After providing security advice for an international news team in Tripoli, where they had travelled to film during the fall of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in August 2011, I headed for New York to visit the family of a client who was tragically abducted and murdered whilst she was filming on the war torn streets of the Libyan capital. Andi had become quite a favourite of mine, and we’d started to develop a bit of a thing for each other. She liked me and I liked her, very much.
Then she was killed, her horrible death hitting me hard.
Reaching New York, I was stunned to discover that Andi had a son, a young boy named Harley, who was now being cared for in New York by Andi’s twin sister, Bryony. This woman is the absolute image of her dead sister, and during our time spent together in the Big Apple, I began to develop some deep feelings for her.
Having given Andi’s family a large amount of money, with which to help raise young Harley, and deciding that it was far too early to get carried away with a new love affair, I headed for home, to Italy, where I had plans on putting my feet up for a while.
However, as is always the case in my crazy life, things didn’t quite go to plan. My ideas of taking a break are quickly thwarted by the sight of someone I knew, someone rather nasty from my past, a man who just so happened to be meandering around JFK airport as I sat waiting for my flight to Italy.
Here’s what happened in the airport…
Tears in Tripoli – Final Chapter
September 2011 – New York
I left for Italy the next day and I was as good as my word. Once I was checked in and my bag was on the way to the handlers, I took a stroll over to a café and ordered a coffee. Then I rang Bryony to say goodbye, keeping it short and having a quick chat with young Harley whilst I was on the line. After a few final words with Bry, and promising to ring when I arrived home safely, I ended the call and sat there with my drink, letting the memories of the last few days drift through my head as I indulged in a spot of people-watching.
Whilst watching a pair of the most overweight people I’ve ever seen queuing at a burger bar, and betting with myself on the fact they bought diet Cokes, I caught sight of someone who made my blood run cold. Seeing Bryony for the first time had been shocking, in that moment I thought I’d gone mad. But, seeing this man, casually browsing in the shop that stood no more than twenty metres away from me, was even more shocking.
It could not possibly be him, it just couldn’t – not here, not in New York, in the airport, too, of all places! I turned away from him, trying to compose myself. Maybe I was imaging things. Watching his reflection in the strip of chrome which lay down the side of a bubble-gum machine, I knew I wasn’t hallucinating – it was him, definitely. Seeing the man place a book down and turn away, I raised my eyes and stared at him, letting my disbelieving gaze follow him as he nonchalantly walked away. Even his good suit didn’t disguise who he was, not to me it didn’t.
The floppiness of his left foot gave him away – it wasn’t a limp, as such, more like a slight pause in his gait, as though the foot was having problems in receiving messages from his brain. I knew exactly what was wrong with him, because it had been me who had given him that limp.
Shortly after he had blasted a hole through the top of my left breast, I’d fired half a magazine of hot lead in his direction, before collapsing in a heap. I found out later that one of my bullets had almost severed his foot, but the bastard had still escaped.
I tried to remember his name. It was Atif…no, not Atif. It was Abdul…Abdullah? I couldn’t get his name to come back to me, my mind was racing. The guy had several names, and lots of aliases, too. Whatever they were, it didn’t really matter, because to me and to all of my friends, he had simply been known as ‘Wireman’. He was the best and most technically-advanced bomb-maker in Iraq and Afghanistan, if not the modern world.
What made it worse was the fact that I thought he was dead, I was sure that I’d heard he was, maybe I was seeing things, maybe…‘Well, if it is him, then what the hell is he doing in New York?’ I thought, scanning the crowd. I glimpsed the top of Wireman’s head; he was mingling with a large group of passengers over by the escalator, which was taking people to the arrivals lounge.
My mind kicked into overtime: ‘Shit! I need to find out about this, and in a hurry!’ I desperately scrolling through the address book in my phone, blowing out a relieved breath upon finding the name I wanted. I pushed the call button, waiting in hope that the person on the other end was still using the same number as always.
He was, and by the sounds of things, Jim Tasker was the same grumpy arsehole as he had always been. Some things never change.
‘Jake – what the hell are you doing calling me at this hour?’
Dispensing with the fact I’d forgotten the time difference and that the guy was probably still in bed, I gave him the bad news. ‘Jim, listen to me,’ I said. ‘The Wireman, you remember him?’ I heard him grunt in acknowledgement. ‘Well, I’ve just seen him, he’s…’
‘What? Where have you seen him, where are you?’
‘In the terminal at JFK, I’m there now,’ I said, watching as my man reached the top of the escalator.
‘Jesus Christ!’ Jim said. ‘Half the fucking world is looking for that bastard and then you ring me at midnight to say that he’s just mincing through the terminal in JFK without a care in the world! Are you drunk or insane?’
‘Jim, you dickhead,’ I said, impatiently. ‘Would I be ringing you if I didn’t really have to, eh? Anyway, it’s not midnight – stop being a bleeding drama-queen.’ There was a pause whilst Jim obviously tried to remember if I would have called him or not. He and I had never quite seen eye-to-eye. ‘Jim, he’s here, I’m telling you!’ I said, urgently.
Wireman was leaning over the balcony and looking into the crowd, I saw him glance at his watch. I knew for a fact he wasn’t going to detonate anything, because people like him don’t do the dirty work. That wasn’t of the slightest concern to me, but losing sight of him was. ‘Jim, I’m not joking, any time today would be good…’
‘All right, all right, Jake – keep it down, I’m trying to think…’ he said, brusquely. After a few moments, he said, ‘Right, what are you doing, coming or going?’
I’m due to leave for Italy, very shortly,’ I said.
‘Right, and what’s Mr Wireman doing, exactly?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘He’s gone up to arrivals, but that might not mean anything, plus…I have to go soon; my bags are checked in.’
‘Well, go and un-fucking-check them then, sonny boy!’ he said, Welsh accent grating in my ear. ‘Get your stuff and go and see where he’s bloody going – find out if he’s flying, or if he’s meeting someone and staying locally, just get me some information!’
‘Listen, I haven’t time to uncheck anything, the guy is moving and I’m gonna follow him,’ I said. ‘You get hold of the airline and tell ‘em I won’t be making the flight!’
‘And then I’ll go and see what this bastard is up to! Have you got a pen?’ I waited until Jim was ready, and then quickly reeled-off my flight details. ‘Just make sure that you ring them!’ I said.
‘Right, I’ll do that,’ he said, half-heartedly.
‘Jim, don’t mess me about on this, I’m already pissed off as it is!’
Jim snorted, saying: ‘Jake, you can still do this, can’t you – you’re not past-it these days, are you? You know…the drink hasn’t finally done for you, has it?’
That guy...he knew exactly how to pull my strings, the bastard.
‘Fuck you, Jim!’ I said, angrily. ‘Go and get your boyfriend his breakfast – after all, your wife can’t have stayed with you, can she, you miserable bastard? I’ll ring you back!’
Two minutes later and I was slipping through the arrivals area with my eyes on the target, safe in the knowledge that he wouldn’t recognise me. I’d been in my desert combats and wearing a heavy beard when he and I’d had our little altercation all those years ago. I had the advantage because I would recognise his face anywhere. After all, I had studied it for two years.
Right on cue, I saw him. He was with two other men and heading for the door. I rang Jim and told him the score.
‘Well, follow him then, Jake, follow him!’ he said, like I was a half-wit. ‘And when you have something that might be of any bloody use to tell me, then call me back – now…piss off, because thanks to you, I’m having an early breakfast!’ The line went dead.
‘What an arse,’ I murmured, grinning to myself. Slipping the phone into my pocket, I hitched-up my daysack and walked out into the cold. I caught sight of Wireman climbing into the back of white Toyota people-carrier with a taxi sign on the roof.
‘Typical,’ I thought, ‘it had to be a bloody Toyota, didn’t it?’
When I had been watching the Wireman before, Toyotas had been the only type of car that he and his cohorts ever used.
They were like a bad advert for the brand.
I raised my arm and shouted for a cab, waiting until it drove forward before clambering into the back seat.
‘Where to, buddy?’ the cab driver asked me.
‘You’re not gonna believe this,’ I said, ‘but can you just…’
‘…follow that cab?’ he asked, laughing loudly.
‘Yeah, that’s the very one,’ I said. ‘Follow that cab!’
‘I love this shit, man!’ the cabby said, pulling away from the kerb with a squeal of rubber.
I sat back and shook my head in disgust, not at the cabbie, no – it was the situation that brought about my reaction. Just as I was about to have a few weeks of peace and quiet, this had to go and happen.
‘Damn it! Why the hell couldn’t I have just been sitting in the airport bar getting gently pissed and minding my own business?’ The thoughts made me grin, what a pain in the backside this little escapade could turn out to be.
Mind you, after the amount of cash I’d dumped onto Andi’s family, it might not be too long before I would need a decent payday. Probably best to take it whilst you can, Jake. That’s the only problem with this game – it may pay well, but it’s a roundabout and I know that the chances of getting off are somewhat less than slim.
It’s a machine and I’m right in the middle of it.
Memories and Tremors
It was late – 03:45hrs late. I was in a hotel room and I was shattered. Tired I may have been, but I couldn’t sleep. I’d already looked in the mini-bar, a couple of beers and a shot or two of Mr Daniels’ finest would probably have done the trick. But I was waiting for Jim to call me, and the chances were that when he did call then I was going to have to move, and move quickly.
Being half-cut wouldn’t have been such a good idea, especially since I was most likely going to have to be on my toes whilst trying to follow a man who was al-Qaeda’s top bomb-maker.
A slippery sonofabitch if ever there was one.
I was lying on the bed in an almost comatose state, my mind drifting, memories and thoughts jumbling themselves together, melding into an almost-real dreamlike state. I was in New York – I knew that much, but the dreamy fog of thoughts and memories, mixing the contents of my head with all the skill of an expert cocktail shaker, blurred my reality.
I was thinking of things, other things, the old days, the days of my past, ones I had almost escaped from, almost but not quite. I could see their faces, my friends. I could hear their words, their laughter, and their screams. I let the stupor of those recollections smother me…
Yeah, back then things were easy – back in the day all we did was train, and go on operations. Then we’d go on leave, and drink. Then we’d come back and it would start all over again. It was a blast and we never cared a damn. Life was good, hard, but good. We all worked towards a common goal. We trained to fight the enemy, trained to fight those whom we had been ordered to fight, trained to be the best, trained to stay alive when the chips were down.
And they did go down, plenty of times…
Sometimes all the training and camaraderie were worth nothing, sometimes they all came to nought. When the chips were down and your number was up, then that was that. Everybody gets to die in the end. We accepted it, not in a reckless, arrogant way, no – it was more of a deep-seated understanding, a steely-eyed recognition of what awaited us all. If you ended up in the wrong place at exactly the right time – well, then your number was definitely up.
We’d organise all of your belongings, sell the lot at an auction and pass the money raised to someone close, maybe your wife – if you still had one. Then we’d go on the beer and tell tall stories about you. I remembered when Joey Stevenson died; in my mind I saw his face: red-haired, freckly, enormous moustache.
Going through his kit threw up a few surprises.
During his life, old Joey had gone and acquired three wives. How the hell he’d ever managed to do that was beyond us. The guy had been as quiet as a mouse. We thought that the job of reconciling three women: English, Thai, and Irish, respectively, to the fact they’d all married the same man, was going to be a major problem.
You know what? The three of them never even batted an eyelid – they all loved him and that was it. Joey must have been some boy when it came to the ladies, you just can’t tell with that sort of thing.
As quiet as a mouse he may well have been, but when it came to blowing things up, Joey was as loud as a volcano. There wasn’t anything that guy couldn’t demolish, or cut into, with only the tiniest amount of explosive. Many of us fully expected to see the guy blasting his way out of the grave.
There were plenty of funerals back then, back in the day when we were in the ‘Job’. Guys were shot, or fell off mountains, maybe drowned in some remote underground cave – perhaps they creamed-in during some crazy, night parachute jump. Mostly they simply rode their motorcycles way too fast, once too often.
It came with the territory and we all became somewhat immune to the emotional side of things. You live, you burn brightly, then you die…and we get to party on your behalf. Shit happens.
Then one day, if you’ve managed to stay alive, you’re fortyish and they say: ‘Well done, thanks very much, you’ve been absolutely wonderful, here’s a pension, now – fuck off!’ And off into civvy-street you would toddle, without a clue, most likely without any transferable skills.
Have you ever tried getting a job anywhere with the words ‘Sniper Instructor’ or ‘Demolitions Expert’ on your CV?
Yeah, the interview usually ends with: ‘…we’ll call you.’
And you’ll probably be without a wife. If you do happen to have one, then there’s a fair chance that it won’t be long before you don’t. They usually get the dosh and the house, which said pension paid for. That’s not a drama – it’s all just part of you being a misfit. Realising that you’re damn-near unemployable and pretty much skint is a problem, one you can’t seem to shake.
So you go through the meat grinder, eventually picking up a job you took out of desperation, persuaded yourself that you wanted and that you’d be good at. You stick at it whilst drowning in the bullshit of some small-minded, non-travelled, pension-cruising management, which isn’t their fault – it’s just that you’re a square peg in the proverbial. Nothing fits anymore, you don’t fit anymore.
Then you get to thinking about what the hell it is you should be doing with your life. You get down, lose a bit of faith in yourself, everything is shit. This is your new frontline. This is where the enemy will come and get you. Late at night he’ll sneak into your room and bludgeon you to death. Depression – he’s a right bastard.
Watch him. He’ll kill you like a bullet to the head. Only thing is, unlike the flying lead, you’ll know when you’re dying with him. And he’s a sadist. He likes it slow – slow, painful, and very messy. He doesn’t mind who you take down with you either. The more the merrier as far he’s concerned.
Yeah, he’s an utter bastard of the highest order – watch him, because he has lots of reinforcements, too, and they all come dressed in bottles. Before you know it you’ll be confiding in them, and once you’ve entered their darkened cavern, their private club, it’s damned hard to find the door.
I know of many a man who’s still trapped in there, trapped and screaming. I can’t hear them scream because they still have their pride, the last vestiges of a brightly-burning flame that takes a long time to extinguish. They would never utter a word anyway, after all – they’ve been trained to stay quiet under duress. But, when I bump into some of those old friends, I can see them screaming.
It’s in their eyes. ‘Help me, Jake – please help me, I’m dying, man. Who have I become, this isn’t me, when did this all go wrong? Help me, Jake!’
That’s what their eyes say, but we don’t speak about it. Instead, we laugh, we talk about the old days, and we go for a beer. They drink almost as fast as I do, and I’m quick. Then, after a few, I’ll ask what they’re doing, what work they’ve got? Just small-talk and that’s good because they couldn’t give me a straight answer anyway.
Before we part I always give them as many details as I can of how to find the same line of work as me: all the contacts I know of who are looking for good guys, all the stuff they need to do, telephone numbers, web sites, email addresses, anything I can think of. They smile, tell me I’m great, tuck the paper into a pocket of their faded jeans, and ask if I want another drink.
There have only ever been two I know of who managed to escape that black-holed cavern of despair – the rest? Well, they’re still in there, trapped by the bonds of their own inertia. There’s nothing I or anyone else can do for them. I don’t feel sorry for them, no. I’d like to put my size ten up their arse, that’s what I’d like to do.
Don’t ever give up, that’s the game. Life is a game and one we always lose – just don’t let anyone see you losing, that’s the trick. The harder you work the luckier you get. If only those guys could have…
The raucous buzz of the doorbell broke my daydreaming trip down memory lane. No quite sure if I was awake or not, I rolled onto my back and stared at the ceiling for a while, the feeling of having been somewhere else gradually fleeing my senses.
The doorbell buzzed again, irritably this time.
‘Okay, okay – I’m coming,’ I shouted, rolling off the bed.
I padded barefoot across the room and flicked up the peephole cover on the inside of the door. Peering through the hole, I saw it was one of the hotel staff – standing outside the door with an impatient look upon his face. I opened the door and looked down at him with a grin on my face. ‘Sorry,’ I said, ‘I was sleeping.’
He glanced down at the envelope in his hand, asking: ‘Mr Collins?’
‘Yeah, that’s me.’
‘This letter was delivered to the front desk – the courier said it was urgent. I have been ringing for five minutes, sir…’ he complained, holding out the receipt pad for me to sign.
I took the envelope from his hand. ‘Like I said – I was sleeping,’ I replied, giving him a yawn and a scribble.
He turned away, without hanging about for a tip. I shot a quick glance both ways down the corridor, it was deserted save for the scurrying figure of my personal mail boy. I turned back into the room, pushing the door shut behind me with the heel of my left foot.
Flicking the kettle on, I took a seat on the chair in front of the desk, glancing into the mirror on the wall as I did so. I looked as shattered as I felt: dark rings half mooning under my eyes and a shadow of stubble crawling across my face. Turning away from the displeasing image, I ripped open the envelope and slid out the folded note inside.
Picking up my specs, I parked them on my nose and read the note. It was from Jim, well…I assumed it was, and apart from a scribbled signature the message contained only four words: ‘Wireman. Leave him alone!’
I had four of my own. ‘You are shitting me!’ I growled.
Leave him alone? Leave Wireman alone? Jim just had to be joking, he had to be! I turned the paper over, insanely looking for some hidden message on the back. ‘Only joking, JC. Go and kick his arse!’
That’s what I wanted to see. Fat chance, the back of the note was as blank as Jim’s well-remembered stare. I reached for my phone, pausing as I thought about it.
Perhaps ringing Jim wouldn’t be such a good idea, maybe there was something else going on here. He’d been somewhat offhand when I’d called him the day before, to tell him where I was, but I’d just put that down to Jim being himself – an arse.
But now, well…the simple fact that he’d sent a note and not called me in person, spoke volumes. Jim obviously didn’t want to be associated with this whole gig – what the hell was going on?
Unbeknownst to me, if I had called Jim then I would have saved myself from a whole heap of trouble. But I didn’t know and I hadn’t called. So, a whole boatload of the stuff was now heading full steam in my direction.
I dumped my specs on the desk, rose to my feet and stuck the makings of a brew into the small mug sitting alongside the kettle, rattling the spoon around until the tea and powdered milk reached the right colour. Plopping the used teabag into the bin, I went to take a seat over by the window.
Staring down at the dawn-smothered New York side-streets, I let my thoughts off the leash. ‘What the hell am I doing here? I could be at home right now, sunning my arse in Italy!’ This was nuts, why had I bothered?
I knew why, because it’s in my blood, that’s why. I should have told Jim to get lost when he decided that I should put my life on hold to go and follow the guy who was now sleeping peacefully, cosily tucked up in bed on the second floor of an equally sleazy hotel that lay across the street from my own flea-pit.
Perhaps I should have just laughed and hung up. Then again, it had been me who called Jim, and I’d done it without a second thought, so… ‘Ah, bollocks,’ I whispered, slurping at the tea and reaching for my smokes. I spent an hour at the window, sitting behind the net curtains, watching Wireman’s room, smoking and working my way through the hotel’s complimentary brew kit.
By the time the digital clock on the bedside table announced it was 06:00hrs, I’d finished all they had to offer, except the singular bag of some fruit-flavoured tea, which smelled like cheap perfume.
By the looks of things, Wireman hadn’t moved since the last time I had checked, the dull glow from a table lamp ghosted against the curtains in his room, as it had done all night.
The foyer was still empty, not even the bell-boy was in sight at this early hour – I’d seen him locking the main door at about one o’clock this morning, and it appeared to be still locked, not wedged open like it been during daylight hours.
I felt confident that the bomb-maker was still fast asleep. I also knew that if he wasn’t and had managed to slip away whilst I’d not been watching, then there was nothing I could do about it. After all, this wasn’t a professional surveillance job. Wireman was most likely unaware of my presence, and so what were the chances of him having felt the need to sneak away? About fifty-fifty, I supposed.
I shrugged, knowing that today would tell. Today things would progress. Maybe today would be the day when I would get to find out what the hell was going on.
Yesterday I’d followed my man all the way from the airport and right across the city, keeping well behind every time he and his cohorts stopped their people-carrier, even waiting half an hour whilst they went into some seedy café with Arabic signs stuck to its dirty windows.
My cabby had been a star – we sat and joked about how much his home town of New York had changed over the years, sharing the craic about how the whole world had changed. He was a natural when it came to tailing another vehicle and I felt confident that Wireman and his mates had never seen us.
In the end, the target had pulled over and made his way into the hotel that I was currently sitting and watching. I’d paid the cabby, Chad, given him a healthy tip and slipped his card into my wallet.
‘Call me anytime,’ he’d said, ‘I can be most places within half an hour if you need a ride somewhere.’ With a knowing wink, he slipped the cab expertly into the flow of traffic, leaving me standing on the sidewalk with my daysack slung across my shoulders.
I’d made the decision right then to book into this hotel and not Wireman’s – something in my gut warned me against taking that option. I decided to take its advice for once.
My room was well located, being as it overlooked the entrance to Wireman’s hotel. It wasn’t perfect, but at least I’d be able to keep an eye on the comings and goings. By sheer fluke, as I’d stood gazing out from my own room, still wondering if I should’ve taken the chance and booked into the same hotel as him, Wireman went and cured all my problems in one go.
I was just about to turn away when I saw him exiting the elevator with another man, the landing window giving me a perfect view of the two men. They walked down the corridor, waiting whilst Mr Wire fiddled with the door to his room, a room that sat almost opposite to mine. When they’d gone inside and flicked the lights on, I’d been able to see them clearly, even though it had been the middle of the day.
I’d stayed there until about two in the morning, all the men did was watch TV and make phone calls. They had some food delivered to their room, as did I, burger and fries – both overcooked, and had drawn the curtains at around ten pm. After that it was only the odd shadow, silhouetting through the curtains, which gave their presence away.
It wasn’t long before I decided to take a break, downing a bottle of water and easing myself onto the bed, remaining fully dressed. I hadn’t slept properly and it was only those crazy dreamlike memories that had kept me company, until the buzzer had gone.
It was now close to 07:00hrs and I was still looking at the hotel. Nothing had changed except the dishevelled-looking bell-boy, who had finally surfaced to meander around the front desk and open the main door. He was standing in the entranceway to Wireman’s hotel, scratching his balls and trying to look busy.
I turned away to go and call room service, ordering a full Irish breakfast and lashings of coffee. Meandering back to the window, I took a last look at Wireman’s room, noticing the drawn curtains and apparent lack of activity as I did so.
‘Sod it,’ I thought, ‘he’ll probably be lying in until lunchtime. I’m going for a shower.’ I left the window, stripped off and headed for the bathroom. I should have taken my mobile phone with me.
But I didn’t, leaving it sitting on the bedside table instead.
That was a mistake, the second one of the day involving my damned telephone – the bloody thing must have had it in for me.
The shower was good, slightly grubby due to some stained grout festering between the tiles, but the water was hot and the soap a new bar. I cranked up the heat and stood under its scalding cascade for at least five minutes, blasting the weariness from my body.
Stepping out of the cubicle, I wrapped a towel around my waist and went over to the mirror to check out how bad my stubble was.
I would have taken a shave but my razor was still in my suitcase, along with all my other belongings, and was most likely doing the rounds in JFK airport. I knew that Jim probably hadn’t even called the airport. That guy, he was bloody useless at anything other than gathering information on terrorists. However, he was quite brilliant at that, so I forgave him, just for now.
I stomped barefoot into the main room and started getting back into my dirty clothes, promising myself a trip downtown to get some new ones as soon as this Wireman job was done. Bare-chested and still zipping up my flies, I waddled over to the window to have a quick check on how my old friend was doing.
The curtains were open and I could see the blurred figures of two men: one on the couch and the other standing by the TV set, the glow of its screen glimmering against his features – Wireman! I couldn’t forget that face. I stood behind the nets and stared at him as he casually fiddled with the TV’s remote control.
That type of thing has always bemused me.
Seeing someone who was responsible for hundreds of innocent people’s deaths, hell, maybe even thousands, doing something normal, mundane like ordinary people would be doing constantly struck me as bizarre.
Surely, with that much blood on your hands you wouldn’t be able to do normal things? You’d be in a padded cell somewhere, gibbering to your God, begging forgiveness, dying of fucking guilt, hopefully.
Nevertheless, I knew these guys were hard-core and I’d always made sure I remembered that whenever I’d come across them before – they’d kill you and your whole family just as soon as look at you.
I watched as my target turned away from the TV to flop down into the couch next to the other guy. He lit a cigarette and put his feet on the coffee table, which in itself was unusual as these guys didn’t normally show the soles of their feet. I guessed that his new lifestyle had started to erode all of those old ways.
‘The casual prick, he doesn’t have a care in the world…’ I murmured to myself. Deciding to call Jim and ask what it was he wanted me to do, I turned away from the window, just as the bloody doorbell buzzed again. I nearly jumped out of my skin.
The sight of Wireman had wound me up tighter than I’d realised.
‘Shit!’ I cursed softly, angry at my own jumpy reaction.
I grabbed my shirt, sliding it over my head as I made my way to the door to let room service in to do their thing.
The breakfast was enormous, and it was pretty good too – except for the fried egg, which had a slightly bitter taste. Guessing they didn’t pay much attention to organic, free-range hens in the middle of New York, I manned up and smothered the yolk with a large dollop of brown sauce from an accompanying sachet.
Slicing it into four, I speared the quarters of the egg onto some soda bread and wolfed the whole lot down like a starving man.
Sated, I sat back and poured myself a coffee.
As I raised the cup to my lips, New York suffered an earthquake.
Leastways, that’s what I thought had happened.
The whole room wobbled, I felt a physical tremor, one that went right through me. Then, and straight in front of my disbelieving eyes, I saw the floor starting to slide away. It dipped and then rose upwards, like some insane rollercoaster. I jumped to my feet. Well, actually, I staggered to my feet, cup falling from rapidly numbing fingers, smashing itself to pieces against the plate.
The sound was so loud that I cried out.
That was even weirder. I’d heard the cup break, the sound of its demise as loud as an exploding hand grenade, and yet I couldn’t hear my own voice. I lurched to one side, knocking the rest of the crockery off the table. It cascaded onto the floor, whilst the noise of a brass band, only playing cymbals, speared into the very centre of my head. The noise was horrendous, I tried to cover my ears but my hands felt like they’d been inflated, too big to move. I saw the walls spinning…
The last thing I remember was the bedside table. It seemed to be flying across the ceiling and heading straight for my face. Then the room started gyrating and I felt myself falling, slowly, like a dead leaf in autumn. It was about that time when everything turned black.
Blood and Buckets
The next time I saw him, Wireman, he was happily beating the shit out of me. The chair was tall, leather-backed and clamped to the floor, just as I was clamped to it. Well, when I say ‘clamped’, I mean taped. Yes, I was held securely in place by what appeared to be several yards of silver duct tape, tightly wrapped around my wrists and ankles. I’d woken up in the chair, sitting with my head slumped forwards, backside numb. Almost as soon as I opened my eyes, Mr Wire had started clouting me about the head.
‘Ah, Mr Collins – welcome to New York,’ he said, punching me on the side of my face.
That’s just what I needed, my head was already hurting. Whatever it was they’d spiked my food with had obviously turned my brain into a peanut. His blow sent it rattling around the inside of my aching skull, like a marble in a jam-jar. I sat in silence, letting the swelling under my left eye catch up with the lump above my right.
I wasn’t sure if my tormentor had given me that one as well, or whether it had been acquired from that randomly-flying bedside table, which I’d seen just before the lights went out. Either way, I could feel it, sitting there like a Quail’s egg.
‘Who are you?’ he said, scrunching up the front of my shirt and jerking me towards his face.
I looked up at him and grinned. He had a little goatee and I could see that he was a man who spent a fair bit of time looking in the mirror. He was perfectly groomed. Eyebrows waxed, jet-black hair slicked back, thin lines of facial hair tracking down olive cheeks to join his neat little beard.
‘What a poncey twat!’ I thought, with an even bigger grin. The idea of snapping forwards and biting the end of his nose off was a fairly pleasant one, the vision of him running around whilst his beak sat in my mouth amused me.
Hearing no answer, and seeing my leer, he shoved me backwards, saying: ‘So, you think this is funny, a joke? Let me tell you something, you will tell us what we want to know, in the end you will!’
He punched me again, and this time I didn’t grin. The blow broke my nose, for about the fourth time in my life, and it hurt like hell.
Blood ran down over my top lip, filling my mouth.
I spat it out, splashing his silk shirt with gore.
‘Bastard, you filthy, infidel bastard!’ he snarled, stepping backwards in disgust. He muttered something and I saw another man, one who had been hidden behind me, hand Wireman some tissues. He used them, in vain, to rid the shirt of my blood, its blue sheen now speckled with dark spots.
Chucking the bloodied tissue into the corner, Mr Wire cursed in Arabic and stepped angrily over to me. Standing two feet away, he then proceeded to give me a sound thrashing, raining punches about my face and head.
It was bad, and I knew that if it went on for much longer then I would be unconscious. I leaned forwards, trying to protect myself, there were flashes of light exploding across my vision, the blows sending loud cracking noises into my head. I was quite certain that the roaring in my ears was the warning signal of an incoming brain haemorrhage. I was in trouble.
The other guy, the skinny, tissue-dispensing one, tried to grab me by the hair – finding it too short to gain any purchase, he grasped both my ears and tried to jerk my head upright. I smelled garlic on his breath, felt his nails digging in as he tried to yank my head upright.
I’d read somewhere that it only takes about seven pounds of pressure before the human ear parts company with the head. Not in the slightest bit liking the idea of spending the rest of my days having sunglasses constantly slipping off my head, I let the guy have his way, sacrificing my good looks for the sake of my hearing flaps.
After several more firework-inducing punches to the face and head, I was done – any more of this and I’d be permanently done.
‘Okay, okay,’ I mumbled, ‘what do you want?’
Wireman stopped. Mr Tissue let go of my ears and went across to hand his boss some clean ones, which my assailant then proceeded to wipe his hands with again. Finishing the task, he stepped towards me once more, standing and grinning down at me like a moron. I could hardly see, blood and swelling causing my vision to blur.
‘I want you, you useless pig, to tell me why you have been following me. That is what I want, my filthy friend!’ he said, slapping me with an open palm.
‘I don’t know what you mean, there must be…’ I mumbled, trying to play for time, which turned out to be a slight error. Instead of giving me that much sought after time, my assailant punched me again, right in the mouth, the blow sending my head rocking backwards.
My mouth filled with blood. With head tilted back, the stuff flooded into my throat, drowning me. I jerked forwards and puked. The vomit was like damp cardboard. A long spurt of semi-dry, blood-filled sick expelled from my lips, splatting onto the floor between his feet.
Whatever they’d given me, injected into the egg, which I was now pretty sure had been the perpetrator of my current predicament, had obviously played havoc with my guts, turning the whole lot to mush. Fortunately, almost as soon as I’d been sick, I began to feel slightly better, apart from the pain in my face, which I knew must have been in a terrible state.
Wireman stood looking down at the mess I’d excreted. ‘You really are an animal, aren’t you?’ he hissed.
I raised my head and tried to give him a grin. In reality it was more of a grimace. My mouth was on fire, top lip swelling like a balloon.
Speaking in Arabic, he pointed over my shoulder. I heard the sound of something being wheeled across the floor behind me. Moments later, the other man appeared and he was dragging my suitcase with him. Then I noticed my daysack, contents spread across a small brown rug. The room came into focus.
It was white and featureless, save for the chair and the brown rug. I also noticed the single light bulb above me, dangling without a shade from a ceiling that was also white but had seen better days, flakes of paint hung down and I noticed dust-covered cobwebs arching across the corners.
The floor was covered in a green linoleum-type covering. I could feel it under my bare feet, slippery and cold. I noticed a black leather jacket hanging from a hook on the back of a door, which I surmised to be the way out of here. Wherever we were, the room was likely to have been well out of sight.
That was bad.
I guess I hadn’t focussed on that stuff before because I had been otherwise occupied. That’s the excuse I made for myself, but in reality I was angry. I knew better and should have been making mental notes of my surroundings. Seeing those bastards rifling through my gear filled me with anger. Anger is good, especially in these situations, it gives you something to focus upon, just don’t let it off the leash, not until the opportunity arises.
I was starting to get very angry, and I was in pain.
That was good.
Not sure exactly how I was going to get out of this, or if I ever would, I let the pain and anger become plans about what I would do with my tormentors when, and if, even the slightest chance to get hold of them presented itself. I was going to kill them, of that there was no doubt in my mind whatsoever. The thoughts set me free. They shielded me from what happened next, the pain – real pain.
Wireman, having rummaged through the contents of my suitcase, picked up the medical kit. Unzipping the bag he tipped the contents onto the floor. It was right then that my habits of a lifetime, of always making sure I had the basics with me, came back and bit me right on the arse.
Upon seeing several field-dressings, and a plethora of other military-type objects: tourniquets, pads of blood-clotting powder, artery forceps and the suchlike, amongst the other contents of my suitcase, Wireman went nuts.
The satellite phone tipped him over the edge. He obviously knew what they were, and, unluckily for me, decided that I had something to do with them, my previous masters.
‘You’re military! You son of a pig’s whore, you’re a soldier! Are you a spy, Special Forces? Come to assassinate me, have you – pig?’
‘I’m Jake, just Jake, that’s who I am,’ I said, giving him another rendition of my ghastly grin-grimace.
‘I know your bastard name, I have seen you passport, infidel!’ he whispered, looking at me with those coal-black eyes glinting. ‘But why are you here? We had a deal, why are the British trying to kill me?’
‘I don’t know what the hell you’re going on about,’ I replied, mind starting to lose track. ‘Deal, what deal?’
Wireman screamed at me: ‘Shut up, dog! I am the one who asks the questions today! You are military, you are British, and you are here, following me! The question is why?’
He stared at me, spittle splashed across his quivering chin.
For the first time I began to wonder if I was going to get out of this – the guy was a fruitcake.
Reaching into the pocket of his blood-stained beige trousers, Wireman pulled out an object. It was black and no larger than a packet of cigarettes. The thing had a set of barbed metal teeth on one end; they glinted menacingly under the light from the overhead bulb. I knew exactly what he was holding, and I also knew that if I’d thought things were bad, then they were about to get a whole lot worse.
He reached down and slid forwards the knob that lay on the side of the device, turning it on. I saw a red light activate, its glow illuminating the side of his thumb. He looked at me and grinned, pushing a second knob with his thumb as he did so. The device made a vicious crackling noise, blue sparks flashing across between those menacing metal barbs.
‘You’ll enjoy this, soldier-boy...’ he said, sneering at me.
‘Yeah, bring it on, arsehole!’ I retorted, with false bravado.
Stepping over with it held at arms-length, Wireman jammed the nose of the machine against my chest and pushed the button for a second time. It was just bad as I remembered it to be – worse.
If you’ve never been electrocuted by a hand-held stun-gun, then you haven’t lived. The boys and I had once messed about with them, volunteering to take a shot for research. It had been bad then, but that had been a long time ago and the thing I had just been zapped with was far more advanced.
If I hadn’t been taped to the chair, I’m almost certain that I would have hit the roof – such was the jolt of electricity coursing through my body. I heard someone screaming and then the world, thankfully, turned a deep crimson.
Waiting until I recovered a little, my torturer proceeded to carry out a fine rendition of a schizophrenic. ‘Listen,’ he said, caringly. ‘Tell me what I want to know and we’ll get you some help, clean your wounds and get you something to drink. Would you like some water?’
I groaned and nodded, mouth dripping blood from where I’d bitten my tongue. That’s the first thing you learn when you’re being trained for this stuff: if they offer you any sustenance whatsoever, take it because it might be your last for a long time.
Then the schizo in him did a U-turn. ‘You can have water in a moment, after you’ve told me why you are following me, you pig’s turd!’ he taunted, waving the stun-gun in front of my face once more.
As I’ve mentioned – they man was a total fruitcake, with nuts.
I decided to let him have some information, after all, I wasn’t in the military any more, there wasn’t some secret operation going on where I needed to buy the guys on the ground some valuable time. No, it was just me, Jake Collins, and my messed-up life. Why I was even here, now seemed to be some sort of distant nightmare.
‘I shot you,’ I said, ‘in the leg, when we were in Afghanistan, I shot you, it was me...’ I stared at him, blinking away a rivulet of blood that kept running into my left eye.
‘You, it was you?’ he asked, glancing down at his gimpy limb.
‘Yeah, I was in the military back then, we fought in the farmhouse, outside of Lashkar Gah. I came through the window, remember?’ I flicked my head to one side, sending the annoying trickle of blood flying away, and more pain searing into my brain.
He hissed vehemently, saying: ‘But…I killed you! I fired at you from very close range!’ Wireman’s eyes seemed to glaze, going almost trancelike as he went back to that day. Snapping back into the present, he leaned across and ripped my shirt open, peeling back the material to look at my chest.
Seeing the scar from his bullet, he jerked back, saying: ‘Yes, yes! You had a beard, you…I remember! It was you!’ Mesmerised, he leaned forwards and poked the scar, using the tip of his finger to rub the puckered wound mark on the top of my left breast where it sat in undeniable evidence below my collarbone.
He stepped back to look at me, that crazy light flickering in his eyes. Lifting my chin, he looked into my face, saying: ‘You were very brave. Yes, I remember now – my leg was a mess, they wanted to cut my foot off but my father wouldn’t let them, he paid someone to come and fix me.’
‘That must have been nice for you,’ I grunted, twisting my face away from his grasp. I wasn’t about to fall for the ‘Nice Guy’ routine.
Sensing my sarcasm, Wireman slapped me again, gently this time. A couple of chiding cuffs to the cheeks of a naughty child – but the intent was there. I could see it behind his smiling mask.
‘I’m serious, you were very brave,’ he said. ‘We could not believe that you had come there! I was in agony for nearly a year, but thanks to you I had to stay indoors, where the only thing I could do was read – and I read a lot, let me tell you!’ He paused, before saying: ‘It’s amazing what a man can learn about his trade when he has nothing better to do than read.’ He sniggered, the sound of his mirth filling me with the desire to break his neck.
‘Yeah, well…it was just my job,’ I said, hacking out a cough and turning my head away to spit blood, which I though was rather polite of me.
‘As is this mine,’ he said, with a distasteful look upon his face. ‘Now, please, let us be more civilised – why are you following me?’
I looked up and stared at him, hoping he would see the sincerity in my eyes. ‘Because I was in the airport,’ I muttered, ‘I saw you and I wondered what you were doing there. I couldn’t stop myself, so I followed you, and here we are…’
‘Who have you called?’ he asked. ‘Who else knows about me?’
‘No one,’ I said. ‘Just some of my family in the UK, so they know I’m in New York.’
‘Your phone has received text messages whilst you have been…sleeping,’ he said, with a smile. ‘Let us read them together.'
Turning to the other man, he muttered something in his own dialect that sent the guy scuttling over to my daysack. He knelt in front of my belongings, eventually rising to his feet with my phone in his hand.
‘Here we go,’ I thought, ‘this is the bit where he asks me for the…’
‘Give me the password for your phone,’ he said, accurately making my prediction come true.
I sat and thought about it. The fact that Jim’s number was down as ‘Gran’ in the address book of my phone, was a bonus, maybe Wireman would believe it. I’d named Jim that out of disrespect, because that’s what he was: a miserable old woman. Maybe Wireman would figure that I had a soft spot for the old girl.
It was a ridiculous idea, but I didn’t have any others and that meant it was now time to play for an advantage. ‘Okay,’ I said, lightly. ‘Let me get out of this chair – I need the toilet first, and then we can look at my phone.’ I tried to rise to my feet in an indication of the urgent need to relieve myself. It wasn’t that much of a charade as the doctored egg was still playing havoc with my stomach.
‘Look, come on,’ I deliberately wheedled. ‘I’m hardly in a fit state to cause you a problem, am I? And if I don’t get to a toilet in the next few minutes, well…’ I looked pointedly at the mess my earlier expulsions had left upon the floor, playing on the fact that from previous experience I had learned that these fellows didn’t even like to be around a decent fart, never mind…well, you can guess. To be honest, I was already in trouble in that department, the stun-gun having messed with my muscle control somewhat.
Wireman nodded, saying: ‘Yes, I suppose that’s fine. We shall release you for your ablutions.’ Just as I was starting to congratulate myself on the extreme cunning I’d managed to show, he said, ‘But, there is one thing, Jake. Please remember that I have this…’
With a dry laugh, he rammed the zapper into my ribs.
I heard the awful crackling sound of the machine once more. Then the pain came hammering back, just to help me remember exactly what it was he had. I heard the screaming, my screaming, and then I collapsed against my bonds, blood and snot dripping from my face.
In the end they did untie me, obviously being satisfied that the beating I’d taken would be sufficient to subdue me.
‘The pricks,’ I thought, watching as the skinny one cut the tape off my wrists. ‘I’ve been in worse states after a decent game of rugby...’ I stared down at him, filled with the desire to knee him in the face and just take my chances. Feeling the adrenaline rising, I controlled myself, watching as he freed my legs.
When he’d finished, the skinny one looked up and smiled at me.
Wireman may have been preened like a Mynah Bird, but this guy could have done with about a week in the care of a dentist. He had a set of teeth resembling a row of bombed houses, and there was a nice scar on his throat. It looked like a burn, shrivelled flesh running down into his grubby collar line. It may have looked like a burn, but I knew that it could also have been the result of a Sand Fly infection.
Either way, the guy wasn’t in the same class as his boss.
As soon as he finished releasing my legs, and having re-taped my wrists together, he stepped back to allow me space to stand up. I rose to my feet, flexing my shoulders and neck to get some feeling back.
I let the adrenaline and the self-belief smother the fact that I was, actually, in rather a bad way. I also found it almost impossible to believe that they had made such a fundamental mistake as letting me out of the chair.
I knew then that this was probably going to be my only time to capitalise on such an error. Taking a deep breath, whilst closing my mind to the headache that was doing its best to spilt my skull in-two, I made my way over to the bathroom.
Exaggerating my injuries, I laid on a good stagger for effect, whilst on the inside I was gleefully rejoicing the fact that they’d left my feet unhampered. Limping into the room – there was no bath or anything else for that matter, not even a window, it was more like a broom closet – I pushed the door to behind me, not being able to lock it as the skinny guy had wedged his foot in the way.
The room was bare, save for a galvanised-steel bucket, a roll of toilet-paper and two large bottles of water. I hurriedly dropped my pants and squatted over the bucket. Staying there for a lot longer than my guts demanded, I took ten minutes to gather my thoughts and try to make a plan.
In the end I came up with an absolute blinder of an idea – yeah, that was it! I was going to leave the toilet and simply beat them to death… It was the second time in probably as many months that I’d been in some random toilet, making very similar plans of escape.
I shook my head in disgust. ‘Great plan, Jake,’ I thought, knowing that it was probably going to be the only option anyway. Mind racing, I looked around the room for a weapon, contemplating how much damage I could do to someone with a plastic bottle full of water.
‘Hey you, come out now!’ Mr Tissue said, interrupting my thoughts, whilst trying to force his way in. ‘We need the phone, you come out now – make hurry up!’
‘Yeah, I’ll be five minutes,’ I replied, leaning over to push my hand against the door. ‘I’m just finishing, if you don’t mind!’
‘Okay,’ he grumbled, keeping his fingers wrapped around the edge of the door. ‘You smell like filthy pigs, make hurry up!’
‘Yeah, yeah – I’ll make hurry up,’ I replied, sarcastically.
I finished my business, cleaned up my nether regions a tad, dumped the used toilet paper in the bucket, and then poured a full bottle of water onto my waste, holding it high so the noise could be heard. I tipped the contents of the other bottle onto my head, leaning over the bucket as I did so. It, too, made a noise as the fluid cascaded into the metal container below.
Wiping my face on my sleeves, taped hands held high, I dried myself, wincing as I rubbed my arms slowly up and down over my wounds, stealing time to look at my shirt to calculate how much blood my face was leaking.
Seeing that it wasn’t too bad, just some streaks and a couple of more-sodden patches, I nodded in satisfaction.
Having decided upon what I would do, I bent forwards and picked up the bucket, hefting it in my hands to feel the weight.
Satisfied, I placed the bucket against the wall on my right.
Then, and with a silent prayer, I turned and walked softly towards the door. Taking a deep breath, I, one battered and bleeding Jake Collins, took the only reasonable course of action left open to me.
Okay,’ I called out, cheerily. ‘Here I come, ready or not…’