‘I just don’t get it,’ complained Sir Gerald Coates as he and his colleague Jeffrey Langley hurried from the helicopter to the nearby 4x4 that was to take them the short distance to the hotel. ‘Why in God’s name bring us all the way from London to Scotland on a night in the middle of bloody winter for a meeting about medicines procurement?’
‘Someone obviously has a sense of the dramatic,’ Langley replied sourly as the driver closed the doors with one hand and held on to his cap with the other while the helicopter pilot increased revs again and took off into the night.
‘Rumour has it the PM himself was involved in calling it.’
‘Rumour had it there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.’
Coates gave a wry smile. ‘My source was better but I’m damned if I can see the point in coming all the way up here to discuss the cost of paracetamol, can you?’
‘Not unless there’s some showbiz angle we don’t know about.’
‘I can’t say I’d call this show business.’ Coates looked at the rain that was falling from the sky like stair rods, hammering on the roof of the car. ‘And what was the point of giving us only three hours’ notice?’
‘No doubt all will be revealed,’ said Langley as they reached the long, white frontage of the hotel. ‘Ye gods, what’s this all about?’
The Range Rover drew to a halt as its headlights picked out two armed soldiers in waterproof capes signalling them to stop. The driver lowered his window and said, ‘Sir Gerald Coates and Mr Jeffrey Langley.’
‘ID please, gentlemen,’ said one of the soldiers, shining his torch at the two men in the back while water dripped from his helmet.
Both men reached inside their overcoats, produced what was required and the soldiers waved them on.
‘What in God’s name…’ said Coates as they slowly passed rows of official vehicles interspersed with military and police cars. ‘I’d say someone’s sense of the dramatic is in danger of going off the scale.’
Langley was about to reply when their vehicle passed a long, black limousine parked at the main entrance to the hotel. A Stars and Stripes pennant hung wet and limp from the staff on the nose of the vehicle. ‘Ah,’ he said.
‘That would explain it,’ agreed Coates. ‘We’re only thirty minutes from Prestwick Airport.’
‘And the wide, blue Atlantic…’
‘… that divides our two great nations. Well, well, well…’
‘Curiouser and curiouser.’
The two men got out and entered the hotel after showing ID again. They exchanged a glance, noting the two Royal Marines, present on the door.
‘Thank you, gentlemen, please follow me,’ said the soldier who had been detailed to look after them.
Coates and Langley were relieved of their overcoats and given a few minutes to freshen up in the welcome calm and warmth of the washroom to the muted strains of Vivaldi before being shown into the room where the meeting was due to take place. There were about twenty people present — mostly men in dark suits although there were three women and two senior ranking military officers in uniform. They were seated just below the top table, which was currently unoccupied despite having place settings — a carafe of water and a note pad — for six.
Coates and Langley, who were seated halfway down one side, looked for familiar faces. They recognised a number of senior people from the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence and nodded when their eyes met. The man to Langley’s left was a consultant from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, he read on the place card. ‘Any idea what this is all about?’ he asked in a friendly but mock-conspiratorial manner.
‘I was just about to ask you that,’ replied the man. ‘I haven’t the faintest idea.’
Coates got a similar response from the woman to his right, Dr Linda Meyer from the Center for Disease Control, Atlanta, Georgia. ‘One minute I was eating pasta with my family and talking about going bowling, the next I was packing for a trip across the Atlantic to wherever the hell it is we are right now.’
‘You’re in Ayrshire on the southwest coast of Scotland,’ said Coates.
‘Thank you,’ replied Meyer in a tone that suggested she really knew that much; she’d just been making a point.
The conversation paused as a Royal Navy officer came into the room and approached one of the men sitting at the other end of the table. He whispered something in the man’s ear and the man rose to accompany the officer out of the room.
‘I know him,’ whispered Linda Meyer.
‘I’m afraid I don’t,’ confessed Coates.
‘And you are?’ asked Meyer, noting that Coates’ place card gave only his name.
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Coates. ‘You could say I was “homeland security” too. Albeit a much smaller homeland,’ he added in self-deprecating fashion. Coates and Langley were members of a special think-tank charged with advising the government on health matters linked to security issues.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming. I think we’re just about ready to begin,’ said the young man who took the microphone while the top table filled up. ‘This meeting has been convened at the specific request of both the Prime Minister and the President of the United States.’
He paused to let the murmur die down. ‘And so, without any more ado, I’ll hand you over now to Mr Simon Maltby, Secretary of State at the Home Office, who will tell you more.’
Maltby welcomed everyone and introduced those sitting on either side of him. He apologised for the short notice given, particularly to ‘our American friends’. ‘But, as I’m sure you’ll come to realise, what we have to discuss here tonight is of enormous importance to us all. Rather than use the more normal channels of government to disseminate information, the Prime Minister and the President decided to get all the key players together so that they might be told jointly about the problem that besets us. Mr Malcolm Williams, a specialist in strategic planning with MI5, will now fill you in on some background details.’
A tall, painfully thin man, who looked as if he might have been more at home in an academic common room, stood up and cleared his throat. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, many people believe that the biggest threat facing civilised society today stems from the rogue proliferation of nuclear weapons and terrorist bomb attacks. While not wishing to diminish these problems, it does not. It comes, as it has so often in the past, from disease. Throughout our history mankind has been at war with the microbial world. On several occasions we’ve come perilously close to losing that war as when great plagues swept the planet — smallpox in ancient Egypt, bubonic plague in fourteenth-century Europe, pandemic ’flu in the early years of the twentieth century — but in the end, we survived and prevailed. We survived because it was a straight fight, us against them, and we were the ones with brains. We had the capacity to study our enemy and design counter-strategies based on our knowledge of it. The microbes, of course, did not have the benefit of intellect.
‘This, I’m sorry to say, is no longer the case. Those who would destroy our society have teamed up with the microbial world to present perhaps the biggest challenge we have ever faced — biological terrorism. The possibility of biological weapons being used against us has been growing ever more likely and now has the potential to be catastrophic. AIDS, pandemic ’flu, tuberculosis, plague, anthrax, botulism, smallpox are all out there along with a host of others. Many have been genetically altered to enhance their killing capacity — disease enhanced by human