Authors: Stanislaw Lem
All this was passed on to me confidentially; they were still waiting for the arrival of the head of airport security before starting the interrogation. As soon as the latter had appeared, Randy, acting as self-appointed spokesman for the Americans, began briefing everyone on the nature of our mission. I listened, at the same time discreetly freeing my wet pant legs from my calves. He included in his report only what was absolutely necessary. Fenner was no less sparing in details, confirming that the embassy had been informed of our mission and that Interpol, which had also been briefed, was supposed to have notified the Italian authorities. This was a shrewd move on Fenner’s part, because now the burden of responsibility had been shifted to an international organization. The Italians were not the least bit interested in our operation; they were much keener to know what had happened on the escalator. An engineer from the airport’s staff said it was inconceivable that I could have escaped from either the tank or the hall without being familiar with the technical layout of the place. To which Randy replied that one shouldn’t underestimate the sort of commando training administered by the USAF to people like me. He neglected to mention that my training days had been over thirty years ago. The sound of hammering vibrated through the walls. The rescue operation was still under way; they were cutting away a part of the bridge, the section torn apart by the explosion. So far they had dug out a total of nine bodies from the rubble, plus twenty-two wounded, seven of them critically. A commotion was heard outside the door; the deputy police chief motioned to one of his officers to investigate. As he was leaving the room I had a chance to observe, through a gap in the gathering, a little side table where my jacket was lying, with all the seams ripped open, and right beside it Annabella’s purse, likewise demolished. The contents of her purse were neatly arranged, like stacks of poker chips, on little squares of white paper. The officer returned and, wringing his hands, said, “Newspaper reporters!” A few of the more enterprising reporters had managed to get this far before being turned back. Meanwhile another officer introduced himself to me.
“Lieutenant Canetti. What can you tell us about the explosive used? How was it smuggled in?”
“The camera had a false bottom. He opened it and the back popped out—film and all—like a jack-in-the-box. All he had to do then was to pull out the hand grenade.”
“Are you familiar with this type of grenade?”
“I’ve come across something like it in the States. Part of the primer is located in the handle. As soon as I saw the handle was missing, I realized the primer was a modified one. A highly explosive antipersonnel bomb, metal content almost nil, with a casing made of solidified silicon carbide.”
“And you just happened to be standing in that particular place on the escalator? Is that it?”
I took advantage of the pause, a nerve-racking pause interrupted only by the hammering outside, to select my words carefully.
“It wasn’t just by accident that I was standing there. The Japanese let the girl go ahead of him because he figured a kid would be the least likely to cramp his style. The girl”—I nodded in her direction—“was at the head of the line because she was intrigued by a stuffed dog. That’s my impression, anyway. Am I right, Annabella?”
“Yes.” She was visibly surprised.
I smiled at her.
“And as for me… I was in a hurry. It’s irrational, I agree, but when you’re in a hurry you automatically want to be the first to board the plane. And that goes for the boarding ramp as well… It wasn’t deliberate on my part, it just happened that way.”
Everyone sighed. Canetti murmured something to the deputy police chief, who nodded.
“We would like to spare you, young lady … certain details of the inquiry. Would you mind stepping outside for a while?”
I glanced over at Annabella. A girlish smile—her first—just for me. She got up. Someone opened the door for her. As soon as she was out of the room, Canetti went at it again.
“Now for the next question. When did you begin to suspect the Japanese?”
“I never suspected him for a moment; he was so totally convincing in that tourist getup of his. Till the moment he crouched down, that is. At first I thought he was out of his mind. But as soon as I saw he’d triggered the grenade, I figured I had about three seconds, more or less.”
“How many did you have exactly?”
“Hard to say. The grenade didn’t explode right away when he pulled the pin, it must have had a delay mechanism. My guess is two, maybe two and a half seconds.”
“That would coincide with our own estimate,” said one of the men over by the window.
“You seem to have trouble walking. Were you injured?”
“Yes, but not by the explosion. The blast came just as I was landing in the water. How high up is the bridge? About five meters?”
“Four and a half.”
“That would account for one second. My reaching for the grenade and clearing the railing would account for another. You asked if I was injured. I banged my back against something while I was in the air. I once fractured my tail bone.”
“You hit a deflector,” explained the man seated on the window sill. “A boom equipped with a diagonal shield designed to deflect an object into the center of the funnel. You’ve never heard of such a deflector?”
“I beg your pardon, but it’s still my turn!” protested Canetti. “Did that man—that Japanese—actually throw the grenade?”
“No. He held on to it till the very end.”
“Didn’t he try to escape?”
“Poltrinelli, head of airport security.” The newcomer was leaning against the desk, dressed in a pair of grease-stained overalls. “Are you absolutely sure the man wanted to die?”
to die? Yes. He made no attempt to save his own skin. He could have unloaded the whole camera if he’d wanted to.”
“Excuse me, but this is an important point for us. Isn’t it possible he planned to jump over the bridge after throwing the grenade but was prevented from doing so by your surprise attack?”
“Impossible. Though I could be wrong,” I conceded. “For one thing, I didn’t attack him. I was only trying to get the grenade out of his hands after he pulled it away from his face; I could see the pin sticking out between his teeth. It was made of nylon instead of metal. He was using both hands to hold the thing. That’s not how you throw a hand grenade.”
“How did you attack him? From above?”
“That’s how I would have attacked if the stairs had been empty or if we’d been last in line. That’s why he knew better than to stand at the back. Any hand grenade can be knocked loose by a straight jab from above, in which case it would just have gone sailing down the stairs. If I’d only poked it out of his hand, it would have landed close by. Even though it’s against regulations, people still put their hand luggage on the steps. In which case the grenade wouldn’t have rolled very far. That’s why I swung from the left, and that’s what took him by surprise.”
“From the left, you say? Are you left-handed?”
“Yes. He wasn’t expecting that. He ducked the wrong way. The guy was a real pro. He stuck out his elbow to guard from the right.”
“Then what happened?”
“After that he kicked me in the knee and threw himself backward. He must have been extremely well trained; even if you’re willing to die, it’s hard as hell to throw yourself backward down a flight of stairs. Most of us would rather die facing forward.”
“But the stairs were crowded.”
“Right! And yet there was no one standing behind him. Everyone was trying to move back out of the way.”
“He wasn’t counting on that.”
“I know, but nothing was left to chance. He was too slick, he had every move down pat.”
The security chief squeezed the desk top till his knuckles turned white. He fired away with his questions as if conducting a cross-examination.
“I wish to emphasize that as far as we’re concerned your behavior is beyond reproach. But I repeat: it is of vital importance to us that we get at the facts in this case. You understand why, don’t you?”
“The question is whether they have people ready to face certain death.”
“Precisely. That’s why I must ask you to reconsider the exact sequence of events that took place during that one second. Let me put myself in his place. I release the safety catch. Next I plan to jump over the bridge. If I stick to my plan, you intercept the grenade and throw it back at me as I’m going down. I hesitate, and it’s that split second of hesitation that proves decisive. Couldn’t that have been the way it happened?”
“No. A person planning to throw a hand grenade doesn’t hold it with both hands.”
“But you shoved him as you were going for the grenade.” “No. If my fingers hadn’t slipped I would’ve pulled him toward me. I couldn’t get a grip on him; he got away from me by kneeling over backward. That was a deliberate move on his part. I confess I underestimated him. I should have just grabbed him and dumped him over the railing along with the grenade. That’s what I would have done if I hadn’t been so startled.”
“He might have dropped the grenade by your feet.”
“Then I’d have gone over the railing with him. Or tried to, at least. Of course it’s easy to say afterward, but I think I would have gambled. I weighed twice as much as he did, and his arms were no bigger than a kid’s.”
“Thank you. No further questions.”
“Scarron, engineer.” The man introducing himself was young looking but prematurely gray; he wore civilian clothes and a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. “Can you think of any security measures that might have prevented such an attack?”
“You’re asking too much of me. It looks to me as if you’ve taken care of everything.”
They were prepared for many things, he said, but not everything. They’d even found a way of counteracting the so-called Lod Type Operation. At the push of a button, isolated sections of the escalator could be converted into a sloping plane capable of depositing people in a water tank.
“One equipped with the same kind of foam?”
“No. That’s an antidetonation tank designed strictly for under the bridge. No, I had other kinds in mind.”
“Well, then … what was stopping you? Not that it would have mattered, really…”
“Exactly. His execution was too fast.”
He pointed to the interior of the Labyrinth shown on the display map. The entire route was in fact conceived as a kind of firing zone, one that could be flooded from above with water released at a pressure great enough to sweep away everything in its path. The funnel was thought to be escape-proof; the failure to secure the escape hatches had been a serious oversight. He offered to take me over to the model, but I declined.
The engineer looked flustered. He was dying to show me the results of his farsightedness, even though he must have realized it was a waste of time. He had solicited my opinion hoping I wouldn’t be able to offer any.
Just when I thought the interrogation was over, an elderly man sitting in the chair left vacant by Annabella raised his hand.
“Dr. Torcelli. I have only one question. Can you explain how you were able to save the girl?”
I gave it a moment’s thought.
“It was a lucky coincidence, that’s all. She was standing between us. To get at the Japanese I had to shove her out of the way; the impact of his fall made me collide with her. It was a low railing; if she’d been an adult I would never have got her over. I doubt whether I would’ve even attempted it.”
“What if it had been a woman?”
a woman,” I said, meeting his gaze. “In front of me. A blonde in pearl-trimmed pants, the one with the stuffed dog. What ever happened to her?”
“She bled to death.” The comment came from the head of security. “She had both legs torn off by the explosion.”
There was a lapse in the conversation. Those seated on the window sill stood up, and there was a shuffling of chairs, but my thoughts kept going back to that moment on the escalator. One thing I knew: I hadn’t wasted any time in going over the railing. Grabbing hold of it with my right arm, I’d taken off from the step with my other arm wrapped around the girl. By hurdling the railing in the manner of a side vault, I’d forced her to accompany me on my way down. Whether I’d put my arm around her deliberately or because she just happened to be standing there, I couldn’t say.
Although they were through with me, I wanted some assurance I would be spared any publicity. This was interpreted as an expression of undue modesty, something I refused to admit. It had nothing to do with modesty. I simply had no desire to become personally implicated in the “massacre on the steps.” The only one who guessed my real motive was Randy.
Fenner suggested I stay overnight in Rome as a guest of the embassy. But on this point I was equally adamant: I insisted on taking the next available flight to Paris, which turned out to be a Cessna carrying a shipment of materials used at a conference that had ended that afternoon with a cocktail reception; this explained why Fenner and the interpreter had arrived in dinner jackets. We were drifting toward the door in small groups, still engaged in conversation, when a woman with magnificent dark eyes, whose presence I had overlooked till now, took me aside. She turned out to be a psychologist, the one who’d been looking after Annabella. She asked if I was serious about wanting to take the girl along with me to Paris.
“Why, yes. She must have told you about my promise.”
A smile. She asked whether I had any children of my own.
“No. Well … let’s say not quite. I have two nephews.”
“And are they very fond of you?”
“You bet they are.”
She then revealed Annabella’s secret. The girl had been worried sick. Even though I’d saved her life she had a very low opinion of me, taking me for an accomplice of the Japanese or something very close to it. That’s why she’d tried to run away. In the rest room I gave her an even worse scare.
“How, for God’s sake?”
Not for a moment did she fall for the story about the astronaut. Nor for the one about the embassy. The telephone conversation she took to be with another accomplice. And since her father owned a winery, she assumed I was inquiring about her Clermont address as part of a plan to kidnap her in exchange for a ransom. The psychologist made me swear not to breathe a word of this to Annabella.