Read The Shadow of the Soul Online

Authors: Sarah Pinborough

Tags: #Horror & Ghost Stories

The Shadow of the Soul

For Beth,
Good friends and great times are hard to come by. Go and
rock LA, you star, and get the spare room ready
.

 
 

‘If you were only given one choice: to choose or not to choose,
which would you choose?’

 

Dr Shad Helmstetter,
Choices

Prologue
 

The vast office was cool, but as the man stared out at the bright, sandy streets of Marrakesh sweat prickled under his linen shirt. It had nothing to do with the temperature. He looked down once again at the faxed sheet of paper that confirmed clinically what he had been told on the telephone a mere ten minutes before. His fingers felt clammy. His stomach churned. A strange taste filled his mouth. He knew this emotion: it had been creeping up on him for years, since the first signs that things were going wrong. He’d thought he’d understood the feeling then, but he’d been wrong. Had he truly felt it before? Ever? This terrible, terrible fear? Not like this, he concluded. Not like this at all. He shivered
.

His slim, manicured fingers undid the locks and he pushed open the doors to the verandah. The smell of orange blossom and heat filled his nostrils and rushed past him to flood into the corners of his achingly stylish work space. He stepped out onto the warm tiles. Noise rushed upwards from the busy streets beyond the garden and guarded gates that separated him from the earthy, dirty life outside. Car horns screeched and curses flew; the men leading donkeys laden with goats’ milk ignored them
.

From one of the minarets that reached high above the uneven skyline of buildings that made up the swarming city, a muezzin began the call to prayer. Gone were the days when
the simple power of the human voice reached out over the population. The modern world was too noisy: now the callers were projected through microphones and loudspeakers, each voice battling with those others to get their holy message across
.

In the old days, he’d always enjoyed this human ritual of subservience. To watch people whose lives were filled with grief and pain and hardship, and which were ultimately so very, very short, commit so fully to a belief that this was the work of a loving God, filled him with mild amusement. The Network had sown the seeds for these religions so long ago, and then watched them grow like aggressive weeds: part truth, part fiction, part something entirely human
.

For a while he’d felt affection for them, in the way a child does with some small, helpless animal whose life could be squeezed away in one unfortunate clumsy moment. Not any more
.

He looked down at the piece of paper in his hand. In the bright sunlight the whiteness glared back at him, the black letters shimmering as if floating on its surface. Now the call to prayer filled him with something else – bitterness, perhaps. A sense of being cheated. He felt a sudden urge to go to Damascus, as if by returning to the place that had been his home for so very long he could somehow avoid the blunt facts on the printed sheet. They were wrong, those facts. They had to be. Things like this had never been part of the plan. What were they – a last laugh?

The muezzin was in full flow:
Allah Akbar. God is the greatest. There is no deity except Allah. Come to the true success. Allah Akbar.

God is the greatest. He couldn’t help but smile, even with the stale tang of fear on his tongue. If only these people really understood their own history. If only they knew how truly
glorious and terrible it was;
then
they should bow down in prayer
.

The phone behind him had been ringing for several seconds before he noticed it. He was lost in the heat and the life outside and the fear within and wondering how all these millions lived with it every day. The answerphone didn’t cut in and eventually the peal of the bell summoned him from his reverie and he turned back to his office. He closed the doors on the world outside and sat in his expensive leather chair, enjoying the familiar feel of its cool surface as it took his weight. He placed the sheet of paper on the blotting pad beside him before reaching for the handset. A single red light flashed along with each trill of the bell and he knew what that meant. He breathed … regained his composure … and then answered
.

‘Yes?’

‘Monmir?’

‘Who else would it be?’ He kept the irritation at the edge of his voice. His eyes were drawn to the sheet of paper beside him. One phone call ago. Fifteen minutes ago. A world ago
.

‘The Architect has called a meeting.’

‘Since when did the Architect have the power to do that?’ Monmir liked the idle tone of his own voice. It had the echo of arrogance in it, despite the fear gnawing at him
.

‘He comes with a majority.’ There was a pause. ‘And he’s the Architect.’

‘Yes, I suppose he is.’ The Architect had always been different. Monmir wasn’t even sure he’d ever particularly liked him. ‘When?’

‘There’s a jet on its way to you
.’

‘Of course there is.’ Monmir was about to hang up when he glanced at the paper again. ‘One more thing,’ he said softly. ‘You can tell him I apparently have pancreatic cancer. It’s aggressive. And terminal.’

There was a long silence at the other end. Monmir wasn’t surprised. Fear was catching. Eventually the phone clicked off in his ear
.

After replacing the handset, he stared at the faxed copy of his results for several long moments before carefully screwing it up into a tight ball and dropping it into the bin beside him. He just wished his hands hadn’t been shaking so much as he did it
.

Chapter One
 

H
ell came to earth.

As fire raged, black smoke choked the clear blue skies, its pall gloating over the devastation that littered the ground beneath. Glass shattered as the heat broke its will. Bodies lay quiet in the wreckage, legs and arms spread wide at strange, inhuman angles, their dignity stripped. Others wandered, lost, no longer recognising their surroundings, pale shadows of themselves, caked in grime with red streaks cutting through the dirt from injuries that might or might not yet prove fatal.

A bland man in his forties – not too tall, not too short, not too much of anything but a little bit of everything – staggered into view, and his eyes were wide as he fell to his knees. Blood pumped onto the filthy pavement from the crater at his shoulder where his arm had so recently been attached. He looked down at his ruined suit, and his mouth dropped open. For a moment the chaos around him stilled before he tumbled sideways.
Should have taken the next bus. Should have chosen to work from home today
. His eyes were still in denial just before the light went out of them. No one rushed over to him. Sirens wailed quietly in the background and more screams erupted; in the distance a woman called plaintively for help, her voice mono amidst the stereo of death. She clutched the body of an unmoving child, trapped
half in and half out of some twisted metal debris that might once have been a car, or maybe part of a bus. It was hard to tell.

The screen displaying the images went ignored by the small group of men and women studying laptops and taking phone calls.

‘Mobile phone networks shut down.’

‘All of them?’

‘Done.’

‘Good.’

‘If that’s how they’re triggering.’

‘Fuck me, the LRT have put out there’ve been power surges on several lines.’

‘Does anyone still believe that bullshit?’

‘No one that’s near a TV. The PM’s message is about to broadcast.’

‘Get people off the buses.’

‘Which buses?’

‘All of them. Anything moving with people on it. Off, now.’

More phones rang and bodies moved in flashes of suits and sweat around the small underground room. Abigail Porter watched from the corner. Her own shirt was dry, despite the muggy warmth of the COBR office.

More movement; more snapped sentences.

‘Keep talking to me, people. Who reported this as a major incident?’

‘Ambulance Service.’

‘Other ES have universally confirmed.’

‘Silver Command?’

‘All in situ at the JESCC.’

‘Only life-threatening injuries to hospitals for now.’

‘Passing it on.’

‘You won’t fucking believe this! Russians had intel on potential attacks on London today.’

‘What?’

‘I know, I’m on it. Where were the ATD on this?’

‘Blame later, people. Manage now.’

‘PM’s pre-record is going out.’

‘Fuck, the streets are going to be a mess.’

‘Reports of fires coming in.’

‘Let’s keep the info stream clean.’

‘Chemicals?’

‘Nothing confirmed.’

‘ChemTeams on their way to sites.’

‘Then let’s worry about that when we have to.’

‘Jesus.’

Abigail figured she was the only person who’d realised the Prime Minister had entered the room until she spoke.

‘Is this Ealing Broadway?’ Alison McDonnell’s heavyset face was pale, and she hadn’t taken her gaze from the unfolding news as she waited for one of the gathered aides to answer.

Abigail stayed quiet, and leaned against the desk. Her heart thumped with the adrenalin surge, but it was an empty beat. She felt distanced from the dying and injured displayed across the screen. To be honest, most days she felt distanced from everything.

‘Yes,’ Andrew Dunne, head of Special Branch, answered quietly as the devastation on screen was replaced with the PM’s own face for a few minutes, her mouth moving, silent and serious, as she instructed people to stay calm, to get off whatever public transport they were on and walk home.

‘From what we gather, there were three explosions in close proximity to each other that went off eighteen minutes
ago. We need to get into the site to know for sure but it looks like one detonated in a bus, one in a car and one in a clothes shop. All three occurred within a ninety-second period: people fleeing from one blast got caught in the next, and so on. This was very well planned.’

There was a pause, and Abigail felt the tension tighten in the air around her. The stillness that filled the room in Downing Street was in stark contrast to the frantic activity on the screen as the pre-record finished and journalists scrambled to each of the sites, filling the gaps around the incoming footage with their jabber. From her corner, Abigail thought she could see a distinct glint of satisfaction in their eyes.

‘Jesus,’ Alison McDonnell repeated, ‘it’s
Saturday lunchtime
– that street would be crowded.’ She paused. ‘And in the Underground?’

‘We’ve not got any footage yet, but we can confirm a large explosion on the Northern Line at Tottenham Court Road fourteen minutes ago, and another on the District Line at Tower Hill. And we’ve got unconfirmed reports’ – he cleared his throat a little, as if the words were sticking there – ‘of a similar event at Liverpool Street, on the Central Line.’

‘A similar event?’ She turned a sharp eye on the policeman. ‘These are bombs, man, not events. People are
dying
, Dunne. They deserve more than your euphemisms.’

The phone on the desk rang and Abigail noticed the flinch that shuddered through the room, as if somehow the line were causing the terror rather than just reporting it. Dunne lifted the receiver and listened quietly before lowering it back.

‘Hampstead. Two explosions.’

‘Dear God, let that be it.’ She looked like she had aged years in the fifteen minutes since chaos took London’s reins,
and as she rubbed her face, the skin moved like slack putty. ‘In the name of all that’s holy, let that be it.’

‘Emergency services are flat-out, and the hospitals are as ready as they can be. We’re already pulling in more resources from wherever can spare them.’ Dunne paused. ‘But, ma’am, there are going to be a large number of casualties. There’s no avoiding that.’

Alison McDonnell’s sigh came from a place inside her the public rarely saw: the softer side. The feminine side that was hidden under her butch, no-nonsense exterior. Very few people, even those in her Cabinet, got to see that part of their leader, but Abigail Porter recognised it. She understood her boss. In the game of personal protection, understanding the client was imperative.

The PM slowly straightened up, her broad shoulders squaring. ‘I know it’s early, but has anyone claimed responsibility yet? Where the hell is Fletcher? Shouldn’t he be here?’

‘He’s on his way over,’ Lucius Dawson, the Home Secretary, cut in. ‘Although I recommend you send him back to the CNS. There’s nothing he or his men can do from here except watch the television with us. He’ll be on the other end of the phone.’

The PM gave him a slight nod of acknowledgement.

There was a long pause, then she said, ‘I suppose we’d better prepare a statement and get ready to face the press.’

‘Tony Barker’s on it already. He’ll be ready for you in about fifteen.’

The room hummed with activity as now there was something to do, but Abigail felt her eyes drawn back to the screen, where the screaming and moaning and dying continued. ‘Ma’am,’ she said, quietly, ‘tonight’s dinner?’

‘Will be going ahead. The peace talks might be a farce
behind closed doors, but I’ll be damned if these bastards stop what is at least an attempt at sanity.’

Abigail wasn’t surprised. Alison McDonnell was not a woman who was easily bullied. Her opponents snarkily put it down to her sexual tendencies, calling her more man than woman, but such comments just made the Prime Minister smile. Abigail understood why: men never really got women: when they were tough, they were terrifying. She knew that because she knew herself, and the coldness that lived at the core of her. If her job required it, she’d shoot a child, and she doubted she’d hesitate for even a breath.

‘I’ll rework the arrangements,’ she said, stepping away from the desk.

‘Good,’ the PM said, but she wasn’t really listening; her eyes had returned to the screen.

Abigail gave it one last glance before leaving the stuffy heat of the busy room. She didn’t see anything on it that touched her.

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