Today's Reading

A couple of surveillance cameras from the park had provided some context. But even when they slowed down the footage, all they had recorded was the skylight and front doors blowing out. Right now all anyone could agree on was that the Guggenheim might as well have been the inside of a volcano.

While the hazmat and explosives crew scoured the site, the bureau did what it did best and went after information. The digital teams were immersed in all manner of social media necromancy, combing message boards, profiles, websites, and accounts. The bureau proper had reached out to the Department of Justice, who were tag teaming with the Department of Homeland Security in search of any group or individuals whose temperament fit the psychological, political, or religious parameters of what had just happened. Email was being sifted; texts and phone calls retrieved from data vaults; passenger arrival lists and recently purchased plane tickets scoured. All in the name of Big Data, which, Kehoe understood, already had these people on a hook.

The Horizon Dynamics gala had 594 registered attendees, a combination of the rich investor variety and the wealthy ecofriendly Don't-eat-tuna-if-it-comes-in-cans crowd. Which meant that a good percentage of Park Avenue's wealth had just been redistributed through inheritance. There would be teary church services and flowery obituaries and new Bentleys up and down the island.

They had located 32 of the attendees who had left early. Which left 562 souls still unaccounted for. Another 60 victims had worked for the catering company, along with 42 museum employees. Add to that the people by the entrance outside who had been cooked by the burst of flames, along with the pedestrians who had been moseying down the sidewalk and ended up eating the plate glass doors, and the body count was at 702.

The wealthy hung out with the wealthy, and the phone calls had already started. Kehoe had fielded conversations with the mayor, the governor, and the attorney general, all topped off by a very terse exchange with the vice president. The cameras were rolling and the investigation would be a very public display of concern. A bus full of kids on the way to xylophone camp goes in the river, and people light candles and hold vigils; a bunch of rich white people get blown up, and the entire continent mobilizes. This one would show good old-fashioned American priorities at their finest, which, when filtered through the prism of irreducible complexity down to the fewest moving parts, translated to worship the money.

Kehoe swallowed the last of his tea and threw the cup into the wastebasket just as Calvin-Wade Curtis, the head of the forensic explosives unit, came in. Curtis had spent three tours with a bomb disposal squad in Afghanistan, where he had become fascinated by the mechanics of detonation. This experience, bolstered by a degree in molecular chemistry, brought him to Kehoe's attention.

Curtis was a small man who looked twenty years younger than he was, mostly owing to his size and bushy blond hair. His time out in the world had done nothing to soften the country boy twang that made him sound like he was always trying to sell you something. But he was smart. Didn't talk too much. And knew more about explosives than anyone Kehoe had ever met. He was also a consummate blues guitarist—a skill he pulled out from under the bed every Thursday night at a bar down on Houston Street. His only bad habit was a nervous smile that he pulled out at the most inappropriate times.
Like now.

Curtis was back in office clothes, but still had a red line around his forehead and nose where the hazmat suit and respirator had suction-cupped to his skin while he performed chemical archaeology amid the charred Sheetrock and human remains inside. Curtis slammed the door, poured himself a coffee from the onboard machine, and dropped into the only empty Aeron in the space.

Curtis took a deep breath and nodded at Kehoe. "Chawla sent me over to talk to you." Samir Chawla was the special agent that Kehoe had put in charge of the investigation proper. "None of the filters, swabs, cultures, badges, or spectrometers picked up anything radioactive, chemical, or biological. There are a few exotics that will take a little more time to test for, but I think we're good." He took a sip of coffee, then reached into his shirt pocket to take out an evidence bag. He held it out. "But I did find this." His nervous smile was tired, but still out of place.

Kehoe held the envelope up to the light. All he saw was what looked like a tiny amount of cigarette ash.

Curtis ran a hand through his hair, then wiped it on his pants. "I sent samples off to the lab, where we'll run it through a mass spectrometer, but under the field scope it looks like a metastable intermolecular composite. I think it was disguised as confetti."

When Kehoe shifted focus from the little envelope to Curtis, the explosives expert continued, "An MIC is a nanothermite—a nanofuel."

"Which means?"

"Which means that this wasn't a detonation; it was a thermobaric, or an aerosol, explosion." Curtis ran a hand through his hair again. "The roof, windows, and front doors didn't blow out—they were pushed out by the pressure. That's what that initial flash was in the surveillance footage. The people inside had their eardrums, eyeballs, and lungs crushed by a shock wave that sucked all the air out of the room, then used that air to create a pressurized firestorm. Since the airborne fuel deflagrated but didn't detonate in a traditional sense, most of the vics inhaled burning fuel. And since the initial shock wave would have caused very little damage to brain tissue because it's protected by relatively thick bone, it's very probable that many of the victims stayed alive for several seconds—or even minutes—after they were cooked." His smile eased off a little with that last bit. "Not a nice way to go."

Kehoe considered it a point of pride that he never allowed himself to show emotion at work and even though he was tired, he didn't break character when he said, "Good work."


This excerpt ends on page 15 of the hardcover edition.

Monday, November 30th, we begin the book Reputation by Sara Shepard.
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