The Boardwalk Bomber

By Michael Jesse

Chapter 1

The first thing that crossed my mind when the bomb went off -- blasting a hole through the north wall of my bookstore -- was that maybe the federal witness protection program isn't all it's cracked up to be.

I'd been here about 18 months, an ex-cop from the organized crime unit living quietly under the name Jack Durham and operating a used bookstore in a little college town on the shore of Lake Michigan. My shop is at the end of a weatherbeaten strip of little shops on the western side of Brayton Bay. Most of the tourism is across the water on Lighthouse Point. But I prefer things quiet these days.

Like the other shops on this side, my little bookstore is basically a wood-frame house with store windows built around what useïd to be the porch. The main room of the shop is open all the way up to the rafters and there are skylights up there, one of which leaks. A curved staircase wraps around the inside of one corner and leads up to a tiny second floor apartment, which is where I live.

It was a weekday morning in June and I had been open about 30 minutes and was pouring myself a second cup of coffee. Business was slow because the college was on summer break and tourists don't buy much at bookstores, which is okay with me. There was only one guy in the store -- a pimply freshman who asked where to find Kierkegaard.

"Second aisle, on the left," I said, pointing with my free hand toward the side wall. I saw the kid take a couple steps in that direction when it suddenly seemed that the whole wall of books decided to meet him halfway. The blast sent books and shelf boards and plaster chunks flying at us and I hit the deck behind the counter on instinct, smashing the coffee pot on the floor as I dropped.

When I peeked over the counter a few seconds later -- my ears ringing and the smell of sulfur in my nostrils -- pages from books were still fluttering to the ground like autumn leaves. A cloud of plaster dust hung in the air and sparkled in the sunlight that now came streaming through a gaping hole in the wall where shelves of philosophy books had been a moment before. Everything seemed oddly quiet and I fully expected to see a couple of Antoine Fugard's numberless brothers and cousins stepping through that hole.

The last time I saw Antoine alive I had one hand on his throat and the other on his gun, trying to keep him from pointing it at my face again. He had already shot me once and I was bleeding heavily, beginning to feel a little light-headed as we struggled over the gun. Sometimes I still wake up at night with my left arm up in the air, the way I was when I pushed Antoine's head in front of the window, hoping that by this time we'd have had a sharpshooter on the roof across the street.

We did, and the single, crisp shot took the top of Antoine's head off. I lost two fingers of my left hand, but it seemed a reasonable trade under the circumstances.

Unfortunately, Antoine's various relations didn't see it that way and though my testimony put a bunch of them in prison the rest were permanently pissed off. That's how I ended up running a bookstore in a little college town on the Great Lakes.

After a year and a half I had been feeling pretty safe, though I still kept a 9mm Glock in my bedroom. And now I considered running up to get it, but the blast had knocked the posts out from under the stairway and it was no longer held up by much of anything. Also the college kid was still on the floor somewhere buried under philosophy books.

I dug him out and helped him to sit up. A flying shelf board had caught him in the forehead and he was going to need a few stitches, but it didn't look very bad. I found a box of coffee filters behind the counter and had him press a few of them against his head to stop the bleeding. Just then the door flew open and I jumped, instinctively reaching under my arm where my gun used to be. It was only Angela running in to see if I was okay.

"Jack?!" she called, not noticing me on the floor amid the rubble.

I waved my arm. "Over here. I'm fine, but my best customer here is gonna need a stitch or two." Actually I had never seen the kid before, but figured I'd better get chummy with him so he wouldn't sue me over nearly getting decapitated on my premises.

Angela picked her way through the debris and immediately took over providing first aid to the kid, making little cooing noises over him, which he seemed to appreciate. Angela is tiny and beautiful and built like a ballerina -- but one who lifts weights. She's the lead dancer in a modern dance troupe down in Brayton and spends the off-season up here. Her parents are Jamaican and her skin is as dark as anyone I have ever met. She has high cheekbones, a blazing smile, and eyes that seem to pierce my skin in search of my soul. She and her less-fascinating sister own the Canary Cafe next door. The outside of the restaurant is painted bright yellow and in the window there's a big cage with four or five canaries. Angela is the hostess and Benita cooks.

I left Angela tending to the kid while I went outside, quickly scanning the area to see who was nearby or watching. There were about a dozen people gathering near the damaged wall and a few others down along the beach running towards us. I saw two faces I recognized -- Andy and Scotty Hall. Andy is about 21 and has Down Syndrome. He's a sweet kid, always smiling. He lives with his mother and makes money mowing lawns and working at the cafe next door. He's industrious, honest and good-natured.

His brother, Scotty, is not. Barely old enough to drive, Scotty has already wrecked one car and the one he drives now has no muffler but it doesn't really matter because you can't hear the engine over his stereo system, which I'm pretty sure is worth more than the car itself. He spends a lot of time posing and sneering but he's basically not a bad kid. He takes good care of his brother and has gotten into more than one fight making other boys take back their words. But I wouldn't exactly trust him behind my cash register.

There was a crowd gathering at the side of the building and more running up from the beach. Nobody looked very much like an East Coast hit man, which I took as a good sign. Apparently the bomb had been placed in my trash can, which was gone -- what little was left of it was about 30 yards away in some weeds, split into a ragged coil like one of those dinner-roll tubes that pop open when you whack them against the edge of the counter. The side of my house didn't look much better. Shreds of wood siding were littered everywhere and a couple of studs were split but there didn't seem to be any serious structural damage.

A couple of bystanders were already standing too close, looking like they were ready to start poking in the debris for souvenirs. "Step back, please," I said, "this is a crime scene." That familiar phrase sounded strange coming out of my mouth for the first time in two years. "Okay," I said to the crowd in general. "Anybody see what happened?"

Scotty came running up from the beach, with Andy trailing clumsily behind him. "We seen it, man," he called happily. He pointed up the beach. "Me and Andy were right over there when it went off. It went, like, BOOM, and man that garbage can was flying!"

Andy was next to him now, wide-eyed. "It looked like a rocket," he said. "Scotty said, look at that Andy and it was like a rocket. It was like a rocket."

"They probably set it," shouted an old lady with leather-brown skin, way too much of which was exposed by her two-piece bathing suit. "I saw you boys hanging around. Just like you were waiting for something." Scotty started arguing with her and she yelled even louder until I got in the middle and her husband dragged her back a few steps.

"Just stick around, " I said to Scotty, wanting him to get interviewed by the cops before he thought much more about it, just in case. "You're witnesses," I added. "The police will want you to tell them what you saw." He seemed to like that idea and immediately started practicing; telling the story to others nearby. My guess was that he probably didn't do it -- certainly A√ndy wouldn't have had anything to to with it. But you never knew with Scotty.

"Did you see it too, Andy?" I asked.

"Yeah, it was like a rocket."

"What were you guys doing just before it happened, Andy?"

Scotty answered: "We were walking on the beach cause the scientist here likes to collect any-damn crap he finds on the beach, dontcha Einstein?"

"That's a famous scientist," Andy explained to me. "Scotty calls me that because I know how things work."

It's true that Andy has a knack for mechanical things. He's always tinkering with his lawn mower. People give him broken radios and VCRs and he takes them apart and puts them back together. Sometimes they still don't work, but he never gets bored with the process and when he does make something broken work again, the emotional payoff is really worth it -- not just to Andy but to the rest of us. He will bring around previously broken device and explain to me how he fixed it -- and I love those conversations. Granted, Scotty probably had something else in mind when he called him "Einstein," but he won't tolerate anyone else teasing Andy the same way.

I canvassed the crowd, just like old times. No one else admitted having seen anything, nor anyone leaving the scene in a hurry.

Actually, I was relieved to think it was probably just a dumbass kid planting a pipe bomb for the sport of watching it go off. If a pro had wanted to kill me he'd have put the bomb in my car or in my desk, not in the trash can. Whoever did this wasn't trying to kill anyone.

I remembered something in the paper about an explosion just a week previously. It had been on the campus in the middle of the night; nobody hurt. This seemed similar -- lots of noise and property damage but no apparent intent to hurt anyone. I didn't see any nails or other shrapnel that would have been packed into the bomb if real damage had been intended.

I looked around beyond the immediate crowd. People who set bombs like to watch, but usually from a distance. Mine is the last building at the north end of the string of shops. After that the beach begins to peter out and then turns to wetlands and a bit of woods up on the higher ground. There's an ongoing zoning dispute over a plan to develop that land for condos, but for the time being it's still open and I'm hoping it stays that way. I squinted in that direction looking for anyone hiding among the white-barked birches.

I had noticed an old guy in the crowd wearing binoculars around his neck, a bird field guide in his hip pocket. I asked to borrow the glasses and scanned the woods and took a good look at each of the boats out on the bay. Several sailboats as usual; it was a great day for sailing and I wished I was out there with them. And there in the middle of the bay was a little 12-foot fishing boat with an outboard motor. Only one guy on board and he was just sitting there looking our way.

That didn't necessarily mean much of course. He might have seen or heard the explosion and would be as curious as the people standing around me. I got a pretty good look at him, but then he turned away and yanked the motor and sped off toward the opposite side of the bay. I caught most of the boat's identification number though and repeated it in my head a few times.

I could hear a siren approaching and I reminded myself not to sound like a fellow cop when they interviewed me. I hadn't told any of my new friends about my change of identity and there was no reason for the local cops to know either.

A fire squad ambulance came up the little road behind the shops and turned down onto the beach, followed by a Port Marin police car. The kid who'd been injured had come out with Angela and seemed fine except for the cut. The EMTs bundled him into the ambulance anyway and took him off to get stitched.

The Port Marin cop came up to me. "You the owner?" he asked.

I nodded and told him what I knew, trying to talk like a civilian. I pointing out the trash can and where it had stood. I led him over to Scotty and Andy and the leather-skinned lady and let him sort it out.

The cop took everyone's names and statements and his partner cordoned off the side of my building with yellow crime scene tape. Neither cop made any move to take evidence samples and I wondered if they were a big enough jurisdiction to have their own forensics team. I didn't want to ask that question so I said, "it's supposed to rain tonight -- will I be able to get plastic over that hole pretty soon?"

"Yes, sir," the second cop said. "We just need to wait for the state police to send someone to take evidence. Then we'll take the yellow tape down sir. In the meantime you could probably call your insurance."

Angela came over and looked at the hole in the wall. "You could have been killed," she said in a worried tone.

I shrugged. "If I'd have been standing exactly here when it went off." She seemed disappointed with that answer so I added, "an~d I might have been." She gripped my arm -- that was better.

Angela and I had gone out together a couple of times the previous summer -- usually dancing at Rex's on Friday nights -- but she considers me too irresponsible to be potential husband material so she tends to keep me at arm's length.

Actually I'm not quite as irresponsible as I probably appear. Granted, I often don't open my shop until almost noon, and then sometimes I close for the afternoon to go sailing. I keep late hours, drink too much, laugh too loud, eat red meat and I only own one necktie, which I only keep for emergencies like weddings and funerals. But I spent most of my youth being extremely responsible and I nearly became responsibly dead on two very specific occasions in the span of a week. When I created Jack Durham I decided to make him more fun.

I put my arm around Angela's tiny waist and leaned close to her ear. "I coulda been killed you know."

She laughed a little and elbowed me away. "Now you're milking it," she announced and walked away. I watched her go, and felt relieved that Jack Durham didn't have anything more to worry about than fixing this wall.