By Andrew Macdonald


Two nights later Oscar was ready to move against the People’s Committee. He had prepared his tools and supplies, and the weather was right: a steady rain that would keep people indoors and muffle any noise he might inadvertently make.

Furthermore, the group had given special billing to the meeting being held tonight. The governors of Massachusetts and Wisconsin would be there to present resolutions of their respective state legislatures urging the Congress to pass the Horowitz Bill. Cardinal O’Rourke and Rabbi Rosen of the National Judeo-Christian Interfaith Council would be principal speakers, along with a Barry Shapiro of something called the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, who also was to be the master of ceremonies. Several Congressmen would be attending.

The media would be well represented, which was good. The more of those rotten sons of bitches he could blow to hell, the better. Unfortunately, however, there probably would be especially heavy police protection tonight. Oscar’s only real concern was that there not be any policemen patrolling the alley behind the church.

He drove first down the side street just north of the church complex. As he approached the alley entrance, his heart sank: a police cruiser was parked in the alley, blocking access, its nose projecting onto the sidewalk. He drove on around the block. The other end of the alley was clear. Peering into this end of the alley through the rain, which now had become quite heavy, he could not see the cruiser at all. He found a parking space only about 50 feet beyond the alley, on the other side of the street: quite a piece of luck, considering the large attendance at the meeting in the church. Oscar had spotted no other vacant spaces nearby and had been afraid he would have to carry his heavy, bulky equipment several blocks.

Before he stepped out of the car, he checked the pockets of his trench coat; all of the smaller items he needed were in place. He then walked around to the passenger door, slipped a heavily padded rope around his neck and across his shoulders underneath his coat, and carefully eased two 90-pound cylinders of acetylene, one fastened to each end of the harness, out of the passenger area. When he stood up the two cylinders hung to his knees and were covered by his coat. They doubled his girth, however, and he could not stand even a casual inspection at less than 50 yards without arousing immediate suspicion. Worse, he could not walk in anything approaching a normal fashion. The best he could manage with the load was an extremely awkward waddle.

He was nearly pooped by the time he reached the right spot in the iron fence, more than 100 yards down the alley. Fortunately, the police cruiser was still far enough away so that he could make out its outline only when it was occasionally illuminated by the headlights of a passing car on the side street ahead. As long as the cops stayed inside their vehicle, they certainly would not be able to see him.

He slipped out of the harness and then pushed the cylinders one at a time through the fence. They were a tight fit, and one stuck halfway through. He had to use all his strength to pull the pickets apart enough to free it. Then he went over the top himself, somewhat more awkwardly than the first time, but without losing any of the contents of his pockets. He rested for a couple of minutes, squatting in the wet darkness of the shrubs, before looping the rope over his shoulders again and crawling the remaining 25 yards to the building.

Once he had pushed his way through the shrubs concealing the window well and was stretched out along the basement wall with his head and shoulders next to the window, he was able to relax. From here on it would be a piece of cake. If he weren’t quite so wet and cold he would even enjoy it. First he pulled his battery-operated drill from his right pocket, and then the half-inch bit with the turned-down shank. He tightened the bit in the chuck, dropping the chuck key in the process and groping in the mud and blackness for nearly a minute before finding it again. The plastic coating on his fingers made them clumsy and hampered his sense of touch as well.

Drilling a hole through the wooden window sash took only a few seconds. Oscar next pushed the end of a half-inch plastic tube into the hole, The other end of the tube was connected to one of the acetylene cylinders, which in turn was connected to the other by a four-foot length of rubber hose. He opened the valves wide on both cylinders and tensed as the gas roared through the tube and into the basement. To him the sound seemed as loud as a freight train rushing by at high speed, but he told himself that it probably would be barely audible over the noise of the rain to someone in the alley - or inside the sanctuary above, where the meeting was in progress.

He had intended to stow his drill and set a time squib while the cylinders were emptying, but the force of the flow caused the plastic tube to writhe and twist so violently that he had to hold it to prevent its coming out of the sash. Only after about five minutes had the pressure in the cylinders dropped to the point where he could safely release the tube.

The atmosphere in the large basement room must be pretty close to 10 per cent acetylene by now, Oscar estimated. Anything over 2.5 per cent would explode. By the time the cylinders were completely empty, the acetylene content of the room should be as high as 12 percent, assuming the leakage under the doors into the rest of the basement wasn’t excessive. He had noted during his first reconnaissance that the heating plant for the whole church complex was located in an annex; at least, that was the only building with a chimney. That eased his fear of a premature explosion due to gas leaking into a part of the basement where a furnace might be located. Still, he didn’t want to hang around any longer than necessary, because as gas seeped into other parts of the basement a spark from any source might cause a detonation.

He pulled a squib from his pocket and prepared to set it for 30 minutes. It was a device he had built himself, but it was modeled on similar ignition devices he had seen in Vietnam. It was a metal tube six inches long and just under half an inch in diameter. When a protective cap was unscrewed from one end, a protruding sockethead screw became accessible. He had taped an Allen wrench to the squib beforehand, so that he wouldn’t have to grope in his pocket for it. A ball detent made it easy to turn the screw the exact distance desired: five minutes for each “click.” Zero “clicks” was for instantaneous ignition, but in practice that meant approximately 30 seconds. When one had set the position of the screw one jammed it forcefully against any hard surface to rupture a tiny ampoule of acid inside the tube and begin the countdown.

Oscar had just fumbled the wrench into the socket, relying entirely on his badly impaired sense of touch, when the light in the basement room suddenly came on. He froze in horror, anticipating the explosion. Almost immediately, however, he realized that if there were going to be an explosion from the turning on of the light it would have been instantaneous. Probably the light switch was one of the modern, silent ones, using a mercury contactor in a sealed glass tube. If it had been an older, mechanical switch, he probably would be dead now, the spark from the closing of the contacts having set off the explosive mixture in the room.

All of these thoughts raced through his head in a split second. Now he had to act just as quickly. Obviously, someone had opened the door to the room. Perhaps the odor of the acetylene had been detected upstairs, or perhaps it was the sound of the rushing gas. In any case, the alarm would now be sounded, and the church would be evacuated. Furthermore, with a door open he couldn’t count on the concentration of gas in the room remaining at the explosive level for more than a minute or so.

Without further thought he dropped the Allen wrench and slammed the end of the squib against the stone wall. Then he yanked the acetylene tube from the sash and pushed the squib into the hole. It clattered on the basement floor as Oscar scrambled to his feet. No time now to retrieve his nearly empty acetylene cylinders. He left them in the shrubs and sprinted for the fence.

He was over the top and halfway back to his car when the ground shook under his feet. An instant later the shock wave traveling through the air hit with an immensely satisfying boom. It seemed to Oscar that it had been less than 30 seconds since he had activated the squib. Not until he reached his car did he turn and look back toward the church. The building was still standing, but it was nearly obscured by a huge pall of black smoke. No flames were to be seen, but dense, black smoke was pouring from the windows of the sanctuary - which meant that the blast must at least have blown a substantial hole in the floor.

As he drove home, wet but happy, the first emergency vehicles went screaming past him in the opposite direction. It wasn’t until the next morning, however, that he was able to hear a fairly accurate news report on the effects of the blast. Not only the pulpit, but the entire speakers’ platform behind it had been blown right through the roof of the church, he learned. All of the notables on the platform - two governors, three Congressmen, a Senator, a cardinal, two bishops, a prominent rabbi, a TV talkshow host, two leading Hollywood actors, a much-acclaimed feminist writer, the head of a homosexual rights organization, the president of the NAACP, the B’nai B’rith’s Shapiro, and four others, unnamed - had perished. Parts of some of them were still being scraped off the rafters of the sanctuary. In addition there were 41 dead, most from smoke inhalation, among the audience and the media personnel. Oscar’s empty acetylene cylinders had been found, and the bombing already was being denounced as “the hate crime of the century.”

That label was a challenge to Oscar. What could he do next that would eclipse his snuffing of the People’s Committee? He had time to consider the matter, because he came down with a cold that very day - due at least in part, he suspected, to his exposure and exertion in the downpour of the previous night.

It was a Saturday, and Adelaide came over early. When she saw his condition she insisted that he stay at home and spend most of the weekend in bed under her ministrations. He complied without objection, glad for the rest and finding that he enjoyed being fussed over and waited on by her. With her as a nurse, having a cold was almost a pleasure.

More than ever he wanted to order his life in a way that would allow him to give her security and happiness and to father her children. And more than ever he felt compelled to continue combating the evil forces which were destroying the very basis for the future existence of her kind. He wrestled with his dilemma during most of the following week, mentally re-exploring every possible avenue of activity which might provide a resolution.

One of the thoughts that kept recurring to Oscar was that everything he had done so far was like hacking at the heads of a Hydra. He was unable to inflict a mortal wound, and the harder he hacked, the more formidable the beast became. The latest evidence of this was the demand by several members of the Congress that, in response to last week’s bombing, the Horowitz Bill be rushed to a vote as soon as possible. There clearly was a much larger supply of people who needed killing than he could ever hope to kill by himself. If he did not soon find a vital organ to strike at, all of his efforts would end up being counterproductive.

But what was a vital organ? The Congress? Not really; it seemed more to be a mere instrument of the forces of decay rather than the guiding will. Besides, he could kill hundreds of politicians, and the institution of Congress would continue its destructive work. The same was true of the news media; no matter how many journalists he killed, the press and the television networks would stay on their same, deadly course.

If he could not destroy a vital organ, perhaps there was some way of controlling one. Newspapers could be bought and sold, even television networks. The trouble was that the amounts of money required were simply beyond reach; big-city newspapers exchanged hands for $100 million or more, networks for billions. He could successfully rob banks or operate a counterfeiting press for 50 years without accumulating enough capital to buy the Washington Post.

By Thursday afternoon he still had no answer. The following Monday was a holiday for Adelaide, and he had promised to take her skiing over the three-day weekend. They would be leaving for the ski area tomorrow afternoon, and Oscar would be busy tomorrow morning completing several errands. Tonight he had to crank out some more results for Carl. And this afternoon it was necessary to take the car to the garage for a wheel alignment and a tune-up. He did not get home again with the car until after seven o’clock.