Nobody noticed the bomber drop the backpack, but the resulting explosion ripped through the gates of Buckingham Palace as if they were made of tin foil.
Up until that point, everything was peaceful. It was just after 2pm on a beautiful July day in London, and hundreds of tourists were up and down the mall, taking photographs, laughing and playing in the sunshine. One moment it was the sound of happiness that filled the air, the next it was a deafening roar of stone and metal being ripped apart by the gases emanating from a bag on the ground. With the blast radius expanding at over 8,000 metres per second, nobody had any chance to run.
The incredible noise of the explosion came out of nowhere, turning into 140 decibels in an instant. Like standing next to a jet engine from 100 feet away, the sound caused permanent hearing damage to those unlucky enough to be too close.
After the sound, there was just silence. People stopped in their tracks, cars slammed on their brakes, a taxi driver crashed into the back of a bus because all he could do was look, and stare. Then the screaming started. People in these situations always have a tendency to start screaming, and today was no different. At first, the direct scene was blocked by dust, mostly kicked up from the disintegrated stone wall surrounding the palace, but as it cleared, people started to see the devastation in front of them.
One entire stone column which held the right hand side of the gates was gone, only small fragments of it still lay lying around the area. What was left of the gates had fallen backwards into the grounds, but there wasn’t much left except a tangled pile of black metal. The left hand column had collapsed, bringing the lights on top down with it. Giant slabs of white stone lay on the ground, looking like somebody had attacked them with a jackhammer.
It was shortly after 9am in New York when the other backpack exploded, almost at the exact same second as the one in London. Nobody noticed the bomber who dropped this one either. Outside the Apple Store at the corner of 5th Avenue and W 59th Street, right on the edge of Central Park, there are hundreds of people carrying backpacks. They carry the laptops and the iPads and phones of the kids streaming in and out of the Apple Store all day long. Nobody would notice an extra person with a backpack there.
Even for a Tuesday morning in New York, the Apple Store had been particularly busy that day. It was the day of Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, which meant their CEO was giving his customary keynote speech later that morning. Even with almost an hour to go, people had already started congregating at the store to watch it together with their fellow comrades and store employees. No one expected what was going to happen.
The above ground section of the Apple Store on 5th Avenue is a giant glass cube, made of 15 panes of specially toughened material. But even it couldn’t withstand the power of the shockwave which ripped into one side of it, smashing through and sending a shower of glass into the store below. The Apple logo, normally hanging from the top centre, lighting up and reflecting off each pane from a thousand different angles, fell, crashing into the glass staircase below.
If there’s one thing that the proliferation of cell phones has done, it means the emergency services hear from more people, faster, than ever before. Countless Londoners who witnessed the explosion immediately dialled 999 on their phones.
“Hello, what service please?” said the switchboard operator.
“Police! There’s been an explosion at Buckingham Palace!”
The queens guard moved quickly from their traditional positions of standing very still, to running towards the scene which was now unfolding.
“Get back! Get back!” they shouted.
Most of the crowd who were nearby could barely hear the shouts over the sound of the ringing in their ears, and those who could see the guards running towards them waving their arms felt no great rush to do so. Between the ringing and the confusion, lying here on the ground seemed so much easier.
“Does anyone need any help?” they shouted again.
Other emergency services started to arrive within a minute, many officers running down from nearby locations to see what needed done. Police, ambulance and fire engine radios across the city lit up with chatter, as station chiefs and dispatch teams started to spread the news and ordered people to drop what they were doing and get over there.
The first thing that had to happen was clearing people away and starting to assess who needed medical attention. The first worry a lot of people had was whether there could possibly be another device hidden away somewhere. A guard ran over to the first person he found lying on the ground near the scene, a young Japanese man with a camera around his neck, and blood rushing down one side of his face from what appeared to be quite a substantial wound in his forehead.
“Are you OK? Can you hear me?” said the guard.
The Japanese man tried to make a noise, but it came out more like a long moan than anything approaching true communication.
“I’m going to get you help. OK? Don’t try and move.”
Again, the Japanese man could only moan as the guard ran over to somebody else.
Traffic was starting to become a real problem. Both passengers and drivers who had been in cars near the scene started to leave them, and now the crop of abandoned cars had started to cause a real problem for the emergency vehicles which were now starting to come close.
“Move those cars back!” shouted a policeman who had realised the problem and taken it upon himself to do something about it.
“Move along now, you can’t just park it there!”
In New York, two policeman were crossing over from Central Park when the bomb went off in front of them, the shockwave knocking them and others nearby onto their backs. Shaken, but unharmed, the first officer immediately grabbed his radio.
“This is badge number 5674, there’s been an explosion up here at 59th and 5th, send everything you’ve got.”
Pulling himself up onto his feet, he held out a hand to help his partner before surveying the damage around them.
“My God! What just happened! It looks as though it’s ripped the whole side off the store.”
Unsure of what else to say, the second officer let off a tirade of expletives before starting to help up some of the others who had been knocked over by the blast.
“We interrupt this programme for some breaking news” said the BBC TV announcer, cutting into an afternoon soap opera.
A slightly ruffled news presenter appeared on the screen, “An explosion has occurred outside Buckingham Palace, destroying the main gates and surrounding stonework. There are no reports of any casualties yet, and we are still waiting for confirmation on the status of the Qu….”
Her voice trailing away, she looked off camera, and put her hand to her earpiece, look visibly shocked by what she’d just been told.
“And we are still waiting on confirmation on the status of the Queen, who was known to be in residence at the time of the blast. We are also receiving reports that a similar explosion has happened at an Apple Store in New York, at an almost identical time to the one here in London. Of course we don’t know the meaning of this yet, or whether there are other explosions planned, but this does look to be some sort of co-ordinated attack.”
“Who the hell told her to say that!”
“I don’t know Tom, seems a little early for that kind of speculation.”
“We don’t want to scare everyone. Nobody will feel safe, it’s reckless. For all we know, there’s going to be two explosions, and both of them have happened. Calling it a co-ordinated attack means they’ve already moved past any suggestion that this could just be coincidence.” said Tom.
“You’re not actually suggesting that this could be coincidence, are you Tom?”
“Of course I’m not David! This is MI5 for god sake, they beat the thought that coincidence is responsible for anything out of you during basic training. But that doesn’t mean the news can’t let the idea percolate in the thoughts of the British people for a few hours does it?”
David leant back in his chair. It was a comfy chair, brown leather and well padded, the stitching looked like it had all been done by a skilled hand, rather than a programmed machine. Taking a breath, David enjoyed that moment of comfort, he knew it was probably going to be a hell of a next few days. He also thought that the chair probably cost more than all the furniture he’d ever bought. In his mid forties, with grey hair and lines on his face which made him look even older, David had made a career of sorting out this kind of mess, but his home life wasn’t quite so organised.
Tom Stafford was the Director-General of MI5. This was his office, and the wall of TV screens at one end of the office was now lighting up with reports all over the world about the two bombings. A tall, imposing figure approaching his sixtieth birthday, Tom was a veteran of the British intelligence agencies, and was a well respected leader.
“Let’s get the wheels in motion David. I need to know who is coordinating this at Scotland Yard and I need them on the phone now. I’m assuming this is a terrorist act, and the security services are going to be under the spotlight pretty damn quick. Everybody is going to be asking why we didn’t see this one coming, and I’m going to be the one to ask that question first before the news channels have a field day.”
David sat forward and scribbled something on his pad. He opened his mouth to speak when the phone rang. Tom picked it up before the first ring had even completed.
“Hello? Yes, he’s here with me now, we’re just rallying the troops.”
As he spoke, David started sending a text message on his phone. As head of the domestic counter-terrorism unit, David Strang was the one who was going to start getting asked the difficult questions. Within minutes of the bombs exploding, Tom had called him here, and he knew it wasn’t going to be easy. He needed to start explaining this, and a text message to the rest of his team was just the start. How had they missed this?
The rest of Tuesday was a nightmare for everyone involved, on both sides of the Atlantic. In London, there were two confirmed casualties, and dozens of injuries. In New York, there were four, with even more injuries than London, mostly cuts from falling glass. Hospitals filled up, relatives mourned, TV pundits on 24-hour cable news stations talked about how the streets were no longer safe for anyone.
The first meetings in the security community happened within a couple of hours. David pulled together all of the top members of his team, and they started to ask themselves the difficult questions they knew the press would come after them with. How had they missed this, how had there been no warnings, with all the money spent on improving security in airports, and on CCTV cameras around London, was it still this easy to just walk in, drop a bomb, and walk out without anybody noticing who you were?
First thing on Wednesday morning, David sat down with his team again to see what they’d learned throughout the night. Many of them hadn’t slept, so when they shuffled into a conference room in MI5 headquarters, sitting on the bank of the Thames, most of them had coffees in their hand.
“OK, everyone, let’s get down to business.” said David, standing at the end of the table and addressing the room. “I know we’ve all had a tough night, but I’m sure you understand the pressure we’re under here. This morning’s papers are already asking what we did and didn’t know, so we need to get ahead of this story and make sure we’ve got some answers. Not just for them, but for the families who have just lost loved ones. James, what have you got for me?”
James Harper was one of the team leaders on the domestic terrorism squad, a group whose job it was to keep on top of all potential threats within the UK. He’d been doing this job for years, and was known to be very good at it. He didn’t like not having any answers, but for once, he had nothing he could give.
“So far, I don’t have anything new to report. We’ve been scanning through various intel, looking through communications on all known sources, and nobody knows anything. We’ve actually found a lot of the terrorist groups we track are just as confused by this as we are.” said James.
“Well that’s just not good enough. Somebody must know something.” said David, the fatigue in his voice clearly visible.
“I have a team looking through past communications as well, hoping we find something we missed, but so far, nothing. Wherever this attack came from, it doesn’t yet seem like something that’s on our domestic radar.” said James, pushing his glasses back up his nose as he finished.
“Well if domestic has nothing on this, how about your boys over in MI6 Jen?”
“So far, we’ve come up with as much as you all have,” said Jen, “the rest of the world is just as confused by this as we all are. That’s not to say some of them aren’t happy about it, a lot of different terrorist groups celebrated and congratulated whoever did this last night. Unfortunately, they’re just as in the dark as we are.”
Like James, Jen Fisher was known to be good at her job. She was young, much younger than most of her colleagues at MI6. She had risen up the ranks quickly, and found herself in a position of power before she was 30. She was driven, ruthless about getting the job done, and smarter than almost everyone in any room she found herself in. And also like James, coming to a meeting like this and not having the answers required didn’t make her feel comfortable.
David took a pause, thinking about what to say next. They usually had something, some sort of lead. Even during previous crises, previous London bombings, there was something, something they could follow up on. This trail looked cold before they’d even started.
“OK, let’s go back to the beginning. Rather than focussing on what we don’t know, how about we focus on what we do,” said David, trying to breathe some life into what was clearly a tired and dejected team. “Colin, what information have we got from Scotland Yard?”
Colin, sitting at the opposite end of the table from David, shuffled through some of the paper in front of him. “I have that information right here…,” he said, looking for the right sheet.
“Come on, come on,” said David, annoyed by the delay.
“Confirmed so far is that the explosion was from what appears to be at least 5 lbs of C4, stuffed into a backpack. The backpack itself was vapourised in the blast, but they’re searching for fibres in the immediate area anyway to see if that reveals anything. CCTV did catch the bag being dropped, about 60 seconds before the blast, by who appears to be a white male, about 6 feet tall, wearing jeans and a baseball cap. Unfortunately the angle that would have given us a view of his face, the camera wasn’t working, so we’ve only got him from the side. And from the side, he looks like a million white men who walk around London with backpacks and baseball caps on.”
“Damnit,” said David, “the best view we could have of this guy, and the camera wasn’t working?”
“Down for maintenance apparently, certainly suspicious. Scotland Yard are following that one up in the hope it might lead somewhere.” said Colin.
“At last, a lead, we’re now getting somewhere.” said David.
Colin continued, “No witnesses spotted anything really suspicious, there are so many people walking around London with backpacks, including around Buckingham Palace, that another one wasn’t likely to raise any red flags. The CCTV shows the person walking by and just dropping it by the stone column and walking on, and the time between the drop and explosion was so short, nobody got a chance to notice it.”
“Hang on, go back,” said James, “you said the best camera view we had on this guy was unavailable, but surely there’s a hundred cameras around that area, surely one of them caught him?”
“We’re assuming that too, which is why they’re working their way through all the footage to see if anything comes up”, said David, “but most of these cameras are quite far away, and with the crowds of people, spotting them isn’t going to be easy.”
“OK,” said David, “is that it? Anything else that we know? What about US Homeland Security, have they found out anything yet on the New York bomber? Any connections yet?”
David turned to look at Andrea Mayer, one of the US liaisons, but Colin interrupted before she could start.
“They did raise one other point,“ said Colin, “which is potentially noteworthy.”
“Yes?” said David.
“Somebody in the bomb squad said that if you wanted to kill people, dropping the bomb right up against a stone column that was going to absorb the blast wouldn’t be the best choice.”
David reacted to this angrily. “Two people are dead out there, and you’re saying that killing people wasn’t what they were trying to do? Then what were they trying to do? Invite all those people to dinner?”
“I’m just passing on the bomb squad notes,” said Colin, “didn’t fit the pattern of a bomber with a motive to kill.”
The room fell silent for a moment while everybody thought through that remark and what it meant, but the silence was broken by Andrea speaking up.
“I got a similar comment from Homeland Security too, in not so many words.”
“How so?” said David.
“My last contact there that I spoke to, one of their lead investigators, he mentioned that dropping the bomb in the store would have done far more damage, if that’s what you were looking to do. He said it was more like a performance piece than somebody out for blood.”
“A performance piece?” said James, “hell of a performance. That sounds ridiculous.”
“His reasoning was sound,” she continued, “both bombs were in very public places, but also very iconic imagery. The front metal gates and stonework of Buckingham Palace is an image people throughout the world recognise, and nobody can deny that the Apple logo is something millions of people are intimately familiar with. Bombing a tax office or an underground station is a great way to take out a good number of people, but if you want your handiwork displayed on Facebook and Twitter streams from Australia to Zimbabwe, you target something recognisable and out in the open, where everyone can see it.”
“It’s certainly an interesting theory, but I don’t know that really gives us much to go on,” said Jen, “have they got anything else?”
“Just like us,” said Andrea, “they’re pretty much in the dark. The NYPD didn’t receive any threats beforehand, and FBI and CIA comms don’t show any sign of an imminent attack. Those guys are on it 24/7 with a manpower and budget we can only dream of, and they’ve got just as little as we do.”
“No CCTV to go on?” said David.
“New York isn’t quite as connected up for CCTV as London is, so I don’t know. I asked, but they didn’t have anything to say on the matter when I spoke with them an hour ago. I assume that area must have some cameras on it, even if it’s Apple’s private security. You build a big glass box in the middle of a city, you would have to assume it’s a target for somebody and you should record who goes near it.”
“This is not what I wanted to open with this morning,” said David, “my report so far for Tom is that we have absolutely nothing. A broken camera, a man in a baseball cap dropping a bag and walking off without anybody thinking that was suspicious, and a half-baked theory that maybe they were trying to do something other than kill people. I can’t tell him that, people are dead, on both sides of the Atlantic. There are much better ways to get attention than blowing something up.”
“We’ll keep on looking,” said James, “our search through previous intel might throw up something.”
“OK,” said David, “throw whatever manpower you need at this. Scotland Yard are doing a press-conference at 3pm and I want to be able to give them something to say apart from we haven’t a clue. Everyone back here at midday to report what you’ve found. Dismissed.”
Everyone started to push their chairs back to leave, when the phone on David’s desk started to ring. This was unusual, because the phone on David’s desk never rang. His secretary always buzzed through any calls, but this one was coming in direct. Looking as confused as everyone else, he held up a hand to tell them to hang on as he moved over to his desk and lifted the receiver.
“Ah, Mr Strang, good morning.” said the voice at the other end of the phone, “I trust you’re well?”
“Who is this? How did you get this number?”
“Mr Strang, I would have thought that our demonstration yesterday was already proof that we were quite capable of doing just about anything we want to.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“You haven’t seen the news Mr Strang?” continued the voice, “I knew you and your team were incompetent, but I would have assumed you at least had opened a newspaper this morning. A couple of big bangs, wouldn’t you say?”
David stood there, frozen. The voice at the other end of the line continued.
“If you’re not completely useless, then I assume the rest of your team is there with you. Say hello to James, Jen, Andrea and Colin for me, won’t you. I’m so sorry to have kept them up all night.”
David looked around the room at his team, wondering how this stranger could possibly have known that. All internal teams at MI5 are a secret, only a small amount of people ever know who is with who at any one time. The initial shock gone, he started to wave at the phone manically, pointing at both it and the rest of his team and back again.
“What? Who is it?” said James.
David covered the mouthpiece with his hand and whispered to the room, “trace this!”
The voice at the end of the phone started up again, “I wouldn’t bother doing that Mr Strang. I assure you that it won’t lead anywhere worthwhile.”
“Why did you do it?” said David, “why did you kill all those people? Innocent lives were lost!”
“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh my dear Mr Strang, I very much doubt that taking that tone with me is going to lead you anywhere. If you simply want a confession, then yes, I was responsible for that display you saw yesterday. I thought it was rather good to be honest, perhaps we got the ratios a little wrong, there was a much bigger kaboom than I’d planned for. Oh well, live and learn I guess, one can always do better next time.”
“Next time? You’re planning more?” said David, the sound of anger in his voice.
“One must always have plans Mr Strang. Going into this business unprepared is the fastest way to assure your career is over before it started. I’ve already had quite the career already, and I intend to keep it that way.”
“So what do you intend on doing next?”
“If I were to divulge that Mr Strang, that wouldn’t be very much fun now, would it?”
By this point Colin had made the appropriate connections inside the building, and the call was now being traced.
“So why have you called then, simply to gloat?”
“No Mr Strang, I am calling for a very important reason, and that reason is that you have something I want.”
“I have something?”
“Well, technically the Italian government had something I want.”
“The Italian government?”
“Yes Mr Strang, my needs are very simple. In order to stop more kabooms, I need you to get something for me. Once you do, I will be in touch again with further instructions.”
“Wait, what, I don’t understand. If you want something from the Italian government, why are you coming to me? This is British Intelligence after all.”
“You could have fooled me Mr Strang, because you’re hardly being very intelligent at the moment. I’m coming to you, because Mr Strang, it is your fault the Italian government has what I want.”
“Yes, your fault Mr Strang. And now you need to get it back.”
“And what is it you want?”
“Simon Barr, Mr Strang. Simon Barr.”
The phone went dead and David stood still holding the phone to his ear for a few seconds, before replacing the receiver.
“Simon Barr?” he said out loud, “Simon Barr?”
He couldn’t quite believe what he’d just heard.
“Do you know that name?” said Andrea.
“He used to work here,” said James, “before the incident.”
“Did we manage to trace the call?” said David.
Colin spoke into his phone, waited for a reply, and then shook his head.
“Damn,” said David.
“Looks like whoever it was caused the whole system to go haywire, they had him calling from at least six places around the world,” said Colin.
“Well, everyone, it would seem that we’ve just learned something new from this meeting after all. Our bomber, or at least, a man claiming to be the bomber, just made his demands. He wants Simon Barr. And if we don’t get him, then he’s going to blow some more things up.”
“Before we go any further, can someone explain who that is?” said Andrea, clearly confused by who this person could possibly be.
“Simon Barr is, or was, known as a procurer. A man who can get you anything, legal or otherwise, wherever that item might be,” explained David, “a very useful resource to have in the spy business. He worked here for a number of years, procuring whatever it was we required of him.”
“So where is he now?” asked Andrea.
“Prison. Serving a ten year sentence in Italy,” said David, “there was a certain element within the organisation that felt that Simon’s particular brand of procurement was becoming a bit reckless. Then there was an incident on his last mission, during the retrieval of something he was sent to get, he got caught. Local Italian police turned up, arrested him. They weren’t too pleased at his breaking and entering into such a well known home, and we couldn’t blow our cover by revealing he was working for us. Not even to a friendly government. So we let him take the rap for it, and not compromise our position.”
“And now, somebody has blown up locations in both London and New York, and their reason for that is Simon Barr,” said Jen, “what could he possibly have that they could want. He’s been in prison for four years in another country, he’s not exactly in a position of influence.”
“That’s a very good question,” said David, “and one we need to answer. To do that, I’m going to have to fly to Italy and speak to Simon directly. The bomber said that I put him in prison, and he was right, it was my call to let him take the fall.”
“How could they possibly have known that?” asked James.
“He knew a lot. He knew the names of everyone in this room. He referred to ‘we’ suggesting he’s not working alone and is probably part of a larger team. He spoke with an English accent, and there wasn’t a trace of nerves. He was one confident individual and he knew exactly what he wanted.”
The rest of the room just looked at each other. After being up all night with no leads, one had just presented itself by calling directly into the room they were sitting in. Rather than solve problems however, this new information just made things even more confusing.
David continued, “Since the phone system records all incoming calls, you should go grab copies and start seeing what else you can learn. See if we can get a voiceprint and match it to any known suspects. Also, start looking through any previous cases that Simon worked on, maybe there’s a connection between him and this guy, maybe Simon pissed him off somehow,
“What are you going to do?” asked Jen.
“I’m going to book flights to Rome, but first, I need to update Tom.”