A suspenseful near-future story about what happens during the vetting process of a researcher from the Middle East, who is trying to enter the US to continue his studies, and the immigration lawyer assigned to his case, who is dying of cancer.
“Have you been here before?” The TSA officer, a tall African American woman in a baggy blue blazer, turns to punch numbers into the security pad.
He might simply say no, or not for a long time. Instead: “Tania,” he says, “it’s Jeff Bruno.” He smiles and holds up his badge with a photo that does not, in fact, really look like him.
TSA officer Tania Wilson finally makes eye contact, and is embarrassed. Bruno has been meeting clients at Los Angeles International’s Bradley Terminal for well over a year. Wilson has been his escort half a dozen times. Though, to be fair, not lately.
“Dear God, Bruno! I’m so sorry.”
“Well, I’m down thirty pounds and a head of hair.” And half an inch from his former five foot ten, and feeling thirty years older than his nominal thirty-two.
“Finally laid off the Cinnabon? Wish I could.” Bless Officer Wilson—remembering how they had met at the Bradley food court during the first wave of travel bans.
“Yeah,” he says, “gave it up.” Among other activities, like tennis, dating, planning for retirement.
Wilson nods. “So how is everything?”
“I’m still here.” He summons his standard brave face while knowing he is being self-indulgent. The cancer has been arrested. His latest scan was clean.
“Good. I was afraid they’d dragged you out of the hospital for this.”
“I bet every lawyer in the city is here.”
“It’s been gridlock for the past month.”
“Like every other day.”
“Not only the traffic and parking. Inside, too. Can’t get to the food court if you want to.” Bruno knows Los Angeles International, of course. To avoid the congestion, he had left his car several miles away at WallyPark and taken their shuttle to Bradley Terminal.
Bruno follows Wilson down a hallway of closed doors bearing temporary signs saying CONFERENCE #1 and counting upward. With the constant din of the terminal muffled by the outer door, Bruno can hear voices, some calm, others raised, with each step. “Boy, you weren’t kidding.”
“Every one of these has been going 24/7. ICE teams all over the fucking place.”
“Maybe I can get my guy out quickly.”
“Oh, Bruno, your guy isn’t going anywhere any time soon.”
“Something he did?”
Wilson shakes her head. “See for yourself.”
Bruno juggles his briefcase so he can read his iPad. The office coordinator has just loaded the case file.
Ahmed Ruteb, age twenty-six, arrived this morning from Amsterdam Schiphol. Age was a problem, but origin wasn’t too bad. Netherlands, probably a refugee—
But—nationality: Syrian. “Shit.”
“I know, right?” she says. “Nothing but flags. How can you defend guys like this?”
“We don’t have proof that he’s a terrorist or that he even dislikes the US.”
“There never is proof. Until it’s too late.”
Bruno wants to lie down, and not only because of his physical state. He just knows this isn’t going to end well.
But he volunteered to help with the flood of refugees. And last year he’d been successful in freeing four and sending them on their original journeys.
He opens the door.
Sitting on one side of a table, like an arrestee to be questioned, Ahmed Ruteb is indeed a young man. Wearing what appears to be a repurposed US Army jacket and with several days’ growth of beard, he could also be the ICE model of a young terrorist from the Middle East.
Bruno introduces himself and reaches for the second chair.
He almost misses it.
Ruteb jumps up to help. “Are you all right?” Ruteb says. His English is good, with only a slight accent.
“Fine, thanks,” Bruno lies. He summons a smile as he arranges his iPad. “You are Ahmed Ruteb, you arrived in Los Angeles this morning on British Airlines 4569—”
“And was detained the instant I got off the plane, along with several dozen others.”
“—in spite of having a valid passport and a visa, I know.” Bruno struggles to smile. He really feels faint. The lack of fresh air is not helping. “As of this morning, there were seventy-four other people in the same situation.”
“I thought this expired. This ban. I was told this by the consulate in Amsterdam!”
“So was everyone at every embassy and consulate.”
“But not your TSA.” Ruteb blinks. His eyes seem tired. Bruno wonders when he’d last slept.
“How have you been treated?”
Ruteb shrugs. “No one has beaten me.” His voice suggests that he was about to add yet. Then he holds up his water bottle and sloshes it. “I have water. I will be hungry soon.”
“Okay, here’s what happens: I’ll take your information—purpose of visit, intended length of stay, host—then confront ICE. And get you released.”
“But I’ve already been . . . what do you call it, vetted. I spoke with American agents in Amman long before Amsterdam! I’ve been waiting for seven months.” Ruteb holds up as many fingers on two hands.
“There are always conditions for admission, Mr. Ruteb. Even to a disco.”
“I am not looking to pick up chicks or buy drugs.”
Bruno regrets his statement immediately. “If we can retrieve your vetting information, that will help.” Bruno is finally able to focus on the iPad file. Maybe it’s time to increase the font. “Form I-94 unstamped . . . You have a J-1visa, so were planning to be here six months?”
“Yes. Maybe less.”
“Purpose of visit—scientific research.” Bruno’s turn to blink. “You have a degree—”
“In mechanical engineering from the University of Aleppo, faculty of computer engineering. In Syria.” He pronounces it soo-ri-a.
“Lots of need for computer engineers.”
“I haven’t worked on computers for three years.”
“Because of the war?”
“I left Syria before the shooting.” He points at Bruno’s iPad. “I flew to Schiphol from Amman, Jordan. Jordan was not on the list?”
Bruno stares at his iPad. It is difficult to focus. “No. And interviews overseas don’t replace those performed here.”
“How was I to know?”
“None of us knew!” Bruno says. His turn to raise hands. “I’m sorry. It’s difficult. Let me be sure: You’re not applying as a refugee—”
Ruteb points at the iPad again. “For scientific research!”
“Okay. Where are you going? Who are you meeting?”
“Dr. Hannah Vindahl of the Lumina Foundation. This is in Malibu, California, I am told.”
“Is Dr. Vindahl expecting you? Was someone from Lumina picking you up?”
Ruteb fidgets. “I was to text them when I arrived and cleared customs. Or TSA.”
“So you haven’t contacted them yet.”
He spreads his hands, as if to say, What do you think, you moron?
Bruno does a quick Google search for the Lumina Foundation. Surprise—it isn’t a tech outfit at all, but some kind of New Age-y operation. Its webpage has fucking Enya on its soundtrack. “What is your interest in the Lumina Foundation, Mr. Ruteb?”
“I’m doing the same work.”
“In what field?”
Ruteb spreads his hands again. Bruno is beginning to find the gesture annoying. “The field of what happens to us after death. The science of the afterlife. NDEs.”
“And those are . . . ?”
“Near-death experiences. In our case, post-death experiences.”
Death is a subject Bruno cannot escape. Not only is there his own very real final curtain, said to be “three to five years” in the future, but his father David had died five months back, finally succumbing after a stroke. The old “shock but no surprise.”
David Bruno is physically absent, his body burnt, his ashes scattered in the ocean, yet he is still a force in his son’s life. As in moments like this, when Bruno smiles and says, “Shouldn’t they be called PDEs?”
David Bruno would have said this, a superficially polite way of expressing contempt and anger. It would have been consistent with his opinion that his son, for all his intelligence and promise, was adrift, responsive rather than active, believing in nothing—
Not even his pro bono law work.
Ruteb’s gaze is elsewhere, so maybe he hasn’t noticed. Which allows Bruno to again concentrate on his experience with immigration cases, which is exclusively with war refugees.
Even with his kind, gentle words—gentler than his father’s words, anyway—Bruno judges this mystical quasi-scientific business as borderline. Maybe over the border. What is he supposed to do with this information? How does it allow him to help Ruteb? Might he draw on some untapped pool of knowledge regarding scientific refugees? Or rather, pseudoscientific refugees. “I’ve never met a researcher who specialized in this particular subject.”
“There are very few of us.”
Zero is the number in Bruno’s mind.
He needs help, or at least sympathy, and the best source is Gloria Chang, head of the immigrant rights task force. She is also his ex.
“What are you doing?” Ruteb says, seeing Bruno tapping the keyboard.
“Sending a text.”
“Please, to Dr. Vindahl?”
“To my boss.”
“Then to Dr. Vindahl?” Ruteb recites the cell number.
“Fine.” Why not? It’s the work of a minute to enter Vindahl’s number, type two sentences, press send.
Before Bruno can decide how to endure the unpredictable wait for responses, Ruteb says, “This research will change the world, you know. It’s why I risked everything to come to the US.”
“How so?” Bruno asks—too quickly. Now he has to listen.
“My father is an Alawite imam. You will know that Assad and his mob are Alawites, so we were never openly persecuted. But there were very few of us in Raqqa, so we lived quietly.
“I was the fourth of four sons, and ten years younger than the nearest. I think this might be why my father didn’t push me to follow him. I was allowed to go to Aleppo to university. I graduated and began to work for a banking firm in IT.
“But I always had other interests, and the first among them was what is called the science of the afterlife. When I was very young I decided I wanted to know answers to certain questions. Does any part of us survive after death? If so, where do we go? Can this be proven?”
Bruno has been thinking the same thoughts, though more frequently during the terrifying days of his first diagnosis. “These aren’t questions most young men pursue,” he says, pausing every few words to summon the will to speak. “Something must have happened. Something triggered this interest. Your father’s profession?”
Ruteb’s shoulders slump. “My older brother Sayid joined the Islamic State. He became a martyr.”
Oh shit. “What did he do?”
“He detonated an explosive vest in a market in Baghdad in 2009.”
“It was reported as seventy-two.” It takes all Bruno’s power of restraint not to cite the number of virgins promised to Islamic martyrs in the afterlife.
“You don’t believe it?”
Ruteb shrugs. “It was not that high.”
“Were there any American victims?”
With a terrorist for a brother, Ruteb is never going to be allowed into the US. This entire vetting is now pointless.
Yet Bruno is compelled to wait for Chang or Vindahl to respond while he thinks again about death. Until meeting Ruteb, “going to sleep forever” has been the best imaginable. And during the worst of chemo, finding hair on his pillow every morning, eternal slumber hadn’t seemed like such a terrible fate.
If nothing else, it would be sound sleep, unlike his nighttime experiences while “bravely battling” cancer.
Permanent lights out, never to know again, think again, be again . . . frightening, for sure. But, like many people, the transition is what triggers Bruno’s fears—the chest-rending pain of a heart attack, the brutal smash of an airplane, even the slow, wheezy fade-out of elder pneumonia.
“What did you discover in these post-death experiences? Heaven, angels? Does Allah come into this anywhere?”
Ruteb reacts as though Bruno had posited the existence of the Easter Bunny. “This was not a search for a creator or divine being; it began with physics. And we have discovered that a cluster of particles detaches from your body when living functions cease . . .” Ruteb rounds his shoulders as he gestures. “Like a breath being released.”
“In a definable cluster. A soul.” As if Bruno were especially stupid. “It is physical and is absolutely part of the human body. How could it be otherwise? It can be measured and detected, though you need devices like those searching for the Higgs boson.”
Bruno smiles. “Didn’t they call that the Higgs boson the God particle?”
If Ruteb thought this was amusing, he hid it. “It has been measured by a Russian institute twenty-eight years ago.”
“I missed the news.”
“It was not reported because the country was falling apart and the institute disbanding. It had been started many years earlier by Stalin, they said. Part of a campaign to undermine religions.”
“Strange to think that it kept going for . . . forty, fifty years?”
“Closer to seventy. You must know that such . . . investigations have been going on for longer. A thousand years.”
“But hard physics or engineering—”
“We call it morphogenetics.”
Bruno has never heard the term. “Can it re-attach itself to another body, this soul?”
“We don’t know.”
Bruno smiles. “So there’s hope for reincarnation.”
“We are investigating. There are problems with that idea.”
“The math. Go back a hundred thousand years, when there were a small number of humans. If in death they each became a new individual, wouldn’t we just have the same small number of humans?”
“Well,” Bruno says, feeling foolish but playing the game, “souls had to have another origin. And there isn’t some finite number of atoms in the universe. New particles form.”
“Yes. So souls might be formed the same way.”
“So, then, maybe to reincarnation.”
“We are still investigating.”
“You seem confident in your science.”
“The science is settled.”
“Why haven’t you told the world?”
Now Ruteb smiles as if talking to a child. “You, Mr. Bruno, are an intelligent and compassionate man. Yet you have trouble believing what I’m saying. Half of your country rejects ‘settled science’ about the environment! How many will accept proof that there is some existence after death—”
“More than will accept global warming.”
“You didn’t let me finish. We don’t only have proof that souls exist and survive. In some cases they survive after death in a damaged state, and in others—they do not survive at all.”
Now it is Bruno’s turn to stare. “I don’t understand.”
“Souls can be annihilated.”
Bruno has not yet registered this alarming statement when he hears a crash followed by a jangling alarm.
Ruteb jumps so quickly that he bumps the table, sending Bruno’s iPad sliding to the floor with a clap.
Bruno signals Ruteb to stay put while snatching up the iPad.
He rises from his chair—
He hears his father’s voice, no sentences, just the words lazy, entitled, foolish. Then he sees light, feels a hard surface under his skull, his shoulders. Hears the hum of an overtaxed air conditioner, the scrape of boots on flooring.
The voice of Gloria Chang. “He’s back.”
Bruno takes a breath, which triggers a spasm of nausea and blurring vision. Fortunately only for seconds.
He closes his eyes. Alive, yes. But he immediately thinks, You wanted to know? This is what it’s like to die.
Terrifying. Makes it almost impossible to breath. He more or less grunts one syllable. “Yeah.”
Gloria Chang and Tania Wilson are helping him sit up. He remains in Conference Room #1, but Ruteb is gone. He nods to Chang, then, to Wilson, says, “Where’s my client?”
“Next door. He jumped you.”
“I fucking fainted.”
Bruno sees the quick glance between Wilson and Chang, who tells the agent, “Jeff isn’t the type to excuse bad behavior by a client.”
“I know,” Wilson says.
“He’s ill,” Chang says, with concern so genuine that Bruno almost forgets how cruelly she broke off their relationship two months after his diagnosis.
“Know that, too.”
Now Bruno turns to Wilson. “What was all the noise?”
“There was an incident.”
“I got that much,” Bruno says. “Was it an attack? Maybe some airline employee beating a customer, or—?”
“A false alarm.” Wilson frowns. There is something she doesn’t want to talk about. She nods to Chang. “Let me check on things next door.”
She steps out, leaving Bruno alone with Chang, who has retrieved his iPad. “Good thing you called. This is a global clusterfuck.”
“Thanks for rescuing me.”
“You’re doing fine—”
“Except for the fainting.”
She honors him with the full Chang, the sweet smile, the touch on the arm. Early in their yearlong relationship, Bruno had realized Chang possessed perfect control of her expressions and gestures; the best actor of the age. Combine this talent with startling beauty and it is a wonder she hasn’t been elected Emperor of Earth.
“What’s the deal with Ruteb?”
He gives her the highlights as he glances at the iPad and finds that Vindahl has not responded. “Wait,” Chang says, uncharacteristically surprised. “He’s a death researcher?”
“More precisely, a researcher into existence after death.”
Chang vanishes into her own iPad. Bruno can’t suppress a sigh, this simple gesture making him feel weak and old. Three years since the discovery of a mysterious lump in his neck—the first step in a series of tests and chemo news as terrifying as it was predictable.
The next stage, his crack cancer team lately informed him, is surgery that will probably result in the loss of his larynx. And the prospect of, at best, five more years of steady slicing and inevitable decline into a drugged fade-out.
If Ruteb is correct, Bruno at least possesses a soul—something that will survive after the slicing, dicing, and irradiating.
And this is the best scenario he can imagine.
Wilson returns. “Come on.”
Bruno steps to the door, but Chang stops him, indicating her iPad. “I’ve got to check in with Drew”—another attorney from the project—“and this whole after-death science sounds crazy. It may be an attempt to turn you.”
“Turn me how?”
“Away from the law, into some kind of foreign agent.”
Bruno can’t believe what he’s hearing. “Don’t you think this is too obviously crazy?”
“There is your particular . . . condition, Bru. Maybe they targeted you.”
“Our assignments are random. I could have been talking to any of a dozen other people who are hung up here.”
“Maybe they all had orders to use this shit on you.”
“That’s paranoid even by your standards.”
Chang just offers an indulgent smile.
In the next room, Ruteb is sitting at a desk much like the one in the other room, but now with the added bonus of shackles on his wrists. “That isn’t remotely necessary,” Bruno tells Wilson, who stands to one side, arms crossed, clearly nervous.
“He said he knew all about IEDs.”
“NDEs, actually. And you’re not supposed to be listening in, are you?”
Wilson stares, embarrassed yet defiant. “We thought he’d attacked you,” she says. “And I can’t remove the shackles until the agent in charge signs off.”
“Which will be—?
“The moment he gets done with—”
“The ‘false alarm’? Come on, Tania.”
“Give me a minute.” She leaves.
Bruno places the iPad on the table and sits across from Ruteb. “Sorry.”
Now Bruno is able to see the bruises on Ruteb’s left cheek, which looks swollen. “They finally got around to beating me.”
“Someone will be punished, believe me.”
“I will overlook it if I am freed, and can resume my work.”
Bruno taps the iPad. “Still waiting, I’m afraid.”
“There’s nothing to be done?”
“Something will happen when the agent returns with her supervisor.” He almost convinces himself.
“You are not well,” Ruteb says suddenly.
“At least I’m free to walk through the door.”
“What is killing you?”
Bruno has no intention of giving this client a tour of his private house of horrors. But, lacking other options, he offers the lowlights.
Forgetting the shackles and the bruises, Ruteb leans forward eagerly. “Mr. Bruno, the whole purpose of my research is to guide people in your situation!”
Bruno is getting angry now. “Do you want to get out of here or not?”
But Ruteb will not give up. “There are different kinds of death. There is . . . preservation of energy and form, but there is also annihilation.”
“I don’t understand.” Nor does he like any mention of annihilation.
Ruteb strains at his bonds. “Your soul has a physical presence. It exists in the universe, so it can be affected by physical forces. It can persist, it can evolve . . . and it can also be annihilated, obliterated. It can cease to exist.”
Now Ruteb takes a breath, as if the next statement costs him. “My brother’s soul was annihilated when he blew himself up. He vanished from the universe as if he had never been born. This is the fate of those who engage in terrorism.”
“Oh, now political acts affect the afterlife?”
“Only political acts that result in the annihilation of the self. The 9/11 bombers, for example—but also many of their victims.”
Bruno appreciates the grim irony of terrorists paying the ultimate price for their acts—vanishing from the universe. But hearing that their victims meet the same fate? Could the universe—cold and uncaring, yes—be so totally fucking unfair?
Given his current condition, he might actually consider this hideous argument. “So . . . those who were at Hiroshima.”
“Firebombed in Tokyo and Dresden?”
“The same. If your body is vaporized, so is your soul.”
Bruno sits up straight. He recalls a phrase from the Civil War—a good death. Yes, some Confederate general, maybe Jackson or Stuart, mortally wounded and making his peace, passing into the Great Beyond to rest in the bosom of the Lord.
No annihilation there.
“What about dying of old age? Getting killed in a car accident?” He doesn’t feel the need to ask about dying of cancer at age thirty-three.
“It depends on your physical and mental state. A person who dies of old age while suffering from dementia is in the same state in post-life. Someone who dies from injuries that don’t annihilate the corpus will make a better transition.” Ruteb shakes his head. “This is very complicated. But it is known, for sure, that there are . . . hierarchies. Not all deaths are equal.”
A phrase that has been floating, unfocused, in Bruno’s mind, suddenly sharpens. “You’re saying there is no death neutrality.”
“This is . . . horrifying.”
“I have not slept well since learning this.”
“Bet you’ve been careful about what you do, too.”
Ruteb looks glum. “I refused to get on an airplane until I realized that I faced annihilation if I remained in Jordan.”
“If this is true, it would change the way everyone lives.”
Both hear a thump, followed by a second and a third.
“They told me it was an exercise,” Bruno says. He glances at his iPad, which has cached a news bulletin, and now sees mention of a lockdown at LAX.
Bruno stands and knocks on the door. “Tania? Anyone?”
He feels a concussion through the door.
Ruteb feels it, too. “Please get me out of here.”
“I can’t undo those shackles. Believe me, I’ve tried.”
He is paralyzed, useless. His client is trapped; so is he while God only knows what madness is taking place a few yards away.
He tugs at the table. “What good will that do?” Ruteb says.
“I want to move it away from the door.” But the table is bolted down. Bruno’s only defensive option is to reposition his chair directly behind the door, turning himself into a human shield—a phrase suddenly filled with new and disturbing meaning.
“Move back here,” Ruteb says. “If there is a bomb, you might die, but you will escape annihilation.”
Bruno leaves the chair wedged under the knob, blocking the door, then crouches down next to Ruteb. Nothing more on his iPad. His phone shows one bar, however, and he dials Chang.
And gets her voicemail.
“What about ghosts?” he says, surprising himself.
Even Ruteb is startled by the change of subject. “Ghosts are a type of morphogenetic field, we think. They are souls whose deaths were not violent enough to result in annihilation, but which carried some residual physical charge. Possibly emotional.”
“Unfinished business in life?”
“As good a description as any.”
All of this troubles Bruno, not for the outrageous subject and its horrifying implications, but because it detracts from his mission. Doing his job is what he was known for, even as a dutiful son covering for an alcoholic father and an unhappy mother. In college, in law school, he was always the note-taker, the test-giver.
At the firm, he has been the one to push for pro bono work for immigrants, even as he deals with his own health problems.
His phone rings—Chang, shouting over exterior noise. “Are you safe?”
“We’re still locked up. Where are you?”
“Off-site. Someone in Bradley Terminal jumped several agents and took their guns.” She paused, apparently listening to someone else. Back to Bruno: “That’s what they’re telling us, anyway. It could be an actual attack—”
Bruno is shocked to hear what has to be gunshots from one or more automatic weapons.
“Fuck,” Chang says. Bruno knows that his former lover never uses profanity unless terrified. “Listen to me,” she says, and even with the sad acoustics of his cell phone Bruno can hear how frightened she is. “We got some info on your man Ruteb. He apparently worked at some freaky-deaky place in Syria where they tortured people.”
“What kind of place? What did they do?” Bruno can’t help looking at Ruteb as he hears this.
“Ask him! Gotta go!”
The phone dies.
Ruteb’s head hangs. He surely saw Bruno’s face, and might have heard Chang’s words. “Torture?”
Ruteb’s whole posture screams denial. “Not me. Not my team. Years ago, yes, when our institute worked with the Soviet group. Their methods were extreme.”
He shifts now, and pleads. “We did monitor and observe many human subjects who were on the verge of death, and then died. But they volunteered!”
Fine, fine, Bruno thinks. But he wonders if Chang is right. And maybe this Vindahl person and the Lumina facility are bogus.
Even as he formulates this theory, he judges it stupid, too convoluted, too unnecessary. He is on his way to an alternate view when the there is knocking on the door. “Bruno!” he hears. Tania Wilson’s voice. He opens it to find her wearing body armor. “We’re getting out of here,” she announces, stepping over to Ruteb and unshackling him. “Do you have his papers in order? Bruno!”
Bruno has lost focus. His lack of energy again. He locates them. “Yes. Why?”
“We’re leaving the airport.”
“Is there some kind of attack? We heard explosions and a lot of gunfire.”
“I only know what I know and that ain’t much. Come on.”
Down the hall they go, Bruno in front, Ruteb behind him, Wilson in the rear, reversing Bruno’s route of four hours earlier. The other rooms seem deserted. In fact, the facility feels like an office building on a Sunday morning—which, Bruno realized, it is.
Bruno stops at the door leading out into the main concourse. “What’s the holdup?” Wilson says.
Wilson slides forward and, as quietly as possible, opens the door enough so she can see.
Ruteb says, “Why don’t we stay here? It seems safer.”
“Come on,” Wilson says. “Once you’re out that door, you’ve immigrated.”
Ruteb looks to Bruno. “Technically. But you will still be liable for detention, even prosecution—”
“Shut up, Bruno,” Wilson says, opening the door all the way. “Take yes for an answer.”
Bruno nods to Ruteb, too. Go.
The main concourse, with its ticketing and food court, is deserted, but scattered bags and other debris scream of a frantic flight. Bruno sees a pair of TSA agents in armor waving them to theoretical safety.
Crouching, Bruno runs. He feels as though he is back in Boy Scouts.
It only takes seconds to reach the TSA team. One of the escorts, a heavyset armed agent nameplated ESPARZA, points to Ruteb, saying, “Who is this?”
Wilson says, “None of your business,” which surprises Bruno.
And with no further conversation, they all run out the front doors of Bradley Terminal.
Bruno blinks in the bright midday LA sunshine. Nothing seems to be wrong . . . except that there is no traffic, no honking, only the overhead whap of helicopter rotor blades.
And not another human being in sight. “Where’d everybody go?” Bruno says.
Esparza’s partner, Nolan, grunts, more or less. “If they’re following directions they’re miles away by now.”
But Wilson is also amazed at the lack of people. “We simmed big evacuations but we never got anywhere near this empty.”
“We’ve had an hour,” Esparza said.
“We had a day.”
“We must have learned something.”
Bruno, Ruteb, and their escorts continue to move across the street, then into the relative shelter of the parking structure.
“Are we good here?” Wilson says. Bruno takes this to mean safe.
As does Esparza. “Better, still not great” he says. He is busy with a cell phone and earpiece.
There is a burbling from inside Bruno’s briefcase. His phone. “Sorry,” he hisses, pulling it out of his pocket and raising it to his ear.
“Is this Mr. Bruno?” It is difficult to hear outside, but is clearly the voice of a woman.
“This is Hannah Vindahl. Your message said you’re trying to get Ahmed Ruteb out of immigration hell.”
“I do have him. We’re in a different kind of hell right now. Can’t really talk.”
Esparza and his unnamed colleague are staring at him. Even Wilson is shaking her head.
Ruteb, however, is eagerly gesturing toward Bruno, the phone, himself.
“I’m watching the news now,” Vindahl says. “You need to know . . . they’re probably trying to kill Ruteb. I . . . I’m on my way.”
Bruno wants to ask for more details, but the call ends as a flurry of gunshots crackles nearby, sending all of them crouching.
When it is quiet again, Bruno more or less whispers, “This is about him?”
Wilson looks at Bruno.. “Yes.”
He understands. Assuming the truth of Ruteb’s theories, believers of all faiths would brand him a dangerous heretic. “So we’ve got to get out of here.”
“About fucking time you realized it,” Esparza says. He has been popping over the barrier to scan the surroundings. “We should try the other side,” he says.
No one argues. All five of them start crab-walking, keeping the low wall of the parking structure between them and whoever out there is shooting.
Twenty yards deeper, they have rows of parked cars as shields and are able to move faster, though still carefully.
“Why didn’t you tell me they were after my client?” Bruno says to Wilson.
“Didn’t know until half an hour ago, and came to get you immediately.”
“Who is it?”
“Some outside group, maybe four or five people. We got one of them and he had your man’s photo and flight information.”
“I’m really looking forward to knowing why.”
“You might not like it,” Bruno says.
They have reached the east end of the parking structure and another elevated roadway. Esparza is several feet away, talking quietly but precisely on his cell phone. Bruno hears him asking about evacuation and updates on time.
Ruteb sinks to his haunches. He looks spent, and who can blame him? “You’re almost out of here,” Bruno says. “Am I a hotshot lawyer or what?”
The attempt at lightness fails. Ruteb says, “This has been my life for four years.”
“We’re changing your life,” Bruno says, with optimism he doesn’t truly believe, especially given his own condition.
Then he hears Esparza saying, “Okay, okay, I guess we have to.” Esparza removes his earpiece, then taps quickly at his cell phone as he turns to Bruno and the others. “Here’s the deal. There are two trucks filled with high explosives, one that way about a hundred yards, the other on that side, maybe one fifty.”
“How did they manage to get past security?” Bruno says.
“I don’t fucking know. But whoever got them past, however they did, is talking to us.” He aims his phone at Ruteb. “They want him or they blow the place.”
“We can’t—” Bruno and Wilson speak as one.
Esparza waves his phone. “We aren’t turning him over. But the big problem is they’ve put a clock on this.” He glances at his phone. “Ten minutes.”
“How bad is it?” Wilson asks.
“If both trucks are filled with C-4 or anything like it, they will collapse this structure, three terminals, and leave a crater the size of a football field.”
“God, there are a couple of thousand people in every terminal.”
“We’ve been getting them out,” Esparza says, “but yeah, we could be looking at casualties on the order of 9/11.”
“Annihilation,” Ruteb says, his voice quavering.
Bruno is the only one who knows exactly what he means.
“What do we do?” Bruno says. “Doesn’t sound as though we can hide.”
“Nope,” Esparza says. “We move. The bomb squads are dealing with the two trucks. If we can get to the upper level near Terminal Five there will be a chopper.”
“When?” Wilson asks, as Bruno sees the sheer terror in Ruteb’s eyes. Or maybe it’s just a reflection.
“Now!” Esparza says.
He and Nolan take up flanking positions to either side of Ruteb, Wilson, and Bruno. A nod, and they all hustle out of the structure into the empty street.
“How much time?” Wilson says, panting. Exactly what Bruno wants to know.
“Call it eight minutes and don’t ask again,” Esparza says.
They have covered no more than thirty yards and are two levels below a landing pad when Bruno realizes that something is wrong—the others sense the same danger. To their left, Bruno sees what appears to be an abandoned Ryder van.
The back is opening and a man is emerging with a weapon, raising it to shoot.
The spray of bullets sends all of them sprawling, through Ruteb is last to hit the pavement.
To Bruno, Ruteb is strangely ready to accept his fate—anything but annihilation.
The countdown must be at five minutes, less, and they can’t move!
Then Esparza and his partner and Wilson are blasting away at the shooter. Bullets ping, punching holes in the van, kicking up pieces of pavement.
The shooter is still upright.
Wilson is hit. She spins to the ground, dropping her pistol.
Bruno rushes to her, sees the fear on her face as he says, stupidly, “I’m here. You’re good.” Because she appears to have been shot in the thigh, not in her torso.
But none of them are good—
Then Ruteb stands up, as if daring the shooter to get him.
The shooter falls.
“Two minutes!” Esparza says, and now he sounds shaken. “Come on!”
Ruteb picks up Wilson’s pistol. “We will not escape,” he says to Bruno. “You should all—”
And he shoots himself in the head, blood spurting from one temple.
He crumples as Esparza, his partner, Wilson, and Bruno can only stare.
Bruno looks at the pistol in Ruteb’s hand. Is about to reach for it when Wilson groans.
He reaches for her instead. He and Esparza haul her up and head out, the partner providing cover.
The timer on Esparza’s phone buzzes.
Bruno waits for the flash of light and heat that will send him into the worst kind of death.
“What the fuck?” Esparza says.
“Maybe the bomb squad got them.”
And they do, reaching the chopper without getting shot at, or annihilated.
They leave Nolan behind—no room in the chopper— and are airlifted to Marina del Rey, three miles south. Bruno spends the entire fifteen-minute trip in a crouch, his face against the rattling frame of the chopper as an EMT and Esparza stabilize Wilson—he hopes.
Bruno wonders if he should use his phone to send a message to his mother and friends, listing himself as safe during LAX emergency.
Idiot. He’s not safe.
Then, over the insane shuddering of the helicopter, he sees the EMT leaning over Wilson, applying chest compression. Esparza can only look helplessly at Bruno.
And Bruno wants to nudge the EMT aside and tell Wilson, Let go! Die here and now before some explosion annihilates us in midair—!
But then Wilson moans and the EMT sits back. “Okay for now,” he says.
The chopper is already dropping toward the pad at the hospital.
Within two minutes, Bruno is seeing Wilson transferred to a stretcher, gratified that she is conscious. She even squeezes his hand as she is lifted.
Esparza helps Bruno out of the chopper and toward the emergency room, not lifting him but definitely urging him forward. “It could still go off,” he says. Which Bruno knows and fears.
Chang is waiting as Bruno enters the emergency room, which is filled with LAX passengers and staffers somehow injured in the evacuation. Before he can sit, or collapse, she catches him and helps him to a chair.
“Jeff, you need a doctor.”
“I’m fine. I mean, relatively speaking. Alive for now.”
Chang’s phone rings. “Sorry, let me—” She will answer it no matter what he says. He nods as she walks away, already complaining, “They won’t let any of us leave and we’re inside the blast zone—”
She does not ask about Ruteb.
Bruno has a moment to feel his own hunger, thirst, weakness. And then to appreciate his situation: threatened by near-term death, possible annihilation.
He looks at those arrayed on plastic chairs on either side of him, people of color in many cases, children with adults, no one truly old. Staffers wearing badges, sneakers, and blue garments glide or sprint from one machine or patient to another. Doors and curtains open and close.
The televisions are off.
Esparza stands at reception talking into his phone.
Who here is facing a good death?
“Are you Jeff Bruno?”
Bruno turns. A large, red-haired woman of middle years with a bandage on her forehead is sitting behind him. “Hannah Vindahl,” she says.
“How the hell did you get here?”
She pats the bandage on her head. “I ran into an ambulance while using my phone. Where’s Ruteb?”
Bruno can’t soften the message. “Dead.”
Vindahl actually puts her hand to her mouth, a shock response Bruno has never seen. “But he was with you!” Bruno senses the tiniest hint of criticism in her voice. “What happened?”
He points a finger at his temple and mock pulls the trigger.
“Oh, God, they shot him?”
Bruno can see Vindahl absorbing, then processing this terrible news. “Well, fuck.”
“I guess he believed.”
“So do I.” Her expression softens. “And so, I think, do you.”
It’s Bruno’s turn to process a statement, which hits him as hard and deeply as his cancer diagnosis did. “Where,” he finally says, “does that leave us?”
“Pressing on with our work. Thank God Ruteb transferred most of his data.”
“With religious assassins everywhere we look?”
“This team was probably from Ruteb’s institute. They think he’s a traitor for sharing their research. Now that he’s gone, they’ll think they’ve won, for a while.”
And she takes Bruno’s hand. “Join us.”
The offer is as startling as it is kind. Bruno knows he is done with law, with Gloria Chang. But as he stares into the days, months, and hopefully years to come, he wonders . . . How do you live when even death is unfair?
“The Vetting” copyright © 2019 by Michael Cassutt
Art copyright © 2019 by Robert Hunt