THIS AFTERNOON IN NEW YORK CITY, AFTER A SUBWAY TRAIN LEFT THE PELHAM STATION AT 1:23 P.M., THE EVENTS OF THE DAY TOOK A TERRIFYING DETOUR...
“You will all remain seated. Anyone who tries to get up, or even moves, will be shot. There will be no further warning. If you move you will be killed...”
Four men, armed with submachine guns, have seized a New York City subway train, holding all seventeen passengers—and the entire city—hostage. The identities of the hijackers are unknown. Their demands seem impossible. Their threats are real. Their escape seems inconceivable.
Only one thing is certain: they aren’t stopping for anything.
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Milton Freedgood was a professional publicist for several movie studios before he decided to concentrate on his writing. Under the pesudonym John Godey, he wrote several novels. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was the most successful. He died at his home in West New York, NJ on April 21, 2006.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Steever stood on the southbound local platform of theLexington Avenue line at Fifty- ninth Street and chewed hisgum with a gentle motion of his heavy jaws, like a softmouthedretriever schooled to hold game firmly but withoutbruising it.
His posture was relaxed and at the same time emphatic,as if a low center of gravity and some inner certitude combinedto make him casually immovable. He wore a navyblue raincoat, neatly buttoned, and a dark gray hat tiltedforward, not rakishly but squarely, the brim bent at a sharpangle over his forehead, throwing a rhomboid of shadowover his eyes. His sideburns and the hair at the back of hishead were white, dramatic against the darkness of his complexion,unexpected in a man who appeared to be in hisearly thirties.
The florist’s box was outsize, suggesting an opulent,even overwhelming burst of blooms inside, designed forsome once- in- a-lifetime anniversary or to make amendsfor an enormous sin or betrayal. If any of the passengerson the platform were inclined to smile at that joke of aflorist’s box, in respect of the unlikely man who held it sonegligently under his arm, aimed upward at a forty- five degreeangle toward the grimy station ceiling, they managedto suppress it. He wasn’t a man to smile at, howeversympathetically.
Steever did not stir, or show any sign of anticipation oreven awareness, when the approaching train gave off itsfirst distant vibrations, gradually increasing through variouslevels and quantities of sound. Four- eyed—amber andwhite marker lights over white sealed- beam headlights—Pelham One Two Three lumbered into the station. Brakessighed; the train settled; the doors rattled open. Steeverwas positioned precisely so that he faced the center doorof the fifth car of the ten- car train. He entered the car,turned left, and walked to the isolated double seat directlyfacing the conductor’s cab. It was unoccupied. He satdown, standing the florist’s box between his knees, andglancing incuriously at the back of the conductor, whowas leaning well forward out of his window, inspecting theplatform.
Steever clasped his hands on the top of the florist’sbox. They were very broad hands, with short, thick fingers.The doors closed, and the train started with a lurchthat tilted the passengers first backward, then forward.Steever, without seeming to brace himself, barely moved.
Ryder withheld the token for a part of a second— a pausethat was imperceptible to an eye but that his consciousnessregistered— before dropping it into the slot and pushingthrough the turnstile. Walking toward the platform,he examined his hesitancy with the token. Nerves? Nonsense.A concession, maybe even a form of consecration, onthe eve of battle, but nothing else. You lived or you died.Holding the brown valise in his left hand, the heavilyweighted Valpac in his right, he stepped onto the Twenty eighthStreet station platform and walked toward thesouth end. He stopped on a line with the placard thathung over the edge of the platform, bearing the number10, black on a white ground, indicating the point wherethe front of a ten- car train stopped. As usual, there were afew front- end haunters— as he had taken to thinking ofthem— including the inevitable overachiever who stoodwell beyond the 10 placard, and would have to scurryback when the train came in. The front- enders, he hadlong ago determined, expressed a dominant facet of thehuman condition: the mindless need to be first, to runahead of the pack for the simple sake of being ahead.He eased back against the wall and set his suitcasesdown, one on each side of him, just touching the edge ofhis shoes. His navy blue raincoat touched the wall onlylightly, but any contact would ensure picking up grime,grit, dust particles, even, possibly, some graffito freshly appliedin hot red lipstick and even hotter bitterness orirony. Shrugging, he pulled the brim of his dark- gray hatdecisively lower over his eyes, which were gray and stilland set deeply in bony sockets, promising a more asceticface than the rounded cheeks and the puffy area aroundhis lips justified. He leaned more of his weight against thewall and slid his hands into the deep slashed pockets ofthe coat. A fingernail caught on a fluff of nylon. Gently,using his free hand outside the pocket to anchor the nylon,he disengaged his finger and withdrew his hand.
A rumbling sound heightened to a clatter, and an expresstrain whipped through on the northbound track, itslights flickering between the pillars like a defective moviefilm. At the edge of the platform, a man glared at the disappearingexpress, then turned to Ryder, appealing forcommunion, for sympathy. Ryder looked at him with theabsolute neutrality that was the authentic mask of the subwayrider, of any New Yorker, or perhaps the actual faceNew Yorkers were born with, or issued, or, wherever theywere born, assumed once they won their spurs as bona fideresidents. The man, indifferent to the rebuff, paced theplatform, muttering indignantly. Beyond him, across thefour sets of tracks, the northbound platform provided adreary mirror image of the southbound: the tiled rectanglereading “28th Street,” the dirty walls, the gray floor,the resigned or impatient passengers, the rear- end haunters(and what was their hangup?)...
The pacing man turned abruptly to the edge of theplatform, planted his feet on the yellow line, bent at thewaist, and peered back down the track. Down- platform,there were three more leaners, supplicants praying to thedark tunnel beyond the station. Ryder heard the sound ofan approaching train and saw the leaners retreat, butonly a few inches, giving ground grudgingly, cautiouslychallenging the train to kill them if it dared. It swept intothe station, and its front end stopped in precise alignmentwith the overhanging placard. Ryder looked at his watch.Two to go. Ten minutes. He came away from the wall,turned, and studied the nearby poster.
It was the Levy’s Bread ad, an old friend. He had firstseen it when it was newly installed, pristine and unmarked.But it had begun accumulating graffiti (or defacements, inthe official language) almost at once. It pictured a blackchild eating Levy’s bread, and the caption read YOU DON’THAVE TO BE JEWISH TO LOVE LEVY’S. This was followed byan angry scrawl in red ballpoint ink: BUT YOU DO HAVE TOBE A NIGGER TO CHEAT ON WELFARE AND SUPPORT YOURLITTLE BLACK BASTARDS. Beneath that, in block letters, asif to cancel out bitterness with the simple antidote of piety,were the words JESUS SAVES. But still another hand, neitherraging nor sweet, perhaps above the battle, had addedPLAID STAMPS.
Three separate entries followed, whose message Ryderhad never been able to fathom:
VOICE IDENTIFICATION DOES NOT PROVE SPEECH CONTENT.PSYCHIATRY IS BASED ON FICTION NOVELS. SCREWWORMSCAUSE SPITTING. After that, the ideologue took overagain, riposte following riposte: MARX STINX. SO DOES JESUSCHRIST. SO DOES PANTHER. SO DOES EVERYBODY. SO DOES I.Such as it was, Ryder thought, it was the true voice of thepeople, squeezing out their anxieties into the public view,never questioning that they deserved a hearing. He turnedaway from the poster and watched the tail of the train whipout of the station. He put his back against the wall again,between his suitcases, and looked casually down- platform.A figure in blue was walking toward him. Ryder picked outhis insignia— a Transit Authority cop. He noted details: oneshoulder lower than the other so that he seemed to be listing,bushy carrot- colored sideburns curling down to a pointan inch below the earlobes... A car length away the TAcop stopped, glanced at him, then faced squarely outward.He folded his arms across his chest, unfolded them, tookhis hat off. The hair on top of his head was reddish brown,several shades darker than his sideburns, and it was mattedfrom the pressure of the hat. He looked into his hat, thenput it back on his head and folded his arms again.
Across the tracks a northbound local arrived, paused,and moved on. The TA cop turned his head and foundRyder looking at him. He faced front immediatelyand straightened his back. It brought his low shoulder upand improved his posture.
As soon as a train cleared a station, the conductor wasexpected to step out of the shelter of his cab and provideinformation and other assistance as requested by the ridingpublic. Bud Carmody was well aware that too few conductorsfollowed this regulation. More often than notthey just hung around in the cab staring at the colorlesswalls racing by. But that wasn’t the way he ran the job. Hedid it by the book, and more: He liked maintaining a neatappearance; he liked presenting a smiling countenanceand answering dumb questions. He enjoyed his work.Bud Carmody regarded his affection for the railroad asa matter of inheritance. One of his uncles had been a motorman(recently retired after thirty years on the road), andas a boy Bud had admired him extravagantly. On a fewoccasions— on calm, lazy Sunday runs— his uncle hadsmuggled him into the cab and even let him touch the controls.So, from boyhood on, Bud set his sights on becominga motorman. Right after graduating high school, hetook the Civil Ser vice test, which offered the option of beinga conductor or a bus driver. Although driving a buspaid better, he wasn’t tempted; his interest lay in the railroad.Now, when he became eligible by serving six monthsas a conductor— only forty days more to go— he wouldtake the motorman test.
Meanwhile, he was having a good time. He had takento the job right from the start and had even enjoyed thetraining period—twenty- eight days of school, followed bya week on actual runs under the tutelage of an experiencedman. Matson, who had broken him in on the runs, was anold- timer with a year to go to retirement. He was a goodteacher, but he had soured on the job and was direly pessimisticabout the future of the railroad. He predicted thatfive years hence it would be patronized exclusively by niggersand spies and maybe run by them, too. Matson wasa walking encyclopedia of atrocity stories, and if you tookhim seriously, working a subway train was just a trifle lesshazardous than frontline duty in Vietnam. Hour by hour,according to Matson, a conductor risked serious bodilyinjury or even death, and you could consider yourselfblessed if you survived the day.
A lot of the older conductors— and even some of theyounger ones— peddled tales of horror, and while Buddidn’t exactly disbelieve them, he certainly hadn’t had anytrouble himself. Oh, sure, a few times passengers hadcussed him out, but that was to be expected. The conductorwas visible, so, naturally, he was blamed for everythingthat went wrong. But outside of dirty looks and someverbal abuse, he had had absolutely none of the bad experiencesthe old- timers kept dwelling on, such as being spatat, beaten up, robbed, stabbed, vomited on by drunks,mobbed by school kids, or hit in the face by someone onthe platform as you leaned out of your window when thetrain pulled out of a station. The last of these worried conductorsthe most, and there were a million horror stories:about the conductor who had taken a finger in the eyeballand eventually lost the eye; about another who had hisnose broken by a fist; about still another who was grabbedby the hair and nearly pulled out the window...
“Fifty- first Street, this station is Fifty- first Street.”He delivered his announcement into the mike in aclear, cheerful voice, and it pleased him to know that itwas heard simultaneously in all ten cars. As the trainmoved into the station, he inserted his skate key (it wasproperly known as a drumstick key, but everyone called itskate key) into the receptacle in the bottom of the paneland turned it to the right. Then he inserted the door keyand, as soon as the train stopped, pressed the buttons toopen the doors.
He leaned far out of his window to check the passengersgetting on and off, then shut the doors, rear sectionfirst, then front section. He checked his indication box,which was lit up to show that the doors were all closedand locked. The train started, and he hung out the windowfor the regulation three car lengths, to make surethat nobody was being dragged. This was where a lot ofthe old- timers cheated, with their morbid fear of beingassaulted.
“Grand Central station, next stop. The next stop isGrand Central.”
He stepped out of the cab and took up a position againstthe storm door. He folded his arms across his chest, andstudied the passengers. It was his favorite pastime. Heplayed at trying to figure out, from the passengers’ appearanceand attitudes, what their lives were like: whatkind of work they did, how much money they made, whereand how they lived, even what place they were headed for.In some cases it was easy— delivery boys, women wholooked like house wives, domestics or secretaries, old retiredpeople. But with others, especially the better class, itposed a real challenge. Was a well- dressed man a teacher,a lawyer, a salesman, a business executive? Actually, exceptfor rush hours, there weren’t too many of the better classriding the IRT; it ran a poor third to the BMT and theIND. He couldn’t explain why. Maybe it was a matter ofroutes, of better neighborhoods, but it was hard to provethat. It might be due to the fact that the IRT was theoldest of the three divisions, with fewer routes and lessequipment (which was why its training period was onlytwenty- eight days compared to thirty- two on the otherdivisions), but you couldn’t really prove that either.He braced himself against the roll of the train (actually,he liked the motion and his ability to adapt to it the waya sailor developed sea legs) and focused his attention onthe man sitting facing the cab. He was striking for hissize— breadth, really, he wasn’t all that tall— and his whitehair. He was well dressed in a dark raincoat and new hat,and his shoes were highly polished, so he was certainly nomessenger, in spite of the large, fat florist’s box betweenhis knees. That meant he had bought the flowers for someoneand would be delivering them in person. Looking athim, the kind of tough face he had, you wouldn’t havethought of him as somebody who bought flowers. But youcouldn’t tell a book by its cover, which was what made lifeinteresting. He could be anything— a college professor,a poet...
The decelerating train dragged under Bud’s feet. Heset the pleasant puzzle to one side and went into the cab.“Grand Central station. Change for the express. This isGrand Central... ”
Over the years, Ryder had developed some theories aboutfear— two, to be exact. The first was that it had to be handledthe way a good infielder played a ground ball; he didn’twait for it to come to him, he went to meet it, he forcedthe issue. Ryder coped with fear by confronting it. Sothat, instead of looking elsewhere, he stared directly atthe transit cop. The cop became aware of his scrutiny andturned to him, then quickly averted his gaze. After that hekept his eyes to the front, self- consciously rigid. His facewas slightly reddened, and Ryder knew that he would besweating, too.
Ryder’s second theory— which the cop, helpfully, wasillustrating— was that people in tight situations showedstress because they wanted to. They were appealing formercy for their ha...
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