Scott Britz-CunninghamScott- BritzCunningham
Code White




7:45 a.m.


Harry Lewton strode quickly down the Pike. Over more than a century, Fletcher Memorial Medical Center had grown out of a jumble of buildings of different sizes and architectural styles. The outpatient clinic of the Department of Endocrinology was in the very center of this jumble, where it jutted from the central section of the quarter-mile-long corridor, or Pike, that ran like Main Street through the long row of buildings. When Harry reached it, the big glass doors of the lobby had been propped open, and three or four patients were already spread out among the leatherette chairs, waiting for ultrasound exams or capsules of radioactive iodine. The ubiquitous drone of a TV set could be heard.


It was pretty quiet. On his morning rounds, he had noticed that this particular clinic was always dead on Mondays. It was no different today.


He went straight to the receiving desk, a long, high barrier of dark wood and sand-colored fabric panels that separated the patients from the suite of exam rooms in the back. He flashed his hospital ID and introduced himself to a young African-American woman in a white dress and flowered smock. "Did you open the clinic this morning, Tia?" he asked, reading her name from her ID badge.


"Yes, sir. Fifteen minutes ago."


"See anything unusual? Anything that doesn't belong here?"


"No." She had that skittish look that people did whenever authority showed up without an invitation.


"Any unfamiliar people?"


"No. Just these." She nodded toward the patients. "Is there a problem?"
Harry quelled an impulse to shrug. Although he didn't want to alarm the girl, he didn't want to appear too casual, either. "It could be nothing. Why don't you go back to what you were doing, while I have a look around?"


Tia nodded warily, then picked up a plastic watering jug and padded off through the door that led to the exam rooms. She looked back over her shoulder twice before she disappeared.


Harry scanned the room. Okay, what have we got here? There was a woman in her forties, short black hair — dye job — talking on a cell phone. She hadn't looked at him since he came in, which meant she had nothing to hide. Two grey-haired gals sat together on the other side, one watching TV, the other just sort of staring at the wall. No, make that snoozing. There was one old geezer looking at a magazine. The way his hand shook Harry figured he'd have blown himself up directly if he had ever taken to building a bomb. That was it. No master criminals. Alright, what else? Objects: women's purses, all within arm's reach. Old guy had a tripod cane. No backpacks anywhere. No parcels. Harry could see easily under all those spindly-legged chairs. They were clean. Ditto for those little glass tables with the magazines on them. There weren't any tell-tale carpet impressions to suggest that anything had been moved . . .


Harry heard a shuffling noise behind him, and jerked his head around a trifle quicker than was normal for him. It was just Tia coming back to water the office plants. Don't let's get jumpy, Pilgrim. Harry let her pass. As she did, his eye was drawn to the area behind the receiving desk itself. He saw a half-dozen computers with their cables tangled like jungle vines on the floor, some low-backed chairs on casters, and a tabouret or rolling file with a sliding door with a lock on it. That looked like a possibility. The file had been pulled out, putting it in the way of the receptionist's chair. It didn't usually sit there.


Harry was about to approach the tabouret for a closer look, when, from the far window, Tia called out to him. "This what you're lookin' for?"


She was standing beside a shoulder-high potted Sansevieria, or mother-in-law's tongue. As Harry stepped closer to her, he could see a plain brown grocery bag tucked between the planter and the wall.


"Don't touch it!"


His voice had come out a bit sharp, and the girl backed off, instinctively sidling toward the cover of the receiving desk.


Harry approached the bag, angling his head to check out every side of it as he drew nearer. Just a bag. No trip wires. No pressure plate hidden under the carpet. When he had reached the window, he leaned forward on his toes, and very slowly pushed the blade-like leaves of the plant toward himself, so he could look straight down at the bag. The top had not been crimped shut, and he could see inside. By the light of a pocket flashlight, he glimpsed some coils of red and blue wires, and underneath these, a milky-colored block of something like modeling clay.


"Jesus Christ," he said, lurching back, as though he had just stepped on a rattlesnake.


"Is it something bad?" asked Tia. Two of the patients had also turned to look in his direction.


Harry fought to keep his cool. If you panic, they'll panic. He was no stranger to explosives — home-made acetone-peroxide booby-traps had been a fact of life during his days raiding backwoods drug labs in East Texas. Once, at a lecture, he had even held in his hand a few ounces of C-4 — the high-powered military compound. An instructor had passed it around after slamming it against a counter-top to show how rough you could get with it and still not set it off without a detonator or an electrical spark. He remembered the stuff well — soft like clay and milky-white, like a lump of death in his sweaty little palm. A finger-nail sized piece of it could blow a man so high he wouldn't have two teeth left together to identify him from dental records. And it looked exactly like what he'd glimpsed inside the bag, except that what he had now was the size of a brick — enough to vaporize the Pike for a hundred feet on either side of him.


Sweet Jesus in Heaven! What kind of sick fuck would leave this here?
Harry had already made one mistake jumping back from the bag. If there had been a motion sensor in it, he would already be part of the ozone layer. He had to get a grip on himself. Okay, what's the first thing you need to do? Edging backward, much more carefully now, he turned and looked around the room. Get these people out of here — without setting off a stampede, if you still know how to do that.


He turned to Tia. "Who's in charge of this clinic?"


"Dr. Saulter."


"Get me Dr. Saulter STAT. If there are any patients or staff in that suite of rooms back there, they need to be moved elsewhere as of now. Use the back stairway. Don't bring them out through here."


He remembered that detonators were often triggered by cell phones, and that any kind of stray electronic emissions — from pagers, phones, microwaves or scanners — could inadvertently set them off. He turned to the black-haired woman. "Ma'am, I need you to get that cell phone out of here. Don't turn it off. Don't touch any button on it. Just get up and go out and down the corridor. Now!"


Harry stared at the woman imperiously as she got up and reached for her purse. Behind him, he heard the voice of another woman, the one watching TV. "Don't talk to her that way. She's not doing anything."


"I need you to leave this waiting room as well, ma'am. All of you need to leave at once. Gather up your things and go to the information desk in the main lobby. Dr. Saulter will have someone call you there."


Wide-eyed, the woman shook her head. "But I have an appointment. I have a lump on my thyroid."


"I'm sorry. You'll be taken care of at another location. But you must leave now."


Harry tried to spur the patients on with his gaze, as they sluggishly hauled themselves out of their chairs and, with no little murmuring, shuffled out into the hall. The old man, in particular, couldn't have moved more slowly if he had tried.


An angry voice drew Harry's attention toward the exam suite, as a man in a white coat and flopping tie came charging out, Tia shyly following at his heels. "What the hell's going on?"he demanded.


Harry brushed aside the challenge and turned to Tia first. "Ma'am, I need you to lock this lobby door from the outside and keep an eye on it until someone can come and rope it off." Only then, after Tia had set an example by swiftly responding to his authority, did he address the Man in White. "Doctor Saulter, we have a suspicious object in this lobby. You and I need to make a sweep of whatever rooms you have back there. We need to clear that section of all personnel. Immediately!"


His nostrils flaring with indignation, Dr. Saulter turned with a rude jerk and stalked back toward the exam suite with Harry in tow. As they passed through the door, Harry stopped at a wall phone and waved Dr. Saulter on. His heart was pounding. He was trying to solve several problems at once. There were two floors above this one, one floor and two basement levels below. The whole section had to be evacuated. But how far? What was the bomb's kill radius? What was its purpose? Don't let your mind race like this, he warned himself. You have a protocol to deal with these situations. What does it say to do first? He forced himself to remember the bundle of numbers that had to be called. Via land line. No pagers, no cell phones, obviously. Top of the list was 9-1-1 — the Chicago Police Department Bomb Squad.


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