Mystery and Crime Fiction posted October 10, 2013


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A bomber, the FBI, and a deadline.

A DEADLY GAME

by Tessa Kay

This Sentence Starts The Story Contest Winner 
 
 
We had to make the deadline. Rumpelstiltskin – why hadn’t the bomber chosen a more pronounceable name? – was no joker.
      
We learned this the hard way.
 
I glanced at the clock on the wall as if I could make it slow down by sheer willpower. Meg looked up. “We are gonna get him this time, Pete,” she said, her voice full of an assuredness I had a hard time echoing.
 
Twice the bomber played with us and twice he won.
 
Meg gave me a no-doubt-at-all nod, probably to convince me as much as herself, and continued pounding her keyboard. Her auburn fringe hung over her eyes like the bead curtains at Fu Chin’s restaurant. I often wondered how she managed to see anything, but nothing escaped her. They say women are more emotional than men. Whoever ‘they’ are, they don’t know Meg. In this beige-walls-no-pictures-past-their-prime-desks-smell-of-old-carpet office on the fifth floor of FBI Headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, I was the one with the sweaty palms and chewed up pencils. The only sign of stress Meg ever displayed, if you could even call it that, was when she fingered her dolphin-shaped necklace.
      
She did it now.
 
I bounced a curled knuckle against my mouth and leaned in toward the monitor. For the, I don’t know, five hundredth time, I read through Rumpelstiltskin’s message.
      
Another glance at the clock.
      
11:09 am.
      
The message had arrived in my inbox at 10:45 am.             
      
Coffee-break time.
      
Did he know that?
     
I only saw his message at 11:03 am.
      
Staring at the all too familiar cartoon picture of Rumpelstiltskin jumping up and down, mouth twisted into a devious grin, my stomach tightened. Images of the two previous carnages short-circuited my brain. The charred rubble of Bowie Shopping Centre.
      
Death toll: 79.
      
One month later, Union Hall during a U2 concert. His message had been taken seriously. We even managed to decipher it.
     
Just not fast enough.
 
Fans, who minutes ago had been singing along to ‘Vertigo’, were pushing and shoving
toward the exits when the bomb ripped through the building.
      
Death toll: 354
      
Now, another month on, another bomb. Out there – somewhere.
      
Set to go off at 12 noon.
      
I looked at Rumpelstiltskin’s gloating face on my monitor. The speech-bubble kept flashing up :‘Stupid!!!! Stupid!!!!’  He liked his exclamation marks.
Underneath the deadline, the message read:
        
                     THE  GERMANS  DISAGREE,
                     BUT  ALL  GOOD  THINGS  NEED  TIME
                     ENID  BLYTON  LOVES  THEM 
       
I pushed my chair back and stepped to the window. Below, Penn Avenue hummed with busyness. Cars zooming, tourists strolling, moms rushing, people taking pictures, looking at watches, talking into phones. Any one of their backs could be carrying the bomber’s bull’s eye. So far, he had restricted himself to the greater Washington DC area. What about this time? Where was his target today?
      
The phone rang, jolting me out of my thoughts. I stretched over my desk and picked up the receiver. “Holden.”
      
“Got your info about the European Summit. Sending it through now.” Sandy, law student and part-time researcher, sounded tense. She had been briefed together with the teams. Each had been given one of the clues to work on.  
      
“Anything jump out at you?”
      
“Apart from the Germans being an awkward lot?” She gave a short laugh, but failed to make it sound convincing. The pop-up message for our internal com-system flashed on my monitor.
      
“Got it. Keep digging.”
      
“’Course.”
      
11:12 am
      
I twisted the monitor toward me and scanned through the condensed data. Sandy was right. THE GERMANS DISAGREE was an understatement.  “Germany veto Schengen enlargement”; “Germany veto Ballerup’s ReSound unit”; “Germany veto BAE/EADS merger.” Etc., etc. Which one had caught Rumpelstiltskin’s attention? Or was I looking at this the wrong way? So far he had shown no political affiliation or interest. I ruffled through my stubbly hair, trying to transmit the energy into my brain. For once I was happy, nature hadn’t given me a Robert Redford hairdo. Though it kind of got the color right.
      
Meg leaned back in her chair, jotter in hand, and blew her fringe out of her eyes –
albeit only for a second.
      
“Talk about a writing machine,” she said, her tone a mix of admiration and exasperation. She pushed away and balanced on the chair’s two back legs. “Did you know Enid Blyton published 762 books over a period of seventy-one years? That’s over 10 books a year. And no computer in sight.”
      
I had heard of Enid Blyton, but during my childhood, I had steered more toward Superman and Flash Gordon. Much good that did us now.
      
“Unless our man’s a fan, I can’t imagine him knowing the ins and outs of Blyton’s work,” I said. “Give me the showstoppers.”
      
Meg scanned her list. “I can give you Noddy or Mary Mouse, but I think the
best known are her Famous Five books. And there’s lots of those. Take your pick.”
       
I stared at my monitor. “At least, that’s something. All I have is the Germans going ‘Nein, Nein, Nein.’” It was meant to be funny, loosen us up, but the minute I said it, Meg’s eyes locked in mine. It was as if our thoughts were colliding in mid-air and exploding into a flash of light.
      
“Nine...Five,” Meg said, providing the soundtrack to the numbers ricocheting through my head. Her chair jerked forward; I jumped into mine.
      
BUT ALL GOOD THINGS NEED TIME...BUT ALL GOOD THINGS NEED TIME.
       
“All good things...” I muttered and looked up at Meg.
     
“...come in threes,” she finished.
      
An icicle bored through my gut, and melted into my veins.
      
935
      
Like 935 Pennsylvania Avenue
      
Like the address of the building we were in.                                                 
      
Meg’s hand flew to her necklace.
      
Like it was our backs that wore the bull’s eye.
      
11:23 am
  
                                                                    *    *   *
 
The piercing sound of the alarm echoed through the building.
      
Eight-thousand staff plus visitors to evacuate.
      
A whole block to cordon off in the middle of Washington DC.
 
Two-point-four million square feet to search in a building in which even trained escorts for visitors sometimes got lost.
      
11:28 am       
      
Thirty-two minutes to go.
      
Enough time to evacuate two-thirds of the people in the building.
      
Max.
      
Before the stream of evacuating employees would’ve jammed us in, our CID team had rushed to relocate to the small briefing office on the first floor. Beige-walls-no-pictures... you fill in the rest. Interior designs mustn’t have been much in vogue when this was built. Tension hung over the room like a wet blanket. No usual banter about Steve’s pungent aftershave, just stony faces and an occasional stealthy look at the watch.
      
I staccatoed out the assignments: “Steve, check up how fast we can have some bomb detection dogs here. Rob, get in contact with the architect. Find out where a bomb would do the most damage. I’m sure Rumpelstiltskin has done his homework. Phil, get onto the CCTV footage from the public entrance and send somebody to check the cameras across the road at McDonalds as long as they’re still there. Harry, find out whether any kind of maintenance work has been carried out recently or if someone is scheduled for today.”
 
Harry, our recent Irish addition to the team, lifted both eyebrows. With employees streaming out of the building, gathering information would soon become, what he would call, searching for hen’s teeth. The bomb-disposal unit was on their way, but we’d be lucky to need their services, even if they got here on time.  
      
No bomb, no disposal.   
      
Just an earth-shattering bang.
      
I handed out our communications devices. “Anyone sees anything, report in. Don’t play the hero! And as soon as your alarm goes off,” – all watches had been set for 11:50h – “get out!”
      
The office emptied as fast as it had filled up. Meg got off the phone.
 “Car park security guard is still at his post,” she said, “but I can’t raise anyone at personnel.”
Meg’s assignment was the huge underground car park. According to an article in The Washington Examiner, it was large enough to park all the cars in the greater Washington area. Sarcasm aside, I could easily believe that. Although only persons with Bureau credentials were authorized to use it, finding a space at eight in the morning was like finding a seat at a sold-out Super Bowl game
      
A voice came through my speakers. “ Pete, Harry here.”
      
“Go ahead.”
      
“Managed to dig up the subcontractor records. I have to say, they’re not big on maintenance here, so they’re not.” I detected the tiniest hint of humor in his voice. Our team had only recently been transferred from our field office on 4th Street to liaise with the Counter Terrorist Division here at HQ. The dilapidated state of the building was an ongoing joke among us.       
“Look it, the last one was a company called COM-TEC. Did some work on the main-frame two weeks ago and are supposed to be back today. Answer to the name of Lucky, to be sure.”
 
“ Ok. See what else you can find out.”
 
“Aye.”
     
 Meg sat hunched over her laptop, biting her lip and shaking her head.
      
“He couldn’t have given us an afternoon deadline, no? At least the records would’ve been updated.” She was trying to cross-check vehicles entering the car park against thumb print registrations for this morning. Security was tight, but the car park was the most likely place for a large bomb and had already been cordoned off.
      
11:32 am
      
I dialled a familiar number. Angie answered after only two seconds. She worked with the Computer Analysis Team, and was in regular contact with mainframe. I heard waves of voices around her; the alarm sounded in the distance. Momentarily my muscles relaxed. She was outside. We’d been out for a few drinks. Nothing further. So, why was I so relieved to know she was safe? Her southern drawl was even more pronounced than usual.
      
“Pete, what’s going on?”
     
“No time to explain,” I said, hoping she would understand. “Tell me, who in mainframe looks after repairs there?”
 
“Daniel Bellings,” she said without hesitation. “I’ll send you his number.” That’s what I liked about Angie. Quick and without fuss.
      
“Owe you one.”
      
“Or two...Pete?”
      
I pressed the phone to my ear. The tone of her voice had hit a spot right below my rib cage.
“Be safe.” She hung up.
      
Her message came in seconds later.  I glanced at the large ticking clock. Was it just my imagination, or did this one tick louder than any of the others?
      
11:37 am      
Meg kept punching her computer, murmuring “Got you!...No, here you are...What took you so long getting from your car to... honestly...”
      
Steve reported in. Not enough time to get the dogs here. Had figured as much.
Rob had managed to contact a construction engineer. “He suggests the area around the elevators going up to 11th floor,” he reported. “Soon as one of the main pillars collapses, the three-story outcrop provides the weight to crush everything below. The rest will tumble like domino stones.”
The basement car park reached all the way to those elevators...
      
I paced up and down in our small windowless office. Daniel Belling’s phone went to voice mail, but at the second try he picked up.
      
“COM-TEC?” he asked. “Well, they were supposed to show up today, but never did. But I think they were just going to drop off some paperwork. Maybe they’ll mail it.”
 
A tingling spread through my gut.
      
“Did you clear them for entry?”
      
“Yeah, but like I said they didn’t –“  I hung up. Meg stopped typing. The atmosphere in the room had changed. I was already on the way to the door.
       
“Get the security guard on the phone.”  
      
One look at my face and Meg slammed shut the laptop and grabbed her phone.  She jumped to her feet and punched in the number for the security guard. Mouthing his name, she handed me the phone. I stopped at the door.
      
“Tony. Agent Holden here from CID. You remember a COM-TEC vehicle this morning?”
      
A deep voice answered. I remembered Tony. A dark mustache and always serious.
      
“Yes Sir, Transit van,” he said. “Arrived early this morning.”
     
“Did he get in?”  I held my hand on the door handle. Meg watched me through her fringe. I got my answer. Yes, he’d had clearance, why?  Dark brown  in color.  No, he hadn’t come out yet. No Sir, no idea where he parked up. He headed for somewhere toward the back. Why?
      
The tingling in my gut increased to a crescendo, flushing my body with sirens of adrenaline. I had no time to answer his questions.
      
11: 41 am                         
                                                          *       *       *
     
It seemed like it’d taken us forever to push through the crowd pouring toward the exits, but finally we reached the underground car park. On the way I’d summoned the rest of the team. We would need all eyes available to find the van. It was a hunch, but hunches were all we had time for. We fanned out and ran through the endless rows of cars, leaping up along the way, scanning, searching, the clock ticking.
Cadillacs, Chevrolets, Chryslers, RVs, SUVs, jeeps, vans, you name it.
Where was the brown COM-TEC van? 
      
And then I saw it.
      
“Over there!” I shouted, my voice bouncing off the sea of sprayed metal.
      
Harry and Steve arrived at the dark brown Ford Transit the same time as Meg and I. Phil and Rob’s steps clanked in the distance.
      
The alarms on our watches went off.
      
11:50 am
      
I felt the seconds ticking in my blood. Harry had checked the front of the van and shook his head. Empty. Steve, flat on his belly, scanned the chassis underneath. Nothing. COM-TEC – COMMUNICATIONS SPECIALISTS  - WE MAKE YOU TALK ! was written on both sides. The back, too, was fully paneled. Nowhere to look inside.
      
Steve handed me his phone. “Bomb techies. Sergeant Cooper.”
      
The phone almost slid through my damp fingers. I caught it at the last moment.
I looked at my team. I had never seen them so serious. They knew what was coming.
      
“Go! All of you. Get out!”  
      
“Remember the hero bit?” Steve’s glasses were partly misted up, his forehead sweaty. I nodded and ticked my head in the direction of the exit. After another second that seemed to last forever, they turned and ran off. All except Meg.
She stood, one foot directed toward the exit, but her shoulders facing me. Her hand was clutching her necklace.
      
“You may need help. I could – “
      
“Meg, if there’s nothing here, I’ll be right behind you. Go!”
      
Her face flashed all the stages of emotional response – anger, denial, despair, acceptance. Even through her fringe I could see her eyes filling up. I put the phone to my ear and turned away. Her footsteps were the loneliest sound ever.
      
The Sergeant’s voice roared into my ear. He had a Tom Hanks kind of voice. I pictured him tall with a high forehead and wavy brown hair. In the background, the ffft, ffft, ffft of whirling rotor blades and the decreasing high-pitched whining of a helicopter’s turbine.
      
Not the sound I had wanted to hear.
     
“Just setting down on the helipad,” Cooper shouted into the phone. “Give me your exact position.” 
      
He would never make it.
  
His steps pounded the gravel, helicopter noise receded, a door opened. “This way.”
Somebody guided him. The alarm blared. Even without having to push through corridors full of people, it would take him more than ten minutes to get here.
      
He knew.
      
“Tell me, what you see.”
      
I had been standing motionless, staring at the back panel of the van. Following his directions I felt around the double door for a cable. Anything to suggest a booby trap.
      
“Nothing.”
      
My hand touched the door handle, reluctant to grab it. Catch 88 - no matter how you spin it. If it was booby trapped and the bomb went off early, more people would die. If I waited, chances to disarm the bomb would slim to starvation level.
Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.
      
I grabbed and pulled.
      
Locked.
      
I knew how to pick a lock. Basic part of FBI training. I pulled out my trusted Swiss army knife from my inner jacket pocket. Basic part of my dress routine. My fingers trembled. Basic part of my visceral reaction. The car park’s large open space seemed to close in on me. It took me fifteen seconds. Fifteen seconds closer to the deadline.
      
A quick glance at my watch.
      
11:52 am
      
“Talk to me!” Cooper’s breath came fast. He was running.
      
“Opening the van,” I said. Was that really my voice? Again, I pulled. Two scenarios flashed before my eyes. Scenario one: The bomb had nothing to do with the van. Sprint for your life toward the exit. Scenario two: There was a bomb in the back of the van and it was ticking down.
      
I opened the doors wide and stared at scenario number two.     
      
A metallic taste flooded my mouth, shapes and lines seemed to shift. Hunched over, I climbed into the van, careful not to shake it. The smell of plastic mold was overpowering. In front of me was the largest bomb I had ever encountered. I fixed my gaze on the hypnotic digital timer and something the size of a bowling ball fell into the pit of my stomach.
      
4 minutes 37 seconds.      
4 minutes 36 seconds.      
4 minutes 35 seconds.
       
The clock was fast.
      
Strangely, this thought and the anger it produced against Rumpelstiltskin, who couldn’t even be bothered setting the time right, brought back my focus. I turned on the small flashlight attached to my Swiss army knife and began to report: “I’m looking at about 100-150 pounds of explosives.” My voice was flat. I could’ve been reciting the daily traffic report. “Eight detonators wired in ring-shape formation; Detonator cables converging to a central motherboard, right hand side; battery pack left hand top corner; timer bottom right; two ribbon cables connecting the timer to the central processing unit; CPU connected by one ribbon cable and four separate wires to the relay bank; from there cables back to the detonators.”
       
Why couldn’t it be like in the movies? A fifty-fifty chance, two cables. Cut the right one and it’s Pete Holden for President. I had a whole cable salad in front of me.
       
3 minutes 57 seconds.
       
“Whatever you do, don’t touch the timer ribbon cables.” I pulled back my hand, which had drifted toward the timer. A bead of sweat trickled into my left eye. I wiped it off. I would definitely need a shower after this.
      
If there was an after.
      
“What if I disconnect the battery pack? Any chance that’ll stop the clock?” I felt like I had to do something. Anything.      
      
“Is there a small auxiliary circuit board anywhere near the battery pack?”
Cooper’s voice exuded the calmness I needed.
      
“Affirmative. Three inch square. Below it.”
      
3 minutes 37 seconds
      
“What does it look like?”
     
“Small board with some kind of capacitors attached.” My fingers were itching to yank off every wire in this murdering madman’s contraption.  
      
“Don’t touch the batteries! The auxiliary board needs very little interruption to set off the whole thing. What tools do you have?” His voice echoed. He was in a hallway somewhere. In the background I still heard the helicopter.
     
“Swiss army knife.”
      
“How is the motherboard attached to the bomb?”
      
“Four flathead screws.”
      
“Listen carefully Holden. From what forensics found at the last two bomb sites, your man doesn’t do fancy or complicated. Seems to be the same here. This is what I want you to do...” I put the phone on speaker and set it down next to me.
      
Three of the four screws moved easy. The fourth one needed some persuasion.
      
2 minutes 43 seconds.
      
I wiped my hands on my pants and fisted and straightened my fingers to steady the tremble. Holding the motherboard either side, I gently prised it upwards.
No resistance. Good. I set it back down. Detonators next. They had to be pulled out and set down without letting them touch any part of the motherboard. I looked around me. Need a blanket. Sheet. Handkerchief. MacGyver would’ve had one of those in his back pocket. I didn’t. Nothing in the van – apart from the bomb. My jacket?– too heavy. Shirt? Nylon. No good. Vest! If this bomb went off, who’d care what I was wearing, or not?
      
Never before have I taken off my jacket and shirt that fast. I placed the doubled-up vest on top of the motherboard, hunkered down and started removing the detonators – slow motion - while the clock seemed to have hit the turbo button.
      
1 minute 56 seconds.
      
My legs were cramping. I barely noticed. Seven more detonators to go. All thought left my mind. My heart was thumping in my throat. I kept swallowing, even though I had nothing left to swallow. Six detonators left. Five. Four. Three. Two. 
      
47 seconds.
      
Last one. I was expecting it to stick. Murphy’s law and all that, but it slid out like a hot knife from an ice-cream tub.
      
All eight detonators now rested on top of my vest, on top of the motherboard, on top of Rumpelstiltskin’s bomb.
      
Cooper had stopped talking. He had also stopped coming.
      
It was me and the bomb.
       
I lifted the motherboard off its mountings and straightened up as far as I could. Cradling my deadly cargo, I backed out of the van one agonizing step after the other. I had left the area of the timer uncovered. It was all I could focus on.
      
35 seconds.
      
An enormous urge to run grabbed me and it took all my remaining willpower to discipline my legs to move slowly. Any sudden motion could set off the detonators and it would be bye-bye Pete instead of hello Mr President.
      
20 seconds.
       
As soon as my feet touched the concrete floor I feverishly looked around me.
      
Where can I dump this far enough from the van before the timer zeroes out
and leaves me a charred mess?
      
The well going down to the lower level! I saw the railing through three rows of cars. Twenty meters in seventeen seconds? With no sudden movements?
     
Go for it!
      
I was in a race against the digital timer. When I held my package over the railing, the display showed four seconds.
      
I let go.
      
Resisting the urge to watch it drop, I threw myself back from the railing and hit down hard behind a 78 Mustang convertible, my exposed skin scraping on the rough concrete. For a moment I had a vision of Rumpelstiltskin’s cartoon character putting a thumb to his nose and wiggling his fingers. Na-na-na-na-naa-na! Joke!
      
But then the detonators exploded.
      
The vibration preceded the sound of the explosion by a millisecond, shaking the floor. My ears popped like in a plane in free fall. The ping! ping! of detonator casings hitting walls echoed up from the well. A smell like the fire crackers I let off at Phil’s wedding last year wafted up and filled the surrounding air.
Then - silence.
      
I rolled on my back and looked up at the ceiling. It was still there. A glance at the van – it was still parked where I’d left it. Only then did I register footsteps, voices. I released the breath I hadn’t noticed I’d been holding for the last minute and scrambled up. I looked at the scratches on my bare skin.
      
Rambo, eat your heart out!
 
12.00 pm – definitely lunch time.
 
                                                          *    *    *
 
Forensics tooth-combed the van, but Rumpelstiltskin didn’t give them much. The bomb’s components were easily available from any RS electronics store. The lab was still working on the plasticine. I didn’t have much hope. Until we told them about their van, COM-TEC hadn’t even noticed it stolen. They owned a whole fleet of them. But then we were thrown a morsel. CCTV cameras in the building had captured the image of a man, medium height, slightly stocky, dark clothes, hooded jumper. He kept his face averted at every camera point, but he gave us one clue. He was limping on the right foot.
CCTV footage from McDonalds’, opposite, showed the same man, although now with his hood up, get into a GM station wagon just as a taxi behind him pulled away.
      
We got a partial number plate.
      
Rumpelstiltskin had left his first crumb.
      
Whatever game he was playing, we had finally entered his league.     
 


This Sentence Starts The Story
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Sorry, I know it's long, but I didn't want to split it up.
CID = Criminal Investigation Department
The picture is the J Edgar Hoover Building, FBI HQ, Washington DC
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