A crisp, fall Monday morning and already Arshad Mirou had missed his psychology class, no thanks to SEPTA and the 61 line, the bus always late if it ever came at all. Arshad pushed through traffic on his skateboard instead, dodging pedestrians and the rush of cars, blasting through red lights and swerving past cars with only inches to spare. Arshad felt free in moments like this. Didn’t matter that he was from the mean streets of Strawberry Mansion, where the cracked sidewalks and squat row houses made the world seem composed of anything but strawberries or mansions. Syringes and squats were more like it. Grit and dirt and plastic bags, all of it blowing now like fall leaves in Arshad’s wake.
In the last few weeks, Halloween decorations had sprung up in store fronts and windows. Grinning green witches, cartoony vampires. But no false face could disguise the fact there was a true monster out there.
The Cheesesteak Killer, the TV reporters and news bloggers were calling him—and that monstrous mo-fo was proving bad for business.
Ergo no time, no reason, to stop on Kelly Drive today to sell weed to the rollerbladers, skate rats, and college scullers who hung out by the fancy gingerbread houses along Boat House Row. Nobody was buying much lately, and Arshad knew enough to lay low. Too many of his clients had been tangled up in that mess over the past nine days. First that asshole Hodges, then Joey DeLuca’s idiot roommate and the chick he’d been messing with. A bunch of others, including Hodges’ friend Pants, who’d bought the big one in some dingy writers’ club in Center City. Spoiled college kids, pushing up daisies all over the goddamn city, and nobody knew what to make of it. Arshad had followed the story on The Daily Traversty, how the cops were hauling in people for questioning left and right, only to let them go when the connections fizzled.
Even his boy Joey DeLuca had gotten pulled into the shitstorm. As Arshad skateboarded down Ridge Avenue beneath a cloudy sky, he thought of him, DeLuca, a rich, stuck-up sonovabitch like all the rest.
Or at least Arshad had thought so at first. But DeLuca would stick around after all the others had slunk off with their dime bags and dubs. He complimented the way Arshad worked his board, the way he popped an ollie or executed a quick kick-flip. They got to talking. About the Sector 9 Pintail DeLuca rode in high school. About how DeLuca had blown out his knee doing a tricky tail-slide on it his senior year. DeLuca invited Arshad to hang with him at the Temple Longboard Club, and for a little while Arshad felt like he might actually fit in somewhere. All those sweaty young skater dudes shredding on the cement steps of Anderson Hall. Didn’t hurt that those boys were good for business, either. Nothing like a little cheefing at the end of the day to take the sting out of a skateboarder’s bumps and bruises.
Soon enough the longboard boys were giving Arshad the usual daps and pounds and high-fives when they saw him, as if for years they had all been besties and bros. And always DeLuca was right there beside him, with his wet dark eyes and mop of unruly hair, egging Arshad on to push his next trick farther. But then one of the others—usually Deluca’s scrawny roommate Logan—would make some crack about Arshad taking classes at KKF—Kommunity Kollege of Filadelphia, they teased him—a school so mired in remediation, they joked, the kids who went there couldn’t even spell its name.
The first time Arshad heard the wisecrack, he’d kicked his board so hard the back axle came loose. “Chill, man,” DeLuca told Arshad as Logan slunk off toward the Bell Tower with a dismissive “Whatever.”
DeLuca said he had a tool back in his room that could fix Arshad’s board. That’s how Arshad found himself in DeLuca’s second-floor apartment just a block east of Temple. That night they smoked weed and ate microwaved Hot Pockets on DeLuca’s bed as the moon came out. With just the two of them the conversation was easy, no fuss. DeLuca hoisted his cut-off khakis to show the scar from where the pins had been put in his knee. Arshad anteed up the bump where he’d rammed his nose into a stop sign. Then he pulled off his T-shirt to show the hitch in his clavicle where his father had pushed him down the stairs at thirteen. As DeLuca drew his finger along the break, Arshad’s skin turned to goosebumps. The hour was late and they were down to their last joint. “Shotgun you for it,” Arshad offered, taking a long draw, leaning in close. And that’s how he felt the first crush of DeLuca’s lips, hot and smoky—wanting things they shouldn’t want.
Arshad spent the night. Quiet, so asshole Logan wouldn’t find out. Arshad had spent other nights in DeLuca’s bed, too. Even spent the better part of two weeks there in August while Logan vacationed in Wildwood with his family. Two weeks of shredding boards with DeLuca by day, and late nights waiting for him to finish his shift at Fondue Me, the Passyunk Square restaurant where DeLuca waited tables.
Was that what love was like? Easy summer days and sweet, dick-blistering nights? Arshad had no way to measure such things. Before he knew it, those two weeks were over, and he was back in his Strawberry Mansion shit-hole, listening to his mom and her new boyfriend going at it through the walls.
Arshad cut through Fairmount and turned down 17th. If he hurried, he could still make it to campus in time to grab lunch and print out his paper before his English class with Professor Malfois.
He tried to push DeLuca from his mind, ignore him like he’d been ignoring his texts. DeLuca was the kind of guy who’d do anything for anybody, except stick up for Arshad when his friends jerked his chain. Even Logan’s girlfriend teased him now. Enough was enough. In the last few days, Arshad hadn’t read a single one of DeLuca’s texts even though DeLuca sure had been sending a lot of them since the cops let him go. There his phone went again, buzzing in his pocket, next to the roll of dough he had left from selling weed to DeLuca’s restaurant buddies. Ah, fuck it. All he wanted to know now was what made it into The Daily Traversty. How the medical examiner had weighed in: Not enough evidence to hold DeLuca for murder. How the kid had made bail on the lesser offense.
Yeah, it was hard to love a white boy. Even harder when he’d been charged for tampering with a girl’s corpse.
* * *
A few dents and dings were left in Josh Whitcomb’s food truck from its time in the impound lot. True to his girlfriend Angela’s promise, she had gotten his truck released with the help of her hotshot defense lawyer cousin, Mickey Marcolina. Mickey was a lot better than the guy Josh had on speed dial—his parents’ tax attorney—who could barely handle a pile of parking tickets, let alone a high-profile police investigation. No sir, Mickey knew who to deal with when the stakes were high. When the investigation turned up nada, Mickey forced the police to let Josh’s truck go.
As for the truck itself, Naked Philly had never been more spic-and-span. Josh threw out all the food the cops had slopped their paws through. He gave his ride a gleaming scrub-down, then stayed up all night with Angela to give his truck a complete makeover: fresh paint job, a totally new menu. He cut a deal on surplus food supplies with Angela’s second-cousin, Paul, who was having trouble moving sandwiches out of his South Philly shop now that business had slowed. Josh had been so shaken by his ordeal that he’d even had a change of inner spiritual direction. Gone was the tofu-loving, chia-seed hawking South Jersey surfer boy. In his place was Josh’s old meat-eating self. No more murderous vegan cheesesteaks on multi-grain rolls from him. Now it was hoagies and sausages all the way! On the side of his truck he spray-painted a silhouette of Angela’s gorgeous butt backing into an oversized salami and rebranded his business as Make Ends Meat.
The events of the past week had proven too much for Josh’s business partner, Bernardo. After being questioned by Detective Simon, Bernardo had left Josh a text message saying he’d taken off with his pit bull Hadley for an extended camping trip in the Poconos. Typical Bernardo, knuckling under at the first sign of trouble. No wonder he’d gotten bounced out of Drexel the end of freshman year when that bitchy prof accused him of plagiarism. Bernardo never could surf life’s ups and downs. He always let the waves pull him under. Josh personally hadn’t seen hide nor hair of the jerk since before the shit hit the fan last Saturday.
Yes, it was much nicer having Angela take up the slack beside him when she wasn’t in class, even if that meant he had to listen to her yak in his ear all day or honk her nose into tissues every time a gust of ragweed blew through. New partner, new location. 17th Street up at Community College of Philadelphia, where nobody knew Josh from Adam—and where Angela’s ample backside shimmied sweetly against him each time she leaned out the truck window to hand somebody change.
Still, the lunch crowd was thinner than Josh expected as he manned the grill. Most students were still brown-bagging it even though it had been five days since Vincent DeLeon’s body had turned up at the Pen and Pencil Club.
Only a couple people in line. Professors from the looks of them. Josh listened to them talk while Angela slunk back to the open rear door, talking on her cell phone and cracking the rolls of quarters Paul had given her for the change drawer the night before.
“Running on fumes today,” said the thirty-something redheaded woman who’d just ordered a grilled chicken on pita.
“I hear you,” said a guy, early fifties, in a moth-eaten tweed blazer. “Graded two classes’ worth of comp essays last night. Would it kill students these days to actually read the assignment?”
“Ugh. Let’s not mention kill and students in the same sentence,” said the skinny redhead. “Half my class at Temple is using this murder crap as an excuse to hibernate in their dorm rooms. We’re reading Fast Food Nation this week. A girl reported me to the dean yesterday for failing to issue a trigger warning.”
The man let out a grim laugh. “Cheesesteak Killer, my ass. What’s next, the Soft Pretzel Strangler?”
Behind them, a tall, mannish woman dressed in black leaned against a metal fence and kept watch on the street with a jaundiced eye. She’d been there nearly an hour without buying so much as a Snapple. Had the college stepped up security?
“Anyway,” said the redhead as she rolled her eyes, “I have a stack of papers of my own to slog through before my night class up there.”
“Ah, the old adjunct shuffle,” the man said. “Dashing campus to campus and holding office hours in the car. I know it all too well.”
“Car?” the woman cried, her wire-rim glasses sliding down her nose. “I can barely afford a TransPass on the little these places pay.”
Tweed blazer sighed. “As bad as we’ve got it, I hear Katrina Malfois has it worse. I think she’s working five campuses this term. Got a mother with heart disease to support. Been living with her down in South Philly since her husband died. The two share a little dachshund they dote on. Brutus, I think he’s called. Ugly critter. I’m in the same office with her here on Monday-Wednesday-Friday. Malfois keeps a picture of the awful thing on the desk we share.”
“Five campuses?” said the redhead, pushing her glasses up. “Good god. I thought here and Temple were hard enough.”
“Yeah, Malfois is at Drexel, too,” the man said. “And a couple other places. But don’t feel too sorry for her. Malfois’ workload just got a little lighter. That Drexel lacrosse player who got poisoned? One of her students.”
Josh’s ears burned. “Grilled chicken up,” he said, trying to keep his poker face, He bagged the sandwich and handed it over.
“Thanks,” said the redhead, adjusting her overstuffed shoulder bag to take it. She returned to her friend. “You’re right,” she said, “I don’t feel bad for Katrina Malfois. I see her in the elevator in Anderson Hall all the time at Temple. Little Miss Sunshine, that one is. Always has a curt word for everyone.”
“Yeah, she’s a pill alright,” said the man as he turned to Josh. “Sausage special with chips?”
“You got it, boss.”
“Well, good luck with Malfois and that dachshund,” the redhead said to her friend. “I better get back to grading.”
As the woman walked off, Angela came up behind Josh and wrapped her arms around him. “Oh, baby,” she cooed, “Mama’s finally taken her evil eye off you! Now that you’re eating meat again like a real man—her words, not mine—she’s decided to give you a second chance at dinner tomorrow night. She’s making Nonna’s special carne al piatto.”
Josh laughed as Angela covered his neck in kisses. “Is that what it takes to get into her good graces? Hell, I’d have started clogging my arteries when we first met if I’d have known.”
He kissed her back—hard.
Tweed blazer cleared his throat. “Is this a lunch truck,” he asked, “or a film on Pay Per View? I’ve got a class to teach.”
“Easy, dude,” Josh said. “Sauerkraut? Onions?”
“The works,” tweed blazer replied. He handed Angela a crumpled five.
The woman in black disappeared around the back of the truck, talking on her cell phone. Class must have let out just then because a sea of students suddenly began pouring out of the doors of the Winnet Building next to them, as well as all the rest.
Josh smiled at Angela. His La Bionda. There was a speck of green paint on her earlobe that she had missed in the shower. Josh wasn’t sure if his stomach was doing flip-flops because of his recent change in diet, or because that morning when they awoke together—tired and sore from the long hours overhauling his truck—he had finally realized she was the one for him. The goddamn love of his life. He kissed her on the cheek and began whistling “That’s Amore.”
“What?” Angela asked him with a grin. “Why you looking at me so funny?
* * *
By the time he hit campus, Arshad’s hello-morning bong hit was wearing off and he was starving. He zipped through a clusterfuck of students hogging the sidewalk outside the Pavilion Building and ground to a halt by Winnet. He flipped his skateboard into his hands with a practiced kick.
The line was shortest at a new truck, Make Ends Meat. Something familiar about it, but Arshad couldn’t place it. Behind the grill stood a young white guy his age. Handsome but goofy-grinned, with summer-streaked hair pulled back in a do-rag and a neck tattoo that indicated some questionable lifestyle choices. Beside him was a curvy girl with over-bleached hair and electric blue eyes, the kind that didn’t appear in nature outside of colored contact lenses. Her tits looked real, though, and she was working them for tips in a low-cut top despite the chill of the rainy-looking sky.
Some old-head at the counter was engaged in a fight between a bottle of mustard and his sausage sandwich. Arshad jockeyed up behind him to order. “Yo, you got cheesesteaks?”
“No cheesesteaks,” the do-rag guy said. “Don’t you read the papers? We’re selling anything but.”
“How ’bout a hoagie?” asked the frizzy blonde.
“Ain’t that the same as a hoagie?” Arshad asked. “C’mon. You and every other truck in this city have put a fatwah on cheesesteaks for the past week, and today I’m Jonesing for one like nobody’s business. So c’mon, gimme that jawn. A brother ain’t supposed to go a whole week without a cheesesteak in this city. Go to Independence Hall and check the freakin’ Constitution.”
“I’m sorry,” said the blonde in a haughty voice as she dabbed her nose with a tissue. “But I’ll have you know my business partner and I have spoken with our legal counsel. Until this whole murder thing blows over, he advises us not to”—but here the girl lost her train of thought as a series of baby rabbit sneezes shook her body and jiggled her boobs.
“Ugh, fucking ragweed,” she said.
“Why y’all gotta be like this?” Arshad pressed.
“Fine, dude, I’ll make you a cheesesteak,” do-rag said.
“S’okay, Angela. As long as we don’t go the seitan-and-chia-seed route, I’m betting the food-truck gods will stay appeased.”
“Seitan and chia seeds?” Arshad started. “Naw, I want a red-blooded, all-American cheesesteak, not some—oh, wait a minute. Now I know where I seen you before. You that guy, and this is that truck.” He glanced around. “Naked Philly, right? Just got a new paint job’s all….”
Arshad grinned like he’d just been invited to light up with Snoop Dog backstage. “I guess 5-0 decided to cut you loose,” he said to do-rag. “Man, you been blowing up on Twitter ever since that college boy bought it at—”
“Will you shut up?” the runny-nosed blonde—Angela—said beneath her breath. “We’re trying to be on the down-low here.”
If there was one thing Arshad knew about, it was the down-low. “All right, all right. Long as that cheesesteak’s on the house, mum’s the word.”
Angela rolled her eyes at what’s-his-face—Josh. “At this rate you’re never going to buy me a ring,” she whined. “Now where’s my frigging nose spray gone?”
The man who’d been battling the mustard bottle finally spoke up.
“This is the food truck that killed that poor Drexel boy? Good God.” He looked at Josh. “I demand a refund. He threw down the mustard bottle in disgust.
“No refunds!” Angela shouted. “And my Josh-y didn’t kill nobody!”
Josh sighed, threw some meat on the grill, gave it the company of a Sarcone’s roll, facedown. “Wit’ or without?” he asked.
Arshad laughed. Maybe his buzz hadn’t worn off after all. “Do I look like a bitch-ass chode? Wit’. Of course. Provolone.” And then: “Y’all ain’t gonna poison me, are you?”
“I can assure you,” said Anglea, the wattage of her eyes intensifying, “the crime scene unit went over every inch of this rust bucket with a fine-tooth comb. Not a bit of poison in the place.”
“Not unless you count the bottle of limoncello under the counter your Aunt Marie gave me for my birthday,” Josh said. “What does she soak those lemons in? Rubbing alcohol?”
“Eh, I don’t care what people say,” Angela said. “When it comes to drinking, you Irish boys got no cajones.” She pulled out the bottle of limoncello, uncorked it, and took a quick swig. “Ah!” she smiled, “that’s more like it!” She looked at her boyfriend. “For chrissake, sometimes I don’t know why I love you.”
Josh pulled her to him and began humping her from behind. “Because you Italian girls know it’s not the cajones but the cazzone that counts.”
Angela laughed, turned around, and nibbled Josh’s ear.
“Peanut butter! Peanut butter!” Josh cried.
Arshad shot him a look.
“Our safe word,” Josh explained with a wink.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” said the old-head in his moth-eaten blazer.
“Makes two of us,” Arshad added. He handed Angela a pair of ones. “For your tip jar. Go on, girl. Get your nails did.”
“Thanks,” Angela said, shoving the bills into her cleavage. She pinched her nose against another sneeze. Suddenly her eyes caught on someone behind Arshad.
“Not you again!” Angela cried. “I told you we ain’t got nothing else to say! Cousin Mickey says it’s in Josh’s best interest not to—”
“It’s not you I’m here to see,” a gravelly voice replied. A man’s voice—somebody who sounded like he’d been smoking cigarettes since he crawled out of his mama’s womb.
Arshad turned to see a tall guy in a wrinkly trench coat sauntering up. Mid-thirties, rangy build, a week’s worth of reddish beard stubble on his face. The guy had spiky hair and a skinny tie that whipped against his shirtfront. All around the wind was picking up. The sky had filled with rain clouds so dark even local weatherman John Bolaris might’ve pooped his pants.
“Arshad Mirou?” the newcomer asked.
“Who wants to know?”
“Ben Travers,” said the man, sticking out his hand. “A mutual friend said I might find you here.”
Arshad did a double-take as the two clasped hands. “Ben Travers? Of The Daily Traversty?”
“The one and the same,” Travers said coolly. He lit a Lucky Strike. “I hear you might know some things.”
“Order up,” Angela called in a huff. Arshad took the sandwich from her. “Oh, that smells so good,” Angela muttered. “Babe, why don’t you make me one?”
“Cheesesteak?” Travers asked Arshad, a bit surprised.
“What can I say?” Arshad replied. “I live dangerously.”
“So I’ve heard. Is there someplace we can—?”
But just then Travers was interrupted by someone else calling Arshad’s name.
Arshad turned to see three serious-looking women all dressed in black heading his way from the Winnet building. Damn, Arshad thought. The goon squad.
The woman in front was dark-skinned and already revving her inner-bitch up. “Arshad Mirou,” she said coldly, “hold it right there.” Behind her was a pale, square-jawed Amazon, the closest Arshad had ever seen to a female Eagles linebacker. Big bulldagger. Had to be. The third was Latina. Thin, all twitchy-looking and calculating, with a mess of wild dark hair. Kind of cute in a Goth girl sort of way. Her eyes skirted Travers’s for a second—the way DeLuca’s eyes sometimes skirted Arshad’s when the other skaters were around and the two feared they were on the verge of getting caught. What was this look all about? Arshad had no time to figure it out.
The goon squad leader zeroed in on him. “Detective Chelsea Simon, Philadelphia P.D. Mr. Mirou, your name’s been popping up a little too often on murder victims’ cell phones. You need to come downtown for questioning.”
“There goes my interview,” Ben Travers said through the cigarette hanging from his mouth.
“Stay out of this,” Detective Simon told him.
“Hold on,” Arshad protested. He held up his skateboard and gave a little shove to fend Simon off.
“You assaulting an officer?” said the female linebacker. She cracked her massive, meat-hook knuckles. “Sure looks to me like you just assaulted an officer.”
“I got this,” said Detective Simon.
She was so close now Arshad could see the red veins in her eyes.
“Man, what kind of black sister hassles an innocent—”
“I ain’t your sister,” growled the detective. She swatted Arshad’s longboard away and flipped him around, crushing him against the metal fence. His cheesesteak fell to the ground.
Detective Simon whispered as she cuffed him. “Took me a minute to realize what that girl meant by KKF. But I figured it out. Staked out your morning class for over an hour. Seems you’re too cool for school. Yet not too cool for a cheesesteak, I see.”
She made a point of stepping down hard on his sandwich. Then she spun Arshad back around and handed him off to the Latina Goth cop. Travers and the old guy snapped pictures on their cell phones.
“Gutierrez, pat him down and read him his rights. Nothing here to see, people. Nothing here to see.”
Overhead, the sky cracked with thunder.
“Look, I ain’t done nothin’,” Arshad said, ignoring Gutierrez’s drone. “And I think I know you, detective. Seen you down in South Philly. That restaurant, Fondue Me. You been in there sucking face with the boss.”
“That’s right,” interjected Travers. “Detective Simon is Mrs. Main Squeeze to Philly’s latest restaurateur extraordinaire. Arturo Simon. Owner of Fondue Me, Liberty Kabob, the #Hashtag Diner, Shiva-stan. And, most recently, Carousel on the Square. The city’s first revolving restaurant. It never quite got up to speed, did it? Tell me, Detective Simon, does your husband cry boo-hoo every time he looks down from your Rittenhouse palace at that money pit he made?”
“Go to hell, Travers,” said Simon.
The reporter smiled. “Can I quote you on that?”
“I ain’t done nothing!” Arshad screamed as Guiterrez went through his pockets. He looked at the old guy. “Yo, prof! You got that Mobile Justice app on your phone? Email this to the ACLU! Blackhawk down! Blackhawk down!”
“Ma’am,” Gutierrez said to her boss, “looks like we just got a little weed here. No weapons.”
“Then gimme my twenty-five dollar fine and let me walk,” Arshad said. Everybody was looking at him now. Students were circling; the Arab guy who sold umbrellas was shaking his head. Do-rag Josh had stepped out of his truck to watch, and his girl Angela was leaning out the window beside him, honking into a Kleenex and jabbering about here lost nose spray.
“This yours?” the lesbian cop asked her, handing Angela a little bottle that must have fallen to the ground.
Now that he had a better look at officer She-Hulk, Arshad knew he had seen her before, too. In back of Fondue Me a couple times as he cooled his Air Jordans waiting for DeLuca to finish work. He’d just assumed she was there for some kind of payoff. Now he wasn’t so sure. When her eyes clicked on his, Arshad felt his balls take an internal elevator all the way to the top.
The old guy started pestering Gutierrez. “Excuse me, officer. While you’re all here can you make this young man refund me my—”
Meanwhile, Travers and Simon were at it again. “You really going to arrest this kid on some trumped up charge?” the reporter asked.
“I haven’t slept in days,” Detective Simon snapped. “You really want to mess with me? I don’t know who’s been feeding you information, Travers, but all the crap you’ve been posting verges on obstruction of justice. Step off, friend. If you know what’s good for you.”
“Is that a threat? You shut me out on that damn This Little Piggy theft. Don’t think for a moment I’m going to roll over and let you blow down the house on a story as big as this.” He exhaled a jet of smoky air.
Just then another clap of thunder boomed as the sky finally broke.
“Oh, my God!” someone screamed. The voice was Josh’s.
Arshad turned. Detective Simon turned. Ben Travers turned. Everybody and their goddamn dog turned. There on the sidewalk in front of Make Ends Meat lay Angela, foaming at the mouth. Her body convulsed in a series of quick, jerky spasms. Her electric blue eyes had rolled back in her head. A second later, she wasn’t moving at all.
“Angela! Angela!” screamed Josh.
Fat, wet drops began to pound the pavement around them.
Detective Simon stood slack-jawed. Ben Travers’ cigarette fell from his mouth. The prof in the tweed blazer threw up a little and looked on the verge of passing out.
“I never touched her!” Arshad yelled as the rain fell harder. “All you saw me! I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it!”
“Shit,” said Detective Simon. “Here we go again.”