Posted by: lordkyler | April 14, 2015

Railroaded – Short Story Week

I couldn’t believe my luck. Of all the idiots in the world, tourists are the dumbest, and this guy was obviously a tourist. He tried not to look like one, but his wide eyes and nervous watch-checking gave him away. He might as well have been wearing a fanny pack and snapping pictures of the place.

I had been watching the crowd from the balcony, pretending to text, but actually using my phone’s camera to search for a target. Grand Central Station was an anthill at rush hour, but when I saw this guy, it was clear who I was going to go after. He had a backpack –worn over both shoulders – which bulged with corners. That meant electronics, and that meant easy money.

I try to practice my art on rich guys, the ones that can afford to lose a few hundred. This guy wasn’t rich, but he had looked well enough off. And it looked so easy that my excitement had outweighed any guilt.

It only got better when he headed for the bathrooms. It was the perfect setup. No cameras, pants around the ankles, backpack off. I had thought that I would have to do a little scamming, maybe pick a pocket. But no, the guy entered a stall and then set his backpack on the ground next to him.

What a moron. A toddler could have taken his pack. Hell, he barely noticed the pack was missing until I was halfway out the door. I wanted to laugh, but I had to look normal. I did my best to stay inconspicuous. My record was miraculously still clean, and I meant to keep it that way. They say crime doesn’t pay, but that’s only true if you suck at it.

I melted into the crowd easily, heading for the far side of the station. Behind me, I could hear running footsteps as the moron charged out of the bathroom. He was faster than I’d expected, probably holding his pants together with his hands, but as funny as the image was, I didn’t dare look back. I just kept my eyes down and kept walking. I would be out on the street before he could do anything, and within half an hour, his stuff would be gone and I would have another month’s rent.  Maybe a little extra.

I decided that a quick peek in the backpack wouldn’t hurt. If the haul was nice enough, I might splurge on some nice shoes or something. I found a seat out of the way, where I wouldn’t be seen, and unzipped the backpack.

Oh.

I blinked.

Oh hell no. No no no no no.

It was electronics, all right. A tangle of wires and circuit boards, knitted together into a technological quilt and anchored to several large plastic-wrapped bricks. My brain didn’t want to admit what it was looking at, but the way my heart seemed to flush out through my intestines told me the truth.

It was a bomb. I couldn’t believe my luck. Apparently the only person dumber than the tourist – terrorist – was myself.

Fingers trembling despite all my sleight-of-hand practice, I reached for the bomb’s readout screen, which looked as though it had been cannibalized from a cell phone. Among the coding gobbledegook I found a countdown timer. 23 minutes.

My first instinct was to abandon the backpack. There had to be a basement or something where I could leave it, right? But I was in NYC during the busiest time of the day. Anywhere I could go was somewhere other people might go. Even if nobody was hurt, they would check the security feeds, and more likely than not, I would be found.

I couldn’t let the nut-job “tourist” have it. Then people would be sure to die, probably starting with me. Maybe I could leave an anonymous tip with the cops. I’m sure they would believe me and also get a bomb squad here in time, and then also not come after me, right?

Let’s see. The river. The East wasn’t far from here. Maybe I could make it. If I sprinted. And all the lights were in my favor during rush hour. And there were no cops that wanted to ask questions. Let’s see, and the direct route takes me right past the United Nations Headquarters. What could go wrong?

Nope. I had to bite the bullet. My best bet was calling the cops. If nothing else, they could evacuate the building and figure out the safest place to put this thing. I wanted nothing more than to ditch the backpack immediately, but that would be nearly as bad as setting it off myself. I’m a thief, not a terrorist. Hopefully the FBI would see it that way.

I forced myself to my feet. I had to find a security guard. I couldn’t waste time with phone trees and bureaucracy. I just had to pray he would listen to me. Or maybe I could just dump the thing in his lap and let him deal with it.

I entered the crowd again, sliding into gaps with panicked speed. I would rather have plowed my way through, but I don’t have the size for it. Everything felt unreal. All of these people had seemed like objects before. Obstacles to get around, cameras that might catch me, targets I could steal from. But now I couldn’t help but seem them as genuine, living people with dreams and families and all that crap. I carried something that could end all that in a heartbeat.

I skipped around an old man shuffling along with a newspaper tucked under one arm and a stupidly long hand-knitted scarf around his neck. I passed a young pregnant woman with a stroller and a nose piercing. I trailed a guy with a sharp suit and face tattoos power-walking through the crowd. Finally I spied a security guard getting coffee. I hurried toward him and bumped against a guy with a reddened face and a Yankees hat. It was the tourist/terrorist.

We locked eyes for a single second. I didn’t like what I saw there. How could I have mistaken this crazy-eyed psychopath for a stupid yokel?

I bolted, shoving aside a shaggy haired teen and a gothic girl. I fully expected to be tackled from behind, and considering the terrorist was roughly a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than I was, I didn’t think it would go well.

Instead, a voice boomed out behind me, thundering over the crowd like the voice of God. “He’s got a bomb!” said the terrorist, and I couldn’t help but look back at him in surprise. He was pointing a finger straight at me, and although he put on a mask of panic, I caught a hint of smugness in his eyes. He had the upper hand now. He would escape to terrorize another day, and I would take the fall.

I wanted to flip him the bird, but at that moment, I needed to RUN. Luckily, the crowd reacted instinctively, and parted before me in panic. Funny how a bomb can do that. The guard yelled for me to stop, but I ignored that.

The guard took after me, head contorted awkwardly as he explained the situation through the walkie-talkie on his shoulder. Shortly afterward, the intercom piped up, informing passengers of the situation and asking them to stay calm.

I generally made a point of not running. I wasn’t terribly athletic, and if I had to run, it meant I had done something wrong. However, I did make sure to stay in shape, just in case. I was glad for that now. I practically flew through the concourse toward the exit. An obscenely loud bang exploded behind me, and at the same time, I heard a zip through the air as a bullet passed my head. Somebody had shot at me!

I ducked as low as I could while keeping up a full sprint, and added a little bit of zig zag to my path. The doors weren’t far. But how would I get out? The guards would surely block me.

The first thought that came into my head was profoundly stupid, but it was the only thing I could think of. I dug my phone out of my pocket and flicked it on. Another shot whizzed past, blowing a hole into the wall only a few inches away.

Shit shit shit.

There. The doors. As expected, a half-dozen security guards had their weapons drawn and pointed at my chest.

“Dead-man’s switch!” I screamed, pressing my thumb to the screen of my phone. “If I let go, it blows!”

The guards hesitated. I started slowly walking toward them, phone held threateningly over my head. “I’m just going to walk right past now,” I said soothingly, “and you can just sit right there. That way, nothing bad happens, yeah?”

The guard in charge glared at me with an intense hatred, like a dog at the end of his leash, being taunted by a particularly smug cat. I wasn’t feeling terribly smug, but it looked like the leash would hold.

I shuffled past, avoiding eye contact. Nobody said anything. They couldn’t risk the explosion if there was a chance I would leave without blowing the bomb. The atmosphere was awkward, to say the least.

I opened the door and stepped out. Police cars were fast approaching. I started running again. The river was my only option now. The cops were probably being told about the supposed dead-man’s switch, so I figured they wouldn’t shoot me on sight. The streets were busy, but clearing fast as people pulled over for the ever-increasing number of sirens. I ran onto the middle of the road and booked it straight down the yellow line between the cars.

Everything to either side seemed to vanish as I focused all my attention toward my destination. There was only the road and the bomb bumping up and down on my back. Everything flashed red and blue around me as the shrill of sirens filled the air. The police were clearing the road ahead, and cop cars tried to form a ring around me, a makeshift barrier that would help contain the bomb and keep me from escaping.

I had never thought of myself as a hero. I still didn’t, actually. But I didn’t feel like I had any other choice. In just a few minutes, this thing was going off. And so I ran like an Olympic torch-bearer with nobody to pass his exploding torch to.

I vaguely heard the thumping of a helicopter in the distance, and the police officers were shouting something through the megaphones, but I was too frazzled to think straight. I had to get to the river.

I kept my phone clutched in one hand so they wouldn’t shoot me. I used the other to hold the strap of the backpack in place. Everything else in my body was dedicated to running. Breath came with difficulty. My legs ached. My vision blurred. But I kept running. I didn’t dare look at the timer. It wouldn’t make a difference anyway.

There was a lot of security outside the UN, but that was okay. They weren’t keeping me from the river. Now there were two helicopters overhead, police and news. A faraway part of my mind hoped nobody I knew was watching.

At last I reached the road running parallel with the river. The end of my journey. Stumbling slightly on tired feet, I slipped the backpack off my shoulder and swung it out over the barrier and into the water. It took all the strength I had left. It sailed maybe fifty feet before it splashing into the water. I stood and stared, the rest of the chaos forgotten. How big of a disaster had I prevented?

Seconds ticked on, each one a small eternity. I think I was in shock. I didn’t feel any pride, or fear, or anger. Just blankness. Just waiting.

Was this thing a dud or-

An ear-crushing boom broke the air around me, and a plume of water leapt into the air like the fist of some river god. A second later, a shockwave ripped through the atmosphere, making the concrete barriers shudder.

Within thirty seconds of the explosion, I was tackled, tazed and handcuffed. I passed out from shock before they could do anything else.

•••

Did you know that they actually use those rooms that you see on TV? The ones that are all dark with a single light shining down on the table? I had always assumed it was exaggerated. Maybe they only put you in the fancy scary room if you’re a genuine terrorist like me.

Yeah, nobody believed me. Who the hell pickpockets a bomb? It’s like pirating a TV show and ending up with nuclear launch codes. Actually, that would be more believable.

I’ve told my story about eighty times. I refuse to change it or pretend to have information I don’t. Unless they ship me off to Guantanamo or whatever. I don’t think I can handle that. It might have been easier for me if they had caught the other guy, but he had vanished. Big surprise.

The door opened to admit a shadowy figure. It stepped into the light to reveal a grim-faced man in a somber suit and cheerless tie. He wore a big cheesy grin.

“Well, partner, looks like you’re in a tough spot,” he said with a Texas drawl. Was he seriously doing good cop/bad cop? “Now, we appreciate your sudden change of heart, but you have to realize that isn’t enough.”

I groaned and rested my head on the table. “Why don’t you just cut to the chase and tell me what you want?”

The Texan cleared his throat uncomfortably. “We did some investigation into that man you claim was the ‘real’ mastermind, and he has proven very difficult to find. Fake ID. No paper trail. No facial recognition.”

“I don’t know who he is, I told you.”

“Oh, I believe you.” I lifted my head up. “I know how these things go. Young, disenfranchised rebel, poking around online where he shouldn’t be. Run into some radicals…” I slammed my head against the table again.

“Now, Damian, I think you’re a good guy. You backed out, even though your supplier called you out on it. So I think you’re the right guy to help us.”

I lifted my head once again and squinted at the agent. His grin was gone. “What are you saying?”

He leaned in close. “It’s a simple choice. You’re facing life in prison – if you’re lucky, and according to your alibi, you are not lucky. But you do have an opportunity here.

“We want to find this vanishing man. He and his organization are the big fish, but we can’t get them to bite. You are a little fish. If you can get them to take the bait, you’re off the hook.”

This didn’t sound good. “I don’t fish much,” I said, stalling.

The Texan looked disappointed. He’d probably spent hours on that metaphor. “We want you to go undercover. Get close to their organization. If you help us, you walk.”

My mind raced through all the ways this could go. There was only one with the slightest chance of success. Yet again, no choice.

“I’m in.”

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