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By James O. Born
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I looked down the barrel of my Glock 19 service weapon. Lori Armstrong, a tall detective with long blond hair from the Forty-Third precinct, stood across from me. Hector Nunez, a crimes and missing-persons detective, who looked like he should play linebacker for the Jets, was about to knock on the door.
We were three stories up in the dark, musty, hot hallway of an apartment building off Castle Hill Avenue near the I-278 overpass. I could feel the vibration of every semi that rumbled by.
This was an arrest I needed. I desperately wanted something to occupy my mind and satisfy my sense of justice. Some cops found refuge in their homelife. I found that it worked both ways. Right now, I needed to be at work and get some distance so I could be the man I wanted to be at home. I had to get my mind off my son Brian any way I could.
The suspect was a career dope dealer named Laszlo Montez, and I made him for a double homicide in Jackie Robinson Park, near 153rd Street, in sight of Bethany Baptist Church. He'd used a knife on another dealer and the dealer's girlfriend. The dealer had been stabbed from behind, unaware of the threat. His girlfriend had been slashed over and over. It was messy. Senseless. The guy in this apartment was good for it. And his ass was mine.
Hector looked my way. I nodded, and he knocked. Politely at first. No sense in scaring the suspect.
A voice from inside shouted back in Spanish. "¿Quién es?" Who is it? Like any good NYPD detective, I had a working knowledge of basic Spanish.
Hector said, "It's me. Open up."
There wasn't even an answer from inside. That meant the game was up.
Hector said in a flat voice, "Policía: abre la puerta." Then in English he added, "Now."
My sergeant was in the alley behind the building in case Montez managed to navigate the ancient fire escape.
Hector shouted out, "Don't play, Laz. Open up." He waited five seconds, then kicked the front door. It splintered in half and fell in pieces onto the hard wooden floor. A cat leaped away from the door and over a ratty couch.
I darted in first, my pistol up. Lori came in behind me. I scanned the shitty little apartment quickly. Bedroom, bathroom, nothing.
The window was open, and I muttered "Shit" as I wedged myself onto the fire-escape landing. It was a long way down. Cops with a thing about heights shouldn't climb around on fire escapes. But there was no choice. Montez was already a floor down and jumping onto an adjacent apartment's fire escape. Then he swung down to the second floor. I followed as Lori alerted the sergeant to be ready.
Montez was young and nimble. I was older, and, well, no one ever called me nimble. As soon as he saw me, he did the unexpected. He kicked in a window and dove into an apartment. Immediately I heard screaming. A moment later, I was in the apartment behind him.
A heavy woman wearing some kind of shower cap screamed in Spanish. By the front door, Montez stood with a knife to the throat of a teenage girl with long dark hair. She was shaking like a wet dog in January.
Montez said, "Get back. I'll cut her." He flicked the knife, and a cut opened on the girl's slender neck. A trickle of blood ran down to her white blouse. The girl let out a yelp.
My gun stayed on target. His face in the front sight. He backed to the door. The woman in the corner screamed, and a bead of sweat rolled into my left eye. I started to time my breathing. His head ducked behind the girl's face every few seconds. I felt my finger tighten on the trigger.
Then the door burst open behind him. Lori and Hector had their guns on him as well. Montez turned to face them. This time his voice cracked as he shouted, "Get back or I'll slit her throat."
His back was to me, so I acted. He had threatened a kid. She couldn't have been more than fifteen. I was pissed.
I silently holstered my pistol and stepped forward quickly. I used my left hand to block the knife from the girl's throat, then I put Montez in an arm bar. I misjudged it slightly and felt the knife bite into my hand, slicing my palm as I wrenched him away from the girl.
Lori yanked the girl to safety.
Now it was just this asshole and me. I looked to see where the knife had landed and was shocked to see it was still stuck in my hand. Holy shit.
That was it. I threw a right cross and watched as Montez stumbled back. Then I jerked the four-inch blade from my hand. Before he regained his footing, my right knee connected with Montez's head. He was on the floor, and I fell on top of him. A two-hundred-pound sledgehammer. Then I just started to throw elbows and fists into his face. Blood splattered everywhere. Some his, some mine. I needed this. Therapy. What the hell—I was only human.
Then I heard someone shout, "Mike!" I felt a strong hand on my wrist. My sergeant pulled me away.
I looked down at what I had done. Shocked as anyone. I could've ended this with a single punch. I had lost it.
My sergeant said, "Jesus, Mike. We got him."
I looked past my raw, bloodied hands at the pulp of this punk's face. This wasn't how I operated. I was embarrassed. Ashamed.
My sergeant said, "Stand down, Mike. In fact, after you have that hand taken care of, go home. Stay there. I'll handle this. You've got enough problems to deal with at home."
Unfortunately, Sarge was right.
I fumbled with the pancake batter because of the stitches in my hand. The Bennett household kitchen wasn't small, but this morning it felt like I was on top of Mary Catherine as we whipped up enough to feed all ten kids. Wait a minute. Nine kids.
Somehow the eight-room apartment on the Upper West Side seemed empty, even with eleven people in it. The quiet was unsettling. It'd been like this for days.
Mary Catherine laid her head on my shoulder as a show of support, but all it did was remind me how bad things could get. Once I had two plates ready for serving, I forced a smile. I burst out of the kitchen and said, "Who's the hungriest?"
Usually this would elicit a battle between kids going after the first of the food. Today I got no response. None. Then Trent and Eddie motioned me over like hipsters trying to be cool in a trendy restaurant.
After I set the plates down, I winked at Chrissy and pinched her nose. I would have given anything to have one of her smiles at the moment. She tried, God help her. She showed her teeth, but it wasn't the usual breathtaking spectacle of a little girl's sincere show of happiness.
I shuffled back into the kitchen to return to work. That was the only way to stay sane for the moment.
Mary Catherine had more plates ready, but I just stood there like I had forgotten my job. Like I had lost my purpose.
I looked at Mary Catherine's blond hair as strands tumbled onto her shoulder. She had told me she learned to focus by helping her mom feed three brothers and two younger sisters. She was made for this. I still remembered our first awkward meeting, when she showed up after corresponding with my late wife, Maeve. She came directly from Dublin and just stared at me as I informed her we had ten kids. Ten. But she never faltered. Even in the face of my grandfather Seamus, who thought I brought her in to replace him. It didn't take long for the lovely young Irish girl to win over my surly grandfather.
That was all in my darkest time. Maeve was in the last days of her fight with cancer, and I was lost. Somehow I had survived.
Now I was trying to figure out how to face dark times again.
The kids made their usual assembly line to clean up the breakfast plates, with Juliana and Jane acting as supervisors. Those two had CEO written all over them. I could hardly believe my little girls were such beautiful young women who didn't shy away from responsibility. If you added Mary Catherine to the mix, you could say that women had kept me alive and functioning for many years.
Mary Catherine worked on getting the youngest kids' backpacks and lunches together. It was seamless. And I stood in the corner, almost useless. Mary Catherine looked up and winked at me. How had this lass from Ireland gone from the kids' nanny to my love in a few short years? My heart broke a little bit when I thought about what the family had to deal with now, but this was not the time to give up or abandon my job as a father.
I clapped my hands together and said, "Okay, gang. I'm going to bring the bus around front. Three minutes, and the Bennetts renew their assault on civilization."
That got a smile from Bridget. That was enough for me.
The short ride to the kids' school, Holy Name, was silent at first. Everyone sat like zombies in the twelve-passenger Ford Super Duty van. It had years on it, but not that many miles. I remember the look on the car salesman's face when I proved I could fill the van with just my own kids. It was a stretch financially then. Now it was a necessity. A fact of our daily life.
The kids were seated with the youngest in the back, as always. Poor Chrissy and Shawna would never move up until someone went to college. Just thinking about that and the fact that college was not in Brian's future right now made me want to cry.
Eddie said, "When will Brian come home?"
Ah, my Einstein always knew which question was most important. I took a moment to form my answer and said, "Well, buddy, I just don't know." Real helpful, Dad.
Ricky said, "I thought you knew all about that kind of stuff."
"I wish I knew more. What's important is that we put Brian in our prayers and he knows how much he's missed."
Fiona started to sniffle. It was a precursor to crying, and that would cause a ripple effect throughout the van. I'd seen it too many times already. I had to do something fast.
I shouted, "Look!"
All heads turned to the right and looked out on West 96th Street, where I was staring.
Jane said, "What do you see, Dad?"
"I think it's Derek Jeter."
"Where?" came a chorus.
"Right there in front of the Gristedes supermarket." I pointed at a huge man in a blue Brooks Brothers suit with his flab poking out around his belt. "Looks like he's put on a little weight since retirement."
Trent wailed, "Noooooo! That's not Jeter." He followed the Yankees better than he followed any of the classes he was in.
"Are you sure?"
Now there were some giggles as little voices said, "Not Jeter." That turned into a chant. "Not Jeter, not Jeter, not Jeter."
We pulled up to Holy Name, on Amsterdam Avenue. I knew I had survived another morning. For a change we were on time and got to see what it looked like when we weren't racing to beat the final bell and shoo the kids in before the door was locked. Sister Sheilah even waved to me.
As each kid filed out, giving me a quick hug, I felt Brian's absence like a missing limb.
I parked the van in Queens and took advantage of the bus to Rikers Island. I'd been to New York City's main detention facility dozens of times before, but today it felt grim. The narrow bridge from Queens to the island in the East River made me anxious. The island itself is a giant facility where people booked on crimes from misdemeanors to homicides are processed. Today I got off in front of the main building, having used my connections to make things move quickly. There were several buildings in the facility, which could hold as many as fifteen thousand prisoners at any one time. I was told to go to a building near the front of the complex.
This main building housed males in pretrial status. Many of them were poor and couldn't afford bail. Others, like Brian, had been denied bail altogether. Our lawyer had already told me that the district attorney's office would be tough. For them, this was a chance to change the media narrative about the racist judicial system. They were charging him as an adult. My little boy was considered an adult this one wretched time.
My throat was dry as I cut away from the miserable little crowd that got off the bus. They shuffled to the main visiting entrance while I moved to the side, where I was supposed to meet an old friend. Even the bright sunshine couldn't give the jail any kind of pleasant facade.
I nodded when I saw the lieutenant who had already been wildly helpful. "Hey, Vinny. I appreciate the assist."
The pudgy middle-aged bald man said, "No problem, Mike. I'm a dad, too. I know this has got to be tough on you."
I said, "Is he doing okay?"
"I just saw him, and he looked fine. You know this place is no summer camp."
He led me through a side door to a tiny room that contained only two institutional metal chairs. There was no Plexiglas. No phones or surveillance cameras. This wasn't an interview room. It was probably a place where corrections officers could get away from the stress for a few minutes. This guy was really helping me out. A rare perk of being one of New York's finest.
I stood silently in the ten-foot-by-ten-foot room; it had bland two-tone beige walls and no windows. The door opened, and Brian stood there, wearing a simple orange jumpsuit and black flip-flops. He sprang forward and gave me a hug.
The uniformed corrections officer gave me a bob of his head and backed out of the room tactfully.
I held my boy. The young man I had raised. Nursed through the flu. Tutored in math. Taught to love sports. I held my boy, who was now facing up to ten years in the New York State prison system. I held him and started to cry.
Finally we both plopped into the two lonely chairs and just stared at each other. Was this our new normal?
Brian's eyes were bloodshot, and he had a light stubble on his face—like a tiny sparse forest. Christ—he only started shaving a year ago.
I focused and said, "Look, Brian, we're doing all we can. You've talked to the attorney. She's the best. A former ADA."
He just nodded.
I didn't want to get into the why of what he did. Status? Money? Who cares? I never made that much as a cop, but we had everything we needed. More than once I wondered if Brian's crime had something to do with the loss of his mother years ago. Maeve's memory still affected me every day, no matter what I was doing. Even after falling in love again. Who knows what it did to the kids, no matter how open we were with each other?
I just couldn't believe it. What had happened to Brian? My son, arrested for selling drugs. Both meth and a new form of ecstasy. It was almost too much to process.
I hadn't lectured or yelled. He knew what a terrible mistake he'd made. He realized what could happen. Now I needed answers. I had to get to the bottom of this and save him. It didn't matter to me if he wanted to be saved or not.
I said, "You've got to help us. Help yourself. I need to know who gave you that shit to sell."
He just stared at me. There was no answer. Barely an acknowledgment.
"And right there near Holy Name. The kids…" I caught myself. I channeled my inner Joe Friday. Just the facts, ma'am. I gave it thirty seconds. Half a minute of dead silence in this tiny room. The chilling sounds of the lockup drifting inside. Cell doors slamming. Men yelling insults back and forth. For the first time in my career, it was depressing to me.
Finally, I calmly said, "Who gave you the drugs?"
Brian's voice cracked as he said, "I'm sorry, Dad. I can't tell you." He was resolute.
My world crashed down around me.
Brian and I were done for the day. There was nothing left to say. He wasn't going to tell me what I needed to know. It could've been stupid stubborn teenage pride. Acting like a tough guy, or, more likely, fear of what would happen if he talked. That was relatively new in the culture cops operated in. The whole "snitches get stitches" attitude had popped up in inner-city neighborhoods and spread through music and TV shows. Now it seemed to be the mantra of anyone under thirty.
When the door opened, I had to snatch one more hug from my son. He wrapped his arms around me as well. Then I watched silently as a corrections officer led him away. He moved like a robot. His feet shuffling and the flip-flops making a sad slapping sound on the concrete floor.
I headed toward the exit, where my friend Vinny was waiting to lead me out. I said, "Is there anything you can do to protect him?"
He smiled and patted me on the shoulder. "We have Brian in what we call the nerd ward. Hackers and financial guys who decided they weren't going to follow the rules. Those sorts of perps. He only comes into contact with the general population if he goes out to exercise once a week or if we have to move people around because of trouble. But I promise, Mike, we're keeping a close eye on him."
This was special treatment because I was a cop. I wasn't going to refuse it.
When he told me Brian was safe for now, I thought I'd break down and cry right in front of him.
What did people without friends working in the jail do? What about people with no access to a decent lawyer? It made me think about cases I had worked and how I would persuade people to cooperate. Now I saw that they often had no other choice.
Then Vinny took my arm, and as we started to walk, he leaned in closer and said, "The rumor is that the DA's office wants to make an example of Brian. Wants to show that they'll go after a white kid as hard as a black kid. And they want to look fair by not showing preference to a cop's son."
I wasn't sure I wanted to hear the truth like that all at once. It felt like a punch in the gut. I slapped the cinder-block wall in frustration. The jolt of pain through my body reminded me that I had stitches in that hand. Blood stained the white bandage.
Vinny draped his arm over my shoulder and subtly headed us toward the exit.
I found myself shuffling, just like Brian. I wondered if it had something to do with this place.
This place I would never look at the same way again.
When I left the jail, I knew exactly what I had to do. By the time I got back to my van in Queens, clouds had drifted in and given the streets a particularly gloomy look. I couldn't go in to the office. I was on leave. Officially for my injury, but unofficially for beating the murder suspect Laszlo Montez. Thank God no one asked too many questions about a guy who put a knife to a teenage girl's throat and murdered two people.
My sergeant told me to just go with it. There might be an investigation later, but for now I was a hero who'd been stabbed by a murder suspect. The city sure didn't care much about heroes' kids.
But I was still a cop. And, much more important, a father.
Like any cop worth his salt, I had informants. The word snitch had fallen out of favor in police work over the last few years. But it's hard to find words that rhyme with informant. "Snitches get stitches" is catchier than something like "Informants get dormant."
Informants are a fact of police work. People like to point out all the problems with using informants, but few understand the benefits. They can go places cops can't. Cops can't be everywhere at once. Informants help in that effort. They also give insight into how a criminal thinks.
Jodie Foster didn't need Anthony Hopkins's help in The Silence of the Lambs because his character was a Boy Scout. He was a psychopath, and he found the break in the case. Informants are vital and horrible at the same time. And cops need them no matter how they feel about them.
I knew people. Some through favors and some through fear. Both seemed to work well. My biggest issue was that whoever gave Brian that shit was somewhere near Holy Name. At least that's where he was operating. I had to be discreet.
My first stop was at a deli—or, more precisely, behind a deli—off La Salle Street. I ditched the van and walked to the alley behind the North Side Deli. After just a few minutes, a skinny white guy with a shaved head and tats up and down both arms stepped out for a smoke.
He didn't notice me until I said, "Hello, Walter." It was satisfying to see him jump. "You could pass for either a skinhead or a chemo patient. You need to eat a little more while you're at work."
The young man turned and said, "No labels, man. I just like short hair now. Besides, some of my beliefs don't go over so well inside."
I didn't have time to waste. I said, "I need information."
"I'm clean. You got nothing on me."
"I don't need anything on you. The statute hasn't run out on the guy you stabbed over near Riverside Park."
"That was self-defense. You even said he was just a dope dealer. I already paid that debt. I told you about the West Side gang's gun stash."
"You paid part of your debt. Now I need more. Unless you want the judge to decide what, exactly, is self-defense and what's just a senseless attack."
"But the guy wasn't even hurt bad. A few stitches, a little blood. Who cares?"
I looked down at my bandaged hand and said, "I bet he cares. And I still have his contact info."
Walter looked resigned as his head dipped. He mumbled, "What do you need to know?"
"Who's giving meth and X to local kids to sell?"
"Man, this ain't my neighborhood. It's none of my business."
"Make it your business."
Walter caught my tone and looked up at me. "This means something to you, doesn't it?"
I gave him a silent stare.
He said, "You'll owe me."
I just nodded.
I said, "Don't push it, Walter, or some of your white supremacist asshole buddies might find out that your real last name is Nussbaum."
I knew he'd do as I said.
I spread the love for ten blocks in every direction. By midnight I'd be a curse on the tongue of every dealer and informant on the Upper West Side.
I spoke with Lenny Whitehead, a black crack dealer whose daughter I once rescued from a gang he owed money to. Back then he'd offered to kill anyone I wanted him to. I thought it was a joke, but I didn't want to push it.
Manny Garcia, a slick former Latin King, talked to me because I'd helped him when he was fingered for a homicide he didn't commit. I found the real killer, and Manny had been my best friend ever since.
Billy Haskins, a former set designer I put away for selling coke to Broadway actors, talked because he didn't want any trouble. The little Bostonian had no use for New Yorkers other than as drug customers or producers willing to pay union scale.
Everyone was part of the program. I'd have answers soon.
All the social interaction with lowlifes had made me late to pick up the kids. When I pulled the van into the pickup lane, I saw my brood lined up along the fence talking with Sister Sheilah. That was never a good sign.
I rolled to a stop and hopped out, knowing the best defense is a good offense. Whatever Sister Sheilah was asking, I was prepared to answer.
- On Sale
- Sep 18, 2017
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Little, Brown and Company