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Read by Danny Mastrogiorgio
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Caught in the crosshairs of a deadly standoff, Detective Michael Bennett must kill…or be killed.
Snow blankets the avenues of Manhattan’s exclusive Upper West Side. The storm is the perfect cover for a fashionable, highly trained team of lethal assassins as they prowl the streets, hunting their prey. But their first hit is simply target practice. Their next mission may very well turn the Cold War red-hot once again.
Stepping directly into the line of fire, the president of the United States is in New York for a summit at the United Nations with his Russian counterpart. Pulled away from his family and pressed into service, Detective Michael Bennett must trace the source of a threat that could rip the country apart–and ignite a war the likes of which the world has never seen. With allegiances constantly in doubt and no one above suspicion, only Bennett can save the president–and the country–before the assassins’ deadly kill shot hits its mark.
There were snowdrifts at the curbs and snow-buried benches in the parks and snowcaps on the street signs and fire hydrants and on the newel posts for the subway entrances. There were four inches so far, and they were thinking maybe ten when all was said and done.
Four inches was laughable somewhere like Maine, but in Manhattan on a dark early November evening, it cancels plans and sends people indoors.
The two black-clad figures on the BMW R 1200 RT sport motorcycle that rolled slowly north up Amsterdam Avenue near 135th Street not only knew that; they had planned on it. They’d been waiting on the cold snowy conditions for the last month.
The Beemer’s engine thrummed steadily as the City College of New York campus appeared on their right. First the big, ugly, modern, box store–like classroom buildings. Then the older, original, Harry Potter–like Gothic ones.
The driver did controlled swerves from time to time, careful not to get a pile of road salt under the motorcycle’s studded snow tires. An experienced winter biker, he knew that even with the studs, salt was slicker than ice.
He and the rider behind him were dressed identically in the latest in cold weather riding gear. Gore-Tex Tourmaster electric jackets and riding pants over EDZ thermals, Windstopper gloves and neck warmers. Black glossy Scorpion snow helmets with the tinted no-fog visors firmly down.
Every ounce of gear was specific to the mission. They had even specifically selected the heavy BMW for its low center of gravity, which aided in stability and traction.
Then finally there it was, two blocks ahead.
The corner of West 141st Street.
The driver had been over what was going to happen next so many times that he could have drawn the scene west down 141st Street with his eyes closed. The old, once-stately five- and six-story prewar apartment houses on either side of the narrow, descending, one-way side street. The ancient shoe repair place on the left, the Caribbean hair salon on the right. Both business entrances sunk down a flight of steps below the sloping sidewalk, as on a lot of Hamilton Heights’ quirky up and down streets.
They’d played it through time and time again, until it was boring. Over and over, slowly. Listing everything that could possibly go wrong. Because it wasn’t just surprise. It was surprise plus doing. Doing lots and lots of stuff you’d already preplanned while the other guy sat there going “Wait, what is this?” for that split second you needed to get the hammer down on him.
Suddenly the rider said in their two-way Bluetooth helmet radio, “Hold up! The car isn’t there. Shit! There must be something wrong. Maybe we should abort.”
They’d planted a remote camera in a car across from the 141st Street target; the rider was monitoring it via smartphone.
“Calm down. It’s okay. They’re just late because of the snow,” the driver said as he drifted the bike over and stopped at the left-hand curb half a block from 141st’s corner. “We’re not aborting. We just have to wait a second. This is going to happen. Right now. I can feel it. Keep watching and tell me the second you see it.”
As he waited, the BMW’s driver closed his eyes and ran through the scenario yet again. Amsterdam was the highest point in the neighborhood, and the path down 141st to the target was like going down steps: the first long slope off Amsterdam to the flat of Hamilton, and then another down slope to the flat of Broadway. The target building was on the final down slope of 141st between Broadway and Riverside Drive, midblock south side, on the left.
The abandoned apartment building had two wings, with the entrance between them way back off the street, through a canyonlike corridor. That was why it was so formidable. The target could see anything and anyone coming well before the front door could be reached. Two police raids had been tried over the past two years, and the place was always clean by the time they got inside.
The softest point, they’d discovered from their extensive recon, was right around now, when one of the grandmas usually brought the crew home cooking. The three guys on lobby duty would come out and give abuela lots of showy love on the sidewalk in exchange for aluminum pans of stewed pork and eggplant, as the fourth guy hung back by the propped-open front door.
One thing the driver liked was that they were above the target. That they would swoop down on it. There was an instinctual power to being above that truly thrilled him. He also liked the surprisingly smooth, graceful sucker punch speed of the Beemer, throttle open downhill. They would be in theater right quick. Speed and surprise from above were two excellent angles of advantage.
They certainly needed every advantage they could get, since there were seven in the well-armed drug crew. They had two AK-47s in the cook apartment in case of emergency, and they all carried straight blowback Glock 18 machine pistols in 9mm caliber.
The damn Glock 18s bothered him. They were excellent for close combat. No bulky stocks or long barrels to bang against corners or stair banisters. And they were looking at the closest of combat in the crumbling prewar building’s coffin-wide hallways and slot-canyon-of-death stairwells.
Worse, the Glock 18s indicated tactical intelligence. And that kind of intelligence made him think that no matter how much they’d planned it, there might be something they’d missed.
But that was part of it, too. It was actually better to assume you missed something so as to keep your eyes open.
He glanced forward, up Amsterdam, at the snow drifting in the cones of the streetlights. Bits blowing this way and that, shifting and reshifting in the gusts.
No need for cocky in this line of work. You had to know that even great plans had a funky habit of changing on you.
“I see it! It’s there,” said the rider, suddenly pounding on the driver’s back. “The car—the Chevy. It’s pulling up out in front. Go! Go! Go!”
The spinning tires of the BMW threw up a fat rope of slush as the driver ripped back on the throttle. Then he let off on the brake, and they were hitting the corner and going straight down.
The cooking lab was in the east wing of the building, on the third floor. It was in a type of apartment known as a junior four, a one-bedroom with a formal dining room off the living room. The dining room was usually separated with French doors, but since the cooking lab was set up there, they’d taken off the doors and Sheetrocked the doorway.
In the lab, just to the right of the kitchen door, was a barrel of sodium hydroxide, a big white fifty-gallon industrial drum of the stuff, plastered with bloodred DANGER: HAZARDOUS MATERIALS diamonds. In front of the drums were two lab tables where two HCL generators were going full tilt.
The generators were chemistry industry standard, a bubbling, dripping, steaming mousetrap setup of hot plates and beakers and rubber tubing and inverted funnels. The HCL rig was for turning solids into liquids and liquids into evaporated gases that were separated and condensed back down into newer, much more lucrative solids.
Hustling busily between the barrel and the lab tables and the kitchen was a tall and wiry, handsome, black-haired Hispanic man. He was the drug crew’s head, Rafael Arruda. No dummy, Rafael, he wore a super-duty gray-hooded hazmat suit with full respirator, two pairs of sea-green rubber medical gloves over his hands, and plastic nurse booties over his vintage Nikes. All the seams taped nice and tight to avoid the highly caustic fumes and chemicals.
He was whipping up some MDMA, the main ingredient in the drug ecstasy. He’d already cultivated about three ounces of the drug’s blazingly white crystals in the plastic-lined collecting tin beside one of the generators. About thirty grand worth once it was cut and packed down into pills.
He’d shoot for a half pound tonight, before he pulled the plug around one or two and went home to his wife, Josefina, and his daughter, Abril, who had come home for the weekend from Georgetown, the school that he himself had attended, majoring in chemistry on some rich oil guy’s Inner City Golden Promise scholarship fund.
His promise in the field of chemistry had paid out all right. At least for him. When he wasn’t cooking drugs, he was a tenured professor and cohead of Columbia University’s undergrad chemistry department and lived in a four-million-dollar town house in Bronxville, beside white-bread bankers and plastic surgeons.
It was about seven thirty when he noticed the clogged dropping funnel in generator one. That happened from time to time with the new, iffy stuff he’d gotten from a chemical supply house in Canada. The stuff was cheaper, especially the hydro, but it was becoming more and more obvious that it was subpar with impurities, probably Chinese-made.
If it wasn’t one thing, it was another, Rafael thought as he immediately lowered the heat and replaced the inverted funnel with a fresh one. You had to pay attention.
As he arrived at the kitchen sink with the dirty funnel, Dvorák’s Symphony no. 9 in E Minor, known as the New World Symphony, began playing in his headphones. He loved this one, the slow oboes and clarinets and bassoons, sad and yet somehow strangely uplifting. Salsa was his favorite, but way back since high school, it was nothing but calming classical while he worked.
He was lifting the bottle brush from the depths of the original prewar porcelain kitchen sink when the bassoons cut out, replaced by an incoming text beep.
His family and guys knew never to bother him when he worked, so he immediately looked down at his phone on his belt.
He prided himself on his stoic calm, but he suddenly felt a chill as he read the three words down there on the screen.
BOSS COME QUICK!!!! it said.
Rafael pulled the plug on everything and tore off the hood and respirator and earbuds as he came out into the hall of the apartment and went into the count room next door. In it were two bullnecked towering Dominicans. One had a slicked ponytail and one was bald, with a thin beard, and both wore camo fatigue pants and black Under Armour under puffy silver North Face vests.
They were his crew captains, fraternal twin brothers, Emilio and Pete Lopez, with whom he had grown up. They stood staring dumbfounded at the laptop that monitored their closed-circuit security video downstairs.
“What the hell is going on?” Rafael said.
“We don’t know. Nate just radioed up from the lobby,” Emilio said, thumbing nervously at his beard. “A bike—a motorcycle or something—just wiped out into Louis on the sidewalk, and he said two dudes in helmets jumped off it and were fighting with Jaime and Jesus.”
“And now no one’s responding,” said Pete, shaking his head. “Nate won’t answer his radio or his phone.”
Nate again! Rafael thought. He was Josefina’s cousin and a pothead total screwup, the weakest point in his armor by far. That’s it. He was going to fire him. Right after he personally kicked the living shit out of him.
“Where are they?” Rafael said, scanning the screen’s security grid. “Jaime and the rest of them. I don’t see them. They’re not in the street.”
“We don’t know,” said Pete.
“Did you scope out the front door?” Rafael said.
“Of course, bro. That’s just it. No one came in, or we would have seen them,” said Emilio.
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“We know,” said Emilio, wide-eyed.
“Jackass—come in,” Rafael called down on the Motorola. “Nate, you there? Hey, jackass!”
He unkeyed the radio and listened. The rasp of static. No Nate. No nothing.
What the hell is this? he thought.
“What are you guys doing just standing there?” Rafael cried up at the towering Lopez brothers. “I sent you to that training course why? For exercise? Shit is going down now! Get out the vests and choppers now.”
“You think it’s the Romolos, maybe?” said Emilio. “Over that thing with that girl who got killed? Or is it the cops?”
That’s when it happened.
In a silent instant around them came darkness.
The lights, the monitor, all the juice—all of it was suddenly gone.
Rafael felt panic arrive, a cold petrifying pulse of it that began in his stomach and radiated out. To his balls and knees, to his chest and brain.
“Holy shit! What is this?” cried Pete in the dark.
Rafael bashed down the welling panic and finally, with a shaking thumb, got the flashlight going on his phone. He went out of the count room to the apartment door and cracked it.
No. F me. Not good.
The hall was dark. The entire building was out. Someone had shut their whole shit down!
He almost wet himself as the gunfire suddenly started up. Thundering up the dirty worn marble staircase came the sudden deafening blasts of a Glock 18 going off in a long magazine-emptying, full-auto burst. A faint flicker of muzzle flash accompanied the sudden jackhammering, the pulsing glow of it against the cracked stairwell plaster like firelight on the upper reaches of a cave wall.
Think, Rafael thought as he quickly closed and bolted the door.
Do not panic. You are intelligent. You have a plan. Do the plan.
“Who is it? Cops?” said Emilio as Rafael came back into the count room.
“You hear any bullhorns? It ain’t the cops!” said Rafael, opening the gun closet and reaching for the second shelf. His hands passed over the tube of a flashlight until he found what he was looking for.
The night-vision goggles.
He had all kinds of shit in there. Dried food, a portable propane generator, enough ammo to outlast Judgment Day.
Now, apparently, it was here, he thought as he pulled the strap of the goggles over his head.
“You want to play blindman’s bluff in my house?” he said as he clicked on the goggles and everything was suddenly illuminated with a pale-green light. He unclipped the Kalashnikov from the wall rack.
“Then you got it, bro. Let’s do it. Come out, come out, wherever you are, you son of a bitch.”
Rafael sent Pete and Emilio up and over the roof to come down the west wing while he went down the east wing stairs.
The wrapped-tight canvas AK strap cut hard into his forearm as he came silently down the quarter turns of the stairwell. He tried to remember the shooting techniques. Was he supposed to blur the target beyond the front sights? Or was that just for a pistol? Fricking impossible to remember all the training they’d had from the course two years ago. He checked the safety. It was on. He shook his head, clicking at the button.
As he came across the final stair head of the first-floor landing, he caught the scent of gun smoke. A lot of it. The tangy, almost sweet smell, rank as a gun range. He tightened his grip on the gun as he came across the landing to the final turn, his back against the abandoned apartment doors, barrel trained down through the balustrades. There was no one through the posts. No one on the final stair flight, and then he was coming down, his AK sight center-massed on the open lobby doorway.
The first thing he noticed when he peeked through it was that the heavy wrought-iron-and-glass front door of the building was ajar. A triangle of the outside sodium security light spread over the floor’s dirty mosaic tiles. Bits of snow swirling in the yellow beam, a faint layer of snow already gathering in the grout.
“Rafael!” Pete suddenly called out across the lobby from the other stairwell.
Rafael almost tripped over the bodies as he came through the west wing doorway.
There were two of them. One of them lying flat in a pool of blood on the dirty tile, the other to the right, sitting up against the wall. The chests of their motorcycle shells were wet with blood, and the tinted face masks of their motorcycle helmets were smashed to shit, just riddled with bullet holes.
“Ha-ha! That’s what you get, you fucking amateurs. That’s exactly what you get,” said Rafael as he hawked and spat on both of them. Whoever the hell they were.
He glanced at Nate, also covered in blood, by the bottom of the stairs, the Glock 18 on the tile beside him.
At least the jackass had done something right for once in his miserable life, Rafael thought.
“Rafael! Do CPR! Nate’s dying! Come on, do something!” said Pete, who was kneeling at the bottom of the stairs beside Nate.
“He’s still breathing, I think,” said Emilio, pressing his ear to Nate’s mouth as Rafael arrived.
“And so are we!” said the prone motorcycle guy behind them as he sat straight up like a monster in a horror flick.
Rafael, standing in profile to the suddenly risen figure, had just registered that the man had a suppressed automatic pistol in his hand when Pete’s bald head blew apart as if it had been dynamited. Pete’s instant death was followed quickly by ponytailed Emilio’s as the other reanimated dead body by the wall shot him with a suppressed pistol.
Rafael screamed as he swung the rifle up and then abruptly stopped screaming as a third and final suppressed .45 ACP lead slug instantly carved a brand-new orifice through his temples.
“Is it him? Is it him?” said the rider excitedly as the driver leaped up from the pool of fake blood behind his trusty suppressed Heckler & Koch Mark 23.
Instead of answering, the driver knelt and removed Rafael’s wallet, trying not to look at the hot mess that an ounce of lead makes when it’s sent traveling through a human head at the cruising speed of a 747.
“It’s him,” said the driver, calmly pocketing the target’s driver’s license and checking his watch. “Our work is done here. Time to go.”
They scooped up their brass, left the BMW bike out on 141st, and went out at a quick, steady pace through the back of the building, taking a garbage alley that led out onto Riverside Drive.
Three blocks south, parked alongside Riverside Park, was the preplaced getaway vehicle: a beat-up dingy white work van with the baffling and meaningless words THE BOWLES GROUP LLC poorly hand-painted on the door.
Once inside the rear of the van, the driver finally pulled off his helmet. He was a fit-looking white guy in his late thirties with close-cropped blond hair and light-blue eyes that were striking in his otherwise easy-to-forget plain and pale face.
He scrubbed the sweat from his hair with a towel and then put his pale-denim-colored eyes to his stainless steel Rolex. It seemed like it was last week that they were up on Amsterdam, but the assassination had taken eleven minutes from start to finish. Eleven!
He looked over at the rider getting changed beside him. Then he reached around and cupped her perfect left breast. Her right one wasn’t so bad, either, he felt. She turned and smiled at him, an improbably gorgeous woman in her early thirties, petite yet athletic, with white-blond hair and large greenish-brown doe eyes. His pet name for her ever since they met was Coppertone Girl.
Coppertone Girl made a quick twisting move and then he was somehow down on his back with something hard digging into his crotch. He looked down. It was her .45!
“I’ll do it. You know I will, you pig,” she said, her green eyes cold behind the white-blond shards of her bangs.
Then she kissed him hard.
And they both started to die laughing.
It never got old, this fired-up feeling afterward. They’d walked the rope with no net, and now they were back on sweet, exhilaratingly solid ground.
They kissed again, and then he pressed in her pouty pink lower lip with his callused thumb. She bit his thumb playfully, and then he was jumping over the front seat and turning the engine over.
An hour later, they’d put all the gear and the van back at the South Bronx safe house and were showered and changed and rolling back into Manhattan in their new Volvo crossover. They actually found a parking spot right in front of their Federal-style brick town house, in SoHo on Wooster Street between Broome and Spring.
They stood holding hands on the sidewalk for a moment. Nothing but the famous chic neighborhood’s incredible beaux arts nineteenth-century cast-iron buildings in every direction. The cobblestones, Corinthian columns, and delicate wrought-iron railings dusted in the still-falling snow were like what might appear on the cover of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas.
Not bad for an Indiana shit kicker, the man thought, drinking in the billion-dollar view down his block.
Not bad at all, he thought, looking at his exquisite wife, now in a candy-blue Benetton down coat, cream mini-sweaterdress, and black leather leggings.
He knocked the snow off his shoes on their doormat and keyed open their front door.
“Mommy! Daddy! You’re home!” their four-year-old daughter, Victoria, squealed, a blur of pink footie pajamas and strawberry-blond curls as she ran in from the family room, sliding on the gleaming hardwood in her Nana-made wool slippers.
“Yes! We! Are!” said the husband with equal excitement as he pretended to let his giggling daughter tackle him.
“That was a quick movie,” said Jenna, the babysitter, bringing up the rear, holding a sheet of still-raw cookies.
“We arrived late, with all the snow, so we just decided to get some dessert instead,” said the wife.
“Dessert? Wow. You guys just live on the razor’s edge, don’t you?” said their ever-sarcastic NYU film student sitter with an eye roll.
“Oh, that’s us. We’re real wild,” the husband said, laughing as he hung his car coat in the front hall closet and snitched a glob of raw oatmeal cookie dough.
“Yep, we’re complete psychos, all right,” agreed his wife as she lifted Victoria and blew a raspberry on her cheek.
Hail to the Chief
Early Saturday morning, a lone figure stood center stage in the storied culinary arena of the Bennett family kitchen.
That figure was, of course, moi, your friendly neighborhood cop, Mike Bennett, but unlike an iron chef, I found myself where I often do when I make the mistake of going near pots and pans—namely, very, very deep in the weeds.
I was doing pancakes, Mike Bennett–style. Well, I guess technically you could call it Ina Garten–style, as I had her latest cookbook open on the kitchen island in front of me. Unfortunately, things weren’t going very well. Poor Ina was covered in flour, and she had a lot of company. There was flour all over the island, on the stools, on the floor next to the egg I’d dropped. There was even flour on Socky, the cat, who was licking at the broken egg.
As I stood there sweating and whisking and wondering if cats could get salmonella poisoning, I detected a distinctive aroma. I turned to the stove, where the sausages were burning in the too-hot cast-iron pan.
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- Aug 1, 2016
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