The great double doors crashed open, and the assistant stumbled into the room carrying arms full of files. Each one, on closer inspection, would have shown ‘eyes only’ in black stamped ink on each. Wide-eyed, she stood up straight and brushed herself down before staring horrified around the room. This was a COBRA meeting. The Prime Minister’s chair was empty, as usual, but a collection of her closest aides were talking agitatedly at each other across a large mahogany table. A couple of heads turned to give her a bleary, cursory nod. Most of the ministers were looking pretty relaxed. They knew the drill.
COBRA, or Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, is a meeting of senior ministers and Whitehall officials, gathering in response to an emergency situation, such as an act of terrorism or an outbreak of a disease in the UK. COBRA – it denoted decisiveness, taking action, an immediate strike. Watching the ministers the assistant mused that in reality most officials only really turned up because you got bragging rights with your peers, it was a break from the usual monotony of their everyday lives, and there was tea. Really, very good tea.
“Thank God it’s happening in Peckham”, one minister scoffed, “If this were in Kens my head would be on a block, not to mention a few investments…” A few older men along the table chuckled but were cut off.
“— I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, Lord Midding, of the nature of this meeting? We’re meeting with the express purpose of saving human lives.” The Lord screwed up his face, smirked, and shuffled in his seat. The speaker, Kathy Chatham, recently promoted Chief of Police, looked placidly around the table. “Ladies and gentlemen, you may have come for the tea” – a couple of jeers from the extremities of the table – “but I hope we can move onto finding a solution to the Peckham… ahem… incident.”
“Yah, pipe down Middy, Teach says so!” said one of the other members of the Lord’s Boys Club at the end of the table, guffawing loudly.
Good God, thought Chatham. It never failed to astonish her that every time she stepped into one of these meetings it was like being a fly on the wall of an Etonian boarding school common room. She’d rapidly risen up the ranks of the force, which was a testament to a broader change in society itself. And things were improving, as she gained more friends in high places, but dealing with these old boys was an eternal frustration for her. The best answer was just to treat them like the boys they are, even if it did earn her the nickname ‘Teach’.
“Up to date report please,” she motioned to the Home Secretary, who was sitting in front of the panel of coloured screens displaying news feeds and various diagrams behind her. She coughed.
“Well, we know very little,” the Home Secretary responded after a moment. She agitatedly waved her arms around in a manic fashion, “we sent tactical teams into a few areas late yesterday, but we had… a problem.”
“What sort of problem?” One minister asked grimly.
“The sort – not to put too fine a point on it – where our tactical teams go to investigate something disturbing and then disappear without a trace.” There was stunned silence around the table.
After several seconds, one of the Whitehall officials’s piped up, “All of them? In London?”
“Yes.” She sighed. “We sent in officers to run a coverup and report back. It must be pretty obvious that something is up to the residents – but they probably don’t know what it is. Hell, we don’t even know. The main thing right now is to contain the situation. I motion for military intervention.”
“Against what?” Midding scoffed, “We don’t even know what’s going on over there. Some kind of chemical damage I heard?”
“Yes Lord Midding,” the Home Secretary said with barely concealed distaste, “that’s exactly what we leaked to the media an hour ago. The truth is, we have no idea.”
“That’s not strictly true,” piped up the assistant, speaking just a little too quickly and loudly out of nervousness. She stood with her back to the wall, suddenly flushed with embarrassment, aware of the eyeballs scrutinising her. She gripped her files a little harder, studying the floor just in front of her feet. Glancing up, Chatham motioned her to continue.
“There’s a video on Twitter,” which was accompanied by some groans around the table, with mutterings of “bollocks,” and, “what’s your niece posting now, eh Middy?”
“I’m telling you,” she said, turning a flustered crimson, “some of the less… refined media are already reporting it.” Chatham looked at the assistant for a moment.
“What’s your name?”
“Digby, Ma’am. Laura.” The chief of police watched her face.