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[This article is reprinted from City Journal.]
He began every day with a naked woman. FemArt.com had a new one each week. He didn’t subscribe to the site. The free 30-second sample video was enough. Explicit, even exploratory, without being overtly sexual or pornographic. Just a nude girl or sometimes two posing or laughing or running on a beach or through the grass or by a lake or near a railroad track. Not the likeliest scenarios, admittedly—he sometimes pitied the women for the harsh stones or gritty sand against their bare flesh—but their images beguiled his imagination and brought him to life.
Then there was e-mail. Notes from the Fever Swamp. Fears; conspiracies; dire predictions. I hear my upstairs neighbors whispering at night. . . . The president is one of them. . . . It’s all foretold in Revelation. . . . They have the materials they need for the Times Square attack. . . .
Sometimes there was a personal threat as well. There was one today, in fact. We’re getting closer, Stein. You can count your days on a single hand. A single finger maybe. . . .
During his life—that’s how he thought about it: back in the old days, during his life—he had had a reputation as a hard case, a tough guy. Plenty of journalistic adventures to his credit. Government corruption exposed. Some mobster stuff. A couple of war zones. Enough danger and legal trouble and nights on the road to cost him a wife at least, a poor darling from his native suburbs who’d signed on for something a little more home-and-garden. He was no stranger to the wickedness of the world, in other words. Back in the old days, during his life.
Now though, here, alone, each time he opened an e-mail threat, his stomach did that Broken Elevator thing, that sudden, souring plunge. No point in calling the police any more. They were weary of him. Skeptical. But he—Stein—had every reason to take this stuff seriously, and he did.
He put most of the e-mails in a file labeled LUNACY. One or two—the one about the Times Square attack, for instance; plus the threat on his life—went into a smaller file labeled LEGIT.
Then he made coffee.
He drank it black, out of a mug decorated with the newspaper’s logo. Even he found that sort of pitiful. He carried the mug around the apartment, sipping from it and muttering to himself—muttering, oftentimes, phrases from his final argument with Connor, the paper’s editor in chief. Things he’d said, things he wished he’d said.
“Maybe the readers are alienated by tiptoeing, candy-assed lies, you ever think of that? . . . It isn’t about me. . . . How is the simple truth self-dramatizing? . . . Taking it personally? What does that mean? Because I’m a Jew? Is that what you’re saying? Come out and say it, you little . . .”
He hardly knew he was doing it until suddenly he’d realize. He found that sort of pitiful too.
This morning, his coffee half-done, he stopped by the window beside his desk. Lifted the slats on the shutter. Peeked out at the sidewalk three stories below: the sidewalk and the brownstones and the pale green sycamores of West 69th Street near the park. Suits and skirts on their way to work. Artists and neighborhood ladies walking their dogs. No one suspicious. No one standing strangely still, watching his window. As there sometimes was. Or as he sometimes thought there was.
He closed the slats. He never opened the shutters. Never.
Time to get to work. Time to update his blog, distilling yesterday’s research—phone calls and texts to and from a growing network of sources, websites studied through the long night just past. But before he could begin, there was a strain of music, the heavenly harp-stroke of a cartoon angel. An instant message. Rose2475.
Stein moved eagerly toward the sound. Quickly sat at his desk, his hand going to the computer mouse, his head jutting toward the monitor.
morning jerry. u there? He had made himself invisible online. She couldn’t see him. if u dont answer 1 day I’ll stop trying. Then: no I won’t. Then: really. ru there?
Im here, he typed, after a moment’s hesitation. sorry. another threat today. Hav 2 b cautious.
He despised himself the moment he sent it. Trying to make himself sound dangerous and romantic. Like a posing teen. Hoping to impress her. What a knucklehead he was. What a sucker. How did he even know she was who she pretended to be? How did he even know she was a she? Probably some old man with a fetish or some ten-year-old prankster punking him for laughs. Or one of the evildoers. An evildoer cat’s-paw, toying with him. Maybe so.
I worry about u, she wrote back, and, for all his self-reproaches, he found it crazy-gratifying: she worried about him. ur safety. ur health. ur mind even!!! y not take a break, get away, come visit me (she sed batting her lashes) meet me.
She always refused to send him photographs—and he couldn’t find any online. She said he had to come and see her for himself. She promised she wasn’t hideous. He wouldn’t look upon her and turn to stone, she said. He liked her teasing him like that, beckoning him. Little did she know he sometimes imagined her with the face and body of one of the naked women on FemArt.com. Or maybe she did know. If she was a man—an assassin smirking at the keyboard—she would know precisely the sorts of things she had maneuvered him into thinking.
Whoever she really was, he had met her first in a chat room where he was following up a tip about a cell upstate. She was a librarian in Oneida, she said. She was looking for sources of local history. That conjured in him images of a walk down tree-lined lanes, holding hands with a prim girl who would be beautiful if you would just take off those glasses, Miss Jones. . . . A little too sweet a dream. A little too easy. And all to the music of that angel chord of hers.
u could just walk out the door and hop on the thruway, she wrote. There’s zero to keep u ther. u could come today.
You can count your days on a single hand, he thought. A single finger maybe. . . .
But she was right: he could go. He could see her for himself. Stuff a change of clothes into a traveling bag. Be there by afternoon.
how ru? he wrote back. Wuz new in oneida?
She told him. same old. Getting ready for the library’s summer programs. Reading books to the children at story time, her favorite part of the day. My ordinary life.
Stein touched the monitor with his fingertips.
After Rose2475 signed off, he settled down to work.
His computer screen was divided into windows. His blog, The Threat Level, was at the center. His new documents and interviews were in tabbed folders to the upper right, his saved research in folders to the left. Live views from various webcams around the city were arrayed along the bottom: shifting angles on Times Square, Central Park, Ground Zero, the Manhattan skyline. Up top, there were shots from the security camera outside his brownstone and from the camera he’d mounted above his own apartment door to take in the welcome mat, the landing, and the top of the stairs.
There were divisions within the Threat Level page as well. Links to other blogs. Relevant news stories from other sources. His own most recent posting. And—always—the column that had gotten him fired: “Their God Is Not God.” He never took that down. He left the headline boldly visible—and the lede as well: “If God is real, some descriptions of him will necessarily be more accurate than others.” Then a link to the body of the text. It made him feel good—made him feel unbowed and defiant—to keep it posted like that. He couldn’t be silenced, etc. Connor and his compliant city room could all go to hell, etc. But, of course, he knew how little it meant in fact. Even as it swirled down the drain with the rest of the lying old media, the newspaper maintained a circulation of half a million. His blog? It had maybe 300 subscribers, got maybe a thousand hits on a good day. A voice in the blogosphere wilderness. A voice crying: Their God is not God.
Never mind. Business time. He went at the keyboard. Intel pointing to an imminent and catastrophic attack on Times Square seemed increasingly credible. The mosque the city was planning to build near Ground Zero was widely viewed as a major victory among the terrorist cells and had inspired them to plan more missions. Federal denials of increasing cell-phone and Internet chatter were the result of bureaucratic stupidity and politically correct appeasement. Don’t be offensive. Don’t get them angry. We don’t want to insult anyone’s religion. The same logic that had lost Stein his job.
“Why the hell not, Connor?” he muttered. Law enforcement sources say their hands have been increasingly tied, he wrote. “You think slapping God’s name on something makes it sacred?” The cells have used so-called community liaisons to infiltrate antiterrorist agencies at the highest level. “I could slap God’s name on a butcher knife and cut your stupid throat, you pompous, cowardly . . .”
Once he got going like this, the prose flowed, febrile and fluid. On and on without paragraphs or punctuation, just the occasional ellipsis like a gasp for air. Even he—some part of him—watched the words unwind and wondered if he was raving now, if he was mad. But the sources were reliable, deep, solid. He was still a good reporter. He leaned into it and went on and on.
There was—suddenly it seemed—a knock at the door. He nearly jumped out of his own skin. That wasn’t just a turn of phrase either. He really felt his inner man skyrocket while his body froze in place.
“Who is it?” he shouted, turning in his chair only slowly.
“Morton’s. Your sandwich,” a voice came back.
He glanced at the clock on the bottom of his screen. Noon already. He checked the view of the camera above his door. It was the guy—one of the usual delivery guys. No one else, as far as he could see.
He felt the stiffness in his body as he stood. He went—not to the door—but to the shuttered window on the opposite wall. “You didn’t buzz,” he shouted over his shoulder. “How’d you get in the building?”
“Old lady was coming in at the same time, let me in.”
Stein peeked out through the shutter slats. There. On the sidewalk. A man—an olive-skinned man in jeans and a T-shirt—just now turning away. Wasn’t he? Just now walking away? Or had he simply been strolling past?
Stein closed the slats. Swallowed hard. Went to the door. He didn’t use the peephole. They could just blow you away through the peephole. He opened the door only enough to let the delivery guy pass the paper bag through to him. He passed back a cash tip.
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