The predicted snow finally arrived as Burke stepped across Amsterdam Avenue and continued down West 81st Street. To his right, Burke's long-time friend, Martin Ashford, kept pace, his head swiveling around, constantly checking the streets and windows behind them. Tonight, this was Marty's job. To Burke's left, his only son, Jordan, had to move at a near trot, and Burke hoped the boy could keep up the pace—at least until they reached the safe house.
The snow fell in a white mist at first, swirling in the yellow glow of street lights as the wind whipped around. Then it fell in large, wet flakes. Somewhere around mid-block, the boy spoke up.
"Are these the houses you said are worth almost five million?"
Burke raised a finger to his lips. The boy needed to be quieter.
"At one time, they could have brought that kind of money." Burke looked at the brownstone buildings. Some of the windows had been boarded up while others were blacked out with heavy curtains. "Now, they're just glorified community quarters."
He glanced down and noticed his son looking from side to side, the boy's eyebrows pinched into frown. He could tell Jordan was trying to work it out.
"They were much better looking places back then," Burke added.
Jordan seemed to consider that for a moment, and then nodded.
At the corner of West 81st and Columbus Avenue, they cut through a small courtyard that stretched along the side of what used to be the planetarium. Now, the building was fitted with fifty-foot flat screens, each filled with their own displays. On one, a soldier stood in uniform. "Each one serve for a better tomorrow," a superimposed banner announced. On another screen, the image showed one of the first public arrests. The man, a Wall Streeter, had violated the public trust, they were told. The video showed a mob of people—their fists raised high, their faces contorted with anger. Armed police shoved the man into a car with tinted windows. The screen went black. Blocked letters told the viewers: "Equal justice under the law."
The threesome cleared the courtyard and stepped across the next street, taking the nearest entrance into Central Park. They made their way around the lake, exiting near Fifth Avenue and East 72nd Street, and Burke felt his spirit start to lift. Tonight had shone them good fortune. The safe house wasn't much farther—assuming the information he was given turned out to be correct. He hated leaving everything behind, hated leaving some of his friends, but the truth was he hated living here more. What was once the land of the free was now nothing more than a portrait of the surreal. Truth was defined as lies, lies became the truth, and the only value for human life was the service it could offer.
A quick glance up and down the street told Burke the way was clear. They crossed over. Steam rose through metal grates in the sidewalk, and rats scurried away from a rotting corpse as they passed by and into a nearby alley.
"What happened to him?" Jordan asked.
"What could happen to us all," Marty said.
"I certainly hope not," Burke added.
He noticed the dead man wore no shoes or coat. They cleared one alley and entered another, finally stopping at a metal door. A small sign read: "Mission Laundry: You Wear It, We Clean It." Burke gave a series of knocks, and a moment later the door opened. A bear of a man stepped out. The man had a bald head, a beard down to his chest, and arms the size of a wrestler. He wore a tight shirt that revealed his strength.
Burke was five-foot-eight, and he had to look up to meet the man's eyes.
"I'm looking for a piece of bread," He said. "You got any?"
"Depends." The man looked from Burke to Jordan to Marty. "What kind you want?"
"Seven grain and a slice of white."
The man looked at Burke a moment longer. "Maybe we can handle that."
Burke took a deep breath and let it out. "Is this the safe house?"
The man shook his head. "This place is only a door. You want to see the safe house, you got to be checked for lice."
Burke blinked. "Lice?"
"Man, we got to be safe. Ain't no lice gets past the door." The man reached behind his back and pulled out a pistol. "You clean, then we see about you going to the safe house."
"What does that mean?"
"Means you got to be checked out. All of you."
Burke stood for a moment, contemplating. He'd heard rumors of this, but the reality of it still hit him hard. He looked at his son—this was the boy's only chance—and finally nodded. "Yeah, okay."
Inside, the man ordered them to a room where another man with a syringe injected them with a blue liquid. He then scanned their bodies. In minutes, Burke and his son checked out; alarms sounded, though, when the man waved the scanner over Martin.
The doorman cursed. He said something about a tracking device and raised his gun. Martin stepped back.
"Wait," Burke shouted. "Please wait." He looked at Martin. "Why?"
"I had to," Martin cried. "The police threatened to kill me. No harm was to come to you, though. They promised."
Burke shook his head with disappointment. He turned to the other men. "My son and I had no knowledge of this. Please believe me."
The doorman looked at him. "You want us to believe you, then you handle it." He lifted the pistol as an offering. "Otherwise, none of you are going anywhere."
Marty begged for his life as Burke looked from the doorman to the pistol and then to his friend. He glanced at his son. Finally, he nodded and held out his hand.
In time, maybe, Jordan would understand.