After his sabbatical in the cushy Connecticut suburbs (Down in the Zero, 1994), judge-jury-executioner Burke is back on New York's meanest streets, this time caught in the crossfire between two homicidal cops. Cop #1 is Belinda Roberts, who came on to Burke and his deceptively named dog Pansy last year and waited in vain for them to call. Now that she's run Burke to earth at the Chinese restaurant where he hangs out, she wants him to reopen a series of rapemurders the NYPD has cleared by convicting George Piersall, already serving time across the river in Jersey for assault. Sure, Piersall's a violent guy, Roberts tells Burke, but the crime he's copped to doesn't involve the signature evidence--a red ribbon snuggled deep inside the homicide victims--being kept quiet by the likes of Cop #2: Jorge Morales, a no-neck thug who dogs Burke's steps, popping up every few pages to warn him off Piersall's case. Of course, telling Burke to back down is like bullying a middleweight by throwing a punch at him, so it figures that Burke's role as shuttlecock in the back-and-forth between Roberts and Morales is paralleled by the boxing career of Frankie Ianello (Frankie Eye), a bulldog fighter Burke has (illegally, given his felonious background) invested in. Inevitably, the red ribbon murders will turn out to be rooted in Burke's obsessive specialty, child abuse. But that revelation will come too late to save a lackluster plot from getting shanghaied by a million supercharged asides, from Frankie Eye's dustups to Burke's satisfied memories of vengeance against the monsters who prey on innocent kids and caged dogs. Burke's ninth adventure shows that he's still the baddest, safest company in the Rotten Apple. But after all these years of avenging helpless children, his heart doesn't seem to be in a case that involves victims as relatively empowered as adult women and imprisoned felons.