It is all very well to be able to write books, but can you wiggle your ears?
Five minutes and thirty six seconds to go.
The smoke from Rachel White’s cigarette still hung in the air but she was already stubbing out the butt, and leaning forward towards the microphone. Focussed. Why the hell had he decided to jump when she only had five minutes of the show left? Damn it.
If time ran out, she could offer to head out to the Marriot, to talk to him. It would be a great cliff hanger ending. She could use the old trick of making her producer host the last couple of minutes of the show as she herself began a mercy dash across town. She could broadcast from the back of a cab on a scratchy cell phone en route. She’d done it before.
Tune in tomorrow to find out if he jumped…
Even as the idea came into her head, she discounted it. The Lakers had just beaten the Celtics in game seven, and the whole place would be gridlocked for another two hours. Which made her think that David Barr was probably an attention seeker, having chosen tonight of all nights to stand on a rooftop next to the Staples Centre and call a radio station.
Barr wasn’t standing on the rooftop, he was sitting. It had taken him some effort to get where he was, too. He had taken the lift to the top floor, and then pulled himself out of his chair at the foot of the stairway that accessed the roof. The chair had toppled as he’d hauled himself out, and for a moment he thought that he might wake up one of the penthouse guests – but nobody came.
His arms had grown stronger over the past year as he had wheeled himself through Santa Barbara each day, and now he used that strength to drag his body up to the top of the short flight of stairs and out into the cool night air. He had crawled across the rough bitumen flat roof which had cut into his hands, but he’d been careful not to rip his new suit. Then he used all of his energy to pull himself onto the low wall which guarded the edge of the building.
He used the last of his strength to drag his useless legs over the edge and then stopped to catch his breath. Gravity would do the rest.
The second hand on the studio clock slammed forward again.
Rachel White figured that the next five minutes would be great radio. Maybe she could talk him down; maybe she could keep him talking until the cops arrived to talk him down. Either way, she was pretty confident that the whole thing would eventually be an anti-climax. After all, if you’re determined to kill yourself, why would you bother to phone a radio station? It seems a bit superfluous. In the last three years, four callers had phoned up threatening to jump. None of them had gone through with it.
She weighed up her options as shrewdly as she could.
“If you’re really at the top of the Marriot, tell me what you can see.”
David Barr looked down below him.
“What do you want me to tell you? I can see Boston fans weeping. I see the top of the Staples Centre with a massive neon sign on it. A Herbal Life sign too. Who gets to read those signs?”
“People who are thinking about throwing themselves off buildings maybe?”
Rachel was walking a tightrope, she knew. Trying to engage him, connect with him. Trying to hint at compassion without selling out her audience. Without breaking out of her persona. Shackled.
“I’m not thinking about throwing myself off” he corrected her. “I’m going to throw myself off. There’s a car on fire down there, and people coming out of the Nokia theatre, and I can see Lakers fans… Jesus, that’s Jack Nicholson!”
“No. I’m fifty two stories up.
Rachel smiled, despite herself. She couldn’t work this guy out. She figured that he had a sense of humour, and he sounded relaxed and confident. So why was she more worried about him than any of the others who had threatened to jump? There was no anger in his voice, no bitterness, no sorrow. He didn’t sound desperate. Her heart sunk as she hit on it. He sounded resigned to it. Not good at all.
Four minutes and forty seconds to go.
Rachel reached for her mouse and dragged the news jingle into a playout window on her computer. Then she dragged in a Pearl Jam track, just in case this thing finished early. Abruptly. Violently.
I’m Still Alive. Ironic.
“OK, smartass” she smiled, “I believe you, and you’re playing around up there on the roof. So what’s the deal?”
David Barr thought about how to answer. This moment would be his eulogy, and he had prepared well for it. Earlier in the day, he had poked his finger through the small tear in the seat of his wheelchair and fished around inside it. His fingers grappled with the edge of his plastic card and then pulled it out into the daylight.
He was a disciplined man and he hadn’t so much as touched the visa card since before Kandahar. It had moulded itself to the contours of his buttock over the months, and David Barr laughed to himself thinking that he might have created a new form of biometric identification.
His heart felt light. He had been playing a losing hand for a full year and now he felt a strange relief course through him as the end game approached. He had submitted to his least worst fate.
Tyler and his boss, a gnarled old war dog called General Lang, were well connected. They would be watching his bank account for sure.
It’s possible that after a few months they had realised he wasn’t going to pop up on the radar. They might even have begun to wonder whether he had the money at all. But with three hundred million dollars missing from the US treasury, someone would still be keeping an eye out for David Barr.
He had decided to withdraw some cash at an ATM in the departure lounge of the Tom Bradley terminal at LAX. At least they might waste a few minutes trying to work out if he got on a plane. He had chosen a machine that didn’t appear to be overlooked by CCTV, and taken five hundred dollars out of his account. As he had typed in his pin number, he felt sure that he had just alerted someone to the fact that he was still alive, and that he was in Los Angeles. It wouldn’t take them long to find him.
He pulled his cap a little lower over his brow, and checked the balance which had grown to over $110,000 as his various pensions and allowances has dripped into the account untouched over the last thirteen months. He withdrew another five hundred, just because he could.
After stuffing the cash in his pocket, he had wheeled back through the terminal feeling more acutely than ever that he was on borrowed time. Outside the airport, he picked up the Green Line bus to Union Station. The bus driver helped him through the indignity of boarding public transport, kneeling his vehicle and then helping the veteran to truss his chair safely to the inside wall of the transport.
Barr was grateful that the driver didn’t fuss, although the main reason for this was that he was embroiled in a good natured argument with vivacious woman on a seat further back.
“Now you jus’ listen to me sugar pie” she hollered at the driver as he went about his work. She had a melodic voice that rang out clearly and theatrically. She would have made Aretha Franklin jealous. She didn’t care who was listening. She was playing up.
“I think there’s something wrong with your head if you think the Lakers are gonna win tonight!” she shouted down the isle, goading the driver as though he were her big brother.
“Nyesha, that’s the dumbest thing I ever heard” he shouted back over his shoulder, all smiles as his hand held tight to the wheel. The bus rattled and juddered as they journeyed along the elevated airport ring road. “You keep saying things like that, and I’m gonna put you right off this bus!”
“Who’s this Kobe Bryant anyhow?” she roared back at him. She looked around the bus at her fellow passengers who had clearly been listening to the debate for a few stops. She was no shrinking violet, but she was infectious. Most of the passengers were quietly encouraging her.
“Woman, I’ll put you off this bus, and you’ll have to walk home!”
“Ko-bee Bryant!” she emphasised. “The man’s got plasters all over his fingers, he looks like Michael Jackson!”
People around her laughed.
The bus driver eyed her up in his mirror. He shook his head. She was loud, argumentative, opinionated, distracting – and he hated the days when Nyesha didn’t get on his bus. Sometimes he’d take a bit of extra time loading his passengers’ heavy suitcases, if he knew she was about to clock off. He didn’t know where she lived, or what she did once she got off his bus. He didn’t know much about her at all, if he stopped to think about it.
“Hey you!” she called, her throaty voice slicing effortlessly through the noise of the bus. “Hey, army man!”
David Barr was warming to her as well. Maybe it was because he had a thousand dollars in his pocket, or maybe it was because he knew that he’d set his end game in motion and that time was limited and precious, but he thought her voice sounded like birdsong. Usually, he’d spit an insult back at anyone who shouted ‘hey you’ at him, but not today. Not on this bus.
He turned his head, and gave her his full attention, fixing his cornflower eyes on her.
“You’re a Boston fan with me, right?” she implored. He was getting dragged into the game, but he didn’t mind. His blue eyes twinkled back at her. Nyesha though he could have been handsome, if he’d cut his hair.
“Ma’am, I’m a long way from home but I’m going to support the Lakers all the way just to see how mad you get!” she shrieked.
“Everyone I meet today is a damn fool” she called, emphasising the word ‘fool’ as she looked into the driver’s mirror, laughing. She started to gather up her belongings.
“Nyesha, you’ve gone too far now with this Celtics nonsense. I’m putting you off this bus at the very next stop; I don’t mind how far you’ve got to walk!”
The driver brought the bus to a stop. The hydraulics hissed and the doors opened as Nyesha navigated her wide hips like a metronome between the rows of seats towards the front.
They both knew that this was Nyesha’s stop. David Barr had the feeling that she got ‘thrown off’ the bus on a fairly regular basis. She ruffled the driver’s hair on the way past him, and called her goodbyes over her shoulder to nobody in particular.
“See you tomorrow, Mr Lincoln” she breathed as she breezed past the man at the wheel, all charm and lashes and perfume.
The rest of the journey had passed without much excitement; Barr had transferred between the bus and the subway with minimum fuss, passing through the airy East portal of Union Station under the watchful gaze of the ten colourful Angelinos in the gigantic City of Dreams mural.
A red line and a cab journey later, he was outside Prada on Rodeo Drive. Captain Barr had worn the same clothes for most of the last three hundred and eighty days. It was the price he had paid for anonymity. For safety. But now that someone knew where he was there was no need to pretend. No need to hide. It would all be over soon enough now, and he might as well look good when the end came.
So he wheeled himself towards the door, with his year old clothes, his long hair, the bad smell and his creaking wheelchair. The security guard was hesitant. There was no way that a man who looked as bad as David Barr should be coming into the store, and yet he didn’t want to be the bad guy manhandling a crippled war vet in the street. Barr made the decision for him. As the guard went to open his mouth, Barr reached out to him and handed him a fifty dollar bill.
While the guard tried to work out why he’d just been given the best tip of the month by someone who looked like he hadn’t bathed for a year, Barr wheeled past him and into the store, the chair creaking and straining over the threshold of the doorway.
Inside, he thought it best to take control of the situation. His combat training had taught him that it was prudent to tackle the biggest and strongest first, so he approached the most experienced (and most horrified) looking assistant, wheeling his chair between her and any obvious means of escape.
“I need a suit, what can you do?”
The woman looked him up and down, her gaze settling on the fleshy end of his thigh sticking out of his trouser leg, and the gap below it where most people would expect to find their lower leg.
Everything that ought to be below David Barr’s left knee was buried in a cardboard box in a desert somewhere outside Basra.
She pointed timidly at his leg, and at his wheelchair. “Will you need…” she looked perplexed, “pants?”
“Of course I’ll need pants, for Christ’s sake!” he barked. “And stop looking at me like I’m Julia fucking Roberts.”
After that, the woman was relatively helpful and together they found sharp suit in next to no time. He got the feeling that she was keen to conclude their business as quickly as possible, and he couldn’t blame her. As he sat in the middle of the perfumed boutique he caught a glimpse of himself in one of the many mirrors, and he realised how far he had sunk. The price he had paid just to stay alive. To stay hidden. He wasn’t sure it had been worth it.
“Are we taking the suit home, or wearing it?” she asked, in the most airy tone she could muster.
David Barr was direct. “Ma’am, let’s be honest. We both know that I smell of sweat and piss, and I’d prefer not to transfer that smell to my new suit. Perhaps you could double-bag it for me?”
The suit cost considerably more than a thousand dollars, so he was forced to pay by card. It wouldn’t matter now. All six sales assistants clustered around the visa card reader, and none of them managed to disguise their shock when the sale went through without a problem. They thanked him, and he wheeled his way out of the shop. He hadn’t reached the door before he could hear the sound of air freshener cans behind him.
The security guard was quick to hail a cab for him; partly because a man who looked like David Barr wasn’t good for business, and partly because he was keen to earn the fifty dollar tip he’d picked up from a guy would didn’t look like he had fifty dollars to his name. Guilt is a great motivator, thought Barr.
The cab took him to the Marriot after a short stop at an electrical store where he grabbed a pre-paid mobile phone. He knew he wouldn’t find a salon keen to tackle his tangled hair, so he bought a pair of clippers and did the job himself once he got to his hotel room.
He shaved and scrubbed. As the stubble and the grime came off, his cheeks looked hollow after his time on the streets, but he didn’t look so bad. The cleaner lines on his face framed his cornflower eyes much better, and when he shaved off thirteen months of matted hair from his scalp, he became the man he remembered. He looked in the mirror at an old friend. Out of hiding, for one night only.
And now, up on the Marriot roof, the night was nearly over. It was time to pay the price.
Four minutes eighteen seconds to go.
The woman on the end of the phone was waiting for an answer. She obviously had listeners in Los Angeles. David Barr had been sitting on the roof of the Marriot for ten minutes, but it was only when his phone call had gone on air that people below had started to look up. A crowd had begun to gather below him, with some people pointing up towards him. The plaza below was beginning to fill up with cop cars too.
“So, the deal is that I’m in trouble Rachel.”
“Well, if you weren’t before, you are now” she chuckled, trying to break the mood. Trying to connect. “But hey. Everyone’s in trouble sometime or other.”
“The thing is I screwed up. I made a mistake in Afghanistan, and now someone wants me dead.”
“A lot of people screw up, especially during a war” said Rachel, as she considered all of the possibilities. “It doesn’t mean they can’ get a second chance.”
Time was slowing down, or maybe her thoughts were speeding up. It amounted to the same thing. She wondered whether he was suffering from some form of paranoia, maybe bought on by post traumatic stress. That wouldn’t be good.
“But you know, trouble comes and goes. Maybe you can ride this thing out?” She was reaching.
“Not really” said the guy at the end of the phone. “I lost some money for a bunch of pretty serious guys.”
“David, how can this be making sense to you? How can it be worth killing yourself for cash? I mean, how much are we talking about?”
Rachel had an iPhone full of experts, including plenty of financial advisors. This could be a quick fix before the news after all. But she needed him to give her a steer.
“Did you lose some money to these guys in a poker game or something? How much are we talking about? A grand? Two?” she pushed for an answer. Time was tight.
He took a deep breath and used his arms to shuffle himself further over the edge of the building.
“Three hundred million US dollars, give or take.”
Three hundred million? Rachel White looked at the clock and recalculated her strategy allowing for the fact that David Barr was clearly insane.
Three minutes forty five seconds to go.