Here’s a sneak peek at “The Cartel,” the sequel to Soft Target. Due out later this year.
The Cartel — Chapter 1
Sunday, Jan. 27, 3:15 a.m. CDT
“Code 1 for Truck and Ambulance 37.”
The worst time for firefighters to get a call is around 3 a.m.
Most of the guys at Highwood Station 37 turned in by 11 p.m. The two exceptions were Paul Marino and Vito Turso, two hotshot 20somethings who worked at three different departments and maybe slept in their own beds at home three nights a month. When they were working a 24 at “the 37 House,” as Turso liked to call it, they’d sometimes stay up until 5 a.m., glued to the easy chairs in the day room, drinking Mountain Dew, scavenging for leftovers in the kitchen, and playing Call of Duty on the Xbox while they Skyped with friends and posted to Facebook. Like vampires, they’d turn in as the sun came up and sleep the whole next day before waking up in time for a PM shift at one of the other firehouses where they worked part-time.
But for most of the guys at Station 37, they were in the bunkroom by 11 p.m. and it was lights out. They’d toss and turn for another hour or so in the cheap single beds that were separated only by a tall row of scratched up wooden lockers. Some nights it was a loud snorer who would keep them up. Other nights, it was the air conditioning that someone set on sub-Arctic. But mostly it was anticipation that made it hard for them to relax and go to sleep. They’d lay there, waiting for the tones to go off for a fire alarm at one of the dorms at Lake Forest College or a bar fight at the Toad Stool, one of a half-dozen Highwood bars where the rich white kids from Highland Park and Lake Bluff mixed with the working-class Italians.
By 12:30 or so, the men of Station 37 would start to relax. They’d either be too tired to stay awake any longer, or drift off thinking that maybe this would be one of those rare times when they’d get a full night’s sleep. Of course, getting to sleep “all night” in the fire service meant not getting woken up until 5 or 6 a.m., usually for a false alarm at one of the nearby businesses or a “trouble breathing” at the local nursing home. The guys hated the nursing home calls the most. “Trouble breathing” usually meant “this person’s been dead for two hours, can you come do CPR so it doesn’t look like they died because we never checked on them in the middle of the night.”
“Remind me to shoot myself before my kids put me in one of these places,” Marino said after the last 5 a.m. nursing-home call for a full arrest.
“Yeah….no shit,” Turso said as they climbed back into Truck 37.
By 1:30 a.m., most of the guys would be getting their best REM sleep of the night, dreaming about some girl or that call that they never talk about but know will haunt them for the rest of their career. They’d stay that way for the next three or four hours if the tones didn’t go off. Tonight wasn’t one of those nights.
“Corner of Llewelyn and Funston…” the female dispatcher’s voice said over the station’s loud speakers. “…for the shooting victim.”
“That’s right out back,” Nick Mattera said as he shook off the sleep, pulled on his pants, and zipped up his black steel-toed boots. “I’m surprised we didn’t hear the shots.”
“I think we’re just getting used to it,” said Red Shift Battalion Chief John Nardini.
Within two minutes, Truck and Ambulance 37 were pulling up to the street corner that was less than a block away from Station 37. Highwood Police Officer Marco Toscano was working the overnight shift and was the first on scene.
He looked exactly like you’d expect a cop named Marco Toscano to look. He was a six-foot, four-inch, barrel-chested, 270-pound mean motherfucker who, at 41, could still bench 475 on a good day. His head was shaved clean except for a thick goatee around his even thicker Mediterranean lips. The cord for his earpiece snaked beneath the collar of his waist-length winter duty coat, the bulk of the inner liner making him seem even more massive than he actually was (if that was possible). The cord snaked down his back to the bulky Motorola portable radio that hung on the thick, black utility belt that still shined like the day it came out of the package. Sticking out from under the elastic band of his coat was an array of tools he loved to use on drunken frat boys as much as Mexican drug dealers. Instead of the telescoping titanium rods that most cops liked to carry, Marco preferred an old-school Billy club.
“My ‘Nigger Be Good’ Stick,” Marco liked to call it.
“Nothing like the sound of wood on skull,” he used to say with a smirk.
Hanging on his left side was a 7.8-million-volt Terminator stun gun, the most powerful model available. Snug to his right side was a nickel-plated Kimber .45, hammer back, safety on. With one click, he was ready to unload the full 8-round clip of hollow points into anyone who fucked with him. He hadn’t fired it in 15 years on the job; mostly because one look at him and people knew not to fuck with Marco Toscano. Even the hard cases – the career criminals who took the Metra train down to Highwood from North Chicago and Waukegan for a little midday B&E to feed their drug habit – were scared to death of him. Even if they’d never been arrested in Highwood, criminals on the North Shore of Chicago knew the name Marco Toscano. If the train pulled into the Highwood station and they saw him writing tickets in the parking lot or sitting in his cruiser, they’d stay on the train.
“Fuck this,” they’d think. “I don’t wanna run into that crazy bastard. I’ll go four more stops to Winnetka, where the pickings are easier.”
The lights on top of Marco’s prowl car were spinning around, lighting up what was otherwise a black, moonless night. The blue and white strobes reflected off the windows of the two-story, wood-framed houses that ringed the corner of Llewelyn and Funston. Caught in the flash of lights were the neighbors who’d heard the shots ring out, but hadn’t rushed out for fear they’d see something they didn’t really want to see. But 10 minutes later, they were more than happy to stand on their front porches, wrapped up in blankets and thick fleece robes and dingy house coats, and watch the aftermath of a crime scene that was playing out in their neighborhood with disturbing frequency.
“Whatchya got?” Nardini asked.
“The usual,” Marco said. “Some Spic sellin’ dope where he don’t belong.”
Lying next to the waist-high chain-link fence that enclosed the St. James Catholic School parking lot was Henry Olmos. Dressed in Timberland boots, baggy jeans, a brown Carhartt jacket and a black ski cap pulled low over his tall forehead, Olmos was easily identifiable as one of the low-level street dealer for the Diablos, the Mexican drug gang that had started selling drugs on this corner about six months ago.
The corner of Llewelyn and Funston was a good spot. It was one block off of Green Bay Road, one of the two main thoroughfares through downtown Highwood. You could enter the block – or escape in a hurry – from three different directions. Within a block or two, the avenues of escape multiplied exponentially. And there were alleys behind the houses on both sides of the street.
The Diablos were a Mexican gang that mostly dealt weed and heroin in the first right Chicago neighborhoods of Rogers Park, Evanston and Skokie. Normally, Highwood, some 20 miles north, would be way out of bounds for the Diablos. They stuck mostly to the poorer neighborhoods on the North Side of Chicago and the Near North suburbs. But lately, they’d started to move further up the lakefront, encroaching on the turf that had historically belonged to Serrano 13, the violent drug gang based in Waukegan that had direct ties to the Sinoloa Cartel in Mexico. And while this was a bloody scene that played out at least 10 times a day in Chicago, it was relatively new to Highwood. For three decades, local capo Tony Savino and his crew had kept drug dealing out of the North Shore’s most notorious Italian enclave.
“The margins are good, but it’s bad for the community,” Tony and his brother, Carmine, had decided back in the 1980s. “We don’t need that shit here.”
“If the Moolies” – short for moulinyan, or eggplant, the Italian slur for niggers – “want to move that shit through town and sell it to their own people, I’m fine with that,” Tony said. “But they’re not gonna sell to our people.”
“Are we gonna charge ‘em for that?” Carmine asked.
“No,” Tony said. “We’ll consider it goodwill and trade it for something we really need.”
And that’s the deal they’d had for the past 30 years, except now Tony’s agreement was with Serrano 13, which had taken over the North Shore drug trade from the Gangsta Disciples more than a decade ago. As a result of the détente between the Savinos and the Mexicans, Highwood had been mostly free of drugs.
And that’s the way Tony liked it.
The local cops, he could handle. Most of them were on his payroll anyway. But drug trafficking brought in the Feds. That was a whole other headache Tony didn’t want to have to deal with. He had a good thing going here in Highwood. Drugs would only fuck it up.
Sure, there were users and dealers in Highwood. But they mostly bought and sold weed and maybe a little cocaine at Teddy O’Brian’s, Santini’s and a few other bars in town. Tony was OK with that, as long as it was local guys doing the selling. He didn’t want niggers or spics doing business in his neighborhood. But if a few guys in his crew wanted to make some money on the side – discreetly – that was fine with him. What Tony Savino wouldn’t tolerate in his town was meth.
The first time Tony got wind of someone selling “that farmer shit” as he called it, he put Marco and Jeff Ponsinetti on it. Ponsinetti was the director of Public Works in Highwood. But his real boss – everyone’s real boss in Highwood – was Tony Savino.
People who didn’t know Jeff Ponsinetti would often underestimate him. He didn’t look all that dangerous. He drove around town in an extended cab pickup truck that had more dents and scratches than the shovels and pick axes that rattled around in the bed. His jeans were always streaked with grease, dirt and who knows what else. His shirts were filthy (sometimes ripped). He wore a big half-carat diamond-stud earring in his left ear, usually had a two-day growth on his face, and wore his hair in a classic 1980s mullet that he sometimes dyed with purple and pink racing stripes. He was an odd bird, but incredibly smart and resourceful. Anyone who underestimated this tall, skinny, scruffy-looking guy was making a huge mistake. Jeff Ponsinetti may have been half the size of Marco Toscano, but he was twice as dangerous. He could take a guy down and really hurt him in a matter of seconds. And most of the time, the poor bastard would never see it coming.
Tony heard about a guy dealing meth in Teddy O’Brien’s and told Ponsinetti and Marco to “take care of it.” They took the dealer to the Public Works garage on the edge of Fort Sheridan – where no one could hear him scream. They let him live, so that he could tell other meth dealers not to step foot inside Highwood. But they had fun with Ponsinetti’s tool bench before they sent him bloodied and bruised back to wherever he came from.
“You think the quarter-inch hurt going through your hand, motherfucker,” Marco snickered as he changed drill bits. “Wait till I put this nine-sixteenths through your kneecap.”
“I was across town when the call came in,” Marco said to Nardini. “I got here as quick as I could, but I didn’t see anybody on the way over that looked suspicious. I was coming from the south, down near Oak Terrace, so my guess is that they headed back north. Toward Waukegan.”
“Confirm that he’s dead,” Nardini said to Nick.
“Right,” Nick said.
Thanks to Abdullah, the crazy Saudi terrorist who’d tried to blow up half of the North Shore, Nardini and Nick were closer than anyone on the Highwood Fire Department. Maybe closer than any two firefighters on the North Shore of Chicago. Facing life and death together will do that for a friendship.
Shortly after Nardini beat Abdullah to death in the parking lot of the Walgreens and Nick jumped aboard the Metra train and disarmed the bomb that would have blown up a carload of morning commuters on their way to work in the Loop – an incident people had started calling “Highwood’s 9/11” – Nardini was promoted to battalion chief. He moved over to Black Shift to replace Jim Morrison, the fat-faced, backstabbing battalion chief who’d tried to sell out his fellow firefighters to advance his own career. Instead, Morrison was blown to bits in the car-bomb blast set off by Abdullah that basically destroyed the corner of Highwood Avenue and Sheridan Road.
Nardini was only on Black Shift for a year before he asked to be moved back to Red Shift. Mike Gallo, the Red Shift battalion chief, was more than happy to make the switch. The Black Shift schedule made it easier for him to coordinate schedules with his wife Theresa, a busty little Italian who was a charge nurse at the ER in Evanston.
So John Nardini, Nick Mattera, and Paul Marino, the original Red Shift crew, were back together again. Rounding out the four-man crew was Vito Turso, a short, buff, tattooed firefighter who grew up in Highwood but now lived downtown so he could regularly bed the buff, tattooed female bartenders who worked at some of the city’s primo watering holes. Turso had replaced Dino LaRocca, Highwood’s only openly gay firefighter. Dino had parlayed the publicity around the bombings into a sweet six-figure gig in Hollywood as a production adviser on fire and EMS television shows and movies. Instead of chasing calls on the North Shore of Lake Michigan, Dino and his partner, Paul, were living on the 22nd-floor of one of the Santa Monica condo towers that look out over the Pacific Ocean.
Red Shift was a solid crew, but Nardini and Nick were clearly the anchors. They’d worked together for five years, respected each other both as former servicemen and fellow firefighters. But the whole business with Abdullah had really cemented their bond.
Most everyone who joins the fire service likes to think they can count on their partner to be there when they need them. After a few years on the job, most realize that’s not always true. Firefighters are like anyone else – they’re people. Like any profession, there are good people and bad people in the fire service. But when you find yourself on a solid crew, it leads to a level of respect and trust that you can’t find in any other job. The bonds are stronger than most marriages. That was Red Shift.
While Marino and Turso hooked up the heart monitor to the corpse that had been Henry Olmos, Nick turned to Marco.
“Ever remember anything like this happening here when you were a kid?”
“Never,” Marco said.
Marco was about 10 years older than Nick, but they’d basically known each other all their lives. They both came from big Italian families with deep Highwood roots. They saw each other at backyard barbecues, weddings, birthday parties. They were as much a part of the fabric of this community as the bocce courts and the tortellini soup at Del Rio. They both worked for the city, and were proud to serve and protect the neighborhood they’d grown up in. But they weren’t naïve. They both knew what went on at Savino’s Italian Grocery. They knew it was a front for Tony and Carmine’s bookmaking operation. Hell, Marco was one of Tony Savino’s enforcers for Christ’s sake. But Nick and Marco also knew that Tony Savino was good for Highwood. They knew that despite all the crooked shit he was into, Tony was part of the bedrock of this very unique Italian-American community. They all were. Tony, Marco, Ponsinetti, Nick, the grocery store, Nite n’ Gale, Buffo’s. They were all part of what made Highwood the safe and secure little Italian neighborhood it had always been.
Standing around the crime scene, the snow crunched underneath Marco and Nick’s feet as they rocked back and forth to try and ward off the February chill. A steady breeze was blowing in off the lake through the leafless trees, making it feel about 10 degrees colder than it really was.
“I can remember when we were kids,” Marco said after a few moments in which they were both thinking the same silent thoughts. “This corner was our whole world. We’d come here at 9 o’clock in the morning and play until our moms called us for dinner.”
“Yeah…us, too,” Nick said.
For generations, all the Highwood kids had come here to play. And their mothers took comfort in that. All they had to do to check on their kids was listen to the sounds of their games echoing through the neighborhood. When it was time for dinner, they’d step out onto the porch and yell.
Usually only once.
Within five minutes, their kids would come running into the house, out of breath, their backs damp with sweat and their hair matted to sticky foreheads.
For four generations, the voices echoing through this neighborhood had been Italian.
“Marco! Andiamo!” his mother would shout.
These days, you were more likely to hear, “Juan! Regresa!”
What had once been a town made up almost exclusively of Italians from northern Italy was now about 50-50. Increasingly, it was home to the (mostly illegal) Mexican landscapers, roofers, remodelers, and day laborers who worked on the multi-million-dollar estates in tonier lakefront suburbs like Lake Forest and Winnetka. A few more years and Highwood wouldn’t be known as an Italian neighborhood anymore, but a Mexican neighborhood.
And although the names and accents had changed, the St. James Catholic Church parking lot had pretty much stayed the same. But these days, instead of Italian kids playing kickball and tag, now it was Mexican kids playing soccer. The goalies would stand in front of the fence at each end of the parking lot, defending an imaginary goal whose exact parameters were known only to them.
“That was wide,” someone would yell, setting off an argument that could last 10 seconds or 10 minutes, depending on how close the score was.
Like the kids from Nick and Marco’s era, the Mexican kids liked going over to the Walgreens. A trip there had a sense of adventure to it because you had to cross the Metra train tracks. They’d go there on hot summer days to soak up the air conditioning and get a cold pop or candy bar. Sometimes, on a dare, they’d shoplift something. Just as Nick and Marco had done in their day. It was harmless. As much a part of growing up as skinned knees and bee stings.
But about six months ago, a new gang of kids started hanging out on the corner of Llewellyn and Funston, on the edge of the St. James parking lot. They weren’t from Highwood and they weren’t there to play ball. They were Diablos, and they were there to sell drugs.
“Let’s keep an eye on Funston & Lewellyn,” Police Chief Gino Baldissi had said one day at swing shift roll call. “We’re seeing a lot of gang activity there.”
Since then, there had been a few scuffles between the Diablos and the Serrano 13 crew from Waukegan. The Serrano crew was smart enough to know not to deal drugs anywhere in Highwood, much less within three blocks of Carmine Savino’s house. They’d hoped they could scare off the Diablos before things got out of hand with the Italians. When a good beat down didn’t work, they tried baseball bats and knives. Then, a month ago, Black Shift got a call around 11 p.m. Mike Gallo ended up calling in an extra ambulance from Highland Park to help transport the three guys – two Diablos and one Serrano – with serious knife wounds. One bled out and died in the back of Ambulance 34, the Highland Park rig that came into town when things got busy. Now the Red Shift crew was at Funston & Llewellyn, this time for a DOA who took three 9 mm rounds to the chest. Things were clearly heating up between the Diablos and Serrano 13.
“I’ve got asystole confirmed in two leads on the monitor,” Marino said to Nardini.
“OK, I’ll call it in and get a time of death.”
“So why do you think the Diablos are moving into Highwood, Marco?” Nick asked.
“Seems kinda stupid, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Nick said. “Not only are they starting a turf war with Serrano 13, but I imagine Tony isn’t too happy either.”
“Yeah, no shit,” Marco said.
“I’ll tell you what’s going on, Nicky,” he said. “They’re fighting over turf because street sales are down ever since our jack-ass president legalized dope.”
“You think all this is happening because of what Dawson did?”
“Yeah,” Marco said. “I do.”
He wasn’t the only one.