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Authors: Quintin Jardine

Skinner's Festival

Skinner's Festival
Skinner [2]
Quintin Jardine
Headline (2009)

Terrorists strike at the heart of the Edinburgh Festival in Quintin Jardine's fantastic second novel in the highly popular Bob Skinner series. An explosion rocks Princes Street in the midst of the Edinburgh Festival. Responsibility is claimed by a group supposedly demanding political separation from Britain, but as atrocities escalate Skinner realises this is no gang of fanatics, but a highly professional team. But the Fighters haven't reckoned with Assistant Chief Constable Bob Skinner, head of the Edinburgh CID and security adviser to Secretary of State Alan Ballantyne...

Skinner’s Festival

by Quintin Jardine.

Synopsis

Each August thousands of tourists and performers flood into Edinburgh for its famous Festival. But this year, on the very first day, an explosion rocks Princes Street and one man is killed.
Assistant Chief Constable Bob Skinner, head of CID, soon learns this was no accident. For, a few hours later, a threatening letter is delivered to the Secretary of State – supposedly from a freedom group demanding political separation from England.
Skinner quickly assembles his team, with SAS back-up, and organises a news blackout to avoid widespread panic. Yet, despite a huge security check, on the following afternoon an American opera singer becomes the second victim.
As the atrocities escalate, Skinner realises this is no gang of bloodthirsty fanatics, but a highly professional international team with access to the most sophisticated armaments available. And behind the nightmare scenario lies a hidden agenda which
threatens the ancient honour of Scotland…

ONE

Panic was etched on the face of the clown on the unicycle.
Even through the happy smile make-up, it registered as he struggled to regain his balance, rocking frantically backwards and forwards on his unsteady perch. His arms flailed, and for a second it seemed certain that he was gone, but with a violent last-ditch heave he pulled himself back to the vertical, straightening quickly in the saddle and resuming his compromise with gravity. The real-life smile returned behind the rictus.
He swerved suddenly towards Skinner and Sarah.
Under Bob’s arm, Sarah’s shoulders still shook with laughter from the sight of this silent struggle. She leaned against her husband as the clown drew closer. Fully in command of his steed once more, the unicyclist thrust out his right hand, offering them a leaflet. Sarah reached up and took it from him, waving him goodbye as he wobbled on towards his next target.

She studied the handbill. 'Le Cirque Mobile. Leith Links.
Performances 7:30 and 10:00 nightly.’
'Hmm. Hope the rest are a bloody sight more “mobile” than him,’ Skinner said, dryly.
'Let’s find out some night. My treat.’
'Put like that. Doctor Sarah Grace Skinner, you’re on.’
His wife hugged him tight with her left arm as they made their way, slowly and haphazardly, through the crowds which thronged the open area at the foot of the Mound, around the grey-pillared Royal Scottish Academy, and its yellow stone neighbour, the National Gallery of Scotland. The classical formality of the buildings was in strange contrast to the garish make-up and dress of the Fringe performers who were mulling around the pedestrian
area, promoting the opening nights of their various shows.

Skinner’s sweater was slung over his left shoulder, hanging from his thumb by its label. As the sun had climbed higher in the sky in the late August morning, its heat had caught him by
surprise. He was a tall, strongly built man, grey-maned but still looking younger than his forty-four years. He walked straight-backed and broad-chested, with a mass of curly hair filling the V of his open-necked shirt.
Sarah’s lean and sinuous body seemed to fit perfectly against his, held by the tanned right arm which spanned her shoulders.
Her auburn hair sparkled in the sun, and an easy smile played around the corners of her mouth as she relaxed against her chosen mate, enjoying the beauty of the morning.

Summer tends to by-pass Scotland in July, the month in which most of its families normally take their annual holidays. Those who can afford it make for the airports, en route for the
Mediterranean, the Canary Islands or the Aegean. Those with no spending power, or no stomach for flying, either stay at home adults in the pub, offspring watching satellite TV movies – or cling to wind-swept loch-sides in caravans, as the bleak season runs its course.
Then, in August, the penance is over. As the factories reopen and builders’ buttocks peek out anew from jeans on construction sites across the country, the skies clear and the sun resumes its daily journey from Edinburgh to Glasgow.
This turn in the weather coincides with the opening of the

Edinburgh International Festival. The Festival’ is a misnomer in reality, for the season of the arts in Scotland’s capital is a gathering of gatherings. From all over the world, performers and
audiences come: for the 'official’ plays and concerts in the grandest venues; for the connoisseurs’ film event; for the conference of the mighty in television; for the jazz and blues
concerts around the pubs and hotels; for the Military Tattoo in its steel arena on the sloping Esplanade of the great Castle; and, chaotically, for the Fringe – that magnet for hundreds of theatre groups ranging from the most professional to the rankest amateur.
As is the case with many who have migrated from west to east in Scotland, there was a part of Skinner which relished the time of the Festivals. They gave his adopted city an atmosphere which he could not imagine being matched anywhere in the world. For the best part of a month the capital buzzed with excitement; her streets filled with freak shows; her pubs, hotels and shops filled with visitors.

On the other hand, as Assistant Chief Constable Skinner, Head of Edinburgh’s Criminal Investigation Department, there was a ambivalent tinge to his appreciation of this unique ambience. For the Festival month brought with it an invasion of pickpockets, conmen, shoplifters, and still the occasional drug-dealer, although the ranks of the pushers had been decimated by Skinner’s own heavy hand and by the severity of the Scottish courts.
Still, despite that downside, this year’s Festivals made Skinner even happier than the contented man he had become since his marriage. Already he and Sarah had spent days plotting their course through the hundreds of shows on offer to them and had worked out a rough running order. However there were still some slots to be filled and, for those in doubt, midday window-shopping at the Mound had become yet another Fringe tradition.

Surrounded by the jangle of competing musicians, and the traffic noise from Princes Street, one hundred yards away, Sarah did not react at all to the sound of the explosion.
But Skinner tensed at once. First Sarah felt the bunching of the muscles of his arm. Then he took it from her shoulders, his hand reaching subconsciously towards his left side. He seemed to stretch, to stand to his full height. With eyebrows raised, he looked around, first to his left towards the west end of Princes Street, then right, towards Waverley Station and the Balmoral Hotel. He turned his back on the street, as his gaze swept up the jagged skyline as it rose to the Bank of Scotland Head Office, past the Assembly Rooms, and on towards the Castleon its rock.

Sarah tugged his arm. 'What is it. Bob? What’s wrong?’
'Didn’t you hear it?’ The sharpness of his tone stung her, and she fired back.
'Hear what, for Christ’s sake? All I can hear are guitars and fairground barkers. What am I supposed to have heard?’
'A bang. An explosion. A fucking bomb, that’s what! But I can’t figure out where it went off.’
'Are you sure. Bob? Couldn’t it just have been some stunt here?’

When he looked down at her, his eyes were hard, but they softened at once at seeing the hurt on her face. 'I’m sorry, love. I didn’t mean to snap at you. No, it wasn’t as close as that. I reckon it was somewhere between two and four hundred yards away, but I can’t pin down the exact location. It was a bomb though, for sure, I’ve spent too long on anti-terrorist training courses not to recognise that sound.’

He looked back towards Princes Street. The traffic was still flowing freely from west to east, but closer to them, on the street’s south side, it seemed to have dwindled to a trickle. Only a public service bus and two cars could now be seen, slowing as the lights changed to red.
Skinner flicked open the button which secured the left breast pocket of his shirt, and took out a small mobile telephone. He switched it on, and keyed in a short-coded number. The headquarters switchboard answered within three seconds.

This is ACC Skinner. Give me the duty inspector in communications control, fast.’
Yes, sir.’
He heard the buzz as the call was re-routed. Once again it was picked up quickly.
'Central control, Inspector Good.’
Skinner knew the man, and was pleased to hear his voice; he had him marked down as experienced and unflappable. 'ACC Skinner here. Henry. Have you had anything through 999 from the Princes Street area within the last half-minute or so?’

'Princes Street, sir? Not that I’ve heard. Hold on a minute.
Lads, anyone picked up—?’
Suddenly, Skinner heard an excited voice in the background.
Then, louder, he heard Good issue orders to his officers. 'Get our nearest units there at once. Make sure all the other emergency services are on the way. Then get on to the Bomb Squad!’
Skinner heard the control room burst into activity as the inspector turned his attention back to him. 'That was something just then, sir. A shout from Waverley Market, from that big
entertainment tent they stick on top of it for the Festival. A report of an explosion. It came in on 999. All services required. The caller said it looked as if there were casualties. Where are you just now, sir?’

'Dr Grace and I are only about two hundred and fifty yards away. We are on our way right now. You get hold of DCI Martin, and tell him to get there, pronto.’ He pushed the 'end’ button, folded the telephone and replaced it in his pocket.
Sarah looked at him wide-eyed, questioning, but calm. 'So?’
'See that big tent along there? The one with the flag in front?
That’s where it happened. You’re needed as well, so let’s leg it along there.’
Breaking into a trot, he set off out of the impromptu showground, its cacophony and its tumult still unaffected by the drama nearby. Sarah, gripping his hand, ran alongside him,
keeping pace with his loping stride. Faced with a throng of pedestrians in Princes Street, Skinner pulled her behind him into its tree-lined Gardens. They ran across the grass, skirted the towering, grey neo-Gothic Scott Monument, and reached the exit which faced Waverley Market, the decked-over centre which provides the only shopping on the south side of Princes Street without compromising its famous skyline.

They were confronted by a scene of panic and confusion around the big marquee. The
entrance which faced them looked undamaged, but they could see that, towards the rear of the huge tent, a main support pillar had collapsed.

People stood around, some simply looking stunned, others in tears. Somewhere in the crowd a man was screaming hysterically.
A few held handkerchiefs to head wounds. As Bob and Sarah took in the scene from across the street, a girl stumbled from the tent’s wide entrance, above which the sponsor’s name was emblazoned.
Skinner guessed that she had been wearing a tartan uniform.
Shreds of her skirt hung from her waist, and a piece of fabric still clung to her left arm as it dangled, broken, at her side. Her face was a mask of blood; her blonde hair looked singed in places. If the girl was aware of being virtually naked, it concerned her not at all as she felt her way blindly forward with her uninjured right arm.

The crowd around them was growing thicker as people emerged from the shopping centre beneath the tent, shock replacing curiosity on their faces as they were gathered into the chaos.
Again Skinner took Sarah by the arm and pulled her after him, stopping the traffic with an upraised hand. They crossed the street together, jogged up the short slope back into Princes Street, and made their way towards the damaged marquee. Just as they arrived, a panda car drew up, and Skinner saw a traffic vehicle approaching also. He waited for its arrival, then called all of the four uniformed officers to him.

'What’s your name?’ Skinner asked the one sergeant among the four, feeling the inevitable pang of guilt which struck him every time he failed to recall the name of any police officer of promoted rank.
'Sergeant Holland, sir.’
'Right, Sergeant. Take charge outside here till a senior uniform arrives. Use your three constables to divert traffic: eastbound at the traffic lights past the Balmoral, westbound at Jenners corner,and southbound up in St Andrew Square.’ He pointed for emphasis in each direction as he issued his orders. 'For now, you place yourself at the entrance to the tent and keep the public out.

As more officers arrive, use them to clear the immediate area completely, to make room for the emergency services.’
Meantime, Sarah had gone to the assistance of the naked, blinded victim. She had taken off her own light cotton jacket and had draped it around the girl’s shoulders, comforting her as best she could while quickly assessing her injuries.
Skinner called over to her as she worked. 'Love, I want you to round up the walking casualties and take them across the street into the Gardens; as far away as the Scott Monument, and behind it for safety. The sergeant here will route the ambulances to you as
they arrive.’
Sarah nodded acknowledgement – but to the back of his head, for Skinner was already striding off towards the tent. She turned towards the crowd which had gathered in Princes Street. 'Hey! Are there any doctors or nurses here?’ she shouted.

A middle-aged man and two young women raised their hands.
'Well, why the hell are you standing there gawping? Come over here and help me with these people.’
The two girls ran forward at once, but the man, though closest of the three, merely shook his head slowly, mouthing 'Sorry.’
Sarah stared at him, astonished. 'You’re a doctor?’

‘Yes.’
'So help here, for Christ’s sake.’
The man shook his balding head again. 'I’m sorry, but I can’t. I work in a hospital. My indemnity cover doesn’t extend to situations like these.’
'In that case,’ said Sergeant Holland, who had overheard the exchange, 'on your bike, or I’ll do you for obstruction!’
The neon strip-lights were still working as Skinner stepped into the big marquee. It was sectioned off by a canvas divider which stretched almost its full width, with only a short gap on the right acting as a doorway. This partition was torn in two places, but that was the only damage apparent in that part of the tent. A small stage, fringed by a blue velvet pelmet and edged by potted greenery, had been set up against the perimeter canvas on the left.

The paved deck of the Waverley Centre had been covered with green hessian flooring, and gold-painted, blue-upholstered seats were arranged on it, theatre-style, around the small stage. Two long rectangular tables stood against the tent wall opposite the stage. Each was covered by a white cloth, ruffled by the force of the blast but still held in place by boxes of wineglasses, presumably there in readiness for the marquee’s first Festival party.

Skinner did not notice the young man at first. It was a faint whimper that made him look across the rows of seats to catch sight of the figure sitting on the floor, his face buried in his hands, his shoulders shaking.
Skinner spoke softly, not wanting to startle the boy. 'Son, are you all right? Son.’
The youth turned his head slowly to look up him. His face was chalk-white, in awful contrast with the drying blood across his forehead. Then he stood up unsteadily, and Skinner saw the rest of it smeared across the front of his blue and black striped Heart of Midlothian replica football shirt, spread also on his black denim jeans and matting in his hair.
'Go and see Danny, mister. Go and see him. Go and see Danny.
Look at him. He’s all over me.’ He began to cry, softly at first, then louder. He slumped to his knees again and Skinner went closer, but he could think of nothing to do but put his hands on
the boy’s shoulders. For silent seconds he stood over the kneeling, sobbing young man in a strange attitude of blessing.

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