Chapter 71 of Silent Vector

Chapter 71, in which a guess follows a broken code

CHAPTER 71

ALPHABET SOUP

Nick Temple finds the waiting to be almost unbearable. He knows Ted Durant will ask for help if he wants it. Until then he’s reduced to simply sitting in the small reception area of the USO lounge on the upper level of Miami International Airport’s 20th Street Terminal.

Ted has been holed up in a small office behind the lounge since arriving three hours ago. Nick glances at his watch. It’s nearly midnight. It’s hard to believe that he started the day sharing a cup of coffee with Dalila at anchor off of Santa Maria Bay in St. Thomas. Nick is about to get up and ask the lone USO employee still working to make another pot of coffee when Ted comes bursting into the lounge.

“Nick. I think I’ve got him. He’s good, but I think I have him.”

“You think, or you know?”

“No. I know I’ve got him!”

“Let’s have it.”

Ted sits down in the faux leather armchair next to Nick. Schnelling’s log is in one hand, and a legal pad, nearly every page covered with Durant’s handwriting, and a pencil are in his other hand.

“I got thrown by what looked like the key on the first page, but he buried it. He was a smart guy. He stuck the key in at page 39. Smart as he was, he didn’t trust his memory, so it’s all in here: the key, the algorithm, the whole damn thing is all written down, starting at page 39. He probably relied on 1939 as a mnemonic device.”

“That’s great, Ted, and I don’t mean to be a pain in the ass, but can we skip the crypto chalk talk and get down to what the log says?”

“Oh, yeah. Sorry. Of course. Six targets, all U.S. cities, all to be hit simultaneously.”

“Got a date?”

“No. But neither did Schnelling. It’s all tied to production. ASAP after production.”

“What are the cities?”

“Okay. Let me see. I’ve got them cross-referenced. They’re pretty early in the log. Looks like they settled on the targets fairly early in this process.”

He puts the pencil behind his ear and flips the pages of his legal pad until he comes to a set of scribbled notes that only he can decipher. He then opens the code book to page 12.

“Here they are. Okay, he’s got Atlanta, Chicago, Fresno, Moline, Portland, Maine, and St. Louis.”

“Moline? Never heard of it.”

“Illinois. Right on the Mississippi.”

“Contacts?”

“Yeah. Each city. Each cell by name and address. The cells are all individuals. They’re to take delivery, unload the canisters on a lunch-time crowd and get the hell out of the U.S. There are a variety of post-operation rendezvous points, a different one for each cell.”

“So the sixty-four thousand dollar question is which city is the single canister going to?”

“Why not sit on all the contacts?”

“The country’s already nearly in a panic. We’d need local law enforcement to do that, and in fairness we’d have to tell them what to expect so they’d be prepared. We do that and it’s going to get out in a heartbeat. Throw that on top of nuclear missiles in Cuba and there’s no telling what’ll happen to the country, except that a full-scale panic would probably be the least of our worries with every nut job for 3,000 miles taking full advantage of the state of affairs. No, we’ve got to focus on and find that one canister that made it.”

Ted shakes his head.

“I don’t see anything in here to help us. His assumption was that all six would leave St. Thomas at once. So far as I can tell he had no contingency for any number less than that unless it’s in another document.”

“So we have no idea where it’s headed? None? Come on, man. Do some of that analyst shit.”

Ted doesn’t respond for a moment. Suddenly his eyes light up and he snaps his fingers.

“Atlanta!”

“What?”

“Look, this guy is a detailed, meticulous guy. Typical scientist. No, typical German scientist. Everything is laid out, organized, and in some sort of perfect order. If we have to pick a target, I’d bet my paycheck that he had the targets in alphabetical order. My bet is Atlanta was first on his list.”

“But you’re not sure.”

“No. But if you’re not going to let us crash all six at once, if we have to pick one, then pick Atlanta. There’s no logical reason, and no evidentiary basis for picking any of the other five.”

Nick sits and thinks for a moment. Ted’s right. Atlanta makes sense for Schnelling. But it’s a gamble. They’ve come this far, and if they blow it now thousands of Americans, maybe tens of thousands of Americans are about to be poisoned and maimed, and the panic he’s already worried about will surely follow. He doesn’t see any alternative. Durant’s as good as they come in this business, and sometimes it all comes down to trusting the best. Nick stands up.

“I’m going to Atlanta. You coming?”

“Damn right I am. Let’s shut this asshole down.”