Mightier Than the Sword

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Extract

‘HRH,’ MUMBLED HARRY as he came out of a drowsy half-sleep. He sat up with a start and switched on his bedside light, then slipped out of bed and walked quickly across to the vase of lilies. He read the message from the Queen Mother for a second time. Thank you for a memorable day in Bristol. I do hope my second home has a successful maiden voyage. It was signed, HRH Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

‘Such a simple mistake,’ said Harry. ‘How could I have missed it?’ He grabbed his dressing gown and switched on the cabin lights.

‘Is it time to get up already?’ enquired a sleepy voice.

‘Yes it is,’ said Harry. ‘We’ve got a problem.’

Emma squinted at her bedside clock. ‘But it’s only just gone three,’ she protested, looking across at her husband, who was still staring intently at the lilies. ‘So what’s the problem?’

‘HRH isn’t the Queen Mother’s title.’

‘Everyone knows that,’ said Emma, still half asleep.

‘Everyone except the person who sent these flowers. Why didn’t they know that the correct way to address the Queen Mother is as Her Majesty, not Her Royal Highness. That’s how you address a princess.’

Emma reluctantly got out of bed, padded across to join her husband, and studied the card for herself.

‘Ask the captain to join us immediately,’ said Harry. ‘We need to find out what’s in that vase,’ he added, before falling to his knees.

‘It’s probably only water,’ said Emma, reaching out a hand.

Harry grabbed her wrist. ‘Look more closely, my darling. The vase is far too big for something as delicate as a dozen lilies. Call the captain,’ he repeated, with more urgency this time.

‘But the florist could just have made a mistake.’

‘Let’s hope so,’ Harry said as he began to walk towards the door. ‘But it’s not a risk we can afford to take.’

‘Where are you going?’ asked Emma as she picked up the phone.

‘To wake Giles. He has more experience with explosives than I do. He spent two years of his life planting them at the feet of advancing Germans.’

When Harry stepped into the corridor he was distracted by the sight of an elderly man disappearing in the direction of the grand staircase. He was moving far too quickly for an old man, Harry thought. He knocked firmly on Giles’s cabin door, but it took a second demanding bang with his clenched fist before a sleepy voice said, ‘Who’s that?’

‘Harry.’

The urgency in his voice caused Giles to jump out of bed and open the door immediately. ‘What’s the problem?’

‘Come with me,’ said Harry without explanation.

Giles pulled on his dressing gown and followed his brother-in-law down the corridor and into the stateroom.

‘Good morning, sis,’ he said to Emma, as Harry handed him the card and said, ‘HRH.’

‘Got it,’ said Giles after studying the card. ‘The Queen Mother couldn’t have sent the flowers. But if she didn’t, then who did?’ He bent down and took a closer look at the vase. ‘Whoever it was could have packed an awful lot of Semtex in there.’

‘Or a couple of pints of water,’ said Emma. ‘Are you sure you’re not both worrying about nothing?’

‘If it’s water, why are the flowers already wilting?’ asked Giles as Captain Turnbull knocked on the door before walking into the cabin.

‘You asked to see me, chairman?’

Emma began to explain why her husband and her brother were both on their knees.

‘There are four SAS officers on board,’ said the captain, interrupting the chairman. ‘One of them ought to be able to answer any questions Mr Clifton might have.’

‘I presume it’s no coincidence that they’re on board,’ said Giles. ‘I can’t believe they all decided to take a holiday in New York at the same time.’

‘They’re on board at the request of the cabinet secretary,’ replied the captain. ‘But Sir Alan Redmayne assured me it was just a precautionary measure.’

‘As usual, that man knows something we don’t,’ said Harry.

‘Then perhaps it’s time to find out what it is.’

The captain stepped out of the cabin and made his way quickly down the corridor, stopping only when he reached cabin 119. Colonel Scott-Hopkins responded to the knock on the door far more quickly than Giles had done a few minutes earlier.

‘Do you have a bomb-disposal expert in your team?’

‘Sergeant Roberts. He was with the bomb squad in Palestine.’

‘I need him now, in the chairman’s stateroom.’

The colonel wasted no time asking why. He ran along the corridor and out on to the grand staircase to find Captain Hartley charging towards him.

‘I’ve just spotted Liam Doherty coming out of the lavatory in the first-class lounge.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes. He went in as a peer of the realm, and came out twenty minutes later as Liam Doherty. He then headed down to cabin class.’

‘That may explain everything,’ said Scott-Hopkins as he continued down the staircase with Hartley only a pace behind. ‘What’s Roberts’s cabin number?’ he asked on the run.

‘Seven four two,’ said Hartley as they hurdled across the red chain on to the narrower staircase. They didn’t stop until they reached deck seven, where Corporal Crann stepped out of the shadows.

‘Has Doherty passed you within the last few minutes?’

‘Damn,’ said Crann. ‘I knew I’d seen that bastard swaggering up the Falls Road. He went into seven zero six.’

‘Hartley,’ said the colonel as he charged on down the corridor, ‘you and Crann keep an eye on Doherty. Make sure he doesn’t leave his cabin. If he does, arrest him.’ The colonel banged on the door of cabin 742. Sergeant Roberts didn’t need a second knock. He opened the door within seconds, and greeted Colonel Scott-Hopkins with ‘Good morning, sir,’ as if his commanding officer regularly woke him in the middle of the night, dressed in his pyjamas.

‘Grab your tool kit, Roberts, and follow me. We haven’t a moment to waste,’ said the colonel, once again on the move.

It took Roberts three flights of stairs before he caught up with his commanding officer. By the time they reached the stateroom corridor, Roberts knew which of his particular skills the colonel required. He dashed into the chairman’s cabin, and peered closely at the vase for a moment before slowly circling it.

‘If it’s a bomb,’ he said finally, ‘it’s a big one. I can’t begin to guess the number of lives that will be lost if we don’t defuse the bugger.’

‘But can you do it?’ asked the captain, sounding remarkably calm. ‘Because if you can’t, my first responsibility is for the lives of my passengers. I don’t need this trip to be compared with another disastrous maiden voyage.’

‘I can’t do a damn thing unless I can get my hands on the control panel. It has to be somewhere else on the ship,’ said Roberts, ‘probably quite near by.’

‘In his lordship’s cabin would be my bet,’ said the colonel, ‘because we now know that it was occupied by an IRA bomber called Liam Doherty.’

‘Does anyone know which cabin he was in?’ asked the captain.

‘Number three,’ said Harry, recalling the old man who had been moving a little too quickly. ‘Just along the corridor.’

The captain and the sergeant ran out of the room and into the corridor, followed by Scott-Hopkins, Harry and Giles. The captain opened the cabin door with his pass key and stood aside to let Roberts in. The sergeant walked quickly across to a large trunk in the middle of the room. He tentatively raised the lid and peered inside.

‘Christ, it’s due to detonate in eight minutes and thirty-nine seconds.’

‘Can’t you just disconnect one of those?’ asked Captain Turnbull, pointing to a myriad different coloured wires.

‘Yes, but which one,’ said Roberts, not looking up at the captain as he cautiously separated the red, black, blue and yellow wires. ‘I’ve worked on this type of device many times before. It’s always a one-in-four chance, and that’s not a risk I’m willing to take. I might consider it if I were on my own in the middle of a desert,’ he added, ‘but not on a ship in the middle of the ocean with hundreds of lives at risk.’

‘Then let’s drag Doherty up here post haste,’ suggested Captain Turnbull. ‘He’ll know which wire to cut.’

‘I doubt it,’ said Roberts, ‘because I suspect Doherty isn’t the bomber. They’ll have a sparks on board to do that job, and God knows where he is.’

‘We’re running out of time,’ the colonel reminded them, as he stared at the second hand’s relentless progress. ‘Seven minutes, three, two, one . . .’

‘So, Roberts, what do you advise?’ asked the captain calmly.

‘You’re not going to like this, sir, but there’s only one thing we can do given the circumstances. And even that’s one hell of a risk, remembering we’re down to less than seven minutes.’

‘Then spit it out, man,’ rapped the colonel.

‘Pick the fucking thing up, throw it overboard and pray.’

Harry and Giles ran back to the chairman’s suite and took up positions on either side of the vase. There were several questions that Emma, who was now dressed, wanted to ask, but like any sensible chairman she knew when to remain silent.

‘Lift it gently,’ said Roberts. ‘Treat it like a bowl full of boiling water.’

Like two weightlifters, Harry and Giles crouched down and slowly raised the heavy vase from the table until they were both standing upright. Once they were confident they had it firmly in their grasp they moved sideways across the cabin towards the open door. Scott-Hopkins and Roberts quickly removed any obstacles in their path.

‘Follow me,’ said the captain, as the two men stepped into the corridor and edged their way slowly towards the grand staircase. Harry couldn’t believe how heavy the vase was. Then he remembered the giant of a man who’d carried it into the cabin. No wonder he hadn’t hung around for a tip. He was probably on his way back to Belfast by now, or sitting by a radio somewhere waiting to hear the fate of the Buckingham, and how many passengers had lost their lives.

Once they reached the bottom of the grand staircase, Harry began to count out loud as the two of them mounted each step. Sixteen steps later, he stopped to catch his breath, while the captain and the colonel held open the swing doors that led out on to the sun deck, Emma’s pride and joy.

‘We need to go as far aft as possible,’ said the captain. ‘That will give us a better chance of avoiding any damage to the hull.’ Harry didn’t look convinced. ‘Don’t worry, it’s not too far now.’

How far is not too far, wondered Harry, who would happily have dumped the vase straight over the side. But he said nothing as they progressed inch by inch towards the stern.

‘I know just how you feel,’ said Giles, reading his brother-in-law’s thoughts.

They continued their snail-like progress past the swimming pool, the deck tennis court and the sun loungers, neatly laid out in readiness for the sleeping guests to appear later that morning. Harry tried not to think how much time they had left before . . .

‘Two minutes,’ said Sergeant Roberts unhelpfully, checking his watch.

Out of the corner of his eye, Harry could see the rail at the stern of the ship. It was only a few paces away, but, like conquering Everest, he knew the last few feet were going to be the slowest.

‘Fifty seconds,’ said Roberts as they came to a halt at the waist-high rail.

‘Do you remember when we threw Fisher into the river at the end of term?’ said Giles.

‘Could I ever forget?’

‘So on the count of three, let’s throw him into the ocean and be rid of the bastard once and for all,’ said Giles.

‘One—’ both men swung their arms back, but only managed a few inches, ‘two—’ perhaps a couple more, ‘three—’ as far as they could get, and then, with all the strength left in their bodies, they hurled the vase up into the air and over the back rail. As it came down, Harry was convinced it would land on the deck, or at best hit the rail, but it cleared it by a few inches, and landed in the sea with a faint splash. Giles raised his arms in triumph, and shouted ‘Hallelujah!’

Seconds later, the bomb exploded, hurling them both back across the deck.