, they would leave for greener pastures elsewhere. It might be a single city block further down the same street, it might be a different street, or it might be somewhere else entirely - wherever it would end up being, they would go through the whole shebang all over again only in reverse to set up their equipment.


Fifteen minutes later, Stilts unfolded the camping chair and sat down behind the table. They had relocated to the corner of Cassandra and West Sixteenth Street: it was a small, paved square that was pulled back a good forty feet from the connecting streets, and it offered a good spot for their activities. Although there was an organic wine bar at the address, it did not open until four in the afternoon so they had a little more time than usual to perform their various tricks.

Stilts shuffled the deck of marked cards a couple of times to be ready for the first player, but there were fewer takers than over at the beer house. After a few minutes of no activity, she put the cards away and pulled the next item out of her huge gym bag: a sandwich-board inviting everyone to have their destiny read by The Mysterious! The Clairvoyant! The All-Seeing Mrs. Rhavenlocke! Only $2 for each reading!

Shady grinned as she watched her girlfriend reach into the gym bag and pull out a crystal ball, a black candle, a lighter and finally a small bowl filled with a substance that was supposed to be ground raven's feet, cooked lard from a toad, stir-fried lizard tongues and various other delicious ingredients that were indispensable for any high-quality mysterious, clairvoyant Seer. That it was actually a blend of breadcrumbs, a little icing sugar, dried black-eyed peas and crushed corn flakes was beyond the point.

'Mrs. Rhavenlocke' had more luck drawing in interested individuals than the Diamonds game had, and Stilts was soon off - using a horrendously fake accent that could come from anywhere on God's green-and-blue Earth - improvising a wild tale of the Fantastic that featured all the regular bullet points: A long sea journey in the company of a dark stranger that could end in finding a treasure chest filled with gold and silver that could last for several lifetimes - but they should beware of the Indigo Pirate following them who would stop at nothing to reclaim the treasure that he considered his.


Later that same afternoon - on West Fifteenth Street not too far from the south-western entrance to Victory Park - Shady set up their table once more before she reached into the gym bag to get her trusty harmonica. She loved the old instrument because the tones it produced were vibrant and warm even when she only played half-heartedly. Whenever she really put her soul into it, the tunes she would produce rivaled anything found in any concert hall anywhere in the world. It turned even better when she was the musical accompaniment to Stilts singing the sad songs they had so much success with - the harmonies created were heavenly.

The plan was to perform a few sentimental songs from the old country that would bring tears to the eyes of the spectators and coins in the cup for the two performers. The 'old country' in question would vary depending on the nature of the spectators. If there happened to be a group of Italian-Americans present, that would be the 'old country' of choice - similarly with people of Irish, German, Scandinavian or Mexican descent. It grew far more difficult whenever they were nearer to Chinatown or New Seoul, but they had always been up to the challenge of even the most complex Far-Eastern anthem.

Stilts was already readying her throat by gurgling in whole milk that had been kept lukewarm in a thermos down in the huge gym bag. She had a magnificent singing voice - though she had never been an opera diva on the world's stages like the sandwich-board said she had - but it needed to be treated carefully and with plenty of respect during the winter months or else she would turn hoarse before the end of the day.

Unfortunately their luck ran out even before the first bar of the first verse of the first sad song had been played: a white-and-pale-blue police cruiser suddenly turned onto West Fifteenth Street clearly on a patrol run. Two seconds later, Shady and Stilts began packing up in an almighty hurry.

When the cruiser and the mustachioed officers inside had reached the spot where the two hustlers had been, they had already gone half a block in the other direction and were moving away fast.

"Damn," Shady mumbled, yanking the former clothes-dryer higher up on her slender shoulder. Her striding never eased off as she continued along the sidewalk to get to safety in case the cruiser returned or even followed them. "Damn, damn, damn… we woulda made a bundle there. Did you see all those people? Damn!"

"I saw them. I also saw the cops… and they almost saw us," Stilts said, licking the last residue of lukewarm whole milk off her upper lip.

"Yeah… damn."

Nearly a minute of energetic striding went by in silence before Stilts spoke up again: "You know, it would be a lot easier if we just paid for that street-performance permit they told us about. That way, we could-"

"What?! And feed the City Hall corruption? Oh-ho-no, darlin'," Shady said and shook her head so hard the few locks of her blond mop that were visible underneath the beanie hat's lower hem seemed to perform The Twist. "No way, no how, no Ma'am! This is a free country with free sidewalks. We can perform anywhere we damn well please! Or until the cops chase us away, anyhow…"

"Uh… yeah," Stilts said with a grin. Another couple of minutes of striding came and went. They had already gone past several spots that Stilts thought would have been great places to set up the table, but Shady had never slowed down. "Wait… where are we actually going?"

Shady finally did slow down, but it was just a fraction. While striding along at a gently reduced pace, she looked over her shoulder to see if the white-and-pale-blue Ford Crown Victoria patrol cruiser from the Carlyle City Police Department had followed them. Everything seemed quiet all around. As a result of their fast-paced escape, they had already made it halfway down Proctor Street en route for West Fourteenth Street.

The next entrance to Victory Park was another eighty yards further down Proctor, but although the park was a popular hot spot during all seasons and would thus provide enough interested parties for their various games, the park wardens - or 'park rangers' as they liked to call themselves - were so lacking in humor, so officious and such sticklers for upholding the city's laws and regulations for public areas that there was no point in even trying to set up their table in there. If they were unlucky and happened to encounter one of the wardens out to impress his superiors, they would not even be allowed to walk through the park.

"Mmmm… mmmm," Shady said as she finally came to a halt. The first thing she did was to put the clumsy clothes-dryer down on the pavement. The next was to rub her mouth a couple of times while she looked around waiting for inspiration to hit her. "Mmmm… I think we should try east of Victory next. Get over closer to Belvedere."

Stilts nodded. She pulled her multitude of sleeves back to look at the fourth-hand wristwatch on her left arm. It was a Symeiko rather than a Seiko, but at least it kept time provided she remembered to wind it up twice daily. "That plan's as good as any. Okay, it's ten to noon and we've only made twenty dollars so far. It's gonna be a long day if we don't find a lucrative spot… and soon."

"Yeah," Shady said and wiped her icy nose on the back of her fingerless glove. She looked around for the police cruiser once more before she moved the former clothes-dryer back onto her shoulder. "So why are we standing here yapping and wasting time when we could be earning our rent? There's money to be made hustlin' elsewhere, toots. Let's do what we do best… hustle!" When the double meaning of the word only earned her a pair of rolled eyes and a long sigh, she let out a snicker as she and Stilts carried on.


On the quiet Bailey Street at the far side of Victory Park, Shady strode ahead on her own in her ceaseless, tireless quest to get over to the better hunting grounds near or on Belvedere Street; she had failed to notice that Stilts lagged further and further behind despite her far longer legs.

The simple reason for the tall woman's lack of forward motion was that she had been struck by one of the most annoying problems that could crop up for anyone who spent ninety percent of the day on his or her feet: she had a stone in her boot. Not just a chip or a pebble, but a boulder the size of Mount Everest.

Hobbling, wobbling, grunting, groaning and cursing under her breath, she came to a halt by one of the lamp posts that lined the east side of the park - it would come in handy as the perfect tool to lean her behind against. Once the gym bag was off her shoulder, she unzipped her winter boot, took it off and shook it hard to get the stowaway from the Rocky Mountains to leave its comfy home. She grimaced when only a tiny fragment of a stone fell into her open palm.

Cursing some more, she put the boot back on and leaned down to zip it. Once she was down there, she caught a glimpse of something silvery out of the corner of her eye. The silvery object was partially hidden among leaves, twigs and other kinds of withered shrubbery that marked the outer boundaries of Victory Park, but it was clear it was more than merely a spent bubblegum wrapper.

Once she had pushed the shrubbery aside to get a better view of the object, she let out a long, melodious grunt that proved just how surprised she was at what she had found. She was looking at a silver crucifix on a chain; one that looked like the real deal and not just a cheap knockoff sold for eight dollars ninety-five in some of the tackier shops around the bohemian district.

"Holy smokes, wouldya look at that gorgeous thing…" she mumbled as she reached into one of her many pockets to find a handkerchief. Once she had carefully scooped up the crucifix, she stood upright to let the silver come into its own in the bright daylight.

A smattering of withered leaves and dry dirt stuck to the long chain, but the handkerchief had soon dealt with the foreign objects. After turning it over a couple of times to look at it from all angles, her theory of it being the real deal was proven correct: the weight and the quality of the finish meant it could only be real, top-quality silver.

"Hey, Stilts… where'd ya go, girl?" Shady shouted from another fifty yards down the street.

"Get back here! There's something I gotta show ya!" Stilts cried back, waving her hand in an excited fashion.


"Holy shit, look at that piece of gorgeousness right there," Shady said as she stared wide-eyed at the silver crucifix cradled in the handkerchief. Just like Stilts had done moments earlier, the experienced street-hustler turned the silvery object over in her hands several times to get a good look at the craftsmanship. It was of a quality rarely seen on the street - literally, in this case - and appeared to have been made by an expert silversmith. A manufacturer logo had been stamped into the material on the rear side near the lower end of the central bar, but it was too small and too intricate for Shady to read the details without a magnifying glass.

"That's what I said… mostly," Stilts said and broke out in a giddy snicker.

After wrapping it up in the handkerchief and handing it back to her girlfriend, Shady reached up under her beanie hat to scratch her mop of hair. Moving over to the same patch of shrubbery where Stilts had discovered the crucifix, she bent over and performed a thorough search of the entire row of bushes from where Stilts stood to fifteen yards further up the street. It seemed no further valuables were to be found as all she came across was the usual litter in the shape of gum-wrappers, cracked plastic, beer cans and used condoms. "Huh. And you found it here?" she said once she had shuffled back.

"Yes. About two feet from the lamp post. Just to the left of where you are now," Stilts said as she put the precious item into one of her pockets. Once it was safely down there, she pulled the zipper to make sure it would stay there.

Shady spent another minute or so searching for further objects, but eventually gave up when the endeavor proved fruitless. "Huh. Well, there isn't anything else of value here. Crazy," she said, dusting off her hands before she put them akimbo.

"Yeah… so now what? It obviously belongs to someone," Stilts said, patting her pocket - the chain jingled somewhere deep down in the warm, protected cave.

"Hmmm. Yeah. Obviously."

The blonde hustler fell quiet and began to rub her brow. She looked up and down Bailey Street for clues but found none. The street that ran north-to-south on the east side of Victory Park was typically quieter than some of the others in the bohemian district, so it was possible the silver crucifix could have been hiding among the withered shrubbery for a while - easily for several days, and possibly even for longer than that.

They were only two city blocks north of a neighborhood that had a reputation of being far rougher around the edges than the artists' colony. Although the West Twelfth Street tenements were in better shape than the miserable ruins that passed for housing over on Skid Row's East Twelfth Street beyond Cassandra and Sunderland, the residents of West Twelfth could not be, and had never been, counted among God's best children.

The firm believers of the school of love-thy-neighbor-though-he-may-not-love-you-back among the airy bohemians had tried once, and once only, to reach out to their brethren from the supposedly wrong side of West Thirteenth Street. The resulting summer party had entered local folklore with sordid tales of reckless drinking, home-made fireworks, flying fists and bottles, bloodied knives, bad acid, vomiting into flower beds, riot police swinging batons, crying flower children and every other kind of bother. That had been in 1969, and the twain had never met since.

It was entirely possible the crucifix had been dumped at Victory Park after a mugging or a burglary further south, and that the criminal had had no idea what he or she had scored. "Mmmm… yeah," Shady said again. She moved up her hand and held out her index finger to make a count of One. "Well, the way I see it, we got three choices here. One, we could go to one of the precinct houses on West Seventh or West Twenty-second Street and drop it off at the cops'-"

"You gotta be kidding! That would be ass-stupid of us, Shaye!" Stilts said and threw her arms in the air. "The cops 'll bust us on sight, you know that!"

"Yeah. Okay. Just sayin'. Okay… option two," Shady continued, holding up her middle finger to make it two digits. "we could mosey up to the big lost property depot on East Thirty-ninth Street, but that might eat up most of our day."

Stilts shook her head at once. "Scratch the might and add a would. Won't work. We can't afford to lose the entire day. Come on, option three's gotta be better than that…"

"Jeez, you're impatient today! Okay, option three-" - Shady held up a third digit - "we head over to Sunderland and pawn it off to our dear, dear friend Rodolfo Santo Domingo."

Silence fell over the two hustlers as they pondered the various options. They stood there for so long that a taxi cab pulled over to the curb expecting them to be fares waiting for a ride. The man behind the wheel drove off in a huff when Shady shook her head and waved him away.

"You know," Stilts said after a lengthy bout of constructive pondering, "as the fourth option, we could head up to the Sisters Of Mercy Mission further north on Sunderland to see if they know anything about a missing crucifix…?"

"Well, that's not gonna fly."

"And why the hell not, if I may ask?"

"The crucifix is a Catholic symbol, ain't it? And the Sisters Of Mercy nuns are Episco-palipdians… Episco-lap-dancers… whatevers. Protestants," Shady said with conviction; a moment later, she narrowed her eyes and a furrow appeared on her brow. "Or… at least I think they are… hmmm…"

Stilts needed to spend a further few moments deciphering the convoluted message before she broke out in a broad shrug that explained quite well how she felt about the whole, confusing conversation. "Do the Protestants even have nuns?"

"Well, of course they do. Why wouldn't they? Aw, how the hell should I know? We're both members of the Church Of The Almighty Dollar. Don't ask me about religious stuff. Naw, forget all about that," Shady said and waved her hand dismissively. "Let's zip over to Rodolfo's and get his assessment of it. It might be a two-bit piece of junk after all."

"Eh… I doubt it. It's too heavy to be junk."

"We'll never know if we don't ask." Once the former clothes-dryer was back onto Shady's shoulder, she took off in her customary stride. After a few yards, she briefly turned around to say: "Time's a-wastin'! Let's go, darlin'!"

"Now who's impatient? All right, all right," Stilts said and grabbed the heavy gym bag off the ground where she had put it before spotting the crucifix.


It came as no surprise to anyone that the southern stretch of Sunderland was as busy and as sleazy as ever. Although the video arcades and the gritty pool halls did not open until the stroke of three, most of the sex shops and a good deal of the smoke-filled bars and the triple-X-entertainment movie theaters were open twenty-four hours a day to be there when the urges of their customers became too great to ignore.

The same would apply to the countless liquor stores along the so-called Party Mile, but they had licenses to take care of so they could not blatantly break the curfew for stores selling alcoholic beverages set up by City Hall - however, the clever businessmen had found a way to bend the rules by offering mixers, coolers, so-called alcopops and other forms of low-alcohol drinks from hole-in-the-wall outlets.

An ambulance from Pettersson's Nine-Nine-One Ambulance Services was double-parked outside one of the triple-X theaters; its emergency lights were flashing to warn the traffic from getting too close. An overweight man was soon stretchered out of the adult movie theater and across the sidewalk with a bag of ice pressed against his crotch. The two EMTs seemed to find the situation somewhat amusing.

The sights, sounds and smells of the infamous Party Mile on Sunderland Street were unique in Carlyle. No other street in the fair metropole offered such a tasteless mix of garish billboards and marquees, choreographed moaning and groaning that wafted out of the murky depths of the movie theaters, and the ever-present foul concoction of mismatched odors of stale beer, hard liquor, sugary candy and warm, salty popcorn.

The wide variety of street-food vendors and minuscule, single-unit restaurants hawking hot dogs, pizzas, chili beans and hamburgers of dubious origin, or deep-fried spring rolls, spicy noodles and pork chow mein in sweet-and-sour sauce added their fair share of smells to the mix as did the exhaust fumes that continuously spewed out of the tailpipes of the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the four-lane street.

The traffic was always but one vehicle away from a complete logjam which did no favors for the local environment either with regards to perpetual rumbling, perpetual honking and perpetual shouting of four-letter words by perpetually annoyed drivers.

In the middle of all that colorful chaos and mayhem, nobody as much as batted an eyelid at the two hustlers as they strode up the street en route to the pawn shop owned by their old pal Rodolfo Santo Domingo.

Sunderland Street had never been the best hunting ground for Shady and Stilts so they did not waste any time setting up their table there - the clientele was just too unruly and looking for the wrong things altogether compared to their own kind over in the bohemian district. The few times they had tried had all been disrupted by lewd comments from drunken fools who had been less interested in playing Diamonds than seeing Stilts get nekkid.


The somewhat unimaginatively named Rodolfo's Pawn Shop was soon reached. After Shady had spent a few minutes admiring the many fascinating items on display behind the reinforced store-front windows, she held the door open for Stilts so they could get on with the program of having the crucifix assessed by a seasoned veteran in the field of pawning.

Though it was a double-width unit, the pawn shop seemed cramped from the thousands of items that filled out every square inch of floorspace. When Rodolfo Santo Domingo had first set up the business in the early 2010s, he had wanted to maintain a strict regime of categories, but reality had reared its ugly head almost at once and had made a mess of his logical planning. Now, he just put the new stuff he received wherever there was a gap wide enough for it. It meant that seven-string guitars could be found next to coffee machines, or that soldering irons could share an intimate shelf-space with brass candlesticks or even DVD reissues of ancient aerobics videotapes straight out of the 1980s. The only things that could not be found in the store were pornographic magazines and movies. As a man of strong faith, Rodolfo flat-out refused to have any of that 'disgusting filth' anywhere in his business.

The walls were covered in metal shelves that each carried so many items that a certain amount of fatigue had set in in many places. Several of the shelves were sagging dangerously and needed to be supported by all kinds of home-made struts and props - one shelf needed the complete seven-volume set of the Saxo Germanicus History Of The Known World to remain in place.

Similarly, all that remained of the pale-brown linoleum floor was a narrow path that snaked its way around the store until it finally reached the cast-iron counter that had been placed near the back wall. Now and then, side branches went off from the main path leading to the various treasure groves, but they all re-connected with the main line eventually to make sure the customers would be able to find the counter in order to pay for the items they wanted to buy - or present the items they wanted to pawn off.

The massive counter sported an intricate maze of two-inch-thick metal bars above the flat part which made it look similar to those that had been installed in banks back in the days when John Dillinger roamed the Midwest. Although it only left a small space for the transactions that formed the core of the store's business, the bars were there to dissuade anyone from trying to rob the place. If the potential criminal insisted on trying his luck, the double-barreled shotgun that Rodolfo kept under the counter would most often have the last word.

"Yo, Rodolfo! Como está, mi compadre? Amigo-mio! Hasta-la-vista-mista!" Shady said once she and Stilts had made it up to the cast-iron counter. The owner was absent from the swivel-chair on the far side of the inch-thick bars, but the sound of a flushing toilet soon offered a hint as to his whereabouts.

After Rodolfo Santo Domingo had clicked off the bathroom lights with his elbow, he stepped back to the swivel-chair wiping his hands on a towelette. In his mid-forties, the owner of the pawn shop wore a black in-door Catalina jacket over a white shirt where the top button was undone. He was a medium-dark-skinned fellow of average height, build and looks, but the vibrant dark-brown eyes that sat between a pair of neat eyebrows and a stylish mustache were anything but average - it was clear those eyes never missed a beat of anything that went on in or out of his shop.

Rodolfo let out a dark grunt at the sight of the two hustlers; the grunt turned into a chuckle as he shook his head at how badly the words had been mangled. "Honestly, Shady… I wish you'd cut out on that crap Spanish of yours. Either that or learn it properly. Hello, Stilts."

"Hi, Rodolfo," Stilts said with a grin.

"Wotcha talkin' about, dude? My Spanish is purr-fect," Shady said, sporting her inherent cockiness that only earned her a crooked eyebrow from the man behind the counter. "But anyway, me and Stilts here found something really, really interesting over near Victory Park just now. Stilts, show our old pal what we found," she continued, waving the taller woman up to the counter.

Stilts grinned in anticipation as she stepped forward. Reaching into her pocket, she soon found the protective handkerchief containing the valuable object.

"How about this thing of beauty right here, Mista San-tow Domin-gow?" Shady continued as Stilts slowly unfolded the handkerchief to build some tension and excitement.

Rodolfo let out another grunt when he clapped his vibrant eyes on the silver crucifix that Stilts held out. A furrow developed on his forehead that proved he was interested even before he had uttered a word. "May I?" he said, reaching through the maze of bars.

"But of course. We trust ya. Don't we, toots?" Shady said and moved the crucifix from her girlfriend's hand and into Rodolfo's open palm.

"We sure do," Stilts said with a grin.

"Thank you," Rodolfo said before he reached for a monolens magnifying glass of the type used by jewelers and watchmakers. The silver crucifix was studied so closely for so long that the ever-feisty Shady grew impatient.

Leaning in to Stilts' taller frame so she could speak for her ears only, Shady whispered: "Boy, he sure is taking his time with it. Told ya he'd have the hots for it! That's thirty-five bucks in the bag right there. Maybe forty. Maybe forty-five!"

"Let's not get greedy," Stilts whispered back, giving Shady a little nudge with her shoulder to stop the shorter woman's excitement from spilling over and revealing their hand too early in the game.

On the far side of the cast-iron counter, Rodolfo let out another few grunts that each turned darker than the one preceding it. A really long one was exclaimed when he zoomed in on the manufacturer stamp on the rear side of the crucifix. "All right. Hmmm. Where'd you say you found it, Shady?"

"Over by Victory Park. In the shrubbery lining Bailey Street," Shady said with a broad grin playing on her lips. When she noticed that Rodolfo's expression was dark to the point of being gloomy, the grin melted and was replaced by a frown. "Why, exactly? Is it a piece of junk after all?"

Rodolfo shook his head; then he moved the silver crucifix into a metal strongbox underneath the counter - it was reserved for the really expensive items, and it sat next to his double-barreled shotgun. Before Shady and Stilts had time to cry out about the blatant robbery in broad daylight, he put his hands in the air to get them to pipe down. "This is one of those good news, bad news kind of situations."

"It can't be worse than you pilferin' it! What the hell, Rodolfo… we thought we wus buds! We trusted you!" Shady said sharply, pointing at the cast-iron counter like it would help her get the item back.

"It was stolen from a nun just over a week ago. At gunpoint."

"Come again?!"

"A nun!" Stilts cried, thumping her partner's shoulder. "Goddammit, Shaye, I told ya we shoulda gone up to the Mission and spoken to the nuns!"

Shady was pushed half a foot to the side by the thump, and she reached up to rub her shoulder at once. "Ouch! Yeah, yeah, you said that…"

"The crooks didn't shoot the nun," Rodolfo continued from his spot behind the counter, "but they did such a good job beating her she was rushed to hospital with life-threatening injuries." He leaned back on the swivel-chair like he was trying to assess the potential guilt of the two hustlers.

"Holy shit… what kind of psycho creep beats up a nun?" Shady said in a mumble. She looked at Stilts who could only shrug.

"It was all over the news for several days. Don't you watch TV or read newspapers?"

"No… we can't afford to," Shady continued in a voice that trailed off into nothing. When she noticed Rodolfo's intense eyes studying her, she drew a sharp breath: "But amigo-mio, Jeez… I mean… Jeez! We had nothin' whatsoever to do with that, for cryin' out loud! We just found the damn thing… you really think me and Stilts here go around beatin' up nuns for kicks?!"

"I guess not."

"You guess not?! Haw, thanks a whole bunch for your confidence in us, buddy!"

"You're welcome," Rodolfo said and let out a dark chuckle. "Look, I'm not saying you were involved. I'm saying it was stolen from a nun. I'm quite sure the nun in question wants it back."

"Yeah… makes sense," Shady said, staring at Rodolfo, at Stilts, at the cast-iron counter and then back at Rodolfo.

"Once you've left, I'm going to call the police so a detective from Robbery can take it to the stationhouse for further processing. Don't worry, Shady, I won't mention who brought it in… though they'll obviously dust it for prints and whatever else they do."

"Thanks… we always used the hankie," Shady said and looked down at her fingerless gloves. "But can't we… can't we have the crucifix back instead? I mean, for safe-keeping or something?"

Rodolfo put his hands in the air instead of making a move to retrieve the crucifix from the strongbox.

"We promise to take really good care of it. How about that? Any chance of that kinda deal?"



"No. No chance whatsoever."

"Shit," Shady mumbled. She let out a sigh before she seemed to perk up: "Hey, is there a… you know… some kind of reward or financial benefit or something for recovering it?"

"Not for the crucifix itself, no. Not that I've heard of, anyway."

"Yeah well, if you haven't heard anything, there isn't any," Shady mumbled. She looked up at Stilts whose sour expression proved she was still miffed about the nun-thing. "So… just for a laugh… what was it worth? Forty, fifty bucks?"

"It's a priceless religious artifact, Shady. The manufacturer stamp says it was originally made by licensed silversmith Arturo Pedersoli in Modena, Italy back in 1869," Rodolfo said and shook his head.

"Holy shit… and you got that out of the little squigglies on the back?"

"Yep. Even beyond it being stolen goods, it's against the law to buy or sell-"

"Yeah-yeah-yeah, whatever, but it's gotta be worth something, Rodolfo!"

"Thousands of dollars. Maybe tens of thousands."

Shady's jaw slipped down to her chest. She looked up at Stilts who had still to regain her usual gorgeousness - hearing the vast value only made the taller woman scrunch up her face even more. "Uh-huh… okay. Figures," Shady said and reached up under her beanie hat to scratch her mop.

"Tell you what… hold your horses for two minutes," Rodolfo said before he got up from his swivel-chair and moved out of sight. He came back exactly one minute thirty-nine seconds later holding an old newspaper. "Good thing I never throw anything out. There's an article in here about the incident that you ought to read. Nobody ever came forward as far as I know, so their offer is still valid. Oh, and this is a gift," he continued as he pushed the old newspaper through the slot in the maze of bars.

"Huh… thanks. I know the gift-part musta been hard for ya," Shady said with a lopsided grin. Turning her attention to the article, she had to let out a strangled croak when her eyes fell on a figure that was just as impressive as the one Rodolfo had just mentioned. "Holy shit… toots, listen to this! The Church Of The Blessed Virgin Mary put up a ten-flippin'-thousand dollar reward for information that would lead to the arrest of the three thugs who assaulted the nun! Ten grand! Ten! Good-shit-almighty, we could buy… we… we could buy… we could buy the world for ten grand… and we'd never have to work again! Unless we wanted to, of course…"

The grunt that came out of Stilts proved she was less enthusiastic on a whole. "Didya forget they're talking about three a-holes who didn't mind beating up a nun? You really wanna go look for people of such a caliber?" She moved in close to read the article over Shady's shoulder, but the newspaper was moved away before she could read beyond the first paragraph. "Hey, I was reading that…"

"Sorry," Shady said and unfolded the newspaper once more. While Stilts read on, Shady's eyes went on a tour of the countless exciting items in their old pal's store that they would have a chance to buy if they possessed that kind of wealth. "Well… no… I could happily live without a-holes in general… but ten grand, Pookie! Imagine what we could do with ten grand," Shady said, slapping her hand against the newspaper.

Stilts scrunched up her face as she pulled back. "Oh, I can imagine, all right… and in glorious Technicolor. That money would come in handy to pay a lot of our hospital bills after getting too close to those three guys."

Shady narrowed her eyes at the comment. "Oh, lighten up, will ya! Ten grand… huh. Huh!"

"You said that already."

"I know. I need to think. Ten grand. Huh."

The conversation fizzled out after that, so Shady and Stilts mumbled a few goodbyes and see-yas to Rodolfo Santo Domingo before they shuffled out of the pawn shop and back onto the ever-busy Sunderland Street.

There, Shady fell uncharacteristically quiet while she looked up and down the noisy, smelly, congested street like she was expecting to run into the three guys just like that. Stilts showed more pragmatism and set off on the long walk back to their own turf where the people they would meet were not out to mug them at gunpoint. After a short delay, Shady pulled the former clothes-dryer higher up on her shoulder and shuffled off in her girlfriend's tracks.


Darkness came sooner than even Shady's second-hand flip-over almanac had predicted for the mid-October day. Once the clock reached six-thirty, dark, sun-consuming rain clouds came rolling in from the east to sour the early evening for everyone who had to travel home from work or travel home while still working. Shady in particular had an adversity to rain drops of the wet and cold kind, so she and Stilts had packed up their Diamonds table and gone home after the second shower - hardly anyone of the people walking the streets had the time or the inclination to stop and play cards while rain fell from the vast, polluted skies above so the loss was manageable.

While Shady threw herself into the great art of cooking supper with her usual flamboyant gusto, Stilts was in their tiny bathroom splashing some water in her face, on her neck and elsewhere to freshen up after the long, tiresome day.

A jagged crack snaked its way across the mirror above the porcelain wash basin; Stilts liked to joke that it was as a result of it seeing Shaye in the morning before her regular mug of rocket-fuel coffee. The shower cabin next to the basin was old but functional - if perhaps a bit on the unpredictable side when it came to delivering hot water. At least the toilet worked just fine.

The naked bulb hanging down from the ceiling was perhaps not too safe considering it had a metal on-off chain in a room that was often filled with steam, but it had never produced any dramas so the two women were confident it would remain that way. After Stilts had opened the bathroom door to get some light inside, she yanked the chain to click off the bulb; then she stepped out into the narrow hallway rubbing some moisturizing cream onto her hands and lower arms.

At the same time, Shady peeked around the doorjamb to the kitchenette. "You ready for some chow, Snookums? I hope you are 'cos our dinner sure is!"

"I'm ready," Stilts said, shuffling into their sparsely decorated living room. While she had carried out her task of freshening up, Shady had been busy setting their ever-faithful, third-hand, wooden coffee table that performed multiple duties over the course of the day and the week: it was the breakfast table, the dinner table and the table where the evening coffee was served. It was the crossword puzzle table, the drawing-plans-for-the-future table, and the practice table for new card tricks - it was also the number one spot for dumping piles of this, that and everything else that had nowhere else to stay. One of the legs had been borrowed from another table and was thus half an inch shorter than the other three, but it was nothing a stack of taped-together beer coasters rescued from a dumpster could not handle.

The couch that stood behind it was a three-seater affair where the framework and the six cushions were all of different designs and held in different colors - it was still comfortable despite being decades-old, so Shady and Stilts did not care about the fashion faux pas.

Two tumblers, two spoons, two sausage tongs, two napkins and a single can opener had already been laid out on the table in fine order. Stopping in the doorway, Stilts let out a dark grunt when she realized just what they were going to eat that day.

"Ta-daaaa!" Shady said as she entered the living room balancing a tray carrying two cans of lite beer and two cans of ready-to-heat spaghetti and meatballs. She rubbed her hands in anticipatory glee as soon as the tray was on the table.

Stilts grunted for a second time.


"Spaghetti and meatballs… again?"

"We love spaghetti and meatballs, Toots," Shady said as she sat down on the couch. Moving fast, she grabbed the can opener and ran it around the edge of the can. When the lid came loose, the steam and warm, delightful aromas that rose from the contents proved the bain-marie had done what it was meant to. Getting on with the program, she grabbed her pair of sausage tongs and held them in a firm grip around the steaming hot can of spaghetti so she could avoid burning her sensitive fingers - then she leaned back on the couch and started digging in like there was no tomorrow.

Stilts grunted for the third time in a minute and a half. Shrugging, she sat down and mirrored her girlfriend's actions. Soon, she nabbed her spoon to dig in as well. "Yeah… we love spaghetti and meatballs… but perhaps not three days in a row."

Plenty of munching of spaghetti and slurping of lite beer ensued before Shady licked off her spoon and dumped it into the empty can. "Ah! That sure did hit the spot. Love me some spaghetti and meatballs. Y'know, you can't even tell it's a month past its sell-by date."

"Naw. I guess it's pretty good. At least it's warm and tasty. How many cans do we have left now?" Stilts said while balancing one of the last meatballs on her spoon.


"Okay… uh… okay. Good thing we love spaghetti and meatballs…" Stilts said, letting out a brief chuckle before she stuffed the spoon in her mouth.

"Yeah, ain't it great? I knew we'd stuck gold when we happened to pass by that supermarket just when they were taking all their expired stuff to the dumpster. Hey, they got the food, we got the need. A match made in heaven, right?"

"You betcha," Stilts said with a grin. She was soon done with her spaghetti as well and could concentrate on her can of lite beer. "So anyway… today's loot amounted to seventy-two dollars, four buttons, an outdated bus token and someone's nasty piece of well-chewed bubblegum. Oh, and a classic Mickey Mouse Club pin."

Shady reached over at once to slap Stilts' endless thigh. "Wa-hey! Neat! That's not too bad all in all. We even reuse the buttons we get. And a Mickey Mouse Club pin? Perhaps we can take it up to Rodolfo's tomorrow… it might be worth something."

"There's no point," Stilts said, shaking her head before she emptied the can of beer, " 'cos the little needle-thing on the back has been broken off. It's a mass-produced piece of junk."

"Oh… damn."

Silence fell between them for a while as they digested their grand feasts of expired spaghetti and meatballs supported by lite beer they had actually paid for. Save for the occasional sounds that wafted through the walls from the apartments around them, a contented silence fell over the living room.

Shady and Stilts had nothing in the way of potted plants; spending so few hours in their apartment seven days a week meant that any greenery would wither and die from lack of water and attention. Instead, they had a few glass frames hanging on the walls displaying their collection of dried, pressed summer flowers that Stilts had picked over at Victory Park. Two Monet and van Gogh reproduction posters rounded out their meager decorations. Someone had thrown them out because they each had a long, jagged tear across them, but the world had not yet seen a tear that scotch tape could not cure.

Although an old TV-set they had bought in a thrift store had a prominent spot in the living room, there was literally nothing on because they could not afford the extortionate rates of the local cable service. An even older DVD player was lined up underneath the TV, but that had long since given up the ghost and was mainly used as somewhere to place the piles of miscellany that even the coffee table had no room for.

Shady leaned forward to pick up the newspaper Rodolfo had given them. The article where the ten-thousand dollar reward was mentioned was re-read for the umpteenth time since it had come into their possession. "It's tempting, isn't it?" she said, putting the newspaper back on the dinner table.

"Going after those goons? Not exactly… but I see your point," Stilts said as she snuggled up close to her girlfriend in their favorite post-dinner exercise.

"Yeah… I mean, we're experienced street hustlers, right? We're tuned to see things others don't. We hear things others don't… and even if they do see or hear them, they don't know what to do or even how to deal with that information. We do."

Stilts furrowed her brow; then she chewed on her cheek. Then she furrowed her brow again. "You kinda lost me there… I didn't get any of that."

"Okay, but… hmmm… I mean, we're always on the street anyway, right? We found the crucifix at Victory Park. It says in the article the nun was mugged on West Eleventh Street… that's down among the riff-raff-roughies just like we predicted. The goons musta gone north after that or else the crucifix couldn't end up there."


"Well, I was just thinking… even the world's stupidest crack-head mugger would know that such a crucifix would be valuable, right? We've met a few of those people, right? They can't find their dick with a hand down their shorts-"

"Jeez, Shaye!"

"-and the way the article describes these guys based on the statements made by the witnesses, they don't come across as being stupid at all… aggressive, brutal and mean, sure, but not stupid. And there's three of them, fer cryin' out loud. You'd think that at least one of them would know what it was…"

"Yeah, you would. Go on."

"But they still threw it away. What if they weren't really interested in stealing it? What if… huh… what if the nun saw something she shouldn't have?" Shady said and sat up so suddenly that Stilts nearly fell face-first onto the seat of the couch.

Sitting up was not enough for the spirited Shady who was suddenly injected with a triple-dose of go-get-'em-juice. She jumped to her feet and began to pace back and forth in front of the dinner table. "What if they just took the crucifix to make it look like a mugging? What if they just beat up the nun to silence her because… because she saw something… hmmm…"

"You said that already," Stilts said as she moved upright on the couch. "And there's a whole bunch of 'what ifs' too many in there for my taste."

Shady came to a halt and began to rub her scalp thoroughly like it would help her connect the neurons needed for processing her thoughts. When the scalp rubbing proved to be insufficient, she moved her fingers down to try at her temples instead. "Yeah, I suppose there is," she said after a little while of furious rubbing.

"Yeah. And even beyond that, what could a nun have seen that would be reason enough to nearly beat her to death? Even down on West Eleventh Street? A drug deal? Happens all the time here in Carlyle. Everywhere. That couldn't be it. Somebody being murdered? The newspapers would have been all over that, but there's no mention of anything like that in the one we got from Rodolfo, is there?"


"So what could it be? A kidnapping, or… no. It's not that I can't follow your theory, but…"

"Yeah," Shady said and broke out in a wide shrug. "Jeez, I don't know, Pookie. Mmmm… I don't know what I'm really trying to say-"

"I coulda told you that!"

"Haw, haw! I'm sure there's more to this than meets the eye. Perhaps even literally. Hmmm. Naw, it won't come to me now. I need to sleep on it. Then we'll… we'll… hmmm."

When Shady fell silent once more, Stilts leaned back on the couch and crossed her long legs. "So what do we do if we really find them, Shaye? Call the cops? They'll throw us in the slammer and not the goons… you know that."

"Yeah. I could distort my voice, though. It's been a long, long while since we've done our ventriloquist scam, but I'll bet I could still pull off a fast one over the telephone," Shady said as she scratched her cheek. After thinking about it for a little while, she cleared her throat: "Okay… how about this… Dissssss-picable! Ouakk-ouakk-ouakk! I blame the media and the Democrats! And we will build that wall!" she said, going from Daffy Duck to Donald Duck to Donald Trump in a matter of seconds.

"Oh for Pete's sake, didya have to pull the Trump one? You know how much it gives me the sour burps," Stilts said and rose from the couch. She was at Shady's side before long where she wrapped her long arms around the shorter woman and gave her a little squeeze.

"Sorry," Shady said and broke out in a cheesy snicker.

"I'm still not convinced about any of this. It's gonna be so damn dangerous for us to look for those guys… but I will admit that ten grand would sweeten our lives."

"It would, yeah. It really would…"

Nothing more needed to be said, so they fell quiet. The moment of intimacy was too good to end so soon, so 'Shady' Shaye LaSalle and Jennifer 'Stilts' Mulroney remained locked in a tender embrace a fair while longer.




October thirteenth; a quarter to two in the morning. Despite the tireless efforts of the pair of long wipers cleaning the windshield of the black Lincoln Navigator, plenty of sparkling droplets continued to be created by the intermittent showers that had amassed above Greater Carlyle since the late afternoon of the previous day.

The SUV trickled onto West Seventy-fourth Street going no faster than walking pace. It was an elegant street in an elegant neighborhood where the equally elegant vehicle looked right at home. The bedraggled person manning the steering wheel could not have looked any less at home had she tried: she bore the look of those less-fortunate individuals that the local, upscale residents warned each other about at their frequent functions and social calls.

Patricia 'Patty' Hawkins' complexion was even pastier and more unhealthy than usual as she had not had the chance to sleep but a single wink the night before. When she had finally found a quiet nook - a heating duct at the rear side of a bakery - where she hoped to spend the remainder of the dark hours, she had only been allowed a brief moment of rest before she had been chased away by the owner of the shop. She had given up after that and had settled for wandering the streets. The rest of the day had not gone any better, nor had the evening - and now she was back doing DiSorrento's dirty work.

She kept staring at the bungalows lining the street to find the one that was to be the target of her hellish assignment. While she did so, she held a borrowed smartphone to her ear from where the cold voice of the predator-like Dorothy Lorraine DiSorrento filtered through at all-too frequent intervals.

'Hawkins,' the boss of the crime syndicate said from the electronic gadget, 'this is the kind of thing you need to be able to do. That's why I sent you there on your own tonight… so you can prove your worth to me. Don't screw this up. Do you understand me?'

"Y- yes, Miss DiSorrento…"

'Good. Get to it. Call me with an update once you're done. I'll be watching the news so don't even think about lying to me.'

"N- no, Miss DiSorrento… I m- mean, yes, Miss DiSorrento," Patty said once more, but it was too late as the boss had already closed the connection. Sighing, she put the smartphone on the vacant passenger seat before swapping it for the note that carried the details she had scribbled down earlier: 1164 West Seventy-fourth Street, Mr. Milbern.


Several cold shivers rippled down Patty's spine upon reaching the far end of the street without having found the correct house. The risk of failure suddenly loomed large, but failure was the only thing she could not afford to have - for a multitude of reasons. She chewed on her cheeks for several long seconds pondering what to do. Then she made a clumsy three-point U-turn so she could head back in the opposite direction for a closer look at the other side of the street.

The second pass was more successful as she finally spotted the bungalow she was there for. She had missed it at the first time of asking because the elegant, two-story brick Colonial was drawn a good fifty feet back from West Seventy-fourth Street. After pulling another U-turn to be able to make a swift getaway once the job was done, she was fortunate enough to find a parking space large enough for the bulky SUV only a stone's throw from the bungalow.

Turning off the engine, she slipped down in the leather seat so she could watch the house without being spotted. She decided to remain in the vehicle for three minutes; it would give her time to check out her surroundings.

A neatly-trimmed front lawn framed by low hedges and joined by two fledgling trees and a few flower beds separated the two-story house from the quiet street. Further flower beds that had been laid out adjacent to the brick walls would offer a good seat for the fire though they were mostly dormant at that time of the year.

A paved driveway led up to a double-width garage where the doors had been closed and secured for the night. No lights were on anywhere in the house save for a single LED lamp that illuminated a square panel carrying the house number next to the wooden front door.

During the three-minute surveillance, Patty scanned the exterior of the house for security cameras. Though she could see none, she proceeded to roll down the commando-style cap she wore which turned it into a ski mask featuring three pre-cut holes for her eyes and mouth. As always, she wore the leather gloves she had been given to stop her fingerprints from appearing where they should not.

The proverbial game clock reached Zero Hour. Taking a deep, trembling breath, she opened the door and stepped into the freezing night to get it over with. The Lincoln's air-conditioning unit had been set to maximum heating during her trip through the busy city streets, but she regretted it as the chilly winds that swirled around her made her shiver within a few seconds of being exposed to them. Her guilty conscience decided to join the ghoulish party which made her shiver even harder.

She moved back to the rear of the SUV and opened the large hatch to get the accessories she needed for the hellish task. Her jittering hands would hardly obey her commands as she reached for a dark-gray, four-gallon jerrycan filled to the brim with gasoline. The cumbersome metal container was almost too heavy for her scrawny frame to cope with, but she managed to get it onto the asphalt in one piece by putting her back into it and using her legs to bend down.

The next item in the back of the Lincoln was a bottle of vodka that she had stolen from a liquor store on her way there. A strip of cloth and a weather-proof trekking lighter completed the ensemble. The plan was to use the items as the base of a makeshift Molotov-cocktail. She had been told to pour out enough of the gasoline onto the lower part of the brick walls for it to catch, then insert the cloth into the vodka, light the dry end of it and throw the bottle at the wall above the flammable liquid. The resulting fireball would ignite the gasoline and create the fire Dorothy Lorraine DiSorrento so dearly wished to see.

Patty's shivers grew more unrestrained as she stared wide-eyed at the instruments of death at her feet. No matter what she did, she was about to embark on a journey that would lead her straight to hell.

If she lit the fire, she could add arson to her long list of priors. Perhaps she would become a multiple murderer as well if the fire caught too hard or smoke traveled inside the bungalow.

If she ran away without setting the fire, it was a one-hundred percent certainty that DiSorrento would put out a contract for her death, and that the countless thugs and brutes connected with the syndicate would be jumping at the chance to get on the boss' good side - they would hunt her down and butcher her like a head of cattle.

Though neither life would be worth living, at least the people working for the judicial system would not beat her to a pulp if - or when - they caught her.

A sudden spark of inspiration hit her and made her pause. DiSorrento had ordered her to light a fire to send a message to the day trader, but not how large the fire needed to be or even where it needed to be. There was no need to create a vast bonfire when something smaller would get the message across as well: the double-width garage would be a good compromise, or so Patty thought. The house insurance would cover the cost of the car, or cars, inside, and if nothing else, she could be sure that no one would be in there at that time of night.

She felt a shimmer of hope ignite within her as she returned to the present. A smaller fire would be just what the situation and her conscience called for. Her hospital-strength pills cried out to her the loudest they ever had, but she was determined to wait until after the job was done and she had made a safe escape.

The sooner she got the job done, the sooner she could get away. Nodding to herself in a determined fashion, she went ahead with her dirty work. The most recent shower eased off just as she grabbed hold of the heavy jerrycan and began to hobble across the street. She needed to clench her jaw hard to concentrate on keeping the gasoline from sloshing around too much inside the metal container - and to ignore the bitter taste that filled her mouth despite the changed plans.


Seven minutes later, her trembling, rubbery arms forced her to put down the jerrycan. She had poured out most of the gasoline onto the lower parts of the garage so the unwieldy can weighed less than it had done at the outset of her grim job, but the fatigue that had been a constant companion of hers for weeks had robbed her of so much of her strength that she had little left for unusual activities such as the one she found herself in at present. Her back ached from hunching over, her arms ached from carrying the heavy can, and her gloved fingers ached from holding the metal handle in a weird angle to be able to distribute the flammable liquid.

The gasoline she had poured onto the lower parts of the garage reeked to high heaven so she took a long step back to be at a safe distance. Surveying her handiwork, she nodded to herself once more before she ran across the street to get to the other items she had brought along.

Back at the driveway, she unscrewed the lid of the stolen bottle of vodka and took a long swig to calm her nerves. The potent beverage burned its way down her gullet and made her break out in a grimace. Instead of imbibing more, she stuffed the strip of cloth into the bottle's neck to let it soak up some of the spirits.

When the wick was ready, she clicked open the weather-proof lighter and put her thumb near the button that would heat up a metal plate to the point of glowing. Then she froze as it dawned on her what she was actually doing. Though the fire would be smaller, live flames were never less than unpredictable. She had no way of knowing what the day trader stored in his garage - there might be some kind of accelerant in there like gas cylinders for welding, or buckets of paint or turpentine that could create a fiery inferno in a matter of seconds. If so, the bungalow itself would not be able to escape unscathed. If the house caught alight, the people inside would still be in grave danger despite all her best intentions.

Patty lowered the lighter and clicked it shut. A few droplets of ice cold rain fell from the sky as the next cloud had decided to pass over West Seventy-fourth Street at that exact moment in time. Feeling her nerve leaving her, she looked up into the endless void above her. She was unable to see anything up there beyond a greenish-gray sheen because of the immense light-pollution created by the metropole, but it fit her state of mind perfectly.

The chilly, swirling winds brought a faint echo of a police siren with them. Somewhere in the far distance, one of the white-and-pale-blue cruisers of the Carlyle Police Department raced along one of the avenues responding to a call. If she carried out her diabolical plan, the hitherto quiet street she was standing near would soon see its fair share of emergency vehicles of all shapes and sizes. Perhaps there would be work to do for the city coroner as well.

She rubbed her mouth on the back of a gloved hand as she tried to clear her mind sufficiently to come up with a solution she could live with. The bottle of vodka suddenly weighed a ton so she put it down on the ground, trapping it between her feet so it would not roll off on the driveway's gentle slope.

Then a human-shaped shadow fell over her.

A strong burst of fear as a result of being caught red-handed exploded within her. It grabbed her by her throat and immediately restricted her breathing. Letting out a strangled croak, she tried to fight the weird sensation until she realized she really did have a strong, coarse hand wrapped around her neck.

"You fuckin' piece of trash!" Bogdan Marinescu said hoarsely in a quiet voice so he would not risk waking up the entire neighborhood. The brutal enforcer had his face a mere inch from Patty's - the unwanted closeness did not improve either his mastiff-like looks or the strong scent that came from his mouth whenever he spoke. "I always said you were a fuckin' coward!" he continued, yanking the much smaller woman toward him by the throat.

"B- Bogdan?" Patty said in a croak as the man's strong fingers held on too tightly for her to speak properly. Reaching up, she grabbed hold of his arm to get him to ease off the vicious grip; when he did, she wished he had continued to hold her: the first thing he did after pulling back was to slap her across both cheeks like she was no more than a naughty child needing to be punished after spilling milk at the breakfast table.

The ski mask absorbed the worst of the slapping, but her skin still stung after the harsh, patronizing treatment. Since her brutal nemesis wore no mask, Patty rolled up hers as well to reveal cheeks that carried a pair of red blotches. "Wh- why… but… what are you-"

"The boss told me to follow ya here, ya stupid fuck!" Bogdan said and reached for Patty again - she took a hasty step back to be out of reach. "She knew ya'd fuck up… and ya did. Throw that fuckin' bottle! Light that fuse and throw the fuckin' bottle right this fuckin' minute!"


Bogdan flung out his hand with surprising speed considering his bulk. This time, he managed to score a direct hit on the left side of Patty's face; she moaned in pain as her head was whipped to the right. "You're askin' for a beatin', ya dumb fuck. Keep fuckin' the boss and me over and I'll deliver! Throw it!"

Bright stars appeared in Patty's vision from the rattling impact. Her jaw had been numbed by the sudden strike, but the numbness soon wore off and morphed into unpleasant throbbing. She let out a croak and took another step back though it was in effect already too late.

Her stumbling move backwards meant that the home-made Molotov-cocktail at her feet was knocked over from receiving a thump by her boot. The bottle remained in one piece, but it rolled away from her down the sloping driveway like she had been concerned that it would. It came to a halt by the sidewalk, out of reach of both of them. "But… no… please…" she croaked as she held a hand against her aching jaw. "I… I was about to-"

"Shut the fuck up and throw the bottle! Fuck… where did it go?" Bogdan said, suddenly noticing that the incendiary device had rolled away. When he spotted it down by the sidewalk, he pointed at it. "Get the bottle and throw it… burn that fuckin' house down and not just the garage! The whole fuckin' thing while those fuckers are asleep!"

All Patty could do was to shake her head in despair. She only had so much to give and her limited mental resources had just been depleted. The burden placed on her conscience was too heavy for her soul to handle. Her chin began to tremble and it soon became clear to everyone that she was on the brink of tears - tears borne of deep frustration and severe guilt.

The sincere display of emotions made Bogdan bare his teeth in a disgusted grimace. Already ugly to begin with, his face turned near-hideous through all his anger with the shorter woman. "That fuckin' does it… now ya really gonna get it, ya pathetic, fuckin' coward," he said hoarsely. Moving with the speed of a striking cobra, he reached out with both hands and grabbed hold of the shoulders of Patty's jacket.

Using all the skills he had obtained through decades of dirty work for the highest bidder, the enforcer manhandled the far skinnier woman across the driveway and into the mouth of a narrow garden path that ran next to the garage. The shadows were far deeper there which meant he could work her over without the slightest risk of being seen from the street or one of the bungalows. From experience, he knew how far groans and cries would carry on such a night, so the first thing he did was to ram his fist hard into her gut to silence her.

Patty tried all she could to resist her assailant, or at least to wiggle free of his grip, but her fighting spirit left her in a burst as the fist impacted on her stomach. Doubling over as a volcanic eruption of pain spewed out inside her, she only stayed on her feet through Bogdan's strong grip on her jacket.

"You want more? I got plenty where that came from," Bogdan said as he moved his arm back for another dose of violence. He held it there for a few moments until his urges overpowered him and told him to thump his victim again. The second hit was just as hard as the first and made the smaller woman send out a croaking groan as she doubled over. "Throw the fuckin' bottle and all this will stop."

All the air had been forced out of Patty by the punches, and she needed to take several deep, wheezing breaths just to get enough into her lungs for speaking. Even so, the voice that came past her lips was only vaguely recognizable as her own: "Wh- wh- why don't… don't y- you do it…? Y- you'd l- love it!"

Bogdan briefly narrowed his eyes at the undeniable truth to the statement; then he moved his ungainly head back to cannon off a headbutt that took Patty completely by surprise and made her fall to her knees. "That's right, fucker," the enforcer said as he yanked the moaning woman upright once more. "I'd love to do it… but the boss wants you to do it."

Wheezing from the strikes to the gut and seeing double from the unexpected assault on her brow, Patty broke out in a jerking nod that sent a wave of warm pain through her abused forehead. The resulting headache was hot on its heels and soon made its presence felt as merciless throbbing all through her skull. "All- all right… I'll- I'll do it… I'll throw the bottle… anyth- anything y- you say… j- just don't h- hit me anymore…" she slurred in a slow, pain-induced fashion.

"Aw hell, I didn't hit ya. You'd know if I hit ya," Bogdan said before his lips creased into something resembling a wicked smile. He looked around to make sure no one had spotted them yet; then he fired off a vicious elbow-strike to his victim's left cheekbone and jaw as a goodbye-present.

Moaning and groaning from the evil parting gift that left her entire mouth numb, Patty could not keep herself upright any longer. When the enforcer let go of her jacket, she collapsed onto the garden path in a disheveled heap of humanity. The modicum of peace only lasted for a fraction of a second before she was yanked to her feet again and forcibly dragged back out onto the driveway so she could finish the job she had been sent to do.

"Do your fuckin' worst, ya coward. And don't forget, I'll be right here watching ya," Bogdan said hoarsely before he shoved her towards the jerrycan and the runaway bottle of stolen vodka. "If I were you, I wouldn't fuck up again. Ya hear me?"

Patty nodded while the numbness in her mouth receded and turned to painful throbbing. Out of reflex, she ran her tongue over her teeth to see if any of them had gone missing from the impact. A tangy taste in her mouth was proof that Bogdan's violence against her had drawn blood; it would have been a miracle otherwise. She had not had a full set of teeth for many years, but no new gaps seemed to have appeared in her quick exploration. A sigh of relief escaped her.

With that worry out of the way, she clutched both hands against her abused stomach though the gesture made it impossible for her to pick up the heavy jerrycan. Another sigh that turned into a sob escaped her. It had become painfully obvious to her that she had reached the end of the line no matter what she did or did not do.

Releasing her vice-like grip on her gut, she reached for the jerrycan's metal handle while all the pain inside ganged up on her. Her forehead and her mouth were locked in a tug-of-war to see which could throb the worst, and a fire with the intensity of fresh lava rolled through her stomach.

Though the jerrycan was only a quarter-full, it was still so heavy she could hardly carry it given the weakened, battered and bruised state she was in. She tried the hardest she knew which made every last square inch of her body throb and ache. Even so, it became obvious within seconds that her best efforts of dragging the heavy thing around would most likely fail to appease the brutal, and impatient, enforcer.

She was right: grumbling about how certain pieces of human trash should not be allowed to live, Bogdan Marinescu moved ahead with the clear intent of giving Patty another hands-on lesson on how to behave herself as a prospect member of the DiSorrento crime syndicate.

The hazy clouds of pain in Patty's mind were suddenly swept away by a moment of striking clarity. The sensation lasted no longer than a heartbeat, but it had been enough. She came to a halt knowing exactly what she needed to do. The drastic course of action she was about to exercise would present her with a path out of her miserable existence. One that she did not look forward to, but it was the only exit available to her. She accepted that she had reached the end and that anything she would find beyond it would be a vast improvement.

Bogdan stomped along like an angry bull as he closed the short distance between them. When he was close enough, she released her grip on the jerrycan's handle. The metal container dropped to the ground with a hollow clang; it fell onto its side and much of the remaining gasoline sloshed out and pooled on the driveway. At the exact moment the enforcer grabbed hold of her jacket, she activated the weather-proof lighter and dropped it into the highly flammable liquid.

For the first split second, nothing happened. Then a violent roar was heard as the gasoline fumes ignited. In turn, the conflagration in the air created enough heat for the pool on the ground to reach a critical temperature. Only a fraction of a moment after that, an angry-orange ball of fire rivaling anything ever borne out of the depths of hell engulfed the two people standing in the driveway.

The fireball singed Patty's skin and stole her breath away. The legs of her pants caught fire at once which made her cry out in pain and shock, but it was nothing compared to the gruesome ball of flames that surrounded Bogdan Marinescu. Within another few seconds, the ball had enclosed him fully and made him let out a near-insane scream of pain and pure, raw fear.

The large man started thrashing about to put out the flames feeding on his clothes and skin, but the wall of fire only grew more intense from the oxygen that was fed to the flames by the wild gestures and the swirling winds that chose that moment to increase. In all his panic, he accidentally saved the life of the woman responsible for the fire by thumping her over the shoulder. His frightened screams grew in intensity as the fire around him continued to worsen.

The flailing arm that had clobbered Patty across the shoulder sent her reeling away from the worst of the fire. Her own flames spread upward, and the heat they produced was strong enough to make her breath hitch.

Then her self-preservation kicked in full-force - it made her run over to the lawn that was still wet from the recent showers. Though the fire had not yet spread further than the knees of her black jeans, the acute pain that shot up from her lower legs was bad enough to make her cry out in pain and terror. Falling down onto the wet grass, she rolled back and forth countless times to douse the flames; it eventually worked, but not before the pantlegs of her dark jeans had been reduced to mere shreds in places.

Wheezing, coughing and spluttering from the foul-smelling smoke that rose from her smoldering pants, she rolled over onto her hands and knees to take in the gruesome sight of Bogdan Marinescu - or rather, what was left of the brutal enforcer. Even as she watched, the burning body collapsed onto the driveway. It twitched once, then once more before it became still.

All the scenes of unspeakable horror had taken place within a thirty-second period, but she spent so long staring wide-eyed at the ongoing human bonfire caused by her actions that her eyes started to dry out and then ache. Where the flames had filled their near-insatiable lust for flesh and fabric, blackened limbs became visible. Her breath hitched and she felt her abused stomach perform several dry heaves that could produce no vomit because there was nothing down there to use.

Dizziness fueled by a strong current of guilt soon overpowered her and made her bump down onto her rear. Her lower legs had become so painful that she needed to clench her jaw to keep down the pained moans; that, and the sight of the dead enforcer, were stark reminders of what she had done. She had killed another human being - she would never escape the electric chair now.

Activity from the bungalows everywhere around her made her snap back to the present. Lights were soon turned on all the way up and down West Seventy-fourth Street, and male and female voices were heard crying out that someone needed to call the fire department in a hurry.

Her legs were so painful she could hardly put any weight on them, but she clenched her jaw even tighter and clambered upright - staying around for the police was out of the question. As she hobbled away from the wet lawn that had saved her from worse burns, she noticed lights were turned on in several rooms of the bungalow she had been ordered to set fire to.

The day trader had yet to appear to see what was going on, but perhaps he had put two and two together and had settled for calling the police or the fire department - or Dorothy Lorraine DiSorrento to tell her that he was going to repay his loan at once.

Some of the neighbors began to run onto the street wearing hastily assembled clothing. One or two of them carried buckets of water like they had expected the fire to have been created by wanton youths celebrating an early Halloween by throwing fireworks or something similar, but they shied back at once when they realized the smoldering lump in the middle of the driveway was human-shaped.

Patty used the confusion to cross over the street and hobble toward the black Lincoln Navigator. Bogdan's own vehicle had to be parked somewhere near, but she doubted he had left the keys in the ignition and she could not afford to waste time finding out. The chilly night-time air already echoed from numerous sirens that came ever closer, and it would only be a matter of minutes before the street would be awash in not only large fire engines but ambulances and police cruisers as well.

Nobody even tried to stop her on her way over to the Lincoln, and for that she was grateful. Though she had caused the fire with the intent to kill herself, now that she had been given a second chance at life, she would be damned if she did not take full advantage of it. That Bogdan Marinescu had exited this world instead of her was an added bonus that she had not counted on - the brutal enforcer would not be missed by anyone.

Slipping in behind the steering wheel, she started the engine but left the shifter in park for the time being. Her eyes fell on the smartphone on the passenger seat. Dorothy DiSorrento had given her that telephone when she had informed her of the assignment's particulars earlier in the evening, so chances were that it was marked or being tracked somehow. She needed to get rid of it at once so she rolled down the window and threw the expensive gadget out onto the street with enough strength that it shattered.

After moving the shifter into reverse, it was her plan to back away from the car in front to have enough room to get out of the slot. Unfortunately, the burns on her leg affected her calf muscle which in turn meant she pressed too hard on the throttle - as a result, the Lincoln flew backward and thumped into a family sedan parked behind it.

The car alarm went off at once and created an infernal racket in the semi-quiet night. It made everyone at the scene stop and stare in her direction. She understood she needed to get away in a hurry before they would come for her, so she yanked the shifter into drive and mashed the gas despite the motion sending a wave of pain up her right leg.

The first curious neighbor was already on his way over to the black SUV, so Patty spun the steering wheel hard left to clear the car in front of her; when she had room to move, she set off down West Seventy-fourth Street accompanied by a pained grimace on her lips and a throaty roar from the powerful engine.


As Patty tore down the street that continued to turn less quiet by the minute, she was hit by a bad case of deja vu. There she was, once more racing headlong into the night; once more driving a stolen vehicle; once more going much faster than what the conditions really allowed - and worse, once more doing all those things on a street that was awash with people.

Unlike over on the wide Sunderland Street that fateful night in September where everyone present had been dressed in elegant clothing fit for a night out, the people who had woken up to the sound of crackling flames and terrified screaming had flocked to the narrow residential street wearing pajama bottoms sticking out beneath winter coats, or brown tweed slippers partnered with blue jeans, or thick down jackets covering flimsy, salmon-colored night shifts, or indeed any other imaginable pairing of wildly mismatched garments.

The approaching sirens seemed to engulf Patty just like the fire had done earlier. Worse, in her mind the electronic wailing was joined by the hideous crunch created when the woman she had mowed down had hit the grille of the stolen pickup truck. She could hear it - it was right there, that hideous sound of flesh and bone striking and being crushed by metal. It was all just a trick of her fatigued mind, but the sound replayed in her ear was far worse than Bogdan's screams had been. She could hear it plain as day.

By sheer reflex, she hit the arm for the Lincoln's windshield wipers though no blood had yet been splattered onto the windows. The few drops of rain that had been dumped there by the latest shower were soon swept away by the efficient accessory.

Jerking upright in the seat, Patty shook her head hard to snap back to reality. If she stayed at the scene, she was finished. If she became involved in an accident and was arrested, she was finished. If she was found by DiSorrento's thugs, she was finished.

She needed to get as far away as possible, and as quickly as possible. To do that, she needed to keep her wits about her and not drift off back to the horrors of the past. Thus, she kept her foot on the throttle pedal though she knew she should ease off at least while she remained in the residential area - once she reached the major streets, she could ask the heavy SUV to give her all it had.

The very next moment nearly ended in a carbon-copy disaster of the night in September when a young woman stepped onto West Seventy-fourth Street wearing a dark kimono-like coat. It was clear from her demeanor that her entire attention was directed at the goings-on further down the street, and that she had failed to see the black SUV racing towards her.

Patty screamed at the top of her lungs as she spun the steering wheel hard left, then hard right to clear the human obstacle. She scraped the flanks of the Navigator against the cars parked on both sides of the narrow street, but at least she missed the woman who had frozen solid in the middle of the street. Car alarms went off in Patty's wake but she had no time for that.

The rapid gestures she had carried out with her arms meant that her gut aches returned with a vengeance. Moments later, her abused jaw and cheekbone arrived at the party as well as the murderously throbbing headache that kept pounding on the inside of her bruised forehead.

Though Patty let out a long groan fueled by raw pain, she needed to shrug it off at once when it became clear her troubles had just grown worse: at the far end of the street, a police cruiser roared past her going in the opposite direction with its lights flashing and its siren going at maximum volume. The white-and-pale-blue Ford Crown Victoria was followed closely by a fast-response paramedic unit and a bulky, boxy ambulance from Sklar & Bonney Emergency Services.

While the residential street offered plenty of room for the sleek police car and the slightly less nimble paramedic unit to move past the Lincoln Navigator even going at speed, the rear compartment of the ambulance was so wide there was only half a lane left for Patty's similarly broad-shouldered vehicle. She could see at once that she would not be able to make it, but she kept her foot flat on the floor in the hope that the driver of the ambulance would jerk out of the way.

He did, but there was still insufficient room for the two large vehicles to go past each other without touching. As the Navigator thundered past the ambulance, the left-hand side mirrors of the two vehicles came together in a rattling collision that ripped them both clean off; they performed a danse macabre along the street until they came to a rest by the curb. Chrome trimmings from the Lincoln and several LED panels from the ambulance were torn off and went flying in a shower of sparks and plastic splinters.

The driver of the ambulance had ducked away from the side window in case it would shatter in his face. Although it was a prudent decision, it meant he lost control of the heavy vehicle. Locking the rear wheels, the ambulance went into a sideways semi-slide that saw it end up lodged between a minivan parked on one side of the street and a 1970s vintage land-yacht station wagon on the other. The grille of the ambulance thumped against the left rear quarter of the minivan; the plastic was reduced to shards which sent the wig-wag emergency lights flying onto the street. Two seconds later, the creaking, groaning and above all swaying unit from Sklar & Bonney acted as a highly effective cork in the West Seventy-fourth Street bottleneck.

When the police officers in the first cruiser discovered what had happened behind them, they performed a U-turn along the narrow street and raced back toward the accident. Arriving at the scene, they quickly established they were boxed in and were unable to obtain pursuit of the black vehicle that had left at high speed. The radio was soon brought to life reporting in the sparse details they had been able to get as they had gone past the SUV.


While the clean-up operation began on the street and at the day trader's bungalow, Patty raced through the maze of residential streets to get to Avenue C where she hoped she would be able to blend into the flow of cars. Avenue A and B were closer but they were out of the question - they would be devoid of traffic at a quarter past two in the morning. The ever-busy Avenue C would be just right for her.

Now and then, she drove the wrong way down a one-way street to get ahead faster, but she had no time to adhere to the letter of the traffic regulations. She made several turns to get away from any potential pursuers, but frequent looks in the rear-view mirror proved that no one was on her tail.

She only slowed down when she reached a red light at the corner of West Eighty-second Street and Avenue A. Her notion of skipping A and trying the busier C instead proved to be the right one: as expected, the major artery was almost empty at that time of night - save for the ubiquitous taxi cabs and delivery vans - which would have made the battered and bruised Lincoln stand out like a sore thumb.

The strong rush of adrenaline made her breath come in hard bursts as she waited for the lights to change so she could move on. Her entire body ached like it had been smashed into a million pieces and put back together in the wrong order. She pinched the bridge of her nose in the hope it would clear her mind, but even that simple gesture created another volley of throbbing from her persistent headache that originated where Bogdan had headbutted her.

Just when the lights changed to green, she changed her mind about where to go and hung a right down Avenue A heading toward the center of Carlyle. She tried to remain inconspicuous by staying in the inner lane for a few city blocks before she turned left onto Rickenbacker Street, then Holman Street, then Fendrick Street. The intersection at Fendrick and Avenue B came and went, as did Trelawney Street, Clapham Square, Fleetwood Street, Alejandro Portillo Street, Sherman Street and finally Huston Park.

The intersection at Willard S. Marlin Street and Avenue C brought a welcome sight to her fatigued, blood-shot eyes: the wide avenue presented itself with its usual bumper-to-bumper traffic. She let out a deep sigh of relief and allowed herself to relax in the leather seat as she rolled up to the red light.

Activating the turning signal, she eyed the people in the vehicles nearest her. Nobody seemed to care about the Lincoln's sorry state. In fact, it even looked relatively pristine compared to many of the other cars waiting at the intersection - especially a chugging, smoking, beat-up, faintly-yellow Hyundai that had lined up crooked in the center lane like the driver had been unable to decide which of them to use.

Patty knew she had caught one of the biggest breaks of her life, but also that she was far from being in the clear. On the positive side, she was on her own turf now which meant she stood a fighting chance of going unseen - not only from the long arm of the law, but from the even longer reach of Dorothy DiSorrento and all the rabid human attack dogs that were ready to enter the fray at the mere promise of a kill.

There was a negative side as well, however. She furrowed her brow when a pair of niggling worries crept up her spine. At some point in the near future she would need more of her hospital-strength pills, but her regular supplier was connected with DiSorrento so he was suddenly a no-go. The other worry was an image in her mind's eye of the three dangerous men - Weissman, de la Cruz and King - she had seen at the gambling club. If criminals of that caliber came after her, she would be in a world of hurt for sure.

Her dark thoughts were interrupted by the traffic lights changing to green. As the Hyundai next to her backfired a couple of times before it chugg-chugg-chugged across the intersection in a cloud of pale-blue oil smoke, she turned right onto Avenue C and blended into the flow of taxi cabs, delivery vans and regular cars.


It took far longer to get back home to downtown than Patty had ever anticipated it would. Each time she as much as came close to an intersection, the traffic lights would change to red which forced her time and time again to pull up to the tail end of one of the endless lines of metal boxes on wheels that surrounded her and the battered, black Lincoln.

The longer it took, the greater the risk of someone recognizing the vehicle would become, especially as she approached the zone where the DiSorrento crime syndicate had at least one eye on each street corner. When she needed to pull to a halt at a red light for the umpteenth time since entering Avenue C, she began tapping her fingers on the leather steering wheel while thinking hard about possible solutions to the developing problem.

A solution came sooner than she had hoped it would. She was first in line at the intersection of C and Twenty-first Street so she had a clear view of the avenue as it continued on the other side. The bright-yellow neon logo of a well-known chain of fast food restaurants was prominently lit up on a tall post on the opposite side of the wide street some three-hundred yards past the intersection.

With the sign being lit, the restaurant would still be open. Although she rarely had money to burn on junk food, she remembered it well, and she remembered that it had a parking lot full of deep shadows that would be a perfect spot to dump the SUV. As the traffic lights changed to green, she made sure to maneuver into the center lane. Reaching the fast food restaurant that was located opposite a used-car dealership, she waited for a brief gap between the oncoming cars before she crossed over the center lines and drove onto the lot.

She had been right: the rear section of the restaurant's parking lot was pitch black. Only a few cars remained on the lot which was even better as fewer people present meant fewer witnesses. Choosing the left-most parking bay that was right up against a wooden fence - and close to an old-fashioned picnic table - she drove the Lincoln in front-first so the left side that had taken the worst damage in the collision with the ambulance would not be too visible once daylight returned. After parking a few inches from the wooden fence, she proceeded to crawl onto the passenger seat.

Halfway there, she stopped and slammed her eyes shut. The aches and pains that flared up from her burned legs, her abused stomach muscles, her bruised cheekbone and her grotesquely sore forehead were so bad they made her let out a long, tormented hiss while little, pointy stars appeared in her vision. The adrenaline that had coursed through her system during the action at the bungalow and the subsequent rapid escape had made her forget the worst of it, but she was certainly aware of them now she was calmer.

She clenched her jaw and moved fully onto the passenger seat's cool leather upholstery. Breathing hard, she dabbed her poor forehead several times while she tried to get back on an even keel. Her brow, her left cheekbone and her gut competed to see which could send out the loudest distress signal, but even those aches were nothing compared to the constant, burning pain that was transmitted north from her lower legs.

To get her mind off the throbbing pain, she checked the door pockets and opened the glovebox in the hope of finding something worthwhile. She let out a surprised croak and a "Thank you, God…" when the first thing she found in the latter compartment was a crumpled-up twenty-dollar bill.

Continuing to rummage around in there, she soon wrapped her gloved fingers around the handle of a snub-nosed, nickel-plated .38 revolver. She stared at the instrument of death for a few seconds before she put it on the driver's seat and continued her search. The remaining contents of the glovebox - two empty plastic bags and a stick of petrified bubble gum - were of no value to her.

She furrowed her sore brow as she glanced down at the revolver. Though heavy, it was small enough for her to keep it concealed in a pocket if she so desired. A quick check proved it was fully loaded. She was no friend of firearms but she understood she might end up needing it. On the flip-side of that, if she was frisked by a police officer and found to be carrying a concealed weapon, she would find herself booked, processed and on an expeditious one-way trip to the notorious South Carlyle Women's Penitentiary in no time flat.

Even beyond that, the risk that the revolver had already been used in an armed robbery or the like was simply too great, so she took both empty plastic bags from the glovebox and double-wrapped the deadly weapon.


After dumping the wrapped package in a trash can that stood next to the old-fashioned picnic table, she hobbled across the parking lot headed for the glass doors to the fast food restaurant. Though all her instincts screamed in her ear that it was no more than one notch below all-out sheer madness to draw attention to herself by showing her battered face to the employees of the restaurant, her needs for nourishment and for inspecting the burns on her legs were too powerful to be stopped by something as trivial as instincts.

She let out a gloomy grunt when she discovered the restaurant would close a scant fifteen minutes later, but if even her instincts were not strong enough to stop her from entering the establishment, something as silly as closing hours would never be. The glass doors opened easily to welcome her inside.

The brightly-lit fast food restaurant was sparsely visited: only three of the many tables were occupied, and only one of the guests ate anything. One of the other two read a newspaper, and the final one - one of the street people judging by his ragged clothes and unkept beard - seemed to be using it as a warming shelter and was fast asleep at the table.

A handful of large flatscreen TVs had been installed on random walls around the restaurant. They were all tuned to the same local news channel, but the station was showing a block of commercials so Patty moved on though she was anxious to see if the drama over on West Seventy-fourth Street had made the news yet.

Several employees dressed in the fast food company's colors moved around the near-deserted establishment wiping down tables and sweeping up the French fries that inevitably seemed to wind up on the floor after trying to make a mad dash for freedom - perhaps their brief renaming to Freedom Fries a few years back had something to do with it.

Several trays loaded with spent paper cups, piles of scrap paper and bent drinking straws had been placed close to huge plastic bags destined for the recycling plants in the industrial zone in the north-west of Greater Carlyle. The section of the linoleum floor underneath the soft drink-vending machines glistened from having just been washed; as always in any restaurant, sticky spillages were unavoidable. A yellow sandwich-board that read 'Caution! Slippery Floor!' had been put up warning the few, remaining guests of the danger.

Patty tip-toed past the glistening section so she could keep from exacerbating her injuries by doing an acrobatic flip-flop onto her behind. The counter beckoned as did the row of alluring, colorful pictures above it displaying all the menus on offer.

The crumpled-up twenty-dollar bill she had in her pocket was the largest sum of money she'd had on her for weeks if not months, and she was determined to get the most out of it. Though the young man manning the cash register seemed less than enthusiastic about serving yet another customer so close to the end of his shift, he stared wide-eyed at all her colorful facial bruises once she got close enough.

"Hi," Patty said with a smile that hurt her battered face. "Before you ask, I fell down a staircase earlier tonight."

"Oh… right…"

"Anyway, I'd like a large Double-decker Cheesy Deluxe menu if ya don't mind. Fries and a medium Coke Classic."

"Uh…" the young man said as he continued to stare at the angry-red bruises on the woman's face - then he remembered the spiel he was supposed to go through with every customer visiting the restaurant. "It will be my pleasure, Miss. Thank you for eating at our restaurant, the friendliest place on Avenue C. Would you like ketchup, regular burger sauce or our special hot sauce with your fries, Miss?"

"Just the regular sauce, thanks," Patty said, once more trying to smile at the young fellow. The bruises along her jaw prevented any smile from appearing for more than a few seconds at a time, so she gave up the unequal struggle and settled for a neutral expression as she paid for the grand feast.

While the order was being processed, she hobbled into the public restrooms under the false pretense of badly needing to use the toilet. She did, but not in the way the designers had envisioned.

Once into the ladies', she found the cleanest stall - they were all far, far cleaner than what she was used to so it was an easy task - and put her left boot up on the toilet seat. Hissing from the pain that seemed to increase tenfold now she had time to think about it, she rolled up her shredded pantleg to look at the burn injuries she had sustained in the bonfire.

Her hissing turned into a sharp intake of breath, then a concerned grimace when she caught the first glimpse of the red skin on her lower leg. Numerous white blisters stood out starkly against the surrounding skin that carried a lobster-like hue. She let out another hiss of pain as the cool air hit the blisters and the abused skin, but it was nothing compared to the sensations that followed.

After twisting around to access the wash basin that was adjacent to the toilet, she scooped up several handfuls of cold water and poured them over the burns.

Fiery tendrils of raw, hellish pain immediately shot up from her legs; not from the soothing water, but from the friction created by her hands. She grew dizzy at once and needed to slam her eyes shut to combat it. A long, inventive blue streak left her lips as a mumbled monologue; had it come out at full volume, it would have been enough to set off the smoke detector installed in the ceiling.

Panting from the pain that continued to blast around inside her with the strength of an autumn storm, she put out a hand to support herself against the cool, white tiles. A long, slow, tormented sigh escaped her. She was dizzy, she was dead-tired, she was aching all over, she was starved and her legs still felt as if the flames were nibbling at her skin.

The wash basin was too far off the floor for her to move her leg up into it, so she abandoned the notion of trying to cool down the injuries. Instead, she rolled down her shredded pantleg while clenching her jaw so hard her temples throbbed.

It was undeniable she needed medical attention, but she had no one she could turn to. Even the nuns at the Sisters Of Mercy Mission who had often helped when she had her time of the month but no money for hygiene products could do nothing about such burns beyond calling for an ambulance, but that would mean registration which she did not want. Her best bet would be to find an all-night drugstore and shoplift a few tubes of burn-relief ointment or something similar.

Shaking her head in despair, she exited the stall and the restroom thinking that perhaps she should have given herself up to the police after all.


Moving back into the restaurant itself, she received her pre-paid burger menu from the young fellow before she hobbled over to the nearest table. Her stomach was still in turmoil after the recent storm of pain, but her hunger spoke louder so she proceeded to unwrap the double-decker cheeseburger she had bought. The delicious aromas of the warm buns, the hot beef, the cheese and all the trimmings trickled up into her nostrils and made her sigh in pleasure. The first bite was just as heavenly as she hoped it would be, even if it hurt her jaw to chew.

As she pushed the drinking straw into the cup and unwrapped the pack of fries, she noticed that the block of commercials had ended and the familiar 'breaking news' symbols were being displayed on the TV sets. The progress of the first fries was halted halfway to her mouth so she could pay full attention to what was broadcast.

The sound had been turned down low so it would not be intrusive, but she needed to hear what was being said. After stuffing three French fries into her mouth in one go, she got up all over again, grabbed her cup of Coke Classic and hobbled over to the nearest of the multiple TVs to be close enough to hear the details.

The local news station appeared to only have a skeleton crew at work at that time of the night, and an inexperienced one to boot: the young, female newscaster had a look of near-panic in her eyes from being thrust unprepared into such a high-tension limelight. The teleprompter was going too fast for her in her befuddled state, and it caused her to make numerous mistakes in the twenty seconds she spoke before she threw to a roving reporter who was on-site.

To add insult to the inexperience, the camera operator was pointing the lens at the ground and the reporter's shoes when they received their cue. It was flicked up in a matter of moments to show the male reporter whose wild hair and five o'clock shade gave an impression that he had been kicked out of bed only minutes before appearing on air. The lights on the camera were too harsh at first causing the colors to be washed-out, but the operator soon adjusted the proper knob to make it better.

'All right… uh…' the reporter said, looking down at a few notes he held just out of the camera's field of view, 'the identity of the man who burned to death earlier tonight has been identified as… uh… uh… the man has been identi… uh… the police has issued an official press statement revealing his identity to be that of thirty-seven-year-old Bogdan Marinescu. Mr. Marinescu was well-known by the Carlyle Police Department as a long-time member of various gangs. Lately, he was connected to the DiSorrento crime syndicate. What Mr. Marinescu did here on West Seventy-fourth Street in the middle of the night is yet to be disclosed. When we arrived, we were told by neighbors to Mr. Milbern… uh, whose driveway was the center of the horrific event… uh, that it appeared a Molotov-cocktail was recovered by the first police unit at the scene. An unused Molotov-cocktail. Uh… yes.'

Patty sucked on the drinking straw a couple of times while deep furrows played across her abused forehead. So far, she had not heard anything she had not already seen with her own eyes. While the inexperienced newscaster spoke and the wild-looking reporter leafed through his notes to offer a good reply, she briefly hobbled back to the table to get her delightful cheeseburger and her fries so they would not go to waste.

When she returned to the TV, the reporter had just come back on: 'That's right, and from what we've been told, several neighbors who witnessed the aftermath… uh, and also the first responding police officers… all say that a large SUV of unknown make and model took off at high speed immediately following the fire. The vehicle was either dark-blue, charcoal-gray or black, but it definitely had chrome side mirrors… and I say 'had' because one was left behind as the SUV sideswiped an ambulance responding to the emergency calls.'

The wild-haired reporter had no more to say for the time being, so he threw back to the newscaster who announced the news station would be back with more breaking news after the following messages and a word from your FOX affiliate.

Patty chewed absentmindedly on her cheeseburger and her fries. That the Lincoln had been noticed was only logical given the mess she had left behind, but it was a plus nobody had had time to write down the number on the license plate.

She had barely consumed the next fry before one of the employees told the four guests that they were closing. After a brief debate with the reluctant employee, she was able to get a free to-go paper bag so she could carry the remainder of the burger, the fries and the pack of regular sauce as one item instead of trying to balance everything.


Stepping out onto the near-deserted parking lot while taking another sip of her Coke Classic, she cast a sideways glance at the bay where she had left the Lincoln Navigator. Although the tail of the large SUV was visible, the dented sides were mostly hidden from prying eyes. She reckoned it could remain there for a good portion of the day before a police patrol would discover it. Her gloves had never been off her hands throughout the time she had spent in the vehicle, so she could not have left any fingerprints anywhere.

The fact that her face would have been registered by the restaurant's security cameras - not to mention that the employees she had spoken to inside the restaurant would probably remember her - counted among the negatives, but even if they wondered hard enough about the woman with the ugly facial bruising to actually call the police, she would have a head start of nearly half a day.

Sooner or later, the young employees would be interviewed by detectives in connection with the discovery of the Lincoln, and sooner or later the recordings from the security cameras would be turned over to the police's data unit for further processing, but Patty was certain those events would not take place for several days.

All in all, she had gained a modicum of freedom. She could disappear never to be heard from again if that was what she wanted - however, she was unsure whether or not it actually was. She needed to think more about that.

A niggling worry that things could still go wrong refused to leave her. Dorothy DiSorrento had told her she would keep a close eye on the news as well, and it would only take the clever boss half a heartbeat to realize just who had been in the SUV as it roared off up the street. The DiSorrento syndicate had dozens, scores, hundreds of contacts on the streets and even in some of the shelters, so the need for treading cautiously was greater than ever.

The number one priority on Patty's immediate agenda was to find a drugstore so she could do something about her legs. Number two was to remain well out of sight for a few days, and the best option for her to do just that would be to go underground - literally: namely in the system of railroad tunnels that connected the switching yard by the Twenty-sixth Street bridge with the freight distribution yards further on towards the heart of the city. The deep, dark, scary tunnels offered countless spots where she could hide.

She had not been there since the fateful night in September; thinking about the events of that night made her pause. Following the awful traffic accident, she had spent nearly thirty hours in the tunnels huddled up into a quivering ball while loaded on so many of her hospital-strength pills she had barely been able to breathe. Perhaps everyone would have been better off had she died that night of respiratory failure - for starters, Bogdan Marinescu would still have been alive.

A cold shiver trickled down her back that she could only get rid of by wiggling around for a few seconds even if it did send a wave of aches through her bones. It was weird how much history repeated itself at times, but that was then and this was now - the situation was nearly as bad, but the set of circumstances were completely different. The tunnels would be perfect.

Carrying her to-go bag and sucking on the straw that dipped into her Coke Classic, she hobbled across the parking lot and entered the flow of human traffic on the sidewalk. Patricia 'Patty' Hawkins had turned into a ghost that soon vanished in the sea of humanity surrounding her.




The digital clock on the dashboard of a baby-blue Kia Rio hatchback turned six-forty-five AM the same moment the tiny car turned off Avenue B and appeared on West Twenty-second Street. It resembled a Lilliput-mobile compared to the regular-sized taxi cabs and family station wagons it traveled with, but one that was far nimbler than the lumbering machinery that took up a good deal more space on the street's lanes.

It only took a further minute for the Rio to reach, and then drive down, a steep concrete slope. The destination was the underground garage serving as the motor pool of the Twenty-second Street police station - internally, it was known as the One-Three precinct.

The early morning of October thirteenth was anything but bright. The persistent rain clouds had formed a mist of constant drizzles that continued to hang below the upper floors of the nearby multi-story high-rises which gave them a spooky, surreal look. The chilly winds were still ceaselessly swirling around. Small-scale tornadoes roaming the sidewalks caused hats to take off, umbrellas to be ruined, coats to fly open and withered leaves to be picked up and distributed over large areas. All in all, the weather was unsuitable for human, beast or fowl to spend but a single minute outside.

The countless police officers patrolling the streets of Greater Carlyle did not have the luxury of staying at home if the weather was bad. They needed to be present on the streets around the clock and in every kind of weather to fly the colors of law and order so the metropole's hundreds of thousands of decent, law-abiding citizens could live, work and rest safe in the knowledge that help was always near when needed.

On the same token, the metropole's criminal elements needed to be observed and hounded into making mistakes that would see them arrested, booked, processed, and finally sent off to the district courts to go in front of a judge - and to one of the four major prisons and penitentiaries in and around Greater Carlyle if they were convicted of the crime they had been charged with.

The patrol precinct covered by the One-Three was neither the largest nor the smallest among the metropole's nine police stations; the One-Nine had the largest area counted in square miles since its beat was the entire industrial zone in the north-west of Carlyle.

The One-One had the smallest patrol area but also the worst: it only covered Skid Row and parts of Downtown. Unsurprisingly, not a single one of the fresh recruits from the police academy would volunteer to have their first real-world experiences in the One-One. Mental and physical fatigue ran the highest among all police officers in Carlyle so the support of new people was sorely needed, however - thus, a dozen names would be drawn from a hat each year to bolster the ranks at the besieged station house that battled gang warfare, massive distribution of drugs, illegal immigrants, organized prostitution and every other kind of severe criminal activity on a daily basis. Some supposedly witty poet had even said the One-One was behind enemy lines.

Meighan O'Sullivan had not been a fresh recruit for well over a decade, but she had indeed started her career in the One-One. She had spent two years wading through poverty, lost souls and general despair before she had applied to transfer to another precinct. The transfer had been approved and she had moved to the One-Two for an additional couple of years, then onto the One-Three where she had remained ever since.

Now thirty-four, the experienced patrolwoman who was the proud bearer of several colorful ribbons and other types of distinctions that she had earned for displaying valor above and beyond the call of duty - the first of which had come during her time at the One-One - had seen it all, done it all and wiped every substance on God's green-and-blue Earth off her uniform or boots at one point or another in the years she had been pounding the beat. She was tall, she was imposing, she was intense and she was known to be able to scare anyone into confessing anything by a steely glare from her ice-blue eyes. That she had also turned disillusioned lately was another story entirely.

The baby-blue Kia was soon driven into a free slot close to the one where she usually parked her beloved Harley-Davidson. Getting out, her Carlyle Blackbirds baseball cap was knocked askew by Kia's low roofline, but it did not matter since she swapped it for her police cap as the first thing she did.

Everything about the car was low, overly delicate or just plain cramped for her five-foot-ten, one-hundred-eighty pound frame. The news that the car did not belong to her but to her highly feminine younger sister would come as no surprise to anyone who happened to witness the gross mismatch between the vehicle and its current driver. The moist conditions had wormed their way into the kick starter of her classic Harley and had rendered it inoperable, and not even the four-minute, wallpaper-peeling, paint-stripping blue streak she had let out had been able to cure it.


Upstairs in the precinct house itself, Meighan strode through the featureless hallways to get to the plenum office on the fourth floor where Sergeant O'Halloran would conduct the traditional morning roll call at seven. On her way there, she joked with a few of her uniformed colleagues, smiled at some of the secretaries and uttered a brief "Good morning, Sir," at the station's commander, Captain Richard D. MacPherson, jr. who went past her holding a newspaper, a traveler's mug of soy Macchiato and finally a bagel carrying a slice of pale cheese.

She had already changed into her regular winter uniform that consisted of ankle boots, high-waisted creased pants, an undershirt, a double-layer T-shirt with a turtleneck top, a long-sleeved shirt and finally a baseball cap that carried the all-caps words CARLYLE PD in bold, reflective lettering. A thick jacket would complete the ensemble, but there was no point in taking it to the roll call since she would not need it until she went out on patrol after the daily meeting.

Unlike the summer uniform that everyone on the force - apart from a select few - hated with a passion because of the short-sleeved, pale-blue shirt and the pullover that made them look like librarians who had made a wrong turn somewhere, the winter uniform was black from top to toe. It was a fact that suited Meighan just fine since she considered the color far more imposing and thus effective when it came to having a deterrent effect against the various criminal elements they would encounter over the course of their shifts. Come April first, she and all her uniformed colleagues would be obliged to once more switch back to the summer-fright that nobody, and especially not the criminals, took seriously.

Like all uniformed officers, a utility belt sat around her hips. It carried a set of metal handcuffs, three further sets of plastic strips in case she needed to restrain more than one person, a can of pepper spray, a portable radio for whenever she was away from the cruiser, a nightstick, her regulatory sidearm and finally three spare magazines holding fifteen rounds each. When she had worked in the One-One, she had carried a hand-held Tazer as well to pacify the most difficult - or most drugged-up - suspects, but she was glad the One-Three did not use that hellish contraption.

She continued to stride through the featureless hallway until she reached the glass double-doors that led to the plenum office. The constant yapping that wafted through from the other side proved that not only was the office full already, but the gruff Sergeant O'Halloran had yet to appear - had he been present, the assembled police officers would have been as quiet as field mice despite their tough, take-no-prisoners exteriors.

Both theories were proven correct as Meighan opened the double-doors and stepped inside the plenum office. Yapping uniformed officers were everywhere; sitting on chairs, tables and even in the window sills, they kept each other updated on what had gone down since they had last met. The topics were as often about baseball, football, grilled steaks, chrome wheels and hot chicks as official police business, but that was commonplace and worked as a safety valve.

Meighan had barely found a table to sit at before she felt a finger briefly tap her on the right shoulder. She was too old and experienced to fall for that ancient trick, so she looked to her left instead; she grinned at the dead-tired look etched onto her patrol partner's face.

The biggest event in Lorenzo Lombardini's life had been becoming a father. His wife had given birth in mid-September, and he had only just returned from his regulatory paternity leave. The second-biggest event had been becoming a police officer. As a fourth-generation descendant of an illiterate goatherder from Sicily, Lorenzo had become his entire, widely-branched family's pride and joy through his solid career as a patrolman in the police force.

Traditions dictated that he married a wholesome Italian-American Donna, but he had gone dead-against the family trends by falling in love with, and subsequently marrying, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. That she was black had caused great consternation and even greater arm-waving among the family's patriarch and doting aunts, but the fact she was an immigrant like they had once been had softened the perceived blow to the traditions - and it had only taken a single look at the new baby girl for everyone to come around.

"Hey," Lorenzo mumbled in a flat monotone. His complexion was gray rather than the olive it usually was; his dark-brown eyes were hooded and blood-shot, and his near-black hair that was always neat and slicked-back was messy like he had only had time to run a comb through it once. To compound his misery, he had a band-aid on the right cheek as a result of an early-morning incident of the falling-asleep-while-shaving kind.

"Hey. Still gettin' no sleep, buddy?"


"That's gotta suck."


"Two minutes in heaven, eighteen years in hell," Meighan said with a grin. Reaching out, she thumped Lorenzo's arm and struck a direct hit since he was too slow to move out of the way.

The friendly conversations around the room were silenced when the double-doors flew open to reveal Sergeant Gordon O'Halloran. The stringent, by-the-book veteran strode across the linoleum floor like a latter-day General George S. Patton until he reached a metal desk at the far end of the plenum office. Once there, he dumped a stack of files onto the desk and put his hands behind his back while he waited for the unruly crowd to settle down.

His demeanor and exterior came together to form a walking stereotype of an Irish-American: a ruddy complexion, a bulbous nose, a prominent jaw, square shoulders, a bulldog-like stance, fair hair - though it had turned somewhat sparse lately - a preference for using the crudest, coarsest words in the English vocabulary, and a wicked sense of humor that would come out when among friends and like-minded people. "All right, you've had your fun," he said after a brief while. The words made the last yapping die down at once. "Let's get down to business. Anyone call in sick today?"

'O'Derr is still off the roster, Sarge,' one of the officers said.

"Oh dear… no O'Derr?" Sergeant O'Halloran said with a straight face - the humorous wordplay earned him a ripple of laughter. "All right. Noted. Anyone else?"

'And Buchanan's down with the germs of some kind,' someone else said.

"Very well. In that case… Baines, you'll ride with O'Flaherty today," the Sergeant said, locking eyes with both officers in question so they knew it was a done deal.

'Yes, Sarge!' Officer Baines said at once.

A brief grin played across Sergeant O'Halloran's lips as he looked down at the aforementioned Baines. "And if Buchanan got the germs from you, I'm gonna make sure those fuckers 'll learn how to spell my name."

'Yes, Sarge!'

Another ripple of laughter spread among the assembled police officers before the plenum room turned quiet again. "So," O'Halloran continued, "I'm sure that at least some of you have heard of the incident up in One-Eight where some poor sap got torched on the driveway of a house he did not live at. It doesn't concern us directly at present, but the detectives from the One-Eight have uncovered he was part of the DiSorrento crime syndicate so it may grow into a bigger case. Or it may not. We'll know later."

Down among the crowd, Meighan crossed her arms over her chest and let out a dark grunt. The incident up on West Seventy-fourth Street a good stretch north of the precinct house had been all over the morning news shows; it had given the residents of Greater Carlyle plenty of gruesome images to go with their coffee, granola, bagels or slices of jam-covered toast.

Various experts had been interviewed by various newscasters on the various channels, but since no one knew anything yet, all the words of wisdom the experts could provide were inane generalities and even worse trivialities. The inevitable press release from the perpetually publicity-seeking Mayor Goddard had condemned the act of violence and had promised the decent people of Greater Carlyle that no stone would be left unturned in the quest to uncover the people responsible. Each time Meighan read or heard anything from the Mayor, she needed to swallow hard to quell the bitter taste that would rise in her gullet.

Skirmishes among the violent gangs active in the streets of Carlyle were nothing new, but they were usually settled with fists, knives, baseball bats or dirt-cheap, throwaway revolvers known as 'Saturday night specials.' That someone was burned to death was a gigantic step in the wrong direction, and one that had the potential for setting a dangerous precedent among the criminals who were always on the lookout for new methods that would unsettle their opponents and thus impress their underworld superiors.

That it had happened to an experienced enforcer from the DiSorrento syndicate was surprising. The opponent must have been a formidable one, or so Meighan thought. Out of the blue, she found herself wishing that she could work on that case. If nothing else, it would be far more fascinating, and perhaps more rewarding, to dig into such matters than it was to patrol the mean streets where nothing ever changed.

Up at the desk, Sergeant O'Halloran continued: "Here on our own turf, we'll continue to patrol the streets around the four schools we've put special focus on this week. The various PTAs have yet to report if the increased police presence has put a damper on the hoodlums dealing cannabis, but I suspect it may have since we've heard from other streets that the trade has increased there."

Meighan shook her head; it seemed that no matter what they did or how hard they worked, they were just pushing the problems around. Even racking her mind, she could not remember the last time they had been able to get their hands on one of the major players on the market. They arrested plenty of small-fry drug dealers, but those sorry excuses for human beings never knew anything about the people higher up the hierarchy. Most often, it was a waste of everyone's time to arrest them and go through the subsequent mountain of paperwork.

"All right, Ladies and Gentlemen," Sergeant O'Halloran continued. "That's it for now… mount up 'n chase down them baddies out dere!"

Another ripple of laughter spread among the assembled officers as they broke up and headed for the double-doors; it was tradition that Sergeant O'Halloran came up with a new catchphrase each morning to end the roll calls on a lighter note - today's closing argument was perhaps not one for the history books, but the point had come across.

The smile on Meighan's face was brief; it had faded even before she got to her feet. Once there was enough of a gap in the flow of black-clad police officers, she and the yawning Lorenzo Lombardini shuffled off toward the hallway beyond the double-doors. Their destination: the underground motor pool and a random cruiser that would take them around the windy, rainy streets of the grand metropole for the next eight hours.


"Yeah, I don't know what the hell had gotten into that damn thing," Meighan said as she rolled the white-and-pale-blue Ford Crown Victoria cruiser up to a red light at the intersection of Twenty-fourth Street and Avenue B. The windshield wipers were on their lowest setting since the misty drizzle was not dense enough to warrant more flip-flapping.

The tired Lorenzo grunted from his spot on the passenger seat, but that was as far as his involvement went in the conversation.

Like always, Meighan cast an observant eye at the cars around them to see if any of them rated a closer look. If she found something that called for a further investigation, they could perform a look-up of the license plate. If that provided a positive match for perhaps unpaid parking tickets or an insurance infraction, they could pull over the vehicle. Similarly, the people behind the steering wheels were submitted to close inspections by the experienced officer; she could tell if they were trying to hide something.

None of the usual suspects would be out at twenty past seven in the morning, and all vehicles in their vicinity were business sedans or family station wagons occupied by tired-looking people driving to work. Though it did not appear they would have anything to do at this particular intersection, she kept vigilant - like all police officers, she knew that anything could happen at all times, and often did. "Yeah… I pumped that rotten kick starter until my leg almost fell off, but it wouldn't catch. It just wouldn't catch… the damn thing. And then I ran out of time."

Lorenzo let out another grunt. Like his patrol partner, his tired eyes went on a tour of their surroundings - but unlike Meighan, his focus was aimed at the sidewalk on their right. With the chilly conditions and the intermittent showers, everyone out walking was hunched over and hurrying along to get to wherever they were supposed to be before the constant drizzle would turn into a drenching shower. "Yeah, well," he said, shuffling around while adjusting his winter uniform jacket, "I can't help you 'cos don't know anything about bikes. I just thought that baby-blue toy car of yours was too cute to be true."

"Yeah… yeah, it was," Meighan said before she let out a chuckle. "Gets pretty good mileage, though. At least my sister has economic sense… she sure doesn't have any fashion sense when it comes to cars! Did you see the pale-tan upholstery? Unsuited for kids is what I'm thinking… everything's gonna show up on that color."

When the traffic lights turned green, she released the brake and let the Ford trickle forward. They were in the inner lane so they had to wait for a pair of cars to turn right onto Avenue B before they had room to go across. As always when a police cruiser was near, the drivers of the regular cars around it were careful to the point of drawing attention to themselves though that was the exact thing they wanted to avoid. The driver of the car directly ahead of them turned his head no less than three times to look over his shoulder to see if anyone was in his blind spot. The first of the three glances had already established that the street was empty and the lane was clear; it should have been enough for him to get a move on, but two further glances were in order before he finally made the turn.

The inner lane opened up in the nick of time: the traffic lights had just made the switch to yellow when the cruiser reached the stop line. To avoid spending more time there than absolutely necessary, Meighan mashed the gas to get across the intersection.

Their shift had only just started, but the constant stream of text messages that appeared on the electronic communication device - previously known as a radio transceiver unit before the digital age - installed on the passenger-side of the dashboard proved that Carlyle never slept. Cruisers were called out to traffic incidents and accidents; others received instructions to drive to specific addresses and speak to citizens who had either witnessed, experienced or done something; others still were told to respond to burglar alarms at stores or private homes, or help the Greater Carlyle Fire Department in cordoning off a street where the firefighters needed to work. One cruiser was called out to assist the Carlyle Department of Infrastructure who were hosing down the street after a sewage tanker truck had sprung a leak - and everyone else was glad it had not been them.

Though the Carlyle police officers still carried portable radios on their utility belts for whenever they needed to leave the cruisers, they were really only used to communicate with each other in case they were separated during an assignment. They could still get in touch with the station's dispatchers - or vice versa - through the portable units if they so desired, but it had become increasingly rare after the introduction of the digital means of communication.

The Ford Crown Vic as the Victoria was colloquially dubbed was in its last years of service. The first test runs of the new generation Ford Explorer SUVs that were to take over had already taken place - the vehicle would be known as a Ford Police Interceptor Utility upon its introduction. Unlike the romantically named Crown Victoria, the new vehicle's title somehow failed to invoke any kind of emotion in the casual observer apart from acute boredom. Nevertheless, the much larger SUV had proved to be more flexible and had room for far more equipment than the regular sedans ever could. Because the engine would be downsized to an Ecoboost V6 from the old-fashioned, large-displacement V8, it was also more economical on the long shifts around the streets of Carlyle which meant the gas bills would be smaller. That was all well and good, but Meighan knew she would miss the good, old Crown Vics.

In addition to the electronic equipment on the dashboard, a twelve-gauge, pump-action Remington 870PM shotgun had been mounted vertically at the right-hand seat. A solid Plexiglas wall that could withstand enough abuse to contain even King Kong on a fermented-mango-fruit bender had been installed directly behind the front seats running from the ceiling and down to the floor.

The rear bench and everything else in the back was made of smooth vinyl so it could easily be hosed down when - not if - some of the people being transported there mistook it for a public bathroom. The rear doors could not be opened from the inside, nor could the windows be rolled down.

Another Remington shotgun was mounted on a rack in the trunk in case they were called out to an assignment that required additional firepower. They also carried three dozen LED beacons that were used for traffic control at night-time accidents, two cardboard boxes of medical gloves, a heavy-duty canvas tarpaulin that was always a pain in the neck to unpack at an incident site, a shovel with a foldable stock in case they got stuck on a snow bank somewhere and needed to dig themselves out, and finally a two-hundred-piece pack of plastic strips for mass-restrainment situations like football games that spilled over onto the street after the final whistle.

Even all that equipment could not control the traffic lights, and the next set turned red just as Meighan approached the intersection. She let out a brief sigh and rolled to a halt behind a delivery van from Bess Lakin's Confectionery Co. that mingled with several family sedans.


A little later on, Meighan drove the cruiser up West Twenty-seventh, one of the streets in the southern part of the financial district. She always felt distinctly ill at ease among the impersonal glass-and-chrome palaces that were occupied by business-suit-clad women and men whose yearly income could only be written in seven or eight figures.

Most of those people were straight-laced citizens who had worked insanely hard for years if not decades to get where they were, but some had chosen to travel down the path of crime - the partial collapse of the Beaumont Worldwide Shipping Corporation following the FBI sting operation against the CEO of the company back in August had proven that as fact.

The traffic had eased off at five past eight, so Meighan and Lorenzo had time and space to trickle past the many imposing structures on West Twenty-seventh Street. The peaceful and reserved nature of the financial district was intruded upon by the hectic, noisy activity that took place at the construction site halfway down the street where yet another overly glamorous high-rise was being built for the Greater Carlyle Banking Corporation by the renowned Dillon Construction & Demolition company. While a myriad of workers wearing yellow hard hats and fluorescent-orange vests ran around on the ground, impossibly tall fixed cranes were in the process of lifting heavy, pre-fabricated concrete sections into place countless storys above.

Meighan rolled her shoulders as she made the cruiser pick up the pace to drive further up the street. West Twenty-seventh formed the northern boundary of their patrol area, so once they would make it to the famous café at the corner, she would turn right to get over to Avenue B.

"Welcome to Club Tired. It's such a lovely place to spend your week days," Lorenzo joked, casting a brief glance at the woman behind the wheel.

"Nah, I'm not tired yet. I'm just trying to get rid of the creeps that always trickle down my spine whenever we're here," Meighan said with a chuckle.

Lorenzo nodded. "I know exactly what you mean. The goons in the lobbies of those high-rises just make me wanna puke. Did you see those we went past just before the construction site?"

Another chuckle left Meighan's lips, but this one was far darker. "Ohhh-yeah," she said with a slow nod.

"Shaved heads, black sunglasses, bulging jackets… goons, plain and simple. Well-paid goons who work for respectable businesspeople instead of shady figures somewhere in the criminal underworld… but still goons!"

"I hear ya, Lorenzo. Those people are-" Meighan said, but she cut herself off when their call sign 1-3PV018 - One-Three precinct, Patrol Vehicle oh-eighteen - flashed onto the display of their digital communication device. The flashing was accompanied by a three-tone signal alerting them of the incoming message. Since no other traffic was near, she came to a halt in the middle of the street to wait for the full text.

Lorenzo flipped down the apparatus' integrated keyboard at once to send the go-ahead code. Soon, the full message appeared on the digital display. "Okay, looks like we got work to do. We've been called to a convenience store on West Twenty-fifth Street. Shoplifting… they're holding the suspect. We need to speak to a Mr. Oscar Wright."

"Let's go," Meighan said and hit the buttons on the panel between the seats that activated the emergency lights and the siren. Once the LED lightbar atop the Crown Victoria lit up in its traditional bright-blues-and-reds and the dragon-like wailing warned the world that it should look out, she spun the steering wheel around and made a quick U on West Twenty-seventh Street - it was far quicker than to go via Avenue B.


Three minutes and a lot of ducking and weaving through traffic later, they came to a halt in front of the convenience store in question. It had been built into the ground level of a six-story concrete building; the font, the colors and the general design of the storefront signage offered several clues that it was an independent business and not a franchise store for one of the major chains. Roughly ninety feet across, it was equipped with a single, glass sliding door and three sections of pane-glass windows that each saw a small, and somewhat dusty, display of some of the store's products. A warning label on each window proclaimed in yellow letters that the boxes in the display were empty.

Meighan shut off the siren but let the lights continue to flash. When she exited the cruiser, she reached down to click open the button on the small strap that held her sidearm in place. She put her hand on the grip but did not draw the weapon.

A quick inspection of the sidewalk in front of the convenience store offered no suspicious activity, so she and Lorenzo went through the glass sliding door to seek out Mr. Wright and the suspect they had been told he was holding.

The interior of the independent convenience store looked like any other anywhere in the world: Pale-gray linoleum on the floor and bright strip lights in the ceiling. Three aisles featuring well-stocked shelves that each carried a multitude of colorful tubes, boxes, jars and packs; some had well-known brand names, others were store brands, and others again were unbranded. Two multi-paneled refrigerator units down at the back wall that contained chilled beverages and dairy products, and two cash registers up front at the counter. A pair of old-fashioned air-conditioning units were suspended from the ceiling along the center aisle - one of them creaked while the other whined, but they both seemed to be working.

Curiously, or perhaps worryingly, the store was empty. A security camera blinked and rotated on the wall behind the counter, but it was impossible to tell whether it was genuine or a dummy since no wires came out of it.

"Mr. Wright? Hello? Mr. Wright? This is the police," Meighan said as she worked a flip-open hatch in the counter to move behind it. When that space was empty save for a tall chair akin to a bar stool, she drew her firearm and held it in the regulatory stance for potential close-combat action. Behind her, Lorenzo did the same. After listening closely for moans, cries for help or other types of distant voices, she moved into the area behind the counter.

"Mr. Wright, this is the Carlyle Police Department," Meighan said again as she ducked through a bead curtain that separated the store itself from the back rooms. She had entered a narrow hallway from where three doors led off to further rooms. One of the doors was ajar, though only an inch or two.

Tightening up, she pushed the door open with the tip of her boot. The lights were on in the small office she had found, but the room was empty. It contained a desk with quite a mess of paperwork, coffee mugs and empty plates on top of it, but her gut told her the mess stemmed from general carelessness and not a ransacking. She furrowed her brow and pulled back out. The two other doors were locked; each carried a label that identified them as 'Storage' and 'Bathroom - Private!' respectively.

'Officer O'Sullivan! We got company out here,' Lorenzo said from his spot at the counter.

Meighan hurried back through the narrow hallway and the bead curtain. She continued to hold her firearm in the close-combat stance until she could verify what Lorenzo had told her, but she eased off her muscles when she suspected that the person who had entered the store was the owner they were there to speak to.

"Well, you sure took your sweet fuckin' time in gettin' here!" the man barked around panting so hard it appeared he was on the brink of a coronary. In his late fifties, he was overweight to the point of being just a few pounds shy of being medically obese. His unhealthy, ruddy complexion proved he had worked far too hard for what his bulging frame could deal with. He wore pale-brown polyester pants and a long-sleeved shirt that was strained across his gut. He also wore a brown necktie, but the knot had been loosened and shoved aside to make way for his wobbling double-chins, and the shirt's top three buttons had been undone to let some of the steam out. The gray chest hairs that came into view proved he wore no undershirt - a fact that was underscored by the dark patches of sweat under his arms. He leered at Lorenzo in a disdainful, sideways fashion; the reason for which was revealed when he spoke up: "I had that dago fucker down firm until one of his fuckin' ape cronies showed up and rescued that fuckin' wetback!"

Meighan and Lorenzo exchanged looks and raised eyebrows before they holstered their sidearms to dig out their indispensable notepads instead. "We're officers O'Sullivan and Lombardini from the One-Three precinct. Let's take it from the top, Mr. Wright. Please," Meighan said as she held a pencil ready.

"Yeah, why the fuck not. I need to sit down first, though, or else I'll drop on my ass," Oscar Wright said on his way past the flip-open hatch in the counter. Once he had placed his wide rear-end on the tall chair - that creaked and groaned under his weight - he wiped a whole river of sweat off his forehead with his sleeve. His panting had grown less, but it was still enough to obstruct his ability to speak.

Just enough time passed for Meighan to grow impatient, especially when the fat man reached underneath the counter to find a can of soda that he proceeded to crack open and take an endless swig of. The inevitable burp was not long in coming.

"About ten minutes ago," he said, wiping his meaty lips on his other sleeve so he could avoid getting his own sweat smeared onto his mouth, "I noticed the dago, spic, wop or whatever the fuck he was loitering down by the fridges. I need to tell ya that whenever I see a dago or a spic in here by himself, I know he's gonna cause trouble 'cos they always do, those fuckin' wetbacks."

Meighan and Lorenzo exchanged another look; this was far darker.

"Well, I was right," Oscar Wright continued. "He stole a six-pack of brew. But I was ready for 'im, the swarthy fucker… or so I thought. I closed and locked the doors… I have a button right here that can do that if I feel threatened," he said, pointing at a red button underneath the counter. Then he went on: "I closed the doors to trap him here, but what I didn't know was that one of the brownies had snuck in while I hadn't been paying attention. That shit-colored motherfucker came at me just after I had called you people. He didn't have a gun or nothin', but he definitely came at me. You know those fuckers I'm talking about… the shit-colored hoodie fuckers, yeah? Wild eyes, the whole fuckin' nine yards. Anyway, they opened the doors again and took off with the stolen beer. I tried to run after them, but…"

By now, Meighan's face was locked in a grim scowl. Her ice-blue eyes did their best to burn holes in the ruddy, overweight man's face, but it seemed he was immune to the treatment. "Sir, would that be one male person of Latino ethnicity, and one male African-American?" she said in a voice that held none of the fire that rumbled inside her.

"Oh!" Oscar Wright said and threw his free hand in the air. "So that's what we free 'mericans are forced to call 'em these days? The fuck they were! They were a dago and an ape. That's what I call 'em! This is the land of the free, the home of the brave, and all you mind-control PC nazis can't make me change my fuckin' tune!"

"There's no point in getting personal, Mr. Wright," Meighan said coolly though her insides had just reached a temperature similar to that of a smelting vat.

The obese man grunted. He had just enough time for another disdainful leer in Lorenzo's direction before he focused fully on taking a long swig from his can of soda.

"Sir, we'll need access to the recordings made by that camera up there," Meighan said, pointing her pencil at the security camera high on the wall. The electronic apparatus continued to rotate while a red LED blinked on-and-off.

"Waste of fuckin' time. It's just an empty box," Oscar said and moved his meaty shoulders in a half-shrug that sent an even greater strain through his shirt.

Meighan and Lorenzo shared another telling look before they closed their notepads at the exact same time. They were going to call in the shoplifting and write the subsequent reports with the same professionalism they always employed. That the victim of the crime was a foul-mouthed, narrow-minded individual would have no influence on the quality of their work. "Well, Mr. Wright," Meighan said, "you seem like a veteran in the trade so you probably won't be surprised when I tell you there isn't much chance of finding the two perpetrators."

"Nah. Figured as much," the owner said before taking the final swig from the can. The resulting burp was even longer and louder than the first one.


"Jesus, Mary and Joseph, what a dickhead," Meighan mumbled as she climbed behind the wheel of the police cruiser. The first thing she did was to turn off the flashing bar of emergency lights on the roof - then she cast a gloomy glance at Lorenzo who sat down next to her with an unreadable expression on his face. "I kept wondering how much more of that bullshit you could take…"

After shutting the passenger-side door with more strength than necessary, Lorenzo Lombardini let out a long sigh and reached up to rub his tired face. "Two more minutes of listening to that fatso's mouth diarrhea… and the rest of my afternoon would've been spent filling out paperwork on why I discharged my sidearm in public. Such an asshole. He's the reason why somebody invented punching bags. The one in my home gym's gonna get it tonight, guaranteed."

A dark chuckle escaped Meighan's throat as she turned the ignition key and drove away from the curb.


The merciless hands of time had made a few clockwise revolutions since the encounter with the foul-mouthed individual: they were now showing a quarter past mid-day. Meighan and Lorenzo had swapped over at ten-thirty so they could continue their regular routine of sharing the driving duties equally. The next swap would take place at one-thirty unless Meighan was unable to pry Lorenzo from the driver's seat. It often turned into a good-humored battle of wits and words between them - each wanted the steering wheel so they could control their vehicle, but since only one wheel was present, they had to fight tooth and nail for it.

Carlyle never rested; nor did the traffic jams. The two experienced officers let out identical groans of despair when they and the cruiser drove into the narrow section of Avenue F to get to a bar on Cleveland Street. As far as the human eye could see, the lanes ahead of them were clogged up - the infamous Avenue-F-Syndrome had struck again.

Though Avenue F and the adjacent streets were technically speaking out of their precinct and thus patrol area, Sergeant O'Halloran had hailed them on their portable radios asking them to deliver a loud and clear message to the owner of the Flamingo Lounge, a Mr. Scotty Stewart. The man owned several bars inside One-Three's patrol district, and there had been multiple complaints from concerned parents and even other customers that he had no qualms about selling alcoholic beverages to underage patrons. Since he was as shrewd as he was unscrupulous, he made sure to only visit those of his bars that were in the other parts of Carlyle whenever he made a quick stop in the grand Metropole.

On this day, sources placed him in the Flamingo Lounge on Cleveland Street, and the long arm of the law needed to show up to let him know they had him in their sights. Unfortunately, the upholders of said law also had endless lines of cars, vans, taxi cabs and delivery trucks in their sights.

"Avenue FUBAR," Meighan said between letting out a grunt, a groan and a sigh.

Nodding, Lorenzo moved the shifter into park. A moment later, he turned off the engine to conserve fuel and to stop it from getting hot even with the police-specification fans installed in the engine bay. Some of the vehicles around them mirrored his actions, but most left their engines running which created plenty of exhaust fumes that continuously swirled around between the buildings of the theater district. Two seconds later, he rolled up the windows and shut off the cabin fans.

"Oh look… Belle, Belle, My Liberty Belle," Lorenzo said, observing the colorful marquees of the theater they were stuck outside. "My mama loves that song. She must have listened to it a million times."

Meighan could only grunt as she looked down at her fingers - she had no idea what her patrol partner was talking about. Nine times out of ten where she had a moment to listen to music on the radio or one of her CDs, it ended up being traditional Rhythm & Blues. More modern country rock would also suffice, but not for as long.

"My wife kinda likes it too," Lorenzo continued, "but perhaps more for its novelty value. I didn't even know they had made a play out of it. Or a musical… or whatever it is. I wonder what kind of story they can squeeze out of a three-minute pop song from the 1950s?"

Relenting, Meighan finally performed a casual, two-seconds glance at the billboards to at least feign interest. It failed to attract her, so she let out a sigh and returned to studying her fingers intently. "I've been thinking about quitting the force," she said after a little while of no activity whatsoever from the logjam of cars surrounding them.

The surprising comment made Lorenzo forget all about Belle, Belle, My Liberty Belle; whipping his head around, he stared wide-eyed at the woman next to him. "I beg your pardon? Did you say quitting the force? To do what?"

"Don't know yet."

"Restock the shelves in a supermarket on starvation wages?"

"Weeelll… I had hoped it would be a little more upmarket than that," Meighan said with a chuckle. "Maybe private security or something."

Lorenzo shook his head like he knew that a change of careers to such an occupation would never, ever work in the harsh light of reality. "No way you'll be happy there, Meighan. No way. Can you really imagine yourself working closely with those goons we saw earlier today over in the financial district? I'll bet we've arrested half of 'em at least once for violent assault or whatever! You'd flip your lid within a week."

"Yeah. I suppose," Meighan said and broke out in a shrug.

Somewhere behind the police cruiser, the familiar sounds of an ambulance siren came blasting up on the traffic jam. Meighan and Lorenzo both looked over their shoulders at the pale-green Chevrolet Express from the Sklar & Bonney Emergency Services ambulance company.

Like everyone else on Avenue F, the ambulance got stuck in the jam from hell, and it had zero effect that it had all its countless emergency lights, wig-wags and LED panels flashing. The driver tried to honk using the extremely loud trumpets installed on the roof of the ambulance's cab to get further ahead, but since the vehicles that were lined up in the lanes were not yet able to sprout wings and thus remove themselves from a land-locked traffic jam by going straight up, they were stuck fast. A moment later, they seemed to realize that as their emergency lights were turned off.

"Huh," Lorenzo said as he turned back to the steering wheel, "they ought to have known better than to use Avenue FUBAR."

"We ought to have known better than to use Avenue FUBAR," Meighan echoed, pointing out of the windshield.

"Yeah, but the only other route to Cleveland Street from here would have been to head down the wrong way of not one, not two, but three one-way streets."

"Yeah. Damn city planners."

Several minutes went by where the two officers pondered their fates in silence. At the far end of the traffic jam, a cabbie and the driver of the laundry service delivery truck that had caused the entire mess by double-parking in front of one of the theaters had engaged in a fierce shouting match that drew quite a crowd on the sidewalk. Several people filmed the argument on their smartphones so chances were it would show up on Youtube before long. Bicycle couriers continued to zip past the logjammed cars and trucks which created new problems: when there was no room on the street for their furious pedaling, the couriers would take to the sidewalks which in turn forced the pedestrians to jump to safety.

And there was still no end in sight for the traffic jam.

"Regarding the thing we started talking about before," Lorenzo said, turning around in the seat so he could shoot Meighan a stern gaze that seemed appropriate given the unusual circumstances, "you're among the top five percent in pistol marksmanship whenever we practice at the shooting range… you finished third in the full-automatic-fire regional contest last year for heaven's sake. You aced all the close-combat martial-arts classes, you've passed all the advanced driving courses with flying colors… and you have a bunch of ribbons and commendations for valor 'above and beyond.' " For each item on his list, he held up a digit until a full hand was showing.

"Thanks for reminding me," Meighan said with a grin that soon faded. "Those things would come in handy in private security too…"

"I'll admit that, but listen, Meighan… you'll go nuts if you have to work for some lazy bum of a billionaire who jets in a chef from Paris or Cape Town or Tokyo whenever his vapor-headed trophy wife wants a peanut-butter sandwich. I'd give you three weeks at the most-"

"Well, I-"

"-and then you'd relocate up north to the great wilderness and build yourself a log cabin with your bare hands… you know, on a side branch of the Satchawahnee River or something. Hell, you'd build it on the damn river so you could fish from your porch!"

Meighan did two things at once: first, a long guffaw left her throat. Then she reached up to slap her forehead. "Oh come on!" she said before turning her pair of actions into a trio when she thumped her patrol partner's shoulder.

"I'm serious!"

"Jeepers, Lorenzo… where do you get all this stuff?"

Lorenzo Lombardini grinned and pretended to crow in the driver's seat. "I'm of Sicilian stock. We've always been great storytellers."

"Uh-huh? No, honestly… I don't fish. I never have. Me and fish don't go together so you can scratch that part right off the bat. I'm a big city girl so relocating to the wilderness just won't happen. Okay, I'll admit that the woodlands around the Satchawahnee and the Massalawnee Deltas are impressive on TV, but-"

"Ha! See?"

"But move up there permanently? No thanks. They got bears and wolves and all kinds of other wildlife up there. Elks!"

"So you're saying you prefer the thugs, goons, burglars, flashers, shoplifters, gang-members and the rest of the wildlife we have down here?"

Meighan chuckled. "Yeah. When you say it like that… yeah. To a certain extent at least. If we could only get our hands on one of those really big bastards now and then, I'd be a happy cop. But we can't will it into happening."

"Nah, we gotta work for it. And we do."

"Yeah… it just doesn't seem to be enough, though. Does it?"

Lorenzo performed a silent shrug; it left Meighan with plenty of time for more in-depth pondering on her immediate future.

Up front, the shouting match between the cabbie and the delivery truck driver had been declared a no-contest when the latter had climbed behind the wheel and had moved his lumbering laundry service truck onto the next stop on his lengthy work sheet. Little by little, inch by inch, foot by foot, yard by yard, the logjam began to unravel.

Another taxi cab almost created a new jam straight away when he stopped in the inner lane to pick up a fare who came running out onto the street from another of the theaters. The line behind the green taxi cab was suddenly locked solid once more, but it only took a scant thirty seconds before the cabbie drove off thus releasing the pressure behind him.

"Finally," Lorenzo said as he started the cruiser's engine. Once it was idling, he moved the shifter into drive. "You know what I think you should do, Meighan?"

"Besides relocating north?"

"Besides that."


"To blow your funk away, I think you should find yourself a good, little Irish redhead. A real green-eyed sweet-cake wearing a checkered apron and a dress with puffy sleeves. Then she'd serve you eggs, toast, home-made buns and hot coffee in bed on Sundays. That's what I think you should do." The words of wisdom were delivered with an impossibly wide grin.

Meighan let out a dramatic sigh as she looked over at her patrol partner's grinning face. "Uh-huh?" was all she had to say to Lorenzo's bright suggestion - not that she failed to see its merits.


After clearing the car-infested minefield of the traffic jam from hell, Lorenzo drove across the ever-busy intersection of Avenue F and Forty-fourth Street. Cleveland Street was the next smaller side street off to the right, so it only took a short while before he activated the cruiser's turning signal and worked the steering wheel.

The street saw plenty of family cars filling out special parking slots that had been painted half onto the street and half onto the sidewalk. With family minivans and cross-over SUVs continuing to grow wider and bulkier for each new model generation, it had become far more difficult for important vehicles like garbage trucks or fire engines to fit through the narrow street. A compromise had been sought, and subsequently carried out, to make sure no dramas would arise from a lack of access.

To offset the politically-approved influx of vehicles on the sidewalks, twenty-four young trees that were wrapped in protective winter mats to keep the roots out of harms' way of the salt and grit used by the Carlyle Department of Traffic in the winter months had been planted between the parking slots. Much to the consternation of everyone, three of them had already been flattened by vehicles that had failed to stay within the painted boundaries.

Unlike the ethnic neighborhoods elsewhere in Carlyle, the zone around Cleveland Street was home to a wide variety of residents. An off-campus branch of the Greater Carlyle Engineering College specializing in advanced computer-aided controller systems had moved in on the next street over, Barclay Street, the year before, so many of the apartments of the six, eight and ten-story tenement high-rises were inhabited by bookish twenty-somethings. Similarly, one of Carlyle's most award-winning nursing homes could be found on Adelsberg Street - though it had space for more than one-hundred senior citizens, its reputation was so good the waiting list was always full.

The Flamingo Lounge could never be referred to as having a good reputation, nor would it ever win any awards. The overly pretentious name stood in stark contrast to the filthy, tinted windows and the dark-brown planks that made up most of the exterior. The planks offered the first hint that it was an old-fashioned blue-collar establishment rather than one of the upscale bars or cafés that had become so popular since the last turn of the century. The Flamingo Lounge stood out like a sore thumb among the elegant buildings next to it; in fact it was such an eyesore in the neighborhood it almost seemed designed to be that way.

Lorenzo pulled over to the curb opposite the bar. Once the engine had been turned off, he and Meighan spent a short minute observing the establishment. "From what I know of Scotty Stewart, the man's a millionaire. So why the hell does he own a bar that looks like that?" Lorenzo said as he opened the driver's side door and climbed from the cruiser.

Meighan followed him out of the Ford and soon strode across Cleveland Street. "Maybe it was his first?" she said while she kept an eye on the people on the sidewalk near the Flamingo Lounge. A small group of bearded, bespectacled students from the Engineering College came to a halt fifty yards up the street like they had changed their minds about visiting the establishment. The only other people there were an elderly lady out walking her dog, and an even older gentleman in a wheelchair that was pushed along by a younger woman wearing a white uniform from the Carlyle Home Care Center.

"Maybe it was," Lorenzo said as he held the door open for his patrol partner. Once the two police officers were inside the Flamingo Lounge, all their pre-conceived notions that had been formed by the grubbiness of the exterior were confirmed by a single look at the interior.

It was a traditional bar from first to last: the centerpiece was a long, L-shaped counter that sported several brass pumps for the various types of beer sold there. The heavy-duty carpet, the tablecloths and even the curtains were littered with decade-old stains of all colors and varieties. A row of tall bar stools had been put up on both the long and the short side of the L, and a handful of tables had been placed up against the outer walls of the room. The tables were all vacant, and only one of the bar stools was occupied by a patron drinking a large glass of beer and reading a newspaper. Behind the counter, a balding, pot-bellied, early-fifty-something bartender wearing square reading spectacles, a jogging suit and a formerly white apron was busy wiping down empty tumblers. The spectacles sat low on his nose like he had no real need for them. To compensate for his hairless crown, he had let his neck hair grow long enough so he could tie it into a ponytail.

The decades of constant heavy smoking in the bar had become permanently etched into the woodwork, the carpet, the lamps on the tables and everything else. Not a single piece of the interior had been able to escape the nicotine-brown stains, and it even reeked of fresh cigarette smoke although City Hall had issued a blanket ban against smoking in bars, cafés, restaurants and other public areas several years earlier.

It was clear from his modest and somewhat cheap-looking exterior that the pot-bellied bartender could not be the man they were there to see, but Meighan still walked up to the counter to ask. "Good afternoon. I'm Officer O'Sullivan and this is Officer Lombardini. Are you Mr. Scotty Stewart?"

The bartender offered the police officer a two-second glance over the rim of his reading spectacles. "Nope," he said as he went back to dunking another tumbler into a bowl of steaming hot water.

When nothing else came from the man's mouth, Meighan cocked an eyebrow but decided to remain civil for the time being. "Do you know where we can find Mr. Stewart?"

Several seconds went by before a laconic "Sorry," left his lips. This time, he could not even be bothered to look at the police officer.

Another five seconds went by in silence which only worsened the dark scowl on Meighan's face; then she decided it was time for action. "And your name was, Sir?" she said as she took out her notepad. It was a move that convinced ten out of ten law-abiding citizens - and nine out of ten of the crooks - that it was time to comply with the line of questioning or face the consequences.

The bespectacled, pot-bellied, ponytail-wearing bartender seemed to be the exception to the rule, but it was too early to say if he fit into the first or the second category of citizens. He eyed Meighan over the rim of his square reading spectacles for a few seconds, but that was as far as his interest went. "Bob Roberts Esquire," he said casually as he slotted a clean wine bowl into a rack above the counter. That the Flamingo Lounge even had bowls for serving wine was perhaps surprising given the rest of the establishment's tackiness, but some of the barflies had a distinctly unhealthy preference for having their hard liquor shots served in large quantities.

Meighan narrowed her eyes down into slits - she had never suffered fools gladly, and the incident with the racist Oscar Wright had already worn her patience thin. "Esquire?" she said in a steely voice.

"Yep. You wanna see my driver's license? Bob Roberts Esquire."

"Well, Mr. Esquire," Meighan said while shooting an exasperated look at her patrol partner who could only shrug in return. She had no proof that the owner of the bar served alcoholic beverages for minors in the Flamingo Lounge in addition to the confirmed breaches of the law back in the One-Three's own precinct, but the bartender rubbed her the wrong way. A man with such a flippant mentality when it came to speaking to law enforcement officers would never think twice about serving underage drinkers. "I suspect you also don't know when Mr. Stewart will return?"

"That's right. Haven't seen him in weeks," the bartender said as he dunked a beer glass in the wash bowl and took a brush to it. The familiar sounds of plastic-hitting-glass soon overpowered the odd exchange.

"But he is your employer?"

"Oh yeah."

Another lengthy break in the conversation came and went. Meighan's patience had long since run out, and her good mood was doing downhill fast as well. "So how do you contact him when there's trouble at the bar?"

Another beer glass was dunked and scrubbed in the lukewarm water. Pulling it up, the bartender looked at it for a moment or two through his square reading spectacles before it received another dunking followed by a second round of scrubbing. Then he glanced up at Meighan like he had all but forgotten she was still there: "I don't. I deal with it myself."

By now, Meighan had already counted to twenty on the inside. She was about to make another twenty-count when the patron with the newspaper decided that it was time for him to butt in.

He took a long swig from his beer before he fumbled off the bar stool. The tumbler remained in his hand, but the newspaper fluttered onto the stained carpet without him noticing a thing. The man who was in his late-thirties or early-forties soon made his stumbling way over to the two police officers with a look of disgust on his beery face. He possessed all the classic charm associated with the barflies: greasy hair, a six-day stubble on his chin and cheeks, a weak mouth, watery eyes, and a pasty, doughy complexion with plenty of early wrinkles.

His scruffy clothes - a shirt that had been buttoned crooked, shoes where the left set of laces had come undone, and a drooping pair of brown pants where the fly was open - only underlined the fact. An unfortunate smell of stale beer and staler urine hung about him.

"You Goddamn pigs," he slurred, pointing the glass of beer at Meighan which made some of the golden liquid slosh over the rim and onto his already stained clothes, "you come in here and bother my friend Bob when he ain't nothing… wh- when he ain't done you nothing wrong! Why the hell do you do that, huh?!"

Even before the barfly had begun uttering his slurred accusations, Lorenzo had moved several paces back to get a good angle of fire in case trouble would arise. Hearing the man's angry words made him tense up and put his hand on the grip of his sidearm.

"Sir," Meighan said in a calm voice meant to plane down rough tempers before the situation could escalate further. Conflict Psychology & Resolution had not been one of her strongest classes back at the Police Academy, but her years of hands-on experience on the mean streets of Carlyle had taught her countless lessons that could not be found in a text book. It was by far not the first time she found herself in such a situation; she had been up against all types from boozed-up drunkards and freaked-out drug addicts to unpredictable car thieves and aggressive spousal abusers at one point or another in her career. Unfortunately, some people had just traveled too far into the hazy mists of alcohol to be brought back out by soft words. "I'm sure that Mr. Esquire appreciates your defense of him, but he's a grown man who can-"

Meighan never made it further before the barfly let out a roar and threw the glass of beer at her. As the golden liquid escaped from the flying tumbler, it formed an unpleasant localized shower that only missed Meighan's chest, left shoulder and face through sheer fortune and quick legwork. Stepping aside in an almighty hurry, she avoided getting hit by the beer or the glass; a split second later, she had reached behind her and had pulled her handcuffs from her utility belt.

Another split second later, the barfly was flat on his stomach on the stained carpet of the Flamingo Lounge. Meighan used her knee to press down on his back while she grabbed hold of his arms and slapped the metal cuffs around the wrists. Though the barfly kicked, wiggled, screamed, cursed and moaned, he was unable to move as much as an inch before he was yanked to his feet and pushed against the side of the wooden counter.

While all that had taken place, Lorenzo had drawn his sidearm and had jumped forward to cover the bartender in case the pot-bellied man had felt a need to join in on the fun. The stoic, taciturn man behind the counter never lost his cool despite the surprise brawl and being aimed at by a service pistol - he just dunked another wine bowl in the lukewarm water and proceeded to scrub off all the residue. He did pause for five seconds or so to glance at the pool of beer that had splashed all over the carpet as a result of the melee, but he soon returned to his important duty of washing up.

"-the right to remain silent," Meighan said, glaring so intensely at the aggressive barfly while she went through the entire Miranda message that the fight fizzled out of him as fast as it had entered. "Do you understand your rights as I have explained them to you?"

"Wh- what am I-"

"Sir, do you understand your rights as I have explained them to you?"

The barfly stared at Meighan with wide, beery eyes before he broke out in a jerking nod. "Y- yes…"

"What is your name, Sir?"

"Roger… Roger Cassidy. What am I gonn' tell my wife? What am I gonn' tell her?" he slurred in a tone that was far more somber than his earlier fiery intonations.

"You should have thought about that a little sooner, Mr. Cassidy. You are being arrested for public nuisance and for attempted assault and battery on a law enforcement officer."

The drunken barfly nodded again. As he moved his head, his greasy hair flopped about which was no pleasant sight. "Yeah, yeah… yeah, I understand. Whattahell am I gonn' tell my wife…"

Lorenzo and Meighan sent each other yet another exasperated glance before they swapped over so Lorenzo controlled the prisoner while Meighan tried her luck with the bartender one last time. "Mr. Esquire. In case your employer Mr. Stewart comes around later today, will you please tell him that he needs to contact the police station on West Twenty-second Street? We have reason to believe he has information that may help us with an open investigation."

The bartender looked from one police officer to the other before he offered the arrested Roger a longer glance than usual. Several seconds went by in silence before he broke out in a one-shouldered shrug. "Will do," was all that came out of him.

Meighan knew that he never would, but it was something they would have to deal with at a later date. "Thank you very much, Sir. Officer Lombardini, let's get the prisoner to the cruiser so we can process him."

"Yes, Officer O'Sullivan," Lorenzo said and took a firm grip on the barfly's greasy, scruffy collar.

The trio soon left the Flamingo Lounge. They went at a reduced tempo so the shuffling Roger Cassidy could keep up without tripping over his own feet or drooping pants and worsen the drama - neither of the two officers cared much for picking him up from the ground, or worse, carry him to the cruiser. Once the man had been put into the back of the Ford Crown Victoria, Meighan and Lorenzo split up and moved around to the front doors - and this time, Meighan had the driving duties.




Sister Angelica froze solid and clenched the armrests of her swivel-chair hard when the familiar sounds of an ambulance siren reached her ears. Getting up from the chair was a far more laborious process while she was recuperating from her severe physical injuries, but she got to her feet eventually and hurried through the open office of the Sisters Of Mercy Communion House to see what was going on outside.

She was too slow in reaching the rain-streaked windows before the ambulance had driven past out on the loud, perpetually boisterous Sunderland Street, but she caught a last-second glimpse of the garish orange color and the reflective horizontal stripe on the side of the boxy vehicle that identified it as belonging to Pettersson's Nine-Nine-One Ambulance Services.

A shiver ran over her body as she rearranged the open blinds once more and shuffled back to the swivel-chair. Her white-and-pale-gray outfit was of a far more modern design compared to the traditional habit worn by the nuns who lived in convents. Instead of the shapeless, bell-like dresses or flowing robes that the public at large always expected nuns to wear, she wore suede indoor shoes, a pair of high-waisted slacks and an indoor jacket with a narrow collar without any lapels. The pale-gray ensemble was completed by a white, long-sleeved tunic tucked into the slacks. She wore no headpiece of any kind but simply put on a pale-gray, knitted hat that carried the logo of the Order Of The Sisters Of Mercy whenever she needed to venture outside in the winter months. Her hair was short and mostly medium-brown; 'mostly' since a few strands of gray had appeared lately.

In her haste to get to the window, she had not had time to pause the CD she was listening to on a small portable player that stood on her desk, so the recording of Antonin Dvorak's eighth symphony had continued while she had been away. She had lost her mood for the upbeat classical music, so she hit stop instead of rewinding it back to where she had left off. The CD was soon out of the player and back into its jewel case.

Once the case had been slotted into the appropriate rack where it joined quite a few other discs containing the best classical works, Sister Angelica came to a halt and fell into a thousand-mile stare. She revisited the traumatic event that had brought so many changes to her life - the event that could have made her life come to an end if it had not been for the two highly-skilled EMTs who had saved her.

Most of the day in question had been wiped from her memory, but she had been told that she had been doing her usual rounds of the nearby neighborhoods like she had done for the past eleven years. The nuns sent out by the Sisters of Mercy Mission never made plans on where to go on the day; instead, they would decide which streets to tour based on where their presence appeared to be needed the most. She had just moved into the area south of Victory Park when it had happened.

Three men who had carried an air of professional criminals about them had jumped her for no reason whatsoever on the sidewalk in front of 2441 West Eleventh Street. They had yanked her priceless silver crucifix off her neck; they had shoved her around viciously, they had beaten her to within an inch of her life. She only remembered hazy fragments of it, or so she thought. Each time she heard a siren somewhere near her, the raw fear of dying that she had experienced lying on the sidewalk in a pool of her own blood came rushing back and overwhelmed her to such a degree she could hardly breathe.

The doctors had worked on mending her broken body throughout the entire first night. She had spent four days in intensive care at the Community Hospital until she had recovered enough to be downgraded to a 'serious but stable' condition. At first, her chances of survival had been very poor to non-existent, but she had clung onto the threads of life by her fingernails. After being discharged, she had been back doing her solemn bidding for four days; for the time being, she was only allowed to do paperwork behind a desk at the Mission's barracks on Sunderland, but that was enough to begin with.

She would work hard to get back to full strength; she would work even harder to get back to the streets to resume her solemn work. Giving up the path she had chosen for herself when she had been a teenager simply did not come into play. If she could only get past her sudden terror whenever she heard an ambulance siren, she would be well on her way to a full recovery.

Angelica slowly returned to the present. Despite all her lofty promises to herself, she knew very well there were no shortcuts to a full physical and mental recovery - she had seen it often enough among the countless men and women she had spoken to over the years. Sighing, she shuffled over to the swivel-chair where she sat down as gingerly as she could. The flip-over calendar on the desk told her it was October thirteenth, meaning it was just shy of two weeks since the assault. A shiver ran over her; that was an anniversary she would prefer to forget.

The paperwork she had been doing - statistics on the number of people in need who had used the various shelters around Greater Carlyle during the past month - needed to be finished by the end of her shift at six PM, but her body told her the files could wait a while. First, she needed to lean back in the swivel-chair while letting out a moan.

What had not happened during the assault had saved her. Though the three men who had attacked her had broken a few bones and had caused plenty of bleeding, tissue damage and torn muscles, her brain had not been exposed to hemorrhaging or swelling. Though several ribs had been badly bent, none had fractured to puncture a lung. Her spleen had been damaged enough to warrant a surgical removal, but her liver, her kidneys and her intestines had merely been bruised, not badly hurt. Everything else was such a mess that it was a miracle she could even walk and talk, but she was in the miracle business and she knew who had kept an eye on her.

She was forty-eight, and the fact she was not in her early twenties any longer meant her rehabilitation period would be greatly extended. She would just have to clench her jaw and get on with it - help had already come to her on so many levels. She had been given a new lease of life through the rapid response of the EMTs on West Eleventh Street and the hard work performed by the surgical team at the Community Hospital, and she planned to exploit every second of it.

Still, she preferred not to look at herself in a mirror in the present phase of her recovery. She had done so once after being discharged; she had not liked what she saw, so once would have to suffice.

The most recent wave of pain produced by her abused body had finally been overcome, so she picked up her ball point pen and began to add up the columns on the spreadsheet print-out she had received in the mail.


The Communion House belonging to the Sisters Of Mercy Mission on Sunderland Street was in effect a flat-topped barrack that had been equipped with sanitary plumbing and electricity that was also used for heating. It had been built on thirty-two poles that were each fifteen inches thick and four feet tall moving it clear off the ground to make room for all the technical equipment - the fragile underside was protected from the weather by a metal skirt of corrugated iron that ran the entire length of the barrack. A metal staircase with a wooden railing reached from the sidewalk and up to the glass door that was open twenty-four-seven the entire year.

The barrack was only twenty-five feet wide and seventy-five feet long, but that was enough for two offices at the back, a private bathroom, a kitchenette and a utility room - the latter saw several filing cabinets, a bunk bed where the nuns could rest, and a large wardrobe filled to the brim with spare clothes that could be handed out to the homeless in case of low temperatures. The open office filled out the front section of the barrack, and it was divided into four sections: one was filled out by the desk, the swivel-chair and a single filing cabinet, and the other three each saw a couple of chairs and a small, round table.

There were short and tall potted plants everywhere to add a sense of home to the surroundings, and the walls carried posters and paintings held in bright, vibrant colors to provide a foundation of hope to the people who sought out the help of the nuns. Further inspirational posters provided by the Order of the Sisters Of Mercy and the Church Of The Blessed Virgin Mary read 'We Listen, We Do Not Judge,' 'Talking Prevents Violence,' 'Peace Starts With Us All' and 'When You Can, Help Others.'


The paperwork was even drearier than usual so Sister Angelica let out a long sigh and threw down the ball point pen - she needed to pinch the bridge of her nose to quell a headache that was knocking on the proverbial door. The print-out of the spreadsheet and the notes she had made herself for the much-needed calculations had made a mess of her orderly desk, so she scooped up a stack of various papers and tapped them into order on the desktop. The action made the DECT telephone come into view, and it reminded her she had wanted to get an update from her colleague Sister Maureen who had been asked earlier in the day to come down to the shelter a block south on Sunderland to help clean up a little accident caused by a homeless person.

Ordinarily they were always two nuns on duty at the Communion House at any one time to be able to help as many people as possible, but since it had been a quiet day so far, Sister Maureen had not been missed as such. With the afternoon approaching fast, and thus the chill setting in even harder due to the inclement weather, people would start to show up at the Mission.

Nodding to herself, Angelica reached for the DECT phone. She had only just taken the handset off the base station when the door to the street opened to reveal a woman whose pale-brown overcoat had been turned dark-brown on the shoulders by being exposed to yet another of the showers that had plagued the metropole on-and-off the entire day.

The woman's eyes carried the harried, and far-too-familiar, look of someone who had been abused or even violated by a loved one. Angelica put down the telephone at once and took a firm grip on the chair's armrests. After drawing a deep breath to combat the wave of pain she knew would hit when she sent her muscles off to work, she rose from the swivel-chair to greet the woman seeking someone to talk to.


Dusk had fallen by the time the visiting woman left the Communion House. She had been reluctant to speak her mind at first, but once she had come to realize that she would be listened to - and understood - nothing could hold her back. She left safe in the knowledge that nothing of what she had confided in the nun would ever reach the ears of her abusive husband.

Sister Angelica moved around the open office turning on a slew of lamps to give the barrack a warm, homely look for the coming nocturnal hours. There were strip lights in the ceiling but she detested the cold and nearly inhuman bright-white light they cast down upon the office and the people in it. Bright light was counterproductive - and even damaging - in letting people open up enough to finally share the subjects they had been struggling with on their own.

The smaller lamps, of which no two were identical, had been bought in thrift stores or donated to the cause by grateful people. They had been equipped with low-wattage bulbs that were perfect in creating a cozy atmosphere around the office that could appear a little too sterile for those who came seeking help.

Once the lamps had been taken care of, she sat down gingerly in the soft chair by one of the potted palms that she had already used in the lengthy conversation. Once she had leaned all the way to the backrest, she let out a sigh fueled by the niggling pain that rolled through her. The abused woman had deserved nothing less than Angelica's undivided attention so that was what she had given her. Now that silence had once more returned to the Communion House, she realized how little strength she had left following her harrowing ordeal the other week.

At least Sister Maureen had come back from the shelter during the heart to heart, and she had taken care of the tea and cookies. A tray holding two mugs, two empty dessert plates and plenty of crumbs from the bone dry cookies made of oats was still on the table next to a charming lamp that carried a shade from the Victorian era.

Sister Maureen had needed to hit the bunk bed the second after she had made the tea - the supposedly small incident at the shelter a block south had been revealed to be a full-scale cleaning operation that took several hours' worth of furious scrubbing using triple-A-strength products. Angelica had cast half a glance at Maureen's ashen face before she had sent her into the heated utility room for a long, relaxing nap on the bunk.

It was unlikely the tray would sprout legs and carry itself back into the kitchenette, so it was something Angelica would need to take care of before long. Sighing, she clambered up from the soft chair once more to do just that.


Half an hour later, she had exactly half an hour to go of her shift. The clock had just reached five-thirty when the DECT telephone rang. The handset had once again become buried in paperwork, so Angelica needed to dig through several stacks to find it before the caller gave up.

"Good evening, you've reached the Sisters of Mercy Communion House on Sunderland Street. I am Sister Angelica. How may we help you?" she said into the telephone. While she spoke, she leaned back on the swivel-chair at regular speed without even spending as much as a second thinking that her regular speed would most likely hurt her in her present condition - and it did. She made it halfway to the backrest before she had to slow down and let out a hiss of pain. The final stretch took three times as long as the first had done, but she made it there eventually.

'Hello, Sister Angelica, this is LuAnne Stevens from the Carlyle Tribune. Did I catch you at a bad time? You sound like you're in pain… if you wish, I can call back later.'

"No, it's all right, LuAnne… I'm fine. Just a little sore," Angelica said in a voice that was more strained than she had expected. "And you can't call later because my shift is over in thirty minutes."

While the final traces of the latest wave of pain receded, Angelica smiled at the sound of her friend's voice in her ear. LuAnne Stevens was a journalist she had worked with several times over the past few years when it came to spreading the word or getting a column or two in the newspaper for the various charitable events organized by the Order of the Sisters Of Mercy.


"I hope you've come up with something."

'I have, or I believe that I have, at least. After you called me the other day with your suspicions, I rummaged through our recent archives. You were right. There has been an increase in cases where prostitutes and even their pimps have been beaten lately… and in this case, lately means the last two weeks.'


'Yes, and some of them were severe beatings. And yes, like you suspected, some of the witnesses mentioned seeing three well-dressed, gangster-like men near the prostitute in the minutes leading up to the violence.'

"Right," Angelica said, running a hand through her hair. Even in the few days following her return from hospital, she had spoken to several people who had told her there had been a distinct increase in the brutalization on the streets of Carlyle in and around Downtown and the nearby neighborhoods. Sex workers, and apparently their pimps as well, were rumored to have been treated to vicious attacks, and more than one prostitute had even been reported missing. In addition to those attacks, several homeless people - men as well as women - had been found beaten half to death at some of the zones where they had been safe until just recently, like the railroad tunnels by the switching yards or the back alleys in the ethnic neighborhoods. Something large was brewing; something beyond the scope of mere street hoodlums. Those people were violent as well, but never to such a degree, and never against random people they had no quarrels with. Worse, the police had done very little - in fact, the upper echelon of senior police officials seemed to downplay the attacks.

Angelica found herself reaching down to the spot on her chest where the silver crucifix had been for her entire career, and indeed most of her life. When there was nothing there on her white tunic, she let out a deep, tired sigh. "Well-dressed and gangster-like. That's how witnesses described the three men who attacked me. I wish I could remember their faces… but the entire day is all a blur. When I spoke to the police detectives up at the Community Hospital, they told me quite clearly that if I could not make a positive identification of the three men… if they were ever arrested, that is… the case against them might not stick."

'Which is nothing short of shocking in my humble opinion, especially considering they've apparently done it to several other people as well. But something good did come out of it… after that talk, you decided to organize the anti-violence protest rally down by the One-Two precinct police station, after all.'

"Yes. I can feel in my heart that it needs to be done. This has gone too far now. We cannot allow such… such…" - Sister Angelica closed her eyes to find a word that would paint a clear enough picture without straying into profanity - "monsters. We cannot allow such monsters to walk freely. They must be stopped so the streets can be safe for all. We must make City Hall and the upper levels of management of the Carlyle Police Department know that we, the regular men and women on the street won't take it any longer." She had been leaning forward and clutching the armrest hard while she had spoken, but now that the righteous fire slowly left her system, fatigue took over and she needed to lean against the backrest once more.

'Bravo!' LuAnne Stevens said from the other end of the connection. Immediately after her exclamation, she could be heard clapping. 'If you show such fire at the rally, Mayor Goddard and Chief Police Commissioner Farnsworth won't be able to ignore it.'

"Mmmm. Yes," Angelica said in a voice so tinged with fatigue it did not sound like hers at all. "Do you know if they've responded to the invitations yet?"

'Ah… no. They haven't yet. But I have a strong hunch they will after they see tomorrow's Tribune. While we've been talking, I've typed an article where I've assembled the reports of all the recent beatings, including yours. It's chilling when put together, and it's so obvious there's a pattern in the mayhem. If I may, I'd like to use some of your quotes from just now… that the monsters must be stopped and those things. All anonymous, of course.'

Angelica grimaced; she could certainly see her friend LuAnne's point, but it seemed a little too aggressive for her tastes. She pondered the question for a brief moment before she relented: "All right, you may use what I said. But only as an anonymous source."

'Of course, of course. Thank you. Oh, and I've spoken to an old buddy of mine who's working at one of the local news stations now. He's promised to have a camera team ready for the protest rally… but if this balloons like I think it will, we may end up going national.'

"Well… that would be nice," Angelica said with a tired smile, "but the number one priority is to stop the violence, not to get ourselves on television. Too many people do that as it is."

'Very true, Sister Angelica… very true. Listen, I don't want to steal more of your time. I'll call you again once I have more to report. Hopefully some good news.'

"Thank you, LuAnne. Yes, let's hope this will come to a positive conclusion, and soon. Goodbye," Angelica said and put the DECT telephone back on the base station.

The paperwork beckoned. Although she tried very hard to make sense of the reams of data on the spreadsheet and the figures of her own calculations, it was too much for her tired mind. It was supposed to be done by the end of her shift, but since the statistical data was already a month old, it could wait another day without losing relevance.

Instead, she got up from the swivel-chair and moved through the barrack's short hallway to stir Sister Maureen. Once they had spent a short while updating each other on what had taken place at the shelter and the office over the course of the day, she would call a taxi cab so she could go home and soak her aching body in a long, steaming hot bubble bath.




Five minutes to seven AM, October fourteenth - roll call at the police station on West Twenty-second Street.

Sergeant Gordon O'Halloran was in the final stages of the morning's roll call when he was interrupted by a brief knock on the door to the plenum office. Far too experienced and seasoned to grow befuddled when faced with something unexpected, the veteran officer took his time to finish the fire-and-brimstone speech he had been working his way through.

As someone who was immensely proud of what the police force had achieved over the decades, the article in the morning's Tribune was an unwelcome reminder that they had plenty of work to do. His oatmeal had nearly gone down the wrong pipe when he had read the thorough analysis of the data the journalist had extrapolated from the statements issued by the witnesses to the spate of violent attacks on prostitutes and the homeless around Carlyle. There were too many similarities for it to be a coincidence, and it appeared that even the much-publicized - and much-condemned - attack on the nun could be connected to the wave of violence. The attacks had occurred in all three of the inner-city precincts, but nobody had thought about calling their colleagues to compare notes.

The journalist had interviewed Chief Police Commissioner Arthur M. Farnsworth on the subject, but all that had come out of that was a cringeworthy runaround and a wishy-washy answer to the question on whether or not the low priority could be explained by the fact that a good portion of the victims had been sex workers and the rest 'merely' the homeless.

"So," he said, looking out across the assembled uniformed officers as he finished up his ten-minute soliloquy, "now this Goddamned thing has hit the headlines, it goes without saying that we need to keep a very, very close eye on it. Why? Because the public is, and they'll keep a very, very close eye on us. We cannot allow the proud police department of Greater Carlyle to appear like we got our Goddamned thumbs up our Goddamned asses when citizens are being attacked like this… even if we did have our Goddamned thumbs up our Goddamned asses!"

The grim truth of Sergeant O'Halloran's long speech caused a murmur of annoyance to ripple through the assembled officers. Everyone present worked flat out for their entire shifts - and in many cases beyond - to help the public, but when news of this caliber broke, they would all be exposed to the harsh spotlight which would inevitably make them look like semi-incompetent buffoons. Though the blame would be directed at the senior officers at first, it would sooner or later trickle down to the regular grunt-in-uniform like it had for the past ten thousand years.

Sighing, the Sergeant removed a bead of sweat from his forehead before he bellowed: "Enter!"

The entire group of uniformed police officers belonging to the One-Three precinct at the West Twenty-second Street police station turned to look at the person interrupting the morning roll call. When it proved to be one of the uniformed secretaries, they let out grunts of disappointment - they could have needed a little respite from the Sergeant's uncharacteristic foul mood that had even nixed his customary semi-humorous send-off.

Meighan O'Sullivan tracked the uniformed secretary as she walked past. When the woman reached the row where Meighan sat, they locked eyes. An ultra-brief wink was exchanged between them - it made a lopsided grin flash across Meighan's face. Glancing around at her colleagues, she could see that nobody had caught it. Lorenzo Lombardini had his eyes closed and seemed to be asleep, and the others were too busy waiting for Sergeant O'Halloran to end the roll call so they could get out on the streets.

After the secretary had delivered a brief, hand-written note to the Sergeant, he scratched his flushed chin a couple of times before he let out a grunt. "All right… once we're done here, Officers O'Sullivan and Lombardini need to report to Captain MacPherson's office. That wasn't his brother-in-law you busted yesterday in the Flamingo Lounge, was it?" he said, showing a glimpse of his regular persona.

Everybody in the plenum office laughed at the much-needed humor; Meighan and Lorenzo looked at each other before they broke out in identical shrugs. "It might ha' been, Sarge! It was hard to get a clear view of his face!" Meighan said loud enough for the entire room to hear it - it earned her a ripple of laughter that made her grin.

"Very well," Sergeant O'Halloran continued. "Ladies and gentlemen, that's it for now. Let's do like the five-legged donkey who went by the name of Randy Ramrod… let's go out there and give 'em some!"

This time, the utterance that rippled through the plenum office was a long groan at the bawdy joke, but the humor did the trick and created a better mood for the end of the roll call than anyone could have expected following the Sergeant's fiery speech.

Meighan got to her feet and slotted into a gap in the human flow. Once she was back in the hallway, she stepped aside to wait for her patrol partner whose face was as gray and lined as it had been since his return from his paternity leave. "Man, Lorenzo… why don't you take a couple of sick days? Or perhaps apply for an extension of your leave or something? 'Cos, frankly, you look about ready to drop," she said as she put a friendly hand on his shoulder.

"I'm fine…"

"Uh-huh? You may think you are, but I'm telling you that you have the complexion of a bucket of puke. Un-heal-thy," Meighan said, emphasizing all the syllables. "It might come back to bite you… worse, it might come back to bite me if we're suddenly caught in a mess and you can't deliver the goods to back me up."

Lorenzo sighed as he offered his patrol partner a serious look. "I know, I know, Meighan… I promise that if I'm not one-hundred percent fit tomorrow morning, I'll call in sick. I've alre-"

"You have such a large family… can't one of the doting aunts come over and-"

"Yeah, that's what I was about to say," Lorenzo said with a tired grin. "I've called for family backup. I'll have two aunts come over tonight. They have decades of experience with kids… the poor little thing just cries all the damn time. Cries and cries, day and night and day… the birth-expert doc examined her from top to toe and said there was nothing wrong with her, but… ah, what the hell do I know. The aunts will know what to do for sure."

Meighan nodded and gave her friend's shoulder another squeeze. "I'm sure your little girl's just fine when the doc says so. Hey, we may get lucky and get a two-week paid leave out of the Cap."

"That'll be the day!"

The flow of uniformed officers that swarmed out of the plenum room had eased off, so Meighan and Lorenzo were finally able to make tracks for the elevators that would take them to the captain's office up on the sixth floor. While they waited for it, they nodded to Sergeant O'Halloran whose ruddy face had gained another few wrinkles from reading the article - it was clear its message weighed heavily on the hard-working, dutiful veteran's mind.


The sixth floor seemed to exist in a completely different world compared to the hectic activity that took place further down in the station house. The holding cells in the basement were always home to yelling and screaming by the prisoners who - by default - let it be known to the entire section that they were being held there on bogus charges. On occasion, words other than 'bogus' were heard.

Pandemonium always reigned supreme on the entire ground floor. The area around the watch desk was never any less than overcrowded and always saw more people than the platforms of the Carlyle Grand Central railroad station did put together. Uniformed and plain clothes officers came and went; secretaries moved back and forth between the offices carrying various papers and folders. Some civilians were there to report a crime directly to the watch Sergeant, some sought information on how to get legal counsel; others had been called in because they were witnesses, and others still needed to appear in person each day to have their whereabouts confirmed while they performed community service. It would still be manageable if they came one after the other, but everyone came at the same time, and all expected to be heard right away - and every phone on the entire floor was constantly ringing off the hook.

None of the real-world dramas seemed to intrude upon the inherent calmness of the sixth floor. Meighan and Lorenzo strode through a quiet hallway walking on a plush carpet and passing various framed reproductions of well-known works of art on the walls. The hallway itself was painted in the same flat-gray color that all other hallways and floors in the police station had, but it somehow seemed more exclusive when the doors carried letterbars that introduced the person behind the office door as a 'Tactical Unit / SWAT / Senior Operations Coordinator,' 'International Counter-Terrorism Intelligence (INCOTERRI),' or even 'Senior Manager f. Logistics & Motor Vehicles.'

"Se-ma-fo-lo-mo-ve?" Meighan said with her tongue firmly stuck in her cheek as she and Lorenzo walked past the only door where the letterbar did not carry an acronym of something.

After suppressing a yawn, Lorenzo let out a chuckle. "Sounds like something you could order in a Asian restaurant. Honey-roasted chicken and spicy sema-folo-move rice."

One of the doors was home to the office of Captain Richard Daniel MacPherson, jr. When the two officers reached it, they paused to adjust their uniforms - then Meighan knocked on the door.

'Enter!' the captain's voice could be heard saying from inside the office.

Though Meighan knew she had done nothing wrong, she could not help but have the same kind of sensation in her gut that she used to have when she was a teen waiting to get told off by her stern father after getting caught doing something she should have known better than to get involved in - like smoking a cigarette behind the supermarket or sharing a can of strong beer with a friend. Squaring her shoulders, she stepped inside with Lorenzo Lombardini in tow.

Though large, and larger than Meighan had expected, the office was utilitarian rather than opulent. The same flat-gray color from the hallway was repeated on every wall, the ceiling and even in the linoleum on the floor. Six dome-shaped light fixtures had been installed in the gray ceiling, but only three were lit. The corner inside and to the left of the door saw a conference table, two satellite chairs and a three-seater couch with an upright backrest proving it was meant for work rather than relaxation. To the right, a rectangular, square-edged table was lined by ten wooden chairs with no cushions - it was clear it was also meant to be used for various group projects or debates.

The captain's desk stood up against the back wall of the office; it was completely free of clutter of any kind. Instead of a mess of files and other types of paperwork that such a desk would have had back in the day, a laptop had been docked to a full-size keyboard and a twenty-two-inch monitor where the screensaver was active. The desk was equipped with an anglepoise lamp that had been turned off. A black uniform jacket hung over the backrest of a swivel-chair that was placed behind the desk.

Captain MacPherson stood at one of the windows overlooking parts of the Carlyle skyline. He was busy stirring a mug of coffee using a long-necked plastic spoon; the white ceramic mug carried the text World's Greatest Granddad! in bright-red. He put the mug on a coaster on his desk before he crossed over the smooth linoleum floor to greet his uniformed guests.

He wore black shoes, black uniform pants and a black tie over a long-sleeved shirt that was pale-blue rather than the black one worn by the lower-ranked officers. Though the shirt was neutral, the jacket was far more ornate and had silver linings around the collar and the breast pockets. A row of colorful ribbons sat across the left side of the jacket's chest.

"Ah! Good morning, Officer O'Sullivan. Officer Lombardini. I'm glad you got my message," he said as he put out his hand. Richard MacPherson was a distinguished-looking gentleman in his late-fifties with a square jaw and a straight nose. His hazel eyes were set asymmetrically in his face - the left eye seemed to be closer and a fraction lower to the bridge of his nose compared to the right one - but the imperfection gave him a human touch that was needed to offset the martial, two-inch crewcut and the stringently clean-shaven appearance.

"Good morning, Sir," Meighan said as she shook the captain's hand. "We got your message, but I'm afraid we weren't told what this is about?"

"You'll find out in a minute, Officer O'Sullivan. Would you like some coffee?"

"No thank you, Sir," Meighan said, but Lorenzo nodded and let out a: "I could use some…"

Captain MacPherson shot a puzzled glance at the younger officer's pale, haggard face before he moved over to a top-quality coffee maker that used the newfangled KwikPads to brew the dark-brown liquid. "Aren't you sleeping well, Officer Lombardini?" he said while he inserted a neutral mug into the slot and waited for the quick-operating, but somewhat noisy, machine to fill it.

"My newborn child is keeping me up at night, Sir…"

The captain nodded while letting out a grunt of understanding. "Ah, yes. I know exactly what that's like. Every one of my three did the same. Nearly drove me up one wall and down the other." When the KwikPad coffee was ready, he retrieved his own nearly-full mug from his desk before presenting the second mug to the tired officer. "I'm sure you're interested in finding out the purpose of this meeting. Come, let's have a seat," the captain said, pointing at the three-seater couch and the chairs at the conference table.

Once they were all seated, Captain MacPherson put one leg over the other; the razor-sharp crease in his uniform pants lined up perfectly. "Have you had time to read the article in today's Tribune?"

Lorenzo and Meighan exchanged a brief glance - it was clear they both sensed the meeting had suddenly turned interesting from its vague, or even confused, starting point.

"I have, Sir," Lorenzo said as he sipped his steaming hot coffee. His left eye twitched when he discovered the coffee - despite the high-falootin' KwikPad concept - was exceedingly bitter, coarse and not up to the standard that he expected of the dark-brown liquid. He cast a brief glance at his patrol partner for help, but she was too busy to notice.

"I subscribe to a different newspaper, Sir," Meighan said, "but Sergeant O'Halloran was kind enough to go through the article word by word in this morning's roll call. It's a mess."

"Mess isn't a strong enough word to describe it, Officer O'Sullivan. No, this is more than a mess," Captain MacPherson said and took a long swig from his coffee - the way he gulped it down proved he found it neither bitter nor coarse. "This is egg on our face. Rotten egg on our face. We could have analyzed the data and the witness reports days ago… and yet a newspaper journalist needed to do our job for us."


"As we speak, an anti-organized crime task force is operating down south at the One-Two precinct house on West Seventh Street. They've been going for a short month already, in fact before the attack on the nun, but this latest development has lit a political fire under everyone's behind."

While the captain spoke, Lorenzo tried to take another sip of the coffee just to make sure the problem did not lie with his tastebuds. As the bitter liquid filled his mouth once more, his tastebuds all let out a cry of panic and ran for the hills. Wincing, he needed to convince himself to actually swallow it instead of spitting it back out into the mug. Once it was down, he put the mug away for good while his left eye twitched several more times.

The captain did not seem to have noticed: "We've uncovered that the epicenter of much of this violence and thuggish activity is within a zone reaching from West Fourth to West Eleventh Street though attacks have taken place in other precincts as well. The task force commander asked me to send her a pair of experienced officers, preferably patrol partners who know that district and the special problems it holds."

"I worked out of the One-Two for several years, Sir," Meighan said and narrowed her eyes. Her heart rate suddenly picked up; this was getting exciting. It had only been the day before where she had thought about what it would be like if she worked on cases with a wider scope. Then, she had figured it would involve the unfortunate gang member who was burned to death further north, but it seemed to be in the opposite geographical direction of that.

"I know," Captain MacPherson said with a broad smile. "And so did you, Officer Lombardini."

Lorenzo chewed hard on his cheek as he looked from Meighan to the captain. To be polite, he picked up the mug again but settled for holding it between his hands like he needed to warm his fingers. "I did, Sir. That's where I started. But… like I said before, I have a newborn at home that I would like to see grow up…"

The captain leaned forward at once to put down his World's Greatest Granddad! mug on the conference table. "I'm obviously not asking you to don plate armor and head off to war, but I will admit that you and Officer O'Sullivan will be closer to the hot spots of the recent outbreak of violence. You'll act as sources of information to Commander Shulmann and her team. You'll still be wearing your uniforms, and you'll still be on the streets in a cruiser, just not on regular patrol. You'll work with the task force and feed them the information you're able to get from all your regular contacts within the various communities."

Meighan put up her hand to make sure her position was known: "I'm in, Sir, regardless of whether or not Officer Lombardini is. This is the kind of opportunity I've been looking for for a while. Lorenzo," she said, turning to look at the man next to her. "I'll understand and respect your decision whatever it turns out to be. If you feel this is too much, just say so."

"It's not too much, but… Jeez," Lorenzo said and put the mug on the table; then he leaned back on the uncomfortable couch and gave his face a thorough rubbing. "The timing just sucks! Uh… pardon my French, Sir," he continued, looking across the table at Captain MacPherson who smirked in return. Lorenzo took several deep breaths before he said: "I can't commit to anything before I've asked my wife what she thinks. You may consider that unmanly of me, Captain, but that's the way it's going to be."

"Just for the record, Officer Lombardini, I consider that a very good course of action. Like Officer O'Sullivan, I'll respect whatever decision you reach. In fact, why don't you try to call her right away so we know where we stand with regards to having an agreement or not. Or would that be too early in the day?" the captain said before he took a long sip of his coffee.

"No, it's just fine, Sir," Lorenzo said as he put down his mug of coffee and got up from the uncomfortable couch - a quick check of his wristwatch confirmed that the time was just right. "My wife didn't go back to bed this morning. A nurse from the post-maternity outpatient clinic will be over at seven thirty to fill out a couple of dozen pages chronicling the progress of my baby girl. I can have an update for you in, say, ten-fifteen minutes or so."

"Excellent. Thank you very much, Officer Lombardini," the captain said; the leg that was on top of the other wiggled as he spoke.

An awkward silence fell over the two remaining police officers while Lorenzo Lombardini strode out of the office on his way to calling his wife with the news. Meighan narrowed her eyes as she looked at the captain. She had never said more than 'good morning' to the senior officer in all the years she had worked out of the One-Three, but now that she had spoken to him for a longer period of time, and regarding a far deeper subject, she was unsure what to make of him.

On one hand, his track record and the subsequent career were both second to none, but on the other, he had been part of the upper levels of management who should have seen a connection between the violent attacks long before a random journalist did. Perhaps he did know but cared little, like the journalist had surmised at the end of the article when she had interviewed Chief Police Commissioner Farnsworth and had made him look like a damn fool all by his own words and actions.

"Officer O'Sullivan," the captain said to break the silence, "if I may… in case your regular patrol partner wishes to pull out, do you have any preferences on whom among your fellow officers we could ask? This is a two-person assignment."

"Oh… hmmm…" Meighan said, looking at the spot where Lorenzo had been sitting. "Well, Irwin Buchanan would have loved it, but he's home sick with a germ of some kind. And so is my old partner Dermot O'Derr for that matter… Caitlynn O'Hara might be interested but I obviously can't say for sure without speaking to her. I'll need to give it some thought, Sir."

Captain MacPherson nodded before he swept his wiggling leg down and rose from the satellite chair. "Very well. In the meantime, I would like to call Task Force Commander Shulmann so you can get an initial update from her," he said as he strode across the linoleum floor to get to his desk. Once there, he opened a drawer to retrieve a smartphone.

Meighan got up from the couch since she was unsure of what was expected of her, but the captain waved at her to sit down again. Once they were both back in their seats, he handed her the smartphone where the correct number had already been found. As it rang, she put it to her ear.

'Good morning, Captain MacPherson,' a husky female voice said at the other end of the connection. 'Have you reached an agreement with your officers yet?'

"Commander Shulmann, this is Patrol Officer Meighan O'Sullivan. I was asked and have volunteered to be part of the task force. My regular patrol partner needs to seek advice from his family before he can commit to the assignment. It's possible he'll decline."

'Oh… how unusual. I've always presumed that most men would leap at such a chance. In any case, good morning and welcome to the Anti-Organized Crime Task Force, or ANOCRITA for short, Officer O'Sullivan. I'm glad to have another strong female officer with us. As you know, we see things the men can't. I always seek out female officers for my task forces to achieve a fair balance between the genders. If we fail to reach a balance, the clouds of testosterone can at times be so dense that we can't investigate our way out of a wet paper bag.'

"Ah… yes. I suppose. Thank you, Commander Shulmann," Meighan said before her jaw moved back and forth a couple of times like she was letting out a string of silent cursing. That was not the type of comment she had expected to hear. She was obviously a woman, but ever since she had pinned her first badge onto her shirt back at the academy, she had considered herself a police officer first and foremost, and then a female police officer. The prospect of becoming the commander's poster girl for a fair gender-spread on the team suddenly made the intriguing opportunity a little less so.

'Officer O'Sullivan, I would like you and your patrol partner… regardless of whom it actually turns out to be… to show up at the One-Two at eight tomorrow morning in your regular uniforms. I'm afraid we can't allow you to perform your work here in plain clothes, but I take it that won't be a problem?'

"No, Ma'am."

'Good. We'll have a plenum meeting where each of our investigators will present what has been accomplished so far in the various branches of the case. It will be a good opportunity for you to introduce yourself and let my team of experienced detectives get to know you better.'

"Yes, Ma'am. Eight tomorrow morning at the One-Two."

'Indeed. Any questions?'

"Not at this time, Commander Shulmann."

'All right. In that case, I'll see you and your fellow officer at the meeting tomorrow morning. Goodbye until then.'

"Goodbye, Commander," Meighan said and closed the connection. After she had handed the smartphone back to Captain MacPherson, she leaned back in the uncomfortable couch with an unreadable expression on her face.


Five minutes later, a knock was heard from the door. After the captain had called "Enter!" the door was opened and Lorenzo Lombardini strode back inside the utilitarian office.

"My wife has given me her full blessing. I'm in, Sir," he said even before he had returned to the conference table. Grinning, he shook first Captain MacPherson's then Meighan's hand. "She was all for it… I just had to promise her that I'd duck if we ever got into a dangerous situation!"

Grinning, Meighan reached out to thump her friend's shoulder. "And I'll make sure you keep that promise, pardner!"

"Excellent," Captain MacPherson said as he got up once more. "Officer O'Sullivan can fill you in on the details. Now if you'll excuse me… I have plenty of reports to take care of."

"Sir," Meighan said as she got up from the couch. After shaking the captain's hand, she strode out of the office with Lorenzo by her side. Back in the hallway headed for the elevators, she let out a tiny sigh of relief - it had the potential to be a tough job, but at least she had someone she could trust inherently as her right-hand man.

After pressing the call-button at the elevators, she turned toward her friend. "Okay, let me bring you up to speed. The Cap got the commander of the task force on the horn, and she told me what's expected of us. First, we need to report to the One-Two at eight tomorrow morning…"




October fourteenth had dawned clear, bright and calm. While it was a relief for most of the population of Carlyle to see the sun after the recent spell of heavy clouds and steady drizzles, many of the less-well off feared it: the change in the weather had brought a cold front with it that had seen the temperatures drop a handful of degrees over night.

Sister Angelica's many years of experience meant she knew how busy the warming shelters and even the Order's Communion House on Sunderland were going to be during such a cold snap, so she had come to work several hours early to assist the young nuns on duty. It had turned out to be a good decision since two of the seven shelters around the streets of Carlyle had already needed to close their doors for further guests.

Those in need of getting warm and seeing a friendly face would soon try the Communion House itself, so several soup pots were literally going full-steam in the barrack's kitchenette making vegetable soup, thick chicken broth and a Scandinavian specialty known as Skipper's Lobscouse - the latter consisted of ground beef, onions, potatoes, chopped tomatoes and bay leaves boiled in a pot for so long that it turned into a mash. It was a heavy dish, but it was nourishing and it was easy to chew for those unfortunate individuals who had lost their teeth. Bread would be delivered by the truckload from several of the local bakeries who had steady contracts to supply the shelters and the Communion House whenever the temperature dropped below a certain point.

At present, Sister Angelica was kneeling on the floor of the open office with the DECT telephone pinned down between her shoulder and her cheek while trying to get an electrical heating panel to spring to life. "No, it won't work," she said into the telephone. "I don't know what's wrong… I can press the button just fine, but unlike the four other panels, the button won't stay in. It just pops back out at once. No, there was nothing wrong with it yesterday. Yes… yes, that's right. You'll send someone over? Thank you very much. Goodbye," she said as she closed the connection and clambered to her feet.

The odd angle she had needed to press herself into to look at the reluctant heating panel suddenly came back to haunt her: her muscles and bones told her with a few, well-placed jabs of pain that they were most displeased with such activities. Moaning under her breath, she shuffled over to the desk to put the handset into the base station.

She had barely sat down on her swivel-chair when the front door opened and two men stepped inside; both pulled off a knitted commando-style cap after entering so they would not appear impolite. It was clear to see by their clothing, their weather-beaten skin, their unkept hair and their long beards they were among the homeless. The men, who both looked to be in their late-fifties or early-sixties, kept waiting by the door like they were unsure if they were even allowed to be at the Communion House when they were looking for neither counsel nor spiritual guidance. They leaned in toward each other to exchange a mumbled comment after clapping eyes on the nun by the desk.

Before Angelica could convince her aching body to head back into action, Sister Noëlle and Sister Heidi - two young Novices who had both been called in to provide assistance in what would undoubtedly be a busy period - came out of the back part of the barrack to greet the two mature men. Angelica was only too happy to let the younger nuns take over, so she pulled the swivel-chair closer to the desk to finally get the upper hand on the dreary paperwork that she was supposed to have finished the night before.


Things only grew busier after that. Sister Angelica spent nearly thirty-five minutes consoling and praying with a middle-aged Hispanic widow who only spoke very rudimentary English. The woman's daughter had come with her to act as a translator and to explain that they had lost her father to cancer two days before. It proved to be a difficult task for Angelica because of the language barrier, but her years of experience meant she knew what to say even if she was uncertain the recently-widowed woman had understood it all.

While the lengthy soul-supporting session was still underway, several other homeless individuals arrived at the Communion House looking for warmth and maybe a bite to eat. Food and hot drinks were plentiful, but the electrical heating panel still proved problematic - even despite the presence of an electrician sent out by the company that had originally installed the heaters. The young man grunted, cursed and grumbled as he remained unable to find the cause for the button to be so stubborn despite having the internal workings of the panel broken down into its basic components.

Angelica, Noëlle and Heidi had been joined by Sister Maureen to keep up with the demand; the latter two were in the kitchenette stirring the soup bowls while the former two were serving fresh buns, steaming hot broth and even hotter tea with milk or honey to those in need.

When Angelica came to the table the two elderly homeless men had chosen upon their arrival, she put down a fresh bowl of chicken broth in front of both of them. Plenty of pale-gray steam rose from the surface proving it was fresh and above all hot - just the thing for a cold October day. "Could I treat you gentlemen to another mug of tea? With honey, perhaps?" she said through a strained smile.

The two homeless men stared at Angelica's face that still carried faint black, blue and purple bruises although a full two weeks had passed since the attack. One of the men seemed to realize he was being intrusive so he looked away, but the other kept looking for a few seconds more before the aromas that rose from his broth proved more interesting. "Uh… Sister, me an' Charlie Two-Toes here never said no to tea an' honey…" the most polite of the two men said in a voice that carried a slur caused by years of heavy alcohol abuse, "but pardon me fer askin', Missy… uh, Ma'am… but are ya the nun who wus-"

Angelica's smile grew even more strained as she looked at the elderly man whose friendly eyes showed real concern. A short pause went by before she nodded and said: "Yes."

"It sure is a dirty, rotten world out there… an' it keeps gettin' more rotten by the day. I'm Bruce Larson… ev'rybody calls me Moose 'cos of my beard," the elderly homeless person said before he dug his spoon into the broth to get it while it was hot. Some of it ended up in his beard, but it seemed he was used to a few spillages because he made no attempt to wipe it off. "Me and Charlie Two-Toes here go around evry'where talkin' to a lotta people… we've heard from so many that homeless folks like us wus beaten up fer no good reason by them there knuckle-draggin' enforcers. And a nun too…"

Bruce 'The Moose' Larson dug in again. He seemed to be lost to the lure of the steaming hot broth, but just when Angelica moved away from the table to serve the others in the open office, the old gentleman spoke up again: "And it ain't just us but them there working girls as well. Ev'ry damn time one o' them wus beaten up, it's them same three basta- uh… uh… SOBs that wus responsible. But what do them cops do? Nuttin'. Absolutely nuttin'. They just be drivin' around in their fancy patrol cars an' eatin' their sticky donuts an' got no time for us decent folks."

Angelica froze in place before she could take but a single step away. She turned around in a hurry and pulled another chair over to be able to be at eye-level with the two homeless men. After lowering herself into it as gingerly as she could, she leaned forward and put a hand on the knee of Bruce's grubby pants. The elderly homeless man stared at it like he had not had a woman touch him for decades. "Bruce… I mean, Moose," Angelica said with a smile, "can you tell me anything about those three men? I suspect they're the same who attacked me."

'Moose' Larson was working his way through a mouthful of broth to get over the shock of having a female hand on his knee, so his pal Charlie Two-Toes took over. Whether or not he only had two toes was impossible to tell through his boots, but it was an undeniable fact that he only had very few teeth left. His hair and beard had been trimmed recently, and it looked like he had done so himself using a pair of gardening shears. As he spoke, his voice proved to be more cultivated than his scruffy exterior hinted at: "The three men are tall, ruthless, nasty sons of bitches… pardon the profanity, Sister. Real killers. I used to know a fella who had taken a life so I know what I'm talking about. They're drivin' around in a big, black sedan. One of those custom deals with black windows and chrome wheels. I'm afraid we ain't got their names or anything, but one is a bald black man, one is a curly-topped Latino and the last one is… maybe an Arab? Dunno. He's that kinda color. Not white. Kinda olive, you know what I'm sayin'?"

"I think I do. Go on," Angelica said, looking wide-eyed at the two men. Nearly all of the things she had done on the day of the attack had been wiped from her memory so Charlie's descriptions prompted no flashbacks or subconscious anxiety. Still, she stored the valuable new information in the hope it would eventually provide strong enough evidence so the perpetrators could be brought to justice for what they had done.

"Well, there ain't too much more… you got anythin', Moose?"

Bruce 'The Moose' Larson shook his head which sent droplets of broth from his beard and all over his dark clothes. He smacked, gulped and slurped his way through another spoonful before he could speak. "Naw… c'mon an' get some while it's hot, Charlie… this is great broth!"

Charlie Two-Toes broke a good chunk out of his bread before he reached for his spoon. He had already dug it into the soup bowl when he let out a grunt. "Just remembered somethin' more, Sister. Those three sons a' bitches work for the DiSorrento people. One of our friends told us that he had heard from someone else that they moved over from another Mafia family about a month ago… yeah, that's right. Moose, ya knew that too!"

"Yuh, but I wus eatin'," Bruce 'The Moose' said before he stuck a new spoonful of broth into his yap.

Angelica smiled at the exchange between the old, weather-beaten friends. "Thank you very much, Charlie… Moose. I appreciate it," she said as she got up from the soft chair. Once her body had recovered sufficiently for her to move anywhere, she left the two homeless men to enjoy their broth. Now she had more information about the three men who had attacked her, she needed to do something about it straight away. Instead of going back into the kitchenette to make the promised tea or get further bowls of soup for the others in the open office, she moved over to the desk - by literally stepping over the legs of the young man trying to fix the panel - and took her DECT phone.

The number for LuAnne Stevens, the journalist at the Carlyle Tribune, was soon punched in, but all Angelica got out of it was hearing an automated answering message. She waited for the traditional beep before she spoke: "Hello LuAnne, this is Sister Angelica. I have some new information regarding the three men that you might be able to use for something. Call me back when you can. Goodbye."

Grunting in disappointment over not having been able to speak to the journalist, she put the handset back onto the base station and moved into the center of the open office. Bruce 'The Moose' and Charlie Two-Toes were still eating; it was clear they were too polite to ask about the missing tea. A faint smile spread over Angelica's face as she moved into the kitchenette to make some for the two seasoned gentlemen - and they would get plenty of honey for their help.




"Crap… this is cold," 'Shady' Shaye LaSalle mumbled under her breath. Soon after, she thrust her gloved hands deep, deep down into the pockets of her hoodie that she wore over her double-layered insulated sweater and seven further layers of clothing. Her beloved beanie hat had been pulled down to cover her ears and even parts of her eyebrows. To confirm her words with regards to the low temperatures, a plume of steam wafted down the street.

Standing still only made the chill grow worse, so she abstained from doing so for any length of time - instead, she kept up a constant shuffle that saw her move one step to the left, then one step to the right, then two steps ahead, then two steps back. For the next pass of the continuous cycle, she took two steps left-and-right and only one ahead-and-back.

She and Jennifer 'Stilts' Mulroney had put up their Diamonds table on a small but elegantly styled square on West Nineteenth Street. Despite the freezing conditions, they had managed to lure in a sap who had already bet - and lost - seven dollars on the rigged game.

They shared the square with an elaborate fountain that had been turned off for the winter, two fire hydrants that were mostly used as urination posts for dogs, and finally a man in fluorescent clothing who earned his wages the hard way by carrying a sandwich-board over his shoulders. The advertisement on the sandwich-board offered a two-dollar discount at Bartoni's Baloney & Burger Bar if the customers could relay the secret password that happened to be printed on the rear-side of the board.

Stilts' cheeks and nose had long since turned frosty since her spot behind the table meant she could not shuffle anywhere. Her fingers were so cold she could hardly control the cards even wearing gloves; she was seriously considering letting the poor sap win a hand he was not supposed to so they could close the game and move to somewhere warmer.

The sap ran out of one-dollar bills before he ran out of interest, so Stilts was spared the ignominy of playing fair for a change. As the man shuffled off with eight fewer dollars in his pocket, the same eight bills were folded up and put into the strongbox used as a temporary cash register by the two street-hustlers.

"Step right up, folks!" Shady cried after she had thrust her right arm in the air in her traditional stance. As she went through her spiel, the steam that came from her mouth and wafted down the street was a sublimely ironic reminder that it was all just a load of hot air - "We have plenty of room for ev'rybody! The young, the old, the hot, the cold, the reluctant and, yes, the bold! Come this way, fair Ladies and Gentlemen! We welcome all and not just the fit. If you place a coin on our table, we promise to take good care of it. The rich can place two if they so desire, but it is a treat we do not require. One coin shall suffice… after all, you are more than welcome to play twice!"

When only the odd person among those present at the square could be bothered to cast but a fleeting glance at the table and the two hustlers, Shady let out another mumbled "Crap…"

"Shady…" Stilts whined through a nose that only needed another quarter of an inch to have frozen solid. "Can't we go someplace else now? Please? Pretty-please? Pretty-please with Harlequin sprinkles on top?"

Shady seemed to consider it for a few seconds while she looked everywhere for a new player they could get a few dollars out of. Although some people were near enough to see what was going on, the low temperatures meant that everyone hurried across the square looking to get inside before they turned into an icicle. "Step right up, folks! We have plenty of room for ev'rybody!" she tried again, but the second time of asking was even less successful than the first had been - now they were ignored by pretty much everyone at the small square.

Though Shady opened her mouth to continue her spiel, even the ever-optimistic hustler could see that she and her girlfriend had already lost that particular battle to King Frost and his countless, skin-nipping minions. "Yeah, all right, Cookie. How much have we made until now?"

"With this loot, thirty-two dollars," Stilts said and let out a sigh of relief that was carried away by the gentle breeze. She quickly packed the cards and put them into their protective box. Getting to her feet, she rolled up the tabletop and stuffed that, the camping chair and the plank of balsawood into her huge gym bag. She finished by handing the light-weight clothes-drier to Shady who pulled it up her shoulder at once.

"Eh… not too bad considering how damn cold it is. Let's go down to West Thirteenth," Shady said while she was already shuffling forward in an attempt to gain a head start from Stilts and her long legs. "I read on a community notice board somewhere they're having a street swap meet today. We might get lucky."


"Or we might get screwed over…" Shady said once they had reached West Thirteenth Street. Although the advertised street swap meet was in fact happening, only three tables had been put up where frost-resistant souls tried to get rid of some of their old junk - and nobody was around to even feign interest in said junk.

Far Eastern-inspired pling-plong music played from a pair of loudspeakers that had been put on the table of one of the makeshift booths; its theme seemed to be various kinds of kitchenware ranging from a mere thirty years old to near-ancient. The person sitting there minding the empty cash register was wrapped up so thoroughly to stay warm it was impossible to tell the gender, the age or even the ethnicity.

The items offered at the other two booths were only marginally better: one had a large collection of old pop and soft rock CDs by artists who had long since been forgotten by the fickle world of the music industry, and who had indeed never made it beyond the extreme outer fringes of popularity even when they had been hot and current - the empty plastic jewel cases would have a greater value than the discs contained within them. The final booth offered baby clothes, but the design was often so hopelessly out of date that 'retro' could not even begin to describe it.

"Now what?" Stilts said, adjusting the heavy gym bag so it would keep from trying to pull her thick winter coat off her shoulder.

Shady reached up under her beanie hat to scratch her fair mop. "Dunno, honeycakes. Damn," she said, looking at the sorry swap meet with her right hand ensconced on her hip - the left continued to hold the foldable table.

They looked at the three booths for half a minute or so before they both came to the same conclusion at the same time: it was a bust. "I don't think that even my mysterious and clairvoyant Mrs. Rhavenlocke could earn a buck in this crowd. And frankly, Shaye, I got no intention of finding out."

"Nah… this is beneath even our rock-bottom standards," Shady mumbled, staring at the items on offer in the kitchenware booth - half of them were faulty, missing pieces or just plain broken. The other half was of such consistently low quality that she had found better utensils in trash cans around town.

Speaking of which: when Shady's eyes caught a stack of newspapers that poked out of a nearby public garbage can, she shuffled over to it and began to rummage through the papers in the hope of finding one they had yet to read. "Neat, they're from today!" she said as she yanked the entire stack out.

The one on top was the Tribune, and although the front page had been torn in half, the rest could easily be read. While Stilts was busy shuffling back and forth to keep her legs and feet from freezing off, Shady took her time to thumb through the pages of the free newspaper. A grunt and a loud "Wouldya look at that!" suddenly escaped her. She had reached an article that mentioned the nun who had been beaten, and how that attack seemed to be connected to others around Carlyle. "Hello… listen to this, Cookie… remember the nun whose crucifix we found the other day?"

"Well, obviously…"

"Rodolfo told us she had been beaten and left for dead by these three creeps… well, it looks like those creeps are responsible for several other vicious beatings around town. Prostitutes mostly, but I guess nuns as well. Or a nun, anyway."

"They're a-holes. Like we already established."

"Undoubtedly, but… aren't you thinking what I'm thinking?"

"Unless you're thinking about going home to chow down a can of spaghetti and meatballs, I doubt it," Stilts said as she shuffled left-and-right and back-and-forth to stay warm.

Shady tore herself away from the fascinating article to shoot her tall girlfriend a blank look. "Huh? Spaghetti and meatballs? Last night, you said you never wanted to see another can of-"

"Whatever! I'm freezing my patootie off here, Shaye! Either we go someplace warm or we go home early. I'm not staying another minute out here," Stilts said; as she spoke, the solid plumes of white steam that burst from her mouth proved the temperature had continued to plummet though the starting point had already been low to begin with.

"I kinda like all your parts exactly where they are right now, that's a dog-gone fact, Pookie! I don't want you to lose any of 'em…" Shady said with a cheeky, lopsided grin playing on her lips. When Stilts seemed to be deadly serious about going home or at least going someplace warm, Shady stuck the free newspaper under her arm, pulled the light-weight table back onto her shoulder and began to shuffle off in a random direction. "Naw," she said after a short while, "I was thinking about a potential reward. For finding those three crooks and handing them over to the po-leese."

Stilts took exactly three steps - one for each of the crooks in question - before she came to a dead stop with her left leg suspended mid-step. It was only lowered to the ground when a large plume of steam left her mouth as she spoke. "Hold it right there, Shaye. Have you lost your marbles? You can't seriously be suggesting… or even thinking… that we, of all people, should morph into badass mamas and go chasing after psychopaths who beat up nuns?!"

"And homeless people, too."


"Sorry," Shady said with a chuckle. "Yes, that's exactly what I was thinking. And about to suggest for that matter tho' you beat me to it. Hear me out, okay? We're on our way home… you can listen to me yappin' for that long, can't you?"

"I guess," Stilts said and resumed her frost-and-shock-impaired shuffling to get back to their apartment.

"Thank you, darlin'. All right…" Shady said and pulled the clothes-drier further up her shoulder. She had already lost several steps compared to her girlfriend's longer stride, so she needed to up the pace just to slide in next to her. "Here's what I'm thinking we could do… not should, but could…"


After popping home to drink a lite beer and chow down an expired can of pea soup - Stilts had been serious the night before when she had said she would throw up if she had to eat more spaghetti and meatballs - the two hustlers were back on their beloved hunting grounds, namely the mean streets of Carlyle. For a change, they did not carry all their indispensable equipment but traveled lightly so they could zip out of a potentially threatening situation just as fast as they had stumbled into it.

Only an hour and ten minutes had gone by since the fiasco at the swap meet, but the temperature seemed to have dropped another degree at least. To combat King Frost's persistent nibbling attacks on everyone's toes, cheeks, noses and ears, they wore numerous extra layers of clothing which gave them both an odd, lumpy appearance - staying in fashion needed to take a back seat to staying warm under the current climatic conditions.

Moving south from their apartment on West Sixteenth Street, they kept up a good pace as they went past Fifteenth and Fourteenth Street. The pace was reduced when they reached Thirteenth Street, and it slowed down to hardly anything at all when they left the comfort of their home district behind to enter Scary World in the blocks south of the boundary.

West Twelfth Street's appearance was still civil, but there was no denying the clientele was different there. Because of the cold snap, few people wanted to spend time out on the street save for the occasional semi-hoodlum out walking a vicious fighting dog on a barbed-wire leash, but the cars parked by the curbs were old and rusty, and the brownish-gray, concrete tenement buildings that lined West Twelfth were less-well maintained compared to those in the bohemian district though the latter were in some cases older.

"We're in the Badlands now," Stilts said in a whisper as she moved along the sidewalk that saw its fair share of cracks, weed and stains of old bubblegum and even older animal excrements; she needed to convince her feet to move ahead or else they would turn around and make for home in half a heartbeat. "In Scary World. In the Dark Zone. In the Jungleground. I was headed for the darkest, most dangerous place in the world and I didn't even know it yet…"

"Uh… whut?" Shady said, having to do a double-take at the odd comments that came from her girlfriend.

"It's a quote from Apocalypse Now…"

"Oh. Okay." A few seconds went by in silence before Shady let out a snicker. "You might say we're headed for the Heart of Darkness, huh?"

"Shaye, do you consider this amusing?!" Stilts croaked while she had to take the long way around a large pile of dog poo.

"No, no, no, calm down, girl… calm down. I'm just trying to lighten the mood."


"My lips are zipped!"

Now and then, a souped-up Toyota Camry or Honda Accord occupied by young men wearing gang colors and mirror sunglasses drove past. Thunderous hip-hop blasted out of the windows that were all rolled down despite the chill. The familiar, sweet smell of cannabis wafted by each time one of those cars had gone past.

One of those gang-related drive-bys necessitated a quick detour for Shady and Stilts. When the four youths in the car seemed to notice, and then take an interest in, the two lumpy figures travelling along the sidewalk, the two women ducked behind a dumpster that had not only been smeared in graffiti but vandalized as well - three of the six hatches on top of the truck-sized garbage disposal unit had been yanked so far out of their hinges they were unable to close properly.

"This is nuts!" Stilts mumbled while she tore off her right glove to plug her nostrils with her cold fingers. When the emergency gesture failed to do anything about the indescribable stench that rose toward them from the dumpster and the surrounding area, she shook her head in despair - they might as well have taken their chances with the gang-members out on the street. "I'm nuts for going along with it… and you're nuts for even suggesting it!" she continued in a voice muffled by the plugged nostrils and the glove she held against her nose and mouth.

The people in the gang-mobile finally lost interest in playing hide and seek with the two strangers. As soon as the car drove off in a hip-hop assisted roar, Stilts jumped out of hiding and took several deep breaths to overcome the smelly ordeal.

"You could have said no," Shady said as she continued sneaking south from their makeshift hiding spot.

"I did say no! And then you said you'd go alone!"

Shady let out a guilty chuckle as she hurried ahead on the sidewalk. They went past a stripped-down hulk of a car that had been reduced to a rusty frame; several of the missing parts had been thrown onto the street behind it like it had been a jigsaw puzzle that someone had given up on.

They went past two more ten-story concrete tenements before they reached the corner of Thurston Street and West Eleventh. "This is where it gets serious," Shady said, pulling her taller girlfriend down toward her so she did not have to speak louder than a whisper. "We're here."

Stilts gulped as she looked up and saw the vandalized sign that had been bolted onto the wall of one of the tenement buildings. Two of the four corners of the intersection were home to bars: one looked like the number-one winter retreat for thugs, goons, muggers and crooks of all types, and the other looked even worse. "West Eleventh Street…" she croaked. "This is where the nun was attacked. Do you know where it was, exactly?"

"Are you curious to see it? I didn't think you'd be."

"No, I wanna avoid it like the frickin' plague!" Stilts whispered back; her voice briefly strayed into a register best known as 'hysteria.' "I've heard so many… so God-awfully many God-awful stories about this neighborhood… the people here are mean, they're nasty and they're up to no good!"

"Ah, I'll bet they say the same thing about us," Shady said and waved her hand.


The inevitable snicker came fast. "Sorry… no, seriously… let's head down West Eleventh. We may end up seeing something that could provide a clue. Okay?"

Stilts took a deep breath, held it for a few seconds and then watched it drift away as a cloud of steam. She nodded. "Okay… but I say we bolt like a pair of wild mares at the first sight of trouble. And that's non-negotiable!"

"Works for me, Cookie. Let's go."

Before the two hustlers could as much as set a foot onto West Eleventh Street, a pair of souped-up cars occupied by four gang-members each met in the middle of the intersection of West Eleventh and Thurston. A silver-gray Toyota Camry and a two-tone Chevrolet Caprice - the latter's colors were rust-brown and even rustier-brown; it already had a cracked rear window and several bullet holes down the quarter panels - rolled closer and eventually came to a halt next to each other. Two seconds later, insults were hurled back and forth between the people inside the cars in a home-grown mix of English and Hispanic.

It did not take a rocket scientist to figure out how that particular incident was going to end up, so Stilts let out a croaking "Ohhhhh shit! Shaye!" as she whipped her head around to find somewhere to hide. There were no dumpsters, no shrubbery, no fences and no discarded cardboard boxes anywhere they could use for cover. All they had at their disposal was a rusty, old shopping cart - but the holes in that were already so large a cruise missile could fly through unimpeded.

"I see 'em! Quick!"

"Where to?!"

"Across the street!" Shady said and flew up from a momentary crouch. Her short legs worked as drumsticks as she raced across Thurston Street headed for the first block of tenements on West Eleventh.

"This! Is! Nuts!" Stilts cried as she followed her girlfriend a split second later. Her longer legs meant she caught up with Shady at the exact moment that one-two-three-four-five oh-so-familiar cracks rang out across the street. "Now they're shooting at each other, those crazy motherfuh-"

The youths inside the Toyota and the Chevrolet either lost interest in the shootout or they ran out of bullets - either way, both cars suddenly roared away from the intersection in reams of smoke from the tires.

While all that frantic activity went on just thirty yards up the street, Shady and Stilts huddled up at the front door to the first stairwell of the first building on West Eleventh. Both panted hard as they waited for the inevitable police sirens to make an appearance.

When nothing further happened in the intersection and no sirens could be heard anywhere, they came out of hiding once more to glance up and down the dangerous street. "Well, I'll be good 'n darned," Shady said, reaching up under her beanie hat to give her blond mop a furious scratching. "No cops. No people looking out of the windows or coming onto the street… nothing."

"It probably happens twice an hour around here!" Stilts said in a screechy voice. "And now I'm going home like I said I would!" Moving out of the huddle she had thrown herself into, she shimmied hard to get the last of the creepies off her body; then she strode along the sidewalk headed for Thurston Street and ultimately the far safer shores of the bohemian district.

"But, Cookie! We're here now… shouldn't we at least take a look?" Shady said in a strong stage-whisper that she amplified even further by holding a hand next to her mouth.

"You can look! I'm going home!" Stilts said over her shoulder. Five steps along the stained sidewalk, she came to a halt and put her hands akimbo. Another plume of steam escaped her lips as she let out a long, tormented sigh. Then she turned around and shuffled back to her girlfriend in a most dejected fashion. "I only do this 'cos I love ya, Shaye. I hope you know that…"

"I know, Snookums. I appreciate it. And I love you too," Shady said and duly delivered a kiss on Stilts' cheek once the taller woman was close enough. "All right. Let's do what we do best… let's pull off a few classic cons and sleight-of-hand tricks and use 'em to talk to a few people. You know, a little role-playing. Then we can go home."

"Okay. It would be better if we knew what we were looking for, though…"

"True. Hmmm," Shady said and rubbed her chin. "Anything unusual. Anything out of the ordinary… anything that seems strange or atypical… hmmm. Anything unusual."

"You said that already," Stilts said flatly. "And besides… wake up and take a look around, Shaye! There isn't anything here that isn't unusual or out of the ordinary or just plain frickin' weird!"

"Also true. Hmmm. I'm wondering if we can't use that as an icebreaker… it's worth a shot."

Stilts shook her head. "I have zero idea of what it is you're trying to tell me. Zero."

"It's easier if I show ya. C'mon, let's try the next building first," Shady said and hooked her arm inside Stilts'.


"2441 West Eleventh Street… it was here… wasn't it here?" Stilts whispered. She stared wide-eyed at a spot on the cracked sidewalk in front of the concrete tenement building. Although the recent rain had washed away the last remaining physical traces, the jagged lines that cris-crossed the flagstones still carried a faint discoloration that could have come from being soaked in blood only two short weeks before.

"With the nun? Yeah. I think you're right," Shady said, taking a brief glance at the spot on the sidewalk before she looked up and down the street.

West Eleventh was still quiet, or at least as quiet as any side street in the busy metropole could ever be. The constant hum of distant traffic that wafted over from the nearby Belvedere and Sunderland Streets was so familiar to the ear it was only when the hum was broken by wailing emergency sirens that anybody paid any attention to it, and even then it barely registered.

In the zone south of the bohemian district, people minded their own P's and Q's and never stuck their noses in anyone else's business - it could be acutely detrimental to their health to even appear to be meddling; it took very little for fists, knives or bullets to fly. Thus, the few people who were present on the street all looked down at their shoes and kept on walking no matter what happened around them.

A slow-moving two-door sedan approached from the west, but the person driving it seemed to be a regular Joe or Jane looking for somewhere to park rather than more gang-members out for a nice, little afternoon shooting; it went past the two women without drama.

Stilts broke out in a full-body shiver at the implications of being so close to the spot where a woman had nearly lost her life due to the actions of three unhinged individuals - and there was a strong risk the same three unhinged individuals could pop up on the other side of one of the doors she and Shady were about to try. "This is nuts," she mumbled for the umpteenth time as she reached for the door handle to go inside 2441 West Eleventh.

The lobby of the stairwell reeked of hair lacquer, cat urine, sewage, cigarette smoke and an aspiring chef's home-cooked spicy chili casserole. Every wall was smeared in miles of lewd graffiti from the ceiling to the floor except for one, tiny spot: an orange warning note pinned to a message board just inside the door. It was issued by the company supplying the janitors for the tenements, and it said that all vandalism would be reported to the police. Shady broke out in a snicker when she read the note and then looked at the sorry state of the lobby.

Someone listened to wild, thunderous Death Metal somewhere further up the stairwell. Closer to the ground floor, someone else listened to a recording or a broadcast of a man reading from the Holy Bible's Old Testament in an angry, booming voice - the lyrics of the two messages were more compatible than generally believed.

"Where should we try first, toots? The fella with the Old Testament or the growler upstairs?" Shady said, pointing at the door from where the angry voice continued to boom out reading a dramatic passage.

"Eh… it's pretty much six of one, half a'dozen of the other, right? Let's try the religious one first," Stilts said and reached for a door bell that was on a panel next to the reinforced, fire-proof door. "There's only a last name on the small tag. It could be a woman."

"I think pretty much everybody here in the 'zone wishes to be anonymous. Hit it and let's see for ourselves."

Stilts nodded and pressed the small button. The booming voice stopped from one moment to the next; then the door was cracked open a single inch. It was held in place by four chains - two above and two below - that jingled and jangled as the door reached the stops. "Yes?" a voice said from beyond the narrow crevice.

"Good afternoon, Ma'am!" Shady said in her well-rehearsed saleswoman voice.

"I'm not a Ma'am, I'm a Mister," the disembodied voice said.

Shady was too experienced to miss but a single beat, so she cleared her throat and started over at once: "Good afternoon, Sir! My associate and I work for the Free Voice Of The World, and we're here to offer you a three-week subscription-"

"Sprout your leathery wings and fly back to hell, you demon spawn!" the person behind the door said - then it was slammed shut. Five seconds later, the Bible-reading was resumed at an even louder, angrier volume.

Shady stared at the closed door for a few moments before she broke out in a snicker. "Ooookay. You'd expect those religious types to have a cleaner vocabulary, huh? At least it was literary. I guess it's the Death Metal fella upstairs next."

"With our luck, it's probably a reincarnation of Charles Manson," Stilts mumbled as she set off on the long voyage upstairs.


After pressing the bell at the heavy-metal enthusiast's door on the fourth floor, Shady took a step back in case they needed to make a hasty exit. This time, the music was not paused when the door was opened - thus, the stairwell was filled with extremely loud Death Metal that created such a reverberating echo that the Surgeon General would have strongly advised against it had he been there.

The lyrics provided the first big clue for Shady and Stilts that they would get very little out of the owner of the apartment: the growling singer kept repeating the phrases 'We march! We fight! For the glory of the Reich!' in a guttural German. Through all that, drums and pounding, amplified guitars mimicked the sound of stomping boots.

Before Shady had time to open her mouth, a white woman in her mid-thirties appeared in the doorway holding an aluminum baseball bat. The woman wore hobnailed jackboots with silver laces, camouflage pants held in a black-and-white urban warfare pattern, and a dark-gray wifebeater undershirt that showed just how many White Brigade and other neo-nazi tattoos she carried on her arms, shoulders and neck. Her hawkish face was locked in a dark scowl that went well with the half-inch buzzcut she had on top and the SS and skull-and-bones symbols she carried on a metal necklace meant to resemble army-style dog tags. "The fuck ya want?" she growled as she offered the women outside her door a death glare that was perfectly synchronized with the aggressive music that streamed out of the apartment.

Shady needed to blink several times at the overwhelming sight - behind the woman, at least one similarly-dressed person was sitting in a couch headbanging to the tune being played. "Ah… howdy, Ma'am," she said in a put-upon, faux and highly fake Southern accent. As she spoke, she screwed an angelic smile on her face: "Me an' this here tall drink o' watah jus' moved in ovah yondah and we wus wonderin' if ya could lend us a cup o' that there brown sugah…?"

"Fuck off!"

The door was slammed shut with such force that dust trickled down from the ceiling.

"Ooookay," Shady said, scratching the side of her nose. She cast a single glance at Stilts that explained quite well they were better off leaving that particular apartment before the jackboot-wearing, baseball-wielding woman would return with a platoon of goose-stepping stormtroopers.

As they moved back down the staircase, she leaned over to bump shoulders with Stilts who seemed less than enthusiastic about the whole deal. "That went kinda well, huh? At least she didn't bash in our melons with that bat. I think we should try next door. We might have better luck there."

Stilts let out a long sigh on her way down the stairs. "Okay, one more. But then we head for home. I don't wanna be caught down here when dusk falls. The freaks might crawl out of the woodwork… and the daytime people are plenty freaky as it is."

"Deal, Cookie," Shady said and held out her hand palm-up so Stilts could slap it.


Once back on the street, the two hustlers shuffled along the filth-littered, cracked sidewalk to move onto to the next one of the tall, concrete tenement buildings that all possessed far less charm than Carlyle's traditional brownstones.

The weather had remained stable for the entire day which meant the autumn sun was still casting its bleak rays onto the Earth from its spot in the deep-blue October sky. As the afternoon progressed, the swirling winds seemed to pick up again after a calm day; the temperature was only going one way, and that was down.

The street was still as quiet as it could ever be. The occasional gang-related drive-by still took place, but the men commanding the souped-up cars seemed to have shifted their attention to be on the prowl for their opponents in the other gangs rather than the pair of street-hustlers who were on a mission of exploration.

A brand-new, black Lincoln Continental sedan featuring tinted windows and chrome wheels was parked outside the door leading to the stairwell at 2442 West Eleventh Street. Shady furrowed her brow at the sight. All windows were rolled up, and they were so dark it was impossible to tell whether or not anyone was inside. The engine had been turned off and the luxurious vehicle seemed to be stock-still, but she knew appearances could be deceptive. "A pimp-mobile… or drug dealers. Naw, scratch the second half… I've never met a pusher who didn't want to remain incognito. That's far too flashy for that."

Stilts eyed the car wearily before she leaned down toward her companion: "I think we should continue onto 2443, Shaye… that black car gives me the creeps."

"Sure thing, Snookie," Shady said with a grin. The very next second after delivering the message saw her sideswipe a tall, broad man who came out of the front door of 2442 West Eleventh Street just ahead of her.

The man - who was in his early thirties and who wore dark shoes and an expensive camel-hair overcoat over a dark business suit - let out a grunt of surprise and threw his right hand beneath the outer folds of his coat at once.

Stilts in particular - but Shady as well - drew in a quick gasp and jumped up on tip-toes. The man's hard face and no-nonsense body language proved he was the real deal, and it took some fast thinking by Shady to come up with the perfect response: "Whoops! Sorry there, Bubba… I guess I need a seeing-eye dog. Won't happen again. My, my how time flies… gotta go," she said before she grabbed hold of the petrified Stilts' sleeve to drag her out of there.

The man's dark hair was slicked back and his eyes were hidden behind pitch-black wraparound sunglasses. The square chin was covered by a stylish two-day stubble that gave him an extra shot of machismo. Though Caucasian, his complexion was olive in tone like he was from the Middle-East - or perhaps he had just spent a little too much time in a tanning bed. He seemed to realize the two women offered no threat to him despite the bumping incident, so he slowly withdrew his hand from inside the coat.

As Shady and Stilts scurried further down West Eleventh Street to get to the next stairwell before bullets would start to fly in their direction, they could sense the man was still observing them. Once they reached the front door, they hurried inside without ever looking back.

"Oh. My. God," Stilts croaked, leaning her forehead against the lobby's wall. Like all the other lobbies on West Eleventh and everywhere else in the so-called dark zone, it was impossible to find an inch of wall space that had not been smeared in graffiti. The lobby the two hustlers found themselves in was particularly impressive: it appeared someone had simply taken a bucket of left-over paint and had thrown it all over the walls and parts of the floor. "My life flashed before my eyes… and you know what? I hated every second of it!"

"Yeah," Shady said, furiously rubbing her brow. "That dude wasn't a pimp. No way. So I guess he really coulda been a drug dealer."

"More like a drug lord!" Stilts said in a croaking voice.

Shady nodded; she gulped down a large lump that had formed in her throat. "Either that or a big-time mobster. Man, he gave me the creeps… "

The stairwell was as smelly as the first one they had tried, but it proved to be easier on the ears of the two hustlers. Although someone watched TV somewhere in the vicinity, it sounded like a regular news station and not a more extreme form of entertainment. Further up, someone let out the occasional laugh which was a rare sound to find in any part of Carlyle south of the bohemian district.

Red-and-white police demarcation tape marking it as a crime scene had been put on the door of the first apartment Shady and Stilts came across, so there was no point in trying to push the bell there. Countless drops of a dark-red, dried substance that resembled blood were scattered all over the door and the wall adjacent to the handle.

While Stilts performed a full-body shimmy-shimmy-shake from being near yet another dramatic spot, Shady ventured up the first flight of the staircase. Not only was the stairwell quieter than the other one, it appeared to be better kept as well - and if the residents took greater care of the building they lived in, it could mean they were more on the level than the first few had been. "Pssst, Stilts… Honeycakes, come up here, whydon'tcha? I think you should try this one… it might take your mind off that fella…"

Stilts let out a long sigh but eventually climbed the stairs to get up to Shady's spot. Once she was at the first door where they wanted to try to establish contact with the strange local residents, she reached for the bell and screwed a smile on her face - unfortunately, the smile faded at once when the door was opened.

Although the person facing her did not appear to be a neo-nazi, a dangerous gangster or indeed possess any other kind of aggressive mentality, Stilts' voice turned to a croak as a result of her nearly swallowing her tongue.

It was a gray-haired woman in her late sixties - so far so good. She had bare feet in bathing slippers and wore a princess-pink jogging suit where the ribbing at the wrists and the ankles had turned black from a lack of washing. That was somewhat off-putting in itself, but where the entire deal really went off the rails for Jennifer 'Stilts' Mulroney was the startling sight of the two large parrots that crawled all over the woman's shoulders and head.

The huge, exotic birds had yellow beaks and pale-green feathers; they looked like they had been imported directly from the Brazilian rainforest. Crowing, cackling and chattering loudly, the parrots threw their heads and flapped their large wings at the sight of the two women by the door - it only made Stilts even more startled.

"Can I help ya?" the woman said. As she moved her mouth to speak, it was revealed she only had a few teeth left. Further crowing, cackling and chattering could be heard from inside the apartment proving she had more than just the two prime specimens of the feathery kind.

"Good afte-" - Stilts needed to clear her throat to even croak - "Good afternoon, Ma'am. My associate and I belong to the Church of the Wayfaring Apostles. We would like to ask if you would care to donate a dollar or two to the cause?"

"The Church of the what? Never heard of ya. A couple o' bucks… yeah, why not," the woman said; the wide gaps between her remaining teeth meant false air escaped as she spoke - it created an odd hissing sound. She smacked her gums for a few seconds before she turned around to get her wallet.

Now Stilts did in fact choke on her tongue, and she needed to take several deep breaths in order to quell the unpleasant surge that threatened to break free from her diaphragm and burst to the surface. The back of the woman's princess-pink jogging suit was covered in white bird droppings. Stilts had no intention of revisiting the delicious pea soup she'd had for supper, so she clenched her jaw hard and tried to think positive thoughts.

Even Shady had been rendered unable to speak - she just stared wide-eyed at the horrendous sight. Absentmindedly, she reached up to give Stilts' back a whole slew of comforting pats.

When the filthied woman returned to the door holding four one-dollar bills, Stilts and Shady made sure to bow several times to show their appreciation for the newest member of the Church of the Wayfaring Apostles.

The second the door was closed, Stilts broke out in yet another full-body, and completely silent, shimmy-shimmy-shake - this one needed to be three times as long as the others put together to be effective.

While Stilts shimmied and shook like a belly dancer on a hookah-rush, Shady counted the money, folded up the bills and stuck them into a pocket while sporting a wide grin. "Money don't stink," she whispered to her shimmying girlfriend. "One more apartment and then we'll go home. I promise."


The last door beckoned; Stilts' hands had only just stopped trembling from the awful sight downstairs, but she managed to find and hit the door bell. When the door was opened, she wished she had been unable to carry out the task.

An unshaven, furry-haired man in his mid-forties greeted them wearing a baby-blue bathrobe. The scents that wafted out of the apartment were a mix of bourbon, stale sweat and something that could best be described as cabbage or onion soup cooking on the stove - either that or he was steam-laundering his dirty socks.

When he noticed his guests were two women in their prime, he hurriedly loosened the bathrobe's knot and pulled the whole thing aside revealing that he was wearing a cheeky grin and nothing else. The man's dangly bits soon grew less dangly, but Shady and Stilts had already exited stage-left at full speed by then.


Down on West Eleventh Street, Shady rubbed her eyes once, then once more, then a final time for good measure's sake. "Okay… I didn't need to see that. Holy crap, I didn't need to see that…"

"I didn't need to see that birdlady with all the… oh, Gaaaawd!" Stilts croaked, wiping her own eyes.

Despite the constant setbacks they had encountered while carrying out their supposedly clever plan, Shady had to let out a chuckle as they began to shuffle west on the dangerous street to get back to their home turf before dusk fell. The black Lincoln sedan had driven off in the meantime so they did not need to keep an eye out for any potential gangsters - even the gang-members out cruising the streets stayed away for a change. "So you're saying you didn't mind seeing Mister Dillweed's-"

"I can live seeing a peener… but not shit. Not birdshit. Not birdshit down someone's back… oh-fer-Chrissakes!" Stilts croaked, once more needing to shimmy hard as she tried to wipe the horrific images from her mind. "We… we need to stop at a convenience store, Shaye. I need a can of strong beer… real strong! And then I need to chug it down in one go so I'll go blotto the rest of the evening and night…"

"Awww! Sounds good 'cos then I can tuck you in and snuggle up close all night long." Snickering, Shady put her arm inside her girlfriend's as she led the super-sensitive Lady back home to the bohemian district where they belonged - by way of a convenience store to fulfil her wish.




The morning of October fifteenth.

Meighan O'Sullivan let out a highly descriptive grunt as she drove an unmarked Ford Crown Victoria off Burstow Street and onto West Seventh. She and Lorenzo Lombardini had both taken part in the regular seven-AM morning roll call up in the One-Three on West Twenty-second before they had headed south for the first day of their special assignment - as expected, some of their heckling colleagues had given them a little good-natured needling for brown-nosing the higher-ups while others had expressed an interest in joining as well just to get away from Sergeant O'Halloran and his occasionally inane jokes.

They continued to wear their regular black winter uniforms like Commander Shulmann had told them to, but the white-and-pale-blue cruiser had been swapped for a charcoal-gray squad car to avoid having one of the patrol cars tied up at a precinct house it did not belong to.

"Boy, you can say that again," Lorenzo said as a late response to Meighan's colorful grunt. He shook his head at the sorry sight that presented itself through the windshield. "It hasn't changed a damn bit… or if it has, it's for the worse!"

The police station on West Seventh Street was located almost at the heart of the neighborhood that had the second-worst record when it came to crime of all kinds - only Skid Row was lower on the list. The zone's poor placing in just about every crime statistic ever produced in and around Greater Carlyle was reflected in the unfortunate fact that even the station house itself needed a horrendous amount of protection just to remain free of graffiti and other types of vandalism. The windows on the lower floors were covered in metal bars or grating, and huge patches of dense, thorny bushes had been planted between the sidewalk and the building to stop anyone from getting too close.

The only entrance to the precinct house at street level was through a windbreak that was equipped with a slow-moving revolving door where several electronic gadgets performed multi-level, multi-frequency, multi-everything scans of the visitors using it. Beyond the first scans, all non-uniformed visitors had to pass through not one but two metal detectors to make sure nobody would slip through the defensive lines with weapons, explosives or spray cans. The metal detectors were manned by the tallest, beefiest officers at the One-Two to persuade all potential assailants to give up their plans before they could be brought to life.

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph… look at that. I wonder where they put the barbed wire fences and the machine gun pillboxes?" Meighan said in a voice that only carried a slight tinge of irony. She craned her neck to gawk at the setup while they trickled past the heavily fortified station house.

"They probably come out for Halloween…" Lorenzo said and let out a dark chuckle.

Meighan turned onto a small, unnamed alley that led directly to the One-Two's underground motor pool. Once they had driven down the same kind of steep slope found at nearly all of Carlyle's police stations, it was old-home week for both of them as nothing had changed down there in the years they had been away from their old haunt.

The motor pool still had the same light fixtures in the ceiling that painted everything in a dim, gloomy orange light. Suffocating exhaust fumes still plagued the underground garage because the fans that were supposed to deal with the fumes had never been powerful enough to actually clear the air. That unfortunate fact had been discovered the day after they had been brought into operation in May of 1962, but everybody had claimed not to be responsible so nothing had ever been done about it. To cap off all the glumness, it seemed the concrete deck still carried the same, ancient oil smears that had been there years, if not decades, earlier.

Meighan and Lorenzo shared a knowing look before they each let out a dark chuckle as they exited the Crown Vic. They both carried a manila folder holding their temporary transfer papers that needed to be shown to the desk sergeant. After striding over to the inner entrance, it came as no surprise to either of them that they had to go through yet another metal detector to be let in.


Once inside the One-Two precinct house itself, the experienced officers strode through a couple of busy hallways to get to the watch desk so they could announce their arrival to the sergeant on duty. The lobby and the floor space in front of the watch desk was perhaps even busier than the equivalent area up north in the One-Three; even at ten to eight in the morning, it saw a swarming hive of people who all wanted something, and most of them at the same time.

Their uniforms meant they were called to the desk out of line much to the vocal displeasure of several of the people they had jumped ahead of. More than a few curses were sent their way, and in at least five different languages besides English. The desk sergeant could not care less about the moaning that came from the people waiting; when he saw the uniformed colleagues, they were waved closer at once. He was - as most in the Carlyle Police Department - a large, broad-shouldered, ruddy fellow of Irish descent.

Meighan and Lorenzo handed the gruff-looking sergeant the paperwork they had been carrying. The veteran examined it for a short minute before he doodled his signature on the files and handed them back to the uniformed officers. "Fifth floor," he said in a voice that had grown permanently hoarse from needing to yell to be heard over the constant racket. "Ya can't miss the office… it says ANOCRITA on the door. What a load of…" he continued, rolling his eyes - there was no need to ask what he felt of the acronym.

"Thank you, Sergeant," Meighan said and strode her way through the crowd to get to the wooden staircase at the far end of the lobby. Unlike the building housing the One-Three up on West Twenty-second Street, the interior of the old hovel on West Seventh had never been renovated since its official opening in 1962 so there were no elevators.


Upstairs, they soon strode down a hallway that was so similar to all the others that getting lost was a real possibility. Everything was held in shades of gray, even the light cast down from the lamps in the ceiling - only every other fixture worked, but whether or not they were simply faulty or if it was done on purpose to save a few cents on the power bill was hard to say.

The door to the conference room was soon found. Like the watch sergeant had said, a letterbar spelled out 'Anti-Organized Crime Task Force (ANOCRITA).' Everything seemed quiet at, and even behind, the door though the clock had already moved up to five minutes to eight. Meighan let out a grunt and tried the handle; when she could depress it without problems, she let out an even louder grunt.

"I guess it's not breaking and entering when the door's unlocked, huh?" Lorenzo said with a grin. Knocking on the doorjamb, he let Meighan push the door open before he stuck his head inside to say: "Good morning… anyone in here? Nope. It's empty," he said as he pulled back out.

"Hit the lights… we need to see if it's even the right office," Meighan said, pointing at the light switch that Lorenzo stood next to. When the strip lights came on, it was soon revealed that it was indeed the correct office.

A group of rectangular tables had been set up next to each other to form a square-cornered horseshoe - the tables were empty save for a few writing pads and the odd ball point pen. A desk, that had a swivel-chair behind it, was placed at the far end of the horseshoe so that everyone could see it no matter where they sat. Two food carts on wheels were lined up just to the right of the door; each cart carried orderly piles of mugs, plates and napkins along with several red and white thermos' containing coffee and hot water for tea. The best part seemed to be a pair of cardboard boxes just big enough to hold donuts.

The far end of the horseshoe-shaped group of tables saw a tall, wide whiteboard where someone had drawn a thorough and highly detailed chart of some kind of organization. A fat box at the very top that only contained a single name undoubtedly represented the spider at the center of the web. The further down the chart went, the smaller the boxes became. At the bottom of the food chain, some of the names listed did not even have a box around them.

While Lorenzo concentrated on the thermos' and the promising cardboard boxes that turned out to deliver plenty of late-breakfast yumminess by holding colorful slices of Danish, Meighan shuffled over to the whiteboard to study the names that had been written on it. Some were familiar from the news and the roll calls, some were new to her. Some were just an X or a question mark, and they intrigued her the most. One of them was Bogdan Marinescu, the unfortunate enforcer who had ended his life in a fiery inferno up on West Seventy-fourth Street a few days back.

"Hey, Meighan… the Danish look great and the coffee's pretty good if you want some," Lorenzo said after he had performed a tiny test-sip of the dark-brown liquid. After the excruciatingly bitter - literally - experience the day before, he was not about to chug down anything before exposing it to a ten-step evaluation program.

"Yeah… thanks, buddy. Maybe later. Save a Danish for me, though," Meighan said over her shoulder.

"Will do," Lorenzo said as he opened the second cardboard box from the local bakery and found a good, solid one with pink raspberry frosting. He stuffed it into his mouth at once before he found one with chocolate frosting. After closing the lid of the box, he took a pair of napkins and shuffled over to his patrol partner to hand her the sugary treat.

"Thanks," Meighan said as she began to chew on the fresh, runny pastry. Her eyes never left the chart even as she chewed, and it began to dawn on her that she had perhaps found her niche. The chart and the names written inside the various boxes intrigued her to such a degree her heart rate picked up. A sensation began to roll around inside her that she had not felt for years in connection with police work: she was excited just to be there, and she was even more excited to get to work on something that was on a far larger scale than the pickpockets, drunkards and drugged-up prostitutes she dealt with shift-in, shift-out back home in the One-Three.

"Ah, I see you've found our breakfast," a female voice said from the doorway. Lorenzo hurriedly gulped down the final bite of his loot to cover his embarrassment at being caught red-handed, but Meighan played it cool - she felt zero remorse for digging in while it was there. Turning away from the whiteboard, she assumed a neutral expression and briefly studied the woman who had entered the office.

She was in her late-thirties and wore sensible shoes and a stylish though subdued business set consisting of slacks and a blazer jacket in a color best described as dusty teal. The jacket covered a blouse held in a dark shade of burnt-orange; the color was a good match to the gold shield she had around her neck on a metal chain that identified her as a plain-clothes detective. Her dark-brown hair was held short which gave her a boyish appearance, though it was ultimately defeated by the twin peaks in her blouse. She had brown eyes that were set well in a face that seemed to hold years of experience maintaining a neutral and highly professional facade.

Meighan finished off her slice of Danish with the chocolate frosting in good time; then she wiped her fingers on the napkin so she would not leave any sticky residue behind on the detective's hand. "We have," she said with a cool grin as she moved ahead while extending her hand. "Hello, I'm Meighan O'Sullivan. This is my patrol partner Lorenzo Lombardini. We're on loan from the One-Three."

"Oh, I know," the woman said as she shook hands with Meighan. After giving the tall woman in front of her a fair-sized once-over, she shot a sideways glance at Lorenzo like she was somehow disappointed in the way he had reacted to her arrival. "We spoke over the telephone yesterday. I'm detective first-class Stefana Shulmann, the commander of this unit. Welcome to the Anti-Organized Crime Task Force. ANOCRITA for short."

"Thank you, Commander. I should have recognized your voice."

Shulmann let out a brief chuckle. "Perhaps you should. I must admit I like your style, Officer O'Sullivan. You might say I caught you in the act, but you played it cool, calm and collected. That's the kind of officer I need on my team." As Commander Shulmann spoke, she once more sent a brief glance in Lorenzo's direction. Though she said nothing with regards to his reaction, it was obvious she considered it less than worthy of her team.

Meighan and Lorenzo exchanged a brief look as well while the Commander moved over to the nearest food cart and poured herself a mugful of coffee. Lorenzo's jaw moved like he was already regretting accepting the assignment, so Meighan tried to support him by flashing him a reassuring smile.


Ten minutes past eight, twelve plain-clothes detectives - six women and six men - occupied every chair around the horseshoe-shaped table save for the two that had been reserved for their uniformed colleagues.

Once the usual off-duty chitter-chatter had been dealt with, Commander Shulmann tapped a pile of paperwork into order before she rose from her chair. "All right. Let's get started. As you can see, we're joined this morning by two officers from the One-Three who both have hands-on experience with the particulars of this precinct. Patrol officers Meighan O'Sullivan and Lorenzo Lombardino."

"Ah, that would be Lombardini, Ma'am," Lorenzo said.

All twelve detectives turned to gawk at the newest members of the task force - Lorenzo blushed but Meighan just grinned and offered her temporary colleagues a cool wave.

"I beg your pardon. Lombardini," Commander Shulmann continued without missing a beat - it almost appeared like her slip of the tongue had been deliberate. "As you all know too well, most of the people operating on the fringes of the criminal world aren't happy to talk to plain-clothes detectives, especially those they don't already know, so our uniformed colleagues are to be the task force's eyes and ears at the grassroots level. Once again, welcome aboard. We don't have time to make personal introductions so you'll have to do that later on."

"Thank you, Commander," Meighan and Lorenzo said as one.

"Oh, you're welcome. Let's hope the additional brainpower will produce some tangible results," Stefana Shulmann continued before she turned to the first of her regular plain-clothes detectives who sat to her right. "It's time to go around the table. Detective Thorpe, give us an update," she continued before she sat down again.


After all twelve detectives had provided a verbal, and in some cases verbose, report on their particular field of the large-scale investigation - some had made good progress, some had yet to make a breakthrough, and some had experienced a setback that had cost them a few days at the very least - it was time for the commander to bring the two uniformed officers up to speed by going through a multimedia presentation of what the task force was up against.

Moving with efficiency, Stefana Shulmann plugged a laptop into the office's integrated audio/visual system so the text, images and video clips that resided on the portable computer could be shown on the smooth wall behind her. In the ceiling, a hidden projector clicked and whirred before it moved down into a position where it could show the various data provided by the link.

"Officer O'Sullivan," the commander said as she reached into one of her blazer jacket's pockets to retrieve a short metal cylinder. As she continued, she extended the cylinder that was revealed to be a telescopic pointer: "you studied our whiteboard with great interest when I arrived. How much experience do you have with the DiSorrento crime syndicate and the members thereof?"

Once again, Meighan cast a brief glance at Lorenzo who seemed somewhat miffed at being given such a cold shoulder by the leader of the task force even though he had been asked specifically to be there. "Some, Commander Shulmann. Officer Lombardini and I have had the occasional run-ins with the various street-level foot soldiers of the organization, mostly in connection with arrests for drug dealing, debt collecting and prostitution. Hardly any were willing to shed any light on the rest of their syndicate, and those who were just gave us a well-rehearsed runaround."

"That's a good answer, Meighan. Oh, I hope you don't mind I use your first name…?" Stefana Shulmann said while a hopeful smile played on her lips.

"Not at all, Commander," Meighan said to underline the fact that she would continue to keep a far more professional distance even if her superior did not. A furrow appeared between her eyebrows when she suddenly realized the senior investigator was flirting with her. Flirting had its place, but not at work, and certainly not while working on such an important assignment.

Though Stefana Shulmann smiled back at her, it was less genuine than it had been only moments earlier. To get back on track, she turned to her laptop and found the first image of her presentation. "Dorothy Lorraine DiSorrento," she said, whipping the pointer at the image that filled out most of the wall behind her. "The undisputed leader of the syndicate. Has never been challenged by anyone in or outside of the organization. Her name sounds like someone who should be selling hot apple pies at summer fairs, but she is as cold and ruthless as they come. In fact, the department's profilers have classified her as showing certain psychopathic tendencies."

Meighan studied the photo that showed Dorothy DiSorrento moving from a black limousine and over to the door of one the organization's countless properties somewhere in Greater Carlyle. The syndicate kept an abundance of multi-purpose warehouses in their portfolio to cover any eventuality, but even entire apartment buildings were owned through companies that were mere fronts for the DiSorrento organization.

Though it was a candid that had been snapped using a telephoto lens from a fair distance - no one in their right mind would want to get anywhere near Dorothy DiSorrento with a visible camera - the image caught her hard expression well. One of her black-clad goons was nearby, and it looked like she was chewing him out over something he may or may not have done. Whatever else, the photo illustrated that she was not to be messed with.

Commander Shulmann moved back to the laptop to bring up the next series of images and brief video clips. One after the other, the senior members of the syndicate were cavalcaded like the contestants of a perverted reality-TV show. Some showed up in blurry black-and-white photos while others were shown in hi-resolution, hi-definition video. Far from being low-brow thugs, they were all distinguished gentlemen who could pass for being attorneys, doctors or even politicians - and in some cases, they actually were.

The hands-on people came next, and now the photos did show low-brow thugs and hoodlums: the various Capos and goon-squad captains were presented in color or crisp black-and-white. There was more than one familiar face scattered among them, and Meighan and Lorenzo both let out several grunts of recognition when an ugly mug appeared that they'd had some business with.

At the end of the run-through, all DiSorrento's regular street-level enforcers and foot soldiers were shown - most of those pictures were mug shots from their countless previous arrests. All but a select few of them represented the very definition of thugs, goons, hoodlums and bare-knuckle bruisers who had lived hard lives. Stony faces, dead eyes, cauliflower ears, flat noses and poorly healed scars were so common it was easier to notice when a face was free of such negative attributes.

Meighan noted that the eyes of one young female foot soldier in particular were so far out of focus that she had to have been tripping when the photo had been taken; the image was one of the few that was not a mug shot from a previous arrest - instead, it was a screen capture from a security camera at the Carlyle Grand Central Station where she seemed to be working as a pickpocket.

"These sorry-looking men and women here," Commander Shulmann said as she tapped the tip of the pointer against the wall, "are merely cannon fodder. They literally go first whenever problems arise with rival syndicates or would-be gangsters trying to make a name for themselves. To prove my point, here's Bogdan Marinescu… he's the one who got roasted up on West Seventy-fourth Street the other day." She turned around to study the mug shot of Bogdan's aggressive, mastiff-like face for a short while. Letting out a dark chuckle, she turned back to the members of the task force. "This was the 'before' pic. I'll spare you the one labeled 'after.' "

The detectives as well as Meighan and Lorenzo all let out dark grunts or chuckles that matched the commander's. Everyone sitting at the table had stared into the hideous visage of death numerous times in their careers; for people working in law enforcement, it was impossible to avoid. Death through old age or other natural causes, acute illnesses, accidents, fires, suicides, murders - they had experienced it all.

While the somber thoughts of their own previous encounters with death rolled through the assembled detectives and officers, Stefana Shulmann's smartphone rang down in her pocket. "This is Commander Shulmann. Speak up," she said as she slid her rear onto the corner of the desk. "Mmmm… I see. Very well. Any usable prints? Well, all right… I suppose that would have been too much to ask for. All right. Yes. Thank you for the update."

Terminating the call, she put the telephone back into her pocket before she manipulated the laptop's mouse to ready the next set of images. "That was the boys over in the tech department. The stolen silver crucifix that was recovered yesterday has been dusted for prints. It was clean. Meighan and Officer Lombardino, you may- Oh, I'm sorry… Lombardini. You may not be fully in the loop, so here's the basics. We were contacted by a pawn shop owner over on Sunderland after someone had tried to pawn off the crucifix without knowing its worth."

"Which pawn shop owner, Commander?" Meighan said.

"A Mr. Santo Domingo. Are you familiar with him? When Detective Thorpe picked up the crucifix yesterday, Mr. Santo Domingo was there alone. He claimed he had been unable to persuade the person who had tried to pawn it off to wait for us to show up."

"We know him," Meighan said and looked at Lorenzo who nodded. "He's on the level. There's no funny business in his shop, that's a fact."

"Mmmm. I'm not convinced," Shulmann said and broke out in a one-shoulder shrug, "but I suppose that's why we invited in uniformed officers. All right… when we're done with the presentation, I want your first job for the task force to be to drive over to the pawn shop and try to get some more information out of Mr. Santo Domingo. Sounds like someone needs to jog his memory with regards to the identity of the mysterious person off the street."

Meighan narrowed her eyes down into blue slits; acting as someone's uniformed muscle was not on her job description, especially not against someone who had helped the Carlyle PD more than a dozen times over the years. "Yes, Commander," she said in a cool tone of voice.

Even if Stefana Shulmann had noticed the cool brush-off, she was too professional to let it show. "Thank you. All right, let's move onto these three darlings," she said as she clicked the mouse to activate the next part of the presentation. Stepping aside, she smacked the pointer against the wall. A trio of fuzzy images from security cameras taken during various heists or other criminal operations in a major port city on the eastern seaboard was shown. The blurry images were not easy to make out, but they showed an olive-toned Caucasian, a curly-haired Latino and a bald African-American.

The commander studied the photos for a moment before she turned to the members of the task force: "These men arrived in Carlyle just shy of a month ago. Their previous employer was Don Salvatore Coluzzo and his branch of the Italian Mafia. I'm sure you've heard of him, Officers. These three freelancers are presently working for DiSorrento. They received no fanfare or welcoming parade, but their presence was felt from the get-go like rats carrying the plague. They've caused so much fear and suffering among the prostitutes working the streets since their arrival they're someone to keep a close eye on. Avi Weissman, Joaquín de la Cruz and Shawn King," Commander Shulmann said, smacking the telescopic pointer against each blurry image in succession.

Now Meighan's eyes really grew narrow; it proved not to be enough so she scrunched up her face as well. Next to her, Lorenzo let out a surprised grunt. It was painfully obvious that the three men - Weissman, de la Cruz and King - were those three nameless individuals mentioned in the newspaper article that had made Sergeant O'Halloran so riled up at the roll call the day before. Although the journalist had been unable to uncover their names or much information on them in general, she had connected them to multiple attacks on sex workers, their pimps and even the nun in the short period they had been in Carlyle. "Commander," Meighan said as she thrust her hand in the air, "those images are too blurry to be of much use to anyone, but if their names are already known to this task force, may I ask why the hell an APB hasn't been put out on them? Or better yet, why their names haven't been made public in print and on TV? Someone will know them-"

"Because we don't know why they're specifically targeting the prostitutes, Officer O'Sullivan," the commander said in a voice that had turned just as cool as Meighan's. The use of the title rather than the name had not gone unnoticed among the detectives, and several of them shuffled around uncomfortably in their seats. "We need to work out the connections before we can do anything that will jeopardize the rest of the operation. And besides, the underworld is scared stiff of these three men. They're brutal, ruthless… stone cold killers. Nobody's talking. If we lean too hard on these three darlings, they'll just pack up and relocate to another syndicate somewhere else. We're here to bring down Dorothy Lorraine DiSorrento and her entire organization. We'll get these three eventually, but we need to take it from the top down."

'Eventually' was not enough to satisfy Meighan. Crossing her arms over her chest, she leaned back in the chair and shot a cool glare at the commander and the three fuzzy, blurry images that continued to be displayed on the wall. To a veteran beat cop like her, removing the immediate dangers from the streets of Carlyle and thus reducing the strain on the regular people living there was a far nobler cause than bringing down the entire DiSorrento syndicate that had already been operating for years - if one thing led to the other, all the better, but first things first.

Now that she knew the names of the three goons, she would see to it personally that they would be exposed and brought to justice through old-fashioned police work. It would be sublimely idiotic of her to jeopardize what the task force had accomplished so far by leaking the information to the public - not to mention that it would torpedo her future career - so she would just have to find a few underworld strings to pull that might flush them out.

The cold front that had suddenly developed between Commander Shulmann and the tall, uniformed Officer O'Sullivan swept through the assembled detectives and created an embarrassed, awkward silence in its wake. Lorenzo chuckled under his breath as he cast a sideways glance at his patrol partner and the sour look on her face. "Ma'am," he said, putting his hand in the air, "do we know if the attacks on the homeless have also been perpetrated by these three men? The journalist in the Carlyle Tribune seems to think so."

"For once, the journalist doesn't have her facts straight," Stefana Shulmann said in a voice that had grown just a little warmer. "Those beatings have all been done by DiSorrento's regular enforcers. We haven't looked too closely at those incidents, but if I'm to make a guess, I'd say they are looking for someone specific among the homeless. It's unrelated to the big picture."

"I see. Thank you," Lorenzo said; he glanced at Meighan again whose mood did not seem to have improved a great deal.

Commander Shulmann grunted as she moved back to the laptop and clicked around in a few menus. The three faces on the wall behind her were replaced by the regular Windows background; then she shut off the projector that whirred back up into its upper stop. "All right. That's it for now. Let's focus on the tasks at hand. You all know what to do. Officers O'Sullivan and Lombardini, like I said before… I want you to drive over to Sunderland Street and speak to Mr. Santo Domingo. Seeing a pair of the city's finest in his pawn shop may make him remember who his friends are."

Lorenzo nodded as he got up from the chair. He cast yet another brief glance at his patrol partner whose face continued to hold an expression that said she had just bitten into a tart lemon after expecting a sweet orange. "Will do, Commander. Do we need to come back here at a set time to give you an update, or…?"

"No, Officer Lombardini," Stefana Shulmann said coolly. "I expect the members of my task force to work autonomously. We only meet for the daily eight-AM briefings. I had thought you would know that."

The polite smile remained on Lorenzo's face though it turned strained at the corners of his mouth. "Very well. Thank you, Ma'am," was all he could come up with.

Meighan sighed under her breath as she got up from the chair - in less than half an hour, all the excitement that had built up inside her from seeing the chart featuring the people in the DiSorrento organization had been completely and utterly annihilated.


At least the good, old streets of Carlyle did not disappoint. Frustrating at the best of times, infuriating at the worst, the congestion was as dense and impenetrable as always. As the charcoal-gray Ford Crown Victoria trickled north on Belvedere Street smack-bang in the middle of the morning rush hour, the two uniformed officers saw all the usual incidents playing out:

Several workers from the Carlyle Department of Infrastructure stood huddled around a manhole from where steam shot skyward like ash from an erupting volcano. The men and women who all wore hard hats, fluorescent-orange vests and dark-blue boiler suits either shrugged, scratched their neck or shook their heads - some of them even did all three things at once.

Some three-hundred yards on from the steamy encounter, a team of road workers operated an unwieldy, dog-slow machine that painted new reflective stripes in the street. Why it had to be done during the morning rush hour was a mystery to all involved, and why the man sitting at the controls - who had a perfectly good view of the street ahead - had chosen to paint over a roadkill instead of getting one of his colleagues to shovel it out of the way was one of those puzzling little conundrums that would never be fully explained.

A taxi cab and one of the ubiquitous white delivery vans had been involved in a fender bender at the Twenty-first Street intersection, and the two drivers were presently involved in a bout of the ancient game known as Hurling Insults. Chances were it would turn into the other old game known as Swinging Fists before long.

A bicycle courier made the pedestrians jump for their lives as he zipped along the sidewalk instead of the street to save a few seconds. Other couriers followed his lead, and the quiet sidewalk soon turned into a velodrome. On the plus side of that, there was suddenly more room on the street now the death-defying couriers had found greener pastures.

Further along Belvedere Street, a patrol cruiser from the One-Two precinct had pulled over a beat-up Ford Thunderbird from the 1980s. Though the car had clearly been an eye-catcher in its day - it was a customized candy-apple red with golden wheels and decals - it had now become an eyesore with a dented left-rear quarter panel, a rear bumper that was hanging on by the proverbial thread, and a left-rear light cluster that had vanished completely. As Meighan and Lorenzo trickled past the incident, the patrol officers breathalyzed the driver of the Ford. Whether or not he was over the limit would remain a mystery.

Elsewhere, other delivery vans and trucks double-parked in front of the stores where they were scheduled to offload their deliveries, be it newspapers and magazines for the independent news stands, flowers for the florists, soft drinks for the convenience stores, and hard liquor and bags of pretzels and pork rinds for the various bars. In one particular spot, the boundless irony of the universe had seemed to converge: a laundry service delivered two carts full of clean diapers to a kindergarten; next door, an undertaker and his assistant carried out a closed casket.

Belvedere Street continued to present itself in all its customary glory: a butcher wheeled an entire slab of raw beef into a steak house from a refrigerated truck. While the butcher was away, an intrepid soul tried to help himself to some free meat, but came running back out screaming his head off and flailing his arms in the air. All he had found was a grisly collection of severed sheep heads - it was a delicacy in Afghan restaurants which was to be the butcher's next stop.

The two officers had just made the turn onto Twenty-fourth Street headed for Sunderland when Meighan had to pull over to give an ambulance from Sklar & Bonney room to come through. Its lights and regular sirens were going at full blast, but the driver still needed to use the loud trumpets on the roof of the cab several times to make the semi-sleeping drivers around them aware of the large vehicle's presence. Almost as an afterthought, a police cruiser from the One-Two came hurrying along behind it with its own emergency lights flashing.

Once the street was clear again, Meighan drove back into traffic that needed a moment to recover from the disruption. She had been uncharacteristically quiet since they had left the conference room on the fifth floor of the station house, but now she let out a dark grunt while she tapped her fingers on the rim of the steering wheel - both clear signs of her frustration. "You know… I had high hopes going into this assignment. Really high hopes. Now I'm less sure about the whole thing."

"I know exactly what you mean," Lorenzo said as they came to a rolling halt at the intersection of Twenty-fourth and Sunderland Street. "I'm permanently stuck in Commander Shulmann's crosshairs, that's for damn sure. Lombardino, my Italian ass… I don't know what her problem is. It's not like I was being a jerk or anything… but she was, and for no good reason."

"I think that's just her style. Confrontational," Meighan said and put both hands on the steering wheel for once. After a short pause, she continued: "I agree it's annoying like hell, but… some female officers believe they need to be so to be taken seriously in this job."

"Mmmm… I wish she would ease off. Okay, we've known her for ten seconds… she might not always be like that."

"Oh, I think she is." Like always, Meighan observed the cars they shared the intersection with. Most of them were fine, but one rusty specimen caught her eye: an older, faded-brown Buick that sent out pale-blue smoke signals even when idling. The driver who looked like a family man with not enough money to repair the car did all he could to appear angelic and innocent which only made her look at him harder. "But that flirting… Jeez," she said, shaking her head.


Meighan chuckled and locked eyes with her patrol partner. "Yeah, she flirted with me. Or tried to. She got kinda frosty when I shot her down."

"I didn't pick up on that… well, I did notice that her attitude became even more, uh… chilly."

"O-yeah," Meighan said and let out another chuckle just as the traffic lights changed to green. Thinking about the commander and the meeting they had been part of meant the faded-brown Buick could not hold her interest any longer - though it chose that very moment to backfire and send out an impressive cloud of oil smoke that made the driver cringe and duck down in the seat.

Instead of turning right onto Sunderland Street to go down to Rodolfo Santo Domingo's pawn shop, Meighan followed the flow of traffic. Moving straight across the intersection, she continued onto East Twenty-fourth.

"Hey, where are we going?" Lorenzo said, craning his neck to look at the ever-busy Sunderland Street as it disappeared behind them. "Weren't we supposed to talk to-"

"Rodolfo's not going anywhere. I have something else in mind first. Remember the old community mechanic Hector Martinez who helped us crack the chop shop case last year?"


Meighan fell quiet for a moment as she needed to drive around a delivery van that had double-parked outside an independent convenience store not unlike the one over on West Twenty-fifth Street. Once she was back in the inner lane, she continued: "He's spent most of his life skating the thin line between right and wrong so he's got contacts on both sides of the street. I was thinking that he might know something about those three goons we're looking for. He's a religious man so he'll have been plenty upset by the attack on the nun."

"Good thinking. So we're going over to North Tijuana?"

"Yeah. East Twenty-first Street just off Beauregard."

Lorenzo scratched his chin as he offered his patrol partner a sideways glance. "You might say that's just a teeny-tiny bit away from our designated patrol area, Meighan… I'm pretty sure Commander Shulmann expected us to stay within the One-Two's precinct."

A chuckle escaped Meighan's lips as the Ford Crown Victoria's suspension got a strong workout as it bumped over the potholes in the uneven street en route to Beauregard. "But she also said we needed to work autonomously. I'd call this working autonomously."

Another few moments went by before Lorenzo let out a sigh. "Sheesh, we're gonna get in real trouble before this assignment is over… all right. I hope you know what you're doing!"


The large, brightly-lit auto repair shop on East Twenty-first Street right in the middle of the ethnic neighborhood of North Tijuana was a community-run project meant to keep the young men on the straight and narrow. There, they could learn the value of physical labor through repairing and selling older cars instead of falling for the lure of earning quick bucks through dishonest means. There were plenty of slick hombres sporting fancy clothes and fancy women to tempt them, but most kept their act clean once they were under Hector Martinez' protective wings.

The garage used for the community work had originally been part of a gas station from the mid-1950s. When the pumps and the underground fuel tanks had been dismantled fifty years later, the rest had been allowed to remain as it was which had eased the transitional period to the new project. The forecourt had been converted into a sales lot that was home to plenty of old and high-mileage - but fully repaired - US cars offered for sale at reasonable prices. Most were from the 1980s, but a few were newer, and a few had experienced the brief presidency of Gerald Ford, i.e. they were from the heady days of the 1970s.

A rock-solid example of the latter was a four-door, four-headlight, V8-powered, cream-colored 1975 Plymouth Satellite that looked better than it had in the dealer's showroom back when it was a current model. The sign in the windshield said it could be yours for only $2750 - ten percent down payment and the rest split in twelve easy rates!

An impressive, three-foot tall and seven-foot wide fountain of orange sparks produced by a metal grinding tool spewed out of the open sliding doors to the garage once Meighan and Lorenzo got there, so she parked the charcoal-gray squad car at a safe distance. The news that an unmarked police cruiser had parked outside spread fast, and the two officers had soon attracted a crowd of interested, young mechanics all dressed in gray coveralls who checked out the Crown Vic and the two people inside.

One of the mechanics sported a faceful of recent bruises and an off-white cast on his right arm from the shoulder to the wrist. It was clear he was not interested in speaking to the police or even to be anywhere near them, so he grabbed his jacket and hurried away from the auto repair shop before they could catch up with him.

The experienced officers had noticed and shared a brief glance. "What do you suppose that was all about?" Lorenzo said as he opened the passenger side door.

While the weather had remained bright and calm, the temperature seemed to have dropped another few degrees. To fight it, Lorenzo went around the back and took his thick uniform jacket from the trunk. The sky was clear in most directions save for due north where a front of ominous, steel-gray clouds was in the process of rolling in - the color that would provide thunderstorms in the summer and snow flurries in the winter.

Meighan shrugged as she climbed from the squad car. "Hard to say. We're not here to get anyone in trouble, so I think we should forget about it and let him go," she said as she took her own jacket and put it on.


"Asking about it can't hurt, though. Hola, compadres," she said to the young mechanics looking at the unmarked squad car. The fact that it was used by a pair of uniformed officers and not plain-clothes detectives seemed to confuse the young men, but they offered plenty of friendly smiles and Spanish phrases in return.


Meighan and Lorenzo wasted little time as they strode across the forecourt and through the lines of cars for sale that had all been repaired and shined up by the hard-working, dedicated junior mechanics. There were a few rarities among them like a two-door Chevrolet Monte Carlo from the late 1970s, but most were mass-produced family sedans and station wagons that had lived a hard life in the city before they had been sold on to the community project.

The mechanic working with the metal grinding tool wore a full set of personal safety equipment including professional ear protectors so he had yet to notice the two police officers. The extreme whine produced by the machine as it cut out a large, rusty section of a fender made everyone else present turn cross-eyed.

There was no point in speaking while the grinding tool was still running, so Meighan simply pointed at the office at the back of the garage. Lorenzo nodded and followed his patrol partner there past a grease pit, several gas cylinders used for welding, tall stacks of wheels and tires, and three pneumatic lifts that all carried old cars in various states of 'undress.'

Like speaking, knocking was a waste of time so Meighan just opened the door to the office and stepped inside. Cluttered was the perfect word to describe the interior - there were piles of how-to books, operating manuals for power tools, old oil cans, even older telephone books, promotional ashtrays, open ring binders containing thick wads of colored paper and every other kind of stuff everywhere: on the desk, on top of two metal filing cabinets at the far wall, on the floor in all four corners, on the seats of an old couch and even in the lap of the man sitting behind the desk. The latter was by design, though, and the pile was dumped on the desk the moment he noticed the uniformed officers entering his den. The only item in the office that was free of any kind of clutter was a large crucifix hanging on the wall - though even that was accompanied by a hi-gloss calendar showing a wide selection of female skin.

"Why, if it isn't Officer O'Sullivan and Officer Lombardini!" Hector Martinez said with a grin. After trying to wipe off his hands on his grease-stained coverall, he stuffed his lit cigar back into his mouth and rose from the swivel-chair. In his late fifties, Hector was not as slender as he had been as a young man; in the mid-to-late 1980s, he had kept down his weight by outrunning the police on a daily basis. With age came wisdom - and bulk - so he let others do the stealing and subsequent running from the law. His complexion was darker than the average Latino coloring, but that came from having an African-American father. His mustache and mouth beard had turned as salt-and-pepper as his short hair and added an elegant touch to his round, somewhat fleshy face.

After stepping around the cluttered desk, he shook hands with the officers. He closed the door to the open garage itself uttering a "So, what can I do for you," when he realized the incessant whine was not reduced in the slightest. Grunting, he shook his head and stepped out into the garage. A brief tap on the shoulder of the enthusiastic metal worker made the young man turn off the grinder which brought a blessed silence to the entire location.

"Right," Hector said as he came back into the office and shut the door once more. "Like I said, what can I do for ya, Officers?"

"We were wondering," Meighan said, "if you've heard anything about three particular fellas just in from the east? They're-"

"How far east? I'm not in the know when it comes to Carlyle's Chinese or Korean population," Hector said with a grin.

The grin was reflected on Meighan's face. She sensed in her gut they had been right in coming to see Hector though it was out of their designated patrol area - he was the kind of guy she could work with. A straight-shooter, not an unpredictable enigma like Commander Shulmann. "Well… not that far east. More like the eastern seaboard. They're not exactly among God's favorite children if you catch our drift."

"Yeah, I do. Or I think I do," Hector said, shoving a pile of junk aside to make room for half a buttock on a corner of the cluttered desk. His demeanor changed as he crossed his arms over his chest. A few puffs of cigar smoke followed as he fell silent.

Lorenzo and Meighan knew better than to push the issue. They both understood from Hector's sudden change of mood that he had information about the three men they were looking for. With a little patience and some friendly persuasion, that information would trade hands - but only if they did not corner him too soon in the conversation.

"Yeah, I've heard about them, all right. They're a buncha sons of bitches. And I mean real SOBs," Hector said after a short delay. Taking out the cigar, he knocked off the ash onto the floor instead of using one of the four promotional ashtrays within his reach - it mattered little since the gray pile of ash was lost at once in all the dust and clutter on the floor. "Crazy putas. Psychos. Killers. Trigger-happy, too. Nobody wants to help them… everybody's afraid of them and their short tempers. Shoot 'em a wrong glance and you'll be picking up your teeth or worse. Those kind of people. I don't want anything to do with them, and I don't want them anywhere near the kids I'm responsible for. They're running with the DiSorrento gang now from what I've heard."

"That's pretty much what we've heard too," Lorenzo said before Meighan took over:

"And you're right, Hector… they're psychos." She paused briefly before she went in for the body blow: "They're the ones who beat up the nun over on West Eleventh Street the other week."

Hector yanked the cigar from his mouth to offer Meighan a wide-eyed stare. After a few seconds, the wide-eyed look turned into a bitter, angry scowl as his eyes moved over to the large crucifix on the wall. "Motherfuckers," he growled as he stuck the cigar back between his teeth and chomped hard on it to work off some of his frustrations with the three men. "I don't know their names, but they're using a black Lincoln Continental to get around. They're here, there and everywhere. You never know where they'll pop up the next time. They got their slimy hands in all kinds of nasty bizz."

"A black Lincoln Continental, gotcha," Meighan said while looking at Lorenzo who nodded in return. She shared another look with her patrol partner before she decided to move ahead: "Avi Weissman, Joaquín de la Cruz and Shawn King. Know where they might be cooped up?"

The cigar left Hector's mouth again to make room for grinding his jaw. The angry scowl had never left his face after the news about the nun, but it was joined by a determined furrow between his eyebrows upon hearing the names of the three men. "No. Not at this moment… I'm guessing DiSorrento keeps them in one of their penthouses somewhere. I'll put my ear to the ground so I can listen to the grassroots talkin'. Nobody beats up a nun for kicks and walks away in my town. Nobody."

Meighan nodded grimly. "Thanks, Hector. We can't ask for more than that."

"Don't thank me yet… like I said, they're SOBs that everyone's afraid of. It won't be easy to find them," Hector said and took a couple of deep puffs from his cigar like he was already thinking about whom to talk to.

"Is it ever easy? Which reminds me, what's the story with the young fellow who looked like he'd gone a few rounds against a prize fighter? He took off when we showed up."

Hector grunted and slid his rear end off the corner of the desk. Another tip of ash was knocked off the cigar, but this time he used an ashtray that carried the familiar logo of Imperial Spark Plugs. "José Maria Vasquez. He had a gambling debt he couldn't pay. He was visited by a couple of DiSorrento's assholes the other day… well, I guess it's a couple of days ago now. An enforcer and a prospect," he said as he shuffled around the desk to once more sit on the swivel-chair. He let out a dark chuckle as he leaned back in the creaking chair. "Would ya believe, the enforcer was the same a-hole who burned to death just a day or so later? José didn't have anything to do with that, by the way. He's a great kid. A fantastic welder. Though he was hurting like hell from his busted arm and the beating he took, he was here all night supervising the work on an old Chevy Malibu that needed a new trunk floor. That's dedication right there."

Lorenzo and Meighan shared another look - Bogdan Marinescu and an unknown prospect. Everything seemed to be connected somehow, but as they learned more, the waters just continued to grow murkier. "Yes, what a crying shame it was losing that nice enforcer," Meighan deadpanned before she put out her hand to shake Hector's. "Keep us posted, all right?"

"You betcha, Officer O'Sullivan," Hector said with a grin before he shook Lorenzo's hand as well.


Back on the forecourt, Meighan moved over to the passenger-side door of the unmarked squad car. Her face was set in stone. The biggest unanswered question was where the three goons were staying. The DiSorrento organization was involved in so many apartment buildings, warehouses and small businesses that finding the right one would be like the proverbial needle in a haystack. They were off to a good start with Hector Martinez now trying to dig up some information as well, but they needed more than even his extensive set of connections. Meighan had other solid contacts around the metropole, but there would be no guarantees for results considering the unusual nature of the case. "Your turn to drive. I need to make a few phone calls as we go," she said as she dug into a pocket to find her personal telephone.

"Okay. Are we going down to Rodolfo Santo Domingo's pawn shop now? We probably should," Lorenzo said over the roof of the Ford.

Meighan paused to chew on her cheek. Inside the garage, the enthusiastic junior mechanic started up the metal grinding tool once more which sent a huge fountain of orange sparks out of the open door. She turned on the telephone to check the time: the clock had just gone past nine-thirty AM which made it a little too late for brunch and far too early for a proper lunch. "Yeah, we better," she said and got into the squad car.


The next three hours saw plenty of driving from A to B, plenty of looking for various people, plenty of talking to various other people, and plenty of telephone calls to and from even more people who could potentially have had information regarding the special case. Nothing concrete had come out of any of that work save for a gnawing hunger in the gut of both officers - at least they could do something about that particular affliction.

A quarter past twelve, the charcoal-gray squad car drove onto West Nineteenth Street - it belonged to the northern-most section of the bohemian district without actually being part of the flighty artists' colony itself. The side street was calm, clean and generally free of many of the problems that plagued such streets elsewhere in the grand metropole. Although there was a smattering of graffiti here and there, it was kept to a minimum, and all the lamp posts still had their dome lights. A few well-wrapped people were out walking their pets despite the chilly weather, and they made sure to stop and say hello to their fellow pet-lovers when they met on the neatly kept sidewalks instead of siccing their attack dogs upon each other like elsewhere in Carlyle.

The cars parked at the curb were all in good shape and clearly belonged to the upper middle-class. The mix was an even fifty-fifty split between European and Far Eastern models - less than one in ten came from the traditional 'Big Three' US automakers. When Lorenzo pulled the Ford Crown Victoria over to the curb and slotted in between a BMW X5 SUV and a Toyota Camry, it was the only American car on that entire side of the street.

West Nineteenth was home to a string of themed restaurants, one of which was Earl's Super-Fine Soul Food. It was a double-wide unit with a pair of large windows on either side of a central glass door. The front of the establishment was held in brown, burnt orange and other earthy tones, and it appeared the owner wanted to recreate a sense of the late 1960s and early 1970s as various old-fashioned symbols and sayings from the 'hood had been hand-painted onto the windows.

Stepping out of their squad car, Meighan and Lorenzo strode across the street and the wide sidewalk in front of the restaurant. Earl's Super-Fine Soul Food had an outdoor section that always attracted a huge crowd in the summer months, but with the weather being far too cold to eat outside, the owner of the establishment had put the chairs, tables and colorful parasols into storage.

The uniformed officers were met by curious rather than hostile looks as they opened the glass door and stepped inside. The vast majority of the guests were African-Americans, but there were one or two Caucasians as well. The restaurant saw a good number of square, movable tables of which many were occupied by patrons eating, drinking and generally having a good time. Benches framing fixed tables lined the outer walls; unlike the movable tables that were all decked out in tablecloths held in earthy tones, the fixed tables carried place mats that chronicled the development and brief history of Earl's Super-Fine Soul Food. Framed black-and-white posters of important African-American politicians, community leaders, musicians and actors graced the walls above the booths.

The delightful aromas that greeted them made Meighan's gut tell her that far, far too much time had passed since the last meal; a smile formed on her lips at the prospects of getting some high-quality food for a change. "Looks to be a solid place, Lorenzo… guess you were right about it," she said over her shoulder.

"When will you learn not to doubt me when it comes to food? I'm Italian! We're the greatest lovers, we make the best wine and there's nothing we don't know about food!" Lorenzo said with a grin as he gave his patrol partner a brief nudge on the shoulder.

Before they could move up to the counter to place their orders, an African-American man in his mid-thirties stepped out of the adjacent kitchen to greet them. To fit with the restaurant's 1970s retro theme, he wore gray gabardine bell-bottoms, a brown pullover and a yellow shirt featuring wide lapels. To protect all that splendor while he worked the sizzling pots and pans, he wore an apron of a newer design. "Hello, Officers. I'm Earl Cleveland. Is there a problem?"

"Only if you don't have any of your great ribs today, Mr. Cleveland," Lorenzo said with a straight face that soon cracked open in a wide grin.

"We always have ribs, Officer. That's our specialty. Please, sit anywhere you'd like," Earl said with a grin that matched the officer's perfectly. When his waitress was slow in coming over to the new customers, he called out for her: "Myrna, we've got work to do!"

A pale-skinned African-American waitress hurried from the kitchen and into the restaurant carrying an order pad. Like her employer, Myrna wore 1970s retro grab in the shape of a spring-green, smock-like outfit meant to resemble those used by waitresses in neighborhood restaurants in the 1970s. The waitress wore a stylish Afro and a pair of long, curved lashes that made her brown eyes look even larger than they already were. "Welcome to Earl's Super-Fine Soul Food. What can we get ya?" she said as she held a pencil ready on the order pad.

"A number one for both of us," Lorenzo said as he leaned against the counter. "I hope that's still spare ribs in homemade barbecue sauce and a good helping of sweet potatoes?"

"Oh, it sure is, Officer," Myrna said with a polite smile.

"Great. I'd like a medium Diet Coke. Meighan?"

"An iced tea, thank you. Lemon-flavored."

Myrna took notes of it all and finished by flashing the two officers a wide grin. "Two number ones, an iced tea and a Diet Coke. Thank you!"

As the waitress sashayed back into the kitchen, she was followed by two pairs of interested eyes. Chuckling, Meighan used hers to pin her patrol partner to the spot. "That's funny, friend… I could have sworn you were married. Isn't that why you have that dead-tired, pale-gray complexion in the first place?"

"I looked… you gawked," Lorenzo said while the pale-gray complexion in question turned a faint shade of red along the cheeks.

They moved over to one of the booths that lined the restaurant's outer walls. Under the watchful eyes of Sidney Poitier and Dizzy Gillespie up on the wall, Meighan slid herself onto the bench and put her long legs in under the fixed table. She continued to chuckle at the exchange and the blush on her friend's cheeks, but the humorous moment was interrupted by her telephone ringing.

"Meighan O'Sullivan," said after she had accepted the call. Leaning back on the bench, she assumed a thousand-mile stare as she listened to the update. A small furrow appeared between her eyebrows; a tell-tale sign that something annoyed her. While she listened, she rearranged the items on the table to have something to do with her free hand - the napkin and the cutlery were pushed one way, then the other. The place mat was nudged back and forth. The little basket holding salt and pepper shakers along with a pack of toothpicks and bottles of ketchup, mustard and hot sauce was given a nudge or two as well while she listened. "Okay. Yeah, I understand the problems with this one. I know the stakes are higher than usual- huh? Yes, I know. All right. Thank you. I won't forget it."

"Hector?" Lorenzo said, but before Meighan could answer beyond a shaking of the head, Myrna returned carrying a tray heavily laden with two soup bowls that each contained a pile of steaming hot, pre-sliced sweet potatoes swimming in a sea of barbecue sauce. Once the bowls were on the table, they were joined by side dishes that each held three top-quality, juicy spare ribs. The two tumblers acted as tail-end Charlies - one had the familiar dark-brown liquid, and one was filled to the brim with golden, lemon-flavored iced tea.

"Thanks, Myrna. Wow, I can't wait to sink my teeth into that!" Lorenzo said and offered the waitress a smile that was reciprocated in kind.

Once they were alone, Meighan began eating her first rib the way the traditional dish was meant to be served - by using her fingers. She had to chuckle when she noticed Lorenzo used his cutlery instead of risking getting his uniform sticky up to his elbows.


Like all police officers everywhere, Meighan and Lorenzo were so accustomed to wolfing down their food to get it over and done with before the next assignment would steal their precious short breaks that less than fifteen minutes went by before their plates were empty. When she was done, Meighan used her own napkin as well as Lorenzo's and two more she had snatched from the next table to wipe her fingers clean of the greasy residue provided by the tasty ribs. Her tumbler of iced tea had long since been emptied as well.

Lorenzo still nursed his Diet Coke; taking a sip, he leaned back on the bench seat and shot his partner a long look. "To get back to the important issues, you said that someone had seen the black Lincoln return to West Eleventh Street?"

"That's right," Meighan said and toyed with her empty tumbler. "Even after the nun had been attacked, our contact saw the Lincoln Continental parked at 2441 West Eleventh. Or a black Lincoln, to be exact. Other people use black Lincolns. It doesn't have to be those three creeps. Limousine services-"

"On West Eleventh? That'll be the day," Lorenzo said with a chuckle before he took the final sip of his Coke - then he slid away from the bench.

Meighan nodded slowly as she watched her patrol partner move away. "Yeah… very true. Where 'ya going?"

"I need another Coke. You want more iced tea?"

"No, but I was thinking about getting some coffee instead. A full pot. Black and strong. Theorizing-coffee."

"Good idea. I'll get us some," Lorenzo said and strode over to the counter where Earl Cleveland had returned to manning the cash register after his stint stirring the pots.


Ordering the coffee 'strong' at Earl's Super-Fine Soul Food meant getting a potful of dark-brown, super-hi-octane liquid rocket fuel that NASA could have used undiluted back in the days of the Space Shuttle. Lorenzo, being of Italian heritage and conviction, was so used to his family's home-blended espresso that he was able to drink Earl's coffee straight-up, but Meighan needed a spoonful of sugar and not one but two squirts of cream to prevent her stomach from performing a flip-flop for each sip she took.

Even so, she had to bare her teeth in a grimace as her gullet rebelled by trying to tie itself into a knot as the strong coffee swept down it. Her telephone ringing gave her a much-needed respite from the rocket fuel, and she put down the cup at once to answer the call. "Meighan O'Sullivan," she said, furrowing her brow at once. "Okay? All right. That's right, a black Lincoln Conti- huh? I don't know the model year, but I'm guessing it's new. Yeah. Hmmm. Thanks, I owe you one… but only if it's got any meat on its bones. Bye."

"More tips?" Lorenzo said over the rim of his cup.

Meighan nodded as she tried to take another sip of her cream-colored liquid dynamite. Either it had grown weaker in the forty seconds she had been away from it, or she had grown used to it - whatever it was, she was able to sip it without choking or getting heartburn. "Yeah. A contact saw a black Lincoln sedan the other day parked by a garage up on East Sixty-sixth Street. The garage is apparently inside an area of self-storage units and depots that belongs to the Albatross Storage Group. The contact isn't into cars so he has no idea about the model or the age of the Lincoln, but he said it was shiny and had tinted windows and chrome wheels."

"Hector didn't mention anything about tinted windows."

"No. I'll call him in a sec to ask," Meighan said and took another sip.

Lorenzo leaned back on the bench. "Albatross Storage. I wonder if that's a front for DiSorrento?"

"It could be… they have their grubby paws on pretty much everything. We ought to be able to find that out."

"Yeah. Self-storage depots… they could be using that as their base. Those storage units come in all shapes and sizes. A car, even an over-sized Lincoln sedan, could easily fit in some of them and still have room to spare. But I can't see three guys like that spending the nights there. Can you?"

"No. I'll bet they're used to resting in the lap of luxury. They'll be cooped up somewhere nice and cushy with free hookers and booze," Meighan said and mirrored her patrol partner by leaning back on the bench. A few seconds went by where she returned to toying with the place mat chronicling the development of the restaurant. The moment ended with her thumping her fist onto the tabletop. "But there's something I just can't figure out, and that is… why the hell are they even here? And why are they preying on pimps and hookers? To give DiSorrento's competitors a headache by wiping out all their working girls? But why? And why now? I mean, it's not like the other crime syndicates in Greater Carlyle are particularly strong as it is, right? The DiSorrento organization is by far the largest even today."

"They've always specialized in gambling," Lorenzo said as he moved the empty cup around between his fingers. As he continued to speak, he took the metal pot to pour himself a new cupful of the strong coffee now that his patrol partner was unwilling to. "They have a fair corner of the drugs market as well, but they might be expanding into prostitution… the working girls have always been more or less independent. Sometimes a pimp has a couple to have a backup in case one of his girls gets sick, but never more than that."

"Hmmm-yeah… that's a pretty good point," Meighan said and rubbed her cheek. She fell quiet for a moment or two that she filled by taking a cautious sip of her rocket fuel coffee. "Human trafficking? Women from Eastern Europe, South America, Far-East Asia? As well as all those prostitutes who are already here."

"Yeah. We should probably get vice on board. I doubt Commander Shulmann will listen to me, so perhaps you should ask her?"

"Well, I can try," Meighan said and let out a tired chuckle. "Okay, here's a theory. The commander told us they were guessing the attacks on the homeless were unrelated to the main event because they were carried out by DiSorrento's regular enforcers rather than Weissman and his cronies… right?"


"Okay, so let's push those aside for now. The three goons have beat up pimps and prostitutes. Let's say they're rounding up suitable working girls… both the independents and those pulling tricks for the competing crime families. Beat the shit out of those they consider unworthy to be working for them so the customers will avoid them and spend their dollars on the real lookers who are kept in centralized houses. What if DiSorrento is trying to build a… hell, I was about to call it a harem of working girls? Set up houses in various places around Carlyle. In all the ethnic neighborhoods so the customers won't have to travel far to get to 'em."

"That sounds like a solid theory, Meighan…"

"Yeah. Maybe we've been looking at it from the wrong end. And when I say we, I mean the task force. It's clear the Commander considers it an arms race. Now DiSorrento has those three crooks on the street to be their muscle, the other syndicates will need to get their own to keep up. And so on and so forth. But what if that's not the case at all? Maybe those three goons are just here to do some strong-armed house cleaning in preparation for an entirely new business path for Dorothy Lorraine DiSorrento?"

Lorenzo fell silent as he digested the theory - Meighan did the same as her own words suddenly seemed to make the jigsaw puzzle fall into place for her.

"There's one thing that continues to baffle me," Lorenzo said after a short pause that he filled by taking a long swig of his strong coffee, "and that's the attack on the nun. It doesn't fit. Why did they do that? They must have known it would bring down the heat on them."

Meighan rubbed her chin again. "For starters, they probably didn't expect her to pull through. A theory could be that she may have seen something they didn't want her to see. The article in the Tribune said she was out doing her regular rounds, didn't it? So she would have visited some of the apartments in the block on West Eleventh where she was attacked."

"Where somebody saw a black Lincoln just recently! They already have a house there. Or an apartment, to be precise…" Lorenzo said, suddenly leaning forward.

"A test run, perhaps? Goddammit, Lorenzo… we're onto something. We're definitely onto something here," Meighan said and thumped her fist onto the tabletop again. "Okay, I need to call Hector to ask about the tinted windows and the chrome wheels, and then I'll call Commander Shulmann and… and… try to get through to her. This is solid so she better listen…"

She fell quiet again. The overly strong coffee had lost its pull on her, so she pushed the cup away though she had yet to finish it. "Drink up. I got the check."


The weather had made a turn for the worse while Lorenzo and Meighan had enjoyed their ribs and sweet potatoes. A heavy cloud cover had moved in from the north; sleet had followed it and the winds had picked up once more. The windshield wipers moved lazily back and forth as the large, wet flakes fell from the sky and onto the squad car as it drove through one of the countless city streets.

"Damn," Meighan said and put the telephone away. "I can't reach the Commander. I only get her answering service. At least Hector confirmed the thing about the Lincoln's tinted windows and chrome wheels. It was the right car that our contact saw up on East Sixty-sixth at that self-storage depot."

"It's almost like Carlyle has been cursed in the last couple of months," Lorenzo said from his spot behind the steering wheel. They rolled up to an intersection that turned red just as they reached it. As always, the experienced officers looked at the cars nearest them - they found nothing out of the ordinary, and no black Lincoln sedans.

"How you figure that?" Meighan said, checking out the sidewalk on her right as well.

"I mean, first that insane night back in August where all hell broke loose on the streets… I still get the shivers when I think of the nineteen-hour shift we had to pull… and my wife was nine months gone and about to pop. And then an entire brownstone collapsed in September down on Skid Row after a drugs lab blew up. All this with the three goons and the fella who got burned to death… not to forget the nasty business with the nun and the attacks on the homeless. And now look at this weather! I mean… it's gonna be one hell of a long, hard winter if this keeps up."

"Don't say that… don't even think it," Meighan said and let out a dark chuckle. Just to be on the safe side, she leaned forward and knocked three times on the underside of the Ford Crown Victoria's glovebox though it was made of plastic and not wood.

A few moments went by in which the traffic lights changed to green and Lorenzo had the squad car back up to regular cruising speed. "Do you know what would help us? I mean, really help us?" he said as he turned on his indicator to change lanes.


"If we could get someone inside the DiSorrento syndicate. Or if we could get one of them to see the error of their ways and spill the beans. A foot soldier or maybe even an enforcer-"

Meighan shook her head. "Never gonna happen. The bosslady is too well connected… she'd hear about it even before it had happened. Then she'd kill anyone even thinking about talking to us."

"I guess."

There was little else to say so the two officers fell quiet. After a few minutes, Meighan's telephone rang once more. Retrieving it from her pocket, she accepted the call.

"Commander Shulmann?" Lorenzo said, but Meighan shook her head.

She mouthed 'A contact' before she put the telephone to her ear. "Meighan O'Sullivan. Talk to me…"




'Shady' Shaye LaSalle's eyes were still glued shut when she pulled apart the curtains at ten to eight on the morning of October sixteenth. The chill that reached her body through the double-glazed window and her oversized sleeping t-shirt made her crack open an eyelid to check out their surroundings.

A wide yawn rolled over her just when she peeked outside which made her eyelid slip shut again - two seconds later, her jaw was locked in place when she realized what she had witnessed outside. Both eyelids were cracked open upon her second attempt at facing the new day. Then her jaw finally slipped shut and she let out a long, slow sigh.

She noted with a rising degree of annoyance that the sleet from the previous day had turned into a dusting of real, frosty snow over night. Not of the we-need-to-shovel-forty-inches-of-snow-just-to-get-outside variety, but enough to make their day jobs even more difficult than they already were.

Her jaw slowly moved back and forth as she grumbled under her breath at the sight of the half-inch or so of white stuff outside; the wide-open look was replaced by a scrunched-up face and an emphatic "Crap." - Then she returned to the bed that she had only just left behind.

"What is it?" Jennifer 'Stilts' Mulroney said from her favorite spot underneath all the second, third and fourth-hand winter duvets they could throw at the bed.

Shady pulled the duvets aside and jumped back into the warm, cozy bed with an acrobatic flurry. Soon, she was snuggled up next to her warm, cozy girlfriend. "That most awful of four-letter words, Pookie. Snow," she whispered so she could avoid ruining the rare Perfect Moment.

"Ugh… how much?"

"Not too much. But enough. It's gonna be ridiculously cold today so we better find some more clothes," Shady said in a whisper as she swept a lock of dark hair away from Stilts' forehead. She was rewarded with a smile that was too good to ignore, so a little kissing was in order.

Stilts smiled again and wrapped a long arm around the shorter woman next to her to add another layer of perfection to the Perfect Moment. "I wish we could stay in bed all winter…"

"If we could score that ten-grand reward from the church of the blessed virgin whatshername, we could."


"Who's that?! I'm Shaye!" Shady said and broke out in a snicker and another snuggle that earned her a dramatic sigh in return.

A few more Perfect Moments were shared before Shady let out a sigh. "Ten thousand dollars," she whispered solemnly. Turning over onto her back, she watched the ghostly light produced by the recent snow playing on the ceiling of their sparsely decorated bedroom.


Stuck outside in the freezing world an hour and a half later, Stilts used her long arms to perform the age-old gesture known as the Coachman's Strokes to stay warm despite wearing winter boots, men's long johns, a pair of fleece jogging pants, a pair of heavy-duty woolly pants, an undershirt, four T-shirts, two sweaters, a long-sleeved fleece hoodie, a long-sleeved fleece sweater and her ex-US Navy all-weather coat. A purple beanie hat that she had pulled down to her eyebrows was supposed to protect her ears, but it did a poor job of it - at least the snow was the least of their problems: the chilly winds had already disposed of most of it.

They had set up their indispensable Diamonds table on West Fifteenth Street by a shoe store belonging to one of the major chains. Although there were several potential players present, all hurried past decked out in heavy boots, huge coats and matching hats. Despite wearing a pair of fleece gloves where only the fingertips had been cut off to provide added friction when playing the game, Stilts' hands were so cold that she dropped the entire deck of cards onto the ground three times in succession. The second time it happened, she let out a long groan - the third time, she let out an even longer blue streak that produced an impressive plume of steam escaping her mouth.

Twenty feet further down the street, Shady went into her traditional stance and delivered her usual spiel with great gusto: "Step right up, folks!" she said with a broad smile plastered onto her face. "We have plenty of room for ev'rybody! The young, the old, the hot, the cold, the reluctant and, yes, the bold! Come this way, fair Ladies and Gentlemen! We welcome all and not just the fit. If you place a coin on our table, we promise to take good care of it. The rich can place two if they so desire, but it is a treat we do not require. One coin shall suffice… after all, you are more than welcome to play twice!"

All that came out of it were vast plumes of steam that wafted down the street until they dissolved in the bitter cold. Undaunted - and ignoring the miserable, hangdog look upon Stilts' face - Shady shuffled over to the other side of the Diamonds table and tried again: "Step right up, folks! We have plenty of room for ev'rybody! The young, the old, the hot, the cold, the reluctant and, yes, the bold! Come this way, fair Ladies and Gentlemen! We welcome all and not just the fit. If you place a coin on our table, we promise to take good care of it. The rich can place two if they so desire, but it is a treat we do not require. One coin shall suffice… after all, you are more than welcome to play twice!"

For a change, one of the people there seemed to be interested. The woman - who carried a shopping bag from the shoe store - came over to the table to watch how Stilts dealt the deck and placed the cards in their pre-designated spots. "How much do I need to bet?" the woman said.

Shady was there in a flash displaying all her familiar swagger. "Oh, a dollar or two will suffice, my fair Lady," she said and performed a deep bow.

The woman considered it for a few moments before she dug into her coat's pocket and found a dollar coin. "All right… let's see what happens," she said and put the coin on the table.


The coin had been joined by four others after five minutes' worth of playing time, but they had all been lost to the rigged game. The woman shrugged and moved on; after buying a pair of shoes at a bargain price of three-hundred dollars, five dollars would not make a difference in her weekly budget.

Stilts and Shady braved the cold conditions to grin at each other as the coins were swept into the strongbox under the tabletop. For the experienced street-hustlers, five dollars could make the difference between eating that day or not.

The next person they encountered was not a new player but the irate owner of the shoe store. He ran out to the hustlers wearing an overcoat that he had buttoned crooked in all his haste to tell them to get lost, or else!

Being forced to move on was nothing new to Shady and Stilts, so they calmly packed up and stuffed everything into the large gym bag. Once the light-weight, former clothes-drier had been pulled up on Shady's shoulder, they shuffled off along West Fifteenth Street headed for Cassandra.


Half a city block came and went without presenting a natural place to set up their table for their next attempt at making a few dollars; then something exciting finally happened: Shady's keen eyes caught a neatly ordered stack of newspapers lying on its side half-and-half between the curb stone and the sidewalk. The newspapers seemed curiously abandoned and were in fact still wrapped in the kind of packing twine used by the printing departments of the large news corporations.

"Hey, look at that…" she said, coming to a halt. "D'ya suppose they fell off the back of a delivery truck?"

"Could be," Stilts said as she turned around to look at the package in question. The moment she stopped walking, she needed to perform the traditional Coachman's Strokes again to stay warm.

Shady shuffled over to the stack of newspapers and crouched down next to it. "Neat, they're from today!" she said as she reached up under her multiple layers of clothing to find a small pocketknife. The packing twine was soon dealt with and the newspaper had officially become the possession of Shaye LaSalle.

Getting up, she unfolded it to read the various headlines on the front page. Two seconds later, she let out an odd noise that was a mix between a croak, a grunt and a groan. "Whoa… whoa! Whoa!" she exclaimed.

"What? What, Shaye?! You can't just say whoa and-"

"The reward… the ten-thousand dollar reward…"

"Yeah? Did someone claim it?"

"No!" Shady said and smacked her fingerless glove against the newspaper which made the thin pages flap about. "It's been doubled to twenty-farckin'-thousand dollars! Twenty grand, baby! Twenty! Thousand! Dollars!"


"That's what I said!"

Stilts shook her head. "This is going to bring out all the fortune seekers, glory hounds, yarn-weavers, you name it… you know it will. The big freeze will thaw out with all the hot air they'll be blowin' out!"

"There ain't nobody out here better than us at blowin' hot air, Cookie!"

"You know what I mean… all the bad con artists," Stilts said and rolled her eyes at her partner's enthusiasm.

Letting out a giddy chuckle, Shady lowered the newspaper and fell into a thousand-mile stare although the particular section of West Fifteenth Street they had reached offered very little in the way of visual inspiration. "Holy mackerel," she mumbled as it struck her just how vast the reward had become. "Imagine what we could buy for twenty thousand dollars… we could buy half the universe… we could afford all those things we've always dreamt of… like that warm ski underwear you've been saving up for. We could go out for a burger now and then at Bartoni's Baloneys… we could even buy some fries to go with it. We could buy-"

"The cops…" Stilts said, looking out onto the street.

Shady snickered into her hand. "Naw, I don't think we could afford our own police force- shit! Where?" she said, snapping out of her dreamy state when the words finally filtered through to her.

"Right there!" Stilts croaked as she pointed at the white-and-pale-blue cruiser from the Carlyle Police Department that had pulled over to the curb right in front of them. The mustachioed patrol officers were just waiting there doing nothing apart from looking at Shady and Stilts, but it was clear they were thinking about their next step.

Shady screwed a smile on her face as she pulled the light-weight clothes-drier higher up on the shoulder of her thick, double-layered sweater. "Hiya, officers! Chilly today, huh? Oh, look at the time… we better get a move on. Stay safe, yeah?" she said as she set off down the sidewalk headed for Cassandra Street. Behind her, Stilts picked up the heavy gym bag, smiled at the patrolmen and took off in a hurry.

Whether the officers had found their Thanksgiving spirit early, or if they had not had a chance to look at the latest communiqués regarding the two well-known street-hustlers was beside the point - the result was the same: Shady and Stilts were able to make a clean escape.


The weather remained stable over the course of mid-day and the early afternoon hours: it never changed beyond being cloudy, windy and miserably cold. The only unpredictable ingredients in the cocktail were the infrequent flurries of sleet and light snow that came and went with no warning.

No matter where Shady and Stilts tried to set up their Diamonds table or where the Mysterious, Clairvoyant Mrs. Rhavenlocke made a rare personal appearance to read palms or predict futures, they were unable to get more than one or two people interested in their scams and rigged games. Shady tried to play one of the crowd-favorite sentimental songs from the old country on her beloved brass harmonica, but not only did the weather affect Stilts' vocal cords which made her sound like a frog despite preparing thoroughly - including gurgling in lukewarm milk - the harmonica turned so freezing cold even while blowing hot air through it that Shady was afraid her lips would get permanently stuck to it if she played for too long.

With a half-empty strongbox and full-empty stomachs, they circled around and around and around on a never-ending - and ultimately futile - quest to find just one player interested in betting a dollar or two on the Diamonds game, or having their palm read. They moved north along Cassandra Street to West Seventeenth, then West Eighteenth, then West Nineteenth without finding any takers. Crossing back toward Belvedere, they stopped by Victory Park first and tried at Proctor and then at Bailey Street not too far from where Stilts had found the silver crucifix.

All hopes of a profitable afternoon seemed lost, so Shady came to a halt at the intersection of Bailey Street and West Thirteenth and crossed her arms over her chest. The deep sigh she released could be seen for nearly twenty seconds as the plume of steam drifted down the street in the bitter cold.

While Stilts tried to keep warm by going through the Coachman's Strokes and then a variation of the standard shuffle of two steps to the left, two steps to the right, two steps ahead and two steps back - it was far too cold for the standard version - Shady stared south toward West Twelfth Street and the dark zone beyond it. "You're not gonna like what I'm about to tell you, Pookie," she said in a monotone.

"More cops?"

"No. Worse. I think we should go back to West Eleventh Street and try our luck again. Maybe where we bumped into that gangster… remember? In all his flashiness, he stuck out like a sore thumb there… I don't know why I haven't thought of it before." When nothing happened behind her, she turned around to look at her girlfriend.

Stilts had a glove covering her eyes in a classic facepalm. "You have got to be kidding, Shaye," she said without removing the glove. "You want to go down there again after all the nastiness we were exposed to? You have got to be kidd-ding!"

"Twenty thousand dollars, Snookums. Twenty thousand dollars," Shady said as she turned around to once again stare toward the dark zone and all the countless dangers that lurked there.


"I can't believe you talked me into doing this! Again!" Stilts croaked as she found herself crouched down behind the very same vandalized dumpster that she and Shady had already used for cover once. The reason for their escape into hiding was even the same: a souped-up Honda Accord filled with dangerous-looking hoodlums who listened to ear-shatteringly loud hip-hop cruised past on West Eleventh Street.

"Just think of the warm ski underwear and you'll be fine!" Shady whispered back.

Stilts had time to roll her eyes several times at the inane exchange before they were able to resume walking along the cracked, stained, dog poo-covered and generally disgusting sidewalk to get to somewhere she would prefer to be far, far away from.

"Here," Shady said, pointing at the door to 2442 West Eleventh Street where the black Lincoln sedan had been parked the first time they had been there. "This is where we bumped into that Don Corleone-wanna-be. Mista Slick-Hair 'n Black Shades."

A brief shaking of the head by Stilts was followed by a vast plume of steam and several Coachman's Strokes to stay warm. "I'm telling you one thing, Shaye, and I'm telling you right now. I'm outta here at the first sight of any kind of shit. And that's to be taken completely literally. Just sayin'!"

"I hear ya, I hear ya," Shady said with a grin as she shuffled around on the spot like she was trying to wind herself up for the big job ahead. A few moments later, the shuffling grew harder and her grin turned more strained. "Uh… Pookie… I think I need to, uh, take a whiz before we can do anything here…"

"Sheesh!" Stilts said and dug into her multi-layered outfit to find a half-full bottle of water and a roll of all-purpose toilet paper. The latter was good for mopping up spillages, acting as a makeshift handkerchief, wiping off nose-smears on storefront windows and polishing Shady's beloved brass harmonica as well as a dozen other bits and bobs that would happen on a daily basis - including the events for which the toilet paper had originally been designed. "Have fun watering the scenery… I'll be inside where it's warmer," she said and handed the two items to Shady.

"Won't be long!" Shady said before she zipped across the street to dive behind the vandalized dumpster.

Stilts grimaced; whatever else happened, they would never be able to use the dumpster for cover again - ever. She grimaced even harder when it dawned on her that it was most likely not the first time the rear side of the rusty, dented hunk of metal had been used as a makeshift public toilet.


Stepping into the lobby of 2442 West Eleventh Street seemed like deja vu all over again for Stilts. Like all the other lobbies in the dangerous neighborhood, it was smeared in graffiti that ranged from simple tags and lewd messages to something approaching half-decent artwork. The mix of smells that wafted down the stairwell from the upstairs apartments was indescribable and made her crinkle her sensitive nose - it had time to recognize cheap perfume and a somewhat pricier aftershave before it refused to process further smells.

Someone listened to music somewhere, but it seemed to be regular radio pop and not the aggressive heavy metal that had been playing in the neo-nazi's apartment next door. Now and then, voices speaking in a variety of languages could be heard; the people were talking to each other rather than yelling which was unusual in the dark zone.

She shuffled over to the mailboxes to look at the names of the residents. Most of them only displayed an initial and a last name to try to achieve a modicum of protection from the low-rent street-hoodlums that were bound to visit the lobby at all-too frequent intervals. A car came to a halt outside, but she paid no attention to it.

As the front door creaked open behind her, she turned around and reached for the expected roll of toilet paper. "Boy, you really needed to go-" she said, but stopped abruptly when she clapped eyes on the person who had entered the lobby - not Shaye LaSalle, but the slick-haired, camel-hair-coat-wearing gangster they had already met there once.

The gangster let out a grunt of surprise at seeing a stranger there; then he recognized her. A split second later, he grabbed hold of Stilts' lapels and slammed her up against the wall of the lobby with such force all the air rushed out of her. The lapels of the ex-US Navy coat were released, but a strong arm was placed across her throat instead while the free hand reached inside the folds of the camel-hair coat to retrieve an ugly, dark-gray pistol. "What the fuck are you doing here again, bitch?" he growled in a deep, frightening voice as he pressed the barrel of the handgun hard into Stilts' stomach. "You don't live here. What's your game?"

"I'm- I'm- I'm visiting-" Stilts croaked; the pressure across her throat never relented.


"I'm- I'm-"

"Shut the fuck up," the gangster said as he took a step back - the gun continued to be trained on Stilts' stomach. He wore black wraparound shades like the time he had bumped into Shady on the sidewalk, but he soon moved them up into his slicked-back hair to see better in the lobby's dim light. By the intense glare that played in his dark eyes, it was clear he thought hard about how to deal with the stranger.

Without speaking further, he took a firm grip on Stilts' coat and began to drag her up the staircase. Stilts cried out and tried to wiggle free, but not only was she powerless to resist the strength of the grip, none of the residents of any of the apartments opened the door to see what was going on, or indeed to offer their help.


They went up, up and up until they finally reached the fifth floor. Once there, the gangster slammed Stilts against the wall by a door to an apartment. Leaning over to his left, he clenched his fist to knock a pre-arranged signal on the door.

Although the man stayed silent, the unrelenting glare in his eyes and the threat of the ugly pistol convinced Stilts to remain passive. Her knees were knocking just as hard as the gangster's signal. Her heart tried to thump its way through her rib cage, and she broke out in an unpleasant full-body shiver brought on by the fear that swept through her.

The man holding her was a true gangster and not a Don-Corleone-wannabe like Shady had described him. His angry eyes and aggressive body language defied his slick clothes and revealed that he was no stranger to delivering physical pain. Sweat began to trickle down from the locks of Stilts' hair that protruded from her purple beanie hat; several more beads ran down her spine which only made her condition more unpleasant. In the six seconds that went by before the door was opened, she blew hot and cold twice which almost made her collapse.

When the door was finally cracked ajar - held in place by no less than four chains - the gangster holding the gun let out a phrase in a foreign language that seemed to act like Open Sesame. The person inside clicked the door shut again while removing the safety chains; then the gangster grabbed hold of Stilts' coat and forced her inside.

The street-hustler's eyes were wide and frightened as the door slammed shut behind her. She was trapped. The tall, suave gangster in the camel-hair-overcoat had been joined by a shorter, uglier fellow in black jeans, a black shirt and a red tie. He wore a leather shoulder-holster that held a nickel-plated revolver.

Inside the apartment, Stilts was overwhelmed by a stench of cheap perfume and strong cleaning agents that assaulted her sensitive nostrils. The apartment appeared to be a regular one with a central hallway, a bathroom to the left, a bedroom to the right, a small kitchen further ahead to the right, and a single living room at the far end.

For a second or two, Stilts thought it could be a so-called shooting gallery, a place where drug users met to buy and inject drugs, but the stench of cheap perfume did not fit. Everything was cast in electrical light as all the windows had been covered by blankets or curtains that had been nailed to the frames. Stilts stared wide-eyed at her surroundings while the tall gangster and the short, ugly fellow spoke in a language she did not understand.

When she suddenly caught a glimpse of a brunette standing in the doorway to the living room at the far end of the hallway, the jigsaw pieces fell in place for her. The unknown woman draped a shawl over her bare shoulders; she wore a supposedly sexy lingerie and nothing else. Her listless face and dead eyes proved she was, or had recently been, under the influence of some kind of drug.

Stilts stared at the two gangsters with wide, frightened eyes - Shady had not been wrong after all, though it had only been a throwaway comment at the time: they were pimps, and she had just been forced into a street brothel. The unpleasant theory was confirmed when a second woman, a bottle-blonde, appeared in the doorway to the living room. She was even less with it than the brunette was and seemed to be finding it difficult to stand up without supporting herself on the doorjamb.

When the gangsters noticed the two prostitutes, the shorter, uglier fellow stomped down there, grabbed them by their arms and flung them back into the living room. The tall, suave crook stepped back to Stilts and shot her another glare that was as hard as it was cold. "What the fuck do we do with you, bitch? Who are you?" he said in a deceptively calm voice.

"Jennifer Mulroney…" Stilts croaked.

"Where do you live?"

Stilts blinked several times while she tried to figure out whether or not to tell the truth. Though she was a top-drawer street-hustler with years of experience in all kinds of hoaxes, white lies and rigged games, her mind had turned so muddled by the dangers that she could do nothing but be truthful. "On West Sixteenth…" she said after a short while where the gangster's angry glare had only grown more intense.

"So why are you here? And don't give me that bullshit about visiting someone."

"I'm- I'm… looking for…"

"A job? You can have one," the gangster said while sporting a snake-like grin; although the gesture was in theory a friendlier one than his regular scowl, it only made his face more terrifying. To underline his words, he reached up to pull off the purple beanie hat which made Stilts' dark hair fall down around her face.

"No… no… no," Stilts said, shaking her head several times. She was at a dead end - perhaps literally so if she wasn't careful - so she decided to tell the truth. "The reward… the reward for finding the- the people who- b- beat up the nun… that's- that's why I'm here… I w- wanted to… collect the reward…"

The gangster instantly lost all his put-upon civility. His associate had yet to return from the living room, but the barked calling of his name changed that fact in a hurry. As the uglier fellow reappeared in the hallway, the tall gangster spoke to him in a foreign language. A short exchange followed before the ugly man moved into the living room; he returned a few seconds later with a folded-up newspaper that he handed the tall gangster so he could read the headline on the front page - it was the same one Shady had found over on West Fifteenth Street.

Two seconds went by before the slick-haired man let out an impressive curse in the same foreign language as before. "Fuck it all to hell!" he barked in English before he threw the newspaper in the ugly man's face.

Stilts watched all of that with wide open eyes. That she had encountered at least one, and perhaps two, of the three thugs who had assaulted the nun was undeniable. She glanced at the door to her left. The four chains made an escape impossible. If she delivered a swift, hard kick to the tall man's crotch, there was perhaps time to remove the first chain and possibly the second, but she would never be able to get to the third and fourth before the man had recovered enough to grab her - not to mention the other fellow though he had returned to the living room. If she was caught once more, they would beat her half to death if she was lucky.

"Move your ass, bitch," the tall gangster suddenly said. He grabbed hold of Stilts' arm and yanked her down the hallway. When they reached the living room, he forced her to the right. The room had been split into three temporary sections of equal size by putting up large separator drapes made of crushed velvet. Sweeping aside the first of the drapes, he threw her onto an unmade bunk bed that reeked of sex and more cheap perfume. "Stay and you won't get hurt. You understand me?" he said, pointing a threatening index finger at her. When he realized he still held the purple beanie hat, he threw it at his prisoner in disgust.

Stilts nodded even while her heart tried to burst through her chest. She clutched the purple beanie hat; a few tears appeared at the corners of her eyes. As the gangster left her, and then left the apartment, she buried her face in her hands and let out a deep, trembling sigh.


Shady had been forced into making a detour in her quest to find a suitable spot to vent her personal pressure relief valve. When she had returned to the vandalized dumpster, it had already been claimed by a homeless man who had needed to go just as much as she did. Two was a crowd when it came to things like that, so she had zipped further along a wire-mesh fence on West Eleventh Street until she had found a secluded space where she could unwrap her multiple layers of clothing to conduct her business.

Most of the bottle of water was used to wash her hands post-business, and the roll of toilet paper had lost a couple of pieces as well. A few more went to blow the trumpet before she returned to 2442.

Zipping back along the street, she slowed down when she clapped eyes on the black Lincoln sedan that had appeared out of nowhere while she had been busy answering Mother Nature's call. "Oh no," she croaked, slowing down even further. It was the same black sedan that had been there when she had bumped into the tall, gangster-like fellow.

A sudden burst of connections among the neural pathways in her brain painted an unpretty picture where the colors of the palette were the attack on the nun, the black car, the gangster and the address: the nun had been there, she had seen something or perhaps bumped into the gangster, and he and his cronies had done such a good number on her that she had nearly died. "Oh, Gawd… Pookie… Snookums… Honey-Bunny, where are you?" she croaked, clutching her head at the thought of Stilts being caught in the crossfire.

Hunching over, she ran across the street while her eyes were glued to the shiny black sedan with the tinted windows and the chrome wheels. Before she could reach it, the door to the apartment building was flung open - responding at once, she ducked down and hid behind the rear of a rusty, old Chrysler.

For the briefest of split seconds, she hoped it would be Stilts who would yell at her for leaving her alone for so long in the dangerous neighborhood. Her breath hitched when she saw the tall, suave, camel-hair-coat-wearing man stepping out of the door and strolling over to the Lincoln.

The man lowered his wraparound sunglasses as he spoke into his telephone at such a civil tone of voice that Shady could not pick up any of the words he uttered. He spent the next forty-five seconds talking and leaning against the door before he ended the conversation and climbed behind the wheel of the black car. Then he started and drove off.

Shady counted to thirty before she dared to pop her head out from behind the rear of the rusty Chrysler. The street was quiet once more - too quiet. There was no sign of Stilts anywhere, so Shady came out of hiding and zipped over to the door to 2442 West Eleventh.

She whipped off her beanie hat to mop her brow and ruffle her damp hair several times. All thoughts of the cold conditions had left her as the fright had set in - she was steaming hot under all her heavy winter clothes. Biting her lip, she looked up and down the street in the hope that Stilts had seen the black car in time and had made a run for it. When nothing happened, a bitter surge rose inside her. It became painfully obvious that Stilts had been caught by the gangster and had been dragged somewhere against her will.

"But where?" Shady mumbled, rubbing her brow with trembling fingers.

The worst case scenario was that Stilts had been knocked unconscious and had been thrown into the black Lincoln's trunk and taken God-only-knew-where for God-only-knew-what, but Shady pushed away that possibility as far as her mental capacity could reach. It was more likely the gangster had dragged her into the hideout they obviously had somewhere among the apartments. Gulping down another surge of fear, she zipped over to the front door and peeked inside.

The lobby appeared just as grungy as all the others on the street. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but it was the natural starting point so she hurried inside to get the job done before the gangster would return - possibly with his nasty cronies. A foul concoction of cheap perfume and something that she really did not want to discover what was trickled up her nostrils. At least no one was cooking cabbage or onion soup, but the other smells were bad enough on their own.

Just like Stilts had done not too long before, she moved over to the mailboxes to try to find even the slightest hint that would aid her search. They were all just an initial and a last name so nothing jumped out at her. The names were a mix of Hispanic, traditional American and two that appeared to be from the Middle-East - as irony would have it, a Jew and a Moslem lived side by side.

Shady furrowed her brow at the sight of the Middle-Eastern surnames on the mailboxes. She remembered reading in one of the articles in the Carlyle Tribune that some of the witnesses had mentioned the lead goon speaking in a foreign language; that and his faintly olive complexion offered a pointer that he could perhaps be from somewhere around the eastern part of the Mediterranean like Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, Israel or perhaps even one of the Emirates near or on the Saudi peninsula.

The two apartments in question were both on the fifth floor, so Shady flew up the staircase while crossing her fingers that she would be in luck for a change - and that no harm would come to Stilts in the meantime.




At much the same time in the Sisters of Mercy Communion House over on Sunderland Street, Sister Angelica moved away from the windows overlooking the busy world outside. She let out a deep sigh at her terrified reaction to the police car that had just raced past with flashing emergency lights and the siren blaring away - if the fierce hurricane of negative emotions that blasted through her soul each time she heard the dragon-like wailing of a siren did not get better soon, she would need to enter therapy.

A thin layer of white had fallen upon Sunderland Street since the last time she had looked out, but it was sleet rather than regular snow so it would soon be gone. Shivering, she moved back to her desk. The disc in the portable CD player was Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade Suite, one of her all-time favorite pieces of classical music. She had been listening to the third movement when the cruiser had raced past, but it was nearly ten minutes long so she had not missed too much.

Sitting down gingerly, she picked up the copy of the Carlyle Tribune newspaper she had bought on her way to the Communion House. The tall headline on the front page did not fail to catch her attention though she had already read the article several times. The local diocese of the Church Of The Blessed Virgin Mary - to which the Order Of The Sisters Of Mercy belonged - had doubled the reward for information that would lead to the arrest of the three criminals responsible for the violent assault. It now stood at twenty-thousand dollars.

Angelica let out another sigh; it trembled as it went past her lips. She closed her eyes and leaned back on the swivel-chair. Her entire body ached upon being reminded of the terrible experience. Though most of her bruises and physical scars were well on their way to healing, the psychological scarring ran deep. If she was fortunate, she would be able to get over the worst of it with the passing of time, but it would always be there at the base of her soul.

The peaceful, melodious third movement of Scheherezade ended; the dramatic fourth and final movement soon started playing. The tempestuous music made Angelica think of a consequence of the doubling of the reward that Her Grace Bishop Edelbrock - the person who was responsible for setting up the reward in the first place - would most likely never have expected, or even considered.

Having far more experience with the great variety of people inhabiting the streets, she knew for a fact that for twenty-thousand dollars, the number of hustlers, fraudsters and blatant liars who would try to score the money without knowing a thing about any of it would triple. Even when the reward had stood at ten-thousand dollars, she had heard from one of her old friends at the central administration that they were inundated with people trying to claim the reward. More than fifty people had showed up in person, e-mailed or called each day claiming to know exactly who, what, why and where - but there had not been a grain of truth to any of it. At twenty-thousand, the number of fraudulent people could easily reach a hundred if not two-hundred every single day.

The front door opening made Angelica come back to the present. An older and clearly confused woman hobbled into the open office; her skin had turned white from wearing far too little for the cold conditions, and on top of that, she had a bad case of tremens that could be alcohol-induced. Angelica got up from her chair the fastest she could without aggravating her own injuries. "Sister Maureen, I need you out here at once! Bring some warm blankets!" she said strongly over her shoulder before she hurried over to help the elderly woman.


From time to time, pandemonium seemed to reign supreme at the Communion House on Sunderland Street. Every once in a while a host of things would happen at once: each of the incidents would be bad enough in and of itself, but when they took place simultaneously, all that was left to do for the Sisters on duty was to hang on and pray for a little intervention from above to sort out the mess.

The afternoon of October sixteenth turned into one of those times. The elderly woman who suffered from senile dementia had been in the open office for a grand total of four minutes and nineteen seconds before she soiled herself, her clothes and the chair she had been put in. Then she collapsed onto the floor in the mess she had made.

At the same time, a man whom Sister Angelica had helped deal with the passing of his wife showed up presenting her with a large bouquet of flowers and a fruit basket filled with apples, pears, red grapes, regular and blood-oranges, clementines and even a jar of honey. Then the telephone started ringing. It rang. And rang. And rang. And rang. It rang for so long whomever was at the other end of the connection gave up to try another time.

Sister Angelica and Sister Maureen soon established they could not help the collapsed woman sufficiently with the first aid kit they had at their disposal, so Maureen dialed nine-nine-one to call for an ambulance from Pettersson's Ambulance Services. Angelica stayed at the senile woman's side to keep a close eye on her in case her condition worsened. The stench of the mess on the chair, the clothes and the floor was overwhelming, but there was nothing they could do about that until the woman had been given professional help. While all that went on, the elderly gentleman helped himself to a cup of coffee from the kitchenette as he watched the exciting events unfold.

Three minutes later, a garishly-painted GMC Savana came blasting along Sunderland Street with full lights and sirens. The sounds made Angelica break out in a shiver that made her so angry with herself she smacked her fist against her thigh. Unfortunately, both parties to that particular confrontation only ached worse afterwards. A short minute after the ambulance had landed outside, an EMT came running in carrying a large bag over his shoulder. He went to work on the collapsed woman at once while his colleague remained on the sidewalk with a gurney in case it was needed.

Sister Angelica was only happy for the respite - they still needed to find a mop, a bucket and the strongest disinfectant they had to deal with the woman's accident on the chair and the floor. Then the telephone started ringing. And ringing. And ringing. And ringing. And ringing. Thirty seconds into the infernal sequence, Angelica shot it such an Evil Eye it stopped.

While the first EMT continued to administer professional aid to the stricken woman, the door to the Communion House opened once more. A young African-American boy came inside and pressed himself against the inside of the door like he knew he was in trouble for being there. He wore boots, jeans, gloves and a thick, fire-engine red down jacket so at least he was not in danger of getting frostbite. He stared wide-eyed at the EMT and the elderly woman on the floor; then he crinkled his nose as the unfortunate smell reached him. It was almost enough to make him take off again, but he seemed to reconsider and stayed where he was.

Sister Maureen came back out from the utility room at the rear of the barrack carrying the items needed for cleaning up the mess as soon as the EMTs had finished working on the collapsed woman. Angelica let out a sigh of relief at the sight and moved back to her desk to sit down. The elderly man who had brought over the fruit basket was not about to let the smell stop him. Moving back into the kitchenette, he grabbed himself a couple of butter cookies to go with the coffee - it was apparently the most exciting thing in his life for a good while.

The young boy at the door needed to step aside when the first EMT strode outside to talk to his colleague. Then he needed to step aside again when both EMTs returned with a metal gurney that sported a bright-orange mattress.

Angelica groaned as she needed to get back up from her swivel-chair as the mess called for supervision by a senior nun. Just as she returned to the EMTs, the telephone on her desk - that she had left behind moments earlier - started ringing. And ringing. And ringing. And ringing.

Sister Maureen tried to get to it before the caller would give up again, but she had a little fumble with the mop and the bucket which meant the latter rolled off down the floor - fortunately, she had yet to pour water into it. The caller did in fact give up a few seconds later.

Through all that, the African-American boy slid sideways over to the nearest chair where he sat down in the shadows of one of the potted plants. After a few seconds, he unzipped his warm down jacket to reveal a black sweatshirt carrying the logo of the popular Urban Panther Squad superhero TV series.

The first shimmer of peace came when the EMTs lifted the collapsed woman onto the gurney and carried her out of the Communion House. Although Sister Angelica needed to hold the front door open while the men tried to get down the slippery metal staircase and onto the sidewalk without dropping the gurney or the patient, the fresh - but decidedly icy - breeze that swept into the open office helped blow out some of the harsh smell that had been produced by the woman's unfortunate accident on the chair and the floor.

Angelica and Sister Maureen shared a long, tired look before the latter poured hot tap water into the bucket and began the unpleasant job of cleaning the floor - the upholstery on the chair had already been stained beyond salvage so it could wait. The elderly man had run out of coffee and butter cookies so he took his hat and left after shaking Sister Angelica's hand and thanking her for being such a good listener.

Then the telephone started ringing again. And ringing. And ringing. And ringing. This time, Angelica was close enough to catch it, and she grabbed the DECT handset off the base station with a flurry that came back to haunt her almost at once. Wincing, she lowered herself onto the swivel-chair as she pressed the Off Hook button on the handset. "You've reached the Sisters Of Mercy Mission. This is Sister Angelica. How may we help you?" she said as she tried to lean back in the chair without making herself hurt even worse.

She furrowed her brow at the authoritarian and somewhat unfriendly voice that came through from the other end of the connection. It was a woman, and judging by the way she spoke, it was crystal clear she expected everyone to adhere to the strict orders she issued. "Uh… yes, this is- oh… hello, Commander Shulmann. Is there any news- oh, my God… you've found my crucifix?!" she cried, bolting forward on the swivel-chair with no concern for her health. When the wave of pain swept over her a few seconds later, she needed to clench her fist hard around the armrest to stop the worst of it.

Once the pain had become manageable, she released her grip on the armrest and reached up to the spot on her chest where the silver crucifix had been since the day she had been given it. That the spot had been empty for nearly two weeks had caused her so much grief she did not care to remember it all. "Oh, thank you… thank you! You don't know how much that means- 'beg pardon? Oh… no, that's… no… I'm sorry, but that's completely out of the question. I'm really- 'beg pardon? No, I'm really sorry. It's just not possible for me to come down to the West Seventh Street police station to pick it up. No. Commander Shulmann, I'm truly sorry, but it just isn't possible."

The news that she was expected to go back to the worst place on Earth for her to pick up the very item that had been stolen from her not four city blocks away from the police station created so much angst inside her she needed to get up from the chair and repeatedly rub her forehead. "Can't you get someone- 'beg pardon? No. I'm sorry. I'm not going over there and that's final. Like I was about to say, can't you get someone to drive over here with it? We're on Sunderla- Yes, that's right. Sunderland Street. Yes. Yes… you will? Thank you very much, Commander Shulmann. Thank you. It's the best news I've had for quite a while. No no, it doesn't have to be straight away… but I hope it could be sometime today because I do miss it so. My shift here ends at five, but I could stay on- 'beg pardon? Yes, that's right, we work in shifts. All right… Detective Thorpe, that's noted. No, I don't know her. Him, pardon. Should I? Oh… sorry, I must have misunderst- Yes. Thank you very much, Commander. Thank you. Goodbye."

It was all too much for the aching Angelica; she needed to sit down before she would drop and cause even more drama. She had already inserted the DECT handset back into its base station so its batteries could be recharged after the lengthy conversation when she noticed the young boy for the first time. A foot-tall, neon-green question mark appeared over her head at the sight - then she shuffled over to the corner of the office where the boy sat. "Hi," she said as she lowered herself gingerly onto one of the soft chairs.

"Hello," the young boy said in a tiny voice. He sat on his hands like he knew full well he was in so much trouble he would be grounded until Christmas or longer.

"I'm Sister Angelica. What's your name?" Angelica said with a sincere smile that came easy to her despite the physical pain she continued to feel. The guilty expression on the boy's face told her he had perhaps run away from home. If that was the case, she needed to find out as much as she could without spooking him into running again; then she would need to call his parents at once to let them know where he was.


"Very nice to meet you," Angelica said in a calm, friendly voice as she put out her hand. The boy extended his own and shook hands with her. The second the contact was no longer necessary, his hand zoomed back under his thigh. Angelica offered him another friendly smile to take the scariness out of the situation. "Welcome to the Sisters Of Mercy Communion House. We don't often have young men of your age here. Is there anything I can do to help you?"

Warren opened his mouth to speak several times but closed it at once before a single syllable could escape him. Nearly fifteen seconds of awkward silence went by before he ducked his head down between his shoulders. "I think I'm in trouble with my Mom. Big trouble."

"Surely not? What kind of trouble, Warren?"

"Oh, I… I…" the young boy said and squirmed in his seat. He bared his teeth in a grimace as he looked at anything but the middle-aged nun sitting opposite him. "Mom said I needed to do my homework before I could go over to my friend's place to play games. And I didn't want to… so I… I went over there anyway. Without doing my homework. But my friend wasn't home… and now I can't go home 'cos Mom will be so angry with me-"

"Say no more," Angelica said with a knowing smile like she had run away countless times and had faced countless irate mothers afterwards. "Yes, your mother may be angry, but I'll bet she's far more concerned right now. How long have you been away?"

"Long. Over an hour… nearly two."

"Okay, then I know she's concerned," Angelica said, nodding somberly. "Do you have a telephone?"

Warren shook his head.

"In that case, how about using mine to call home and apologize? Then you could tell your Mom where you are and she could come over and pick you up."

"Oh… you think… you think I should do that? She'll be angry with me…"

"Well, you did run away, didn't you?" Angelica said and performed a sly wink at the young boy.

Warren shrugged into his down jacket. "I guess…" he said, ducking his head down even further.

"It was really clever of you to come in here, Warren. That was great thinking, and I'll bet your mother will think so too."

Two small tears appeared at the corners of Warren's eyes, but since boys didn't cry, he wiped them off in a hurry before the middle-aged woman would notice. "And… and… and it's okay to use your telephone?" he said in a mumble.

"Of course! Come on, I'll even show you how it works… I better because it's a really, really old model that you won't be familiar with," Angelica said and clambered up from the soft chair. Her back ached once she got to her feet, but she swallowed the pain so the young fellow would not become worried about her. "It's right over here…" she continued, pointing at the desk and the DECT handset that stood ready in its base station.




Five minutes earlier.

At 2442 West Eleventh Street, 'Shady' Shaye LaSalle came to a halt on the floor she needed to be at - the fifth - after racing up the staircase the fastest she ever had. Wheezing, panting and moaning from the stitch that had developed in her side from the hard strain on her body, she needed to bend over and put her hands on her knees before she could even think straight.

The doors to the two apartments were identical. Both were flat-gray in color, and both appeared to be in good, strong shape meaning she needed to reassess her initial notion of barging through them like a stampeding rhinoceros. A small panel featuring a doorbell was located next to the doors; the one on the left carried the Moslem name, the one on the right the Jewish one.

Shady whipped her head back and forth as she stared a great deal at the two names like they would help her work out which of the two apartments was the hot spot for a great deal of the criminal activity that had plagued Greater Carlyle for weeks.

Once she had regained her breath, she sneaked over to the door on the left and stuck her ear to it. When she realized her hearing was impaired by the beanie hat, she whipped it off all over again now she was on such an important covert operation. Putting her ear back to the door, she could still hear nothing. Grunting, she moved over to the other one. Still nothing. The only clue at the second door was faint traces of cheap perfume that seemed to seep through the reinforced, fireproof material.

She mashed the beanie hat back on her blond mop before she moved a few steps back to be able to look at both doors at once. "Eenie-meenie-minie-moe," she said, moving her hand left to right in front of the two doors in an attempt at finding the right one. It was too ridiculous even for her low standards so she came to a halt before she had made it too far into the nursery rhyme. "Oh, screw that… Cookie… I'm right here… please don't lose faith… and please, please, please be all right," she mumbled, wiping her sweaty brow on the back of a trembling hand.

Then she was hit by a sudden flash of inspiration. Shoving her hands up under the multiple layers of clothing she wore - besides her traditional pairing of men's long johns, sweatpants and a pair of heavy-duty, ex-US Army cargo pants, she was decked out in an undershirt, four T-shirts, a cardigan, a sweater, a hoodie, another sweater and finally the double-layered sweater - she eventually reached one of only two pockets of the entire upper ensemble: the ones in the hoodie. In there, she carried her faithful musical companion, her priceless brass harmonica, so it would be warm and ready to be played on in case she and Stilts found a receptive audience for their sentimental songs from the old country.

She did not have any Moslem or Jewish songs in her repertoire, so a little improvisation was called for. After cleaning the harmonica on a piece of the toilet paper, she put it to her mouth and tried to play a chord to get herself into the right frame of mind. The pathetic, off-key braying that came out of her first attempt made her let out a long groan.

Her heart was thumping too hard for her to relax enough to produce the solid stream of air needed to play the harmonica, so she leaned over and put her hands on her knees once more to try to regain even the tiniest amount of inner peace. When she thought she had it, she tried the chord again. It was still not perfect, but it would suffice.

Taking a deep breath, she went into a spirited performance of The Bay Of Biscay, an old, sentimental sea-shanty that was always a sure-fire hit with spectators of a certain age. A minute into her playing, she thought she could hear activity from beyond both doors.

As the warm, melancholy sounds were produced by the priceless instrument, Shady's brain tried to process what she had heard while keeping up with the notes needed to play the old tune. At one point, she blew a bum note when she thought she had heard someone yelling her name from the other side of one of the doors. When nothing further happened, she chalked it up to wishful thinking.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained so she played on. The door on the left was suddenly opened to reveal a mid-forty-something Middle-Eastern man in bathing slippers and a dark-blue jogging suit that carried the logo of the Greater Carlyle Department Of Public Transportation on the front. His black hair was damp like he had recently been showering, and the lower half of his face was covered in a thick layer of shaving foam - he held an old-fashioned safety razor in his right hand to provide even more proof that he had been interrupted while shaving. "What in the world?" he said in an English that only held the tiniest of accents.

It was crystal clear to all but a blind billy goat - which meant that even Shady realized it - that the man from the Department Of Public Transportation had nothing to do with the gangsters, so she stopped playing and plastered a smile onto her face. "Good afternoon, Sir! I'm from the United Girl Scouts of Greater Carlyle, the Wendoline Woodpecker Club! We are trying to raise enough funds to go on a two-week-"

"Aren't you a little old to be a girl scout?" the man said, squinting at the somewhat suspicious-looking individual on his doorstep.

"Oh no, Sir! We Woodpeckers come in all ages, shapes and sizes. Being a girl scout is a life-long calling for some of us. We never stop scouting for girls, ha ha!"

"So if I give you a couple of dollars, you'll go away?" the man said in a monotone that betrayed he felt like slamming the door in his visitor's face but was too polite to do so.

"Well… yes. Just a few will suffice, Sir!" Shady said as she pulled up in her multiple layers of clothing to find the hoodie and its pockets. Mission accomplished, she put away the priceless brass harmonica so she could have her hands free.

As the man went into his apartment to find his wallet, Shady's bright smile melted from her face. She crept over to the other door to listen for anything that would provide a clue of Stilts' whereabouts. She thought she could hear female voices from beyond the door, but her heart was hammering so hard in her chest she could be mistaken.

When the man returned, he offered Shady a five-dollar bill. "Here," he said, thrusting the crumpled-up note into Shady's outstretched hand. "Don't bother playing for my neighbors. You don't want to mess with them. They're bad people. Men come and go all day… sometimes into the night. And the landlord doesn't care a bit when I tell him."

"Oh… thank you, Sir!" Shady said as she looked at the five dollars. "Thank you very much… uh, and the United Girl Scouts of Greater Carlyle and the Wendoline Woodpecker Club thank you too," she continued, performing a slight bow to the generous fellow.

"Mmmm!" the man said as he was finally allowed to close the door.

Once she was alone, the unexpected five-dollar bill was given a new home in the side pocket of her US Army surplus cargo pants. She reached up under her beanie hat to scratch her damp mop. The tension blasting around inside her meant she produced enough heat to run a bread oven, so she took off the hat to allow some fresh air to get to her scalp.

Her face was set in stone. Although she had not registered any signs of life from the second apartment beyond the faint female voices, she was certain she had found the right spot. "Men come and go all day and sometimes into the night…" she mumbled, echoing the generous neighbor's words. The hidden meaning kept churning on in her mind until the essence finally spilled over: "Holy guacamole, they really are running a cathouse… I just knew they were pimps, those miserable- ohhhhh, and my precious, little Buttercup is stuck in there!" she croaked, needing to pinch the bridge of her nose as it all dawned on her.

A plan formed in her mind: a plan that involved finding a telephone to call the police. She was anything but a Rambolina so she had zip, zero, nada, nil chance of getting any results on her own despite her fiery temper and her previous half-baked notion of behaving like a stampeding rhinoceros. The situation called for action by trained professionals, but the biggest question she faced was if they would listen to her - and not to mention if they would listen to such a far-fetched story.

If she called and used her own name to introduce herself, the police would certainly send a patrol car, but it would be to arrest her instead of the crooks who held Stilts captive - in short, she needed to use all her skills from the ventriloquist act that she rarely performed because it was hard on her vocal cords. First things first, and that was to find a telephone somewhere.

To convince herself that she was in the right place, she tip-toed over to the door with the Jewish name, M. Levin, on the panel. She pressed her ear to the door, but the fireproof material was too thick and too effective for even her keen hearing. Concentrating hard, she thought she could hear a gruff, male voice as well as a weaker female one, but she would not bet her life - or Stilts' life - on it.

She chewed hard on her lips as she inched back from the door. The primary objective of her highly dangerous mission was to find a telephone, so she spun around and raced down the staircase. One of the residents was bound to let her in to borrow their phone - she would just have to cook up a good enough cover story without revealing too many details that could raise too many suspicions about the whole thing.




Over on Sunderland Street, the door to the Communion House flew open and a tearful African-American woman came running in. It only took her three seconds to locate her son who had ducked his head so far down into his fire-engine-red jacket out of sheer guilt that most of it up to the top of his ears had disappeared behind the tall collar. There would probably be a few heated words spoken later on, but they were overruled by a big, crushing hug that showed how much the woman had been worried about her son's disappearance.

Sister Angelica stayed well back from the happy reunion so she would not intrude on the private moment; a wistful smile graced her lips at the sight of the loving hugs and kisses that were exchanged. Ever since Warren had made the call home, she had kept him entertained by having him make a few drawings. At the ripe old age of ten, he had felt he was too old to use crayons so he had drawn the artwork with a dull pencil instead - it had proven to be perfect for drawing neat dinosaurs of which some were realistic and others in the realm of the Fantastic.

While the big hug went on and on, Angelica collected Warren's drawings and tapped them into an orderly pile. The best ones would go up onto the notice board by her desk so some of the other children who came by from time to time could be inspired to draw their own artwork.


After the happy couple had left with a strong sense of gratitude and an equally strong promise never to run away from home again, the open office of the Communion House on Sunderland Street turned quiet and peaceful for a change. Angelica let out a sigh of relief and shuffled into the center of the office to give everything a thorough once-over.

Nothing needed her immediate input save for the chair used by the senile woman. The seat with the integrated cushion had gained an unfortunate shade of brown, but she knew she was unable to move it on her own in her present physical condition so she did not even try - it was a two-nun job at the very least so it would have to wait until Sister Maureen or the Novice who would join them later could spare a moment. Instead, she moved over to her desk, wheeled out the swivel-chair and sat down gingerly.

Sister Maureen had done sterling work with the mop and bucket after the incident on the floor, and she was now busy in the kitchenette preparing the chicken broth and the cauliflower-chunky carrot-whole sweet pea soup they would serve from the late afternoon hours until mid-evening for those who came looking for a little help to get by. The weather was still cold, but no new snow or sleet had fallen for a while so at least it remained stable.

Angelica swiveled around to look at the rack of CDs behind her. She chose a recording of Robert Schumann's second symphony, another of her favorite classical works. As the first movement started on the portable CD player, she leaned back in the seat and let out a groan at the stab of pain that shot up from her back.

Remembering the newspaper she had bought many hours earlier, she picked it up once more and began leafing through it in search for something uplifting and soulful to read.


Just as the second movement, the scherzo, faded out on the CD, the DECT telephone rang. Angelica leaned forward to press stop on the player before she picked up the handset. "Hello, you've reached the Sisters Of- oh hello, LuAnne!"

'Hello, Sister Angelica,' the journalist said at the other end of the connection. Her voice was warm and friendly as always, but there seemed to be an underlying edge of stress to it which was unusual. 'First of all, I'm sorry it took me so long to get back to you. It's been busy like you wouldn't believe here at the paper.'

"Oh, that's all right. We've been quite busy too, actually. How are you? You sound a little stressed-out."

'Me? I'm fine… just too much caffeine and too little sleep. And my editor is breathing down my neck complaining about something he calls a deadline… so what else is new? How about you? Are you feeling any better now?'

Angelica shrugged though LuAnne would obviously not be able to see it. "Yes and no. I'm still aching, and… and I still don't like to hear sirens, but other than that… I'm getting better. It's a slow process, but I'm getting there."

'I'm glad to hear it. You said you had some information for me regarding the three men?'

"Yes… yes I do," Angelica said and leaned forward on the swivel-chair. She had written down the information that Bruce 'The Moose' Larson had given her so she would remember it, but now the note she had made proved hard to find. After a furious bout of shoving paperwork aside, she found the note and leaned back against the swivel-chair's backrest. "A homeless man who came by last night told me that the three men are driving a big, black sedan with tinted windows and chrome wheels. He didn't know their names, but he had a partial description of them. Are you interested in that?"

'Oh, absolutely! Wait, I need to-' - clickety-clickety-click-click-clickety - 'Okay, I'm ready to type it down. Go ahead.'

"One is a bald African-American, the other is a curly-haired Latino and the final one could be an Arab. In any case, he has an olive complexion and doesn't have a typical white look."

The sounds of frantic typing on a plasticky keyboard filtered through the connection. LuAnne let out a few sounds along the way to prove she was still there. 'Thank you… I'll need to adjust it slightly. The legal department will throw a huge fit if I single out the ethnicity of the Arab… especially if the man turns out to really be Greek or a Romanian or something similar. I'll write he's from the Middle East.'

"Well… all right. Shouldn't make that much of a difference. I really hope it'll give us the breakthrough we need. Oh! Which reminds me… the police have recovered my crucifix! A detective will come by with it later today! Isn't that wonderful, wonderful news?" Angelica said, once more reaching up to touch the place where the priceless piece of jewelry had been for so long.

'Congratulations, Angelica! Yes, it certainly is. You deserve a little good fortune after all the sh- uh… bad things you've been through.'

Angelica chuckled at her friend's near-profanity. Laughter had been a scarce commodity since the assault that had nearly claimed her life, and even though the chuckle only lasted for a few seconds, it felt good to finally release some of the negative pressure that had mounted inside her. "Yes," she said, shifting around on the swivel-chair, "I can't wait for him to show up so I can have it back. I hope it's all there and that the chain is intact."

'Oh, I'm sure it is. And speaking of showing up… with the apparent gang war that's going on in our fair metropole these days, the need for some positive PR has filtered through to the top. I've received confirmation from not only Chief Police Commissioner Farnsworth but Mayor Goddard as well that they'll show up at your anti-violence protest rally.'

"Oh! That's… that's good news too," Angelica said, furrowing her brow at the thought of the inevitable pandemonium the public appearances would bring with them. "I had almost forgotten all about that… ever since the weather made a turn for the worse, we've been up to our necks in work. I must admit I haven't had time to look at any of the rally's details for a while…"

'Don't worry about that for a second, Sister Angelica. Everything is proceeding according to the master plan. Whether or not the master plan is any good remains to be seen, though… ha ha!'

"Oh, LuAnne… that was a joke too far!"

'Sorry. Right, I need to be going or else my editor will revoke my telephone privileges. Thank you very much for the information regarding the three men. As always, I promise to make it an anonymous tip so no one will be able to trace it back to you.'

"Thank you, LuAnne… thank you very much. Talk to you later. Goodbye."

'Bye,' the journalist said before hanging up.

Sister Angelica put the DECT handset back in its base station so it could recharge; then she leaned back on the swivel-chair to ponder the latest development. The news that both Mayor Goddard and the Chief Police Commissioner would show up at the anti-violence protest rally in person was one of those good news-bad news situations. On the plus side, it would raise the rally's profile tremendously and give it a legitimacy it could not have achieved on its own, but on the down side, the risk of it turning into a three-ring media circus was a dark storm cloud looming on the horizon - especially considering Mayor Goddard's near-legendary ability to steal all the spotlight away from the important matters and put it on herself.

She sighed as she reached over to the portable CD player to return to Robert Schumann's second symphony. After clicking onto the next track after the scherzo, she let the third movement - the adagio - fill her senses for a while.

The peace was broken a scant minute later by the familiar, dragon-like wailing of an electronic ambulance siren belonging to a unit from Sklar & Bonney that flew past out on the ever-busy Sunderland Street. It happened time and time again over the course of the day, and time and time again, Angelica's heart jumped into her throat as the post-traumatic reaction exploded inside her.

Letting out a sigh that trembled far more than she cared for, she buried her face in her hands and revisited all the horrific scenes once more. The men. The beating. The blood on the sidewalk. Her blood. Seeing it all over again made her breath hitch, and she needed to get up from the swivel-chair at once to escape the images that threatened to drown her.

She hurried into the center of the open office and rubbed her face several times to return to normal. Unfortunately, fate had it in for her as not fifteen seconds later, one of the Greater Carlyle paramedic units came racing past out on Sunderland Street with all its sirens going at the same time. "Oh, for the love of God Almighty," she croaked, smacking her fist into her open palm as her heart once more tried to jump out of her rib cage.

She needed to do something to defeat the negative emotions thundering around inside her, so she hurried back to the CD player and turned the volume up to nearly maximum to take her mind off everything else.

The classical music grew so loud that Sister Maureen came out of the kitchenette to see what was going on. It only took the experienced nun a single look at Angelica to understand. "Sister, I could use a hand with the pots and pans," she said in a soothing voice. "Sister Heidi is late and it won't be long before the first people will show up looking for warm food."

Angelica's face was as pale as a sheet when she looked at the other member of her Order. Slowly returning to normal, she broke out in a jerking nod and followed Maureen back into the kitchen - she knew that stirring the pots with the delightful chicken broth and the vegetable soup would do her good.




Five minutes earlier - West Eleventh Street.

Jennifer 'Stilts' Mulroney's eyes were out on stalks and her entire body trembled. The hairy, callused hand that was clapped over her nose and mouth reeked of onions and ketchup, and the ugly goon who had been disturbed in the middle of eating a hamburger when Stilts had yelled Shaye's name had his nickel-plated revolver pressed hard into her back to make her less inclined to speak up again.

The two people stood like that for a minute and a half; it felt like an entire lifetime for Stilts. When the unexpected music and the subsequent voices faded outside in the stairwell beyond the fireproof door, the revolver was pulled back and the hammer lowered once more. The smelly hand remained covering her mouth.

Another minute went by until she was finally released from the grip. Panting, she bumped down on the unmade bed and shook her head in despair. When she had heard the characteristic warm, melodic sounds of the brass harmonica, she had reacted on pure instinct - she had cried Shaye's name and had tried to make a run for the door at the end of the hallway. She had only made it halfway there before the ugly goon had caught up with her. He had not hurt her as such for trying to escape; the threat the revolver presented in her back had been punishment enough.

The man wearing the black shirt, black jeans and the red tie moved around to Stilts' front. He slid his revolver into the leather shoulder-holster and clicked a small button closed to keep it there. An annoyed expression was etched onto his face that told a tale of preferring to dish out a little pain. "The next time you cry out will be the last!" he hissed in an accented English. The message was accompanied by such a dark glare that Stilts could only nod.

In his mid-thirties, the man had broad, coarse features with a low brow, bushy eyebrows, a crooked nose and a square jaw that carried a two-day stubble. By the way his short, dark hair glistened, it appeared he had rubbed half a tube of gel into it. Although he was a few inches shorter than Stilts, his bulk was far greater. He was heavy-set without being either overweight or buff; similarly his shoulders were broad but not muscular. All in all, he was simply a goon.

It was clear from the look in the man's eyes that he was in no mood for further games, so Stilts remained sitting passively on the bed. Her face had turned sticky from the ketchup that had been on the goon's fingers when he had grabbed her. A box of tissues stood on a small bedside table next to the bunk, but when she reached for it, the goon's hand flew over to his revolver at once. "Th- the… tissues…" she croaked, pointing at the cardboard box.

Her captor let out a grunt that was perhaps meant to approve the action. Stilts reached for the box and pulled out a few tissues that she used to wipe the sticky substance off her upper lip and left cheek. She sighed as she looked at the residue on it. The red color was an ugly reminder of how close she had been to seeing her own blood if either the tall gangster or the uglier, shorter one had pulled the trigger when they had their guns trained on her.

With the worst of the drama over, the ugly goon let out another dark grunt as he moved back into the small kitchen to finish his hamburger and his can of imported dark lager.

Stilts let out a trembling sigh as she was finally left alone. For the first time since being dragged into the apartment, she had enough mental capacity to take in her surroundings. Like she had already seen, the living room had been divided into three sections through the use of tall and wide drapes made of crushed velvet. The drapes were suspended from the ceiling on little hooks that in turn were connected to curtain rails which enabled them to be pulled shut or apart.

All that existed in her section were the unmade bunk bed, the small bedside table that carried a small reading lamp as well as the box of tissues. The floor was mostly bare, but the four posts of the bunk bed had been placed on thick bamboo mats - perhaps to reduce the risk of the downstairs neighbor complaining about the inevitable rhythmic noises. The walls were all bare and draped in outmoded wallpaper, but faint outlines of old picture frames proved it had been a regular apartment once upon a time.

Her third of the living room had a window overlooking the inner courtyard, but like the windows she'd had time to see when she had been dragged into the apartment, everything was nailed shut and covered in heavy drapes to make sure that no one in the outside world had as much as a remote chance of peeking in.

The light to offset the darkness was provided by a naked bulb hanging down from the ceiling. The bulb carried pieces of a metal frame around it; it looked odd, like it had been a proper lampshade at one point before it had been smashed or simply fallen apart.

Like she had already established - much to the detriment of her sensitive nose - everything reeked of cheap perfume and sex. Several different cleaning agents joined the mix from the bathroom further up the hallway which did not improve the environment. To exacerbate the cocktail of aggressive odors, the metal radiators connected to the apartment block's central heating system had all been turned up to near-maximum so the women working there and their customers could conduct their physical transactions without worrying about cold fingers or feet.

The heat got to her now she had time to calm down just a fraction, and she slipped the heavy ex-US Navy all-weather coat off her shoulders. It helped a little, but she was still quite hot under the collar from the multiple layers of clothing she still wore, not to mention the drama and the tension that remained just below its boiling point inside her. A strong sense of worry was created by the tension; it manifested itself as a rock-hard boulder in her gut.

"Hello…?" a frail, female voice said somewhere to Stilts' right - it turned out to be the brunette who had stood in the doorway to the living room earlier. She still wore the blanket she had draped over her bare shoulders. "You okay? You new?" she said in a heavily accented English. When the ugly goon remained in the kitchen, she tip-toed into the other section of the living room on bare feet.

Stilts tried to smile at the concerned prostitute who sat down next to her on the bunk bed, but it never amounted to much beyond a faint creasing of her lips. She and Shady knew a few working girls from roaming the streets on a daily basis; their personalities were as different as everyone else's, but one thing they all had in common was that their looks had long since been stolen by their tough occupation and the drugs a good deal of them consumed to get through their typically rough days.

The concerned prostitute wearing low-grade lingerie and a blanket that sported several burn-holes made by cigarettes was no different. Her skin was waxen and lined; her eyes dull. Her unwashed hair would only remain up through plenty of lacquer. She had tried to compensate for it by applying far too much makeup which had made her age indefinable. She had no needle-tracks on her arms or legs so she was most likely a pill-popper.

"I'm okay… thank you," Stilts said, looking at the other woman's dull, emotionless eyes. The resulting cold shiver that ran down her spine wrestled with the hot flash that rolled over her from her gut out - the match soon turned into a stalemate which was the worst possible outcome. "And… and I'm… I'm not… the tall gangster caught me spying. I'm Jennifer… what's your name?"

"Cristina from Romania. The other girl Lidia from Poland."

Stilts stared at the woman next to her. "You're a long way from home… uh… how long have you been here?" - A moment later, she cringed hard at the inane line of questions, but it was all she could come up with. She broke out in a grimace at the inability of her brain to form coherent sentences. All it could think of what was going to happen to her in the immediate future.

"Don't know. Three weeks. Month," Cristina said with a shrug that made the blanket slip off her shoulder. She pulled it back up and held it tight. "I work streets before that. Lidia work bars. Weissman found me on street. He paid good money for fuck, but locked me in. Give me free drugs so I guess okay."

"Weissman? The tall gangster is called Weissman? Do you know his first name?"

Cristina suddenly realized she had said far too much. She narrowed her eyes and pulled back from the taller woman. "Don't know. Don't know!" she said, getting up from the bunk bed at once. When heavy footfalls in the hallway heralded the ugly goon returning from his hamburger-break, she hurried back into her own section.

Two seconds later, the criminal in the black shirt appeared in Stilts' third of the living room. "I told you to shut up! If you want a beating, just keep talking!" he growled, pointing an index finger at her.

Stilts shook her head at once and tried to appear as passive as she possibly could.

The goon let out an angry grunt and moved back into the kitchen. A moment later, his voice could be heard speaking over the telephone. Stilts strained her hearing to take it all in: 'Yo, Tyrone… I got a little situation here. Can you come over? No, we caught someone snooping. A tall bitch. Huh? Yeah, she's hot. No, she don't look like a cop. I don't know what the fuck her game is. Yeah, I need a babe-sitter. Bring some beer. See ya in a few, bro.'

Stilts furrowed her brow - more goons showing up could only spell more trouble.


She had been right: the large African-American who showed up ten minutes later carrying a plastic bag containing a six-pack of beer and few bags of tortilla chips looked like trouble personified. The first thing he did when he saw her was to let out a wolf call and rub his crotch. Like the goon in the black-and-red outfit, he was in his mid-thirties. His body type was far more athletic in build and he wore a green-and-orange sweatsuit that carried the logo of the Carlyle Kodiaks pro basketball team. He had a mouth beard and a short, military-style haircut that left an inch-high mound of hair at the top of his head with nothing around his ears.

"Hell yeah, she's too fuckin' babe-alicious, man! Much better than the other two skanks," he said, undressing Stilts with his eyes without even trying to maintain a certain amount of class about it. "How about we… ya know, took her for a spin 'round the block, man?"

"We can't," the shorter, uglier goon said. He crossed his arms over his chest and offered Stilts such an intense glare she had to look down at her hands.

The potential for bad trouble and the resulting tension was mounting by the second. Stilts needed to gulp down several lumps that blossomed from worry to concern to fear in a matter of seconds. She stared at the bare floor by her boots so she would not have to look at any of the men near her.

"Aw, why the hell not, man?" Tyrone continued, giving his friend a nudge. "C'mon, let's break her in. Who's gonna know, Big Mo?"

The other goon shook his head. "They'd know. Trust me. Let's get a beer. We need to talk," he said as he moved out of the living room and into the hallway.

Tyrone remained by the bunk bed for a little while before he rubbed his crotch again. "You might as well get naked 'cos this black python 's gonna rock you but good," he whispered before he left.

Stilts bared her teeth in a worried grimace as she watched the man moving into the kitchen to join his friend over a beer and some tortilla chips. A cold flash struck her and left her shivering. She needed to sit on her hands to fight it, but even that was not enough. "Shaye…" she whispered under her breath. "I really, really need you… oh… where are you?!"


Shady's lack of assistance was not for a lack of trying - even after knocking or using the door bells of each and every one of the apartments on the floors above and below the one where Stilts was held captive, she had been unable to get access to a phone so she could call the police. Either the residents were not at home, or they flat-out refused to listen to her no matter how much she begged and pleaded.

When the attempted rescue mission turned into a calamity of Olympian proportions, she had run a few doors down to 2444 West Eleventh Street in the hope she would find a friendlier soul. When there had been no takers there either, she had moved onto 2445 which had provided yet another horrific chapter in her already starkly chilling book of woes. The world seemed to conspire against her and Stilts because nobody wanted to give her as much as the time of day, much less let her borrow their telephone.

Dejected, Shady ran back to the door at 2442 West Eleventh. Her only hope now was the man from the Carlyle Department Of Public Transportation in the apartment opposite the one with all the bad people - either that or she needed to chance it in one of the grungy bars at the corner of West Eleventh and Thurston Street. The risk of contracting rabies from the clientele alone was so high she pushed that notion aside to act as her last-last-last-ditch alternative.


Back up on the fifth floor, she needed to lean over and put her hands on her knees all over again. Although she was in good shape, running up and down all those stairs was new to her and it was a real killer to her system.

Still wheezing and panting, she tip-toed over to the door with the Jewish name by the door bell to try to listen for any activity. Unlike the first time, she could hear two distinct male voices. She could still not make out what was actually said beyond the door, but the cadence of the men's voices led her to believe they were on friendly terms, and perhaps even joking around with each other.

She let out a deep sigh as she moved over to the other door. After pressing the door bell, she crossed all her fingers and toes that the generous man was still at home and that he would listen to her pleas. The thought of the five dollars he had given her made her dig into her pants pocket and find the crumpled-up note. A sour look spread over her face - it would have paid for dinner, but what good would dinner have done to anyone as long as Stilts was being held captive by those hoodlums?

The door soon opened though it was held in place by several safety chains. It briefly closed once more while the chains were removed - then the resident stepped into sight. He had finished shaving and was in the process of putting on a dark-blue winter jacket that also carried the Carlyle Department Of Public Transportation logo. He wore dark shoes, a pair of dark-blue uniform pants with razor-sharp creases, a black belt, a white shirt and a black tie with an elegant knot. When he realized he was looking at the same woman for the second time in a very short while, he let out a puzzled grunt.

"Sir. My name is Shaye LaSalle. I wasn't being truthful before. I need your help," Shady said, holding up the five-dollar bill. There was a time for pulling a fast con and a time for being painfully sincere, and this was a good example of the latter. "I need to borrow your telephone. My friend has been kidnapped by your neighbors. We need to call the police at once."

The man looked at Shady with such an expression of pure skepticism written all over his face that she was sure he was about to slam the door on her. "Please, Sir… it's the truth. Here's your money back. I just need to borrow your phone for two minutes to call the cops. You said yourself they were bad people… and now they've kidnapped my friend. Please…"

Ten, stony silent seconds went by before the man nodded and stepped aside. "All right. You can borrow my telephone. It's on the sideboard in the living room. I believe you, but I'll take my money back, if you don't mind. I knew you were too old to be a girl scout…"

Shady let out a long sigh of relief as she went over the threshold and into the man's apartment. "Thank you! Thank you so much, Sir," she said as she gave back the crumpled-up five-dollar note. She never paused to look around but went straight for the sideboard inside the neatly decorated living room.

A sleek, black smartphone with a large display was connected to a charger. The power cable did not interfere with the usage so she let the jack stay in while she dialed nine-one-one. The seconds seemed to last for hours, days, weeks and even eons as they ticked away before a connection was established with the police through the centralized emergency number.

'Carlyle Police Department, how may we help you?' a female voice said at the other end of the connection.

Shady's brain went into overdrive. Like she had already established, if she provided her real name to the police, there was a risk they would be coming for her instead of rescuing Stilts - on the other hand, if she was not entirely truthful, there was an even greater risk they would put the call down to a prank altogether. The ventriloquist act suddenly seemed too risky to pull, so she cleared her throat to use her own voice: "He- hello," she said, puzzled at how much her vocal cords tied themselves into knots as she spoke, "m- my name is Shaye LaSalle. A w- a woman is being held against her will… she- she was- I saw her being grabbed off the street by a man and drag- brought up into an apartment on West Eleventh Street. Two-four-four-two West Eleventh Street! The apartment is on the fifth floor! You need to get here quickly before he can harm her!"

'Miss, please remain calm. Are you sure you witnessed a crime in progress and not a-'

"Yes, Goddammit! I know her! And the man looked like a creep!" As Shady spoke, she closed her eyes and cursed inwardly; she had veered off into a white lie after all though she had not intended to. Not only was it second nature to her, the reality of what had happened was just too vague and coincidental to convince anyone - especially the police who were infamous for their reluctance to send out cruisers to addresses in the dark zone.

'The incident has been logged, Miss. We'll send a unit to two-four-four-two West Eleventh Street as soon as one is available.'

"Thank you. It needs to be oh-so-Goddamned fast 'cos who knows what that creep is doing to her right now!" Shady growled into the telephone. When the connection was closed, she put the charging smartphone back on the sideboard and buried her face in her hands. She had a rotten feeling inside that the police was not going to respond soon enough - but even if they showed up within two minutes, there was a risk they would only do a half-hearted search so they could get out of the dark zone without jeopardizing their own backsides.

Rubbing her eyes, she was overcome by a wave of dizziness and fatigue that necessitated sitting down in a hurry. She looked around and soon found a neat three-seater couch that seemed perfect for the task. Once she was seated, she buried her face in her hands all over again as raw fear for her girlfriend's safety and well-being blasted around inside her.

"Miss LaSalle, can I make you some tea? Strong tea?" the owner of the apartment said from the doorway to the living room. He had a concerned look upon his face that proved he had changed his mind about Shady and the entire highly peculiar situation.

The uniform jacket was too hot to wear inside, so he took it off and hung it over the nearest door handle. The stark-white, long-sleeved shirt, the black tie and the dark-blue uniform pants with the razor-sharp creases turned him into an impressive figure who would not have looked out of place among the senior managers of a major corporation.

"Tea? Oh… no, thank you. I'm fine," Shady said and rubbed her brow once more.

The man offered his odd guest a cautious smile like he still had some doubts as to what was actually going on. "I'm Saleem Tariq al-Hadin, by the way. I drive a city bus for a living. Welcome to my humble apartment," he said as he moved inside the living room and sat down in a winged armchair.

Sighing, Shady offered her host a tired smile. Looking around the living room, she noticed that everything was squeaky clean and of good quality. Two tall oakwood book cases dominated the room that also saw a couch arrangement, a low coffee table and two winged armchairs. There were a few potted plants here and there of the kind that only needed a tiny amount of attention and watering. The sideboard where the telephone was also carried a flatscreen TV. Several framed photographs taken at a desert oasis somewhere adorned the walls alongside two colorful posters that had Arabic lettering on them. Shady could not make heads or tails of the squiggly lines, but the English words Liberate Syria Now were printed below the Arabic.

"Are you from Syria?" she said to try to take her mind off the dramas that could very well be taking place next door at that exact moment in time.

"My father was. He fled Damascus after the military coup fifty years ago to start a new life here. I was born here in Carlyle. I'm sorry for being so blunt, Miss… but are you homeless? You, ah… have that look about you," Saleem said and offered his guest an apologetic gesture.

Shady let out a dark chuckle. "No. I share an apartment over on West Sixteenth with my dear friend. We work on the streets. We're hustlers. We play Diamonds and read palms. Sing songs and play the harmonica. You know. Hustling."

"Oh… I see," Saleem said and scratched his chin. "You played well before."

"Huh. Thank you…"

"And your dear friend is the one who was kidnapped?"


"Were you trying to, uh… hustle over here on West Eleventh Street?"

A long sigh escaped Shady's lips as she remembered the naive excitement she had felt inside when they had discovered the reward had been doubled. Now, without her girlfriend by her side, the reward could have been twenty million dollars and it would still not have mattered a damn bit. "No," she said after a short delay. "We were trying to collect information on the people living next door. You remember the attack on the nun the other week?"

"Of course… I met her on the staircase that day. I had the morning shift so I was home early. She was going down, I was going up and we exchanged a brief hello down on the second floor."

"Holy shit, she was here?! You met her?"

"Briefly, yes…"

"She saw something… I knew she did!" Shady said and smacked her fist into her open palm. "Well, the church of the blessed virgin-somebody has put up a twenty-thousand dollars reward-"

"Oh! I heard something about that on the radio. And you believe my neighbors are involved? I wouldn't put it past them. They are very, very bad people. But like I told you, the landlords do not care one little bit," Saleem said and shook his head.

Shady narrowed her eyes as another wave of chills swept over her; it was all headed downhill with the speed of an avalanche. She knew that Stilts could take care of herself to a certain extent - in their strange line of work, having a few self-defense skills was a necessity - but there was a limit to everything and everyone.

Just thinking about how naive they had been sticking their noses into places where they did not belong created a spark of anger within her. The anger was pointed squarely at her own good self for being the instigator of the mess that had the potential for ending in such a tragedy that she could barely bear thinking it through.

Saleem pulled his shirtsleeve back to look at his wristwatch. He grimaced at what he saw - too much longer and he would be late for work which happened so rarely the last time could be measured in years, not even months. He got up from the winged armchair to take a look out of the windows that overlooked West Eleventh Street. The police had yet to show up like Shady had feared, but a sleek sedan pulled over to the curb as he was watching. "Oh, that's right," he said and turned back to his guest. "A black man came to the apartment while you were away. I've seen him on the stairs a couple of times… he often has a plastic bag with beer with him. He's no good, but not as sinister as some of the others I've seen go in there."

Another long sigh escaped Shady - the news was not what she had hoped to hear. Despite the one-two combination of dizziness and fatigue that still danced a mean flamenco on the inside of her skull, she could not sit still any longer. Jumping to her feet, she joined her host at the window. As she looked down onto the street five storys below, she nearly choked on her tongue when she recognized the roof of the black Lincoln.

As she watched the car in wide-eyed terror, three men stepped out. The one who had been driving was the slick-haired, camel-coat-wearing gangster - and the other two looked no less dangerous. "Oh… my… frickin'… God…" she croaked, almost mashing her nose against the window pane to see better.

The realization that she was looking at the three men responsible for the assault on the nun hit her over the head like a ton of bricks. The three men were about to go up to the apartment next door where they would meet Stilts - and then anything could happen. "Where the hell are those damn cops? What's taking them so long?!" she croaked, staring up and down West Eleventh Street hoping to see just the tiniest glimpse of a white-and-pale-blue cruiser.


Stilts needed to do something proactive or she would end up drowning in the storm of fear that swirled freely inside her. Tip-toeing around her third of the makeshift brothel, she searched high and low for something to use as a weapon in case the large African-American did come for her. He had remained in the kitchen drinking beer and noisily crunching on the tortilla chips with the ugly goon since he had shown up; the things they had talked about and the way they had done so had sent countless chills down her spine. The topics had varied, but most had revolved around basketball and women - and the hundred different ways Tyrone Evans had made 'em scream his name, at least according to himself.

Her part of the living room offered nothing she could use as a weapon unless she grabbed the reading lamp on the bedside table. Although it was made of wood, it was a stubby, little thing so its effectiveness would be limited. The bedside table itself would be far too unwieldy to use in a tight squeeze, but the drawers might be useful for bashing someone's head in - she hoped she could avoid that.

Activity at the front door made her breath hitch. Jumping up from the bunk bed, she raced over to the corner of the living room and the hallway to sneak a peek. What she saw only made her heart plummet into her boots. Instead of her girlfriend invading the apartment at the vanguard of a battalion of heavily armed police shock troops, it was the slick-haired gangster - perhaps his name was Weissman - returning with two other men in his wake.

Her breath hitched again as she got a look at the two other men. One was a bald African-American whose hard face defied his smart, urban-chic suit; the other was a mustachioed, curly-topped Latino dressed in a black leather jacket, dark-blue jeans and cowboy boots. As the three men entered the hallway, only the slick-haired one took off his coat revealing an elegant, steel-gray business suit although the Latino unzipped his leather jacket to show the world his red cowboy shirt and his leather shoulder-holster.

Stilts' mind made the connection at once - she suddenly understood that the slick gangster and the two other dangerous-looking men were those responsible for the vicious assault on the nun. "Oh… my… God," she croaked under her breath as she slipped back from the corner so they would not see her.

Stumbling back to the bunk bed, she tried to grab the reading lamp after all. When she discovered it weighed next to nothing in her hand, she groaned and put it back. The bedside table had two drawers, the lower of which was empty. The top one held - of all things - a King James Bible. Her desperate idea of using a drawer to bash someone's head in was dropped at once when it dawned on her that they were not only light-weight but very poorly put together.

She stared wide-eyed at every single object in her part of the living room, but there was nothing whatsoever she could use against the five men - nothing. Out of desperation, she got down on her knees to look under the bunk bed, but all she found down there was a spent condom and an old comb that was missing half its teeth.

"Yo, brothas!" Tyrone Evans said to the three men in the hallway as he came out of the kitchen holding yet another can of brew. The strong scent of beer that followed him proved he and the ugly goon had already worked their way through the first six-pack. "Where the fuck ya find that awesome slice of pussy in there? She's way too fuckin' hot for her own good, man! I've barely been able to keep the python down, man," he continued, rubbing his crotch again.

The slick-haired gangster - Avi Weissman - offered the intrusive, and very much unwelcome, guest such a look of raw disgust that the tension among them suddenly escalated.

"What the fuck? Don't you fuckin' look at me that way, man!" Tyrone said, taking a step forward; a second later, the bald African-American - Shawn King - had drawn a chrome-plated pistol that he pressed against Tyrone's throat. "What the fuck's wrong with you people all of a sudden? Ain't we brothas?" Tyrone said, gulping several times as the cold steel pressed into his windpipe.

"Moritz," Avi Weissman said coolly, looking at the ugly goon in the black shirt, the black jeans and the red tie who came out of the kitchen holding a can of beer. "Why did you call the professor here?"

" 'Cos we were out of beer, boss… I couldn't leave the new bitch alone while I got us some."

"Now that was a wise decision," Avi said as he turned to look at Tyrone. He moved his eyes up and down the man's athletic build with barely hidden contempt. "But calling this turd here was an unwise decision."

Tyrone's eyes flew open; then they narrowed down into slits. "Who you callin' a turd, ya motherfu-"

"Shut up, fool!" Shawn King growled, once more pressing his pistol into the other African-American's throat.

In the makeshift bedroom, Stilts bumped down on the unmade bed and buried her face in her hands. With all the testosterone piling up in the hallway, it was clear something nasty was about to happen - she just hoped it would not happen to her. A cold flash ran over her so she had to slip her heavy ex-US Navy all-weather coat back on despite the strong heat that came from the metal radiators.

"We're shutting down the operation here," Avi Weissman continued as he pushed himself past the man in the basketball outfit. He stopped at the corner of the living room and leaned against the doorjamb. He only offered Cristina and Lidia a brief look before he focused his attention on Stilts; cocking his head, he seemed to appraise her on a professional level rather than shooting her a simple, lecherous glare like Tyrone Evans had done. "We'll build a new nest somewhere less crowded. Moritz?"

"Yeah, boss?" the low-brow bandit said as he stepped past the elegant gangster and went into the living room. The knot on his red tie had been loosened as the cans of beer had been emptied, and his cheeks had gained a reddish hue for the same reason.

Avi continued to look at the forlorn figure of Stilts who was still sitting on the bunk bed. The tension grew exponentially until the leader of the goons finally said: "Keep that one. Finish off the other two bitches. Give them a little something to float away on." Then he turned around and walked away.

"Yes, boss-" Moritz said, but before the ugly goon could make but a single step into the living room, the sounds of a police siren could be heard plain as day proving it was close by.

The five men all froze in place - and Stilts' heart almost stopped beating. Her breath hitched once more and she had to clench her jaw hard to stay in control of her emotions and actions. Two, three, four seconds went by before Avi Weissman and Moritz Levin yanked their weapons out of their shoulder-holsters at the exact same time. "Joaquín," Avi said to the curly-haired Latino, "check it out! Now!"

The leather-jacket-wearing gangster drew a long-barrel .44 Magnum from his own holster and stormed out of the apartment to get to a window overlooking the street. Not ten heartbeats later, he came storming back in to cry: "They're here, Avi! One cruiser!"

Avi Weissman's face grew even harder and colder than it had been throughout the dramatic situation. His jaw worked overtime as he clearly ran through the various permutations of what was about to happen. Then he seemed to come to a conclusion. Without warning, he spun around and pressed the trigger.

Stilts let out a loud gasp; the noisy discharge was so unexpected she jerked up from the bunk bed.

The hot lead screamed through the air until it impacted on Moritz Levin's chest. The ugly goon let out a surprised, braying croak as his red tie and black shirt puffed out. A spewing cascade of crimson blood followed in a matter of seconds. Then he keeled over and fell onto the floor still wearing a surprised stare in his unblinking, glassy eyes.

"That's what fucking up will get you!" Avi roared as the gunsmoke trickled out of the barrel of his pistol.

At the same time, Shawn King pressed the trigger of his own pistol that was still forced up against Tyrone Evans' throat. The sickening shower that followed sprayed into the kitchen and painted the white room crimson.

Stilts and the two prostitutes screamed at the top of their lungs at the horrific development; Stilts recovered first and dove for cover underneath the bunk bed, spent condoms or not. She had barely made it there before a strong hand grabbed her coat from behind and yanked her back on her feet.

"You're coming with me, bitch!" Avi Weissman roared into her face before he manhandled her out of the living room and into the hallway. Once there, he shoved her into Shawn King's arms while he donned his expensive camel-hair overcoat.

A bitter tide surged in Stilts' throat as she stared wide-eyed at the dead body of the African-American in the Carlyle Kodiaks basketball sweatsuit. Although he had been repulsive and a threat to her, he had not deserved to end up on the kitchen floor with a gaping hole in his neck. The golden, foamy contents of his final can of beer pooled around his head and seemed to give him a burial at sea.


Next door, Shady jerked two feet in the air at the unmistakable sounds of gunfire in the other apartment. Clutching her head, she tore out to the front door of Saleem Tariq al-Hadin's apartment to save her girlfriend if she could, but she only had time to open it an inch before she reconsidered and slammed it shut again - there was nothing she could do against at least three, and possibly five, armed men who had proved willing to pull the trigger.

The mere thought that Stilts could be lying on the floor in a pool of blood just beyond her reach nearly made her collapse into a pile of humanity; she was hyperventilating, she tore around in a circle in the hallway, her eyes were out on stalks and she heard nothing of what Saleem tried to tell her.


Out on the landing, Shawn King and Joaquín de la Cruz had no time to notice the door to the other apartment first opening then being slammed shut: they were racing down the first flight of stairs with their guns ready to gain an advantage over the police officers down on the street.

Avi Weissman continued manhandling Stilts to get to her comply with his demands. The added human baggage slowed him down, but it only seemed to make him more determined to shove her around. As the two prostitutes came to the apartment's door crying for help, he spun around and pointed the pistol at them with a fiery glare in his eyes.

The world came to a stop for several heartbeats, but he chose not to waste any bullets on killing the sorry-looking women. Instead, he gave Stilts another hard shove to make her move forward. The two prostitutes shrieked again and dove for cover inside the apartment.

The criminal never noticed the door to the neighboring apartment was held an inch ajar once more, but Stilts did - she tried to look through the tiny crack to see if it was Shaye, but there was no time for eye contact.

"Down we go, bitch," Weissman growled, giving Stilts such a hard shove in her back that she did not dare to resist him. "And if you try to run or trip me up, you'll get one in the head. You know I'll do it."


As soon as the gangster and Stilts had moved down the first flight of stairs, Shady stepped out onto the landing with her heart thumping so hard in her chest that the blood coursing through her veins drowned out all other sounds. Her head was swimming from the hyperventilating, but at least the sight of her girlfriend still being alive and unhurt had slowed down her breathing to a normal, though rapid pace.

The two abandoned prostitutes began crying and screaming all over again behind her but she had no time for that. Her friendly host Saleem yelled something as well; she was unsure what he was trying to tell her, and she did not have time to find out.

While Saleem - who held his smartphone in his hand after calling for more police following the exchange of gunfire - tended to the two prostitutes, Shady descended the stairs on legs that were so rubbery she needed to grab hold of the central railing with both hands to avoid falling to her doom.


Still moving down the stairs - they had reached the second floor by now - Stilts let out a brief gasp as Joaquín de la Cruz and Shawn King opened fire at the patrol officers from their position downstairs in the lobby. The familiar hard cracks of Joaquín's .44 Magnum revolver echoed through the stairwell like thunderclaps on a late summer day; Shawn's chrome-plated pistol had a lighter, tinnier sound as it discharged, but the results were the same. Moments later, surprised yelling was heard from the street; shots followed almost at once as the two officers returned fire.

"Move, bitch! Faster!" Avi Weissman growled directly into Stilts' ear. She tried to comply to the best of her abilities, but the tension and drama had made her body so boneless she could hardly stand upright much less navigate a set of concrete steps.

Down they went until they both arrived at the graffiti-smeared lobby that now reeked of gunsmoke in addition to the cheap perfume and the rest of the undefinable smells that had been there from the outset - the air had turned pale-gray from the firing that had already taken place. A few bullets and shotgun pellets whizzed the other way as the two police officers continued to return the fire, but the only things hurt were the concrete surfaces near the lobby that lost chips of paint and old dirt. De la Cruz reloaded his revolver and fired two further rounds at the police; King held back since his assistance was not needed at that moment in time.

"We're going! Cover us!" Weissman suddenly barked - the command sent his two companions out onto the street where they both threw a blanket of fire at the police. The gangster shoved Stilts ahead of him as they went through the door and onto the cracked, stained sidewalk.

"Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" Stilts cried at the top of her lungs; she yelled so loudly her voice broke. In her peripheral vision, she caught a glimpse of a white-and-pale-blue police cruiser that had been parked obliquely across West Eleventh Street. The two patrol officers were using it as cover - they stopped returning fire at the appearance of the female hostage.

Joaquín de la Cruz used the lull in the fighting to jump over to the black Lincoln that was parked right outside the door as always. After tearing open the passenger-side front door, he holstered his Magnum and reached into the door pocket. A moment later, he worked the action on a black Colt M4A1 assault rifle. Aiming it at his opponents, he squeezed the trigger and peppered the street and the front of the cruiser with a full clip of bullets.

The Ford Crown Victoria's grille, headlight clusters and windshield cracked and were shattered in a thousand pieces as the hailstorm of lead hit them - even the side mirrors and the light bar on top of the roof did not escape unharmed. Four of the eight strobe lights were shot to pieces at once and the last group followed soon after. As the Ford's radiator was pierced, a column of steam burst out and escaped through the shattered grille like a geyser. Both front tires were blown apart within seconds of each other as most of the thirty slugs did the job they were designed for.

When the magazine was empty, de la Cruz ejected it and slapped a new in at once to be ready for anything his opponents could throw at him. For the time being, the street had turned eerily quiet save for the hissing steam that escaped the radiator.

"Get in! Shawn, you're driving!" Avi Weissman roared, shoving Stilts ahead of him. The bald African-American flew around the front of the black Lincoln and opened the driver's side door. He grabbed another Colt assault rifle that had been stored in the other door pocket, but since the cruiser had already been blasted full of holes, he put it back and jumped behind the wheel instead. The Lincoln was soon started; the V8 roared almost as loud as Avi had done.

The leader of the violent gang fumbled when he tried to open the passenger-side back door while still holding onto his hostage. He got it open at the second attempt, but it was all the opportunity Stilts needed.

Stomping the heel of her winter boot down upon Avi's foot with great force, she tore herself free of his grip and tried to make a run for it.

One inch from freedom, Weissman got hold of her all-weather coat again and yanked her back to him with an angry roar. Grabbing hold of her with both hands, he spun her around and shoved her down toward the open door - unfortunately for him, the gesture left his front fully open for a counterattack.

Stilts had no time to think or even to aim. Moving her leg up the hardest and fastest she ever had, she scored a direct, ten-out-of-ten, hit on her captor's crotch that made his face turn green in a heartbeat.

He could not hold onto his hostage, his gun and his injured member at the same time so something had to give - when Stilts found herself free of his grip, she exploited it fully by jumping from the car, racing across the sidewalk, tearing open the front door and storming back into the lobby and up the flight of stairs.

Weissman roared out his frustrations and fired an entire clip into the lobby after his fleeing hostage. When the firing pin could only produce clicks, he dove onto the back seat of the black Lincoln with a barked command to Shawn King to "Get the flying fuck out of here! Now!"

As the engine of the sleek sedan let out an otherworldly roar, the tires lit up and produced reams of smoke; the car soon left the curb behind to blast up West Eleventh Street at full speed.


Stilts did not stop running upward until she bumped into someone going in the opposite direction. She let out a cry and tried to wrestle free of the hands that reached for her, but then she realized the hands, the body and the voice that came from it were awfully familiar.

"Cookie! Oh, my God… Pookie! Jennifer! Snookums! Quit fightin', it's me!" Shady cried as she needed to duck a wild swing that was thrown at her by her girlfriend's long arms. She wrapped her shorter arms around the frantically wiggling torso to try to calm them both down.

"Shaye? Shaye… where the frick have you been?!" Stilts cried at the same kind of volume - then it seemed to dawn on her that it did not matter where Shady had been compared to where she was at that exact moment in time. "Ohhhhh, Shaye… that was bad… that was very, very bad!" she continued, leaning into the hug.

"I know, Pookie…" Shady said, offering the tall body in her arms such a crushing hug that she could hardly breathe herself.

"They killed two men… two men are dead… stone-dead up in the apartment! God, it was horrible!" Stilts said in a voice she could barely control. "There was blood everywhere and… God!"

Shady moved her hands up to frame Stilts' frazzled face. Unlike the tall woman's usual state of cool composure, she had turned white as a sheet and her eyes were wide and frightened. "I heard the shots… I thought it was you… I have never been so scared in my life…"

"The gangster… he killed his own man… then… then…"

Talking suddenly seemed irrelevant when there were plenty of kisses to be shared. Since they were standing on different steps, Stilts did not need to bend down for a change nor did Shady need to stand up on tip-toes. They met at eye-level and went in for the never-ending, gnawing, moaning, soul-supporting kiss to end all such kisses.

Once they needed to come up for air, they leaned their foreheads against each other's and just shared the personal moment in the midst of endless chaos, confusion and violence.

"That was the last time ever I left you to take a whiz!" Shady croaked.

"Can we talk about that some other time? I need to sit down for a while…" Stilts said and did just that. Fumbling around, she sat down on the cold, hard staircase and buried her face in her hands. To restore just the tiniest amount of normality to her severely frayed nerves, she reached into the pocket of her overcoat to find the purple beanie hat. Donning it, she pulled it down so it covered her ears and nearly her eyes too.

While Stilts was busy doing that, Shady ran down the flight of stairs to get to the lobby. It continued to reek of gunsmoke, and a slew of bullet holes had chipped the walls and punctured some of the mailboxes. "Holy shit, what a mess!" she croaked as she peeked out of the front door.

The street had turned into a war zone with piles of spent casings and shattered glass littering the sidewalk. The geyser in the Ford Crown Victoria's radiator had lost none of its strength but continued to blow out scalding hot steam through the destroyed grille. There were no signs of the two patrol officers who had been in the cruiser. "Cookie, I'm going out there to help the cops! Just follow when you can!" she yelled over her shoulder before she zipped out onto the dangerous West Eleventh Street that had lived up to its reputation.


Though gang-related drive-by shootings were commonplace on West Eleventh and pretty much every other street in the so-called dark zone, a shootout of such a magnitude was still able to draw a crowd of interested spectators who had popped up out of nowhere. Further sirens could be heard in the far distance, and the familiar flapping of a helicopter's rotors approached from somewhere up high.

Shady zipped out of the front door - she could have zipped through it since all the glass had been shot to smithereens - moved past the pile of spent casings ejected from the weapons used by the crooks and ran along the cracked sidewalk to get to the police cruiser. The rusty, old Chrysler she had used for cover earlier appeared to have escaped further damage in the frantic exchange, but it was difficult to tell from its rundown state; it was so grungy that even the pigeons preferred to dump their white loads elsewhere.

"Hullo! Innocent bystander coming through!" she yelled to the patrol officers so they would not get too trigger-happy when someone would suddenly appear.

'All right!' one of the officers yelled back.

Shady cast a brief glance at the crowd of spectators across the street. It seemed that nine out of ten were holding up telephones so they could document the exciting goings-on on their various social media profiles - but not one out of ten would do as much as lift a pinkie to help the officers involved in the shooting incident.

Growling at the egocentrism of some people, she raced along the stained flagstones to get to the shot-up cruiser. Peeking around it, she spotted both officers sitting on the ground behind the ticking, steaming wreck. One carried his regular sidearm and the other held a twelve-gauge Remington 870PM pump-action shotgun that continued to send out smoke signals through the hot barrel after all the firing - a pile of spent shells littered the street at the officer's feet.

Although they both wore the compulsory black winter uniforms, they were in shirtsleeves as their winter jackets were still in the trunk of the cruiser. Their caps had fallen off in the melee and were lying on the side a bit further down the street.

"Are you guys all right?" Shady said as she came to a screeching halt - then she noticed that one of the police officers, the one holding the shotgun, bled from a wound on the cheek. "No, you're not! You're bleeding!"

The officer in question just shook his head. "It's nothing. I got nicked by flying glass," he said, touching his cheek. He grimaced at the sight of the crimson substance on his fingers. With the danger over for the time being, he and his patrol partner got to their feet to survey the damage to their vehicle.

"I'm the one who called you in the first place… those crooks who shot at you were the same who had kidnapped a woman," Shady explained.

"We saw her… she managed to escape. Is she all right?" While he spoke, the officer reloaded the shotgun with shells he took from a box in the trunk. Once the weapon was full, he worked the action to make it ready to fire in case they came under further attack.

"Yes, she's fine. I met her on the stairs," Shady continued while pointing at the smashed door to 2442 West Eleventh. "But listen, there's more… up in-"

"Crap," the other officer exclaimed after inspecting the interior of the destroyed vehicle. "The digi-device was shot all to hell… and with the damn transceiver gone, we can't even use our portable radios. We can't call in the details about the getaway vehicle." Holstering his sidearm, he ran past the cruiser to pick up the two Carlyle PD caps.

"Miss, do you have a telephone we can borrow?" the first officer said; he took the cap offered to him by his patrol partner and mashed it down onto his short hair.

The irony was so thick it could be sliced with a machete. Shady put her hands on her hips and let out a croaking grunt as she shook her head at the peculiar unfairness of the world that always seemed to be centered around her and her long-suffering girlfriend. "No. I'm afraid I don't… but those five-hundred Goddamned grinning spectators over there do!" she said, pointing her thumb at the crowd in a most disgusted fashion.

While the second officer hurried over to the spectators to call in the shooting and send out an urgent description of the getaway car, Shady reached for the sleeve of the officer closest to her. "Listen, Sir, you need to get upstairs to an apartment on the fifth floor… it says M. Levin on the door. There are two dead men up there. They were killed by those crooks not five minutes ago…"

"Dammit! All right… Chuck! Chuck, we've got more trouble!" the officer yelled at his colleague who came running back holding someone's smartphone. Since the shotgun was no longer needed, the officer put the unwieldy firearm back into the rack in the trunk and took his winter jacket instead.

'Help! We need some help over here! Hello! Help! We need help!' a female voice suddenly cried from the front door of 2442 West Eleventh. Everybody turned to stare at the doorway where Stilts and Saleem al-Hadin appeared supporting the two prostitutes. Stilts waved her free arm in the air to catch the attention of Shady and the police officers. Her other arm was wrapped around Cristina's waist to help keep the half-undressed woman upright; Saleem carried an unresponsive Lidia in his arms. Blankets had been wrapped around them to protect them from the bitter cold outside, but their lack of clothes was still noticeable.

"What the hell's going on here?" the first police officer barked as he took off toward the four people who had appeared in the doorway. "Chuck! We need ambulances as well… at least two!"

"All right!" the second officer said, updating the police dispatcher at once before he ran after his colleague.

Shady stared wide-eyed at the pandemonium that continued to reign on West Eleventh Street. The excited spectators behind her almost broke out in ooooohs and ahhhhs as the two prostitutes appeared; it made her spin around and shoot them such an evil glare she actually managed to make a few of them look suitably embarrassed.

The man whose telephone was used by the police officer named Chuck began to complain that he had been robbed in broad daylight by one of the black-clad minions of the fascist regime when it appeared the telephone would not be returned to him any time soon. Some of the people nearest him caught his angry diatribe on their own video recording apps so the world would get to know about the completely unacceptable behavior of the Carlyle city police.

Shady had no time for any of that stupidity; she took off in a sprint to get back to Stilts and the two helpless women. Once she reached them, she grabbed Cristina's other arm to take some of the weight off Stilts' side. "Who the hell are these women?" she said, staring wide-eyed at the semi-undressed state of the woman she helped hold up.

Fumbling around to see better, her stare did not ease off when she caught a glimpse of the bottle-blonde in Saleem's arms - she seemed to be so far under the influence of some kind of drug that it was obvious she had no idea what was going on.

"They're prostitutes… sex slaves," Stilts said through clenched teeth as she tried to keep a firm grip around the working girl's scrawny waist. "They were trapped up in the apartment… it was a brothel… those creeps were pimps like you said they were… pimps and killers…"

"Hot-dang, when I'm right, I'm right… even when I don't wanna be!" Shady said as she guided Stilts and the sensitive cargo they held between them away from the sidewalk so the prostitute's bare feet would not be injured by the many shards of glass that were piled up everywhere.

Stilts let out a groan as her fingers nearly slipped on Cristina's smooth skin. "Ugh… I can't do this for much longer. Ugh… have- have you told them about the dead guys up-"

"Yeah… yeah, I have… but I don't know if they had time to listen."

Just at the end of the brief conversation, two ambulances from Pettersson's Nine-Nine-One Emergency Services arrived from around the corner of MacGuiles Lane and West Eleventh; they needed to use the special horns known as the Trombones Of Doom to clear a path among the excited spectators so they could get through.

Through sheer bad luck rather than bad judgment, they approached the site from the wrong side of the wrecked police cruiser so both needed to make U-turns to get lined up properly. Not a split second after stopping with the tail sections pointed at the mess on the street, one EMT from each ambulance opened the double-doors at the back and hurried onto the street carrying large bags over their shoulders - one was a buff Latina and the other a wiry Amerasian man with only a few strands of hair on his head.

Another white-and-pale-blue police cruiser arrived at the scene from further up West Eleventh Street with its lights and siren going at full blast. As it came to a screeching halt, two officers stormed out, drew their sidearms and ran over to the destroyed cruiser to see what was going on.

A medium-sized truck from the Carlyle Police Department Traffic Unit followed hot on the other vehicle's heels. When it came to a stop, several uniformed officers swarmed out of the truck's crew-cab and began to put up a long line of barricades that were connected by miles of red-and-white demarcation tape.

Not twenty seconds later, the officers needed to move several of the barricades aside in an almighty hurry when new layers of chaos were added to the mix in the shape of a large van from the Carlyle Police Department Crime Scene Unit arriving at 2442 West Eleventh. Several men and women wearing regular uniforms came out of the van and began to rig up floodlights around the wrecked cruiser though the sun was still out. A second team of technicians who all wore weird-looking plastic coveralls grabbed large bags from the rear of the van and hurried over to the front door; once there, they ran up the staircase in a hurry.

"Holy shit, this has got to be the worst… most confusing… most frustrating… Goddamned mess we've ever been in! And that says a lot!" Shady croaked as she tried to hold up her part of the weak working girl amid all the untold bedlam.

"Uh-huh!" Stilts said in a matching croak.

When the two EMTs reached them, they were finally able to release the strong grips they had both needed to have on Cristina. The Romanian and her Polish companion Lidia were soon resting on metal gurneys where they were wrapped in further blankets. The two women did not need first aid as such, but the experienced EMTs soon figured out that consumption of unknown drugs would be a factor for both of them.

At least the EMTs were efficient at their work. With nary a hitch, the two gurneys were wheeled over to the ambulances where they were lifted up into the rear compartments. Then the doors were closed; a few minutes later, both ambulances drove away from West Eleventh Street without lights or sirens save for a two-second stab of the latter to once more clear their path.

Shady and Stilts dearly hoped the hubbub would soon be over so they could have a little self-time, but they suffered yet another disappointment when another two police cars arrived at the scene creating so much noise it was almost unbearable. The first was a regular cruiser, but the second was an unmarked, charcoal-gray squad car. A short-haired woman in her late-thirties dressed in sensible shoes and a stylish pair of slacks and a blazer jacket burst out of the squad car even before it had come to a full stop. She wore a gold shield around her neck on a metal chain; a smartphone that she barked a constant stream of commands into seemed to be glued to her ear - to call her face red would be an understatement.

The woman stomped past a gape-mouthed Shady and Stilts en route to the main entrance of the epicenter of the recent crime wave. "Oh! Ma'am! General! Admiral! Madam President! Ma'am!" Shady tried, waving her arms in the air to catch the attention of the hard-stomping woman, but her attempts of flagging her down proved unsuccessful. Feeling thoroughly ignored, she threw her arms in the air. "Whoa, we're in the Twilight Zone… it just keeps gettin' weirder by the second! We know exactly what took place up there but nobody's talking to us!"

"And usually, we can't beat 'em off with a stick…" Stilts said, scrunching up her face.




"Uh… would you mind repeating that, dispatch? It's kinda loud here," Lorenzo Lombardini said into his portable radio unit. He had been in the passenger-side seat drinking a milkshake when the urgent call had come, and he had his hands full holding onto the seat belt, the radio and occasionally the panic grip above the door. Since the squad car had no cupholders, he'd had to throw the vanilla-strawberry shake out of the window while moving at a great clip - it had not been a pretty sight on the street behind them.

Meighan O'Sullivan concentrated fully on navigating through the dense afternoon traffic. Her foot was mashed to the floor and the resulting speed approached sixty miles per hour as the unmarked squad car blasted south on Sunderland to get to the first connecting street. Not only did the engine roar loudly, the beacon light on the dashboard flashed red and the sirens had been set at maximum volume to give plenty of notice of the arrival of the anonymous-looking vehicle.

"Okay, got it," Lorenzo said before echoing what he had been told by the radio dispatcher: "Black late-model sedan, probably a Lincoln, chrome wheels, tinted windows. Last seen headed eastbound on West Eleventh Street at high speed. Suspects are armed and extremely dangerous. Approach with extreme caution."

"Wonderful," Meighan growled as she swerved past a lumbering city bus that moved into her lane without checking for traffic behind it.

They had been on their way back from speaking to the mechanic Hector Martinez over on East Twenty-first Street on the other side of Beauregard Street when the dispatcher had informed them of the shootout on West Eleventh on the radio unit instead of the digital communication device. Caught in the wrong part of Carlyle altogether, it had already taken them what felt like half an eternity to reach the first of the connecting streets; they still had some way to go.

Then Meighan's telephone rang somewhere deep down her pocket. "Oh, Jesus, Mary and… now what?" she growled as she swiftly dug into her pocket to retrieve it. "Here, you take care of it!" she said, thrusting it into Lorenzo's waiting hands.

"It's Commander You-know-who," Lorenzo said off the caller-ID before he accepted the call - Meighan just rolled her eyes. "Ma'am, this is Officer Lombar-" Lorenzo never made it further than halfway through his last name before a screechy female voice came through the connection with such a barked set of commands that it sounded like the world was about to come to an end.

"We're almost there, Commander Shulmann," Lorenzo said as he jumped in his seat as the unmarked Ford Crown Victoria seemed to skip from one pothole to the next. Sunderland was not the smoothest of streets at regular speed, so at sixty it had all the characteristics of an off-road obstacle course. "Uh… say again?"

Despite the high-tension drama they were smack-bang in the middle of, Meighan had to let out a chuckle when she picked up Stefana Shulmann's voice nearly breaking at the other end of the connection from having to say everything twice to the, quote-unquote, incompetent clown she spoke to.

Lorenzo just rolled his eyes at the barrage of insults that flew at him before he turned to Meighan. "The black Lincoln gave it away… it's Weissman, de la Cruz and King, all right. They've killed two fellow criminals in an apartment on West Eleventh. They kidnapped a civilian bystander and held several prostitutes captive. It was a cathouse just like we predicted," he said, holding the smartphone away from his ear to prevent himself from turning deaf as a result of the Commander's unhinged yelling.

"Goddammit!" Meighan growled, smacking her fist onto the rim of the steering wheel. "We coulda been there days ago! But no, our dear Commander didn't feel your theory was strong enough to support tying up a surveillance team. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, what the flaming hell are we even doing out here?!"

More barked words came through the connection; Lorenzo smirked hard at the few syllables he was able to pick up. "Uh… yes, Officer O'Sullivan is a little angry right now… uh… yes, Commander. No, you can't talk to her… she's driving. Yes. All right." Once he had terminated the connection, he slid the telephone into his own pocket so it was nearby in case there would be further barked updates later on. "She overheard you," he said, reaching for the panic grip just as the squad car needed to swerve around a delivery van.

Meighan just growled under her breath. As a response to Lorenzo's words, she buried her foot even deeper onto the floorboards of the Ford Crown Vic. The traffic lights at the intersection of Seventeenth Street and Sunderland were red as they approached it, but she was not about to let something as trivial as that stop her. With the wailing siren going at full tilt, she crossed over into the oncoming lanes that were free of cars for a change.

"Clear right!" Lorenzo yelled as he stared after any potential threats coming at them from the right-hand side while they blasted across the intersection.

Meighan had already gone by the connecting street by the time her patrol partner had finished speaking the short sentence, but she was grateful for his efforts. The engine roared like a ferocious grizzly bear up front; the traffic around them and the buildings they flew past had been reduced to mere colorful, blurry lines in the air.

Roughly three hundred yards ahead of Meighan and Lorenzo at the next intersection at Fifteenth Street, a regular white-and-pale-blue patrol cruiser came from the left and blasted onto Sunderland going southbound. A split second later, a black sedan came from the right off West Fifteenth and turned toward the unmarked squad car. It went through the turn at such high speed it leaned over onto its right-hand side.

"What the f-!" Meighan yelled as she caught a glimpse of the black car. "There they are! There they are, those miserable sons a'bitches!" She put her entire weight on the brake pedal to get slowed down as fast as possible; even while the nose dipped hard as the fast-moving Ford tried to stop, the black Lincoln thundered past them going in the opposite direction.

"I'll call it in!" Lorenzo said and once more grabbed the portable radio unit off his belt instead of using the digital communication device.

Meighan had no time to answer - once the speed was low enough, she spun the steering wheel to perform an emergency U-turn in the middle of the ever-busy Sunderland. It earned her a disharmonic concert of honks and even a few waved middle fingers from the cars and drivers nearest her, but she had no time for any of that. Once the Ford was pointed straight, she slammed her boot down onto the throttle to get the unmarked squad car back up to speeds that were only just on the right side of safe, or even sane.

"Dispatch, dispatch… unit one-two-S-C-oh-oh-two engaged in high-speed pursuit of getaway vehicle used in shooting on West Eleventh. Repeat, unit one-two-S-C-oh-oh-two engaged in high-speed pursuit of getaway vehicle used in shooting on West Eleventh. Requesting urgent backup. Northbound on Sunderland at Fifteenth, now Sixteenth Street," Lorenzo cried into his portable radio.

Meighan shut out everything that could hinder the level of concentration needed for the pursuit including what the dispatcher told her patrol partner. Hunkering down behind the wheel, she maintained a laser-like focus on the street and the traffic ahead that she needed to swerve in and out of.

The characteristic LED taillights of the black Lincoln provided a good target at an estimated distance of one-hundred-and-fifty yards ahead of them. The sedan's stoplights flashed on and off at irregular intervals as the driver needed to evade slower traffic, but the distance between the getaway car and the squad car remained roughly the same though Meighan had her boot planted to the floor.

A pair of slow-moving taxi cabs forced her to change lanes: turning the steering wheel to the left, she slipped into the outer lane without losing any time. A further fifty yards up the street, a station wagon got in her way which necessitated a quick turn back into the center lane. Four seconds later, she threw the squad car into the inner lane to get around a delivery truck; then she needed to slam on the brakes and swerve back out behind the truck as the inner lane proved to be blocked by a van from a brewery that had double-parked in front of a steakhouse.

Meighan kept her foot on the floor as the delivery truck was passed for a second time. The taillights of the black Lincoln were still in her sights even as she crossed out into the outer lane, then shifted across two lanes to get back next to the curb. The inner lane was blocked once more by a bus a further eighty yards up the street, so she threw the squad car back into the center, then the outer lane just as the lumbering city bus left the stop in a cloud of diesel smoke.

When the borrowed telephone rang again, Lorenzo groaned out loud and reached into his pocket. "It's the commander again… Jeez," he said before he accepted the call. This time, there was no time to introduce himself before an even screechier set of commands were uttered. "I didn't copy, Commander… say again… stand down? Did you say you want us to stand down?"

An angry cry at the other end of the line confirmed it. "She wants us to stand down, Meighan… she wants us to break off the pursuit."

"The fuck I will!" Meighan roared, keeping her foot to the floor. "They're right there, those bastards! We almost got 'em!"

Ahead, the stoplights of the black Lincoln lit up as the heavy sedan braked so hard it almost appeared to stand on its nose. Once the braking had been completed with plenty of squealing tires despite the anti-lock braking systems installed in the vehicle, it turned sharp right onto East Twentieth Street headed for Avenue C.

While Lorenzo keyed the portable radio unit to update the dispatch on their new direction, Meighan slammed on the brakes and spun the steering wheel right to follow the getaway car onto East Twentieth. That street was far narrower than Sunderland so there was considerably less space to maneuver between the oncoming traffic and the cars parked on either side. The added difficulty was proven almost at once as the Lincoln sideswiped a taxi cab that went in the other direction.

The cabbie seemed to be taken by complete surprise by the sneak attack because he swerved into the wrong lane after the Lincoln had rattled down the entire side of the cab - directly into Meighan's path.

"Holy fuh- hang on!" she cried as she spun the steering wheel left, then right, then left again to clear the boxy metal obstacle. The rear-wheel-drive Crown Victoria fishtailed several times before she had it back under control; she never took her boot off the throttle during the daring stunt.

At the intersection of East Twentieth Street and Avenue C, the Lincoln feigned right only to go left. Meighan had not fallen for the trick and followed it into a hard left to go north on the avenue that was even busier than Sunderland Street at that time of the day.

Just as Lorenzo updated the dispatch on their new direction, they were joined by two cruisers that had been at the right place at the right time. With three police cars chasing the black Lincoln, the odds were tipping in the favor of the pursuers rather than the pursuee.

Cars, taxi cabs, vans, buses and trucks flew by in a colorful blur as the speeds climbed to nearly seventy miles per hour. All the lanes of the busy Avenue C were pressed into use as a race track, but where Meighan at least tried to keep the danger to the public at a minimum, the gangsters had no such qualms - they sideswiped one car after the other on their way past hoping to cause a few wrecks that would block the street. That they left an unmitigated chaos in their wake seemed to be of no concern to them.

When the driver of the Lincoln suddenly stood on the brakes to slow down without any visible clues as to why, Meighan was almost lured into making a fatal mistake. She kept up the pace to close the distance between them as quickly as possible, but just as she came within forty yards of the getaway car, the reason for the reduction in speed became evident: from one second to the next, two of the three men inside the black car appeared in the rolled-down windows holding assault rifles.

The two automatic weapons started flashing; then the windshield of Meighan's Ford shattered as one of the slugs penetrated it. The burning hot lead screamed straight through and took care of the rear window as well before it left the vehicle behind.

"Jesus- fuck!" Meighan cried as she spun the steering wheel left to get out of the firing line. With zero visibility ahead, she had no chance to avoid crashing into a delivery truck that had come to a full stop after going in the opposite direction. The left-rear quarter panel and wheel assembly was bashed in as the heavy impact rattled the Ford Crown Victoria - then the final shards of the safety glass in the rear window were smashed as the criminals kept firing at them.

Though the busted rear wheel made the Ford wobble so hard it would barely respond, Meighan mashed the pedal to the metal to get around the large delivery truck so they could use it for cover. Once they had reached a safer place, she stood on the brakes which made the car come to a sliding halt up against the curb. She and Lorenzo vacated the premises in no time flat and dove for cover behind the fender. Drawing their sidearms, they tried - but failed - to get a good line of fire at the Lincoln without endangering the panicking bystanders on the opposite side of Avenue C.

With the first squad car eliminated, the criminals concentrated their automatic fire on the following cruisers. The next one got a faceful of bullet hits that shattered the grille and punctured the right-front tire. Rendered undrivable as the steel wheel dug into the asphalt, the cruiser veered off to the right at nearly unabated speed and plowed directly into a pair of cars parked at the curb. Glass shattered, fenders and hoods buckled, old dust flew, and car alarms went off all along the row of vehicles.

The third and final cruiser managed to stop in time; while taking heavy fire, the driver reversed out of range of the automatic weapons seemingly even faster than he had been going in the other direction.

Through all that, Meighan had her service pistol trained on the black Lincoln trying in vain to get a clear shot at the tires or the driver. The sidewalk directly behind it was full of screaming and yelling people running in all directions except one that would be predictable to her. Firing at the car would be far too risky with so many bystanders just beyond it, but she kept it in her sights until the driver - she had time to see that it was the bald African-American, Shawn King - stepped on the gas once more and took off in a cloud of smoke from the tires.

"Goddammit it all to hell!" Meighan cried as she ran out onto the street; she never lowered her sidearm from the correct two-handed firing position, but the line of fire never improved as the black Lincoln Continental entered the regular traffic once more.

Lorenzo followed her there already speaking into the portable radio unit: "Unit one-two-S-C-oh-oh-two requesting a helo unit to pursue black Lincoln. Present location Ave-C halfway between East Twenty-seventh and East Twenty-eighth Street. Getaway vehicle last seen northbound on Ave-C at high speed. Two cruisers disabled by heavy gunfire. Requesting urgent ambulance support at present location. At least two, over."

While the dispatcher replied to Lorenzo's requests, Meighan ran out into the middle of the street to flag down the cruiser that had avoided taking much damage from the insane firing. Leaning down into the open window, she ducked her head inside the car so she did not have to shout at the driver to be heard. "We called for a helo. The Lincoln may be headed for a self-storage depot up on East Sixty-sixth. Watch your asses! These guys are fuckin' crazy!" she said before moving back out.

A second later, the uniformed officer behind the wheel stepped on the gas to enter the fray once more. Meighan kept watching it for a short while before she ran over to the wrecked cruiser to see if she needed to provide first aid to one or both of her colleagues.

Lorenzo joined her halfway there. "The helo is coming. What the hell are we gonna say to Commander Shulmann? She ordered us to stand down…"

"Commander Shulmann can go screw herself!" Meighan barked just as she reached the rear of the crashed Ford. "This is all her fuckin' fault for not approving that fuckin' surveillance! We coulda had 'em two fuckin' days ago! Now look at this fuckin' mess!"

Avenue C already echoed of the sound of countless sirens approaching from all directions. High in the sky, the white-and-pale-blue police helicopter unit arrived at the scene only to leave again at once as it raced north following the arrow-straight avenue searching for the black getaway car.

Lorenzo Lombardini blushed at the hard profanity that spewed from his ordinarily so stoic patrol partner's mouth, but he was soon too busy helping their injured colleagues extract themselves from the crashed vehicle to have time to be embarrassed.


The thousands of miles of roads and streets in and around Greater Carlyle provided the backdrop for a combined total of just over nine-hundred emergency call-outs each day for the police, the fire department, the city-run paramedic units and the private ambulance services.

At regular intervals, a larger incident took place that required a police escort for an ambulance or for a train of fire engines. Now and then, an incident or accident occurred that required the assistance of three of the four services, but it hardly ever happened that all four branches of the emergency services were called out to the same event.

The frequency of those multi-service scramble calls seemed to be climbing with the by-now legendary night during the August heatwave, the collapsed building in September and now twice in October - and the latter two occurring within a twenty-minute period.

The section of Avenue C where the second major shootout within a third of an hour had taken place had turned into something akin to what the ancient Roman Colosseum must have been like on the first day of the gladiatorial games after the winter break: sheer, undiluted madness.

There were flashing emergency lights everywhere. The avenue was awash with paramedic units, tow trucks, large and small fire engines and their support vehicles, and several garishly painted ambulances from all the biggest of the private service providers. More emergency vehicles arrived by the minute: vans from the Carlyle Police Department Traffic Unit and the Crime Scene Technicians, unmarked squad cars, white-and-pale-blue cruisers, further support vans and trucks, and even an entire bus full of raw cadets from the Police Academy who had been sent out post-haste into pulling traffic duty on the ever-busy Avenue C. Their task was to cordon off everything and set up various detour signs - that it had happened right in the middle of the peak afternoon rush hour was only icing on the cake.

As a result, the traffic around the incident site that had already been congested to begin with had come to a complete, utter standstill with hundreds upon hundreds of cars, taxi cabs, delivery vans, city buses and trucks all honking at the same time. The buses and trucks were affected the worst because they were forced to make sharp turns onto side streets that in many cases were too narrow for the bulky vehicles.

Inevitably, the first incidents of flaring tempers and flying fists had already occurred: a driver reversed away from the logjam only to slam into the van behind him. The small-scale fender-bender that had taken place not thirty feet from the police barricades turned into a large-scale kerfuffle in a hurry when the two drivers traded wild swings right in front of a group of flabbergasted police cadets.

Not half a minute later, a bicycle courier made a world record attempt in the new Olympic discipline known as Abrupt Nosedive Onto Asphalt Or Flagstones when he had to swerve out of the way of the opening door of a taxi cab whose impatient customer could not be bothered to wait any longer. Though the courier went flying for a solid eighteen feet after smacking his front wheel into the curb stone, he was uninjured - his racer bike was less fortunate, and to add insult to mechanical injury, he missed the world record by three feet.

The malevolent - and maddening - merry-go-round continued at unabated pace a couple of minutes later when a driver of one of the city buses was forced to make a ninety-degree turn into the street marked as the official detour route. Though he yanked, pulled and tore at the large steering wheel for all he was worth, he and his bus were only able to make an eighty-degree turn before a lamp post got in the way. Moving further ahead was out of the question; moving back had been an impossibility from the start since a long line of cars filled the gap at once. In short, he was stuck fast with no means of escape. The rest of the traffic behind him could not see past the large vehicle, so they soon began honking which did not improve the situation or the blood pressure of anyone involved. After a good deal of honking, the driver stepped out of his bus, walked calmly back to the first honking car behind him and gave the near-side fender such a hard kick it buckled.

The noises on the ground were deafening. The three news helicopters from rival networks that were suspended in the air above the incident site only added further layers of insanity to the already unbearable situation. Endless reams of commands were barked into the portable radio units by increasingly frustrated men and women in various uniforms, but nobody could hear anything of what was being said by anyone so everybody just kept following their own plan.

Spectators were ten-deep on the sidewalk in front of the spot where the cruiser that had veered off the street had ended up, and everybody was busy filming the exciting events as they unfolded. Some Tweeted Mayor Goddard to ask if that was what she had meant when she had said that the streets would be safer if she was re-elected. Others Tweeted the mayor's political opponents to call for action against the dangerous behavior of the metropole's criminals - and others again updated their multi-million-user Youtube channel informing the world at large of the grotesque waste of resources displayed by the Greater Carlyle city police department.

The owner of the convenience store just behind the scene sold more soft drinks, candy and popcorn in half an hour than he had done in the entire week leading up to the dramatic event; it went some way to compensate for the fact that his car had been one of those smashed to bits by the police cruiser at the curb. The café across the street - where the unmarked squad car had ended up - had less business on the whole, but they offered a selection of coffee blends in large to-go-mugs at half price for those who would mention the café's name on their social media profiles.

In the middle of all that, and in the middle of the street, stood Meighan O'Sullivan with her hands akimbo and her face scrunched-up into half its regular size. Lorenzo was next to her trying to stay on top of what was being said over the portable radio, but since every other sentence out of his mouth was "Say again?" or "Repeat, please!" it did not appear he had much success.

Meighan just glared at the infuriating hullabaloo going on all around her. Her professional pride had taken one hell of a thump on the chin - not because she had been unable to apprehend the criminals, or crashed a cruiser, or even that she had been unable to return fire, but simply because the entire situation could have been avoided if the leader of the task force had listened to her and Lorenzo when they had presented their theory to her.

"She's coming," Lorenzo yelled into Meighan's ear to be heard over the flapping rotors, the honking traffic, the rumbling tow trucks, the excited spectators who clapped and cheered at an unfortunate tow truck driver when a chain snapped, the hum of the machine used by the firefighters to spread a good layer of oil-absorbent material onto the street where the crashed cruiser had ended up, and finally the departure of an ambulance from Sklar & Bonney that took one of the police officers from the crashed cruiser to the hospital with a bloodied nose and a suspected whiplash.

There was no need to ask about the identity of the person Lorenzo was talking about; Meighan's jaw got a workout just thinking about the thunderstorm that would take place once the commander showed up.


Three minutes later, another unmarked squad car zig-zagged through the barricades before it came to a screeching halt not fifteen feet from where Meighan stood. Even before the car had come to a full stop, the passenger-side door was flung open and Stefana Shulmann bolted from the vehicle. Her facial color was on the wrong side of lobster-red and her fists were clenched. The police radio she had used to listen to the crews already present at the incident site was in her blazer's pocket squawking away like crazy; her own telephone was in her other pocket after she had nearly bitten it in half when nobody could be bothered to listen to her.

"Will somebody please tell me how the fuck you incompetent clowns could allow this to happen?!" she roared at the top of her lungs while she made a sweeping gesture at the incident site and the people present. "You were told to stand down! Do you consider this standing down?! This is the worst clusterfuck I have seen for years!" Since she was looking at a wide selection of uniformed personnel from the police, the ambulance services and the fire department while she delivered her scathing statements, it was anyone's guess as to whom she was actually referring.

"Commander Shulmann," Meighan said, stepping forward with her hands in the air to try to make the irate woman calm down, "this is neither the time nor the place for apportioning blame. You weren't here-"

"Don't give me that, Officer O'Sullivan! This entire day has been one fuck-up after the other by the city police! First, you people interfered with the task force's work over on West Eleventh by responding to a kidnap call that I'll bet was bogus! And then your colleagues were caught with their dicks in their hand when the going got tough!"

"Now wait just a minute-"

"And this! This fuck-up here is just too unbelievable!" the commander cried, making another sweeping gesture. "You were told to stand down! You people forced the criminals into using excessive force by chasing them! It's just inexcusable, especially considering that you, Officer O'Sullivan, had been told in very clear terms that Weissman, de la Cruz and King were not the primary objectives of our investigation!"

"The primary objective of any cop is to keep the streets safe!" Meighan roared as she slammed her hands on her hips. "Those three psychos fired automatic weapons even before they were chased anywhere! We cannot allow-"

"To bring down the criminal organization, we need to kill the spider at the center of the web. That's Dorothy Lorraine DiSorrento. She is the primary objective, Officer O'Sullivan, not the muscle working for her. They're all expendable and can be replaced at a moment's notice. DiSorrento can't! I guarantee you that she will make herself scarce now! That's weeks, months of task force work down the fuckin' drain because you felt a need to get yourself into the glorious spotlight!"

Lorenzo Lombardini and the rest of the assembled officers all let out an 'Ooooooh' as they looked at their colleague who seemed to be teetering on the brink of an all-out volcanic eruption.

Meighan had to clench her jaw hard to stop her emotions from spilling over. Her left eyebrow twitched a couple of times, and her forehead and temples gained an unhealthy shade of scarlet. The faintest of smiles played on her lips like she was seriously contemplating punching the commander's lights out.

Before the fight could break out for real, the heated combatants were joined by yet another unmarked squad car that rolled up to the confrontation. While Commander Shulmann updated Detective Thorpe and two further plain-clothes members of the task force on the progress - or the lack of it - Meighan spun around and stomped back to the squad car she and Lorenzo had arrived in.

The officers behind her - save for Lorenzo who knew better - all let out an 'Awwwwww' like they had been hoping to see the two headstrong women get into the catfight to end all catfights.

The battered and bruised Ford Crown Victoria had already been salvaged by a tow truck equipped with a crane; the tail-end was three feet off the ground since the entire rear axle assembly had been pushed a foot to the right in the impact with the delivery truck. The left-rear wheel had been punctured and the quarter panel had been bashed in to the point where the trunk lid could not close.

Meighan suddenly realized it was far too chilly to stand around in her shirtsleeves - she had not worn her thick winter jacket when the call had come from the dispatcher, and there had been no time to retrieve it from the trunk. Grunting, she went over to the driver of the tow truck to ask what he had done with the items in the back of the Crown Vic.


Fully decked out in her compulsory Carlyle Police Department baseball cap and her heavy jacket, and carrying the twelve-gauge Remington pump-action shotgun as well as Lorenzo's cap and jacket under her arms, she strolled back to her patrol partner who seemed to have had time to scribble half a dozen pages in his notepad while she had been away. "Here," she said, handing him the baseball cap and the warm jacket.

Lorenzo grinned at her as he donned the black cap and swept his arms down into the lined sleeves. He pulled the zipper up to his nose that had turned a little blue by the frosty conditions. "Thanks! So… I gotta admit you showed remarkable restraint regarding our beloved commander. She had to split, by the way."

"What a shame. I was looking forward to round two," Meighan deadpanned.

"Ah… yeah. I think everyone did," Lorenzo said while scratching his nose to hide a cheeky grin - the motion was not entirely successful. Sobering, he looked beyond Meighan's shoulder at the sorry remains of their squad car. "So now we don't have a ride… or a spot at the task force table, I'll bet."

Meighan snorted while she lowered the heavy shotgun and leaned it against her leg. "The former is worse than the latter. Get anything worthwhile in that notebook of yours?"

"A long list of preliminary witness statements. They saw everyone from Foghorn Leghorn to Elvis Presley driving the getaway car. One woman was willing to testify under oath in a court of law in front of a grand jury, her words, that it was former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Without hair."

"Uh-huh? Okay…"

"Yeah. And it had two, three, four or five people in it. Oh, and it was a Mercedes-Benz, a Toyota, a BMW 7-series and a Dodge Charger. One fellow was sure they were assassins sent by the government to eliminate him because he has too much knowledge of what's going on at Area Fifty-three."

"Area Fifty-three? Not Area Fifty-one?"

"No, Area Fifty-three," Lorenzo said, showing his patrol partner the page where he had drawn a fat box around the information. "He made double-sure I had it right. Area Fifty-three."


"Yeah," Lorenzo said and let out a chuckle. He flipped through the notepad to look for any nuggets of gold but found none. "Beyond that, it was pretty much a waste of time since we already know who the men are."

"Any updates from the cruiser that took up the pursuit?"

Lorenzo shook his head. "Only a negative one. They never caught up with them."

"Shit. How about the eye in the sky?"

"Well, I heard from the pilot… they only had brief visual contact with the Lincoln. They lost it up around Fortieth Street… you know, at the T-intersection. They circled around for a while before they tried searching the self-storage area up on East Sixty-sixth. It's a gigantic area so the initial few passes didn't yield anything. Then they were called away to another assignment. The One-Six precinct has been alerted, but there haven't been any sightings yet."

"Nah," Meighan said and let out a deep sigh. Reaching down, she picked up the shotgun and put it under her arm. "That would have been too easy. There must be a thousand places they can hide between Fortieth and East Sixty-sixth… and we'd need a thousand units to check 'em all out. We'll just have to wait until they make their next move. Whatever and whenever that'll be… dammit."

Lorenzo nodded as he put away his notepad. "Of course, when you say 'we,' you actually mean 'they' 'cos there's no way in hell Commander Shulmann will want to work with us again. I think it would take a direct order from Captain MacPherson to make her accept us back on the task force… and even then she'd bitch and moan about it non-stop."

"And she doesn't now?" Meighan said and let out a dark, tired chuckle. "You're right. This is all over. Tomorrow, we'll go back out on patrol back home in the One-Three. And you know what? I can't wait. C'mon, let's find someone we can hitch a ride with."

"Mmmm-yeah. At least I have something exciting to tell my wife at dinner. Not that she'll ever hear a tenth of what actually happened here today…" Lorenzo said as he and Meighan shuffled away from the scene of the violent shootout while they glanced at the mess around them. Suddenly slowing down, he bared his teeth in a grimace when he realized there was a risk his wife had been watching it all on the local news affiliates - the network helicopters had almost performed dogfights in the sky to try to get the best angles. "Damn… I better call her at once to let her know I'm all right," he said, digging into his pocket to find his own telephone.




Over on West Eleventh Street, the pandemonium at the scene of the day's first violent shootout had grown less, but the police technicians were still hard at work securing the crime scenes in the apartment on the fifth floor and on the street itself.

Word had spread that money could be made down in the dark zone while all the activity was going on, so a street vendor with a nose for good business had pedaled his bicycle cart south from his regular territory up in the bohemian district to serve the crowd of spectators gathered at the big event. Soon, a long line of residents bought and drank steaming hot organic fair-trade coffee from environmentally friendly recyclable mugs for the fair sum of one dollar fifty a piece.

After the smartly-dressed woman from the task force had left in the unmarked squad car as fast as she had come, the uniformed officers from the city police had relaxed to a certain point. The TV news helicopter that had been hovering above it all had relocated to somewhere more exciting so it was even possible to hear what was being said.

Shady and Stilts were still present at the scene: they used the hood of the rusty, old Chrysler as a place to sit. They exploited the rare quiet moment to move into another strong sideways hug and let out a series of relieved chuckles - they both knew that Lady Fortune had been on their side for once.

When they were joined by Saleem al-Hadin whose formerly pristine white shirt had turned anything but - not only had it been pulled out of his uniform pants nearly all the way around, Lidia's garish makeup had left smears all over his chest - they both put out their hands to offer the traditional shaking to the friendly man.

"Thanks, Saleem," Shady said as she pumped the bus driver's hand. "Thanks a whole bunch… we couldn't ha' done it without ya. This is my friend Jennifer Mulroney… Pookie, this is Saleem Tariq al-Hadin, a very fine fellow indeed."

"Well, we already spoke on the staircase, so… hello again, Sir," Stilts said as she shook hands with the man.

Saleem pulled back his shirtsleeve to look at his wristwatch - what he saw made him scrunch up his face. "For the first time in… oh… three years, I'm going to be late for work. Actually, I am late for work. My supervisor is going to yell at me for fifteen minutes for missing the start of my shift. Now he needs to find a temp at a moment's notice… it'll worsen his ulcer and then he'll yell at me even more."

"Oh," Shady said with a grin - she waved her hand dismissively. "I'm sure the cops will talk to him. He'll understand… and I'll bet he'll give you a gold star on your report card for being such a hero."

"Doubt it," Saleem said, shaking his head. "Well, it's certainly been… hmmm, interesting. I need to go back upstairs to get a new shirt and call my supervisor. Oh, before I forget," he continued, digging into his pants pocket. "Here's the five dollar bill from before. Your playing was actually very fine. You deserve it!"

"Wa-hey, wouldya look at that! Thanks another bunch, Mister! That's a quality dinner for two right there!" Shady said with a broad grin plastered onto her face. The crumpled dollar note soon disappeared into her pants pocket as Saleem al-Hadin turned around and left them. "That's what I call a mighty fine fellow. A mighty fine fellow indeed," she continued with a grin once she and Stilts were alone again.

"I agree. The only decent fellow on the entire street," Stilts said, shivering when she thought of the motley crew of men she had met on West Eleventh - not only the criminals up in the apartment, but the bathrobe-wearing flasher and the gun-wielding gang-members as well. Not that the women they had met had been any better. The neo-nazi and the woman with the parrots were proof enough of that.

The sound of a hard-working diesel engine approaching made them turn around to look at the chaos on West Eleventh. The engine noise was produced by a tow truck arriving at the scene; it had an orange, rotating beacon light installed on the roof to warn people of getting too close while it was performing the job it was sent to do. Because of the truck's size, the driver needed to perform a clumsy five-point turn to back up to the damaged cruiser.

The two officers - Chuck and his colleague who had never introduced himself - tried to aid the tow truck driver by guiding him closer to the shot-up vehicle through a series of waves, shouts and other gestures. Unfortunately, their efforts were so uncoordinated that all they accomplished was to have the truck run into the cruiser's hitherto undamaged rear bumper with an audible ka-lonkkk.

Chuckling, Shady turned back to the important matters: her girlfriend. The two women leaned against each other so they could perform a little shoulder rub. "How's it going, Butterscotch?"

"Oh, you know," Stilts said and snuggled up into Shady's comforting side. "I'm okay. But it was bad. Real bad. At one point, I thought it was the end of the road for me. God, when the gangster pulled his gun, I really thought he would shoot me. Then he gunned down his… his… well, fellow criminal instead. At point blank range. That was the low point. All that blood… God, it was horrible."

Shady nodded solemnly. "Hearing the gun go off nearly killed me, that's a fact. I thought he had shot you… that would have made me responsible 'cos I had called the cops."

"We needed help, Shaye… we couldn't have done anything on our own."

"No. I guess you're right. But I so nearly pooped my shorts!"

"Ughhhhh!" Stilts croaked, burying her head in the crook of Shady's neck at the mere mention of the P-word.

Snickering, Shady gave the taller woman's body a good rubbing now it was so close. "You're too cute! How about we called it a day and went home, Snookums?"

"We haven't talked to the cops yet… I think they'd want my statement."

"I s'pose that's true," Shady said with a shrug. "Okay, let's give 'em another ten minutes. If they're not here by then, we're history. I need some food in my gut… aaaaaand I can hear a can of spaghetti and meatballs calling my name."

"Oh, God no… not spaghetti and meatballs!" Stilts said in a groan as she clapped a glove across her eyes. "Anything but spaghetti and meatballs!"

"How about spaghetti and cooked wieners instead, then?"

"God, no… no, no, no… how about buying a big sandwich for those five bucks and then split it down the middle?"

Shady grinned as she leaned over to nudge Stilts' shoulder. "I guess we could do that. A shared sandwich is the best kind."

They fell quiet when two men in odd-looking coveralls stepped out of the entrance to 2442 West Eleventh. They carried a gurney between them that had a large, black plastic bag on it. A body bag. Ten seconds later, a second team of technicians carried out a further gurney with a similar bag on it. Several uniformed officers and plain-clothes detectives followed at the tail-end of the somber procession. The gurneys were carried over to a black van from the City Coroner's Office where they were stored on shelves; the van would be driven to the forensics for the official autopsies though the causes of death had been obvious.

"Damn," Shady mumbled as she stared at the plastic bags containing what had been living, breathing, beer-swilling, hamburger-eating people not too long before. "That could have been you…"

Shivering at the sight, Stilts reached for Shady's hands at once and gave them a good squeeze.


A plain-clothes detective finally showed up a few minutes later. After Stilts had told him all she had experienced, heard and witnessed from the moment she had been caught by the gangster until she had run away back up the staircase, she and Shady slowly made their way home to their regular stomping grounds in the safer and far friendlier bohemian district.

"I learned a lesson today, Pookie," Shady said as she hooked her arm inside that of her taller girlfriend. "And that lesson is that a pair of common hustlers like us should never, ever get mixed up in something like this. Ever."


"Twenty… thousand… dollars… we were so close to claiming that reward," Shady said in a whisper. For each word, another plume of steam wafted down the street. The plumes eventually dissolved into nothing proving that for people like 'Shady' Shaye LaSalle and Jennifer 'Stilts' Mulroney, wealth was merely an illusion.

"Perhaps, but look at what we got, Shaye. We're still in one piece… we still got each other… and tomorrow, we can go back on the street for a little game of Diamonds, or read palms, or sing a few sad songs from the old country," Stilts said as she swung their entwined hands back and forth. "That's all we really need. Isn't it? We'll be all right as long as we're together."

"Awwwwww! You're talking my language, Toots! I'll bet that's why I love you so," Shady said with a grin that reached from ear to ear. "But no spaghetti and meatballs…?"

"No spaghetti and meatballs for at least a week. Maybe even ten days," Stilts said, matching the broad grin with one of her own.

The two experienced hustlers shared a long, loving look as they strolled north to get back home to their warm and cozy apartment on West Sixteenth Street - they were already looking forward to the night that would be spent snuggled up in each other's arms under an entire pile of winter duvets.




Sister Angelica had suspected she would need therapy to get over her disturbing post-traumatic reactions every single time she heard an emergency siren. What she had not counted on was that it would be given to her free of charge courtesy of the same three men who had caused the trauma in the first place, nor that it would turn into an endless session of shock-therapy.

The entire afternoon had been an emotional rollercoaster for her. There had been so many police cars, ambulances and other kinds of emergency vehicles racing past the Communion House on Sunderland Street that she had begun keeping score on a torn-off piece of paper out of sheer desperation. Twenty-four vehicles had gone past the open office with full lights and sirens. Twenty-four times she had nearly jumped up into the insulated panels in the ceiling; twenty-four times she had hoped and prayed it would be the last.

At ten minutes past five in the afternoon, it finally appeared her wish would be granted. Although she could still hear an emergency vehicle somewhere in the middle distance, it seemed to move away from her - as her heart and soul told her in no uncertain terms, it was not a moment too soon.

Her shift had ended at five, but she had remained at the office to wait for the police detective who had promised to swing by with the recovered crucifix. She understood that something - and a very large-scale 'something' at that - had to have happened to cause all those emergency vehicles to race past, but she did not have access to a television or an Internet-capable device to keep track of the current goings-on in and around Greater Carlyle. Similarly, the portable CD player she used to listen to Jean Sibelius' first symphony was not equipped with a radio.

Standing at the windows overlooking the busy Sunderland Street, she gazed out onto the endless lines of cars that moved at a speed no faster than the average glacier. Dusk had fallen so most of them had their lights on; the majority of vehicles had two working headlights, but quite a few were one-eyed which did not help them see or be seen in the mounting darkness. The ubiquitous taxi cabs, delivery vans and bicycle couriers continued their eternal journeys past the windows, but there were fewer family cars now the worst of the afternoon rush hour had passed.

Just when she thought it was safe to breathe easy again, an ambulance came flying past the office with full lights and sirens. As a result, her heart jumped into her throat and everything else inside her turned into a jumbled mess all over again. Groaning over her reaction, she clapped a hand over her eyes and let out a deep sigh.

The twenty-fifth emergency vehicle of the soul-shattering afternoon soon moved out of earshot; the bright LED lights could be seen for a while longer since they were reflected in all the glass and shiny metal parts on the other vehicles.

Taking a deep breath, Sister Angelica opened her eyes once more and continued to look out onto the street. Perhaps the shock therapy had worked; in any case, her reaction to the ambulance had been more restrained than it had been earlier in the day when it seemed that not a minute could be allowed to go by without a police vehicle of some kind screaming past - perhaps her fatigue had just reached a point where she did not have enough mental capacity left to care.

Someone waving at her from down on the street made her look at the sidewalk near the foot of the metal staircase. She returned the wave at a cloaked figure who was soon revealed to be Sister Maureen.

The nun soon opened the front door and stepped into the open office exclaiming an excited "Good afternoon, Sister Angelica! I'm sorry I'm a little late. Goodness me, have you been following the news?" even before she had swept her winter cape off her shoulders.

"I haven't, Sister Maureen… but I can well imagine something major has happened," Angelica said as she followed her colleague past the kitchenette and into the utility room at the back of the barrack. She waited patiently for Maureen to take off her outdoor clothes and don the ergonomic indoor shoes the nuns always used.

"I'll say!" Maureen said while she ran a comb through her hair. "There have been two violent shooting incidents on the streets of Carlyle today! Two men were killed over on West Eleventh Street around noon or so, and then the fleeing criminals caused mass panic on Avenue C by firing automatic weapons at the police patrols chasing them!"

"Oh, goodness me…" Angelica said and scrunched up her face - that would certainly explain why the first twenty-four emergency vehicles all seemed to want to break the land-speed record as they went past. "What's the world coming to?" she continued in a mumble.


The two nuns moved out of the utility room and into the kitchenette to begin preparing the various utensils, pots, pans and ingredients they would need for cooking supper. Though the recent flurries of sleet and snow had moved on to haunt other cities, the temperature was still lower than average for the season which meant they would be visited by more homeless and other people in need than usual.

"West Eleventh Street…" Angelica said quietly as she reached into a cupboard underneath the kitchen table to get a bag of carrots they would need for the vegetable soup. Though she tried hard to avoid it, she could not help but to flashback to her own traumatic experience on West Eleventh not so long ago. The entire neighborhood over there was dangerous, everyone knew that, but it seemed that particular street was cursed when it came to witnessing violent crime.

Sister Maureen nodded somberly. "I can show you some of the news footage on my tablet once the soup and the broth are going well."

"Thank you… to be honest, I'm not sure I feel like watching it. It's been a non-stop, nerve-racking horror show here on Sunderland," Angelica continued as she took a carrot peeler and doused it under the hot faucet to make sure it was clean. "With the ambulance just now, twenty-five emergency vehicles have roared past over the course of the day. Twenty-five! And my heart's been in my throat for each and every one of them. It's tiring, Sister Maureen… it's very, very tiring…"

Maureen offered the senior nun a supportive smile. She was about to say more when they heard the front door opening out in the office.

"I'll get it," Angelica said; putting down the carrot peeler, she wiped her hands on a towel before she moved out of the kitchenette and back into the open office. She nearly lost a step when she realized the person in the room was not a homeless individual but a bona fide police detective who exuded a natural authority - then a thought of her silver crucifix flashed through her mind which made her heart double in cadence from one moment to the next.

"Good evening, Ma'am," the detective said. He was in his late thirties and dressed in a set consisting of dark-gray pants and a sports blazer held in a paler gray. It covered a charcoal-gray shirt and a blue tie that clashed so hard with the other colors it was obvious that it was a random, off-the-rack replacement - perhaps the original tie had suffered a close encounter with coffee, garlic seasoning sauce or strawberry jam squirting out of a donut.

His clothes were somewhat crumpled like he'd had a hard day; a fact that was mirrored in his tired, lined face. His brownish hair was held short and appeared to be thinning prematurely, but he compensated for that by having a well-groomed mustache.

"It's Sister, actually," Angelica said as she put out her hand to conduct the traditional greeting. "Sister Angelica. Welcome to the Sisters Of Mercy Mission."

The two people shook hands before the detective reached into the pocket of his jacket. "Thank you. I'm Detective Ben Thorpe of the Anti-Organized Crime Task Force, or ANOCRITA for short. Here's my card in case you need to contact me directly at a later date."

"Oh… thank you…" Angelica said, looking at what appeared to be a regular business card with the detective's name and two telephone numbers on it. She had no immediate use for it, so she moved over to the desk to put it next to the DECT telephone just in case.

"First of all, I'd like to apologize for the delay. It's been a hectic day," Detective Thorpe said as he moved his hand back to his pocket.

"So I gather… with the shootings and all, I mean," Angelica said, looking with bated breath at the hand in the pocket; she hoped he would pull up her silver crucifix. Her hopes were granted for a change as the detective retrieved a small plastic bag of the kind typically used for evidence. As she caught the first glimpse of the precious item, her heart skipped a beat only to go into overdrive afterwards.

The detective smiled as he opened the plastic bag and offered the nun the crucifix. "The Carlyle Police Department and the ANOCRITA are pleased to return this to you, Sister Angelica. The powd-"

"Oh God, thank you!" Angelica said in a trembling voice. She nearly yanked the crucifix out of the detective's hand to hold it once more. Clutching it against her chest, she closed her eyes and sent a long, grateful prayer to the unknown person who had found it.

"You're very welcome," Detective Thorpe said with a tired smile. "Now, like I was saying, the powdery substance on the crucifix itself and the chain is the chemical agent used to dust for fingerprints. I'd suggest you give the silver a good buffing… or polishing… or whatever you actually do to it to make it shine once more."

Angelica breathed a long sigh of relief as she opened her eyes to take a closer look at the priceless artifact. Now that she had been told, she was able to see the powdery substance mentioned by Detective Thorpe, but it did not seem to have affected the silver itself, or at least not yet - even the chain was in one piece. "Oh… oh, thank you very much for that tip. I'll do that at once. Do you know who found it?"

"We don't have that information, Ma'am… beg' pardon, Sister… only that it was handed in to a pawn shop here on Sunderland Street. Rodolfo's Pawn Shop if I recall correctly."

"Oh! I know Rodolfo Santo Domingo well… that's nice, then I can thank him in person," Angelica said without taking her eyes off her crucifix.

Detective Thorpe nodded before his face fell into a mask more suited to his regular business of digging through evidence to uncover various connections. "Now that I'm here, I do have a few questions regarding your assault, Sister Angelica," he said as he reached into his other jacket pocket to find a notepad and a ball point pen.

Angelica looked up at the detective wearing a dark, gloomy expression on her face. The positive energy that had built up inside her from getting the crucifix back left her like air escaping from a leaky balloon. She let out a deep sigh that seemed to come from the bottom of her soul - only the heavy crucifix in her hand gave her strength to speak: "I have already told the police everything I can remember. Over and over and over again," she said in a tired, listless voice. "I have answered a hundred different questions on everything that happened to me that day… and apart from a few minor details, I can't remember any of it. It's all a blur. And no, I still can't give you a description of the men who attacked me. Why is that so hard for the police to understand?"

"We do understand, Sister Angelica, but you've talked to the regular investigators from the city police's Robbery-Homicide squad," Detective Thorpe said and jotted something down on his notepad like he was keeping a running account of what was being discussed. "Like I said, I'm from the Anti-Organized Crime Task Force. New information has surfaced that we thought might jog your memory. The three men have been revealed to be involved in a case involving two murders and organized prostitution over on West Eleventh Street-"

Hearing the comment about the organized prostitution, Angelica narrowed her eyes. Somewhere deep inside her brain, a visual memory of seeing a redhead prostitute with a severely bruised face flashed across her mind's eye. It was so elusive it was gone before she had time to wonder what it was and where it had come from.

The tired detective had failed to notice the reaction and spoke on: "-a very short distance from where you were attacked. The men were subsequently involved in two confrontations with units of the city police. The news media are covering the stories as we speak."

"So I've been told, but I haven't had access to news all day," Angelica said with a half-shrug. "Well… there is something there. An image of something, but… I can't see it clearly enough to be of any help to you. I'm sorry."

"Mmmm," Detective Thorpe said as he closed his notepad and put it back into his pocket. He continued to study her with his intelligent, but tired, eyes.

Angelica tried to offer the man a smile, but it never grew into much - it was obvious the brief questioning was over. At least the silver crucifix was once again in her possession; she caressed it with her thumb all through the conversation. "I've spoken to a few of the people living on the street, and… well, I've heard unconfirmed rumors that the three men are working for the DiSorrento syndicate. Will that help you?"

"I'm afraid we already have that information, Ma'am. 'Beg pardon, Sister. It would be a greater help if we knew their whereabouts."

"Oh… right. Well, I can't help you there," Angelica said and shrugged again. Letting out a tired chuckle, she caressed the crucifix even more vigorously to take her mind off the bad things. "Actually, I have no interest whatsoever in knowing where they are. I just want them to go away."

"That's understandable. Well. Thank you for your assistance, Sister," Detective Thorpe said and once more shook hands with the nun.

"Oh, you're welcome…" Angelica said, but the plain-clothes detective had already turned away from her to leave the open office.


"Was that a police officer you spoke to?" Sister Maureen asked once Angelica returned to the kitchenette. She had swapped her pale-gray jacket for an apron, and she had rolled up the sleeves of her white tunic while she stirred the largest pot they had; it took up nearly half the space on the stove, but there was just enough room for a smaller soup pot next to it. The large one held an impressive amount of Skipper's Lobscouse that had proved to be a much-requested hit among the people coming to the open office looking for a bite to eat.

"Yes. A detective from a task force," Angelica said, absentmindedly caressing her crucifix. "He gave me this," she said, holding up the priceless artifact so her friend could see it.

"Oh! Oh, look at that!" Maureen cried. She wiped her hands on her apron so she could touch the piece of silver jewelry without leaving smears of any kind. "I'm so happy for you. I don't know what I would do if mine was stolen," she continued, reaching up to touch her own smaller crucifix that she had around her neck on a chain.

"I need to buff it. It's been coated in… uh… fingerprint-dust… or whatever the detective called it. But I can do that later-"

"No, I think you should do it right away, Sister Angelica! I can manage the stove without any problems until Sister Noëlle shows up. Go on, tend to it."

Angelica let out a tired chuckle; a grateful smile spread over her face. "Thank you," she said before she moved into the utility room at the end of the barrack's hallway - she remembered seeing a bottle of silver polish somewhere on the countless shelves.


Fifteen minutes later, Angelica put away the bottle of polish and the soft cloth she had used for the buffing. The crucifix was once more in a state fitting its importance. The silver shone brightly and reflected the strip lights in the ceiling, and the precious metal had regained all its rich, natural luster. Sighing in relief at the positive development, Angelica slipped the metal chain around her neck and under the jacket's narrow collar. As she felt the weight of the priceless artifact against her white tunic at her chest, a little part of her world that had been treated so badly in the attack became right again.

She closed her eyes and sent another profound Thanks to all involved in retrieving the crucifix; she held it tight as she tried to convey her boundless gratitude in a prayer.


Back in the kitchenette, she joined Sister Maureen and the young Novice Noëlle who had showed up a little late. The pot of Skipper's Lobscouse was literally going at full steam with the soup pot coming along nicely as well, and the delightful aromas filled the small room. The nourishing dishes were almost ready to be served which would not be a moment too soon as the first two homeless were already waiting in the open office.

"Hello, Sister Noëlle," Angelica said upon her return. While Sister Maureen tapped the ladle on the edge of the soup pot and wiped her hands on her apron, the younger Novice could hardly take her eyes off the silver crucifix.

"Good evening, Sister Angelica," the young woman said as she performed a small curtsey at the senior nun. "I'm terribly sorry that I've kept you waiting past the end of your shift… the bus just drove straight past the stop… I had to wait for the next one."

"Oh, that's quite all right, Noëlle. I think I'll stay a little while longer tonight," Angelica said with a smile. She and Sister Maureen shared a brief look - they were both amused by the Novice's politeness and highly respectful ways.

"Congratulations on getting your crucifix back," Noëlle continued. "It must be the most wonderful feeling in the world!"

"You have no idea," Angelica said; her lips creased into a tired smile as she looked down at the artifact once more.

Sister Maureen soon put the ladle on the special drip-catcher and wiped her hands on her apron. "Noëlle, take over here. There's something Sister Angelica and I need to do."

"Yes, Sister Maureen," the Novice said; once again she performed a slight curtsey before she turned to tending to the pots.

The two senior nuns soon moved into the open office. After saying a quick hello to the people waiting there and assuring them that supper would soon be served, Angelica sat down on her swivel-chair at her desk. She still needed to lower herself gingerly onto the seat, but even that seemed just a little easier with the weight of the silver crucifix against her chest.

Sister Maureen worked her way through her tablet's many menus to access the streaming channel of one of the local news affiliates. Her fingers flew across the display showing plenty of expertise with the advanced electronic gadget. The news broadcast buffered at first but was soon shown in a rock-steady stream. "Here you go, Sister Angelica… this is the special channel they've set up to cover the shootings," she said as she handed the tablet to the senior nun. "To the right of the main window, there's a list of their most recent features. They're in chronological order so you'll need to swipe down to the bottom of the list to see the first ones."

Angelica shook at her head at not only the electronic marvel but at how easy her colleague was able to manipulate it. "I'm such a cavewoman… I'm stuck in the stone age. How you can do all this is a mystery to me," she said with a tired smile before she concentrated on viewing the main feature that had already gone beyond the halfway point. "Oh… wait… how do I view it from the beginning?"

"By moving the slider back to start. You can also double-tap the button marked 'play now.' It's right there," Maureen said as she pointed at a gray button on the display.

"Right… moving the slider. Like this?" Angelica said, moving her index finger across the screen at the little bar underneath the video window. When the latest feature restarted from the very beginning, she offered her colleague a satisfied smile. "Oh! How about that… I did it!"

Smiling, Sister Maureen gave the senior nun's shoulder a small squeeze before she went back into the kitchen.

A somber-looking male anchor wearing a somber-looking dark suit soon appeared in a colorful studio in the middle of the video window. No less than three scrolling bands of text that offered various timed updates ran across the lower part of the screen. 'Here's KCLE-TV with a further update on today's shootings. At five PM, the Greater Carlyle Police Department sent out an official statement saying they need the assistance of the public to help locate these three dangerous criminals. Chief Police Commissioner Arthur M. Farnsworth says-'

While the anchor kept reading from his teleprompter in a voice that was just somber enough to not sound sensationalist, Angelica furrowed her brow. It was like starting a book at chapter seventeen, so she pressed pause on the video player and swiped down the list on the right like Maureen had told her. She suspected the very first updates at the bottom of the list contained pure speculation and little actual news, so she concentrated on the updates that had been broadcast some time after the events.

One of the updates was labeled 'Spectator Video: West Eleventh Street Shooting' so she double-tapped on that to make it play. The quality was very poor; not only was everything blocky and washed-out, the person filming it had been unable to keep the telephone steady which meant it was jerky beyond belief. The familiar sounds of gunfire could be heard in the background, but the low quality of the video meant it was impossible to make out any details other than there was a pale blob close to the lens and a dark blob some distance away from it.

Sister Angelica almost stopped the video again, but reconsidered and decided to let it run for thirty seconds in the hope it would improve - and it did.

After the dark blob had started and roared away - revealing it was a car - the person controlling the telephone calmed down which made the quality of the video improve by leaps and bounds. A woman wearing an odd collection of clothing came out of the main entrance to 2442 West Eleventh Street and ran over to the pale blob which turned out to be a steaming police cruiser. Not too long afterwards, a man and three further women appeared in the doorway. They shouted something, but the audio clipped so it was impossible to tell what was said. The video turned jerky again and ended a short while later.

"Hmmm!" Angelica said, not too impressed with what she had seen so far. She swiped up through the list until she found an entry labeled 'Spectator Video: Avenue C Shooting.' Tapping on it, she needed to wait for a few moments before the buffering ended and the video started playing.

At first, it only showed a pretty, young Asian woman being filmed outside of a convenience store. She and the person operating the telephone spoke a few trivialities to each other, and it was clear through her body language they were enjoying each other's company. The telephone was soon jerked to the side when a dark car came to a screeching halt on Avenue C not twenty feet from where the young woman stood. Several police sirens filled the audio while the person filming the video made a few bleeped-out comments about the unusual event.

The sound of the emergency sirens made Angelica tighten her lips, but the unease she felt from her initial post-traumatic reaction was nothing compared to the atomic bomb that went off inside her when the dark car's right-hand side windows were rolled down and two men appeared. Wielding automatic weapons, they climbed up to sit on the windowsills to have a stable platform to shoot from. They were only in frame for a few seconds, but the images were in super-high-definition and thus crystal clear.

When the chasing police cars came closer, the two men opened fire which sent the person filming the video, the young Asian woman and everyone else on the sidewalk at the convenience store into a screaming panic. The staccato sound of the automatic weapons firing continued as did the screaming, but the video had become blurry from the telephone being jerked around.

Angelica had frozen solid staring wide-eyed at the small video window without seeing any of what was going on. One of the men had been a curly-topped Latino in a leather jacket; the other had been a slick-haired fellow in a camel-hair overcoat. They had been two of the three men who had attacked her.

In a flash, her brain recovered the lost memories. They were all there… from one moment to the next, she remembered everything. She met a redhead prostitute at the door to a fifth-floor apartment at 2442 West Eleventh Street. The woman had been badly beaten. They spoke for no more than thirty seconds before Angelica left with the intent to call the police and the social services as soon as she got back to the office. She exchanged a few pleasantries with a Middle-Eastern man on the staircase. Down on the street, she met the two men she had just seen in the video. The same black sedan as in the video was parked just outside the main entrance. She had walked on. One of the men had received a telephone call. Then the original two along with a bald African-American assaulted her without warning. They beat her to within an inch of her life. They stole her crucifix. They left her to die. She felt a raw fear of dying that no amount of praying could overcome. The crimson blood pooling on the sidewalk was her own. Then an ambulance siren came closer; the dragon-like wailing was carved into her soul as a stark reminder of how fickle the threads of life were.

Unable to breathe from the shock, Angelica stood up so fast that the tablet fell off her lap and bumped onto the desk with the wrong side up. Her aching back protested at the sudden movement, but it was the least of her concerns. She moved away from the desk with a series of jerking, fumbling steps until she stood in the middle of the open office. Her unseeing eyes were wide open; all color had drained from her face.

As a grotesque reminder of what had happened, the upside-down tablet continued to play the video where an endless barrage of automatic gunfire was heard mixed with sounds of two separate car accidents. The people who had happened to be on the sidewalk when the criminals had decided to turn Avenue C into a war zone continued their frantic, panicky screaming and yelling.

Burying her face in her cold hands, Angelica let out a long, tormented wail that not only alarmed the two homeless people waiting to get something to eat, but Sister Maureen as well who came storming out of the kitchenette to see what on Earth had happened.

Angelica fought hard to remain standing as the onslaught of terrible memories continued to flood her mind. Her breath came in irregular gasps that made it difficult to get enough oxygen into her lungs; her heart raced along at dangerous speeds. Without knowing how she got there, or even the identity of the person helping her, she was led over to one of the soft chairs where she promptly collapsed into a heap.

Clutching her crucifix like it was the only thing that kept her sane, she kept rocking back and forth for nearly a minute until her system slowly began to recover from the initial atomic blast. Her wheezing and moaning continued for a while longer, but it soon turned to quiet sobbing; she kept caressing the silver crucifix as she closed her eyes to shut out the cruel world.

The three men were still right there in her mind's eye. She could see them plain as day as they cornered her on the sidewalk. The bald African-American. The curly-topped Latino. The slick-haired man in the pale-brown overcoat. Few words if any had been exchanged before the first punch had been thrown by the man with the slick hair - the rest of the beating had rained down upon her like a fierce winter hailstorm. They had all participated, but the man in the expensive coat had been the ringleader.

With the images playing on the inside of her eyelids being no better than the real world around her, she opened her eyes again to return to the present. No less than four concerned people had come to support her: her colleagues Maureen and Noëlle, and the two homeless who both carried expressions that said they knew exactly what the nun went through.

Though her heart continued to hammer in her chest, it finally eased off on its ferocious thumping when she realized that she was no longer lying in her own blood on West Eleventh Street but back in the open office where she was safe.

Sister Maureen spoke to her, but the sounds produced by the talking had a hard time penetrating the thick cushion of absorbent cotton inside her mind. She nodded at a spot where she felt it was appropriate to do so. The young Novice Noëlle hurried into the kitchenette only to return a short minute later holding a freshly nuked mug of steaming hot cocoa. The delicious smell was enough to make Angelica's lips crease into a smile; it widened when she took the first cautious sip of the rich-tasting liquid.


When the mug had been emptied ten minutes later, Angelica finally trusted her legs to carry her once more. After getting up gingerly from the soft chair, she smiled at the two homeless who had looked after her while she'd had her breakdown. They were eating large helpings of Skipper's Lobscouse which meant the dishes were ready, so she wobbled into the kitchenette to help Sister Maureen and Noëlle serve the people who had showed up hoping to get something warm to eat. Once there, she leaned against the doorjamb. "Thank you for your concern and help… I thank you from the bottom of my heart," she said in a quiet voice that held a raw edge from all her wailing and moaning.

The Novice Noëlle was busy stirring the soup pot so she only had time to shoot the senior nun a brief, concerned smile, but Sister Maureen came over to her and pulled her into a hug. "It was the least we could do. My God, that cry you let out! It sounded like… it sounded awful. Let's leave it at that."

Angelica tried to smile but it never amounted to much. After rinsing the mug, she put it in the sink for later. "Oh…" she said, suddenly remembering that she had dropped the tablet when the breakdown had started. "I sincerely hope that nothing happened to your portable computer-thing?"

"Oh, don't worry about that. It's built tough. It didn't even get a scratch," Maureen said, reaching over to rub Angelica's arm several times. "But what happened?"

"I saw them. The men who attacked me. In a video. They were filmed by someone up on Avenue C. And… and when I saw their faces… God… everything came rushing back," Angelica said and shook her head. "I remember it all now. All of it… even the things I wish I had forgotten for good."

Sister Maureen nodded solemnly; nothing needed to be said so she left it at that.

When the front door opened out in the office, it turned out to be another pair of homeless looking for a respite from the falling temperatures. Though her shift had long since ended, Angelica only had an empty apartment to go home to - she understood the work would help smoothen out the interminable emotional rollercoaster she had been on throughout the day from not only hearing all the sirens but seeing the shocking video as well.

Donning an apron, she took a ladle and began to stir the large pot with the Skipper's Lobscouse while Sister Maureen went to greet their new guests.




At just after six AM on October seventeenth, Patricia 'Patty' Hawkins pushed aside the wire mesh fence meant to keep people out of the dangerous world inside the system of railroad tunnels at the switching yards not too far from the bridge spanning West Twenty-sixth Street.

For the past short week since her involvement in the dramatic events on West Seventy-fourth Street, she had lived among disease-riddled rats, packs of stray dogs, and human beings who were accepted nowhere else because of their addictions or mental illnesses that rendered them an embarrassment to their fellow man.

She had been out on the streets a few times during her voluntary stretch in the dark, scary world, but only at night. Though it was technically speaking still before dawn, it was the latest - or earliest, depending on the point of view - she had seen the light-polluted sky in a good number of days.

The flat, unobstructed terrain at the switching yards offered a wide view of the heavens above. The sky was tinted greenish-black which offered a hint that the coming day would be clear, bright and thus cold. Whenever the dominating color was greenish-gray, it would be overcast which obviously increased the threat of rain, hail, sleet or snow.

The soundscape remained the same no matter what time of day it was: the bells were ringing merrily on the large long-haul diesel locomotives as they pulled hugely long, hugely heavy freight trains in and out of the distribution yards further toward the heart of the city. Now and then, smaller switching locomotives known as Shunters zipped along the tracks pulling only one or two refrigerated wagons, tanker units or regular box cars that were needed locally.

Plumes of pitch-black, foul-smelling diesel smoke were released into the local environment with alarming regularity as the large locomotives went by, but even so, the air was cleaner close to the tracks than it was inside the tunnels - in there, the brick walls seemed to have absorbed every single foul stench they had ever been exposed to in the seventy years that had gone by since they had been built. The large groups of stray animals and unwashed humans who frequented the tunnels and used them as a public restroom only made it worse.

Patty still wore the black clothes she had worn when she had been ordered to set fire to the house on West Seventy-fourth Street. The pantlegs were still threadbare after being nibbled on by the flames that had claimed Bogdan Marinescu's life, but at least the first-degree burns on her legs had been mostly healed through an ointment she had shoplifted in a drugstore. She had even restocked her stash of strong prescription pills through an independent pusher she had met in the deep, dark system of tunnels. Though she preferred not to think of how she had paid for them - a handjob; it could have been far worse - the fact that she had enough pills to get through at least the next week meant she could breathe a little easier.

Sleep had been hard to come by in the tunnels. Not only did the freight trains interrupt everything around the clock with their rumbling engines, ringing bells and screechy brakes, she had to watch out for the two-legged predators who were rarely less than fascinated by single women. When sleep had claimed her, it had nearly always been fitful affairs where she had been haunted by images of not only the night in September where she had mowed down the young woman, but also of Bogdan Marinescu before and after the fire that had consumed his mortal frame.

Even so, her fragile nerves that had been on edge in the period leading up to the fiery inferno had been allowed some rest. She was more at peace with herself than she had been for weeks, if not months, and the world suddenly seemed to be filled with opportunities rather than threats.

She walked along a grassy embankment not too far from the inner set of tracks. The familiar shrill noise of the two-tone signal horn mounted on one of the large diesel locomotives rang out over the switching yard somewhere behind her.

Looking over her shoulder through the gloomy, pre-dawn light, she spotted the five headlights that identified it as one of the long-haul engines. The characteristic rumbling was less severe than usual which probably meant it was pulling empty wagons. It was still four-hundred yards or so further up the rails. Even if she walked at a regular pace she had plenty of time to reach the underside of the bridge spanning West Twenty-sixth Street before the engine and the rest of the freight train would catch up with her, but she jogged along the embankment to make sure.

She reached the bridge with seventy yards to spare so it was never even close. As the heavy locomotive rumbled past toward the open terrain, she kept standing at the underpass to watch it go by. Whenever she saw a moving train, the urge to jump on it and just let it take her away from the boundless evil of the big city was so strong she could taste it. It was a pipe dream and she knew it - evil would find her no matter where she went.

The locomotive pulled no less than eighteen refrigerated wagons that had brought fresh fish to the metropole earlier in the night. At one or more of the cold storage warehouses, an army of day laborers and skilled workers would have emptied the wagons so the fish markets and subsequently the various seafood restaurants in the metropole could get their usual high-quality products.

As the final wagons of the long train rumbled past, Patty scaled the grassy embankment to get up to the level of the southern part of the West Twenty-sixth Street bridge.

On the terrible night in September, she had raced down that same embankment in the stolen pickup truck after she had run over the young woman. She had dumped the semi-destroyed truck near the inner set of rails before she had run into the shadows to wait for the next freight train to come past. When it did, she had made a clean escape by hopping onto the tail-end of a box car being pulled back toward the center of Carlyle. The early-morning light was too gloomy for her to see if the grass still carried the imprints of the truck's tires, but she had a feeling it might even with the recent rain and sleet that had fallen.

West Twenty-sixth Street was in fact the first smaller side street to the north beyond the bridge - the bridge itself was on Avenue C. She stood there for a while to catch her breath and to study the pre-rush hour traffic. The plastic bottle containing her pills was in her pants pocket; her fingers caressed the smooth surface like it was an old lover. In a sense, it was, but she was determined not to take too many too soon.

Instead, she began shuffling south on Avenue C. Her destination was the night shelter run by the Order Of The Sisters Of Mercy on Sunderland Street halfway between the Communion House and the triple-X theaters. Though there were other warming shelters in the area, and even two that were closer, she had always felt safe and at home among the Sisters - thus, she plotted the most direct route to get to the shelter so she could be there in time for breakfast.


It took her an hour and ten minutes to cross over to Sunderland Street; the direct route had led her through many of the grand metropole's anonymous side streets and filthy, smelly, rat-infested back alleys until she had reached the busy artery. From there, she shuffled along the sidewalk for another twenty minutes before she came to the warming shelter run by the Sisters of Mercy.

Like the Communion House itself further north on Sunderland, the warming shelter was a flat-topped, converted barrack with a base of corrugated iron to make room for all the sanitary plumbing and electrical installations. Unlike the Mission that was a single unit, the shelter had been created by merging two barracks. As an obvious result, the interior space was far greater and offered plenty of room for shower facilities, a fully-stocked kitchen, a plenum eating hall, several utility rooms, a dormitory with twenty bunk beds and finally two small rooms in the back of the dorm for those who wished to remain on their own.

Everything was run and supervised by the nuns of the Order who made it one of the best shelters in all of Carlyle - it was certainly Patty's preferred place to spend the nights whenever the temperatures were too low to remain comfortable outside.

As she approached the shelter, she crossed her fingers that it had not yet reached its capacity. The weather had turned far chillier than she had experienced earlier in the week, and her dark, threadbare clothing offered little in the way of protection from the icy conditions. Though she had walked at a brisk pace for an hour and a half to get there, the swirling winds had only made her colder.


She was chilled to the core as she reached the warming shelter. After letting out a deep sigh of relief at the lack of a cardboard note in the window saying the shelter was closed, she watched the plume of steam drift away further down Sunderland Street.

Stepping inside, the warmth she hoped to find greeted her at once. The large collection of electrical heating panels there had all been set to their maximum output, so the indoor temperature was far more pleasant than the bitter cold that ruled the roost on the other side of the door.

The first part of the warming shelter was a screening area with a circular counter much like the information desk in a hotel lobby. It had been built that way to get a first look of the visitors before they could enter the shelter itself. Although the Sisters Of Mercy welcomed everyone, it happened on infrequent occasions that the visitors were overly aggressive or too intoxicated by alcohol, drugs or both to be allowed inside. In those rare cases, the inner door would remain closed like the gates to the promised land.

A swiveling video camera installed in the ceiling behind the circular counter was connected directly to the local police station. In case of trouble, they would dispatch a cruiser at once even without contacting the nuns directly. That it happened less than once a month on average was a testament to how hard the members of the Sisters of Mercy worked to keep everything running smoothly.

The nun sitting at the counter - she wore the regular white-and-pale-gray outfit; her winter cape hung over the backrest of the chair she used - looked up and offered Patty a smile. It was obvious the gaunt, freezing woman in the dark clothing would not be a threat to anyone inside, so the nun allowed her passage at once by releasing the lock on the inner door.

To exploit the pleasant temperatures to the fullest, Patty unzipped her jacket and let it hang open for the first time in ten days as she entered the central hallway. She only wore a pair of old summer T-shirts underneath, and they were ill-equipped to deal with the winter cold that had struck Carlyle several weeks earlier than usual. She made a mental note of asking the nuns if she could borrow a thick sweater or two. Failing that, she would shoplift one as soon as possible.

The hallway was painted in a dull shade of pale-gray, but colorful posters and kids' drawings offset much of the drabness. The bathroom and shower facilities were behind the first door to the right; a sliding lock on the hallway door showed red which meant that all four stalls were occupied.

The twenty-bunk dormitory was behind the first door on the left; a hand-drawn cartoon had been sticky-taped onto it warning Goldilocks of making any noise that would wake up Papa, Mama and Little Bear. Patty stopped for a moment while she considered if she needed to lie down under a blanket after the cold walk, but ultimately decided against it. She would perhaps go in there later to try to catch a few winks, but getting a solid breakfast was more important at the present moment in time.

The kitchen and the eating hall were at the far end of the hallway and took up nearly a third of the double-barracks' space. Patty's stomach growled out loud as her nostrils picked up the characteristic scent of hot buns straight out of the oven. Entering the kitchen, she glanced at the five rectangular tables that could seat thirty to see if anyone she knew was there, but only a handful of people visited the shelter at that time of the day and none of them were familiar to her.

As she knew it would be, everything was squeaky clean and inviting. Although the tables carried no tablecloths - that would be a recipe for disaster and create endless work for the nuns as accidents involving broth, gravy and other sticky substances would occur at least five times at each main serving - there were place mats at all thirty chairs to give it a homey feel. Small reed baskets carried most of the usual items like napkins, salt and pepper shakers and plastic bottles of ketchup.

There were neither toothpicks nor bottles containing mustard or hot sauce since they could be used as weapons; one of the quickest ways to disable an opponent was to squirt mustard or chili sauce into their eyes - it was more effective than even mace or pepper spray because it was sticky and could not be washed out quickly.

For breakfast and lunch which were most often slow periods at the warming shelter, the visitors needed to pick up their food at a counter just inside and to the left of the door. Shuffling over there, Patty took a soup bowl, a spoon, a pack of raisins and several packs of white sugar - it was high time to get some freshly-made oatmeal, a hot bun and a mug of coffee.


One bun became two, and Patty even granted herself the luxury of adding some butter and raspberry jam to the second one. The coffee warmed her up from the inside out, and the sweetened oatmeal provided a solid base in her stomach that would see her through to mid-afternoon at least. Once dusk began to fall at four-thirty or so, she planned to return to the shelter for supper and hopefully a spot in the dormitory for the night.

As she warmed her hands on the mug of coffee, she observed the other people eating alongside her. Most were clearly homeless like her, but a few appeared to be more established women who had perhaps needed a break from a violent spouse. A Latino woman with a pre-teen boy on her lap sported an ugly, purple shiner, an oblong bruise on her chin and a nose that appeared to have been broken at some point in her past. Focusing squarely on giving her little boy some hot oatmeal, she refused eye-contact with anyone else there, not even the Novice who helped clear the tables.

Patty knew better than to interfere or even ask about details - the woman would never talk, and she already had plenty of problems of her own. Shaking her head at the cruelty of the world, she emptied her mug and pushed her chair back. She felt far safer at the warming shelter than anywhere else in the city, but she had been a magnet for bad luck for most of her life. She did not wish to endanger the nuns and the other guests needlessly, so it was time to move on.

Although the visitors were not expected to take their used plates back to the counter, she brought the items she had used up there so the Novice could save a few steps. She exchanged a few smiles with the nun doing the pile of dishes just beyond the counter before she stepped into the hallway intent on using the bathroom before she went anywhere.

The sliding lock on the door was still red so she was forced to wait. While she leaned against the opposite wall, activity at the door to the dormitory caught her attention. When an old acquaintance stepped out while zipping his numerous jackets, she broke out in a rare smile. "Sticky! Hey, Sticky, man… it's been a while. I thought the reaper had got ya," she said and thumped her friend's arm.

Stig 'Sticky' Hansen was in his late twenties. He had lived on the street for better part of a decade after his new stepmother had forced him to leave his apartment following problems involving the inheritance after his late biological mother. His wild beard, long scruffy hair and weather-beaten facial skin told a vivid tale of his life on the street, as did his left eye that had turned milky after he had been savaged by a rabid dog.

"Whoa, Patty? Yeah, it's been a while… a long while," Sticky said as he clasped arms with the shorter woman. He gave her a long look before he smiled; it revealed he had very few teeth left. "You look good, girl. Life treating you well?"


Sticky let out a dry chuckle that held no humor whatsoever. "Same here. I heard something about you working for DiSorrento…?"

"Maybe," Patty said and pulled a half-shrug.

"Yeah. I also heard she was so freakin' pissed off because of what happened yesterday, so… I thought you might know something."

Patty shook her head. "I've been in the tunnels for most of a week. What happened yesterday?"

"Two major shootouts between the cops and some of DiSorrento's muscle. West Eleventh and Avenue C. You've been away most of a week?"


"So…" Sticky said, squinting to check if anyone was within earshot. Even though they were alone in the hallway, he leaned down toward the shorter woman so he could speak more quietly. "So were you involved in that fire up north? That was a week ago. I heard that was a DiSorrento goon who got roasted."

Patty just stared at her friend. From watching the newscast on the night it happened, she knew the fiery inferno had been big news at the time, but she had never stopped to think it would still be so a full week later. If Sticky knew about it, so would the people she had entered the tunnels to run away from. "Maybe…" she croaked; the look on her face gave her away at once, and Sticky nodded knowingly.

"You need to watch your ass, Patty," he said in a voice that was so quiet it was no louder than a faint whisper. "DiSorrento is still pissed off at that too… she's a psycho, you know that. Her enforcers are even worse. They've beat up homeless people the entire week… we couldn't figure out why… but maybe they were looking for ya? Who knows what she or they might do once they find ya…"

Patty's good mood that had been created by the delightful breakfast vanished like the morning dew. She stared at her old acquaintance while her hand slipped into her jacket's pocket to caress the bottle of stolen prescription medicine. Her mind turned blank at the devastating news; no words would come to her. All she could do was nod, so she did.

Sticky seemed to understand the impact of his message, so he gave Patty's shoulders a little squeeze before he shuffled off into the eating hall.


An hour later, Patty had crossed over to Beauregard Street. She had no idea what to do or where to go except that she needed to go north to get away from the neighborhoods controlled by Dorothy DiSorrento and her vast army of goons. The leader of the crime syndicate had stool pigeons at every corner of every street down south, but far fewer in the zones ruled by her fierce rivals.

The new day had revealed itself to be bright and chilly like she had predicted. Though she moved at a good pace, the bitter cold was working hard at penetrating her flimsy clothes. Her hands, her face and her ears had already turned icy but there was nothing she could do about it - and her hasty exit from the warming shelter had meant she had not had time to ask one of the nuns about borrowing a sweater.

She continued to walk on at a fair clip. Her eyes never left the sidewalk ahead of her so she would not have to look at anyone she met. East Twenty-eighth Street came and went, as did Twenty-ninth, Thirtieth and Thirty-first. She stopped briefly at the corner of Beauregard and Thirty-first Street to think, but a niggling worry that trickled up and down her spine made her continue further north almost at once.

A long time before she had become mixed up with the DiSorrento people, she had spent many a night sleeping in a multi-story parking garage on East Thirty-fourth Street. The garage used to be unmanned so nobody would check the people walking in and out. It had still been there the last time she had been down the street on another business, but nearly six months had passed since then. If the parking garage had not been torn down in the meantime, it would be her home for the near future. Sighing deeply, she let go of her hopes of returning to the shelter for supper and a warm bunk for the night.

The niggling worry trickling up and down her spine was still there. She dreaded the possibility that she had already picked up a shadow - maybe some of DiSorrento's goons were already homing in on her. Without appearing to be doing so, she glanced over her shoulder at the people behind her. She had most of the sidewalk to herself except for a shady figure clad in blue jeans, a pale-blue denim jacket and a baseball cap pulled down to cover the eyes. The person who was seventy yards or so behind her walked in the same direction she did, but so did one or two others who were even further back. Her sixth sense found something unsettling about the denim-clad figure, but she could not put a finger on what it could be.

Letting out another trembling sigh, she knew she needed help from her little, white friends. Soon, she reached into her pocket to take her bottle of pills. Her icy fingers made the process difficult but she managed to get one into her mouth without drama.

After she had gulped it down, she continued at an even brisker pace to get to the multi-story parking garage before she was caught - once she had made it there, it would offer her countless nooks, crannies and dark corners where she could hide for days if she had to.




'Sister Angelica? Sister Angelica? It's ten to nine in the morning… Sister Angelica?' a female voice said from a million miles away. When the senior nun proved hard to get in contact with, the unknown woman put a gentle hand on a shoulder and gave it the tiniest of shakes.

After letting out a long, deep sigh over the depressing fact she needed to get up and face a new day though she was far from ready to do so, Angelica stirred and eventually rolled over onto her back. The two blankets she had used fell onto the floor, but she pulled them back up at once so she would not turn too cold too soon.

She was lying in a pitch black room on a bed of some kind. It took her tired mind several long moments to get enough neurons working together in perfect synchronicity to remember that she had not wanted to go home to her empty apartment the night before after her devastating breakdown after seeing the video. She had spent the entire evening and a good portion of the night working flat-out with the next crew of nuns until she had grown so exhausted she had crashed on the bunk bed in the utility room at the rear of the Sisters Of Mercy Communion House.

'Sister Angelica?' the other woman said again.

"I'm awake… I'm awake," Angelica croaked. She reached up to rub her eyes but it did not produce the desired effect. After she had gone to bed at just after one in the morning, she had spent more time awake than asleep. When sleep had finally claimed her, it had been fitful as a knock-on effect of the great shock her system had suffered the day before. The brief video clip she had seen of two of the three men who had attacked her had played over and over in her mind all through the dark hours.

'Are you sure? My shift is over and I really need to run…' the other woman continued. In the meanwhile, she had moved over to the doorway. The natural light that streamed into the utility room from the hallway did not quite reach the bunk bed.

The scents of hot coffee and freshly-made toast did, however, and made Angelica's stomach growl underneath the two blankets. "Yes, I'm sure. I'm awake. Thank you," she said before she broke out in a yawn. She knew she sounded a little curt, but it was a wonder she could even croak after the night she'd had.

She tried to rack her mind to come up with the name of the nun who had stirred her, but failed. The other woman - who held the same senior position as Angelica - was a regular on the night shift so not one that she usually had much business with. Before she could arrive at any kind of suggestion with regards to the name, it had become irrelevant as the other nun had left.

After pushing the blankets aside and swinging her legs over the side of the bunk bed, she propped up her arm on her knee and rested her chin on her clenched fist. Her eyes slipped shut, but the chill away from the comfortable blankets meant she was in no danger of falling asleep sitting up. After trying to break her jaw by yawning, she rubbed her tired face and got to her feet.

As she moved into the hallway en route to the private bathroom, she regretted having slept in her white tunic. The harsh rays of daylight revealed that 'wrinkled' did not even begin to describe it. Doing so had not been a conscious decision but one borne of sheer fatigue, but that did not help her much in the present situation.


The view reflected in the mirror above the wash basin in the private bathroom could easily have been from an R-rated horror movie. Although Angelica was certain she was looking at herself, the dead-tired woman with the gray complexion and the deep lines in her face looking back at her did not share many of the features that she remembered she had.

Adjusting the towel she had wrapped around herself after her hot shower, she leaned down to splash some cool water in her face to wake up a little better - unfortunately, it worked a little too well as she let out a gasp. To finish off her regular morning routines, she unwrapped the towel and treated herself to a thorough rub-down though her skin was already dry.

Her white tunic and the pale-gray slacks had been far too wrinkly to wear - she could not perform her duties representing the Church Of The Blessed Virgin Mary and the Order Of The Sisters Of Mercy looking like that - so she had dug through the entire wardrobe in the utility room in the hope of finding her spare set that she had put in there an eon ago. It had taken a while, but she had found it, and it was hanging from one of the shower pipes on a pink coat hanger.

Once she was fully dressed in the regular outfit of indoor shoes, pale-gray pants, a white tunic and a pale-gray jacket, she slipped the chain holding the silver crucifix around the tunic's collar to make it rest against her chest - seeing it there still created a profound sense of gratitude within her.


After spending five minutes to get her unruly hair to settle down after the bad night, she finally moved into the kitchenette to get some coffee and a few slices of toast.

Her back, hips and pretty much every other joint ached like there was no tomorrow from spending the night tossing and turning on the rudimentary bunk bed. She could barely reach up to the cupboard above the kitchen sink to get her personal mug, but she managed by getting up on tip-toes instead of stretching out her arm.

The paperboy had already been around with the early edition of the Tribune, so Angelica put it on a tray - like everything else, the tray carried the Sisters Of Mercy logo - next to her mug, the coffee pot, a plate with three slices of toast and a small jar of jam.


Unfolding the newspaper at her desk, she leaned back in her swivel-chair with great care so her aching muscles and joints would abstain from protesting too much. She let out a deep sigh as she glanced at the front page. The biggest story of the day naturally covered the two shootings, and that article took center stage. She skimmed the other headlines in the hope of finding something positive for a change, but there was nothing but the regular messages of doom, gloom, political squabbles and budgetary cutbacks.

Her deep sigh stemmed from seeing the color image splashed onto the center of the page. It was a digitally-enhanced screen capture from the exact same video that had caused her to suffer a meltdown the previous afternoon; it showed the two men who had fired their automatic weapons while sitting on the windowsills of the black sedan. The headline screamed 'Gang War Breaks Out In Carlyle!'

Just to mock her even further, an ambulance raced past out on Sunderland Street with full lights and sirens while she looked at the image. Shivering from the unfortunate timing, she opened the newspaper to get away from all the negativity.

Pages two, three and four only provided more death, despair and drama, but the first glimmer of hope for the new day came on page five. Written by Angelica's journalist friend LuAnne Stevens, the article was a good, solid write-up of the following day's anti-violence protest rally that had received a strong - but rather unwanted - shot in the arm through the recent wave of violent crimes that had swept through Carlyle like a swarm of locusts.

Quotes were attributed to Chief Police Commissioner Farnsworth and Deputy Chief Commissioner Dahlstrom who both complained bitterly about an acute lack of resources and manpower. Furthermore, Mayor Goddard was quoted to be saying that 'Criminals of the ilk of these cowardly shooters will never be able to set foot anywhere. The crime syndicates can be stopped for good. The streets will once again echo of the sounds of children laughing, not assault rifles firing. Our society will once again be free of the dark influences created by criminal elements. The plan to accomplish that is already on my desk. All it takes is my signature. All it takes is that I am allowed to continue the strong work that I, and my team, carry out for the hard-working citizens of Greater Carlyle after the election.'

Angelica scoffed at the mayor's typically lofty comments; as always, she promised far more than she would ever be able to keep. That had been the case for the entire four-year stretch where she had been in office, but the fact it was an election year seemed to make her promises even more flighty and improbable than usual. Worse, her voters seemed not to care about any of that.

She groaned under her breath as she shifted in the swivel-chair. A few tendrils of pain blossomed out from her lower back and hips that had teamed up to tell her that they did not appreciate spending the night on the bunk bed.

Many, though not quite most, of the physical injuries she had sustained in the attack had healed to the point where she only felt them if she moved too fast in stressful situations. It was a point she thought she would never reach; the first few days after being discharged from the Community Hospital had been hell on Earth for her despite the strong painkillers she had been issued with.

She tried to take a few deep breaths to relax enough to read on, but her back was not about to let her get away that easily. After putting down the newspaper, she got up as gingerly as she could to stretch her back; then she noticed the business card she had left by the DECT phone the day before.

Picking it up, she looked at the two telephone numbers belonging to Detective Ben Thorpe. She would call him later - it was more important to get in touch with the Robbery-Homicide detective from the police station on West Seventh Street who handled her case. He had warned her that if the men who had attacked her were ever arrested for that offense or one similar to it, there was a risk the charges against them might not stick unless she could make a positive identification of them. With the recent developments, she had turned that corner though it still tore through her soul to even think of the three violent individuals.


An hour later, Tchaikovsky's fifth symphony blasted out of the portable CD player on her desk. Though the weather was still bitterly cold with a breeze that seemed to pick up as the hands of time approached lunch, there was surprisingly little for her to do at the office. She had watered the potted plants, dusted off the framed posters and the tables, and even washed the floor in the kitchenette using a scrubbing brush and a wet floor rag to remove the worst of the inevitable stains - her back had not been too pleased with the latter of the three jobs, but it needed to be done.

She had a curious restlessness inside her that she could not quite describe. It was almost like she needed to do something without knowing what that 'something' was supposed to be. Swiveling the chair around from looking at the rack that held all her classical CDs, she went back to the newspaper to read some of the day's other news. Nothing caught her eye except for the daily comic strip that told a serialized tale of a pair of Yuletide Elves living far north in the frozen realm of Greenland.

The sound of the front door opening made her put down the newspaper. The person arriving was Sister Maureen with an armful of shopping bags. "Oh! Let me help you with those," Angelica said and gingerly got up from the chair. She winced as her lower back protested for the umpteenth time that day, but the pain soon receded enough for her to move.

"They had a three-fer offer down at Clausen's Supermarket," Sister Maureen said as she put her half of the shopping bags on the kitchen table. "So I got us three large, top-quality chickens for the soup. Oh, and three packs of ground beef as well. I think we'll make an easy Beef Stroganoff tonight… that's been well-received in the past. Before you ask, yes, I remembered the cans of chopped tomatoes and the granulated garlic. They're all in one of your bags."

"That's nice," Angelica said absentmindedly as she put her two bags on the table - they held the various vegetables they used a small mountain of over the course of the week. The various servings of the popular Skipper's Lobscouse had eaten up sixteen pounds of potatoes, eighteen onions and two full bags of frozen sweet peas, and they went through several ten-pound bags of carrots every single week for the chicken broth and the vegetarian soups.

While Sister Maureen put the ground beef and the chickens into their refrigerator, she eyed the gray complexion on the senior nun's face. "You look like you had a terrible night…" she said as she rearranged some things on the shelves to make room for the new items.

"I did. Actually, it was worse than that," Angelica said and let out a tired chuckle. "I went to bed just after one. Then I couldn't fall asleep, and when I did, I was back there…"

"Mmmm. Perhaps you should exploit the nice weather by taking a stroll? It's really bright and pleasant today. Cold, though. I mean, just to get some fresh air into your lungs."

Angelica cocked her head. From one moment to the next, she knew what her curious restlessness had been about. She needed to get out like Sister Maureen had suggested, but not for a stroll - no, she needed to go out on her regular tour.

A strong urge to once again meet and speak to the people out there on the street bubbled up inside her. A friendly soul who listened and offered words of encouragement meant so much to them - she knew that for a fact because she had been told time and time again by those very people. She had toured the streets nearly every day for her entire career. Only the attack had prevented her from doing so, but it was about time she reclaimed her life from the criminals who had so nearly ended it.

Maureen stopped what she was doing to shoot the senior nun a concerned glance. "Sister Angelica, are you all right? You have the oddest look in your eyes…"

A warm smile spread over Angelica's face at the thought of what she was about to do - going back out onto the street felt exactly right. She was even looking forward to it though she knew it would most likely be a strain on her soul at first. "I'm just fine… thank you for your suggestion. Tell you what, I think I'll don my winter cape and head out on my regular tour. It's time."

"Oh! That's wonderful! Do you want me to make you a sandwich?"

The sincere offer made Angelica laugh out loud and pull her friend in for a brief hug. "No thank you. I think I can manage without one!" she said, giving Maureen's shoulders a squeeze.


Sunderland Street had the potential to overwhelm even the hardiest soul with its constant tidal wave of unpredictable noises, the colorful blur of the traffic as it went by in both directions, and the heaving mass of people who populated the sidewalks.

It was nothing more than an average day on the busy street: Rumbling delivery trucks let out plumes of black diesel smoke, taxi cabs were honked at when they suddenly darted over to the curb to pick up a fare, engines roared when the traffic lights turned green again, tires squealed when someone tried to get slowed down after driving too fast in the congested lanes, motorcycles burbled along at slow speed so everyone had time to be impressed by their chrome hogs, and bicycle couriers whizzed past the long-suffering pedestrians who had to jump out of their way before sending plenty of curses, moans and one-fingered salutes after them.

Teenagers walked up and down the busy sidewalk listening to hard-edged hip-hop, thunderous heavy rock or the latest commercial top-40 hits on their large boom-boxes where the volume had always been set to maximum; businesspeople walked among them with their telephones glued to their ears. Speaking just as loudly as the music, they were in constant contact with their frantic stock brokers who advised them to buy, sell or find a window to jump out of.

Elsewhere on the sidewalk and the street, pet dogs out for a walk were yapping, sliding doors were slammed shut on double-parked delivery vans, steel brakes were shrieking when cars rolled up to the intersections, and the ubiquitous emergency sirens were wailing somewhere in the distance.

Sister Angelica was caught in the middle of all that. She stood atop the metal staircase just outside the Communion House with a look on her face that said she was considering whether or not the idea of going out on her tour had been all that brilliant after all. She clutched the metal railing like she was afraid she would fall down the stairs if she let go.

Just to mock her, a garishly-painted ambulance from Pettersson's Nine-Nine-One Ambulance Services suddenly appeared on the scene racing northbound on Sunderland with all its lights and sirens going. The driver activated the extra-loud trumpets on top of the cab at the exact same time that the ambulance reached the metal staircase in front of the barrack. The loudness made Angelica jump a foot in the air and bare her teeth in a grimace.

Goosebumps invaded her skin and made her reconsider her immediate future even harder. When she realized her reaction was less severe than it had been earlier, she pulled the thick, pale-gray winter cape closer around her shoulders and began to descend the staircase. In addition to the cape, she wore winter boots, dark-gray fleece gloves and a pale-gray beanie hat that carried the name and logo of the Sisters Of Mercy Mission. After taking a few steps, she pulled down the hat even further so it covered her ears down to her lobes - the weather was sunny but cold.

Once she was on the sidewalk itself, she drew a deep breath and looked up and down the street to decide which way she wanted to go. North seemed as good as south, but one place she would never return to alone was West Eleventh Street; that and the entire so-called dark zone were off-limits for now - her heart and soul told her that in no uncertain terms. These were her first baby-steps back to a more normal life, and risking too much on the first go would be a nonsense.

Therefore, she began strolling south on Sunderland. Her first destination was the intersection not too far from the Communion House; from there, she would cross over to the other sidewalk and visit some of the small mom-and-pop stores that were lined up side by side opposite from the seedier establishments.


A while later, she had visited a family-run, hole-in-the-wall Chinese eatery called the Poodle Noodle - the elderly proprietors only spoke limited English so there was no reason to inquire about the unfortunate name - an old-fashioned tobacco store that sold pipes, silver cigarette cases and imported cigars, a candy store that offered sweets by the bucketful, and finally a news stand owned and operated by a retired police officer by the name of 'Lightning' Jack O'Reilly.

Everyone had been glad to see her again; everyone knew her tragic tale. She had been given a Chinese blessing that she had understood nothing of, a small can of chewing tobacco that she had no idea what to do with, and even a free magazine that the ever-grumpy 'Lightning' Jack was just going to send back anyway. The latter was the perfect recipient of the can of chewing tobacco which made the grizzled veteran break out in a rare smile - his first since around mid-July.

Moving away from the small mom-and-pop stores, she continued further south on Sunderland. She glanced across the busy street at the first of the triple-X movie theaters, but she was in no mood for their garish marquees, their sleazy billboards and their provocative film titles - even at such an early time of the day, the theaters were not lacking for customers. Snorting, she continued walking south.

Another three blocks in that direction and she would reach the upper parts of Skid Row, but the nuns had strict orders from the highest authority in the Church never to tour there alone, so she decided to steer well clear of the notoriously difficult neighborhood.

When she walked past the mouth of an alley, the familiar scent of woodsmoke trickled up her nostrils. Glancing down the alley that was just as filthy and filled with old cardboard boxes and rusty shopping carts as all the others near Sunderland Street, she spotted four homeless men warming their hands at a burning oil drum. The men appeared cold and miserable so they presented no threat to her whatsoever.

A part of her wanted to speak to them because that was the entire purpose of doing her rounds; another part screamed in her ear that she should move on in a hurry since she had no way of knowing what the men were capable of. She weighed her options for nearly half a minute before she came to the conclusion that if she no longer had the courage to perform her solemn duties as a nun - despite the serious circumstances of her recent past - she might as well retire from the Order. That thought had barely flashed through her mind before it was pushed aside by a strong sense of being unwilling to do that. She had donned the white-and-pale-gray uniform to help people in need whenever and wherever she could, so that was what she was going to do - thus, she made a ninety-degree right-hand turn to pay the four men a visit.

"Hello. Nice to meet you, Gentlemen," she said with a smile once she got close enough. Two of the four homeless were white, two were African-Americans. The white men had apparently little interest in speaking to a nun because they shuffled off with their hands buried deep down their pockets the moment they saw her.

The remaining two were dressed in old, olive-green US Army fatigues, but whether they really were veterans of the armed forces or had simply bought their clothes in the large Army-Navy surplus store not too far from Sunderland Street was impossible to say. They both appeared to be in their mid-forties and had the typical looks of the homeless with weather-beaten skin, unkept hair and wild beards. One looked to have shaved within the past week, but the other had allowed his beard to grow freely.

The recently-shaved one of the men merely grunted at the nun's greeting; the other remained silent.

Sister Angelica was not about to let the slight rejection stop her. The smile never left her face as she continued: "If you need to get warmed up more than your fire can provide, you're both very welcome at the shelter or the Communion House. Have you ever been there? Hot meals are served from four-thirty in the afternoon. Today's main courses will be-"

"We're not the religious types," the first homeless man said; the other nodded. The sticks used for feeding the fire in the oil drum chose that moment to let out a few crackles and pops which in turn caused a small plume of pale-blue smoke to escape into the cold air.

"Oh, the Mission and the shelter welcome everyone. All we ask is that our guests behave themselves so everyone can enjoy their hot meal without too much disruption."

Angelica's sales pitch did not appear to persuade the homeless men to visit one or both of the drop-in centers. One of them shrugged; the other remained silent.

There was no point in spending more time with the homeless men considering how little interest they showed, so Angelica pulled her winter cape even closer around her shoulders and prepared to move on. "Well. It was nice talking to you, Gentlemen. Have a safe day and night," she said and turned around.

She had made it ten paces back toward Sunderland Street before the silent one of the two men finally spoke up: "Wait! Wait… you never said what you served tonight?"

"Beef Stroganoff and chicken broth," Sister Angelica said as she looked at the men once more. "We're also making a good, strong vegetable soup for those so inclined. And we serve hot cocoa, coffee, tea or even warm milk. Alcoholic beverages are barred from our establishment, though."

The men shared a long look before they both nodded at the nun's words. "We'll swing by later," the recently-shaved one of the men said. After a moment, he added a "Thank you, Sister," almost as an afterthought.

Pleased with the success, Angelica smiled at the two homeless men before she went back out to Sunderland Street to continue her tour of the main artery that some called a den of filth and others called home. Though her heart thumped in her chest from the encounter, her soul was happy with the outcome of the talk.


At the same intersection she had used earlier to cross over to the other side of the busy street, she and a large group of fellow pedestrians were treated to the humorous sight of a short, irate blonde cursing, yelling and kicking at her car - a faintly yellow, rusty, beat-up Hyundai - that had broken down at the worst possible spot: right in the middle of the outer lane.

The hood was up and a cloud of gray smoke rose from the abused engine. While that was going on up front, more smoke - this time of a pale-blue nature - seeped out the old car's tail pipe, so it appeared it had run its last mile.

The fiery driver leaned into the side window to ask her passenger to try the ignition key again, and it was soon given another twist. All the Hyundai did was rattle, cough, splutter and backfire twice. Then it died altogether.

The disharmonic concert of honking that the irate blonde received from every one of the cars stacked up behind her made her go even more ballistic; she let out a screaming blue streak that made Sister Angelica's cheeks flush red as the jumble of words filtered through to her. Storming to the back of her car, the irate blonde spun around, cocked her leg and pointed at her backside with exaggerated gestures like she was telling the people behind her that they might as well be talking to that part of her 'cos her ears were not listening.

Angelica knew better than to offer any advice on cars so she settled for crossing the street when the pedestrian traffic signals turned green. As she passed by the stricken, faintly-yellow car, she noticed that the female passenger - who had a short, boyish haircut and broad shoulders - laughed out loud at her companion's wild behavior.


The weather had made a turn for the worse during Angelica's tour of Sunderland and some of the connecting streets and alleys. The clear skies and sunny conditions that had been present all morning had been swept away by a front of heavy, dark-gray clouds that rolled in from the north. With the temperature hovering just above the freezing point, the precipitation that was sure to come could turn out to be rain, sleet or snow - and if the residents of Greater Carlyle were unlucky, it could be freezing rain which would cause chaotic conditions on the streets.

Angelica was walking at a good speed on the west side of Sunderland to get back to the Communion House before anything cold and wet could fall from the sky. She was tired, but a good kind of tired. Going on the tour had been as reinvigorating as she had hoped it would be. She had proven to herself that the three men who had attacked her no longer had control over her life. There were things she still needed to work on, like her reactions to sirens - one was approaching from further ahead even as the thought ran through her mind - but on a whole, she had come a long way from where she had been on the first day after her discharge from the Community Hospital.

Reaching the Mission, she climbed the metal staircase just as the chilly winds began to pick up once more. A police cruiser flew past out on the street headed south - its electronic siren was going at full blast which made her shiver and feel the inevitable chill trickle down her spine. She kept watching it for a short while to see if the irate blonde with the faintly-yellow Hyundai had finally done something she should not have at the blocked intersection, but it continued past the scene.

A sense of contentment fell over her as she stood there five feet above the heads of the heaving mass of people occupying the sidewalk. She had made it through her first tour for far too long unscathed and in good spirits. Although she had concentrated on the more predictable mom-and-pop stores rather than visiting individual apartments where anything could happen, she was happy with her efforts. There would be plenty of other tours from now on, she knew that for a fact.

Smiling, she opened the front door and stepped back inside the open office - a mug of steaming hot cocoa would be just the thing to combat the dropping temperatures.




The clock had just moved past twenty to five in the afternoon when Patricia 'Patty' Hawkins sprinted out of a convenience store and ran north on Beauregard Street as fast as her legs would carry her. The dark, heavy clouds that had delivered a few showers of sleet and light snow at lunchtime and into the afternoon had moved on for the most part, but the tiny layers of white stuff they had left behind on the sidewalk remained. Though it was slippery in places, it was not enough to impede her progress.

She ran past three of the connecting side streets before she allowed herself to slow down. Looking over her shoulder and seeing no one, she reduced her pace to a fast walk. She clutched the loot of her shoplifting to her chest: a bagel and a newspaper.

The bagel would provide the only nourishment she would get for the rest of the day and the following night, so she forced herself to only eat a quarter of it as she made for her temporary home on East Thirty-fourth Street. The multi-story parking garage had still been there when she had arrived earlier in the day, and it was still unmanned which meant she'd had no problems in entering the premises.

More than half an hour had been spent trying to relocate the spot where she had slept earlier. Although her memories of that period were too hazy for her to remember enough details to find the exact spot, she had come across a perfect replacement on the third floor: a metal grating on the floor above a utility room. The generators inside the room produced a constant humming noise as they created the electricity that ran the strip lights in the ceiling and the exit beacons in the fire escape. That was the downside - the upside was that they also produced heat that was sent up through a heating duct to the metal grating. It would provide a little corner of paradise for her.

Beauregard Street just north of the ethnic Latino neighborhood of North Tijuana saw plenty of bumper-to-bumper traffic as the afternoon rush hour was in full swing, but Patty took her chances and zipped across the busy lanes between the cars and all the other vehicles. It earned her plenty of honking, but she did not care about that.

East Thirty-fourth Street was reached just as another flurry of sleet and light snow began to fall from one of the last remaining dark clouds above. The winds toyed with the large, wet flakes and sent them whirling through the air in unpredictable patterns.

Slowing down, Patty came to a halt at a Laundromat where she pretended to peek through the storefront windows at the machines inside. In reality, she observed the people on the street around her. The things she had been told by her friend Stig 'Sticky' Hansen at the warming shelter had spooked her; the denim-clad shadow she had spotted following her when she had first gone to the parking garage had only made it worse. Although the person had not moved down East Thirty-fourth when she had, the risk that it was one of DiSorrento's stool pigeons was high.

She squinted left, right, left, right and left again for good measure. There were people near her, but none had a threatening air about them - they were all just regular folks out walking their dog or carrying shopping bags. Two teenaged boys across the street caught her attention. The teenagers wore scruffy, grungy clothing and they were loitering there seemingly for no particular reason. The grounds for their odd behavior were soon revealed when they traded small bags containing white powder for a few crumpled-up dollar bills. Once the transaction had been completed, they split up and walked in opposite directions.

After spending an additional minute and a half at the Laundromat, Patty decided that she was safe and continued onto the parking garage.


The metal grating she had claimed as her own up on the third floor was warm and inviting as she returned to it. Sighing with pleasure, she folded her legs and sat down directly on top of it. The hard metal made a few aches and pains flare up from her old burn injuries, but it was nothing she could not handle. After using her sleeve to try to sweep away the dust from a small section of the floor, she put down the stolen bagel she had already eaten a quarter of. She had yet to shoplift a sweater, but that was next on her to-do list - the task had been made more difficult by the inclement weather since the clothes boutiques and sportswear stores would not wheel out racks carrying selections of their products as long as there was a risk the merchandise would get wet.

Her surroundings were as far from the level of a five-star hotel as they could possibly be. Everything around her was held in a drab shade of dark-gray save for the strip lights that cast a dimmed, vaguely-orange light onto the concrete deck. The old pipes used by the fire-prevention sprinkler system in the ceiling were leaking from a good number of the joints which created puddles on the floor - it also provided drinking water for the empty plastic bottle she had found when she had searched for a good spot to sleep.

The floors had never been brought up to the current standards: unlike the coarse, grooved surfaces used in newer parking garages, they were all smooth which produced the characteristic squealing from the tires even when the vehicle in question only drove at walking pace. Ancient stains of oil, gasoline and other unidentifiable substances created the typical dark patches on the surfaces, and just like the tunnels at the switching yard, the slabs of concrete that made up the walls and the floors all had a stink about them as they seemed to have absorbed all the exhaust fumes they had been exposed to.

Barely a dozen cars were parked on the third floor, and at least two of those showed clear signs of having been abandoned. Before Patty had found the metal grating, she had considered sleeping in an old Buick Regal from the 1980s that had at least ten years of dust and grime on it. The doors were even unlocked, but it had meant that the interior had become dank which had created such a suffocating moldy stench that even the street-tough Patty had backed away from it.

Unfolding the stolen newspaper, she began to study the front page. The big story underneath the 'Gang War Breaks Out In Carlyle!' headline revolved around the two shootouts on West Eleventh Street and Avenue C, and she read every last comma of the article.

Down at street-level, a vehicle could be heard entering the parking garage. Its tires squealed on the smooth surface though it only seemed to drive around at low speed. It did so for a brief while before two doors were opened and then slammed shut. The engine kept running, but it was soon switched off. Another door was opened and then closed. After that, the parking garage fell quiet once more.

Patty stopped reading and lowered the newspaper. The hum produced by the generators on the floor below her meant it was difficult to pick up voices or the clicking of heels on the smooth surface. The pleasant waves of heat that rose from the grating were far too good to go to waste, so she remained in place instead of going on an exploratory mission. Nothing had happened after a minute or so, so she picked up the newspaper once more to read on.


Five minutes later, three car doors were slammed downstairs. The vehicle was soon started; then it seemed to drive around slowly again like it was looking for something - or someone.

A concerned furrow developed between Patty's fair eyebrows. Unscrewing the cap on the plastic bottle, she took a long swig of the free water she had collected from the leaking fire-prevention system. It had a metallic taste, but it was better than nothing. She tried to return to the newspaper, but her worries were too strong which meant she could not concentrate on reading as much as another paragraph.

The engine note changed as the vehicle seemed to drive up the ramp to get to the upper floors. Patty's breath hitched as it dawned on her that trouble could be headed her way. She knew from having checked out the ground floor when she had arrived that there were plenty of empty parking bays down there. There was no reason for a vehicle to drive up to one of the upper floors if the driver was just looking for somewhere to park.

Tires continued to squeal as the vehicle drove off the first ramp and made a slow tour of the next floor; the one below where Patty waited. This time, no doors were opened or closed, and the engine note remained the same throughout.

She narrowed her eyes and stared at the mouth of the ramp that was directly in her line of sight. It could be one of DiSorrento's enforcers out to get her, or perhaps soldiers from the rival gang that controlled the area around East Thirty-fourth Street, or perhaps even a police vehicle patrolling the parking garage - whichever it was, it would most likely spell bad news for her.

Getting to her feet, she crouched down at once so she would present the smallest possible target. Her heart began to hammer in her chest as the engine noise came closer. It seemed the vehicle did not stop on the floor below her at all but continued onto, and then up, the next ramp - if that was the case, it would soon appear not thirty yards from her position.

It was far too risky to stay where she was, so she grabbed the newspaper, the bottle of water and the bagel - that she stuffed into her jacket's pocket so it would be safe - and took off from her little, warm slice of heaven. She zipped over to the stinking Buick Regal and hid behind the grimy rear fender. Peeking wide-eyed over the trunk, she held her breath as the engine noise came even closer.

All her worst fears were confirmed when the vehicle finally came into sight. It was a black Lincoln Navigator SUV similar to the one she and Bogdan Marinescu had used on their many dirty jobs collecting debts and the like. DiSorrento had found her.

Gulping hard, Patty looked left and right to find an escape route. There were precious few options available to her. If she was lucky - and she never was - there was a chance she would be able to sneak out of harms' way by running from one parked car to the next until she reached the ramp leading down, but so few cars were parked on the third floor that it could never be more than a long shot. When she tried to calculate how long it would take her to run from the Buick and over to the next car, she came to the depressing conclusion that it would be too long.

The black SUV came to another stop not too far from the metal grating. Three men stepped out: two were baseball-bat-wielding enforcers who shared the typically crude, low-brow, knuckle-dragging looks of the DiSorrento foot soldiers.

They were unknown to Patty, but she nearly let out a cry of terror when she recognized the leader of the three men. It was Avi Weissman. Her heart performed a series of painful double-beats as she stared at the elegant man in the camel-hair overcoat.

As always, his hair was slicked back and he wore wraparound shades; the shades were soon pushed up in his hair so he could see better in the dim light. A simple gesture at the two enforcers made them run in opposite directions to perform a sweep of the third floor. It was obvious they knew that Patty would be hiding there somewhere, but perhaps not her exact whereabouts.

Patty lowered herself even further down behind the Buick to get out of sight. She stared to her left at an old, filthy Toyota pickup truck that was parked twenty yards or so from her present position. She was fleet-footed, but the men were determined to get her. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

Taking a deep breath, she tightened her body and got ready to make a run for the Toyota. When the enforcer nearest her looked away, she took off from the Buick at a fair speed - but the sounds made by her heels on the smooth surface betrayed her almost at once.

"There's the fuckin' rat!" the enforcer yelled to his two cohorts before he took off in a fast run to intercept Patty.

She made it to the tailgate of the Toyota pickup, but the enforcer was already too close; he cornered her before she could run toward the next car, an old Chevrolet Lumina that was parked another twenty yards away. She evaded the first wild swing of the baseball bat but it had been close. Instead of bashing her head in, it smashed the left taillight cluster of the old truck which sent fragments of red plastic raining onto the concrete deck.

The enforcer pulled his weapon back to try again, but before he could make a second pass at his victim, his boss called out to him to wait. Rather than using the bat, he reached out to take a firm grip on Patty's black jacket. The second enforcer came running as well to box her in.

Avi Weissman strolled toward Patty and the two goons. As he got closer, he waved his gloved hand in front of his nose. "You stink, bitch. When was the last time you showered? Last year? Well, it doesn't matter. Before we make an example out of you, I suppose you have a right to know why. You shouldn't have killed Marinescu. DiSorrento doesn't like it when her trusted people are killed."

"Bogdan was a twisted piece of shit! He deserved to die!" Patty said through clenched teeth.

"Perhaps so, but it wasn't your decision to make, bitch," Weissman said before he reached into his expensive coat to take his dark-gray pistol from its holster. He held it out and turned it around like he could not decide in which of Patty's body parts to put the first bullet.

The stakes had been upped at the appearance of the gun, Patty knew that at once. If it came down to it, she would much prefer to die from being shot than having her life beaten out of her by a baseball bat - she had seen far too many of Bogdan Marinescu's victims to ever want such a fate. She clenched her jaw while she waited for the inevitable hot slug that would tear through her flesh and bones.

"Now, before we left," Weissman continued in a nonchalant voice, "DiSorrento told me that I shouldn't kill you but let the electric chair take care of that. She also told me that your file has been sent to the police, whatever that means. I'm intrigued! Perhaps there's another murder in your past, hmmm?"

It was like a bucket filled with ice cold water was dumped on Patty's head at the news. She looked away; the gruesome event in September once more played across her mind's eye. The split second of terror as the woman suddenly appeared in the middle of street not ten feet from the front of the stolen pickup truck. The hideous thump as the woman hit the hood. The blood on the windshield that was so thick it was necessary to use the wipers.

The anguished expression on Patty's face told the experienced gangster all he needed to know. He let out a cool chuckle. "Ah, there is. Fascinating. We do have something in common after all," he said before he moved a short distance away so he would not risk getting blood on his camel-hair overcoat. "I'll just wait over here… out of range. Gentlemen, she's all yours."

Patty slammed her eyes shut. The first enforcer's baseball bat was already cutting through the air with an audible whoosh.


The torture lasted fifteen minutes. Patty Hawkins was still alive at the end of it, but every square inch of her body had been worked over to such a degree that she hallucinated she was dead. She came back to the real world in time to hear three doors being slammed shut and the black Lincoln Navigator driving away.

Another fifteen minutes went by where all she could do was to lie motionless on the hard, cold concrete deck. Then, little by little, she began to gather up enough courage to at least try to move. The first few attempts were unsuccessful after she discovered she could not move her right arm at all. The eruption of pain that followed the attempts convinced her to wait a moment or two before trying again.

More time went by before the third attempt was enough to get her off the cold, concrete floor. Groaning out loud as a relief valve for the fiery pain that blasted through her, she was able to use her left hand and arm to push herself up into sitting against the old Toyota's rusty bumper. She fell into a thousand-mile stare that lasted for another ten minutes as wave after wave of pain rolled over her.

The metal grating connected to the heating duct was only fifty yards or so away, but it might as well have been on the far side of the moon. A shiver ran over her; goosebumps broke out in its wake. The parking garage was already cold, and it would only get colder as the late afternoon turned to evening. The heat from the duct would have done her good, but she was unable to do anything beyond just sitting there aching.

After a few moments, she eyed her precious pills that had been strewn all over the concrete deck around her. They had all been crushed under the bootheels of the three gangsters. Her heart plummeted at the sight. She had nothing left but the blinding pain and a snippet of life that she was unsure she even wanted.




At eight minutes past midnight on October eighteenth, the white-and-pale-blue Ford Crown Victoria police cruiser from the One-Three precinct trickled down West Sixteenth Street past one of the northern entrances to Victory Park in the bohemian district. The lamp posts following the paved paths snaking through the park were still lit to create mood lighting - and to prevent too many purse snatchings - but the low temperatures meant nobody was around to exploit it.

Coming to a halt at the entrance to the park, Meighan O'Sullivan snatched a powerful spotlight from between the front seats. Rolling down the window, she turned on the spotlight and shone it at the only place along the entire northern edge of Victory Park that fell into deep shadows created by the tall, bare trees above it. The sudden illumination earned her a squeak and a couple of surprised expletives hurled at her before two men raced out of the cone of light and into the protection of the dark night.

Meighan chuckled and put away the spotlight. The driver's side window was rolled up at once to keep out the frosty temperatures. Though the two officers both wore their thick winter jackets, the heater was still going full blast to compensate for the lack of ambient heat.

"I consider that just a little bit cruel…" Lorenzo Lombardini said from his spot on the Ford's passenger seat.

"Eh. It's way too cold for hanky-panky. They oughtta get a room somewhere."

"Maybe it's their kind of foreplay. They could be married for all you know!"

"True," Meighan said and moved the column-mounted shifter back into drive. As the cruiser rolled away from the curb, she let out another chuckle. "Remember the flasher we busted in the park last year?"

Lorenzo looked over his shoulder as the northern entrance to Victory Park disappeared behind them. "Oh yeah. I never could figure out why a guy with a three-inch twig felt a need to wave it around."

"Mysteries of the world, huh? Anyway. I'm glad we're back on our own turf," Meighan said as she pressed her foot down on the throttle to make the Ford come back up to speed. "Beats that task force idiocy, that's for sure. Even if Captain MacPherson did re-assign us to the night shift."

"Yeah. And I never slept anyway, so I don't care whether it's night or day…"

Meighan let out a grunt at the undeniable fact of that statement. In the period since her last relationship had fizzled out from the strains of her stressful job, all she had done at night was to go to bed alone - save for once in a blue moon - and all she had done during the day was to work. It mattered little to her what time her shift started and ended as long as she could be out on the street trying to make a difference. That she seemed to be disappointed more often than not when she got home was a separate story altogether.


It only took them a short while to get from Victory Park and over to Cassandra Street even at low speed. Because of the chilly temperatures, the night was quiet - it seemed that even the burglars refused to work under those climatic conditions. Once they reached the intersection of West Sixteenth Street and Cassandra, she pulled to a halt and moved the shifter into park.

Waiting for something to happen, the two experienced police officers observed the traffic that drove by on the four-lane Cassandra Street. It was the usual mix of the ubiquitous delivery vans, family cars bringing tired people home after a late shift or bringing other equally tired people to work for the early shift, and taxi cabs carrying the colors of most of Carlyle's cab companies. During the summer months, there would have been several low-riders and other types of hot-rodders present as well, but it was far too cold for that - even across town on Beauregard Street near the ethnic neighborhood of North Tijuana that often resembled a custom car show when the warm sun was high in the sky and everyone had fallen under the special summer spell.

Nothing caught their eye so Meighan set off again and turned north on Cassandra at the standard patrol speed which was rarely more than twenty-five miles per hour. The shops they went by were all closed for the night, but a good portion of them kept the store-lights on to make it more difficult for potential nightly visitors. One family-run furniture store still saw activity in the shape of a young Asian woman vacuuming the carpets and the other items on display.

"Which reminds me…" Meighan said as the cruiser continued north at a modest speed in the inner lane. "I better dig out my old vacuum cleaner. It's been a while since I had a wrestling match with my dust bunnies."

"Scientific studies show that it's actually unhealthy to vacuum too often," Lorenzo said without taking his eyes off the sidewalk they went past. The few people who were out at that time of night were all wrapped up into resembling abominable Bigfoots, and they all hurried along to get to where they needed to be before they would turn into icicles.

Meighan chuckled as she glanced at her patrol partner. "Yeah, I heard that too… but the dust bunnies have evolved into dust-jackrabbits. If I wait too much longer, the li'l critters will contact the United Nations and claim my apartment as their territory… or nature reserve."

"Can't have that," Lorenzo said and let out a chuckle. "Hey, at least you got your hog fixed. You look a damn sight better astride that thing than you did shoehorned into your sister's toy-sized Kia."

"Thanks, buddy! I'm glad somebody noticed!"

The two officers grinned at the exchange, and at the truth of it - Meighan O'Sullivan's square physique was the perfect match to the loud, broad, powerful, badass Harley-Davidson.

They fell silent once more as they continued north on Cassandra Street. It seemed the world around them was a different one to what they had been used to on the day shift. Not only were there far fewer people around and thus less traffic on the whole, the darkness of the night enhanced the colors, the sounds, the smells and even the perception of speed. Though they both had years of experience on the night shift earlier on in their careers, it was a good reminder that everything appeared just that little bit more magical, or even mystical, at night.

A city block or two later, Meighan suddenly applied the brakes and came to a halt in the inner lane. "Huh," she said, furrowing her brow. "Did you see that car parked in the alley we just went past? At the other side of the street?"

"No, I was looking at the sidewalk. Anything interesting?"

"Looked like a black Lincoln to me," Meighan said and moved the shifter into reverse. Putting her arm over the backrest to see where they went, she mashed the gas to make the cruiser move backward for a distance of twenty yards before she came to another halt. She switched on the emergency lights and made a turn across all the lanes to drive into the dark mouth of an alley.

A black Lincoln sedan with chrome trimmings and custom wheels was parked in the shadows. It was drawn back from the street like the owner wanted to keep it out of sight of the world's interested glare. If it had not been for the fact that the street lights had been reflected in the chrome grille, the ploy would have worked.

After bouncing across the curb and the sidewalk, Meighan brought the cruiser to a halt again and reached down to open the little button holding her sidearm in place in the holster. "You ready?" she said without taking her eyes off the black car in front of them.

"Yep," Lorenzo said, mirroring his patrol partner's actions.

"Let's go." Opening the door, Meighan stepped out of the cruiser and drew her service pistol at once. She held it in the proper two-hand grip as she approached the passenger side of the sedan with cautious but determined steps; behind her and to her right, Lorenzo continued to mirror her.

As she looked at it, she tried to recall how the getaway vehicle had looked during the shootout on Avenue C. The side she had been able to see then - the driver's side - had been dented and scratched from sideswiping several cars. She had never been able to see the other side, but it was a good bet it would look similar.

A grunt escaped her when she let her eyes roam over the pristine paint and untouched chrome trimmings. Nothing indicated that the car had been involved in several accidents, and even the world's best mechanics would be unable to get it back to such an elegant state in such a short time.

"Dammit… it's not the right one," she said as she moved back to the cruiser to get the powerful spotlight. Turning it on, she brought it back to the black sedan; the cord was just long enough to reach. As she let the strong cone of light flash across the pristine paint, it was established beyond doubt that it was the wrong car. It was a black Lincoln Continental, but not the one they and every other patrol cruiser in Carlyle was looking for.

Lorenzo sighed as he holstered his sidearm. When the cone of light roamed across the custom wheels, he said: "No, even the design of the wheels is wrong. The getaway car had four-spoke chrome wheels, these are three-spoke alloys."

"Yeah? Didya happen to catch the brand name too?" Meighan said and let out a dark chuckle. Switching off the spotlight, she rolled up the cord and moved back to the cruiser.

"I kinda did, but it won't give us anything. I think they were official Lincoln wheels."

Nodding, Meighan leaned her arms on the cruiser's roof in a clear display of tension-fueled frustration. "Hmmm. Let's run the license plate through the system. We may come up with something after all."


Meighan cast a final glance at the black sedan before she let out a sigh and got into the Crown Vic. A moment later, they reversed out of the dark alley.


"I'm getting hungry," Lorenzo said a little while later. "How about we made it over to Avenue C and stopped at the great fast food restaurant? You know, the one opposite the used-car dealership."

Meighan seemed to ponder the notion for a while before she broke out in a shrug. "Yeah, why not. I could eat… let's grab a bite of something."


Arriving at the burger bar after a surprisingly easy trip through the streets of Carlyle, Meighan drove over the sidewalk and into the parking lot. The restaurant did not close until two so they were in no danger of not getting served; thus, and out of sheer habit, they had time to do a slow tour around the lot so they could perform look-ups of the license plates of the cars parked there. When they all came back clean and green, she pulled into a slot not too far from a pair of bulky ambulances that had claimed the entire back part of the lot for themselves. The EMTs all wore their heavy winter coats so they braved the conditions and ate outside at the picnic table that was always so popular among families and professionals alike in the summer months.

The ambulances were from Sklar & Bonney and Pettersson's Nine-Nine-One Ambulance Services respectively, and three of the four EMTs seemed to be engaged in that most ancient of pastimes known as 'trash talking.' The fourth - a tall brunette wearing Pettersson's colors - kept back from the good-humored exchange, but her shorter, female partner went through a series of wild gestures to tell the two men from Sklar & Bonney exactly what she thought of them.

While Meighan and Lorenzo crossed the parking lot in their regular striding way of walking, they chuckled at the odd habits of the EMT crews before they offered them a wave that was reciprocated in kind. Holding the door open, Meighan stepped aside to let her patrol partner move into the fast food restaurant first.


Despite having to order twice because the young employee manning the counter had somehow managed to forget what the first one had been, it only took five minutes before they strolled back out to their cruiser each carrying a to-go bag holding a cheeseburger, a small pack of fries and a can of Sprite. "You're driving," Meighan said as she went over to the passenger-side door of the cruiser.

Like always, they wolfed down the food in no time flat so they would be ready in case the radios on their belts or the digital communication device on the dashboard would interrupt them. The Sprites lasted a little longer, but that was because the Ford Crown Victoria had no room for cupholders with all the equipment it had to carry.

"You ready?" Lorenzo said after a while. To pre-empt his patrol partner's answer, he reached down to wrap his fingers around the Ford's ignition key.

Meighan let out an affirmative grunt - she was too busy chowing down the final French fries to speak. Once the salty fries were gone, she chased them down with a long swig of the soft drink.

Starting the engine, Lorenzo reversed out of the parking bay and did another tour of the lot to see if any new vehicles had arrived that needed to be checked. Everything looked to be in the clear, so he drove onto Avenue C and headed south to get back to their regular patrol zone.


The shift they found themselves in was perhaps not the world's most exciting in the history of the Greater Carlyle police force. They had only had two assignments during the entire patrol: One had been to breathalyze a man who had been reported by a concerned citizen to be driving erratically. When they had caught up with him, he was well below the legal limit so they had settled for giving him a stern warning and an order to learn how to control his vehicle better. The other assignment had been to break up a small-scale fistfight between two teenaged brothers who had declared war on each other when a girlfriend had changed her allegiance halfway through a double-date.

Lorenzo and Meighan had crossed back to Belvedere Street and had driven up one side street and down the other for nearly half an hour with nothing to show for it when something important finally happened: they were hailed on the portable radios they both carried on their utility belts.

"This is patrol vehicle double-oh-nine. Officer O'Sullivan. Go ahead, dispatch," Meighan said before she released the key on the radio.

'We have received a call from the One-Six precinct,' a female voice said from the radio. 'A security guard at the Albatross Self-Storage Depot on East Sixty-sixth Street has spotted a black sedan matching the description of the getaway vehicle used in connection with the shootings. Air unit one has been advised. The tactical unit and the ANOCRITA task force are on fast response stand-by, over.'

Meighan narrowed her eyes. The news that someone had spotted a Lincoln was promising - and especially that it matched the description sent out - but why she and Lorenzo of all people were told was beyond her. Commander Shulmann had raised such a ruckus about the perceived foul-ups on West Eleventh Street and Avenue C that all ties had been officially severed between the task force and the two patrol officers. She glanced at Lorenzo who could only shrug. "Ah, ten-roger, dispatch. Requesting reason for being contacted, over."

In the brief moment while they waited for an answer, Lorenzo turned on the emergency lights and pulled over to the curb. They were presently headed south on Belvedere Street, but a U-turn would only take five seconds at the most to accomplish.

'Officer O'Sullivan, it's on Captain MacPherson's direct orders.'

"Ten-roger, dispatch. Patrol vehicle double-oh-nine responding. ETA eight to ten minutes," Meighan said while she made a circular gesture with an index finger so Lorenzo would go ahead and carry out the U-turn - then she reached for the seat belt and clicked it in place.

Nodding, the driver spun the wheel around, crossed over all six lanes and took off northbound on Belvedere Street. The V8 engine up front roared which made the speed climb at once. It soon grew to fifty, then fifty-five miles per hour.

With the traffic being so sparse, they did not need the electronic sirens at first; they were only obliged to use them when crossing through intersections. The multi-colored lights produced by the LED lamps in the lightbar on the roof cast wild, psychedelic patterns onto the buildings and parked cars they raced past - it was all part of the nocturnal experience.

The tension among the experienced officers grew as the radio continued to squawk: 'A-firm, patrol vehicle double-oh-nine. Be advised, other police units on fast response stand-by if needed. Air unit one can be contacted on frequency seven-two. Over and out,' the dispatcher said before the radio link fell quiet.

With the seat belt doing its job restricting Meighan's ability to move, she put the radio in her lap while they were racing along the wide street. To have something to do with her hands, she reached up to adjust her compulsory Carlyle PD baseball cap instead. "Captain's orders, huh? Okay. I didn't see that one coming. I guess he was pleased with our work despite what the dear commander said. Or screamed, to be exact."

"Mmmm. Let's hope it's not another false alarm," Lorenzo said as he flew past a taxi cab that drove at no more than twenty miles per hour in the center lane. The traffic lights at the next intersection were green when they reached them which meant they could race straight across without slowing down. He briefly turned on the electronic siren and gave it a few stabs to warn the others.

Chewing on her lips, Meighan checked the Remington 870PM pump-action shotgun mounted on the dashboard before she reached down to pat her sidearm and her spare clips - everything was in order and ready to be put into use if need be. They certainly had the tools to do the job properly, but the three criminals had already shown they were not easily intimidated and that they would not shy back from anything. "I don't think it is, Lorenzo. I think this is the real deal…" she said quietly.


East Sixty-sixth Street was a good distance away from their regular patrol area so it took them nearly ten minutes to drive up there even at increased speed and with reduced traffic around them. Neither of them was overly familiar with the layout of the streets and roads in that zone, so they needed to keep track of the directions fed to them on the digital communication device. Lorenzo kept his foot on the floor until they reached the intersection of Avenue E and East Sixty-sixth at exactly a quarter to two in the morning.

From there, they needed to rely on the guide that told them to turn right to get to the main entrance of the Albatross Self-Storage Depot. Lorenzo did so with a flurry but slowed down to regular patrol speed almost at once so they would not appear too conspicuous in case the criminals had scouts in the area. An eight-foot tall wire mesh fence with two rows of barbed wire at the top appeared on their right; it seemed to go on forever further along the street.

The entire area from East Sixtieth to East Seventy-first Street between Avenue E in the west and Copelson Lane in the east acted as a satellite to the much larger industrial zone that existed in the far-western outskirts of Carlyle. It was home to a large - and constantly growing - number of businesses that required a lot of space but perhaps not access to the railroad system nor the Interstates. Most were warehouses-for-rent or similar facilities like the self-storage depot the two officers were headed for, but there were a few regular companies in the area as well like furniture traders, import/export businesses and remote storage facilities for various lumberyards and hardware stores who all needed plenty of room for their huge yards with thousands upon thousands of metal containers or wooden packing crates that were waiting to be processed.

In that part of Carlyle, the roads and streets were wider to accommodate the large eighteen-wheeler trucks who delivered or picked up hundreds of loads each day. As a result of the constant stream of heavy traffic, the streets were generally in poor shape with plenty of potholes and cracks that made it an uneven ride. The hard-working men and women of the Carlyle Department of Infrastructure had steady jobs patching up the surfaces, but the strain on the asphalt was so great they barely had time to finish up at one end of the various streets before they could start over down at the other end.

"There," Meighan said, pointing at a section of the wire mesh fence that was drawn thirty feet back from the street. Two concrete pillars and a cast iron double-width gate marked the main entrance to the area. Both pillars carried signs that welcomed customers to the Albatross Self-Storage Depot, open 6 AM thru 8 PM Mon-Fri, 6 AM thru 6 PM Sat, 8 AM thru 6 PM Sun.

Lorenzo turned off East Sixty-sixth street and came to a halt by the cast iron gates. "Okay… the gate is closed…" he said as he craned his neck to look left and right for the security guard who had contacted them. Nobody seemed to be near, and worse, a large, bright-red warning sign put directly onto the fence spelled out quite clearly they would not be able to get in without assistance from the inside. "And not only is it closed, it's a damn electric fence. Great," he continued, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel.

"I'll ask the dispatcher to get in touch with the One-Six precinct. They oughtta know where their contact is hiding," Meighan said, but before she had time to do much beyond picking up the radio, a uniformed man came running out to greet them.

In his mid-thirties, the man wore a supposedly stylish uniform that seemed a throwback to how rural police forces had been dressed in the 1980s: the set consisted of shiny black shoes, pale-tan pants and a jacket in a matching shade over a dark-tan shirt and a pale-tan tie.

The pants carried two vertical, dark red - or brown, it was hard to see in the semi-darkness at the gate - stripes down the outside of the pantlegs that had probably been chosen to make the wearer seem more important. The classic ensemble was rounded off by an old-fashioned, six-pointed, dark-tan police cap with a shiny shade and a chin strap that had been pushed up onto the shade. The guard had a utility belt around his hips that carried a sturdy metal flashlight, a walkie-talkie, a can of pepper spray and a pouch containing a camera that he used for getting photographic evidence of vandalism or fresh graffiti.

The security guard waved at the police officers before he ran over to a small booth where he pressed a button on a panel. Soon, the cast iron double-gates slid apart to allow the cruiser free passage into the area.

Lorenzo responded to the invitation and let the Ford Crown Victoria trickle up over the sidewalk and across the tall, vicious speed bump at the entrance. Once they were inside, he stopped and rolled down his window. "Good evening, Sir. Carlyle Police Department, officers Lombardini and O'Sullivan. Someone has called us about the sighting of a black Lincoln?"

"That's right! That was me, Lester Willford. I'm sorry I was late getting back… I was just down there to see if the car was still there, and it is," the excited security guard said as he leaned down to look into the police cruiser. His eyes were wide and sparkling like he was lapping up every last drop of the rare event of excitement - not to mention peeking into an active police unit. "Hello, Sir! And, uh… Ma'am! My shift started at midnight and I did my round of the area first thing like I always do. Well, I made some coffee first to fill my thermos… it's really cold out here during the night, and the winds gust between the buildings… but then I went on my round. Over in aisle… we call them aisles, by the way…"

"Right. Go on," Meighan said, nodding to let the excited guard know he should get on with it instead of waxing poetically.

"Over in aisle fourteen, which doesn't come between thirteen and fifteen, by the way… the number system doesn't work like that. But anyway, over in aisle fourteen, one of the wide units… that's what we call the garages… the sliding door was open to one of the wide units, number six-five-six-two, and it's not supposed to be at this time of the day. Or night. So I turned on my flashlight, this one right here," - he patted the sturdy tool on his belt - "because I figured the lock might have been vandalized and the unit burgled. If it had, it would be my butt in the firing line. I have a clean sheet here so I would definitely not want that. But anyway, the lock did not seem to have been tampered with. Perhaps it had just released on its own… it does actually happen now and then. Some of them are getting quite old. That's why most of our guests use their own padlocks, but they're kinda expensive so-"

"Mr. Willford… the Lincoln?" Meighan continued.

"I was just coming to that, Ma'am… literally," the guard said with an excited grin playing on his lips. "I shone my flashlight into the wide unit… the garage… and bingo, I saw a black Lincoln Continental. I had read the articles in the newspapers and we had also received a communiqué from the management so I knew what I should be looking for. And there it was. Now there are plenty of black Lincolns, right? So I thought to myself that it might not mean anything. So I went into the wide unit… the garage… and checked out the car from all angles. Tinted windows, chrome wheels, and more importantly, it had accident damage down both sides. That's when I ran back to my booth and called the police. My walkie-talkie is only for internal use, by the way, in case you were wondering why I had to run back to the telephone."

"Ah… right," Meighan said and suppressed a chuckle. She shared a knowing look with Lorenzo who seemed as amused as she was at the guard's unbridled excitement and his sheer endless stream of words. "Over the course of the past few days, have you seen any suspicious people anywhere near the garage… the wide unit?"

"No, Ma'am. But I only work the night shift so I never see anyone anywhere. I don't know about my colleagues working the daytime shifts though I'm sure they would have left a note of some kind if they had spotted anything suspicious. It's a very busy depot during the regular opening hours. Oh, and we were even visited by a production team working for one of those reality-TV shows last month… Kings Of Storage, DepotPros and all those shows. They're all made by the same production company. I didn't know that, but I do now. I'm sure you've watched some of those shows. They were scouting for locations to use for the upcoming season."

"All right," Lorenzo said to cut a very long story short, "thank you very much for your cooperation, Mr. Willford. We better take it from here. If aisle fourteen isn't between thirteen and fifteen, where is it exactly?"

"Oh, it's much easier if you look for unit six-five-six-two… they're lined up in numerical order. The aisles aren't… I have no idea why, but I guess it's always been that way. Perhaps it was because the original owner who also owned the real estate it's on, by the way… oh, can you imagine how much it would cost to buy and develop this stretch of land today? But anyway, I'm sure it's because the planners didn't expect it to grow so large. Of course, I can't say for sure, but I can say that even the security personnel get confused from time to time. Not to mention the users who have been known to drive around for half an hour before finding their own depot!"

"But where is unit six-five-six-two exactly, Mr. Willford?" Meighan said.

"Ah! If you drive straight ahead… uh, in that direction," the guard said, pointing down a wide path made of concrete, "and go by five depot buildings, you'll reach aisle fourteen. Then you'll need to turn left. Unit six-five-six-two will appear on your left. So that's straight ahead past five buildings, then left and then it's on your left again. You can't miss it. The sliding door is still open. Oh… I hope it was all right I left it like that? I didn't want to disturb any evidence or leave my fingerprints so you would think that I was perhaps involved somehow-"

"It's quite all right, Mr. Willford," Lorenzo said as he took his foot off the brake to make the Ford trickle away from the main entrance. "We'll find it. Thank you very much for your cooperation."

"You betcha!" Lester said and took off his six-pointed cap to wave at the two officers as they drove away. The already excited security guard found something to be near-ecstatic about when the familiar sound of flapping rotors were heard high in the sky above the Albatross Self-Storage Depot.

The police helicopter soon turned on its two-foot-wide searchlight mounted underneath the fuselage. The strong cone of light swept over the entire area to illuminate the various aisles and connecting roads with the strength of a small sun.

In the cruiser, Meighan chuckled as she kept track of the number of depot buildings they were rolling past. "That guy's definitely going places. I'll bet he'll make Chief Police Commissioner one day," she said with a smile. When she noticed the searchlight sweeping across the buildings around them, she reached for the portable radio in her lap and set it to frequency seven-two so she could communicate directly with the helicopter. "Air unit one, air unit one, this is patrol vehicle double-oh-nine. Do you read me?"

'Five by five, double-oh-nine. Go ahead,' the pilot of the helicopter said - the noises created by the flapping rotors and the whining turbine could be heard loud and clear through the connection.

"Be advised. We're at the scene traveling south on a connecting road. Do not, I repeat, do not shine your light at us. We do not yet have a positive identification of the vehicle. According to the security guard contacting us, the fugitives do not appear to be present. We'll contact you once we know more, over and out."

'Ten-roger, double-oh-nine. Standing by until further notice. Air unit one out.'

As the searchlight was switched off and the helicopter moved away, the entire area fell into a darkness that seemed even more pitch-black than it had been before. Although a few lamp posts cast a yellowish light down onto the flagged aisles and the concrete surfaces of the connecting roads, they were not strong enough to defeat the night.

"That's five rows," Lorenzo said and made a turn left. "Aisle fourteen," he continued, pointing at a sign on the corner of the depot building that marked it out as such. A constant rumbling rose from the Ford's tires as the surface changed from the smooth slabs of concrete to the many flagstones in the aisle.

"And the open door is in sight," Meighan said, unbuckling her seat belt at once as she clapped eyes on the open sliding door at unit six-five-six-two that was still another one-hundred and fifty yards further down the aisle. "All right. Stop here. We'll go the rest of the way on foot so we can be quiet," she said and jumped from the cruiser as soon as it had come to a stop.

Moving around to the back, she opened the trunk and took the twelve-gauge Remington shotgun out of the rack. After checking that it was fully loaded, she took one of the two boxes of spare ammunition and stuffed a large handful of shells into each side pocket of her winter jacket. She worked the pump-action to make sure the shotgun was ready; then she ran over to the side of the depot building. Behind her, Lorenzo took the shotgun mounted on the dashboard and was soon on her tail.

A magnetic flashlight similar, though smaller, to the one used by the excited security guard was part of the standard police equipment for the officers working the night shift. Taking it off her utility belt, she turned it on and clicked its strong magnet onto the side of the shotgun so she could still have her hands free. "Move out," she whispered over her shoulder.

She and Lorenzo moved ahead in perfect step. Hunched over, they ran along a number of depots where the sliding doors were closed and locked until they reached the one where the guard had seen the Lincoln. The door was still open three-quarters up to its upper stop so Meighan came to a halt to strain her hearing - perhaps the three criminals had returned in the meantime.

Everything seemed quiet so she put the stock of the Remington shotgun against her shoulder and took several deep breaths to prepare herself mentally for a possible firefight. Once she was ready, she peeked around the corner with the powerful weapon poised to deliver swift death if necessary. The cone from the flashlight swept through the garage that appeared empty save for a black car and a few, lesser important items. Just to be sure, she drew another deep breath to yell: "Carlyle PD! Come out with your hands on top of your head!"

She counted to five before she moved into the garage with Lorenzo directly on her tail. Still hunched over, she pointed the flashlight - and thus the barrel of the shotgun - high and low, left and right several times without seeing anything out of the ordinary for such a storage depot save for the car itself. Behind her, Lorenzo moved over to the other side of the Lincoln and mirrored her movements exactly.

"Clear!" she said as she came to the tail end of the Lincoln. Looking at it up close, there was no doubt it was the getaway vehicle that they had been in hot pursuit of down on Avenue C. The chrome trimmings and the shiny, black paintwork had suffered heavy scrapes, and the fenders, doors and quarter panels all displayed deep dents from sideswiping numerous other vehicles as it had raced northbound on the busy avenue during the wild chase between the shooting incidents.

A single bullet hole in the trunk lid proved that someone had been successful in taking a pot shot at it somewhere, but whether it had happened at West Eleventh Street or at the melee in front of the convenience store on Avenue C was impossible to say without an investigation by the ballistic experts - and even then, all weapons that had been fired at the black car had been standard issue police sidearms so the report could never be conclusive. "All right, that's definitely the right car this time," she said as she continued to shine the flashlight onto the floor and the walls of the wide storage unit.

"Yep. Four-spoke chrome wheels like I said. Factory-installed," Lorenzo said and shone his own flashlight down at the wheels. "I'll contact dispatch and get them to call in the crime scene wizards. And the task force, too, I suppose. We may get lucky, though… maybe Commander Shulmann is asleep at this time of night," he continued as he put his shotgun under his arm and took his portable radio off his belt.

"Nah, we're never that lucky," Meighan said with a grin. While Lorenzo stepped outside to use the radio, she continued to shine the flashlight at some of the items in the unit. It did not take long for her to establish that there was nothing in there that would provide a clue as to the whereabouts of the three criminals.

An ancient couch had been stuffed in at the very back of the unit, but the amount of junk that had been piled up on the seats proved that nobody had sat in it for years. Among the worthless items on the couch, Meighan could just make out the familiar yellow-and-black squares of a traditional dart board next to what appeared to be a pair of skates and an ice hockey stick. Two, dusty cardboard boxes took up floor space in the far corners of the unit: the taller of the two was empty but carried a hand-written label that offered a strong hint it had contained a ping-pong table once upon a time; the other held an old, foldable exercise machine of some kind.

Meighan furrowed her brow as she let the cone of light sweep over the walls. An old calendar featuring images of the Carlyle Proud Oaks pro-football team had never made it further than April 2006. Dust and old cobwebs that had been abandoned by their creepy-crawly creators were draped over it so chances were that even the crime scene technicians would be unable to find any fingerprints on it except from the original owner.

Why the high-class DiSorrento organization had such a non-descript depot unit in their possession was a question she could not find an answer to - perhaps they had simply taken it as collateral to cover parts of a gambling debt held by one of their countless, hapless victims. The blandness would be the perfect cover for keeping shipments of drugs or similar illegal items well out of sight of the authorities. With the Lincoln Continental parked in the middle of the unit, she was unable to see if there were markings on the floor that hinted at it being used more recently for crates or cardboard boxes.

"Okay," Lorenzo said as he came back into the unit. "Everybody's gonna show up in a little while. And you were right… Commander Shulmann will be the field marshal leading the invading army."

"Yeah, I knew she would be. Bet she can't live without seeing me again," Meighan deadpanned before she clicked off the flashlight and moved out into the open. The light-pollution was less severe in the area around East Sixty-sixth Street than it was further south towards downtown Carlyle, so she was able to see a few of the brightest stars twinkling as she looked up into the night-time sky.

The red and green warning beacons on the police helicopter blinked on-and-off up there as well. Though the pilot had kept back like he had promised to, the entire area was so flat and wide open the familiar flapping of the rotors still rang out loud and clear.

Even as Meighan was looking up at the sky and the helicopter, her portable radio crackled to life with a message from the pilot: 'Double-oh-nine, double-oh-nine, this is air unit one. Be advised! A black SUV is moving fast along Ave-E. At the intersection of Ave-E and East Sixty-sixth now. Turning right onto the street. Approaching your present location. Continuing to move fast. The gates are still open at the entrance so it will be able to enter the area. Over.'

A fast-moving, black SUV could only mean one thing: some of DiSorrento's goons were en route to the self-storage depot - perhaps even the three fugitives that the entire police force of Greater Carlyle was on the lookout for. That Lester Willford had not closed the main gate after the cruiser had arrived only added insult to potential injury.

Lorenzo let out a long groan, but Meighan did one better. "Goddammit!" she barked as she whipped the radio off her belt. Gesturing at Lorenzo with her free hand to get a move on away from the garage, the two officers ran back to the cruiser at once to get out of the way. "Air unit one, air unit one. Ten-roger on the approaching SUV. Requesting that you wait until it's in position at present location, then come in low and bright. Use extreme caution. The criminals are armed with automatic weapons and are likely to open fire at you without provocation, over."

'Roger that, double-oh-nine. Will come in low and bright upon arrival of SUV. Air unit one out.'

After handing her patrol partner her shotgun, Meighan hopped behind the steering wheel of the Ford Crown Victoria and started the engine. Within moments, she mashed the gas which made the cruiser roar away from the spot where they had parked. An alley where the single lamp post had blacked out offered perfect cover; it presented itself off to their right some seventy yards beyond the open garage. Meighan stood on the brakes at once. It only took another moment to reverse out of sight into the alley, and then she and Lorenzo hopped back out and ran up to the corner of the depot building.

As Meighan got her shotgun back, she removed the magnetic flashlight and put it onto a little hook on her utility belt. Peeking around the corner to get a feel for the line of fire she and her patrol partner would have from there, she narrowed her eyes to observe every last detail of the aisle they had just left behind.

A vehicle could be heard approaching in the middle distance. It traveled along the smooth concrete for a while until it turned into the flagged aisle - it was revealed to be a black Lincoln Navigator SUV similar to those used by the DiSorrento crime syndicate.

Meighan nodded to herself as she clenched her grip around the shotgun's cold metal. Inside her, a surge of adrenaline was injected into her blood stream which caused her pulse to kick into high gear at once. "That's a DiSorrento vehicle, all right. Call it in," she whispered to Lorenzo though their potential opponents were still inside the SUV. "And call for urgent backup. This is gonna be one hell of a fireworks display if it's the same three guys."

The black SUV rumbled along the flagstones of aisle fourteen until it stopped so abruptly the nose dipped down. Then everything fell quiet. For several long moments, there was no activity from the person, or persons, inside the vehicle, but it was obvious they were looking at the wide-open door and considering what to do.

Meighan stared at the windows of the black Lincoln SUV with a laser-like focus while Lorenzo called in the event right behind her as quietly as he could. She gripped the Remington shotgun hard, but not so hard it would impede her firing it if it came down to that - and chances were it would if Weissman, de la Cruz and King were the people inside the vehicle.

The silence was broken as the right-hand side rear door was opened and a man wearing dark clothing stepped out. Although Meighan did not have a name to put on the face, she recognized him from the parade of crooks she had seen in the presentation at the very first meeting of the Anti-Organized Crime Task Force that she and Lorenzo had been invited to.

The man was a common foot soldier in the DiSorrento organization; perhaps an enforcer or perhaps at a lower level than that, but whatever his title, it was clear he was used as cannon fodder in the present situation. He held a small handgun ahead of him as he ran over to the garage and peeked around the same corner that Meighan and Lorenzo had used not too long ago. It appeared he came to the same conclusion that Meighan had - that the garage was clear - so he ran back to the SUV and opened the rear door again. He only gave the others a brief update before he backed out once more and ran back to the garage.

While the foot soldier went back to the black sedan parked inside the garage, the driver of the SUV drove over to the same side of the depot building and turned off the engine. Then everything fell quiet again.

Still standing ready at the corner some seventy yards further up the aisle, Meighan looked up at the night-time sky without seeing the characteristic red-and-green beacons on the police helicopter. It could not be long before it would appear; she could already hear the rotors in the middle distance. She hoped the people inside the SUV would be out of the vehicle before the helicopter showed up - if not, she and her patrol partner might end up being involved in another madcap pursuit through the mean streets of Carlyle.

Her wishes were granted when three doors opened and the dangerous fugitives Avi Weissman, Joaquín de la Cruz and Shawn King stepped out onto the flagstones. They heard the helicopter's rotors as well and glanced up at the sky. Since nothing seemed to be near them, they continued with what they had set out to accomplish. While de la Cruz went back to the rear of the SUV and opened the hatchback, Weissman and King strolled across aisle fourteen to get to the garage. They both carried the dreaded Colt M4A1 assault rifles over their shoulders on Nylon straps.

Meighan narrowed her eyes dangerously as she took in what the leather-jacket wearing de la Cruz was doing at the rear of the SUV. "Son of a bitch!" she whispered hoarsely when the crook came back into sight carrying two jerrycans that appeared heavy. Though his large frame hinted at plenty of physical strength, he seemed to have a hard time keeping his balance as he walked across the uneven flagstones. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph… looks like they're planning on torching everything," she continued over her shoulder.

"They must be out of their damn minds… this whole place will go up like a Roman candle," Lorenzo whispered back.

"We can't allow that to happen… dammit! Where the hell's that backup?"

The words had barely left Meighan's mouth before the police helicopter came blasting into the scene no more than ten feet above the flat roofs of the depot buildings. The powerful searchlight had been turned on again and illuminated aisle fourteen, the black SUV, de la Cruz and everything else down on the ground. At the exact same time, numerous sirens could be heard in the middle distance. The curly-topped Latino let out a loud roar and upped his pace to get to safety inside the garage. The heavy jerrycans made it difficult for him, and he nearly fell flat on his face when his boot caught a protruding edge of one of the flagstones.

"Now the shit's really gonna hit the fan!" Meighan cried as she put the stock of the shotgun against her shoulder.

She had been right - not five seconds after the appearance of the police helicopter, Avi Weissman and Shawn King stormed out into aisle fourteen with their assault rifles aimed high. Working as a team, they opened fire at the airborne threat at the exact same time though aimed at two different parts of the fuselage. The orange muzzle flashes soon lit up the semi-dark aisle like a pair of strobe lights; the staccato chatter could be heard clearly even over the flapping sounds of the rotors.

Up in the air, countless sparks rained down as the bullets struck various parts of the helicopter or ricocheted off its rounded fuselage. The pilot reacted at once and banked away from the aisle to get to safety. He kept it low to be out of the firing line of the automatic weapons; soon, he swung around to try to come in from another angle so he could keep the criminals within the scope of the searchlight.

At the same time inside the garage, Joaquín de la Cruz tore the cap off both jerrycans and began to splash the liquid contents all over the Lincoln sedan, the ancient couch, the dusty cardboard boxes and everything else he could find in there.

The stench of gasoline soon reached the corner of the next depot building that Meighan and Lorenzo used for cover - it made the officers crinkle their noses. "Goddammit, we can't wait any longer," Meighan said and briefly moved back from the corner. "We're it. I'm gonna drive out there… cover me!"

Before Lorenzo had time to answer, Meighan ran back to the patrol cruiser and jumped behind the wheel. In one, fluid motion, she turned on the emergency lights, started the engine, selected drive on the shifter and mashed the gas. The cruiser roared ahead until it reached the center of aisle fourteen - then she stopped it on a dime so it acted as an effective roadblock to cut off one of the escape routes for the Navigator.

Jumping out of the Ford, she raced around the front and dove down behind the right-front fender. Lorenzo wasted no time either but raced over to the right-rear quarter panel and crouched down behind it. Meighan took several deep breaths to calm her thumping heart before she aimed the shotgun at the three criminals who had only just discovered they had been lured into a trap. "Carlyle PD! You are all under arrest! Throw down your weapons and get down on the ground!" she roared at the top of her lungs.

No more than a split second went by before a loud blue streak and a barrage of fire was sent toward the two officers and their cruiser. While de la Cruz continued to splash gasoline over everything inside the garage, Weissman, King and the unnamed enforcer let their weapons reply to Meighan's yelled message. The staccato chattering of the two Colt M4A1s was joined by the single cracks created by the enforcer's pistol.

The hailstorm of lead peppered the left side of the police cruiser and shot every last piece of sheet metal full of holes. Both side windows were pulverized as were the windshield and the door mirror. Both tires on the left-hand side were punctured within a few seconds as well.

Then Meighan and Lorenzo returned fire with their Remington shotguns. The characteristic loud reports produced by the long-barreled weapons were accompanied by large puffs of gunsmoke as the cluster of deadly pellets left the pipe. Meighan worked the pump-action again and again as she went through the eight shells the weapon could hold. Once it was empty, she dove down behind the fender and dug into her jacket's pockets to find the extra shells she had scooped up so she could reload.

"One down!" Lorenzo cried from his spot down the back of the cruiser after he had watched the enforcer's dark clothing puff out and exude a crimson shower following a perfect spread of pellets to his chest. The man spun around like a top before he keeled over and landed hard on the flagstones.

After shoving the next set of eight shells into the shotgun, Meighan worked the pump-action and popped back up to return to the fray. Two of the remaining three criminals had found cover behind the Navigator that looked just as second-hand as the police cruiser - the SUV's windshield was shattered as were the headlights and the grille. Concentrating on disabling the black car for good, she fired off three more shells at it but soon realized they had entered a form of stalemate.

As so often happened in an unpredictable shooting war, both sides stopped firing at each other at the exact same time. Weissman shouted something to the enforcer who did not answer for obvious reasons; then the leader of the criminals shouted at de la Cruz who was pinned down inside the garage. He did answer, but all that came out of that conversation was profanity.

Lorenzo used the lull to reload his shotgun. He only had one handful of spare shells available to him, so once the weapon was full, he put it against the side of the cruiser to save the ammunition. Instead, he drew his service pistol and held it in the proper two-handed grip while he made a sweeping visual check of aisle fourteen.

Meighan chewed hard on her cheeks as the blood coursed around her veins at high speed. Everything inside her was clenched, and she stared hard at the black SUV to be ready to return fire the moment one of the remaining men stepped into view. She drew a deep breath to try the familiar warning again: "Carlyle PD! You are under arrest! Put down your weapons and step away from the vehicle! You in the garage! Come out with your hands in the air!"

The police helicopter chose that moment to return to aisle fourteen. The strong searchlight once more swept over the concrete connecting roads and the flagged aisles between the depot buildings. Unfortunately, the light was as intrusive to Meighan as it was to her opponents; blinded, she had to duck down behind the fender to wait for the myriad of little stars to get out of her vision. "Oh, fer Chrissakes…" she croaked, reaching up to rub her eyes.

Another helicopter suddenly appeared out of nowhere not three hundred feet from the police air unit. The second helicopter was equipped with two smaller lights and a rotating ball-camera mounted between the landing skids - its appearance took the pilot of the police helicopter completely by surprise, and he had to bank to his left in a hurry to avoid getting too close to the intruder.

With the news helicopter flying low and the police air unit even lower, the rotors created a fierce whirlwind down in aisle fourteen. Masses of dust, pebbles and the ubiquitous fragments of this-that-and-the-other that always littered any public space were kicked up and thrown around adding another layer of madness to the already crazy situation.

Meighan still needed to hide behind the fender of the Ford as plenty of golden stars continued to dance about in her vision. Before her eyesight had returned fully, someone took a pot shot at her from close range. The slug whined loudly as it ricocheted off the hood of the cruiser and disappeared into the night.

"Son of a bitch!" she cried, ducking down even further. A second shot rang out that smashed the right-front headlight cluster not two feet from her present location. "I can't see a Goddamned thing here… where the fuck is that shooter?!"

"The garage!" Lorenzo yelled from down the other end of the cruiser. Popping up from behind the quarter panel, he aimed his sidearm in that direction. When he discovered he only had a poor angle to cover the opening of the garage, he quickly ducked out of sight again.

Meighan needed to see for herself so she inched upwards until she had half an eye above the fender. She quickly established that Joaquín de la Cruz had joined the melee with his .44 Magnum that he used at that exact moment to send a third slug her way. It went too high but found a target after all: one of the LEDs in the lightbar atop the cruiser's roof was hit dead-center and exploded in a shower of plastic shards. "Oh, Goddammit!" Meighan cried, aiming the shotgun at the garage.

She reconsidered even before she had fired the first shot. If a single or a cluster of pellets struck the jerrycans or the pools of gasoline, the whole unit - and most likely the entire depot building - would catch alight and turn into an inferno within minutes.

As Joaquín de la Cruz took another pot shot at her that went wide, she leaned the Remington shotgun against the side of the cruiser and drew her pistol. Her eyesight had returned enough to see a vague outline of her opponent, so she squeezed the trigger and fired twice at the garage.

Her shooting meant an end to the lull in the proceedings. Weissman and King stepped away from the cover of the SUV to open fire with their assault rifles once more. Another barrage of burning hot death soon peppered the ground and the side of the battered Ford; the scene soon turned lethal with whistling ricochets and showers of orange sparks everywhere.

While Lorenzo returned fire with his pistol, Meighan stayed out of sight though she kept an eye on the garage. She hoped the lack of firing on her part would trick her opponent inside the garage to come out into the open. No more than five seconds later, the ploy was successful and he stepped forward.

"Gotcha, ya son of a bitch," she growled as the leather-jacket wearing Joaquín de la Cruz appeared with his long-barreled .44 Magnum aimed at her. Before he could pull the trigger, she had taken care of business by firing three times in rapid succession. The first went through her opponent's leather jacket and impacted on the front of the Continental behind him, but the final two slugs slammed into Joaquín's chest and sent him reeling.

The curly-topped criminal stumbled backwards with a shocked look upon his face until he bumped into the front of the sedan. Dropping his revolver, he slipped down onto the ground where he ended up in an odd, unnatural semi-crouch. His head lolled around for a few seconds until it fell forward so his chin rested against his chest.

Meighan kept her aim on the fallen opponent for a few seconds longer before it became obvious he was in no position to fight back - then she holstered the pistol and took the shotgun once more. "How much longer do we have to do this, Weissman? You're under arrest! Put down your weapons and come out in the open!" she roared at the top of her lungs.

An angry cry quickly followed by another barrage of bullets from the assault rifles were the only replies she got.

Lorenzo returned fire at once but only hit the front of the SUV; another piece of plastic trimming broke off and was sent flying - then he was the recipient of another salvo of bullets by Shawn King for his bother. When the clip of his sidearm was spent, he dove down behind the quarter panel and ejected it. "Crap, this is insane…" he said in a strained voice as he slid a full one into the weapon's handle and worked the action once more. "Requesting urgent backup, my hairy Italian ass! They musta' stopped for a coffee and a Goddamned donut on their way here!"

"I think they heard ya, buddy!" Meighan cried, pointing at a mass of flashing emergency lights that suddenly appeared at the far end of aisle fourteen. Three police cruisers appeared along with two unmarked squad cars and the transport van carrying the Carlyle Police Department Tactical Force: the famous SWAT team. What seemed to be an entire platoon of heavily armed police officers clad in black riot gear and carrying automatic weapons swarmed out of the van and set up a line of defense at the far end of aisle fourteen.

"Finally!" Lorenzo said, peeking over the quarter panel.

"Yeah… but what's Weissman gonna do when he realizes they're boxed in…?" Meighan said and held the stock of the shotgun ready against her shoulder.

Though the scene was far from silent with barked orders, thumping bootheels, metallic sounds from the many weapons and the wall of noises created by the two helicopters flying low overhead, the tension was so thick it could be cut with a machete.

Weissman and King had moved up close to the SUV to use it for cover; Weissman had his assault rifle trained on the shock troops behind them while King kept the battered police cruiser and the two officers in his sights. A moment later, he moved behind the steering wheel and tried to turn the ignition key. The SUV's engine appeared to have been too damaged in the gunfight to turn over because nothing happened save for a pitiful rattling up front.

Meighan's heart kept up its frantic thumping in her chest as she glared at their opponents down the barrel of the shotgun. "Come on, Weissman… give it up fer Chrissakes. Ya can't win this one," she said in a low mumble.

Down by the defensive line at the other end of aisle fourteen, Commander Shulmann's voice boomed out through an electronic bullhorn: "Avi Weissman, Joaquín de la Cruz and Shawn King, we have you fully surrounded. You are under arrest. Put down your weapons and come out with your hands in the air. We will commence firing if you do not surrender now. This will be your only warning!"

Several moments went by with no activity from any of the three parties involved in the ferocious firefight. The bullhorn picked up so much radio interference that it began to howl and whine from the feedback; the commander turned it off and put it away.

The lack of communication seemed not to matter as it appeared the leader of the criminals had finally understood the message: Weissman tossed his assault rifle onto the ground and stepped out into the open. Moving along with his hands high in the air, he seemed to sidestep towards the open garage.

Lorenzo let out a sigh of relief, but Meighan drew an even deeper one at the same time. "Now what the hell's he doing- he's going for the other car! Or to ignite the Goddamned gasoline!" she cried; a split second later, the camel-hair-overcoat wearing gangster took off in a sprint that seemed to catch everyone but her by surprise. Jumping up, she stormed across the concrete aisle to reach him in time.

Behind her, Lorenzo yanked his portable radio off his belt to warn Shulmann and the SWAT team leader of the dangers and tell them to hold their fire, but Shawn King chose that moment to open another chapter in the shooting war.

Still aiming at the police cruiser, he sent another barrage of hot lead towards it before he spun around and peppered the SWAT unit and the rest of the defensive line behind him. Moving down into a crouch, he pressed himself against the side of SUV to get a better angle of attack while he emptied the magazine of his Colt M4A1 at the police. Being a smaller target did not help him. No more than a handful of seconds later, his limp body was yanked away from the side of the SUV and onto the ground as the defensive line formed by the tactical unit had opened fire on him with their own automatic weapons.

Meighan used her long legs to race across the aisle headed for the garage. Once she reached it, she nearly got a bullet in the chest for her efforts. Weissman had ducked down behind the rear bumper of the sedan and took the opportunity to fire several shots at her with his pistol.

The shotgun was still too dangerous to use in the gasoline-soaked environment, so she dropped it and whipped out her sidearm instead. She stormed across the opening, jumped into a forward roll and dove for cover behind the same corner she had used earlier. "Weissman! Whatever you're thinking of doing, don't! Drop your gun and come out with your hands in the air!"

'The fuck I will, bitch!' the gangster yelled back; the message was quickly followed by another two rounds of lead that screamed through the air.

Meighan stayed well out of sight. Hearing bootfalls behind her, she whipped her head around to look over her shoulder. The black-clad SWAT team ran towards her in their patented arrowhead formation - at least it meant the backup was in place. When she heard the gangster jump into the sedan and then start it, she let out an annoyed growl and aimed her pistol around the corner. "Last warning, Weissman!" she cried without getting a reply beyond a fast blip of the engine.

She squeezed the trigger two, three, four times at the same time the sleek car raced out of the garage. The sound of shattering glass overpowered even the sound of the engine, but the Lincoln kept coming and flew out onto aisle fourteen. Once on the flagstones, Weissman never even tried to turn the steering wheel. The black sedan continued straight across and crashed into the depot building on the opposite side at nearly unabated speed.

Meighan did not need a written invitation. Though the better armed SWAT team was only sixty feet behind her and closing fast, she took off in a sprint, stormed across the aisle and caught up with the sedan that had turned anything but sleek and elegant. Everything ahead of the front wheels had crumpled up from the impact, and steam and coolant escaped the destroyed engine and radiator. The numerous airbags had deployed like they were designed to, and that had stopped Avi Weissman from slamming against the steering wheel and further out through the destroyed windshield.

Yanking the driver's side door open, Meighan kept the gangster in the camel-hair overcoat covered at close range. Weissman was groggy but conscious; a large, crimson flower blossomed from his right shoulder ruining the expensive coat. The dark-gray pistol was lying in the footwell next to his feet, but Meighan picked it up at once and threw it out onto aisle fourteen so the dangerous man would not get any bright ideas.

Lorenzo came up behind her to survey the situation. It was clear that everything was under control, so he waved his arm to signal the SWAT team and the members of the task force that their assistance was required. Half of the black-clad tactical force split off from the main group who had reached the garage in the meantime, and several plain-clothes detectives - with Commander Stefana Shulmann leading the way as expected - took off from the defensive line down at the other end of the aisle.

"Lorenzo, I need a hand getting this SOB out," Meighan said as she grabbed hold of Weissman's ruined overcoat. Though the criminal groaned over the rough treatment, the two officers soon had him flat on his stomach on the ground - Meighan's knee in his back made sure he stayed there. While Lorenzo ran out to inform the SWAT captain of the danger of the gasoline in the garage, Meighan grabbed her handcuffs off her utility belt and slapped them on her prisoner's wrists.

"Avi Weissman, you are under arrest for endangering the lives of several law enforcement officers and the public by discharging firearms, for several violent assaults and for evading capture and subsequently causing vehicular accidents," she said as she closed and tightened the cuffs. "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one, one will be appointed to you by the court. Have you understood your rights as explained to you?"

"Fuck you! You're hurting me! You fuckin' shot me, bitch!"

Meighan clenched her jaw and added a little more pressure on Weissman's back. "Have you understood your rights?" she said in a loud and clear voice so there would be no risk of her prisoner claiming not to have heard the required Miranda message.

"Yes… yes!" the gangster croaked; the croak turned to a moan from the knee in his back.

"With these rights in mind, are you willing to talk to the police about the charges against you?"

"Fuck you and your family, bitch! The cuffs are on too tight!" Weissman croaked. He moved his head left and right to try to look at his conqueror, but Meighan kept him pinned down.

She let out a dark grunt at his threats. "Ain't that just too damn bad, asshole," she growled for his ears only. A moment later, plain-clothed members of the task force arrived to take over.

After letting out a quiet sigh of relief that everything had gone well after all, Meighan wiped her damp brow before she took a few steps back so she would not get in the way. Commander Stefana Shulmann was among the people first in line, but the leader of the ANOCRITA task force deliberately looked away from the tall police officer.

"I've already Miranda'ed him and informed him of the charges the city police will bring against him… I'm sure you have more you want to add to the list, Ma'am," Meighan said; a faint grin creased her lips at the blatant cold shoulder she received.

A few heartbeats went by before Commander Shulmann turned to Meighan. "Yes there is… plenty more," she finally said. Another few heartbeats went by before she added a: "Thank you, Officer," almost as an afterthought.

Now Meighan did break out in a grin, and a broad one at that. "Oh, you're very welcome, Commander."

As Avi Weissman was dragged away - screaming that he would be back on the street within the hour when his lawyers showed up - by the plain-clothes detectives working with the Anti-Organized Crime Task Force, Lorenzo came over to stand next to his patrol partner. He let out a sigh as he looked at the sorry state of the vehicle they had arrived in. "This is turning into a nasty version of Groundhog Day. Another day, another shootout, another shot-up ride."

"Yeah. Let's hope this was the end of it. I'm getting mighty tired of being shot at," Meighan said and looked up into the sky where the news helicopter and the police air unit still competed for the same airspace.

"You and me both," Lorenzo said and let out a sigh. "At least my wife hasn't followed it on the news this time… if I manage to make it home before she gets up, I think I'll sabotage the TV. And hide her telephone in the broom cupboard. Man… all this carnage is murder on my marriage…"

Meighan chuckled. "Yeah, I'll bet. You'll just have to work a little harder to keep her happy," she said as she reached over to thump her patrol partner's shoulder in that special nudge-nudge-wink-wink fashion that sometimes exists between colleagues who trust each other entirely.

As the adrenaline left her system, a chill swept over her from being involved in yet another violent, unpredictable shooting incident. She had made it through unscathed, but three of the four men they had fought had not - sooner or later, the situation would be reversed. Letting out another sigh of relief, she pushed the dark thoughts away. "C'mon, let's find someone to hitch a ride with back to the One-Three. I have a feeling we'll have a busy couple of days ahead of us… the paperwork alone will keep us occupied for at least eight or ten cups of coffee."

Groaning, Lorenzo stuffed the twelve-gauge shotgun under his arm and began to shuffle off down toward the group of uniformed officers and the myriad of multi-colored emergency lights - it seemed that at least half of Greater Carlyle's police and rescue vehicles had showed up at the Albatross Self-Storage Depot. In the middle of all that chaos, Lester Willford, the security guard in charge, ran around taking pictures on his pocket camera while sporting an excited grin that reached from ear to ear.

Meighan remained on her own for a few moments longer. She glanced at the wrecks of the three vehicles; then she looked at the dead bodies who were yet to be processed by the city coroners. The unknown enforcer who had never made it further than the next unit down from the one where the Lincoln had been parked. At the leather-jacket-wearing, curly-topped Joaquín de la Cruz whose body had been crudely shoved aside by Weissman when he had tried to make his escape from the garage, and at Shawn King whose pale-brown, urban-chic clothes now sported ungainly crimson stains that spread out from hideous, black entry holes.

Sighing, she put her Remington shotgun over her shoulder like a sheriff in the Old West before she followed her patrol partner down to the other end of aisle fourteen.




Patricia 'Patty' Hawkins did not get a second's worth of rest during the night that followed the brutal beating. At first, it had taken her two hours and twelve minutes of insane, soul-shattering, backbreaking effort simply to crawl the fifty yards' distance from the filthy, yellow Toyota and back to the metal grating above the heating duct.

When she had finally made it there, the constant thunderstorm of pain inside her was so overwhelming she could do nothing but lie there and weep. Most of the night hours passed by while she was drifting in and out of full consciousness.

At the new day's earliest light, the absence of the hospital-strength prescription medicine in her system had made its presence felt. As a result, she suffered from the worst withdrawal symptoms she had ever experienced. Her body's reaction was so strong she could barely function. Her limbs were like lead, her chest was on fire, dry heaves racked her diaphragm and her gut, and her brain screamed for her little, white friends to come to its rescue. Her breathing was irregular and labored, and cold sweat made her waxen skin stay clammy and icy despite the fact she was resting directly on the grating connected to the heating duct.

Another handful of hours went by while she was in the near-catatonic state; the clock had just made it past ten-thirty in the morning before she had regained enough strength to even attempt to move from the position she had ended up in when she had returned to the grating.

Her right arm was numb and useless, and at least two of the fingers were visibly broken; it concerned her less than it should have, but her withdrawal symptoms were so overwhelming they defeated most other aches and pains that swept though her battered and bruised frame.

It took her fifteen minutes just to get into an upright position that allowed her to lean against the concrete wall behind the metal grating. To make sure she knew her place among the rock-bottom category of people walking the Earth, the simple motion made blinding pain sweep through her in long, lazy waves like the ebb and flow of the tide.

Reaching up with her good hand, she touched her face to get a feel for how she looked after her intimate encounter with the baseball bats. The acute pains that shot out from countless bruises and scrapes made her realize she had to look like a butchery on a bad day. A glance down at her bloodied clothes confirmed it. When she let her tongue roam over her teeth, she discovered three new gaps among those that had already been there before the torture - that would also explain the tangy taste in her otherwise dry mouth.

Thinking of getting something to drink made her look around for the plastic bottle she had found the day before. She had not had it with her when she had tried to make her escape so it had survived the subsequent harrowing ordeal unscathed. It had rolled away from the grating and up against one of the slabs of concrete not too far from the heating duct - no more than eight feet from Patty's position. At any other time, eight feet would have taken her two seconds to cover, but in her present condition the bottle might as well have been halfway around the Solar System.

Just turning her head to look for the plastic bottle made her dizzy; she slammed her eyes shut at once, but when that proved insufficient to combat the tilting world, she reached up with her good hand to clap it over her eyes. Unfortunately it meant she could not maintain her upright position. Moaning out loud, she slipped back down onto the concrete next to the metal grating. She had to do it all over again.


An hour and a half later, she had accomplished something she had thought she would never experience again - she was back on her feet and leaning against the concrete wall behind the metal grating. She had even managed to crawl over to the plastic bottle first though the dizzy spells caused by the action had made her suffer through half a dozen dry heaves.

Stumbling away from the wall, she hobbled over to the nearest leaking pipe to refill the empty bottle. Though her legs had not suffered the worst of the beating, her ankles, knee joints and hips were so raw it seemed like bone was grinding against bone whenever she as much as thought of moving. The old burn injuries on her shins had not been aggravated which she considered a small blessing.

Once she reached the leakage, she swayed like a leaf caught in a storm while she held out the plastic bottle to let it catch the free water. The leakage was so large it only took a short minute to fill the bottle - then it only took her ten seconds to empty it as she poured out the water onto her face to clean the countless cuts, scrapes and bruises. The icy water coming into contact with her bloodied, waxen skin made her hiss out loud.

It took all her willpower to focus on moving beyond the pain. Once she could function again, she held the plastic bottle under the leaking pipe so it could be refilled for a second time. Soon, she put the full bottle to her lips and took the tiniest of swigs. Her lips were split and bleeding, but the water did her good as it trickled down her gullet. The next swig was used to rinse her mouth, and she spat that out onto the concrete. She grimaced when the water was blood-red. Though she was dehydrated from the sweating, the withdrawal symptoms and the lack of liquid nourishment, she did not dare to chug down the water - she knew it would just come back up even faster than it had gone down.

She sipped again and again until the bottle had been half-emptied. Some of the pressure on her abused brain lifted and she was even able to glance around the third floor of the parking garage without suffering a new dizzy spell.

The thought of seeing her precious pills crushed under the bootheels of the three violent crooks made a dark cloud descend upon her. What did she have left to live for? If DiSorrento really had sent her file to the police, they would be the ones chasing her instead of the goons, but the results would be the same: she would be in a world of hurt when she was caught. She was a double-murderer. She stood no chance of escaping the electric chair, or the needle, or whatever instrument of death was used in Carlyle's prisons and penitentiaries to end the lives of the condemned. That was a fate she did not look forward to experiencing.

But she did have a few alternatives. She could go back on the street or to the tunnels at the switching yard and blend in with the homeless population there. She could easily live hand-to-mouth like she had done for years until she had been lured into the DiSorrento organization by something as mindnumbingly inane as a promise of getting free, warm meals on a regular basis. It was an existence, but not really a life worth living. Sooner or later, she would contract the inevitable disease like hepatitis, blood poisoning or even gangrene in her numb arm, and that would be the end of that.

Talking to the nuns at the Sisters Of Mercy Mission or even the warming shelter might have been an option if she had still been in a good, or at least better, physical condition, but they would only need a single look at her to call for an ambulance. That would see her get registered, and when that had happened, the police would show up five minutes later.

In theory, she could also turn herself in and hope the police would treat her with lenience once they heard her story. In reality, the chances of that happening were so minuscule it was almost a joke. Everybody living on the street had firsthand knowledge of how the police viewed the homeless - like the shit under their soles; something disgusting that needed to be wiped off at once.

And then she had the final option; the final solution. She could end everything by her own hand. No waiting for a slow death in a hospital bed. No waiting for the hangman to throw the switch or plunge a syringe into her veins. No waiting for the next DiSorrento enforcer to come along and crush her skull with a baseball bat. Ending it all would perhaps be a drastic option, but the only one where she, not others, would decide her ultimate fate.

Staring straight ahead without seeing anything, she made up her mind. She had allowed others to control her life for far too many years: first her family who had treated her like dirt when they had discovered she was not a 'normal' girl, then the various pushers who had all forced her to do repulsive things when she came to them looking for pills or harder drugs, then the city's social workers with all their unfulfilled promises, pies-in-the-sky and blatant lies of her ever being rehabilitated into regular society, and finally Dorothy Lorraine DiSorrento whose brutal realm was ruled by terror and threats of swift violence.

Now it was time to take her life - and her death - into her own hands.

It would be far too much strain on her weak system to climb up to the top floor and throw herself off the parapet; instead, she hobbled over to the ramp that would take her down to the street.

She had something poetic in mind. The first person she had killed, the woman on that terrible night in September, had been run over. To atone for that deadly sin, and for the fiery inferno that claimed Bogdan Marinescu's life, she would go down to Beauregard Street and wait for a bus or a delivery truck to approach her. Then she would throw herself out into the traffic and commit the final deed.




A yawn wider than the Grand Canyon cracked Lorenzo Lombardini's face wide open as he and Meighan O'Sullivan waited for the clock to reach the pre-arranged time of a quarter past twelve so they could enter Captain MacPherson's office. After returning to the One-Three precinct in the middle of the night after the shooting incident at the Albatross Self-Storage Depot, they had been debriefed by the night-watch sergeant and ordered to show up at the precinct house at a quarter past noon for a talk with their commanding officer. Their loud protests that it went against the rules set up by the union with regards to swapping shifts at short notice fell on deaf ears.

At present, they were standing in the sixth-floor hallway. The elegant carpet and the framed reproductions of well-known works of art still exuded an inherent calmness that made it feel the hallway existed on another esoteric plane compared to the unrelenting brutality that had governed the streets of Carlyle in recent times. The other doors still carried letterbars identifying them as belonging to the 'Tactical Unit / SWAT / Senior Operations Coordinator,' the 'International Counter-Terrorism Intelligence (INCOTERRI)' office, and the 'Senior Manager f. Logistics & Motor Vehicles' - and Meighan still chuckled at all their pompousness.

Though the departmental rules required any police officer who had been involved in a shooting or a similar kind of violent incident to get a short leave of absence of at least one and preferably several days away from active duty, they both wore a fresh set of their regular black winter uniforms to look their best for the meeting with the captain - there was nothing quite like the combination of gunsmoke and adrenaline-induced sweat to foul up a uniform's scent.

Meighan did nothing to hide her cheeky grin at seeing her patrol partner's wide open features. "You slept well, huh?" she said, nudging Lorenzo's shoulder.

"I didn't sleep at all," Lorenzo mumbled as he smacked his lips and rubbed his ashen face. "My little girl had kept my wife up all night so she had plenty of time to check out the news channels. She saw everything. In hi-def, TruColor, surround sound… the whole nine yards. All I wanted was a little cuddle-"


"-but all she wanted was to lay down the law. And she did. In block letters. I need to throw that damn TV out the window…"

Meighan chuckled at the despondent shaking of her friend's head. "So how's your marriage holding up, buddy?"

"I still got a ring on my finger… that's something at least."

"Uh… yeah," Meighan said with a grin as she leaned over to thump Lorenzo's shoulder once more. While they had talked, the hands of time had crept around to a quarter past midday, so instead of yapping on, Meighan reached up and knocked on the office door.

When a loud and clear 'Enter!' followed a few moments later, the two officers wiped the smiles - and yawns - off their faces and stepped into their Captain's office.


Lorenzo's ashen face scrunched up into a bitter grimace as Captain Richard Daniel MacPherson, jr. put down a mug filled with steaming hot coffee made on the highly advanced KwikPad Coffee Maker on the conference table. The grimace may have been bitter, but it was nothing compared to the coffee. This time, the captain had not even asked if he wanted some; he regretted drinking the whole mug the first time they had been in the office since it had obviously given MacPherson the wrong impression.

Meighan noticed and let out a sigh under her breath. She had yet to experience the KwikPad coffee, but she would soon get her chance as the captain put a similar mug on the table in front of her.

The uniformed officers occupied the three-seater couch with the hard cushions and the vertical backrest; like they had established the first time they had been invited into the office, it was built for work rather than comfort.

"Needless to say, Officer O'Sullivan… Officer Lombardini," the distinguished-looking captain said as he sat down in one of the satellite chairs while holding his favorite mug: the one with the World's Greatest Granddad! text on the side, "I am very pleased with your sterling work last night. Very pleased indeed. You removed three dangerous criminals from the streets of our fair city. I cannot ask for any more than that from the people working in my precinct." He glanced at his two uniformed officers with a proud look in his hazel, asymmetrical eyes as he took a sip of the KwikPad coffee.

As always, the captain wore black shoes and black uniform pants with razor-sharp creases that were highlighted when he crossed one leg over the other. Upstairs, he wore a black tie over a long-sleeved shirt that was pale-blue rather than the black one worn by the lower-ranked officers. Unlike the first time, he wore his uniform jacket as well that carried silver linings around the collar and the breast pockets. A row of colorful ribbons sat prominently across the left side of the jacket's chest.

Lorenzo was barely able to exclaim a "Thank you, Sir," as he struggled to hold back another yawn, but Meighan's voice was clear and to the point: "Thank you very much, Sir. It's always a pleasure to keep the streets clean of trash," she said as she took the mug. Moving it to her lips, she was about to sample the coffee for the first time. She did not know what to expect, but after listening to her patrol partner's offended complaints from the first time, she feared the worst.

Her definition of 'worst' was blown clear out of the water at once by the outrageously bitter coffee that gave her a gruesome aftertaste in her mouth even before the first sip had made it all the way down into her gut. Once she had convinced herself to swallow the last half of the first sip, she stared at the dark liquid in the mug to see and sniff if the captain had accidentally poured old two-stroke engine oil into it rather than coffee, but it looked - and even smelled - like any, old coffee would.

"Of course," Captain MacPherson continued, cocking his head while he looked at the two officers opposite him - it made his eyes even more asymmetrical - "your course of action was perhaps not one-hundred percent in accordance with the standing orders of waiting for backup to arrive before engaging armed opponents, but I certainly understand that reality sometimes necessitates swift and decisive measures."

Lorenzo cast a sideways glance at Meighan to see how she coped with the bitter coffee. When the look on his patrol partner's face was just as disgusted as his own, he let out a dark grunt.

"Ah," Meighan said as she put down the mug after finally defeating her very first sip, "that is very true, Sir. We could have waited, but there was a risk de la Cruz would have set fire to the car or the unit itself. Actually, Officer Lombardini and I are certain he would have done so. Such a fire would have spread fast."

"Indeed," Captain MacPherson said before he took a new swig. The satisfied look on his face as he lowered his mug told a tale of being pleased with not only the outcome of the nightly mission but the KwikPad coffee as well. "On a more lighthearted note… how's your coffee?"

"Oh, it's very fine, Sir, thank you," Lorenzo mumbled -- "It's… unusual, Sir," Meighan said in a matching mumble.

The captain did not seem to have noticed the lack of enthusiasm as he took another long swig from his mug. "Oh, and there is one more thing. Perhaps I shouldn't be too hasty since I'm sure you both know how bureaucracy works, but a little bird whispered in my ear earlier today that you'll both receive an official commendation and maybe even a ribbon for your efforts last night."

"We should get one for drinking this waste oil," Meighan mumbled under her breath in a voice so quiet the captain could not hear anything beyond a faint murmur; she broke out in a smile to show her gratitude at the rumors brought into the light of day by the little bird. "We were only doing our duty, Sir. It's all part of the job of being a police officer in Greater Carlyle," she said, touching the Carlyle PD logo on her shoulder.

Lorenzo spoke up while displaying a wide grin: "But it would certainly please my mama!"

They all laughed at that for a few moments before the captain glanced at his wristwatch; then he emptied his mug and leaned forward to put it on the conference table. "Oh, time flies as always. Drink up. You have one more assignment today before I'll let you have your compulsory day off."

Meighan and Lorenzo shot each other desperate looks before they took their mugs. They knew they had to do it, so they drank the rest of the foul coffee in a single gulp in an attempt to lessen the bitterness - after all, they were big, strong patrol officers who did not shy back from even the dirtiest of jobs.

Captain MacPherson got up from the satellite chair and moved over to his neatly ordered desk at the far end of the office. There, he picked up a few papers that he leafed through before returning to the uniformed officers. "I'm sure you'll be glad to hear it's only a milk run. In half an hour, you're to chauffeur Sister Angelica and a journalist for the Carlyle Tribune from the Sisters Of Mercy Communion House over on Sunderland Street and down to the One-Two precinct on West Seventh Street. Then you can go home and enjoy the rest of your day off."

"Very well, Sir," Meighan said while her tastebuds formed a picket line to protest against such blatant abuse of their services - some of them even packed their suitcases and left for a less hostile environment altogether. Lorenzo just grimaced and shook his head at the bitterness of the so-called coffee. "Sister Angelica… wasn't she the nun who was attacked by Weissman and his cronies?" Meighan continued.

"She was indeed, Officer O'Sullivan. That's why I want you to do it. You can tell her in person that we have him in custody. She and the journalist are the head organizers of the large anti-violence protest rally that'll take place later today. I'm sure you've heard of it. Mayor Goddard and Chief Police Commissioner Farnsworth will be present," the captain said and let out a dark grunt. "I'm almost pleased I wasn't invited to participate as I'm sure it'll turn into quite the media spectacle."

Meighan and Lorenzo shared another look - it appeared their day off would be a busy one after all.

"Oh," the captain continued, "and you obviously can't use a cruiser for that purpose, so you've been authorized to use one of the representation vehicles. You'll need to speak to the motor pool sergeant about which one it'll be."

"Very well, Sir. We'll do that right away. Thank you for the coffee, Sir," Meighan said and got up from the uncomfortable couch. She extended her hand to offer the captain the traditional greeting. Once she and Lorenzo were at the door to the hallway, Captain MacPherson spoke up again:

"And please try not to wreck that one as well, Officers," he said with a rare gleam in his eyes.

Lorenzo broke out in a smile. "We'll do our very best, Sir," he said as he and his patrol partner left the office and stepped back out into the plush hallway.


Meighan kept an easy hand on the steering wheel of the representation vehicle that had turned out to be a pale-tan, almost-brand-new Ford Explorer SUV. Unlike the regular patrol cruisers and the unmarked squad cars, it was not meant to be used to transport prisoners and thus had a regular back seat with plush upholstery that was held a shade or two darker than the SUV's paint job. It even had cupholders up front which she and Lorenzo had taken full advantage of by stopping at a convenience store to buy a couple of cans of soft drinks.

The representation vehicle was equipped with the standard digital communication device used in all police vehicles. The emergency package consisted of a pair of red-and-blue wig-wags mounted into the grille, flashing taillights that were synchronized with the wig-wags, and a red beacon light locked into a forward position on the dashboard. It even had an electronic siren, but its primary task was to bring guests and important people from within the police force from A to B with no hassle.

"Jeepers creepers, that coffee…" Meighan said and shook her head in disgust. She still had the nasty aftertaste in her mouth even after gulping down half a can of lemon-flavored iced tea. "I've never tasted worse in my life… and I've had some shitty coffees, let me tell ya. That… that was just…"

"Told ya," Lorenzo said and let out a tired chuckle. A moment later, his face cracked wide open in a yawn that he did nothing to conceal.

"Yeah, you did. It wasn't like we had much of a choice, though, was it? Damn, I need an antacid pill or something…" Meighan had to let out a quiet, sour burp just to prove her point.

Though the clock had only just moved past one in the afternoon, the traffic was already increasing like it was warming up for the afternoon rush hour. Some intersections were already congested to the point where only two or three cars could squeeze in on the far side of the traffic lights - thus, long lines of metal boxes on wheels formed up with predictable results: plenty of honking, plenty of exhaust fumes from the idling engines, and plenty of frustrated drivers who would always end up yelling out of the window or wave their middle fingers at everyone around them.

Meighan continued north on Belvedere to get to the first connecting street in order to cross over to Sunderland. Since she and Lorenzo had to stop at the Sisters Of Mercy Communion House which was on the west side of the busy street, they needed to come from the north. Once they had the nun and the journalist in the back and drove away from there, they had to go south for two intersections - or possibly three, depending on the level of congestion - before they could cross back over to West Seventh Street and the One-Two precinct house.

She chuckled as she thought of how much the meetings at the City Planning Bureau at City Hall had to resemble a nutfarm run amuck - nobody working on the streets had anything but bad things to say about the functionaries who ordered one-way streets, uneven speed bumps and other forms of traffic-influencing efforts and chicanery without ever leaving their offices to see how the world really turned outside.

Another chuckle escaped her as she glanced to her right at her patrol partner. It had taken Lorenzo less than five minutes to fall asleep once his butt had been planted in the plush seat - he obviously needed it so it did not bother her.


Once they had found the first uncongested connecting street - which had been the third they had tried - and had turned south on Sunderland so they would be on the correct side of the Communion House, Lorenzo woke up and smacked his lips. Rubbing his tired eyes, he looked out onto the traffic around them. "Are we there yet?" he said and broke out in a wide yawn.

"Not yet. Won't be long, though," Meighan said as she kept the pale-tan Explorer behind one of the lumbering city buses - every lane around them was full so there was no escape for the representation vehicle. She had to switch off the cabin fan to stop the noxious diesel fumes from stinking up the pristine upholstery and interior; each time the bus driver as much as looked at the gas pedal, another plume of black smoke escaped the twin tailpipes. Just to add a little real-world irony to the unpretty picture, the bus carried an advertisement banner on the rear that promised a cleaner environment in all of Greater Carlyle if people would vote for Mayor Goddard in the upcoming mayoral elections.

"That was a nice way-way-way-early Valentine's Day present the guys made for ya, huh?" Lorenzo said; even though they were not on patrol duty, he kept an eye on the sidewalk and the people they went by like he always did. When Meighan did not respond, he glanced at her. "Or did you consider it sexual harassment?"

"Nah," Meighan said as she thought back to the two-by-two-foot pink heart that she had been presented with once she and Lorenzo had made it up to the plenum office. It seemed her fellow officers had heard of the constant altercations she'd had with Commander Shulmann and had decided that the old adage 'opposites attract' was still valid - thus, they had printed out pictures of Meighan and Stefana Shulmann and had glued them onto the heart. Then the veteran patrolwoman Caitlynn O'Hara had written a mock love poem at the bottom with plenty of little hearts and X's around it so it would be in a female hand. "It was kinda fun. I'm not gonna hang it on my fridge, though," she said with a grin.

The weather could not decide what to do on the important day. High above it all, dark clouds raced across the heavens with the speed and relentlessness of express trains. One moment the bleak winter sun beat down on the mean streets; the next, flurries of sleet or even light snow fell to paint everything white for a few moments. Then the sun would break through again and melt all the white stuff dumped by the clouds. The temperatures had never recovered from their unseasonable dip but still hovered just above freezing - at least the winds had died down for now.

Lorenzo let out a chuckle as he shuffled around on the comfortable seat so he would not fall asleep again. "With a nun in the back seat, I doubt we'll end up in a firefight today. Or a hot pursuit."

"Knock on wood," Meighan said and searched for something wooden to knock on. When she couldn't find anything, she bared her teeth in a worried grimace until she came to the conclusion that 'knock on plastic' was just as effective.

Another minute of following the lumbering city bus later, they arrived at the Sisters Of Mercy Mission. Nobody who was dressed like a nun waited for them on the sidewalk, so Meighan squeezed the Explorer in between a couple of parked cars. She took extra-special care not to scratch, scrape, dent, ding, bang or bump the pristine, plastic fenders against the other vehicles, but it did not help it was a tight squeeze.


The metal staircase leading up to the Communion House soon surrendered to the striding police officers, and the front door only took another second to conquer. It was pleasantly warm inside, and several homeless people had taken advantage of that by using it as a warming shelter. Meighan and Lorenzo did as well by unzipping their winter patrol jackets. A delightful mix of aromas of hot cocoa and fresh buns spread from the mugs and plates that most of the homeless were holding; unfortunately, the delightful aromas were not quite strong enough to defeat the overpowering smell of unwashed clothes and bodies that hung around the people there.

A hush fell over the homeless as the two uniformed officers appeared in their midst. Meighan and Lorenzo were so used to that they hardly even noticed. Taking off their compulsory Carlyle PD baseball caps to show a little respect in what was essentially a house of God, they strode over to the desk in the far corner of the open office.

Nobody was around so Meighan went into the hallway beyond the office. Although she had been to the Communion House before, it had been nearly a year since her last visit so she could not fully remember the layout - the sound of someone slicing bread using an electric knife offered a hint where the kitchen was. "Hello. Carlyle PD," she said as she knocked on the doorjamb.

Two nuns - a younger and an older one - wearing white aprons over their regular white-and-gray outfits looked up at the black-clad officer with surprise written all over their faces. They had been busy cutting thick slices off a loaf of multi-grain white bread, and butter and various cold cuts had been laid out on the kitchen table for the sandwiches they had been about to make. "Uh… hello," the older of the two nuns said. "I'm Sister Maureen. Is there a problem, Officer…?"

"O'Sullivan, Sister," Meighan said with a smile. "Not that I'm aware of. Not unless I've been given bad information… my patrol partner and I were told to help Sister Angelica and a journalist get over to the anti-violence protest rally at the-"

"Oh! Oh, of course," Sister Maureen said and wiped her hands on her apron. "Miss Stevens isn't here at the moment, and Sister Angelica is still in the bathroom getting ready. I'll let her know you're here," she continued as she slipped past the wide officer and headed into the hallway.

"Thank you, Sister," Meighan said as she watched the nun knock on the door to the private bathroom and inform the occupant of the police's arrival.

The bathroom door was cracked ajar and a brief message was exchanged between the two nuns. Once the door had been shut again, Sister Maureen moved back to the police officer. "Sister Angelica will be right out. She's been having a spot of tummy trouble this morning. She's to hold a big, important speech at the rally."

"I see. Well, that can certainly give everyone the trots," Meighan said with a grin. "I'll just wait out in the office in the meantime."


Back in the open office, Meighan had only just joined Lorenzo at the vacant desk when the front door opened and a pair of weather-beaten, long-bearded homeless men hobbled in. They were both in their late-fifties or early-sixties and wore the usual multiple layers of clothing; both pulled off a knitted commando-style cap after entering. They looked around for somewhere to sit and soon found it by one of the potted plants.

Halfway over to the vacant chairs, one of them stopped to take a long, close look at Meighan. A second later, his gap-toothed mouth split open in a broad grin. "Hiya, Missy! Boy, you's a cop? I didden get that impression the last time we met, that's fer dang sure. You sure has moved up in the world, huh? Haw, Charlie! Charlie!" he said, waving at his companion to catch his attention. "Charlie, fer Chrissakes fella, I'm talkin' to ya! Lookie who's here! That nice missy who gave us that there old Ford van ta sleep in… remember? Sure ya do. Missy, we wus never introduced back then, but I'm Bruce Larson. Ev'rybody calls me the Moose. This here is my best buddy Charlie Two-Toes. Ya didden meet him then but here he is now."

"Ah… I see. Nice to meet you both," Meighan said, furrowing her brow so hard it was almost possible to get lost in the deep ruts between her eyebrows. She cast a puzzled glance at Lorenzo who could only shrug in return. She put her hands akimbo in the hope it would offer any clues, but nothing came to her.

"Yeah, ain't that nice?" the Moose continued. "Ya got anymore old vans me and Charlie can sleep in? I sure hope ya do 'cos it's mighty cold out there right now. Haw, it was nice seein' ya'gain but I gotta siddown now to rest these here old timber-logs."

"Right…" Meighan said, once more glancing at Lorenzo. When all she got out of him was another shrug, she mirrored it and turned around to wait for the nun to show up.


Three minutes later, Sister Angelica walked into the open office pulling a pair of dark-gray fleece gloves over her hands. She wore sturdy boots, and she had her stylish winter cape loose over her shoulders without closing it. Her pale-gray beanie hat had been stuck into the cape's only pocket so she would not forget it. The front of the white tunic was graced by a large, shiny silver crucifix that not only caught the light, but everyone's attention. Her face was pale from the importance of the day and also the inner turmoil that had plagued her for hours. "Hello, Officers. I'm Sister Angelica. I'm terribly sorry I'm running a little late. It's been a… a busy morning if you understand."

"We do, Sister. I'm Officer O'Sullivan. This is my patrol partner Officer Lombardini," Meighan said with a grin as she pointed at herself and Lorenzo next to her.

The senior nun smiled back at the tall, broad-shouldered female officer and her companion who was really no smaller though of a slightly different build. "I was under the impression that Detective Thorne-"

"That would be Thorpe, Sister."

"Ah, Thorpe. I beg your pardon," Angelica said with a smile. "I was under the impression that he would take me to the rally and not uniformed officers… I must have misunderstood. Not unlikely considering how much has been on my plate in recent times."

"I'm afraid I don't know anything about that. We're here now so…" Meighan said as she checked her wristwatch - they were right on time with a few minutes to spare. If they could avoid any snags along the way, they might be able to get to the rally without any stress and then head for home to enjoy the rest of their day off. "Oh, and we were told you would be accompanied by a journalist?"

Sister Angelica offered the officers an apologetic shrug. "I'm afraid there's been a snag, Officer O'Sullivan."

Meighan's face fell at once - by the sound of it, she might as well kiss her day off goodbye.

The nun continued without having noticed the glum look: "She called me half an hour ago… she's been detained over on East Thirty-fifth Street just off Beauregard Street. We need to drive over there to pick her up. I hope that won't ruin your plans too much?"

Meighan bared her teeth in a grimace but soon hid it so she would not appear unprofessional. The streets of Carlyle had an annoying habit of gobbling up all the time that could be thrown at them, so if they planned on arriving at the rally sometime before Thanksgiving, they better get a move on.

With the change of plans, they would have to make either a semi-hazardous U-turn on Sunderland Street or go down to the next congested intersection and spend anywhere from three to ten minutes getting back. Then they would need to drive north on Sunderland for quite a while before they could cross over to Beauregard Street that was often even more congested.

Once all that had been accomplished, they still had to get to the right end of East Thirty-fifth Street in the maze of one-way streets over there and find the journalist somewhere - and then they had to move clear across town all over again to get to the protest rally, and in good time since they had the head organizers in the back.

Then, and only then, could Meighan even begin to think of the rest of her day off - chances were it would be dark by then so there would not be much left to play with. If she was lucky, she would get two hours' worth of sleep, and then she would be expected to show up for the regular night shift. "Well, it's certainly a challenge…" she said while she scratched her neck. "And a big one at that. With such a lengthy detour, we really need to be on our way, Sister."

"I'm ready," Angelica said with a smile as she pulled the beanie hat down over her ears.


Meighan let out a long, slow sigh. For the past two minutes and forty-five seconds, she had stared into the Explorer's side-mirror to find just the tiniest gap in traffic that she could slide the large SUV into. The inner lane had been a constant stream of taxi cabs, delivery vans, city buses, pickup trucks, motorcycles and family vehicles. Three times she thought she had found a gap; three times she'd had to slam on the brakes again after only moving an inch or two ahead when the gap had been rudely snatched by a bicycle courier whizzing past at a death-defyingly high velocity.

She glanced to her right at Lorenzo whose tired face told a tale of wanting to sleep 'til dawn. That did not help her much or offer any suggestions that she had not already thought of herself. Then she looked over her shoulder at the nun who sat prim and proper in the plush back seat. Ultimately, she did something a police officer was not supposed to do. After issuing a quick "Hang on, Sister!" to the nun in the back, she turned on the beacon light on the dashboard, the wig-wags up front and in the taillights, and finally the electronic siren. She let the dragon-like wailing run for a few bars before she spun the steering wheel hard left and broke out into traffic.

Once she was parked diagonally across most of the lanes on the southbound side of Sunderland Street, it was only a matter of time before someone took pity on her and let her into the northbound lanes. A taxi cab was her savior, and she sent him a thumbs-up before she let the large representation vehicle take off north on Sunderland at a high rate of knots.

Two hundred yards further up the street, she eased off on the throttle and turned off the lights and the siren. Peeking in the rear-view mirror to gauge the nun's reaction, she was surprised to find that the late forty-something woman had turned white as a sheet and stared straight ahead with wide-open eyes. That was not the reaction she had expected to see, and she could already hear Captain Richard D. MacPherson, jr. chewing her out in his distinguished voice once they returned to the One-Three with an official complaint from the Church Of The Blessed Virgin Mary in the pocket. "Oh, I'm… I'm sorry, Sister Angelica. I hope I didn't scare you too much…?" she said, continuing to look into the mirror.

"No… no, it's- it's all right, Off- Officer," the nun croaked. She released the death grip she had on the seat belt and let out a deep, trembling breath. "It's just an old thing. Don't worry about it. It happens now and then."

"I see," Meighan said and glanced at her patrol partner who seemed to be half-asleep as a result of the comfort of the plush seats.


Sunderland Street had good days, bad days, frustrating days, infuriating days and downright diabolical days. The law of averages meant it was one of the frustrating days, and it even had a slight tendency to shift towards the infuriating at certain points.

Every intersection they reached seemed to be clogged up beyond what the streets could hold, and there were long lines of cars, vans, buses and trucks blocking every lane. It never failed that only one or two vehicles were able to get across for each green phase; if the first vehicle in line was one of the lumbering city buses or a larger delivery truck, it often happened that it was the only one to get across.

Meighan tried to count to ten inwardly so she would not blurt out any kind of profanity now they had a nun in the back. The ten-count soon became twenty, then thirty. At one point, she had to count to fifty-four in order to stop herself from cursing the people around them, their mothers, fathers and the rest of their families going back seven generations.

The inevitable fender-bender happened when a taxi cab saw a fare at the curb and darted across two lanes to get to the person. The station wagon on the cab's immediate right had to jerk out of the way with the result that it thumped sideways into a little-old lady who was minding her own business in the inner lane in a big-old Cadillac land-yacht from the late 1960s. The taxi cab did not even get the fare as one of his colleagues had beat him to it. He let his feelings be known by honking twice as he roared off.

Traffic backed up at once as both inner lanes stopped moving at the same time. Meighan let out a long, tormented sigh; then she spun the steering wheel left to get clear of the mess ahead. When they reached the scene of the small accident, the old Cadillac was still swimming on its floaty suspension from being thumped in the side and subsequently thumping the curb.

At any other time, Meighan and Lorenzo would have stopped to help, but time was the only thing they did not have. Instead, she mashed the gas to zoom back into the inner lane to get ahead while it was clear.

No more than a couple of hundred yards further up Sunderland Street, she had to come to a near-halt again as a city bus drove away from its stop without paying any attention whatsoever to the traffic around it. She let out another long, tormented sigh that only grew deeper when the bus turned out to be one of those vehicles that created a foul-smelling patch of suffocating, black fog at every opportunity.

The advertisement banner on the back of the bus trumpeted two products that both promised pearly-white teeth just from using a new and highly advanced toothpaste: Shine Like A Movie Star! Use PowerWhitener & PowerWhitenerPlus! New And Improved Formula! In Stores Now! - That the banner had been so blackened by soot from the bus' twin exhausts that it was hard to read the names of the whitening products was just another of life's little ironies.


A good portion of the interminable trek through Carlyle's many congested streets was conducted in silence. Even Meighan began to feel drowsy from the silky smooth ride of the almost-new SUV. The difference to how the old Crown Vics rode the uneven streets was night-and-day. Although the regular cruisers all had special police suspension to better withstand the horrible conditions of most of the city's streets, and although they were put through a high degree of maintenance by expert mechanics nearly every day, they were simply getting old and used.

After what seemed like the forty-seven-and-a-half days in the concrete wilderness known as Carlyle, they reached the intersection of East Nineteenth and Beauregard Street. To say they had found plenty of company would be an understatement - there were vehicles everywhere around them. Meighan sighed, but she was interrupted when the nun in the back finally spoke up:

"I haven't had time to follow much of the news today, but I gather there was another major shootout last night?" she said, leaning to her left to look between the seats that were both equipped with tall headrests that made it difficult for anyone under six-foot-two to look out of the windshield.

"Oh, you can say that, Sister," Meighan said as she pulled up to the end of the line of cars waiting to turn left onto Beauregard Street. Just like she had expected - or feared - parts of the intersection were blocked by vehicles who were bumper-to-bumper on Beauregard. "At the Albatross Self-Storage Depot. Officer Lombardini and I were out there."

"Oh! I hope you were well back from the shooting itself," Angelica said sincerely.

Meighan just grunted and pulled a one-shoulder shrug. There was little point in painting a colorful picture to the nun, even if she was already involved to a certain extent through the violent assault she had been subjected to.

"Is it… is it true there were fatalities among the… the… criminals?"

"Yes," Meighan said as she glanced to her right at Lorenzo who had come back from dreamland just in time to hear the nun's question. He furrowed his brow in puzzlement at Meighan's unusual reticence so she shook her head at him - he seemed to understand. "Joaquín de la Cruz and Shawn King were shot dead by police units. Avi Weissman was wounded and later apprehended by Commander Stefana Shulmann and other members of the Anti-Organized Crime Task Force. He's facing a great deal of charges so it'll be a while before he gets out of custody."

"Oh…" Sister Angelica said and clutched her crucifix. After a few seconds, she closed her eyes and bowed her head.

With the traffic at the intersection creeping ahead slower than a snail going uphill in molasses, Meighan had plenty of time to study the nun in the rear-view mirror. The woman had her eyes closed while she moved her lips like she was reciting a prayer. A quiet, and even somewhat annoyed, grunt escaped Meighan's lips. De la Cruz, King and the enforcer - whose name had been 'Rockin' Rollie' Roland Winston - were vicious, violent, uncaring, near-psychopathic men who deserved no such thing as a prayer.

In the back, the nun let out a sigh and opened her eyes again; her fingers remained on the crucifix that seemed to provide her with the needed moral support. "Hearing of their demise… I don't know if I should feel relieved or saddened. I should feel elated… I should celebrate the end of two of the three men who nearly caused my death for no reason whatsoever, but another part of me can't help but think of their families who have now lost a loved one. Which of the two emotions is the strongest I cannot say."

Meighan chewed hard on her lips to stop herself from speaking up. She cast a sideways glance at Lorenzo who seemed to be in a similar frame of mind. Though the nun's statement did not need a comment as such, Meighan could not keep one back: "Perhaps you should also think of the families of those who were beaten or even killed by those three… mmmm… criminals. Here and in the port city over on the eastern seaboard where they applied their trade before coming here. And not to mention the families of those unfortunate people who have fallen into the clutches of Dorothy DiSorrento and her legions of… of human scum."

"Oh… yes. I suppose I should," Angelica said and looked down at her fingers.

"There's little room for moral ambiguity out here on the street, Sister," Meighan said as she stared at the nun in the rear-view mirror. "There are no gray areas. You have your criminals and your law-abiding citizens. The criminals must be stopped before they can harm the law-abiding citizens. If we can't stop them before they do, we sure as hell must stop them from doing it again. It really is that simple. And pardon my French. I have a bad case of heartburn."

The tiniest of smiles creased Sister Angelica's lips, but it was gone in a heartbeat. "That's quite all right," she mumbled.


Meighan's blood pressure had reached the red zone and was about to make her blow her lid clean off by the time they were able to move into the intersection itself. Once there, they found themselves as the eighth vehicle in a turning lane that only had room for six.

It was a tight squeeze for a moment or two when traffic began to close in on them from both sides at once, but Meighan had had enough of the whole thing and mashed the gas hard to utilize the large representation vehicle's horsepower to zoom away from the turning lane - cars were so close to their right-hand side that Lorenzo could have reached out to pat their fenders had he so desired.

Although they had now made it onto Beauregard Street and had thus started the final leg of the first half of their endless trek through the mean streets of Carlyle, they still needed to get over to the other end of East Thirty-fifth Street to pick up the journalist - and the traffic ahead looked to be even more evil than the nasty business they had just escaped from over on Sunderland.

All the lanes were filled by slow-moving vehicles; some of the other drivers were even honking pre-emptively though they had not yet come to a halt. The reason, or reasons, for the critical congestion was soon revealed in the shape of yet another lumbering city bus some distance ahead. The large vehicle seemed to be involved in a winner-takes-all drag race with a bright-yellow cement mixer truck from Dillon Construction & Demolition that drove along in the center lane - except this particular drag race appeared to use a reversed set of rules that required the participants to drive as slowly as possible.

The cement mixer's right-hand turning signals flashed on and off indicating that the driver would like to get into the inner lane so he could turn into the construction site that came up a bit further on. At the same time, the left-hand turning signals on the bus flashed as well indicating the person behind the wheel of the public transportation vehicle would like to move out into the center lane so the regular route could be followed. Neither driver was willing to give as much as a quarter of an inch to the other.

The result was that the traffic that followed the large, lumbering commercial vehicles never moved faster than an Earth-shattering speed of eight miles per hour. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph… can it get any worse?" Meighan groaned as she clapped a hand over her eyes. She only noticed the blasphemous phrase when the nun in the back seat sent out an amused sound that was a cross between a snort and a chuckle.

The driver of the bright-yellow cement mixer truck finally ran out of patience and applied the air brakes to come to a halt in the center lane. That meant the bus moved clear of the large truck, but as a result of that, all the regular cars, taxi cabs and vans that were lined up behind the two road-going behemoths filled the gap in an instant - and then the cement truck was stuck in the wrong lane going nowhere.

Meighan was about to turn on the beacon light and the electronic siren all over again - or chew on the steering wheel - when the driver of a bread delivery van finally took pity on the person behind the wheel of the huge, six-axled cement mixer truck from Dillon Construction & Demolition. Blocking the inner lane at the bottleneck, the van made sure the truck had plenty of room to make a sweeping right-hand turn across the sidewalk and through the gates at the construction site.

Once peace had been restored on Beauregard Street, the traffic started moving again. Meighan sighed for the umpteenth time as she took her foot off the brake and trickled ahead.


"Thirty-second Street… we're almost there. We need to hang a right down East Thirty-fourth," Lorenzo said after he had checked out the familiar blue road sign nailed onto a tall post at the corner of the intersection they had just gone past.

"Almost has never won any prizes. And speaking of almost, we've almost run out of time," Meighan growled. She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel of the large SUV. Although they did sit higher and thus had a better view of the blocked lanes ahead of them, the increased bulk meant the vehicle was less nimble in actual traffic than the Crown Victorias were which was somewhat ironic - she was already dreading the prospects of needing to use the Ford Explorer Police Interceptor Utility on a daily basis once the Crown Vics had been phased out of active duty.

"Oh! Wait, that's not right," Sister Angelica said from the back seat; she leaned to the left again to be closer to the driver. "I'm terribly sorry, but we need to pick up Miss Stevens over on East Thirty-fifth Street, not Thirty-fourth…"

Meighan briefly glanced over her shoulder to offer the nun a smile. "We didn't forget, but East Thirty-third and Thirty-fifth are one-way streets in the other direction. Thirty-second and Thirty-fourth Street are one-way streets from this direction, so we need to cross through Thirty-fourth to Collen Lane, then follow that north for a city block until we reach East Thirty-fifth Street and then head west again."

Angelica pulled a face as she and Meighan locked eyes for the briefest of moments. "Oh… I wasn't aware of that. I wish I had just asked her to take a cab… I'm really sorry for putting you through all this hassle…"

"It's all right, Sister Angelica," Lorenzo said with a smile. "At least it's nice and toasty in here. And we're sitting comfortably, too!"

"Quite…" Angelica said and fell silent again.

The perpetual wrestling match in the sky between the dark clouds and the bleak late-autumn sun continued without consideration for the long-suffering people of Carlyle. The sun had been beating down a mere five minutes earlier, but everything was dark and gloomy at present. A sprinkling of rain even prompted Meighan to turn on the wipers at their lowest setting.

She and her two companions had just moved across the intersection of Beauregard and East Thirty-third Street when yet another lumbering city bus appeared in front of them. Like all its smoking brethren, it took up so much space in the inner lane that everything slowed down to a crawl. The distance to East Thirty-fourth Street was too short for even the powerful Explorer SUV to pass the bus and get back into the inner lane to make the turn, so Meighan was forced to wait it out. The bus drove at no more than twenty-five miles per hour even at the best of times, so it soon grated on her nerves and made her tap her fingers on the rim of the steering wheel.

Like all public transportation vehicles in Greater Carlyle, this particular bus also had a colorful banner on the rear. Instead of the advertisements that carried political messages or tried to make dental products sexy, it showed a picture of a smiling bus driver who offered a thumbs-up while he said: 'Take the bus! The fastest and safest way to get around Carlyle!'

Meighan looked down at the speedometer that read sixteen miles per hour. She had to roll her eyes at the unfortunate timing.

As the window wipers slapped back and forth, she moved her eyes away from the traffic near them to look at the people hurrying along on the sidewalk. Several of them seemed to stop and stare at something, and a few even pointed at a person or an object that was out of Meighan's field of view. Furrowing her brow, she clicked the wipers up into the next setting to make them clear the windshield a little faster - though the rain had not evolved beyond a sprinkling, the droplets caught the many stoplights around them and turned them into little, sparkly diamonds on the glass.

Her finely honed instincts and her many years of experience gathered on the mean streets made her apply the brakes to slow down; at the same moment, the city bus picked up speed to get across the intersection at East Thirty-fourth Street before the traffic lights would turn yellow. As the space between the two vehicles grew, she caught a brief glimpse of a short, blond person dressed in dark clothing who seemed to be waiting for something on the sidewalk. Even while Meighan watched, the person suddenly hurried onto the street.

"Huh… I've seen that fella before… but where?" she said out loud. A split second later, the city bus ahead of them made a sudden jerk to the left while it braked so hard it tilted forward. Another split second later, several pedestrians began to scream and point at the street just in front of the bus.




Three minutes earlier.

Patricia 'Patty' Hawkins hobbled along Beauregard Street halfway between East Thirty-fourth and Thirty-third Street. She went by a Korean convenience store and a hole-in-the-wall eatery specializing in hot sausages from the Czech Republic, but it was like the stores did not exist in the same world she lived in.

Beyond a vague, fuzzy, general idea, she had no recollection of how she had made it there, nor how long it had taken her. All she was able to do was to put one leg ahead of the other in a reasonable facsimile of walking; she repeated the gesture every once in a while which brought her ever closer to the end. The tone of light was appropriately gloomy but she felt nothing of the cold or the sprinkling of rain. Every inch of her skin, every muscle on her body and every joint that held her bones together created so much pain that her hazy mind had lost touch with reality.

The scorching lava that rolled through her simply by moving made her believe she was back in the fiery inferno that had claimed Bogdan Marinescu's life the week before. The gruesome stench of roasting human flesh still hung in her nostrils; she was there. She heard his screams. She could feel the flames nibbling at her pants and licking up her shins. The intense heat that rose from the gasoline as it ignited was replayed on her skin at that very moment despite the fact it was only just above freezing outside.

She hobbled along in her own little world without paying attention to the staring, pointing pedestrians around her. The shiners she had received in the beating meant her eyes were almost closed by the swollen tissue, but it mattered little as she kept her head down and staggered onward the whole time.

Her breathing was still irregular and labored. Although her withdrawal symptoms had eased off somewhat, the throbbing pain that had followed from all her internal and external injuries was even worse. She had never regained sensation in her right arm. The limb with the knobbly, visibly broken fingers at the far end flopped around as she moved like it was no longer attached to anything inside; as a bitter reminder of how peculiar life could be at times, the limp arm was the only spot on her body that did not hurt - it was just numb from above the shoulder and down to her cold, unmoving fingertips.

Out of breath, she had to stop in the middle of the sidewalk. The inner lane of the busy Beauregard Street was only eight feet away to her right, but it might as well have been a mile. A few tears escaped her swollen eyes. As the chilled, salty tears trickled across the heated, discolored flesh, her hazy mind interpreted it as ants crawling across her skin. She shook her head to get rid of them, but that only brought about a dizzy spell that lasted for several seconds.

Swaying like a leaf in the wind, she tried to take a few deep breaths to have enough strength to go on so she could finish what she had set out to do, but her lungs would not co-operate with her mind.

A man ran over to her and asked if he could help. Patty heard the words; she even saw the man through her shiners, but she wanted nothing of it. When shaking her head again did not make him go away, she reached up with her good arm and forcefully pushed away the Samaritan. Instead of leaving, the man reached into his pocket to find a smartphone that he spoke into.

Patty did not care if he called the Pope; all she wanted to do was to carry on so she could end it all right there on the street. Her muscles and joints cried out in pain as she forced herself to move her legs once more to move closer to the inner lane.

Three staggering steps further along the sidewalk, she looked up and locked eyes with a young woman whose pretty features she had only seen once before: on that night in September where she had mowed her down. She heard the hideous crunch as the two objects had collided. She saw the blood on the windshield that had been so thick she had needed to turn on the wipers to clear it. The late-teen was still dressed in the smart evening clothes she had worn when she had struck the grille of the stolen pickup truck: dark slacks, a sandy, lacy top and a dark cardigan featuring golden sparklies. Her hair had been done up for a fun night out, and she wore gentle makeup on her cheeks and around her eyes.

Patty's chin trembled at the chilling sight. "I killed you. I'm… I'm sorry. Please forgive me," she said in a hoarse croak. The young woman just stood there; not in a threatening manner, but as a passive witness to what was about to take place. When no answer was forthcoming, Patty continued toward the street. She had nearly made it to the curb when the late-teen finally broke the silence:

'Killing yourself won't bring me back, Patty,' the young woman said without moving her lips.

Patty let out a deep sigh; it did not matter any longer. Looking up, she spotted a number twenty-nine city bus. The roar from the diesel engine suggested that it was picking up speed. It would be the perfect tool. As she stood there at the last step before the great beyond, she tried to make her peace. She thought of the people she had known, of the few women she had loved, and of all those who had wronged her or treated her like dirt over her entire life. She would have the last laugh. She even thought of the nuns at the warming shelter and the Communion House who had been the only ones to treat her with any kind of respect; she would miss the nuns. The others could go to hell.

The number twenty-nine bus continued to pick up speed. When it was so close it would not be able to stop in time, Patricia 'Patty' Hawkins summoned all the strength she had left. Taking the final step, she moved out into the inner lane.

As the square, vertical front of the bus slammed into her, she saw nothing but a blinding, red flash. The violent impact threw her twenty yards down the street; tumbling side over side numerous times, she ended up on her back on the asphalt that had turned damp from the recent sprinkling of rain. Her numb arm was pinned down underneath her and her legs were twisted to the side. Her eyes were wide open and unblinking. Looking straight up, she watched the dark clouds race by but they soon faded away into nothing. She heard screaming and a siren. A grayish-white mist swirled around her like fog rolling in from the great sea. She stopped breathing. Her heart had finally had enough and stopped beating. As she died, the grayish-white mist engulfed her fully.




Though Meighan O'Sullivan had seen nothing of the drama that unfolded in front of the number twenty-nine city bus they had been following for a short while, she was far too experienced to ignore the facts that were presented to her and Lorenzo Lombardini. People on the sidewalk did not scream and point at nothing, and buses did not jerk to the side and come to hard stops without something drastic happening up front.

"Goddammit!" she barked as she watched the bus continue to sway. When its hazard lights suddenly began to flash and more people screamed on the sidewalk, she moved her hand up with lightning speed and switched on the electronic siren and the emergency lights - the beacon light on the dashboard, the wig-wags in the grille and the synchronized taillights - in a single motion. Then she spun the steering wheel left and slammed her boot down on the accelerator to get around the tail-end of the bus.

It only took them three seconds to get to the other end of the large vehicle; she stood on the brakes to make the Explorer stop on a dime. "Sweet mother of God…" she croaked at the horrific sight of the human lump wearing dark clothing that was lying in the middle of the street. After slamming the shifter into park, she turned off the siren again at once but left the emergency lights on. "Sister, stay in the car!" she barked over her shoulder as she and Lorenzo vacated the Explorer at high speed at the exact same time.

The two uniformed officers sprinted over to the fallen person and dropped down on their knees to check for vital signs and begin to administer first aid. Meighan clenched her jaw when she realized the person was a woman, and that she was dead. "Call it in! We need an ambulance here on the Goddamned double!" she barked to Lorenzo who whipped his portable radio off his belt at once and called the dispatch with an urgent request for medical assistance.

Turning back to the traffic victim, Meighan suddenly remembered where she had seen her before: she was one of DiSorrento's people. A foot soldier or perhaps just a prospect - she had been in one of the slides in the presentation; an image from a security camera at the Carlyle Grand Central Station where she had been seen picking pockets.

All of that background information mattered little in view of the serious situation. On top of the fresh scrapes and abrasions the woman had suffered from tumbling along the street, her face looked like she had been on the receiving end of a severe beating within the past few days. Her right arm was pinned down underneath her at an unnatural angle, and her legs and her pelvic region were twisted to the left.

Meighan had made those observations within the first few seconds. She checked the pulse on the side of the woman's neck and found nothing; then she put her ear to the chest to sense or hear a heartbeat, but the noises on the street blanked out any faint sounds that could have been produced. Before she dared to attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation - CPR - she reached under the supine woman and pulled the right arm free of the body to get the torso level to the ground. The fingers were visibly broken, the upper arm had suffered at least two fractures and the shoulder joint could be manipulated in a fashion it was not designed to. She let out a grunt when she realized the arm was cold unlike the rest of the woman's body.

A shadow fell over Meighan while she put her hands in the correct positions for engaging with the CPR. "What's the ETA on the ambulance?" she said as she began to pump down on the woman's chest in the familiar gestures to administer the life-saving first aid. When Lorenzo did not answer, she looked up to see why. She let out a grunt when she clapped eyes on Sister Angelica instead of her patrol partner. "I told you to stay in the car!" she said before she concentrated on carrying out the resuscitation procedure.

"I thought I might be able to help…"

"Prayers won't help now!" Meighan growled as she leaned down to attempt a mouth-to-mouth resuscitation as well. She stopped when she realized the woman's lips had been split and that there was fresh blood around them.

"I beg to differ, Officer!" Sister Angelica said in a remarkably sharp tone of voice before she swept her winter cape aside and knelt on the far side of the supine woman. That the knees of her pale-gray pants were smeared at once with the general filth that could be found littering any street anywhere did not seem to bother her.

Briefly pausing the CPR, Meighan dug into a pocket of her uniform pants to find a clean handkerchief. Once she had cleared as much of the blood off the woman's lips as she could, she manipulated the jaw and inserted two fingers into the mouth cavity to check for vomit, blood or other kinds of blockages. When she found nothing, she leaned down and began to administer mouth-to-mouth as well.

The senior nun took the victim's left hand and held it tight; speaking quietly, she began to recite a few prayers and words of support while Meighan alternated between administering CPR and mouth-to-mouth.

Out of nowhere, a garishly painted ambulance came from the wrong side of East Thirty-third Street and blasted onto the congested Beauregard Street with no concern for its own safety. It was met by a disharmonic concert of honking, but it did not make it slow down for even a fraction of a second.

"Here we got 'em!" Lorenzo cried from somewhere behind Meighan and Sister Angelica. He was still in contact with the dispatch, but he had to put his radio on his belt in a hurry when the distraught bus driver opened the sliding doors and ran out onto the street. The two men entered a brief wrestling match, but Lorenzo managed to hold the driver back so he would not disturb the resuscitation attempt.

Glancing over her shoulder, Meighan spotted the bulky GMC Savana that carried the characteristic colors of Pettersson's Nine-Nine-One Ambulance Services: fluorescent orange and a vertical stripe held in a reflective white.

The ambulance driver soon realized the lanes were clogged up, so the large vehicle turned onto the sidewalk instead while a constant wall of deafening noise exploded from the two shiny trumpets on top of the cab. Once it had made it past the bus and the Explorer SUV, it bounced down off the curb and drove onto Beauregard Street on the far side of the dramatic scene.

It only took a few seconds after the large vehicle had come to a stop before the double doors in the rear opened up and a tall, female EMT jumped down carrying a large bag over her shoulder. Racing over to the supine traffic victim, the EMT - who wore a three-quarter length winter coat featuring plenty of reflective stripes on the front and back - knelt at once and unzipped the bag.

A pair of orange medical gloves were put on at once so she could check the woman's vital signs. Like Meighan, she found there were none. She clicked-on a penlight and used it to test the woman's pupils; they were dilated and unresponsive. Since no signs of life were present, there was no need for the inflatable cuff meant to measure the pulse and the blood pressure so she left those in the large bag. For similar reasons, there was no need to rig up an IV-transfer. She cast a puzzled glance at the nun in the pale-gray outfit who held onto the victim's hand, but soon turned her attention back to the woman on the ground. "I'm DeeDee White, Ma'am. Officer. How long have you administered CPR?"

"Fifty seconds… maybe a minute… maybe a little longer," Meighan said without taking her eyes off the woman on the ground as she continued the rhythmic motion. "I've also carried out mouth-to-mouth."

"Have you felt any progress?"

Meighan shook her head. "No."

The finality of the uniformed officer's message and the somber tone in her voice made Sister Angelica furrow her brow and give the stricken woman's hand an even firmer squeeze.

Meighan continued: "I didn't see what happened, but I'm speculating the bus only gave her a glancing blow… otherwise she would have been in a far worse condition. Her right arm is fractured in at least two places and I'm suspecting a dislocation of her right shoulder, but that and the bruises on her face aren't fresh so she's already been in another accident somewhere else."

DeeDee White furrowed her brow as she glanced down; she let out a grunt as she seemed to confirm the patrol officer's words when it came to the age and nature of the facial bruises including the swollen, discolored tissue around the eyes that could not develop so quickly after the accident, and under no circumstance on a patient with no signs of life. "All right," she said before she got on her feet and ran over to the ambulance.

Sister Angelica just had time to let out an outraged "But… where are you going?!" at the tall EMT's back before the answer to the question was revealed: DeeDee returned almost at once with the driver of the ambulance - a mop-topped blonde who seemed too short for the difficult job despite her buff presence.

The taller of the two EMTs now carried a large blanket over her shoulder while she pulled a metal gurney on wheels that had also been put into use as temporary storage space for a spine board and a neckbrace. The driver pushed it from the other end, and they were quickly back at the accident site.

"Hiya. I'm Malin Pettersson," the driver said as she took the carrier blanket from her colleague's shoulder and tossed it on the ground; then she knelt next to the supine woman's body. "Sister, we need room to work if ya don't mind. Sister?"

"Oh… well… all right," Angelica said and reluctantly let go of the stricken woman's hand. She got on her feet to allow the professionals to do their jobs, but she only went a couple of steps away so she could still offer silent support to the victim of the traffic accident.

DeeDee White moved over to the stricken woman's other side and knelt down beside Meighan O'Sullivan. "All right, Officer… I'll take over. On my mark. Three… two… one… swap."

From one of the rhythmic motions to the next, the two professionals swapped over so DeeDee could continue administering the CPR; while that took place, Malin Pettersson worked swiftly and effectively in attaching the neckbrace under the supine woman's chin.

Once that had been taken care of, Malin readied the spine board and the carrier blanket so she could spread out the latter under the stricken woman's body as soon as her colleague had time. "The blanket's good to go," she said as she moved a few inches back and held up her hands to help if necessary.

"Easy does it… she has multiple fractures in her right upper arm," DeeDee said as she took hold of the traffic victim's left arm and proceeded to roll her gently onto her right-hand side.

On the far side, Malin moved swiftly and spread out the carrier blanket on the damp asphalt; then she placed the spine board in the center. "Ready to roll back," she said, reaching up to take the victim once she was presented to her.

DeeDee mirrored the previous motion and rolled the stricken woman over onto her back so she was lined up perfectly on the spine board. Reaching down, she straightened out the rippled corners of the carrier blanket to ready it for the next step - centering the spine board on the blanket.

"On three," Malin said as she grabbed hold of the handles integrated in the spine board. "A-one. A-two. A-three-hep!" she continued as she and her colleague lifted the board off the ground and moved it half a dozen inches to the left so the edges of the carrier blanket could be pressed into use as a wrap.

Moving swiftly, DeeDee returned to administering CPR for another twenty seconds before she closed the blanket around the woman's body. She cast a somber look at her driver who nodded in return - the clock was ticking and the chances of success were dwindling by each forward motion of the hands of time.

The gurney beckoned, and the two EMTs picked the carrier blanket containing the precious cargo off the ground and placed it on the orange mattress. The woman weighed next to nothing so it did not tax their backs.

They wheeled the gurney back to the ambulance in a matter of seconds and pushed it up into the rails built into the floor. Once the gurney was held in place by no less than two locking mechanisms, DeeDee hurried back out onto the street to retrieve the large bag. Upon returning, she took out a pair of trauma shears that she needed to cut open the victim's dark clothing.

Malin Pettersson moved to the tail-end of the ambulance to close the double doors to obtain some privacy for the continued resuscitation efforts, but Meighan and Sister Angelica both stepped up into the rear compartment before they could be shut out. Meighan made sure to click the double doors in place behind them, but it made for a cramped working environment.

The driver of the ambulance took a deep breath like she was about to say a large amount of words in a very short time, but she shook her head instead and concentrated on finding some of the tools they needed. Opening a drawer, she grabbed a tube of Vaseline-based lubrication that she put aside for when her riding nurse had the SAED - the semi-automated external defibrillator - ready. An ampule of epinephrine and a syringe were laid out as well if they managed to kick the heart back to life.

DeeDee inched around the wide Meighan O'Sullivan while holding the trauma shears. "Officer, Ma'am… please… it would be better for all of us including our patient if you waited outside," she said as she began to cut at the lower hem of the dark jacket. That, two T-shirts and an undershirt offered no resistance to the powerful jaws of the shears. Soon, the garments were pushed aside to reveal the woman's chest and abdomen. Like her face, her torso was discolored and covered in bruises that all appeared to be at least a day old.

Sister Angelica looked away from the bare skin and the two peaks that had come into full view of everybody; though she could no longer hold onto the victim's hand, she clutched her silver crucifix to support the stricken woman with as much heavenly power as possible.

Sighing, Meighan looked at Angelica whose eyes told a tale of rock-solid determination to remain exactly where she was. Meighan grunted and moved as far out of the way as she could instead of stepping back down onto the street. "The Sister and I are staying," she said, pressing herself up against a pair of oxygen bottles that were lined up just inside the rear doors.

The two EMTs looked at each other for a brief moment before they carried on preparing for the next step using fast but unhurried gestures. "All right, you can stay for now," Malin said as she pulled out two electrodes from a spool mounted on the wall. When she attached them to the woman's chest, it made the electronic heart rate monitor send out a shrill audio alarm indicating a cardiac arrest.

After resetting it to give their ears some respite, she took an oxygen mask attached to the ambulance's onboard life support system. Turning it on, she put it to her ear so she could hear the oxygen hiss - then she wrapped it around the woman's ears. Once she had made sure the mask was on tight, she opened the lid on the bench seat on the inside and to the right of the double doors. "But I'm telling you right now… if either of you faint, I'll throw you out myself. This is serious business, not a spectator sport!" she said as she hurried back to the head of the gurney to monitor the heart rate and the oxygen flow.

"Agreed. And I won't faint," Sister Angelica said in a voice that was stronger than even she had expected it to be.

While Malin moved back to the head of the gurney, DeeDee took the SAED unit from the storage area. The top cover was soon pulled off and the machine switched on. As it sent out a three-tone signal to show it was ready, she took the entire thing out of its braces and put it on the gurney next to the woman.

Malin worked swiftly and applied some of the Vaseline-based lubricant to the two pads so the risk of burns were reduced. "Lube ready!" she said, taking a long step back.

"SAED ready! Stand clear!" DeeDee said, taking the electrode pads off the device.

"Clear!" Malin said, motioning to Meighan and Sister Angelica to stand well back.

"This is an automated defibrillator," DeeDee said even as she attached the pads to the woman's chest - one was placed above her right breast, and the other below the left breast. The applied globs of lubrication glistened in the harsh light that shone down from the dome lights in the ceiling. "When I turn it on, a powerful electrical current will flow through her and restart her heart if at all possible. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Meighan said while she pressed herself even further up against the wall; now she had the chance, she used the back of her hand to wipe her sweaty brow. When Sister Angelica did not say anything, she looked at the nun. "Sister, you heard the EMT. I know you just wanna help, but you gotta stay back from the woman or else you'll get zapped. All right?"

Angelica took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Reluctantly, she nodded and moved even further away - through all that, she never let go of her crucifix.

"SAED active!" DeeDee said, clenching her jaw to concentrate. Despite all that had happened, only four minutes had passed since they had arrived at the scene. CPR had been administered through all four minutes and even before that, but the woman's heart had shown no signs of wanting to restart on its own. The experienced EMTs knew the chances of survival were less than fifty percent once the clock ticked past four minutes - especially if there had been no progress during the CPR procedure.

Then she activated the apparatus which sent a low-energy shock of approximately one hundred and fifty joules of electricity between the pads and thus through the supine body. The woman on the gurney spasmed hard and jerked up like life had already returned to her. The heart rate monitor alarm kicked in again and sent out its shrill noise indicating continued cardiac arrest until Malin reset it another time.

Sister Angelica clutched the crucifix even harder as she let out a shocked gasp at the unexpected sight of the spasming body. Redoubling her efforts of wishing for divine intervention, she mouthed all the prayers she knew to help the woman find her way back.

Meighan had seen it all far too many times before. All she could do was to stare glumly at the scene of the two EMTs wrestling with the Reaper and the woman on the gurney who had already succumbed to him. Like the EMTs, she knew perfectly well the chances of resuscitation after such a long time were slim to none.

"We need to go again. More lube," DeeDee said, stripping off the electrode pads while Malin readied more lubrication to go onto the skin and the pads.

"Lube ready," Malin said, moving away from the woman on the gurney so DeeDee had room to work. She offered the nun and the uniformed officer a long look that said she was still annoyed with their presence.

"SAED ready. Stand clear!"


DeeDee moved in for a second attempt at resuscitating the traffic victim. After repeating the procedure of attaching the pads, she activated the apparatus which sent another dose of electricity through the supine body; this time, the SAED automatically upped the joules to one hundred and eighty. The additional power seemed to work as the heart was shocked back into restoring a semblance of the natural rhythm; it beat in fits and starts at first like an old engine that did not run on all cylinders.

The sensor connected to the heart rate monitor registered the irregular heartbeat and sent another alarm to the apparatus; in turn, the familiar shrill audio warning burst out of the loudspeaker installed in the panel. Malin reset it yet again before she reached for the ampule of epinephrine in case they needed to inject it - the ampule contained artificial adrenaline that would stimulate the heart muscle and give it instructions to beat harder.

"Ohhhh," Sister Angelica croaked as she stared so hard at the semi-undressed, semi-living woman on the gurney that she completely forgot to blink. It was only when her eyes grew unpleasantly dry that she realized it and blinked several times in succession. "Come on… come on… come on…" she whispered, caressing the crucifix each time she uttered the phrase.

The heart continued to beat irregularly. The pulse slowed down to hardly anything one moment before it took off like a thoroughbred race horse the next. Just when it seemed the uneven condition would be permanent, it settled down into a regular rhythm that did not trigger another alarm.

"Officer, how long was she suffering from respiratory seizure?" Malin Pettersson said as she kept a close eye on the oxygen flow sensor that did not seem to indicate much activity. The mask had yet to steam up as well - the patient did not breathe on her own if there was no build-up of moisture on the inside of the mask.

Meighan shook her head. "Can't say. All through the procedure. Three or four minutes at least. I never saw her breathing."

Malin let out a downcast whistle; she glanced over at DeeDee who scrunched up her face - then she went to work unstrapping the oxygen mask. At once, she leaned down and began to administer mouth-to-mouth like Meighan had done earlier. She blew life-giving air into the supine woman's lungs in three groups of five breaths; then she pulled back and waited for a few seconds. Once they were up, she performed another three groups of five breaths.

"But… wait… I don't understand…" Sister Angelica said, "her heart's beating! She's alive! So… so what are-"

"She isn't breathing on her own, Sister," Malin said in a gloomy voice. "Three or four minutes is an eternity. There's a risk she'll have suffered severe brain damage. I'm afraid we can't even rule out brain death."

"Oh- oh, no…" Angelica croaked. She stared at the two EMTs and Meighan in the hope of seeing just the tiniest glimpse of optimism. When she saw nothing but gloomy faces, she moved sideways and bumped down on the bench seat. She closed her eyes. Soon, her lips were moving in another silent prayer while she clutched the silver crucifix.

Whether the prayers worked or it was DeeDee White's tireless efforts that paid off was hard to say, but the woman on the gurney suddenly let out a croaking gasp as she took in a huge lungful of air in one go. A pained moan escaped her lips as her mind was able to take in its surroundings for the first time in far too long. She looked around with a shocked look in her swollen eyes until she seemed to realize where she was.

Malin and DeeDee had no time to celebrate the success but jumped to work at once. After DeeDee had checked the woman's pupils with the penlight and finding them responding exactly like they should, she and Malin started on an in-depth examination of the resuscitated woman's vital signs and cognitive functions.

There was a lengthy list of post-resuscitation procedures they were required to go through which included injecting a dose of a morphine-based analgesic - a painkiller - into a vein and rigging up a transfer of intravenous fluid. The two EMTs worked flat out without speaking much; they each knew exactly what to do so there was no point in extending, or even delaying, the vital procedures by talking.

Like the EMTs, Sister Angelica said nothing; her trembling chin and the tearful smile that played on her lips were enough. Taking her crucifix, she gave it a tender kiss before she let it rest against her white tunic once more.

Meighan O'Sullivan was less quiet, but most of what left her lips were mumbled four-letter words of the startled kind.

DeeDee clicked off the penlight that she had used to test the woman's pupils for a second time. Beyond the black-and-blue nature of the swollen tissue around the eyes, everything seemed to be in fine form. While Malin Pettersson tended to the woman, DeeDee inched around to face their two guests who had sat down on the bench seat: "We've managed to stabilize her. She's breathing on her own now and her pulse is regular though just a fraction on the slow side. We'll monitor that, but I don't think it'll be a problem. If it slows down further, we'll inject a dose of adrenaline which will speed up the pulse. She's obviously suffering from multiple abrasions, lacerations and fractures related to the accident. She's still in shock and we've given her a dose of a strong painkiller so I'm afraid you won't be able to get much out of her now, Officer."

"Very well," Meighan said.

The nurse nodded. "It's a good thing we came as fast as we did. Another minute and she would not have been so lucky. A concerned citizen had already called us about seeing a woman who required urgent medical attention, but in his confusion he gave us the wrong street, so…"

"And all those damn one-way streets around here!" Malin said from her spot at the other end of the gurney.

Meighan just had time to let out a dark grunt at the truth of the driver's statement before DeeDee continued: "Her right shoulder has been dislocated and her right upper arm is fractured in two places. She has several bent ribs and a multitude of large and small bruises on her torso, not to mention the swollen tissue around the eyes… however, like you said, Officer, the faded discoloring indicate they were already there prior to the accident-"

"Wait," Sister Angelica said as she looked at Meighan and the EMT, "you're saying that… that she had been… had already been beaten before she… she…"

"Yes," DeeDee continued. "And not just beaten… I'd say she's been a victim of a severe assault within the past two or three days."

Angelica gulped hard several times as a mask of horror fell over her face. She pressed her lips together while her eyes grew distant like she was reliving her own recent past. A long moment later, she turned to look at Meighan; all through the period of reflection, she never stopped clutching her crucifix.

Meighan sighed. As she locked eyes with the nun who had also suffered a similar severe assault not too long ago, she started connecting the dots - the picture that was drawn was not a pretty one, but one of pure evil. "The woman on the gurney worked for the DiSorrento crime syndicate. Just a small cog in a large machine, but she worked for them," she said quietly. "I'm theorizing she may have messed up an assignment and was punished for it. That's why the enforcers were beating up the homeless. She's the one they were looking for… they obviously found her. Which in turn leads me to think of Avi Weissman."

"Weissman," Sister Angelica whispered at the exact same time the name was uttered by the police officer. A shiver fell over her that she needed to clench her fists to stop.

The name of the dreaded foe defeated the painkiller and the resulting heavy fog that swirled around inside the mind of the woman on the gurney. Groaning out loud, she struggled to break free of the restraining belts helping her to remain flat on her back. "No… no…" she croaked into the oxygen mask.

Meighan jumped to her feet in an instant. She inched past DeeDee to move over to the gurney despite a hard glare from Malin Pettersson that told her in no uncertain terms she should get the hell back and leave the professionals room to do the work they were there for. "Can you hear me?" Meighan said, taking a page from the nun's book by holding onto the traffic victim's healthy hand.

"Y- yes… yes…"

"You were struck down by a bus. We need to know your name." Working on instinct, Meighan used her other hand to reach into her pocket and find her smartphone. Turning it on, she activated the voice recorder app and held the telephone up so the conversation could be recorded for future use.

Though the delicate tissue around the woman's eyes was bloated and discolored, she stared wide-eyed at the uniformed police officer who hovered above her. Then it seemed her last line of defense crumbled; tears began to streak down the sides of her badly beaten face and she could not hold back a series of sobs. "Patty… Patty Hawkins," she said in a strangled voice.

DeeDee White broke in: "Officer, I really must object to your behavior!"

"I'm sorry, Nurse White," Meighan said in a no-nonsense voice that underlined the fact that she was now the professional who needed room to work, "but this is police business and it may be important. There are things I need to know. The sooner I learn them, the sooner we can nail those bastards who did this to her," she said before she leaned down to Patty. A moment later, she looked over her shoulder to add a: "Pardon my French, Sister…"

"Oh, I couldn't agree more," Angelica croaked.

"Patty," Meighan continued in a softer voice so she would not intimidate the woman into silence, "who did this to you? Who beat you?"

Patty's injured eyes darted from the uniformed officer to the nun to the EMT standing above her, back to the nun and finally back to the officer. "Weissman," she said in a hoarse croak. "And two enforcers. I'm… I'm… a…" she said, but her chin started trembling so hard she could not continue.

While Malin Pettersson climbed through the cut-out to the forward compartment to inform their dispatch of the progress and be told which hospital they were going to, Meighan gave Patty's healthy hand another good squeeze. "Go on, Patty… it's vital we know everything."

"I'm… I've…" A long sob left Patty's lips and she shook her head like she wanted to get the evil off her conscience but did not have the strength to do so. She took several deep breaths before it finally came out: "I've killed two people…"

DeeDee White and Sister Angelica both gasped; Meighan's face hardened but she held back any comments that could have made Patty clam up again. She now understood that she was not only speaking to a victim of a crime, but hearing the confession of a criminal.

"A w- woman… in September," Patty continued between sobs. "I d- don't know her n- name… I ran her over… oh, God, the sound as… as she hit the truck… the blood… blood on the windshield… I didn't stop… the truck was st- stolen… I couldn't stop…"

DeeDee White suddenly stood up straight with a wide-open look upon her face. "I don't believe it! Charlene Kincaid!" she exclaimed loudly. She shook her head several times before she turned to look at the police officer next to her. "Charlene Kincaid was killed in a hit-and-run on Sunderland Street in September. Oh… uh, at the corner of Sunderland and… hmmm… what was it… East Seventeenth Street! Right in the Party Mile. Malin and I were the first responders. We worked so hard to save her, but… but her injuries were far too severe…"

Meighan shook her head as well before she looked back at Patty. "Who was the other person you killed, Patty? We need to know. It'll be a load off your mind. Trust me."

Patty's eyes once again traveled the small group of women near her before they settled on the police officer. A few moments went by; her throat moved up and down like she was trying to force the words into seeing the light of day. "Bogdan Marinescu," she croaked in a hoarse voice.

Now it was Meighan's turn to stand up ramrod-straight. "Well I'll be a Goddamned son of a bitch! Everything's connected!" she cried, speaking so loudly that Malin Pettersson peeked through the cut-out up at the front of the ambulance to see what was going on in the back - Sister Angelica just rubbed her chin and let out an amused snort at all the profanity.

Malin moved out of the driver's seat and appeared in the cut-out. "What's all that shouting back here? Are you people done? We're going to the Community Hospital. Sister, I'm afraid that since you aren't the patient's next of kin, we can't allow you to travel with us. Officer, you can stay if you wish, but-"

"That's a no-can-do," Meighan said, turning off the voice recorder app. "We don't have the time. We need to be over on West Seventh Street in, oh…" - she checked the time on the smartphone before she put it into her pocket - " 'bout half an hour ago."

"Right," Malin said before she climbed back through the cut-out and moved into the driver's seat. The turbo diesel engine was soon started which created a tremble that rippled through the large ambulance.

Sister Angelica got up from the bench seat since her part in the proceedings was all but over. With the extreme tension of the dramatic situation, she had forgotten about her own uneasiness over the big speech she was scheduled to hold, but the turmoil in her stomach returned with a vengeance now the worst had passed. She needed to close the chapter in a proper way, so she inched over to the gurney and gave Patty's good hand another squeeze. "Welcome back to life, Patty. I'll pray for your speedy recovery," she said in a voice that was filled with emotion.

"Th- thank you… are… are you from the Sisters… of… of Mercy?"

"Yes I am," Angelica said with a smile. "My name is Sister Angelica. If you feel like it, I'll gladly stop by the hospital for a little chat."

"You… you're my only… my only friends. I'd… I'd like that… thank you," Patty croaked.

Smiling through a shocked veil of tears that had suddenly sprung forth, Angelica gave the weak hand another squeeze before she moved away from the gurney. Instead of inching past the tall EMT and the wide police officer all over again to get to the rear doors, she used the narrower access door on the right-hand side of the ambulance to step back onto the street.

On the gurney, Patty had more to say to the police officer though the painkillers injected into her system did their worst to make her head swim: "Wait… please wait… I know… I know I'll get the- the el- electric chair for- for what I've d- done, but… I know s- something about the- the organization… the debt coll- collectors… the gambling d- den… even DiSorrento herself…"

Meighan moved back to the gurney despite the heavy sigh that came out of DeeDee White. She took Patty's hand again and gave it a squeeze. "It'll help your case, Patty. I promise that it will. I need to drop off Sister Angelica at an important event, but as soon as I've done that, I'll race to the Community Hospital and find you. All right? Then we can talk. Just hang on until I get there. Okay?"

"O- okay," Patty said before the sobs once more took away her ability to speak. The faintest of smiles spread over her lips before the oxygen mask was once more put over her face to support her breathing.

"Look, Officer… I'm truly sorry," DeeDee said, gesturing like she wanted to shepherd their last remaining visitor back onto the street, "but this has gone on for too long already. We have to get going now. Oh… I never caught your name…?"

"Meighan O'Sullivan, patrol officer at the One-Three precinct on West Twenty-second Street. The nun was Sister Angelica from the Sisters Of Mercy Mission on Sunderland Street."

DeeDee nodded like she stored the information in the back of her mind. "I see. Thank you, Officer O'Sullivan. Now, like I said, we really need to get going…"

To cut a long story short, Meighan turned around and clicked open the double doors at the rear. As she stepped out onto the busy Beauregard Street, she just caught a glimpse of Patty's teary, ravaged eyes looking at her. She sent her a rock-solid look of support in return before the doors were closed. Ten seconds later, the ambulance took off up Beauregard with the emergency lights flashing but the sirens turned off.

"Goodness gracious me, what a day," Sister Angelica said and rubbed her brow repeatedly. "I can't process half of what I've just witnessed… and the worst is yet to come!"

"Yeah," Meighan said as she held up her smartphone once more. She had barely punched in the numbers for a person she had very little interest in talking to before the nun's borrowed telephone started ringing.

"Oh!" Angelica said, reaching into her cape's pocket to find the advanced piece of home electronics that she had borrowed from the far more tech savvy Sister Maureen. After finding the right icon on the display, she pressed it and put the phone to her ear.

While the nun listened to whomever was at the other end of her own connection, Meighan completed the interrupted procedure and tried to reach out - literally - to Commander Shulmann whose task force needed to be told of the latest developments.

The accident site had become no less busy since they had raced to the front of the bus in the Explorer. Two regular police cruisers from the One-Four precinct had arrived in the meantime along with an ambulance from Sklar & Bonney - the other EMTs took care of the distraught, and now sedated, bus driver.

Before a connection could be established on the telephone, Lorenzo came running over to his patrol partner. "So… what's the status on the victim?" he said in a tired voice. His face was still ashen and had developed even deeper lines from trying to talk the bus driver down from the fear-induced state of near-hysteria he had worked himself into.

"We got her back. I don't know if it was the prayers or science, but we got her back. Her name is Patricia Hawkins, also known as Patty Hawkins. We need to run her through the national crime register… she's one of DiSorrento's foot soldiers, or at least prospects."

"Wow, no shit?"

"No," Meighan said before she furrowed her brow - she was only able to reach the commander's answering service.

"I'll tell the driver… he's almost on the brink of a coronary himself. Who were you trying to call?"

"The commander. Patty Hawkins told me a few things that'll blow Shulmann's socks clean off," Meighan said with a grin that turned cheeky despite the drama they found themselves in. "Not only was Hawkins another one of Avi Weissman's countless victims, she was the one responsible for Bogdan Marinescu's fiery death up on West Seventy-fourth Street last week."

Lorenzo let out a puzzled grunt and put his hands akimbo. "Well, I'll be damned…"

"Yeah. And get this, she told me she had knowledge of the debt collectors, a gambling den and maybe even some dirt on Dorothy DiSorrento herself."

"Whoa, this just keeps getting weirder!" Lorenzo said and shook his head. "How can all this be connected? I mean… Weissman, Marinescu, now this Hawkins woman… and the nun… and us… and DiSorrento at the center of it all!"

Meighan assumed a determined expression to underline her words: "Don't know and I don't care… but wouldn't it be one hell of a coup for the Carlyle Police Department if we could use it to finally nail DiSorrento but good?"

"Yeah… it really would," Lorenzo said before he fell quiet to ponder the incredible series of events and coincidences that had led them all to that exact point in time.

Sister Angelica had finished her own conversation and shuffled back to the two uniformed officers she had arrived with. "Well… that was LuAnne Stevens. She caught a cab after all. She's been waiting for me over at the rally on West Seventh Street for a while now… I mean… it was unnecessary for us to drive all the way over here! But… but you saved that woman's life… so… goodness me, what a day… what a day," she said, shaking her head.

"I guess you might say the Lord works in mysterious ways," Lorenzo said with a smile before he ran back to give the bus driver an update on the woman he hit.

"True. Very, very true…" Angelica said, but the officer had already left.

Meighan had little to add to that particular exchange, but she did not have to as her telephone rang at the same time. Accepting the call, she put it to her ear at once. "Hello, Commander Shulmann, it's Officer O'Sullivan. I have some information on DiSorrento I need to share with you. Can you meet me at the Community Hospital in- huh? No, I haven't been admitted to- no. Uh, yeah. It's a long story. Yeah. Very long. But anyway, can you meet me in the lobby of the Community in forty-five minutes or so? An hour… okay, works for me. It's worth your time, I guarantee it. Yes. Goodbye, Commander."

Closing the connection, Meighan stuffed her telephone into her pocket. "All right. Sister Angelica, let's get you over on West Seventh Street before further weird stuff happens… like the sun exploding or something… and this time, we're gonna use the lights and sirens all the way there."




The breathless high-speed journey back through the mean streets of the metropole was no less dramatic or pulse-pounding than the distressing incident near East Thirty-third Street had been, although for different reasons. Sister Angelica had returned to the back seat of the Ford Explorer SUV, and she clutched the panic grip above the door with such strength her knuckles had turned white.

Half the time, she had her eyes closed so she did not have to witness the death-defying stunt-driving skills displayed by Meighan O'Sullivan as she had the large SUV racing along the streets and avenues at breakneck speed to get over to the protest rally already in full swing over at West Seventh Street. The other half of the time, her heart was in her throat as the wailing of the electronic siren echoed through the concrete canyons they drove down. Ahead of them, traffic nearly always parted like the Red Sea for Moses, and on the rare occasions where a taxi cab, a van or a delivery truck was slow in getting out of the way, Meighan simply crossed over to the opposite lanes and flew past them like they were standing still.

Belvedere Street was soon reached. Once they were at the intersection, Meighan made a sharp left-hand turn at full speed to head south on the main artery. The large SUV leaned so far over onto its right-hand-side that the tires let out squeals of protest as they rubbed against the inside of the wheel wells. The three people in the vehicle had no time for any of that, so the driver's boot never left the position it was in - namely flat on the floor.

The intersections and the connecting streets whizzed past in a colorful blur. Each time they came to a set of traffic lights that had turned yellow or even red, Meighan activated the electronic siren so they only needed to slow down momentarily before they could continue at full blast on the other side.

Sister Angelica had her lips pressed together the whole time as the large SUV thundered along the city streets. Not just from the rapidly mounting motion sickness produced by all the swerves Meighan had to make to clear the traffic, but from the fact that she froze over on the inside each and every time the sirens were turned on - and it happened twice every minute on average.


They reached West Seventh Street at long last; the turn onto the side street was no less frantic than the other ninety-degree turns had been, but Meighan needed to stand on the brake pedal only moments later when the entire street where the One-Two precinct house was located was revealed to have turned into what appeared to be an open-air display of police vehicles. Dozens if not scores of emergency lights flashed from just as many cruisers, squad cars and vans, and barricades had been erected across the street to stop uninvited traffic from coming through.

On the far side of the roadblock and the countless official vehicles, a sea of heads, hats and protest banners seemed to ebb and flow like the Atlantic Ocean. Two hundred yards on from where the Explorer had come to a rocking halt, the entire street was awash with people. Every color of the rainbow was represented when it came to the colorful headwear on display, and a great deal of the people had been creative in coming up with catchy slogans that had been hand-painted onto the flags and banners.

At the far side of the sea of humanity, several TV broadcasting trucks from the local affiliates of the major networks had been lined up side by side, and their large satellite dishes on the roofs had already been moved into place. To get an overhead view of the protest rally, one of the ubiquitous news helicopters circled the area which added even more noise to the proceedings.

Several garishly colored ambulances from Carlyle's various private service providers were waiting in the wings in case anyone fainted from a lack of oxygen or an influx of giddiness over the apparent success of the large-scale arrangement. The vast gathering of people had attracted several food and hot drink vendors who tried to wheel their bicycle carts around the heaving mass, and there were even some - who could only be described as street hustlers - who had set up a Diamonds table near the outskirts of the contingent of protesters. Judging by the line of people near their table, their business was booming.

In the Explorer, Meighan, Lorenzo and Sister Angelica all sat with their mouths agape and their eyes wide open as they took in the astounding spectacle. "Well, I… that's…" Angelica said but fell quiet again as the words refused to come to her.

Pulling the shifter into neutral, Meighan let out a dry chuckle. "No wonder Commander Shulmann said it would take her an hour or more to get to the Community Hospital… look at this mess!"

"Yeah," Lorenzo said as he shook his head. "This just moved beyond ridiculous… it's got to be the weirdest, busiest day off ever. And I don't just mean in law enforcement… but anywhere! Ever!"

"Day off?" Angelica squeaked from the back seat.

"It's our day off," Meighan added dryly from her spot behind the steering wheel.

Reaching up to rub her brow, Sister Angelica let out an embarrassed groan. "I'm so, so sorry, Officers. Please accept my apologies. You should have told me. I would have taken a cab!"

"We were given direct orders to chauffeur you over here, and we did," Meighan said, glancing over her shoulder to lock eyes with the nun in the back. "That ten million other things went wrong was beyond the control of any of us. But perhaps you could ask for a little compensation the next time you pray to the senior management, huh?"

Angelica smiled as she reached for the little lever that would open the door. "Oh, I'm afraid it doesn't quite work like that, Officer O'Sullivan. For any of us if I'm not mistaken."

"Heh… very true!"

"Anyway, I better be going," Sister Angelica said and stepped out of the large vehicle. Before she closed the door, she leaned back inside and offered the uniformed officers a genuine smile. "But in any case… thank you very much. Both of you. It was certainly… uh… an educational experience."

"You're welcome," Lorenzo said.

"Yeah," Meighan said, "you're welcome. I guess we'll be seeing you on TV or something. Goodbye, Sister Angelica."

"Goodbye, Officers," Angelica said and pulled out so she could close the large SUV's door. Once she was standing on West Seventh Street, she wrapped her winter cape tighter around her shoulders and took a step back so the patrol officers could drive away at a greatly reduced speed.

She had barely watched the Explorer turn around to get away from the mess before an African-American woman in her mid-thirties came running towards her from beyond the police barricades. "LuAnne!" she said, waving at her journalist friend from the Carlyle Tribune.

LuAnne Stevens was dressed in a stylish, charcoal-gray winter overcoat that covered a pantsuit held in Navy-blue; a gaudy scarf held mainly in greens and reds had been wrapped around the coat's shoulders to add a splash of color to the somber ensemble, and it fluttered as she moved fast to catch up with Sister Angelica. Her complexion was usually medium-dark, but the mounting tension brought on by having to wait for the senior nun to show up had made her skin seem paler - she even had reddish blotches on her cheeks. It appeared she had used most of a can of hair lacquer to keep her 'do in place because neither a lock nor even a strand bobbled as she came closer. "Sister Angelica! Thank God you're here! Ten minutes more and I would have called the- your pants! What happened to your pants?"

"My pants?" Angelica said and looked down at herself. "Oh… ohhhhh!" she croaked when she realized she had forgotten all about the dark smudges on her knees that had been created when she had knelt on the damp Beauregard Street to hold Patty's hand. She hurriedly wrapped the cape closer around her - the lower hem just barely covered the dark spots. "It's a long, long, long story…"

"It'll have to wait! Come on," LuAnne said and grabbed hold of Angelica's elbow before she guided her back to the police barricades. "There are people you have to meet and greet before the speeches can get underway… Chief Police Commissioner Arthur M. Farnsworth and Deputy Chief Police Commissioner… ugh, whatshisname… Halstrom… Calstrom… Falstrom… somebody… and representatives from Latino Women Against Spousal Abuse, the Carlyle LGBTQ United Front Against Hate Crimes, the Mothers Of Murdered Teens, the Feminist Anti-Patriarchal Freedom Fighters, the Transgender Solidarity Pact and the Carlyle chapter of the United Senior Citizen Activists-"

"The people from those groups go first. That's why we're here. The high and mighty can wait," Angelica said decisively, but the journalist did not seem to have heard her.

"-and several people from the Church Of The Blessed Virgin Mary including Her Grace Bishop Gertrude Edelbrock and a few dozen people from her staff and-"

Angelica let out a long groan at the thought of all the words that her poor ears were about to be exposed to. She would stay sane if she was lucky, but she knew going in that she would not remember a tenth of the things said to her - not after the night, morning and noon she had already lived through.

"-several other people. I have you lined up for live or tape-delayed interviews with KCLE-TV, KCTL-TV, CL-TV, GRCWeb-TV and QRCL-TV. Mayor Goddard hasn't shown up yet, but when she does, she'll have her Deputy Mayor Carl Provosian and their PR and press corps with her and-"

Another, even longer groan escaped Angelica's throat. Even while she was being guided over to the nearest gap in the barricades, she looked over her shoulder in the hope of seeing Meighan O'Sullivan and Lorenzo Lombardini riding to her rescue like the Cavalry of yore - unfortunately, the Explorer was long gone.


Twenty-five minutes later, she had shook hands with what seemed to be fifty people or so including Bishop Edelbrock who had congratulated her on the protest rally's smashing success. Although she had a pocket full of business cards, the names and faces had already become a blur to her so she could not match up the contact information with the proper person. She had given four TV interviews - two live, two for later showing - to bottle-blonde reporters who were all made-up to look so similarly she could not tell them apart. She had even answered a list of questions prepared by her friend LuAnne Stevens for an article in the following day's Tribune.

Her plan of spending most of her time with the important representatives of the various grassroot groups responsible for actually organizing the event had been torn up and thrown to the wind. Everybody else wanted a moment of her time as well, and the schedule continued to slide. She was whisked away from one person to the next until she considered herself no more than a trained sea lion who had been taught to smile and say her name on cue.

The amount of ribbons on the chest of Chief Police Commissioner Arthur M. Farnsworth's black uniform was impressive as was his ruddy complexion that stemmed from a decade-long love of fine port. The Deputy Chief Police Commissioner - whose name had been neither Halstrom, Calstrom or Falstrom but Sven Dahlstrom - had fewer ribbons on the whole, but a permanent holier-than-thou expression etched onto his face that grated on Angelica's nerves that were already frayed after the rough day.

Just when the madness on West Seventh Street seemed to have peaked and the moment where the speeches should start had come closer, another set of electronic sirens arrived from beyond the roadblock. A hugely long, black limousine arrived with an escort consisting of four police motorcycles and a black Ford Explorer SUV overloaded with so many emergency lights it looked like an antique merry-go-round at a county fair.

As the limousine was allowed free passage through the police barricades the escort motorcycles veered off to the right, but the SUV shadowed the long car until they both came to a halt in front of the One-Two precinct house where the main event was scheduled to take place. Before the people in the limousine could be allowed to exit, a platoon of buzzcut men in black suits and matching wraparound shades swarmed out of the SUV to set up a safe perimeter for the Very Important Woman inside the long car.

Sister Angelica scrunched up her face in annoyance. The mayor had arrived.


It took a few moments for everything to fall into place, but when the security personnel had approved the distance to the assembled masses, one of the black suits ran over to the limousine and opened the rear door. As Mayor Emily Goddard stepped out, she was met by an equal mix of boos and cheers. With her many years of experience in public office - she was too self-serving to ever be called a 'public servant' - she knew to ignore the first and greet the other.

She had barely left the elegant limousine before her PR advisors had found a baby she needed to kiss and a proud set of new parents she needed to hug and shake hands with. A few selfies and official photos were taken before the new parents were ushered away as fast as they had been brought into the picture. Following that, the mayor signed a football that she and a mid-teen African-American girl in a wheelchair held up while more photos were snapped. The brief family affair ended with the mayor sliding into place next to the girl's grandfather, a Vietnam veteran, for the final photo opportunity.

A dais, five steps up from street-level, had been built in front of the police station housing the One-Two precinct. The iron bars and gratings covering the windows, and the rest of the safety measures set up to protect the building from vandalism added a hard-edged, almost militaristic - or dystopian - backdrop to the speeches that were to be held there. Two sound technicians wearing fluorescent vests labeled 'Crew' carried out the final tests of the cluster of microphones that had been put up on the dais so everyone could hear what was about to be said.

Like Angelica had predicted and feared, all the attention was sponged up by the media-savvy Mayor Goddard and her diversity-friendly entourage. The career politician was in her early fifties but several dieticians, a tough exercise regime detailed and controlled by a retired Marine Corps drill instructor, and precision cosmetic surgery made her look a good fifteen years younger. She wore an exquisite, tailored pantsuit that no doubt cost more than what a regular blue-collar worker could earn in six months. Her hair was perfect, her makeup was perfect, her smile was perfect, her teeth were perfect, her walk was perfect and she even displayed a perfect wave that was neither too detached nor too enthusiastic.

To fit with the theme of perfection, Mayor Goddard's perfectly-styled entourage lined up behind the microphones in a formation that looked casual or even coincidental; in reality, they were operating under strict orders - by the PR consultants hired by City Hall at a cost of eight-hundred thousand tax dollars per year - to present a color-correct, height-correct, gender-correct, age-correct and generally diversity-correct supplement to the mayor so all the undecided voters watching the protest rally slash press conference on TV could see that the mayor really did represent them, even if she looked and acted like an egocentric billionaire and they did not.

LuAnne Stevens came through the heaving mass of people to take Angelica by the elbow all over again. "Sister Angelica, I think it's time to set the central part of the protest rally in motion. I know it must be extremely intimidating for you to even think of getting up on that dais and speaking to all those people, but they've all come to hear your story."

Angelica let out a sigh that was lost in the pandemonium around her. "I know they have, but… I'm worried I'm out of my league. I never expected it to be so… to be such a big event. Where did everyone come from? Why did all these people show up to hear what a nun has to say?"

"They came from all over Carlyle, Sister. Some were even driven in from the neighboring cities," LuAnne said, needing to move in close to Angelica's ear to be heard over all the racket. "You've touched a raw nerve. This is the right moment in time to be talking about this."

"But it's not what I wanted, LuAnne… I have no ambitions of spearheading some kind of national movement! This has turned into exactly what I didn't want… it's a three-ring circus. Bishop Edelbrock is here and the police chiefs and the mayor… I just wanted to… oh… share my story. This is not what I wanted," Angelica said in a voice that trailed off into nothing.

"But it's what we got," LuAnne said decisively. "So we better get the most out of it."

Sister Angelica nodded though her gut tried to convince her to forget all about of it and run for the hills. Her conscience would never allow her to break it off so late in the proceedings, not after all the protesters had made such an effort of showing up to let their opinions be known and their voices be heard. "All right," she eventually said.

"All right?"


LuAnne smiled and turned them both around. She pointed at the cluster of microphones up on the dais. "Okay, let's plot a course that'll get you up there."

Unfortunately Mayor Goddard had other plans. As with any politician anywhere in the world, the lure of the microphones was too great for her to ignore. She strolled over to, and up on, the dais before LuAnne Stevens and Sister Angelica could break through the crowd.

"Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to this anti-violence protest rally!" the mayor said into the microphones, displaying her perfect teeth through a perfect smile that she conducted in her trademark perfect way. A few boo'ed her, but they were soon shushed by others. Though there were pockets of murmuring here and there, the majority of the people present fell silent. "Speaking as your mayor, I must say that it is wonderful to see so many of our great city's residents wanting to speak up on the wrongs that are being committed in the streets. It is wonderful to see so many residents so deeply involved in trying to improve the living conditions for their fellow Carlyleans. It is wonderful to see so many residents so full of passion for these causes… causes that are so vital to us all, and so close to my heart as well."

While the mayor spoke, she made sure to follow the carefully-rehearsed PR plan of how to appear while speaking: when she spoke softly, she looked to her left. When she used a stronger voice, she looked to her right. When she wanted to make a particular point, she looked directly at the cameras. Now and then, she looked out onto the sea of people below the dais and cocked her head like she was speaking to one particular individual among the many.

After a rhetorical pause, she continued with her real agenda: "In my years in office, I have launched several campaigns and measures that have improved the living conditions, that have righted many of the wrongs, that have brought about a change on the streets. Good examples are the abuse and addiction hotlines, the additional funding for the social care system so the case workers can keep their heads held high, and the ex-convict rehabilitation programs set in motion to make sure they are welcomed back into society with open arms after they have served their sentence. All those campaigns, all those measures and all those programs were started over the course of the past few years. There are many other plans on my desk as we speak, ladies and gentlemen! Plans that I promise will be signed, sealed, delivered and, most importantly, brought to reality if I am elected to a new term in office. Please remember that on election day. All right, it's time for a few questions. Who wants to go first?"

Predictably, the bottle-blond TV reporters all flew over to the dais to get their questions in first while they were live on air. The mayor soon answered the reporters' questions while presenting herself to the rally-goers in her usual perfect style.

Sister Angelica had a look on her face that said she was on the verge of vomiting. Everything had fallen apart. She had lost control of it all to the mayor's well-oiled media machine just like she had predicted she would in her darkest moments - perhaps she had been a fool to even believe she could maintain control over the protest rally in the face of such professional opposition.

She had just held the hand of a woman who had survived a gruesome beating by Avi Weissman just like she had done herself not four streets from where the circus-like scenes played out. She had just witnessed the resuscitation and rebirth of Patty Hawkins after she had chosen to end her life in the most horrible fashion imaginable - and now she was forced to endure the carefully-choreographed stage play directed by the grossly slick Mayor Emily Goddard and her politically correct entourage.

With the mayor occupying the dais seemingly without wanting to hand it over to anybody save for the President should he happen to drop by, there was no point in attempting to break in or even speak up - at least not in the traditional sense expected of a senior nun of the Order of the Sisters Of Mercy.

Instead, Angelica turned around to look at the colorful mass of people nearest her. She read a few of the hand-made banners that demanded an end to the random violence on the streets, that asked for better legal advice for low-income families, that called for more respectful behavior by law enforcement officers, that wished for more gun control, and even one that said 'Kevin T. - Will you marry me? Toby S.'

The group of people flying the rainbow flags of the Carlyle LGBTQ United Front Against Hate Crimes was closest to her; on the flank, a bearded man freezing his behind off in a Judy Garland-dress from The Wizard Of Oz held an electronic bullhorn in his hand. It was switched off and thus matched the looks of disappointment etched onto the faces of the man and his companions as they had been forced to listen to the mayor's election campaign speech.

Seeing the device made Angelica cock her head. A daring and drastic, but perhaps necessary, plan started forming at the back of her mind. She looked up at the dais where the mayor continued to take questions from the media - then she looked back at the bearded man with the bullhorn. "Excuse me… Sir?" she said after moving in close so her voice could be heard over the din.

"Uh… yeah?" the man said; he furrowed his brow as he took in the sight of the nun's white-and-pale-gray outfit. His eyes moved up and down her clothes a couple of times like he could not decide if she was dressed up or wearing it for real.

"I'm Sister Angelica. Would you mind if I borrowed your bullhorn for a minute or two? I think it's high time that someone else than the mayor spoke up."

A few seconds went by in a puzzled silence on the man's part until his face lit up in recognition. "Oh… Sister Angelica! You're the one who was- of course! Of course… here! Oh, let me turn it on for you… and crank up the volume," the bearded Judy Garland-fan said as he pressed a few buttons on the side of the gizmo - it responded by letting out a quiet whine that was followed by a few scratchy sounds when he turned a dial. Handing it to Angelica, he pointed at a small knob at the base of the bullhorn's pistol-grip. "Okay, so when you want to speak, just press the button there… see it?"


"As long as you hold it down, your voice will be amplified. If it begins to whine, release the button and try again."

"I understand. Thank you!" Angelica said and moved away from the enclosure. The man in the dress nudged several of his companions who raised their banners in the hope that something exciting was about to happen.

Stepping into the only free space left on the entire West Seventh Street, Angelica needed to take several deep breaths before she was even halfway ready to steal the mayor's thunder - even with those breaths, everything inside her trembled like she was caught in an earthquake. When Mayor Goddard held one of her notorious rhetorical pauses to get one of her equally notorious self-serving points across, Angelica held up the bullhorn and pressed the little button at the base of the grip.

"Hello, everybody… I'm pleased to see you all here today," she said and marveled at how loud her voice was and how far it seemed to carry - even people standing by the hustlers' Diamonds table over on the far side of the protest rally craned their necks to see who was speaking. "I'm nobody important, just someone who needs to get something off her mind. Less than three weeks ago, I was assaulted by a group of criminals and beaten to within an inch of my life. Why? Because I had stumbled over one of their criminal activities by accident. That was their justification for nearly beating me to death."

A murmur of shocked comments rippled through the crowd; up on the dais, Mayor Goddard shot the interloper an angry glare. When she discovered that most of the cameras were still pointed at her and had thus picked up her negative reaction, she broke out in her trademark perfect smile and waited for a break in the nun's speech so she could carry on with her own self-glorification.

"Two of those criminals," Sister Angelica continued, "will no longer be able to harm anyone because they were killed in a violent confrontation with the police earlier today, but they were not alone. Many of you here have been victims of random cruelty, of hate crimes, of spousal violence, of rapes, perhaps of gang-related retaliations and many other kinds of physical and mental abuse… abuse that could perhaps have been prevented if society at large had not turned a blind eye to the aggressors out of a misguided reluctance to deal with the problems… and perhaps even a sense that it might be the victim's own fault! I'm sure you've heard that before."

Another strong murmur rippled through the protesters. By now, Mayor Goddard's eyes had been narrowed down into slits. Only one camera remained on her - the others had been redirected onto the woman in the pale-gray outfit who had usurped the media throne from the mayor despite the PR department's best laid plans.

Angelica had little time for Emily Goddard's ego. Now that she had found her stride - although her stomach was still in turmoil - she spoke on: "And yes… you and I are also part of society. We too have looked on passively and have allowed violence to assume control of our streets and thus our lives. It has gone on for far too long!"

When the bullhorn suddenly began to whine incessantly, Angelica released the button at once like she had been told. She looked at the electronic device but could not find anything wrong with it. Trying again a few seconds later only produced the same result, so she looked to the bearded Judy Garland-fan for an explanation - he could only shrug and shake his head at her. Angelica mirrored the shrug and handed the device back to the colorful protester. "Thank you for allowing me to borrow it… I hope I didn't break it…"

"Oh, no worries, Sister. Maybe one of the batteries has gone bad because of the cold… I don't know what's wrong with it. It's never done anything like that before…" the bearded man said as he tried to come up with a solution to the problem. He twisted the dials and pressed various knobs, but the whine remained.

Within moments, the involuntary break in the nun's speech prompted Mayor Goddard to carry on where she had been so rudely interrupted, but her own political agenda in connection with her endless re-election campaign speech was only allowed to go on for less than twenty seconds before a chant started building among the protesters: 'Let her speak! Let her speak! Let her speak!'

It all proved far too exciting to ignore for the media, so even the final, most dedicated journalist left Mayor Goddard to seek out the nun who was still standing next to the people from the United Front Against Hate Crimes. The camera crews and reporters surrounded her in the hope they would be the first to be offered an interview, but they were all to be disappointed when the chant grew stronger all around them.

The 'let her speak!' chant finally grew so loud that Mayor Goddard felt forced to make a tactical retreat. Leaving the rest of the unpredictable mess for her Deputy Mayor Carl Provosian to deal with, she strode down to her limousine. Though she waved to her faithful followers, nobody had eyes for her - nor were there any babies she needed to hold or any families to do a selfie with. The car door was soon slammed and the black limousine raced off with its four-man strong police escort and the black SUV with the platoon of buzzcut people in black suits valiantly trying to catch up with the speeding vehicle. The mayor's entourage had been forgotten in the hasty exit, so all the politically correct employees had to find their own way back to City Hall.

Before long, Sister Angelica was ushered up onto the dais and placed in front of the cluster of microphones and the sea of humanity beyond it. As the assembled members of the press lined up below the dais with their cameras and even more microphones all pointed at her, she froze solid on the inside. All she could do was to utter a squeak at the sight of the hundreds upon hundreds of colorful people standing beyond the media scrum. Clenching and unclenching her fists repeatedly, she stared wide-eyed at the many listeners until she realized she better go on now she had everyone's attention. "Oh… I… th- thank you," she squeaked before she cleared her throat to get the frogs out.

The microphones amplified her voice far stronger than what the simple bullhorn had been able to do, so she understood she needed to hold back more compared to before. "Ah… all right. Wh- where was I? Oh, yes… we… we must speak up against violence, we must react against violence wherever we see or experience it, and we must do so now. The people who use violence or intimidation through fear for personal gain, for status, for kicks or simply because they believe they're far above the rest of us deserve no better than to have the book thrown at them. They deserve no better than to be locked up and grow old and gray in a jail cell somewhere… in many cases, that's still a better life than what they left their victims with!"

Widespread clapping broke out among the spectators over the conservative comments and points of view that were surprising coming from a nun; the statements made the ruddy Chief Police Commissioner Farnsworth grin - he shared them fully. Bishop Gertrude Edelbrock was less enthusiastic and furrowed her brow upon hearing the comments.

"Having said that," Sister Angelica continued, "we must never lose sight of the fact that the aggressor is a fellow human being. Some may be mentally ill, some may strike out against us because of financial desperation, some may succumb to peer pressure, and some may use violence as the final resort to counter a lifetime's worth of bullying and humiliation. Those people need our help just as much as their victims do. Those people do deserve better, and we must make sure they are given at least an opportunity to get their lives back in order."

A different group of people below her broke out in just as strong cheering and clapping as the others had done before. This time, the Chief Police Commissioner let out a dark grunt at the liberal comments, but Bishop Edelbrock smiled broadly at the senior nun's world view that she shared fully.

Angelica's voice continued to be heard loud and clear through the microphones: "We all know that violence on the streets is not something that will go away in a day or a week no matter how many we are gathered here today, but if we can stop just one act of violence from being committed each day, we will have spared a family from having to live through a soul-shattering tragedy. By showing up here today in such numbers, you have shown the police and City Hall that we, the common citizens, are prepared to do our part to change Carlyle for the better. All we ask of them is to be prepared to listen to our requests and act when needed. If we all work together, and I mean all of us here today as well as law enforcement and the politicians, we can make things better for everyone. Thank you for allowing me to speak, and thank you all so very, very much for coming today."

With a swimming head, knocking knees and a stomach that tried to emulate stunt-flying loop-di-loops, Angelica stepped away from the microphones and wobbled over to the short flight of steps that led her down from the dais. While the assembled protesters erupted in cheers behind her, she walked on in a daze until LuAnne Stevens caught up with her.

"That was fantastic, Sister Angelica," the journalist said directly into the nun's ear to be heard over the cheering and chanting. "The news stations broadcast all of it… even those who were only going to play it on tape later on. If you wish, you could run for mayor in the elections!"

"Oh God, no… no, no, no," Angelica said and shook her head vehemently. "I want no such thing. I just want to-"

"Sister Angelica! Goodness gracious me, what an amazing speech!" Bishop Gertrude Edelbrock said. The rotund but certainly stately figure of the leader of the Church Of The Blessed Virgin Mary in Greater Carlyle and the entire north-eastern section of the country appeared out of the heaving mass of people wearing a pale-gray and white outfit like the ones worn by the nuns - the only difference was that the bishop wore a purple headpiece known as a miter and a cape in a matching color instead of a gray one. "I must congratulate you… I never knew you were such a brilliant orator. Quite extraordinary! If you so desire, I think you should apply for a position in the central administration. You'd be accepted in a heartbeat."

Angelica performed a hasty curtsey to the clerical leader before she stared wide-eyed at the surprising news. "Uh… buh… thank you, Your Grace… but… I don't-"

"Oh, you needn't make a decision now. There'll be plenty of time to think it through," the bishop continued. Smiling, she pulled the senior nun in for a brief hug. "Once the brouhaha has calmed down somewhat, call me. I'd very much like to discuss certain matters with you."

"Uh… uh… I'll do that, Your Grace," Sister Angelica said; she just had time to perform another curtsey before the bishop and her clerical entourage moved back into the mass of people.

Shaking her head in wonder at the entire colorful mayhem that surrounded her, she turned to look at the many protesters once more. They represented many different groups, opinions and even political standpoints, but they had all braved a cold day with intermittent showers to come to West Seventh Street to voice their concerns about the many injustices that were committed each and every day on the mean streets of the supposedly grand metropole. She could do nothing but admire their dedication and effort in organizing the event, and their willingness to get involved where so many others pretended not to see, hear or even notice anything.

It was all part of something larger. She had devoted nearly her entire adult life to that, and it gave her soul a tremendous boost to see that so many others seemed to follow the call. Reaching down by instinct, she brought her silver crucifix to her mouth and gave it a tender kiss.

While the rally-goers continued to cheer and chant and the TV reporters continued to interview random protesters and high-ranking officials alike, Sister Angelica decided that her fifteen minutes of fame were up. Others may have feared that moment and would have tried to remain in the limelight for as long as they could - which would inevitably end up being too long - but she relished it. Turning around to leave it all behind, she moved into the crowd to set off on the long walk back to the Communion House over on Sunderland Street.

Running for office or even applying for a job at the central administration could not be further from her mind - she already had a full-time job at the Mission: comforting those who had lost loved ones, discussing various large and small problems with those who had no one else to turn to, helping semi-illiterate people to fill out forms or understand the official letters that came from their landlord, City Hall or one of the departments, and supporting the homeless who came to the barrack hoping to get some hot cocoa and a bowl of chicken broth or Skipper's Lobscouse.

She also looked forward to returning to doing her rounds of the local neighborhoods. After her confidence had been rebuilt, she would once more try the apartment complexes and not just the stores, she was sure of that. In the run-up to Thanksgiving and then the busy Christmas period, she would take one or two of the Novices with her so they could see how important they all were to the people on the street - even thinking about it sent a warm wave of positive energy through her system.

It reminded her that she wanted to call the Community Hospital to ask where they had put Patty Hawkins. Paying a visit to the young woman with whom she shared a grim past would be in order, and speaking about it would perhaps allow both of them to move on from their traumatic experiences.

Her lips creased into a smile as she caressed the silver crucifix again. The smile grew until it reached from ear to ear; all in all, she was looking forward to resuming her normal life at the Mission. There were still things she needed to work on, like her frightened reaction whenever she heard a siren, but she would conquer those too - she was sure of it.

Walking through the police barricades and past the scores of uniformed officers waiting there, Sister Angelica strolled further down West Seventh Street until she reached the corner at the ever-busy Sunderland Street. She waited there for a moment or two while observing the heavy traffic; then she turned left and disappeared into the flock of people on the sidewalk.




Meighan O'Sullivan was finally able to turn the Ford Explorer SUV onto the uneven Ryegaard Street to enter the final leg of their interminable journey to get to the Community Hospital. They had the regular car radio going at a low volume on a general, middle-of-the-road pop station, the only one she and Lorenzo could agree on.

For a good portion of the past twenty minutes, she had been short on temper and long on good ideas on how to get even with everyone else around them including shoving a bazooka up the tailpipes of the other cars and their drivers. In short, Sunderland Street had moved from its infuriating phase and into the downright diabolical.

Lorenzo Lombardini knew better than to say much when his patrol partner was in such a foul mood. Instead, he had taken full advantage of the soft, plush seats by having moved the back rest down so he could doze off. The bumpy Ryegaard Street soon meant his nap was over; moving the backrest up into a near-vertical position, he looked through the windshield at the familiar shape of the seven-story high-rise that acted as the Community Hospital's main building.

Five additional buildings of three or four storys each had been built around it as satellites when the need had arisen in the decades following the hospital's original opening in the mid-1930s; red beacons flashed on-and-off on the roofs of all the buildings to warn low-flying airplanes of the dangers. Useful at first because of the flat terrain around the hospital and the lack of assisted flying in the early propeller-driven airplanes, the beacons had since turned into a joke with the surrounding high-rises all dwarfing even the hospital's tallest building by a factor of four.

"Did you know that at night," he said to take Meighan's mind off the lumbering, smelly, smoky city bus they were stuck behind - it seemed to be the story of their day, but at least this one did not carry an advertisement as it had been torn off - "it's possible to see the ghosts of the people who've died at the Community over the decades? It's true. Each night, there's always a shimmer of pale-blue light up on the rooftop."

"Eh…" Meighan said, glancing over at the roof of the seven-story building. "I reserve the right to be skeptical. Why would the ghosts appear up on the roof? To use it as a party patio or what? It's an urban legend, buddy."

Lorenzo let out a chuckle as he followed his patrol partner's eyes onto the tall, utilitarian building that was held in an Art Deco design. "You're such a cynic. I thought all people of Irish blood were superstitious and believed in ghosts, fairies, leprechauns… all those things."

"Yeah, and all people of Italian blood gesticulate like crazy, drink vino rosso around the clock, use oregano-scented deodorant and rush home to their mamas to eat olive bread and spaghetti with Bolognese sauce on Sundays…" Meighan said as she tried to find a way around the smelly city bus.

"I beg yer pardon! Have you been spying on my mama?!"

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph…" Meighan said, and that was the only comment needed.


Just as they turned off the bumpy Ryegaard Street and drove onto the wide primary access road that ran through the peaceful park in front of the Community Hospital, the radio station they listened to went on a news break sponsored by the Admiral Cereal Company, the makers of Admiral's Puffy Favorites and the new Admiral's Whole Wheat Pillows! Admiral's Whole Wheat Pillows strengthen your teeth, muscles and digestive system! as the bombastic announcer said. After the advertisement, a familiar voice was heard over the Explorer's many loudspeakers:

'-in such numbers, you have shown the police and City Hall that we, the common citizens-'

"Hey, that's Sister Angelica," Meighan said and turned up the volume.

'-our part to change Carlyle for the better. All we ask of them is to be prepared to listen to our requests and act when needed. If we all work together, and I mean all of us here today as well as law enforcement and the politicians, we can make things better for everyone. Thank you for allowing me to speak.'

"Huh," Lorenzo said as the sponsored news break went on to briefly mention that Mayor Goddard had been there as well but that she had to leave when a situation had developed that required her presence at City Hall, "she sounded like she had eaten some spinach before she held that speech. She didn't sound like that when she was here, that's a fact."

"Oh, don't mistake being quiet for being timid, Lorenzo… Sister Angelica was no pushover," Meighan said as she turned the steering wheel to drive around an impressive fountain that had been built in front of the hospital's main entrance. The fountain was still active despite the near-freezing conditions, but at least two of the jet nozzles seemed to have clogged up.

The parking spaces closest to the glass windbreak at the main entrance were all reserved for the disabled so parking there was out of the question. Coming around again, Meighan drove off to the right and entered one of the satellite parking lots that had been built a hundred yards or so from the hospital's main building.


After showing their police badges and reporting their shield numbers to the security guards on duty, they were allowed free passage around the metal detector that had been set up just beyond a large revolving door.

The floor and walls of the hospital lobby were made of dark-gray granite carved from a quarry just north of Carlyle. Although the texture of the walls had kept the original, coarse structure within the granite, the floors had all been polished which was perhaps a surprising choice given that quite a few of the people who frequented the lobby were walking-impaired - aesthetics and the opinions of famous interior architects had apparently spoken louder than common sense when the floors had been designed.

The lobby saw plenty of long, connected benches occupied by elderly patients who were scheduled to be picked up by shuttle services, or relatives who were waiting for the next visiting hours to start. A few members of the hospital's staff hurried across the smooth floor to get to the next point of their busy agendas.

On the left inside the revolving door and just beyond the metal detector, the security guards had their watch room where close to thirty video screens kept a close eye on the goings-on in the multi-level basement and on all seven floors above ground.

The far side of the lobby saw a collection of clocks that displayed time in all the continental time zones as well as selected cities from around the world. A small convenience vendor sold magazines, newspapers, sandwiches, healthy snacks and bottled mineral water from a hole-in-the-wall shop not too far from the three elevators that were available to the public: one was large enough to have room for hospital beds or ambulance gurneys, one was a fast-moving 'turbolift' with limited weight capacity, and the final one went at regular speed and had room for fifteen people at a time.

A circular desk had been set up in the middle of the lobby where hospital staff had access to information on which ward a patient had been brought to, or even what any particular patient was doing at that exact moment in time - to keep track of all that, all patients wore a plastic bracelet equipped with a bar code and a tracking chip. A male and a female nurse were on duty at the moment and were busy answering questions from relatives.

Two people who were neither elderly patients nor relatives waited for Meighan and Lorenzo at the last bench before the elevators. As the two uniformed officers walked along in their ingrained stride, Commander Stefana Shulmann and Detective Ben Thorpe rose to greet them. They both had gray complexions and rumpled clothing like they had been working flat out since the events during the night. As always, the commander carried her gold shield on a metal chain around her neck; Thorpe had his own badge in a leather flip-over that was hanging over the upper edge of his suit jacket's breast pocket.

"Officers," the commander said as she shook hands with first Lorenzo and then Meighan. "We're in the middle of interrogating Avi Weissman so it's not exactly a good time. It needs to be solid or we're out of here. So surprise us," she continued in a voice that had never regained the warmth it had when Meighan and Lorenzo had first been invited to work with the anti-organized crime task force.

"It's connected to Weissman but I'll leave you to decide if it's solid or not," Meighan said as she gestured to the three others that they should head over to the elevators. "Just over an hour and a half ago, Officer Lombardini and I were witnesses to an attempted suicide by a young woman. Her name is Patty, a.k.a. Patricia Hawkins."

"Patricia Hawkins is one of DiSorrento's gofers," the commander interjected.

"Yes," Meighan said as she pressed the Call button for the regular elevator. "I called it a suicide attempt, but she was actually successful. She threw herself in front of a city bus and was run down. EMTs were able to resuscitate her. When we spoke to her, she told us several interesting things, including that she had been severely beaten by Weissman. I believe we can persuade her to testify against him if it should come to that."

"All right. That's good. I'm still listening, but I need to hear more," Commander Shulmann said just as the elevator car arrived and the doors opened.

Once a group of relatives and patients in hospital clothing had swarmed out, the four police officers entered the car; Meighan pressed the button for the third floor at once so they could have it for themselves. Lorenzo had to smirk when he realized they had lined up girl-boy-boy-girl so Meighan and Stefana Shulmann were as far apart as possible.

"There wasn't enough time to get all the details, but apparently, Patty Hawkins was responsible for a traffic fatality back in September. And get this, she was also the one responsible for the death of Bogdan Marinescu," Meighan said, offering the commander a pointed look.

Ben Thorpe and the commander both let out identical grunts. "Was she now?" Commander Shulmann said. "That's more interesting… though at the same time, the prosecutor might use it against her. Was she offered some kind of deal or a plea bargain for that and the other thing?"

"Not yet. However, she told me she would be willing to talk about the debt collectors, an illegal gambling establishment somewhere here in Carlyle and even some dirt on dear, old Dorothy Lorraine DiSorrento herself."

The next grunt out of Commander Shulmann expressed a clear interest. She looked at Detective Thorpe who nodded as well. A few moments went by in silence before the commander turned back to Meighan: "To our knowledge, Hawkins was never a close confidante or ally of DiSorrento. She was never really a prospect, either. Like I said, she's really only a gofer… but even gofers have ears. Intriguing."

When the elevator car arrived on the third floor, Lorenzo exited first and went out to wait in the middle of the hallway that was just as non-descript as any hallway in any hospital anywhere in the world. It was held mostly in off-white with a few pale-tan highlights here and there to break the monotony - the only other colors present were the bright-red signs at the fire posts and the green exit cubes above the doors.

Halfway down the corridor, a small enclosure offered armchairs, a few tables, a TV and a food cart where the patients could get free tea or coffee, or choose from a selection of stale, mild cheese sandwiches that had been there since before seven AM.

A nurse sitting at a small information booth across from the enclosure craned her neck to such a degree that her head was nearly unscrewed - it was obvious she was eager to see what was going on with the four police officers who had suddenly appeared from the elevator.

Once all four were out in the hallway, Meighan took the point and strode along in her typical style. With the traffic on Sunderland Street as evil as rarely before, she'd had plenty of time to call ahead to ask where Patricia 'Patty' Hawkins had been put after being processed at the hospital's emergency room; she had been told the patient had been relocated to room three-one-six which was a single-bed ward. Just in case trouble would arise with any of DiSorrento's goons wanting to pay their comrade a visit, Meighan had organized a uniformed officer from the One-Four precinct to stand guard at the door - or as it turned out, sit guard at the door.

The police officer in question jumped to his feet at the sight of the four-person-strong army that strode down to him. "Everything's been quiet, Officer O'Sullivan. You're the first to visit her apart from the various docs and nurses," he said, looking with great interest at the two plain-clothes officers.

"Thanks," Meighan said and turned to her patrol partner. "Ah… Lorenzo… I think you should wait out here. Patty didn't see you back at Beauregard Street, and she might not-"

"No worries," Lorenzo said and put his hands in the air. I'll just get some coffee-" - the uniformed officer from the One-Four shook his head vehemently - "okay, no coffee… in that case, iced tea or a diet pop or something. And maybe some shuteye now I've found a chair," he said with a grin.

Ben Thorpe looked at Meighan and his commander. "Miss Hawkins doesn't know me either, so I think I'll wait out here as well. There's no point in stressing her."

"Very well, Detective," Commander Shulmann said before she looked to the tall officer next to her. "Officer O'Sullivan… lead the way."

Meighan grinned at Lorenzo before she knocked on the door. Nothing was heard from the inside so she cracked the door ajar and peeked into the private ward. "It's okay, we can go in," she said over her shoulder. Stepping inside, she allowed the commander to go past her before she shut the door softly and stepped closer to the large, white hospital bed.

Because of Patty Hawkins' scrawny state that bordered on the malnourished, she seemed no larger than a child in the bed. She was hooked up to several machines including a heart rate monitor and a drip in her left arm. Several sensors and electrodes reached out from the apparatus and disappeared under the heavy, white blanket that covered her. She was still breathing on her own; her chest was heaving in a slow and rhythmical fashion as she appeared to be taking a nap. Her right arm was encased in a temporary cast that ran from above her shoulder to just below her elbow to fixate the dislocation and the fractures. An additional cast covered her right hand after her broken fingers had been reset and straightened out.

Stefana Shulmann narrowed her eyes as she looked at the lasting effects of the beating Patty had been subjected to by Avi Weissman and his two enforcers. The bruises that tainted Patty's face and the swollen tissue around her eyes were just as black, blue and purple as they had been earlier - and stood out starkly against the all-white surroundings - but with sleep came an innocence that made them look less horrific somehow. Patty's mouth was slightly agape which revealed she no longer had a full set of teeth.

The single-bed room was sterile and de-humanized even if it did have a view of the tops of the gently swaying trees down in the park. Though a pair of radiators installed under the windows sent out plenty of heat, the sterile nature made the room seem cold. The only seating beyond the bed was a pair of stackable chairs that looked uncomfortable to use for any length of time; they would have to suffice since Meighan and the commander's visit there was not a happy social call but something far more important.

While Commander Shulmann moved one of the chairs over to the side of the bed and subsequently sat down, Meighan stirred Patty awake with surprising tenderness.

For the first several seconds, raw fear was the only emotion displayed in Patty's eyes, but it faded when she seemed to recognize the tall officer who had moved back a few paces so she would look less intimidating. When Patty caught a glimpse of the plain-clothes commander whose gold shield sparkled from catching and reflecting the lights in the ceiling, a frown developed between her eyebrows and she let out a small sigh.

"Hello, Patty," Meighan said as she sat down on the other of the two stackable chairs. She was close enough to hear what was said in case the battered woman could only whisper, but far enough away so she would not be directly in her face. To keep a record of everything that was said for the subsequent paperwork, she took her smartphone and activated the voice recorder app after turning up the input volume the furthest it would go; Commander Shulmann did the same with her own telephone.

"H- hello…" Patty said in a voice that was not as strong as it had been in the past, but far beyond a whisper. "I'm sorry… I can't remember your name…"

Meighan smiled. "I'm not sure you heard it… it's Meighan O'Sullivan. This is Stefana Shulmann. She's the commanding officer of the Anti-Organized Crime Task Force. Even as we speak, some of her people are interrogating Avi Weissman. We have him, and he's not coming back."

Just hearing the name made the rhythmic symbols tracking Patty's heart rate jump about on the monitor, and the pulse increased by nearly twenty beats per minute from one second to the next. She looked from Meighan and over to the commander. "I hope he'll t- try to escape so you have a… a reason to blow his brains out…" she said in a voice that was tinged with so much bitterness it was impossible to miss.

Meighan let out a dark grunt; she would not object to such an outcome.

"B- but he's not alone," Patty continued, looking back at Meighan. "He's running with t- two other psychos… a curly-haired Latino-"

"De la Cruz and King are dead, Patty. We got 'em last night in a showdown up on East Sixty-sixth Street," Meighan said in a steely voice.

Patty let out a sigh of relief. She closed her eyes briefly, but it was not long before she looked at the two police officers once more.

"Miss Hawkins," the commander said, "let's talk frankly. If the information you have for us is sound and leads to arrests, we are willing to forget your involvement in the Bogdan Marinescu incident. I think we can all agree he was a scumbag who will not be missed by anyone. I need to know more about the other fatality mentioned by Officer O'Sullivan before I can-"

Patty nodded though it seemed to cause pain to flare up from the bandaged arm. "It- it was in September… DiSorrento had… had ordered me to steal a p- pickup truck from a dealership a c- couple of days before. I was nev- was never told what they wanted… wanted it for. I w- was late so… so I was speeding on West Seventeenth Str- Street. I j- just c- couldn't- the… the woman appeared in fr- front of me… and I m- mean right in front of me. There w- was no way I could stop in t- time. No way. I k- killed her… she went dir- directly into… into the- the grille. Blood spewed from her… all ov- over the windshield. Oh God, it was so thick I needed to use- use the wipers. The truck was d- destroyed so I had to dump it at the… at the switching yard down by th- the West Twenty-sixth Street bridge…"

"I think you should probably expect to face some jail time for that accident, Patty," Commander Shulmann said in a somber tone.

Patty nodded again; a tear trickled down from her left eye and across the swollen skin. She reached up with her healthy hand to wipe it away. "I kn- know. I'll get the electric chair. DiSorrento told me."

Meighan and the commander both let out a grunt at the same time. They shared a brief sideways glance before Meighan looked back at the beaten woman and spoke up: "Not for vehicular manslaughter, Patty. Not even for a hit-and-run. It's obviously up to the judge and your appointed defense attorney, but I'm guessing three to five with an option for parole after serving half the sentence."

"No… no, she told me…" Patty said, shaking her head while she kept eye contact with the uniformed officer.

"She lied to you to make you fear her… so she could earn your loyalty."

Patty's eyes grew distant and moved away until she stared straight up into the ceiling. Several more tears ran down the swollen tissue, but this time she did nothing to catch them. "She gathered a file on me… on what I had done f- for her… she said she would s- send it to you… so you knew who I was and wh- what at I had done…"

"Lies, Patty. All of it. We've received nothing. She was lying through her ass at ya," Meighan said decisively - her comment made the commander let out an amused snort.

"Oh… God… God… that's- that's why I tried to- to- oh… God…" Patty croaked; it seemed the shocking news made her withdraw to a place the others could not follow her into. The heart rate monitor and pulse reading went up again and even began to move erratically.

Grunting darkly, Meighan pointed at the monitor: "I'll be Goddamned if we stress her into leaving us now after all that trouble over on Beauregard. If that thing gets any worse, I'm gonna yank the alarm cord and get a doc in here on the double."

"I agree," Commander Shulmann said before she leaned forward to speak directly to the woman on the bed: "Patty, please calm down. You need to listen to me now. We need all the information you can give us on the DiSorrento organization… from the common soldiers on the streets to the very top of the pyramid. On the debt collectors like Marinescu, on the illegal gambling club that Officer O'Sullivan mentioned that you had talked about, and yes… on Dorothy Lorraine DiSorrento."

Patty sighed deeply. She lowered her eyes to look at the two women sitting on opposite sides of her hospital bed. Tension escalated rapidly as she remained silent. She seemed to weigh what few options she had available to her; even so, her heart rate and pulse leveled out as witnessed by the lines drawn on the monitor. "If- if I talk, can you protect me from her?"

"Yes," the commander said in a decisive voice. "We can arrange for you to serve your sentence in another city or even another state. When you've done your time, or have been released on parole, we will provide you with a new name and a new life. A job, perhaps, if you feel up to it. Complete resocialization if you wish. But Patty, you need to understand… we can only do that if what you give us leads to arrests or enables us to close open cases."

"I underst- stand," Patty said and nodded again thought it obviously caused her pain. She drew several deep breaths that made Meighan and the commander move closer to the bed. Her abused eyes turned distant for a moment or two like she went back in time; then she was ready: "Bef- before I was f- forced to work with Bogdan, DiSorrento teamed me up w- with a psy- an even worse psychopath… John-Paul 'Jeep' Morrison… he k- killed… I watched him kill two people. It was last year… in December. December twenty-eighth. We were only supposed to collect their debts, but he killed them. East F- forty-eighth Street. He d- dumped the b- bodies at the…"

While Patty spoke at length about her horrific past working for the DiSorrento organization, Meighan leaned forward on the chair and stared with laser-like focus at the battered woman. Though her insides were clenched from hearing the gruesome details of the many crimes Patty had been a witness to - and in some cases had been forced to participate in - adrenaline was infused into her system at the same time.

It made her heart beat faster, it made her breathing deeper and it sent a strong flutter through her gut at the thought that maybe, just maybe, the information relayed by the poor woman on the hospital bed would be enough for the task force and the city police to crack down on the DiSorrento crime syndicate once and for all. The criminal empire was perhaps too large to go under in one, fell swoop, but even the largest organization could not maintain their castle walls if the foundation crumbled under them.

Meighan O'Sullivan nodded to herself as Patty Hawkins continued to speak. Too much work and too few results had made her consider leaving law enforcement earlier in the week. The prospect of seeing Dorothy Lorraine DiSorrento finally get it in the neck was reason enough to stay. A steely mask of determination fell over her; it had been a busy week full of action, drama, tragedy and even a rare smile or two - and the coming weeks promised to be even more eventful…




What happened to…

Patricia 'Patty' Hawkins.

- After pouring out her soul for three days straight, she had given the authorities enough incriminating material to launch a full-scale strike against the DiSorrento crime syndicate. It proved to be her swan song. Just after the morning ward round on the seventh day of her stay at the Community Hospital, Patty Hawkins was pronounced dead by a consultant doctor. On her death certificate, the cause was listed as a massive brain hemorrhage deemed to be a late repercussion from either the vicious beating or from being hit by the bus. Even as the tragic news shared the front page of the Tribune with the reporting from the many operations against the crime syndicate, a petite, bruised blonde wearing a brand-new set of clothes and equipped with a brand-new identity was driven past the Greater Carlyle city limits sign in a baby-blue Kia Rio. She only had a single suitcase of clothing and personal items with her and she still faced jail time at a later date for the traffic accident that had claimed the life of the young woman, but the wad of city-sponsored dollar bills in her pocket would make sure her new life elsewhere would be infinitely better than her old one on the filthy, mean streets of Carlyle.

Dorothy Lorraine DiSorrento.

- Despite the organization crumbling around her as most of her top enforcers and Capos were arrested and charged with various murders and other grave offenses, Dorothy DiSorrento knew the judges and attorneys she had bribed or blackmailed would see her pull through the storm unscathed. She was right. The Senior District Prosecutor and the Anti-Organized Crime Task Force gave it their best shot, but she pulled all the strings she had at her disposal. She was able to defeat the system and walk out of the courtroom a free woman. What she had not counted on was her fellow crime lords from the Board Of Directors taking advantage of the turmoil to take their own best shot: a sniper's bullet to the head as she and her million-dollar legal team walked down the grand staircase in front of the Carlyle High Court. The grisly killing was broadcast live by most of the news stations and thus provided a gruesome backdrop for everyone's afternoon coffee break. Her body had barely come to a rest at the foot of the stairs before her possessions, territories and connections had been claimed by those responsible for her death.

'Shady' Shaye LaSalle & Jennifer 'Stilts' Mulroney/Mahawny/Mahoney/Monaghan.

- The twenty-thousand dollar reward may have passed Shady and Stilts by, but they were still happy and content with their simple lives. A few weeks after the harrowing ordeal in the apartment on West Eleventh Street, Lady Fortune finally shone on Stilts when she and Shady rescued a neat, old leather suitcase from a dumpster. Though they had grabbed it because of its sturdiness, it was revealed to be a treasure trove full of lost manuscripts that were early, original works by an acclaimed author. The pawn shop owner Rodolfo Santo Domingo helped the two hustlers put the manuscripts up for auction in exchange for ten percent off whatever they would bring: when the dust settled from what had turned into a furious bidding war, the manuscripts had gone for forty-five-thousand dollars. Shady fainted, Rodolfo treated his friends to a nice dinner at a restaurant of their choice - Bartoni's Baloney & Burger Bar - and Stilts was finally able to buy the warm ski underwear she had dreamt of for so long. And on the very next day, they went back to do what they did best: spending all their time on the streets reading palms, singing sentimental songs from the old country and luring unsuspecting people into playing rigged games of Diamonds.

Meighan O'Sullivan.

- The euphoria she experienced from being a small cog in the vast machinery that brought down the DiSorrento crime syndicate did not last as long as she had hoped. Though she received several ribbons and commendations for her involvement in the various sting operations and large-scale raids, the frustration of seeing Carlyle's other crime families simply moving in to claim the remains of the criminal empire caused much bitterness to bubble up inside her. She applied for, and was granted, a six-month leave of absence in the hope it would provide her with a few answers or even a fresh look upon life. The six-month timeout lasted barely six weeks before she came to the realization that the answer she had been looking for had been with her all along: though she knew she would still only be able to chip away at the foundations of crime, it was far more rewarding and fulfilling on a personal level than doing nothing, or even working in private security. Thus, she donned her beloved black winter uniform once more and returned to patrolling the streets of Carlyle next to her old partner Lorenzo Lombardini. On only her fourth shift back on active duty, Meighan and Lorenzo made the headlines when they caught a serial rapist who had been preying on single women for nearly a month - it earned her yet another commendation and a telling nickname by her fellow law enforcement officers at the One-Three precinct: 'The Ball Buster.'

Sister Angelica.

- Like she had said she would, she remained in her preferred job as one of the senior supervising nuns at the Sisters Of Mercy Communion House on Sunderland Street - even an offer from Bishop Edelbrock to become Mother Superior at one of the convents run by the Church Of The Blessed Virgin Mary could not sway her. The tangible results of the anti-violence protest rally she had helped organize were meager like she knew they would be, but there was a certain sense of change shimmering in the air. Whether the shimmer would prove to be a false dawn or lead to real progress would only be revealed as time went on; in the meantime, Sister Angelica continued to carry out her solemn duties by spending her shifts listening to people in need, providing food and warmth for the homeless and offering words of consolation to the bereaved. Beyond a very limited number of police officers, she was the only person to know the truth behind Patty Hawkins' apparent death. After the city-sponsored funeral where the senior nun delivered the eulogy, the two women stayed in touch and became firm, long-distance friends.




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