At eight the next morning I went to see Randy. I was in a fairly decent mood, because I’d started the day with Plimasine and despite the dry heat my nose wasn’t bothering me. Randy’s hotel was nowhere near my hotel; it was located on a crowded back street paved in the Roman style, not far from the Spanish Steps. I’d forgotten the name of the street. While I waited for Randy in a narrow passageway containing lobby, reception desk, and coffee shop, I browsed through a copy of
It wasn’t long before Randy showed up. Considering he’d been up most of the night he was in pretty good shape, except for being a little down in the mouth, but then by now it was obvious the mission had been a flop. Paris was our last resort, our last refuge. Randy offered to drive me to the airport, but I didn’t let him; I thought it was better he got some sleep. He insisted it was impossible to sleep in his hotel room, so I followed him upstairs. As a matter of fact, his room was bright as day, and from the bathroom came the smell of hot suds instead of cool air.
Luckily we were in a high-pressure area. Relying on my professional knowledge, I drew the curtains, dampened them underneath to improve the air circulation, and left all the faucets running slightly. Having done my Samaritan duty, I said goodbye, promising to give Mm a call as soon as I came up with something concrete. I took a taxi out to the airport, stopping off at the Hilton for my things, and shortly before eleven was already pushing my luggage cart toward the departure area. It was my first trip to the new airport terminal in Rome, and I kept my eyes peeled for the wonders of its technical security system, which had been publicized in all the papers, never suspecting I would become something of an expert on it.
The press had greeted the opening of the new terminal as an event signaling the end of all terrorist attacks. The glassed-in departure area was the only thing that looked somehow familiar. Viewed from above, the building resembled a drum, traversed by a network of escalators and ramps that discreetly filtered the boarding passengers. Lately people had begun smuggling aboard weapons and explosives in parts, later assembling them in the airport toilets, which was why the Italians were the first to stop using magnetometers. The screening was now conducted by means of ultrasonic detection devices while the passengers were being transported on the escalators; the data obtained from this invisible search was then instantly evaluated by a computer programmed to identify smuggling suspects. It was reported that these ultrasonic waves were able to sense every tooth filling and suspender clasp, that not even a nonmetallic explosive could escape detection.
The new terminal was known unofficially as the Labyrinth. During a trial run lasting several weeks, intelligence experts armed with the most ingeniously concealed weapons had crammed the escalators, and not one of these smuggling attempts was known to have succeeded. The Labyrinth had been operating since April without any serious incidents; the only ones caught were those having in their possession objects as harmless as they were strange: a toy cap pistol, for example, or a metalized plastic replica of a gun. Some of the experts argued that such incidents amounted to a kind of psychological diversion on the part of frustrated terrorists, while others claimed they were merely meant to test the system’s effectiveness. These pseudo smugglers posed something of a problem for the legal experts because, although their motives were unmistakable, they could not be considered punishable by law. So far the only serious incident had taken place on the day of my departure from Naples. An Asian passenger, after being detected by the sensors, had unloaded a live bomb on the Bridge of Sighs, which spanned the entire width of the Labyrinth. Hurled straight down into the hall, it caused an explosion that did little damage except to the nerves of the other passengers. In retrospect, I now believe these minor incidents were staged in preparation for an operation aimed at penetrating the new security system with a new type of offense.
My Alitalia flight was delayed an hour because of the uncertainty over whether we were to land at Orly or De Gaulle. Since the forecast was for thirty degrees Celsius in Paris, I decided to change clothes. I couldn’t remember which suitcase I’d packed my summer shirts in, so I set out for the rest room with my luggage cart, which was too big for the escalator. I wandered in and out of the lower-level ramps until a rajah finally showed me the way—he was on Ms way to the rest room, too. I couldn’t tell whether he was really a rajah, because although he wore a turban he had a very weak command of English. I was curious to see if he would take off his turban in the rest room. My little excursion with the cart had consumed so much time that I had to shower in a hurry and change quickly into my cotton summer suit and laced canvas sneakers. By sticking my toilet kit into a suitcase I was able to free my hands to make my way back to departures and to check in all my things as luggage. As it turned out this was a smart move, since I doubt whether the rolls of microfilm—they were stashed in the toilet kit—would have survived “the massacre of the steps.”
The terminal’s air-conditioning system was on the blink, blowing ice-cold air in some places and warm air in others. At the Paris gate it was warm, so I slung my jacket over my shoulder, which also turned out to be a lucky move. Each of us was handed an Ariadne Pass—a plastic pouch equipped with an electronic resonator—without which it was impossible to board any of the planes. On the other side of the turnstile was an escalator so narrow it could only be boarded single file. The ride was a little reminiscent of Tivoli and a little of Disneyland. The escalator climbed straight up till it gradually leveled off into a moving ramp that spanned the hall in a flood of fluorescent lights while the ground floor remained dark, though how they managed to achieve such a lighting effect was beyond me. Once past the Bridge of Sighs, the ramp swerved around and became an escalator again, cutting back at a steep angle across the same hall, which was now recognizable only by the openwork ceiling, as both sides of the ramp were lined with aluminum panels decorated with mythological scenes. I never did find out what the rest of it looked like. The idea was simple: any passenger having something suspicious in his possession was reported by means of an uninterrupted sound transmitted by the plastic pouch. The suspect had no possible escape, since the conveyor ramp was too narrow, and the constant repetition of passageways was designed to weaken him psychologically and force him to dispose of his weapon. The departure area was posted with signs in twenty different languages warning that anyone attempting to smuggle weapons or explosives aboard would place his own life in jeopardy if he tried to commit an act of terrorism against his fellow passengers. This cryptic warning was variously interpreted. There were even rumors that a team of sharpshooters was kept concealed behind the aluminum walls, but I didn’t believe a word of it.
The flight had originally been a charter, but because the Boeing made available turned out to be larger than the number of passengers, the remaining seats were sold over the counter. Those who eventually landed in trouble were those like myself who bought their tickets at the last minute. The Boeing had been rented by a bank consortium, though the people standing closest to me hardly looked like bankers. The first to step on the escalator was an elderly lady with a cane; then came a blond woman carrying a small dog, then myself, a little girl, and a Japanese. Glancing back down the stairs, I noticed that a couple of men had unfolded their newspapers. Since I was more in the mood for sightseeing, I tucked my
The blonde, whose pearl-trimmed pants fit so snugly you could see the outline of her panties on her fanny, turned out to be carrying a stuffed animal; it was the way it blinked that made it seem alive. I was reminded of the blonde on the magazine cover who had accompanied me on my trip to Rome. In her white outfit and with her quick eyes, the little girl looked more like a doll. The Japanese, who wasn’t much taller than the girl, was dressed to perfection and had all the mannerisms of an avid tourist. Crisscrossing the top of his buttoned-up checkered suit were the straps of a transistor radio, a pair of binoculars, and a powerful Nikon Six. While I happened to be looking around, he was in the process of opening the camera case to get a shot of the Labyrinth and the wonders of its interior. At the point where the stairs leveled off to form a ramp, I heard a shrill, drawn-out whistle; I spun around. It was coming from the direction of the Japanese. The little girl could be seen backing anxiously away from him, hugging her purse, which contained the ticket pouch. With a deadpan expression the Japanese turned up the volume on his radio, na?vely mistaken if he thought he could drown out the whistle: it was only the first warning.
We were gliding over the hall’s vast interior. Looming up in the fluorescent light on either side of the bridge ramp were Romulus, Remus, and the she-wolf. By this time the whining noise coming from the ticket pouch of the Japanese had reached a piercing intensity. A tremor passed through the crowd, but no one dared to raise his voice. The only one who didn’t bat an eyelash was the Japanese, who stood there expressionless, with only a few beads of sweat visible on his forehead. All of a sudden he yanked the pouch from his pocket and started wrestling with it like a madman, before a crowd of speechless onlookers—not a single woman cried out. As for me, I was only waiting to see how they would yank him out of the crowd. As the Bridge of Sighs came to an end and the ramp veered around a comer, the Japanese crouched down so suddenly and so low it looked as if he’d vanished from sight. It took me a while to realize what he was doing down there. Pulling the Nikon out of its case, he opened it just as the escalator was straightening out and beginning to climb again; it was now obvious that this second Bridge of Sighs was nothing more than an escalator moving back across the main hall at an angle. As soon as he was back on his feet again, there emerged from his Nikon a rounded, cylindrical object that glittered like a Christmas-tree ornament and that would barely have fit into the palm of my hand. A nonmetallic corundum grenade with a notched casing and no stem. The plastic pouch stopped whining. Using both hands, the Japanese pressed the bottom of the grenade to his mouth in the manner of a kiss; not until he removed it did I realize he’d pulled out the pin with his teeth and it was now sticking out between his lips. I made a dive for the grenade but only brushed it because the Japanese suddenly lunged backward with such force that he knocked those behind him off their feet and kicked me in the knee. My elbow landed in the girl’s face; the impact sent me reeling against the railing. I banged into her again and this time took her with me as we both cleared the railing and went sailing through the air. Then something solid hit me in the back, and I passed from light into darkness.
I was expecting to land on sand. Though the papers hadn’t mentioned explicitly what covered the floor, they were quite emphatic about the fact that no damage had resulted from the previous bomb explosion. Anticipating sand, I tried to get my legs into position while I was still in the air. But instead I encountered something soft and wet that gave way under me like foam until I landed in a freezing liquid. Simultaneously the blast of the explosion rocked my insides. I lost sight of the girl as my legs sank into some kind of sticky slime or mud; deeper and deeper I sank, fighting desperately with my hands, until a sudden calm took hold of me. I had about a minute, maybe a bit longer, to scramble out. First think—then act. It must have been a tank designed to soften the impact of a shock wave—a tank shaped more like a funnel than a bowl, spread with a layer of some sticky substance, filled with water, and then covered with a thick coating of an asphyxiating foam. There was no way I could charge uphill—I was knee-deep in the stuff—so I crouched down like a frog and began groping around on the bottom with my hands spread out; it was sloped to the right. Using the palms of my hands like shovels and pulling my feet out of the muck one at a time, I started crawling in that direction with all my strength. I kept it up, sometimes sliding back down the sloping incline and having to start all over again, using my hands to hoist myself up like a mountain climber trying to scale a snowy cliff without any handholds—but at least one can breathe in the snow.
I worked my way up high enough so that the big blistery bubbles on my face began to pop; half asphyxiated and gasping for air, I emerged into a shadowy penumbra filled with the concerted howls of those directly above me. With my head barely sticking out above the surface of tossing foam, I looked around. The girl was gone. I took a deep breath and dove below. I had to keep my eyes closed; something in the water made them burn like hell. Three times I surfaced and went below, getting noticeably weaker after each dive: since there was no way to bounce back up from the slime, I had to keep swimming over it to avoid being sucked under. Just when I’d given up hope, my hand accidentally touched her long hair. The foam had left it slippery as a fish. While I was trying to tie a knot in her blouse as a grip, the blouse ripped.
How we made it to the surface again I’ll never know. All I can remember is the frantic struggle, the huge bubbles I kept wiping from her face, the awful metallic taste of the water, how I kept swearing under my breath, and how I managed to shove her over the edge of the funnel—a thick, rubberlike embankment. When she was safely on the other side, I hung there for a while before getting out, standing up to my neck in the softly hissing foam and trying to get my breath while the howling continued in the background. I had the illusion that it was raining—a warm, fine sort of rain. I could even feel a few drops falling on me. You’re hallucinating, I thought. Rain? In here? Arching back my head I caught sight of the bridge: aluminum sheets were dangling from it like rags, the floor was riddled like a sieve, and the stairs looked like a honeycomb cast in metal, deliberately perforated to filter the air blast and catch any flying debris.
I heaved myself up over the curved embankment in the gentle downpour and laid the girl face down across my knee. She was not as far gone as I thought, because she was starting to vomit. As I rhythmically massaged her back and sides, I could feel her laboring with all her little bones. She was still choking and gasping, but at least she was breathing normally again. I felt like vomiting, too, so I helped it along with my finger. Though it left me feeling better, I still didn’t have the nerve to get up. For the first time I was able to make out where I was, though the poor visibility was made even worse by the blowout of a section of the fluorescent lighting. The howling overhead was giving way to sounds of groaning and gurgling. People are dying up there, I thought—why isn’t anyone coming to their aid? There was a lot of racket nearby, mostly clanking, as if someone was trying to get the stalled escalator in service again. I could hear people crying out—healthy people, uninjured people. I couldn’t figure out what was happening up there. The entire length of the escalator was jammed with people who had piled on top of one another out of panic. There was no way of reaching the dying without first removing those in a state of shock. Shoes and articles of clothing had become wedged between the steps. There was no access from the side: the bridge had turned out to be a trap.
Meanwhile I looked after myself and the girl. She was obviously conscious now and sitting up. I told her not to worry, that everything would be OK, that we’d be out of there in no time. And sure enough, once my eyes got accustomed to the dark it wasn’t long before I spotted an exit: a hatchway that had inadvertently been left open. If it hadn’t been for someone’s negligence, we might have been stranded there like a couple of trapped mice. The hatchway opened up onto a sewerlike tunnel in which another hatchway, or, rather, a convex shield, also stood ajar. A corridor lined with recessed-light cages led us into a squat, bunkerlike basement full of cables, pipes, and plumbing installations.
“These pipes might lead to the rest rooms.”
I turned to the girl, but she was gone.
“Hey… where are you?” I yelled, at the same time scouting the entire length and width of the basement. I caught sight of her as she was running barefoot from one concrete pillar to another. Backache or no backache, I caught up with her in a couple of leaps, grabbed her by the hand, and said in a stem voice:
“What’s the big idea, honey? You and I have to stick together, or we’ll both get lost.”
She tagged along after me in silence. It was starting to get brighter up ahead: a ramp flanked by white-tiled walls. We came out and found ourselves standing on a higher level. One glance at our surroundings and I knew where we were. A short distance away was the very same ramp I’d pushed my luggage cart down an hour ago. Around the corner was a corridor lined with doors. I took some change from my pocket, dropped a coin in the first door, and grabbed the little girl’s hand on the hunch she was planning to run away again. She still looked to be in a state of shock. Small wonder. I dragged her into the bathroom. She said nothing, and when I saw in the light how she was covered all over with blood I stopped talking, too: I knew now what the warm rain was. I must have looked a sight, too. After stripping both of us down, I dumped all our things into the tub, turned on the faucet, and, dressed only in my underwear, I shoved her under the shower. The hot water had a soothing effect on my backache and ran off our bodies in red streams. I rubbed her small back and sides. Not only to wash off the blood, but also to revive her. She submitted willingly, even passively, while I rinsed her hair as best I could.
When we came out of the shower, I asked her casually what her name was.
“No, from Clermont.”
I switched to French, and started fishing our things out of the tub one by one to give them a rinse.
“If you feel up to it,” I suggested, “would you mind rinsing out your dress?” She bent over the tub obediently.
While I was wringing out my pants and shirt, I contemplated our next move. By this time the airport would be shut down and crawling with police. So now what? Go merrily on our way till we got stopped somewhere? The Italian authorities weren’t wise to my little game yet. The only other person in the know was du Bois Fenner, the embassy’s first secretary. My airplane ticket was made out to a different name from the one on the hotel bill, and
“Listen, honey,” I said, “do you know who I am? An American astronaut, and I’m here incognito on a very important mission. Follow me? I’ve got to be in Paris by today at the latest, but if we stick around well be interrogated and that’ll mean a delay. So I have to phone the embassy right away to get the first secretary to come down. He’s going to help us. The airport’s shut down, but there are other planes besides the normal ones, special planes they use for taking out the embassy mail. That’s the kind we’ll be flying on. You and me. Wouldn’t you like that?”
She just stood there and stared. Not yet recovered, I thought. I started getting dressed. Thanks to the laces I still had my shoes, but Annabella had lost her sandals, though nowadays it was nothing to see girls running around barefoot in the street, and if worst came to worst her slip could pass for a blouse. I helped her straighten the pleats on her dress, now almost dry.
“Now we’re going to play father and daughter,” I said. “That way we won’t have any trouble getting to a telephone. OK?”
She nodded, and off we went, hand in hand, to face the world. We ran into the first barricade the moment we stepped off the ramp. Some reporters armed with cameras were being forced back outside by the
“Still there?” I asked when I was finished.
“Man!” he said. Then a second time: “Man!” Nothing else.
Then I came to the most critical part. He was to get Fenner from the embassy and drive down in the car with him right away. They’d have to make it fast; otherwise we’d be caught between two barricades. The airport would be shut down, but Fenner would find a way to get through. The girl would be right here with me. In the left wing of the building, next to luggage claim counter E10, right by the telephone booths. In case we weren’t there, they could find us together with the other passengers in the European section, or else, for sure, in the custody of the police. I got him to recapitulate, then hung up, hoping the girl would acknowledge our success with a smile, or at least a look of relief, but she remained just as remote and tight-lipped as before. Several times I caught her spying on me, as if she were expecting something. An upholstered bench stood between the booths. We sat down. Through the plate-glass walls in the distance, the airport’s approach ramps could be seen. Ambulance after ambulance kept pulling up in front; the continual racket of sirens and alarms was punctuated by women’s spasmodic cries coming from inside the building. To make conversation I inquired about the girl’s parents, about her trip, about who had brought her out to the airport. Her answers were evasive, monosyllabic; not even her Clermont address could I pry out of her. It was starting to get on my nerves. It was 1:40 by my watch. A half hour had gone by since my talk with Randy on the phone. Some guys dressed in overalls and wheeling what looked like an electric welding machine came trotting through the waiting room, but without so much as a glance in our direction. Again the sound of footsteps. A technician wearing earphones came in and started moving down the row of telephone booths, holding the little round plate attached to the mine detector up close to the doors as he went. He stopped in his tracks the moment he saw us. Two policemen closed in from behind till we were surrounded by all three.
“What are you doing here?”
I was telling the truth.
One of the
“Right!” I snapped back. “Sopping wet!”
They pointed their rifles at us.
“Don’t worry,” I whispered to Annabella.
The man in civilian clothes took a pair of handcuffs out of his pocket. Without wasting any time on formalities, he handcuffed me to himself while one of the other policemen looked after Annabella, who kept giving me a funny look. The plain-clothesman had a walkie-talkie strapped over his shoulder; lifting it up close to his mouth, he said something in Italian, but so fast I couldn’t catch a word of it. He seemed pleased with the reply. Then we were escorted through a side exit where three more
Both groups halted, and a short, picturesque scene followed. The spokesman for the rescue team started up a conversation with the plainclothesman, the one I was chained to. The talking was done in a staccato manner; forgetting he was impeded by the handcuffs, my Italian escort kept yanking my hand up every time he made a gesture. I didn’t understand a thing except “
With our arrival an apoplectic-looking giant started chasing people out the door. All but about ten people actually left the room. The hoarse, apoplectic-looking man turned out to be a deputy police chief. Someone offered me an armchair; Annabella was already seated. Despite the fact that it was broad daylight outside, all the lights in the room were on. Cross sections of the Labyrinth on the wall, a model of same on a portable stand next to the desk, glistening wet photos in the process of drying on the desk top. It wasn’t hard to guess what was in the photos. Fenner, who was sitting behind me, gave my arm a slight squeeze: things had gone so well because he’d phoned the police chief directly from the embassy. There were a few people huddled around the desk, some others perched on the window sill, and the deputy police chief paced the floor in silent concentration. A teary-eyed secretary was ushered in from the next room. The interpreter kept shifting his head back and forth between me and the girl, ready to come to our rescue, but somehow my Italian improved significantly. I learned that my jacket, along with Annabella’s purse, had been salvaged by a team of frogmen, thanks to which I was now a chief suspect, because in the meantime they’d already got in touch with the Hilton. I was suspected of being an accomplice of the Japanese. After releasing the grenade, we had planned to make a getaway toward the front, which was why we’d been among the first to board the escalator. But somehow there must have been a mixup in plans: the Japanese was killed in the explosion, while I saved myself by jumping over the bridge. On this point there was a difference of opinion. Some took Annabella to be a terrorist, others claimed I’d taken her as a hostage.
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?”
“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?”
“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.
“Maybe she’ll feel like telling me herself,” I said.
“Never, or perhaps ten years from now. You may know something about boys, but girls are different.”
Another smile, and she was gone. I went to take care of our flight reservations. Only one seat left; I insisted there had to be two. Negotiations by telephone. Finally some VIP was persuaded to give up his seat. To Annabella. Fenner was in a hurry but offered to cancel some important meeting if I agreed to join him for lunch. I declined a second time. After Randy and the others had driven off, I inquired whether the girl and I could get a bite to eat in one of the airport facilities. The bars and cafeterias had all been closed down, but an exception was made in our case: we were now above the law. A man—dark-featured, bushy-haired, an undercover agent—escorted us to a small restaurant located on the other side of the departure area. Annabella’s eyes were red and swollen: she’d been crying. Before long she started getting prissy. While the waiter was taking our order and I was debating what she should have to drink, she commented in a rather brisk, matter-of-fact tone that at home she was always served wine. She had on a blouse that was a couple of sizes too big, with rolled-up sleeves, and a pair of shoes that also looked a size too large. I was just beginning to enjoy the comfort of dry pants and the fact that I didn’t have to stick to a diet of spaghetti any more, when I suddenly remembered her parents. There was a chance the news story might make the afternoon edition. We quickly drafted a telegram message, but when I got up from the table our cicerone sprang out of nowhere and offered to take care of it. When it came time to pay, we were treated as guests of the management. I tipped the waiter with the sort of generosity Annabella might have expected of a real astronaut. In her eyes I had suddenly become a celebrity and a hero—and a confidant, to the point where she even told me how she was dying to change clothes. Our chaperon escorted us to the Alitalia Hotel, where our luggage was already waiting for us in our room.
I had to hurry her along a little. At last, looking very prim and proper, she was ready, and with due decorum we embarked for the airplane. We were picked up by the airport’s acting managing director—the managing director was temporarily indisposed, owing to a slight nervous breakdown—and driven out to the Cessna in one of the little Fiats used by the air controllers. At the foot of the ladder a rather courtly young Italian apologized for intruding and asked whether I cared for any souvenir photos of the recent drama. The photos would be forwarded to any address requested. I thought of the blond woman and thanked him anyway. A round of farewell handshakes. In the flurry of handshakes I could have sworn that I shook the same hand that had held me captive a short while ago.
I enjoyed flying in small planes. After a birdlike takeoff our Cessna veered northward. We landed at Orly shortly after seven. Annabella’s father was there to meet her. Before landing we exchanged addresses, and to this day I still have fond memories of her. I wish I could say the same about her father. He was profusely grateful, even paying me a farewell compliment inspired no doubt by his having watched the television coverage of the “massacre on the steps.” He said I had