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The house, a variation on the Colonial style that seemed to typify New England, was located on what was called the Neck, a reclusive and wealthy island community of million-dollar-plus homes, and accessed only by a small bridge that connected it to Marblehead and (when needed) to the rest of the world. It was located close to the lighthouse that was a popular make-out spot with local teenagers and sectioned off by a tall iron gate. The house's massive back deck, the wood weathered gray from the salt, sun, and long winters, was large enough to hold a high school graduation and overlooked a private stretch of beach. A new black Lexus and a vintage silver Jaguar were parked out in the driveway in front of the family's two-car garage.
The house belonged to Patrick and Veronica Dolan, who had a thirteen-year-old son, Alex. All three of them, Jack knew, were dead.
The call came in to the station shortly after 12 A.M. The caller's voice was different from that on last month's 911 call, and this time the caller stated his name, Dale Porter, the Dolans' next-door neighbor. He had heard a gunshot and called the police. Dispatch called Porter's home number; no answer. Jack immediately placed a call to the Boston Bomb Squad.
At 12:35, residents were torn from their sleep by a rush of bullhorns and flashing lights. Local and state police herded the frightened families down the bridge and onto school buses that would take them to hotels in Peabody and Danvers. Less than an hour later, all of the residents of the Neck and half of Marblehead had been evacuated. Bomb techs entered the house. Arson investigators were on the horn to the ATF and the FBI's Explosives Unit. And the mediawas out in full force.
It was now Friday morning, a quarter to five. The sky was the color of a burnt-out lightbulb, and a cool breeze blew off the water, welcome relief from the oppressive humidity that had haunted Marblehead for the past three weeks. The power had been cut all over town; the Dolan house was dark. The news choppers were gone for the moment; the air was eerily still, filled only with the sound of the waves lapping against the shore. The place felt like a ghost town.
On the back deck Jack fidgeted with the various buckles on his padded bomb suit. He had never worn one before and was having trouble figuring out how to fasten it. Standing on the opposite side of the picnic table and leaning with his back against the balcony railing was Bob Burke, the commander of the Boston Bomb Squad, the man who for the past four hours had been inside the house with the bomb. Burke was smoking a cigar that looked like an artillery shell. His green eyes were narrow and unblinking as he watched from behind the clouds of smoke drifting up across his face.
"I told you there's no need for you to get dressed up, you're not going in there." Burke's voice was throaty, cured by tobacco and the whiskey he drank for what he called medicinal purposes. The top half of his bomb suit hung off his waist; his gray Harvard Law T-shirt was dark with sweat and stretched tightly across his barrel chest and broad shoulders. He was in his late fifties and had been working with bombs ever since completing two tours in Vietnam. Like all bomb techs, Burke had been trained by the FBI at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, and it was widely acknowledged by many within the FBI's Explosives Unit that Bob Burke was one of the best in the business.
"You listening or what?"
"We've already covered this," Jack said, his attention focused on the pieces of the bomb suit that were spread across the picnic table.
"And we're about to cover it again until I get through that thick melon of yours." Burke pointed the cigar at him for emphasis. "I just told you what Semtex-H is."
"A Russian-made plastic explosive with a high shatter rate. Popular with Middle Eastern terrorists."
"Now six blocks of it are sitting in the bedroom of a residential home in Yuppietown. Six blocks. One can reduce a plane to fragments you can hold in your hand. I got six. If they go off, Marblehead's going to be relocated on the other side of the Atlantic and you'll be fish food."
"You said the bomb malfunctioned."
"No, I said I believed it malfunctioned and that I won't know for sure if it did until I take it apart. But I have to move it out of the house first, and there's no guarantee that it won't blow."
Burke's words hung in the still air. Jack went about attaching the breastplate. More buckles, Christ. He stopped dressing and looked over the railing. Between the pockets of fog he could see white foam along the sand and rocks.
"You took an X ray of the bomb, right?"
"We've been through this," Burke said.
"On the X ray, you find any failsafe mechanisms, like an antidisturbance switch?"
"No, but we did find a gravity trigger. I go to move it and in a blink we're scattered on the moon."
"But in order to activate the trigger, you have to move the bomb."
"Semtex-H is invisible on X ray. I X-ray a briefcase containing a block of that shit, it doesn't even show up as an outline. You with me so far?"
Jack knew where Burke was going. "If there was a secondary IED inside the house, you would have found it."
"That doesn't mean there isn't one in there. I didn't X-ray everything inside the house."
"There's only one bomb in there."
Burke's eyes lighted with a mix of anger and frustration. A web of deep red lines the texture of rubber ran across the left side of his face, carved through his salt-and-pepper beard like runoff beds on soil, and bled down into a thick blob of white scar tissue that covered half of his neck. The skin around his right eye looked like melted red-and-white wax, the ear practically gone.
A local mob hit man whom Burke had sent up the road for life had mailed a letter bomb to Burke during the fall of 1979. Burke had been standing behind his desk, his face turned to a subordinate, when he opened the letter. If he had been looking at it, the acid would have blinded him.
Burke removed the cigar from his mouth. "It's been a long night, my body's jacked on adrenaline and junked on a little whiskey, and when that happens, I have a habit of not making my point very clear. I apologize." He struggled above his anger to maintain calmness and clarity. "So I'll say it again, and this time I'll go extra slow. A laptop computer with six blocks of Semtex-H, probably the most lethal plastic explosive on the planet, is sitting upstairs in a bedroom behind us hooked up to the phone jack in the wall."
"The phone lines are shut down and so is the electricity."
Burke pressed on. "Right now the laptop's running on a battery. When the battery dies, it could send off enough juice to blow the explosives."
"But you don't know that for sure."
"Then there's the matter of the disc drive. Right now there's a disc stuck in there. Every once in a while, the computer starts reading it. How that fits in, Christ, I don't know. If I take it out and the computer starts looking for it, the bomb could blow. It could blow with it in there. That's the fucking problem, Jack. I just don't know. I've been doing this job for thirty-plus years now, and when I think about what's inside that bedroom, it's like someone's holding a flame under my sack. You getting the drift? Am I speaking nice and slow for you?"
Jack looked past Burke's shoulder at the sliding glass door. The killer had cut a square section of glass large enough for him to reach his hand through and unlock the door. The call came in just after twelve, and what he had done with the family took time. He had counted on the bomb wiping out the evidence. But the bomb hadn't gone off and the crime scene was intact.
"Last month this guy blew up a house and killed two officers," Jack said. "We got the media crawling all over the place, we got you and ATF agents poking around the blast site, we throw the media a report about a gas explosion and the story dies. Four weeks later and we have zero for evidence, Bob. The only thing we know is that this guy used infrared on last month's bomb. I walked into the bedroom, walked through the beam, and initiated the bomb's timer. That's all we know, correct? Or am I missing something?"
Jack looked back to Burke. Burke worked the cigar between his back molars and stared at him, his eyes as hard as green marbles. The cool air picked up and blew around them, filled with the squawk of seagulls.
"Upstairs in that bedroom is a fully constructed crime scene, complete with evidence that the bomb was supposed to erase, and you're standing here telling me to just walk away."
"I want you to think with your head and not with the hard-on you got for this guy," Burke said. "You scraped by last month. This time, you may not be so lucky."
"The fact is that he had plenty of chances to take us out and the entire goddamn town and he didn't. Why? Because he can't. The bomb malfunctioned and right now he's sitting somewhere very pissed off, dreaming up his next move. You and I both know this is going to happen again, and when it does, we won't be having this kind of conversation. We'll either be dead or sifting through rubble and sliding body parts into Ziplock bags with spatulas. And the whole fucking world will be watching. End of story."
Burke glared at him.
"Tell me I'm wrong and I'll take off this suit and walk away," Jack said.
Burke turned away and examined a thought hidden somewhere out in the morning.
"Don't let the suit give you a false sense of security," he said. "If this puppy goes off, they'll be pouring your body into the coffin."
Copyright © 2000 by Chirs Mooney