The television was on, set to Sky News while her laptop was streaming the BBC news feed direct from Broadcasting House news centre, the cameras still viewing and broadcasting: it was like the Marie Celeste, no one in charge, all just automatic. The sound on both was turned off so they didn’t have to listen to hysterical journalists’ speculative blather. They had seen two gunmen roaming the room on occasion, what looked like bodies everywhere, then another two enter, confer with the others, then head up the stairs to the balcony where the camera was sited.
He was on the settee, the nurse on a chair silent, mouth open, her nice white teeth clashing with the expression of horror on her face. Helena was sitting beside him, putting her hand in his without thinking, not even noticing, taking comfort from its warm grip around hers.
They were silent, his face set grim, eyes moist, but she could tell he was calculating, trying to understand what was happening, the deeper, larger, unseen events and the intentions behind them. These were the moments when she knew him least, his experience in such situations, his years of training, preparation, the ability to divorce himself from the immediate drama, to think clearly, analytically, shouldering aside the distraction of immediate emotion. A taxi had been ordered for the nurse, she needed to get away from central London and home before the transport infrastructure locked down; Helena had insisted, against all protest: it would be here any minute.
A masked and armed man was in front of the camera now, reciting what seemed a prepared statement in English, short and to the point, a blow to punish the idolaters, the enemies of the true faith, to show how powerful was their arm and the length of its reach, both here and in Manchester. No demands, no claims of attribution, no more.
He stepped out of camera shot, leaving it running on empty, almost addictively compelling, just the occasional shot now as the wounded were despatched, and the echoes of more distant shots from other parts of the building.
By the time Bowson and his colleagues had arrived, the emergency services were establishing a loose cordon around the building; all roads were sealed off, armed police and some military entering adjacent and over-looking buildings, which were simultaneously being evacuated. Snipers were heading for roof tops, fire engines and ambulances trying to deal with the now fiercely blazing hotel without making themselves targets for the gunmen, who were firing the occasional shot in their direction. They debouched into Cavendish Square which was becoming the emergency services’ base on the spot, the Command chief calling him as they stood waiting for the last of the team to arrive.
“Andy, I’ve just arrived at the Cabinet Office emergency centre, a full COBRA meeting’s been called. How many officers have you got with you? Fourteen? Armed? Good. The senior officer on the ground is Anita Stanley; find her then take your people where she wants to reinforce the perimeter. The military are on their way, are already planning an intervention, the longer we leave it, the more the casualties. I’ll get out there as soon as I can.”
Ten minutes later he and the others were in two buildings overlooking the bottom of Portland Place, across from the north-western corner of Broadcasting House, spread out over a couple of floors. They could see the two shattered side exits used by the terrorists to enter the building, demolishing them behind them. Gunfire could still be heard from the interior of the building, now joined by the crack of police and military sniper fire clearing the roof of the enemy. He later heard two of them died up there: they were presumably preparing the way for an airborne assault despite the shooting down.
George was beside him, breathing un-p.c. obscenities which if reported to HR would have had him disciplined. All the progress, the arrests, the progress and now this here, and even worse in Manchester by the sound of it, none of it had been enough.
These people were bigger, more pervasive than anything seen before; they seemed to have eyes and ears everywhere. The ground commander who deployed them had told him that a few BBC employees had got out, reporting over a dozen terrorists, well-armed… They had shot down a helicopter for God’s sake, scores of casualties, blown doorways and lifts, fires spreading inside. It sounded like a scene from Dante’s inferno in there.
In the office reception where he was crouching Sky News was on screening a shaky video, taken by a smartphone, of four gunmen entering the opposite side of the building. A young hooded man with a silenced pistol appeared, shooting two, pausing and then entering the building as if in pursuit of the others. White hands, face shaded, expert shooting at range with a handgun, looked very fit. His mind was racing, too much of a coincidence; they would need the bullets from those corpses to run ballistics tests to be sure, but the same thing had clearly occurred to George who raised an eyebrow to him. “Pity he only got two… Wonder what he’s doing there?”
“Must have been tailing them on his own, the only explanation.” Then, as an afterthought. “Of course, impossible to ID from that clip.”
“Can’t say I’m unhappy about that, I hope he makes it”
Al-Benazzi still had phone reception, couldn’t quite believe the authorities hadn’t shut down the local transmitters yet, but it wouldn’t be long. He called the leader on the ground in Salford; if he and the others were going to die here they wanted to know whether the other part of the operation was proceeding with equal success. It was. Entry had been gained to all three buildings, although many employed there had managed to escape from the multiplicity of exits, too many for even fifty brothers to seal off. Nevertheless, there was no shortage of targets, the studio and subsidiary office building had been set alight, the teams employed there still scouring the buildings and then attacking neighbouring offices. Keep moving was the plan, don’t let the security forces pin you down, while the other team secures and holds the main building. Hostages were plentiful: it would be protracted. Security forces were arriving now, armed police, but at present they were heavily out-gunned and had pulled back to await reinforcements, allowing his comrades to expand the area under control. His brother there was confident they could outlast his team, said he could await him in paradise.
His own team were starting to take some casualties, not least the two on the roof; it was too dangerous to stay up there now, out in the open. Another had been shot by a sniper through a window, but no sign of an imminent assault. Good, his men would be more prepared and would have completed seizing the building in another thirty minutes, but disappointing because a rushed and chaotic intervention would generate greater losses for the enemy’s armed forces, would be more spectacular. He checked the radio detonator for the van bomb parked half in reception, not that the security forces would come in that way, too obvious, exposed; he just hoped they couldn’t jam all radio signal frequencies here; perhaps he should blow it now. Indecision was biting him, wait a bit, that might help to restore the initiative to us, it will drift away with time otherwise.
© 1642again 2018