11 SEPTEMBER 2001
The floor was shaking. Key blanks, dozens of them hanging in rows on hooks along one wall of the store, were clinking. Several cans of paint fell from a shelf. The lid came off one as it hit the floor and magnolia emulsion poured out. A cardboard box tumbled, sending brass screws wriggling like maggots across the linoleum.
It was dark in the deep, narrow hardware store just a few hundred yards from the World Trade Center, where Ronnie had taken refuge, following the tall cop in here. Some minutes earlier the power had gone off. Just one battery-powered emergency light was on. A raging dust tornado twisted past the window, blacker some moments than night.
A shoeless woman in an expensive suit, who didn’t look like she had been in a hardware store before in her life, was sobbing. A gaunt figure in brown overalls, grey hair bunched in a ponytail, stood behind the counter that ran the full length down one side, presiding over the gloom in grim, helpless silence.
Ronnie still held tightly on to the handle of his suitcase. Miraculously, his briefcase was still resting on top.
Outside, a police car spun past on its roof, like a top, and stopped. Its doors were open and its dome light was on. The interior was empty, a radio mike dangling from its twisted cord.
A crack suddenly appeared in the wall to his left and an entire stack of shelves, laden with boxes of different-sized paintbrushes, crashed to the floor. The sobbing woman screamed.
Ronnie took a step back, pressing against the counter, thinking. He had been in a restaurant in Los Angeles once during a minor quake. His companion then had told him the doorway was the strongest structure. If the building came down, your best chance of survival was to be in the doorway.
He moved towards the door.
The cop said, ‘I wouldn’t go out right now, buddy.’
Then a massive avalanche of masonry and glass and rubble came down right in front of the window, burying the cop car. The store’s burglar alarm went off, a piercing banshee howl. The ponytailed guy disappeared for a moment and the sound stopped, as did the clinking of the keys.
The floor wasn’t shaking any more.
There was a very long silence. Outside, quite quickly, the dust storm began to lighten. As if dawn was breaking.
Ronnie opened the door.
‘I wouldn’t go out there – know what I’m saying?’ the cop repeated.
Ronnie looked at him, hesitating. Then he pushed the door open and stepped out, towing his bag behind him.
Stepped out into total silence. The silence of a dawn snowfall. Grey snow lay everywhere.
Then he started to hear the sounds. Fire alarms. Burglar alarms. Car alarms. Human screams. Emergency vehicle sirens. Helicopters.
Grey figures stumbling silently past him. An endless line of women and men with hollow, blank faces. Some walking, some running. Some stabbing buttons on phones. He followed them.
Stumbling blindly through the grey fog that stung his eyes and choked his mouth and nostrils.
He just followed them. Towing his bag. Following. Keeping pace. The girders of a bridge rose on either side of him. The Brooklyn Bridge, he thought it was, from his scant knowledge of New York. Running, stumbling, across the river. Across an endless bridge through an endless swirling, choking grey hell.
Ronnie lost track of time. Lost track of direction. Just followed the grey ghosts. Suddenly, for one fleeting instant, he smelled the tang of salt, then the burning smells again – aviation fuel, paint, rubber. At any moment there might be another plane.
The reality of what had happened was starting to hit him.
Hopefully Donald Hatcook was OK. But what if he wasn’t? The business plan he had created was awesome. They stood to make millions in the next five years. Fucking millions! But if Donald was dead, what then?
There were silhouettes in the distance. Jagged high-rise silhouettes. Brooklyn. He had never been to Brooklyn before in his life, just seen it across the river. It was getting nearer with every step forward. The air was getting better too. More prolonged patches of salty sea air. Thinning mist.
And suddenly he was going down an incline towards the far end of the bridge. He stopped and turned back. Something biblical came into his mind, some memory about Lot’s wife. Turning her head. Becoming a pillar of salt. That’s what the endless line of people passing him looked like. Pillars of salt.
He held on to a metal railing with one hand and stared back. Sunlight dappled the water below him. A million brilliant specks of white dancing on the ripples. Then beyond it the whole of Manhattan looked as if it was on fire. The high-rises all partially shrouded in a pall of grey, brown, white and black smoke clouds billowing up into the deep blue sky.
He was shaking uncontrollably and badly needed to collect his thoughts. Fumbling in his pockets, he pulled out his Marlboros and lit one. He took four deep puffs in quick succession, but it didn’t taste good, not with all the stuff in his throat, and he dropped it into the water below, feeling giddy, his throat even drier.
He rejoined the procession of ghosts, following them on to a road where they seemed to disperse in different directions. He stopped again as a thought struck him, and as it took hold he suddenly wanted some peace and quiet. Turning off, he walked along a deserted side street, past a row of office buildings, the wheels of his bag still bump-bump-bumping along behind him.
Totally absorbed, he walked through almost empty urban streets for a long time, before finding himself at the entrance ramp to a highway. A short distance in front of him was a tall, girdered advertising hoarding rising into the sky, emblazoned with the word kentile in red. Then he heard the rumble of an engine and the next moment, a blue four-door pick-up truck stopped alongside him.
The window slid down and a man in a chequered shirt and a New York Yankees baseball cap peered out of the window. ‘You wanna a ride, buddy?’
Ronnie stopped, startled and confused by the question, and sweating like a hog. A ride? Did he want a ride? Where to?
He wasn’t sure. Did he?
He could see figures inside. Ghosts huddled together.
‘Got room for one more.’
‘Where are you going?’ he asked lamely, as if he had all kinds of options.
The man spoke in a nasal voice, as if the bass on his vocal cords was turned up to max. ‘There’s more planes. There’s more planes any moment. Gotta get away. Ten more planes. Maybe more. Shit, man, it’s just friggin’ started.’
‘I – ah – I have to meet-’ Ronnie stopped. Stared at the open door, at the blue seats, at the man’s dungarees. He was an old guy with a bobbing Adam’s apple and a neck like a turkey. His face was wizened and kind.
‘Jump in. I’ll give you a ride.’
Ronnie walked around and climbed into the front, next to the man. The news was on, loudly. A woman was saying that the Wall Street area of Manhattan and Battery Park were impassable.
As Ronnie fumbled for his seat belt, the driver handed him a bottle of water. Ronnie, suddenly realizing how parched he was, drained it gratefully.
‘I clean the windows, right? The Center, yeah?’
‘Right,’ Ronnie said distantly.
‘All my fuggin’ cleaning stuff’s in the South Tower – know what I’m saying?’
Ronnie didn’t, not exactly, because he was only half listening. ‘Right,’ he said.
‘I guess I’ll have to go back later.’
‘Later,’ Ronnie echoed, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.
The truck moved forward. The interior smelled of dog hair and coffee.
‘Gotta get away. They hit the Pentagon. There’s ten fucking planes up there right now, coming at us. This is yuge. Yuge!’
Ronnie turned his head. Stared at the four huddled figures behind him. None of them met his eyes.
‘A-rabs,’ the driver said. ‘A-rabs done this.’
Ronnie stared at a plastic Starbucks beaker with a coffee-stained paper towel wrapped around it in the cup holder. A bottle of water was jammed in next to it.
‘This thing, it’s just the beginning,’ the driver said. ‘Lucky we got a strong president. Lucky we got George Dubya.’
Ronnie said nothing.
‘You OK? Not hurt or nothing?’
They were heading along a freeway. Only a handful of vehicles were coming in the opposite direction, on an elevated section. Ahead of them was a wide green road sign divided into two. On the left was written EXIT 24 EAST 27 PROSPECT EXPWY. On the right it said 278 WEST VERRAZANO BR, STATEN IS.
Ronnie did not reply, because he did not hear him. He was deep in thought again.
Working through the idea. It was a crazy idea. Just a product of his shaken state. But it wouldn’t go away. And the more he thought about it, the more he began to wonder if it might have legs. A back-up plan to Donald Hatcook.
Maybe an even better plan.
He switched his phone off.