By James O. Born
Read by Corey Carthew
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The city of Miami is Detective Tom Moon's back yard. He's always kept it local, attending University of Miami on a football scholarship, and, as a Miami PD officer, protecting the city's most vulnerable.
Now, as the new leader of an FBI task force called "Operation Guardian," it's his mission to combat international crime. Moon's investigative team discovers that the opportunistic "Blood Brothers"—Russian nationals Roman and Emile Rostoff—have evaded authorities while building a vast, powerful, and deadly crime syndicate throughout Europe and metropolitan Miami.
Moon played offense for U of M, but he's on the other side of the field this time. And as the Rostoffs zero in on a target dear to Tom, they're not playing by anyone's rules.
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MIAMI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT isn’t exactly a tranquil space on a normal day—if there’s such a thing as a normal day at MIA. Now, as I watched a human trafficker strolling toward the immigration portal with six kids in tow, it felt like a hurricane was about to hit indoors. An ill-tempered Customs supervisor from the Department of Homeland Security fidgeted next to me.
The supervisor’s pudgy fingers beat on the tan veneer counter, thumping out a rhythm I almost recognized. The only thing Customs supervisors hated worse than a Miami cop asking for help was a Miami cop on an FBI task force asking for help.
The man stopped tapping out “Jingle Bells”—hey, I got it—and shifted to rubbing his gut, which was hanging over his belt despite the extra holes he’d punched in it. He looked up at me and said, “So what kind of task force is this?”
“Who from Customs is on it? There’s no way you can have an international crimes task force without Customs.”
He was right, but I ignored the question to concentrate on the operation.
We were acting on a serious tip we’d gotten from the Dutch national police. They were looking at a smuggling group associated with the Rostoff crime organization, and I was now looking right at the suspect, Hans Nobler.
The Dutch national was about fifty years old and dressed like he was trying to impress twenty-year-olds. In his skinny jeans and leather bracelets, the dude was more creepy than stylish. He wore a blue and orange Dutch World Cup jacket with the swagger of someone who’d played, but the colors were too close to the University of Florida’s for it to seem genuine. I had at least eighty pounds on him; he didn’t worry me.
I turned my attention to the children Nobler was herding, four girls and two boys. The two teenage girls looked scared. The two younger girls, a blonde and a brunette with olive skin, were striking; they couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven years old. When the creepy Dutchman caressed the face of the blond girl, I almost snapped.
But part of police work is patience. Besides, I was in charge of this operation, and it looks bad for the boss to break the law during an arrest. I didn’t want other members of the task force telling the FBI that I was some sort of lunatic.
The Dutchman steered all the kids to the same line for entry.
Why that line? There were seven lines open, and others were shorter or moving faster. Had to be significance to that choice.
The inspector was alert and moving people along reasonably quickly. I checked the roster and saw his name was Vacile. Vacile waved the four older kids through with barely a glance; next up was Nobler with the two younger children. Nobler casually draped his hand over the little blond girl’s shoulders and played with her hair.
My stomach knotted. This wasn’t my usual assignment, some shitty dope deal in the city between lowlifes I didn’t really care about. I desperately wanted to get these kids out of here safely—and, to an extent that surprised me, I wanted this task force to succeed.
I phoned Stephanie Hall. As she answered, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I flinched and turned quickly to see Stephanie herself. She said, “Are you jumpy, Tom Moon? Let’s grab this shithead and call it a day. What else do you need to know about this guy? Remember, curiosity killed the cat. And will make me late.”
I said, “I want to see how he accounts for the kids.” My mind ran through scenarios of what could happen once we made our move. Crowds of tourists, kids in danger—the complications made me shudder.
The other two members of our task force—Anthony Chilleo, who worked for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), and Lorena Perez, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) agent—were also lurking in the area. I used my police radio to urge everyone to be alert and gave a detailed description of the suspect.
Stephanie said in a singsong voice, “Sounds like you’re trying to impress someone.”
“You’re the only one I ever try to impress.” That made her smile, which seemed to brighten the whole room.
AFTER I MADE detective, I realized that different law enforcement agencies always talk shit about one another. Here’s the first joke I heard an FBI agent tell: “What’s blue and white and sleeps four? A Miami police patrol cruiser.” (Made me laugh, if I’m being honest.)
But sometimes the suspicion among agencies came from genuine issues, like the one I was having now with Customs. These agents at the airport had their own little fiefdom; they didn’t care about how we gathered evidence for different crimes. They liked things quick and simple: You’re smuggling contraband; we seize it; you plead guilty; case closed.
I tried to keep things pleasant. I turned to the Customs man and said, “Someone from the task force needs to lay hands on him before you guys.”
“Ah, politics. I guess I shouldn’t be shocked the FBI wants to get some publicity from this.” The supervisor gave me a dirty look, yanked a radio from his belt, and said, “Raoul, pull the guy with the two kids out of line three. The guy who looks like a reject from some half-assed American Bandstand, the one wearing the wannabe Gators jacket.”
I guess he showed me.
I looked out over the crowd. At least I had a good view of the room. There were only a few people as tall as me, and we all stuck out like giraffes. There were Europeans eager to get out in the sun, Americans returning from vacations in Europe. And rising heat in a room where too many people had been pushed in too quickly.
I watched as a lanky Customs officer in a rumpled blue uniform—Raoul—stepped away from a back wall.
I followed him. A guy my size can usually cut through a crowd, but these were people escaping U.S. Customs. Before I could even squeeze past the first heavyset tourist coming to visit America’s most exotic city, the Customs agent was already making contact with the suspect, waving him over. It looked casual, at best. Raoul clearly didn’t know the circumstances of the crime.
The Dutch suspect had the children behind him when he stepped up to the Customs agent. Without telegraphing his intentions, Nobler headbutted Raoul. Soccer moves to match the jacket! Then he punched the stunned Customs man in the throat and drove his whole body into Raoul’s long, lanky frame. As I stood helplessly watching, Nobler somehow managed to get a hand on Raoul’s pistol. He had it out of his holster before the Customs agent flopped onto the cracked tile floor, gasping for air.
I turned to the supervisor and said, “I think your man just made my point for me. Now this asshole is armed. Cover the exits, quick.”
Nobler frantically searched for a way out of the crowded room, then pointed the semiautomatic pistol into the air and fired twice. The rounds sounded like bombs in the enclosed space. The smell of gunpowder quickly reached my nose.
When my hearing returned to normal after the gunshots, I heard the higher pitch of screams as the shocked crowd realized what was happening. Soon the whole place sounded like a police siren wailing.
People scurried in every direction without regard for where the danger was coming from. I’d seen it a hundred times; panic caused more panic, and few people used common sense.
I broke free of the lines entering passport control, Steph Hall right behind me. We both sprinted, trying to catch the suspect, who knocked down about four people as he fled. The sight of the armed man made everyone panic even more, and the crowd parted in a wave to get away from the guy holding the gun.
I caught a glimpse of Nobler just in time to see him find an open access door and disappear through it.
THERE’S AN OLD police saying: Only rookies jump into a foot chase. My own philosophy was that only an idiot chased an armed suspect on foot. But sometimes, you have no other choice. I ran like a sprinter—albeit a sprinter who weighed 240 pounds—gripping my pistol in my right hand. I had an equal match in Stephanie Hall, who stayed neck and neck with me as we kept the suspect in sight. Steph ran gracefully; I was just plain determined. There was no way this jerk-off was going to get away, even if he was considerably faster than I’d anticipated. The skinny jeans alone should’ve slowed him down.
The last guy we’d chased together was a murder suspect who had shoved our colleague Lorena Perez. It was embarrassing to check a prisoner with black eyes into the jail, but I had never even touched the man. No one noticed Steph Hall’s bruised knuckles. I’d hate to be this guy if she caught him first.
Nobler didn’t look back as he sprinted across the rough concrete floor, his longish hair streaming behind him.
Ahead of us, a black Delta baggage handler who looked like he could wrestle professionally took in the sight of the man running in his direction with the police right behind him. He moved into position to block the suspect. I appreciated it. Cops didn’t see that kind of help much anymore.
Then the Dutchman raised his pistol and fired once on the run. The sound of the shot echoing through the cavernous area made the well-built baggage handler dive behind a stack of luggage.
Unexpectedly, the Dutchman spun, raised the semiautomatic pistol, and fired two rounds at me. One of the bullets pinged off the floor a foot to my right. Jesus Christ!
I dived to one side and Steph to the other. We both took cover behind concrete pillars. My heart raced and I had to take a gulp of air. Then I leaned around the solid barrier to squeeze off a shot at the suspect.
When I peeked around the pillar again, he was back to running as hard as he could. It had been a good use of a couple of his bullets; it pinned us down and gave him time to put some distance between us. I hate smart criminals.
We sprang back into the chase. The suspect was still keeping up the pace, and I was starting to get frustrated. He looked over his shoulder and saw that Steph and I were not about to give up. He changed course slightly, zigging and zagging through stacks of luggage like a striker weaving through defenders, then dived headfirst down a steel baggage chute. As he did, he dropped the pistol, and it clattered onto the concrete floor.
I scooped it up on the fly as I hit the same chute, hoping to catch up to this moron before he reached the bottom. Steph took the stairs to cut Nobler off.
He did a pretty good roll at the end of the chute, landed on his feet, and went back into an all-out sprint. That pissed me off even more. When I hit the bottom of the chute, I was gasping for air.
I stood up and started running again. Now Steph was in front of me and I could just barely see the Dutch suspect. He was making for a far door on this lower level of maintenance and storage.
A large black woman with an MIA Services jacket was the only thing between the suspect and his freedom. At least he didn’t have a gun anymore.
Nobler skidded to a stop in front of the airport worker as she leaned against a souped-up golf cart that looked like it could climb a mountain. He tried to slip past her to get into the cart. When she resisted, the man took a swing at her.
She dodged the punch and lifted her knee hard into his groin. He was stunned. Then she drove an elbow right into his face.
I could hear the cartilage in his nose crunch from twenty feet away. It made me wince.
He tumbled onto the concrete floor, wheezing and gurgling.
As Steph and I pounced on the fallen man, I heard the woman say, “I finally got to use my Krav Maga classes.”
I put cuffs on the idiot Dutchman quickly, looked at Stephanie, and said, “I love Miami.”
STEPH HALL AND I walked back through the terminal with our prisoner in tow. He didn’t want to talk, but the scam was easy to figure out. He held the passports for the kids. He’d brought the kids to the U.S. after someone had paid for their transport. Paid a lot. The kids were expected to work off the cost of their transport—usually in the sex trade. It pissed me off just thinking about it.
The other two task-force members, Lorena Perez and Anthony “Chill” Chilleo, fell in next to us. The whole team marched past the corpulent Customs supervisor. Not to show off, of course, but I hoped he’d take notice; these were the cops who’d passed the FBI requirements to join the task force on international crime.
A uniformed Miami-Dade cop took our Dutch prisoner to the tiny holding cell at the airport until we were ready to transport him to Miami MCC. The federal detention center never seemed to fill up the way it should.
Anthony Chilleo had a tough aura about him, forged by fifteen years in the ATF and five before that as a Tampa cop.
Lorena, as usual, looked like she’d just stepped out of a fashion magazine. Even after running through the terminal after us, she wasn’t flustered and her clothes weren’t disheveled.
She said, “You okay?”
“Yeah. Do I look that bad?”
“Your hand is wrapped in a paper towel and dripping blood, your shirt’s ripped, and you’re sweating like you’re in detox. Didn’t you play football in college?”
I was about to make a snappy comeback when a man wearing a nice polo shirt and madras shorts stepped in front of me. He was only an inch or two shorter than me and had a little muscle as well.
He didn’t waste any time on pleasantries. “My name is Randall Stone, and I’m an attorney here in Miami. Let me tell you something—that was some of the most careless, stupid police work I’ve ever seen. You put people at risk to stop someone who’s just trying to get into the country. Let me guess—he insulted the TSA? Or maybe it’s just another arrest to pad your statistics.”
The lawyer made sure he said this loud enough for everyone in the immediate vicinity to hear. Then a woman trying to comfort her little boy stood up and walked over to me. She didn’t say anything as everybody stared at us. Then, without warning, she slapped me. Kinda hard.
The slap brought Steph Hall over. Moving fast, she grabbed the woman by the shoulders. Steph was mad and I didn’t want this to get any more out of control. As the boss, I had to set the tone. I’d been slapped before. Punched, bitten, and stabbed as well. This was Miami, not Disney World.
The woman said, in a strong Brooklyn accent, “My son was almost crushed by the panic you caused. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
I stood there silently, staring at the woman. I wanted to point out that it was the suspect who’d fired a pistol and run, but years of experience had taught me to let this go. In fact, from an early age, I’d learned to let most things go—my lack of achievement on the University of Miami football field, my failed love life, and even parts of my family life.
Lorena said to the lawyer and the woman who’d slapped me, “How can you people be so stupid?” Then she glared at the attorney and said, “I understand an ambulance chaser like you trying to stir up a crowd, but this lady is way out of line. You have no idea what was going on.”
I cut her off and waved at the team to start walking again, away from the crowd. “It’s okay, Lorena. ‘The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.’”
Lorena said, “Socrates.”
I turned and smiled at her. “Very good. That’s impressive.”
She laughed and said, “You rotate between Plato, Socrates, and politicians. I took a shot. You’re right—no matter how much we explain, assholes like that lawyer hate whatever the police do.”
I even avoided bumping into the attorney as we took our walk of triumph.
Everything in police work depended on experience. I wanted to lead everyone away from these loudmouths before someone said or did something stupid. Lorena had a temper, something she’d have to learn to control. Maybe my example could serve as a lesson; I figured it was easier than some of the teaching methods I’d seen at local police departments.
When I was a rookie, I’d arrested a local crack dealer. The narcotics detectives set up to interrogate him and made a big deal out of allowing me, a new patrol officer, to watch it over a closed-circuit TV in the next office. I had to lock up my service weapon and promise that I wouldn’t make any noise or tell anyone I was allowed to watch the interrogation.
I sat there quietly with an older narcotics detective and watched as two of the better-known narcotics detectives sat across a small table from the thin, antsy crack dealer. One of the detectives wore a shoulder holster.
Less than a minute into the interview, the crack dealer started to shout, and then, without warning, he reached across the small table and grabbed the pistol in the shoulder holster.
It happened so fast I didn’t react until he was standing behind the table with the gun raised at the two detectives. Then he pulled the trigger. I still remember seeing the flashes on the fuzzy TV. Bang, bang, and both detectives were on the floor.
I sprang out of my seat, burst through the door into the hallway, and yanked open the door to the interrogation room. That’s when I got one of the biggest surprises of my life: the two detectives were sitting on the table laughing, and the crack dealer was laughing right next to them.
The crack dealer was one of their regular informants and they’d put blanks in the gun. The idea was to have a laugh at the expense of a rookie and teach him two important lessons, both of which I have never forgotten: don’t wear a shoulder holster, because it’s tactically unsound, and don’t take a gun into an interrogation with a prisoner in the first place.
I also learned that a person could literally have the piss scared out of him from a prank like that.
Today, I’d learned never to underestimate the speed of a skinny guy. And Lorena had learned that it never paid to argue with an idiot.
ABOUT AN HOUR after the airport worker had used her martial arts skills to disable our Dutch suspect, I found myself sitting at a long table in a Department of Homeland Security conference room with all six of the children Nobler had brought over. We looked like the weirdest corporate board meeting in history.
I said, “My name is Tom Moon. You can call me Tom.”
The kids and I started chatting. At eighteen, Joseph from Poland was the oldest. His accent was thick, but he spoke decent English. We talked sports. He said, “Real football players are the best athletes, both in skill and endurance.”
“I still prefer American football.”
Joseph gave me a sly grin and said, “I would too if I were as big as you.”
The two youngest kids didn’t speak much English, but I doubt they would have said a lot even if they’d understood what was going on. They were shy and quiet. Considering what had just happened to them, I got it.
Michele, a little blond girl, was only nine years old. She was not ready to talk about how she’d ended up in this situation. She spoke only French. Our office was trying to find her parents or guardians, who were somewhere outside of Paris.
The other little girl, Olivia, was eleven years old. She was from Madrid and thought she was on some kind of field trip. I still wasn’t clear on the details of how the traffickers had tricked her into coming, and I didn’t know if she had family back in Spain, but we had no problem finding a translator for her. More than 70 percent of the population of Miami–Dade County was fluent in Spanish. Even my Spanish was good enough to just chat.
I asked her, in Spanish, “What do you like to do when you’re not in school?”
“I have Rollerblades and roller skates. I’m faster than anyone in my apartment building.” Her eyes positively shone as she boasted of her skill.
“I bet you are.” I couldn’t hide my smile.
Monnie, the teenage girl from Kenya, turned to fifteen-year-old Jacques from Belgium and whispered in his ear. They both giggled. I smiled to let them know it was okay to speak, but they were happy in their private joke.
I looked over at the Finnish girl, fourteen-year-old Annika, and said, “Hei, kuinka voit.”
Her blue eyes opened wide and she hit me with a slew of Finnish.
I held up my hands. “Whoa, sorry. ‘Hello, how are you,’ is all I know in Finnish.”
She smiled and switched to English. “Where did you learn to say that?”
I said, “‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’” The quote covered the fact that I didn’t remember where I’d learned the Finnish phrase.
“What’s that mean?”
“It’s a famous quote.”
“Who said it?”
“A smart man who changed the world.”
Joseph said, “Aren’t you a policeman? How do you know things like that?”
“A policeman can read and go to college,” I told him. I turned back to Annika and said, “What kind of music do you listen to?”
She fixed her blue eyes on me and said, “Mostly I like Top Forty pop. But sometimes I listen to classical music like Brahms or Mozart.” She looked at Joseph and said, “Joseph played me a Mozart sonata on the piano before we left Amsterdam. He’s really good.”
I said, “My mom plays piano.”
Annika asked, “Did she teach you to play?”
I let out a laugh. “She tried, but in South Florida, there are an awful lot of things for a boy to do that are more interesting than playing piano.”
“Is she a piano teacher?”
“She …” I decided to let that one go.
A short while later, a dark-skinned man wearing a jacket that said DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY INVESTIGATIONS stepped into the room and announced, “Time to get your stuff together, kids. It’s a little bit of a drive to the place where you’ll be housed.”
I looked at the man and said, “Where is that?”
“Krome Detention Center.”
“These kids are victims of a crime, not suspects. You dumb-asses let the damn suspect run. We caught him. Can’t you find a better place than Krome for them?”
The man gave me a hard stare for a moment, then said, “Look, pal, there are certain procedures we follow, and that’s where I’m taking them.”
As soon as the DHS agent stepped out of the room, I gathered everyone together. Joseph looked at me with big brown eyes and said, “What are we doing?”
I smiled and said, “We’re making a break for it.”
IT WAS A
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