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PROLOGUE To be disrupted: when the human body is blown apart; as by the pressure force of a bomb. —Gradwohl’s Legal Medicine
Code Three Roll Out Bomb Squad Silver Lake, California
Charlie Riggio stared at the cardboard box sitting beside the Dumpster. It was a Jolly Green Giant box, with what appeared to be a crumpled brown paper bag sticking up through the top. The box was stamped green beans. Neither Riggio nor the two uniformed officers with him approached closer than the corner of the strip mall there on Sunset Boulevard; they could see the box fine from where they were.
“How long has it been there?”
One of the Adam car officers, a Filipino named Ruiz, checked his watch.
“We got our dispatch about two hours ago. We been here since.”
“Find anyone who saw how it got there?”
“Oh, no, dude. Nobody.”
The other officer, a black guy named Mason, nodded.
“Ruiz is the one saw it. He went over and looked in the bag, the crazy Flip.”
“So tell me what you saw.”
“I told your sergeant.”
“Tell me. I’m the sonofabitch who’s gonna approach the damned thing.”
Ruiz described seeing the capped ends of two galvanized pipes taped together with silver duct tape. The pipes were loosely wrapped in newspaper, Ruiz said, so he had only seen the ends.
Riggio considered that. They were standing in a strip mall on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake, an area that had seen increasing gang activity in recent months. Gangbangers would steal galvanized pipe from construction sites or dig up plastic PVC from some poor bastard’s garden, then stuff them with bottle rocket powder or match heads. Riggio didn’t know if the Green Giant box held an actual bomb or not, but he had to approach it as if it did. That’s the way it was with bomb calls. Better than ninety-five percent turned out to be hairspray cans, some teenager’s book bag, or, like his most recent call-out, two pounds of marijuana wrapped in Pampers. Only one out of a hundred was what the bomb techs called an “improvised munition.”
A homemade bomb.
“You hear ticking or anything like that?”
“Smell anything burning?”
“Did you open the bag to get a better look?”
“Did you move the box or anything?”
Ruiz smiled like Riggio was nuts.
“Dude, I saw those pipes and shit my pants. The only thing I moved was my feet!”
Riggio walked back to his vehicle. The Bomb Squad drove dark blue Suburbans, rigged with a light bar, and crammed with all the tools of the bomb technician’s trade, except for the robots. You wanted the robots, you had to call them out special, and he wasn’t going to do that. The goddamned robot would just get bogged down in all the potholes around the box.
Riggio found his supervisor, Buck Daggett, instructing a uniformed sergeant to evacuate the area for a hundred yards in all directions. The fire department had already been called, and paramedics were on the way. Sunset Boulevard had been closed, and traffic rerouted. All for something that might turn out to be some do-it-yourself plumber’s castoff drain trap.
“Hey, Buck, I’m ready to take a look at that thing.”
“I want you in the suit.”
“It’s too hot. I’ll use the chest protector for the first pass, then the suit if I have to bring out the de-armer.”
All Riggio would be doing on the first pass was lugging out a portable X-ray to see inside the bag. If the contents appeared to be a bomb, he and Daggett would formulate a game plan and either de-arm the device, or explode it in place.
“I want you in the suit, Charles. I got a feeling about this one.”
“You’ve always got a feeling.”
“I’ve also got the sergeant stripes. You’re in the suit.”
The armored suit weighed almost ninety pounds. Made of Kevlar plates and heavy Nomex batting, it covered every part of Riggio’s body except his hands, which remained bare. A bomb tech needed the dexterity of unencumbered fingers.
When the suit was in place, Riggio took the Real Time RTR3 X-ray unit and lumbered toward the package. Walking in the suit was like walking with his body wrapped in wet quilts, only hotter. Three minutes in the armor, and sweat was already running into his eyes. To make it worse, a safety cable and hardwire dragged behind him, the hardwire connecting him to Daggett via a telex communicator. A separate wire linked the Real Time to a computer in the Suburban’s cargo bay. He felt like he was pulling a plow.
Daggett’s voice came into Riggio’s ear. “How you doing out there?”
“Sweating my ass off, thanks to you.”
Riggio hated this part the most, approaching an object before he knew what it was. Every time was the same: Riggio thought of that unknown object as a living beast with a life and a mind. Like a sleeping pit bull. If he approached it carefully and made the right moves, everything would be fine. If he startled the dog, the damn thing would rip him apart.
Eighty-two slow-motion paces brought him to the box.
It was unremarkable except for a wet stain on one corner that looked like dog piss. The brown paper bag, crumpled and uneven, was open. Riggio peered into the bag without touching it. Leaning over was hard, and when he did, sweat dripped onto the Lexan faceplate like rain.
He saw the two pipes that Ruiz had described. The pipe caps appeared to be about two-and-a-half inches in diameter and taped together, but nothing else about them was visible. They were loosely wrapped with newspaper, leaving only the ends exposed. Daggett said, “How’s it look?”
“Like a couple of pipes. Stand by. I’ll get us a picture.”
Riggio placed the Real Time RTR3 on the ground at the base of the box, aimed for a side view, then turned on the unit. It provided the same type of translucent shadow image that security personnel see on airline baggage units, reproducing the image on two screens: one for Riggio on top of the RTR3 and another on the computer back at the Suburban.
Charlie Riggio smiled.
“Sonofabitch. We got one, Buck. We got us a bomb.”
“I’m seeing it.”
The two pipes were impenetrable shadows with what appeared to be a spool of wire or fuse triangled between them. There didn’t appear to be a timer or an initiator of a more sophisticated nature, leading Riggio to believe that the bomb was a garage project made by an enterprising local gangbanger. Low-tech, dirty, and not particularly difficult to de-arm.
“This one’s going to be a piece of cake, Buck. I make a basic fuse of the light-it-and-run-like-hell variety.”
“You be careful. Might be some kind of motion switch tucked away in there.”
“I’m not gonna touch it, Buck. Jesus. Gimme some credit.”
“Don’t get cocky. Take the snaps and let’s figure out what’s what.”
The procedure was to take a series of digital computer snaps of the device via the Real Time at forty-five-degree angles. When they had the device mapped, Riggio would fall back to the Suburban where he and Daggett would decide how best to destroy or de-arm it.
Riggio shuffled around the box, aiming the Real Time over the different angles. He felt no fear as he did this because he knew what he was dealing with now and trusted he could beat it. Riggio had approached over forty-eight suspicious packages in his six years with the Bomb Squad; only nine had been actual explosive devices. None of those had ever detonated in a manner that he did not control.
“You’re not talking to me, Charlie. You okay?”
“Just got to work around the potholes, Sarge. Almost done. Hey, you know what I’m having? I’m having a brainstorm.”
“Stop. You’ll hurt yourself.”
“No, listen to this. You know those people on the infomercials who make all that money with the stupid shit they sell? We could sell these damned suits to fat people, see? You just wear it and you lose weight.”
“Keep your damned head with that bomb, Riggio. How’s your body temp?”
In truth, he was so hot that he felt dizzy, but he wanted to make sure he had good clean shots. He circled the box like a man in a space suit, getting front, side, and off angles, then pointed the Real Time straight down for a top view. That’s when he saw a shadow that hadn’t been visible in the side views.
“Buck, you see that? I think I got something.” “What?”
“Here in the overhead view. Take a snap.”
A thin, hairlike shadow emerged from the side of one pipe and extended up through the spool. This wire wasn’t attached to the others, which confused Riggio until a sudden, unexpected thought occurred to him: Maybe the spool was there only to hide this other wire.
In that moment, fear crackled through him and his bowels clenched. He called out to Buck Daggett, but the words did not form.
Riggio thought, Oh, God.
The bomb detonated at a rate of twenty-seven thousand feet per second, twenty-two times faster than a nine-millimeter bullet leaves the muzzle of a pistol. Heat flashed outward in a burst of white light hot enough to melt iron. The air pressure spiked from a normal fifteen pounds per square inch to twenty-two hundred pounds, shattering the iron pipes into jagged shrapnel that punched through the Kevlar suit like hyperfast bullets. The shock wave slammed into his body with an over-pressure of three hundred thousand pounds, crushing his chest, rupturing his liver, spleen, and lungs, and separating his unprotected hands. Charlie Riggio was lifted fourteen feet into the air and thrown a distance of thirty-eight feet.
Even this close to the point of detonation, Riggio might have survived if this had been, as he first suspected, a garage bomb cooked up by a gangbanger with makeshift materials.
Bits of tarmac and steel fell around him like bloody rain, long after Charlie Riggio was dead.