This is the third installment of a story by Matthew Bracken, which is being serialized here in four parts.
Piss Christ? Piss Koran!
Part Three: Crisis
by Matthew Bracken
As the two SWAT commandos slid down their ropes, the chopper lifted for a moment, and one of them was dragged against the crane’s guy wire. He was flicked from his descent line, but he managed to grab hold of the thick steel cable. The helicopter dropped again, its rotors nearly intersecting the cable, but it banked away, dipped its nose, shot forward and corkscrewed downward, the other commando swinging out below its belly on the carnival ride of his life.
The unlucky commando was hanging onto the guy wire halfway out to the end of the jib, his feet more than a yard above the top pipe. He was trying to swing a foot up onto the lower end of the slanting wire, but he was too weighted down with tactical gear. If he tried to go hand-over-hand down the greasy wire, he’d slip and risk bouncing off the crane and falling twenty stories. Instead, the best he could do was to hook an elbow over the wire, and lock his forearm with his other hand.
Mike was angry that the SWAT team had tried a sneak attack during the mayor’s phone call, but that didn’t change the fact that the officer hanging from the wire was facing the imminent threat of death. He left his secure platform at the end of the jib, and worked his way back toward the tower on the bank building side, his boots on the lower pipe, his bare ungloved hands on the top.
As he moved he yelled, “Hang on, buddy, I’m coming! Stop swinging, save your strength—just hang on!” The first helicopter had switched off its powerful strobe lights and its acoustic weapon, and followed Mike’s progress and the fate of their stranded SWAT team member from a hundred feet out.
In half a minute Mike was beneath the cop, the knobby soles of his black boots dangling more than a yard above the top pipe. The welded struts between the three main pipes were joined at sixty-degree angles, forming alternating triangles along the length of the cantilevered jib. Where two of the struts joined at the top pipe was where Mike could make his move. He blessed himself with a quick sign of the cross, crouched, and then sprang up and inward, getting one leg and then the other around the two diagonally opposed struts halfway up to the top pipe where they met.
He clenched both struts behind his knees, squeezing together with all of his lower body and leg strength while pulling himself up with his hands and arms, then got an elbow and a shoulder over the top pipe. With sheer determination he scissored his legs together and forced himself further up, until he could push one foot over the top pipe, and then work his chest and belly onto it, balancing himself there. He found a matching diagonal strut on the other side with his foot, and then he was at least fairly secure on top, panting and wheezing, but for the moment at no risk of falling. He hooked his ankles around the opposing struts, and pushed his chest away from the top pipe until he was sitting directly below the SWAT commando’s black boots.
Mike said, “Okay, buddy, we can do this, but don’t move. I’m going to grab your feet, okay? Don’t move. I’m going to grab your feet, but don’t move. All right?”
“You’ve got about four feet to the top pipe, okay? Don’t let go yet.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t. But I’m hurt, and I can’t stay up here all day.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll get her done. Hey, what’s your name?” The cop was facing back down the slanting wire toward the end of the crane, the toes of his boots toward Mike. Mike was facing the other way, toward the crane’s tower.
“Frank. My name is Frank.”
“Okay, Frank, we can do this. I have to get a good hold of your feet, but don’t let go yet. Not till I say. When I say, drop down to your hands, and then you’ll only have about three feet to go. You understand? You got that? You want to come down slow.”
“Yeah, I got it, Mike, but I got a hurt arm, so I don’t know how long I can hang on.”
So Frank the SWAT cop already knew his name. Frank wasn’t an Ironworker, but if he was an NYPD SWAT cop, a member of the elite Emergency Service Unit, Mike thought that he’d have to be a damned good all-around athlete. And if he wasn’t, well, then they were both probably going to fall to the street, and that would be that. Even if Frank did everything just right, they still might fall. Mike had never done this trick with another Ironworker; he was purely winging it, operating on adrenaline and instinct. “Okay Frank, I got your feet. Now, when I say, let go from your elbow, and hang by your hands, okay?” Mikes had hand around each of his boots, behind his ankles.
“Okay, but I can’t hang for long.”
“All right, let go from your elbow, and hang.”
Mike clenched the struts on both sides of the top pipe with his feet as hard as he could. Frank’s black boots slid down until the toes were against Mike’s throat, with Mike’s hands around the back of the cop’s knees, which were bulked up with pads. “Okay, Frank, here’s the tricky part. Wait till I say ‘let go.’ Don’t try to balance on top, just keep going until you’re sitting on the pipe like me. Okay? You understand?”
“I got it, I understand. I’m going to straddle the pipe and grab you.”
The guy was cool, Mike had to give him that. “That’s right, you’re going to straddle the pipe, and it’s going to hurt, but you’re a tough guy, right? I’m ready, so when you’re ready, let go, one hand at a time. You ready?”
“Then let go.” Mike had to loosen his grasp and grab again as the SWAT cop fell straight down. Frank spread his feet as he came down to trap the pipe, and grabbed Mike in a bear hug as he stopped short, and just like that, they were face to face, with Mike straining to keep his balance as Frank’s momentum carried his torso over toward the bank building. Mike had to haul him back upright, levering his feet against the struts, and then they were face to face, embracing in a double bear hug, almost nose to nose. Mike said, “Feel behind you with your feet, you’ll hit a pair of struts. Hook them with your ankles.”
“I already got ’em, Mike. I already got ’em.” Frank was wearing a black helmet and dark goggles. Robo-cop in black, from the nose up, but his mouth and lips were alternating between relief and terror.
“I’m good here, Frank, I’m solid, so you climb down first, okay? The struts are on an angle, right? You’re going to slide your foot down a strut toward the building until you reach the bottom pipe. So you got to push away from me a little, and get a leg over, and slide down. I’ll hold you steady. Okay?”
“I can clip a carabiner around the pipe—a snap-link.”
“Perfect, Frank, perfect! That’s the ticket. You do that.” Since he’d left the street, Mike had been climbing without any safety gear at all, but it made sense that the SWAT cop would be ready to hook in. A climbing harness was integrated into his body armor and tactical vest.
The cop said, “I got to let go with one hand, all right? So I can hook my snap-link around the pipe.”
“Do it, I’m ready.” Mike looked at the front of his partner, a black and gray patch said ESU. That was for the Emergency Service Unit, New York’s elite SWAT team.
Frank felt for a carabiner that clipped to his tactical vest; it was connected by a short length of rope to his climbing harness. He deftly flipped it around the top pipe, and then clipped it to its own rope. Once his safety line was attached, relief showed plainly on the half of his face that was visible to Mike. “I thought I was a goner. I tore my bicep when I hit the wire, and it was all I could do to hang on by my elbow.”
“I couldn’t just watch you fall. I couldn’t do that.”
“I have a wife and three kids. And they still got a daddy.”
“Hey, you’re not going to arrest me, are you?”
“Hell no! I’m sorry Mike, this operation wasn’t my idea. It was the mayor, and the commissioner. It was just orders, and I was pulling duty.”
“I understand. Will you get in trouble if you don’t arrest me?”
“I’ll tell them I was hurt. I am hurt. How could I force you to do anything, up here? I’m going to slide off, now. Once I’m standing on the bottom pipe, I’ll hold you steady while you come down.”
“Okay, you first, then me.”
Frank nodded, pushed backward on the top pipe, put a leg over toward the bank building, slid down the strut, and found his footing on the bottom. Then Mike did the same, while the SWAT cop steadied him. During the entire process, from Mike first grabbing Frank’s boots, until they were both safely down, they’d been in close physical contact.
“Frank—thanks for not arresting me.”
“Don’t worry about it. Thanks for saving my life. I think I got the better deal.”
Mike laughed. “Yeah, I guess so. Hey, do you think the mayor will try something like that again?”
“Not with my team, he won’t. I’m sorry, Mike. It was just a job, it was just orders.”
“I understand. It’s your job.” And most of the time, the job involved saving innocent hostages from violent criminal maniacs. They sure had enough of them in the city, and Mike never had any doubts about the absolute need for a team of professionals like the NYPD Emergency Service Unit. If the mayor sent them out for the wrong reason, the ESU guys couldn’t be blamed for that. “So Frank, what happened with the helicopter?”
“That idiot almost killed me, that’s what. Washout Washburn, he’s a councilman’s nephew. He wasn’t in the military, like us. I mean, he wasn’t a military pilot first. You were in the Army, right?”
“Right. In the seventies. Peacetime.”
“Well, Washout wanted to be a helicopter pilot, so they gave him three tries at the academy.”
“The mayor owed the councilman a favor, and we got Washout for a pilot. I don’t know why they didn’t have him flying the distraction chopper. I think it was just his turn, and he wanted to prove himself. Look, Mike, if you get out of this, I mean, when you get out of this, look me up. Frank Salerno. I got the first round. Hell, I got all the rounds. I’m sure my wife will want to meet you too. And my kids.”
“I’ll do that.” There were standing on one pipe while leaning against another, twenty stories above the pavement, having a conversation like they were across the backyard fence while their barbeque grills were firing up. Mike thought nothing of this, not after decades as an Ironworker.
Frank said, “I think I understand what you’re trying to do up here.”
“That’s all I’m asking for, a little understanding. I’m not going to do anything to hurt anybody. I’ve got no weapons or bombs, and I won’t jump.”
“Look, Mike, I gotta tell you—I think the mayor wants you dead, man. I don’t like saying that, but I got that feeling.”
“Frank, when I get down, I’m going to find you, and get that beer.” They shook hands, and then the SWAT officer let go and started back along the jib toward the tower. The “distraction helicopter” was still hovering a hundred feet away, taking it all in. As he passed the connecting struts, Frank unclipped his carabiner, refastened it around the top pipe, and continued toward the tower, unclipping and clipping. But he was a family man, with young kids.
Mike stayed where he was, his winded exhaustion catching up to his sixty years. He looked at the diagonal struts. There was no way he could do that again, not for a million dollars, not if his life depended on it. But somehow, he’d done it. For five minutes, since the distraction helicopter had first dropped in front of him, he had no age, just a lifetime of experience, and a life-or-death mission to accomplish.
He heard a clacking and rapping noise behind him, a banging, and he twisted around. Twenty feet behind him, along the twentieth floor of the Bank of Europe building, the window wall was now as transparent as air. There were people standing shoulder-to-shoulder across the wide office, and more people were standing behind them. Men in jackets and ties, women in dresses, and cops and firefighters in uniforms. And they were clapping, waving, mouthing hurrahs, smiling, cheering, giving him exuberant thumbs-ups, and holding up smart phones to record it all.
A woman was pressing a tan file folder against the window. She’d scrawled a message on it with a marker that read, “We’re with you, Mike!” He was stunned, not expecting anything like that reception, so he just stared at them. Then he took a hand off the top pipe, twisted halfway around, and waved to them all a little sheepishly. This wasn’t why he’d climbed the tower, and he didn’t know how to respond to their attention. Then he started side-shuffling back out the crane’s jib, toward his little platform at the end.
The distraction helicopter moved away, following the progress of ESU officer Frank Salerno down the twenty steel ladders of the tower. Mike looked around for the other police helicopter, and found it on the ground across 6th Avenue. Ambulances were pulling away from it, with lights and sirens. Traffic had been stopped on the long block in front of the Modern Art Museum, so there was plenty of open space for a helicopter to land. He looked straight down between his feet, there was a new line of police cars on 53rd Street near the base of the tower, blue lights flashing. They were there to pick up Officer Frank Salerno, he guessed.
Mike reached his expanded metal grating platform again, and sat down heavily. If he was still alive tomorrow, he was going to be sore as hell, one giant bruise from his neck to his ankles. He just sat, staring across 6th Avenue at the BCA tower, and down West 53rd toward the MAM, and after a while he regrouped and took stock. His padded stadium seat had caught under his poncho shanty, he recovered it and slid it beneath him again.
His flip phone was still on the grating deck, and so were his binoculars, and his smart phone. The gray shirt and the hardhat were gone, he must have knocked them over in the recent excitement. The plastic bucket was gone, but the Koran was still there, open, pages fluttering in the breeze. The bottle of amber liquid was where he’d left it, under his poncho shanty on the building side. His pack was where he’d left it. He found the water bottle that he’d already opened, and drained it in one go. Then picked up his little radio, and pushed its single ear bud back in.
Jerry Conroy was arguing with a female about just exactly who was responsible for the crisis in Manhattan, which had escalated, step-by-step, until a police officer had been gravely injured. There had been a semi-crash landing of an NYPD helicopter while the other ESU officer was still hanging from it by a rope. Was this Brooklyn Mike’s fault, or the mayor’s, or the police commissioner’s, or the ESU commander’s, or the pilot’s? Somebody had to be held responsible for his injuries, but who?
Both the WNYR radio host and the caller agreed that without Mike’s intervention, at least one NYPD cop would probably be dead. The other helicopter had been unable to get close enough to the building to retrieve the lost officer, because it had been mission-configured to carry its specialized acoustic and visual “distraction devices,” and not to conduct a high-risk rescue so close to a building. The helicopter didn’t have the correct equipment or the right ESU personnel on board, so, naturally, no rescue attempt could be made. More lives would have been put at risk, so the decision had been taken for it to simply observe the events. It was just lucky for the ESU officer dangling from the wire above the crane that Brooklyn Mike had gone out and hauled him down to safety.
Mike noticed that his 9-11 ball cap had been lost somewhere along the way, so he looked into his pack, and found a black one that had NYPD across the front. After meeting Frank Salerno, he knew that needed those guys on his side if he was going to get off the crane in one piece.
Mike picked up the flip phone, it was still on. “Jerry, you still there? Jerry?” He expected that the line had been disconnected, but almost at once he heard a familiar voice. It was the guy who had first answered the phone at the radio station just before dawn.
“Brooklyn Mike, is that you?”
“I’m still here.”
“Great work up there, man! Great work! I’ll tell Jerry you’re on.”
Then he heard Conroy again. “Mike! Holy Jesus, man! Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Jerry.”
“The whole world is watching you, Mike. The whole world is watching! That was amazing, how you grabbed that cop. Nobody would have blamed you if you’d just sat tight, but you just went right out there and got him.”
“Frank Salerno. That’s his name. Frank Salerno of the ESU. We’re good now, we’re tight. It wasn’t his fault. It was the goddamn mayor. Frank was just doing his job.”
“Hey, are you ready to take another caller?”
Mike exhaled, and stretched his shoulders. “Sure, why not?”
“Okay, next up is Lenny from Queens. Lenny, you’re on.”
“Mikey! Mikey Dolan! Goddamn, buddy, holy hell! What the hell, Mikey?”
“Lenny, the Hebrew turn-screw?”
“Mikey, I knew it was you as soon as I heard you on the radio, even before I saw you on TV. Goddamn Mikey Dolan, up on a crane with a Koran and a jug of piss. Mikey, I always knew you were a crazy sonofabitch, but this beats it all.”
“Geez, Lenny, what’s it been, five, six years?”
“Seven. The Port Authority job. Coldest winter in twenty years, and we’re up there bangin’ bolts in the snow. Easy money, right, Mikey? But I thought it was the end for you today. I thought it was the end for you and that cop. We worked a lot higher, you and me, but twenty stories is high enough. Hey, the safety snitches catch you up there without a harness, they’re going to dock your pay, right?” Lenny laughed, but then his voice cracked. “Mikey, you made me proud to be an Ironworker today. You made us all proud. Brothers to the end. Nobody else could have done that — nobody. Only an Ironworker would be that goddamn crazy. Nobody else.”
“I guess everybody knows who I am now, huh, Lenny? Thanks for blowing my cover, you dumb Jew bastard. Why didn’t you go to medical school, like your brother?”
“I know, black sheep of the family. But I didn’t blow your cover. Everybody knows already, Mikey. Everybody. Look, I don’t want to hold you up, I know you got your hands full. But I wanted to tell you that everybody on the picket line is tuned in, and nobody’s talking about nothing else. Haven’t you heard? The whole world is watching, and they already got about five embassies under attack. The one in Islamabad is on fire, and they’re pulling our people out with helicopters. So mazeltov and behatsla’cha, and watch your tuchas you dumb Mick, ’cause in case you didn’t know it, you got all the goat-humpers in the world pissed-off enough to chew rebar and spit bullets.”
“Don’t I know it? Good to hear from you, Lenny. Really good.” His old friend’s voice brought Mike back to life, and put some new steel into his sore old back. Then, Lenny was gone.
Conroy said, “How about that, Mike? An old friend, eh?”
“More than a friend. A union brother.”
“Yeah, I understand.”
“No, you don’t. But that’s okay. Nobody could. Not unless they been where we been, and done what we done.”
“Okay, okay, fair enough. Are you ready for another caller?”
“Sure, why not?”
“This guy just calls himself Ex-Muslim. So go ahead, Ex-Muslim.”
The caller had a barely perceptible foreign accent. “Mike, you were asking the imam the meaning of the word taqiyya. I’m assuming you already know what it means, but for everybody else, it means holy lying for the purpose of spreading Islam. Lying to a non-believer isn’t a sin for Muslims, it’s just clever. It shows how smart you are to put one over on the stupid kafirs. And that other guy who called himself Ghazi, well that means a holy warrior who is doing jihad against the kafirs. Somebody has to tell you people these things! Americans are so naive when it comes to Islam. I was raised as a Muslim, but when I came to America, I left it all behind. But even now I have to be careful, because if Muslims find out that I left Islam, my life would be in danger. How can you live with people who will kill you for leaving their cult? And that’s what it is: a cult. A death cult, where you get rewarded for killing infidels.”
Conroy said, “That sounds like just a bit of an exaggeration there, Ex-Muslim. Maybe you have a chip on your shoulder. Maybe a few fanatics might feel that way, but—”
“No, Jerry, it’s not an exaggeration. I was born in Egypt, just like Imam Qutb. Believe me, most Egyptians support killing apostate Muslims. They support Sharia Law all the way. Devout Muslims believe that the Koran is the literal word of Allah, dictated word-by-word to Mohammed. That’s why Islam can’t be reformed. Any Muslim who even suggested that one single word of the Koran was a mistake, well, he would be risking a death fatwah.”
“So, you’re saying Islam can’t be reformed?”
“That’s what I’m saying, Jerry. Because any Muslim who said that one single word in the Koran was wrong would be insulting the Prophet. They would be saying that Allah had made a mistake. And that’s enough to get your head chopped off by a fanatic.”
Conroy said, “But what about that abrogation thing? Can’t Muslims see that the abrogated verses were mistakes?”
“Not mistakes. It doesn’t work that way. Each sura of the Koran was correct for its time, that’s what Muslims are taught. When Mohammed was in Mecca, he preached peaceful Islam, because it was correct for that time. It was what worked in Mecca. When Mohammed went to Medina, Allah gave him new revelations, so Mohammed started preaching violent jihad, but both are still the word of Allah.”
“That doesn’t make sense to me. Not if they contradict each other.”
“That’s the point, Jerry, it doesn’t have to make sense. There’s a famous sura about fighting jihad; it’s about killing non-believers. Sura 2:216, I just looked it up. It says that Muslims have to fight jihad, even if they don’t like it. Let me read it: Fighting has been enjoined upon you while it is hateful to you. But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not. That’s one of the reasons why I left Islam when I came to America: I wanted to think for myself, and not be a programmed robot, like Mike said.”
“So how can Muslims reform their religion, if the Koran can’t be changed?”
“I wish I knew the answer to that question, Jerry. But I do know this: the more that Muslims study the Koran, the more dangerous they become, not the less dangerous. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi is the Caliph of the Islamic State, and he has a PhD in Islamic Studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad. So when American politicians say that the Islamic State doesn’t represent Islam, well, that’s like a bad joke to Muslims, because those ISIS guys are actually super-Muslims. The ones that your politicians call the ‘moderate Muslims’ are the ones who don’t read the Koran and hardly know what’s in it. They’re just cultural Muslims, that’s all. They can’t win a single argument against the fanatics who have memorized every sura and hadith. How could they? So when your politicians urge Muslims to study ‘true Islam,’ they’re only helping to create more fanatics.”
“So, what do you think is going to happen today on 53rd Street?”
“I don’t know, but Joseph, the guy from Lebanon who called before, he was correct. Imam Qutb asked all the faithful Muslims to come and stop the two blasphemies. I’m looking at some websites, and some local Islamist groups say that there will be morning prayers on 53rd Street near the museum, and all faithful Muslims should come. After that, I don’t know what will happen, but I think it’s going to be very dangerous. I think that Mike should leave the crane now, while he still can.”
Conroy asked him, “What do you think about what Mike is doing?”
After a pause, Ex-Muslim said, “I don’t know. Of course, it will lead to days of rage around the Muslim world, the ummah, even worse than after the cartoons, or the Life of Mohammed video. Already, embassies are being attacked. But on the other side, maybe it will give Muslims a chance to show that they’re capable of self-control. Or if they’re just killer robots, like Mike said. I just don’t know. Anyway, thank you for allowing me to speak.”
“Thank you, Ex-Muslim.” Jerry let the silence hang for a moment. “So, Mike, you just heard him. Embassies are already being attacked. And you don’t feel responsible?”
“Not at all. I’m not responsible for what other people do. Human beings have free will. Are they programmed killer robots, or not?”
“Any chance you’ll come down before ten o’clock, when the museum opens?”
“None that I can see. But Ex-Muslim gave me a new idea. If every verse in the Koran is the sacred word of Allah, then I guess that Islam really is unreformable. So maybe we can test it out, right here.” Mike picked up the green Koran. His numerous bookmarks were orange sticky notes, so they hadn’t blown away when the book had gone tumbling in the confusion of the helicopter assault. He pinched his flip-phone against this shoulder, he was getting pretty good at it, and said, “Okay, I’m going back to the Verse of the Sword. Sura 9:5. That was in the last chapter that Allah gave to Mohammed, so it erases all the peaceful stuff that came before it.”
Mike opened his Koran to that page. “Muslims always say how peaceful they are, and how Islam is a religion of peace. So, why do they need the Verse of the Sword? How can normal human beings coexist with Muslims, if that sword is always pointing at them? Right? So if Islam is peaceful, then I think peaceful Muslims should be able to do without the Verse of the Sword. Am I making sense?” The retired Ironworker held the Koran toward the cameras, and glanced at his iPhone. The image of the book against his chest was pixilated and blurred. It didn’t matter. They’d get the point. He held the open Koran in one hand, tore the page out, and held it up for the camera. Then he set the book to the side, so that he could hold his flip phone properly.
“Let me read it again. Remember, Allah gave it to Mohammed last, so it erases any peaceful stuff that came before it. That’s called abrogation.” Mike cleared his throat, and began. “Fight and slay the unbelievers wherever you find them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem of war.” He looked up at the cameras. “The unbelievers is us, everybody who’s not a Muslim. So I think that we can all agree that the Verse of the Sword has no place in the modern, civilized world. I think that peaceful, moderate Muslims can agree that the Koran would be better off without it. I think that everybody will agree that if Muslims are going to rejoin the civilized world, then they have to be ready to toss out the Verse of the Sword. Am I right? And if they can’t let go of it, well, then I guess everybody will know what that means, too.”
Mike tore the page in half, then quarters, and kept tearing it until it was in tiny pieces, and then he threw the handful of confetti from the end of the crane. The scraps rolled and blinked as they caught the morning light, widening into a cloud on their descent to the street. The wind was up now, from the east, so the shredded Verse of the Sword was heading back toward 7th Avenue. The line of police cars that had been along 53rd near the base of the crane was gone, so Frank Salerno must have been picked up and taken away to rejoin his Emergency Service Unit team.
Instead of police cars, the flatbed truck loaded with police barricades was parked in the middle of the block. City workers quickly erected a police line across 53rd, beginning where the temporary fencing around the base of the tower crane ended. This was the place where he had snuck into the construction site in dark. Something bright caught Mike’s eye further to the west toward 7th Avenue. At the end of the long block, there were at least twenty yellow cabs parked haphazardly across 53rd where it ran into 7th Avenue. The cabs had to have come eastbound onto 53rd, the wrong way, since 53rd was one-way westbound. There were already barricades across 53rd on both sides of 6th Avenue, so the block should have been clear of traffic. He picked up his compact binoculars to study the situation.
Along with the cabs, there were hundreds of pedestrians, nearly all of them men, and many of them wearing Middle Eastern man-dresses and Muslim skull caps, and most of them sporting beards. All of them were carrying thick tubes under their arms. Some of these men had walked up to the newly erected police line across the middle of the block, and were unrolling prayer rungs and laying them down in a row across the street. The intersection of 7th and 53rd was quickly choking with even more cabs and cars and vans, and hundreds of pedestrians who must have been pouring out of the subway stations or leaving their places of employment.
Mike grabbed his phone. “Jerry, are you there?”
“Yes, but we’re not on the air.”
“We’re on a break?”
“Um, yeah, a break.”
“Is Victor Del Rio there?”
“Um…yes…he is. Do you want to speak to him?”
“No. Just ask him what’s happening on 53rd, down at the 7th Avenue end.”
“Um… All right.”
When Jerry Conroy came back, he said, “According to Mr. Del Rio, the Muslim community is going to hold their morning call to prayer on West 53rd, to pray for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.”
“What crisis is that, Jerry?”
“Mr. Del Rio says the crisis that you created, Mike. With the Koran.”
“Jerry, there’s a single line of police barricades across 53rd, but it’s pretty close to the crane. There’s hundreds of men with prayer rugs, and more are coming, but there’s no police. Just a line of barricades. It’s got me kind of worried.”
There was a pause, and Conroy said, “Mr. Del Rio thinks it would be a good idea for you to come down right away. For your own safety.”
“Jerry, there are hundreds of Muslim men down there already, and hundreds more are coming.”
“Mr. Del Rio says that you need to make a decision very fast. If you come down, some police officers will meet you at the bottom of the tower and escort you to safety. That’s the best he can do. They’re afraid of provoking an incident with a heavy police presence.”
“But there’s no police down there at all, just a line of steel barricades across the street.” Mike looked at his iPhone. BCA was no longer showing the “standoff” on the crane, but a panel discussion. The evening anchor had joined the morning news crew.
Jerry said, “They’re going to hold their morning prayers at nine o’clock. I don’t know what’s going to happen after that. Mr. Del Rio says that you should come down while you have the chance.”
By then, there were several hundred men and their prayer rugs lined up in ranks and files across 53rd from the unmanned police barricade and extending back to west. The taxi cabs forming an ad-hoc blockade at the 7th Avenue end indicated that the cab drivers, and not the police, were controlling access to the street from the west. At the 6th Avenue end, there was another line of steel barricades, but no police. The only police officers that Mike could see were on the other side of 6th Avenue.
Then Mike heard Vic Del Rio’s voice again. “Last chance, Brooklyn Mike. Come down while you can, smart guy. The Jerry Conroy Show is over for the day, and BCA isn’t covering the standoff any more. It was creating a threat to public safety, and we can’t allow that. Public safety always comes first, that’s in the law. So you’re up there all by yourself, smart guy.”
“No more callers, Vic?”
“No more callers, Brooklyn Mike. Show’s over. So, are you coming down? Morning prayers are going to start at nine. After that, who knows what’s going to happen? So, are you coming down, or not?”
With every minute that passed, more men wearing Middle-Eastern garb were arriving from 7th Avenue, and walking in groups down the middle of 53rd toward the crane, with just the unguarded line of police barricades holding them back.
Jerry Conroy said, “You have to come down, Mike. For your own safety.”
Mike Dolan scanned up and down 53rd Street. To the east across 6th Avenue, there was a small crowd of protesters carrying signs gathered in front of the Modern Art Museum, facing an even greater number of police officers across several protective rings of steel barricades. The helicopters were gone, but there were dozens of police cars, a dozen mounted police on horseback, and a half-dozen television trucks with their microwave antennas jabbing skyward. In the other direction, his direction, there were hundreds of Muslims unrolling prayer rugs, and nary a police officer or television camera crew to be seen.
“So, smart guy, are you coming down?” asked Victor Del Rio, the mayor’s special assistant for public safety.
After swallowing hard, and thinking about his options, Mike replied:
“No. I always liked the view up here. I think I’ll stay.”
Next: Part Four
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.