11 SEPTEMBER 2001
Ronnie stood in the sunshine on the empty boardwalk and checked once again that his mobile phone was switched off. Very definitely switched off. He stared ahead, past the benches and the beachfront railing, beyong the deserted golden sand, out across the expanse of rippling ocean, at the distant pall of black and grey and orange smoke that was steadily staining the sky, turning it the colour of rust.
He barely took any of it in. He had just realized that he had left his passport in the room safe back at his hotel. But perhaps that could be helpful. He was thinking. Thinking. Thinking. His brain was all jammed up with thoughts. Somehow he needed to clear his head. Some exercise might do it. Or a stiff drink.
To his left the boardwalk stretched out as far as he could see. In the distance, to his right, he could see the silhouettes of the rides in the amusement park at Coney Island. Nearer, there was a messy-looking apartment building, covered in scaffolding, about six storeys high. A black dude in a leather jacket was engaged in a discussion with an Oriental-looking guy in a bomber jacket. They kept turning their heads, as if checking they weren’t being watched, and they kept looking at him. Maybe they were doing a drugs deal and thought he might be a cop. Maybe they were talking about football, or baseball, or the fucking weather. Maybe they were the only people on the fucking planet who didn’t know something had happened to the World Trade Center this morning.
Ronnie didn’t give a shit about them. So long as they didn’t mug him they could stand there all day and talk. They could stand there until the world ended, which might be pretty damned soon, judging by the events of today so far.
Shit. Fuck. What a day this was. What a fuck of a day to pick to be here. And he didn’t even have Donald Hatcook’s mobile phone number.
And. And. And. He tried to shut that thought out, but it kept knocking on his door until he had to open up and let it in.
Donald Hatcook might be dead.
An awful lot of people might be fucking dead.
There was a parade of shops, all with Russian signs on them, to his right, lining the boardwalk. He began walking towards them, towing his bag behind him, and then stopped when he reached a large sign in a green metal frame with an arched top, framing one of those YOU ARE HERE! maps. It was headed:
RIEGELMANN WALKWAY. BRIGHTON BEACH. BRIGHTON 2ND STREET.
Despite all that was going through his mind, he stopped and smiled wryly. Home from home. Sort of! It would have been fun to have someone take his photograph beside it. Lorraine would be amused. On another day, under different circumstances.
He sat down on the bench beside the sign and leaned back in the seat, unfastened his tie, coiled it and put in his pocket. Then he opened the top button of his shirt. The air felt good on his neck. He needed it. He was shaking. Palpitating. His heart was thumping. He looked at his watch. Nearly midday. He began patting dust out of his hair and clothes and felt in need of a drink. He never normally drank in the daytime, well, not until lunchtime anyhow – most days. But a stiff whisky would slip down nicely. Or a brandy. Or even, he thought, thinking about those Russian signs, a vodka.
He stood up, gripped the handle of his bag and carried on pulling it along behind him, listening to the steady bump-bump-bump of the wheels on the planks. He saw a sign on a shop ahead. The first shop in the parade. In blue, red and white were the words: moscow and bar. Beyond was a green awning on which was a name in yellow letters: TATIANA.
He went into the Moscow bar. It was almost empty and felt gloomy. There was a long wooden counter to his right, with round, red leather bar stools on chromium feet, and to the left, red leather banquette seats and metal tables. A couple of men who looked like heavies from a Bond movie sat on bar stools. Their heads were shaven, they wore black, short-sleeve T-shirts and they were silently glued to a wide-screen television on the wall. Mesmerized by it.
Shot glasses sat in front of them on the counter, along with a bottle of vodka wedged into a bed of ice in a bucket. Both held cigarettes and an ashtray filled with butts sat beside the ice bucket. The other occupants, two young hunks, both wearing expensive-looking leather jackets and sporting large rings, were seated at one banquette. They were both drinking coffee and one was smoking.
It was a good smell, Ronnie thought. Coffee and cigarettes. Strong, Russian cigarettes. There were signs around the bar written in Cyrillic, banners and flags from football clubs, mostly English. He recognized Newcastle, Manchester United and Chelsea.
On the screen was an image of hell on earth. No one in the bar spoke. Ronnie began watching as well; it was impossible not to. Two planes, one after the other, flying into the Twin Towers. Then each of the towers coming down. Didn’t matter how many times he saw it, each time was different. Worse.
Broken English. The barman was a shrimp with a fuzz of cropped black hair brushed forward, wearing a grungy apron over a denim shirt that needed ironing.
‘Do you have Kalashnikov vodka?’
He looked blank. ‘Krashakov?’
‘Forget it,’ Ronnie said. ‘Any vodka, neat, and an espresso. You have espresso?’
The shrimp nodded. ‘One Russian coffee. Vodka.’ He walked with a stoop as if his back was hurting.
A man was hurting on the screen. He was a bald, black guy covered in grey powder, with a clear breathing mask over his face, attached to an inflated bag. A man in a red helmet with a visor, a red face mask and a black T-shirt was urging him forward through grey snow.
‘So much shit!’ the shrimp said in broken English. ‘Manhattan. Unbelievable. You know about this? You know what happening?’
‘I was there,’ Ronnie said.
‘Yes? You was there?’
‘Get me a drink. I need that drink,’ he snapped.
‘I get you a drink. Don’t worry. You was there?’
‘Some part of that you don’t understand?’ Ronnie said.
The barman turned away huffily and produced a vodka bottle. One of the Bond heavies turned to Ronnie and raised his glass. He was drunk and slurring his speech. ‘You know what? Thirty years ago I’d have said comrade to you. Now I say buddy. Know what I mean?’
Ronnie raised his glass seconds after the barman put it down. ‘Not exactly, no.’
‘You gay or something?’ the man asked.
‘No, I’m not gay.’
The man put his glass down and windmilled his arms. ‘I don’t have no problem with gays. Not that. No.’
‘Good,’ Ronnie said. ‘I don’t either.’
The man broke into a grin. His teeth were terrible, Ronnie thought. It looked like he had a mouthful of rubble. The man raised his glass and Ronnie clinked it. ‘Cheers.’
George Bush was on the screen now. He was wearing a dark suit with an orange tie, sitting at the back of a school classroom, in front of a small blackboard, and there were pictures stuck to the wall behind them. One depicted a bear with a striped scarf riding a bicycle. A man in a suit was standing over George Bush, whispering into his ear. Then the image changed to wreckage of a plane on the ground.
‘You’re OK,’ the man said to Ronnie. ‘I like you. You’re OK.’ He poured more vodka into his own glass, then held the bottle over Ronnie’s for a moment. He squinted, saw it was still full and set the bottle back down in the ice. ‘You should drink.’ He drained his glass. ‘Today we need to drink.’ He turned back to the screen. ‘This not real. Not possible.’
Ronnie took a sip. The vodka burned his throat. Then, moments later, he tipped the glass back and drained it. The effect was almost instant, burning deep inside him. He poured another for himself and for his new best friend.
They fell silent. Just watching the screen.
After several more vodkas, Ronnie was starting to feel rather drunk. At some point he staggered off his stool, stumbled over to one of the empty booths and fell asleep.
When he woke up, he had a blinding headache and a raging thirst. Then a sudden moment of panic.
Shit, shit, shit.
Then, to his relief, he saw them, still standing where he had left them, by his vacated bar stool.
It was 2 o’clock.
The same people were still in the bar. The same images were still repeating on the screen. He hauled himself back on to the bar stool and nodded at his friend.
‘What about the father?’ the Bond heavy said.
‘Yeah, why they don’t mention him?’ the other heavy said.
‘Father?’ the barman said.
‘All we hear is this Son of Bin Laden. What about the father?’
Mayor Giuliani was now on the screen, talking earnestly. He looked calm. He looked caring. He looked like a man who had things under control.
Ronnie’s new best friend turned to him. ‘You know Sam Colt?’
Ronnie, who was trying to listen to Giuliani, shook his head. ‘No.’
‘The guy invented the revolver, right?’
‘Ah, OK, him.’
‘Know what this man said?’
‘Sam Colt said, Now I’ve made all men equal!’ The Russian grinned, baring his revolting teeth again. ‘Yeah? OK? Understand?’
Ronnie nodded and ordered sparkling mineral water and coffee. He hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, he realized, but he had no appetite.
Giuliani was replaced by stumbling grey ghosts. They looked like the grey ghosts he had seen earlier. A poem from way back at school suddenly came into his head. From one of his favourite writers, Rudyard Kipling. Yeah. He was the Man.
Kipling understood about power, control, empire-building.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs…
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same…
On the screen he saw a fireman weeping. His helmet was covered in grey snow and he was sitting, visor up, cradling his face in his hands.
Ronnie leaned forward and tapped the shoulder of the barman. He turned from the screen. ‘Uh huh?’
‘Do you have rooms here? I need a room.’
His new best friend turned to him. ‘No flights. Right?’
‘Where you from anyway?’
Ronnie hesitated. ‘Canada. Toronto.’
‘Toronto,’ the Russian repeated. ‘Canada. OK. Good.’ He felt silent for a moment, then he said, ‘Cheap room?’
Ronnie realized he could not use any cards – even if they had any credit left on them. He had just under four hundred dollars in his wallet, which would have to tide him over until he could convert some of the other currency he had in his bag – if he could find a buyer who would pay him the right money. And not ask questions.
‘Yes, a cheap room,’ he replied. ‘Cheaper the better.’
‘You’re in the right place. You want SRO. That’s what you want.’
‘Single Room Occupancy. That’s what you want. You pay cash, they no ask you questions. My cousin has SRO house. Ten minutes’ walk. You want I give you the address?’
‘Sounds like a plan,’ Ronnie replied.
The Russian showed him his teeth again. ‘Plan? You have plan? Good plan?’
‘It’s an expression.’
‘Carpe diem?’ The Russian pronounced it slowly, clumsily.
Ronnie grinned, then bought him another drink.