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By Duane


83,000 words. Content advisory: Guns, graphic violence, language, torture, sexual language and situations, child rape

Child rapists all. Yesterday, they were secure, satisfied, smug, and below the radar of both Special Victims and Child Welfare. Today, they’re dead.

Each one executed professionally with three precision shots, one to send a message and the others to send death. There are no signs of forced entry or struggle, and no clues left behind other than a hand-lettered calling card that says, “Nemesis.” Even more mysteriously, the killer has gotten the victims to decrypt the child porn on their computers so there is no doubt about their guilt.

It has to be a highly trained mercenary, but that leaves the motive up in the air. It has to be someone the victims knew and trusted, but no two of them ever knew the same people. It has to be someone who can sneak in and out invisibly under the watchful eyes of stake-out crews.

If detectives Wickham and Starr are stymied by the lack of evidence and conflicting facts, they are even more stymied by how the perpetrator is able to locate child molesters that the police had never heard of, and to do it fast and efficiently, sometimes two or three a day. When Special Forces/S.W.A.T consultant Evelyn Sowolski suggests a shocking and terrifying possibility, no one suspects that even she falls far short of the truth.

And now they face competition. No longer is it just the police seeking the executioner; the surviving child molesters are starting to fight back, and their agents will use any method available.

May 17, 2012, 20:24

Homicide detective Angela Wickham flashed her badge at the officer stationed by the police tape stretched across the apartment door. She felt sorry for him, as he had been holding at bay a squad of the usual rubbernecks infesting the stairwell. She had arrived before her partner, still unhappy at being called out just as she had sat down for supper — one she had cooked herself — and since she was there she saw no reason to wait for him outside. Her motorcycle was parked under the watchful eyes of a department patrolman; Starr would see it and know she was already on the scene.

“What do we have?” she asked him. A rookie.

“Looks like a really, really pissed-off ex to me,” he replied.

“Have a name?”

“Sure, I’m….”

She rolled her eyes before he could get out another word, and apparently the man had sense enough to catch her meaning. She had once been a rookie, but it seemed 100 years ago.

“Oh, you mean the victim. It’s….”

He turned to a short older man standing behind him, a textbook character if ever there was one. His pointy nose, the way he had what was left of his hair slicked back, his prominent Adam’s apple, and the manner in which he was poised in anticipation of something juicy all together made him look like a vulture.

“Willard Cramden,” the wiry man said.

She was scribbling in her pad. “You’re the one who found him?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You the super?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Name? Yours, not mine.”

“Bob Perry.”

“Can you tell me what happened?”

He shuffled uncomfortably, like a third-grader on stage at his first school pageant. That didn’t mean anything. Half the public shuffled uncomfortably when asked questions, but that was much less a pain in the ass than those who thought they had all the answers.

“Well, Willard is … I mean was … the nicest guy you’d ever meet.”

“Mmm hmm.” How many times had she heard that claim in her investigations? “How did you come to discover the body?”

“Well….” He was still shuffling. “Like I said, he was a nice guy, but, you know….”

After a pause, she prompted, “I don’t know. Why don’t you tell me?”

“Well, he sure liked those slasher films, the ones where all the girls are running around half naked and screaming and end up getting cut into little pieces by some psycho? Seemed so unlike him, being so quiet and all. Anyway, there was always a lot of screaming from up here — I live just below, you know — when he had his TV on. But this time, it sounded like a man screaming, and usually it’s a girl screaming, you know, in those movies. I guess they think screaming girls make better movies than screaming men, and men don’t look so good in their panties. Anyway, I didn’t give it too much thought until I heard this big thud on the floor, then a smaller thud. Then it got real quiet, and I knew if it was a movie it wouldn’t be over yet.”

She released her sigh silently. When would witnesses learn to just answer the question and not editorialize on everything?

“When did you decide to check on him?”

“Oh, not long. It was just so quiet up here for so long, and it’s never quiet, maybe 15 or 20 minutes, so I wondered what was the occasion was. I mean, with all those movies he plays, it’s almost never quiet. It’s like that until he goes to bed, only it was too early for that. So I came up and pounded on the door. I knew he was home, but no one answered. Don’t know, thought maybe he was in the shower, but with these old pipes you can almost always tell when the water’s running. I know every time he flushed the toilet. So I got worried and let myself in. And there he was on the floor just like he is there, all shot up. That’s when I called 911.”

“Did you see anyone else?”

“Not a soul. Well, except for old lady Brentwood looking out her door like she knew something was up, but she’s so old she can hardly get up the stairs, and I’m sure she ain’t got no gun. Even if she did she probably couldn’t point it, and whoever shot up Cramden sure knew where he was pointing. Looks like three perfect bullseyes.”

“Did Cramden have any enemies that you know of? Ever hear any fighting from up here?”

He shrugged as he shook his head. “I can’t imagine how he’d have enemies. Like I said, he was the nicest guy you’d ever meet. He would carry Mrs. Brentwood’s groceries up for her all the time, seeing as she can’t do it herself. I don’t know what she’s gonna to do now.”

“You could carry them,” Wickham suggested.


“Never mind. Did he ever have visitors?”

“Now that you mention it, no. You’d think a nice guy like that would have lots of friends and all. You’d think he was a church deacon, but he never went to church. Just watched movies all day.”


“Nothing much. There used to be this girl that would be here sometimes. Figured she was his niece or something. But other than her, no.”

“Can you describe her?”

Perry looked off into a corner as if trying to remember. “Dark hair down to her shoulders. Pretty cute, I’d say.”

“How old?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know how to tell how old a kid is. Ain’t been one for 50 years and never had none myself. Never was that good with the ladies.” He positioned his hand at about chest height. “Maybe so tall.”

“Fat? Skinny?”

“Just about right, I’d say.”

Wickham wondered exactly what he meant by “right,” but all she was interested in at the moment was a rough physical description. There could be a photo somewhere in the apartment.

“White? Black?”

“Oh, white. Definitely. She had these freckles. I thought only redheads had freckles like that.”

“Did you hear gunfire when this happened?”

Perry chucked. “Ma’am you hear gunfire in this neighborhood all the time.”

She knew that. She’d been called into that neighborhood just around the corner two nights earlier. But in most cases, they had a suspect in custody before midnight.

Perry was still talking. “It’s usually some of those drug gangs. But no, didn’t hear any tonight.”

She knew neighborhoods like those all too well. She had spent 10 years of her life struggling her way out of the ghetto, and the next 10 getting what she could of the ghetto out of her. It was a time of her life she would rather not remember, but one that her profession kept bringing her back to. Nice neighborhoods weren’t immune, but poverty and violence had always been bed partners.

She looked to the audience of scandalmongers, most of them swarming the staircase up to the next floor.

“All these people live here?”

Perry scanned them over a couple of times. “Yeah. Don’t know all the names if they’re not on the lease, but I recognize all the faces.”

Angela nodded. “OK, that’s all I have right now. Hang around. We might have more questions later.”


She had meant for him to stay in the building, but he stood where he was, craning his neck like a real crane to get another peek inside. She went to scratch her head, and was reminded that for the first time since she had been a little girl, she had tried cornrows. They were proving to be unsuitable for proper head scratching.

She stooped beneath the tape across the doorway and drew in a breath. The sight that awaited her was the exact one that had haunted her on the ride to the scene. Why had she expected this? Was it some deep down precognitive ability that she hadn’t known or some subconscious ruminations? The victim had been a not-too-bad-looking man, dressed in a fluffy tan bathrobe. But it was the where the blood was pooling that meant something to her: his crotch, his chest, and beneath his head, soaking into the cheap grey apartment carpet.

“Damn!” she muttered to herself.

It was just like the one last week, down to the crisp calling card laying on his chest, hand-lettered with the word Nemesis in impeccable calligraphy using ink that looked for all the world like blood. The perp could have filled a fountain pen with what had already saturated the carpet. She glanced around the floor. No spent cartridges. No sign of a struggle or forced entry. She was willing to bet there was kiddie porn on his computer.

“What’s up, Angie?”

She turned to face the newcomer. “Something strange in Philly, Breck.”

Breck Starr. Her partner. She had always thought his name was cool, one that should belong to some TV cop, not a real one hanging around Philadelphia crime scenes. After all, he looked like Pierce Brosnan did when he played on Remington Steele. The two of them seemed to complement each other well; where she was edgy and intense, he was mellow and calm. She envied him that sometimes. Homicide didn’t lend itself well to calmness.

“Got some notes from the super,” she added, “but we’ll still need to question the other neighbors. He said he was the nicest guy in the world. They always are.”

“Is that card written in blood?” Breck’s nose wrinkled like a child’s.

Right behind him was the CSU, the nature of the case calling in Rand Butler himself and his team of men and women with their little cases.

Rand took one look at the corpse. “Shot in the dick. Chalk this one up to another jilted lover?”

“Could be,” Starr replied, “but my gut tells me otherwise. Just like the one we had last week. Three execution-style murders in less than two weeks, and two of them on our watch. It was Leadingham that investigated the last one. I’ll bet you a week’s salary that you don’t find any prints or DNA. And no shells.”

Butler grunted. “You’re on. But I think I have the better odds. I believe you make more than I do.”

“And check for kiddie porn on his computer, if he has one,” Angela added.

“You don’t need to check,” one of the officers chimed in. “It’s right there on the screen. In his bedroom. I can see it from here.”

Angela shot a glance at her partner and together they made a wide circle around the victim, hurried down the hallway, and edged into the bedroom, careful, as always, to touch nothing. The large 30-inch flat-panel monitor immediately confirmed her suspicions. Two naked bodies. One belonged to the victim, the other to a little dark-haired girl, nine or ten. Freckles. Cute.

“That’s him,” she stated the obvious, “doing a little girl. Crap! How can anyone do something like that, photograph it, and then leave the evidence right on his computer screen? Leadingham’s case had exactly the same thing. I’ll bet you pizza this is the girl the super mentioned.”

“I already have a bet going. I don’t think Cramden’s too worried about the evidence right now,” Starr commented, “even though he was unusually accommodating in this case. It normally takes computer forensics a while to find kiddie porn, if they can find it at all.”

“Rand!” She called as they returned to the living room. “Kiddie porn on the computer, with the victim on stage. When you have the evidence stabilized, get the best facial shots of that girl you can so we can try to ID her.”

Then to Breck, she mumbled under her breath. “This is getting too much like Special Victims. You know how much I hate messing with that stuff. There’s a reason I stay in Homicide no matter how they try to lure me over.”

“I’m sure they’ll keep trying. You’re a good cop. I hope they keep failing.”

She waited until the CSU was done with the keyboard, then since Rand had either forgotten, which wasn’t likely, or just hadn’t gotten a computer tech as fast as she wanted, which was more likely, hunted around for a non-naked picture of the girl, and printed it on the convenient photo printer. On the way out she showed it to Perry. “Is this the girl you were telling me about?”

He squinted, then his eyes widened in recognition. “Yeah! That’s her!”

“Thanks,” she responded, though though her thoughts were more along the lines of, That’s what I was afraid of.

Instead, she handed him her card. “If you think of anything else, anything that’s even a little bit strange about Cramden, give me call.”

“Strange like how?”

“Strange like you’ll know it when you see it.”

“Sure thing, Ma’am.”

“Anything!” she emphasized anew. This guy would need kindergarten wording. “Anything that doesn’t add up no matter how silly it sounds.”

Starr’s phone rang with its version of “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” played on chimes; he slipped it from its holster.

“Breck Starr. Yeah.” He flashed Angela a puzzled look. “Yeah. Are you fucking kidding me? Yeah. God! OK. Thanks for the heads up.”

It took a lot to get Breck to pop out the “F” word.

“Personal?” Angela asked.

“I wish, but no. That was Ace putting in some late hours. Another one of these down in Drexel Hill. Same MO, except that one was shot in the throat instead of the heart. Same “Nemesis” card, and pretty much no evidence left there, either.”

“That’s not our turf,” Angela replied, coldly. The child molestation angle of these murders, and their consistency, chilled her to the core, a dark, evil omen that promised only sulfurous fumes and rotten bones.

“No, but you know we’ll be comparing notes. These can’t be isolated.”

She was still trying to shake off the frisson. “It’s going to be a long. long night.”


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