The Joshua Effect

  • Year : 2013
  • Author : P.S. MERONEK

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The rooftop reception on the skyscraper in lower Manhattan is an elegant affair right up until the moment the murders occur. With the lives of sixty-three of his friends and business associates snuffed out in one horrifying blink of an eye, the wealthy and enigmatic Jonathan Strickland boards a dangerous roller coaster ride of a lifetime in this clever, nail biting who-done-it.

Following the nebulous clues left behind at the scene of the crime, Strickland finds himself kidnapped and taken to a clandestine meeting in the middle of the Syrian dessert beneath the ancient ruins of one of the oldest civilizations known to man. The lines between good and evil blur as the suspect list narrows. Strickland races against time to find the invisible killers who have even more carnage in mind; they call their sinister plan the Joshua Effect.

Strickland also struggles with the essence of a life thrown into question by the gnawing epiphany that he is losing the one thing which actually gives his existence meaning. All of his fantastic achievements pale when compared with the desire to possess the love of the one woman who can understand him - but who can never be with the man he is.

As the clock ticks relentlessly forward to a catastrophe of truly Biblical proportions, the hunt for those responsible nears its climax. From a brazen gun battle among the rich and famous in the exotic streets of glamorous Miami Beach to the discovery of the secretive Catskills hideaway of a reclusive scientist in upstate New York, the thrilling ride never lets up.

All the while the personal war inside Strickland rages on. Who is he? More importantly, who will he end up becoming? For a man who thought he had everything, why does he suddenly find his life so empty?

For Jonathan, the revelation that a life with nothing in it worth dying for isn't much worth living shakes the very core of his being. Then why does it feel so right? The Joshua Effect is a taut, suspense filled page turner with a stunner around every corner.

What I called my field office faced the Hudson River. I lived on the top floor of an eighteen story renovated apartment block in Westchester. The building was originally completed in 1923. When the real estate market in New York had rebounded in the eighties, Westchester had been pulled along with it. In the early days my father had almost starved meeting the mortgage payments. I don’t remember how many times we had eaten rice and beans every night for a week at a time just so we could stay in the game. I never complained. I was more into the books: accounting, finance, reverse mortgages – all this while I was still in high school. So by the time I was old enough for college, it was a no-brainer: Pop sent me to Wharton. I was almost halfway through when his heart gave out. The funeral was small, but the friends and family were close.

I finished out the semester and quit at the end of my second year. Wharton’s professors had taught me enough to carry on where Pop had left off.

A sculler came into view. I lost him in the glare as he rowed like a hunchbacked beetle in the middle of the pale gray water between where I was standing and the two o’clock October sun.

“We’re supposed to be there in an hour,” Gary reminded me, ripping my thoughts away from her and back to the present.

I shrugged unconcernedly, my back to him and the big table, my hands in my pockets.

“Mostly it’s for the politicians, Gary. Personally, I could live without it.” The edge in my tone wasn’t lost on him. Gary and I went back almost to the beginning. He knew me almost as well as Charlie. No one knew me as well as she did.

I finally turned away from the bank of glazed plate glass windows and faced him. The lawyer sat in his usual place, four seats down from mine. He faced the windows, which were fifteen feet or so away from the heavy, egg-shaped rosewood table which when fully attended sat sixteen. That was rare. I made sure I owned at least fifty-one percent of everything I touched. If there were ever any problems and I needed to act fast, I didn’t want to be encumbered by any arguments. At the end of the day my signature alone was all that was needed in order to move mountains.

At three o’clock this afternoon we were having a press conference on the roof of my latest tower, a sixty-three story office-condo project in midtown. The Mayor wasn’t going to be there; he was busy out of town. But some significant others from his office would be attending the exclusive ceremony. I had agreed to make an appearance because in New York it was still very much a game of politics. If I didn’t show up to one of my own cap parties, I might offend somebody. They’d keep the chit and I would have to pay later, at my most vulnerable. Lately, City Hall had been like my own little Swiss clock. We were getting pretty much whatever we wanted in the way of easements and variances, within reason. It seemed all I had to do was show up, smile for the cameras, and toss back a glass or two of expensive wine. I could almost always get in and out in under an hour. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to stay longer; sometimes I did. It was just that lately my time had become a precious commodity. Everyone wanted a piece of my action. I had to admit; these days there was more than enough to go around. I had to be careful not to get bogged down. I had to constantly be alert and on the move. And as for Charlie... Charlie was a big girl. She knew what she’d signed on for. There had been no secrets, none. Maybe that had been the problem, I had been too open and up front with her. What had she called it the last time? “Brutally honest”, I think was the exact phrase she’d used.

“Next time don’t ask,” I remembered I had turned on her.

“Alright, I won’t,” she had thrown back at me.

I’d been sitting on the edge of the bed trying to get my new left shoe onto my foot. The leather was hard, not supple like the upholstery on the pair I had bought from the Italian last month. To make matters worse, I didn’t have a shoe horn. I made a mental note to speak with Giovanni next time I was downstairs in his store. I’d paid him a thousand dollars for these shoes and I didn’t want him shaving quality for profit. Not in any of my buildings. That wasn’t how it worked in the ‘Empire’, as it had come to be known.

If there was one thing I couldn’t stand it was uncomfortable shoes. I grimaced as I was finally able to force it on. I’d buckled the new leather heel in the process.

“Black, red, what does it matter? It’s only a dress. You look great no matter what you’re wearing. Or not,” I added as she moved into the framed doorway of the walk-in closet.

She was wearing a pair of white lace panties. Nothing else, save her matching high heels. She folded her arms across her bare breasts and stared at me, not saying anything at all.

“Finish getting ready, will you?” I was losing patience now. I stood up. The shoe was so tight my foot throbbed like my arm did when I had my blood pressure checked. Now I was really getting pissed. “I can’t wear these,” I complained to myself. I sat back down in a chair beside the bed and wrestled the damn things off. I threw them against the bedroom wall, but it didn’t help matters. I could feel her looking at me, her stare boring a hole through the top of my head. I sighed and looked up at her.

“The red one,” I said. I tried my best to sound sincere. “It really shows off your figure.” I added what all women wanted to hear.

Her stare grew colder. I guess she could never fully appreciate how she looked to me, and to most other men for that matter. She’d turned twenty-nine last month. Charlene Leigh Bakersfield. Charlie had it all. Blonde, originally from California, she was as ambitious as she was beautiful. She was five and a half feet of oozing sensuality no matter what her disposition. Like now. I couldn’t help smiling. She made a smart package.

“Everything is a joke with you, isn’t it, Jonathan?”

“What, I can’t smile anymore?” I played innocent.

“From the first time we met, you’ve never taken me seriously. Have you?” She demanded.

“Of course I have,” I replied truthfully. “And I don’t think it’s very fair of you to imply otherwise,” I added.

She stared at me. Her features had softened somewhat. I wasn’t smiling anymore.

“Come over here,” I said quietly.

“No. See, that’s just what I mean, Jonathan.”

“Charlie, I –”

“Every time I have something serious I’d like to talk about you trivialize it and most of the time we just end up in bed together. I’m tired of it, John. There’s more to me than that. And if you can’t get past that...” She trailed off, and then began again. “I wanted this to work. But I’m scared, Jonathan. I’m really scared that this is all there is. Don’t get me wrong. The sex is great. Fantastic. But, there’s more to a relationship than just sex all the time.”

“We don’t just have sex all the time,” I protested.

“We don’t?”

“We go to receptions, openings, concerts, dinner, the movies…”

“Yes and what’s behind every one of them?”

I shook my head in disbelief. “It’s like you’re describing a drug addict who needs a fix. Having intimacy with the one you care about is normal, Charlie. It’s what people who love each other do. It’s not supposed to be a chore. It’s not supposed to be something obligatory.”

She walked across the tile floor and sat down on the bed across from me. She reached for my hand and held it.

“I never said it was a chore,” she said in a softer tone. “With you it’s always fireworks. I... I would just like more, Jonathan. I want more of you.”

“You’ve got all of me now,” I said.

“It’ll be one year next week.”

“No way,” I reacted. I had no idea we had been seeing each other for that long. As usual, I was terrible at remembering anniversaries.

“And I don’t have all of you. You’ve never given all of yourself to anyone. Lately I’ve been wondering if you have that in you.”

I sighed. She was probably right. No one had to tell me that my time was spread thin. But what Charlie was implying was that she had become little more than an afterthought, mortar between the bricks of my life. Wasn’t that what she was supposed to be? Without the mortar everything would fall apart. I thought about telling her this, and then I passed. I realized from her perspective it would sound like more of the same. However inadvertent it may be, it would sound to Charlie as if I was not only trivializing our one year relationship, but her role in it as well. I felt relieved. I had almost made the horrible mistake of comparing her to mortar. She would not have been happy.

“I’m not happy,” she said, seemingly reading my thoughts.

“Things will get better between us. I promise, Charlie.”

She sighed. “This isn’t easy for me, Jonathan.”

I stared into her eyes. My heart suddenly tightened into a fist of ice. “What isn’t easy for you? Now you’re scaring me, and I don’t like it.”

“I’m not scaring you,” her tone didn’t change. It was soft and sonorous, like the rest of her. But her eyes bored into mine. Nothing but conviction there. I could see she had made up her mind about whatever it was she had been thinking about. How long had it been coming? “Nothing scares you, Jonathan. You are courageous, you are strong; you are invincible.”

“Why do I hear a big but on the end of this?”

“But, I think we need a little space for a while.”

I felt woozy. “Space? Awhile? What do you mean, awhile? How long is awhile? I need you Charlie, now more than ever.”

She smiled reassuringly and patted my hand like an owner pats a dog’s head. “You’ve never needed anyone, Jonathan. You see, you can do it all by yourself. I can’t. We’re different that way.”

“Oh, so you’re better than me because you need a partner,” I attacked her.

“Jonathan, this isn’t a competition. It isn’t about being better or worse than another person. You know that. I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want that.”

“You could’ve fooled me,” I said flatly.

“Now you’re acting like a teenager.” She got up and strode briskly toward the closet, then stopped in the frame of the doorway and looked back at me. “I’m moving out for a while,” she declared. “Tomorrow. I think it’s best.”

“How long?”

She looked at me.

“Alright,” I held up my hand in defeat and swallowed the lump in my throat. I hadn’t lost at anything for so long that I couldn’t remember the last time. It was a strange, unpleasant feeling. I sucked it up as best I could, determined to take the high road if she was leaving. “If there is anything I can –”

“I’ll be fine.” She stopped me.

“Tonight...” I hesitated. “After the reception...”

“A sympathy fuck?” She feigned concern. “That’s so unlike you.”

Now it was my turn to look at her. “You are so wonderfully beautiful, Charlie. I’m going to miss you terribly. You are a wonderful person.”

As I watched her she seemed to decide something. In a quick, deft movement she slid out of her panties and kicked them to the side with a high heel.

“That got you a blow job.” She smiled seductively. “And I don’t feel like waiting.”

Later, she wore the black dress. She left the next morning and I hadn’t seen her since. That was three months ago. I had screwed up big time. If only... if only. A thousand, thousand regrets I thought I’d never have to deal with haunted me every minute of every day since she’d been gone.

“She called me,” Gary said out of the blue. “Yesterday.”

I examined him more closely as he stared at me from where he sat hunched over the table. It looked as though he’d just chased the table down and killed it for his dinner. He was a big, beefy guy who tipped the scales at two-fifty, and was a shade over six feet, the same as me. I thought I was pretty trimmed out at two hundred pounds, but at forty I worked at it. For some reason unknown to me, Gary didn’t have to do anything. To the untrained eye he looked chunky, but when he had to he moved like a big cat. Gary Stanick was dangerous to his enemies; a better friend would be tough to find. I liked him from the first time we met in Corporate Finance class at Wharton. He had switched to law school a year later. We stayed in touch and I hired him right after he graduated.

“She had forgotten some files is all.” His chunky baby face betrayed no more than what he’d said. “I told her to call you about it.”

I stared at him and he stared back at me. The beautiful autumn sun dropped a little lower in the sky. The sculler was gone now. The river looked cold and empty behind me.

“Thank you, Gary,” I said at last. “I’m sure I’ll hear from her soon, then.” An awkward silence followed.

Gary finally said, “I think we better leave soon, Jonathan. They’ve got some very strict rules now about the air space over New York. David mentioned to me that they weren’t too happy about your flight plan.”

“They’re never happy about a whole lot of things. It’s their job not to be happy. It’s their problem, not ours. But,” I sighed, more for the disturbing memories of the Charlie fiasco as I was beginning to call it, “I guess we better not make them any less happy than they already are. Time to rock’n’roll Gary. Give David a call and tell him to light up the helipad. We’ll be down in a few minutes. We’ll leave right after I use the john.”

David Atwell had the front of the Sikorsky facing the back lobby of the building. The blades were already turning when the back door swung open. Although we had plenty of clearance under the blades, we instinctively ducked as we came near them. Gary and I clambered aboard. David took us up and steered us out over the river. He angled the aircraft toward Manhattan and hit the turbine, sinking us back into the plush leather upholstery. The feeling I usually got from flying was exhilarating. It terrified some, especially when David was flying, but it always put a smile on my lips. Now I felt nothing as I stared at the empty seat across from me where Charlie usually sat.

Pop would have thought I was crazy. He would have said I had rocks in my head, and he would have said it with love in his heart. He’d been a bricks-and-boards, old school kind of a guy, and would’ve wondered what the hell a helicopter had to do with building towers. I would’ve told him that America was a different country. The old ways he’d grown up with didn’t work anymore. Now it was all about marketing and how savvy you could be. It was about who could make the guy shelling out the two and a half million clams for a sixth floor condo feel like he was a somebody. The Empire was good at that. A lot of people said we were the best. They didn’t always know it, but being the best didn’t come cheap.

On the water below us the sculler came into view and just as quickly fell off to the rear of the aircraft. The big buildings of Manhattan began to rise up in front of us. I forced my mind to shift gears. Enough of this foolish and self indulgent melancholy, I thought to myself. Tonight I was determined to put this baby to rest. I was right. There were plenty of other fish in the sea. Maybe I’d hang around on top of the roof for a bit. Like fine wine, there were always plenty of fine women at these events.

David Atwell was showing off. He banked steeply off the Hudson, and then, prudently, slowed to a crawl as we skimmed the taller structures of New York. We slowly moved inland.

We had already landed on top of the roof a few times during construction, so David knew the drill. His voice came over the headphones: “I have visual on the building, Mr. Strickland. Touchdown will be in about three minutes.”

“Take us in, David,” I spoke into my microphone. “Slow and easy. Can you see anyone on top of the roof?”

“Looks like a full house. You want me to bank it so you can have a look?”

“Negative. Just take us in. Keep us between the sun and them. Nothing fancy, David, but I don’t want anyone to see the chopper until after they hear it. This is supposed to be a surprise. They think we’re using the elevator.”

“Nice surprise,” said the pilot.

“Hopefully,” I said back to him. “That’s the plan, anyway.”

“Alright,” David announced as we slowly approached the building’s roof. “We’ve got land.”

I saw immediately what he meant. The elevator shafts conveniently sectioned off the roof. About sixty percent of the roof was on one side and forty percent on the other of the concrete motor house. Someone had run a temporary fence as a partition on the far side of the motor house, between where the guests were now gathered and where we could land. The motor house, below which the elevator shafts ran through the guts of the building, would shield the guests from most of the rotor wind. We would set down in the middle of the forty percent side, which gave us a landing pad of about eight thousand square feet, the whole roof coming in at just under twenty thousand. The Sikorsky’s rotors would have ample room between their tips and the parapet walls, which created a four foot tall perimeter around the entire roof. For something to do, David would have probably agreed to land it blindfolded.

We were probably just over two hundred feet out from the roof when someone must have guessed it was us.

As we hovered and carefully eased our way into position for a rooftop landing, I could see most of the guests pointing our way. Some of them were laughing; others held their glasses over their heads in our direction, a mock toast. They weren’t that far away by now. I recognized some of them: politicians, news media scrambling in front of their lenses, contractors, subcontractors. They were all there. They looked like they were having fun, too.

“What the..?” It was David’s voice. We were softly sinking to land from about fifteen feet off the roof. I didn’t like the tone of his voice. It sounded strange in my headphones – scared.

“Fuck me!” he shouted now, and I felt us stop, but something else. It was like David had suddenly changed his mind and was now taking off instead of landing. My heart suddenly leapt into my throat as my mind tried desperately to assimilate what my eyes were seeing. It could not be happening. We suddenly began to ascend. My eyes registered this as the rooftop began to fall away from us. Only the chopper wasn’t moving. It was still hovering in one spot, so what I was seeing was impossible. It was not happening.

I screamed, “David, the antenna!”

The pilot was thinking even faster. He throttled up hard and fast. In the same instant I felt the helicopter lurch sideways as if we had been kicked in the guts by a mule. I saw a blur of steel girder flash by outside the window on my side. The fifty foot steel communications antenna which a second ago had stood like a rigid sentinel on the top of the motor house missed us by inches. I realized in horror that if David hadn’t twisted the aircraft around when he did, the steel antenna would have sliced the Sikorsky’s tail in two.

I saw people below us, screaming. For a brief second or two I saw the white terror in the many faces of my friends and acquaintances. Then they were gone. They just fell away, their hands and arms groping and flailing helplessly toward us as they went. Everything: the tables, the chairs, the bottles of wine, disappeared beneath us, swallowed whole by an ever growing, monstrous cloud of dust, debris, and soupy roiling clouds of impenetrable gray smoke. The huge building was going down. Sixty-three stories were collapsing in on themselves, and all those people with them. We watched from above it all, but none of it seemed real. None of us spoke. We just stared down in horror, our mouths agape in disbelief.