© Graham Watkins
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Matt’s piercing screams could be heard two blocks away. The terror he’d planned to create had gone wrong … horribly, agonisingly wrong. And now the skinny youth with the scruffy tangle of red hair was ablaze… burning to death in a London street near the mosque he’d wanted to destroy.
Matthew Blake, lonely and gullible, is a victim of hatred, racism and fear. Just one of many.
Acrid smoke filled the air - vile tasting - stomach churning. The youth lit the wick and raised the petrol bomb ready to throw it. Tear gas stung his eyes. A line of black body armour and shields moved menacingly forward. A police cameraman filmed. The youth stepped from behind the overturned car, choked and stumbled. Petrol and oil ran down his sleeve and ignited. He dropped the bottle. It shattered, engulfing him in flames; a screaming, flailing, human torch. Rioters scattered. The police line advanced, batons banging shields with every step, the sound echoing across the street. They separated, passing beyond the burning youth, onwards, towards the retreating mob. They broke ranks and charged, clearing protestors from the East London Mosque, shouting, herding the crowd into alleyways and side streets. People cowered in doorways, behind cars, railings - anywhere to escape the brutal onslaught. A woman fell. She screamed and was carried away to an ambulance.
Then, it was over. Whitechapel Road was still, a confusion of broken banners 'Britain First' 'Rule Britannia' 'Taking our country back' 'Defend blasphemy' 'Allah is Gay' - meaningless words, trampled underfoot. Shattered glass and a woman's shoe lay on the pavement. The youth, silent now, fell, a lifeless form, his smouldering arm raised in ghoulish defiance. A green helmeted paramedic bent down to examine him and retched, overwhelmed by the smell of burnt flesh. He shook his head. A fireman sprayed the blackened corpse with foam then watched, bemused, as a cleric stepped purposefully through the shattered doors of the prayer hall and began to sweep away broken glass. The cleric stopped, picked up the woman's shoe, looked at it momentarily and dropped it in a litter bin.
Simon Reece was working from home. The thirty nine year old businessman had important documents to study. He gathered up papers strewn across the coffee table, arranged them neatly beside a laptop and went out onto the balcony. Voices and laughter floated up from boaters on the River Cam. Beyond the river, the spires of Trinity College stood majestic against the skyline. Cambridge had been good to Simon. He'd read computer science at Trinity. Completing his Master's Degree he'd stayed and started Harland Digital in a small room above Mr. Johal's shop on Russell Street. The business thrived and grew to occupy modern offices in Cambridge Science Park. Simon thought back to the day he signed the lease for the new offices; a proud day. Harland and the eighty people he employed were everything to Simon but all things must end and that was why he was hurting.
Simon wasn't married. Sure, he was good looking, he'd had girlfriends but they never lasted. His love was the business. He neglected them and they soon moved on except, that is, one. Julie was different. She'd clung on, possessive and demanding until he came home late once too often. She swore at him, calling him a selfish bastard and worse. They fought. He lost his temper and told her to pack - to get out.
Simon returned to the documents on the table. He made notes in the margins; questions to ask his lawyer. The contract to sell Harland, written by the American buyers, was complex. He had to understand it. Too much was at stake. He stopped for a break and turned on the television.
"The dead man has been named by police as Matthew Blake, nineteen, unemployed, from Muswell Hill," said the reporter. "He died from burns attempting to throw a petrol bomb. Blake was a known member of the white supremacist faction 'Britain First' banned earlier this year." Video of the riot appeared on the screen. "Other anti Muslim demonstrations have taken place in Birmingham and Leeds. The Home Secretary has chaired a meeting of the Cobra Emergency Committee."
The phone rang. "Mr. Simon Reece? This is Sergeant Davies, Thames Valley Police."
"I'm afraid I have some bad news."
Simon muted the television.
"There's been an accident, a car crash, involving your parents. They're both dead. I'm very sorry, Sir."
Simon felt numb and sick as he drove to the hospital.
The mortuary was cold, clinical. Simon watched as a tray slid out of the refrigerator and his father's head was uncovered. "He looks asleep," he said and touched the cold skin with his hand. He saw his mother's face and turned away.
That night Simon drank to dull his senses but there was no escape from the pain, the anger and the emptiness.
He woke early washed pain killers down with coffee, phoned an undertaker and made arrangements for the funerals.
Reverend Griffiths looked around and smiled reassuringly. Villagers filled the cemetery, crowding around the open grave. Others, standing in the lane, peered over churchyard wall.
"Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord," intoned the vicar, his voice crisp and loud.
"And let perpetual light shine upon them," mumbled the mourners.
"May they rest in peace."
"May their souls and the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace," said the vicar. He closed his prayer book, made the sign of the cross and stepped back. The air was damp and still. The mourners stood silent, awkward. Simon Reece looked down at the open grave, at the two coffins stacked, one above the other. He picked up a handful of earth and threw it. The damp earth landed with a thud on his mother's coffin. A light drizzle began to fall. Mourners started to drift away.
"The ladies have arranged refreshments at the house," announced the vicar. He unfurled an umbrella and turned to Simon, "I'll walk back with you."
"You go on. I want a few moments with Mum and Dad."
The vicar offered the umbrella but Simon waved him away. The vicar shrugged and left, walking with others back to the dead couple's house.
Simon was alone in the graveyard. The rain was heavier now, drumming rhythmically on the coffins. Simon turned up the collar of his jacket. Drops of icy water ran down his neck. He watched the earth he'd tossed on his mother's coffin turn to mud and trickle away.
"On top again Mum," muttered Simon. "You always did have the last word." He remembered how his father would retreat to the shed, lost for words, when she'd made her point. Simon wiped water from his face and shuddered.
"Goodbye Mum, Dad." He turned and hurried from the graveyard.
Mrs Williams was pouring teas in the kitchen. Other women were distributing sandwiches, and fussing as village women do at funerals.
"There you are," said Mrs Williams as Simon came through the door, "Would you like some tea?"
Simon took his jacket off, hung it on the back of a chair and dried his hair with a towel. He took a cup to the sitting room and stood in the doorway listening to the conversation.
"Jack loved his garden and tinkering in his shed," said a neighbour. "He would be outside in all weathers, even on days like this," he pointed to the window.
"Do you remember when he won first prize in the show with that enormous onion?" asked another. "When Sally made gallons of onion soup and filled the freezer with it. I bet, if you look Simon, there's still some there. He never did like onion soup."
Simon smiled and made a mental note to empty the freezer before he went home. The conversation continued with other anecdotes - as if the villagers wanted to enjoy the moment, to celebrate the lives of Simon's parents. The wake became sombre and they talked quietly about the car crash. Why had nothing been done about that awful piece of road? Two innocent lives wasted. It was a disgrace. By five o'clock the rain had stopped and the house was almost empty. People had made their excuses, offered their condolences to Simon and slipped away. Simon helped Mrs Williams clear the sitting room and wash the plates.
"What will you do now?" she asked, putting on her coat.
"I have to sort out Mum and Dad's affairs so I am going to stay here for a few days," he replied.
"Your parents were lovely people. Your dad was a gentleman. I never once heard him raise his voice or argue with anyone and your mum well..." Mrs Williams smiled. "I was very fond of them both. If you need anything, I'm only next door." She gave Simon a hug and left.
He picked up a glass, returned to the sitting room and emptied the last of the sherry from bottle in the sideboard. His father's slippers were still under the coffee table. They looked ridiculous, small and lost.
The next morning, Simon was up early. He shaved, showered and ate a bowl of cereal, stood in the kitchen. The television was on. He watched, uninterested as a political news story developed. An excited reporter described the stunning election success of Max Roberts becoming the leader of The National People's Party. The scene cut to Max Roberts waving triumphantly to his supporters then to a doorstep interview.
"Mr. Roberts. Why do you think your victory was so overwhelming?"
A microphone was pushed forward. "The National People's Party is ready to take our great country forward. People are sick and tired of weak leadership from this government. The NPP have elected me with a mandate to stand firm for our beliefs and protect our citizens from any threat. It's time to deal with the terrorists, the illegal immigrants and those foreigners who think they can use our National Health Service for free. It's time for the Prime Minister to resign, to step aside and let us deal with the poison that's in our country."
"If you become Prime Minister would you cut all ties with Europe?" shouted the reporter.
A minder pushed the microphone aside. Roberts and his entourage swept on, past the media scrum.
The bulletin cut back to the studio presenter. "Whatever your opinion is about right wing politics, it's clear Max Roberts is popular and the next general election will be a real fight."
Simon turned the television off. Just gone eight o'clock; the office would be open. Simon rang the number.
"How was the funeral?" asked his secretary.
"Wet and muddy. Joy, I'm going to need a couple of days off. Cancel my appointments and ask John Hume to meet the Americans when they fly in on Friday. Tell him to explain and offer my apologies. He's to show the guys from Systron Security around the offices and entertain them over the weekend. I'll be back on Monday. We can do the formal stuff then."
"There are some more questions from Systron's legal team. Arrived by email yesterday," said Joy, "Shall I pass them on to the lawyers?"
"That's what we pay them for."
"Simon, are you alright?.. Did everything go OK? I mean, yesterday?"
"I'm fine," he paused. "Thanks for asking. Is there anything else?"
"Nothing that we can't handle. We'll see you on Monday. Bye," said Joy.
Simon phoned an estate agent and a number offering a house clearance service then he started going through drawers and cupboards. He found copies of his parent's wills. Everything was left to him. They weren't rich. The house remortgaged to fund their retirement. Simon added up the money; three hundred and forty pounds in the bank, six pounds in Dad's wallet, two hundred and twenty-six pounds in his mother's purse. Simon put the cash in his pocket and phoned his lawyer.
"It's Simon Reece from Harland Digital calling. Neville Phillips please?"
"I'll see if he's available," replied the receptionist and connected the call.
"Neville, it's Simon. You won't have heard but my parents were killed in a car crash. They were buried yesterday."
"I'm sorry to hear that Simon. Are you at the office?"
"No. I'm at Mum and Dad's house. I need you to take care of the probate."
"I would except I'm a corporate lawyer... Don't worry. One of the partners will deal with it. Do you have any paperwork?"
"Thanks. I'll drop off the wills and anything else I find when I get back on Monday. One other thing. There's going to be an inquest. Is there anything I need to do for it?"
"I see." The lawyer paused. "Probably not but, as next of kin, you might be asked for a statement about their health, mental state, that sort of thing. Best to wait and see if the coroner's office asks for one. Have you spoken to Joy? She's just emailed me more questions from the Americans. They really are being super cautious. Asking for more information about Harland Digital's patent rights."
"She told me," said Simon, "It's posturing. A tactic to introduce uncertainty, to lower the price at the last minute. I've got to go. There's a lot of sorting out to be done here."
Simon collected together a few items; his father's cufflinks, the gold watch he was given when he retired and his mother's jewellery. He picked up a plaster dog he'd bought his mother on a school trip. Tat, he thought and threw it in the bin.
He opened his father's wardrobe - two pairs of trousers and a shabby tweed jacket with leather cuffs. Dad never wanted new clothes. Waste of money, he would say. His mother's wardrobe was twice as large. Simon pushed his arm between the hangers and pulled out a flowery dress. The price tag was still attached.
A battered brown suitcase was sitting on top of the wardrobe. It was heavier than he expected. As he lifted it down the handle came off and the case landed with a thump on the bed. He pulled at the lid - locked.
The doorbell rang. A van with 'Dan the Clearance Man' painted in crude red letters on the side was parked outside the house. A shabbily dressed man was at the front door a second standing by the van.
"That was quick. I wasn't expecting you until this afternoon."
"I'm Dan. You said you wanted the house emptied right away. This is my boy Jack," said the older man and offered a tattooed hand.
"Where do you want to start?"
"We'll have a look around and I'll make you an offer," said Dan and went into the sitting room. His son followed.
"This one's for the tip," said Dan, pointing at the settee.
'Why? What's wrong with it?" asked Simon.
"No fire label. Can't sell it." He glanced at the sideboard and grunted. "Brown furniture, nobody wants it these days."
Simon followed the men upstairs.
They stripped a bed. Dan pointed to a stain. "Mattress's been pissed on," They moved to the next room.
"This one's OK. Chest of drawers is tidy."
Jack opened the wardrobes. "Rags."
"Yeah. Charity shop," said his dad.
"Some of the clothes are new," said Simon.
Dan shrugged. "Old people's clothes."
"There's some good china in the kitchen and dad's tools are in the shed."
"Tools?" asked Jack, "What sort of tools?"
"A motor mower, gardening tools that sort of thing," replied Simon, "And some woodworking tools, planes, chisels. I don't know if they're worth much."
Dan finished his inspection. "Two hundred quid and we'll take everything."
"Two hundred pounds. I was expecting more."
"Look, old people's houses are filled with crap nobody wants. Most of it ends up at the dump."
"I don't know... I'll think about it," said Simon.
"You won't get anymore. If it wasn't for the tools you'd be paying us to clear the house... "
Simon didn't answer.
"Alright... Two hundred and twenty we'll clear the house now. It's up to you."
"OK," said Simon and watched the men load the van. He was standing in the hall when Jack came down the stairs with the brown suitcase.
"Hang on," said Simon.
"Do you want it?" asked Jack.
Simon nodded. "I'd better go through it."
Five minutes later they were gone leaving Simon alone in the empty house. He wandered from room to room. The house felt bigger, sterile, no longer a home. Two hundred and twenty pounds, he still had the money in his hand, had cauterised any connection he had to his life there.
A BMW convertible, arrived and out stepped a well manicured woman, thirtyish, confident; a professional. "Beverley Manning from Parker and Smith, estate agents. Before I start Mr. Reece, I have to ring my office and let them know I'm here. It's company policy. For security." She held a mobile to her ear. "Give me half an hour to measure and make some notes and we'll have a chat... Hello. Yes I'm with Mr. Reece now."
"When you've finished," said Simon. "I'll be in the garden." He took the suitcase outside, sat on the patio wall and forced the lock. It was full of papers. An envelope on the top contained his University Degree, another school reports. A press cutting carefully placed in a clear plastic wallet told of when he broke his arm playing rugby. Turning it over he saw a photograph of himself proudly holding his plaster cast.
Simon read the faded newsprint and thought of his mother. The suitcase would have been hers. Photographs spilled from plastic bags, of Simon on the beach, blowing out birthday candles and playing in the garden. He pulled out childish drawings that were once stuck to the fridge. He shut the case and sat in the sunshine. Things were moving more quickly than he'd imagined. If Beverley Manning did her job he could drive home tonight. Simon went to the shed and ran his hand along the workbench he'd helped his father build.
Simon emerged and shut the door. "Please, call me Simon."
"I need to take some pictures of the house from the garden."
"How much is it worth?" asked Simon.
"The market is slow at the moment. If you want to sell quickly, I suggest we ask two hundred and twenty thousand pounds." She smiled. "What do you think?"
"That's fine," said Simon. "I'll need you to handle the viewings. I won't be here. What do you charge?"
"If we're exclusive, one and a half percent." She smiled again.
"Do you think it'll sell quickly?"
"At that price there's no reason why not. I sell houses and I'd like to sell yours."
"Good. I'll give you a set of keys."
"That's fantastic," said Beverley. "Let me have your email address. I'll get draft particulars and a contract to you tomorrow. As soon as you send it back, I'll list the house and send the details out to potential buyers."
Simon handed the keys to the estate agent and returned to Cambridge. That evening he poured a large whisky and sat on the settee with the suitcase at his feet. A Mozart clarinet concerto played quietly in the background.
Removing the contents of the case his thoughts wandered back to happier times. Here, lovingly saved by his mother, was his childhood, documented and stored for posterity. It was because of her Simon had gone to Trinity College.
"You'll never amount to anything unless you push yourself," she'd declared. "Your father's a good man and I love him but he's afraid of failure. Never pushed himself. Don't end up like him."
Simon pulled a large brown envelope from the bottom of the case. It was addressed to his parents and looked official. He read the postmark '1981'. Simon would have been three.
The envelope split as he removed the contents. A birth certificate caught his eye. 'Certified copy of entry'. He continued reading, 'Name of child - Simon Jackson, sex of child - male, name, address and occupation of adopters.' That's odd. He stopped reading. It wasn't a birth certificate.
The adopters, Jack William Reece and Sally Elizabeth Reece, were his parents. What did it mean? Who was Simon Jackson and why was he adopted? Simon got up, poured himself another drink and spread the documents across the dining table. The adoption certificate was registered in the General Register Office at Bristol. He picked up another document, a 'Change of Name Deed,' changing Simon Jackson's family name to Reece. A copy of a hand written letter, consented to the change of name was attached, signed by both of his parents.
That night Simon couldn't sleep. His mind was racing. He relived the funeral in vivid detail. The mud on his mother's coffin - but she wasn't his mother. The deal he was trying to do, the biggest in his life, came crowding in. The Americans were coming. He was adopted. The urine stained mattress. Beverley Manning, slick and attractive. Why hadn't they told him? Who were his real parents? Were they alive? Why had they given him away?
At five o'clock he got up, showered and drove to the office. The car radio was on.
"...Four men, believed to be terrorists used a van to mow down pedestrians in a London street. When it crashed they abandoned it and attacked everyone they met. Dozens were stabbed," said the reporter. "Two attackers were shot dead. The others are being hunted by police. There are multiple deaths. Fleets of ambulances are ferrying the wounded to hospitals across London. The public are warned not to approach the men but to dial 999 immediately."
A sound bite, from the Prime Minister's press conference, followed. "This is a heinous, evil crime. Our hearts go out to the dead, the injured and their families but the British people will not be bowed. We will stand together and face the terrorists down. Their cowardly acts are despicable and unworthy of any religion. Now isn't the time to make new policies or overreact. Let the police and security services do their job and later, when we have all the facts, we will make the right political decisions. Lessons will be learned."
Simon stopped, posted an envelope containing his parent's wills through the solicitor's letterbox and got back into the car.
"Here's what Max Roberts leader of the National People's Party said just a few moments ago," said the radio presenter.
"This is the fourth terrorist attack this month. Of course we grieve for the dead and pray for the wounded but grieving and praying isn't enough. The Prime Minister talks about waiting for all the facts and learning lessons. I ask her, 'How many more deaths do there have to be before we have all the facts?' It's time to take action against the enemies who want to destroy us; to stop pussyfooting about. We are in a war and it is a war that, if elected, the NPP will win. We will be publishing our manifesto next week and it will include a list of effective counter measures designed to stop these criminals, to destroy them and their organisation. The NPP needs everyone's support. Vote for the National People's Party and I promise you we will stop the terrorists."
"So the NPP are taking a much harder line," said the presenter as Simon's car pulled into the car park.
"Someone needs to do something," muttered Simon and turned off the radio.
Simon had cleared a backlog of emails and was drinking coffee, when his personal assistant arrived.
Joy put her head through the office door. "I wasn't expecting you back until Monday."
"I had to come back but I'm taking the rest of today off," said Simon. "Did you tell John to collect the Americans and look after them?"
"He's going to the airport this afternoon," replied Joy. "I've booked them into Madingley Hall. John's arranged a tour of the colleges and he's borrowing a Darwin College punt to take them on the river on Saturday."
Simon smiled at the idea of three high flying American businessmen being punted along the River Cam. "Good idea. Tell John not to fall in and, Joy, book a table for Saturday evening at The Chop House. I'll join them for dinner."
Simon briefed the software team telling them what to show the Americans and went back to his office. He shut the door and made a personal call.
"Hello." It was a woman's voice.
"Julie, it's Simon." A child screeched in the background.
"What do you want?"
"I need to talk to you."
"You haven't needed me for five years, remember?" Her reply was icy.
"Please, I need your help," pleaded Simon.
"You need my help!"
"I've learned something important about myself and don't know who else to talk to."
"....What? What have you learned?"
"My parents are dead, killed in a car crash... You see, the thing is Julie, they weren't my real mum and dad."
"He hit me," squealed a voice.
"Just a minute... Right you two. Go in the other room NOW, and play quietly," Julie came back to the phone. "Meet me at Enzo's Coffee Shop at twelve." The voice was calm. "And Simon, we can talk but it's over between us." The line went dead.
On his way to the coffee shop, Simon bought a newspaper. 'Terrorist attack - threat level critical,' said the headline. Photographs of last night's atrocity filled the paper. He read a report about hate preacher Masood Khan's release. His appeal to the European Court of Human Rights had been upheld. The article quoted Max Roberts criticising the judgment saying it was crass and ill judged.
"Bloody ridiculous," muttered Simon. "Roberts is right. Khan should never have been released."
Julie arrived and sat down opposite him.
He folded the paper and fetched her a latte. "You look good. How are the children?"
"Fine thanks. They're at playschool. I collect them at one o'clock."
She looked directly at Simon. "How do you feel?"
"That's how I felt when I found out."
"I remember," said Simon. "Did you find her?"
"You remember, do you?... I needed you and you dumped me," she hissed. "You threw me out."
Simon looked down. "I'm sorry. There was a lot going on; the business."
"Yeah! the business."
They sat quietly, both looking at the table.
"Did you find her; your real mother?" Asked Simon.
Not really," said Julie quietly. "She refused to see me. When the adoption agency suggested a reunion she told them to get lost. All they told me was she's happily married with two children and three grandchildren. How's that for a kick in the tee...."
A hissing noise from behind the counter interrupted her as the espresso machine frothed hot milk.
Simon reached across the table to touch her hand.
She pulled away. "Are you going to try and find your real parents?"
"I need to know the truth about myself. Are they alive? Do I have any brothers or sisters? But where do I start?" He asked.
"Let it go, Simon. Get on with your life. Forget them, unless you want rejection and your heart broken." Julie looked up and held his gaze. "But you won't, will you?" She pushed her cup away and stood. "You might begin with the Adoption Contact Register. That's where I started. Don't ring me again."
Simon sat looking at her empty chair. Had he loved her? Probably not, otherwise why did he dump her when her life had become complicated, when she needed him most? The truth was, she had been an emotional mess, a tearful distraction - easy to eject from his life. Simon felt uncomfortable. He had been wrong to expect her to help, had no right to reopen old wounds. She'd found someone else and built a new life but the pain of rejection and insecurity was still there.
Simon felt excited, almost jubilant as he started searching ancestry websites. He typed 'Simon Jackson son of Mr. and Mrs. Jackson,' 'Simon Reece adopted by Jack and Sally Reece'. Nothing... It was hopeless. With no starting point he was lost. He poured another drink and tried Facebook. It was useless. There were thousands of Jacksons.
What did Julie say? "Begin with the Adoption Contact Register." That was it. He found the 'Adoption Contact Register' website, downloaded an application form and started to fill it in. But what if his real parents were not on the register? What if they were but wanted nothing to do with him...
Shit! The application needed Simon's date and place of birth. What were they? He had no idea.
Simon searched the suitcase for a birth certificate. Surely his mother would have kept a copy. He emptied the envelopes unfolding every scrap of paper... Nothing. Without a date of birth he couldn't register. He was frustrated and tired. Where could he get a copy? The General Register Office... maybe they would have one. He completed an application, with the details he knew, pressed send and went to bed. It was a long shot but he had to try.
It was dark when the telephone rang.
"Simon, have you seen the news?" Joy's voice was shrill. "A bomb has gone off at the American Air Force base at Mardenheath. There are mass casualties."
Simon looked at the time. It was six o'clock. He got out of bed. "Ring John Hume. Tell him to meet me at Madingley Hall. We need to make sure the Americans don't panic and bolt. . . And, Joy, we need to keep them busy. Get the software team into work. I want the place to hum when we arrive with the Americans. We're going to do the site visit for Systron Security today."
Simon switched on the television. The BBC news channel was reporting the bomb attack. A reporter stood in front of the gates of the American base. The bomb had exploded in a crowded cinema on the base at five past midnight as American servicemen and their families were watching a football game being beamed from the US.
Simon listened to the radio as he drove to Madingley Hall. "...The Prime Minister will be chairing a Cobra emergency committee at eleven o'clock."
There was a siren. Simon pulled over. An ambulance screamed past.
"Twenty three dead and more than fifty, including children, wounded, many with life threatening injuries," said the radio presenter.
The United States President spoke next. "This is a wicked, evil attack on men, women and children. . . Little babies. We don't know who's responsible but we will find them, trust me. Our people are already working on it. I've ordered all military personnel to return to their bases which are now in lockdown. No one who is not security vetted by our own guys will be allowed to enter. American civilians are instructed to leave the UK immediately."
"Shit," said Simon and turned the radio off. He'd arrived at the American's hotel.
The Americans from Systron Security were in the restaurant having breakfast. Simon recognised the big Texan C.J. Hunt immediately.
"Simon! Good to see ya. Pull up a chair," called C.J. He waved Simon over. "Mam," he called to a waitress. "Can we get a coffee for our guest?" He grabbed Simon's hand and crushed it. "Guys, this is Simon Reece. He's the brains behind Harland Digital. Simon this is Ben Fripp, our lawyer and the scrawny one is Nico Synful. Nico's our software guy."
Simon looked at the attractive brunette next to C.J. "Nico?"
"Short for Nicola," she explained.
They shook hands and he sat down. The waitress arrived with a cup and a pot of coffee.
"A bombs gone off. What the hell's happening?" asked C.J.
"Mardenheath, where the big American cargo planes land," explained Simon. "It's a huge airbase, thousands of servicemen and their families. Apparently the bomb went off during a football game. . . "
"We heard on the news this morning. Dallas Cowboys were playing the L.A. Rams," interrupted Fripp.
"Hell. I saw the game in my room," said C.J. "Cowboys won. Nobody said anything about a bomb."
Fripp poured coffee. "Was it Muslim terrorists? Revenge for Guantanamo? And this guy Khan! If he's a terrorist why was he released? You Brits are too soft."
"They've not said who's responsible," replied Simon. "As for Khan, I agree. He should still be in prison."
"Your man Roberts has the right idea. Make him Prime Minister and the terrorists will get what they deserve," said Fripp and sipped his coffee. "He was on the TV this morning announcing some protocols to destroy the bad guys."
"Protocols? That's news to me. What were they?" asked Simon.
The lawyer put down his cup. "It's an idea our President's peddling. A DNA database for everyone in the country, implanted identity chips like you have in dogs and. . ."
"Hell. That's a great idea," injected C.J. "Meanwhile, until you Brits sort this mess out we've been told to skedaddle home. Stupid if you ask me."
John Hume arrived and pulled up a chair.
"Listen C.J. There's no need to run away," said Simon. "We've got the office visit arranged for this morning and can do the deal on Monday. You're perfectly safe. Nothing's going to happen in Cambridge."
C.J. rocked back in his chair, nodded and smiled. "I did two tours in Iraq and in Texas, where I come from, we don't do 'runnin away."
"Good," said Simon. "If you’re ready, let's get this show on the road."
C.J. Hunt stepped out of the car and looked at the glass fronted office building on the far side of the plaza. "So this is Harland Digital."
"Before we go in can I remind you about the confidentiality agreement," said Simon. "No announcement's been made to the staff."
"Don't worry," said C.J. "We won't blow your cover. You know... We have done this before."
They walked across the plaza, avoiding the water splashing from the fountain. Simon swiped his security tag. Automatic doors opened.
The two storey atrium was a riot of plants and smelt green, fragrant like a freshly watered florists.
"Pretty fancy set up," said Nico.
"Thanks," said Simon and acknowledged the receptionist with a nod. "I'll give you a royal tour. We'll start downstairs with the commercial offices, staff restaurant, crèche and the bat caves. Then I'll take you upstairs to where the magic happens - where the programmers work."
"So this is where Regis was written," said Nico.
"Our database software, that's right," said Simon. "We developed Regis here."
"Did you just say 'bat caves'?" asked Fripp.
Simon nodded. "That's right. They're quiet rooms for chilling out and thinking. No computers, no phones. Anyone can use them."
They moved slowly through the building.
Nico stopped by a tattooed girl with a line of studs in each ear, working with three computer screens. "Hey! I like your body art... Cool. What'd you do here, Honey?"
"I'm in the blue team. My job's to analyse log data using the event management platform. Right now I'm writing a programme to detect live intrusions and to triage alarms in real-time."
"So you're here to defend Regis from hackers. That's good." Nico looked at the screens. "How long you worked here?"
"Just over a year."
"Straight from college, Huh? What's your name?"
"Warwick University," replied the girl. "My name's Lauren."
"Good to meet you Lauren." She patted Lauren's hand. "I'm Nico. We're 'gona get along fine."
Lauren looked at the group gathered around her workstation. "Are you going to be working with us?"
Simon cut her short. "Time for coffee. Thanks Lauren." He smiled at the programmer and shepherded the Americans away.
The boardroom, spartan and uncluttered was on the corner of the building, overlooking the plaza.
"Did Neville answer your due diligence questions?" asked Simon.
"Neville, your lawyer? Sure," replied Fripp. "We're working through his reply."
"Is there a problem?"
"Nah. It's just procedure," said Fripp and reached across the table for another muffin.
After eating the party drove to Darwin College. Simon led the way to the back of the college, where a punt was padlocked to a jetty. He unlocked the mooring ring and invited the Americans aboard.
C.J. stepped awkwardly into the punt, almost capsizing it. "Geez, this thing's 'gonna sink." He settled himself, filling the front seat.
The others boarded the unsteady craft and sat down; Simon on the bow, the other Americans mid-ships. They followed the river past Queen's College. Tourists, enjoying the warm sunshine, lined the banks. An Asian family in an overloaded punt sat broadside across the river, their pole sticking upright from the water tantalisingly beyond reach. The children were giggling as their father stretched in vain to reach it.
"It isn't funny," he shouted. "Stop laughing."
People gathered on the bank to enjoy the spectacle.
John Hume nudged the Asian punt, pushing it towards the lost pole.
"Thank you. You are most kind," shouted the man recovering his composure.
"Thank you," parroted his children.
"John is going to punt us downstream to give you a good view of the colleges," explained Simon.
"That's Trinity College," said John Hume, pointing to the left bank. "Trinity is one of the biggest landowners in Britain. Trinity's our landlord. It built the science park. They say, the college owns over eight hundred million pounds of assets."
"That's a lot of dough for a college," said C.J.
A boat, loaded with students crabbed, splashing the big American. "Sorry," called one of the girls on board.
"Lord Byron, the poet, was a student at Trinity. He kept a bear as a pet while he..."
There was a scream. A man, on the riverbank, clutched his chest, stumbled and toppled into the river. A hooded youth was running away.
John Hume sank the pole into the riverbed and drove the punt towards the man.
Simon grabbed him. "He's too heavy. C.J. give me a hand."
They turned the stricken man face up and held him against the side of the boat.
"He's too heavy to pull aboard. We'll capsize. Push for the bank," ordered Simon.
They landed and dragged the man ashore.
"He's alive. Looks like a stab wound, to me," said C.J. pulling the man's shirt open. "We need to slow the bleeding. Simon, press your hand here."
A woman was on her knees. "David... DAVID!"
"Is he your friend?" asked Simon.
"He's my husband. Why? Why did he do it?"
The wounded man clutched at his chest and whimpered.
A female police officer ran over. "What's happened?"
"He's been stabbed," said Simon. "Get an ambulance."
"Move back," shouted the police woman. "Give us some room." She radioed for assistance.
A man pushed his way through the crowd. "I'm a doctor." He knelt, examined the wound and looked at Simon. "Was he a friend of yours?"
Simon shook his head. "That's his wife."
"No," she shrieked. "NO!"
No one spoke as Simon drove the Americans back to their hotel. "I need a drink," he said. A television above the bar was showing the BBC news channel. There was no sound but subtitles were tracking across the screen.
"It was an unprovoked attack," said presenter. The barman turned up the sound. "The attacker, identified as black and in his twenties yelled, 'Allahu Akbar,' before stabbing his victim and running off. He was later cornered and shot dead by police marksmen. Police sources say his identity is known but they will not yet be releasing a name until later."
Video, recorded on a mobile phone, showed the victim being carried to the ambulance. An interview of a witness followed. "The man and woman were walking in front of me. They were holding hands. A bloke ran up to them shouted something and hit the man in the chest. I didn't see the knife ..."
"Turn it off," snapped Simon.
"That was interesting," said Nico, sipping her beer. "Your cops are so polite. The guy who interviewed me was a real cutie. He offered to buy me dinner."
"What did you say?" asked C.J.
"I said I'd love to honey but you're not my type." She grinned. "Mind you, I was tempted."
C.J. snorted and spilt his drink. "Hell."
The barman handed him a cloth to dab his wet shirt.
John Hume joined them. "Have you heard?" He said excitedly. "The Prime Minister's resigned. Parliament's been dissolved. There's going to be a general election."
"Resigned! On a Saturday?" said Simon.
"Do you think Roberts will get in?" asked John.
"I hope so," said Simon. "We need someone to take charge and get a grip of things."
"Roberts, he's the new guy who wants to deport all the illegals," said C.J. "The President tried that back home and now he's a busted flush."
"Yes but your Mexicans are busy cutting everyone's grass and working their socks off, not blowing themselves up and killing people," said Simon. "I think Max Roberts is tough enough to sort things out. At least he has a plan."
"You really think his protocols will work?" asked John.
"Protocols! They were talking about them again on the news this morning. What exactly are protocols?" asked C.J.
"New laws Roberts says will protect the people," explained Simon. "They make a lot of sense."
"Madness more like," said John Hume. "He's a fascist. Britain will be a police state,"