Chapter Nine: Olive You (by Randall Brown)

The “board”—with its various strings that connected headshots to maps to profiles to dates to victims and back to suspects—Olive learned had very little to do with the reality of working on a case. The case never coalesced into a singular “thing” that could be gazed at forever, like an abstract painting. Instead, there were fragments—a broken thing—so many scattered pieces, of not only this case but of all them, so that one never knew what was a piece and what wasn’t or what belonged where.

In the center of the detective office, Olive’s desk pushed up against Chelsea’s, their computer screens back-to-back, masks that each hid behind. The lead of the stolen poison from the university turned out to be janitors trying to clear out rats. And Chelsa’s car chase with an Audi and her father riding shotgun? All that came up from that was Chelsea’s father’s breakfast, an event that stopped the chase pretty quickly. Did that Audi have anything to do with these murders? Olive hadn’t a clue.

But the medical examiner had the poison identified. At least there was that.

“Did you know that Amadeus Mozart was treated for his syphilis with mercury pills—and it was the pills that killed him. Not the syphilis.” Olive gulped more coffee. Outside, the world darkened, the first blast of winter, unseasonably early and on its way. “Ironic.” Olive peeked around the screen. “Don’t you think, bosslady?”

Chelsea Simon’s hands hovered over the keyboard. “Notice how I’m not typing anything in. I said find me something useful about mercury cyanide poisoning. Key word: useful.”

The Daily Travesty joked it could be the work of seitan,” Olive said, retreating again to the space behind the screen. “Reminds me of The Daily Prophet.” Chelsea remained silent. “Wizards disappearing: Muggle meat-eater suspected. Do you know my nephew got a scholarship at Penn to play Quidditch? He’s the golden snitch. Plays other schools. They run around with brooms between their legs. Craziness. Makes no sense.”

Chelsea’s phone rang and her tone announced Arturo! His yelps sounded as if they were coming from Olive’s computer screen. Arturo & Chelsea. She’d love to put that on the wall, string it out, see what lay behind it. Their relationship made no sense.

But the case didn’t make sense either. That’s what had been bothering Olive about it all. No one benefitted. If the poisoner were a rival food cart, then that plan had clearly tanked, because no one was going to food carts—vegan, steak, or other. Did the murders drive people to restaurants? Not really. It drove people to prepare their own lunches. The victims had all been young students, but poisoners actually tended to be five to ten years younger than their victims. Were the students the intended targets? It didn’t add up. Not yet at least.

Poisoners, Olive knew, had to plan their crimes—and that meant that they were likely smart and creative. They were more likely to manipulate people to get their desires met rather than use their physical prowess. Not that they likely had any such skills. They were pretenders  hiding behind a mask that covered  something spoiled. They wanted the world to bend to their own wishes—a brat like Veruca Salt.

Salt! Holy mother of condiments. Salt.

As if the heavens had heard her, a shaking of white flakes sprinkled the students and the food carts and the bronze claws of the Drexel Dragon. Olive had brought Gutierrez here with her to check out not the food itself on all those carts, but the condiments, all the the stuff the customers squirted or sprinkled on the sandwiches to make them taste halfway decent. The brief warm spell had snapped, as if with a hard flick of a weatherman’s wand. Would the Quidditch match go on as scheduled? Not that Olive knew there was one scheduled, just a ridiculous thought. Gutierrez grabbed her arm and spun her around toward the Market Street subway.

Out from the underground came Arshad Mirou and Joey Delucca—their hands unlocking from each other’s. Olive let out a high-pitched whistle that silenced the entire corner—and probably sent a few dozen dogs into hysterics. Olive waved the two of them over to her and Gutierrez.

“What, are you selling weed to the Ivy Leaguers now?” Olive said.

“Mickey Marcolina,” Arshad said. “I’m going to continue my walk. You need something, you talk to him.”

Olive turned her attention to Joey.

“Joey, too,” Arshad said.

“How long you two been a thing?” Olive asked them.

“Partners,” Arshad responded. “Isn’t that what you two call each other?”

“You two are a ‘with,” Olive said. “We are a ‘without.’ Better watch yourself, Joey. This guy’s poison.”

“‘Poisoned his life, as a rusted nail driven through an oak-tree in its prime corrodes and kills,'” Joey said. “A quote from class. So of course Arshad doesn’t know it.”

“You think Joey is a knight?” Gutierrez asked Olive. “How did it feel moving that corpse so your buddy’s girlfriend wouldn’t find out he cheated. Bros before hos, right?

A car blew through the red light, heading south on 34th. “Audi?” Olive said aloud.

“I have an innie,” Arshad answered.

“You think she’s talking about your belly button?” Gutierrez said. “How much weed have you got on you today I wonder. I think that’s reasonable cause, don’t you? Olive? Olive!”

Gutierrez’s voice faded into the gathering wind and flakes as Olive ran down 34th toward Chestnut. At least she didn’t have to worry about people not getting out of her way. They scattered like ashes. The traffic lights were in her favor, and she caught up with the late model Audi just as it pulled into a metered spot on Walunt, a few spots from Josh’s food truck.

She hung back in the shadows of the coffehouse on the corner. Her skin burned, not yet used to the cold, the flakes more like tiny ice needles now. The Audi idled. She reached for her phone, stepped out to take a picture, the license plate obscured by a green tarp hanging out of the trunk.

Shit! The Audi spun out, but in reverse, over the curb, directly at her.

She slipped, not moving fast enough, the bumper a few yards, feet, inches. She shut her eyes, waiting for the impact that never came. She opened her eyes to see her own face staring back at her from the gleaming bumper—and then hundreds of salt pellets bounced off the street and lodged their sodium chloride into her scraped face and wide-open eyes. The city truck continued spreading its salt, unaware of the assault on one of Philly’s phinest.

Olive blinked and blinked and wiped at her eyes, and then hands were pulling at her, a cloth wiping across her face. “Detective Norvell, you okay? You okay? It’s Josh, food truck Josh.”

She struggled to her feet, snatched the cloth from him, finished cleaning the salt off her face. “Food truck, Josh.” She handed him the cloth. “Just the man I wanted to see.”

“What got into his pants?” Josh asked. “You know, the Audi driver?”

She held up a hand for him to hold his horses, then called Gutierrez. Gutierrez said that she’d talk some more to her boyfriends and Olive could continue with food truck guy.

“How you holding up?” she asked him. She still could see, if she wanted to bring it up, the image of Angela’s insides foaming out of her goddamn mouth. It had all begun with Josh, hadn’t it, with his “Without,” with the lacrosse player Nicholas Hodges dying from a poisoned vegan cheesesteak. Maybe the Philly gods and goddesses were turning on Josh for what he did to the city’s iconic sandwich.

“Just trying to make ends meat.” They were walking back to his truck as the storm intensified. No one had predicted this, just a few flakes. “I owe so fucking much on this truck.”

“You know the thing about poisoners,” Olive said, now under the awning of his truck and he inside, looking down at her. Usually it was she who had that privileged position. “They write the script, act in it, direct it, review it—the whole production. That sound like anyone you know?”

“A real Traversty,” he said. “That guy seems a bit all-about-Travers.” He looked around, probably for customers. “I’m sure you thought about that Pen & Pencil club for writers and wannabes. Or maybe someone in theatre—a one person show. Something like that?” He turned to scrape the empty grill. “You sure I can’t get you something? Anything?”

She reached for the Ben Franklin salt shaker and the Betsy Ross pepper one. “I’ll be needing these.”

“Check out the Kelly’s Writer House,” Josh said. “If you don’t mind the hipster douchebag crowd.”

The Kelly Writers House housed writers and readings and screenings and e-zines and blogs and workshops in a real house, a 13-room at 3805 Locust Walk on Penn’s campus. About five hundred people found their way to the house weekly. Olive went there in search of flyers and program notes, anything that might have to do with the case. If only there were a one-woman show The Vegan Monologues: Meat Your Maker. Or something along those lines.

Instead there were talks about the digital age, poems about identity in this digital age, being an aging poety in this digital age, and how to write about the digital age no matter your age. And then, when Olive looked up, she found something she hadn’t been looking for—Dr. Katrina Malfois. She threw a handful of salt over her shoulder and stepped out of the house with a dachshund.

Olive approached Dr. Malfois and they walked together toward Drexel, the dog Brutus belonging to her mother. She was on her way to the Gables, to meet her cousin first for coffee then for some quality time together, him writing, her grading papers.

“It’s an insult,” she said. “No office. No benefits. Yet the whole system would fall apart without us. Do you know adjunct comes from the Latin adiunctus. You know what that means? Of course you don’t. It means relevant. You know what that is?

“Irony,” Olive said. The dog stopped to piss, and then, with his back legs, kicked the dirt and salt up into Olives’s face. “Et tu Brutus.”  The good doctor seemed to reconsider Olive then. She seemed to look at her more intently. “So,” Olive said, “adjuncts are kind of like a vegan cheesesteak in the midst of meat eaters.”

“Not exactly. Here, on campus, the classic cheesteak might be anethema. The vegan ‘Without’ would be accepted, would get tenure, no doubt. Don’t confuse the campus with the city. They are two worlds apart.”

“Like salt and pepper.” They continued their walk. It would take them about fifteen minutes, from Spruce to 40th to Market to 42nd. Who are you Doctor? Really. Behind the mask? Where is Veruca Salt hiding, wanting the world to be hers. Why? Because she was spoiled, spoiled rotten. But an adjunct wanting recognition, pay, benefits, relevancy didn’t feel unreasonable. And how would murder solve any of theose problems? What did food carts have to do with the plight of the adjunct in the digital age?

“I just talked with Josh. He’s likely going under. Did you attend Angela’s funeral with your mom?” Katrina didn’t respond, preoccupied perhaps. “I know your mom is friendly with Mickey Marcolina—the defense attorney. Angela’s cousin.” Still nothing.

“Did you know, Detective, that 20% of murders involving poison are never solved? Do you know why that is?”

“Do you?” Olive asked her

“Me? Maybe that’s their whole thing—avoiding suspicion. I’ve been thinking a lot about who might be behind these murders. You think of women, don’t you, when you think of poisoners, but it’s mostly men. Especially if a woman has been poisoned. Then it’s almost always a man.”

“A poisoned pen.”

“You are an interesting specimen,” the doctor said to Olive, “of the human equation.”

“Are you into addition or subtraction?”

“Oh, don’t tell me I made myself a suspect by pondering the murders aloud?”

“How do you feel about Oompa Loompas?”

“I don’t follow.”

“It’s nothing. What was with the salt over your shoulder?”

“In da Vinci’s Last Supper Judas has, with his elbow, knocked over the salt cellar.”

“And now you will tell me where I can find the Holy Grail, that I suspect will be filled to the brim with vegan poison.”

“No. Salt blinds the devil.”

“Of course. And who is the devil behind you that needs to be blinded?”

She looked past Olive. “Oh, look. Her’s my cousin. He’s going to save us a few blocks.”

Olive turned around. The Audi again. It sped toward them, as if no one were behind the wheel.


You giveth, you taketh. I’d once—weeks ago, years back, yesterday—created a bar for all the characters deleted from stories. They didn’t know what to order. They wandered from seat to seat. They hunkered down in corners. They meditated in the bathroom stall. They had become no longer relevant. Someone somewhere sitting in a chair with other chairs all arranged in a circle thought that the story would be better without these characters. Relevant. What had Katrina said? From the Latin, adiunctus.

I drove the Audi around and around. In workshops, when characters were passively thinking about their problems, they called it “a guy driving around in his Volvo.” That’s not allowed. That will get you written off. That will make you no longer relevant to the way things are. Stories are the place for doers, not thinkers; for actors, not resters.

The author is dead. I think a lot about that as I drive around, sit in my room in Bellevue or Gables or wherever, thinking of something to happen that might be arresting. That’s why the story must be shown not told—because the author is dead, scene after scene, showing and showing, unable to tell, an adjunct, invisible but without whom the entire world would collapse.

Did I really write this world? Create it? Or am I imagining it? Is my brain as sick and spoiled as they said it was? What would be funnier? If I really were writing this world and its people into existence? Or if I merely imagined it? How could one know? How could one find out how much or how little one really mattered?

Is that irony? It’s a murder mystery, and the author is the one being declared dead. And is it irony that those are the ones I love, the discarded ones? Were I to be the bartender of that place, I’d say it all day. I love you. I love you. Because you’ve been cut out. Maybe the poisoner is actually tender, like a steak. Maybe the poisoner is sacrificing. Maybe the poisoner is just mad. Mad as a hatter.

One drives around enough and one runs into people. Look. Is that Cousin Katrina? And who is that with her? Is that, oh I think it is. Detective Olive Norvell. She’s gotten so close today to ending up in that bar, you know the one, next to Kelly Writers House. The Bar for Characters Who’ve Been Deleted from Stories. They really should work on shortening it. Don’t you think?


A Subaru cut off the Audi, skidded to a halt at the curbside.

“Hey, there you are!” It was Mickey Marcolina in the Subaru. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing harrassing my clients. I got an assfull of texts from those kids.”

Arshad on his way to class? I’d like to see you prove that,” Olive said.

She turned to introduce the good doctor but she had disappeared. That Audi. A ghost car.

“You need a ride?” he asked. “I’m going to Drexel to pick up Carol. Hop in.”

The ice storm—at some time—had turned into mist. Mickey yelled some more about leaving his clients alone, and Olive lay her head against the window. It didn’t take long for Mickey to pull into the spot where the Audi had idled, back in the land of food carts. A woman waved, dropped a scarf, bent to pick it up. Where was her butt?

As soon as Olive opened the door and stepped onto the sidewalk, she could smell the fries the woman held in her hand, only they were orange. Sweet potato. They created puffs of steam in the cold air.

The woman—”this is Carol,” Mickey said to her—reached into her pocket and pulled out a packet, which she tore and began to pour onto the fries. Olive moved toward her, not sure why, but felt compelled to stop the salt. As she got face-to-face with Carol, Carol sneezed and the salt blew into Olive’s face, into her mouth, down her throat.

The last thing she heard in this world, “Bless you.”

Chapter Eight: Chelsea & Howard (by Warren Longmire)

Change was coming to Allegheny West, if that was indeed its name. Chelsea leaned back on the muted brown lawn chair her father kept on his porch and shrugged into her jacket. The loiterers were thinning out; the 22nd’s crackdown clearly doing its thing. That old caved-in Victorian on the corner was gone now. Nothing was left of it but a plot of grass. The blacktop was ripped up in preparation for a fresh repaving and it looked like the sidewalk had its turn a month or two ago.  The entire stretch of it was bleached new and smooth with nothing but the odd tag blemishing its surface. Which was fine, she told herself, good even. Clean sidewalks, a few less potholes stunting out the suspension of her car. All welcome upgrades.

It was strange, she thought, seeing the sidewalk repaved after all these years. She had always seen sidewalks as a kind of fingerprint to a neighborhood. Even now, it was still one of the first things she took note of during an investigation. Each line was like layer of soil on a mountain. An age of time, cracked through by a punk kid’s fingertip or car accident or an overgrown weed pushing its way above ground. She knew the bumps and short inclines of 27th and Cambria by heart.

There for example. Three squares to the right of the house and dead center. That was where her cousin Trisha twisted her ankle in a spectacular collapse that left her friends rolling. Trisha always was too quick to jump at any passing distraction. In this case it was the free lunch trucks that used to arrive every day at 11:15 hawking turkey sandwiches, syrupy peach cups and, if they were lucky, a Flintstones push-pop ready to stain their mouths neon orange. Trisha flailed herself down the street, hard and hooting loud like it was her duty, her densely barretted hair, a pink jangling cloud around her head. Five steps in and she was airborne, her yelling suddenly silenced as she landed just ahead of their small crowd of grade school friends. Chelsea remembered the scolding she gave Trisha for “wilding” like that. Like the world was a playground she owned. Chelsea had often been on the receiving end of that kind of scolding:

“Why you touching things?”

“Where you think you going? Get over here.”

“Girl, you better act like you know.”

It was something that she had always resented, coming from the aunties and elder stoop sitters of 27th street. And yet there she was, with that same tone and logic instinctual to her somehow, as if the elder’s spirits were waving through her as her cousin collapsed into a ball on the concrete, her pink jelly flip-flop dangling off her foot like a dead fish.

Just in front of the porch, feet from where Chelsea sat, was where the family tree had once stood. They didn’t own it, but the wish for a tree had been in her parents’ prayers since they first searched for a home. It was thick and scaly, a Quercus bicolor, Arturo once told her, with beefy leaves that spread wide over the street. The tree and its neighbors had been planted long before Chelsea was born. Their small family came to call it Tappahanna Two, after her long dead great grandmother’s home town. Like most of 27th street, the place where Tappahanna once stood had degraded into an antique white slab.

Around the corner, just in front of Mr. Grant’s terra-cotta lined apartment was where she first saw blood. She didn’t know the person, though she imagined afterwards that she may have heard the shot, a bit distantly, the previous night. It was a familiar sound, even though seeing the result of it so close seemed unreal. The blood stained deeply and stayed there for weeks. The family didn’t really talk about that day. It took a long time for that fact to strike her as strange.

It was surprisingly warm for October. Chelsea squinted into the harsh sun. The block was quiet, save for a few stragglers.  A shuffling lady, old Ms. Martha she realized after a second, pushed a holdup cart full of dog kibble back home. A gang of bright colored teen girls strutted down the block in a pack past that, what was that car? An Audi? Don’t see many of those around. She glanced at her phone and then at the door. And, what was taking her father so long?

“Pop?” she yelled from her seat. “Are you coming or what?”

“I got ya!”

The thin metal storm door in front of the house fluttered on its hinges with an ugly scrape. An older man in a fresh purple track suit and basketball sneakers stepped through, stooping his head a bit to accommodate the small doorway and his modest grey ‘fro. He straddled a lounge chair beside Chelsea in a lanky swoop and gripped the front of it with both hands, grinning through gritted teeth. Chelsea side-eyed him quizzically.

“Good lord dad. We are going for a walk, not qualifying for the ironman here,” she said.

He arched his back and let his head hang fixed on the peeling white paint above. “Ha. Maybe you’re not. Me, I’m three good sit-ups away from being a contenda!”

His gut jiggled with each syllable.

“Yah Yah, pop. Just try not to die this time around ok? I know it’s been a while since we last went out.”

“Shoot, been a while for you! I went up by Valley Green just last week. See your problem baby girl,” he said, bending towards her, “is you too quick to think everyone else lives inside of your head.”

Their faces were an inch from touching and she could smell a bit of the onion and liverwurst sandwich he had clearly scarfed down a little while ago. She wrinkled her nose at him.

“No time for mouthwash?” she said, grabbing at his shoulder and pushing him back playfully.

“Also, you know you know better than to be eating that high sodium trash. Clearly I need to talk to that nurse of yours.”

“Now, don’t blame Ingram, Chel. She’s taking care just fine. At least give an old man a little treat, with noise and traffic from all the construction going on these days around there. What’s going up there again?”

“Apartments, A Target, Planet Fitness, GameStop, and some independent cafe.”


He waved her off and walked towards the porch railing and leaned out over the empty street. “You can have your four dollar coffees, thank you much. And your room full of who-knows who doing who-knows what. I’m good with my tea in my home. Be nice to not have to go all the way up on Delaware Ave to get a bulk roll of paper towels though.”

“Target is a little classier than that, Dad.” Chelsea said, saddled up close beside him. “Don’t give up your Sam’s Club membership yet.”

The old man shook his head. “That’s the trouble with these new places. Nothing practical. Makes you wonder who they building them for?”

They stood for a minute, taking in the block and letting the question dissipate into the humid afternoon. A sleek blue mid-aughts Honda rolled by slow and deliberately, convulsing with bass while the driver sat stone still and eyes forward. Across the street, a teenage girl with a swoop of purple ‘fro and kenti-patterned tights poked at her phone frantically, her face playing out the beats of some self-consciously tense conversation. And that Audi, still there. Older but meticulously kept. A figure, head tilted down, writing furiously. Was that a white guy in there? Maybe an Uber driver, Chelsea thought.

“Yeah dad. Makes you wonder. You about ready?”

“Yup. Are we taking the trunk?”

“No. I’ll drive.”

* * *

It had been two months since Chelsea had stopped by to see her Dad. She tried to stay in better touch, but the cheesesteak murders kept her busy. Between news reporters and that damn blogger always sniffing around, she hardly had a moment’s peace. It was amazing how the story had swept across the city so quickly. She had been with the PPD for six years now, scraping through murders, rapes, too many domestic disputes to count. Horrific stuff occasionally—like the deacon’s kid they found dumped just behind the Shop-Rite off of Cecil B. Moore. How old was that girl? Eighteen? Chelsea had spent weeks combing every store-front church, factory squat, and drug corner she could find hoping to find a bit of detail into who left her there. In the end, no leads and certainly no coverage. It took cheesesteaks and a dead lacrosse player to make the news.

“Something on your mind, officer?”

They had stopped at a red light just off the corner of Henry Ave and 30th. Her Mustang rumbled under them like an expensive massage chair.

“Any leads on the big hoagie mystery? Crack some more heads.”

Chelsea sighed. “That’s not an everyday thing, Dad. This kid…you have to understand.”

“Listen, I don’t know why you feel you need to explain anything to me. You think I don’t know these kids are involved in murdering and stealing. You don’t have to be a cop to know that.”

Maybe, but he was not just some kid, Dad. He was a suspect is what I’m saying. Simple as that. Had a tie to the steak cart owner. Prior convictions.”

“Surprised he was even smart enough to be involved in a poisoning.”

She took a careful curve onto Henry Ave and then another quick look in her rear view. Still there.

“There was a lead last week. Toxicology traced the poison with a stash recently gone missing at…” She paused as the road dipped and took a sharp right, taking it a little faster than usual. A sharp inhale came from her father but he said nothing. The Audi peeked from behind the crest of the hill a second afterwards, clear now, as the urban ruin gave way to woods.

“…USciences. It’s specific too. Reacts with soy. Just the thing for vegetarians.”

There was nowhere to turn off, besides the long private driveways and pastures. Roxborough was miles ahead and the gravel trails of the park where she planned on stopping may scare off the tail. The last thing Chelsea wanted was to let this asshole get away.

“Sounds promising! So who stole it?”

Chelsea slowed a bit, still eyeing behind her, as the trees turned into the long pastures of Saul Agricultural College. Their parking lot was not too far ahead.

“Not yet.” A truck drove past her and then a big SUV, honking as it swerved into the oncoming lane.


“We’ve questioned a few of the students.” She continued, slowing to a dead stop in front of the school’s parking lot. Her hand reached under her dashboard while her head remained fixed.

“Most have alibis.”

Car after car passed until only the Audi remained—the confused face of the rider now visible. He numbly honked but did not move. He curled toward the opposite lane.

“But a few haven’t followed up.” Chelsea flipped a switch under her dashboard.  Sirens blared from her car as she peeled into the parking lot and made a U-turn.

The Audi pushed wildly into reverse, then thought better and scrambled to shift back in gear. This was not a professional job, Chelsea thought, as she swerved into place, bumper to bumper. Chelsea pulled out her badge with a smile, tapping it against the window at the driver ahead. The driver was a slight man, a bit pale, a loose fitting trench around his shoulders and wire rim glasses on his face. For a moment, the driver and Chelsea locked eyes. There was no anger in his face, just a dull bemusement. She mouthed, Get out. Now.

“Chel, what exactly is going on here?” Her father exclaimed, gripping the door and arm rest. The Audi dropped into reverse with a loud crunch and took off back towards the city.

“Not exactly sure Dad, but I’m thinking you should hold on.”

Chapter Seven: A Writer Stabs Blindly in the Darkness (by Nathaniel Popkin)

At what point do you realize you’ve gone too far? I suppose it’s possible you get a tickling somewhere and that’s the sign. And some people feel the tickling, either right before or right after crossing the line. Some people know when to say when. By tickling I mean a feeling that triggers recognition and then action, or, on the other hand, paralysis. My first experience with this, I was eleven, playing with boys named Adam and Michael. It was summer. At seven, after dinner, we’d go to a construction site. First, it was just a place to hang out. Then we started stealing lumber. Some two-by-fours. Long, heavy joists. Pieces of plywood we carried up the street like bodies we had to conceal. We dumped everything in the woods behind Adam’s house. In those days the builders still used hand tools. We stole them too. Little by little, we said, so that no one would notice. And so what if someone did?

            One night in August steps had just been installed and we were on the second floor throwing scraps of wood out the window opening. Mike was straddling the window ledge, one leg dangling over. I didn’t feel any tickling. Adam was always the type to say we’d better be careful. He was always the one to say he had to go home. But that night he was the one who kept finding more stuff to chuck out the window, right onto the street that wasn’t yet a street. We didn’t see the pickup truck before it found itself under a piece of metal pipe. Maybe we didn’t see it at all, only heard the clank of the pipe against the roof of the truck. We’d heard the guy who was building the house had been coming around at night. I guess he thought he would catch the thief. But that didn’t deter us. Probably had the opposite effect.

            The builder jammed his breaks. Adam and I hauled down the pine stairs and leapt out the back sliding door opening. The creek still ran below then, but somehow we managed to avoid getting our feet wet. Or were we barefoot? I always have the sense that I ran barefoot through the woods. The second we started down the stairs, Mike jumped. It was instantaneous; both things happened at once. Adam didn’t hear or didn’t realize. He was scared. But I heard and for a second I was paralyzed. I was stuck to the plywood floor, as if in the kind of dream where you’re trying to get somewhere and can’t, because your legs have no use. Then it passed and I ran down the stairs and I forgot about Mike.

            In the woods we huddled inside the hut we’d built with the stolen lumber. We waited for Mike. We told ourselves he wasn’t dead. We imagined the builder like a monster loose in the woods. Should we go back, find Mike? Absolutely not, I said. We have to wait it out. We’ve gone too far, Adam said. He might be dead. It wasn’t a high jump, I said. Even then, did I realize we’d gone too far?

            Distance is anyway a troubling concept. That’s why I left the Bellevue. I thought I could hide in plain sight. That’s not exactly true. I thought no one would find me in Philadelphia. I didn’t know it had busy hotels. How could I know? I haven’t left Park Slope in years. I’ve been to my publisher’s office in Manhattan and a Christmas party at the New Yorker, but that was two years ago and I didn’t get invited last year. My ex-girlfriend Amanda and I went to the Cloisters in April. She begged to go. The subway ride was so long the whole time I thought to myself I should be at home working. I can’t afford this kind of time. I was already behind on the manuscript and I had magazine editors all over the big rock waiting for essays. The train stopped between stations and the lights flickered. Amanda kept looking at me as if I should have known she was pregnant, but I kept staring at the emergency instructions. I was sounding out the Portuguese at the bottom of the sign. I refused to look at Amanda. What did she want me to see?

            If you’ve gone too far, can you ever get back? You probably think you know what I’m referring to. Well, it certainly seems like you’ve gone too far, you say. Trust me I can hear your accusing little voice. You sound like that twerp Adam. Whatever happened to Adam? Seven bodies in sixty-four pages, yes, yes, I hear you. It’s as if this is one of those dreadful novels written by committee. Everyone thinks she has to supply a body. If you fail to bring your own it’s like showing up at a party without a gift for the host.

            Well, thank you. I’m honored. I had to leave the Bellevue. Actually I stuck it out there for 27 days. That was my advance. I had promised a novel of authenticity. That’s what they paid for. But there were certain problems with the Bellevue, which I need not describe. One day I noticed three or four cops in the lobby. One of them could have been the twin of that overgrown zucchini Olive Norvell.

            I slipped into the elevator and for a split second I thought of Amanda. She was a pharmacist. Or rather, a pharmacist in training. For the first few months of our relationship, I was thrilled by this. It had been a long time since I had dated someone who wasn’t a writer or a performance artist or a human rights activist. It was refreshing to talk about nothing important. Then it really got fun when Amanda started experimenting. It was part of her education. She understood that implicitly when I suggested it. It was her responsibility to try things. I was a willing subject. She was nervous at first, but then it’s a pharmacist’s rite to sift through the medicine closet. Shake up the pill bottles.

            We’d meet at school after all the other students had left. She was a diligent student, always wanting to learn more. I told her I was thinking of writing a novel that opened with the murder of a student. Strangling? she asked. I don’t know why she said strangling. I smiled at her and kissed her. No, poison, I said. We made love under the lab table.

            Did Olive and the other cops see me? I didn’t think so. I smiled to myself in the elevator. They would only see you, old boy, if you wanted them to see you. I closed my laptop and put my four shirts in my bag. No, I couldn’t go now. I’d have to wait. I opened the laptop and searched for places to stay. I meditated on distance—the distance between my mind and the printed page, between truth and fiction. The Bellevue was clearly claustrophobic. I needed perspective. I needed to see things more clearly. This charming little hamlet would give me the distance, I had thought. But now everyone’s hot onion breath was all over me, like the fog swallowing the Brooklyn Bridge. Only I wasn’t disappearing. I was becoming all too obvious.

            The Gables, where I retreated, is a giant old house in decadent West Philadelphia. The house is atrociously Victorian, dark and somber as a casket. Light has been vanquished. The walls are red or they are striped or paneled. The chairs are flowered. The breakfast is standard cereal and muffins. The tea is weak.

            There is a bench in the garden that I avoid. I don’t swing in the swing. I don’t pet the dog. I asked to see all the rooms. The one in the turret was bright and open feeling—the only room in the house to breathe. The walls were blue. A good place to have an afternoon affair. The owners didn’t ask why I needed the room or how long I expected to stay. I didn’t say one way or the other. I only asked them to let me know when they planned to clean. I didn’t want surprises.

            I went out when it became dark. I walked a few blocks to a food truck that specialized in hemp burgers—I don’t touch meat—and I sat on the steps of an old church and considered a forty foot tall London Plane Tree. Its branches swayed like the arms of a dead man walking.

            That night the key didn’t work and I had to ring the buzzer. I felt my life had reached an abyss, I explained to the man who opened the door. He was one of the owners. I look around and I don’t even know what I’m seeing, I told the man. He offered me tea. His face was pale and waxen. Don’t you want any tea? he asked again. Are the birds loud in the morning? I asked. I don’t know why I said this. Do you need anything in the room? Distance, I said, and silence. Nothing I said made any sense. On the mantel someone had arranged pumpkins and fake sunflowers. There were plastic orange leaves taped to the surface of the mantel. It wasn’t as mawkish as it sounds.

            The man persisted in his hospitality. Though to be precise his voice was strained. He’d seen all kinds of unfortunates. I sank into a velvet chair and tried to justify my odd behavior. Perhaps it was the hemp burger. A writer stabs blindly in the darkness, I said, you never know what you might hit. It could get bloody! said my kind host. There are casualties, I responded. No more than the writer himself, I suppose, he said. Now he gave off an air of genuine compassion, as if he was reading my mind. You write for the ages, he said. No, no, I replied, I write for today. Books aren’t different than songs, but mine is a mystery, and so it’s a question. Who killed the butler? he said, that kind of question? Who killed the innkeeper, I said point blank, and smiled. And then I knew he was going to ask what I thought about the cheesesteak killings. I responded cheerfully: I don’t eat meat, so I can’t really say.

            Oh, neither do we. But we do serve bacon on Sundays, he said. You might make an exception for that? No, never, I responded. Not unless it’s fake. Well, do you think there’s more than one killer? You mean, is there a copycat or is this a coordinated attack? Yes, there might be copycats. People aren’t so creative, you know. Killers are, I think, I said.

            He said they would send up scones and tea during the day while I was working. Please knock, I said, that’s all I ask.

            From the window of my delightful room, hovering as it was like a church tower over the little houses of the village, I felt the necessary distance. I opened my window to the bird sonnet. In autumn the birds fall from the trees like tears and melt into the ground.

            The leaves on the trees were dark green still, despite the calendar. I had to remind myself this wasn’t New York. I stuck my head out the window as if to confirm the finding. Not even certain far precincts of Brooklyn have such an air decay and dissolution. The leaves seemed to swallow everything. My nest was on the highest branch of the tallest tree, which made me feel at ease.

            During the day, with the drapery pulled and the window open, I tried to absorb the essence of the place. I typed and I listened. Only once in the first few days was I interrupted. There was a knock at my door. Someone is here to see you, said the voice of the man with the pale and pasty face, whose name I still can’t remember. I’m sorry, I’m busy, I replied. She seems insistent, he said. I slammed my laptop closed.

            It was my cousin Katrina, the overachiever. The woman is very serious. And worse than that, her posture is straight as the needle of a syringe. At the little tip she lets out her proclamations. I’d avoided her these last few weeks and now here she’d plunged herself into my room. The sunlight had hit the far wall, illuminating a row of decorative plates. How did you find me here? I asked her. Don’t be silly, she said. Her class had just let out at the University of the Sciences, a couple blocks away. I hadn’t realized she taught there too. The pharmacy school? Isn’t that right? She stared at me with a look of wicked incredulity. I stared back. That’s all you can do with Katrina.

            She asked to stay. She had papers to grade, she said. Being an adjunct she had no office. I smiled. What in our childhood had made Katrina so angry?

            Her appearance comforted me and I returned to my work and I thought that the distance had come full circle and I took notice of it like someone else in the room. Katrina sat rigidly in the blue plush chair. It’s heavenly here, I wrote, as the sunlight skipped across the bony knuckles of her hand.

            I waited until the yellow light came on in the room across the street and then I left to find my dinner. There are enough dark and empty streets in this half-formed place to fill a crime novel. I stuck to the cool skin of the bricks and the backsides of the trees. I walked through far and forgotten neighborhoods listening to the sounds of gruff, overly seasoned voices and the screech of bike tires. Somewhere, I smelled cilantro and lime. Somewhere else, deep shaking laughter. In another place, I descended into a cloud of marijuana smoke, and a few feet away the puff of the sewer inlet. That sour smell I’ll never banish from my mind.

            The next night the moon was high in the sky and I stayed in. I opened my window. Something drew my foot up and over the ledge and I perched there, in the same position as Mike so many years ago. Sometime later two police cars pulled up. Chelsea and Olive got out of the lead car. Chelsea walked with such confidence I couldn’t stand it. They disappeared under the roof of the porch. I tried to listen for voices, but I couldn’t hear through the distance. The porch roof was ten feet below. The branch of a cherry tree quivered in front of me. I had tossed all my junk onto the page and now I was paralyzed, not with fear but indecision. I wanted to see Chelsea, just to gaze at her. I could walk down the stairs. I could jump onto the porch roof. I could hide in the bathroom. Chelsea come find me. But I did nothing. I never moved. After ten minutes, Chelsea and Olive returned to their car. I got down and went back to my desk and pretended to write. Then came the knock and the voice of compassion. Just so you know, we’re very protective of our guests here, said the voice. I’m very sorry if I’ve interrupted your work.


Chapter Six: Arshad and Josh (by Kelly McQuain)

A crisp, fall Monday morning and already Arshad Mirou had missed his psychology class, no thanks to SEPTA and the 61 line, the bus always late if it ever came at all. Arshad pushed through traffic on his skateboard instead, dodging pedestrians and the rush of cars, blasting through red lights and swerving past cars with only inches to spare. Arshad felt free in moments like this. Didn’t matter that he was from the mean streets of Strawberry Mansion, where the cracked sidewalks and squat row houses made the world seem composed of anything but strawberries or mansions. Syringes and squats were more like it. Grit and dirt and plastic bags, all of it blowing now like fall leaves in Arshad’s wake.

            In the last few weeks, Halloween decorations had sprung up in store fronts and windows. Grinning green witches, cartoony vampires. But no false face could disguise the fact there was a true monster out there.

            The Cheesesteak Killer, the TV reporters and news bloggers were calling him—and that monstrous mo-fo was proving bad for business.

            Ergo no time, no reason, to stop on Kelly Drive today to sell weed to the rollerbladers, skate rats, and college scullers who hung out by the fancy gingerbread houses along Boat House Row. Nobody was buying much lately, and Arshad knew enough to lay low. Too many of his clients had been tangled up in that mess over the past nine days. First that asshole Hodges, then Joey DeLuca’s idiot roommate and the chick he’d been messing with. A bunch of others, including Hodges’ friend Pants, who’d bought the big one in some dingy writers’ club in Center City. Spoiled college kids, pushing up daisies all over the goddamn city, and nobody knew what to make of it. Arshad had followed the story on The Daily Traversty, how the cops were hauling in people for questioning left and right, only to let them go when the connections fizzled.

            Even his boy Joey DeLuca had gotten pulled into the shitstorm. As Arshad skateboarded down Ridge Avenue beneath a cloudy sky, he thought of him, DeLuca, a rich, stuck-up sonovabitch like all the rest.

            Or at least Arshad had thought so at first. But DeLuca would stick around after all the others had slunk off with their dime bags and dubs. He complimented the way Arshad worked his board, the way he popped an ollie or executed a quick kick-flip. They got to talking. About the Sector 9 Pintail DeLuca rode in high school. About how DeLuca had blown out his knee doing a tricky tail-slide on it his senior year. DeLuca invited Arshad to hang with him at the Temple Longboard Club, and for a little while Arshad felt like he might actually fit in somewhere. All those sweaty young skater dudes shredding on the cement steps of Anderson Hall. Didn’t hurt that those boys were good for business, either. Nothing like a little cheefing at the end of the day to take the sting out of a skateboarder’s bumps and bruises.

            Soon enough the longboard boys were giving Arshad the usual daps and pounds and high-fives when they saw him, as if for years they had all been besties and bros. And always DeLuca was right there beside him, with his wet dark eyes and mop of unruly hair, egging Arshad on to push his next trick farther. But then one of the others—usually Deluca’s scrawny roommate Logan—would make some crack about Arshad taking classes at KKF—Kommunity Kollege of Filadelphia, they teased him—a school so mired in remediation, they joked, the kids who went there couldn’t even spell its name.

            The first time Arshad heard the wisecrack, he’d kicked his board so hard the back axle came loose. “Chill, man,” DeLuca told Arshad as Logan slunk off toward the Bell Tower with a dismissive “Whatever.”

            DeLuca said he had a tool back in his room that could fix Arshad’s board. That’s how Arshad found himself in DeLuca’s second-floor apartment just a block east of Temple. That night they smoked weed and ate microwaved Hot Pockets on DeLuca’s bed as the moon came out. With just the two of them the conversation was easy, no fuss. DeLuca hoisted his cut-off khakis to show the scar from where the pins had been put in his knee. Arshad anteed up the bump where he’d rammed his nose into a stop sign. Then he pulled off his T-shirt to show the hitch in his clavicle where his father had pushed him down the stairs at thirteen. As DeLuca drew his finger along the break, Arshad’s skin turned to goosebumps. The hour was late and they were down to their last joint. “Shotgun you for it,” Arshad offered, taking a long draw, leaning in close. And that’s how he felt the first crush of DeLuca’s lips, hot and smoky—wanting things they shouldn’t want.

            Arshad spent the night. Quiet, so asshole Logan wouldn’t find out. Arshad had spent other nights in DeLuca’s bed, too. Even spent the better part of two weeks there in August while Logan vacationed in Wildwood with his family. Two weeks of shredding boards with DeLuca by day, and late nights waiting for him to finish his shift at Fondue Me, the Passyunk Square restaurant where DeLuca waited tables.

            Was that what love was like? Easy summer days and sweet, dick-blistering nights? Arshad had no way to measure such things. Before he knew it, those two weeks were over, and he was back in his Strawberry Mansion shit-hole, listening to his mom and her new boyfriend going at it through the walls.

            Arshad cut through Fairmount and turned down 17th. If he hurried, he could still make it to campus in time to grab lunch and print out his paper before his English class with Professor Malfois.

            He tried to push DeLuca from his mind, ignore him like he’d been ignoring his texts. DeLuca was the kind of guy who’d do anything for anybody, except stick up for Arshad when his friends jerked his chain. Even Logan’s girlfriend teased him now. Enough was enough. In the last few days, Arshad hadn’t read a single one of DeLuca’s texts even though DeLuca sure had been sending a lot of them since the cops let him go. There his phone went again, buzzing in his pocket, next to the roll of dough he had left from selling weed to DeLuca’s restaurant buddies. Ah, fuck it. All he wanted to know now was what made it into The Daily Traversty. How the medical examiner had weighed in: Not enough evidence to hold DeLuca for murder. How the kid had made bail on the lesser offense.

            Yeah, it was hard to love a white boy. Even harder when he’d been charged for tampering with a girl’s corpse.

* * *

A few dents and dings were left in Josh Whitcomb’s food truck from its time in the impound lot. True to his girlfriend Angela’s promise, she had gotten his truck released with the help of her hotshot defense lawyer cousin, Mickey Marcolina. Mickey was a lot better than the guy Josh had on speed dial—his parents’ tax attorney—who could barely handle a pile of parking tickets, let alone a high-profile police investigation. No sir, Mickey knew who to deal with when the stakes were high. When the investigation turned up nada, Mickey forced the police to let Josh’s truck go.

            As for the truck itself, Naked Philly had never been more spic-and-span. Josh threw out all the food the cops had slopped their paws through. He gave his ride a gleaming scrub-down, then stayed up all night with Angela to give his truck a complete makeover: fresh paint job, a totally new menu. He cut a deal on surplus food supplies with Angela’s second-cousin, Paul, who was having trouble moving sandwiches out of his South Philly shop now that business had slowed. Josh had been so shaken by his ordeal that he’d even had a change of inner spiritual direction. Gone was the tofu-loving, chia-seed hawking South Jersey surfer boy. In his place was Josh’s old meat-eating self. No more murderous vegan cheesesteaks on multi-grain rolls from him. Now it was hoagies and sausages all the way! On the side of his truck he spray-painted a silhouette of Angela’s gorgeous butt backing into an oversized salami and rebranded his business as Make Ends Meat.

            The events of the past week had proven too much for Josh’s business partner, Bernardo. After being questioned by Detective Simon, Bernardo had left Josh a text message saying he’d taken off with his pit bull Hadley for an extended camping trip in the Poconos. Typical Bernardo, knuckling under at the first sign of trouble. No wonder he’d gotten bounced out of Drexel the end of freshman year when that bitchy prof accused him of plagiarism. Bernardo never could surf life’s ups and downs. He always let the waves pull him under. Josh personally hadn’t seen hide nor hair of the jerk since before the shit hit the fan last Saturday.

            Yes, it was much nicer having Angela take up the slack beside him when she wasn’t in class, even if that meant he had to listen to her yak in his ear all day or honk her nose into tissues every time a gust of ragweed blew through. New partner, new location. 17th Street up at Community College of Philadelphia, where nobody knew Josh from Adam—and where Angela’s ample backside shimmied sweetly against him each time she leaned out the truck window to hand somebody change.

            Still, the lunch crowd was thinner than Josh expected as he manned the grill. Most students were still brown-bagging it even though it had been five days since Vincent DeLeon’s body had turned up at the Pen and Pencil Club.

            Only a couple people in line. Professors from the looks of them. Josh listened to them talk while Angela slunk back to the open rear door, talking on her cell phone and cracking the rolls of quarters Paul had given her for the change drawer the night before.

            “Running on fumes today,” said the thirty-something redheaded woman who’d just ordered a grilled chicken on pita.

            “I hear you,” said a guy, early fifties, in a moth-eaten tweed blazer. “Graded two classes’ worth of comp essays last night. Would it kill students these days to actually read the assignment?”

            “Ugh. Let’s not mention kill and students in the same sentence,” said the skinny redhead. “Half my class at Temple is using this murder crap as an excuse to hibernate in their dorm rooms. We’re reading Fast Food Nation this week. A girl reported me to the dean yesterday for failing to issue a trigger warning.”

            The man let out a grim laugh. “Cheesesteak Killer, my ass. What’s next, the Soft Pretzel Strangler?”

            Behind them, a tall, mannish woman dressed in black leaned against a metal fence and kept watch on the street with a jaundiced eye. She’d been there nearly an hour without buying so much as a Snapple. Had the college stepped up security?

            “Anyway,” said the redhead as she rolled her eyes, “I have a stack of papers of my own to slog through before my night class up there.”

            “Ah, the old adjunct shuffle,” the man said. “Dashing campus to campus and holding office hours in the car. I know it all too well.”

            “Car?” the woman cried, her wire-rim glasses sliding down her nose. “I can barely afford a TransPass on the little these places pay.”

            Tweed blazer sighed. “As bad as we’ve got it, I hear Katrina Malfois has it worse. I think she’s working five campuses this term. Got a mother with heart disease to support. Been living with her down in South Philly since her husband died. The two share a little dachshund they dote on. Brutus, I think he’s called. Ugly critter. I’m in the same office with her here on Monday-Wednesday-Friday. Malfois keeps a picture of the awful thing on the desk we share.”

            “Five campuses?” said the redhead, pushing her glasses up. “Good god. I thought here and Temple were hard enough.”

            “Yeah, Malfois is at Drexel, too,” the man said. “And a couple other places. But don’t feel too sorry for her. Malfois’ workload just got a little lighter. That Drexel lacrosse player who got poisoned? One of her students.”

            “No way.”


            Josh’s ears burned. “Grilled chicken up,” he said, trying to keep his poker face, He bagged the sandwich and handed it over.

            “Thanks,” said the redhead, adjusting her overstuffed shoulder bag to take it. She returned to her friend. “You’re right,” she said, “I don’t feel bad for Katrina Malfois. I see her in the elevator in Anderson Hall all the time at Temple. Little Miss Sunshine, that one is. Always has a curt word for everyone.”

            “Yeah, she’s a pill alright,” said the man as he turned to Josh. “Sausage special with chips?”

            “You got it, boss.”

            “Well, good luck with Malfois and that dachshund,” the redhead said to her friend. “I better get back to grading.”

            As the woman walked off, Angela came up behind Josh and wrapped her arms around him. “Oh, baby,” she cooed, “Mama’s finally taken her evil eye off you! Now that you’re eating meat again like a real man—her words, not mine—she’s decided to give you a second chance at dinner tomorrow night. She’s making Nonna’s special carne al piatto.”

            Josh laughed as Angela covered his neck in kisses. “Is that what it takes to get into her good graces? Hell, I’d have started clogging my arteries when we first met if I’d have known.”

            He kissed her back—hard.

            Tweed blazer cleared his throat. “Is this a lunch truck,” he asked, “or a film on Pay Per View? I’ve got a class to teach.”

            “Easy, dude,” Josh said. “Sauerkraut? Onions?”

            “The works,” tweed blazer replied. He handed Angela a crumpled five.

            The woman in black disappeared around the back of the truck, talking on her cell phone. Class must have let out just then because a sea of students suddenly began pouring out of the doors of the Winnet Building next to them, as well as all the rest.

            Josh smiled at Angela. His La Bionda. There was a speck of green paint on her earlobe that she had missed in the shower. Josh wasn’t sure if his stomach was doing flip-flops because of his recent change in diet, or because that morning when they awoke together—tired and sore from the long hours overhauling his truck—he had finally realized she was the one for him. The goddamn love of his life. He kissed her on the cheek and began whistling “That’s Amore.”

            “What?” Angela asked him with a grin. “Why you looking at me so funny?

* * *

By the time he hit campus, Arshad’s hello-morning bong hit was wearing off and he was starving. He zipped through a clusterfuck of students hogging the sidewalk outside the Pavilion Building and ground to a halt by Winnet. He flipped his skateboard into his hands with a practiced kick.

            The line was shortest at a new truck, Make Ends Meat. Something familiar about it, but Arshad couldn’t place it. Behind the grill stood a young white guy his age. Handsome but goofy-grinned, with summer-streaked hair pulled back in a do-rag and a neck tattoo that indicated some questionable lifestyle choices. Beside him was a curvy girl with over-bleached hair and electric blue eyes, the kind that didn’t appear in nature outside of colored contact lenses. Her tits looked real, though, and she was working them for tips in a low-cut top despite the chill of the rainy-looking sky.

            Some old-head at the counter was engaged in a fight between a bottle of mustard and his sausage sandwich. Arshad jockeyed up behind him to order. “Yo, you got cheesesteaks?”

            “No cheesesteaks,” the do-rag guy said. “Don’t you read the papers? We’re selling anything but.”

            “How ’bout a hoagie?” asked the frizzy blonde.


            “Lamb gyro?”


            “A sub?”

            “Ain’t that the same as a hoagie?” Arshad asked. “C’mon. You and every other truck in this city have put a fatwah on cheesesteaks for the past week, and today I’m Jonesing for one like nobody’s business. So c’mon, gimme that jawn. A brother ain’t supposed to go a whole week without a cheesesteak in this city. Go to Independence Hall and check the freakin’ Constitution.”

            “I’m sorry,” said the blonde in a haughty voice as she dabbed her nose with a tissue. “But I’ll have you know my business partner and I have spoken with our legal counsel. Until this whole murder thing blows over, he advises us not to”—but here the girl lost her train of thought as a series of baby rabbit sneezes shook her body and jiggled her boobs.

            “Ugh, fucking ragweed,” she said.

            “Why y’all gotta be like this?” Arshad pressed.

            “Fine, dude, I’ll make you a cheesesteak,” do-rag said.

            “Now, Josh—”

            “S’okay, Angela. As long as we don’t go the seitan-and-chia-seed route, I’m betting the food-truck gods will stay appeased.”

            “Seitan and chia seeds?” Arshad started. “Naw, I want a red-blooded, all-American cheesesteak, not some—oh, wait a minute. Now I know where I seen you before. You that guy, and this is that truck.” He glanced around. “Naked Philly, right? Just got a new paint job’s all….”

            Arshad grinned like he’d just been invited to light up with Snoop Dog backstage. “I guess 5-0 decided to cut you loose,” he said to do-rag. “Man, you been blowing up on Twitter ever since that college boy bought it at—”

            “Will you shut up?” the runny-nosed blonde—Angela—said beneath her breath. “We’re trying to be on the down-low here.”

            If there was one thing Arshad knew about, it was the down-low. “All right, all right. Long as that cheesesteak’s on the house, mum’s the word.”

            Angela rolled her eyes at what’s-his-face—Josh. “At this rate you’re never going to buy me a ring,” she whined. “Now where’s my frigging nose spray gone?”

            The man who’d been battling the mustard bottle finally spoke up.

            “This is the food truck that killed that poor Drexel boy? Good God.” He looked at Josh. “I demand a refund. He threw down the mustard bottle in disgust.

            “No refunds!” Angela shouted. “And my Josh-y didn’t kill nobody!”

            Josh sighed, threw some meat on the grill, gave it the company of a Sarcone’s roll, facedown. “Wit’ or without?” he asked.

            Arshad laughed. Maybe his buzz hadn’t worn off after all. “Do I look like a bitch-ass chode? Wit’. Of course. Provolone.” And then: “Y’all ain’t gonna poison me, are you?”

            “I can assure you,” said Anglea, the wattage of her eyes intensifying, “the crime scene unit went over every inch of this rust bucket with a fine-tooth comb. Not a bit of poison in the place.”

            “Not unless you count the bottle of limoncello under the counter your Aunt Marie gave me for my birthday,” Josh said. “What does she soak those lemons in? Rubbing alcohol?”

            “Eh, I don’t care what people say,” Angela said. “When it comes to drinking, you Irish boys got no cajones.” She pulled out the bottle of limoncello, uncorked it, and took a quick swig. “Ah!” she smiled, “that’s more like it!” She looked at her boyfriend. “For chrissake, sometimes I don’t know why I love you.”

            Josh pulled her to him and began humping her from behind. “Because you Italian girls know it’s not the cajones but the cazzone that counts.”

            Angela laughed, turned around, and nibbled Josh’s ear.

            “Peanut butter! Peanut butter!” Josh cried.

            Arshad shot him a look.

            “Our safe word,” Josh explained with a wink.

            “I think I’m going to be sick,” said the old-head in his moth-eaten blazer.

            “Makes two of us,” Arshad added. He handed Angela a pair of ones. “For your tip jar. Go on, girl. Get your nails did.”

             “Thanks,” Angela said, shoving the bills into her cleavage. She pinched her nose against another sneeze. Suddenly her eyes caught on someone behind Arshad.

            “Not you again!” Angela cried. “I told you we ain’t got nothing else to say! Cousin Mickey says it’s in Josh’s best interest not to—”

            “It’s not you I’m here to see,” a gravelly voice replied. A man’s voice—somebody who sounded like he’d been smoking cigarettes since he crawled out of his mama’s womb.

            Arshad turned to see a tall guy in a wrinkly trench coat sauntering up. Mid-thirties, rangy build, a week’s worth of reddish beard stubble on his face. The guy had spiky hair and a skinny tie that whipped against his shirtfront. All around the wind was picking up. The sky had filled with rain clouds so dark even local weatherman John Bolaris might’ve pooped his pants.

            “Arshad Mirou?” the newcomer asked.

            “Who wants to know?”

            “Ben Travers,” said the man, sticking out his hand. “A mutual friend said I might find you here.”

            Arshad did a double-take as the two clasped hands. “Ben Travers? Of The Daily Traversty?”

            “The one and the same,” Travers said coolly. He lit a Lucky Strike. “I hear you might know some things.”

            “Order up,” Angela called in a huff. Arshad took the sandwich from her. “Oh, that smells so good,” Angela muttered. “Babe, why don’t you make me one?”

            “Cheesesteak?” Travers asked Arshad, a bit surprised.

            “What can I say?” Arshad replied. “I live dangerously.”

            “So I’ve heard. Is there someplace we can—?”

            But just then Travers was interrupted by someone else calling Arshad’s name.

            Arshad turned to see three serious-looking women all dressed in black heading his way from the Winnet building. Damn, Arshad thought. The goon squad.

            The woman in front was dark-skinned and already revving her inner-bitch up. “Arshad Mirou,” she said coldly, “hold it right there.” Behind her was a pale, square-jawed Amazon, the closest Arshad had ever seen to a female Eagles linebacker. Big bulldagger. Had to be. The third was Latina. Thin, all twitchy-looking and calculating, with a mess of wild dark hair. Kind of cute in a Goth girl sort of way. Her eyes skirted Travers’s for a second—the way DeLuca’s eyes sometimes skirted Arshad’s when the other skaters were around and the two feared they were on the verge of getting caught. What was this look all about? Arshad had no time to figure it out.

            The goon squad leader zeroed in on him. “Detective Chelsea Simon, Philadelphia P.D. Mr. Mirou, your name’s been popping up a little too often on murder victims’ cell phones. You need to come downtown for questioning.”

            “There goes my interview,” Ben Travers said through the cigarette hanging from his mouth.

            “Stay out of this,” Detective Simon told him.

            “Hold on,” Arshad protested. He held up his skateboard and gave a little shove to fend Simon off.

            “You assaulting an officer?” said the female linebacker. She cracked her massive, meat-hook knuckles. “Sure looks to me like you just assaulted an officer.”

            “I got this,” said Detective Simon.

            She was so close now Arshad could see the red veins in her eyes.

            “Man, what kind of black sister hassles an innocent—”

            “I ain’t your sister,” growled the detective. She swatted Arshad’s longboard away and flipped him around, crushing him against the metal fence. His cheesesteak fell to the ground.

            Detective Simon whispered as she cuffed him. “Took me a minute to realize what that girl meant by KKF. But I figured it out. Staked out your morning class for over an hour. Seems you’re too cool for school. Yet not too cool for a cheesesteak, I see.”

            She made a point of stepping down hard on his sandwich. Then she spun Arshad back around and handed him off to the Latina Goth cop. Travers and the old guy snapped pictures on their cell phones.

            “Gutierrez, pat him down and read him his rights. Nothing here to see, people. Nothing here to see.”

            Overhead, the sky cracked with thunder.

            “Look, I ain’t done nothin’,” Arshad said, ignoring Gutierrez’s drone. “And I think I know you, detective. Seen you down in South Philly. That restaurant, Fondue Me. You been in there sucking face with the boss.”

            “That’s right,” interjected Travers. “Detective Simon is Mrs. Main Squeeze to Philly’s latest restaurateur extraordinaire. Arturo Simon. Owner of Fondue Me, Liberty Kabob, the #Hashtag Diner, Shiva-stan. And, most recently, Carousel on the Square. The city’s first revolving restaurant. It never quite got up to speed, did it? Tell me, Detective Simon, does your husband cry boo-hoo every time he looks down from your Rittenhouse palace at that money pit he made?”

            “Go to hell, Travers,” said Simon.

            The reporter smiled. “Can I quote you on that?”

            “I ain’t done nothing!” Arshad screamed as Guiterrez went through his pockets. He looked at the old guy. “Yo, prof! You got that Mobile Justice app on your phone? Email this to the ACLU! Blackhawk down! Blackhawk down!”

            “Ma’am,” Gutierrez said to her boss, “looks like we just got a little weed here. No weapons.”

            “Then gimme my twenty-five dollar fine and let me walk,” Arshad said. Everybody was looking at him now. Students were circling; the Arab guy who sold umbrellas was shaking his head. Do-rag Josh had stepped out of his truck to watch, and his girl Angela was leaning out the window beside him, honking into a Kleenex and jabbering about here lost nose spray.

            “This yours?” the lesbian cop asked her, handing Angela a little bottle that must have fallen to the ground.

            Now that he had a better look at officer She-Hulk, Arshad knew he had seen her before, too. In back of Fondue Me a couple times as he cooled his Air Jordans waiting for DeLuca to finish work. He’d just assumed she was there for some kind of payoff. Now he wasn’t so sure. When her eyes clicked on his, Arshad felt his balls take an internal elevator all the way to the top.

            The old guy started pestering Gutierrez. “Excuse me, officer. While you’re all here can you make this young man refund me my—”

            “Sir, please.”

            Meanwhile, Travers and Simon were at it again. “You really going to arrest this kid on some trumped up charge?” the reporter asked.

            “I haven’t slept in days,” Detective Simon snapped. “You really want to mess with me? I don’t know who’s been feeding you information, Travers, but all the crap you’ve been posting verges on obstruction of justice. Step off, friend. If you know what’s good for you.”

            “Is that a threat? You shut me out on that damn This Little Piggy theft. Don’t think for a moment I’m going to roll over and let you blow down the house on a story as big as this.” He exhaled a jet of smoky air.

            Just then another clap of thunder boomed as the sky finally broke.

            “Oh, my God!” someone screamed. The voice was Josh’s.

            Arshad turned. Detective Simon turned. Ben Travers turned. Everybody and their goddamn dog turned. There on the sidewalk in front of Make Ends Meat lay Angela, foaming at the mouth. Her body convulsed in a series of quick, jerky spasms. Her electric blue eyes had rolled back in her head. A second later, she wasn’t moving at all.

            “Angela! Angela!” screamed Josh.

            Fat, wet drops began to pound the pavement around them.

            Detective Simon stood slack-jawed. Ben Travers’ cigarette fell from his mouth. The prof in the tweed blazer threw up a little and looked on the verge of passing out.

            “I never touched her!” Arshad yelled as the rain fell harder. “All you saw me! I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it!”

            “Shit,” said Detective Simon. “Here we go again.”

Chapter Five: The Cop Shop (by Victoria Janssen)

On her way to the precinct, Detective Chelsea Simon clutched her Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee from Ray’s Café and a croissant she’d snagged at Reading Terminal Market more tightly than her sanity. As she navigated security screening and headed up to her floor, every cop in the place gave her cup an envious glance and surreptitious sniff. She knew better by now than to also brandish a doughnut; the croissant was a compromise.

Her detective-in-training, Olive Norvell, waited by her desk. Olive wore her dark hair in a tight bun that, along with her square forehead, height, and size, gave her the aura of a Soviet prison guard. “We got another one about the cheesesteak case,” she intoned, thumbs hooked into her gleaming uniform belt. “Kid who knew Victim One.” She snorted dismissively. “Says he’s been ‘investigating.’ Watches too much NCIS, I bet.” Then she smiled, slowly. “Oh, that Mark Harmon is hot. But not as hot as Ducky.”

Norvell’s rookie partner, Laurel Gutierrez, hurried up with a pile of folders clutched to her chest and nearly knocked over Chelsea’s $10 coffee. Laurel hunched her shoulders apologetically and nearly disappeared, she was so thin; only her cropped messy hair had bulk. “He might really know something,” she said earnestly. “He says he’s majoring in criminology.”

“Tell me that again,” Norvell demanded.

Laurel flushed and stammered as she always did when Norvell put her on the spot. “He, well, he’s a college student and he carries one of those tablets with a stylus, so he must be sort of smart. He takes a lot of notes—he showed me some—and, and people who take notes are—”

Chelsea tuned out for a long, blessed drink of coffee heaven. It went down her throat like melted gold and seemed to spread its glow out to the very ends of her limbs.

Laurel was still talking when Chelsea came up for air. “And…well, he wears weird pants. I mean, who wears their pants like that?”

Norvell nodded sagely. “He might know something. You should’ve said that to begin with.”

Chelsea plucked off a bit of flaky, buttery croissant. “Let him sweat for a few minutes.” She was going to finish her coffee before allowing herself to be cooped up in Interview for the rest of the afternoon. She’d already had a long morning commiserating as her husband railed against unfair restaurant reviewers on Yelp. She had hoped to spend the afternoon reviewing more of the reports the uniforms brought in, not listen to yet another purveyor of red herring.

The department had set up a hotline for the Cheesesteak Murders that was less discriminating than Yelp. It had been a mixed blessing at best. The hotline’s chief virtue was that it kept Laurel out of Chelsea’s hair, since someone had to log all of those calls. On the other hand, Olive actually read the log, discovering potential new leads every ten minutes or so, which might have been a help if Chelsea had the manpower to explore even the more concrete leads she already had.

Which reminded her of the bird in hand in Interview Three. She really hoped he wasn’t anything like the wild-haired “Pat Geno,” whom Olive had brought in yesterday. He’d sounded rational at first, but then the guy had rambled for over an hour about people who didn’t speak English, and how that meant they were poisoning his cheese with Spanish. Eventually, they’d tracked down his social worker and confirmed he’d been in hospital lockdown when most of the crimes had taken place.

Then there was the so-called Whizvenger from the day before. He carried a canvas tote bag containing an enormous orange binder, crammed tight with charts and graphs relating to every cheesesteak in the city. Who knew that some places used Vidalia onions? Or that you could make a (heretical) cheesesteak with bone marrow? Or that the blue cheesesteak was a thing? Who effing cared?

Well, apparently Laurel cared, but Chelsea was not going there today. She wanted to keep her croissant down.

After sending Laurel off to log more phone calls, Chelsea took Olive with her into Interview Three. At 6’1” and with the build of a dedicated weightlifter, Olive’s mere presence at Chelsea’s shoulder was often enough to intimidate the most confident witness, and Vincent de Leon was no exception.

“It’s about time!” he exclaimed when Chelsea swept in, only to gape and swallow as Olive marched in and took her post next to the doorway, massive arms crossed over her chest.

“Mr. de Leon?” Chelsea asked, extending a hand. His was clammy: its normal state, or guilt-induced? “I’m Detective Simon.”

de Leon recovered quickly. “Aren’t you married to Arturo Simon? The Restaurant Magnate?”

She was, but it was irrelevant to her assignment to this case. None of Arturo’s dozen establishments would deign to serve a cheesesteak. Except one made from Wagyu beef, of course, and served deconstructed on a slice of raw onion with foie gras, mushroom, shallot, Serbian Pule cheese, and a quarter-sized circle of Amoroso roll. A Yelper had called it “The One-Percenter’s Insanity.”

Chelsea declined to answer de Leon’s question, instead informing him that the interview would be recorded and read him his rights. They both sat, and she flipped open a folder, which actually held a pile of effort reports. “So apparently you have information for us, Mr. de Leon. Did Officer Norvell explain that we’re quite busy here?”

“Yes, Mrs.—Ms.—may I call you Chelsea?”

“Detective,” she supplied, along with what Arturo called her Death Glare. It was a pity this punk hadn’t been charged with anything—he looked like he ought to be guilty. “I understand you’ve uncovered additional information relating to the death of Nicholas Hodges.”

“Yes, ma’am. Detective.” From de Leon’s facial expression, she could tell that Olive was scowling at him. He continued, “See, I’m a criminology major, and I’m going to be a reporter. Got a blog and everything. So I know how to ask questions. And I can ask questions where the police can’t.”

“There is no place the police cannot ask questions, Mr. de Leon,” Chelsea said.

“Yeah, well, you don’t always have, like, time and cops to do it all, right? And you might not know where to look, not as well as—”

Olive cleared her throat. de Leon flinched, and went on. “I knew Hodges. Well, I helped him with a paper one time. Well, three times really. I didn’t write them for him. I don’t write guys’ papers for money, I wouldn’t do that. At all.”

“Is this relevant?”

“No, ma’am. Uh, I go to Drexel.”

“So I understand.”

“I decided I would check around campus, retrace his final hours, like you do when you’re investigating.”

“You don’t need to explain to me how to investigate a crime, Mr. de Leon.”

“Oh, yeah, right.” He glanced at Olive, flinched again, and announced with shaky bravado, “I made a timeline.”

“A timeline of?”

“Hodges’ final hours.” de Leon switched on his tablet and displayed it proudly.

The timeline was neon text on a black background, and included an animated GIF of lacrosse players in one corner. The page header blinked cheerily. Then a tiny image of a cheesesteak floated across the screen, roll flapping like wings. Chelsea cleared her throat. “You may share that with Officer Gutierrez. Perhaps you could sum up your findings.”

“I could describe my deductive chain—”

“That won’t be necessary, Mr. de Leon. Did you identify anyone who might carry a grudge against Mr. Hodges?”

de Leon sighed. “Well, students mostly liked Hodges.”

“Did he have a girlfriend? A boyfriend?”

“Ummm, girls. There were girls. At parties and like that. An awful lot of girls came up to me and said how sorry they were.” de Leon looked puzzled for a moment, then went on. “He didn’t have a regular girlfriend. He broke up with Lisa Canoletto over the summer because she transferred to University of Kansas and they didn’t want to do long distance. One of the other girls said Lisa was dating some football player now.”

“We’ve already confirmed Miss Canoletto’s alibi.”

“Oh.” de Leon squirmed in his chair. “Did you know Hodges wasn’t so popular with his professors? Dr. Brown kicked him out of Creative Writing last year because he wasn’t doing the work.”


“He had a really bad crush on Dr. Niyat O’Malley in first year, and he kept leaving valentines on her desk for a whole semester. Some of them were pretty raunchy. And he bought her chocolate bars with bacon in them.” de Leon made a face.

“Mr. Hodges’ taste in chocolate is not at issue here.”

“Oh, right. I found out Dr. Maggie Toriyama reported him for sexting in class—it wasn’t with Lisa—and Dr. Katrina Malfois was going to fail him in English Comp if he skipped one more class.”

Chelsea had known about Toriyama’s report, since it was on record. A follow-up interview had revealed Dr. Toriyama had been more amused than offended by the incident. The issue with Dr. Malfois, however, hadn’t come up in the initial round of interviews. She’d have to send Laurel and Olive back to Drexel, or to Community College of Philadelphia, where Dr. Malfois taught an evening class. Perhaps this interview hadn’t been a total waste of time after all.

Olive escorted de Leon out, and Chelsea spent a couple of hours at her desk filling out paperwork and signing off on reports for some of her other cases, assigning uniforms to interviews and research as needed. At last, she was able to get back to the Cheesesteak Murders, which first involved reassesing her bulletin board, currently covered with photographs of the deceased and photographs or artist’s renditions of the murder weapons—or rather, their remains. She’d used colored yarn and thumbtacks to demonstrate known and potential connections between the victims and the various suspects and locations. A second board held a map, showing the locations where the murder weapons had been administered and where the bodies had actually landed. Hodges had been the first victim; was that of particular significance? There was also the possibility that not all of the victims had been intended victims. If that was the case, that could muddy the waters quite a bit.

Chelsea went back to her computer to print pictures of the three professors mentioned by de Leon. She didn’t seriously think Toriyama was a suspect, but decided to include her in the grouping. O’Malley might have been angrier about what might be considered stalking than her interview had revealed; a follow-up would be needed. Chelsea recalled that O’Malley’s mother’s family owned an upscale Eritrean restaurant in Fishtown. Arturo had mentioned it a few times, but they hadn’t been able to go there for a meal yet. It was unlikely they served a cheesesteak, but that would have to be checked as well.

She hadn’t spoken to Dr. Katrina Malfois. Olive had taken that interview, she remembered as she dug out the notes from the pile of folders on the floor beneath the murder board. She would review that one next. From her picture and bio on the Drexel website, Malfois was adjunct faculty, a well-groomed white woman with a serious mien. It wasn’t clear how old the picture was, or how long she had been teaching at Drexel. The Community College of Philadelphia website had no information on her at all. Did she teach at other schools, as well? Something else to investigate.

Chelsea printed the picture of Malfois and added the three professors to the board, with yarn lines connecting them to Hodges. It would be an easy search to find out if any of the three had taught any of the other victims. And then, they would have more connections, which might lead to a real suspect in this case at last.

Chelsea didn’t get home until close to two o’clock the next morning. At this rate, she was going to end up on the night shift.

Their Rittenhouse condo was quiet when she let herself in. Her cat, Mozzarella, was curled asleep on the back of the leather couch. Chelsea stripped off her suit jacket and locked her gun and its holster in the gun safe, placing her badge in with them. Only then did she lay her phone, keys, and wallet on the marble kitchen island.

Arturo sat in the cozy breakfast nook with his nightly espresso, examining the evening’s receipts from his restaurant empire as they rolled in. Chelsea laid her hands on his shoulders and kissed the top of his bald head. “Sell any deconstructed Wagyu cheesesteaks?”

“I’m waiting to find out if Craig LeBan is impressed before I give up on it.” He reached up to caress her hand with his. “I missed the news—any breaks in the case?”

Chelsea slid onto the padded banquette next to him, throwing one leg over his lap. She laid her head on his shoulder. It wouldn’t be difficult to fall asleep right here.

“More leads, but leads are a dime a dozen, and any idiot can drop one. Today an idiot did.”

“It’s following the leads that counts,” Arturo said solemnly.

“You know my rants too well,” Chelsea said.

“Want to hear about some more idiots on Yelp?” Arturo grinned and kissed her. “The case will still be there in the morning.”

“It’s already morning.” Chelsea yawned. “I sent Olive and Laurel home at a reasonable hour, so they can follow up on an interview for me, and decide whether to bring the lady into the precinct.”

“And the mayor? Has he had anything to say to you?”

“Not to me. The Chief, I’m sure. I’m keeping my head down as much as I can. I don’t need politicking along with all the other crap I have to deal with. God help me if I ever make lieutenant.”

“Don’t worry, I would hire you as a dishwasher in a hot minute,” Arturo said, nuzzling her neck. “I’m imagining you wearing soapsuds right now.”

“Anything besides the soapsuds?”

“That would be telling,” he murmured. “I—” Chelsea’s cell rang. “Crap,” Arturo said.

“Detective Simon here.”

“Sorry, Detective. It can’t wait. There’s been another murder—one Vincent de Leon. You had him in Interview today?”

“Crap,” Chelsea said. “Okay, give me the rundown.” Arturo shoved over his laptop with an open text window, and she hurriedly typed Penn and Pencil club, local writer Swanwick found body, previous altercation at location with victim, uniforms on the way. “Right,” she said. “I’m home now, and it’s close enough to walk. Tell them I’ll be there in ten.”

Chapter Four: Vegan (by Tony Knighton)

As he locked his front door, Mickey Marcolina spoke into his cell phone. “Carol, please, I didn’t have a cheesesteak. I told you, I had to meet Joey at Jim’s on South Street. You know how that place smells—the aroma must have clung to my clothes.”

“We can’t be having any secrets between us if this is gonna work, Mickey.”

“None at all. I didn’t have a steak, scout’s honor.”

“I hope not. Why would anyone want to eat a cow? Cows are such sweet animals.”

“I know, Baby. And anyway, people have been turning up dead after eating those sandwiches. I just heard on the radio there was another one last night out by St. Joe’s.” He checked the time on his phone. “Look, Baby, I gotta go. I’ll see you tonight. Bye.”

Mickey walked up South Delhi Street, which was really little more than an alley. The sidewalk was uneven—here and there, spaces in the pavement had been cracked opened to host small trees, while other, newer blocks of concrete revealed spots where older trees, grown too large for the street, had been removed. All of the surrounding homes featured chest-high picture windows. Tucked alongside some of the stone front steps were plantings in washtub-sized plastic containers.

Out on Montrose Street a guy was trying to park his SUV in a space far too small. He backed into a Chrysler’s bumper and its alarm began wailing. Mickey shook his head; people lived in 16-foot wide houses and bought 18-foot long cars and couldn’t understand why things didn’t work out.

His phone rang as he turned north on 10th. It was Angela again. She’d tried earlier this morning. Mickey knew what this would be about, so he declined the call.

He turned right onto Christian Street, heading in the direction of his car. Coming toward him from the far end of the block was a skinny old woman laden with packages.  A little dog on a leash trailed after her, stopping to sniff at every hydrant, street sign, and utility pole. As he said hello and made to pass her, the woman said, “Michael, I’m so glad to see you. I’ve been to the market. Come help me with these bags.”

“Mrs. DeSantis, I can’t. I’m late as it is. I have to meet with a client—”

She pushed the bags into his protesting arms. “You’ll be fine. It isn’t far.” She shuffled along slowly, stopping for the dog to sniff at a signpost. “You know, money isn’t everything.” Brutus gave the post a spritz. Mrs. DeSantis continued, “How is your father?”

He grimaced as he struggled with the bags, but said, “He’s doing a lot better, Mrs. D. Thanks for asking.”

“Good. I’ll say a prayer for him,” she said as Brutus investigated the rear tire of a bicycle that was chained to an iron fence.

“I’m really in a hurry, Mrs. D., so if we could move along a little faster—”

“You young people, always in a hurry. It’s not healthy. My doctor, Doctor Lopresti, do you know him? His office is over on Passyunk. Lovely man. He tells me that I should walk every day for my heart, but it should be a nice, easy walk, not a footrace.” Mickey readjusted the packages. “Those aren’t too heavy for you, I hope? My goodness, you’re a young man. You really need to get more exercise, Michael. Are you eating right? When we get to my house, you come in and have some of my delicious wedding soup. I made it just yesterday, with a nice chicken stock and fresh escarole. Oh, and those little meatballs, too.”

Mickey improved his grasp on the bags. “Carol doesn’t want me to eat that kind of stuff, Mrs. D.”

She shook her head. “That one. She’s half-crazy, if you ask me. Vegetarian, right?”


“Either way, she could use a little meat on her bones. Senza la coula. No rear end.” Brutus marked the right front tire of a Toyota Tercel. “I thought she broke it off with you?”

“We got back together.”

“Hmm.” Brutus barked at a man across the street. Mrs. DeSantis said, “Isn’t it a shame about those children being poisoned? Babies. Their parents must be devastated.”

Mickey winced again, thinking of Angela. “Yeah, it’s too bad.”

“And to die from eating a sandwich—tragic.” She blessed herself. “I see all those people standing in line at Ninth and Federal, waiting for sandwiches. I don’t understand it. Maybe it’s all those neon lights—it looks like Las Vegas over there, all lit up. Me, I’ll wait in line at the market because I have to, but for a sandwich? No.”

“They’re good steaks, Mrs. D.”

“There are good sandwiches right around the corner.”

Another woman walking a Springer Spaniel slowed. Brutus and the other dog had to circle and sniff each other’s butts before moving on. Mrs. DeSantis said to Mickey, “Have you started practicing for the parade yet?”

Mickey shifted the packages. “No, I quit the club last year. I had a lot of fun with the fellows, but I don’t have time any more. Just between you and me, I always hated that music.”

“I love the string bands. You were in Fralinger, right?”

“No. Quaker City.”

Mrs. DeSantis said, “Oh, that’s right. Mr. DeSantis was in Ferko, God rest his soul. He never missed the parade, except for the two years he was away in the army—that was before we were married. My goodness, that was before you were even born.” They turned left at the corner onto Percy Street. Mrs. DeSantis started to rummage for her keys, but stopped and looked up. “I remember when you didn’t have to lock your front door in this neighborhood. Before the coloreds moved in.”

“Mrs. D., you can’t talk that way. It’s just wrong on so many— the people in the market are Asians, for one—”

“That’s what I said: colored.”

Brutus sniffed at Mickey’s shoes.

“You shouldn’t say colored, Mrs. D. It’s not nice.” Brutus hopped up, wrapped his forepaws around Mickey’s right leg and began humping. “Ah, Mrs. D., could you get Brutus to stop?” Mickey tried to extricate himself.

“Oh, he’s all right. Now if I can just find my keys, we’ll go inside and I’ll heat you up a nice bowl of soup.” She fished through her purse until she found them and then opened her front door.

Mickey shook himself free of Brutus’ amorous embrace, went inside and put the shopping bags down on the kitchen counter. Then he turned around and walked past her, saying on his way out, “Thanks, Mrs. D., but I can’t. I’ll see you later.”

* * *

Mickey glanced around the sandwich shop as he entered and saw a man his age with a Fu Manchu moustache seated at a table in the back. They waved to each other, and then Mickey turned, stepped up to the counter, and spoke to the chubby young man wearing a white apron. “How’s it going, Phil? You checkin’ the oil?” He made a fist, holding his arm bent in front of him and pumping it sideways, like he was chipping ice.

“Every chance I get, Mick. What are you gonna have?”

“Uh, gimme a vegetable grinder. And a bottle of water.”

“Oh, you back with Carol?”

Mickey looked out the front window. “Yeah, yeah.”

Phil wiped off the counter. “She still a vegetarian, huh?”

Mickey inspected his fingernails. “Vegan.”

“Yeah, vegan, right. Hey, that’s great. Nice girl.” Phil picked up a hoagie roll and sliced it open lengthwise.

“Yeah, thanks. Let me have some chips with that, too.”

“You got it.”

Mickey glanced around the shop again and said, “You doing okay? Place looks kind of empty.”

Phil looked left and right and then spoke under his breath, “Over the last three days, business has gone from good to shit. Those kids eating the bad steaks.”

“Yeah, but those sandwiches all came from food carts.”

“It doesn’t matter. It’s hurting everybody. All anybody hears is ‘poisoned cheesesteaks,’ you know? They don’t care where they came from.” Phil finished making the sandwich and put it on a paper plate. “It doesn’t pay me to fire up the grill.”

Mickey paid and walked past the empty tables to the back, putting his sandwich and drink down on the table. “Flats.”

Flats stood and put his arms around Mickey. “Yo, cuz, what do you know good? How’s your Dad?” He was taller than Mickey, and wore a fingertip-length black leather jacket with lapels, black jeans, and black pointed-toed boots.

“A lot better, Flats, thanks.” Mickey reached around and patted his cousin on the back with both hands. He looked two tables over. Their lunch finished, two women occupied it, sipping coffee. One looked up. Mickey smiled. She looked away.

Flats shrugged. “They set another date for that thing up in Norristown.” He sat back down.

Mickey took off his suit jacket, put it on the back of his chair, and sat. He rolled up his sleeves, and flipped his tie over his right shoulder. “Give me the paperwork. I’ll file for another continuance. The longer you can put this stuff off, the better.” He brightened, now in his element. “If it ever does go to trial, we’ll hook you up with a guy I know in Montgomery County.” He bit into his sandwich—roasted peppers, eggplant, mushrooms. Surprisingly, it wasn’t bad.

“I’d rather have you.”

Mickey held his hand up as he chewed, then spoke, gesturing as he did. “I’ll be there. It’s just better to have this dude handling things. That’s if it ever does go that far. I don’t know anybody at that courthouse. But my buddy Ralph is in and out of there all the time. He grew up in Black Horse. He knows everybody up there.” He smiled and raised his eyebrows twice.

“All right, I can see that.” Flats took a bite of his hoagie. “Phil makes a great sandwich. What did you get?”

Mickey looked at his and spoke under his breath. “Vegetable grinder.”

“Oh, you back with Carol?”

“Yeah, yeah.” He took a bite, looking at the paper plate.

“Great. She still a vegetarian?”

Mickey spoke while he ate. “Vegan.”

“She’s pretty serious about it, huh?”

Mickey looked around the shop. “Hey, it’s not too bad.”

“No, no, you’re probably better off.”

Mickey said, “How about you? You didn’t get a steak?”

“You kidding me? After those kids? No way. I’m sticking to hoagies, roast pork from John’s—”

“Not Nick’s?”

Flats shook his head. “John’s, all the way. Snyder and Weccacoe, Daddy. That, and my Mom’s cooking. No more cheesesteaks.”

“How is your Mom?”

“She’s good. She told me to tell you that you’re supposed to call Angela.”

Mickey winced. “Yeah, yeah, I know. Her boyfriend got locked up behind that thing.”

“You met him yet?”

“Josh? Yeah, couple times. Seems nice enough.”  He took another bite and then said, “First cousins or not, Angela’s tough. I’m not looking forward to the conversation.”

Flats laughed and rolled his eyes.

* * *

Mickey drove up Kelly Drive, heading to a hearing at the 14th District. There, he would argue that his young client wasn’t really a burglar, that he’d only broken into the home on Coulter Street as a foolish, juvenile prank…even though he was 19 now and had been caught doing the same thing twice before. One way or the other, the kid was going to have to find a new way to amuse himself.

Mickey’s phone rang. He answered, “Hi, Mom, how are you?”

She said, “Anna DeSantis just told me that you got back together with Carol. Is that right?”

“Oh, good grief, Mom, is that what you called me for? Gimme a break.”

“All right, all right. Hold on. Someone wants to talk to you.”

There was a pause and then Angela said, “What, you think you’re gonna duck me forever?”

To himself, Mickey cursed and then said into the phone, “Angela, hi. I haven’t been ducking you. I’ve been really backed up. I was gonna call you tonight, honest. I got a lot going on. I’m busier than a dog with two dicks.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. You need to drop all that other shit, or at least put it on hold. Josh got locked up. They charged him with murder.”

Mickey negotiated a sharp curve in the roadway and said, “Angela, I know about this case. They brought him in to ask him questions. That’s not the same as charging—”

“I don’t give a flying fuck what it’s not the same as—”

Over the phone, Mickey heard his mother yell, “Language!”

Angela said, “Sorry, Aunt Marie.” To Mickey she said, “I don’t care about that. They impounded his truck. They say they gotta check it out, try and find out where the poison came from.”

Mickey said, “Well, that sounds reasonable—”

“Reasonable my ass. They’re tearing it apart.”

“Angela, they need to do an investigation—”

“They can investigate this.” Mickey pictured the gesture. Like everyone in the family, Angela had to speak with her hands, even on the phone. “Josh needs his truck to make a living.” Mickey knew his cousin. Angela would be far less concerned with her boyfriend’s well-being than with how his lack of funds might affect her quality of life. She continued, “You gotta get on it. Right—a—way!”  Mickey could hear her banging on the kitchen counter, accenting her words.

He took a breath and said, “No can do, kid,” then held the phone away from his ear as Angela began shouting. When she paused for air, he broke in and said, “Doesn’t Josh have his own lawyer? Somebody his family got him?”

“Yeah, some dickless wonder. He’s just like the rest of them, a real medigon. Honest, Mickey, he couldn’t find his ass with both hands. His whole family—what a bunch. You gotta do something. Call somebody you know.” She changed her affect and said, “Come on, Mick, you’re the best. Josh needs you. I need you.”

Mickey sighed. “Look, text me his lawyer’s number. I’ll call him later this afternoon and see what’s going on with your boyfriend’s truck.”

“Fuck the lawyer.”

“Angela, language!”

“Right, sorry.” To Mickey: “You gotta handle this, Mick.” She paused and then said, “You gotta sue the city.”

Despite himself, Mickey smiled. Now, we’re getting to it, he thought. Angela saw a payday. He said, “You can’t sue the city for doing an investigation. People got killed.”

“Well, then why can’t we sue that bitch detective?”

“What bitch detective?”

“Oh, you should get a load of this one. Real princess. Thinks her shit don’t stink. Sorry, Aunt Marie!” Mickey winced. Angela continued, “Her name’s Chelsea, for Christ’s sake. Chelsea Simon. She’s a moulignan.”

“Don’t talk like that, Angela. It isn’t nice.” He passed a Honda. “I know that detective. I’ve seen her in court. She’s good.”

“Good? Whose side are you on? Jesus, Mickey, I can’t believe you—”

“I gotta go, Angela. Text me the lawyer’s number.” Mickey ended the call and silenced his ringer.

Passing under the Strawberry Mansion Bridge, he turned on the car radio, catching the announcer in mid-report: “And in local news, there’s been another victim of ‘death by cheesesteak,’ this time on the campus of Drexel University. The victim was discovered this morning, unresponsive on the floor of his dorm room, a half-eaten sandwich on the table. Medics declared the victim dead on location. Authorities say . . .”


Chapter Three: Pants (by Gregory Frost)

Vincent “Pants” de Leon sat at the end of the long table in the front room of Hub Bub Coffee. The place was bustling. Almost every chair was taken. He gnawed at his croissant and reread the blog post on his tablet.

The author, a local journo named Ben Travers, was connecting some bizarre dots. If he was right, then it was holy shit time. Visions of bylines and dollar signs danced in Pants’s head.

Pants wanted to be a journo. He’d tumbled onto Travers’s blog column, “The Daily Traversty,” courtesy of a pal from English Comp at Drexel, Nick Hodges, the unlikeliest of sources. Hodges was not the intellectual giant of the class. Pants had read three of his papers so far. What impressed him the most was that Hodges occasionally, and obviously by sheer accident, completed a full sentence. On the other hand, Hodges really didn’t give a shit; he had a lacrosse scholarship and was majoring in Hospitality and Sports Management. Unlike Pants, he only cared that he could pass Comp 101 with something higher than a D.

Pants wasn’t sure that was a realistic goal for Hodges, but he could appreciate the attitude. Pants sued his parents for tuition before he enrolled at Drexel. He had benefitted from a quirky New Jersey law: divorced parents were legally required to provide their children with a college education. George and Martha (and wasn’t that a riot?) de Leon divorced when Pants was two. Like the titular characters from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? his parents had been hideous to one other and acted like bigger babies than he was. Throughout his school years, his dad had routinely been the Invisible Man. Sending checks on birthdays and at Christmas was his version of parenting. Martha, on her third mariage, had elected Pants the de facto babysitter for the twins she bore to her second husban before he left her. Mom seemed to be toxic for men. She owed him for not kicking the bastards into the swimming pool, and he was more than happy to take her to court. The lawsuit got him on George’s radar, too. Although, his dad had issues with him before that. He had objected to  Pants’s oversized trousers, which Pants wore with suspenders so elastic that the waist bounced when he walked. It was his trademark in high school. That was how he’d gotten his nickname. George, who had taken no interest in him, despised him for it.

The two ex-parental units colluded in trying to game him into going to Cumberland County College, but Pants didn’t bite. He settled on Drexel and on Criminology as a major. He wanted to become a crime reporter. His decision had caused a nasty fight, but the law sided with him. He hadn’t intended to spend five more minutes with either of those estranged begetters ever again. Tuition was payback, pure and simple, for a life of neglect.  All he wanted now was to strip the paint off the Philly political machine with his brilliant (how could they not be?) columns.

Meanwhile, Ben Travers was doing exactly what Pants wanted to do.

The headline of today’s blog post read “The Killer Cheesesteak” in Times Roman Bold.

Yesterday evening, within a forty-five minute period, two Temple University students were found dead in unusual circumstances. The first was a nineteen-year-old named Logan Walsh.

Pants clicked on a photo and enlarged it. He saw a short stocky guy with Superman black hair who wore a spandex outfit without sleeves. The man was barefoot and posed before one of the Boathouse Row buildings.

Mr. Walsh was found in his Norris Street apartment by his girlfriend, Denise Campbell, when she came to give him some chicken soup ‘because he was sick.’ That was the story the late Mr. Walsh had given her for his reclusiveness from her that day.

The cause of death was poisoning. The source was a cheesesteak purchased from a food cart on the corner of Fifteenth and Diamond Streets. The remains of said cheesesteak were found on a low coffee table and strewn across the floor of Mr. Walsh’s living room. So far, it sounds like a matter for the FDA, right?

But wait.

The second death was that of Kathleen ‘Katie’ McFarland.

This accompanying photo was of a smiling, tanned, and honey-blonde amazon. She had the sort of biceps you got from pushing a lot of free weights. Hell, Pants’s own arms weren’t that muscular. Pants continued reading:

She was found sprawled across a bench within sight of the campus bell tower a few blocks from Mr. Walsh’s apartment. She also had been poisoned. But there was no food anywhere in the vicinity of Katie’s body.

Detective Chelsea Simon, in charge of both cases, had uniforms digging through trash and recycling containers in the area, but they came up with nothing.

Initially these deaths seemed unrelated beyond that curious link of poison.

However, Katie’s laptop computer—surprisingly not stolen off her slumped body—revealed another set of fingerprints. Some of these, as it turned out, belonged to Logan Walsh. The fingerprints found in Mr. Walsh’s apartment—in particular, a greasy print on the foil wrap around the lethal cheesesteak—belonged to Katie McFarland. Further evidence suggested that Katie had been in his apartment. Some hairs found in his bed proved to be a match for hers. It appears that Miss Campbell had been misled about her boyfriend’s whereabouts.

The police tracked down the owner of the food cart, Mr. Panos Paules, who identified Katie and Logan from photos in which they appeared together, and extremely friendly, when they bought the cheesesteak in question. He recalled that Katie had an REI crossbody bag that contained her laptop, which was the same bag that was found with her body. He also remembered that Mr. Walsh held a notebook. Mr. Paules was briefly taken into custody and then released. In his statement, he recalled that there had been at least half a dozen other people in line who stood around and ate but didn’t get sick from their meal. While he wasn’t absolutely certain, he thought there was also someone else that they knew standing behind Katie and Logan in line. Why he thought that, he could not say. It was the kind of impression one picks up without being aware of it—something in their manner he supposed. He remembered that Katie was very picky about her sandwich. She had unwrapped and checked it—for what, he wasn’t sure—while Walsh teased her.

A third set of fingerprints were identified both in the room and on Katie’s laptop. They belonged to one Joseph DeLuca, who lives on the same floor as Mr. Walsh. When he was a minor, Mr. DeLuca had been arrested for shoplifting. Thus, his prints were still on file. He was arrested again and charged with a double homicide.

His story is that while he did help Mr. Walsh move Katie’s body out of the apartment, he did so because he knew Logan Walsh hadn’t killed her. Mr. Walsh’s girlfriend was due to show up at any moment, and Logan Walsh did not want her to discover a naked girl from the rowing team in his bed, especially a dead one.

While it’s understandable that the police arrested Mr. DeLuca, his story is so ridiculous that in all likelihood it’s probably true. He was helping out a pal and not thinking about the consequences. In the whipped-up panic that he shared with his friend, he didn’t have enough sense to wipe his prints off everything, much less fasten the victim’s bra. The only place his prints didn’t appear was on the cheesesteak foil. One has to ask what sort of cold-blooded killer leaves their prints everywhere except on the murder weapon? Either Mr. DeLuca is a psychopathic idiot or he is telling the truth. He is certainly guilty of attempting to hide a crime, and by doing so he contaminated a crime scene. Neither Mr. DeLuca nor Josh Whitcomb are likely to be killers.

Pants nodded to himself. He picked up the tablet, grinned, and got up from the table. He walked to the counter for another Americano. He eyed his chair. He’d left his bag dangling off the back to make sure nobody else tried to sit there.

He returned to the table with a fresh cup of coffee. A dark-haired girl sat down across from him. She was probably a Penn student. He gave her a quick and undisguised once over before returning to the tablet. He continued reading:

 Josh Whitcomb. That name will be familiar to anyone who read my column of the 16th, when I wrote about another murder by poisoned cheesesteak that happened on the Drexel campus in West Philly. A student by the name of Nicholas Hodges died on the sidewalk beside the truck where he had purchased and attempted to eat his cheesesteak. Detective Chelsea Simon was also in charge of that case, so it looks like the cheesesteak murders have been dropped in her lap.

Detective Simon had more luck sealing off the crime scene on Thirty-third Street, because it was so public. Mr. Hodges had collapsed on top of his lacrosse stick so suddenly that he’d flung the offending cheesesteak away. Three pigeons died in the aftermath.

At the time I reported that Detective Simon had charged Josh Whitcomb, cook and owner of the truck, Naked Philly, with the murder. After all, one poisoned cheesesteak is not an epidemic. It surely seemed like a deliberate attack upon a specific individual. However, police have no motive for the murder of young Mr. Hodges. They have even been looking into rival lacrosse players and teams. In light of these new and almost identical murders at Temple, Mr.Whitcomb has been released on his own recognizance, no doubt thrilling Angela Nicholetti, his girlfriend who supplied this reporter with some of the details published in this column two days ago.

It seems bizarre, but these three deaths are likely related. Although there is no obvious connection between the two separate incidents—two scullers and one lacrosse player—the delivery system seems to be identical in each case. The symptoms are certainly identical: swollen lips, bleeding or darkening about the mouth, and swift death upon ingestion.

Someone, it appears, has got it in for the Philadelphia Cheesesteak. It might be a good idea for police to place a plainsclothes officer at Pat’s Steaks before this turns into an all-out massacre. Meanwhile, just to be safe, make sure you order your steaks with everything.

And that’s today’s Traversty.

Pants closed his browser. Wow, so much for a lacrosse scholarship saving your ass. Where in hell did Travers get all of his information? That girlfriend he mentioned could not have supplied him with ten percent of what he’d published here. The way he dished it out, it sounded like the entire city police force had spoonfed him all the information he could eat. Was he somebody’s nephew or something?

Pants wanted to meet him and get the inside scoop. He wanted to shake him up. He would have considered dropping in at the Pen & Pencil Club to see if Travers turned up there. The trouble was, he couldn’t show his face again at the journalists’ club.

When he’d first arrived in the city, Pants had spent a lot of evenings in the Pen & Pencil Club, cadging free drinks and a few meals from the clientelle. He’d claimed to be the nephew of the respected journalist Clark DeLeon, until the night that Clark had turned up there himself. It was inevitable, he supposed, that they would encounter one another sooner or later, but he’d been banking on later.

Pants had been in the middle of telling a couple of cigar smokers at the bar about “Uncle Clark” when somebody tapped him on the shoulder. He turned around to find himself staring at a man with glasses and a short beard. He knew something was wrong. Tom Purdom, a music critic who wrote for the Broad Street Review, stood beside the man.  He said, “Look, Vincent, your uncle’s here.” The entire club fell silent. They knew he was a fraud.

Pants barely made it out of there alive. He still had a cigar scar on his hand from where one of the smokers had mistaken him for an ashtray. When he ran out the door and down Latimer Street, he had been amazed that twenty feet weren’t slapping the pavement after him. He guessed the club owners had his face framed on the wall alongside all the portraits of the greats, except under his picture hung a sign that read “kill on sight.”

He would have to find some other way to talk to Travers. He could email him through the contact form on the blog.

Pants sipped his Americano.

He contemplated calling Detective Simon but the cops would pressure him for information, saying he owed it to Hodges to tell them what he knew. They’d end up with more information than he’d get from them. In a couple of months, he’d gotten to know Hodges pretty well. They’d smoked a few times and shambled down to Slainte across from Thirtieth Street, where Hodges had bought him beers. Pants had drunkenly offered to rewrite those awful essays, but Hodges insisted that they were good enough to get a C. Besides, Hodges said he’d look like a phony if he suddenly started writing in somebody else’s style. In the end, Pants was glad Hodges hadn’t taken him up on it. What was he thinking, offering to do somebody else’s homework?

Now Hodges was dead and nothing could bring him back.

Pants saw two ways of playing the situation to his advantage.

First, he could approach Travers about collborating. They could investigate his suspicions, share a byline, and break a story that the cops couldn’t crack. That sounded like a plan if Travers was willing to share the limelight, help a struggling fellow journalist to launch his career, and give him maybe a catchy blog title of his own like “De Leon Digs” or “Vincent’s Venom.” Something with real bite.

He laughed. Bite, yeah, like into a poisoned cheesesteak.

The trouble was he suspected that Travers wouldn’t welcome the competition. The smart thing would be to come on like a fan and find out how Travers got his leads. Then he would let him in on the facts in the case. But what if the cops managed to solve the case in the meantime?

Alternatively, he could follow up on his own and scoop Travers. If he was right, he might even do better to shake down the killer. He could promise not to write the story. Maybe he could go with both. Whoever got the story out first, Pants would flip it to his advantage. He had something Travers didn’t: Because of the papers he’d helped Hodges with, he had access to Hodges’ school account. He would figure out who’d killed Hodges himself. Yeah, that was the way to go. If George and Martha had taught him nothing else, they taught him to look for the angle and play it for all it was worth.

Pants figured he was way out in front on this one. Next time he set foot in the Pen & Pencil, they would fall all over themselves to buy him a drink.

Chapter Two: Logan & Katie (by Merry Jones)

The apartment walls were thin, so when Logan howled, I heard him. The sound was shrill, penetrating my headphones, drowning out Behemoth, bringing every hair on my body to attention.

I didn’t move. What the hell could have caused Logan to make a sound like that? On second thought, I didn’t want to know. What Logan and Denise did in his room wasn’t my business. When she came over, I put on my headphones and turned up my music, shutting out their bangs and moans.

But that howl was different. It rattled me. Echoed in my head. I waited, listened. Heard nothing unusual.

I put my earphones back on, turned up the music. And then it happened again. Another howl, lower, slower. Unnatural.

I got to my feet to go find out what he was doing. But before I got to my door, he was pounding on it.

“DeLuca!” Logan bellowed. “Open up—Are you in there? DeLuca?”

I opened the door, and he fell onto me, grabbing my shirt. “DeLuca. DeLuca. Oh man. DeLuca!” He clawed at me, looking over his shoulder into the hall.

I’m bigger than Logan, heavier by thirty pounds. I shoved him away, said things like, “Get off me. What the hell’s wrong with you?” but he kept coming at me, swimming through air. Saying my name as if it were the only sound he could manage, gesturing. Pulling me out the door. Down the hall to his. Into his room.

Where I began to understand his howl.

I stood frozen, gaping at her. She wasn’t Denise. She was taller, muscled and long, lying on his bed naked except for a corner of sheet that draped the arch of her butt.

She didn’t move.

Logan clutched my arm, didn’t say anything. Looked up at me as if I’d be able to help him, and began bawling.

“I don’t know what happened,” he wailed. “DeLuca. I haven’t a frickin’ clue what went down.”

I peeled his hand off my arm, stepped over to the bed. Lifted her wrist. She didn’t resist, didn’t look to see who was touching her. Her skin was cool, her arm limp. I felt for a pulse. Found none.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

Logan was keening. “What are we going to do, DeLuca?”


I stared at the body, trying to absorb what I saw.

“DeLuca. She’s dead, isn’t she? I knew it. Oh God. Denise is going to kill me.”

Denise? “You’re worried about Denise?”

He squatted, smeared tears across his face. “I cheated. She’s going to find out.”

I blinked at him. “Logan, you got more to worry about than Denise.”

He looked at the wall clock, jumped to his feet. “Oh God. She’ll be here in an hour.” He pulled his hair.

“Calm down.” I said to myself as much as to Logan.

“Okay. Okay. I’m calm,” he panted. He continued tugging his hair.

“Just call Denise—”

“Call her?” He repeated. “And say what?”

What was wrong with him? “Say anything. Tell her you’re sick.”

“Okay. Okay. You’re right.”

He made the call. I used the time to look around. Logan’s books were scattered on the floor beside a couple of laptops. Some half-eaten food and a few beer bottles sat on the desk, a trail of shoes and discarded clothes led to the bed. The only thing out of the ordinary was a dead girl. I studied her, the slope of her shoulders. Her smooth, unblemished skin. She looked perfect, uninjured. Not a single scrape marred her body. Wait, why was I checking for wounds? Logan wouldn’t have hurt her. He couldn’t. So then, how come she was dead? Drugs, maybe? Or some medical condition, like a bad heart? Maybe sex had been too much, caused an attack. Damn. This was seriously bad.

Logan was still on the phone, whining at Denise. I stood beside the girl, pushed her hair back off her face. I understood why Logan had cheated. Buttery skin. Long lashes. Elegant nose. I stroked her cheek, couldn’t help it. Poor girl. What the hell had happened? I stared, noticed that her lips looked swollen. Was her mouth naturally purple?

Maybe swollen and purple was normal for dead lips. What did I know?

My mouth was dry. I wobbled, unsteady. Who was this girl? Why was her corpse in Logan’s room?

Logan was off the phone, pacing in a circle. “Denise says I sound awful so she’s coming by to bring me soup. In like an hour. Oh God.”

I crossed my arms. “Logan, you need to call the police.”

“The police?” He froze. Turned white.

“Yes,” I spoke slowly. “You need to report it.”

He took a step back, shook his head. “I can’t. I’ll be kicked off the team. I’m already on probation.”

“What are you talking about?”

“That frat party. Last spring. If I get one more disciplinary issue, I’m done. Plus Denise will find out. And my parents.” His hands covered his eyes.

He wasn’t thinking, wasn’t himself. The normal Logan was pretty much a straight arrow.  Always down at the river, practicing for crew. Okay, so he drank some beer, smoked a little weed. And yes, the semester before, he’d gotten busted for underage drinking, but, I’d known him since high school, and he’d always been a Boy Scout. Hell, he didn’t even curse. The shock of the moment was muddling his priorities. Of course he’d call the police. He had nothing to hide.

Then again, I never would have thought he’d cheat on Denise.

“Logan,” I faced him, realized I was shivering. “What happened here? This girl. Did you do anything to her?”

His mouth dropped. “Are you crazy? You think I killed her?”

“I didn’t say that—”

“How could you think that? DeLuca, you’ve known me my whole life.” His eyes bugged.

I waited a beat. “So who is she?”

He bent his head, paced back and forth. “Name’s Katie. She’s a rower.”

“So you know her from crew?”

“Yeah.” He stopped pacing, faced the bed. “DeLuca, we’ve got to get her out of here.” He rushed to the body, grabbed at the sheets. “Come on. Help me—”

“Hold on. Not till you tell me what happened.”

“I told you. I don’t know. She died, that’s all. After practice, we got cheeesteaks from a truck and brought them back here. One thing led to another. I dozed off.  Then I woke up…That’s all. I swear.”

“You think she took something before? Pills?”

“I don’t know. She seemed fine.”

“Well, something killed her. People don’t just die.”

“So what are you saying? You think I did something to her? Because if, knowing me for all these years, you think that, imagine what the cops’ll think. Oh man.” He bent over, clutched his stomach. Ran to the john.

I stood beside the bed, hearing him retch. Trying to think straight. Logan hadn’t killed her. Simply hadn’t. Logan Walsh wasn’t a killer. And he’d had no reason to kill her, according to what he’d said. Assuming it was true.

Of course it was true. Why was I doubting my oldest friend? I wasn’t. This girl was dead probably because she’d taken some bad drugs, or too many. And now, because of her stupidity, her death was Logan’s problem. And apparently mine. I looked at the clock. Ten of nine. Denise would show up before ten.

Logan’s skin was pea green when he returned from the bathroom. His eyes were glassy and dazed.

“Find her panties,” I said. “We have to get her dressed before Denise gets here.”

Logan dashed around, tossing clothes onto the bed. A sock, a sweatshirt, a pair of jeans. Finally, he held up a skimpy piece of white lace and elastic. “Voila.”

Okay, I’ve had my share of girlfriends. So I wouldn’t be bragging if I said that I’ve taken the clothes off of more than a few young ladies. But never in my life had I had the task of putting clothes onto a woman.

Let alone a dead one.

Still, the job seemed like it should be easy enough. After all, we knew where everything went. Should be a simple matter of matching clothing with body parts. I grabbed a foot, intending to pick it up and pop it into the panties.

Except that the foot was surprisingly heavy. I stared at her legs, their solid muscles. Understood the term “dead weight.”

This was going to take teamwork.

I slipped the panties onto her right toes, and Logan lifted the ankle so I could put the rest of the foot through the leg hole. Then he lifted the other ankle, but the elastic didn’t stretch far enough to reach it. Her legs were too far apart.

“Move it closer,” I said.

Logan wailed, dropped her ankle, and coiled into a fetal position on the bed. “I can’t do this. Sorry, but I can’t. I’ve never touched a dead person before.”

And what, I had? I’d never even seen a dead person except for my grandfather, when I was ten. “Okay, so act like she isn’t dead,” I told him. “Pretend she just passed out.”

He ventured a look at her feet. Picked up the left one again. She had blue polish on her toenails, chipped on the big toe. Shit. Why did I know that? I had no business knowing the color of this girl Katie’s toenail polish. I’d never even met her. And here I was touching her all over, smelling her lavender body wash, seeing her blue toenails and everything else. What the hell was going on? My chest tightened, skin got hot. My hands started shaking so bad that I misaimed, jabbed her toes into the elastic band a few times before finally getting the foot through the hole.

Logan set her ankle down, wiped his forehead with his wrist. Great. We’d gotten her panties past her ankles. We still had to deal with the entire length of her legs.

We worked like that, him lifting her leg and me sliding the panties up a few inches at a time. After lifting and flopping, yanking of sleeves, twisting of straps, and hooking her bra, we finally got her dressed. I was sweating, aching. Convinced that my sex-drive had been quashed forever. I looked at the clock. Nine-twenty.

It had taken half an hour to dress Katie.

Logan’s eyes darted back and forth between me and the clock. “We have to get her out of here. Before Denise comes over.”

Again, I thought we should call the police. But we’d already messed with the body. Had waited too long. Logan was right. We had to move her. “Where should we put her?”

“Your room.”

No way. “Uh uh.”

“Then where?

I didn’t know. But I wasn’t having her in my room. “Out back? In the alley?”

Logan went to the window, looked out. The street was dark. “No, that’s too close to the apartment.”

“Then where?”


Campus? Was he nuts? “Logan. Cops are all over campus. And there are lights—”

“We have time if we hurry.” He seemed not to have heard me. Grabbed a blanket and began wrapping her up.

I saw myself in handcuffs, squinting into the flashing lights of a cop car.

“We just have to act normal,” he went on, “like nothing’s wrong, and no one will stop us.  And if they do, we’ll just grin and say we’re just making a delivery.”

A delivery. “Are you effing nuts?”

“Like an art project. And we’ll leave her in one of those nooks with hedges and benches. Like that place across from the Bell Tower. Right off 13th. When they find her, they’ll think she’s just another college kid who OD’d. No connection to us.”


“Come on, DeLuca. Hurry.”

Some part of my mind knew his plan was a bad idea, but I’d lost all traces of rational thought. Together, we shoved the blanket under her, wrapped her up with her handbag and her computer. Then he took her knees, and I reached under her shoulders, strained against her weight. Finally managed to lift her. Logan hefted her legs and backed out of his room, bumping the doorknob, the living room couch, a random chair, a few empty beer bottles until we made it to the door, where he stopped and peered out.

“Coast is clear,” he whispered.

Adrenalin pumping, we carried her outside, checking behind and in front and up and down to make sure no one was watching. We kept going, step by torturous lumbering step, over to 13th Street, then south until we came to the walkway opposite the Bell Tower. We turned, trudged into the alcove and laid our bundle out on a well-shaded bench. Pulled off the blanket and arranged her as if she were resting.

My whole body hurt. My lungs raged and I was drenched with sweat. But it was done.

We didn’t talk the whole way back to the apartment. When we got there, amazingly, Denise still hadn’t arrived.

“Better check my room. Make sure we got everything.”

I followed him. Saw nothing that wasn’t Logan’s.

Except the food.

Katie’s unfinished cheesesteak.

Logan grabbed it. “Man, that looks good. I’m starved.” He took a bite. “Want some?”

The smell of it made me sick. I shook my head, couldn’t think of eating. Looked at the bed and pictured Katie’s body, her long strong legs. Looked away. Wondered if cops could find our fingerprints on Katie’s skin.

“Jeez. Who gets a cheesesteak without?” He chewed with gusto. “Even ketchup doesn’t do it. No onions, a cheesesteak isn’t done. It’s like naked.” He chomped, swallowed. Grabbed a half-empty beer and drank.

I went back to my room. Shut the door. Sat in the dark, shaking.

Denise had her own key. A while later, I heard her come in, call Logan’s name.

And not a minute later, I heard her howl.

Chapter One: Angela & Josh (by Kelly Simmons)

Look, I know I’m not the only blue-eyed blonde Italian girl living in South Philly. I saw another one outside Dante & Luigi’s last week, but I think she was an exotic dancer. My point is, the whole neighborhood might call me La Bionda, and my mother might have forced me to wear a corno on a gold chain to ward off all the mala occhio and envy that would come my way, being beautiful and all, but I am not, like, full of myself or anything. I’m not one of those whiny bitches who break up with a boyfriend just because he’s always late.

So when my boyfriend, Josh, missed the first course of homemade gnocchi at my mother’s party last Saturday night, my first instinct was not to dump him over Twitter. There had to be a perfectly good reason he was late to meet my entire family for the very first time. Like that he was dead, for instance.

I got up from the table abruptly, my black leggings catching the nubs of the white lace tablecloth, threatening to pull over the bowl of red gravy. I said,

“He’s not answering his texts. I’m gonna go find out what’s wrong.”

“Can I have his veal chop?” my brother Michael said.

“You can have my hand upside your fucking head,” I replied.

“No, sweetheart, stay,” my mother said. “While the food is warm.”

“He’s probably just caught in traffic,” my father said. “Or he stopped to pick up wine. Not realizing that none of the Nicholettis drink.”

He winked and clinked glasses with my other brother Mario, who was sitting on his left. Mario, the newly ordained priest, had cheeks that flushed as bright as a slapped bottom when he drank. My father and Mario had already toasted multiple times: to each other’s health, to my mother’s cooking, to their plan to gleefully confuse Josh by calling each other Father.

“No, he’s over an hour late. Something’s wrong.”

“Maybe the food truck was robbed?” Michael said, his mouth so full of gnocchi I could barely understand him.

Josh owned a food truck called Naked Philly that sold organic salads and sandwiches, and was super-popular on college campuses, especially Drexel, where I had just started my senior year. Thanks to a brilliant Instagram mashup of my cleavage and Josh’s cabbage, his truck was popular with the guys. And since many of my sorority sisters only eat kale and chia seeds, he’s also popular with the girls. And maybe, just maybe, the fact that Josh looked like a California model helped. That might have something to do with it. I mean mad kitchen skills and a Botticelli angel for a girlfriend can only get you so far.

“There was another truck robbed October first,” I said. I remembered because it was my father’s birthday, and the traffic had been terrible trying to get across South Street Bridge. Now it was the fifteenth of October—maybe there had been a rash of burglaries and I’d missed it. I grabbed my phone to search the headlines. But I didn’t see anything.

“You talking about the This Little Piggy truck?” Michael said. “I thought somebody just forgot to pay for their pork and the cops chased him.”

“Theft is theft, Michael.”

He shrugged and started eating gnocchi off my plate.

“I’ll call you when I know more,” I said, then walked outside to hail a cab.

I looked up and down Christian Street hoping to see someone I knew who’d give me a lift, but it was quiet. Dinner time. Cocktail time. Nobody walking their dog or sweeping their porch or dead-heading the last of their potted geraniums. I’d probably have to walk all the way over to Broad, or up to South Street, to find a cab. I sighed, and buttoned my coat against the autumn chill. My parents’ brick townhouse wasn’t well insulated, and you could usually hear everything going on inside, outside. Every clink of the glass, every laugh. But they went quiet after I left, like they were afraid something was wrong too. Either that, or they were waiting until I was far away so they could talk smack about Josh.

It wasn’t my fault I fell in love with someone who wasn’t Italian. The fact that he could cook Italian was enough for me, but not my family. They had this crazy idea that I could continue the family bloodline, raise my babies in the Catholic church, blah blah blah. And I’m like, are you kidding me? You want me to mate with a Sicilian and risk muddying my gene for blonde hair? No thank you. I’ll take a blond Jersey surfer who can whip up eggplant parm on a hot plate on the street any day, thank you very much.

As I walked up Ninth through Bella Vista, I passed an awful lot of people pushing strollers, and way too many purple ornamental cabbages pushing out of flower boxes, a certain sign new people were gobbling up the houses in our neighborhood. I didn’t mind the coffeehouses and knitting shops springing up, as long as my old favorites, like Fitzwater Café, weren’t affected. It was similar to my first thought when I saw all the food trucks lined up on campus: It’s all fun and games until somebody’s dad’s diner goes belly up. But Josh’s truck had an angle: vegetarian, and no real competition that I knew of.

I grabbed a cab on South Street and headed over to University City. When I told the driver to take Lombard I caught him rolling his eyes at me in the rear view mirror, and I thought, man, am I gonna Yelp the shit out of this.

The traffic was clogged as we got closer to CHOP, so I told him I’d walk. I threw the cynical asshole two dimes for a tip and started towards the corner where Josh’s truck was supposed to be. As I got closer, I saw flashing lights, and I started to run.

Crime tape wrapped the corner where Josh’s truck always sat. It formed a triangle around the traffic light, a no parking sign, and the two folding stairs behind the truck, where Josh and his co-chef, Bernardo, took their breaks. The tape was stuck around the poles unevenly, the yellow surface cutting the words “crime” and “scene” in half vertically. Two police cars and an ambulance blocked the street.

“Josh!” I called out, as if he’d just pop his head through the truck window like any other day, as if he was waiting inside, brushing his bangs out of his eyes with the back of his hand. A technician wearing gloves started sweeping the surface of the Naked Philly sign with a brush. The sign featured abstract paintings of nude women and this dude spent an awful long time dusting the nipples for fingerprints. Well, he’d probably find some, I thought, judging from what I’d seen frat boys doing to that sign after midnight. A uniformed cop sauntered up to one of the folding chairs and sat down with a sigh.

I limboed under the crime tape. “What’s going on here?”

“You gotta step off, Miss.” the cop said, without getting up. “Crime scene.”

“Yeah, I can read, okay? What happened? Where’s Josh?”

“Who’s Josh?”

“The owner of this truck!”

“You a relative of Mr. Whitcomb?”

“Oh my God,” I cried. “Is Josh dead? Was he robbed at gunpoint by some crack addict pretending to want an artisanal pretzel?”

The cop blinked at me several times, as if trying to communicate via some kind of eyelash Morse code. I was familiar with this; I had been communicating this way to my hot professors for years. Then he stood up with a groan, leaned in to his walkie and said, “Simon? Need you out here.” Then he turned back to me. “He’s not dead, just handcuffed.”

“Handcuffed? Well uncuff him! He’s not saying anything anyway, not until—”

“I assume from your mode of dress that you are not his lawyer.”

I looked down at my leggings and boots, my fitted down jacket and blue scarf that matched the color of my eyes. I really should have Snapchatted this outfit.

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean? How the fuck do you know what lawyers wear when they go home for dinner, huh?”

“Maybe my wife is a lawyer.”

“Maybe you’re not married and never will be because you’re a sexist asshole.”

I felt a hand on my elbow, and before I knew it, a young black woman in a tan coat was standing by my side, flashing me a badge, and telling me she was Detective Simon, leading the investigation, and how could she help me? In other words, someone recognized that I was not just a curious-but-fashionable passerby or a student with an eating disorder looking for a spinach salad, but a distraught citizen who deserved to be treated with respect, and of course that person was a woman.

“I’m Josh Whitcomb’s girlfriend,” I said.

She nodded. “We’re waiting on his lawyer now.”

“See?” the uniformed cop said.

“Lawyer? What for? What’s happened?”

“There’s been a murder.”

“Murder? Josh wouldn’t murder anyone. Unless it was Bernardo? Because they work in tight quarters and he is annoying as fuck.”

“Uh, no, it wasn’t Bernardo.”

“But Josh isn’t a murderer—”

“We’re conducting an investigation. He’s a suspect. He’s in custody, and we’re waiting for his lawyer to release him. It shouldn’t be much longer. But you can’t be inside the crime tape, okay?”

“Excuse me,” a voice called from the street. A man in a suit came up to the detective and whispered something in her ear. They left together, walking toward one of the squad cars. I guess he was dressed like a lawyer.

“I’ll tell Josh you’re here,” Detective Simon said over her shoulder, and I called out my thanks.

“So who was killed?” I asked the cop.

“Why should I tell you after you insulted me?”

“Are you asking me to bribe you? Trying to get a blow job or something outta this?”

“Just making a point. You catch more flies with honey. You know what I’m saying?”

“No, I do not know what the fuck you are saying, and I don’t want any god damn flies. I want to know what the fuck is going on with my boyfriend because he already missed his gnocchi tonight!”

“Step outside the crime tape, please,” he said. “Or I’ll cuff you too.”

A small clutch of people were standing near the corner, watching the big nothing that was happening, talking like something was. I noticed a chalk body outline behind the truck. I’d never seen a real one before; people didn’t usually leave bodies on the sidewalk of South Philly. That’s what trunks were for.

Most of the people milling around were wearing scrubs—they appeared to be nurses and workers just getting off their shift at CHOP, but there was one guy close to my age taking an awful lot of photos with his phone. I sidled up to him.

“So, you a reporter?”

“Kind of,” he said, continuing to snap photos without making eye contact.

“Kind of? Hello, you either are or you aren’t.”

He smiled at me. “I guess you’re not a journalism major.”

“Jesus,” I said. “First I’m told I don’t dress well enough to be a lawyer, now you think I’m not smart enough to be a journalist?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Like hell you didn’t.”

“I just meant that if you were a journalism major, you’d know that the distinctions between who is a reporter, and who is a blogger, and who is a citizen, are kinda blurry in the world right now.”

“I never thought about it.”

“Most people don’t,” he replied, then offered his hand.

“Ben Travers. Freelance journalist, sometime stringer, always looking for a story.”

“Angela Nicholetti. Drexel nursing student. So you know who died?”

“A young guy. Lacrosse player. At least I hope he was a lacrosse player, since he was carrying a stick. Pretty affected otherwise.”

“Was he strangled?”

The smile drained from his face. “Why do you ask that?”

“No blood.”

“Maybe they cleaned the blood up.”

I shrugged. Judging from the butchers at The Italian Market, blood on the sidewalk didn’t clean up that easy. You needed to work at it. “So you don’t know what happened.”

“Actually, I do. Mr. Lacrosse Player was poisoned.”


He nodded ruefully. Well, that explained why they thought Josh was involved.  A dead man poisoned right behind their truck. But where—where was Bernardo? And how did Josh get a lawyer so fast—did he already have one?

“Yeah, word to the wise: Don’t order the vegan cheesesteak.”

I shook my head. I had told Josh it was a crazy idea—how could you have a cheesesteak without cheese and without steak? What was left, just some grilled onions on a soft roll from Sarcone’s? But he hadn’t listened. Named it “The Without,” made it with seitan or some shit, and he was so fucking proud of it. But this was nothing but trouble, messing with a tradition. You don’t mess with tradition. Unless your mother and father are trying to marry you off to some greaseball just because he’s Italian. That, you mess with.

I wished him luck with his story, and told him that it wasn’t Josh, because he didn’t have a mean bone in his body—I mean, he became a vegetarian because he couldn’t even deal with bones! He’s a surfer who believes sharks have every right to attack people in the ocean because it’s their home! And he looked at me kind of sad, like he felt sorry for me.

“Let me give you my phone number,” he said. “Just in case.”

“Just in case what?”

“In case we want to share information to our mutual benefit. In case you want Josh’s side of the story told, for instance.”

“Josh is innocent.”

We both looked at the squad car down the street. I thought about pounding my fists on the window, demanding that he be released. But that wasn’t how a journalist, a lawyer, or even a girlfriend should behave. Not if they want to help.

“I’m sure you believe that,” he said.

I wanted to tell him a lot of things: that if he really knew Josh, and saw the way he tenderly piled sprouts on top of beets, like it was a work of art, that he’d know I was right. He wasn’t one of those chefs who were obsessed with knives; he practically petted the food. He coaxed the flavors out of things. How could a guy who wouldn’t serve food with preservatives be accused of serving food with something truly lethal? It made zero sense.
He gave me his business card and turned to leave.

“Hey,” I called after him, “you’re not like a food writer, are you?”

“No,” he said and blinked. “Why?”

“Because you might write a bad review of Josh’s cheesesteak.”

“You mean, because there was poison in it?”

“You don’t know that,” I said.  “Maybe the last customer before him poisoned the ketchup. Or maybe the poison was on a napkin the guy had in his pocket. Or in his mouthguard. Maybe he was wearing a mouthguard after lacrosse practice.”

“You’re either a very creative person,” he smiled, “or you’re a career criminal.”

“Thank you,” I said, brandishing his card. I smiled and stood a little taller, the way I always do after a compliment. The light shimmered across The

Abramson Center down the street, and every time the automatic doors opened, I heard the faint tones of a piano being played in the lobby. They do that to calm people with cancer, but it made me feel a little better too. I walked in the opposite direction. At the stoplight I thought, crap, does this mean I have cancer?

I texted Josh and told him I’d wait for him at the Starbucks down the block. I called my parents and told them not to hold dinner; that we’d be lucky to be there for tiramisu. I heard Michael laughing in the background. I heard my father clinking glasses with Mario. I wanted to ask them how the hell they could celebrate when my boyfriend was being questioned for murder. But I didn’t say anything. They already disliked him because he was a Buddhist; what would they think if they found out he was a Buddhist criminal? Oh, it was too much to bear, picturing Josh doing yoga in his cell, making smoothies out of the prison compost. There had to be a simple explanation!

As I walked up the street I called Bernardo, but his fucking phone was disconnected. When I got to the Starbucks, I asked the girl behind the counter for salt, and tossed it over my shoulder.

After all, better safe than sorry.

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