New York City
Seventy-eight degrees and a light breeze out of the south-west at eighteen miles an hour.
That’s what her weather app predicted that morning over coffee. And as usual, total bullshit.
So now she was standing on a ledge, forty-two stories above the traffic below, the wind howling like a wounded banshee, with only five minutes left to complete her mission. Eighteen miles an hour, my ass.
She looked down at her feet. She was wearing her red Converses. Her favorite shoes. They weren’t made for scaling skyscrapers, but they looked cool. She felt solid in them, connected, invincible. She looked across at the side of the building — mostly industrial glass panels reflecting a sky shot with shattered cloud.
The buildings designer, an architect out of Chicago, set small triangular platforms between each column of glass, each one about four feet apart and extending out into space about two feet. Like stepping stones across the front of the building, four hundred feet above the ground below.
There were no handholds of any kind, just industrial concrete panels and coated glass.
Her name was Ayn; she was twenty-one. She had leapt from a smaller building’s rooftop to the first ledge — the same way she had jumped a year ago when she became an Internet sensation. The video of her walk along the side of the building with no safety harness, attracted millions of views on YouTube. And one weird job offer.
One hundred thousand dollars.
Fifty thousand upfront.
Her assignment was to walk along the narrow ledge to the third last window on the west side, gently adhere a small black box on the glass near the bottom edge, and walk back.
Ten minutes of work and no more student debt with enough left over for at least six months travelling Europe.
Some guy who looked like her High School gym teacher met her at Yarrow’s on Tenth Street a week ago. He had emailed her, told her he was a big fan of her work and had a high paying job opportunity he wanted to talk to her about.
She figured her video might generate a lot of hits and could make her some money. She didn’t know how much, didn’t know how the Internet worked when it came to paying for views, but she heard about a lady in the UK who made a million dollars opening packages of kids toys on camera. That was crazy. Surely people would pay to see her do an insane walk along a building ledge.
She took in the scene below: cabs crowding 32nd Street, people rushing along the sidewalk. No one ever looks up. They’ve typically got their heads down, their eyes glued to tiny video screens. Or they’re sipping their Starbucks while negotiating the sidewalk traffic. To Ayn, they didn’t look like ants; the activity below seemed more machine like and programmed and distant; humans who believed they had choices but instead just followed pre-programmed instructions. But she was up here, all alone, above the matrix, smiling in spite of the wind.
Yeah, she was happy. Heights meant nothing to her. She was always that way. It was like a tiny chunk of geography somewhere in her brain, that specific area that made most people apprehensive and skittish about standing near a drop off or staring out a jet window at the clouds rolling by, had been surgically removed. She figured that out at a young age, climbing trees far higher than her friends, dangling from branches, laughing at them and their scaredy-cat faces.
She knew she could potentially be a very unattractive corpse in a matter of seconds, knew a chance wind could whip by, peeling her off the side of the building, toss her like a leaf into a canyon of high rises. She understood the consequences — it just didn’t effect her like other people. Her knees didn’t shake, her heart didn’t race, her blood didn’t throb in her ears.
She pulled her smartphone out of her jean’s pocket and slid the screen on. 2:24 pm. She was early. The guy at Yarrow’s who gave her an envelope stuffed with used hundred dollar bills, said 2:45. Exactly. Place the unit at the bottom corner of the window. There was an adhesive back. Remove the plastic sheet and press the box in place. Simple as a pimple.
The unit he gave her was the size of a hardcover book, flat black plastic, no markings of any kind. As harmless looking as a CD player or a video game processor. She had tucked the box under her jacket, zipped up the front. The waist band was tight and held the unit securely, if not fashionably.
She knew the guy with the classic buzz cut and the fifty G’s had expected her to ask what the black box was for. He had a story ready; she could tell by how he sat, sipping his scotch and water, how he moved his hands. It was probably a great story, rehearsed, well-thought out. The problem was, she didn’t care. More than that, she enjoyed seeing him starting to squirm, waiting for the question that never came. And never would.
She never asked. She felt it gave her power over him. He was used to giving orders and justifying them for others. She didn’t care.
She had to cover about forty feet of ledge and deliver a package. She wanted to perform the task with precision so there would be no question about getting the second installment. Then she would buy a ticket to Heathrow and get out of town.
She stepped across the void, four feet of nothing more than atmosphere, and placed her right foot on the next block.
The last time she did this, she walked purposefully and steadily, like a walk down any ordinary street. But she was ahead of schedule this time, so she paused at each triangle, regaining her balance each time, which created a tension in her body she hadn’t experienced before.
Marching along the spaced ledging had been natural and easy. But not now. She tottered slightly on the last outcropping, which caused a tiny shiver of anxiety to creep up her spine. Something about falling backwards bothered her more than she could explain. It made no sense. Falling was falling.
Ayn stared across the space at her destination, eight more stepping stones away. The space seemed to expand right in front of her eyes, the gaps between the ledges pushing out and lengthening.
How had she done this before? Beginners luck? In countless other parallel universes she might have plummeted to the sidewalks below. She had that sense now. The walk across the ledge had been an act of pure, unrepeatable luck.
The gust of wind caught her jacket sleeve and she felt like she had been pushed, like the hand of God had given her a nudge. She turned clumsily and placed one hand against the rough stone of the building. She hadn’t done this before, hadn’t touched any surfaces with her hands. It was just a stroll, her head held high.
She felt the panic grip her and it was exactly like it sounded, like being squeezed by a giant hand, the air going out of your lungs. She turned away from the edge, both feet touching, her palms on the stone. There was nothing to grip, nothing to wrap her fingers around. Another gust could spin her around and there was nothing she could do to stop it. She’d be a feather in a storm.
She closed her eyes and imagined Paris in the springtime. The Swiss Alps. Venice. That’s why she was doing this, after all. And there was the crushing sixty thousand in debt she incurred for a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology. Almost useless unless she wanted to spend the rest of her life as a civil servant. Which she didn’t.
She straightened, felt the wind buffet her. This was going to be all about her versus the elements. And nothing dramatic; not a bitter snowstorm or a category five hurricane. Just a handful of air molecules, spinning around the planes of the building, swirling, creating miniature vortexes.
Time was running out. She lowered her hands and inhaled. Maybe for the last time. People tumbling to their death were known to scream and cry, few of them were worried about where their next breath was coming from.
She stepped forward across the void to the next stone and she was surprised to see her foot land short, the heel hanging over the edge. She wobbled, hesitated. Oh no, she thought. Never hesitate. Her father had told her that once, drunk at the kitchen table, his oily hands wrapped around the neck of a beer bottle. Never hesitate. Stupid advice from a stupid man. But it had stuck with her. She jerked forward. A crude response considering she was tottering over an overhang, her landing spot no bigger than an LP cover. Don’t fall back. But now she was leaning forward, beyond the point of return. She had to leap, but she knew it was useless. She would never get her foot up high enough. Her body fell forward and she looked down at the dizzying view beneath her. A football stadium worth of heartless glass.
She leaned out with both hands and hit the next section of ledge with her chest and elbows, blasting the air out of her lungs. She felt her legs behind her drop into space, kicking the air. Her hands scraped across the surface of the ledge, and she felt her body slip across the sharp edge of the stone, sliding down and over. Then she stopped, suspended on one elbow, her head and shoulders almost at the surface of the ledge, fighting to keep her center of gravity on her side of the small plateau.
She clung to the dusty surface, willing herself up, but with no foothold to power her over. She didn’t think she had the strength to hang on long but then she felt herself slip an inch, the collective pigeon shit and city dust acting like a lubricant. Her hand dug into the surface but there was no point. She felt herself sliding back until her elbow dropped over the edge and she did the only thing she could: she gripped the edge of the ledge with the finger of both hands, hanging helplessly, holding on with everything she had.
Feeling the empty air in front of her sent a wave of fear and dread through her body. This was it. This was the end. She wasn’t a weight lifter; never visited a gym in her life. There was no way she was getting back up on the ledge and she guessed that at most she could hang there for minute, if that. She didn’t know. She had never timed herself.
How unprepared she was! What had she brought this morning besides the clothes on her back? Her keys were in her jacket pocket. This wasn’t the kind of day to bring a purse, which would only weigh her down.
She stared up at the ledge. Forty-two stories. About four hundred feet. Time to the pavement: twenty-eight seconds. She had worked this out yesterday. She was never superstitious and often curious. The formula was F= a bunch of gobbledygook.
She had half a minute to live.
Might as well do something with the time.She flexed both arm muscles and felt her head rise almost to the level of the ledge. But not quite. Which made any kind of recovery seem impossible.