“It’s a beautiful world, isn’t it?” Forbes had to raise his voice slightly to be heard over the steady booming impacts of the quad-bladed rotor beating over the toughened glass of the cockpit.
“If you say so.” I said, looking down over the dirty grey buildings, some squat and short, some monolithic enough for Forbes to have to make course corrections. The Hudson river passed below us like a great grey snake, rippling invisibly from the steady patter of rain that spilled from the grey skies and beat against the helicopter as Forbes flew us out over lower Manhattan and over the bay, brimming with fat white yachts and squalls of seagulls.
“Ha!” The fat white man boomed from inside his Valentino suit, roughly boat sized. He turned his steely grey eyes on me, buried in his ruddy cheeks, and flicked a strand of his greying combover back over his head. “You Brits are all the same.”
“Oh?” I grunted.
“Absolutely.” He nodded vigorously, and returned his attention to the dashboard’s multitude of spinning needles and flickering gauges. The helicopter in question was a UH-60 Black Hawk, jet black and gleaming in the storm currently menacing New Jersey. Occasionally a blue flash would light up the long fuselage and glitter off the stubby wings mounted on either side of the chopper, behind the cockpit. Forbes had pointed out the scars on the undersides of the wings, where once twin miniguns and a stack of Hellfire missiles had been mounted. He could have had the scars buffed out, but he hadn’t. If I had to listen to the story of how he’d bought the thing from the army, and how much for, for a fourth time, I had a feeling I’d succumb to the jetlag in my seat before we’d made the round trip. “Walk around like someone shat in your tea.” He laughed heartily and slapped his rotund thigh.
“Not my fault you wankers can’t make a decent cup.” I played up the act for him, but I was looking forward to getting back to my hotel bed, tipping the maid thirty percent, and crashing out to the sound of car horns and sirens thirty floors below. I’d only got in the same morning. Taken off from Gatwick at 23:00 last night, flown non-stop for eight hours, and touched down in JFK at roughly 02:00 local. I’d got in about three hours restless sleep before Forbes had sent the car for me. We’d met first in a bar, then progressed onto his tower in Queens, where he’d surprised me with the tour. It was 15:30 now, and I was having trouble keeping my eyes and mind focused. Forbes flouting the non-smoking policy wasn’t helping.
“Ha!” he shouted again, and clapped my shoulder with a pudgy hand. “Maybe we can make something of you yet, Jim.” He took a drag on his cigar, and blew the smoke towards me, where it mixed with his cloying aftershave and set me coughing.
Ostensibly, I was in New York on business. A prospective investor in Forbes’ fledgling shipping firm, which complemented his thriving auto business. Hence the extravagance and self-promotion, I supposed. The old man puffed out his chest like a peacock with coronary artery disease whenever he talked of his assets. Which was often, so far. He was a multi-millionaire, but that counted for little when they were as common as the pigeons in the inner city. In the grand scheme of things, Henry Jefferson Forbes III was just another worm in the big rotten apple. But if he thought that I cared about his millions, or his penis-extending helicopter, or the little blonde secretary he’d all but shoved into my lap in his office, he was very much mistaken. I was here on business, but not the kind he dealt in. Nor was my name what it read on my passport.
“Ah, here we go.” Forbes spoke past his bulbous nose as he banked the chopper into a driving wall of rain, and jerked back on the stick, thumbing a few switches over his head to bring the machine to a hover.
“Is that her?” I asked, jerking my head down at the island below, partially obscured by the rain-spotted windscreen.
“Our lady.” Forbes raised a hand and perfunctorily crossed himself.
“I thought she’d be taller.” I mused.
“She’s the leader of the free world,” he said, tapping out each word on his thigh. “And you told her to go fuck herself.”
“She didn’t like tea.” I threw back, with little energy.
Lady Liberty reached out below us on her pedestal, torch pointed across the bay.
“She should be facing North, you know, over her people.” Forbes grunted. “If I’d been the architect, I’d have done better.”
“No doubt.” I said.
“She looks your way, doesn’t she?” He pointed a flabby arm across the waters.
“In a sense, I guess.” I replied. A few thousand miles out, but I saw his point.
“Ever thought about joining the land of the free?” He asked.
“I’ve never been free.” I shook my head at the rain-drenched statue below, following her eyes across the sea. Where my backers sat in shadowy committees, directing their pawns across the great board of the world. Mergers and acquisitions. Or words that sounded similar, when slurred.
“Horseshit.” Said Forbes. “Everybody is free. A man is his own master. That’s on my bedroom wall, you know.” I could believe it.
“Not everyone.” I sighed, my eyes fixated on the cloud-laden horizon beyond the waves, as I drowned the tycoon out. Maybe she was looking too. Glazed eyes dancing over a filthy London skyline. Maybe she could sense my gaze. If so, she was probably screaming. But screaming was good. Screaming was alive. It was equally possible her gentle green eyes had rotted to dust in their sockets. It was a wound I wasn’t yet ready to probe.
“You good?” Forbes had been speaking, but I hadn’t noticed. He wasn’t used to that, and the frown made him look older.
“Yeah.” I tried to smile at him. “Just tired, you know.”
“Well then, let’s head back.” Forbes drawled in his thick Bronx accent, and clapped me on the shoulder again. “You’ve got a party to attend.”
I looked at the old man I’d been ordered to kill and managed to finish the smile. “See you in hell, mate.” I said. And Forbes drove us into the head of the storm.