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Authors: Mike Binder

Keep Calm

 

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For Diane, Molly, and Burt … as always

 

One ought never to turn one's back on a threatened danger and try to run away from it. If you do that, you will double the danger. But if you meet it promptly and without flinching, you will reduce the danger by half.

—
WINSTON CHURCHILL

 

PART ONE

AFTER

BEFORE

 

AFTER THE BOMBING
■
1

The bomb went off at 10 Downing Street just after six p.m. Georgia had been in the small private bathroom off her office at Number 11, trying once again, as usual, to make some sense of her hair before she met with Alistair Stephenson, the minister of education. She had just taken her third pain pill of the day. The ache in her leg was a distant irritant most times now, sporadically troublesome in the morning or after a long day of travel, but the pills made the tumult of her life easier to deal with, so she ate them gladly, like bright red rock candy.

It was a loud, booming roar of a blast that shook the walls, made the building roll, and even, Georgia thought later, lifted it as if it were just a small cardboard mock-up of Downing Street. The explosion was shadowed by an eerie moment of quiet, a confused sea of silence that washed over the building and cascaded down the halls of both Numbers 10 and 11. Georgia, the chancellor of the exchequer, stood alone for several stunned seconds. Jack Early, her private secretary, broke the hush when he ran down the hall just as alarm bells began to ring and voices could be heard shouting down the back corridors.

“Madam, are you all right?”

“Yes, of course, that was devastating. Please tell me everyone's all right. What was it?”

She was dizzy, spinning, or maybe the room was; maybe Early was spinning and not her. She grabbed the side of her large wooden desk to stay upright.

“I believe it was a bomb. It must've been. In Number 10.” Early was even paler then he normally was. The palest, driest-skinned man she had ever known was somehow even whiter and drier now than usual. He was shaking. Others were now gathering in the hallway outside. The two perky blondes who worked in Early's office whispered quietly to him about plans on where and how to evacuate Georgia.

A Metropolitan Police officer, from the Diplomatic Protection Group, a tall man with a thick shock of white hair and a stern, worried look on his face, came into the room speaking in a hushed, determined tone. He spoke quickly to Early in the outer office, then turned to Georgia.

“You'll need to come with me, Chancellor. Straight off, please.”

“What is it? What's happened?”

“There's been a bomb. An explosion. Seems to have gone off on the second floor of Number 10. We need to move you at once.”

“What about the prime minister? Where is he?”

“It appears that the PM's been hit, ma'am. He's being attended to now.”

“Hit? How? Is he going to be…”

“Ma'am, all that I've been told is that we need to get you out of the building. Right now.”

“Others?”

“No. Just the PM. We need to go, Madam Chancellor.”

The Second Lord of the Treasury, or the chancellor of the exchequer, has with time become the most powerful office in the British government, next to the prime minister. Georgia Turnbull was the first woman to ever hold the post. She was Prime Minister Roland Lassiter's longest-running trench mate in politics. Brilliant, steel-willed, and confident to a fault, her relationship with Lassiter was complicated and intricate. It ran hot and cold, was deeply important to both, and confusing to all others. She was Lloyd George to his Asquith or, more to the point, Brown to his Blair. They had gone to university together, had come up through the rough and tumble of party politics, won a bitter election, cobbled together a government, helped the country climb out of a prolonged triple-dip recession, twisted and tugged new life out of a broken civil service, and had even, two years earlier, survived a horrific helicopter crash together. The relationship was so intense that quite a few friends had quietly always suspected that Ms. Turnbull had secretly been in love with the extremely photogenic and very married Roland Lassiter.

Physically, Georgia possessed a brand of beauty that was all her own. The word “striking” had always been used in any description of her. She was tall, with a commanding presence and dark penetrating eyes on a radiant face blanketed with creamy alabaster skin. She had wild hair that ran afoul of any sense of direction or obedience to grooming. Even as a young woman, her drive, candor, and razor-sharp intellect had all combined to make an extremely attractive, if not run-of-the-mill, kind of beauty. She had a slight stoop that was only exaggerated with the fallout from the helicopter accident, her gait now stilted with the constant need of a cane.

People outside were running around Number 10 and Number 11 in what seemed like every direction. There was panic in the wind, sirens bouncing up Whitehall in a pack now, forming together into a single war whoop, coating the air with a blanket of fright. Georgia reached the street outside the buildings just as armored cars and SUVs screeched to a desperate stop. Men in bulletproof police uniforms hunkered down with rifles and communications gear. The entire area was transformed with lightning speed into a locked-down armored military theater. She and Jack Early were quickly and carefully ushered into an army-outfitted SUV and driven out of Downing Street past a never-ending line of arriving squad cars and a short, sturdy row of tanks that were set up in the middle of the main road. A hazmat truck barreled up to the front gate and was flagged in past all of the other vehicles. Helicopters circled overhead, both army and police. An overeager news copter was instantly forced away. As if a switch had been flipped on, a parallel chaotic universe instantly came into existence. Georgia looked back at the rush of manic movement as her vehicle hustled away up Whitehall, smoke billowing toward the sky from a fire in Number 10, her thoughts only on Roland Lassiter, not even daring to think the worst.

*   *   *

A FEW HOURS
later, the world had been told—not in the way they had all wanted the world to be told; not in the way Georgia wanted to see it unfold; not to the liking of Kirsty Lassiter, Roland's beloved, permanently put-upon wife, or Sir Melvin Burnlee, the home secretary, and least of all not to the satisfaction of Alan Munroe, Lassiter's long-hovering director of communications and strategy. They hadn't even had the chance to inform anyone at Buckingham Palace. The word was out to the world before any of them really had a clue themselves as to exactly what had transpired.

The entire government was frozen in a shell-shocked daze for more than two hours. In the vacuum, the press took the ball and ran with it. The news was leaked out in a typically tawdry modern way: a patchwork quilt of guesswork and innuendo that belittled everything about the situation, the integrity of the government, the life of Roland Lassiter, and the emotions of the British people. There was no waiting out of courtesy, no checking of facts. The press just tripped over themselves to be the first to report on the tragedy: an explosion at Number 10, Roland Lassiter on his deathbed. He hadn't even reached the hospital when Sky News broke the story with helicopter shots of the Metropolitan Police shutting down and evacuating Downing Street, front and back.

In lieu of any substantiated information, these were the images that the entire world watched, over and over on a continuous loop for several hours. Blurry video from a God's-eye view showed police, government workers, and military figures running to and fro in odd confusion-driven circles, like worker bees whose hive had been shot through with a shotgun blast. Number 10 was utter chaos.

*   *   *

LATE IN THE
evening, Georgia and Early were more or less hidden in a secure COBRA conference room somewhere in Whitehall. They were with Sir Melvin Burnlee, whose brief included MI5, the Met police, the Diplomatic Protection Group, and all of the police and investigation services in matters of interior, and Felix Holmby, the deputy prime minister. Georgia had just hung up with the palace and was told she would be getting a call from His Royal Highness, the king, in a short time. She also took a call from the American president and the newly elected president of France.

Finally a call came in from Louise Bloomfield, the prime minister's private secretary. She had traveled with Mrs. Lassiter to the hospital behind the ambulance. The only news she offered was that the PM was still unconscious and that the bomb had done serious, yet not necessarily life-threatening, damage to his midsection.

Lassiter may well survive this one
, Georgia thought to herself in the form of a silent prayer.
Maybe he truly does live some kind of magically dusted life, just as he always claimed he did
.

“The gods are on my side, Georgia. I predict we will take South Ribble, Stafford, Ilford North, and even Elmet and Rothwell tonight. They may have history, them, but I'm one charmed bastard on a whale of a run lately, and they'll all have to just deal with it up there.”

She thought back on that night of their first general election, the night they came to power, the night the world changed. She also remembered the morning three years later when they crashed to the sea in a giant metal army helicopter, her leg shattering into fifteen pieces, her collarbone breaking in half like a holiday wishbone, two soldiers dead from the crash, another drowned during the rescue, and Lassiter without a scratch. He walked away more or less unharmed. Maybe he was right; maybe he was of a special breed. Maybe he could survive this awful blow.
Dear God, please let it be so
.

*   *   *

BEFORE LONG IT
had fallen to Georgia to make the first official public statement, to address the press on behalf of her government, her party, her country, and Roland Lassiter. She dreaded it. It wasn't that she was press shy—she wasn't—and it wasn't that the press disliked her, as she felt they always had. It came with the job, and she lived with it. This was different: she was too gutted, too emotional to make a calm statement.

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