The second B in the Blockbuster sign flickered, the bright yellow fading, then just as quickly springing back to life.
Lew wondered if the assistant manager—the one he’d been watching for the past several days—was aware the sign needed fixing. Though in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter. The man would be dead within the hour.
Lew pulled up the sleeve of his jacket and checked his watch. Seventeen minutes until closing time. He crossed the street, making his way into the seldom-used alley behind the store. The building opposite Blockbuster was two stories of gray brick. It was an accounting firm, and Lew had watched the last of the employees depart hours earlier.
A green dumpster was nestled next to the back entrance of the Blockbuster. It had rained the night before, and there were a few standing puddles of oily, black water. With a gloved hand, Lew lifted the lid on the dumpster and peeked inside. It was brimming with garbage bags and a half dozen empty pizza boxes.
Lew shook his head. He didn’t understand how people could put that stuff in their bodies.
One of the pizza boxes quivered, then a well-fed brown rat scurried out. It gazed up at Lew predatorily, then thought better of it and disappeared under a garbage bag. Lew’s stomach tightened. If there was anything he despised, it was rats.
Several days after Lew’s dad had gone missing, a construction worker had found his dead body stuffed in a sewer drain. When Lew and his mother went to identify the body at the morgue, he could see where rats had feasted on his father’s corpse.
Lew crouched on the far side of the dumpster and tried to conjure up a better memory. He pulled a switchblade from his pocket and flicked it open. His dad had given him the knife on his fourteenth birthday. He fingered its hard white ivory hilt. Well, imitation ivory. His father would have never bought anything made from a harmed animal.
No, his father was the ultimate protector.
At least, he had been.
Fifteen minutes passed, and then, just like the previous days, the back door opened. The assistant manager emerged. He was slightly overweight, with a bushy mustache dyed unnaturally dark, and he was clad in a blue Blockbuster polo with a name badge that read “Gene.” Large black headphones covered his ears, and the cord snaked down to a small radio clipped to his khakis. He rocked his head side to side to the beat.
If the bumper sticker on Gene’s silver 2004 Honda Civic was any indication, he was listening to 102.9 MGK—Philadelphia Classic Rock.
As Gene lifted the lid on the dumpster and tossed in the trash bag, Lew sprang from his hiding spot. He snaked his arm around the assistant manager’s head and clamped his hand over his mouth. Lew was close enough that he could hear a song pouring from the headphones. It was “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder.
With his opposite hand, Lew plunged his switchblade between the man’s ribs. Gene let out a muffled cry and dropped to his knees. Lew pulled out the knife, then sank it into the dying man’s flesh again and again.
Lew’s pulse pounded. It had been too long since he last killed. Far too long.
When Gene finally succumbed to his injuries, Lew lowered him to the ground. The corpse was laid out flat on his back, staring vacantly into the night sky. After straddling his victim, Lew touched the blade of the knife to the man’s forehead, eliciting a droplet of blood. It took ninety seconds to meticulously carve the three numbers.
When he was finished, Lew stood and surveyed his handiwork.
OCTOBER 18, 2011
Each fall, in preparation for the dropping temperatures, the city of Philadelphia drained the water from the fountain in Love Park. In doing so, they unintentionally transformed the thirty-foot-wide fountain into one of the most iconic skateboarding spots in the entire world.
Sadly, the city had outlawed skateboarding at the park in the 1990s, and if the skaters wanted to take a crack at Love Gap—a fifteen-foot launch from the granite walkway to the bottom of the fountain—they had to do so with their head on a swivel. Philly cops were notorious for handing out expensive tickets and hauling kids off to jail.
But for the past week, the cops had turned a blind eye to the skaters—most likely because they were spread thin with the protests downtown. Occupy Wall Street first began in New York City in mid-September, then it spread like wildfire, making its way down the Northeast Corridor to Philadelphia three weeks later on October 6.
Each day, more and more protesters turned up. The marchers and activists were like gremlins, only it wasn’t water that made them multiply—it was posters and megaphones. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered at Love Park each day, but most of the protests were actually taking place across the street at city hall. A tent city had erupted, and the marble walkways were swarming with tents, encampments, and meeting areas.
For the past several days, my Starbucks cup and I had been plopping down on one of the benches in Love Park to watch the skateboarders. It was overcast—the sky filled with pewter clouds—and the temperature hovered in the midfifties. Half the leaves in the park had fallen, and several were strewn on the fountain’s exposed turquoise bottom.
“Ron-nie! Ron-nie!” the nearby crowd of skaters chanted. Many held out their phones, ready to record the action to come.
Ronnie was decked out in jeans, a T-shirt, and a backward cap. He pedaled on his board out of sight, disappearing behind the stacked red letters of the thirteen-foot-tall aluminum LOVE sculpture. A few seconds later, he skated back into view, pedaling swiftly toward the edge of the fountain. He ollied up a foot, the top of his board glued to the bottom of his sneakers. He sailed through the air—five feet, then ten feet—then smacked down to the fountain’s bottom with a loud clap.
His board shot out from beneath his feet, sending him careening forward. He hit the ground and rolled onto his shoulder, stopping just two feet short of the fountain’s concrete base.
I shuffled through my signs. Three days earlier, I’d found two discarded pieces of blank poster board and a black Sharpie lying on the ground. I’d decided to put them to good use.
I found the sign I wanted and held it up.
“A six?” Ronnie asked, getting to his feet and gazing at my rating. “A friggin’ six?”
“You want something higher, you have to land it,” I said, grinning. “Or you have to break something. And not a hairline fracture—I want to see bone.”
The next two skaters didn’t even come close to landing the trick. I gave them a two and a three, respectively. Following them was clearly a crowd favorite; she was young, maybe fifteen, and her black hair was twisted in a tight braid. This was her third attempt in the hour I’d been here.
My stomach tightened as she disappeared behind the LOVE sculpture. The other skaters knelt and pounded the front wheels of their boards against the ground.
Bang, bang, bang!
Bang, bang, bang!
“Come on, Braid,” I muttered under my breath. “You got this.”
She shot into view, ollied high, and flew through the air. Initially it looked like a perfect landing, but after hitting the ground, her board slid out to the right. She fell backward but somehow stayed on her feet.
There was a collective groan.
She glanced in my direction.
I held up an eight.
She shrugged and smiled.
Ronnie was up again next. When he was halfway through the air, I knew it was destined to end badly. The board had left his feet, and he was at the mercy of gravity and physics. He fell, one foot hitting the bottom of the fountain, the other hitting the edge of the last stair. The sound of an ankle shattering echoed through the still autumn air.
Before reaching for his ankle, he rolled over and looked at me.
I held up a ten.
He gave me a thumbs-up.
After Ronnie’s injury, there was a lull in the action. A young boy was sitting with his mom to my left, and he’d been observing and enjoying my judging. I handed him my stack of numbers and said, “You’re in charge now.”
He took the signs with wide eyes and nodded solemnly. You would have thought I’d just knighted him.
I heard chanting coming from across the street and headed in that direction. As I walked to the corner of JFK Boulevard and Fifteenth, I could hear a large group chanting, “O-C-C-U-P-Y, what’s that spell? Occupy!”
I crossed the street and approached a group of protesters. Most were in their late teens or early twenties, and there was a healthy assortment of Black, brown, and beige bodies. Many were likely college students playing hooky from their Tuesday classes at one of the universities—Temple, Drexel, or Penn—within a two-mile radius.
A handful of protesters appraised me.
In gray running sweats and a red zippered hoodie, it would be impossible for them to know I was the enemy: a one-percenter.
Granted, the millions of dollars in my sister’s and my joint bank account was our inheritance from our parents. Four years ago, they’d died in a plane crash. I was twenty-six at the time and the youngest homicide detective in Seattle Police Department history. My sister, Lacy, who is eight and a half years younger, had been a senior in high school.
After graduating, Lacy headed to Drexel on a swimming scholarship. As for me, well, I’d just recently been fired from the SPD—smashing my partner’s face into a locker was the last straw—and I’d decided to tag along to Philly.
A young man with his hair tied in a man bun and holding a sign that read “We Are the 99%” nodded at the Starbucks in my hand and said, “Big corporations are ruining America.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you’d ever tried a pumpkin spice latte.” Just the dregs of the tasty drink remained, and I offered him the cup. “Go ahead, give it a whirl. It’s like your first kiss, but pumpkin-ier.”
Man Bun smacked the cup from my hand.
“Now, why did you have to go and do that?” I shot my hand out and grabbed his sign. After tearing the poster board in three, I tossed two of the pieces over my shoulder. I handed him the remaining piece and said, “Now you are the thirty-three percent.”
He stared at me like I’d just stolen his lucky hacky sack.
The tents started up twenty feet beyond, erected along the marble walkways leading to the towering city hall. The building was old and Gothic, its exterior proliferated with columns and pillars. Topping the building was an impressive clock tower and topping the clock tower was a twenty-seven-ton statue of William Penn. Evidently, he was the founder of the province of Pennsylvania, though I just thought of him as the Quaker Oats guy.
In the span of fifty feet, I counted thirty tents. Most were two- and three-person camping tents, but there was a smattering of the larger canopy tents, the kind you might see at a farmers’ market.
There was an enormous gathering on the far western edge of the plaza, and even from a football field away, I could hear them chanting, “Banks got bailed out! We got sold out!”
I was heading to join the fun, when I heard a startled cry and turned. A small group of protesters was gathered around a blue tent. Two young women standing next to it were holding each other and crying.
I approached and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“It’s Brooke!” shouted one of the young women, pointing to the tent. “She won’t wake up!”
As I pushed through the group, a young man said, “We need to wait for the police.”
“I am the police,” I said, edging past him.
It was a half-truth. I hadn’t been officially employed since being canned from the Seattle Police Department three years earlier, but in the past eighteen months, I’d consulted on a number of cold cases with the Philly PD.
I kicked off my shoes, pulled my hands into the sleeves of my sweatshirt, then crawled into the tent. My nose twitched on entering. There was a faint aroma of something antiseptic.
It was a two-person tent, four and a half feet wide, with a depth of about seven feet. Centering the tent was a white megaphone sitting atop an unzipped green sleeping bag. Off to the right was a young woman—Brooke, presumably—lying on her back.
I crawled two more feet until I was directly over her body. She was dressed in a gray and blue University of Pennsylvania hooded sweatshirt and dark jeans. Her blond hair was splayed out around her head. Her eyes were open, which was never a good sign.
Enough residual light was sneaking through the front flap that I could see the whites of her eyes were dotted with petechial hemorrhages—broken blood vessels that are often a sign of death by asphyxiation.
With the sleeve of my sweatshirt, I gently pulled down the neck of her hoody. Her throat was a cascading purple.
Brooke had been strangled.
OCTOBER 18, 2011
I poked around for another minute, then heard sounds of the approaching cavalry.
“Back up!” a stern voice shouted. “Everybody needs to back up!”
A moment later, the beam of a flashlight whipped around the tent, then came to rest on my face.
“Prescott?” the figure barked.
I shielded the blinding light with my hand. “Present.”
“What the hell are you doing?” I recognized the nasal voice of Officer Kip Hufley.
“I’m helping this young lady study for her philosophy quiz tomorrow.” I smiled, then added, “Nietzsche.”
“Get out of there!”
I exited the tent.
Kip Hufley and I were the same age (thirty), the same height (six feet), and roughly the same weight (a hundred and seventy pounds), but that’s where the similarities stopped. I was lean and muscular with medium-length cinnamon-brown hair and, I would like to think, the easygoing affability of a sea otter. Meanwhile, Kip was doughy, with curly black hair that always looked damp, and the prickliness of a sixth-century tax collector.
He was in full uniform and slipped his flashlight back into his utility belt. He shook his head. “I don’t give a shit if you are Folch’s golden child. You can’t just trample all over a crime scene.”
Jim Folch was captain of the Ninth District. After I helped solve a cold case that had stymied the Philadelphia Police Department for over a decade, he’d reached out to me on several occasions to consult on an active case. I wouldn’t say I was his golden child—more like a bronzed third cousin.
“I didn’t trample anything.” I nodded at my shoes on the ground. “I’m not an idiot.”
“Said the guy who failed his detective exam four times.”
He didn’t have a comeback for that, and he stood there with his mouth agape, revealing teeth more crowded than Woodstock. I clapped him on the shoulder and said, “Well, I better be going. Good luck with the investigation, Hufflepuff.”
Several other officers had pushed the crowd back thirty feet and began stringing crime scene tape.
I picked up my shoes, ducked under the tape, then walked to a wooden bench on the outskirts of the pulsing onlookers. As I was pulling on my shoes, two detectives approached: Mike Gallow and Desiree Moore.
I first met Gallow at a cheesesteak place three months after moving to Philly. I pegged him as a detective the moment I got in line behind him; he wore a green Philadelphia Eagles jersey, and I could see the outline of his off-duty piece on his hip. He ended up inviting me to play pickup basketball with a bunch of other cops at Capitolo Playground each Sunday morning, which is where I first met Captain Folch and the aforementioned Kip “Hufflepuff” Hufley.
Gallow was five foot eight and built like a minivan. He was in his midthirties, with a receding melon head and an Irish complexion. He and his wife of eleven years had one daughter, Ainsley, who according to Gallow, was causing her preschool teacher to contemplate early retirement.
Desiree Moore was his partner. Though I didn’t know her exact age, I guessed she was a few years older than Gallow. Her skin was a warm brown, and her dark hair was styled in short ringlets. She was going on six months pregnant, and her belly pushed out through her open suit jacket.
I pointed to the far side of the plaza. “If you guys are looking to invoke your First Amendment rights, the protest is over there.”
They both cracked smiles, Gallow’s taking up the entirety of his wide face, and Moore’s tight and compact.
“Damn,” Moore said. “I left my megaphone in the car.”
Nodding at her stomach, I asked, “How are you feeling?”
“Like the Hindenburg.”
“You got a name yet?”
“Names,” she corrected. “Plural.”
“The perks of IVF.”
“How about you?” I nodded at Gallow’s ever-growing paunch.
“Just the one.” He pulled his dark-blue tie to the side and gave his stomach two light pats.
“You got a name?”
He didn’t hesitate: “Geno.”
After spending an entire life in Philadelphia sampling its myriad of cheesesteak offerings, Gallow had declared Geno’s Steaks his favorite. He ate there four days a week.
“How’s Carmen?” he asked.
Carmen was Gallow’s half sister, and she was eleven years his junior. I’d met her six weeks earlier at Gallow’s Labor Day barbecue, and we’d been seeing each other casually ever since. There was only one problem: she was batshit crazy. She played drums in a punk rock band, she rode a Harley, and she’d served eight months’ hard time for hacking her college transcripts and making herself salutatorian. Not to mention that she routinely clawed my back to the point you would think I’d stolen an egg from a velociraptor.
I bit the inside of my lip at the mention of his half sister. “Actually, I’m thinking of ending things.”
“Can I have a key to your condo?” Gallow asked.
“I want to turn it into my man cave after Carmen murders you and dumps your body in the Delaware.”
“You don’t think she’ll take it well?”
Gallow and Moore locked eyes.
“The last guy who broke up with Carmen got his identity stolen three times in one year,” Moore said. “And the guy before that? He was audited by the IRS, and they found a couple of hidden accounts he had in the Caymans.”
Never date a hacker.
Gallow was hunched over in laughter. He straightened, his hands on his hips, his eyes wet with tears.
“I’m glad you think it’s funny,” I said. “Considering you were the one who set us up.”
He wiped his eyes with his forearm. “That’s what makes it even better.”
Deciding small talk was over, Moore nodded at the tent and asked, “What can you tell us about the victim?”
I wasn’t sure how they knew I’d looked at the body, but I guessed Hufflepuff had called Captain Folch to complain about me, and Folch had communicated this to the two homicide detectives.
“Twenty-year-old woman,” I said. “Heavy bruising around the neck and moderate petechiae.”
“Anything else?” she asked.
“This is going to be an absolute shit show.”
“Why is that?”
After examining the young woman’s body, I’d crawled to the rear of the tent, where there was a combination phone-wallet. The victim’s driver’s license was visible on the back of the phone.
I said, “The girl is Brooke Wexley.”
Gallow leaned his head back and sighed. Then both he and Moore turned a half circle and gazed at the skyscrapers a block away on Arch Street. The second-tallest building, a glass monolith, was Wexlund Tower. Possibly right at this moment, sitting in his office on the top floor of the edifice, was Nicholas Wexley, the richest man in Philadelphia.
OCTOBER 18, 2011
I made my way through the bustling Daskalakis Athletic Center, then pushed through a revolving door that led to a swimming pool and a diving pool. I took a deep inhale and let the distinctive tang of chlorine wash through me. I’d been dropping by Lacy’s swim practices since she was ten, and the smell always brought a smile to my face.
It was a quarter after three, which meant Lacy and the other young women were just finishing their standard thousand-yard warm-up.
Twenty-odd girls splashed through six lanes. Lacy was easy to spot in the third one—clad in her favorite teal swim cap with flamingos on the side—gliding through the water with an effortless freestyle.
Three coaches stood near the starting blocks, each sporting a navy-blue Drexel University T-shirt and a whistle around their neck.
I gave a quick wave of acknowledgment, then found a seat in the metal bleachers. They were empty, save for a single young man—most likely one of the girls’ boyfriends—who had an open book in his lap and a pencil in his mouth.
As I watched them swim, I couldn’t help but think about Brooke Wexley. She was the same age as these young women—just seven months younger than Lacy. Alive one moment, her life extinguished the next.
After chatting with Gallow and Moore, I’d stuck around city hall for another hour to give my statement to one of the patrol officers and answer questions. It didn’t take long for the news crews—many of whom were already on location, covering the protests—to get wind that a young woman had been murdered and flock to the edge of the police barricade. It was only a matter of time before it leaked that the victim was Brooke Wexley, at which point a hot local story would become sizzling national news.
I didn’t know much about Brooke’s father, but a year earlier I’d been considering taking some of Lacy’s and my inheritance out of the conservative money market account where it was invested and putting it elsewhere. In my research, I’d come across several articles about Nicholas Wexley and Wexlund Capital. The hedge fund had been one of the top-performing investment funds in the US for six of the last eight years. They took a big hit during the financial crisis of 2008, but—unlike Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and several other firms—Wexlund hadn’t been heavily invested in the bundled mortgages at the center of that fiasco. The previous year, 2010, Wexlund had a 14 percent return, which was more than twice the industry standard.
I imagined Nicholas Wexley sitting behind his desk in an opulent high-rise office and his cell phone ringing, then getting the worst news a parent could hear.
Hopefully, Gallow and Moore would be able to get to the bottom of who killed his daughter. The next twenty-four hours would be critical.
Speaking of Gallow, my cell chirped. It was a text from his nutty sister—my soon-to-be ex.
CARMEN: You coming over tonight?
I texted back: “Only if you wear gloves.”
CARMEN: You’re such a pansy
ME: I’m going through a bottle of hydrogen peroxide a week
CARMEN: Ugh. Just come over. I’ll be gentle
ME: You said that last time and I had to use our safe word
CARMEN: Don’t remind me. I’ll never look at HUMMUS the same
I took a deep breath, and before I could second-guess myself, I typed, “Actually, I was hoping we could meet up somewhere to talk.”
I watched the screen.
Ten seconds passed.
She replied: “Are you breaking up with me?”
We weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend, but we’d hung out enough that I didn’t feel comfortable breaking up with her over text message. Nor did I want to incur her wrath by doing so. I was trying to figure out how to word my reply, when I received another message.
CARMEN: Because it’s okay if you are. We weren’t serious
That was unexpected.
I responded: “I just think we’d be better off as friends.”
CARMEN: Sounds good. Thanks for the laughs. See you around
After two more texts, it was done.
I considered texting Gallow to tell him how maturely Carmen had handled the breakup, but I didn’t want to interrupt his work on the Wexley case. Plus, it would be satisfying to tell him in person.
When I set my phone down, the swimmers were wrapping up their warm-up. Lacy was fourth to finish. She hit the wall, stood, then pulled up her goggles. It took her two seconds to spot me. Her mouth opened wide, and she waved to me with both hands.
I stuck my tongue out to the side and crossed my eyes.
Once all the girls finished warming up, their coaches chatted with them for several minutes. A few girls switched lanes, then they started in on a serious workout.
I knew I’d have a couple hours to kill, so I’d made a quick pit stop at my condo beforehand to grab the book I was reading: The Hunger Games.
The dystopian YA novel had been published three years earlier, right about the time Lacy and I were uprooting from the West Coast to the East Coast. Lacy, who was an avid reader, had her head buried in the book for most of the forty-three-hour cross-country drive, leaving me to play slug-a-bug with myself. The movie adaptation was coming out in March, and Lacy demanded I read the book in preparation. I’m glad she did. It was a rollicking good read, and I only had a hundred pages left.
I was so immersed in the novel that I didn’t notice Lacy until she was hovering over me. She wore her favorite yellow Drexel sweats and a white, long-sleeve T-shirt. Her blond hair was damp and had a greenish tint.
“So, what do you think?” she asked.
“About your hair turning into lime Jell-O . . . or the book?”
She pulled a strand of hair in front of her face. Lacy had never cared much about “swimmer’s hair,” and after a sigh, she said, “The book, you moron.”
“Told you.” She grinned. “Are you Team Peeta or Team Gale?”
“Team Gale all the way.”
“Let me guess,” she said in a dopey singsong voice. “Because he reminds you so much of yourself.”
“Well, now that you mention it.”
She rolled slate-blue eyes that were nearly identical to my own, then said, “Let’s go.”
Once outside, Lacy leaned in and hugged me. She was five inches shorter than me, and the scent of chlorine wafted from her head. She asked, “So, is there a reason you came to watch your baby sister swim laps, or did you just miss me that much?”
“I don’t need a reason to walk my sister home from practice.”
“But I know you have one.”
I hesitated, and she asked, “Does this have anything to do with the girl who was killed at the protest?” Lacy told me she’d seen a Facebook post about the murder right before she put her phone away in her swim locker.
“I saw the body,” I said.
She slapped my shoulder. “Bullshit.”
“No, seriously, I did.” I recounted my afternoon.
“Brooke Wexley!” she blurted, then covered her mouth with her hand. When she took her hand away, she said, “Oh my God!”
I wasn’t aware Lacy knew of her, but I supposed, considering they attended neighboring colleges and Brooke’s relative fame, it was more likely than not. “Did you know her?”
“I’ve never met her, but Dawn Marie—one of the freshman girls—went to high school with her. Even though Brooke came from one of the richest families on earth, Dawn Marie said that she was pretty unassuming. She kind of kept to herself.”
I suppose even the ultra-rich can be introverts. And it wasn’t Brooke’s money. It was her daddy’s.
“Have you gone to any of the protests?” I asked.
“Me? Come on.” With a full load of classes and two hours of swim practice each day, Lacy didn’t have the time or energy for much extracurricular activity. “But Maya went a few nights ago.”
Maya was Lacy’s assigned roommate in the dorms for freshman year, and the two had instantly become best friends. Now they shared an apartment seven blocks off campus.
Lacy added, “She just wanted to go because the guy she’s got a crush on was going.”
“Well, tell her to be careful if she goes there again. And tell her not to spend the night.”
“I’ll pass that along.”
We were two blocks from her apartment when I asked, “So, what else is going on? Are you crushing on any boys?”
“There’s this guy who sits next to me in art history. All he does is doodle horses in his notebook during class. I might love him.”
When we reached Lacy’s apartment complex, I hugged her goodbye and told her I’d be at her swim meet on Saturday. I watched as she walked up the exterior staircase to the second story and disappeared through her door.
I was pondering what to do with the rest of my afternoon, when my phone buzzed in my pocket. I pulled it out and saw it was Captain Folch.
“Let me guess,” I said. “You require my expertise with the Wexley investigation?”
“No, not that,” Folch replied. “But holy hell, is that thing already ruining my life. In the last hour, I’ve gotten two calls from the chief, one from the mayor, and one from the governor. I won’t be surprised if Obama himself calls me by day’s end.”
“Or, at the very least, Malia.”
“What can I help you with?” I asked.
“So far, we’ve done a good job of keeping it under wraps, but it looks like we have a serial killer on our hands. He’s killed three people in the past two weeks.”
“I haven’t heard anything about it on the news.”
“And you won’t—at least not for another day or two. Especially not with this Wexley thing taking over the news cycle. Anyhow, the department is spread pretty thin between the protests and this Wexley investigation, so I recommended you for the task force. You’re a civilian, but they’ll bring you on as a consultant.” He paused, then asked, “So, what do you say? Do you want to help track down this asshole?”
My heart started to hammer. “Yes, I do.”
OCTOBER 18, 2011
The William J. Green Federal Building at 600 Arch Street, which housed the Philadelphia FBI headquarters, was ten stories of alternating dark glass and brown stucco. Out front was an expensive-looking fountain surrounded by circular green picnic tables. A number of people—most likely federal employees who’d just clocked out from their nine-to-fives—were scattered among the tables, enjoying the last half hour of sunlight.
I’d had a handful of run-ins with the Feds during my tenure at the Seattle Police Department—notably, when a senior agent informed me that my personality made him “queasy”—so I was a tad apprehensive as I walked through a metal detector just inside the front entrance.
A temporary day pass awaited me at the information desk, and after pulling the lanyard over my head, I was directed to a conference room on the eighth floor.
Exiting the elevator, I heard murmuring coming from a heavy door propped open six inches. I slipped through the door and into a dimly lit room with five rows of seats. Upward of twenty individuals were focused on a man at the front.
The man—whom I assumed from talking with Captain Folch to be the special agent in charge (SAC), Scott Joyce—was all eyebrows and creases. He stood in front of a large projection screen. Off to the right was a dry-erase board with “Area Code Killer” scribbled at the top in thick black marker.
Agent Joyce stopped talking as I entered, and I gave a half wave. His heavy brows narrowed, and he asked, “Who are you?”
“Oh, right,” he said, nodding. “Sorry, lots of bodies coming through here today.” He swept his hand at the filled seats. “Welcome to the task force.”
Based on the attire, five law enforcement organizations were represented: the Philadelphia Police Department, the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office, the Pennsylvania State Police, the Camden County Police Department, and the FBI. It was mostly male and White, but there were four women and a sprinkling of Black and brown faces.
Several individuals cut their eyes at me, and I couldn’t be sure if it was because of my dashing good looks or because I was still wearing the sweatsuit I’d bought with “Kohl’s Cash.”
I recognized one of the cops and extended my right pointer finger and raised my thumb. I shot him in the chest with a soft pew-pew. “Hey there, Hufflepuff.”
Everyone turned and looked at Kip. A few people snickered. Even Joyce up front stifled a laugh.
I found an open seat in the back row as Agent Joyce continued, “Like I was saying, the first body was found on October third. Gene Kirovec, age fifty-two. Assistant manager at the Blockbuster on Thirty-Third and Aramingo. He was found in the alley behind the store. He’d been stabbed six times in the back.”
Joyce walked over to a laptop and tapped a button. The projection screen filled with an image of a man lying on his stomach near a green dumpster. Blood soaked through the back of his blue polo. A pair of black headphones was lying next to him.
After clicking through images of the body, a close-up of the man’s head filled the screen. He had gray hair, a wide nose, and a dark mustache. His face was stained red with blood.
“It wasn’t until we cleaned away the blood that we saw what was carved into the victim’s forehead,” Joyce said.
The headshot image was replaced by another close-up, most likely taken on the autopsy table. Knife marks on the corpse’s forehead stood in deep contrast to glacier-blue skin. The marks formed a number.
Folch hadn’t told me much about the case, only that the killer was targeting victims who were born in specific area codes. Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, I knew 503 as the area code for Portland, Oregon.
Hence, “Area Code Killer.”
“The investigators didn’t come up with any leads. There were no witnesses, no surveillance footage, and very little forensic evidence,” Joyce continued. “Kirovec was closing up the store for the night, taking out the trash, when our perp attacked him in the back alley.”
“His cell phone was still on him,” said a man in the second row. “Kirovec hadn’t made or taken a call in two days. Other than the numbers carved into the guy’s head, we got bupkis.” The man introduced himself as Lyle Willis, a detective out of the Twenty-Sixth District, where Kirovec’s body had been found. Willis spent the next several minutes detailing their investigation and explaining that at first they’d firmly believed the stabbing to be a one-off.
“Until this happened,” Joyce interrupted him, bringing up another photograph on the screen. It was of a woman. “Constance Yul, age thirty-nine. She was found in her car in West Philly on October eighth, three blocks from where she worked.
“She was born in Portland, stayed there for most of her life, then moved to Philly in 2005. This is when we first linked the numbers to specific area codes.” Yul’s autopsy photo was similar to Kirovec’s; the placid skin of Constance’s forehead was intersected by deep, black carvings. This time, the numbers read 914.
Joyce said, “After Ms. Yul’s murder and recognizing another area code, we knew we had an active serial killer.”
I wasn’t familiar with the area code 914, but my inquiry was preempted by Joyce, who said, “9-1-4 is the area code for Westchester County, New York, birthplace of our third victim, Peter Boland.”
A female detective from the Camden County Police Department told the rest of us, “Peter was born in White Plains—in Westchester County—but moved to Jersey a few years ago. His body was found yesterday near the shore of the Delaware River in Wiggins Waterfront Park.”
That explained why the FBI was spearheading this task force. A killer crossing state lines fell under their authority.
Next on the screen, Joyce showed us the image of Peter Boland. He had 386 carved into his forehead. The curves of each of the three numbers were smooth and precise.
“Where is area code 3-8-6?” I asked.
“Daytona Beach,” Kip chimed.
“Is Hufflepuff right?” I asked Joyce, achieving my desired effect and making Kip’s cheeks redden.
“Yeah, Hufflepu—” He caught himself, “I mean Hufley, is correct.”
I bit the inside of my lip and processed what I’d learned over the past twenty minutes: On October 3, Gene Kirovec was killed, the lead domino. He had 503 (a Portland area code) carved into his forehead. Then Constance Yul, who was born in Portland, was found murdered five days later. She had 914 (which is the area code for Westchester County, New York) carved into her forehead. Then yesterday they had found Peter Boland, born in Westchester County. He has 386 carved into his forehead—the area code for Daytona Beach.
I said, “So you’re assuming the killer’s next victim will have been born in Daytona?”
“That’s correct,” Joyce said. “Or in one of the other communities covered by the same code.”
A moment later, he introduced FBI profiler Susan Mallory from the Behavior Analysis Unit. Mallory strode to the front of the room and began her own slideshow. I half listened as she broke down the socioeconomic and environmental factors at play. She was explaining the outcome of her detailed profile algorithm—to no one’s surprise, a White male in his thirties—when I coughed into my hand twice and blurted, “You guys are wrong.”
All heads turned in my direction.
“What do you mean?” Agent Joyce asked. “The profile’s incorrect?”
“No. I mean, odds are it is a Cody or a Tanner. But you’re wrong about the area codes.”
“In what way?”
It was too early to know what the killer’s motivation was, but the murders didn’t scream out to me recreational. Too much care was put into the carving of the numbers. The killer took his time. His victims’ foreheads might as well have been the Sistine Chapel. No, these murders were functional.
“This guy has something to say,” I said. “These numbers are his story.”
“Yes,” Kip said, standing up. “And his story is that he’s targeting people born in specific area codes.”
I cut my eyes at him. “That seems like something you could have said sitting down.”
No one laughed, and I realized for the first time in a long time, Thomas Dergen Prescott—voted “Most Likely to Own a Car Dealership” in high school—was the butt of the joke. These people thought I was off my rocker.
I let out a sigh. “At least tell me that you considered the numbers might mean something else?”
“Like what?” Joyce asked.
I said the first thing that popped into my head. “I don’t know, maybe it has something to do with the victims’ weights.”
I’ve only had instant regret a few times in my life: when I was six and I stuck my tongue to a frozen pole, when I was thirteen (with a mouthful of braces) and went in for my first kiss after eating an entire jumbo bucket of popcorn, when I was twenty-four and someone dared me to eat a Carolina Reaper pepper, and then this moment.
“Their weights?” Joyce’s head moved back two inches. “I mean, Gene Kirovec was a big guy, but he was not five hundred and three pounds.” He pulled up the picture of Constance Yul, a petite Asian American. “And maybe it’s just me, but she doesn’t look like she weighs nine hundred and fourteen pounds.”
I glanced over at Kip. He was grinning so hard that I could hear his molars grind together.
Joyce flashed me one last look of annoyance before instructing Mallory to wrap up her last thoughts.
When she finished, Joyce spent the next fifteen minutes laying out an action plan and everyone’s marching orders. Most of the task force were going to pore over these three murders: reinterviewing witnesses, knocking on doors, talking to family, and double-checking the forensic evidence.
I waited for Joyce to give me an assignment, but it never came. Maybe my weight theory was so harebrained that he didn’t want me within a thousand miles of this case.
The meeting ended, and the task force members exited.
I swallowed two bites of pride, walked up to the front, and asked Joyce, “Where do you want me, Coach?”
He faked a laugh. “I can’t have you doing anything until you fill out some paperwork and we do a background check. Then we’ll hire you on as a consultant.”
Whatever Captain Folch told him about me—probably something along the lines of Sherlock Holmes meets a mischievous raccoon—must have overshadowed my earlier outburst.
Anyhow, I was looking forward to diving into the case headfirst and asked, “Can I start off with copies of the murder books on the three victims?”
“I wish I could give them to you, but until we get your credentials, you’re going to have to sit on the sidelines.” He patted me on the shoulder. “Just lie low for a couple days.”
“Gotcha,” I said.
I’ll lie low.
OCTOBER 19, 2011
For my thirtieth birthday, Lacy bought me one of those four-slice toasters. It might not seem like the greatest of presents, but outside of an old letter opener of my father’s, it was my most prized possession.
I opened a fresh box of chocolate chip waffles and popped three down in the toaster. When they were golden brown, I slathered them with peanut butter and covered them in maple syrup. I set my plate on the kitchen table next to my protein smoothie and grabbed my laptop.
Agent Joyce may not have given me access to the murder books, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t do research on my own. I flipped open the laptop and launched Google. The moment I did this, my computer flashed red three times and “SHITHEAD” began dancing across the screen.
I’d either been hacked by Anonymous or Carmen hadn’t taken the breakup so well after all.
I restarted my computer, hoping whatever virus or malware Carmen uploaded into my system had disappeared. When my computer started back up, the screen flashed brown, this time reading, “NICE TRY SHITHEAD.”
A huge poop emoji bounced on-screen and started pooping out a bunch of little poop emojis, all with my face on them.
“Looking forward to the IRS audit,” I told my Eggos.
I finished eating, threw on a pair of jeans and a tan Henley, then walked to the Walnut Street West Library. Several computer terminals were available, and I plopped into one of the seats. I pulled up the Philadelphia Inquirer website and was unsurprised to see the leading headline was about Brooke Wexley’s murder. I skimmed the article, which divulged little info. Learning nothing of any consequence, I turned my attention to Gene Kirovec, Constance Yul, and Peter Boland.
Joyce hadn’t been kidding about keeping this story under wraps. There was no mention of Gene Kirovec’s murder in either of the two major papers. The Philadelphia Tribune ran an obituary for Constance Yul, but there was no indication that her death was part of an ongoing murder investigation. Peter Boland’s body had been found less than forty-eight hours earlier, and as yet, his murder hadn’t garnered any press attention.
No one had connected the three murders. This would change if the media got wind of a multiagency task force working out of the FBI building. Or maybe their focus would stay on Brooke Wexley. So who knows, the serial killer case could slip through the cracks.
I googled “Area Code Killer.”
Most of the results concerned the Zodiac Killer, who’d killed several people in San Francisco in the late 1960s. It came up because code was in the search criteria, and the Zodiac Killer had sent a bunch of ciphers to newspapers that had to be decoded. That killer had never been found, and it would be a stretch to think he was involved in these new murders.
Next, I searched “three number combinations.”
I read about “Combinations vs. Permutations,” and I started to get PTSD palm sweats from seventh-grade math.
Letting out a frustrated sigh, I searched “503 meaning.”
I learned about “angel numbers.” It was spiritual numerology stuff. 503 signified New Beginnings. 914 meant Determination. 386 meant New Opportunities.
I scoffed. “These are just fortune cookies.”
Hitting a dead end, I scrolled down the results page for the number 503. On the third page, I came to an article from the Detroit Free Press. It read, “Local Woman Hits Big on 503.”
I clicked the link.
The article was about the Pick 3 lottery in Detroit. A woman had played the number 503 for $100, and she’d won $50,000.
Could the murders be connected to the lottery?
I edged forward in my seat and searched “three number lottery.”
The first four pages of results were from different state lottery websites, but on the fifth page there was a Wikipedia entry for “The Numbers.”
I clicked on the link and began reading:
The Numbers, also known as the Numbers Racket, the Street Numbers, or the Daily Number, is a form of illegal lottery played mostly in poor and working-class neighborhoods in the United States wherein a bettor attempts to pick three digits to match those randomly drawn the following day. Gamblers place bets with a Numbers runner at a tavern, bar, barber shop, social club, or any other illegal betting parlor. Runners carry the money and betting slips between the betting parlors and the headquarters, called a Numbers bank.
I’d heard of the Numbers racket—most of my knowledge was from movies like The Godfather or Goodfellas—but I wasn’t aware the concept was based on a three-digit number.
As interesting as this was, the Numbers racket was a long time ago.
I was getting ready to click out of the link, when I noticed an image on the right side of the page. It was a photo of a tattered book: Old Aunt Dinah’s Dream Book of Numbers. The cover was a cartoon sketch of a mystically dressed African American woman running a hand over an open book filled with numbers. Captioned below the book was, “One of the first dream books.”
A dream book? I’d never heard of such a thing.
There was a link to a dream book entry. I clicked on it and began reading:
A dream book is a guide that interprets dreams and converts them into three-digit numbers that can be backed for wagering. The first one was published in 1862, and by the mid-1950s there were over three dozen in circulation. Each of the competing dream books has different numbers assigned to a wide range of symbols (things, names, places, feelings, experiences, even days of the week) that might show up in a dream. Where one book might have Bicycle playing for 452 another book would have Bicycle playing for 863.
I thought back on the three murders. Initially, the location of the numbers seemed arbitrary, but maybe carving the numbers into the victims’ foreheads was significant.
Maybe the numbers were dreams.