They crept out of the jungle.
North, the thin American, had brought night-vision binoculars, but the full moon provided enough light to stay on the trail. The airfield ahead had enough candle power for a Super Bowl; the illumination drew clouds of hideous insects from the swollen Orinoco River. Here the mighty river formed the muddy border of Colombia and Venezuela.
The band advanced: Twenty Colombians; a dozen Yanomamo tribesmen; North and three beefy Americans; two guides — Pablo and Bolivar — from nearby Puerto Ayacucho. As they drew closer, their quarry came into view – 20 gleaming Russian jet fighters, Sukhoi Su-30MK2s. These were Mach 2 additions to the Venezuelan Air Force, with a range of about 2,000 miles – the distance from Caracas to Washington. They could reach the Lincoln Memorial in under two hours.
The band carried 400 pounds of C-4 explosive, more than enough to reduce the jets to $1 billion worth of dust.
The group slipped around the perimeter of the air base toward its soft spot, far from where a company of Venezuelan infantry was garrisoned. Intelligence suggested security was lax because of the notion that the base’s remote location made it inaccessible to attackers. It was the same bit of logic that the Soviets had employed: Put a fence around the country, but not the nuclear arsenal itself.
In early October, the rainy season was reluctantly drawing to a close, and the trail was slick with mud. Anacondas were the chief concern in the wet river basin. Bolivar suddenly dropped to the muck as the tall grass ahead rustled. A caravan of a dozen capybara – four-foot-long rodents that resembled St. Bernard-size guinea pigs – scuttled across the trail in the direction of the river. North marveled at how all the creatures of the South American jungle were oversized and extra deadly. He had been horrified by a giant Caranguejeira — a spider that looked like a hairy Alaskan king crab – that had crawled up the wall of his thatched hut in the Yanomamo village upriver where they had prepared for the attack.
They continued on, fingers on their Kalashnikovs. Bolivar stopped at their destination: a length of wire fence well in the shadows of the base lights. One of the Colombians came forward to begin to cut a hole.
The sound was largely masked by the cacophony of chirps, whistles and shrieks of the wild.
Suddenly, floodlights. The Americans instantly dropped and rolled into the high grass. The rest stood squinting into the light – deer mesmerized by high beams. The Americans began to crawl quickly, keeping low, feeling the whoosh of high volume, large-caliber fire. They heard the thud of bullets finding flesh. The rest of the team was cut down in seconds without a chance to cry out in anguish.
They had been waiting.
Ross Walton shuffled up Eighth Avenueand around the corner at 44th. He slowly descended the dirty steps into the Times Square subway station. An October chill took the edge off the stench of urine. He frowned at the winking bearded man in the poster for a cheap vodka and turned right into the tunnel under the tracks where during lonely hours a brisk trade in rape, robbery and homicide flourished. He flashed his NYPD shield and the cashier in the bulletproof booth gave a sideways look at the trim, white-haired old man, then a look of comprehension, and he remotely unlocked the entrance gate.
Underneath the glue-on wrinkles and eyebrows and water-based hair color, Ross was a wiry 32-year-old decoy cop. He was the worm dangled to subway predators. Technically, he was required to get into costume, and character, in the transit detectives substation in Times Square station. But within a department of 36,000 cops policing seven million inhabitants, a lot of the regulations were only winked at. Technically, Ross’ banishment to transit detective was a promotion for a job well done. Ross and everyone else in blue knew better.
Ross entered the windowless squad room, a gloomy subterranean collection of battered institutional desks and ignored paperwork. Coffee cups abounded, but no one ate down here; subway rats were not to be trifled with.
“No one person has had more of an impact on this country,” said Joe Gaughan, a thickly built member of Ross’ three-person backup team.
“No way. Let me think about this for a minute,” said Ginny Quinn, the senior member of the subway team. She frowned as Ross walked in and turned away before their eyes met. “Sirhan Sirhan? No way.”
The third member of the crew, Jose Calderon, noticed Ross. “It’s supercop,” he said, not in a friendly way. Gaughan glared, then returned to his treatise. “Think about it,” Gaughan went on, “without Sirhan Shirhan, Bobby Kennedy becomes president. No Nixon, no Watergate. No Ford, no Jimmy Fuckin’ Carter. Who knows what the country would be like today.” The three subway cops contemplated what if. Ross broke the silence. “Let’s fucking go already.”
After hours of riding packed rush-hour trains, studying the clumps of commuters stripped of their personal space, they had arrested an ass-grabbing teen-ager, a pelvis-grinding businessman and a belligerent door holder (with an outstanding arrest warrant for a month-old stabbing). As the crowds thinned later in the evening, the crew moved to a Brooklyn-bound R train in search of bigger game.
Ross, wizened and muggable in his disguise, sat in a car toward the back of the train. His natural hair color was brown; women found his eyes soulful and his angular face rakishly handsome. At an inch below six foot, but a slender 170 pounds, Ross easily transformed into tempting prey. Gaughan and Quinn, in an adjacent car, watched him through the connecting door. Calderon did the same from the car on the opposite door.
Ross, like most subway commuters, kept his head down and studied shoes. In two years as a decoy, he had drawn some strong correlations between shoe style and predatory behavior. Five feet to his left was a pair of scuffed black laced shoes, Hispanic male, 40s, most likely an office worker; five feet to his right, high-top Chuck Taylor sneakers, white female, 20s, probably an NYU student; across, work boots, caked with mud, husky black male, 30s, construction worker.
Chuck Taylors got off at Pacific Street and was replaced by steel-toed work boots, black male, 20s — trouble. He chose to sit two feet to the right of Ross, who glanced to see if Calderon had noticed. (He couldn’t tell.)
Muddy work boots got off at Ninth Street and scuffed black laces at 25th Street. The car was getting lonely, but steel-toed boots slid next to Ross: Step 1 from the subway muggers’ handbook.
“Whattup, old man?” A gold tooth rounded out the menace as he smiled. He was close enough for Ross to smell nicotine. Ross looked for Gaughan and Quinn but saw no faces through the train door. He nodded, a slow, stiff old man nod and waited for the move. The young man formed a fist as he launched a right hook targeted for the center of Ross’ face. Ross leaned away from the punch, which landed on the graffiti-resistant Plexiglas window behind him. Ross grabbed a fistful of hooded sweatshirt with his left and raked the attacker’s face with his right elbow. He flung the mugger to the floor, climbed on top and leaned into four short punches that caught the right side of his face. Ross pulled his compact Beretta from the holster in the small of his back.
“Whattup? You’re under arrest, shitbag. That’s whattup,” he said, nudging the back of the mugger’s head with the pistol. Ross looked left and right for signs of his backups storming in from the adjacent cars. Nothing.
The mugger groaned. Ross cuffed him tighter than was necessary. He took a .25-cal. pistol from the mugger’s left pocket and a gravity knife from his right. He pulled his prisoner to his wobbly feet and waited for the train to pull into 36th Street.
On the platform, he met up with his three backups.
“I’ll take him,” Quinn offered.
“The fuck you will,” Ross replied. “You douche bags enjoy the show?” Stoned-faced, the three followed Ross and the prisoner up the stairs and out to the street, where they summoned a squad car. Passers-by stared at the old man holding the young handcuffed man by the forearm.
Ross walked into Flynn’s still in old-man disguise. He slid onto a stool beside Laura.
“Oooh, the old-man suit makes me so hot,” she said.
“Yeah, it makes the bad guys lose control, too.” Ross surveyed the Tuesday night scene. The bar was thinning out at 1 a.m. Half of the drinkers were four-day-a-week Alphabet City locals; the rest were tourists or junior Wall Street titans on a New York nightlife safari.
Albert appeared from around the corner of the horseshoe bar. He shook hands with Ross. “How ya doing, grampa? That’s a good look for you. Rock? Cabo?”
“Yes, Albert, and a needle to inject it.” Ross couldn’t understand half of what Albert said with his lilting Irish accent, but the barman always enunciated when it came to drinks. Ross’ beverage preferences rarely shifted.
“Rough night?” Laura asked. She worked as a jewelry designer and spent most nights holding court at the bar. She and her boyfriend, Sam, who was usually locked away in perpetual crunch time for a video game his company was working on, lived down the block. Flynn’s was the living room for many fledgling Lower East Siders with precious few square feet of dwelling to call their own.
“Ah, usual shit,” Ross said. Albert shuffled down behind the bar to join their conversation. Ross saluted with his tequila shot, downed it and took a long slug from his beer. “I’m just gonna eradicate that memory from my brain.”
“That’s the way,” said Albert. “I’m only staying in the States till me liver gives out.”
Ross and Laura looked at each other and laughed. “Where does he come up with this shit?” Laura said.
Ross guzzled his beer and tried to forget the festering stench of the subway. Albert replaced a drink for each hand, loudly slapping the bottle on the bar with mock fury. Ross raised the shot glass and called out to the barroom: “To Albert’s liver!” The regulars cheered; the rest looked confused and annoyed at the drunken white-haired geezer. The crowd picked up as people arrived alone, in pairs and in small groups. Rudy, the bodybuilding bouncer, created a line out the door as he carefully checked everyone’s ID.
“How’s Candy?” Laura asked.
Ross frowned and shook his head. “Gone.”
Laura put her glass down before it got to her lips. “Huh? What?”
“I threw her out.”
“Wow. Want to talk about it?”
“Not much to say. She was a skanky coke fiend and I kicked her out.” He took a pull of his beer. “I should have had her arrested.”
“What did she do?”
“She forged a check for $500 to buy coke. Thought I wouldn’t notice.” His jaw clenched. “That’s what she told me, ‘I thought you wouldn’t notice.’”
“Wow. I am so sorry.” She rubbed his shoulder.
“Look, it’s no big deal. I should have done it long ago. Move on, you know? Have lots of mindless sex.”
“Albert!” she yelled across the bar. “This man needs another shot!”
Albert appeared with three shot glasses filled with blue liquid.
“What the hell is this?” asked Ross.
“Old family recipe,” Albert said. “Leprechaun juice.” The three of them clinked glasses.
“To mindless sex,” offered Laura.
“My favorite,” said Ross.
“Is there any other kind?” said Albert.
Laura and Ross walked to the back to play the arcade game Moose Hunt. Though Ross was drinking furiously, his marksmanship was extraordinary. He beat Laura three games in a row.
“Damn it!” she said. “Do you know how much I practice this stupid game just to beat your ass?” she said.
“A waste of valuable drinking time,” he said.
They walked back toward their spot at the bar. Laura squeezed past a group constricting traffic. Ross stopped at the bottleneck.
“Hey, excuse me, pal,” Ross said, not politely, to a burly man wearing a leather vest over a black T-shirt. The vest could have been motorcycle gang colors, but it wasn’t. Another poseur, Ross thought.
“What the fuck’s your problem?” the vest said. He looked quizzically at Ross. The unflinching brown eyes didn’t seem to fit the rest of the picture. Ross took a step toward him, but Rudy had been tracking the encounter and was there to head him off.
“Come on, Ross. Not tonight, man,” he said softly. He turned to the vest. “It’s OK. I got him. Don’t worry about it.” The vest could not have been happier to have the scary giant brown man on top of the situation.
Rudy put his arm around Ross and walked him back to Laura. Half the bar watched.
“Do me a favor, hit someone tomorrow night,” Rudy requested. “Anton’s working the door.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Ross said. “Hope that Vagisil’s working out for you, Rudy.”
Rudy shook his head. “Why are you such a fucking ball buster? When do I get good cop? It’s always bad cop.”
“You know I got your back. Don’t you?” Ross said.
“Who took the piece off that kid last month?”
“You did, Ross. You just can’t give the customers a beat down. It’s bad for business.”
“Yeah, I’m an asshole,” Ross said. “I admit it.”
“Yes,” Rudy said, “You, my friend, are an asshole.”
Ross sat down with Laura, but glared toward the vest and his group. They looked warily at the crazy old man, or whatever he was. A minute later they filed out. The last one in line, a girl with long auburn hair, looked back at the crazy codger. Ross grabbed her ass. She scooted out of the bar without a second glance.
“Man,” said Laura. “You are in a state tonight.” Ross shrugged. “Why do you like to fight so much?”
“I don’t know.” He gulped his beer. “It’s something to do.”
“You are weird.”
“That’s a nice way of putting it.”
Albert came by and mumbled something that neither of them understood.
“Is it that we’re drunk, or is he fucking with us?” Laura asked.
“Hey,” Laura pointed with her chin. “Tattooed lady at 10 o’clock.” Ross downed his shot of Cabo Wabo reposado and chased it with a long slug of Rolling Rock. He was feeling the glow. More importantly, the images of his surly backup team and the gold-toothed mugger were melting from his head. They were becoming a blue goop, like Albert’s Leprechaun juice.
“I think I know her,” he said. “Beth, or Nancy or something. Works in the leather shop on Avenue A.”
“Right, Leslie. I wasn’t even close, was I?” He laughed hysterically. “She got drunk off her ass the night we all played poker. Fell off her stool. Thought she broke her arm.” He studied her across the bar. An angry Slayer song played on the juke box, and Ross signaled for another round. Albert set down the shot and beer. He saw where Ross was looking and stage-whispered, “I think she’s a guy.”
“Shut up, Albert.”
He carried his beverages to the other side of the bar and sat down.
“It’s Leslie, right?” She was tall and lanky, with raven hair that set off what little pale skin that wasn’t covered in ink. Chinese writing covered each arm from elbow to just below the shoulder. The spaghetti strap to her tank top bisected a winged creature whose head was somewhere out of sight. Ross wondered about her private gallery. She stared at the spry old man before her.
“Oh wait,” Leslie said, “you’re that cop. Right?”
“Yep, the cop.” She stared intently. He considered whether it was a dragon emerging from her cleavage. He drained the Cabo and she bought shots for the two of them.
“Are you packing right now?” she asked quietly, leaning close to be heard and speaking slowly so that her boozy tongue would function properly.
“Armed and very, very dangerous,” he said. Leslie giggled, Her laughter built until her eyes teared and she laid her head in her arms on the bar.
“What?” Ross asked.
“You look like” — more hysterical laughter – “Dick Van Dyke. But not Rob Petrie Dick Van Dyke. Present-day Dick Van Dyke.”
“And you look like Mary Tyler Moore. But not Laura Petrie Mary Tyler Moore. Mary Tyler Moore with a shitload of tats.” Ross looked across at Laura, who gave him a thumbs up. “Do you own any Capri pants?” he asked Leslie. She pointed a finger at her temple, as if to facilitate thinking, and scrunched her eyes.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Why don’t we go check?”
She lived, like most young residents struggling to pay exorbitant rents in the formerly crime-infested Alphabet City, in a studio apartment the size of a cage at the zoo. Ross wanted to rinse out the white-hair dye and lose the wrinkles, but she insisted she wanted Dick Van Dyke. And she did indeed find a pair of Capri pants and put them on, if only briefly. He beheld the swirl of color, her dragons, eagles, setting suns and moons, the whole exhibition that lay before him.
“OK, here’s our theme,” she said. “This is the night – before we moved into the house in New Rochelle– when we made Richie.”
“Oh that’s good. That’s very good. I can definitely work with that.”
“But first,” she said, “you have to tell me what you did tonight. Did you lock anyone up?”
He told her about the mugger and how his backup team had ignored the take-down.
“But I don’t get it,” she said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Not supposed to. It’s the po-leez department.” Her confusion gradually lifted.
“Oh. Like Chinatown.”
“Forget it, Jake.” Ross touched his nose to hers. “You really want to do this?”
“Hell yeah. I always wanted to fuck a badass cop.”
“Doesn’t everyone. Hey, is that Noah’s Ark on your back?”