You never see it coming
Jack Conway glared at the snow covered steps leading from his stoop down to the snow covered sidewalk, then across the street to his car, already locked in the snow pushed around the tires and up to the door by the early-morning plows. His daughter, Amy, poked her head around him and gave a gasp of delight.
"It’s like a fairy tale!"
For a day, maybe. Then it would break out in a rash of yellow splotches and attract a dingy coat of soot. His car could be locked in a block of ice until the thaw.
"Let's make a snowman."
"Maybe later. Daddy's gotta go to work."
"You always have to work."
A pang of guilt there. She was right. He was always at work. That's what it took to get a company off the ground. But try telling that to a six year old. Or his wife, for that matter.
He gave Amy a kiss. "We'll make a snowman when I get home."
She gave him a smile, but he could tell she didn't believe him. He didn't blame her.
He slowly descended the steps and carefully navigated his way across the sidewalk, ever alert for the snow's worst feature: the black ice. There was always a patch of the treacherous stuff the sidewalk salt missed. You couldn't see it. You first knew it was there when your feet shot out from under you and you crashed to the ground. Given his 6'4", 240 lb frame, with virtually no fat for padding, thanks to two tours in Afghanistan, it would always be a hard landing.
A snowy, Saturday morning in Brooklyn, 7:00 am. His wife, Susan, no fool, still slept. Did he want to be traipsing into the city? Not a chance. His partner, Frank, called a half hour ago. The program had a bug. Beta testing should have been finished by now. It was due Monday.
"So get Ernie in there."
"Snowed in. He'll be on Skype and help you trouble shoot it. You gotta come in. I don't know code from from stale bread."
So now Jack was making the hard slog to the subway station. No point giving up a parking space with snow on the ground; he wouldn't find another one until spring. He trudged down the middle of the street where the snow was almost sandlike and you could get some traction, and avoid the threat of the ice.
The subway platform was damp, cold, and nearly empty. Three or four people stood around, looking as happy to be there as was Jack. This early, on a Saturday, you could easily wait twenty minutes for a train. But as Jack stepped to the platform’s edge and looked down the long dark tunnel to his left, a light flickered as a train rounded the distant curve. Wow. His lucky day. Whoopee.
He moved towards the far end of the platform, where three men were engaged in what appeared to be a serious conversation. No, actually, they were arguing; a big guy with dark hair and a beard was clearly bullying an old fellow in need of a shave and a warmer coat. He carried a leather shoulder bag. A third guy with stringy blond hair saw Jack approach and moved towards him. Close. Too close.
"What are you looking at," he demanded, his tone meant to dispel any resistance. He was roughly as big as Jack, but soft and clearly out of shape. All bravado and no focus. At the same time his partner grabbed the leather shoulder bag and tried to pull it free. The old guy struggled, but he didn't have a chance.
"I asked you a question, clown." Really crowding Jack now.
Jack wasted no time thinking. He simply folded his right fingers at the knuckles, a combat reflex, and unleashed a sharp throat punch, followed by a stiff kick to the guy's groin. Finally, he grabbed the already wobbling head and smashed it face-first into a fast-rising knee. One bogey down for the count.
His partner saw what was happening. He let the old guy go and rushed Jack.
"Big mistake, buddy."
And then the train thundered into the far end of the station with a deafening, ground rumbling clamor. Jack, momentarily distracted, paused just long enough to catch a fist to the right side of his face. It felt like it always did, but it was nothing he hadn't taken before. He swung in return, connecting solidly on the tip of the guy's chin. It was a brain scrambler. The guy’s eyes rolled up in his head and he staggered around for a couple of seconds before one foot stepped off the platform. He teetered there a moment, a cartoon character gravity had yet to decided what to do with. Jack lunged for him, but it was too late. The guy spilled off the edge. Less than a second later, the train ran over him.
As it turned out, a transit cop had come onto the platform just after Jack and witnessed the brawl. The lead detective, whose name was Sampson, also talked to a couple others who’d been on the platform and watched the whole thing unfold. He'd seemed sympathetic once he figured out what happened, but still kept Jack for a couple hours going over his story three or four times. As Jack recounted the events, it occurred to him that he felt no remorse. Should he have? Actually, he felt nothing much at all. A threat had presented itself; he’d removed it. Mission accomplished.
"All right,” Detective Sampson said, finally. “The old guy backs you up. We'll need you to come down and give us a statement, but I don't think we'll have any problems here." He paused. "You might, though."
"That mope you flattened? Out on parole. He'll be back inside before dinner's served."
There was more. Jack waited.
"But that pile of hamburger down there... he was Giovanni Cecci. Ever hear of him?”
Jack shook his head, not liking where this was going.
"Gino Roselli's nephew. I’d bet you’ve heard of him."
Everyone had heard of him. A whole panoply of involuntary reactions Jack had almost forgotten now washed through him. Cold sweat... a sudden tingling over his face... a ringing in his ears... a black pit opening within... fight or flight...
The detective was still talking. "He wasn't a made guy. Never would have been. His uncle figured he was too stupid. But... you know... family..."
Jack got it.
"So where's that leave me?" He hated how helpless it made him sound.
“If it was up to me, I’d call it a public service killing. But I gotta admit, it's a crappy situation. No good deed goes unpunished.”
Good luck and God bless, in other words.
Jack still needed to get to work, though how he'd concentrate on anything he had no idea. The trains would be out of service the rest of the morning, so Jack called an Uber and offered the old guy a lift. He’d seemed relieved, but neither spoke on the ride into town. Then, as Jack was getting out, the old guy touched his arm.
“You shoulda walked away."
Jack felt utterly alone.
He spent the next five hours at the office pouring over lines of code, with Ernie on Skype. But his mind was elsewhere, mostly thinking how he'd get his wife and daughter out of town, without telling them why. The day had taken a detour onto a deadly track, but he had yet to fully grasp that there’d be no retracing his steps, no chance to make better choices the next time; there was no next time. Susan’s exasperated voice bounced around in his head: You didn't think, did you? You're not still back there, dammit!
Around 2:30 Ernie yelled, "Got it!" He walked Jack through the edits and then Frank took over once more, finishing the tests.
"If anything else goes wrong," Jack said. "Don't call. I'm in no mood."
"We noticed. Everything all right?"
"No, actually. I killed a guy coming in.”
Frank stared at him. Jack smiled. “Kidding.”
Jack had lived 24/7 with fear. In a combat zone, danger permeated the air like a noxious smog. The next threat could be anywhere and you never saw it coming. You wouldn't know it was real until you woke up in the hospital without legs. If you woke up at all. That same sense of dread ran through him now, unfocused but paralyzing, a malevolent nerve toxin making movements sluggish and dulling reflexes. Where do you turn in a situation like this? Susan kept suggesting the VA. He hated the thought, but maybe she was right. Maybe he hadn't come back yet. But maybe it was too late for any of that, now.
Out on the sidewalk, like crossing an invisible border into enemy country with a target plastered on his back. The snow had stopped, though more was expected; for now the crowds were out and about. It was Midtown, Manhattan. There were always crowds out and about. He looked from one face to the next—all anonymous, all identical, all potential hostiles.
...the marketplace... exotic aromas... white robes and head scarves pressing close... indecipherable words... then the concussive pressure and dull thud of the nearby bomb plunging the scene into chaos... body parts draped over stalls... children bloody... and the unending silence, save for a high-pitched whine...
Jack’s control drained away. He knew it was happening but was helpless to prevent it. Breathing faster now and shallow, heart racing. Somewhere within, a logical voice counseled calm, but it was steadily shouted down by the adrenalin rush.
He was exposed. It was two long city blocks to the subway station. How did this sort of thing work? How fast would there be a response? Jack felt blind. He kept glancing behind him, each time afraid he was overreacting, then afraid he was being careless. Crowds pressed in, unfathomable, alien and deadly.
Then he saw them—two men standing across the street. Dark suits with tight black sweaters. Were they looking his way? No, he was just being paranoid. Jack kept walking. When he looked again, they were still there, keeping pace with him and, yes, still looking him over. How’d they find him this fast? Jack’s panic deepened; he picked up his pace, weaving between the Saturday afternoon shoppers. Another quick glance to his left and his heart stuttered a few beats. They were crossing the street, coming right at him, seemingly unconcerned that he'd seen them.
Think! They wouldn't try anything here, on the street, would they? Of course they would. How better to vanish into a crowd, then when there's a crowd? Jack started running. He didn't bother to see how close they were. He didn't see anything but the next person in front of him and the path needed to avoid them. He bumped mothers, children, old people, ignored the cries of anger he left in his wake.
That's when he hit the ice patch. Everything turned upside down; then his shoulder screamed in agony as it slammed into the sidewalk. He slid a few feet, scraping his cheek on the pavement. A car door opened. From his perspective all he saw were the legs and shoes of a man climbing out of a black SUV, approaching him. His two pursuers caught up and patiently waited behind.
"Gotta watch these sidewalks, Mr. Conway. They’re treacherous."
Jack looked up at an offered hand. After a moment he accepted it but felt like an accomplice in his own destruction.
"I need you to get in the car," said the man. He was dressed like the others. He could have been a CEO. Maybe a congressman. Something respectable. But Jack knew better.
"No, I won’t do that," Jack replied, feeling no where near as defiant as his answer suggested.
The man shrugged. "I have my orders. I won't make a scene here, but at some point, I'll have to do my job."
Jack's brain went blank. Run! Get away. A second bomb always goes off—! How debilitating, when your muscles won't follow your brain's commands. Jack came back to the present and stared at the opened car door.
"Mr. Conway, you'll be ok. Just get in the car."
And Jack did, wishing he'd called his wife.
As they crossed the Manhattan Bridge, snow started up again. Nothing covered the grime and filth of the city so well. Other things too. A body, maybe? His body? They wouldn't find him till the Spring.
He thought of Susan and Amy, of course. Thought about how hard he’d been to live with since he’d come home. The moods, the temper. Bloody knuckles and holes in walls. Thought about Amy still waiting for her snowman.
They turned off Flatbush onto Third Avenue, and stopped in front of a small storefront. Jack knew it well. Everyone in Brooklyn knew it. No bigger than a living room, Jimmy's boasted the best Italian food in the borough. It only had a few tables, but usually they were full. Not now. It appeared empty inside. Two men, identical to the guys in the SUV, stood in front of the door.
"Go on in," said the man beside him. "You're expected."
Jack stepped out of the car like a dead man walking, waiting for his date with the chair.
An old man sat at a table. He was alone in the room. He was dressed like the others and wore sun shades, even though the late afternoon light scarcely called for them. No waiters were in sight. He silently watched Jack approach and pointed to the chair across from him. Jack sat.
"I thought you superheros all wore capes. You got a cape?"
"Um... no, actually."
The man shrugged. "That was a dumb stunt you pulled. Took balls, I'll grant you. But you stuck your neck out when no one asked you to."
"And that was dumb?"
The man shrugged again. "I'm a pragmatist. Let's just say I don't plan for the kindness of strangers. Besides, something's got you scared out of your wits. You tell me how smart it was."
"It seemed the thing to do at the time. I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about it."
The man nodded. "You handled yourself well. Military?"
"I'm thinking there's not a lot of call for those skills in your life back here."
Jack shook his head. "Not hardly."
"It sucks. They just dump you back on the street."
Then he clapped his hands and a waiter magically appeared with two glasses of wine. Something red. "Drink," his host said to Jack. "You could use it, yeah?" Then he said, "You know who I am?"
"Not really. But I can guess."
The man chuckled. "Let's say I'm a businessman who likes to keep a low profile. Let's say I sometimes need to move information, and other items around the city, and I don't want to call attention to the fact. So I use my own messengers, who I also like to keep a low profile. Though, it would seem, not always as low a profile as I'd hoped. By the way, my guy appreciated your effort."
"He told me I should have walked away." Now Jack understood how they'd known where to find him so quickly.
"I appreciate it too. You follow me?"
"I think so."
"Of course you do. Bottom line, I owe you one. You weren't looking for a reward. I get it, and I respect that. I just want you to understand, nothing will blow back on you for this. You follow me? Any repercussions are my problem, and I will definitely take care of them."
Jack felt dizzy. "Does that mean I don't have to send my wife and daughter out of town?"
A faint smile appeared. "You might. But only if you go with them. My guests. I know a few places you might like. Oh, and if you need work, I could use a guy like you."
Jack couldn't tell if he was serious or just being polite. "That's not necessary."
The man shrugged. "Maybe yes, maybe no. Think about it."
He held out his hand, and Jack shook it.
"Snow's coming down harder. Gonna be heavy. We'll drop you off."
"Thanks. I think I have an appointment with a snowman. I live up on—"
"We know where you live, Mr. Conway."
The snow was falling hard now, white and silent as the dead. As he climbed the steps to his front door, he saw Amy in the window. She waved, and he waved back. Then she ran to open the door for him.
“Did you hurt yourself?” she asked, looking at his cheek.
“Daddy just fell,” he replied.
“It’s snowing again,” said Amy.
“I’ll bet it’s thick enough out back to build that snowman.”
She squealed in delight and started to put on her coat and mittens. He heard Susan in the kitchen. She’d have been worrying about him, wondering why he was late. But she wouldn’t ask. She’d stopped asking.
Amy gripped his hand as she lead them through the kitchen.
“We’re making a snowman, Mommy.”
Jack felt Susan scanning him, seeking a clue to his mood. She stepped close and touched his cheek.
“Is everything all right?” she asked.
“It will be.”
She waited, head cocked to the side, trying to read him.
Jack found the words harder to say than he’d have thought. “Monday, I’m calling the VA.”
About the Creator
Writer, image retoucher, musician/composer, 3D artist. Despite modest success in all those fields, Photoshop paid the bills.
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