Contingency Plan Chapter 8 - Murderous Girlfriend #2
In her eventful and exceptionally noisy twenty-eight years of life, my next serious lover, Mandy Banks, had become the world’s most accomplished and sought-after expert in the field of specialized¹ demolitions. I hesitate to use the word expert, because that dramatically understates the level of her talent and genius. We don’t say that Mozart was an expert in the use of musical notes! Mandy is the Mozart of detonation. Your average special forces demolitions specialist is a third grader playing Row-Row-Row-Your-Boat on the recorder compared to Mandy’s symphony in C4.
I met Mandy Banks in a hotel bar in Morocco, but I knew her by reputation long before our introduction. You cannot read about an assassination at a Russian mafia wedding using an exploding wedding cake without being compelled to make some inquiries about the baker. My project required the high-speed removal of a barrier, and Mandy Banks, the world’s foremost expert at high-speed barrier removal, immediately came to mind. I arranged for her to meet Ehrlich and I for an informal job interview at a bar known for its dark corners and anonymity-preserving gloom.
I was late, having been detained in my secret workshop. The fools I had engaged to modify an industrial halon fire extinguishing system for portable use were completely incompetent at machining titanium. I had to mill out the valve housing myself.
Ehrlich and Mandy were sitting together at a corner table when I arrived. I had not expected her to be so pretty. Or so drunk! A collection of overturned shot glasses on the table between them were evidence of how late I was. What kind of interview had Ehrlich been conducting?
I sat down, interrupting them as Mandy was reading Ehrlich’s palm, slowly tracing her finger across his hand and wrist while praising the length of his palm’s love line. Mandy’s finger made it all the way to Ehrlich’s elbow before they both noticed me sitting across from them.
Mandy turned to me. “Soooo…. You’re the man with the plan?”
“And you’re the blond bombshell?”
“You’re funny!” She dropped Ehrlich’s hand and rotated to face me. Her low-cut tank-top bore an image of an American flag in which each of the stars had been replaced by the star-like atomic structure of a molecule of the explosive RDX. A tattoo of a cartoon coyote depressing the T-shaped plunger of a detonator box was inked onto her breast. The cord from the detonator box ran down into her shirt.
“I see you and Ehrlich have already gotten to know each other.” Ehrlich sat up straight and began to move the collection of shot glasses out of the middle of the table. “Did you have a chance to discuss any of the technical aspects of our project?”
“We hadn’t gotten to that yet,” Mandy said. She blew a bubble-gum bubble that burst with a pop. “But now that the man with the plan is here, we should get down to business.”
I explained our problem to Mandy. The object we wished to acquire – an incredibly old and astonishingly valuable galley proof of a first print of Don Quixote – was stored in a vault in the basement of a Spanish castle on the other side of the strait. I had arranged for a team of three to gain access to the basement during a black-tie charity event. I would be present as an invited guest while Ehrlich and my vault breaching specialist would be disguised as members of the catering crew.
The problems of creating a forged identity, acquiring an invitation to the function, tailoring the correct catering uniforms, and smuggling in the necessary equipment had all been solved. Only the thorny problem of accessing the vault remained. The plan called for a quick heist; we would not have time to cut our way in with a torch or drill. We needed to blast our way in, but with the utmost finesse. The heat from the blast, the overpressure, and the debris created couldn’t damage the fragile manuscript inside.
My initial impression of Mandy as a drunk American party-girl melted away as I discussed the project with her. She interrupted frequently with insightful questions: Who manufactured the vault and when was it installed? What is the overall volume of the vault and the adjacent room we would be breaching from? How far would our team be from the breaching spot? Would we have protective cover? Was there fire a suppression system in the vault or the exterior space? What were the minimum dimensions of the hole needed in the vault?
When I had answered the last of her questions, she sat back in her chair, her lips pursed and brow furrowed in thought. She played with her hair for a full minute before she spoke again. “I can do it.”
She grabbed my hand and stared directly into my eyes with an intense and serious look. “But listen. I’m going to have to prepare correctly. I need a well-ventilated facility to make my own explosives. Not something lame like a hotel bathroom with an exhaust fan. I need a shop with an industrial fume hood.”
“I anticipated this requirement and I’ve already equipped a chemistry lab with a fume hood and eye wash station.”
“And there’s something else I need. Something really fun…”
“I’m going to need to perform three to five test blasts against a mock-up of the vault door.”
I smiled. My command center was located in a remote area of the desert. We could set off three to five hundred test blasts without anyone noticing anything! I welcomed her to the team, told Ehrlich to take care of the bar bill, and drove Mandy into the desert to tour my headquarters.
I fell in lust with Mandy before I fell in love with her. She seemed to have an endless supply of cut-off jeans and tank-tops featuring explosive-themed artwork. I often found myself distracted by her appearance, peering up from my plans to watch her move about the facility. Occasionally, my gaze would linger too long and her eyes would meet mine. This pleasingly awkward pattern continued for several weeks until we found ourselves simultaneously in the cramped confines of the tool closet.
“Why do you always wear a suit?” she asked.
“Why do you always wear shorts and a tank top?”
“Maybe I’m trying to get someone’s attention.” She playfully pulled on my tie.
I immediately ordered Ehrlich to drive to Tangier to perform some insignificant errand, leaving Mandy and I alone in my command center. Our project fell slightly behind schedule that afternoon, as no more work was done in the four hours that Ehrlich was gone. However, I did solve one mystery that I had spent a considerable amount of time pondering: I managed to locate the sticks of dynamite at the other end of her tattoo coyote’s detonator cord.
I fell in love with Mandy the instant her precision explosive charge delicately blew a hole through the heavily fortified vault in the basement of the Spanish castle. Ehrlich stood at the top of the stairs, holding the charity guests at gunpoint with the Glock that had been smuggled inside in the beef tartare. Mandy and I crouched at the base of the stairs. She looked at me with a manic grin and twisted the detonator switch.
The pressure wave from the detonation pushed Mandy into me, and we fell on the floor together. She kissed me and bit my lip, drawing blood. My lust was instantly converted into deep feeling of love for her crazy genius.
I sprang up, my heart pounding more from Mandy’s kiss than the explosion, and ran to the vault door. The portable halon fire extinguisher I had custom-built for this moment was not necessary. A perfectly square window had been explosively cut into the vault door. The edges of the hole glowed red, but the interior of the vault and manuscript – the only object the vault was built to protect – was serene and completely unaffected by the blast.
Our love blossomed after the theft of the manuscript. Not willing to part ways afterwards, Mandy and I spent most of the next year working together, using our new vault-breaching techniques to perform a series of high-value art thefts from some of the most secure private collections in Europe. She moved in with me, adding a feminine touch to my headquarters.
Like so many other romantically involved couples who work together, we brought our professional disagreements home with us. Our bickering during the day over the choice of targets led to stony silences over dinner in the evening. It was an argument over the selection of our next target that precipitated our break up.
Mandy developed a plan to blast her way into the basement vault of the Bulgarian National Bank in Sofia. From within the vault, large amounts of explosives would be used again to blast an escape hole into a subway tunnel that passed near the underground chamber. Our getaway would be facilitated by the mayhem produced by the penetration into the subway.
Her plan was, of course, technically masterful. From a pure vault-breeching perspective, it was genius. But from the overall criminal perspective, the plan was deeply flawed. The setup activities required to place hundreds of kilograms of explosives were sure to draw attention. The lack of detailed knowledge about the location of the platinum reserves within the vault, and the extreme risk to non-participants in the subway tunnel all contributed to a plan that would inevitably end disastrously.
I told Mandy that I did not approve of the plan. She replied that she didn’t require my approval for anything. Then I told her that I forbade her from carrying the plan forward.
“Do you think you can just order me around like Ehrlich?!” she screamed.
I tried to reason with her. I told her to think of the risks of her plan logically and analytically. I pointed out to her that my superior intelligence and experience put me in a position to know, definitively, what was best for her.
After nearly an hour of placating her with my rational argumentation, she finally calmed down, and even started to pick up the pieces of the wine glasses she threw at me during our discussion. I was pleased with myself, believing that I had gotten through to her and had convinced her that the plan she developed was madness.
Mandy was cheerful when we woke up the next morning, the ugliness of the previous day’s disagreement apparently far behind us. I used our remaining eggs to make my breakfast and enjoyed a solitary, contemplative morning meal on the balcony overlooking the Ogosta. She did not try to murder me until just before lunch.
“I’m heading out for a bit. There’s chocolate chip cookies in the oven. Just take them out when the timer goes off. Bye hon!” I nodded my head in acknowledgement of her instructions, but remained focused on my analysis of the De Beers diamond shipment schedules. Those were the last words Mandy spoke to me.
A few minutes passed before I realized that I was uncharacteristically unable to focus on the spreadsheets and maps. My subconscious mind had started to apply its mysterious analytic powers to some other problem. I stood up and walked about the house, hoping the increased blood flow would jostle my brain’s subconscious problem into my awareness.
Chocolate chip cookies are made with flour, butter, sugar, and eggs. Eggs! I had used the last of them to make Eggs Benedict for breakfast. Whatever Mandy was baking in the oven, it could not have been cookies. I walked cautiously to the kitchen, stepping softly to avoid sending any vibration into the oven. I peered through the darkened oven door to see three trays of cookie-colored disks decorated with chocolate-chip-like specks. My hand trembled slightly as I carefully opened the door. The light from the kitchen spilled into the oven and was reflected back to me by the false chips. Ball bearings! The cookies, I could now see, were made from the left-over heat-activated explosive we used in our most recent vault heist. I sprinted out of the kitchen, burst through the doors to the balcony and dove into the Ogosta.
The safe house was gone when I surfaced, replaced by a column of smoke and a cloud of debris. Bits of ballistically-propelled masonry and roof tiles made small splashes around me as I treaded water. The chunks of debris falling into the Ogosta became smaller and smaller, and finally ceased raining into the river. The column of smoke cleared. I lazily drifted downstream for a kilometer, waving at the occasional person fishing from a bridge or strolling along the bank.
Two weeks later, an anonymous tip led Interpol to Mandy’s van parked outside the Bulgarian National Bank. 750 kilograms of explosives were found in the vehicle, and Mandy was sentenced to fifteen years.
¹ When I say specialized, I mean it in the sense that John Dillinger was an expert in the field of specialized bank withdrawals.