Chapter 50: A Jolt Of Fear

Thousands of flights were canceled.
Many others were delayed.
I moistened the sponge, sprinkled some Comet on it, and used it to wipe the counter tops. "We should let that dry overnight," said Sherlock Holmes when he saw what I had done. "One test per day will surely be sufficient."

"That seems reasonable," I agreed.

"You think you can handle it, then?" asked Holmes.

"Me? Why me?"

"You'd never know it by my recent travels," said Holmes, "but I have three other cases going, all of which I have been neglecting, and I need to leave you on your own, possibly for a couple of days."

"Well, I suppose --"

"Good! The counter tops won't take much of your time, and if you've nothing else pressing, you could make yourself very useful by reading until I get back."

"I suppose I could keep the counter top experiment going in your absence," I said. "And while I wait for it to dry, I may as well pass my time by reading." I rubbed my shoulder again. Spending some time indoors suddenly seemed a very good idea.

I heard Holmes mumbling in the other room, then he reappeared carrying a box full of files. "I'm sorry to say my material on the 'Liquid Bombers' is not in a file of its own, Watson," he said. "You will have to look through the general files for the relevant documents."

I tried to suppress a groan, but his ears were stronger than my self-control. "It's not all that bad, my friend," he said. "The files are arranged chronologically, and the plot was thwarted in August of 2006. So just start there."

I groaned again and Holmes heard me clearly this time. "Don't do it for me," he said. "Do it for Gareth. Do it for Ian and Ellen, Chris and Ceri, Hughes, --"

Passengers were stranded under
the eye of heavily armed guards.
"All right, all right," I said. "It just seems a big job."

"Of course it's a big job," replied Holmes with a grin. "But there's no deadline. There's not going to be a test. You needn't feel any pressure about it at all."

"That's good," I replied, feeling much relieved.

"But seriously," said Holmes, "it's Wednesday  afternoon. I may be away until just before our appointment with Terry Hewitt on Friday. That's about forty-eight hours. Could you use that time to become the world's greatest living expert on the 'Liquid Bombers' and their plot?"

"No," I said, "but I'll do the best I can." I was suddenly feeling very over-matched, and chiding myself inwardly. I'd fallen for his "no deadline, no pressure" line once before, and now he had just caught me with it again. But he was right -- it was for a very good cause.

So I picked up the folder marked "August, 2006," sat down and started reading. I didn't look up until Mrs. Hudson called us for dinner. But then I was astonished to see that I had been reading for less than an hour. My head was already spinning.

I remembered well the jolt of fear we experienced on August 10 of that year, when we awoke to news of a fantastic terrorist plot which police said would have caused "mass murder on an unimaginable scale."

The new restrictions would become permanent.
The plot, according to US officials, was for suicide bombers to blow as many as ten intercontinental airliners out of the sky simultaneously, using liquid explosives they were planning to smuggle aboard the planes disguised as soft drinks.

The plotters had "accumulated and assembled the capabilities that they needed and they were in the final stages of planning for execution," according to US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Twenty-four people had been arrested overnight in England and several more had been collared in Pakistan, after an international investigation involving unprecedented surveillance and cooperation amongst British, American, and Pakistani security forces. But others might still be at large, according to the police, and while the search for them continued, security was dramatically increased.

The terror alert level was raised to "critical" and chaos reigned at the airports, especially Heathrow. Thousands of flights were canceled, leaving passengers stranded under the eye of heavily armed guards.

Those who were allowed to fly were prevented from carrying any luggage aboard, except for a few things in clear plastic bags. Items as innocuous as bottled water were taken from them, and mothers were required to taste their babies' milk before they could board their flights.

Unnamed "sources" at the Department for Transport said the new restrictions on hand baggage could become permanent. One told the BBC the "way we travel" would "never be the same again."

At the time, some people had said the airport clampdown seemed an over-reaction, and the rhetoric about the scale of the foiled attack seemed a bit exaggerated.

Now, reading the stories again with a vague idea of the twists and turns the drama was to take, I couldn't shake the word caricature from my mind. Nor could I figure out what it meant.

But dinner was ready, and I was hungry.