We drove back to Norfolk in silence, sunk in gloom. I'm not sure what it was that affected us so; it was maybe a combination of things. The attitude of officialdom certainly hadn't helped but we all had the feeling that somehow nothing had been resolved to our satisfaction. We had told our story and were now out of the loop. We had no idea whether the plutonium had been found. We had even less of a clue as to how the authorities would now proceed. We could only hope they would act rapidly to address the appalling situation. The thing that bothered me was that there were at least a dozen armed Chechens running about free as birds in England's green and pleasant land. No one had seemed concerned in the slightest by that fact.
It was already full dark by the time we pulled up outside the cottage. Heavy cloud cover obscured what moon there was so it was black as ink. There were no lights showing in the windows and my heart sank. Supposing something had happened to Liam and Niall while we were away? I got the dogs out of the back of the car while Angela opened the door. Niall's voice rang out. "Get inside, don't touch the lights and keep away from the windows!" Needless to say we complied with alacrity.
Once inside, Niall told us what had been going on. "We were hit by about twenty of the bastards at dusk," he said. "They're out there somewhere. I think we winged a couple but these pop-guns aren't that accurate over about twenty yards." Bill muttered something to Steve and they disappeared into Angela's studio. When they came back they looked to have enough armament to start a small war. They each carried some sort of sub-machine gun and Bill had a rifle with a large nightsight fitted to its long barrelled frame. Steve was carrying a holdall that contained more sub-machine guns and a load of spare ammunition clips taped together in pairs. When one clip was empty, they could simply turn it over to insert the other. They offered me a weapon but I declined. "I think I'd be more dangerous to you than anyone else," I said. The colonel took a weapon and proceeded to strip and reassemble it with obvious expertise. "Good!" His smile was wolfish.
Angela and I went into the inner hall and sat down. There were no windows and the thick stone walls of the cottage would protect us from any stray bullets. I felt useless but knew it was best to leave it to the professionals. I said as much to Angela and she gave me a weak smile. "You are right, my Martin, and it is brave of you to admit it." I didn't feel very brave at that moment, just very useless.
The odd thing about tension is that it can't last. The human brain can only take so much, and then it begins to shut down. It's absolutely impossible to stay scared witless and with every nerve stretched taut and humming with dread for an extended period. After about an hour of squatting there in the darkness with my arms around Angela, I began to yawn. The old soldiers obviously knew a trick or two because every so often they would exchange their positions. Fresh eyes always surveyed the scene outside. I guess it kept them from staring for too long at the darkness and starting to imagine things. What really struck me was that they seemed not to need words to communicate. A look, a brief nod and everyone moved in unison. It was as though they had been working together for years.
"Here they come!" It was a harsh whisper but I recognised Bill's voice. "This side, too." That must have been Steve. The next thing the enclosed space of the hall was filled with the harsh chatter of machinegun fire and the stink of the explosive propellant. The flashes from the short bursts of gunfire split the darkness and scarred their images onto my retinas. Angela made a dive for me and I wrapped in her my arms, trying to shield her from the awful reality with both my body and my love.
Over and above the cacophony within the house I occasionally caught the fainter sound of fire being returned and glass smashing in the windows. Once there was a shrill scream. Liam, Niall and the rest fought in complete silence. I let Angela go and crawled forward. I had this overwhelming desire to make myself useful. Shit-scared though I was, I grabbed the holdall and slithered about the floor, passing out fresh ammunition clips. Magic was whimpering in a corner of the parlour. He hates fireworks so God knows what gunfire at close quarters was doing to him. There was a sudden almighty BOOM!!! It felt like the house rocked on its foundations and glass cascaded from all the windows at the back of the place. I was so stunned I was frozen in mid-crawl. "Bastards have got a grenade launcher," I heard Liam say, or it might have been Niall, I couldn't tell in the darkness.
Steve had the rifle fitted with the nightsight. "Got him," he said and the flat crack of the rifle cut across the yammering of the sub-machine guns. Steve fired again, once, twice in quick succession. "Got his mate, too. I think they're pulling back." The firing died away as suddenly as it began. I was suddenly conscious of the sound of my own breathing, harsh and rapid, like I'd just run a marathon. My eyes smarted from the fumes and my head was ringing. Angela's father said something to Bill in Russian. "Colonel says they won't be back. Took too many casualties. They're mercenaries, no commitment. Least ways, something like that." The colonel nodded his head and I had the sneaking suspicion that the old bastard could speak English after all.
We waited about half an hour with Steve surveying the surrounding area through the nightsight. He shook his head. "Nothing moving, Boss." Liam and Niall slipped out of the front door and vanished into the darkness. The three ex-soldiers waited with apparent total calm. I was beside myself with nerves until they reappeared. Liam grinned and said, "Eight down for sure. Another couple, possibly more, wounded. Blood trail withdrawing into the dunes. We counted twenty earlier. I think we got a couple first time around. Best guess is they are down to about eight or nine effectives. They won't like those odds, not now they know our fire-power."
We heard the sound of approaching sirens in the distance. "Trust the Old Bill, " said Steve, "Bloody late, as usual." The 'Old Bill' - a cockney nickname for the police - duly arrived. Several white-faced young constables and a couple of old hands in flak-jackets ringed the cottage. Niall called out to them. "It's OK, gentlemen. The bad guys have already left. Do come in!" There was a hasty consultation until someone who has seen too many cop movies yelled for us to come out with our hands up. Dutifully, like any law-abiding citizens, we trooped outside. We were bundled into the back of assorted police cars and rushed off to Cromer Police Station, sirens still wailing. They tried to split us up inside the station but we weren't having any.
Niall stuck his face into that of the senior police officer and almost spat out his angry words.
"Listen, sunshine, you have a bunch of Chechen nasties running all over your manor. They attacked that cottage twice tonight. We defended ourselves. There is something going down here that constitutes unbelievably serious shit, well out of your league. I suggest you ring Lieutenant Colonel Rollo Yeates of Army Intelligence immediately. He is aware of the situation and will tell you as much as you need to know."
The policeman was not intimidated in the slightest. "Been listening to the news, have we, sir?" The 'sir' was dripping with icy contempt. "Lieutenant Colonel Yeates and two companions were killed by a car-bomb late this afternoon. Special Branch thinks it was your countrymen, sir. Now what do you to say to that?" His eyes flickered a little with surprise when he saw the genuinely shocked looks on all our faces. I stepped forward.
"My name is Martin Booth and these gentlemen are in my employ. They have been assisting me to protect this lady. We met with Rollo Yeates at Felixstowe Docks around noon today. The senior Customs Officer for Felixstowe and two other gentlemen were also present. As my friend here told you, there is a gang of Chechens in the area who are trying to kill Miss Sable and her father. Her father is a representative of the Estonian Government who has come to this country bringing evidence of a terrorist plan of almost inconceivable dimensions. We handed over the evidence to Lieutenant Colonel Yeates and his companions earlier. We were also given strict instructions not to discuss the matter with anyone.
"As you can see, Colonel Yeates's death has come as a great shock to us. Even more so perhaps because these gentlemen - I indicated the twins - and I were all at school with Rollo Yeates and knew him personally. I should also point out to you that these same gentlemen served this country with distinction in the Parachute Regiment and you have no right to cast any slurs on their character simply because they are Irish. Such an attitude is both inappropriate and offensive in the extreme.
"Be that as it may, you are wasting time. I would suggest that you contact the security services as a matter of some urgency. We are all prepared to render such assistance as we can to the proper authority. I would also suggest that you send some armed police back to the cottage. You should find the remains of some eight Chechen gunmen. In the cottage you will also find two frightened dogs. I would be grateful if someone could see to them for me while we remain here."
The policeman was visibly taken aback. "Just what the fuck is going on here?" he said. I took the question to be rhetorical. At any rate, they stopped trying to separate us and brought more chairs into the interview room. A young constable in an ill-fitting blue uniform came in with a tray of mugs of tea. Angela giggled. "How very British," she whispered in my ear. "The world is going to Hell and your police make tea!" I grinned back at her. "Don't knock it," I said, "It's a sovereign remedy for frayed nerves, gunshot wounds, bombs, fire and flood. The country wouldn't function without it." We all sat around and drank our tea, which turned out to be a singularly pernicious brew and waited for the wheels of the State to turn.
We sat around for about three hours. The police left us alone but nobody was in the mood for small talk. I could see Liam and Niall were starting to get a bit antsy and did my best to calm them down. Eventually the door opened again and two plain-clothes officers came in with the local senior officer. The elder of the two newcomers introduced himself as Commander Swann of Special Branch. We rehearsed the entire story for his benefit and he listened attentively, sometimes interrupting to get clarification or to check a detail here and there. When we'd finished he gave a low whistle. "We'd heard rumours in the last year or so but nobody thought it was for real," he said. "You say the Felixstowe Customs were dealing with this shipment? He turned to his subordinate and told him to contact Felixstowe immediately. The man gave a brief nod and hurried out.
When he returned a few minutes later, his face was grim. "Bad news, Guv," he said. "It seems someone got to the shipment before Customs. They can verify meeting with these people earlier today and they are quite convinced they're genuine. Seems that Colonel Yeates gave them a clean bill of health." Liam glared at the local policeman with an 'I told you so' sort of expression. Swann thought for a moment or two. He came to a decision and turned to face us all.
"The difficulty we have is that there is no corroborating evidence. We have the gentleman's list, of course, but, with respect, he could have just invented it. The local force found no bodies out at the cottage, either. They did find what appears to be bloodstains and some spent cartridge cases but that is all. Don't misunderstand me. I believe every word but we have no concrete evidence."
There followed a hurried consultation between the three policemen. The local man was arguing vehemently with Swann but eventually threw up his hands in a gesture of resignation. He came across to us. "Against my better judgement," he said, "I'm going to let you go. I don't begin to understand what is going on, and if I had my way, I'd keep you banged up safe until this is sorted. The Commander here has other ideas, however, and he insists upon your release. I will certainly require the pleasure of your company again so kindly keep yourselves available. I am releasing you on police bail in your own recognisance. That doesn't mean you're off the hook!"
The bastard wouldn't even have us driven back so we had to get a taxi. It was well past midnight when we finally got in doors. A young policewoman was playing with Trotsky and Magic in the parlour. "Are these your dogs, sir?" she asked me. "They're really lovely." I thanked her for the dog-sitting and she left with a smile.
Angela and I were too exhausted to do anything except cuddle. I fell asleep with her cradled in my arms. I didn't sleep at all well that night and woke several times in the darkness. Angela seemed blessed with the ability to sleep anywhere at any time. It really was as if that simply having my arms around her was enough to make her feel safe. I had learned that she had not had many lovers; certainly not for a woman of thirty-five. I don't think it was because of her early experiences with the Russian soldier. It was more that she needed to feel the emotion of love before she could let her obviously passionate nature come to the surface. For her, sex without love was hollow and counterfeit somehow. I have always felt that love itself is the best aphrodisiac so I certainly could relate to her feelings.
I don't class myself as any sort of stud but I reckon I know how to please a woman. I had the very good fortune at the age of twenty to meet an older woman. It was really quite strange, looking back. Jane was thirty-four, divorced and had a couple of children. She had a lovely face but it was hard, somehow. I think she had had a bad time in her marriage and there was a hint of bitterness etched in the fine lines around her eyes and mouth. We met when I walked into her father's pub. A friend of mine was having a birthday party just down the road. It was one of those weekend-long affairs and I had wandered off to the pub for a change of scenery. Then as now, I'm not really a social animal so it was a relief to get away from the crowd.
The pub was relatively quiet and we started chatting. It turned out that she was just there for the weekend and helping out behind the bar. I invited her back to the party at closing time and we spent the night together in severe discomfort in the back of my car. She asked me to visit her at her place a week or two later. She'd sent the children away to friends for the weekend. I drove over from the University to the town where she lived on Friday afternoon. She didn't let me out of her bed until the following Sunday. I mean it. I only got up to take a piss or use the shower. She fed me steak and eggs in bed to keep my strength up. I wasn't complaining; it was every young man's fantasy.
Jane had inverted nipples and she encouraged me to suck them out. She loved having her nipples sucked and swore she could come from that stimulus alone. She taught me how to eat her pussy, showed me the divine mysteries of the clitoris. She helped me to control my own orgasm and helped me to learn how to make sex last. Every lover I have ever had since Jane should club together to raise a statue in her honour.
I suppose the overriding lesson I really learned from Jane was that sex can have many moods. It can be funny, passionate, slow, gentle, raunchy or what-have-you. There are no rules. We did it every way and in every possible mood or combination of moods over the next few months. I didn't love her but I was crazy about her. It was one of the few truly reciprocal relationships that I have ever had. I got more sex than the rest of my friends put together; she got an eager young man with bags of stamina who was willing to be moulded. It was never going to last but it finished without any trauma or regrets. We simply had each taken from the affair what we both needed. When we stopped needing it, we drifted apart. There were no recriminations. I think she found someone to be a father to her children and I soon put my new expertise to good use with a fellow student.
I think word of my prowess must have spread throughout the female contingent at the University. I never had to look too hard to find someone to share my bed. It was largely mechanical but nonetheless fun for that. I wasn't looking for true love and, in the most part, neither were the girls. There were one or two sticky moments when some girl or other would confuse the experience of her first orgasm with falling in love and once or twice it happened the other way about. I would proclaim undying love and the object of my affections would disappear rapidly over the horizon. Nobody got really hurt; I reserved my first experience of that particular emotion for Steph. What staggered me was how Angela had healed that wound so fast. I had thought it terminal. Angela appeared in my life like balm from Gilead. OK, I accept the circumstances were unusual and we were rather thrown together by events. It didn't matter. I loved her and I was healed.
Continued in Chapter 13