“Just a tourist doing his civic duty, huh? How do you know four people were involved?”
“Four, but as many as eight, I’m guessing. The point is—”
“Two taxis and a limo—another lucky guess? You know a lot of details.”
The cop had drawn his weapon, holding it against his riding boot, barrel down, so it wasn’t obvious. A revolver, not a Glock 9, which told me the guy had been with NYPD a lot of years. The civilians could see the gun. They were backing away
“You’re a close personal friend of this U.S. senator, is that what you’re telling me?”
“I’m a friend.”
“Friends with the FBI, too?”
“I said they can confirm my story. If agents aren’t already interviewing people, they will be.”
Staring at me, the cop said, “Cops and criminals—no one understands the system better. And you’re not a cop.”
“Why’d you cause that pileup, running across Fifth Avenue?”
Before I could answer, Choirboy attempted a finesse. “This man was not chasing me. I was walking. I hear order to stop, I stop. I have read about the police of New York. They say you are the finest.”
Spanish-speaking, but from South America, not Spain.
Looking at me, the cop said to Choirboy, “I suppose you’re on vacation, too?”
He answered, “No. I am here for the United Nations. The Embassy of Venezuela.”
It was tough not to react. Even if the man was lying, it was a clever lie. Diplomats can be detained but not arrested.
“As a diplomat, I must protect myself for my safety, so I notice things. I think he is a robber, this man. Or a crazy person. I ask myself, why is he not wearing a coat?”
The cop and the civilians stared at me, seeing torn pants and my short-sleeved polo, as the horse snorted frosted plumes, saddle creaking in the cold.
When I started to explain, the cop told me, “On your knees.
,” not raising his voice much. He holstered his weapon temporarily to dismount the horse.
The Venezuelan lowered his hands, a hint of a smile for me—just me—as he said, “I must go meet American friends because I am late. Thank you for arresting this dangerous man.” He was looking at the cop who had both feet on the ground now, gun still holstered, as he keyed a radio to call for backup.
When the cop told him, “Sorry, sir. Not until I see some identification,” the Venezuelan’s expression read
I don’t understand
. He turned and began walking.
“I’m talking to you, sir. Do you hear me?”
The Venezuelan smiled and gave a friendly wave, still walking. Then walked faster as the cop drew his weapon, telling him, “Stop now! I’m not going to tell you again.”
Because I saw it coming, I was already moving when the Venezuelan ran. Got a good jump as, behind me, the cop shouted, “Freeze! I’ll blow your fucking heads off!,” not sounding like an actor.
He yelled something else as I closed in on the Venezuelan, already at full speed because I was running downhill. Legs driving, head up as I lowered my shoulder, I hit the man so hard I heard the cartilage pop of his ribs as we went spinning out across the frozen pond.
On the ice, sliding, there was the illusion that we gained speed, and I could hear the honk of surprised waterfowl as they scattered. I wrestled my way atop the Venezuelan as we stopped and had my fist hammered back in case he tried to run again.
The man wasn’t going anywhere. He was bug-eyed, fighting to breathe with his broken ribs.
I got to my feet, shielding my face from the spotlight. When I took a step, my feet skated out from under me and I almost fell.
I hollered, “Get that damn light out of my eyes! I didn’t run. He did.”
The cop thought about it a beat before telling me, “I’ve got people on the way. Keep your hands where I can see them.”
I wasn’t in the mood. “Deal with it. You try walking on this shit with your hands up.”
The cop raised his voice to insist but stopped talking when I stopped—froze, more accurately—both of us listening to a cracking sound. The noise spiderwebbed across the pond.
I looked at my feet, then into the spotlight. I was asking the cop, “Do you have a rope?,” as I went through the ice.
The Venezuelan dropped next.
he kidnappers didn’t get the senator. They grabbed the teenager instead. Will Chaser, a high school freshman from Minneapolis.
Apparently, Minnesota had cowboys.
The mounted cop, Marvin Esterline, gave me the news. Fitting. The man had twenty-seven years with NYPD, the last eight as a member of the elite mounted division. He stuck around after they’d driven us from the pond, then moved me from the Central Park office to the 19th Precinct, a five-story building on East 67th, red brick with blue trim.
For two hours, I answered questions. Every time I took a break, Esterline was in the lounge waiting. “Unlike a certain South American perp,” he explained, “you didn’t demand an attorney.”
“You can’t question him until a lawyer shows up?” I asked.
“No, Einstein,” the cop replied. “No questions because his attorney
show up. It burns my ass how tight the regs are now.”
The perp was Louis Duarte, a twenty-three-year-old university student from Caracas who had a couple of minor dings on his record, both associated with protest rallies, one in Rome.
“A political activist,” the cop told me, showing his own politics the way he said it. Maybe because of his contempt, Esterline continued to refer to Duarte as the perp or the Venezuelan. And once or twice, as the greaser, even though Esterline looked Italian, the mother’s side probably.
Esterline was a veteran who wasn’t afraid to bend the rules. He made sure I got a shower in the precinct locker room, telling the duty officer, “There’s so much duck shit in that pond, this guy will be quacking. How you gonna question a man who quacks?”
He had a couple of uniforms talk their way into my hotel and bring me dry clothes. He also delivered a thermos of coffee spiked with whiskey.
“You still cold?” Esterline kept asking.
Yes, I was still cold. I was also in a hurry—in a hurry because of something Choirboy had said while we were struggling to pull ourselves out of the water. But there was no way to speed up the questioning without inviting suspicion. Esterline had good instincts. I got the impression he’d guessed why I was in a hurry because he kept bringing the subject back to Choirboy, the two of us alone out there in water.
More than once, he said, “That Venezuelan owes you his life.”
It was true.
Maybe Esterline felt like he owed me, too. Two corpses would have cost him a lot of paperwork. Instead, I had handed him Choirboy alive, a big-time collar that might help his career.
Esterline wasn’t doing the questioning. In charge were detectives from NYPD’s Major Crimes Unit and agents from the FBI. A couple of other men entered the room and left without a word. Maybe cops, or maybe reps from one of the U.S. intelligence agencies—my old boss keeping an eye on me? No way to know.
I cooperated, but in the careful way men in my profession have been trained to cooperate. I went off on tangents. I misunderstood questions. Esterline’s comment about my “clean report” was a reminder that civilians behave like civilians.
Presumably, Choirboy would soon be questioned, but in a more secure setting. I wondered if he would tell his interrogators what he had already confessed to me. I had given Louis Duarte a choice when the two of us were in the water, trying to pull ourselves from the ice: Tell me the truth or I’ll leave you to die. So he had told me the truth. Maybe.
It was another reminder: Civilians give information. Professionals barter it. Choirboy had placed a major chip on my side of the table.
I didn’t waste that chip on the detectives. Our sessions weren’t contentious. They could confirm most of my story. I had hand-delivered one of the kidnappers, so they rewarded me with bits of information in trade. But it was Esterline who provided details as reports came in.
Sir James Montbard had rescued Barbara while I was being dragged down the street, he told me. The Brit had led her through some secret entrance into the Explorers Club basement.
I smiled, picturing it. The Brit had a debonair ease that made everything he did seem effortless. The fact that he was seventy years old mitigated my envy, but only a little.
Because of Hooker, the kidnappers had to settle for the teenager. Apparently, the kid had taken my bad advice and stayed in the limo. Esterline didn’t know if the driver was one of the bad guys or another victim because it was a limo service, not the senator’s personal car. They were still searching for the vehicle.
Barbara had been assigned a security team, then driven to her suite at the Waldorf. Esterline told me she had requested that one of my friends keep her company until her staff arrived.
“The report says either the British guy or someone referred to as ‘the Buddhist psychic’—whatever that means.”
My neighbor, Tomlinson, is what it meant.
When Esterline became diplomatic, adding, “Either guy, I’m sure she’s in good hands,” I didn’t tell him that Tomlinson’s hands were far less trustworthy when a woman was involved. Nor did I inform him that the Buddhist psychic had already returned to Florida and was probably aboard his sailboat smoking something harvested personally.
For Tomlinson, lecturing provides ancillary income. The good earth provides the money crop. I was eager to see the man.
Physically, Esterline said, the senator was okay. From the way he said it, I guessed she was fast becoming a pain in the ass for NYPD—a woman with power and contacts who knew how to use both.
Her sense of responsibility was magnified because she didn’t represent the teenager’s home state. Barbara had been doing a favor for a senate colleague. Meet and greet the essay winner, ride in a limo with a U.S. senator: big thrill.
The teen had been entrusted to her and she’d failed. So she had converted her suite at the Waldorf into a communications center and was now hammering at law enforcement, pushing them to find the kid.
So far, no luck.
“She wants to see you when we’re done here,” Esterline told me.
When detectives were finished, he offered me a ride.
“I can tell you’re in a hurry,” he said.
Here we go.
I didn’t doubt that the Central Park cop felt indebted, but I also knew he wanted something. Esterline was a NYPD vet who lived by the code of the barter system. He had produced information for me. Now it was my turn.
It was obvious what he was after when, for the fifth or sixth time, he said, “That Latin guy, you could have let him die right there. He would’ve never made it out of that shithole on his own.”
We were in a squad car, moving with late traffic on Park Avenue. I replied, “Yeah, I guess that’s true.”
When Choirboy and I went through the ice, I knew I only had a couple of minutes before my system shut down. Plunge the human body into near-freezing water and an emergency switch clicks in the brain, a phenomenon named the
mammalian diving reflex
. All motor skills are short-circuited as blood is shunted to the heart. In three minutes, I wouldn’t be able to move my arms. Ten minutes, we’d be dead.
Maybe Choirboy knew. He panicked when he couldn’t get out. Every time he tried, he slid back into the water. It wasn’t like climbing onto a table. Our fingers couldn’t find traction on the ice.
Esterline and the two civilians had tried forming a three-man chain, but the ice wouldn’t hold. So there was nothing they could do but watch, hoping firefighters arrived with a ladder before hypothermia killed us.
The cop saw every move Choirboy and I made. But he couldn’t hear everything we said. That’s what Esterline wanted to find out. What had Louis Duarte told me while we were alone out there? Why was I in a hurry?
Slowing for a stoplight, I listened to the cop say, “I thought you were both goners. I figured, shit, the water-rescue boys will have to go after you with tongs and an ice pick. Take three days before you thawed enough for an autopsy.”
I sat back and listened, letting the cop set it up.
“You know what convinced me that you’d lost it out there?”
I could guess, but said, “It’s hard to remember details, it happened so fast.”
Esterline said, “Uh-huh,” not buying it.
I said, “The EMTs told me freezing water can affect the brain that way. What’s the phrase,
The cop said to me, “
. From what I saw, your brain worked just fine. Until you took your shirts off—that’s what I’m talking about, when I thought you’d lost it. Two guys go through the ice, the last thing you expect is for them to start taking off their clothes. But then I saw you talking to the Venezuelan, getting in his face about something. And I heard the guy answering. So I figured you were okay.”
As if interested, I said, “Weird, that’s hazy, too. Do you remember what we said?”
The cop gave me a sharp look. “I couldn’t hear because of those damn geese. But there you were, the two of you, having a conversation. Like you were in no hurry, not worried about dying.”
“I was trying to make him understand,” I said. “We were running out of time. He had to listen.”
“You told him that you knew how to get out—right?”
“I wasn’t positive, but that’s what I told him.”
“That’s when you took off your shirts, after you convinced him. Then you told him what to do, how to pull himself onto the ice.”
I said, “Yes.”
I got another sharp look. “Information that saved his life. You
it to him.” Esterline’s tone said I was a fool or a liar.