He had left his parents-in-law by eight o’clock the following morning, heading to the local station to meet the officers leading the search for his wife; it had been a sombre evening, but not what he had expected, he had done them a disservice. They were frantic about their daughter and grandson, but had tried to shield him from their feelings, clearly concerned for him too. They didn’t probe about why he hadn’t come down straightaway, assuming it must have something to do with last night’s dramatic news. They didn’t know why she had phoned to tell them she was on her way down so unexpectedly, perhaps he had wanted her away from the big city with all that was going on? He hadn’t wanted to disabuse them of this comfort.
They displayed an old-fashioned English sang-froid, motivated by a selfless concern for others, it was quite admirable really. Yes, in his selfishness he had misjudged them. Now to apply a boot to the arses of the local boys and then back to face what seemed to be mounting hysteria in the higher echelons in London. Oh yes, he had spoken to a couple of colleagues who had been summoned back. What a mess, although old Ted Armstrong seemed to be winning new admirers.
Sally was up late the following morning, awakened only by her son entering and climbing on her bed; her headache had diminished, and she realised how clean and fresh the air felt. Sea air. It always made city dwellers like she and Josey sleep deeper and longer for days before they acclimatised. She opened the window and looked down the valley. It was still clear, but she could see a hint of cloud on the western horizon, perhaps auguring a change coming.
She washed in the bowl on the chest of drawers, almost icy cold, dressed and came down feeling less stiff, a little fresher. Martha heard her descending and came out to call them through for late breakfast. “Iltud’s walking down to the station with the Seigneur, the others have gone home. They found nothing, just a few more yards of new moorland. I’ve invited my grandson, who’s about Josey’s age, round to play to give you a break. Is that alright with you? Why don’t you have a bath and then come with me for a walk while my daughter-in-law keeps an eye on them? See some more of it for yourself; the fresh air may do you good.”
Her hostess really was one of the nicest people she had ever met, a natural at putting her at ease and stilling her worries. She nodded assent and tried to lose herself in small talk about everyday things.
‘Old Ted’ Armstrong hadn’t been able to avoid attending COBRA, sucked into the black hole of blathering, as he termed it. He was getting too old for this; he was employed to use his judgement and make decisions based on a lifetime’s experience, not exhaust himself, out all night at the scene and then back here, sat at a desk for hours taking calls from all and sundry wanting to be ‘in the loop’. Oh Lord, the PM was channelling Churchill again; why do all modern politicians imitate the great man in anything resembling a crisis? Most weren’t fit to lick his boots. A giggle broke in, but he stifled it, the barely subdued hysteria in the room was infectious. Concentrate man, your mind’s wandering. The Home Sec’s lizard-like eyes were on him now, get ready for it.
“And perhaps the estimable head of the Counter-Terrorism Command would like to recount any unreported details of last night’s events and the course of the investigation so far?”
Well he was ready for them. “Thank you, Prime Minister. You are all now familiar with the outline of last night’s events. A major atrocity was averted, by forces unknown to us, saving perhaps over one thousand lives, including a Cabinet Minister. Seven suspected terrorists were killed, one by his own hand as he detonated a bomb in the hotel lobby. The others, preparing to suicide bomb the hotel with over two thousand pounds of explosives and then launch a Bombay style gun assault on any survivors and unfortunates in the vicinity, were shot to death before they could unleash their carnage. The sole surviving suspect is critically injured and in a coma, but should live. We are running traces on the suspects’ identities; four have been confirmed as British citizens so far. All bar one have no known terrorist links, the other only marginally so. The others remain unidentified and may well be foreign nationals; we are in contact with several governments, but it may take some time. The estimated number of innocent victims is six dead, fourteen injured and three missing, but the rubble means more bodies may be found.”
“We believe that there were at least four suspects. Two motorcycles were seen leaving the area very shortly afterwards, carrying four riders. We believe they entered the country roads south of the motorway, thus minimising camera coverage and have effectively disappeared for now. We recovered four AK47s of Chinese pattern from the scene, no serial numbers, but our experts think they may well be North Korean in origin, same for the ammunition. Hollow tipped and full metal rounds were used. The fact that they just abandoned them suggests they are confident we won’t be able to trace them via the weaponry. I trust their confidence is misplaced, but time will tell.”
“Whoever did this was highly expert. The thing that is most impressive is the quality of their intelligence. They seemed to know when and where the suspected terrorists would be launching their atrocity and killed them red-handed so to speak. Quite a neat job if I may say.”
He paused for effect. No one was stirring. Time to step out on to the stage.
“We now suspect that this event is connected to the killing of one Mohammed Amallifely in Birmingham less than seventy-two hours ago. He was a suspected Jihadi and was under observation. He was killed by a highly expert sniper on a city street at very long range with a high-grade military rifle, but no weapon or other evidence has been recovered. So far the press haven’t made the connection, but that may well not be the case for much longer. All resources available are being deployed on this investigation, but whoever has done this is highly expert and has remarkable intelligence and resources.”
Now to tie their tails together and watch them scrap so that his officers could focus on the job with as little meddling as possible. “As to who might be behind it, all we have is speculation, informed by one or two important observations. Firstly, they are highly resourced, professional and well informed. The latter suggests a splinter faction, as possibly does the manner of the second incident, but this theory does not fit well with either the professionalism or resourcing required. Furthermore, they have thus far exclusively targeted would-be terrorists, no one else, which makes it a less probable explanation. So, although a possibility, it’s not the most likely.”
No one had interrupted him; they were rapt, out of their depth here. “Secondly, a foreign security or intelligence agency, the first incident might suggest this, but not the second – too high profile and risky. I can’t believe even the Israelis, Russians or an Arab government would indulge in such dramatics on our shores unless they had lost control of one of their security services. Perhaps the Foreign Office could venture their opinion?”
He carried on before the purpling Foreign Secretary could collect himself and make a denial to hide his ignorance. He was enjoying himself now; he struggled to suppress his Lincolnshire tones, so long moderated in the cause of his career, but having a tendency to regain their grip in times of excitement.
“Thirdly, our own security or armed services have been running an operation of which we have not been made aware, or some of their agents have taken it into their own hands and slipped the leash. The nature of the targeting might be said to support this speculation.”
The heads of MI5, MI6 and the Chief of the General Staff looked up sharply. What game was being played here?
“Fourthly, some ex-military personnel, perhaps one of the various contractors used by various arms of Her Majesty’s Government for its more deniable activities in the defence of the realm, have started their own private war for their own reasons. Again, this is supported by the targeting, Frankenstein’s monster, breaking out of the castle so to speak.”
‘Henry’, standing as an apparent junior here, suppressed a smirk. The old boy was inspired; if this was his final bow it deserved an Oscar and a knighthood. His audience was on tenterhooks, wondering where the weathervane was going to point next; some were looking at one another with barely concealed distrust, suspicion even. It was like a field of dry stubble waiting for the inevitable lightning strike and the inferno to begin. Point the finger at the MOD in some way; everyone blamed them for everything, failing the Israelis or Russians? They had scapegoat written all over them, especially with the oaf currently sitting in the seat of Minister of Defence.
He drew breath. The atmosphere in the room was thick, sullen almost, like a storm waiting to break. Good. “Finally, I hope, a new, possibly native force, completely unknown to us. Hardly credible I think as we’ve heard nothing of it at all, no rumours, no signs, unless the Security Service has not been fully forthcoming, which I am not at all unduly reluctant to discount entirely.”
People sat stock still trying to unpick the increasingly tortured syntax employed by the old man, muddied by his now revivified provincial accent. Had he just insinuated that agencies here weren’t being entirely open with what they knew or were running their own paramilitary operations on the mainland with no political oversight?
The PM, whatever his faults, was one of the brighter ones in the room. The last thing he wanted was a major row between Cabinet colleagues who were fractious at the best of times, let alone to stir up the endemic distrust that existed between the various agencies represented here. But it was also a chance to take down the Home and Foreign Secretaries a peg or two, and to relieve the stress by kicking the Secretary for Defence.
“Thank you for that masterly summary Ted. We can leave it in your hands, for now.” The threat was made, what had the old boy been thinking? “Speculation is an enemy here, but Foreign Secretary I would like your categorical assurances that we have no evidence that a foreign security service is conducting paramilitary operations on our shores? Home Secretary, this is on your watch, I’m sure you appreciate that.” Her rectus smile made his heart sing. “Minister of Defence, it strikes me your team have a lot of questions to ask. That’s all everybody, thank you.”
‘Henry’ slipped out of the room first. Too bad the old boy was heading for retirement; he would have been worth cultivating. He had taught him a thing or two about holding court in such company. Well, well, well, whoever would have thought that an old plod could out-dance them all?
He picked up the phone and pressed the numbers. Two rings and it was answered, the recipient had clearly been awaiting his call. She was very keen to play, she knew all the right words, seemed a true believer, at the least she really wanted to be on the inside of whatever it was. Her vanity made her malleable. “I’m not sure quite what I witnessed. Your man came through it all unscathed. Quite a master, shame he’s not ours.” She liked the “ours”. She almost purred with shared complicity. “But how much longer has he to go? Hmmm. Who’s favourite to succeed him? Ah. Anyone for us? Disappointing. Dager, I’ve heard of him. Surely too much of an outside bet, too junior, besides, he’s not on side? Not yet? I understand, but soon you say? You’ve got the buttons to press? I hope so; it would be quite a step forward. You could deliver it you think, I wasn’t sure you had that much sway? Let me know how you get on won’t you? Good morning to you.”
Very eager to please, to ingratiate, to advance, confident that she could deliver. It would be another step forward and a feather in his cap if it came off. Oh well, back to those who thought themselves his masters. He smiled mirthlessly at himself in the mirror as he adjusted his tie.
© 1642again 2018