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By James O. Born
Read by Danny Mastrogiorgio
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Bennett and the mayor have always had a tense relationship, but now the mayor sees in Bennett a discreet investigator with family worries of his own. Just one father helping another.
The detective leaps into the case and sources lead him to a homicide in the Bronx. The victim has ties to a sophisticated hacking operation—and also to the mayor's missing daughter, Natalie, a twenty-one-year-old computer prodigy. The murder is part of a serial killing spree, one with national security implications. And suddenly Bennett is at the center of a dangerous triangle anchored by NYPD, FBI, and a transnational criminal organization.
Michael Bennett has always been an honorable man, but sometimes—when the lives of innocents are at stake—honor has to take a back seat. Survival comes first.
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I did everything I could to distract Lucille Evans from noticing the bloody footprint. A responding patrol officer had tracked the blood into the hallway. One look at the scene inside and the veteran needed to run into the street. I didn't blame him one bit.
The forensics people were in the small, two-bedroom apartment on the third floor of this building on 146th Street near Willis Avenue in the Bronx. The scene was so horrendous that the local detectives had called me to help even though it wasn't technically considered part of Manhattan North Homicide's usual territory. Two of the local detectives had lost it. It happens. It's happened to me over the years. I lost it once at the scene of a murdered girl. Her stepfather had bashed her head in for crying because she was hungry. She reminded me of my own Shawna, staring up through blood splatters. When I heard her stepfather in the other room, talking with detectives, I snapped. It almost felt like another being possessed me. I burst into the room, ready to kill. Only the fact that my partner at the time, Gail Nodding, was as tough as nails and shoved me back out the door had kept me from killing the creep.
Now I considered this bloody scene. Who wouldn't be affected by the sight of two bodies with bullet wounds in their heads? Large-caliber wounds. Not the usual .38s or 9mms used in the city. The bodies frozen in time. A mother trying to shield her little girl. I wanted to bolt home and hug my own children. But I had work to do.
I had my hands full with the sixty-five-year-old woman who merely wanted to say good-bye to her daughter and granddaughter.
Mrs. Evans tried to push past me to open the simple wooden door with the number 9 hanging upside down. The threadbare industrial carpet didn't give my feet much traction. My semi-dress Skechers were more for walking comfort than for wrestling.
Mrs. Evans said, "Let me pass, young man. I have to see my babies." She wasn't loud. She wasn't hysterical. She was determined.
So was I.
I said, "Ma'am, I'm not in charge. But I do have kids. I know loss. You don't want what you see inside that apartment to be your final memory of your daughter and granddaughter. Please, I swear to God, you'll get your chance to say good-bye."
She stared me down as hard as any drug dealer ever had. But I was resolute. I'd already seen the horror behind the door. I wasn't about to let this elegant, retired teacher see it, too. Her daughter, still in her nurse's uniform from the Bronx-Lebanon Hospital. The left side of her face missing from a single, devastating gunshot. Lying over her daughter. A nine-year-old with a hole in the side of her head. This time, too, the girl reminded me of my Shawna.
The whole scene had shaken me to the core. Never believe a cop when he or she tells you they've seen it all. Nobody ever sees it all.
Mrs. Evans cracked. Tears started to flow. It'd finally hit her with full force. Two of her greatest treasures had been taken from her. Her watery eyes looked up at me again. She simply asked, "Why?"
She started to weep. I put a tentative arm around her. She fell into me and I hugged her. I remembered how I'd felt when Maeve, my wife, died. That was a slow death from cancer. It still tore me to pieces.
This poor woman had been blindsided.
I eased her onto one of the cheap plastic chairs a detective had set up in the apartment's hallway. A little African American girl peeked out of one of the doorways down the hall. The light at the end of the hall near the stairs flickered.
Why would someone shoot a nurse and her little girl? Why did someone like Mrs. Evans have to suffer through this? How would I hold it all together?
I had to. It was my job.
The uniformed captain from the Fortieth Precinct erupted into the hallway from the stairs. I knew the tall captain from my days on patrol. He yelled down the hall to the NYPD officers working diligently, "Let's move this along, shall we, people?" Then he saw me.
I had just gotten Mrs. Evans seated. A young patrol officer stepped over and offered her a cup of cold water. She was starting to get that glazed look family members have after a murder.
The captain marched toward me and said, "This ain't Manhattan North. What are you doing here? Trying to steal a stat?"
Sometimes cops embarrass me. Yeah, it's a job, but it involves people. People with feelings. I kept it professional and said, "Just helping out, Captain Ramirez."
The captain was almost as tall as me. He wore his dark hair slicked tightly against his scalp. There were definite cliques inside the NYPD. Divisions happen in all large organizations. The simple old Irish-versus-Italian rivalry had given way to a much more complicated system. Ramirez identified strongly with the Hispanic clique and didn't give a crap if I was Irish, Italian, or black. I wasn't Hispanic so he didn't cut me any slack.
The captain barked, "Then help clear this scene. We got shit breaking all over the Bronx. There's a goddamn protest about the price of housing. In New York. You think they'd realize housing prices are going to be crazy."
I motioned toward Mrs. Evans, hoping this moron would get the hint. It was a foolish hope.
The captain said, "How much longer will this take?"
I eased us away from Mrs. Evans. When I leaned in close to the captain, I said, "This lady's daughter and granddaughter are in that apartment. It'll take as long as it takes. We gotta grab the asshole who did this. Don't you agree?" I'd spoken very slowly so nothing I said could be misunderstood.
The old-school captain locked me in his gaze. It was nothing compared to Mrs. Evans's stare down. Then he said, "Okay, hotshot. I'll get the manpower from somewhere else."
When I stepped back to Mrs. Evans, she said, "Oh, dear Lord. I have to tell my sons."
I decided to walk her the two blocks to where they lived. I needed the break.
In a similar apartment to that of their sister and niece, I helped Mrs. Evans break the news to her two adult sons, who both worked for the city and seemed like sharp young men. They took the news like anyone would. They were shocked.
The larger of the men, a good six feet five inches and close to three hundred pounds, started to wail and put his head on his mother's shoulder. She stroked his neck and spoke to him like she would to a toddler, in a soft, soothing voice. A mom's power never really diminishes, no matter how big a child grows.
I told them the lead detective would be down to talk to them at some point. They'd have questions about why someone might do this.
The older of the two brothers, a bus mechanic, said, "This is not a bad neighborhood. Not too bad. Who would do something like this?" He had the distant stare of a man in over his head. That's the way it should be. No one should be used to tragedy like this. Not even a cop.
I gave them a card in case they needed anything. I felt confident Mrs. Evans would be most comfortable if she stayed here with them tonight.
The clear, cloudless skies and afternoon sun did little to lift my spirits. I barely noticed passing cars or the other normal rhythms of the city. I walked with a measured pace, trying to give myself a little time before I went back to the crime scene. All I could see in my head was a mother lying on top of her little girl. The left side of her face a massive hole leaking blood. The apartment a shambles.
No witnesses. No suspects. No hope.
I looked up at the sky and spoke to Maeve. I did that quite a bit. This time I said, "I hate that you saw stuff like this, too. A nurse's job is harder than a cop's in some respects. I miss you, Maeve."
Sometimes I swear I can hear a faint answer. It's easy and convenient to claim it was the wind or a distant radio. But it happens occasionally. Today I thought I heard, "Love you." And no one can tell me I didn't hear it.
I swung into a bodega and grabbed an ice-cold grape Gatorade. I'd briefly considered buying a beer, but they still needed me at the apartment. The radio behind the counter was broadcasting a news brief about the murders. That would attract more curious onlookers. The day was not getting any better.
The clerk looked at me and said, "Tough day?"
"Does it show?"
"Gatorade is on me."
I thanked him, more for a quick jolt of humanity. Then dropped two dollars on the scarred and nicked counter before I headed back out.
I was still a block away from the apartment building and the growing crowd of onlookers. I had parked my city-issued Impala over here in case I needed to get away quickly. Experience has taught me that if you park too close to a scene, you can get boxed in.
Suddenly I had an uncontrollable urge to speak to Mary Catherine and the kids. As many of them as I could get on the phone. They were what kept me sane. If I ever needed a connection to my real life, it was right now.
Leaning against my car, I took a swig of the Gatorade and set it on the roof. I fumbled with my phone.
While I considered whether I should call Mary Catherine's cell or the home phone, someone said, "Let's make this quick."
I looked up into the barrel of a pistol.
The young black man's hand trembled ever so slightly. There was no doubt the barrel was still pointed at my face. But he was new to this kind of stuff. That made him more dangerous. He had no idea what could happen.
He repeated, "Let's make this quick."
I didn't hesitate. I immediately reached into my sport coat for my personal wallet. My police ID was in my back pocket. At the moment, he thought I was just a citizen out for a stroll. I'd be happy to let him keep thinking that.
I can't count the number of times I've heard the wife of a murdered robbery victim say, "A lousy wallet wasn't worth his life." No way I was going to put Mary Catherine in that position.
I held up my wallet to show it to him and said, "Here, it's yours." I'd seen enough bloodshed today. I just wanted him to walk away. A few bucks and some credit cards aren't worth anyone's life. I figured this was over. There was no one on the street near us. He had no reason to hang around. Everyone could have another day on Earth.
Then I heard a second voice from across the narrow street. A tall, skinny man came out of an alley between an empty storefront and a ninety-nine-cent store. He wore a crazy heavy jacket with an odd, fur-trimmed collar. The man had an angry tinge to his voice when he said, "What chu doin', RJ?" He glanced at me. "You finally joinin' up? Good man."
The second man was about thirty. His pupils were black circles covering most of his eyes. But drugs were the least of his issues. His head swung in wide arcs as he glanced in every direction. His left hand had a constant, jittery movement. His tongue played with the gold grill across his front teeth. He was a walking advertisement for one of the antipsychotic pharmaceuticals advertised on news channels and ESPN.
The man said, "Lookee here, dressy." He stayed in the street, on the driver's side of the car. He stared straight at me and said, "You going out, Pops? Nice jacket. Not too hot, nice dark blue. Too bad you're too wide. Jacket would never fit me."
Why did he have to come and stir shit up?
The younger man, RJ, who still held me at gunpoint, turned to his friend and said, "I got his wallet. Let's go."
The man in the fur-trimmed coat said, "Somethin's not right about him. He's taller than us. That's enough to shoot his ass right there."
RJ said, "I got money, cards. It's cool."
"It ain't cool, RJ. It's a lot of things, but it ain't cool. He don't care nothin' about us. And he don't mean nothin' to us. Go ahead, show him how little he means to us."
RJ was torn. I could see it in his face. He wanted to leave. But this new guy, he wanted to see something happen. He wanted some excitement on a weekday afternoon.
The new man stepped to the front of the car and let his coat fall open. I could see the Colt stuck in his waistband. I thought about the head wounds at the crime scene I was just at. It was a big caliber. Probably a .45. That was not a common gun in the Bronx. I wanted to fix his face in my brain.
The man snapped, "What chu starin' at?"
I didn't answer. I did a quick scan to see if I could find any blood spatter on the cuffs or collar of the heavy coat he was wearing.
But that was the least of my worries at the moment. Now the man leaned in close to RJ and said, "Shoot this cracker in the face. You feel me, RJ?"
The younger man kept his eyes on me. He raised the gun slightly so he could sight more accurately. He mumbled, "Okay, Tight, okay. Give me a second."
I felt the shift in the young man. He was scared of his friend. I would be, too. The man was giving him almost no choice but to pull the trigger. At that point, I knew if RJ didn't shoot, I'd be facing that .45.
The man told RJ, "You own his ass. Now you can take everything from him. No feeling like it in the world." Then the man looked at the Chevy Impala. He craned his head to stare into the interior.
"Hold on, RJ. I think this dude's a cop. He seen us both. You gotta do it now."
Now the crazy guy was using logic. And he wasn't wrong. I'd have been willing to forget about RJ, but I needed to check out his friend "Tight" regarding the homicide a block away.
That wasn't going to happen, though. I swallowed and had a quick thought of each of my children. When you have ten kids, you can't spend a lot of time on each one as your life flashes before your eyes.
RJ was ready. He used his left hand to steady the gun. He started to squeeze the trigger.
At a moment like that, facing a gun, there's no telling what will go through your head. I was hoping for a miracle. And I said a quick prayer. It wasn't specific or particularly elegant. Just a Please help me, God. At least I think that's what I prayed.
Then it happened. A car coming from a side street onto this main road squealed its tires. It wasn't long or really loud. But it was enough. Just enough.
Both men looked over their shoulders to see what had caused the noise. Just a basic reaction, like an instinct. It was a gray Dodge racing away from us.
I took my chance. A movement I had done in training more than a thousand times. I shifted slightly. Reached back quickly with my right hand. Flipped my coat out of the way. Took a firm grip on my Glock semiautomatic pistol. Pressed the release on my holster and slid the pistol out. It felt natural because of all the practice. The idea that a human would be in my sights didn't really come into the equation.
Just as my barrel came to rest, pointing at the robber's chest, I shouted, "Police. Don't move."
I aimed at RJ because he had his pistol out, although I thought the other man was going to be the real problem. But RJ steadied his hands and brought the barrel of his pistol back toward my face. I squeezed the trigger of my own pistol. Once. Twice. I knew I'd hit him center mass.
The young man's arms lowered and the pistol dropped from his hand. It made a loud clank on the hood of my car, then slid down to the asphalt. RJ followed a similar path, staring at me the whole time as he tumbled to the ground.
My natural inclination was to follow the body to the ground with my pistol. I don't know why. It's not like cops are in so many shootings that we get used to them. Each one is traumatic and devastating in its own way.
As soon as RJ hit the asphalt, I realized he posed no more threat. Now I had to deal with Tight, who was already rushing backward, away from me. He fumbled for the pistol in his belt line, and I fired once. Then he spun and sprinted away. I didn't know if I'd hit him or if he'd dropped the pistol. The only thing I could think about was the young man bleeding on the street right in front of me.
I let the crazy man in the fur-trimmed jacket run away.
I dropped to one knee and immediately checked the pulse on the young man I'd been forced to shoot. Blood was already pumping from his chest and filling the indentation at the bottom of his throat. I opened his ratty coat all the way and ripped his Jets T-shirt right down the middle, then used part of the T-shirt to help stop the bleeding.
I quickly reached into my pocket and fumbled for my phone. I hit 911. As soon as the operator came on I almost shouted, "This is Detective Michael Bennett. I am on Third Avenue near 146th Street. I need immediate assistance. I have shots fired, a man down, and require an ambulance ASAP."
I ignored her other questions and went back to working on young RJ. I held the folded T-shirt rag directly on the bullet hole, hoping to stem the bleeding. Blood soaked the cuff of my shirt and speckled my chest. People started coming out of the bodega and some of the apartment buildings.
A young black woman kneeled down to help me. She said, "I'm in nursing school. Let me keep pressure on the wound." She wasn't panicked and kept a very calm tone.
That helped me focus. I kept saying to the young man, "Hang in there, RJ. Help is on the way." About a minute later, I heard the first in a storm of sirens heading our way.
It wasn't until paramedics stepped in and took over the first aid that it really hit me what had happened. I could have been killed. I should have been killed. And I had been forced to use my duty weapon. It was the last thing I'd wanted to do. It's the last thing any cop wants to do. But I didn't regret it. I couldn't. Not when I hugged my kids tonight.
And now all I could do was stare helplessly as paramedics did everything they could to save this young man's life.
As more paramedics and squad cars arrived, I simply walked down the street a short distance and plopped onto the curb. I had nothing left. I wasn't even ready to call Mary Catherine. I just stared straight ahead into the empty street. I noticed everything from the rough asphalt patches over potholes to the random Three Musketeers wrapper blowing in the light breeze. It felt as if the city had gone silent.
Even though the paramedics were still busy, I knew RJ was dead. My mind raced, but I couldn't settle on a single thought. I vaguely realized it was some sort of shock settling over me. It's a common occurrence after a police shooting.
It had all happened so fast. Virtually all police shootings do. I'd acted out of instinct. Now I had to let things take their course.
All I knew at the moment was that I couldn't leave the scene. I just wanted to sit here with my thoughts. Silently I prayed, Dear God, have mercy on this young man's soul. I thought about calling my grandfather, Seamus.
Then I heard someone shout, "He did it." It didn't register immediately, then someone else said it. I looked up and over my shoulder to see a small group of people facing me.
A heavyset African American man of about thirty-five pointed at me and shouted, "That cop shot RJ for no reason. He murdered him."
I let him talk. It never did any good to speak up. People had to vent. This neighborhood had fought to shed its reputation from the 1980s. Crime, especially homicides, was down. Cops could only do so much. Neighborhoods and the people in them had to decide to change. And this one had. I could understand some misplaced anger over a shooting.
The vast majority of cops try to do the right thing. That's why they get into the business. A few go overboard. And like anything else, most groups are judged by the actions of a few. It's been like that since the dawn of time.
I recognized that prejudgment was contributing to this crowd's growing fury. They were pissed off. Right now they were pissed off at me. I just took it.
My heart fluttered and my hands shook.
This heavyset guy gathered more followers. He was like a singer energized by the crowd. He turned to face the crowd and yelled, "We're tired of cops treating us like criminals. Now this guy shot RJ for just standing there."
No one was speaking in my defense. Someone had to have seen what happened.
Someone tossed a bottle, which shattered on the sidewalk next to me. A young patrol officer who had been near the paramedics stepped toward the crowd with her hands up like she was trying to calm them down.
An older, lean woman scowled at the officer and said, "Keep your ass over there. This don't concern you."
Another bottle sailed through the air. Then a half eaten McDonald's hamburger smacked me right in the face.
I wiped some gooey cheese from my cheek with my bare hand.
The mob of fifteen or twenty people moved toward me now. I just sat there. Numb. I understood these people's anger. Every interaction with a cop was viewed with suspicion. Some cops' attitudes didn't help, treating everyone like a criminal. Forgetting that most people didn't cause any problems at all.
I cleaned the rest of the hamburger from my face and stood up. I faced the crowd. The young patrol officer and her partner started to move toward me, but I held up my hand to stop them. They would only make things worse.
I mumbled, "Let them vent for a minute. We don't want a riot." I'd been in riots, and they were no fun. This crowd could go either way. There didn't seem to be outside agitators, who could kick demonstrations up a notch to a riot. No one wanted to destroy their own neighborhood.
More garbage flew through the air. A few more steps and the mob would be right on top of me.
I knew not to say something stupid, like "Let's all just calm down." That had never worked in the history of law enforcement. I couldn't explain that I had done everything I could to avoid shooting RJ. No one wanted to hear that. Not the crowd, not the news media, and certainly not RJ's family.
The crowd was close enough that I could see the heavyset man who was leading them had a cracked front tooth. That was too close for comfort. For the first time it started to sink in that I was in real danger.
Then I heard a voice—a booming, commanding voice. I recognized it immediately. It may not have been God, but it was the best I could hope for right now. It was just a simple "Everyone freeze."
And they did.
My lieutenant, Harry Grissom, stepped out of a black, unmarked NYPD Suburban. The tall, lean, twenty-six-year veteran of the force looked like an Old West gunfighter, his mustache creeping along the sides of his mouth. He was toying with the NYPD grooming policy, but so far no one had the balls to say anything to him about it.
A gold badge dangled from a chain around his neck. His tan suit had some creases but gave him an air of authority. As if he needed something extra.
He kept marching toward the crowd without any hesitation. As he got closer, he said in a very even voice, "What's the problem here?"
The pudgy leader yelled, "He shot an unarmed man."
Someone in the back of the crowd added, "For no reason."
Other people started to crowd in around Harry to tell him why they were so angry.
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