Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Journeyman - Chapter 14

 Bill Gallagher; aka Brian Cameron and James Charles Strachan; aka Pat Urquhart, watched the tree clad slopes of the Okanogan’s close around them after the 4X4 Chrysler powered it’s way through the town of Brewster and on past the scatterings of mod con campers till we were lost in forested mountains.

Their contact introduced himself in Chicago as Mike Durham- the Dur as in burr the ham as in cured pork. First impressions on the trip to O’Hare and confirmed on the transfer to Seattle had placed him in the taciturn bordering on morose. Since getting into the truck and heading for the hills his mood had transformed to that of a tongue prattling like the clatter bone in a ducks arse. His earlier restraint due to a combination of a fear of flying and a hangover by the booze he used to overcome it. Mike was so unique, he’d be considered in the animal world a threatened species. He was nuclear, five seven of slight build, indomitable spirit and fucking exhausting to be with. Pat, sorry James said it was like taking a bunch of rabbits for a walk in a mink farm.

We learnt he’d led a fairly baseless existence until he got involved in the nonsense of Vietnam. There he’d discovered his fear of flying and a natural aptitude for making things that went bang. As he admitted it was an easy training school with few repercussions and even less purpose. It wasn’t until we’d struggled through the first two weeks it dawned on us we hadn’t yet seen or heard mention any sort of gun hype.

Liberated from Vietnam he knew the returning hero scam was entirely for the benefit of the public and the conscience of the politicians. Knowing it would never turn into anything solid enough to eat he drifted in the personal protection boom. He told us. ‘Maybe once or twice I year I get a couple like you that are here for the works. That I really enjoy.'
We both looked at one another, very aware that Mike’s enjoyment would be based on our discomfort. I asked, ‘How long are we here for?’
‘As long as you like, or until you think or I say you’re ready. The first two are optional.’

The first two weeks we mixed with his normal clients. We learnt Mike expected his courses to be taken seriously. He began by taking the students on a blistering three-day hike. Expelling the toxins was his label for this. Apart from the trek, Mike was responsible for all our training. He called the exercise periods between six and seven every morning and evening reflex conditioning. During the first week at random times and in random ways he constantly exposed his flock to their vulnerabilities. He also made us aware of our surroundings and the possibilities the environment presented to us. By the end of the second week we knew he was doing much more for us than we had expected. As much as we enjoyed the treks our enthusiasm faltered when he added the fourteen pounds of weights to each of our rucksacks on the second week. The third saw it doubled, leading James to ask what we could expect if we lasted eight weeks.
Mike grinned, ‘I run out of weights at fifty- six pounds. Then we just do everything at the double.’
We laughed but the bastard meant it.

Water had never been my thing, I could sail on it, swim in it, even in the past, had the delusion of being able to walk on it, but swimming under it caused my butt and brain to shut up shop; the technical term was funk. Mike set himself the task of slowly easing me out of it.

By the seventh week the two of us could handle the scuba gear and the chilling dankness of the mountain lakes. We had learnt the killing skills of priming ammunition, to charge it just enough to keep it subsonic, and precisely enough so that each bullet reacted in a consistent manner. We were taught when to fire and bullied into when not to. We practised in the use of most of the assassin’s weapons that were easily obtainable in most countries. It was interesting but academic, though we didn’t tell Mike that.

At the start of the second month Mike introduced us to the wonders of explosives and James noted my avid attention to the subject as we went through the methods of building, setting and booby trapping. Detonating from the simple fuse, to electro mechanical and then to radio and acoustic devices were all grist to my intended mill. Constantly I questioned the reliability of this method against another, the amount of explosive needed to have this effect in this or that environment. My questions on availability and stability gradually veered to the one environment and I committed Mike’s answers to memory.

Perhaps it worried James because of the mayhem the same skills had caused in his own country. Whatever it was, my earlier answer that it was the main reason for us being here was no longer adequate. We were on our last week before James raised the issue. ‘You’re definitely into this explosive thing. Maybe too deep for my liking.’
I nodded, then shot my free hand out, ‘Look at that!’ I hissed.
Turning to follow my finger James searched for what I was pointing at. ‘What?’
‘Well I’ll be damned.’ Turning I could see James still hadn’t zeroed in to the exercise in tactics that had gained my admiration. ‘Look fifteen foot up that pine, do you see the Blackfoot weasel?’
James nodded, ‘Got you.’
‘Right, next pine to the left, do you see the squirrel?’
James was still waiting for an explanation. ‘So bloody what?’
I sighed as though exasperated by him. ‘The first thing I saw was the squirrel running from the weasel. It darted up the tree the weasel’s nosing in now. But as it ran up it spiralled round the trunk and came back down. Now it’s getting on with life, that’s it on the left. There’s another lesson for us.’
‘Stop talking in riddles.’
‘I've learned not to do the expected James. You really think I’m interested in blowing people up? After the Leeds job I don’t reckon it’s clever if we have to resort to that. We’ve both learnt some useful lessons over here and the most important one I’ve learnt is we don’t know enough about explosives to be certain of handling them in the way we want. Other than that, I’m probably fitter than I’ve ever been in my life. If I want to explore a coral reef I could do it up close without having to stick my head in a glass bottomed bucket and I’m pretty certain I’m not a killer. So where do we go from here?’
‘None of that changes anything.’
‘Yes it does.’
‘It means James that we need somebody who does know it all and who isn’t a nut case with some stupid chip on his shoulder. We’ve got to know he knows what he’s doing and that he’ll do it how we want it.’
James shook his head. ‘Maybe it’s time we talked to Mike about going home.’
‘You think he gives out certificates?’


Neil arrived at Bramshott, just as Jane was being introduced to her father’s guests. When it was his turn, Huntington brusquely informed Neil she wouldn’t be staying for dinner, his tone making it more a decree than a mutual decision. Yet when he shook her hand and looked into Jane’s eyes he saw it wasn’t a decision that had annoyed her. His comment, ‘You would probably be bored to death any way.’ Won him a glimmer of a smile. In truth he expected to be bored, not because of the report Cecil Laing, who had instigated the meeting, wanted them to digest and discuss but by the fact it was taking place in Huntington’s home which would probably make the ass more pompous than usual. Of the four Sir’s who along with himself constituted their club at the moment, Huntington was the one who irritated and exasperated Neil.

Cecil Laing, co-founder along with John Dickson, he liked and respected, and as head of the Civil Service, he admired Cecil for the risk he’d taken and continued to take as their conduit through the labyrinths of Whitehall and Westminster. Gerald Goode played second fiddle to no one. A third generation Jew, he’d built an engineering empire that covered most things between genetic to galactic and combined the rare talents of common sense and spatial acumen behind a brusque exterior. John Dickson as Chairman of Berkley’s, Midshires biggest competitor, had earned the respect of the financial world and was regarded as one of the pillars of the city. It was John who had first approached Neil and nominated his inclusion to the club. John was the one Neil respected most, and now that was forming into friendship.

It was a club that, were it to become known to the city, tongues would have shredded with speculation. Their objectives: UK plc’s survival, in a world where only financial might was right. Neil’s personal agenda went beyond that and the Uniclor deal would give him a head start. Of his fellow members he hadn’t as yet any solid opinions as to how far their vision or commitment stretched. Except for Huntington. There his opinion had hardened to conviction, he was their first passenger and, as far as Neil was concerned, he’d be the last.

After dinner, Huntington adopting the role of chairman and slipping on the stupid half specs he used as a prop proposed they got down to business. ‘We have three items on our agenda. The purchase of Deltoni from ICP,’ he gave a nod to Neil as though he recognised his involvement. ‘Our marketing launch of the new de-salination plants,’ he nodded to Neil and Gerald, ‘and finally the report Cecil has purloined from the government.’ Cecil didn’t get a nod he got a long stare. He went on. ‘I think, since the hour’s late and Cecil’s report is more informative than actionable, we should whip through that first.’

Neil gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head to Cecil, when he was handed his copy. Purloined? Something would have to done about Reginald, old boy. The only things he had in common with the rest of them were he breathed and was a bachelor.
Listening to Cecil’s analysis of the report and flicking through the pages he’d highlighted. Neil couldn’t help but admire Cecil for the risk he’d taken in bringing it to their attention and to share his concern on its contents. It was Gerald who was first to react when Cecil finished.
‘Bloody hell Cecil, is this official?’
Cecil smiled. ‘You might say so official it doesn’t exist.’ When he saw we were all waiting for an explanation he carried on. ‘The people who produce this report are answerable only to the Prime Minister’s office. The policy’s that I’ve highlighted are known to only the PM and few senior ministers. The figures and statistics used are more accurate than those given to the audit commission. They intend to use it to persuade the main opposition leaders to adopt common political policies and by doing so create stable conditions for business, markets and investments.’
Neil asked, ‘Define common political policies for me.’
‘Basically Neil, policies whether they’re in government or opposition that will only be tinkered with, or changed only by consensus.’
‘So effectively we have a one party parliament?’
Cecil shrugged, ‘Perhaps not the parliament Neil, but the leaders and the cabinets will share the same credo.’
‘What happens to democracy?’ Gerald asked before answering his own question. ‘It’s a marketing ploy, once one lot losses credence the other gets in and nothing changes. Christ they’ll turn this country into a theme park.’
‘You may be right Gerald but they see it as giving them longer terms in office and merely adapting the system to meet present day political and commercial necessity.’
Gerald smacked his copy down on the table. ‘I thought necessity was the mother of invention not deception. If this is the way those bandits are heading I’d say we haven’t got ten years to reach our objectives but five, at the most six. Hell, I’d go for doing it in two.’
John Dickson who’d been quietly reading said. ‘We must be extremely discreet how we react to this. I’m sure you all appreciate the repercussions for Cecil should he be discovered to have leaked a report that doesn’t exist from a quango that doesn’t exist.

When they broke up for bed, Neil noticed the copy left by the side of a chair. If it had been Cecil’s it might have been excusable but the chair it had dropped from was Huntington’s. Collecting the papers he went up to absorb the report in detail.

He read for over an hour and had just switched the reading light off on the desk when the open window allowed the sound of a body hitting water to reach him. Curiosity made him look down on the pool where, from the glow of lights round it, he made out the figure powering down its length. He couldn’t be sure but from his viewpoint she looked naked. Neil tried to recall her name as her buttocks flashed on the turn, Jane-very nice. He watched until she pulled herself out and confirmed her state of undress, then lost her when she made her way up a spiral staircase and lights were switched on above the stable block. Must be her flat, he mused before heading for his bed and considered his behaviour. Somehow he didn’t feel like a voyeur, what he did feel, was privileged.

Thames purchase of Deltoni’s and the de-salination plants weren’t discussed on the Saturday. In fact, in spite of the priority Huntington had given them there was nothing to discuss. Deltoni’s was cut and dried with only the timing of the announcement to be agreed. The desalination design was ICP’s patent, to be manufactured under licence by Gerald’s group while the marketing would be handled by Thames. Huntington had been handed these by Neil and the cost to Thames was Neil’s seat on the Board. That hadn’t pleased Huntington but he was hardly in a position to refuse. He was happy for John and Gerald to be on it; they played by the rules and were his peers. On the other hand Hopkins was a predator that he feared, and had leftists tendencies, which he despised. He registered his annoyance by making very little contribution to the discussion on the report.

The knock on Neil’s door while he was dressing for dinner led to the question he’d been expecting from John Dickson. Midshires consolidation since the take-over was beyond doubt, but it still wasn’t as strong as the other three clearers. Nor would the moves they’d discussed create any major change in that direction and for the moment Neil wasn’t about to disclose the ones that would. ‘I appreciate the point John and your asking me privately. What I can tell you and hope you’ll accept is, I’ve already matters in hand to correct the position. All going to plan; the new- year should see Midshire with more funds at its disposal than anyone.’
John Dickson weighed up whether he’d just received a statement or a warning. He elected for the statement. ‘Good, we’ll leave it at that then. In view of Cecil’s report and if you didn’t feel entirely confident of boosting Midshire I was going to suggests we approach Smith of the National to join us.’
Slipping into his jacket, Neil fixed his eyes on John Dickson. ‘That won’t be necessary, will it John? Not until we’ve weakened his and strengthened our position.’
‘Not at all Neil.’ John's reply was equally phlegmatic.

Neil left just before eleven on the Sunday. On the whole he felt optimistic. Huntington was a weakness looking for resolution. It wasn’t that the man was a fool; he was simply naïve and his vanity in trying to hide it made him look a fool. Nobody was interested in undermining his position, in fact the opposite. Thames was their key into the utilities club and by boosting its performance against the others would be the sugar that baited the trap. Neil decided to go to some pains to keep Huntington sweet-for the moment.
Twelve thirty and he was pulling the car into the short drive to his house and caught the twitch of the lounge nets. He smiled, on time as promised, not only for the family lunch, but also for the obligatory sherry. Every week he did it though he couldn’t stand the stuff.

Sunday evening saw the Huntington’s having a light dinner in a heavy atmosphere. His attempts at conversation with Jane, struggled in a relationship of strangers. Giving up he poured himself a brandy, ‘I’m going to work in the study for a couple of hours before turning in.’ Then as an aforethought, ‘I don’t suppose I’ll see you in the morning. Ring me at the office and we’ll have lunch sometime.’
‘Who were these people?’ Jane asked. The question catching him, as she intended, mid way between continuing the cheek kiss and drawing back. He drew back to answer it. ‘Just business associates. We get together now and again.’
Typical. Everybody had to have a rank and the label of friend wasn’t enough. ‘I recognised the youngest one. Isn’t he the head of some chemical thing and the older bloke with the mop of hair? I’ve seen him sometime or other on the box. I didn’t recognise the other two?’
Reginald thought before answering. After all Jane had turned up with some pretty weird characters in her time, ‘No I don’t suppose you would. Still there’s no need for you to bother with things like that.’ Jane shrugged. Typical brush off, and the only noticeable change in their relationship since she’d grown too old to be regarded as a movable snack. She’d already got the information from Bert. She sat a long time after her father had gone scratching invisible patterns on her plate trying to remember one spontaneous or honest act he’d made to her. Jane suspected it was the same attitude that had destroyed her mother.

Walking round the pool she glanced into the study window and watched him sleeping in his chair next to the fire. In sleep the pose was gone and she knew she’d always want to love him but probably never would. At the same instant the papers slipped from his lap waking him. She watched him drain his brandy; settle the fire, then, as though he was reaching out to her, doused the light. Knowing he’d seen her the moment the light went out, she stripped and dived into the pool. What she thought, would a shrink make of that?

Thrashing lengths of the pool she kept on until only foolishness and cold were left. Towelling dry in the flat failed to warm her and sleep seemed impossibly far off. Remembering the fire in the study she opted for it and a large brandy to induce both. Throwing logs in the grate she settled by the hearth and started sorting out the papers he’d dropped.

A shudder made her aware of the fire dying in the hearth and untangling her legs, of the stiffness in her pelvis and knees. It read like some desperate report on third world depravation not the Britain she lived in with it’s hooray’s and Essex boy brokers and the Nigel’s and for that matter the Jane’s. Most of the Officialese was beyond normal comprehension, but its general tone was pretty clear. And its conclusions mirrored the drab experience of her recent provincial tour. She re-read its closing chapter. [The timing and methods used to effect these changes are for the government to decide. We can only advise, in this our first full report, the situation is continuing to deteriorate and, while our recommendation remain in essence the same, we believe any acceleration of the deterioration could lead to the military being involved in containing civil unrest. By then the multi national conglomerates may well make the decision for us. They will not consider the instability caused as their concern other than the balance between their commercial costs and benefits. Services and assembly units are easily and cheaply closed and re-located.]

Jane wondered why he father had a copy. Presumably Laing had been the supplier. Weren’t they all the heads of conglomerates and possibly multi nationals? Questions formed hazily in her mind. Did the government know they had copies? Was it their way of preparing big business? Sort of lobbying in reverse? She got no answers except one. The meeting and the report were designed in some way to protect their interests. Whatever the reasons for the others, her father had no right to expect his interests to be protected. He might be more of a man and a better individual if his interests were blown apart.

George Esquiden was disappointed to hear Neil wouldn’t be in the office on Monday. He rang on the Sunday evening to relay the news of Deerbrucker flying in to sign the contract of intent a full four days early.
‘My secretary has an envelope addressed to you George with all the pertinent documents. I signed them on Friday.’
George struggled for words; at times audacity of the man was beyond belief. ‘That’s all well and good but he wants control of distribution. He’ll probably be happy with half but dammit Neil you’ve got to give the man some negotiating points. What the hell is it you know that nobody else does? What makes you so sure it’ll go through on your terms?’
‘I don’t, I simply took the precaution of getting some papers prepared. Really an insignificant expense if he hadn’t been interested. As for negotiating rights he’s got exactly the same as I have, either yes or no. Details only confuse and lessen the deal for everyone. I’ll leave it to you to dress that up more diplomatically. Express my apologies and tell him I’ll come to the States and he can have all the publicity he wants when he can pay for the deal.’

After the click of the connection breaking, George mused on the failure of his moves to manoeuvre Neil. What could be so important it would take precedence over this deal? Tomorrow he’d make a point of finding out, after he’d made arrangements to buy some Uniclor stock. Should keep him in beer money, provided he knew the right time to sell and his gut told him he was working for the man who would decide that.

Monday morning Neil decided against the motorway route. The brisk October morning found him heading west on the M4 for Swindon where he would cut the corner onto the M5 for the hop to Worcester. From then on it would be the A roads through Shropshire and Cheshire before the industrial anarchy of Runcorn swallowed him. He felt alert and relaxed as he pulled into the entrance of the redundant chemical plant five minutes early for his meeting with Gunter Spienz, ICP’s head of research. A feeling that wasn’t phased when he was refused entry by the gate security until he’d been formally identified and Spienz had signed him in.

With Spienz directing, Neil drove through the redundant plant with its cobweb of arterial pipes before coming to a second fence. It wasn’t complete but even to his untrained eye he could see its sophistication compared to the one on the plants perimeter. The outer section of this fence was six meters high of heavy mesh with razored apertures too small for hand or footholds. Four meters behind it was a second fence of the same design but eight meters in height. The space between the fences was brambled with coils of razor wire and all of it threaded with a conspiracy of photocells, threadlike fibre optics and lasers that directed scanning cameras to an intrusive butterfly. Twelve cameras to a fence gave double overlap screening to perimeter and compound. Above a maze of pipes screened the sky while another set of lasers screened them. Anybody trying to use the pipes for either access or observation would have to be spiritual in ability and mass. Every pipe was a sham, their bulk belying their fragility.

Once in the compound Neil surveyed the development. Nothing spectacular, just more pipes convoluting between vessels, crackers and exchangers before vanishing into a building cloned from an industrial estate. All of it humbled by the muddy brown paint scheme into masterpiece of understatement. Neil asked, ‘When will you be ready to commission and prime the plant?’
Gunter Spienz glanced round as though checking what he was about to say wouldn’t be overheard. ‘The security contractor will be complete by Friday. We start commissioning the moment he’s gone. Maybe one, two weeks after should see any problems sorted out and be primed ready to run.’
‘Good. You can handle both the commissioning and priming with the team you have?’
Spienz nodded enthusiastically, ‘Yes, yes. It’s only a small team all production, none capable of chemical engineering.’
It was Neil’s turn to nod. They’d taken great care to keep the plants true purpose secret. Contracts for supply and manufacture had been let in a piece small bases, with no single contractor or designer having the overall picture. The budget for it a series of minor items voted through at regional level and explained as a special unit to neutralise dangerous residues left in redundant plants. Yet this plant half the size of a football pitch could produce more chemical power in one year that the seven square mile graveyard hiding it could produce in three.

Settled in the scientist’s office, Neil listened as Spienz outlined the modifications he’d made since the problems in the pilot plant in Mannheim had appeared. Generally these had all been down to a faster corrosion rates than anticipated and required the lining of certain pipes and vessels in special compounds.
Neil asked, ‘Does the shipping of the pilot batch from Mannheim need to be registered through the dangerous substances register?’
Spienz pursed his lips as he considered. ‘I don’t think it would be wise to say nothing. But you want to make it look like something else?’
Neil nodded.
‘Then maybe we could declare it a class 6 pesticide. Strong enough to stop the Customs being too nosey and since it is coming from our German plant to here it will not interest the chemical control board.’
Neil looked thoughtful, ‘I’ll go with that. Now have you given any thought to its transport? The last thing I want anybody to see is a damn great tanker rolling into what’s supposed to be a redundant plant.’
This threw Spienz; he’d never contemplated anything other than a tanker being used. Trying to think of an alternative had him unconsciously sucking air through his teeth.
Neil grimaced. ‘What’s stopping us from shipping it in small containers? The old gallon ones and if anybody asks we can say it’s for washing out some of the vessels. We’d probably get off with it if we told them it was to keep down the weeds. Nobody takes small containers as seriously as they do tanker loads.’
Weighing the possible problems Spienz’s Teutonic discipline didn’t allow argument, ‘Provided we only keep them for three months maximum the corrosion problem shouldn’t matter.’
‘Get thicker containers made. Price doesn’t matter if it makes you feel safer.’
‘We will have a problem filling at Mannheim. It has only bulk facilities and every can will have to be very secure and protected. If they’re damaged, or please not, there is an accident, we will have a lot of difficult explaining.’
Neil understood Spienz was worried. From the risk point of view, he appreciated it, but eventually a decision had to be made. ‘You’re probably right Gunter, but unless you can think of a more discreet way it’s how it will be done.
You’re here until Friday that’s as long as we have to think about it. In the meantime organise the containers and all the protection you want round them. I’ll tell transport they have to work to your instructions.

‘All I want to know Gunter is when the load has safely arrived and you’re prepared to start producing.’ Neil stopped to see if Spienz had any comments. ‘I regard this as the final hurdle. The promised Bonus will be paid on the first day of production. Should allow you to buy all your family BMWs for Christmas.

Spienz smiled, always he felt awkward when personal money was discussed. ‘That is very generous. Thank you.’

The links for Chapters 1-12 are at the end of Chapter 13.


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