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Closure
A Jackson Donne Mystery
by Dave White


......"Where were you?" Omar said, his voice like a needle in my ear.

......We were sitting on the New Jersey Turnpike, heading north. Traffic was slow, grinding, and typical for any weekday morning. People were making their way to their jobs, most heading toward New York City. We were heading toward the city as well. But, unlike the commuters going through their daily routine, I wasn't exactly sure what I was doing, except getting into a conversation I wasn't sure I wanted to be in.

......"What?"

......"That morning. Where were you?"

......Brake lights flashed in front of me, and I responded in kind.

......"I was sitting in this car, watching a hotel on Route 1. I was waiting for a banker to come out with his girlfriend. His wife hired me. I had the radio on and they started talking about it. They stopped the commercials, the music, everything."

* * * * *

......A day earlier, Omar Hassan stumbled into my office, although I didn't know his name at the time. It was mid-afternoon, around three or four, and his breath smelled like bourbon. His eyes opened and closed, deep brown puddles that looked exhausted. He hadn't shaved and a dark shadow was forming over his olive skin. His oil-black hair was sticking out left and right. He ran a hand through it, but that didn't help. He wore a striped button-down shirt open at the collar, and khakis. He slumped in the client chair I had.

......"Jackson Donne?" he asked.

......I said that I was.

......He nodded and introduced himself and said, "I need help."

......"Most people who come in here do," I said.

......He sighed, rubbing his chin. I was hoping he wouldn't vomit, but I casually slid my trashcan in his direction. Just in case.

......He pressed his index finger and thumb against the bridge of his nose. "I lost my wife in the Trade Center," he started. "She worked on the 90th floor of Tower One. I don't know. I didn't hear from her. I didn't know anything. They haven't found her yet. I don't know. I wish they would."

......He paused as if waiting for me to say something. What was there to say?

......"Everything was just starting go well. I was getting back to work. I was going out with friends. I felt a little bit human again. And then . . . and then yesterday the phone rang. Some guy, I don't know, sounded my age. He said he had information about my wife. He wants me to pay for it. He wants ten thousand dollars. I took the money out of the bank this morning. All I have left is the money I need to pay you."

......"Me?"

......"Yeah. I don't know what this guy knows about my wife. It could be someone trying to hustle me. But I want to believe it could be real. Maybe she slept with someone else; maybe she was cheating on me. Maybe he knows some little tidbit about her that I should never know. But I have to know. I have to have more of her. I need it. And then there's that part of me . . ." His voice trailed off and he put his head in his hands. "Maybe she's still alive. Maybe he knows where she is. God, I know it sounds stupid. I want to believe she got out of that wreckage and just needed some time alone. I need to do this-no matter what it costs me."

......He put his head down and I gave him a minute to collect himself. He didn't cry.

......"What would you like me to do?" I asked.

......He coughed. "I'm scared. I've never done anything like this. This guy wants me to meet him with the money tomorrow at 10 a. m. He said I should drive up to Liberty State Park and meet him where the ferry used to leave for the Statue of Liberty. Have you ever been there?"

......I nodded. It was a stone's throw from where the towers used to be. Every kid had been there if they'd been to the Statue of Liberty. A ferry would take people from the pier on the Jersey side to Ellis Island. Since September, the ferries hadn't run and the tourist attractions closed, although the news was they would re-open soon.

......Omar continued. "I can't go alone. It's too close to where it all happened. I'm scared and I need someone there."

......"So you want to hire me? What about friends?"

......"I can't ask them. I'm too embarrassed."

......"Have you spoken to the police? The park will be crawling with them anyway, the way security is now."

......Omar laughed. "The police? You think the police are going to help me? I'm just what they're looking for, the ones they are keeping their eyes open for. I need someone who has nothing to do with this."

......I sighed. I agreed. Omar wrote me a check and left. I went to the bank and cashed it.

* * * * *

......The next morning was unseasonably warm for November, the temperature in the low seventies. I wore a light windbreaker and my Yankees cap. It was the kind of morning that held promise. The sky was clear, the sun was out, and there was a slight breeze. It felt like only good things could happen today. Still, there was a knot in the pit of my stomach.

......I stood on George Street waiting for Omar, wanting to enjoy the morning. I sipped coffee and watched everyone walk by. Omar and I decided to get to the park an hour early. That way I could scout around and find the best vantage point. This whole thing seemed hastily planned. There were too many problems, the park could be too crowded. I didn't want to be firing off shots into a park filled with morning joggers and dog walkers. Not to mention several cops. Yet, I brought my gun. I felt more comfortable with it. Too many holes, but there wasn't much time and this was the best I could come up with.

Jackson Donne, bodyguard extraordinaire.

......Omar showed up as I was tossing my coffee cup into the trash. He was dressed about the same as last night, but his face was shaved and his hair was combed. He carried a large brown paper bag and two cups of coffee in a plastic tray. More caffeine would make me jumpy and wouldn't help my stomach, but I accepted one of the cups when he offered. We got into my Prelude and I started it up. I took Route 18 North to the Turnpike.

......Omar didn't talk much for the first few miles. He sat and sipped his coffee, watching the road ahead of us. He didn't seem nervous; he seemed contemplative. He didn't shake, he didn't breathe deeply; he just sat.

......I drove with my hands at ten and two, tightly wrapped, with my knuckles turning white. Blame it on the caffeine.

......We stared at the bumper on a Mercedes for a long time. We crawled along, past the New York Times Distribution Center, the only sound the hum of car engines. I tried the radio, but couldn't find anything interesting, just a lot of talk about Ground Zero. Like nothing else in the world had happened since. Neither of us needed that. It was time to make some mix tapes.

......"Where were you?"

......"What?"

......"That morning, where were you?"

......"I was sitting in this car, watching a hotel on Route 1. I was waiting for a banker to come out with his girlfriend. His wife hired me. I had the radio on and they started talking about it. They stopped the commercials, the music, everything."

......"So what happened?"

......I looked at Omar. He wasn't looking at me. His eyes were on the glove box.

......"With the case," he said. "What happened with the case?"

......"The banker came out ten minutes later. I took a few pictures of him with the girl, and went and got them developed."

......"So you kept working?"

......"Yeah."

......There was a break in the left lane, and I took advantage. I was able to speed ahead about fifty feet, then slam on the brakes again.

......"Did you deliver the pictures to your client?"

......"Yeah."

......"That day?"

......"No. I had to wait for the pictures to be developed." I wondered what he was getting at.

......"You could have gone to a one-hour place."

......"Yeah. I could have." But I didn't.

......He nodded as if satisfied. Traffic opened up a bit at the next rest stop and I was able to push the Prelude to fifty. Mind you the speed limit's sixty-five, but it was a start.

......"My last few moments with her weren't special, hardly memorable. I wish they were. But that morning was just so typical. She left for work at six. I kept sleeping. I didn't have to get up until eight. I worked at nine. So I slept through her leaving . . ." He sighed. "I wish I could say anything. Like we had a fight and now I feel guilty for never saying good-bye. Or that we made love and she left, and was late to work. Just to spend some time with me. But there wasn't anything. She kissed me on the cheek and I mumbled a good-bye. Another Tuesday."

......In all the time he'd spoken, he'd never once referred to his wife by her name. It was a defense mechanism, I suppose, a way not to let it get too close. I had done the same when I lost my fiancé in a car accident. How long had it been since Omar said her name to anyone?

......"I listened to a CD as I drove to work. I'm a nurse at Robert Wood Johnson. I got in that morning just in time to see the second plane hit. I knew. I knew she was there, and I knew she was probably dead." He coughed into his fist.

......"She never called from her cell phone to tell me anything. Not like you hear on the news. I never heard from her. I don't know. For the next few hours I couldn't function. I couldn't work. We had a knife wound come in. Required immediate surgery. We almost lost him because I couldn't move quick enough . . . I couldn't do what was asked of me . . . I took a leave of absence on September 13th. I went back last week."

......He was quiet a moment, watching the traffic.

......Then he said, "You said you didn't deliver those photos that day. You could have. Were you trying to save someone from more pain?"

......He looked at me. I didn't say anything.

......"I'm sorry," he said. "I just needed to get that off my chest."

......At first it surprised me. I didn't expect him to tell me anything about the day he lost his wife. It seemed something so deeply personal. But then again, he trusted me to keep him alive. Why wouldn't he trust me with his secrets?

......Traffic finally cleared near Newark Airport. As airplanes landed and took-off, I sped up to seventy. Omar Hassan didn't say much for the rest of the trip. I took the correct exit and followed the signs to a parking lot about half a mile from where we needed to be. I turned the car off and opened my door.

......"Stay here for fifteen minutes or so, and then make your way up. I'm going to walk up there and check things out. If I'm leaning against the railing, things are fine. If I'm anywhere else, stay in the car."

......He nodded. I left him there.

......I walked along the brick sidewalk, watching the area around me. I could see the water and the New York skyline. Dust still seemed to float around the gap between buildings. A breeze came from the east, blowing into my face. Boats made their way up the Hudson. To my left stretched a pier, many yachts and private-owned boats waiting for weekend trips. To my right squatted a brick building long and wide, but only one story high. It was an old train station, and the broken down tracks that weren't used anymore still sat, forgotten. The building now housed a gift shop and ticket window for the ferry. They didn't do much business now, but remained open.

......When I reached the building I read a sign that was posted.

"NO GUNS, KNIVES OR EXPLOSIVES BEYOND THIS POINT. PUNISHABLE TO THE FULL EXTENT OF THE LAW."

......I felt my gun against my hip. Anyone willing to bring a gun, knife, or explosive to the park wasn't going to be intimidated by a sign.

......I made my way down to the water. Leaning against the metal barrier that kept people from falling in, I scanned the environment. People enjoyed the unusual November weather, jogging or walking their dogs. A few tourists fed quarters into the binoculars to get a better look at the skyline. To the north you could see the Empire State Building, metal glistening in the sunlight, the Chrysler Building as well. I wondered what the tourists were checking out, the buildings or their own view of history.

......Without binoculars, I could see the buildings that used to surround the Twin Towers, some of them still cracked and damaged. I could also see the arm of a crane used in the clean-up. I couldn't imagine what it must have been like to stand here that morning, feeding quarters to see everything. I closed my eyes. What the hell was I doing here?

......Next to me, a man in jeans and an oversized Drew University sweatshirt faced the river. His hands were clenched around the railing, his knuckles white. His eyes were wide open, not blinking in the wind. I wanted to ask if he was okay, if he knew someone in the tragedy. Part of it was compassion; the rest was morbid curiosity. I looked away before he felt me staring.

......My watch said it was nine thirty-five. I scanned the area again. Two cops leaned against the same railing I did, about fifteen feet south. They eyed the crowd as well. Over their shoulders I could see the back of Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island, closed now. The ferry pier was silent, boats docked. Back toward the parking lot, a squad car circled lazily. They had this place pretty well covered. Checking one last time, no one looked suspicious to me.

......I could see Omar making his way up toward me, paper bag in hand. He didn't walk up next to me, which was smart. He sat on a park bench. The bag rested against his leg. The two cops watched him for a long time. An Arab-American with a bag? I'd watch him too. When the park didn't explode, the cops went back to sunning.

......The breeze made the park colder than it was in New Brunswick, but it was still a great morning. Fresh air, sunshine and blue skies, I tried to enjoy the weather while waiting. Not knowing exactly what was going to happen didn't help. I watched a police cruiser slowly circle the lot near where I had parked.

......At nine fifty-nine, the man in the Drew University windbreaker walked up to Omar. I tensed. Omar looked up at the man, middle-aged, and rugged. His face was bearded, his blonde hair combed. There were tufts of gray at his temples. He didn't hold himself up straight. His body language made him look worn out. His mouth moved and Omar shook his head, but I couldn't hear what was said. The breeze blew the words away from me. They kept talking, Omar shaking his head as if to say "No. No." Not emphatically, very calmly. The man became more animated, waving his hands around. I edged closer, part to help and part to hear. Then the man reached into his pocket and everything changed.

......"On the floor now!" the man yelled. With the breeze, I could still hardly hear him. He pulled a revolver and pressed it to Omar's head. Omar went down to his knees.

......I bounced off the railing and took a few steps forward. To my left the cops did the same, but they had farther to come. One of them said something into his radio. Off in the distance the cop car stopped. Its doors opened and two more cops came running.

......Omar looked at me, his eyes wild with confusion and fear. He was on his knees, kneeling execution-style in front of the gunman. The paper bag was behind the two of them, ignored. The gunman's mouth moved slowly, but I still couldn't hear him.

......"Put that fucking gun down!" Both cops had their guns out. The other two were still running.

......A jogger screamed and the tourists hit the deck. I moved closer. Behind me, I could hear boats in the water and small waves splashing against the wall. One of the cops tried to whisper, but the wind caught it and I heard it: "Maybe we should let this guy put the sand nigger down. For us."

......As I edged forward, the gunman became audible. "--you to see it. Look across the river. Can you see that?"

......Omar's head was in the way. I couldn't see the gun, where it was leveled, how tense the gunman's hand was. Directly in front of them, all I could see was this guy's face. It was pressed together in some emotion that wasn't happiness. It might have been concentration, but it looked more like anger. I wanted to see the gun. Was his hand on the trigger or the trigger guard?

......The two running cops finally got into position behind the gunman. Their guns were out now, too. All the way down the road, past the parking lot, at the intersection where I had pulled in, another squad car blocked the road. Two other cops stood outside the car making sure traffic stayed out of the way. A line of cars started to fill the road, backing way up to the entrance.

......"Put that gun down!"

......I wasn't sure how long we had been standing there. It could have been an hour.

......Trying to get a better view, I moved to my left. Slowly but surely, my sightline changed, but it wasn't enough.

......"Hey, Asshole! Get out of the way!"

......I turned slightly and realized that I wasn't the only one there. I definitely didn't want to be in the cops' line of fire. They were just as tense as everyone else. Awareness struck me, like a bolt of lightning. I was the only pedestrian still standing.

......"Tell me about my wife," Omar said.

......"Your wife? What are you talking about?" The gunman's voice was off the wall. Wild.

......"Back away! Drop the gun and back away!"

......Horns honked and brakes squealed off in the distance. I heard another boat horn.

......"Why am I here? What do you know about my wife?" Omar didn't sound scared.

......"I don't know anything about your wife. I know you killed my brother."

......"Wh-what are you talking about?"

......"How could you be so-so-so callous? You bastard. All for what?"

......I wanted to pull my gun out. I wanted to put this guy down. But if I did that, I'd draw the cops' attention from where it needed to be. I couldn't think. I was a spectator. I might as well have been watching on television.

......"Who are you?" Omar asked.

......"Shut up. Shut up! It doesn't matter who I am. You don't care who I am. All I am to you is a faceless American. Someone you hate. So you try to kill us. You killed my brother!"

......Think Jackson. Don't just stand here like an idiot. Do something. Do your job.

......"I don't know your brother," Omar said.

......"I have nothing left."

......Finally, I thought of something to say. "Whatever your problem is, it's not Omar's fault. Someone lured him here promising information about his wife. Put the gun down."

"Who the hell are you? Get down on the ground." He took the gun off Omar for a second and pointed it at me. That was the cop's chance, but they didn't take it. They were afraid of getting me shot.

......One of the cops said, "Listen to him, sir. Get on the ground and don't get yourself hurt. Don't be a hero."

......I didn't listen. I just stood there. I had played my hand. I had nothing else.

......The gun went back to Omar, pressing harder against his skull. His neck bent a little unnaturally.

......"It's not my fault!" Omar said. "Just take the money. The money you wanted."

......One of the dog walker's dogs tried to get loose, impatient at all of this. The owner tugged on the leash hard, and the dog backed off, sitting, and sniffed the ground.

......"Money? I don't want your money. You shouldn't be here. It's an insult to me that you come to here to look. Why did you come here? To gloat and celebrate?"

......Tears were running down this man's face, soaking his blonde beard so it changed color. Omar was crying too. The wind had blown his hair into every direction. He looked a lot like he did yesterday in my office. Disheveled, confused, and afraid.

......"Last chance. Put that god damn gun down!"

......The two cops behind the gunman and Omar edge their way around toward the two cops on my left. They were getting out of the line of fire. If they had to shoot, they didn't want to be hit by one of their own.

......"I had nothing to do with your brother's death. My wife, Julia, died there too." Omar was crying now too. His voice was quiet, or at least it sounded that way to me. But through the wind he could have been yelling.

......"Your wife?" The gun hand shook. For a second I thought he would drop the gun.

......"Please drop it," I said. It was a whisper. The Hudson River's smell was strong. It smelled like dead fish, trash, like all sorts of sludge.

......The first shot sounded like thunder. Omar fell forward and hit the ground.

......Everything else moved in slow-motion. My head said to run to Omar, but my instincts said otherwise. I dove to the floor. That moment was so clear. The ground was rough brick and scratched my hands as I tried to break my fall. I heard the volley of bullets, most likely coming from the police. I heard the car horns. I heard people screaming. I heard a sickening thump as a body collapsed. I pressed my face against the brick feeling the blood on my hands. And then there was silence. The smell of gunpowder and the river reached me.

......The first sound I heard was someone crying, then a dog barking, the cops screaming into their radios for an ambulance. I didn't hear the words "Officer down!" The call must have been for both Omar and his assailant. I made my way to my knees.

......One of the policemen, Sanders, his nametag said, was making his way around all the tourists and joggers. When he got to me, I told him I was okay. Best I could come up with.

......It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, the temperature was warm, and there was a nice breeze coming off the water. It was a great day to spend at the park. Except there were two men on the ground, cops everywhere, and ambulance sirens in the distance. There was nothing I could do. I hated the feeling, the adrenaline surge with no place to go.

......I wondered if in the split second after he shot Omar, this man who lost his brother was happy. If he'd helped himself. Did he find the payment he was looking for?

......If there were any hope for either of them, the cops would be working a lot harder than they were. The ambulance, lights flashing, pulled as close as it could get. After about five minutes, EMTs, dressed in their dark blue coveralls and sneakers, loaded both bodies into the back of the truck. EMTs have to do everything in their power to keep someone alive until they get to the hospital. Then they can be pronounced dead. These guys worked, but it didn't look like they were working hard. The doors shut and the truck drove off.

......Eventually, I gave my statement. I had to show my P.I. license more than once. They called my name in to check on me. I told them everything. Everything except for the ten thousand dollars that everyone seemed to forget. The paper bag that sat under the bench just a few feet away. When I was cleared to leave, I took the paper bag with me. I walked back to my car, the New York skyline standing tall behind me.

......I took my time driving out of the park, wondering what I was going to do. I didn't get on the Turnpike immediately; I drove through the streets of Jersey City. Kennedy Boulevard was crowded with people, and traffic was slow. This was where the terrorists had lived, the news said repeatedly. It was a ghetto. People strolled along, shopping in a Salvation Army store, and homeless people begged for money. Buses trucked along in front of me trying to get people from Jersey City to anywhere. I found what I was looking for.

......I double-parked in front of a Red Cross advertising a September 11th Fund. I walked in with the paper bag, and gave it to the woman. When she opened it, her mouth formed a "Wow." Suddenly I felt hollow and left.

......The best the police could figure it was just dumb luck. They were probably right. The man who shot Omar had a note in his pocket. He wrote about how much he missed his brother. The letter ended saying he wanted to get as close to his brother as he could. It was signed Carl Burton. Between the note and the weapon, the police guessed he'd wanted to commit suicide. Killing Omar was a fluke. Burton saw a chance to exact some measure of revenge and took it. He said he didn't know about the money, which lead to another problem: Who called Omar?

* * * * *

......A few weeks later I was flipping through The Star Ledger, and read an article about people trying to scam victims of the tragedy. Maybe that's what happened to Omar. Maybe some asshole, preying on victims, didn't show up, or maybe he was there and left when the guns were pulled. I don't know.

......Everyone kept saying the world was a different place. I went about my life, I worked cases. I took walks around the Rutgers campus move and watched Rutgers students party, laugh, and study. I didn't see cops with rifles. I didn't walk through a metal detector. I wanted to say the world was the same. For weeks, I had said I wasn't affected by it all. A week ago I would have said I didn't know anyone who died because of the September 11th tragedy. I wished I could keep saying it.

Copyright (c) 2002 by David White.


......

David White is a Rutgers University graduate. After spending four years reading detecitve fiction instead of the assigned stuff, he figured he'd better put it to use. His senior thesis was both a novel and a exploration of the detective novel featuring private eye Jackson Donne, who has also appeared in the stories "God Bless the Child" and "More Sinned Against." He is also a sometime-contributor to this site. David would love to hear from you.

And for the"story behind a story" of "Closure," be sure to head on over to Graham Powell's Bleeker Books and read David's mini-article there.

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