Sunday, 2 October 2011

The Pale Horse Chapter 2 (by Eoin Taylor)

Chapter 2

To the man rich in wealth, the world’s a comedy:
To the man rich in truth, a tragedy.
Middle England, Middle World

May 2020

. Mary gave a sigh as Dick eased the Rover off the Chester bypass onto the A41. Last lap, a few more miles and they'd be home. They’d taken a chance on the trip; but ‘chance’ featured in everything and two months coasting round the Hebrides was hardly on a par for risk with cruising in the Caribbean. But Dick still selected remote anchorages or secure marinas in preference to the small fishing harbours they’d known and loved. ‘Insecurity’, the perpetual wart of chance, defiling place and defining time. Not that anything had happened; just that the Very pistol and flares were always close to hand. Not primarily to attract attention, but to repel the unwanted and when solitude had to be carefully assessed instead of simply accepted. Perhaps the only real difference between the trip and home had been they were moving targets.

A cool box shifting amongst the mountain of luggage set off a squawking falsetto that had her teeth on edge.
'See to that will you girl.’ Seems it had got to Dick as well.
'No, I'm enjoying it. I've only undone my seat belt so I can give our rearguard the come on.'
'Sure, but while you're at it see if you can shut the damn thing up. Its too Bartok for my ears.' Dick grinned as Mary's trim rump twisted between the seats and began to jerk with the effort of lugging the box clear. He watched her right foot searching for grip, then her gasp of effort gained a couple of seconds of silence before the squawk was back, only different, lower.
Mary gave a sigh of exasperation. 'Sod it! Why can’t you pack as neatly as you did going? Soon as I ease off it'll start again.'
Searching in the console and finding the logbook Dick let his hand slide the book up a leg and over her rump. 'Here girl, see if you can slip that in between.' His hand capered back the same route before Mary, with another gasp and major grunt collapsed back in her seat.
'Back are we Captain? Sleeps the sleep of the snoring dead through rapping halyards, bonking dinghies, squeaking fenders and squawking gulls, but back on land doth silence demand. You know, you've hardly uttered a word since we picked up this lot at Abersoch.' The ‘lot’ referred to by Mary were the cars to their front and rear containing the hired guns. A ‘security’ demanded by their insurers unless travelling in convoys or M ways. For Dick, their presence always seeming to emphasise rather than diminish the threat of being waylaid.

Reaching for Mary’s hand, Dick gave it a squeeze. 'Boats and gulls are meant to squeak and rap, it's natural; that wasn't. Though the bonking wasn't bad.'
'Well hold on to the memory; there’ll be plenty to occupy us in the garden after two months of neglect.'
Half hoping there would be, Dick didn’t want to admit it. 'Aw, c'mon girl, hardly neglect. I’ve squared young Steve up till the end of the month in case we decided to extend the break. You wait, the grass will be like a putting green and maybe he’ll have done some weeding.’
Mary chuckled. 'Now you have worried me. Steve doesn't know a bramble from a rambler.'
'Not fair girl. Granted you don't see them nowadays, but ramblers wore anoraks, great clumping boots, funny hats and took great springy strides as they yodelled along. Come to think of it, year’s back I sort of pictured them as reincarnated garden gnomes'
'Wit's never been your forte, Carter.'
Dick smiled. 'There's many a falsehood hidden by jest.'
'Who's joking?'

As soon as they’d introduced themselves at Abersoch Dick had decided the one thing he didn’t want was for their escorts to see how exposed they were at the Keep, so approaching the Broxton roundabout Dick flashed his lights twice and indicated he was turning into the service station. He’d a reason for calling there, but would use filling up as an excuse to get rid of them at the same time. He gave a snort of amusement when their point car shot ahead and its two occupants slouched out in a parody of the best Hollywood covering positions.
Mary had her mind on something else. 'Dick, couldn't we collect Orson?'
'You mean now?'
'It'll only take a couple of hours.'
'Oh yes and call in at Bob’s while were at it. And Bob will let us go without a couple of snifters, along with how the holiday went. And where're you going to put him? An excited Rottweiler's a lot of dog in your lap.'
Mary ran her hand cajolingly up his thigh. 'I've had worse. Admittedly not for a long time and probably not as excited. Go on, I'm dying to see him.'
Pulling up at the pumps, Dick shook his head. 'Sorry girl, it’s not on. For one thing I promised our escort they'd be heading back to the peninsula by six, the rates double if they have to travel in the dark. I thought I'd just check with Dan to see if everything's all right at the homestead then let this lot go. Penny to a pound Bob will have Orson across in the chopper first thing in the morning.'

”Back home” normalcy clicked in another notch for Mary as she watched one hundred and fifty kilos of security blubber squeeze out from the trailing green and white chequered car and oscillate towards Dick. Mightn't be action man but definitely a shield she mused: instantly regretting her bitchiness and atoning by concentrating on a tabby lazing on one of the redundant pumps supinely defying the need for bath or shower. A hen pheasant marched her brood from the hedge through the shell of a car as though inspecting its mods and cons as a potential roost. While swallows launching from their nests beneath the eaves captured abundant quarry with easy acrobatics. The wildlife were basking in plenty; seemingly confident everything was going their way, which, she mused, mightn’t be far from the truth.

The pump stopping broke her daydream, and she still hadn't selected the tactics to keep the pressure on Dick. Through the rear-view mirror she saw him disinterestedly nodding as senior guard Evan's podgy finger prodded down the billing on the assignment release. Dick gave a final nod at the total before she heard him asking Evan to ’Hold on.’

Watching Dick make his way over to the pay grill, he’d just lowered his head to the speaker when Evan moved and blocked Dick from sight and sound though Dick’s question wasn't exactly on target.
'Dan, I believe you have something for me?'
'Mr Carter is it? Thank God for that.' The voice’s gender threw Dick.
'Sorry, is it Sue? Thought I’d be talking to Dan; is he about?'
'He's in Chester. His wife’s- my sister, Sue’s been rushed in to hospital.'
Dick took a moment to sort out the genealogy. Nothing serious I hope?'
'No. Well yes. It's the baby, she's threatening to lose it.'
Dick hadn't known, and even if he had, would still have struggled with clichés. 'Look, give me a minute to get rid of this lot. Then, if you’ll open the door, I’ll get that noise stopped and we can talk normally.'
He turned to find Evan surrounding him. 'We can go then, can we sir? Cos' that total depends whether you tip cash or credit; it's to do with the vat.'
Dick nodded, signed for the total as it was, and handed Evans two hundreds.
Evan looked at the notes. ‘There are four of us, sir?'
Dick managed to keep his voice even. 'Thank you Mr Evan, it’s called a tip not a ransom.’
With a cursory nod to Dick and a half wave to his colleagues to say their duty was over, Evan started backing towards his car. 'Always a pleasure sir. I've cousin lives in Abersoch, does a bit of fishing. I'll get him to keep an eye on your boat. What's the name again?'
Looking impressed Dick decided Greenchecks boss should get the benefit of the Evans’ interest and described Ken’s yacht. 'Syncopation, red hull, white boot line.' Then watched the name and description being silently repeated and digested
'Right. Pleasure sir.' Evan used his bulk to mask the tip being slid into his pocket. Their yacht was Whisperwind, white hull and blue boot line. He'd ring Ken Noonan and warn him of the Evan’s family’s possible initiative. Turning towards Mary he waved, indicated he’d be another minute then pushed the inner security door open. It was gloomier inside than Dan normally kept it and Sue's sister seemed intent in keeping a nervous distance between them. Knowing the dog had got to her he tried to keep it light.
'Thanks, tell Dan how much we appreciate the favour, and if we can help he's not to hesitate. Now let me get Orson out of your hair. By the way, when was he delivered?' He bit the word short, realising its relevance to the trouble Sue and Dan were experiencing. The sister didn't seem to notice.
'Around lunchtime I think. Dan got in a panic, arranged for me to be collected and look after this lot while he went in with Sue. Bloody fool never told me about the dog till he came to his senses and rang me from the hospital. Just as well, I'd be witless by now if he hadn't.'
Dick laughed, 'He's a big soft lump. Honestly wouldn't do you any harm.'
'If you say so I'll believe you. But I'll just stay behind here until he's out of the way.'

Neither of them noticed the cool box's resumed chatter as Dick swung out of the forecourt for the short drive home. He’d to hold his left arm rigid against the dash to keep some driving room while Mary struggled to control Orson's attempts to lick any flesh his tongue could reach; both were happy to have the boss back.

Tracy Cox, Sue's sister, didn't enjoy the silence once they’d gone. There wasn't much now that she did enjoy in a life controlled by meters and the juggling to keep one and two half bodies together with ends that never met. Rent, water, gas and electricity were constant threats, even when supply wasn't. Growth was malicious; wear and tear crimes of grievous torment. Watching the convoy pulling up she'd hoped it would be a celebrity. Somebody from one of the soaps; something to brighten her day, a chink of glitz. She'd been disappointed at not recognising the bloke and, between the limited scope of the pay slit and heavily tinted glass of the vehicle got only a vague outline of the woman. Anyway, she wasn't interested in women and generally blokes weren't interested in her, so “that” as a subject for consideration was fucked, drawn and quartered. Even Carter, though he'd been a gent and kept his eyes and smile on her, couldn't help the flicker escaping when she'd let him in.

The doctor had called it nervous eczema. No, he'd called it something else; then sort of explained it as that. He'd prescribed ointment that highlighted the skin and its ruptured craters in an oily clingy sheen till she'd run out of health credits. Then she'd been reduced to the harpy lore of old Jean. Dabbing her face nightly with her morning's piss had done nothing for her pussing pits or her self-esteem and even less for her pissing marriage. Mind you “piss, puss and pits” probably summed up Dave as well. The night before he’d left he'd doggie'd her. She'd let his rhythm settle; placidly accepting he was probably getting her best profile, and she wasn’t being swamped by his breath. She’d murmured. 'You like it this way Dave?' His rhythm hadn't altered. 'It's all right, 'cept there's nobody to talk to.' She’d tried to heave him out. Too late he'd come, then, next day, gone. Leaving her with the existing half, and another to come. And what totally pissed her off was she knew. Knew in the time it took from his first wild thrust to the terminal suck it was a BINGO. Nine months, no remission, and now she was six years into her life sentence with no hope of remission.

The clatter of the shutters and the shout of “Shop” reminded her of why she was where she was. 'What pump and how much?'
'Four and fifty's worth.'
Hardly worth moving for. Processing the card she set the controls for the amount of fuel to flow. Shit! she'd forgotten to give the bloke the envelope. Carter? Hadn't he been some sort of M.P. or something? She wasn't sure but there was something; maybe he was somebody worth knowing. Problem was Dan had stressed not to forget it. Turning the envelope she saw it wasn't sealed. Sliding out the single sheet she struggled with the writing then concentrated on the printed address and phone numbers on top. She hesitated wondering whether to tell Dan and let him sort it out, or ring the number on the note. Finally, she picked up the phone.

Dick said nothing when they turned off the lane on to the drive. The tractor and mower were parked off to the right and obviously he’d have to have words with young Steve but, for the moment, Mary seemed too engrossed with Orson to notice. Slowing for the cattle grid his eyes ranged down the drive to where it curved round the shoulder of the knoll that screened the house.
'What time is it?' Mary asked.
Obviously his silent prayer hadn’t worked. Too early and he’d be landed with sorting out Steve tonight. Dick spoke through a yawn that didn't fool the dog. 'Back of six; though it feels like ten. Why?'
'Shouldn't the sprinklers be on?'
'Steve's probably turned them off so the grass will be dry when he cuts it tomorrow.'
'By the look of it he hasn't bothered for some time.'
'Well no use worrying about it now I'll get him over tomorrow and sort it out.'
Mary put her hand on his arm. '’Stop and let Orson race us home.'

Rottweilers aren't built for speed but Orson liked to be waiting when they pulled up at the door. If they pulled ahead he would sulk, flopping down in the middle of the drive until they’d stopped and let him regain the lead. Then he’d make a point of lifting his leg over a wheel to reconfirm the family pecking order. He was lolloping round the bend now, encouraged by Mary's shouts against the threat of the blaring horn. Dick slowed to a crawl to let him get to the door with some breath and dignity. 'Next dog's a greyhound. At least we'll be home quicker.' he grumbled
'Don't complain, you starte... Jesus. No!'

Flooring the accelerator was pure reaction. Hearing the first 'Crack' Dick was half convinced it was somebody shooting in the copse? The 'crump' right after couldn't have come from any place other than the house and said there was more than one. A second 'crack' when they’d careened round and up onto the gravel was muted by the screaming engine but he’d seen enough of the bloke by the door to know who the shot was aimed at. He saw something else, and knew instantly what Mary's reaction would be. Grabbing her arm he threw the wheel hard over. Engine screaming, wheels spitting gravel they were airborne before crashing down with an almighty whump near the bottom of the embankment. Taking no chances he flicked into four wheel drive, ripped behind the shelter of the knoll and was half way to the gates before sweeping back round.

Rage had Mary squirming to get out of Dick’s grip, her free arm swinging at him, her words spitting out. 'Let me go. The stupid bastards have shot him.'
Without taking his eyes of the space between the knoll and them, Dick captured her flailing arm and pulled her to him. 'Mary, did you see any car or van up there?’
'What the hell's that got to do with it? The bloody cretins have shot Orson. We need to get him to the vet - Now.’
'Mary, that wasn't the security guys being trigger happy.'
'Sod whoever it was, I’m going to get to Orson.'
Keeping her arms pinned Dick forced her to look at him. 'Mary, that wasn't a mistake. They meant it. They meant to fire at us.' Then gently shaking her to underline his conviction 'They're warning us off.' Feeling Mary’s anger collapse to despair Dick searched for the mobile.
'What are you doing?'
'Getting the police.'
Mary, her head sunk against his shoulder, shook it. 'It'll be too late by the time they arrive. Let me talk to them. See if they'll let us take him, then ring.'
'Absolutely not.'
'Well dammit, do something.'

Reasons chattered in frantic bites through Dick’s brain, actions kaleidoscoped as scenarios. None were reassuring or inviting; or even made sense. But there was one indisputable bloody fact; doing nothing was not an option; because if he did nothing Mary would. Easing her back to her seat he swung the Rover round to face the entrance. 'All right, I'll go. But only if you promise to do exactly as you're told.'
'Maybe they'll be less jumpy if they see a woman.'
Dick wasn’t so convinced that he wanted to argue the point. The confusion pounding his brain spat out as rage. 'Enough for Christ’s sake. Either you agree or we go back to Dan's and wait for the police.' Biting off his rant Dick tried to balance sense and action. 'Christ sake Mary, we don't know who or what we're dealing with. It’ll be bad enough watching out for them and worrying about my skin and Orson without having to worry about what you’re up to. Now will you promise?' Mary's nod said she did though Dick wasn’t convinced. 'Right.' Dick found it difficult to sound confident when he was still hunting for logic and that could easily mutate to ridicule. 'First, you keep the engine running, in drive and facing the entrance. The luggage will give you some protection. Anybody other than me comes down that drive, go like a bat out hell to Dan's and contact the police. You do not get out of the car, even if I'm crawling back. If nobody else is about, back up to me. Keep the luggage between you and the house at all times. Unless you can see me and there’s nothing serious happening, after ten minutes get the hell out of here. No questions, no hesitating, no heroics. Get to Dan's, and let Bob know what's happening after you've contacted the police. Now girl, do you promise me on everything we mean to one another to do exactly that?'
The quandary was Mary's now. 'What are you going to do? You haven't anything to protect yourself.'

Dick shrugged. 'Better they see I'm unarmed and not a threat. Ill climb to the top of the knoll on the blind side. When I get there I'll raise my hands and start down to the house. If things get nasty I'll roll down, over the drive and down the embankment. Once I'm on the drive I should be blind to them again.' Cupping her face he kissed her brow. 'Don't worry. If it comes to that I reckon you'll just about catch me up by the cattle grid. But keep in four wheel drive because I'll have shit myself and the drive could be slippery.'
'Maybe we should just go?'
'Bugger that, it’s our home. I want Orson seen to and I want to know who the hell they are.' Reaching for the door handle he tried to reassure her. 'Believe me hitting a moving target isn't nearly as easy as they make it look on the box. No, don't get out just scramble over.’ Mary’s look told Dick exactly how much she believed him and forced him to acknowledge the bullshit was probably more for his benefit as hers.

Keeping below the ridgeline of the knoll, Dick gave Mary one last wave. He'd modified the plan slightly, though calling it a plan was dignifying a gut reaction caused by an earlier reaction to the heart. He'd left a message for Bob telling him not to collect Orson. Instead he asked the kennels to drop Orson off at Dan’s; thinking it would save Bob the bother and be a surprise for Mary. Christ he'd done that right enough and, now he was at the ridge, the "moving target" quip had the substance of a fart. Waving and getting no reaction he inched forward until he had the front upper windows in sight. A second heave gave him the ground floor and front entrance; one more and he had the black and tan of Orson's coat. He searched for any sign of movement from him and seeing none found some hope in that he couldn’t see any blood either. Dragging his eyes from Orson he saw the bastard with the rifle being joined by two more. Bastard pointed out where he wanted them to cover before beckoning Dick down to him.

Too much had happened in too little time for Dick to have anything other than hazy expectations. He'd pictured louts of either gender. Greasy, unwashed, wallowing in odours dredged from the sump of humanity, welcoming him with inane comments like, “You didn’t expect that you cunt.” The bastard, his pate fringed by hair whiter than Dicks, looked towards the window of one of the guest bedrooms and mimed something before breaking the shotgun and nestling it in the crook of his arm, waited. Relaxed, in neutral, controlled; sport jacketed and flannelled; the host in his manor calmly prepared for a confrontation with a belligerent trespasser. He watched till Dick was about six metres from him with Orson a passive boundary mid way between. 'All right, that's close enough.'
'I'm not armed. Just let me see to my dog.' Dick walked on, keeping his eyes on Baldy’s. 'My dog…. My home.' He saw Baldy twist to the side to look again at the upper window and give a slight nod.
'We're sorry about the dog. Thought it was loose and we've got children here. The noise you were making didn't help either.'
By this time Dick was by Orson and had confirmed what he already knew. ‘Bastards!’ Baldy shrugged, not complacently, just factually. So Dick stated what to him was obvious. ‘Get the hell out of my house.’

That ‘No’ changed everything. Till now the event had the fog of confusion to blur its acts and omissions. A ridiculous situation had developed into a stupid tragedy. Now positions had to be clarified, possessions re-claimed and the sanity called normalcy restored. 'What? For Christ sake - THIS IS MY FUCKING HOME.' Shrieked out, the words became nothing but bluster. Quietening Dick tried again. 'You understand, this is my home. I own it. You realise what the police will do when they get here?'
Baldy sighed as though surprised reason had any purpose in the situation. 'Since you say it's your home you must be Carter. Well Mr Carter, let me tell you we've already had a visit from the police, more than a month back. The result of which is the reason for that over there.'
Turning in the direction he'd pointed, Dick saw in the middle of the west lawn by the rose bed a strip of fresh earth. A freshly painted wooden cross marking its significance. 'That's my youngest son buried there. Not your fault and probably mine more than anybody's. We thought the place was deserted. Knew it wasn't of course as soon as we checked it out properly. Kept an eye on it for ten days from the copse; saw the security patrols come round twice a day and a young bloke turned up a few times to cut the grass.
'The security firm weren’t a problem, they never are. I got their number from the index in your study. They were sorry to hear you had cut the holiday short; other than that they were more interested in getting a cancellation charge covered. Got to admit I was quite generous with your money but the quicker they lost interest the better for us.
The lad was more of a problem. He contacted some friend of yours who came over with a right bee in his bonnet. Eventually he seemed to see sense. Asked if he could negotiate for some of your personal stuff. We told him there was no need; he could pick up whatever he wanted. Barring the bare necessities. We needed beds, things like that.'
'Bloody reasonable of you.' Dick watched the sarcasm strike a nerve
'Maybe so, Mr Carter, but it was a Trojan horse your friend sold us. The van was full of police…. What's that?'
Knowing exactly who it was Dick dropped the bravado. 'It's my wife; I told her if I wasn't back in ten minutes to get out of it. Please, she isn't armed. Neither of us are carrying weapons.'

Baldy gave a dismissive snort. 'You’re either a brave man or a fool, Mr Carter, or more’n likely rich enough to have somebody else do the dirty work. Beckon her up. Unless you have lied, when I'd advise you to stop her now.' Turning towards his man by the door Baldy said a few words to him. Seconds later Dick heard the kitchen door bang and saw another bloke sprint across the gravel and climb to the crest of the knoll. Watching Dick take all this in, Baldy said, ' I won't tell you how many we are, but she's well covered.'
Nodding Dick turned and waved Mary up.
'Have you called the police?' Baldy asked
Shaking his head Dick realised he might have cut out all the heroics by simply phoning the house from the car. But that would have been weird -“Hello; have you shot my dog? And would you mind vacating the premises?”- Yes Mary would have gone for that, and Orson deserved more. It was the start of the inquest, the weighing of logic and hindsight. Anyway they could have simply chosen not to answer. 'No we didn't want to delay in case we could still do something for Orson.'
Acknowledging the logic, Baldy prodded the air twice in the general direction of the entrance. Dick saw his mate on the knoll turn his attention from the car and twist round to cover the entrance. 'Now tell Mrs Carter she’s to get out and turn slowly round with her arms straight out.'

Dick wasn't quick enough. As soon as she'd pulled to a halt, Mary was kneeling by Orson. His head cradled in her lap, her body rocking while her keening sobs seemed to plead for comfort for both their souls. Kneeling beside her, Dick felt grief swell through his rage. Now wasn't the time to argue, they’d other priorities. He tried clearing his throat to find a passage for words, and couldn't. He wasn't going to beg or plead and they could sodden well think what they liked about the tears. Rising he reached in to the Rover and started throwing bags and squawking bloody cool boxes until he considered he’d cleared enough space.
'What are you doing Carter?’
The physical effort gave Dick back his voice. 'The phone, in the house, is it still working?'
'No reason for it not to be; until you cancel or the bill isn't paid.'
Impudent bastard, 'In that case we're leaving. I'm not arguing or pleading with you. Just realise you’ve not won. I'll see you in hell first.' Dick kept his head down, Mary’s grief bringing out the anger and frustration in him. Holding her shoulder he gently eased her to one side before bracing himself to lift Orson.

In any normal circumstance Dick wouldn’t have attempted, let alone managed to stagger the few feet to the tailgate and lay Orson down with some semblance of dignity. He was easing his back straight when he realised two men were approaching. 'What the fuck do you want?'
It was Baldy who answered. 'They were only going to help; we didn't think you would manage.'
'Well I have, so they can fuck off.' Dick glowered at the two who, with a glance at Baldy shrugged and turned to join him.
'Mr Carter,' it was Baldy again. 'Believe it or not we are sorry about the dog; this was his home and if you want him buried here we would like to help.’
Mary had heard. Though confused by the situation and the people they were dealing with asked, 'Who are they Dick?'
Dick had no answer to that. 'Don't bother with that for now, girl. What about Orson?' letting the question hang while she gently stroked her tears into Orson’s fur.
'Please.' Was whispered out.
Dick struggled for volume. 'We'll take you up on that.'
Dick pointed to the rose bed. 'Our dogs and a few cats are buried there. There's space next to where your...' letting the words trail off when he realised what he was proposing. 'Sorry, I didn't mean…'
Baldy stopped him. 'That's all right Carter. There's worse things can happen to a man than to have a dog buried by him.'

Four of them dug the grave. The bed was easy to dig, free and friable with none of the clay they must have struggled with for the grave only feet away. It had been an ornamental pond full of venerable carp and goldfish that would have made a fishmonger’s eyes water. Dick had it filled in after their toddling nephew Rab had used it a couple of times for impromptu swimming lessons. The last rose was being heeled back when he was reminded. 'The phone, Mr Carter?'

Dick found himself trying to weigh up the man. Grey intelligent eyes, showing concern but holding the sheen of determination. Age? Probably around the same as his. Difficult to be more precise when you have only the one impression to go on and, if stress can age, he could be looking like an eighty year old to Baldy. But yes, around the fifties – sixties. Later, when they were trying to make sense of it all, Dick described his features as determined; Mary said they were brutal. Shorter than Dick and stockier, his bulk showing none of the wobbly overhangs or crevasses of soft fat. Confident in his control in the – what you see is what you get - idiom. Different time, different circumstance? Who knows? 'Mister…?' Dick asked, inviting a response.
Baldy shook his head. 'Knowing my name isn't necessary.'

Dick kept trying. 'You can't reasonably expect me to accept this situation. This is our property, our home. We've been sailing for a couple of months, but this is our base, home, our permanent residence. I mean we don't just use it for a few months then move on. Dammit man, it's been our home for twenty odd years and we're very fond of it. We’ve every right to be fond of it we’ve fucking paid for it. You’re not screwing the mortgage company or the bank you’re screwing us.’ A thought struck him. ‘Have I done some harm to you in business? Because if I have I wasn’t aware of it and I’m fairly certain I’ve never met you.’
Baldy almost smiled. ‘There’s no vendetta between us.’
‘Well that’s good to know. So there’s nothing personal this’s merely a matter of squatting?’ Checking Mary was still by the grave Dick lowered his voice. ‘So what will it cost us to get you to leave?’
Baldy merely shook his head. ‘You’re way off the mark if you think we’re in this to force you to buy us out.’

Dick tried another tack 'You said you have women and children here. Surely you won't put them at risk? Not after what happened to your son. Or is that it? You're hoping we believe you, and use only the soft options. Maybe there are no women or children?’
“Think what you like, but for us there are no soft options. Leastways none that matter. You know this house Mr Carter, its size; how solidly it's built, the security measures you have installed and the ground it commands. How many people can it hold comfortably? And how well it can be defended. As to the women and children, if you look to your left you will see one of my daughter’s waiting with coffee, should you or Mrs Carter want some.'

Dick refused the offer. It was time to get out and the situation was too bizarre for coffee and biscuits. He started loading the stuff back in the car. 'We're leaving. You say you have considered your position; we need to consider ours. Somehow or other, God knows why, you strike me as a reasonable man. I really don't want this madness to create any more carnage, to people or my property, so I'll tell you why I asked about the phones. Whatever I, we, decide to do I'll ring and tell you. There will be no tricks, I’ll hold nothing back but once that's done, whatever happens will be entirely your responsibility. I hope you consider your position very carefully.' Then hesitating Dick added. 'I just don't see how you can expect to win man?'

Reaching into his jacket pocket Baldy pulled an envelope from it.' We don't expect to win Mr Carter. Who does nowadays?' Offering the envelope to Dick he added, 'I've had time during your absence to compose this. It may help to explain and for you to understand the lengths we are prepared to go to.’


All eyes turned to the watcher on the knoll then to the direction he was pointing. Hustling the gravediggers inside Baldy barked at Dick. 'Who is it? Who have you contacted?'
'Nobody. I told you.' Dick turned his eyes quizzing Mary who shook her head. 'We've contacted nobody.'
Dick watched a nerve work on Baldy’s' cheek while he decided whether to believe them or not. They all turned towards the chopper’s sound as it veered south, staying constant in volume and out of sight. Suddenly it broke cover over the copse and dived towards them.
'It's my brother Bob,' Dick shouted over the din and, without thinking, waved to show they were all right.
'If he’s the one who brought the police, I don't want him near here.' Baldy seemed to weigh up his options. 'Mrs Carter, drive to the entrance block it off and get him to land. Your husband stays with me until I'm convinced your friend has no more tricks up his sleeve.'
'How?' queried Mary.
'Never mind ‘how’. Needs must when the devil drives and I'm the devil you've got to worry about for now. Move Madam, and once he lands make sure you keep clear of the vehicles and where you can both be seen. One more thing, has your friend a phone in that thing?'
Dick shrugged. 'Probably, I don't know for sure.'
'If it has will it be in your index?'
'Probably, can't remember ever using it. We could try his mobile.'
'Right, Mrs Carter, as soon as your husband and I are in the house your car phone will ring. Let it ring until your friend has landed and you have his number. If he has a phone in the cab and his mobile I want you to take the mobile and throw it as far as you can. I'll be watching through binoculars, then and only then will you answer the car phone and give us his number. We’ll use one of the other house lines to tie it up. Have you got that?' Baldy hesitated, ‘Thinking about it, what about your own mobiles?'
Dick pointed to one of the bags he'd thrown out. 'One's in there, dead as a dodo, other's in the glove box.'
'Baldy nodded. 'We'll have that as well. Now Mrs Carter, time to go.'
Throwing the mobile to him, Mary asked, 'What happens when we've done all this?'
''You wait, Mrs Carter. Wait and hope there's nobody else concerned for your well being. Now go.' Laying his hand lightly on Dick’s arm he led him towards his home.

For Dick, it was when he was led through his own front door that he appreciated just how much had been stolen from them. He'd expected, been looking forward to, the house having that sleepy mausoleum smell. As though it had a shrink-wrapped membrane sealing in the memories it had accommodated. He realised how much he'd been looking forward to the smell of that first pot of coffee; the raising of a couple of the security shutters and the opening of the original internal wood shutters to let in a few hours of light before sealing up again for the night. Setting a match to the wood burner purely for effect then settling down with a dram and thanking it for being a nice home to come back to. Now it felt angry with them for allowing its integrity to be compromised. The rape victim subsequently forced into cohabiting with the rapists. But perhaps not, when he caught sight of the plastic trikes and pedal cars scattered round the entrance hall.

One thing he did appreciate was Baldy’s decision to allow Mary to go and control Bob; he could just as easily have kept Mary as the more vulnerable hostage. Odd that; gallant even?'

Escorted to his study and finding it just as he'd left it, Dick dialled the car phone, handing the handset to Baldy when it started to ring. From the window the north gateposts could just be made out. Bob was in clear sight, hovering midway between it and the house. While they watched, the Rover swung across the gateposts blocking the drive. Baldy, once he'd heard the dialling tone, had taken Dicks telescope from its stand and was using it to sweep the sky and surrounding vista, giving a nod of approval when he saw where she'd parked. 'Competent woman your wife, Mr Carter.'
Dick was concentrating on Mary's diminutive figure as Bob slowly edged towards her. 'C'mon Bob. C'mon.' Giving a sigh of relief when the chopper settled and Mary signed, by drawing the edge of her hand across her throat, for Bob to shut it down. He wondered if the sign had more significance for him.

Baldy grunted. 'She's on her way back to the car.' Handing Dick the scope he waited till the phone was answered. Scribbling down the number, he reminded Mary to keep her line open before switching to the second house line entering the number and getting the ring tone. 'Good, what are they doing now?'
'They’re standing between the chopper and the car.' Handing the scope back Dick asked, 'So, what happens now?'
'We wait. You might like to take this opportunity of using your bathroom. Freshen up a bit; collect some clothes for you and Mrs Carter. Collect anything that's special, that sort of thing. You'll find everything in your suite is as you left it.'
'What do you expect me to say. Thank you?'
Baldy gave a half smile. 'No Mr Carter. I'm just telling you how things are; seems only sensible to make the best of it.'

Closing the study door to the suite’s inner hall, Dick went to their dressing room and tentatively tried the door leading to the gallery. It was locked, which probably meant the door directly from the bedroom was as well, leaving the study the only way out. Grabbing a bag he threw a couple of shirts, casual trousers and underwear into it then struggled to find much the same for Mary. No way was he going to cram clothes into suitcases and give the bald cuss the impression of preparation for a long absence. In the bathroom he started to swill his face, thought better of it, stripped and showered. Within fifteen minutes he was back in the study, but not before he’d checked the safe in his bedroom and transferred its contents into the bag under the clothes.

Meanwhile Baldy had helped himself from the Tantalus. Lifting his glass he invited Dick to join him. 'Excellent whisky. You can tell it's aged. Long time since I've tasted any as smooth.'

Long time since I've met anybody as smooth Dick thought, while helping himself to a couple of fingers. Smooth didn't quite fit. Cocksure? No. Arrogant, abrasive, dominating? No, each of these was a weakness. It came back to determined, resolute to the point of flint. Good name for him that. Hard, but possibly a bit flaky, edgy if approached the wrong way. There again, what did he know? Could be they were dealing with a fully qualified, certificated, diploma holding psycho. Didn't bear thinking about so he fought to keep his thoughts to the minimum shit depth. 'It's the Ardbeg. Should be a couple of cases down in the cellar.'
Flint nodded. 'They're still there, merely complimenting your taste.'
Dick sighed inwardly, what the hell could you do with this man? 'I 'm impressed by your strange notions of honesty and integrity. What would impress me more would be if you were to show some compassion and let me get back to my wife. I would like to get to wherever we decide before its dark.'
Flint’s tone became almost conversational. 'Give it another ten minutes. You did remember my letter when you changed?'
Dick indicated his hip pocket. 'Got it here. You'll understand if I don't want to digest it at the moment.'
'Of course, but you've seen the condition of the house and your suite in particular. Nothing’s been abused and nothing will be. You have to understand this's purely a matter of survival.'
This was getting too credible, too fucking negotiable. 'I don't think we'll take up that offer.' Dick tried to stay chilled but lost it. 'You're ripping us off good time. You don't look or act like an idiot; in fact you seem so sane I'm beginning to think you're mad. Completely bloody bonkers. Well, just let me make it clear. I'm not accepting this. Nor do I accept your care of my home as a reason to be considerate. Not even for a bloody reference as a tenant.'

Flint swung to face him. 'You could be right about the madness, I've touched it and I’m not ashamed of it. You might be surprised how subtle, how deceptively conventional its tentacles are Carter and nobody's immune to it. No, if I were mad you would have known it by now and at a cost far greater than all of this. I think it's time you went, before this conversation sinks to a depth neither of us wants. Goodnight Mr Carter. You know your way out and believe it or not, we really are sorry about the dog.'

Relief didn't strike Dick until he was in the lee of the knoll with Bob driving towards him.
'You all right?'
Dick just nodded and slumped in the seat.
'What the hell does he think he's up to?' Bob asked
'God knows Bob, unless he's recreating Alice's Wonderland.'
Bob grimaced. 'You're coming back to the farm. Jon and his lads will be here any minute to drive back with you.'
'Take Mary with you Bob, it'll be quicker.' Picking up the car phone Dick called in, ‘Hello, you there? It's Carter.'
'Yes Mr Carter.'
'Arrangements have been made for some friends to escort us to our temporary residence. I’ll stay in sight till they arrive. There will be no funny business.'
'Thank you. Look forward to hearing from you.' Breaking the connection Dick rubbed both hands over his face.
Bob asked, 'Did he tell you about the cock up with the police?'
'Not now Bob; leave it for later.' Then, rubbing the back of his neck Dick asked, ' Bob, Alice in Wonderland, how does it end?'
'Don't know, Dick, never read it.'
‘Maybe we should.' Because he knew, Baldy – Flint, whatever the bastard was called, had a point.

Deek: Salford, May 2020.
The Sunk Estate
'Fuck you!' Deek slammed the Gensho Gamestar down on his thigh, throwing his torso back and straightening his legs so the blankets muffled its zany victory tones.

He was a reluctant pacifist. Eight year olds never want to be anything they can't see a need for. Eight year old boys want to win. Some might think its their right to win - few can accept their only right is to lose. Life has to teach them that.

He waited till the scroll of honours, the top scores, the one he would never join, had gone. Then the tone changed and once more he was ready to weave, duck, bounce, vault and plunge through an invasion of gorbly androids while his trigger finger, the real android zapper, could be stuck up his arse for all the use it was. That didn't stop him pounding the attack button in the hope of a response from the screen.

He'd known the button didn't work when he'd done the swap with Ging. It hadn't mattered then because the air pistol hadn't worked either. Not since he'd dropped it when the fuzz parked below and the bastards had looked up. Looked straight at him before heading for the entrance.

He'd never scored with it, leastwise, not that he'd seen. No bodies had sprawled on the path or crawled out of sight clutching torn flesh. A couple of times he'd seen people sort of swipe their necks or shoulders but he reckoned, way off target for him to claim. He'd got a pigeon. It had landed on the window ledge of his mother's bedroom. It had been a real lucky shot, because any position other than down had to be judged with the arm bent through the slot of the open window. He'd hit it bang on the centre of its coo-cooing chest, watched it tumble off, recover, then flap up and past him. So even when it worked, it didn't.

He'd waited for the lift, then added time for the stairs till, peering through the nets in his mothers bedroom, he'd watched the fuzz leave as empty handed as they came. Next time he'd skedadle to Gunge upstairs. There were worse moves than having to keep your eyes on the carpet and hands in your pockets for an hour imagining every surface in his flat covered in snot. Instead he'd snatched some string from a drawer, wound it round the pistol and hung it from the window only to hear it slither free. It must've caught the wall or ledge on the way down. When he found it sunk in the mud between the path and the sidewalk, one side of its plastic handle was smashed. He'd cleaned it then found the trigger had jammed and asked his dad to fix it. Old Man Awkright had glanced it over, wiggled the trigger a couple of time and thrown it back at him. 'It's knackered. Bloody well learn to look after your toys. Money down the drain's what that is.'

Money hadn’t come into it; Deek had hoisted it from a bloke fishing on the canal bank. Ging's father had fixed it, had carved new handles in wood for him. It was a pity he couldn't fix the fucking Gensho. Deek knew he was kidding himself, if Ging’s father had fixed it he wouldn’t have it.

Banal life sounds filtered through without distracting him. The living room door opening let a droll quizmaster's voice try a sneak attack, instantly recognised, easily repelled. Less easy, though just as quickly recognised, was his grandfather’s pissing slosh accompanied by gurgling hawks and slucking gobs. That had him squirming round so his back was to the sound. 'Shit!' He'd lost again, just that millisecond of distraction. He waited for the click of the door latch then for his grandfather to tiptoe over to Rosie, lifting her covers well off for a gander before tucking her in.
`You sleeping Deek?'
'Yes Granddad.'
Buggered the old fucker.


MOSCOW. 2020

'Mr President, President Mair of the United States of America.'
Formality dispensed, Anna gave both men a half smile as she closed the door behind her and made her way through the matching phalanxes of bodyguards. Boys and their toyboy's she thought

Both of Alexei's hands cupped the one extended to him. 'Tired Jim?'
'No, not so much tired Alex as flat brained. I think Liu has just about run out of dimension to dement. Between him and the foreign secretary Li Chin, not only had they my interpreter rattled but they had their own was struggling as well. Half the time the poor guy looked as though he was searching for divine interpretation if not intervention. My guy admitted the two of them had sort of hammed it up. Seemingly Liu and LiChin were switching dialects and often they were on entirely different issues and seemingly oblivious to the confusion they were causing.’
’Double act or for real?’
Jim shrugged. ‘My man reckons they’re so crinkled they’re ready to shred. Crunch is, Chan's definitely pulling their strings. Just choosing his time before replacing them.'
'How does he see it?'
'Now you would have to be a fly that can read the runes in his craphouse to really know that. The impression he wanted me to have was one of interest but not commitment. He regards our WREC initiative as a blind. Our Star-Screen as untested techno blackmail and our consumer junkie empires’ last desperate fling to maintain dominance before his comes online to take over. Considers India too fragmented and unstable and Brazil too far behind to be in contention' Easing out of his jacket Jim slipped it over the back of Alexei's desk chair. 'As far as WREC’s concerned, wants to know what’s in it for him, and I’m damned if I know if the 'him' is personal or China.'

Easing back on the lounger opposite Alexei, Jim mused on his butt's ability to adapt to more profiles than his brain seemed capable of. 'I'd say he'll be in the driving seat within the next eighteen months. Unless Liu or LiChin have some magic elixir, he'll have them out to grass, or under it.'
'Nature or nurture?'
‘Not our problem. Just as he didn't want to dwell on his or anybody's population and poverty problems; and reckons they have every right to go on playing catch-up credits on carbon controls. Then got straight into the fundamentalists being our self-inflicted wound; said we got our incitement to returns ratios wrong. See’s it as a minor threat and major profit to them. How would we compensate China for cutting their supply off, etcetera?
My impression, candidly, is both his timescale and attitude’s pure bluff. He knows the strength of his hand as far as the markets are concerned and is as aware as we are that none of the carbon targets are going to be met whether China plays ball or not. So he's quite happy to be seen as the evil empire playing both ends towards his middle until such time as quote, "We let him in on the game we're playing." And, how, when, and if, we intend to play it." end quote. Coincidence or not?'
Alexei grimaced. 'Let's hope not, Jim. Otherwise, whether he’s right about India and Brazil or not, it’s what the world believes and without China we haven’t the leverage.’
'He knows Alex. I said nothing about the meeting in Reykjavik. We know he's picked up the traffic through the satellite. He was waiting for me to give him the invite and I think it kinda threw him when I didn’t. Thought it might hurry him along on sounding you out and be more conciliatory when he does.'
Alexei pulled a napkin from the coffee tray and wiped his glasses. 'Makes sense. Meantime we should entice our fundamentalist friends back into the headlines and keep that pot simmering.’
‘Christ Alex fundamentalism! When did idiocy become fashionable?’
Alexei chuckled ‘Idiocy has always been fashionable it’s only its tools that change.’

Slipping his glasses back on, Alexei tapped the file lying between them. 'Cuirakin's read this outline of yours and, like me, is enthusiastic. We’ve highlighted some points that you might like to discuss.'
'Go ahead.'
'The cost, how accurate is it and what effect will it have on the financial markets? And, could it leave an audit trail? That’s Andrei’s question not mine.’
Jim Mair chuckled, 'It’s a gesture Alex. A vague cost for a visionary future. We simply took the costs of our Star Screen programme, including the over runs for the past 10 years and doubled them. Which probably makes it as accurate and probably more real than the values pumped out by the markets daily and probably about as auditable. Nothing has ever been figured this big. We don't think the accuracy, even the amount, will be the issue since initially at least most of it will be circulating in our control. Robbing Peter to pay Peter via Paul as it were, with everybody that matters getting their cut and nobody that matters losing, and all of it government backed. Who’s to lose, it’s a winner all the way especially when it’s exactly what the conglomerates wants to believe.'
Alexei smiled. ‘I think we will have more of a problem here with the government backing angle. Anyway Cuirakin suggests you double its projected costs when it's presented to Nakao and Gnauk. And Chan if he's there in July. Make it stratospheric, difficult to envision. You know as well as I do costs are peripheral to the political gains. Use it to underline the issue of the single world currency. It will give everybody plenty to argue over and help keep their eyes on their financial heaven and off the earthly ball.
As to the waste problem, Cuirakin’s come up with this.' He slid a sheet of paper across. 'Ostensibly they're underground nuclear waste dumps, similar to those developed by the U.K but bigger. He suggests one for every seven reactors, making ten in all. Each would be the minimum of one kilometre below the surface and with storage chambers of around three kilometres by one and a half and about one hundred meters high. It will give us a sound reason to do a lot more surveys and a good argument for gaining access to the South African mines.'
Glancing at the bottom line, Jim felt himself shiver as he read, "Deduct approx. 33% for access, handling and racking, capacity left 500." 'I take it that's millions?'
Alexei nodded. 'Should imagine so, otherwise it won't cover the parameters we need.'
'That's an awful lot of storage. Especially if we're not scheduling the reactors to be built until these are complete.'
Alexei shrugged 'Have they any choice Jim?' Cushion it by the price we're prepared to pay for the privilege. We have to sell them on the nuclear energy front, even if it means building a couple. Anyway, if they’re worried we're trying to dump the world's nuclear waste on them we’ll take them on a tour round Russia. They'd soon realise we would need a lot more than these merely to bury our mistakes at Blagoveshensk.'
Or Chernobyl, thought Jim, saying nothing, knowing the blame game could go on forever to little purpose. Besides he knew how much Blagoveshchesk had cost Alexei in terms of family and was surprised by his second suggestion. 'You're proposing we drop the highways and concentrate more on rail. Could have a problem with that. The auto lobby's still a force to be reckoned with, more so now quotas, size and type restriction are strangling them. Paving a continent would have their mouths watering, tracking it will have them squealing foul. Not only that but our friends in the rising Yen won't like it. Nakao more'n any of us is controlled by industry.'

'’Then cover both road and rail in your proposal Jim. What are we selling? The illusion that we are all willing to commit ourselves to vast costs for their benefit initially and subsequently the worlds. It’s the only continent where we can get a large element of control without grinding them into submission by war. Where we have the chance to create viable lifestyles and infrastructures and where the population have enough patience ground into them to give us the chance to succeed.' Alexei laughed as his friend's smile slowly edged into a grin.
'Sorry, didn't mean to preach to the preacher, just helps sometimes to stick with the effect and not think about the cost or the cause. Fact is Cuirakin feels rail will be more efficient for the storage factor, the eventual logistics more controllable.'

Wishing his mind's graphics wouldn't mortify his conscience, Jim struggled to keep his thoughts on the now. 'No, you’re right we’ll stick with the eco base otherwise it could look as though we’re undermining our own principles. In fact Stannought’s is proposing that all of the conglomerates that tender should submit a full carbon-audit of their projects. Too high and they either modify or drop out. That could cost you Alex.'
'Now isn't that a surprise coming from our esteemed colleague? Doesn't matter that our oil and gas distribution grids are state of the art. Next to Norway we have the best steelworks and they have only an eighth of our capacity. So Robert once again has crawled into his self preserving mould and dropped himself into his self serving shit.'
'True. Problem is Alex, he never seems to be aware of it nor have any sense of smell.'
'But he's wonderfully predictable.'
Jim chuckled while thinking, yeh, but you don’t have to live with him. ‘All right let's keep looking at the wood. I've settled on Shultz to front for me.'
Alexei’s eyebrow rose in query. 'But isn't he a republican?'
'Thanks Alex. He's also got sound contacts as an ex-secretary of state and a director of the I.M.F. and first and foremost he’s a pragmatist. He's not looking for political office and has the integrity, once convinced, to keep his commitment to the big target. He's respected and liked by Christiani and I’ve the feeling he frightens Stannought. Choosing him to front the WREC initiative gives it a cross party caucus. I take it Cuirakin is to be your man?'
'No, I want for him to stay out of WREC. Maybe behind the scenes, in reserve so to speak. Says he’s too old and tired to be in the cut and thrust. He says it confuses him; but as an advisor he feels relaxed and capable of seeing the wider picture. Besides there's no political capital to be gained by Russia being seen in a driving seat and my people want to see some gilt in their own lives before they'll be interested in world order. We'll show our commitment with troops and technicians as part of the control and monitoring force. Show our gratitude for the contracts and increase the measure of stability here through them. Cuirakin and Shultz are already well known to each other, so if you can find a way to explain Cuirakin's role to Shultz and convince him of the need for it to be understated I’ll be grateful. The last thing we need is for our friends to think it's them and us. I’ll only feel safe when we know it's us and them.'
'I'll leave working out that one till I'm on my way home.'
Alex nodded. 'I'll be there at the crucial time. Now as to Shultz, you know how I worry about egos being our weakest point. Rumour has it he has a strange predilection?'
Jim handed him a second flimsy. 'The fact it's only a rumour shows how careful he is. He's reasonably generous to his ex and she has enough sense not to roll him. Candidly we’re not even sure if she knows.'
Glancing through the data, Alexei pondered on what a similar exercise might reveal about him. Probably two lines would cover it. Interests limited to fly fishing, Bach, Beethoven and Irish whiskey. Single-mindedly boring. If they included Natasha under mistress he could honestly cross it out and update it as friend.

Waiting for a reaction and getting none, Jim shrugged. ‘That second report was gathered by the person who’s agreed to control the black ops on our side. The agreement was reached on the understanding of their identity being known only to me, a condition I’ve agreed to. What I can tell you is the person is in a unique position to have the services we’ll require carried out. For the sake of brevity we have agreed on the name Stygian. I’ll leave it to you to mesh that in with your own system.’
Seeing the look of concern in his friend’s eyes, Alexei smiled. ‘I know you don’t like that side of things Jim but clichés apart, we have to keep our appetites for the omelette even if we have to cook it in a black non-stick pan.’
‘Alex, the end justifying the means is history’s biggest lie.’

The buzz from the speaker on the desk had Anna quietly informing them it was time. Thanking her, Alexei handed Jim his jacket. 'Then my friend, both Shultz and your Stygian have my blessing. Give my love to Moira and tell her I'm looking forward to the next time she knocks our heads into shape. Now we need to be in place at the negotiating table for the official paparazzi and we do want Mr Chan to note the absence of Georgy Yusov. Perhaps we will learn just how much he misses his friend.'
As they were leaving Alexei felt Jim grip his arm. ‘Alex, do you ever have doubts on this? Got to admit I do but I’ve got Moira to talk it over with. Who have you got? Andrei? Anna?’

Alexei smiled, ‘Anna knows nothing of GAME. Andrei I discuss strategies with but never the morality of it, we mutually decided to skirt round that. So I suppose you could say in moments of doubt I argue with myself and up to now the I has always won.
Jim nodded, ‘Good to know you do have them.’

The stopover was presented as a low-key courtesy visit with minor trade implications. There was no ceremony of farewell at the airport. Shuttle diplomacy, even between of heads of state, are, like sleeping dogs, best let lie until there's something, fact or fiction, for them to bark about.

The prologue is here and the first chapter here.


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