Delivery Guy shook his head. “It ain’t a jungle outpost, man. You’re in the middle of Manhattan.”
“What difference does that make if nobody’s looking?”
He shut the door.
He set the bag by his keyboard. Took up the phone, the land line. There was usually only one other person in the building at this hour. Agnes Reese. Eighty-something. Half-crazy and all alone, just her and her long-suffering bichon. He could hear her phone ringing downstairs from here. He could hear her heels on her wooden floor.
“Yes?” she said tentatively. No one ever called her but con men, politicians, and her son in St. Louis.
“Agnes. It’s Jerry, upstairs. Did you just come home, let the delivery man in?”
“I don’t think so,” she said slowly. “No. No. I don’t think so. I’ve been home all morning.”
He felt the cold sweat come out on his face. Probably nothing, he thought. Then he thought: Famous last words. What he’d be saying to himself just before they came through the door: Probably nothing. Then: Bang.
He tried to shake it off. He’d been under fire before. He’d been closer to death before. Still. There was something peculiarly awful about the prospect of dying in silence, dying invisible, as if you had never existed, right here at the heart of the city. Unrelated to terrorism, the police would say. Because that’s what they always said now, when they could get away with it. And the reporters, even his former colleagues at the paper, maybe especially them, would nod and say, Strange dude, you know. A blog like his attracts a lot of wack jobs.
If a man tries to tell the truth and there’s no one willing to hear him, does he make a sound when he falls?
He cut a sad figure even to himself as he sat eating his sandwich, mashing the meat and bread mechanically, tasting nothing. But he was roused from self-pity by that lone, comically angelic chord.
lunchtime here. been thinking about u. r u ok?
Again, he hesitated, one hand above the keyboard. Then he pecked out. dunno. onto something with this times square thing. lotso threats.
o jerry. u have to stop. get out awile. ull make yerself crazy. the life of the world is not on your shoulders.
who says? wot if it is?
u still have 2 live. ull make yourself crazy. cmere. really. u need someone 2 talk 2. me 2. need perspective. zero is ever as bad as it seems.
“Except when it is,” he murmured aloud.
When she was gone, he sat with his sandwich in his hand half-eaten, his soda on the desk half-drunk, and he stared at the webcam images of the city. He turned the sound up on a live video of a Times Square corner. Heard the traffic noise there like the ocean in a seashell. Saw a workman with a dolly maneuvering the curb. Tourists passing in girl-boy pairs. A woman in her spring dress who drew from him the same life-longing as the nudes at FemArt.com. Cmere.
On other windows, there were other scenes. Small billowing spring clouds passing behind the spire of the Empire State Building. The ruin of Ground Zero, digger-trucks pawing at the dust of the murdered dead. A businessman in Central Park, strolling—dreaming—with his hands in the pockets of his suit. The skyline from across the East River, a barge passing lazily on the water.
He didn’t break down and cry for his city. He wasn’t the type. But he felt the urge. His eyes moved from one window on his monitor to another and another until he could almost feel the texture of the air out there, the concrete under his shoes and the towers of steel and glass bending over him like a worried mother. He could almost—almost—lift his eyes to the strip of bright blue sky above the building tops, clear as a portal through which holy heaven could savor the striving stone prayer of the place, of man in his free and civilized moment, the living Manhattan.
He had been asking himself, it seemed, forever: Was he insane, or was he alone in seeing the world as it was? It hadn’t occurred to him until this second that he might be both.
Now, he felt, he was about to come to a decision. Like a hero in a movie when the music swells. He was about to stand triumphantly out of his chair and stride into the bedroom and throw some clothing into a bag and go, just go.
Talk about self-dramatizing, he told himself. How courageous did you have to be to steal an afternoon with a librarian in Oneida?
And he really was about to—he told himself—he really was, when a swift and sudden shadow passed through a webcam window and was gone.
His eyes moved to the spot. The shot from the security camera outside the brownstone. It was mounted high and pointed down at the door to the vestibule. There was no one there now, no one visible. But he’d seen—he thought he’d seen—something—the movement of the door, maybe, as it opened and closed. He thought he’d caught it from the corner of his eye as he gazed at the shifting views of the greater city.
And now—now he heard something too. The creak of a tread on the brownstone staircase. A knock—not on his door but on Agnes Reese’s door downstairs. So there, it was one of her deliveries or a workman the super had sent, that’s all. Yet Stein sat very still, and listened. He heard Agnes’s heels on the wooden floor. Heard the door open. Her quaking voice, muffled and low. A man’s voice answering. The door closed again. Then silence.
Slowly, Stein lay his sandwich down on the wax paper by his soda cup. Why didn’t he hear her footsteps, her heels on the wooden floor retreating? Why didn’t he hear the tread creak on the staircase as the man went away?
His palm went over his clammy face and he despaired.
He was unsteady when he stood. Unsteady when he moved to the window again and peeked out again through the slats. He saw a man sitting on the stoop across the street. Wasn’t it the selfsame olive-skinned man as before? The same man who had quickly turned and walked away before? Now he was just sitting there, just biding his time.
Stein stepped decisively to the phone. Dialed Agnes Reese again. He heard the phone ringing downstairs. Ringing and ringing. No footsteps. No one answered. It took him three tries to fit the handset back into its cradle.
Vertigo. The Broken Elevator. His mind blank. He drifted back toward his desk, unthinking. Unthinking, he gazed at the webcam windows. The view of Times Square was a broad one now, taken from several stories above the street. A river of vans and cars and yellow cabs moving down Seventh. A tide of people walking on the sidewalks and the pedestrian lane. A ceaseless dazzle of advertising imagery flashing above it all on video screens as big as houses. One soaring billboard of a beauty in a bikini presiding over the street like its sovereign goddess.
Stein stared at the scene. Shifted his eyes and stared at Ground Zero, the digger-trucks pawing the dust.
Their women wore black cowls like Death.
When he moved again, he could not tell whether his sudden energy was courage or terror. He broke from the spot and dashed for the bedroom door. He did what he had meant to do: threw a bag on the bed, threw clothes into the bag. But now he could not tell—he really could not determine—whether he was planning to make his heroic march into the unknown or his getaway in cowardly panic. What was the difference? How could you know? A man walks a tightrope with his eyes closed. Is he a gallant daredevil, or just afraid to look down? Likewise a man who goes about the business of life for another day, knowing.
He carried his bag to the door. He glanced back at the computer, at the windows showing Ground Zero, Times Square. He heard the ocean-in-a-seashell traffic. He heard a tread creak on the staircase.
He stood there, his hand on the doorknob.
Andrew Klavan is a City Journal contributing editor and the author of such best-selling novels as Don’t Say a Word, True Crime, and Empire of Lies. His latest thriller is The Identity Man.
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