The suitcase itself was a bomb. It would be harmless enough going through baggage check, and no matter how roughly it was tossed into the cargo hold, it wouldn’t explode: all the jostle in the world couldn’t do that. Not till I arm it, he thought. By remote control, when the plane is in the air. Even then, nothing could set it off. Except his finger, on the right button.
Not that he wanted to blow up a plane, killing all the people on board, himself included. He wanted no part of that. But it was a possibility, a calculated risk he had to take; high stakes, high risk, simple as that. A more desperate man wouldn’t have twitched an eye at such a prospect, and his concern for his own life and the lives of others was proof positive that he was anything but a desperate man.
He was, rather, a man who’d made a decision. A difficult one at that, reached through calm, rational consideration. And as for the plane blowing up and people getting killed, well, that would be someone else’s decision: the decision of the airline official or FBI agent or heroic crew member who might force upon him the pushing of that final button.
He’d decided, too, that only under the most extreme circumstances would he even consider pushing that button before all the passengers (except a handful of hostages) were off the plane. He was not a monster, after all: the killing of perhaps several hundred people was not something his conscience could easily bear, even if that killing was forced upon him. Of course if it came to that, his conscience would be blown to pieces along with everything and everybody else, wouldn’t it?
But that was the most far-fetched of possibilities. That was not according to his plan. This is how it will go, he thought: after commandeering the plane, he would direct the pilot to a specific airport, at which the bulk of the passengers would be allowed to disembark. Remaining on the plane would be crew members (pilot, copilot and navigator), as well as a stewardess (a volunteer) and some passenger hostages (likewise volunteers). After the ransom money was delivered, the passenger hostages would be released, and the plane would again take off.
He felt no moral responsibility toward the lives of any of these people. The crew members were, after all, professionals highly paid to bear the hazards of flying, including that of skyjacking. And likewise, he couldn’t be expected to feel concerned about the passengers who volunteered to stay on as hostages. They would be volunteers, who’d made their own decision to stay on the plane, wouldn’t they? He was not responsible.
He was twenty-six years old and looked eighteen, with an eternally boyish face, like Johnny Carson. His hair was fair and short, neatly trimmed, neatly combed; he was freckled and blue-eyed. Despite the sloppiness of his surroundings, he was dressed in conservative, tidy work clothes: a deep brown sweatshirt with the words "Greystoke Teacher’s College" spelled out in white, light brown jeans, brown Hush Puppies and dark socks. His was the type of appearance many fathers long for in their sons; he was just what the recruiting officer was looking for: he was clean-cut.
He was hunched over the workbench in a basement that looked like a warehouse of a small electronics firm after a rather untidy burglary. While the workbench itself was well ordered, the room surrounding was chaos: supplies, abandoned projects, empty cartons, stacks of Radio Shack and other electronics catalogs, all were scattered about like so much refuse. Still, mess or no mess, he knew where to find whatever he needed, whenever he needed. To the uninitiated, the basement was a mess; to him it was a filing system.
The basement also held the artifacts of a childhood not entirely given up: a table with an electric train, still functioning, though one would have had to do a ballet around the boxes and unfinished projects to get to the control; a go-cart, mostly disassembled, awaiting the mood to strike its owner to put Humpty Dumpty back together; a guitar amplifier he’d half finished back in early high school, when he’d thought for a while he might take up that instrument; a motorcycle from that same era, a lightweight Honda, also still functioning, or almost—as soon as he got the engine put back together it would be; and off in one corner, stacks of science fiction comic books and pulp digests, as well as an overflowing box of tattered Big Little Books, space stuff mostly (Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Brick Bradford), old junk left from his older brother’s childhood but also a fond part of his. The yellowed pages of those little books, as well as the sf comics and pulps he’d bought himself, stirred his sense of adventure as much in their way as the go-cart and Honda had in theirs.
Upstairs, his wife kept things orderly. When they’d moved to this modest but cozy house from their small apartment (which had been more his workshop than their apartment, every room but the bath looking not unlike this basement), she had asked him if he could limit his projects and such to the downstairs. Though he could have overridden her if he’d wanted to, he’d deferred to her wishes. After all, she was his wife and deserved a nice home, didn’t she? He stayed downstairs.
Now he was rechecking all his leads, making doubly sure they were firmly soldered to the various solid-state chips that made up his remote control system. He was good at this sort of thing. He was an all-around handyman, good at anything mechanical—no electronics genius, maybe, but he knew what he was doing. There were guys with degrees in chemistry and biophysics and the like (his degree was in business) who had the knowledge, sure, but not the knack, not the knack for putting things together, making them work. He could make something out of nothing. Give him a pile of junk and a little time, and he would provide the sweat and imagination and come up with something special. The suitcase/bomb, for instance. He’d made that from, well, he’d made it from crap. Literally. Fertilizer, that is, nitrate-based fertilizer purchased at a local farm supply outlet. The nitrates were the key, and utilizing a variation on standard industrial "cook-book" recipes, he’d had no trouble processing the nitrate-based fertilizer into 10 x 4 x 3-inch blocks of plastic explosive, which looked like nothing more than six loaves of unbaked rye bread.
Next to the suitcase on the workbench were three items of great importance.
The first was a light, compact, but serviceable parachute, one he’d used when skydiving was a hobby of his several years ago, an emergency chute, worn strapped to the stomach.
Next was a portable citizen’s band radio, sender/receiver, about the size of a small hardcover book; this would provide communications when he hit the ground, so that his wife could come pick him up (she’d be receiving and sending on a C.B. in the car). The C.B. had a black, slightly padded case with a clip that would slip over his belt.
And, finally, there was the pocket calculator, an inconspicuous block of black plastic with numbered push-button face, not much bigger or thicker than a deck of playing cards. In this case, however, the deck was decidedly stacked: he had wired in several special functions in addition to the calculator’s usual ones. Except for a chip of circuitry that ran the calculator (whose bulk was primarily due to the panel of push buttons, and the window that displayed the answer to whatever mathematical question you might ask via those buttons) the inside was hollow, and there’d been plenty of space for the extra wiring. He’d wired in a signal, using a frequency higher than the regular broadcast band, one that would penetrate sufficiently into the cargo hold of the plane. This high frequency would be diffracted throughout the entire compartment, seeking out the suitcase, whereas a lower frequency would be blocked out by the metal of the plane. Four times four would arm the suitcase/bomb. Four times four times four would detonate.
His wife. Carol. He covered the suitcase with some newspapers and went upstairs to her, before she could come down.
She was in the kitchen, sitting at the yellow formica-top table, stirring cream and sugar into a cup of coffee. She’d been crying again. Crying made most girls less attractive; ran their mascara and everything. His wife was different. Crying didn’t spoil her looks at all: she was a natural beauty, wore practically no makeup, just a touch of pale pink lip gloss. She had long, cascading blonde hair. Natural. Her eyes were cornflower blue. While her nose was a trifle large, it was nicely formed, and she had a nice white smile, too, though she wasn’t showing it now. Only on the occasional times when he stopped and studied her like this did he realize how really beautiful she was, and how good it was to have her around.
Like her hair, the kitchen was yellow, except for the white appliances that Carol kept so highly polished that when morning sun came in the window and reflected off them, it was almost blinding. Right now, however, the kitchen was dark, gloomy dark. It was the middle of the evening, and the window next to the table, curtain drawn back, let in nothing but moonless night. She’d left windows open all around the house, and though it was late October, the breeze was just cool, nothing more. No sounds came from outside: the night sounds in Canker, Missouri, population 12,000, ran to little more than the sporadic squealing of a teenager’s tires. What little light there was in the kitchen came from the living room where the TV was going, unattended; a comedy show was on, volume low, but every now and then a rumble of canned laughter would break the stillness. Carol’s face was pale. Expressionless.
"What’s wrong, Carol?"
"I don’t want you to do it."
"Ken. Honey. I don’t want you to go through with it."
"And I don’t want to discuss that anymore. I already made up my mind. This is one project I’m going to finish."
"Sit down, will you? And talk to me?"
He sat down, but he didn’t say anything.
"What are you working on downstairs?"
"You know. What I told you."
"Why’s it taking so long to put together? I mean, if it’s a fake bomb, why’s it taking so long?"
"I explained that. It has to look realistic. It’ll help me if they have to waste a lot of hours defusing what they think is a bomb." That didn’t really make much sense, but fortunately, she hadn’t questioned the logic of it.
"I don’t understand you."
"Sure you do."
"I don’t. I don’t understand any of this. It seems so unnecessary..."
"Carol. Look at my face. It’s got lines in it. I’m a kid and I got lines in my face." It was something that was bothering him lately. Not that he was vain, but he did like to think of himself as young, and damn it, he was young. But his features, while boyish as ever and always would be, had grown tight these few years past; crow’s feet at the eyes, deep lines in his face from frowning too much and from smiling too much, too. He’d been a salesman these last three years, and excessive frowning (to himself, in private) and smiling (at prospective buyers, in public) were inescapable hazards of the trade. It came, as they said, with the territory.
"Still, honey," Carol was saying, "you’re not old. Really. Would it be so hard to start over?"
"It sure would. You want me to die of a heart attack by thirty? I mean, look at my face, the lines. Jeez."
Tears were welling up in her eyes. Even in the dark he could see that. Out in the living room, the TV was laughing.
"Come on, Carol. Knock it off. It’s going to work out okay."
"You wouldn’t hurt anybody, would you, honey?"
"You know me better than that, don’t you? Jeez, Carol. How can you even say that."
She touched his hand, stroked it. "You want some coffee?"
"Okay. Then I got to get back downstairs and finish up."
Copyright © 1981 by Max Allan Collins