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Just because you call a stool a truffle does not make it one.
There are going to be a lot of sad pandas, as the true stool-to-truffle ratio is revealed across the world over the coming months.
Go long cash in the gun safe and preps topped off.
Sunday night in Asia will be closely watched.
It is always done “to protect you”.
Update: All four parts of this story are now available as a single document, in two formats:
Piss Christ? Piss Koran!
Part Four: Resolution
by Matthew Bracken
“Your call, smart guy.” The phone connection made a click and the line went dead.
Mike wasn’t a kid. He knew that he wouldn’t live forever. He’d had enough brushes with death to understand that a healthy old age was not guaranteed in the contract. He’d been standing next to men who had stepped the wrong way, and fallen. He’d helped pull a man’s body off a concrete footer where he’d been impaled on an uncapped rebar stake. Just two stories down, and dead as a nail. Laughing and joking the minute before. A paragraph in the back of the paper, if that. There but by the grace of God.
Before he’d climbed the tower, Mike hadn’t planned out how the stunt would finish up. He figured that at the very least, he’d be arrested for trespassing. In fact, he didn’t even have a bottle of piss. It was apple juice, in case he spent the whole day up there and ran out of bottled water. He just wanted BCA News to be forced to publicly account for how casually they accepted Serrano’s Piss Christ as “art,” showing it on their website for years, when they were too cowardly to ever show a single peep of an unpixilated Mohammed cartoon. But finishing the morning by crawling down the twenty ladders, and hoping that some police officers would arrive to protect him from the gathering crowd of enraged Muslims?
No way. Not even if he had believed Vic Del Rio about the police escort, and he didn’t believe that lying weasel for a second. Not after Del Rio set him up for the mayor’s phone call, and the coordinated SWAT helicopter assault. Now there was only a single thin line of police barricades across the middle of 53rd Street, but there were no police officers standing behind it. Frank Salerno had said that the mayor wanted him dead. That, he believed. Some kind of a deal had been struck, but it wasn’t with him. It was between the mayor and the leaders of the local Muslim community.
So even if he wanted to go, to slip away quietly, the mob now unrolling their prayer rugs on 53rd — already angry enough to chew rebar and spit bullets — would see him coming before he was halfway down the twenty ladders. In their minds, he had already desecrated their Holy Koran by tearing up Sura 9:5, the Verse of the Sword.
So the die was cast. Well, nothing lasts forever. It had been a great life, and he’d had a wonderful wife. At least it was a gorgeous August morning in Midtown Manhattan, the rising sun casting beams and shadows down the length of 53rd. If this was his day to go, he thought he might as well make the best of it. He looked at his watch. It was 8:33, so he had just under a half hour. That is, if the mob was going to wait until after their morning prayers to stop the two blasphemies.
He picked up his iPhone to see what they were covering on BCA. A reporter was standing in front of a wave-pounded marina in Cabo San Lucas while Hurricane Eliza swept through. He selected his other television network preset buttons, and saw that none of them were covering the events around 6th Avenue and 53rd Street in Midtown Manhattan. Vic Del Rio had been right. The plug had been pulled on his stunt. He put the ear bud from his little Sony radio back in. On WNYR, he was surprised to hear Jerry Conroy’s voice, but it only took him a moment to understand that it was a pre-recorded “best of” show.
Meanwhile, beyond the puny little barricade just to the west of the crane, 53rd Street was rapidly filling up with devout Muslims who had heard the imam’s call to action. While he watched, he saw something glint in the sunlight. A man in a tan robe unrolled his prayer rug, revealing a sword, which he waved in circles over his head. Then the sword went against the pavement, his prayer rug concealing it.
Mike tried calling the WNYR studio office line again, but got a busy signal. He knew it would be useless to call the other radio and television stations on his list. But he also knew that there must still be cameras on him, even from across 53rd in the Grand Hotel. He found his spiral notebook and his Sharpie, and was considering which sticky-noted verse advocating the murder, plunder and rape of the infidels to tear out of the Koran next, when he heard an insistent rapping behind him. He looked around his poncho lean-to shanty toward the corner office of the bank building, and saw a crowd of people, at least half of them in police uniforms.
The woman from the other office was there again, holding another file folder message against the window. It read >call this number< followed by nine digits. He didn’t recognize the area code; it wasn’t from New York. It was hard to see around the shanty, so he unclipped the bungee cords from the corners, rolled it up, and put it away in his pack. With the BCA cameras a hundred yards across 6th Avenue turned off, it no longer made sense to hide from the eyewitnesses who were nearest to him, police or not.
He still had a zip-lock bag with unused prepaid flip phones, so he used a fresh one to call the number. It was picked up and answered on the second ring. He heard “Hello?” It was a woman this time.
“Do you know who this is?” asked Mike.
“Of course, silly, the whole world knows! I’m glad you called. The show must go on, right?” She had a hillbilly accent. Middle-aged and gravelly, like she was a smoker.
“How? BCA is back to showing the hurricane.”
“Oh, we don’t care about BCA. If you’ll take another caller, we’ll make sure it gets on the radio. And it’ll get on the internet too.”
“To tell the truth, I don’t rightly know how. Somebody else is handling that side of it. But they seem pretty sure that they can keep you on the air, if you want to be. So, do you want to be?”
“Of course I do. That’s why I’m up here.”
“That’s the spirit, Mike! Well, I just got the high-sign, and they say we’re live on a Ko-rean radio station in Newark, New Jersey right now, if you can believe it. Ko-rean!”
“Korean? But that means —”
“Don’t worry, it’ll be in English today. We just put out the station information by text message. All the union guys in New York City are getting them as we speak, at least, that’s what I’m told. And it’s going on the internet, too, somehow. Audios and videos; it’s being filmed from every which way, that’s what I’m told. I don’t really understand how it all works, but they say that if that creepy mayor of yours takes that Ko-rean radio station off the air, they have more stations lined up right behind it. All right?”
“I guess so.” If it was over her head, it was way over Mike’s. But he could see that on the other side of the window walls of the corner office, several people were holding up smart phones, so for sure, he was on video.
The Southern lady said, “Now, you look for another number, and use another phone. You have a very special caller. Good luck, and God bless.”
“Wait a minute —” But the line had gone dead.
He looked back to the building. The woman with the file folder was showing another number. He chose a new flip phone, and called it. It rang once and was picked up.
“Is this Brooklyn Mike?” It was a girl’s voice, or a young lady’s, speaking in unaccented American English.
“Yes, it’s me, who is this?”
“For today, my name is Amina. Some people that I trust said that I can talk to you, and that everybody will hear my story.”
“They tell me the same thing, Amina, so go ahead, I guess.” Mike looked at his watch. Twenty minutes to nine. It wasn’t his plan at this point to take another caller, but really, what plan did he have left?
“Thank you. I wanted to do this for a long time. Mike, have you ever heard of a lady named Ayaan Hirsi Ali?”
“Sure, I know about her. She’s from Somalia, and she wrote a book called Infidel, and another book called Nomad.” Both had come highly recommended, and Mike had read them while he was doing his own research on Islam. They were amazingly insightful. Brilliant, really.
In a soft voice, the girl said, “Ayaan Hirsi Ali is from Somalia, as you said, and she escaped from Islam. So today, she has to live in hiding, because she is an apostate Muslim. Well, I too have escaped from Islam, and I too am in hiding, but I was born in America. I was born in America, and I’m in hiding!” Amina paused to catch her breath, and gather her thoughts. “I was only allowed to go to a normal American high school for two years, tenth and eleventh grades. I had to wear the hijab, and I was watched for every minute I was out of our house. And the hijab had to be tight around my face, and I had to wear long clothes, almost like a burka, so that just my hands and my face would show.”
She said, “Maybe you have heard that some Muslim girls like to dress that way, but what about the girls who hate it? What about them? When I unwrapped my hijab and wore it loose like a scarf, and my hair would show, I was beaten for it by my father at home. No matter where I went, I was spied on, even by my own brothers. If I was seen talking to regular American kids, not Muslims, just talking, like friends, I was beaten. I was never allowed to make any friends on my own, never. No sports, no drama club, just straight home. My father checked my phone every night, and he told me that if I ever had an American boyfriend, he would kill me. Kill me! And I believed him, because he already beat me all the time. But never on my face, so the marks wouldn’t show. I tried to find just a little freedom in my life, and he found every little piece, and smashed it flat. He thought I was becoming Americanized — that’s what he called it — but I was born in America! Why shouldn’t I be Americanized? I was an American, but I was a slave.
“I tried to resist, but what could I do? He checked my phone, I was watched everywhere I went. When I should have been getting ready for my senior year, I was pulled out of school. He told me that I was going to be home-schooled, but only in Koranic studies. I had to become a better Muslima, and stop being Americanized. My soul was at risk of eternal hellfire, and I was putting our family honor at risk. So I was made a prisoner in our own house. I was literally locked inside, and guarded every minute. I was too free, that’s what he said! Too free! He was afraid I would be ‘ruined,’ and his family honor would be destroyed. That lasted for three months; our house was my prison.
“And then he announced that I was going to be married to a cousin from his old country, a man of thirty, a man who could speak almost no English. I had no say in the matter — none. My mother was terrified of my father, but my brothers supported him. I had no place to turn. I had no friends outside of our home. I was never allowed to make friends. So I had nobody. I was going to be married to a man twice my age — a first cousin! A man I had never met! My father said that he was a very pious Muslim, and he would teach me to be a good Muslim wife. But all I wanted was to be free, like the regular American girls.
“So I had to pretend to accept my fate, to become submissive to my father’s will. I was going to be sent to my father’s country, so then I knew I was out of time, and then I escaped. I was still only sixteen, and I took a little money from my mother, enough to take a bus to another city, and I found a shelter for battered women. I had no idea what I should do next. I had no money, and no friends. I had nothing outside of my family, nothing! I didn’t know anything, then. I was still a fool about those things. I believed anybody who said they would to help me. So I was introduced to Family Protective Services by the ladies at the shelter.
“The social workers who came to the shelter convinced me to meet my mother at a restaurant. I was such a naïve fool! By then, I was dressing like a normal girl, blue jeans, like that, and no hijab. I swore I would never wear the hijab again, never! So when I arrived at the restaurant I looked for my mother, but instead, there were my brothers, lying in wait for me, and friends of my brothers from the mosque. They tried to catch me in the parking lot and push me into a car, but I screamed that I was being kidnapped, and an American, some old man like a cowboy, he had a big gun, and he pointed it at them, and I ran away again.
“After that, I had to hitchhike to another town. I was at the mercy of anybody, anybody, and then God sent me the first of my angels. The first car that picked me up was driven by an old couple. Through my tears, they heard my whole story, and they promised not to turn me in, not even to tell the Family Protective Services, and that was the first time in my life that I felt safe. I felt safe, but I was still not free. In America!”
“What about the FBI?” Mike asked her. “If they tried to kidnap you, that’s a federal offense. Even if it’s your family, I think.”
“The FBI? Oh, my God, the FBI? Yes, the old couple had the same idea. The people who sheltered me, the first people that picked me up. They said I should call the FBI, so I spoke with them on the phone, but I was too afraid to let them know where I was. I called them when I was in somebody else’s car, with somebody else’s phone. The FBI person I spoke to arranged to have a meeting with me, but this time, I chose the location. It was a Waffle House with glass walls. We had another girl wear a hijab and pretend to be me, a Christian girl, a friend, just to be sure. But instead of the FBI, it was my brothers and their friends, coming to catch me again! Somebody from the FBI had to have told my father about the meeting. The FBI! I saw my brothers coming to catch me again, but I was hiding in a car across the parking lot. So please, don’t tell me about the FBI.”
She had to pause and catch her breath. “You need to understand something, Brooklyn Mike. My father is not just some ordinary Muslim man. He is very important. He belongs to important Muslim associations. He has even been to the White House. I have seen him on television, but when he is on television, I don’t recognize the same man who would beat me with a cane for showing my hair. On television, he’s so smooth and gentle. Oh, on television, he’s a very peaceful man, a gentle moderate Muslim! The same man who beat me with a cane so hard that I would bleed. That’s why they want to catch me, and if they catch me, they will kill me. My story would be too much of an embarrassment, oh, the shame and the dishonor it would bring!”
Amina took a deep breath, and continued. “When I was in high school, we read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Everybody knows the story. Everybody in America talks about slavery, about how horrible it was, and how evil men like Simon Legree would try to catch the runaway slaves, to take them back to the South, to take them back to the slave plantation. Why? Because the black slaves were just another man’s property, and nothing more.
“But today, the FBI is helping the slave masters to catch the runaway slaves! What has happened? I can’t believe it! I was born in America, and I should be free, but I was born on a Sharia Law slave plantation. I was going to be sold by my father to be the property of another man, a stranger, a cousin, for him to rape me as he pleases, because that is his right under Sharia Law. I was just property, a slave, without a word to say about my own life. And I was told to accept my fate, to submit, because I am only the property of my father, and I must obey him. I was told to accept my fate, like any slave. To be sold to another man like a sheep or a goat.”
She paused, seething with fear and anger. “If my brothers find me again, they’ll kill me, and nobody will ever find my body. And my father will be proud of them, and they will be proud of themselves, and after I am dead, my father will go back to the White House, and he will pretend to be a gentle and wise imam, and stupid Americans will believe him. And I will be dead and forgotten, just a runaway slave that nobody ever heard of. And this is in America — under American Sharia. What happened to the America that stands for freedom? What happened to it? And now, after this phone call, I’ll have to move again, to another family of Christians who will hide me in another state. My bags are already packed. I live in fear that the next time I see my brothers, there will be nobody around to save me, and I will be killed. But if I die, I tell this to my father: I have written everything down, Baba, and if anything happens to me, people will know who you really are. Brooklyn Mike, how can this happen in America? How?”
Mike was hushed by the passionate sadness of her tragic story, but he was also in awe of her hunger for freedom. “I don’t know what happened to our country, Amina. I don’t even recognize it anymore. I wish I could give you some hope, but I don’t know what to say. Just that I’m sorry.” Mike was sixty, and he’d lived every day of his life as a free man, free even to make crazy choices like climbing up the tower crane. But Amina’s freedom, her American birthright, had been stolen from her before it had even begun.
She was weeping, and then she was gone. And Mike was weeping too. He looked away from the building, to wipe his tears with the back of his hand. His watch said that it was ten minutes before nine. West of the line of barricades, 53rd street was densely packed with more and more Muslims walking in from 7th Avenue. When he looked back at the corner office, the woman was holding up another number. He called it with his next phone. This time a man answered. Mike said, “I’m almost out of time, and I don’t know what to do next.”
The man said, “Don’t quit, Mike. Help is on the way.”
His voice sounded familiar, but he couldn’t place it. Mike asked, “Who is this?”
The voice said, “Look over here, Mike.”
He turned back toward the corner office, then stood up on his platform, leaning against a strut. It took him a moment to recognize Frank Salerno, because he’d only seen the bottom half of his face before, but there he was, holding a phone. Frank was still wearing his black uniform, but without all of the tactical gear or the climbing harness. This was the first time that he had seen Frank’s entire face, without the goggles or the helmet.
“I’m not telling you what to do, Mike, but time is getting a little short. Nine o’clock is the witching hour, that’s what we’re told.”
“How did you — what are you doing up here, Frank?”
“Tactical command post. You’re a popular man with the beat cops, a popular man, and especially with the ESU. Not so much with the brass, but we’re keeping them out of the TCP. See the fancy RV down by the MAM? The brass-hats are all down there. Nice ball cap, by the way. Everybody thinks I slipped it to you on the crane. Doesn’t matter. Let them think what they think. And if you want to dunk your Koran in piss, you go right ahead. Won’t bother us a bit. The mayor told us to keep the hell out of 53rd between 6th and 7th Avenues. He ordered us to stand down, like San Jose. Well, that’s what we’re doing. We’re standing down.”
Mike looked straight below him again. There were hard hats and other civilians packing the sidewalks along 6th Avenue. At ten minutes before nine, the construction workers simply pushed over the police barricades blocking off the end of 53rd, and began to pour into the previously empty space beside the base of the tower crane. Within moments there were hundreds of hard hats on the street below him, red, yellow, blue and green dots seen from above. And on the other side of the mid-block barricades, not fifty yards past the base of the crane, there were thousands of Muslims lining up for prayer. And just a thin gray line of police barricades separating them.
A loudspeaker came on, tinny, with feedback. A small platform had been erected at the front of the crowd of Muslims, at the middle of the barricades, so Mike grabbed his binoculars. The platform was a small rolling dumpster that had been hauled into place and turned over to make a stage. Among the men at the very front was Imam Qutb, in the flesh, wearing a man-dress, and a Muslim skull cap. A speaker the size of a guitar amplifier was lifted onto the dumpster-stage, and Qutb was being helped onto the top, presumably to lead the call to prayer.
On the other side of the barricade from Qutb and the thousands of Muslims there were hundreds of hard hats, and more coming from up and down 6th Avenue. He looked at his watch. Nine minutes to go, but he wasn’t sure exactly when the call to prayer would begin. Judging by the loud rumble of voices floating up from the street, the Muslims were already in a foul mood, and they would be in an even worse mood after Imam Sayyid Qutb whipped them into a frenzy to stop the two great blasphemies ‘by any means necessary.’
Mike scanned the crowd, holding his binoculars in one hand, his phone in the other, leaning against a diagonal strut. The crowd of Muslims was separating as pairs of men were allowed through holding big two-handled baskets between them. He focused in and could see that these baskets were being dropped off at intervals through out the crowd. And the baskets and tubs were full of what looked like bricks or stones.
Stones, and swords: they were going medieval. And in the crowd, Mike saw a man waving a Kalashnikov rifle above his head. Time for the phone. “Frank, there’s a guy down there with an AK.”
There was a pause, while Frank Salerno conferred with some of the other officers in the corner office suite. Some were in tactical gear, some in regulation uniforms, and some in plain clothes. “We see him, Mike. Don’t worry. We’ll take care of that guy if he becomes a problem. We already have him dialed in.”
“They’re bringing in bushel baskets full of rocks, have you seen that?”
“We’re tracking them too, Mike. But have you seen what’s coming from the other way?”
“Yeah, I’m watching. It feels a lot better not being alone.” The linked steel barricades at the end of 53rd had been pushed over or taken apart, but the only police to be seen were still on the other side of 6th Avenue, guarding the Modern Art Museum. This could not have been what the mayor had been anticipating, when he had ordered his police force to stand down on the long city block east and west of the tower crane, and Brooklyn Mike.
A north-bound dump truck slowly turned left off 6th Avenue. When it stopped, it dumped the load in its bed, and then turned back onto 6th and continued north. Mike used his binoculars to check out the pile of debris, and he recognized it at once. It was a mountain of rebar cutoffs, the short pieces of iron that were left over when the long reinforcing rods were cut to length. The rod-busters produced mountains of the stuff at any good-sized construction site; it went into dumpsters for recycling. Somebody had used a front-end loader and filled the back of the dump truck with rebar, or maybe they had used a crane with an electromagnet. Either way would work.
A big white SUV like a Suburban pulled in next, and backed up toward the barricade in the middle of the block while the hard hats opened a lane for it. Some hard hats opened the rear cargo hatch and pulled out what looked like a pair of black refrigerators, but a closer look showed them to be concert-sized loudspeakers. And all the while, from north and south on 6th Avenue, a still-growing crowd of hard hats was arriving on foot, each man selecting a nice piece of rebar, averaging about a yard long.
Imam Qutb was standing on his dumpster stage, his back to the American hard hats. His own amplifier and speaker were being pushed too hard, and his voice was cracking and full of static as he exhorted his own crowd in what was presumably Arabic. Mike looked at his watch. Three minutes until nine. The Muslim crowd, numbering in the thousands now, extended from the mid-block barricade all the way back to 7th Avenue. Then suddenly, the disorderly mob lined up in neat ranks and files, one man for each of the thousands of prayer rugs. How many of the rugs had swords or Kalashnikovs beneath them, wondered Mike? They still outnumbered the hard hats on the shorter end of the block toward 6th Avenue by at least three to one. He wondered if there would be enough construction workers to hold the mob back from the tower, once they were sent forward en masse on their mission to stop the two great blasphemies by any means necessary.
One minute until nine.
Mike was still on his feet, nervously bouncing, watching the two crowds that were facing one another across the single line of police barricades, but without a single police officer between them. Then a long, clear note cut the morning air, it had to be the beginning of the call to prayer. It began with a prolonged Allahu Akbar, a slow yodeling, wavering up and down in tone. The Muslims all immediately put their heads down, the entire crowd aligning like electrically charged iron particles sharing a single connecting hive-mind. But then the slow, high-pitched yodeling call to prayer slowed, the voice lowering and growing distorted, and then it began, somehow, to play backwards! Then it stopped again, and played normally. Mike scanned the crowd with his binos, they seemed restive, looking about, unsure. Perhaps the Brother in charge of the sound system had made a mistake, or the recording machinery was defective? The prayer began playing again normally, but this time it was accompanied by the sound of a man screaming, and of other men yelling out Allahu Akbar. Not yodeling it slowly, but barking it out excitedly, over another man’s blood-curdling screams.
Mike had heard it before, not long after 9-11. It was the audio from the Nick Berg beheading tape, and he remembered forcing himself to watch the video as the American was slowly beheaded on camera with a knife. Mike remembered it well, because he’d felt a connection to Berg, a bold young man who had gone over to Iraq to put up cell phone towers. Berg wasn’t an Ironworker, but he was something close, a tower erector. He’d gone over in the hopeful early days after the fall of the Saddam regime, and he’d been kidnapped and executed in a truly horrible fashion.
And now his final screams were playing over the call to prayer. Mike looked across the single thin barricade, the mob was growing agitated, turning to one another, literally seized by mass confusion. And then the first rocks began to fly over the barricade toward the American hard hats. Mike turned to the building, Frank Salerno was mouthing phone and holding his against the window. Mike put his phone to his ear and heard, “Mike, now’s your chance to get out. We have some undercovers who are going to pop smoke for cover when you come down. Now’s your best chance, buddy.”
More stones began to fly over the barricade. Mike took the Koran, and threw it far off the platform onto the street, found his gloves in his pack and quickly put them on, then sidestepped back across the crane’s jib toward the tower. A sound buzzed and snapped past him, shots ricocheted off the pipes around him, but they ceased as quickly as they had started. And then, improbably, amazingly, the call to prayer was replaced by, of all things, a big-band swing orchestra, and a female singer began to belt out The Hokey Pokey Song in high-fidelity sound at rock-concert decibels! Despite the danger of his literally precarious situation, Mike couldn’t help but laugh.
You put your right foot in,
You put your right foot out,
You put your right foot in,
And you shake it all about.
You do the Hokey Pokey
and you turn yourself around,
That’s what it’s all about.
In a minute Mike was back at the tower, and climbing past the crane operator’s box, and the slewing ring gear. No more shots had been fired at him after that first and only volley. Somewhere out there, an ESU sniper was his guardian angel, and that made him feel a lot better about his exposed position. He was able to speed his way down the tower using gravity, hooking his feet around the outsides of the ladder rails, grabbing them with his gloved hands, and sliding down each floor in just a second or two. By the time he reached the base of the tower his gloves were smoking hot, and a protective screen of yellow and red smoke was drifting around him.
A half-dozen hard hats surrounded him. In the cloud of smoke one of them said, “Here, put this on,” and handed him a blue t-shirt with the logo of the Electrical Workers, and a yellow hard hat, a sun beater with the brim that went all the way around. Once he’d put these on, he effectively disappeared into the swirling crowd. Behind him, hundreds of construction workers swinging iron rebar cutoffs were engaging a much greater number of rock-throwing Muslims, but he had no sense of how the battle was going, only that a scrum of men was pulling and guiding him the other way, around the Bank of Europe building, and down 6th Avenue on the packed sidewalk. Men and some women were running in both directions, some heading to the fight, and others with bleeding wounds who were being helped or even carried in the other direction, away from it.
At some point the Hokey Pokey song had ended, and of all songs, the English punk classic Rock the Casbah by the Clash had taken its place. By the order of the prophet, we ban that boogie sound, degenerate the faithful, with that crazy casbah sound! The Mohammedan rock-throwers must not have overrun the hard hats at the end of 53rd Street, or the music would have been cut off. Otherwise, Mike had no sense for the battle, only for the mass confusion of it as a half-dozen strangers, young men in hard hats in tight formation around him, hands on his shoulders, guided him along through torrents of frenzied humanity. And through it all, there were no uniformed police to be seen on the west side of 6th Avenue, as the mayor’s stand-down order was scrupulously obeyed.
In spite of himself, while being swept along through the crowds, Mike couldn’t help but to laugh again. He was escaping from a riot, no, a street battle, a street battle with its own sound track. The shareef don’t like it — rockin’ the casbah! Around the next corner of the Bank of Europe building, he was led though a vehicle gate into a utility service area, then to a steel door that was opened with a key. Then down a cement staircase, and into a dimly-lit underground parking garage.
“Slow down, fellas, I’m an old man,” said Mike.
One of them replied, “No, you’re not an old man, you’re Brooklyn Mike!”
“Where are we going?” he asked them.
“You’re getting a ride out of here, that’s all we know. Come on, just a little more.”
Down another ramp, onto another level. A black Mercedes-Benz limousine was waiting. The back passenger door opened as they approached.
“Who are these guys?” Mike asked.
The oldest of the hard hats, who was maybe forty, said, “I don’t have a clue, but they’re your ride out. That’s all we know.”
So Mike got in the back seat of the big sedan, closed the door, took off the yellow hard hat, and put it on his lap. There were three guys already in the car, they were all dressed in dark pants and white dress shirts, open at the neck. They could have been bartenders or waiters, except that they were the size of professional wrestlers, or NFL linemen. The driver had enormous hands on the wheel, gold rings on his fingers, and tattoos on his knuckles. In Russian letters. Cyrillic. Oh, boy, thought Mike. The Russian mafia.
The car pulled forward, twisted up a pair of ramps, a garage door lifted, and they shot out into the daylight on 7th Avenue, southbound. Men in skullcaps were running on the sidewalks, the hems of their robes held up high for more speed. The other back seat passenger said, with a thick Russian accent, “Look at Arabs running, oh, is so beautiful thing to see. So, you are famous Brooklyn Mike? Is good to finally meet an American with balls. You can play with Russian friends anytime. Things not working out in USA, you are coming to Russia, everything be good for you there.”
Mike was exhausted, drained, sinking into the creamy leather. “Thanks, I, uh, appreciate the offer. Where are we going?”
“Only short ride to New Jersey, not to Russia. Not this time. Then another ride for you. You have no cell phone, no radio?”
“No, I left them all back there.”
“Good. This is very important thing, no radios.”
In a minute they were coming out of the Holland Tunnel, and a few minutes after that they passed through a fenced gate that rolled aside for them, drove past containers and rail sidings and abandoned box cars and straight into a cavernous warehouse and across its empty cement floor.
“You go out, across tracks is red truck. Where you go after, I don’t know. Good luck to you, big American hero. Am proud to being your taxi cab today.”
The Russian in the front passenger seat spoke to the man in back in his language, then he picked something up from between his feet, and handed it to his compatriot in the rear. They exchanged a few more words, and the English speaker in the back said, “In box is good Russian lunch, like big Russian sandwich. You are getting out of car now, okay?” He handed the shoebox-sized package to Mike, it was inside of a brown paper grocery bag with the top folded down. “Now, you go. Red truck, across tracks. Okay?”
Mike reached across the backseat and shook the Russian’s hand. Blue tattoos, the lettering in Cyrillic. He had no gift to give them in return, so he left the yellow hard hat as a keepsake. He opened the door and walked away from the black Mercedes, out of the warehouse into bright sunlight, across a loading dock and down rusty stairs. He crossed some old railroad tracks to a parking area where, indeed, a tractor trailer with a gleaming red cab was idling. The passenger-side door opened as he approached, and a female voice beckoned him to climb up.
There was a woman in the passenger seat, and a big man who was leaning all the way across to greet him. They broke into grins and shook his hand hard as he climbed aboard, almost pulling him up and inside. The man said, “Brooklyn Mike, I knew it! Hey, there’s a jump seat in the middle back there. Sit down, we need to haul ass.”
Mike was scarcely seated when the truck lurched and rolled forward. The driver was at least as old as Mike, but thicker in the middle, the typical commercial driver spread. He said, “I’m Jordan, and this is my wife, Fran. Jesus Christ — Brooklyn Mike! But hey, don’t worry, I know all about operational security. I’m not a jerk that’s going to take selfies or blab his mouth.”
“Where are we going?” In a minute, the eighteen-wheeler was pulling onto a highway and getting up to speed.
Jordan said, “We’re going to Chattanooga; I just know that we’re dropping you off at a truck stop this side of Knoxville. After that, I don’t know where you’re going, and I don’t want to know.”
“You look parched,” said Fran. “There’s a case of water on the floor behind Jordan.”
“Thanks.” Mike pulled a plastic bottle from the crate, opened it, and drank half right away. The package the Russians had given him was on his lap. “How did you know about this, I mean, how did you find out where to be?”
“I got a call this morning, the guy just said I should be in Union City at such and such place, and I should wait for an important passenger. That’s all.”
Fran said, “And we never pick up riders, never. But it wasn’t just some guy that called.”
“Yeah. An old friend called me this morning. He just said I needed to do it, that’s all. And if I say I will, I will — put it in the bank. We go way back, me and him, and we owe each other too many favors to keep track of, so when we got a problem, we just help each other out. That’s all. We were up in Connecticut, running south, so no problem. Like they say: things happen for a reason.”
“What’s happening back in Manhattan?”
Fran said, “You were just there, Mike, you tell us.”
“No, I mean now. It was like a huge riot when I got out of there.”
“What’s happening,” said Jordan, “Is our guys are beating the holy hell out of their guys, at least, that’s what I’m hearing.” He pointed to the blue-tooth attached to his left ear, with a small microphone on a stick. “Beating them up and down 53rd Street, the ones who didn’t run away. For some reason, there’s no police around. Too dangerous, or something.” Jordan turned around and winked. “Apparently, a thousand hard hats swingin’ rebar can do a lot of damage when they’re royally pissed off. You want I should put on the radio, so you can hear it?”
“No, not yet. I like the quiet in here.”
“Turns out they have no sense of humor.” Jordan began to laugh. “The ragheads, I mean. We watched it on YouTube while we were waiting. YouTube, and that Korean radio station. The YouTube don’t work so good when we’re rolling, but Fran can check it for you if you want to watch.” He began to sing “You do the Hokey Pokey, and you turn yourself around. That really cracked us up. Thousands of them ragheads all lined up to shove their butts up in the air, and The Hokey Pokey Song playing. Whoever dreamed that up, that was inspired. Yep, they got no sense of humor at all. Dead serious, all the time. That’s their problem — no sense of humor. Well, one of their problems.”
Fran said, “Brooklyn Mike, in our cab, and we can’t even tell anybody.”
“Opsec, Franny, Opsec,” said Jordan, scanning the road ahead, two big hands on the wheel, keeping exactly to the speed limit in the right-hand lane. “Operational security. If he couldn’t trust us to keep our yaps shut, he wouldn’t have called us.”
Fran replied, “I know. I know. Hey, Mike, have you eaten? Of course not. We have lasagna in the fridge, you can zap it in the microwave there. Or, if you’re tired, you can catch some Z’s in the bunk behind you. But if you just want some snacks, we have some cookies, potato chips, anything you want.”
He was hungry, and that made Mike think of the box lunch that was still lying unopened on his lap. He unfolded the paper bag and pulled out a cardboard box, and opened its flaps. On top was a cigar box, and he lifted its lid. Inside was big pistol, it said Glock 21 — Austria — .45 Auto on the slide. Two spare magazines, loaded. He looked at the ends of the bullets on top, fat copper and lead hollow points. He remembered the Colt .45s from his Army days, same caliber of ammo. A very thoughtful gift from the Russians. They knew that he was far from being in the clear, and that he’d be on the run from the Muslim radicals, and probably the FBI too, so they’d provided him with a major-league blaster.
There was more below the cigar box, so he lifted it out and set it aside. Next in the bigger cardboard box was a fine white linen napkin, carefully folded up to fit neatly. He pulled it off, and saw four stacks of currency side by side, fifty dollar bills on top. Each stack was as thick as they were wide, with a brown rubber band around each. On top was a note that read, “Half for Brooklyn Mike, half for Amina. Good luck.”
Mike stared out at the highway ahead, between the two high-backed bucket seats. A little wooden cross on a string swung below the GPS unit in the middle of the windshield. They were on I-95, southbound. Somewhere, he had a Russian godfather, or maybe it was a guardian angel, or maybe it was something else entirely, something that would always remain a mystery. He pulled up a corner of a stack of the bills and riffled it. It was all fifties, right through. Easier to spend than C-notes. Safer. Again, very thoughtful of the Russians.
Fran asked, “What do you got there, Mike?”
“A present from some friends.”
“Oh, that’s nice. Not food?”
“No, not food.”
“Well, I can fix you something, or we can heat up some lasagna.”
“Thanks. I will, in a little while. But maybe I’ll take a nap first — it’s been a long day. Say, Jordan, what time did you get the call to pick me up?”
“Geez, Mike, let me think. Right after six? Six-fifteen? Franny, check the phone log.”
Six-fifteen? At six-fifteen, he had only just started taking calls with Jerry Conroy, so that wasn’t possible. It had to be a mistake.
Fran said, “It’s not in the phone, Jordan, it’s not in here at all.” She was scrolling through all of their incoming numbers. “There’s nothing here. That’s strange.”
“Not to me,” said Jordan. “Crazy shit like that has happened all my life. If I told stories, nobody would believe them, so I just keep my big yap shut. I been through some real shit, Mike, some real shit. Fran could tell you stories, but she don’t tell stories neither, do you honey?”
“No way. Our lips are sealed, Mike. Opsec. It’s better that way. We don’t spend a lot of time looking in the rear view mirrors. We like the road ahead a lot better.”
Jordan said, “But we come through it all, and here we are, free and alive, and pretty healthy for a couple of old farts. I never thought I’d see fifty, much less sixty-five. And now here we are, rolling down the highway with Brooklyn Mike, free as the wind, on our way back to Tennessee.”
“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” said Fran, without a trace of irony
He surely does, thought Brooklyn Mike Dolan. He surely does.
This story is dedicated to the memory of Amina and Sarah Said, who deserved much better in the Land of the Free.
And then defy those objectives.
This is the third installment of a story by Matt Bracken, which is being serialized here and at Gates of Vienna in four parts.
Piss Christ? Piss Koran!
Part Three: Crisis
by Matthew Bracken
As the two SWAT commandos slid down their ropes, the chopper lifted for a moment, and one of them was dragged against the crane’s guy wire. He was flicked from his descent line, but he managed to grab hold of the thick steel cable. The helicopter dropped again, its rotors nearly intersecting the cable, but it banked away, dipped its nose, shot forward and corkscrewed downward, the other commando swinging out below its belly on the carnival ride of his life.
The unlucky commando was hanging onto the guy wire halfway out to the end of the jib, his feet more than a yard above the top pipe. He was trying to swing a foot up onto the lower end of the slanting wire, but he was too weighted down with tactical gear. If he tried to go hand-over-hand down the greasy wire, he’d slip and risk bouncing off the crane and falling twenty stories. Instead, the best he could do was to hook an elbow over the wire, and lock his forearm with his other hand.
Mike was angry that the SWAT team had tried a sneak attack during of the mayor’s phone call, but that didn’t change the fact that the officer dangling from the wire was facing the imminent threat of death. He left his secure platform at the end of the jib, and worked his way back toward the tower on the bank building side, his boots on the lower pipe, his bare ungloved hands on the top.
As he moved he yelled, “Hang on, buddy, I’m coming! Stop swinging, save your strength—just hang on!” The first helicopter had switched off its powerful strobe lights and its acoustic weapon, and followed Mike’s progress and the fate of their stranded SWAT team member from a hundred feet out.
In half a minute Mike was beneath the dangling cop, the knobby soles of his black boots dangling more than a yard above the top pipe. The welded struts between the three main pipes were joined at sixty-degree angles, forming alternating triangles along the length of the cantilevered jib. Where two of the struts joined at the top pipe was where Mike could make his move. He blessed himself with a quick sign of the cross, crouched, and then sprang up and inward, getting one leg and then the other around the two diagonally opposed struts halfway up to the top pipe where they met.
He clenched both struts behind his knees, squeezing together with all of his lower body and leg strength while pulling himself up with his hands and arms, then got an elbow and a shoulder over the top pipe. With sheer determination he scissored his legs together and forced himself further up, until he could push one foot over the top pipe, and then work his chest and belly onto it, balancing himself there. He found a matching diagonal strut on the other side with his foot, and then he was at least fairly secure on top, panting and wheezing, but for the moment at no risk of falling. He hooked his ankles around the opposing struts, and pushed his chest away from the top pipe until he was sitting directly below the dangling SWAT commando’s black boots.
Mike said, “Okay, buddy, we can do this, but don’t move. I’m going to grab your feet, okay? Don’t move. I’m going to grab your feet, but don’t move. All right?”
“You’ve got about four feet to the top pipe, okay? Don’t let go yet.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t. But I’m hurt, and I can’t stay up here all day.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll get her done. Hey, what’s your name?” The cop was facing back down the slanting wire toward the end of the crane, the toes of his boots toward Mike. Mike was facing the other way, toward the crane’s tower.
“Frank. My name is Frank.”
“Okay, Frank, we can do this. I have to get a good hold of your feet, but don’t let go yet. Not till I say. When I say, drop down to your hands, and then you’ll only have about three feet to go. You understand? You got that? You want to come down slow.”
“Yeah, I got it, Mike, but I got a hurt arm, so I don’t know how long I can hang on.”
So Frank the SWAT cop already knew his name. Frank wasn’t an Ironworker, but if he was an NYPD SWAT cop, a member of the elite Emergency Service Unit, Mike thought that he’d have to be a damned good all-around athlete. And if he wasn’t, well, then they were both probably going to fall to the street, and that would be that. Even if Frank did everything just right, they still might fall. Mike had never done this trick with another Ironworker; he was purely winging it, operating on adrenaline and instinct. “Okay Frank, I got your feet. Now, when I say, let go from your elbow, and hang by your hands, okay?” Mikes had hand around each of his boots, behind his ankles.
“Okay, but I can’t hang for long.”
“All right, let go from your elbow, and hang.”
Mike clenched the struts on both sides of the top pipe with his feet as hard as he could. Frank’s black boots slid down until the toes were against Mike’s throat, with Mike’s hands around the back of the cop’s knees, which were bulked up with pads. “Okay, Frank, here’s the tricky part. Wait till I say ‘let go.’ Don’t try to balance on top, just keep going until you’re sitting on the pipe like me. Okay? You understand?”
“I got it, I understand. I’m going to straddle the pipe and grab you.”
The guy was cool, Mike had to give him that. “That’s right, you’re going to straddle the pipe, and it’s going to hurt, but you’re a tough guy, right? I’m ready, so when you’re ready, let go, one hand at a time. You ready?”
“Then let go.” Mike had to loosen his grasp and grab again as the SWAT cop fell straight down. Frank spread his feet as he came down to trap the pipe, and grabbed Mike in a bear hug as he stopped short, and just like that, they were face to face, with Mike straining to keep his balance as Frank’s momentum carried his torso over toward the bank building twenty feet away. Mike had to haul him back upright, levering his feet against the struts, and then they were face to face, embracing in a double bear hug, almost nose to nose. Mike said, “Feel behind you with your feet, you’ll hit a pair of struts. Hook them with your ankles.”
“I already got ’em, Mike. I already got ’em.” Frank was wearing a black helmet and dark goggles. Robo-cop in black, from the nose up, but his mouth and lips were alternating between relief and terror.
“I’m good here, Frank, I’m solid, so you climb down first, okay? The struts are on an angle, right? You’re going to slide your foot down a strut toward the building until you reach the bottom pipe. So you got to push away from me a little, and get a leg over, and slide down. I’ll hold you steady. Okay?”
“I can clip a carabiner around the pipe—a snap-link.”
“Perfect, Frank, perfect! That’s the ticket. You do that.” Since he’d left the street, Mike had been climbing without any safety gear at all, but it made sense that the SWAT cop would be ready to hook in. A climbing harness was integrated into his body armor and tactical vest.
The cop said, “I got to let go with one hand, all right? So I can hook my snap-link around the pipe.”
“Do it, I’m ready.” Mike looked at the front of his partner, a black and gray patch said ESU. That was for the Emergency Service Unit, New York’s elite SWAT team.
Frank felt for a carabiner that clipped to his tactical vest; it was connected by a short length of rope to his climbing harness. He deftly flipped it around the top pipe, and then clipped it to its own rope. Once his safety line was attached, relief showed plainly on the half of his face that was visible to Mike. “I thought I was a goner. I tore my bicep when I hit the wire, and it was all I could do to hang on by my elbow.”
“I couldn’t just watch you fall. I couldn’t do that.”
“I have a wife and three kids. And they still got a daddy.”
“Hey, you’re not going to arrest me, are you?”
“Hell no! I’m sorry Mike, this operation wasn’t my idea. It was the mayor, and the commissioner. It was just orders, and I was pulling duty.”
“I understand. Will you get in trouble if you don’t arrest me?”
“I’ll tell them I was hurt. I am hurt. How could I force you to do anything, up here? I’m going to slide off, now. Once I’m standing on the bottom pipe, I’ll hold you steady while you come down.”
“Okay, you first, then me.”
Frank nodded, pushed backward on the top pipe, put a leg over toward the bank building, slid down the strut, and found his footing on the bottom. Then Mike did the same, while the SWAT cop steadied him. During the entire process, from Mike first grabbing Frank’s boots, until they were both safely down, they’d been in close physical contact.
“Frank—thanks for not arresting me.”
“Don’t worry about it. Thanks for saving my life. I think I got the better deal.”
Mike laughed. “Yeah, I guess so. Hey, do you think the mayor will try something like that again?”
“Not with my team, he won’t. I’m sorry, Mike. It was just a job, it was just orders.”
“I understand. It’s your job.” And most of the time, the job involved saving innocent hostages from violent criminal maniacs. They sure had enough of them in the city, and Mike never had any doubts about the absolute need for a team of professionals like the NYPD Emergency Service Unit. If the mayor sent them out for the wrong reason, the ESU guys couldn’t be blamed for that. “So Frank, what happened with the helicopter?”
“That idiot almost killed me, that’s what. Washout Washington, he’s a councilman’s nephew. He wasn’t in the military, like us. I mean, he wasn’t a military pilot first. You were in the Army, right?”
“Right. In the seventies. Peacetime.”
“Well, Washout wanted to be a helicopter pilot, so they gave him three tries at the academy.”
“The mayor owed the councilman a favor, and we got Washout for a pilot. I don’t know why they didn’t have him flying the distraction chopper. I think it was just his turn, and he wanted to prove himself. Look, Mike, if you get out of this, I mean, when you get out of this, look me up. Frank Salerno. I got the first round. Hell, I got all the rounds. I’m sure my wife will want to meet you too. And my kids.”
“I’ll do that.” There were standing on one pipe while leaning against another, twenty stories above the pavement, having a conversation like they were across the backyard fence while their barbeque grills were firing up. Mike thought nothing of this, not after decades as an Ironworker.
Frank said, “I think I understand what you’re trying to do up here.”
“That’s all I’m asking for, a little understanding. I’m not going to do anything to hurt anybody. I’ve got no weapons or bombs, and I won’t jump.”
“Look, Mike, I gotta tell you—I think the mayor wants you dead, man. I don’t like saying that, but I got that feeling.”
“Frank, when I get down, I’m going to find you, and get that beer.” They shook hands, and then the SWAT officer let go and started back along the jib toward the tower. The “distraction helicopter” was still hovering a hundred feet away, taking it all in. As he passed the connecting struts, Frank unclipped his carabiner, refastened it around the top pipe, and continued toward the tower, unclipping and clipping. But he was a family man, with young kids.
Mike stayed where he was, his winded exhaustion catching up to his sixty years. He looked at the diagonal struts. There was no way he could do that again, not for a million dollars, not if his life depended on it. But somehow, he’d done it. For five minutes, since the distraction helicopter had first dropped in front of him, he had no age, just a lifetime of experience, and a life-or-death mission to accomplish.
He heard a clacking and rapping noise behind him, a banging, and he twisted around. Twenty feet behind him, along the twentieth floor of the Bank of Europe building, the window wall was now as transparent as air. There were people standing shoulder-to-shoulder across the wide office, and more people were standing behind them. Men in jackets and ties, women in dresses, and cops and firefighters in uniforms. And they were clapping, waving, mouthing hurrahs, smiling, cheering, giving him exuberant thumbs-ups, and holding up smart phones to record it all.
A woman was pressing a tan file folder against the window. She’d scrawled a message on it with a marker that read, “We’re with you, Mike!” He was stunned, not expecting anything like that reception, so he just stared at them. Then he took a hand off the top pipe, twisted halfway around, and waved to them all a little sheepishly. This wasn’t why he’d climbed the tower, and he didn’t know how to respond to their attention. Then he started side-shuffling back out the crane’s jib, toward his little platform at the end.
The distraction helicopter moved away, following the progress of ESU officer Frank Salerno down the twenty steel ladders of the tower. Mike looked around for the other police helicopter, and found it on the ground across 6th Avenue. Ambulances were pulling away from it, with lights and sirens. Traffic had been stopped on the long block in front of the Modern Art Museum, so there was plenty of open space for a helicopter to land. He looked straight down between his feet, there was a new line of police cars on 53rd Street near the base of the tower, blue lights flashing. They were there to pick up Officer Frank Salerno, he guessed.
Mike reached his expanded metal grating platform again, and sat down heavily. If he was still alive tomorrow, he was going to be sore as hell, one giant bruise from his neck to his ankles. He just sat, staring across 6th Avenue at the BCA tower, and down West 53rd toward the MAM, and after a while he regrouped and took stock. His padded stadium seat had caught under his poncho shanty, he recovered it and slid it beneath him again.
His flip phone was still on the grating deck, and so were his binoculars, and his smart phone. The gray shirt and the hardhat were gone, he must have knocked them over in the recent excitement. The plastic bucket was gone, but the Koran was still there, open, pages fluttering in the breeze. The bottle of amber liquid was where he’d left it, under his poncho shanty on the building side. His pack was where he’d left it. He found the water bottle that he’d already opened, and drained it in one go. Then picked up his little radio, and pushed its single ear bud back in.
Jerry Conroy was arguing with a female about just exactly who was responsible for the crisis in Manhattan, which had escalated, step-by-step, until a police officer had been gravely injured. There had been a semi-crash landing of an NYPD helicopter while the other ESU officer was still hanging from it by a rope. Was this Brooklyn Mike’s fault, or the mayor’s, or the police commissioner’s, or the ESU commander’s, or the pilot’s? Somebody had to be held responsible for his injuries, but who?
Both the WNYR radio host and the caller agreed that without Mike’s intervention, at least one NYPD cop would probably be dead. The other helicopter had been unable to get close enough to the building to retrieve the lost officer, because it had been mission-configured to carry its specialized acoustic and visual “distraction devices,” and not to conduct a high-risk rescue so close to a building. The helicopter didn’t have the correct equipment or the right ESU personnel on board, so, naturally, no rescue attempt could be made. More lives would have been put at risk, so the decision had been taken for it to simply observe the events. It was just lucky for the ESU officer dangling from the wire above the crane that Brooklyn Mike had gone out and hauled him down to safety.
Mike noticed that his 9-11 ball cap had been lost somewhere along the way, so he looked into his pack, and found a black one that had NYPD across the front. After meeting Frank Salerno, he knew that needed those guys on his side if he was going to get off the crane in one piece.
Mike picked up the flip phone, it was still on. “Jerry, you still there? Jerry?” He expected that the line had been disconnected, but almost at once he heard a familiar voice. It was the guy who had first answered the phone at the radio station just before dawn.
“Brooklyn Mike, is that you?”
“I’m still here.”
“Great work up there, man! Great work! I’ll tell Jerry you’re on.”
Then he heard Conroy again. “Mike! Holy Jesus, man! Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Jerry.”
“The whole world is watching you, Mike. The whole world is watching! That was amazing, how you grabbed that cop. Nobody would have blamed you if you’d just sat tight, but you just went right out there and got him.”
“Frank Salerno. That’s his name. Frank Salerno of the ESU. We’re good now, we’re tight. It wasn’t his fault. It was the goddamn mayor. Frank was just doing his job.”
“Hey, are you ready to take another caller?”
Mike exhaled, and stretched his shoulders. “Sure, why not?”
“Okay, next up is Lenny from Queens. Lenny, you’re on.”
“Mikey! Mikey Dolan! Goddamn, buddy, holy hell! What the hell, Mikey?”
“Lenny, the Hebrew turn-screw?”
“Mikey, I knew it was you as soon as I heard you on the radio, even before I saw you on TV. Goddamn Mikey Dolan, up on a crane with a Koran and a jug of piss. Mikey, I always knew you were a crazy sonofabitch, but this beats it all.”
“Geez, Lenny, what’s it been, five, six years?”
“Seven. The Port Authority job. Coldest winter in twenty years, and we’re up there bangin’ bolts in the snow. Easy money, right, Mikey? But I thought it was the end for you today. I thought it was the end for you and that cop. We worked a lot higher, you and me, but twenty stories is high enough. Hey, the safety snitches catch you up there without a harness, they’re going to dock your pay, right?” Lenny laughed, but then his voice cracked. “Mikey, you made me proud to be an Ironworker today. You made us all proud. Brothers to the end. Nobody else could have done that — nobody. Only an Ironworker would be that goddamn crazy. Nobody else.”
“I guess everybody knows who I am now, huh, Lenny? Thanks for blowing my cover, you dumb Jew bastard. Why didn’t you go to medical school, like your brother?”
“I know, black sheep of the family. But I didn’t blow your cover. Everybody knows already, Mikey. Everybody. Look, I don’t want to hold you up, I know you got your hands full. But I wanted to tell you that everybody on the picket line is tuned in, and nobody’s talking about nothing else. Haven’t you heard? The whole world is watching, and they already got about five embassies under attack. The one in Islamabad is on fire, and they’re pulling our people out with helicopters. So mazeltov and behatsla’cha, and watch your tuchas you dumb Mick, ’cause in case you didn’t know it, you got all the goat-humpers in the world pissed-off enough to chew half-inch rebar and spit bullets.”
“Don’t I know it? Good to hear from you, Lenny. Really good.” His old friend’s voice brought Mike back to life, and put some new steel into his sore old back. Then, Lenny was gone.
Conroy said, “How about that, Mike? An old friend, eh?”
“More than a friend. A union brother.”
“Yeah, I understand.”
“No, you don’t. But that’s okay. Nobody could. Not unless they been where we been, and done what we done.”
“Okay, okay, fair enough. Are you ready for another caller?”
“Sure, why not?”
“This guy just calls himself Ex-Muslim. So go ahead, Ex-Muslim.”
The caller had a barely perceptible foreign accent. “Mike, you were asking the imam the meaning of the word taqiyya. I’m assuming you already know what it means, but for everybody else, it means holy lying for the purpose of spreading Islam. Lying to a non-believer isn’t a sin for Muslims, it’s just clever. It shows how smart you are to put one over on the stupid kafirs. And that other guy who called himself Ghazi, well that means a holy warrior who is doing jihad against the kafirs. Somebody has to tell you people these things! Americans are so naive when it comes to Islam. I was raised as a Muslim, but when I came to America, I left it all behind. But even now I have to be careful, because if Muslims find out that I left Islam, my life would be in danger. How can you live with people who will kill you for leaving their cult? And that’s what it is: a cult. A death cult, where you get rewarded for killing infidels.”
Conroy said, “That sounds like just a bit of an exaggeration there, Ex-Muslim. Maybe you have a chip on your shoulder. Maybe a few fanatics might feel that way, but—”
“No, Jerry, it’s not an exaggeration. I was born in Egypt, just like Imam Qutb. Believe me, most Egyptians support killing apostate Muslims. They support Sharia Law all the way. Devout Muslims believe that the Koran is the literal word of Allah, dictated word-by-word to Mohammed. That’s why Islam can’t be reformed. Any Muslim who even suggested that one single word of the Koran was a mistake, well, he would be risking a death fatwah.”
“So, you’re saying Islam can’t be reformed?”
“That’s what I’m saying, Jerry. Because any Muslim who said that one single word in the Koran was wrong would be insulting the Prophet. They would be saying that Allah had made a mistake. And that’s enough to get your head chopped off by a fanatic.”
Conroy said, “But what about that abrogation thing? Can’t Muslims see that the abrogated verses were mistakes?”
“Not mistakes. It doesn’t work that way. Each sura of the Koran was correct for its time, that’s what Muslims are taught. When Mohammed was in Mecca, he preached peaceful Islam, because it was correct for that time. It was what worked in Mecca. When Mohammed went to Medina, Allah gave him new revelations, so Mohammed started preaching violent jihad, but both are still the word of Allah.”
“That doesn’t make sense to me. Not if they contradict each other.”
“That’s the point, Jerry, it doesn’t have to make sense. There’s a famous sura about fighting jihad; it’s about killing non-believers. Sura 2:216, I just looked it up. It says that Muslims have to fight jihad, even if they don’t like it. Let me read it: Fighting has been enjoined upon you while it is hateful to you. But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not. That’s one of the reasons why I left Islam when I came to America: I wanted to think for myself, and not be a programmed robot, like Mike said.”
“So how can Muslims reform their religion, if the Koran can’t be changed?”
“I wish I knew the answer to that question, Jerry. But I do know this: the more that Muslims study the Koran, the more dangerous they become, not the less dangerous. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi is the Caliph of the Islamic State, and he has a PhD in Islamic Studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad. So when American politicians say that the Islamic State doesn’t represent Islam, well, that’s like a bad joke to Muslims, because those ISIS guys are actually super-Muslims. The ones that your politicians call the ‘moderate Muslims’ are the ones who don’t read the Koran and hardly know what’s in it. They’re just cultural Muslims, that’s all. They can’t win a single argument against the fanatics who have memorized every sura and hadith. How could they? So when your politicians urge Muslims to study ‘true Islam,’ they’re only helping to create more fanatics.”
“So, what do you think is going to happen today on 53rd Street?”
“I don’t know, but Joseph, the guy from Lebanon who called before, he was correct. Imam Qutb asked all the faithful Muslims to come and stop the two blasphemies. I’m looking at some websites, and some local Islamist groups say that there will be morning prayers on 53rd Street near the museum, and all faithful Muslims should come. After that, I don’t know what will happen, but I think it’s going to be very dangerous. I think that Mike should leave the crane now, while he still can.”
Conroy asked him, “What do you think about what Mike is doing?”
After a pause, Ex-Muslim said, “I don’t know. Of course, it will lead to days of rage around the Muslim world, the ummah, even worse than after the cartoons, or the Life of Mohammed video. Already, embassies are being attacked. But on the other side, maybe it will give Muslims a chance to show that they’re capable of self-control. Or if they’re just killer robots, like Mike said. I just don’t know. Anyway, thank you for allowing me to speak.”
“Thank you, Ex-Muslim.” Jerry let the silence hang for a moment. “So, Mike, you just heard him. Embassies are already being attacked. And you don’t feel responsible?”
“Not at all. I’m not responsible for what other people do. Human beings have free will. Are they programmed killer robots, or not?”
“Any chance you’ll come down before ten o’clock, when the museum opens?”
“None that I can see. But Ex-Muslim gave me a new idea. If every verse in the Koran is the sacred word of Allah, then I guess that Islam really is unreformable. So maybe we can test it out, right here.” Mike picked up the green Koran. His numerous bookmarks were orange sticky notes, so they hadn’t blown away when the book had gone tumbling in the confusion of the helicopter assault. He pinched his flip-phone against this shoulder, he was getting pretty good at it, and said, “Okay, I’m going back to the Verse of the Sword. Sura 9:5. That was in the last chapter that Allah gave to Mohammed, so it erases all the peaceful stuff that came before it.”
Mike opened his Koran to that page. “Muslims always say how peaceful they are, and how Islam is a religion of peace. So, why do they need the Verse of the Sword? How can normal human beings coexist with Muslims, if that sword is always pointing at them? Right? So if Islam is peaceful, then I think peaceful Muslims should be able to do without the Verse of the Sword. Am I making sense?” The retired Ironworker held the Koran toward the cameras, and glanced at his iPhone. The image of the book against his chest was pixilated and blurred. It didn’t matter. They’d get the point. He held the open Koran in one hand, tore the page out, and held it up for the camera. Then he set the book to the side, so that he could hold his flip phone properly.
“Let me read it again. Remember, Allah gave it to Mohammed last, so it erases any peaceful stuff that came before it. That’s called abrogation.” Mike cleared his throat, and began. “Fight and slay the unbelievers wherever you find them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem of war.” He looked up at the cameras. “The unbelievers is us, everybody who’s not a Muslim. So I think that we can all agree that the Verse of the Sword has no place in the modern, civilized world. I think that peaceful, moderate Muslims can agree that the Koran would be better off without it. I think that everybody will agree that if Muslims are going to rejoin the civilized world, then they have to be ready to toss out the Verse of the Sword. Am I right? And if they can’t let go of it, well, then I guess everybody will know what that means, too.”
Mike tore the page in half, then quarters, and kept tearing it until it was in tiny pieces, and then he threw the handful of confetti from the end of the crane. The scraps rolled and blinked as they caught the morning light, widening into a cloud on their descent to the street. The wind was up now, from the east, so the shredded Verse of the Sword was heading back toward 7th Avenue. The line of police cars that had been along 53rd near the base of the crane was gone, so Frank Salerno must have been picked up and taken away to rejoin his Emergency Service Unit team.
Instead of police cars, the flatbed truck loaded with police barricades was parked in the middle of the block. City workers quickly erected a police line across 53rd, beginning where the temporary fencing around the base of the tower crane ended. This was the place where he had snuck into the construction site in dark. Something bright caught Mike’s eye further to the west toward 7th Avenue. At the end of the long block, there were at least twenty yellow cabs parked haphazardly across 53rd where it ran into 7th Avenue. The cabs had to have come eastbound onto 53rd, the wrong way, since 53rd was one-way westbound. There were already barricades across 53rd on both sides of 6th Avenue, so the block should have been clear of traffic. He picked up his compact binoculars to study the situation.
Along with the cabs, there were hundreds of pedestrians, nearly all of them men, and many of them wearing Middle Eastern man-dresses and Muslim skull caps, and most of them sporting beards. All of them were carrying thick tubes under their arms. Some of these men had walked up to the newly erected police line across the middle of the block, and were unrolling prayer rungs and laying them down in a row across the street. The intersection of 7th and 53rd was quickly choking with even more cabs and cars and vans, and hundreds of pedestrians who must have been pouring out of the subway stations or leaving their places of employment.
Mike grabbed his phone. “Jerry, are you there?”
“Yes, but we’re not on the air.”
“We’re on a break?”
“Um, yeah, a break.”
“Is Victor Del Rio there?”
“Um…yes…he is. Do you want to speak to him?”
“No. Just ask him what’s happening on 53rd, down at the 7th Avenue end.”
“Um… All right.”
When Jerry Conroy came back, he said, “According to Mr. Del Rio, the Muslim community is going to hold their morning call to prayer on West 53rd, to pray for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.”
“What crisis is that, Jerry?”
“Mr. Del Rio says the crisis that you created, Mike. With the Koran.”
“Jerry, there’s a single line of police barricades across 53rd, but it’s pretty close to the crane. There’s hundreds of men with prayer rugs, and more are coming, but there’s no police. Just a line of barricades. It’s got me kind of worried.”
There was a pause, and Conroy said, “Mr. Del Rio thinks it would be a good idea for you to come down right away. For your own safety.”
“Jerry, there are hundreds of Muslim men down there already, and hundreds more are coming.”
“Mr. Del Rio says that you need to make a decision very fast. If you come down, some police officers will meet you at the bottom of the tower and escort you to safety. That’s the best he can do. They’re afraid of provoking an incident with a heavy police presence.”
“But there’s no police down there at all, just a line of steel barricades across the street.” Mike looked at his iPhone. BCA was no longer showing the “standoff” on the crane, but a panel discussion. The evening anchor had joined the morning news crew.
Jerry said, “They’re going to hold their morning prayers at nine o’clock. I don’t know what’s going to happen after that. Mr. Del Rio says that you should come down while you have the chance.”
By then, there were several hundred men and their prayer rugs lined up in ranks and files across 53rd from the unmanned police barricade and extending back to west. The taxi cabs forming an ad-hoc blockade at the 7th Avenue end indicated that the cab drivers, and not the police, were controlling access to the street from the west. At the 6th Avenue end, there was another line of steel barricades, but no police. The only police officers that Mike could see were on the other side of 6th Avenue.
Then Mike heard Vic Del Rio’s voice again. “Last chance, Brooklyn Mike. Come down while you can, smart guy. The Jerry Conroy Show is over for the day, and BCA isn’t covering the standoff any more. It was creating a threat to public safety, and we can’t allow that. Public safety always comes first, that’s in the law. So you’re up there all by yourself, smart guy.”
“No more callers, Vic?”
“No more callers, Brooklyn Mike. Show’s over. So, are you coming down? Morning prayers are going to start at nine. After that, who knows what’s going to happen? So, are you coming down, or not?”
With every minute that passed, more men wearing Middle-Eastern garb were arriving from 7th Avenue, and walking in groups down the middle of 53rd toward the crane, with just the unguarded line of police barricades holding them back.
Jerry Conroy said, “You have to come down, Mike. For your own safety.”
Mike Dolan scanned up and down 53rd Street. To the east across 6th Avenue, there was a small crowd of protesters carrying signs gathered in front of the Modern Art Museum, facing an even greater number of police officers across several protective rings of steel barricades. The helicopters were gone, but there were dozens of police cars, a dozen mounted police on horseback, and a half-dozen television trucks with their microwave antennas jabbing skyward. In the other direction, his direction, there were hundreds of Muslims unrolling prayer rugs, and nary a police officer or television camera crew to be seen.
“So, smart guy, are you coming down?” asked Victor Del Rio, the mayor’s special assistant for public safety.
After swallowing hard, and thinking about his options, Mike replied:
“No. I always liked the view up here. I think I’ll stay.”
Next: Part Four