In the tradition of the fast, free-wheeling caper novels of master crime novelists Donald E. Westlake and Richard Stark, Matt D'Agostino's By Degrees is also a sharp satire of television, politics and academe. The story begins as a motley group of brilliant yet underpaid Ivy League Ph.D. candidates join forces to pull off the most audacious kidnapping in history -- disguised as Afghan terrorists. Sparks fly as these underdog intellectuals pit their wits against political correctness, the wasteland of TV, and New York's Finest, leading to a stunning climax.
Excerpts from BY DEGREES
copyright©2002 by Matt D'Agostino
Monday, May 19, 9:00 a.m. - 10:30 am
Starting at 9:02 am, a line of six filthy, nondescript panel vans, moving south alongside the Hudson River on the West Side Highway, passed under the massive concrete abutment at the eastern end of the George Washington Bridge. They were spread out in the traffic stream and attracted no attention from the commuters driving toward the city. Just as well, or heavy fighting might have broken out right there. Each van was packed with ten heavily armed Islamic commandos.
At 56th Street, the vans left the highway, dropped down into Manhattan, and sped through the arch created by the huge Department of Sanitation building. They turned south on 11th Avenue and drove down it until they reached various cross streets. Two vans peeled off and ran east to NBC headquarters at Rockefeller Center. Two moved toward ABC at 1330 Avenue of the Americas. Two turned east onto 52nd Street and moved toward CBS headquarters at 51 West 52nd Street. The west side of central Manhattan is a vast warehouse district and at this time of the day is usually choked with trucks and vans. Their passage was not noticed by people walking on the streets. Although separated, the van drivers were able to keep track of each other's changing positions by using CB radios. They chatted among themselves in Pashto, one of the languages of Afghanistan.
* * *
"Tits and ass, gentlemen. The topic this morning is tits and ass."
Teddy Lieberman laughed at his own coarseness, and the six men and two women sitting around the conference table cracked stiff smiles. As Teddy Lieberman was "Ted the Magnificent," the greatest rocket of success in recent TV history and the real brains at CBS, they laughed right along with him. The chief of programming and his team were ready to begin the day's work.
Lieberman, a bulky, overweight fellow in a conservative blue pinstripe suit, and fully at ease and in command continued, "As you know, we've got to decide whether to pick up Harvey's Aunt, Two to Tango or Not in This Family! for the Fall's Tuesday 9-9:30 p.m. slot. All three are heavily involved in T-and-A. You've seen the pilots. But before we discuss their merits, I want some input from Research. Herb here and his boys," Lieberman nodded in the direction of the distinguished media psychologist Dr. Herbert M. Finnster sitting at the other end of the table, "have developed some suggestive leads: a 'jiggle coefficient.'"
No one spoke but they listened even more attentively as Lieberman continued. A "jiggle coefficient"-this was something entirely new.
"This tits and ass area is no laughing matter. There's a shitload of money at stake," Lieberman said sternly. "We'll all hear Dr. Finnster out," he added. "Herb." He turned toward Dr. Finnster.
* * *
The vans moving toward CBS were stopped at a light in the glamorous theater and restaurant district, lying between Eighth Avenue and the Avenue of the Americas. It turned green and the vans proceeded down 52nd Street. The drunks snuggling against the theaters' walls trying to catch a few extra winks paid them no heed whatever. Scattered throughout the city were persons who, for one reason or another, were monitoring the CB radio traffic that morning. Of course, they heard the alien babble. But it caused no consternation. No listener understood the language. And as it was mixed with routine taxi calls on the same frequency, listeners assumed that foreign cab drivers were talking to each other in their mother tongue. So many service jobs in New York were performed by foreigners. One never knew what they were jabbering about, or cared.
* * *
At ABC headquarters, the Director of Programming, James Randolph-still one of the leanest, toughest aristocrats ever produced on the playing fields of America's elite prep schools-and two of his administrative aides started a conference call to a West Coast agent.
A grave public relations problem was brewing up out there. The agent's client, the actress playing the lead in Samantha and Bill, was making sounds about coming out of the closet. In a self-righteous pique, she appeared determined to make a public speech extolling lesbianism. The further the closet door opened, the greater the show's ratings would plummet. Obviously, Randolph thought, the crazy bitch had to be stopped in her tracks. But how, precisely, to do it and still keep her in the show? It would be a long call.
* * *
At CBS, Dr. Finnster handed out Xeroxed copies of his report and began to summarize its findings. "We have enjoyed considerable success with our T-and-A programs," he began meticulously.
Several persons around the conference table smiled. "Considerable success" was an incredible understatement, typical of this dour scientist. The ratings on their shows had soared through the roof. It allowed them to more than double advertising revenues on their immediate and spillover time slots.
"Recently, our ongoing market surveillance began to indicate that we've again moved into a serious problem area. Audience resistance at detectable levels was first reported in January. Certain reservations about watching our shows, based on standard Judeo-Christian puritanical moral perspectives, are now quite evident. If we are going to succeed with this type of programming, we must either shatter or sidestep the viewer's moralistic posture. Naturally, we prefer the latter option. Our response, it seems to me, must be to more finely tune our T-and-A line so as to subliminally excite viewer interest but not be so blatant as to stimulate viewer judgmental activities. Toward that end we have developed and partially pre-tested what we can informally call a 'jiggle coefficient.' It is based on 14 quantifiable factors. Bob," he nodded to a young aide, "please display the first chart. Let's first get into the basic elements: breast size, degree of curvature and length of nipple protuberance through a garment." Dr. Finnster added, "Please note that we will be using a similar methodology for buttocks later on."
Bob, actually Robert Fuller, Ph.D., undraped a standing chart showing several different profiles of the female breast, each overlaid by grid structures allowing precise angle measurements. As Dr. Finnster continued with his lecture, several conferees took notes. All listened with authentic respect. Finnster's group had pulled off some real coups before. With a mathematical procedure to insure finely tuned T-and-A programming, CBS would be way out in front of the competition.
Lieberman leaned back in his chair and listened with delight. He carefully clipped one of the fine Havanas set out for him and lit it. The smoke curled lazily upwards. Finnster was his boy. Lieberman had plucked him out of that obscure university position where he did a little advertising consulting on the side, and set him up in style at the network. As he listened to Dr. Finnster's sharp analysis, he was well satisfied. Lieberman had always been in favor of science.
* * *
At the NBC network headquarters, in a sumptuous corner office on the 42nd floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the Programming Director, Jeremy Martin, had a quiet morning planned, reading reports. His secretary Phyllis brought him coffee and a Danish as well as the stack of neatly bound reports. There was a serious tangle in the coming fall season's live sports telecast lineup that only he could sort out. He started reading and annotating them at 9:20 a.m. Martin, much thinner and more haggard-looking than most executives, rather enjoyed the work. The stillness and quiet of it was appealing. There was no pressure.
Jeremy Martin literally hated the endless round of conferences where he had to posture confidently in favor of some new show's winning the ratings war. Often, he had no idea what people would watch or why. To be sure, he had picked some winners. But he had backed losers too. The audience liked shows of a sentimental nature, about settlers, covered wagons and struggling to farm the prairies. But they enjoyed hockey games, which were little more than gladiatorial combats, as well. Just now they seemed most fascinated by huge, bouncy breasts. It was his job to track that vast population and predict its next moves. He barely admitted to himself that what lay at the root of his working life was a sense of utter confusion. The one rule of his that he always tried to follow was: No matter that all hell is breaking loose around you, keep a stiff upper lip and act like you know what you are doing.
* * *
Not one of these crucial executives knew a thing about the long history of complaints over King of the Khyber Rifles, Gunga Din, and Lives of a Bengal Lancer. None of their subordinates working in the public affairs departments had bothered to inform them. What seemed worse afterward, was that the PR types had not even thought enough of the obviously sincere, enraged letters to inform the corporations' security departments. Hence, it is not clear what preventive actions the networks would have taken. There is little use in speculating about might-have-beens.
* * *
Two vans reached their destination at CBS headquarters at 9:39 a.m. Beside the great black granite tower, with its magnificently angled external columns and darkened glass panes-Black Rock, New Yorkers call it-the vans were inconspicuous. They pulled over adjacent to the building's broad entrance and waited quietly for the radio messages that told them that their comrades had reached NBC and ABC. Each of the men concealed inside was finishing a ceremonial piece of halvah candy that symbolically bonded them together.
Twenty-seven floors below Lieberman and his associates, in the main lobby of CBS, three uniformed security guards were chatting pleasantly with a pretty blond girl. Ms. Nancy Gilcress had come in a moment earlier and requested directions to the personnel office. She nervously mentioned that she had just graduated from college and was hoping to land a job in broadcasting. She was so lovely to look at-she had that Midwestern tawny look-that the normally stern guards warmed up and tried to put her at ease. They genuinely wanted her to come on board. Her friendliness was quite infectious and, besides, it would be great fun to watch her come swishing into work each day. She had superb legs.
The commander of the terrorist teams wore a fierce Afghan beard and held an AK-47 assault rifle in his lap. His code name was Sword, and he sat in the lead van now at CBS. When the arrival messages were received, he took the radio from the driver sitting next to him. He began to speak into it, giving the signal for immediate attack. His simple affirmation, the first article of the Islamic faith, was intended to transform the team's risky, possibly fatal venture into a living prayer of deeds. In a broken but understandable English, for anyone listening to hear, he said confidently, "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His prophet."
He handed the radio back to the driver. There was the slightest hint of a smile on his face. And in his mouth he still had the sweet taste of halvah. He smartly cycled the bolt of his weapon, chambering a cartridge, and stepped out from the van onto 52nd Street. He stood on the sidewalk for a moment looking up at the building and then walked slowly and proudly upright toward the entrance. His troops swarmed out of the vans, ran around him and burst through the doors. This scene was repeated at ABC and NBC.
Passersby on the street, who saw the strange garments and all the guns, froze in their tracks, said nothing, but turned on their heels and walked away rather faster than usual and then broke into runs. New Yorkers are the fastest people in the country at sizing up situations in which they don't wish to get involved.
As soon as the terrorists were inside the lobby at CBS they began screaming, "Allah o Akbar!"
"For Dost Muhammad Khan!"
"For Sher Ali!"
People standing there ran and dived for cover. The guards, in shock, stood transfixed at their posts. The second man through the door raised his submachine gun in their direction and fired two quick bursts. The noise was deafening. The marble wall behind the guards shattered and Nancy Gilcress, the young blond woman, was hit in the chest. Without even a scream, she was flipped backwards violently and slid across the floor-leaving a smeared track of her blood. The guards were horrified. It was as though their worst nightmare had come true. They instantly threw their hands into the air. The fresh blood had that sickening smell of an old-fashioned butcher shop.
The running, shouting soldiers easily overpowered the guards. They were made to lie face down on the floor, their wrists quickly tied behind their backs. Everyone else in the lobby was rapidly frisked for any weapons or cellular phones and made to lie face down. Without any spoken command from Sword, the terrorists split into three groups. Twelve men and the commander jumped into an elevator and punched the button for the 27th floor. The door closed smoothly and they sped upwards. Two terrorists worked their way to the basement and secured the electric control panels for the elevator bank. Six men, mostly armed with Russian-made AK-47s and British Enfield bolt-action rifles, remained in the lobby. They took into custody anyone who had the bad luck to stroll in.
Incredible though it may seem, by 9:44 am-that is, within two minutes of leaping from their vans-the commandos were in control of the headquarters of the three networks and were proceeding with their mission. Eight innocent persons had been shot down in the process.
At 9:45 am, the invading force at CBS kicked open the door to Teddy Lieberman's programming conference. Dr. Finnster, pointer in hand, was standing at a chart showing a variety of curvy female buttocks. He dropped the pointer. His mouth fell open. Lieberman jumped up from his seat, enraged at the impertinence of any intrusion. He saw the foreign attire and the leveled guns of the snarling men now piling into his conference room and dropped right back into the seat, saying nothing, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible-that was the smart move.
Someone fired a submachine gun into the ceiling, and plaster and bits of wood crashed onto the polished table. No one around the table moved. As the two groups stared at each other, there was an instant of complete, hollow silence.
Some terrorists then ran over to Lieberman, pulled him to his feet, quickly tied his hands behind his back and fitted a black cloth sack over his head. They half-led, half-dragged him from the room.
As the soldiers, guns still leveled, began to back out into the corridor, the last man, their leader, faced the executives at the conference table. Sword glared at them for a moment, then spat directly at them. Several felt his spit whip their faces. He turned abruptly on his heel, slung his gun onto his shoulder and nonchalantly walked out. The abduction of Teddy Lieberman had taken less than a minute. No one, neither terrorist nor executive, had spoken a word. Only the gun had spoken.
The invaders moved swiftly to the elevator, dragged Lieberman in with them, and dropped to the lobby. The leader blew a whistle there and the two men guarding the control panels came up from the basement. To the relief of the guards and the other persons sprawled on the lobby floor, the terrorists quickly moved out into the street. The drivers revved the van engines. Two or three of the men fired their guns into the air, scattering nearby pedestrians. Each soldier then took a smoke grenade from his pocket and threw it. They tossed them out in all directions, up and down 52nd Street and even back into the lobby. A second later the clattering grenades burst, giving off great white columns of smoke. This screen effectively hid the invaders' retreat from any curious eyes. Lieberman, bound and hooded, was roughly thrown into one of the vans. The terrorists piled in after him. The doors were yanked shut and the drivers pulled away through the smoke.
A family of tourists from Idaho had been visiting Rockefeller Center when the terrorists came back down to the street, dragging a hooded Jeremy Martin with them. The husband, Thomas Ferguson, a foreman on a cattle ranch, was an experienced hunter and not overly frightened by people firing guns into the air. To be safe, he had his wife and young son take cover behind the front end of a parked car-rifle bullets cannot penetrate the mass of an engine-and then he lay down in a gutter himself. He calmly removed his 35mm camera from the case slung on his shoulder, twisted its focusing device, and began photographing the strange-looking gunmen climbing into vans.
By 9:50 a.m. it was all over. The vans were gone. They moved away from the buildings and easily became immersed in the city's normal traffic flow. Gradually, they began to work their way northward. Their departure from Manhattan went as unnoticed as their approach. What went into the history books as the Great TV Raid had taken only eight minutes.
* * *
At CBS Dr. Finnster was the first to recover. He said nothing to the others, some of whom were on their hands and knees peering out the door to make sure the invaders had really gone, but walked directly to the telephone. He got an outside line, dialed 911 and said, "I want to report a kidnapping."
The first police cars, lights flashing, arrived at the CBS building at 9:54 a.m. With drawn pistols, the officers rushed into the building. It was too late to actually capture a terrorist, but there was a great deal of work to do. The building had to be secured against the possibility of further attacks. Casualties had to be evacuated to hospitals. Bombs might have been set. The entire building had to be carefully searched. The investigation had to be started. Within minutes, dozens of heavily armed policemen, most wearing bulletproof vests, had arrived and were hurriedly going about their business. Two persons had been shot at CBS-Ms. Gilcress, the blond female who was seriously wounded, and a maintenance man who had been shot downstairs in the basement. Both were unconscious and appeared near death. When the ambulances arrived, they were swiftly but compassionately loaded in. The ambulances departed immediately, their sirens screaming.
Hearing the supremely important TV networks mentioned in radio calls, the police brass stirred themselves. A Captain Jack McFarland, the CO of the nearest precinct house, was the first high-ranking police official to arrive on the scene at CBS. A patrol car dropped him off there at 10:02 a.m. (The mayor himself would arrive a little after 11:00 am) McFarland made his way through the police lines. His presence on the scene, the dignified white hair, the ramrod-straight posture, the Irish-Catholic certainty that he was right, calmed his jittery men. The cops were glad to see him. A sergeant rushed forward and started to brief him. Both men walked purposefully into the building and took the elevator up to the 27th floor.
As McFarland strode down the carpeted corridor, past the armed officers now on guard there, and into the conference room, his neat world began to come apart. It struck him as inconceivable that some Arab scum could reach into these halls of wealth and power and again spread their filth. But the pile of spent cartridge cases on the floor, the bullet holes, the smashed ceiling, the obviously shaken executives, all proved that they could and had. He must set aside his own feelings of dismay and hate and try to help these men and women. As the ranking police officer, it was his job to comfort them, to make them feel safe, to ensure that they would once again trust in the authority he represented.
McFarland sat alone in the conference room with Dr. Finnster and listened to his account of what had happened. He tried to console the psychologist, "Drink that scotch, you'll feel much better." He told Finnster that he had unconfirmed reports that the other two networks had also been raided. The three top programming executives had been snatched. Many persons had been shot. It was Finnster's turn to be dismayed.
At that moment the electronic beeper on Captain McFarland's belt sounded loudly.
"Have you a phone I can use?" he asked Finnster.
"Of course, there." Dr. Finnster pointed.
McFarland called his office and listened to the speaker at the other end of the line attentively, then with uncomprehending shock.
Finnster saw his reaction and immediately asked, "What's happened?"
"Well, I don't really know. I guess it's a good thing." McFarland seemed a little confused.
"What?" Finnster demanded.
"We sent the casualties from all three networks over to Bellevue and University Hospital on 1st Avenue. They . . . they've escaped! One woman jumped off a stretcher as she was being carried into the emergency room and ran out. A man who had been shot in the head jumped out of an ambulance and was last seen sprinting west on 28th Street. The attendant chased him but couldn't catch up. A car picked up the victim. Nobody expected that move, and they all got clean away. What the hell is going on here?" McFarland continued, now starting to get angry. "I saw the blood downstairs, but nobody's really been shot."
"Phony casualties?" Dr. Finnster asked, incredulously.
"Yes, damn it! Some kind of puffery? What the hell is this, some sort of publicity stunt?" McFarland asked, angrily.
"No, sir," Finnster insisted, "I assure you it is not. I personally don't know or care anything about casualties, but I do know what I saw happen here. Ted Lieberman, probably the most indispensable man in American television, is gone. Programming heads from the other networks are also gone. Damn it!" Finnster was starting to get shrill, "You've got to get them back!"
"Yeah, yeah," McFarland answered pensively, as he looked toward Lieberman's empty chair and the half-smoked cigar in the jade ashtray. A bit of burnt ash lay scattered across the elegant table.
As if to reinforce his point, and with a touch of sarcasm in his voice, Finnster added, "The kidnappings . . . the kidnappings, they're the thing, Captain. Focus on them. They're real. They're absolutely real."