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Step on a Crack
By Michael Ledwidge
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Table of Contents
A Preview of Run for Your Life
A Preview of Bullseye
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THE LAST SUPPER
THE BACK OF THE TABLE captain's cream-colored evening jacket had just turned away when Stephen Hopkins leaned across the secluded corner booth and kissed his wife. Caroline closed her eyes, tasting the cold champagne he'd just sipped, then felt a tug as Stephen's hand caught one of the silk spaghetti straps of her Chanel gown.
"These puppies aren't exactly secured in this frock, if you haven't noticed," she said as she came up for air. "Keep playing around and we're going to have a serious wardrobe malfunction. How's my lipstick?"
"Delicious," Stephen said, smiling like a bleeping movie star. Then he touched her thigh.
"You're past fifty," Caroline said. "Not fifteen."
Having this much fun with your husband, Caroline thought, playfully twisting Stephen's hand away, had to be illegal. That their annual "Christmas in New York" date got better every year was beyond her, but there you had it. Dinner here at L' Arène, probably the most elegant, most seductive French restaurant in New York City; a horse-and-buggy ride through Central Park; and then back to the Pierre's presidential suite. It had been their Christmas gift to themselves for the past four years. And every year it turned out to be more romantic than the last, more and more exquisite.
As if on cue, snow began falling outside the copper-trimmed windows of the restaurant, big silver flakes that hung in glittering cones from Madison Avenue's old-fashioned black-iron lampposts.
"If you could have anything this Christmas, what would it be?" Caroline asked suddenly.
Stephen raised his gold-tinged glass of Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle Brut, trying to come up with something funny.
"I wish… I wish…"
A stilling sadness extinguished the humor from his face as he stared into his flute.
"I wish this were hot chocolate."
Caroline felt dizzy as her mouth opened and her breath left.
Many years ago, she and Stephen had been homesick scholarship freshmen at Harvard, without enough money to make it home for Christmas. One morning they'd been the only two breakfast diners in cavernous Annenberg Hall, and Stephen had sat down at her table. "Just for a little warmth," he'd said.
Soon they learned they were both planning to be polisci majors, and they hit it off immediately. In the Yard outside, in front of redbrick Hollis Hall, Caroline impulsively dropped to the ground and made a snow angel. Their faces almost touched when Stephen helped her up. Then she took a quick sip of the hot chocolate she'd smuggled out of the dining hall—so as not to kiss this boy she'd just met and somehow already cared about.
Caroline could still see Stephen as he had been, smiling in the bright, nickeled winter light. That lovely boy standing before her in Harvard Yard, clueless to the fact that he would marry her. Give her a beautiful daughter. Go on to become the president of the United States.
The question he'd asked as she'd lowered her cocoa mug thirty years before reverberated poignantly now in her ears, like crystal struck by shining silver: "Does yours taste like champagne, too?"
Hot chocolate to champagne, Caroline thought, lifting her bubbling flute. Now champagne to hot chocolate. Two and a half decades of marriage come full circle.
What a life they'd had, she thought, savoring the moment. Lucky and worthwhile and…
"Excuse me, Mr. President," a voice whispered. "I'm sorry. Excuse me."
A pasty-looking blond man in a metallic-gray double-breasted suit stood ten feet in front of their booth. He was waving a menu and a pen. Henri, the maître d', arrived immediately. He assisted Steve Beplar, the Hopkinses' Secret Service agent, in trying to escort the intruder discreetly out of sight.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," the man said to the Secret Service agent in a defeated voice. "I just thought the president could sign my menu."
"It's okay, Steve," Stephen Hopkins said with a quick wave. He shrugged at his wife in apology.
Fame, Caroline thought, placing her champagne glass down onto the immaculate linen. Ain't it a bitch.
"Could you make that out to my wife? Carla," the pale man spoke over the Secret Service agent's wide shoulder.
"Carla's my wife!" the man said a little too loudly. "Oh my God! I just said that, didn't I? I have the insane luck to run into the greatest president of the last century, and what do I do? Jesus, look, I'm blushing now. I have to say, you guys look terrific tonight. Especially you, Mrs. Hopkins."
"Merry Christmas to you, sir," Stephen Hopkins said, smiling back as graciously as he could manage.
"Hope it was no bother," the man said, the sheen of his suit flashing as he backed away, bowing.
"Bother?" Stephen Hopkins said, grinning at his wife after the man had departed. "Now how could Carla's husband think that demolishing the most romantic moment of our lives was a bother?"
They were still laughing when a beaming waiter materialized out of the shadows, put down their plates, and vanished. Caroline smiled at the avant-garde architecture of her terrine of foie gras as her husband topped off her champagne.
It's almost too beautiful to eat, Caroline thought, lifting her knife and fork. Almost.
The first bite was so ethereal that it took a few seconds for her to place the taste.
By then it was too late.
What felt like high-pressure superheated air instantly inflated Caroline Hopkins's lungs, throat, and face. Her eyeballs felt like they were going to pop by the time her scrolled silver fork fell from her lips and clattered against china.
"Oh my God, Caroline," she heard Stephen say as he looked at her in horror. "Steve! Help! Something's wrong with Caroline! She can't breathe."
PLEASE, GOD, NO. Don't let this happen. Don't! Stephen Hopkins thought as he staggered to his feet. He was just opening his mouth to cry out again when Steve Beplar snatched the edge of the dining table and flung it out of the way.
Crystal and china exploded against the varnished hardwood floor as Agent Susan Wu, the next closest of their four-person security detail, pulled Mrs. Hopkins from the booth seat. The female agent immediately probed Caroline's mouth with her finger to dislodge any food. Then she got behind her, a fist already under her rib cage as she began the Heimlich maneuver.
It was as if an ice-cold hand had reached into Stephen's chest. He watched helplessly as his wife's face turned from red to almost blackish purple.
"Stop. Wait!" he said. "She's not choking. It's her allergy! She's allergic to peanuts. Her emergency adrenaline! The little pen thing she carries. Where's her bag?"
"It's in the car out front!" Agent Wu said. She bolted across the dining room and returned a moment later at a run. She had Caroline's bag!
Stephen Hopkins upended his wife's handbag onto the satin of the booth seat. "It's not here!" he said, sending makeup and perfume flying.
Steve Beplar barked into his sleeve mike; then he scooped up the former First Lady in his arms as if she were a tired toddler.
"Time to get to a hospital, sir," he said, moving toward the exit as everyone else in the restaurant stared in horror.
Moments later, in the rear of a speeding Police Interceptor Crown Victoria, Stephen Hopkins cradled his wife's head in his lap. Breath whistled weakly from her throat as if it were coming through a cocktail straw. He ached for his wife, watching her eyes tighten in severe pain.
A doctor and a gurney were already waiting out on the sidewalk when the sedan came to a curb-hopping stop out in front of the St. Vincent's Midtown Hospital emergency room entrance on 52nd Street.
"You think it's an allergic reaction?" one of the doctors asked, taking Caroline's pulse as two attendants rushed her through the sliding glass doors on a stretcher.
"She's highly allergic to peanuts. Ever since she was a kid," Stephen said, jogging at Caroline's other side. "We told the kitchen at L'Arène. There must have been some mix-up."
"She's in shock, sir," the doctor said. He blocked the former president as Caroline was pushed through a HOSPITAL PERSONNEL ONLY side door. "We're going to have to try to stabilize her. We'll do everything—"
Stephen Hopkins suddenly shoved the stunned doctor out of the way. "I'm not leaving her side," he said. "Let's go. That's an order."
They were already attaching an IV drip to Caroline's arm and an oxygen mask to her face when he entered the trauma room. He winced as they sliced her beautiful gown to the navel so they could attach the leads of the heart monitor.
The machine bleated out an awful, continuous beep when they flicked it on. Then a flat black line appeared on the scrolling red graph readout. A nurse immediately started CPR.
"Clear," the doctor yelled, and put the electrified paddles to Caroline's chest.
Stephen watched Caroline's chest surge upward with a pulse, and then a new, gentle bloop-bloop started on the monitor. A sharp, glorious scratch spiked upward on the spooling readout. Then another.
One for every miraculous beat of Caroline Hopkins's heart.
Tears of gratitude had formed in Stephen's eyes—when the awful beeeeeeeeeeep returned.
The doctor tried several more times with the defibrillator, but the screeching monitor wouldn't change its grating one-note tune. The last thing the former president witnessed was another act of mercy by his loyal Secret Service.
Teary-eyed, Steve Beplar reached over and yanked the plug out of the yellow tile wall, halting the machine's evil shriek.
"I'm so sorry, sir. She's gone."
THE PALE, blond autograph seeker from L'Arène told the pathetic sonofabitch cabdriver to pull over on Ninth Avenue, a block north of St. Vincent's Hospital. He stuffed a ten into the grimy divider slot and elbowed open the greasy door latch to avoid touching it. There were good reasons he was known as the Neat Man.
A Channel 12 EyeScene news van screeched to a halt beside him as he made it to the corner. He stopped on his heels when he saw uniformed NYPD holding back a growing crowd of reporters and cameramen at the entrance to the hospital's emergency room.
No, he thought. It couldn't be! Were the fun and games already over?
He was crossing 52nd Street when he spotted a distraught-looking female EMT slumping out of the crowd.
"Miss?" he said, stepping up to her. "Could you tell me? Is this where they've brought First Lady Caroline?"
The full-figured Hispanic woman nodded her head, and then she suddenly moaned. Tears began to stream down her cheeks. A quivering hand went to her mouth.
"She just died," she said. "Caroline Hopkins just died."
The Neat Man felt dizzy for a second. Like the wind had been knocked right out of him. He blinked rapidly as he shook his head, stunned and elated.
"No," he said. "Are you sure?"
The overwrought paramedic sobbed as she suddenly embraced him. "Ay Dios mío! She was a saint. All the work she did for poor people and AIDS. One time, she came to my mother's project in the Bronx, and we shook her hand like she was the queen of England. Her Service America campaign was one of the reasons I became a paramedic. How could she be dead?"
"Lord knows," the Neat Man said soothingly. "But she's in His hands now, isn't she?"
He could practically feel the billions of germs the woman was carrying. He shuddered, thinking of the indescribable filth a New York City paramedic came into contact with every day of her pitiful existence. A Hell's Kitchen hospital worker for that matter!
"God, what am I doing?" the medic said, releasing him. "The news. The shock of it. I guess it tore me up. I was thinking about going to get some candles or flowers or something. It's just so unreal. I… I'm Yolanda, by the way."
"Yolanda? Yeah. I'm… uh… leaving," the Neat Man said, brushing past her into the street.
He had his cell phone in his hand by the time he made it to the east side of Ninth Avenue. He could hear loudly clattering plates and chefs yelling in French when his call was picked up at L'Arène.
"It's done, Julio," he said. "She's dead. Now get the hell out of there. You killed Caroline Hopkins. Congratulations."
The Neat Man was about to shake his head in wonder at his good luck, but then stopped himself. Luck had absolutely nothing to do with it.
Three years to plan, he thought wistfully as he rounded the corner of 49th Street and headed east. Now they had just three days to pull off the rest of this job.
Minutes later, he was in the back of another taxi, heading north up Eighth. He took a couple of alcohol wipes out of his wallet and scoured his hands and face. He smoothed his lapels and crossed his hands in his lap as he sped through the bright lights, escaping the unclean city.
I'll tell you what's really so unreal, Yolanda baby, the Neat Man thought as the cab swerved around Columbus Circle and made its way up Broadway.
First Lady Caroline's death is just the beginning!
THE PERFECT TEN
I'LL TELL YOU THIS—even on the so-called mean streets of New York, where the only thing harder to get than a taxi in the rain is attention, we were managing to turn heads that grim, gray December afternoon.
If anything could tug at the coiled-steel heartstrings of the Big Apple's residents, I guess the sight of my mobilized Bennett clan—Chrissy, three; Shawna, four; Trent, five; twins Fiona and Bridget, seven; Eddie, eight; Ricky, nine; Jane, ten; Brian, eleven; and Juliana, twelve—all dressed in their Sunday best and walking in size order behind me, could do the trick.
I suppose I should have felt some privilege in being granted the knowledge that the milk of human kindness hasn't completely dried up in our jaded metropolis.
But at the time, the gentle nods and warm smiles we received from every McClaren stroller–pushing Yummie, construction worker, and hot dog vendor from the subway exit next to Bloomingdale's all the way to First Avenue were completely lost on me.
I had a lot on my mind.
The only New Yorker who didn't seem like he wanted to go on a cheek-pinching bender was the old man in the hospital gown who cupped his cigarette and wheeled his IV cart out of the way to let us into our destination—the main entrance of the terminal wing of the New York Hospital Cancer Center.
I guess he had a lot on his mind, too.
I don't know where New York Hospital recruits its staff for the terminal cancer wing, but my guess is somebody in Human Resources hacks into St. Peter's mainframe and swipes the saint list. The constancy of their compassion and the absolute decency with which they treated me and my family were truly awe-inspiring.
But as I passed forever-smiling Kevin at reception and angelic Sally Hitchens, the head of the Nursing Department, it took everything I had to raise my head and manage a weak nod back at them.
To say I wasn't feeling very social would have been putting it mildly.
"Oh, look, Tom," a middle-aged woman, clearly a visitor, said to her husband at the elevator. "A teacher brought some students in to sing Christmas carols. Isn't that so nice? Merry Christmas, children!"
We get that a lot. I'm of Irish American extraction, but my kids—all adopted—run the gamut. Trent and Shawna are African American; Ricky and Julia, Hispanic; and Jane is Korean. My youngest's favorite show is The Magic School Bus. When we brought home the DVD, she exclaimed, "Daddy, it's a show about our family!"
Give me a fuzzy red wig and I'm a six-foot-two, two-hundred-pound Ms. Frizzle. I certainly don't look like what I am—a senior detective with the NYPD Homicide Division, a troubleshooter, negotiator, whatever's needed by whoever needs it.
"Do you boys and girls know 'It Came Upon a Midnight Clear'?" the woman who had latched on to us persisted. I was just about to sharply point out her ignorance when Brian, my oldest son, glanced at the smoke coming out of my ears and piped up.
"Oh, no, ma'am. I'm sorry. We don't. But we know 'Jingle Bells.'"
All the way up to dreaded Five, my ten kids sang "Jingle Bells" with gusto, and as we piled out of the elevator, I could see a happy tear in the woman's eye. She wasn't here on vacation either, I realized, and my son had salvaged the situation better than a United Nations diplomat, certainly better than I ever could have.
I wanted to kiss his forehead, but eleven-year-old boys have killed over less, so I just gave him a manly pat on the back as we turned down a silent, white corridor.
Chrissy, with her arm around Shawna, her "best little pal" as she calls her, was into the second verse of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" as we passed the nurses' station. The little ones could have been life-size Precious Moments figurines in their dresses and pigtailed hair, thanks to the extreme makeover work of their older sisters, Juliana and Jane.
My kids are great. Amazing, really. Like everyone else lately, they had gone so far above and beyond that it was hard to believe sometimes.
I guess it just pissed me off that they had to.
At the end of the second hallway we turned, a woman, wearing a flowered dress over her ninety-pound frame and a Yankees cap over her hairless head, was sitting in a wheelchair at the open door of 513.
"MOM!" the kids yelled, and the thunder of twenty feet suddenly shattered the relative silence of the hospital hall.
THERE WAS HARDLY enough of my wife left to get twenty arms around, but the kids managed it somehow. There were twenty-two arms when I got there. My wife was on morphine, codeine, and Percocet, but the only time I saw her completely pain-free was that first moment when we arrived, when she had all her ducklings pressed around her.
"Michael," Maeve whispered to me. "Thank you. Thank you. They look so wonderful."
"So do you," I whispered back. "You didn't get out of that bed by yourself again, did you?"
Every day when we came to see her, she was dressed for company, her intravenous pain pack hidden away, a smile on her face.
"If you didn't want glamour, Mr. Bennett," my wife said, fighting the weariness in her glazed eyes, "I guess you should have married someone else."
It was the morning of the previous New Year's Day when Maeve had complained about some stomach pain. We'd thought it was just some holiday indigestion, but when it hadn't gone away in two weeks, her doctor wanted to do a laparoscopy just to be on the safe side. They found growths on both ovaries, and the biopsy came back with the worst news of all. Malignant. A week later, a second biopsy of the lymph nodes they took out with her uterus reported even worse news. The cancer had spread, and it wasn't going to stop.
"Let me help you up this time, Maeve," I whispered as she started to push herself up out of the chair.
"You want to get seriously hurt?" she said, glaring at me. "Mr. Tough Guy Detective!"
Maeve fought for her life and dignity like a banshee. She took on cancer the way the outclassed Jake LaMotta took on Sugar Ray Robinson in the fifties, with an epic ferocity not to be believed.
She was a nurse herself and used every contact and every ounce of wisdom and experience she'd gained. She underwent so many chemo and radiation treatments, it put a life-threatening strain on her heart. But even after the radical attempts, after everything there was to be done had been done, the CAT scan revealed growing tumors in both lungs, her liver, and her pancreas.
A quote from LaMotta rang in my ears as I watched Maeve stand on her wobbling toothpick legs to prop herself up behind her wheelchair. "You never knocked me down, Ray," he supposedly said after Robinson TKO'd him. "You never knocked me down."
MAEVE SAT DOWN on the bed and lifted a white chart from beside her.
"I got something for you, guys," she said softly. "Since it looks like I'm going to be stuck here in this ridiculous place for a while longer, I decided I needed to come up with a list of chores for you."
Some of the older kids groaned. "Mom!"
"I know, I know. Chores. Who needs them?" Maeve said. "But here's my thinking. If you all work together, you can keep the apartment running for me until I get back. Okay, team? Then here we go. Julia, you're on lifeguard duty for baths for the youngin's, and you're also responsible for getting them dressed in the morning.
"Brian, you're my cruise director, okay? Board games, video games, Duck, Duck, Goose. Anything you can think of that's not the TV. I need you to keep all the young men as occupied as possible.
"Jane, you're on homework patrol. Get the house genius, Eddie, to help you. Ricky, I hereby dub you the Bennett house personal lunch chef. Remember, peanut butter and jelly for everyone except Eddie and Shawna—they get baloney.
"Let's see. Fiona and Bridget. Table setting and clearing. You could alternate, figure it out…."
"What about me?" Trent squeaked. "What's my job? I don't have a job yet."
"You're on shoe patrol, Trent Bennett," Maeve said. "All I ever hear from these complainers is 'Where's my shoes? Where's my shoes?' Your job is to gather up all ten pairs and get them next to everybody's bed. Don't forget your own."
"I won't," Trent said, nodding with five-year-old intensity.
"Shawna and Chrissy, I have a job for you girls, too."
"Yay," Chrissy said, and did a little ballerina twirl. She'd gotten the Barbie of Swan Lake DVD for her birthday a month before, and every emotion now came with an impromptu interpretive dance.
"You know Socky's dish in the kitchen?" Maeve said.
Socky was a fickle white-and-gray cat that Maeve had pulled out of the garbage alongside our West End Avenue apartment house. My wife obviously has a thing for the misfortunate and strays. The fact that she married me proved that a long time ago.
Shawna nodded solemnly. At four, she was the quietest and most obedient and easygoing of all my kids. Maeve and I used to laugh at the nature-versus-nurture debate. All ten of our kids came from the womb prepackaged with his or her own personality. A parent could enhance and certainly damage, but change? Make a quiet kid gabby or a social butterfly more cerebral? Uh-uh. Not gonna happen.
"Well, it's your job to make sure Socky always has water to drink in her dish. Oh, and listen up, gang," Maeve said, sliding down a little on the bed. At that point, just sitting too long in one spot hurt her.
"I want to go over a couple of other things before I forget. In this family, we always celebrate each other's birthdays. I don't care if you're four or fourteen, or forty and scattered around the world. We gotta stick by each other, okay? And meals—as long as you live under the same roof, you have at least one meal a day together. I don't care if it's a dreaded hot dog in front of the dastardly TV as long as you're all there. I'm always there for you, right? Well, you have to be like me even if I'm not there. You got me? Trent, are you listening?"
"Hot dogs in front of the TV," Trent said, grinning. "I love hot dogs and TV."
We all laughed.
"And I love you," Maeve said. I could see her eyelids beginning to droop. "You've made me so proud. You too, Michael, my brave detective."
Maeve was facing the grave with a dignity I was unaware human beings were capable of, and she was proud of us? Of me? What felt like an entire main of frigid water suddenly burst down the length of my spine. I wanted to start wailing, to put my fist through something—the window, the TV, the dirty lead skylight out in the lounge. Instead, I stepped forward through the crowd of my children, took off my wife's cap, and kissed her gently on the forehead.
"Okay, guys. Mom needs her rest," I said, fiercely struggling to keep the crack that was in my heart out of my voice. "Time to go. Let's move it, troop."
IT WAS THREE FORTY-FIVE when the Neat Man stepped off Fifth Avenue, climbed stone stairs, and walked into St. Patrick's Cathedral.
He snorted at the good folk kneeling in heavy silence and prayer. Sure, he thought, the Big Guy upstairs had to be real impressed with all this piety coming from the nerve center of the modern world's Gomorrah.
A prim, dough-faced old gal had beaten him to the first seat in the pew beside the nearest confessional along the cathedral's south wall. What the hell kind of sins did she have to admit? he wondered, sitting down beside her. Forgive me, Father, I bought the cheap chocolate chips for the grandkids' cookies.
- On Sale
- Aug 6, 2013
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Grand Central Publishing