Authors: Pete Barber
In his makeshift laboratory in a bombed-out Israeli medical facility, Dawud dipped his hand into a small glass vivarium and selected a white rat with an orange stripe spray-painted on its back. He held the wriggling rodent by the tail, swung it away from the cage, and squirted two puffs from an asthma inhaler into its snout. When he was satisfied that the mist had dissipated, he returned the rat to the vivarium, setting it next to its brother. The rats touched noses and sniffed each other before recommencing their search for escape.
“Was that enough?” Firman asked. He spoke English with a slight French accent.
Dawud looked up at the tall, dark assassin—an infidel, yes, but also a useful tool for Allah. “Even a trace of inhibitor in the airway is sufficient to provide immunity from the weapon.” Dawud took a puff from the inhaler and passed it to Firman, who sucked in a dose before moving to the end of the table, next to the rats.
Dawud sealed a lid on the vivarium, opened the valve on a straw-sized plastic tube connected to a compressed-air cylinder, and released the nanoweapon into the rats’ habitat.
The untreated rat shuddered as if shot through with an electric current. Then it charged and slammed and bounced off the glass walls, legs pumping in a futile attempt to flee. Black-bead eyes sprung wide. Lips snarled back, baring pink gums and white teeth. The rodent flipped on its side, jerked and spasmed for five seconds, and then became still.
The orange-marked rat edged forward and inspected a hard black column of charcoal that protruded one inch from the dead rat’s throat, distending its jaws.
Firman’s eyes stretched wide and a slow smile spread across his thin lips. “Damn! That was fast,” he said.
Two weeks later, sixteen hundred strangers barreled through dark tunnels beneath London’s nightly bustle. Brought together by chance and circumstance, homeward-bound workers, uneasy tourists, uniformed schoolchildren, and sated shoppers rocked and bobbed like marionettes with the motion of the train.
The tube train was well named: eight metal cylinders, each sixty feet long and eight feet wide, linked together in a chain.
At the center of the fifth car, holding a chrome rail, Firman peered between crammed bodies at the fortunate few with seats, lost in their books, smart phones, and tablet computers. His hands were damp with sweat inside thin, transparent latex gloves.
Firman pulled an inhaler from his inside pocket. Three times he sprayed the inhibitor, held, and then exhaled through his nose, coating his airways with immunity. His reserved English neighbors averted their eyes.
He lifted a black shoulder bag above his head and depressed a button embedded in the base. A high-pitched hiss signaled the release of compressed death from the canister within. Lethal molecules streamed into the car. Their unique, seeking nature found fuel in abundance: tongue and throat and lung.
It was a feeding frenzy.
Passengers, eyes stretched wide with terror, gasped and flailed before flopping to the ground, mouths gaped wide and crammed full of black charcoal.
In seconds, corpses surrounded him. A tragic barrier of unwitting protectors in case the car contained a hero.
Cheeks flushed with excitement, he pulled a video camera from his pocket and held it high, panning the scene.
When Firman’s car burst into the stark light of Oxford Circus, central London’s busiest Underground train station, he stayed below the window line, face hidden now in the shadow of a gray sweatshirt hood. Back pressed hard against the sliding doors, he knelt on a young woman’s chest. The thin beat from her iPod was audible in the deathly silent carriage. Firman pulled an envelope from his side pocket, exposed an adhesive strip, and pressed the sticky message over the acne spots on her forehead, covering her stone-dead eyes.
At 5:09 p.m., rush-hour passengers stood six deep on the Central Line platform. They blinked away the rush of warm, stale air pushed from the tunnel by the slowing train. Tired eyes hunted for signs of space, and the death-car’s windows showed empty. Hopefuls at the rear shuffled forward, sensing the possibility of an early escape.
The train stopped, doors hissed open, and Firman sprang backward, merging with the pressing crowd as it surged into the seemingly empty carriage.
A silent beat of awareness preceded screaming chaos when the potential riders nearest the train pushed and fought against the press of the crowd behind them, desperate to escape the macabre scene of bodies strewn like discarded laundry, frozen eyes crazed with terror and gaping mouths crammed with charcoal.
“They’re all dead.”
“Oh, my God!”
“Out of my way!”
Firman blended with the crowd, crouching low to avoid the station’s closed-circuit TV cameras, digital witnesses to his work, the worst train disaster in London’s storied history, the most callous terrorist act since that terrible September day in New York.
The crowd surged along the platform toward the exit stairs. In front of him, an elderly woman lost her footing. The frantic mob parted and washed around her prone body like a stream skirting a rock.
His section of the crowd squeezed up the final twenty steps and spilled onto Oxford Street’s broad sidewalk. He sucked in a deep breath. The street was jammed with vehicles. Low-hanging exhaust fumes stung his nose.
After peeling off the gloves, Firman slipped them in the pocket of his hoodie, and walked three blocks. He stepped into a souvenir shop, slid hangers along their circular rail and selected an extra-large “Mind the Gap” T-shirt. He snapped off the price tag, removed his hoodie, and pulled on the shirt. The clerk watched him on a TV monitor.
Firman handed him a bill. “I’ll wear it if you don’t mind.”
The shopkeeper wore a white turban. He smiled. “You American?”
He nodded his acceptance of Firman’s lie and handed over the change.
“Could I have a bag for my old clothes?”
“Ten pence, please.”
Firman grinned at the ludicrous request and passed over the coin. He stuffed his shoulder bag and hoodie in the plastic carrier.
“Have a nice day,” he said as he left.
In two blocks, he turned down an alley and tossed the bag into a stinking Dumpster.
At 5:30 p.m., he crossed the road to a corner pub packed with white-collar workers. Instead of the welcoming harmonics of an after-office crowd, a church-like quiet prevailed. The congregation stared openmouthed at a wall-mounted flat-screen that displayed a repeating loop of the train as it entered the station and its doors slid back to reveal a carriage full of corpses. They had all traveled on underground rail. There, but for the grace of God . . .
Firman laid a hand on the bar. “Pint of lager, please.”
The bartender dragged his eyes from the TV. He poured, and pushed the glass across the counter. “Fuckin’ Arabs.”
Firman nodded, paid, and settled in at the end of the bar, an incognito star reveling in the impact of his triumphant opening-night performance.
The next day
. . .
Detective Chief Inspector Steven Quinnborne of Metropolitan Police’s Murder Division and Frank Browning—point man for the British Special Branch Terrorism Response Team—stood on either side of a pasty-faced young computer operator in the London Transport Control Center. The technician had access to the largest dynamic network management system in the world, but Quinn couldn’t get what he wanted.
Quinn’s shoulders stretched his shirt tightly across his back as he hunched forward and peered over the operator’s shoulder at the computer screen. Clenching his jaw in frustration, he spat out his words. “Run it again, and keep the camera on the doors.” He’d viewed the footage a half-dozen times. Every time the train doors opened, the camera viewpoint shifted to another part of the platform.
“It’s not that simple,” the operator said. “You asked for the program to lock on the doors from the minute they exit the tunnel. The doors aren’t always in shot, so the software loses track.”
Quinn sounded out his words as if he were speaking to a child. “I . . . need . . . to . . . see . . . as much footage of the fifth carriage and its central doors as possible. I don’t care about your program.”
“Okay, why didn’t you say? Damned pushy Yank.” This was spoken under the technician’s breath.
Quinn heard. Anger always made his accent more pronounced, but the kid just wasn’t getting it.
The operator tapped at the keyboard, and again the screen showed commuters crowded along the platform, necks craning, focused on the lights of the approaching train as they grew larger in the dark tunnel.
When the train entered the station, the driver’s face was a mask of concentration. Quinn knew he’d be watching for jumpers and making sure to hit his marks so the doors would align with the exits.
“Can you slow it down?” Quinn asked.
The operator tapped at a key. “Tell me when.”
The train slowed to a crawl. “Like that, good.” He leaned in closer, his earlier annoyance replaced by intense concentration. The footage switched, smoothly this time, to the key camera mounted at the center of the platform and looking down from behind the heads of the waiting crowd. The fourth car rolled past, crammed with passengers. The fifth came into the shot. From this angle, the screen showed bodies two and three deep across the floor, some draped over seat backs like discarded coats.
Quinn’s gut clenched at the sight. He straightened slightly.
The train stopped. This time, the camera remained on the doors as they slid open and the crowd surged forward.
“Can you rewind to before the doors open? Then go as slowly as possible?”
The operator’s fingers flicked across the keyboard, and the doors were closed again. They began to inch open.
“That’s as slow as I can go. Any less and we’ll be looking at a series of stills.”
For the first time since he’d arrived, Quinn looked at the operator. “You can do that?”
“Sure, you want?”
Quinn rested a hand on the operator’s shoulder. “Not yet, thanks.”
The doors slid open, five inches, six, seven. The passengers waiting on the platform closed in, blocking the camera’s view of the interior. Then, as if a bomb had detonated, the front row recoiled, a dramatic response even in slow motion.
Quinn’s finger leaped forward and indented the computer’s flexible screen. “There!”
The technician knocked Quinn’s hand away.
Quinn ignored the move. “Okay, once more? Begin when the doors start to open and continue until that guy . . .” Without touching the screen this time, Quinn pointed to a bald businessman in a blue suit standing at the platform’s edge, “. . . falls back into the woman in the green jacket.”
The technician worked his magic. “Ready, should I run?”
“Yes, please. What’s your name, by the way?”
They had been introduced forty minutes earlier when he and Frank arrived at the Operations Center, but Quinn hadn’t paid attention.
“Austin, most folk call me Aussie.”
“Okay, Aussie. Let’s go.”
The doors opened. The crowd pushed in. They lurched back. The bald man lost his balance and started to fall.
Quinn didn’t blink, but it happened so fast he couldn’t be sure. He turned to his right. “Frank, are you seeing this?”
Frank nodded. “Someone dived out of the train.”
“Aussie, can you enhance it?” Quinn asked.
The screen split in two. On the right, the action replayed again frame by frame, but all they saw was a gray blur. Aussie shook his head. “Too fast. Not enough definition.”
On the left, the next camera showed a mass of heads crammed together on the narrow platform and moving as one. Quinn leaned over Aussie’s shoulder, straining to catch a glimpse of the lone survivor, but it was impossible in the dense crowd.