The van speeding down Seventh swerved toward him as he stepped off the curb. Would have ripped off a kneecap if he hadn’t spotted it out of the corner of his eye and jumped back in time.
He’d come to West 23rd Street hunting lunch. Despite its grit and grime and unabashedly crass commercialism—or maybe because of it—Jack dug the big two-way cross street. Only a few blocks from his apartment, its mostly tiny storefronts offered a cross section of all the low-end merchandise available throughout the city, a mishmash of deep-discount, off-brand electronics, cheap luggage, Gucci knockoffs, the ever-present XXX peep shows, a dizzying selection of ethnic fast foods, plus an endless variety of VHS tapes, music cassettes, and CDs—all bootleg.
The humanity crowding the sidewalks was always varied, but on a Saturday at midday, despite the February cold, even more so. As a white guy in jeans and a denim jacket over a flannel shirt, Jack was barely noticeable among the yellow, black, and various shades of mocha, the saried Hindus, turbaned Sikhs, straights, gays, and unsures, socialists and socialites, bankers and bohos, tourists and transvestites, holies and harlots, felons and fashion victims, viragos and virgins, commies and capitalists, artistes and Aryans.
He was going to miss the bustling energy when he moved uptown, but reminded himself it would remain just a few subway stops away.
Still, despite all the varied bright colors, the city had a dark feel. The recession was holding on, casting a pall that refused to lift, and everyone was feeling it.
Back in the day, his father used to come into the city now and then to visit Uncle Stu in his three-story brownstone a little ways downtown and toward Eighth Avenue. Sometimes he’d drag Jack along. Dad would always come away with samples of Uncle Stu’s single-malt Scotches. Long gone was the Nedick’s where they’d stop and grab hot dogs with the weird rolls and delicious pickle mustard. A McDonald’s filled its shoes now, but as much as he liked Big Macs, he wasn’t in burger mode at the moment. He eyed the line of chromed street carts along the curb. One offered Sabrett hot dogs—pass—while another offered mystery meat on a stick—pass again.
He paused near Seventh Avenue, before the redbrick and wrought-iron façade of the Chelsea Hotel. Across the street he spotted a gyro cart he’d visited in the past. The owner, Nick, had a vertical propane rotisserie that he used to cook the meat. He fresh-carved the slices and wrapped them in a pita with onions and a cucumber-yogurt sauce. Jack’s mouth was already watering. Yeah, that would do nicely.
That was when he’d stepped off the curb. That was when the gray, unmarked commercial van damn near killed him.
It swerved to a screeching halt a half dozen feet away and he took a step toward it, ready to give the driver hell. But then the side panel slid back and three dark-skinned guys about his age erupted from within. Two wore beads and had scarf-wrapped heads, the third wore a backward trucker cap—typical streetwear, nothing special. Then Jack noticed that all three carried short, shiny machetes and looked out for blood. When Rico leaned out the front passenger window and screamed something in Spanish, Jack got the picture.
He turned and ran.
Last fall he’d been leading an uncomplicated life as a cash-paid landscaper/gardener, the lone gringo among Dominican immigrants in a five-man crew for Two Paisanos Landscaping. Rico, a member of that crew, came to view Jack as a rival for his leadership position. Pre-Jack, he’d been the boss’s go-to guy. After Jack joined, Giovanni Pastorelli came to depend more and more on Jack because they shared English as a first language. The seething Rico began to ride Jack, most times via colorful Dominican insults that went beyond Jack’s rudimentary Spanish, occasionally punctuated by a push or a bump. Jack realized the problem but didn’t see what he could do about it, so he let it ride for months until the day Rico culminated a week of relentless heckling with a sucker punch to the jaw.
Jack still didn’t remember much of what happened next. Apparently he flashed into berserker mode, launching a Hells Angels–style counterattack so vicious it left him in shock and a battered Rico coiled on the ground clutching a ruined knee.
The other Dominicans were Rico’s buddies who used machetes to clear brush. The boss, Giovanni, fearing Jack would end up with one of those blades in his back, had fired him for his own safety.
It should have ended there. But for some reason it hadn’t. Giovanni had mentioned a link to a machete-wielding street gang called DDP—Dominicans Don’t Play—and told Jack he’d better get himself a gun. Jack had bought that gun but didn’t have it on him now—he’d only stepped out to grab some lunch, for Christ’s sake.
Jack raced west, putting some distance between himself and his pursuers. He glanced over his shoulder and noticed the three matóns after him all wore baggy gangsta jeans halfway down their asses. That had to slow them down. He recognized the one in the trucker cap—Ramon—from Giovanni’s landscaping crew, but the other two were strangers. DDP members? Why wasn’t Rico, the guy with the biggest grudge, among them? Had he gone in another direction, trying to flank him?
Couldn’t think about that now. Subway entrance ahead near Eighth Avenue. That van could be in motion, complicating things. Best to get off the street. A subterranean wind blew against his face as he scrambled down the white-tiled gullet into the token area. Train arriving. No time for a token and no transit cop in sight, so he waved to the attendant as he raced past the booths, hopped atop the turnstile, and leaped across. Good luck to his pursuers trying a turnstile hop in those saggy pants.
The fetid gale was stronger here, flowing up from the subway platforms one level below. A DOWNTOWN sign hung above a stairway to his left, UPTOWN over another to his right. He didn’t care which direction he went, all he wanted was to go-go-go. The big question: Where was the train arriving—uptown or downtown side?
The wind began to die with the tortured screeee of train brakes.
The sound echoed from all directions, but seemed louder from the left. Without breaking stride he veered toward the DOWNTOWN sign. As he pelted down the stairs he saw the train pull to a stop below. An A train. Great. Get on that and he could take it all the way to Far Rockaway if he wished.
The loose weekend crowd on the platform gravitated toward the train as the doors slid back. Jack darted among the travelers, debating whether to take the train or climb the next set of stairs back up and crouch near the top while his pursuers boarded the train in search of him. Then he saw a rag-topped face peer over the railing.
No dummies, these matóns. And they moved fast despite their potato-sack jeans.
The guy on the steps let out a high-pitched howl as Jack raced by. The arriving passengers had left the train and hit the stairs by then. Jack reached the third set and faked going up a few steps, then leaped over the rail and through the subway doors just as they started to close.
The DDPer closest behind him didn’t make it. He jabbed his machete through the crack, barely missing Jack. It had black symbols carved into its chromed surface. He tried to use it to pry open the doors, but the train had started moving and that wasn’t going to happen. Ramon and the other DDPer came up behind their buddy and the trio made all sorts of gestures—shaking fists, pointing fingers—while shouting threats in Spanish. As they slid away, Jack refrained from any taunts, just stared and concentrated on catching his breath while the adrenaline buzz faded.
What would they have done with those machetes if they’d caught him? Decapitate him?
And why wasn’t Rico with them? Because he couldn’t be with them? Because Jack had screwed up his knee so bad he had to stay back in the truck?
Shit. Jack hadn’t meant to hurt him like that. Well, yeah, he must have wanted to hurt him in the moment—wanted to kill him, in fact—but to think that he’d caused permanent damage to a guy just for acting like a dumbass … he didn’t like that.
This rage percolating within … he was a little better at controlling it now. A little …
He pressed the side of his face against the window, expecting to see a receding cluster of matóns on the edge of the platform, and maybe hoping Rico would be with them. Instead he saw them running beside the train. They’d stuck their machetes in their belts and were climbing into the spaces between the cars behind his.
Crap! They weren’t giving up.
Jack started weaving forward through the three-quarter-full car. Fourteenth Street was the next stop but the train was moving so slowly, he’d run out of train before then. As he opened the sliding door to move to the next car, he looked up. Blackness above. A soot-darkened tunnel ceiling. How much clearance? Two feet? Six? Subway surfers were doing it—at least that was what the papers said. Why couldn’t he?
Well, he could climb up there, no problem. But could he survive? Stories abounded about some of those subway surfers having fatal encounters with low-hanging crossbeams.
He closed the door behind him and looked back through the car he’d just left. A DDPer was just opening the door at the rear end. Pretty clear nothing good was going to happen to Jack if he stayed at floor level. He had a feeling his only chance to come through this intact was up there.
He braced a foot on one of the side chains, then hauled himself up on the right handrail. He poked his head above the roof level and got a faceful of wind. Wan wash from caged bulbs set in the tunnel walls revealed the subway car’s beveled roof, its smooth surface broken along the center by a series of low vents. Jack would have much preferred a flat roof—that curved surface made it too easy to slide off. Maybe he should rethink—
The door to the car he’d just left slid open. A quick glance showed the top of a scarf-wrapped head.
With no other choice, Jack scrambled up and started crawling along the filthy car roof. He heard a clang, felt a vibration near his trailing foot, and knew the matón had slashed at him with his machete. Jack increased his crawl speed, dragging himself along through the caked layers of soot and pigeon droppings—the A train ran aboveground for much of its outer-borough route—and didn’t look back until he’d reached the first vent. The DDPer had just gained the roof and started crawling after him.
Jack was half turned to face him when he felt a stinging impact just below his left shoulder. The guy had taken a wild, full-extension slash with his blade and connected. His dark eyes held a kind of crazy glee and he grinned through a wispy goatee as he raised his machete for another swing. But a passing crossbeam caught the blade and ripped it from his fingers, sending it flying with a ringing clang. That leveled the playing field.
“Now we’re even, asshole!”
Jack felt the darkness rising. He resisted a mad urge to slide toward him, stick his thumbs in his eyes, and pop them from their sockets.
The strobing lights showed the guy’s pained expression and Jack could tell by the way he tucked his left hand against his chest that the blow must have hurt—sprained his wrist no doubt.
“Hope you broke it!”
Furious, the DDPer raised his head and shouted something Jack didn’t catch just as another crossbeam flashed by close above, tearing the scarf from his head. The glee left his eyes as his expression turned terrified. He did a reverse belly-scramble and slid back down between the cars.
Yeah, you gotta be bugfuck nuts to come up here.
Jack checked his arm. The denim jacket was sliced over his deltoid and blood seeped through. He’d barely felt it when it happened, but it hurt now. Damn, that blade must have been sharp.
He resumed his forward belly crawl along the roof, not sure if he should stop in the middle or try to make it to the next car. He paused midway, then kept moving, despite the pain in his left shoulder. If he could hop the gap to the next car …
Light ahead. The 14th Street station. The train started to brake, sliding Jack forward toward the gap. As it pulled into the station, he looked ahead and saw no crossbeams overhead. He took that as a signal to rise to a crouch and move. The deceleration pushed him to a higher speed than he intended, scaring him a little, but that turned into a good thing when he reached the gap just as a familiar face popped up for a look.
Ramon must have worked his way to the forward end of the car to cut Jack off should he try just what he was doing. His eyes went wide when he saw Jack charging him. He raised his machete but too late. Jack leaped the gap just as the train ground to a halt. Ramon lost his perch with the stop and, arms flailing, dropped to the inter-car platform.
But he wasn’t down long. As the doors hissed open below, Ramon was crawling up to the roof behind Jack and giving chase.
Mind racing in search of a plan, Jack kept loping forward. Jump off to the platform? He glanced down and saw the debarking passengers weaving out among the new ones shuffling in. The car roof wasn’t that far above the platform but a jump ran the risk of landing wrong—just a little off and his knee could twist or his ankle could go under, leaving him a sitting duck. Then he saw a DDPer, the one who’d lost his scarf and machete, watching him from the platform as he wrung his injured wrist.
That put a jump out of the question, so he hopped the gap to the next car.
Again, no sign of Rico. Because he wasn’t able to get around?
Couldn’t think about that now. Had to do something—and quick, because he was running out of train. Only two and a half more cars to go. He heard the doors below slide shut so he dropped to his knees and braced himself for the lurching start. Looking back he saw Ramon still on his feet and closing fast. He was trotting atop the car behind, grinning and brandishing his garden-variety black-steel machete. He hopped the gap between his car and Jack’s—
—just as the train bucked forward. The sudden move made his leap fall short. His sneaker made toe contact with the car roof’s rear edge, then slipped off. His expression turned from fierce grin to shock and fear as he dropped out of sight.
But not for long. Seconds later, as the train entered the tunnel, he was up again and coming Jack’s way, though this time in a crawl instead of a run. The train picked up speed and the wind carried Ramon’s trucker’s cap away, but he didn’t seem to mind. Jack continued his own crawl to the forwardmost vent duct on the roof and clung to it. He was counting on Ramon to keep coming. And he did.
Ramon and Rico and the rest of Giovanni’s DR crew had been living in Brooklyn. Probably never rode the Eighth Avenue line down here. Didn’t know that it made a sharp left turn to the east toward Sixth Avenue. Jack remembered many times needing a near-death grip on one of the poles inside to keep from bouncing off other passengers as it made that turn … just … about …
The train lurched left and Ramon began to slide right. Jack had his arms tight around the vent and stayed put. He could see Ramon’s wide, terrified eyes as he dropped his machete—two down, one to go—and scratched at the filthy, sloping surface in a frantic search for purchase.
Fat chance, pal.
Jack watched his kicking legs go over the side, heard his terrified wail as his body followed, saw his clawed hands rake the roof all the way to the edge where they caught the lip, leaving Ramon clinging to the side of the train by his fingertips.
Jack fought the wild urge to slide over and kick at those fingertips, dumping Ramon off the train. He’d bang off the side wall, bounce against the train, get spun around and around until he either fell to the tracks where he’d end up ground meat, or get caught on the outside and be dragged into West 4th. Either way, he’d be eliminated as a threat.
But he held back, remembering how he’d let his rage take over with Rico. Look where that had put him.
Instead he imagined the view from inside the car: Ramon’s panicked face pressed against the outside of a window, his prolonged scream drowned in the train noise. Would anyone look up and see? Maybe, maybe not. Would anyone pull the emergency stop cord? Again, maybe, maybe not, but leaning toward not. New Yorkers resented anyone or anything that slowed their subway ride. They might write him off as just another jerk working a variation on subway surfing. Might even want him to fall off.
The train straightened out, but Jack knew it wouldn’t be long before it angled right to enter the West 4th Street station, a big nexus point at Sixth Avenue where a half dozen or more subway lines crossed.
The train pulled into the low-ceilinged station and Jack had to stay down if he wanted to keep his head. As it stopped and the doors opened, he peeked over the right edge of the roof and saw the two DDPers rush out and peel a shaken, weak-kneed Ramon off the side of the car.
Okay, no getting out that way.
To the left, over the wall, he heard a train approaching. The uptown tracks were over there.
He rose to standing between a pair of crossbeams and looked over. Another A train was pulling into the station. The beams ran above the wall. If he could get over there …
Ignoring the oily grime and rat turds, Jack took hold of the beam before him. His left hand, slick with blood dripping down his arm from his shoulder, slipped. He wiped it dry on his jacket, then hopped up onto the beam and began to crawl along on his hands and knees. He couldn’t help but think of gymnasts he’d seen doing cartwheels and flips on something just about this wide. How the hell did they manage?
When he reached the wall he came to a vertical support that ran up into the dark. He had to rise to his feet and swing around it. A hairy maneuver, especially here. Falling off the far side would be a disaster—at best he’d lie crippled on the tracks; at worst he’d land on the third rail and get fried by six zillion volts.
He heard a shout behind him and a machine-gun rattle of Spanish. A look back showed one of the matóns on the car roof he’d just left. This guy still had his head scarf and machete. He hopped up on the same crossbeam and started crawling Jack’s way.
Okay, no time for caution. That uptown A would be pulling out in seconds. Jack did a Wallenda along the next beam, arms out, one foot in front of the other. The train’s brakes hissed as they released. It started rolling.
Another vertical beam. Almost there. Jack swung recklessly around it and stepped on the horizontal on the far side. His sneaker landed on something squishy—a fresh rat turd?—and his foot slipped out from under him.
Oh, shit, he was falling.
At the last second he kicked out against the upright with his other foot, allowing him to belly-flop onto the slowly moving roof of the uptown A. The air whooshed out of him on impact.
He gasped, struggling for a breath. Christ, that hurt.
Still fighting for air, he managed to turn onto his side and watch the DDPer go into a half crouch, ready to jump, then change his mind. As the train picked up speed, Jack waved, then rolled onto his back, temporarily wiped out.
Copyright © 2013 by F. Paul Wilson