He is Moon, and he believes in magic.
Not the magic of trapdoors, and false bottoms, and sleights of hand. Not the magic that comes in the form of a pill or a potion. But rather the magic that can grow a beanstalk to the sky, or spin straw into gold, or turn a pumpkin into a carriage.
Moon believes in the pretty girl who loves to dance.
He had watched her for a long time. She is in her twenties, slender, above average in height, possessed of great refinement. Moon knows she lived for the moment, but for all that she was, for all she was going to be, she still seemed quite sad. Yet he is certain she understood, as does he, that there is an enchantment that lives within all things, an elegance unseen and unappreciated by the passing pageant--the curve of an orchid's petal, the symmetry of a butterfly's wings, the breathtaking geometry of the heavens.
A day earlier he had stood in shadows, across the street from the Laundromat, watching as she loaded clothes into the dryer, marveling at the graceful way she encountered the earth. The night was clear, terribly cold, the sky a seamless black fresco above the City of Brotherly Love.
He watched her step through the frosty glass doors, onto the sidewalk, her bag of laundry over her shoulder. She crossed the street, stood at the SEPTA stop, stamped her feet against the chill. She had never been more beautiful. When she turned to see him, she knew, and he was filled with magic.
Now, as Moon stands on the bank of the Schuylkill River, the magic fills him again.
He looks at the black water. Philadelphia is a city of two rivers, twin tributaries of the same heart. The Delaware River is muscular, broad of back, unyielding. The Schuylkill River is crafty and cunning and serpentine. It is the hidden river. It is his river.
Not unlike the city itself, Moon has many faces. Over the next two weeks he will keep this face unseen, as he must, just another dull daub on a gray winter canvas.
He gently places the dead girl on the bank of the Schuylkill, kisses her cold lips one last time. As beautiful as she is, she is not his princess. He will meet his princess soon.
Thus the tale is spun.
She is Karen. He is Moon.
And this is what the moon saw . . .
The city hadn't changed. He'd been away only a week, and hadn't expected miracles, but after more than two decades on the police force of one of the toughest cities in the nation, one could always hope. On the way into town he had seen two accidents and five arguments, along with a trio of fistfights outside three different taverns.
Ah, the holiday season in Philly, he thought. Warms the heart.
Detective Kevin Francis Byrne sat at the counter of the Crystal Diner, a small, clean coffee shop on Eighteenth Street. Since the Silk City Diner had closed, this had become his favorite late night haunt. The speakers offered "Silver Bells." The chalkboard overhead heralded the holiday message of the day. The multicolored lights on the street spoke of Christmas and joy and merriment and love. All well and good and fa-la-la-la-la. Right now Kevin Byrne needed food, a shower, and sleep. His tour started at 8 am.
And then there was Gretchen. After a week of looking at deer droppings and shivering squirrels, he needed to look at something beautiful.
Gretchen upended Byrne's cup, poured coffee. She may not have poured the best cup in town, but nobody ever looked better doing it. "Haven't seen you in a while," she said.
"Just got back," Byrne replied. "Took a week in the Poconos."
"Must be nice."
"It was," Byrne said. "Funny thing though, for the first three days I couldn't sleep. It was too damned quiet."
Gretchen shook her head. "You city boys."
"City boy? Me?" He caught a glimpse of himself in the night-blackened window--seven-day growth of beard, L.L.Bean jacket, flannel shirt, Timberland boots. "What are you talking about? I thought I looked like Jeremiah Johnson."
"You look like a city boy with a vacation beard," she said.
It was true. Byrne was born and bred a Two-Streeter. And he'd die one.
"I remember when my mama moved us here from Somerset," Gretchen added, her perfume maddeningly sexy, her lips a deep burgundy. Now in her mid-thirties, Gretchen Wilde's teenaged beauty had softened into something far more striking. "I couldn't sleep either. Way too noisy."
"How's Brittany?" Byrne asked.
Gretchen's daughter Brittany was fifteen, going on twenty-five. She had gotten busted a year earlier at a rave in West Philly, caught with enough Ecstasy to pull a charge of possession with intent. Gretchen had called Byrne that night, at wit's end, not really realizing the walls that existed between the divisions in the police department. Byrne had reached out to a detective who owed him a favor. The charge was reduced to simple possession by the time it got to municipal court, and Brittany had gotten community service.
"I think she's gonna be okay," Gretchen said. "Her grades are up, she's getting home at a respectable hour. At least on weeknights."
Gretchen had been married and divorced twice. Both of her exes were drug-addled, violent losers. But somehow, against the odds, Gretchen had managed to keep her head up through it all. There was no individual on earth Kevin Byrne admired more than the single mother. It was, hands down, the hardest job in the world.
"And how's Colleen?" Gretchen asked.
Byrne's daughter Colleen was the lighthouse at the end of his soul. "She's amazing," he said. "Absolutely amazing. A brand-new world every day."
Gretchen smiled. They were two parents who, for the moment, had no worries. Give it another minute. Everything could change.
"I've been eating cold sandwiches for a week," Byrne said. "And lousy cold sandwiches at that. What do you have that's warm and sweet?"
"Present company excluded?"
She laughed. "I'll see what we've got."
She sashayed into the back room. Byrne watched. In her tight pink tricot uniform, it was impossible not to.
It was good to be back. The country was for other people: country people. The closer he got to retirement, the more he thought about leaving the city. But where would he go? The past week had all but ruled out the mountains. Florida? He wasn't big on hurricanes either. The southwest? Didn't they have Gila monsters there? He'd have to give this more thought.
Byrne glanced at his watch, a huge chronograph with a thousand dials. It seemed to do everything but tell the time. It had been a present from Victoria.
He had known Victoria Lindstrom for more than fifteen years, ever since they'd met during a vice raid at a massage parlor where she had been working. At the time she was a confused and stunningly beautiful seventeen-year-old, not long from her home in Meadville, Pennsylvania. She had continued in the life until one day a man attacked her, viciously cutting her face with a box cutter. She had endured a number of painful surgeries to repair the muscles and tissue. No surgeries could repair the damage inside.
They had recently found each other again. This time with no expectations.
Victoria was spending time with her ailing mother in Meadville. Byrne had been meaning to call. He missed her.
Byrne glanced around the restaurant. There were only a handful of other diners. A middle-aged couple in a booth. A pair of college girls sitting together, both on cell phones. A man at the booth nearest the door, reading a newspaper.
Byrne stirred his coffee. He was ready to get back to work. He had never been one to flourish in the down times between jobs, or on those rare occasions when he took his vacation time. He wondered what new cases had come into the unit, what progress had been made in ongoing investigations, what arrests, if any, had been made. The truth was, he'd thought about these things the entire time he'd been away. It was one of the reasons he hadn't brought his cell phone with him. He would have been on the horn to the unit twice a day.
The older he got, the more he came to terms with the fact that we are all here for a very short time. If he'd made even the slightest difference as a police officer, then it was worth it. He sipped his coffee, content with his dime-store philosophies. For the moment.
Then it hit him. His heart picked up a beat. His right hand involuntarily formed a pistol grip. That was never good news.
He knew the man sitting by the door, a man named Anton Krotz. A few years older than the last time Byrne had seen him, a few pounds heavier, a little more muscular, but there was no doubt it was Krotz. Byrne recognized the elaborate scarab tattoo on the man's right hand. He recognized the mad-dog eyes.
Anton Krotz was a cold-blooded killer. His first documented murder had come as a result of a botched robbery at a variety store in South Philly. He had shot the cashier point-blank for thirty-seven dollars. They had brought him in for questioning on that case, but had to let him go. Two days later he robbed a jewelry store in Center City and shot the man and woman who owned the store--execution style. It was caught on video. A massive manhunt nearly shut down the city that day, but somehow Krotz slipped through.
As Gretchen made her way back with a full Dutch apple pie, Byrne slowly reached over to his duffel on the adjoining stool, casually unzipped it, watching Krotz out of the corner of his eye. Byrne eased his weapon out, slipped it onto his lap. He had no two-way radio, no cell phone. For the moment, he was on his own. And you didn't want to take down a man like Anton Krotz on your own.
"You have a phone in the back?" Byrne asked Gretchen softly.
Gretchen stopped slicing the pie. "Sure, there's one in the office."
Byrne grabbed her pen, wrote a note on her check pad: Call 911. Tell them I need assistance at this address. Suspect is Anton Krotz. Send SWAT. Back entrance. After you read this, laugh.
Gretchen read the note, laughed. "Good one," she said.
"I knew you'd like it."
She looked into Byrne's eyes. "I forgot the whipped cream," she said, loud enough, no louder. "Hang on."
Gretchen walked away, betraying no urgency in her stride. Byrne sipped his coffee. Krotz had not moved. Byrne wasn't sure if the man had made him or not. Byrne had interrogated Krotz for more than four hours the day they'd brought him in, trading a lot of venom with the man. It had even gotten physical. Neither party tended to forget the other after something like that.
Whatever, there was no way Byrne could let Krotz out that door. If Krotz left the restaurant he would disappear again, and they might never get another shot at him.
Thirty seconds later, Byrne looked to his right, saw Gretchen in the pass-through to the kitchen. Her look said she had made the call. Byrne grabbed his weapon and eased it down, and to his right, away from Krotz.
At that moment, one of the college girls shrieked. At first Byrne thought it was a cry of distress. He spun on his stool, looked over. The girl was still on her cell phone, reacting to some unbelievable college-girl news. When Byrne glanced back around, Krotz was out of his booth.
He had a hostage.
The hostage was the woman from the booth behind Krotz's booth. Krotz stood behind her, one arm around her waist. He held a six-inch knife to her neck. The woman was petite, pretty, perhaps forty. She wore a navy sweater, jeans, suede boots. She wore a wedding band. Her face was a mask of terror.
The man with whom she had been sitting was still in the booth, paralyzed with fear. Somewhere in the diner a glass or a cup crashed to the floor.
Time slowed as Byrne slid off his stool, weapon drawn and raised.
"Good to see you again, Detective," Krotz said to Byrne. "You look different. Going mountain on us?"
Krotz's eyes were glassy. Meth, Byrne thought. He recalled that Krotz was a user.
"Just take it easy, Anton," Byrne said.
"Matt!" the woman screamed.
Krotz angled the knife closer to the woman's jugular. "Shut the fuck up."
Krotz and the woman began to edge toward the door. Byrne noticed the sweat beading on Krotz's forehead.
"There's no reason for anyone to get hurt today," Byrne said. "Just be cool."
"No one's gonna get hurt?"
"Then why are you pointing that gun at me, hoss?"
"You know the drill, Anton."
Krotz looked over his shoulder, then back at Byrne. The moment drew out. "Gonna shoot a cute little citizen in front of the whole city?" He fondled the woman's breasts. "I don't think so."
Byrne turned his head. A handful of horrified people were now looking in the front window of the diner. They were horrified, but not too terrified to leave, apparently. Somehow they had stumbled onto reality TV. Two of them were on cell phones. This would soon become a bona fide media event.
Byrne squared himself in front of the suspect and the hostage. He did not lower his weapon. "Talk to me, Anton. What do you want to do?"
"What, like, when I grow up?" Krotz laughed, high and loud. His gray teeth were shiny, black at the roots. The woman began to sob.
"I mean, what would you like to happen right now?" Byrne asked.
"I want to walk out of here."
"But you know that can't happen."
Krotz tightened his grip on the woman. Byrne saw the keen edge of the knife writing a thin red line on the woman's skin.
"I'm not seeing your bargaining chip, Detective," Krotz said. "I'm thinking I have control of this situation."
"There's no question about that, Anton."
"What? Say what?"
"Say 'You are in control, sir.'"
The words were bilious in Byrne's throat, but he had no choice. "You are in control, sir."
"Sucks to grovel, doesn't it?" Krotz said. Another few inches toward the door. "Been doing it my whole fucking life."
"Well, we can talk about that later," Byrne said. "Right now we have a state of affairs, don't we?"
"Oh, we most definitely have a state of affairs."
"So let's see if we can't find a way to end it so no one gets hurt. Work with me, Anton."
Krotz was six feet or so from the door. Though he was not a big man, he was a head taller than the woman. Byrne had a clear shot. His finger caressed the trigger. He could take Krotz out. One round, dead center to the forehead, brains on the wall. It would break every rule of engagement, every departmental regulation, but the woman with the knife at her throat probably wouldn't mind. And that's all that really mattered.
Excerpted from Merciless by Richard Montanari. Copyright © 2008 by Richard Montanari. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.