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Also by Richard Montanari

Kiss of Evil The V iolet Hour Deviant Way

Richard montanari

ball antine b o oks T new york

a novel The Rosary Girls is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales,

or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2005 by Richard Montanari

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

Ballantine and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available from the publisher upon request.

ee48203-4

Ballantine Books website address: www.ballantinebooks.com

Text design by Susan Turner

v1.0

FOR DJC Cuor forte rompe cattiva sorte.

the Rosary girls

PALM SUNDAY, 11:55 PM

There is a wintry sadness about this one, a deep-rooted melancholy that belies her seventeen years, a laugh that never fully engages any sort of inner joy. Perhaps there is none.

You see them all the time on the street; the one walking alone, books clutched tightly to her breast, eyes cast earthward, ever adrift in thought. She is the one strolling a few paces behind the other girls, content to accept the rare morsel of friendship tossed her way.The one who babysits her way through all the milestones of adolescence.The one who refuses her beauty, as if it were elective.

Her name is Tessa Ann Wells.

She smells like fresh-cut flowers.

“I cannot hear you,” I say.

“. . . lordaswiddee,” comes the tiny voice from the chapel. It sounds as if I have awakened her, which is entirely possible. I took her early Friday morning, and it is now nearly midnight on Sunday. She has been praying in the chapel, more or less nonstop.

4 Richard montanari

It is not a formal chapel, of course, merely a converted closet, but it is outfitted with everything one needs for reflection and prayer.

“This will not do,” I say.“You know that it is paramount to derive meaning from each and every word, don’t you?”

From the chapeclass="underline" “Yes.”

“Consider how many people around the world are praying at this very moment.Why should God listen to those who are insincere?”

“No reason.”

I lean closer to the door.“Would you want the Lord to show you this sort of contempt on the day of rapture?”

“No.”

“Good,” I reply.“What decade?”

It takes a few moments for her to answer. In the darkness of the chapel, one must proceed by feel.

Finally, she says:“Third.”

“Begin again.”

I light the remainder of the votives. I finish my wine. Contrary to what many believe, the rites of the sacraments are not always solemn undertakings, but rather are, many times, cause for joy and celebration.

I am just about to remind Tessa when, with clarity and eloquence and import, she begins to pray once more:

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee . . .”

Is there a sound more beautiful than a virgin at prayer?

“Blessed art thou amongst women . . .”

I glance at my watch. It is just after midnight.

“And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus . . .”

It is time.

“Holy Mary, mother of God . . .”

I take the hypodermic from its case.The needle gleams in the candlelight. The Holy Spirit is here.

“Pray for us sinners . . .”

The Passion has begun.

“Now and at the hour of our death . . .”

I open the door and step into the chapel.

Amen.

pa rt o n e 1

MONDAY, 3:05 A M

There is an hour known intimately to all who rouse to meet it, a time when darkness sheds fully the cloak of twilight and the streets fall still and silent, a time when shadows convene, become one, dissolve. A time when those who suffer disbelieve the dawn.

Every city has its quarter, its neon Golgotha.

In Philadelphia, it is known as South Street.

This night, while most of the City of Brotherly Love slept, while the

rivers flowed mutely to the sea, the flesh peddler rushed down South Street like a dry, blistering wind. Between Third and Fourth Streets he pushed through a wrought-iron gate, walked down a narrow alleyway, and entered a private club called Paradise. The handful of patrons scattered about the room met his gaze, then immediately averted their eyes. In the peddler’s stare they saw a portal to their own blackened souls, and knew that if they engaged him, even for a moment, the understanding would be far too much to bear.

To those who knew his trade, the peddler was an enigma, but not a puzzle anyone was eager to solve.

He was a big man, well over six feet tall, with a broad carriage and large, coarse hands that promised reckoning to those who crossed him. He had wheat-colored hair and cold green eyes, eyes that would spark to bright cobalt in candlelight, eyes that could take in the horizon with one glance, missing nothing. Above his right eye was a shiny keloid scar, a ridge of ropy tissue in the shape of an inverted V. He wore a long black leather coat that strained against the thick muscles in his back.