The Wrong Man to Cross
Part One
A John MacNeil Novella
by Duane Swierczynski

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.”
-Ezekiel 25:17

....... By the end of move-in day, I needed only two things. A six-pack of Yuengling. And to get the hell out of my new house.

...... We'd started early that morning -- me, Clarissa Jones and the boy. I'd decided to save a few bucks and move myself over the Easter holiday. And by noon they were already making me wish the U-Haul I'd rented had backed over me. Jonesy complained all day how the place wasn't in move-in condition, how we weren't going to be able to afford the payments.

...... We.

...... Yeah.

...... The boy wasn't helping matters either. Sure, he was only two, but Jesus, do all two-year-olds have to scream like that for no apparent reason?

...... But the day was finally behind us. I'd already chugged down two or three brews, but I wasn't even feeling them. I'd just sweated them out. The cardboard boxes and slices of cold pizza and half-assembled furniture were spread all over the house. It could wait until tomorrow.

...... Or at least I could. All I wanted to do -- all I'd wanted to do all day long -- was walk down the street and take a breath of fresh air in Pennypack Park, the crown jewel of Northeast Philadelphia.

...... I couldn't find a plastic shopping bag, so I grabbed a six of longnecks by the cardboard carton and flipped my new keys into my shorts pocket. I briefly considered a shirt, but the air was still humid.

...... I slipped my feet into my beat-up Docksiders and headed out my new front door. It needed painting.

...... Two tears in a bucket, fuck it.

* * * * *

...... The “Great Northeast” covers about a fifth of the total land mass of the city. It's our Queens, I guess.. Anyone who doesn't live here writes it off as a bunch of rowhomes and twins with strip malls and the occasional bagel shop. And they wouldn't be too far off the mark, either, especially above Cottman Avenue. Eighty years ago, there was nothing but farmland up here, but they quickly covered it with asphalt and cheap airlights and made it hospitable for anyone who wanted to escape the unwanted inner-city elements -- that's fancy real-estate talk for “black people.”

...... The only thing that wasn't plowed under and smothered in concrete was a five mile stretch of woods left untouched by developer's hands, an oasis in the middle of a rowhome wasteland. Pennypack Park was named for the creek that runs up its spine: “Pennypack,” an Indian name that loosely translates to “deep dead water.” I know, because a former partner once looked it up.

...... The creek isn't very deep, but it supports many varieties of fish that are restocked every year by the Pennsylvania Wildlife Commission. It runs along a gouge in the earth, and the surrounding park is more of a wooded valley, hiding all signs of civilization up above along the park's borders. You could be in the middle of Pennypack Park and forget you were in the city.

...... This was the kind of park I wanted the boy to know, the kind of park I never had, growing up in a lousy rowhome in Kensington... yeah, the same shitty neighborhood where Rocky Balboa lived.

...... Maybe I had no business being here -- not with what I made on the force. And maybe I'd mortgaged myself into financial ruin, all for the sake of this park. But now that I was here I was going to enjoy it.

* * * * *

...... Our new house was at the ass-end of a cul-de-sac. That's French for “gotta walk all the way around the goddamned block.” If I were to cut through my backyard, some other guy's backyard, and around his house, I'd be across the street from the nearest entrance to Pennypack Park. But it was too soon to leave a bad impression. I took the long way.

...... I didn't mind. I enjoyed the air, and the sight of trees, poking up from the sidewalks. We didn't have that in Kensington. I'd have to borrow a few books, learn the names of the trees. Impress the kid. There was so much to teach him.

...... Down Colony Drive, then a left on Axe Factory Road. One block up was the park entrance: a long asphalt descent into the valley. I enjoyed a long pull from my Yuengling, draining the bottle. It tasted good. Yuengling used to be coal-cracker beer from upstate, and dirt-cheap when nobody down here knew how good it was. That all changed in the late 1990s, and now it was almost as popular as Coors Light. But it actually tasted like something.

...... I pitched the empty into the green wire-mesh receptacle at the top of the entrance. And the other empties would be kept in my carton until I passed this can on the way back. This was my park now. I was going to take good care of it.

...... I made my way deeper into the park, and was pulling out another Yuengling when...I heard some low voices… chanting? It didn't sound right. You can take the Philly cop out of Kensingston, but you can't leave the cop behind.

...... About halfway down the asphalt slope, I remembered that I didn't have my badge. Or my gun.

...... I continued down the path and hooked left, following the chanting. Then I saw it. Everything that wasn't grass and trees and creek and dirt was all black candles and pentagrams and upside-down crosses.

...... What the fuck?

...... I was no expert, but apparently I was looking at some kind of Satanic mass.

...... There were three of them, all dressed in black priest robes and standing around the biggest pentagram. The robes were the old-style ones that look like skirts. The guy in the middle was sallow-faced with black hair with spikes you could mount cocktail onions on. He looked barely old enough to vote. His two companions were even younger. The tall blond kid vaguely resembled David Bowie. Then there was this short, beefy guy with reddish-brown hair and a silver earring on his left ear, but his back was to me. I couldn't see his face.

...... Spikes was leading a prayer, with his two pals giving the response:

...... “I will go down to the altars in Hell.”

...... “To Satan, Giver of Life.”

...... “With ecstasy we give praise to our Prince.”

...... “Provide us pleasure, Prince of Darkness, and help us fulfill our desires.”

...... Agios o Satanas!”

...... Oh Christ.

...... Then the doughy one moved and I saw what they had tied to a large rock in the middle of the pentagram. It was a puppy, a golden retriever. The dog was shaking, despite the fact that it appeared to have its throat cut.

...... Agios o Satanas!

...... I ducked behind a tree before they could see me. I remembered what I'd said to Jonesy a few days before we moved. “Let's get the boy a dog,” I'd said. “We got the yard, and it'll be good to have someone to watch after the little maniac.” The breed I had in mind? A golden. Just like the one tied to the rock. In a couple of months, that could be been the boy's dog laying there, bleeding from its neck.

...... No. No fucking way.

...... I didn't have my gun, but I had a six-pack of beer. There's nothing more dangerous than an off-duty Philly cop with a six-pack of beer. Well, a five-pack, now.

...... I hooked one between my index and middle fingers. Spikes would be first. He seemed to know all of the words. Maybe if he shut the fuck up, his buddies would go running. And maybe I could get that dog to a doctor.

...... One more glance…. then I whipped the bottle at Spikes's head. It sailed through the air as cleanly as a touchdown pass.

...... I didn't see the impact, but I heard the dull burst of glass. Spikes cried like a bitch. There were shouts of panic and then… movement. Rustling branches. I moved higher up the hill and over to my left. Two beers down, four to go.

...... “You'd better run, asshole!” someone shouted. “We're going to drink your blood!”

...... Yeah, yeah. I was hoping they'd just scatter out of the park and leave their street clothes behind. A wallet would yield a name and an address. If I couldn't go at these assholes legit, I'd find another way to make sure they kept their Satanic bullshit and puppy torture out of my park. Of course, my luck, I wouldn't find a wallet. And these kids would be the only sons of three high-ranking police lieutenants.

...... I hooked another beer. I poked my head out from behind the tree.

...... David Bowie was leering back at me. He had a butcher knife in his hand. He growled and pushed the blade forward.

...... I jolted backwards and fell on my ass. The beer bottle slipped from my fingers and rolled down the hill. No time to make a grab for it. The blade was coming at my face. I scuttled backwards like a crab across the dirt and stones and grass.

...... Bowie was on top of me with the knife. The cardboard Yuengling container with the three remaining beers slipped out of my hands. I was defenseless.

...... “I'm gonna gut you like a fish,” he said. His weight strained against mine.

...... I made a little puppet with the fingers of my left hand. Then I started doing a whistling tweety-bird sound, in sync with my hand motions.

...... Bowie looked at my hand. His head tilted to the side.

...... That's right, I thought. Watch the birdie.

...... I balled up my other fist and hammered it into the side of his left knee. If you're going for the knee, go from the side. Punching straight-on won't do shit. Too much natural protection.

...... Bowie went down hard. The butcher knife buried itself in the ground with his hand still wrapped around the handle. I closed my other fist -- the one doing the Tweetybird impression -- and imagined a target deep inside his head. I swung. Bowie's head snapped backwards. He flipped over and released the knife.

...... I rolled in the opposite direction, then started to get up.

...... A knee collided with my chin.

...... Son of a bitch. Could this day get any more ridiculous? I mean, here I was, shirtless, butt-tired from a grueling move, and now I'm rolling around in the grass with a bunch of teenaged Satan worshipers, fighting for my life. Worse yet, I was down to my last three Yuenglings.

...... The blow was hard. My teeth punctured my tongue. I teetered off-balance and again fell on my ass. My hands flipped out behind me for stability. The owner of the knee was on top of me, straddling me. His fingers found my hair and yanked my head back. I looked up at him. It was Spikes. His forehead was cut badly, and the blood had streaked down his face like a partial face mask. He had a butcher knife in his hand. They must have been on sale at Wal-Mart this week.

...... I tried to pull back. His grip tightened. I was fucked.

...... Until my fingers felt a serrated metal edge. One of my fallen Yuengling bottles.

...... I twisted. Let my weight fall to my left arm. Grabbed the neck of the bottle with my right hand, then swung it up and smacked him across the head with it.

...... This time, there was no shattering, but he felt it. Not enough in my opinion, since the knife was still in his hand, and his fingers still had an iron grip on my hair. So I gave him the bottle again on the backstroke, and that did the trick. It shattered spectacularly across the right side of his face, and he cried like a bitch again. He released my hair. I dropped back and rabbit-kicked him in the chest, high and as hard as I could.

...... Spikes rolled back down the hill and came to a stop right next to the tied-up dog. Good. I'd finish up with Spikes, then cut the dog loose and try to see about a vet. Maybe I'd use the ropes from the dog on Spikes. See how he liked it.

...... I stepped forward and accidentally kicked something. It was another wayward Yuengling. I reached down, grabbed it. I screwed the cap off the bottle and tilted it to my lips. Here's to you, Spikes. Hope you had a fun night, because your ass is going to jail or the juvvie center, depending on what's printed on your driver's license.

...... Something clicked behind me.

...... I was tempted to take a swallow and then turn around, but my instincts told me that might be a bad idea.

...... The third kid was standing there, pointing a gun at me from a distance of about two yards. He looked young. He had a pasty face that he had tried to offset with an earring and a leer. It didn't work.

...... “Down on the ground,” he told me in a voice that sounded almost feminine.

...... “Want a beer?” I asked. “I'm think there's another one in the grass around here somewhere.”

...... “Lie down on the ground,” he repeated. “Face first.”

...... “Or maybe you just want a sip of mine?”

...... When he lifted his arm I knew he was serious about firing that gun. So I threw the beer at his face and charged low.

...... He was quicker than I thought. He had a chance to pull the trigger before I could clamp down over his hand. The shot missed me and chopped through the trees. The report echoed throughout the park.

...... I knocked the kid down, flipped him, and locked his arm behind his back. Classic academy move, nothing fancy. I knew I had him when he cried out. I didn't have cuffs, but I'd been in worse spots before. Like in the middle of a minor race riot in Kensington, and I was the only white dude trying to subdue four guys with a couple of plastic wrist cuffs and a sap. Use the sap, spark a war. Get my head beat in. So it was just me and the plastic cuffs, and we had one hell of time of it. If I could, I would have bought the plastic cuffs a beer afterward.

...... I stowed his piece in the back waistband of my shorts. I yanked the kid to his feet. That's when I heard the sound of someone choking. I looked down the hill and saw that it wasn't Spikes. The other kid? Bowie?

...... By the time I got the third kid down to the rock with the dog, someone was crying out in the darkness.

...... “Help! Somebody help us! Please!”

...... A male voice. Young.

...... I sat the kid with the gun down rough on the rock.

...... “Stay here, fuckwad,” I said. “I'm a cop, and I'm going to be your worst nightmare if I have to track you down. I'm going to see if your buddy is bleeding to death.”

...... Of course, it was a bluff. And sure enough, when I finally returned to the scene a short while later, Spikes, Dough-Boy, Bowie, the candles, the crosses… even the dog was gone. But I didn't care. Because when I crossed the shallow creek and made my way up through the dense sticky brush, I found something far worse than a Golden Retriever with its throat slashed.

...... There was another teenager back here, and he'd been shot in the chest.

...... A shirtless friend of his was crouched down next to him, palm pressed up against the wound, trying to apply direct pressure. The gray t-shirt on the kid was nearly completely soaked.

...... “Call for help!” his buddy screamed. There were tears pooling in his eyes.

...... “I am help,” I said quietly, and heard the sound of my life being flushed down the toilet.

* * * * *

...... I'm such a fucking idiot.

...... I sat by the phone all morning, waiting for the call. Jonesy made me a cup of coffee and rubbed my shoulders. “You did the right thing.”

...... Even if she didn't believe it, it was nice to hear.

...... Suspension was definitely in the works. They'd told me as much last night after they took my statement and told me to go home. But the million dollar question was what kind of suspension.

...... There were only two. The kind where they pay you to hang out at the local bar and watch baseball games for a few weeks and occasionally show up for a court appearance. And the kind where they don't pay you. I was low enough on the totem pole to expect the latter. Especially given the circumstances of last night.

...... Jonesy wanted to get herself and the boy out of my hair for the day, so she packed up and went to her mother's place over in Lawndale. That was probably for the better. I didn't want them to be here when the axe fell. I wasn't quite sure how I was going to react.

...... The minute she pulled out of the driveway I dumped the coffee, put the cup in the sink, and went to the fridge for a bottle of Yuengling. Loading the fridge was the last thing I'd done before finally going to bed at 5:30 a.m. I knew I'd want a cold beer in a couple of hours.

...... I twisted off the cap and put the bottle to my lips. The lager was cold and smooth and good. There was a bit of funny aftertaste when the hops reacted to the film of toothpaste in my mouth -- I mean, I'd finally got myself out of bed at noon. My tongue ached, too, where I'd bitten it. But that went away after the third swallow.

...... According to that morning's Daily News, the kid who'd been shot last night was in stable condition over at Holy Redeemer. His name was Rick Panico; he'd just graduated from Father Judge High School and was headed to St. Charles Seminary in the fall.

...... Yeah, a priest-in-training. Wonderful.

...... Which made it all the more a story. Normally, it might have been buried deep in the News Briefs section, but they ran it on page 3. In a thin Saturday morning paper, it stood out.

...... Which was precisely why I was fucked. I hadn't even managed to save the dog, so the animal lovers were probably after my ass, as well.

...... Suspension without pay would be like a sword through my guts. Not fatal, but I'd be swimming in a world of shit. I'd used everything in my nut to make the down payment on this new house. And I'd made that nut by doing some… well, extra-departmental duties. No cop survives on his take-home. Not one who wants to live in a decent neighborhood, anyway.

...... Not thinking I'd be risking suspension in the immediate future, I'd planned on living on department pay for a month or two before another opportunity kicked up. Without that? Shit, we were going to default on this place in a matter of weeks.

...... I took another beer out of the fridge and looked for something to eat. Of course, nothing doing.

...... The previous owners had cleaned out the box and left some Arm & Hammer in there. I checked the freezer; nothing. We hadn't moved food with us. We planned on going down to the Acme this morning to load up fresh on groceries. There was enough in the account for that… Wait a sec. What did Jonesy and the boy eat this morning?

...... I fished through the black plastic trash bag that sat in a corner of our new kitchen -- no new can yet -- and found the McDonald's wrappers. They had feasted on Egg McMuffins and hash browns and… hey, look at this. A pancake breakfast. No meat, of course; it was still Lent. But I wished she'd nudged me awake. I would have killed for half a hash brown.

...... To take the edge off my hunger, I had another beer. I guess I had to get my ass outside to buy some food. Jonesy had the car, so my best bet was the 7-Eleven down the road. I was wearing the same pair of shorts I'd worn the night before. They were still covered in mud and grass stains. Whatever. I just needed a t-shirt, my Docksiders, and I was ready to rock. Load up on frozen fish sticks and fruit pies, wait for my life to end.

...... It was an admirable plan. But it stalled when I realized I didn't have any cash. And Jonesy had the only ATM card. I'd lost mine wrestling with the Lil' Imps in the park.

...... Today was turning out like yesterday. I half-expected the three psycho Satanists to burst through the doors, looking to flay my skin and etch pentagrams on my ass with a curling iron.

...... I wasn't that lucky.

...... That was the other problem: the Satanists were still at large. My colleagues found evidence of the black mass at the scene, but no I.D.s, no perps. They found my fingerprints on the gun, which smudged over another set--the doughy kid's prints. No clothes, no wallets, nothing. I gave them the best physical description I could, but I hadn't had much to go on. Mostly, I saw fists, knives and knees.

...... I was fucked.

...... I plowed my way through the stacks of cardboard boxes and other crap in trash bags to the couch, opened a window and collapsed. There was a breeze this morning, and it carried the scent of freshly-mown grass.

...... And charbroiled burgers.

...... Was this a mirage? I mean, this was only Holy Saturday. Who the fuck grilled outside this early in the year?

...... I kneeled and took a peek out of the window. Across our backyard, over a set of thick hedges and a chain-link fence, some doofus in a puffy white cap was grilling hamburgers.

...... Now there were two ways of doing this. Some socially-correct way, like, “Hey there, neighbor, how ya doing? I just moved in across the way, and guess what? I don't have any food in the house! Isn't that a pisser? Yeah, I got beat up by a bunch of Satan-worshipping dickheads last night, and some poor seminary student got shot in the chest, and well… you know how it goes. Hard to shop at Acme when you're about to be suspended from the force, am I right or am I right? So how about a burger, between pals?”

...... Yeah, right.

...... That left the other way.

...... I crawled across our small backyard and up to the hedge. Weird that my first time in our new backyard was on my hands and knees, but so be it. I was hungry.

...... Sitting next to the hedge, I was overwhlemed by the intoxicating aroma of sizzling cow flesh. My backyard neighbor, whoever he was, liked his burgers with a little salt, pepper, garlic powder and Worcestershire sauce. So did I. Just one, I figured. Nobody would miss just one burger. He'd think he miscounted. Nothing to worry about.

...... Of course, when the time was right, I scooped up three burgers and three buns. I even lifted the small ketchup container from the front of the grill rack.

...... I crawled back across the lawn and into the house. I looked back outside. The guy was stepping out of his back door and walking over to the grill. He stuck one of those big puffy mitts over one hand, then grabbed his spatula with the other, and lifted the lid.

...... The double-take was priceless.

...... Upstairs, I ate those greasy burgers--no cheese, unfortunately--off the top of a cardboard box labeled VACATION PICS. I was halfway through the third one when the phone rang.

...... “Hey,” I said.

...... “John,” the voice said. “It's Chuck.”

...... Sergeant Charles Underhill, my immediate superior.

...... “Yo, Chuck. What's shaking?”

...... He was quiet.

...... “That bad, huh?”

...... “Yeah, John, that bad. We're talking at least a month. Maybe two”

...... Now it was my turn to be quiet. I looked at the half-burger I had left sitting on top of the brown cardboard, soaking it with grease. My neighborhood hadn't bought these pre-fab. He'd taken some ground meat and lovingly crafted thick patties out of it. They were perfectly seasoned. The buns were perfect, too. Light and fluffy. As if they'd been baked that morning.

...... “Okay, Chuck. I know you did all you could. Hey, you want to come over and have a burger with me? Fresh off the grill.”

* * * * *

...... A week later I was painting the boy's bedroom with an old can of yellow enamel I'd found in the garage. Jonesy and I had decided to fix up what we could in the house with the supplies on hand. “We'll make it,” she'd told me last Saturday with a smile I hadn't seen in a long time.

...... “I'll get something going,” I promised her, not having a clue what that something might be.

...... “I know you will,” she said.

...... A few days later I saw her counting a stack of money. “What the hell's that?”

...... “Don't freak out."

...... “What do you mean don't freak out? What did you do?”

...... “I borrowed some money from my mother.”

...... “Oh, fuck no.”

...... “Just to get us through.”

...... If a suspension without pay was a sword right through my intestines, the idea that we had to go to Jonesy's mother for cash was like barbecue skewers through my eyes. Some guys joke about their girlfriends' mothers are beasts from the lowest pits of Hell. I didn't have to joke. The woman was truly evil. Give me a few silver bullets, a Bible and a wooden stake, I could prove it to the world.

...... And she wasn't even my fucking mother-in-law yet.

...... Then there was a knock at the door.

...... It was our backyard neighbor.

...... “Hey there! I just wanted to introduce myself. Bob Burkhardt!” It was an exclamation, just like that. The guy was chubby yet had the sharpest chin I'd ever seen. You could drop his face on a 45 rpm record and hear music.

...... He extended a meaty palm.

...... “I couldn't help but notice you guys just moved in. You want to come over and grab a couple of burgers with us? Meet the kids?”

...... Of course Jonesy did, because it effectively postponed the argument we were about to have over her mom and the money. I knew she meant well. But she didn't understand how emasculating it was. The way I see it, I've got one job, and that's bringing home the green. The ethics are elastic -- doesn't matter if it's a paycheck from the Philadelphia Police Department, or a little green from some other source -- but I'm providing for my girlfriend and our kid. I thought I was doing the right thing buying this house in a nice neighborhood. Instead. I'd put us in financial jeopardy. It was up to me to rectify the situation.

...... As I chomped on my fourth Bob Burkhardt burger of the day, I smiled. “Damn, Bob, you usin' Worcestershire sauce on these bad boys?”

...... The bastard beamed. “You can taste it, can't ya?”

* * * * *

...... For the next two days, I kept my head down and busied myself with home repair. I had a faint hope of the union coming through for me, fighting for some minimum pay instead of the complete dick-over, but I wasn't going to hold my breath. But the worst part was that I was out of beer. And I'd be damned if I had to borrow from Jonesy's mother to pay for it.

...... I was halfway finished slathering the top of the ceiling with this ugly yellow when Jonesy poked her head in. “Phone for you.”

...... A thick gob of paint nailed me right in the middle of the forehead and dripped down before I got a finger up there to stop the flow. “Yeah. Thanks.”

...... Maybe it was the union. Maybe they'd tell me they someone how got the Philly PD to cough up ten bucks so I could lay in some Yuengling.

...... “Hey,” I said.

...... “Officer MacNeil?”

...... Not currently, but who gave a damn. “What can I do for you?”

...... “My name's Rick Panico,” he said. “I'm the guy you helped over in the Pennypack Woods last week. Do you remember?”

...... The kid.

...... “Hey, it'd be hard to forget, buddy. How are you doing?”

...... Rick hesitated. “I'm good. Better every day.”

...... “Good to hear,” I said.

...... Whatever this kid wanted, he was going to have to come out and say it. For all I knew, this was a fishing expedition for a civil lawsuit. And that was the last thing I needed. How can you bankrupt a man who's already broke?

...... “Listen, I was hoping you could do me a favor. I need to ask you something, but I can't talk about it over the phone.”

...... “Look, Rick, I don't know what you want, but you might have read that I've been temporarily suspended from the force. Your best option might be to contact…”

...... “No,” he said. “That's exactly why I want to see you. Can you come?”

...... Could I come? The kid took a bullet because of something stupid I did, and worse yet, he was going to be a priest someday. Could I come? Of course I could. I told him to give me a half hour to clean up and make the drive over to Holy Redeemer. I told Jonesy I needed the car, and she made a face -- she'd been planning to go to the Bluegrass Mall to spend more of her mom's money, I guess --but I lied and told her it was a possible job and she left it alone. I decided to keep on my shorts and Docksiders and just trade my t-shirt for something less ratty.

...... When I looked in the mirror, I noticed that the paint smear on my forehead resembled an upside-cross. In yellow enamel.

* * * * *

...... Rick Panico was in Room 473. There were flowers everywhere. I could hardly see the bed.

...... “I'm in here,” he said.

...... The kid didn't look good. Granted, the last time I'd seen him, he'd just taken a bullet to the chest. But now his skin looked yellow, like the paint on my forehead. His eyes had dark, bruised circles beneath them. His lips were pale. Otherwise, a handsome kid. He'd make a fine parish priest someday because he'd fire up the imaginations of a dozen bored housewives. They'd be there every Sunday.

...... “I never got a chance to thank you,” Rick said.

...... “Yeah, I was pretty upset about that,” I said, then smiled.

...... “I read about you in the newspaper. I'll bet you have a lot of questions.”

...... I had questions for him? I'd thought the kid had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I played along. “I do, but none as important as finding out who shot you.” But he surprised me again.

...... “That's easy,” Rick said.

...... “Yeah?”

...... “Look for Billy Corey, Teddy Creed and Ray Halek. They're the ones who do Satan worship in the park.”

...... Finally. Some names to chase down. I needed a moment to memorize them. I never liked taking notes in a situation like this. It spooked people.

...... “You mind?” I asked, pointing at a chair next to his bed.

...... “Make yourself at home.”

...... I sat down and folded my hands. “How come you haven't told the police any of this?”

...... “Like it would do any fucking good.”

...... “Hey. You allowed to curse like that?”

...... “Go to a prayer retreat sometime. You'll hear as many f-bombs as Hail Marys.”

...... F-bombs? “Fair enough. But c'mon. You got something against cops?”

...... “My sister's been missing for five days and the police haven't done a thing. That's why we were out in the park on Good Friday. We were looking for her.”

...... Now this is where you'd expect a nurse to show up, and ratchet up the suspense by changing an IV bag or something. Make the suspended cop squirm in his uncomfortable vinyl hospital chair.

...... I wasn't that lucky. I heard it all.

...... Rick's darling 16-year-old sister Angela was a church-going honor student. Said her prayers every night, brushed her teeth three times a day. But Rick said that Angela had a dark side. She'd been spending a lot of time with her boyfriend, Rod Halek, and he was hanging out with two punks named Billy Corey and Teddy Creed. The bad boys of Father Judge High School for Boys.

...... “They call themselves the Posers.”

...... “Yeah?”

...... “They claim to be demons posing as ordinary human beings.”

...... I thought about Jonesy's mother.

...... “You don't believe me.”

...... “No, go on, go on. These guys were into this black mass stuff? How do you know about it?”

...... “To a Satanist, nothing's more fun than fucking with a guy entering the priesthood. They made themselves known to me.”

...... “Didn't you warn your sister about these guys?”

...... “Do you have a sister?”

...... “Yeah.”

...... “She ever listen to a thing you said?”

...... “No,” I admitted.

...... Rick handed me a wallet-sized photo. She was a cute girl, even though her hair was little on the big, poofy side.

...... “Angela's been missing since Ash Wednesday. My parents think she ran away. They're into this tough love bullshit, so they're not going to go after her. They think she's doing to see the light and come running back home. Teach her the lesson of a lifetime.”

...... “But you don't agree?”

...... “Honestly? I think my sister is dead.”

...... It took me a second or two to see where this was going. Rick Panico didn't want me to find the guy who shot him. He wanted me to find his sister.

...... “It's not a cop anymore,” I said. “Not after what happened Good Friday.”

...... “I know. I read about it.”

...... “So what do you want from me?”

...... “I want to hire you.”

...... Freelance investigating is strictly prohibited by the Philadelphia Police Department, suspension or no suspension. And the very idea of becoming entangled in a case that was already the subject of an the Internal Affairs division was enough to destroy a career.

...... I told Rick this.

...... “So you won't help me,” he said.

...... “Yeah, I guess that's what I'm saying.” I looked around his room, and through the wire-mesh window in the room door.

...... Ah, fuck it.

...... “Say, you don't have $15 you can loan me, do you?”

...... He looked incredulous. “What?”

...... “Yeah, I'm light on cash, and hospital parking isn't cheap.”

...... “My mom said it was something like a buck….Are you saying--?”

...... I hoped the seminary was going to teach this kid a thing or two, otherwise nobody was going to make a beeline to his confessional.

...... “I'm not saying anything except I need to borrow $15. You got it, or what?”

...... Rick twisted his body -- which clearly hurt -- and opened the nightstand next to his bed. He grit his teeth and came back with some cash in his hand.

...... “TV money,” he explained. “You have to pay per day in this place. But I don't watch much TV.”

...... “Whatever,” I said and took the cash. “Wait. You gave me too much.” I handed him back a ten.

...... “Consider it an advance.”

...... “I don't know what the fuck you're talking about.”

...... “Will you be back tomorrow to borrow some more money?”

...... Mother of Jesus, maybe there was some hope for the kid after all.

...... “I just needed some parking money, and you're busting my balls. Look, I might stop by tomorrow to check up, just because I'm wracked with remorse. And yeah, I might bring your friend. The one who was with you in the park that night. What's his name?”

...... “Kevin.”

...... “Kevin got a last name?”

...... “Sorry. It's Buckingham. Like the palace.”

...... “Okay. I know how a lot of you kids can't afford car insurance. He'll probably need a lift, right?”

...... The kid probably wondered why I'd only asked for $15. So did I, now that it was in my pocket. But the leftover cash would cover the cold case of Yuengling Lager I'd need if I was going to look for a dead girl in the woods behind my new house.

...... “Uh, Mr. MacNeil?”

...... “Yeah?”

...... “What do you think it's going to cost you to park tomorrow?”

...... I smiled. There was definitely hope for this one.

* * * * *

...... “Everything I tell you is confidential, right?”

...... The priest smirked. “This is hardly a promising way to start a pastor-parishioner relationship, Officer MacNeil.”

...... “I've got a lot of my mind, Father.”

...... Our Lady of Sorrows was a perfectly nice church, if you like to worship modern. It wasn't like St. Ann's back in the old nabe, which looked like it had been carved out of a single mountain-sized chunk of pink marble. In the event of nuclear war, I'd haul ass to St. Ann's.

...... My new church was a strip-mall church -- prefab, clean, plain. Get rid of the altar and you'd have a nice catering hall. Nothing up here in Holme Circle was more than fifty years old, so I guess I couldn't really blame the church. Still, it didn't feel quite right. I'd driven here right after seeing Rick Panico at the hospital.

...... The priest looked out of place in this church. He wasn't wearing the usual black suit with black shirt and roman collar. He looked like a monk, with a long tan robe. Hanging from his waist was a huge set of rosaries that looked like they could choke a rhino. On his feet were a pair of sandals. I never trusted men in sandals.

...... But since this was a priest, I guess I'd have to make an exception.

...... “I've read about the unfortunate events in the paper,” the priest said. “Richard is the pride of the parish. We're shocked.”

...... “I hear you,” I said.

...... “I'm Father Peter Moore.”

...... “Ah, sorry, father. Like I said…”

...... “… a lot on your mind, I know. Come on back. Let's get a drink in the kitchen. You look like you could use a beer. I know I could."

...... "Uh, sure." This was an unexpected surprise. I knew plenty of priests drank -- it was pretty much in the job description. You can't have money or women, what else you going to do?

...... After all, everybody needs a vice. I hear somebody brag about how they don't smoke, drink, look at porn, smoke pot, or gamble, I start to wonder about them. Wonder about what they're hiding.

...... "I had to trinate this morning.”

...... “Say what?”

...... “Trinate. Means to do three masses. Usually, I just binate.”

...... “Two masses?”

...... “You're a quick study.”

...... “Ever quad-nate?”

...... “No. And before you ask, I can't fornicate, either.”

* * * * *......

......The kitchen in the rectory was like the church: straight out of the 1950s, nothing to get excited about, but at least Father Moore had good taste in beer. He pulled out a couple of Amstel Lights, the only light beer I'll look at. He cracked off the tops with a rusty metal church key -- at that moment, I finally understood why they called it that -- hanging on a kitchen cabinet handle by a piece of twine.

...... “Much appreciated, Father.”

...... “You can forget the Catholic school stuff, Officer MacNeil. Call me Peter.”

...... “And it's John to my friends.”

...... We sat there and sipped out beer, sizing each other up. Father Moore was annoyingly clean-cut, ruddy-cheeked, and bright eyed -- probably the same as when he'd entered the seminary 25 years ago.

...... “Before we get too cozy here, John,” he said, “I've got something to confess. I'm not exactly enamored of your law enforcement techniques.”

...... “Ever try to subdue three teenagers with a six-pack of beer?”

...... “You'll pardon me if I don't laugh.”

...... “Sorry, Father.”

...... “Peter, please. Look, I'm not trying to start out on the wrong foot, but I want to make myself very, very clear. Those were troubled boys you encountered. I can't help but think if you had simply called for help, Rick wouldn't be in the hospital.”

...... Okay, he had me there. I should have known better.

...... “But about those boys, Father....”

...... “Yes?”

...... “I understand they knew Rick's sister Angela. And that's something I can't wrap my brain around.”

...... This didn't make him happy. His brow creased.

...... “Boys? The police have the names of the perpetrators?”

...... “No,” I said, “But I do.” I recited them from memory: “Billy Corey. Teddy Creed. Rod Halek. Do you know them?”

...... Father Moore was definitely not happy. He drained the rest of his Amstel and stood from the kitchen table. He rinsed out the bottle and carefully placed the empty on the counter, where it joined three others. Too carefully.

...... My theory was, you had somebody pissed, you should just go for it. Because at this point, they're coming up with bullshit anyway. Might as well pile it on.

...... “You think there's a connection between these boys and Angela's disappearance?”

...... Father Moore sat again and folded his hands in a way that meant I was going to hear a bit of a sermon.

...... “You're new here in this parish, John, but here's something you may not know. I'm new here, too. So are my assistant pastors, Father Martin and Father Kutch. We came here to help this church heal. Sadly, our two predecessors were involved in activities not befitting the cloth.”

...... “What activities?” I hadn't heard about any of this. I was a cop from Kensington. Church scandals of the Great Northeast hadn't concerned me. Until now.

...... “There's no point in revisiting the past when there is much work to be done in the present.”

...... “That's the kind of answer cops hate.”

...... “My advice to you,” he continued, “and this is coming from new pastor to a new parishioner, is to forget about punishing these boys. I'm not saying ignore what happened. Do what you can. Talk to your colleagues about increasing patrols in the park. I can't tell you how horrified I am to know these sort of, of ceremonies take place in the shadow of the church.”

...... “Oh, it's horrifying all right. You don't have any pets, do you?”

...... "Do you wish to make your confession before you leave?”

...... “Maybe next time,” I said. “I was going to stop for a case of beer after this, and now you've got me hankering for Amstel. Too bad I've got to make every buck count. You ever try Yuengling?”

...... “No,” Father Moore said. "Is that all?"

...... “You never answered my question about confidentiality, Father.”

...... “Oh, did we discuss something confidential?”

* * * * *

...... As I drove away from Our Lady of Sorrows, I did a quick tally. I was rapidly making enemies on both sides of the Great Beyond: parish priests and teenaged Satanists. That was me. Always playing the middle.

...... I'd gone to Father Moore thinking that I could ask a few background questions about Angela Panico and not have it get back to anybody. But it looked like that was out the window. Who knows? Father Moore might have dialed Internal Affairs the minute I was out the door.

...... At any rate, I figured I'd earned my $15. I pulled into the first beer store I found, over on Holme Avenue. It was a real hot box of a shop. They had a cold case freezer, but no cold Yuengling, which sucked. By the time I got my case home and had it chilled, it'd be late evening. I was in the mood to take the rest of the afternoon off with some light painting and beer-drinking. I bit the bullet and bought a case of Rolling Rock bottles, the only decent beer I could get with $14.

...... Jonesy and the boy were gone when I got home. Her mother had probably picked them up and taken them to the nearest custody lawyer.

...... “Just try it on for size,” she'd say.

...... I had no doubt Mrs. Jones' fondest dream was for me to take a bullet so Jonesy and the boy would have to move in with her. And the first order of business would be changing John Jr.'s last name, even though he was already two.

...... “You're not even married,” she'd say.

...... Never mind that it was Jonesy holding out on marriage, not me.

...... I put the beer in the fridge, which by then had been stocked with food courtesy my mother-in-law. I didn't want any of it, though. I wondered if Burkhardt was planning on grilling anything for dinner.

...... I twisted a Rock and took it upstairs to see how much more painting I had to do before calling it quits for the day.

...... Someone had done the job for me.

...... Someone with red paint.

...... Someone who had killed a puppy and used its blood to paint obscenities and upside-down crosses on the walls and ceiling.

...... I know he used a puppy, because its body was still there on the carpet...

Copyright (c) 2006 by Duane Swierczynski.

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