Tuesday, August 25, 2015

At the Bus Station

Donahue had the office windows open. It was a hot day, little breeze, and only minimal air conditioning in the Jefferson Building. He was trying to concentrate on the fine points of the medical examiner’s report for his client’s client, a young woman charged with stabbing her boyfriend. She had been caught holding the knife, she had his blood on her clothes, and she had publicly an hour earlier said she hated his guts and wished he were dead. And then he was. Dead. Seated at the kitchen table, slumped over with his head resting on folded arms on the table, the knife sticking out of the back of his neck. She’d been found a block away and incoherent.

She said she didn’t remember doing it.

Murdock’s task wasn’t to necessarily believe her or not but rather he job was to search for holes in the investigation.

Between the lack of really chilled air, too much coffee, and it being late Friday afternoon he just couldn’t quite fathom the jargon in the report. No matter if he walked around the room or turned on the radio or made fresh coffee with a dash of Fireball in it he kept reading the choppy writing over a few times before moving to the next sentence.  It wasn’t like he didn’t understand the report, he just couldn’t concentrate. His room, so-called office, consisted of a small foyer with a desk and chair and a fake phone, no secretary, and a coat rack, the main room with a couch, two arm chairs, his desk and chair, a credenza, four file cabinets and a partitioned-off private spot for his computer and cameras. And a half bath. At least it was on a corner which gave him two windows, one easterly, in this part of the world they didn’t speak in strict cardinal compass points, looking over a pocket park at the blank wall of the building across the way, and a northern exposure over Main Street which ran one-way, from left to right towards downtown Madison City.

When the Jefferson Building shook, then, he perked up for a moment. Once in every ten years this part of Tennessee, in the mountains, or at least in Madison City’s case, nestled up against the mountains, was disturbed by an earthquake. Usually, and he thought this was normal for everyone, no one noticed it until the news mentioned it in the evening and then everyone of course was sure they’d identified it at the time. But this time it seemed obvious to him and severe.

He pivoted in his chair away from his desk, curious to see if any visible signs were on any of the downtown facades. The window to his back looked across a pocket park the city had put in when an older building just was too far gone to be allowed to remain standing. That was so long ago he couldn’t remember what building had been there. Now he looked across the grass and serpentine sidewalk and the few trees to the yellow-painted brick wall with it’s two windows and decorative brickwork. The wall, of course, really didn’t look out of place. A brick or two stuck out of the smoother background of bricks but that gave it a tired look in order to authenticate the age of the site.

Murdock stepped to the front window that overlooked Main Street. Either direction he couldn’t see beyond the end of the block. A block up was Market Street, one-way, the other way and he could hear the rise of siren and a patrol car shot across his vision heading away from downtown on Market. There was nothing unusual about that.

His cell phone buzzed on his desk. Well, while I’m up, he thought, might as well stay up. The ID showed it was Dejardens.

“Sarge,” said Donahue, “what’s going on with you today.”

“Franc,” said Sergeant Dejardens, one of the few people who knew Donahue’s first name was Francis but he went by Frank but spelled it “Franc.” “What’s just happened at your end of the downtown?”

“What? Nothing, I don’t think.”

“Check, would you?”

“For what?”

“Anything!” Donahue could hear a rise of babble and shouting in the background and the increase in concern in Dejardens’ voice.

Again, Donahue tried to look up and down Main but nothing seemed out of place. Another cop car went screaming past them on Market Street heading away from his office.

“I felt an earthquake a minute ago? Was it serious?”

“It’s beginning to sound like it wasn’t an earthquake, Franc.”

“Hang on. Let me get outside,” said Donahue. He was already out the office door and heading for the staircase. He hot-footed it down the big, wooden stairs, told Jimmy Bogart at the news stand to stay inside and told the two girls in the hairdressing salon to stay put and he pushed his way out the swinging double doors on to the sidewalk in front of the Jefferson Building.

For no reason he turned left. Maybe because the two police cars had gone that direction?

From two blocks down rose a column of black smoke that was as high as the sky. Donahue almost dropped the phone. The cloud was dark, mean looking. Above it and drifting into the breeze was a black glob of burning, burned, trash and debris and deadly-looking smoke. From behind him, he noticed, came another squad car, racing against the one-way inbound of the Main street. Donahue started to quick step towards the smoke.

What was down that way? A couple of warehouses. A brand new refurnished building just opening up for rent. An auction house. The news paper building. The bus station. The big Presbyterian church was across the street from the bus depot, on his side of the street, and the smoke was definitely on the other side of the street. What ever had happened it must have been huge and still burning
Donahue was at a quick trot now. From behind him he could hear the angry klaxon of the firetruck. It sounded way far away, perhaps still at the downtown station on the other side of downtown. Response times were less than ten minutes nowadays.

As the scene came more into view the more speechless became Donahue. He couldn’t quite hear Dejardens shouting over the phone.

It was indeed the bus station, the side towards him as he skirted debris on the sidewalk. Where the interstate system parked. In a circle one-hundred yards out was debris and the smell of burned air. In the center was a black spot on the pavement where a bus might have been parked. The big diesel engine was twenty feet to where it ought to have been, now a burning mass of metals. A bus lay on its side, the side was peeled off. All the windows on this side of the building were gone. Both floors. Across the street the store fronts and windows on the second floors were gone. Paper debris was falling to the ground. Other papers were drifting with the breeze. There were three patrol cars and one fire truck on the scene. In the distance more sirens started to rise.

Dejardens was screaming out of the tiny speaker of the cell phone. “Donahue. Franc. Donahue, talk to me.” Dejardens sounded strung out. They’d been on the phone all of three minutes. The tension had risen about as high as it could get in his voice.

“God,” said Donahue. It was a groan as much as a word. “The bus station.”

“What about it?” Dejardens voice was near cracking.

“This whole side is gone. The bus is gone. The bus next to it is on its side. The whole body is gone! The wheels…there’s a wheel over here on the other side of the street up against the church door…I see a large part of the body, now, jeez, it’s on the roof! What happened. Sarge? This isn’t some gas tank that went up. It had to be a big bomb. There’s body parts, human body parts all over, oh, God, I see a foot here front of me in the gutter and there’s a person up against a wall who’s been shredded. I’m gonna puke.”

“No, Murdock. Stay with me. We’re flooding the place with people but I need your eyeballs, hoss. C’mon. Stay with me!”

More sirens filled the air. More than he could almost distinguish. Patrol cars slid to stops at the edge of the destruction. A fire truck rumbled into view but could not avoid a limb --a leg, shoeless but still netted by a length of pantyhose -- on the sidewalk. The bile rose in his throat. People were beginning to stir. Those injured and those stone blasted by the shock wave, moaning in their corners or agains the walls, coming back to life. The parking lot and the street on either end of the bus parking lot sparkled with broken glass. He could hear car alarms and smoke alarms ringing everywhere. But, he could also see beyond the bus station building towards the massive brick fortress of the newspaper building built to house, once up a time, printing presses and heavy paper rolls. The brick wall, three stories high and forty or fifty, maybe sixty feet across, was riddled with shot and pieces sticking out of the brickwork but the bus station had taken the brunt of the blow and pulled the energy out of the explosion. The street between the press building and the bus station was a glaze of broken glass. Two, three, now four bodies all shredded came into his view as he walked. He stepped over and around one hand, a woman’s hand, with a wedding ring, on the sidewalk and then a pants leg but no leg.

“Sarge, I don’t even know where to start.” Donahue had taken a long moment to lean against a wall, gather his thoughts, catch his breath, fight down the sick feeling in his stomach, try not to stare at the carnage. “It’s a massacre, Sarge. You got people dead. Walking wounded. Probably many dying right in front of my eyes. The lower floor of the bus depot looks like somebody went through it with a bulldozer. The upper floor looks shredded. Those shops across the street, on Market, the windows are gone. I don’t see anyone moving there. The cars are all jacked over against the curbs. The sides are riddled and peeled off. Jesus Christ, what the hell kind of bomb did this? The church is riddled and peppered but the stained windows are intact. It might be needed for an emergency shelter.”

His attention went to the top of the church.

“Oh my God,” said Murdock.

“What?” Dejardens was getting hoarse. “Talk to me, hoss.”

“The steeple,” said Murdock. He was barely able to talk. Emotion and phlegm were catching in his throat.

“What about the steeple? Is it gone?”

“No,” said Murdock. He tried his best to not stare but the scene was beyond ignoring.

“There’s a body up on the cross of the steeple. Oh, Phil, I don’t know if I can take this. I got to sit down.”

“Hang in there, hoss.”

“We’re not talking some little pipe bomb. We’re talking like a military bomb. In a bus, Sarge. Luggage. There is really no bus left but there’s no crater either. Holy Chri…. I don’t know…Sarge. Bring everyone. Send every ambulance you got. Every cop car. Every firetruck. And you better bring in the big guns.” Donahue was starting to babble. Tears clouded his vision and his voice cracked. “This was no accident. Somebody set out to blow up a bus and take half the town with ‘em.”