Upon returning from Afghanistan, journalist John Webster discovers a gang war in his backyard. Now he must find a way to survive in this Canadian warzone—or die in the crossfire.
John Webster has seen the terrible things human beings can do. He’s an experienced investigative journalist, recently returned from the war in Afghanistan. John saw hell over there; he looked death straight in the face. He is glad to be back to the normalcy of his Canadian home—that is, until he realizes there is a war brewing in his own backyard, and “peace” is a word no longer spoken.
John gets caught up in the battle between two of the most powerful and murderous criminal gangs in the city. Using what he learned on the foreign battlefields, he stays alive, despite the price on his head. The only way to save his own life is to find the man responsible for the brutal neighborhood bloodshed. When the police slap a subpoena on him, though, John finds his only solace on the streets.
Suddenly, John is back in a warzone, fighting for his life. Will he be able to stop the bloodthirsty crime lords? The flashbacks to Afghanistan threaten to pull John into darkness. Soon, the past and present collide, and he can’t tell which way is up or down. The need for redemption may be stronger than the need for survival as John Webster finds himself on his most dangerous assignment yet.
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A THOUSAND BAYONETS
By JOEL MARK HARRIS
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Joel Mark Harris
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Shootout
John Webster was hiding in the loft of an old abandoned barn, watching and waiting, clutching his voice recorder tightly. He stared moronically at the red light, watching the numbers count slowly upward, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, willing the red light to continue and praying the batteries would hold out for him.
Below John, five shadowy figures huddled close, speaking in whispers. In the papers, they were known as the Heart gang. Webster knew only two of them by reputation: Kenneth Dzyinski, el capo, the big boss, the head honcho, and Anthony Hewson, the right-hand man. The other goons were big, burly creatures, clad head to toe in leather and silver chains, wearing steel-toe boots. Except for, perhaps, their mousy-grey, badly trimmed beards, they might not have looked out of place in an S&M bar.
"He ripped off two of my earners last week."
"You sure it was him?"
A deep, glottal, Eastern European voice said, "Hunter has entered a game he can't possibly win."
Must be Dzyinski, John thought.
Up in the loft, John held his breath, not daring to move. In the distance he could hear the low bawling of a horse, the pitiful howl of a dog, and the chilly wind as it slowly knocked against the barn. And just as he was acutely aware of these sounds, he was suddenly not aware of them at all.
He was transported to a small, colourful bazaar, with cream-coloured buildings on each side. Thick dust particles rose in the tepid air, getting into John's face, into his eyes, up his nose. The bazaar was mostly empty except for a few cautious patrons, moving quickly on their way. John was in the middle of the dusty road, just standing and watching as people bartered for goods, the same Olympus voice recorder tightly in the palm of his hand. During his dreams, John was a regular patron of this place.
John struggled to focus again on the barn. He tried not to be afraid. He refused to think of what would happen if they caught him—probably some halfhearted torture before a bullet in the temple.
He looked down at his silver recorder and the small, constant red light. He felt the straw against his neck and chin. It tickled and scratched his skin, willing him to sneeze, to make some kind of sound. He rubbed his eyes briefly, trying to regulate his breathing.
The gangsters were mumbling again. Would he be able to pick up their voices so far away? Webster wasn't sure. He concentrated on his voice recorder. Then he was safe from fear, from his mind thinking up different scenarios. It was a trick he had learned a long time ago—how to stave off the unwanted.
Who had taught him that? His first thought was his dad, John Webster Senior, but it couldn't have been the old theatre critic. It must have been a soldier—they knew all sorts of tricks, tricks not written in any manual.
He was back at the bazaar, his cameraman, William Russell, by his side. Webster pushed his fake Ray-Bans up on his nose and looked briefly up at the vast, colourless, featureless sky. Every building of any height had been flattened long ago by bombs or by missiles. The surprising result, John found, was that you could look down even a small alley and look on, across the flatness, seemingly forever, like you were looking to the end of earth. And in a way, John figured, he kind of was.
John and William were the only two foreigners there. Everybody gazed at them with dark, opaque, suspicious eyes. William was setting up his camera, installing a new battery, getting ready to shoot live. Webster dug the toe of his shoe into the red dirt—and then he heard the escalating roar of car motors. He looked up to see a caravan of small vehicles arrive. John supposed there must be people in those cars, but all he saw were AK-47s glistening in the harsh light.
Chaos erupted through the bazaar. Screams in Arabic. Suddenly there was an explosion—a mouth of flame engulfing everything. The surrounding houses and buildings tore apart, ash everywhere, blowing and flowing in the stray wind, whipping across, hitting John in the face.
A large crater ripped into the Baghdad street, and it almost seemed as if Satan himself had broken his encasement from hell. Piles of rubble formed, broken and cracked stone. There were cries for help and there were cries for death. Bodies had been flung around like rag dolls. Blood trickled into the gutters, blood trickled down the hill, blood trickled like canals of water, running right past where Webster stood frozen, unaware of time, a roar in his ears.
The casualties seemed endless. Men and women dead. Children dead. A vendor was being dragged away from open flames, his legs torn and shredded so badly they were almost unrecognizable. An old lady had the skin and flesh stripped from her arm, and only glossy white bone was showing. She waved her surprisingly bloodless stump at Webster. The human ash rose and seeped into the sky, filling and choking things, engulfing the world as it was.
And John just stood there, voice recorder light in his hand. William Russell next to him was filming everything, swivelling his camera back and forth. But John couldn't move. Never before had he felt so insignificant, unable to do anything. Shock had settled in, numbing his nerves and mind.
John closed his eyes. He was back in the barn. He could smell the hay and oaky panels.
They are too far away, John thought. If only there was a way to get closer without being seen.
He raised his head, clandestinely peering over the edge, his weight on his elbows. He could see them, the light casting their long, shifting shadows against the walls.
One of them said, "This seems very fucking risky."
"All great men took leaps of faith," Dzyinski said.
"Who you like for the job?"
"The Findley brothers."
Suddenly the door swung open, and John saw two masked men with submachine guns step into the room. John glanced at them long enough to know they had bulky shoulders, barrel chests, and baggy clothes. John closed his eyes, buried himself in the straw, and held his breath. If he had known any prayers, he would have started reciting them.
An ominous pause filled the room, seemingly lasting forever. Then a series of unmistakable sounds—an eruption of noise thundered through the barn, seismic in proportion, like the opening of a fault line. Webster could feel, rather than see, the wooden walls shudder around him. It lasted no more than a couple of seconds—nanoseconds maybe—before the cold metallic sounds ceased to be, overtaken by the sound of footsteps pounding the compact dirt and then the loud wail of screeching tires on gravel.
Webster waited before lifting his head. The barn smelled of singed ham. The vibrations rung in his ears. Still, he didn't move, not for a long time. His body was mostly buried in straw. He listened, wondering if anybody was alive down there, but he heard nothing move, nothing stir, only the loud thumping of his own blood in his head.
Maybe they would come back, just to make sure. He waited some more. Eventually he pressed his palms down, lifting his body up. His limbs didn't seem to want to cooperate. Every part of him seemed stiff and numb, frozen. He put his foot on the top rung of the ladder, almost missing his footing and falling forward. The smell became worse. It crawled up his nose, clung to his clothes, his skin, his hair. His stomach wrenched violently in protest.
The sunlight poured through the windows hitting the ground, splintering into white light and blue light. The bullets had ripped the bodies, breaking them apart. They lay spread eagle. Their guns sat just out of reach. Rigid faces leered at him with carrion eyes.
John felt his knees try to give, and he struggled to remain upright. He had to get out of the barn, into the open air. The door stood only a few steps away, but it seemed like miles. He didn't look down. He didn't know how he propelled his body forward, but somehow he reached the door. He grabbed the handle. It took all his strength to try and open it.
The bright sun hit his face, and yet it seemed cold, tangy, and clayish. He closed his eyes and sank to his knees, feeling the broken dirt in his hands. He couldn't feel anything else.
Somewhere in the distance, he heard a low, mournful wail. What was that? He realized through his foggy consciousness that the sound was getting closer. Then he recognized the sound. It was sirens. A line of police cruisers appeared over the hilly horizon, speeding along the path, lights flashing, leaving bilious ash-red clouds in its wake, chrome rims spinning around and around in the dirt. They were coming to save him.
The cruisers stopped and then swung around. The police got out, guns drawn, crouching behind their vehicles. John put his hands in the air. The police yelled at John. He laid down, his cheek against the dirt. His hands were wrenched behind his back and handcuffed. He didn't think to protest, to utter any of his usual complaints. He was then lifted up and put into the back of a cruiser
Chapter TwoThe Office
Charles Dana, managing editor for the Daily Globe, picked up the ringing phone. "Dana speaking," he said.
An annoyed voice answered, "We can't get hold of Webster."
Charles sighed heavily. "This Detective Wiltore again?"
"You tried his cell phone, his office?"
Charles sighed again, looking around his small, bleak office, as if Webster would just appear. "Okay, I'll go check around. See if he's here."
"Thanks." Wiltore hung up.
Charles strode out of his office and into the newsroom. The newsroom was a four-thousand-square-foot room with individual stalls and large white pillars; neon-panelled lighting lined the ceiling. Usually it was humming with loud voices, the sound of fingers typing furiously on keyboards, feet pounding on the hard floor. But it was almost seven o'clock, and most of the reporters who had completed their assignments had left—though some remained on deadline pressure—and so the newsroom had only a skeleton crew compiled of mostly copy editors and layout people.
"Anybody seen Webster around?"
Several heads looked up from their desks. "No, boss, sorry."
Charles put his hands on his hips. "Where is he? Has he come in yet?"
There were several automatic shrugs. "Sorry—don't know, boss."
Charles went back into his office and sat down in his chair. His office was painted a cream colour, but needed repainting. A small window looked out across the street, his view comprised of other office buildings.
He had a wall-to-wall bookcase behind his desk. The bookcase was filled with classics written by Dickens, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, and textbooks he used to teach his Friday morning class at the University of British Columbia. Newspaper awards lined the wall opposite the bookcase—best editorial, best investigative reporting—dating back through the years and decades. The centerpiece was a framed first edition from 1844.
Charles was proud of his office. It was plain, functional, and not too flashy—not unlike Charles himself. He picked up the phone again and quickly dialled the detective. "Nope, he's not here."
"Get him to phone me as soon as he gets in—and I mean as soon as he walks through that door."
"Of course, detective."
Charles placed the phone back down on the receiver. He got up and went next door to the city editor's office.
Earlier in the day, Charles had gotten a phone call from a Constable Snyder telling him Webster had been involved in some kind of shooting. Charles was confused at first, but the constable filled him in on the few details he knew. Webster had been tipped off to a meeting of the top members of the Heart gang. Subsequently Webster had been taken to the hospital, where he was checked out before being released. He had not been heard from since.
Charles knocked on Robert Smyllie's door. "Where's Webster?" he asked.
Smyllie looked up from his computer. Smyllie was a bald, egg-shaped man with pale skin—probably a result from living a large portion of his life in rainy Glasgow. He spoke in a baritone Scottish brogue. "How the fuck should I know, boss?"
Charles rubbed his eyelids with his thumb and forefinger. "He has a breaking story, a front-pager. Has he sent it to you?"
"What story? Haven't seen a fucking thing."
"Deadline is in an hour."
"You tried his home?"
Charles threw up his arms in frustration. "He's probably at the Palace. Phone them up and see if he's there."
"Yes, boss." Smyllie picked up the phone and dialled. He let it ring, but shook his head. "They're not answering."
"Okay, I need you to go down there and find him. No—wait. I'll do it. You get everything ready to print."
"You sure, boss?"
"Yeah, it's not as if I don't have a thousand things to do."
Charles took the elevator down to the lobby. He thrust his long hands deep into his pockets, waiting as he descended floors. He exited the Daily Globe building, an old relic of a structure. It looked like it had been plunked at the foot of Granville Street by mistake, an accident from the past. It was from another time, when newspapers made money and had been an integral part of communal life. Only thirty stories high, the Globe building was a runt among the financial leviathans; but when it had been built, it had been the tallest building in the city and the talk of the town. It was made of brick—now all mossy and weather-stained. The windows were too thin to keep a draft out, and the copper, domed roof always seemed in danger of collapsing.
Charles felt a strange connection to the building. He too was from another age, the golden age of newsprint. When Watergate had hit the news, he had been a young reporter for the Wall Street Journal. He had been there for Vietnam—which had irrevocably changed war and war journalism. Those days were long gone now, and every time Charles went in or out of the Globe building, it made him feel old. Someday he would let go of his tight grasp on this profession, but not yet. Not yet.
It was beginning to sprinkle a light misty summer rain, cool and refreshing. Charles crossed the street, looking at the metropolis around him. The city seemed freshly polished, newly minted by the glistening rain. The glass skyscrapers clustered around him, erect, rows upon rows, throwing sharp shadows on to the road. In the distance, Charles could see the looming, angular Woodward's building with the large steel W pinnacle against the cloud-smeared sky. To Charles the glowing red W seemed like some sort of Babylonian idol, an unnatural attraction in the poorest part of the city. The poorest part of the country. Charles headed toward the Woodward's building as if he were following a trusty navigation beacon.
Sometimes Charles felt he was in an overgrowth of metal, concrete, and glass. Construction hummed everywhere—steel frames nailed together, concrete floors going in, pipes placed, jackhammers thundering away, large machinery excavating mounds of cement and dirt.
Charles passed by men and women dressed in tailored suits worth a thousand dollars, maybe more. They wore slickly polished shoes, golden watches strapped to their wrists, and finely pressed shirts. Almost everybody had a BlackBerry, iPhone, or Palm Pilot in their vanilla-scented palms.
Vancouver had changed so much. These tall skyscrapers, this flood of self-absorbed pedestrians sometimes made Charles feel like he was back in New York, walking along the wide sidewalk of Forty-Third Street—but old New York. Innocent New York. New York before 9/11.
It took Charles ten minutes to get to Palace Bar, on Cordova and Abbot Streets. It was one of the oldest—if not the oldest—bars in Vancouver, and known to be the regular drinking hole of newspaper men, poets, writers, and the occasional broadcaster.
The Palace was small, dark, and dreary, crammed with as many chairs and tables as possible, most of them empty. Loverboy was playing softly on the jukebox somewhere in the corner, and adjacent was a scratched, marked-up pool table, just below several prints of Marilyn Monroe, looking all virginal in her famous white dress.
Charles spotted a reporter for the Vancouver Times. The reporter had a flat face and glasses pushed too far up his nose. He got up from his stool. "Hey, Dana," he said. "What are you doing here? Don't tell me you fell off the wagon."
Excerpted from A THOUSAND BAYONETS by JOEL MARK HARRIS Copyright © 2011 by Joel Mark Harris. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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