Sunday, 24 July 2011

The Journeyman - Chapter 20

Chapter 20

links to all previous chapters are at the bottom of this page

In the early hours of Saturday Cecil, John and Gerald left Bramshott. Neil and Huntington would have to stay until Spienz and Jones; Thames chief engineer, arrived and were briefed by their bosses, before they too rushed back to London. Huntington to his office Neil to his home. Neither Gerald nor Cecil gave any thought to the woman they were introduced to before John and Neil arrived.

Neil would have to wait out Saturday, for his home phone to ring in reply to the Guardian ad in the hope he could convince the caller. They’d reached the conclusion the people they were up against were either ignorant of the sophisticated and, for them, far simpler methods of transferring funds. Or cash had been demanded because it would identify them by having paid without leaving a trail of who they’d paid it to. The simplest answer, of the commitment, time and logistics they’d have to employ to raise the cash never occurred to them until later.

Pat rose about twenty minutes after Jane. The radio was blaring out the frenetic morning blurb of music, traffic news and Irish wit. He’d decided to take Jane out and tour round a few reservoirs to check for activity till he remembered Jane was having a girl’s day shopping, when the phone rang.
‘Yeh it’s me, why’re you ringing here?’
‘It’s in. They’ve given a London number to contact and said subject to one.’
‘Subject to one what?’
‘How the fuck would I know. We’ll need to ring the number to know that.’
‘You want me to ring?’
‘You anything on today?’
‘Not much, Jane’s gone shopping with her old Nanny and the woman Dellows who’s seemingly courting or being courted by her old man.’
‘Dellows, Dellows; where have I heard that name?’
‘The Quinn Butler saga. Same name - same woman was introduced to me on Thursday when I delivered the package. Just about shit myself till I realised she had no reason to know me.’
I felt the second icy tentacles grip onto the calm control I’d woken with. ‘Is this coincidence or are we being targeted or checked on?’ Was this it? The ‘Murphy’, the law of sod, the imponderable who and the fuck of the irrevocable why.
Pat found himself shrugging. ‘Could be coincidence. She’s got a reputation for selling her wares to high rollers.’ Then wondered why it hadn’t worried him to the extent it seemed to be worrying Brian. Probably being with Jane had something to do with it.
But I didn’t have that distraction, ‘All right, if it’s coincidence we’ve nothing to worry about. If it’s targeted, who’s using her and why? Now that we really need to know.’
‘Brian we’re too close to the pickup to even try it and we have this move of theirs to consider. Could be this subject to one and phone number is some mind game along the lines of the hi-jack ploys. You know get them and keep them talking.’
‘Pat there’s something I need to do today and nothing’s going to stop me doing it. Just give me half an hour to think this out, I’ll ring you back.’ Leaving the pay phone a woman waiting scurried on when I let loose a ‘Fuck’ at the gods of chance.

John Dickson was breakfasting with Cecil Laing. Between them, the one object that could have told an acute observer all was not normal in their world. In fact John thought it more discreet to go to the paper stand himself. Cecil, having been briefed on the details on how they intended to raise and collect the twenty million, pointed his marmalade smeared knife at the Guardian. Seems all we’re left to worry about is their reaction to this.’
John smiled at the understatement. ‘ Whatever, though I’ve got to admit to wracking my brain to think of a way to prove we’re being truthful.’
‘Fact is we can’t. Anything we say they’re bound to regard with suspicion. It’s all down to intent and control. They don’t know what our intentions are and we certainly don’t know theirs. .
As to control we have none. Damage limitation at best, control no – they have it all. We can only hope they have the confidence to believe that as well.’

Both fell silent, reviewing a situation that now dominated their lives. Trapped, with only the impotent ability to do as they were told. A condition of everyday living for most people was a frightening anathema to them. John tried to fend off the feeling of hopelessness that had descended by concentrating on the practicalities. ‘We can only hope Neil manages to convince them. Until we know how they plan to collect we can’t finalise anything.’

Leaving the club, Cecil said he’d spend the day at his office; John hailed a taxi to take him to a theatrical costumier then on to Donald Fraser’s office. God knows they’d enough to do to meet the little control they had.

There was plenty purpose but little sense to the route I walked through Manchester’s centre. In the end I made five phone calls from different phone boxes, the second of which caused a fifty minute wait for a reply that pushed my plans for the day to the limit, but proved time well spent. My first call was to Cumbria, only to be told by Joanna John was in Dublin and probably in his office. I told her to expect me later tonight than intended. Dublin was the second call, which caused the fifty-minute delay. The third was to Pat to explain what I was doing, and then get cursed by him for not letting sleeping bitches lay, before telling him to hang on till I heard from Dublin. Hanging about was a drag and, while John had asked for the hour the fifty minutes and the fourth called proved enough. That and the fact the sun broke through the clouds the instant I got his answer was the omen I needed to say we were back on the helm. Number five was for Pat and only after I’d made it and got his agreement did I realise how much of my life had hung on John’s answer-Dellows wasn’t a coincidence. And could be used but not abused.
Neil had to wait till ten thirty before he got a call. Picking up the phone he answered with his own voice sounding alien to his ear. He heard nothing but a hiss before a weak voice - no voices, merged in an incomprehensible chatter. Maybe they were arguing on what to say- ridiculous, they’d have agreed before ringing. Straining he was rewarded by a couple of snatches; “too much”, then “coating guaranteed” before the hiss was back with an overlain mash of sound that seemed to come in waves. Surely they didn’t have a bad line, the final insult, screwed by Telecom; bloody fool, get a grip. ‘Hello it’s Hopkins here. CAN YOU HEAR ME?’ loud enough to have him glance at the door in case Jessie or his Father had heard two floors below. Hello this is a very bad line, can-you-hear-me?’ Nothing but a background, sometimes surging in volume; traffic, that was it; ‘Hello we can’t hear you for the traffic.’ Neil waited and waited calling and listening to the waves of traffic – click and the line was dead. It rang a minute later but it was only George telling him he had landed at Heathrow and would be with him shortly.

Pat had solved the problem of recording by the simple expediency of standing beside the stores video unit as it warbled its way through the various bargains no discriminating shopper could refuse. Having bought two pocket sized recorders and extra tapes he’d stood with one for ten minutes surreptitiously recording the videos offers. Now he waited in a café, sipping a coffee while watching the phone booth. The card would last fifteen minutes; the recorder depended on the timing and purpose of the booths next visitor. Fifteen minutes, more than enough time to be traced and checked.

After twenty minutes he left the café and the recorder to whoever found it and hailing a cab told the driver to take him round by the Palace then on to the Tower while he worked on the sequence of switches to his second recorder. There had always been an English voice in his head, that of his Father and about the only accent he was capable of imitating. He was on his fourth attempt before the playback satisfied him and he told the driver he’d changed his mind would he take him to Euston station.

The phone rang twice between eleven and half past, raising Neil’s hopes in a malevolent silence. The first was a friend of his Father’s who constantly got their numbers mixed up. Neil acknowledged him politely before pointing out his mistake. The second was from Huntington; again Neil managed to keep the right side of abruptness. By noon he was beginning to wonder where the hell George had got to and considered patience to be the most boring and frustrating idiocy ever to be called a virtue. It rang a minute later.

Relief, till he realised he was only giving it half his attention, -“The subject to one we understand to be a request. State why we should be interested and your reason for it. Wait five seconds then talk.” Neil used the time to loosen his jaw muscles.
‘My name is Hopkins and this is my home phone number. We have not contacted the authorities and are in the process of making arrangements to gather the cash without creating immediate interest. We confirm the money will be ready for you to collect late on Tuesday and to the best of our knowledge none of it will be recorded but, we will not be able to limit the denomination to twenty pound notes. To try and do that would make a difficult task impossible and cause suspicion.’ Neil took a breath and tried to break the monotone of his voice.
‘We have done everything you asked, our one condition; sorry request, is that we receive all the details at the time you receive the money. Our intention, whether you give us the details or not, is to inform the authorities in order to minimise the danger. Having done that we will no longer be in a position to negotiate.’ Breathing again he managed to inject some emotion into his choking voice.
‘Please believe me. We have not involved the authorities. We have not and will not try any tricks with the money. We simply want the threat removed as quickly and safely as possible. That is our sole intent.’
For ten seconds Neil waited for an answer, then for thirty seconds prayed for one though he knew the line was dead. A knock at his door had George opening it while agreeing with Jessie that if her scones were a patch on her roasts, he’d probably manage a dozen. Neil waited until Jessie closed the door behind her. ‘Damn he’s just broke the connection. Said nothing. What if that’s it?’
‘What if what’s it?’ George asked, getting only a wave from Neil while he rang back Huntington to make sure the reservoir checks were being fully covered. Trying as hard as he could he had to admit Huntington sounded more chilled out than he felt; not a familiar situation for Neil to find himself in. Apologising to George, Neil gave him the rundown on the stolen chemical and the ransom being demanded from Thames and ICP. George’s answer was to pour two brandies. ‘Nobody’s going to lose out on twenty million just like that. They’re covering themselves for phone taps and whether or not to believe you. They’ll ring back.’ He wished he’d the conviction of the words and could see by the look on Neil’s face they’d failed him as well.

John Dickson got his call returned at 9.45, which probably meant Prince Khalid Salah Al Hassa had just got up. A contemporary of him and Cecil at Eton with Fraser added at Cambridge, they’d heard nothing from him for years after their graduation until he re-appeared, coaxed them all into a reunion, informed them his family had put him in charge of the countries developments in hydrocarbons and minerals and he needed people he could trust to educate him in the political and financial innuendos. Through the years the questions and answers had grown from minor problems causing them great difficulty to find answers, to major problems, which, as their careers advanced caused no difficulty answering. John hoped the reputation of the procrastinating Arab would prove as false as the supposed size of the Irish brain.

Khalid's chortle when he’d asked the favour and suggested Gerald would fly out to Riyadh to complete the formalities had him baffled.
‘Please John you must excuse my mirth. What you ask is not a problem though I look forward to being told the reason why. We already know the units are the best for us; I’ll give your negotiators a Christmas gift, tell them they have the contract and can go home. I’ll contact our Ambassador and make sure he obliges you on Monday. There now you have it all without sending Gerald to the lions.’

Only when he’d said his goodbyes did he realise the reason for Khalid’s mirth. During the closing hours of Friday their combined corporate brains had conceived a plot to send a Jew to Mecca. His chuckle mocked the sombre disapproval of his predecessor’s portraits.

The first thing Gerald Goode had done when he got to his office was to ring Angela his secretary and ask her to get in as soon as she could.

He’d two problems to solve and the sooner she was in the sooner he would feel he was addressing them from a foundation of logic. Primarily he’d to supply cars and drivers to the locations chosen for the collection of the twenty million. He knew there was somebody in the company responsible for fleet management but he wasn’t sure who it was and what he or she covered. The second he regarded as mere shopping, and probably far more up Angela’s street than his. Little did he know?

Within ten minutes Angela had Mr Feeney on the line from his Solihull home, wondering if this was the new technique of executive displacement. First the herald then the god demanding details in the dead of night that half doped you give by rote only to wake in the morning wondering if you’ve dreamt it and, knowing you haven’t, if you’ve fluffed it. He’d have liked to find some assurance as he made his way to his Coventry office but he was only a junior director – even worse- a junior spending director. He couldn’t argue on increased turnover or profits, he’d only minimised expenditure to go on and he wondered if Goode would find he’d minimised enough.

By eleven a.m. Gerald had been told he didn’t need to make the trip to Khalid and that Huntington was to organise the staging of the consortiums winning bid for the Monday. Four hundred and twenty million for the de-salination plants would cover most of the irregularities of the next few days and allow for the whiff of corruption to follow. Gerald called Huntington back to remind him of Neil’s instructions to keep ICP’s involvement to a minimum in case it influenced the downward slide of ICP stock before joining Angela in hunting down the bloody suitcases.

He gave up after a couple of hours, defeated by rudeness and the Christmas rush. Phones were either left to ring or, if answered, stipulated, make, types and colours were not an option worth spending time on. Angela was getting the same thing but handling it better. ‘Angela, who the hell are Samsonite?’
Angela smiled, the plea both expected and prepared for. ‘They’re German, I’ve their address here.’
Gerald looked at the slip of paper – Fritz Spark. Rosrather Strabe 68-70 KOLN 91- then. ‘Get on to them; tell them I’ll need the lot for Tuesday. Tell 'em I’ll send my plane to collect them.’ Then deciding not to break a lifetime rule, ‘and Angela tell purchasing to bill all the costs including the transport to Thames.’ Shaking his head, he told Angela he would be with Huntington at Thames and suggested it might be wise to book Feeney in a hotel for tomorrow night. Angela just assumed she was expected to be in for the Sunday as well.
Two years before, in a desperate effort to meet bills and stave off hunger I’d gone to sell Rags engagement ring. The decision had been difficult enough for both of us but when I was offered hundreds for what they’d packaged and glittered into thousands it had made me so sickeningly mad I was sorely tempted to draw the scrawny jewellers neck. I’d vowed never to buy jewellery again. My excuse was, if I’d thought about it, I could have used the fifty minutes waiting for John to shop more adventurously, but I hadn’t, and fourteen months was a long time to gauge sizes, pick fashions and guess taste, so I cop’t out. I chose the watch and pendant with a lot of care then, while the assistant was gift-wrapping them, my eye caught the sheen of a heavy white gold choker. Perhaps that would be taking too much for granted but what the hell. Asking the girl to wrap it I asked if she would get the manager. She must have triggered some system; without her moving, a mirrored and mahogany door opened and a dapper gent in black jacket, striped trousers and carnation buttonhole introduced himself as Mr Sykes. I glanced at the rich velvet boxes and the name imprinted on them. ‘The same name as the shop?’
‘Yes sir, my grandfather founded the firm.’
‘Then you’re just the man. How much does this lot come to?’
Sykes looked at his assistant, an almost imperceptible nod giving her leave to answer. ‘Three thousand, eight hundred and sixty four pounds, sir.’
I gave my own nod to indicate I was happy with her arithmetic. ‘Thank you. Now Mr Sykes, how much will you take for cash?’ and enjoyed watching him flush.
‘I’m sorry sir, it’s not our policy to give discounts.’
I let a few seconds slip as though I was considering his position. ‘Mr Sykes your policies don’t interest me. I’ll ask you once more; how much for cash?’
This time the eyes darted from me to the packages then on to his assistant. ‘Ms Newal, would you excuse us please.’
I’d won.
Sykes hesitated searching for reasons that would demean me for asking. ‘On modest purchases such as yours the maximum we can allow is ten percent.’
‘Sure, lets call it three and a half to keep it simple.’ Counting out the fifty-pound notes I finished by putting a smaller pile of seven beside my purchases and asked a scowling Sykes if he could spare me an elastic band. I waited fairly placidly as he checked every note before I collected my packages and headed for the door. ‘Mr Sykes.’ He turned by the door of his inner sanctum. ‘I never asked for discount only how much you wanted for cash.’ I handed the bundle of notes to the first woman I saw with a couple of kids looking into a toyshop window with more hope than faith. Wishing her, and the kids a happy Christmas.

By noon I was in a familiar estate in Knutsford where barracks of bungalows only varied by their two or three bedroom status. A thrumming washing machine completed the time warp and told me she was home. I was scrutinised before getting a grudging welcome, a coffee without too many awkward questions and the cautious confirmation I’d been hoping for.

I didn’t know till I saw Gemma on the netball court, why I’d thought it necessary to call at her Nan’s first. It was my commitment. It would have been too easy to be the voyeur. To test the ground, have somebody pass the parcels to her, watch her reaction and use the space to weigh my welcome or rejection. As it was I waited until she’d changed and was leaving the sports centre. Perhaps not the wisest of moves when the girl you watched on the court doesn’t come out in the dishevelled slightly damp manner expected, but as a styled and toned young woman. I’d the ridiculous fear her first word to me would be Brian? But no, it was “DAD!” and the style was gone and my girl was back and I felt like the proudest lump of shit ever created when her tears trickled down my cheek. Then came the hard bit.

I suppose the hotel was a bit stuffy for Gemma, but we needed the time to go slow so we could search for the words we couldn’t find and carefully examine the persistent ones before allowing our mouths to release them. The whys was her prerogative and she’d the sense to start with one that didn’t matter.
‘Why have you shaved your beard off?’
‘Just a whim; the new me. I’ll probably let it sprout again.’
‘Why didn’t you write, postcards anything. We thought definitely birthdays; but nothing?’
I tried to tell the truth but hadn’t the guts, instead I played pass the blame. ‘Gemma girl don’t rub it in. I got your letters but without an address and just the Hi Dad, they seemed guarded. I thought I was reading between the lines but maybe I was only seeing what I wanted to see.’ I could see the confusion my answer caused turning to the pink of blame. ‘Forget what I just said Gemma. It’s rubbish, a lame excuse for the vague notion we call maturity.’
She half smiled as though she forgave me then hit me with the question I’d been dreading. ‘Are you coming back to see Stuart and Mum?’
I suppose there are people who’s brains are entirely logical – a sort of all or nothing approach of either a definitive answer or complete avoidance- of course I wanted to see my son and Rag; though I wasn’t sure if I’d the right still to call her my wife and knowing I’d be asked, I couldn’t dig up an answer or lie to ease my way out. I’d decided to wing it – another lie, I just hoped I would wing it. ‘No I can’t.’
I watched her eyes fill with water and cursed the spongy form of my brain and wit. ‘Don’t cry girl. I had thought of seeing both you and Stuart but you know how he is. Couldn’t keep a secret for twenty seconds. Gemma things have changed since I last saw you.’ A look of worry easing through her eyes told me the hash I was making of this. ‘No you daft little sod, I’m not involved with anybody. I meant things, circumstances, not my feelings. What I’m trying to get at is, it’s for your Mother to decide for herself without the pressure of what you and Stuart want. Believe me she’ll be well aware of it without the pair of you nagging her and that’s why you’ll have to keep it from him. I met your Nan earlier on and got the same promise from her.’
‘Where will you be?’
‘A lot depends on your Mothers answer. But either way I want you to know how much I love both of you and if it’s down to me we’ll be seeing plenty of each other. Now I think I better take you home before your Nan rings in case I’ve abducted you and your Mother starts worrying.’

We sat for a couple of minutes in the car, on a road I’d no feeling for and a couple of houses down from a house that homed my family but I’d no presence in. We both were searching for words then leaving them unsaid knowing they’d crack the thinnest shell of restraint and explode the bubble of hope. Both managed to survive the hugs of parting and by concentrating on the traffic I made about five miles before the happy misery made me pull over. It was almost seven before I could trust myself to ring Pat.

‘Hopkins.’ Neil glanced at his watch; eight o’clock. It was the same voice as the mornings – perhaps a bit harsher. They’d thirty minutes to make up their minds, as the voice said, more than reasonable.

There had been only one other phone call in the afternoon when John Dickson asked if George could get over to Midshire and carry out the same exercise he was struggling with in his bank. Seemingly Donald Fraser had earmarked five of his city rivals who would handle funds around a million each and supply the names and locations of between ten and fifteen provincial brokers along with their credit ratings. In theory the amount could be covered after they’d received the twenty one million in stocks from Californian first thing Monday. But the problem, even for the London brokers would be earmarking the banks with sufficient cash to meet the brokers’ cheques on the Tuesday even when the funds had cleared Monday. John was hoping by matching his to Georges they could assume the other two banks would have similar facilities within the same area. It quickly became apparent to Dickson as he scanned last year’s microfiche records that physically collecting the twenty million was going to prove a logistical nightmare and was only made possible because of the demands of Christmas. He was getting the distinct impression none of it had been left to chance. By six they’d been joined by Gerald at Donald Fraser’s office and trying to mate banks to amounts and brokers when Neil’s phone call came through.

Gerald answered the phone, ‘What did they say?’
‘We’ve been told in no uncertain manner we’re not in a position to demand anything and from the extra information they’ve given I’m inclined to agree with them. Seemingly they’ve a batch of these things located in the Thames covering an area from Stanton Harcourt to Chelmsford down to Tonbridge then on to a place called Whitchurch. I’ve no idea where these places are but I suspect it’s a pretty large area.
We can however have all the details late Wednesday provided we agree to three stipulations. The first is we don’t involve the authorities until the information has been collected. Secondly Cecil must take the money to the collection point. The third’s got me baffled. They say one of our wives must accompany Cecil.’ Neil glanced at his watch, ‘we have twenty five minutes to agree. And there’s one more we’re not to make any other requests but do exactly as we’re told.’
Having put the call on to the speaker Gerald felt his arse clench at the mention of wives. He didn’t know where the hell Rhoda was and didn’t want to. Their battles had been well publicised, usually by Rhoda, and the last thing he wanted was for her to be involved. It would probably end up costing him more than if he was to stump up the ransom himself. Rhoda wasn’t a wife she was a walking haemorrhage of gilt and spite. ‘I think I should ring Huntington and warn him to add river samples for the areas you mentioned.’
Neil nodded though he was on the other end of the phone, ‘We also need to think how we can handle the problem of involving Cecil.’
‘I think they’ve made their first mistake. Reginald has a houseguest; perhaps they think she’s his wife. That at least could be a small comfort for us because immediate problems apart, I’ve been concerned by their knowledge of us as a group. Their demand to involve Cecil strengthens that, but the wife issue may indicate they haven’t checked us out in any depth.’
‘Perhaps they haven’t John, but it does mean they’re watching us. How else would they know?’
‘Jesus Neil, now that is creepy.’
Gerald wished he hadn’t volunteered to ring Huntington over the river samples, because now he’d have to include the inclusion of his lady friend. He didn’t mind grasping the nettle but not to wipe his arse with it; still it was better than Rhoda.

Gerald’s eyebrows rose as he put space between the phone and his ear and waited for the decibels to drop to a tolerable level. ‘Reginald discuss it with her and talk it over with John in the morning. We haven’t really any choice, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t. I’ll have to ring off now because they’re due to ring back for our answer.’ Replacing his phone he gave a shrug, ‘You will have gathered from that his reaction.’
John Dickson found a smile from somewhere, ‘Don’t let it get to you Gerald and thanks for volunteering me a councillor.’
‘Not a problem John, you’re a banker. They’re well known to have the answer to everything and the solution to nothing’

Exactly on time Neil answered the phone and waited for the familiar hiss before he was instructed to answer. He’d to wait again when he confirmed compliance before a subtly different voice told him to have everybody present and the money ready at Bramshott for twenty two hundred hours on Tuesday.

©Eoin Taylor

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