[ ONE ]
Broad Street and Erie Avenue, North Philadelphia
Monday, December 17th, 9:05 a.m.
Matt Payne impatiently squeezed past the small groups of passengers that had just gotten off the subway train cars of the Broad Street Line, and moved with purpose down the tiled concourse toward the exit.
The muscular twenty-seven-year-old was six feet tall and a solid one-seventy-five. His chiseled face had a two-day scrub of beard. Behind black sunglasses, dark circles hung under sleep-deprived eyes.
He wore a Philadelphia Eagles ball cap and a gray hooded sweatshirt with the red TEMPLE UNIVERSITY logotype. Concealed inside the waistband of his blue jeans, at the small of his back, was an Officer’s Model Colt .45 ACP semi-automatic pistol. And in his back pocket, in a black leather bifold holder, were his badge and the Philadelphia Police Department-issued card identifying him as a sergeant of the Homicide Unit.
Taking the subway, which Payne had boarded at the City Hall station after paying the $2.25 fare, hadn’t been his first—or his second—choice. But considering his options at the time, it had seemed the fastest.
And with leads in the killings all but dried up, he had no time to waste.
After exiting the concourse, he took the steps, two at a time, up to street level, then started across the deep gray slush of snow and melted ice that covered the sidewalk.
At the newsstand shack on the southeast corner of Erie and Broad, he quickly tugged a newspaper from a stack topped with a chunk of red brick, stuffing it beneath his left arm then peeling from his money clip a pair of dollar bills. He handed the cash to the attendant—a heavily clothed elderly black man with leathery hands and a deeply wrinkled face and thin beard—and gestured for him to keep the change.
Payne turned and glanced around the busy intersection.
The storefronts were a blend of bars and fast food chain restaurants, banks and pharmacies, barbershops and convenience stores. Payne thought that the facades of the aged buildings, as well as the streets and sidewalks, looked much like he felt—tired, worn out.
On Erie, halfway down the block, Payne saw the coffee shop he was looking for—tall stenciled lettering in black and red on its front window read THE DAILY GRIND—then grunted.
On the second floor, above the diner, was a small, locally-owned bookstore that had signage advertising WE SHIP TO PRISONS. Directly across the street, a new billboard on a rooftop had in bold lettering REPORT CRIME TIPS! LEX TALIONIS PAYS CASH REWARDS UP TO $20,000 – 800-LEX-TALN, and, in a strip along the billboard’s bottom, the wording MAKE A DIFFERENCE – BECOME A PHILADELPHIA POLICE OFFICER next to a photograph of the smiling faces of attractive young women and men attending the police academy.
Payne walked quickly to The Daily Grind.
As he pulled on the stainless steel handle of the diner’s glass door then started to step inside, he almost collided with a grim-faced heavy-set Latina in her twenties carrying three waxed paper to-go coffee cups. He made a thin smile, stepped backward, made a grand sweep with his free arm, offering for her to pass through the doorway first, then went inside after she had done so.
It was a small space, one permeated by the smell of fried grease and coffee. The only seating was at a stainless steel countertop at the back that overlooked the open kitchen. Elsewhere, customers could stand at the nine round high-top tables and at the worn wooden counter that ran at chest height along the side walls and the front windows.
There were just two customers now, both older men who were seated at opposite ends of the back counter and busy with their meals. An enormous coal black man in his forties, wearing a grease-stained white apron tied over jeans and a sweaty white t-shirt, stood stooped at the gas-fired grill, his large biceps bulging as he methodically worked a long handled wire brush back and forth. Flames flared up with each pass.
The cook stopped, looked over his shoulder, saw Payne, called out, “Hey, man, he’ll be right with you,” then turned back to scrubbing the grill.
At the far right end of the counter, under a sign reading ORDER HERE/PAY HERE that hung from the ceiling tiles by dust-coated chains, was the cash register. And just beyond it was a faded emerald green wooden door with TOILET FOR PAYING CUST ONLY!! that appeared to have been handwritten in haste with a fat-tipped black ink permanent marker.
The bathroom door began to swing open, and a brown-skinned male in his late teens stepped out drying his hands on a paper towel.
Daquan Williams was five-foot-eight, extremely thin, and had, under a ball cap with THE DAILY GRIND in stencil letters across its front, his shoulder length wavy reddish-brown hair tied back with a rubber band. He wore black jeans and a tan t-shirt that was emblazoned with a coarse drawing of the Liberty Bell, its crack exaggerated, and the wording PHILLY – NOBODY LIKES US & WE DON’T CARE.
The teenager made eye contact with Payne, nodded just perceptively, then looked away as he went to the rack of coffee pots. He pulled a heavy china mug from a pyramid-shaped stack, filled it with coffee, then carried it to Payne, who now stood by a window in the front corner of the shop, opposite the door, watching the sidewalk traffic over the top edge of the newspaper as he casually flipped its pages.
The teenager placed the steaming mug on the wooden counter beside a wire rack containing packets of cream and sugar.
“Thanks, Daquan,” Payne said, then yawned widely as he reached for the coffee. “I really need this.”
He held out a five-dollar bill.
Daquan didn’t take it. He nodded toward the enormous cook cleaning the grill.
“Boss man say you don’t pay,” he said, keeping his voice low so as not to be overheard.
“I appreciate that, but I like to pay my way.”
Payne put the money on the counter, then sipped the coffee.
Daquan nodded. He took the bill.
Payne glanced at Daquan’s left ear. What looked like a new diamond stud sparkled in the lobe. Payne considered mentioning it. But he instead gently rattled the newspaper cover page.
“So,” Payne said, quietly, “what do you know on this hit?”
Daquan’s eyes shifted to the front page of the newspaper, and his facial expression changed to one of frustration.
The photograph showed, behind yellow tape imprinted with POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS, two members of the Medical Examiner’s Office standing at the rear of a white panel van.
They were in the process of lifting through the van’s back doors a gurney holding a full body bag. Splashed across the image was the headline: #370. ANOTHER MURDER, ANOTHER RECORD.
The teenager, head down, quickly turned on his heels, and marched to the cash register. He punched in the coffee, made change, then carefully closed the cash drawer as he scanned the front door and windows. Then, from beneath the register, he pulled out the busboy cart, and rolled it to the front of the diner.
“Your change,” he said in a normal voice, holding the money out to Payne.
“That’s your tip. Keep it.”
Daquan stuffed it in the front pocket of his jeans as he immediately turned his back to Payne. He busied himself clearing the small plates and cups from the nearest high-top table.
“What about the drive-by?” Payne pursed, again speaking quietly as he again flipped and scanned pages.
“I really can’t say,” Daquan replied, almost in a whisper, without turning around.
“Can’t?” Payne said. “Or won’t?”
“Peeps talk, they get capped. That’s what happened to Pookie. Law of the street. That’s why I texted you now, after they came ... .”
“Who did it?”
“That’s just it—I don’t know,” he said, then looked over his shoulder at Payne. “Matt, I didn’t even know the dude. They’re threatening me over something I don’t know.”
“Any guess who did do it?”
Daquan turned back to busing the table, and shrugged again.
“I heard word that King Two-One-Five knows,” he said.
Payne thought: Tyrone Hooks knows—or ordered it done?
He pulled his cellular telephone from the back pocket of his jeans, rapidly thumb-typed and sent a short text message, then tucked the phone back.
“When’s the last time you saw your parole officer, Daquan?” he said, picking the newspaper back up.
“Few days ago.”
“It go okay?”
“How’s school coming?”
“Hard, man. Just real hard.”
“One day at a time. You’ll get that G.E.D.”
Daquan then pulled a hand towel and a spray bottle of cleaner from the cart, and began wiping the tabletop.
Payne said, “Nice diamond stud. Is it real?”
Daquan stopped wiping.
“Uh-huh. S’posed to be, anyway,” he said, made two more slow circles, and added, “Got my momma something nice for Christmas, and this earring, it was part of the deal.”
“Really,” he said, then moved to the next table. “You know I’m trying to get my life straight, staying away from the street. You think I like busing tables? Only gig I could find.”
“I know. Remember?”
“Yeah, of course I remember. You know I appreciate the help, man.”
“Keep your nose clean, make it through the probation period, and we’ll work on getting your record cleared. Have the charge expunged. Then we’ll find you something else. Right now, this is good honest work.”
“You should be proud. Your mother told me she is. Especially now after Dante’s death...”
At the mention of his cousin, Daquan looked over his shoulder and at Payne.
Payne saw deep sadness in his eyes. They glistened, and it was obvious that he was fighting back the tears.
“I can’t get past that, Matt. We were real close, you know, going way back. Now he’s gone, and I’m here.” He looked down and rubbed his eyes. “But I’m really not here. I’m just a shell walking around.”
Daquan lifted his head, looked at Payne—then his eyes immediately looked past Payne, out the window.
Payne saw the sadness in Daquan’s face suddenly replaced with fear.
“Shit!” Daquan said. “They’re back!”
He grabbed the busboy cart and started pushing it quickly to the back of the diner.
Just then, as Payne turned and looked out the window, the glass front door swung open.
Two teenaged black males wearing thick dark parkas marched in, the first one, tall and burly, raising a black semi-automatic pistol in his right fist.
Payne dropped the newspaper and quickly reached behind his back to pull his .45 out from under his sweatshirt.
Daquan shoved the busboy cart at the pair, and then jumped behind the back counter as the tall burly teenager fired three shots.
The sound of gunfire in the small diner was deafening.
Payne leveled his pistol at the shooter as he automatically shouted, “Stop! Police! Don’t move!”
The ringing in Payne’s ears caused his words to sound odd.
The tall burly teenager turned and tried to aim at Payne.
Payne instinctively responded by squeezing off two rounds in rapid succession.
The heavy 230-grain bullets of the specially-loaded .45 ACP cartridges, after leaving the muzzle at a velocity of 1,300 feet per second, almost instantly hit the shooter square in the chest. Upon impact and penetration, the copper-jacketed lead hollow points, as designed, mushroomed and then fragmented, the pieces ripping through the teen’s upper torso.
The shooter staggered backward to the wall, dropping the gun when he struck the wooden counter there.
The second teenager, who had frozen in place at the firing of the first shots, immediately turned and bolted back out the glass door.
The shooter slid to the floor.
As Payne rushed for the door, he kicked the shooter’s gun toward the back counter. The two customers there were laying on the floor in front of it. The one to the left was curled up in the corner with his back to Payne and, almost comically, shielding his head by holding a white plate over it. The one on the right was facedown and still. Blood soaked the back of his shirt.
The enormous cook, who had ducked below the counter, now peered wide-eyed over its top.
Payne shouted, “Call nine-one-one!” then threw open the door and ran out.
Daquan, blood on his right hand as he gripped his left upper arm, crawled out from beneath the cash register.
Daquan hesitated a moment before moving toward the shooter, who was motionless. He picked up the small frame semi-automatic pistol from the floor.
The cook stood and shouted, “Daquan, don’t!”
Daquan went out the door.
He turned right and took off down the sidewalk, following Payne.
The storefronts along Erie Avenue gave way to a decaying neighborhood of older rowhouses. Daquan Williams watched the teenager dart out into traffic and dodge vehicles as he ran across Erie, headed in the direction of a series of three or four overgrown vacant lots where rowhouses had once stood.
He saw that Matt Payne, arms and legs pumping as he picked up speed, was beginning to close the distance between them.
“Police! Stop!” Payne yelled again.
The teenager made it to the first lot off Thirteenth Street, then disappeared into an overgrowth of bushes at the back of it.
Payne, moments later, reached the bushes, cautiously pushed aside limbs, swept the space with his pistol, and then entered.
Daquan started to cross Erie but heard a squeal of brakes and then a truck horn begin blaring. He slid to a stop, narrowly missing being hit by a delivery box truck. It roared past, its tires splashing his pants and shoes with road slush from a huge pothole. A car and a small pickup closely following the truck honked as they splashed past.
Daquan finally found a gap in traffic and made his way across.
He ran to the bushes, then went quickly into them, limbs wet with snow slapping at him. One knocked his cap off. The dim light made it hard to see. After a long moment, he came out the other side, to another open lot. He saw Payne, who had run across another street, just as he disappeared into another clump of overgrowth at the back of another vacant lot between rowhouses.
While Daquan ran across that street to follow, a dirty brown four-door Ford Taurus pulled to the curb in front of the rowhouse bordering the lot. Daquan dodged the sedan, ran behind it, then started across the lot.
Ahead, from somewhere in the overgrowth, he then heard Matt Payne once again shouting, “Stop! Police!”
This time, though, was different.
Almost immediately there came a rapid series of shots—the first three sounding dissimilar, not quite as loud, to the final two.
Daquan heard nothing more as he reached the overgrowth and then, while trying to control his heavy breathing, entered it slowly. He raised the pistol and gripped it tightly with both hands.
More snow fell from limbs onto his soaked t-shirt and jeans. He shivered as he stepped carefully in the dim light, listening for sounds but hearing only his labored breath. He finally reached the far side.
He wiped snow from his eyes.
And then his stomach dropped.
Matt Payne was laying facedown in the snow.
The teenager, ten feet farther into the vacant lot, was making a blood-streaked path in the snow as he tried to crawl away.
Then he stopped moving.
“Matt!” Daquan called as he ran to him.
Payne turned his head and, clearly in pain, looked up at Daquan.
“Call nine-one-one,” he said. “Say ‘officer down ... police officer shot.’”
Daquan, now kneeling, saw the blood on the snow beneath Payne.
His mind raced. He looked at the street ahead.
There ain’t time to wait for help.
I’ve gotta get him to it ...
“Hang on, Matt.”
Daquan then bolted back through the overgrowth of bushes. As he came out the far side, he saw the driver of the Ford sedan, a heavy set black woman in her late fifties. She was now leaning over the open trunk, looking over her shoulder as she rushed to remove bulging white plastic grocery bags.
He ran toward her, and loudly called, “Hey! I need your car ...”
The woman, the heavy bags swinging from her hands, turned and saw Daquan quickly approaching.
Then she saw that he held a pistol—and decided that he had been responsible for the gunfire she had just heard.
She dropped the bags, then went to her knees, quivering as she covered her gray hair with her hands.
“Please ... take whatever you want ... take it all ... just don’t hurt me ...”
Daquan saw that a ring of keys had fallen to the ground with the bags.
“It’s an emergency!” he said, reaching down and grabbing the keys.
Tires squealed as he made a hard right at the first corner, going over the curb and onto the sidewalk, then did it again making another right at the next intersection. He sped along the block, braking hard to look for Payne down one vacant lot then accelerating again until braking at the next lot.
He finally found the one with Payne and the teenager—Payne was trying to sit upright; the teen had not moved—and skidded to a stop at the curb.
Daquan considered driving across the lot to reach Payne faster but was afraid the car would become stuck.
He threw the gearshift into park, and left the car engine running and the driver’s door open as he ran toward Payne.
He saw that Payne held his left hand over the large blood-soaked area of his gray sweatshirt. And, as Daquan approached closer, he saw Payne, with great effort, raise his head to look toward him—while pointing his .45 in Daquan’s direction.
“Don’t shoot, Matt! It’s me!”
“Daquan,” Payne said weakly, then after a moment lowered his pistol, and moved to get up on one knee.
Daquan squatted beside him. Payne wrapped his right arm around Daquan’s neck, and slowly they stood.
“This way,” Daquan said, leaning Payne into him and starting to walk.
The first couple steps were awkward, more stumbles than solid footing, but then suddenly, with a grunt, Payne found his legs.
They managed a rhythm and were almost back to the car when Daquan noticed a young black male in a wheelchair rolling out onto the porch of a rowhouse across the street.
“Yo! What the fuck!” the male shouted, coming down a ramp to the sidewalk. “Why’d you shoot my man Ray-Ray for?”
Daquan said nothing but kept an eye on him as they reached the car and he opened the backdoor. He helped Payne slide onto the backseat, slammed the door shut, then ran and got behind the wheel.
“Yo!” the male shouted again.
As Daquan pulled on the gearshift, he could hear the male still shouting and then saw in the rearview mirror that the male had started wheeling up the street toward the car.
And then he saw something else.
“Damn!” Daquan said aloud.
He ducked just before the windows on the left side of the car shattered in a hail of bullets.
And then he realized there was a sudden burning sensation in his back and shoulder.
He floored the accelerator pedal.
Daquan knew that Temple University Hospital was only blocks down Broad Street from Erie Avenue. He walked past it every day going to and from his job at the diner. It wasn’t uncommon for him to have to wait at the curb while an ambulance, siren wailing and horn blaring, weaved through traffic, headed to the emergency room entrance on Ontario Street.
Driving to the ER would take no time. But Daquan suddenly was getting lightheaded. Just steering a straight line was quickly becoming a challenge.
He decided it would be easier to stay away from Broad Street and its busy traffic.
He approached Erie Avenue, braked and laid on the horn as he glanced in both directions, then stepped heavily on the gas pedal again.
His vision was getting blurry, and he fought to keep focused. He heard horns blaring as he crossed Erie and prayed whoever it was could avoid hitting them.
By the time the sedan approached Ontario, Daquan realized that things were beginning to happen in slow motion. He made the turn, carefully, but again ran up over the curb, then bumped a parked car, sideswiping it before yanking the steering wheel. The Ford moved to the center of the street.
Now he could make out the hospital ahead and, after a block, saw the sign for the emergency room, an arrow indicating it was straight ahead.
Then he saw an ambulance, lights flashing, that was parked in one of the bays beside a four-foot-high sign that read EMERGENCY ROOM DROP OFF ONLY.
Daquan reached the bays, and began to turn into the first open one.
His head then became very light—and he felt himself slowly slumping over.
The car careened onto the sidewalk, striking a refuse container, and finally ramming a concrete pillar before coming to a stop.
Daquan struggled to raise his head.
Through blurry eyes, he saw beyond the shattered car window that the doors on the ambulance had swung open.
Two people in uniforms leapt out and began running to the car.
Daquan heard the ignition switch turn and the engine go quiet, then felt a warm hand on him and heard a female voice.
“Weak,” she said, “but there’s a pulse.”
“No pulse on this guy,” a male voice from the backseat said. “I’m taking him in ...”
Then Daquan blacked out.
TWO DAYS EARLIER ...
[ TWO ]
15th and Arch Streets, Philadelphia
Saturday, December 15th, 9:55 a.m.
The moment she caught a glimpse in the distance of the iconic steel sculpture towering above the park’s granite fountain—the pop art’s twelve-foot-tall bright red letters stacked like so many children’s blocks to spell LOVE—Lauren Childs knew that she absolutely had to be photographed in front of it.
All morning the nineteen-year-old had taken shots with the camera on her cellular telephone, and then uploaded her favorites to her Facebook page for her friends to see. She knew that this photograph would be the best yet.
She didn’t know it would be her last alive.
Lauren Childs and her boyfriend, Tony Gambacorta, had come down from Reading, about sixty miles north of Philly. They’d met there in September, as sophomores at Albright College, and begun dating almost immediately. Tony, tall and olive-skinned with dark good looks, had been taken by the outgoing personality of the petite fair-skinned blond with the pixie face. Lauren was open to almost any adventure, and the daytrip to Philadelphia had been her idea.
“I want to soak up the holiday magic of the city,” she had told him.
After some window shopping along Walnut Street in Center City—what the city’s tourism advertisements touted as “the Fifth Avenue of Philadelphia”—they had walked to JFK Plaza, commonly called LOVE park, which covered an entire tree-filled block across the street from City Hall.
A festive holiday crowd packed its German-themed Christmas Village, which was patterned on Nuremburg’s sixteenth-century Christkindlesmarkt. Rows of Alpine-influenced wooden huts offered traditional German food and drink and holiday wares, and there were live performances by string quartets and dancers in authentic period outfits.
Tony had bought Lauren a genuine Bavarian felt hat, dark green with a brown feather poked in the side of its hatband, which she now wore at a rakish angle while sipping a warm cup of Glühwein, red wine spiced with clove, cinnamon, and orange. He wasn’t sure it if was the alcohol or the weather—it had snowed heavily the previous night and looked like it might again—that caused her high cheeks and perky nose to glow with a cute rose hue.
Lauren, looking more closely at the area surrounding the sculpture, realized that her idea was far from an original one. There clearly was a line of at least twenty people waiting for a turn before the artwork and the lit Christmas tree behind it. The line wound around the circular granite fountain behind the piece. But she didn’t mind.
She pointed at it.
“What?” he said.
“I want a photo of us in front of that, Tony,” she announced, tilting her head back to look up at him, her bright eyes beaming beneath the brim of green felt.
Over a tight long-sleeve black top she wore a sleeveless white goose-down jacket. Tony, in brown corduroy pants, flannel shirt, and a fur-collared black leather bomber jacket, had on a floppy red and white Santa hat.
“Of course you do,” he said, and smiled at her. “You want a photo with everything.”
“Let’s go then!”
She grabbed his hand and led the way, weaving through gaps in the heavy crowd. As they went, Tony caught the smell of meat grilling, then looked around and saw a trail of smoke drifting up from a wooden hut. Its signage read: BRATWURST MIT SAUERKRAUT. He suddenly felt hungry.
They reached the back of the line for the sculpture. After a moment, Lauren realized that it was moving faster than she’d expected it would. And then she saw why, and smiled: the people in line were helping each other. When someone was ready to pose in front of the artwork, they would hand their camera to the person in line behind them, who then stepped up to take their picture. Then that person would take their turn, and the next in line would take that person’s photo.
Not ten minutes later, Lauren and Tony were kissing in front of the LOVE artwork and the forty-something woman who’d joined the line immediately after them was snapping their picture with Lauren’s cellphone.
Lauren retrieved her phone and thanked the woman. Then, inspecting the images and smiling from ear to ear, she and Tony moved away from the sculpture. After a few steps, Lauren stopped beside the fountain.
“Hold this, babe,” she said, handing him her cup. “This shot is amazing. I want to post it now!”
As her fingers flew across her cellphone, she said aloud what she was typing: “At LOVE with my love in the City of Brotherly Love! Love, love, love this place!”
She looked at him and smiled.
“I’m so happy,” she added.
He leaned over and kissed her rosy cheek.
“And I’m happy you’re happy,” he said, then added: “How about hungry? Those brats back there smelled great.”
“Sure. I can always eat,” she said, taking back her Glühwein and grasping his hand. “Lead on.”
Lauren sipped her wine as Tony worked a path through the thick crowd. It was tight, and he repeatedly smiled politely and said “excuse us” as they brushed past. At one point, he found a gap. He took it, and a moment later bumped shoulders hard with someone he passed. He didn’t see who it was, but he certainly heard it was a male when the guy muttered, “Asshole!”
Still, Tony replied, “Sorry,” and kept moving—until a split second later he heard Lauren make a terrible moan and felt her grip loosen. She suddenly stopped.
Tony glanced back, and said, “You okay?”
At first, Tony thought that Lauren had spilled the cup of red wine on herself. But then he saw that the stain on her white jacket was a bright red—and that it was spreading quickly.
She had a look of pain and confusion in her eyes. She slipped down to the granite.
“Lauren!” Tony said.
A woman screamed and backed away as he dropped to his knees and held Lauren. The crowd formed a circle around them.
“Please,” Tony yelled looking up over his shoulder, “someone call an ambulance!”
Not a minute later the crowd parted as a uniformed Philadelphia police officer came running up.
“Hang on, Lauren,” Tony said, stroking her head as she just gazed back. Her face had turned pallid, the rosy color on her cheeks and nose gone.
The officer got down on one knee. “I radioed for paramedics. Be here any moment. What happened?”
“I— I don’t know,” Tony said, a tear slipping down his cheek. “We were just walking, then ... this.” He waved his hand helplessly at the blood-soaked jacket.
“What’s her name?” the officer said, placing his ear close to her nose and mouth to feel for breath.
Tony heard her make a gurgling sound.
“Lauren,” he said.
“Lauren, can you hear me?” the officer said, then raised his voice: “Help is coming! Hold on! Talk to me, Lauren!”
There was no immediate response.
But then a trickle of blood escaped the corner of her mouth and her nostrils. Her eyes became glazed.
The officer put his right index and middle fingertips to the side of her neck for a long moment.
“Oh, shit,” the officer said softly.
Tony jerked his head to look at him.
The officer met his eyes, then looked at Lauren, and slowly shook his head.
“I’m really sorry ...” the officer said, then automatically crossed himself, touching his right fingers to his forehead, his chest, and then his left and right shoulders ... .