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9/11 Trilogy

SHORT STORIES

By Gary J Byrnes

9/11 TRILOGY – 2020 Edition.

Copyright 2011-2020 © Gary J Byrnes.

The right of Gary J Byrnes to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright & Related Rights Act, 2000. All rights reserved.

In this work of fiction, the characters, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or they are used entirely fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Table of Contents

1. The Garden at the Inn

2. Tuesday

3. Nine Twelve

9/11 Trilogy

by Gary J Byrnes

Dedicated to all the innocents who lost their lives in the terrorist atrocities of the 11th of September, 2001, and in the ensuing conflicts.

1. THE GARDEN AT THE INN

“A similitude of the Garden which is promised unto those who keep their duty to Allah: Underneath it rivers flow; its food is everlasting, and its shade; this is the reward of those who keep their duty, while the reward of disbelievers is the Fire.”

– The Glorious Koran. Surah 13. Ar-Rad, The Thunder. V 35.

I was face down in a smoking crater, my hands pressed to my ears, while fire and rage rained down all around me. Thundering shock waves shook my bones. A deafening roar came closer and I peered out of my hole to look for the source of the noise. No more than twenty metres away, a Soviet Hind helicopter gunship screamed past, sweeping the ground with its nose-mounted cannon which lashed fire all around the plain. Was I in hell?

I peered in the direction from which the gunship had come. Another helicopter approached, this time firing its unguided rockets in a pattern that mercifully stopped short of my hiding place. On the road ahead were two Soviet tanks, two armoured personnel carriers and some trucks. Flames licked the tanks and APCs. Bodies were scattered on the ground all about, some on fire. A few Russian soldiers were still alive, firing wildly at a position off to my left where the Hind was also concentrating its attention. Dusk was falling in the valley that stretched beyond.

Both helicopters circled round to bring their armaments to bear on what I knew must be the position taken by my comrades. I had lost my AK during the ambush, after the helicopters surprised us; my mind was disorientated from the explosive concussions and my eyes and ears were bleeding. A picture came to my mind of an anti-aircraft missile. I remembered that I had been carrying a Stinger on my back when we ambushed the Russian armoured patrol. Then I knew that I was in Afghanistan and we were winning a war against one of the world’s Godless superpowers.

I carefully crept forward out of my hole and began feeling the ground in the gathering gloom. Smoke from the destroyed vehicles was burning my eyes and adding its stinking blackness to the approaching nightfall. I knew that time was short for the helicopters, which did not have night-flying capabilities. A dull glint caught my eye. I crawled a short distance on my stomach. It was my Stinger round, a launch tube with a missile inside. To make it operable, I had to find the separate grip stock and a battery coolant unit. I saw a body a few metres from me. It was my Stinger team colleague. His head had been blown off by the helicopter. He was just seventeen years old. I would mourn him later.

He had carried the grip stock and three batteries in a backpack and, fortunately, they were undamaged. I had been well-trained in using the Stinger and within seconds I had fitted the grip to the launch tube and attached a heavy cylindrical battery. The battery coolant unit is vital as it supplies power to the missile until it launches and also supplies argon gas to cool the heat detector in the missile’s nose. So my weapon was ready for firing. The first Hind had completed its circuit and was now coming straight for me. Its cannon blazed and rockets leapt from its wing pylons, turning the ground around me to smoking ruin. Shrapnel and rocks flew at me and I felt pain lash my body. Though my body pulsed with adrenalin and fear, I was ready to die as a martyr, fighting in the name of Allah. This readiness gave me a great elation deep inside. If this helicopter killed me, I would go directly to heaven, where Allah would meet me and give me eternal life and happiness. Only later would I come to appreciate how much of an advantage this gave us over our foes. Heaven for us was guaranteed, but the Christians and Jews were unsure whether they would go to hell or to their heaven. Truly a man must fear death if eternal damnation might await him? But I would not let this helicopter kill me. I was determined to destroy it and save my comrades.

I looked through the sight and put the Hind into the central range ring. I was ready to fire when a Russian soldier opened up on me with his Kalashnikov. A round pierced my side and I fell to the ground in agony. I looked towards my enemy in time to see a rocket-propelled grenade slam into his position, blasting him to pieces. I glanced towards my brothers and saw my commander. He was reloading his RPG launcher and gave me a thumbs-up and a big smile. Ignoring my pain, I retrieved my Stinger launcher and reacquired my target. With the Hind back in my sights, I pushed the safety actuator forward and down. This activated the missile’s seeker, which gave a low tone. I then depressed the uncaging switch and heard the high-pitched whine which signalled that my missile had locked onto the enemy craft’s engines. I kept my bearing on the helicopter as it passed directly over my head. With its exhaust ports in my sights, I squeezed the trigger. My missile shot forward from its launch tube. Lancing fire and thunder, it roared after the gunship. Within two seconds, it hit its target and a mighty explosion tore the gunship asunder. It fell to the ground and secondary explosions from its own munitions finished the job that my CIA-supplied missile had started. There would be no survivors from its two man crew.

I quickly removed the used launch tube, grabbed another BCU and looked around for a new missile round. As I scanned the sky, I could see the other gunship turn away and flee. The surviving Russians from the burning convoy fought on, knowing that they stood no chance, but knowing too that we did not take prisoners. I had to find a gun, so I laid down the Stinger and left my hole. As my eyes combed the ground near where I had found my headless colleague, shadowy figures emerged from the smoke and dust beyond. One of the shadows came towards me and a man with God in his eyes, the beard of a Believer and an assault rifle held easily in his hands, called to me.

‘May Allah forever aim through your eyes, brother Muhammad. Come, let’s finish these infidels off,’ he shouted joyously.

It was Osama, my commander in MAK, the Muslim organisation which had brought me from Pakistan to fight the disbelievers who had invaded the land of our Muslim brothers. I had met Osama just a few months before, at a Stinger training camp run by our American allies. Then I joined Osama’s unit. With the Stinger, I brought down many enemy helicopters. Truly that marvellous device would bring us victory over the hated Russians.

‘I have no gun,’ I answered hoarsely.

He took an American-made automatic handgun from his waistband and threw it to me as Russian bullets hit the ground all around us. I cocked the gun and ran forward with my five brothers. There were only four Russians still alive. They crouched behind rocks and fired sporadically in our direction, still in total shock from the severity of our assault. Minutes before, we’d detonated two one thousand pound landmines when the tanks reached target position. Then we fired RPGs at the APCs and used heavy machine guns and AKs to kill anyone who tried to escape. We had killed more than twenty already. The survivors’ faces were blackened and tear-streaked. They shouted at each other in panic. RPG rounds slammed into their positions as our AKs spat lead in controlled bursts. After a few minutes, the Russian fire stopped and we carefully approached the smoking convoy. All were dead, save one, a badly wounded sergeant. His right arm was blown off at the elbow and his eyes were wide with fear. Osama ordered that he be treated and returned to our base for questioning. He would be killed after he told us what he knew but, for now, a tourniquet was applied to his upper arm, stopping his arterial bleeding. He was given a morphine injection to lessen his pain, but the terror remained in his eyes. Osama turned to me.

‘You have been shot,’ he said, gesturing to my side.

I looked down and saw the gaping bullet wound on my left side, just above my belt. The pain was now starting to fight its way through my body’s adrenaline surges.

‘Yes, but I lived to see this great victory,’ I replied, looking into the eyes of my leader.

‘Allahu-Akbar, God is great, now rest,’ he answered as he took a morphine injection from my first-aid pack and stuck it into my thigh, then dressed my wound.

‘Allahu-Akbar.’

I sat on a rock while my comrades checked the area for further survivors and useful munitions. No more Russians were alive and a number of AKs were retrieved, along with a quantity of ammunition. We returned to our ambush site to search for the missing Stinger round. We found it and covered our dead comrade with rocks. Osama recited a few words from the Qur’an and we moved on. We walked a kilometre to our jeeps, which were concealed in a rocky gorge. Osama wrote in his notebook. The smoke from the destroyed convoy and helicopter could still be seen against the glowing sunset as darkness fell over the valley. We loaded the jeeps and began the drive to Jalalabad. Our prisoner begged for mercy but, as we spoke no Russian, his pleadings fell on deaf ears. After a while, he became quiet. A comrade checked his pulse and found that he had died. His body was kicked from the moving jeep as we drove through the night. Every bump on the rocky trail sent darts of pain across my abdomen. Eventually, I passed out.

I woke early the next day in a Mujahideen field hospital near Jalalabad. Our forces encircled the city and its only means of resupply was by Russian airlifts. My torso was bandaged tight and a saline drip was fixed to my arm. I tried to sit up, but pain shot though my body and I collapsed back onto my bed in agony. A Kuwaiti medic came to me and asked how I was feeling. He gave me some more morphine. Morphine is such a magical reliever of pain, it was truly fortuitous that Afghanistan was the best place in the world to grow the opium poppy.

Osama came to see me in the afternoon. He was accompanied by an American commando, who waited at the entrance to the tent.

‘I must take a journey with my American friend,’ he said, though he cast a curse on the man in Arabic.

‘Where are you going? Can you trust him?’ I asked, continuing the conversation in Arabic.

‘The Americans are a necessary evil. We need their help now, but perhaps they will eventually come to regret it. Allah needs us to make sacrifices. I will return in a few days. Take these notebooks and study them when you can. Guard them with your life. The Russians are almost finished, but our work here is not. Here are some books you might also enjoy,’ he said, handing me three paperbacks.

I later learned that he was going to an intelligence briefing with other Mujahideen leaders, Pakistani intelligence officers and American special forces to plan the final destruction of the Russian invaders. He was given another large amount of cash by the Americans, to assist with the running of his unit. As the pain ebbed from my body and waves of pulsating opiate pleasure enveloped me, I fell into a deep slumber, gripping the notebooks tightly.

The next day, I awoke feeling much better. I was able to sit up in my bed and began to read. The paperbacks included one in English, ‘Catch-22’ by Joseph Heller, which made the US military look like deluded clowns. Very enjoyable. But I read that much later, choosing instead to concentrate on Osama’s notebooks. Osama was a major player in a coalition to control the global supply of opium, the base ingredient for heroin. The plot brought all the key players in the region together. Warlords, politicians, even the CIA profited. Income from the opium trade, which amounted to many hundreds of millions of dollars per year, was used to fund the war against the Russians. Some of the cash found its way into the pockets of Afghan peasants and migrant workers – their only income. Osama’s notes led me too to his conclusion, that the Americans would try to suppress the opium trade once the war was won and their aims had been achieved. The Mujahideen role in the opium business mainly involved organising workers to tend the crops and giving security to plantations and opium convoys. Many of the opium cultivation areas were known only to us. We would ensure it stayed that way. The Americans were happy to facilitate our supply of heroin to the bleak cities of Europe so they could keep their spending on the war to a minimum. Defeat of the ‘Evil Empire’ on the battlefield was the Christians’ sole objective in Afghanistan and, to them, there were no rules.

Few expected that Islam would become their target after the Soviets and no Muslim expected that we would see American armies occupying the homeland of the Prophet, with Saudi Arabia, Iraq and even Afghanistan itself becoming regional military bases for the Crusaders. As that first Afghanistan war drew to a close, we fully expected to stay on in the region and concentrate on the opium trade, while studying the Qur’an with some of the great Islamic scholars and Imams in the region. Osama had spoken of going to war against Israel after Afghanistan, but defeating the Russians remained our only goal in those days. So much has happened since 9/11. Many surprises, but much has gone to plan also.

So I studied Osama’s notes. I learned about the opium cultivation methods used in Afghanistan, the crop cycle and the network of warlords, civil servants and diplomats that was used to export the different forms of the drug. Osama was examining how to develop heroin processing labs. These would allow us to refine the raw opium into a drug that is worth ten times as much. An excellent long-term strategy, I agreed. When Osama returned, two weeks later, my injury was healed. A 7.62mm round had gone through my side, without damaging any vital organs. He was very happy and gave me joyous news. The Soviets had signed a peace deal and would begin withdrawing their forces from Afghanistan within weeks. Word spread around the camp and everyone’s mood was lifted greatly. He told me to rest for another two days and then we would go to Pakistan for some comfort, as a reward after our months of bitter combat.

I lay on my bunk, a wide smile fixed to my face. We had defeated the largest army in the world. Allah was truly with the Mujahideen, the Soldiers of God. Afghanistan had long been in the Soviets’ sphere of influence. After the fall of the Shah of Iran, the Americans lost valuable listening posts and a military partner very close to the Soviet Union. When Deputy President Hafizullah Amin murdered Afghan President Taraki in 1979, he did so with American assistance. The Soviets, fearing that America would move into Afghanistan to make up for the loss of Iran, reacted. In December 1979, barely three months after he assumed control of Afghanistan, Amin was murdered by Soviet Spetsnaz commandos and four armoured divisions rolled in from the north. Karmal, leader of the Afghanistan Marxist party, was installed as president and the war of Islamic resistance began. The embryonic Mujahideen met in Peshawar and Pakistan’s President Zia agreed arrangements to supply the Soldiers of God with the funding and military supplies that flowed in from the Islamic world and the Godless West. In uniting Muslims from across the region, the Soviets had shown us our true power. For almost ten years, we fought the Soviets at close quarters, where their artillery and air power were useless. Now they knew defeat. No Godless Marxist-Leninist ideology could withstand the might of Islam.

Osama came for me and we travelled by jeep to the mountains on the border with Pakistan, the road to Peshawar. These high lands would yet become my home. We inspected poppy fields and met our Mujahideen brothers in scattered bases. We stayed for a few days in a comfortable hut at the end of a long, lush poppy valley. We were hidden from the barren plains as paradise must be from disbelievers. Osama marked his chosen locations for the heroin laboratories on a map he carried and drew a sketch of the valley.

By then, I had a clear grasp of how opium was cultivated and its economic importance to the poor Afghanis that made up ninety-nine percent of the population. We decided to travel onwards with an opium shipment which was headed for Peshawar.

We set off at sunset, using well-travelled mountain paths and avoiding all roads and villages. There were twelve mules in our caravan, each laden with two large baskets of raw opium. The caravan was protected by six Mujahideen fighters, each armed with an AK, knives and rocket-propelled grenades. The Mujahideen were fearsome men, having fought in some of the bloodiest battles against the Russians. They came from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Egypt. They were my brothers and I felt safe with them, though we were in the most lawless place on earth. We had little to fear from the Russians, they were concentrated towards Kabul, but there were risks from bandits and Pakistani police. Occasionally, desperate bandits and border police would work together to try and steal Mujahideen opium. They rarely succeeded, but they were indeed devious.

We travelled on mountain ponies, which were sure-footed and had great endurance. The mountains were impressive, with towering peaks as far as the eye could see. It was cold at altitude and the scarcer oxygen meant that it was no easy trip. We crossed into Pakistan at the highest point on our journey, the trail covered in snow and the mules slipping often but proving their worth many times over. The border was marked with an Arabic inscription painted onto a boulder beside the trail. It read: ‘One day, there shall be no borders between Muslim lands; we shall be one nation under Allah’. We smiled at this, each believing it completely.

The journey was uneventful and, four days later, we were on a low hill overlooking Peshawar. Our comrades continued north, into the Khyber pass, with their opium-laden mules. The frontier town of Landi Kotal, famous for its trade in drugs and guns, would be the destination for our opium. Once a fair price had been agreed with traders, the money would be spent on weapons or brought to one of the Mujahideen’s private bankers in Peshawar for later use. Osama and I continued directly to Peshawar, as the caravan would have little need of our guns now that we were in Pakistan proper and stealth was its best weapon. I looked forward to relaxing and rebuilding my strength in Peshawar. Osama was fired with enthusiasm for establishing a base of operations for our brave fighters. A phantom base for a phantom guerrilla army.

We approached the outskirts of Peshawar from the west, with the imposing Balahisar Fort appearing to gaze at us and the other travellers on the road from the Khyber Pass. We would raise very little interest, just two dusty men on ponies, but we took the precaution of concealing our weapons in our saddlebags, keeping our automatic pistols tucked inside our robes. As we passed into the fort’s shadow, Osama reminded me that it had been built by the Mughals in the sixteenth century. It now housed Peshawar’s government offices and would, one day, be a target for us. We stayed in Old Peshawar and travelled to Chowk Yaadgar, the place of remembrance, a large public square which had been the focus of rallies against the British occupiers, and later, the Indian enemy.

‘We will find a discrete inn, where we can rest without raising suspicion,’ said Osama.

We found a good, family-run establishment with stables. We put our ponies in for food and a wash and cleansed ourselves of the dust and dirt from our trek over the mountains. We then went to the nearest mosque, as we had not prayed in clean surroundings since leaving Jalalabad.

‘Having fed our souls, now we must change some money and feed our bodies,’ smiled Osama.

We returned to Chowk Yaadgar and strolled across to the money changers on the west side of the square. The setting sun cast long shadows across the square and the bankers squatted in the coolness of evening’s fall. Rows of men, mostly fat and wealthy looking, sat on hand-knotted carpets, their safes behind them, calculators and armed guards at close hand. Osama selected a money changer with whom he had an acquaintance.

In a matter of seconds, the money changer had calculated how many Pakistani rupees we would receive for our American dollars. After commission, it was almost thirty thousand rupees for four thousand dollars. That would be enough to get our organisation up and running, paid for by the Americans. He counted out the rupees from his safe and put the money in a finely woven waist pouch. Osama tied the pouch around his waist, while the banker counted the dollars. The deal was done. We shook hands and, as night fell, went in search of some food.

As we crossed the square, I suddenly felt great relief. It came upon me like a wave. We had left the war behind us and were surrounded by our own people, true Muslims, every one of whom supported our war against the Soviets. The inscription we had seen in the mountains was true, Allah united us and would help us to raise Islam to its destined position as the world’s leading faith. As my mind relaxed, I became aware of the scents of flowers wafting on the warm air. Peshawar is famous for centuries as a place of gardens and blossoms. The scents blended with the irresistible smell of food and we made our way to a restaurant whose sign proudly proclaimed the finest chappli kebabs in Pakistan. We found a quiet table and were soon waited upon by the owner. He brought us chapplis, plates of naan bread with a spicy burger of beef mixed with corn flour, tomato and chillies with eggs on top. We ate the chapplis ravenously and washed them down with steaming hot green tea.

When our hunger was satisfied, the owner offered us a smoke of his hooka pipe. We were so happy to be in Peshawar, we accepted his offer. As the cool smoke entered my lungs, the nagging pain from my bullet wound faded away. Soon after, I was in a reverie. The sights, the sounds and the smells all around me carried me to a place I had not known, a plateau of peace and contentment. In the many years since, I have not known such peace.

Soon, Osama began chattering with great enthusiasm about our organisation and how we would operate. MAK had brought us to Afghanistan, but it was controlled by the Pakistanis and Saudis, with too much influence from the Americans. We would create a new body, one with Islamic purity at its core and respect for its members more important than any geopolitical power games. We decided to use our money to purchase a guest house there in Peshawar. This would become our transit point for fighters going to, and coming from, Afghanistan and our heroin distribution centre. Our base. We would also use it as an administrative centre. Every fighter who joined our cause would have his personal details, including next-of-kin, kept here. Any fighter who gave his life in the service of Jihad would be mourned properly and his family would know of his braveness. Later, when Osama was given more of his family’s fortune, all Al-Qaeda martyrs would go to heaven knowing their families would be looked after financially.

We had used Peshawari inns as transit posts for much of the war in Afghanistan. But the Americans and Pakistanis knew where they were. This would be the first inn known only to us.

The next morning, after prayers, we sought out an inn suitable for our needs. After a few hours, we discovered the perfect place. It was beside the Chowk Yadgar bird market and looked a fine building. The sign outside read ‘Singing Bird Guest House’. It had a heavy, carved wooden door and ornamental balconies outside each window. We had brought our baggage and horses with us so that we could book into the potential acquisition as travellers and assess it in secrecy. The entrance hallway was wide and airy and the man seated at the desk welcomed us with a smile.

‘May Allah be thanked for bringing you to us,’ he said. Where have you come from?

‘We have travelled far and are in need of some rest,’ answered Osama.

‘You don’t have the dusty appearance of two who have travelled far,’ ventured the innkeeper, though he did not have an interrogative tone to his voice.

‘We arrived late last night and stayed in the first inn we found,’ answered Osama.

‘Well I thank you for coming to me today. I have not had good business these past years. With the war, nobody wants to travel to Kabul. But at least peace is now in the air.’

‘Would it be possible for us to get a large room to share? One with a good view of the square?’

‘But of course. May I take your names for the register of guests?’

We gave false names and the man showed us to our room. It was perfect. Soft, clean beds, good washing facilities and an excellent view of the square. We could observe many comings and goings without being seen ourselves. And always birdsong in the background. Beautiful, uplifting birdsong.

The inn had sixteen bedrooms, a dining area, an ample kitchen and a good-sized office. It was secure, with buildings to either side and a walled garden to the rear. The inn could only be entered by the front door. The little garden provided an oasis of calm and beauty. Caged birds of all hues sang at sunrise and sunset. Well-watered plants, lush succulents and climbing ivies, the palpable coolness of shade all calmed the mind and soothed the body. It was a blessed place, a gift.

That evening, we had dinner with the innkeeper, who was a widower and whose children had long since grown up and left him. Osama enquired as to his trustworthiness. Osama had a gift of asking someone unknown to him a direct question. He could judge a man by his answer and could tell whether or not he could be trusted. He believed the innkeeper was honest and asked him directly if he would sell the inn to us, for use as a Mujahideen safe house.

The innkeeper thought our proposal over for a long while, asking many questions. We answered each question patiently. In the end, he agreed on a price of twenty-five thousand rupees, plus a monthly salary. We gave him all we had. He said it would be enough to cover all guests’ costs for many moons, six at least. He seemed content, shaking our hands to seal the bargain before he retired to his bed.

Osama and I sat in the tiny garden late into the night, drinking mint tea and whispering about our achievement like excited children. Such plans we had. Such hopes, such dreams. The new moon showed her face to us, an omen of hope and success. So Al-Qaeda was truly born that night, in a garden of sleepy birds, fragrant flowers and dancing fireflies.

(This story was expanded to a full-length novel, THE DEATH OF OSAMA BIN LADEN, now available in all ebook formats.)

2. TUESDAY

One Tuesday, morning sunlight flooded into the room. Two people on a bed. One slept heavily, her bare breasts above the covers, rising and falling to the slow rhythm of her tiny, nasal snores. The other was awake, retching painfully into a large, white plastic bag. Ed’s Easy Market, Sixth Avenue. Cartoon picture of Ed.

The self-harmed casualty sat on the edge of the bed, his bare feet heavy on the polished wooden floor. As another wave of nausea racked his body, he clenched the bag between his shaking knees, spitting more bright yellow bile to join the quarter pint that had come up in spasms over the previous hour. What is bile? He couldn’t find an answer. How would you describe it? Battery acid, what that would taste like. About every four minutes, his body convulsed and ejected the poison it made itself. His tonsils burned and his throat was a volcano. After a while, the retching eased; there was nothing left, not even bile. The rhythmic retching continued, but it was just a painful mime, unproductive. The agony subsided.

He resolved, for the sixth time in his life, to never drink again. Remembering Jimi Hendrix and how he died, he walked unsteadily to the bathroom where he made a foul-smelling, amber piss. After washing his hands and face, with its puke-encrusted lips, he felt a little better. In the kitchen, he found some Alka-Seltzer and took two in a tall, frosted glass of water. He stood, waiting. After a minute or so, his stomach heaved and he threw up in the kitchen sink. He stood some more. After a few minutes, his body grew to like the traces of drug it had leeched from the drink before expelling it. So he took some more. This stayed down.

Returning to his bed, he gazed for a few moments at the woman. What was her name? Jacqueline? J something. It would come. She looked like the kind of woman he always ended up with when he got too drunk. Silicon tits, model type. Her profile did have a strong touch of classical beauty to it, though. Result. Religion? Is she Jewish? Could be. Jesus, what a killer hangover. He got back into bed and sleep on, no college today, no anything. No nothing. Sleep the hangover from hell off, then try and have sex with her later. Maybe. Try and have an orgasm he would remember. What will she think?

His body was grateful for the water, the bladder release and the acid-neutralising painkillers, so it gave him the precious reward of sleep. It was just after 8.30 am and he rested in the arms of Morpheus (his expression). But the world turned, then came off the rails without him. Tom’s comatose body twitched uneasily. He entered an edgy dream, in which he prepared a special meal for his gathered family and the rice kept turning into maggots. Dream Tom didn’t understand what was happening and tried to laugh it off while hitting the booze. Pina Coladas. Meanwhile, a hijacked passenger jet flew low over the Village, not far from his apartment. Then it slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

An unusual sound followed. The cockroaches, living their frantic lives in the floors and walls around the dormant people, felt it loudest. A low rumble passed through the apartment building, racing through the tunnels and concrete, the fabric of Manhattan. Downtown, shattered glass, molten metal, fire and people rained onto the crowded streets. Tom’s lover rolled over.

After a time, another jet flew low over the stunned city and hit the second of the Twin Towers. Another low rumble. Then more quietness. Emergency sirens screamed in the distance, comfortably far away. They slept on as the sun crept towards Greenwich Village, just outside their loft apartment’s wooden-blinded window. Well after nine, the phone shrieked incessantly and woke him. She pulled the light quilt over her head, pouting her lips, but keeping her eyes tightly shut against what was a clear morning outside. He rubbed his head as he walked to the phone. It being cordless, it could be anywhere. His aching brain had an extra sensitivity, so he found the handset quickly. It was under his neatly-folded jeans, there at the edge of the black leather couch.

‘Hello…’

‘Oh Tom, you’re okay. Thank the heavens.’ It was his mother, the one who had given him everything.

‘Yeah, I’m fine. You sound frantic. What’s wrong, Mom?’

‘There’s been an awful thing. Haven’t you seen the news? Put it on.’

‘I don’t know where the remote is.’

‘The Twin Towers have been attacked.’

‘You what?’

‘Just now. Turn it on.’

‘Hang on.’

He put the phone on the coffee table, his hands trembling again. He scanned the room, then checked behind the couch cushions, under it and in the kitchen. No joy. Then he found the remote in the bathroom. He pointed it at the TV, squeezing the number 5, news channel, button as he walked back to the phone, still unphased.

‘Hi Mom. Got it. Now what happened again?’

He never heard her answer. For at least thirty seconds, maybe longer, the news channel delivered overwhelming sensory overload. It was really happening. Smoke billowed from both towers. From every angle it looked bad, real bad. Flames leapt furiously from the shattered skyscrapers. At least the impacts were high, he thought, anyone below should be fine. Pity those poor bastards up top, who once enjoyed the most spectacular views in the world. Surely there should be helicopters pulling people off the roof? Can’t they drop water from planes, like with forest fires? Confusion, crazy thoughts.

‘When did this happen, Mom?’

‘Less than an hour ago. Why are you still sleeping? Were you drinking?’

He couldn’t take her lecturing, not now, so he cut her off gently, thanking her for the call. Pushing the end call button, he realised that he’d forgotten to ask if she was alright or needed any help. Later. For now, prioritise. Break the news to the lady in the quilt. Straighten up a bit. Shower? Go to bar. Chumleys? Drink. Flee city? If advised by emergency services, yes. If not, stay put and get drunk. Sounds like a plan. In a moment of clarity, he remembered her name. Jasmine. More clarity, please, he said in silent prayer to the God of Memory.

‘Jasmine. Jasmine, darling,’ he gently shook her shoulder.

This was the perfect opportunity to show his sensitive side. Mustn’t blow it, he thought, she’s a beauty, best I snared in quite a while. The TV grabbed his attention with garbled reports about more hijacked jets in the sky. Maybe ten of them. Maybe heading for New York. All high buildings being evacuated. Holy Christ!

‘Jasmine. Honey, you’ve got to wake up.’

‘Stop. Go away. Can’t a girl have a lie-in anymore? What’s this city coming to?’

‘I’m sorry to wake you, honey. Something terrible’s happened and you should know.’

She tuned out of her slumber and opened her eyes. As he explained what had happened, she saw the television. It was replaying footage of the second impact. Jesus H Christ! Did you see that?

‘Oh my God!’ she screamed as she jumped onto her knees. ‘Daddy! He’s in the tower!’

‘They’re doing everything they can to rescue them. I’m sure he’ll be fine.’

Now the TV footage showed bodies falling from the towers’ heights. Yes, I’d jump too, thought Tom.

‘I’m going down there. I’m going!’

She found her crumpled clothes on the couch, all classy designer gear, never looked quite so swanky in the cold and sober light of day. She was badly rattled. But she still looked good.

‘Wait. You won’t be allowed near it. Surely you can see that?’

‘Well I have to try.’

‘Does your Dad have a cellphone?’

‘Yes.’

In an instant, he had his phone and handed it to her as she stood with her skirt at her knees and her eyes swollen with ready tears. As she punched in her father’s number, he went and got some orange juice and started a fresh coffee brew. He put her juice on the coffee table and waited for the coffee. The TV said that there were more hijacked planes in the air. It seemed that a genuine attempt to destroy America was in progress. Jasmine screamed. Wrong number. Slow down, girl. Try again. A pause. A delighted scream.

‘He’s okay! He’s okay!’ She held the phone to her chest with the pleasure of a child. Tom smiled. She kept talking to her dad. The coffee machine sighed deeply, its brewing job complete. He poured two cups.

‘NutraSweet? Cream?’

She didn’t hear him, so he put it all on a stainless steel tray. He placed it by the OJ for her and took his coffee to the patio door. The blinds withdrew noisily to reveal a panicky situation below. Some people were running, most were walking quickly. The casual Village vibe had given way to an edgy hurriedness, more like Wall Street. He opened the door and stepped out onto the first floor, wrought iron balcony. The sound of a low-flying jet startled him. He spilt some coffee on his leg as he looked up at a jet coming out of the still-rising sun. It was low alright. An attack? It’s gone. As he rubbed the burning coffee off his thigh, he remembered that he was naked. On any other day, he might have drawn some appreciative whistles and comments from the street below. Not today. People rushed by, their faces confused and anxious. So he went inside and found his clothes.

Pulling on his expensive jeans, his eyes remained stuck to the flatscreen TV, the silver bringer of bad news. For once, TV was a matter of life and death. Air Force jets patrolling Manhattan. That must be what went by just now. All aircraft grounded. All aircraft? That must be thousands of jets. Aircraft heading for Washington DC. More planes heading for Manhattan.

‘Are you getting all this?’

She sat on the leather couch, her legs curled up under her body, the quilt off the bed and covering her so that only her model face was on view. She had tears of relief streaming down her reddened cheeks.

‘It doesn’t look good, does it?’

‘No. Not good at all. How’s your Dad?’

‘On his way uptown, on foot. All the subways are closed. He says it’s mayhem down there. He works on a low floor, the twelfth, so he got right out after the first plane hit.’

‘Where’s he headed? You guys live in Queens, am I right?’

‘Yeah. You weren’t so trashed after all. He’s going to come for me and we’ll walk up to the Queensboro Bridge and try and get across that way.’

‘If it’s still standing.’

He didn’t mean to alarm her and regretted his comment, but the annihilation of the city was fast-becoming a possible prospect. Jesus. Drink. Smoke.

‘It’ll probably take him a couple of hours to get here. I’m having a spliff. Want a smoke?’

‘Nah. But Tom, if you need to see your family or anything, I understand. Just go ahead.’

‘I might have to make tracks soon, babe. It should be safe enough here for you, yeah? Would you mind? I’d hate leaving you here alone.’ He was pleased with himself for keeping up the nice-guy front. Truth was, he actually did care about her, but was happy for her.

‘You’re so sweet, Tom. Can we get together again soon?’

‘I’d really like that, babe. You’re gorgeous.’

Now fully dressed in genuine Ck jeans and an open-necked white shirt, service-ironed, Tom realised that he hadn’t had a shower. He decided not to bother today, just today. Who’s going to pass comment on his personal hygiene today? Should be safe enough. He made a joint, with a large Bambu cigarette paper, a bud of finest Caribbean sensimilia and a cardboard filter. But what if the water goes? What if the power goes?

‘I’m going to smoke this and have a shower. You need to take a shower, just go ahead. Take anything you need. Hear me?’

He went to the balcony again. It was busier now. Everyone had decided to get home. If we’re going to die, it won’t be at some dumb office with people we don’t even like, it’ll be with the wife, the kids, whoever. We’ll all die together. One big, happy, dead family. He inhaled deeply, then coughed until he almost choked. The next inhalation was easier. A feeling of pleasurable lightness, accompanied by a tingling in his limbs, hit Tom and forced his ass onto a deck chair on the balcony. He continued to smoke, Jasmine calling out the latest grim updates. Washington had been hit. The damn Pentagon. Can you believe it?

‘THC, please do your duty. Remove me from this brutal reality. Take me to a better place. No more clarity required. Can I just close my eyes and make it go away?’

He closed his eyes. Time melted, his stress eased. Two jets screamed by overhead. Must be more fighters, he guessed. No way any civilian jet’s going to be allowed over Manhattan today. No fucking way. He finished the whole joint, then stood up dizzily. Looking out towards Bleecker, the heart of the Village, he felt disjointed, disconnected. The city rushed by. A flock of pigeons rose suddenly from a nearby roof. They wheeled through the clear sky and flapped by the balcony. Then a distant rumbling grew into a heavy roar. The balcony trembled beneath his feet.

‘Hey Jasmine! You won’t believe this! It’s like an earthquake or something!’

‘Tom, look! Jesus! Look!’

He went inside. Jasmine sat on the couch, transfixed by the TV, her right index finger pointing at the image of the South Tower collapsing in a monstrous cloud of dust and debris. It was slow motion horror, but more hideous than any Stephen King story. This was real. Unbelievable, but real. The World Trade Center coming down? Surely not?

‘Holy fucking shit! I don’t believe this! Is this for real?’

Her only response was to let her arm flop down onto her lap, then burst into tears. Again. Tom was torn between having a quick shower and watching the unfolding drama. The TV folks were certainly stunned and seemed to be losing their collective grip on the situation. The chunks of evil news raced relentlessly across the bottom of the screen. New footage of a smoking hole in the Pentagon Building jostled with images of the tower collapsing and nervous anchors. For the first time, Tom heard screams from the street outside. It was only just gone ten. He hugged Jasmine, her hot tears messing up his shirt. He decided to call his mother.

‘Hi Mom. I knew you’d be in the office. You okay?’

‘Fine, fine. You?’

‘Still in one piece. Why don’t you get home?’

‘You know we’ve to finish a big order for tomorrow. Mr Lauren doesn’t like to be kept waiting, you know.’

‘I know, I know. But maybe he’ll make an exception for today?’

‘Well I don’t know, do I?’

‘Call him. Just call. You’ll see.’

‘The staff are a bit nervous, I must admit.’

‘They’re shitting themselves, Mom. Can’t you see that? Call fucking Ralph, will you?’

‘Thomas!’

‘Sorry, but you’re going to have to excuse a little bit of fucking language, Mom.’ Silence. ‘Look, I’m sorry.’

‘Why don’t you come up to us, Tom? Midtown’s a lot further from all this than where you are. I’d like to see you. I would.’

Done deal.

‘You’re staying put? Okay, I’ll get up there at some stage. Call me on my cell if there’s any change of plan, will you?’

‘I promise. See you soon. Take care. Good boy.’

Jasmine stayed on the couch. She hadn’t touched her juice or her coffee. Tom cursed his parents’ Pakistani work ethic, then offered her a fresh cup, which she refused. She was in mild shock.

‘Look, babe. I need to shower and I’m not going in there until you drink something. It’ll do you good. Trust me.’

She drank some juice, so he took a shower. The bathroom was open plan, with the shower tray in the middle of the floor and a transparent plastic splash curtain hanging from the high ceiling. He quickly stripped, turned the big, old water knob and was soaked in a second. The water pressure was one of the key reasons he’d chosen this apartment over all the rest. Even by New York standards, this shower could kill. The water beat him relentlessly until his skin tingled. Like tiny fingers, it massaged his skull, soothing the last traces of his lousy hangover. The day had begun badly enough, but had since descended into some kind of farcical nightmare, one that’s too ridiculous to be perceived as real, especially by an injured and dehydrated brain.

Water off, he slipped and slid across the marble floor to the towel cupboard. Choosing a huge, fluffy, white towel, he briskly dried his body and short black hair, then wrapped the towel around his waist. Feeling much better. Outside, Jasmine still sat transfixed by the TV.

‘Okay, babe?’

‘I’m fine. This is getting worse. A plane’s come down in Pennsylvania of all places.’

‘You’re shitting me.’

The TV confirmed this latest event in a confused and psychotic morning. No confirmed reports of more jets heading for us, though. Could this be construed as good news, the absence of more bad news?

‘Well I feel great. You should shower. I promise I won’t try to get in there with you. Oh, Jasmine?’

‘Yes?’

‘Last night. Did we?’

‘I’m so flattered. Not,’ she smiled. ‘No, stud. You were way too trashed. Like way.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t be. It was kinda nice just to cuddle. Really.’

‘Really?’

‘Really.’

‘Thanks. Now where’s my Yves Saint Laurent?’

He looked through a chest of drawers and found a bottle of Polo. Very apt. A splash felt like a fragrant slap in the face. Perfect. Some gel in his hair, white gold neck chain, ring and Tag Heuer watch. Fresh shirt. Check in mirror. Not bad. The double shower crossed his mind once more, but he dismissed it quickly. Sure, she might enjoy a bit of intimacy, on a self-reassuring, fin-de-monde kind of trip, but he wasn’t going to shower again. Cellphone. Wallet. Besides, he just wanted out. Out into the maelstrom of the most awful day in history. Big gulp from big bottle of chilled Evian. History was literally being made all around him. Somebody would have to write that history down and TV just didn’t cut it, from an experiential point of view.

‘You going now?’

‘Yeah, babe. I just gotta get out there. See my folks, you know?’

‘You’re good. Will you call me later?’

‘Sure, what’s your number? Did I get it from you last night?’

‘No, but it’s in your phone. I put it in while you were smoking that joint.’

‘Thanks, babe. I’ll call you. You sure you’ll be okay here? Look, you better take a spare key, in case you need to go out for anything. You never know what’ll happen.’

He found an elegant, ethnic leather key chain in a kitchen drawer and handed it to her. The fob was an elephant design and it had two keys linked to it for eternity, one for the apartment and one for the outer door. He kissed her lightly on the cheek. The salty smell and taste of a beach. She stayed on the couch, phone on her lap, tissues in her hand, TV bawling out its rumbling war news. He pulled on a tan leather sports jacket and blew a kiss from the open doorway, gently pulled the door closed and he was gone. Her eyes returned promptly to the TV while, inside her brain, she could think only of her recent, fading childhood and her last birthday party before her parents’ divorce.

He closed the outer door, again quietly, and emerged from the safety of home into the wild ride of the street. His street. Minetta Street. Sidewalk radar on, expect the unexpected. Left to Bleecker and Sixth. Try Chumleys, see if it’s open. Vodka. There were less people on the street now, which was still in deep morning shadow. No familiar faces, no neighbours. Sixth was busier, sunny, with crowds of office workers streaming up from downtown, all headed north. There were many tear-streaked faces, fading wills and fearful vibes. Not good. He was surprised at the numbers until a young Indian man told him that the Mayor had ordered the evacuation of everyone from south of Canal Street. Then his nervous face faded back into the crowd. Tom slowly crossed the avenue, the few cabs and buses swamped by people on the hoof. Snatches of conversation and dazed exclamations flew at his ears.

‘Oh my God,’ the ubiquitous phrase that was on everyone’s lips.

‘I saw it, I tell ya,’ a young Hispanic man in a crumpled suit.

‘Yeah on TV, like the rest of us,’ his friend, who wore no jacket, sweating heavily.

‘It was an American Airlines plane,’ said a woman in office suit and sneakers, fifty-ish.

‘I still can’t believe this,’ her companion wailed as she fell to her knees beside a newspaper vending machine. USA Today.

Tom went to help her up, but the friend gently shooed him away.

‘There’s nothing you can do. She hasn’t heard from her husband. In WTC 1.’

Tom turned back into the heaving human current, his heart sinking by the second. Lots of dead people stories to come yet. The human cost hadn’t really hit him until then.

‘Keep going. Keep going. You can do this,’ a grey-bearded man, overweight, panting, sweating and yet moving with determination, northwards to safety and maybe to sanity.

‘Any news on your radio?’ a black kid to his friend.

‘What?’ replied his friend, pointing to his headphones.

‘Help, please. Help,’ a feeble voice. Not a child, an old person.

He looked to his left and saw an old man sitting cross-legged on a cast-iron manhole cover. It had Brooklyn Foundry 1913 embossed on it, in strong, smooth relief. The man was pale and grey, you could almost say wizened. Tom easily lifted the old man’s frail, exhausted body to the sidewalk.

‘You from Brooklyn, old man?’ A hunch.

‘Yes, I need to get home to my wife. She’s real scared and the phones are down.’

‘Well you’re going uptown, you know that?’

‘God damn. Damn it. I was carried by the crowd. The trains are finished. I don’t know.’

‘Look, your best bet is to head back downtown a block, go left on Houston and keep going straight until you see water. Then you should see the bridge, down to your right. I heard it’s open for people to walk across. Can you handle this?’

‘I think so. Thanks. I was honestly lost, can you believe that? I lived here forty years and I got lost.’

‘That’s okay. You need water or anything?’

‘Please.’

Tom found a street bottled water dispenser, fed it some coins and opened a plastic container of H2O for the old man. He gladly drank some of its life-giving contents. Tom twisted the cap back on and stuffed the bottle in the old man’s wrinkled overcoat. Then he pointed towards the corner and reminded him to stay on the inside of the sidewalk, take the first left, then look for the Brooklyn Bridge. And off he went, weaving unsteadily against the human tide.

‘Poor fucker,’ said Tom.

He left Sixth, the Avenue of the Americas, at last, and turned onto Bedford Street. Quieter now. People still rushed by, just not as many. Then, a curious thing. Two men were walking uptown on the opposite side of the street, right by Chumleys unmarked door. They were white, dusty, like phantoms. He crossed to them. Closer, he could see that they were businessmen, with once-expensive suits, briefcases still gripped pathetically, their contents rendered pointless by a terror from the sky. The men’s eyes and mouths were wet stains in their complete coating of fine, dry age.

‘What?’ was all that Tom could ask. They stopped.

‘From the tower. When it collapsed, we were five blocks away. This dust cloud came across. Like nothing you ever saw.’

‘Like Hell, that’s what.’

‘You guys look like you could do with a drink.’

They looked at each other, still dazed and confused, but knowing he was right. They had survived the worst, surely? Tom hugged them both together, inhaling the acrid dust and having communion with these eyewitnesses to the horror.

‘Come on. You’re standing right outside my favourite bar and it looks open.’

He pushed the door which, being clean of any form of advertising or signage, you either knew what lay behind, or you didn’t. Simple as that. He held it open as the two honoured guests walked through, both feeling slightly ashamed at their desperate condition. Not to worry. A similarly dust-attired woman sat at the bar, drinking a large Martini and smoking a thin cigar.

‘Barman, these two gentlemen have survived downtown and they deserve a drink, if you please. Whiskey, guys?’

They nodded, hugged the dusty woman and took seats at the bar beside her. The barman was a friend of Tom’s and, Tom knew, wouldn’t charge these men today.

‘Two whiskeys, Dan. Large.’

‘And yourself, Tom?’

‘I think a vodka tonic. Or should I have a screwdriver? No, tonic, for now, thanks.’

Pulling over a high stool, Tom put a fifty dollar bill on the counter. The barman charged him only for the vodka tonic.

‘Survivors drink free here today,’ he said.

With this sentiment, Tom couldn’t agree more. It’s part of western culture to have a stiff drink in times of great stress. Well, if this wasn’t the perfect excuse to get loaded, what was? As he settled into his drink, he savoured the oasis effect of the bar. It calmed him. Time slowed again.

There were maybe a dozen other people in the bar, including the three dust-covered ghosts. Everyone looked at a TVs. Different channels showed different takes on the events, but there was no getting away from the shocking truth. The barman had been listening to a radio, which he brought to where Tom was sitting.

‘Police band,’ he said, with a curious grimace, like it was even more bad news. He increased the volume.

‘This is 17. I can’t hear from anybody. Hello?’ a panicky, woman’s voice.

Bursts of harsh static broke the snatches of talk as they skimmed the emergency services’ bands.

‘No survivors here,’ a tired man.

‘What’s with the water pressure?’ a man, speaking from a great distance, like the moon.

‘Seven people reported missing in this office. You want names?’ a police woman, with a Hispanic accent.

‘Could be about to go,’ a young man,.

‘Thousands, I don’t know,’ a woman, matter-of-factly.

‘The hospitals are okay, everyone’s either dead or fine,’ a tired-sounding middle-aged woman.

‘Six units went up, then it came down. That was that. They’re all dead! Everyone!’ a breathless fire-fighter.

‘Looting at 36th and Broadway. Any chance of some back-up?’ a breathless cop.

This last piece of news startled Tom. That was near his parents’ clothing factory and office. The thought of a breakdown in society, with lootings and killings hadn’t occurred to him before then. He turned his attention from the radio, looking to the TV for more on this. The barman took the radio away.

‘Could you get me another, Dan?’

‘You okay, buddy?’

‘Man, in a freaky kinda way, I feel good. Just glad to be alive, I guess.’

‘Here’s to that,’ replied Dan, placing a fresh drink before Tom and tapping the bar counter with his knuckles. This meant that the drink was on him.

Tom smiled and moved closer to the two men he’d brought into the bar. They were sharing their experiences with the dusty woman, so he didn’t interrupt, just listened. They spoke of the horror of seeing the second jet hit, as all the offices for blocks around had downed tools to gawp at the tragic spectacle. What they thought was a stupid accident suddenly became something far more sinister when the second plane flew in low. Before tens of thousands of disbelieving witnesses, World War 3 was declared. The two men were financial consultants and they spoke of seeing people jumping from a thousand feet up and of the fire crews racing to the heart of the darkness. The conversation made the hairs on the back of Tom’s neck stand up. Then there were cries from the cluster of drinkers near the TVs. The second tower fell to earth. Oh my God.

The bar was filled with cries of dismay and exclamations to God. This was a killer blow. Maybe it had been inevitable after the collapse of the first tower. But it still shocked. The dusty woman burst into tears. She was comforted by her ghost companions. Tom called his mother. No answer and no machine. He swallowed his drink and looked around the dark bar. Covers of books by Hemingway, Salinger and Kerouac were framed proudly on the walls. All drank in Chumleys at one time or another. Tom had always hoped that some of their residual presence would rub off on him. He wanted to be a writer more than anything else. But he hadn’t really tried it, as of yet. He knew his parents would blow a gasket if he even hinted at not wanting to take over the business. He resolved to at least try to write and, if it worked, to hell with fashion, let his sister take over.

He finished his drink and tried calling work again. Still no answer. He tried his parents’ house. Machine. He left a message. He used the bathroom, pissing into the same urinal that Ernest Hemingway had doused with his own fragrant wastes. He returned to the bar, sat and drank for a long while. He ate some food, nachos and chicken pieces, which Dan put out for free. He drank more. People drifted into the bar all the while. The day had been shattered beyond recognition. There was no grasp of what to do. The normal Tuesday was gone. The void was being filled with alcohol and the comfort of human contact. Tomorrow would be a different story, but everybody knew in their gut that things would never be the same again. Never. Feeling drunk at last, he tipped the barman and made his way to the street.

‘Take care, buddy.’

‘Might see you later, maybe.’

Back towards Sixth and up Minetta, now bathed in sunshine. He buzzed the door as he passed the apartment, but no reply. Jasmine’s Dad must’ve made it up and taken her home. How would he deal with the Jew thing and the Brooklyn thing if their relationship took? Later. On to Washington Square. A massive cloud of pigeons flew around the park, in an anti-clockwise loop. The arch at the top of the Square was thronged with people. Tom remembered that the arch afforded a remarkable view of the distant towers, framed within its high curve. He made his way to the best viewing position. For the first time that day, he had a view of the towers. Only they weren’t there anymore, just a dirty, grey-white cloud. Nothing, empty space. The geography of Manhattan had been changed forever, the silent sentinels of commerce had vanished. Everybody was shocked. More tears, exclamations and dismay. Oh my God, the phrase of the day. Keep going.

East, past NYU, his part-time college, to Broadway. Broadway would take him directly to his family and, if they weren’t at work, which seemed increasingly likely, they must be gone home. At least he would have made the effort. Approaching Broadway, he could see that there would indeed be some effort involved in reaching his destination. Hundreds, thousands of people milled past, from right to left, heading inexorably uptown. He had the best part of thirty blocks to travel, so jumped right in and allowed himself to be carried by the flow. He slowed as he passed the Eighth Street subway station. It was closed and armed national Guard soldiers stood by the entrance. They were nervous, jumpy. Some wore chemical protection suits. Tom’s heart skipped a beat. First sign of the military on the streets. Not good.

The pace of the migration north wasn’t as intense as he’d feared. Many of those who made the journey with him had already walked more than thirty blocks and they were tiring. The Flatiron was ahead, the narrow, triangle of skyscraper that was put up in 1903 on the strip of land where Broadway’s drunken path across the ordered avenues of Manhattan met Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street. Halfway there. There was good-natured banter within the crowds. All the weary travellers were in some degree of shock. Humour and the spontaneous expression of emotion were two natural by-products, the confused brain’s attempt to maintain sanity. Tom remained quiet, enjoying the intensity of the experience. The Flatiron passed, its ornate street clock proclaiming that it was now 3.30. The looming bulk of the Empire State Building asserted its presence through toothless gaps in the mouth of midtown. Others saw it, too.

‘It’s been emptied. My sister works there. They’re expecting an attack any minute, she says,’ it was a young woman, pulling at Tom’s arm.

‘Really? Did she make it out okay?’

‘Yeah, it’s just a shell now. Just a shell.’

She faded back into the crowd and Tom walked on. He couldn’t help looking to the sky whenever the Empire State came into view, fearing another misguided plane would come roaring in from his peripheral vision. But all he saw were the ever-present, swooning, jet fighter vapour trails, plus some helicopters buzzing towards downtown. Macy’s was ahead, marking the hub of New York’s garment and fashion district. He tried the factory on his cellphone again. Still nothing.

Macy’s was closing early. A phalanx of burly security men in navy blue outfits stood at the main entrance. The steel shutters were half way down, the harried shoppers being shoved gently out into the street. The security guys were of all colours and each was armed, either with a holstered sidearm or a nightstick. They watched the crowds with anticipation. But instead of raging mobs of anti-capitalist looters, they only had to fend off some confused well-to-dos who’d made their way to the store for distraction.

‘No ma’am, you can’t come in. We’re closing. Haven’t you seen the news?’

‘Young man, it’s my right to shop. I’m an American.’

Soon after, Tom made it to the factory. West 36th Street, near Seventh, Fashion Avenue. The lobby was quiet, with some of the building’s occupants emerging from the elevators and rushing to the street. Most had evacuated, by the look of things. Tom found an empty elevator and punched for the 12th floor. In a few seconds, he was in the lobby of Black Swan Fashions, the label his parents had started. Though doing cutting and stitching for the big designers was the more glamorous side of the business, its real profits came from exporting western-designed clothes to the wealthy classes in Pakistan and, more recently, India.

Wang, the Chinese head of security was nearby and he came to Tom. No sign of anybody else about.

‘Mr Swan. You okay?’

‘Fine, Wang. Where’s my parents?’

‘Gone, Mr Swan. They just left five minutes ago. Gone home to Westchester, they said. Everyone else gone home too. Just a few left in back. The Mayor said there’s no work tomorrow.’

‘Yeah? Good. I tried to call.’

‘Phones have been down since ten. We don’t know why.’

‘TV anywhere? I haven’t caught up in a while.’

‘In my office. Go ahead. I stay here.’

‘Thanks.’

Tom went into Wang’s office, with its bank of grainy, black-and-white views of the floor. An empty stairwell, a deserted locker room, banks of quiet sewing machines. The TV was on and the wall-to-ceiling-to-floor-to-wall coverage continued. Navy warships were out in the Atlantic, ready to shoot down any more hijacked planes. The Mayor said that some subway and bus routes were operating. When asked about how many had died in the attacks, he said ‘I don’t think we want to speculate about that. More than any of us can bear.’ State buildings and important infrastructure locations had been evacuated across the country and there were no civilian planes in the air. Not one. The President was in an ‘undisclosed’ location. Wow, they were really jumpy if they couldn’t even guarantee the safety of the President so he could go about his business on the day when leadership’s needed most. That was big. After a few minutes, the news began to repeat, so Tom left the office, wishing Wang well and telling him about the reports of looters he’d heard. Wang said not to worry, flashing Tom a dirty, big Colt automatic, which hung by his heart, inside his red blazer.

Back to Broadway. Once an Indian trail, leading from downtown trading posts to the upstate wilds, Broadway would still bring the committed traveller all the way to the state capital, Albany, 150 miles to the north. Today, he only needed it to bring him a couple more blocks. The urge for a drink pushed him to 42nd Street and the tattered human condition led him to the strip bars.

He stood on the sidewalk, deciding which bar would be best. He’d been in most of them before, but typically at five in the morning and with friends. Pussy Galore? Up Close & Personal? Vixens? Crowds bustled past, as they always do on 42nd. A man hit Tom hard with his shoulder as he pushed by.

‘Watch it, Arab,’ he said angrily.

‘No man, you watch it,’ called Tom after him. The man turned and came back.

‘You a wise guy, Arab?’ he asked. This guy was heavy, Italian and ugly.

‘I’m not an Arab, I’m as American as you are,’ pleaded Tom, confused and hurt.

The man punched Tom in the face and was gone, back into the swirling crowd. Tom was dazed. The pain of the blow surged past his adrenaline. He touched his cheek. Sore. His nose. Wet. He looked at his fingers. Blood. Some people stopped to stare. A young woman, a shop worker, gave him a tissue from her handbag. He wiped the blood from his face with the stale but welcome tissue. A cop approached. Another Italian-type.

‘C’mon, move along. What’s going on here?’

‘This young man just got a punch. The guy that did it is gone that way,’ answered Tom’s Samaritan, pointing west along 42nd.

‘You okay, buddy?’

‘Yeah. I’m fine. The bastard called me an Arab.’

The crowd closed in. Some had pity on their faces. On or two had anger, even hate. The policeman brought his face to within an inch of Tom’s, his hot breath reeking of garlic.

‘Just move on, okay? I don’t know if you are an Arab. My advice is to move on, okay? If anything starts, I’m not sure I can stop it. There’s no back-up. None. Got that?’

‘But what about the guy who hit me?’

‘Look, stop busting my balls here, move on.’

Then he caught Tom by his shoulders, turned him around and propelled him back towards Broadway. Tom stumbled forward until he passed by the entrance to Pussy Galore again. The guy at the door called to him.

‘Hey buddy! Beautiful ladies inside. Beer only five bucks. C’mon! What are you waiting for?’

‘Nothing.’

Tom went inside. Down a flight of steep steps and deep into the bowels of 42nd Street, where everything was for sale and human flesh was just another commodity. This was a base Wall Street, a primitive trading floor. The bar was packed. The really long counter had a guy every yard, eyes up, gazing at the tall, voluptuous South American woman who gyrated lazily on a narrow stage behind the bar. There were more guys, and a few hookers, seated at round tables that were scattered across the dirty, unswept floor. The lighting was low and the music, Meatloaf, was loud. Tom shouldered his way to the bar and ordered a beer.

‘Seven bucks,’ said the middle-aged woman, who’d been a dancer until her breasts sagged beyond that invisible line that all strippers know and fear.

‘Seven? Guy at the door said five.’

‘That’s Happy Hour. Six ’til eight. Starts in a half hour. Seven bucks.’

Tom paid, just glad to be off the menacing street. He drank three bottles of beer before the Happy Hour bell rang, to a mildly enthusiastic cheer from the customers. He didn’t know if the cheer was to welcome the reduced beer price or the fact that three women now danced behind the bar. And each one of them was actually attractive. He caught the eye of the South American beauty, who rolled her hips, and took off her bra-top while staring right into his eyes. She threw her bra and he caught it.

After two more songs, the set ended and the dancers left the stage, replaced by a young black woman with massive breasts, undoubtedly silicon, but Jesus! Tom sipped his beer and the Amazon came for her bra.

‘Thanks for catching it. It would have been unwearable if you’d missed.’ She had a cute accent and brown eyes so big, he could have gone for a walk in them.

‘Glad to be of help. Where are you from?’

‘Lower East Side. You mean originally? Brazil. Sao Paulo.’

‘From Brazil to Pussy Galore, eh?’

‘Nothing wrong with this. I make good money.’

Tom realised that he hadn’t tipped her, hadn’t made it clear how she pushed all his buttons. He fished in his wallet and tucked a fifty into her tiny, white G-string.

‘Thank you so much. What’s your name?’

‘Tom. Tom Swan. Pleased to meet you.’

‘My name is Annabella. Nice to meet you, Tom Swan.’

She took his hand and kissed it lightly. Tom bought her a beer, which she drank quickly. Then her break ended and she was back on display. She worked the stage, but always kept a close eye on Tom. Her dance companion was the black girl from mammary heaven, but Annabella ensured she didn’t stay close to Tom for too long. The night faded into a beery, breasty haze, its tired monotony broken only by Annabella’s infrequent breaks, each of which she spent with Tom.

‘We’re closing early tonight, Tommy boy. Before midnight. You sticking around?’

‘I don’t have much on,’ he slurred.

‘You want to maybe come back to my place after? For a drink?’

‘Do you…?’

‘You can stay the night for a hundred dollars. Interested?’

‘Yes. Interested. Please.’

‘You just hang on in there while I do the last few sets and then get changed. Okay?’

He nodded his assent. His head had been dropping, but it felt less heavy now. He was really drunk. Long, hard day. He went to the bathroom to freshen up. The cracked and dirty mirror showed him a cracked and dirty man. He was filthy, blood crusts on his nose and mouth, hair dishevelled. His white shirt was a mess, covered in dust, sweat and stains, plus his own blood. There was no towel, paper or otherwise, in the toilet, so he decided to leave the clean-up for now. Maybe freshen up in Annabella’s. He urinated into a blocked and leaking toilet, then returned to his nine dollar beer.

After some more Meatloaf-accompanied stripping, the show was over. Annabella disappeared with the other girls and the bar stopped selling overpriced booze. Nobody was hustled out yet, though. The dancers would have the opportunity to make some after-hours money before the place was emptied by the sleazy muscle that lurked in the shadows.

Tom drained his beer as Annabella reappeared. She looked fabulous, in skin tight black leggings and a low-cut turquoise blouse. Her rich, black hair flowed in curls over the shoulders of her brown leather jacket.

‘Let’s go, baby’ she whispered into his ear.

They walked east, past Broadway. The streets were quiet now. The day had been too much for most people, so they stayed home and watched the news on TV. Over and over. Passing Times Square, the news screens and illuminated tickers flashed the same news. They found a cab, which brought them to Annabella’s apartment. It was one of those ex-tenement jobs with old, small windows and dirty, great fire escapes. Straight from a movie. A cop movie with murders in it. He followed her up four flights of steps, marvelling at her ass.

Her apartment was small but clean. He’d half-expected to find her kids and babysitter waiting up for her, but the place was, thankfully, empty. He used her shower, paid her the agreed fee and had fast sex with her on her large but lumpy bed. He fell asleep quickly, holding tight to her curvy, warm body, so tight she could hardly breathe. As he slept, she gently released herself from his embrace, propped herself up on an elbow and watched him closely, enjoying his presence, smiling wryly at how this man with money had landed in her life, today of all days. Sure that he was asleep, she found the remote on her bedside locker and turned on the news with the volume low. Tom slept heavily, the TV showing the horrible impacts again and again, as his addled brain tried to make sense of it all.

3. NINE TWELVE

The day after it happened, she began to detach from life. Things didn’t feel different exactly, just distant, unimportant. Irrelevant.

Her kids, normally driving her to love and rage in equal measure, simply faded into the background. No longer did they manipulate her emotion, determine her state. They became irrelevant somehow. And her husband, never a hugely emotional or expressive person anyway, just sat before the TV, made the odd comment. She just said Yeah or Whatever. And when he wasn’t around, she couldn’t picture his face, which she thought was odd.

One morning, watching TV and eating Cheerios, the kids started giggling loudly.

‘Did they say what I think they said?’ she asked

‘Why, mom? What did they say?’ asked her son, laughing more.

‘I thought they said – . Oh, whatever.’

So she went to her husband, who was fixing his Italian blue silk tie in the bedroom.

‘You know, I could swear I heard a cartoon character say Fuck just now.’

He stopped to look at her.

‘Jeez, honey. You’re too stressed.’

‘But the kids laughed.’

He shrugged, to say And? So she went back to the breakfast counter and listened intently to the rest of the show. Then they all left, the kids to school, he to work downtown.

She smoked cigarettes and drank espressos until afternoon came. Then she found herself in front of the bathroom mirror, suddenly felt like she’d been staring at herself for hours.

She said ‘What are you doing, exactly?’

‘Just looking,’ she answered.

Life was on fast forward, but there was no pause button. She became a spectator, aware of what she was doing – mostly – but that sense of detachment growing stronger. She had little interest in food, wine, fashion: all the things that used to mean so much. Even the sky outside looked different. Was it always so grey, bubbling grey like there was a hidden fire up there, somewhere? And all the time, like for months now?

Months. What did that mean? She looked at the clock. Like it always was. But different. She stood before it for a long time until she realized. No ticking. No motion. Time frozen at seven-twenty. AM or PM, she didn’t know: it was an old grandfather clock. Literally, her grandfather’s, a wedding gift.

So she forgot about the clock and went in search of her wedding photographs.

Later, the family sat down to dinner, the TV yammering away on low volume. Always the same stuff: people talking; music videos; ads for things and services that simply didn’t make sense: Are you sick and tired of having a colon that just won’t listen? Where’s the street that’s good to eat? Did you know that eleven out of ten kids don’t? Why is Rex?

Always questions, no obvious answers.

There was little conversation over dinner. Shortly after the dishes had been cleared and put in the dishwasher, she felt a void in her stomach.

‘What did we have for dinner?’ she asked.

Nobody could remember.

Another day, another question. The city outside looks and sounds the same as ever: car horns blaring; people moving; choppers buzzing; jets soaring. But why does everything seem slower? She went to the clock again. No ticking, time same as it ever was. But the pendulum was swinging now. Silently. It occurred to her that this style of clock used to be known as a coffin clock.

She watched daytime TV again. In one of the shows – a panel quiz where contestants had to tell lies in order to win prizes – she heard mention of work.

‘Why aren’t I in work?’ she asked herself. ‘What do I work at? Where?’

She went through the family documents files, her tired eyes flicking across her history. But nothing made sense, the documents just didn’t add up. She got bored and put all the papers in the garbage chute. They didn’t matter anymore.

Later that night, while watching a movie – a comedy which wasn’t at all funny – with her husband, she stood in front of the TV.

‘Honey?’

‘Tell me something.’

‘Anything. What?’

‘Do I work?’

‘Of course you work. How else could we afford the rent on this place?’

‘Okay. What do I do?’

‘You work with money don’t you? You’re an accountant, or a broker, or something like that.’

‘Why haven’t I been going to work lately?’

‘Haven’t you?’ His face showed that he was puzzled, a little scared, even.

‘Fine. Where do I work?’

‘Look, you can see it.’

He walked to her and took her hand. Then he led her to the window and opened the drapes. There, glistening in the middle distance, downtown, were two gleaming golden towers, illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun.

‘You work in the World Trade Center. You love it there.’

Next day, alone again, she did some research. On the web, she learnt about the city in which she lived, as if discovering New York for the first time, like some old Dutch explorer.

It began to make sense, at last. She looked at all the news sites. All the news was just like on TV, crappy, mindless stuff. Okay, so the penguin in Central Park Zoo had five chicks. Great, but hardly a headline grabber. So there would be a full moon tonight. Was this really news? When she read the breathless copy about an amazing exhibition by second year photography students at Parsons – breaking news! – it clicked.

So she went back into the archives of the New York Times. Back a couple of weeks and the news was the same: no news. Then, the hammer blow. From nowhere, talk of imminent nuclear war. Seemed that America was on the verge of launching a nuclear strike against seven countries across the Middle East. Pakistan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan. This wasn’t just sabre-rattling; there were dozens of pages of reports and commentary. Eyewitnesses spoke of US aircraft launching pre-emptive strikes on radar posts in Iran, of commandos destroying naval vessels in the Persian Gulf, of the assassination of the Syrian dictator. All this happened on one day. The reports of widespread panic didn’t gel. She looked outside, down at the street. Normality. Could this have been the scene of mass panic just a couple of weeks before? But the reports seemed so real, utterly believable. But why? What had made everyone fear nuclear war? And why had the fear dissipated like a ghost at sunrise?

She went back a day earlier, half-afraid of what she might discover. The images screamed at her: the Twin Towers – her place of work – engulfed in bright orange fireballs against a piercing blue sky. The smoke and dust of the collapses. The pain and confusion on the streets below. She sat and stared.

‘What in hell does it all mean?’ she asked.

‘What, honey?’ said her husband, who’d come in without making a sound. ‘Hey. Where are the kids?’

‘I don’t know. Look. Do you see this? The Twin Towers were blown up!’

‘You’re kidding me! What? Now?’

‘No. Before. I don’t know when. Look.’

She got up from the computer so he could scroll through the unbelievable news. She thought hard about how any of it could make sense.

‘I think I’m dead,’ she said. ‘I’m a ghost.’

‘What are you saying?’

His face was pale, showed no emotion. Not even confusion. He turned back to the screen.

‘I was in the Towers when the planes hit. I didn’t make it. I’ve been here since. This is my purgatory. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’

He wasn’t listening, clicking through the news reports, going on to the day after, the nuclear tension.

She went to the window, looked out, more confused now.

‘Honey, there are reports here of missile launches in Pakistan and Iran. ICBMs, maybe nuclear. And a submarine spotted off Long Island.’

‘Yeah?’

She stared at the clean geometric edifices. The Towers are still there. Still there.

‘It’s not just me who’s dead,’ she said quietly to her reflection in the window pane. ‘We’re all dead. All of us.’



Photo by Thomas Svensson from Pexels

THE END

###

UNITED HATES

by Gary J Byrnes

A Novel – Extract

PROLOGUE

GAASTERLAND, THE NETHERLANDS

Friday, 4 May, 1945

The taste of fear lurked at the back of his throat, acidic, nauseating. I’m gonna throw up if they don’t come soon. He tasted blood then, from a chewed-up cheek. His watch glowed faintly, almost midnight.

The forest rested. The smell of the hot day lingered,  Scots pine and marigold. Three men lay on the blue-green needles. They chewed Wrigley’s Spearmint gum, but their mouths still felt dry.

A distant rumbling then, the low growl of a massive diesel engine, a beast in the dark. Major Kieran Johnson gripped his submachine gun tighter, knuckles blue white, pressed his body deeper into the soft ground, twenty yards up the low hill from the trail. There was a moonlit view to the south, a negative of a sunny day, something better than this. He looked to his right, nodded at his two best men. Brown also had a grease gun, Williams held the handle on the box that would detonate the shaped charge of twenty pounds of Explosive “D”, enough to level a half acre. Certainly enough to destroy their target.

A ball of sweat fell from the tip of the major’s nose. An animal scratched the ground nearby. Maybe a fox.

‘Here they come.’

The dark shape of a German jeep appeared on the trail, its red, slitted headlights throwing just enough light to show the way, but not enough to attract the attention of any prowling Allied night fighters. The jeep travelled slowly. But that rumble didn’t fit.

‘There!’

An enormous silhouette appeared, keeping in the jeep’s tracks. It was the command vehicle, followed by a heavy tractor, which towed the Meillerwagen, upon which sat the prize, a V-2, vengeance weapon. The world’s first long-range ballistic missile, olive green, forty-five feet long and fitted with a two thousand pound high explosive warhead. The hairs on the major’s neck stood up. What a piece of work is man!

The V-2s had shattered London and the Nazis were desperate to throw as many as possible across the Channel in the war’s final fury. Germany would sign the surrender any day now, any minute, Hitler allegedly already dead. This launch was pure vengeance: the utter, depraved madness of a regime that had come terrifyingly close to ruling the world with missiles and tanks and a terrifyingly effective propaganda machine.

But a specialist US Army team was ready to stop this bastard in its tracks. Major Johnson had been assigned to a unit with a special focus on Nazi technology. So he saw the V-2 as both terrifying and amazing. After the surrender, the race would be on to secure V-2s in their bases, keep the Russians away and get the rockets back to the States. After. For now, they had to be destroyed.

The rocket was followed by its vital support vehicles, including the fuel wagon and the liquid oxygen tanker.

A sudden change in noise levels. Engines idling, turning off.

‘Shit, Major,’ was whispered. ‘They’ve stopped.’

‘Are they in range of our charge, Jimmy?’

‘Not a chance, sir. We’d scorch the paint on the jeep in front, but that’s it.’

You’re supposed to keep driving! To the clearing a mile down the road where our reconnaissance flights spotted the scorch marks.

Human shapes emerged from the vehicles and orders were barked in German. Begin fuelling. The major didn’t need to have too much of the language. We’ve got just under two hours until launch. Shit.

The fox ambled up the road, froze when she saw the Nazis.

A cranking, ratcheting, click-clicking noise and the fox was gone. The rocket trailer lifted its load into vertical launch position.

His men looked at him, waited.

A security detachment fanned out from the convoy. Waffen-SS, the worst fuckers that ever pulled on a uniform. Coming our way.

‘When these guys get in the firing line, blow the charge. Then we get to the convoy, use our guns and grenades to hit the tankers. Just stay in the treeline. Escape plan remains as is. Got that?’

Both men nodded.

Three storm troopers came.

They reached a rock that had been positioned as a visual marker.

The fox called. It sounded like a laugh.

German heads turned and night became day.

GRONAU, GERMANY

Two days later

The still air vibrated gently as a thousand cannon fired, far away to the east. A brilliantly bright and hot day. With Berlin surrounded and the surrender being signed, literally at that moment, the Third Reich was done.

A rusty aircraft hangar, a dozen thin men in shabby suits smoking inside, down the back, beside crates of 500 kg bombs and the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet bomber, the Swallow. The plane, one of Hitler’s desperate secret weapons, was like a shark out of water.

Nerves jangled, some nervous chatter. Each of the scientists had a leather briefcase and a bulging suitcase. But one stood alone, in the deepest shadows. Beside him, a beaten trunk.

The platoon of US Marines sat on aircraft part crates just inside the gaping door. They smoked and drank Coke. They had the easy manner of soldiers on the winning side, far from the front line.

An RAF Dakota came in to land, buzzed back up the runway and stopped at the hangar. The soldiers snapped to attention as a major left the plane, followed by his aide, who carried a bunch of papers, and two been-through-it-all soldiers with sidearms and stubble.

The major’s left arm was in a sling, some dark blood peeking through. Nazi lead. He was grateful for his wound in a selfish way. It meant that he missed out on the camps. News had begun to filter through. Literally mountains of emaciated bodies. Instead of all that, he was on babysitting duty, heading home.

He walked to the jet fighter. The major caressed the sky grey underside of the jet, noted the Edelweiss squadron badge.

‘Good Jesus. That was close, Jimmy.’

‘It sure is one nasty-looking motherfucker. Sir.’

They were distinctly aware of the plane’s importance.

Then they noticed the men.

The German rocket scientists came out of the shadows. The C-47’s arrival had delivered their salvation. There would be no Russian gulags – or worse – for them. They allowed themselves careful smiles.

Crickets chirped in the yellow grass.

‘Which of you worked on this beauty?’ the Major asked.

Three of the Germans came forward.

‘I worked on the engines,’ said one.

‘I designed the airframe.’

‘I did some wind tunnel work, aerodynamics.’

The major nodded, happy that he would bring home the men who would give America global military dominance for half a century to come. ‘So why didn’t you succeed?’

One of the three said ‘Because our Führer is insane. Instead of using the 262 to decimate your B-17 bombers, he decided to slow it down with bombs so any Mustang pilot could knock it out of the sky.’

‘Correct,’ said the Major. ‘Technology is useless without tactics. Remember that.’

One of them would.

The major drank a cold Coke and set up at a trestle table, just inside the hangar door. He called the German scientists forward, one at a time. He checked their credentials against the details that had been painstakingly collated in individual folders, then took a new profile page from his aide and paperclipped it to the front of each file. You are no longer Nazi. You are reborn, cleansed, new. Now help us to build our missile forces so that we may rule the world in your stead.

The second last man came forward, dragging his trunk.

The major checked his file, clipped the new data sheet to the front of the folder.

‘No luggage, you knew that, Dr Heim.’

‘If the Major will permit me,’ said Dr Death, making a lid-opening gesture.

The major nodded, looked at his wristwatch.

Dr Death opened the case. What might have been? Inside were dozens of paintings and original prints, flat and in rolls, as well as some small trinket boxes. And hidden blueprints, for the reactor that would spin lead into gold. He took a box, opened it, showed the pearl necklace to the major. Then he rifled through the art, grunted at a scene of moonlight on the sea, pulled out a canvas that looked like it had lain on the floor of a drunken artist’s studio for a couple of busy months.

‘Please,’ said the German, ‘a gift. Which would you like?’

‘This,’ he said, pointing, ‘this isn’t art. But I like the look of those pearls. They real?’

‘Of course, quite natural. Gold detailing, too. Very expensive. Please take them for your wife, your sweetheart. A nice souvenir from this terrible war, yes?’

‘And show me that little picture there. I like that.’

‘By Cézanne. The master. Are you sure?’ Hesitation. He loved that painting.

‘I think my wife would like it.’

‘Here, take it.’

The major folded it into his big combat jacket hip pocket, in with some loose .45 inch bullets, a crumpled pack of Lucky Strikes and his diary.

‘Okay. Get your trunk on board. We’re going to New York.’

So Dr Death put the Jackson Pollock painting, Composition with Pouring 1, back with the other works and boarded the Dakota, ready to corner the American art market.

The final German offered his identification papers.

The major looked at him, saw the sweat on his forehead. It’s hot. But…

‘Jimmy, where are the mugshots?’

‘Here, sir,’ passing a folder.

The shuffling of papers as the Dakota’s twin Pratt & Whitney engines thundered back to life.

The picture matched. Jimmy saw it, released his Colt .45’s safety catch.

‘Erich? You worked at Mauthausen?’

‘If the major will permit me, I have some very important blueprints…’

Major Johnson stood up from the table, took a step back. The beat of the plane engines went up a pitch. He looked at Jimmy. Jimmy shot the German twice in the face. When he was on the ground, he got another bullet in the back of his head.

It was the easiest way to deal with a complicated situation.

Pale faces at windows.

Johnson gathered up the German’s papers, said ‘Let’s get the hell out of here. I need New York.’

The major sat in the cockpit, enjoyed the smell of jetfuel and hydraulic fluid, the sight of an experienced pilot nursing the sweet beast into the air, the thrum of the twin propellers, the cup of coffee sitting, deliberately, behind the controls. The adjustment of power, the tapping of the throttles until the engines were in complete unison, the ripples dancing across the coffee, echoing the perfect harmonics, the beat becoming a hymn and the aircraft and its passengers leaving mainland Europe forever, lifting comfortably into a perfect, hopeful sky.

FORT LAUDERDALE, USA

Thursday, December 1, 1955

The talk in the veterans’ bars on East Las Olas Boulevard was all nigger this and nigger that. Some black lady had refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. That was up in Alabama. Montgomery. Indignation. Why can’t some people just keep in their place?

The lady’s name was Rosa Parks.

‘You fought in Korea, Kieran. Which is lowest, gooks or niggers?’

Major Kieran Johnson (retired) looked up from his Pabst. Just the thought of Korea made his right knee ache. ‘Lowest, eh? The lowest form of human being I ever did meet was the common or garden Nazi. And you know the funny thing about Nazis?’

‘Huh?’

‘They’re as white as we are. Whiter even than a lot of good men who fought and died beside me.’ I really don’t want to go into that bad place tonight. ‘And with that, gentlemen, I bid you adieu.’

He walked east on the boulevard, towards the Atlantic. Might loosen up my knee. It was a perfect night, quiet, just a couple of cars puttering by, one or two couples on their way home from the movies. Oddly, the moon brought him back to that night in the Dutch forest. He rubbed his arm, the shattered ulna that had brought him south.

He lifted his collar against the oh-so-gentle December chill, dug his hands into the deep pockets of his overcoat. Over the lagoon bridge and there lay the sea ahead, shining silver. It reminded him of a painting, but he couldn’t remember which.

His knee had eased up a little. Fucking Korea. Just a few years’ worth of jet and rocket technology, developed by all sides from the spoils of a shattered Germany, had taken war to a whole new level of madness and horror. What will the next war be like? He shuddered at the idea of it.

He reached the sidewalk at the edge of the beach and turned right, south towards Miami.

It was like a storm was starting to whip up, out there in the dark blue.

Nobody around. Just how he liked it. The problem with people was, well, people.

A man walked towards him, held his hat against the building wind.

As he passed, a flicker of recognition.

‘Major?’ A European accent, no j.

Kieran stopped and turned. He twisted his knee a little, felt that jabbing shrapnel again. Trying to tell me something?

The man came towards him, his hand extended. ‘I’m Doctor Heim, Aribert Heim. You helped me escape from Germany after the war.’

Paperclip. ‘Oh? Yeah.’ They shook hands. ‘How are you liking the land of the free?’

‘Oh, it’s wonderful. The love of art among the rich here. And so many rich! Do you remember the painting I gave you? Where is that I wonder?’

‘That little thing? It’s hanging in my living room.’

‘At home? Good. Good. Major, can I buy you a drink? For old time’s sake?’

‘Thank you, no. I need to get along.’

The man rummaged in his pocket. ‘Then this?’

The major didn’t have time to react. The needle pierced his arm and he collapsed heavily onto the cold white sand.

ONE

NEW YORK CITY, USA

Today

Speeding, spinning hearts. Thumping as a glorious, bloody chorus. Can you feel it? Faster again, building to some kind of crescendo. So these were as one, connected by dizzy madness. One point six million more beating out there on that tiny and wild and scared and suffering island, once the calm home of the Lenape Indians who smoked a peace pipe with strangers and the game was up. The Dutch took it, called it New Amsterdam. The British renamed it New York, finally losing it to the New Americans and the beat, the beat it made would shake the planet. Another heart in this drama, Manhattan the nervous ultimate.

***

The Butcher was excited. This was why he did it. The sly thrill, the adrenaline, the aching heart, pulsing blood, tingling palms. He needed this to feel alive. He knew it was wrong, sick, that he should be locked away in a mental institution, put down, even. He knew this yet he still committed the acts. Truly, this is the definition of beyond crazy. He stared at himself in the bathroom mirror, eventually decided that he liked what he saw, smiled.

‘I’m coming, sweetheart,’ he called over his shoulder.

He admired the ornate mirror, with its blemished reflection.

He washed his hands again, checked his fingernails. He pulled on a pair of non-latex surgical gloves, flexed his fingers. He selected the required items from the tray of surgical equipment, left the bathroom and marched down the brightly-lit corridor, with its early Pollock, dripping red and green and black and white, and its Picasso litho print, Head of a Young Boy from 1945. The living room was dark, dominated by a wall of window, the office towers and hotels of downtown Manhattan shimmering in the dying light, 1 WTC’s angled planes ablaze. The silhouette of a girl tied to a chair, back-lit by the loathed, hating, fighting, conspiring city. He glanced at the clock, one of those old French designs, and saw that it was time.

Once you listened for it, its low tick filled the room.

He found the leader for the intravenous drip tube and jabbed it into her forearm. She recoiled, her eyes pleading, her mouth silenced by the gag. The drug – propofol – had an instant effect and she slumped forward. From now on, everything was timed to the minute. This was what his heart craved. She slept soundly, twitching gently like a newborn.

He took her hand in his and made the first incision.

***

Sophie cursed, but under her breath. She wasn’t the kind of chef that gloried in foul language, bullying or ego. It was about the food, not about her. But, Jesus, the Speaker of the House of Representatives is out there and he’s waiting for his pesto chicken á l’orange and what’s with the oven? The oven!

Basil and citrus took their vows and began a beautiful, if short, life together.

‘Timing and communication, Carl! Can you give me an ETA on the mains for table four? What’s wrong with that damned oven?’

Carl knew not to do a visual, not to open the oven door. That would cost an extra two minutes’ cooking time. He calculated from experience that they would be ready in three minutes. He also knew that his boss knew. She was just venting. But he would still get the oven temps checked tomorrow.

Three hundred and sixty degrees Fahrenheit – a hot 360 – same temperature as a match igniting.

‘Three minutes, chef.’ Just don’t fucking burn it!

‘Will they be perfect, Carl?’

‘Yes, chef,’ he said, wiping his sweaty forehead with a filthy-looking towel from over his shoulder. Yes, chef. Your recipe always turns out perfectly. The congressman adores it, as do many more of the richest one percent of the city.

The food would be great, she knew this, but still she fretted, needed the approval that only a clean plate could deliver and her heart, her heart.

‘How are the sides doing, Carl?’

‘We’re there, chef,’ he replied, a bead of his sweat falling, as if in slow motion, onto the vast, bubbling potato gratin dish as he raised it from another oven. The bowls of salad were all set and the broccoli was just gone into the steamer. The broccoli could not be overcooked, that was a sin. Contrary to the Law of Sophie.

Sophie paced the kitchen at Oral Pleasures. She sucked on a stick of celery, fought the urge for a cigarette, made sure that every dish for every diner was perfect. She wondered what it was that drove chefs to seek approval so, to work sixteen hour days, to avoid the idea of life outside the kitchen, away from the brigade of chefs. Did they all have love-free childhoods like mine?

‘Table four?’

‘Ready, chef,’ said Carl as he carefully took the dishes from the oven, the cherry tomatoes pulsing, the reduced orange sauce honeymooning with the pesto, pulsing, bubbling, to fill the kitchen with the uniquely delicious aroma.

He stuck his index finger into the chicken. One, t -, ow! If you can’t reach three, the meat’s hot enough.

Sophie smiled, inhaled the buzz.

Better than sex? Depends on the lover.

She plated the dishes herself, using a cookie cutter to pick out a perfect disc of gratin, placing the moist, dripping chicken breast on top, arranging the broccoli florets and cherry tomatoes around the perimeter, pouring the zesty sauce over the top. Then she added a sprinkle of fine sea salt and a shower of roughly-chopped basil from the roof garden, freshest possible flavours. ‘What do the Chinese say, Carl?’

‘We eat with our eyes first, chef.’

The dishes were laid out under the hot lamps, all in a row.

‘Beautiful,’ said Sophie, going around the rims of the plates with her towel one more time. ‘Happy with everything, Carl?’

‘All good, chef.’

‘Happy to hear that. Because Sam doesn’t like surprises.’

***

Those microseconds of condensed thought, memories that always rested just there at the front of his temporal lobe. 

‘Christ,’ he thought. ‘My heart can’t take too much more of this.’

The room was hot and wet and the tension was visible across every face. For Jacob, time dilation had begun with the very first bid. The man with the gavel looked straight at him.

‘Do I hear seven point one?’

Seven million and change for a bowl? Okay, it’s a French tureen from the seventeen thirties, made by Thomas Germain for the court of Louis XV. So it’s a beautiful thing from a very different and unique time, with its delicate silver branches, each leaf exquisite, and its lid handle in the form of hounds bringing down a stag. But it’s still a freaking soup bowl.

Jacob nodded. Yes. I bid seven point one million dollars for the bowl.

‘I have seven point one. Do I have seven point two?’

The frozen stag, its scream petrified, looked to the ceiling for mercy.

Jacob’s gaze roamed around the auction room, sought out the other bidders. Rich people spoke on phones, made mental calculations, wondered what their other halves would say if they went any further. What about the economy? The hesitancy stretched and Jacob could finally taste victory.

Seven point one. Bang. The auctioneer confirmed that the sale was done and that Jacob (or rather, Jacob’s super-rich client in Shanghai) was now the proud owner of the bowl. So much money to be made in manufacturing the electronic junk that kept the hordes amused. Would the smartphones and games consoles be tomorrow’s antiques? Hardly – there was simply too much of the damned tat. He looked around the room, almost every person tapping a glowing glass screen. We are slaves to our gadgets.

His iPhone purred. A message from the office about the article, the damned article.

Jacob’s heart relaxed at the proximate reality of his one percent commission, but just a little. As he made his way through the crowded room, people smiled at him appreciatively, some in awe, thinking he was Bill Gates or somebody, with his casually immaculate suede jacket and slightly gawky grin. Spectacles too. Just as he reached the sales office, Sarah, his editorial assistant from the magazine – Antique Guru – appeared at his side. She was young, sharp-minded and, of course, shockingly beautiful, crammed into her charcoal grey suit. She made his forty-something heart skip a beat.

‘Did you get everything?’

She held up her notebook. ‘Every detail, every nuance. I’ll type it up for you tomorrow.’

‘Good. Sorry for being so obsessive. I just need records. I don’t know exactly why.’

‘Are you staying on after you’ve been through the formalities?’ she asked.

‘Well, I do have an interest, a personal interest, in a lot that’s up soon.’ He wanted to say that he was shattered, bone-weary, that late auctions were a chore and he so needed to get to bed. But he hoped – 

‘Feel like grabbing a drink downtown after?’

‘Oh? Where were you thinking?’

‘Bleecker Street. A friend’s band is playing The Bitter End later.’

Giddy blood coursed through hardening arteries.

Later? It’s nine thirty already!

‘Sounds great. I used to love Bleecker Street.’

He resolved not to comment on the unnecessarily high music volume when they reached the bar. But that would be a big ask. Always trying to act so young, it’s going to get you into trouble one day. Not your fault dad got Alzheimer’s at forty.

First, a quick double espresso at the bar. Second, business. Back in the sales room, the loud murmurs dropped to a hush, then a gasp, as the white-gloved assistant held up a slim old volume.

The auctioneer said ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we are delighted to offer an original work by the famed seer Michel de Nostradame. Published in 1555, the Traite des Fardemens is one his lesser works, containing a variety of beauty treatments and recipes, including his famed recipes for cherry jam which, I am told, has never been bettered. We will start the bidding at $50,000 for what I’m sure you’ll agree is a fascinating piece of history, provenance assured.’

You’d be crazy to get involved, Jacob.

He grimaced at the high starting price, which was immediately accepted by a telephone bidder. It jumped, five grand at a time to seventy in under a minute. Christ! Jacob had made seventy-one thousand for winning the bowl and had some more money to spare. One hundred was the limit that he’d set himself, honestly not expecting the book to reach that level. And remember the almost nine percent sales tax on top. He had an overdraft facility of fifty thou at twelve percent, had been living off it, couple of lean months. Forty grand left to play with there. Bank was calling it in, two weeks away. Worry about it then. How would Jacob’s generation cope when the easy credit disappeared?

Best to just stay out this time.

At eighty thousand, he made his first bid. Blame the adrenaline.

The telephone bidder dropped out.

But a tall, blond woman in an implausibly white Chanel suit wanted the book.

Something about her.

Eighty-five.

Ninety.

Miss Chanel went to the hundred thousand.

Jacob gritted his teeth and went the extra five. Worst case, sell off my art.

Turned out she didn’t want the book so badly. Christ. One-o-five. Call it one-fourteen, with taxes. Jesus. That’s it. I’m bust. Sarah appeared at his side and squeezed his hand. Her cheeks were flushed.

‘Oh. My. God. That was so exciting! You did it!’

‘She almost had me,’ Jacob said, nodding towards Miss Chanel, who’d been staring at him.

‘She doesn’t look overly-happy.’

‘Jesus, I do need a drink now. Just let me finalise the transaction. You want to come back to the sales office?’

‘Can I? Wow,’ said Sarah, giddy like a nine-year-old.

As they walked towards the office, Jacob noticed the woman in the Chanel suit approaching. From a distance she was striking, up close she was as arresting as a Greek goddess, her physical presence preceded by the Sicilian lemon notes of her Annick Goutal perfume. There must be a statue of her somewhere, figured Jacob.

‘Mr Johnson?’

‘Yes?’ My God, look at you.

‘Might I have a word with you alone, please? It concerns some business that you may be interested in.’

Jacob would have taken time for her if she wanted to talk about paint drying. As it was, he had just created a fatal hole in his finances, so new business was a very good thing.

‘Of course,’ he said. ‘And your name?’

‘Julia,’ looking at Sarah.

‘This is my assistant, Sarah. Sarah, can I see you at the bar in a few minutes?’

Sarah, utterly professional, smiled and left.

‘Sorry about the book,’ said Jacob.

‘Forget the book. I just wanted to get your attention.’

‘Wow. Okay. You’ve got it,’ he said. And cost me, what, twenty grand?

‘Tell me, would like a taste of heaven?’

‘I don’t think I know – . Ah. Yes. Yes I would.’

‘You understand?’

‘Goodies from the bottom of the Baltic?’

‘Exactly. So, that specific lot is being auctioned here next Monday and I need you to become a member of a bidding ring. I cannot, under any circumstances, lose the auction.’

Jacob appraised the woman again. ‘Isn’t a bidding ring illegal?’

‘Flat fee. Fifty k. Are you in?’

‘I’m in.’

***

Where was daddy?

‘Daddy?’ she cried feebly, but it didn’t sound right. Like it was somebody else talking, a little kid maybe.

It was dark, but hazy lights swam into focus. They were outside. Through a window.

‘Mom?’

She felt weird, like her body was coated in something viscous, honey or maple syrup. Where am I? A dull pain in the back of her neck began to pulse through her body then, cut through the honey. She became aware of a tightness around her wrists and, yes, also around her ankles. She wriggled, but she couldn’t move.

 The tightness turned to discomfort and – what? – what was the sensation in her hand? It began to burn. Then, all at once, the morphine wore off and her heart jump-started back to a fast rhythm, the hurt and the panic consuming her. She wriggled her fingers, felt that honey again, sticky, piercing. A dizzying awareness that her little finger was gone. Gone.

She vomited an acrid bile but the gag in her mouth blocked its escape and she struggled and choked and cried and eventually swallowed it back down. Her tears were hot and salty and she could smell roasted meat then. Like pork or something.

A vague sizzle, a ticking clock.

Her wet eyes saw something else through the distorted darkness, the city half-light. A few yards away stood an old artist’s easel, rich layers of burnt umber and raw sienna and sap green on cherry wood, and on it was a picture of her dad. An election poster from his successful congressional campaign.

‘Daddy?’

***

The heart monitor beeped lazily, as if saying Are you sure you want me to bother?

The man lay in a deep sleep, his skin grey and dry as a careless fish, out of water for days. He looked older than his ninety-seven years. Something to do with the quality of his life.

The only window was in the ceiling. The sky was cobalt blue, like a fine evening dress or a high summer’s star-scattered midnight.

The art on the walls of his little room would be changed today.

‘I would like a Van Gogh,’ he muttered. ‘There, beside my favourite Cézanne.’

‘Of course, Doctor,’ she said, occupied.

The nurse fussed over his morning injection, placing the syringe of thick, pink liquid into the metering device. It had been prepared in the adjacent laboratory, a scientific wonderland of the most advanced machines on Earth, a chemist’s candy store of elixirs, stem cells, poisons and explosives. He closed his eyes and thought about the past. Some would say that he’d led a bad life. But he didn’t see it like that. There were so many good memories, such glowing achievements, tantalising glimpses of world-conquering success. We so nearly had it all. Then the collapse, the escape to America with the delicate planting of the story of the second life, first hiding in plain sight in Germany, then the escape to Egypt, the conversion to Islam and the death in 1992. Case closed.

That would have been your worst nightmare, America, a Nazi Muslim!

As the liquid oozed into the plastic tube and inched down to his arm, he pondered the past and relished the future. The plans were perfect, every aspect gently falling into place.

Gently. This was how the greatest deeds were accomplished.

The world would soon be his. It was so close he could taste it.

He licked his lips, so dry. He smiled and they cracked.

His heart rate began to increase as the potion – the sum of his life’s research – did its work. For a few long seconds he felt strong, excited, like he was a young man during the Great Years. To be!

The nurse frowned as she made some notes on a chart. She rubbed some balm on the man’s lips, gently. His smile was easier now. She peeled off her latex gloves, washed her hands, got a fresh pair from a dispenser on a white cabinet. Then she sat in a worn leather armchair beside the bed, carefully took a book from the Rococo side table. He relaxed, stared at the monitor that displayed real time financial data from all the world’s markets.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Good Quarto, printed in 1605.

The old man sat up then, the machines beeping frantically. CNN’s Richard Quest on the screen, very excited. He looks a Jew, but I like him just the same. A graph, numbers popping. The tipping point had been reached.

The nurse put the book down. What a piece of work is a man!

‘Nurse!’ he called eagerly, some colour in his cheeks, his eyes alive for the first time in weeks. ‘Get me the congressman. Get him now. The markets have completed the plan. It is time for us to take the world. To take it.’

The nurse began to dial the number that was written on a card by the phone.

‘Please stay calm, Doctor. Your heart -’

‘My heart,’ he laughed, a cruel cackle. He hissed ‘My heart ceased to exist in 1940. I have a muscle that pumps my vril, my life force. But I have no heart. Now if you do not make that telephone call schnell, you will not see sunset. Is this clear?’

She glanced at his eyes but there was a force in them that she could not comprehend, something black. Her hands shook as she hit the number keys, praying to God that the congressman would answer quickly.

Or not to be?

End of extract

UNITED HATES is available for download right now from all good online retailers.

About the Author

FUTURE SHOCKS is the latest quantum of fiction by Gary, writer of number one bestselling thriller 9/11 TRILOGY and Crime Writers’ Association Dagger-nominated PURE MAD. Gary works in aviation and space tech marketing and founded tech platform Hempoffset.com, crowdfunding a solution to the climate crisis with hemp. Lives in Dublin, Ireland, loves exploring the world. Gary’s ambition is to write The Great Novel of the 21st Century.

Discover other titles by Gary J Byrnes

Thriller Box Set

The X-Games

Ireland Trilogy

History Trilogy

Pure Mad

The God Virus

The Death of Osama bin Laden – An Alternative History

The Writer and Other Stories

United Hates

Future Shocks

Connect with Gary

Find me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/GaryJByrnes

Subscribe to my blog: https://www.readathriller.com/thriller/blog/

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Gary J Byrnes

By Gary J Byrnes

Gary J Byrnes is a bestselling thriller writer by night and a tech marketing guy by day. Extensive international experience in software startups, SMEs and multinationals. Find on LinkedIn. Has researched hemp, climate change for over twenty years. Writer, blogger, parent, animal lover. 2021 is about building a new business model to enable mass planting of hemp through easy carbon offsetting at Hempoffset.com.

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