Close, But No Cigar

CHAPTER 1

Sam Beckett sensed the electricity coursing through his body and knew he was Leaping. Slowly the real world appeared to coalesce around him though he understood that he was the one taking form in this reality, whatever it was this time. He'd been through this enough times now that he knew to stand still and wait until the process was complete – and hope he wasn't Leaping into a moving target.

Sam found himself seated behind an expensive teak desk which was covered with an assortment of legal documents, notes scrawled on pieces of lined yellow paper, and thick books opened to some hopefully relevant page. Hastily he looked up; experience had taught him that surely someone would be sitting on the other side of that huge desk, patiently waiting for him to answer their question. He was alone. "There's nothing going on at the moment," he said to himself. "Maybe this will be an easy Leap."

He thought to glance down at himself to determine his current gender and saw he was wearing an expensive navy-blue suit with a visible triangle of pinstriped dress shirt. From the style of the suit he concluded he was in an era in which a woman might well adopt male dress codes to further an appearance of competition, power and importance. He pushed his chair backwards a bit so he could see his footwear – they were soft black loafers, thankfully men's shoes.

Sam took the opportunity to survey his surroundings in an attempt to glean as much information as possible about his new persona before someone walked through the door and he had to interact with them. The office he occupied was well-appointed, fairly reeking of money. The walls were covered with wood paneling, the carpet was dark green. In front of the desk sat two wingback chairs, dark wood frames upholstered in brown leather with brass nail-head trim outlining the edges of the arms and back. The leather was worn just enough to look comfortable.

The men's club look was furthered by a matching large brown-leather couch placed against the wall to his right. A coffee table of dark wood and sleek lines sat in front of the couch, displaying half a dozen magazines laid out in a precise fan shape and a brass planter containing a healthy specimen of Boston fern. A small table right of the couch supported a brass urn that had been made into a lamp, while a tall potted ficus took up the other corner.

Along the wall in front of him Sam saw a round table surrounded by four straight-backed chairs, all solidly constructed of heavy dark wood. At the edge of the table nearest the wall sat a unique lamp; its base appeared to be carved from an old tree branch into the shape of an eagle with wings spread wide, the artist having taken advantage of the natural shape of the wood. A stack of note-pads and pens were piled neatly next to the lamp, available if needed. Smaller plants in brass pots flanked the setting. The wall above was graced by a large heavy-framed painting of a mountain scene; a high cliff in shades of ochre and amber towered over a dark green valley while the sky above was done in blue and mauve. The whole picture had a dark quality, though Sam couldn't tell if it was meant to look gloomy or aged.

Sam swung his gaze on around the room, noting the open office door in passing. The wall to his left was covered with lawyer's bookshelves. The glass fronts of the nearest reflected the bright sunlight streaming through the windows behind him, but he could see that the rest of the shelves were crammed full of heavy tomes. Various Western-themed bronze statues rested atop the bookcase: an Indian warrior astride a horse, both with heads bowed seemingly in defeat; a bucking bronco; another eagle; and a bust of a man with a friendly face and large features, his hat pushed far back on his head to show a slash of choppy bangs. From somewhere in the depths of Sam's memory came the name Will Rogers. Pride of place was given to an autographed red and white football, bearing the logo of the University of Oklahoma. There was also a humidor full of cigars. Sam chuckled, thinking that Al would doubtless bemoan the fact that he wouldn't be able to smoke them, which was just as well in Sam's opinion.

He stood up and crossed the thick carpet to get a better look at the name plate on the door. "Joseph P. Smithfield, Esq." it read. "Oh, Boy!" Sam said. "I'm a lawyer again." He took a moment to reflect on the past, thinking about the two previous times he'd Leaped into lawyers; in both cases he'd been a defense attorney.

He looked through the open door into the reception area beyond and puzzled out the backwards writing on the all-glass front door. The black-rimmed gold-leaf letters spelled out "Dancey, Parsons, Stanton, and Waters" with "Corporate Law" below the name. "Whew!" Sam said to himself. "At least this time I won't have to argue a case before judge and jury."

He turned and walked back toward the desk, looking out the large expanse of windows that spanned the back of the room. There was a low wall below them, constructed so that the windows were flush with the outer edge of the building leaving a 6-inch ledge inside. Sam could see vertical metal strips that must hold the large panes of glass in place without unduly obstructing the view. Vertical blinds had been pushed into each corner; their wood tone matched the walls. As he approached he faltered for a moment as he realized this office was 15 or 20 stories up in the building. His fear of heights set his heart to pounding; he closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths, telling himself firmly that he was safe and wouldn't fall. He opened his eyes again and cautiously approached the window, touching the narrow ledge with both hands to assure himself of safety.

Smithfield's office appeared to be in a building amongst many others, although none of the nearer ones were as tall. Directly across the street Sam could see a buff-colored building whose rooftop was covered with cars, the sunlight glinting off all the chrome and glass; evidently a parking garage. In the near distance he could see the steeple of a church, probably built years ago before the business area expanded from the look of its architecture. "I must be downtown in some good-sized city," he muttered to himself. "But I don't recognize the skyline. Looks like a nice place; mostly modern buildings with a few well-kept older ones, clean and not crowded, and I like the trees planted along the edge of the sidewalk." In fact, he noticed that there were few people walking along those sidewalks nor were there many cars on the street. Whatever city it was looked quiet and tranquil.

It was a beautiful day outside. From the direction of the shadows Sam could tell the sun was to his right, but that didn't tell him whether he was facing north or south. Absorbed in his thoughts he forgot about the precipitous drop in front of him as he raised his arms to push back the sleeve of his jacket and check his wristwatch. It was just after 9:00 AM, 9:01 to be exact.

Behind him Sam heard the familiar hollow grating sound of the Imaging Chamber door opening. Before it had fully opened he heard Al yell, "Sam, get down! Get away from the window and hit the deck!"

Sam turned to see Al outlined by a rectangle of bright white light. It was obvious Al hadn't taken time to dress before appearing as he was wearing a white robe with rows of black dots and lines over red satin pajamas. Instead of punching the 'close' button on the handlink he was waving his arms wildly, leaving a complicated trail of smoke from the cigar in his right hand. Sam gave him a confused look, instinctively trusting his advice but uncertain of the reason.

"Sa-am, get over here right now." Al used his cigar to point to the floor in front of the desk. "It's time to duck and cover!"

Sam took three quick strides to the appointed spot, dropped to his knees and curled up with his hands over his head. He had the sudden feeling he should be wearing a gas-mask and lead-lined poncho (though he couldn't quite think why) and he expected to hear the rising wail of a siren at any second. However the room remained so quiet that he could clearly hear the sudden airflow as the air conditioning kicked on. He turned his head slightly to his right to look up at Al through the V of his bent arm. "Why am I doing this, Al?" he hissed.

"You're in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma," Al said tensely. "It's 9:02 AM on Wednesday, April 19, 1995 and…"

Suddenly the quiet, peaceful day was shattered by an almost unbearably loud noise, a deep boom that had an odd hollow quality to it. Sam thought it sounded like a gigantic trash dumpster had been dropped from the sky above onto the street below. He could hear the echoes rippling down the city streets as the sound hammered against the surrounding buildings in its effort to expand. He pulled his body more tightly into the fetal position and waited, not knowing what to expect.

For the next few moments the sound waves continued to roll past the building, gradually diminishing in volume. Peace and quiet returned once more. Sam dared to relax enough to once again look up as if asking if it were safe to come out of hiding now. What he saw wasn't at all reassuring. Al was standing in the middle of the office floor but he appeared to be rocking from side to side like a bowling pin that hadn't been hit hard enough to fall and would eventually settle back on its base.

Sam squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, and then took another look at the situation. His brain did a mental twist and this time he clearly saw that Al was standing still while the walls of the room were moving; Al appeared to repeatedly lean into and away from the open doorway. Sam stared in shock, unable to look away as he realized that the entire tall building must be swaying back and forth. Now that he knew what was happening he could feel the movement and stayed where he was on the floor.

"What just happened here, Al?" he asked.

In the reception area beyond the office a man pulled open the front door and stuck his head inside long enough to yell, "It's the Federal Courthouse, it's been bombed!" before backing out again and running down the hall.

"No, it's not, Sam," Al said, shaking his head gravely. "It's the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building."

The name meant absolutely nothing to Sam, and he shrugged his shoulders to signify his lack of comprehension. "I don't remember," he said.

Al made a gesture indicating Sam should stand up. "It's OK now Sam, the danger to this building has passed. I'm sorry about all the shouting, but by the time Ziggy realized where and when you were she didn't have time to check on the damage to this particular office. There was a lot of flying glass all over downtown Oklahoma City and it was quicker to just have you take cover."

"This building is…" Al raised the handlink to consult the display. "Lead. It's not made of lead, it's a glass building." He shook the handlink and peered more closely at its screen. "Oh! Leadership Square. You're on the 17th floor, and it's three blocks south of the Murrah Building."

Sam had gotten to his feet but just stood there, looking blank and feeling tense. Something truly horrible had just happened. He wanted to take action, to run outside and do something, but he needed to know more before he could help anyone effectively. "I Leaped in here just in time to feel the building do a Hula dance under me while I'm curled up on the floor like a baby. I haven't had a chance for my Swiss cheese memory to catch up and you're giving me times and names that obviously mean something, except I don't know what it is."

"I'm sorry, Sam," Al said quietly. He pointed at the windows as if that would explain everything.

Sam walked up to the windows and looked down at the street, unconsciously gripping the ledge for mental support. Nothing seemed to have changed. The sun was still shining cheerfully, a young woman was walking down the sidewalk across the street, and a short line of cars pulled forward as the traffic light turned green. Given what he'd just experienced, there was a surreal quality to the oh-so-normal scene.

He raised his head to look further into the distance and saw a rising cloud of dust just beyond and to the right of the church he'd noticed earlier. Staring out the window beside him, Al explained. "You don't remember because you never heard the news reports, Sam. In 1995 you'd just started Leaping and you were stuck in the past. The Committee voted not to tell you because you had enough to deal with as it was." Sam accepted the decision with a nod of his head, his attention still riveted on the view out the window.

"The Federal Building in Oklahoma City was built in 1977 and named after federal judge and Oklahoma native Alfred P. Murrah," Al explained as he punched buttons on the handlink to retrieve the data. "Its nine floors housed regional offices of a bunch of government agencies. It's like alphabet soup, Sam. The SSA, FBI, DEA, and BATF. There were Army and Marine recruiting offices, the Federal Employees Credit Union and…"

Sam turned his head to look at Al, knowing he had something even worse to say. He nodded slightly, indicating both that he was ready to hear and that he understood that Al really didn't want to have to say it.

"There was a daycare center on the second floor, Sam. A daycare full of kids. The bastard bombed kids." Al's voice was choked with emotion.

"Bombed?" Sam asked as if he didn't understand the word.

"What you just heard was the detonation of a bomb made of 5,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, nitro methane, and diesel fuel. It was placed inside a Ryder rental truck that was parked on the street north of the building. The blast destroyed a third of the Murrah Building, caused severe damage to many of the nearby buildings, and blew glass out all over the area."

"I didn't just hear it, Al," Sam said. "I felt it. I thought I was in an earthquake, except you said this is Oklahoma and not California. I felt the building move. They don't have earthquakes in Oklahoma, do they?"

"No, just tornadoes," Al replied as if that were reassuring. "People reported hearing the blast as far away as 55 miles, and the seismometer at the University of Oklahoma in Norman 16 miles away from here measured it at 3.0 on the Richter scale," Al read from the handlink.

"What kind of person would do such a horrible thing?" Sam asked.

"Fellow by the name of Timothy McVeigh," Al replied. "It seems he didn't agree with the way the federal government handled Ruby Ridge in '92 or the siege at Waco, Texas in '93. In fact he set this bomb off on the second anniversary of the Waco incident."

"They know who did it? Do they know why? What kind of man could blow up a building full of innocent people?" Sam asked in horror. "He's not one of those bigoted racists, like the guys when I Leaped into the Ku Klux Klan," he said in a disgusted tone of voice. Having thought of it he suddenly remembered all too vividly the hatred and arrogance those men had shown in bombing a church.

"No, he didn't seem to be a white supremacist. But he hated everything our government stands for; he thought they were taking away all our freedoms so he took action." Al consulted the handlink again to get the details.

"He and Terry Nichols were convicted of the bombing. McVeigh was executed on June 11, 2001 and Nichols is still in federal prison," he reported. "It reminds me of the Kennedy assassination all over again. There was a lot of suspicion that it was a conspiracy, that Middle Eastern terrorists were involved, but that was never proved. McVeigh went to his death swearing it was his own idea."

"Al, please don't tell me I'm here to uncover the conspiracy," Sam said warningly.

"Nah, Ziggy only gives that a 3% chance," Al said firmly.

"Well I'm certainly not here to stop the bomb…God, Al, how many people were killed?"

"The official count was 168; and there was a leg that was never identified. 19 of them were children." Al was trying to maintain a neutral attitude to lessen the impact of that statement, but his voice was tight nevertheless.

"Why didn't I Leap in sooner?" Sam wailed. "I could've stopped the bomber, or warned the people in that building, or…" He stopped talking, overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation, heartsick at the loss of life, and thoroughly frustrated at his inability to have prevented any of it. "I could've saved them. Why didn't I get here sooner?" he asked in anguish.

"I don't know, Sam," Al said quietly. "I guess that just wasn't meant to be."

"But why?" Sam asked, his voice hoarse with emotion. "Maybe I couldn't have stopped him. Or, or maybe I couldn't have saved everybody, but I could've saved some of them. You said the daycare was on the second floor, if I'd just had a few more minutes' warning I could've at least saved those children."

Al shook his head gravely. "I'm sorry, Sam. I got here just as soon as I could. I didn't even take time to get dressed!" He gestured at his attire to add visual emphasis to his words. "God or Fate or Time or Whatever seems to have something else in mind for this Leap. I wish you could've stopped it, too. This was the worst terrorist attack on American soil until September 11."

"September 11?" Sam asked, perplexed. "What happens on September 11?"

"Uh, don't worry about that now, Sam," Al said, having realized too late that was another horror story Sam knew nothing about. "It's, uh…it's a long story and we need to figure out why you're here." He shook his head sadly and said again, "I'm sorry I didn't get here sooner."

Sam sighed, thus releasing some of his tension. "It's OK, Al," he said. "I was only here a couple of minutes before you showed up, it's not your fault." He flung out a hand towards Al, fingers outspread, as if to indicate the whole situation. "It's just that I feel so helpless. If I'd had just a little more time I could've done something. Five minutes. If I'd gotten here just five minutes earlier I could've helped."

"There wasn't anything you could've done," Al said firmly. "If you'd run into the daycare screaming that a lunatic had parked a truckful of explosives outside they'd have thought you were the crazy one. And if you'd tried to move the truck you'd have been blown to bits."

"Then what am I here for, if it wasn't to stop the bombing?" Sam asked in frustration.

"Ziggy doesn't know," Al replied. "She hasn't had time to sort through the rest of the day's history yet. The news media was so understandably focused on the bombing that it's a little hard to tell what else happened today. The guy in the Waiting Room says he's Joseph Smithfield, he's an attorney. But as soon as he told me his location and date I didn't stick around to ask him anything else."

"I figured that much out on my own." Sam turned back to the windows; the smoke and dust had begun to rise above the building, and he could see people running towards it. "How many people were in there?" he asked.

Al punched up the data on the handlink. "The estimate was that there were 646 people inside the building this morning."

"God, Al! There are survivors! I may not have been able to stop the bombing or to save some of those people; but I'm a doctor, I can help the injured and maybe save some of their lives," Sam said. Now that he had a purpose he seemed energized.

Al pointed out the window to the cross-street on their right. "That's Robinson Avenue, take it north and it'll put you on the east side of the Murrah building. Be careful out there, Sam, it's dangerous."

Sam ran out of the office into the reception area. As he went he noticed a secretary sitting at her desk and turned his head over his shoulder to tell her, "I'm going to do what I can to help." She was still nodding dumbly as he pulled the front door open and raced down the hallway.