“Oh my God, Dad. This guy looks like you!”
Jack Gill allowed himself a quick glance at his 14-year-old son. Just shy of six feet, the boy tended to drape himself across the nearest available surface, in this case the kitchen island where they took all their meals since Marie died.
He looked back at the saute pan, executed a neat flip, and allowed himself a small smile. Marie would have been impressed.
“Close the tablet and wash your hands, Paul. What else do you want in your omelet? Amy, please, I asked you to set the table.”
His daughter gave a theatrical sigh, her eyes on her phone.
“Why do you always ask me instead of Paul? It’s so sexist.”
Damn it, I added mushrooms, Jack thought. Amy will have to eat around them.
“I ask you, Amy, because you’re more almost two years older and presumably more responsible than your younger brother.”
Paul ignored his father. “Ames, look at this guy.” He thrust the tablet at his older sister. “Couldn’t this be Dad?”
Another sigh as Amy took the pad and enlarged the image.
“Jesus, Dad, this guy does look like you. That’s not good. I mean, given this article claims he’s a terrorist.”
“Suspected terrorist,” Paul insisted.
“Amy, language,” Jack said automatically. He hated to scold his children. Not because discipline had been Marie’s job, although she’d been so much more effective at it. Because they were still vulnerable, walking hormones still bent under the weight of their grief. He heard his wife’s voice remind him to be patient.
He grabbed three plates and some silverware and put them on the countertop.
“Clear your stuff away, kids. Amy, at least try the mushrooms. Paul, technology off.”
“But, Dad —”
“I’ll look after supper, okay?”
They ate quickly and silently. Dinner had devolved with their retreat into the kitchen. No one had anything to say to anyone else. They put food in their mouths or, in Amy’s case, pushed it around the plate, then went back to their virtual friends. At least they stayed in one room.
Paul finished first and cleared his plate, a sign Jack viewed with triumph until he realized his son had pulled out his tablet.
“Take a look, Dad. You promised.”
Jack glanced first at the headline that demanded, “First look at Indianapolis ER Bomber” then at the masthead. “2 Tell the Truth” was the worst kind of sensationalist tabloid, one that routinely published a mix of gossip, speculation, and “what if” guesswork masquerading as information.
He scanned the article. The city had been rocked in recent weeks by explosions at two area hospital emergency rooms. No one knew who the bomber was or why the person targeted ERs. There were no declarations or manifestos. Some suspected an angry patient, others a disgruntled staff member. While no one had died, dozens had been injured, many seriously, and the areas sustained considerable physical damage. The closed ERs overburdened the remaining hospitals and put the entire healthcare service infrastructure at risk.
The image accompanying the article showed a man pushing through a crowd outside what appeared to be a hospital. For added drama, the editor had circled the image in red and blurred out the other faces. The caption indicated the photo had been snapped at the site of the latest explosion. Maybe, maybe not. Impossible to tell.
The man in the picture wore an unadorned blue baseball cap that failed to completely obscure his face. He appeared to be in his late 30s, Caucasian, with a sharply angled jawline, aquiline nose, dark hair, black-framed glasses and a distinctive scar on his chin. Jack put a hand to his old wound; his stomach clenched.
He handed the tablet to his son with a shrug. “We’ve talked about fake news, Paul. It’s not information you don’t like or agree with. It’s a story put forward as true without factual support. In place of evidence, you have innuendo or worse, lies pretending to be true. Do you think everything you see on the internet is true?”
Paul fidgeted with his watch. “No,” he admitted.
“Okay so don’t fall for this BS. A guy in a common-looking cap in a picture that could have been shot anywhere is ‘identified’ as a possible bomber.” He waggled his eyebrows at his son. “Unless you think your dad is a bomber.”
“Okay, then,” Jack replied with a grin. “The article quotes unnamed sources as ‘suggesting’ the FBI was zeroing in on a suspect. Who seems to be my doppelgänger from a distance. Maybe not close up, though.”
“What’s a doppelgänger?”
Amy rolled her eyes. “Someone who looks just like someone else but obviously isn’t,” she said. “Jeeze, Paul, what do you do in school all day, except stare at Becky Wells?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Paul countered.
Jack let their bickering play out. At least it got them off the subject of the man in the cap. As much as Jack wanted to believe the story would die a quick death, he wasn’t so sure.
The next day, the hashtag #IndieERBomber trended on social media, or so Amy pointed out to her father as the kids headed out the door.
“Fake news travels fast,” she noted cryptically.
Jack decided to skip his shave that morning. He swapped his black-framed glasses for an older pair that made him look owlish. For good measure, he combed his hair straight back, a style he normally avoided. Then he headed to his architecture firm downtown, in an area known as Mile Square.
RDK was a reputable mid-sized Indianapolis firm that specialized in designing medical and research facilities, along with some mixed-use and corporate office projects. Jack, a senior project architect, worked primarily on healthcare jobs. He’d recently managed a redesign project for one of the three hospitals that had been hit by the bomber.
A bomber that looks like you, he thought. The irony was not lost on him.
A time-sensitive change-order on one of his smaller projects kept him busy all morning. When he logged on before lunch, he saw the speculative story about the bomber had been picked up by several news wire services. Each report was careful to emphasize the source as dubious. Who saw the man in the cap, one asked? When and where were the pictures taken, asked another? The idea that legitimate media questioned the story origins should have reassured Jack. It didn’t.
“What do you think of the ER bomber picture?” Marcus Tanner asked at lunch. “That should move the case along, right?”
Tanner, another architect at the firm, joined Jack in pickup basketball on weekends. Before Marie’s death last year, the men and their wives went out socially a few times a month. Now Jack begged off, citing family obligations. In reality, he didn’t want to become someone else’s charity case. He still considered the other man a good friend.
“I think it’s probably a hoax.” Jack kept his eyes on his sandwich.
“Maybe, but a lot of people are buying it.” Marcus punched at his phone screen and held it out. “Did you see the picture, Jack? If this isn’t you, it’s your long-lost twin.” He peered at his friend. “With different glasses.”
“Well, it’s not me and it’s not my non-existent twin.” Jack forced himself to smile. “Case closed.”
He didn’t yet know how wrong he was. While he worked in his office that afternoon, the Internet, aided by willing and gullible participants, continued to spin its own narrative.
Jack went a second day without shaving. He knew with a single glance at the headlines on his phone that the story about the “suspect’ had gained traction. He rushed the kids off to school without allowing for discussion.
“We have to talk, Dad,” his daughter insisted and he promised.
He fought off a headache at work, brought on by stress or by the out-of-date eyeglass prescription; he didn’t know which. At 10 he went down the hall to get coffee and noticed a couple of junior designers staring at him. He took his coffee back to his office and logged onto his desktop.
The Herald News, a suburban daily, featured the by-now-familiar image on its homepage. According to the accompanying article, the FBI deemed the man in the cap as a “person of interest,” although the local reporter admitted the Bureau hadn’t actually said as much.
Jack had lunch at his desk and remained in his office the rest of the day. Nearly every caller made mention of the image. He stopped picking up his phone.
Amy refused dinner until Jack logged on. Sure enough, the story had made the major media outlets. The New York Times kept a rein on its headline (“FBI Seeks Person of Interest in ER Bombings”). USA Today did not (“Bombing Suspect Sought for Questioning”). The Indianapolis Star offered readers a secure line into which they could call with a “possible ID.” One tabloid offered a cash reward for information leading to an identification.
The live coverage, especially on cable, somehow made it more immediate.
Paul looked worried. “What if someone decides it’s you?”
“Not gonna happen, Paul.”
That evening, after the kids had gone to bed, Jack located information for the lawyer he’d used after Marie’s death last year. Colin Greeley. Just in case, he told himself.
The next day, he called in sick and worked from home. He spent a little time in his workshop and attended to long-neglected household chores. He made a point of avoiding any news or social media outlets. He went back into the workshop that evening. Just before bed, he shot off a quick text to Greeley.
Day Four. Major outlets announced the man in the photo had been identified. No name yet but the day was young. Jack checked his messages — he had a text from Greeley that said “call ASAP” — and slid out of the house before his children woke up. He stopped off for a pair of drugstore glasses, left a voice message for Greeley, and made it to work before his boss. He had a client meeting at 10.
At 8:30 a.m., Daniel Ross, the affable gray-haired 47-year-old CEO of RKD, called him into the office. With him were RKD’s two other founding partners. Ben Krakow, a rumpled-looking man in thick glasses, and Sarah Fletcher, a tall, put-together red-head. To one side stood a dour-looking man and a grim-faced woman, both dressed in navy blue suits that could have come from the same store.
“Jack, come in,” Ross said with a cheery wave. “Can I get you a cup of coffee? Sorry to roust you so early in the day. We have unexpected visitors from the FBI with some questions. Meet Agents John Flanigan and Tracy Royce. Apparently, there’s a picture of a man they’ve connected to the bombings who resembles —”
“I read the news, Dan.” Jack turned to the suits. “I’m a senior project manager with 11 years at this firm, Agents. I’m also an adult, not a high school student. We don’t need to waste my employers’ time when I have a perfectly good office and an administrative assistant who can make you an appointment.”
“Mr. Gill, we’re trying to be as efficient as possible in order not to waste anyone’s time,” Agent Flanigan replied. His efforts to sound relaxed and easy-going failed utterly. Agent Royce didn’t even try.
“You look like the man in the picture, Mr. Gill,” she cut in. “Undoubtedly, you’ve noticed that. Or maybe it’s a coincidence you’re not shaving.” She cast a disapproving eye over Jack’s new beard.
Stay calm, Jack reminded himself.
“As I recall, that image was introduced via social media by a disreputable tabloid-style Internet site, Agent Royce. Is that how the FBI gathers intel these days? Because your methods don’t inspire confidence.”
Agent Flanigan tried again. “We had a caller, no, two callers. People who remember you from your previous visits to the ERs where the bombs went off. Who remember the glasses and the cap. Who seem to believe you might be the person in the picture.”
Jack was getting tired of the sort of good, trying-to-be bad cop routine.
“I oversaw the renovation at St. Mary’s, as I’m sure you know. The project was completed two years ago. Everyone seemed pleased with our work. No complaints on either side and certainly no reason for anyone to set off a bomb.”
Dan jumped in. “I’m sure it’s just a case of mistaken —”
“Forget the renovation, Mr. Gill,” Royce said. “Wasn’t your wife brought to Star Medical Center last year after St. Mary’s turned her away? Where she died?”
For a long moment, no one seemed to breathe Then Ben cleared his throat. “Agent Royce, if you’re implying —”
“It’s okay, Ben.” Jack cut in. “Agent, Royce, when a hit and run driver slammed into my wife, I had every reason to believe she’d go to St. Mary’s. It’s a superior trauma ER. We took out private insurance on our family that allows us to stipulate which hospitals we prefer. In fact, it shouldn’t have been an issue because St. Mary’s was also the closest ER to the scene of the accident. Yet someone — dispatcher, ambulance driver — got his or her signals crossed and Marie was transported through high-density traffic to SMC. The ride took twenty minutes instead of eight. Worse, the emergency room was already struggling that day with missing staff and an unexpected cluster of gunshot victims.”
He swallowed. “The delayed arrival time coupled with the chaos at SMC’s ER likely played into my wife’s death. My lawyer and I are discussing a lawsuit against the ambulance company. Not” — he put up a warning finger — “against either of the hospitals in question.”
“So, you don’t harbor any grudges, Mr. Gill?” Royce pressed. “Because in your shoes —”
“Are you charging me with anything, Agent Royce? Agent Flanigan? I can call my lawyer and we can meet at your offices.”
Flanigan smiled. White teeth, prominent incisors. A wolf in a suit.
“We’re talking to a number of people, Mr. Gill. I presume you’re not planning a vacation.”
Jack kept his expression neutral. “I have a family to raise and a job to do.” He turned to Dan. “That hasn’t changed, has it?”
Dan looked shocked. “Of course not. You haven’t been charged or even detained — has he?”
And there’s the line, Jack thought.
“Thank you all for your time,” Agent Royce said abruptly. “We’ll be in touch, Mr. Gill.”
When the agents left, Jack turned to the three partners. “Does my presence here cause a problem?”
“Of course not,” Ben protested. The objection sounded thin.
“Okay, I have a meeting at 10 out of the office. If I leave now, I can just make it. Then I think I’ll work from home this afternoon.”
Sarah glanced at her colleagues, then stood to face Jack. “That’s fine, Jack. We’ll stay on top of this. Just in case, if we need to, ah, get in touch with your clients or with our legal team, we’ll loop you in, okay?”
On the way home, Jack contacted several of his clients. Most were shocked at the insinuations and swore fealty. To him or to the firm, he wondered, though he knew the answer. He also called Colin Greeley’s office.
“Did you bomb the ERs, Jack?” The older man asked bluntly.
Jack was too surprised to object. “Hell, no.”
“I didn’t think so. One more question: Could that be you in the picture?”
This time Jack hesitated. “The guy looks as if it could be me, right down to the glasses and the scar. But it isn’t, I swear. I don’t know who that guy is. Or who took the picture.”
“I believe you. Unfortunately, you may get tried in the court of public opinion. Now law enforcement is looking for evidence — real evidence — but social media exerts a lot of pressure. I’m not worried you’ll be convicted; I’m worried about your reputation.”
“I don’t care about —”
“You should. You should care about your standing and your job and the effect this will have on your teenagers, kids who are already suffering the loss of their mother. You know as well as I do how hard it is to counter a lie once it spreads. We need to smash the story to pieces before you’re publicly identified as the bomber. Sure, we can spend the rest of your life and your bank account in court fighting the stories but we’ve both got better things to do.”
Jack felt deflated. “What do you want me to do?”
“I want a detailed account of where you were and what you were doing the time of each of the bombings. Physical receipts, digital footprints, photos, witnesses, anything. It’s only been 10 days. I can send over our private detective —”
“Not necessary. I can get you what you want.”
“Good. Send everything to me; I’ll give you a private email address. Don’t use your laptop to send anything to me, though. In fact, don’t turn it on until I get a tech to look at it. Find an Internet coffee shop near you, if those things still exist. Or use a burner phone.”
“You’ve got two hours, Jack. I want everything by lunchtime.”
Jack stopped at a drugstore and bought a throwaway phone with the biggest screen he could find. He went home, sat down with a pad of paper and wrote down everything he could remember about what he was doing when the bombs went off over the course of a single week. He was in the office during one incident (and he suspected the FBI agents knew it), and at lunch during another. He kept receipts, no problem. At the time of the third bombing, he was in his car but likely on the phone, which meant a digital record of his calls.
He pulled everything into a folder and sent it to Greeley via his burner. Then he went into his studio out back and spent the afternoon working out his frustrations.
After a long, hot shower, he cooked a casserole the kids liked. The dish was his wife’s creation, but he had the time and the inclination. Greeley called at three with a press release he had ready to go “if we need to pull the trigger.”
“What does that mean?”
“One of the injured bombing victims died an hour ago. The police are now as invested as the Bureau, maybe more so. My sources in the mayor’s office says they are close to making an arrest. We need to make sure it’s not you. I’m headed down there now. Stay calm and stay away from the news.”
Amy arrived home at five, her eyes full of questions. “Not one word about bombings or look-alikes until we eat,” Jack announced. Paul and Amy complied. They devoured the casserole for which they expressed unqualified enthusiasm and filled every pause with mindless chatter. Jack didn’t know whether to feel guilty or lucky.
The doorbell rang as they were cleaning up. At the front door, a man and a woman identified themselves as Detectives Jason Leeds and Rea Gonzalez. Short and broad-shouldered, with olive skin, dark eyes, and walnut-brown hair, they could have been cousins. In the thickening gloom, Jack made out three uniforms behind them, along with a swirl of red and blue lights.
“Sorry to bother you at dinner, Mr. Gill,” Leeds said without a trace of apology. “We’re just following up on a few items related to the ER bombings. I guess you’ve heard it’s a homicide investigation now.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Detective. I’m not sure why you’re here, though.” He tapped out a quick text and held up his phone. “Shall I contact my lawyer?”
“By all means, Mr. Gill. Although we have a warrant to search your house.”
Jack held out his hand. “May I see it?” He took his time, looking over the paper as carefully as possible. Though he had no legal training, he was an intelligent man and on high alert.
“This warrant was issued based on what evidence?” he asked “Besides a look-alike photo originally circulated by a dubious website?”
“We can certainly go over that with you when your lawyer arrives,” Baez said.
“We can certainly wait until he does,” Jack responded, his arms folded.
“Sir, that’s not how this works —”
“Dad, what’s going on?” Amy, from the landing, Paul on her heels.
“Detectives?” One of the uniforms came to the door. “There’s a shed of some kind around the back you’ll want to see. It’s padlocked.”
“Excuse us,” Leeds said. He pivoted on his heel and headed back out the door. Jack, Amy, and Paul were right behind. They caught up with the officers grouped around the locked shed.
Jack’s cell phone pinged. A text from Greeley. “Do not engage.” As if he were a foot soldier in a larger war.
Like hell I won’t.
“You can’t go in there.”
Baez turned to him. “I assume you have the key?”
“You have no right —”
“We have every right,” Leeds interjected. “The warrant includes any and every part of your property. Besides which, we’ve had reports of suspicious activity…”
“Will you unlock this door or will we break the padlock?” Baez asked.
“Do not touch that,” Jack said, his voice choking. He stepped forward; a policeman put a restraining hand on his arm.
“Daddy, do it!” Jack’s heart constricted at the fear in his daughter’s voice.
Another ping. A text, but not for Jack.
“Hang on, Baez,” Leeds said. “It’s from the chief.”
“I heard something,” Baez insisted. “Sounds like someone in there.”
“Bullshit,” Jack said.
“Probable cause. Bust it.”
Leeds was talking urgently on his phone. “Baez, wait! We got a hit—”
Baez and three officers pushed through the door, weapons drawn. Baez flipped a wall switch; the space was bathed in ambient light from a mix of utilitarian overhead fixtures and a couple of well-placed floor lamps. “What the ever-loving hell?” she exclaimed.
They’d entered a simple room, really just four walls of corrugated material with a single entrance, a single window, and a pressed wood floor. A tool-laden workbench stood to their left. In the far corner dozens of boxes were piled almost haphazardly. Floor to ceiling shelving lined the other three walls.
The shelves were filled with toys: action figures, stuffed animals, music boxes, squirt guns, jump ropes, building blocks, and dolls of every shape and style. The boxes in the corner held playthings in various stages of disrepair. A one-eyed Teddy bear sat rakishly on the edge of the table, which also held paint brushes and what appeared to be a sewing kit.
“What is this, Santa’s workshop?” muttered an officer.
“Holy crap, Dad, this is what you do to relax?” Paul demanded.
“Yeah, it is. Since your mother died. I collect old toys, restore them, and get them to daycare centers and a couple of schools and yes, area hospitals. I enjoy the work, I’m good at it, and I prefer to stay anonymous.” He turned to Baez. “Guess you took care of that.”
“Baez, dammit, I’ve been trying to tell you —” Leeds rushed in, looked around and whistled. “Did we just bust Santa?”
Baez set her mouth in a grim line. “Look around, see if there are any hidden doors or stairs.”
“Baez, stop. First of all, it’s a freaking shed. There’s no hidden anything. Second, I just got a text from the captain. They’ve got the bomber.”
“Guy was fired last year from Star. He lost his apartment, moved in with his mother, worked secretly for months on the bombs. She persuaded him to turn himself in. Everything lines up. He’s even got a scar on his chin, same as our Mr. Gill.”
Amy got up in Leeds’s face. “‘Our’ Mr. Gill?” she yelled. “You hassled my father, scared us half to death, and broke into his shed for nothing?”
“Miss Gill —”
“Amy.” Jack put an arm around each of his kids and faced the detectives. “I assume your search warrant is vacated. I’d like you to leave. Now.”
Baez disappeared without a word. The three uniforms followed her.
Leeds cleared his throat. “About my partner. She gets — well, she’s pretty dedicated to her job. Look, I’m sure if you approach the department, they’ll cover whatever damage done to your door.”
Jack said nothing, only pulled his children closer to him.
Leeds turned to leave, then turned back. “I’m sorry about all of this, Mr. Gill. And I’m sorry about your wife. I hope they catch the son of a bitch who drove the car. At least we got a name. Gavin Sorensky. Now we just have to find the man. It’s been almost a year.” He shook his head.
Jack nodded but kept silent.
The family followed the detective and watched him exchange a few angry words with his partner. Five officers piled into two cars and left. The small knot of curious neighbors remained. Two cars drove away.
“Let’s handle this now,” he told his children and walked up to the gathering. “The police thought I was the ER bomber,” he announced. “Can you believe that? They were about to take the house apart when they got a call. They caught the real one. Lucky break, right?” He said nothing about the workshop; he even managed a chuckle.
“They did?” asked one as the rest dove for their phones to pull up news reports. Relief spread through the group like wildfire. There followed predictable expressions of sympathy mixed with outrage. Words and phrases tumbled over each other, something about excessive force, invasion of privacy, how hard it must have been on the kids, and the excitement of being in close proximity to an event that couldn’t hurt them.
Later, Jack sat Amy and Paul down and outlined what they could and could not say on social media. “Guys, what I’m about to ask is hard. Don’t talk about what happened on social media.” Amy flinched while Paul tried for an innocent expression. “Ideally, I’d ask for a total blackout, but you’re only human. One or both of you will tell a friend.”
He held up a hand against their protests. “Do me a favor, though,” he continued. “Don’t exaggerate. Don’t dramatize. Don’t go on about police brutality. No one was injured and nothing was touched except a padlock. And please do NOT mention the workshop.”
“You’re not going to sue the police?” Amy sounded incredulous.
“Amy, do you remember the diary you kept when you were 11?”
“It was private, wasn’t it? For your eyes only. Nothing you shared with anyone. Well, my workshop is my diary. Honestly, I feel kind of violated that anyone saw it. Like someone went into my underwear drawer. So, no, I don’t want to make this a public thing. Okay?”
They agreed. Jack knew it was a lot to ask of his teenagers. On the other hand, he loved and trusted his children.
The next day, Jack shaved, put on his favorite glasses, cooked breakfast for his family, and went into work. He checked online to read about the bomber. The man looked nothing like Jack. He was shorter, stockier, and younger by a decade. They shared only the dark glass frames and the chin scar in common.
Jack put up with a fair amount of backslapping and covert grinning at the office. Lots of implied “attaboys” and “we always had your back,” neither of which he believed for a minute. He didn’t take it personally; he didn’t need to.
He came home to an empty house — Amy and Paul had parent-approved plans — fixed a sandwich, grabbed a bottle of water, and went straight to the workshop. He repaired the splintered door and replaced the padlock. After about an hour, he walked out and behind the shed to an industrial trashcan. With a grunt, he rolled the receptacle to reveal twin doors beneath that led to an old root cellar. Also padlocked.
He got the doors open easily enough; he’d installed new hinges last year. Holding the sandwich and the water in one hand and a flashlight in the other, he carefully descended a short ladder to a dank cellar, really little more than an unfinished hole. He pulled on the overhead bulb. The dirt floor was covered with a filthy mat. In one corner stood an overflowing bucket, in the other, huddled under a threadbare blanket, a skeletal form. The stench, a melange of waste, mildew, fear, and despair, was overwhelming. Jack was used to it.
He threw the sandwich and the bottle at the blanketed shape and watched the hand and arm that emerged. Little more than skin and bones, really. Jack continued to be amazed at how resilient humans could be. And how patient. He almost smiled.
He pulled a small book from his pocket and thumbed to a well-worn page.
“Eat up, Mr. Sorensky,” he commanded the man who’d taken his wife’s life. “Then we’ll go over today’s lesson on rules of the road. Maybe we’ll make a responsible driver of you yet.”
Nikki Stern is the author of four non-fiction books. She has contributed essays to three anthologies as well as the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, and Humanist Magazine. Her book ‘Hope in Small Doses’ is a 2015 Eric Hoffer medal finalist and is carried in the National September 11 Museum bookstore. She has just completed a mystery novel and is a member of the Mystery Writers’ Guild of America.