by W.E.B. Griffin and William E. Butterworth IV


[ ONE ]
7522 Battersby Street, Philadelphia
Wednesday, September 9th, 1:55 A.M.

Tony Harris returned to his bed, silently cursing himself for not having hit the john before he’d crawled under the sheets two hours earlier. Harris—a thirty-eight-year-old homicide detective in the Philadelphia Police Department who was slight of build and starting to bald—then clicked off the lamp on his bedside table. As he put his head on his pillow and sighed, wondering when—or even if—he’d start to drift off back to sleep, a monstrous BOOM shook the house. It reverberated through the darkened room, knocking loose a picture frame from the wall, its glass breaking when it hit the floor.

“Holy shit!” he said aloud, sitting bolt upright and clicking on the lamp.

He looked toward the front window.

What in hell was that?

Did a damn gas leak just blow up the middle school?

Austin Meehan Middle School was a half-block down the tree-lined residential street.

Harris quickly got out of bed, crossed the room, and pulled back the curtain to look out the window. On either side of Battersby, the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood had a series of nearly identical, neatly-kept comfortable two-story brick duplexes with large lawns. The homes—some of which now with their lights flicking on—had stone facades on the front and garages in the rear, on a common alleyway. Because Harris’s garage served more as a storage unit than a car park, he left his city-issued Ford Crown Victoria sitting at the curb in front of his house.

It took Harris no time to locate the direction of the source: In the sky some blocks to the east, he saw a bright glow that he recognized as that from an intense fire.

Maybe a gas station on Frankford went up? he wondered as he automatically started picking up his clothes from the chair where he’d tossed them at midnight. He quickly pulled on his wrinkled pants and short-sleeved knit shirt, then slipped on socks and shoes. He watched as the glow from the fire seemed to pulse even brighter, as if the fire were being fed more fuel.

“Jesus!” he said aloud.

Harris double-checked that he had his wallet and badge and pistol, then ran down the stairs as fast as he dared and out the door.

He drove the Crown Vic Police Interceptor up Battersby, turning right onto Ryan Avenue, then followed it the seven blocks to Frankford Avenue, where Harris could clearly see that the intense glow was to the south. He was about to make the turn when he heard the wail of sirens—and then the huge horns blaring—of two fire department emergency medical vehicles. The red-and-white ambulances flew up on the intersection, braked heavily as they laid steadily on their horns, then accelerated through it.

Harris checked for any other vehicles headed for the intersection. He saw that it was clear, and turned to follow the ambulances.

As he went south on Frankford, the sky became a brighter orange-red mingled with black and gray smoke. And then, down on the left side of the street, he saw the first of the flames. They were coming from the back of the Philly Inn, an aging two-story motel that had been built long before Anthony J. Harris had been born at Saint Joseph’s Hospital.

He pulled into a parking lot to the north of the motel, to where he had a better view of all the activity. He also enjoyed more than a little of an olfactory assault from the awful smell filling the air and now entering the car via the dash vents.

That’s the smell of burning wood, for sure, and plastics.

But I’d bet that’s also a bit of human flesh . . . you can damn near taste it.

Philadelphia Fire Department Engine 36, from the station just up Frankford, already was on the scene. It had hoses snaking everywhere and the firefighters were laying down an impressive amount of water. Other firemen were going door to door, methodically clearing the motel’s rooms and herding what people they found inside to a parking lot to the south. Doors that no one answered were busted open with twenty-eight-pound metal battering rams and the hammer-headed pry bars called Halligans.

The pair of ambulances that had flown past Harris at the intersection were parked close-by, their paramedics pulling out equipment—first aid kits, backboards—with a well practiced efficiency. A minute or so later, Engine 38 came roaring in from its station a mile away on Old State Road—followed by an articulated ladder fire truck, which Harris thought a bit of overkill for a lowly two-story structure.

But, hell. Can’t blame them.

Everyone loves a little adrenaline rush, especially these guys getting to play with all their toys.

And this damn fire seems to offer plenty of excitement.

It’s got my pulse beating. No way I could go back to sleep now.

Harris noted that the Philadelphia Police Department was well represented, too. Cruisers practically surrounded the place. There even was a flat bed wrecker from the Tow Squad, which was being waved toward the back of the motel.

Harris looked to where the wrecker was being routed and saw a half-dozen firefighters working feverishly at a SUV. It was on the backside of the motel, at a room with its door blown outward, where the flames appeared to be the hottest.

And where the blast took place.

The firemen were in the middle of a row of vehicles parked outside the motel rooms, and were inserting a heavy fire-resistant blanket in through the framework that once held the SUV’s front windshield.

The wrecker raced up to the back bumper of the SUV, and a heavy-linked stainless steel chain was quickly slung from the SUV’s bumper to a tow hook bolted on the front frame of the wrecker.

The driver ground the gear shift into reverse and carefully took up the slack in the chain. At a firefighter’s rapid hand signals and shouts of “Go! Fuckin’ go, go, go!” the diesel engine then roared and the wrecker started tugging the SUV away from the fire.

The wrecker didn’t slow until it had slid the SUV practically in front of Harris’s Crown Vic, leaving a trail of black tire marks across the parking lot.

That’s one of those really fancy Mercedes-Benz SUVs.

What the hell is it doing here?

And how the hell is it connected to that explosion?

There’s absolutely no question it has to be . . . .

One of the emergency medical vehicles then pulled alongside the passenger side of the SUV. Floodlights mounted on the side of the unit were switched on, brightly illuminating the SUV. Two firefighters almost instantly appeared carrying a heavy metal device with hydraulically-powered pincers that Harris recognized as the Jaws of Life. The rescue tool proceeded to cut the right side of the Mercedes to pieces as other rescuers worked feverishly from inside the left side doors to stabilize whoever was unlucky enough to be in the vehicle.

There suddenly was more shouting at the motel, and when Harris turned his attention to it he saw the impossible—a man on fire came staggering out of the motel room that had the blown-outward door.

One fireman rushed to the man. As he tackled him to smother the fire, a fire hose was trained on the both of them, instantly flooding the flames. Then the fireman stood and seemingly effortlessly slung the man over his shoulder. He ran with him—slipping twice—to the second ambulance, where the paramedics waited ready to go to work.

Forty-five minutes later, twenty minutes after the motel fire had been brought under control if not put out, Harris watched the emergency medical personnel remove from the SUV someone they’d strapped to a rescue backboard. The victim looked to Harris to be a young woman. She had IV hoses dangling from her arm and wore an oxygen mask.

Five minutes later, the doors of the ambulance slammed shut, and its siren wailed as the unit began to roll. As if on cue, the other ambulance did the same only a minute later.

Harris scanned the motel, and saw that the firemen were putting what Harris thought of as their toys back in their trucks. And he saw that the yellow and black POLICE LINE – DO NOT CROSS tape was being strung up, signifying the scene was being turned over to the police.

Well, now that all the excitement’s over, Harris thought, reaching for the door handle, professional curiosity overwhelms me.




[TWO ]
The Philly Inn
7004 Frankford Avenue, Philadelphia
Wednesday, September 9th, 1:15 A.M.

Forty minutes earlier, Becca Benjamin, despite having to wait in her silver Mercedes-Benz G550 at the back of a lousy Northeast Philly motel, had just reminded herself that she could not believe how much her luck had changed.

Becca—a trendy twenty-five-year-old brunette with olive skin who was five-foot-seven and just under one hundred forty pounds, having recently started winning her battles to keep the bathroom scale from tipping one-fifty—had not only reconnected with her prep school boyfriend two months ago but they had found that they still enjoyed what first had brought them together: partying, mostly booze-fueled but with the occasion recreational drug.

They had first dated nine years ago when in the Upper School at Episcopal Academy. She had been a voluptuous sixteen-year-old in IV Form (tenth grade) and J. Warren Olde Jr., known as “Skipper,” then eighteen and in VI Form (senior year), had begun flirting with her in the back row of an International Politics class. He was taking it for the second time, having yet to meet even the lowest threshold of the academic standards for passing the required course.

Skipper had a slender athletic build—he was a star player on the academy’s championship lacrosse team, a midfielder who seemed to float effortlessly from one end of the one-hundred-ten-yard field to the other—and stood five-ten. His sandy hair was cut to his collar, with long bangs that he regularly swept out of his eyes. He was genuinely gregarious, quick with a laugh. And Becca, herself outgoing, had been immediately taken by his attentions.

Their relationship had lasted, though, only until the end of the school year. It had been a wild ride—literally—as an inebriated Skipper, driving Becca home after a graduation party, had misjudged a Dam View Road curve—actually wound up going down an estate’s driveway at a high rate of speed—and put his little Audi in Springton Reservoir. Becca wound up with a broken collar bone and a trip to the Riddle Memorial Hospital emergency room in Media.

The Benjamins and Oldes—both families of significant means and, accordingly, connections with which they arranged to get the incident forgotten in the legal system, if not in their own tony community—were not amused. His parents declared Becca a wild child, albeit one in a woman’s body, while her parents deemed the older boy a bad influence, unfit for their impressionable sweet sixteen-year-old—and thus absolutely off-limits.

Neither Becca nor Skipper was thrilled about the forced separation. But then, while Skipper’s angry old man still was dealing with the lawyers and having the sports car fished from the reservoir, Skipper’s mother had sent him off early to the small private university he’d been set to attend in Texas—her alma mater in her hometown of Dallas. And so neither teenager had been prepared to fight the inevitable. They’d agreed to stay in touch, but even that turned out to be short-lived. They simply lost contact.

Then, two months ago, at a Fourth of July party on the Jersey shore thrown by a mutual friend from their prep school days, they’d run into each other. Becca had first noticed Skipper—who’d been standing beside the beer keg cooler on the beach—mostly because he wore, in addition to flowery Hawaiian-style surfer shorts and aviator-style sunglasses, a frayed straw cowboy hat and a white t-shirt emblazoned with a running red horse and block lettering that read S.M.U. MUSTANGS LACROSSE.

They had found their outsized personalities were still in sync—with their appetites somewhat matured—and they damned near immediately picked up where they’d left off years before.

The party was back on.

Now, Becca sat in the front passenger seat of the boxy Mercedes SUV; she’d had Skipper drive because she’d been shaking too much from the drugs. She hated that downside, which included her being stressed, as she was now. But she told herself there was no question that the upside’s euphoria was worth it, not to mention the added benefit of a killed appetite that helped her finally lose—and keep off—those damned ten-plus pounds.

Despite the night, she stared through dark bug-eyed sunglasses at the motel door to Room 52. Then she punched the map light switch in order to read her wristwatch. The white-platinum diamond-bezel Audemars Piguet had cost her parents more than what most of the battered work trucks and cars parked near the Mercedes were worth, never mind the six-figure sticker of the SUV itself. Her arm twitched a little, but she could tell by the position of the watch’s hands—there were no numbers, just four dots of diamonds, twinkling in the map light, to represent the 3, 6, 9, and 12 on the face—that it now was just after one-fifteen.

Her hands and feet were cold—another side-effect from the drug—so she sat with her feet tucked under her thighs, her arms crossed with her hands resting and warming in her armpits. She wore cream colored linen shorts and a tan silk blouse that was cut low in the front, revealing her ample bosom, which now was rising and falling more rapidly than normal.

He’s been in there fifteen minutes.

He said it’d take only one: “In and out, baby.”

What’s taking so long?

Is he okay?

Should I go in?

Hell no, I shouldn’t go in—who knows who’s in there?—and I sure as hell don’t want to go in that fleabag room.

But what if he’s not okay?

What if—

Her cellular phone, resting on her lap, simultaneously vibrated briefly and made a ping sound, announcing the receipt of a text message.

“Damn!” she said, startled. It caused her to uncross her arms and kick out her feet.

She quickly glanced at the phone’s screen, thinking the text might be from Skipper. She saw—barely, as her sleep-deprived eyes had trouble focusing on the backlit small print—that it was from her girlfriend Casey, who was asking WHERE R U??

Becca threw the phone onto the leather-covered console between the front seat, and sighed loudly.

She looked back at the motel door, wondering if she should shoot Skipper a text massage. Maybe something along the lines of WTF???

Yeah, Skipper—What The Fuck?

The only movement she saw was from the motel room curtain, which was pulled closed over the open window and gently swaying, as if being blown by a breeze.

She crossed her arms and tucked her feet back under her and closed her eyes. After a while, she glanced at her watch again.


That’s it. I’m going in there.

She had just clicked off the map light and reached for and found the button to depress that would release her seatbelt when the door of Room 52 swung open. Out came Skipper Olde, holding a white handkerchief over his nose and mouth.

Olde wore a baggy navy blue t-shirt, khaki shorts, and sandals, and his aviator sunglasses hung from the front of the collar of his t-shirt. At twenty-seven, he still had his athletic slender build and his sandy hair collar-length, but no bangs as he was thinning noticeably on top.

He pulled the motel door shut, then stuffed the handkerchief in his pants pocket. He glanced at the Mercedes, and Becca saw him flash his usual happy-go-lucky grin at her.

He quickly walked to the driver’s door of the SUV, and got in.

She then hit the button that simultaneously locked all the doors.

“What happened?” Becca said softly. “I was worried. I was just about to come after you.”

“Sorry, baby. They were having a little trouble in there.” He reached into his t-shirt pocket and pulled out a white plastic bag that was heat-sealed at each end. It was about the size of a single-serve sugar packet. “I should’ve brought this out to you first, then helped them.”

She pulled the bug-eyed sunglasses from her face and slipped them up on the top of her head.

Skipper Olde placed the white bag beside her cellular phone on the leather-covered console. She looked at it, then at Skipper, then nervously glanced out the darkened side windows, then the rear ones, to see if anyone was watching them.

“Go on,” he said smiling. “It’s yours.”

She smiled back weakly, then leaned over in her seat, and kissed him quickly on the cheek.

“Thank you,” she said, picking up the packet, then biting off a corner and removing the cut stub of a plastic drinking straw from it. She looked at Skipper. “What about you?”

He looked a little embarrassed, then nodded toward the motel room.

“I had a bump when I first went in. And there’s more cooking. That’s what they where having trouble with.”

He nodded at the pouch she held, and said encouragingly, “Go on, baby. It’ll take your edge off.”

She smiled slyly, and said, “You don’t have to tell me twice.”

Becca Benjamin—who at age fourteen had been the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s top Girl Scout cookie salesgirl, which she later listed under ACCOMPLISHMENTS on her University of Pennsylvania application to the Wharton School’s master of business administration program—straightened herself upright in her seat. With the effortlessness of one who’d had some practice, she cupped the white packet with her hand so that it could not be seen, then took the straw stub and slipped an end in the hole she’d bitten, then placed the other end halfway up her right nostril. She pinched her left nostril closed, and snorted.

Shit that burns!” she said after a moment, vigorously rubbing the outside of her right nostril after removing the straw.

But Skipper saw that she was smiling.

He also saw that all of the off-white powder had not been fully ingested. Some, mixed with mucus, was trickling toward her upper lip. With a fingertip, he wiped it from there, then licked it off his finger, and grinned at her. She shook her head in mock disgust.

His cellular phone rang, and when he looked at its screen, he said, “Damn!” then answered it by saying, “Sorry. Running late. Give me ten minutes. It’s still in the office safe.” He listened for a moment, added, “No, no, I want you to have it before Becca and I leave town,” then hung up without another word. He put the phone on the center console.

“I need to go inside and put together some more,” Olde said as he opened the driver’s door. He looked back in at her, said, “I’ll be right back, baby. Promise.”

She held up her left index finger, and said, “Wait a sec.”

She then snorted through the straw again, working it around the packet as she did so. Then she held out both to him. “Don’t need this empty bag in my car.”

Wordlessly, he took it and the straw, then got out and closed the door.

Becca hit the master locking button for the doors as she watched him go into the room. The motel lights hurt her dilated eyes, and she pulled the sunglasses from her hair and slid them back over her eyes.

Skipper’s cellular phone started ringing again. She grabbed it, then held down the button on top labeled 0/1, turning it off. Then she reached for the switch on the door that manipulated her seat’s position, reclined the seat back almost flat, and laid back while enjoying the sudden pleasant flood of warmth that the methamphetamine triggered by tricking her brain into creating the chemical Dopamine in overdrive.




The Philly Inn
7004 Frankford Avenue, Philadelphia
Wednesday, September 9th, 1:40 a.m.

Skipper Olde unlocked and entered the motel room, which had the cat-piss stench of ammonia and stank of other caustic odors. He put the handkerchief back to his face, and quickly stepped around a heavy cardboard box that had been moved by the door. Then, tripping over the coil of clear surgical tubing next to it, he let loose with a long, creative string of expletives.

That caused the two Hispanic males in their twenties at the stove of the kitchenette in the back of the room to laugh from behind the blue bandanas tied over their nose and mouth.

And that in turn caused Skipper to bark, “Fuck you two and the cocksucking donkey you rode in on!”

Then he laughed, too.

The pair grunted and shook their heads, then turned their attention back to the stove.

Olde—stepping past the box fan with its switch set to HIGH to help the window unit circulate the air, and causing the tan curtain to sway—looked around in an attempt to find an obvious path to follow to the kitchenette. It wasn’t that the motel room was small. The problem was that the room was packed, to the ceiling in places, with boxes and barrels and assorted materials. It was what could be described as a haphazard-warehouse-slash-makeshift-assembly-line.

The Philly Inn’s management advertised the facility as modern. But it in fact had been built more than fifty years earlier and thus of an older two-floor design—“low rise,” its advertisements called it, playing on the nicer image that tended to come to mind with the term “high rise.” It was of masonry construction, each of the one hundred twenty rooms basically an off-white rectangular box with a burgundy-painted steel door opening to the outside, a plate glass window (with tan curtain) overlooking the parking lot, and, under the window, an air-conditioning unit.

In its heyday, the Philly Inn served as short-term, affordable lodging for traveling salesmen who used it as their base on U.S. Highway 13—which was what Frankford also was designated—and for families who took their vacations in Philadelphia, enjoying the historic sites and museums in the city, and the entertainment of the various themed amusement parks nearby.

Each large room—all identical and advertised as “a De-Luxe Double Guest Room”—had a thirty-two-inch TV on the four-drawer dresser, a round formica-topped table with four wooden chairs, two full-size beds separated by a bedside table with lamp and telephone (though the phones mostly went untouched, as an additional cash deposit upfront was required to make local and long-distance calls). The mosaic-tiled bathroom held a water closet and a tub-shower combination. And taking up all of the far back wall was an ample kitchenette with a three-burner electric stove and oven, a single sink, a full-size refrigerator, and a small countertop microwave oven secured to the wall with a steel strap so that it might not accidently wind up leaving with a guest at checkout.

Depending on one’s perspective, the Philly Inn wasn’t exactly seedy. Skipper Olde himself had spent the night there more than a few times, though it’d been mostly out of necessity, as he’d been far from sober enough to drive. But it damn sure was sliding toward sleazy. It had long ago lost the steady business of the salesmen and families on holiday to the shiny new chain hotels nearer Philadelphia’s Northeast Airport, mere miles to the north, and on Interstate 95.

Now, the Philly Inn had an entirely different demographic of guests, ones who tended to stay more long-term. The motel had become temporary housing for those who needed some really cheap—but livable—place to stay during the period, say, after having sold their rowhouse and not yet able to move into the next one, or while waiting for family members or friends who were receiving medical treatment at the many nearby hospitals, such as Nazareth, Friends, Temple University, even the Shriner’s for children.

The Philly Inn’s posted rack rate was still the same seventy-five dollars a night that it’d been for at least the last decade. It was, however, not unheard of for management to agree to a negotiated rate of as little as twenty-five bucks a night, even less for those staying thirty days or longer and paying—usually with cash—each week in advance.

There still were quite a few couples or families staying as guests for days or even as long as a week. But there were many more long-termers. These latter ones were mostly transient laborers, men working in construction—you could tell them by all their pickups in the parking lot late at night—and other seasonal work such mowing the countless lawns of suburban offices and homes, and harvesting the fruits and vegetables of the farms nearby and the ones across the river in New Jersey.

The motel management was as conscientious as it could be about keeping some separation between the workers and the families, assigning rooms to each in their own part of the motel and leaving rooms vacant between as a buffer.

But as far as the owner of the property was concerned, none of that really mattered. The reality was that the Philly Inn’s days were numbered. Its demise was inevitable, and about the only real reason the damn place had not been boarded up—or torn down completely—was because it could be made to show a profit. Enough to cover the bills, from its utilities to the assorted taxes levied upon it, which was not the same thing as saying that the motel did in fact earn a profit.

Its owner—Skipper Properties LLC, of which one J. Warren Olde, Jr., served as managing principal—had bought the place in a deal that included two other aged motels and a string of laundromats.

Skipper Properties LLC already had plans drawn up to build fashionable condominiums on the ten acres of land presently occupied by the Philly Inn. Being a self-proclaimed civic-minded company, Skipper Properties LLC was trying to jump-start a gentrification of the area. It arguably was mere coincidence that the company also had quietly bought up nearby parcels, including practically stealing a strip shopping center, to flip later at a huge profit.

Skipper Properties LLC announced that this so-called jump-start would take place just as soon as His Honor the Mayor of Philadelphia convinced the goddamned lamebrain city council to come to its senses and grant said civic-minded Skipper Properties LLC the “fair and just” tax abatement and other incentives that had been requested so as to make such a project viable—which was to say profitable—and build a more beautiful city.

There were secondary reasons that Skipper Olde was in no hurry to tear down the place—ones he certainly was not in the habit of sharing freely. Chief among these was that the inn was a mostly cash business now, and books were easily cooked when a lot of cash was involved. Also, most of the laborers living at the inn and at the two other aged motels the LLC had bought earned that cash by laboring for companies that were more or less indirectly controlled by Skipper Olde. Though, again, with Skipper not sharing such information freely, particularly with his silent partner-investor, and keeping those connections at arm’s length, few knew many, if any, of those details.

So, as far as Skipper Olde was concerned, the how and why of that, if shared with others, would only create problems for him. The bottom line was that the various companies had plenty of work for the laborers, and the laborers were ready and willing to do it—and for low wages. But they could not do so if they had no place they could afford to live on a semi-permanent basis.

Thus, the Philly Inn—the vote of the damned Philadelphia city council not withstanding—was worth more standing as-is than demolished.

For the time being.

Skipper Olde began blazing a path through Room 52 by pushing aside a stack of cardboard boxes—one box was labeled 4 ROLLS POLY TUBING, ALL-VIRGIN FILM, USDA- AND FDA-APPROVED, 2-MIL 1-IN X 1,500-FT, the other BUN-O-MATIC COFFEE FILTERS – ONE (1) GROSS.

As he squeezed past a short wall of more than a dozen boxes stacked three and four high, some imprinted with LEVITTOWN POOL & SPA SUPPLY. HANDLE WITH EXTREME CARE! HYDROCHLORIC ACID. 2 1-GAL BOTTLES, the wall wobbled.

He called out to the pair standing at the kitchenette stove: “Hey, you amigos need to move these. If this fucking muriatic acid spills, it’ll eat you to the bone!”

He pointed to two plastic orange jugs, at the foot of the beds, that were stenciled in black ink HYPOPHOSPHOROUS ACID. HAZARDOUS! USE ONLY IN WELL-VENTILATED AREA!

“Same with that shit!” he added.

Then he worked his way around the stacks of clear plastic storage bins containing various boxes of single-edge utility razor blades, some plastic gallon jugs of iodine, and heavy polymer boxes of lye.

At least that caustic soda is safe in those thick plastic boxes.

One clear plastic storage bin held gallon cans of Coleman fuel, refined for use in camping stoves and lanterns. Yet another was filled with ten or so smaller tubs of white pellets, hundreds of pills per tub, on top of which was a commercial-grade stainless steel blender coated in the white dust of the pellets. And, beside a home-office paper shredder, which was overflowing with confetti, was a pile of opened plastic blister packs common to holding individual doses of medication.

When Olde reached the kitchenette, he wasn’t surprised to see one burner of the electric stove still was in pieces—the crusty coil cracked in at least three places—as the damage had been done at his hand when he’d tried getting it to work during his earlier visit to the room.

The other two burners each now held a large non-stick skillet and clearly were working just fine. Not only was the milky fluid in each at a fast boil—giving off a remarkable mist that floated up and hung heavily over the stove—but the thermometers clipped to the lip of each pan indicated a temperature of 450-degrees Fahrenheit.

The two Hispanic males, both wearing blue rubber gloves, now paid Olde no attention. They carefully poured a honey yellow fluid from a square Pyrex glass baking dish into a paper coffee filter that had been placed over the mouth of a Mason jar.

There was a line of the heavy glass jars, ones with lids screwed on. These contained various colored fluids at different stages of a separation process, with solids settling to the bottom and the fluids rising to the top. After filtering the honey-colored fluid and spinning on a lid, the Hispanic males then methodically went about measuring and adding fluids to the various other jars, then resealing and shaking them, then letting them settle and cool, then using the surgical tubing to siphon off the top fluids.

Skipper Olde walked over to the folding table that had been positioned beside the stove. It had been set up as an assembly station. On it was a plastic bowl containing some partially crumbled whitish cakes and a plastic measuring spoon imprinted with 1 TBSPN on the handle. Next to that was a one-foot-square of glass mirror that had some residue of the whitish powder on it, an electronic scale with a digital readout in ounces and grams, a package of the single-edged razor blades, and a quart-sized plastic jar of methylsulfonyfoylmethane—labeled MSM DIETARY SUPPLEMENT. And there was an unwrapped spool of the flat plastic tubing, right next to which was the wand-like iron that first snipped the tubing into single-serve-size packets then was used to heat-seal them closed.

Skipper Olde smiled. When he’d been in the room earlier, there had been nothing in the plastic bowl on the folding table. Now, he was in business.

He pulled one of the wooden chairs to the table, then with the measuring spoon scooped up some of the crumbled cake from the bowl and put it on the mirror. Using a razor blade held by a ten-inch-long polymer handle, he quickly chopped at the powder, turning what little clumps and chunks there were into a fine powder.

He then bypassed the usual next step—mixing in the MSM to cut the pure meth, then measuring out “Eight Balls,” exact portions of one-eighth ounce, each bringing these days $200 “retail” on the street. Instead, he used the razor blade to shovel the neat pile of power—easily a half-ounce—into a white packet he’d snipped from the roll of plastic tubing. He then sealed that packet shut and repeated the process, filling three more and putting them in his pocket.

That’s about two ounces, he thought, then grinned. Uncut, an easy fifty Franklins. But I hope the bastard’s got something smaller than all hundreds, even though they’re easier to carry than bricks of twenties.

Skipper Olde then got up and walked over to the two Hispanic males.

Olde glanced at the broken coil on the stove.

“One last try,” he announced, which earned him dubious looks from the Hispanic males.

He turned the dial that controlled the burner’s temperature, setting it to LO so that in the event he was successful he wouldn’t burn the shit out of his fingers. Then he grasped the cracked coil and jiggered it, pulling its plug end from the receptacle on the stovetop, then reinserting it, then jiggering it again with more gusto.

Nothing happened.

“Fuck it,” he finally said, frustrated. He smacked the coil, breaking it in pieces. “One of you go get one from another room’s stove.”

Then he nodded at the bathroom.

“I’m hitting the baño and then it’s adios, pendejos!

As Skipper Olde entered the bathroom, a crackling sound came from the plug receptacle of the broken coil on the stove, followed by an enormous electrical spark.

The spark immediately met the rising mist of phosphine gas that was being released by the overheated hypophosphorous acid in the milky fluid of the pans. And that instantly triggered an intense explosion—making Skipper Olde’s declaration of “Goodbye, assholes” profoundly prophetic.

At almost the same time, Becca Benjamin, feeling flush from her quickened heart rate, was enjoying the warmth coursing through all parts of her body. With the meth heightening her urges, she’d been entertaining the thought of a nice romp with Skipper in her Center City luxury loft overlooking the Delaware River—Or maybe right here right now in the backseat—and gently stroked herself through the front of her cream colored linen shorts.

Let’s go, Skip.

She glanced at her watch.

Almost two?

Damn it.

She pushed the lever on the door that caused her seat back to begin returning upright. Then, as the motel window came into view, there suddenly was a horrific blinding flash, followed immediately by the plate glass exploding outward and a concussion that rocked the box-shaped Mercedes.

In what seemed like a dream, Becca felt the vehicle shake violently, then watched the windshield go from clear to crazed as shards of plate glass struck it, and then felt the crushing sensation of the windshield, blown free of its frame, as it pushed her against the seatback with such force that the seatback flopped back with her to the reclined position.

And then her world went black.

The explosion had triggered the vehicle’s alarm system and, as the chemical-fueled flames from the motel room roared and there came the thuuum! thuuum! thuuum! sounds of the secondary smaller explosions that were the cans of Coleman fuel cooking off one after another, the horn of the Mercedes bleated its steady warning.



From THE TRAFFICKERS — Book IX in the best-selling BADGE OF HONOR series.
Published August 4, 2009.