A few feet above them in a subsidiary attic specifically set aside for hideaways like him, Suleiman al-Libani heard the accented English-speaking voices. One sounded Antipodean, another unrecognisable. He had made it out of London after yesterday’s successful attack. His team had split up, ditched their equipment, there was plenty more near at hand, he knew; he had been offered safety here until the next assignments came through.
Intruders, at this time of night?
He had a handgun by his mattress, just next to the hatchway which led below. There were Kalashnikovs up here, packed, greased, but he didn’t want to put the light on in case it was spotted from below, nor risk the noise of opening the cases and readying them. Besides, in the tight spaces down there, a long assault rifle was too cumbersome, while a pistol with the element of surprise might suit him much better. Better wait and see before deciding whether to intervene.
Only a minute has passed when he hears another voice, unmistakeably English this time, with some sort of light regional accent. So, there’s at least three. Big odds, but not hopeless; after all, he was a veteran. The sound of someone being hit, again, another, harder this time, a body falling to the floor, being pulled up. Filth, torturing faithful people like these.
His ear is pressed to the plasterboard between the rafters, straining to make out the words, demands for names, numbers, places, contacts. There’s no answer, just silent resistance, true heroes to the cause. Should he wait or descend shooting? No more voices, just the three, one of whom has gone along the corridor and not come back? They’re divided; this might be the time, creep to the hatch, try to lift it slightly without making any noise, at least to squint through.
What sounds like two moderated shots, little more than the leak of gas from a balloon, easy to miss, but the fall of a human body to the floor is unmistakeable: he had seen it, caused it, so many times himself. It almost made him drop the half-lifted hatch in his surprise. He could make out the voices now, but not see them without exposing his head. One was congratulating the other, saying the boy must have been of a similar age to the girl he was so fond of, then telling the man no more chances. He must be a champion, the little restaurateur, but of course he was really a key link in the chain, so much more than he seemed. He said nothing. Two more shots, another thud, followed by two more and then another. That first voice was happy, satisfied, asking did he want it to be three next time? If he was to do anything, it needed to be now.
Pulling out the hatch he dropped down heavily into the corridor, a masked man, back to him, half-turned but was too slow. Suleiman beat him to the draw, a rushed wild shot admittedly, hitting him right in the midriff, knocking him on to his back. Now for the other, he must be in here somewhere before the briefest of flashes inside his head as his body slumped lifelessly against the corridor’s skirting board. The last sound he caught was of more shooting in the room ahead.
Alan put another two rounds into him as he stepped over his body, must have been in the roof space?
He jumped up, pulling himself through by brute force and looked about; no one else it seemed, must have been alone. They had got careless.
Georgy was on his front now, Sam applying a pressure dressing to slow the bleeding, he was breathing at least, conscious, not panicking. The rest of the room was like a charnel house, a sickeningly indescribable scene, so much so that Alan almost threw up. His phone rang, a call from the team outside on watch, it cleared his head, “What was that shot?”
“We’re going to have to go, now, no time.”
Art was in the room now, horrified.
“Art? Get Georgy into the back of the van now, start stripping away the clothing from his wound and fixing up the IV. Sam,” the youngster he thought he had got to know and trust seemed a complete stranger now, “get his weapon, the bag I’ve been putting stuff in from the office and go with him, and tell the others to set up a diversion in the next street for five minutes and then meet us at the rendezvous.” His eyes caught movement in the far corner, an infant, no a toddler, wriggling in its bonds behind a corpse, “And take that child as well, now!”
They were all in the van by the time Art emerged and shut the door behind him, less than two minutes later. The gas stoves turned on, petrol all over the death room, as he would always think of it; detonator set for five minutes upstairs, eight downstairs. Lights were on in the some of the nearby houses, one or two people were peering out of windows, a couple of doors were opening; in the far distance he could hear the sound of a siren.
They were almost half a mile away when the distraction, a small bomb under a parked car, went off. This was followed shortly afterwards by the detonator upstairs in the restaurant going off. They were almost in open country when, minutes later, the gas exploded in the kitchen, the detonator not being needed. By that time the police and an ambulance were at the end of the street, not entering, fearing that other car bombs were rigged nearby, until bomb disposal could arrive to investigate. The fire service couldn’t approach either so the inferno, fed by the gas and liberal use of accelerants, supplemented by the cheap construction materials used, ensured that the building and its contents were well on their way to becoming powder. When the ammunition and grenades in the now burning roof-space started going off, it felt like war had started in Swindon.
Fifteen minutes later they were nearing the transfer point to abandon the van. It was going horribly wrong, no training could really prepare you for this and the inquisition as to what had happened in that room would follow later. Madness, complete insanity, but for now they had to get clear away. He was in the back with Art, who was only now finally managing to cut away the thin ultra-lightweight anti-ballistic under vest with a knife; it was putting up a hell of a fight and his struggles were hurting Georgy almost as much as the wound itself. Henry had insisted they use them, the latest thing he said, won’t stop a nine millimetre at point blank range nor a rifle further out, but it would reduce the impact, although they couldn’t see how far the bullet had gone into him. Well, it seemed to have given him a chance, perhaps one he didn’t deserve right now.
Blood was flowing freely, but not as badly as he had expected, hopefully no arteries then, the pressure dressing should help for a while. Art at least hadn’t lost his head, he’d rigged up the IV emergency plasma to Georgy’s fore-arm, given him some morphine to still him whilst trying to cradle the little girl, he could see the gender now, in his other arm in a vain attempt to comfort the silently sobbing child, her face running with tears of hysteria, wrenching her little body about in its bonds.
“What’ll we do with her Al?”
“No more deaths today Art, I promise. We’ll take her with us, like the Kurdish girl we rescued, somebody will give her a loving home, she’s young enough not to remember anything. What do you think to his chances?”
“Needs a good doctor badly and soon.”
He shrugged helplessly, almost resigned.
“I’ll warn the doc what to expect, get prepped up at the farm, if we go by the main roads we can be there in just over a couple of hours, it’s up to him ‘til then.”
And You up there, of course, but I couldn’t blame You.
Five minutes later they had made the transfer into another van, owned legitimately this time, and were headed south-west, pushing the speed limits on the empty night roads. One of the other team was in a hire car about half a mile ahead to alert them to any police traps, the others quickly stripping and cleaning the van, before leaving it a burning wreck and heading after them.
Gillian receives the call she’s been dreading all night, it’s Alan, his normally relaxed Aussie accent fraught with stress and anxiety. “Doc, there’s been a problem; one of the boys is hit, top of the stomach by the lowest rib. We’ve slowed the bleeding, rigged up some plasma and sedated him, but that’s all we can do until we see you, in about two hours. You need to get ready tonight. Also, can you prepare a sedative for a very young kid?”
That was it, the line went dead.
She had her part to play now, but she hadn’t dealt with gunshot trauma for well over twenty years and even then it had only been as a duty registrar supporting a consultant. She didn’t have a proper operating space, just the dining room table, some surgeons’ tools, oxygen, blood of all types, plasma, anaesthetic and antibiotics, all the things they’d been able to procure for this kind of… mishap, but nowhere near what she might need today. It would be like working in a field hospital in a war zone. No nurses, just untrained helpers such as the farmer and his wife. She would be ok if it were a matter of cleaning up, repairing internal soft tissue damage, removing debris, even resetting shattered ribs if needs be, before closing up, but if any vital organs had been hit, or the spine, she would be totally out of her depth.
The choice then would be to see him, whoever he was, die painfully or take him to a hospital and, in effect, committing him to a life in a cell with the added risk of jeopardising them all, everything. Even her Hippocratic oath couldn’t command that sort of price.
She had talked it through with Alan on the walk out: he was always the easiest with whom she could discuss things properly. He had just made light of it in that casual way of his, explaining that they all knew the risks and consequences of being wounded outside, they didn’t expect her to perform miracles. He had then, almost as a joke to quash the subject, said if they couldn’t take a wounded man to a surgeon, why not bring a surgeon to him?
She had only really thought about while trying to sleep in the following day’s light, to be ready for the overnight vigil before they returned. Was there anyone she knew, trusted, an ex-colleague, someone with the skills she didn’t have, whom she could persuade or, failing that, they could compel, to come if she fell short?
What then, if they refused?
No, they almost certainly wouldn’t refuse to treat an injured patient but afterwards, what? Let them go, having seen her and the others? Even if they hid them from the location, it would still create too much risk. So, take them away to the Pocket, as a prisoner, a guest who couldn’t leave? Far better than the alternative, she wouldn’t condemn a life to save one, in this case it would be totally unacceptable.
To fill the time as much as anything while they were waiting she had, with the help of the couple’s teenage daughter, used the house’s internet to research some of her old colleagues from Frenchay. Some had disappeared, retirement or emigration she guessed. A couple were still working, but had moved to other hospitals, Edinburgh and Leeds, too far to be accessible.
There was only one, not long retired but still doing some part-time consultancy, David Kingsbridge, a specialist in trauma and micro-surgery; he had been a friend, as had his wife. No children, they couldn’t, twenty years ago they had lived in a pretty house in the Chew Valley, she had actually been there on several occasions. The daughter tracked him down to the same house, using the electoral roll. On his own now; either his wife’s left him, hardly likely, or more probably she had died. Search the local newspaper archives; yes, there it is, in the deaths section, two years ago, from an unspecified medical condition. So, if it’s anybody, it’s him. No, I couldn’t do that to him, he was a friend. You might if it meant someone having to die painfully and slowly, far away from home. A good doctor was always prepared for any eventuality, they were counting on her, she owed them everything, her new life, happiness.
On the spur of the moment she rang Alan back. “Just in case it’s beyond me, could you send someone to check if there’s a David Kingsbridge at an address I’m going to give you, just south of Bristol? We might need to persuade him to come, but not until I‘ve seen the patient, if you know what I mean?”
No worries. He rings off and calls the following van; they’re on the A37, heading south through deepest Somerset, and are quickly turned around to head north again. They should be there well before Alan’s vehicle makes the farm, which he should do with two and a half hours of darkness remaining.
At least the child’s exhausted herself into sleep.
It was time to call Tom and share the bad news, hope to hear something good in return.
Last use of the phone before breaking the SIM and throwing it and the phone into a river, always mindful of what he’d been told about phone discipline.
© 1642again 2018