I refuse to apologise for this multi-chapter story, it's an exercise in pure self-indulgence. A good, old-fashioned Don angst-fest, of both the physical and emotional kind. It's also a little nod to those pictures - for some reason, they just make my heart melt. All those black and white posters of beautiful men, tenderly cradling a tiny child.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
From the Benedictus Song of Zechariah The Gospel of Luke
Oasis Towers Building – Los Angeles
Now . . .
He ran for dear life along the corridor, knowing all the while, he wouldn't make it. They'd only passed on the message a minute ago, but the warning was a lifetime too late.
Anonymous. Well, that was a given. Sent via the local news station. A sick surplus of top-grade publicity, he supposed, in exchange for a little seasonal carnage.
They already knew it was a catering truck, jam-packed to the gunnels with high explosive. It had been driven into the underground parking lot, and left abandoned in the cavernous unloading bay; designed to cause maximum damage, just outside the main kitchen doors. The vehicle must have been hi-jacked sometime last night, but the company hadn't noticed until this morning.
Too engaged making extra deliveries, in the frenzied run-up to Christmas.
Too busy fulfilling last-minute orders, in the crazy, pre-holiday boom.
The bomb-site had been chosen carefully. These guys really knew what they were doing. In-fact, Don had to hand it to the bastards, they'd executed their plans with ruthless efficiency. Somehow, they must have got hold of the architectural blue-prints, and worked with a structural engineer. A significant blast at this particular point would weaken the whole integrity of the building. It would destabilise pivotal foundations and cause significant damage; maybe enough to result in grand scale devastation, and bring the entire tower block tumbling down.
He came to a fork in the corridor. A green exit sign guided him one way. He knew it led out to the front atrium – tens of seconds and two hundred yards from safety. He'd been inside the building before, and had a rough sense of the geographical layout. If he headed for the vestibule and followed the signs, there was a good chance he might make it out alive.
It wasn't entirely impossible. He was damned fit and he could run pretty fast. A burst of speed, a stroke of luck, and just maybe he would stand a fighting chance.
In this case, a word like maybe might not be good enough.
Don turned and ran the opposite way. He took the sign which said Crèche. Someone screamed into his earpiece, but he deliberately blanked out what they were saying. Whatever it was, it couldn't be good. He didn't want to know how many minutes. Didn't want to know how many seconds he had left, or how close to the fucking bomb they thought he was.
He didn't stop to consider it might be a hoax. The caller had been too detail/specific. And, just lately, there'd been an increase in chatter, all the classic warning signs had been in place. He'd had a feeling, a tightening in the region of his gut; something pretty bad was going down.
As a result of the Intel and on Washington's orders, they'd upped their terror alert status to red. All Christmas leave had been cancelled, as of this morning, and to be honest, he hadn't been sorry. The thought of getting through the seasonal festivities this year, had left him a little short of dismayed.
So okay, you might as well call him the Grinch, but it gave him the excuse he'd been praying for. No parties or wearing goddamn stupid hats. No egg-nog or false bonhomie. No awkward moments back at the Craftsman, watching Amita nibble Charlie's ear like a pretzel, and all the while having to sit there, trying hard to forget he was alone.
Not that he'd ever wanted this, of course. Never this, not in his worse nightmares. He'd do anything to prevent it from happening. Not on his watch, and not in his city.
No - this was it. The balloon had gone up.
He'd known from the beginning. He was sure of it.
Right from the very first second, when they'd heard from their man inside the mosque. And besides, there were the catering company drivers, found dead at the roadside this morning. Glassy-eyed and already cold – the black blood congealing on their throats.
Merry Christmas, Peace on Earth, and Goodwill to all Men.
In a way, it was like some grim form of joke.
None of the irony was lost on him. Not a jot, not a bitter stroke of it. Last night - the way he'd been feeling – this gave everything a warped kind of twist. There was no time. He had no time for this. He was ashamed of the flash of self-indulgence.
The fucked-up debacle also known as his life?
It was nothing in comparison to this.
There was a seething throng of people around him now, all stampeding towards the front of the building. He fought and struggled through the crush of humanity, battling his way against the tide. And not just adults and office workers, Don muttered up a short prayer of thanks. He was relieved to see some of the nursery staff, already leading their small charges to safety.
The evacuation procedures were underway. Thank God, someone – and he was betting on Reeves - had used their common sense and forewarned them. Although, what the hell were they supposed to do with a few minutes? From start to finish, it wasn't nearly enough.
The fire alarms began wailing like banshees.
It was about time. Reeves again, he guessed. So much for not causing mass panic, she was concentrating on the priorities. Save as many lives as humanly possible and get Joe Public out in time. He liked the thought of her in charge on the outside, and at least for now, she'd stopped yelling in his ear.
Mickey Mouse, the Little Mermaid and Dumbo the Elephant.
A whole phalanx of Disney wall murals.
Thank the lord - the place was where he remembered. Don carried on down the corridor. He had to check – just had to do this – otherwise, he'd never live with himself.
Mobiles, murals and security doors, the signs all told him he'd reached the crèche. There was no adherence to child protection protocol now – the security doors had been flung wide open. He came to a halt just inside them, and quickly surveyed the scene.
As far as he could tell, most of the pre-schoolers were gone, shepherded, he prayed, out of danger. But - and this was so not good - his heart missed a stuttering beat. It was obvious with just a cursory glance, the place wasn't quite empty yet.
There were three adult staff left behind in the centre, and at least half a dozen, screaming babies.
A woman turned to him, wild-eyed, taking in his FBI jacket. She reached out to him urgently, with shaking hands, and pulled him further into the room. "Can you tell us - they won't tell us what's happening – only that it isn't a drill. We've evacuated all of the children, but we still need some help with the babies."
"It isn't a practise." Don shouted at her, well aware of how harsh his voice sounded. He had no time for social niceties. There might be no time left at all. "Get them out - you need to get out of here now. Fast as you can - head for the front atrium!"
"But the parking lot exit's much closer - "
"Not the parking lot," Don grabbed hold of her arm, and shook it, his fingers digging in cruelly. What the hell, he was probably hurting her. He squeezed harder for extra emphasis. "Not the parking lot, do you hear me? You need to get as close to the front as you can - to get clear of the rear of the building."
She looked at him then, and saw the truth in his eyes. Her own clouded with realisation. Her mouth opened and closed like a goldfish, as she breathed the words; "Oh God, a bomb!"
"Get them out of here, now!"
There was no point even bothering to answer. Don pushed her firmly away from him, and turned to the other nursery assistants. They were already carrying two babies a piece, bundled up in blankets, under their arms.
"Fast as you can. The front of the building. You need to run, go on, get out of here!"
They obeyed his instructions in silence, moving quickly, with frightened faces. He waited, with barely concealed impatience, as they made their way through the doors. Not fast enough. It just didn't seem fast enough.
"For Christ's sake, get a move on!"
"Agent – I could use some help here?"
It was the same woman he'd first spoken to. Don ground his teeth in irritation - what the hell did she think she was doing?Instead of heading straight for the exit, she was still bending over one of the cribs.
"You'll have to take her, I can't manage three." She hitched her two charges closer, and indicated another crib.
Don realised his first, sketchy estimate was wrong. Not six, but in-fact, seven babies. Great, this was just what he needed; he had no recourse but to carry one. He shook his head, about to refuse her, but she was already handing him a blanket. She'd obviously taken it for granted he would be evacuating right alongside them.
He paused in dismay, his mind working frantically. Plan A just flew out the window. So much for him reaching the parking lot before the bomb blew them all sky high. Just what he would have done if he got there in time was quite another matter entirely. It was unlikely they would have abandoned the ignition keys or left without disabling the truck.
But now, that option had been taken away. Fate had simply decided against it. Events had conspired against him, and stripped the final call out of his hands. Before he even had time to argue, the woman fled through the doors and was gone. Don stood, nonplussed, and watched her go. Just for a second, he was almost resentful. He realised it was highly irrational, but the emotion frightened him somehow. Focus - he forced his mind back to the present. This was so not the time to go losing it. He needed to focus solely on the moment, and ignore the seething mass of darkness in his head.
There were no other choices left to him now, Don was faced with a fait d'accompli. He scooped the baby up close to his chest, and tucked her clumsily into a blanket.
"Sorry, sweetie," he murmured, "there's no time for polite introductions." She stared up at him with solemn eyes, and he was unsurprised when she refused to answer.
The way his luck had been running with women?
It was pretty much par for the course.
They were the last two out of the centre, and by now, the corridor was empty. The heaving press of people had faded away, and Don was glad to see the place seemed deserted. He scanned ahead for the three women and their tiny, live packages. Thank the lord, they were already out of sight.
In spite of the klaxons, the baby was silent, and Don was grateful, at least, for small mercies. She was surprisingly easy to carry, fitting snugly in the curve of his arm. He flicked his eyes down to the fuzz of dark hair. She didn't seem all that bothered he was running. He'd been slightly worried about jostling her, but it wasn't as if he had an alternative. He muttered a half-hearted apology. It was better than being blown up.
What was it he'd heard about babies?
For all their size, they were surprisingly tough.
He reached the fork in the corridor and was forced to grind to a halt. The building's safety precautions had begun to kick in, and the heavy fire-doors had swung closed. He shifted the baby round under his arm, ignoring her squawk of protest. The delay cost them valuable seconds, as Don wrenched open one of the handles.
"How long?" He spoke into his headset. "Do you copy, Reeves? Tell me how long?"
Aside from the klaxons, there was no other noise. No shouting or chattering in his ear. He reached up, and patted the side of his head, but his earpiece failed to respond.
Damn, just when he could have done with some input, the communications must have gone down.
He wondered briefly about frequency jamming. A shrewd move, in a sick kind of way. Oh yeah, whoever had done this was exceptionally smart and well-prepared. They'd already proved they were ruthless, there was nothing he wouldn't put past them. It was a means of causing maximum confusion amid all the chaos of the bomb scare; a way of choking the security forces, and preventing them from doing their job. The terrorists had plenty of money and it was simple enough to get hold of the equipment.
It occurred to him, not for the first time, that they were fighting a well-organised war.
"Looks like it's just you and me, kid."
Don looked down at the baby, as he barrelled his way through the doors. Some strange impulse, or just plain gut-feeling, made him tuck her in close to his chest. The emergency lights flickered overhead, and then they were plunged into darkness. There was no premonition – no warning. Just a peculiar rushing sound in his head.
The explosion was surprisingly silent.
Then he realised his eardrums had burst.
The brutal force of the shockwave threw him a good fifteen feet through the air.