Foolproof

Barbara D'Amato, Jeanne M. Dams, Mark Richard Zubro

Forge Books

CHAPTER 1

One decaf mochacchino with a sprinkle of cinnamon," Daniel said. Brenda said, "That’s pitiful. The only decent coffee is fully leaded espresso with just a dash of caramel. Total bliss. Trust me."

"I’m having decaf. Sorry."

"Decaf!" Brenda rolled her eyes. "You might as well open your mouth and let the moon shine in."

"Yeah, well."

Brenda shrugged and shook her head in mock despair. She and Daniel played this game all the time. They met here for coffee nearly every morning before going to work. He ordered something different each time, but never her caramel espresso.

Brenda turned toward the attractive young man behind the counter and said, "And we’ll get six large regulars for all the boring-coffee people in our office."

"It’ll be a minute," said the man. "Name?"

"Grant," said Brenda, at the same moment Daniel said, "Henderson." They both giggled, as did the counterman.

Daniel eyed the young man with interest. He was new on the job and a little slow getting the orders up, but very hot-looking, with short blond hair and well-muscled shoulders in his mocha brown Brew-Ha-Ha shirt. Daniel raised his eyebrows when he caught Brenda also ogling the young man. Today it looked like Brenda had won, as the young man gave her a smile of enormous sweetness. Brenda, however, was really out of the running. Her romance with Jeremy Caringella, one of the found ers of their young Internet security company, was on the verge of getting very serious indeed. Daniel, who lived alone, wasn’t much into casual pickups, either. It was just fun.

Before Brenda and Daniel could take the byplay much further, their coffee was ready, nestled in two elegant tan fiberboard holder-trays. Blond-and-Gorgeous had pushed the trays along the counter to the cashier, who was even now ringing up the order.

The Brew-Ha-Ha’s outdoor banner read, The Best Coffee on this Block. The boast was in fact not modest, because this was coffee row, with five shops, two on this side of Duane Street and three on the other. Two were major brands. One of the others billed itself as The Best Coffee in New York, and another as, World’s Best.

It was Daniel’s turn to pay. Then he and Brenda stepped outside.

Although it wasn’t even nine a.m., the mid-September sun was warm. Brenda uttered a sigh of bliss and held her face up to the yellow light. She leaned back against the building and took a sip of her espresso.

Daniel said, "Come on, let’s go."

"I grew up in New Hampshire, Danny. We had long winters. We learned to grab all the sun we could get."

"Sure. But we’ve got the boss’s coffee here."

"It’s gonna be cold for a long time, real soon."

"And so’s the boss’s coffee."

Daniel and Brenda were not nearly as subservient to the boss as Daniel implied. Both were considered top guns in CGI, a Manhattan firm specializing in corporate computer security, with large offices in the north tower of the World Trade Center. They were the youngest specialists in the office, but possibly the best.

Brenda took another sip out of her cardboard cup. "I need my caffeine before I can go anywhere."

"I’ve gotta meet with Timothy on the firewall program. It’s buggy."

"A couple more minutes won’t matter. Technically, nobody has to get to work before nine."

"Oh, for heaven’s sake, Brenda. They’ve all been there since seven."

"Okay, okay!" She shoved her coffee back into the tray Daniel held, but his grip had relaxed and she nearly tipped the whole thing on him. "Gee, sorry," she said.

"No, my fault. I wasn’t looking. I was watching that plane. Look, isn’t it awfully low?"

"Oh, my god!"

Daniel immediately phoned the boss, Eric, in their offices in the north tower but reached his assistant, Melanie. They talked maybe two minutes before Eric came on the line and said the elevators weren’t working, so they couldn’t get down. "But we seem okay here."

"The building’s supposed to be fireproof," Daniel said.

"Yeah. The fire department’s on the way."

"I hear them already."

"Well . . . if the fire’s confined to a couple of lower floors . . ." Eric said he wanted to call his wife to let her know he was okay. Then he’d ring Daniel back. Brenda had tried to phone Jeremy, who had probably been at the office for an hour or two already, but he didn’t answer.

Daniel and Brenda ran to the World Trade Center, where WTC security people were gathering on the sidewalk. She and Daniel knew several of them.

"Are all the elevators really dead?" Daniel asked one of the guards from their building.

"Yep. Always are, in a fire."

"But . . . our friends are in there, and besides, we need to evacuate documents."

"You and everybody else," said the guard. His voice wasn’t unkind, just weary.

By now firefighters were carrying packs into the building. "How come they get elevators?" Daniel asked.

"They don’t. They’re walking up the stairwells."

"Fifty floors?"

Brenda started to say, "Well, if they can—" but then she stepped back and pulled Daniel back too. Seeing the firemen carrying heavy loads on their backs, she and Daniel realized that blocking the path was worse than stupid. The two of them moved even farther away, craning their necks, trying to see their floor, the seventy-sixth. With a building that tall, above a certain point there was no way of telling which floor was which. But Eric was right that the fire and rolling smoke were coming from well below their floor. Thank god.

By then it was 9:03.

There was a growing roar, a shriek from the crowd. A plane was approaching from the west. A jumbo jet. Far too low. Déjàvu, but it couldn’t really be happening a second time. The crash into the north tower had been a hideous accident, hadn’t it?

The plane kept coming and coming, not swerving—unbelievably, not swerving to avoid the huge building in its path.

It lumbered in slow motion, but of course not really slow motion at all. And kept coming. And hit the south tower with such force that flames and fuel and pieces flew right through the huge structure and out the other side.

Eric phoned. "Did that noise . . . was that another plane?"

"Yes."

"And it hit the south tower?"

"Yeah, Eric, it did."

"I called home." His wife wasn’t there. He’d left a message. They couldn’t get down the stairs, but they were going to wait for the fire to burn itself out or be put out by firefighters.

"Where’s Jeremy?" Brenda shouted over the bedlam.

"Right here."

Jeremy picked up Eric’s phone as Daniel handed his to Brenda.

"Brenda! What do you see down there?"

She tried to keep the fear out of her voice. "The firemen are on their way up, love. Are you all right?"

"It’s getting hot. The smoke is getting thick. We may try to go up a floor."

"Yes, do that!"

"I’ve got to give Eric back his phone now. He needs to call home."

"Where’s your phone?"

"I don’t know. We can’t see much."

"All right." She paused. "I love you," she whispered.

"Me, too. I mean . . . Oh. Here’s Eric. Bye."

Eric came back on.

Now Brenda and Daniel saw bodies falling from the north tower. Eric would not be able to see them, thank god. He was above the fire, and the smoke would cut off his view. Their offices were so high up that when Daniel and Brenda had looked out their windows, people walking on the streets had just looked like dots. But Eric and Jeremy might be able to see if people jumped from the south tower. They might even see the jumpers on the tele vision news. Brenda hoped that nobody up there was watching tele vi sion. Maybe the reporters had not picked up on the catastrophe yet, she thought.

Fat chance.

"Is there any fire on our floor?" Daniel asked Eric.

"No. Lots of smoke, though. I guess if it gets worse we can go to the roof. He li copters could pick us up."

"That’s right."

"We’re under attack, aren’t we?" Eric said flatly. "Two planes is no accident."

"I guess so. Did you see the other plane?" Daniel knew their offices faced the side of the south tower away from where the plane hit.

"No, but we see the flames coming out."

"Dan, from out there, how bad does the fire look?" Eric asked. His voice was steady, but like a steel wire, thin and tight.

"Bad on three floors," Daniel said. "No fire above that."

Brenda trembled. Daniel had tears in his eyes. After a pause, Eric said, "I’ve got to call my wife again."

"Sure," Daniel said.

Brenda and Daniel didn’t want to watch and yet couldn’t look away. Emergency personnel and fire trucks, fire chiefs’ cars, pumpers—every kind of fire vehicle either one of them had ever seen—pushed into the streets and the plaza. Pumpers couldn’t put water higher than a few floors. Brenda thought the ladders reached only as high as the fifth floor; none of the firefighters were even trying to deploy them. Hopeless, obviously.

Daniel and Brenda were forced back a block by the trucks and hoses, but stayed within sight of the buildings. Media vans pulled up but couldn’t get close because of the clots of fire equipment. Surely there were sprinkler systems that would put out the fire. And of course it wouldn’t spread up the stairs. There was nothing combustible, was there? Their friends would be all right if they just stayed put.

9:15 . . . 9:30. Sirens filled the air. Daniel and Brenda stood with their arms around each other’s waists, [clutching so hard it would have hurt if they’d been aware of anything but what was happening a block away.] Leaving would feel like abandoning their friends. Staying made them feel totally helpless. They stayed.

Their cell phones didn’t ring. Human forms now fell from both buildings. More emergency vans arrived, and Daniel and Brenda moved back another half block. They took up a position on Duane Street, which had a view of the World Trade Center.

9:59.

It was a hallucination. It was not believable. What made the building look so—

It had to be an illusion that the south tower was shrinking. Then Daniel said, "Oh, god, no!" and she knew it was no illusion. Slowly, and then in an acceleration of smoke, dust, and sound, the south tower collapsed. Within seconds, a steel-gray killer cloud rolled toward them.

Daniel grabbed Brenda by the hand and they ran. Down two blocks. Then two blocks east. Around an old graveyard and past a church. Finally, coughing and half blind from dust, they sagged down on the side of the church that was in the lee of the dust storm. Tears coursed down their cheeks, leaving trails in the grime. Neither of them noticed.

The day was suddenly dirty brown, but they saw, through the dense particulate haze, huge white snowflakes spinning and sliding lazily in the fog.

"What is that white stuff?" Daniel said.

"I don’t know . . . Yes, I do. It’s paper. Thousands of sheets of paper."

Daniel’s cell phone rang. He held the earpiece at right angles to his head, so that Brenda, placing her head against his, could hear too.

"Dan!" Eric’s voice was shrill. "Dan! Can you see what’s going on?"

Daniel glanced sideways at Brenda, then said, "Uh, sort of." There was no way Eric or the others at the top of the north tower could know how thick the smoke and dust were at ground level.

"Did it really . . . uh . . . Dan, did it really fall?"

"Yeah, Eric." He pulled the phone back. They both knew what Eric would ask. Brenda shook her head just slightly, and Dan, to be certain, covered the mouthpiece and whispered, "Play it down?"

Brenda nodded.

"Dan! Are you there?"

"I’m here, Eric."

"Does this mean our tower will fall, too?"

"No. I don’t think so. The south tower was hit later and fell very soon. You must have been hit by a smaller plane." It hadn’t really looked that way, but Daniel wanted to believe it.

"Really?"

"But if you can get down, you should."

"We can’t get down! All the stairwells are full of smoke. We’ve closed all the doors to try to keep the smoke out."

"Then you’ve done the right things."

"Well," Eric said very softly, "I’m going to try my wife again. She’s not in her office and she’s not at home, and . . . now that I think of it, I guess I’ll call my daughter. She’s in kindergarten. Usually, they don’t put through calls from home. But maybe in this case, do you think they would?"

"I’m sure of it, Eric."

Eric in his haste hung up without saying good-bye.

"Is Jeremy there?" Brenda asked, trying not to sob.

"No, Eric hung up."

Brenda didn’t say anything. "We should get out of here," Daniel said.

"I don’t think I can run anymore. Even sitting still, I’m out of breath." She coughed.

And they didn’t really want to get farther away. They didn’t know what was happening to Manhattan, didn’t know whether it was any safer anywhere else. Plus leaving their friends was too hard. So they were waiting.

A few minutes later—or an eternity—at 10:28, there was a roar that went on and on and on, and the sky turned black.

Excerpted from Fool Proof by Barbara D'Amato, Jeanne M. Dams, and Mark Zubro.
Copyright 2009 by Barbara D'Amato, Jeanne M. Dams, and Mark Zubro.
Published in December 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.