Authors: F. Paul Wilson
Tags: #Fiction, #Detective, #General
And then life as Jack knew it would be over.
Yanked off the cap as soon as he hit the stairs, taking them two at a time while he pulled off his football jersey. Stuffed that into the hat and wadded it all into a tight little bundle. Hit street level as a bareheaded guy in a white T-shirt carrying something blue.
Keep your head, he told himself. You've still got options.
But did he? At the moment he hadn't a clue what they were. Knew there had to be some but right now his adrenaline-addled brain was too wired, too pissed to think of them.
The Seventy-second Street station opened onto a wrought-iron fenced island in the middle of the perpetual vehicular chaos where Broadway forced its way on a diagonal across Amsterdam Avenue. His instincts wanted him in a full-tilt sprint away from the station, urged him to jump the fence and skip through the traffic, but he forced his legs to keep to a walk.
Don't attract attention—that was the key here.
Vibrating like a nitro-fueled hotrod at the start line, Jack stood with half a dozen other pedestrians and waited for the walking green. When it came he crossed and headed east on Seventy-second, which was perfect because, as one of the handful of two-way cross streets in the city, it was busy at this hour. No one else here seemed in a hurry, so he adopted a loose-limbed but steady amble to blend in. He slipped through the shoppers and the locals hanging out on this mild June night, all unaware of the bloody horror in the subway car a few dozen feet below. Two blocks ahead lay Central Park. The anonymity of its cool shadows beckoned to him.
What a horror show. He'd read about that sort of thing in the papers but never expected to be an eyewitness. What drove someone to that sort of mad carnage?
Damn good thing he rarely traveled without the Semmerling, but still he raged that he'd been forced to use it in front of all those citizens. Not that he'd had a choice. If he'd waited for someone in that crowd of sheep to save
ass, he and a lot of others would be as dead now as the poor souls splattered all over that subway car.
Why me, damn it? Why couldn't someone else play hero?
Hero… no doubt that was what they'd call him if he'd hung around, but that would last only the proverbial New York minute—right up until they escorted him to the cooler for illegal possession of an unregistered weapon and carrying said weapon without a permit. And sure as all hell some shyster would dig up the shooter's family and have them sue him for wrongful death and excessive use of force. And how long before the papers learned that he didn't have a job, or a known address, wasn't registered to vote or licensed to drive—hell, didn't even have a Social Security number? Then the tax boys would want to know why he'd never filed a return. On and on it would go, spinning out of control, engulfing him, ensuring that he never took another free breath for the rest of his life.
Jack picked up his pace a little once he crossed Columbus, leaving the shops and restaurants behind and walking through the ultra-high-rent district. Almost to Central Park West, he passed the two liveried gatekeepers outside the Dakota who kept watch on the spot where another gun-wielding lunatic had done his bloody work in 1980 and ended an era.
He crossed CPW and stopped at the mossy, soot-encrusted, rib-high wall of textured brownstone. The park lay just beyond… tempting… but if he entered here he'd have to exit somewhere else; his best bet would be to get out of sight as soon as possible. His apartment was less than half a mile from here. An easy walk. But first…
He stepped through an opening in the wall and entered the shadowed underbrush. Once out of sight he pulled his shirt from the cap and dropped it in a puddle. A dozen feet farther on he shoved the cap into a tangle of vines, then angled around and made his way back out to the sidewalk.
Keeping to the park side, he lengthened his stride and headed uptown. To his left, echoing along the concrete canyons, sirens began to wail.
Sandy Palmer crouched in an uptown corner of the Seventy-second Street subway platform with
editor on the other end of his cell phone. The connection was tenuous from this underground spot, and he feared losing it at any second.
George Meschke's voice growled in his ear. At first he'd been pissed at being disturbed at home, now he was all ears. "You're sure you've got that number right?"
"As doornails. Two men and four women—I counted them twice before 1 left the car." Sandy peered through the controlled chaos farther down the platform. "A seventh victim, a black woman, was still alive but with an ugly head wound. The EMTs are just taking her away."
"You're amazing, kid," Meschke said. "I don't know how you kept your cool. I'd 've lost it after going through what you've just told me."
"Cool as a cucumber," Sandy said. "That's me."
He neglected to mention that he'd given up dinner soon after the train had stopped. Even now—what, fifteen minutes later?—his hands were still shaking.
Those first moments were something of a blur. He remembered seeing the GPM run out, and his abrupt exit had seemed to throw a switch in the crowd. Suddenly everybody wanted out—immediately if not sooner. Sandy had had to pull aside the still sobbing film student from the mass exodus to keep her from being trampled.
As he'd helped her to her feet he'd realized he had a golden opportunity here: he was a trained journalist who'd witnessed a front-page crime. If he could gather his senses, focus on the details, and make the most of the fact that he was his own primary source, he could accomplish something here, something big.
"What's your name?" he'd asked the shaken young woman. "Your real name?"
"Beth." Her voice was barely audible, her skin so white she looked almost blue.
"Come on. Let's get you out of here."
As he'd moved behind her, guiding her, half supporting her, he turned and checked out the front end of the car… the sprawled bodies of the victims… the killer, whose upper half had fallen through the doors when they opened, lying half in and half out of the car… the OR tech still tending to the wounded woman… and the blood, good Christ, the blood—the whole end of the car was awash in pools of it. Who'd have thought people could hold so much blood? And the smell—books always described the smell of blood as coppery, but Sandy had no idea what the hell copper smelled like, only that the whole car reeked of death and unimaginable violence and suddenly he couldn't breathe and the hot dog and Mountain Dew he'd wolfed down on the run after work couldn't stay where they were, wanted out of him as urgently as he'd wanted out of that charnel house on wheels.
And so as he propelled Beth ahead of him and stepped into the marginally fresher air of the station, his stomach heaved and ejected its contents in a sour, burning arc that disappeared into the dark chasm between the train and the edge of the platform.
Wiping his mouth Sandy looked around and hoped that no one had noticed. No one seemed to. After what they'd all been through, vomiting was a nonevent.
He'd then become aware of the noise that filled the station—the cries, the moans, the wails of the survivors who'd just escaped mixing with the screams of the waiting would-be passengers as they got a look inside and turned away with wide eyes and slack jaws. He noticed some getting sick just as he had, or collapsing onto benches and weeping, or simply slumping to the concrete platform.
He'd also noticed others hightailing it up the stairs, those who either didn't want to be questioned by the police, or didn't want to get involved in any way.
Sandy very much wanted to be involved—up to his eyeballs.
He'd found an empty spot on an initial-gouged wooden bench and eased Beth into it. Behind him he heard the automatic doors hiss closed after their programmed interval. He whirled, afraid the train would leave, but no chance of that: the killer's body was blocking one set of doors from closing—they kept pincering his corpse, then rebounding, closing again, and rebounding…
A conductor trotted down, his annoyed expression melting to horror, his forward charge stuttering to a halt when he saw the carnage, reversing to a wobbly-kneed retreat as he staggered away for help.
Sandy noticed a woman nearby sobbing into her cell phone. "Nine-one-one?" he asked.
Good. That meant the cops would be here in minutes. Scanner-equipped stringers and reporters wouldn't be far behind. He didn't have much time to get ahead of them.
"You'll be okay if I leave you here for a bit?" he'd said to Beth.
She'd nodded but said nothing. She was sobbing again. He felt bad leaving her but…
"I'll only be a couple of minutes."
Sandy had hurried then down to the far end of the platform where he could have some privacy and hear himself think. He wondered why he wasn't coming apart like so many of the others. He had no illusions about his inner toughness—he'd had lessons in piano, tennis, even karate, but none in machismo. Maybe it was because he had a job to do, and when he'd finished he too would fall apart. He hoped not.
That was when he'd got hold of George Meschke. He hadn't been sure what he'd accomplish.
was a weekly, published on Wednesdays, and tomorrow's issue had already been put to bed. But Meschke was the editor, this was news, and he seemed to be the one to call.
Cops and emergency teams had flooded into the station and he related everything as he'd seen it.
"This is great stuff, Palmer. Amazing stuff."
"Yeah, but what can we do with it? This week's issue is set." Never before had Sandy wished so fiercely that he worked for a daily.
"Not anymore. As soon as I hang up with you I'm calling everyone in and we're going to scrap the first three pages. Redo them top to bottom. I'm going to rough this out pretty much as you told it to me. It'll be your story—your first-person account—under your byline with a front page go-to."
"My byline—front page?
byline?" Sandy resisted the urge to jump up and do an arm-pumping victory dance. This was not the time or place. "You mean that?"
"Damn right. Now get off the phone and nose around there. Pick up as much as you can. The
, and the
will be stuck up on street level. You're the only one down below, Palmer, so milk this dry. Then rush down here and we'll see about doing a box feature. Hell, with an eyewitness on staff, we're going to be
paper on this story."
"You got it, George. But listen. I've thought of a headline."
"Give it to me."
"I don't think so."
"How about 'Nightmare on the Nine'?"
"Better. But let's leave the headline for later. Concentrate on your first-person opportunity down there."
"Sure. Talk to you soon."
Sandy snapped the phone shut and leaped up from his crouch. His nerve endings sang. Front page… his own byline… on a major story—the story of the year! This was better than sex!
As he started back toward the chaos, he realized he was probably grinning like a nerd who'd just lost his virginity. He wiped it off. And slowed his bounding pace. Had to be professional here. This was a monster leg up for his career and he'd better not blow it.
The NYPD had swarmed in and taken command. Plainclothes detectives and uniforms were everywhere, sectioning off the platform with yellow crime scene tape, stretching more between columns and across stairways.
They'd herded the survivors into one area. As Sandy approached he noticed some looking dazed, some still sobbing, one hysterical, a few trying to hide the large wet spots on their pants, all coming down from the adrenaline overload of fearing for their lives as cops tried to take statements from the more coherent ones.
Sandy wove slowly through the crowd, pausing to listen whenever and wherever he could.
"… and then out of nowhere, this savior appeared," said a stooped old woman in a wrinkled blue dress.
"What did he look like, ma'am?" said the female officer bending over her with notebook in hand.
"You mean he had long hair?"
"Can you tell me what he looked like?"
"We were not to look upon his face…"
Sandy moved on, pausing again by the tall ministerial black man he recognized from the death car.
"… and so then I spoke to him."
"Spoke to who? The second shooter?"
"We think of him as the Savior."
"We who were blessed enough to survive. When we were freed from the train, someone said, 'Who was he? Who was our savior?' And that's how we now refer to him."
"Can you give me a description of this 'savior,' sir?"
"Medium build, brown hair… I can't tell you much about his face because I didn't see it. He had this hat, you see, and he pulled it down to hide his face."