Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Chapter Twelve

To say I wasn't ready for that one is like saying that the Japanese gave us a playful tap on the shoulder at Pearl Harbor in 1941. That is, it's a dangerously stupid understatement.

I'd never seen Quentin fazed by much, not even the two bullets that had most likely cracked his sternum and pulverized a couple of ribs. But after Laura told us what was in the trunk, dude turned all sorts of pale and sat down on the curb next to the BMW.

"Yeah. I really, really need to lie down now," he said after a moment.

It was a moment during which no one had said a word, and I hadn't really even noticed the silence. That's probably because my brain was too busy running a mile a minute, filling my head with questions, alarms, panic, fear -- all of it jumbled up into a nice, incomprehensible mess. I couldn't pick out a single thought in the turmoil, so I just decided to shut Mister Brain down for a while. Not like he was helping me out a hell of a lot anyway.

"Right. Laura, help me get Quentin up to his room."

"About the --"

"We'll talk about that when we get there. The Umbra guys don't know where we are."

"The car might have LoJack," Quentin said.

Damn. Hadn't thought of that.

"Anything we can do about that?"

"Yeah. I have some stuff up in the room."

So we headed into the casino, me trying to support Quentin without looking like I was holding him up. We looked like hell anyway, all three of us, and I really didn't want to draw any attention I didn't need to. Of course, this was Vegas, so I doubt we would have drawn any extra attention if we'd been running through the gaming floor naked and on fire.

When we were safely in the elevator, I leaned Quentin up against the wall and turned on Laura almost instantly.

"Start talking," I said.

I tried not to sound angry, but it didn't really work. My dad taught me never to raise my voice in anger at a lady, but hey, these were the most extenuating of circumstances. You try sounding all cool and polite when you've just been told you're carting around a nuclear bomb.

"When we get to the room and I can check it for bugs," she said.

"No. Now," I snapped.

"She's right, big guy. Just calm down a second," Quentin said, coughing. "My room is clear of bugs. I always check when I leave the house."

I felt pretty damned silly all of a sudden. If a paranoid, gun-nut, crackpot like Quentin was telling me to calm down, then maybe all of my anger was out of place. After all, she'd said *most* of a nuclear weapon, right? I mean, maybe the thing was safe. Maybe.

"Fine," I grumbled, sticking my hands in my pockets and intentionally not looking at either of my two companions. That made me feel even sillier -- I was throwing a temper tantrum, I realized. Just like when I was six goddamn years old and my dad wouldn't let me hold the shotgun from his police cruiser.

We got to Quentin's room a few minutes later, and he grabbed a suitcase from the floor and, with my help, threw it up on the bed. He rummaged around inside for a moment and produced a small box with wires snaking all over it.

"Here," he told me. "Go put this in the BMW and turn it on. Anywhere should do. It'll jam the LoJack if the thing has one."

I wanted to stay and argue, to tell him I was promised answers as soon as we got to the room, but I knew he was right. We had to get the BMW off the grid as soon as possible. Even if the bomb wasn't complete, we still didn't want Meskhiyev and his pals coming after it.

"You'll make sure she doesn't leave?"

Quentin propped himself up on the bed and patted his shotgun.

"She won't have knees if she tries."

I nodded -- that was a good enough answer for me -- and headed back to the parking garage. On the way, I might have stopped for a beer. Hey, fuck it. After the night I'd had, I'd earned a drink, and it's not like there's anywhere in Vegas you can't drink. I was at the bar maybe a minute, minute and a half, but maybe if I'd stopped after... well...

The BMW was gone when I got there. I looked around, thinking maybe I'd gone to the wrong space, but no. The space I'd parked in was empty, and the same two cars -- a Ford F-150 and a Pontiac Grand Am -- were still on either side. I guess the BMW really did have a LoJack or something similar, and the Umbra guys were on top of it as soon as Meskhiyev or his buddy called it in.

I was immediately back on my guard, figuring there would be Umbra guys in the hotel looking for Laura Mills, probably for me and Quentin as well. I was thankful for his paranoia then, as he'd checked in under an assumed name, so the hotel wouldn't have any record that he was checked in, assuming the Umbra people knew who he really was in the first place. I was in alarm mode all the way back up to the room, taking random left turns and doubling back, trying to catch any evidence that someone was following me, that I'd been spotted. Either I wasn't being tailed or my stalker was really good, because I didn't see anyone. Still, it took me a good half an hour to circle my way back to the room.

The scene inside was much as I'd left it -- no Umbra guys had come in and started shooting while I was gone. Quentin was still on the bed, still with one hand on his shotgun. Laura had taken a chair across from the bed, and I could tell by the looks on their faces that I'd walked into the middle of a conversation in progress.

"BMW's gone," I said, sighing and dropping onto the couch. Quentin -- or Ken Adams, I suppose -- had a nice suite.

"Wow. These cats are good," Quentin said, nodding appreciatively.

"I know where they'll take the car," Laura told me.

"Yeah, I have a pretty good idea, too." I was thinking the office park out in the ghetto.

"Good. Then we have to go get it back."

I shook my head and started to say something, but Quentin cut me off.

"I think you're going to want to listen to the lady, big guy. She has quite a story."

* * *

And this is when I truly learned the shit we we'd gotten ourselves into.

Laura Mills went to work for Umbra Dynamics straight out of college in 1992. She'd gotten her masters in some area of physics I couldn't even pronounce, then been recruited right out of the gate. Her job was to help Umbra's software people accurately model nuclear blasts in a software package. Simple enough, and all above-board at this point. I could even see why they wanted that information, kinda. It's a little tough to wrap my head around.

So anyway, she goes on working for Umbra for five years without anything too odd going down. On the surface, they seem to be perfectly legitimate, working on contracts from the military and the Department of Justice. Software stuff, mostly, but she knows they do some hardware too -- better armor systems for Humvees, research into new air-to-air missile systems. None of that's done out of her office in Santa Monica, though. That's done at the company's testing facilities in the Nevada desert, and since she works on math and software, she never needs to go out there.

So, imagine her surprise in late 1997 when she gets an email telling her she's supposed to go out to the Nevada test site in a week to consult on some top-secret project that the company is putting together out there. She checked it out with her supervisor -- all legit, he said. They needed her specific knowledge, so plane tickets were booked, hotels called, cars rented. She got on a plane for Nevada just after Thanksgiving last year.

This is when it gets fucked up.

As soon as Laura got off the plane in Las Vegas, she was met by two men in black suits -- Umbra Security. There were a few Security guys here and there at the Santa Monica office, but Laura quickly noticed that the security presence at the Nevada facility was insane. She saw more security than scientists or engineers, but that was by design.

The two security guys led her to a windowless van and drove her to what she now knew was a not-so-abandoned office park in a terrible area of the city. She didn't really know how to get there, thanks to the lack of windows in the van, but when she got there, she was led through an empty, narrow hallway to a large, sparse office in a seemingly disused part of the building.

A man named George Nichols was in the office -- he wasn't a scientist or an engineer, either, Laura explained. He was basically an HR guy. He told her that she wouldn't be meeting anyone who was working on the project, or told any details of the project that weren't absolutely vital to her task, citing the top secret nature of the project. When Laura objected that she *had* the highest level of government clearance -- it was required for her regular day job -- Nichols simply replied that this project was classified above that.

Her task, initially, was to study ten major cities -- eight in America, two in the Russian Federation. She was to calculate the effects of a 1.8-kiloton nuclear blast set off at various locations around these cities -- Los Angeles, New York, Denver, Dallas, Chicago, Miami, San Diego, Kansas City, Moscow, and Vladivostok. She was never given a reason why she was doing these calculations, but she went ahead and did them.

Now, at this point, she had to explain something to me, because saying "a 1.8-kiloton nuclear blast" doesn't really mean anything as far as I know.

"All right. You know how big the average nuclear bomb is?" she asked.

"No. Can't say I do."

"It's between 20 and 30 megatons. That's way more powerful than 1.8 kilotons. Ten to twenty thousand times more. The thing is, those things are meant as a deterrent."

"Right. Scary doomsday bombs, never meant to be used."

"Exactly. But a 1.8-kiloton device? You don't build one of those unless you damn well plan to use it."

"But why?" I asked.

"I'm not 100% on that... but I have a theory."

Laura went on to tell us that, for the first month or so she was at the Nevada Facility, Meskhiyev had been assigned as her personal guard. He'd been the one to pick her up from the Tropicana for work in the morning, the one who dropped her at her suite door at night. Then, suddenly, Meskhiyev had been replaced by Brendan White, the ex-Marine Scout Sniper. He was Meskhiyev's right-hand man. She'd assumed it was just for a couple of days, but it ended up being quite a bit longer than that.

After Meskhiyev had been gone for three weeks or so, she and Brendan had gone for drinks after work. The ex-Marine liked to slam down the sauce, and after he'd had a few too many, Laura finally asked where the Russian had gone.

"Oh, he's on a nice, paid sailing vacation across the Pacific," Brendan had said, smirking and slurring his words. "He's got contacts where the bosses need 'em. Making a parts run."

That stopped Laura cold. Up until that point, she'd convinced herself she was data-modeling for a government contract -- predicting damage in case of, say, a terrorist device smuggled into one of the major cities. But now, another idea was creeping into her brain -- that Umbra was actually building its own nuclear device, off the reservation and without the sanction of the U.S. Government.

"Why would Meshkiyev making a trip back to Russia, I'm assuming, make you suspicious all of a sudden?" I asked.

"I asked the same thing," Quentin said, propping himself up on the bed.

"It has to do with the way a nuclear strike, a terrorist one, would be investigated," Laura said, speaking slowly as if to an elementary-school class. "You can't just stick any old fissionable material in the bomb. They're able to trace the plutonium back to where it was mined."

"So he needed to get Russian plutonium?" I asked.

"That's my guess. When the USSR broke up, a bunch of nuclear material went unaccounted for. If someone were to set off a bomb using that material, it would read as being mined somewhere in the former Soviet Union."

Something clicked in my mind then -- the blueprints I'd seen in Laura's hotel room at Caesar's. The writing on them had been foreign, but not Russian. At least, not to my untrained eyes, anyway. I mentioned it.

"You're correct. It was Chinese, and when I found that, suddenly the whole thing got even worse," she said.

"Why does a Chinese blueprint thingy make it worse?" Quentin asked.

"Because -- and remember, this is just theory here -- it means they plan to detonate their device in one of those cities and blame it on China."

That didn't make any sense to me. I mean, neither did an American defense contractor detonating a nuclear bomb in an American or Russian city, but assuming that made sense, why blame China for it? What had China ever done to us?

"Nothing, yet," Laura explained. "But their economy is growing at a massive rate. They could take over as the dominant world power in the next ten years. Unless, of course, they fight a costly war with the biggest, baddest military on the planet before that happens. And remember, Umbra's a defense contractor -- they'd make out like mad in a war."

I went to the bathroom and poured myself a glass of water. This was all crazy, and the whole Chinese conspiracy plot wasn't helping even a little. Still, there was a guy in a BMW out there with a nuclear bomb. It was time to call the police and let them know about Umbra's little hideout in the ghetto.

"I wouldn't recommend that," Laura said when I grabbed the phone.

"Oh, right. A scientist, a banged-up hacker, and a bounty hunter should go out there and get back a nuclear bomb instead," I scoffed.

"Umbra won't let the cops get within a hundred yards of that place. If they have to..."

She let the silence hang there in the room for a minute, but I shared a look with Quentin. Her meaning was clear to both of us.

They'll detonate the nuke.

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