Dressed entirely in black, Amanda Harrington stood silent as the chauffeur opened the Bentley’s rear passenger door, and involuntarily flinched as she got in.
Nothing on the seat. Nothing on the center console. No note, no gifts, no flowers, no champagne, no chocolate. Good.
She relaxed a little as the liveried driver closed the door. The drugs had worn off after about a month --- he had given her a far stronger dose than the attending physicians at Cromwell Hospital had at first thought --- and they said it was a miracle that she hadn’t died. It took another couple of months for her to be able to breathe without mechanical assistance, and still more time to regain the use of her limbs.
Then it was another few months at Bethlem Royal, where she underwent a battery of psychological tests and counseling, to make sure she was ready to take her place back in society, that the stress of reentry --- and the possibility of encountering him --- would not be too much for her still-fragile psyche to bear.
All of this was done in complete seclusion and secrecy. Of the events in France, the newspapers and the BBC had carried not a word; the British government had thrown the cloak of the Official Secrets Act around the whole episode, managed her affairs while she recovered, tended to her property in London as well as to a villa in Costa Rica that nobody even knew she owned. She didn’t know who had ordered that courtesy, or why, but at this point she was simply grateful to be allowed to return home. Even with the shock of her terrible loss still as fresh as it had been nine months ago.
London in the summer was a dicey proposition, but today was as warm and welcoming as it got. Still, she felt a little chill wash over her as the car pulled up in front of her home, 4 Kensington Park Gardens in Holland Park.
“Your residence, madam,” said the driver, opening the door and offering her an arm. Amanda accepted it gratefully.
The man --- he was either Indian or Pakistani, which was far from unusual in London --- gently but firmly helped her up the few steps to the front door of her home. “May I help you with your keys, madam?” he inquired.
“No, thank you, that’s quite all right,” she replied. Though she was still weak, she wanted to be able to do something for herself, and entering her own home under her own steam was a good place to start.
“You’re quite sure?” The man was very kind, and he had a pleasing twinkle in his eye, as if her infirmity was a secret that only the two of them shared.
“Yes, quite sure,” she said, trying to smile but failing. She put the key in the lock and turned it. It opened with the same satisfying thunk she was so used to, and for a brief moment all seemed right with the world. The door swung open, and the front hall lay before her.
As the driver fetched her luggage, Amanda stood in the doorway, breathing in the familiar smells. It seemed that she had been gone for ages, and that she had just left, on his order, bringing with her what he had called so vulgarly the “insurance policy...”
No --- she didn’t want to think about that. Not yet. Not now. Maybe not ever.
The driver was standing behind her, her belongings in his hands. “Madam?” he prompted.
Amanda stood aside to let him pass, and he went into the hallway. “Set them down there, thank you,” she said.
She managed to muster a weak smile of confidence. “Yes, thank you. That will be all.”
They stood in the doorway for an awkward moment, and this time it was he who stepped aside to allow her entry. Then he moved past her, onto the top step, nodded, and turned to go.
“I’m terribly afraid I’ve completely forgotten my manners,” said Amanda suddenly, fumbling in her purse. But the driver waved her off without a word: he was not accepting gratuities today. “In that case,” said Amanda, “please tell me your name.”
“Achmed,” said the man, with a slight bow.
“Thank you, Achmed,” said Amanda. And then he was gone.
Inside the house, Amanda fixed the lock once more but made no further move to enter her home. Instead, she stood stock-still, as if listening for voices. But the only sound she could hear was that of her own shallow breathing.
She turned right, into the parlor. If there was going to be anything, she hoped it would be here, right in the first room, to spare her any further suspense. But the room was as she had left it, the piano still in the corner, the books still on the shelves, even the decanters still on the sideboard. She felt like pouring herself a drink, but the doctors had warned her not to, not for a while anyway. Perhaps tomorrow. Or next week. Or never.
Again, she listened. Again, nothing.
Amanda returned to the hall and started up the steps. She left the luggage in the hallway. There was plenty of time to retrieve it, and besides she had closets full of clothing upstairs. It suddenly occurred to her to wonder how she had come to have any luggage at all, since she had brought almost nothing to France, but someone must have provided her with some of her things during her long hospital stay.
Maybe him. God, she hoped not.
She ascended the long flight of stairs up to the first floor.
Nothing but silence greeted her at the stop of the stairs. The guest rooms yawned tidy but empty. There wasn’t a speck of dust anywhere, nothing to betray her long absence.
She went up another flight of stairs, to her floor, her personal floor. The one that had been their floor together.
The door to the child’s room was shut, and she decided not to enter it. Too many bad memories there. She sniffed the air: faintly, just faintly, she believed she could make out the smell of Indian food, one of their last meals together here.
She turned back to her bedroom. The bed was made, her things exactly where she had left them. Cautiously, she kicked off her shoes and scrunched her toes against the carpet. Then she lay down, across the bed, staring at the ceiling, glad she was home at last and yet wishing she were anywhere but here, feeling every inch a bereaved mother, every inch an orphan and every inch a widow.
How long she lay like that she could not tell, but eventually she was awakened by the soft tones of a mobile phone, ringing somewhere in the house. Somewhere nearby.
That was impossible. Her legendary battery of mobiles, BlackBerrys, and PDAs had been lost in France and not replaced. She lay there, not wishing to rise, hoping that the sound was merely an illusion, an after-effect of her ordeal, a side effect of her treatments.
The sound stopped. She breathed in. And then the ringing started again.
There must be a phone in the house she had forgotten about. One that she had left plugged in. One whose service somehow hadn’t been canceled.
No, it was impossible. But something was still ringing.
Amanda rose and moved toward the bedroom door. The sound grew louder.
She stepped into the hall: louder still. She prayed to a God she didn’t quite believe in that it was not coming from down the hall. From her room. But it was.
No. She had free will. She had free choice. She didn’t have to answer it.
The ring tone stopped, then started up again almost immediately. This time there was no denying it: somebody was calling her.
A crazy thought struck her. Maybe it was her. Her child. No matter what those doctors had tried to tell her, tried to beat out of her, tried to beat into her, no matter how much she understood rationally that the whole thing had been a delusion, deep down she didn’t believe them. She knew herself, knew her instincts, knew her inner voices.
She stopped, caught herself. No. Her lover was dead. She was gone. It was over.
And then the phone rang again and this time she knew she had no choice. She had to answer it. Had to go in there.
She opened the door. The room was just as she had left it nine months ago, a perfect dream room for a twelve-year-old girl, filled with fluffy pillows and stuffed animals. She could practically smell her presence, and if she squinted hard enough, could imagine that she saw the outlines of the girl’s body still visible in the bedclothes. Then the phone rang again.
Now she heard the melody clearly: Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. She shuddered, moved in the direction of the sound, searching for it until she realized that it was staring right at her: on Emma’s bed, lying atop the stack of pillows like the princess atop the pea.
It was still ringing as she picked it up, if you could call what phones did these days ringing. “Hello?” she said in a voice that she hoped was strong. She flinched at the silence, dreading whatever was at the other end of the line. Waiting, waiting...
And then he spoke: “Compassionate leave is over. It’s time to get back to work.”
Amanda Harrington collapsed unconscious onto the floor.
In the air Emanuel Skorzeny did his best to relax into the leather seats of his private airplane. For the past nine months, he had been a veritable fugitive, airborne, fleeing the wrath of the U.S. government. Until last year, that had not been a thing worth fearing, not for a long time, not since Americans had landed on Normandy Beach, bridged Remagen, and came close enough to Berlin to let the Soviets and Zhukov hurry up and take the prize. So much for the bromide that violence never solved anything. It certainly sorted Hitler and the National Socialists out.
More --- not since the Americans had cleared the Pacific islands from Tarawa and Iwo Jima to Okinawa, firebombed Tokyo, and dropped the Big One on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oddly enough, that was the end of Japanese militarism, finis to the Empire, the rude termination of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Thank God the Americans didn’t fight like that anymore.
Still, here he was, a prisoner of his own wealth and ambition. Airborne in his private 707, outfitted and retrofitted to his exact specifications, a home away from home, a flying living room if indeed he would ever have stooped to anything so vulgar as a living room. Free to fly the world, but never land, a contemporary Flying Dutchman, a Wandering Jew, the desolate hero of Schubert’s Winterreise --- the living embodiment of a hundred European tragic heroes, but without the heroic deeds that had accompanied their ineluctable fates.
That devil, Devlin, had done this to him. The boy he had failed to kill when he had the chance, a latter-day Hercules, who had turned the tables on the snakes sent to throttle him in his cradle. And now, after all these years of waiting and plotting and planning, Devlin had defeated him again, defeated him and his most potent operative, Milverton, killed him with his bare hands in his own house, as Hercules had strangled the serpents. Broken his back, stopped his plot, razed his house, and nearly killed Skorzeny himself. He had underestimated his enemy. It was not a mistake he would make again. The next time they confronted each other would be the last time.
“Is there anything else, M. Skorzeny?” asked Emanuelle Derrida. Since the unfortunate demise of M. Pilier, Mlle. Derrida had taken his place as his most trusted assistant. She was younger than Pilier, and certainly prettier. She was also unmarried and seemed entirely uninterested in men. Which meant that, luckily, he was almost uninterested in her.
Mlle. Derrida was, like Chopin, half French and half Polish. From her French father she had inherited her Pascal-like rationality; she never bet, unless it was on a sure thing. From her Polish mother she got her blond good looks. The first time he had seen her, at a concert in Singapore, he had been struck by her willowy figure, the way the breeze moved over her dress and sent it clinging to her body, hugging her in a way that every man desired but no man would ever obtain. No matter: he had hired her on the spot.
Not that his was any life for a young person. Under his arrangement with Tyler, he had escaped the full wrath of the USA, but only under the condition that he stay confined to his home in Liechtenstein, or to those countries without a politically controversial extradition treaty with the United States. And yet she had accepted his offer unhesitatingly, as if there was something that she, too, was fleeing. Not that he had asked --- other people’s troubles were none of his business, only his opportunities. But Mlle. Derrida needed the handsome salary he paid her, and he needed her, and that was that.
But not, he confessed to himself privately, the way he needed Amanda Harrington.
In these past nine months, he had thought often of Amanda Harrington. Of all the women in his life, of all the women he had known, she was the acme. When he heard that she had survived the poisoned chalice he had offered her, he had spared no expense on her treatment and recovery. He saw to it that, every day, her rooms were filled with roses, that she wanted for nothing, that as she progressed everything would be provided for, that her home in London would be taken care of. He gave her everything. The only thing he could not give her was the child she had loved briefly, and then lost. But, then, he could always try again. He was still potent, and in every respect. And now he would see her again. Things would be as they once had been.
“We are approaching Macao, sir,” she said.
Next to Dubai, Macao was one of his favorite places in the world. For an internationalist like Emanuel Skorzeny, the world really was pretty much his oyster, even if that oyster had been severely limited by the informal, unacknowledged sanctions Tyler had imposed on him in the wake of the EMP fiasco. Macao was the old Portuguese settlement on the southwest coast of China, dating back to the early 16th century. Along with the Portuguese foothold in Nagasaki, Macao was where the West had begun in its penetration of the East. Now, of course, it was the East that was penetrating the West.
“Thank you, Mlle. Derrida,” he said. “Please ensure that everything is in readiness for our arrival.”
“Indeed, sir,” she replied. She gave him a little smile --- was it of encouragement? Advancement? Impossible to tell. He smiled back, neutrally, he hoped. Everything was a lawsuit these days; it was getting to be that a man couldn’t make an honest living as a pirate anymore.
Which is what both perplexed him and animated him. What had happened to the secure world he had once known? True, it had never existed, except in his own idealistic imagination, but that did not make it any less real. From his boyhood in a Sippenhaft camp in northern Germany near Lübeck --- Sieglinde’s aria, Der Männer sippe was for him the most resonant part of Wagner’s Ring --- through his Wanderjähren as a young man, to his arrival in Paris, to his first million on the trading floor of the DAX, he had held fast to his vision.
“Music,” he said, and as if on command, Elgar’s Enigma Variations came over the aircraft’s loudspeakers. One of the things he most liked about Mlle. Derrida was that she could read his mind. Something Pilier could never quite do.
The Boeing 707 --- the kind of planes they used to use for long-range international travel back in the early ’80s, when the Aught Seven was the last word in aircraft --- bumped a little, then settled down. In its original configuration, it was basically a flying cigar tube with two rows of three seats on either side of a center aisle; in his specially outfitted version, he had reserved the entire center section of the aircraft, the safest part over the wings, for his own private quarters.
Toward the front, between him and the pilots, was the communications headquarters. Despite everything that had happened, he had maintained most of his agreements with international air controllers and national satellite systems, which meant that he could still monitor the position of every aircraft in the Skorzeny fleet, no matter how temporarily diminished in numbers. To the rear were the sleeping quarters, both his and the staff’s, and behind them, the galley and his personal chef’s quarters. He hadn’t yet made up his mind about Mlle. Derrida; she might prove to be more trouble than she was worth. But, fortunately for him, there were no sexual harassment laws at 40,000 feet.
Skorzeny let the music wash over him. A “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” That about summed it up. Most of the idiots who had inherited Western culture thought of Elgar --- if they ever thought of him at all, which was doubtful --- as a kind of Sherlockian Col. Blimp, a weird doppelgänger of King George V, the clueless monarch who torpedoed his country, his Empire, into the trenches of the Somme, with results that were now distressingly visible.
Enigma. The Morse Code of the principal theme. Two shorts, two longs. Followed by two longs and two shorts. In code: I am. Am I. The question mark practically screamed its presence. Man’s existential dilemma, made aural in music. “I am. Am I?”
Emanuel Skorzeny was a confirmed atheist, and had been since he watched his mother and father executed in the late winter of 1944. A God that could kill one’s family was capable of any enormity, and was one not worthy of worship. Just as the West, in its present incarnation, was not worthy of redemption.
The ninth variation sounded throughout the airplane. No matter how he steeled his heart, it always moved him. Nimrod, the Hunter. So appropriate. And followed by Dorabella, Elgar’s secret love, to whom he wrote coded communications, both musical and literary. What was he trying to say to “Dorabella,” Miss Dora Penny?
“Sir?” Mlle. Derrida startled him. “Are you quite all right?”
“I’m quite all right, Mlle. Derrida, yes, thank you,” he said, in a tone that warned: never interrupt me en rêve.
“We’re preparing for final descent.”
“I am always prepared for final descent, Mlle. Derrida,” he said. “You would be well advised to do the same.”
The plane’s wheels touched down at Macao International Airport with as little disturbance as possible. Skorzeny prided himself on being able to find and hire pilots who made landing an art form. Instead of proceeding to the main terminal, however, the plane diverted onto a secondary runway, heading for a small collection of hangars well away from the main flight paths.
Mlle. Derrida rose and began to prepare the cabin for exit, but Skorzeny remained seated, still listening to the music, and relaxed even farther back into his chair. “You know the old saying, don’t you?” he inquired idly.
“I’m sure I don’t, M. Skorzeny,” his attendant replied.
“If Mohammed will not come to the mountain, the mountain must come to Mohammed.”
Mlle. Derrida froze. Any talk of Mohammed made her uncomfortable. Being relatively new, she was not sure exactly what Skorzeny’s religious views were, or whether he had any at all, but she was young enough and educated enough to know that, these days, one did not lightly discuss the Prophet. Bohemond, Charles Martel, Sobieski, and the rest of them were moldering in their graves, and yet the Messenger of God lived on; one spoke of the Prophet at one’s own peril. “Sir?” she inquired.
“I mean, Mlle. Derrida, that Mr. Arash Kohanloo will be meeting with me here, in my aeroplane. Chef, I believe, will have the meal ready in 15 minutes.” He let the look of surprise wash over, and then away from, her face. “Did you have an appointment here? Something, someone, to see? I hope I have not disappointed you, but the blandishments of Macao will have to wait for another time.”
“No sir, not at all, sir,” she replied quickly. “Might I inquire where --- ”
“You may not. Now please get ready to greet our guest and see that all is in readiness in the meeting room. I will need full communication capability, and please instruct the pilots to activate the mobile-phone jammers. I want and expect complete privacy.”
“Yes sir.” There was a new look of respect in Mlle. Derrida’s eyes. This was the first time she had really seen Emanuel Skorzeny in action, and he could sense that her opinion of him was rapidly undergoing a transformational change: not the doddering old rich fart with time on his hands and money to burn that she had thought him; but then, that was the point.
“Very well, then, sir,” she said, backing away and out of the private quarters. “All will be to your satisfaction.”
“Thank you, Mlle. Derrida,” he said. “Please ensure that it is.” And, with that, he dismissed her.
There were no briefing books or any electronic screens where Skorzeny sat. He had no need for them. He had long since committed to memory the particulars of the man with whom he would be meeting. Arash Kohanloo came from one of the first families of Qom, the holiest of Shi’ite Iran’s holy cities. Qom was where the Iranian nuclear program had been secretly developed for years, built impregnably into the side of a mountain. But, more important, Qom was also the city and redoubt of the 12th Imam, the long-awaited Mahdi, whose imminence would be presaged by a time of troubles that made Christian Revelation look like Eve at play in the Garden of Eden. He was, in other words, just the fellow Skorzeny was looking for.
Skorzeny rose and moved toward the front of the plane. As expected, everything was ready in the conference room, including a repast of nan-e dushabi, panir, dates, eggplant, lamb, and faludeh for desert, washed down with doogh. Off to one side, several computer screens blinked with rows of raw numerical data.
The door to the aircraft opened. “M. Kohanloo,” Skorzeny greeted him, “I bid you welcome.”
The Persian was short, wiry, with what looked like a month-old beard. He was dressed in Western garb, and he bowed to Skorzeny rather than kissing him. He, too, had been briefed: Skorzeny did not like to be touched.
The meal passed with only the basic exchange of pleasantries. Of the current geopolitical situation the two men said absolutely nothing. Skorzeny partook of the meal with the addition of a small glass of Shiraz wine from Australia. He had no intention of insulting his host, but neither did he wish to seem weak; for him Islam was just another human superstition, albeit more useful for his purposes at this moment than Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, or any of the Far Eastern faiths.
When the plates were cleared and the palates cleansed with some aniseeds, Arash Kohanloo looked at his host and said: “You are an infidel, an unbeliever. You mock me with your wine, and insult me and my family; worse, you insult both the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, and the immanence of the Twelfth Imam, Abu’l Qasim Muhammad ibn Hasan ibn ‘Ali, who from the time of the Occultation has waited with infinite patience for the day of the troubles, when he will come again, accompanied by Isa --- Jesus, to you --- to bring peace and deliverance to your world.”
Skorzeny looked at him for a long moment, and then said: “Pick up your mobile phone.” Kohanloo extracted an iPhone from a suit pocket. “Look at it. Try it.”
The Persian ran his thumb over the screen, trying to access an application, then punched up a number. Nothing.
“We are in a completely controlled environment here, M. Kohanloo. Nothing we say leaves this room, and only those communications which I wish to receive can enter it. You may speak frankly here, without fear. So let’s cut the bullshit, pardon my Farsi, and get down to business, shall we?” Now Kohanloo smiled --- a broad smile of recognition that he was with a kindred spirit. “Deep packet inspection,” he said.
“The key to your success. In fact, the thing that keeps your government operating. With the enthusiastic cooperation of suicidal Western telecommunications companies, you are able to monitor all Internet traffic going into and out of your country. There is nothing you cannot eavesdrop upon and, should you so choose, you can selectively block, record or disrupt, as the case may be. For a primitive nation in the grip of an imported and imposed superstition, you have adapted remarkably well to the 21st century, M. Kohanloo. I congratulate you.”
Kohanloo’s lips formed the simulacrum of a smile, although his dead eyes gave nothing away. “What was it your Lenin said? ‘You will provide us with the rope with which to hang you’? So it is written, so shall it be done. If you will pardon my misquotation of sacred scripture --- in this secure environment, of course.”
“The Americans’ National Security Agency can only look upon what your nation does and weep that they have not the moral strength to engage in such ruthless activity. For there is a genius in that, a moral liberation. The higher ends must always be served, no matter the immediate cost. This I learned as a child in Germany. One must set one’s heart against all emotion, against all entreaties, to let the cries of both the innocent and the guilty fall upon your deaf ears, that the greatest good for the greatest number be served.”
Kohanloo’s visage took on a conspiratorial mien. “But what of the Black Widow?” he hissed. “Cannot the Americans do the same thing?”
Skorzeny suppressed a laugh by disguising it as a cough. “They could, but they won’t. One of their whiny little senators in our employ would make a speech, calling upon his countrymen to ‘defend the Constitution’ or some such. Or one of their media captains, who draws a considerable sum from our exchequer monthly, would lead a secular crusade against the government, challenging it to live up to America’s highest ideals.”
“Which apparently includes suicide,” Kohanloo said. “Still, I worry about the Widow…”
“Let me worry about her,” consoled Skorzeny. “And now, to business.” He pointed to the dancing computer screens, on which a very large sum of money had appeared on the screen, expressed in various currencies: dollars, euros, yen, yuan. “Take your pick,” he said.
Kohanloo barely glanced at the screens before turning back to Skorzeny. “How dare you insult me with money?” he said, and rose to leave.
“M. Kohanloo.” Something in Skorzeny’s voice stopped him in his tracks. “What you believe or don’t believe is absolutely immaterial to me. I myself, as you note, am a proud unbeliever in many faiths; all of them, in fact. But I see that you are a man of principle, and I like that. So I will make you a new offer.”
“And what is that?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
Kohanloo thought for a moment, and then a big smile broke over his face. “Under the present worldwide economic circumstances, recruitment has been going exceptionally well, especially in your prisons. By constantly harping on the iniquities of your society, our friends in the media have prepared the people for revolution --- a necessary precondition for the arrival of al-Mahdi. As for our Sunni brothers, apostates though they may be, they need to know nothing of our larger purpose, and only wish to fight and die as martyrs for Allah.”
Kohanloo opened his briefcase, took out a manila folder, and placed it on the polished table. “So do we have a deal?”
Skorzeny looked down at the dossier and smiled. Then he stuck out his hand. “We have a deal,” he said.
Begin each day by telling yourself: today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness.
--- MARCUS AURELIUS, Meditations, Book II
Francis Xavier Byrne had a choice: the .38 or the 9-millimeter?
It was the same choice that every senior officer in the New York City Police Department had to make every year, a choice not given to the grunts, to the junior officers, to the rank and file, but to only a select few, those with seniority and experience.
He had earned that right. Earned it long ago and continued it every day he spent on the force. And every year, when this moment rolled around at the Police Academy on E. 20th Street, Captain Francis Xavier Byrne made the same choice:
He took the .38 Colt Detective Special.
As he raised the weapon into firing position, sighting on the first of the targets, he took a moment to reflect. He was 51 years old now and most definitely old school. No matter how many times he fired the various 9 mms. the department authorized, he still preferred the security and heft of a revolver. The Glock 19 was a plastic piece of shit with a six- pound pull --- not the thing for some frightened rookie to be wielding in a crisis --- and even retrofitted with a twelve pound-pull “NY-2 Trigger,” it still felt like a lethal toy gun. The Smith & Wesson 5946 and the Sig P226 were improvements, although not by much. Byrne and his men also had the option of carrying the Kahr K9s as backup pieces or off- duty weapons, but in his opinion, unless the brass was willing to admit the past century of semi-automatic firearms technology was a mistake and get some old-fashioned Colt 1911s, he was going to stick to the trusty revolver as his sidearm until they pried it from his cold, dead hands.
He slid his right index finger down the frame from just below the cylinder toward the trigger. That was the way they taught it now at the Academy: no fingers on the triggers until you were ready to fire. Until you were ready to shoot. Until you were ready to kill.
Byrne brought the Colt up to eye level. He used a one- handed, full-frontal stance, right eye closed, his dominant left eye sighting down the barrel. Not for him was the sideways stance, in which you were essentially aiming over your shoulder. Not for him was any flashy, muzzle-waving, sideways- pointing ghetto grip: throughout his career, he had several times staked his life on the proposition that the safest place to stand between a gangbanger with a Glock and whatever he was shooting at was right in front of the target.
Fuck it: it didn’t feel natural. The whole “finger on the side of the gun” crap was a “safety” rule --- for the perp’s safety, not the cop’s. He dropped his finger onto the trigger, let it curl around the trigger in a lover’s caress. There was next to no chance of a double-action revolver going off accidentally, or even of a bed-wetting patrolman jerking the trigger hard enough by accident to fire the weapon.
Byrne let out his breath, then held it. Despite the noise of the range all around him, only partly muffled by his protective ear wear, he always felt at peace here. It was so unlike real life: just you and the target, standing there motionless, a big bull’s-eye at its center, dangling twenty feet away, just begging you to shoot it. Of course, it wasn’t really shooting. It was just punching holes, very quickly, through a piece of paper. But it still felt good, and the fact that there was no return fire was a bonus.
Byrne pulled back the hammer: now the weapon had a hair trigger. He fired and punched a hole near the center of the target, just slightly to the left. Each year, as he re- qualified, his astigmatism got a little worse, and each year he had to learn to compensate for it a little more. Some of the men --- Vinnie Mancuso, his old partner back in the days when they were both young and hungry, now working in Commissioner White’s office and about ready to start pulling his pension as he counted down the days --- suggested that he wear his glasses to the range, but to Byrne that was like making love with them on. You didn’t really need to see what you were doing as long as you knew what it was and how to do it.
He compensated a little to the left and fired again. Closer; good enough for government work. Not good enough for him. Another slight shift, another shot: perfect.
“You’re getting old, Frankie,” shouted a voice off to his left. With his headgear on, the voice to Byrne was like a whisper. He didn’t have to turn or look to know who it was.
“Move ’em back another fifteen, Lannie,” he barked. “And this time make it hard.”
Aslan “Lannie” Saleh stifled the crack he almost made. Something about “old” and “hard.” After all, Capt. Byrne was his boss, the man who had given him his break, and even though the unit operated more or less full-time in politically incorrect mode, Lannie Saleh knew that for Frankie Byrne the shooting range was the next best thing to St. Michael’s on Easter Sunday. He knew better than to break the boss’s sacramental concentration.
Lannie said nothing as he hit the control button and dragged the shredded target forward. Everybody kidded everybody in the Counter-Terrorism Unit about their marksmanship, but over fifty or not, Capt. Byrne was still the best shot in the department. There were all sorts of stories about him; about the time when he had caught a burglar in his mother’s apartment in Queens and, without even looking, had put a bullet in the man and knocked him through a window.
Lannie pinched up a paper bad guy and sent it fleeing into the distance. Twenty-five feet, thirty, thirty-five ---
He stopped at fifty. Byrne was reloading. Lannie admired the way the boss so smoothly, so effortlessly, slipped the .38 cartridges into the cylinder, then snapped it into place with a flick of his wrist. That was something you weren’t supposed to do; you were supposed to politely shut the cylinder with your free hand. But Frankie Byrne was at heart an Irish cowboy, and his men loved him for it.
“What did you say?” shouted Byrne. Saleh shook his head: nothing. Jesus, the man really was a mind reader, just like everybody said.
Byrne turned back toward the target and let out his breath. Instead of holding it this time, he kept exhaling; instead of cocking the hammer and firing single-action, he fired double-action, each pull of the trigger doing double duty, each pull cocking the hammer and then releasing it. Six shots. Lannie didn’t even have to look at the target as he reeled it back in to know the extent of the damage.
The first shot, he knew, would be right in the bad guy’s head; the other five were just for show. Or, knowing Byrne, to make a point. In the CTU, setting a good example and, from time to totally unreported time, creating an object lesson for the mother of some son of a bitch back home in Amman, was simply good manners.
Byrne grunted as he looked at his handiwork. Head, heart, stomach, spleen, balls, and, for good measure, a kneecap. Mission accomplished. “Your turn,” he said.
Lannie felt his heart drop into his shoes. He hadn’t come prepared to shoot, and certainly hadn’t expected to perform in front of the boss. Byrne slapped the protective earmuffs on his head and thrust the Glock into his hand. “You’re good to go,” he said.
The new target rocketed out. The book said that most sidearm confrontations took place from point-blank range to no more than twenty-five feet, but Byrne had just sent Osama bin Laden flapping in the breeze at least ten meters.
Lannie took the pistol and tried to steady himself. Even though he had already qualified this year, it didn’t matter: Byrne could fire him at any moment for any reason. The CTU was the most highly regarded and hard to get into unit in the NYPD, and the most top-down in its hierarchy; its members didn’t have to answer to any civilian review board, fat-bottomed top brass, or even the mayor. Once, shortly after 9/11, some deputy chief had tried to insert one of his stooges into the CTU’s secret headquarters, which in those dark days were in Brooklyn. Byrne, or so the story went, marched down to One Police Plaza and threatened to put the dope’s head through one of the double-glazed windows on the fourteenth floor; and since Frankie and Commissioner Matt White had been partners in the old days, that was the end of departmental interference in the CTU.
Lannie took a deep breath of pride --- pride in his unit and pride in what he had already accomplished just getting into it --- and squeezed off nine shots in lightning succession. Three hits, six misses, but at this distance that was pretty good, good enough for government work.
“You shoot like a sand nigger,” said Byrne, inspecting the target. “No wonder you guys always lose.”
Had anyone else said that to him, Lannie would have brought him up on charges; from Byrne, it was a compliment. “You know, I could have your badge for a crack like that, Captain,” he ventured.
Byrne laughed. “Which is one of the things that’s wrong with this country today. In the old days, in New York, that’s how we used to talk to each other, the Irish to the Italians to the Jews. Nowadays, you foreign pussies go running to the U.N. if somebody looks at you askance.”
“Askance? What does that mean?”
“It means you’re in America now, Buckwheat, so learn American.” Byrne slipped the .38 he had been using back into the holster that he wore on his right hip. He popped the clip --- there was another term they didn’t want you to use anymore --- out of the Glock and left both pieces of the weapon on the shelf.
They walked together out of the old Academy and into the glorious sunlight of an afternoon in New York City. Almost instinctively, Lannie turned east, toward Second Avenue, but Byrne took him by the arm and headed west, toward Gramercy Park, instead. “We’re in Chelsea, remember?” he said.
The corpse of Cabrini Medical Center lay directly across the street. The century-old Catholic hospital had closed down in the spring of 2008. Byrne could feel Lannie’s gaze on him as he reacted to the sight. “What is it?” said Saleh.
“It’s an old hospital.”
“I know that.”
“Cabrini Medical Center. One of the oldest Catholic hos pitals in the city. Not financially viable, the state said. And now it’s gone.”
Lannie shrugged. “So what? New York’s got plenty of hospitals.”
Byrne put a hand on his shoulder: gently, but firmly. “It’s what we were just talking about. It’s the past, old New York. It’s what used to be. And now it’s not.”
Lannie still didn’t get it. Byrne kept his hand on his shoulder as he spoke:
“It was named after Mother Cabrini. Frances Xavier Cabrini, an Italian nun from Lombardy. She was the first American citizen ever canonized as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1946, every wop in this town went apeshit when Pius XII punched her ticket to heaven. If you don’t believe me, ask Vinnie.”
“So I guess that makes her pretty special.” Lannie hoped his tone came off as encouraging, but knew it didn’t.
Byrne seemed to let it slide. “I’ll say. I was born there. I was named after her. And one other thing --- ”
Byrne still hadn’t moved. His hand was still on Lannie’s shoulder, his eyes still focused across the street, at the back of what used to be Cabrini Medical Center.
“My father died there.”
Lannie felt his cell phone buzz in his pocket, but he didn’t answer it, or even glance at it. He didn’t want to break the mood, even though to him this was all ancient history, and foreign ancient history at that. “I’m sorry, boss,” he said.
“It was a long time ago,” replied Byrne.
They started walking. “You know,” said Lannie, “not all Muslims are Arabs.”
“So the Iranians tell me,” said Byrne. “But you’re not Persian. Hell, you’re not even Irish.”
“And not all Arabs are Muslims,” Lannie said, undeterred. “Some of us are Christians.”
“And not all Christians are Catholics, but all Catholics are Christians. So what does that prove?”
Lannie had no answer. He was 24 years old, and even though he knew pretty much everything about life that was worth knowing, like computers and girls, he also knew that he knew almost nothing about anything that actually mattered. He was on the CTU thanks to Capt. Byrne, especially considering he couldn’t shoot for shit.
Byrne buttoned his overcoat against the raw spring wind. “So, is that your own personal .38?” Lannie asked. Walking with the boss was awkward, and it helped to have some neutral conversational topic.
“Yes, it’s mine. And no, not originally. It belonged to my dad. He was wearing it the day he was killed in the line of duty.”
Byrne got that faraway look in his eyes that everybody in the department knew so well. It was a look that said: this far and no farther. There are some lines not to be crossed.
Byrne had picked up the tempo now, barreling west past Teddy Roosevelt’s birthplace and across Fifth Avenue. It was as if he knew something was up, was responding to some unarticulated urgency, and it was all Lannie could do to keep up with the old man…on any level.
They had crossed Seventh Avenue, into Chelsea, and were heading north when Lannie felt his cell phone buzz again. Involuntarily, he stopped and pulled the phone out of his pocket. It was one of those shitty departmental phones, standard-issue, not his BlackBerry, which he had left back at his desk in case something really important happened.
“What is it?” asked Byrne. If it were really important, whoever was on the other end of the line would have called him. On the other hand, if it had anything to do with computers, Lannie would be the go-to guy. And that was, after all, the reason Byrne had hired him. Certainly not for his marksmanship.
Lannie glanced at the display: URGENT. He picked up the pace. They didn’t have to say anything. Byrne got it. That was one of the things that made him such a good chief.
They hit the intersection of 20th and Eighth, nearly running now, and headed north.
They rounded the corner. Up ahead was an old, nondescript warehouse, one of the few buildings that hadn’t been converted into artists’ lofts or art galleries. Actually, that was not quite true: most of it had in fact been converted, but there was still a big chunk of the giant building, which occupied a full city block in two dimensions and rose five stories into the air, that had been given over to the CTU. Not that any of the other tenants knew about it.
That was one of the things that still made New York New York, thought Byrne as he spied the building: not making eye contact with neighbors was still considered a virtue.
They pulled up in front of the building. “Mother Cabrini --- Frances Xavier Cabrini --- is the patron saint of immigrants,” said Byrne. His cell phone was buzzing now, too.
Lannie beat him to the punch. “We’re here, right in front of the building,” he said softly.
Byrne watched his younger colleague’s face fall. “What is it?” he asked, but Lannie was already sprinting through the front door.
Excerpted from EARLY WARNING © Copyright 2011 by Michael Walsh. Reprinted with permission by Pinnacle. All rights reserved.