The emergency sub-committee were all back in the main room: the ceasefire at Broadcasting House was over two hours old now and disparate reports were starting to be assimilated, an incomplete but increasingly coherent picture was emerging: if only they could say the same thing of events at Salford Quays. Confusion still reined there, the police perimeter remained weak, a couple more buildings were under attack, fires were burning in several more, drone camera footage added to that of helicopters and observers on surrounding buildings confirmed dozens of corpses outside.
Troops were being ferried in by aircraft and helicopter, three companies of the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, two troops of the SAS with others being readied, one company of the Coldstream Guards diverted from London travelling by train, more gunships, drones as well, even a scratch company of local Territorial Army volunteers who had reported for duty. It was urban warfare up there; local Muslims were in the streets celebrating their ‘forthcoming liberation.’ The police were fearing the onset of darkness, riots, possibly even sectarian violence on a scale not seen before.
Ted Armstrong looked about him, again seated next to Gerald. There had been no celebration of the retaking of Broadcasting House, too many bodies being recovered for that, too many had been shot down trying to dash away across the street outside, too much damage, physical and moral. The military would be handing back control of the scene following their provisional report to the PM at this meeting, but a comprehensive analysis could take days. There was no power, fires still raged in parts of the building, booby traps were widespread, no one was even sure if all the attackers had been killed; none seemed to have been apprehended.
The Deputy Chief of Staff sat down at the table; he had acquitted himself well, been decisive, balanced, thorough, had grown in confidence in this forum. But to Ted the PM, the Commissioner of the Met, even the Home Secretary, seemed diminished, tired and understandably stressed, but no, more than that, shell-shocked, rocked by the revelation of things they had chosen not to recognise previously. They weren’t the only ones; we’re all guilty of that to various extents, not least those targeted in that building, in some ways they’d been some of the worst. Well, they’d paid a terrible price for it, but so had hundreds of blameless others just doing humble jobs there, their families and friends too. What a waste. He looked about, ashen faces, red-rimmed eyes; all that you would expect and this was just the starter, the main course was still being served up in Manchester.
The military man spoke, “PM, Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen, we believe we’re in a position to hand back control of Broadcasting House to civilian authority and to withdraw all military personnel other than one SAS troop, in case any isolated holdouts haven’t been identified yet. We have now searched all parts of the building other than those inaccessible through blast damage, fire or undetonated booby-traps. Efforts are continuing to deal with these issues, but some may require the assistance of daylight.”
He looked down at some brief hand-written notes.
“As of now four hundred and thirty-three corpses have been recovered, twenty two of which are believed to be terrorists with others still likely to be found. Of the rest, three members of the army are confirmed dead, three wounded, none missing, seven police dead, including the helicopter crew, and four wounded, the rest are civilians, with another ninety-two confirmed injured. The total numbers will take some more hours to collate, maybe another twenty-four.”
“Moving on to Manchester, details are much more sketchy, but so far sixteen police dead and eight wounded, seventy one civilians reported to hospital so far, two military dead and five wounded, no word on others or those of the enemy. Escapees say there are several dozen in there, killing at will, taking hostages, expanding the part of the development under their control, although with the forces now deploying, and the use of air and drone strikes where required, we are confident that we can soon start to drive them back. However, I should warn you that casualties are likely to far exceed those suffered here, exceptionally heavy as they are already. I’m sorry, but we simply didn’t have the forces in the area to respond quickly enough to close them down. They had far too much time to work their evil, too many of them too.”
There was a collective intake of breath, many wondering about the public’s reaction, whether the government could survive, the bonfires of promising careers, the distraught relatives they would have to face. The PM knew it was his place to respond.
“Thank you, err…”
The Deputy Chief wasn’t done. “Sorry Sir, may I continue? There’s one more oddity I should mention. That man we saw in the video, killing those two terrorists in the street and entering the building following two more? Well, one of the assault team leaders in the building reported they met him in there. He’d shot two terrorists they were exchanging fire with, claimed to have killed a handful more. They were taking him to a fire exit to be handed to an evac team when they were attacked. In the confusion he disappeared. They believed him to be some sort of secret service operative. We need to ask those outside, on the cordon, but with the chaos, the reduced visibility, who knows? Furthermore, some of the escapees say he rescued them, they’d been taken, were being executed one by one. This same young man came from nowhere and shot the two terrorists and fought off more, so they could escape. One even says he showed him a Celtic cross he was wearing around his neck, said something about being with them, that’s all. The witness was quite emotional about it, hardly surprising, said he saved all their lives, called him a hero.”
The discussion drifted off; speculation, denials, questions, suspicion that someone was withholding something, but what could they add now, it was left to others to fight and die, to clear up the mess in Manchester? It petered out; no one had the heart for it. Ted got up and walked out with Gerald; it was going to be a long night as it was, a press conference was being organised to keep the politicians busy, he had injured colleagues to see, plans to make, then letters to write.
“Gerald, do you really mean it when you say you don’t know who that young man is?”
He got a wistful smile in response.
“Sadly yes. There are bits of the security apparatus that are not fully understood even by me, not in the light as it were. Just as well really, given the lives they must have saved by exposing what they have so far. I’d rather repress the curiosity of a lifetime and not find out.”
“My sentiments exactly.”
They headed off, leaving it at that.
He could hardly believe what he had been hearing from Sam. No, it was all too true, but he was avoiding some things, the girl, some of his motivations, but at least it wasn’t what he had feared. Sam wasn’t a practised enough liar yet to get away with evasion; sometimes, it was what people skirted around that revealed the most, but he had shown himself to be even tougher, more single minded than he had suspected, but not pathological. He was clearly besotted, even if not aware of it himself, and not just with the girl.
And Helena, almost stretching credulity, near savagery cloaked in that fascinating, bewitching persona, clad in that elegant form. Even her cousin, revealing new facets, surprising him once more with the sharp steeliness of her soul, a moral toughness well beyond mine. And what does that make me? The broken down old fool who lit the spark that turned into an uncontrollable inferno? What have I done? Was she right, did I do it in her name, but for myself? Lord, forgive my foolish arrogance, thinking I could control it and keep the edges of our surgery clean and hygienic.
“If you’re thinking what I think you are, you’re wrong, utterly.”
She was back in the room, royal blue again, she didn’t miss anything, far far too much for me, putting down a tea tray on a table, face composed. Sam was sitting there mute, still, talked out, fearing retribution, exile, admonishment. He’s more scared of me than of going into that building. What have I become?
She came over with a cup of tea, placing it in his hands, and kissed him full on the forehead, standing back, hands on her hips, a smile on her lips, killing him with that look.
“Sam, has he told you that you’re the bravest man he ever met? You are to me, and I know at least two others of huge courage. I don’t regret anything, and neither should either of you, and I won’t permit it. You’re in my home now; you obey my rules, understood? Now, what do your letters from there say?”
“Sam’s welcome to return, they attach no blame to him, only themselves, those who sent him out. I concur, it’s mine as well. I will write that letter for you Sam. I suggest you go home, to your family, the girl, and rest. We’ll need you back soon enough the way things are going. Besides, you’re going to have to drop out of sight for a while, something tells me your fifteen minutes of fame will last a bit longer; everyone’ll want to know who you are. Try to change your appearance a bit. Can we get him there for tomorrow night?
She wasn’t fooled.
“Yes. Now, what does the letter say about you?”
“Big developments, they want me to go to meet with them, praying for my recuperation, that sort of thing.”
“When, how long?”
“Not before I’m fully better, and only for a few days. And no, you can’t come through the barrier unless you don’t want to come back.”
She pouted. Was she playing, not always easy to tell?
“Thanks Sir.” Why does Sam always call me Sir? “There’s one thing I forgot to mention. The policeman who helped me get away thought the cordon, out of the building; it was him, Miss Bowson’s husband. The other officer thought the same too, wanted me to escape, and they knew what I’d done previously. I don’t know why.”
Well, well, well. Perhaps providence at work again, certainly seems to follow this young man around.
“Thanks, very interesting, I think that could be useful. Why not go and wash up, get packed, see what the mistress of the house has in store for our palates tonight?”
“Home delivery I’m afraid, Sheena’s vegan, but I’m not going to inflict that on you. She, and it, should be here within the hour.”
She headed back into the kitchen, laid the table, easier here, opened some wine, that bottle of Chambertin they’d missed enjoying on the day of his shooting, time to catch up, make up. Ten minutes later she took him a glass through; he was back watching the news summarising the press conference spliced with live updates from Salford and Oxford Street.
“It’s too horrible to contemplate, all those poor people trapped. And as for you and Sheena… You know, I don’t know which of you two is the more remarkable, but I’m glad that it’s you I’m staying with, the thought of vegan food…”
“Is that the only reason?”
“What do you think?”
© 1642again 2018