London, 1986: “Fast Falls the Eventide”


The back doors of the five-ton truck swung outward, and the ramp was hastily lowered. Senior Explosives Officer Christopher Owen eased forward and tilted his chassis down to crawl into the night.
The camera he held flicked from convention spotlight scanner, to Star-Tron magnification scope, to infra-red. For ninety seconds Owen observed the somber, cooling buildings that passed his line of sight as he orientated himself. Police officers ran past him from left to right in polychromatic blurs of blue and orange.
In the truck parked a few yards away from Owen’s carrier, Metropolitan Police Explosives Officer Don Hickman found a flat surface for his NEC keyboard, and donned a spindly speaker-headset, never once taking his eyes off the monitor screen. Snapping back from thermal imaging to conventional mode, he watched the floodlight cast a powerful ring of light across the tarmac of Adelaide Street.
“Lima Four Zero, over.” Captain Benjamin Craig thumbed the switch on the R/T to hear the reply. “Roger. We are on site, and are sending in Mark Nine now. Any word from the Home Secretary yet?”
His short, terse dialogue finished, Craig let the young corporal in charge of the R/T take over, and stood up to address the rest of the four-man unit. “Right, we’ve got the area sealed off. Doughty, man the R/T and keep in touch with the evacuee units. Bilton, get out there and help the others with the generator.” As the uniformed officer quickly scrambled from the mobile headquarters, Craig crossed to where Hickman sat. “How’s our man?”
“System check runs A-OK, sir. He’s online now.”
“Right.” Craig swept off his cap and ran a hand over his damp forehead. His long face, given color by a severely trimmed blond mustache, looked ruddy and flat in the harsh light. “Get him onto ground zero, Don.”
Hickman’s fingers tapped with unnecessary force against the keys. On the monitor screen, the road slid a way from view toward the right …
Out on Adelaide Street, Owen swung slowly toward the left until the portico and entrance to the Church of St Jude’s lay square in his field of vision. The image trembled as he propelled himself forward. The stone of the portico’s column gleamed under the harsh scrutiny of the approaching lamp. The image rolled and then swayed up and down as Owen’s tractor treads bit into the crumbling steps that led up to the church. He reached the top and leveled off, pushing himself forward through the unlocked doors into the vestry. Through the North Aisle door, his camera registered the shadow stripes cast by the rows of pews, and to his left, the entrance to the old tower gaped vacantly.
If Owen had still been human, he would have felt cold.

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide,
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide …

Christopher Owen, seven years of age, prepared for his first confession.
The booth in which he tried not to fidget held the same coolness the school chapel seemed to harbor. No matter how hot the summer’s day, the church held that same chill ambience. Owen tugged down the bottom of his short trousers to stop splinters piercing his legs.
“Forgive me, father,” he said, “for I have sinned.”
Looking up, briefly, Owen saw the priest in silhouette through the grill. Head bent, eyes shut, as if his body was over burdened with other people’s sin. The still figure muttered something Owen couldn’t catch. Nervously, the boy denied whatever the priest had said.
Had he really sinned? His mother was upset; she kept saying that she didn’t want him to go on to the practice grounds, she didn’t want him to get hurt. But what about Dad? He was a soldier, so he did that sort of thing every day of his life.
The broken treasures scattered across the grounds of Netheravon Camp were the spoils of imaginary wars to a clever, curious child; cartridges, spent shells, discarded tin boxes … did the cordite smell any worse than the smells of the other boys’ hands?
Owen stumbled through a litany of anything that could get him into trouble at home. It wasn’t difficult; Father Reid, tall and spiky, his breath always smelling like over-ripe fruit, seemed to find fault in almost anything a child was capable of doing. Owen’s mother would always hide the battered deck of cards before the priest came to call, even thought they had only been playing ‘snap’.
The priest dismissed the boy with a cursory absolution and a request for purity in thought and body. The whole thing had taken less than ten minutes. Owen, standing outside the booth in the church that dwarfed his small body, toyed with many thoughts. He thought of going home and mass-producing homemade grenades. Kicking his brother. Never going back to boarding school. Do them all, and after ten minutes in the Confessional booth he’d be forgiven.
Of course, he didn’t do any of them.

When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me …

The interior plan of the Church of St Jude’s crackled like kitchen paper as Craig spread it out beside the keyboards. Leaning down on it with both hands, he and Hickman gazed from the map to the view of the church on the monitor.
Owen was moving slowly down the aisle, picking out his way by feedback sensors. In the spotlight’s wash the pews stood erect and lumpen, holding their massed congregation of shadows. At the periphery of vision hung the organ pipes, drained of color, silent and leaden. Looking from the monitor to the plan of the church, Craig traced the path Owen took into the nave, the path leading straight ahead to the chancel and, off to the right, the small side chapel. The crypt, he noted, was crammed with the boiler and heating equipment, and almost inaccessible.
“Booby traps,” Craig said. “Start with anything electromagnetic or sonic.”
“Owen is signaling to begin the sweep, sir,” the sergeant reported.
“Right. If there is anything there, we’ve got to spot it now.”
Owen switched to infra-red. The two explosives officers followed the monitor’s view, as it swung on its axis.
The quiet was broken by a messenger at the back doors, asking for Craig. He saluted. Craig didn’t bother to reply but took the small sealed envelope. He tore open the flap and scanned the slip of paper it contained. “Shit,” he muttered.
“Switching to UV,” Hickman announced. Moments passed. “Ultrasonics.” The church was still clean. No booby traps, and no primary explosive device.
“I know it’s in there somewhere.” Craig glanced at the slip of paper then folded it into his back pocket. “I know it’s there. Try X-Ray.” Hickman’s fingers flickered across the keyboard once more.
Craig never had time to wonder why Owen fired the X-Ray camera at the altar first.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day,
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away …




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About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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One Response to London, 1986: “Fast Falls the Eventide”

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