With fingers crossed and loads of encouragement from my fellow authors, I present the first three chapters of UnderCurrent’s prequel. I need your honest feedback now, please. Over to you.
A topical conspiracy thriller
What if the gods of business decided they’d had enough? . . .
‘There are times when the end justifies the means. But when you build an argument based on a whole series of such times, you may find that you’ve constructed an entire philosophy of evil.’
‘I’ve developed a rule: In an unregulated world, the least-principled people rise to the top. And there are none who are less principled than corporate psychopaths.’
Brian Basham, The Independent, December 29 2011
Belfast, a couple of years ago
“If you’re lucky, Patrick, they’ll just kneecap you.”
The man from the Security Service had a way with words, but it was clear he knew his stuff.
“Any agent who infiltrates a gang of raging psychopaths has no more than a 50/50 chance of coming out alive, or at best with both legs in working order.”
Since the Good Friday agreement, the vast majority, but not all, of the Unionist street gangs in Belfast had disarmed and gone out of business, and now the security forces were charged with neutralising the last few.
Those that were still operational, like the Red Avengers, divided their time between controlling the local drugs trade, protection rackets and, to appease their more extreme members, knee-capping the occasional Republican.
The powers-that-be determined that they needed a man on the inside.
Flight Lieutenant Patrick Cameron, a newly arrived RAF medical graduate, with a strict Protestant upbringing in Scotland and a half-Irish mother, was a likeable man and a talented sportsman. His leadership qualities on the rugby field soon brought him to the attention of Andy Fields at the Security Service.
And there was something else about him, something that would rule Cameron out with some of Fields’ colleagues: the man had a very clearly defined set of principles, a sense of duty and fairness and, in this case, where doing harm was unavoidable, an obligation to minimise the harm done.
Providing him with a credible identity, “Jack Davidson”, a cover story, and a thorough briefing on sectarian warfare had taken a little time. When they discussed the risks, Cameron didn’t flinch; for him this was just the kind of challenge he needed after seven years of study and his minders had enough confidence in his quick wits to decide he was ready to go in.
Over the following months, he became accepted by the group of smooth-talking gangsters and brutal thugs as one of them: they loved Jack’s seemingly endless string of bigoted jokes and he’d proved he could take care of himself in action. The “Fenian” he apparently put out of action was in fact a Security Service plant who’d been sufficiently convincing to fool them all. Jack was in.
Then it was just a matter of providing the stream of information, names and places. Before long, his briefings were severely crippling the gang’s operations and had probably saved a few lives. Then, as each operation failed, it was only a matter of time before the Red Avengers’ leadership turned on themselves and began accusing each other of betraying the movement. One was found in a lane with a bullet in the back of the head, then another was killed in a drunken shoot-out. Nobody suspected Jack Davidson.
That was until he made his almost fatal mistake. Placing an explosive device in the house where the Red Avengers’ council was meeting was the Security Service’s decision. Despite assurances that it was a low intensity bomb, designed only to block the front door and prevent men escaping arrest, Patrick had never felt comfortable with the idea.
In the event, three senior terrorists had died and a number of others injured.
When he and the others guarding the building ran for safety, Cameron slipped on an icy road and two phones spilled out of his leather jacket onto the tarmac. His companion at the time, a short, pug-nosed, former front-row forward who rejoiced in the name of LuLu – or was it LouLou? – helped him back on his feet. He was holding the phone Patrick used to contact his minder and started to say,
‘Hey, Jack, two phones? That’s against the rules …’
No member of the Red Avengers was permitted to possess more than one phone, which was regularly checked for suspicious calls, on pain of a serious public beating.
LuLu or LouLou’s half completed sentence died when he found himself flat on his back, as Patrick elbowed him in the ribs, hooked his foot around his ankle and yanked. By the time he pulled himself upright and shook the dizziness from his massive head, “Jack” was nowhere to be seen. He was on the run.
Within twenty-four hours, Cameron was on a military plane to Lossiemouth, where his disappearance and a new identity awaited him.
Kensington, London, Now. Tuesday morning.
The life of Julian Marshall, the youngest ever MSc Neurosciences Student of the Year, the one they all said was poised for “an astonishing career”, was falling apart. But nobody noticed.
With the exception of several passing women, ages ranging from eighteen to fifty-something, who were staring open-mouthed at this extraordinarily beautiful creature, none of the hundreds of people scurrying about their business, walking the dog, browsing idly in shop windows, or checking their phones, was remotely interested in the young man who’d just removed his helmet; no one cared that he was in a profound state of shock, sweat dripping into his eyes, hands trembling, nausea invading his throat. He’d never fainted before but he grabbed a bollard to steady himself.
After months on the post-graduate scrapheap, getting himself hired by this group had been his big break. He’d run plenty of errands for them; never any problem. But he was still in his three-month trial period and today could well put an end to all that. Back to the scrapheap for him.
This wasn’t any old package; he had seen how carefully it had been wrapped, how all the top people checked it before it was handed over. The blue sand made it heavy for its size. This package really mattered. A lot.
He checked one final time – jacket, backpack – both empty. No, it had definitely gone.
This was bloody serious: he had to find it fast, not just for his own sake; for GreySearch.
A strange name for a research lab, and that wasn’t the name on the door. In fact, there was no name on the door of the neo-Georgian townhouse near Holland Park. Even the salary payment on his bank statement just showed a jumble of meaningless letters and numbers. But the work he was doing there was fascinating. The media would have called it “ground-breaking” if they ever heard about it, which they wouldn’t.
Stay cool, calm and logical: that’s what the best thriller writers always advised. Julian started to retrace his route, back along Kensington High Street, left into Wrights Lane, trying to recall everything that happened. Where did he stop to let traffic pass? Did anyone brush past him at a crossing? Only last week, the media was reporting a new breed of pickpocket gangs who had raised card and phone theft in London to yet another level.
Damn! Damn! He knew he was almost invisible to the outside world, just another lad on a scooter cruising the streets. He rode slowly, looking round constantly, now staring at the ground, now watching every passer-by, looking for a sign, a twitch, a look. Nothing. Nothing.
Reaching the terraced Victorian house, he let himself in.
‘You’re back again, Julian?’ came the usual cheery voice from the open door of the ground floor flat. How she always knew without looking which of her tenants had come through the front door was still a mystery, but old Sarah got it right every time.
‘Cold out there, Sarah,’ he answered. ‘You wrap up warm, my love’, as he ran up the stairs two at a time.
Sarah came to her door, cardigan, slacks and slippers, broom in one hand and a fresh cigarette in the other. She tucked a stray lock of greying hair into her headscarf and smiled as her neighbour, tenant and ‘friend’ for the last two years disappeared onto the landing.
I’ll miss you, my lad, she thought. If I was thirty years younger, I’d have given you the seeing-to of your life, you sexy devil. But, hey ho, a girl’s got to earn a living.
She closed her door, crossed to the phone and pressed Redial.
Entering his bed-sitter, he began a meticulous search, which didn’t take long. He’d only popped in earlier to pick up his tax rebate cheque. Strictly against company rules, but they’d never know. Sarah had sent him a text en route to say it had arrived, so he’d done a detour.
Whitehall, London, later that day
Assistant Commissioner Andy Fields, head of UK covert operations at the Security Service, took a deep breath, looked around his elegant panelled office, the library of learned political and social works, none of which he’d ever read, and started again.
‘No, Home Secretary, we didn’t manipulate the crime statistics last year. That was your predecessor’s speciality and his predecessor’s too. So …
‘My mistake, sir. But you’ll be pleased to hear that violent crime is actually falling nationally, although it’s getting worse in the sink estates; yes, the ones that your predecessor promised to pour money into but forgot to put a plug in … the … sink, so to speak.’
His eyes drifted to the cluster of early English landscapes on the far wall as he listened to the next question.
‘Yes, sir. I see, sir. ‘If I may, … what’s interesting us these days is the emergence what we used to call “urban guerrillas”. Yes, I know, but this lot are very different. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the media are reporting a growing sense of unrest out there …’
‘As you say, sir but, in my judgement, we could be looking at a lot more of those large organised protest marches, and they could well turn violent, up to and including riots …’
‘Please don’t alarm yourself, sir; we’ve got our eye on the most likely suspects, sir.
‘Yes, of course, sir, I’ll keep you informed.’
The conversation ended, Fields sighed and leaned back in his leather swivel armchair.
‘And that’s not the half of it, my friend,’ he muttered to himself.
Adjusting the new tie he’d bought from Pinks the previous day, he steepled his perfectly groomed fingers and turned back to address the little old lady, seated in the other armchair, who was quietly stirring her second cup of tea. Beside the Crown Derby teapot sat a small plastic bag of what looked like blue sand and an open padded envelope.
‘Well, Sarah. That is really very interesting. I think it’s time for a chat with our old friend in Scotland, don’t you?’
Despite the fierce easterly bringing squally showers off the North Sea onto the Fife coast, Billy Muirhead kept the windows open, for two good reasons. It helped to keep his mind clear and it helped to keep the peace. His relationship with Angela was built on many shared values, with one notable exception, their different tastes in music.
The cottage studio, or the spare bedroom as Angela called it, contained an array of black boxes from which resounded oddly assorted snatches of electronic noise, interspersed with screaming guitar riffs, for long periods of every day. She was out working at the stables; he was working too, headphones glued to his head, unfathomable hieroglyphics covering his screen.
Since arriving in the remote village a couple of years earlier, the tall, long-haired, quiet thirty-year-old seemed to have settled in well. His easy-going manner and his willingness to help out when a neighbour needed a hand had earned him the acceptance he required to establish his new identity.
For Billy Muirhead was not Billy Muirhead at all.
His music helped to keep him sane. A bit of fun tinkering with a free downloaded app and some Led Zeppelin guitar riffs was now earning him some decent cash, as his album of “regressive rock”, one hundred percent created on screen, caught on with different generations.
For one of Europe’s most promising medical researchers, to be forced to while away his time, week after week, year after year, on a blustery Scottish headland, fiddling with his AppleMac and fixing neighbours’ aging TV sets, should have been a sure route to the funny farm. Thanks to his music, his love for local girl Angela and an unquenchable sense of humour, all that had been placed on hold, at least for now. But time was beginning to take its toll.
Only last night, he recalled mumbling into Angela’s ear as they slid into post-coital slumber,
‘Bloody hell, woman, who taught you that? It certainly can’t have been in Drumshee.’ According to the locals, nothing of note had happened there since the London government shut down the railway line in the 1960s.
And then there were the ghosts. Again, it was largely Angela and her fertile imagination that helped to keep them at a safe distance. For Billy Muirhead, aka Dr Patrick Cameron, former double agent and terrorist gang whistle-blower, was a man with not only a past, but also a conscience.
With ghosts, he could cope. But, in his heart of hearts, Patrick had had enough. Flashbacks to the brutal events he had witnessed and dreams of the medical career he’d worked so long and hard to achieve, kept him awake at night. By day, as he kept abreast of the latest fascinating discoveries, he knew that was where his future lay, in medical research, searching for solutions to the many neurological disorders that were ruining the lives of so many older people, who found themselves living much longer thanks to advances in medical diagnosis and treatment.
Research: he was destined to do important work, with a drop of luck and a strong dose of passion, searching for the breakthrough that would change lives.
But, as long as the Red Avengers were still out there seeking revenge, looking for blood, that future was out of reach. And, for a man like Patrick Cameron, that was like being on Death Row.
Somerset, Tuesday morning
The unseasonably hot weather in the South had produced a bumper Easter for the local B&B’s and pubs but Gerry Pursley was worried. Even after the bitterest winter for years in this part of the country, heavy early snow followed by weeks of sub-zero temperatures, the last few weeks hadn’t produced nearly enough rain on his land, the topsoil was turning to dust and the grass was starting to yellow.
Small West Country farmers like Gerry depended on a good May cut of silage to store up feed for their dairy cattle for the rest of the year. This part of England was usually blessed with such a mild climate and lush grassland which, for centuries, had helped to produce the rich milk, delicious premium quality Cheddar cheese and thick yellow cream for which it was famous. But not this year. Climate change was playing havoc with the seasons.
Which was one reason why the fifty-three-year-old had put on a clean shirt and a tie this morning and driven the fifteen miles into Yeovil. Since his wife left him to look after her old mother – there were other factors in her decision to leave but they were nobody’s damned business – he had finally mastered the art of ironing.
Normally, he would have dumped the letter in the bin as soon as it had arrived. They had tried often enough to bribe him to allow a dozen or more wind turbines on his land. Gerry hated the way these “Martian monsters” dominated the landscape and the local gossips had convinced him that they only produced enough electricity to light a dog kennel. But this letter was offering him a lot more cash every year, plus a seriously tempting lump sum.
I may as well just go and hear what they have to say, he had thought.
Arriving ten minutes before the time on the letter, he was surprised to find so many of his neighbours already there. Like Gerry, they were all third or fourth generation families farming their patch of land, small farmers but it was in their blood. But these were big men from Somerset, who knew their trade and their region well. If you wanted an accurate weather forecast, up to three months ahead, these were the men to ask, not those prats on the telly.
Someone gave Gerry a cup of coffee as he greeted each of his neighbours in turn with a grunt. There was some truth in the standing joke that farmers could always find something to complain about – the weather was always too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry – but this time it was a good deal more serious.
‘I’ll be honest with you, George,’ one farmer was saying as Gerry arrived, ‘what with the cost of feed and tractor fuel and the supermarkets screwing down the price for my milk, I couldn’t swear to you I’ll still be around much longer.’
The others, including Gerry, nodded their heads and grunted their agreement.
Just at that moment, a man Gerry had never seen before called out, ‘Gentlemen, I wonder if we could start.’
The farmers removed their caps and sat down. For more than forty minutes they were given a detailed presentation on the wind farm project, complete with all the costs, the benefits to the economy and the government’s “green agenda”, even an artist’s drawings of how the eighty feet high turbines would “blend in with the scenery”. And, so far as Gerry could tell, the cash payments and the other parts of the financial offer they were making to the farmers came with no strings attached.
Since school, Gerry had always found it hard to concentrate for long. As his mind wandered and he looked around him, something suddenly occurred to him – not all of his neighbours were there in the room. Several of the larger farm owners from his part of Somerset were missing, which was puzzling. He looked again at the familiar faces. What was it this group all had in common? Size of herd? Crops?
And then it clicked – only those whose land bordered directly onto the old Huxham Hall estate had been invited. Surely not.
Curious or coincidence?
A couple of years earlier, the Hall and grounds had been sold to bail out the Honourable Jeremy Harbottle who, after inheriting it from his uncle when he was in his early thirties, had managed to fritter away the family’s entire cash reserves, throwing a non-stop open house party that lasted just over nine months.
The Hall’s new owners, an obscure Cayman Islands registered financial trust, or so he’d heard, had spent a fortune on the place, installing tennis courts, a gym, electronic security systems, even a helipad, which was hardly ever used. Dark-windowed cars arrived, stayed a few days and left. Depending on which rumour you heard last, it had either been turned into a private palace for a metro-sexual footballer or a transsexual pop star, or a hideaway where the directors and guests of a multi-national corporation could ‘behave badly’. Nobody was entirely sure.
The wind farm team were winding up their presentation. ‘One final piece of information that may be of interest to you, gentlemen,’ said the project manager. ‘A kind of This Week’s Special Offer, if you like.’ He alone laughed.
‘If each of you, in fact only if all of you sign a provisional contract with us today, you will all leave this room with a bonus cheque for £40,000 in your hand. This is in addition to the financial terms we have outlined to you today. However, if anyone doesn’t sign, the whole deal is off. No deal and no £40,000.’
The assembled farmers reacted animatedly, hardly believing their ears. £40,000 now would be a life saver to most, enough to get the bank off their back and provide sufficient cash-flow to see them through the hot, dry spring.
‘As you might expect, there is just one teeny-weeny piece of string attached to this offer,’ interrupted the manager, smiling broadly. The farmers stopped talking.
‘This is all conditional upon your keeping our discussions entirely confidential. I don’t think any of us would benefit from the kind of uninformed publicity that sometimes accompanies schemes like this. So, if we discover that any of you has leaked information to the press or even to your own family, we will cancel the entire scheme and take legal action against you all to recover the £40,000. I am sorry,’ he spread his arms wide, ‘but, as they say, business is business.’
Standing quietly at the rear of the room, a short stocky man in his late fifties, tanned and groomed but wearing an inappropriately shabby raincoat, wrote another comment in his tiny notebook. The coat was borrowed from one of the staff to conceal the beautifully cut suit the man was wearing. Jean-Marie Hutz, chairman of the Blackrod Asset Corporation and reputedly one of the world’s wealthier individuals, had no interest in how much the suit had cost him but today he did not want it to draw attention to his presence at the meeting.
Even if he had not been wearing the drab coat, nobody would have recognised Jean-Marie Hutz. He always made sure that any photographer who managed to catch a close-up of him was handsomely ‘persuaded’ to destroy the photograph. His was not a photogenic face – many people found his eyes cruel and his rare smile quite unnerving – and tabloid fame held no interest. Power was all that mattered: power gave him control, control created fear, and fear was the fast track to victory – a philosophy he applied to every aspect of his life. It worked rather well.
But this morning, standing in the shadows in an anonymous community hall in Somerset, he did allow himself a quiet smile. Because he always insisted on the highest of standards for every tiny detail, it had taken him, and his unseen business guru, years to perfect this plan. Perfection and genius, nothing less would do for Mr Hutz. Or his guru. And today he was happy with what he saw. The wind farms would generate a decent profit and the farmers would forever be in his pocket. Money spent on keeping people quiet was money well spent.
Thirty minutes later, all seven farmers left the building with a signed draft contract, a cheque and mixed feelings.
When Gerry drove up his lane, what he saw made him jam on the brakes. His farm gates were sealed and the house and land seemed to be occupied by scores of men in white overalls. Signs had been erected on both sides of each entrance:
KEEP OUT! Contaminated area. Suspected BSE. By order: HM Government.
An official-looking man carrying a walkie-talkie stepped forward as Gerry’s elderly Land Rover turned towards the drive.
‘What the bloody hell is going on?’ Gerry shouted at him. ‘This is my bloody farm!’
‘Very sorry, sir,’ the man replied. ‘But we’ve identified a particularly nasty form of BSE locally – this one’s even more easily transmitted to humans. I am afraid you won’t be able to access your farm for the next week or so while we carry out tests on your livestock. We’ve arranged for you to be accommodated in the Carrington Hotel and Country Club, about ten miles from here, where you should be extremely comfortable. We’ll pick up all your bills while you are there. I suggest you leave your vehicle here. Our friend Harry will take you now. If there’s anything you need, we’ll send it on.’
Gerry was speechless. He wanted to get into his house, his farm, his home, not some poxy hotel.
The man continued. ‘Meanwhile, we think it would be sensible if you don’t mention this to anyone. We are trying to avoid any public panic. We’ve also issued a government D notice to the media to stop them reporting it. I am sure we can count on your cooperation.
‘After all, if this gets out and people heard that you’d also signed a lucrative wind farm contract today, it wouldn’t look too good, would it?’
He had to raise his voice to make his last comment heard, as a sleek black helicopter flew in low overhead.
Jean-Marie Hutz was making sure he arrived early so that he could supervise every tiny detail at Huxham Hall. This was no ordinary meeting. This was to be the culmination of the master plan: the audacious political coup that would remove power from a system that had manifestly failed and place it in the hands of those most suited to the task.
Hutz was born obsessively meticulous; everything had to be just perfect. His earliest childhood memories had him patrolling the family house, straightening the cushions and curtains, ensuring the knives and forks on the dinner table were exactly parallel. From the age of four, his mother never needed to tidy his bedroom; he saw to all that. And it was this obsessive attention to detail that carried him with distinction through school and university into his early days in the financial brokerage in Berne.
It had never bothered him that nobody really liked Jean-Marie Hutz; he had never made close friends. What mattered to him was that everyone should know that, if you wanted a job done well, with no loose ends left dangling, Hutz was your man.
Blackrod had been conceived in the early nineties, when the emergence of the junk bond market allowed entrepreneurs with no assets to their name to raise vast amounts from investment banks that were hell-bent on growth at any cost, secured only against the notional property value and the projected profitability of the takeover target company. It was a gamblers’ market which, one day, would come back to haunt them. But back then, everyone was doing it, so everyone did it.
At the tender age of twenty-four, working quietly from a desk in the corner of his employer’s office, he took his first big gamble.
A well-publicised, or rather a well-self-publicised American property developer was in town and the local hacks were following his every move, each looking to scoop the big deal story. Jean-Marie Hutz wanted to speak to him. In his usual meticulous way, he researched the man’s regular routine, discovering that, no matter where he was or what he was involved in, he always took lunch, Caesar salad, alone – something to do with needing a space to reflect on the morning’s events, or so he said.
On the day in question, Hutz, who had already befriended the head chef of the big man’s hotel, buying him drinks after work in a local bar, slipped him a small bundle of notes to allow Hutz, in waiter’s uniform, “just this once for a laugh”, to deliver the Caesar salad to the top-floor suite.
Timing his arrival at the room for a few minutes earlier than the requested hour, he was confronted a large, presumably armed, guard, who checked his watch, shrugged and turned, knocked and held the door open for him. There was the all too familiar, overweight figure emerging from the bathroom, a towel wrapped around his head and, to his astonishment, the flamboyant hairstyle, which was his trademark, dangling from his left hand.
‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ barked the man, angrily flinging the hairpiece out of sight behind the bed.
Jean-Marie Hutz steadied himself, composed his face and said,
‘Your lunch, sir, said Hutz. My apologies if I disturbed you,’ as he placed the tray on the table.
‘Oh, thanks,’ muttered the great man, ‘Hey, you’re not the regular guy.’
‘No sir, I bribed the head chef to allow me to bring your lunch. I have an investment proposal I’d like you to read.’
The man stood very still, looking at and through the youngster then held out his hand.
Hutz removed the document from inside his tunic and handed it over.
‘Right now, you will get out of my fucking sight, boy, Go back to your employer and hand in your resignation. From now on you work for me. OK? Your contact details are in here?’
‘Right. You’ll hear from me very soon. Now go.’
A month later, Jean-Marie Hutz mounted what appeared to be a single-handed, spectacular bid for two of Switzerland’s biggest commodity brokers, offering the shareholders a price they could not turn down. This gave him all the clout he needed, and a small regiment of sharp-eyed young dealers, to enable Blackrod to attack, hawk-like, time after time, its comfy, well-heeled but lazy competitors.
Within less than three years, he had used the same funding formula to build a powerful global position in oil futures, gas and mineral trading. He paid his people well, tempting the most aggressive traders to join him with the prospect of accumulating a personal fortune. By making them all work a twelve-hour day, each one in competition with the dealer on the next desk for the largest bonus, he fashioned a culture in his own image – nasty, aggressive, misogynist, obsessed with luxury, fuelled by the promise of Bollinger and casual sex.
A labyrinth of shareholding trails ensured that his connection to the now increasingly illustrious American remained secret. They never met again but, when it mattered, like now, they were in constant, encrypted touch.
Hutz’s insistence on absolute attention to detail had won Blackrod a steady flow of contracts. While other multi-nationals sought to enhance their reputation by adopting the increasingly fashionable strategy of corporate citizenship, flaunting their charitable programmes as evidence of their social and environmental responsibility, Hutz stuck unswervingly to the liturgy that a company had one responsibility and one alone – to make money – as much of it as possible – by working the regulations and, more and more, by circumventing them.
In his private life, he never had much time for close relationships: if he needed sex, he could easily afford the best. He lived alone in a frugal apartment in Berne, his only indulgence being his collection of fine Pauillac chateau bottled vintages and an insatiable appetite for the special skills of the whip-brandishing ladies he had flown in from the best houses of correction in the world.
Kensington police station, Earls Court Road, later that day
‘Now, Mr Marshall, let’s go over this one more time, just to make sure I’ve got all the details correct. You still maintain the package was stolen from you? And you have no idea what it contained?’
Julian sighed. He was already in enough trouble without all this. But his boss had insisted he should report the theft, if that’s what it was, ‘for insurance purposes’. Something about needing a crime reference number.
But why the hell did it have to take so long? Why did the officer keep looking at her watch and repeating,
‘Procedure, sir. So many forms to fill in these days’? She’d said that four times now.
They’d been shut away in the drab, airless, windowless interview room for what seemed like hours and yet, when he looked up at the wall clock, it hadn’t been as long as he imagined. To be fair, WPC Lesley Carron was rather pleasant company – attractive in a thirty-plus married kind of way, long fair hair – dyed? – held back in a neat pony-tail, blue eyes, smooth neck and a quite sensual mouth. The police uniform blouse, clip-on tie and shapeless slacks had given up trying to make her look frumpy and the way she kept licking her lips and adjusting her position on her chair did suggest otherwise.
‘I just need to check that I’ve taken everything down,’ she said and immediately blushed as if she realised what she’d just said. Julian noticed how far the blush went. With that, she stood, moved round to his side of the desk and placed the papers in front of him. It would have been much easier to slide them across to him but she hadn’t.
Julian smiled to himself. Here we go again.
This was far from the first occasion that an attractive older woman given signs of yielding to her carnal instincts in his presence. It had all started way back with his best friend’s mother … then his mother’s best friend …
‘Would you mind if we checked this together?’ asked the policewoman, leaning forward with her elbow on the desk and her right breast, which he could feel trembling, against his arm.
‘And you’re quite sure you don’t know what the package contained?’ glancing without shame at his trousers.
‘Yes, officer. Quite sure, officer’ Julian lied for the umpteenth time. He knew the lab had spun the police a line about harmless research samples and they’d told him he had to act dumb.
‘You can call me Lesley, if you’d like. Oh, damn!’
The phone on the interview room desk was ringing. WPC Carron jerked herself upright, smoothed her hair with her hand and answered the call.
‘Right … Right … Now? … OK.’ The officer replaced the receiver and gave Julian a resigned look.
‘Julian Amadeus Marshall, I am arresting you for dangerous driving …’
‘What the hell …?’
‘Calm down, please, sir. One of our officers observed you riding along Wrights Lane at a dangerously slow speed, causing other traffic to take avoiding action. You do not have to say anything. But it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.’
‘I’m sorry but this is just plain ridiculous,’ Julian exclaimed. Until now, he was hoping GreySearch would let him off with a warning but if he was arrested, appeared in court …
He banged his head on the table and immediately wished he hadn’t. Lesley was still there when he looked up. The resigned look on her face had now been replaced by one of profound disappointment, or possibly screaming frustration.
‘Nothing I can do, sir. Now, are you going to come with me or do I need to call for assistance?’
‘Can I phone my work?’
‘Someone else is doing that. Come on now, we don’t want to keep the gentleman waiting.’
Gentleman? What gentleman?
North-West London, Tuesday, early evening
If the media were still pouring out doom and gloom about the latest financial crisis, the European Disunion and yet another inconclusive general election, not so at 23 Meadow Road, Grants Cross, a leafy suburb North of London. Max and Caroline Binning were defiantly British and that meant, to quote their parents’ generation, Carry On Regardless.
Where visitors to some neighbours’ houses would be too scared to touch the furniture or put a glass down in the wrong place, in the Binning home, they wanted everyone to feel at ease; they could relax and be themselves.
The food was tasty, unfussy but always with a touch of visual pizazz. Their wine was good but never ostentatious, and the conversation never failed to be both interesting and interested – interested in others’ opinions and in things that mattered, liberally sprinkled with a healthy dose of banter.
Since retiring from the Bar, Max was unexpectedly busy. Unpaid legal adviser to four charities, unpaid PA to his wife, he still found space to indulge his passion for rare butterflies. Years of imbibing in lawyers’ hangouts around the Old Bailey had added a layer or two to his waistline but everything else was in good nick, especially the brain – he could still spot the flaw in an argument with the very best.
Caroline’s career as a full-time investigative reporter was over but, with her keen eye for the link between apparently unconnected stories and her love of writing, she still accepted the occasional commission to write a slightly outlandish piece for the more intelligent media, both traditional and social.
With hindsight, the emergence of GreySearch was inevitable. Max’s recent court work was increasingly concerned with defending the little man – individuals and small groups challenging the stupid or arrogant decisions of an all-powerful state bureaucracy; whistle-blowers under pressure from their employers to bury their stories and thus save their corrupt or incompetent bosses from public humiliation; street protestors maltreated by an over-enthusiastic police force. Caroline’s skills at placing a story in the right place, at the right time, had often played an invaluable part in persuading the powers-that-be to back off and save their own embarrassment.
And yet it was Caroline herself who’d unearthed the story that led the two of them, rather late in life, to set up a new, clandestine group dedicated to finding and exposing corruption and abuse of power in the very highest reaches of the national and international Establishment.
Oddly, despite her long track record of exposing the powerful but unethical, she was still welcomed and indeed consulted by leading figures in public life. Whenever she enquired why, she always received the same answer – that, no matter how potentially embarrassing the story might be, she could be trusted to check and double-check her facts, never to exaggerate, and never to write anything that would hurt an innocent party. No witch-hunts: integrity was a rare commodity in her trade and that was treasured.
It was during a charity’s reception at the House of Commons one hot early autumn evening, that she was invited by a government minister, a woman she liked and knew well, to accompany her onto the terrace overlooking the river Thames for ‘a breath of cool air’.
As they strolled towards a quiet area, away from all the small groups in earnest discussion, they exchanged playful observations about the blatant but rather inept attempts of some guests to curry political favour. Reaching a place where they couldn’t be overheard, the minister stopped abruptly and turned to face her friend. Her expression could not be misinterpreted.
‘Caroline, what I’m about to give you needs, as always, to be thoroughly checked and you must give me your word that you will never reveal your sources. Yes?’
‘Of course, Claire,’ she replied, fascinated because this woman was the last of the current political elite she expected to indulge in back door gossip. She followed as her companion walked on, looking straight ahead, and continued to talk.
‘I regret to say that it appears one of my more senior colleagues is feathering his nest, not entirely in accordance with the rulebook.’
Caroline said nothing.
She continued. ‘Nobody expects this government to survive more than another six months and, even if we’re re-elected, a lot of older heads, like mine, will be put out to grass. It’ll be time to freshen up the team … including our leader.’
Caroline gasped. ‘The Prime Minister?’ What she had just heard didn’t surprise her one bit but she judged it wise to appear shocked.
The minister laughed. ‘Oh, come on, Caroline. Don’t tell me you hadn’t worked that one out. And we both know who will replace her as party leader.’
Caroline smiled and again said nothing. The minister in question, one David Orde, a highly ambitious man, had spent the last year positioning himself for the top job, using the media to cleverly but not overtly upstage the Prime Minister, steering clear of any embarrassing government climb-downs, and, while not endearing himself to other ministers, winning himself an army of younger fans in the party.
By contrast, the PM had taken to isolating herself from any form of collective decision-making. In what was commonly known as “Blair-style” government, major decisions were now being taken with a tiny group of close allies, in collusion with only the most senior Downing Street officials, and then announced as faits accomplis to the rest of the Cabinet, who were given no opportunity to question or even to offer an opinion.
However, the story Caroline heard that evening on the Commons terrace was something else altogether.
‘A few months ago, the heir presumptive attended a meeting of NATO leaders in Switzerland, ostensibly to discuss military commitments in the Middle East. One evening, I’m reliably told, he and his opposite numbers from, France, Italy, Germany and the US – each one widely regarded as the next top dog in their country – were invited to a private dinner hosted by the heads of three of the world’s most powerful corporations. The chairman of Switzerland’s largest private bank was also present.’ She named the corporations – all household names, all led by equally recognisable, extraordinarily wealthy autocrats. One Indian, one Russian, one Swiss.
Claire continued. ‘When he returned to London, our future leader’s behaviour had inexplicably changed. Gone was the arrogance, the fierce aggression that we, his colleagues, had become used to and so dislike. Now it was all smiles, friendly chats in the Commons bar, our views sought and respected. Something happened while he was away.’
Caroline asked, ‘Hmm. Have you any ideas about what caused the change?’
Claire nodded. ‘Look, it took all of us by surprise. In fact, some of us are finding it all distinctly unnerving. So we’ve been keeping our eyes and ears open.’
‘The only thing we’ve come up with so far came, quite literally by chance, from an old university friend who’s in the property business. And I admit it’s pretty thin. Somebody, we’re told, has just put down a deposit on a seven-million-dollar beach house on a small island in the Caribbean. The money was channelled through the same Swiss bank whose head attended that dinner. Under the new Swiss law against money-laundering, it’s no longer permissible to hide behind a fictional or an intermediary’s name in these kinds of transaction; the end purchaser has to be identified. The client’s name on this bank transfer rang a bell with my friend; which is why he contacted me. So I looked it up. It’s the name of the character our man played when he took the lead in a university drama production when we were all at Oxford,’ she said fiercely, leaning close to Caroline’s ear for fear of being overheard. She stopped speaking and went to lean over the balustrade, looking down at the swirling waters.
Caroline pondered what she had heard for a minute, then joined her. ‘I can see why you’re suspicious but, as you say, it’s all a bit tenuous, Claire.’
‘I know. That’s what I thought.’ replied Claire. ‘Until I learned that this beach house is right bang next door to a house owned by one of the businessmen who hosted the dinner …’
As soon as she arrived home that evening, Caroline related what she had heard to Max. His reaction was cautious but encouraging.
‘That man,’ he said. ‘He’s always telling us on TV how, despite his father’s title, he hasn’t two pennies to rub together, how he has dedicated his life to public service when he could have made a fortune in the City. So, if he is to be believed, he has never had the chance to build up any substantial capital. Where the hell could he lay his hands on seven million dollars?
‘Hey, this could all be a complete waste of time, just a series of coincidences, Caroline. But, if there is any truth in the story, it doesn’t only mean that he is involved in something dirty but … can we presume that those ministers from France, Germany, Italy and America are in on it too?’
‘And surely, they must have handed something over in return. But what? What could be worth that kind of money?’ said Caroline.
The minister’s motive for confiding in her had been clear. This was a briefing; she expected Caroline to pick up the scent and follow it through to its source, wherever it led.
The more they talked, the more her husband advised caution. This was potentially too big, too risky, for Caroline to tackle alone. She would need help.
Over the following weeks, at a series of small supper parties in their home, old friendships were renewed; men and women from their past, some from their long distant past, came through their door and left, some none the wiser – they had failed the interview – others deeply concerned but energised by what they discussed; a number of them already committed to plumbing their own contacts and trying to flush out the true nature of what became known to them all as the BSU, the Basel Stitch-up.
By the end of the month, Caroline had assembled a select band of investigative journalists, some retired or close to retirement, all self-employed freelance veterans.
On one point Caroline insisted: ‘I’m not going to let any of my editors in on this one. There are far too many powerful voices, proprietors, government people and the City, whispering in their ear. We can’t risk it leaking out and being killed off while we’re still digging.’
And so, GreySearch was born; nicknamed by one founder member as “The A&E Department” – standing for Age and Experience.
Among the group there was never any argument about who should take on the role of leader. Caroline’s incisive mind, her reputation for perseverance and passion for the truth made that decision easy. Her cuisine probably had something to do with it too, but they were all too polite to mention it.
Caroline had finished in the kitchen and was heading for the stairs to go up and change, when the phone rang. She heard Max pick up the call.
She was in good time to take a quick shower, before making herself presentable. It had been a busy day and she was really looking forward to seeing these particular guests.
As she allowed the hot water to ease away the usual aches and pains, her mind drifted back to their student days together in Paris, to that memorable year of 1968, when they had first met this evening’s guest, the woman Caroline hadn’t seen for more than forty years, since their wedding day, in fact.
As Mark Kurlansky said in his book 1968: The Year That Rocked the World,
‘There has never been a year like 1968, and it is unlikely that there will ever be again. At a time when nations and cultures were still very different, there occurred a spontaneous combustion … a youthful desire to rebel against all that was outmoded, rigid and authoritarian.’
In Paris, what began as a small-scale protest at one suburban university about the quality of the student accommodation and dining facilities grew extraordinarily fast into a full-scale onslaught on the government of President Charles de Gaulle, complete with burning barricades, overturned vehicles and showers of cobblestones hurled at the CRS riot police.
Across the USA, in Madrid, Prague, Berlin, Mexico City, Brazil, Warsaw and London’s Grosvenor Square, it was the moment when the ‘baby-boom’ post war generation’s patience finally snapped and said No to a system of authority and tradition that had been handed down from generation to generation.
Tonight’s guest was Hélène Tessier, née Beauregard, the tireless student activist at the Sorbonne, the striking young blonde whose image had appeared on the front page of Time magazine, face daubed with smoke and blood, resisting the tear-gas onslaught of the riot police at the barricades. Great days, wonderful people.
As Caroline emerged, wrapped in a bath towel, she knew something had happened: Max was waiting for her, his face white, his hands clenched.
‘What’s wrong, darling?’ she asked.
‘The police have arrested Julian,’ he said, his voice quiet.
‘Julian Marshall – the kid the lab have been using to run errands.’
‘Why’s he been arrested?’
The lab was run by a couple of hi-tech scientists who, under the cover of a biological research programme, were working on innovative ways of accessing secret information for GreySearch.
‘He’s accused of dangerous driving,’ replied Max. ‘And, a package of the blue sand he was delivering has gone missing.’
‘Ah, I see.’ Caroline sat down on the bed and patted for Max to join her. Her mind was in overdrive.
‘First question: how many people know about blue sand?’
‘Four, and they all work at the lab.’
‘He is not officially in the loop.’
‘What does that mean? Could he have worked out what blue sand can do?’
‘Very unlikely, I’m told.’
‘But not impossible?’
‘He’s an exceptionally bright lad. Who knows? But remember, anyone starting from scratch would have to analyse it, then identify the catalyst formula, without which blue sand is completely useless, inert. It could take them weeks, months.’
Caroline squeezed her husband’s hand. ‘In that case, we have time on our side. Now, my love, let’s make the most of this evening. Why don’t you bugger off and leave me to disguise my aging anatomy as something quite glamorous?’
After months of radio silence, missing author Simon Lawder has been spotted peeking out of his bunker, conveniently located under the Waitrose car park in England’s smallest city – Velo-city, headquarters of the Banned Cyclists Federation.
When our reporter attempted to get an interview , he first had to endure Lawder’s famous torrent of abuse directed at knicker-free 4×4 drivers with dyed blonde hair, accusations of having slept with a Russian doll during the last election, and a kind offer to our chap to “relieve you of your tackle and save humanity from any more tossers like you”.
Clearly Lawder had lost none of his way with words since he published “UnderCurrent”, the widely exclaimed spy thriller, in 2016.
Later, after using our man’s hanky to wipe the foam from his mouth, the balding hermit scribe confided that he had just completed the prequel to “UnderCurrent”. He then went on to explain, “for the benefit of retarded bleeding scuba-divers”, the meaning of the word ‘prequel’. Our reporter can’t remember quite recall what he said next but fortune favours the brave.
After a successful application to the US Attorney-General, your editor has succeeded in obtaining an apparently authentic synopsis of the new work, which he has read. Once his wife feels that he’s calmed down sufficiently, he expects to reveal what got him so excited. Suffice it to say that it addresses the terrifying prospect of business moguls – no names, no pack drill – taking control.
Watch this space.
Most crime novels are not regarded as ‘serious literature’, but Undercurrent carries a very serious reminder that treasonous moles into our Intelligence Services and Government are an everpresent possibility. Undercurrent is enjoying a happy timing, much as The 39 Steps did with regards to foreign spies, by having its publication chiming with the possibility China may be seeking a purchase on Britain’s energy needs. The plot is entirely plausible, the characterisation convincing and the writing keeps the reader avidly turning the pages. Governments usually keep much of their deep operations very secret, but novels suffer no such constraints and can shed light on a shadowy world that reflects ‘real politik’. A killer who is also a nymphomaniac is entirely plausible, since psychopaths need to find a release from stress. Again, we know from the moles who worked for the Soviets, that young people who have been ‘turned’ can persist as agents for their professional lifetime. Hence the truth in the plot. Undercurrent is both a good read and a potent reminder that we live in a deeply competitive world. It is enjoyable but sobering, and should be widely read. It makes Brexit look parochial!
Pablo Foster 29/7/16
Everything was going fine – since the launch/signing session, sales of “Under Current” had settled down to a steady but encouraging level, work progressing nicely on the prequel, working title “Eminences Grises”, then, out of the blue, the Leavers win the bl**dy EU referendum and everything hits the fan.
Problem: “Under Current” is set “a few years from now”, so I didn’t have to be too precise about what was going on in the world at that time. But, “Eminences Grises”, I remind you, is a prequel, i.e. set round about now, in the UK. It’s about vested interests plotting to seize power. Do I have to say more?
Sorry, must go now. Rather a lot of (re)writing to do. Do you suppose Johnson and Gove have any idea how much trouble they’ve caused?
This week commencing May 9th, Waterstones in Wells will be the first branch to stock UnderCurrent.
Join friends, old and new, for the official launch of UnderCurrent
Friday June 3rd, 6pm to 8pm
Alan Stratford’s stunning A2 Gallery, 80 High Street, Wells
Wine, fun and great art