by Ron Simmonds
'What are they doing now?' said Bernie.'Still unloading something from the van.'
'Can you get the number?'
Culvert was watching the men through the small pair of binoculars he’d found in the glove compartment of the covert car.
Something had crept down Bernie's neck. He tried to fish it out, but it had gone swiftly down his back. It felt like a raindrop. He hoped it was a raindrop.It had been drizzling when they started out, now it was pouring down. 'Doesn't the sun ever shine in this God–forsaken country?' Like all Australians he pronounced it God–forsyken.
'The van's leaving.'
They listened to it start up and move away.
'Bet you that heap’s stolen.'
‘Can’t see. Blasted rain.’ Culvert sucked his teeth noisily, making Bernie’s hair stand on end, in spite of the wet. ‘Looks like one of them stayed behind.'
'Christ, let me look.' He wrenched the stupid little glasses away from the other man. The lenses were all covered in raindrops but he could just make out the figure of the man on the bridge. He was bending over something.
'It's a bomb,' Culvert said.
‘As far as you rookies are concerned it’s always a bomb.' He wiped the glasses on his coat and squinted through them again. Now he could see nothing.
‘Better safe than sorry.’
'What are we going to do about it?' Neither of them was armed. Standing orders. No weapons to be worn on normal duties. Lumpy suits were a dead give-away. Culvert had been sure that one of the men in the pub was on the wanted list. As soon as he spotted him he had rushed back to the car to make a report and found that someone had already broken in and nicked the police radio.
Bernie strained his eyes looking, but the bulky shape of the man was gone. The lights on the bridge went out suddenly, plunging the whole area into darkness. It was during moments like this that he heartily congratulated himself upon choosing this type of work.
They waited another five minutes to get some night vision, then started to worm their way down to the river bank. That was the bit Bernie enjoyed the most. Moving through the long wet grass and undergrowth on his big gut was like trying to swim through a swamp. His big brass belt buckle, the one he'd bought in a weak moment during last year's holiday, dug deeply into his belly, making every move feel as if he were getting fatally stabbed several times. Sticks cracked and snapped beneath them. For all the noise they were making they may as well have got up and walked. Now and then a small animal scurried away right across his face in panic.
Culvert seemed to be enjoying himself. He would. It was his first real crack at plain clothes operations and he was all over the case like a frisky puppy.
The river looked cold and uninviting. Now they were closer Bernie could see all three men plainly, standing by the van over at one end of the bridge where the street lights began. They seemed to be waiting for something. It had stopped raining.
‘I’ll have to go and get backup,’ Bernie said. They needed officers at both ends of the bridge.
After Bernie had gone Culvert lay there looking at the bridge. He had been all for dashing over to arrest them right away, but Bernie was senior man and he’d said to wait. He wished he had a gun, or even a torch. He didn’t fancy trying to disarm a bomb in semi-darkness. It looked like a 200 pound job, big enough to blow up half the district, but it hadn't been put there for that. As long as nothing came across the bridge no one was going to waste it on a few pedestrians.
Some people had gathered over on the other bank, where there was a small park. He heard children laughing, excited. He wanted to wave them away, but shouting would have alarmed the men on the bridge. He watched one of them cross over to the other end. Now there was no way he could get to the bomb without passing one of them. Bernie would be ages, trying to find a phone that hadn’t been vandalised. On an impulse he stood up, stripped off his outer clothes and slid into the water. God, it was cold! He struck out strongly, trying not to splash. The bridge was old, and there were plenty of footholds in the crumbling bricks. He remembered now that it was a footbridge only, closed to traffic as unsafe. Within a few minutes he was up over the railing, shivering. The crowd on the bank had swelled, and there were people milling around at each end of the bridge now, making a lot of noise. Something must have happened. They’d be surging on to the bridge at any moment. He’d have to be quick.
The bomb loomed up large and black beside him. He felt in his pockets for matches. Of course he had none. They would have been damp, anyway. Everything about him was damp. He ran his hands over it cautiously. There were no wires, just a thin metal antenna sticking out of the plastic. If he could get that off the bomb wouldn’t detonate. There was a clamp screwed around it where it connected, but he didn't have anything to use to try and unscrew it.
By now it was pitch dark. Christ! What a great investigator he was. No gun, no torch, no Swiss Army knife. He grabbed hold of the antenna and tried to unscrew it.
A sudden flash and an instantaneous clap of thunder right overhead stunned him for a second. It occurred to him that this was an ideal place to get struck by lightning. There were shouts from the crowd. Another flash lit up the sky. This one seemed to go on for a long time, and this time there was no following clap of thunder. When he looked up there was a yellow signal flare dying slowly in the sky over towards the north.
It also occurred to him that whoever had the gadget that triggered this device must still be nearby, and by now he must have seen Culvert because the whole place had been brightly lit for a few seconds. A figure began running towards him from the end of the bridge, waving his arms and shouting. Culvert couldn’t make out the words.
Water cascading from his soaked hair formed little puddles in the surface of the plastic. The antenna slipped in his fingers. He tried to dry his hands on his jacket, but it was a waste of time. He pulled the plastic partly off the bomb, gripped the base of the antenna with his handkerchief and started to bend it backwards and forwards, hoping to snap it off.
He was still struggling to break the metal rod when he heard a clock nearby begin to strike and the approaching man threw himself flat on the ground. At that moment the antenna twisted free and the bomb went off.
The shock of the blast threw him backwards into the railings, blinded by a searing light that blazed its way right through to the back of his skull. His ears rang from the explosion. He could smell the singed hair of his eyebrows. Miraculously he was still alive, but around him all hell had broken loose. The bomb was spouting fire, smoke and flames, while further along the bridge other black boxes crackled and spat. Coloured flares hung high in the sky. Through the barrage of explosions he could hear people screaming.
He got to his feet and staggered through the smoke towards the crowd, ignoring the other man who was getting up slowly, glaring at him and brushing himself down. ‘Got to get help!’ croaked Culvert, to no one in particular. The people were dancing around wildly when he reached them. Quite a few of them appeared to be drunk. A fat blonde woman lurched into him, thrusting a bottle into his hand. The fireworks behind him lit her face up, green, yellow and red in quick succession. She looked ghastly.
‘Here you are mate! Drink up! Happy New Year!’ she shouted.
Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved