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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37. Chapter Thirty Seven

Above London. 07.16.

Anthony Rampling's world had suddenly become confused. One moment he'd been preparing to step out of the helicopter, then the ground had begun trembling and something had streaked past his face to hit the fuselage with a loud TUNK! at the same time as the stinging pains began in his scalp. Strong arms had lifted him off his feet and all but thrown him back into the the cabin as frantic orders were bellowed. The note of the turbines rose to a high-pitched keening shriek he'd never heard before and the aircraft rose with the same stomach churning lurch as a high-speed elevator.

"Check that blood!" he heard someone order and inquisitive fingers probed the back of his head while another pair of hands tore at his shirt, exposing his chest. He felt sticky pads being attached in various places to it. "Got a pulse, but elevated rate and erratic!" said another person. "That's hardly surprising!" replied a further voice.

"What about his head?!" The authoritative voice demanded.

"It loooks like superficial fragment wounds to the scalp."

"Thank fuck for that!" the senior man sighed with relief.

Having established Rampling was still alive his carers began to take notice of him as a person again, and treat him once more with deference.

"What happened?" he asked.

"A sniper attack, sir." replied John Manning, his Head of Security. "The bullet missed you but struck near the door frame and disintegrated on impact; some of the fragments hit the back of your head but fortunately appear to have caused no serious injuries. We've put pressure dressings over your wounds for the time being; you may need to get them well cleaned out and have a few stitches, but you should be OK. However your cardiac rhythm is still a cause for concern. We're en-route to RAF Northolt where the flight surgeon can give you a thorough examination: How do you feel now?

"A bit tight chested and short of breath." said Rampling, who looked pale and sweaty. "I'm not sure, but I think I might have picked up that bloody Mexican 'flu from Ian Campbell!"

Manning motioned for one of the bodyguard paramedics to place a disposable thermometer on the Prime Minister's forehead while he glanced down at the display of the portable ECG machine which was nestled next to an opened battlefield trauma pack containg everything from IV bags of plasma and saline solution to an emergency surgery kit. "Don't worry, it's probably just the stress of it all. We'll be landing shortly." As Manning spoke the pilot throttled back the engines from full military power and the chopper began to lose altitude. "Just relax sir, and we'll take care of everything"

"Did they get the sniper?" Rampling had to raise his voice to be heard over the turbine noise.

"Not that I'm aware of as yet." Manning replied. "But we will."

 

Near Swanley Rest Centre. 07.20.

Seargent Kyle Langdon watched the man from behind. Though he was facing away from him and neither of his hands were visible, the soldier wasn't unduly fearful, he being well armed and escaping jihadist snipers rarely pausing to prop their bike up against a tree while they had an unhurried slash.

In the aftermath of the attack on the Prime Minister, Langdon's platoon had been ordered in hot pursuit after the gunman, dashing in short bursts from cover to cover wondering if the shooter had already scarpered or if they were about to go down as the final casualties in the terrorist's last stand of suicidal glory.

Kyle, staying close to a hedge running alongside a footpath, had reached the edge of this spinney and come to a crouching pause while he observed the wood for signs of possible danger. The only thing he spotted was this person relieving themselves, and from the sound of the weakening trickle of urine they had almost finished. The figure shugged as he zipped up his fly. Aiming his SA80/2 automatic rifle just below the small rucksack the male wore, Langdon shouted out "YOU! STAY DEAD STILL!" The man froze. "NOW SLOWLY PUT YOUR HANDS UP! He did as ordered. "TURN AROUND SLOWLY!" The man turned, and Kyle sized the suspect up; white; mid to late forties, wearing a mid-tan windbreaker jacket, dark green polo shirt and grey mix casual trousers. He wore brown walking shoes and in addition to his neutrally coloured pack the portly figure carried more weight than was healthy for him.

"WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?" demanded the sergeant.

"I-I'm Kevin G-Gill." stammered the man, obviously terrified at having a gun pointed at him by an uncompromising soldier. "I'm looking for my wife. She went up to London yesterday and I've not heard from her since. I thought she might be walking back this way or have stopped at the reception centre they mentioned on the radio."

"Have you got an ID?"

"Yes, I've got a driving licence."

"Well when I tell you to, take it slowly out of your pocket and keep the other hand raised. You understand that?"

"Yes."

"Well begin now; slowly mind!"

Gill slowly zipped down the front of his windbreaker and with a shaking hand reached into the inside breast pocket. He extracted a small wallet.

"Throw it over here!"

Keeping one eye and his weapon trained on Gill, Langdon reached over to the wallet and flipped it open. There in the window compartment was a driving licence in the name of Kevin Gill and the photograph was similar enough to pass inspection. In other slots Kyle saw a couple of bank cards, a few bank notes and a picture of a woman wearing well in her forties sporting a perky hairstyle.

"Is this your wife?" asked Langdon, showing the photograph to Gill.

"Yes, that's Debbie." the man replied.

"You lucky man. Right, I'll hand you back your wallet in a minute, what else have you got in there weighing your pocket down?"

"My phone."

"Let's see it; the same slow move as before."

Gill carefully picked out a leather case and allowed it to fall open, exposing the blank obsidian darkness of an unpowered screen.

"She's not called you?"

"Not yet. They say the networks are down or overloaded, and my battery is going. I need to save it. I'll see if she's registered at the centre and if not I'll try calling her again, but I doubt I'll get through..."

"OK, put it back, and take this as well!" Kyle tossed the wallet over. "When you've done that, ease off your pack and lay it on the ground" Kevin did so, seemingly fixated on the end of Langdon's gun barrel as if he expected leaden slugs of gas propelled death to burst from it at any moment.

"Now do exactly as I say. Open the top pocket and take out everything you have in there." Gill unzipped it and pulled out a local map. "Is there anything else inside? Stretch it all the way open with your hands so I can see." When Kevin did, Kyle saw only nylon material.

"Next the side pockets, one at a time." Gill repeated the process, fishing a plastic water bottle out of one pocket, along with a couple of wrapped cereal bars. From the other came a bicycle pump, a spare inner tube, and a tool roll comprising a dumbell spanner, a bicycle multi tool, as well as a puncture repair kit.

"What are those?" Langdon barked, suspicious at what he saw.

"They're latex gloves. Kevin explained. "Stops your hands from getting dirty when you have to fix a puncture. They came in useful earlier when I tried changing gear but the chain got jammed." he held up the gloves to display their oil stained fingertips and palms.

"All right." said Kyle. "Now for the main compartment." Gill removed a cable lock as well as two small clip on cycle lights, front and rear. "Is that it?"

"Yes."

"Well turn your bag upside-down and give it a good shake!" Kevin, eager to comply, gave it a vigorous shaking. Nothing further fell out of it.

"OK, you can put your stuff back." conceded the sergeant.

"W-what was all that about?" asked Gill.

"Don't you know?"

"No."

"Someone just tried shooting at the Prime Minister and we're searching for the gunman. Didn't you hear any shots?"

"No, only some helicopters flying around."

"Did you see anything else suspicious?"

"Sorry, but no."

"All right. Now get on your bike and get out of here; go to the centre as quickly as possible: And good luck in finding your wife."

"Thanks!" Kevin scooped up his possesions from the ground and not bothering to organise them, threw the lot into the main compartment of his pack. Picking up his bicycle he clumsily straddled it and set off unsteadily along the path leading to the rest centre. Legs rapidly spinning the cranks Gill was soon out of Langdon's sight, obscured by vegetation as the trail drew to the right.

Dopey bloody civvies getting in the way! thought Kyle. No wonder he looked so pale and clammy, sweating like a pig. That bloke is going to have a heart attack if he goes on like that, trying to ride a mountain bike offroad in the state he's in... But then Langdon's train of thought was disrupted by a voice in his radio earpiece reporting the location of the abandoned firing position had been discovered.

"Secure the area but don't touch anything!" he ordered. "The forensics people will want to examine the scene and the shooter might have left a booby trap behind! I'm on my way there. Out!"

With that Kyle abandoned his search for the gunman; the sniper must already be long gone by now.

 

A few hundred metres away along the trail Kevin Norris couldn't believe his luck. He'd actually got away with it!

He hadn't expected to, but thanks to his planning he'd pulled off what should have been impossible. There is an army saying; Prior Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance, along with another snipers' axiom; to spend as much time preparing your exfil as you do on your infiltration. Norris had taken both of them to heart as he considered the assassination.

He expected that after the attack the army would send out patrols in a wide skirmish line to capture or kill the fleeing marksman, and knew the expanse of agricultural fields on the other side of the hedge lined road provided little in the way of cover. Escaping he'd stand out like a sore thumb, an easy target for them, and Norris had no intention of becoming a martyr for the cause.

Running before his pursuers wasn't an option, nor was laying up concealed in the hope the soldiers would walk past without noticing him. So instead of trying to slip through the gaps in their dragnet, another approach was called for.

If he couldn't run or hide, he'd have to expect being apprehended by the troops, to be interrogated as to what he was doing there and be searched. This would mean ditching his rifle and concocting a credible cover story. Norris decided to pose as one of the many anxious relatives searching for their loved ones in the wake of the disaster; it would be a perfect disguise.

When Kevin collected his rifle from the lock up he also picked up one the false identities he and the Organisation maintained. A contact working within the DVLA had provided a valid driving licence; in addition the debit cards in the standby walllet registered in the name of Gill were linked to active accounts. With the addition of his wife's photograph and some money his alias was complete; hopefully capable of surviving superficial scrutiny.

While at the arsenal Norris also set up an alibi smartphone using one of the specially adapted cheap prepay units obtained from various sources stored there. Firstly he swapped the replaceable battery he ensured was kept fully charged with one allowed to drain down to having almost no power, before sliding a special SIM card into the holder. The result of his actions being that if the phone were to be switched on it would automatically shut down again due to an exhausted battery, and if an alternate power supply were connected the device's operating sytem would crash as well as the SIM card contacts be rendered unreadable. Only Norris knew how to make what appeared to be a superficially broken phone work properly.

Having established his cover story, and frustrated the most immediate way of checking its' authenticity by a phone call, he now needed to plan where to dispose of his rifle. This had vexed him as he'd ridden to the sniping point; the roadside ditches and culverts were dry at this time of year;  nor was abandoning the gun in the undergrowth a good option, it would too easily be found. Then, on seeing the copse, an idea came to him. A quick reconnaissance revealed an ideal hiding place amid the speading exposed roots, a large badger sett entrance.

Norris' plan had come together nicely, up until the point the aftershock had struck just as he'd pulled the trigger. Realising all was lost Kevin had detached the rifle's buttstock, thrown it along with the rest of the weapon into the nylon drawstring bag already holding the spare magazines; then hiding it in his backpack grabbed his bike, burst out of the gap in the hedge he used to enter the field, and sprinted like Mark Cavendish for the woods. After quickly thusting the incriminating bundle as far down the badgers' burrow as he could push it Norris then wiped his rubber gloves on the bike chain to establish a reason for having them: There was no way with his fingerprints and DNA trapped on the inside of the latex and gun residues on the outside that Kevin could contemplate disposing of them near the scene; instead he planned to burn them once he got home.

Having hidden the evidence, Norris moved away and was leaving a decoy scent to distract any sniffer dogs when the soldier had come across him.

That had been too bloody close for comfort, but Kevin's sweaty fear had helped him put on a convincing performance as a hapless, terrified civillian. Now he needed to get far away before the sergeant had second thoughts or another awkward question sprang into his mind.

So now his way out of the area was through the reception centre. Just in case the soldier was to radio in a query Norris decided to continue with his disguise; to ask after his wife at reception tent but avoid registering and leaving a record which might be followed up later.

The centre entrance was manned by a knot of police, army, and emergency service personnel. They made no move to interrupt the steady flow of new arrivals, intervening only when needed to provide aid, restore order, or answer questions. Wheeling his bike Kevin slipped into the stream of arrivees and set off for the prominently signed reception area.

"Excuse me!" he asked one of the staff manning the doorway of the large tent. "I'm looking for my wife. Is there a printed list of the names of people registered here?"

"You'd best ask inside." the woman replied. We've not got any printed lists up yet, but if she's been here there ought to be a computer record. I'll watch your bike for you."

"Thanks!"

Inside the marquee Norris queued for a short time before it was his turn to stand in front of a trestle table with a laptop mounted on top. "Name?" asked the policewoman operator dispassionately.

"I'm looking for my wife, Debbie- Gill." Christ! I nearly said Norris! he thought.

"I'll check for you." Her fingers clattered speedily over the keys. "Spelt G-I-L-L?"

"Yes."

"Sorry, there's no one of that name registered here. If you want to register yourself we can cross reference your details when we can connect to the national database."

"No thanks. I only dropped in on the offchance she'd stop here. She's most likely making her way back from London by some means or other; she might even have got home while I was out here. Thanks anyway, but I think I'd better be going back. If I don't hear from her by the end of today I'll contact the National Missing Persons Register." Desperately not wanting to get involved in a dispute about the issue, Kevin turned and left. The officer didn't attempt to call him back; she was already busy processing the next person in line.

"Any news?" asked the woman at the marquee entrance.

"No." he sighed.

"Well good luck in finding her. Things are a bit confused at the moment; hopefully we'll be able to start reuniting people when we can get it all organised." she sounded sincere in her wish. "And over on the wall of that tent there's an unofficial notice board, it might be worth looking there."

"I will; thanks again!"

To keep up the pretence Norris made his way over to the message centre. Someone had made an effort to organise the various scraps of card, paper and post-it notes sellotaped in transparent plastic document slips stapled to the canvas into alphabetical surname order. Kevin scanned both the G for Gill of course, and N - Norris sections for any messages but saw nothing from Debbie. As he did so his attention became absorbed by the hastily scrawled or carefully hand printed in block capitals cries of hope and despair. Morbidly he looked along the rest of the sheets on the offchance a missive - a real one meant for him - had been misplaced, but saw nothing. Overcome by repressed emotion, tears began to well from the would-be assassin's eyes.

"You shouldn't give up hope yet!" A voice next to him startled Kevin. He turned toward the sound of it to find himself facing the very same sergeant who had shaken him down earlier.

"Oh, sorry if I frightened you! No sign of her then?"

"No." Norris gasped, swallowing hard.

"I'm sure she'll turn up somewhere..."

"Yeah, I-I expect she will." Kevin quickly readopted his timid persona. "Did you find the person you were looking for? I thought you'd still be out looking for them."

"Nah, whoever it was got clear away and we were pulled back here to support the centre operations: We're told there's more people on the road here and from what we've heard some of them may be a bit troublesome. As for the shooter, we found his firing point and the investigation has been turned over to the spooks now."

"Wh-what a shame you didn't catch them."

Yeah... I thought for moment it might have been you, being the only person we came across on our sweep; but watching you looking at that notice board I can tell you're genuinely looking for your missus. Whoever the gunman was, they obviously were a professional who probably had a driver as a accomplice. That or they got away on a motorbike. Anyway, have faith that you'll find your wife."

It was all Norris could do not to completely break down at that moment. There was a pregnant pause.

"She might be at home by now." Kevin said, breaking the silence. "I-I'd best be moving on."

"Yes. Well the best of luck!"

"And you!"

Langdon watched the fat man push his bike toward the centre's main entrance. Yes it was suspicious that he was the only person his patrol had encountered, but he would have to be a superb operator to get away with such a brazen escape. But then a superb operator would be able to act like someone such as Gill...

Kyle was in two minds whether to call after the departing man; to ask him some more questions or arrest him until his background could be fully checked out, but to do so would draw attention to the fact Langdon had allowed him to slip through the net in the first place; not a good strategy for a career soldier after a promotion. Still indecisive the sergeant watched Gill reach the road at the edge of the field boundary, remount his bicycle, and set off in a southerly direction, overtaking a gaggle of displaced people who had bypassed the centre without stopping; directly en-route to their homes no doubt.

Langdon saw Kevin suddenly brake and throw down his machine as a woman from the group rushed to embrace him. Yes, Kyle recognised her hairstyle from the photo he'd seen; that must be Debbie. Well good on you. thought Langdon. Amid all of this tragedy it's heartwarming to see a little good news. And that solved his conundrum; Gill must be kosher and not an undercover sniper. There's no way such a chance reunion could have been organised. The soldier looked on as Kevin and his wife wrapped themselves around each other like teenagers madly in love, then Kevin picked up his bike, lowered the saddle height with the quick release lever, and offered it to his wife.. She mounted it and set off ahead of him.

Turning away to avoid blubbing at the sight the sergeant set off to inspect his troops; he had a cold, hard, commanding image to maintain. Neither he, Kevin, or Debbie Norris would ever know how close events might have been to taking a completely different course.

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