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Philadelphia homicide detective Matt Payne struggles to dismantle an increasingly violent operation involving Russian sex slaves and kidnapped foster teens.
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W. E. B. Griffin is the author of six bestselling series: The Corps, Brotherhood of War, Badge of Honor, Men at War, Honor Bound, and Presidential Agent.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Society Hill, Philadelphia
Saturday, November 15, 10:29 P.M.
“Stop yelling, Krystal, and listen very carefully to me,” Maggie McCain ordered evenly, hoping her tone did not betray her deep fear. “He can track you with your cell phone. Turn it off. Then take out the battery if you can.”
Maggie, at the wheel of her eight-year-old Toyota Land Cruiser, was twenty-five years old and, standing five-six and weighing one-thirty, slender and fit. She had pale skin, intense green eyes set in a pleasant face, and shoulder-length chestnut brown hair that she mostly wore up, as now, brushed smooth against her scalp and tied in a tight, neat ponytail. She had on elegant dark woolen slacks and a heavily woven black sweater.
Her work cell phone in hand, Maggie heard her personal phone begin ringing in her purse. When she quickly dug it out and saw that the caller ID read MOTHER, she pushed a key to silence the ring, then let the call roll into voice mail.
Oh, damn it, Krystal! she thought, as she heard Krystal starting to cry.
And damn this traffic!
A sea of glowing red brake lights reflected on the rain-slick Center City street. It was a cold, dreary night, the rain occasionally mixing with wisps of snow. She stared out past the swishing windshield wipers, anxiously awaiting the signal light to turn green.
“Did you hear what I said?” Maggie went on. “Use my house phone to call me back. But first make sure all the doors are locked and stay away from the windows. Try to be calm. I’m just minutes away.”
The image of a desperate Krystal Angel Gonzalez—a curvy five-foot-one, nineteen-year-old Puerto Rican—frantically pacing the stylish living room of Maggie’s Society Hill town house flashed in her mind.
That was exactly what Krystal had done two days earlier, when she banged on Maggie’s door at four in the morning. Then she dropped onto the leather couch and lay on her side. Under crossed arms, she tugged her knees tightly against her chest and, off and on, sobbed uncontrollably for hours.
Krystal had finally escaped from Ricardo, the twenty-seven-year-old Fishtown strip club manager she briefly had been calling her boyfriend. But at a brutal cost. Her short dark hair was matted with dried blood, her face bruised and swollen. Raw welts had formed on the back of her thighs where he had whipped her with a pair of wire coat hangers folded together.
She promised me she’d never go back to him, Maggie thought, watching the traffic light finally cycle to green. I warned her over and over that he really didn’t love her.
“Please hurry!” Krystal said hysterically. “Ricky said the beating was nothing like what he’d do if I told! He’d make me disappear, like Lizzi and Brandi. Then . . . he tore my clothes off and . . . and . . .”
Krystal Gonzalez’s quivering voice trailed off.
And you did tell, Maggie thought, shaking her head.
Oh my God . . .
“I’m almost home,” Maggie said, and then, raising her voice to be heard over Krystal’s sobs, added, “Now turn off your phone!”
Maggie broke off the call. She stuffed the phone in her pocket as her silver SUV rolled up to the intersection. She hung a fast right, pressing harder on the accelerator as she followed Pine Street toward Society Hill.
As a rule, and Maggie devoutly believed in rules—“A place for everything and everything in its place,” she often said—she did not like talking on the phone while driving. She also did not like speeding. And she really did not like breaking her own rule of anyone connected with Mary’s House being prohibited from coming to her residence.
But seeing Krystal throwing away what might be her last chance to get her life straight . . . I just can’t stand that.
We were accomplishing so much.
And now this . . .
Mary’s House, in nearby South Philadelphia, served as a temporary residence for young children and teenagers waiting to be placed in foster homes by the city’s Department of Human Services. The facility actually was composed of two four-bedroom row houses sharing a common wall. With no signage announcing its existence, Mary’s House looked no different from the neighboring well-kept duplexes that lined the street across from Girard Park.
The charity was one of the many ministries of the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the century-old Roman Catholic parish on Philadelphia’s affluent Main Line, where Maggie McCain’s family had worshipped since before her birth.
At Mary’s House, Maggie, with a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania, wore many hats. Her biggest was that of chief administrator. She dealt with the detailed—and often obscure—requirements of the Department of Human Services while overseeing the two other social workers who day to day kept up with the twenty-plus female residents ranging in age from five to seventeen.
If allowed—especially as compassion for the kids’ lot in life chipped away at any wall of professional detachment—it quickly could become an all-consuming job.
Maggie knew the City of Philadelphia had its challenges—perhaps more than its fair share in terms of struggling families. It was the fifth-largest city in the United States, with one in four of its 1.5 million residents living in poverty, a third of them under age eighteen.
And the tragic result of that meant an annual caseload of some twenty thousand—from infants to teenagers—moving through the overburdened bureaucracy that was the city’s Department of Human Services.
DHS’s role, with hundreds of millions in annual funds, was to protect the abused and neglected. This meant investigating and overseeing broken families—and, when necessary, immediately removing children from a potentially dangerous environment. Thus, at any given time thousands found themselves in temporary care while DHS evaluated if it was safe for them to be returned to their family—or placed with a foster family.
And Mary’s House was but one small charity among dozens in Philly providing help—temporary shelter that included food, clothing, health care, and more—until permanent foster care, or adoption, could be secured.
The thick, well-worn file labeled “Gonzalez, Krystal Angel” had been among the first cases that Maggie McCain had reviewed after arriving at Mary’s House.
That had been two years earlier, when Krystal had just turned seventeen. It had taken Maggie nearly half a year to earn the confidence of Krystal, who since age ten had suffered the revolving doors of various homes. The last time at Mary’s House had been her third to live there.
What Maggie found in her file was, while without question horrific, sadly common.
“DHS, after notification by an anonymous source, confirmed through the various utility service providers that the address of the Brewerytown row house where the mother and her five (5) children lived did not have gas, water, or electricity. On-site inspection by caseworkers found that there was trash littering every room, as well as evidence of rodents and human feces. Said conditions—‘clear and convincing evidence of parental inadequacy’—thus meet the Pennsylvania standard for terminating parental rights.”
The file further stated that the anonymous source alleged that the mother and her new boyfriend were selling crack cocaine—when they were not using it.
With a court order, and backed by two Philadelphia Police officers, DHS caseworkers came and took the children away.
Krystal—at ten the youngest sibling—and her four sisters were placed in Mary’s House and from there into their first foster home. All against the objections of their maternal aunt, who wanted them in her Kensington home with her three children.
Relatives wanting five more mouths to feed? Maggie had thought incredulously, reading the file. Or just five more checks from DHS?
These situations are so desperate . . . no matter how much money gets thrown at the problem.
After two years, a DHS caseworker discovered evidence of abuse of the oldest Gonzalez sibling by the foster parents—and suspected there was more—and the girls returned to the safety of Mary’s House.
It would be a brief stay.
The aunt lobbied DHS to the point that she finally won court-approved custody of them. The file notes stated that all was more or less okay for the following three years—until the driver of a stolen car hit the aunt in a Kensington crosswalk, killing her. DHS, due to limited space, then split up the six cousins—the eldest two, almost eighteen, had run away and not been heard from since—between three temporary homes.
Krystal, who’d just turned fifteen, wound up back at Mary’s House with no real hope of ever living again with her sisters and cousins.
Caseworkers, as much as they wished to oversee each and every child without fail, knew that the system, frustratingly flawed, was anything but perfect—and that there were those who invariably fell through holes in the safety net that was DHS. The younger kids, particularly infants, understandably commanded the majority of attention. At high risk were the teenagers, who constantly tested the patience of caseworkers. They would talk back, lie, and sneak out at night, violating Philadelphia’s curfew. Alcohol and drug use, particularly among those who’d been abused, wasn’t at all uncommon.
Maggie McCain herself had added ample notes in Krystal’s file, most often in connection with the twins Lizzi and Brandi.
Krystal had met the attractive, blonde sixteen-year-olds at a West Philadelphia facility serving DHS, where they’d lived for almost a year. Not church-affiliated, it was two miles from Mary’s House, and twice its size. The girls had found the rules there were fewer, or not strictly enforced, or both, and being opportunistic—if not cunning—teenagers they took advantage of that.
A year after befriending Krystal, Lizzi and Brandi had introduced her to an older girl, all of twenty-one, who impressed them with the money she said she earned serving cocktails at a couple of Philly nightclubs.
Krystal had been so awed that she’d dropped her guard and gushed to Maggie McCain: “She has the latest everything—her hair, her nails, her clothes! And her own place! ‘Ya gotta use what ya got to get what ya want,’ is what she said. She’s going to help find Lizzi and Brandi jobs, and let them share her place until we can get our own.”
“We?” Maggie had blurted.
“I mean them. Lizzi and Brandi.”
But Maggie had understood exactly what she meant.
The girls had led tough lives, ones that most people could not—and, truth told, really did not want to—begin to try to comprehend. The closer the girls got to eighteen, the odds of them being adopted into any family, let alone a stable, loving one, were about as good as the chance they’d be taken bodily into heaven. And the promise of a new, exciting life on their own simply was too tempting.
Maggie at first couldn’t compose a reply.
“Use what you got to get what you want”?
That could not be any clearer. . . .
Then, even as she began saying the words, Maggie knew they were falling on deaf ears: “You girls must be very, very careful, Krystal. You have to understand that there’s a price, sometimes a very steep one. . . .”
Maggie McCain sped through the tree-lined cobblestone streets of Society Hill, a posh section of Center City overlooking the Delaware River that dated back to the 1700s.
The knot that had formed in the pit of her stomach at the mention of Lizzi and Brandi felt like it was getting worse.
If those poor girls aren’t dead, they probably wish they were, she thought.
And Krystal may have just missed the same fate.
She turned down a brick-paved alleyway, then thumbed the button of the garage door opener clipped to her sun visor. Approaching the back of her three-story town house—in the last year she’d spent a small fortune renovating the hundred-year-old structure—she saw that the wooden door of the garage was almost completely open. The interior was brightly lit.
Glancing up, she saw that there were no lights in the windows of the second and third floors.
Krystal didn’t call back on my house phone, she thought, nosing the Land Cruiser inside the neat, orderly garage. Maybe she went to bed?
Or she’s hiding in the dark . . . ?
Maggie put the SUV in park and turned it off. As she opened her driver’s door, she heard a heavy thump upstairs and what sounded like glass shattering and, a moment later, the rush of air.
Maggie jerked her head, struggling to hear as the garage door closed.
Maybe she fell? But what was—?
The smoke alarms suddenly went off with a steady, ear-piercing squeal.
She got out of the vehicle and ran up the staircase. Reaching the top, she grabbed the doorknob—and instinctively yanked back her hand when she felt the heat. She tugged her thick sweater cuff over her hand, then quickly grabbed and turned the knob.
The door opened onto the kitchen. When she pulled on it, flames flickered out of the crack. She slammed it shut.
What’s that smell? Gas?
She waited for a long moment, then tried again.
This time the flames were not quite as intense—and now she could see Krystal. She was lying on the kitchen’s hardwood floor. What looked like a beer bottle with a rag tied to it lay in a pool of blood beside her head. A second one was shattered on the marble countertop. The wooden cabinetry was burning rapidly.
The room reeked of gasoline.
“Oh my God!” she whimpered, her green eyes tearing.
I need to call nine-one-one!
No—I don’t. The alarm system does that.
She pulled her sweater over her head and ran to Krystal and knelt. Krystal’s face was coated in blood. Her eyes were glazed. Maggie touched her neck to feel for a pulse, found none, then grasped her shoulders and shook her.
There was no response.
When she had shaken her, her head had moved—and Maggie now noticed a small brass object, then a second one, in the blood pool. She immediately recognized them as spent bullet casings.
She looked back at Krystal—and now followed the trail of blood on her neck to the small round entrance wound the bullet had made behind her right earlobe.
You poor thing . . .
Maggie quickly looked around the kitchen, then down the hall that led to the front of the house. At the end, she could see that the front door was wide open.
Did she not lock the door?
Or did she let in whoever did this?
The flames on the cabinets suddenly grew stronger and hotter.
She ran back to the door to the garage, went through it, and slammed it shut. She slapped at the wall to the left of the door frame until her fingers found the control button that opened the garage door.
The light on the opener in the center of the ceiling came back on. The motor hummed as the big wooden door clunked upward.
She could hear the sound of sirens, faint but clear. They were coming from the direction of the firehouse not quite a half dozen blocks away at Sixth and South.
Maggie ran down the steps.
She pulled from the front passenger floorboard of the Land Cruiser a canvas sailing bag—i...
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Book Description Thorndike Press, 2013. Hardcover. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P111410459799
Book Description Thorndike Press, 2013. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M1410459799