Today's Reading

MY PARTNER, PEARL, PULLED up to the curb, his late-model fire-red Mustang as shiny as his shaved head. He had a wide smile on his handsome face, Sam Cooke's smooth, sweet voice belting out through the four speakers. I moved from the stoop and slid into the front seat, and before I had my seatbelt latched Pearl had the Mustang gliding halfway down the street. "We still a go?" I asked.

"Checked in with my guy before the sun came up," Pearl said. "If there's a deal going down, then today's the day for it."

"I'd still feel a lot better if we had one of our sources vouch for the guy," I said.

"You worried about him because he's a user?" Pearl asked.

"There's that," I said, nodding. "Plus, he's looking to slice considerable time off a jolt that's sure to land him a serious upstate stretch. Under those conditions, a guy like him will say and do anything to get that sentence reduced."

"I ran his priors," Pearl said, swinging the Mustang toward Sixth Avenue, heading uptown. "Every stretch he did, he did for a job on behalf of Rico's crew."

"Still doesn't make him an inside guy, Pearl," I said. "He's never been in the room when the plans go down. He's a runner. Ready to move when told to move."

Sixth Avenue was its usual early-morning slow traffic crawl, and Pearl turned to look at me.

"This ain't the first time you and me made a move off the word of a stoolie we barely knew," he said. "Hell, not even the twenty-first time. So what makes this particular guy an itch you can't seem to scratch?"

"It's nothing solid," I said. "Just a feeling. A bad vibe. Nothing more."

"Let's work off of what we know," Pearl said. "The source broke it down from first step to last. He gave us the delivery time, the number of the building and the apartment. He told us who would be in there and how much cocaine they would be cutting up. Minus us having a wire dropped behind their television, we're not going to get a better picture of what to expect than what he gave us."

"I'm not saying you're wrong, Pearl. Truth is, you're more than likely on the mark."

"If you're feeling shaky about it, we can hold off. We can take a step back and come at Rico from another direction another time."

I stared out at the now-congested streets crammed with people rushing to work. Most of them walked with earbuds solidly in place, either listening to music or getting a morning fix of gossip. "Let's stick to the plan," I said without turning to look away. "No better way to start a morning than to cause Rico and his boys their share of grief."

ONE HOUR LATER, I was crouched down, my back against a splintered and grimy cement wall, hidden by a stairwell lodged between the third and fourth floors of a dilapidated tenement. My black short-sleeve T-shirt was soaked through, the sweat a cocktail of adrenaline mixed with a dose of fear.

My eyes were slow to adjust to the shadows. I could make out a series of overhead bulbs long since burned out. Blasts of television sound echoed from all sides, a strange brew of Kelly Ripa, ESPN, and Univision. The high volume easily pierced the thin wooden doors that posed as sentries to the neglected railroad apartments.

Pearl was hunched down to my right, his shaved head and base of his neck dripping wet. "Second door on your left," he whispered, gesturing with the gun he held in his right hand. "They should be in the room just past the kitchen."

"How many you figure are in there?"

"Eight at the minimum," Pearl said. "That's a best guess. I could be off by one, maybe two."

I rested the back of my damp head against the cold wall and closed my eyes. I took in a few deep breaths, looking to control my breathing and slow down my heart rate. For any cop, the precious minutes before an anticipated shoot-out or takedown are both exhilarating and frightening. It is during that brief interlude when thoughts of life and death mingle with images of the unknown that awaits.

Those are the moments a cop is at his most vulnerable.

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