(links to previous chapters are at the end)
Nick Berensen wasn’t too happy with the world in general or his slot in it. Tonight was the rugby clubs dinner and dance. The annual orgy of booze, bullocks and broads being fucked up by a ten till six shift, devoted to collecting sodding water samples. He’d tried to get a swap but having drawn the same straw for Christmas Eve he’d little to trade. Supposedly covering three reservoirs, his ten thirty and eleven thirty samples all came from the reservoir nearest the club. Ten minutes to collect the samples, on to the test station and back to the club in half an hour. Not bad except by twelve thirty he was fed up getting soaked and had decided to minimise his exposure and time by drawing his samples in bulk using a five gallon container he found in the club’s caretakers closet.
I was standing in the lee of Joanna’s boathouse watching the flickers of spume emerge like beer froth in its light before being blown to oblivion into the filthy night. I don’t know why I’d chosen to suffer the elements and make my way down to the boathouse. I could have had privacy, if that had been all I wanted, in the conservatory or with the excuse of an early night, in my room. Perhaps, none of these would have been private enough; both after all were part of John and Joanna’s home. The boathouse was private but nobodies home. Maybe I didn’t want to share my hopes after the meeting with Gemma in any home other than one we could call our own.
The strange thing was I’d never seen myself as a realist. To me realism was accepting rules that were designed to protect those with most by conning the middle with little into controlling the most with least. I’d just “got on my bike” in an entrepreneurial way far more, potentially, rewarding than its intellectually challenged author had envisaged. I’d stuck my neck out, come up with the business plan and got the backers – not necessarily in that order, or even any order, but I’d got it together and done the graft. I’d paid lip service to the moral scruples of others. The death of innocents I knew none of us wanted. But we didn’t want anybody to know that, which takes brinkmanship to the slippery edge of reason and maybe beyond. Yet the waste of London. - the metrocide - or whatever it would be called, was, for me, a temptation almost beyond the price we’d set to prevent it happening. Besides, and this isn’t an excuse, I couldn’t see it happening. London, for those that ‘mattered’; once it was over the initial panic, would drown in mineral water and flush its bogs with Champagne just to keep its place in the rat race. So my concerns in that regard could be bracketed as hubris.
My concerns during the production and positioning stage were first, that we won, and second, I survived. Logistics made the ‘we’ necessary on the first and once a necessity’s in motion there’s little use in disrupting it. Just as I knew Pat had made arrangements when the spat was on over Trowards report. Didn’t blame him, and now the deed was done I couldn’t see any purpose in raising it or the bloody report. Not that I’d forgotten it, or Rebecca Troward. She’d been pencilled in for a visit today and, had I not lost the Friday due to the extra day cleaning up and organising Kerr and his merry men to repaint all the internals of the unit over Christmas. Along with the reply to the Ad coming a day earlier than the Sunday we expected, I would have met her. So why was I standing in a whore of a night listening to driftwood beating a demented tattoo against the jetty as it struggled for peace against the wind and waves. If it wasn’t conscience, glory or regret. I decided it wasn’t anything as I flicked my cigarette into the spume and heard the log thump on the undertow of a wave.
Jesus! Spume and waves; if it was the same in London what was it doing on the reservoirs. That’s when I realised what should have been worrying me; if the anchors breached, the bottled water industry might get its bonanza at our expense and there was nothing I, or anybody else, could do about it. Maybe I should have been less extravagant with the presents after I’d cleared out the C&O account apart from the money it was due Kerr for painting the unit. Troward was definitely on the back burner now. Morning had me tied up with Joanna, and then I was heading back to London.
Ruth turned and shook Huntington gently, ‘Phones ringing Reginald.’ She’d to shake him harder and repeat it before he woke.
‘What time is it?’ He struggled to find the light switch and locate the arms of his dressing gown. It seemed his Sunday was starting early.
Ruth had to squint to focus, ‘It’s five past two.’
Grumbling, Huntington lurched into the hall. Ruth struggled to overhear then had to accept the phones position was defeating her. Something had upset him earlier and her attempts to wheedle it out of him had got nothing except Dickson was joining them for breakfast. Now he was back and struggling into his clothes over his pyjamas
She asked, ‘What’s wrong?’
‘I don’t know yet. Something’s came up at one of the test stations; I’ve got to go. Listen,’ he was at the door before turning, ‘don’t drink any water or make tea until I ring you.’ He looked distracted, ‘Yes that’s best, and just stay in bed.’ Tucking his scarf into his coat pocket he left. Ruth waited till she heard the whine of the lift before using the phone.
Arriving at the test station Huntington waited until Sanderson finished setting a test tubes into a centrifuge before asking. ‘Do we know what it is yet?’
The chemist shook his head. ‘I’ve only just got here. There is a contaminant but it’s fairly weak and that makes it difficult to analyse. It’s from one of these three reservoirs.’ Sanderson pointed to the map that now had three red markers pinned in it.
‘When were the samples brought in?’
‘Sanderson checked the log. ‘Around twelve forty five.’
‘Bloody hell and we’re only doing something about it now?’
‘Not quite, the reservoirs I’ve had locked off, and we’ve been testing downstream for an hour before I called you in.’
Huntington tried to get his head round this. ‘We should have had more samples since. Have they shown the same contamination?’
Sanderson turned to his assistant and got nothing but a shake of his head. ‘Nothing?’
The assistant took one look at Huntington and decided to stick with his boss. ‘I thought he might have been waylaid by the test team and they were using him.’
Huntington looked at his watch, two forty five, where the hell was this collector. ‘Who is responsible for the collection?’
Sanderson turned to his assistant who was already checking the roster. ‘Bloke called Berensen, seconded from electrical maintenance.’
Huntington nodded as though the detail clarified everything. ‘Could it be between the closing of the sluice gates and the weakness of the contaminant we’ve nothing to worry about.’
Sanderson shook his head. ‘Since I don’t know exactly what we’re supposed to be looking for, it could be its weakness is purely down to where in the reservoir he took the samples from. In conditions like tonight, upwind of the source could show a weaker dispersal.’
Berensen froze when he entered the lab, he’d seen the Bentley but it hadn’t connected. Bravado said to cocky it out. ‘Morning gents, filthy night.’ Handing twelve sample jars to the assistant he signed the log then squeezed past Huntington to collect fresh jars.
Huntington cleared his throat. ‘You’re late with these last two lots aren’t you?’
Berensen knew who it was that asked, but he hadn’t been introduced. ‘Yea, only on the one. As I said it’s a filthy night, I got soaked and went home to change and by the time I had it was time for the next lot. So I thought better late with one than two, right?’ Berensen grinned, there was some truth in his excuse. He had taken his clothes off but it hadn’t been in his house.
Huntington could smell the sour waft of beer but felt cowed by the belligerence. ‘Right but be on time from now on. Something showing up in the samples.’
Sanderson had more brain. ‘Have you used the same place for all of them and if so can you show us on the map?’
Berensen glanced at the map, tried to picture the layout of the one he’d visited twice, wondered if he’d be nobbled by the two he hadn’t bothered with and decided to wing it. ‘Couldn’t say mate, difficult to get your bearings on a night like this.’
Sanderson nodded as though he understood. ‘Did you take them beside the sluice’s.’
Berensen had seen enough of them not to fall for that one. ‘No, waste of time there, full of debris and muck; I went round a bit from them.’
‘All right, try to take this next lot from the same places as before and bring them back as quick as you can.’
Assuring them he would, Berensen made sure the night had closed around him before giving two fingers to the closed door.
Huntington watched Sanderson follow his assistant to the centrifuge as the original six were removed and replaced by the latest batch of twelve. With nothing to do until Sanderson had finished his alchemy, Huntington busied himself making coffees and nourishing a scenario that very softly and tentatively was beginning to stroke his ego. Weak was the catalyst that had wrapped his conscience in the foreplay of triumphalism. Making questionable Hopkins doomsday scenario that had them shelling out twenty million quid. His eyes tried to interrogate the chemists as they went about their routine; he wanted to hurry them up. Picturing the moment - Hopkins thanking him but looking embarrassed. Cecil Laing giving the nod that said everything on the relief he felt for not being exposed. John would be quiet but appreciative. Even the thump on the back from Goode would be welcome.
Sanderson put his head through the door. ‘They’re all the same.’
‘Looks like it, we’re just getting on with pinpointing it now.’
‘But it’s still as weak?’
Huntington had to stifle his smile. ‘From what you know, do you think we have anything to worry about?’
‘Guessing’s not my job, but in my opinion if we don’t find any stronger mixes somebody is having us on.’
The age of minutes that followed tested Huntington’s patience to breaking point. When the phone rang he snatched at it in the hope it was Dickson or Hopkins, anybody he could give the first glimmer of hope to. It was the chemist reporting from checking the system and the first reservoir. They’d found nothing. Telling him to speed up the check on the second, Huntington was about to pass on the news to Sanderson when he saw him walking smartly through from the lab.
Huntington’s stomach prolapsed, ‘What’s unbelievable?’
‘It’s some type of cleaning fluid. A very weak solution at that and nothing like the stuff Gnauk warned me about. Were you to drink it you might get a gippy tummy, but I’d qualify the might.’
Huntington punched the air, then placed his hands on Sanderson’s shoulders, much to the chemists’ embarrassment. ‘Well done, absolutely brilliant. So you would say it’s nothing that our treatment works can’t handle?’ Christ this was it, twenty million for two hundred and fifty gallons of floor cleaner. They would have looked so stupid they’d have had to keep it under wraps. He couldn’t wait to see their faces when he told them.
Sanderson shook his head, ‘It would make them work a bit harder but it still depends on the amount that’s been dumped.’
‘Would two hundred and fifty gallons do it?’
‘Not a chance, it would need a tanker to get the weak solution we’re getting now.’ The phone interrupted Sanderson, listening he gave a shrug as he replaced the handset. ‘That was the team from Berensen's third reservoir, it’s all clear.’
‘So we’re down to one?’
Sanderson shook his head, ‘No Mr Huntington, I reckon we’ll be down to none. Berensen’s first two samples were clear only the ones from twelve thirty have shown contaminants. He’s either taken his all his samples from the second reservoir if that is contaminated or he’d filling the samples from a contaminated source.’
‘So we have got contamination in the system?’
Sanderson wondered if he’d have to go back to the ah's and bi's of infancy to spell it out. ‘No he’s filled a container. Berensen’s pissed you can smell it on him.’
Closing his eyes tight Huntington physically felt rage replace suppressed euphoria. ‘The idiotic cocky bastard.’
Sanderson turned, his chairman’s words surprising him by their lack of relief.
‘Sack the bastard. Charge him with fraud or criminal negligence.’ Huntington’s rage raised his voice to a crescendo. ‘His brain should be ripped out and stuffed up his arse if it isn’t there already. I want the bugger deported.’
Not being able to decide which had to be carried out first and doubting his ability to enforce any of them Sanderson reached the conclusion it wasn’t his problem but he had to ask, ‘Why?’
‘What do you mean why?’
‘Why are we doing this. All this sampling and tests, what’s the real reason behind them?’
‘I explained that, it has been requested by the government, some sort of terrorist threat.’
‘Where did the two hundred and fifty gallon come from?’
‘Oh that, just a figure from my head to get an idea of the scale we were dealing with.’ Huntington sighed as the phone gave its third ring and he listened to Sanderson telling his chemists to stand down. ‘You’ll have gathered the last one’s clear.’
‘Bastard’, said Huntington to no one in particular as he headed for his car.
Ruth soothed him as he ranted on the idiots he employed and the sleep he had lost. Once the mouth had pursed in sleep and the breath came in regular soughs she slipped out to the hall for her second call of the morning.
Looking down the list Feeney had brought with him Gerald wondered when they’d found the time to create such bureaucratic idiocy. He made a mental note to use a sharp pencil after the matter in hand was cleared. It seemed subsidiaries; even ones with modest turnovers were allowed chauffeurs for their M.D. If Feeney was correct. He’d thirty seven arses, either the MD’s or the drivers, doing faff all in the UK alone. Writing the figures on his notepad he circled them. ‘Right, how many estate cars do we have?’
Feeney still out of the loop as to the purpose of the exercise qualified his answer. ‘Mostly the estates we have are for the installation and service engineers and all of those have the company logo on them. What we do have without markings are the pool cars; they’re mostly hatchbacks and while they wont hold quite as much with the back seat folded it’s not far off.’
‘Good man. How many have we of those?’
‘Close to fourteen hundred. The difficulty is knowing where they are at any one time.’
Gerald wasn’t listening to the difficulty, the figure had been added below the thirty seven and this time to doodle was in the shape of an axe. Alongside he added plus estates? Plus ???. He looked at Feeney, ‘Have you got a car?’
Feeney squirmed, only because the question seemed irrelevant and, before he could say anything the nod from Goode seemed to indicate he’d accepted it as that.
What Gerald had accepted was there was no need for him to worry about meeting the requirements; Feeney had less of a problem than a taxi controller on a Saturday night. ‘Right, forget that for now. What I want by tonight is sixty drivers and cars ready to go to any destination we tell them and for them to be at that destination by eight Monday morning and they have to be prepared to work through to Christmas eve. Use the chauffeurs first and get the rest from where you can, as long as they’re reasonably competent I don’t give a hoot. My secretary will help you ring around and anybody that quibbles tell them they’ll answer to me. Have the list telexed to me as soon as its finished, listing location, driver, contact number, car details like make, registration and colour. Don’t care how you do it, move car to driver or driver to car just have them all in place.’ Another nod dismissed Feeney before he buzzed Angela. ‘Angela get me the manager at Coutts will you and remind me of his name before you put me through.’
Gerald grimaced, ‘My fault I meant for you to remind me to do it tomorrow. Right I’m off now, I’ve left a couple of numbers on my desk where I can be contacted if you and Feeney have any problems. Thinking about it I told Feeney to telex it through when it was finished, maybe better if you do it as soon as you tie up a car and driver.’
‘You mean Fax?’
It wasn’t until after the final tape message on Saturday that Neil got his mind back in gear and the purpose behind Johns request for George Esquiden to check the cash positions of Midshires branches clicked into place. Twenty one millions worth of Uniclor stock would be in Fraser’s account before the city woke in Monday morning and just as easily he would be able to split that funds to however many brokers in London and the provinces they decided to use. That was what the system was designed to expedite, safeguard and audit. It was when it became cash that control gave way to the virus of chance. Chance that they couldn’t collect because the branch hadn’t the cash – chance of an accident – the chance of a driver deciding he’d been given a bankroll to a new life. The first was controllable, the second, probably statistically slight enough to be called an act of God, but the third was removing temptation from the primal core of man. It was just before midnight when he rang Gerald to be reminded of the number of cars he’d promised to provide. It was one before David Hamilton treated himself to a whisky and wondered why Neil should suddenly want, preferably forty but at least thirty private investigators, and for them to be on the books from Sunday night. By the time he drained his nightcap he decided he would be the first.
With the exception of Gerald, they gathered in Donald Fraser’s office just before eleven, with Donald and George busy tying in brokers and the funds to banks and their cash floats, Huntington was divulging the drama he’d went through as back up for his protest that they even consider involving Ruth. Over breakfast he’d continued to dramatise a situation that, irrational as it was, John had the absurd job of trying to play down the personal danger while appealing to her emotions. Finding her attractive and intelligent he had to accept the paucity of what he could divulge to strengthen his argument, other than the threat to London and the mistake of her being regarded her as Reginald’s wife got the only answer he could expect when she said, ‘she would consider it.’ Besides without any means of contact they’d nobody to negotiate with other than Ruth. And by the look on Reginald’s face he’d bet a penny to a case of Petrus, information would be drip fed to her.
By noon Fraser’s fax began to spew out details from Feeney and Hamilton. Gerald had already informed them he could supply any god’s amount of cars and drivers and as far as he was concerned he was single handedly supporting European car production. In theory the rest was easy yet Neil and especially John were beginning to appreciate the imponderables they’d have to sweat out till Tuesday. The demand of cash kept them dancing to their tune right up to the last minute whereas transfers can be traced just as efficiently as they can be sent. Neil found it easy to accept John’s hypothesis of Christmas Eve being just as carefully selected. And, while they expected the main cities to yield the major share, until they had the brokers and discarded the duplicated or even triplicated recommendations, tallied up the credit ratings and tied that in with Dickson and Esquiden’s area bank funds, they wouldn’t know whether to stop at Liverpool or Glasgow or to include Gloucester with Bristol. It was whether the Gloucester’s and the Coventry’s were needed or not that was the problem along with the fact they’d no time to make up any shortfall if things went pear shaped. They made a decision that made Gerald’s earlier instruction to get his bank manager if not prophetic at least prescient.
Leaving Donald’s office Neil grabbed a taxi to take him to his own office for an hour before going home. His only purpose was to be alone in the environment where the real struggles would take place early in the new year. None of the club would have understood the smile that played on his face as he swung his chair to his favourite thinking position. All the tension had gone from the scenarios of Uniclor and competitors; the battle now would be within the portals of ICP. An internecine war that only surfaced in the boardroom and would leave the casualties cursing their own idiocy. Twenty million was a gift for leaving all his tactics and preparations in place, probably less than it would have cost him to compensate the deadwood had he been forced to ease them out. If his dream wasn’t exactly the same as John’s and Cecil’s now wasn’t the time to signal any divergence.
Ringing security to call him a cab, he called by Fraser’s office before going home. He’d forgotten to give George his personal cheque to withdraw a million and a quarter from his own account. His share in the five million float to cover contingencies.
I was about to ring Pat first thing on Sunday morning when Joanna gave me the news that made it unnecessary. Breakfasted, she handed me a briefcase and had me check its contents against the list she was reciting.
‘Van keys, two sets.’
‘Maps with alternative routes marked and connection points.’
‘Town maps for each house. Green’s normal, red are emergency out. Don’t forget the one way system.’
‘Key’s for each house. The initial on the fob identifies them. C, Chester, E, Ellesmere Port, N, Neston.’
‘I think I can handle that.’
‘Folders with photos for each house and details of the crates. I’ve checked them out and they’re all left open. Remember you have to secure the garage from the inside and leave through the house.’
‘All as we agreed.’
Joanna nodded. ‘The wagon will be parked in the estate from six till noon. The unit isn’t one of Pat’s but the trailer is and it has a legitimate load to collect, so noon’s the latest it can wait. Any later than twelve and it will be left to you whether you can get the van down to Corley or just ditch it. Naturally we would prefer it to be Corley.’
‘Twelve should give me plenty of time.’
‘Van number one will be at the short stay car park by five on Tuesday. Fill it up before you leave it. The second van will be in position by ten, its tank will be full when you pick it up.’
‘Good, you’ve checked there are no gates or chains to lock it in.’
‘None, it’ll simply be a van left because the drivers had too much drink.’
‘Still all night and the toilets are as you described them.’
I asked, ‘Are you still unhappy about Corley?’
‘Yes, the times we’ve checked the service gates have been open, but sod’s law could have then closed when you’re committed to using them. Then you have a long detour.
‘Right, now this Dellows woman.’
Joanna took out a hand drawn sketch and made sure I knew the area it covered. ‘It’s the show house, right on this corner block. The houses either side haven’t been sold and you’re not overlooked from the rear. Pills are in the London van; two’s enough for a horse so don’t overdo it. Finally here are your envelopes. Remember to use your real name on the travellers cheques.’
Opening mine I found it included details on the yachts I was expected to inspect. I hadn’t a clue as to what Pats contained. ‘Right when you’re ready, we’ll get on with the conducted tour of the houses.’
‘Give me ten minutes to get dressed.’
It was more like fifteen before she joined me in the hired Renault. ‘Haven’t you forgot something?’
I laughed and handed her the duplicate keys for the Saab. ‘Only testing.’
By the time I got my usual peck on the cheek on dropping her off at Ringway to meet up with John, we’d discussed the Troward situation. Apart from the spurious reason of not having her suddenly dropped out of the frame when perhaps the biggest manhunt ever known is sieving its way through the U.K and bouncing its electronic way around the globe, there was still a sense in me of unfinished business or at least potentials that should be considered and options kept open. Agreeing to meet up with her during January, Joanna would loosely set up for me to have a meet with Rebecca Troward towards the end of February.
I tried ringing Pat from the motorway but got no answer. Until Tuesday we’d nothing to do but wait and hope we’d covered everything. There was plenty I was tempted to do with the time; arrange to meet with Rag, see Gemma again or meet up with Rebecca. But all these depended on me having a future of more than days and I couldn’t see the height of that hurdle yet. So I was on my way back to London to book into a Heathrow hotel then spend the next two days driving, checking out the reservoirs for any unusual signs of activity and – call it paranoia if you like- the suspicion, if Kerr had finished, his card would be left for us to remember who had done the job. By six I’d been to the unit, found three cards; one in each of the two offices and one in the toilet, booked into the dormitory hotel and used its courtesy bus to the terminal and got Pat in.
‘Where have you been?’
‘Jane and I have been driving around sort off weighing up different areas.’
‘Just toying with the idea of setting up in the big city.’
‘Christ, are you that serious?’
‘Never more so, and I fancy something next to water. But if it’s near to flowing water it’s a ransom. In fact even a dump by a stagnant ponds a fortune, so I could go off the idea. Where are you?’
I never answered, ‘You mean you’ve been checking things out?’
‘You got it and I couldn’t see anything to get excited about. Everything go all right with you?’
I laughed, ‘Not a problem. You doing the same tomorrow?’
‘Yeah, I’m being pushed upmarket.’
‘Okay, I’ll cover the bottom end and Del girl’s covering our behinds.’
‘You’re back down?’
‘Couldn’t stand the waiting. You?’
‘Hanging in there, gritting my teeth for the common good.’
‘Bastard; ring you tomorrow.’
I did go for a drive around midnight, only because having forsaken any solace in the bar I was still awake and being serenaded by the grunts, squeals and bonks of a wife swapping convention and funnily enough they all seemed to have the same beat.
Previous chapters: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty