SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 2, 1974
Lieutenant Richardson raised his head above the top of a low wall. Droplets trickling down his Plexiglas visor distorted his view: narrow, red-brick terrace houses, two boarded up; black stains above the sashes where fires had raged after a riot; a green, white, and gold tricolour hanging limply from a distant upper-storey window, proclaiming the Republican sympathies of the neighbourhood. The deserted neighbourhood.
The citizens had been cleared out because, at the far end of the street, to Richardson’s left, an ordinary-looking blue van was parked. Ordinary-looking, and potentially deadly as a grumbling volcano. He could see rust streaks showing through the blue paint. The bomb-disposal robot, known as the wheelbarrow, stood stolidly beside the van.
The voice of the sergeant ammunition technician came over the headphones, tinny, distorted. “It’s the wheelbarrow, sir. Sodding thing’s stuck.”
“Hang on, Sergeant.” Lieutenant Marcus Richardson, ammunition technical officer, 321 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company, Royal Army Ordnance Corps, started to sweat despite the chill drizzle that misted his helmet’s visor and darkened the fabric of his massive EOD “heavy” suit. His chest armour rose in a hollow arc in front of his mouth and was reinforced by a thicker pad over his lower abdomen and genitals. Behind, a wide tail hung down below the backs of his knees. He crouched, bulky as the Michelin Man.
“What seems to be the trouble, Sergeant?” As Lieutenant Richardson spoke calmly into the built-in microphone, he peered at the wheelbarrow. He could make out its caterpillar tracks and the hydraulic rams that drove its articulated arm. The dark green of the cylinders contrasted sharply with the silver of the pistons. Nothing moved. At the end of the arm, the lock-busting gun dangled over the van’s roof, lifeless as a corpse on a gibbet. The angled arm and pig stick reminded him of a vulture, waiting silently.
“Dunno, sir. The bloody thing won’t respond to command signals. The jack-in-the-box is on the fritz, too. No picture. The transmitter’s at it again.”
Damnation. Without the closed-circuit TV system—“the jack-in-the-box”—he might as well be blind. This was the second time this week that the thing had malfunctioned. If Sergeant Crowley, fifteen years with the unit, couldn’t sort out the problem, no one could—certainly not a twenty-six-year-old lieutenant on his first tour in Northern Ireland. A lieutenant who, as ATO in charge of an inoperative robot, would have to go in, find the bomb, and render it harmless.
“You sure, Sergeant?”
“Sorry, sir. Dead as a bloody dodo.”
Marcus felt the familiar tingle of anticipation. His friends at Sandhurst had thought him crazy choosing the Ordnance Corps. He’d never bothered to explain why. He was an Ulsterman, a Protestant Ulsterman, and if the other officer-cadets wanted to think that by going into bomb disposal he was fighting some kind of holy war against the Provisional IRA, that was fine by him. Marcus Richardson, living proof of the Sandhurst motto “Serve to Lead.” He grinned.
And yet there was some truth in the supposition. As far as he was concerned, no one who had grown up in Ulster and had any feeling for the place could fail to hate what the Republican hard men had done in the last five years. But the truth was—and he knew it—his real interest was unexploded bombs. Like the one in the blue van.
“Right, Sergeant. Pull the men back.” Marcus turned and waited as the other members of the team climbed into the modified Mercedes-Benz they used for transport in urban areas. He caught a glimpse of the unit’s Felix the Cat sticker on the driver’s door. Felix the cartoon cat, impervious to all explosions, was the good-luck charm of the EOD company and so well known in the Security Forces that his name was the team’s radio call sign.
Ammunition technical officers were not as invincible as Felix, Marcus told himself, but he was unconcerned. All his life he’d needed to face danger and had found opportunities racing sailing dinghies, playing rugby football, boxing. Challenging himself, pushing himself.
“Oookay,” he whispered to himself. The Mercedes was gone, safely round the corner. He was on his own. He turned and sat, encumbered by the body armour, back to the wall. So much for the marvels of technology. The inoperative wheelbarrow was as much use as a heap of scrap metal. He was going to have to deal with the device with his bare hands because no armoured gloves allowed the necessary sensitivity of touch.
His hands were chilled. He rubbed them together to restore the circulation. What would it be this time? The Provisional IRA, at that time, favoured a homemade mixture of amyl nitrate fertilizer and sump oil for making car bombs. It was fairly stable stuff. Might be dynamite. Not too bad, unless it was poor quality and had sweated nitroglycerine.
He kept on rubbing his hands. Numb fingers would be no help finding and removing the detonator. Mercury tilt switches were tricky. The slightest movement would make the liquid metal run the length of the glass tube and complete the circuit. Then it was stand in line for wings, angels, for the use of. Two. He grimaced. Timers were worse, particularly if you failed to beat the clock. He took comfort from the thought that, if there was a timer, it would probably have been set some time ahead. The van had been stopped by a routine patrol and its three occupants arrested. A piece of good luck for the army. It wasn’t likely that this street had been the target, and Provo bomb-transportation squads had enough sense to give themselves time to deliver their devices and make their getaway.
“How’s it going, sir?” The tinny voice again.
“Bugger off, Sergeant. I need to concentrate.”
Marcus checked his equipment. Simple stuff. A couple of screwdrivers, nonconducting pliers, wire cutters, insulating tape. He taped the tools to the cuffs of the EOD suit and hauled himself to his knees, forcing the stiff Kevlar leggings—strapped on behind like wicketkeeper’s pads—to bend. Finally, he pivoted to face the wall.
He raised his head, protected in its futuristic carapace, above the concrete coping stones. He noticed soft moss growing where the mortar between had cracked. He could see the rows of stunted terrace houses, their slate roofs glistening in what was now a steady downpour. Belfast in February—not quite April in Paris.
The rusty blue van and the wheelbarrow waited for him, silent partners in their own danse macabre. He would have to cover fifty yards of empty street, already well inside the four hundred metres that an ATO was meant to stay back. Whatever genius had come up with that recommendation had never been in Belfast’s warren of slums.
Marcus hoped that the security cordon had done a thorough job clearing the surrounding area—the Provos often posted a marksman. Bomb-disposal units were vulnerable to sniper attacks—indeed, Headquarters believed that using car bombs as bait had become a new Provisional IRA tactic. Two-step operation, the CO had called it. Blow up a bunch of civilians and then snipe at the troops when they move in.
Yes, you had to be daft to do this. Utterly bloody daft. Here he was, risking life and limb from gunfire, if not the bomb itself—like poor old Alan Cowan, who had lost both arms and been blinded when trying to neutralize a similar device.
Marcus ran his tongue over dry lips, listened to the