Editor’s note: This companion piece serves as a prequel to Liberty Island’s newly published novel, The Violet Crow. You can also check out author Michael Sheldon’s website at msheldon.com.
On October 28, 2008, biblical rain fell in and around Philadelphia–as it had the day before. Joey Kaplan, 36, hustled through the wet swirling winds to an appointment that, he figured, could be his shot at something big. Or maybe his last chance to turn things around. He clutched the front of his trench coat tighter around his neck and pushed on toward the Lower Morganweg police station.
The rain had halted Game 5 of the World Series the night before. Joey couldn’t believe his luck. In all the history of the game, spanning more than 100 years, this was something that had never happened before. Ever. With the Phillies up three to one, they were on the verge of clinching. And what do they do? They wait for the Devil Rays to tie the score in the top of the sixth inning and then immediately suspend the game.
Somebody’s messing with me, mused Joey, thinking of the $1000 he stood to win if the Phils won the Series in five. With a thousand clams and, maybe, some kind of steady income if he could get these Mainline cops to hire him, maybe he could talk Sharon into coming back from the west coast and giving their marriage another shot.
Marriage, the thought crept into his head unbidden, the union of opposites. The league wasn’t going to even consider re-starting the game in weather like this. And who knew how long this Chief Roscoe would take making up his mind, keeping him on pins and needles–needles and pinz-uh. Get that song out of your head. Dammit.

The first surprise was the discovery that Chief Des Roscoe was a woman. Welcoming Joey to her office was a smiling figure no more than five-foot-three-inches tall. Yet she was in no sense petite. Chief Roscoe looked like a 6′ 3" WNBA player whose muscular bulk had been compacted into the body of a woman a foot shorter. Joey noted–in this exact order: bright red lipstick, pale green eyes, cornrows plaited tightly against her skull, a tight-fitting police chief’s uniform with a .45 worn on the left side, and a name plaque reading "Chief Desiree Roscoe."
She laughed, almost aggressively, at his obvious discomfort. "You can call me Chief. Chief Roscoe. This weather’s something huh? If this keeps up, there’ll be no trick or treating, which wouldn’t bother me a bit. Safer for the kids. Less work for us."
"And the Phillies…" Joey started. How could she be thinking about Halloween with the world championship at stake?
"Oh, the Phillies," she huffed. "They always break your heart… Just throw your coat anywhere–or keep it with you if you want. We won’t be talking here."
That was the second surprise. Chief Roscoe led him to a windowless interrogation room and gestured for him to sit on the wooden stool while she took the comfortable padded chair.
"We won’t be interrupted in here," she laughed. "No ringing phones. And it’s warmer in here. You’ll dry out faster. We bring a lot of folks in here to dry out." She winked at him as she hoisted a heavy-looking canvas duffel bag with the department’s initials, LMPD, on the side.
OK, you’ve got my attention, Joey shivered. Can we cut out the games and just get down to business? He tried to wink back but it came out wrong, more like a facial tick. And he knew he sounded ridiculous when he complained, "It’s freezing in here; I don’t know why you say it’s warm. By the weight of your bag, I’m willing to bet you’ve got a copy of Geberth’s Practical Homicide Investigation, and you’ll be using it to test my abilities. That’s fine with me. What I expected. But can’t we do it in your office? You can record me there or whatever you need to do…"
The Chief responded with a resounding thunk as 900 pages of police procedure hit the metal table. "Why Mr. Kaplan, there’s no game playing here. As you must know we are investigating the crimes of a psychopath. We have three grieving families and the community is in an uproar."
Again, she rummaged through the duffel and finally pulled out a folder. From it, she extracted three crime scene photos, which she placed in the center of the table like a dealer setting out the flop for a hand of Texas hold’em. They were gruesome close-ups of cadavers and Joey instinctively turned away.
"You’re a sensitive one, aren’t you? First job?"
Joey nodded, and forced himself to study the photos while the Chief narrated. "The three victims are all white males, middle-aged–about your age in fact. They were abused, tortured, and murdered in the same indoor location…" she paused and sighed deeply, "…and then carried to different city parks where they were laid out on picnic tables, meticulously arranged."
Joey shuddered. It appeared that all of the victims had been tortured with hot pokers and branding irons, then suffocated with plastic bags. He couldn’t bear to look at the anguished faces. But he did manage to observe that Victim #1 was wearing dressy designer jeans, now torn, and a plaid, western-style shirt with snap buttons. Both hips were broken and the legs were arranged at a hideously painful angle with the knees and toes facing inward.
Victim #2 had been wearing slim-fit wool pants, an American flag t-shirt with the colors reversed in magenta, green, and black, topped with a leather jacket. His shoulders and wrists had been broken, and his arms were torqued behind his back.
Joey stopped to study the final photo because it didn’t seem to fit the pattern. Victim #3 was dressed in a dark wool suit, more or less like the one he was now wearing. He also had on a plain white dress shirt, open at the collar. His arms were arranged so he appeared frozen in the act of tying a necktie–though none was present.
"How you holdin’ up?"
Joey nodded weakly. "I’ve never thought much of branding–even when I was in advertising."
The Chief ignored this quip. "There are a couple of key things we’ve noticed. Care to take a guess?"
Joey hugged himself, trying to rub the dampness from his suit. "Well, they’re men to start with. Isn’t that unusual? Not too many women commit serial sex crimes."
"What makes you think it’s a woman?" said Chief Roscoe. "You hatin’ on gays or something?" She laughed when she saw Joey’s incredulous response. "Hah! That’s a good observation. The odds are fantastically against this, but it does happen. The press are trying to call our perp The Mainline Monster, but I don’t care for alliteration. Just between us girls, we call him ‘The Beast.’"
"As in The Beast of Philadelphia?" For some reason, an old song, TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia), had popped into his head and Joey found himself humming: Psychopaths of the world, join hands…
But again Chief Roscoe ignored him. "This is one rough beast we’re dealing with, and we’ve yet to get his number. He’s no slouch; he’s terrorizing Morganweg and that’s a fact."
OK, I get it, thought Joey. Only one person makes the jokes here… And he forged ahead: "I noticed that all of these guys are pretty well dressed. I mean, they’re not dressed for business, or for church…but maybe for a party or something."
"Like a date, perhaps?"
"Yeah, maybe that."
"Good. Anything else?"
"Well, you said psychos arrange the bodies. But these are all arranged differently…and the last one, #3 seems like it might be heading in a different direction entirely."
"That’s right. Sometimes it takes them a while to figure out the position that satisfies their inner compulsion…"
"Could it be a copy cat, but someone who doesn’t really understand what the original was up to?"
The Chief didn’t give it much thought. "Anything’s possible. But we know that once psychopaths refine their MO, the compulsion accelerates and the frequency of the murders along with it. We really need to avoid that. That’s why we’re willing to try anything to catch this person now."
She made eye contact with Joey and held his gaze. "You made it through Part I," she said, opening her copy of Geberth.
"That’s great," said Joey. "How many parts are there?"
"Depends on you. Maybe we’ll just keep going until you fail. Find your limits. That OK with you…?
"Do I have a choice?"
"Not really."
When Des Roscoe returned for Round 2 of the interview, she had changed into civilian clothes: a red pantsuit with black trim, setting off a black blouse.
"Got a dental appointment after this," she said, grimacing to show her teeth. "Get my canines sharpened–hah!"
Joey could only shake his head. This woman was good. He was constantly off balance. He didn’t know if he was the subject of a job interview or an interrogation. Maybe he was coming down with Stockholm syndrome–or was it the pickled herring he’d had for breakfast?
Get me out of here, prayed Joey.I promise I’ll be good if I can just walk out of here in one piece.
As if she were listening in, Chief Roscoe said, "Let’s get this wrapped up ASAP so we can both get going."
Again, she rifled through the seemingly bottomless duffel and pulled out a plastic bag, which she tossed onto the table in front of Joey. Now what? The bag contained a running shoe, old, small, worn, and stained with a black substance that Joey feared could only be dried blood.
"C’mon, take it out of the bag. Don’t be afraid. It can’t hurt you. I want to see what you can do."
"I can’t do this," Joey stammered.
"You claim you’re psychic, don’t you? What’s the matter, can’t you do psychometry? Touch the shoe and tell me what the wearer experienced. Was it a murder or just a little accident while she was peeling an orange?"
"That’s not how I work…"
"Then explain yourself. What’s your problem? I’d like to see you try at least."
"A psychic investigation isn’t that different than a physical one. You don’t just go taking fingerprints at random. You do it at a crime scene. There’s an obvious relationship between the site and the kind of evidence you’re looking for. It’s not random. You have context."
"OK," said the Chief. "I get that. That sneaker was worn by a nice young woman who was murdered a couple of years ago. She was taking a walk by the Schuylkill. Now you tell me something about her."
Joey pushed the bag back across the table toward the Chief. "What do I look like, a midway freak?"
"Since you brought it up, you actually you look like an unemployed advertising guy in a 10-year old Armani suit who’s now trying to get hired as a psychic consultant. Again, I ask you, can you do it or not?"
"You still don’t get how it works. Psychic clues are the emotional residue that attaches to objects at the scene of a crime. But it takes extraordinary intensity to make that happen."
"Like there wouldn’t be any input if somebody got shot from behind and died instantly without knowing what happened…"
"Exactly. And since this case is already solved, there’s a short circuit on that end too…"
The Chief thought about that and then frowned. "But that’s on you, isn’t it? You’re saying you can’t be bothered because it’s just a test." Without allowing him to reply she tossed the tennis shoe back in the bag and brought out the same three photos she’d showed Joey before. "All right then. Pick any one you want and do a remote viewing for me."
Joey lifted his hands in exasperation. "Maybe I could do that if the person in the photograph were still alive. If I were back in my…office…alone in a congenial environment where I could concentrate properly. And the person in the photograph was awake and not aware of what was happening and not actively trying to shut me out."
"Then what?"
"Well, I could see and hear exactly what the subject happened to be thinking at that particular moment."
"That’s it?"
"That’s it."
"Huh! So if I were to hire you, what, if anything, would you actually be able to do for me?"
Joey thought about it. "For this case, all we have are the dead bodies."
"That’s right. For each murder, we interviewed the last person to see the victim alive. We didn’t get much information…"
"In that case, all I can do is try to get a reading directly from the bodies."
"You’d go in the morgue and lay hands on them?"
"I guess I’d have to."
"Without gloves?"
Joey shot her a look.
"OK, I get the picture," said the Chief. "Do you think it would work?"
"Dunno. It might not. A morgue isn’t any better than this place. Maybe worse."
"Then what."
"If you can give me a hair sample, or a scrap of clothing in contact with the skin…I’d take it home. To my office. And work on it there."
"And what exactly does this work entail?"
Joey looked down, tried to hide his expression.
"What, you’re smiling? I don’t get it. Explain why this is funny?"
"It’s just the way it looks–to outsiders, who tend to be critical, I don’t have to tell you. Establishing a psychic connection involves turning on part of your brain that most people don’t use. It’s probably like whatever you do to stimulate your intuition or inspiration."
"So what are you saying?"
"I do things that make me feel good. I sit in the hot tub, take a walk, have a drink…"
"Hah! Do you know what that sounds like? If someone from the press, or internal affairs saw you at–quote unquote–work, they’d raise questions as to why we were blowing our budget on helping you party."
"I realize that," Joey conceded. "You just have to be results-oriented, rather than process-oriented, umh, when it comes to evaluating my work."
The Chief didn’t respond so he pushed on, trying to salvage his chances. "If you had a suspect and also a photograph, I could do a remote viewing. But keep in mind I can only read whatever the subject is actively thinking about. If they’re not thinking about the crime, I can’t go crashing around in their memory to find out…"
"Understood. What I’d really like to know is what those different positions mean. The way the victims were posed…"
Joey thought about it. "Only the murderer knows that. If you had a viable suspect…"
"…I wouldn’t need you. OK, we’re done here."
"The interview’s over?"
"No. We’re just done in here." The Chief got to her feet and opened the door. "Give me a few minutes and wait in my office. We’ll finish up in there."
Joey couldn’t believe it. He’d said too much again. He felt like he’d hooked her and almost had her on his side. But then he’d talked through the close. Always a mistake to bring up the hot tub, he reminded himself. And the drinks. He felt defeated and considered leaving. Then he looked outside–it was raining as hard as before–and decided to stick around to see what would happen next.
"Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?"
"What kind of question is that?" Joey protested. "It’s not in Geberth. You can’t ask things like that!"
"I just did, didn’t I?" Chief Roscoe had donned a black raincoat in preparation for her dental appointment, and it looked to Joey like she was wearing choir robes. She raised her arms and gestured toward all four corners of the office ceiling as if to say, "Hallelujah, no cameras in here."
Joey’s heart sank. He’d been elated to escape from the frigid grasp of the interrogation room. Now the Chief was using that to her advantage, asking him about religion. Why? What difference could that make? "I’m Jewish. Obviously."
"Obvious? Not to me. You could be Catholic; you’ve got dark hair. That suit makes you like kind of Italian. What I’m really asking about is your relationship with God. Do you have a direct connection?"
"So you’re asking whether or not I think I have a gift that’s divinely inspired?"
"That’s right…"
"Don’t make me laugh. It’d be funny if it weren’t…pathetic. I can’t tell you how much trouble this psychic stuff has caused me; it you knew the whole story you’d think I was cursed."
"Are you saying you sometimes think Satan is messing with your head?"
"Hah!" Joey said, starting to mimic Des Roscoe’s distinctive snort. "That’s not what I meant at all. People, when they find out what I can do, it drives them wild. They either think I’m a fake or else responsible for causing whatever I find out about. Or both at the same time. I’ve lost jobs, friends, my wife, money, and any chance at happiness. Now this. I’m sorry I wasted your time…"
"Mister Kaplan!" she barked.
"Get a hold of yourself. You must never lose your nerve. I am planning to hire you for this assignment. But I need to know if you can handle the pressures that are about to come your way."
Joey looked up, slack-jawed, eyes-glazed-over. Looking, frankly, stupid.
The Chief slapped his face. "Come on soldier. We have a war to fight."
Joey started to come around. "You mean…"
"Yes! But control yourself. There’s something I haven’t told you yet."
For the third time that afternoon, Chief Roscoe produced the set of photographs of the victims. "Two of the victims were Jewish. The third was actually of German ancestry but has a Jewish-sounding name."
If Joey looked slow-witted before, now he appeared numb. "I fit the profile," he mumbled. "You want to use me as bait."
"No, no. Not like that at all. We wouldn’t send you out alone to parks or parties or whatever. But there are some congruencies we think we could use that to our advantage."
"You have a natural connection with the culture and the milieu of the victims. My intuition tells me that because you fit in so well, you’ll be able to access information we wouldn’t get otherwise. We might even use you in a P.R. role to ferret out leads…"
"That doesn’t sound safe."
"It’s not. What we do here always involves risk. But we know how to manage it, and we’d protect you."
"Well, first of all we’d give you some cover. You need a working name, a nom de guerre. And then we’d hide you out somewhere that no one knows about."
"A safe house?" Joey finally started to perk up a bit thanks to this far-fetched idea.
"Yeah. Something like that. A safe trailer, maybe. Budget…you know."
She winked, but Joey ignored this obvious sign of trouble. His thoughts were tending elsewhere. "A pseudonym, huh? I kinda like that idea. But what should I call myself?"
"You trust me to name you?" The Chief was grinning like a fiend, ear to ear. "OK. Let’s go with the Italian thing. You’re going to keep wearing that suit right?"
"I guess."
"So you’re name is Bruno. I got it. Bruno X!"
"What? Bruno X? What does that mean? Is this a joke?"
"I have never been more serious. There are three things we need. One is authority; I’ve got that in spades, hah! Two is magic; that’s you in your new identity as a bona fide psychic. And then the third thing is mystery. That’s where we work together. To create misdirection. That’s the X. Got it, Bruno X?"
Joey looked like he didn’t understand what she was saying. Was he losing his nerve already?
Chief Roscoe could see that her protege was going to need to hear the message several times before it could get traction against decades of bad habits and inbred pessimism. "Listen Bruno," she said, "This is one thing you’ve got to learn when you’re working for me. What you got is a gift, not a curse. The only one who can beat you is yourself. If they start messing with you, you give it back to them, double. Hit ’em with the X factor."
"We have a word for that in Yiddish," Joey said. "Chutzpah."
"My man, Bruno. Chutzpah’s the ticket. But I think you should hold off on the Yiddish until this assignment’s over. OK?"
"Solid Des, ’nuff said. No Yiddish," he agreed, warming to his new role.
"Now take these photos home and see what you can do. I know, you said remote viewing probably won’t work, but you never know. Here’s my card with my direct line and I’ll write in my cell phone number just below it. Call me any time you find out anything, and we’ll get started in the morning."
Chief Desiree Roscoe looked down at her creation: He was now smiling like a cherub, and she felt tempted to slap him again. He had no idea what he was getting himself into.
"I just remembered something, Chief," said Bruno. "Before I go, I’m going to need a retainer to get me started. It sure is cool the way the pieces are already starting to fall in place."
"Pieces? What do you mean?"
"I just realized that the Phillies are going to win tomorrow night by a score of four to three, and my bookie’s apartment is right on my way home."
If you’re intrigued and want more, pick up The Violet Crow today!