A Popcorn Fiction Selection. An explosive original short story from Mulholland author Charlie Huston.
Ten days before all signs of his existence were wiped off the face of the earth, Rail saw Booker and asked her if she could help him with a small problem.
He waited for her answer, watching a tendon pop up under the mat of freckles that colored her forearm an almost uniform brown. The wire stripper in her hand sliced through green insulation and she whipped the tool to the right, exposing a clean bristle of copper filaments ready to be braided.
She set the stripper aside on the tool bench she’d fashioned from barn planks and railroad ties.
“Why the fuck, Rail, would I help you? If you don’t mind.”
Rail studied the chaos of her workspace. Tools, tangles of wire, fragments of chipboard, heaps of bent nails, the guts torn from dozens of household electronics, lengths of pipe, jars of accelerant, loops of hose, more tools, and several half-disassembled radio control motors. Everything piled with no sense of order on the paint-stained, solder-burned, saw-scarred bench.
Booker’s work didn’t progress without a fair amount of hunting and pecking and cursing. Her mess wasn’t a custom system of organization that allowed her to unerringly find to hand exactly what she reached for. Rather, she required this level of anarchy to bring an element of poetry to her craft.
Indeed, Booker’s explosives and delivery systems were recognized for both their eccentricity and efficacy. And, occasionally, for their subtle humor.
From the mess, Rail plucked a fragment of metal that looked as though it were the remnant of a sheet of stainless steel that had been shattered like a pane of glass.
“What did that?”
Booker was twisting the bared copper strands with the callused tips of her thumb and forefinger. “Liquid hydrogen bath. Air hammer.” She pressed her thumb between her eyes.“Like they use on livestock in a slaughterhouse.”
Rail touched a fingertip to the needle -sharp tip of the shard. “Lot of trouble to make shrapnel.”
Booker shoved her hand into the pile on the workbench, heaved things this way and that. “Fucker.” She yanked and her hand came out of the pile holding a tube of stainless, cut on a bias at one end, a slight nip just before the lip at the opposite end, no more than 500 mm in length, 125mm in diameter.
She weighed it on her palm.
“Internal fitting for a high-pressure steam cleaner. Industrial. Like a fire hose but steam. Use it, you have to wear an insulated boiler suit, gloves, fire-retardant hood, welding mask. Steel toe socks are suggested. This bit, part of a military contract. Steam guns for cleaning armored vehicles returning from deployments. All that sand. As designed, it failed a handful of stress tests. Reject. Back to the drawing board on the whole contract. But no loss, perfectly legal, as is, for sale to private industry overseas. Shipyards. India. Blasting hulls in dry dock.”
She squeezed the tube.
“This guy occasionally fractures, turns itself into shrapnel. Sitting right next to the safety kill in the steam gun. Shrapnel perforates the safety. Steam bath. Superheated to over four hundred degrees Fahrenheit.”
She jabbed the point of the bias-cut end of the tube into her workbench, leaving it stuck there, a dagger in a corpse.
“Company that makes the piece, they had a retreat. Everybody patting each other on the back in between massages and limbo contests. Big powwow in the presidential suite. The board, top VPs. Big asshole party. Bottles of water. Blue glass. Some brand the CEO has a hardon for. I watched some YouTube videos on glass blowing. Talked to someone about ceramic heating elements. Made this bottle. Blue glass. Booked the presidential suite a week before the corporate shindig. Spent my time building a power source into a sidebar. Day of the powwow, I put on a nice dark suit, concierge’s name tag. Went into the suite, moved a bunch of bottles of blue water from the conference table to the sideboard. Peeled a corner of vinyl loose on top of the thing to expose a couple wires. Plugged those into my special bottle and put it behind all the others.”
She ran her hand back and forth over the top of her head, short hair no more or less mussed than always. A thatch of it sticking up straight, coarse, just over the spot where the doctors put in the steel plate to replace the matchbook-size piece of bone she lost from her skull when she’d gotten into a little tiff with a popper named Gen. Type of popper wanted to make a name for himself by blowing up the competition. He’d taken his best shot, earned a fail, and spend the next two years of his life unscrewing light-switch panels before he turned them on to make sure Booker hadn’t planted anything behind them. End game, he touched a green to a red while wiring one of his own gags, blew his arms off to the elbows, died on the spot. Booker likes to say it was her best bomb, the one she planted in his head, keeping him up at night, edgy all day, wondering where the bang bang was planted. Man that nervous shouldn’t be playing with bang bang.
Booker tugged on the shock of hair, no nerves in her scalp there to feel it.
“Sniffer dogs cleared the room one last time before the meet. Came clean. Assholes come in, back-patting ensues. I did that thing where I push a button. Just current. Started running through the ceramic circuit, superheating the water in my blue bottle.”
She reached across the distance between them, took the shard of stainless from his hand.
“Handful of these in the bottle. Couldn’t see them unless you held that blue glass up to a light. When the pressure peaked and the bottle exploded, these peppered the rest of the bottles, glass shards filled the room.”
She dropped the shard back in the pile on the workbench.
“No fatalities. Put a couple eyes out. Some good scars. One marketing VP got a bacterial infection in one of his wounds and they had to replace his cheek and lower lip with ass flesh. So, all in all, I counted that gag a win.”
Rail put his hands in the pockets of his chinos, leaned one hip against the bench. “You’re an artist, Booker. No doubt.”
Booker picked up the spool of green wire she’d set aside. “I’m a mad fucking bomber, Rail. Very mad.”
“Mad enough to help me out?”
Her hands unspooled 430 mm of wire, no measurement taken, her muscles knowing the length of wire. “When Gen pulled that gag on me, bang bang pre-rigged in the overhead luggage bay on that 737 out of Dallas–Fort Worth, I never thought much about how he knew my seat number, got aboard with the changeover crew, all that. Looks like magic to other people; me, that’s just insider baseball. But how he knew I always put my stow bag in the compartment two rows up from my seat, starboard side. That I always wondered a bit.”
Hands still in his pockets, Rail shrugged. “You have a question in there?”
“No. I don’t need to ask. Said I wondered. Past tense. Process of elimination.”
She clipped the wire, tossed the spool on the pile. “Pressure plate.”
Rail tilted his head to the side. “Pressure plate?”
She found a pencil-thin rod of copper in the pile, started tightly coiling the wire around it. “In the gap between the facing on my bench and the frame. Two pieces of tinfoil. When you leaned against it you closed the circuit. Take a few pounds of pressure off, break the circuit, it’s gonna pop some bang bang in that light fixture there.”
Rail looked down at the pile of stuff on the bench; the sheet-metal cone of an old desk lamp was aimed at his face, dead light bulb in the socket.
Booker finished her coil of wire, drew the copper rod from its center.
“Couple grams. A putty of mine. Shaped. Light bulb is packed with lead powder. If the charge goes off it’ll hit your head like a cloud made out of tiny sledgehammers. If I did it right, it’ll cause nonfatal brain trauma and turn your face into jelly. You should wake up retarded and disfigured.”
“And if you did it wrong?”
“It’ll kill you.”
Rail kept leaning. “I’m tempted to move just to find out if you’re lying.”
Rail had a sudden memory, a flight with Booker, Montana, a cabin somewhere lost, their exceedingly brief marriage. Her compulsions. Luggage two rows up, starboard side. How he’d teased her about it. “Yeah, I told Gen about the luggage thing.”
Booker was shoving the tip of a flathead screwdriver into the casing of a video game controller, prying the two halves apart.
“Well, you know I have a thing about where I put my bags so they won’t be associated with me if there’s police action on a flight. And I know you have a thing about leaning harmlessly with your hands in your pockets within grappling range of someone you think you might have to kill. Guess we’re even on that.”
“This thing have a kill?”
She used a small pliers to jerk a feedback motor from the open controller.
“If I finish building this kill switch, and connect it, it will have a kill. Otherwise you should get used to that position.”
“I’m comfortable enough.”
“Bathroom’s over there if you need it.”
She took a hot soldering iron from its perch in a pressed-tin ashtray with a Schaefer Beer logo in its ash-crusted bowl.
“So like I asked at the outset, why the fuck, Rail, would I help you?”
He tensed, started to shake a little, took three deep breaths.
Booker froze with the iron poised to contact the loose end of a spool of solder. “Are you trying to keep from laughing?”
Rail continued his deep breathing, seemed to still something inside, allowed a smile. “Just that the reason I thought you might want to help is because I need someone to kill me.”
Booker gestured with the iron. You’re more than welcome to take a step, that should just about do it.”
She started dripping solder, fusing the wire to the feedback motor, her hands beginning to move free of anything else she was doing or saying, fitting the coil of wire inside the split case of the game controller, stuffing a flexible tube of gray plastic into a gap between button housings, more wire, something that looked like a superminiaturized Arduino, snapping the controller closed and tracing the crack between the two halves with a stick of Superglue.
“Rail. Am I supposed to relish the thought of helping you fake your death? So you can do what? Slip off the grid, execute something heinous for whoever is paying your bills these days? Why don’t you grow the fuck up and do something useful.”
“Peppering executives with glass shrapnel from ironically conceived explosive devices?”
“I prefer to think of them as satire.”
“I’m leaving the game.”
Booker set the controller on the bench. “Marrying into money?”
“…” Booker raised an eyebrow.
“Did I just render you speechless?”
Booker pointed a finger at the bench. “I have a remote. I can blow the bang bang whether you move or not.”
“I’m serious. TV. Afghan TV.”
Booker leaned back in the leather and hardwood office chair that had been her grandfather’s when he ran a vending machine company in Chicago in the forties. The back perforated with three bullet holes.
“Afghan,” she said.
“The four eagles in question are a crack team of Afghan anti-terrorists. Rule breakers and ass kickers. Week to week they take on the Taliban, insurgents, religious extremists of every stripe, drug traffickers, bomb makers.”
“Cracking the cases the regular Afghan cops can’t handle.”
“So all the cases, really.”
“Only the supercool ones.”
Booker picked up the controller and flicked the joystick. “You’re to be a technical adviser, I assume.”
“And an executive producer. But only if the studio doesn’t think someone is going to car bomb the set because I’m there.”
“I need to die.”
“Yes, you do.”
“There will be, naturally, a fee.”
“Yes. They really want me for this.”
“Has to be Fox.”
Rail smiled flat. “American Embassy. Funding the whole deal. Hiring Aussie production types to run it on the ground and train the Afghanis to take over. If that sounds familiar. They want an extra level of verisimilitude. That’s me.”
“Fuck. Yes. Fake guns. Fake bombs. Fake terrorists. Fake death.”
Booker looked at the controller in her hand, rolled a few feet on the chair casters, offer the controller.
Rail drew his hands from his pockets, still leaning, took the controller.
“What do I do?”
“Up, up, green button, x button.”
Rail flicked the joystick up twice, hit the green button with his thumb, then the x button, looked at Booker.
Rail stepped away from the bench; the lamp didn’t blow up in his face.
Booker shook her head.
“Nothing there. No bang bang. But now you’re holding enough Semtex to blow your arms off. And you just armed a mechanism that needs to stay in motion. If you set it down it’ll pop before you can get a foot away from it. If you wave it back and forth you should be okay.”
Rail started waving the controller.
“How long do I do this?”
Booker stood up, turned, walked toward the far end of the shop.
“Until I get back from the can. After that, you can do it a little longer while I tell you what you have to do for me if I’m gonna kill you.”
Rail shook the controller, thought about taking out his gun with his free hand. But left it there. Not knowing what might blow up if he touched it. Booker’s bomb, in his brain.
Ten days later, when a man blew himself up in the lobby of the Goldman Sachs building at 85 Broad Street in lower Manhattan, the trail of evidence linking him to the string of bizarrely sensational bombing that had plagued Wall Street the preceding week was incontrovertible.
A man, dressed alternately in business attire, custodial gear, messenger garb, and plumber’s overalls, had, over the course of several days, and always with appropriate credentials, photo ID, and work orders, entered the Financial District offices of the nation’s top banks, investment firms, trading institutions, and brokerages. Initially, his tactic involved leaving an iPhone4 on the rim of freshly cleaned executive sinks. A device embedded within the phone had been connected to the unit’s GPS chip and accelerometer. It primed when the phone was picked up and armed when it came to rest on a near-vertical plane, either upright or landscape. If the accelerometer and GPS detected no further movement, suggesting that the phone had been set back down on edge, the arming sequence reset. If additional movement was indicated, suggesting that the phone had been placed in a pocket, a brief countdown ensued.
At detonation, a shaped charge turned the twin faces of aluminosilicate glass that sandwiched the body of the phone into shrapnel. The moderate size of the charges, smaller than what the phone’s housing seemed to allow, suggested that the ultimate target of the bomber was not to blow off a victim’s leg, but rather to pepper the genitals with slivers and microscopic grains of shattered glass.
Warnings were issued, security tightened; still, among a class of peoples accustomed to the daily handling of BlackBerries, the temptations of a mislaid iPhone seemed irresistible. Seven financial executives were genitally mutilated by the phone bombs before survival instinct took hold and a general phobia regarding Apple products permeated the Wall Street community. The next rash of bombings involved fifty-dollar bills dropped in urinals, one dry corner available for grasping.
The bills were connected to rock-simple trip wires. Pick up the bill, trigger the charge planted in a hollowed-out urinal cake. Again, though hands were inevitably marred, genitals seemed to be the target.
Cash money began to be viewed askance on the Street. A large fold of bills was considered bad taste. And might well cause a flinch or two at the lunch table when the check arrived.
Rolexes were next. Oyster Perpetuals in platinum.
By the end of the week, there was not a power broker below Chambers Street who trusted high-end gadgets, ostentatious accessories, or American greenbacks. A hipster flicking the screen of his iPhone while passing a banker might catch sight of the suited man covering his crotch with a newly armored briefcase.
In closing his reign of terror, the bomber walked into 85 Broad in an unseasonal overcoat. Bearing no supporting identification on this occasion, he was sealed in an armored glass mantrap after setting off the alarms on a battery of scanners. Doffing his coat to reveal a massive explosive vest, he screamed something about death to tyrants and detonated.
Some experts did note that the final gesture seemed not in keeping with the precision of his earlier deeds. Also noted was the lack of efficiency in his final device. For all of its bulk, it did little more than smear him over every square millimeter of the interior of the mantrap. No other fatalities or injuries at all.
Still, the chain of evidence was profound. And no further Wall Street bombs were planted.
Peter James Railsback, aka “Rail,” a disaffected former military contractor, was the Crotch Bomber.
Episodes of Eagle Four were hard to come by and coveted. Usually found as digital files on USB drives. Viewing parties among certain covert professional classes involved cabling a laptop to an HD TV for best-quality playback. Hilarity almost always ensued.
Booker preferred to watch alone. Bootlegged copies, recordings of recordings of recordings. Visual clarity was never her thing. She saw what she was looking for in the plots of the episodes. Both the story structures as plots, and the machinations of any given episode’s bad guys as plots.
She had, naturally, other ways of confirming that Rail had not lied to her. Rather, that he had not lied to her about his specific motive. For it was a given that he had lied to her in any number of other particulars.
One aspect she’d been meticulous about fact checking was the identity of the prop bomber they’d used to end the gag. A border state self-proclaimed militia man who hunted illegal immigrants when he wasn’t cooking meth. Contacted by Rail in the guise of an online recruiter for a anti-federal underground, he’d been more than a little excited about the prospect of becoming the USA’s most notorious homegrown terrorist.
Booker would have been happy enough to see the ground floor of Goldman Sachs eviscerated by one of her devices, but she’d never have allowed their prop the satisfaction of a blaze of glory. She’d build the bang bang to be easily discoverable, and just potent enough, when contained, to paste the wearer. She took an extra level of satisfaction knowing that no scrap of responsibility for the bombings was ever attributed to the asshole. He died anonymously and unmourned. And that made Booker feel good inside.
The remaining work of seeing that the smear that had been a man was identified as Rail had involved the calling in of a few debts, but no one in the game was interested in upsetting Booker. She got what she wanted, having promised those involved that they could start their cars with infinite peace of mind for the rest of their lives. At least as far as she was involved they could.
In the third episode of Eagle Four, the intrepid, and improbably coed, team of cops unearth a bomb factory. Searching it for clues, one of the agents leans against a bench, thereby activating a pressure plate and arming a bomb housed in a lighting fixture directly over his head. A large chunk of the episode is then devoted to a great deal of sweating and tense shouting in Pashto as the female explosives expert on the team disarms the device.
Booked was pleased, in her way, that Rail had been telling her the truth about why he wanted to fake his death. She didn’t like to think of him at large, working for the fucking assholes he usually worked for and doing the fucked-up shit he usually did for them.
And it had given her an idea.
The head bombs she’d planted up and down the financial capital had markets roiling as corporate executives continued to suffer panic attacks and lose sleep.
What might be accomplished if one of the fake bullets or fake bombs or fake deaths on TV turned out to be real?
She began thinking about cable news. How much better the overall quality of the human gene pool might become if a few of those people could no longer breed.
And her hands went into the pile on her workbench and she started to build.
A Note on Authenticity
Satire is expected to have a broad dimension, but be assured that Eagle Four is real. As reported in the New York Times, among other places, in a story you can find here.
A trailer for the show is posted at WSJ.com here.
The title is from a dream. Near dawn on the day following Dios de los Muertos, a writer in an outdoor bookstore on the grounds of a cemetery watches as several teenagers with their faces made up as skulls pose for a photo in front of a mausoleum that contains a diorama like those found in natural-history museums. The tableau behind the glass front of the mausoleum is hidden, but above it is an engraved plaque that reads The Impossibility of a Diaphanous History Machine.
Which explains nothing, but seemed the right thing.
Charlie Huston is the author of the bestsellers The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death and The Shotgun Rule, as well as the Henry Thompson trilogy, the Joe Pitt casebooks, and several titles for Marvel Comics. He lives with his family in Los Angeles. Learn more at www.pulpnoir.com
Charlie Huston’s novel SKINNER will be published by Mulholland Books in 2012.