Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Pale Horse - Chapter 1



20 January 2018. MOSCOW
Alexei Vladiavitch Varbagin watched the ceremony in real time and without the sound. Alexei didn't need to hear Jim Mair’s voice as he took the oath of office as President of the United States of America. He knew his avuncular looking friend, who, even now, had managed to get his tie askew and one collar point free, would make his oath in the quiet considerate voice that hid a wealth of resolution. Catching the auburn head behind Jim’s right shoulder, he captured it with the remote then enhanced it to fill half his screen. Moira was still absurdly attractive; her natural grace marking her as the more photogenic of the couple. Alexei allowed himself a private smile of whimsy for a life that would never be and probably, if he was honest, never could have been. Even if he'd got to know her first.

He enjoyed these late night illusions of being alone in his citadel. Where, if time and state allowed, he would stalk its corridors aimlessly absorbing their ethers of power; it’s corollaries all forged by the flimsy whims of fashions to maintain the impression of wisdom and benign control. Of course control was never benign and governments concepts of wisdom were only used to mask its idiocy and lay some dubious claim to the myth of purpose. And he was never alone. The flotsam of bureaucracy, heads of departments, security, administrators would melt back into offices or flush round corners in silent dispersal. They’d got to know him; at least the persona he’d wanted them to know. The public face of a very private man whose iron grip on Russia, while seemingly rejecting the delinquency of the tyrant, was seen as fused with the dominance of a pragmatist. Now, half way through his second and supposedly his last term of office he’d honed the strategies and policies he had instigated in his first term by leaving world affairs to simmer while he concentrated on improving the lives of his own people. It was a truth often forgotten by the world’s statesmen. Power is the only functioning tool of politics and the only votes that generated power were those of their countrymen. He was quite simply in control of his beloved Russia and was determined his presidency would bare a full harvest. Not only a new deal for its people but one that would give Russia its rightful place in a new world. He smiled when he imagined the explosion of neurons bombarding the brains of the People’s Deputies when in two years time he announced his intention of bypassing the constitution.

Ignoring the reports Anna had brought in earlier; he eased his chair to recline and contemplated the heroes painted on the plaster high above him. He almost envied them. Legends preserved in the myth of a single act, embalmed by pigments in histories of useless immortality. Except for their faces drawn in the grotesque agony of catastrophic failure and imminent death the losers hardly featured. But his failure to recall who the winners were or what they’d won, perhaps said all there was to say for histories values. The ritual being played out in Washington was the catalyst for their own event to be placed on its international starting blocks. An event as yet without a global format other than a dream nurtured by three minds that were only now in positions to give it form and purpose.

They'd fished around for a name in the early days. One that could identify their purpose yet be slipped into conversations without the dramatics of spook speak. Moira had eventually nailed it. GAME. As an acronym for Global Aid for Mother Earth it covered most pitches yet was innocently colloquial. Now if fate, having delivered the ballpark, kept it level till they were in a position to tilt it in their favour, the only question left should be - by how much? But by then it would be a done deed and left to the laurels or barbs of history to pass judgement. Alexei gave a mental shrug. Might was never concerned with being right; and history’s only had purpose when they served a future.

Statistically Jim's prospects of a second term were pretty secure, just as his stoical Russians would probably sideline the constitution and stay with him; they both had apathy to rely on. Jim's election had been the choice of an ever diminishing turn out. Any less and a quick show of hands in Congress would be enough to guarantee his next term. But for now they needed to buttress the crumbling myth of democratic governance and continue drip-feeding the frantic consuming appetites of the electorates while orchestrating their fears and applauding their stoicism. Any way you looked at it, G.A.M.E.’s ultimate purpose was no more than exercise in accountability; a prudent audit; a boringly obvious actuarial prediction intended to re-establish a sustainable balance of demand on supply.

Appetites and vanities would be used to both fuel and disguise GAME's progress. And silence, the ultimate covert code, used to deny its existence until its result could be valued and adhered to – or not? Alexei gave a second mental shrug. That decision would be for others to sweat on. Then ringing Anna. 'Tell my driver to go I'll give him plenty of warning if I need him. I'll have a fresh pot of coffee and my usual, then get your self on home.' It was going to be a long night and, if he let her, Anna would stay, if only to bully him for his own lack of rest.

Anna was his bulwark, his firewall and, in the privacy of his private suite his friend, confidant and mentor. One who appreciated his ‘need to know’ and his sponge like absorption of the tales and tattle that exercised the Kremlin power brokers and their political mafia in the Duma. Tattle she would record and report but not filter, though her cryptic scribbled comments were often more surgical and prescient than his own. She was one of a handful of individuals he allowed almost unlimited time and access to and she controlled the rest. He had considered including her in the GAME scenario but decided it could stretch her loyalty beyond endurance and possibly force a damage control decision on him. A risk he wasn’t prepared to take, primarily because it was unnecessary and secondly, perhaps more importantly, keeping her out of the loop would convince many there simply wasn’t one to tax their little minds over. Pouring a dribble of vodka into his coffee, he took the bottle and glass to the bathroom, swilled the glass with vodka and poured the rest down the sink. It all helped to keep the icons of convention comfortable.

Stripping to the waist and leaning on the basin he viewed his mirrored reflection and mused on how the artist of murals would portray him. He’d have to increase his height. 170 centimetres could hardly be described as domineering, though perhaps a combination of his personality and position gave him an image interpreted as commanding. Muscle definition would be pure licence, though there'd be no need for liposuction - yet. Certainly he couldn't claim rapier fast reactions or the poise of a Spartan. Perhaps his mind was instinctively quick and incisive, often brutally: or so he’d been told. Though he generally adopted a puzzled air when he was; and could mind be captured as image? It was probably fair to say he'd perfected the skills of moodiness and belligerence expected in Russians, especially their presidents. Slipping on his glasses he pondered why his image was twenty years older than he felt. Perhaps the surprise was due to the chasm between the body and soul, though he doubted whether presidents had a right to claim a soul? Alexei decided a cartoonist might be better qualified to portray him, he could see nothing but the ordinary. His teeth were probably his best feature. Plunging his head into the cold water he felt his glasses dislodge, and chuckled.

Freshened up he returned to Cuirakan's report and compared it to the one he’d received three days earlier by snail mail from Jim. Cuirakan’s concept of a blind had the necessary marketable quality, and the developments from the labs were intriguing; you could almost call them biblical and should be enough to get the Pentagons hackles fibrillating when the details were leaked to them in due course. But, for now, the marketing of GAME: the hype, PR, spin, whatever you called it would be Jim's job. They'd no option. For America and Russia to mutually chastise some errant state was acceptable, even welcome. But to be seen as the joint sponsors of a major development in world affairs was still the land of all gods dancing with the prodigal devil. No, America, Japan and Germany, in its European guise, had to be seen as the initiators. China, when and if Chan stopped acting coy and acknowledged China’s role of mega power in waiting, would be seen as being won over by the lack of options. India, thank whichever god you wanted, was still juggling its own gods and breeding its own troubles. Israel was still intent on perfecting the techniques of the Nazis while the South Americas tried to understand or repel the techniques of the CIA. God, everybody knew - though they might pray differently - was merely a term; but one still regarded as Caucasian, monetarist and free marketeer.

Personally he couldn't give a damn what name they called redemption. What value had any thing if there was no hand to hold or wield it?
They'd eight years to make sure there was.

Bustee - Mumbia

Under a screaming jet squatting on its approach to Mumbia’s new airport, a girl hears the gentle crackle of waves sifting back through the sand. Her eyes match her father's tears as flames start to blister tyres. Today, she has had her first sight of the ocean. But there's no joy in her being as the flames begin to lick her grandmother's shroud.

Gita Mehta has the wisdom of youth not to ask the unanswerable, though she ponders on the quirks of life and death and their significance to the other tearful children ranked along the reeking shore. Is it all their birthdays? But her father's sadness is real and that frightens her into silence.

Rural Cheshire, Middle England.

For Dick Carter the day had begun just like any other. What needed to be done was; leaving only the time fillers to wade through.

Lunch in Chester had taken them into the afternoon and now he was waiting for Mary to get the odds and ends she needed, or said she did for Brian’s leaving party. Dick didn’t mind waiting in the malls car park stranded amongst the clunkers of the prols while half of the park given over to the heli’s lay empty. He’d taken delivery of his new SUV- though gun aside, more of a luxury armoured people carrier- only a couple of days before and was passing time setting its gizmos while savouring the aroma of new leather. The positioning of one gizmo wasn’t too clever. He’d found the seats temperature too high and he couldn’t get his shovel of a hand to the controls on the seat plinth because of the door trim. Time long past Mary had feigned disappointment on discovering his leading article wasn't in proportion to his mitts. For his part, he’d solemnly promised to always keep his nails trimmed. Now he wondered why pleasant minor memories stayed sharp while major happenings were lessened and misted by time. Besides his hand span wasn't that much out of proportion with his bulk and his leading article was never something he’d led with or suffered over the alleged paucity of the lead it gave him.

Giving a minor curse to underline a lesser irritation, he opened the door and slid out. Shielding the temperature read out with his right hand against the watery sunlight he’d got it down three degrees when he felt the jab in his back. It could have been Mary – “Playing with your new toy?” – till the twist and pain said it wasn’t. When his knees gave and the door turned his body, he saw her: this woman – girl – thing- give the bloodied knife a malicious wiggle. “Didn’t expect that you cunt.” She’d said, but her eyes said different – “Fucker, I’ll never have a life like yours.” As his consciousness dimmed, he struggled for two answers; the first was why he wasn’t surprised – The second, why her odour had swamped that of the leather?

That morning Dick had watched the bank of monitors morph to rest. Another day, another obscene amount of dollars, yen, euros, whatever; in the coffers he never saw. And the time it had eaten of his day? One and a half hours, call it two? Then, estimating the length of his Bolivar still to smoke, added another quarter. Almost twenty-two hours to kill before he’d be back in the office He wished it was Wednesday and he could harass Archie Bow for most of the afternoon. As part of his neurotic ritual to limit the world’s intrusion into his, he unplugged the condiment of computers and monitors from their sockets before crossing his study to absorb a view that wasn’t electronically transmitted.

From the study’s corner oriel window he could see Mary on the far lawn throwing one of those Frisbee things exercising Orson, and beyond her Brian, doing what he did worst, pacing the edge of the copse trying to be discreet and look busy. This time of year he could afford to open the window but Mary would probably hear it and shout for him to join her when all he wanted was to finish his cigar in peace.

Peace! Christ, there was an ambition he couldn’t remember ever having achieved. Moments of serenity, of quiet calm perhaps. Moments that may have stretched to minutes and occasionally days if he was alone, or with Mary in the vacuum of afterglow or the rhythms of nature but never, ever, amongst the buzz of technology. Nobody had enough space on the earth of this world to have peace. He would have liked a more “hands on” involvement with INSECT-E-CUTE, but the truth was the business had outpaced him. Created its own ‘virtual’ soulless mass until he could have called himself retired; if there had been anything for him to retire to, other than his weekly sessions with Archie Bow. No, best leave business to the professionals as long as you had made damn sure they left you with a business. And the way to do that was to be as cynical as the times you lived in. Buy the best, demand the results, and then ruthlessly update with fresher and better. Not how he’d visualised or wanted it particularly, but professionalism was the game they played and the religion they believed, worshipped and preached; so, why interfere with the current winning formulae.

Nine year’s back, when the world, or at least the part of it that could afford the luxury of being concerned, decided their governments should reign in the rampant empires of the conglomerates. The global moguls had responded by creating the crash. Why not, they owned what was left and a couple of years of panic and the consumer monkeys would soon learn that degrees of centigrade were not reason enough for the moguls to diminish their ransom demands. Dick had used the crash to buy the business back for less than a quarter than he’d cleared when it went public. Freed from the politics of stockholders he’d attempted to get a team spirit going in their London HQ. Meetings, old style communication, arse licking, discussion, banter, brainstorming, power-driving, socialising, bonding; getting pissed, esprit de fucking corps – whatever label they’d wanted to give it. He’d wasted time, breath and enthusiasm. Cloned within their specialist expertise, his executive high rollers were happier with their spreadsheets, video cams and conference calls in their one-dimensional flickering flat screen cocoons. It was surreal. But then, so was his wealth and, he suspected, the world that gave it value.

He’d hoped things would change when they bought The Grange. Not that buying the granite pile would change things, but that life, the systems, the era would change. It had, but in his humble and entirely insignificant opinion, changed for the worse. The world had pinned its faith on technology; had balanced its three degrees, its killing fields and pandemics of poverty against its god of profit and became even more fanatical in its worship. The information highway had made road kill of innocence leaving only ignorance or naiveté. You could only hope that naiveté was dominant. As a trait it had a warmer, more humane excusable ring to it. However Mary fell in love with the Grange as soon as they’d driven round the blind bend of the drive and been presented to the house in 98.

“The GRANGE”, they’d read from the agents blurb had – five reception, nine bedroom – five ensuite, servants quarter blah blah. Set in forty seven acres of Cheshire’s Plain – rhapsody - had been built in the Scottish Baronial Style and completed in 1898 - eulogy- The walls of rough and dressed granite- along with the crow gables and fiddly bits so beloved by Scottish Baron’s and by agents keen to show they could handle esoteric name drops just as well as other “experts” – imported from Aberdeen’s Rubislaw Quarry…Yeh – Yeh. The blurb had put Dick off, its solid eccentric presence had turned him on; Mary had convinced him to buy it. The name they hated; too Bagshotish, but never officially changed it. Privately, and only half jokingly they’d called it the Keep. Close friends had joined in and added their name to it. “Carters Keep”, a name that quietly pleased both of them. Until the changes he’d intuitively feared led to words like “privacy” and “own grounds” being read as isolated and exposed and “Keep” became too much like a truth. Throw into the pot the house’s eccentric style and you had a developer’s nightmare. Dick had long accepted if the Grange were put on the market now, they’d probably find there wasn’t one for it.

Denial? Only way to be. Put up the security shutters and the lighting; install the sensors and the ultra sound INSECT-E-CUTE on every window and door. Back up the eco service systems; adopt the siege mentality, then call it life. And that’s was all it came down to – until something happened. Then it would be whoever’s interpretation suited the outcome, either their own or, worst scenario, somebody else’s. The thought tensioned his neck then, as always, started to run riot with the rest of his reason.

Bloody problem was, was he being too soft on Mary? They talked about and around the style of life they wanted, the values to hold and the vanities they’d sacrifice. What they’d never really got round to talking about, not honestly, chips down, brutally frank, were the risks. They might give one another the acknowledgement of a raised eyebrow or nod of agreement to some added security brought on by news of an atrocity or demanded by their insurers, but the nimby syndrome had expanded to a plea of survival: and with Brian leaving?

Brian had been the gamekeeper for the big estate up the road. When they no longer required his services Dick had employed him. Gamekeeper was still his title though their forty acres of hillocks, rocks and trees hardly warranted it. They’d miss the sense of security they had from knowing he was around and Dick would miss the rare occasions when the taciturn bugger would have a dram with him. Ten days and he’d be gone to his sons in New Zealand and still Mary was arguing whether they really wanted a stranger round the place. Christ there had to be some limit to denial? He’d lit his second cigar. Another chink in his promise to limit them to one a day, but hell, if he stopped after this one till June he’d be back on track.

But that was all history to being knifed and called a cunt. 

© Eoin Taylor


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