The Burning Wire Excerpt

The driver eased the M70 bus through traffic toward the stop on 57th Street near where Tenth Avenue blended into Amsterdam. He was in a pretty good mood. The new bus was a kneeling model, which lowered to the sidewalk to make stepping aboard easier, and featured a handicapped ramp, great steering and, most important, a rump-friendly driver’s seat.

Lord knew he needed that, spending eight hours a day in it.

Today was beautiful, clear and cool. April. One of his favorite months. It was about 11:30 a.m. and the bus was crowded as people were heading east for lunch dates or errands on their hour off. Traffic was moving slowly as he nosed the huge vehicle closer to the stop, where four or five people waited beside a lamppost covered with flyers.

He was approaching the bus stop and he happened to look past the people waiting to get on board, his eyes taking in the old, brown building behind the stop. An early 20th century building, it had several gridded windows but was always dark inside; he’d never seen anybody going in or out. A spooky place, like a prison. On the front was a flaking sign in white paint on a blue background.

Algonquin Consolidated Power Company
Substation MH-10
Private Property
Danger. High Voltage. Trespass Prohibited.

He rarely paid attention to the place but today something had caught his eye, something, he believed, out of the ordinary. Dangling from the window, about ten feet off the ground, was a wire, about a half-inch in diameter. It was covered with dark insulation up to the end. There, the plastic or rubber was stripped away, revealing silverish metal strands; it was bolted to a fitting of some kind, a flat piece of brass. Damn big hunk of wire, the driver thought.

And just hanging out the window. Was that safe?

He now braked the bus to a complete stop and hit the door release. The kneeling mechanism engaged and the big vehicle dipped. The metal lower step was now just inches from the sidewalk. The driver turned his broad, ruddy face toward the door, which eased open with a satisfying hydraulic hiss. The folks began to climb on board. “Morning,” the driver said cheerfully.

A woman in her eighties, clutching an old shabby Henri Bendel shopping bag, nodded back and, using a cane, staggered to the rear, ignoring the empty seats in the front reserved for the elderly and disabled.

How could you not just love New Yorkers?

Then sudden motion in the rearview mirror. Flashing yellow lights. A truck was speeding up behind him. Algonquin Consolidated. Three workers stepped outside and stood in a close group, talking among themselves. They held boxes of tools and thick gloves and jackets. They didn’t seem happy as they walked slowly toward the substation, staring at it, heads close together as they debated something. One of those heads was shaking ominously.

Then the driver turned to the last passenger about to board, a young Latino, clutching his Metrocard and pausing outside the bus. He too was gazing at the substation. Frowning. The driver noticed his head was raised, as if he was sniffing the air.

An acrid scent. Yes, something was burning. The smell reminded him of the time that an electric motor in the wife’s washing machine had shorted out and the insulation burned. Nauseating. A wisp of smoke was coming from the doorway of the substation.

So that’s what the Algonquin people were doing here.

That’d be a mess. The driver wondered if it would mean a power outage and the stoplights would go out. That’d be it for him. The cross-town trip, normally twenty minutes, would be hours. Well, in any event, he’d better clear the area for the Fire Department. He gestured the passenger on board. “Hey, mister, I gotta go. Come on. Get on—”

As the passenger, still frowning at the smell, turned around and stepped onto the bus, the driver heard what sounded like pops coming from inside the substation. Sharp, almost like gunshots. Then a flash of light, light like a dozen suns, filled the entire sidewalk between the bus and the cable dangling from the window.

The Latino passenger disappeared into a cloud of flame.

The driver’s vision collapsed to gray afterimages. The sound was like a ripping crackle and shotgun blast at the same time, stunning his ears. Though belted into his seat, his upper body was slammed backward against the side window.

Through numb ears, he heard the echoes of his passengers’ screams.

Through half-blinded eyes, he saw fire.

As he began to pass out, the driver wondered if he himself might very well be the source of the fire.

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