Shock Wave

John Sandford


From the boardroom windows, high atop the Pye Pinnacle, you could see almost nothing for a very long way. A white farmhouse, surrounded by a scattering of metal sheds, huddled in a fir-tree windbreak a half mile out and thirty degrees to the right. Another farmhouse, with a red barn, sat three-quarters of a mile away and thirty degrees to the left. Straight north it was corn, beans, and alfalfa, and after that, more corn, beans, and alfalfa.

Somebody once claimed to have spotted a cow, but that had never been confirmed. The top floor was so high that the board members rarely even saw birds, though every September, a couple of dozen turkey vultures, at the far northern limit of their range, would gather above Pye Plaza and circle through the thermals rising off the concrete and glass.

There were rumors that the vultures so pissed off Willard Pye that he would go up to the roof, hide in a blind disguised as an airconditioner vent, and try to blast them out of the sky with a twelvegauge shotgun.

Angela “Jelly” Brown, Pye’s executive assistant, didn’t believe that rumor, though she admitted to her husband it sounded like something Pye would do. She knew he hated the buzzards and the saucersized buzzard droppings that spotted the emerald-green glass of the Pinnacle.

But that was in the autumn.

On a sunny Wednesday morning in the middle of May, Jelly Brown got to the boardroom early, pulled the drapes to let the light in, and opened four small vent windows for the fresh air. That done, she went around the board table and at each chair put out three yellow #2 pencils, all finely sharpened and equipped with unused rubber erasers; a yellow legal pad; and a water glass on a PyeMart coaster. She checked the circuit breakers at the end of the table to make sure that the laptop plug-ins were live.

As she did that, Sally Humboldt from food services brought in a tray covered with cookies, bagels, and jelly doughnuts; two tanks of hot coffee, one each of regular and decaf; and a pitcher of orange juice and one of cranberry juice.

The first board members began trickling in at eight forty-five. Instead of going to the boardroom, they stopped at the hospitality suite, where they could get something a little stronger than coffee and orange juice: V-8 Bloody Marys were a favorite, and screwdrivers-both excellent sources of vodka. The meeting itself would start around nine-thirty.

Jelly Brown had checked the consumables before the board members arrived. She’d put an extra bottle of Reyka in the hospitality suite, because the heavy drinkers from Texas and California were scheduled to show up.

A few minutes after nine o’clock, she went back to the boardroom to close the windows and turn on the air- conditioning. Sally Humboldt had come back with a tray of miniature pumpkin pies, each with a little pigtailed squirt of whipped cream and a birthday candle. They always had pie at a Pye board meeting, but these were special: Willard Pye would be seventy in three days, and the board members, who’d all grown either rich or richer because of Pye’s entrepreneurial magic, would sing a hearty “Happy Birthday.”

Jelly Brown had closed the last window when she noticed that somebody had switched chairs. Pye was a man of less than average height, dealing with men and even a couple of women on the tall side, so he liked his chair six inches higher than standard, even if his feet dangled a bit.

She said, “Oh, shit,” to herself. Almost a bad mistake. Pye would have been mightily pissed if he’d had to trade chairs with somebody-no graceful way to do that. She then made a much worse mistake: she pulled his chair out from the spot at the corner of the table and started dragging it around to the head of the table.

The bomb was in a cardboard box on the bottom shelf of a credenza on the side wall opposite the windows. When it detonated, Jelly Brown had just pulled the chair out away from the table, and that put her right next to the credenza. She never felt the explosion: never felt the blizzard of steel and wooden splinters that tore her body to pieces.

Sally Humboldt was bent over a serving table, at the far end of the room. Between her and the bomb were several heavy chairs, the fourinch-thick tabletop, and the four-foot-wide leg at the end of the table. All those barriers protected her from the blast wave that killed Jelly Brown and blew out the windows.

The blast did flatten her, and broken glass rained on her stunned, upturned face. She didn’t actually hear the bomb go off-had no sense of that-and remembered Pye screaming orders, but she really wasn’t herself until she woke up in the hospital in Grand Rapids, and found her face and upper body wrapped in bandages.

The bandages covered her eyes, so she couldn’t see anything, and she couldn’t hear anything except the drone of words, and a persistent, loud, high-pitched ringing. For a moment she thought she might be dead and buried, except that she found she could move her hands, and when she did, she felt the bandages.

And she blurted, “God help me, where am I? Am I blind?”

There were some word-like noises, but she couldn’t make out the individual words, and then, after a confusing few seconds, somebody took a bandage pad off her left eye. She could see okay, with that eye, anyway, and found herself looking at a nurse, and then what she assumed was a doctor.

The doctor spoke to her, and she said, “I can’t hear,” and he nodded, and held up a finger, meaning, “One moment,” and then he came back with a yellow legal pad and a wide-tipped marker and wrote in oversized block letters: You were injured in an explosion. Do you understand?

She said, “Yes, I do.”

He held up a finger again and wrote: You have temporarily lost your hearing because of the blast. Another page: You have many little cuts from glass fragments. Turned the page: Your other eyelid is badly cut, but not the eye itself. Another page: Your vision should be fine. Another: You also suffered a minor concussion and perhaps other impact injuries. Finally: Your vital signs are excellent.

“What time is it?” she asked. The light in the room looked odd.

5 o’clock. You’ve been coming and going for almost 8 hours. That’s the concussion.

There was some more back-and-forth, and finally she asked, “Was it a gas leak?”

The doctor wrote: The police believe it was a bomb. They want to talk to you as soon as you are able.

“What about Jelly? She was in the room with me.”

The doctor, his expression grim, wrote: I’m sorry. She wasn’t as lucky as you.

MORE OR LESS the same thing happened all over again, three weeks later and four hundred and fifty miles to the west, in Butternut Falls, Minnesota. Gilbert Kingsley, the construction superintendent, and Mike Sullivan, a civil engineer, arrived early Monday morning at the construction trailer at a new PyeMart site just inside the Butternut Falls city limits.

Kingsley, unfortunately for him, had the key, and walked up the metal steps to the trailer door, while Sullivan yawned into the back of his hand three steps below. Kingsley turned and said, “If we can get the grade-”

He was rudely interrupted by the bomb. Parts of the top half of Kingsley’s body were blown right back over Sullivan’s head, while the lower half, and what was left of the top, plastered itself to Sullivan and knocked him flat.

Sullivan sat up, then rolled onto his hands and knees, and then pushed up to his knees and scraped blood and flesh from his eyes. He saw a man running toward him from the crew’s parking area, and off to his left, a round thing that he realized had Kingsley’s face on it, and he started retching, and turned and saw more people running…

He couldn’t hear a thing, and never again could hear very well.

But like Sally Humboldt, he was alive to tell the tale.

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