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?”
“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?”
“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.”
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.
“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.
“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.”