London--Oxford Street, Marble Arch
07 August 1517 GMT
The planning was exceptional, the result of two years spent preparing for the action, an operation meant to run like clockwork. And much like clockwork, it nearly failed, simply because men are not machines, and they feel fear.
When it came upon him, it came by surprise. It stole his breath and cramped his stomach, and for an instant he was certain he would wet himself. Just inside the Marble Arch tube stop he balked, the wash of passengers flowing past him in both directions. He felt the uncomfortable pressure of the glass bottles in his backpack, felt the sweat springing to his palms. Adrenaline filled him, made the stink rising from the tunnels all the more rank, the perfumes and deodorants and colognes that much more cloying. The noise of the station, the echoes of the trains and the voices and PA, became almost unbearably loud, adding to the sudden rush of vertigo.
For a second time, he thought he might vomit.
He steadied himself against the wall, closed his eyes, fought to control his breathing. Of all the things he had practiced, of all the things he had envisioned the eleven times he had made this same trip as a dry run, he had never considered this. He had known he would be nervous. He had even acknowledged that he might be scared. But this level of fear was unexpected, and it unmanned him.
Worse, it made him question his faith, and that added a new emotion, a rising sense of shame. He willed himself to walk on, to continue through the turnstiles and onto the escalator and down to the platform, painfully aware that seconds were passing, that the schedule they had so carefully crafted was now in dire jeopardy. And still he couldn't move.
He thought of the others, ready to board trains at Baker Street and Bank, and he was certain that their faith was stronger than any fear. His mind, which had seized, as paralyzed as the rest of him, suddenly snapped into gear once more, began racing with doubt. Even if he did move, they would fail. Even if he did move, it wouldn't work. Even if he did move, he would be stopped before boarding the train, before opening his backpack, and perhaps the others had been stopped already, had been caught already. Perhaps they had talked, and even now, on close-circuit monitors, he was being watched, and the police were beginning to close in upon him.
He prayed, or tried to pray, but the battering his faith had taken was enough to make him feel insincere, and he had no hopes for it. God worked through him and others like him, and everything he did was as God's Will, and wasn't it, then, God's Will that he be weakened in this moment? Wasn't it God's Will--all praise to Him--that he stand here now, lost?
Someone laughed, and he was so certain it was directed at him, that it was mocking him, that his head jerked round in an attempt to find the source.
It was a woman, or a girl almost a woman. Perhaps sixteen, traveling with friends the same age, of both sexes. She was small and slender, with a lovely face and a mouth that, to his eyes, was impossibly large as it opened in her laughter a second time, now shrieking with glee as she batted the hands of one of her male companions reaching for her. A boyfriend, he thought, and watched as the boy wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her through a turnstile. When the boy hoisted her, her skirt crushed between them, accentuating the curve of her maturing hip, the slender strength of her thigh. She twisted in his grip, laughing, and the cotton shirt she wore was trapped between them, the front pulling down slightly, and it revealed cleavage and, against the stretched fabric, the curve of her breasts and shape of her nipples.
Then they were through, moving toward the escalator, and without another instant of hesitation, he followed, his prayer answered, his faith restored.
He had seen it all throughout Europe: women without men to watch and protect them. Women forced to live what was so condescendingly referred to as liberated lives. They worked as clerks and hostesses and teachers to men, their bodies and voices and every movement geared to entertain and to advertise. Even now, riding the long escalator down to the platform with the girl and the boy and their friends only a few meters ahead, he was surrounded by it. Placards and posters advertising clothes and watches and perfumes and liquors and movies. All using women as bait, the promise of their sex, of their surrender. A tease and a temptation, degrading both the subject and the viewer.
How could they not see the danger this posed? How cruel it was to treat them in this fashion? To treat women in this way, to allow them to be used and paraded and corrupted, and in so doing, to make them creatures that could only corrupt others.
It made him angry, restored his strength, made him feel righteous. All of it coming to a point in the form of this girl, at this moment. Surely Pakistani, perhaps born not far from his own home in Kashmir, now standing on the platform with her mouth pressed to the lips of that London boy, her skirt blowing against her leg with the crush of air from the approaching train.
That girl, who could have been a good girl--should have been a proper girl--raised in another place, in proper way. That girl, who would have been contented as one of many wives, protected and nurtured and honored, rather than corrupted in the arms of neglect. Perverted by a myth called liberation, an excuse for indulgence and hedonism, flying in the face of God's Will.
That girl, who could have been his sister, if his sister had not been murdered.
He followed them into the car, entering as close to the front of the train as he could manage, so he would be near the conductor's door and so his back would not be exposed. The train was not so crowded that he could not find a seat, and he removed his backpack before sitting, then set it on the bench beside him, claiming it as his own. He heard the muted clink of the bottles inside as the train began to move again, but he was the only one who heard it, and it did not worry him. Even if it had been heard, it would mean nothing. He was just a young man, just another tourist university student with a backpack, youth hostel-bound, nothing more.
His watch read three-twenty-three, and he saw that his fear--already fading into an embarrassment--hadn't cost him. He was still on schedule.
He prayed the others were, too.
The train squealed, began slowing into the Bond Street station. He waited until the doors slid open and passengers began to move, then used their motion to conceal his own. He opened the backpack just enough to reach inside, found the pistol resting between the two liter bottles of petrol. He wrapped his hand around the butt of the weapon, grateful for the solidity of it in his grip, anchoring him to the moment. It pleased him that his hand no longer perspired.
Doors closed. He looked to find the girl and the boy, and they had stayed aboard. The girl was touching the boy's face, speaking to him, and the boy had placed one hand on her bare knee.
The train took speed again, heading toward Oxford Circus, and as its acceleration crested, he rose, pulling the pistol free from the backpack. His thumb struck the safety, knocking it down, and he raised the gun and imagined himself as he appeared to them, moving with precision and grace, and he felt an indescribable elation.
He shot the girl first.
"Get out!" he screamed. "Get into the next car!"
Then he shot the boy, and then pivoted and shot the middle-aged man surging off a nearby bench, trying to reach him. The motion of the train and the man's own momentum carried him forward, and as the man's body slid to a stop by his feet, he stepped aside, moving his sights across terrified faces, still shouting at them.
"Now!" he screamed. "Get out!" And to urge them, like cattle, he fired again, and again, and there was screaming now, and the passengers were scrambling over each other, pulling on one another to make for the door at the far end of the car. He fired into them, hitting a woman he thought was moving too slowly.
The car emptied, and the train was still swaying, speeding toward the station.
He turned to the closed-circuit camera in the corner above him and put a bullet into it, knowing that it had already witnessed what he had done. If all was to plan, the conductor was already contacting the station, and the station, in turn, had begun its emergency response. The evacuation would have begun, the police been notified, Armed Response Units dispatched.
All to plan.
With his free hand, he reached into the backpack and removed the first bottle, turning and throwing it down the length of the carriage. It shattered on a metal handrail, glass bursting, petrol splashing, its scent sudden and almost sweet. He took the second bottle and threw it against the conductor's door, where it smashed. Petrol spattered on his pants and arms, sloshed across the floor, saturating the clothes of the wounded man at his feet.
He heard the door from the adjoining carriage open, and he fired without looking, not caring who, or even if, he hit. The gun was almost empty, but the gun had never been the weapon, only a tool. Even the petrol was only a tool.
As he had been taught, he was the weapon.
He reached into the backpack a final time for the box of matches. He tucked the pistol into his pants and opened the box quickly. The door at the far end opened again, and he knew they were coming to stop him, seeing this moment as their opportunity, or perhaps realizing what would happen next. He fumbled the matchbox in his excitement, the wooden sticks spilling onto the floor. He heard cursing and shouting, but it didn't matter, he had a match in his hand, now, and with a stroke it was alive, and he let it fall.
The air around him moved, heated, and he saw flame race the floor of the car, eating the petrol, taking purchase, growing hotter. The man at his feet made a noise as he caught on fire, and he glanced down to see that his own clothes had also caught, felt the fire climbing his body. He looked the length of the carriage, saw that the flames now held the others at bay, felt the flames sear his skin as his shirt caught.
From the corner of his eye, he saw the blackness of the tunnel open to the harsh light of the station.
He pulled the gun from his waist, put the barrel in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.
It happened again three minutes later, on the Bakerloo Line, as the train pulled into Piccadilly Circus.
And again, seven minutes after that, on the Northern Line, at King's Cross.
When the final numbers were in, the death toll stood at three hundred and seventy-two. Very few of these fatalities came from direct contact with the terrorists, all three of whom had used essentially the same technique: the gun as the instrument of terror, to empty the car and to buy time; the petrol as the primary mechanism of attack, to set the trains aflame and to force them to stop on the tracks.
As anticipated, the Underground suffered from not one but two weaknesses, and the terrorists had exploited both. The first was that, at any given time on the tube, there were more trains in motion than there were stations to receive them. A station closure, therefore, or an instance of track blockage would result in multiple trains stacking up between stations. If those trains were then forced to evacuate their passengers, the evacuees faced walks of varying lengths through the tunnels until they could reach appropriate access back to street level. With most of the tunnels one hundred feet or more beneath street level, it made for quite a trek.
In and of itself not life-threatening, but certainly an added complication for riders and rescue teams, should the situation ever arise.
It was the second weakness that made the situation not simply life-threatening but a death trap. The Underground had no mechanical means to circulate air, fresh or otherwise. No air-conditioning. No fans. Air moved through the tunnels and the stations as a result of the movement of the trains, forcing dead air up and out at stops and other ventilation points, sucking new air into its wake.
While the cars on the Underground were constructed with fire-resistant and fire-retardant materials, gasoline can ignite dirt. With three trains set ablaze on the three busiest London lines, all within minutes of one another, the tube had come to a violent and convulsive halt. Cars evacuated into tunnels that swiftly filled with roiling clouds of dense black smoke, an orgy of burning plastics that in turn spawned their own toxic gases. While counterterrorist and emergency service personnel responded as best they could, as fast as they could, civilians succumbed to the lethal mixture of poisonous air and their own panic.
King's Cross, which had seen a fatal fire in 1987 that claimed thirty lives, suffered the worst, as dozens of riders were trampled to death in the panicked attempt to flee the station.
An added tragedy came to light in late August, when The Guardian ran an article citing an uncirculated report commissioned by the Home Office through the Security Services at the request of the Government. The report had been undertaken specifically to determine what, if any, exploitable weaknesses existed in the public transport systems in and around London, and it had concluded that the Underground--despite massive counterterrorism measures taken in the past--was still vulnerable to "a coordinated attack directed against those traits unique to the system."
Further investigation revealed that this document had actually enjoyed limited circulation and support, until it was killed by a senior civil servant in the Home Office, who had unfortunately given his reasons in writing. "While the report is admirable in its concern," he had written, "it fails to take into account the difficulties, both financially and in terms of public discomfort and inconvenience, that a retrofitting of the Underground would require. Given the unlikelihood of such a coordinated effort as described, and the pointlessness of the result of such speculative mass murder, the author's suggestions shall be set aside until
It was a peculiarity to those in Tara Chace's line of work, their habits and hobbies, the things they would obsess upon in lieu of family and friends.
Tom Wallace, for instance, had put his passion into cars, specifically into the Triumph, and more precisely into the Triumph Spitfire MK I, 1962 model year.Wallace had, in the years Chace had known him, acquired four of the vehicles. He had tenderly restored each, enjoying its comfort and power in his free time, then sold the previous to make room for the next. He hunted the Triumph online and in newspapers, engaged in long, enthusiast correspondence with others of the Triumph religion, and generally poured every pound and pence not vital to his day-to-day existence into the hobby.
The late Edward Kittering had shared Wallace's lust for internal combustion, but in his case it had been motorcycles, and like Wallace, he'd been a devotee of a particular make and model, the Buell Thunderbolt. Kittering had been in the Section almost three years before his death from an apparent brain aneurysm, and in that time she'd seen him go through five bikes, and ridden two of them herself. They were, in her opinion, nothing more than two wheels ornamented with an overactive engine and a saddle, an opinion Kittering had often mocked her for voicing. He had been a far less discriminating collector than Wallace, his only criterion that the motorcycle be built prior to 1996, when the Harley-
Davidson purchase of Buell had led to a redesign of the bike, and the motorcycle had "gotten all nice and proper like," in Kittering's words.
Chace had inherited the last of Kittering's bikes, a black and yellow 1995 Thunderbolt S2T that made her feel like a wasp whenever she rode it. She didn't ride it often, traffic in London being a perpetual nightmare and public transport being more than sufficient to service most of her needs. The Thunderbolt was expensive as well; on those rare occasions when she did ride it, it would invariably break down. Whereas Kittering had the patience and interest to tinker with the vehicle, Chace could hardly be bothered.
But she kept the motorcycle anyway, because it was one of her only links to Kittering, and because in the year before he died, they had been lovers. The affair had ended badly, with Chace breaking Kittering's heart. His death had left many things unresolved, and so she kept the bike, and hoped that in doing so it would bring more closure than grief.
Nick Poole, the current Minder Two, was a passionate cook. The kitchen of his Spice Quay flat, in the shadow of Tower Bridge, had been renovated with restaurant-grade appliances. Poole invested in only the finest cookware and tried --- generally in vain, due to the unreliable schedule of their work --- to grow his own herbs for seasoning. He took cooking classes, read cookbooks, and was zealous in his pursuit of "the fresh."The week after Wallace had departed the Section, leaving Chace as Minder One and Poole suddenly elevated to Minder Two, he'd invited her over for a dinner of sole paupiette with crab and smoked salmon mousseline, watching her like a hawk until she'd taken her first bite. The meal had been extraordinary, as fine as any Chace had tasted when she'd run alongside the Sloanes and their wealth, and her praise of the dinner had done more for her relationship with Poole than any interaction they'd had in the office or in the field.
As for Chris Lankford, Minder Three --- Provisional, he was still too new to the Section for Chace to have discovered his particular passion, though she was certain he had one. She guessed it was something boring, perhaps philately.
Chace herself had survived the Section for a couple of years without adopting an obsession of her own, not seeing the need for one. She had been wrong and, in the wake of Kittering's death, had reached a moment of clarity. Even as a child, her desire for self-abuse had been dangerous and acute, based less in the physical than in the emotional. She had been a rule-breaker, a discipline problem, and what past lovers had charitably described as a "wild spirit," an appellation Chace herself detested. She smoked and drank and, upon entering university, had discovered sex, three things she had pursued with the same passion that Wallace, Kittering, and Poole directed toward their hobbies. But without the same rewards, enjoyment, or results to show for it.
It was after the breakup with Kittering that Chace had come to the conclusion that, perhaps, such self-abuse was counterproductive. Certainly, arriving in the Ops Room for a crash briefing at oh–three hundred carrying a hangover or, worse, a drunk wasn't going to help her career prospects. And the less said about what it would do to a mission, the better. These things, combined with a warning from the Madwoman of the Second Floor --- staff psychiatrist Dr. Eleanor Callard --- that should such behavior continue, Chace could find herself confined to a desk if not out of a job, served as a wake-up call.
"Find a hobby," Callard had urged her, "preferably one where you don't punish yourself for sins you haven't committed."
"May I still punish myself for the ones that I have?" Chace had asked sweetly.
"By all means."
It had taken Chace a while to find something that would engage her. As a girl, her mother had taken great pains to see her educated in a "proper" fashion, including piano lessons, ballet lessons, and riding lessons. Chace had loathed it all when she was six, and now at thirty-one, she discovered that nothing had occurred in the intervening time to alter that assessment. Unlike Poole, she had no interest in cooking, and her kitchen was merely the room where take-away was moved from a paper sack onto a porcelain plate, and even then it was most likely to be eaten straight from the container while she stood over the sink. Unlike Wallace, her interest in automobiles was entirely professional. She knew enough to break into them, to hot-wire them, to drive them much too fast, to use them to kill people without getting herself killed in the process, and, sometimes, should the situation warrant it, to travel in them from Point A to Point B.
It ended there.
Finally, she'd decided to try painting, resurrecting a dim memory from her boarding-school days at Cheltenham Ladies' College. Not with oils or watercolors and palettes and easels, as she had learned, but with great sections of canvas spread on the floor or tacked to the wall, and pails of paint to spatter, drip, drizzle, and smear. She had no aspirations to be Jackson Pollock and at best considered her work to be more Modern Accident than Modern Expressionism. She had no idea if she had any talent for painting at all, in fact, but she discovered that she did, indeed, enjoy it, to a degree that truly surprised her. It was the main reason she had moved to Camden, to have more space in which to paint. The sensuality of it, in particular, appealed to her, the indulgence of the paint on her hands and its scent clinging to the back of her throat, the feel of the canvas as it drew color away from her fingers. She could lose herself in the activity for hours, and her mind could relax as her body worked, her clothes peppered with splatters, her trainers caked with paint.
And this is why Tara Chace was up to her elbows in grasshopper green when she learned that terrorists had attacked London.
"Duty Ops Officer.Minders to the Ops Room, black, I repeat, black."
Chace adjusted the handset between her ear and shoulder, hastily swiping her hands down the front of her shirt, trying to clean the paint from them. The thought that this was a drill flickered through her mind, but it was gone before she could even entertain it, defeated in the subconscious acquisition of detail. One, there was strain in Ron's voice, and not once in four years while Ronald Hodgson had worked the Duty Operations Desk had Chace ever heard that before; two, the background noise was not the usual low murmur of voices in the Ops Room but the frantic sound of motion, of voices calling for attention, information, assistance.
And three, black meant bad. Black meant about as bad as it could get, on the scale of "we're at war" or "a royal has been kidnapped" or "we've lost a nuke" bad.
"Confirmed, twenty minutes," Chace said.
"Twenty minutes," Ron echoed, and he cut the connection, but Chace had already reseated the phone in its cradle and was halfway to the remote control. She flicked the television on with one hand, raising the volume so the sound could follow her as she pivoted back to the bedroom, already stripping off her shirt and tossing it aside. She pulled a new one from the pile of dirty laundry at the foot of the bed, struggling into it as she searched her unmentionables drawer for the keys to Kittering's bike.
She was out the door sixteen seconds later, still tucking the shirt in, and had unlocked the Thunderbolt and brought the engine to life before her mind fully processed the voices of the reporters and the coverage she had overheard. She didn't know the details, but she'd caught enough to know it was most likely terrorism, and it was London, and it was bad. She drove with those things in mind, grateful for once that Kittering had left a motorcycle and not a dog, using the bike to snake through snarled traffic, to quick-turn from roadblocked streets, and twice to drive on the pavement. Even with all that, it took her almost an hour exactly to reach the Ops Room.
Chace entered thinking that enough time had passed, surely the chaos she'd heard over Ron's call would have abated. It hadn't.
At its worst, she'd never seen the Operations Room looking like this. The monitor wall, plasma screens with a glowing map of the world that normally presented an up-to-the-minute accounting of all active SIS operations everywhere on the planet, was in schizophrenic disorder. Patches of BBC and Sky News and CNN jumped on the wall, voices from professionally calm to practically shrill seeped from the speakers, mixed in the din of radio reports and the calls of the Ops Room staff, runners crisscrossing the room, papers or maps or telephones in their hands, trying to track it all. Only the U.K. remained uncovered on the map, a bright red halo tracing the country, a gold dot pulsing on London.
At Duty Operations, Ron was juggling three phones at once, his coms headset bouncing against his chest, dangling from the wire clipped to his shirt. Sweat had soaked his collar, wilting it around his neck, and when he caught sight of Chace, he used his left elbow to indicate the map table at the far side of the room, still balancing his multiple conversations.
Helmet still in hand, Chace plunged into the room, making for the map table where Poole and Lankford already waited. She glanced back toward the plasma wall, saw Alexis at Main Communications, where she was matching Ron move for move with her own phones, then swept her gaze around farther until she realized she was looking for Tom Wallace, and that she wouldn't be finding him.
Tom wasn't Minder One. She was.
"What the fucking hell happened?" she demanded of Poole as she reached the table, dropping her helmet into the nearest empty chair.
"We've been hit," Lankford said.
"I bloody know we've been hit, I figured out we've been hit, I'm asking what the fucking hell happened?"
"It's still coming in," Poole told her, indicating the plasma wall. "Best anyone's made out, we had three terrorist strikes within minutes of each other, started roughly fifteen-thirty, all of them on the Underground. Central, Northern, and Bakerloo, Oxford, Piccadilly, and King's Cross, respectively."
"No, it's not a Tokyo scenario," Lankford said.
"They bomb them, what?"
"Fire," Poole said. "In the tunnels, at the stations. Hard to tell just how bad, but there're reports of people being trampled at the stations, asphyxiating on the tracks."
Chace nodded, fixating on the wall, trying to see everything at once. Images of bodies being carried from station entrances, soot- and smoke-stained passengers with oxygen masks pressed to their tear-streaked faces, of dead firefighters and rescue workers laid out in lines on the pavement, being covered with opaque plastic sheets. Men and women, young and old, and children, in all of London's colors and diversity. Curling clouds of black smoke, so thick she thought she could see the oil in it, billowing from tube vents, rising over Oxford Circus.
A sudden perversity struck her, watching the multiple television images of the disaster, that this was happening just minutes away. She'd been on Oxford Street the night before, Selfridges and the Marks & Spencer, before heading home.
By tube, of course.
"Who's claiming it?" Chace asked.
"No one," said Poole. He looked at her with a grim smile. "Yet."
She nodded slightly, scanning the wall, searching for any new facts to absorb. There were none, and she realized that both Poole and Lankford were watching her, waiting for the next move, the next step.
"We won't have marching orders until Crocker's done with C," she told them. "And probably not even then. Crisis call, they brought us in while waiting for another shoe to drop."
"Follow-up strikes?" Lankford asked.
"Well, that's one possibility, isn't it, Chris?" she said. "Three in one go, there could be more waiting in the wings."
"Immediate panic dies down, then everyone holds their breath waiting for the next one," Poole agreed."Could be tomorrow, next week, who knows."
"If there's more coming at all."
Lankford scowled at Chace, then Poole, then at the plasma wall. "So what do we do in the meantime?"
"Nothing," Chace said.
Lankford stared at her, and Chace wasn't certain if it was outrage or simple impatience she was seeing in his expression. She wasn't certain she cared, either. All of twenty-six, an inch or so taller than Chace's five foot ten, black hair and blue eyes that combined with a lack of distinctive features to make him a perfect "gray man," as they were called in the trade. Nothing about Chris Lankford leaped out upon first impression, or upon fifth, for that matter. But he had the energy about him, not of youth, but rather of inexperience. It charged him, made his engine race, made him want to leap into the breach, and might, Chace mused, get him killed sooner rather than later.
She recognized it, because she had arrived in the Section with it herself. With more of it, in fact. A woman in the Special Section, she had come in believing she had a lot to prove. It had taken almost a year before she understood that arriving in the first place had been proof enough.
Still, Lankford worried her, and this ill-concealed hunger for revenge only added to her concerns. He'd had one go into the field since being named Minder Three, hence his provisional status. It had been in St. Petersburg, six weeks back, and he'd gone with Chace as her backup, and had failed dismally at the outset, only to redeem himself --- marginally --- later in the op. Whether he knew it or not, Lankford was on thin ice with Chace and, worse, with D-Ops.
"Nothing," Chace repeated. "Unless you know something you're not sharing with Nicky and me, Chris?"
He took it in, the frustration visible, then let it go with a shake of his head and turned back to watch the plasma screens.
"You two get down the Pit," Chace told Poole. "I'll go up to the Boss's office, wait for him there."
"Bench-warming?" Poole asked.
"You could go through the circulars these past six months, see if D-Int dropped anything that might point a finger."
"For whatever good it'll be worth," Lankford groused. "Bit too late to act on it, don't you think?"
"Not if there's another one coming," Chace said and, scooping up her helmet, headed for the lift and the sixth floor.
London --- Vauxhall Cross, Office of the Chief of Service
07 August 1720 GMT
at 85 Albert Embankment,Vauxhall Cross, had many names, and few of them were complimentary. Five stories deep, towering over the Thames behind triple-paned glass and electronic countermeasures, crammed with fiber optics and copper wire, protected by gates and guards and more surveillance than even the most paranoid pedestrian could imagine, it was considered by many to be an eyesore, and far too ostentatious to house M16. Disparagingly referred to as Babylon-on-Thames, or the Ceaus¸escu Towers, or --- Paul Crocker's personal favorite --- Legoland, it had an interior that was a maze of white corridors and nondescript doors with only the barest departmental labeling, part of the ever-present attempt to maintain secrecy in a Service that still winced whenever it hired anyone named Guy, Donald, or, worst of all, Kim.
It worked, and more than one fresh-faced officer, new to the Firm, had found himself lost in the halls and in dire need of direction.
The nicest office, situated just below the top floor, belonged to the Chief of Service, currently Sir Francis Barclay or, in keeping with the tradition established by Mansfield Cumming in 1922, C. From the hall, it looked as nondescript as any other in the building. Inside the outer office, it had desks for not one but three personal assistants. But once one went through and into the inner office, everything changed, as if all pretension to modernity had been rejected in favor of those good old days when spying was deemed a Gentlemen's Game. Thick Oriental carpet and a mahogany desk that could keep eight afloat should the Thames burst its banks, three modestly comfortable leather-backed chairs arrayed to face it, and its larger brother positioned behind, to make certain everyone seated knew their place in the room. A separate sitting area off to the side with two couches, two armchairs, and a coffee table. A sidebar heavy with crystal glasses and decanters, and the mandatory door leading to the private washroom, which, rumor held, contained not only the toilet but also a shower and a whirlpool bath.
Paul Crocker hated the office.
Sitting on the far right as he faced the desk, with Deputy Chief of Service Donald Weldon to his immediate left, and Weldon himself flanked by Crocker's opposite number, Simon Rayburn, the Director of Intelligence, Crocker thought the only thing he hated more than the office was the man seated opposite him.
"The bloody Harakat ul-Mujihadin?" Barclay asked, incredulous. "Are you certain?"
"The Abdul Aziz faction, we think," Rayburn replied calmly. He was a small man, slight and drawn, and his voice was the same, and Crocker often had to strain to hear him when Rayburn spoke. "But it's only a working theory. The tape offers nothing to disprove it."
"But it doesn't prove it, either?"
"Not conclusively, no, sir."
"Where did it come from?"
Weldon slid forward in his seat, saying, "The BBC, sir. Delivered to them via messenger shortly before the first train was hit."
"The BBC had advance warning, and they neglected to pass it on?"
"The timing is in question," Rayburn said. "They didn't know what they had, and before anyone could review the tape, the events of the day overtook them. As soon as they realized what they were looking at, they handed it over to the Home Office."
"It's a wonder it made it to us at all," Barclay mused, and despite himself, Crocker found himself in agreement. The Home Office/Foreign Office rivalry was well known and ongoing and extended to an intense rivalry between the Security Services and SIS.
A rivalry that justly took a backseat in light of the day's events.
"Well, let's see it," Barclay said impatiently.
All four men turned in their seats to face the screen hanging on the far wall, above the sidebar. Rayburn targeted the screen with the remote in his hand, and a still frame of a young Pakistani male --- Crocker didn't put him a day over twenty --- flickered to life, standing in front of a bare white plaster wall. The man wore khakis and a blue short-sleeved button-up shirt, and dirty white sneakers. Behind him, resting against the wall, was a well-used backpack, navy blue with black straps, and beside it what appeared to be a shallow stack of cardboard sheets, propped upright.
"I'm not hearing anything," Barclay said. "Why am I not hearing anything?"
"No audio, sir," Rayburn answered. "Only the video. If you'll note, they've done an exceptionally good job staging this. The background tells us almost nothing about where this was shot, or even when."
"They? How many?"
"At least two, sir --- the man we're watching, and someone behind the camera. Here, you'll see."
Rayburn moved his thumb, and the image went into motion, the young man kneeling to open the backpack, turning it toward the camera, demonstrating that it was empty. Then he rose and reached with both hands for something off screen. He returned to the backpack and set two clear glass liter bottles on the floor, then reached toward the camera a second time. A hand, presumably the cameraman's, entered the frame and handed the young man a metal funnel. The hand had a similar skin tone, and Crocker supposed it was another Pakistani, perhaps, but that was only a guess. If it was the Harakat ul-Mujihadin, their ranks were filled with Kashmiri refugees as well as Arab elements. Composition of the Abdul Aziz faction was less known, but Crocker suspected that it drew recruits from many of the same locations.
On the screen, the young man was now filling the bottles, using a red jerry can and the funnel.
"Petrol?" Barclay asked.
"Presumably," Rayburn said."There aren't many liquids more flammable, and it's easy enough to acquire. Which may be the point in showing us this."
The young man set the jerry can aside, then screwed a cap onto each bottle. Finished, he placed the bottles upright into the backpack, then rose again and reached in the direction of the camera. The same hand presented him with a pistol, then with a clip, and then with a box of ammunition.
"The gun is an FN P-35, for the record," Rayburn said softly.
"Thank you, Simon," Barclay said dryly.
Crocker frowned, looked toward Rayburn, and saw that the Director of Intelligence was glancing to him in turn. It made Crocker's frown deepen. The FN P-35 was known more commonly as the Browning Hi-Power, a popular enough firearm to those who used it, and in and of itself, nothing more needed to be noted. Except the fact that the Browning was the sidearm of choice for the Special Air Service, and while the gun itself was produced by Fabrique Nationale, a Belgian concern, and named after an American gunmaker --- John M. Browning --- there were many who thought of the weapon as Very British Indeed.
The young man was very deliberately loading the clip, one round at a time, to capacity. When he finished, he closed the box of ammunition, slid it away, and seated the clip into the pistol. Then he racked the slide, chambering the first round, and set the safety.
"Interesting," Crocker said.
"Yes," Rayburn murmured.
Weldon turned in his chair, looking first to Crocker, then to Rayburn, confused. Opposite him, Rayburn tapped on the desk.
"Very practiced, sir," Crocker said. "He knows just what he's doing with that weapon."
"One would expect as much."
"No one wouldn't, not necessarily." Crocker tried to keep his tone civil. "A suicide bomber doesn't need training, sir, he needs indoctrination. You put him in a madrassa and fill his head as full of Wahhabism as it can hold. You tell him he's got Allah and infinite virgins waiting for him on the other side. But you don'tworry about training him as a fighter, because it's a waste of both your time and his. His job is to wear a bomb and die in the name of God, and your job is to make sure he does just that and doesn't have second thoughts along the way. You don't worry about training him in the proper usage of a firearm."
"You're reaching, Paul," Barclay objected. "That boy isn't older than twenty, and God knows there are plenty of ten-year-olds on the Subcontinent who know their way around guns. Paki, from the looks of him, too. Probably fought in Kashmir."
"I agree, sir," Crocker said.
"Then you see my point."
"And you've made mine. If he's a Kashmiri veteran, why waste him on a suicide run?"
"You'll want to pay attention to this next bit," Rayburn said, gently enough that Crocker wasn't certain who was being admonished.
The young man had finished loading the backpack, leaving it open, and now was taking up the cardboard that had remained propped against the wall. He got to his feet once more and, holding the cardboard sheets against his chest, began showing them, one at a time, to the camera. The writing on each sheet was clear, all caps, written in black marker. The first read:
JIHAD IS THE SIXTH PILLAR OF ISLAM
"No, it isn't," Weldon muttered, annoyed. "There is no Sixth Pillar of Islam."
"Wahhabism at its best," Rayburn agreed.
The young man let the first card drop, turning the second to the camera. The man's expression, Crocker noted with some alarm,wasn't much different from the look his wife, Jenny, wore when she was teaching preschoolers.
YOU, ENGLAND, WE CALL YOU KUFAR --- INFIDELS
The card dropped, and the third was turned.
A NATION OF MUSHRIKUN CANNOT STAND, SO SAYS THE ONE GOD
"Mushrikun?" Barclay asked.
"Polytheists," Rayburn said.
"Since when has C of E been polytheism?"
"Since God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost entered Christian dogma, sir. But it's not the C of E that's being targeted here. Wahhabist doctrine indicts capitalism as a form of polytheism, the love of money being akin to worship, etc., etc. The wealth of the West, namely the First World, versus the poverty everywhere else."
The fourth card was presented:
A NATION OF VERMIN WILL BE GASSED IN THEIR TUNNELS
"Veiled reference to Israel, perhaps," Rayburn said. "Perhaps an oil reference as well, possibly directed at our presence in Iraq specifically, the Middle East generally."
The man raised the fifth card.
WE ARE THE BROTHERHOOD OF HOLY WARRIORS
"The English translation of Harakat ul-Mujihadin," Rayburn said.
"Also can be the 'movement' of holy warriors."
The last card was raised to the camera.
THERE IS ONE GOD, ALL PRAISE TO HIM
The young man turned the card and kissed it, then folded it along the middle and slid it into the backpack, between the bottles of petrol. He zipped the backpack closed, then settled it onto his shoulders before walking out of the frame. The camera remained focused on the empty wall, then went to static.
Rayburn switched off the monitor, and Crocker and Weldon turned with him to face Barclay once more. Barclay remained focused on the dead monitor, brow furrowed, and Crocker wondered what, exactly, his C was thinking. Much as he detested Barclay, Crocker couldn't --- and wouldn't --- deny the man's intelligence.
"Why no audio?" Barclay asked after a moment. "Why not simply tell us who they are and what they're doing? Why the signs?"
"No clues," Crocker said.
Barclay looked at him sharply. "Are you editorializing, or is that an answer?"
"They didn't want to leave us anything we could use, sir."
"I agree with Paul," Rayburn said. "The whole production is designed to give us only the barest essentials, and even then to leave several questions unanswered. There's no way to tell when the video was shot. The presumption is that it was made this morning sometime, but it could easily have been shot three months ago, and we'd be none the wiser. My people have yet to do an in-depth analysis, but I'll stake my job that they won't pull anything we can use, sir."
"No ambient noise, no way to target their safehouse," Weldon mused. "No idea where they're working from, or if there are more of them waiting somewhere in London."
Barclay waved a manicured hand at Weldon. "That's Box's problem, thankfully, not ours."
"It's all our problem if there are others set to do it again," Crocker said.
"Domestic issues, it falls under the Home Office and the Security Services. Our problem at the moment is what, exactly, do I tell the Prime Minister when he summons me back to Downing Street? I cannot go to him four hours after the fact and say we're still exploring leads. The Government is already desperate to formulate a response, and an appropriate response, and that cannot happen without a target."
Crocker resisted the instinct to wince at Barclay's words. It was a given that HMG would respond, and Crocker believed not only in the right to retaliate but in the necessity to do so. But for Crocker, any response would be as a necessity of security, would have to demonstrate not only to the enemy who had attacked them on their own soil, but to those other enemies watching and waiting in the wings, that such violence would not go unanswered. It was an issue of domain, of self-defense, not one of vengeance, and Barclay's choice of words confirmed Crocker's suspicion that his C could not discern a difference.
It was only one of the legion of problems Crocker had with Barclay, both professionally and personally.
While Crocker had entered SIS out of the Army in the late hours of the cold war, Barclay had come in through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. While Crocker had begun his career in the Special Section as a Minder, Barclay had begun behind a desk in London, then moved to other desks, abroad, until he had become Head of Station in Prague. It was in Prague that the two men first encountered each other, though they had never actually met face-to-face during Operation: Landslide. Instead, all of Crocker's contact had been through the Prague Number Two, Donald Weldon, the man now seated to his left.
History, Crocker mused, is a hamster wheel.
Prague had gone horribly wrong, Crocker had been shot, the man he'd been sent to retrieve murdered by the Czech army as he'd tried to break through the fence at the border. Crocker blamed Barclay for abandoning not just the operation but the agents involved. Barclay blamed Crocker for playing cowboys and Indians with both the KGB and the Czech SSB.
What Weldon thought of the whole affair, he'd never said.
Crocker's largest problem with Barclay --- and he was about to see it in action yet again, he was certain --- was that his new C was too susceptible to the whims of Government, as opposed to the needs of the Firm. After Prague, Barclay had gone on to a position in Washington, D.C., liaising with American Intelligence on the political level, and from there parlayed his way onto the Joint Intelligence Committee and, ultimately, to a seat at the head of the table. It affected how Barclay saw SIS, its capabilities, and its mandate. At his core, C believed in Intelligence above all else.
Which left Operations to stand outside like an unwelcome guest, until all hell was breaking loose and Crocker and his Minders were asked to pick up the pieces.
But Barclay's devotion to Intelligence had come back to haunt him today. If there was blame to be laid, it was there, and not in Operations.
"How certain are we that it's the HUM-AA and not some other organization?" Barclay asked.
"Based on what we've seen on this tape?" Rayburn said."Not certain at all. But there are signifiers that point to the organization. The phrasing and the rhetoric. Everything we've seen is extraordinarily deliberate, from the choice of words to the order in which the cards were shown, right down to the heart of the message."
"The HUM signed bin Laden's 1998 fatwa?"
"Yes, sir. War against the U.S., the West, Jews, and Christians. The whole package."
Barclay grunted, then swiveled his chair away from the desk, putting himself into profile. No doubt rehearsing his presentation to the Cabinet,
"Who leads the HUM?" Barclay asked.
"Farooq Kashmiri," Crocker said. "But if this is the Abdul Aziz faction, then it's led by Sheikh Abdul Aziz Sa'id."
Barclay's head came around quickly, and he narrowed his look on
Crocker. "Not the other one, what's his name? Not Dr. Faud?"
"Dr. Faud bin Abdullah al-Shimmari has no direct ties to any terrorist organization," Rayburn said."He is still considered to be a spiritual leader and a respected imam,Wahhabist rhetoric aside. That said, the message as relayed was pure Faud, right down to the phrasing and, indicatively, the omission at the end."
" 'There is but One God, and Muhammad is His Prophet.' Faud leaves the last bit out, in opposition of conventional Islamic belief.Again, it's pure Wahhabism, sir, the belief that naming Muhammad in prayer is akin to praying to Muhammad."
"And hence an act of polytheism," Weldon added.
"Is Faud linked to al-Qaeda?"
"The fatwa, nothing more," Crocker said. "At the most, the only connection to bin Laden is that the same Wahhabism factors into HUM-AA ideology."
"But isn't that precisely the situation with UBL?" Barclay asked, turning
his chair back to face his deputies and now leaning forward, resting
his arms on his desk. "No direct link to terrorist action other than by association?"
"No, sir. UBL leads al-Qaeda. There is no evidence that Faud has any presence in the HUM hierarchy, or any organization's hierarchy, for that matter."
"D-Int has just said otherwise."
"He's speaking of rhetoric."
"That rhetoric may have been directly responsible for what's happened on the Underground today, Crocker."
To his left, Crocker saw Weldon shift uncomfortably with the escalating tension. Rayburn stayed still, listening and reserving comment.
"We're getting ahead of ourselves, sir," Crocker said, trying to change tack. "We cannot begin to formulate an operational response before we know the facts of what's happened."
"You're normally quite eager to task Minders to the field."
"With clear conops, yes, when it is clearly identified Special Operation, yes. But at this moment, you'd have me sending the Minders to Kashmir on the hint of a whisper."
There was a moment of quiet while Barclay considered his responses, and the intercom on his desk took the opportunity to cry out for attention. He pressed the key with a manicured finger, listened as one of his assistants told him that his car was ready to take him back to Downing Street.
"I'll be right down," Barclay said, then came off the intercom, settling his attention on Crocker. "When it comes, it will be a Special Op, make no mistake. And when it comes, when the Government presents you with conops --- whatever that concept of operations may be --- I will not abide argument or hesitation. I will expect my Director of Operations to implement HMG's orders immediately, and to see the mission through to its completion. Are we clear?"
"Quite clear, sir."
"There will have to be retaliation," Barclay said, rising. "When the PM asks me who is responsible for this, I want to be able to answer him in no uncertain terms, and saying the Harakat ul-Mujihadin won't be enough. Whether it's Faud or someone else, I want names. If you have to go to the Brothers to get names, do it. This is priority."
Barclay adjusted his tie and coat, and the other men rose, waiting for him to lead the way out of the office. Crocker took up the rear, and before he exited, Barclay rested a hand on his shoulder, stopping him.
"I won't have you fighting me on this," Barclay said softly. "Not on this."
"We don't know what 'this' is yet," Crocker said. "Sir."
Barclay straightened, the smile thin on his bland face, his lips stretched, almost colorless. "This is your only warning. If you're wise, you'll heed it."
Then Barclay passed through the door, leaving Crocker to follow.