By Joseph A. Vitella
This chapter is an excerpt from Mr. Vitella’s novel, High Noon: Manhattan Under Siege. To set the scene he offers the following brief description of Jake.
Jake Barrett returned from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq a highly-decorated, disabled veteran. A celebrity of sorts, he shuns the spotlight wanting only to adjust to and find purpose in civilian life. But suddenly, it becomes clear that the American ideals he fought to protect abroad are being challenged just a few miles from his Upper Manhattan home. Can this ex-warrior live in peace? Or, must he take up arms yet again to defend his country against those who would destroy it from within?
Jake walked into the barroom and took a look around at the half a dozen men sitting at the bar to his left, and three small groups of both men and women taking up booths along wall to his right. None of them fit the description Clarence had provided.
“About time you got around to coming in here,” a voice rang out from behind him. Jake spun around and saw a man matching Clarence’s description perfectly. His craggy face had a reddish hue like earthen pottery. His salt-and-pepper hair was about as curly as his own but pulled around in a ponytail and only partially covering the thin spot on top. He wore a black tee shirt, faded jeans and black laced boots, the kind GIs wore in Nam. He was sitting alone in a booth that was in a tight corner, sort of behind the door. Jake stepped toward the man who in turn extricated himself from the booth, sucking in his stomach all the way through the motion.
The man held out a large, callused hand and Jake took it with a grip which was much firmer than Jake had expected.
“You must be Nick,” Jake said. “But how did you know who I was?”
“Big black dude, light skin, military haircut, prosthetic foot. I’d know you anywhere, soldier. Sit down and let me buy you a drink.”
As Jake slid onto the bench opposite him, the bartender looked over and stuck out his chin to indicate they had his attention.
“That’s Tommy. An excellent barman and an all-around good guy. Pours a mean Corona bomb. You want one?”
“No thanks,” Jake said. “I don’t mix my drinks anymore. A beer will do the job.”
“Suit yourself,” Nick said. “Tommy, I’ll have another one of these troublemakers and one for my friend here without the rocket fuel.”
“Coming right up, Nick,” the barman said, as though he knew him well. As Jake looked over in that direction, he noticed that the Yankees were playing the Angels on the television. He saw their pitcher warming up behind a graphic showing the Angels’ starting lineup. Then he turned back toward Nick who was in the process of finishing off his drink.
“So, you came to pay your respects to Cawlie.”
“I did,” Jake said, lowering his eyes.
“Cawlie was a good man.”
“Yes, he was,’ Jake agreed. “So, you knew him very well.”
“Yeah. We were friends a long time. I was his boxing coach for a couple of years, starting when he was about fifteen. He was small, but he had a real knack for it. I believe he was undefeated when he gave it up.”
The bartender placed their drinks on the end of the bar and nodded. Nick jumped up, rather spryly this time, placed a few dollars on the bar before grabbing them and shifting them over to the table.
“What made him quit?” Jake asked, wrapping his hand around the chilled pint-sized bar glass in front of him.
Nick held his drink up to his lips and inhaled the aroma before drawing in a healthy pull.
“He started to get his bell rung too many times. The doctor said he had become prone to concussions and that one or two more might cause some serious damage. So he quit boxing and concentrated on getting into college”
Jake took a sip of his beer and looked back at the bar. The TV showed the Yankees pitcher looking for a sign from the catcher.
“Where did he go to school?”
“His parents couldn’t afford much, so he went to the community college. He loved computers and got pretty good grades. The future looked bright for him, but he was a different person after he left the army. We kept in touch through the years. Whenever he found himself in a dark place, he’d call me. herever he was, whatever he was going through, he knew I’d been there too, and that I could help him through it.”
“Where and when did you serve?”
“I turned eighteen the day before I graduated high school, back in June of ‘sixty seven. Two days later, I joined the army. Finished basic training with high marks, so they sent me to Ranger school. Then on to ‘Nam, where I really hit the ground running. They dropped me in country less than a month before the Tet Offensive – that was when all hell broke loose.”
“He talked about you, every once in a while, especially lately.”
Nick tilted his glass and stared into it for a moment, as though he might try to conjure up one more gulp from the bottom.
“Yeah. He told me all about where and when he met you. Told me about his stint in Anbar, when his buddy was murdered right in front of him, by one of our own. He even told me about the video and his recent encounter with a guy named Bill LaRoux.”
“I’m assuming you’ve seen the video. What do you make of it?”
“I’ve seen it alright,” Nick said, taking a long pull of the concoction in front of him.
“I know that Cawlie gave some people the impression that he was unhinged. Okay, so he had slurred speech. He may have taken one too many blows to the head when he boxed, or it may have been the beating he took from that LaRoux guy, I don’t know. Then there was the lingering effects of good old PTSD. I don’t have to tell you what that’s like.”
“No,” Jake said. “You don’t.” He took a longer sip of his beer. The batter on TV got hit by a pitch, went down, and snarled at the pitcher before making his way down to first base without incident.
“On top of that, the police thought he was a paranoid lunatic because he had, at one time, reported something to them that proved to be off the mark. He made an error in judgment from time to time, just as we all do. But Cawlie’s mind was sound.”
“I know it was,” Jake said. “And I know that the police took a very narrow view of him. They told me as much. I’d say that Bill LaRoux was a real trigger point for him. If the man he saw was really LaRoux, that certainly adds credibility to his belief that someone is plotting to kill the Mayor. But do you think it really could it have been him?”
The second batter drove a ball into the gap in left center, bringing runners to second and third. Nick watched the action for a few seconds before taking another hefty pull from his glass. He drinks that stuff as if it were water, Jake thought.
“I don’t know you, Jake but I knew Cawlie well. He wasn’t delusional. He told me he saw this guy LaRoux and I believed him, without any doubt whatsoever.”
“Please understand, I never questioned Cawlie’s rationality. But how could he possibly recognize someone whom he hadn’t seen in a decade so quickly? Someone who, he believed, might well have had surgery to alter his face. I mean, surgery or no, if LaRoux is still alive, he has assumed a new identity and must look a lot different than Cawlie remembered. Then there’s the simple fact that the army declared him a KIA.”
“Of course they did, Jake. You think the army was going to admit they trained a dangerous sociopath to kill and then unwittingly inflicted him on the world? I’m a gun dealer. Some of my customers are well connected with the government. Let’s just say I know people who know people who could verify whether a guy like that was still around. Obviously that’s no longer his name, but believe me, he exists.”
“How can you be sure? Have you verified it?”
Nick braced himself with an ample gulp that nearly emptied his glass. “No, but here’s what I do know. There were some suspicious characters casing the intersection by the Cathedral in the last few weeks. Cawlie caught them on video, and you gave the video to the police. A couple of days later, someone murdered Cawlie and then someone tried to knock you off later in the day.”
Jake took a long pull of his own drink, nearly finishing it. He glanced at the TV, which showed a replay of the previous batter driving the ball out of the park. The Angels were pouring it on, and the Yankee pitcher was heading to the dugout with his head down.
“Listen, Nick. I didn’t come in here to refute what Cawlie believed, or to debate you about Bill LaRoux. Whoever these people are, they crossed the line. They crossed a number of lines, in fact, and they’re going to have to pay. If they’re planning on shooting the Mayor, or terrorizing Midtown on Sunday, as Cawlie believed, I’m going to be there to stop them. I came in here to find out where you stood. I’m going to need some help I wanted to find out if I could count on you.”
Joseph A. Vitella has taught English to foreign born children and adults for the past twenty five years. He enjoys writing and is in the process of completing his second novel. He has also written stories and poems for children, as well as several opinion articles for local newspapers.