LOCATED IN GRIFFITH Park, a four-thousand-acre stretch of land featuring two eighteen-hole golf courses, the Autry National Center, and the HOLLYWOOD sign, the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens is more of a run-down tourist attraction than a wildlife conservation facility.
Funded by fickle city budgets, the zoo resembles nothing more than a tired state fair. Garbage cans along its bleached concrete promenade spill over. It is not uncommon to catch the stench of heaped dung wafting from cages where ragged animals lie blank-eyed, fly-speckled, and motionless beneath the relentless California sun.
To the northeast of the entrance gate, the lion enclosure is ringed by a slime-coated concrete moat. Once—if you squinted, hard—it might have resembled a small scrap of the Serengeti. But these days, undermaintained, underfunded, and understaffed, it looks only like what it is: a concrete pen filled with packed dirt and bracketed by fake grass and plastic trees.
By 8:05 in the morning it is already hot in the seemingly empty enclosure. The only sound is a slight rustling as something dark and snakelike sways slowly back and forth through a tuft of the tall fake grass. The sound and motion stop. Then, fifty feet to the south, something big streaks out from behind a plywood boulder.
Head steady, pale yellow eyes gleaming, Mosa, the Los Angeles Zoo’s female lion, crosses the enclosure toward the movement in the grass with breathtaking speed. But instead of leaping into the grass, at the last fraction of a moment she flies into a tumble. Dust rises as she barrel-rolls around on her back and then up onto her paws.
Lying deep in the grass is Dominick, Mosa’s mate and the dominant male of the zoo’s two Transvaal lions, from southeast Africa. Older than Mosa, he shakes his regal reddish mane and gives her a cold stare. As has been the case more and more over the last few weeks, he is tense, watchful, in no mood for games. He blinks once, briefly, and goes back to flicking his tail through the high blades of grass.
Mosa glances at him, then toward the rear fence, at the big rubber exercise ball she was recently given by one of the keepers. Finally, ignoring the ball, she slowly leans forward to nuzzle Dominick’s mane, giving him an apologetic, deferential social lick as she passes.
Mosa cleans the dusty pads of her huge paws as the large cats lie together under the blaring-blue California sky. If there is an indication this morning of something being amiss, it is not in what the lions are doing, but in what they aren’t.
For lions as for other social mammals, vocalizations play a major role in communication. Lions make sounds to engage in sexual competition, to compete in territorial disputes, and to coordinate defense against predators.
Mosa and Dominick have become less and less vocal over the past two weeks. Now they are all but silent.
Both lions smell the keeper well before they hear him jingle the chain-link fence a hundred and fifty feet to their rear. As the human scent strikes their nostrils, the lions react in a way they never have before. They both stand. Their tails stiffen. Their ears cock forward as their fur bristles noticeably along their backs.
STARTING TO GASP AS she climbed the increasingly steep slope of the tangled hiking trail, Mary Catherine was about to take a breather when the tree line opened. Glancing out over the open ridge, she immediately halted in her tracks, as what was left of her breath was suddenly taken.
Off to the right, the flat lake and majestic foothills of the Catskill Mountains glowed in the soft morning light like a priceless Hudson River School landscape come to life. Mary Catherine stood for a moment, mesmerized by the exhilarating vista, the distant golden hills, the mile-long expanse of silvery blue water, smooth and perfect as a freshly tucked-in sheet.
Only for a moment.
Two geese floating by the near shore of the lake took frantic, honking flight as a large projectile landed in the water beside them with a tremendous, booming slap.
“Youkilis tries to tag from third!” Eddie Bennett yelled as the baseball-size rock he’d just chucked sent violent ripples over the serene water. He dropped to his knees as he threw his arms up in dramatic triumph. “But the Yankees’ new center fielder, Eddie the Laser Beam Bennett, throws him out by a mile. Ball game over. Pennant over. Thuuuuh Yankees win!”
“Mary Catherine!” protested one of the girls from the front of the long, single-file line of children already on the move through the trees farther down the trail.
There were ten of them in all, six girls, four boys. Being a mix of Spanish and Asian, black and white, and ranging in age from seven to sixteen, they were often mistaken for a small Montessori school.
But they weren’t, Mary Catherine knew. They were a family, believe it or not. A large, raucous, often aggravating, but ultimately always loving family. One she found herself smack-dab in the middle of again and again for some reason.
Who was she kidding? she thought as she hauled Eddie up and sent him scurrying ahead of her along the forest path. She knew the reason, or at least the main one. His name was Mike Bennett, the NYPD detective father of these ten crazy kids, stuck back in the city on a case. Which meant she was on riot patrol without backup here at the Bennett family lake house. At least until the weekend.
This latest frenzied fiasco of an outdoor adventure was actually courtesy of the two littlest ones, Shawna and Chrissy: a first-ever Bennett family vacation breakfast picnic. But it was Jane, the Girl Scout, who had turned it into a full-blown nature walk with her Orange County field guide. An activity Ricky, Eddie, and Trent were determined to tease into oblivion at every turn, of course.
Less than a minute later, Mary Catherine watched helplessly as, midway down the hiking line, Ricky Bennett suddenly hopped up on a rock and began making drumbeat sounds with his mouth. It was a rap beat, Mary Catherine knew. The very same one the thirteen-year-old had driven them all crazy with on last night’s two-hour ride up here.
“Uh-oh. Here we go. More dissension in the ranks,” Mary Catherine mumbled as she hurried forward through the column of kids.
Party till you drop, man! Every time i think back to everything that happened, it’s that expression, that silly early-eighties cliché, that first comes to mind. It was actually the first thing we heard when we arrived in Key west to start the last spring break of our college careers. As we were checking into our hotel, a very hairy and even drunker middle-aged man wearing goggles and an orange Speedo screamed, “Party till you drop, man!” as he ran, soaking wet, through the lobby. From that hilariously random moment on, for the rest of our vacation it was our mantra, our boast, our dare to one another. my boyfriend at one point seriously suggested we should all get “Party till you drop, man!” tattoos. Because we thought it was a joke. It turned out to be a prophecy. It actually happened. First we partied. Then someone dropped. It happened on the last day. Our last afternoon found us just as the previous afternoons had, giddily hungover, lazily finishing up burgers under one of our hotel beach bar’s umbrellas. Under the table, my boyfriend Alex’s bare foot was hooked around mine as his finger played with the string of my yellow bikini top. the Cars’ classic song “touch and Go” was playing softly from the outdoor speakers as we watched an aging biker with a black leather vest and braided gray hair play catch with his dog off the bar’s sun-bleached dock. We laughed every time the collie in the red bandanna head-butted the wet tennis ball before belly flopping into the shallow blue waves. As the huffing, drenched collie paddled back to shore, a stiff breeze off the water began jingling the bar’s hanging glasses like wind chimes. Listening to the unexpected musical sound, i sighed as a long, steady hit of vacation nirvana swept through me. For a tingling moment, everything —the coolness under the Jägermeister umbrella, the almost pulsating white sand of the beach, the blue-green water of the Gulf —became sharper, brighter, more vivid. When Alex slipped his hand into mine, all the wonderful memories of how we fell in love freshman year played through my mind. The first nervous eye contact across the cavernous Geology classroom. the first time he haltingly asked me out. The first time we kissed. As I squeezed his hand back, I thought how lucky we were to have found each other, how good we were together, how bright our future looked. Then it happened. The beginning of the end of my life. Our wiry Australian waitress, Maggie, who was clearing the table, smiled as she raised an eyebrow. Then she casually asked what would turn out to be the most important yes-or-no question of my life. “You motley mob need anything else?” she said in her terrific Aussie accent.
LIKE THE LUXURY CO-OPS and five-star French eateries located in Manhattan’s Silk Stocking District, Benchley East Side Parking was outrageously exclusive. Tucked side by side and bumper to bumper within its four temperature-controlled underground levels beneath East 77th Street were several vintage Porsches, a handful of Ferraris, even a pair of his-and-hers Lamborghinis.
The out-of-the-box midnight blue SL550 Mercedes convertible that squealed out of its car elevator at three minutes past noon that Saturday seemed tailor-fit to the high-rent neighborhood.
So did the lean forty-something waiting by the garage’s office when the sleek Merc stopped on a dime out front.
With his salt-and-pepper Beckham buzz cut, pressed khakis, silk navy golf shirt, and deep golden tan that suggested even deeper pockets, it was hard to tell if the car or its driver was being described by the purring Merc’s vanity plate:
“With this heat, I figured you’d want the top down, as usual, Mr. Berger,” the smiling half-Hispanic, half-Asian garage attendant said as he bounced out and held open the wood-inlaid door. “Have a good one, now.”
“Thanks, Tommy,” Berger said, deftly slipping the man a five as he slid behind the luxury sports car’s iconic three-pronged steering wheel. “I’ll give it a shot.”
The fine leather seat slammed luxuriously into Berger’s back as he launched the convertible with a high-torque snarl down East 77th Street and out onto Fifth Avenue. The crisp, almost sweet smell of Central Park’s pin oaks and dogwoods fused harmoniously with the scent of the hand-stitched leather. At 59th Street, the park’s treetops gave way to the ornate fairy-tale facade of the Plaza Hotel. Moments later, along both sides of the upscale boulevard, glittering signs began to flick past like a Vanity Fair magazine come to life: Tiffanys, Chanel, Zegna, Pucci, Fendi, Louis Vuitton. Outside the stores, swarms of summer Saturday tourists took pictures and stood gaping as if they were having trouble believing they were standing in the very center of the capital of the world.
But the world’s most expensive avenue might as well have been a dirt road through a shit kicker’s cornfield as far as Berger was concerned. Behind the mirrored lenses of his Persol aviators, he kept his gray eyes locked level and forward, his mind blank.
It was his one true talent. In his life, every victory had come down to singleness of purpose, his ability to focus, to leave out everything but the matter at hand.
Even so, he felt his pulse skitter when he finally arrived at his destination, the New York Public Library’s main branch on the west side of Fifth Avenue between 41st and 42nd Streets. In fact, as he slowed, he felt his adrenaline surge, and his heart begin to beat almost painfully in time with the car’s indicator.
Copyright @ 2011 James Patterson
The last thing he remembered was leaving Conrad’s, an Alphabet City bar that didn’t care about fake IDs. After a monstrously long chem. Lab, he’d been trying to chat up Heli, a stunning Finnish girl from his class. But after his fifth mojito, his tongue was losing speed. He’d called it a night when he noticed she was talking more to the male model of a bartender than to him.
His memory seemed to stop at the point when he stepped outside. How he got from there to here he couldn’t recall.
For the billionth time, he tried to come up with a scenario in which everything turned out all right. His favorite was that it was a fraternity thing. A bunch of jocks had mistaken him for some other freshman, and this was a really messed-up hazing incident.
He started weeping. Where were his clothes? Why would somebody take his jeans, his socks and shoes? The scenarios in his head were too black to allow light to enter. He couldn’t fool himself. He was in the deepest shit of his young life.
He banged his head on the pipe he was chained to as he heard a sound. It was the distant boom of a door. He felt his heart boom with it. His breath didn’t seem to know if it wanted to come in or go out.
He was pretty much convulsing when he made out a jangle interspersed with the steady approach of footsteps. He suddenly thought of the handyman at his parents’ building, the merry jingle of keys that bounced off his thigh. Skinny Mr. Durkin, who always had a tool in his hand. Hope gave him courage. It was a friend, he decided. Somebody who would save him.
“Hppp!” Jacob screamed from behind the gag.
The footsteps stopped. A lock clacked open, and cool air passed over the skin of his face. The gag was pulled off.
“Thank you! Oh, thank you! I don’t know what happened. I Ð“
Jacob’s breath blasted out of him as he was hit in the stomach with something tremendously hard. It was a steel-toed boot, and it seemed to knock his stomach clear through his spine.
Oh, God, Jacob thought, his head scraping the stone floor as he dry-heaved in filth. Dear God, please help me.
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