By Michael Ledwidge
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ORANGE LAKE, NEW YORK
SIXTY MILES NORTH OF NEW YORK CITY
STARTING TO GASP AS she climbed the increasingly steep slope of the tangled hiking trail, Mary Catherine was about to take a breather when the tree line opened. Glancing out over the open ridge, she immediately halted in her tracks, as what was left of her breath was suddenly taken.
Off to the right, the flat lake and majestic foothills of the Catskill Mountains glowed in the soft morning light like a priceless Hudson River School landscape come to life. Mary Catherine stood for a moment, mesmerized by the exhilarating vista, the distant golden hills, the mile-long expanse of silvery blue water, smooth and perfect as a freshly tucked-in sheet.
Only for a moment.
Two geese floating by the near shore of the lake took frantic, honking flight as a large projectile landed in the water beside them with a tremendous, booming slap.
"Youkilis tries to tag from third!" Eddie Bennett yelled as the baseball-size rock he'd just chucked sent violent ripples over the serene water. He dropped to his knees as he threw his arms up in dramatic triumph. "But the Yankees' new center fielder, Eddie the Laser Beam Bennett, throws him out by a mile. Ball game over. Pennant over. Thuuuuh Yankees win!"
"Mary Catherine!" protested one of the girls from the front of the long, single-file line of children already on the move through the trees farther down the trail.
There were ten of them in all, six girls, four boys. Being a mix of Spanish and Asian, black and white, and ranging in age from seven to sixteen, they were often mistaken for a small Montessori school.
But they weren't, Mary Catherine knew. They were a family, believe it or not. A large, raucous, often aggravating, but ultimately always loving family. One she found herself smack-dab in the middle of again and again for some reason.
Who was she kidding? she thought as she hauled Eddie up and sent him scurrying ahead of her along the forest path. She knew the reason, or at least the main one. His name was Mike Bennett, the NYPD detective father of these ten crazy kids, stuck back in the city on a case. Which meant she was on riot patrol without backup here at the Bennett family lake house. At least until the weekend.
This latest frenzied fiasco of an outdoor adventure was actually courtesy of the two littlest ones, Shawna and Chrissy: a first-ever Bennett family vacation breakfast picnic. But it was Jane, the Girl Scout, who had turned it into a full-blown nature walk with her Orange County field guide. An activity Ricky, Eddie, and Trent were determined to tease into oblivion at every turn, of course.
Less than a minute later, Mary Catherine watched helplessly as, midway down the hiking line, Ricky Bennett suddenly hopped up on a rock and began making drumbeat sounds with his mouth. It was a rap beat, Mary Catherine knew. The very same one the thirteen-year-old had driven them all crazy with on last night's two-hour ride up here.
"Uh-oh. Here we go. More dissension in the ranks," Mary Catherine mumbled as she hurried forward through the column of kids.
His brother Trent, seizing the moment, immediately jumped up beside Ricky and joined in the fun with a manic, high-pitched, scratching-squeaking sound.
"Y'all, I'm sick of this wood. Get me back to my 'hood," Ricky rapped in a bellowing voice before the two knuckleheaded boys collapsed in bursts of laughter.
"Mary Catherine!" fourteen-year-old Jane shrieked this time.
Mary Catherine finally arrived from the rear of the file, forcing a scowl across her face to hide her smile.
She thought the boys were actually pretty funny but, of course, being an experienced nanny and nobody's fool, she would take that secret to her grave.
"Boys, you will cease this instant," Mary Catherine said to them as sternly as her lilting Irish brogue would allow. "Nature walks are about relaxation. We'll not have your human beat-bashing nonsense."
"It's beatboxing, Mary Catherine," Ricky said helpfully, between giggles. "Human beatboxing."
"I'll box you about your human head and shoulders in about three seconds," Mary Catherine said, pulling his hat down over his face. She whirled around and busted Eddie making faces over her shoulder.
"And for you, Eddie Andrew Bennett," she said, poking his chest, "another rock near one of Orange County's fine feathered friends and we'll see if that portable PlayStation of yours can throw Youkilis out from third!"
HEADING BACK TO THE rear of the line, Mary Catherine looked pleadingly at the two oldest Bennett kids, Juliana and Brian, for some much-needed assistance, but they avoided her gaze—eyes expressionless, zombielike, as if they were sleepwalking. Wasn't looking like any help was on the way from the teen ranks this early in the a.m. She was on her own and surrounded on all sides, she thought, flicking a drop of sweat from her nose.
After they got up here late last night, maybe this was a bit too much too soon. But then again, wasn't the entire point of vacation to get these kids out of the concrete jungle of Manhattan and up here into the clean, fresh country air? They would happily laze around in their pajamas until noon if she let them. Like all good Marine Corps drill instructors and nuns, she knew it was better to get an ironclad routine going straight off the bat, and then get them used to it, no matter how painful it was at first. If she'd learned anything in the last few years as the world's hardest-working nanny, it was that.
And despite all the tomfoolery, Jane was making the best of it, at least. The head of their expedition thumbed through her guidebook as they continued along the path. She brought the party to a halt as she came upon some small gray birds making creaking chirps as they bathed in a forest creek. She lifted the binoculars from around her neck.
"Is that a dove?" Fiona whispered as she crouched alongside her. "No, wait. A plover, right?"
"Yes, very good, Fiona," Jane whispered back, flicking and stopping on a page to make a notation. "That is a plover. A semipalmated plover, I believe."
As they continued on, a loud croak began echoing through the trees.
"Is that a bird, too?" said seven-year-old Chrissy, looking around excitedly.
"No, Chrissy," Jane said, patting her little sister on the head. "I'm pretty sure it's a frog."
"I believe it's a semipalmated frog, to be exact, Chrissy," called Ricky from the back, to the snickering delight of the boys.
That's when it happened. Trent saw it first. He stopped as if he'd hit an invisible wall and began jumping up and down as he repeatedly stabbed a pointing finger toward the undergrowth to the left of the trail.
"Yeah, well, what the heck is… that?" he screamed.
Arriving at the scene of the commotion, Mary Catherine took a couple of seconds to piece together what was going on. Between the shafts of sunlight, sprawled along the forest floor beside an elm tree, was a large gray silhouette. When the form snorted out a breath, Mary realized it was a deer, a large doe, lying on her side. She also realized there was something on the loamy forest floor beside her, a bulbous gray-green form, slick with moisture. Wisps of steam were rising off the curious blob. It was moving slightly.
As the prone deer turned and began to lick at the form, Mary Catherine realized what they were witnessing. The deer had just given birth.
"Ugh!" Trent said.
"What?" Ricky said.
"Ewwwwww!" Eddie said.
"Quiet, children. Hush!" Mary Catherine said, urging them all to crouch down.
As they kneeled, watching from the trail, the mother deer suddenly stopped licking. The wet gray caul of the newborn deer bulged and then split and a tiny face emerged. The wet creature wriggled and blinked furiously as it rolled out of the steaming birth casing and onto the forest floor.
Mary Catherine glanced from the wonder they were witnessing to the rest of the crew around her. Every one of the kids was floored, absolutely astonished. Even the boys. Especially the boys. She'd never seen them so wide-eyed. The miracle of life had utterly silenced the peanut gallery.
They all gasped in unison a moment later as the mother deer suddenly rose in a long, graceful, almost regal movement, her head and ears cocked directly at them. The fawn, still on its side, blinked at its mother and then began to rock, trying to roll over and get its long legs underneath it.
"Come on. You can do it. Come on," Chrissy prompted.
As if hearing Chrissy's encouragement, the newborn finally stood on all fours. They all watched as it wobbled in place, its legs trembling, its wet eyes wide, its fur in the shafts of light as fuzzy as a bumblebee's.
"Oh, my gosh! It looks like a bunny, a long-legged bunny," Shawna said, clapping with delirious excitement. "It's the cutest ever, ever, ever."
No, that's you, thought Mary Catherine as she kissed the bouncing little girl on the top of her head. The miracle of life, indeed, she thought, looking from the fawn to the surrounding crowd of crazy sweet kids who had somehow become her life.
THEY SAY THE NEON lights are bright on Broadway, but from where I sat, beside an upstairs window of the Thirty-Fourth Precinct's brown brick pillbox on Broadway and 183rd Street in Washington Heights, I was seriously having my doubts. In fact, the only illumination I caught at all as I stared out that cold predawn morning was from an ancient set of cheap Christmas lights strung across the faded plastic awning of a bodega across the street.
And they weren't even blinking.
Yawning down at the grim street, I knew it could have been worse. Much worse. Back in 1992, the year I started in the NYPD up here in the Heights—once one of northern Manhattan's most notorious, drug-riddled neighborhoods—if you saw any twinkling lights in the sky, it was most likely a muzzle flash from a gun being fired on one of the rooftops.
I was twenty-two back then, fresh out of the Police Academy and looking for action. I got it in heaps. That year, the three-four stacked up a staggering 122 murders. Death really does come in threes, the precinct detectives used to joke, because every three days, like clockwork, it seemed someone in the neighborhood was murdered.
In the early nineties, the neighborhood had become a wholesale drug supermarket, an open-air cocaine Costco. At 2:00 a.m. on Saturdays, it looked like the dinner rush at a McDonald's drive-through, as long lines of jittery customers idled in the narrow, tenement-lined streets.
But we had turned it around, I reminded myself as I looked out at the still-dark streets. Eventually, we locked up the dealers and boarded up the crack houses until the cokeheads and junkies were finally convinced that the Heights was back to being a neighborhood instead of a drugstore.
And by "we," I mean the veteran cops who "raised" me, as they say on the job—the Anti-Crime Unit grunts who took me under their wing, who showed me what it was to be a cop. A lot of them were actual Vietnam veterans who'd traded a foreign war for our unending domestic drug war. Day in and day out, we cruised the streets, making felony collars, taking guns off the street, putting bad guys behind bars.
Sitting here twenty years later, working my latest case, I kept thinking more and more about those fearless cops. As I sat looking out the window, I actually fantasized that they would arrive any minute, pulling into the special angled parking spaces below and hopping out of their cars, ready to give me some much-needed backup.
Because though we'd won the battle of Washington Heights, the war on drugs wasn't over. Not by a long shot.
I turned away from the window and looked back at the pages of an arrest report spread across the battered desk in front of me.
In fact, the war was just getting started. It was about to flare up bigger and badder and deadlier than ever before.
I SIFTED THROUGH SOME photographs until I found the reason why I was up here so early. I propped the color shot over the screen of my open laptop and did what I'd been doing a lot of in the last few weeks—memorizing one of the faces in it.
The photograph showed three men standing in a rundown Mexican street beside a brand-new fire-engine-red Ford Super Duty pickup truck. Two of the men were wearing bandannas and baseball caps to cover their faces and gripped AR-15 assault rifles with extended magazines. Between them stood a bareheaded, broad-shouldered, light-skinned black man. A gold Cartier tank watch was just visible above the cuff of his dark, tailored suit as he smoothed an Hermès tie.
I stared at the man in the middle—his pale blue eyes, his cropped salt-and-pepper hair, his expensive attire. Smiling as he glanced in the direction of the camera, the handsome dusky-skinned black man had the casual grace of a model or a sports star.
He was a star, all right.
A death star.
The man's name was Manuel "the Sun King" Perrine, and he was the notorious drug kingpin who ran the Tepito drug cartel, the most violent in Mexico. Two years earlier, Perrine had had two U.S. Border Patrol agents and their families murdered in Arizona and burned their houses to the ground. Though the ruthless killer and Forbes magazine–listed billionaire had been in a Mexican prison at the time of the ordered hits, he'd promptly escaped and gone on the run when the proceedings for his extradition to the U.S. had begun last year. It was as though he had disappeared into thin air.
It turned out he hadn't. Manuel Perrine was coming to New York City today. We knew where, and we knew when.
The ten-page arrest package I'd been working on spelled it all out in exhaustive detail. It had surveillance photos of the meeting place, building descriptions, Google maps. It even had the location and directions from the planned arrest site to the trauma unit of the New York–Presbyterian Hospital emergency room, which I was praying we wouldn't need.
If all went well today, by five o'clock, I'd be at a bar, surrounded by cops and DEA and FBI agents, buying rounds as we toasted our success in taking down one of the most dangerous men on the face of the earth.
That was the plan, anyway, and it was a good one, I thought, staring at the pages. But even with all its detail and foresight, I was still wary—nervous as hell, to be perfectly frank.
Because I knew about plans. Especially the best-laid ones. If the Heights had taught me anything, it was that.
It's like the wise sage Mike Tyson once said: "Everybody got plans… until they get hit."
"HEY, FIRST ONE IN. I like that in a team leader. You deserve a gold star and a smiley-face sticker," someone said five minutes later, as a massive cup of coffee thudded down beside my elbow.
"No, wait. I take that back," said the bearded, long-haired undercover cop who sat down across from me. "I forgot that Your Highness doesn't have to drive in from the ass end of the Bronx, but actually lives nearby, here in the glorified borough of Manhattan. Forgive me for forgetting what a yuppie fop you've become."
I smiled back at the grinning, wiseacre cop. His name was Hughie McDonough, and his egregious chop-busting stemmed from our days at Saint Barnabas Elementary School in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx, where we grew up. In addition to being school chums, Hughie and I had been in the same Police Academy class and had worked together in a street crime unit here in the three-four for a couple of years.
We'd lost touch when I went on to the five-two in the Bronx and he transferred out of the NYPD and into the DEA. Over the course of the last fifteen years, McDonough had built a rock-star reputation as a fearless undercover agent. He was also one of the foremost experts on Colombian, and now Mexican, cartels. Which was what had us working together after all these years on a joint NYPD-federal task force, hoping to nail Perrine.
"Late again, huh, McDonough?" I said shaking my head. "Let me guess. You were blow-drying that Barbie hair of yours? No, wait. You ran out of Just For Men for your Jesus beard."
"Tell me. What does it look like below Ninety-Sixth Street?" Hughie said, ignoring my dig and continuing the trash talk. "And what about those cocktail parties, Mike? I mean, you are one of NYC's top cops, according to the latest New York magazine article. You must be on the cocktail party circuit."
I glanced across the table thoughtfully.
"Cocktail parties are pretty much like keg parties, Hughie, except they're indoors and the cups are different. Crystal instead of the plastic ones you're used to."
"Indoors?" Hughie said, scratching his head. "How does that work? Where do you put the Slip'N Slide? And don't you get holes in the walls when it's time for the strippers to shoot the beer bottles?"
"McDonough, McDonough, McDonough," I said as I Frisbeed my coffee-cup lid at him. "Such sinful talk. And to think once you were such a nice little church boy."
McDonough actually cracked up at that one. Church Boy was what the black and Hispanic public school toughs called us on the subway when they spotted our Catholic school dress shoes and ties. In Hughie's case, that was about all it took for him to start swinging. He wasn't a big kid, but his crazy fireman father made him and his four older brothers compete in the citywide Golden Gloves boxing tournament every year, so he had no problem at all mixing it up. One time, as high school legend had it, he knocked a huge mouthy kid from Pelham down the back stairs of a city bus and out the door onto East 233rd Street with one shot.
"To church boys," McDonough said, leaning over the desk and touching his coffee cup to mine in a toast. "May we never run out of ugly plaid ties and white socks to wear with our black shoes."
I toasted him back and smiled at the old-school crazy cop over the rim of my cup.
Considering the danger inherent in what we were about to do, it was good to have my pugnacious old friend here now. He was as cocky and brass-balled as ever. There wasn't anyone else I'd like to be partnered with for this major arrest—or to have watching my back, for that matter. Even with his seriously warped personality.
I smiled as I glanced back at the window. Then down at the photograph of Manuel Perrine. Seems like maybe my backup had arrived after all.
"SO: HAVE YOU FINALLY got this arrest plan sussed out, Fearless Team Leader?" McDonough said, fingering through the papers covering the desk.
"Just finishing up," I said. "I was working on an ass-covering rider at the end in case the Sun King doesn't stick to the script. How does this sound? 'If necessary, we will immediately alter from the original plan and effect as safely as possible the arrest as referred to herein.'"
"That's good," McDonough said, squinting up at the ceiling tiles. "But also add something like, 'We will neutralize the adversary in the quickest, most effective, most efficient, and safest manner that presents itself at that point in time.'"
I shook my head as I typed it into my Toshiba.
"I like it, Church Boy," I said. "If that's not some prime slinging, I don't know what is. You're actually not completely witless, which is saying something for a guy who went to Fordham."
Having gone to Manhattan College, I couldn't let a chance to get a dig in on any graduate of Manhattan's rival, Fordham—the Bronx's other Catholic college—slip by.
McDonough shrugged his broad shoulders.
"I wanted to go to Manhattan College like you, Mike, but it was so small I couldn't find it. And silly me, I looked for it in Manhattan, when all along it was inexplicably hidden in the Bronx," he said. "But my impeccable Jesuit training has got nothing to do with slinging it. I'm a DEA agent, baby. I have a BA in BS."
"A bachelor's degree in bullshit? You must have gotten a four-point-oh," I said as I continued typing.
"This is true," McDonough said, closing his eyes and leaning his broad-shouldered bulk back in the office chair until he was almost horizontal. "And yet somehow I find myself unable to hold a candle to your law enforcement prowess. Seriously, bro, I've tagged along on some of these rides, and this is as major-league as it comes. This is one world-class bag of shit we're about to grab, and to think it's all because of little old you."
I took a bow as I typed.
"Stick around, kid," I said. "Maybe you might learn something."
This crazy case actually was mine. It had started out as a real estate corruption probe, of all things. My Major Case Unit had been brought in when the board president of a new billion-dollar luxury high-rise on Central Park West suspected that the building's real estate manager was getting kickbacks from the contractors he was hiring.
When we got up on the manager's phones, we learned that the kickbacks weren't the only thing he was into. He was a sick pervert who frequented prostitutes on a daily basis, despite the fact that he was supposed to be a pious Hasidic Jew with a large family up in Rockland County. What he liked best were Hispanic girls—the more underage the better—from a Spanish Harlem brothel.
When we swooped down on the building manager and the brothel, we also arrested the pimp running the place. It was the pimp, a Dominican named Ronald Quarantiello, who turned out to be a gift that kept on giving. The jittery, fast-talking criminal was extremely well connected in New York's Hispanic criminal underworld. And staring at a thirty-year sentence for sex trafficking, he'd cut a juicy deal. He agreed to flip against his business partner, Angel Candelerio, the head of DF, Dominicans Forever, the city's largest Dominican drug gang.
And boy, did he flip. Like a gymnast during an Olympic floor exercise. Ronald helped us bug Candelerio's house, his Washington Heights restaurant, where he did all his business, and his encrypted phone.
I thought the pimp was high when he told us that Candelerio was a childhood friend of the globally notorious drug kingpin Perrine. But a wiretap on Candelerio's phones and bugs confirmed it.
Once the transcripts of his conversations with Perrine were obtained, my boss told her boss, and the DEA and FBI were brought in to form a task force with yours truly as the team leader.
The icing on the cake came a month ago, when Perrine and Candelerio started talking about a visit Perrine was going to make to New York.
A meet that was going down at noon today.
As McDonough stood up to take a cell call, I went over the arrest papers for a final time. I double-checked the mission statements and interior layouts and maps. Lastly, I went over the grisly crime-scene photos of the Border Patrol agents and their families whom Perrine had murdered.
- On Sale
- Aug 6, 2013
- Page Count
- 416 pages