Sunday, 17 July 2011

The Journeyman - Chapter 19

By the time I returned late Sunday afternoon, Mike and Pat ad already half the cans cocooned in fibreglass.  The fear of the chemical leaking now secondary to the overwhelming stench of the resin forcing the main door to be lifted to knee level and the windows opened for circulation.  Mike, irrepressible as ever, seemed unconcerned.  He pointed at a scattering of fibres. 'We're just about out and James reckons he's cleaned out all the local suppliers."

Pat took some papers from his pocket, ‘There’s a distributor in Romford and another down near Southampton, but there’s a firm in Slough that makes fibreglass kiosks and work huts. Might save us hassle if we could pick it up from him for cash. He may not be checked out and, if he’s pocketed the cash, less likely to tell if he’s asked. Meanwhile, whether tin-lungs agrees or not, I need a quick swill and a short drive with the windows open to force some air into mine. That along with a couple of pints and something to eat might help me feel human again.’
‘Whether it was the air, food or booze that appealed to Mike was academic. Peeling of his industrial gloves he said, ‘Gimme ten minutes and I’m ready.’

‘Grabbing Pat’s arm I asked. ‘I thought this was your night with Ms Huntington?’
‘Arranged for Monday, I thought it better to wait until you were back in case Mike sneaks out.’
‘You have a faith in human nature that does you credit. I think we’re sound with Mike, he’s just one of these guys who get things done by making light of them.’ It was an appraisal that proved correct. After two beers accompanying a mediocre steak it was Mike who suggested it was time to get back; he’d a lot to be getting on with.
By nine thirty on the Monday morning we’d managed to locate W & R products in the labyrinth of Sloughs industrial estate. The owner, like the rest of his workforce, wore overalls that could have substituted for body armour. Agreeing to supply us, his question caught us off guard. ‘What’s it for? Not that it’s any of my business but there are different types, chopped, woven strand, different weights and quality. Some better for this, others for that, smooth or rough finish for instance. More to this game you know than meets the eye.’
I searched for a plausible answer, ‘Silage tank on the farms rotten round the base, I was hoping if I glassed it in to get a few more years out of it?’
Our supplier pondered for a moment ‘Couple of skins of heavy chopped then finish off with the woven. Long’s it’s laid on sound metal, no use on top of paint or rust. As I said, more to it than just clarting it on.’
Looking thoughtful, I asked. ‘You wouldn’t consider, in view of all this skill that’s needed of you doing the work for me. Of course I’d have to do it through my books, couldn’t do cash.’
‘Nah, don’t do site work. You just remember what I told you and you’ll be sound as a pound.’ So we paid his pounds and with commendable alacrity he’d the Saab loaded to capacity with cloth, resins and hardeners.
‘Why in hell did you ask if he’d do the work?’ Pat his arms and legs uncomfortably bent was struggling with both the driving and the reason.
‘Thought if he’s ever checked and feels obliged to tell, inviting him out to do a farm job might convince him he’d no need to?’
‘You’re a devious sod.’
‘Only if it’s needed Pat.’
The rest of my day was in Walsall buying springs. Getting back at six I changed places with Pat and worked until midnight. Back in the house and reckoning correctly that Pat wouldn’t be back till morning, I drove sleep from my mind and settled down to preparing a second master list and wondered when I’d tell Pat of his Christmas bonus.

We had an early start on the Tuesday, so had Pat but it was travelling rather than productive, but with two and a half pairs of hands all the cans were glassed by lunch. After a short break Mike cut some cloth into strips and resin’d one round a finished can about a third up from the base. He then pinched the strip together so it formed a ledge round the can. On each of the corners and the middle of the two long sides he pushed the hook end of the springs through. The result couldn’t be tested till the glass had cured but satisfied by its feasibility dictated our next job. We were lost in the monotony of the work when a bang on the roller door startled us.

With Pat hidden in the office, I helped guide the wagon then waited while the driver opened his trailer. Following the driver’s example Mike started kicking the coloured spheres that constituted most of the load on to the floor. Acting as a damn were three boxes filled with tubes, anchors and wire strops. Buried beneath the spheres were bags of plaster and under them were the nine metal cases that Mike took immediate charge of. Having glanced through the cases Mike took a quick inventory of the load. ‘Shit man, where’s the chicken wire, and that’s not enough plaster?’
As I jumped down, Mike started throwing the spheres back, earning him a confused look from the driver. I signalled for him to throw them back off and get on his way. Closing the roller door I turned to find both Mike and Pat glowering at me. Mike got in first, ‘Alright, what’n the hell are they?’
Grinning, I told them.
It was Pat’s turn, ‘Mooring buoys! What are we supposed to do hang the cans from the fucking things?’
‘The idea came to me on the way up on Saturday. I got to thinking about the plastering and all the work involved, I wasn’t to happy on its strength and how easy it would be to rub our markings off and the numbering would have to be done about three times. Too many moves especially with the permutations we’re using and while I don’t mind confusing the authorities I don’t want us to be confused.
After John checked if we could get enough of the right size I asked him if he could get rid of the mooring bolts. That leaves us with the relatively simple job of splitting the outer’s and cutting the six holes for the tubes and glassing them into position. The can’s left looking like a mushroom with all the details exposed so we can check and mark it once and that’s it. When we’re satisfied we put some plaster in the bottom half of the globe, shove the can in then seal the two halves with the fibreglass. I thought it quicker, safer and easier.’
‘Fucking unadulterated genius. Let’s get one split and see how it goes. One point I want cleared here and now.’ The look on Mikes face had my heart racing, ‘Making the job easier doesn’t lessen my fee.’
‘Wouldn’t dream of it Mike, you Pat?’
‘You win again haggis.’

By Friday evening over half the units were completed and we were beginning to contemplate an early start to their distribution. On the Wednesday I added a small sophistication; when we cut through the core, it left a nicely contoured cavity that intrigued me. Buying a sheet of gasket material from a motor factor I used the drafting stencils from the house and made a circular template to border the cavity. Dabbing some paint through marked the units TWB one side, Bact/Rsch below. Stepping back to admire my handiwork we all agreed it gave the units a touch of legitimacy

Late Friday Pat was double-checking my equipment and load of nine bombs while I was checking his. Both of us were showing a confidence that was, in reality, eggshell thin. It must be that sort of fuckwit quality that has men fighting wars, jumping out of planes or even flying the fucking things amongst a galaxy of shellish destruction. Women wouldn’t do it they’ve far too much sense?

So we left and by eleven our two emergency vans swung into the lodge gates of our furthest north- easterly reservoir. The lodge was a deserted relic, TWB’s security delegated to a series of contractors who we’d caught giving a cursory rattle to the gates. Entry was simple; bolt cutters solved that, how to hide the fact entry had been forced was more difficult. We couldn’t just leave the chain sheared or supply them with a free gratis lock that they didn’t have the key for. Both would tend to be noticed and commented on. I’ve got to admit the problem bloody foxed us. So we convinced ourselves if we cut the chain then fitted another padlock through the existing we’d have half a chance of nobody questioning it. It at least had the merit of simplicity. Looking at the first one we wondered if it was idiocy it merited.

Ten minutes later we were fitting the consoles in the inflatable along with the outboards and snapping connectors onto batteries before sliding three units into each boat. It took me another fifteen to reach my position at the north end, listening to the slop of water while I waited for the GPS to give a read out. Noting it on my board, I marvelled at the science that could pin point me from space. I took some more time to repeat the litany of sequences required by the three units. Then carefully lifting unit 81 onto the inflatables side I slid with it over the side and followed the anchor line down.

Slimy mud enveloped me to mid thigh as kneeling I slowly turned the unit until the number one tube lined up with the needle on my wrist compass. Shaking I kept one hand pressing hard on top while the other tensioned the wire and rammed its anchor home. Easing away my hand, I gave the anchor a gentle tug to make sure it held. Pivoting round the unit, one hand holding it steady, I did the same for anchors three and four. I wondered if it was possible to sweat, then wondered why I was wondering when I knew I was and the wires set were just anchors. I started my second circuit; two was gently pulled while the silent litany confirmed it as the detonator. A longer pause before my hand eased off the anchor. Ignoring five I anchored six, trying to slow my breathing to suit the pace of memory – that’s the safety. Then I went back to five. This time I let go of the top and gripped the wire where it emerged from the tube while my right hand pushed the anchor home until it hurt. Easing my hand off I waited for the click that signalled it was all over, Murphy had fucked Cameron, and waited.

In the water ballet I hovered over unit 81 keeping it central within the loom of my head torch, the only movement in the slow vortex of particles disturbed by my presence. It looked all right but the thought of one down only another couple of hundred to go wasn’t comforting. Giving the nearest I could manage to a sigh in an aqualung I eased to the surface, next was unit fourteen both three and four were booby-trapped, five the safety and one the detonator. ‘Holy Mother, make sure I get my fair share of easy ones.’

First back to the van, I’d just managed to get the cigarette lit when it was plucked from my lips. ‘What the! Jesus Pat don’t do that.’ Holding out my hand, ‘I’m shaking like a leaf and it’s not all down to the cold.’
‘You going to be alright?’
I nodded, snatched the fag back off Pat and used it to light another one. ‘I’ll get it done, we’ve gone too far to back off now.’ Peering at my watch, ‘It’s only one fifteen and the next reservoir’s only twenty minutes away, if we’d taken four batches we could have laid them tonight.’
Pat nodded though he didn’t look convinced, ‘Let’s see how we get on. Better slow, sure and rich than fast and dead and we’ve still the bloody journey back.’
It was five by the time we got back to the unit. Leaving Mike sleeping we connected the used batteries to the chargers and changed the air cylinders. With tiredness beating words Pat handed me his clipboard before driving us back to the house. I had to fight the temptation to crawl into bed and leave my final task till the morning. Collecting the two files, each identical for the moment with each map section marked with the minutes and seconds of degrees along the top and sides. On a clear area I’d already stencilled the four symbols that were the key to the operation. A green circle denoted the safety, amber square the detonator and the red outlined triangle, disaster if its wire was released and a solid triangle if it had to be released. Carefully checking the positions given by the GPS I positioned the crosses on the map. Round the cross I drew a circle with the six lines emanating from it. Each line was identified with its number before the circle, square or triangle was added and coloured.
Finishing the green file first I didn’t bother checking it before starting on the red. Tonight I’d worked on a sequence of two clockwise on the first, one anti on the second and three anti on the third. Double-checking my clipboard with the red file I removed the sheets from the clipboards, shredded and burnt them. The green file was left in the dresser, the red slipped into a suit cover. The green file would only give them half the code and if the potency proved correct the other half would be more than enough. Satisfied I completed the nightly ritual of removing the surgical gloves. We’d only a couple of weeks of this. I fell a sleep thinking how to convince Pat we could get another six units in each van.

Some nights were easier than others. The twelve units in the river were laid in a couple of hours and the units for the treatment works were simply dropped into place after a modification dreamed up by Mike. The works were left to last. While less physically demanding they did involve exposure. Dressed in white overalls, work jackets carrying the Thames logo with identity badges attached, we adopted the blasé attitude of long established going nowhere jobworths with the cynical ability to pass the buck in any direction. It was tested on our third works when its shift manager approached us. Nobody had told him about bacterial research monitoring units and nobody was laying any until he knew why. Giving a shrug I tucked the scarf wound round my face to ward off the cold tighter.
‘Suit yourself. Doesn’t bother me whether we get samples from here or not, you can argue it out with the boss.’ Turning, I didn’t look back when I was asked.
‘Just a minute, who is your boss?’
‘Sanderson the chief chemist.’
‘We’ll get on with it. But tell him I want it confirmed in writing.’
I maintained the truculence, ‘I’ll tell him but I doubt if it’ll worry him.’

That was the last we pushed our luck during the day, we reverted to the nocturnal for the next two nights and by eight a.m. Wednesday, a cold muggy December morning the people of London were carelessly using an innocent substance primed for their death with only six shopping days to Christmas.

Wednesday and Thursday was spent cleaning up. Apart from Mike, he was allowed a night out on the town once he’d promised to catch his eleven o’clock flight. Pat had warned him if he didn’t ring by eight he’d be on the flight dressed in whatever he slept in. Everything was packed in the vans, furniture, equipment, dusters even the floor sweeping were followed by the brush and shovel. We did the same to the house, dossing down in the lounge for our last night after we’d loaded the car. On the Tuesday evening before our last trip to the treatment works I had removed the master list and location plan from the wall. Watching the paper turn to ashes I’d wondered if I should have checked everything through one more time. Now it was too late for worry. With the rubbish from the house joining the rest in the vans, Pat slid the last can into a cool box in the Saabs boot.
‘Can’t say I’m sorry to see the last of that lot, or this place. If you can’t get a firm in Brian is it really that important?’
‘Don’t suppose it is, but it’s a finishing touch. We’ve done all we can to remain anonymous just don’t want to spoil it because we put our hand on the wall when we wiped our arses. And there’s Mike to think of.’
‘And the house?’
‘I’ll go over it again tonight and doss in the lounge again. Joanna’s taking care of the rent in the normal way and, assuming they don’t make the connection she’ll give notice in March. If they do it’ll be on Gallacher and he’ll be well gone.’
‘Poor bugger doesn’t know what he’s missed out on.’ The crack reminded Pat he’d a problem he was hopeful of having and resolving.
‘You’ll definitely be at the Huntington girl’s place on the Monday?’
‘That’s what I’m trying for. If not I’ll be in the Tower Hotel, or be there to collect your call.’

As Pat threaded the Saab through the streets of London we went over our schedule for the next stage, then we’d split until the end of January or early February. Getting out at Euston I collected my bags and gave Pat a friendly knuckle on the shoulder and told him to enjoy himself.
Waiting on the concourse till the Glasgow arrival was announced I used the platform ticket to walk up the train till it littered the platform with its passengers. Joining the stream I exited by the hire car office. Yes they had a car ordered for Mr Gallacher, if she could have my licence and please sign here and here. The task completed the girl gave me a receipt for the two weeks cash then lead me to the car. By six I was struggling to get back to Ascot.

After Euston Pat had driven to the Thames main office. Relying on speed he’d parked across the exit and sprinted to feed the envelope into the letterbox. Without a stamp or franking it would be obvious it had been hand delivered, but we’d agreed that a envelope heavily addressed; Private & Very Urgent: Sir R.C. Huntington was more likely to limit interference. The guard looked up as the flaps rattle penetrated the foyer but he saw nothing. Getting back into the traffic it took Pat the best part of an hour before he found the Mews that included Jane’s home.
The stair light went on in response to his third knock, followed by Jane shielding herself behind the door.
‘Two weeks and you stand there as large as Larry. You’re a bloody sod James Strachan.’
Pat smiled, hoping it was his most winning one, especially since Jane having stepped from behind the door revealed the damp patches on her gown and the effect of the cold on her nipples. ‘If you’ll let me in I’ll explain otherwise you’ll get hypothermia and I’ll be forced to warm your freezing body.’
‘It’s not my body you have to worry about. After two weeks of silence I may not want to know you.’
Leaning forward quickly Pat give Jane a peck on the cheek then turned and collected his case. ‘I’ve honestly been as busy as hell. Only just got finished and I was hoping for a bath and a change of clothes before taking you out to dinner.’
‘So the Celtic Bedouin is looking for bed, board and a quick screw before buggering off on another indeterminate hell of a busy time. Who do you think I am, Widow Twankie?’
Pat wasn’t sure his confidence had been well founded, and he didn’t like it when she talked like that. ‘Let me in Jane before you freeze.’ He squeezed past her closing the door behind him. ‘Jane it isn’t like that at all. When I tell you I’ve been busy, I mean exactly that, no bullshit. I’ve still got a few things to do this week but I’m hoping you’ll agree to come abroad with me at the end of it.’
‘Pat shrugged, ‘Don’t know and does it matter?’
‘What the hell do you do – drug runner – arms dealer?’ the questions were left in the air as putting his case down Pat took her in his arms.
‘I’m a slave trader abducting you for my own pleasures and I don’t like you playing the cynical wench.’ His kiss was meant to be one of warm confirmation, tender and loving and he managed it, just. With her damp body pulled close he felt her relax then press against him as they lost the banality of time and explanations to kisses. Two people hungry for the knowing of one another, not just for the satisfaction of moments. Only when he felt the salty wash of her tears did he release her.
‘Why are you crying?’
Jane dried her eyes with the sleeve of her dressing gown. ‘Because you smell like a hog. Go and get in the bath while I make us a drink.’
Pat smiled to himself as he topped the water up with hot. Getting her to admit the reason behind her tears might have been too much to hope for, but she sang with a surprisingly sweet voice. Joining him, she soaped the sponge and started lathering his back, ‘I’m supposed to be going down to Bramshott tonight. My fathers got someone he wants me to met. I knew about her before he rang from Noonoo. She reckons the old penguins courting. Shall I cancel, or do you mind coming with me?’
Pat laughed, ‘I’ve a confession to make. You were going to get a pub snack at a place called the Crown in Chiddingfold. I’ve someone to meet there between eight and eight thirty, nothing definite just a possible. Is that far from your place?’
‘Ten minutes, I’ll ring Noonoo and tell her to put the dinner back till nine and I’ll be taking another guest.’
‘Jane…. We won’t be staying the night will we.’
‘You must be joking. Watching my Fathers courtship techniques might put me off men for life.’ Bending she gave him a quick kiss and an even quicker rub of the sponge over his genitals before darting to the door. ‘It would be a disaster for that to happen now, wouldn’t it. Besides I don’t want to have to get up for anything in the morning, or have you some clandestine business that will interfere with my intentions?’
‘Not tomorrow and if I’ve read your intentions correctly we can leave tonight after the first course.’

Nobody showed at the Crown, Pat would have been amazed if they had. Sir Reginald was sipping his second sherry when Jane led Pat into the lounge. Introductions complete he was busy pouring drinks when the rustle of silk made him turn. ‘Ah Ruth, you look stunning. I’d like you to meet my daughter Jane and her friend James St…’
‘Strachan,’ Pat repeated offering his hand.

Pat wasn’t sure if he was doing well or badly in the initial round of stilted conversation. Slowly reason restored calm. He knew Dellows in detail but she’d no reason to know him from Adam. He began to realise the problem could be purely domestic. Should he tell Jane what he knew of this woman? That would involve explanations that at the moment were impracticable. The decision allowed him to relax; but the knowing didn’t make the evening comfortable.

They were through the main course before Huntington asked what Pat did for a living.
‘Shipping and haulage.’ Pat swallowed hard realising he’d totally covered his knowledge of either. Jane’s interjection saved further embarrassment.
‘He ships and haul slaves.’
Ignoring the quip Huntington asked Jane her plans for Christmas. Don’t bother about me, James and I are planning to go away. You?’
Huntington smiled at Dellows, ‘Hoping to convince Ruth to have Christmas here then possibly to take in the New Year at her place in Dublin. Nothing final but that’s the intention. If tonight’s the last time I’ll see you I better give you your present.’
As Huntington left the room Pat grabbed the opportunity. ‘If you’ll excuse me I’ll make that call now Jane. Can I use the phone in your flat?’ Opening the Saabs boot he could see Jane and Dellows talking in the dining room and wrapping his handkerchief round the handle and with the can shielded by his body slid it under the garage workbench. Returning to the house he found the dining room deserted. Expecting to be shown her fathers present Pat was intrigued when no mention was made of it. That deepened by the chill in Jane’s voice.
‘I’ll pop along and have ten minutes with Mrs Neetcham while you finish your brandy James. We always have a day shopping, is there any day you know you’ll be busy?’
‘I know I’ll be busy on the Tuesday and Wednesday but if it’s a tradition just chose the day you want.’
‘So I’ll not be spending Christmas day with you?’
Pat quietly crossed a couple of fingers. ‘Course you will, that’s the day we’re flying off. Just don’t know the exact time.’

Jane was back within fifteen minutes and five later they were heading out the drive. Lighting cigarettes and leaning across to put his to his lips she kissed Pats neck. ‘Stop at the next lay bye and seduce me.’
‘You’re a bloody tease woman. How’ll it look to the Horse and Hound set if Sir Reggie’s daughter was found being bonked by a Mr Nobody.’
‘There’s been a few, no not good enough; there’s been a lot of nobodies in my life and, so far, only one that mattered.’
Glancing at Jane, Pat put his finger to her lips. ‘Too early for that, we haven’t got to know one another yet.’
Jane, relieved they could get the evening back for themselves, teased. ‘What a coincidence though; here I am getting involved with a Celt and my Fathers desperate to try the same brand.’
‘Watch your tongue woman. We’re not a brand and it’s respect and adoration we expect from our women. Wit we get out of bottles.’
‘Overbearing chauvinist.’
‘Absolutely! Jane, you were a bit offhand with your father? I was expecting to be shown the present. That’s what most people do, if only to show how pleased they are to get it, if not with it.’
‘Would you like to see it?’ Fumbling in her bag and stretching for the cars interior light switch she held a slip of paper for him to see.
Pat whistled. ‘Ten thousand’s not a bad present Jane.’
She looked at the cheque like a teller querying its authenticity. ‘I suppose it isn’t. But its real value is the amount of bother needed to give it. James have you had people who mattered in your life?’
Pat nodded. ‘Yes I’ve been lucky.’
Back at Jane’s place it took a lot of self-discipline for him to ring Brian.

Brian was sitting in his hotel room gazing over the skyline of a wakening Manchester. Today was his first completely free day and he knew exactly what he was going to do with it. What had still to be decided was how to go about it.

As the whine of ICPs jet engines pushed it towards the parking zone, Neil stretched in his seat and considered it a done deal. The credit had already been transferred to ICP’s Geneva account at last nights closing exchange rate. He’d travelled back alone, George having agreed to cover the celebrations and return the next day.

Neil’s hopes for a quiet entry to the UK were quickly shattered. The pack of reporters pressing microphones barraged him with a confusion of questions. One leonine reporter, regarded highly by himself, less by the city, opted for the lucidity of asking why he’d done it?’
‘Because in my business judgement it’s best for my group and our shareholders.’
Having won an answer the reporter was allowed precedence, ‘Mr Hopkins it’s been said you never intended to sell and the deals gone sour on you/’
Neil smiled; he could see the exit and his car waiting. ‘How can something be sour if it’s exactly what you wanted?’
The enigmatic answer lost the reporter his position allowing another unproductive babble that rose to a crescendo as they reach the car. With the help of the police and by insistently creeping the car forward they were through and Neil could sit back and relax. Clearing his throat his driver offered an envelope to Neil.
‘Begging your pardon Mr Hopkins. While I was waiting at the airport a gentleman asked If I’d give it to you as soon as I could.’
Switching on the light Neil found his name and the word Urgent underlined. Reading the note he looked behind and saw the following car flash its lights. ‘Turn off at the next junction and stop please.’ The car followed, stopping immediately behind on the slip road. Getting out of his car Neil got into the front passenger seat.

‘My turn to apologise for the cloak and dagger stuff Neil, in view of the reception I thought it better to make myself scarce.’ John Dickson, unfamiliar with driving, cancelled the wipers and found the indicators of the hired Jaguar before swinging onto the west bound M4. ‘We’re heading for Bramshott, if I can remember the way, there’s been a development that involves all of us and Huntington’s all for calling in the police. Luckily he called me first and once he’d calmed down I was able to persuade him to wait until we could all discuss it. If you read this it will explain why. Taking a sheet of A4 from his pocket he handed it to Neil.

By the time they reached Bramshott. Neil had spoken only once since reading the sheet John had handed to him. ‘Have you seen this can?’
‘No, but Cecil has.’
Trying to think of options Neil came up mainly with repercussions. The deal was done and if the stuff was Kalex, it would soon be common knowledge what its properties were. In these circumstances he could hardly expect John to continue buying half the loan and he wouldn’t have the benefit of Uniclor’s market honeymoon. He’d be left with hundreds of millions of dead loan and the same amount of useless Uniclor stock. More damning would be the publicity of Kalex in such a negative manner, making the intended launch with its emphasis on the ecology, health and wealth of its users into the farce of the century. Public hysteria would brand it as untouchable, while his competitors would be frantically working to come up with something similar under a different name.

The house was awash with lights, Mr Neetcham had the door opened before they were out of the car and taking Sir Johns coat ushered them through to the study. Forever the host Huntington asked if they’d like a drink. Refusing, Neil suggested coffee and sandwiches might go down better. Huntington waited until Bert was gone before saying, ‘Bloody awkward business. Did John tell you I’m all for calling in the police and still think we should. He insisted I wait until you knew, why I don’t know, but I insist you tell me now.’

Neil ignore the demand, ‘John was right asking you to wait for reasons I’ll explain later. First let me see the can, then I’ll know if we have anything or nothing to worry about.’
Huntington adopted the hue of a ripe damson, ‘Good god Neil, these crooks are demanding twenty million otherwise they’ll wipe out London. How can you call that nothing?’ turning to the others for support all he got was a withering look from Cecil Laing.
‘Stop blustering man I’m sure Neil can read. It’s in the garage Neil do you want me to get it for you/’
‘No leave it where it is. If it’s what they say the least it’s handled the better.’
Laing pulled himself out of his chair, ‘I have already handled it, stuck it beside some other cans, c’mon I’ll show you.’

‘Damn!’ Neil stared at the thing a yard from his feet. Green cans were probably as common as muck but he knew this was it, anything else was hope reduced to miracles. Besides, who ever left it must know of its potency because the top seemed to be sealed.
‘It would seem you consider we have a problem?’ Cecil looked at him with a calmness he didn’t altogether feel.
‘Looks like it Cecil. I’ll tell you now, it wouldn’t take too much to convince me to agree with Huntington.’
‘Give yourself a few minutes to come to terms with the thing before you commit yourself to that course.’ Neil looked at Laing, it had happened before, a short comment, a word even, would leave him wondering if he wasn’t dealing with the master of them all. Now he knew he’d a lot of convincing to do. ‘I’m alright. We better get back and lay all the cards on the table.’
Neil mumbled his thanks for the sandwiches and waited till Mrs Neetcham closed the door behind her. ‘The stuff in the can is most probably Kalex. It’s a new product developed by us and the reason for the information I gave you on the fourteenth regarding the Uniclor deal.’
Gerald asked. ‘How did they get hold of it?’
‘The wagon was hijacked when we were transporting the pilot batch from Germany. I’ve had an investigator trying to find out exactly how and where, so far he’s had little success.’
‘You mean all we’re talking about is a lorry load?’ For the first time since he’d opened the envelope Huntington felt a whisker of optimism.’
‘Less than that Reginald, they only took about two hundred and fifty gallons.’ Neil watched the hue in Huntington’s face revert to near normal and almost felt sorry for having to disappoint him.
‘Surely that piddling amount couldn’t do the harm these people suggest. It’s a preposterous bluff and I can understand now why John….’ His voice trailed out as he saw Neil’s shaking head.
‘I wish it was true. I don’t know what your daily consumption of water is Reginald, what I do know is Kalex will turn it into a poison so deadly it would make strychnine look like cough mixture. Nor would it be enough to drain the system. If Kalex pollutes it then all of it will have to be written off.
You have to understand Kalex is a first for Britain that will keep us ahead for years to come. Small advanced plants like we now have at Runcorn can equal the combined production of everyone we’ve sold. They produce a product that works and properly packaged is safer than any fertiliser or pesticide in use today.
You see the chemical industry has been selling false promises for years. We sell greater and greater quantities of a product that is less effective, but not less harmful. So we produce a falsely high revenue from a increasingly ineffective product.’ The summation helped Neil form his own position. ‘In the final analysis we’re being blackmailed for twenty million. A piddling sum to what we already stand to lose and hardly a drop of what we stand to gain. If we can put aside our anger at being ripped off it leaves us with the real dilemma. How best can we safeguard the people?’
Dickson was first to break the silence, ‘Not that its important, but because my bank was about to get heavily committed to Uniclor, Neil felt obliged to inform me of his intentions. Going along with Neil’s plan I’ve agreed to my bank buying half of Californians loan and if it helps the plan succeed. I’ll regard it as money well spent. My reason for telling you this is to put their demands in perspective; cash wise that is.’

Laing tapped out his pipe and cleared his throat, ‘I’m glad you mentioned the people Neil; they’re the pawns who will suffer without having any choice in it. It’s their safety that’s paramount, anything along the lines of self-protection or profit is wrong. Any decision we make, whether it means throwing ourselves to the wolves, involving the authorities, paying the blackmail or all three. We have no right none, to base our considerations on anything else. To that end, I propose we consider very carefully the demand and see what our options are. Read it out Neil so we can discuss it’s implications.’
Neil took a sip of cold coffee before starting.
Gerald broke the silence that pressed in on them. ‘Could they really do that. I mean could they activate the lot in a area the size of London?’
‘That’s one point we have to consider Gerald; none of us are expert on what can and cannot be done with explosives.’ Neil turned to Huntington. ‘On the practical front, is it possible to drain off one reservoir at a time. I’m working on the assumption that pinpointing exactly where the bombs are would get us over one hurdle?’
Huntington looked uncomfortable. His problem was his complete ignorance of the mechanics behind the company he headed. ‘I’m pretty certain it can be done but it’s really a question for my chief engineer.’
Cecil Laing shook his head. ‘Don’t see the relevance. They’ve already said the ones in the treatment works are visible and don’t seem bothered by it. We’re also told they don’t mind if we involve the authorities and provided nothings touched it should be all right. Crunch is, is their confidence warranted or merely bluff?’
Dickson, who hadn’t moved his eyes from the fire during the reading, rubbed his hands over them. ‘I think we have only one decision to make. Whether we believe they’ve laid a sophisticated system or not is irrelevant. All we really know is they have the chemical and if we don’t pay they could simply tip them in anywhere. Going by Neil’s information the effect would be the same.’
‘Yes John, but if they tried that we could have the police, even the army covering twenty four seven.’
Dickson nodded, ‘I thought of that Reginald, but then we’d have to know there were no bombs and we don’t.’
‘More pertinent, they’d merely have to pore the stuff into the Thames or any of its tributaries. I assume that’s where you get most of the supply from?’ Neil waited for confirmation but was ignored by Huntington. He’d uncovered another worry.
‘I know it’s another tack. That reference to the five of us, we could be playing into their hands. It could be a ploy to expose us?’
Neil felt rage about to get the better of him, ‘For Christ’s sake Reginald, what does that matter? If you can’t be constructive shut up.
I propose we meet the demand for no other reason than it’s the safest course. But by agreeing to do so we make counter proposals that limit the time and danger to the least possible.’
‘You’re assuming they’ll honour their offer to provide precise details?’
‘Have we any choice Cecil?’
Laing shrugged, ‘Probably not?’
‘Look how they’ve gauged the pressure of time. We have to get the reply into the Guardian tonight. Anybody know anybody there that can persuade the paper to do it?’
Gerald Goode, nodded to cover that.
‘Thanks Gerald,’ Neil turned to the others. ‘None of us are trained in the cloak and dagger stuff but we’re all businessmen, which means we’re pragmatists not gamblers. We know our strengths and cover for our weaknesses. Our strength is we have the money to meet their demand, our weakness, the information can’t be handled by us, so we move to give the experts the best chance possible.’

’I realise my assent may be easier due to the money problem not applying.’ Cecil hesitated, searching for words. ‘At times the authorities can be very clever at this sort of thing. Trouble is there are equally times when they can be unbelievable stubborn and pedantic, that’s when you don’t hear about the foul up only the result. My understanding of Neil’s proposal is we by pass the politicians and executive and give the best chance we can to the practical experts such as the bomb disposal people. I’m for it.’
Neil looked at Gerald. ‘Don’t mind telling you Neil I’ve problems coming to terms with this. Suppose these bastards have made a mistake. Or they’re fanatics who want us to think everything is safe until Boxing Day when we could be drinking the stuff tomorrow. And what about the old argument – give in to this and they’ll be back with another? I mean. Damnit, I don’t know what I mean?’
Neil understood Gerald’s quandary. They all could, he’d just been the one honest enough to say it. ‘ We have one absolute fact we can act on. These people came across the one consignment of Kalex that will be shipped in this condition. It was sheer chance; an entrepreneurial dream and they’re making the best of it.
We have to consider they’ve made no political demands, so it would seem the cash is their only interest. Perhaps we should regard as us having invested a huge sum in a development and one sod’s screwing us for the ransom strip that makes it all work. Our choice is either to get all hot and bothered and probably screw it up, or pay the man and get on with it.’
Gerald nodded, I appreciate all that Neil, ‘It’s not the money, it’s the fear if everything goes wrong, lets hear what John thinks before I make up my mind.’
‘I agree with Neil Gerald, we’ve no reason to hide anything, it’s Neil’s chemical, Reginald’s chairman of the utility and we’re all directors. It’s a reasonable decision based on the safest course to remove the danger. We tell these people we’ll pay and not involve the authorities until we have the details they promise. Our only request is we have the details as soon as they have the money.
I understand what you’re trying to do Neil but we only need to cut the bottom from the demand to remove Cecil from any involvement. Any way that’s the essence of my thoughts and I pray to God they’re sound.’
‘Right John I’ll go with that.’ Gerald felt relief he wasn’t the only one looking for more than mortal guidance.
‘Fine by me John. We’ll just have to find a way to convince them.’
‘I agreed with Neil, yours make no difference. My job will be to find a way of having the maximum number of experts available.’
John frowned, ‘That could raise awkward questions?’
‘Perhaps, but I’m in the best position to have a few quiet words in the least number of ears.’
‘There are two points we should cover.’ Neil turned to Huntington. ‘Reginald, we invent a reason for samples to be taken from every reservoir and works as often as possible. Dream up something about them being required by the Department of Health. You should be able to fence off queries until it’s out of our hands. Secondly, we get your chief engineer and my chemist together. We tell them it’s a semi official exercise at the behest of the government to evaluate countermeasures on terrorists polluting the system.
Their job is to work out damage limitation methods for complete pollution down to permutations of reservoirs and treatment works. I’ll tell my man to use Kalex as the model, but, from here on in, I ask that none of us mention the name. All we know is it’s supposedly a chemical manufactured by us. Once the explosives are removed, we’ll take the responsibility for disposing of it.’
Nobody noticed Huntington hadn’t been asked for his opinion and he didn’t volunteer one.

Within the hour Goode was ringing his Guardian contact and a snippet of Ad would be recompensed by major revenue from corporate advertising budgets. Gerald had also the responsibility of gathering the sixty- two Samsonite cases in specified colours and organising a pool of cars and drivers from his service fleet to cover the embryonic scheme Neil and John Dickson were forming to create, collect and deliver the twenty million. Huntington was left with his home being used as the base and setting up the sampling rota. Cecil had to produce two quasi-official letters to convince the engineer and scientist of the urgency of their findings and to emphasise the need for secrecy. That and the small matter of whispering into the right “Old Boy’s” ear the need for SAS, SBS and bomb disposal experts to have their Christmas leave cancelled, without the whisper being amplified or sourced.

Making his way to breakfast Brian picked up the Guardian from the foyer. After last night’s news item covering the arrival of Hopkins, he didn’t expect there to be anything in it of interest. What he had and didn’t expect was a feeling of calm – of control- of the knowing the job was done and done well. The decisions were for others now. Whether to pay or not, say they would but didn’t intend to, or pay and use it as a method of cornering them. The last was the riskiest and had been carefully catered for. The commission paid to the movement would be the first money back in circulation. Filtered through betting shops and wage packets within the six counties would goad a reaction and tell them exactly where they stood with the rest. Their decision would be made on Tuesday, whether to collect or disappear.

Scanning the personal ads Brian felt his inner calm turn as cold as the breakfast being served to him was condemned to get. What the hell did they mean, SUBJECT TO ONE. RING 081-568-3133?

© Eoin Taylor

Links to Chapters 1 - 16 are here along with Chapter 17. Chapter 18 is here


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