Just a Little Y2K Problem
Of course chaos can be your enemy. But sometimes it can be your ally.
As long as enough things go wrong, Jay thinks his plan will be perfect.
Running shoes, blond-gray wig, makeup and mirror, black tennis shoes, water bottle, tool kit, firecrackers, and C4 -- almost everything for the job is neatly packed into a woman's black leather mini-backpack. The solid green-glass fake champagne bottle he picked up in St. Louis (by bribing the clerk in the liquor store $30) can be carried by its gold foil-covered neck and won't look too out of place on New Millennium's Eve. But he's created a leather sling to hold it for when he needs both hands free.
Under a security guard's gray-and-black uniform (two sizes too large for him), he wears an expensive-looking black evening dress with the lower portion rolled up around his waist, giving him the "spare-tire" bulge of a sedentary middle-aged man. The recently sprayed silver streaks through the hair around his temples and the lightly yellow-tinted glasses with the thick black frames reinforce the image. The "Sgt. Makowski" name flap on his shirt pocket might also help if the police catch him, but he plans to avoid that.
Without bothering to check out of his motel room, he grabs the mini-backpack and steps out into the mild Central Florida night, his nose drinking in the rich perfume of semi-tropical plants and moist earth. His newly shaven legs itch terribly under black starched pants as he hurries to the distant space where he's parked a twenty-year-old oil-leaking, gas-guzzling junker. Unless someone spots him now, no one should associate him with the faded dark-blue '79 Chevy. Before touching the car, he slips on some beige-colored latex gloves.
As he pumps the gas pedal and turns over the ignition, he half sings, half hums "It's Now or Never" in his best Elvis. By the time he gets to a dramatically drawn- out "Tomorrow may be too late," he's heading east on Colonial Drive.
"Tomorrow will be too late," he says to himself, grinning like a young man on his way to a lovely date. Several camouflage-painted army vehicles full of helmeted National Guard soldiers pass, heading in the opposite direction, toward downtown Orlando. If there's trouble, it's expected to be around the tourist area of Church Street Station -- not this part of the city.
Only minutes later, Jay takes a left on McGuire Boulevard and pulls into one of the Koger Center parking lots that border each of the dozens of two-story office buildings a half-block from Fashion Square Mall. Parked under a large tree still thick with leaves, the car is completely enveloped in shadows, making it almost invisible. Popping the trunk, he checks the firm tires of a well-used girl's bike one last time. Then he uses a looped piece of wire to hold the trunk almost shut, but not completely. Even if it flies open, the light won't go on because he's removed the bulb.
Slowly lowering himself down on one knee, Jay uses finger tension alone to unscrew the already loose license plate. Throwing the minipack over his shoulder and securing the solid champagne bottle in its sling, he walks several yards away and buries the plate face down under some mulch and wood chips.
Straightening up, he reads his unisex Atomic Watch, for which he paid $199 cash at The Sharper Image. At 1 a.m. every day, the watch tunes into the U.S. Atomic Clock's broadcast, resetting itself to the exact second. Now, in the bright moonlight, its black hands clearly show 10:24. A slightly cool breeze tugs at Jay's streaked hair as he saunters toward the mall.
He knows he should be rehearsing his plan step by step, but involuntarily he thinks back a year to when all the Y2K warnings began to hit the media. Predictions began to snowball into an outright apocalypse: power outages; ATMs and phone service down; banking, government, and airline computers going berserk; alarms disabled and police powerless. Maybe this, maybe that. Because two digits are changing from 99 to 00 at midnight on December 31, 1999, computer chips embedded in all sorts of machines and computerized systems are going to create failures. Nobody can say just which kinds, where, or how bad. But whether they're a few blips or the equivalent of a nuclear missile attack, Jay plans to cash in.
He heads left around the north end of the mall to a rear entrance of Dillard's. If any store's got its alarm system primed, it has to be the big department store. They have the most to lose. Removing the heavy champagne bottle from its sling, Jay slams it against the glass of an outer door. Nothing happens. He pounds twice more before the high-pitched ringing alarm sounds. Then he jogs back across the street and hides behind some bushes in a parking lot, two over from where shadows hide the huge junker.
Almost 12 minutes later, a white Orlando patrol car shows up with a single officer slowly sweeping his searchlight around the door and parking area. The mall's alarm company must have some sort of reset switch, because several minutes after the officer reports that he can't see anything, the ringing stops. A second white patrol car appears, and the two cops confer for another several minutes. Then they drive away in different directions.
Jay's watch shows 10:56. He waits until 11:10 and then returns to the same door and pounds it until the alarm begins its piercing rings again. Then he runs and hides.
Both patrol cars appear within minutes of each other. They are much faster this time; in less than nine minutes they are at the entrance. Now, while one officer beams a flashlight through the glass door, the other rapidly drives around the entire mall, flashing the powerful searchlight erratically, as if to catch a band of thieves as they bob and weave, scattering like insects through the deep shadows.
Jay covers his mouth as he smiles, suppressing an anxious laugh.
The cops confer again until some radio call gets them to scream away, with blue and red lights strobing and sirens blaring, toward Colonial Drive. It is now 11:46 -- just fourteen minutes before all the millennium bugs will hit Orlando and the rest of the east coast.
Jay stands in the shadow of a tree at the edge of a parking lot, waiting several more minutes. Almost twitching from adrenaline, he can no longer resist bending down to scratch his itchy legs. Every few seconds his eyes dart nervously to his watch.
Then suddenly it is 11:57 -- time to move! Jay tries not to run, but his pounding heart and hard rapid breathing slam intensifying energy into his stride as he heads back to Dillard's rear doors. As he half-jogs, he almost doesn't hear the distant fireworks explosions. "They're early," he says aloud as he glances at his watch.
It is 11:59.
At exactly midnight, four blows from the heavy glass bottle make the alarm sound. But there is noise everywhere now.
It is the New Millennium.
He deliberately sprints around Dillard's to another entrance, as though driven by the incessant ringing of the alarm.
At 12:01, he fishes some C4 and two firecrackers from the black bag and pushes a small clump of the plastique explosive between two of the locked doors. The strong plastic smell makes him a little nauseous, but he swallows the feeling away. Carefully, he inserts a firecracker in the C4 clump and lights it. As he runs like crazy around to the safety of the building's edge, the ringing spookily stops, making him almost tumble as he loses a step.
The deafening shock wave rattles the building and shakes the ground below him so much that he almost falls to the pavement. He swears.
He's used too much.
He waits a few seconds and peeks around the corner. A rain of smoky debris gently pelts the ground like misty hail and the powerful smell of burnt plastic and charred dust is everywhere. With weeping eyes, Jay holds his breath and gingerly steps through the destroyed entrance. All six doors lay twisted aside as though some powerful tornado decided to go shopping. The inner set of doors are punched through too, so a second blast won't be needed here.
Jay grabs the flashlight from the black minipack and heads toward the back of the jewelry department, where they keep the safe.
It is 12:08. He is on schedule.
More C4 blasts follow, but Jay uses much smaller clumps and ducks behind the escalator each time. Except for two strings of pearls, he limits his take to necklaces, bracelets, and large carat rings -- all white diamonds, slipping them into an inner pouch of the minipack.
Jay has a choice of almost a dozen jewelry stores, but he knows that he only has time for a few more: Marks, Mayor, Elegant, and Lundstrom are the closest. Each has an outer glass or plastic barrier and a small closet at the back with a safe full of diamonds. So, it's blast, blast, tinker with the tools, hide, blast, and pick up the diamonds. Only the Mayor safe fails to open.
With his bag heavy with jewels, he shoulders his way out an emergency fire exit door that gives a feeble two rings. Except for some moonlight intermittently obscured by thick clouds, it is almost as dark outside as inside the mall. A dozen distant sirens make it sound like Orlando's panicking about its first ever air raid.
All the street lamps are dark now, and there's no glow of electric lights in any direction he looks. Y2K has fully kicked in as promised.
Jay sprints across McGuire and rapidly strips off the uniform, slips on the black tennis shoes, and fixes the wig firmly on his head. Rapidly, he applies makeup and lipstick and takes a big slug from the water bottle, which removes half of the lipstick he just put on. Then he dumps the uniform and everything in his minipack except the jewelry behind some bushes. The fake champagne bottle is now his only weapon.
From the Chevy trunk, he pulls out the girl's bike, and with the jewelry-laden minipack tight against his back and the champagne bottle in the bike's basket, he hikes up his dress and pedals through several Koger Center parking lots, north toward Executive Drive. He tosses the latex gloves over his shoulder. By weaving through back streets, Jay can circle around to Bumby Avenue and Colonial Drive and make it back to his real car, which is still parked at the hotel. Just an innocent old woman, ready to drive to New Orleans.
Though he is pumping hard to keep the old bicycle wheeling along on the sidewalk, his bare arms and legs feel chilly. Most of the apartment houses he passes are silent and dark, but whenever he hears any noise or sees candles or flashlights through windows, he crosses to the opposite sidewalk. Almost crashing into some bushes on Plaza Terrace, he stops to rub his arms and scratch his insanely itching legs as he straddles the bike. From some shadows on the other side of the street, he catches the end of a low whistle and some muted laughter.
Before he can start pumping the pedals again, five or six college-aged youths are blocking his path. Pitching his voice up, he yells, "Excuse me. I'm meeting some friends, and I'm very late. I need to get by."
All the youths giggle as though this is the funniest thing they have ever heard. As they crowd toward him, they sway and nudge each other and laugh hysterically. Jay can't see them clearly, but he's sure they're all high.
"Well, you know, lady," the largest one of the group slurs as he grabs the handlebars, "this is a private street and you got to pay a toll to ride through here."
"Yeah, a toll!" another one shouts. The others laugh uproariously.
"Come on, fellas," Jay says as sweetly as he can. "It's New Year's. Have a heart and let an old woman through. I don't have any money on me anyway."
"Oh yeah," a smaller one says reaching for the champagne bottle, which Jay quickly snatches up, "where'd you get the big bucks for the champagne then?"
"Leave me alone!" Jay shrieks.
"No need to get so twitchy, lady!" the big one says. "Jus' let us look in your bag. We'll jus' take a five, maybe a ten, an' you can get on to your party."
"Party!" another shouts and starts singing something.
Shaking his head and almost rolling up his eyes, Jay pulls off his watch and offers it. "Here, take this and let me through," he says. "It's worth two hundred dollars. One of those Atomic Watches from The Shaper Image." But even he can see that the watch is going berserk. It should be almost 1:30 by now, but like tiny black scissors, the hands keep swinging back and forth between 12 and 12:15. The National Institute of Standards and Technology and its Atomic Clock have been bitten by the millennium bug.
"This watch ain't no good!" shouts one of the group. "We don't want no broken old lady's watch." The watch is tossed into the shadows.
Jay swears under his breath. If only the watch had been working, he knows this crew would have taken it and let him go. Stepping away from the bike and snatching off the wig, he holds the bottle in front of him with both hands. "Okay, guys," he says using his regular voice, "enough is enough. I was playing a little joke on my friends. That's why I'm dressed like this. I really don't have any money on me. But come with me to my car, and I'll give each of you ten bucks. What do you say?"
Before anyone can speak, the small one circles around and grabs onto the minipack. Automatically Jay swings and catches the youth in the head with the bottle, savagely striking him to the pavement.
The big one roars and flings the bike down toward Jay's feet. "Tune! Tune!" he shouts. One of the others bends down over the sprawled body. "I think Tune's dead, Jeffy," he whispers.
Somebody shouts, "Let's get him!" Jay is tackled and beaten unconscious with his own fake champagne bottle. The loose minipack spills diamonds and pearls over the sidewalk.
Soon after one ambulance takes Tune's corpse away, Jay wakes up in another. A National Guard soldier stares down at the beaten and heavily bandaged body and asks, "What happened?"
Jay can barely see through his swollen eyes, but murmurs over battered teeth, "Just a little Y2K problem."
Vincent Miskell (firstname.lastname@example.org) Has had his fiction published in Rosebud, Frontiers, Mad Scientist, Eclipse, and Millennium. He lives with his wife and two children in Florida, where he works as an instructional designer at a multimedia company.
InterText Copyright © 1991-2000 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 9, Number 6 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1999 Vincent Miskell.