He felt a nudge at his back and turned, expecting a kid to bash into him and run away, but it was Ilya Zhukov, one of the tech team subcontractors, clapping him on the shoulder.
“It’s not your problem to solve, but I thought you should know the wireless isn’t working.”
No toilets. Now no Internet. Krupov sighed. “I thought you tested it yesterday. No problems at all.”
“Today there are problems.” Zhukov shrugged.
“Think it’s the broadcast element?”
“Going to check it now.”
A sharp whistle cut the air, hushing the kids. The principal, Anna Ivanovna, cleared her throat to start her welcome speech. Katarina grinned at him, eyes bright with the excitement of his latest fiasco. Krupov removed his daughter’s arms from his waist.
“You are gonna watch me,” Nadia demanded.
“I am.” Krupov smiled. “I won’t be far away.”
Krupov followed Zhukov through the crowds of kids and parents gathered in the yard. They passed through the gate of the chain link fence Krupov had slated for removal; it still caged the school grounds like a Gulag’s exercise pen. Once they were on the sidewalk flanking the fence, Zhukov told him, “That brand of unit is a piece of shit. Can work for weeks and then just crap out for no reason.”
“I replaced the piece of shit unit myself,” Krupov said mildly. “Put in the non-shit model.”
“In the world of high tech, there’s no such thing as the non-shit model.”
They’d reached the access point, a streetlamp a few feet from the school’s parking lot. Krupov studied the broadcast element. Already a big man was up the pole, fiddling with the unit. “Can’t you reboot it with the remote?”
“The remote’s a piece of shit,” Zhukov said.
The big man shifted clumsily on the pole. “OK. Should fire up now.”
A pop sounded, a muffled pressure against Krupov’s ears. “Did it boot?”
He was already aware of the screams as he spoke, but it took several more rounds puncturing the humid air to realize he was hearing gunfire.
In the first terrible moments of confusion, as he’d run back to the schoolyard, Krupov was convinced Katarina had carried Nadia to safety. Katarina was a fearless mother, dispatching childhood illnesses and routine dangers with dispassionate efficiency. But one glimpse of the surreal chaos unfolding behind the chain-link fence was enough to seal a feeling of doom. In shock, he watched five thugs in camouflage, all brandishing rifles like bayonets, herd mothers and kids through the double doors leading to the gym. Egress doors that, according to code, were supposed to have been locked from the outside. He’d flung himself against the fence, screaming, until Zhukov grasped his shoulder and yanked him down to the concrete walk. Above, bullets pinged against the fence links. They were being shot at, he thought hazily. Maybe he was already shot. Maybe the schoolyard, now stripped brutally of its children, seemed unreal because the siege was happening to him and Zhukov, on their side of the fence; not to the kids; not to Nadia.
But the gunman who had fired upon them ducked through the egress doors. Slammed them shut, stifling the screams that filled the high-ceilinged gym and echoed from the glossy oak floor, and it was the worst moment of Krupov’s life to struggle to his feet and realize he was unhurt.
All morning, worse moments tumbled end over end.
As fast as the yard had emptied it filled again. It could not have happened as quickly as Krupov would remember, but it seemed to him that the militia had materialized at once out of the humid air like apparitions of hope: hefting rifles, establishing positions, cordoning off the hysterical crowds of gathering parents who had not attended the first-day festival. Order was restored, maintaining an illusion of security, promising a peaceful resolution to the horror. Numb like the rest, Krupov drank water, wiped away sweat dribbling in his eyes to watch the school. As the hours wore on with no visible signs of brutality inside, he came to believe that the authorities had the situation in hand.
Until surveillance conducted through Krupov’s double-height shatter-proof windows revealed that the terrorists—they’d been identified quickly as border-raiding radical separatists, shadowy desperados Krupov associated with nauseating news reports from a neighboring war-torn failed state—had rigged the gym with explosives. The muffled screams inside had quieted by then, replaced with the wailing of the desperate parents outside as the news circulated that the gym was now a bomb.
When Krupov heard from one of the electrical subs who had fled the building in the first moments of chaos that the explosives were rigged using exposed wiring from the unfinished electrical panel, he excused himself, staggered to the sidewalk, and threw up on the sun-scorched grass of someone’s lawn.
“You the architect?”
Krupov wiped his mouth and straightened to see a big man in wrap-around sunglasses and a black flak vest. He was flanked by other big men in flak vests, arms crossed menacingly, utility belts bulging with grisly combat gear. “Yes.”
“We need you to identify the ingress points.”
“Walk us through where we might gain entry. Preferably at the front of the building, away from the gym windows.”
“Well … besides the front doors?”
“Unfortunate, those windows,” one of the men commented. “Maximum visibility from all angles.”
“Let’s you see in, doesn’t it? And they can … see out.” Krupov stumbled over the words. Tears flooded his eyes. On their summer site visit, Nadia had swung from the sills, hoisted herself up to peer outside.