This is the final installment of a story by Matthew Bracken, which has been serialized here in four parts.
Update: All four parts of this story are now available as a single document, in two formats:
Piss Christ? Piss Koran!
Part Four: Resolution
by Matthew Bracken
“Your call, smart guy.” The phone connection made a click and the line went dead.
Mike wasn’t a kid. He knew that he wouldn’t live forever. He’d had enough brushes with death to understand that a healthy old age was not guaranteed in the contract. He’d been standing next to men who had stepped the wrong way, and fallen. He’d helped pull a man’s body off a concrete footer where he’d been impaled on an uncapped rebar stake. Just two stories down, and dead as a nail. Laughing and joking the minute before. A paragraph in the back of the paper, if that. There but by the grace of God.
Before he’d climbed the tower, Mike hadn’t planned out how the stunt would finish up. He figured that at the very least, he’d be arrested for trespassing. In fact, he didn’t even have a bottle of piss. It was apple juice, in case he spent the whole day up there and ran out of bottled water. He just wanted BCA News to be forced to publicly account for how casually they accepted Serrano’s Piss Christ as “art,” showing it on their website for years, when they were too cowardly to ever show a single peep of an unpixilated Mohammed cartoon. But finishing the morning by crawling down the twenty ladders, and hoping that some police officers would arrive to protect him from the gathering crowd of enraged Muslims?
No way. Not even if he had believed Vic Del Rio about the police escort, and he didn’t believe that lying weasel for a second. Not after Del Rio set him up for the mayor’s phone call, and the coordinated SWAT helicopter assault. Now there was only a single thin line of police barricades across the middle of 53rd Street, but there were no police officers standing behind it. Frank Salerno had said that the mayor wanted him dead. That, he believed. Some kind of a deal had been struck, but it wasn’t with him. It was between the mayor and the leaders of the local Muslim community.
So even if he wanted to go, to slip away quietly, the mob now unrolling their prayer rugs on 53rd — already angry enough to chew rebar and spit bullets — would see him coming before he was halfway down the twenty ladders. In their minds, he had already desecrated their Holy Koran by tearing up Sura 9:5, the Verse of the Sword.
So the die was cast. Well, nothing lasts forever. It had been a great life, and he’d had a wonderful wife. At least it was a gorgeous August morning in Midtown Manhattan, the rising sun casting beams and shadows down the length of 53rd. If this was his day to go, he thought he might as well make the best of it. He looked at his watch. It was 8:33, so he had just under a half hour. That is, if the mob was going to wait until after their morning prayers to stop the two blasphemies.
He picked up his iPhone to see what they were covering on BCA. A reporter was standing in front of a wave-pounded marina in Cabo San Lucas while Hurricane Eliza swept through. He selected his other television network preset buttons, and saw that none of them were covering the events around 6th Avenue and 53rd Street in Midtown Manhattan. Vic Del Rio had been right. The plug had been pulled on his stunt. He put the ear bud from his little Sony radio back in. On WNYR, he was surprised to hear Jerry Conroy’s voice, but it only took him a moment to understand that it was a pre-recorded “best of” show.
Meanwhile, beyond the puny little barricade just to the west of the crane, 53rd Street was rapidly filling up with devout Muslims who had heard the imam’s call to action. While he watched, he saw something glint in the sunlight. A man in a tan robe unrolled his prayer rug, revealing a sword, which he waved in circles over his head. Then the sword went against the pavement, his prayer rug concealing it.
Mike tried calling the WNYR studio office line again, but got a busy signal. He knew it would be useless to call the other radio and television stations on his list. But he also knew that there must still be cameras on him, even from across 53rd in the Grand Hotel. He found his spiral notebook and his Sharpie, and was considering which sticky-noted verse advocating the murder, plunder and rape of the infidels to tear out of the Koran next, when he heard an insistent rapping behind him. He looked around his poncho lean-to shanty toward the corner office of the bank building, and saw a crowd of people, at least half of them in police uniforms.
The woman from the other office was there again, holding another file folder message against the window. It read >call this number< followed by nine digits. He didn’t recognize the area code; it wasn’t from New York. It was hard to see around the shanty, so he unclipped the bungee cords from the corners, rolled it up, and put it away in his pack. With the BCA cameras a hundred yards across 6th Avenue turned off, it no longer made sense to hide from the eyewitnesses who were nearest to him, police or not.
He still had a zip-lock bag with unused prepaid flip phones, so he used a fresh one to call the number. It was picked up and answered on the second ring. He heard “Hello?” It was a woman this time.
“Do you know who this is?” asked Mike.
“Of course, silly, the whole world knows! I’m glad you called. The show must go on, right?” She had a hillbilly accent. Middle-aged and gravelly, like she was a smoker.
“How? BCA is back to showing the hurricane.”
“Oh, we don’t care about BCA. If you’ll take another caller, we’ll make sure it gets on the radio. And it’ll get on the internet too.”
“To tell the truth, I don’t rightly know how. Somebody else is handling that side of it. But they seem pretty sure that they can keep you on the air, if you want to be. So, do you want to be?”
“Of course I do. That’s why I’m up here.”
“That’s the spirit, Mike! Well, I just got the high-sign, and they say we’re live on a Ko-rean radio station in Newark, New Jersey right now, if you can believe it. Ko-rean!”
“Korean? But that means —”
“Don’t worry, it’ll be in English today. We just put out the station information by text message. All the union guys in New York City are getting them as we speak, at least, that’s what I’m told. And it’s going on the internet, too, somehow. Audios and videos; it’s being filmed from every which way, that’s what I’m told. I don’t really understand how it all works, but they say that if that creepy mayor of yours takes that Ko-rean radio station off the air, they have more stations lined up right behind it. All right?”
“I guess so.” If it was over her head, it was way over Mike’s. But he could see that on the other side of the window walls of the corner office, several people were holding up smart phones, so for sure, he was on video.
The Southern lady said, “Now, you look for another number, and use another phone. You have a very special caller. Good luck, and God bless.”
“Wait a minute —” But the line had gone dead.
He looked back to the building. The woman with the file folder was showing another number. He chose a new flip phone, and called it. It rang once and was picked up.
“Is this Brooklyn Mike?” It was a girl’s voice, or a young lady’s, speaking in unaccented American English.
“Yes, it’s me, who is this?”
“For today, my name is Amina. Some people that I trust said that I can talk to you, and that everybody will hear my story.”
“They tell me the same thing, Amina, so go ahead, I guess.” Mike looked at his watch. Twenty minutes to nine. It wasn’t his plan at this point to take another caller, but really, what plan did he have left?
“Thank you. I wanted to do this for a long time. Mike, have you ever heard of a lady named Ayaan Hirsi Ali?”
“Sure, I know about her. She’s from Somalia, and she wrote a book called Infidel, and another book called Nomad.” Both had come highly recommended, and Mike had read them while he was doing his own research on Islam. They were amazingly insightful. Brilliant, really.
In a soft voice, the girl said, “Ayaan Hirsi Ali is from Somalia, as you said, and she escaped from Islam. So today, she has to live in hiding, because she is an apostate Muslim. Well, I too have escaped from Islam, and I too am in hiding, but I was born in America. I was born in America, and I’m in hiding!” Amina paused to catch her breath, and gather her thoughts. “I was only allowed to go to a normal American high school for two years, tenth and eleventh grades. I had to wear the hijab, and I was watched for every minute I was out of our house. And the hijab had to be tight around my face, and I had to wear long clothes, almost like a burka, so that just my hands and my face would show.”
She said, “Maybe you have heard that some Muslim girls like to dress that way, but what about the girls who hate it? What about them? When I unwrapped my hijab and wore it loose like a scarf, and my hair would show, I was beaten for it by my father at home. No matter where I went, I was spied on, even by my own brothers. If I was seen talking to regular American kids, not Muslims, just talking, like friends, I was beaten. I was never allowed to make any friends on my own, never. No sports, no drama club, just straight home. My father checked my phone every night, and he told me that if I ever had an American boyfriend, he would kill me. Kill me! And I believed him, because he already beat me all the time. But never on my face, so the marks wouldn’t show. I tried to find just a little freedom in my life, and he found every little piece, and smashed it flat. He thought I was becoming Americanized — that’s what he called it — but I was born in America! Why shouldn’t I be Americanized? I was an American, but I was a slave.
“I tried to resist, but what could I do? He checked my phone, I was watched everywhere I went. When I should have been getting ready for my senior year, I was pulled out of school. He told me that I was going to be home-schooled, but only in Koranic studies. I had to become a better Muslima, and stop being Americanized. My soul was at risk of eternal hellfire, and I was putting our family honor at risk. So I was made a prisoner in our own house. I was literally locked inside, and guarded every minute. I was too free, that’s what he said! Too free! He was afraid I would be ‘ruined,’ and his family honor would be destroyed. That lasted for three months; our house was my prison.
“And then he announced that I was going to be married to a cousin from his old country, a man of thirty, a man who could speak almost no English. I had no say in the matter — none. My mother was terrified of my father, but my brothers supported him. I had no place to turn. I had no friends outside of our home. I was never allowed to make friends. So I had nobody. I was going to be married to a man twice my age — a first cousin! A man I had never met! My father said that he was a very pious Muslim, and he would teach me to be a good Muslim wife. But all I wanted was to be free, like the regular American girls.
“So I had to pretend to accept my fate, to become submissive to my father’s will. I was going to be sent to my father’s country, so then I knew I was out of time, and then I escaped. I was still only sixteen, and I took a little money from my mother, enough to take a bus to another city, and I found a shelter for battered women. I had no idea what I should do next. I had no money, and no friends. I had nothing outside of my family, nothing! I didn’t know anything, then. I was still a fool about those things. I believed anybody who said they would to help me. So I was introduced to Family Protective Services by the ladies at the shelter.
“The social workers who came to the shelter convinced me to meet my mother at a restaurant. I was such a naïve fool! By then, I was dressing like a normal girl, blue jeans, like that, and no hijab. I swore I would never wear the hijab again, never! So when I arrived at the restaurant I looked for my mother, but instead, there were my brothers, lying in wait for me, and friends of my brothers from the mosque. They tried to catch me in the parking lot and push me into a car, but I screamed that I was being kidnapped, and an American, some old man like a cowboy, he had a big gun, and he pointed it at them, and I ran away again.
“After that, I had to hitchhike to another town. I was at the mercy of anybody, anybody, and then God sent me the first of my angels. The first car that picked me up was driven by an old couple. Through my tears, they heard my whole story, and they promised not to turn me in, not even to tell the Family Protective Services, and that was the first time in my life that I felt safe. I felt safe, but I was still not free. In America!”
“What about the FBI?” Mike asked her. “If they tried to kidnap you, that’s a federal offense. Even if it’s your family, I think.”
“The FBI? Oh, my God, the FBI? Yes, the old couple had the same idea. The people who sheltered me, the first people that picked me up. They said I should call the FBI, so I spoke with them on the phone, but I was too afraid to let them know where I was. I called them when I was in somebody else’s car, with somebody else’s phone. The FBI person I spoke to arranged to have a meeting with me, but this time, I chose the location. It was a Waffle House with glass walls. We had another girl wear a hijab and pretend to be me, a Christian girl, a friend, just to be sure. But instead of the FBI, it was my brothers and their friends, coming to catch me again! Somebody from the FBI had to have told my father about the meeting. The FBI! I saw my brothers coming to catch me again, but I was hiding in a car across the parking lot. So please, don’t tell me about the FBI.”
She had to pause and catch her breath. “You need to understand something, Brooklyn Mike. My father is not just some ordinary Muslim man. He is very important. He belongs to important Muslim associations. He has even been to the White House. I have seen him on television, but when he is on television, I don’t recognize the same man who would beat me with a cane for showing my hair. On television, he’s so smooth and gentle. Oh, on television, he’s a very peaceful man, a gentle moderate Muslim! The same man who beat me with a cane so hard that I would bleed. That’s why they want to catch me, and if they catch me, they will kill me. My story would be too much of an embarrassment, oh, the shame and the dishonor it would bring!”
Amina took a deep breath, and continued. “When I was in high school, we read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Everybody knows the story. Everybody in America talks about slavery, about how horrible it was, and how evil men like Simon Legree would try to catch the runaway slaves, to take them back to the South, to take them back to the slave plantation. Why? Because the black slaves were just another man’s property, and nothing more.
“But today, the FBI is helping the slave masters to catch the runaway slaves! What has happened? I can’t believe it! I was born in America, and I should be free, but I was born on a Sharia Law slave plantation. I was going to be sold by my father to be the property of another man, a stranger, a cousin, for him to rape me as he pleases, because that is his right under Sharia Law. I was just property, a slave, without a word to say about my own life. And I was told to accept my fate, to submit, because I am only the property of my father, and I must obey him. I was told to accept my fate, like any slave. To be sold to another man like a sheep or a goat.”
She paused, seething with fear and anger. “If my brothers find me again, they’ll kill me, and nobody will ever find my body. And my father will be proud of them, and they will be proud of themselves, and after I am dead, my father will go back to the White House, and he will pretend to be a gentle and wise imam, and stupid Americans will believe him. And I will be dead and forgotten, just a runaway slave that nobody ever heard of. And this is in America — under American Sharia. What happened to the America that stands for freedom? What happened to it? And now, after this phone call, I’ll have to move again, to another family of Christians who will hide me in another state. My bags are already packed. I live in fear that the next time I see my brothers, there will be nobody around to save me, and I will be killed. But if I die, I tell this to my father: I have written everything down, Baba, and if anything happens to me, people will know who you really are. Brooklyn Mike, how can this happen in America? How?”
Mike was hushed by the passionate sadness of her tragic story, but he was also in awe of her hunger for freedom. “I don’t know what happened to our country, Amina. I don’t even recognize it anymore. I wish I could give you some hope, but I don’t know what to say. Just that I’m sorry.” Mike was sixty, and he’d lived every day of his life as a free man, free even to make crazy choices like climbing up the tower crane. But Amina’s freedom, her American birthright, had been stolen from her before it had even begun.
She was weeping, and then she was gone. And Mike was weeping too. He looked away from the building, to wipe his tears with the back of his hand. His watch said that it was ten minutes before nine. West of the line of barricades, 53rd street was densely packed with more and more Muslims walking in from 7th Avenue. When he looked back at the corner office, the woman was holding up another number. He called it with his next phone. This time a man answered. Mike said, “I’m almost out of time, and I don’t know what to do next.”
The man said, “Don’t quit, Mike. Help is on the way.”
His voice sounded familiar, but he couldn’t place it. Mike asked, “Who is this?”
The voice said, “Look over here, Mike.”
He turned back toward the corner office, then stood up on his platform, leaning against a strut. It took him a moment to recognize Frank Salerno, because he’d only seen the bottom half of his face before, but there he was, holding a phone. Frank was still wearing his black uniform, but without all of the tactical gear or the climbing harness. This was the first time that he had seen Frank’s entire face, without the goggles or the helmet.
“I’m not telling you what to do, Mike, but time is getting a little short. Nine o’clock is the witching hour, that’s what we’re told.”
“How did you — what are you doing up here, Frank?”
“Tactical command post. You’re a popular man with the beat cops, a popular man, and especially with the ESU. Not so much with the brass, but we’re keeping them out of the TCP. See the fancy RV down by the MAM? The brass-hats are all down there. Nice ball cap, by the way. Everybody thinks I slipped it to you on the crane. Doesn’t matter. Let them think what they think. And if you want to dunk your Koran in piss, you go right ahead. Won’t bother us a bit. The mayor told us to keep the hell out of 53rd between 6th and 7th Avenues. He ordered us to stand down, like San Jose. Well, that’s what we’re doing. We’re standing down.”
Mike looked straight below him again. There were hard hats and other civilians packing the sidewalks along 6th Avenue. At ten minutes before nine, the construction workers simply pushed over the police barricades blocking off the end of 53rd, and began to pour into the previously empty space beside the base of the tower crane. Within moments there were hundreds of hard hats on the street below him, red, yellow, blue and green dots seen from above. And on the other side of the mid-block barricades, not fifty yards past the base of the crane, there were thousands of Muslims lining up for prayer. And just a thin gray line of police barricades separating them.
A loudspeaker came on, tinny, with feedback. A small platform had been erected at the front of the crowd of Muslims, at the middle of the barricades, so Mike grabbed his binoculars. The platform was a small rolling dumpster that had been hauled into place and turned over to make a stage. Among the men at the very front was Imam Qutb, in the flesh, wearing a man-dress, and a Muslim skull cap. A speaker the size of a guitar amplifier was lifted onto the dumpster-stage, and Qutb was being helped onto the top, presumably to lead the call to prayer.
On the other side of the barricade from Qutb and the thousands of Muslims there were hundreds of hard hats, and more coming from up and down 6th Avenue. He looked at his watch. Nine minutes to go, but he wasn’t sure exactly when the call to prayer would begin. Judging by the loud rumble of voices floating up from the street, the Muslims were already in a foul mood, and they would be in an even worse mood after Imam Sayyid Qutb whipped them into a frenzy to stop the two great blasphemies ‘by any means necessary.’
Mike scanned the crowd, holding his binoculars in one hand, his phone in the other, leaning against a diagonal strut. The crowd of Muslims was separating as pairs of men were allowed through holding big two-handled baskets between them. He focused in and could see that these baskets were being dropped off at intervals through out the crowd. And the baskets and tubs were full of what looked like bricks or stones.
Stones, and swords: they were going medieval. And in the crowd, Mike saw a man waving a Kalashnikov rifle above his head. Time for the phone. “Frank, there’s a guy down there with an AK.”
There was a pause, while Frank Salerno conferred with some of the other officers in the corner office suite. Some were in tactical gear, some in regulation uniforms, and some in plain clothes. “We see him, Mike. Don’t worry. We’ll take care of that guy if he becomes a problem. We already have him dialed in.”
“They’re bringing in bushel baskets full of rocks, have you seen that?”
“We’re tracking them too, Mike. But have you seen what’s coming from the other way?”
“Yeah, I’m watching. It feels a lot better not being alone.” The linked steel barricades at the end of 53rd had been pushed over or taken apart, but the only police to be seen were still on the other side of 6th Avenue, guarding the Modern Art Museum. This could not have been what the mayor had been anticipating, when he had ordered his police force to stand down on the long city block east and west of the tower crane, and Brooklyn Mike.
A north-bound dump truck slowly turned left off 6th Avenue. When it stopped, it dumped the load in its bed, and then turned back onto 6th and continued north. Mike used his binoculars to check out the pile of debris, and he recognized it at once. It was a mountain of rebar cutoffs, the short pieces of iron that were left over when the long reinforcing rods were cut to length. The rod-busters produced mountains of the stuff at any good-sized construction site; it went into dumpsters for recycling. Somebody had used a front-end loader and filled the back of the dump truck with rebar, or maybe they had used a crane with an electromagnet. Either way would work.
A big white SUV like a Suburban pulled in next, and backed up toward the barricade in the middle of the block while the hard hats opened a lane for it. Some hard hats opened the rear cargo hatch and pulled out what looked like a pair of black refrigerators, but a closer look showed them to be concert-sized loudspeakers. And all the while, from north and south on 6th Avenue, a still-growing crowd of hard hats was arriving on foot, each man selecting a nice piece of rebar, averaging about a yard long.
Imam Qutb was standing on his dumpster stage, his back to the American hard hats. His own amplifier and speaker were being pushed too hard, and his voice was cracking and full of static as he exhorted his own crowd in what was presumably Arabic. Mike looked at his watch. Three minutes until nine. The Muslim crowd, numbering in the thousands now, extended from the mid-block barricade all the way back to 7th Avenue. Then suddenly, the disorderly mob lined up in neat ranks and files, one man for each of the thousands of prayer rugs. How many of the rugs had swords or Kalashnikovs beneath them, wondered Mike? They still outnumbered the hard hats on the shorter end of the block toward 6th Avenue by at least three to one. He wondered if there would be enough construction workers to hold the mob back from the tower, once they were sent forward en masse on their mission to stop the two great blasphemies by any means necessary.
One minute until nine.
Mike was still on his feet, nervously bouncing, watching the two crowds that were facing one another across the single line of police barricades, but without a single police officer between them. Then a long, clear note cut the morning air, it had to be the beginning of the call to prayer. It began with a prolonged Allahu Akbar, a slow yodeling, wavering up and down in tone. The Muslims all immediately put their heads down, the entire crowd aligning like electrically charged iron particles sharing a single connecting hive-mind. But then the slow, high-pitched yodeling call to prayer slowed, the voice lowering and growing distorted, and then it began, somehow, to play backwards! Then it stopped again, and played normally. Mike scanned the crowd with his binos, they seemed restive, looking about, unsure. Perhaps the Brother in charge of the sound system had made a mistake, or the recording machinery was defective? The prayer began playing again normally, but this time it was accompanied by the sound of a man screaming, and of other men yelling out Allahu Akbar. Not yodeling it slowly, but barking it out excitedly, over another man’s blood-curdling screams.
Mike had heard it before, not long after 9-11. It was the audio from the Nick Berg beheading tape, and he remembered forcing himself to watch the video as the American was slowly beheaded on camera with a knife. Mike remembered it well, because he’d felt a connection to Berg, a bold young man who had gone over to Iraq to put up cell phone towers. Berg wasn’t an Ironworker, but he was something close, a tower erector. He’d gone over in the hopeful early days after the fall of the Saddam regime, and he’d been kidnapped and executed in a truly horrible fashion.
And now his final screams were playing over the call to prayer. Mike looked across the single thin barricade, the mob was growing agitated, turning to one another, literally seized by mass confusion. And then the first rocks began to fly over the barricade toward the American hard hats. Mike turned to the building, Frank Salerno was mouthing phone and holding his against the window. Mike put his phone to his ear and heard, “Mike, now’s your chance to get out. We have some undercovers who are going to pop smoke for cover when you come down. Now’s your best chance, buddy.”
More stones began to fly over the barricade. Mike took the Koran, and threw it far off the platform onto the street, found his gloves in his pack and quickly put them on, then sidestepped back across the crane’s jib toward the tower. A sound buzzed and snapped past him, shots ricocheted off the pipes around him, but they ceased as quickly as they had started. And then, improbably, amazingly, the call to prayer was replaced by, of all things, a big-band swing orchestra, and a female singer began to belt out The Hokey Pokey Song in high-fidelity sound at rock-concert decibels! Despite the danger of his literally precarious situation, Mike couldn’t help but laugh.
You put your right foot in,
You put your right foot out,
You put your right foot in,
And you shake it all about.
You do the Hokey Pokey
and you turn yourself around,
That’s what it’s all about.
In a minute Mike was back at the tower, and climbing past the crane operator’s box, and the slewing ring gear. No more shots had been fired at him after that first and only volley. Somewhere out there, an ESU sniper was his guardian angel, and that made him feel a lot better about his exposed position. He was able to speed his way down the tower using gravity, hooking his feet around the outsides of the ladder rails, grabbing them with his gloved hands, and sliding down each floor in just a second or two. By the time he reached the base of the tower his gloves were smoking hot, and a protective screen of yellow and red smoke was drifting around him.
A half-dozen hard hats surrounded him. In the cloud of smoke one of them said, “Here, put this on,” and handed him a blue t-shirt with the logo of the Electrical Workers, and a yellow hard hat, a sun beater with the brim that went all the way around. Once he’d put these on, he effectively disappeared into the swirling crowd. Behind him, hundreds of construction workers swinging iron rebar cutoffs were engaging a much greater number of rock-throwing Muslims, but he had no sense of how the battle was going, only that a scrum of men was pulling and guiding him the other way, around the Bank of Europe building, and down 6th Avenue on the packed sidewalk. Men and some women were running in both directions, some heading to the fight, and others with bleeding wounds who were being helped or even carried in the other direction, away from it.
At some point the Hokey Pokey song had ended, and of all songs, the English punk classic Rock the Casbah by the Clash had taken its place. By the order of the prophet, we ban that boogie sound, degenerate the faithful, with that crazy casbah sound! The Mohammedan rock-throwers must not have overrun the hard hats at the end of 53rd Street, or the music would have been cut off. Otherwise, Mike had no sense for the battle, only for the mass confusion of it as a half-dozen strangers, young men in hard hats in tight formation around him, hands on his shoulders, guided him along through torrents of frenzied humanity. And through it all, there were no uniformed police to be seen on the west side of 6th Avenue, as the mayor’s stand-down order was scrupulously obeyed.
In spite of himself, while being swept along through the crowds, Mike couldn’t help but to laugh again. He was escaping from a riot, no, a street battle, a street battle with its own sound track. The shareef don’t like it — rockin’ the casbah! Around the next corner of the Bank of Europe building, he was led though a vehicle gate into a utility service area, then to a steel door that was opened with a key. Then down a cement staircase, and into a dimly-lit underground parking garage.
“Slow down, fellas, I’m an old man,” said Mike.
One of them replied, “No, you’re not an old man, you’re Brooklyn Mike!”
“Where are we going?” he asked them.
“You’re getting a ride out of here, that’s all we know. Come on, just a little more.”
Down another ramp, onto another level. A black Mercedes-Benz limousine was waiting. The back passenger door opened as they approached.
“Who are these guys?” Mike asked.
The oldest of the hard hats, who was maybe forty, said, “I don’t have a clue, but they’re your ride out. That’s all we know.”
So Mike got in the back seat of the big sedan, closed the door, took off the yellow hard hat, and put it on his lap. There were three guys already in the car, they were all dressed in dark pants and white dress shirts, open at the neck. They could have been bartenders or waiters, except that they were the size of professional wrestlers, or NFL linemen. The driver had enormous hands on the wheel, gold rings on his fingers, and tattoos on his knuckles. In Russian letters. Cyrillic. Oh, boy, thought Mike. The Russian mafia.
The car pulled forward, twisted up a pair of ramps, a garage door lifted, and they shot out into the daylight on 7th Avenue, southbound. Men in skullcaps were running on the sidewalks, the hems of their robes held up high for more speed. The other back seat passenger said, with a thick Russian accent, “Look at Arabs running, oh, is so beautiful thing to see. So, you are famous Brooklyn Mike? Is good to finally meet an American with balls. You can play with Russian friends anytime. Things not working out in USA, you are coming to Russia, everything be good for you there.”
Mike was exhausted, drained, sinking into the creamy leather. “Thanks, I, uh, appreciate the offer. Where are we going?”
“Only short ride to New Jersey, not to Russia. Not this time. Then another ride for you. You have no cell phone, no radio?”
“No, I left them all back there.”
“Good. This is very important thing, no radios.”
In a minute they were coming out of the Holland Tunnel, and a few minutes after that they passed through a fenced gate that rolled aside for them, drove past containers and rail sidings and abandoned box cars and straight into a cavernous warehouse and across its empty cement floor.
“You go out, across tracks is red truck. Where you go after, I don’t know. Good luck to you, big American hero. Am proud to being your taxi cab today.”
The Russian in the front passenger seat spoke to the man in back in his language, then he picked something up from between his feet, and handed it to his compatriot in the rear. They exchanged a few more words, and the English speaker in the back said, “In box is good Russian lunch, like big Russian sandwich. You are getting out of car now, okay?” He handed the shoebox-sized package to Mike, it was inside of a brown paper grocery bag with the top folded down. “Now, you go. Red truck, across tracks. Okay?”
Mike reached across the backseat and shook the Russian’s hand. Blue tattoos, the lettering in Cyrillic. He had no gift to give them in return, so he left the yellow hard hat as a keepsake. He opened the door and walked away from the black Mercedes, out of the warehouse into bright sunlight, across a loading dock and down rusty stairs. He crossed some old railroad tracks to a parking area where, indeed, a tractor trailer with a gleaming red cab was idling. The passenger-side door opened as he approached, and a female voice beckoned him to climb up.
There was a woman in the passenger seat, and a big man who was leaning all the way across to greet him. They broke into grins and shook his hand hard as he climbed aboard, almost pulling him up and inside. The man said, “Brooklyn Mike, I knew it! Hey, there’s a jump seat in the middle back there. Sit down, we need to haul ass.”
Mike was scarcely seated when the truck lurched and rolled forward. The driver was at least as old as Mike, but thicker in the middle, the typical commercial driver spread. He said, “I’m Jordan, and this is my wife, Fran. Jesus Christ — Brooklyn Mike! But hey, don’t worry, I know all about operational security. I’m not a jerk that’s going to take selfies or blab his mouth.”
“Where are we going?” In a minute, the eighteen-wheeler was pulling onto a highway and getting up to speed.
Jordan said, “We’re going to Chattanooga; I just know that we’re dropping you off at a truck stop this side of Knoxville. After that, I don’t know where you’re going, and I don’t want to know.”
“You look parched,” said Fran. “There’s a case of water on the floor behind Jordan.”
“Thanks.” Mike pulled a plastic bottle from the crate, opened it, and drank half right away. The package the Russians had given him was on his lap. “How did you know about this, I mean, how did you find out where to be?”
“I got a call this morning, the guy just said I should be in Union City at such and such place, and I should wait for an important passenger. That’s all.”
Fran said, “And we never pick up riders, never. But it wasn’t just some guy that called.”
“Yeah. An old friend called me this morning. He just said I needed to do it, that’s all. And if I say I will, I will — put it in the bank. We go way back, me and him, and we owe each other too many favors to keep track of, so when we got a problem, we just help each other out. That’s all. We were up in Connecticut, running south, so no problem. Like they say: things happen for a reason.”
“What’s happening back in Manhattan?”
Fran said, “You were just there, Mike, you tell us.”
“No, I mean now. It was like a huge riot when I got out of there.”
“What’s happening,” said Jordan, “Is our guys are beating the holy hell out of their guys, at least, that’s what I’m hearing.” He pointed to the blue-tooth attached to his left ear, with a small microphone on a stick. “Beating them up and down 53rd Street, the ones who didn’t run away. For some reason, there’s no police around. Too dangerous, or something.” Jordan turned around and winked. “Apparently, a thousand hard hats swingin’ rebar can do a lot of damage when they’re royally pissed off. You want I should put on the radio, so you can hear it?”
“No, not yet. I like the quiet in here.”
“Turns out they have no sense of humor.” Jordan began to laugh. “The ragheads, I mean. We watched it on YouTube while we were waiting. YouTube, and that Korean radio station. The YouTube don’t work so good when we’re rolling, but Fran can check it for you if you want to watch.” He began to sing “You do the Hokey Pokey, and you turn yourself around. That really cracked us up. Thousands of them ragheads all lined up to shove their butts up in the air, and The Hokey Pokey Song playing. Whoever dreamed that up, that was inspired. Yep, they got no sense of humor at all. Dead serious, all the time. That’s their problem — no sense of humor. Well, one of their problems.”
Fran said, “Brooklyn Mike, in our cab, and we can’t even tell anybody.”
“Opsec, Franny, Opsec,” said Jordan, scanning the road ahead, two big hands on the wheel, keeping exactly to the speed limit in the right-hand lane. “Operational security. If he couldn’t trust us to keep our yaps shut, he wouldn’t have called us.”
Fran replied, “I know. I know. Hey, Mike, have you eaten? Of course not. We have lasagna in the fridge, you can zap it in the microwave there. Or, if you’re tired, you can catch some Z’s in the bunk behind you. But if you just want some snacks, we have some cookies, potato chips, anything you want.”
He was hungry, and that made Mike think of the box lunch that was still lying unopened on his lap. He unfolded the paper bag and pulled out a cardboard box, and opened its flaps. On top was a cigar box, and he lifted its lid. Inside was big pistol, it said Glock 21 — Austria — .45 Auto on the slide. Two spare magazines, loaded. He looked at the ends of the bullets on top, fat copper and lead hollow points. He remembered the Colt .45s from his Army days, same caliber of ammo. A very thoughtful gift from the Russians. They knew that he was far from being in the clear, and that he’d be on the run from the Muslim radicals, and probably the FBI too, so they’d provided him with a major-league blaster.
There was more below the cigar box, so he lifted it out and set it aside. Next in the bigger cardboard box was a fine white linen napkin, carefully folded up to fit neatly. He pulled it off, and saw four stacks of currency side by side, fifty dollar bills on top. Each stack was as thick as they were wide, with a brown rubber band around each. On top was a note that read, “Half for Brooklyn Mike, half for Amina. Good luck.”
Mike stared out at the highway ahead, between the two high-backed bucket seats. A little wooden cross on a string swung below the GPS unit in the middle of the windshield. They were on I-95, southbound. Somewhere, he had a Russian godfather, or maybe it was a guardian angel, or maybe it was something else entirely, something that would always remain a mystery. He pulled up a corner of a stack of the bills and riffled it. It was all fifties, right through. Easier to spend than C-notes. Safer. Again, very thoughtful of the Russians.
Fran asked, “What do you got there, Mike?”
“A present from some friends.”
“Oh, that’s nice. Not food?”
“No, not food.”
“Well, I can fix you something, or we can heat up some lasagna.”
“Thanks. I will, in a little while. But maybe I’ll take a nap first — it’s been a long day. Say, Jordan, what time did you get the call to pick me up?”
“Geez, Mike, let me think. Right after six? Six-fifteen? Franny, check the phone log.”
Six-fifteen? At six-fifteen, he had only just started taking calls with Jerry Conroy, so that wasn’t possible. It had to be a mistake.
Fran said, “It’s not in the phone, Jordan, it’s not in here at all.” She was scrolling through all of their incoming numbers. “There’s nothing here. That’s strange.”
“Not to me,” said Jordan. “Crazy shit like that has happened all my life. If I told stories, nobody would believe them, so I just keep my big yap shut. I been through some real shit, Mike, some real shit. Fran could tell you stories, but she don’t tell stories neither, do you honey?”
“No way. Our lips are sealed, Mike. Opsec. It’s better that way. We don’t spend a lot of time looking in the rear view mirrors. We like the road ahead a lot better.”
Jordan said, “But we come through it all, and here we are, free and alive, and pretty healthy for a couple of old farts. I never thought I’d see fifty, much less sixty-five. And now here we are, rolling down the highway with Brooklyn Mike, free as the wind, on our way back to Tennessee.”
“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” said Fran, without a trace of irony
He surely does, thought Brooklyn Mike Dolan. He surely does.
This story is dedicated to the memory of Amina and Sarah Said, who deserved much better in the Land of the Free.
Matthew Bracken was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1957, and attended the University of Virginia, where he received a BA in Russian Studies and was commissioned as a naval officer in 1979. Later in that year he graduated from Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, and in 1983 he led a Naval Special Warfare detachment to Beirut, Lebanon. Since then he’s been a welder, boat builder, charter captain, ocean sailor, essayist and novelist. He lives in Florida. Links to his short stories and essays may be found at EnemiesForeignAndDomestic.com. For his previous essays, see the Matthew Bracken Archives.