The Bomb Maker – Thomas Perry

The maker’s ɹngers were nimble and certain, never trembling or touching any object or surface without intention. His hands were sure because he had designed the parts to be assembled in a precise order. A bomb was a simple machine. Its only moving part was a switch to complete the circuit running from the power source to an initiator and back. But bomb making was mentally demanding. Creating a potent blast required knowing the chemical processes he could produce by combining particular substances in speciɹc proportions. He had to know how to coax them to transform from inert lumps of matter into sound, light, heat, and brute force. The switch was enormously important. If he kept the switch open while he assembled the parts, nothing was at risk. The device became lethal only in the instant when the switch was engaged and the circuit was closed. Part of the maker’s power was building in the set of conditions that must exist before the switch would close. He had used barometer switches designed to close when the bomb was at a speciɹc altitude. He’d made time-delay bomb switches from kitchen timers, timers from lawn sprinkler systems, and alarm clocks. He’d made switches that used motion sensors from outdoor lighting ɹxtures to close a circuit when a person came near. He’d set bombs oʃ with mousetraps, components from children’s toys and games, a pressure pad that turned on a laughing Halloween witch when a child stepped on it.

He’d made a few from toasters and thermostats. When commercially manufactured hardware was available that could perform the function he needed, he preferred to use it, no matter what its original purpose. Such components were tougher and more reliable than those built from scratch, and he could test them repeatedly ahead of time to be sure they worked, and then he could buy more or buy other models that worked better. Most electronic components came already tested, with a UL label on them. All he had to do was subvert the will of their designer to adapt them to his own purpose. For similar reasons, he preferred to use commercially made initiators, preferably blasting caps. Usually he could not obtain manufactured explosives for the main charges of his bombs. Military explosives like C-4 were safe and reliable, but they were tightly controlled. Dynamite was far less powerful, but easier to buy or steal. The drawback of factory-made explosives was that they could be traced. Dynamite even contained tiny identifying tags that would be blown all over the blast area. His only choice had been to learn to make his own. The planet was full of substances that could be made to explode. Many common materials could be induced to blow up— natural gas, wheat ɻour, coal dust, nitrate fertilizer. One of the biggest industrial explosions in history had been in a molasses plant.

The cars people drove were propelled by small explosions of gasoline in the engine’s cylinders that pushed down pistons and turned a crankshaft. A bomb maker’s practical problem wasn’t that explosions were too difficult. Most of them were if anything too easy, too unpredictable. Much of the challenge in his current project came from the miniaturization necessary to make a complex set of devices that would work in sequence, but not be noticed before detonation. He had to work with a magniɹer on a small stand designed for jewelers and fly fishermen so he could do the delicate work without error. The idea was to make a device small and familiar enough to be ignored, or at least to remain unsuspected. Right now his stand held a sturdy phone-size black plastic box bearing the white letters of a company logo: Canon, a name people knew. He popped open the case and studied the circuitry. He was pleased. This was an excellent piece of equipment. He could use it. He picked up his soldering gun to make the connections between the device’s circuitry and the electrical wires he was expecting the device to supply with power. Each of the wires was stripped to the copper at the end, and the rest of its length was white insulator. Most of the house where he wanted to use the small black box had white walls and white woodwork, so he had decided to start with white. He was intending to keep the device’s batteries charging on a wall socket until it was time.

And then, even if the AC power source got cut off, the effect would be the same. After two hours he ɹnished and looked at his device. The circuit was as he had intended, and the solder connecting his twenty-four firing wires looked perfect. He turned oʃ the intense desk lamp, rubbed his eyes with his hands, took a deep breath, and blew it out again. He had been working at this iteration of his idea for most of the day. He stood and left the garage he had converted into a workshop, went out through the house and into the backyard. He thought of it as a backyard, but it was much too big to be called that. The land was ɹfty acres of sand mounds, dry brush and pebbles, rocks and yuccas, surrounded by miles more that didn’t seem to belong to anyone, and then a range of dry brown mountains on each side like the rim of a bowl. It was late afternoon, and he looked out on the open land and assessed the period of daylight he had left. The shadows of the Joshua trees were long, but he might still get to his next device after he completed this test. He had lived alone in the desert for over four years. The desert was a place where he could set oʃ small charges, most of the time without anybody hearing them. Anybody who did hear would attribute the noise to a neighbor taking riɻe practice. He did that sometimes too, and the sound was much louder than most of his experiments. This time he didn’t need to make any noise.

He had built a silent test device for the circuits he was making for this project. He went back into the shop in his garage and placed the small black box on one end of his long workbench. It had twenty-four coils of white wire attached to it. His test device was a six-foot board that held twenty-four ɹvewatt lightbulbs. He connected each set of wires to one of the light fixtures. He checked the adjustments on the small black box. Next he set the device to trigger when the electric eye detected motion near it. He plugged the device into the nearest socket, stepped back about seven feet—too far away to touch it—and brought his hand down like a conductor eliciting the ɹrst note from an orchestra. The black box began to tick. With each tick, one of the ɹve-watt bulbs went on. One by one, each of them lit and then went out, so it looked as though the light were a single bright object moving down the board. The eʃect reminded him of the marquee in front of the old Palace Theatre in Indianapolis during his childhood. He smiled. All twenty-four bulbs had lit and gone out. He repeated the test, this time with the speed increased, so the light moved down the board much faster, taking only about a second to move the six feet down the board.

He slowed it down and played with the timing control until he felt that the speed and rhythm were perfect. He disconnected the wires from the board and gently placed his small black box in a cardboard carton, taking care not to put any strain on the wires protruding from it. He went outside again, feeling he had accomplished something today. The bomb maker was thirty-ɹve and average looking, with short, dirty blond hair; a thin, sinewy body; and a ɻat stomach he kept that way with moderate habits and runs in the desert at dawn when it wasn’t too hot out. He stretched his back and arms and felt taller than his ɹve feet ten inches. He took a deep breath as he stretched, enjoying the sun and the clear air and the endless blue sky and then decided he still had enough sunlight left to run his next test. He went back to the workshop, retrieved another device, and set it up a hundred feet away on the range. The last thing he did was make the ɹnal connection to bring a blasting cap into the circuit. He retreated to the workshop and picked up the radio transmitter he had taken from the remote controller of a motorized toy car. He had rigged the transmitter to switch on when he stepped on a homemade pressure pad. He set the nearly ɻat object down at his feet and stepped on it. Instantly the receiver from the toy car received the signal and he heard the satisfying bang of the blasting cap. Setting oʃ a detonator from a distance wasn’t the whole game, but it was a necessary condition for a particular explosion he was planning. He was satisɹed. He had ɹve more toy cars in his garage, and tomorrow morning he would begin dismantling the controllers and taking the receivers out of the toys to begin modifying them for his purpose.

As he walked, he congratulated himself on his success. He made weapons, but didn’t consider himself a warrior. He was a bomb maker, a person who killed unseen and from a safe distance. All bombs came from a small, scheming, self-protective part of the mind. No bomb came from bravery. At most, bombs were cunning or imaginative, cleverly disguised as something harmless—or even appealing. The Russians used helicopters to drop small delayed bombs designed to look like toys so Afghan children would try to pick them up. The monumental cynicism that led to the design of those devices still excited and amazed him. One of his specialties was making bombs that came from his observations about human impulses and temptations. He liked small, routine-looking bombs that would beguile a bomb technician and tempt him to try to defuse it. The technician’s eʃorts would then set off a bigger bomb he hadn’t seen or imagined was hidden nearby. He loved the power. He had the ability to obliterate anything he wanted. And he liked the perversity of bombs, the way he could make his enemies use their own skill and intelligence and selɻessness and bravery—especially bravery—to kill themselves. When he wanted to be, he was death.

2 Tim Watkins was the senior oɽcer of the team that got the call from the police dispatcher. He and Maynard and Graham had been out to pick up lunch in the truck, and they were within blocks of the address. Watkins had picked up the radio mic and said, “One Zebra Sixty-Three. We’re in the vicinity. We’ll take it.” Bomb Squad teams consisted of two bomb techs and a supervisor, and on this team that was Watkins. The emergency call had come from David Hills, the owner of the house, who was in France on business. He said he had received a threatening call from a phone in the Los Angeles area. Hills had called the LA police and asked them to check on his house, because the caller had said he was about to blow it up. The suspect had persuaded Hills he was serious: he had the address and described the house—a light gray clapboard onestory traditional Cape Cod with a black front door and white trim, and a Toyota Corolla in the driveway. The car had clinched it. Hills said he’d rented the car and left it there to make it look as though the house were occupied. That meant this wasn’t somebody who had simply looked online and found a picture of his house. Hills had been competing for a big contract with three eastern European rival companies, and he had been getting vague threats from two of them for over a week before the final call. Watkins stood on the steps of the house and looked at the black front door.

He knew this was going to be the last moment when his feet would stand on anything he trusted. The steps were solid concrete, so they were safe. But he was about to enter another universe alone. For a moment he thought about his wife, Nora; and his daughter, Kelly. The resemblance between the two was uncanny. He could see them in his memory, having dinner last night. He was grateful for the sight but then pushed it away so he could keep his attention on what he was doing. The other two members of the team were sitting in the truck ɹve hundred feet away, the standard distance. Watkins didn’t let himself envision Maynard and Graham, because he was intent on clearing his mind of distractions and images that competed for his attention. That was also why he didn’t allow any back chatter while he was going downrange on a scene. He reported over the radio built into his bomb suit’s helmet, and they listened. He knelt on the porch in his olive-drab bomb suit. The Kevlar and steel plates made the suit heavy and stiʃ, but he managed to get down to eye level with the knob of the front door. The boots were like the rest of the suit. The one part of him that could have no protection was his hands, but he seldom let himself think about that because it made him uneasy.

He opened his black canvas tool kit and used the lock pick and tension wrench to line up the pins of the cylinder. Then he tried turning the knob. It oʃered no resistance. He put away the tools. “I’ve got the door unlocked. Now I’m going to look for reasons not to open it.” His statement brought another memory, this one the image of Dick Stahl, the retired Explosive Ordnance Disposal expert who had promoted him to the Bomb Squad. That was the sort of thing Stahl used to say. He supposed his subconscious was reminding him to make every move the way Stahl had trained him to. He gave himself a few seconds to clear his mind again. He stood and squinted into the ɹsheye peephole set at chest height in the shiny black door, but saw no shadows or lines that might be wires—only a miniature image, like a view through the wrong end of a telescope. He saw a sunny room with a brown leather easy chair under a window with translucent white curtains. Watkins went down the steps and around the house, looking at the lawn in front of him, selecting the places where he could safely put his thick-booted feet free of trip wires or light beams. If there was a bomb, the mind behind it wasn’t familiar to him. He couldn’t predict or eliminate anything.

There could be an electric eye that would set oʃ the initiator if the light beam to its receiver unit was interrupted. There could be a piece of thin wire or transparent ɹshing line stretched across his path at a level just below the tops of the blades of grass. The trap could be any of a thousand things, or several of them at once, or there could be no trap, and no bomb. He came to a window that opened onto a dining room furnished with a maple table and chair set. There were two entrances to the room, one a narrow swinging door to the kitchen, like what a restaurant might have, and the other a broad arch that led to the living room. He could see the inner side of the front door of the house from here, and he saw nothing ominous. Once a couple of years ago he had peered in at the inner side of a door and seen a shotgun propped on a coʃee table, set up with a wire to ɹre at the level of a bomb technician’s groin. He had wondered why. He still did. Watkins considered entering the house by breaking the glass of the dining room window and reaching up to open the latch. But beside the front door he could see the glowing panel of an alarm system. Many alarm systems would trigger at the sound of glass breaking, and a bomb could be connected to the alarm circuit. He took the compact monocular out of his tool kit and focused it on the alarm panel. There was a green light to show that the system had power, but the display said: RDY. Ready.

It wasn’t armed. The panel had no visible wires leading from it, but a tie-in could be anywhere in the house, including at the circuit box, which was usually mounted to the interior wall of a closet. But the fact that the alarm was oʃ made Watkins very uneasy. If this Mr. Hill was in Europe and was worried about an extortion scheme, why wasn’t his home alarm system turned on? It didn’t fit. Or had an intruder managed to turn it off? Watkins paused by the window for a moment and looked again intently at several things he had noticed. The door to the kitchen was one. Any old-fashioned house might have a swinging door to the kitchen, but he couldn’t recall seeing more than a few like this one in his eight-year career. The door itself was a hazard. It was clad in a layer of sheet metal like the ones in restaurants. It was painted white on the upper half, but the lower half was bare metal. That meant it would conduct electricity. Would a bomber ignore that opportunity? Watkins studied the chandelier above the dining room table. It was a bowl shape with three layers above it dripping with dangling crystal drops that kept the bulb invisible. An antipersonnel bomb with ball bearings or screws inside the glass bowl would disperse at the right level to kill anyone in the room—about six feet.

Watkins took his time. He emptied his mind and stared, trying to notice anything that felt wrong, anything that would inspire a bomber to do something clever. Watkins moved from window to window, following the same procedure. He tried to see what was plugged into each electrical outlet, searching for commercial timers designed to turn lights on and oʃ and make the house seem occupied. Those were about the most reliable timers a bomb could have, and they could deliver 110 volts to a firing circuit. Watkins looked for shapes he’d seen bombers use before—pipes, of course, pressure cookers, backpacks, satchels, small suitcases. He scanned for pieces of military ordnance that might have been left inside boxes made for them. Artillery boxes were usually simple, made of half-inch by three-inch wooden laths nailed together and painted olive drab with their contents stenciled on them in black. He searched for the shape, not the color, in case somebody had painted one to look harmless, like a toy box. Watkins knew if an expert had set this house to blow, there would be at least two charges—the big one to destroy the building, and a smaller, subtler one just for someone like him. When he had stared into the interior through each of the windows, he found himself back at the front steps. He spoke into the helmet radio. “There’s nothing visible from any of the windows. I’m at the front door again.” He stood on the steps beside the door, reached over, and turned the knob.

The spring pressure felt normal, and he heard no clicks. He sighted along the jamb as he opened the door a crack. There were no signs of anything held in place by the door or the hinges about to fall or spring away or sever a contact. There were no wires. He moved his knife along the bottom of the door to locate the magnet embedded in the door to keep the alarm switch under the threshold from tripping. He found it, then took out his own magnet and placed it against the door in exactly the right spot, so when he pushed the door inward the new magnet would replace the one in the door. He reached inside and lifted the doormat to check for a pressure pad, and then put the doormat into the doorway to prop the door open. He turned and inspected the alarm keypad on the wall. “I’m in,” he said. “The alarm is oʃ.” A minute later he said, “I don’t see any sign of a device yet. I’m going to look for it.” Watkins stepped deeper into the living room, inching ahead in his heavy, hot bomb suit. He had to turn the whole upper part of his body to see anything on either side, because the suit’s helmet didn’t have a neck. He used his bright ɻashlight to focus on one object at a time.

He didn’t want to flip any light switches just yet. He moved the beam of his light around the room to pick up the shine of monoɹlament ɹshing line or any thin wires that weren’t meant to be there. Next he turned his light oʃ and searched for thin beams of light from an electric eye in the air. A glass candy jar ɹlled with multicolored jelly beans drew him to it. The jar was exactly the sort of object a bomb maker would use—harmless looking, transparent, and appealing. He came closer and used his ɻashlight to search for any hint of an object or a wire hidden among the jelly beans. Maybe it was too obvious for this guy. A professional bomber would know that someone like Watkins would see it as a likely place for the trigger. The place a bomber wanted the charge was not the ɹrst place you’d look. When you looked at the ɹrst place, you were still sharp and watchful. The bomber wanted you to work your way to the less likely places. When you got to the least likely place, there it would be. By then you’d be tired and bored, maybe careless enough to open drawers without first checking for contacts, or to step without looking down ahead of your feet. Watkins refused to rush or get lazy. His mind roamed this nightmare of a house, searching for the other mind, the one that had come here to infuse the building with malice.

Watkins had seen bombs go oʃ, and he had seen the aftermath, people simultaneously burned to death and torn apart, charred viscera and brain tissue spilled and limbs wrenched from bodies, blood spattered on pavements and dirt roads. He was aware that in a minute he might experience that destruction. He might already have set oʃ an electronic timer when he opened the front door, and a time-delay relay was about to send the electrical current to the initiator. Maybe now. Or now. Or now. He went down on his stomach and swept the ɻashlight beam along the boards of the hardwood ɻoor, trying to spot a single board that was higher or lower than the others. A misfit board could have been lifted and something placed under it. The ɻoor was perfectly level. Watkins looked up at the ceiling and along the crown molding. He reminded himself that if there was a bomber, he had never seen this person’s work before, and didn’t know his specialties, his quirks, his favorites. He kept looking. Bombs were not just weapons. They were something more, expressions of the bomber’s thoughts about you, his predictions of your behavior—what you would see, even what you would think and feel. He’d staged a presentation designed to fool you.

He didn’t even know your name, but you were the one he was really after. Bombs were acts of murder, but they were also jokes on you, riddles the bomber hoped were too tough for you, chances for you to pick wrong when it was almost impossible to pick right. Watkins turned his attention to the furniture. First he moved his ɻashlight along the bottom edges of the furniture and then behind it, and then he moved to the couch. The easiest place to put a charge was in one of the seat cushions. The cushions usually had a zipper in the back or underneath so the cover could be cleaned or the stuɽng replaced. One couch cushion could hold a pretty big bomb. Three of them could blow pieces of the house all over the neighborhood. He touched the front of each cushion with his ɹngers, palpating it to sense whether there was anything hard, or if the stuɽng was too full, or there were any empty spaces. He cautiously pushed the spaces between two cushions apart to detect any wires. He worked his way to lifting them up to be sure they weren’t too heavy. Next he moved to the big armchairs and repeated the process. After each piece was cleared, he slid it over beside the couch. When he had moved everything to one side, Watkins surveyed the newly bare part of the room to be sure he had missed nothing. He looked at baseboards and molding, sockets, light ɹxtures, and lamps.

He announced, “The living room is clear.” Then he picked up his tool bag and went to the kitchen door. He took out his mirror and extended its telescoping handle. He slipped it into the thin crack between the swinging door and the jamb, moved it up and down, and rotated it. There was nothing connected to the door. There was nothing on the ɻoor. He adjusted his mirror to reɻect the kitchen counters. There were a toaster, a blender, a row of spices, a couple of bottles. One was olive oil. He saw a small black rectangular box on the kitchen counter. What was that, a phone? A radio? Either could be bad for him. There seemed to be a very thin white cord leading from the countertop to a plug on the wall behind the juicer. He withdrew the mirror, put it away, and picked up the monocular from his tool bag. He leaned into the kitchen, aimed the monocular at the device, and read the brand name. Canon.

A camera? No lens, but it looked like camera equipment. As he stared at it, a tiny red indicator on the end came on. In that silent moment Watkins identiɹed the device on the counter. It was a photographer’s intervalometer, a device often planted in the wild to detect movement of an animal on a trail and trigger a camera many times in succession as the animal passed by. Watkins half turned his body toward the front door to go back, then realized he was not going to make it. The ɹrst electrical impulse would be for a charge near the front door, and the next impulses would race around the house, each one setting oʃ a charge where he might take shelter, tearing the house down over him one explosion at a time. “No,” he thought. “Toward it.” Watkins pivoted back toward the kitchen, pushed oʃ with his legs and heard the ɹrst click of the intervalometer as it sent the ɹrst impulse, but there was no explosion. He burst through the swinging door, building speed as he lumbered across the kitchen, dashing for the back door. The intervalometer’s second click set oʃ an explosion at the front of the house, the one designed to kill him if he’d retreated to the front door. The shock shook him and his ears hurt, as though it had damaged his eardrums. He ɻung the back door open and launched himself oʃ the back porch to the lawn. He managed to remain on his feet in the heavy bomb suit, still struggling to run. The second explosion punched out the kitchen windows behind him and showered him with glass, and the third took out the windows over his right shoulder.

One after another, the charges blew, the next set at the corners of the house. Watkins kept moving, not able to turn and look back, but he heard a crash he believed was the collapse of the roof over the living room. The house was being imploded, the way demolition teams imploded skyscrapers and apartment complexes. He knew the only thing that had kept him alive for the past ten seconds was the necessity that the last charge to blow was the one near the intervalometer that set off the charges. The kitchen charge would be the biggest. In another half second it came, knocking him oʃ his feet onto the grass, clapboards and two-by-fours striking his back. Then clouds of white dust obscured the world.


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