The Shaking

Seismic terror is about to strike...

Maverick geologist Brian McLean was ridiculed when he warned London and south east England were at imminent risk of suffering a major earthquake. But when the unthinkable happens buildings collapse, power grids crash, transport is gridlocked, and high-tech life grinds to a shuddering halt.

In the stunned aftermath courier Ryan Buckland journeys through a shattered city to be reunited with his family, Deputy Prime Minister Stuart Pullman sees the emergency as his chance to seize power, while nuclear engineer Alan Carter desperately tries to avert a far greater catastrophe. If he fails, destructive aftershocks will be the least of our problems...

A homage to penny dreadful natural disaster potboilers, The Shaking will rock you to your very core!

A 103,000 word novel. Rated PG 16.

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6. Chapter Six

19.32. Deputy Prime Minister's Office, Whitehall.

Stuart Pullman got wind of the Daily Post earthquake story almost as soon as the first edition was posted online. As he read through the report forwarded to him his anger grew. Though the informant wasn't mentioned by name there could be no doubt who had leaked what was supposed to be a confidential briefing paper. That maverick Brian McLean was running his mouth off again.

Ian Campbell's going to love this thought Pullman. Coming so soon after yesterday's tremor he'll not pass up the opportunity to make out I've fumbled the issue. Stuart's white-hot rage at Brian McLean intensified. I've not come this far to have my career tripped up by some beardy beak-nosed lunatic fringe wackjob. Though he may not be an official civil servant any longer the little shit was going to learn the hard way that no one - no one! - crosses Stuart Pullman and gets away with it.

It was pointless him asking Environment Minister Pippa Slater to pressurise the UKGeoScan management into immediately dismissing McLean; Campbell's minion wouldn't lift a finger to help Pullman. No, if he wanted to pursue a vendetta against the scientist and cause him some real problems, he'd need to use alternative methods: Stuart knew exactly how to do just that.

Rather than use the official intergovernmental network he knew to monitored and perhaps leave an incriminating trail of correspondence, Pullman used the covert means he and Christopher Parsons had agreed on long ago to arrange an informal meeting. Though the Home Secretary couldn't officially instigate a police investigation, there were ways and means, nods and winks methods of getting some serious scrutiny focused on the geologist, to be quickly followed with charges of breaching confidentiality; McLean had no doubt signed the Official Secrets Act, and he would learn to his cost breaking that law was no joke. When the government's legal steamroller had finished flattening him, Brian McLean would spend the rest of his miserably impoverished ruined life wishing he'd kept silent.

 

20.54. Undisclosed location in central London.

There are places, even close to the closely scrutinised febrile hubbub of Westminster, where the powerful can conduct their business in absolute confidentiality: Exclusive gentlemens' clubs located behind imposing Georgian townhouse doors; places those ignorant of their existence pass by unaware of every day.

It was in a sumptuously furnished private room within such an establishment where Stuart Pullman and Christopher Parsons - Home Secretary, co-conspirator, and one of Pullman's strongest allies - met. Parsons, a rising star in the party, hadn't quite garnered enough seniority to be considered a contender in his own right, but was influential enough to be able to sway the outcome of a contest. Once the steward had served a light snack and left, closing the door, Parsons began.

"I can imagine what it was that brought you here." He said, with a hint of joviality. "It must be rather embarrassing having the Post splashing that briefing paper all over the front page; especially shortly after Mizz Slater decided to make an issue of it in cabinet. My deputy Hamilton told me the atmosphere was quite feisty. What a shame I was in the West Country and didn't get back until after all the fuss had died down! Do you ever get the impression someone doesn't have your best interests at heart? I don't know about you, but I think Campbell is very close to launching his leadership bid; what say you?"

"Yes, you're right on both counts." sighed Pullman.

"So how might I be able to help you?" asked Parsons.

"A couple of things: Of course I'd like to be able to absolutely count on your support for my candidacy when the time comes, and yes, it will come soon; I think we can both agree that our dear PM's Best Before date has long passed: What matters now is how and when he goes. We'll have to beat Campbell to the punch, which means no long-drawn out contest; instead it'll have to be a quick breaking of the neck in full cabinet; an instant matter of principle, all-or-nothing issue; one where they'll have to react with their guts right there and then."

"It's a high risk strategy..."

"So is life; and remember we're not choosing the timing of this contest, Campbell is; probably with Rampling's covert blessing if I read the runes right. If I had my way I'd let them both swing in the wind until after the party conference, but we don't have the luxury of time. My soundings tell me the parliamentary party will grudgingly put up with a fait accompli, but if there's a proper leadership election as is the usual way of things, it will be too close to call, and we wouldn't want that!"

"And in return for my backing?"

"As is customary you can have your choice of the Deputy Prime Minister or Chancellor of the Exchequer." Pullman replied. "And there'd be some cabinet posts - senior and junior - for your followers in the subsequent reshuffle; I can be flexible about remits. If you wanted to combine the DPM and Home Secretary roles you'd be more than welcome to, and you know under my administration you wouldn't be constrained as you are at the moment. The gloves can come off, within reason of course..."

"Of course!"

"...and then midway in the next governmental term I'll retire with honour and it'll be over to you. We can even draw up a written agreement to that effect if you like."

"No, I'm happy enough to take your word for it. But what do you plan to do about Campbell? We can't have a loose cannon his size rolling around the deck!"

"He'll get the usual enforced ennoblement. He can stay in the Lords or go looking for directorships of banks and multinational corporations if he so desires. Just as long as he keeps out of the way and holds his peace."

"And the other?"

"That's the reason I've decided to move things up a gear, and we're talking now. Whether McLean was put up to leaking the earthquake report by Campbell or Slater, or did it on his own initiative the effect is still the same; it's a complication I don't need to deal with. I need him taken out of circulation for a while so he can't blab any more."

"Ah, I see... But are you sure it was he who blabbed it? His arrest can be arranged without too much difficulty, but he can't be kept incommunicado for long; and if he is lifted, the very fact of it may concentrate attention on the issue. That may not be what you want."

"None of this is what I want!" Said Pullman emphatically. "Normally the likes of McLean and his fantasies wouldn't even be on my radar, but it's not the issue of civil preparedness that's the question, it's the way Campbell and Slater are trying to use it to undermine me! Regardless of his role in the matter, if McLean can't talk to the media they lose their weapon for the time being, and in the meantime I intend to fight back."

"How so?"

"I think it's about time the fact of Ms Slater's workplace romance was exposed to the world. After the story has blown I'll suggest in full cabinet in the strongest terms that both both she and her toy boy resign immediately in order to preserve the government's reputation for propriety. If that doesn't force the issue, nothing will!"

"Yes... That would set the cat among the pigeons! And there'd be the racial aspect as well, but of course that'll be an unspoken subtext... But you're playing with fire old chap; be careful not to get burned! Anyway, when might you be planning to drop this little grenade in their teacup?"

"In a few days at the most. I hope you and your faction will be ready when the time comes."

"Oh you can count on that! I was born ready!"

"Excellent!"

Having finished sipping a finger of very exclusive scotch whisky, Pullman poured another dram for himself, and then a further good measure for Parsons.

Stuart proposed a toast. "To a long and profitable working relationship!"

"Cheers!" With the clinking of their cut crystal tumblers the deal was sealed, along with the fates of the unsuspecting Campbell, Slater, and McLean.

With their business concluded, a push on a silent bell button summoned the steward, who in turn called the pair's official chauffeurs. As Pullman was driven back to his official residence he began to grasp the full gravity of the process he'd just set in motion. The fuse had been lit, but Stuart couldn't yet know if the flame would sputter out before reaching the gunpowder. If the charge ignited his career may go rocketing skyward, or the resulting fireworks might blow the government apart. Within days Stuart Pullman would be Prime Minister - or the administration of which he was a part collapse, burying his hopes along with it.

 

21.56. The McLean's home, Cambridge.

As the family had the television off and weren't using the internet at the time, so Brain McLean's first warning his anonymity had been compromised was a call from his colleague Michael Wilson; on duty as the night watchman to ensure GeoScan's monitoring equipment ran smoothly and to be a first point of contact for information should a major seismic event happen elsewhere in the world. However the number on McLean's caller ID showed Wilson's mobile phone rather than the expected company landline

"Brian! What in God's name have you done now?!"

"So they're running my story!"

"I'll say they are! It's splashed all over the front page of the Daily Post and the others are picking it up as well. Even Connect24 are getting in on it! You've really gone and done it this time; half of the coverage is making out We're All Gonna Die while the rest of is portraying us as a laughing stock! What the hell were you thinking!"

"People have the right to know!"

"But not like this! You've started a right panic! I'm getting priority emails from the fucking Cabinet Office demanding an urgent explanation, and constant video calls from Connect24 wanting an interview. I've had to temporarily screen everything incoming while I'm talking to you."

"I'm sorry but-"

"Look never mind all that now; I rang to give you a heads up and also some advice if you'll listen to me for a change."

"OK..."

"Right now I think the best thing you can do is to make yourself scarce for a few days, starting from now, and I mean now. Get your family together and leave home at once; don't even pack anything; just get in the car and drive off to anywhere as soon as this call is finished."

"Aren't you being just a bit melodramatic?"

"You really don't understand, do you? There are heavy hints being dropped your whistleblowing has broken the law. You've got a baying political lynch mob on your tail and they're after your blood! Once you're on the road you and Rosalyn shouldn't wait too long before withdrawing as much money as your cards will allow from a cashpoint, but only do it the once as if your accounts are being monitored that fixes you at a certain place and time. Keep your phones switched off as that's another way you can be tracked; in fact stay offline for a few days, and if you must get connected, do so from a public WiFi hotspot and use a cloaking app or TOR."

"Oh come on..."

Yes, I'm serious about this! I'm not sure whether it's best for you to try and lie low with some relatives or hide in a hotel somewhere, but if you choose a hotel, pay in cash and don't give your real name and address. Thinking about it, you might be better off buying some cheap supermarket camping gear and going completely off the grid-"

"For Chrissake Mike-"

"-and when you're driving try to stay off the motorways and main roads. Avoid using major junctions as well because they're bound to be covered by CCTV and number plate readers. I mean it Brian; you've kicked up a right hornet's nest and you're going to get badly stung if you hang around. Let this shitstorm blow itself out in a few days and then you can surface again; hopefully cooler heads will have prevailed by then. I'll try to organise some support for you here, but God knows it isn't going to be easy. As you've not been directly quoted by that wanker Rookley you could try making out he's taken your work out of context to contrive a story and... Oh shit!... I've got the Connect24 news on and they've just put up a ticker claiming Gail Burton is on her way to doorstep you. You'd best be going! Fuck it! Now Peter Currie's calling; I'll have to answer that. Good luck Brian; I've got to go and so have you. I'll try to leave a message for you when when you can venture online in a few days. Bye!"

The call ended. Wilson's mention of Gail Burton's imminent arrival cut through Brian's woolly-minded naivety and revealed the true seriousness of the situation he'd put himself in; if only the ground would open up beneath him and swallow him out of sight! But there were no friendly sinkholes or fissures to be found. Instead within ten minutes the McLean family had hurriedly left home. Eight minutes after their departure Gail Burton's Connect24 news van drew up outside, followed a short time later by a nondescript large silver-grey saloon which parked further along the street in the concealing shadows; its four well built occupants remaining inside but observing the scene carefully for the time being.

 

22.34. Near the McLean's home, Cambridge.

Detective Inspector Frank Morgan of the Anti-Terrorist Operations Group was becoming increasingly agitated. He didn't like operating so close to the limelight, preferring to do his job out of the public eye. Instead he and his covert snatch squad found themselves in this bizarre situation, skulking beyond the bright lights cast by the TV news crew who had beaten them to their objective.

No, this assignment was fishy as you like, Morgan thought. It wasn't just the nature of their target; the man's profile was far from that of the extremists ATOG routinely dealt with, but also the instructions - presumably originating from far up in the command structure - to be as unobtrusive as possible when apprehending their target which also made Frank wonder. It was as if the legal basis for this arrest was uncertain, the person ordering the pick-up having something to hide. Morgan didn't like it one bit.

Frank watched as a thickset man walked calmly up to the rear of their car before getting inside, slumping heavily into the back seat then quietly pulling the door shut behind him to avoid attracting attention.

"I let them think I was a reporter." the agent said. "The neighbours I spoke to confirmed the family left shortly before the news crew arrived." He nodded at a curious couple looking on at the scene from their open front door.

"Oh well; that's that then!" sighed Morgan "Anything on the FLIR?" he asked the driver, who was observing the McLean's home through a pair of electronically enhanced binoculars.

"Nothing Guv." the man replied. "Only the circus outside. It looks like Gail Burton's going to try knocking on the door again..."

"She's doing it for effect now; it must be obvious there's no one home, even to them." added the fourth policeman sitting behind them, busy monitoring the Connect24 broadcast on a tablet.

"We're not achieving anything by staying here." Frank decided. "I'm calling it in."

He speed dialled a number on his mobile.

"Hello Sir... We've been observing the location for twenty minutes. The subject's car is not there, and he along with his family were reported to have left shortly before our arrival... Yes, we've confirmed the fact with his neighbours, and remote sensing of the address has revealed nothing to change my opinion the family became aware of the media furore regarding Dr McLean's disclosures in advance and have fled.

No Sir, I don't think it likely they will return home any time soon. We've adopted a low profile so far, but it's only a matter of time before one of the residents or the TV crew notices us and becomes curious. I think it best if we left now... Yes, that would be my recommendation... Understood Sir... Out."

"Let's go home!" Frank said wearily. As the driver eased the car quietly away from the area Morgan secretly felt relieved Brian McLean hadn't been there for him to collar. This operation appeared to be stretching the definition of state security way beyond the accepted limits: It was far too politically motivated to him; a matter beyond ATOG's remit. Silently he wished the McLean family the best of luck in evading the clutches of a state overreaching its authority to an unnerving extent. How long they would be able to remain at liberty was a moot point, sooner or later they'd be picked up by the Orwellian surveillance systems which permeated the fabric of the UK. The only question was when.

 

23.05. Stuart Pullman's Home.

Stuart Pullman was burning the midnight oil preparing himself for what could be a cruicial cabinet meeting tomorrow. His wife Elizabeth had left him alone and gone to bed. As he heard the news Christopher Parsons phoned him, his heart sank.

"Sorry Stuart, but your bird had flown before ATOG could catch him."

"Bugger!"

"And there's worse; Connect24 seem to have a bee in their bonnet about the story. Gail Burton was on the scene by the time the agents arrived. She's been knocking on the McLean's door live on air every fifteen minutes on the dot, but fortunately she's not savvy enough to develop the story any further than Nathan Rookley has. Anyway, the boys kept in the background and left the area unnoticed, so as yet there's no official word out that McLean's are under official investigation. You could let the matter drop now and let him stew in his own juice for a while. No one would be any the wiser."

"You mean he's given you the slip!" Pullman replied, exasperated.

"Only temporarily." said Parsons. "He's on the priority watch list now; we're bound to spot him sooner or later."

"When he resurfaces to go public again!"

"Sadly, our surveillance systems aren't quite Minority Report yet. If you were to give me a couple of years with a healthy budget increase, compulsory ID cards and a biometric register, then I might be able to speed the process up, but until McLean pops his head up there's not a great deal we can do. We've got the GeoScan offices, the college where his wife works and his daughter's school staked out, ready to pick any of them up if they show up there. Otherwise it's just a matter of time; he'll have to break cover at some point.

Anyway, maybe by then what he might say won't matter. To be honest I think you're playing this too defensively. Surely someone in your media relations office can draft a holding statement making McLean out to be a gibbering lunatic, or if the issue is raised in the next cabinet as I expect it will be, then propose an interdepartmental working group consider the matter: That should kick it into the long grass for a while."

"Good idea..."

"And as for the news coverage; they'll forget all about it when they've got a bigger story to report; the one you can drop in their lap. You said just a short time ago what was needed was quick, decisive action. Well I think the moment is now. If I'll were you I wouldn't hesitate; leak the Slater story at once and let's bring it to a head. If you delay much longer you'll just give Campbell more opportunities to attack you. Do it now."

Pullman considered for a moment. "Yes, you're right. If I think it looks possible I'll do it. But in the meantime keep the pressure on to find McLean. Even if the threat of his testimony can't be nullified, putting him through the mill will serve as a example to anyone else thinking about causing trouble."

"OK, it's your call. But for God's sake don't blow it all on account of getting drawn into a personal vendetta against a mere pawn; remember you're not the only person with skin in the game: By doing your bidding - especially when this is shaky legal ground - and effectively working for you rather than Rampling, I'm sticking my neck out as well."

"I'm only too aware of that, but thanks for trying anyway. We'll talk again, say at around seven in the morning?"

"Fine. 'Bye!" Parsons hung up.

Pullman considered what Parsons had said for a moment; perhaps he was fixating on Brian McLean too much, but being so tantalisingly close to achieving his lifetime ambition he wasn't about to take the slightest chance of having the prize wrenched from his grasp. It was best to run the scientist to ground.

As for launching a preemptive attack on the Campbell campaign via their weak link Pippa Slater, the more Stuart thought about it, the more he realised circumstances had boxed him into this corner which he had no choice but to fight his way out of. This may not be the opportune time, but the time was now. Picking up his personal tablet Pullman read for a final time the brief message exposing Slater's affair he'd been composing. Satisfied with its wording, he sent it via untraceable self-destructing message to the few contacts he could be sure would pick up and develop the story. No phoney shadow boxing now, Stuart had just thrown the first hard punch of the leadership fight.

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