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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Action/Adventure · #2286882
The FBI director believes she has a plan for every threat. Can an old man prove her wrong?
Dead Man Switch
By Damon Nomad

Chester was up early, on a cold morning in early March. Age was starting to slow him down, he was nearly sixty-five. He looked out the window of the kitchen of the old farmhouse not far from the Gettysburg battlefield in southern Pennsylvania. The sun was not up yet. He would head down to the basement in a bit. He made his coffee the old-fashioned way on the stovetop. He had been living on the family farm for nearly fifteen years now. Moved here not long after losing his job. His parents had been dead for years, the farm was abandoned for a few years before he moved in. He was an only child and it had not been a working farm for a long time. He sat down at the table with a cup of coffee as the first rays of sunlight crept above the horizon. The unfinished work from his job haunted him, he had a message they would not be able to ignore. Chester Chambers was a patient man. He rubbed the stubble on his chin. He needed to shave, and clean up a bit before he headed into the city to deliver his message.

Chester headed down the stairs to the workshop in the basement. The large worktables were covered with tools and all sorts of gadgets and components. The project he was finishing was based on his design, which was supposed to be a high point of his career. It was canceled before he could build it. His bosses said the politicians would never approve the test Chester proposed. Days after it was canceled, he was caught trying to leave the facility with project papers he had downloaded on a USB. He was fired for the theft and within days started work on this project and the message. It took nearly a decade to collect a key ingredient. He worked a series of jobs with different aliases as a technician at universities. Careful about how much he stole from each place. Doctoring inventory records and moving on when he was sure his theft had gone undetected. He turned on the space heaters on the floor and the high-intensity overhead lights and got to work.


Janice Lockhart tapped her fingers on her attache case laying on the table. She looked across the table at Glenn Kim. "This is crap. Why are we here to talk about this again?" She struggled to keep her voice down.

Kim gestured for the younger woman to calm down. "I am on your side JL. When the boss says we need to explain, that's what we do." He nodded his head to make the point. "Okay?" He stared at Janice waiting for a response. She was the first woman director of the FBI, an African American woman who had earned her stripes. A West Point graduate top of her class, with an advanced degree in engineering. Then law school at night after eight years of military service. She shot up through the ranks in the national security division of the bureau with numerous commendations. But Janice did not have a reputation for patience and she did not tolerate those she considered fools.

Janice sighed with a shrug. "Fine." She respected and trusted Glenn Kim, a former army ranger and director of the Secret Service. He must be just shy of sixty, she guessed he was nearly ten years older than her. A fourth-generation American, great-grandparents from both sides of his family had immigrated from Korea. She glanced at her watch again, jerk Grant was fifteen minutes late. "By the way, Daryl Grant isn't my boss." Grant had helped bankroll the president's campaign. He inherited his wealth and had been a playboy type when he was younger. She thought he got the chief of staff job as a payoff for the donations, a bad decision by the president. She respected and admired the president, but not the choice of Grant. She knew Grant had savvy political instincts but she thought he did not have the intellect or administrative skills for the job. She thought Daryl Grant was too much of a fool to be COS for the president.

Kim shook his head slowly with a sigh. "He speaks for the President."

Moments later Daryl Grant came into the Roosevelt Room. Janice did not like his expensive tailored suit and manicured appearance. He reeked of spoiled rich privilege to her. He flashed his mouth full of perfect white teeth with a big smile. "Janice and Glenn thanks for hopping over to run through this again." He sat down and pulled out his mobile phone. "Cheryl, could you bring me a latte, nonfat, with cinnamon." He held out a hand. "Anything for either of you?"

Glenn shook his head gesturing to his cup. "Coffee is fine."

Janice started to make a sarcastic comment about the latte with cinnamon, she bit her tongue. "I'm good."

Grant nodded that he was ready once he had his latte. "So, let's talk about the road closures for the state of the union." He took a sip of latte as he fixed his stare on Janice.

She shrugged, playing dumb. "Anything more specific?"

His eyes narrowed with a smirk. "Why so soon and so many?"

She tried to brush him off with generalities. "The countermeasures for the event have considered a range of threats. Chemical, biological, radiological, or airborne threats including drones. Every conceivable threat has been addressed, high tech like cyber or low tech like hidden guns and knives in the Capitol."

"I asked a specific question about the roadblocks."

Janice reached into her attache and pulled out a thick folder. She spread pages of charts and plots across the table. The results of computer simulations of vehicle-based bomb threats that started with pipe bombs, working up to car bombs and vans with the largest threat coming from tractor-trailers. There were colored circles of yellow, orange, and red on the plots. Indicative of different levels of danger from the pressures generated from bombs detonated at different points along the roads near the US capitol. She began her explanation ignoring his frustration. She knew he wasn't interested in the underlying science or security protocols. "The roadblocks are determined from the standoff curves for a vehicle bomb, as you can see . . ."

He slammed a fist on the table interrupting her. "I don't want to see these curves again woman." He winced, he had let her get to him. He gestured for calm. "Sorry about that director Lockhart. Please show me the bottom line results. The locations of the roadblocks."

She glared at him for a moment, but she let it pass. She stacked the papers into a pile and pushed them aside. She reached into her attachand pulled out a large folded sheet. She unfolded the composite diagram, it was marked SECRET with a red border. It showed the twenty roads radiating out from the Capitol building. A black star with a red border at each location of a roadblock. In small text next to each star were exact GPS coordinates for the barrier. She tapped on a star. "These are the twenty locations for the barriers." She gestured to the stand-off plots and charts she had pushed to the side. "The locations correspond to a stand-off distance of approximately half a mile for an SUV/van with one thousand pounds of RDX. The threat from larger trucks is dealt with by other means through coordination with DC metro police, FBI, and the secret service. The roadblocks go in place three days before the state of the union to ensure sufficient clear-out time to remove any vehicle without capitol clearance from inside the stand-off distance." She shrugged, "Pretty straightforward."

Grant ran a finger along the map, tapping on two stars on the north side and six on the east side, "The senate office buildings here on the north and the house office buildings on the east, Cannon, Longworth, and Rayburn. That's three days where they have no traffic other than vehicles of congressional staffers, members of Congress, and senior executive branch officials. There are a lot of important constituents that visit those buildings, coming in vans and limousines from the airports. High-profile people, who expect VIP treatment. They expect to be heard especially on the days leading up to the SOU. This is prime time for the big money people."

Grant leaned back hands folded on the table. His stare settled back on Janice. "Taking care of these people is important to the president. Keeping them onboard for the mid-terms and his re-election."

Janice returned the stare, showing no emotion. "What do you suggest?"

Grant tapped a finger lightly on the map. "Don't put those eight roadblocks in place until four hours before the SOU. The rest can be up for the full three days."

Her eyes burned with frustration as she fought the urge to raise her voice. "No sir, three days for all the barriers. That is what the national security protocol requires."

He turned his attention to Glenn. "Can you talk some sense into director Lockhart?"

Glenn shook his head. "The director is correct that is what the protocol requires for vehicle-based bomb threats during the SOU. It's been vetted through the intelligence community and the department of homeland security. Director Lockhart is the event commander responsible for executing the protocol. If you want to alter it, you need to go to the National Security Council for a waiver."

Grant stood up straightening his tie and buttoning his jacket. "You two are so sure of your charts and protocols. You think I don't understand. I understand politics and I understand sometimes you get it wrong." He headed for the door and turned back around. "No room for compromise on a few barriers." He frowned. "Are you so sure those barriers are a guarantee of safety? Is there a threat you might have missed, one that bypasses those roadblocks? Not saying that is what I hope for, but you both should be more flexible." Grant stalked away.

Glenn Kim got up from his seat after Grant was gone. "You know he is right. We could always be missing something."

Janice slid her papers back into her attach "Maybe. All we can do is go with what we know and the intelligence. Execute the plan we have and keep our eyes and ears open. He didn't offer a single reason to justify relaxing the protocol. Then makes a vague threat that we might be missing something."


Chester was not comfortable driving into Washington DC, it was the first time in ten years. He had found the perfect spot, a seedy motel where he could pay cash just a few blocks north of Interstate 395, about a twenty-minute walk to the National Mall. He would be at the motel in another twenty minutes, it was only a few minutes after eight in the morning. He had left early hoping to miss the peak traffic.

The clerk peered through the plexiglass barrier at Chester. "You understand, you are paying for an extra day by checking in now. You have to pay for last night."

Chester nodded his understanding. "Yeah, ninety dollars right." He slid the nine ten dollar bills and the signed register book through the slot in the plexiglass."

The clerk picked up the money, he mostly got hourly payments, not two days upfront. He looked at the name the old man had scribbled in the register, Chester Chambers. He slid a key through the slot. "Room 108 is good, right near a street light."

A few minutes after six in the evening, Chester came out of the room pulling the big roller bag behind him. He stopped at the burger joint on the corner and had a cheeseburger and fries, with a root beer. He finished dinner and strolled along the sidewalk headed north. He came out on the National Mall not too far from the air and space museum. He glanced at his watch, ten minutes after seven and it was starting to get dark. The Washington monument was about a mile away towards his left. It would make for a nice walk, he buttoned up his coat. He felt at peace and tuned in to the surroundings, the chatter of people, the sounds of traffic, and the cool early spring air. He would circle the Washington monument then head back and sit at the capitol reflecting pool, right around eight-fifteen. Eight thirty was when he would deliver his message.


Janice Lockhart was in the command center in the basement of FBI HQ almost equidistant between the Capitol Building and the White House. The two great buildings of government were only about a mile and a half from each other. She was glad to have Glenn Kim in the command center as the deputy security commander for the SOU. Their desks were right next to each other on an elevated platform at the back of the room. They faced the front wall full of large monitors and a room full of busy people at workstations. Janice glanced at the large digital clock over the monitors as she took another gulp of coffee, 20:15:30. A status update in her earphone reported that the president was just coming into the capitol building. His speech was scheduled to start at 20:30:00. She turned to Glenn, his call sign tonight was PAPA 2 and she was PAPA 1. "Game time PAPA 2, anything coming from Secret Service?"

He smirked looking at Janice. "It's always game time for us PAPA 1. Nothing of concern on SS feeds."

Moments later, they both heard a voice through their earpieces from the CIA liaison in the room. "Command, this is SPOOK1. We have a hit on facial recognition, something you should hear. Bringing him up on monitors eight and nine"

Janice and Glenn looked at a picture of an old man sitting at the reflecting pool and an image of his driver's license both on monitor eight. Monitor nine had a picture of a much younger version of Chester Chambers from a federal ID labeled LANL. The CIA liaison explained, "The hit was against a database for national security breaches. He was fired from Los Alamos National Laboratory fifteen years ago for downloading TOP SECRET Q clearance documents onto a USB and trying to remove it from the facility."

Janice interrupted, "Why is he a threat sitting at the reflecting pool? Why are you telling us about this?" She knew this analyst, a very experienced counter-terrorism expert. She glanced his way with a shrug.

He was facing the back of the room looking at Janice and Glenn. "I dug a little bit. He was a nuclear weapons designer with a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering. The classified files he was taking were for a special access program he managed, SUITCASE. He was designing a portable suitcase nuclear weapon, that uses highly enriched uranium. The program was canceled after the design phase. He dropped off the radar after he was arrested. He was terminated and his security clearance was revoked but not criminally charged. You see what he has beside him, a big suitcase on rollers."

Janice tapped a key on the laptop so that all of the people in the command center were on the command line. "This is PAPA 1. Everyone listen up. The man on monitors eight and nine, currently sitting at the reflecting pool is a former nuclear weapons designer." The room went silent as everyone stared at the monitors. "Anyone here in the room know anything about portable nukes? Are they real and could he have one in that big roller bag?"

The DIA liaison in the workstation next to SPOOK 1 answered as he turned to look at Janice. "SPOOK 2. Yes mam, they are most certainly real. A few were built decades ago but decommissioned during the cold war. What is this guy's background?"

His colleague from the CIA answered. "He was the project manager for SUITCASE. An advanced and simple design using HEU. Intended to demonstrate a weapon that could be assembled by a single terrorist with a basic background in ordnance. He has been off the grid for fifteen years."

The DIA analyst paused for a moment. "He has had fifteen years to slowly accumulate HEU. It's possible he could have enough, divert small amounts from different research laboratories over time. Someone with his background could process the metal into a core. A sphere about the size of a grapefruit is all he would need. A basic gun design, a cylinder slug of HEU at one end of the suitcase, at one end of a kind of rifle barrel. At the other end of the barrel is a sphere of HEU with a precisely machined cavity for the slug. A firing mechanism shoots the slug into the opening. Inside the hole is a polonium beryllium neutron source, with metal foil separating the two elements. The slug slams into the cavity and crushes the foil. The polonium and beryllium mix with a burst of neutrons. Milliseconds later, Pop. Probably about ten kilotons."

Glenn Kim's mouth fell open. "Ten kilotons from that roller bag. Ten thousand tons of TNT from something the size of a grapefruit."

The DIA analyst shrugged with a frown. "Yes sir. A flash of brilliant light and gamma radiation in microseconds followed by a fiery blast wave equivalent to ten thousand tons of dynamite."

Janice knew the most basic science of nuclear weapons, including their devastating effects. She did not know that suitcase nukes were real. "Projection of damage for ten KT, fatality perimeter from where this man is sitting."

The DIA analyst typed for a few moments on his computer. "Plotted on monitor seven. Anything within a half mile will be destroyed. Buildings will be rubble, fatality rate more than ninety-five percent." Everyone in the room could see the circle, it took in the capitol, the senate offices, the house offices, and the supreme court. The edge of the circle was about a quarter mile from the FBI HQ.

Janice looked at Glenn, he was a step ahead. Speaking to the secret service detail leader in SS HQ via his headset. "FOX 1 this is PAPA 2. Sniper report on an elderly man, wearing a brown coat and blue toboggan sitting beside the reflecting pool of the Capitol. Has a large suitcase with him."

"Roger that PAPA 2." Less than a minute later, "FOX 8 has eyes on the target. FOX 9 has eyes on the target. They are hot with weapons. Be advised he has a pushbutton switch in his right hand with wires running into the bag. Looks like he is holding it closed. You roger that PAPA 2."

"Copy that Fox 1, hold." Glenn stared at Janice with a look of dread. "A dead man's switch."

They both looked up at the largest monitor on the wall. It showed the president walking down the aisle of the chamber shaking hands, it was eight twenty-five. Janice's mind raced as she searched for a solution to this unanticipated threat. If the old man let go of that switch and it was a nuclear weapon, the president, almost every member of congress, most of the cabinet, and most of the supreme court would be killed nearly instantly. She knew the team she was with at FBI HQ might survive, certainly no consolation. If the snipers shot him and he let go of the switch, the same thing. There were scenarios gamed out for bombers with dead-man switches. One option was a gunshot to the base of the back of the skull where the cerebellum connects to the spinal cord. If the shot struck just right, the hand might keep the switch pressed even though the bomber was dead. Someone would quickly move in to take control of the switch. It was a high-risk option, intended for a limited set of circumstances. None of the scenarios contemplated a backpack nuke.

Janice knew this was a desperate circumstance that required quick action, she gestured to Glenn. "Base of the back of the skull single shot, now! The nearest law enforcement officer needs to secure that switch when he goes down." The words from Daryl Grant were ringing in her ears, about missing a new threat that bypassed the roadblocks. Nuclear weapons in vehicles were a threat for which they had countermeasures, those bombs were about the size of a refrigerator. There were specially designed detectors at key intersections close to the capitol and other key buildings. But there was nothing to stop a nuke wheeled in a suitcase along the national mall.

Before Glenn gave the command another voice interrupted. "PAPA 1 this is METRO, I have a patrol officer fifty yards away. I know the officer, she is top-notch. You want to see if she can talk him down?"

Janice looked in the corner of the room it was a DC Metro police commander. She glanced at Glenn, he gave a nod. She waved to the police commander. "Make sure she understands the tactical difficulty and threat, she needs to move fast. Patch us in so we can hear."


Anna Belle was on foot patrol with three other police officers. She was the sergeant in command of the small detail around the outer Capitol grounds tonight. It was an honor to be selected for this detail. She recognized the commander's voice on her radio. "Zebra 5 this is METRO 1, go to channel 76." She knew that something was up. He was with the big dogs at FBI HQ and he wanted her on the encrypted channel. She flipped her radio channel. "Zebra 5 here."

"Anna Belle, you need to quickly locate an old man. Brown coat, blue toboggan hat, and a large roller case sitting at the reflection pool."

She scanned the area around the reflecting pond wondering why the commander had used her name. She quickly spotted him, it was a cold evening he was the only one sitting in the area. "Roger that, I got him."

"There is a portable nuclear bomb in that bag. We need you to talk him down."

Anna Belle thought for a moment, nuclear bombs were big things. He must be pulling her leg. Some kind of joke, someone else listening in to see if she would bite. "You gaslighting me? Shouldn't be playing around on comms tonight, even on the encrypted channel."

"This is not a joke. Do you see something in his right hand? We think he has a dead man's switch. You are the best chance we have of stopping him."

She kept moving slowly in his direction. The man was turned around looking back over his shoulder toward the capitol. She saw the switch and the wires. "Holy mother of God. Yeah okay. Family, what family does he have?" She picked up her pace just a bit, but not enough to make noise.

SPOOK 1 answered. "I'm from the CIA mam. No living family. Never married, no children."

Anna Belle kept walking slowly, "What's his name and his mother's name."

SPOOK 1 scanned through the background file for Chester Chambers. "Dorothy was his mother's name. His name is Chester."

"Roger that, I am going off the radio. You can watch and hear us through my patrol camera feed." There was a small camera and microphone mounted to the epaulette of her coat. She turned the volume all the way down on her patrol radio to avoid any chatter from spooking the man. She could still hear the feed through her earpiece. She knew if it was nuclear, it did not matter if she was standing here or sitting next to the man. She wanted to look him right in the eyes.

She sat down on the bench a few feet away on his left-hand side. "Bit chilly to be sitting here tonight. You mind me taking a break here?"

Chester spun around shocked to see the dark-skinned woman, maybe forty. His mind had drifted to his dinner and the root beer, his favorite childhood drink. A last supper of sorts. The woman just three feet away was in uniform, a DC police officer. He lowered his right hand to keep the switch hidden from her view. "I like these crisp spring evenings. How are you doing tonight officer?" He plastered on a smile.

She got a good look at him. "Can't complain, this duty tonight is considered quite an honor. Patrol the Capitol area while the president and congress meet. My daughter is proud of me, I heard her telling some of her classmates." She was not lying.

She was quiet for a moment. She jerked a thumb over her shoulder back to the capitol. "Pretty amazing what they are doing back there when you think about it. The president gathers with congress and gives a report card on his job. They put it on television for all of us to see. It ain't perfect, but it's something."

Chester glanced at his watch. It was 8:30, he had not anticipated someone sitting with him. He did not want this woman to die. A mother and police officer. He had pictured it in his mind thousands of times, the rubble of the capitol when his message was delivered. But he had avoided thinking of the dead, even the politicians in the building. He had not thought about the innocent people who would perish.

Anna Belle could see it in his eyes, he was having second thoughts. Probably about the loss of life with her sitting across from him. "Trying to decide whether you should do it Chester? Let loose that horrible force you got there in your bag." She stayed calm, looking him in the eyes. Her hands folded in her lap.

"You know who I am and what I have?"

"Just your name. They told me it's a portable nuke. Don't know anything about them, I guess it would destroy most everything in sight including the Capitol with our president and congress inside. That what you had in mind, kill our nation's leaders?"

He sighed with a frown. "Yes. I want to destroy that building and punish the politicians, they ignored the threat I warned about fifteen years ago. They need to get the message."

"What did they ignore and what message are you trying to send?"

"I wanted to show that a terrorist working alone could build and deliver a portable nuclear device with ten to twenty kiloton yield. The would only need some basic munitions training and the HEU. I designed it and wanted to build one myself in the lab to show them it would work. I proposed an underground test for US and foreign leaders. My boss said the politicians would never approve a test. He said it was not a credible real-world threat." His lip quivered and his voice became shaky. "I will show them, it's not a threat to be ignored. The only message they will pay attention to is devastation."

Anna Belle heard a voice through the earpiece. "This is the FBI director, keep your distance. If you think it's a lost cause use the word snowball. The snipers will take a headshot. You grab the switch as he goes down."

Anna Belle thought he was on the edge, she weighed her options. "I think you have shown them the threat is real. You built it and you got it here. With that dead man's switch, there is no way to stop you."

She paused with a shrug and looked him in the eyes. "I wish that someone you trust and love was here instead of me. What do you think your mother Dorothy would tell you if she were here?" Anna Belle knew it was a gamble, she did not know what Chester thought of his mother. She was going on instinct.

Chester never considered what his mother might think of his message. She was a quiet woman with a gentle soul. As he felt a cold breeze across his cheeks, a childhood memory of her on a cold night came to him. Someone had raided their chicken coop stealing a week's worth of eggs. His father had angrily pointed a finger at one of their neighbors, who had been caught stealing from another farm. Chester asked his mother what she thought they should do as she tucked him into bed. He could still remember her answer. We should follow the words of the apostle Peter. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult.

Chester closed his eyes for a moment, he was doing even worse. He was insulted by the decision to ignore his threat and he was repaying it with an act of evil. He opened his eyes looking at the policewoman a few feet away. "I am going to open the bag and turn off the power switch and deactivate it. Tell them not to shoot."

Anna Belle turned her radio volume back up and keyed the transmit button. "METRO 1 did you copy that? Let him open it up and render it safe."

Janice looked at Glenn with a nod. "Stand down the snipers."

Glenn gave the order. "FOX 8 and FOX 9 take the paint off the target."

The metro commander relayed the message to Anna Belle on the radio so the bomber could hear. "Zebra 5, the snipers are standing down."

She nodded to Chester with a hint of a smile. "Please make it safe. By the way, my name is Anna Belle."

Chester held up his right hand. She moved closer and the two of them held the large square button down. "I am going to let go." He slowly pulled his hand away. He opened the roller bag, flipped a toggle switch, and disconnected the power leads from a large battery. He opened a compartment and removed the uranium plug from the firing mechanism. Then placed it into a storage slot. "It's safe. You are safe Anna Belle." He sighed staring at the ground. "I am sorry I put you and others in danger. But I hope they believe me now."

Janice put her microphone on mute as FBI agents moved in to arrest Chester Chambers. She looked at Glenn Kim. "Daryl Grant was right, there was a threat we missed." She shook her head thinking of Chester Chambers. "That was horribly dangerous what Chambers did. But the prosecutors need to know that he could have delivered his message with death and destruction."

Glenn put his microphone on mute. "I agree and I'm glad he gave us the chance to listen. Let's get back to work JL."

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