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In Porter's follow-up to 'Remembrance Day', an ex-British spy finds himself dragged back into the world of espionage after a mysterious plane crash.
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Henry Porter has written five novels for Orion and one children's novel. In 2005, his novel Brandenburg, which is set in East Germany at the time of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, won the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. His thriller Empire State, the first about extraordinary rendition, was also nominated for the award. His books have been widely acclaimed and translated into over a dozen languages.
For five years he campaigned against the attack on civil liberties by the government in the Observer newspaper where he writes a column. During that time he debated with Tony Blair in a public exchange of emails about his government's record on surveillance, databases and the rights of the individual. He has been the London editor of Vanity Fair since 1993.
Chapter 1: The East River
A lip of ice protruded from the bank just in front of his face. It was no more than three feet away and he could see it with absolute clarity in the light that was coming from behind him. He contemplated the ice through the mist of his breath, noticing the lines that ran around its edge like tree rings. He understood they were formed when the tide lapped its underside, adding a little to the surface, then receded, leaving it hanging over the mud. He was groggy, but his powers of reason were working. That was good.
Harland moved his head a little and listened. There was a ringing inside his ears but he could hear the slap of the water and the agitated clicking of dead reeds somewhere off to his left. Beyond these there was a commotion -- sirens and the noise of a helicopter.
The light didn't allow him to see how he was trapped, but he felt something heavy pinning him down from behind and he knew that his legs were bent backward because the muscles in his groin and on the tops of his thighs were burning with pain. The rest of him was numb. He reckoned he must have been there for some time.
He pulled at his arms, which had been plunged vertically into the mud. The movement caused his face to fall forward nearer the mud and his nostrils to fill with the smell of the sea. The tide! He could see that the water had risen a little in the time since he had become conscious. The tide would come in and cover his face. He had to get free -- shift the weight that was holding him down. But he felt weak and dazed and there was nothing for him to push against to hold his face away from the mud. He groped behind him and felt the seat. Jesus, he was still strapped into his seat! He ran his right hand up and down searching for the seat belt and found it stretched tight across the top of his chest. That explained the pain in the area of his heart. Eventually he located the buckle, flipped its tongue with his thumb, and sagged forward into the mud.
It was going to be okay. He'd be able to shift the seat, or wriggle from underneath it. A little more purchase was all that was needed. But that wasn't going to be easy. Exerting the slightest pressure made him sink closer to the water. He knew that the mud had absorbed the force of his impact and had saved his life, but now he cursed it.
He began to prod and grope beneath the mud. After several minutes he touched something solid, an old plank of wood. It was slippery, but it did not move when he gripped it with both hands and then pushed upward with all his strength, bringing his legs awkwardly into play. Nothing happened. He slumped down again and inhaled the mud's odor of decay. He had to concentrate on controlling his breath, which was coming in shallow puffs.
As he waited, the breeze peppered his face with grains of ice and he realized for the first time how cold it was. He breathed deeply, right into his stomach, and tightened his grip beneath the mud. He was going to do it. He was going to lift the damned seat because he hadn't survived the crash to be drowned in six inches of the East River.
He pushed again and this time felt the right side of the seat lift slightly. He threw his bottom up and with a desperate writhing motion managed to free first one leg, then the other, and roll over into the sea water. The cold made him gasp. He lunged upward, knocking the lip of ice, which broke off with a chink, dug his fingers into the bank, and pulled himself to a kneeling position. The mud sucked at his shins. He saw the seat now and a tangle of metal and torn plastic attached to the back of it. He looked up and across to Manhattan, ranged along the skyline like a miniature tiara. He realized that he was seeing it through a gauze of tiny ice particles floating on the breeze. But there was something else -- the insides of his eyelids seemed to be imprinted with a golden light that flared every time he blinked. And there was a new sensation in his head, halfway between pain and sound.
Shielding his face from the wind, Harland turned and peered toward La Guardia. It was difficult to make out exactly what was happening against the background of the airport's lights. There appeared to be two fires that were being fed by plumes of foam from the emergency vehicles. The nearest was a few hundred yards away. The lights shot across a long, horizontal shadow, which Harland took to be some form of dike, to play across the mudflats and skim the sea. He wondered how the wreckage of the UN plane had ended up so far from him. Maybe it had kept traveling after breaking up; or perhaps there'd been a collision, which would explain why he could see two fires. But that didn't match his memory of the moments as they approached the runway. He had felt no impact, just the shocking lurch to the right that came as he turned from trying to see the lights of Rikers Island to Alan Griswald's face. That was all he knew before a terrible force took hold of him and obliterated everything in his mind.
He climbed onto the bank, shook the worst of the mud from his legs, and rubbed his calves and thighs to get the circulation back. The bank, which he had taken for part of the shoreline, turned out to be a tiny island of a few square feet. Despite the frost, the ground crumbled easily, and when he moved, clods of soil and dead vegetation slipped into the water. He peered down into the darkness to see how far he would have to wade to get to the shore, his mind fumbling to make sense of his situation. He had to think about the depth of the water and the possibility of sinking into the mud and getting stuck. And he had to remember the tide because he wasn't in any state to swim, not even a short distance in the currents that he knew hurtled through the East River. There was also the ferocious cold. It was already way below freezing and the wind-chill was getting to him, sapping energy from his legs. He might die of exposure before they found him.
Where was the helicopter he'd heard? Why the hell weren't they looking? They must've worked out that the plane had broken up and there would be casualties out here in the tide. But the runway was raised quite a height above the mudflats and he knew that would mean they wouldn't spot anything by chance. They would have to be looking -- they would have to know people were out here.
He looked out over the water to see if any rescue boats had been launched. No lights, no sound -- nothing. He searched the dark around him and then as his eyes moved across the sea toward the Bronx he caught sight of something about forty feet away. It was a piece of wreckage -- another aircraft seat, he was sure. A little closer to him was an oblong object bobbing in the water -- perhaps a door. A cry rose up in him and he bellowed. "Over here, help! Over here."
He told himself not to be so damned stupid. No one could hear him above the wind. He cautioned himself to keep a tighter control of his fear. He must conserve his energy.
But then it struck him that someone might be out there and that the person could be trapped. He looked again and thought he saw a foot projecting from the end of the seat. Without thinking more about it, he lowered himself into the water and gingerly tested the depth. The mud shelved away to the right but ahead of him it appeared to be level, and although his feet sank into the mud with each step, it was just possible to wade.
He moved slowly out into the open, where the breeze was skimming foam from the tops of the waves. The headlights of a truck had maneuvered in the distance and sent a beam across the water to pick out part of the seat. He was about halfway there and he could see that the seat was tipped backward and was propped against a stack of tufted soil. Around him was a lot of other wreckage, knocking about in the waves. He grabbed a long plastic panel and felt the rest of the way. When he reached the seat he called out once then took a step sideways to see better and prodded it with the panel. The seat fell to the side and a body slumped into a patch of light.
He knew he was looking at Alan Griswald, although most of his face had gone and part of the neck and shoulder had been torn away. He must have been killed instantly. Poor bastard: one moment draining a tumbler of scotch, the next he was out here, mangled and ruptured and dead.
Harland felt dreadfully cold. A shudder welled up in his back and ran through his entire body. He had been stupid to get so wet because it reduced his options. Before he might have waited but now he was so cold he had no choice but to wade back past the little island and strike out toward the lights of the emergency vehicles and to what he hoped was the shore. At the same time he realized that his strength was going and -- more alarming -- he could feel the increased drag of the tide plucking at his legs.
He turned to go, then stopped and listened intently to a new noise. He cupped his hand to his ear. It was a muffled sound -- muffled but insistent -- and it was coming from Griswald's body. Suddenly he understood: it was a cell phone. Griswald had kept his phone switched on and now it was ringing. He waded through the water, ran his hands over the body, and felt the phone inside Griswald's breast pocket. He thrust his hand inside the dead man's jacket, steeling himself against the blood and pulp of his chest, and pulled out the phone and another object -- a wallet. He was about to throw it away when something told him it would be needed for identification. He slipped it into his hip pocket.
The phone was still ringing. He stabbed at the keypad and brought it to his cheek.
"Al?" came a woman's voice. She was a long way off and the wind was making it difficult to hear, but he thought he recognized the voice.
"Look," stumbled Harland.
"Who is this?" demanded the woman.
Harland grimaced to himself. "Look, Alan can't take your call."
"Who is this speaking? Where's Alan?" The panic in her voice was rising. "Why have you got my husband's phone?"
Harland saw nothing for it but to hang up. Sally Griswald would learn soon enough. He held the phone in front of him and dialed his own direct line at the UN building.
"This is she." The voice was brisk -- troubled.
"Marika, I need you to listen very carefully."
"Oh, my God! Mr. Harland? You don't know what's happened. It's terrible. The plane's crashed at La Guardia. The flight from Washington. All those people. We just got the news a few minutes ago."
"I was on the flight."
"What are you saying? I can't hear you."
"I was on the flight. I'm okay. But I need you to tell them where
"I don't understand. It's not on your schedule -- "
"Listen, for God's sake, Marika." He was shouting and he knew he was terrifying the life out of her. "I was on the flight. And now I'm stranded in the East River. You've got to tell them where to find me."
"Oh, my God..."
"Tell them I'm in a direct line between the northeast runway and Rikers Island. The tide's coming in fast and I need them to get here quickly. Marika, now don't hang up! Keep the line open...Marika?"
Another voice came on the line. "Bobby, it's Nils Langstrom."
"Thank God," said Harland. Langstrom had a cool head. "I was on the flight that crashed. I'm stranded in the East River. I guess I'm about one hundred and fifty, maybe two hundred yards from the runway on a line with Rikers Island. I'm in the water and I'm going to try and get myself back on dry land. They'll see some wreckage from the plane. I'll wait there. But tell them they've got to move quickly. There may be other people out here."
"Got it. I'll make sure they understand where you are."
"I've got to hang up now and get to the island."
"Don't take any risks..."
Harland pressed the Off key and clamped the phone between his teeth. He ignored the taste of blood on the phone and looked up to get his bearings. It wasn't easy. Wading out to where Griswald lay had been fine because the light from behind him had shown him the way. Going back was a different matter. Beneath the distant beam from the truck everything was pitch black. He picked up the plastic panel, which he had kept wedged between his legs, and set off, jabbing at the water ahead of him. All around him was the excited rippling of a tide in full flood.
Part of him remained aloof from the situation, a dispassionate observer, registering the difficulty he had pulling his legs out of the mud, noticing the shortness of his breath, the lifelessness in his arms, the fatigue clouding the front of his brain and tempting his eyes to close. The cold was beyond anything he'd experienced. It was robbing him of his will, making his thoughts sloppy and his movements clumsy.
This part of Harland, the remote, calculating part, recognized that he had only a very short time.
It was beginning to snow. Big snowflakes were streaming across his vision, making a little vortex along the line of the headlight beam. He put his head down and worked his shoulders to take several quick strides. The water had reached halfway up his thighs when he put his left leg down, found nothing, and toppled sideways into the current. His lungs contracted with shock, expelling the air with a succession of hollow shouts, the first of which caused him to let go of the phone in his mouth. Then, as he flailed in the water like a child learning to swim, he lost his grip on the panel. He knew his only chance now was to make it back to the point where he could stand, but the current was very strong and his power to resist it had gone. His lungs wouldn't keep the air down and he was swallowing water. He tilted his head back and stretched out his arms, his brain grasping at half a memory of a training session he'd endured long ago in Poole Harbor. He was floating, allowing the current to take him and to twirl him around like a piece of flotsam. He was aware of looking up at the snow. The light seemed to be growing fainter and the snow was getting denser. His terror was being edged out by blankness and submission. One thought kept moving through him: this is it, I'm going to die; this is it, I'm going to die.
And then his foot hit something and the current spun him around so that his bottom grazed the mud. He had been washed up on another bank. He reached his hands out backward and clawed awkwardly at the mud, trying to get his head above the water. He found some roots just below the surface. With the last reserve of energy he turned and brought himself to all fours and choked the water out. He stayed there heaving and gulping in the terrible cold for what seemed like several minutes. Then he looked up and squinted through the sea water that was still stinging his eyes. There was no sign of anyone. They weren't looking for him.
He listened. A seabird called out in the dark and again he heard the rasp and click of reeds nearby. He had to think. He had to think, dammit. But his mind was moving so slowly. He'd crawl into the reeds where the mud would be firm because of the roots and he would drag himself to his feet and stand so that they would see him. That's w...
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