“I have a bomb,” said the caller.
Not the first thing you want to hear when you have just stumbled groggily in to work Friday morning after a hard night on the town. Not entirely unexpected, however, as I work at a nuclear weapons research establishment. Death threats from the more pacific members of the public, ironically enough, have become mere commonplace.
“I know exactly what you mean,” I replied sympathetically. “My head feels like it’s exploding.”
“It’s set to go off in sixty minutes,” the caller insisted.
“Mine went off the minute I woke up. Been seeing fireworks all morning.”
“There’s nothing you can do to stop me.”
The notion trickled into my fogged consciousness that something was a tad amiss.
“Hang on a minute,” I said, “hang on, are you talking about a bomb?”
“That’s right,” he confessed, a tinge of irritation coloring the edges of his voice, “and it will go off in an hour unless my demands
“Well why didn’t you say so in the first place?” I demanded testily.
“Instead of going on about headaches and such. Really. A bomb?”
“Yes! And my demands are—”
“Look,” I interjected, “can you just call me back in an hour? I haven’t had my coffee yet and I’m really not equipped to deal with fringe lunatics until I’ve had my morning jolt of caffeine.”
“What!” he cried. “You’ll be dead in an hour. Blown to bits,” he added for emphasis. “You won’t be around to answer the phone.”
“Well, in that case, you’d best just leave a voicemail.” I hung up.
There is nothing calculated to peeve a deranged bomber more than being, er, blown off so flippantly, but in my defense, I truly am a member of the walking dead without at least three cups of the blackest brew in me.
One blustery morning last March I rang up Security to warn them of a gaunt stranger with wild hair and pale bloodshot eyes stalking about the premises. Security men in dark glasses materialized promptly with baying dogs and a litany of point-blank questions. Turned out it was just a pre-coffee reflection of myself I had chanced to glimpse in a window. The Security men were not pleased. They have failed to hold great stock by my word ever since.
No surprise, then, that after a steaming cup of the restorative I was jolted by a brilliant flash of inspiration. Here was my chance to oil my way back into Security’s good books. All I had to do was, aha, defuse the situation by virtue of my own wit and acumen and I would never again be taken for the boy who cried wolf. Security officially frowns upon the presence of alcohol on the premises but tends to look the other way for individuals in their good books. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been able to crack open a beer in my office, but it had certainly been before the aforementioned fiasco, hence the grave need for me to curry favor with them.
Quickly I rummaged in my wastepaper basket and retrieved a pamphlet with the confidence-inspiring title of “Bomb Threat Checklist.” It was handed out during Crisis Management and Security Awareness Week last month (as if we weren’t already acutely aware of their presence, what with them always tramping about the place in leather boots and conducting random cavity searches). On it were tips for handling bomb threats—a series of items to note about the caller’s voice characteristics (soft, loud, angry, excited, or disguised, check one; I wondered what I should put down if it seemed to be disguised as an angry voice), various questions to ask, etc.
The first tip on the list was to try to stall the caller for as long as possible in order to delay his scheme pending notification of the appropriate authorities.
As if on cue, my phone buzzed. Stall, I intoned to myself, drew a deep breath, and answered.
“Morning!” I boomed cheerily. “Nice day out, isn’t it?”
“Er, I suppose,” said the caller dubiously.
I glanced out of the window and straightaway I realized my error.
Rainclouds were gathering on the horizon, amassing for a bold frontal attack calculated to decimate the city’s morale. I hastened to correct myself.
“When I said nice, I meant terrible, actually,” I explained. “Slip of the tongue, really.”
“Okay,” said the caller.
“Right,” I agreed. “Yes. Er, so how’s the wife?”
“She’s fine, thank you for asking.”
“And the kids? How are they doing?”
“Fine, fine,” he said, “just fine. Quite all right. Er. I haven’t got any, as a matter of fact.”
“Ah. I see.” I was unfazed. “Well, good on you. Can’t stand little brats myself, you know. Always running around burying bones in the garden and piddling on the floor.”
“That’s dogs, I think.”
“Dogs, kids, they’re all the same,” I said airily. I felt I had stalled enough to satisfy the checklist and decided to get straight to the point without dilly-dallying. “Where is the bomb?” I inquired, as this was the first of the Questions to Ask on the checklist.
“The bomb?” said the caller. “Ah yes, the bomb. Of course. Er, what bomb?”
“The bomb, you oaf. The one you were just calling about. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten already?”
“First I’ve heard of it,” he said frankly. “I think you might have the wrong number.”
“You called me,” I reminded him.
“Did I? Oh yes, I did.” There was a rustle of paperwork. “Oh yes, I believe I was calling to offer you some auto and life insurance at amazing rates.”
“You wouldn’t happen to sell mental health insurance, would you?”
“Too bad. I could use some.” I slammed the phone down.
Damn insurance salesmen, always clogging the lines up with their inane chit-chat in the midst of an emergency. I was up to number nine while brooding on the number of ways there are to skin a telemarketer when the phone buzzed again.
“I don’t want any,” I snarled, and was about to slam the phone down again when a familiar voice spoke.
“It’s going to go off in forty minutes,” it said. It was the madman again—that is to say, the other madman; the insurance salesman was a madman too and this one was only slightly madder.
I rapidly scrambled through the checklist. The time for stalling was past. The caller’s voice characteristic was asinine, verging on loony, check.
Question one. “Can you tell me where the bomb is?” I coaxed in a voice as sweet as honey—sweeter, perhaps, as I had dumped a little too much sugar in my coffee.
“I demand that—”
“No, look, ‘What are your demands?’ is question number five. You can’t answer question five without answering questions one through four, it just isn’t fair.”
“Questions? What questions?” he said suspiciously.
“Just think of it as a hiring interview. If you answer all the questions
exactly the way the interviewer—that’s me—wants you to, I can hire you on as, er, Senior…Lunatic…Terrorist…Engineer. If not, of course, we will have to offer the position to some other suitable candidate, and believe me, there is no shortage of lunatics around here.”
“There’s nobody else. I am acting alone.”
“Fine, fine. So it’s a very narrow pool of applicants. But we will have to make do.” I racked my brains for a suitable interview question. Ah, yes.
“Now, education: do you have any?”
“I went to a private Catholic school.”
“I’ll take that as a no.” I scribbled this down. “I must say, this isn’t looking very good for you so far. Experience?”
“I blew up some fireworks yesterday for practice.”
“Good, good, now we’re making progress. Although we do prefer our candidates to have at least three years’ experience in the field. Still, we can make do; I’ll round it up to the nearest year and write down ‘One…year…of…on-the-job…training.’ Next: where is the bomb?”
“In the dumpster behind the—hey! That wasn’t fair!”
“All’s fair in love and war,” I pronounced solemnly.
“Which one is this?”
“Neither, but there’s no reason to be pedantic about it. Now, question two, how—”
He cut me off. “No, no more questions,” he said brusquely. “You have thirty minutes to accept my demands or the bomb destroys everything.”
This deadline instilled a new sense of urgency. I would have no chance of getting into Security’s good books if I got them killed. The fact that I would be dead too certainly wouldn’t help matters.
“All right, all right,” I appeased. “We can skip to question five but, I’ll have you know, I am doing this under protest. So, what are your demands?”
The caller cleared his throat. “Number one: all animal testing to be ceased immediately.”
“Er…” I began.
“Number two: All captive laboratory animals to be released immediately.”
“Hey, that was almost poetry,” I said. “Rhymed, did you realize? But I don’t think—”
“And finally: a written guarantee, sent to all the major newspapers, that no further animal testing will ever be conducted by you. All three must be accepted within thirty minutes.”
My industry is no stranger to ultimatums, especially since we are generally the ones issuing them. Remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Surrender, or the Emperor gets it right in the Tokyo. Ultimatums as easy as this lunatic’s don’t come along very often. I had half a mind to ask him what the catch was, but there’s an old adage about gift horses that forced me to refrain.
“I—that is, we, accept all your demands.”
“What, all of them? Just like that?” he said incredulously.
“You mean you’ll cease all animal testing?”
“Easier done than said. All animal testing will be ceased, all animals will be released, all maniacs will be pleased, mountain bears will dance in the Pyrenees,” I babbled, getting perhaps a little bit carried away.
“You will release all captive animals?”
“Are you listening? We’ve never had any in the first place; this is a nuclear weapons research facility after all. I am insulted, in fact, that you would even suggest it. Torturing innocent individual woodland creatures is morally heinous and utterly contemptible and goes against all the ideals we stand for. It’s obliterate entire cities or nothing, with us.”
There was a brief silence, during which I fancied I could hear the caller’s three brain cells sputtering in tandem in a desperate effort to keep apace of this unforeseen twist.
Finally, in a tinny voice he said, “Excuse me, but did you say nuclear research facility?”
“Not pharmaceutical research facility, then?”
“Ah, no, no, you’ve got the wrong number. You’re looking for the Phfoozer Pharmaceuticals Lab, just down the road. I can give you the number if you’d like.”
“Er, no, thanks, I can look it up myself,” he said, against all evidence to the contrary.
“As you wish,” I harrumphed with bad grace; it had just occurred to me that my plan to inveigle myself into Security’s good books had just been taken to the cleaners.
Something else occurred to me. “Incidentally, did you say the bomb would destroy everything?”
“Everything,” he said proudly.
“All the employees at the lab?”
“They will all be killed.”
“All the buildings?”
“They will all be obliterated.”
“All your precious animals? The ones you want freed?”
“They will all be—” He stopped.
There was a heavy pause, while the three brain cells struggled to cope with yet another plot twist. I wondered idly how long the man would last against a Hitchcock thriller before his head exploded. I reckoned about twenty minutes.
I glanced at my watch. “You have twenty minutes,” I said solemnly. “Now, if you would just care to answer questions two through—”
He hung up. So much for my grand Security plan. I waited a few seconds and then dialed the Phfoozer lab (the ‘P’ is silent) to warn them of a lunatic on the premises.
He was nabbed in a dumpster frantically trying to disarm his bomb.
As it turned out, it wouldn’t have gone off anyway. It was already clear that when it came to dialing the right phone number, he was no Einstein, and in the handling of high explosives he was just about as dud. My role in the case came to light somehow despite my attempts at modesty, i.e. my assurances to everyone that I had absolutely nothing to do with it whatsoever and that the man who had called Phfoozer and left my full name and my mailing address with a note to put me “on record for Security” must have been mistaken about his own identity, and I was hailed as a local hero.
Security never believed a word of it.