Monday, 27 August 2012

Cordon sanitaire

   The frightened woman started as a pale-faced orderly slammed the heavy door shut behind her. The sound of the bolts being turned on the other side ended and all was silent for long moments. She had little enough to fear here. The security window had bars on the far side and double screens of wire netting on her side and the person she had come to meet could not possibly break through all that before the orderlies, alerted by the cameras in armoured baskets pumped teargas into the cell beyond the Perspex.
  He was still fit-looking despite the years of imprisonment: the tube steel frame of a bed bolted and welded to the wall and floor showed the kind of wear a man might inflict by many, many sit-ups. He seemed pleasant enough, too, for a man condemned to end his life here.
  “Now I’m scared,” he spoke in a soft West Country accent. “You seem to be a serious type, and educated. But you’re not a forensic psychiatrist or some politician’s thrill-seeking girlfriend, which is a change. Shall we get the jokes over with before this conversation heads downhill? I don’t suppose you brought something to drink? They aren’t forthcoming with alcohol in here and the stuff they push through the slot for Communion is a potion so weak I wouldn’t give it to my pet rat. If I had a pet rat. A Tuscan red, perh -” 
   “Tell me about Eriksay. Tell me about all the people you killed. Tell me about your murdered family.”
   He brushed scarred fingers up over a face that had forgotten why to laugh to  stubbly hair that looked as though it was shorn once a month whilst he lay bound and sedated. “They weren’t human by the time I destroyed them my dear… Undersecretary? Minister? So they weren’t my family. I never saw eyes so filled with malice and despair in my life: not in the Bandit Country; not in the Falklands; not in Iraq.  Never in the eyes of my Rosemary and certainly not in my girls’. They weren’t alive and therefore I couldn’t have murdered them, could I?”
   “And yet the police found the bodies of all the forty-one islanders decapitated and charred on the pyres, plus your wife and daughters and half the ship’s company of the Danube Star, all dispatched by you as your testimony stated, over three nights in June 1991.
  “Nonsense. I did most of them on the first morning after we got there. They’re slow-moving and poorly coordinated when newborn. Newly dead. Whatever. They stumble about a lot and a couple didn’t seem to realize that sunlight was bad for them till they were toasted. All that was good luck because I was still limping from the wound that brought me back from Iraq. Hit as quick and as hard and as fast as you can is what the Regiment teaches you when you’re outnumbered and far from reinforcements or supporting fire. So I got most of them that first morning.  But even on the second night they weren’t all that clever; none seemed to have regained the power of speech and they had trouble operating door handles.”
   “Into homes? Can they can enter private homes uninvited despite the folklore?” 
   “The homes, the shop, and the harbourmaster’s office and the pub. They just smashed their way in. And into yachts at anchor, which is how they must have got to Rosie and the girls while I was heroically searching for a working radio at the lifeboat station.” A long silence then; except for the distant growl of heavy-lift helicopters brought in through the hospital’s air conditioning. “It’s not just your little computer in the briefcase is it, Minister?”
   “It’s ‘Colonel’ actually and no: I have your release papers and your recall to the Colours.
  “I said I was scared, didn’t I? And who else can you call; the Ghostbusters? Found the rest of the Danube Star’s crew have you?”
   “We think we might.” She tapped at a miniature keyboard that was straight out of the science fiction of Benedict’s last days of freedom. “We lost contact with Thurso two nights ago and after looking at the satellite Intel I’d guess you and your colleagues will be given no more than twenty-four hours before the Brass orders the Air Force in. And if four squadrons of HE and incendiaries don’t work it’ll be down to HMS Vigilant to finish the job and after that a twenty-year quarantine of the Highlands. If the French don’t nuke us first and flood the Channel Tunnel to be on the safe side.
   Get moving Captain Benedict, you’re back on duty.”  

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