1: Bozeman, Montana

Men are mad things

The night air rushed in the patrol car’s window, cooling Cody Byrne’s cheeks as she hit the pedal hard, siren blaring. Streetlights made pools of white on the empty blocks. She screeched around the last corner, smiling. Her Army unit would love this. They didn’t call her Speedy for nothing. Then, she entered the chaos zone: fire trucks, ambulances, patrol cars, sheriff’s cars, campus cruisers. Red and blue lights bounced over the scene. Smoke and flame roiled from windows on the corner of the second floor of a university building. A lab had exploded, dispatch said. In the dark it looked like a movie set, lit from within by a magical force.

Her heart was thumping through her uniform as she pulled the car to the curb. She jogged past cruisers and ducked under yellow tape, trying to contain the exhilaration. Action: god, she loved it. The tingling in her fingers, the edge so close. The thrill would engulf her with its seductive ways, wrapping its arms around her, hugging the fear out of her. Would excitement kill her or cure her? Was there any other way to live but like this, in the middle of everything?

She took a breath. The smoke was pungent. Stay calm. Right now she wanted it, all of it. The good, the bad, the freaking drama of it all. But she had to stay cool. Firefighters pulled on hazmat suits. Smoke, nerves, shouts of Now! Bro! Let’s do it! She wanted a chemical suit, a vest, a tank. She was just a police officer but she wanted to go.

Flames leapt from the windows. A television news crew arrived and jumped into the fray with their cameras and mikes. The smell of the scene was different, chemical. Orange licked the eaves, acrid smoke blackened the brick above. The throng of firemen shouting orders came together, broke apart, grabbed tanks. EMTs huddled with their kits, waiting their turn.

Then a blast rocked them. The air sucked in, then exploded over them. The concussion was terrifying, a blow to the solar plexus like the crush of an avalanche. Firemen closest to the building fell like dominos, blown onto their backs. Cody staggered sideways, her ears ringing as she threw herself to the ground behind the fire truck’s big tire. The boom echoed off the building opposite, reverberating as it came to rest. Gasping, she stared at the pavement under her cheek. The bile rose in her throat and for a second she thought she might throw up.

She looked at the asphalt, seeing it close, its hard, black gravel, its tar.  This is where duty takes you. Into the thick of it, for better or worse. She believed in duty, she believed in action, and yet—

Someone grabbed her arm, pulling her upright, dusting her off. The juice pumped in her veins, telling her she’d made the wrong decision, that she should get the hell out of here. Her ears felt like they had cotton stuffed in them. She shook her head to clear them and stood her ground as she tucked her shoulder-length brown hair back into its tight bun and stuck her cap back on her head.

No running. Never.

The firefighters were on their feet again, with helmets and air packs and fire extinguishers, rushing toward the door. They disappeared into the smoke. Fools, all of them. Brave fools. Had they seen the bodies, the charred bits of the bone and flesh she’d seen? Her heart rose into her throat as a flashback to Iraq swept across her mind, another blast, another fire, the shiver of danger, of fear. No, not now. There was time enough for that in dreams.

Her eyes stung. The smoke smelled like vinegar. And something else. The instructor in the Army Reserve course said her nose was one in a million. She could sniff out chemicals the rest of the bomb scene investigators couldn’t. She pulled a handkerchief from her back pocket and held it over her mouth and nose. A less sensitive nose might be nice right now.

“It’s some science lab,” Rick Jones said, materializing through the haze. At five-eleven they were eye-to-eye. They’d barely spoken in the three weeks she’d been back on the job. The entire force had mocked him when she beat him in arm-wrestling at the Christmas party. He’d been working out; his biceps were now like grapefruits. “Probably some absentminded professor.” He pointed at her cheek. “You’ve got a smudge. You okay?”

Last summer, before the arm-wrestling and Iraq and all the rest, they had gone out for beers. She was a little too direct for him, he complained, too ‘in your face.’ She couldn’t remember what she liked in him. Now he looked to her like a blow-up version of a cop.

“I’m fine,” she croaked. Except for the panic attacks.

Helmet lights bounced around inside the lab. The whoosh of extinguishers filtered down. The flames disappeared. Then, shouting. A fireman emerged, a blackened form over his shoulder. As they gently lowered the victim onto the grass, the EMTs rushed over.

“That don’t look good,” Rick muttered.

They watched the crew work on the victim, bagging with oxygen, running an intravenous line. Still alive. Cody’s stomach settled a notch. They put the vic into the ambulance then took off in a flash of red. Around the lawn curious students in pajamas started to encroach. Cody and Rick helped herd them up.

As an English major, she’d rarely entered this end of the Montana State University campus. A sign on a planter read D.A. Woodgrouse Agronomy & Plant Science Hall. What sort of chemicals did a plant scientist use? For not the first time she thought she should have spent more time on chemistry homework in high school instead of working on her jump shot.

The EMTs carried out a second victim in a blanket sling, then laid him on the grass like the first one. But this was different. No IVs, no oxygen. They brought a gurney, transferred the victim, and rolled him into another ambulance. It stayed put. Cody felt her heart sink. They weren’t even trying to resuscitate.

Firemen disappeared into the building. Reports of a chemical fire. What was happening? Cody stamped her feet to keep warm and ward off impatience. She’d never been good about waiting around. Three AM came and went. Bystanders drifted home to bed. A fresh crop of firefighters and law enforcement arrived. Down the sidewalk, Lieutenant Dennis Graham was conferring with a man in plain clothes wearing a dirty Stetson.

“Who’s the guy in the hat?” she asked Rick.

“The fire inspector. His name’s Valentine.”

Graham saw her coming and turned away. She stood at his shoulder. He couldn’t get rid of her that easily. “Sir?”

“Hang on.” He put his head together with the fire inspector then pulled out his cell phone. Stepping away, he punched at his phone.

“Can I help you, Officer?” the inspector asked with some sharpness in his voice. He was short and burly, with a gut hanging over his belt buckle. He wore black rain boots, unzipped and floppy, with khakis tucked in and a navy windbreaker and white button-down shirt.

“I trained in bomb scene investigation in the Army,” Cody offered. “If you need another opinion.” He didn’t, she knew. But damn if she couldn’t at least try to get in on the action.

He looked her up and down. She pulled her shoulders back and fixed him with full-on eye contact, that direct gaze that freaked out Rick. In Iraq she made a point of practicing it every day until it was laser-sharp. Her bomb unit called it the ‘Speedy Steel.’ It was surprisingly effective.

“Were you in Iraq?” he asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“We can always use fresh eyes. But we have to notify the feds first. Not sure who will show up. Could be FBI, could be ATF.”

She tried to hear what Graham was saying but he was too far away. “The feds want in?”

“This is probably some poor schmuck mixing the wrong stuff. But if you find out different and you didn’t call, they give you holy hell for disturbing their evidence.”

The inspector told her he had a grandson in the Marines who’d seen action in Fallujah. They talked about the war a little, until thankfully Graham returned.

“We’ll probably see the ATF down from Helena,” the lieutenant said.

To Cody Valentine said, “ATF–E. They got that E for Explosion and mean to keep it.” He looked over at the ambulance. “Shall we?”

Lieutenant Graham was nearly fifty, trim and tall with jowls and glasses, a professor-who-runs-marathons look. He must have jumped into his clothes, a few buttons loose on his short-sleeved plaid shirt. He’d held onto his graying Army buzz cut for twenty-five years, a department record. He squinted at her. “Officer?”

“I asked her to come along,” Valentine said. “She’s just back from special duty, you know.”

“Oh, I know. We’re off to look at the body first, Byrne. That okay with you?”

She nodded, trailing behind them as they walked across the ashy lawn. She’d seen enough bodies in her six months in Baghdad to last a lifetime. But this was different, not war, just a lab explosion. She felt calm, alert, and besides residual buzzing in her ears, ready for whatever came next.

Someone had died in the fire. Police officers, like army reservists, had to deal with trauma. Because people died, in battle or on highways, in trailer parks, and science buildings. Unexpectedly, inappropriately, unnaturally. It was a fact of their way of life, the viewing of the dead.

This was duty. To put herself, whatever power she had, between citizens and the forces that would annihilate them. Between human beings and the agents of destruction.

When that didn’t work out, she had to be there for the dead. She had to accept it. She didn’t have to like it.

2: Come what can come, the worst is death

The body lay in the back of the ambulance, strapped to the gurney. Cody squeezed in next to the inspector. She glanced at the lieutenant’s face as a young EMT held back a gray blanket. Holding her breath she forced herself to look and felt the stab of revulsion. This was not a person. The face was unrecognizable, blackened. The unmistakable odor of burnt flesh clung to the inside of the vehicle.

Cody swallowed hard, focusing on anything but the smell. The victim was slight and short, possibly a woman, although any feminine traces had disappeared. The hair had evaporated, the clothes burnt to scraps of fabric. Whoever he or she was, they had probably lain unconscious as the flames licked and charred.

If that scenario proved right, she was unconscious as she burned. If unconscious, it was over quickly. Smoke inhalation would do it. Suffering was minimal. Small favors. Cody let out her breath.

“Is the Sheriff here?” Graham asked. The county sheriff was also the coroner.

“Not yet,” the EMT said.

“What do you think, Inspector?”

Valentine had his lips pursed, squinting at the body. He shook his head. “Female, wouldn’t you say, Officer Byrne?”

“Likely, sir.”

They climbed out of the ambulance. “Shouldn’t have moved the body,” Graham muttered. “But I guess they thought they might save her.”

“You think female?” Cody asked. Graham nodded. “Whose lab was it?”

No one knew. They stepped aside as two firefighters emerged from the building in chemical suits and respirators. The lieutenant paused in front of a fireman in a helmet directing traffic near the main door.

“Safe to go in?”

The fireman’s dirty jacket had his name, Woznak, embroidered in red over his chest. “Wait here.” He told another fireman to take his position then disappeared into the gloom.

They waited in the small lobby. A utilitarian building, there was nothing fancy about the linoleum floor and the tan brick walls. On the wall hung a glassed-in directory. Cody flipped on her flashlight. Department of Soil Science, Department of Plant Physiology, Crop Science Laboratory, Plant Genetics Laboratory. A list of faculty. She counted six women’s names.

Woznak thumped down the stairs. A mop-up crew followed him, carrying fire extinguishers, respirators hanging over their chests. “All clear,” he said, waving the firefighters out of the building.

The inspector led the way. Graham turned on his flashlight as they climbed two flights of stairs. The hallway on second was dark, windowless, and smoky. Ahead, the open door of the lab let in filtered light from streetlamps, highlighting the floor marred with ashy footprints. They followed the prints to the door. Broken glass crunched underfoot as Valentine stepped into the lab.

“Hold up,” Graham said.

Valentine turned back. “Crime scene?”

“Until we rule it out.”

The lab was about twelve by eighteen. The inspector waved his flashlight back and forth. Windows on two sides had shattered glass tangled in broken blinds. The walls were once white, now blackened with smoke. The acoustic tile ceiling was burned through in spots. A center bench with a black countertop remained, plus sinks, burnt bits, and more broken glass. Fixtures were charred but because they were stone and metal, mostly intact. Water from the fire hoses puddled everywhere, and the white flash of the extinguisher residue clung to counters and cupboards.

The smell of vinegar was strong, plus some petrochemical. The inspector moved his light to spots on the floor. One blackened area near the door was the shape of a body. Where had the other victim been found? Cody followed the beams but couldn’t spot it.  Any liquid propellant was now burned up. Was it something they were storing?

The black metal door was propped against the sidewall and read ‘Molecular Genetics Laboratory.’ A small plaque under that read Roslyn Bowman, Ph.D. The lieutenant was writing it in his notebook. The ruined face of the victim flashed in Cody’s mind. Unconscious. Did not suffer. She took a breath to get past it. Focus on the investigation. “What sort of chemicals do molecular geneticists use?”

Graham shrugged. “Awful lot of broken glass. Beakers and stuff?”

“The windows blew out,” Valentine said.

“Some of the glass is brown,” Cody said, squatting next to the doorframe. She poked a thick shard with a pencil. “Beakers aren’t brown, are they? And it blew this way.”

Graham swung his flashlight out the door. Along the edges of the hall were strings of brown glass. Cody stood and nudged a pile with her toe. It was suddenly clear: whatever was in the brown glass had caused the blast. “Either the door was open when the brown glass exploded, or it blew the door open.” She squinted into the light. “Got a bag?”

Graham dug a plastic bag out of his pocket. Cody pushed in a jagged section of glass with the pencil. Graham dropped it in his pocket. She stood in front of the door, picturing the blast in her mind, the concussion of sound, the blowback, the shattering. She ran it over in her head, the two people walking together to the door, someone with a key, the door opening. Or was one already there, greeting the other? Or did they mix something up that exploded? She was barely in the door. She would have to be carrying it.

“Like they just walked in and— boom,” she muttered.

Graham pointed the flashlight beam at the floor by the doorframe. In that second Cody saw something in the hallway. “Can I see the light?” He handed it to her. She pointed it to the wall to the right of the door, down the hallway. A black flash mark had scorched the tile, reaching almost to the ceiling in one spot. She stepped back and shone her light in a wider circle around the mark.

“Look at this, Inspector.”

Valentine stepped back and turned. “Point of –” he muttered, then shone his own light on the floor. “Look at that, will you.”

“What is it?” Graham asked.

The inspector bent close to the floor. “Here. This mark. There was a gas can here, I’d say, or something similar.”

“Is that what started it?” the lieutenant asked.

The inspector didn’t answer, moving his beam around, up and down. Cody turned to survey the opposite wall. No scorching here but — She picked up a small fragment of metal, similar to part of a bullet casing, and brought it back to the inspector. “Look at this, sir.”

“Huh.” The inspector held between a finger and his thumb under his light. “Blasting cap, wouldn’t you say?” Cody nodded.

“Which means?” Graham said.

She walked down the hallway, slowly, shining her light, kicking glass. There it was. In a moment she dropped it into the inspector’s palm. “Circuit board. It was remotely blown.”

The old man looked up at her in the dim light. “Good work, officer.”

They bagged the parts as Cody continued searching. In ten minutes she found another bit of circuit and a tiny metal fragment, possibly more blasting cap. Then they turned back to the lab.

Inspector Valentine was pointing the flashlight up at the acoustic tiles. From the lab’s ceiling dangled a charred O-ring. Valentine shone the light across the blackened tiles, then toward the door. He gestured to the lieutenant. “Move aside.”

The metal door’s hinges were broken. Valentine nudged the door away from the wall with an elbow. A scraping sound ricocheted around the room as the bottom of the crippled door contacted broken glass. He peered at the back of the door for a long moment then whispered, “I’ll be damned.”

“What is it?” Graham said.

“We got ourselves a firebomb.”

Outside on the lawn, Inspector Valentine told them he had only read about these things, the homegrown but sophisticated setups of arsonists and hit men. He’d seen the occasional firebomb in his career, a Molotov cocktail, or an odd pyromaniac. But nothing like this.

“How does it work?” Cody asked.

“Two chemicals in separate bottles, strapped together with tape usually. The stuff is volatile, so you have to use thick brown glass. You smell that vinegar? That’s hydrochloric acid. Mixed with hydrogen peroxide, it’s incendiary, to say the least.”

“So it’s a peroxide bomb?” Graham asked.

“Peroxide, acetone, something like that. They’re suspended above the floor, with the rope connected to the door. That’s what I saw, the remains of the rope, the tie-down, behind the door. When the door is opened, the rigging pulls the jars up to the ceiling where they snap off, drop to the floor, and explode on contact. Helluva blast.” The inspector pushed back his hat and let out a big breath. “Fucking brilliant.”

“Terrorists,” Graham growled.

“Then outside, the gas can and blasting caps?” Cody asked.

“That was the second blast. In case the first one didn’t do the trick, I’d guess.”

Lieutenant Graham said, “They waited until the first responders were there?”

“Maybe. But weren’t there two victims? Could be they wanted to make sure they got ‘em both.”

“What was Professor Bowman working on?” Cody asked.

Graham sighed. “Sounds like she was screwing with plants. Altering their genes.”

The night had cooled and morning was still far away. Cody felt herself shiver. This was no accident. The sting of chemicals clung to her nostrils. “Would they blow her up because of that? Because she made GMOs?” Genetically modified crops were controversial, even in Montana.

“I thought those whack jobs had all been caught,” Graham said.

“There’s always more where they came from,” Valentine said. “I can wait for the feds. Between the firebomb and GMOs, you know they’re gonna want the investigation.”

Graham turned to Cody. “Go to the hospital and ID the vic. Find the spouse or somebody. You can do next-of-kin, can’t you?”

“Of course, sir.”

The sky had cleared, now full of pinpricks of stars. Cody switched on the heat in the cruiser as she drove to the hospital. It chapped her hide, getting dismissed just as it was getting interesting. And what about the lieutenant’s tone? Was he tentative about giving her next-of-kin duties? Was it because of her brother? The lieutenant had made a point of consoling her last year when they’d gotten the news about Neil. Or was it her Baghdad problems? He looked at her funny, didn’t he? Did everyone know? What if they’d found out about her meltdown? Did someone see her at the shrink? Would they put her on suspension?

 Jump off the loco train.

This was how it started, anxiety going haywire. Soon the thought-bomb would explode into a thousands shards of worry, she’d hyperventilate then she’d black out. Was it the excitement? She felt alive and awake with a newfound sense of duty— there it was again— just thinking about the ruined lab and the piles of glass. No way could she stay away from it. She was just made that way. She tried to slow her thoughts, watch the streets. Breathe, Speedy, breathe.


© Lise McClendon, 2013

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