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.