7522 Battersby Street, Philadelphia
Wednesday, September 9, 1:55 A.M.
Tony Harris returned to his bed, silently cursing himself for not having hit the john before he’d crawled under the sheets two hours earlier. Harris—a thirtyeight- year-old homicide detective in the Philadelphia Police Department who was slight of build and starting to bald—then clicked off the lamp on his bedside table. As he put his head on his pillow and sighed, wondering when—or even if—he’d start to drift off back to sleep, a monstrous BOOM shook the house. It reverberated through the darkened room, knocking loose a picture frame from the wall, its glass breaking when it hit the floor.
“Holy shit!” he said aloud, sitting bolt upright and clicking on the lamp. He looked toward the front window.
What in hell was that?
Did a damn gas leak just blow up the middle school?
Austin Meehan Middle School was a half-block down the tree-lined residential street.
Harris quickly got out of bed, crossed the room, and pulled back the curtain to look out the window. On either side of Battersby, the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood had a series of nearly identical, neatly kept comfortable two-story brick duplexes with large lawns. The homes—some of which now with their lights flicking on—had stone façades on the front and garages in the rear, on a common alleyway. Because Harris’s garage served more as a storage unit than a car park, he left his city-issued Ford Crown Victoria sitting at the curb in front of his house.
It took Harris no time to locate the direction of the source: In the sky some blocks to the east, he saw a bright glow that he recognized as that from an intense fire.
Maybe a gas station on Frankford went up? he wondered as he automatically started picking up his clothes from the chair where he’d tossed them at midnight. He quickly pulled on his wrinkled pants and short-sleeved knit shirt, then slipped on socks and shoes. He watched as the glow from the fire seemed to pulse even brighter, as if the fire were being fed more fuel. “Jesus!” he said aloud.
Harris double-checked that he had his wallet and badge and pistol, then ran down the stairs as fast as he dared and out the door.
He drove the Crown Vic up Battersby, turning right onto Ryan Avenue, then followed it the seven blocks to Frankford Avenue, where Harris could clearly see that the intense glow was to the south. He was about to make the turn when he heard the wail of sirens—and then the huge horns blaring—of two fire department emergency medical vehicles. The red-and-white ambulances flew up on the intersection, braked heavily as they lay steadily on their horns, then accelerated through it.
Harris checked for any other vehicles headed for the intersection. He saw that it was clear and turned to follow the ambulances.
As he went south on Frankford, the sky became a brighter orange-red mingled with black and gray smoke. And then, down on the left side of the street, he saw the first of the flames. They were coming from the back of the Philly Inn, an aging two-story motel that had been built long before Anthony J. Harris had been born at Saint Joseph’s Hospital.
He pulled into a parking lot to the north of the motel, to where he had a better view of all the activity. He also enjoyed more than a little of an olfactory assault from the awful smell filling the air and now entering the car via the dash vents.
That’s the smell of burning wood, for sure, and plastics. But I’d bet that’s also a bit of human flesh . . . you can damn near taste it.
Philadelphia Fire Department Engine 36, from the station just up Frankford, already was on the scene. It had hoses snaking everywhere and the firefighters were laying down an impressive amount of water. Other firemen were going door to door, methodically clearing the motel’s rooms and herding what people they found inside to a parking lot to the south. Doors that no one answered were busted open with twenty-eight-pound metal battering rams and the hammer-headed pry bars called Halligans.
The pair of ambulances that had flown past Harris at the intersection were parked close by, their paramedics pulling out equipment—first-aid kits, backboards—with a well-practiced efficiency. A minute or so later, Engine 38 came roaring in from its station a mile away on Old State Road—followed by an articulated ladder fire truck, which Harris thought a bit of overkill for a lowly two-story structure.
But, hell. Can’t blame them.
Everyone loves a little adrenaline rush, especially these guys getting to play with all their toys.
And this damn fire seems to offer plenty of excitement.
It’s got my pulse beating. No way I could go back to sleep now.
Harris noted that the Philadelphia Police Department was well represented, too. Cruisers practically surrounded the place. There was even a flatbed wrecker from the Tow Squad, which was being waved toward the back of the motel. Harris looked to where the wrecker was being routed and saw a half-dozen firefighters working feverishly at an SUV. It was on the backside of the motel, at a room with its door blown outward, where the flames appeared to be the hottest.
And where the blast took place.
The firemen were in the middle of a row of vehicles parked outside the motel rooms, and were inserting a heavy fire-resistant blanket in through the framework that once held the SUV’s front windshield.
The wrecker raced up to the back bumper of the SUV, and a heavy-linked stainless-steel chain was quickly slung from the SUV’s bumper to a tow hook bolted on the front frame of the wrecker.
The driver ground the gearshift into reverse and carefully took up the slack in the chain. At a firefighter’s rapid hand signals and shouts of “Go! Fuckin’ go, go, go!” the diesel engine then roared and the wrecker started tugging the SUV away from the fire.
The wrecker didn’t slow until it had slid the SUV practically in front of Harris’s Crown Vic, leaving a trail of black tire marks across the parking lot.
That’s one of those really fancy Mercedes-Benz SUVs.
What the hell is it doing here?
And how the hell is it connected to that explosion?
There’s absolutely no question it has to be. . . .
One of the emergency medical vehicles then pulled alongside the passenger side of the SUV. Floodlights mounted on the side of the unit were switched on, brightly illuminating the SUV. Two firefighters almost instantly appeared, carrying a heavy metal device with hydraulically powered pincers that Harris recognized as the Jaws of Life. The rescue tool proceeded to cut the right side of the Mercedes to pieces as other rescuers worked feverishly from inside the left-side doors to stabilize whoever was unlucky enough to be in the vehicle. There suddenly was more shouting at the motel, and when Harris turned his attention to it he saw the impossible—a man on fire came staggering out of the motel room that had the blown-outward door.
One fireman rushed to the man. As he tackled him to smother the fire, a fire hose was trained on the both of them, instantly flooding the flames. Then the fireman stood and seemingly effortlessly slung the man over his shoulder. He ran with him&mdash