Book cover


The weather in Philadelphia can be bad. If it rained more, they could call it the Schuylkill Bay instead of the Schuylkill River. Though the nearby Delaware River is bigger, the Schuylkill has its own history, some yet to be made.

A distance from the river, centered at the bubble end of a lane, Anton Evers’ home stood as a kind of beacon. The builders of the houses on the lane used red bricks for every house except Evers’. His are white.

Evers opened the second-floor front door and peered out into the morning rain, which produced a pleasant cadence on the lids of the cans on the sidewalk below. Rain made it a bad day to collect trash, or deliver the newspaper.

But Toby Wallace didn’t mind, because today was his last day throwing the paper as he walked. A boy turns 16 only once, and that was today. Tonight, he’d pilot a car that used to belong to someone else. After tonight, it belonged to him.

He was most excited to show his new wheels to his two friends, his only friends, B-drop and Tick. But the trio rarely saw each other, because B-drop and Tick were in a gang known as the Front Street Boyz.

Toby saw B-drop most school days, but Tick had dropped out long ago. Toby would have nothing to do with the gang, including the night before.

“Teen shooter: City in peril?” blared the headlines in The Bugle.

The rain almost immediately soaked page 1 of the newspaper, as Evers opened it outside.

“Oh, shit, this happened just a few blocks away. Hey May, look at this …” he said, slamming the door and heading into the kitchen. His wife, May Evers, Philadelphia Police Dept. detective, sat and slowly sipped a hot cup of cappuccino, her only one of the day.

“Sh, sh, sh,” she said. She looked admiring into the goodness in her cup. The first sip of the day was the most important to her, and it was supposed to be uninterrupted.

“There was another murder, last night, right around the corner.”

“I know. We caught the kid who did it,” she said.

“Who was it? Someone you know?”

“His street name is Tick,” she said.

“Now see what you made me do? I can’t tell you anything,” savoring a second, slurping sip.

“Was there any … shooting?”

“No, he came quietly, too quiet, considering. Damnit, Anton! You know I can’t talk about this with you,” May said, slowly lowering the cup to the table.

She placed her cup down gently into the saucer. May preferred a cup and saucer, not a mug.

“Just let me finish my coffee, okay? Then I’ll be gone and you can get on with your morning. By the way, what are you doin’ this morning?” May asked.

“Meeting at 10. I can dial in. Then, Downtown in the afternoon,” Anton said, walking out of the kitchen and into the smallish room he had claimed as his “man cave.”

Man closet is more like it. Too big to be a walk-in closet, but too small to be much else, these days. Anton discovered records that showed the original owner of the house boarded his black servant (or slave, more likely) in the room, back when Philly was the City of Brotherly Love.

He began to read the paper, and the article about the shooting. Seems Tick, 16, shot and killed a rival gang member who made the mistake of venturing down a border street between the gangs' territories.

Anton was tired of all the violence in the city and country. The newspaper, TV, and internet were full of it, every day, all day.

The karma of the city -- and maybe the entire country -- was slipping into the shitter.

Anton loved America, and he told people that whenever the opportunity struck. His pro-USA views began to keep them from getting invited to many parties.

At one particular party, he had a little difficulty with one of the other guests. It came down to Anton defending America, and the other party, a larger, younger black man, dissing the U.S. while flashing all manner of man bling.

“Think you could have gotten that shit you’re wearing in Russia? You know what they call black men in Russia?”

“No, what?”

“Nothing. They don’t call them at all,” at which point Anton sucker-punched the big dude, who crumbled to the floor, out cold.

Anton then turned and left the party, without May, which was his second mistake that night. She caught up with him outside the party house.

“Anton, what the hell happened?”

“Motherfucker and I got into it, that’s what!” Anton said, gathering May’s arm.

Just then, the man from the party came up from behind and used a garbage can lid to whack Anton directly on top of the head, sending him sprawling. May had her gun out post-haste.

“Oh, no, you didn’t. Police. Stop right there, drop to the sidewalk and please, give me an excuse to shoot you,” she said, pulling handcuffs and a .22 handgun from her stylish, spaghetti-strap purse.

Anton and the man decided not to press charges on each other. In the following three years, May and Anton were invited to just one party.

Reading the paper created a little sensation around the area where the garbage can lid hit Anton's head.

Psychic soreness.

Anton reached for a framed photo of his Mom. After reading the story about the teenager shooting that other boy, all he could think about was his Mom, being gunned down, covering his body during a drive-by shooting. He was 6 when it happened.

Anton decided he needed to write a letter to the editor.

It was a doozy.

“Dear Editor: As I read the story of the boy who got gunned down the other day, I thought of the shooter. He’s not even out of high school, if he goes at all. He’s black, but I don’t care about that, because I am, too.

“What I do care about is that he gets what’s coming to him, for shooting that other boy down.

“My mother was gunned down in a drive-by, as she protected me with her body on the floor. I was 6 years old. The shooter was never found.

“In every teen shooting I read about in your paper, there is a running tab of arrests in such shootings, the number of convictions and the type of conviction. Let this killer be tallied in the 'Death Row' column. A. Evers, Philadelphia.”


Across town, Toby Wallace, paperboy, sat at the table in his home. His father, Jim Wallace, read the Bugle article about Toby’s friend.

“Isn’t one of your friends named, uh, Tick?” Jim asked, putting the paper down.

“Tick, yeah, why do you ask?”

Jim picked up the section of newspaper from the table and placed it in front of his son. Toby’s recitation of the article was punctuated by exclamations of disbelief, and peppered with language that would have caused his dead and saintly mother to attempt to wash his mouth out with soap, a parental art that died with Vanessa Wallace.

His mother saved him from joining the gang. She kept a tight rein on Toby, until the day she died. That he still wasn't in with the Boyz was a tribute to her.

“Dad, we gotta do something.”

“Not much can be done. Oh, shit, Tick? You mean young Ronald Walters, Ellen’s boy?”

“How do you know that?” Toby said.

“I been around this neighborhood a lot longer than you, son. It’s why we moved here after your Ma and I got married. She’s from this neighborhood, too. I forgot about that boy. You never talk about him. I guess we’ll be hearing more about him in the coming days.”

“Dad, I want to help him. He’s my friend,” Toby said.

“Well, last time I checked, you ain’t no lawyer and you ain’t no preacher, so I expect the best you can do is make a phone call to the local parish.”

“I ain’t calling him,” Toby said. “Not Father Fancy. He is one mean priest.”

“Ah, Father Fancy. He used to love taking a swing at us neighborhood idiots. All right, I’ll call him. He’s probably Ronald’s last hope,” Jim said.

The call was made and Father Donald Fancy, all 7 feet and more of him, went to Tick’s bail hearing.

It was a short affair. Less than one minute.

“Your honor, $2 million is excessive. Mr. Walters does not pose a flight risk, and he needs to stay out of jail to continue employment,” the court-appointed attorney Karl Nungesser said.

“And where’s that?” the judge asked, not even looking their way.

“He works for his uncle, a neighborhood barber.”

The judge peered down from his bench at Tick, dressed in prisoner white overalls with PDOC stenciled on the back. Philadelphia Dept. of Corrections. He was dressed for the party ... the cell block party.

“I appeal to your honor to reduce the bail to $500,000,” Nungesser said.

“Mr. Swenson?” the judge said to the assistant D.A.

“Your honor, Mr. Walters does not have a passport, but he is a tremendous flight risk. He sleeps in the back of the barbershop he works in. And the uncle he works for is more of a … family friend.”

“How’s that?” the judge asked.

“The uncle is Kasimir Okoolski, your honor. I believe you’re familiar with Mr. Okoolski? Mr. Walters said he gave him a job, sweeping up," Swenson added.

“So, Okoolski finally got out. Yeah, he was a barber before he went to prison, and a good one. Mr. Nungesser?”

“Yes, your honor?”

“Your client will be held on $1 million bond. Next case,” he said, banging the gavel unceremoniously.


At the same time, Jim and Toby Wallace closed the front door to their home and went their respective ways for the day, Toby to school and Jim to work.

Sitting at his desk, Jim looked out the window of his office, in a tall building in the city. He missed his wife, Toby’s mom, Vanessa.

In the 10 short years they had before Vanessa died, Vanessa showed a tremendous amount of common sense, but not so you would notice it. She didn't wave it like a flag, or shout it from the rooftops. It was how she lived her life, with her son and her husband.

Toby’s biological dad was killed in a drug bust while visiting his cousin in college. Vanessa was eight months’ pregnant when he was killed. Jim wondered what Vanessa would want for Toby’s friend. Ronald.

What kind of name is Tick, anyway?

He opened his laptop and began to write a letter to the editor. It was a doozy.

Some days later, both letters appeared in the Bugle, on the same day. Anton Evers’ letter stated the hard line. Jim Wallace’s letter, however, was a softball that could have been lobbed from any pulpit in the city. Spare the rod.


At PP headquarters Downtown, Jack Barns rose as the usual suspects entered the room and took their customary comfy seats near the window.

“This guy is perfect,” said Barns.

“What do we know about him?” said Greta Sachs.

“Anton Evers, 41, lives over in Market South. A bit of a radical in college, Black Student Coalition, that type of thing. Probably just trying to get laid. He’s some sort of e-commerce consultant now, and it takes him all over the country,” said Gordon Papilov.

“Married 10 years to May Evers, 43, also black, a detective for Philly P.D. She’s had some citations and has 20 plus in. No kids.”

“What about this other letter? This Wallace guy sounds perfect for them,” Sachs said.

“We’re not going to worry about him, or them. Find out more about this Evers, but don’t start sniffing around PPD just yet. I want to make a call first,” Barns said.


Across town, Cornell Willingham sat on a small dock along the Schuylkill River. He wiggled his fishing pole, singing a little tune in time with the wiggles.

“I can feel you, on my hook. Just come up to eat, and take a look and I … GOTCHA,” jerking up the pole and snagging a fish.

He reeled in the catch and pole-flung it onto the dock. The fish made a loud, squishy thud on the dock.

Still sitting, Willingham ground a black-shoe heel onto the fish’s tail, holding it from flopping free.

It took two, long minutes of flopping for the fish to die.

Willingham watched silently, intently.

When the fish stopped moving, he reached down, disconnected the hook and foot-flicked the fish back into the river, where it floated and bobbed with the flow, downriver, and eventually, out to sea.

Willingham rose, just in time to meet a man and woman, both in black suits. The woman handed Willingham a copy of that day’s Bugle.

“Is it in there?” he asked.

“Just like they said it would be. I knew my source would be reliable,” the woman said.


“Jim Wallace, aged 45, white," the man said.

“Widowed three years. Raising his black step-son, Toby, who just turned 16. Wallace works Downtown for some big urban planning group. This guy’s gonna push all of the public’s right buttons, exactly when we want.”

After the man and woman departed, Willingham stared out at the river as he made a call on his cell phone.

The sun set.


Sunrise in parts of Philadelphia can be sublime, depending on the weather.

The Atlantic Ocean usually has something to say about it, though, and this particular morning, it said fog, which is rare. The exact right conditions must prevail for a period of time.

Then, it’s no longer Seattle, but San Francisco. The fog comes in and doesn’t leave all day, like a nosy next-door neighbor.

Toby’s new ride got him to school in record time, despite the fog. B-drop was waiting, where he usually stood, just outside the gates to the high school.

“Sup, B?”

“I’ll tell you what, outsider,” B-drop said, looking around and sparking a cigarette.

“We was talking about you last night, watching Tick on TV. Can you believe that shit? He finally makes his bones and he wasn’t even trying, or under orders. That shit is a gift. Ain’t nobody gonna miss that boy he kilt, ‘cept his mama, and she can suck my dick.”

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toby thought.

“You talked about me? About what?”

“We’re a man short now, and we all said names of people. You wouldn’t believe some of the names. Mrs. Baker, the church organist? She sits on you, you are squished dead. She smokes weed, too.

“The old, blind man in the newsstand, over on Watkins? He got a sword hidden in that blind cane. Someone said he might know kung fu. Then, I mentioned you,” B-drop said, dropping his cigarette and grinding it out.

“You lucked out. Motherfuckers said ain’t nobody called Toby ever been in a black gang. Too Irish,” he said, laughing, punching Toby in the stomach.


School, especially high school, is a distraction. Occasionally, one young mind or one teacher will do or say something that enlightens an entire class.

In Government class, that person was Charlene Davis, when she asked to read Toby’s step-dad’s letter aloud.

“Mr. Sanders, can I ask you something?” she blurted out before the teacher said a word.

“Yes, Miss Davis, what is it?”

“I want to read the letter Toby’s dad wrote in the newspaper, aloud to the class,” she asked bravely, holding the newspaper page up in the air.

The class, Toby included, collectively let out a loud groan.

“A letter you say? Letter to the editor? Well, class, you are in luck,” Sanders said.

“It’s two-fer Tuesday, and we were going to start talking about active citizenship, such as writing and reading letters to the editor in newspapers. Go ahead, Miss Davis. Wait a minute, Mr. Wallace, are you here?” he said, craning to see if Toby was in his assigned seat in the very back corner of the class. A skinny arm raised up slowly from the corner.

“Here,” Toby said weakly before following it up with a stronger,

“Here, sir.”

“Have you read your Dad’s letter?”

“Yes, sir, before he sent it in.”

“Okay if Miss Davis reads it to the class?”

“It’s a free country,” Toby said confidently.

“That’s the spirit, Mr. Wallace. Okay, go ahead.”

Charlene rose from her seat and walked the few steps to the front of the class. She focused her dark, Puerto-Rican eyes on the class, then the paper.

Toby was 3.75 feet from the classroom’s back door. He once made it out of the room before the bell ending class had finished sounding. His right foot twitched.

“Okay, the title of the letter is ‘Justice or Penance. A young man gunned down a second young man on one of our streets a few days ago. I say, our streets, because they are, just as the shooter is one of us, and the victim. That street didn’t belong to one gang or another, despite what you may have read. It belongs to us all, and we to it.

“‘The shooter and the victim, this action cannot be excused. But let the jury decide between justice and punishment. Punishing the shooter will not give the victim’s family justice, just as it will not bring the victim back to life. Let the jury decide that no trade can take place, one life for another. Justice will be served because the shooter must live with the guilt of murder on his everlasting soul and that will be punishment enough, now and into the hereafter. Jim Wallace, Philadelphia.’”

The class was silent. Sanders rose from his chair.

“Well, a very succinct letter, Mr. Wallace. Your father appears to have a defined opinion and the ability to express it well,” Sanders said.

“I’ll tell him you said so,” Toby said proudly.

“Miss Davis, why did you want to read the letter?”

“I dunno, I guess I see what we all see, every day: death. I have an opinion, but when you’re a teenager, sometimes, you’re not really sure what to do for yourself, much less humanity,” Charlene said.

“All these classes, the teachers are trying to ‘give us skills’ that we can use in life. Having an opinion and being able to express it have got to be two of those skills.”

“They are, indeed. Anyone else?”

Daniel Stevens, 16, who didn’t have to bulk up to play varsity football, raised a gargantuan hand.

“Sounded kind of soft to me. No offense, Toby,” he said, trying to rotate his giant torso to catch Toby’s eye in the back. He waved a salami-sized finger.

“S’ Cool,” Toby said.

“Can you elaborate?” Sanders said.

“Well, if I was on the jury, I’d be wanting the shooter to pay for what he done. Seems like Toby’s Dad wants there to be no consequences. Isn’t that what adults are always saying? That situations have consequences?”

“He ain’t gonna go free. He’s just going to end up another dead black man,” piped up Evie Pierce. She knew Tick, before he was Tick.

“Why do you say that, Miss Pierce?” Sanders said.

“Cause he’s po, and he's in a gang, so no decent lawyer gonna help him. Hell, he probably did pull the trigger, so what kind of deal they gonna offer him? He’s just gonna end up anotha dead banga,” Evie said.

“Anyone else? Pretty open topic. I would think every person in this room has an opinion, one way or another. Let’s say you are the jury for this young man’s trial. Talk among yourselves. I’ll step out into the hall,” Sanders said.

What Sanders heard from the hall would make any American proud.

After five minutes, Evie opened the door, smiled, and said, “We’re ready.”

Sanders stepped into the room and the students quietly returned to their seats. Toby stood at the front.

“Okay, here’s what we decided,” Toby said.

“You the spokesperson?” Sanders asked.

“The class thought, by vote, that since my Dad wrote the letter, I should be the spokesperson. Okay, we decided, again by a vote, that most of us agree with my Dad. Several others took a more hard-line stance: prison. One said, eye for an eye,” Toby said, kind of sadly, for it was his friend they were talking about.

But few of the kids knew Tick, because he stopped coming to school before the end of eighth grade. No one but Toby and Evie remembered him, and Daniel Stevens.

“How about you, Mr. Sanders?” Toby asked, catching Sanders off-guard.

“Me? Gee, I dunno. I’m gonna say that I have an opinion, but I have decided to keep it to myself, and I ask the class’s indulgence, considering a very successful exercise this morning,” Sanders said, just as the bell sounded.

“And no homework!” Sanders said, to which a collective “yea” went up from the class as they hurried out.