It’s a great line to stop guys from coming on to you in a bar. They ask, So what do you do for a living? They expect to hear, I’m in sales or I’m a paralegal. If I’m wearing my black boots with the stacked heels and maybe some lipstick, they might push me into the lawyer category, or the owner of a little boutique. They never expect to hear the truth. I blow up buildings, I say, and sip my wine. After hearing that, they usually back away a little. Which is good. I don’t like to be crowded.
The crowd that morning was staying far away, lined up all along the twelve-foot chain-link fence encircling the lot, their faces curious and belligerent, the police forming an uneasy barricade between them and me and the building I was going to destroy. A hand-printed banner danced above their heads. You might not think it, but bringing down a building can be a controversial thing. People don’t like change. It makes them worry about what’s headed their way next, and whether it’ll be any worse than what was there before.
Dingy clouds were doing a slow roll along the horizon. Chicago in mid-May could be unpredictable. “How far away does that look?” I asked my foreman.
Ahmed squinted. “I’d say we got a couple hours, maybe three.” His broad face was washed in early morning light.
The guy was a wizard when it came to reading the weather. If he said two, maybe three, we’d be standing in a downpour come four. Two hours was good, three better. “We might just make it then.”
He nodded. “Have you heard from Halim?”
Another worry. “Halim will be here.” Of course he would, but he hadn’t answered any of the six calls I’d placed to him that morning. As decorous as my partner was, he could also be a player. He loved blondes, and Chicago was full of them. But he’d never crossed that line with me. I wouldn’t have stuck around if he had.
A shout. Something sailed through the air and clattered onto the cement near my feet. A beer can. A policeman moved forward and the onlookers jostled.
Ahmed curled his lip in disgust and kicked it with his boot.
“Least it wasn’t a bomb,” I told him.
“Don’t say these things.” Ahmed looked stricken.
Implosions are wrapped tight in superstition: wind the detonation wire clockwise; rap the front doorjamb before entering; wear the same pair of boots from the beginning of a job until its completion, and if a lace breaks, replace it with a borrowed set. Most of all, don’t ever joke about explosives, especially when hundreds of pounds of the stuff lie only fifteen feet away.
My cell phone vibrated. Halim? But no, the caller ID read private caller. The caller had tried earlier, around six-thirty, and I was tempted to flip it open and let off a little steam at some telemarketer no doubt waiting to chirp good morning on the other end. But chances were it would just be a recorded call and it would take ten seconds for me to disconnect. Seconds I couldn’t afford to waste, not with that storm roiling toward us. Fitting the hardhat onto my head, I told Ahmed, “I’m starting the walk-through.”
A troubled look. “Without Halim?”
He didn’t think I could do it. Didn’t matter. I was still the boss, even if it sometimes felt in name only. “Start clearing the site.”
The broad marble steps of the gracious old building seemed to sag beneath my boots. The old girl was ready to come down. She’d been up for a long time and weathered more than her share of storms. She was ready to go.
Shoving aside the heavy wing of fabric draped around the lower floors, I stepped over the threshold into pungent darkness. The interior sprang into view beneath the beam of my Maglite. Hard to believe hundreds of families once lived here, walked these floors. Everything that could have made the place a home had been yanked down and hauled away: walls, ceilings, floors, and window glass. All that remained was bare concrete, rafters, and the skeletal outlines of two staircases. The air hung heavy and blue, dust spiraling lazily down from the open ceiling in ghostly strands like Mardi Gras beads. I spun on one heel, seeing past the empty windows and crumbling columns, hearing the mumbles of long-ago residents, the babies’ cries, and the laughter. The old girl held her breath, waiting. I’m coming, I told her. Hold on.
The clop of boots. Halim emerged from the shadows, his slim frame tidy in navy chinos and a crisp white workshirt. “Sorry I’m late,” he told me. “I got an overseas call from my brother.”
I looked at him with both relief and annoyance. So not a pretty girl he’d met at a bar, but something far, far worse. “How much this time?” I asked him.
He pursed his lips. He wanted to tell me it was none of my business how much money he lent his loser brother, but in point of fact, it was my business. Very much so, ever since we pooled our resources and started Down to Earth three years before.
“Don’t worry.” He glanced around. “We should get started, eh? What with the storm moving in.”
“A thousand? Two thousand?” The business account only had three and change, but the frown on his face told me plainly that it now held nothing. “Halim.” I felt a pinch of fear. “Tell me.”
“A temporary setback,” he said. “We finish this job and all will be fine.”
It was the last time. Tomorrow morning, I’d be meeting with the bank manager to make sure any checks drawn on our business account in the future required both our signatures. But there was nothing I could do about it now. “I’ll take the eastern half.”
No railing along the staircase, the bottom riser chewed to rubble to discourage trespassers, the support walls smashed to pieces. Testing my weight with each step, I climbed to the twenty-sixth floor, winding past the narrow Chicago streets, to the furled tops of the trees, until finally the sleepy skyline spread before me. A month ago, I would have been gasping. Today, I made it in one long trek, with only my thigh muscles protesting the effort.
Streamers of sunlight spooled through the empty windows. Amid the drab grays and browns were daubs of neon yellow paint marking the load-bearing columns, and dense cobwebs of yellow, pink, and orange tubing. Colorful and deadly. I traced the lines up to the crevices we’d chipped into the columns and then packed with dynamite. The connections looked good. Untouched.
Halim walked toward me from the other direction, and we exchanged places silently, our worlds shrunk to fluorescent strands, electrical tape, and metal clips. We descended two floors to the next dynamited level.
The buzz of a jet overhead, the shrill blast of a policeman’s whistle below. The protestors were growing more belligerent. Great. As if we didn’t have enough to deal with, outracing the storm. Shouts sailed up.
Again, Halim and I crisscrossed paths; again, we retraced each other’s steps.
Outside, a Bobcat started with a rumble.
Halim waited on the ground floor. “We’re behind schedule.”
And whose fault was that? I glanced at my phone and saw I’d missed another call from private caller. We’d used up one of Ahmed’s hours.
“You finish here,” Halim told me, “and I’ll check the basement level.” He descended the crumbling stairs.
Stepping over a latticework of detonation cord, I ran my flashlight beam over the connections. A water leak had sprung up from somewhere—a pipe only recently turned off—and a shallow pool had collected in one corner, scummy with dust.
The Bobcat’s roar stopped. In the sudden silence, I heard the slow plink of water splashing metal, and something else.
The noise didn’t repeat itself. Rats usually flee buildings about to be demolished, driven by some fierce primordial instinct that tells them D-day is at hand, but maybe one had just gotten the message. I turned, sweeping my flashlight beam across the uneven floor.
A crumpled Styrofoam cup, boot prints stamped in the dust, a balled-up lump of rust-colored cotton splotched with paint. Light sparkled across a smooth surface. Glass. I frowned. All the glass had already been removed.
My walkie-talkie buzzed.
“Ready?” Halim’s voice.
I depressed the Talk button. “Just about.” I held up my flashlight, squinting into the shadows.
An empty bottle of Budweiser glinted back from the gloom beside a wall brace. Dust-free, it couldn’t have been there long. How had we missed the bottle last night? The broken brick lying beside it must have been the source of the noise I’d heard.
Footsteps echoed. Halim strode toward me. “Showtime.”
The crew gathered as Halim issued final instructions. There was confidence in his every gesture; his stance was easy yet authoritative. “Countdown in fifteen minutes.” He broke up the group with a clap of his hands.
A plastic bag skittered across the pavement. A uniformed police officer stood beside a small makeshift enclosure composed of sandbags. He nodded. “All yours.”
I dialed the prearranged number. “Stop the El,” I told the operator.
“I’ll tell them,” she answered.
Overhead, a police helicopter swept by, searching rooftops for hidden onlookers. Television crews clustered a safe distance away. A covey of birches stood on the northwest corner, swaddled in geotextile fabric and shivering in the gusting wind. The dust and debris could be carried for miles; all of Chicago could be affected. “Think we should hold off?” I asked Halim, uneasy.
“Just run the monitor afterward and make sure to download the readings.”
It had been my idea, a way to issue a preemptive strike against possible lawsuits. Running the air-sampling monitor wouldn’t stop the dust from spreading, but I didn’t argue. I was as eager as Halim to finish the job.
He picked up the blasting machine, a steel box with two buttons connected to the lead line, and held it out. Did he want me to hold it for him? He smiled, seeing my confusion. “This one’s yours,” he said. “You’ve earned it.”
I’d never initiated the blast. Never. Halim was the expert; I was the trainee. But there it was, the small box that signaled I had finally broken through the final barrier. Automatically, I folded my fingers around the machine and held it tight. Halim couldn’t pry it away from me now, even if he wanted to.
He held up his walkie-talkie. “All clear.”
A round of “Clear’s” sounded from the crew bosses.