In the heart of Philadelphia’s badlands, Homicide Detectives Byrne and Balzano are called out to a particularly chilling crime scene. Once the pillar of the neighborhood, an abandoned church has become a killing room. At first it looks like a random act of violence. But then a second body is found, and a third. Each crime scene more disturbing than the last, each murder more brutal. And it soon becomes horrifyingly clear that a cold, calculating and terrifyingly precise mind is at work. With very few leads, and a mastermind who always seems to be one step ahead, Byrne and Balzano are faced with challenges they could never have imagined as they race against time to hunt down their killer, before it’s too late…
When she was a young girl, before the night embraced her with its great black wings, and blood became her sacramental wine, she was, in every way, a child of light. To those who knew her in those years she seemed a studious girl, quiet and polite, given to watching clouds for hours on end, oblivious, as only the very young can be, to the crushing poverty that surrounded her, the chains that had enslaved her kind for five generations.
She was six years old before she wore a pair of shoes she did not share. She was eight before she buttoned a dress someone had not stained before her.
For the longest time she lived inside the high stone walls of her mind, a place where there were no shadows, no demons.
In her thirteenth year, on a night when the candles fell cold and the moon was not to be found, she met the darkness for the first time. Not the darkness that follows day, descending upon the earth in a deep violet blush, but rather that which dwells within men, men who travel the hardpan roads, gathering to them the mad, the fallen, the corrupt of heart, their deeds the silt of backwater lore. On that night a seed was sown in her body, her spirit.
Now, these many years later, in this place of misery and wretchedness, in this house of seven churches, she knows she belongs.
There are no angels here.
The devil walks these streets. She knows him well – his face, his touch, his scent – because in her thirteenth year, when God turned his head, it was to the devil she was given.
She had watched the young man for more than a week, having first spotted him on Market Street near the Eleventh Street station, a gaunt figure etched on a granite wall. He was not an aggressive panhandler – indeed, his nearly skeletal body and spectral presence would not have presented much of a threat to anyone – but was instead a man reduced to mumbling incoherently to passersby, commuters rushing to and from the station. Twice he had been moved along by police officers, offering no resistance or response. His spirit, it seemed, had long ago been purloined by his addictions, the siren call of the streets.
On most nights, after the evening rush hour, he would walk Market Street toward the Delaware River, toward Old City, stopping those who looked like an easy mark, cadging the occasional handful of coins, grubbing the infrequent cigarette.
She always followed him at a safe distance. Like most of his breed he went unnoticed, except to those like him, or those who would use him. On those rare occasions when he found a homeless shelter with room, he would stay the night, but would always take up position outside the Eleventh Street station by 6:30 a.m., beginning his cycle of despair and degradation all over again.
Once she followed him into a convenience store on Third Street, and watched as he pocketed high-sugar foods – honey buns, Ding Dongs, TastyKakes – all with one yellowed eye on the convex mirrors at the end of the aisle. She watched him wolf down the food in a nearby alley, only to throw it all up moments later.
On this day, when temperatures are predicted to drop below zero, she knows it is time.
Bundled in four thin sweaters and a pea coat ripped at both shoulder seams, the young man stands shivering in a doorway on Eighth Street near Walnut.
She approaches him, stopping a few feet away, still mostly in shadow. He looks up. In his watery eyes she sees herself, and knows the spirit is stirring.
‘Spare change?’ he asks.
It is as if she can hear the bones clattering in his chest.
He is in his twenties, but the skin around his eyes is purplish and sallow, the stubble on his face already gray. His hair is greasy beneath his watch cap. His fingernails are bitten raw. Blisters bubble on the back of his hands.
She remains in shadow, holds out a gloved hand. At first the young man is skeptical, but when she steps into the light, and he sees her eyes for the first time, he knows. He takes her hand as a hungry man would accept a crust of bread.
‘Do you remember your promise?’ she asks.
He hesitates before answering. They always do. In this moment she can all but hear the wheels turning, the fevered reasoning in his mind. In the end they remember, because this is the one vow they all know will one day be recalled. A single tear rivers down his scalded cheek.
She glances down, notices a dark stain blossoming on the front of his trousers. He is wetting himself. She has seen this before, too. The release.
‘Come with me,’ she says. ‘I will show you what you need to do.’
The young man steps forward on unsteady legs. She helps him. He seems to possess no weight at all, as if he were sculpted of steam.
At the mouth of the alley she stops, turns the young man to face her fully. ‘He will need to hear your words. Your exact words.’
His lips begin to tremble. ‘Can’t I tell just you instead?’
‘No,’ she says. ‘Your contract was with him, not me.’
The young man wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. ‘Then he is real after all.’
‘Oh, my, yes.’ She points to the dark niche at the end of the alley. ‘Would you meet him now?
Excerpt from The Killing Room by Richard Montanari. Copyright © 2017 by Richard Montanari. Reproduced with permission from WitnessImpulse. All rights reserved.
Richard Montanari is the internationally bestselling author of numerous novels, including the nine titles in the Byrne & Balzano series.
He lives in Cleveland, Ohio.