By Michael F. McQuade

On an isolated dirt road near the top of Mt. Wilson, a slim figure sat on the dented fender of an old Jeep Wrangler. He glanced at his watch for the umpteenth time then stared once more at the brilliant lights of the metropolis. Any minute now, he thought.

First came the light flashes. Then a thunderous roar rocked the valley. Near one of the sites, he stood in awe as an enormous steel tower, with massive wires that transmitted electricity to the area, buckled and crashed to the ground. The arcing created by the short circuits lit up the sky like a lightning storm.

City by city, as if someone were turning off a series of light switches, millions of Southern California residents and thousands of businesses lost their electrical power.

His dark, narrowed eyes fastened on the sinister scene like Dracula inspecting a throbbing jugular. He needed to get the hell out of there, but he couldn't turn away. Finally, he forced himself to jump off the fender and climb into the Wrangler. He wiped the beads of sweat from his brow then neatly folded the handkerchief and slipped it into his hip pocket.

He started the vehicle, shoved it into four-wheel drive, and headed down the mountain. A trail of dust followed.

* * *

Ellwood Becker, a retired FBI agent in charge of Pacific International's security force, eased his lanky frame into one of the conference room chairs and waited for his two associates. His thinning hair looked as if it had been through a windstorm. Dark circles under his eyes and a wrinkled suit left no question that he'd been up all night. Henry Cruz, a former defensive tackle for UCLA, barged into the room and tossed his tent-sized jacket on the credenza. He dropped into a chair across from his boss.

A moment later, Peter Fetherston, in his crisp blue suit and looking as if he'd just stepped out of Esquire Magazine, joined them.

"The pressure's on, guys," Becker said. "We're not only catching flak from our customers for the blackouts, but the PUC is on our butt. Businesses have lost production. They've sent people home rather than pay them to stand around in the dark."

He flipped his Daytimer open. "On July 15th, it was Long Beach. As a result of the signal lights’ being out, one elderly man died in a traffic accident. One week later, the Wilmington refinery fire took three more lives. And last night, most of L.A. and Orange counties plunged into darkness. No body count from that one yet."

Fetherston leaned forward. "Did you see the article in the Times this morning about what happened at Pasadena Memorial Hospital?"

Becker shook his head. "I haven't even had a chance to brush my teeth."

"A young girl died during a liver transplant when their backup generator failed to start. Another death caused by a power outage, just like my Mother's."

"This whole thing doesn't make any sense. What a waste," Becker sighed.

"I just got off the phone with my buddy at the sheriff's department." Cruz turned up a beefy palm. "There's nothing new. One other thing--they don't have the manpower to patrol every power station and transmission line in Southern California. They'll do what they can, but that's not much."

Peter Fetherston tapped his pencil on the tabletop. "After last night, I think this guy knows more than we gave him credit for. Ellwood, I'd bet money that he worked for a utility at one time. Maybe still does."

"I agree, Pete. Listen, here's what I want you guys to do." Becker glanced at his notes. "Meet with H.R. and get the names and addresses of everyone who left the company during the last six months, voluntarily or otherwise. Then pull the files on the ones who were fired and start checking them out. And Pete, meet with DWP as soon as you can. Maybe they were able to come up with something."

After the others left, Becker leaned back in his chair, propped his feet on the table, and recalled recruiting Cruz from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Cruz had periodically tried to lose weight; his consumption of double burgers and fries, washed down by chocolate shakes, made that impossible. He hadn't met a meal he wouldn't eat.

Fetherston, on the other hand, had retired from the FBI six months before Becker and had recommended him to Pacific. Today, Becker was Fetherston's boss, and he knew that was like a grain of sand in Fetherston’s eye.

Hours later, the three men again gathered around the conference table. Becker loosened his tie and unbuttoned his collar. "What'd you guys come up with?"

Fetherston slid the papers across the table. "There's fifty names on that list. Most of 'em retired, but ten were canned. One died in an auto accident."

"What about the fired ones?" asked Becker. Cruz opened a mustard-stained notebook. "I did some checking. Eight were terminated for poor performance. One for insubordination--he took a poke at his boss. And the other called in sick one day and never returned."

"You two split the list and have a chat with 'em," Becker said. "I'll stick around and read their files."

"The folders are on my desk." Fetherston wiped the sweat from his forehead. "Ellwood, you need to get some rest. You look like hell." He neatly folded the handkerchief.

When the two left, Becker walked down to Fetherston's office and carried back a box full of well organized personnel files. One by one, he pored over them. When he finished, he looked up at the wall clock, shook his head, and strode out the door.

* * *

Becker, Cruz, and Fetherston crowded around Becker's desk studying their notes. Three days had passed since the last power outage, and Becker knew instinctively that with each tick of the clock another blackout grew closer.

California's energy crisis had reached a critical phase over the last few months. Now, it was compounded by a renegade on the loose. The pressure from the public, the business community, and the various government agencies intensified daily. Becker had lost his appetite and most nights just stared at the ceiling until dawn.

"Did you contact the people we fired?" Becker asked.

"I talked to all five of mine," Fetherston replied. "Three of 'em have higher paying jobs and have no reason for revenge. One was in Good Samaritan Hospital during the last outage. The other was vacationing in Mexico during the second incident. There's no one I can point to."

"Henry, what about you?" Becker leaned back in his chair and tried to relax. His temples continued to throb.

"Well . . . I thought we might have something with O'Brien. I found out the guy's always fighting. He lost his last three jobs because of his quick temper. But he's working for Aramco in Saudi Arabia, so forget him. One of the others died of cancer. And two moved back east. I didn't connect with the guy that called in sick."

Becker shook his head. "So, what you're saying is we have no suspects. Let's get back to the sick guy. What's his name?"

Cruz glanced at his rumpled notes. "Boris Weaselman."

"What do we know about him?" Becker asked.

"Let's see . . . he lives by himself in Santa Ana. Over the last five years, he's worked for three utilities. Never stays at one job longer than a year or two, but his record's clean. That's about it. I didn't push finding him because of his good performance appraisals."

"Were any of the guys in the service?" Becker slid the thermos over and filled his cup.

"Yes, six," Cruz said. "Four were in the army, and the other two were swabbies. It looks like they were either electricians, communication techs, or machinists." He paused for a long moment, leaning on the table with his beefy arms. "You know they all had honorable discharges except Weaselman. His was a general--a step down. The records don't say why. But that's not real unusual."

"Pete, call the bureau and ask our old boss why this guy got out a general." Becker opened up a folder.

As he read through Weaselman's file again, Becker noticed the time off for the mother's funeral. The date was several days before the blackouts began. He scribbled a note in his planner.

The door opened and Fetherston hurried in. "They suspected him of selling arms on the black market when he was stationed in Vietnam. But the evidence was skimpy, so they cut a deal."

Becker snapped up his briefcase. "It's a little after six. Let's grab a bite and then pay him a visit."

"Don't forget," Fetherston said, "I have a meeting with DWP at 7:30. If you want, I'll cancel."

"No, go ahead. Maybe they'll have something new. Henry and I can handle Weaselman. See you in the morning."

* * *

Behind the tall oleanders, a black-clad figure wearing a ski mask and leather gloves squeezed a large pair of wire cutters. Finished, he surveyed the area, slipped through the hole in the chain link fence, and entered the Pacific International facility.

He eyed the circuit breakers, large enough to be out of a Star Wars movie. Staying in the shadows, he crept along the fence until he reached the first one. A quick study of the breaker produced what he wanted. A metal ring hung from the center of the apparatus.

While scanning the facility again, he thought about how the damn company had turned off her electricity because she couldn't afford to pay the bill. He lifted the front panel of the box and pulled open a knife switch. He yanked on the ring, and instantly, the circuit breaker tripped.

When he pulled the last ring, the surrounding neighborhood plummeted into darkness. He whispered, "That's for you, Mom."

He rushed back to the hole in the fence and dashed to his car.

Nearby, men and women opened their front doors and peered out into the gloom as the smoke from his screeching tires followed him down the road.

* * *

After finishing his burger and shake, Cruz pushed his plate away. "I'll be back in a sec. I'm goin' to the john."

While Becker dipped a fry into a mound of catsup, the lights flickered and went out, throwing the café into darkness. He shifted in the booth and stared through the window, almost mesmerized by the gloom. The shops, streetlights, and traffic signals were all out. The full moon was the only visible light.

Cruz rushed back. "You think it's him?"

"It's him all right," Becker said, "I can feel it. Call the Energy Control Center and find out what happened."

Several minutes later, Cruz finally heard ringing instead of the perpetual busy signal. With the cell phone in one ear and his finger in the other, Cruz moved away from the noisy couple in the next booth. "Yeah, yeah . . . Okay, I got it. Call me when you get more." He returned to the table.

"They think someone entered Paradise Substation and opened the circuit breakers. They've got an electrician on the way."

Becker jumped to his feet. "Let's head for Weaselman's place."

* * *

After speeding from the power station, the man in black sent his Jeep Wrangler skidding around one corner then another as he headed for the freeway. He glanced at the speedometer. Forty, then fifty. Only one more intersection and I'll be home free, he thought.

His foot pressed the gas pedal--just a little harder. As he approached the intersection, he realized the signal and streetlights were out. He knew he couldn't afford to stop. His foot flattened the accelerator.

* * *

The woman driving the eighteen-wheeler knew she shouldn't be on this street, but she needed to avoid the scales on the freeway. With five miles to go and running late, she pressed down on the gas and tightened her grip on the steering wheel. The overloaded truck was a freight train rolling down the track.

She peered into the dark intersection. Her eyes widened. Out of nowhere, a small car appeared. Her foot stomped on the brake. All eighteen tires screamed against the asphalt. The truck skidded, jackknifed, and tumbled on its side. Sparks flew everywhere.

* * *

The man in black heard the screeching tires and glanced to his left. Blinded by the headlights, he jammed his foot on the brake with all the strength he possessed. A wall of steel rushed right at him. He jerked the steering wheel the other way. But the mountain of steel reached out like a clenched fist and smashed into the left side of his Jeep. The Wrangler spun around once and crashed head-on into a telephone pole.

Peter Fetherston felt no pain. Eternal darkness settled in.

* * *

Becker glanced at Cruz. "I still can't believe it. He not only caused the outage but died because of it. Did I tell you the police found explosives and station diagrams at his place? The neighbors said that he was outraged when he found out his mother's electricity had been cut-off. He blamed that for her heart attack.

"Well, I wonder who he blames for this."