Detonation minus sixteen minutes
S.E. entrance to the California State Capitol Building, Capitol Mall,
Sacramento CA, USA; Wednesday, February 25, 11:37 a.m. PST
The blue shoulder-to-wrist cast on Eli’s left arm, the one The Angel had made out of fourteen pounds of HMX high explosive, had grown achingly heavy. Eli tilted himself to the right to relieve the strain and took a measured step over the threshold of the massive doorway leading into the California State Capitol Building. The rough exterior of the cast scratched against his shirt. The same high impact plastic they make semi-automatic pistols out of these days, The Angel had told him. When it exploded, the shards would slash and bury themselves in flesh like razors.
The queue behind Eli, even longer than when he had joined it, now wrapped around the distant edge of the building. A woman just in front of him, matronly save for the strand of neon pink that accented her dowd-brown hair, stood on tiptoe to look anxiously down the line of people behind him. Pink fucking hair; the whole world’s batshit. Eli’s cast drew her gaze and when she looked up and their eyes met, she turned quickly away to face the entrance. He had never felt so powerful.
The doorway had once been a service entrance and it channeled the queue under a massive old set of wooden stairs until a wall forced a hard left. At the point where the queue turned, a single-lane version of an airport security checkpoint began. An attendant in a smarmy, bellhop-red jacket with a plastic photo badge swinging on a blue lanyard made sure all metal items and bags were placed into a line of plastic trays. Two other attendants manned an x-ray machine screen. Beyond that the line slowly threaded through a seven-foot-high metal detector. A blue uniformed cop with a hand-held metal detector and a Glock on his hip stood in the corner, idly appraising the flux of tourists.
The sounds of the crowd in the under-stairs cavern wove together in a tangled, deeply pitched din out of which Eli could pull an occasional strand.
“No, no, the camera too. The camera too!” said the guard.
A little girl screeched, apparently for no reason other than to hear the echo.
“All metal items must go in the trays to be x-rayed.”
“Michael, leave your sister alone!”
The leaden voice of the cop to a man far up the line: “Please step off to the side. Take off your belt and put your hands over your head.”
Eli took a deep breath to steady himself and exhaled a tremulous sigh. Without the iPhone he wouldn’t be able to hear The Angel, but he had no choice. He popped his ear buds out, then took the iPhone from his shirt pocket and dropped it into a tray.
The parade of trays moved in fits and starts. Eli jerked to attention when he noticed they had stopped completely. He tried to see if it was his tray under the scanner. The Angel was a goddamned genius, but if he fucked this up, it was all over. Without a detonator they were both fucked. It was supposed to look like every other goddamned iPhone. He bent forward, hoping to get a view of the screen that the two attendants were staring at so intently, but couldn’t get enough angle. Both his armpits were soaked. Christ, what if it spreads to the front of my shirt?
As he did an anxious sweat check down his front, Eli saw the little girl in front of him staring at his cast. When she sensed him looking at her, she tilted her head up, showing a milk and freckles complexion and setting her copper bob swinging. He met her tentative gaze and without a change in expression, brought his free hand up and knocked three times on the cast. The little girl’s green eyes went wide at the hollow boks. Some of Eli’s tension bled away, but still the attendants remained intent before the screen. The woman attendant pointed at something; her partner leaned in and nodded. The third guard moved from his normal spot down to the x-ray station and cast an inquiring glance at the woman.
After another deep breath Eli raised his eyebrows and nodded almost imperceptibly at the little girl. She took the cue and gave the cast a gentle rap with her knuckles. It made almost no sound; her next two raps were quick and harder, and the sound satisfying to judge from her smile. The all-cameras-in-trays guard smiled at them. So did the man in front of the little girl, a relative maybe, who tried to catch Eli’s eyes; but his long, tailored coat, his haircut, even the patches of gray at his temples spoke to Eli of success and arrogance, and Eli deliberately turned away to look into the capitol atrium.
The line began to move again, almost spurting forward. As Eli walked past the X-ray station, the conversation between the two guards led him to understand that the man was in training and the woman had been pointing out a particularly subtle image. As he relaxed, Eli’s legs threatened to buckle; another ache shot from his shoulder.
The little girl ran through the metal detector, took the hand of the older man and they walked quickly away. Eli walked through after her, feeling a chill as he passed the cop with the detector wand. He pulled his iPhone and key chain from the tray. The green anodized aluminum carabiner that served as a fob held just his apartment key since he’d sold the car for rent and food.
With his one free hand, Eli awkwardly reinserted his earbuds as he followed the crowd. Steered by velvet cordons the group veered to the left and as if at a signal tilted their heads back to look five stories up into the rotunda of the California State Capitol building.
From the central atrium of the dome, Eli looked down the wide corridors, like spokes, to each of the four sides of the building. Three of them were lined with closed doors on both sides; small brass signs hung over the doorways. Not far down the fourth corridor he saw a small crowd assembled in front of the massive art-deco brass doors of an elevator. Disoriented, Eli walked around the roped-off centerpiece of the room, a white marble sculpture of a queen on a throne, looking for something he recognized. He’d been here only four days before — or maybe five — shit! — and now he couldn’t remember a goddamned thing.
His breathing deepened till it dried his throat, trickles of sweat starting down his sides again when he saw the gilt, embossed letters on a beveled wooden plaque on the wall: Senate Chambers May Be Viewed from Gallery on 3rd Floor. Cold relief that left his legs shaking again displaced his anxiety. At the end of the hall with the elevator was a wide, carpeted, ascending stairway with paintings on the walls where the stairs turned. He remembered now.
The third-floor stairway ended in a large open area. Ahead and to the right an attendant in the same dirty-crimson blazer as the security people downstairs stood beside the high, carved-wood double doors that led to the Senate Chamber observation balcony. The senate was in session and the doors were closed. Eli began walking toward them, but as if pressed back by an invisible force, veered off. He looked at his watch, hoping the action would allay any suspicions the attendant might have concerning his erratic movement. Seemingly bored into a stupor, the attendant gave no sign that he’d even seen Eli.
Eli stopped in front of a tall window that overlooked the capital mall. The wide black ribbon of Capitol Boulevard began where the green plantings and gray concrete of the mall ended and continued with architectural precision straight to and over the big gilded bridge spanning the Sacramento River. He began to shiver. I can do this. I have to do this. The thought left an opening for the sadness to flow into him, but he fought it off.
Fucking bastards! Starve me into submission and leave me collecting cans in a goddamned shopping cart.
When the sadness came, the ache was literally paralyzing, sometimes for days, and if it came now, he truly might not be able to do what he had to do. The Angel was right — anger was the key. Eli pushed beyond anger to outrage; outrage over Carla, and the way the doctors had taken all their money to make the last eight months of her life hell. Outrage over forty-five years of taking it in the ass and then cheap Mexican labor comes in and he ends up like this! His breathing became deeper and stronger. The clouds let the sun through for a moment and the light hurt his eyes; he noticed where he was.
I will take you fuckers down, he thundered to himself, knowing he could, looking down at the cast, stroking it, feeling very strong now.
The Angel’s voice came through Eli’s earbuds. “Where are you?”
“I’m here. Just outside the door,” Eli said softly.
“You must hurry. They will be adjourning for lunch soon. You must not fail in what God has called you to do!”
“You must get off my goddamned ass!” Eli hissed. The Angel had been like a nagging old woman all morning. “I don’t know who in the hell you are but you’re damned sure no Angel. I haven’t been able to figure out what you are — some goddamned ghoul, lurkin’ on suicide blogs. It’s been years since I had a reason to believe in God, much less angels.”
Eli waited for a response; he wanted a fight. Adrenaline was surging and the months of anger he’d been holding back in order to keep things moving smoothly with this pompous shithead wanted out. Months of biting his tongue while this holy roller babbled on and on about God chose you and God will give you strength. Worse than any of the preachers in the churches Carla used to drag him to.
I will give me strength! You will give me a fucking bomb, Eli thought as he pushed his right ear bud further in with his free hand. “You still there?” he asked.
The attendant opened the door to the senate observation balcony just wide enough for Eli to sidle through. “And this is where the sadistic bastards bend you over,” Eli said under his breath, to no one, as he stepped from gray marble onto the red carpeting of the balcony