Read Richard Montanari Online

Authors: The Echo Man

Richard Montanari (2 page)

    'I'm
ready,' Byrne said.

    He
wasn't.

    They got
out of the car and walked to the front entrance of the sprawling, well-tended
Chestnut Hill mansion. Here, in this exclusive section of the northwest part of
the city, there was history at every turn, a neighborhood designed at a time
when Philadelphia was second only to London as the largest English-speaking
city in the world.

    The
first officer on the scene, a rookie named Timothy Meehan, stood inside the
foyer, cloistered by coats and hats and scarves perfumed with age, just beyond
the reach of the cold autumn wind cutting across the grounds.

    Byrne
had been in Officer Meehan's shoes a handful of years earlier and remembered
well how he'd felt when detectives arrived, the tangle of envy and relief and
admiration. Chances were slight that Meehan would one day do the job Byrne was
about to do. It took a certain breed to stay in the trenches, especially in a
city like Philly, and most uniformed cops, at least the smart ones, moved on.

    Byrne
signed the crime-scene log and stepped into the warmth of the atrium, taking in
the sights, the sounds, the smells. He would never again enter this scene for
the first time, never again breathe an air so red with violence. Looking into
the kitchen, he saw a blood-splattered killing room, scarlet murals on pebbled
white tile, the torn flesh of the victim jigsawed on the floor.

    While
Jimmy called for the medical examiner and crime-scene unit, Byrne walked to the
end of the entrance hall. The officer standing there was a veteran patrolman, a
man of fifty, a man content to live without ambition. At that moment Byrne
envied him. The cop nodded toward the room on the other side of the corridor.

    And
that was when Kevin Byrne heard the music.

 

    She
sat in a chair on the opposite side of the room. The walls were covered with a
forest-green silk; the floor with an exquisite burgundy Persian. The furniture
was sturdy, in the Queen Anne style. The air smelled of jasmine and leather.

    Byrne
knew the room had been cleared, but he scanned every inch of it anyway. In one
corner stood an antique curio case with beveled glass doors, its shelves
arrayed with small porcelain figurines. In another corner leaned a beautiful
cello. Candlelight shimmered on its golden surface.

    The
woman was slender and elegant, in her late twenties. She had burnished russet
hair down to her shoulders, eyes the color of soft copper. She wore a long
black gown, sling-back heels, pearls. Her makeup was a bit garish - theatrical,
some might say - but it flattered her delicate features, her lucent skin.

    When
Byrne stepped fully into the room the woman looked his way, as if she had been
expecting him, as if he might be a guest for Thanksgiving dinner, some
discomfited cousin just in from Allentown or Ashtabula. But he was neither. He
was there to arrest her.

    'Can
you hear it?' the woman asked. Her voice was almost adolescent in its pitch and
resonance.

    Byrne
glanced at the crystal CD case resting on a small wooden easel atop the
expensive stereo component.
Chopin: Nocturne in G Major.
Then he looked
more closely at the cello. There was fresh blood on the strings and
fingerboard, as well as on the bow lying on the floor. Afterwards, she had
played.

    The
woman closed her eyes. 'Listen,' she said. 'The blue notes.'

    Byrne
listened. He has never forgotten the melody, the way it both lifted and
shattered his heart.

    Moments
later the music stopped. Byrne waited for the last note to feather into
silence. 'I'm going to need you to stand up now, ma'am,' he said.

    When
the woman opened her eyes Byrne felt something flicker in his chest. In his
time on the streets of Philadelphia he had met all types of people, from
soulless drug dealers, to oily con men, to smash-and-grab artists, to hopped-up
joyriding kids. But never before had he encountered anyone so detached from the
crime they had just committed. In her light brown eyes Byrne saw demons caper
from shadow to shadow.

    The
woman rose, turned to the side, put her hands behind her back. Byrne took out
his handcuffs, slipped them over her slender white wrists, and clicked them
shut.

    She
turned to face him. They stood in silence now, just a few inches apart,
strangers not only to each other, but to this grim pageant and all that was to
come.

    'I'm
scared,' she said.

    Byrne
wanted to tell her that he understood. He wanted to say that we all have
moments of rage, moments when the walls of sanity tremble and crack. He wanted
to tell her that she would pay for her crime, probably for the rest of her life
- perhaps even
-with
her life - but that while she was in his care she
would be treated with dignity and respect.

    He
did not say these things.

    'My
name is Detective Kevin Byrne,' he said. 'It's going to be all right.'

    It
was November 1, 1990. Nothing has been right since.

 

 

    

Chapter 1

    

    Sunday,
October 24

    

    
Can
you hear it?

    
Listen
closely. There, beneath the clatter of the lane, beneath the ceaseless hum of
man and machine, you will hear the sound of the slaughter, the screaming of
peasants in the moment before death, the plea of an emperor with a sword at his
throat.

    
Can
you hear it?

    
Step
onto hallowed ground, where madness has made the soil luxuriant with blood, and
you will hear it: Nanjing, Thessaloniki, Warsaw.

    
If
you listen closely you will realize it is always there, never fully silenced,
not by prayer, by law, by time. The history of the world, and its annals of
crime, is the slow, sepulchral music of the dead.

    
There.

    
Can
you hear it?

    
I
hear it. I am the one who walks in shadow, ears tuned to the night. I am the
one who hides in rooms where murder is done, rooms that will never again be
quieted, each corner now and forever sheltering a whispering ghost. I hear
fingernails scratching granite walls, the drip of blood onto scarred tile, the
hiss of air drawn into a mortal chest wound. Sometimes it all becomes too much,
too loud, and I must let it out.

    
I
am the Echo Man.

    
I
hear it all.

    
On
Sunday morning I rise early, shower, take my breakfast at home. I step onto the
street. It is a glorious fall day. The sky is clear and crystalline blue, the
air holds the faint smell of decaying leaves.

    
As
I walk down Pine Street I feel the weight of the three killing instruments at
the small of my back. I study the eyes of passersby, or at least those who will
meet my gaze. Every so often I pause, eavesdrop, gathering the sounds of the
past. In Philadelphia Death has lingered in so many places. I collect its
spectral sounds the way some men collect fine art, or war souvenirs, or lovers.

    
Like
many who have toiled in the arts over the centuries my work has gone largely
unnoticed. That is about to change. This will be my magnum opus, that by which
all such works are judged forever. It has already begun.

    
I
turn up my collar and continue down the lane.

    
Zig,
zig, zig.

    
I
rattle through the crowded streets like a white skeleton.

 

    
At
just after eight a.m. I enter Fitler Square, finding the expected gathering -
bikers, joggers, the homeless who have dragged themselves here from a nearby
passageway. Some of these homeless creatures will not live through the winter.
Soon I will hear their last breaths.

    
I
stand near the ram sculpture at the eastern end of the square, watching,
waiting. Within minutes I see them., mother and daughter.

    
They
are just what I need.

 

I
walk across the
square, sit on a bench,
take out my newspaper, halve and quarter it. The killing instruments are
uncomfortable at my back. I shift my weight as the sounds amass: the flap and
squawk of pigeons congregating around a man eating a bagel, a taxi's rude horn,
the hard thump of a bass speaker. Looking at my watch, I see that time is
short. Soon my mind will be full of screams and I will be unable to do what is
necessary
.

 

    
I
glance at the young mother and her baby, catch the woman's eye, smile.

    
'Good
morning,' I say.

    
The
woman smiles back. 'Hi.'

    
The
baby is in an expensive jogging stroller, the kind with a rainproof hood and
mesh shopping basket beneath. I rise, cross the path, glance inside the pram.
It's a girl, dressed in a pink flannel one-piece and matching hat, swaddled in
a snow-white blanket. Bright plastic stars dangle overhead.

    
'And
who is this little movie star?' I ask.

    
The
woman beams. 'This is Ashley.'

    
'Ashley.
She is beautiful.'

    
'Thank
you.'

    
I
am careful not to get too close. Not yet. 'How old is she?'

    
'She's
four months.'

    
'Four
months is a great age,' I reply with a wink. '

 I may have peaked around
four months.'

    
The
woman laughs.

    
I'm
in.

    
I
glance at the stroller. The baby smiles at me. In her angelic face I see so
much. But sight does not drive me. The world is crammed full of beautiful
images, breathtaking vistas, all mostly forgotten by the time the next vista
presents itself I have stood before the Taj Mahal, Westminster Abbey, the Grand
Canyon. I once spent an afternoon in front of Picasso's Guernica. All these
glorious images faded into the dim corners of memory within a relatively short
period of time. Yet I recall with exquisite clarity the first time I heard
someone scream in anguish, the yelp of a dog struck by a car, the dying breath
of a young police officer bleeding out on a hot sidewalk.

    
'Is
she sleeping through the night yet?'

    
'Not
quite,' the woman says.

    
'My
daughter slept through the night at two months. Never had a problem with her at
all.'

    
'Lucky.'

    
I reach
slowly into my right coat pocket, palm what I need, draw it out. The mother
stands just a few feet away, on my left. She does not see what I have in my
hand.

    
The baby kicks her feet, bunching her blanket. I wait. I am
nothing if
not patient. I need the little one to be tranquil and
still. Soon she calms, her bright blue eyes scanning the sky.

    
With
my right hand I reach out, slowly, not wanting to alarm the mother. I place a
finger into the center of the baby's left palm. She closes her tiny fist around
my finger and gurgles. Then, as I had hoped, she begins to coo.

    
All
other sounds cease. In that moment it is just the baby, and this sacred respite
from the dissonance that fills my waking hours.

    
I
touch the Record button, keeping the microphone near the little girl's mouth
for a few seconds, gathering the sounds, collecting a moment which would
otherwise be gone in an instant.

    
Time
slows, lengthens, like a lingering coda.

    
I withdraw
my hand. I do not want to stay too long, nor alert the mother to any danger. I
have a full day ahead of me, and cannot be deterred.

    
'She
has your eyes,' I say.

    
The
little girl does not, and it is obvious. But no mother ever refuses such a compliment.

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