The walk was just what she needed, invigorating in the Spring sunshine among the reams of wild flowers lining the track sides and field fringes, helping to clear her head. The climate was more like that of southern Cornwall here, a microclimate established by the alignment of the surrounding hills, moor and tree topped in places. Running, broken only in a few places by side valleys, down to the shore line, if anything gaining height as they did so until they cut out into the sea, curving around the enclosed bay like a mother’s arms sheltering her baby, almost entrapping the mist obscured islands in the bay, leaving only a few narrow channels out to the ocean beyond. “What are those islands?” she had asked Martha.
“The big one’s Apple Island, where the Duke lives, the Abbey is there too. The little ones we call the Hermitages, after the monks who sought solitude on them. One or two still do.”
She was introduced to locals they passed, all seemed friendly if reserved; eventually they came to a large stone and tiled building, like a great barn. “This is the warehouse and beside it is the station for the railway with the general store attached. There are several trains per day normally, not Sundays though. Look, you can see where they are extending the track.”
Five or six hundred yards further up the valley side a gang of men were laying metal rails on newly levelled ground which appeared to be cut from the hillside. “I think they will be ready to blast another section next week. We all have to go inside when they do.”
The track looked narrow she thought, like one of those in North Wales. Josey would be in heaven, puppies and steam trains, what three-year old boy could want for more? They headed back to the house, passing the church entrance on their circuit. A few stone graves projected from the grass and Spring flowers surrounding it. It wasn’t a church really, more a small chapel built out of stone and tile, with small plain glass windows, no tower or spire, just a bell towerlet at one end.
“Can I go inside? I’ve got some things to think about and it might help.”
“Of course, it’s never locked in the day.” The older woman smiled, encouraging her, “I’ll see you back at the house, the boys will be getting hungry.”
She hesitated in the porch, steeling herself for what might follow. She pushed the heavy door open, and stepped in, closing it so softly behind her. She looked around, plain whitewashed stone walls, exposed roof timbers, only one small stained-glass window above the altar, the rest clear, and a couple of stone plaques mounted on the walls of the nave. It was clearly not old, just built to look old.
She heard movement behind her. She froze for a second and then turned around. There was a priest, a large youngish reddish haired man coming out of a side door, no; he was wearing light monk-like robes. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know…”
He smiled. “Sally, isn’t it? I heard you might come in today.” How did he know? “I’m the priest for this parish, and yes I’m in Holy Orders and a monk. Is that a problem?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t recognise your, ummm, tonsure?”
“Clever of you to spot it.” He bent forward; he had plenty of hair other than a gash shaped shaven patch running from ear to ear. You won’t have seen one of those before?”
“That’s because the Synod of Whitby, as it’s called in Logres and the outside world, never happened here. We’re the last refuge of the native Celtic Church. The church of Columba, David, Aedan, Patrick, Pelagius and Joseph of Arimathea you might say. When’s Easter?”
“Umm, nearly three weeks away?”
He chuckled. “Not here, we still use the old method of calculation; it’s a week sooner this year, although even we moved from the Julian to Gregorian calendars ninety years ago. Can I get you some coffee?” He winked at her. “I keep some special coffee in the vestry for visitors who want to talk…”
The last free member of the late Mohammed Badr’s cell was watching the TV news for the umpteenth time in disbelief. Shaitan himself must be upon them, fighting for the kaffir surely? What to do with the video swansongs they had all recorded before starting off on their fateful journey? Post them up on the web, don’t hide them away. They had still died martyrs, however unsuccessful: they deserved their memorials.
What was he to do then, all alone? Lay low and wait to be contacted, praying that friends found him before the authorities, who seemed to be in a killing mood, or undertake a lone glorious action on his own initiative? For all his fervour in company he was not a naturally brave man and was better with keyboards than weapons, which is why he had been given the job he had. So, lay low and wait, for now, for twenty-four hours. Perhaps the missing Badr would turn up, perhaps he had been called away by other contacts, other operations, perhaps it wasn’t as bad as he feared and the rumours were false, put about by the infidels to confuse the righteous.
Helena put down the tablet and logged out of the web browser. The journalists and commentators were in a rising frenzy of reportage, with speculation building on rumour in a kind of media arms race. Now the foreign media had dived in, with even less restraint and no worries at all about any consequence. Some were even speculating that the killing, in a Birmingham backstreet, of a Turkish immigrant could be related, as he seemed to be known to at least one of the identified jihadists. One admittedly notorious web-blogger had even picked up a local rumour that another associate of theirs had just disappeared, but no one reputable would want to be seen dead associating themselves with the opinions of such an ‘out-there’ commentator so it remained a dead strand for now.
She hadn’t known what they were up to, wouldn’t ask, but it had been an unexpectedly good return on investment. She mulled it over, as good as that which her best private equity deal had produced, a truly embarrassing IRR in a few months? Luck and timing obscenely magnifying the results of the good judgement that had made her reputation and her fortune, made her courted and influential in the shadowy private finance world. When the media and politicians went on about bankers, they hadn’t a clue what they were talking about: the real power lay within unremarkable town-houses and behind office doors bearing anodyne brass name-plates in select streets around the West End, so understated that one would think them the offices of small provincial firms of solicitors or chartered surveyors. The City was for drones.
Well, whoever they were, they had done her proud. Perhaps when this was all over, when her drive to win had finished burning itself out, she might be allowed to meet them, share a couple of bottles of her favourite Musigny with them over dinner in some forgotten rural pub. The juxtaposition tickled her.
The money was nothing after the first few mill. She was free of that endless desire for more, unlike so many of her colleagues and competitors. She didn’t really earn it, she made it; it was real people who earned it for her doing thankless jobs, people she would never meet. So why had she never lost perspective, why had the rewards she gained, which so obsessed and twisted other people around her, only clarified her thinking? She had been empty, a futile vessel of outwardly immense success, and then she had met him in a lift in the West End. He had smiled at her. She had been alone at the time, contemplating giving it up, but for what? He was reasonable looking, older, gracious, understated, very good manners, elegant almost, assured but not arrogant. And light years away from her world.
She had asked him for a coffee there and then. He was surprised, disconcerted almost. That had amused her, but she had wanted him all the more for that, wanted to sleep with him to make him hers and had tried for some time without too obviously throwing herself. She now realised she never got close. She wasn’t unattractive, and he didn’t seem to give a damn about money or status. He was very hetero, but closed off; she only found out why much later after she had swallowed her pride and settled for friendship, something she now valued more highly than his, well, passion.
She had tried to check him out, as she did if she were seriously interested in someone: credit checks, that sort of thing, until the firm she used got cold feet and resigned the case. He had little money, a military pension and one from the civil service, decent schooling but no college, and wore well cut gents’ clothes purchased from a nice, but staid, gent’s outfitters. His flat was ok, but not registered to him, no close family any more, nondescript car, seemed to give quite a lot of his income to charity, nothing about his job other than that he was a government employee, all very dull and not really her. But, bit by bit, as she got to know him and a very little about his world, he had started to fill the void she had feared to recognise in herself. Three, four, five years, several lovers and one husband had come and gone, but no one had come close to matching his meaning to her as their friendship morphed into something close to the deeper love of companionship she now realised was what she had craved most of all. Cynics said it couldn’t happen between man and woman, there were movies made about that storyline after all. Well he, in so many ways for her, showed her how.
Then one day, just one unremarkable day, he had met her at her penthouse flat in Chelsea. She had seen the burden was crushing him, whatever it was; he was tired, at a loss, she had never seen him like this before, it was shocking. His vulnerability had reawakened the old feelings, part of her had wanted to seduce him, comfort him, make him hers; fill some of the void within her, perhaps even all of it. But, being always more of her mind than her body, she had feared that to attempt it could only ruin what she had from him, so she had locked those feelings away deep down once more. She offered him anything he needed, a home with her, money, contacts, secrets. She had shocked herself with the fervour of her generosity, her desire to repay something of what he had given her.
He had looked at her for a long time in silence, in that quiet penetrating way of his. She had felt naked before him, totally exposed. He had warned her of something of the consequences, had made her swear to never disclose anything. He was almost touchingly naive in some ways; oaths meant little in her world, water-tight contracts were obstacles sharp minds could circumvent, the American way of doing business was now utterly dominant. Still, she would have promised him anything at that point and she would keep it, of that she was sure.
So, he had told her, just a little of it, to whet her appetite. But then she had doubted, briefly, his sanity, when he told her more. But it was still him, still that quiet, determined romantic hidden under layers of obfuscation and detachment, working towards the goal he had set himself to assuage the emptiness. And then he had introduced her to somebody else, living proof he wasn’t a fantasist. That had been enough. Getting the resources in the right places was child’s play to her, she had access to far more than he thought he needed. Tracing it would require the attention of experts on several continents, and because it was lots of small, everyday amounts it wouldn’t even be flagged up unless someone really knew what they were looking for.
Now, four years later, she only really continued in her job to help him and his ‘friends’. Her part to play, to work on something far greater than herself, something to make amends to the real people even if they would never know, perhaps to close that remaining hollow, even find redemption maybe?
If it was what she thought it was, she whispered a prayer to the deity she couldn’t believe in to get them home safe. Perhaps he would call round this weekend, she found herself missing his company.
The PM took the call; the Chief Executive of the company targeted last night was one of the few who could always get through to him. It was one of Britain’s best industrial success stories, worth hundreds of millions in exports each year, hundreds of millions in taxes, thousands of high value jobs. The man had survived unscathed, but lost some valued management as well as their spouses. He would be emotional, demanding, understandably so and would need careful handling. The PM spoke first, balancing the unctuousness with the directness he was advised sounded so good.
“Peter? How are you? I can’t express my sorrow for your loss. Are you all getting everything you need? May I say I regard the attack on you and your colleagues as an assault on the entire UK?”
His PR adviser listening in on another phone gave him a thumbs-up, the right tone was vital.
“Thank you, Prime Minister, but that’s not why I’m on the phone to you.”
His gruff, Yorkshire voice accentuated by stress; he was not prepared to be charmed by anybody at present. He was clearly on the edge, emotional like the PM had never heard him before.
“I and my colleagues want to thank those members of the security forces for saving us last night, in person.”
Damnation, he had bought the rumours about the SAS; this was going to be tricky.
“We, and those of the business community who have called us from around the world, have agreed to pledge a total of £50 million. Twenty for armed forces and police charities, twenty to establish a trust fund for the dependents of those killed and wounded last night, and ten to those whose skill killed the terrorists and saved all our lives. I and my Board want to hand the cheque to them in person in the next few days at Hereford, and I expect to see medals for them as well as HM Government’s contribution. We will also offer a reward of a further £20 million for information received which enables the conviction of any other terrorists or their supporters involved in this… this… We are issuing a press release to that effect shortly. I trust you will support this initiative. Thank you for your time and solicitation.”
The line went dead, he had put the phone down on him, the PM; he was clearly addled with emotion at his near escape. Only later did the PM learn that the man’s new wife had been heading to the rear lobby when the bomb when off, leaving her dazed, but otherwise uninjured. Had she walked just a little quicker, hadn’t had to press through the crush of guests, he would have been a widower for the second time.
His PR chief stood up and drew a finger across his throat; the others in the room looked at their feet. The PM was not a foul-mouthed man, but for once gave vent to an extraordinary sequence of expletives to the effect that they were royally screwed by someone who was obviously out-of-his-mind, no matter how distinguished. His PR man stepped into the breach, somewhat bravely, the other occupants of the room later reflected.
“We’ve no choice, we’ve got to issue a statement to head this off to the effect that we don’t know who topped those murderous lunatics, but it wasn’t us; otherwise we’ll be a right royal laughing stock around the world.”
“Can’t we slap a D Notice on his press release?” joked someone to ease the tension, and promptly wished he were invisible such was the boss’ withering look.
“Do it, write it now, I’ll sign it. Get it out in the next five minutes.” His Cabinet colleagues would go bananas, let alone the security services and police, but there was nothing else for it. They were stuck and they were losing containment.
© 1642again 2018