Q&A with Chapters 10-13 Authors

How did you get on board with “Naked Came the Cheesesteak?”

Shaun Haurin: The lovely and talented author Kelly Simmons is an old friend, and she tipped off the editors to my existence.

Mary Anna Evans: I came to the Cheesesteak family through a circuitous chain of connections. I had recently moved to the Philadelphia area to study for an MFA in creative writing at Rutgers-Camden. A friend from Florida introduced me to a friend of hers who had recently graduated from Rutgers-Camden, but who is now in a PhD program in Tennessee. He heard that Mitch Sommers was looking for Philadelphia-area authors for a collaborative novel. Mitch and I got in touch and shook hands on the deal, electronically speaking. Because there is always a significant lag time in publishing–Great writing takes time!–and because I was scheduled to write the last chapter, I had graduated and taken a job at the University of Oklahoma by the time I wrote my installment.  And all this multi-state activity took place by email, yet resulted in a pretty cool book, if I do say so myself.  Amazing!

Don Lafferty: I can’t remember if Tori or Kelly Simmons approached me first, but when I heard they were on board, along with my good friends, Merry Jones and Gregory Frost, I was honored that they’d thought of inviting me to be part of the project.

Diane Ayres: Accidentally. I was at the annual Xmas Writer’s Party which my husband and I co-host for our fellow writer friends and acquaintances every year who don’t work in offices. We all miss out on those wild parties, so we have our own,( although it’s relatively tame). It was December 2014, and I was catching up with my old pal Greg Frost at the party when Merry Jones approached, and they started telling me about the serial novel they were writing with eleven other local writers. They mentioned that one of the writers had dropped out recently. Since I just happened to be standing there, they were both way too kind and polite to let me feel like the odd author out, so they asked if I would I be interested in doing a chapter. I was well into my second martini so I said “sure!”


Tell me a little about the characters and story in your chapter.

Shaun Haurin: Without giving too much away, my chapter is a character study of Detective Chelsea Simon’s restaurateur husband, Arturo.  He’s about to open yet another new restaurant and is contemplating the wisdom of such a decision the night before Halloween.  He also has his Uncle Bull on his mind (the eatery’s namesake) as well as the recent death of his mistress, Chelsea’s colleague on the police force.  Needless to say, it’s not an especially enjoyable evening for him (though I hope it’s enjoyable for the reader!).

Mary Anna Evans: By the time the manuscript rolled around to me, the setting had moved to a completely new city. None of the previous chapters had been set there, and I’ve never been there. The character list was down to two, unless I wanted to stop the narrative action by plunking them on a plane and sending them home to Philly.  Thank you, Warren dear, for that little curve ball.

Don Lafferty: I can’t. My chapter is a spoiler. This also gets me out of public readings.

Diane Ayres: Unfortunately, I’m incapable of telling “a little” about anything, as the audacious length of my chapter demonstrates. For this, I can only beg the forgiveness of my worthy peers and fellow Cheesesteakers. But a serial writer’s gotta do what a serial writer’s gotta do. And in my defense … There was a lot going on in chapters one through ten, with many entertaining characters and plot twists and turns, but it was a little short on any pending resolution. With only two more chapters to go, I felt a great deal of responsibility to braid some of those loose threads together. I did my best to work in some aspect or element of every chapter, although I did not succeed with a couple that were self-contained—not that there’s anything wrong with that. There were quite a few narrative points of view, including Nathanial Popkin’s chapter in the first person, which added another refreshing dimension and perspective. Randall Brown picked up on the voice in one of his scenes in Chapter 9, which I felt was the perfect set up for me to carry it on and give it a name, Steven Barr.

My opening CNN scene was purely satirical because I decided that the only way to handle all of those dead bodies and unanswered questions was to take it over the top, making all of that confusion a seemingly intentional and integral part of the plot. In addressing the absurdity in that first scene, the following scenes would seem more plausible, by comparison—more real. The “realest” scene being the conversation between Ben and Chelsea at Dirty Frank’s—which was my take on Nathaniel Popkin’s dive bar of relevant and/or irrelevant characters. (And also nostalgic because it’s in my old hood.) I also felt the need to flesh out at least two major characters, who had been emerging as a potential love interest all along whether on purpose or unconsciously. These two were always clashing in chapters from the get-go, out of proportion to the problems—protesting a little too much, I thought, which could only mean one thing. They were hot for each other. This revelation afforded me the opportunity to have them meet privately so I could work in some crucial plot points and explanations while also slipping in a sex scene, such as it is, a gritty make-out moment behind Dirty Frank’s. (I don’t know about other readers, but I need a love interest in a novel to hold my interest.)

As for Steven Barr, I thought he needed something in his background to explain all of that deviant, homicidal, sociopathic, domestic terrorist kind of behavior, so I had a field day with the Freudian stereotypes, as well as the neurobiological psychiatric updates (i.e. genetic implications of having a clinically depressed father who committed suicide). I even threw in a warped Hitchcock joke: “Mother’s” waspy blonde hair that turns out to be a wig—perhaps even a wig made out of Mother’s hair before she lost it to cancer. How creepy is that? Yes, of course, my take on Steven Barr borders on camp, but it was also a chance to pick up on another, more serious undercurrent in the novel. The one wherein certain writers out of thirteen do a little riffing on the nature of being writers in the subtext. From Greg Frost’s satirical portrayal of the journalist—“journo”—as buffoon, Vincent “Pants” De Leon, at the Pen & Pencil Club in Chapter 3, to Steven Barr declaring the difference between fiction and nonfiction writers. And in the final scene, journalist Ben Travers insists he is incapable of writing fiction while also denigrating the fiction writers he envies for sitting around in their underwear all day making stuff up.


How did you go about writing your chapter now that the story’s coming to a close?

Shaun Haurin: I left the rollicking plot lines to the mystery-writer professionals and in effect hid behind my imaginary paisano.

Mary Anna Evans: As it turned out, these tight constraints sparked an idea that I think tied up the narrative tightly and unexpectedly. I believe all of us felt the tension between the story handed to us and our own plot ideas and our own style, but that’s not a bad thing.  Tension is inherent in any art. In fiction, it is what drives the story forward. I got a real creative jolt when I saw what I was going to have to do to resolve this tale. It was fun.

Don Lafferty: I was traveling, and so unable to attend when the team met at Cordelia Biddle’s crib to discuss the premise of the story and map out the chapter assignments. Email summaries of that meeting made their way to me, but I still didn’t quite grasp the voice or tone toward which the group had decided to aim. When the project got underway and I finally read Kelly Simmons’ opening chapter, I became acutely aware that I was in for something completely different from any writing project I’d ever been part of. Since I had nine months before my chapter would have top be written, I decided to wait until all the chapters were written before I would read any more. When one of the contributors bailed right out after reading Kelly’s chapter, I had a real WTF moment. And then when, a few weeks later, Cordelia bailed out over the direction the book was headed in light of the Pope’s upcoming visit to Philadelphia, I began to wonder if I’d somehow consigned my immortal soul to the dark side. All the while the chapters came in month after month. And I let them pile up. When it was finally my turn to write, I read the book in one sitting, and then, with my mind completely blown, feeling totally inadequate to move the story forward in a meaningful way, thought about it for a couple of tortured weeks. Then I wrote it. Then I strung poor Mitchell and Mary Anna out for a couple of weeks more. Then I sent it.

Diane Ayres: [See answer above.]


What do you think of the story overall?

Shaun Haurin: [insert string of thumbs up and ecstatic eye-patched ghost emojis]

Mary Anna Evans: It’s creative and weird and fun and engrossing. It hangs together as a whole in a way that I never expected it could, coming as it did from thirteen very different brains.  It says a lot for the authors that the group was able to create together a work of art as large as a novel, while still staying true to themselves as individuals.

Don Lafferty: I think the story is an honest reflection of each author’s unique perspective on the city we all call home, seen through the lens of each one’s storytelling sensibility. As a movie I see it as possibly, the Coen brothers’ first chick flick.

Diane Ayres: It’s a lot of fun.


What have you taken away from this experience? Did it meet your expectations?

Shaun Haurin: It was great fun! As someone who’s become conditioned to working (and receiving criticism) alone, I highly recommend getting a dozen other people to help write your next novel!

Mary Anna Evans: I take a lot of satisfaction from the finished product, and that’s particularly true because I wrote the summing-up chapter. While the other chapters were being written, I lived for months with worries like “What if there’s no way to make this thing internally consistent, much less fun to read?” More to the point, I worried that I personally wasn’t up to the task. I got a huge rush on behalf of all thirteen of us when I typed the last line. I’m grateful to have had the experience of working with everybody involved.

Don Lafferty: I went into this without expectations, that is, I knew this would be a learning experience, so I was going open to wherever my collaborators led me. Little did I know that it would turn me upside down, shake me up creatively and teach me to jump off a whole new ledge in my personal journey as a writer. And like every piece of writing I’ve ever delivered to an editor, I am reminded in the process, that while I know what I like, I don’t know the first thing about good writing.

Diane Ayres: It was a fascinating meeting of the minds and methods of fiction writers, and also good for me to share a creative experience, because I have always been exceedingly isolated in my work, and it’s good for me to get out occasionally. In regard to expectations I had none, but I would like to add that initially I made light of Greg and Merry being accidentally trapped into asking me to join the project, but it was, in all seriousness, a great honor and pleasure to participate. And I hope my effort didn’t disappoint.


Q&A with Chapters 7-9 Authors

How did you get on board with “Naked Came the Cheesesteak?”

Randall Brown: I wish I remembered, but ever since I turned fifty this year, my memories have begun fading. In any case, I’m so thrilled that we found each other. I’m a huge fan of PS Books!

Nathaniel Popkin: I have trouble saying no….no, really, I thought it would be fun to write under a completely different set of circumstances than what I am used to, and to work with these excellent writers.

Warren Longmire: I’ve been tangentially connected to Philadelphia Stories for years through my time as editor at Apiary Magazine and have recently been on a panel or two they held at Rosemont College. Though my focus is on poetry, I had done some fiction in the past and was intrigued by the chance to jump back in. I’m happy to have a chance to represent North Philly, my birth place, among the panel of writers.


Tell me a little about the characters and story in your chapter.

Randall Brown: I focused on one of the detectives in the story and her search for the murderer and his/her weapon(s) of choice. That search leads her through the icy city streets on the first winter strom of the year. Also I had been in the middle of a binge of CRIMINAL MINDS, so I think that show influenced my chapter a lot, especially the desire to profile characters.

Nathaniel Popkin: My character is the killer, who in the imaginative framework of my chapter is the writer. He is in hiding and seems to be seeking revenge on someone. Or not—it may be hard to tell. I just was interested in playing with some concepts, particularly those having to do with authorship and the wall between word and story, story and reality. With a book written by a chain of writers, the process really is the thing. So why not acknowledge it in the fiction itself?

Warren Longmire: My chapter attempts flesh out some back-story on Chelsea, the lead investigator in the murders and introduces are father Howard. The last we saw her, she had pretty brutally beat down a suspect (and incidentally, the only other black character in the novel) in the killing from Strawberry Mansion, a neighborhood in Philly not far from where I grew up. There was then a detour into a new, suspected mysterious character in West Philly hinted at being involved. I wanted to give nods both to this new development in the plot and explore what would make a black women from a hood-tinged area of a city become a police officer, let alone to participate in police brutality.


What are your thoughts on the direction of the story so far now that we are mid-way through the novel? 

Randall Brown: It has more ups and downs than a paper route in Manayunk.

Nathaniel Popkin: I just hope that the reader is rooting for the writer.

Warren Longmire: Lots of twists right? SUCH MISDIRECTION! The previous chapter in particular through much doubt into where the investigation was heading.


What was your writing process like?

Randall Brown: I am a very, very short fiction writer who primarily focuses on flash fiction, stories under 1000 words. So I think having to write a single chapter of a novel was a good experience for my own foray into longer forms. I approached it by writing the chapter in bite-sized chunks.

Nathaniel Popkin: I paced around my office, which is around a half wall/bookcase from my bed. I finally sat down. For some reason the idea of a New Yorker Magazine holiday party appeared in my head (not that I would know what such a party is like). I went from there. By the end of the day, I figured that the rest of the writers were going to come to my house and do a little cheesesteak number on me. So I was hesitant to press send. Then I did and no one showed up, so I went back around the wall and went to bed.

Warren Longmire: I tend to stick to place and image in my writing. Quiet moments draw me in and help to set the scene. Finally, I have a strong connection to the music of the language in my writing. The most difficult part of this project (in addition to sticking the word limit) was using these techniques in the service of my characters.


How do you feel about writing a serial novel? Is it challenging particularly because the novel is a murder-mystery?

 Randall Brown: It was a challenge, because every chapter that preceded mine changed my own views about what my own chapter should tackle. As I wrote my chapter, to be very honest, I still had no clue who had done it.

Nathaniel Popkin: I have no idea what I’m doing being part of mystery-thriller, or whatever this is. Not my territory. So I was afraid, really afraid. Frankly, I’m not even sure anyone knows what to do with my chapter. Will they ignore it? Reader, feel free to skip right over!

Warren Longmire: YES. Even when I did write fiction, it was never genre. I’d enjoyed the process, though, and am excited to see the results.

Q&A with Chapters 4-6 Authors

How did you get on board with “Naked Came the Cheesesteak?”

Kelly McQuain:  Mitch, the editor approached me. We’ve known each other since doing our MFA at the University of New Orleans. It had been a long while since I wrote a fiction project. I’ve been working in poetry and essays these last few years, and though I was a little shy at first I decided this might be a fun way back into writing fiction. It was.

Victoria Janssen: Greg Frost brought me on board, when one of the other writers cancelled. Greg and I used to be in a workshop together.

Tony Knighton: Christine Weiser got me involved.

Tell me a little about the characters and story in your chapter.

Kelly McQuain:  I wrote chapter 6, and it seemed each chapter that came before introduced a lot of new characters. I wanted to bring back or mention as many characters as I could so that there would be a sense of continuity and development. That’s what I like in books with large casts, to see the way the characters’ stories weave in and out of those around them. As this was near the midpoint of the novel, I thought it was important to do so. Of course, to pull this off I had to add a new character that I hoped a later writer might further develop. Arhsad is his name, a college student who sheds some light on the backstories of some of the other victims. I also wanted to add more diversity in terms of race and sexual identity.  I was delighted to have an opportunity  to also flesh out Josh, the food truck owner whose truck is where the initial murder happens. He’s mentioned in chapter 1, but he had been kept off-stage. And, of course, his girlfriend Angela had to reappear. In terms of tone, I tried to be consistent with chapter 1, that this was a comic murder mystery, both a satire and an affectionate peaen to the City of Brotherly Love.  I also wanted to pin down the passage of time during the fall term, so I set this chapter just before Halloween with a note to my collaborators that I hoped the upcoming holiday might make a good backdrop for a later chapter.

Victoria Janssen: My new characters were Olive Norvell and Laurel Gutierrez, police sidekicks for Chelsea Simon, the detective. I based their personalities very loosely on Laurel and Hardy; their main purpose was to serve as comedic foils. Given where my chapter fell, I thought it would be a good idea to sum up some of the previous action and create a bridge to later events, while working in another death. Greg had mentioned he’d created “Pants” to be a murder victim, so I obliged!

Tony Knighton: It seemed to me that the story was running away; I wanted to bring it back around to Angela (I liked her character).  I had used Mickey and Mrs. DeSantis in another story and thought them perfect for something happening Downtown.

Did you read the previous chapters before writing yours? How has this serial novel structure influenced your writing? 

Kelly McQuain:  Of course! I would have felt like I was being disrespectful to the hard work of the other writers if I hadn’t done so, and I would not have benefited from the seeds they had lain. What was useful to me was the meta-data the editors and other writers helped generate, so that I could more easily track characters and happenings. A project like this is fun for the wildly different approaches you see in what gets turned in, but to me it also emphasizes that for my own writing projects the importance of timelines, plot diagrams, and outlines to the cohesion of the work. This project, by it’s nature, breaks the rules in a fun way, but at the same time it served for me as a reminder of why those rules are there to begin with.

Victoria Janssen: I did read the previous chapters before beginning to write. I tried to make my chapter build structurally on what went before while providing a launch point for succeeding chapters. I didn’t make any attempt to match styles, because I figured the different authorial voices were a feature, not a bug.

Tony Knighton: Of course I read the previous chapters, and liked them a lot. If this exercise has influenced my writing I’m not aware of it.

What have you noticed about writing for a serial novel and how it influenced the overall story?

Kelly McQuain:  I had to make peace with the fact that the set-ups and characters I liked the most wouldn’t necessarily be embraced by later writers, who steered the ship in their own direction. A serial novel is not going to be as tight or as streamlined as an Agatha Christie novel. The fun lies in the diversity of approaches. I think what the overall novel becomes is a portrait of how 13 writers see Philadelphia at this moment in time. My favorite parts are how we satirize the city, how we critique its legal system and the exploitation of adjuncts on campuses throughout the city. How we poke fun at beloved low-brow cuisine like the cheesesteak as well as at Philly’s restaurant renaissance. How we even poke fun at the genre of mystery writing itself when the novel takes a possibly meta turn. A huge amount of geographical territory is also covered in the book. There are scenes at Kelly Writers House at Penn, at the Drexel Dragon, at Community College of Philadelphia and at Temple. Rittenhouse Square, South Philly, Strawberry Mansion, and so many other places also make appearances. The novel’s definitely a portrait of the city’s people and its places.

Victoria Janssen: I discovered how very useful it can be to keep a list of characters and their salient characteristics. I had done a couple of round robins before, so I was prepared for later authors to radically depart my expectations for the story.

Tony Knighton: I haven’t yet read the subsequent chapters; I want to read the story all at once.

Were you surprised at the direction any of the characters you wrote or created were taken by other writers, or did other writers express surprise at the direction you took with your characters?

Kelly McQuain:  Merry, who wrote chapter 2, expressed surprise when I read at our launch party  that I turned one of her characters gay. “No, Merry,” I playfully told her, “he was gay all along. Deep down in your sub-text.” The truth is, her character’s sexuality had not been clearly established, so I saw it as an opportunity to surprise the reader. Isn’t that what we try to do as writers? Just when a reader thinks they have everything pinned down, the writers shows them something new that deepens the story. Good old “recognition and reversal.” I’ll add that as a queer person myself, I do not operate under the de facto assumption that most of the world does, that all people are straight until proven otherwise. That’s a perspective and sensitivity I could bring to the mix, and probably one of the reasons Mitch wanted me on board.

I was less surprised by the direction in which my characters were taken (and other people’s) than I was in my desire to still want to know more about them by the novel’s end.  Several of these characters are interesting enough to drive their own books. One of the things that surprised me was that a project designed to be set in Philadelphia would ultimately end up somewhere else. But as for where… well, dear readers, you will just have to read and see.

Victoria Janssen: I haven’t finished reading the whole novel yet!

Tony Knighton: See [previous answer], and no.

Q&A with Chapters 1-3 Authors

How did you get on board with “Naked Came the Cheesesteak?”

Greg Frost: Mitch approached me, asked if I would be interested in contributing. I was aware of both its predecessors–Naked Came the Stranger and Naked Came the Manatee, the latter in particular; so I said yes.

Merry Jones: It was at Push to Publish. Mitch was talking to Kelly Simmons and Greg Frost about participating, and I thought, hey, sounds like fun. Why don’t I do it, too?

Kelly Simmons: It sounded like so much fun, are you kidding me?  To write outside my genre, to have no control of the story after it leaves your hands — it’s like improv!

Have you ever contributed to a serial novel written by multiple authors before? In what ways has this structure influenced your writing?

Greg Frost: I contributed many years ago to a serial work by my class at the Clarion Writers Workshop at Michigan State University.

Were you given any set requirements for the chapter you wrote?

Greg Frost: None beyond the first two chapters that preceded mine. I read through those, thought about them a bit and then proceeded.

Merry Jones: The story was supposed to be based in Philadelphia, and a mystery. Other than that, no. My chapter came early so I thought I should set up some crime, making it clear that the death in the first chapter wasn’t a fluke.

Kelly Simmons: I volunteered to go first — before I realized how hard that might be! I had a lot of setting up to do, character introductions, settings, etc, and still had to start with a bang.  We had agreed only on title, murder mystery, and that we would move it around different Philly neighborhoods.  I had a lot of fun interpreting the title!

Tell me a little about the characters and story in your chapter.

Greg Frost: I created a character, Vincent “Pants” de Leon, as a kind of halfwit who thinks he’s twigged the identity of the killer. His real purpose in the larger story is to be available for killing by someone further up the line. I hoped one of the later writers would loop him back in and bump him off.

Merry Jones: My characters are college kids who like cheesesteaks. They weren’t meant to continue through the chapters. They were meant to be victims….

Kelly Simmons: I had the honor of writing the first chapter — setting up the clues for the first murder, dangling possible motives, and introducing characters like a detective and a reporter that could be used going forward. But I chose to start off my chapter in South Philly with The Nicholetti family and their daughter Angela, a beautiful but mouthy and whipsmart Drexel student whose boyfriend, Josh, owns a popular, gourmet food truck whose signature dish is a Vegan Cheesesteak called The Without — and who is accused of the first murder.

How do you think the story will turn out?

Greg Frost: I’ve absolutely no idea. A lot of raw material was laid out early on, but it’s all down to the last few writers to assemble something like a cohesive narrative, to choose the door marked “Exit.” I would not presume.

Merry Jones: Haha. Good question. It’s out of my hands. I won’t/can’t even venture a guess.

Kelly Simmons: Well, since I know the person tasked with the last chapter, it’ll end with a brilliant twist, I’m sure!

About the Editors

Mitchell Sommers
Tori Bond

Assistant editors
Jon Busch
Tiffany Sumner
Emi London

Lena Van

Ryan McElroy – cover art
Tyler Hanssens – photo credit Philadelphia cityscape

About the Authors: Naked Came the Cheesesteak – A Serial Novel

Fiction writer and editor Diane Ayres is the author of the novel Other Girls (Kensington Hardcover), the Bella Vista story “Seeing Nothing” in Philadelphia Noir (Akashic), and the poetry chapbook Rotation Stabilizes. A graduate of Chatham College, she has taught writer’s workshops at Penn, the GLVWG, and many other conferences.

Randall Brown has been published and anthologized widely, both online and in print. He received his MFA from Vermont College and teaches in Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program.


Mary Anna Evans is the author of the Faye Longchamp archaeological mysteries, which have won awards including the Mississippi Author Award, the Benjamin Franklin Award, and three Florida Book Awards bronze medals. She holds an MFA from Rutgers-Camden, and she is an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma.

Gregory Frost is the author of novels—Shadowbridge, Lord Tophet, Fitcher’s Bride—and short stories of the fantastic, including  “Lock Up Your Chickens and Daughters—H’ard and Andy Are Come to Town,” a collaboration with Philly author Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s). He is the Fiction Workshop Director at Swarthmore College.


Shaun Haurin is a founding member of the artistic co-op Helveticats as well as the author of a story collection, Public Displays of Affectation. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of literary magazines.

Of Victoria Janssen’s three novels for Harlequin, The Moonlight Mistress (set during World War One) was nominated for an RT Book Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Award; her work has been translated into French, German, Italian, and Russian. Find out more at victoriajanssen.com or follow her on twitter @victoriajanssen.


Merry Jones is the author of nineteen suspense, humor, and non-fiction books. Her latest works include the Elle Harrison suspense novels (The Trouble With Charlie, Elective Procedures and, next year, Child’s Play) and the Harper Jennings thrillers (Summer Session, Behind The Walls, Winter Break, Outside Eden, In The Woods). Visit her at MerryJones.com.


Tony Knighton published the novella and story collection Happy Hour and Other Philadelphia Cruelties with Crime Wave Press. His story “The Scavengers” is included in the anthology Shocklines: Fresh Voices in Terror, published by Cemetery Dance, and his story “Sunrise” is included in the anthology Equilibrium Overturned, published by Grey Matter Press. He is a lieutenant in the Philadelphia Fire Department.

Don Lafferty is a writer, lecturer and marketing consultant. He’s written corporate communication, marketing and advertising copy, and feature articles for several national magazines. He’s the social media director of the literary magazine, Wild River Review, and serves on the board of directors of the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference.


Warren Longmire is a poet, web programmer, Philly native, and expert level whistler. He is the former poetry editor for Apiary Magazine and has been published in Painted Bride Quarterly, Eleven Eleven, and two chapbooks: Ripped Winters, and Do.Until.True. You can find his work at dountiltrue.tumblr.com.

Kelly McQuain is a poet, fiction writer, and artist. Recent projects include work in the anthologies The Queer South, Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books, and Rabbit Ears: TV Poems. His chapbook, Velvet Rodeo, won Bloom magazine’s poetry prize. He teaches writing in Philadelphia. Learn more at KellyMcQuain.wordpress.com.

Nathaniel Popkin is the author of three books, including the 2013 novel Lion and Leopard. He is editorial director of Hidden City Philadelphia and senior writer of “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment,” an Emmy award-winning documentary series. He is fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. His literary essays and book reviews appear in the Wall Street JournalPublic BooksThe Kenyon ReviewThe Millions, and Fanzine.

Kelly Simmons’ novels have been hailed as electrifying, complex and poignant, and aren’t those nice words? Her third novel, One More Day, debuts February 2016.  She’s a member of The Liars Club, a group of published novelists dedicated to helping fledgling writers. Read more at kellysimmonsbooks.com

Chapter Thirteen: Cities of Light and Brotherly Love (by Mary Anna Evans)

Life goes easier without love.  The poets would damn this for a lie, but it is true.

I should retreat into hiding. I’m good at it, and I’m safer when no one really knows me. But I want to be here. I want to be with her. Perhaps I can blame my indecision on Paris and its murderous spike of a tower. In Philadelphia, I knew who I was, but only in Philadelphia.

In Brooklyn, my edges blurred so profoundly that only three morning cups of strong dark espresso, brewed the way my strong dark Sicilian father taught me, could bring any of my selves into focus. Amanda, whom I did love, would bring me each cup, her anxious eyes watching to see who would emerge when I came fully awake.

Perhaps it is more accurate to say that most of me loved Amanda. The part of me who is Katrina did not. All these years, Katrina has been as divided as I, and she never knew. There was the physical Katrina, my childhood playmate who stayed in Philadelphia and let herself be ground down by life. And then there was the Katrina who lived inside me, cheek by cheek with Amanda and all the others.

There came a day when it was too painful to have Amanda walking around in the world, doing things that the Amanda in my head would never do. Getting pregnant, for example. When the tension grew too great between Amanda-as-she-was and Amanda-as-she-should-be, I did what had to be done. I retired Amanda, whole and pure, to the Bar For Characters Who’ve Been Deleted From Stories.

Katrina, whom I’ve always loved more than a cousin should love a cousin, has lived in my head for a lifetime. She could have maintained her duality for the rest of our lives, if I’d stayed in Brooklyn, away from the physical Katrina. My return to Philadelphia meant the end of her corporal body.

I couldn’t bear the changes in her, you see, the fine lines around her mouth and eyes, written by financial catastrophe and by grief for the the husband she’d barely had time to know.

I chose a slow poison for Darrell Malfois, dusted over a slice of wedding cake and sprinkled into the big goblets of cheap red wine he downed every week at the DeSantis Sunday dinners. Within a few months, it was done.

Katrina wasn’t even twenty-five when Darrell died, but his passing left an aged sag to her facial skin, and I couldn’t look at her. Her pain was my doing, which should have bothered me but didn’t. The sagging skin, the dull eyes, and the slumped shoulders were the things that bothered me. I couldn’t love her properly when she didn’t look like my image of her, so I had to go. Or I had to kill her. After her husband’s funeral, I fled Katrina, and Philadelphia, too.

In Brooklyn, I found a kind of pale, sickly literary success and I found Amanda, but it’s hard for me to hold onto anything or anyone for long. The light shifts and my memory shivers and then I find myself, once again, barricaded in my room and living solely on food that can be delivered to my door. When it happened this time, I thought that home would make me whole. I told myself that I could live with Katrina’s changed body, if I could be with her soul. I suppose it was always inevitable that Philadelphia and Katrina would see me again.

But-and here’s the joke-I found that my careless, life-loving Katrina was gone. That wild and girlish soul was gone, even when I could see her body standing right in front of me. In her place was a woman who carefully counted out the cost of her dinner, every penny, and then undertipped the wait staff because she made even less than they did. In my valiant cousin’s place was a woman too ground down to free herself from servitude to the institutes of higher education who were wringing her dry. I bore the company of this damaged woman for as long as I could, until I had no choice but to free her and her little dog, too.

Now their bodies lie at the bottom of the Delaware,and Katrina’s essence sips champagne with the other characters I’ve deleted from this world. I don’t give a damn what happened to the dog’s yappy essence.

On a good day, with the right wig and when the light is right, I can look in the mirror and speak in Katrina’s voice, fooling even myself. I can only convince myself for a moment at a time, but I can do it. When it happens, Katrina is with me. So she’s not gone, not really.


Chelsea took a long drag off her cigarette. She leaned against the thigh of the man she very probably loved and wondered who he was. His name wasn’t Ben Travers. That was certain. She didn’t trust much of anything any more-betrayed wives rarely do-but she trusted her own skills as a detective. Travers’ trail consisted almost exclusively of his internet presence as a blogger and late-night commenter on internet discussions that covered an astonishing variety of interests. Even that faint trail petered out at about the five-year mark. There were no photographs, not even on his blog. His only physical presence was in the here and now.

He wasn’t who he said he was, but that didn’t mean he was a killer. Chelsea knew Ben Travers’ mind from the inside out, in a way that was far more intimate than sex. She had been reading his deep thoughts and strong opinions for so long that she was now like a spy who was so good at being a double-agent that she eventually found herself cheering for the wrong team. She wasn’t sure Ben was a murderer and she wasn’t sure that he wasn’t, but she knew that she didn’t want him to be.

Chelsea had exercised the same skill set on Steven Barr, who hadn’t given her much to work with beyond his books and three author photos that were careful to conceal more than they showed. Big, heavy glasses.  Eyes that never addressed the camera. A goatee.  Hanks of ash blond hair escaping from his pony tail and hanging over his cheekbones. A hand cupping his chin in a writerly pose that covered most of his mouth. And, in every shot, solemn and expressionless brown eyes peering out of a face that managed to be both handsome and nondescript. Perhaps this was the epitome of physical beauty, features so symmetrical as to be completely generic.

In the course of all this detecting, she’d fallen in love with them. Both of them. She loved the detached intelligence of Barr’s books and the shrewd muckraking of Travers’ political screeds. She loved the secrets in Barr’s photographed eyes and she loved the warm reality of Travers’ touch. But Travers was the one who was here. And Barr was the one that she was certain had plotted the murders of five people with poisoned salt.  Six, really because she would always believe that the crime lab had fucked up determining Angela Nicholetti’s cause of death. Barr’s books showed a deep and concerted study of poisons, and they told the stories of protagonists who hated athletes with the passion of the man who was once a bullied boy. He knew how to do the killings. He had a motive. The timing worked. It beggared belief that he didn’t mastermind the murders.

She wasn’t sure how he’d delivered the salt packets to his victims when the innkeeper said he’d been holed up in his turret at the times of most of the murders, but she had a suspicion that she didn’t like much. Early on, she had set aside the idea that Ben Travers had been Steven Barr’s accomplice. The Ben Travers she knew was too brash to do the work for or share the glory with anyone but himself. The only way she could imagine Steven Barr masterminding murders carried out by Ben Travers would be if the two men were one and the same. Based on the flimsy evidence she possessed, she just wasn’t sure.

Like most detectives, Chelsea was both aided and hindered by an extreme rationality, and she had rationalized her way into this solution to her dilemma: It didn’t matter to her if Travers wasn’t who he said he was, just as long as he wasn’t Barr. If he was covering up a dark past that didn’t involve her, fine. But if this man beside her was Steven Barr, he belonged in jail.

Also, if this man beside her was Steven Barr, then she stood every chance of ending up like poor, pregnant, dead Amanda unless she got the hell away from him. And, since all five of Katrina Malfois’ cheapskate employers had reported her missing shortly before Chelsea and Travers got on the plane that brought them to Paris, there was every chance that she would soon be joining both Amanda and Katrina on the list of Barr’s victims, if she didn’t flee.

She looked up at her lover’s chiseled profile, silhouetted against the City of Light. His straight nose was distinctly different from Barr’s aquiline one, which had been undeniably visible in all three of his author photographs. She had hung onto that one obvious difference, because she had wanted to love Ben…until tonight, when she saw his naked body for the first time and understood that he did not have the body hair of a red-haired man. That observation forced her to face another fact that she had suppressed: There are thousands of plastic surgeons in the world who are more than happy to give a man’s nose a new shape and never ask why.

This man whose right hand was stroking the curve of her hip was a natural blonde who wanted the world to think that he was a redhead. He was present at both murder scenes where she had reliable witnesses. He and Steven Barr both were writers skilled enough to attract an audience. Nobody had ever seen the two of them together. Nobody but the nearsighted innkeeper and the late Katrina Malfois could even say that they’d laid eyes on both men.

The facts took her to an uncomfortable theory, but they didn’t give her the proof she needed. Chelsea Simon needed to decide what to do, and she needed to do it soon.


I’ve enjoyed being Travers. I’m going to miss him if if he has to go sip sparking wine with Amanda and Katrina. Just because a writer is blocked doesn’t mean that he has nothing more to say, so Travers was born to be my voice until my wandering muse comes home and gives me another novel to write. Blogging has been a release, and I needed a release.

Bloggers can blog from anywhere. Hardhitting journalists can do damn near all of their research from anywhere, too, which is very useful for a journalist living in Brooklyn who is obsessed with his Philadelphia home. Years of blogging fame had passed before I let Ben Travers be seen in public. Even then, the appearances were staged to baffle without revealing.

A ride on Amtrak, two easy hours, brought me into the City of Brotherly Love whenever Ben Travers needed to make an appearance. A red wig, a trenchcoat, a briefcase, makeup skillfully applied to resemble facial hair, a fedora that was affected but did the trick-Ben Travers was these things and no more. Ben Travers can never truly go to the Bar for Characters Who’ve Been Deleted, because there is nobody to delete, just Steven Barr passing through Philadelphia and pretending not to be a man with a dissociative personality disorder and an unfortunate tendency toward homicide.

Katrina knew I was the man under the red wig, and eventually the man wearing red hair dye. Maybe she suspected the dissociative personality disorder. She may even have suspected the homicidal tendencies, but she hated the world too much to believe that it deserved to know the truth about me. She let me be Ben when I needed to be, and the alter ego was distracting enough to quiet the voices in my head for a good long while, although not forever.

Now there is Chelsea to consider. Can I keep being Ben, forever and always, living with Chelsea like a man who doesn’t have enough people inside him to populate a warm and intimate drinking establishment? Is it a coincidence that Steven Barr sends his cast-off characters to drink together for all of time at a very special bar? Is Barr even my real name?

Katrina should know. I’ll ask her.

But first, I must decide whether I can spend the rest of my life fooling a very intelligent and intuitive detective into believing that the man at her side is Ben Travers and only Ben Travers. If I can’t, then she needs to be deleted, too.  I need to push her out the window in front of us and let her fall six floors to the Rue Cler, as the Eiffel Tower’s murderous spike watches and wonders. Chelsea is a Philadelphian through and through, so I suppose she deserves a death that speaks more of brotherly love. A fall from the clock tower of City Hall, from the very feet of William Penn.  A dive off the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, perhaps. But I’m not in Philadelphia. I’m not at home. I’m going to have to work with what I have.

I love Chelsea, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t kill her.

I watch her take one last drag off her cigarette, study it with regret, and toss it out the window. Its glowing tip is visible for most of its long fall. She’s changed. She’s no longer a rule-follower, but I knew that. If she were, she wouldn’t be with me. Unfortunately, I cannot trust a woman who could go off the rails at any time.

Now I know what to do.


When Barr made his move, he was a heartbeat too late. Chelsea felt the muscles in his thigh tense as he prepared to shove her out the window, and she was ready for him. She was a cop, after all, and she was trained in hand-to-hand combat.

This was Barr’s weakness, believing that he could do all the things that he wrote about so well. She’d seen it when he’d been so obvious about tailing her in the Audi. She’d seen it big-time when he’d lacked the road skills to outmaneuver her when she’d called that bluff.

She dropped into a wide stance and used the forward vector of his shove against him, toppling him over her bent leg. His center of gravity passed into a place where he couldn’t shift it back over his feet, so he now had no hope of remaining upright.

Her fist hit his reconstructed nose as it passed her. Its impact shoved him through the plane of the open window and out into the Parisian night.

Naked, she watched his naked body fall.

Chapter Twelve: August (by Don Lafferty)

“Ben, Ben, over here!” The media formed a semicircle around the makeshift podium outside the courtroom.

“Ben, what’s your next move?”

“Ben, what about you and Special Agent Simon?”

“Ben, how does it feel to be a free man again?” asked Action News’ Dan Cuellar.

The August humidity was stifling and he loosened his tie. A trickle of sweat coursed down past his temple.

Free at last.

“I am, of course, pleased with the outcome.”

He paused to survey the familiar faces of the local media and the not-so-familiar faces of national media and media obscura.

“But wish that I had been given the chance to prove my innocence, while shedding a proper light on the events that took the lives of five people last October.” Travers paused, unexpectedly overcome with emotion that he’d buried for months now. Mickey put a hand of support on his shoulder while the crowd of reporters snapped and tweeted and Instagrammed the shareable moment.

“Five deaths,” Ben continued, “that remain suspicious and unresolved! There’s a murderer out there and mark my words, nobody in this city is going to do a damn thing about it.”

Travers was pleased to answer the torrent of questions that followed, but repeatedly referred to future articles on his blog and a book deal. The Truth continued its spiral down the drain into the dark underbelly of Philadelphia history.

Not only was the Court of Common Pleas unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Ben Travers murdered “Pants” Deleon, but the prosecutor dropped the case once defense witness, Seymour Purnell, agreed to testify about one small event that occurred at the beginning of the case — the nature of the delivery of Nicolas Hodges’ corpse to the city morgue. Nicholas Hodge, whose murder remained unsolved.

When Assistant DA, Cheryl Garton, approached the bench to withdraw the charges, the look on Judge Parise’s face was a mix of amusement and disgust. The blindfold worn by Lady Justice is a dream illustrated by a statue. In the real world, judges have their eyes wide open. In the real world judges don’t always get the opportunity to do the right thing, which in this case had little to do with Ben Travers.


“Why here? Travers asked.

“What, you have a better spot?” Simon asked.

They lay together, legs tangled, while the top of the Eiffel Tower showered twinkles of light through the high windows of their sixth floor flat.

“I mean, why not New Orleans or Austin of Vegas? Why did we have to come all the way to Paris just to see each other?”

“Things are different now Travers.” Simon’s gazed locked on a space just beyond the window and Travers saw the twinkling of the tower light in her eyes, behind which the truth was locked. Travers’ journalistic Spidey senses were tingling off the hook, and he was determined to get to it. All in time.

Travers stood naked in the kitchen of the tiny flat and set about finding the coffee maker while Simon lay silently.

“Is anybody looking for Barr?” he asked.

“Steve Barr is a ghost,” she replied. “He got over on both of us, Travers, and now, he’s gone.” She swaddled herself in a cotton sheet and stood at the window. Below her, the market stalls in the Rue Cler were laden with a kaleidoscope of Paris’ finest produce for early morning shoppers, barely visible in the pre-dawn darkness. “Whatever. He’s not my problem anymore,” she said.

Travers handed Simon the steaming cup of café noir and joined her at the window where they watched the first rays of sun splinter through Paris’ night sky.

“You know I can’t just let it go, right?” he said.

“I wish you would,” she answered. “But I know you can’t.”

“And us? What happens when we go back?” Travers asked.

“Our worlds are too far apart,” she said. “Too many forces pulling us in different directions to build anything serious.”

“Serious?” he said. “How about real? Isn’t that what we are? The real thing?”

“Ben,” she lay a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t be a man here, please. Look out the window. Look around you. Don’t fuck this up.”

She put down her cup and turned him to face her.

“Here we are Ben. This is what we have. That’s why Paris. Philly is the past.”

He pressed his forehead to hers and ran his hands up her smooth back while she leaned into his thigh. Simon looked up at Ben’s face and saw the twinkling light of the Eiffel Tower in his eyes. She kissed him with a tenderness that surprised even herself. Soft. Real. They shared each other’s breath and kissed again, deeper. They were the real deal.

Travers lifted Simon in his arms and carried her back to bed.

Steven Barr could wait.

Chapter Eleven: Assaulted (by Diane Ayres)

CNN pulled out all the stops with their virtual set technology graphics by recreating a life-sized illusion of their own homicide investigation bulletin board for the “Cheesesteak Murders,” now that one of the detectives investigating the case had also dropped dead in a manner that defied credulity. If some pattern had been difficult to establish before, it seemed impossible at this point that any of it would ever make any sense. There were no suspects. There were no motives. Just six dead people and two killer cheesesteaks—“alleged killer cheesesteaks.” Tacky tourist shops on South Street saw a huge boost in sales of slogan tee shirts in the cheesiest whiz colors. Besides the popular his and hers “Cheese With Stupid” shirts (“with” or “wit” being optional), was the more esoteric offering featuring the photoshopped face of Kelly McGillis in an Amish bonnet eating a sloppy cheesesteak above the mock movie title: WIT’NESS

It was considered inconceivable that five victims had passed through the Office of the Medical Examiner, yet it hadn’t been determined with any certainty what kind of poison they were dealing with, or even the delivery system. It wasn’t until Olive Norvell was killed by an errant sneeze over an order of sweet potato fries that traces of the poison itself could be removed from the victim’s nostrils and analyzed. And they still weren’t sure how such a familiar toxin could be missed, or its symptoms so varied. Were they dealing with some new designer mercury cyanide? That thought, in itself, was alarming.

All they had were questions. And nobody liked asking questions more than Rolf Letzer and the entire news team at CNN.

“What’s going on in the City of Brotherly Love?” Rolf asked, standing in a virtual set holograph. “That’s the subject of our segment tonight—if you will,” as he led the viewers around the studio holodeck featuring projections of legendary Pat’s, as well as Geno’s, on the carnival-glass color corner at 9th and Passyunk, the Cheesesteak mecca for natives who knew best, especially at 2:00 a.m. when the clubs let out. When Philly viewers also saw that Jim’s at 4th and South had been magically transported fifteen blocks and cutely wedged between Pat’s and Geno’s, they laughed their virtual asses off.

It didn’t matter that no one had actually died at any of these places. Rolf’s producer had decided that food trucks didn’t make great optics—they didn’t scream Philly cheesesteak.” Josh’s food truck was a great visual with its lewd paint-job, and the guy was telegenic, “A cute, blonde, shark-hugging, vegan, surfer chef, with a do-rag? What’s not to love?” Unfortunately, those optics screamed California.

When the segment aired, there was plenty of screaming from the descendants of Pat, Geno, and Jim, who called their lawyers. It turns out the best thing about virtual set technology graphics is the delete key.

CNN had its own ideas and experts for solving murders by opinion, rendering any local police department adjunct. As guests came and went, each with their own special take on the case, Rolf was virtually stringing multi-colored yarn from victim to victim, spinning a ball of conjecture that was so nonsensical it became its own sort of cable truth. The only conclusions of the segment about the most recent and exceedingly bizarre death of Detective Norvell were questions.

“Coincidence?” Rolf’s lips were pursed. “What are the odds?”

To answer its own question, CNN, turned to one of its favorite experts, a celebrity math professor at Temple University, who had the added distinction of being unusually likable for a math teacher, as well as the bestselling author of a book about having fun with numbers Dumb Luck? What Are The Odds? He also had great hair. It screamed genius.

The professor agreed to be interviewed standing on the Temple campus where he was beamed like Princess Leia onto the virtual set of CNN’s New York studio, appearing “live,” outlined in an eerie blue glow. The professor seemed to be standing beside Rolf at the artificial police board, declaring that the odds were against Detective Norvell having been killed by somebody else’s sneeze, let alone murdered. The events leading up to her death were completely unforeseeable.

Furthermore, the odds were against there being any logical connection whatsoever between the so-called Cheesesteak victims that would make them all the specific targets of a lone murderer. In the celebrity professor’s opinion, this was not the work of a serial killer, but more likely to be an accidental contamination, either at the source of the salt packager, the local wholesale distribution point, or the food truck itself. “Maybe corporate sabotage or espionage, or a disgruntled employee.”

In an irony that was lost on Rolf and a majority poll of his viewers, the professor’s grand conclusion wasn’t based on mathematics.

“Going with my gut, Rolf, it feels like revenge to me. Payback. On the other hand, it’s possible this guy’s just another psycho-killer.”

Looking the gutsy professor right in the holo-eyes, Rolf asked, “So you’re saying—and we’re just speculating here—that the Philly PD and the FBI should keep trying to find someone local who fits the profile of an enraged fast-food employee with psychopathic tendencies?”

“Well, not exactly, I—”

“Thank you, Professor.”


“To tell us whether or not she thinks the Philly PD should keep trying to find this deranged individual is Special Agent Vladlena Podkamennaya Tunguska-Akamatsu from Philly’s local FBI division. Agent Tunguska-Akamatsu, after hearing the professor, do you think the FBI should keep looking for recently fired Philly employees with a history of food disorders, possibly working part time in the catering business?”

“Absolutely not. The vengeful employee theory has been thoroughly investigated and deemed improbable.”

“Thank you, Agent. Well there you have it. The Philly Cheesesteak Murders. Two experts. Two opposite, but balanced opinions. One who says Philly should keep trying to find this homicidal maniac. The other who says no—just give up. How about our viewers, what do you think? Go to our website or tweet us your thoughts.”


Two weeks after the freakish death of Olive Norvell, Chelsea was irate because she had yet to receive the autopsy report for the fifth victim, Angela Nicholetti, and there was a press conference scheduled that afternoon at City Hall, featuring the “Mea Culpa Choir,” as Ben Travers referred to them in his blog: Mayor Ruddle, Police Commissioner Lillet, Medical Examiner Maclusky, and Deputy Commissioner of Investigations, Marsha Meehl.

Chelsea didn’t find out about Angela until the private briefing before the conference when the ME Maclusky announced that the cause of death was “anaphylaxis by an allergic reaction to Paraphenyllenediamine–PPD.”

Maclusky glanced up from the report, seeing all eyes in the room were upon him.

“Hair dye,” he said.

It turned out that Ms. Nicholetti had colored her own hair the morning of her death only hours before she joined her boyfriend Josh at his food truck, using the same dye she had been using for years, but this time it killed her. He was encouraged to explain.

“A person can suddenly develop a fatal reaction to something they use all the time. And this hair dye, PPD, has been the cause of quite a few deaths. Statistically rare, but it’s in 99 percent of all hair dyes, so—”

“It wasn’t a murder?”

“Not likely, Mr. Mayor.”

South Philly’s wisecracking La Bionda was the victim of a tragic hair-dying incident.

At the press conference, the Mea Culpa Choir filed in sheepishly and took their positions on the makeshift podium behind Mayor Ruddle at the lectern, who delivered his canned speech of reassurances that Philly’s finest would find the killer. Soon. He didn’t have to say out loud how worried he was that this case would go unsolved. Philly had scored a Pope visit for the following year, and already he was hearing “Pope Without” jokes, because His Holiness was just the sort of people-person Pontiff who would stop by a food truck spontaneously for a cheesesteak. Finally, Mayor Ruddle reminded everyone that there had been no victims since Norvell, not since the manufacturers of the salt packets used to deliver the poison had conducted a well-publicized recall, and declared a complete shutdown of their facilities to search for possible accidental sources of contamination during every step in the process from factory to food truck. Philly concession wholesalers did the same, and restaurants as well. No breaches were discovered.

Before the Mayor turned the mike over to the ME, he announced that he was on his way to Pat’s and Geno’s with local news crews, where he would eat a “cheese with” from both establishments for the cameras, standing equidistant between them because of the on-going rivalry between adoring customers, which could get ugly. He would prove that the only thing to fear was heartburn, itself. “So I’m packing Pepcid,” he grinned, patting his breast pocket, “Close to my heart,” leaving them laughing.

Not so amusing was ME Maclusky’s announcement that victim number five had died of anaphylaxis from a chemical in her hair dye. He struggled to handle the subsequent bombardment.

At one point, a reporter from the Daily News shouted out: “Would you please confirm exactly how many victims—at this time—are being investigated as homicides?”

“Ah, well … uh …” Maclusky paused, putting his hand over the microphone, as Commissioner Lillet was talking into his ear and the others crowded in for a quick consult.

It was Marsha Meehl, the Deputy Commissioner who emerged from the clusterfuck to answer:

“We aren’t prepared to release that information at this time.”

There was a collective astonishment including much posturing to convey media indignation, but no one on the podium would budge from this agreed upon response.

Somehow Ben Travers pushed a question in.

“Commissioner Meehl, I was the first reporter on the scene of the first poison victim, Nicholas Hodges …”

“Congratulations,” she said brusquely, getting a cheap laugh at Ben’s expense, because his fully employed peers, with benefits, considered him to be an interloper, and his blog a joke.

“I arrived just as they were taking the body to the morgue. There was a chalk outline on the sidewalk and they were questioning the owner, Josh Whitcomb, like a suspect. Word among the yellow-tape bystanders who overheard the cops was that Hodges had been poisoned.”

“Mr. Travers do you have a question or are you composing your next blog?”

Another laugh but he pushed through.

“When Josh’s girlfriend, Angela Nicholetti, who was also coincidently victim number five, arrived at the scene that night, I heard Detective Simon tell her: ‘There’s been a murder.’”

“Question?” with supreme irritation this time.

“My question is: How could anyone know Hodges had been poisoned, let alone murdered, before the cause of death had been established?”

The media mob actually caught its collective breath on that for a moment.

“I mean … it’s not like they had a smoking gun or a bloody knife or he was shot or stabbed. Hodges was coming from Lacrosse practice, and supposedly healthy young athletes have been known to suddenly drop dead. Undiagnosed congenital cardiac conditions … maybe an embolism or brain swell from a delayed reaction to a seemingly minor head injury? The question is: Why did everybody automatically assume that Hodges had been murdered by a cheesesteak? He also happened to have French Fries, but nobody ever said ‘Killer Fries.’”

All eyes were on the characteristically unflappable Deputy Commissioner whose own eyes were blinking excessively, as if she had just popped in a dry pair of contacts.

“Commissioner, in the absence of anything immediately suspicious, such as a witness, or an obvious motive, or suspect or weapon—or cause of death—why did you, personally, send your best homicide detective, Chelsea Simon, immediately to the scene?”

“I’m told,” said Meehl, “that there were, uh … well … pigeons at the crime scene.”

That got a laugh, but this time it was at her expense.

“Uh … I guess they, uh, ate the cheesesteak that the victim dropped. I’m told the pigeons are also deceased.”

Ben waited for the raucous laughter to cease.

“So you’re saying Hodges’s death was determined to be ‘murder by cheesesteak’ based on a guess about some dead pigeons on the scene?”

At this point, everyone was so engaged by the rising star of Ben Travers that no one even wanted to cut in.

“Commissioner, one more question, please.  I have a source representing several hotels in center city who says that a week or so before the first alleged murder, blocks of rooms were reserved, and the housekeeping staff carefully vetted. I discovered that the rooms were billed to an innocuous-sounding company in D.C., which turned out to be the accounting office at the Department of Homeland Security.”

“I don’t understand, Mr. Travers. What’s your point?”

“What’s my point? What’s your job title Commissioner Meehl?”

“Excuse me?”

“Your full job title.”

“Ah, well, I’m the … Deputy Commissioner of Investigations and, ah … Homeland Security.”

“You head up the local bureau of Homeland Security, correct?”

She stammered out a confirmation, and everyone on the podium appeared too stupefied by Ben’s line of questioning to even consult. It felt more like a courtroom drama than a press conference, and they were riveted, anxious to know where Ben Travers was going with all this.

“Did the DHS tell the Philly PD about a credible terrorist plot to poison the food supply of Philadelphia before the first victim died? Has this homicide investigation been purposely constructed to obfuscate a covert counterterrorism operation in our city?”

He had only seconds to finish while dropped jaws were recovered.

“Has the DHS been controlling the autopsies and lab work behind the scenes? Is that why everybody up on the podium seems so confused about this case?”

That did it. They shut the whole thing down. Commissioner Lillet led the Mea Culpa Choir unceremoniously—and briskly—from the gates of media hell.

Ben Travers had hijacked the press conference. He had dared to say the T word. His blog went viral. On CNN, he became the story, and when he turned down an invitation to appear on the show, or any other cable show, he became Breaking News! No journalist, least of all a blogger, had ever turned down an invitation like that before. Rolf asked the viewers to tweet whether or not they thought Ben Travers—or any other journalist for that matter—should have the right to refuse a CNN appearance, when so many viewers were demanding it in their tweets?


I recognized the tentative knock on the door as the innkeeper whose name I choose not to remember because I can’t handle any more humans in my life, and the ones I love are dead or huddled in confusion, a mumbling dissonance, holed up in my dive bar of deleted characters. I know all of their names, of course. I know everything about them.  They’re the loyal ones who keep me company when the characters of major relevance have gone off on their own, always racing me to The End, showing, doing, acting for themselves—not thinking, never resting. I start them up but they finish themselves off. That’s my fate when they leave me, and The Deleted, in the dust. Rest in Peace Dead Author.

Monsieur Nameless, the passive-aggressive innkeeper, will end up in my bar. I was thinking this as I stood in the doorway speaking with him, pushing my long, dirty blonde, Kurt Cobain hair from my eyes as he told me that the messenger service, Egbert, had arrived and was waiting downstairs. I’m sure I looked like an English Opium Eater, but he was always complaining that his eyesight was terrible, so who cares?

“I told you to call, sir. I would’ve come down.”

“Oh,” he chuckled, “I need the exercise. Besides, I had to bring you fresh towels.”

I took that to mean it was time for me to wash my hair. Mother’s hair. Waspy. Only child of a Blue Book debutante from Bryn Mawr. I adjusted the horn-rimmed glasses framing my brown eyes. Father’s eyes. Sicilian. Mother tried to kill her parents by marrying one of the six sons of Mario Barrerra, South Philly’s Duke of Wholesale Distribution. It didn’t work. The moment my maternal grandparents saw me, their first grandchild, they became determined to save me from the Catholic “cult” of the Barrerras—pretenders to Dukedom—and probably mobsters, although there had never been any evidence of that beyond stereotyping. The Barrerras were proud to be upstanding citizens who didn’t associate with criminals, not even the ones who married into the family.

Cousin Katrina’s mother, for instance, who was Father’s sister, was all but shunned when she “married a DeSantis.” That phrase alone was meant to serve as a complete explanation, but I had no idea what it meant, only that Uncle Frankie went to jail for a while when we were kids. Katrina’s humiliation was ineffable, especially because her mother was also abusive, and to everyone, except for her lifelong parade of testy little dogs.

Father had scandalized the Barrerra family in his own rebellious way when he changed his name to Barr and joined the Navy against the orders of his tyrannical father, the Duke. Father was fifteen years older than Mother, and he had seen brutal combat in Korea. He never said a word about the war, but it had damaged him somehow, and he also suffered from depression. Regardless of their ethnic, religious and cultural differences, Father and Mother were nonetheless from wealthy clans, and happened to meet at the wedding of mutual friends. She was eighteen, in her first year at Bryn Mawr College.

Both Cousin Katrina and I were “only children,” being chronically unpopular throughout our lives because we were weird—and we reveled in it. I grew up on the Main Line and Katrina grew up in South Philly. Bella Vista. But we spent most of our playtime together at my house on the weekends where we got to be friends with Mike and Adam, who were my neighbors and classmates at The Haverford School. We played in the woods that separated what Gran called the “old money” from the rapidly proliferating subdivisions of the presumably loathsome “nouveau riche.” Not exactly Gran’s words but close enough.

As we approached adolescence, Mike started hanging out with some of the preppy thugs who had always picked on me because of my Sicilian-American heritage. He became like a bully-in-training whenever he was around those sadistic jerks, learning a whole vocabulary of ethnic slurs to throw at Katrina and me, as well as Adam, who was Jewish. But he would still be like his old self around us, so we let it slide. Until one night when he chased Katrina into the woods while Adam and I were busy ripping off a construction site.

She told me later that Mike had pinned her down and I didn’t fully understand what she was saying. I just knew it was terrible because she was crying, and she made me promise not to tell anybody.

And then we started plotting his demise. We went about it like Leopold and Loeb.

One night without a moon, Katrina was secretly hiding in a dark corner on the third floor of our latest construction site before Mike, Adam and I arrived. I got Mike to sit on an open window ledge and then led Adam downstairs, saying I wanted to show him something. He knew nothing of our plan, or that Katrina was hiding upstairs. We didn’t expect the contractor to show up, but it played out in our favor. Mike dropped an iron pipe that hit the guy’s truck at the same time Katrina snuck up and gave him a shove.  So Mike also hit the truck.

That was terrible, I guess, but it was nothing like watching Mother die in unspeakable pain from breast cancer when I was thirteen.  And then to have Father marry his career mistress so soon after, a New York socialite from Park Slope, was just too much. They forced me to live with them in New York, enrolling me in The Dalton School, which I fully credit with having turned me into the more polished, duplicitous, pathological liar I am today.

This came in handy when that evil, odious woman who pussy-whipped Father to death drowned in her Jacuzzi from an accidental overdose of Klonopin and bourbon. Tragic. You’ve got to be careful with those meds. Unfortunately, it had the unintended effect of sending Father, who had become a severely depressed alcoholic, into a tailspin. He jumped off the terrace of our Park Slope apartment. I hated that place but it was all mine, so I renovated, and now it’s cool, except I can’t go back there because I’m not cool.

When I was studying journalism at Columbia, and Katrina was an English Major at NYU, she used to tease me because I liked to play chess against myself. She said it was impossible not to know who would win—that one’s unconscious knew and acted on behalf of its chosen side. Black or White. But I insisted it was not so in my case—that I could detach myself so completely when I switched sides, that my only objective was to make the best possible move for that side, being totally committed to that moment—to that single move. I called it the mercenary play.

Katrina called it cheating.

I gave the jovial Egbert messenger two copies of my new novel to be hand-delivered to offices in Manhattan: one for my editor, the other for my agent. They would be surprised. They hadn’t heard from me in quite some time. I had already given a copy to Katrina when she stopped by the night before to deliver a plate of her magic chocolate cookies. They were still on the table untouched, sealed in Saran Wrap. I was saving them until after my novel had left the building, although I intended to hold the lion’s share for the following day when I planned to have Ben Travers over for tea, our first meet and greet. I also intended to surprise him with a copy of my book. I could already imagine the look on his face.

During our first phone call—which I initiated, of course—I promised him my whole story if he would sell me his soul. I heard him snicker, but I wasn’t kidding. I wouldn’t tell him my real name, so his code name for me was Mephistopheles. I was pleased. He’s the only journalist I know who isn’t terrified of his own imagination.

I spoke with him only on disposable cell phones and got a fresh new one just to tell him where to find me. I knew he wouldn’t alert anyone, or bring someone with him. He’s a lot like me that way. Fearless and tenacious.

Journalists are junkies for the Big Truth. Fiction artists know there is no such thing. We write what we want. A journalist is trapped, poor devil, surrounded by obnoxious fact-checkers on Adderall with smart phones and spastic thumbs always racing through the Google links to get whatever facts, just to call you out.

So I would give Ben a little truth. I would tell him that only one of the Cheesesteak victims had been premeditated. The rest were just dumb luck—bad luck—a few poor saps who didn’t beat the odds. When I close my eyes and say their names, I envision flat-lined human outlines in chalk. Like Flatlanders, the two-dimensional citizens of Flatland, who are less than relevant in our 3D world, plus Time.

I confess I killed the clown in the bouncing pants for a reason. He was obsessed with Ben, stalking him. I knew that because I was also stalking him. De Leon was a fool but he kept copious notes, chronicling Ben’s activities. It was possible he could find out about me—and that sleazy “journo” wannabe was unworthy of the scoop.

On the phone, I told Ben to call me a terrorist because sociopath sounds so old-fashioned. I told him I’m not alone—that there are many like me who understand that the only way to overcome fear is to revel in Schadenfreude.

This new novel is even better than the last. I’ve instructed my lawyer to handle all further communications with my agent and publishers. I will make no appearances this time. No readings. No signings. For all intents and purposes, I will cease to be. In time, readers will think Steven Barr is a nom de plume.

 Soon, my emotional upload into my major characters will be complete. I will follow them like gods.


He was sitting in the back booth, the assassin’s seat, not so much in the dark as in the dust. He asked to meet her at Dirty Frank’s of all places. That punkerish dive bar at 13th and Pine, which is an institution of art school disaffection. The place was noisy and crowded, famous for its eclectic playlist and artwork by locals all over the walls. As she made her way through the festive crowd there were intermittent hoots and howls over the regular din, as people were playing darts on the opposite side of a horseshoe bar. She was pleased that Travers had secured the best seat in the house, and further impressed by his gentlemanly gesture of standing to greet her with a handshake, addressing her as Detective.

“Please call me Chelsea.”

He invited her to have a seat, offering to fetch her a drink because there was no wait staff at this fine establishment. It was every man for himself here among the city’s touchiest bartenders. You never knew what expression on your face might set them off to brand you an “asshole from New Jersey.”

He was drinking the house special, which was a pony bottle of Rolling Rock with a Kamikaze shot. She made a face with a comical shudder, but said she would have the same—“and make it a double.”

He had ditched the skinny tie, an affectation she felt was a bit too theatrical, even for a writer. She had heard somewhere that he had done some acting.

After serving her, he took his seat.

“You’ve got Main Line manners, Travers.”

There it was, that mysteriously self-contained smirk. She had seen it on previous encounters before they would start their lively sparring. Their last feisty confrontation, before Angela dropped dead right in front of them, had been particularly heated—a bit over the top for professional adversaries. That was a tip-off to some underlying, irrational attraction.

“I’m glad you came,” he said, in his FM-radio worthy voice. “You must trust me.”

Her amusing response was to deftly switch their drinks, which wrested a laugh from his twisted lips: “So I’m a suspect?”

She shrugged. “When anybody can be a victim, Travers, everybody is suspect. That includes me. At some points over the past weeks I’ve found myself wondering if I did it.”

What a wonderful laugh. He felt privileged to see her playful side up close, not to mention her sloe-eyed beauty focused only on him at that moment across a tacky little table. She raised her shot glass and he followed, feeling titillated to see where she was going with this.

“I’d like to make a toast–to you, Ben Travers, and to Rolf Letzer, and to all of America’s cable news teams–for your endless, unsubstantiated conjecture and speculation.”

He processed that for a moment, studying her face. She didn’t seem at all angry or resentful about it—quite the opposite. They clinked glasses, tossed it back and leveled out again, reaching for their pony bottles.

“So why am I here?”

“I want an interview.”

“You know I’m not about to discuss an ongoing homicide investigation.”

“What if I just ask you one question?”

“After watching you in action at the Press Conference? No way. Look … Travers. You’re a good investigator. And your blog is sometimes accurate. But always entertaining. This whole counterterrorism conspiracy thing you’ve got going? Funny stuff.”

“Thanks. ‘Sometimes accurate’ means a lot to me—coming from you.”

“I can’t help wondering why you don’t have a regular gig with a newspaper. You know, with union benefits, paid vacations, a big Christmas party. Membership at the Pen & Pencil Club.”

“Well,” he replied, “I prefer making my own editorial decisions. I can fight for myself. I’m a devout atheist. ”

“I’ll drink to that,” she said, and did.

“And I’m already a member of the Pen & Pencil Club. But that doesn’t require so much in the way of press credentials as it does an iron stomach and love of cigars. Look, Chelsea, I’ll get to the point. I know you’re taking the bullet for the Deputy Commissioner for starting the first homicide investigation ‘prematurely.’ That’s partly my fault, and I’m sorry. I feel bad about that.”

“Correction: It’s all your fault.”

“I didn’t mean for you to be blamed. I wasn’t going after you. I knew that your boss, Madam DepCom of Investigations und Homeland Security, contacted you personally that night, assigning you to the case.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

“I have great sources. Was that phone call regular protocol?”

She shrugged.

“You were sworn to secrecy weren’t you? A ‘matter of national security, is it?” Did she tell you to treat it as a homicide before you even arrived on the scene? I was watching you carefully that night, Chelsea. I got the whole thing on my cellphone. And something about the crime scene was bothering you.”

“Something about a crime scene always bothers me, Travers.”

“Were you aware that the paramedics who declared Hodges dead at the scene, and then packed his body off to the morgue were military grade?”

“What makes you say that?”

“Haircuts. Even when they grow them out, you can always see that shadow of career ‘butch.’ You know, like a patch of lawn that grew out of synch, never completely blended …” He was looking off as if he recognized somebody. A woman?

He returned his attention, smiling wanly, and proceeded to tell her an intriguing tale of how he had gone to the morgue that night, hours after the crime scene was secured. His source at the morgue, Seymour, worked the night shift, and told him that no bodies had arrived that night. Odd, considering the morgue was only four minutes away from Josh’s food truck. At about four o’clock in the morning Seymour got a call from the Veteran’s Medical Center, which was practically across the street from the morgue. He was informed of incoming: a civilian, which was unusual, in itself, but a murder victim from the VA Hospital? That was unprecedented. Travers stayed out of site but could watch as the body bag was delivered by the same haircuts he had seen earlier. Seymour let Travers follow him to the “fridge” where he unzipped the body bag. It was Hodges all right, but with the telltale Y in his chest from the Stryker saw. He had already been autopsied.

Ben and Chelsea were locked in a stare down, which was tricky and also trippy in the dark back booth of Dirty Frank’s after so many shots and pony bottles, and that chemistry thing between them—in more ways than one.

“You know, Ben, you can’t just make statements about terrorists without having any hard evidence to back it up. A terrorist attack on the food supply in Philadelphia? What does that even mean? The only reason there hasn’t been a citywide panic is because nobody believes you. You have no evidence. All you’ve accomplished with this seems to be a brilliant play of self-promotion … and, hey, more power to you. Congratulations, you’ve enflamed a bunch of online crazy conspiracy theorists, and talk radio bullies, and Fox News hair-dos, all speculating now on possible links to Isis! Isis!”

“That’s my point,” was his thoughtful reply: “Panic. I think that’s the reason for this whole cover-up. Would you like to hear my theory?”

“Only if you get us another round.”

That being achieved, Ben continued.

“I know this sounds like a fucking X-File, but hear me out. I think it goes something like this: DHS picked up some credible chatter, or maybe a direct threat to poison the food supply of Philly. The city powers-that-be were immediately consulted, but only a select few, in order to minimize the likelihood of leaks. Among other things, it would be economically devastating to the local food industry. Restaurateurs, for instance, like your husband,” he paused to check her reaction, having heard the rumor that she had filed for divorce, “would take a serious hit. Lesser gods might never recover. But, as usual, mere mortals would be fucked. So the city decided—why risk whipping up mass hysteria when they weren’t 100% sure?”

He waited for some sign that she was impressed, but it was a no show in her placid face. Secretly disappointed, he continued, “So counterterrorism units under the DHS come tiptoeing into town to scout it out for terrorists tampering with the food supply. Your boss, the DepCom, Marsha Meehl, was a key player immediately of course, being the liaison with the main frame in Washington. I’m guessing that the plan was to treat the first sign—anything suspicious that could be a poisoning—as a homicide investigation. That way they could get ahead of it, assuming they found the terrorist or terrorists quickly. When the numbers grew, so did the fear, but on a much smaller scale—from a DHS point of view—considering what it could’ve been. A couple of cheesesteaks are not exactly WMD. So the DHS—being underwhelmed—breaks camp in Philly, and the dot.gov guys catch the Acela back to DC.”

He reached for his pony bottle because he was parched.

“But here’s the thing: they also take the autopsy files and crime lab reports back with them, leaving the Philly PD in the lurch. Hey, nice workin’ with ya, guys! Because while the ‘terrorist threat’ has now been lowered to a shit-colored puce, we still have a murderer loose in center city, don’t we? And he, or she, or they, probably started the so-called chatter they picked up. Maybe it was even a direct threat purposely delivered. Who knows?”

“Obviously, you know someone who knows. And if that’s true, you’ve got to tell me what you know, or you could be breaking the law.”

“Then you’re confirming it’s true? My theory? Or maybe part of it?”

“Ben Travers,” she said, with startling nonchalance, given the charges, “you should write fiction.”

But he would not be distracted, (which is why he couldn’t write fiction).

“I think your reward for following orders to perpetuate this charade is a promotion to the Homeland Security Bureau. That’s why you don’t give a damn about being thrown under the bus after the press conference. That’s why they didn’t ask for your resignation. When all of this is resolved—one way or the other—DepCom Meehl will announce your new job. That could lead to an even better job at DHS HQ in DC. You could get away from your usual run-of-the-mill Philly low-life homicide investigations, and your philandering husband. I heard you filed for divorce. Sorry. Philly’s a small town. Although, I don’t know why everybody is so surprised to find out that Olive Norvell was moonlighting as a dominatrix.”

They both knew he had crossed the line there, but she let it go.

“Well, Ben, it’s been fascinating hearing all of your theories. But I’ve got to run.”

He raised his last shot for a final toast, and she followed.

“To your promotion,” he said, smiling triumphantly, “Congratulations, in advance,” noting a certain smile she had, like when you’re trying too hard not to appear smug. He was a good reader of people, especially when he was drinking.

Outside on Pine Street there were lots of patrons taking smoking breaks, clustering close to the hand-painted corner building of Dirty Frank’s. Ben also lit up and offered one to Chelsea, who didn’t smoke anymore but what the hell? They were both considerably inebriated, but good at it. They meandered a short distance east on Pine, turning left onto the tiny colonial side street called Camac, finding themselves suddenly alone in the residential dark, with little white holiday lights twinkling in leaded glass windowpanes, generating urban enchantment.

She took a last puff and tapped the cigarette butt out gently against a brick wall so it wouldn’t mark, then wrapped it in a tissue and tucked it in her purse until she could dispose of it properly. He was so amused that she wouldn’t consider littering under any circumstances.

“What?” she asked.

“You’re all about the rules, aren’t you, babe?”

She let the overly familiar nickname slide because she liked his audacity.

He dropped his own cigarette butt on the cobblestones and ground it out with his shoe, then kicked it to the side. Seeing her arched expression in the faint afterthought of a distant streetlight, he challenged her: “Are you going to give me a ticket?”

She shook her head, smiling back: “Are you breaking any laws, Ben?”

He stepped in closer.

“I’m serious. Are you breaking any laws with these sources of yours?”

“Who wants to know? Detective Simon or … Chelsea?”

They found the answer up against that brick wall making out ferociously.

Eventually, she managed to disentangle herself, pulling away without a word, kind of shaking it off, smoothing her hair—astounded by her lack of control. But not sorry. They could barely see each other’s faces, just enough to convince the other that they were okay to get home. She realized she didn’t even know where he lived, but at that point she just needed to make her exit. In a few long strides she was out on the brighter side, 13th Street, where she picked up a passing cab within seconds.

He stood there looking after her, feeling pleased with himself. He had been crazy about her for a long time and now he had a chance. He actually lived in the neighborhood about a block away from Dirty Frank’s, so he went back to the dive bar for last call.


Mickey Marcolina came through the front door of The Gables, stopping in the entranceway when he almost ran into Detectives Simon and Gutierrez.

“What are you doing here?” Chelsea asked.

“I got a call from a guest who needs a lawyer. What are you doing here?”

“I’m about to make an arrest.”

“What a coincidence.”

“Steven Barr?”

“Steven Barr.”

They both gave pause for a moment and then lurched simultaneously toward the staircase. Chelsea and Gutierrez won.

The thoroughly unnerved, arthritic innkeeper brought up the rear, calling up, “It’s the 3rd floor. Mr. Barr is in the Blue Willow Room.”

The door to that room with a turret was wide open but there were no lights on, indicating the guest had probably left before dark about a half hour ago, and gone out the back. But when Chelsea flipped a switch they saw a man lying in a fetal position on the white-quilted bed with his back to the door.

“Steven Barr? Mr. Barr?”

They turned him over cautiously, checking for weapons or wounds, and he stirred, moaning, appearing cognitively impaired, but quite alive. The hapless innkeeper, who had been ordered to stay back in the hall, saw him and called out: “That’s not him! That’s not Mr. Barr. Where’s Mr. Barr?”

At the same time Chelsea recognized the man. “Ben?”

His eyes fluttered until they got stuck, ajar. “Chelsea? Hey …” he said, with a dopey grin, “It’s me, Ben.”

“Yes, I know who you are. What are you doing here? Where’s Steven Barr?”

“Isn’t he here? You mean, you didn’t get him? Awwww fuck. Are you kidding me? You let him escape?”

She helped him sit up. He was so dizzy. “Jesus, I’m stoned. Those cookies! Magic Chocolate. Whoa.”

Chelsea was concerned and along with telling Gutierrez to call in a search for Steven Barr, getting a quick description from Ben, she also ordered an ambulance, “But very quietly. No sirens. No flashing lights. We need a blood screen. Could be another kind of poison.”

“No, it’s ok. I’ll be fine,” Ben protested, attempting to shake it off, “It’s just weed. I can tell. No poison.”

“What possessed you to get high with a possible murder suspect?”

“I wasn’t expecting to get high. I was worried about being poisoned, so we played cookie roulette. I picked a random cookie for him to eat and he ate it. I waited for about ten minutes and when he didn’t die, I ate a couple myself … maybe three … possibly four.”

“You’re an idiot.”

“I know, but I was starving and they were delicious.”

“So you both got stoned.”

“Basically, except I got a lot stoned-er. It didn’t hit me for about an hour into the interview, and then it was, like … holy shit. I was so high, I couldn’t form compound sentences, although Barr seemed perfectly fine. At some point in the interview, I just stood up and said ‘I have to lie down now.’ I guess I walked over and crashed on the bed. That’s all I remember.”

“Do you know where he went?”

He shook his head. “That guy is fucked up, man. And a ‘low talker.’ He speaks so softly you can barely hear him. My voice-activated recorder kept shutting off in the middle of his sentences. I convinced him—I mean, I thought I convinced him—to turn himself in.”

“So he confessed?”

“Not exactly. He’s strangely coy this guy. I finally just said, ‘call Mickey Marcolina,’ and gave him the number.”

The innkeeper was long gone, but the defense attorney had been parked, leaning against the doorjamb, listening intently.

“Hey, Mickey.”

“Hi, Ben. Thanks for the reference, man.”

“No problem. Anyway, according to Barr, there was only one murder suspect who was deliberately targeted. The others were random. Poor bastards.”



“Is that what he said? That he killed De Leon?”

“More or less.”

“Did he say why?”

Ben shook his head, but he was lying.

“He said he had an accomplice who actually dropped salt packets ‘hither and yon’—his words—according to whim. But not many, he said, only a few. They bet on it—like college teams or something. Which school would lose the next student?”

“Oh sweet Jesus.”

“Yeah, I know, right? Like March Madness for Murderers. But I think the season’s over. Finals, you know. Obviously, he invited me here to say hello and good-bye,” he scoffed, “like he was breaking up with me.”

That’s when Mickey called out from across the room, “Ben …”

Chelsea tried to cut him off, knowing what he was about to say. But Mickey talked right through her.

“Listen, I’m not your lawyer, and I’m not saying you need one, necessarily, but I would still advise you to keep your mouth shut right now about repeating anything Barr told you. You don’t want to incriminate yourself, inadvertently.”

“OK, Mickey. That’s enough. You made your pitch.”

“He needs a lawyer, Detective.”

“Marcolina—Out! This is a crime scene. We have to seal off the room until the unit gets here. Where’s the innkeeper? Gutierrez, get that guy back up here.”

When he arrived, Chelsea was even bossier. “Sir, I need the key to this room please. And is there another room we can move into?”

“Well, there’s The Regent Room down the hall … twin brass beds, and a sofa, it’s lovely really, very roomy and … ”

“We’re not checking in, sir. I’m sure the room will be lovely, thank you. I need to ask you something else. Did Steven Barr pay you by credit card?” When he hesitated, she ordered him to spew. He told her Mr. Barr always paid in cash, and he was up-to-date.

Ben suddenly realized something. “Hey, wait a second. Where’s my recorder? My notebook? Oh shit. Oh no … no no no … My cell phone! Where’s my cell phone? My briefcase? Oh my god, he took my stuff. He took it all!”

He was inconsolable. He started searching around frantically, but Chelsea got a grip on his forearm.

“Ben, stop. Don’t touch anything. You have to go into the other room now.”

He straightened up significantly, the worst of his dizziness and disorientation having passed. Now, he was just crestfallen. They could hear Gutierrez leading a couple of paramedics upstairs. “Mickey, take Ben to the other room please. Get him checked out. I’ll be there momentarily.”

Once alone, Chelsea closed and locked the door. She stood thoughtfully in the middle of the room, turning around slowly, studiously, just to get the feel of it, imagining the inhabitant’s perspective, trying to process all of the twists and turns of this brainteaser now that they had a suspect. She reached into her suit pocket and pulled out a pair of purple latex gloves, snapping them on.

Looking out the window, she flashed back immediately to a visit she and Norvell had paid there earlier in the case following a thin lead they got when they first put out an APB on a brown Audi and some officer in West Philly remembered having spotted a car like that parked around The Gables. They checked it out but the innkeeper said there was no guest staying there who had registered to park an Audi in the lot.

She searched the drawers and closets but turned up no sign of a former occupant, only a trench coat hanging in the closet, which she recognized as Ben’s. She spotted some extra blankets and pillows on the top shelf and found Ben’s briefcase stashed beneath them, which was curious.

There was a knock on the door. It was Gutierrez announcing that the crime lab guys were running late, but she had some interesting intel on the suspect. The guys back at the cop shop had been searching the data banks.

She told Chelsea that the only Steven Barr fitting the description was a fugitive from the state of New York, wanted for questioning in connection with the poisoning death of his pregnant girlfriend. Barr had told the police it was a suicide, but in the absence of a note or any supporting observations from family, friends or co-workers, they weren’t convinced. When they discovered that his girlfriend’s death closely resembled the plot of his debut novel, they returned to his Park Slope condo to question him further, only to be told that he was on an extended business trip throughout Southeast Asia. An investigation into his bank accounts and credit cards revealed that he had transferred all his wealth to the Grand Caymans and Zurich.

Chelsea couldn’t help but scoff, “Too bad the plot of a novel isn’t enough to arrest somebody. If it were, maximum-security prisons would be like writers’ retreats.”

Gutierrez had also downloaded a few pictures of Barr on her iPhone featuring him at different ages, with various lengths of fine, ash blonde hair, and different pairs of glasses, except in the most current photos, which were over five years old. In these, Steven Barr’s hair was in a ponytail, and he had a goatee.

When Chelsea rejoined the group, the paramedics had just left after taking blood and urine samples, and checking his vitals, confirming that Ben was most likely stoned and the prognosis was good.

Ben was ecstatic to see Chelsea had his briefcase and coat. “Is my recorder in there? My phone?”

She shook her head.

“Chelsea? What’s wrong?”

“Gutierrez, would you go downstairs and fetch the innkeeper again? Mickey, you have to go now.”


“I need to speak with Ben privately.”

“No,” was Mickey’s surprising response, turning more urgently to Ben. “Listen to me, Travers. I can tell by the look on Detective Simon’s face that she’s about to ask you questions you shouldn’t answer without a lawyer present.”

“A lawyer is present,” Chelsea growled. “You’ve been lurking around here for the past half-hour.”

“Mickey,” Ben cut in, “what are you talking about? Chelsea and I are friends.”

Mickey turned back to Chelsea. “Is this for personal reasons or part of the investigation?”

“Ask her if it’s for DHS reasons,” said Ben, acerbically.

“Let me put it another way, kids. Are you two romantically involved?”

Chelsea and Ben exchanged a look that said it all.

“It’s not relevant,” she declared.

“Uh-huh. Yeah, I thought so. Ben, I’m offering you my services, bro, pro bono, because I doubt you can afford me, and you really need a lawyer right now.”

“Fuck man. Now you’re both scaring me. Okay, Mickey … it’s free? Fine. You’re hired.”

“So I stay,” Mickey tried not to gloat, addressing Chelsea, “Now, what is it that you want to ask my client?”

She reached into Ben’s trench coat, unzipping the lining, in which was stashed a blonde wig. She tossed at him. It landed beside him on the bed.

Ben jumped. “What the …?! Shit! I thought it was a dead animal. Barr wears a wig? Wow. It looked so real.”

Mickey snapped, “Don’t touch that, Ben. Chelsea I’m shocked. You? Tampering with evidence?”

“Evidence?” Ben cried, “What evidence? Evidence of what?”

Chelsea held up her hands, still gloved, with mock ceremony producing an evidence bag from her blazer pocket and dropped the wig into it, but Mickey was shaking his head. “This unprofessional behavior will come back to haunt you.”

Gutierrez returned with the innkeeper in tow. Chelsea asked Ben to stand up, and step into the light, and then she asked the innkeeper point blank, “Is this Mr. Barr?”

The poor fellow was so confused. It had been a long day. He had missed his nap. Squinting and blinking, he lapsed into his canned, self-deprecating speech about his degenerating vision and how he needed new glasses, while Mickey muttered under his breath that maybe he should consider “installing some 21st Century light fixtures.”

“No,” the fellow concluded, “this is not Mr. Barr. I don’t know this man. I never saw him until today.”

“What about his build?”

“Um … well,” squinting even more cartoonishly, like Mr. Magoo, “I guess they’re similarly built, but Mr. Barr’s a sloucher, and rather fragile. This gentleman is more … robust. And Mr. Barr is not brash. He’s a very shy, quiet, thoughtful guest, never makes a mess, excellent manners.”

“Main Line manners?”

A fascinating clash of facial recognition was noted by the observant defense attorney, as he caught Ben’s anxious eyes meeting Chelsea’s professional mien of standard cop-issue cool.

“What about their voices?”

Innkeeper Magoo actually laughed, in his own way. “No comparison. Mr. Barr is a mumbler. He practically whispers.”

“See?” Ben bellowed. “Clearly I am not Steven Barr. How could you think that?”

The rattled fellow was dismissed without further ado and all eyes followed Chelsea as she found a flat surface upon which to make a display, and then proceeded to remove items from Ben’s briefcase. In a room so precisely appointed with authentic Victorian antiques, Chelsea’s odd little display resembled a macabre tableau more suited to Sherlock Holmes. One pair of horn-rimmed glasses. One tablet. One packet of salt.

“What?” Ben cried, “Oh my god!”

“Ben,” said Mickey sternly, “do not say a word. I know this is killing you, bro, but ya gotta keep your mouth shut.”

All of which Ben ignored. “What is this?” he yelled. “Do you think this is my shit? You can’t possibly think that. Salt? Seriously? You think I’m a murderer? And I don’t even own a tablet.”

Mickey sighed heavily and repeated his instructions until Ben finally shut up, but only because Chelsea had powered up the tablet to show them the little animated cheesesteaks with wings flapping around the screen. Ben was agitated, jamming his hands into his pockets to keep from handling the items—or punching something—pacing in front of the sickening exhibit. “This is a set up, Chelsea. You know that. He set me up. Dammit! I’m such a fool—I should’ve seen this coming! It was so obvious.”

But then she withdrew the grand prize of Ben’s nightmares, the manuscript, which she placed on the table.


A novel 



“What?” Ben cried, releasing his Kraken of lifelong indignation and defiance, shaking his head. “No. No, no, no, no. That is not mine. I didn’t write that. Christ, I couldn’t write that. That’s not what I do, Chelsea, and you know it. I am not a fucking fiction writer,” he snarled, flashing his dark side. “Hey, I wish! I wish I could do that. I wish I could just sit around all day in my underwear making shit up. But I’m stuck here in Real Life with the facts, man. And these are not the facts!”

As Ben reached for the manuscript without thinking, Mickey physically blocked him, invoking a pitiful plea: “I just want to read the dedication, ok? What does it say?”

Chelsea indulged him, reading aloud: “To Mephistopheles.

“See?” he cried, “That’s my codename for Barr. That proves it’s not mine. If you think I’m really Barr, why would I dedicate my own book to myself? It’s not logical.”

“You know, Ben, I think it’s a little late for us to be discussing what’s logical.”

“I’m innocent, Chelsea.”

“I know you are, Ben. And I’m counting on Marcolina to save your sorry ass. But you’ve been left holding the bag here, man. Just look at this mess.” Cracking with emotion, she cuffed him. “I’m all about the rules, babe, remember?”

“This is a fucking nightmare. I can’t believe this.”

“Ben Travers, you’re under arrest for the murder of Vincent de Leon. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney, and to have an attorney present during any questioning.”

Chapter Ten: Cock and Bull (by Shaun Haurin)

Arturo jumped up, toppling his freshly poured espresso in the process, as something splattered against the plate-glass window behind him. He turned just in time to catch a trio of hooded figures darting up the glorified alley to his left, a street with no name, a street he privately thought of as Limbo Road. It was a no man’s land Arturo hadn’t the slightest temptation to venture down, which was surprising to this born-and-bred city kid who at one time had ventured down just about every street South Philly had to offer. He surveyed the window and found a mess of familiar goop oozing down the glass. Not bullets, thank god, but eggs. Was he expecting bullets? Well, on some level Arturo was always expecting bullets. You didn’t get as high up on the hospitality industry food chain as he’d gotten—especially in a city as cutthroat as Philly—and expect bouquets of roses, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, or strippers dressed like sexy FedEx employees, every time someone rang your delivery bell. Arturo wasn’t as underhanded as some—he knew a few guys so underhanded they’d put a champion softball pitcher to shame—but he wasn’t what you’d call a culinary boy scout either. Regrets, he had a few. Enemies too, a couple in some very high places. No matter that his wife was a cop. In some instances it was even worse—far worse—that he shared his bed with a badge. So, yeah, when the window of his as-yet-unopened tapas restaurant was riddled with projectiles late at night, when he was all alone and half asleep despite his daily dose of caffeine, the paranoid wiseguy in him was inclined to think it might be paybacks, no matter how meager, culinary karma coming full circle.

But not this time. This time it was just a gang of neighborhood kids taking full advantage of Mischief Night, drawn like moths to the flame of Arturo’s temptingly lit window. He cursed the senseless mess he had to clean up, and soon, before the embryonic gunk had time to congeal, even as the twitchy-fingered twelve-year-old urchin in him envied his attackers’ chutzpah. He wasn’t so old that he couldn’t remember what it was like, roaming near-identical streets not far from these, getting revenge on a year’s worth of grumpy neighbors and asshole classmates, bombarding cars with egg grenades, scrawling mocking windshield graffiti—WASH ME; JUST MARRIED; 4 SALE: $19.99— with bar soap and shaving cream. Harmless acts of pseudo-vandalism. Not so much destroying as making a magnificent boyhood mess. Arturo wasn’t so old, but he was far from being a kid. Chelsea often called him Grandpa Artie, halfheartedly getting on his nerves. When first they’d met, she’d asked him how old he was and he’d told her. What was the point of lying? A multitude of wrinkles and gray hairs would’ve called him out on any number he might’ve lowballed her with anyway.

“How old are you?” he, in turn, asked her.

“Older than you think,” she said slyly, “but younger than I look.”

“You look about thirty,” he told her point-blank, “which is exactly how old I think you are.”

She eyed him appreciatively but neither confirmed nor denied his claim. “I know who you are,” she said.

“You do?”

She nodded, the thirty-year-old chased away by the flirty teenager who suddenly inhabited her burnt-caramel brown eyes. “I like your restaurant,” she said, looking around. “And I like Italians,” she added, toying with him, lifting the line wholesale from A Bronx Tale.

Well, give the woman credit for knowing her audience. Give the woman credit for most things, putting up with a greedy egomaniac like Arturo Simon not least among them.

The attraction had been instantaneous, even if their marriage was far from a foregone conclusion. It took some convincing, on both sides of their respective families. It was like something out of a primetime soap opera, the brash, young African-American cop and the brash, older Italian-American restaurateur. She’d walked into Organic Platter that fateful night looking like somebody with something to prove, dressed like her mama hadn’t taught her better, and Arturo had felt as gutted as the pan-fried rainbow trout they served with pickled Cipollini onion and horseradish crème. So they’d drifted apart over time, their insanely demanding careers mostly to blame for the sinister fault line that had opened, then slowly, almost imperceptibly, widened between them. Chelsea had begged him to not open yet another restaurant, which for a long time he’d seen as selfish, mean-spirited, patently unfair. Was anybody begging Stephen Starr to not open another restaurant? Was anybody begging Walter Ego to not cut another album or Stephen King to not write another book? She may as well have begged him to not open his eyes in the morning and get out of bed. “Hey, Commissioner Gorgeous,” came his uninspired reply, leading with a longstanding pet name she wasn’t fond of, “why don’t you stop fighting crime?”

Predictably, Arturo found the eternally unamused detective version of his wife glaring at him with those devastatingly dark eyes of hers, heavy lids at half-mast, as if somebody or something had died, or was dying.

Fuck, another restaurant. She was right, of course. Who, besides Arturo, needed it? Tapas had been done to death, everybody said so. But this time around it was less about the restaurant than about the man for whom the restaurant was named, which, Arturo already suspected, was his first and possibly fatal mistake.

It was one Mischief Night a lifetime ago that he’d spied his Uncle Bull—born Arturo, his namesake—crouched behind a lovingly kept Caddy idling outside Val’s corner variety store over on McClellan. Uncle Bull was a big, Lurch-like guy, six-four, six-five, a head like a prize-winning pumpkin, hands the size of NHL goalie’s gloves. He was hard to miss, even squatting behind a parked car wearing a navy turtleneck under black serge suit, an outfit Arturo associated with b-movie beatniks, not neighborhood muscle who couldn’t tell a bongo from a bon mot. But then Uncle Bull had a reputation as being significantly smarter than the average bear, and a hit with the ladies. Family members referred to him as Arturo, but out on the street, where his seemingly homeless cronies dispensed with such formalities and displayed unmitigated disdain for multi-syllables, his name had been cropped to simply ’Turo, which every near-stranger within earshot misheard as “Toro.” The bull.

“Hey Unc, what are you doing?” Arturo asked, even though he knew exactly what his uncle was up to. You’d have to be a drooling idiot not to see the bright yellow smoke bomb in one hand and the just-struck match in the other, and not put two and two together.

“This guy owes me fifty bucks,” whispered his uncle, flicking his head at the car and grinning from ear to jug-handle ear. “He’s got money to play the numbers but no money for me. So I’ve got a little something for him.”

Uncle Bull winked at him, lit the little bomb, reminiscent of a cartoon slot-machine fruit, and tossed it into the open driver’s side window. Seconds later the pristine still-running car—the Stones’ “Miss You” playing on the radio—was filled with billows of putrid cream-colored smoke.

“Run, Artie!” his uncle admonished him, and practically had to tow his giggling, wonderstruck nephew all the way down McClellan Street.

Fittingly enough, to hear Arturo’s father tell it, as a boy Uncle Bull was forever crashing into things; the proverbial bull in a china shop, he routinely knocked over floor lamps and step ladders and all manner of department store display. One part Paul Bunyan, two parts Babe the Blue Ox, even the occasional Christmas tree came tumbling down. Once, on the Boardwalk, while his father, the older of the Simonella boys (Arturo had wisely opted to shorten his surname; you couldn’t even work the line at Arby’s! with a name that constantly reminded people of food poisoning) had been busy picking out the perfect hermit crab, Uncle Bull had gotten into a tussle with a spinning postcard rack, scattering various glossy wish-you-were-here images of Wildwood to the restorative ocean wind. As the inherently clumsy boy got older, and grew exponentially in size, often the things he crashed into were living, breathing human beings, like the degenerate gamblers and speed freaks who couldn’t or wouldn’t repay the loans granted them by Uncle Bull’s unforgiving boss, a prodigiously mustachioed neighborhood character who went by the sole name Victor. That’s it, as far as Arturo could recall, just Victor. As in, To the victor go the spoils. As in, I’m the victor, which makes unlucky you the loser.

But Uncle Bull’s brawn wasn’t the only character trait that seemed appropriate to his bovine nickname. A born storyteller—Nona Valente would say liar—the man could spin a yarn as deftly as any bespectacled hipster chick wielding a set of sewing needles. Like the time North Wildwood streets flooded after being hit with the tail-end of a hurricane and he paddled a canoe up Delaware Avenue rescuing stray dogs and cats. Or the time he stumbled upon David Brenner exiting the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel with “heart-stopping” Lola Falana on his arm and “chaos ensued.” Or the time John Paul II came to visit and, seemingly intrigued by a placard that read HONK IF YOU HAVE DOUBTS, offered Uncle Bull a brief, inadvisable ride in his Popemobile.

“What did you talk about?” then-teenage Arturo had questioned his silver-tongued uncle. “Oh, you know, a little of this, a little of that.”

“Don’t you even remember?”

“Sure I remember,” Uncle Bull said, feigning mild offense. “How could I not remember? But The Man with the Pointy Hat asked that the conversation be kept confidential. Top-secret, like a confession. Only between me, him and the Big Guy upstairs.”

“Wow, really?” Arturo thought this over. “Why?”

“Why? How should I know why? The man is basically God on earth. Would you go around blabbing about your conversation if God asked you to keep it secret?”

Arturo just looked at him. “No,” he finally admitted.

“Of course no! Otherwise,” his uncle, mimed being struck with a divine lightning bolt, “Zap! Pow! Lights out for good. Still, I don’t think the Holy Paterfamilias would mind if I shared the information with a close relative, say, my only brother’s only son, on the condition that he promise to keep his adolescent yapper shut.”

“I promise.”

Uncle Bull eyed him suspiciously. “Promise on Mike Schmidt’s grave?”

“Schmidtty ain’t dead.”


“Okay, okay, I promise.”

His uncle looked around the room and loudly cleared his throat as if about to begin a wedding toast. He then leaned in close and, putting a conspiratorial hand up to his mouth, stage-whispered, “He told me when the world is going to end.”

“Holy crap, you’re kidding!”

“Ssshhh, keep it down!” He grinned knowingly. “So, do you want to know the day?”

“Father Carlucci says no human being can know the day.”

“Carlucci’s a crackpot.”

“He says not even the angels in heaven know the day.”

“Well, I know it.”

Arturo thought it over for a few moments. “No, I don’t want to know,” he finally decided. “I’d never be able to not tell somebody. And then God would strike me dead.”

“Good point,” conceded his uncle, noticeably relieved. “But I’ll tell you this, it’s a long way off yet.” He grinned again, a smile that lit up his misleadingly dopey features like a jack-o’-lantern. “Just in case you’re worried about not getting a chance to bust a nut beforehand.”

“I’m not worried,” Arturo muttered, his ears burning in the face of this legendary nut-buster.

“Unless of course the Big Guy changes His mind,” Uncle Bull rambled on, “and changes the date without telling anybody, including the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, His right-hand man.”

“What? Would he do that?”

Uncle Bull’s laugh, not unlike a peal of summer thunder, seemed to sway a pair of bo-bo’s slung over a nearby telephone wire and scatter a small flock of pigeons feasting on the knot of a once-soft pretzel. “Well I sure as shit wouldn’t put it past Him. Look, I don’t know what screwy Father Carlucci’s take is on all this, but the God I was taught to both love and fear and maybe even hate a little, seems to get off on keeping us sinners guessing.”

He’d been right on that score, Uncle Bull. After all, what kind of god would allow people to off each other with poisoned cheesesteaks? What kind of god would silently sit by and let a young detective with a bright future and a flawless reputation and—God help him for even thinking it at a time like this—a very large, very firm hand, leave this world seemingly due to the twisted shenanigans of some demented villain out of Batman?

And yet, if he was being honest with himself—Arturo prided himself on his bluntness with other people, but he could tell himself fantastical stories rife with self-serving falsehoods when it suited his needs—he’d have to admit that this recent tarnishing of the reputation of the famous Philly cheesesteak wasn’t the worst news he’d ever heard. In fact it was the sort of kamikaze anti-marketing campaign he’d dreamt about for years. He’d devoted his life to elevating Philly’s dietary preferences, to refining the city’s collective palate—he’d even named a restaurant Palate, because sometimes it took a brick wall—but his efforts were constantly and consistently undermined by the media’s pigheaded insistence that “native” Philadelphians craved nothing but greasy meat sandwiches slathered with iridescent processed cheese. So, Philadelphians had come to believe it. As did the rest of the country, if not the world. It turned his stomach. Literally. Of course Arturo had been weaned on cheesesteaks just like every other local kid of a certain generation: cheesesteaks, hoagies, pulled pork sandwiches. Meat may’ve been murder in some circles, but around here, it was a unanimously accepted form of self-defense. Yo, look, if it’s between me and some cow, me and some pig? Babe’s goin’ down, bruh. Was it any wonder the city was consistently cited among the top ten most obese? Talk about an epidemic. And although Arturo didn’t wish anybody dead, least of all innocent college students with their whole lives ahead of them—lives potentially spent patronizing his (largely) heart-friendly stable of restaurants—he wasn’t the least bit sorry to see the iconic Philly Cheesesteak knocked off its ludicrous, illegitimate pedestal.

What Arturo was sorry about—truly, deeply sorry—was Olive. The fluke few inches of snow had melted, the touching, highly ceremonial cop-funeral come and gone, but he was still reeling from the news that his wife’s co-worker and his sometime-mistress was suddenly dead, killed in the line of duty, more or less. Of course Chelsea was a mess. But not half the mess she would’ve been had she ever found out that he and Olive had had a fling—affair was too lofty a word for the handful of times she’d shown up at Fondue Me in something other than her sober, unwittingly arousing uniform, some neutral, unnoticeable Ann Taylor suit or reams-long wrap dress that gallantly sought, yet failed, touchingly so, to feminize her inescapably genderless frame. It was like trying to festoon something as municipal as the Ben Franklin Parkway with streamers for a parade. (If Olive was the Parkway, Chelsea was Lincoln Drive, a poorly-lit tarmac of hairpin turns.) Olive towered over Arturo, which he enjoyed. More than enjoyed; her sheer height made the backs of his knees sweat. She entered a room—his restaurant; her tiny bedroom in Bridesburg; the fusty New Hope B&B they’d occasionally commandeered—and within seconds Arturo’s calves would be drenched, and this long before his dick had even begun to get hard. He may’ve been ruler of a culinary kingdom second only to Stephen Starr’s—what was that lead-in sentence the Inquirer ran not so very long ago: Rome wasn’t built in a day but Arturo Simon’s restaurant empire seems to have been—but between the sheets he much preferred subservience, in essence getting to bark Yes, chef! at someone for a change. And who better to subvert him than a square-jawed, steely-eyed Amazon of at least partially Slavic descent, a buff, brutish woman who wouldn’t have seemed out of place stationed in Siberia, toting an automatic weapon and sporting a fur hat not unlike that worn by the chanting Witch’s guards in The Wizard of Oz.

It was part of the reason he’d married a cop: for as long as Arturo could remember visions of handcuffs and billy clubs had danced in his head. Mischief Night hijinks aside, he’d been a well-behaved kid. Maybe too well-behaved. Yet he’d always had a thing for policewomen. Though few real-life female law-enforcers resembled Sgt. Pepper Anderson, he blamed Angie Dickinson, his first real crush, for the fetish. That mouth. Those legs. That hair. The policewoman he’d eventually married was the furthest thing from a 1970’s blonde bombshell, though Chelsea’s own bodacious physical charms were combustible enough to level an apartment building. Early on the sex had been atomic, world-rocking—later, merely mind-blowing. It was still some of the best sex Arturo had ever had, once they’d penciled each other in and erased each other out and finally found the time to have it. But time, as the song goes, wouldn’t give them time. And these days after a long day of cracking heads and booking bad guys, Chelsea was in no mood to throw the book at one more. If anything, she was more prone to throwing actual books she’d grown bored by or impatient with, the latest being a wildly popular if oddly titled satiric mystery novel by a bunch of local authors she couldn’t wrap her head around. Which over time had led Arturo to occasionally seek out much more stern if not downright sadistic bedmates—a sales rep from Foodstuffs; the postwoman who’d once delivered mail to Liberty Kabob; the encyclopedically inked Ruby Rose clone he had seating tables at Organic Platter—the latest (and by far most effective) being a grim-faced taskmaster who had a blissfully difficult time distinguishing between work and play.

Olive. An odd name, considering her size, and her complexion. Try as he might, Arturo couldn’t help picturing the wispy comic book character from his youth, the bendy beanpole with the outsized feet and long black skirt. They may’ve shared the same hair color—even worn it the same way, up in a bun—but that’s where the similarities ended. Detective Olive Norvell was sturdy, strong-limbed, a stately oak tree. She wasn’t as striking as Chelsea, or as conspicuously pretty as that twittering, bird-boned chica, Laurel. But she’d had something Arturo had needed, something not everyone was willing to acknowledge, let alone share. And now she was gone.

At least she hadn’t died in vain. Maybe. Apparently Olive’s death had provided Chelsea and what remained of her team with a potential breakthrough on the case, a handful of arrows pointing in the same direction for once. Which could only mean that the cheesesteak would soon be returned to its rightful place in the Holy Trinity of Philly delicacies, alongside Tastykakes and salt-laden soft pretzels. You can’t mess with tradition, although Arturo had tried (he didn’t need Craig LaBan to weigh in on his ill-fated Wagyu beef cheesesteak, he knew it was silly). Yes, the cheesesteak would live on, ad nauseam, as shamefully synonymous with Philadelphia as Rocky Balboa. Arturo’s efforts would be in vain, his beloved city, so underestimated, so misunderstood, so overfed, forever doomed to be typecast as a blue-collar palooka trying (and mostly failing) to make good.

Oh, well. Kay sara, sara, as Uncle Bull would say, as if reciting the names of a trio of old flames. Whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see. And even if it were, the fickle Big Guy upstairs could always screw us over by changing His mind.

Arturo went to the dishwashing area and filled a big yellow roller bucket with pink soap and hot water. He took a mop down from one of its hooks along the wall and dunked it—once, twice, three times, relishing the sloshy sound—into the suds. A bubble bath would be nice, he thought with a sigh. A sudsy bubble bath with his bubblicious, dark-skinned bride. With any luck she’d be able to pencil him in sometime before Christmas. With any luck she’d crack this cheesesteak case wide open and they’d take a much-needed vacation. His and her tubs, like that ridiculous commercial for erectile dysfunction? No, one big claw-foot, a basin built for two.

He nabbed a squeegee as he exited the room.

Out on the sidewalk, Arturo saw more eggs splattered along the street, evidence of where in their chaotic haste to flee the scene these harmless teenage terrorists had fired wide. But one mischief maker had proven himself a keen shot: an egg grenade had hit dead-center in the second letter O of the crimson painted name TORO. “Swish, two points,” Arturo said aloud. “Right on target.”