Saturday, 17 July 2010
DIRTY BOMB By James C. Clar
“Are you kidding me, Jake,” HPD detective Ray Kanahele said to his partner as the two strode down the hallway of the Infectious Disease Unit at Tripler Army Medical Center. “This is all they’re giving us, surgical masks? Damn. Like these pupule things are gonna’ protect us!”
True to form, Jake Higa didn’t respond. He placed the elastic bands from his own mask over his head and behind his ears. He looked up at his taller, stockier friend and shrugged his shoulders in stoic resignation.
Kanahele’s cell phone chirped as the two men approached the guard standing in front of the double doors to the Intensive Care area at the extreme end of the hallway. The stocky Hawaiian policeman spoke briefly, voice muffled by the mask which he adamantly refused to remove. He clicked off and placed his phone back in his pocket.
“They’ve ID’s this moke, Jake. You can’t make this shit up. You believe in karma, right? Well what did we do in our previous lives that we catch all the really weird ones?”
The two policemen conferred for a few moments then flashed their badges at the soldier standing sentry. The young man keyed a code into the lock, stood aside, and admitted Higa and Kanahele to the unit …
Appropriately enough, Ahmad boarded the plane in New York. It was an Embraer commuter jet and thus eminently suited for the first leg of his journey.
“The timing has been calculated almost to the minute,” he was told by his handlers. “Do what you have been instructed to do when you have been instructed to do it and all will be well. Allah willing, of course.”
Once on the ground in Chicago, Ahmad was surprised to note that they were twenty minutes ahead of schedule. Remarkable for O’Hare he reflected, and surely an auspicious omen.
As he exited the aircraft, he was careful to respond warmly to the smiling flight attendant. “Have a wonderful day, sir, and thanks for flying with us.”
The older woman looked at him somewhat strangely when he clasped her hand firmly in both of his. Ahmad was proud of how he had been able to hide just how distasteful he found such contact. Sacrifices of the sort were necessary and would, of course, bring great credit to Ahmad and his family.
As he made his way from Concourse F to Concourse B, he noticed that he was beginning to perspire slightly. Just as anticipated. He was careful to keep his hand on the railings of the moving walkways and to stay as close to large groups of people as possible. Allah smiled on him further as he was able to insinuate himself amid two or three families – mothers, fathers and assorted, ill-mannered and precocious teenage children on cell phones – who were also heading in his general direction.
At one point he stopped at a Starbuck’s kiosk and drank some mediocre American coffee. Of course he had to wait in a long line and, as he had hoped, the seating was limited and thus exceptionally crowded. To this point at least, everything had gone exactly as planned, exactly as predicted.
At B-17, his departure gate, Ahmad found a seat in the most crowded area. He was surrounded by the members of a high school basketball team on their way to a tournament somewhere in Hawaii. Under other circumstances, and with a ninety minute wait until boarding, he most certainly would have chosen somewhere else to pass the time. The utter inanity of their nonstop conversation … prattle, really … was almost more than he could take. Yet, here as well, it was another amazing stroke of good fortune that he would be on the same flight as such a group. Adolescent hygiene (or lack thereof) was not generally something that occupied his attention. In this case, however, he found himself smiling inwardly as he considered the possibilities.
The flight from Chicago to Honolulu lasted nearly nine hours but was, mercifully, uneventful. Ahmad’s seat, No. 33E, was strategically located in the middle of the Boeing 777. The flight was filled to capacity. For the older couple on his left, their Hawaii vacation was the fulfillment of a life-long dream. The two young men seated to his right wore US Army fatigues and appeared to be returning to the islands after leave on the Mainland. Again, Ahmad found himself smiling at the irony.
Ahmad made numerous trips to the aft lavatories. He was careful to use a different one each time. He also made four or five circuits around the interior of the aircraft, as much to stretch his legs as for any other reason. He was grateful that the flight was virtually turbulence free and that the seatbelt sign was seldom, if ever, illuminated. The only constraining factors were his innate politeness in not wanting to disturb those around him and the necessity of dodging the beverage and food carts.
The coughing began about two hours before landing. People nearby scowled and shot him dirty looks as his hacking increased in frequency and productivity. He covered his mouth assiduously but, at the same time, touched as many different surfaces in his vicinity as possible.
The plane landed at 3:10 HST. Instead of taking the Wiki-Wiki Shuttle, Ahmad walked from Gate 8 near the end of the Diamond Head Concourse to the baggage claim area in the main terminal building.
After breathing re-circulated air for so long, the outside walkway was a delight. He was thankful that he was still able to appreciate such simple pleasures. He reveled in the heady scents of plumeria, ginger and hibiscus that mixed so incongruously with the sharper, more acrid tang of jet fuel. Off in the distance the iconic profile of Diamond Head shimmering in the afternoon sunlight provided a backdrop to the downtown Honolulu skyline. He noted with interest the gaudy pink of Tripler Army Medical Center hanging like a coral pendant on the gentle green slope of the mountains to the northeast.
After collecting his suitcase, Ahmad was hustled into a shuttle van with at least twelve other visitors for the ride into Waikiki. He would have preferred to splurge on a taxi but, of course, being jammed into such close proximity to even more people was all part of the plan. Still, he was quite warm, his cough had worsened and his growing weakness was becoming a real concern.
The shuttle stopped at four other hotels before depositing Ahmad under the brilliant white Victorian porte cochére of the Moana Surfrider. He ascended the steps and found the front desk to check in. He barely noticed the huge floral arrangements, the polished Koa wood staircase leading to the second floor or the breathtaking views of the ocean that could be glimpsed through the sliding doors of the main lobby.
Ahmad’s instructions were to make a circuit of the more popular Waikiki tourist haunts, Duke’s, the Hula Grill and perhaps even the more upscale House Without A Key. If possible, lounging on the beach – arguably one of the more decadent of Western pastimes – was also recommended to increase his chances for contact. Once settled in his room, however, all he could think about was showering and going to sleep. He also needed some water, desperately. He had a splitting headache now and he was ashamed of himself that, despite all his training, he had apparently allowed himself to become dehydrated.
Ahmad awoke to the sound of the surf relentlessly washing the sands of Waikiki Beach eleven stories below him. He had fallen asleep with his lanai door open. The muted sounds of families frolicking in the ocean reached him like a distant echo. He had just enough energy to make it to the bathroom, splash some clear, cold water on his overheated brow and then stumble back into bed.
During one of his more lucid moments, he noticed with almost clinical detachment that the sheets that covered him were sticky with clotting and clotted blood. So he hadn’t been hallucinating after all, someone had attempted to apprehend him and prevent him from completing his mission. He had a blurred memory of reaching for the knife that lay beneath his pillow.
Sometime later – and that really was the best that Ahmad could do as time ceased to have any real meaning for him – there appeared to be some commotion in his room. He didn’t care. He had fallen into what seemed to be a deep, hot, dark hole. While it was true, he had not completed all of the tasks that had been set for him, Ahmad was reasonably certain that what he had done would be more than sufficient.
When he looked up from the bottom of the chasm where he lay, he saw vectors in all the colors of the rainbow branching out in an infinite number of directions like wisps or tendrils of smoke or, more appropriately, like molten lava flowing over a landscape the size and shape of a globe until the orb was covered, consumed, obliterated. All that remained was an ember and that too, eventually, burned itself out and was black. For Ahmad, Paradise awaited …
The cubicle where the patient lay unconscious and restrained was a stark white. Higa seemed unfazed by the surroundings but Kanahele shuffled his feet nervously as he adjusted and re-adjusted his surgical mask. He found it difficult to take his eyes off the various machines that beeped and chirped all around him. He watched the translucent tubes that snaked their way under the sheet that covered the suspect with a mixture of morbid fascination and utter abhorrence.
“Can you tell me anything more about our patient, detectives?” A young doctor, whose name tag read “Hsu,” spoke to the two men as they entered the cubicle.
“Well, for what it’s worth, Dr. Hsu,” Jake Higa said quietly, “the good news is that he’s not on the terror watch list. In fact, he doesn’t appear to have a record of any kind. So far as we can tell, he’s clean.”
“Yeah, clean as a whistle,” Kanahele added. “Buggah’s name is Ahmad Qalat. He emigrated from Pakistan back in 2006. He worked as a baggage handler at Chicago O’Hare for two years and came here, lucky us, in ’08. He’s been driving a taxi ever since.”
“Obviously we won’t know for sure until we can interrogate him, doctor” Higa continued. “But my guess would be that Mr. Qalat here got tired of ferrying wealthy tourists back and forth between the airport and Waikiki. He managed to snatch a few credit cards and set himself up at the Moana for a little ‘R & R’. He got sick, though, and that more or less put an end to the festivities.”
“Yes, well. That makes sense. I guess you could say, then, that I have some good news too. We’ve run every test, toxicology screen and culture that we can think of … as well as a few that we’ve, um, made up for the occasion.” Doctor Hsu looked down at the chart in his hands before elaborating further.
“Despite the patient’s ravings about the death of the West and carrying some bioengineered strain of hemorrhagic fever, Mr. Qalat here is suffering from nothing more exotic than an acute case of pneumonia. He must have been coming down with it when he began his little escapade. He allowed himself to become overtired and dehydrated. He’s still pretty sick. We have him sedated and we’re running a pretty potent IV antibiotic. He seems to be responding, though.”
Higa’s first thought was that, from a bureaucratic standpoint at least, they had avoided what would have become a multi-jurisdictional nightmare. Immigration and Naturalization as well as Customs Enforcement would still have to be informed but they could probably get away without involving Homeland Security directly. That was something, at least.
“Hey, doc.” Ray Kanahele interjected. Higa looked down at his shoes. He knew his partner well enough to sense what was coming. “Now that really is some good news. See, that means we’ll be able to charge this half-assed Ferris Bueller with the death of the Filipino housekeeper he basically decapitated when she went into his room to make the bed, do aggressive and hostile shit like that. I hate to think about what he did to people who stiffed him on their fares. Keep him safe. Keep him comfortable. Show him some real Aloha. We’ll be back.”
“When you get right down to it, Ray,” Higa commented as he drove down Jarrett White Road toward Route 78 and the H-1. Pearl Harbor and Honolulu International spread out in front of and beneath them as they passed Fort Shafter. “That would make a good terrorist plot, you know. Place individuals carrying some highly contagious disease on planes, trains and in other crowded places, places from which folks in turn would be travelling to destinations even further afield. The timing would be tricky, but I bet it could be done.”
“Maybe,” Kanahele said noncommittally as he reached for his handkerchief. “You’re talking about the ultimate ‘dirty bomb’! Either way, you got nothing to worry about. You never get sick … must be all that meditation and green tea, I guess. Listen, can we stop at the Long’s in Ala Moana Center? I wanna’ pick up some Vitamin C. I think I’m coming down with something.”
James C. Clar has published over (100) stories in print as well as on the Internet. "Dirty Bomb" is the ninth story featuring the sometimes rather offbeat investigations of Detectives Higa and Kanahele as they trod the mean, sun-drenched streets of Waikiki and southeastern Oahu.