by Diana Deverell
Black Powder Boogie was originally published on the author’s website.
Special Agent Dawna Shepherd thumped the Fiat’s rusting roof. “Eleven pounds of TNT, right in here. I click my remote, these folks will move.”
Foreign Service Officer Casey Collins focused on one of the dozen shoppers crowding the pitted sidewalk in front of the shabby Budapest storefront. “I won’t mind losing the redhead.”
Late morning on a mid-August Wednesday in district XIX, south of Budapest’s city center, one tall blonde American woman was telling another about the car bomb she’d be exploding four hours later. Luckily, none of the prospective victims understood a word.
“You got to admit, she looks authentic.” Dawna patted the skinny backside of the female who’d caught her friend’s eye. The dummy wore five-inch platform shoes, tight stretch pants, and visible bra straps. She pressed a cellphone to her ear and her skull was painted a vivid shade of magenta.
Casey shook her head. “Every shade of hair dye is available in Budapest these days. I don’t know why Hungarian women are still in love with that awful henna.”
Dawna sniffed. “You are so out of touch with what’s hot.”
“Like an FBI agent would know.” Casey eyed the straw-colored curls that added another two inches to Dawna’s imposing six-foot-three. “Don’t even think of going red. Overgrown Orphan Annie is not the look you want.”
“Do more for me than the Barbara Bush look does for you.” A native Texan, Dawna never felt comfortable overseas. But so long as she was an instructor at Quantico East, the FBI-run International Law Enforcement Academy in Budapest, she wasn’t taking any lip from her more worldly State Department colleagues. Especially one half-a-foot shorter and a decade older. “Time to start touching up those silver streaks.”
“I earned my gray hairs.” Casey had spent most of her eighteen years in the Department as an intelligence analyst focused on counterterrorism issues. She was currently assigned to the Bureau of European Affairs in an admin position with duties Dawna found suspiciously vague. Like Casey’s reasons for visiting Budapest.
She definitely hadn’t come for the weather. Central Europe was gripped by a heat wave, and Budapest was headed toward ninety for the fifth sweltering day in a row. Dawna moved into the meager shade of the recessed building entrance and peered down the street to her right. The portly security guard manning the barricade at that end of the block crouched in the shadow of an anemic linden near the street corner. There was no sign of the representative from the company Dawna had hired to clean up after the blast. “She’s five minutes late,” Dawna said.
Casey joined her in the doorway. “Your demolition contractor asked for this meeting?”
“Last minute, they get ultra-picky, insist their rep has to see inside before we damage the building. Head office called me at seven-thirty this morning to say she’d meet me at eleven. Didn’t want to hear I already had a lunch date with you.”
“I don’t mind tagging along. You say their explosives expert is female.” Casey tapped a finger on her forehead as if trying to knock information loose from her brain. “I might have heard of her.”
“She’s not that one you see on cable news all the time,” Dawna clarified. “Stacey what’s-her-name from that family that pulled down the Kingdome. Their company is the big name in controlled demolition. Bid for this job was way beyond our budget. We went with a British group no one’s ever heard of.” Dawna pursed her lips and faked an upper class accent. “And their Edwina Barcroft-Hunt is not veddy punc-tu-al.” She let her voice drift back to its usual West Texas rhythm. “Shoot, I don’t have time to waste on some Englishwoman who’s got a burr under her saddle.”
“Not with your dog and pony show set for one o’clock,” Casey agreed.
To publicize the academy’s new post-blast investigation seminar, the embassy’s public affairs office had scheduled a pre-blast media event. The ambassador and the director of the academy would deliver prepared remarks and introduce the members of Hungary’s special organized crime task force composed of four FBI agents and eight Hungarian police officers.
Dawna was no blast expert, but the seminar was her baby. She’d argued to have the training offered in-house, instead of referring local cops to the existing post-blast school in Athens. She’d written the proposal and found qualified instructors. She’d located a suitable building, this crumbling pre-War edifice that had once housed a dress shop on the ground floor, apartments on the four upper stories. To make the scene more visually exciting for the TV cameras, Dawna had added the costumed dummies. For security reasons, the academy wasn’t allowing civilians to witness the actual blast, but Dawna had an official videographer filming the event, to edit for broadcast later.
She’d planned the day carefully, the way she’d been planning strategy all her adult life, including those four years as a basketball player for UT’s Lady Longhorns. Control all the variables you can, because there are always some you can’t. “The press conference has to begin at thirteen hundred,” Dawna said. “We need to start moving everyone out by thirteen-fifteen. We’ll clear the exclusion zone before we bring in the TNT. We’re using the same charge and delivery system that took out Big Tom Boros.”
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, over two hundred Russian-speaking organized crime groups relocated to Hungary, running their global operations from wide-open Budapest. The resulting turf war culminated in the 1998 car-bombing of Tamas Boros, a mobster and top police informant. His body was obliterated, his lawyer and two bystanders were killed, twenty people were wounded—and Hungary instituted a major crackdown on organized crime. The hefty FBI presence in Budapest was in support of the Hungarian initiative.
“Using a real life model for your exercise,” Casey said. “I like that.”
“Even so, we can’t predict what our students will find when they come in tonight to search the scene. But that’s the challenge of post-blast investigation.” Dawna double-checked her watch. Her glance flicked back to Casey. “Hope I’m not taking you away from anything important. Tell me again why you’re in Budapest?”
Casey grinned. “To have a blast with you, of course.”
“Right. I know what a party girl you are.” Fun was not what brought Casey into the field. A terrorist threat must be behind her visit to Budapest, or so Dawna figured.
The two women had met in Copenhagen in 1999. Dawna was serving as legal attaché when Casey suddenly appeared on a mysterious temporary duty assignment. Which she survived only because Dawna figured out—on her own—that Casey needed her help. They’d since become good friends, yet tight-lipped Casey still tried to keep Dawna from learning one fact more than she thought Dawna needed to know.
Not that Casey had any hope of succeeding at that, not in the long run. Dawna was FBI, she knew how to squeeze reluctant informants. “Soon as we blow this sucker up, I’m going to run you a taste of the national bitters.”
“Hey, you’re the one always tells me, I’m in Europe, I need to get into the local scene. This stuff is dynamite once you get past the look and the taste.”
“You got to take a risk once in a while.” Dawna was interrupted by the arrival at the barricade of a red-and-white-checkered Fiat taxi plastered with the seven two’s of its phone number. The cab door slammed and a tiny figure in khaki waved off the security guard as she trotted toward them, swinging an oversize briefcase in oxblood leather.
Dawna realized that the woman wasn’t dressed entirely in khaki. Her serviceable jump suit was sleeveless and a shade lighter than the tawny skin on her bare and sinewy arms.
Ms. Barcroft-Hunt was under five feet tall and weighed less than a hundred pounds. Blue-black hair was blunt cut around an exotic face that blended features from the far-flung reaches of the empire. Dawna extended her hand and introduced herself, expecting to hear a lilting accent from Hong Kong or Karachi in reply.
What she got was BBC news reader, ancestry buried in Euro-blandness. “Ed Hunt. ConDem Limited.” The skin on Hunt’s hands was warm and dry, her grip firm, her release business-like. She reached for Casey’s hand.
“Kathryn Collins,” Casey said. “State Department.”
The new arrival dropped Casey’s hand to wave at the Fiat. Narrowing her eyes at Dawna, she asked, “Did you change anything about the specified explosive?”
What, was the woman paranoid? Did she really believe the FBI would run a number on a British contractor? “We informed your company of all changes to the original proposal,” Dawna said. “The charge is exactly as specified.”
Ed ignored Dawna’s chilly tone. “Shall we get to it?”
Dawna opened the entry. To the left of a steep staircase, the door to the former dress store was propped open. “Everything was set for the blast when we went through last night,” Dawna told Ed. “We checked out every nook and cranny, marking our way as we went. We’ve had the area under guard since.”
Ed sniffed. “I saw your guard.”
Dawna and Casey followed her into the store. Daylight came through the show window, deepening the shadows in the back corners. The hot, stale air smelled of mildew.
Ed snapped open her brief case and removed a five-cell flashlight and a ball-peen hammer.
Dawna spotted a roll of blueprints tucked into one corner of the case. Maybe she could move things along. “You can tell from the building plans we sent how the structure will react to the blast,” Dawna said.
“Plans are useless.” Ed was probing the walls with her hammer, frowning as she tapped her way toward the back. “‘As drawn’ always differs from ‘as built.’ Especially in this part of the world.”
The know-it-all edge to Ed’s voice grated on Dawna. Like Ed believed Dawna was a big, dumb blonde. You think I’m dumb? I’ll give you dumb. That was how Dawna handled people like Ed. “You do much work hereabouts?” she asked Ed.
From Casey’s grin, Dawna knew she’d caught the hint of y’all, the smidgen of good ol’ girl in Dawna’s tone.
“Not precisely here, actually,” Ed replied. “Mostar, Bosnia, that’s where my jobs are these days. Artillery damage. I haven’t dealt with a straight bombing for a while.”
“You’ve been in this line of work for some time.” From Casey, a statement not a question.
“Related work. Ten years, more or less.” Ed headed toward the stairwell. “Looks pretty straightforward so far. I’ll have a look-see upstairs.”
“Go ahead.” Dawna let the smaller woman move out of earshot. “Ed’s acting mighty suspicious,” she muttered to Casey.
Casey shrugged. “Goes with the job, I guess. I’m trying to recall where I heard that name, Ed Hunt.”
“Ed, Edwina, either way she bugs me.”
Casey laughed. “Short people always bug you. Woman’s not built for basketball, you got no time for her.” Casey nudged Dawna toward the door. “I want to see her in action.” As they climbed the stairs, she spoke louder. “So Ed, what drew you to the demolition field?”
“Black powder must have gotten into my blood.” Ed waited on the landing. Both apartment doors were ajar. Ed led the way through the doorway on the left, which opened into a large studio with a kitchen area along the interior wall. Silver duct tape striped the cabinet doors. Ed strode to the sink and untaped the compartment beneath it.
Casey winked at Dawna. “I read that explosives expert is one of the ten most dangerous jobs on earth. The risk didn’t deter you?”
Ed’s upper body had disappeared under the sink. Her reply was muffled. “There’s no risk if you know what you’re dealing with.”
“Which you do, if you’ve studied the proposal,” Dawna pointed out. “So what are the other nine jobs on that list?” she asked Casey.
Ed was upright again dusting off her knees, scouring the room with her eyes. She focused on the near corner of the kitchen where a battered refrigerator huddled.
“Let’s see.” Casey began ticking off jobs on her fingers. “Blowout control—you know, oil wells. Mercenary. Bodyguard. Bounty hunter. Minesweeper. Smokejumper. Special Forces warrior—”
“What’s that doing there?” Ed demanded, glowering at the refrigerator.
“It’s covered by the contract,” Dawna reminded her. “You’re disposing of a half-dozen appliances as part of the demolition.”
“I don’t mean the fridge. I mean this odd-sized piece of tape on the freezer compartment. Strip here is a quarter inch narrower than what you used everywhere else.” Ed peeled the tape away from the door and carefully eased it open. She trained her flashlight on the neat stack of sausages inside. Pale gray, the color of bockwurst, but double the usual diameter.
The look Ed gave Dawna was triumphant, full of gotcha slimeball. But her voice remained brittlely correct. “If you want to make this exercise more interesting for your students, that is your prerogative. But our bid was contingent on the extent of your blast. You assured me you were using only TNT in the Fiat. Did you think I wouldn’t find your stash of C-4?”
Dawna’s throat was so dry, she had to try twice to make her words audible. “Not mine.” So whose? Russian mobsters, seizing a chance to wipe out all the FBI agents in Budapest—starting with Dawna? “Very gently. Put that door back the way you found it. We’re leaving.”
“Don’t you want to know who left you this house warming present?” Ed rose on her toes. “Remote control fusing system.”
Remote control. Whoever had placed the bomb could set it off at any time. Definitely a job for the Bomb Disposal Unit. “Forget it,” Dawna warned, “We’re gone.”
Ed leaned deeper into the freezer. “Same signature characteristics as the Bush device.”
Gobbledygook, as far as Dawna was concerned, but Ed’s words must have meant something to Casey because she moved in close for a better view.
Dawna’s heart beat too fast. Sweat filmed her face. She had to get her people out of there. “You two, come on.”
Casey and Ed ignoring her, heads touching as they peered inside. “Unusually large quantity of black tape,” Casey was saying. “Heat-shrunk plastic protecting the wires.”
“Exactly. And look at the circuit board. The soldering expertise hasn’t improved.” Ed handed the flashlight to Casey and pulled a pair of wire cutters from her pocket. “I suspect I could disable this one with my eyes shut, but let’s use the torch anyway.”
They were insane, both of them. Going to blow themselves up and Dawna, too. “Leave it for the BDU,” Dawna ordered.
“Very nice,” Casey said to Ed.
Who made a deprecating gesture. “We all know this one.” She slipped the cutters back into her pocket. “Now, we can leave,” she said to Dawna.
“Out the rear.” Dawna figured the bomber had most likely put a second device in the Fiat, ready to take out the VIPs during the press conference. Casual observers wouldn’t know that Dawna’s explosives were secured ten blocks away. They’d conclude that it was Dawna’s TNT that had blown up the Fiat, another FBI fiasco. Rubble from the upstairs explosion would further confuse the scene, burying all the dead and the evidence. Allowing the easy escape of whoever set off the bombs.
Dawna had her cellphone out as the three women hurried down the stairs. She tersely instructed Rudy Semvich, lead FBI agent on the organized crime task force, to order a house-to-house search in the neighborhood. The cops had to locate the perp holding the remote before the Bomb Disposal Unit approached the Fiat and checked out the building. “Postpone the press conference until later,” she concluded. “We’ll meet you at the command center.”
Outside, Dawna moved her two companions quickly away from the building’s backside, along a deserted alley. When they reached Ecseri Plac, Dawna tapped seven two’s into the cellphone and ordered a taxi to pick them up. “We’ll coordinate this thing out of task force headquarters,” she told Casey. “They’ve set up a command post there.”
Casey nodded. “Ed Hunt,” she said as they waited. “I remember. Before you left the government, you worked IRA cases for MI-5.”
“Bombings,” Ed nodded happily. “Spent days studying the Bush device.”
Casey turned to Dawna. “What we call the bomb that Iraqi Intelligence used against President Bush when he visited Kuwait a year after the Gulf War. Hidden in a Toyota Landcruiser. We found it before it exploded.”
Dawna scowled at Casey. “That bomb upstairs has the same signature. So it was made in the Middle East. Which means it’s not likely the Russian mob put it there. No, Case, it was your bad guys who did it. Got too hot for them in Africa. So they moved onto my turf. You had a tip, that’s why you’re in Hungary.”
Casey shrugged. “Suspicious activity around the embassy. We harden that target, we have to ask where else they might go. Bin Laden and his buddies, they don’t exactly love the FBI these days.”
Dawna’s media event, a golden opportunity. “You couldn’t warn me,” she said grudgingly. Risk-averse, the Bureau would have immediately canceled both the press conference and the blast. Casey’s terrorists would have struck elsewhere.
“We wanted them to make their move,” Casey said. “I hashed this out with the Department and the ambassador last night.”
“Leave the Bureau in the dark,” Dawna muttered. “Great strategy.”
“I figured the odds against them using your building were fifty to one. No point in alarming you.”
Ed’s laughter rang like windchimes. “But Collins, you tipped off my office. You’re the anonymous female who claimed the FBI had hidden additional explosives at the site.”
“Even with those long odds, I wanted expert examination of the building. Had to be done in a way that wouldn’t alarm the perps. No bomb-sniffing dogs, for sure. A non-threatening contractor rep seemed ideal.”
No wonder Ed had treated Dawna as a suspect. Casey had duped her, too. Ed a fellow victim, Dawna could overlook her lack of height. “Excellent work,” Dawna said to her. “And don’t pretend it wasn’t risky. Explosive expert belongs in the top ten. You have to let me buy you a drink.”
“Zwack Unicum,” Ed replied promptly. “I’m addicted to the vile stuff.”
“Of course you are. She drinks the national bitters,” Dawna clarified to Casey. “Looks like motor oil, tastes like medicine. Ed’s tough. Hey, so am I. That list of jobs—you only got to number eight. Admit it, the ninth is FBI agent.”
Dawna snorted. “Number ten better not be Foreign Service Officer.”
“Not possible,” Ed said. “No danger in government service, we all know that.”
“Absolutely not,” Casey agreed. “Bureaucracy, what do we risk? A paper cut now and then? Hardly qualifies.” She waved at the approaching checkered taxi. “Here’s number ten. Cab driver.”
“Just in time.” Dawna’s pulse rate had subsided, nearly back to normal. Not healthy—no aerobic gain in that. Dawna pulled open the door and gave the driver an address off Vaci Street in Buda. Once they were all inside, she grinned wickedly at Casey. “Step on it,” she ordered the driver. “Drive like hell, we need the rush.”
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