By Alex Simmons
The sun shone through the row of arched windows, high above the main hall of New York’s Grand Central Station. Shafts of dull blue-gray light formed soft, ghostly pools upon the marble floor.
Wisps of cigar and cigarette smoke rose and swirled within the light. A lazy contrast to the bustling crowd rushing in from Lexington Avenue on the southern end of the terminal, and East 42nd street on the east side.
Arron Day stood atop the cream colored marble staircase that lead to the western end of the station. Outside, skyscrapers of stone and glass surrounded New York’s largest hub of transportation. Towering monuments to business and industry.
Arron drew the attention of many as they passed by him. A well-dressed Negro was out of place in their day-to-day view of things. Especially one who was tall and powerfully built. Arron’s long tweed coat, opened in front, revealed his well-tailored suit, shirt and tie, and added to his apparent air of confidence. His dark brown eyes appeared sharp, dangerous -- like the eyes of a hunter -- which is exactly what he was.
"Extra, extra! Read all about it!" Across the cavernous room, all stone and marble and black steel, Arron heard a newsboy calling out the latest headlines. In bold, black type it declared outrage and horror of a nation. "Lunatic anarchist tries to shoot President Roosevelt!" the boy shouted. "Mayor of Miami and local police offer take bullets. On deaths door! Read all about it! Extra, extra!"
The madness has come to our shores, Arron told himself. Nazism growing in Europe, invasions and war in China, revolution and terrorism in South America. Fertile ground for a soldier of fortune, Arron told himself. But madness for the rest of the world.
Now its come here.
Arron took a deep drag on his cigar. The warm, pungent smoke filled his mouth, then filtered out between his teeth. The embers grew bright red and yellow as the ashes formed, then gently fell to the floor.
He glanced at his watch and shook his head. His client was late. She had insisted on meeting here. "I’ll come in dere when I get off work," she’d told him. "I work as a maid in White Plains. I always come home on the train. I usually get off in Harlem -- but I can come downtown to meet you."
At first, Arron had refused to see her. "I’m not a detective," he’d insisted. But the woman had practically begged him to meet her. So here he was ... but where was she?
A shoeshine boy, no more than twelve or thirteen, hustled the businessmen, the porters, and conductors. Shinning black wing tips, and brown cordovans, as he munched away on gumdrops. His brown skin was two shades darker than Arron’s. Burnt umber, with the sheen of youth and the sweat of hard work. Arron smiled briefly, remembering days gone by when he’d shined shoes up around 125th Street -- then in London, Istanbul, Spain. Back then, that was expected of him -- of most young colored boy. Shoe shines, porters, butlers, and hoofers. Arron glanced around the terminal. Things hadn’t changed much since then. The Depression was coming to a close, and prohibition had ended just last year. But the promise of a true New Deal was still a million miles away. For some ... it seemed even farther.
Tourist gathered around the dome shaped information booth that sat in the center of the great hall. To Arron’s right, crowds of would-be passengers formed long lines in front of a row of ticket windows. A young patrolman twirled his nightstick while flirting with a girl selling flowers from a cart. Colored porters hustled bags and boxes ahead of well-dressed families. The shoeshine boy eagerly buffed the tips of a man’s shoes. An orchestra of life.
The three young men entered the amphitheater from the 42nd street entrance. They moved with swaggering strides towards the information booth. They wore suits with long black coats, unbuttoned. Gray fedoras adorned their head, each one tipped rakishly over the left eye. Uniforms, Arron told himself. Gangland hoods. Young mobsters, cocky, unseasoned, and dangerous. They held their coats closed with one arm pressed tight against their bodies.
Arron suddenly felt the emptiness around his waist -- the absence of his twin Walker Colts. In his profession as a soldier of fortune, those guns were tools, as necessary as canteens, maps, and a strong sense for self-preservation. But in this life, real life, Arron hated to carry them. He couldn’t even if he wanted to. The police could stop him for any reason ... they often did. "You must be a number runner, or somebody’s muscle," one cop had told him. "Colored can’t afford threads like these. Maybe we should run you in..."
Jail had never appealed to Arron. He’d broken into and out of enough foreign prisons ... hellholes and cesspools, all. There was no doubt in his mind that the United States could hold its own in that arena. So, like most men of color, Arron walked the fine line between dignity and survival.
The three young men reached the booth , then split off studying the crowd as they moved. A few feet away, the shoeshine boy finished polishing another pair wing tips. Ten school children and their teacher scurried towards Track Nine, to catch the 3:15 to White Plains. They moved right past the meanest looking of the three men. His face thin with a hawk nose, thick lower lip, and a white scar that ran down the right side of his face. Eagerness radiated from him, as if he were about to experience some remarkable joy.
Arron felt cold chill crawl across his skin. He knew the signs -- had seen them a thousand times in a hundred places -- in jungles, on battlefields, in back allies.
Wasting no time, Arron moved with great agility as he darted down the marble staircase at incredible speed ... but he was too late.
As he reached the bottom step, the three men made their move. From under their coats they whipped out Thompson submachine guns. Weapons that needed no seasoned gunmen, Arron thought as he ran across the room. No marksman, or dedicated soldier, or even great intelligence to use them. These were weapons designed to slaughter a single target ... or a crowd.
Without a moment’s hesitation, they opened fire.
"Look out!" Arron shouted over the roar of gunfire. "Get down!"
But his warnings were lost in the chatter of rapid-fire weapons, and the screams of the panic. The coming of death -- swift and merciless, suddenly equalized businessmen, the teacher with her children, porters, and vendors, all.
Arron pushed and shoved against the oncoming crowd as bullets tore through the flower cart. Carnations and tulips seem to exploded, showering petals of pink and white stained red with the blood of the flower girl and the young policeman. Her body twisted and flailed as she fell. His nightstick clattered and rolled across the floor.
Everywhere the killers aimed their guns, husbands, wives, brothers and sisters stumbled and fell as their lives were torn from their bodies.
"See Papa!" screamed the gunmen with the scar. "See? I can do it! I got the guts!"
More of the school children fell. Others hugged the floor screaming and crying for their parents, lost in mind wrenching pain and fear.
It had all happened so terribly fast.
Arron was almost there. If the gunmen didn’t turn this way for a few more seconds, he would be on him. But in those seconds more people would died.
Arron reached him. For a brief moment, the killer whirled, startled that someone was running towards him instead of away. Startled at the look of cold, pure hatred in Arron’s eyes. He was suddenly afraid. But before he could move, the gun dropped from his hand as steel hard fingers lanced out and crushed his windpipe. He went down choking and gasping for air.
Arron charged the booth.
Bullets tore up the floor where Arron stood only moments before. The second gunman had seen his friend fall. "Dirty stinking jig! You’re dead!" he screamed, while circling around to get a better shot. "You’re dead."
Without breaking stride, Arron leaped and his foot hit the counter top, propelling him upwards, just as the gunman fired again. Bullets cut holes in his coat as he landed on to the top of the booth. His momentum took his forward and in one effortless motion Arron dove from the roof and flew on to the third shooter.
Powered by his dive, Arron’s fist smashed into the third man’s face. The gunman head snapped hard to the left, spinning his body with a violent whip like action. He was unconscious before he hit the floor.
Quickly Arron grabbed up the killers gun and dove behind a dolly of suitcases and boxes, just as the second killer fired. Bits of leather and wood exploded all around him. Arron felt a stinging sensation, then a cold numbness claim his right side. Blood slowly seeped through his shirt and into his jacket. He’d been hit, but he had no time to consider how seriously. "In a battle pain’ll get you killed," his father had once told him. And Matthew Day had been an expert on pain. From barroom brawls to wars in Europe and Asia, Arron’s father had been intimate with pain until the day he died ... shot down by killers in a plaza in Southern Spain.
"Come on out, boy!" the killer shouted.
Behind the killer, people were still running for cover. Arron fingered the trigger for an instant. He knew if he opened fire with the machine gun, he might accidentally kill many by-standers. "I won’t take the chance," he finally told himself. I’ll just have to try to --
He never had the chance to finish the thought. From his vantage point he could see one of the uninjured school children leap to her feet and start to run. The scar-faced gunman saw her too. He whirled towards her and leveled his gun.
I’ll never reach her in time, Arron told himself. Still, he leaped up, hoping to catch the killer attention, or perhaps get a clear shot at him.
But the shooter was determined to claim the girls’ life. He pulled the trigger and bullets flew through the air. Death was certain ... had it not been that someone else leaped at her. He knocked her out of the way just as steel-jacketed slugs tore through his body. The blood seeping from his wounds seem to wash away the smudges of dirt and shoe polish on his clothes and hands.
Laughing, the gunman turned back towards his first target. But Arron’s savage kick caught the man in the chest, lifted him off his feet, and sent him slamming backwards into the booth’s stone and brass structure. The killer slid down to his knees, his eyes rolled up into the top of his head -- then fell like a tree onto the cold stone floor ... face first.
In the soft pool of light from the windows, the dark skinned boy lay shivering and coughing as Arron reached his side.
"Help them ..." his voice trembled with each word. "Help ... them ... please ..." He gagged and coughed for a few seconds, twisting and crying with pain. Arron held him in his arms, until the boy’s eyes glazed over and life slowly faded away.
One word clawed it way up from Arron’s throat, and floated out on a faint whisper of air, "Damn." Then he couldn’t speak at all.
# # #
Twenty minutes later, Arron watched from a shadowy entrance to the train tunnels as police and doctor’s worked on the wounded ... and the dead. The make shift bandage he wore on his own wound would have to do until he made it home. He knew people who would fix him up, no questions asked. He’d be fine -- which was more than he could say for the 17 others, and their families, who would never be fine again.
All around the great room, men, women and children moaned and cried, and prayed. Some were helping others, as he had done, until the authorities arrived.
Two ambulance attendants carried the wounded policemen past Arron’s hiding place, accompanied by policeman and a reporter.
"I’m telling you," the young officer insisted through gritted teeth. "A big Negro stopped them ... by himself."
The officer glanced at the reporter. "Sure he did." He smiled at the wound cop. "Jesse Owens, or Louis Armstrong?"
The last thing Arron heard, as he slipped into the darkness of the train tunnel, and made his way out of the station, was the sound of the reporter’s mocking laughter.
The following day, his wound properly cared for, Arron sat reading the morning papers. "The Grand Central Massacre," was the catchy name the news hounds gave it. It screamed in bold red type across the front page. The story explained how the killers had been lead by a young mobster who wanted to prove himself. "He’d missed prohibition," the article said. "So he chose this as a way of proving he was tough." The article went on to mention his disadvantaged upbringing, " ... another product of New York’s, Hell’s Kitchen."
Arron gingerly touched the thick bandage on his side, then glanced back at the newspaper. There were columns of information on the parents of the killers, their gangland connections and activities. Arron knew there wouldn’t be any mention of his actions. That didn’t matter. But it angered him that so little had been printed about the victims wounded or killed in the attack. Where was their story? Where was the mention of a little smudge-covered hero that had died in Arron’s arms.
Then he saw it. Just a few lines at the end of the article. The reporter had managed to interview some of the school children, and one statement stood out. A little girl who had nearly been killed.
"He saved me ..." she told the reporter. "... a little colored boy. He didn’t have to ... Then he died."
Arron read the words several times, then place the paper down on the breakfast table. He didn’t know the boy. Not his name, or where he came from, or what he might have grown up to be. But he did know one thing ... " Help them," the boy had asked. He had been worried not for himself, but for others. "Help them ..."
"I will," Arron said quietly. "For you … that much, I swear."
( Second draft -- June 27, 1999)
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