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By Paul Batista
Astor + Blue Editions, LLC Copyright © 2012 Paul Batista
All rights reserved.
Like the thousands of other runners who regularly used Central Park, Tom Perini knew precisely how long its outer roadway was: a total of six-point-two miles. There were various exits, entrances, and combinations of the internal roadways which Tom had charted for years, beginning at twenty-one when he first spent a heady week in New York for his Heisman Trophy ceremony, press conferences, and appearances. Tom knew how to switch and integrate the roads that dissected the interior of the park for the length of any particular run he wanted: one mile, two-and-a-half miles, four, or the full six-point-two.
On this long May evening he wanted three miles. He entered the park at the Engineers' Gate at 90th Street and Fifth Avenue. The run to the top of Central Park—the no-man's land where Harlem and East Harlem joined at an invisible seam—and then the gradual southern sweep to the east-west transverse above the reservoir would combine for the three-mile course.
Around the area of the Engineers' Gate there were, as he expected, other runners, dozens of them. The light from the setting sun washed to a smooth glow the gray stone surface of the Church of the Heavenly Rest across Fifth Avenue from the Engineers' Gate. Stretching his legs and arms, he stared at the distinguished church and the huge, colorful banner hanging over the entrance's carved wooden doors. There was only one word on the banner: Rejoice.
As he began the northward run, the crowds of runners thinned out. The upper reaches of the park were not only embedded in Harlem, they were also steep and difficult. At this time of the day and at this season, only the serious runners headed in that direction. Just a few years earlier, a woman out for a run in the predawn hours on a rainy Sunday morning had been dragged off the northern roadway, raped, and murdered. She was a Brazilian who worked in the cosmetics department at Bergdorf Goodman. When he saw a picture of her in the Times, Tom recognized her dark, remarkable face because she had often run by him in the park. Often they nodded at each other. They silently shared the same dedication to running in the immense, leafy park, itself a sacred place. Her killer had never been found. Tom made the sign of the cross whenever he ran by the stony creek in the woods where her body was found.
As he moved gradually northward, Tom saw the tallest building on the uptown stretch of Fifth Avenue, a modernistic black tower which was part of Mount Sinai Hospital. At the periphery of his vision, the blocky, windowless structure looked like an iron ingot, rusting. After a mile on the park's upland, Tom broke into a luxurious sweat. His pace was strong and swift. He gained speed on the long downward slope that descended to the pool and skating rink on the northern edge of the park. Black teenagers, most of them in hoods, stood in the drained rink. They were loud, excited. Firecrackers resonated, tossed into the rink.
It was then that he heard behind him the Southern-accented, convivial voice of a man he hadn't seen or heard approaching him. "Great pace," the man said over Tom's left shoulder. "Mind if I run with you for a while?"
It sometimes happened, although not often, that a stranger would join Tom on a run. The friendly, short-breathed conversations were always about running, nothing else. Tom gave a welcoming wave of his left hand. He instinctively knew that the man, like so many other people Tom encountered in his life, recognized him. After graduating from Stanford with his Heisman Trophy, Tom had played football with the New York Jets for four seasons.
The other man was a better runner than Tom. His legs were long and elegantly muscled, his torso thin. In Tom's eyes, he looked Australian—a lean, engaging man, with bushy blond hair and a large moustache. His face had deep smile lines. They communicated only in grunts as they swiftly engaged the steep climb of the roadway at the point where it began its turn to the West Side. Above them were big granite outcroppings and heavy tree limbs. Behind the granite, the interior of the park resembled a jungle, hot and isolated.
On the heights of the massive rocks and the trees was a stone fortress with turrets and an American flag. The blockhouse was the oldest structure in the park, built at the time of the War of 1812 as an outpost to watch for British troops. That whole area, Tom knew, was now reserved for drug dealing. In all his years in New York he had never once left the paved road to explore that high, intriguing, out-of-place fortress and the woods around it. He didn't know anyone who had. It was the one area of the park that runners, who began reclaiming it in the early 1970s, had never managed to recover.
The fast pace they set together as they climbed the hill's steep grade pressed at the limit of Tom's capacity. His strong, smiling companion had less difficulty with the climb. Without intending it, they were racing each other. They gave victory smiles as the road flattened and the effort of running became easier. Tom was grateful for the competition and the companionship. When he recovered enough breath on the gradual descent, he told the other man that he was going to cut across the transverse—which was essentially a footpath, although paved, stretching east-to-west under enormous trees—to regain the East Side. "Just three miles tonight," Tom grunted. "Only three."
"Can I cut across with you and then head on?"
The transverse was less than half a mile long. For Tom it was always the perfect length and flatness for a closing wind sprint. There were rolling hills to the north, covered with abundant trees. From the perspective of that flat transverse, the northern fields and trees resembled an African plain thousands of miles from any city. There were no visible buildings.
Suddenly, two runners, a man and a woman, approached them from the opposite direction. Tom's companion gave them a thumbs-up sign and said, "Don't they look great? A real inspiration."
"I don't want to slow you down," Tom answered, pleased with the way this engaging man could encourage these strangers, who dashed to the foliage at the west end of the transverse. They were enveloped in the dark.
"Think I'll move along." He flashed a smile under his moustache and accelerated. "Thanks for the run."
"Don't mention it," Tom said.
* * *
Seconds later, against the background of enormous trees, Tom Perini saw the man stop and turn to face him. The blond man planted his feet. He faced Tom squarely. His uplifted hands held a gun. Tom saw only the gun. He ran directly at it, unable to control his forward movement, unable to swerve, unable to save himself. They were the only two people in the world. The leaves of the thick trees were dark. The air, too, was dark, resonant with the sound of wind, cicadas, and crickets. The gun's force was so overwhelming that, as the newspapers later said, Tom Perini was not just decapitated. His head was totally shattered.CHAPTER 2
Hours earlier hector had called him from the lobby. "Mr. Perini, got any appointments?"
It was the afternoon of the Friday of Memorial Day weekend. Tom Perini had no appointments. He had worked alone in his office since noon. The weekend exodus was so swift and complete it was over by mid-afternoon.
"Guy down here says he got an appointment with you. Want to talk to him?"
"Sure," Tom said. "I'll talk to anyone. Put him on."
Twenty-three stories below, the receiver was passed. "Mr. Perini, I'm so sorry I'm late but the plane was held up in Mexico City."
"Held up where?"
"In Mexico City. I wanted to be here at two for our meeting."
"Do you know who this is?"
"Yes. You, Mr. Perini. What's the matter, did you forget our appointment? This is Mr. Perez." There was a tone of hurt in the heavily accented voice.
"Listen, I love a joke just as much as the next guy, but I don't know who you are or what you're talking about."
"Wait, Mr. Perini. I'm carrying something for you, you know what, and I'll come right up."
"Slow down, Jack. Nobody's coming up."
"Now wait a minute, Mr. Perini. Just wait a minute." The voice had a clipped, absurd tone of indignation. It sounded like the young Peter Lorre—sibilant, quick, and oddly formal. "I came a long way to talk to you about this. Flew all day. We have to meet."
Tom didn't have to insist that Hector get back on the line. The guard heard enough of the conversation and pulled the receiver away. Hector asked, "What you want me to do with him?"
"Get rid of him, Hector. He may have an appointment somewhere, but not on this planet."
"Sorry to bother you, Mr. Perini."
"Don't worry, Hector. I needed a break."
This kind of elaborate effort by strangers to see him happened more often to Tom Perini in the past. Men would sit with him at small tables in coffee shops in distant airports, uninvited, and begin talking about football. Two women had followed him, in San Diego, into a men's room in a hotel, locked the door behind them, and stared at him for a full minute before asking him to autograph their forearms with a black felt pen (which he did). Even some judges simply asked to see him in the privacy of chambers to talk about football coaches or teams, not about cases or clients.
But those unexpected, almost comical and sometimes desperate encounters hadn't happened as often after he turned forty. Articles about him still appeared in People and Sports Illustrated: the Massachusetts boy from working-class Italian parents who became the leading pass receiver in Stanford football history; the winner of the Heisman Trophy; and a member of the New York Jets, who, after four celebrated seasons in the pros, abruptly left the game while still physically intact and enrolled at Columbia Law School. After law school, he decided to stay in New York, a city where he'd never been comfortable, instead of taking a barrage of offers from law firms in football-obsessed cities like Dallas and Denver, where he could have had a wellspring of rich cowboy businessmen clients who wanted Tom Perini as their lawyer.
For him, New York was a challenge. He believed he'd have to work harder and learn more to succeed, that his fame as a football player would not only be less of an advantage in New York than in other cities but might even be a disadvantage, and that the kind of work he would do in New York would be more fascinating than he would find anywhere else.
Now, as he sat in his comfortable office with its view of the silver Citicorp Building across Third Avenue, he continued dictating into a cassette letters which were long overdue because he had been spending all day, every day in court for the last four weeks. He also scrolled through the lines on his laptop, clicking the arrow into an hourglass to open five or six of the more than fifty email messages waiting under the New Mail tab. Most of the other messages were for penis enhancement, Viagra, pornography, and mortgage loans. He tapped the delete logo repeatedly as the blue highlight line ascended the screen.
Tom knew, because he had been involved in others before, that this criminal trial would take at least another four months to complete. There were fourteen defendants: a group of trucking company owners, union leaders, and one legendary Congressman, all accused of racketeering, bribery, and extortion. Tom's client, who owned a trucking empire in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and New Jersey, was Selig Klein. In his early seventies, Klein had been introduced to Tom just after he and the other defendants were indicted, in a tremendous burst of publicity six months before the trial actually began. Klein recognized Tom's name but didn't know whether Tom played football, baseball, or Scrabble and didn't "give a flyin' fuck."
"I'm an old man," Klein added, "and I just want you to get me out of this shit, don't care what it costs. I'm not gonna fuckin' die in jail."
Tom liked him from the start.
Dictating quietly into the sleek, handheld machine, Tom worked for another hour after the call from the lobby. Across Third Avenue the skin of the Citicorp Building absorbed and radiated the glow from the afternoon air. Tom called Julie and told her he was leaving the office and would be home in half an hour.
"Let's eat in," she said.
"Fine," he answered.
Tom didn't take any work with him. His hands—and this was unusual for him—were free, no briefcase, no folders, no backpack slung over his shoulder and stuffed with papers. He was determined to spend time over the weekend with Julie and their daughter, Kim, who was two and a half. Judge Feigley, an ancient black woman who had been a federal judge since Lyndon Johnson appointed her in 1968, had simply announced that the trial would be suspended until ten on Tuesday morning. Tom was deeply relieved by the reprieve. Some of the intense day-to-day pressure was lifted, and he'd be able to work in the quiet sanctuary of his office on Monday, after the free weekend.
In the lobby, cleaning crews were buffing the oval floor's pink-hued marble and granite, creating gleaming arcs of polish on its surface. Smiling, Tom walked toward the reception desk where Hector stood. Hector was obviously pleased that the famous Tom Perini worked in his building. He stared at Tom, directly and appreciatively, as he would at any other celebrity: at Tom's curly, glistening black hair; his familiar, handsome face; the dark suit; white shirt; deeply hued tie; and the sleek shoes. "Lookin' sharp tonight, Mr. Perini. Real sharp."
Tom signed out in the log book. "Thanks, Hector, you make a guy feel like he just won the lottery." His years in sports—the interviews, the lunchtime talks to Rotary Clubs, the visits to inner-city high schools—had engendered in him a constant friendliness, a rare quality in Manhattan which Julie admired but which always made him late. The "Tom Perini schedule," as she called it, was half an hour later than every other schedule.
"Beautiful night out there," Hector said as Tom carefully finished his name, autograph-style, in the log book.
"I think I might walk home."
"Where you live, Mr. Perini, if you don't mind me askin'?"
"I don't, Hector. Uptown, 87th and Madison."
"That's a nice walk."
"Thirty blocks or so. Some days it's the only exercise I get."
Tom started toward the revolving door. "Hey, Mr. Perini," Hector called.
"What's up, Hector?"
"Look, I don't want to bother you. But that guy's still hangin' around."
"Our buddy from Mexico?"
"Right across the avenue. See him?"
"You mean the guy in the shiny suit?"
"That's my man."
The dark, birdlike man was standing on the sidewalk at the foot of the Citicorp Building across the avenue. Behind him was the cluttered window of a closed discount drugstore. Reflected in that window was the pink-stone and glass surface of the building in which Tom worked. The man wore a double-breasted suit, cut in European style. He carried a black briefcase. He had a thin Latin American moustache.
"Sometimes," Hector said, "he runs across the street and asks guys comin' outta here if they're you."
"He doesn't look like my type."
"Hey," Hector said, "do me a favor. Let me get you a cab. Walk some other night. This guy's sure as shit's gonna be a pain in the ass, I know it. He's a fuckin' nuisance."
"Thanks, Hector. I'll let you do that."
Hector swept through the revolving door and flagged down a taxi for Tom in about five seconds. The car sped north on Third Avenue. Three blocks from the building, Tom turned in the backseat and saw the black-tailored man still staring across Third Avenue, still waiting. But now he was speaking into a cell phone.
* * *
The apartment at 87th and Madison was on the eighteenth floor of a pre-war, twenty-one story building. Julie and Tom had loved it from the day they first saw it. The view swept over the lower, staid buildings on the block between Fifth and Madison. Season after season, Tom and Julie had wide views of the northern expanse of Central Park, including the broad, sky-reflecting surface of the reservoir. Even after that deep blue September day years earlier when they had stared at the white wall of smoke and dust streaming eastward from the collapsed World Trade Center, they often told each other they'd live there forever.
Excerpted from Death's Witness by Paul Batista. Copyright © 2012 Paul Batista. Excerpted by permission of Astor + Blue Editions, LLC.
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