Monday, November 28, 2011

Chapter Twenty Three

Thomas hadn’t been feeling so great before Eris told him he had to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge.  Now, however, his mood was abysmal.  If he had stopped to think about it, he would have been forced to admit that he probably couldn’t feel much worse.
At least, not until after he’d blown up the bridge.  So it was still possible to feel worse.  But not much worse.
In the back of his mind, a train of thought about the greater good was running around and around.  If she was going to kill his family, he couldn’t do much about it, and that would be better for the world than for him to kill a whole bunch of people he didn’t even know, just because some goddess was feeling petty and vengeful.  He was certain he’d read some story, at some point, about a drawbridge operator, his trapped son, and a train, and that the story somehow applied to his situation.
On the other hand, they were his family, and he couldn’t stand by and let something bad happen to them.
As such, he’d taken the binder Eris had given him, read through it, and set about gathering the bomb making materials she’d arranged for him to pick up.  She’d provided a map, and even step by step directions for how to gather everything.  And the first item on the list, a cargo van, was only a mile away.
Thomas half-remembered a lyric he’d heard about the road to Hell being paved with least resistance.
He’d driven to the address provided, and parked.  The van was waiting for him, with the keys in a little magnetic box hidden under the right rear rocker panel.  The van was white, windowless and otherwise nondescript. It looked like every other white cargo van on the road.
Thomas unlocked it and climbed in to the driver’s seat.  The back of the van was empty, and immaculately clean.  He put the key in the ignition, and the engine leapt to life, as though it had been waiting for him to show up.
He checked his binder to see where he was supposed to go next.  Apparently it was a nursery just about ten miles north of where he was.  There was a pallet of fertilizer waiting for him there.
He wondered where he’d gone wrong in life to end up in the situation he was in: driving a van to pick up supplies to make a fertilizer bomb.  It was like a bad movie plot.
The van shifted into gear with an affirmative clunk, and Thomas pulled out of the parking spot.  A few minutes later, he was accelerating easily on to the freeway and heading north.
The nursery appeared to be closed.  Long closed, actually.  The only building still standing looked like it wouldn’t be for long, and there weren’t many plants to be seen.  There were a few pots here and there, but the plants in them looked to be weeds, not flowers.
All the same, Thomas drove around to the back side of the building, and there he found the pallet of fertilizer, as promised.  There wasn’t anyone around, so he guessed he was going to have to load the van himself.  He backed the van up to the pallet, and jumped out.  On top of the bags of fertilizer was a pair of brand new leather work gloves.
Well, that’s a relief, he thought. At least I won’t have to tear my hands up.
Thomas opened the back doors of the van, and started heaving bags of fertilizer in.  None of it seemed quiet real.  He couldn’t quite make himself believe that he was going to make a bomb out of the fertilizer he was tossing around.
About half of the pallet was loaded in to the van when Thomas heard the crunching of tires rolling on gravel.  He looked up to see a police car approaching.
Oh shit, Thomas thought. I’m not going to blow up a bridge, I’m going to go to jail for a very long time.I
He thought about that possibility for a couple seconds, and then thought, What a relief.
The police officer parked his car, and sat inside for a moment.  Thomas realized he was probably running the license place of the van, and hoped it wasn’t stolen.  Then he remembered he was going to jail anyway, and figured stealing a van probably had less of a sentence than trying to build a bomb to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge.
Since he was going to get arrested any second anyway, he tossed the bag of fertilizer he was carrying in to the back of the van (that’s another two years, I bet, he thought.), and took off the work gloves he was wearing.
The door of the police car swung open, and the officer stepped out and looked at Thomas.   He shut the door of his car, and walked over.
“Good afternoon, sir,” the officer said.  His name tag said “Billen”.
“Good afternoon, officer,” Thomas said.  He wondered if a swarm of officers were going to charge out of the nearby woods to subdue and arrest him.
“What are you doing here today?” Officer Billen said in a conversational tone, looking at the bags of fertilizer.
Thomas considered telling him outright he was getting ready to build a bomb, but couldn’t bring himself to do it.  His self-preservation instincts wouldn’t let him mouth off and admit to what he was doing all at the same time.
“Just loading up some fertilizer, sir,” Thomas said.
The officer seemed like he would really rather be somewhere else instead of standing there talking to Thomas.
“I wouldn’t expect to find any fertilizer here,” Officer Billen said, still trying to do his job, despite his inexplicable discomfort with talking to Thomas. “This place has been closed for years.”
“Yeah, I don’t know what the deal is.  This is just where my boss told me to come and pick up a bunch of fertilizer.  I wasn’t expecting to find any when I pulled up and saw how run down it was here.”
“So your boss sent you to pick this up?  Are you a farmer?”
“Nope, but my boss is,” Thomas said.  Any second, a swarming S.W.A.T. team was going to appear out of nowhere and arrest him, Thomas suspected.  He wished they’d hurry up and just do it already.
“Well, I guess that works for me.  We got a call about a suspicious person out here, but you don’t seem too suspicious to me.  You have a good day,” Officer Billen said.
“Thanks, you too, sir,” Thomas said.  He watched in amazement as the cop walked away, got back in to his car, and drove off.  For a minute, he suspected it was a trap, but when the S.W.A.T. team failed to emerge and arrest him, he realized that nothing was going to happen.  Damn it.
He’d gotten away with a lot of stuff since he was supposed to die, but he’d never had a cop notice him doing something as blatantly suspicious as what he was doing right then, and wouldn’t have expected a cop to walk away so easily.
Frankly, it made him feel a bit rejected.
He put the gloves back on, and continued loading fertilizer into the truck until the pallet was empty.  Then, since he wasn’t sure if he should leave it there or what, he threw the pallet into the back of the van as well.  If he didn’t need it, maybe he could use the wood to have a bonfire.
Thomas closed the back doors of the van, looked around to see if anyone had been watching him, maybe a S.W.A.T. team waiting for just the right moment, and finally got in to the van and started it.  He took a look at the binder, and saw that up next he needed to go to a chemical company of some sort and purchase a few hundred gallons of methanol.
The instructions didn’t specify how he was supposed to carry that much of a volatile liquid, but he assumed it would become clear by the time he needed to know.
He pulled out of the nursery’s driveway on to the main drag, and started driving towards the chemical company, some twenty miles further north.
It was five minutes before the customer service desk closed for the day when Thomas arrived at Arriba Chemical Company.  The woman behind the desk, her name tag said “Susan,” seemed less than thrilled to see him.
“Can I help you?” Susan asked in her least helpful voice.
“I’m here to pick up some Methanol,” Thomas said.
“I hope you’ve got an order waiting, because it’s a little late for us to be pumping methanol for a walk up.”
Thomas looked at his notes, and saw that there was indeed an order for ethanol, for one Eris Limited Liability Corporation.  He gave her the order number, which she typed in to her computer.
“Have you got a truck that can carry a three hundred gallon tank?” Susan asked.
“Well, I’ve got my van out there,” Thomas said. “Will that do?”
“I hope you’ve got strong springs,” Susan said.  “I’ll have one of the guys roll it out on a forklift for you.”
Thomas went back to his van and hopped into the back to make room for what sounded like an enormous tank.  He hoped there would be room in there.  Then he remembered that he should probably hope there wasn’t room for the tank in the van.  That would delay things quite a bit.
He heard a forklift roll up next to the van, so he poked his head out.  The forklift was carrying a tank that looked smaller than what he was expecting.
“I’m just making room for that tank in here,” he said to the forklift driver.
“Do you need a hand?” the forklift driver said.  He was eager to be done for the day, and he was going to be done for the day once this guy was loaded up and out of his hair.  The sooner that happened, the sooner he’d have a delicious beer.
“Nah, I’m good,” Thomas said, but the forklift driver had already shut down his forklift and climbed down.  He poked his head into Thomas’s van to see what was in there already.
“Whoa, that’s a lot of fertilizer you’ve got there.  Are you making a bomb or something?” the forklift driver said in a good-natured way.
Thomas went pale, and scrambled to think of something to say.  The forklift driver saw this.
“Whoa, easy fella,” he said.  “I’m just messing with you.  I know how much you farmers love your sprint car racing.”
Thomas smiled, weakly, and laughed.  “Yeah, for the sprint car.  Best to get all the heavy lifting out of the way on one trip, you know?”
The forklift driver picked up a back of fertilizer and stacked it on top of the others.  
“You know,” he said, grabbing another bag, “I used to do a bit of sprint car racing myself.  I got out of it because I couldn’t afford a new engine when the old one died.  Blew a piston right through the goddamned cylinder head, up and out through the wing.  Can you believe that?”
“Whoa,” Thomas said.  Sprint cars sounded like risky business.
“Yeah, total drag.  I’ve still got the chassis in my pole barn. If you know anyone that might be interested in buying it, have them give me a call.”
“Sure thing,” Thomas said.
“So what kind of carburetor are you running?”
“The one that came on the engine?” Thomas said, hoping he was roughly correct.
“Not having a winning season then, huh?  Well, a bit of practice is always good.  One thing I always wanted to try was one of them coffee can carburetors.  I was never able to get one to work, though.  Thought maybe you’d had better luck.”
“I’ve never even heard of such a thing,” Thomas said.
“Well, maybe that’s why it didn’t work,” the forklift driver said, and winked at him.  
The bags of fertilizer were all stacked to the roof of the van now.  The forklift driver hopped out the back of the van.
“Let’s get this tank loaded in there, and then I’m going to get me a frosty cold one,” he said.  
He climbed up in to the forklift again and started it.  Five minutes later, the tank was secured in the back of Thomas’s van, which apparently had strong enough springs to support the tank and all the fertilizer after all, and Thomas was ready to continue on his way.
“Hey, you have fun blowing some shit up!” the forklift driver called, and then waved as he drove his forklift back in to the warehouse.
Thomas’s heart leapt up in to his throat before he realized the guy was just messing with him.  He waved back, and started the van.
According to the information in his binder, the next stop was a Radio Shack, fifteen miles away.
Thomas tried to remember the last time he’d even been in a Radio Shack.  He was pretty sure it had been back when they still sold their own brand of computers.  Then he remembered he’d stopped in one a couple years ago, very briefly, to see if they had anything in the way of a remote controlled truck that would appeal to a ten year old cousin of his.  He never found out about the truck, because the doofus working had been so insistent on trying to sell him a cell phone and a credit card that he never even made it more than ten feet in to the store.  The guy hadn’t even noticed that Thomas had asked about a remote controlled toy, much less offered any information about one.
Damn it, I’m really not in the mood to deal with a desperate phone salesman, Thomas thought.
The directions Eris had provided led him to a brand new strip mall that already looked kind of run down.  There was a soft-serve ice cream place of some sort, a nail and waxing salon, a check cashing store, and the Radio Shack.
He parked the van, and went inside the Radio Shack.  It looked just the way he remembered Radio Shack - poorly stocked shelves and employees that looked like they didn’t know what any of this stuff did, and they were bothered he’d interrupted their attempt to set a new world record for vacant staring.
“Hi, can I help you find something?” one of the employees asked, barely opening his mouth enough to speak.
“I need, uh,” Thomas looked at his shopping list, and barely understood what anything meant. “Uh.  I need some of these components,” he said, and held out the list to the employee. 
The employee glanced down at the list, took a deep breath, and led Thomas over to a set of drawers in the far corner of the store.  “All our components are in here.  Holler if you need anything.”
Thomas really didn’t have any idea what he was looking at, but tried to match up the list with the product details on the packaging.  He, slowly, gathered almost all of the pieces he needed.
“Hey,” Thomas said, “Do you know what a solderless breadboard is?”
The employee who’d helped him earlier sighed, Thomas could hear him from across the store, and made his way over to where Thomas was standing.
“Pick one of these three,” he said, and pointed at a few boxes with pictures of what looked like high tech, white plastic cribbage boards.
Thomas wasn’t sure what the difference was, so he got the biggest one.  That wrapped up his list, so far as he could tell.  He checked everything over, then again in order to be sure he wouldn’t have to come back, and brought all of his stuff up to the register.
When he set everything down on the counter, the employee looked at him as though he’d dropped his pants and crapped on his front lawn.  He looked over the components Thomas had picked out, then at Thomas.
“So,” he said, “You building a bomb?”
Thomas nearly did drop his pants and shit.
“Huh? No!” Thomas said, before he noticed the other employee was snickering.
“Making a bomb. Good one,” Employee #2 said.
“Easy, Killer, I’m just messing with you a bit.  What does this stuff do, anyway?” Employee #1 said.
“Funny,” Thomas said, and faked a smile.  “Just a personal project.”
“OK, don’t tell me,” Employee #1 said, as he scanned each item in to the register.  When he was done, he said, “That’ll be eighty dollars.”
“That can’t be right,” Thomas said, looking at the pile of components.  Apart from the cribbage board thing, nothing looked like it should have cost more than a dollar.
The employee sighed loudly and turned the register’s monitor so Thomas could see it.  
“Look for yourself.  Everything is there.  It’s all correct,” he said.
Thomas looked, and wondered what the deal was with these resistor things that they were worth twenty dollars for one hundred of them.  Must be some kind of low grade unobtanium, he thought.
“Fine,” Thomas said, and got out his wallet.  He paid for the parts, and was relieved when the employee didn’t ask him if he would be interested in a fantastic deal on a cell phone or credit card.
He left the store, and heard one of the employees mumble, “have a nice day,” just as the door was closing.
Thomas got in to the van, tossed the Radio Shack bag on to the passenger seat, and looked to see where the last stop for the day was.  It looked like it was a residential address, somewhere out in the sticks, about thirty miles away.
Thomas checked his fuel level, and decided it might be an excellent idea to top up the van, and maybe grab a snack and some coffee for the ride.  There was a gas station just a couple blocks away, so he stopped there.
The woman working inside had the friendliest face he’d seen all day.  
“Are you doing OK?” she asked him as he paid for his beef jerky, twinkies and coffee.
“Huh?” Thomas said.  “Oh, yeah, doing great.”
“You’re not looking to hot,” she said.  Thomas looked at her and saw nothing but sympathy in her eyes.  “You be sure to stop and get some rest tonight.  It’s not safe to drive when you’re sleepy.”
“OK, I will,” Thomas said.  “Thanks.”
He definitely felt ready to sleep, for a long, long time.  He’d like to just go to bed right then, and maybe wake up sometime around two o’clock in the afternoon the following Monday.  It had been kind of a crazy day.
He got in to the van, and set off for the last stop for the day.
Thirty miles later, he arrived at what looked like a home-built shed with a satellite dish and a 55 gallon drum of fuel oil plumbed in to the side.  A man in worn, but sharply pressed and starched, clothes came out of the shed and watched him as he parked the van.
Thomas hopped out of the van.  Before he could introduce himself, the apparent shed-dweller said, “Are you Thomas?”
“Yes, who are you?”
“And this is the van?”
“Uh, yeah, I guess so.” 
“OK, come inside.  I’ve got some coffee going, if you’re interested.”

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