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"Hey, hey, hey!" Kelly Robolo spun the wheel of her bright blue VW Beetle and blasted her horn as a SEPTA bus pulled from the curb and unceremoniously cut in front of her, forcing her to slam on her brakes.
Without so much as a glance in her direction, the driver pushed farther onto the congested avenue, bringing the Monday evening rush hour traffic on Philadelphia's busy Broad Street to a standstill. Incensed, Kelly hit her horn again. "Jerk!" she yelled, even though she knew the driver couldn't hear her. "I pay your salary, you know."
As the bus drove off and the light turned red, Kelly fell back against her seat and let out a sigh of frustration. She should have known better than to be caught in Center City in the middle of the rush hour. But as usual, Dr. Brady had run late and though she had considered rescheduling, she had changed her mind and patiently waited her turn. The sooner the doctor gave her a clean bill of health, the sooner she could go back to work. That he had ordered her to stay home for another two weeks had probably contributed to her foul mood.
With nothing else to do but wait for the light to change, Kelly loosened her grip on the steering wheel and began to relax. In spite of the noisy traffic jams, the rude SEPTA drivers and the aggravations Philadelphians were subjected to on a daily basis, Kelly loved this city. She loved its rich heritage, the unsinkable spirit of its people, the diversity of its neighborhoods. She even liked the weather, especially at this time of year when the skies were overcast and the air held a hint of snow.
For a while after her brush with death a few weeks ago, she had thought of leaving Philadelphia and starting fresh somewhere else-New York perhaps, or Chicago. Both had excellent newspapers and with her track record as a tough, thorough investigative reporter, finding a job wouldn't have been too difficult.
In the end she hadn't been able to do it. She had roots here, a mother, friends, and a job she loved, even if it had almost cost her her life.
The sudden feeling that she was being watched made her glance out her side window. A patrol car had pulled up alongside the VW. In the front seat, two uniform officers stared at her openly, their expression a mixture of scorn and resentment. Five weeks ago, they would have waved, for Kelly Robolo was a familiar sight at Police Headquarters. After thirteen years with the Philadelphia Globe, she had earned the respect, and even the admiration, of some of Philadelphia's toughest cops.
All that had changed.
As the light turned green again, the squad car didn't drive off, but swung behind the VW. They were tailing her, she realized, probably waiting for an opportunity to give her another ticket she didn't deserve. In the last two weeks alone, she had collected three of those suckers--one for supposedly running a red light, another for speeding in a thirty-five miles per hour zone and a third for failing to make a complete stop at a stop sign. No matter how vehemently she had argued the bogus charges, the officers had ignored her protests and told her she was free to contest the tickets in court.
There had been other incidents, this time closer to home-a torn mailbox outside her townhouse, the word 'bitch," spray painted on her front door in big, blood red letters, and two slashed tires on her car. She couldn't prove the harassment was the work of the Philadelphia police department, but who else hated her enough to be so vindictive?
She had mentioned the incident to only one person-her best friend, Victoria Bowman. Not one to take unnecessary risks, Victoria had begged her to file a complaint with the police commissioner, whom Kelly knew well. Kelly had ignored the advice. She didn't want to compound the problem, or appear wimpy, by complaining to the top man. Besides, after investigating some of the toughest cases in the Delaware Valley for the past six years, she was used to threats, real and implied, and wasn't easily rattled by them.
"They'll get tired of the game," Kelly had told Victoria.
Her cell phone rang just as she turned onto Seventeenth Street. After a quick glance in the rearview mirror, she took the phone from her bag without taking her eyes off the road. "Hi, Ma."
She heard the chuckle at the other end of the line. "One of these days," Connie Robolo replied, "It won't be me, but some committee calling to say you won another Pulitzer. What will you say then?"
Kelly smiled. "It's always you, Ma. You're as predictable as the sunrise."
"I wouldn't have to be if you had called me right after your doctor's appointment like you were supposed to." Then, not giving Kelly a chance to reply, she added, "So, what did Dr. Brady say? Are you all right? Is the wound healing properly? Did he agree with me that hanging wallpaper five weeks after being shot is no way to recuperate? Or did you conveniently leave out that little detail?"
Kelly was used to the third-degree questioning. Even though she was two months away from her thirty-sixth birthday and the oldest of two children, her mother hovered over her as if she was still a little kid.
"Those are the hazards of being born in an Italian family," her grandmother had told her once. "Like it or not your life will never be completely your own." Truer words had never been spoken.
Catching something from the comer of her eye, she glanced into the rearview mirror in time to see the patrol car, its lights blazing, turn west on Spruce Street. She heaved a sigh of relief, grateful for whatever emergency had taken the tailing officers away. "I told him everything you instructed me to tell him, Ma," Kelly replied.
"Stop being such a smart mouth," Connie said sternly. "And answer the question."
"Dr. Brady gave me an almost perfect bill of health."
"What do you mean almost? What's wrong with you?"
"Nothing, but he won't let me go back to work for two more weeks.
Connie Robolo let out a disapproving humph. "If I had my way, you wouldn't be going back to the Globe at all. Ever."
Here it comes, Kelly thought. The beginning of the 'why-don't-you-find-a-safer-job' sermon. Kelly had heard it dozens of times before but never more so than since the shooting. Ignoring the comment, tempting though it was, would be pointless. "I know, Ma. You made that perfectly clear in the hospital."
"But are you listening?" Then, because a day wouldn't be complete without Connie making her point, she added, "I don't see why you can't find a nice, safe job somewhere. A girl with your brains and your education should have no trouble at all. You could do anything you want."
"I am doing what I want, Ma. Of course," she teased. "I could always join the circus and fly a trapeze like Uncle Stefano."
"My daughter, the comedian." In the background, a familiar voice yelled something. "You heard that, Kelly?" Connie asked, talking above clang of pots and pants. "Benny is making your favorite today-Swordfish Calabrese. He says you should come for dinner."
For a moment, Kelly was tempted. She loved spending time at San Remo, the South Philly Italian restaurant the Robolos had owned for three generations. Her mother ran it alone now, with Benny, her long time and devoted sous-chef. Sometimes, when the restaurant was very busy, Kelly would pitch in and wait tables, something she had done throughout high school. She knew how much her mother appreciated the help, especially now that her husband of thirty-seven years had passed away.
"Can I take a rain check, Ma? I have a pile of laundry to do tonight."
"Bring the laundry here. I'll do it."
Kelly laughed. Her mother never gave up. "Save me some swordfish," she said as she reached her street. "I'll stop by tomorrow."
"Wait a minute-"
"Got to go, Ma. I'm home. Love you." She dropped the phone back into her bag and concentrated on finding a parking space, which at this time of night was just as frustrating as dealing with the traffic.
After circling the block twice and almost losing a tire to that mammoth pot hole on Pine, Kelly finally spotted a space on Second Street and slid into it in the nick of time. Her tote bag slung over her shoulder, she locked the Beetle and headed for Delancey, a quiet, narrow cobblestone street in the heart of Philadelphia's historical district.
Kelly had bought the modest two-story Federal style home two years ago, using every penny she could scrape for the down payment and financing the rest. With the exception of a few thirty-somethings, her neighbors were older and all long-time residents. She had met most of them at a block party shortly after she had moved in. She felt good here, safe--until the vandalism had started.
Trying to stay upbeat, she reminded herself that except for that patrol car following her earlier, not much had happened in the last few days, not even a ticket. Maybe her tormentors had grown tired of the game after all.
But before that thought had even sunk in, her townhouse came into view and she stopped dead in her tracks.
The miniature evergreen her mother had given her as a housewarming present had been pulled by the roots and lay limply across the rim of the terra cotta pot outside her front door.
"Damn." Kelly ran the short distance to her front porch and stared helplessly at the tom roots and mangled branches. Tears pricked her eyes. Who would do something so cruel? Who would take a beautiful, living thing and destroy it without a second thought?
From her crouched position, Kelly let her gaze sweep over the deserted street. In the mood she was in, she wished the bastard would show himself. But he was too much of a coward to do that. He was probably hiding in the shadows, watching her, enjoying her reaction.
"Whoever you are," she muttered between clenched teeth. "Don't let me catch you."
The evergreen in one hand, her keys in the other, Kelly let herself in and flipped on the foyer light. For once the mess that had been so intrusive these past few months of renovation-- ladders, cans of paint and white cloths spread out everywhere--was instantly reassuring, even soothing. With a small sigh, she shut the door with the heel of her boot and gave a quick click of the deadbolt before heading for the back of the house.
Like in all townhouses of that period, a hallway led to the living area and a small garden that was filled with impatiens and geranium in the summer and yellow mums in the fall. On the other side of a breakfast counter, was a galley kitchen she used mostly to make coffee and reheat the food her mother brought her.
The living room, with its honey-colored walls and polished hardwood floor, was her sanctuary. She had ftimished it with a chintz sofa and chairs and oak tables crowded with old family photographs. Facing the seating area was a brick fireplace flanked by floor to ceiling bookcases. A television set and an antique rug matted down by time and traffic completed the decor.
She didn't realize she still held the tree until she sank onto the sofa and looked down. Tears welled up again and this time she didn't try to stop them. It was silly to cry, she knew. It was only a tree, a dwarf tree at that, but dammit, it was hers and someone had killed it. Letting go of the evergreen, she covered her face with her hands and wept hopelessly.
Maybe her mother was right, she thought, indulging in a rare moment of self-pity. Maybe this job had finally become too much for her. But what else could she do? From the moment she had been elected editor of her college paper, she had known that investigative reporting was her true passion. She loved chasing a story, searching for clues, putting them all together. Her gutsy, well-researched articles had eventually brought her to the attention of the editor of The Philadelphia Globe, Lou Ventura, a crusty newspaperman with a nose for a story and a heart of gold.
Those first few years at The Globe had been the most exhilarating of her young life. She had honed her craft the way all rooky reporters did, by covering city news, attending boring council meetings, and rushing in the middle of the night to cover a fire.
The hard work had paid off. Four years later, when one of the Globe's two investigative reporters had retired, Lou had told Kelly the job was hers-if she wanted it. Too happy to even talk, she had stood there, with her mouth open while Lou chuckled.
"I won't let you down," she had blurted out once she could talk. "You'll see. I'll be the best investigative reporter you've ever had."
She had kept her word, working night and day, taking any kind of assignment that was handed to her, digging deep into her stories and even making a pest of herself at times. Hard work didn't scare her, nor the risks she took occasionally. She loved her job, and the Pulitzer had been icing on the cake.
Then, five weeks ago, her life had been dramatically altered. While attending her weekly martial arts lesson in Chinatown, Randy Chen, who owned the laundry next door, had interrupted her session with Dr. Ho. In an obvious state of panic, Randy Chen had asked to talk to the instructor in private.
Because Kelly had heard earlier rumors that a protection racket was terrorizing the neighborhood, she had eavesdropped into their conversation, hoping to learn who was behind the extortion scheme. Fortunately, after ten years of studying martial arts with Dr. Ho, her knowledge of the Chinese language, though basic, was good enough for her to understand that someone was waiting at a warehouse on Tenth Street.
"You have to pay, Grandmaster," Randy Chen had told Dr. Ho in an urgent whisper. "If you don't they will kill you."
Dr. Ho's quick, angry reply had caused Randy to wring his hands in anguish. He had reminded the older man of what "they" would do, not only to the local merchants, but to their wives and children as well.
To Randy's great relief, Dr. Ho had finally agreed to pay. Muttering under his breath, the old man had walked over to a safe, retrieved a bundle of money and stuffed it into a paper bag.
Kelly was stunned. When she had first heard that someone was squeezing money out of Chinatown merchants, she had questioned Dr. Ho, hoping that the wann, trusting relationship they had enjoyed all these years would incite him to confide in her. Dr. Ho had remained stubbornly silent, claiming not to know what she was talking about.
No wonder he hadn't wanted to talk. He was afraid of what the racketeers would do to him and the rest of the neighborhood. Seeing a chance to help her old friend, Kelly had followed Randy Chen to the warehouse where the Chinese New Year Committee stored their floats every year. The cavernous room had been dimly lit and thick with the smell of sandalwood, a fragrance that was used to repel moths.
Moving silently, Kelly wove her way around dragon heads, beaded costumes and feathered headdresses. But when she reached the far comer of the room, she stopped, frozen in shock. Under a single light bulb, three men stood waiting. Two were unknown to her but the third, was not. Matt Kolvic was a detective with the Philadelphia Police Department.
With hands that shook, Kelly took her cell phone out of her bag and dialed police headquarters, not to call for help, but to talk to homicide detective Nick McBride with whom she often worked. As Matt Kolvic's best friend, Nick would know what to do. In her haste to make the call, however, Kelly tripped against a float and dropped her phone.
The three men spun around at the same time, guns drawn. The last thing Kelly remembered after that was the intense pain as one of the bullets hit her in the chest, and the fading smell of sandalwood.
She had hung between life and death for twenty-four hours. The doctor who had operated on her hadn't been very optimistic.
"The bullet hit a pulmonary vein and she's lost a lot of blood," Dr. Brady had explained to her family. "Her vital signs are down and her heartbeat erratic. The next twenty-four hours will be critical."
By the second day she was out of danger, and by the third she was well enough to have visitors and give a statement to the police. She was told that a patrol car had been cruising the area when they heard the shots. The two men she hadn't recognized were part of an organized ring the police had been trying to break for months. The third one, Detective Matt Kolvic, had been doing undercover work for the department.
He had been killed in the crossfire.
The story had dominated the headlines for days and while Kelly's editor had praised her openly for her courage, the Philadelphia Police Department hadn't felt the same way. In a press conference Kelly had watched from her hospital bed, the police commissioner had expressed his anger with the press, stating that because of an overzealous reporter, a good cop was dead.
The phone rang, putting an end to Kelly's thoughts. In no mood to talk, she kept her head pressed against the sofa cushion and ignored it.
At the fourth ring, the answering machine came on. Seconds after that, her friend Victoria's distraught voice filled the room. "Kelly, if you're there, please pick up. It's Jonathan. He ... he's missing."
Kelly pounced on the phone. "I'm here. What do you mean missing?"
"He was supposed to meet me at LaFarge dance studio for Phoebe's dance recital this evening and he never showed up."
Knowing how forgetful Victoria's husband could be when he was working, Kelly tried to sound reassuring. "He must have been detained at the office. You know how he is when he gets busy- "
"He's not at the office!" Victoria's voice had turned shrill. "He left for Miami this morning and never came back!"
The panic in Victoria's voice was enough to snap Kelly to attention. Her own problems momentarily forgotten, she glanced at her watch. "Where are you?"
"At the shop."
"Stay there. I'll be right over."