By Michael Ledwidge
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Table of Contents
A Preview of Worst Case
A Preview of Bullseye
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GETTING STUCK ON a bus in New York City, even under normal circumstances, is a lesson in frustration.
But when the bus belongs to the NYPD Tactical Assistance Response Unit, and it's parked at a barricade that's swarming with cops, and you're there because you're the only person in the world who might have a chance at keeping several hostages from being killed, you can cancel your dinner plans.
I wasn't going anywhere on that Monday night. Much worse, I wasn't getting anywhere.
"Where's my money, Bennett?" an angry voice shouted through my headset.
I'd gotten to know that voice really well over the past seven and a half hours. It came from a nineteen-year-old gang hit man known as D-Ray—his real name was Kenneth Robinson—who was the main suspect in a triple drug murder. In truth, he was the only suspect. When police had come after him earlier today, he'd holed up in a Harlem brownstone, now behind police barricades, threatening to kill five members of his own family.
"The money's coming, D-Ray," I said, speaking gently into the headset. "Like I told you, I got Wells Fargo to send an armored truck up from Brooklyn. A hundred thousand dollars in unmarked twenties, sitting on the front seat."
"You keep saying that, but I don't see no truck!"
"It's not as easy as it sounds," I lied. "They run on bank schedules. You can't just call them like a taxi. They don't carry that kind of cash around, either—they've got to go through a complicated procedure to get it. And drive through traffic, just like everybody else."
Hostage situations call for measured calm, something I'm actually pretty good at faking. If it weren't for the dozen uniformed Emergency Service Unit and Manhattan North Task Force cops listening in, you might have thought I was a priest hearing a confession.
In fact, the Wells Fargo truck had arrived a good two hours ago and was parked out of sight nearby. I was fighting with everything I had to keep it there. If it drove these last few blocks, that meant I'd failed.
"You playin' me?" D-Ray barked. "Nobody plays me, cop. You think I don't know I'm already lookin' at life in prison? What I got to lose if I kill somebody else?"
"I know you're not playing, D-Ray," I said. "I'm not, either—that's the last thing I want to do. The money's on its way. Meantime, you need anything else? More pizza, soda pop, anything like that? Hey, it must be hot in there—how about some ice cream for your niece and nephew?"
"Ice cream?" he yelled with a fury that made me wince. "You better get your shit together, Bennett! I don't see no armored truck in five minutes, you gonna see a body come rolling down that stoop."
The line went dead. Wiping sweat from my face, I pulled off the headset and stepped to the window of the NYPD bus. It was parked with a clear view of D-Ray's brownstone, on 131st Street near Frederick Douglass Boulevard. I raised my binoculars and panned the kitchen window. I swallowed as I spotted an Eracism magnet holding up children's drawings and a picture of Maya Angelou on the fridge. His niece and nephew were six and eight years old. I had kids those same ages.
At first, I'd hoped that the situation would be easier because his hostages were his own flesh and blood. A lot of criminals might make this kind of desperate bluff, but they'd back down before they'd harm someone close to them, especially little kids. D-Ray's eighty-three-year-old grandmother, Miss Carol, was also in there with them, and she was a neighborhood institution, a powerful and respected woman who ran the rec center and the community garden. If anybody could make him listen, it was Miss Carol.
But she hadn't, which was a very bad sign. D-Ray had already proved that he was a killer, and during the hours I'd spent talking to him, I'd sensed his rage rising and his control slipping. I was sure that all along he'd been getting higher on crack or meth or whatever, and by now he was half insane. He was clinging to a fantasy of escape, and he was ready to kill for it.
I had helped him build that fantasy, and I'd used every trick I knew to keep it going so we could get those people out of there alive—tried to create a bond, talked like a sympathetic friend, even told him my name. But I was out of both tricks and time.
I lowered the binoculars and scanned the scene outside the bus windows. Behind the sawhorses and the flashing lights of the gathered police vehicles, there were several news vans and maybe sixty or seventy spectators. Some were eating Chinese takeout or holding up cell phone cameras. There were school-age kids zipping around on Razor scooters. The crowd seemed anxious, impatient, like picnickers disappointed that the fireworks hadn't started yet.
I turned away from them just as Joe Hunt, the Manhattan North borough commander, sagged back in the office chair beside me and let out a long, deflated breath.
"Just heard from ESU," he said. "Snipers think they got a pretty good bead on him through one of the back windows."
I didn't say anything, but Joe knew what I was thinking. He stared at me with his almost sad, world-weary brown eyes.
"Kid or not, we're dealing with a violent sociopath," he went on. "We need to give this to Tactical while those poor people inside still have a chance. I'm calling in the Wells Fargo truck. I want you to get D-Ray back on the phone and tell him to watch for it. Then Con Ed's going to cut the power, and the snipers will drop him with night vision." Joe heaved himself to his feet and gave me a rough pat on the shoulder. "Sorry, Mike. You did better than anyone has any right to expect, but the kid flat-out refuses to live."
I passed my hands through my hair and scrubbed my own tired eyes. New York City has one of the best reputations in the world for resolving hostage situations nonviolently, and I hated like hell to be a part of changing that fine tradition. But I couldn't argue with Hunt's logic. D-Ray definitely wasn't even trying to help me save him.
I nodded, defeated. We had to think about his family now. There was no other way.
I listened to Joe Hunt call the armored truck and order it to start moving toward us. As soon as it came into sight, I'd be talking to D-Ray for the last time.
We stepped out of the bus for a breath of fresh air while we waited.
AS I CLIMBED OUTSIDE, the first thing I noticed was the chanting from a different crowd—at the far end of the block, in front of a housing project over on Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
It took my brain a second to decipher the words: "Fight the power!"
Hunt and I exchanged stunned looks. We cops were there to save the lives of their friends and neighbors—including two little children and the much-loved Miss Carol—and we were the bad guys? Talk about a neighborhood in need of some new role models.
"Fight the power! Fight the power!" The roar kept coming at me while I anxiously searched for the armored truck.
New role models! my brain yelled back.
Then, out of nowhere, the two thoughts connected.
"Hold that truck, Chief!" I hollered at Hunt. I rushed back onto the bus and snatched up my headset, nodding to a uniformed TARU tech to patch me into the brownstone again.
"D-Ray, it's Mike Bennett," I said when he picked up.
"You got two minutes, cop!" He was practically frothing with agitation.
"Whoa, whoa," I said. "Listen to the crowd outside, will you? They're rooting for you. You're their hero."
"What kind of bullshit you pullin' now, Bennett?"
"This isn't bullshit, D-Ray. Open up a window and listen. You think you've got nothing left to live for, but you're wrong."
All the cops and techs on the bus stopped what they were doing and watched the brownstone. After a very long thirty seconds, one of the window sashes rose a few inches. We couldn't see D-Ray—he was beside or below it—but he was there, listening.
"Hear that?" I said into the headset. "Fight the power. They're talking to you, D-Ray. They think you're a badass for holding us off. Not only that, you know what one of your grandmother's church-lady friends just told me? You've done this neighborhood a great service by getting rid of the Drew Boyz and all their dope-dealing and violence. People hated them, were terrified of them, and you took them out."
"Ohhh, man! You serious?" For the first time, D-Ray sounded like what he was, a scared, confused nineteen-year-old kid.
"I'm damn serious, and I feel the same way they do," I said. It was another bald-faced lie, but I'd sell him both the George Washington and the Brooklyn bridges if it meant saving lives.
The crew on the bus were staring at me now. I swabbed my sleeve across my sweaty face and took the next risk.
"Now, there's two ways left you can play this, D-Ray," I said. "You can keep your hostages and try to get away with the money. But you won't get far, and you know it. Probably you'll get yourself killed, and maybe your grandma and the little kids, too. Or you can stand up like the hero these people believe you are, and let everybody go."
It felt like my heart stopped, and maybe time itself, as D-Ray suddenly cut the connection.
"D-Ray!" I yelled. "D-Ray, come back, goddammit!"
The line stayed dead. I tore off the headset and burst out of the hot, bright bus into the cool darkness of the street.
I RAN TO THE BARRICADES in front of the brownstone, tensed for the hollow popping sound of gunshots from inside, then the sickening thud of a body being shoved out onto the steps. The crowds at both ends of the block hushed, as if they sensed that this was a critical moment.
The door at the top of the building's stoop opened slowly. The first person I saw was a large elderly woman. It was D-Ray's grandmother, Miss Carol, and she was walking on her own! Better yet, the two other adults—D-Ray's grand-aunt and -uncle—were flanking her, and I could just make out the small shapes of the niece and nephew behind them. My ruse had worked—they were all alive, and he was releasing them!
My breath had been locked in my throat. I let it out with a whoosh and started sucking air into my starving lungs. But my joy warped into shock when I realized that they all had their arms linked to form a circle.
They were making themselves into a protective human shield, with D-Ray crouching in the center.
"Don't you shoot my baby!" Miss Carol screeched, loud and clear in the sudden stillness.
Unreal—even more unreal than the crowd making a hero of D-Ray! His hostages were actually protecting him. First, insane role models, and now, double-insane Stockholm syndrome.
I gestured toward Commander Hunt to stand down the rooftop snipers as I shoved my radio earphone in place and hurried toward the bizarre human chain making its way along the brownstone steps.
"It's me, D-Ray, I'm Mike Bennett," I called to them. "You're doing the right thing, D-Ray. You're making everybody proud of you. Now we need your family to move aside."
"Don't you hurt him!" Miss Carol cried out again. I could see the glimmer of tears in her eyes.
"He'll be safe with me, I promise." I held my hands up high and open to show that they were empty, and as I lowered them, I repeated my stand-down gesture to the nervous cops. "D-Ray, if you have any guns, throw them out on the ground," I said, putting a little more authority in my voice. "You'll be fine, don't worry."
There was another pause that seemed endless before a flat gray pistol clattered out from inside the human circle and onto the sidewalk. It looked like a Glock, probably a .40 or .45 caliber, with a ten- to thirteen-round clip—a whole lot of death in a package smaller than a paperback.
"Good man, D-Ray," I said. "Now I'm coming in there to you, and we're going to walk together to a car."
Miss Carol and the others unlinked their arms and parted, revealing a stocky young man wearing below-the-knee athletic shorts and a baseball cap turned to the side. I stepped over the barricade sawhorse and walked toward him.
Then came a terrible sound that almost made me jump out of my shoes: the boom of a gunshot from somewhere behind me.
D-Ray fell into the gutter like a chainsawed tree while his family watched, frozen with horror.
In the next instant, everything changed. Cops tackled asphalt with their weapons ready, and the crowds started milling and shoving in panic.
"Cease fire!" I yelled, and I piled into Miss Carol, knocking her back into the others so they all went down like dominoes. Then I scrambled on my knees to D-Ray.
But neither I nor anybody else would be able to help him. There was a bullet hole, trickling blood, neatly centered between his open eyes.
"Not us, Mike! Stay down!" It was Lieutenant Steve Reno from the ESU tactical squad, calling into my radio earphone.
"Then who?!" I shouted back.
"We think it came from the crowd near Frederick Douglass. We're sending a team in there now."
A sniper in the crowd—not a cop? Christ! What was going on?
"Get EMS over here," I told Reno over the radio squawk. Then I stood up. I knew he was right, that the sniper might be looking for more targets, but I couldn't just lie there with the chaos erupting around me.
Instantly I felt like I was swimming in quicksand. The crowd had seen D-Ray fall, and they assumed that the police had shot him. They were turning ugly, jamming up against the barricades, their faces contorted in rage. Other cops were on their feet now, too, running to this area and forming a line to hold them back.
"They killed that boy! They murdered him!" some woman kept screaming.
A surge of human beings sent one of the sawhorses tumbling over, knocking down a female NYPD officer. Her partners leaped in to drag her to safety, while others charged along beside them, swinging nightsticks. The earsplitting chatter of sirens ripped through the air as two squad cars drove up onto the sidewalk to reinforce the barrier between us and the mushrooming riot closing in on us.
I was keeping tabs on that, while also scanning the rooftops, in dread of more gunfire. Then, what felt like a baseball bat with knuckles slammed into the back of my head. It sent me reeling and spun me clear around.
"You lyin' pig, you killed my baby!" Miss Carol screamed. She came after me, moving very fast for a woman of her age and size, and rammed another punch into my chest, knocking the breath out of me.
"No, we didn't do it," I croaked out, but she was already winding up for a haymaker that would have knocked me silly. I managed to duck that one, only to have D-Ray's emaciated uncle grab my lapels and try to head-butt me. As I pried off his hands, his equally fragile-looking wife walloped me across the shoulders with her cane. I'd taken some thumpings in my life, but this set a new record for bizarre.
As I backpedaled frantically, I realized that the news camera lights weren't on the crowd anymore, but now were spotlighting my geriatric ass-whooping. That inflamed the crowd further, and people at both ends of the block started to converge, tearing down the barricades and leaping over the hoods of the patrol cars. A couple of uniforms came to my rescue, forcing my attackers aside, and Joe Hunt grabbed my arm and yanked me along with him in retreat to the TARU bus.
"Call for backup!" he was yelling. "Get the Two-five, the Two-six, and the Three-oh over here. I mean everybody, and I mean yesterday!"
In the distance, I could hear the wail of the reinforcement sirens already starting.
IT WAS COMING on three a.m. when I finally managed to get myself smuggled out of Harlem by a uniform who owed me a favor.
As we negotiated the gridlock maze of news satellite vans, barricades, and mounted crowd-control cops, there still wasn't the slightest hint about who had killed D-Ray.
Any standoff that led to a death would have been bad enough, but this bizarre shooting was the department's worst nightmare come true. No matter how much evidence suggested that the NYPD wasn't responsible, it looked like we were. The rabble-rousers, conspiracy theorists, and their many friends in the New York City media were going to have a field day.
And if that wasn't enough to make me rip into a blister pack of Prilosec, there was the mountain of reports and other red tape I'd be facing come morning. I'd have gladly accepted another caning from D-Ray's grandaunt instead.
When the cop dropped me off in front of my West End Avenue apartment building, I was so burnt out from fatigue, unresolved tension, and worry about what lay ahead that I almost stumbled to the door. I craved a few hours of peaceful sleep as a man who'd been crawling for days through the desert craves an oasis.
But the oasis turned out to be a mirage. Right off the bat, my crazy Dominican doorman, Ralph, seemed pissed off that I had to wake him up. I liked Ralph, but I was in no mood for petty surliness, and I gave him a look that told him so.
"Any time you want to trade jobs, Ralph, just let me know," I said.
He lowered his eyes apologetically. "Rough night, Mr. Bennett?"
"You'll read about it tomorrow in the Times."
When I finally made it into my darkened apartment, the Crayola products and Polly Pocket debris that crunched underfoot were actually welcoming. I mustered up enough energy to lock up my service weapon and ammo in the pistol safe in my front hall closet. Then, totally wiped, I collapsed onto one of the high stools at the kitchen island.
If my wife, Maeve, were still here, she'd be standing at the stove right now, handing me an icy Bud while something wonderful fried—chicken wings or a cheeseburger, heavy on the bacon. With divinely sent, cop-wife wisdom, she knew that the only panaceas for the grim reality of the streets were grease, cold beer, a shower, and bed, with her warm beside me.
A strange moment of clarity pierced my weariness, and I realized that she hadn't just been my love—she'd been my life support. On nights like this, the really bad ones, she'd listen for hours if I needed to talk, and understand completely when I couldn't.
Right then, more than anything in the world, I longed to feel her fingers caress the back of my neck as she told me that I'd tried my best. That sometimes there's nothing we can do. I would circle her waist with my hands, and her magic would make all my doubts and guilt and stress disappear.
Maeve had been dead for almost a year now, and in all that time, I hadn't found any new ways to cope with it—only new ways to miss her.
I'd been at the funeral of a homicide victim one time and heard his mother quote a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay. It kept ringing in my ears lately, like a song you can't get out of your head.
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender the kind…
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
I don't know how much longer I can live without you, Maeve, I thought. My head sagged, and I leaned my forearms on the counter for support.
But I jerked back upright when I noticed that my left hand was resting in a pool of something sticky. I examined the stuff, sniffed it, then tasted it: grape jelly, Welch's finest, covering not just my hand, but my whole suit jacket sleeve.
Living without you isn't the only thing that's impossible, I told Maeve while I stood up on tired legs to search for a paper towel.
How can I take care of all our kids the way only you could?
I WAS HOPELESS on the domestic front, all right. I couldn't even find a paper towel. I rinsed off the jelly with water as well as I could, and put the suit coat in a closet with some other clothes that were waiting to be dry-cleaned. My luck started looking better when I poked around inside the fridge. There was a Saran-wrapped plate of baked ziti on a shelf, and I dug up a can of Coors Light buried beneath half a case of Capri Suns in the drink drawer. I set the microwave humming, and I was just crunching open my Silver Bullet when a hair-raising sound emanated from the dark interior of my apartment—a sort of howling moan followed by a long, unholy splatter. Then it happened again, only in a different tone.
As I slowly lowered my untouched brew, I was visited by one of those blink moments I'd read about. Though my conscious mind wasn't sure what was causing those noises, some deeper instinct warned me that it signaled a danger that any sane person would flee with all his might.
Against my better judgment, I staggered down the hall in that direction. Peering around a corner, I spotted a bar of light under the rear bathroom door. I tiptoed to it and slowly twisted the knob.
I stood rooted there, speechless with visceral horror. My instincts had been all too correct. I should have fled when I had the chance.
Not one, not two, but three of my children were projectile-vomiting into the tub. It was like looking at an outtake from The Exorcist while you were seeing triple. I reared back as Ricky, Bridget, and Chrissy hurled again, each one's upchuck triggered by the previous one, like they were trying to puke a campfire round. Think Vesuvius, Krakatoa, and Mount Saint Helens all going off in musical succession.
Before I could catch myself, I made the mistake of breathing through my nose. My stomach lurched precariously. I blessed my stars that I hadn't had a chance to eat during the Harlem siege, or to get started on the ziti. Otherwise, yours truly would have chimed in a fourth eruption of his own.
My Irish nanny, Mary Catherine, was right beside the kids, her golden ringlets bouncing out from beneath a red bandanna as she mopped furiously at the blowback they left. She had wisely put on elbow-length, industrial rubber gloves and covered her face with another bandanna, but I could see from her eyes—usually crisp blue, but now damp and faded—that she was as exhausted as I was.
She gave me a quick wave, then pulled off the bandanna and said, in her lilting brogue, "Mike, remember before you left for work, I told you Chrissy was looking a little green?"
I nodded mutely, still struggling to absorb the enormity of the situation.
"I think that flu that's been going around school has arrived," Mary Catherine said. "Repent, for the plague is upon us."
I crossed myself solemnly, trying to pick up her joke to make us both feel a little better. But a nervous part of me wasn't entirely kidding. The way things had been going, maybe this was the plague.
"I've got it from here, Mary," I said, taking the mop from her. "You're officially off duty."
"That, I most certainly am not," she said indignantly. "Now, the Tylenol is in the cabinet over the sink, but we're running out of cough syrup, and—"
"And enough," I said, pointing toward the stairs to her upstairs apartment, formerly the maid's quarters. "I don't need any more patients to take care of."
"Oh? What makes you think you won't get sick?" She folded her arms in stubborn loyalty, which I'd come to know well. "Because you're a big tough copper?"
I sighed. "No—because I don't have time to. Get some sleep and you can take over in the morning, okay? That's what I'm going to need."
She wavered, then gave me a weary but sweet smile.
"You're not fooling anybody," Mary Catherine said. "But okay."
I MOANED along with the kids as the door closed behind Mary Catherine.
It's not that I don't love my children. I really do. But I'm the guardian of the kind of brood that would send Mother Teresa doctor-shopping for pharmaceutical assistance.
How's this for the Bennett lineup? Juliana, thirteen; Brian, twelve; Jane, eleven; Ricky, ten; Eddie, nine; twins Fiona and Bridget, eight; Trent, six; Shawna, five; and Chrissy, four. A total of ten, count them: two Hispanic, two black, one Asian, and the rest white. All of them are adopted. Pretty impressive, I know. Not many families can field a multicultural baseball team, plus a bench player.
It was primarily Maeve's idea. We started taking in her "stray angels," as she called our gang way back before Brangelina got into the act. How could either of us have foreseen the nightmare of her death from cancer at the age of thirty-eight?
I wasn't completely alone, thank God. Mary Catherine had appeared like a gift from heaven while Maeve was dying, and for some unfathomably merciful reason, she still hadn't fled screaming. My crotchety grandfather-turned-priest, Seamus, was pastor of Holy Name Church, just around the corner. He'd wangled the job so he could help with the kids and disapprove of me, but the disapproval was a small price to pay for his help.
But it had been nearly impossible to take care of my young ones even when their mother was still alive and they were perfectly healthy. What was I going to do with the apartment transformed into a children's ward at a hospital?
A thousand worries sprang up in my already stress-racked head. How was I going to get the well kids to school? What about taking the sick ones to a doctor's office? How much sick leave did I have left? Had I paid this month's health insurance premium on time? And what about the missed schoolwork? An image of the kids' strong-willed, meticulous principal, Sister Sheilah, loomed in my mind like a specter.
I palmed my forehead and took a deep breath. I was a trained problem solver, I reminded myself. I could get us through this. It was temporary—a rough spot for sure, but a brief one. Like in any survival situation, the worst thing I could do was panic.
- On Sale
- Apr 2, 2013
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Grand Central Publishing