With fingers crossed and loads of encouragement from my fellow authors, I present the first chapter of UnderCurrent’s prequel. I need your honest feedback, 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.