Authors: James Patterson
John Stefanovitch and Bear Kupchek;
West Ninety-ninth Street
AFTER THEY LEFT
Allure later that afternoon, the Bear and Stefanovitch sat out in his van. They watched a bright red sun sinking over New Jersey. They shared a six-pack of Miller from a very pricey bodega on Broadway.
As they sat and talked, Stefanovitch was reminded of how much he depended on the Bear. If he was the head, the Bear was the body for the two of them. Only the Bear had a head on him, too. The Bear was street-smart, street-smart and a good friend.
Kupchek finally leaned across the front seat and he pounded Stefanovitch’s arm. It was like being whacked by a ball peen hammer, but Stefanovitch didn’t blink.
“You are some hump,” Kupchek frowned after delivering the lethal punch. Then he started to laugh. “You like her, don’t you?”
“I like who?” Stefanovitch asked. There was something about the Bear’s round, homely face. He loved to tease that innocent face. He liked rearranging the parts. The Bear was his own personal Mr. Potato Head.
That fat old lady waiting for the Riverside Drive bus over there…
“Oh, come on. You think I’m having fantasies about some high-priced call girl? Just because she’s one of the most beautiful women in New York. Twenty-five years old. Flawless body.”
Bear Kupchek proceeded to whack Stefanovitch’s arm again. “She’s a very expensive, fucked-up hooker. She’s one of our two witnesses so far.”
“No shit, Sherlock. Stop punching my arm. You’ll hurt your hand.”
“You are pretty hard for a wimp in a wheelchair. I’m almost impressed.”
“My physical therapist would smile, for maybe three seconds, if she heard you say I was developing a little muscle tone. Her name’s Beth Kelley. She has a flawless body, too.”
“Another significant other in your life? She pretty? This personal therapist of yours?”
Stefanovitch started to smile, then he laughed out loud. The Bear loved to gossip about anything.
“She’s prettier than I am, for sure.”
“So what’s the problem? You dating her? You seeing anybody, Stef? New York’s most eligible wheelchair bachelor?”
“Don’t start up. Go home to New Jersey. See JoAnne and the Bear cubs tonight, while you have the chance. Before this St.-Germain mess heats up any more…
Where the hell are you going? We’re right in the middle of a beer! A conversation!”
“I’m going home to Jersey, to see JoAnne and the kids. You’re absolutely right for once in your life. First time for everything. Good night, Stef.”
“Good night, Bear,” Stefanovitch called after the hulking figure already moving down Ninety-ninth Street, heading toward a familiar blue station wagon with Great Adventure stickers plastered all over the rear window.
Stefanovitch sat in his van and slowly finished his Miller…
It isn’t going all that good, now that you ask,
he was thinking to himself.
I’m not seeing anybody, okay. I’m also uptight about this investigation.
I’ve got to get somebody to talk to, or I’ll blow up one of these days…Yes, I like the way Kay Whitley looks. No, I’m not going to get stupid over it. I don’t think so, anyhow…If you want to know the truth, I don’t have the nerve anymore.
How’s that for being honest as I can be, Bear?
John Stefanovitch; Coney Island Amusement Park
FOR THE PAST
few months John Stefanovitch had been planning to take the rest of that day off. He wasn’t going to allow anything, not even the St.-Germain murder investigation, to get in the way. At four o’clock, he hurried home to his apartment, across the city on East Eighty-first Street. Tonight was his night.
After the Long Beach shooting, he’d been forced to find a place in midtown. That experience, more than anything else, had awakened him to the kind of fun times he was going to have in the Chair.
Stefanovitch had eventually located a modern high rise on the Upper East Side. It was a neighborhood he’d never really liked. His being in a wheelchair had dictated the choice of apartments.
The wife of the man who owned the building had suffered a stroke and now had to face life in a wheelchair herself. The tragedy had sensitized her husband to the predicament of the wheelchair-bound in the city. The two of them had personally examined every walkway and building entrance from the point of view of someone coming or going in a chair.
Stefanovitch grabbed an hour-and-a-half nap at the apartment late that afternoon. Then he was back in the van, driving out to Coney Island, in Brooklyn.
At around seven o’clock, he arrived at one of the amusement park’s sprawling parking lots. Several hundred people were already gathered in a blockaded area, which had been closed to regular traffic. Stefanovitch had never seen so many people in wheelchairs.
His own speed-racing chair had been customized by his father and his brother, Nelson, in Pennsylvania. They had given him the racer that past November. It weighed only twelve pounds. Unlike old-fashioned chairs, which made people
handicapped, the sports chair was sleek and jet black. It had twenty-eight-inch-high tires.
Stefanovitch’s brother and his father had apparently seen the van heading into the lot. They came running as Stefanovitch was pulling his racer out of the back. They’d driven all the way from Pennsylvania to see him race.
“Look at this.” Nelson held up a wrinkled Day-Glo T-shirt, an obvious gift for the night’s big event. The shirt said “Mike’s Submarines—Eat the Big One in Minersville.”
“What race you in, Stef?” his father asked as they started away from the van, headed toward the main-event area.
All around the crowded parking lot, Stefanovitch observed the victims of accidents, of crippling illness, and of wars, especially Vietnam. Everybody looked so pumped up tonight, excited as hell. Stefanovitch found that he was, too.
“I’m in the miracle mile. Maybe my stamina will make up for some technique and experience I’m missing. Some of these guys, and the women, are amazing.”
A handsome, outdoorsy-looking man with sun-bleached blond hair and a beard suddenly came up alongside them. Stefanovitch had met Pierce Oates at his first race, about five months back. Amazingly, John Stefanovitch had come in third in a field of ten, most of them racing vets. He had caught Pierce Oates’s appraising eye right off.
“You going to give me some competition out there tonight, man?” Pierce had a broad, charismatic grin. His racer was fire-engine red and looked fast.
“I’ll do my best. Pierce Oates, this is my father, Charles Stefanovitch. My big brother, Nelson. They came all the way from Pennsylvania. My whole family’s nutty like that. The family is a big fan of the family. Same thing happens for a Pillsbury bake-off if my mother has her angel food cake entered.”
“That’s terrific. I love it. Just to watch me whip your tail?” Pierce’s smile seemed carefree, even after all that had happened to him.
“How are you, Pierce? Nice to meet you.” Charles Stefanovitch shook hands with the man in the wheelchair next to his son. “You beat Stef, you get to wear the Mike’s Subs T-shirt next race.”
“That’s all the incentive I need.” Pierce Oates whooped loudly and laughed. The muscular, sun-bronzed man then veered off to mingle with the other racers.
“He’s a little overexuberant, but he’s great,” Stefanovitch said to his father and brother. “Some of these guys are tremendous athletes. What they go through to be here is incomprehensible. You can’t even imagine.”
Charles Stefanovitch leaned down close to his son and he spoke to him in confidence. Stefanovitch’s father was a quiet man who had never in his life told Stef that he loved him, never actually used the words. Physically, he was tall and lean, almost noble in his bearing. His son John had once had a similar bearing.
“Just do the best you can, Stef. Nobody can ever ask for more than that…Win this one for Mike’s Submarines.” The old man finally cracked a wry, country smile.
It took another twenty minutes to get the participants in the miracle mile ready at the start. Stefanovitch spotted Pierce a few places down the line. The two of them laughed and flashed victory signs. He could tell that Pierce was primed to kick his butt, ready to mop him up in the four-lap race.
He remembered two things Pierce had told him about racing the first time they’d met. One was to watch the lead racer, no one else. Otherwise you could get lost back in a slow pack and wind up completely out of the race.
The second thing was that the difference between first place and the middle of the pack was a matter of how you
your wheelchair. Stefanovitch had been working on his stroke almost every night in Gracie Square Park, even out on the streets of New York while he was working.
The starter’s pistol suddenly exploded, and the fifteen men in wheelchairs accelerated off the line with surprising quickness and agility.
THIS WAS HIS
first really top-drawer competitive race, and he wanted to do respectably. Certainly, the torture sessions at his gym had given him a body that
as if it could compete with the others. He’d know soon enough.
The lead racer for the first quarter-mile was a black guy in a fireplug-red T-shirt and white visor. He was burning up the track. Stefanovitch wondered if he could last at that pace. He doubted it, and he was right.
In the second quarter, the black racer dropped back to second. Then to third. Stefanovitch stayed in his position, about halfway back in the pack.
The new leader was in a low-slung racer that looked like a soapbox-derby special.
Pierce Oates was in third place now, stroking beautifully. Pierce looked as if he could race at that speed all day.
The third quarter was physically and mentally tougher, even in the middle of the cruising pack. Stefanovitch’s arms began to tense up, becoming hard as rock, petrified from the biceps down into the finger joints.
He started to panic. He was losing steam, noticeably so. He wondered about the others. He was jerking the chair instead of stroking. The other racers all looked smooth and relaxed.
Another racer passed him, a balding, willowy man with “Stokes-Manville Games” emblazoned in bright blue on his shirt. Stokes-Manville was the important international race held in England every year. If the willowy guy had competed there, he had to be good, and dedicated, too.
Stefanovitch didn’t feel like he was
now. His arms were almost rock-hard; the pain was spreading like fire into his upper shoulders.
If he had anything left, he had to make a serious move soon.
he had anything left.
He went for it at the start of the fourth quarter. A strong shot of adrenaline kicked in. Second-wind time. Pride, fear, one or the other was working on him. Fingers of some powerful unseen hand were making him
He passed Stokes-Manville.
Then the bullet-headed black guy who had led the race in the beginning.
Pierce Oates was moving into the lead now. Pierce looked invincible. He was stroking, really stroking!
A fast final quarter would take about fifty-five seconds in a top wheelchair race. He’d done that well
The average mile time might be anywhere from three minutes and forty-five seconds to four minutes.
The pain in his arms was excruciating—his biceps were numb. His chest was on fire.
The crowd was screaming at all the racers. They were really into it. That part of the feeling was great, exhilarating and completely unexpected.
Each breath Stefanovitch took roared through his lungs. He felt as if his chest were being torn apart.
He had to make his move. He had no idea what he had left inside, how much of the second wind remained.
He kept his eyes on Pierce Oates’s golden yellow shirt, the sheath of his back muscles.
is everything, he reminded himself one more time. Nothing but the
Faces flashed by, cheering wildly on either side. His eyes were glazed now, fixed on the golden shirt weaving a few yards in front of him.
Someone threw water all over him and the wetness felt wonderful. The dousing relieved the fire inside. Only for a few seconds, but that was okay. He still had his wind.
It was like he’d said to his father—he was coming back now. That was why the race was important. Stefanovitch was coming back from the dead.
Both his arms were petrified stone, but the lightweight chair was flying. His stroke couldn’t have been better.
His arms and his stroke were one fluid motion. All the torturous sessions at the Sports Center were finally paying a dividend.
He had almost caught Pierce. Almost, but not quite.
It was exactly the way he’d dreamed about this race while he trained every night in New York. Except that he couldn’t pull away from the other man.
He and Pierce were streaking toward the winner’s line and the largest part of the cheering crowd. They were almost even. Both were yards ahead of the third and fourth racers.
He couldn’t take Pierce, though. He couldn’t get ahead of Pierce Oates. He couldn’t do it.
He wouldn’t let Pierce take him either. He couldn’t let that happen now.
Your goddamn hand!
” Pierce was suddenly screaming at him.
Stefanovitch didn’t understand—then he did.
He reached out his hand, finally touching Pierce, connecting with him.
The two of them sailed across the finish line together, clutching each other’s hands like teammates. Christ, they
teammates. The wheelchair boys.
Stefanovitch’s brain was screaming. He hadn’t felt anything like this since before Long Beach, before the shootings.
He saw his brother and father in the crowd. He spotted his father, and the old man was smiling, but he was crying, too. In their thirty-five years together, he’d never once seen his father cry, not for family weddings, christenings, or funerals. Not once before right now.
Pierce Oates was hugging him, too. Everything was going to be all right somehow. For one night, anyhow, Stefanovitch was back.