The unthinkable was about to happen, and no one knew. Divine Fury. Episode 1

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Episode 1

Montana, 2004

THE RAGGED, HIGH-PITCHED strains of the hymn drifted through the hardwood floor of the main church sanctuary above.

“On-ward Christ-ian sol-diers, march-ing as to war…”

More than a dozen kids. All fourth graders or younger.  He had watched them march in the dusk through the spring snow and up the stairs of the church.  They wore snow boots, puffy pint-sized parkas and ski caps in reds, blues and pinks with tassels hanging from the earflaps and bouncing off their shoulders.

Then – silence.  The muffled sound of the choir leader saying something unintelligible.  Her strong soprano started the next song followed fitfully by the children as they jumped in at different spots in the first stanzas.

“Mine eyes have seen the Glo-ry of the Com-ing of the Lord…”

Walberg focused on the hardware in front of him illuminated by the flashlight lying on the portable table.  Five more tables lay stacked against the wall, resting on the faded green linoleum covering the basement floor.  Folding chairs were piled nearby.  They awaited the next Sunday’s pancake breakfast when they would be packed with God-fearing members of Christ Episcopal Church, the largest house of worship in the small town of Bliss, Montana.

It was cold in the basement and he could see wisps of his breath in the limited light of the flashlight.  But it was still much warmer than outside and his fingers worked the pliers and wire cutters easily.

He had chosen an alkaline six-volt battery as the power source because he knew it would set off the detonators without any problem even in cold or wet conditions.  The wire was 18-gauge, solid copper sheathed in black PVC.  Strong enough to tolerate jostling but easy to work using either the pliers or his fingers.  The key triggering mechanism was cannibalized from a device that worked similar to a garage door opener but with a longer range of operation.  He’d  picked it up in Salt Lake City the weekend before.

He stripped the insulation off the end of the wire, exposing an inch which he hooked around the second terminal of the battery using the pliers.  He screwed the plastic cap down until it clamped hard on the copper wire.  He was finished.

He carefully put the tools back in his jacket pocket, picked up the flashlight and inspected the table surface and the surrounding floor to make sure he’d forgotten nothing.  Then, he moved to the outside door.  It was sturdy metal with an automatic closing mechanism.  He searched in the snow outside the door, spotted a small twig and jammed it against the frame so the door looked closed from a distance but remained unlatched.

Walberg only donned a ski cap when the thermometer dipped into the single digits.  Tonight, he wore his usual dark brown cowboy hat.  He’d done this since high school to distinguish himself from newcomers to the area.  Walberg had been born and raised within 50 miles of Bliss and was happy if everyone knew it.  Aside from three years in the U.S. Army, this had been his home his entire life.  With the hat and his old, suede-leather jacket, he looked like a thin, down-on-his-luck version of the Marlboro Man

The parking lot had been plowed earlier in the day, but the few inches of fresh snow completely muffled his footsteps.  In the quiet, he could hear the children clearly now, nearing the end of their song.  He moved toward the far end of the lot and the singing grew faint until he could barely hear it when he reached his 1998 black Chevy Blazer.

He opened the driver’s door, reached into the left cup holder in the center console and found the remote switch that he’d left there.  It fit easily into the palm of his hand. Still standing outside the Blazer, he closed the car door and found the button on the remote.  He stared at the church until he found the center basement window that was just a few inches above ground level.  He estimated the distance at 120 yards.

Suddenly, he noticed that the singing had stopped.  He heard the children’s voices again.  But they weren’t joining together in a Church hymn.  The sound was altogether different.  He recognized it as the excited chatter of young kids at the end of something.  The end of class.  The end of school.  In this case, the end of choir practice.

“Dammit,”  Walberg muttered.  He had expected the practice to last at least another 20 minutes.  As he watched the church, he saw the main doors thrown open on the far right side of the building and the kids scamper down the stairs – a few in the front, then the main surge, and finally the stragglers who moved slowly and carefully down the steps.

Two of the children ran across the parking lot, heading directly toward him.  In the front was a girl, tall for her age with long blond hair bouncing outside of her baby blue ski cap.  Behind her ran a younger boy with his jacket hanging open.

They slowed when they got close to him.  The girl veered, keeping some distance.  She looked at him warily.

“Hi, Uncle Steve,” she said.

“Hi,” Walberg replied without emotion.  “Get in the truck.  I’ve got something to do.”

He heard them start to bicker as the rear doors closed and they grabbed their seatbelts.  Walberg turned his attention back to the church.  It was quiet now with the children out and scattered, mostly on the other side of the building where their parents had parked.

He moved his thumb over the remote until he felt the raised button.  Watching the dark basement window, he pressed the button.  He saw a faint light go on inside the window.  He pressed the button again, and the light went out.  He waited five seconds and pressed the button a third time.  The light came on again.

Walberg was satisfied.  The switch worked as expected.  With the right explosives, he was confident that he could plant and detonate a bomb remotely.  He pulled a cloth bag out of his jacket pocket and walked back across the parking lot to retrieve the hardware from the darkness of the church basement.

Chapters of the serial are published Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

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