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"An intelligently crafted and suspenseful story with plenty of action on every page."
Making his way around the corner, Dale Stoner didn’t bother scanning the row of buildings that loomed up on either side of him like the walls of a sheer, gray stone canyon. The heavy afternoon traffic, which always starts earlier on Friday afternoons, covered the floor of this drab man made valley. The streets and roadways, populated by office workers and corporate professionals streaming out of the city for home demanded Stoner’s full attention, even though their forward progress was more akin to a creeping glacier than a roaring river.
By nature a cautious man, Stoner drove with both hands on the wheel, keeping an eye out for inattentive drivers and lane jockeys. When threatened by one of these hazards, Stoner would maneuver his oversize delivery van out of harm’s way with an ease and grace that had earned him the respect of his fellow drivers and supervisors. That this praise did not translate into bonuses or pay raises did not bother Stoner any more. Nor did he mind the extra hours. The work, though tedious and routine at best, kept him from dwelling on his problems, most of the time. But not always.
Despite his best efforts, Dale Stoner couldn’t keep his mind from wandering back to the chain of events that had led to this day. In high school, it hadn’t been his aspiration to be a delivery truck driver. It had just happened, just like the First Gulf War, and his estrangement from his own family. Before those tragic events he thought he had it all. He believed that he knew what was right and what was wrong, that there were people who loved him and upon whom he could depend. But then the war had come and nothing was ever the same again.
Stoner had loved being a soldier. The camaraderie that grew out of shared hardships, the sense of purpose the Army gave him, and a comfortable illusion of security the peacetime military generates was worth the low pay and hassles that had gone with the job. He was just starting his second hitch as a combat engineer in the beginning of August 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Together with his companions, Dale Stoner swallowed whatever personal fears he harbored and sallied forth to meet his sworn obligations. Like millions of Americans had done in the past, Stoner was ready, able, and willing to defend his nation and his fellow countrymen. At a time when so many other Americans had nothing else but profit margins, net worth, and capital gains on their minds, he was out there, on the edge, doing things other men only dreamed of. Yet, despite years of training, Dale Stoner found he was unprepared for what happened to him.
A sudden blur in his sideview mirror alerted Stoner to a danger, more perceived then understood. With a shake of his head, his attention snapped back to the task of driving his van. It took Stoner a moment before he was able to focus on the potential hazard. There, in his right sideview mirror, Stoner spotted a road warrior coming up from behind, scooting about from lane to lane in a small metallic blue German import in an effort to beat imaginary foes. As he watched in his oversized mirrors, Stoner saw the little blue import cut in front of a white Japanese four door. The driver of the Japanese car, trying to enjoy a cup of cappuccino while jabbering on a cell phone and driving, was caught off guard by the sudden appearance of the metallic blue car in front of him. Stoner could clearly see the driver of the white car panic as he let go of his cup, grabbed the wheel with both hands, and swerved without looking. This set in motion a chain reaction that disrupted numerous phone calls and caused fellow drivers to spill drinks and or spew globs of late afternoon snacks all over their pinstriped suits and silk blouses.
Having triumphed over the white car, the driver of the metallic blue car set his sights on Stoner’s oversized delivery truck as he began to maneuver into position to pass it on the right. Patiently, Dale Stoner did nothing as he watched the metallic blue car draw near. Confident of his ability to pass the lumbering van, the driver of the metallic blue car took one hand off the wheel and reached down to grab his cell phone. Stoner could see that the driver was a young, clean-cut, professional type, wearing a crisp white shirt, a nondescript tie, and sunglasses like those favored by aviators. There was no way, Stoner thought, that this character had served in the Gulf, or Bosnia, or Kosovo, or anywhere else. The closest this geek had gotten to the First Persian Gulf War had been on his television. With that thought in mind, Stoner watched and waited as the metallic blue car continued to close.
Stoner’s patience was rewarded. Just as the front fender of the metallic blue car pulled even with the rear bumper of his truck, the driver of the car turned his head to search for something on the passenger seat. Seizing the moment, Stoner flipped on his right hand turn signal and jerked the wheel of his truck a tad to the right. He didn’t intend to move over into the other lane, for in truth there wasn’t any room in the traffic to do so. He just wanted the other driver to think he not only wanted to do so, but was, in fact, in the act of doing so.
The ploy worked. The flashing turn signal and the unexpected motion of the big delivery truck caught the driver of the metallic blue car off guard. Panicked, he threw his phone over his shoulder, brought his free hand onto the steering wheel, and gave it a hard pull to the right. In an instant, the metallic blue car was up and over the curb. Unnerved and shaken, the driver struggled to control his car as the hard plastic bumper of his overvalued import glanced off not one but two parking meter poles, leaving a gash that would more than eat up his collision deductible.
Though he would have liked to slow down some in order to savor his small victory over the forces of ignorance, Stoner’s turn was coming up. After having allowed himself the indulgence of becoming distracted from his task, it was time to concentrate on making his way safely to the left. Deftly, he nudged his large truck over into the left-hand lane, made his turn, and continued on to his target.
As he approached the Federal building and made for the driveway marked “deliveries,” Stoner tried once more to piece together how this nightmare had all started. Perhaps it had been during the air war when nightly SCUD alerts sent them scrambling into poorly built bunkers where they sat in the dark silence, masked and covered head to toe in chemical protective clothing, wondering what was to become of them. Or it could have been the day his platoon made its way slowly along the road north of Kuwait City that the media had dubbed “The Highway of Death.” Even the mere thought of that experience conjured up memories of sights and smells that still haunted him to this very day.
Bringing his truck to a stop, Stoner sat quietly in his seat for a moment and thought. Given a chance, he could have dealt with any of those nightmares, singularly or together. If only he’d been allowed by his Creator to keep his health, Stoner was sure that he could have held things together, to have soldiered on and keep both his sanity and family. But like countless others, he was denied that opportunity by the onset of a series of nebulous and ill defined conditions that eventually became known as Gulf War syndrome.
It crept into his life slowly, unnoticed at first. For him it was like an unending bout with the flu. He was never really outright sick, but neither was he free for more than a few days of misery that alternated between sweats and chills. First the military physicians, and then those at the VA after he was medically discharged, explained away Stoner’s continuous ill health with any number of theories, none of which solved his problems. Even his own wife, worn thin by his continuous complaints, did little to help. “Dale,” she’d scream at him in frustration, “it’s all in your head. You’ve got to pull yourself together. Forget about the Gulf and get on with your life.” And though he tried, tried with all his strength, he found he was unable to overcome either his chronic illness or those terrible visions that he kept locked away inside where no one could see them or be hurt by them.
As bad as his separation from his wife was, the unkindest cut of all came in the fall of 1996 when the Department of Defense, after denying the existence of Gulf War syndrome, suddenly announced that yes, an unknown number of soldiers had been exposed to chemical agents during the Gulf War. To Stoner the admission that some of the illnesses experienced by Gulf War veterans could have been related to service there, after the government had denied any connection between the two for so long, was a breach of faith. Hadn’t he done his part? Hadn’t he fulfilled his obligations to his duly appointed superiors and the people of the United States in the belief that they would, if necessary, support him in his time of need?
The memory that no one had done a dammed thing to help him provided the last spark of anger he needed to carry him through the next hour. Like vets from the Vietnam War, Dale learned the hard way that those whom he thought he was protecting and serving wanted nothing to do with the human wreckage left in the wake of war. People such as the arrogant young professional who had been driving the metallic blue German import had their own lives to live, narrow and self-centered lives that left little time for those who had shouldered the rifle when duty called and suffered for their efforts.
Once on the loading dock, Stoner dropped the hydraulic gate, opened the rear doors of his truck, and climbed in. Mechanically, he began loading the heavy-duty four-wheel cart. As he had done so many times before in his mind, Stoner stacked the boxes made to hold five thousand sheets of copier paper in a predetermined order. Carefully he placed the boxes he, himself, had packed in the center of the cart. A small arrow, all but unnoticeable unless you knew what to look for, pointed outward on one side of the box lids. These would all be stacked in the center, four high, and surrounded by boxes containing real copier paper.
In silence Stoner completed loading his cart, watching out of the corner of his eye as an increasing number of Federal employees used his van as cover in their effort to slip out a bit early. It was no accident that Dale had selected this particular hour and weekday to make this “special” delivery. He had been here during this time of day before and noted how everyone, from the most senior judge in the building to the lowliest clerk in the mailroom, was in a hurry to finish up his work and leave. Stoner not only expected this outbound traffic, he was counting on it.
Carefully he eased the heavily burdened cart down the aluminum ramp. From here on in it was all a matter of luck and following through. After closing and locking the door of his truck, as he did every time he left it unattended in a public area, Dale pushed his cart up to the double doors of the Federal building.
“Someone doesn’t like you,” the security guard at the entrance called out by way of a greeting.
Stoner struggled with his load, forced a smile and nodded. “Oh, I don’t mind,” he replied. “This is my last delivery.”
The security guard returned Stoner’s smile as he looked over the cart full of copier paper. “Know what ya mean,” he responded with a halfhearted sigh. Nothing showed on the scanner as Stoner passed through the security checkpoint with his cart. Nor did any expression of concern, fear, or anticipation betray a man who had, by now, put aside any doubts. Used to seeing Dale Stoner deliver tons of copier paper to the Federal building week after week, the guard didn’t bother to check the invoice or make any effort to poke through the boxes that seemed to be precariously close to toppling off Stoner’s cart. Having done as much of his duty as he felt necessary, the guard went back to keeping one eye on the small portable TV he kept in his enclosed booth and let Dale make his way to the basement where the central supply room was.
Any second thoughts that were trying to worm their way into Stoner’s consciousness disappeared when the doors of the elevator opened. With a grunt he gave his heavy cart a jerk to get it moving and maneuvered it into the elevator. After pressing the button for the basement, Stoner closed his eyes and started to take deep, slow breaths. He didn’t open his eyes until the elevator stopped. As if synchronized, his eyes opened as the doors of the elevator separated. With a heave, he shoved his cart out into the hall and began to make his way down the long, dimly lit basement corridor.
The idea for his plan had come to him not long after making a delivery, much like this one, late one afternoon months before. Alone, and in a hurry to be finished with his paperwork, the manager of the supply room had pleaded with Dale to have a heart and wheel his cart into the main storage area. “Drop the stuff off wherever you can find a spot,” the frazzled Federal employee had explained to Stoner. “I’ll sort it out on Monday. I just want to clear my desk and get out of here before the traffic gets too bad.”
Left alone in the basement of the building that day, Stoner had noticed that the room, used for storage of office supplies as well as unused furniture, had no walls. Most of the building’s main support pillars for the left half of the building, encased in concrete, stood exposed in one cavernous room. How easy, he had found himself thinking, it would be to drop this place. With a little bit of C-4 and det cord, Stoner was confident that he could bring at least half of the building down upon itself, just like a house of cards.
That this thought had stayed with him long after he had left that day didn’t surprise him. Stoner had been in and out of that building on many an occasion on other business. He had wasted hours traveling from one Federal agency to another in an effort to eke out some sort of justice from a government that had turned its back on him. More than once he had stormed out of an office after being rebuffed by a pasty faced bureaucrat who was unable, or unwilling, to deal with him in a manner that he, Stoner, thought a disabled veteran deserved. More than once he had driven away from this very building wishing he could blow them all to kingdom come.
It didn’t take much before his fits of anger began to transform themselves into a idea, and then action. Perhaps, he told himself as he made his way down the corridor, it had been only natural to come up with his plan, given his training. He had already sketched out a rough concept in his mind before he attended his first militia meeting. By that time, he was interested only in working out the details, not the reason or even the target. Dale Stoner had no intention of becoming a member of a group known as the 5th Brigade. They were only interested in beating their chests, and playing soldiers. He, on the other hand, had a purpose in life. The former combat engineer was intent on exacting his revenge from a government that no longer represented him or millions of other hard working, honest citizens like him. Armed with motive and the technical expertise his years of active duty had bestowed upon him, all Dale needed was the means.
When he pushed his way into the outer office, the employees charged with receiving and storing all the supplies used in the building were gathered there, waiting for their work day to come to an end. Stoner made it a point to bang his cart against anything he could in the office crowded with desks and shelves. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of the man in charge rolling his eyes at the sight of Stoner. “Jeez,” the supervisor sneered as he looked over Stoner’s load. “Why didn’t you wait until we were halfway out the door before delivering this stuff?”
Bringing his cart to a stop before responding, Stoner wiped some sweat from his brow, then smiled at the chubby old coot. “Sorry’bout that. Yours was the first one they loaded at the warehouse and, I’m sorry to say, last off my truck.”
“I’m honored,” the chief supply clerk shot back.
“Well,” Stoner added quickly, “if it makes you feel any better, I’ll take it back there myself and unload it. I know where it goes.”
Stoner’s offer was greeted with smiles all around. The men and women who normally would have been left the task to unload the boxes off Stoner’s cart onto their own and then haul them into the main storage area, all turned to stare at their boss who sat at his cluttered desk, considering Stoner’s offer. With the heightened state of alert that every April 19 brought to every Federal facility having passed without a single incident, the chief supply clerk saw no harm in sidestepping proper procedures, again. Stoner’s quiet blue eyes, framed by a bland, clean, expressionless face, didn’t look anything like one of those crazed maniacs. He could be trusted. After all, he had done this sort of thing before.
Quickly altering his scowl into as decent a smile as he could manage this late on a Friday afternoon, the chief supply clerk waved Stoner on. “Well, sure. If you’re willin’ to put that stuff away, I’m willin’ to let you do it.”
With sighs of relief, the other supply clerks went about finishing up the last bit of work they would need to clear before they left. With a free rein and an open door, Dale Stoner gave his heavy load one mighty heave in order to get it moving again. By the time he had disappeared into the main storage area, the busy Federal employees replaced any thought of him or his cargo with other, more pressing concerns such as home, family, and what was for dinner.
Stoner hadn’t bothered to study architectural engineering or common construction techniques. Nor had he made complex calculations as to size and shape of his charges. Instead he was content to rely on simple guesswork, common sense, and years of training and practical experience. Only in his choice of explosives had he taken his time. Trained as a combat engineer, Stoner took pride in his skills and found great enjoyment in solving the technical problems he faced. From the beginning, he had ruled out a fuel oil and fertilizer bomb like that used in Oklahoma City. It would be, he figured, too bulky and difficult to move about in pieces. Besides, law enforcement agencies were tracking the sales of large quantities of ammonium nitrate and dynamite too closely. No, he told himself when he recalled the image of the room full of pillars. What he needed were explosives that were precise, yet portable.
His original idea of using C-4 and det cord was not at all practical. To obtain that sort of thing would have meant stealing from the military. Anxious to avoid exposing himself to the chances that such a theft would entail, he held that as a fallback position only. It was much better, he reasoned, to manufacture his own explosives using common chemicals. That’s what had led him to the 5th Brigade. If anyone knew how to fabricate explosives, they would. So late in the fall he had attended a couple of their meetings. He had even gone out on “maneuvers” with them once. Unfortunately, he had found himself disliking the whole lot of them. While he had heard the term “Cox’s Army” before, he had never known what it had meant until he spent time with the 5th Brigade. A maneuver with that mongrel organization was the military’s equivalent of a bad hair day. For weapons, the “soldiers” of the 5th Brigade carried everything from high powered sports rifles to old military weapons that looked to be more dangerous to the owner. Only the wild diversity of physical appearance and stature of the members of the unit surpassed their strange assortment of weaponry. With the exception of three or four former soldiers, the unit of the 5th Brigade Dale fell in with was composed of fat men well past their prime or boys trying hard to make noises like men. In disgust Stoner had left that group and, for a short time, despaired of finding a suitable explosive for his project.
In the end, the solution to his problem was delivered to him via the World Wide Web. While browsing the Internet on a friend’s computer, Stoner had stumbled upon the formula for an explosive called RDX. With a force one hundred and fifty times that of TNT, a modified version of RDX could be molded like C-4 into a shaped charge. That stuff, Stoner thought, would be ideal for cutting through the concrete and steel pillars that he often visited in his dreams. Like a slow burning fuse, Dale Stoner’s trail of Biblical justice was ignited.
On this day he had no need to pause or survey the cavernous store room. Stoner had already worked out the details, in his mind, time and time again. So he was able to go quickly from pillar to pillar. At each of them he brought his cart to a stop, removed one of the boxes with the small arrow from the center of the stack, and placed it on the floor, right up against the pillar at its base with the small arrow pointed at the pillar. Around each of these boxes he piled the boxes of real paper. While this would do little to direct the blast, since the hollowed out, inverted cone shape of his explosives would already do that, Stoner felt that it just might help the blast along, if just a little.
He didn’t have enough explosives for all the pillars. He knew that beforehand. To compensate for this, he selected those that stood in what he thought was the center of the building. At the base of each of them, he placed one of his homemade shaped charges, setting it so that each of the detonations would blow in, against the pillar and toward the middle of the building. Not only would this collapse the pillars inward, but the force of each of the devices would converge in the center where it would be vented up and through the floors above. If the loss of the supporting pillars didn’t bring the floors above down, then the gaping hole left by the upward blast might.
Placement went quickly since there had been no need to set individual fuses. All the tinkering and experimentation needed to make them function properly had all been painstakingly worked out well in advance. The actual setting and initiation of the fuses had been done the night before, when he had connected the small, battery operated alarm clocks to the model rocket engines he was using as primers. All of these items, as well as the ingredients for his explosives, had been purchased over the months from supermarkets and department stores. Unlike the Oklahoma affair, none of his purchases were of such a quantity that they would attract attention. Nor did he buy everything at once. Like the crippling series of illnesses that robbed him of his health, then his family, and finally his dignity, Dale Stoner took his time.
When he was finished and he had said his farewells to the crew of supply clerks who hadn’t managed to slip away early, Stoner made his way back to his truck. There he abandoned his cart and took a brown paper bag and a letter from the passenger seat. Re-entering the building, Stoner made his way though the crowd, out the front door into the bright late afternoon sunlight. Slowly he walked down the wide steps of the Federal building to the street. He weaved a crooked path through people coming and going until he reached the bank of mailboxes that sat along the curb. Dale looked at the letter he had carefully prepared, addressed to the Veteran’s Administration. Revenge, he knew, would have no meaning if the people from whom he was extracting it didn’t know what they were being punished for. So he had put down into words, as best he could, the reasons that had led him to the course of action he had chosen. “As hard as I try,” he explained in his letter, “I can not find a single person in the Army, or the Government it defends, responsible for what it has done to me and others like me. So I must mete out my punishment against the entire Federal government, and those who work for it. I pray, deep down inside, that my actions, regardless of how horrible and despicable they may seem, awakens someone’s consciousness to the wrong that this government has done to ‘We, The People.’”
Without a second thought Stoner dropped his letter into the mailbox, turned, and reentered the Federal building. Making his way through the crowd, he took a seat on a bench in the lobby that he judged would be right over the spot where the force of the blast from all his little devices would meet and then go up as they sought to vent their destructive power. Opening the brown paper bag, Stoner took out a sandwich he had made that morning and began to eat as he waited for his appointed time.
Ironically, the bench he sat on faced an Army recruiting office. For him that office represented the start point for a journey that had proven to be long and tiring. All the lies had started there. The promises of an education, of an exciting career, and the respect of his fellow countrymen had been heaped upon him like so many brightly colored junk mail catalogs. He had believed it, all of it.
But like the leaves of a tree, each of those promises had withered, died, and fallen away. Those exciting and wonderful assignments overseas never came his way. Instead, Dale went to Fort Hood, Texas, a place he found was far closer to purgatory than paradise. Nor had he been able to take advantage of any of the educational benefits he had so desperately wanted. Such things were only dreams for soldiers assigned to field units. Still, he had adapted to the reality he found and made do with a life that, while perhaps not ideal, had at least been comfortable while he had been in the Army.
“Comfort,” Stoner thought as he stared at the door of the recruiting office. Now there was a word he hadn’t been able to use in years. The skin irritations, the achy joints, the late night sweats, and the nightmares all conspired to rob him of a physical comfort that was now as alien to him as were the men and women who hurried on past him. The loss of his wife, in part due to his declining health, but mostly as a result of the building rage he found he was no longer able to control, denied him the emotional comfort that could have seen him through all the physical aliments that had become the norm for him. But above all else, it was his inability to find the comfort that comes with knowing that someone cared, that someone was doing something to help him. Denial, procrastination, and a steady outpouring of lies and half-truths concerning the illness that had ruined his life was simply too much to handle. It was this reneging on the promise that “we look after our own,” that pushed Stoner over the edge. If this building had been the beginning of his long, cruel journey, it was fitting that it also be the end.
Frank Bowman and the rest of the new shift of Engine Company 3 didn’t need to be told by anyone that something terrible had just happened. Even five blocks away, the force of the explosion shook the very foundation of their midtown fire station, knocking pictures off the wall and rattling every window in the place. Without comment or hesitation, the men and women of Engine Company 3 and the ladder truck that shared the building slammed their half filled cups of coffee down on the nearest flat surface and made their way purposely to their trucks before the first alarm came in. Above the tramping of sock clad feet across the concrete floors of the bay where the pumper stood, the voice of the central dispatcher rattled off the names and numbers of fire and emergency units that were being dispatched as well as the location of the emergency. Few of the members of Engine Company 3 paused to look at each other when the words “explosion at the Federal building, 122 East Main” blared from the speakers. Yet each and every man and woman, struggling as they pulled on heavy, oversized boots, yellow jackets with broad silver strips, and visored helmets, saw the same image in their minds. The scenes of Oklahoma City were too well etched in their collective memories for any of them to discount that possibility.
With an ease that belied the difficulty of the task, Bowman maneuvered the pumper truck of Engine Company 3 down the last few chaotic blocks leading to the front of the Federal building. Having been totally absorbed by the task of driving the mammoth vehicle, Bowman was unprepared for what he saw when he finally had a chance to glance up at the massive Federal building. To be trained to deal with something did not mean that you were truly ready to come face to face with the harsh reality of such an event. Awed by the smoke and flame that bellowed from shattered windows and gaping holes where a solid marble facade had been, Bowman didn’t realize that he had run up onto the curb until the huge front bumper of his truck began to bowl over and crumple the row of postal boxes that stood before the building. Slamming on his brakes Bowman brought his pumper to a halt, throwing his fellow firefighters forward. Even after regaining their balance, it took them all a moment to absorb the shock of what they were seeing before springing from the cab of the truck to begin the task of laying hose.
Finally, it was their lieutenant who snapped them out of their awed trance. “Okay,” he stated in a flat, unemotional voice, “we have a job to do.” With that, Bowman and his companions went into action. As they did so, Bowman found that it was difficult to ignore the multitudes of victims who wandered about all over the street and plaza. Most were stunned, dazed, and choking from the smoke. Alone and in small groups more could be seen staggering out through the rubble that had once been a building’s lobby. Others who had escaped the inferno earlier were rolling on the ground or thrashing about in pools of their own blood. Through this throng of victims, the men and women of Engine Company 3 struggled forward with their heavy hoses and tools to attack the flames that were leaping out to greet them. Sorting the dead from those who were wounded or simply stunned was someone else’s responsibility. Bowman and his companions belonged to an engine company, charged with knocking down the roaring blaze that was climbing the shattered building with alarming speed.
When all was set the firefighters on the nozzles cut loose and began to attack the sheet of flames rolling across the pile of rubble before them. With drilled precision, they began their advance, leaving teams of EMTs in their wake to deal with the casualties. This task was complicated, somewhat, by the streams of dirty water that began cascading down over the bloody debris strewn steps of the building. When this water had finished its task of quenching the fire, the warm, dirty water wound its way out of the shattered building and into the street. Along the way, it passed over and around the bodies of the dead, the wounded, and the dying. From there the water, now tinted red, ran through the crushed mailboxes, carrying with it into the gutter and down a storm drain the letter that contained Dale Stoner’s confession of guilt and his feeble justification.
Copyright © 2002 by Harold Coyle
Posted October 5, 2002
Posted June 6, 2002
Posted July 26, 2011
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Posted June 20, 2011
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Posted July 5, 2011
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Posted June 21, 2010
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Posted August 26, 2011
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