The faces around the table were unsmiling. Understandably. Nobody liked when these meetings were called. Only Captain Smart was absent, being still in hospital. Colour-Sergeant Anderson was therefore the only intelligence section man present, the green of his Lovats standing out amidst the khaki of everyone else's Twos. Lethbridge-Stewart looked around the table, taking a mental survey of the mood. A formal debriefing of everyone involved was always the first step in the process of post-operation accountability. Bureaucracy and paperwork always followed the action. They all knew that. Equally, they all disliked, in varying degrees, that very process.
His gaze came to rest, albeit briefly, on Anderson's tired face. Truthfully, he felt a pang of sympathy for the Marine. The operation Captain Smart had planned and overseen shouldn't have ended as it did. But it had and now here they were. The brigadier drew in a breath. The buck stopped with him anyway, since he'd sanctioned the whole business. He looked at Sergeant Finney and emptied his mind of all thoughts unrelated to the business at hand.
'Starting from the beginning, Sergeant. What time did your squad depart for the south coast?'
Simon Finney's angular face seemed tired too. 'A bit after zero-eight-hundred, sir, in keeping with Captain Smart's orders. We went buttoned up in the back of an MK. All of our kit was with us.'
'All of your kit being?'
'Rifles, ammunition, rations, and Corporal Fryar's demolitions bergen.'
'What was in that bergen?'
'Six blocks o' PE-Four, one 'undred-foot coil o' thirty-second fuse, one thirty-foot spool o' bridgewire, three fuse-type blasting caps, tew solid pack 'lectric blasting caps, tew short period delay detonators, and tew long period delay detonators,' Corporal Fryar replied in his trademark Black Country drawl.
'Isn't that a lot of material for a single job?'
'Nah, sir,' the corporal replied. 'I day know wha' was down there. Not for sure. But it was one'a them Slurrian things, so it'd be unnerwater, prob'ly. So I took wha'd work best.'
Lethbridge-Stewart resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. It was disturbingly easy to forget that Trevor Fryar was a whip-smart combat engineer. He'd proved his worth almost on his first day at UNIT, in fact. But then, Phineas Hetherington had never recommended a man who wasn't up to any job asked of him. Even young Gilchrist, despite his initial puppyish eagerness to please, had shaped up quickly enough. Shame what happened to him.
'Very well. Were there any difficulties encountered on the way?'
'No sir. Everythin' was quiet enough. Trooper Rimmer got us into Gosport not long after ten-hundred hours. We took ourselves straight to HMS Sultan. A Lieutenant Drinkwater had us park up and unload in an old hangar, then took us aboard Roxton for a cruise down to the Isle of Wight. Roxton's a bit of a tub but she got us to Sandown by thirteen-hundred. We met Captain Smart and the colour-sarn't there.'
Anderson took up the tale from there, without needing to be prompted. He'd briefed the squad on the latest, since he'd dived on the single pod earlier that day while the squad was on its way. It hadn't moved from its previously noted position and there was no sign that anything had come or gone from it. Captain Smart made a point to stress that the actual Silurian might have simply abandoned the pod and therefore could be anywhere, so it was important to keep alert. The captain had paired Fryar up with Anderson and told them to get on with their preparations, while the rest of the squad went about the business of cordoning off the beach nearest where the pod had been discovered.
It had all the outward appearances of a standard mine disposal operation. Which was the point. Roxton kept the sea lanes clear while the Army did similarly ashore. Only the men involved knew otherwise. There was no trouble with the locals, according to Finney. They hardly seemed interested anyway. Fryar and Anderson picked over the kit Fryar had brought down and decided on the best method of destroying the pod. They'd then packed up, changed into wetsuits, and told Smart they were off. They wouldn't see the captain or the rest of the squad again until after the operation – or the mess it soon became – was over.
This was the first point which Lethbridge-Stewart wanted to be absolutely clear on. 'When did the police arrive to take over cordon duties?'
'Fourteen-forty-six, sir,' Sergeant Finney told him. 'We'd been on the job almost since gettin' our feet dry. Captain Smart handed over to 'em and we went off to have a quiet shufti around the waterfront, in case the Silurian thinger wasn't in its pod.'
The search was uneventful, for the most part. Armed soldiers wandering through the village was bound to attract attention but Captain Smart had taken steps to blunt the edge of any suspicion or curiosity. He'd put the word round that a training exercise would take place concurrent with the mine disposal operation, to give green recruits some experience with urban patrolling before beginning a tour in Northern Ireland. The tactic was a risky one but in this instance, it worked in Smart's favour.
Smart kept an eye on proceedings as the men worked their way along the Esplanade, checking doors that seemed open or otherwise unsecure. Their focus soon became the long line of beach houses that fronted the southwestern stretch of beach. It was Smart's assessment that if any Silurians were in the area, they were likely hiding out in one of the beach houses. So Finney's squad methodically patrolled through. They only encountered startled beachgoers and the occasional snoring tramp. In Trooper Rimmer's view, it was about as exciting as a training hack in Windsor.
'Then it all went merrily to hell,' said Finney.
As it always seemed to do, thought Lethbridge-Stewart with an internal sigh. One of the men – Private Pennock – was approaching a beach house whose door stood partially open when he suddenly lunged backward, beginning to shout what Finney described as sounding like a warning. The next thing Finney knew, bullets were flying and the air seemed like it was boiling.
'That danger brain Pennock went gallopin' straight into the beach house, like the whistles'd just gone for a charge,' Finney related. 'He was stone dead when we saw him next.'
Pennock's misplaced heroics did serve something of a purpose, though. His solitary charge gave the rest of the squad precious seconds to dart to cover and avoid the attention of the Silurian who'd been hiding the beach house. Captain Smart split the squad immediately and sent Finney with a fire team to flank the creature, while he and the other fire team kept it distracted. The reduced number of faces around the table now hinted at the success of that undertaking.
'We had to batter through the wall of some awful electric blue beach house a few metres down. The beach itself was clearin' like magic. I had Fusilier Bell on point and he took us right up to the Silurian's back door. Things got a bit untidy then.'
Naturally enough, Finney wasn't witness to the frontal action Smart had organised. It fell to Corporal Cowan to fill in the blanks. The loss of control of the situation wasn't entirely Smart's fault. He'd arranged the fire team well and his instructions were clear and precise. He'd even seen to it that the men were behind cover before he was. Therein lay the first of his mistakes as Cowan saw it. Smart had left himself exposed. His second mistake was not being quick enough to get the fire team moving again.
'Fire and manoeuvre's the game, sir. Which you know. And we wasn't manouevrin'.' Cowan shook his head. 'Been dif'rent if we'd had a proper fightin' officer with us.'
'Stick to the facts, Corporal,' Lethbridge-Stewart told him crisply.
According to the corporal, Smart's third mistake was letting the Silurian get into dead ground. There apparently was an alley, albeit a narrow one, between beach houses and the creature was able to disappear down it and out of the fire team's sight. The final mistake was the captain's taking it on himself to move up with Lance Corporal Hartley directly after it. After a depressingly short burst of rifle fire, Cowan and Private Fearan dashed forward to cover them. They found both down and the Silurian gone. Hartley was dead, his body blistered and burnt. Smart had three or four holes in him. Cowan deployed a smoke grenade to give them protection.
That was the point at which Finney and his lads rejoined. To his credit, Finney took the disaster entirely in stride. He set an all-around defence, retrieved Hartley's ruined radio, and attended to Smart's wounds himself. The commotion had attracted police notice and there were constables barrelling toward them like cork-helmeted hares. Finney had a job on his hands to keep control of the situation, which he readily admitted. Cowan concurred and added that the police were at least useful in providing hands to get their casualty moved to safety.
What was left of the squad sorted out its ammunition on the spot then got on the move after the Silurian. Finney talked the police into maintaining a loose cordon and leaving the heavy work to the soldiers. They'd swept the remaining beach houses in the row but found no sign of the Silurian. It had seemingly disappeared.
'Did you wound it?'
'Hard to say, sir. Pennock might've winged it but none of my lads got a shot off.' Finney shrugged. 'Anyroad, we hunted that bugger the rest of the day and never found it.'
The narrative shifted back to Anderson and Fryar, who were spared the chaos ashore by virtue of being underwater when everything kicked off. By contrast, the first part of their job went without a hitch. With Anderson covering, Fryar planted the PE4 charges and spooled out enough fuse to let them get back to the surface before the explosion. To mark the spot directly above the pod, they'd put a buoy.
'I put a six minute fuse onnit, plenny o' time to surface,' said Fryar. 'Charges wen' off like they shoulda. Was right nice. 'Sept the spottle weren't where we marked.'
'You mean the buoy moved?'
'Nah, sir. I mean the charges moved.'
Which made no sense. Anderson had no explanation for that either. He'd made sure the buoy was placed correctly and had noted the position of the pod on the sea floor down to the inch. He'd been similarly precise in noting where the two divers had resurfaced. The explosion, when it came, was a noticeable several metres to the northeast of the buoy and Anderson's plotted positions. Making assumptions wasn't the Marine's way, so once it was safe to dive again, he and Fryar dived. They found the place where the pod had been was now empty, with evidence of explosion damage to the sea bed some metres to the northeast. There was no wreckage or debris anywhere that they could see.
In other words, Anderson said, either the pod had moved before detonation and avoided harm, or the charges themselves had been removed and placed on the sea bed, where they'd duly detonated. The two divers stayed down to the limit of their oxygen endurance, searching for any sign of the pod without success. Roxton's sonar detected nothing either despite thorough searching. It was as if the pod had simply vanished.
Lethbridge-Stewart already knew that, of course, but hearing it directly from Anderson's lips made the news seem real. He sighed. 'Did Roxton detect any movement before the charges were detonated?'
The answer was no, which he too already knew. Roxton's skipper had stayed on station late into the evening, searching outward from the marked spot until he was almost ten miles from shore. All was for naught. He'd telephoned Lethbridge-Stewart personally to apologise for the lack of success, an act which surprised the brigadier. Roxton returned at first light to make a visual search of the coastline, while Finney and the remnants of his section patrolled the area west of Sandown.
In the end, there was nothing more to be done. The lone Silurian had vanished as if into the air. The matter had to be left to the police, which they were none too happy about. Understandably. Lieutenant Elder was sent to act as a liaison officer, which he was none too happy about either. Finney brought his lads back to Denham. Which brought them back to the present.
Lethbridge-Stewart looked over his notes. There were still far too many questions without answers, but he sensed the men had told them all they knew. Short of sending them back to Wight to search again, there was little he could do, as frustrating as that was. He set his pen down. 'Thank you, lads. That'll be all.'
The men collected their headgear before standing to file quietly out. Except for Sergeant Finney. He waited until the door had shut behind an expressionless Colour-Sergeant Anderson before letting out a sigh. 'Bad bit of business, this'n, sir,' he said wearily.
'It is indeed,' Lethbridge-Stewart agreed. 'Do you have something to add, Sergeant?'
'Maybe not of any consequence, but you'll have noted Corp'l Cowan's report. He ain't one to sugarcoat things. He'd not know tact if it booted him square in the gob. But...' Finney seemed to sag the tiniest bit in his chair. 'He's no fan of Captain Smart, sir. Never has been. I've done some askin' around about him, elsewhere. On the quiet, of course. He's one of those lads who reckons that since he's done a couple tours across the water that he's got the right to rate other folk off that standard. Plus he's your bog standard infantry bloke; can't abide support arms and such. But he's never liked Captain Smart anyway. I've heard he calls him a 'cloak and dagger slime' and such like.'
'Barracks room gossip doesn't impact a man's ability to carry out his duties.'
'Not usually, no, sir. But you'll have heard that old tale about the officer who takes a bullet through his back while leading his boys forward.'
A frown creased the brigadier's brow. 'Are you suggesting that's happened here?'
'Can't be sure, sir. Cowan'll never cop to it but Fearan seemed bloody cagey after we regrouped. If things'd been calmer, I'd have had a quiet word with him. He sorted himself out by time I could. Wouldn't give anythin' up.'
This was just what he needed. On top of a fugitive Silurian, he had a potential renegade to contend with. If the report had come from anyone else, he'd have dismissed it out of hand. But he knew Simon Finney well. It wasn't in the former sniper's nature to make mountains out of molehills. If he believed something was amiss about Cowan's behaviour in Sandown, that behaviour merited looking into.
'Do you think Captain Smart knew or suspected about any of this?'
'Dunno, sir. My path don't cross with his much these days. If he did...' Finney looked troubled. He hardly needed to finish that sentence. If Smart had felt Cowan was a danger to him, he was the purest of fools for turning his back to the corporal. But, of course, it was entirely possible for Cowan to have shown no sign of harmful intent before the opportunity presented itself. Equally, it was entirely possible Finney was drawing incorrect conclusions. Even the best soldiers did, sometimes.
'I'll make quiet enquiries, Sergeant,' Lethbridge-Stewart told him. 'In the mean time, get your lads settled. Funerary arrangements are being made. I'll make sure you're kept informed.'
'Right, sir. Thanks.' Finney rose and showed himself out.
The brigadier sat heavily back in his chair and gazed sightlessly at the opposite wall. What a wretched mess. There was nothing about this business he cared for. If they had dealt more decisively with that Silurian, this might not seem like such a blight. As it was, two men were dead and another was badly wounded with nothing to show for it but a well-egged face and the possibility of a backshooter in the ranks. Lord, what a tangle. What he wouldn't give to be a company officer again, with no more onerous responsibility than making sure his men changed their socks, cleaned their rifles, and showed up to parades on time.
But this was the price one paid to have meaningful command, he supposed. He glanced at the chair Corporal Cowan had occupied and sighed. This matter was not one to delegate, either. Sending George Elder off to the Isle of Wight to soak up the police's displeasure was one thing. This was quite another. He'd have to attend this himself. Just his luck. Lethbridge-Stewart tucked away his pen and notepad into his jacket, then rose tiredly to his feet. He was getting too old for this nonsense. Too old indeed.