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By Jonathan Maberry
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2008 Jonathan Maberry
All rights reserved.
Park Place Riverbank Hotel
December 17, 9:28 A.M. GMT
"Are you ready to come back to work?" asked Mr. Church.
He didn't say hello, didn't ask how I'd been. He got right to it.
"Haven't decided yet," I said.
"Decide now," said Mr. Church.
"Worse. Turn on the TV."
I picked up the remote, hit the button. I didn't need to ask which channel. It was on every channel.
"Okay," I said. "I'm in."CHAPTER 2
The Royal London Hospital
December 17, 10:09 A.M. GMT
I stood in the cold December rain and watched thousands of people die.
The Hospital was fully involved by the time I got there, flames reaching out of each window to claw at the sky. Great columns of smoke towered above the masses of people who stood shoulder to shoulder with me as dozens of hoses hammered the walls. The smoke was strangely dense, like fumes from a refinery fire or burning tires, and there was a petroleum stink in the air. The black smoke spread out to block out the blue of the sky and the burning eye of the sun, casting the whole street into an unnatural twilight.
"Back! Back!" cried a firefighter, and I turned to see that there were too many people and too few police ... and we were all too close. I could feel the heat on my face even though I was in the middle of the street. "Get the hell back!"
I looked at the firefighter. He was running toward us, waving us back with both hands. Then I looked up at the building and knew at once that he wasn't doing crowd control. He was shouting a warning. The building was starting to collapse. I turned to run, but behind me was a tight-packed sea of people. They were staring in numb shock as the wall slowly leaned out toward them. Maybe they didn't see it, or didn't understand what was happening. Maybe the very fact of a spectacle this vast had hypnotized them, but they stood their ground, eyes and mouths open. I grabbed a man in a business suit and shook him and then slammed him backward.
"Move!" I screamed.
The crowd snarled at me. Ah, people. No sense of self-preservation in the face of disaster, but give them a chance and they'll bark like cross dogs.
The firefighter was getting closer, louder, but the roar of the fire was louder still. Then something deep inside the building exploded. A heavy whuf! made the whole front of the building bulge outward in our direction.
That did it.
Suddenly the whole crowd was backpedaling and stumbling and finally turning to run as the entire façade of the Royal London Hospital bowed slowly outward and fell, the ancient timbers and brick defeated by the inferno heat. Hundreds of tons of burning brick slammed onto the pavement. A gigantic fireball flew at us across Whitechapel Road, chasing us as we dove behind the fire trucks and ambulances and police cars. People screamed as cinders landed on their skin. Splinters and chips of broken brick battered the crowd like grapeshot. The firefighter was struck between the shoulder blades by a burning chunk of stone the size of a football. He pitched forward and slid all the way to the curb, his helmet flying off and his hair immediately beginning to smoke. The falling rain hissed as it struck his back and head, but it wasn't strong enough to douse the fire.
I leaped the small wrought-iron fence and pelted in his direction as embers fell like meteorites all around me. I whipped off my anorak and slapped it down over him, swatting out the fire. The smoke was thick and oily and filled with dust despite the rain. I yanked my sweater up over my nose and mouth, grabbed the fallen fireman under the armpits, hauled him to his feet, and then staggered out of the smoke with him. A second firefighter saw us and ran to help.
"He's alive," I said as I lowered the first fireman to the ground.
I backed off as a team of paramedics appeared out of the crowd. The second firefighter followed me.
"Is that everyone?" he yelled.
"I don't know!" I bellowed, and turned to head back into the smoke, but he caught my arm.
"Don't do it, mate. The rest of the wall's about to come down. Nothing you can do." He pulled me backward and I stumbled along with him.
He was right. There was a low rumbling sound and more of the wall fell, chasing the onlookers even farther back. The firefighter — a young man with a cockney voice and a Jamaican face — shook his head. "Whole bleeding thing's going to go. Can't believe I'm watching the London die."
A familiar nickname for the hospital. Not the Royal London, not the Hospital. The London, as if that name, that place, stood for the old City itself.
We stood there, watching helplessly as the oldest hospital in England died. There was nothing anyone could do. After I'd gotten Church's call and turned on the TV, I'd rushed out immediately, caught the first cab, and screamed at the man to get over to Whitechapel. The traffic was so thick that I had run the last six blocks. The press was already calling it a terrorist bombing. If that was true, then it was the worst in British history.
The firefighter shook his head. "Look at it. Survived the Blitz, survived everything, and now this. Poof. Gone." He looked at me, his eyes glazed with the enormity of it. "They put a billion pounds into expanding it. Over twelve hundred beds since the renovation, and with this round of flu you know they'd all be filled. More than two thousand staff on- shift. Doctors, nurses, orderlies ... I know a lot of them...."
"What happened?" I asked sharply, hoping to snap him back to the moment.
He wiped soot from his face. "Dunno for sure. They're saying it was bombs."
"'Bombs'? More than one?"
"That's the report we got. Five or six explosions. Big ones, and almost at once. Then the whole place was fully involved. That last blast was probably the heating oil in the subbasement. But those others ..."
"What's with the black smoke?"
He shook his head. "Mystery to me, mate. Smells like a rubber fire, don't it? The fire investigators are going to have to sort that out, because that's definitely oil smoke. Makes no sense."
"How many people got out?" I demanded, looking around for someone who had been in there, someone I could ask questions of. If this was a terrorist attack, someone had to have seen something, and the sooner we could get a jump on it the better.
"Out?" The young firefighter's bleak eyes shifted away to the fire, and then down. "No one got out that I heard of. Place went up too fast." He spit saliva that was clouded with black grit onto the debris-littered pavement. "At least it was quick."
I hoped he was right about the last part ... but he didn't sound all that convincing.
A line of police officers worked their way between the apparatuses, pushing spectators back across the street. The rain slackened to a drizzle and news crews crept from their vans to do stand-ups. I recognized the young woman nearest to me. Kimiko Kajikawa, from the BBC. I'd seen her read the news every night at six. This was the first time I'd ever seen her without her legendary unflappable cool. She looked like she'd been crying, and I imagine that it was the numbers that were hitting her. If the firefighter was right and the bombs had caught everyone unawares, then we could be looking at something like thirty-two hundred dead in a single moment. Maybe more. Nearly as many as had died in the fall of the Towers. If all those beds were full, then it could be even worse.
I felt tears burning in the corners of my own eyes.
All those lives. All those people.
And all of those families. How many of them were watching Kajikawa right now? Jesus Christ.
Since signing on with the Department of Military Sciences I've seen far more than my fair share of death, but nothing on this scale. And even though the flames and smoke hid all of the bodies, I could feel the death. It was like a huge dark hand had reached inside me and was squeezing my heart. I turned to the people around me and saw expressions on their faces ranging from confusion, to disbelief, to shocked awareness. Each was processing the enormity of this at the speed their mind would allow. I could almost see how this was gouging wounds into the collective psyche of everyone here, and anyone who was watching a news feed. Each of them — each of us — would be marked by this forever. The moment had that kind of grotesque grandeur.
I edged closer to hear Kajikawa.
"... we'll be following this story as it unfolds," she said. Her voice was steady, but the hand holding the mike trembled. "So far no one has stepped forward to take responsibility for the bombing at this landmark teaching hospital. Established in 1740, the facility provides district general hospital services for the City and Tower Hamlets and is also the base for the HEMS helicopter ambulance service. Hospital authorities say that nearly all of the twelve hundred beds were occupied as of yesterday."
There was a commotion to my right and I turned to see a tall, harried-looking man in a black uniform fighting his way through a sea of TV and news service microphones.
"Fire Commissioner Allen Dexter is on the scene," said Kajikawa as she hustled over to join the throng around the man.
"Commissioner Dexter," shouted a Reuters reporter, "do we know how many casualties yet?"
Dexter's lip curled in irritation at the typical callousness of the question. It was clear from the different shapes his mouth took before he answered that the words he said were not the first ones on his tongue: "Not at this time."
"Can you speculate for us?" the reporter persisted.
The commissioner slowly faced the hospital, which was an inferno from foundation to rooftops. When he turned back, his pale eyes were bleak. "We have not yet identified anyone who was in the building at the time of the blasts and who since escaped."
The reporters were too jaded to be stunned by this. They screamed questions at him, but Dexter turned away as a wave of police officers surged forward and cut him out of the pack.
"There you have it," Kajikawa said, turning back to face the camera. "This is quickly becoming the worst hospital disaster in British history. And if this is a terrorist attack, then it could well be the worst ever." She said it with what almost sounded like pride. Somewhere between her earlier tears and now she'd made a huge internal shift from "human being" to "reporter." Maybe the cameraman had said something to her, or maybe she did a mental review of reporters whose careers had been made by great human suffering. Like Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite breaking the story of JFK's assassination, Wolf Blitzer with the first Gulf War in Kuwait, and Anderson Cooper during Hurricane Katrina. Or maybe being in the thick of the throng of reporters reminded her of the most sacred rule of journalism: "If it bleeds, it leads."
I thought it was vulgar.
Kajikawa was still working it. "We do not yet have word about how many of the hospital's eight thousand staff members were on duty today, but as the building continues to burn out of control, hopes for a happy outcome are likewise going up in smoke."
The Royal London Hospital
December 17, 10:46 A.M. GMT
I found a relatively quiet spot in a vee formed by two fire trucks parked at right angles and called Church. I told him what it was like at the scene, and remarked on the dense oil smoke that was turning the entire sky black.
"Odd," he said. "Perhaps it is intended as a symbolic touch. A statement."
"On what? The Mideast oil wars?"
"Let's add that to our list of questions."
"What do we know about this attack?" I asked.
"Too little. Benson Childe, my opposite number in Barrier, called to ask if we'd heard anything from our networks. We haven't. Nothing credible, anyway. Half a dozen fringe groups have issued statements claiming responsibility, but they are the ones who do that for everything. I've had our people trolling through FBI, CIA, and Senate subcommittee records, reports to the President, speculation from our own analysts. So far we have a lot of enemies and there is no shortage of threats against us and our allies, but nothing that specifically targets this location or date. No one has identified a specific political or religious motivation for this, so the Brits are holding off on calling this a terrorist attack."
"From where I'm standing it doesn't look like anything else. I worked a lot of fires when I was a cop, Boss, and this isn't bad wiring or someone smoking in bed. There's going to be more collateral damage than we had at Ground Zero. Maybe a higher body count, God help us."
"Yes. Which means that the whole world is going to be looking at this, and that's why the Brits are taking their time in putting a label on it. They don't want to kick off a rash of hate crimes. For the moment the verbiage is 'national tragedy.'"
"Anything from Al-Qaeda?"
"Not so far, but expect something. If this isn't their play, then they'll reach out to praise whoever did it."
"What about our other sparring partners? The Cabal? The Kings?"
"There's not enough of the Cabal left to orchestrate this. As for the Seven Kings ... that may be more likely."
"Why? What's been happening while I've been off the radar?"
"There have been some clashes. Our informant is still feeding us useful intel. We've had several dustups with the Chosen."
"Sorry I missed the party," I lied. In truth, I wasn't looking to jump back into any firefights with the Kings' field troops.
We had learned about the Seven Kings a few weeks after my first mission with the Department of Military Sciences. Mr. Church had received an anonymous phone call from a source even MindReader was unable to trace. The call had come in on Church's private line, a number known only to key people: the President of the United States, a few people in government, the heads of the top counterterrorist organizations belonging to our allies, and the team leaders of the DMS. Either one of them was the mysterious caller or the caller had managed to learn that private number or the caller had the technology to hack into Church's coded phone. None of those options was particularly comforting.
He was able to record the call, however, and played it back for us....
Excerpted from Countdown by Jonathan Maberry. Copyright © 2008 Jonathan Maberry. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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