Step on a crack, p.1

Step on a Crack, page 1

 part  #1 of  Michael Bennett Series

 

Step on a Crack
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Step On A Crack


  Step On A Crack

  James Patterson

  Michael Ledwidge

  Detective Michael Bennett is about to take on the most sinister challenge of his career. The nation has fallen into mourning after the unexpected death of a beloved former first lady, and the most powerful people in the world gather in New York for her funeral. Then the inconceivable occurs. Billionaires, politicians, and superstars of every kind are suddenly trapped within one man's brilliant and ruthless scenario.

  Bennett-father of ten-is pulled into the fray. As the danger escalates, Michael is hit with devastating news. After fighting for many years, his wife has succumbed to a terrible disease. As New York descends into chaos, he has lost the great love of his life and faces raising his ten devastated children alone-and rescuing 34 hostages.

  Day after day, Bennett confronts the most ruthless man he has ever dealt with, a man who kills without hesitation and counters everything the NYPD and FBI throw at him with impunity. As the entire world watches and the tension boils to a searing heat, Bennett has to find a way out-or face responsibility for the greatest debacle in history.

  James Patterson, Michael Ledwidge

  Step On A Crack

  The first book in the Michael Bennett series

  For Richie, Deirdre, and Sheilah. And MaryEllen, Carole, and Teresa.

  Dedicated to W and J and their four children, C, M, A, and N. The book is also dedicated to the Palm Beach Day Academy. Also in appreciation of Manhattan College.

  “Step on a crack, Break your mother’s back.”

  “Step on a crack, and you’ll soon be eaten

  By the bears that congregate at street corners,

  Waiting for their lunch to walk by.”

  – CITY SAYINGS

  Prologue. THE LAST SUPPER

  One

  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 poli-sci 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.”

  Two

  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 Stev
e 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.”

  Three

  THE PALE, blond autograph seeker from L’Arène told the pathetic wog of a 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!

  Part One. THE PERFECT TEN

  Chapter 1

  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 smi
les 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.

 
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