Authors: Tom Barber
Copyright: Tom Barber
Published: 23rd December
The right of Tom Barber to be identified as author of this Work has been asserted by he in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in retrieval system, copied in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise transmitted without written permission from the publisher. You must not circulate this book in any format.
This book is a work of fiction and, except in the case of historical fact, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
No one was in
to see the man die.
It was Friday 17
December, a week before Christmas.
New York City
was a majestic place during the summer but it was equally captivating in the winter. Festive cheer was everywhere. Shop windows were adorned with imaginative seasonal displays, each store trying to outdo the other. Bars served strong punch containing warming liquor, fruit and spices. Speakers were rigged up on lampposts in several neighbourhoods in the outer boroughs through which familiar carols were played during the day. And saplings planted in small soil patches on the sidewalks all over
were decorated with lights, contributing to the red and golden hue the city adopted every twelfth month of the year.
With soft snow powdering the grass and golden lights sprinkled in trees all over its 843 acres,
epitomised the feel-good seasonal ambience of the city. During the day and early evening, the ice-skating rinks in the Park were in constant use. People could either rent skates or wear their own, some gliding around the ice gracefully, others wobbling their way round far less confidently, treating each completed lap as a small victory. There was the constant
of horse’s hooves as they pulled carriages along the roads, tourists or couples sitting in the back, taking photographs or enjoying a romantic tour. Small two or three-piece brass bands took up positions beside the paths and worked their way through a repertoire of Christmas songs. And amongst all this, there was a constant stream of people just exploring the sights and admiring the scenery around them. Thirty five million people made their way into
each year and a significant portion of that number came during the winter months.
Nevertheless, once the sun went down the Park started to quieten. A few remaining horse-drawn carriages trundled past, but the activity from earlier in the day quickly decreased as the air grew colder and the night got darker. The Park was open until 1am, but it had been a chilly December and that particular Friday evening was the coldest of the month so far. People were not inclined to hang around.
Coming up to 10pm, the lamp post-lit paths and sidewalks were now eerily quiet.
Snow had just started drifting down from the sky again, adding an extra layer to the white powder that had already blanketed the grass and naked branches on the trees.
During the summer one of the most popular areas in the Park was Sheep Meadow, located to the West between 66
. Fifteen acres in total, the large field hosted hundreds of people every day from early May to the end of September, but apart from the paths running around the perimeter it was shut off during the autumn and winter months to protect the ground and preserve the grass. That night the Meadow was dark, empty and quiet.
Save for the falling snow and one solitary figure.
At the north perimeter, a groundsman was slowly trudging his way along the fence, heading west. He was working alone. Before starting his shift he’d wrapped up well. He was wearing four layers of clothes accompanied by a scarf, a thick set of gloves and a knitted woollen hat. He’d read somewhere that a human being could lose something like fifty per cent of their body heat through the top of their head, so during the frostier months he always made sure that the beanie was firmly in place before he started work.
Being of Mexican descent, he didn’t enjoy the
winter for a number of reasons. One of them was the emptiness of the Meadow at this time of year. Even though the summer period tripled his workload he still far preferred the warmer, and therefore busier and more sociable time of year. Some places were designed for activity; without it, they seemed neglected and forlorn.
Pausing by the fence, he looked out at the dark field. It had the same deserted feel of a large school on a break for the holidays or an airport Terminal at night.
It was unnatural.
He didn’t like it.
Six hours after beginning his shift, the groundsman was almost finished for the evening. He had a number of jobs to attend to in his area of the Park, but emptying the trash cans would be the last tonight. When he was done, he’d punch his timecard, take the A train back up to Spanish Harlem and enjoy a bowl of his wife’s homemade soup. He walked along the fence pulling a wheeled cart behind him, a handful of black trash bags tossed inside. Just two more bins to empty. The drop-off point for removal of the bags was at the south-west corner of the Meadow, so once he’d gathered the last two he would dump them all there, return the cart to storage and get his ass home.
He approached the penultimate can, his thick boots crunching in the snow as he walked. He could see the black bag inside was about three quarters full. Coming to a halt, he pulled the bag out of the can, tied off the ends and then tossed it into the cart behind him to join the others. He drew a fresh bag, pulling it off a roll he’d stashed in the cart and replaced the old one.
But just as he was about to move on something on the ground caught his eye.
It was pretty well camouflaged by the snow. He’d almost missed it.
Stepping forward and bending down, he wiped off a layer of snow with his glove.
It was a black shoebox. It looked like someone had tossed it at the trash but missed and walked away, leaving it there on the ground. He was about to scoop it up to throw it inside the newly-replaced bag, but hesitated. He could hear something.
The box was clicking.
The groundsman looked around. All he could see was falling snow and a dark, quiet Park. Whoever had left the box here had long since gone.
Maybe there's an animal inside,
It was common practice in the city for unwanted pets to be dumped like this. He couldn’t just leave the poor creature out here to freeze to death.
He reached forward, pulled a string securing the box and lifted the lid.
The moment he did, the clicking stopped.
There was a
A small cloud of yellow gas spewed from the box and hit him directly in the face. He instinctively recoiled but inhaled at the same time, the mustard-coloured gas sucked into his mouth and nostrils.
And immediately, he started choking.
He couldn’t breathe. Coughing and gagging, he was suddenly overwhelmed by a horrific pain in his chest. It felt as if it was on fire. Every desperate breath he tried to take made the searing, burning sensation worse. He coughed harder, his whole body starting to jerk, blood spraying out of his mouth onto the white snow. He staggered back then collapsed to the ground, doubling over. He curled up in a tight ball in a vain effort to stop the agony, but it was getting worse.
He started to retch, his body spasming violently, blood and pieces of lung tissue spewing from his mouth onto the snow around him. The agonising and uncontrollable spasms increased in intensity, contorting his body and growing more and more violent. Suddenly, there was a loud
His spine had snapped.
Immediately going into shock, the groundsman gargled as fluid filled his ruptured lungs.
And thirty seconds after he’d inhaled the gas, the man drowned in his own blood.
His jerking and convulsing ceased.
He was still, blood and bits of lung spattered both on his clothes and on the ground around him.
Crimson against the white.
He was the only person in the Meadow. No one else was around.
And the snow continued to fall silently from the sky.
Across the city, they’d been working on the guy for almost three hours before he cracked. There were two people torturing him, a man and a woman called Wicks and Drexler. Inside the dark house Wicks walked over to the bed and put his hands on his knees, looking down at the bloodied man who was strapped to the frame. The guy had lasted longer than they’d expected. They’d worked their way through every sharp implement they could find in the kitchen, and by the second hour had gotten creative.
Wicks reached forward and ripped a strip of duct tape off the dying man’s mouth. He did it fast, like pulling off a band aid. Then he peered in close. The guy’s eyes were hazy from blood loss and shock trauma.
‘Something you wanna tell us?’ Wicks asked.
The man coughed weakly, blood around his mouth, his arms and legs taped securely to the wooden bed posts. He mumbled something that was just a whisper.
he said, blood bubbling out of his lips. He must have ruptured a lung.
Wicks looked into the man’s eyes for a moment, then rose.
Drexler stepped forward, a suppressed Glock 21 in her hand and gave the man on the bed six slugs, three to the chest, three to the head. She pulled the trigger fast, the man’s body jerking as he took each round, splinters coughing up from the bed frame and floor under the bed as the bullets buried themselves in the wood. The spent cartridges jumped out of the ejection port, tinkling to the floor, each one bouncing and eventually rolling to a stop. Looking at the dead man, Wicks pulled his cell phone and dialled a number. Someone answered on the fourth ring.
‘It’s me. He talked. We’re in business.’
He listened, nodding, then ended the call and slid the phone back into his pocket. Then he turned to Drexler.
‘What time is it?’
Still holding the pistol, the dark-haired woman shot her cuff. ‘6:25. The sun’ll be up soon.’
‘Let’s go,’ he said. ‘We’ve got work to do.’
‘That’s the last one?’ the removal man asked, three and a half hours later. He was a big, surly guy with a large gut straining against his shirt and a cardboard box tucked under his arm,
scribbled in black pen on the side. He was standing in the doorway of a third floor apartment in the
In front of him, a slim, dark-haired woman in jeans and a red flannel shirt looked around. The apartment had been cleared out, cleaned and emptied. She turned back to the man and nodded.
‘That’s it. Thank you, Jeff.’
The guy nodded. ‘We’ll take off now. We should make
by the end of the day. If the weather turns, we’ll hole up and be there tomorrow.’
The woman nodded. ‘OK. Thank you.’
Jeff turned and left.
On his way down the corridor, he passed a man in his late twenties coming the other way. The newcomer was blond and handsome, dressed in blue jeans, a thick grey hoodie and a green jacket laced on the inside with cream-coloured wool. He watched as the removal guy walked down the stairs whistling a Christmas song, the final box tucked under his arm and glad to be finally on his way. Shifting his attention, the blond man moved into the open doorway of the apartment.