Countdown: Three Days
by Peter Cawdron
From there, everything was a blur. Somehow, Cohen managed to fall asleep on the helicopter. Flying at night had initially made him nauseous but after a while the soft lights in the darkness made him drowsy.
He’d been riding on adrenalin for the past few hours, but now the rush had passed he felt spent. It was hard to get comfortable wearing a pair of bulky headphones, but the gentle rhythmic pulse of chopper blades was unusually soothing, rocking him to sleep.
The pilot dropped off the colonel and refuelled at the West Point Naval Base while Cohen stayed curled up on the back seat. It was well after midnight when the chopper took off again.
“Where to, sir?” the pilot asked, switching channels and broadcasting over the headphones Cohen was wearing. Cohen sat up as the pilot added, “We’re 55 miles north of New York City, directly over the Hudson river. The lights down there to the left are from the administration block at West Point.”
Cohen yawned, taking in his surroundings as reality rushed back to him. “What’s to the north?” he asked, rubbing his eyes and looking at his watch. It was 12:43 AM.
That one word was enough to trigger an avalanche of thoughts. The search effort had concentrated on the coast. Everyone assumed the nuke was only now being brought into the country, and that it was being brought directly to New York. But what if it was already here? He wondered.
What if it wasn’t that simple and they needed more time to prepare the nuclear device? Where could they mount an effective staging area? It would have to be somewhere inconspicuous but with easy access to the city. Somewhere like the Hudson.
And tugboats, he realised, they’re pilot vessels for the ocean-going container ships, so they’re misleading. Cohen mumbled under his breath, “Everyone’s assumed the Esperance is holed up along the coast or out at sea. Nobody is thinking about the upstate river.”
“Sorry, sir,” the pilot replied. “I didn’t catch that.”
“Take me to Albany. Nice and low along the river.”
Cohen clambered forward and sat next to the pilot.
They flew north past Newburgh and around the refinery works at Cedar Cliff for a few minutes before reaching the abandoned quarry at Cobalt Lake. There were so many places to hide.
Cohen was worried they could have already flown over the tug in the dark without realising it. He watched their progress on his hand-held GPS readout.
As they flew on, he flicked to the instant message screen and sent Davies a text message telling him they were following the Hudson north. Davies sent a reply, saying “O’Malley has widened the search corridor to include Baltimore and Chesapeake. Good hunting.”
As the helicopter flew on, they passed a gaggle of barges strung out for miles, all loaded up with ore. The barges sat up against the east bank of the river, almost hidden in the shadows.
Cohen strained his eyes, looking into the darkness. Dense pockets of trees hid the shoreline. Whenever he spotted something interesting, the pilot would switch on the searchlight and the night turned to day as they hovered overhead.
It was surprising how different the world appeared under a twenty-million candlepower floodlight. Murky shapes, obscure in the shadows, would suddenly resolve into barns, hunting shacks and private fishing piers.
As they flew on, Cohen watched their progress on the GPS unit. They passed the city of Milton on the west and then the vast industrial area outside of Poughkeepsie in the east before flying on toward Highland in the north.
As the helicopter passed over a darkened railway bridge, Cohen spotted something unusual. One of the barges was anchored under the bridge near a support pillar. All the other barges were tied off against the shore.
Large canvas tarpaulins had been stretched out from the bridge to the barge. It was something that made no sense for a vessel that would be on the move from one day to the next, shuttling coal and iron ore to the factories at Poughkeepsie. And yet, Cohen realised, it made perfect sense for someone hiding from an aerial search.
“Bring us back around the other side,” he said, pointing at the dark shape in the water.
The chopper pilot flicked on the search light, illuminating the wooden timber frame of the old bridge along with the steel railway tracks. There was someone standing on the rear of the barge below the bridge. Cohen didn’t noticed the flash of light from the far river bank, but the pilot saw it.
“We’re being fired upon,” the pilot cried as he leaned backwards. The helicopter peeled off in an arc as a shoulder-launched missile burst through the night below them. Cohen’s stomach moved up into his throat as the pilot swung the helicopter hard to the left and down away from the missile.
A small ball of fire swerved in the air, homing in on them. The chopper shuddered with the impact. The warhead failed to detonate but the missile shattered the rear rotor blade, causing the chopper to spin wildly.
“Brace yourself,” the pilot cried as the helicopter descended rapidly.
Cohen held on for dear life, his hands gripping the door frame. The helicopter fell into the swiftly flowing river north of the bridge. Cohen was shocked by the rush of dark water swirling up over his legs, around his waist and across his chest. The icy chill caught him by surprise. He flinched and he lost his breath.
He struggled to release the seatbelt and open the cockpit door. In the murky darkness, his shirt got caught on the door frame. He wrestled to free himself. The last thing Cohen remembered was struggling with the door handle, fighting to open the cockpit in the bitter darkness.
The helicopter sank in seconds. Within a minute there was no sign it had ever been there.
“Someone survived,” yelled one of the terrorists. Another, in a small inflatable boat, zoomed over and fished Cohen out of the river. He choked, coughing up water as he was dragged into the small boat.
The inflatable boat took him to the barge. There was a lot of yelling, with only sporadic words in English.
Cohen was dragged up onto the cold steel deck shivering uncontrollably. One of the terrorists stood over him with an AK-47 assault rifle while another rifled through his pockets. He pulled out the small hand-held computer.
Water dripped from the silver casing. The display was smashed. Dark blots of liquid crystal marred the shattered glass screen. The terrorist tossed the computer carelessly onto the deck and swore at Cohen, kicking him in the ribs.
Cohen rolled over. The computer lay on its side against a coil of heavy rope. A light flickered on the side of the unit and the small, thin sliver of an image came up. It was barely recognisable as a swab of grass and a piece of polished granite. The rest of the screen had been crushed. The headstone was still there. Nothing had changed. Nothing would change. The only thing that surprised him was that he wasn’t already dead.
“He’s wearing a vest,” one of the terrorists yelled, grabbing him by the bulky straps under his wet shirt and heaving him to one side.
Someone else reached down and felt the stiff Kevlar padding and said, “Standard police issue. Not military. He’s a civilian.”
Another terrorist yelled at him and kicked him in the back, rolling him over with his boot so he could search his other pockets. He alternated between speaking in English on a cell phone and yelling at the other terrorists in a foreign tongue. Cohen could only guess it was some form of Arabic. Finally, he ripped Cohen’s wallet out of his back pocket.
“Got it,” said the terrorist, speaking into the phone as he looked at Cohen’s credit cards and identification, “He’s James Cohen. There is a Pentagon security clearance card and photo ID saying he is a senior analyst with the NSA.”
The terrorist paused for a second, listening carefully to what was being said in response on the phone.
“No. There were no other survivors.”
Again, the terrorist paused, listening to what was being said on the cell phone. Cohen looked around at the men towering over him. The tug lay up hard against the side of the frame supporting railway bridge. The flicker of a welding rod lit up one side of the boat.
“No. There is no sign of anyone else. No more helicopters. What do you want us to do with him?”
One of the terrorists dropped some nylon cord on the deck beside him. For a moment, Cohen thought they might simply tie him up. The initial beating seemed to be over. Apart from the terrorist on the phone and the guard with the rifle, the rest of the men had lost interest in him and had dispersed, wandering off back to their work on the tug.
“Kill him,” the terrorist said, finishing the phone call.
The Arab with the AK-47 didn’t hesitate. He fired a single shot into the centre of Cohen’s chest. The crack of the bullet being fired was deafening.
Cohen couldn’t believe it. He’d been shot. His body convulsed. The high-velocity military round passed through his Kevlar vest like it was tissue paper, plunging deep inside his chest. He clutched at the vest in disbelief.
Through the surge of pain, Cohen felt the warmth of his own blood pooling up, pumping out of his chest and under the vest. The pain was excruciating, as though a burning sword had been thrust into his heart. He twisted and turned, trying to get up, to get away, but his strength drained with each second that passed.
The two terrorists spoke rapidly between themselves. The man with the rifle kicked Cohen viciously in the mouth, breaking his nose along with a couple of his teeth and then turned and walked away, leaving him to die.
Although Cohen was short of breath, gasping to take in air, his mind was moving at a million miles an hour. It was trying desperately to deny the reality of what had happened. After a few seconds, the pain seemed to fade into the background and a sense of lightness drifted over him. He was in deep shock.
Life, or what little was left of it, faded in and out of focus like a dream. A pool of blood welled up beneath him, running up under the hair on the back of his head. Beside him, the shattered hand-held computer displayed a fractured image, a thin strand of colour, a glimpse of grass and the corner of a tombstone, his tombstone. It was over. He’d failed. For all the knowledge he had of the future he was powerless to stop it from coming to pass.
Cohen coughed up blood. His right lung had collapsed and his left lung was failing. His fingers trembled.
It couldn’t end like this, he thought, it couldn’t. But nothing had changed. The anguish of defeat washed over him, the shadow of death engulfed him. What was it Davies had said? He wondered. No, it was something his grandfather had said. Nothing changes unless you change it.
In his dying thoughts, Cohen realised the old man was right. Nothing had changed and so nothing would change. But what could he change? What could he alter as he lay there dying? It was too late.
Even in his final moments, as his life ebbed out before him, Cohen refused to give up, he refused to surrender hope.
The flickering screen on the hand-held computer caught his eye. The battery was fading. The electronics were failing. He wasn’t the only one dying.
Cohen reached over and picked up the shattered computer with his bloodied hands. In a daze, he pressed the function key and brought up the instant message console, or at least what he hoped was the console. What little he could see of the screen went white. He typed HIGH RAIL BRIDG and pressed send with his thumb before his strength failed.
With his last thoughts he struggled to calculate just how much time would elapse between now and his funeral. It was silly, but for him, in that moment, it was somehow important. His funeral had been three days, seventeen hours and fourteen minutes into the future. It was still three days, but was it five hours or six? And how many minutes? How many minutes, he wondered and then he wondered no more as the darkness washed over him.
* * *
Cohen’s funeral, some three days, five hours and fifty-seven minutes later, was just as he’d seen it. Bunches of cut flowers lay up against the gravestone, brilliant in their colouring and rich in the aroma of their fragrance. There was barely a cloud in the sky. Birds flew through the air, singing and dancing with the first day of spring.
On a crisp, cool morning, under a clear blue sky, Cohen’s body was laid to rest in a simple funeral for close friends and family. The media coverage was extensive. The man who had stopped the attack on New York City was a hero. The President had posthumously awarded him the Medal of Freedom.
A young reporter stood off in the distance with the funeral unfolding behind her. “The family have requested privacy,” she said. The collar of her coat was turned up to keep out the bitter cold wind. As the wind shifted, wispy strands of blonde hair blew in front of her, distracting her for a moment.
“The President had originally wanted to give James Cohen a full state funeral along with a guard of honour, but his parents requested that the man from the rural farmland outside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania be laid to rest as he lived, humbly and with quiet dignity.”
A nurse walked into the room where the television coverage was playing.
O’Malley reached up and turned off the television, saying, “So what’s it like to watch your own funeral twice in one week?”
The oxygen mask made it difficult for Cohen to talk. He started to whisper when O’Malley put his hand gently on his shoulder and said, “It’s OK. Just rest.”
“But how?” Cohen asked. “Why?” His throat was dry. He was barely able to speak.
“When we got your message, we converged on the bridge and took the nuke before it could be armed. We recovered a cell phone at the scene. It had been used to call a phone owned by Mathers, but as Mathers was already in custody we figured the call was to someone else within the terror cell, probably the kingpin.
“The phone was later dumped in a trash can near the Washington Monument. We have no idea how many other sleeper agents are out there, but it’s clear this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
“Mathers?” asked Cohen, unable to say any more.
“Mathers died during interrogation. Weak heart, or at least that’s what they tell me. But we think the soccer club was a public drop. We think there’s a connection there with the other sleepers. That’s the only reason he’d come back to kill you. He was worried you’d figure it out, so he had to tie up loose ends.”
O’Malley could see it in Cohen’s eyes, already his mind was at work. O’Malley went on, saying, “As for the sleepers, we’ve narrowed the field of suspects to four, including a woman, but until we nail these bastards and isolate their network it’s better off they think you’re dead; that way the trail looks cold.”
Cohen relaxed. His head sunk into the pillow. Perhaps it was just the morphine, but he felt a sense of calm wash over him. The TV coverage was still going on in the background. The screen showed a close-up shot of his tombstone in the shape of a cross.
A faint smile came to his lips as the realisation struck. The funeral had been a fake all along. He tried to laugh but it came out as a soft cough. He’d been trying so hard to change the future, trying so hard to cheat death when, in reality, he’d never actually died.
Copyright © 2009 by Peter Cawdron