Authors: Sam Bourne
The Final Reckoning
Sam Bourne is the pseudonym of Jonathan Freedland, an award-winning journalist and broadcaster. He has written a weekly column for the
since 1997, having previously served as the paper's Washington correspondent.
In the annual What the Papers Say Awards of 2002 Jonathan Freedland was named Columnist of the Year. His first novel,
The Righteous Men
, was chosen as a Richard and Judy Summer Read in 2006 and hit Number One on the
bestseller list. His second novel,
The Last Testament
, was a top ten bestseller and has sold over 250,000 copies in the UK alone. He lives in London with his wife and their two children.
Ani l'dodi, v'dodi li.
My pen has hovered over these pages many times. I have wanted so badly to set down my story here – but I have hesitated. Each time I begin a sentence only to pull back. Even now the pen is heavy in my hand.
But there is not much time, I see that now. I understand that if I were to leave these pages blank, all that I have witnessed would be forgotten. Our story would be lost forever.
So forgive me if what you read here is harsh, if it haunts you the way it haunts me. But there will be no exaggeration, no lies. I may not tell everything, but what I will tell will be the truth. This is what happened. Some of it you know already. Some of it you don't. It is my story now, but soon it will be yours.
The day that changes a life, or ends a life, rarely comes with a warning. There are no signs in the sky, no dark ravens on a post, no soundtrack in a minor key. To Felipe Tavares, security officer at the United Nations building in New York, September 23 had started as a regular Monday.
He had come in on the Long Island Expressway on the 6.15 train, picked up a cappuccino and a muffin – a skinny blueberry one, in a concession to his wife – waved his permit at the guys on the door and headed to the basement of the United Nations building, headquarters of the institution he had served for the previous three years. There he opened up his locker, pulled out the blue uniform of an officer of the UN Security Force, complete with the Sam Browne belt and the brass badge that still triggered a charge of pride, and dressed for his shift.
Next, he went to the armoury to pick up his weapon. He handed over his smartcard photo
ID, taking in return a 9mm Glock, standard issue for most serving members of this miniature police force, charged with protecting the international territory that was the UN compound and everything within it. Felipe took the ammunition from the pouch on his belt and loaded up, carefully pointing the weapon into the loading barrel to guard against any misfires. Once his gun was holstered on his belt, alongside his truncheon, a P38 baton with handle, pepper spray and cuffs, he headed for the basement's ‘ready room’. There he would stand in his place for the line-up, where he and his fellow guards would be reviewed by an officer, checking to make sure his men and women were tidy, sober and fit for duty.
That done, he headed back to the main entrance on First Avenue between 45th and 46th Streets to begin what he assumed would be another long day checking permits and answering tourists' questions. It was warm enough, but rain was in the air; he put on his orange-and-black waterproof cape. The work would be boring, but he did not care. Felipe Tavares had yearned to escape from the drudgery of small-town Portugal where he had been born and grown up, and where, if he had not moved fast, he would have died – and he had made it. He was in New York City and that alone was excitement enough.
* * *
At that same moment, across town in a Tribeca side street that was no more than an alley, Marcus Mack conducted his own morning routine. African-American and in his late twenties, wearing loose, frayed jeans, with a full head of dreadlocks and with a grungy Crumpler computer bag slung across his shoulder, he checked on his parked car. Anyone watching would have assumed he was merely proud of his souped-up, if aged, Pontiac and that when he knelt down by the driver's side rear wheel he was checking the tyre pressure. They probably wouldn't have seen him feeling in the well above the wheel and finding, stuck there with duct tape, a cellphone. He took it and walked on.
Perhaps a minute later the phone rang, as Marcus knew it would. The voice that spoke was familiar but Marcus knew better than to say hello. It said four words –
‘Athens coffee shop, seven-thirty’
– then hung up. At the corner of the street, and without ceremony, Mack dropped the telephone into a garbage can.
The café was full, the way his handler liked it. Marcus spotted him instantly, on a stool in the window, just another grey-suit reading his newspaper. Marcus took the seat next to him and pulled out his laptop. They made no eye contact.
The handler's phone rang and he pretended to answer it. In fact, he was speaking to Marcus,
whose eyes remained fixed on the computer screen in front of him.
‘We've picked up activity in Brighton Beach. The Russian.’
He did not have to say any more. Marcus knew about the Russian, as did the other member of his unit in the NYPD Intelligence Division. The Russian was an arms supplier who had been spotted a year ago. The Division had enough to shut him down immediately but the order had come from on high: ‘Keep him in play.’ It was a familiar tactic. Leave a bad guy in business, watch who comes and goes and hope he leads you to some worse guys. Throw back the minnow, catch the shark.
‘Surveillance camera caught a man in black entering the Russian's place last night, leaving an hour later. Traced him to the Tudor Hotel, 42nd and Second.’
Marcus did not react, just kept tapping away at his keyboard, for all the world an urban guy reshuffling his iTunes collection. But he knew what the location meant. The Tudor was perhaps the nearest hotel to the United Nations building. And this was the UN's big week. Heads of government from all over the world had piled into New York to address the General Assembly. US Secret Service were crawling all over the place in preparation for the President's visit later in the week, but there were more than a hundred other prize targets already here, all jammed within a few Manhattan blocks for seventy-two fraught hours.
In a week like this, anything was possible. A Kurd bent on assassinating the head of the Turkish government, a Basque separatist determined to blast the Spanish prime minister, ideally on live television: you name it.
‘Placed a tap on the Tudor Hotel switchboard last night. Recorded a guest calling down to reception this morning, asking about visiting times to the UN. “Is it true tourists can go right into the Security Council chamber itself?”’
‘Accent?’ It was the first word Marcus had spoken.
‘Part British, part “foreign”.’
‘You need to get down there. Watch and follow.’
‘White male. Five-eight. Heavy black coat, black woollen hat.’
‘Hard to tell. Coat's bulky.’
‘There's a team.’
Felipe Tavares was now outdoors. Behind him was the temporary white marquee that served as the UN visitors' lobby – still up after five years. Not much tourist traffic yet, too early. So far it was just regular UN staff, permits dangling like necklaces. Not much for him to do. He looked up at the sky, now darkening. Rain was coming.
* * *
Marcus stationed himself on the corner of 42nd and Second Avenue – still called Nelson and Winnie Mandela Corner – tucked into the doorway of McFadden's Bar. Diagonally opposite was the Tudor Hotel. The first drops of rain were a help; the shelter gave him an excuse to be standing there, doing nothing. And it meant the Tudor's doorman, in cape and peaked cap, was too busy fussing with umbrellas and cab doors to notice a shifty guy in dreads across the street.
That was how Marcus liked it; to be unnoticed. It had become a speciality of his back when he was doing undercover work in the NYPD's narcotics squad. Since he had moved over to the Intel Division a year ago it had become a necessity. The thousand men and women of what amounted to New York's very own spy agency, a legacy of 9/11, kept themselves secret from everyone: the public, the bad guys, even their fellow cops.
He had been waiting twenty-five minutes when he saw it. A blur of black emerging through the hotel's revolving door. Just as it turned towards him, the doorman stepped forward with his umbrella, blocking Marcus's view of the man's face. By the time the umbrella was out of the way, the blur of black had turned right. In the direction of the UN.
Marcus spoke into what those around him would have believed was a Bluetooth headset for a cellphone. ‘Subject on the move.’
Without waiting for a response he started walking, keeping a few paces behind the man on the other side of the six, traffic-filled lanes of 42nd Street. A voice crackled into his ear, sounding distant. ‘Do we have a positive ID?’
Marcus shot another look. The man was swaddled in the thick, dark coat the handler had mentioned; his head was covered in a black woollen hat pulled low, and he was no more than five feet and eight inches tall. The subject matched perfectly the description of the man seen at the Russian's last night. He pressed the button clipped to his sleeve: ‘Affirmative. We have a positive ID.’
Suddenly the man in black began to turn, as if checking for a tail. Of course he would: trained terrorists didn't just let themselves get followed. Marcus swivelled quickly, switching his gaze to the steps that led up to a small city playground. In his peripheral vision he could tell the subject was no longer looking at him, but was marching onwards.
Something about the man's gait struck Marcus as odd. Was he limping slightly? There was a restriction to his movements, something slowing him down. He walked like a man carrying a heavy weight.
Suddenly the East River came into view. They had reached the corner of First Avenue: UN Plaza was visible. The rain was getting heavier now, making it harder to see.
The man in black had reached the crossroads, the traffic heavy. Marcus hung back on his side of the street, all the while keeping his eye fixed on the subject, who had now stopped by the first entrance to the United Nations, reading the sign: ‘Staff, Delegates and Residents. Correspondents Only.’ Now the subject moved on, separated by the black iron railings from a procession of flagpoles, each one empty. Further back loomed the trademark curve of glass and steel that was the UN headquarters.
Marcus cursed his short leather jacket, feeble against this downpour. He pulled his collar up to stop the rain running down his neck. The man in black seemed untroubled by the weather. He moved past another UN gate, this one for cars, and another green-tinted sentry box.
Marcus stopped for a moment in the doorway of the Chase Bank. The second he did so an oversized tourist bus – doubtless full of oversized tourists – pulled up into the slip road that fronted the UN between 45th and 46th.
‘Lost visual, lost visual!’ Marcus urged into his mouthpiece.
‘I got it,’ said another voice over the air, instant and calm. ‘Subject has halted outside main gate.’
Marcus walked on, trying to get ahead of the tourist bus without revealing himself. His headset crackled again.
‘Subject back on the move.’ OK, thought Marcus with relief. A false alarm.
The man in black was not trying to enter the UN building after all.
At last the bus pulled out, giving Marcus a clear view of the subject, now walking further down First Avenue. His pace was quickening slightly, thanks to the steep downward slope. But this was no relaxed stroll. Marcus could see him studying the garden on the other side of the railings intently. He had drawn level with a large, heroic sculpture – the slaying of a dragon, the beast apparently fashioned out of an old artillery cannon – and stopped as if looking for something.
Marcus squinted. Was he searching for another, unguarded, way into the UN compound? If he was, he clearly had not found it. Now, with renewed purpose, the man turned around, heading back towards the main entrance.
Felipe Tavares' radio was bulky, low-tech and in this rain barely audible. It was hard to separate the static crackle from the rest of the noise. But the word ‘Alert’ came through clear enough, especially when repeated twice.
‘Watch Commander to main entry points, this is the Watch Commander to main entry points.’ Felipe recognized the accent: the guy from the Ivory Coast who'd started three months ago. ‘We have information on a possible threat to the building. Suspect is male, five foot eight, wearing a heavy black coat and dark woollen hat. No more
details at present, but stay vigilant. Please stop and apprehend anyone fitting that description.’
Felipe had barely digested the message when he saw a blur of black striding, head down, towards the gate he was guarding.
Marcus was now halfway across First Avenue, struggling to hear the voice in his ear above the traffic.
‘… enter the UN compound. Repeat, agents are
to enter the UN compound.’
He stopped as he reached the kerb of the slip road, now just yards away from the man he had followed for more than ten minutes, and watched him walk briskly through the gate and up the few steps to the small piazza in front of the white marquee. He had crossed into UN territory: he was now officially beyond reach. All Marcus could see was the man's back. He felt his heart fill with dread.
From this angle, at the side of the piazza, Felipe could only see a little of the man's face in profile, the hat and the collar of his coat obscuring even that. But he fitted the Watch Commander's description perfectly.
Felipe watched him stop, as if contemplating what stood before him. Then he took three more paces forwards, then stopped again. What was he doing?
The security man could feel his palms growing
moist. He was suddenly aware of how many people were around, dozens of them crossing between him and this black-coated figure. So many people. He wondered if he should say something into his radio, but all he could do was stare, frozen, his gaze fixed on the coat. It was raining, but it was certainly not cold. Why was the coat so thick, so heavy? Answering his own question spread a wave of nausea through him, starting in his stomach and rising into his throat.
Felipe looked around, desperate to see half a dozen of his fellow officers descending on this scene, men who by their very presence would take the decision for him. He wanted to use his radio – ‘Believe suspect could be armed with a bomb.
Repeat, believe suspect could be armed with a bomb!’
– but what if that only provoked him to act? Felipe Tavares was paralysed.
The man was on the move again, now just yards away from the marquee. Felipe thought that perhaps he should wait, let him go through the doors and be stopped by Security. He wouldn't stand a chance: he'd never get past the detectors or a frisk.
But he wouldn't care.
That, Felipe realized as the blood drained from his head, was the absolute horror of it. Nothing could scare this man.
Now the subject changed course again, still showing his back to Felipe, but turning to face the street. Felipe wanted to cry out, demand that the man freeze and put his hands in the air. But
that, he understood, could be no less fatal. Once the man knew he'd been discovered, he would push the button immediately, right here. And there were just so many people around …
Felipe did not
to do it. That much he would remember later: there was never a decision. He simply reached for his gun. And at that moment he saw ahead of him, through the black iron railings, two men, one of them young, black and dreadlocked, both raising their hands, showing their palms, as if in surrender. The sheer alarm on their faces, the mortal panic etched on them, settled it for him. In a single motion, he pulled out his weapon and aimed it squarely at the man in black.