Thought you would like to read an excerpt of my Bolivian tale.
The bomb exploded at precisely six-oh-four in the morning. Its blast rocked through Sergeant Dawna Atkinson's beat-up Fiat just as she entered the city's largest square. Ahead, despite the early hour, the block hummed with people, people who were not all running away from the old school that housed the embassy.
No, a few were running toward the large building.
Her grip tight on the steering wheel, Dawna shook her head. Those civilians were either incredibly foolish or incredibly brave.
Or members of a drug cartel determined to undermine the strengthening democracy here in Bolivia. They'd already ruined the capital of La Paz for many foreign nationals and displaced ambassadors to other cities like Cochabamba.
She gritted her teeth. Tramping her foot down on the accelerator, she darted into the early morning traffic, now thick with post-explosion chaos.
Smoke spewed into the smoggy morning sky in a single, ugly belch, its source a black burning mound in front of the doors that led into the embassy's enclosed courtyard. Snapping her attention back to her driving, Dawna steered the car into a narrow alley across the square from the embassy and leapt out. No time for her locking bar, normally a must in most South American cities. With any luck, someone would steal the old rust bucket and inherit all of its mechanical woes.
She threaded through the noisy crowd, her long, quick strides carrying her over the numerous cracks in the sidewalk that sliced through the park-like square. Loud Spanish voices bounced around her as she hurried past the white monument of some long-dead dignitary on horseback. Already, the acrid smell of burning metal and ancient building materials penetrated the growing warmth of the early July morning.
She pushed past an old native man, who coughed out something in Spanish. Charging through the rest of the square, she reached the area in front of the embassy. There, she stopped Miguel Ramos, one of the vigilantes, a security guard, just as he raced away from the small door that led to the courtyard, the one used for foot traffic only. He'd worked the night shift and must have been leaving when the blast occurred. Surely he would know something.
"What happened?" she called out over the wail of approaching sirens. Her lungs tightened, reminding her that the air up here in the Andes was still too thin for her.
"A bomb, Sergeant," Ramos panted, his lined features slack with horror. "Outside, at the front entrance." His panicked gaze searched the noisy crowd, fast and needy, seeking something.
She grabbed his elbow. "Anyone hurt? Where's the Ambassador?" Please God, let him still be at home. Last night, along with the Ambassador and his family, she'd attended a small private function at the far end of the city. They hadn't left until after midnight.
Please God, let him still be asleep. Let today not be one of the days when he felt compelled to come to work early.
"The Ambassador is not here, Sergeant," Ramos cut into her thoughts with sharp, accented English as he brushed himself off. "Very few people here. I don't think anyone was hurt."
Dawna sagged. Thank you, God. She wasn't three weeks into her new assignment as Military Security Guard, not counting the few months supervising the installation of the security system, hiring her staff and preparing for the Ambassador's arrival. Bolivia had a long and healthy relationship with Canada. She aimed to do her part to keep it that way. And, blast it, this was her chance to prove to her home unit that she was one of the best, despite the black mark on her record.
Someone shouldered her to one side. She spun, prepared to shove back, to stop whoever was invading her embassy, but caught her action in time to see a firefighter hauling a hose toward the smoke in front of the entrance. The swarthy man barked out orders in Spanish. Behind him, a battle-scarred fire truck was still heaving to a stop.
Several more firefighters trotted in behind the first one. She turned to Ramos. "Is the embassy empty?"
"No, Sergeant. We have two vigilantes inside."
"I want one of them armed and guarding the firefighters out here," she ordered, pointing to the front facade. "And the other to do the same on the inside. Secure the rear door and arm yourself as well. I need you with me." Dawna glared at the firefighters. Though not her job to order them around, she wouldn't let them take over, either. One of them could easily be responsible for this blast, and right now could be preparing to storm the embassy. The Bolivian government had cracked down on drug trafficking, and several cartels had warned that they would punish countries interfering with their illegal trade.
With Ramos hurrying to obey her, Dawna turned the other way. A barrel-chested policeman, dressed in fatigues, herded the crowd back, as her gaze journeyed around the square with methodical precision.
Then it stalled. From the direction she'd come five short minutes earlier, a large SUV loomed. Her patience drained away as she recognized the wide vehicle. The Ambassador. Of course he'd come at the first hint of trouble. The alarm system she'd had installed was set up with a dialer to automatically call several numbers. One of them was her boss’s private line.
And, of course, his household security system would have been triggered along with the embassy's system. Though the alarm was masked here, at the ambassador's residence, it would have clanged like a fire bell loud enough to wake the dead. With Cochabamba being a small city, it wouldn't take him long to get here.
He must have raced to get here. Dawna wouldn't be surprised if he was still in his pajamas. Hah! She didn't care if he was buck naked. The safest place for him right now was in his armored car, preferably on his way back home.
Pushing past another firefighter, Dawna stalked into the street and waited there beside the startled policeman, who took one look at her icy expression and no doubt decided to remain silent.
Hands on hips, Dawna faced the SUV easing through the milling, pedestrian crowd. No way was the ambassador going to enter this dangerous area.
Embassy security was her responsibility, and that included the Ambassador. Though she wasn't trained to be a bodyguard, or an escolta, as one was called here, she coordinated the escoltas' duties. They were part of the best civilian firm in South America and frankly, she fumed, they knew better than to allow the Ambassador out of his residence at a time like this.
The armored SUV pulled to a stop in front of her. She stalked to the left side of the vehicle, wanting to face the Ambassador, though she knew the mirrored windows didn't roll down. The other option was a good tug to open the heavy plated door, but the vehicle had an intercom system.
"Sir," she said, staring at her reflection in the bullet-proof glass of the rear left door, though knowing it was the escolta who sat beside the window. "The safest place for you right now is at home."
The intercom crackled out the Ambassador's voice. "Anyone hurt?"
She tossed a fast look back at the building, not liking the disadvantage she had of speaking to a mirrored window. One clear, distasteful memory came to mind. "We don't think so, sir. It appears to have been a small explosion on the front facade. I have Ramos and several vigilantes outside. One inside."
His sigh was audible. Dawna could visualize his deeply lined face relaxing.
"Sir, go home. That's where you're safest."
"My embassy has been attacked, Dawna."
"All the more reason to go home, sir." She knew full well he wouldn't order the vehicle around, so she leaned forward and glared at her reflection. "Ambassador, at least pull away from the embassy until we can determine the extent of the danger. And stay in your car."
There was a long pause. "Keep me informed." The driver pulled away and skirted the square, only to stop at the far side.
Dawna eased out her breath. Dennis Legace was a no-nonsense man who didn't shy away from trouble. He faced life and its challenges with the kind of dignity and calm perseverance that made him her country's most admired diplomat.
And he could see potential where no one else could. He'd accepted Dawna as his MSG, his Military Security Guard, after only the briefest of interviews. A coup for any military police officer, especially one with her record.
But he'd soon give her far too many gray hairs.
The firefighters had already contained the fire, leaving nothing but soaking, smoldering debris in front of the door. One of the vigilantes, rifle in hand, was guarding them. The noisy crowd had begun to lose interest and the square had already returned to its normal, early morning insanity.
Good. Stability was paramount. Bolivia was generally a safe country, but lately, with extremists coming in from Africa, the country had become less stable. Moving the embassy from La Paz should have alleviated some of the security problems, but with this bomb detonating-
Dawna spun. Ramos and someone who must be the fire chief approached. The chief began a long, Spanish diatribe, half at her, half at Ramos. Dawna caught only snippets of phrases, her Spanish vocabulary still only a few hundred words, and this man's speech an absolute torrent.
"Small...hidden...little damage...." She already knew the basics of what she could translate mentally. The explosive had been small, hidden in the cracked corner of the outside step.
She faced Ramos. "Ask him for a full report ASAP. We'll translate it as soon as we get it."
Ramos nodded. "Sergeant?" His bushy eyebrows pressed together. "The policia have found fragments of what they think belonged to the outer packaging. We may be able to obtain them to test?" he suggested.
Of course. No way would this country have the resources to do a decent forensic investigation. Not while struggling to deal with the sudden increase of terrorist activity. Damn those terrorists. Bolivians, a kind, temperate people, didn't deserve all this trouble. "Good," Dawna finally answered, keeping her tone commanding. "Get the samples."
Ramos nodded again and moved away. Dawna shifted her attention to the embassy's front facade. The explosive device had been small, all right. The exterior around the pedestrian door looked like it had suffered nothing more than minor cosmetic damage. Not much different than its neglected surroundings.
She skirted a firefighter as he did one final check of the burn site. A nearby police officer tested the main vehicular door for any damage. It opened smoothly. Inside the compound, Marconi, Ramos' morning replacement, assisted.
"Safe, safe," Marconi called out to her through the open door.
Dawna inspected the compound, then the narrow building that fronted on the street. General offices filled the commercial space there, a common practice here in South America. All seemed fine. The barred, outer windows on either side of her had cracked, but surprisingly, the original vehicular door was still intact. Whoever built the original inner city school knew how rough kids could be. She stalked across the small compound toward the embassy's main building.
Inside its front foyer was the newer, specialized entrance, a bullet-proof glass mantrap that acted as an airlock.
Still gripping his rifle, Ramos caught up with her as she trotted up the well-worn stone steps.
As she entered the mantrap, some sixth sense made her pivot and stare across the compound, right through the vehicular door to the square beyond. Past Marconi and the policia outside.
Ignoring her request to stay put, the Ambassador was now striding into the compound, his escolta trotting beside him.
Dawna sagged. The start to a really bad Monday.