Authors: John Thompson
BOOKS BY JOHN THOMPSON
Published by Pressque Publishing, Charleston, SC
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or have been used to create this work of art. Any similarities to actual persons, living or dead, events, etc. is completely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
Copyright @ 2012 John Thompson
First edition published 2008.
Cover image copyright© Pressque Publishing
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, permitted by law. For information contact: Pressque Publishing, Charleston, SC.
Typography by Torborg Davern
STEVE ALBERS HAD NO IDEA
it was his day to die. He simply knew his sales meeting had run late, and he needed to run like hell to catch the five-ten train. Another train left at five forty-five, but that wasn’t an option. Today was his daughter’s birthday, her sixteenth, and in addition to a family celebration, Steve had an almost-new bright yellow Volkswagen Beetle hidden in his neighbor’s garage.
He generally disapproved of sixteen-year-olds having cars, but Kate was different—honor roll every semester of her life, state champion gymnast in her age group, and class president. She deserved something special, he thought, as he rushed from the elevator and trotted toward the revolving doors. Out on the crowded sidewalk, he broke into an awkward run.
The sun had set, the cold wind sliced through his muffler and gloves, and slicks of ice glinted from the sidewalk. He stepped around
mobs of fellow commuters bundled in heavy coats, steaming warm breath into the air. After a block, his heart pounded, and he slowed to a fast walk, vowing to lose some weight. After another block he came to the throng of people moving down the escalators into the underground warren of Penn Station, and he began to burrow his way through.
The air grew warmer as he descended, and the smells of car and bus exhaust and the metallic tang of cold air quickly morphed into the stale, slightly urine smell of the station. The jostling worsened in the long corridors that led to the commuter trains, and Steve shifted his focus, looking down for a dropped briefcase or some homeless person’s outstretched leg.
He sidestepped quickly, nearly tripping over a stack of Coke cases someone had carelessly left outside a pizza kiosk, and then, after regaining his footing, glanced up at the overhead clock. Four minutes after five. He started to relax. He was going to make it, just barely.
Exactly seventeen minutes earlier, in the drop-off area outside Penn Station’s other entrance, Yusuf ben Abu Sayeed checked his watch then stepped out of the taxi line where he had been standing for the past five minutes. He tightened his muffler, raised the collar of his cashmere overcoat, and strode away. Such a departure was unremarkable because cab waits often became infuriating, and the line simply shifted forward. No one gave him a second glance.
Abu Sayeed’s exit had nothing to do with impatience but with the two men in Coca Cola delivery uniforms who had just ascended the escalator and wheeled their empty hand truck around the corner of the building. He’d been waiting to spot them, and now he crossed
Eighth Avenue, walked eastward, and entered the revolving doors of a large office tower. He unbuttoned his coat and loosened his muffler, entered an elevator, and rode to the thirtieth floor. There, like a man who had simply chosen the wrong floor, he stepped onto the next down elevator. Seconds later he exited the opposite side of the building where his rented limousine had been waiting at the curb for almost forty minutes.
As the driver hurried around the car and held the door, Abu Sayeed gave a weary sigh, as though exhausted from the last meeting of a long day. He slid onto his seat and checked that the glass privacy partition was up. His mind whirled with almost unbelievable possibilities, as he glanced at the other passenger who had waited there the entire time. They were almost strangers, having met several months earlier in London, when the man had managed to contact him through an endless chain of intermediaries and make his extraordinary offer.
“Well?” the passenger asked as the limo pulled into traffic. He had sandy hair graying at the temples and blue eyes with a dangerous innocence.
“Your associates made their delivery,” Abu Sayeed answered.
The man removed a cell phone from the pocket of his suit coat. He held it for several thoughtful moments as their limo snaked its way through the uptown traffic. Finally, he dialed a number then held the phone out to Abu Sayeed. “You have the honors.”
Abu Sayeed pushed the phone gently away. “I insist.”
The other’s mouth tightened. He gazed down for a time at the backlit screen and the waiting number. Finally he pushed the send button.
Instantaneously, another cell phone rang, this one buried in the
three soda cases Steve Albers had just avoided. The ring triggered an electric charge to a small detonator, which in turn set off three pounds of embedded Semtex. The soda cans were packed with bolts and steel balls, and the explosion hurled them outward. The blast shattered all bodies within seventy feet. The shrapnel cut through another hundred, burrowing deep into the concrete walls of the underground station.
Over a mile away, the faint boom didn’t penetrate the limo’s soundproofing, but seconds later the first sirens sounded. Abu Sayeed closed his eyes, amazed at Allah’s beneficence. This act of retribution on American soil was glorious, but not the real reason for their meeting. His associate had arranged today’s explosion only to establish the seriousness of his intent.
“Well?” the man asked as the sirens quickly grew to a massive din. “What do you think?”
Abu Sayeed looked at this freshly scrubbed American who had just killed a number of his own countrymen. “You have impressed me.” He closed his eyes and nestled into the leather seat. There would be a flight to Paris and then several days of deliberation to make a final assessment about going forward. However, he was already sure. Allah had placed this extraordinary opportunity in his lap. It would be a sin against God not to make use of it.
In the smoke and wreckage of Penn Station, scores of bleeding, blast-shocked people staggered through the rubble. Others lay unmoving. Steve Albers was facedown, his back covered by a few ceiling tiles, but otherwise he appeared miraculously unhurt, as if any second he might clamber to his feet. Sirens blared in the distance, and people screamed
for help. Yet Steve did not stir. The long needle-shaped sliver that had penetrated the base of his skull had caused almost no bleeding. His last thought before the blackness washed over him had been of Kate.
Hours later the man who had met with Abu Sayeed knelt in his private sanctum in the basement of his waterfront mansion. The room was kept locked at all times, and he had the only key. Its walls were painted bright white, and a special air system hissed softly as it removed the smell of the room’s other occupants.
A table along one wall held a glass-fronted mouse cage where twelve white mice scurried through a bed of cedar chips. On the opposite wall was a second, much larger glass container. Inside, coiled and quietly digesting its most recent mouse, a timber rattlesnake as thick as a beer can lay with its large triangular head pointing outward.
The man wore a white shirt and khaki trousers and sat in the middle of the room on a hard-backed chair. He had been praying diligently for the past forty-five minutes, and now the feeling he’d been seeking finally came upon him. He began to twitch and jerk as the spirit of the Lord began to pour into him, lighting him with a heat and power that made his scalp tingle as it shot all the way to the ends of his fingers.
As he’d done alone and in private for years—ever since he’d left his old Tennessee mountain church—he stood and went over to the terrarium where he gathered himself for a moment, his eyes shut tight. He prayed to God to witness this proof of his faith then reached down with both hands and scooped up the rattlesnake.
As always, the weight—close to twelve pounds—and the coolness of the smooth skin surprised him. He held the twisting body in both
hands and heard the warning buzz of rattles. Had he been in his old congregation he would have passed the snake to another worshipper, but he was alone. If he were bitten, the Lord would protect him, as He had the three times he’d been bitten previously.
“Let the blood I have shed not be in vain,” the man prayed. “Let it be that any deed done to bring about Your Son’s return is a blessing.”
He raised the snake over his head and continued to pray until his muscles ached from the awkward weight. Gradually, his mind quieted and faded back into the far reaches until the universe consisted only of himself, the serpent, and God—the three of them bound in a strange trinity. When his prayer finally ended, he lowered the snake and replaced it in the terrarium. As he withdrew his hands it happened, a blur of movement.
He jerked away, seeing the red punctures in the thin web of skin between his thumb and forefinger. The fangs had gone right through the narrow band of flesh, which meant the amount of venom in his system would be slight. However, fire already consumed his entire hand. The throbbing pain rocketed up his arm and threatened to drag him to his knees.