Anthony Minelli, his cousin Vincent, and their pal Andrew Foley played five-card draw on a makeshift table in a nearly empty warehouse on the New York docks.
“Full house, motherfuckers. Queens over sevens.” Vincent drained the rest of his Bud Light, crumpled the can in his fat fist, and tossed it twenty feet. It clanked across the cement floor, echoed off metal walls. Vincent scooped the winnings toward his ample belly. Three dollars and nine cents.
“Nice pot,” Anthony said. “You can buy a fucking Happy Meal. Now shut up and deal.”
“Hey, it’s the skill that counts. I could be on that celebrity poker show on A&E,” Vincent said.
“Fuck you. It’s on Bravo. And you ain’t no celebrity.”
Andrew Foley smiled, reached into the Igloo cooler for one of the few remaining beers. He enjoyed the playful back and forth between the cousins but never joined in. He popped open the beer, sipped. He’d had a few already and was pretty buzzed. He’d also lost nine bucks at poker, not having won a single hand. But that was okay. Like the Minelli cousins, Andrew had been paid a cool grand for his work at the docks today. The money had come just in time.
Andrew was in his junior year at the Manhattan School of Music and he was always short on money. He was a week late on rent when Anthony had called with the offer. Andrew was well aware Anthony and Vincent were wiseguys in training and that a deal with them was sure to be a little shady. Andrew had known the two cousins since they were all in grade school. Andrew’s father and their fathers were pals. He balked at the thought of doing something illegal and maybe getting caught, but Vincent continued to assure him that the whole thing was easy money, a big fat moist piece of cake. Andrew needed cash. Period. Andrew’s landlord wasn’t a forgiving man.
Besides, it really did seem like a pretty easy job. A no-brainer really. Somebody (Just never you mind who. Don’t ask no fucking questions.) wanted a cargo container from one of the big freighter ships unloaded without going through the usual customs. This was a tall order, and a lot of people had to be bribed or distracted. Andrew, Vincent, and Anthony had a simple job. Shepherd the cargo container from the freighter to the unused warehouse way hell and gone down the other end of the wharf. The guy who’d set up the deal didn’t trust the usual union grunts to handle it, and anyway a lone cargo container getting that kind of attention would cause talk. Andrew was being overpaid enough to keep his trap shut. It was understood silence was part of the deal.
They’d forklifted the container into the warehouse and that was that. The job had seemed so simple and the guys were so giddy about their easy payday that Andrew forgot all about an overdue term paper when Anthony produced a cooler of beer and Vincent had pulled a deck of cards out of his pocket.
“What do you think is in there?” Vincent’s eyes shifted momentarily from his cards to the cargo container.
Anthony picked something out of his teeth, then said, “Drugs.”
Vincent raised an eyebrow. “Oh, yeah? You got some inside information?”
Anthony said, “It’s always drugs. Gimme two cards.”
They played cards, talked quietly, drank beer.
The little explosion rattled the warehouse. They dropped their cards and hit the floor. Andrew covered his head with his arms, his heart thumping like a rabbit’s. One of the metal doors on the cargo container creaked open. A chemical smell from the explosive hung in the air.
“Jesus H. Christ.” Anthony was the first to his feet. “What happened?”
Vincent stood up too, dusted himself off. “How the hell am I supposed to know?”
Andrew stayed on the floor, but he uncovered his head and risked a peek. Smoke in the air. Then they heard something, noise from within the container.
“Somebody’s in there,” Andrew whispered.
Vincent shook his head. “That’s fucking impossible.” He’d whispered too.
The cousins were huddled together. Andrew stood up and huddled with them. They watched the cargo container expectantly. It was like a scene in War of the Worlds, Andrew thought. The guys looking at the spaceship, waiting for the aliens to come out. They whispered at each other from the sides of their mouths.
“How could anyone breathe in there?”
“Maybe there’s more than one.”
“Should we go over there?”
“Fuck that. You go over there.”
A figure emerged from the container, and they froze.
The newcomer had dark olive skin, deep brown eyes. Black hair slicked back and dirty. A thick curly beard. He wore a stained denim shirt, threadbare tan pants. Military boots. A small pistol tucked into his waistband. Over his shoulder he carried a large brown duffel bag.
Vincent took a step forward, raised a hand. “Hey!”
Andrew put his hand on Vincent’s shoulder, held him back. What did the dumb wop think he was doing?
The stowaway jumped at the voice, then fixed Vincent with those hard dark eyes. He put his hand on the pistol in his pants, didn’t say a word. Vincent held up his hands in a “no problem here” gesture. The stowaway backed toward the door, his hand on the gun the whole time. He turned, opened the door, and exited the warehouse quickly and without a backward glance.
Anthony recovered first. “What the fuck?”
Andrew let go of Vincent’s shoulder. “What did you think you were going to do?”
Vincent looked a little pale. “Shit if I know. I just saw the guy and . . . Shouldn’t we do something?”
Andrew walked toward the container. “Let’s have a look.” The cousins followed.
The three of them stood at the door and peered inside. Dark. An odd tangle of straps and harnesses. It looked like a car seat had been arranged to withstand rough seas.
Andrew examined the container door, which had been latched from the outside. There was a small hole at the level of the latch blown outward from within, leaving the metal jagged and scorched. The guy inside had known exactly what to do to free himself.
Vincent held his nose. “What a fucking stink.”
Andrew nudged him, pointed into the corner of the container at an object that could only be a makeshift toilet. Food wrappers and other debris littered the container’s floor.
Anthony shook his head. “Oh man. We just helped smuggle some kind of Arab terrorist motherfucker. What are we going to do?”
“Not a goddamn thing,” Vincent said. “We were paid to bring the container here and keep our fucking mouths shut. We weren’t supposed to hang around and play cards. We were never meant to see this. I don’t care if that was Osama Bin Laden’s right-hand guy. We’re going to keep our fucking traps shut and not do a thing.”
Fear bloomed in Andrew’s gut, but he agreed. Maybe if he kept quiet about this, never told a soul, it would all go away.
• • •
He was known among his fellow terrorists as Jamaal 1-2-3.
He walked from the docks straight inland for five blocks, turned right, walked four blocks, then left for another three blocks. He pretended to examine shoes in a store window but was really watching the street behind him in the reflection.
No one appeared to be following him.
He zigzagged another ten minutes, found a pay phone, dropped his duffel at his feet, and dug a slip of paper out of his shirt pocket. There was a phone number. No name. No identifying markings of any kind. It was a local number, but that meant nothing. The call could be rerouted and transferred to any phone in the world. Jamaal might be calling a barbershop in the Bronx or a noodle hut in Kyoto. He dialed the number.
It rang five times before someone picked up. “Hello?”
“This is Jamaal 1-2-3.”
“One moment.” Shuffling papers. Taps at a keyboard. “What seems to be the problem?” A slight accent. Perhaps Eastern European.
“I was seen.” Jamaal explained what had happened.
The voice asked Jamaal a few questions. Who were the three men? Jamaal didn’t know. What did they look like? Early twenties. American. Two with dark hair, one with lighter brown hair and pale skin. He described their clothes.
“I wasn’t supposed to be seen. If the authorities learn that—”
“It will be taken care of.”
Jamaal said, “But it’s important that—”
“I said it will be taken care of. You must go about your business. Forget the three men. Proceed as planned. Leave the rest to me.” He hung up.
The conversation’s abrupt end surprised Jamaal. He blinked, shrugged, hung up the phone. He stood there a full minute pondering his situation. His mission depended on his ability to blend into the scenery, where he would slowly go about collecting the materials he needed. And in a month or three or a year, when everything was in place, he would strike at the Great Satan for the glory of Allah. But if the American FBI or CIA knew an Arab had been smuggled into the country, they would scour the city looking for him. The witnesses had ...