The Home Secretary had them all in her office for nine o’clock: the Chief Constable of the West Midlands Constabulary, the Commissioner of the Met, various other senior officers including the head of the Counter-Terrorism Command, seniors from the three main security services, civil servants, political advisers, all the usual hangers-on. At least, thought Ted Armstrong, the PM’s down at Chequers licking his wounds after that debacle over the press release and didn’t want another superfluous COBRA meeting.
She had started with a media review, of all things. Talk about priorities he thought! The media adviser was winding up.
“…so, at least initially the media wrote it off as just another gas explosion, unfortunately someone got hold of a video clip showing the three tied up policemen being freed and taken away to an ambulance, almost certainly taken from a neighbour’s camera phone. Fortunately, it’s Saturday so they’ve been slower than otherwise in picking this up, but it’ll gather strength throughout the day. I’m afraid we’re losing containment; it’s just a question of when they link it to the other incidents. We’re getting enquiries about the identities of the three officers taken away. We aren’t commenting, but it’s just a matter of time before some blabbermouth in the local force spills the beans.”
The Chief Constable shot him a thunderous look and started forward in his chair to protest, to defend his officers’ integrity, but was cut off by the Home Secretary. She looked at the CT Command head. “So, what is your latest thinking? Is it connected to the other incidents? And what light does it shed on the interesting theories you so lucidly expounded to the PM at COBRA a little while ago?”
Those reptilian eyes, gleaming sardonically, he thought, pay-back time it seems. Oh well, she almost can’t touch me now.
“Well Home Secretary, Ladies and Gentlemen, we should proceed on the basis that these events are all closely linked.” No one disagreed with that, at least audibly. “Unfortunately, I.., we, don’t think this fundamentally changes the balance of probabilities of the possible explanations, other than the fact that the culprits went out of their way to avoid killing three police officers, appear to have abducted a young girl of unknown identity or background, and killed a female occupant of the property and an unidentified man, possibly her husband, who may have links with the victims of the Birmingham sniping and the NEC shootings.”
Somebody, one of the security service representatives, growled a protest. “They were hardly victims, they were bent on mass murder; I can’t say I’m shedding any tears.”
“And neither am I, nor I hope, is anyone else here today. My apologies, but they were… are, victims of a crime, unlawful killing. It appears that at least one of the gunmen was of dark skinned, middle-eastern appearance which might give additional credence to the splinter faction theory, but the other three at least appear to be Caucasian in origin. Three converts? Possible, but unlikely. Furthermore, the fact that they purposefully avoided killing four people suggests a strong desire not to kill those they regard as innocent in any way. That is highly suggestive that this is not the work of a factional group.”
“Whoever it is, they are moving quickly, with considerable expertise, targeted ruthlessness and, most impressive of all, exceptional intelligence. The pathologist looking at the remains found in the house has just reported that one, apparently the female, was shot in the forehead before being set alight.”
A number of the women around the room squirmed uncomfortably at this latest revelation but, he noticed, not the Minister; she remained impassive. Keep it going, keep cool. His Lincolnshire accent was almost indistinct such was his self-control. You have the beating of them today. “Consequently, this new evidence might be said to support all the other potential theories equally: the foreign services, the rogue domestic security forces, out-of-control ex-military contractors or a new group of unknown origin; although their motivation, if they indeed do exist, seem to be becoming clearer.”
He looked around innocently. “Have either the Foreign Office or Minister of Defence being able to provide anything of use from their sources?” He knew very well they hadn’t, at least not yet.
The Home Sec remained impassive, or was there a slight colouring in her cheeks? A low murmuring of people, deciding whether to make their invaluable contributions to the discussion, lit up around the peripheries of the room, making its way as if blown by a breeze to its centre. Just as it started flickering into life around the Home Secretary itself, she stamped on it as a fireman would a spark in a dry bush.
“Thank you,” she said, “it seems that you and your colleagues are little further forward than before. Currently at least sixteen people have died violently, and more been injured as a result of this series of incidents, and now we appear to have our first confirmed abduction. It simply isn’t good enough, whoever it is running rings around us and that has to stop. Let’s convene again at this time on Monday morning.”
As he left the room, Ted Armstrong shook his head ruefully. Don’t they realise how long these things take? How much luck can have to do with it?
‘Henry’ hadn’t needed to be in the room; at least two attendees would brief him subsequently. He had other things to do.
“Can I come over tonight; I need to ask you that favour?” A heart skipped a beat. “I’d like to take you out for supper, but you know how hard it is to talk in public, so I was going to ask you over, reciprocate, make you supper, but I won’t be back in town until sixish and won’t have any time to make you anything decent. I’m sorry to let you down, I know I promised, I’ll make it up to you, can you forgive me?”
No problem she had lied, come here like last night, better for talking, she insisted that no, it wasn’t a problem and there was nothing to forgive. Was she so excited because he was coming over, or from wondering what he wanted to ask her, or maybe it was the news for which she was so avid? She’d hold him to that. Come over as soon you can, don’t even go home, stay if you need, you know I’ve space. She knew she was babbling again, get a grip. Try not to sound so desperate.
He’d see, but be with her for seven he promised. Three hours to get ready, cancel commitments, now she knew. Start to cook, not cop out again by buying in, get ready and brush up. She needed the closeness, the reassurance of his presence; he was used to this type of uncertainty, people he valued in peril, she wasn’t, it wasn’t her world. It had been a wearing day, minutes ticking by, time dragging, waiting for news, for him, enough, wait’s nearly over. She’d things to say to him. Things she should have said long ago. Things to think about.
Two hours and forty minutes later, dinner on the way, simple and easy; he would appreciate it more, her making it herself. Damn, the door phone’s gone. Who can it be at this time? No, it’s him and then, the warmth from within. He’s come straight here; he heard it in my voice. Now there he is, like every other time, just standing there as if it’s his own home and he isn’t racing against the clock on a dozen matters of import. Tempting just to watch him there, make him wait a little, see how long it is before he gets impatient and buzzes again, longer and louder. He seems to be carrying something, a plastic bag, and then disappointment, no overnight bag. He was looking up at the camera now, just smiling quizzically as if aware that she was up there, watching him like a voyeur. She reached for the door release and called him in, what had she been thinking?
Two minutes, haven’t had time to get ready, just to brush her shoulder length fair hair, pull it back with a clip. Just my day clothes, blue jeans and royal blue cashmere roll-neck. She relaxed again, she must have dressed for him unconsciously this morning; he had once told her that royal blue suited her, matched her eyes, it had been most unusual of him to pass such a compliment. Old, comfortable slippers, her doorbell’s going, he must be there. No time to change into shoes. Warmth from within again: he wouldn’t mind, maybe not even notice, but it mattered to her. She let him in, he passed the usual comment about not being followed, asked how she was, apologised for being early, but he’d decided to come direct rather than risking her wrath by being late again, handed her his coat, usual unmentioned weight in the pocket, opened the bag and handed her some flowers, just smiling at her, “Peace offering? Am I forgiven?”
Several small bunches of daffodils, looked like King Alfreds. Simple, unsophisticated, inexpensive. Look like they’ve come from a farm shop, she thought. At least not a supermarket or motorway services, the usual last minute desperate resort of errant husbands trying to make peace when they arrived home. Only he would dare to offer something like this. Among the few indulgences of her wealth she permitted herself to enjoy one was for fresh flowers. She had a woman from an expensive Chelsea florist who changed them in her flat every Thursday; they never lasted well inside a warm modern apartment; bouquets in her kitchen, hall, dining room, bedroom, dressing room, guest rooms when expecting visitors. It was all on account, she never dared look at the itemised bills for fear that they would reproach her for her self-indulgence. They, exquisite, extravagant, helped fill her home, make it feel somewhere to come back to when alone, make it more lived in.
And here he was, smiling now, giving her simple little yellow flowers that a young child would save up their pocket money to buy their mum on Mothers’ Day, in the company of a garden of colours and scents from around the world. It was just so him, so apposite and exactly what she needed.
“Come into the kitchen, dinner’s on; it’s just cottage pie I’m afraid, a bit of salad, some nice ice cream to follow.” Summer holidays in the Scillies with her family, the rich flavours of Jersey milk ice cream from Troy Town, the most westerly farm in Britain, another little treat. Yes, the narcissi just matched the memory. “A drink, some wine or maybe a beer? I’ve got you some of that Hook Norton you like, it’s in the fridge and you know where the glasses are.” She didn’t tell him she had had to trawl three supermarkets to find it since he had called, that’s why she was running so late. It took him back to the times he came and went through Brize Norton in the old days he liked to say. He smiled again. He guessed.
He went to the fridge and opened it, his back turned, guard down, vulnerable. Without stopping to think she was behind him, her arms under his, around his chest, head by his shoulder. He started slightly. “We, I, need to talk, this evening, tonight. Not now. I know there’s business first, your news, higher priorities, and I don’t want to burden your any further, but there’s things I need to say, decisions I may be coming to, but I need you to listen before I make them. Do you mind? Please?” There, not as hard as she had feared once she got going.
He turned around in her arms and pushed her backwards ever so gently until he was standing with each hand resting on her shoulders opposite, her arms by her sides, his eyes on hers, almost transfixed she felt. That slight smile was back, unsettling and reassuring together.
“Of course, whatever you need, you know that, you’ve earned it… “
“I don’t want to have earned it; I want to be given it, by you.”
Unusual of him to make a misstep, use the wrong words. She must have rattled him; the crowbar of her need to gain purchase had opened him up a little. He looked crest-fallen, as if suddenly realising he had inadvertently wounded her. “I don’t know what to say, I’m sorry. Whatever you want, as long as you want it, I promise.”
Reckless, he’s rattled.
She excused herself to go to the bathroom while he readied drinks. She needed to breathe deeply, regain the equanimity that had been getting harder and harder to sustain with him over recent weeks and months. She’d thought she had had it all under control, and then had realised just this morning there wasn’t just one beast deep within, the familiar one that she knew how to lock away, well most of the time, but another, more subtle, more cunning and far more deadly.
When she re-entered the kitchen he passed her a half full wine glass. Moderation in all things, as ever. He had opened a beer, the burgundy and copper labelled bottle complementing the polished oak of her work-tops. He was clearly not intending to go back to work tonight and looked like he had relaxed a little following her unexpected outpouring.
© 1642again 2018