To be or not to be, that is the question….
Shakespeare: Hamlet, III, I, 56.
‘Drink or coffee Sir?’
Klaus Shultz didn’t bother opening his eyes to refuse the flight attendant’s offer. Didn’t banter with her as to why coffee should be classed as anything other than a drink. For him flying time had always been thinking time and the hop home to Manhattan was too short to be squandered by interruptions.
He’d been a Republican ever since conviction or chance, he was too long in the tooth to remember which, had propelled him into their ranks. Latterly he’d wheeled along; knowing they’d no longer any real sense of purpose other than an amoral addiction to retaining control. Their weapons, a mystical Dow Jones; shored up by the corporate tyrants racking mega bucks out of marketing the products of hallucination, exploitation or annihilation. Their tools, a controlled media rat arsed on trivia, vacuous sound bites, ranting hype and Machiavellian spin designed to smother the growling ground swell of the disillusioned. Even Americans, were catching on to their significance as a being was solely related to their consumer credit rating. A new paradigm was needed, and in the presidency circus between MacIndrick and Mair, MacIndrick’s offer of more of the same only appealed to those already getting most and wanting more from the same. Klaus, looking for innovation, had mouthed for MacIndrick then voted for Mair. His duplicity he excused as trait honed by his years in politics. Privately he’d no illusions as to the aridity of his scruples; regarding their lack as a basic characteristic required by his profession; just as the fundamental trait required by a banker was greed. Even his marriage was one of convention and little conviction. Its ritual only being staged once his covert vasectomy made progeny impossible. But buried deep beneath this sophisticated shell of hypocrisy, or so he liked to believe, there was a warrior just waiting to be called to fight the good cause: provided it wasn’t too much of a threat to his reputation, or lifestyle. Yet, and he suspected this applied to most of his countrymen; his mind, its conscience, his very being, were so deeply immersed in the system, he couldn’t conceive of any escape for it or from it.
After the skirmishes he’d had with Mair in the House and Foreign Affairs Committee’s, among others, he’d expected some innovation during his administration and, though it went against a lifetime’s commitment, he’d begun to feel cheated. Tonight had changed that.
Klaus checked his diary entries for the coming week. Yes, Draper had cancelled their lunch appointment for the Thursday. Printing MOSCOW COSBNK? over the cancellation, then turned to its phone index and ran his pen down the Cs prodding its nib on the third one. Arriving home at one o’clock would make it around eight in Moscow; a civilised hour for a social call to an old friend. Now all he needed was the excuse of being part of Draper’s I.M.F. entourage. Using the limo’s phone he rang Draper’s apartment, letting it ring for the hell of it and smiling when he heard the suck of saliva being swallowed before it was answered.
‘Henry Draper. Who’s calling?’
Klaus kept his tone ebullient. ‘Henry, Klaus here. This Moscow trip on Thursday. I’ve decided to join you; maybe talk to an old friend and find out what’s really happening with our money across there.’
‘Do you know what time it is Klaus? It’s getting on for two in the morning.’ Draper invariably felt the need to state the obvious.
Klaus broke in, ‘How many’s going?’
‘So it’ll be one of your own planes? Well, that stops it being any sort of problem.’
Draper, noticing he wasn’t being asked, tried to regain position. ‘Who are you thinking of meeting?’
Klaus told him.
‘Cuirakin!.. He’s still in the frame?’‘Very much so. And, as it’s him, you will understand why you’ll have to cover for my absence.’ Draper wasn’t sure if he did, and wondered whether he’d any choice in that either.
The minor detail over, Klaus used the mobile passed to him on his way back to the airport to ring Moscow. Handed to him by the same bodyguard who’d picked him up on his arrival and escorted him unchallenged right through the White House to Mair’s private suite. He’d been told, “It’s set to respond to your existing number so use it as normal, but use it specifically on anything within the scope of your discussion with the Chief.” Which probably meant it was encrypted and had the capability of blowing his head off, but what the hell that would cover reputation and lifestyle. He glanced at his watch, by now the hour would be even more civilised. ‘Good morning Andrei.’
‘Is that Klaus?’
‘It is. I’m calling from New York.’
Andrei smiled, and crossing the Brooklyn Bridge by his read out, but for now he wouldn’t enlighten him. ‘Then you obviously don’t keep bankers’ hours.’
‘I’ll be in Moscow Thursday, arriving late Wednesday. I hope we can meet.’
‘Ah, my friend, Thursday is when I visit Bella’s grave. I always have the hours between ten and noon with her. Then, perhaps because I’m slowing up, it takes me two hours to get back.’
Klaus got the message. ‘That’s a pity. Bye Andrei, perhaps another time.’ He’d been expected; they’d have two hours. Now all he needed was a cover to give Draper.
Sleeping late he allowed himself a lazy breakfast before phoning Princeton and asking for Mervin. He was sentenced to music mush for ten minutes before the receptionist tracked his nephew down.
‘Hi Mervin, hope you can do me a favour. In that computer of yours have you models of the Russian economy?’
‘Models of every economy Uncle.’
‘Can you simulate effects between economies? Say juggle China’s, India the E.E.C.’s and Japan’s on ours and Russia’s, and vice- versa.’
‘Unusual format. Combining China and Russia are usually the worst-case bedmates. But it’s all do-able provided we have the base lines.’
‘When to start; when to finish.’
Klaus used the ridiculous to make his needs accepted as reasonable. ‘Seem to remember being told way back, that in 1950 we had over 50% of the worlds wealth with less than 7% of its population. Suppose we covered from then until 2050, how would it look?’
‘I’ll answer the easy bit first. Bankrupt is how we’d look and, with the possible exception of Switzerland, so would the rest of the world. Uncle, we can project to the next millennium if you like but anything before 2000 is dust and everything after tomorrow is as prescient as fortune cookies. They keep juggling the fiscal rules and moving the goalposts.’
Klaus chuckled. ‘Dangerous ground, eh? Maybe I should move my investments out of Swiss pharma’s, could be we’ll be sending in the marines to save them from fundamental monetarism. You ever done a prediction on population?’
‘UN does one up to 2200. They reckon we’ll stabilize around the 10 billion mark, but you shouldn’t believe everything a computer tells you and even if you did you wouldn’t want to know.’
‘Matter of fact I would but only to 2050 Mervin and, as for the Russian economy stuff, a projection over the next ten years will do, and it would be good if you could print that in Cyrillic and get it to me by Wednesday.’
‘You want I show the data as being sourced from any particular unit of commerce, institution or department of the Russian State?’
The question shook Klaus. It seemed that in the twenty-first century the electronic spy was king. Klaus didn’t know what department it would have came from but suspecting his nephew would, he played it as intrigue within the remit of the I.M.F. ‘Yes, show it as coming from deep within the bowels of Cosbank. Just the economy thing; the other’s just for me.’
‘You really want that?’
‘On your head.’
A pair of eyes belonging to a dot of inconsequence peered shyly from the bustee while its ears listened to her mother’s song. Tonight they had food, which was the reason for the singing, but Gita was watching for the return of her father. It could have been a good day. Her father had come back early with food and Gita had hoped to spend the rest of the day with him. Hope had collapsed when he refused. Now she had only her imagining. Seeing him weaving his way through their world of shacks, picturing the only route she knew and where she could only go when her hand was held by him or her mother’s to the clinic above the communal shithouse. She knew of no enigma between the whine and thunder of pungent jets and their intrusion into her fragile world with its tyres of roaring flames and spewing black clouds. She had seen the sea; its space allowing the miracle of a horizon, and someday dreamed to be taken back. Her mind had conjured visions offering adventures to last a lifetime. An island state of planes, hovel homes and a paradise shore.
Mulk had seen her disappointment but had to make the best of opportunity. Most days, time dissolved into the search for food, waiting for chance to present itself without displaying the nervy hover of the scavenger-thief. Mostly, though he couldn’t limit himself to favourable odds, he waited for the scraps being cleared from the stalls lining the airport road, just like the dogs. He envied the dogs. Quicker than him, and what they got was gobbled safe unless desperation made the dog a meal.
Today had been a miracle. He’d heard a woman shriek, thought little of it till it was amplified by the crowd. Even then he’d been caught in confused petrifaction while the flower stall came to life and reared towards him. Godlike he stood, pelted with petals, showered in garlands and, like a god, watched the arrows of splintered wood and scimitars of corrugated steel scythe past him. He waited until the ground no longer trembled, the dust settled, the cause of his near mortality exposed; and a minor material miracle presented to him for exploitation.
The bus was dead, collapsed on its side, its wake marked by human debris. Voices screamed in pain, grief or for release, but in the midst of the chaos was opportunity. Beneath a corrugated sheet, clanking and cracking as panicking feet clambered over it, was a basket from the neighbouring poultry stall. Mulk knew if he was the first it would only be by seconds. He got two chickens before he was challenged. The rotten cloth of his clothes frustrated the hand’s scrabbling at him. Turning into a ball he’d one chicken wrenched from him; the other by gripping its body only let them take the head. He didn’t resist when he was pushed deeper into the debris. Today he knew which temple he’d give thanks in. Its god had already showered him with flowers and food; perhaps it would further honour him with work. Work that would allow him to give Ronila money so she and Gita could buy food. Until that happened the misery of existence would dog him; that and the knowledge that tomorrow he wouldn’t be able to live by the gods alone. It was then he spotted another cowering chicken and gave a swift apology to the gods for doubting tomorrow.
There were other material miracles Mulk saw but paid no heed. Frenetic paramedics scuttling round the dead and nearly dead. Professionals assaying and calculating, marking their assessments with red or yellow stickers, heedless to the wails from those who might survive: they would be treated later. After the carcasses had rendered their offal harvest to feed the transplant coffers, ensuring the poor would inherit the earth: the rich their kidneys, liver, lungs, spleen, eyes, anything except their poverty.
Salford lies as the bowel of Greater Manchester as Manchester does to England. Its stagnant urinary canals earmarked by developments of acidic diversity from bilious gluttony to piss awful. Even the ‘Greater’ was a title loosely related to size and bureaucratic divisions rather than quality.
The Awkrights lived in the piss, on the drip and even at eight, Deek, through the benefits of the box, was beginning to realise it; though, as yet, he neither queried nor resented it, merely expecting to be entertained or to be ignored when he wasn’t. Time would raise his understanding and his intuitive gut would coil in resentment but, for now, he was shielded by sameness. Nothing shone as different in the six sister tower blocks around him; nobody showed any difference as they were bussed to school, only to shuffle borearsed through class then bussed back. Except for the kids that came from the institutes. Either the tagged or orphaned, and some doubly qualified; they belonged nowhere, except as threats.
One symptom already inflicted on him by his world of poxed concrete was echo ear. Every noise was a litany of ricochets off unyielding surfaces and deflecting corners, compounding and distorting till it became a continuous slush. The blasphemous din corrupted words and created dialects only resident trained ears could interpret meaning from. Visitors or uneconomic migrants from the old suburbia’s repeated their questions, and then wondered at the belligerence of the natives who were annoyed at having to answer twice.
Thirty miles to the west and slightly south, same time zone, worlds apart but merging, Mary turned from the window where she’d been watching a horizon of wagons convoying up the M6 that marked the eastern boundary of Bob’s farm, while her mind roamed for arguments and plucked out answers; knowing she was confining her search to the answers she wanted.
Dick had argued for her to go with him. Said she needed to be there to hear all the options. Options were exactly what she didn’t want. She wanted to hear Flint had upped sticks and gone; the whole event a mere hiatus of absurdity. Fat chance. She already knew the real absurdity was hope, and she hadn’t enough of that to douse the rage surging through her. Besides, she would have had to bathe in nitrogen to stay cool in that soliciting bastard Bow’s 18th century chamber seeing his pig eyes glistening with the - I told you so’s - while he drooled on the 22nd century fees he’d be charging. It irritated her that Dick still used him. For more years than she could remember spent at least an afternoon per week on the phone with him, then, if she asked what they’d discussed, got a five minute explanation of trivia and an admittance by Dick that Bow was the septic oracle for all the dirt developing in the area.
Shortly after the calls had started and looked as though they were beginning to take the form of a routine she’d confided her concern to Sal. Sal had laughed, told her it was probably a boy’s thing. Something along the lines of the Radical Centre Left Freedom Society and to leave it be. So she had, though Dick had always been scathing of society’s secret clubs, and down the years she’d felt her concerns dissipate then dismissed as a minor irritant.
Was that it? Had their life together become merely habit based on minor irritants? Her rages nothing more than funk? Funk born of fear, and fear of what? Of a past that had slid into a lie, or of future that had no past bases to develop from? Mary shook that one off. That was letting shit win. No her rage, was having a future thrust on them without the luxury of choice?
On the surface they had choices and probably more than most. Flint had stolen a fundamental choice from them, which was why she’d refused to even consider the offer he’d laid out in his letter to Dick. But sometimes chance left you with no choice. Sal had been given none, nor Bob after she’d gone? Except in Bob’s case to either change the peripherals in the hope they compensated, or merely accept the change? To choose, as he had, to live on in this barn of a place, isolated and exposed. Cocooned in his stagnant time warp of memories. She missed Sal. Missed the easy openness of their friendship. The girl-talk, the flirting to tease and offset the male egos of the brothers; the loving that had soared above the sumps of the illicit or mundane infidelities. But she was gone, lost in the days when mortality wasn’t considered and the labels of lifestyle and choice still depended on whim or the purse. She even missed her godhead, but that was a plastic belief dependant purely on her desperation. So, being honest with herself, why was she taking it out on Dick?
The only change in him, and in their life together, had been changes forced by circumstance. And, where he couldn’t ignore the cause, he’d shift mountains in order to defy or at least minimise any effect it had on them. Even when that bitch had tried to kill him, he’d shrugged off the effects. He’d always been and still was, to use an outmoded term, ‘a decent bloke’. A minor accolade or insipid praise perhaps, but not so easy to live by nowadays and, she mused, maybe not so easy to live with. She’d looked for change in him once the physical effects of the attack had healed. Some added caution, hesitancy in public places, any lessening of the self he’d been and his downright rejection of being anything other than himself.
Christ, once he’d decided the role of M.P. was not for him in the middle of his second term as a “Honourable Member”. When his conscience told him struggling within the system was at best useless and at worst corrupting, or as he’d put it. “He was turning in to a man of straw and becoming trussed in the Westminster bale.” Even then, at his most discouraged, he’d managed to put his footprint on his resignation. His private members bill, proposing a monument be erected in Whitehall to “The Gullible Dead” commemorating the lives wasted since the birth of civilisation by the duplicity and incompetence of those that governed. His proposal included a day of remembrance and a suggested epitaph – AS EVER IN THE HISTORY OF HUMAN EXISTENCE HAVE SO MANY SUFFERED FOR SO FEW & FOR SO LITTLE. Needless to say his bill never made it out of the Whips office, but it had accelerated his leaving; head held high and two fingers proudly erect. They’d had a weekend in London to celebrate and after dinner on the first night, hardly left the bed. Where was that spirit now? Why couldn’t they laugh it off as they had then? Seeing the speck of an air taxi approaching from the west she rubbed her hands over her hips, and knew she was preparing for the fray.
Bob had left her to her thoughts after Dick had left and he’d become the recipient of her barbs. Though a couple of hours later, when she’d made up a flask for him by way of apology, donned her protective gear, and not finding him in any of the barns or outhouses: had sat in one of them, sipping a coffee she didn’t want she got her answer. There were situations that defied ‘decent’ solutions. Dick would have to accept this was one of them. By now Bob had reappeared and was waiting for the chopper to land before accompanying Dick back to the house.
When they came in and she’d listened to the observations Dick made from flying over the Keep. His shrug when she asked about the meeting was all the answer she needed. Sensing the vibes, Bob mumbled his excuse and left as Mary resumed her stance at the window. Keeping her voice even she asked, ‘That’s it, is it? Three captains of the establishment and not an idea between you?’
‘None that would work.’
Mary shook her head. ‘Can’t believe that; or does it depend on how you define work?’
Dick, in the process of pouring himself a whisky and getting a shake of her head when he offered one to Mary, said, ‘I suppose it does.’
‘The Chief Constable, what’s his name?’
Dick sighed; Mary knew Paul Haverick about as well as he did. ‘It’s Paul Haverick Mary: you know it is.’
‘And there’s nothing he can do. Nothing at all?’
‘If any of them are caught in a exposed position he’ll arrest them.’
‘So he’s going to keep a watch on the house?’
‘Say’s he hasn’t the resources.’
Mary’s arms crossed over her breasts. ‘So how’s he going to know when to make the arrests?’
‘If they’re caught out and about. Maybe taking one of the kids to a doctor, getting food. Suggests we get Dan to look out for them getting fuel, that sort of thing. See if they set up a routine. Said he’ll keep the pressure on until the strain gets to them.’
‘He’s identified them has he. Knows who they are, got all the data from all these forms we’ve to fill in. The cards we need to say who we are and what we’re worth. All the things you hate are going to solve it for us. How do you feel about that?’
Dick took a sip of his whisky and was reasonably certain he was going to have another. Bloody pleased was the true answer to Mary’s question, but he hadn’t told her all of it yet. ‘He suggests we hire a professional to try and get photos of them and for us to come up with some scheme to get hold of something they’ve handled. Said he’ll use it to check the prints and DNA registers. A hit on those and he can check if they’re on welfare’
Dick shrugged. ‘Well at least we’ll know who they really are and if they are on welfare Paul can have it cut off.’
‘So what’s the difference between that and starving them out now?’
‘As Haverick said, resources. He also said there’s every likelihood they’re using forged or fenced cards.’
‘What the hell are they, the Mafia? And how could they fence cards?’
‘Seemingly it’s a big market. Somebody dies, loses their cards or simply claim they’ve lost them whatever, they sell them on. According to Paul it’s a huge market and one where demand is well serviced.’
Mary couldn’t help being curious. ‘Aren’t the cards destroyed when someone’s died?’
‘Only if the death’s registered.’
‘Well surely…’ Mary hesitated, picturing a white cross not two meters from Orson’s grave. ‘You’re saying its common?’
‘More than we know and I suspect a helluva lot more than the authorities claim.’
Knowing she’d let herself be sidetracked, Mary swung back on the attack. ‘And what was Bow’s contribution to this mess?’
Dick would have liked to be concise and say “None” but he needed Bow to carry some of the flack. ‘He backed up Haverick on the legal issues, went on at some length about a wrong move and we could be facing criminal charge’s.’
‘Christ what do we pay that slime ball for?
‘Dick felt like answering, “To be a slime ball”. Instead he took a brochure he’d picked up on the way out of Bows office and handed it to Mary. ‘You might like to take a look at that.’
Glancing at it, Mary digested the computer graphics and the name, then threw brochure back at him. ‘That’s your answer is it? Give in, move on and into that. Look, get on to Bow, tell him to do something with his worthless life. Tell him to get the job done, you don’t care how or what it costs and you couldn’t give a gypsy’s cuss how Flint and his troop come out of it. All he has to do is get them out and keep us out of it.’
Dick sighed. ‘You don’t mean that Mary?’
‘Bloody right I do! It’s our home. Ours, not Bow’s, Haverick’s, the insurer’s, and damn well not theirs.’ He saw her shoulders stiffen. ‘Couldn’t they use a sniper or something to get Flint? If they got him the rest would probably go.’
Dick shrugged. He’d already thought of that, along with countless other ploys, but none seemed to warrant the title “success.” It grieved him that Mary was considering these methods as acceptable solutions and had the numbing awareness that there was perhaps more than their home at risk. But why should he expect her better nature to be sufficient to prevent crass solutions rising to the surface; they did in him? Maybe she was letting her heart rule, but it seemed she was losing respect for the head he was trying to use. Calmly collecting the brochure from the floor he said ‘Not necessarily there it can be anywhere you want. Abroad if you like. It’s just that this one’s in the area and Bow reckons we can get the penthouses.’
‘Dick, why are you even suggesting this?’
‘You tell me the alternatives?’ Raising his left hand and fanning its fingers he started ticking them off. ‘So far we’ve had your sniper idea. How does that pan out? For it to work Flint’s got to be killed. Fair enough, I could go along with that. But does that mean the rest will give up? And here’s the crunch, if they don’t are you happy to get the snipers to take them all out. Women and kids as well?’
He pulled the second finger down. ‘Now the starvation theory. How much food have they got? Do we allow any in for the kids?’‘Nothing to do with us. It’s Flint’s fault, his problem. He could let them go and their mothers. Haverick could give them that choice.’
‘Haverick won’t consider it. Too long, costly on manpower and too many things to go wrong media wise. He was more for spiking the water supply. Not enough to kill them just knock them out.’
Mary’s’ eyes showed a glimmer of hope. ‘ Yes and?’
Dick dropped his third finger. ‘No. If you remember we had the riser from the well routed so it came up in the utility room in case anybody tried the same trick on us. Besides as Haverick admitted we’d have no control over the effect. We could still have dead kids on our hands. I can’t go along with that.’ Dick hesitated, waiting to see if Mary would relent before giving her the rest of his news but her eyes told him he’d no chance. ‘There was another bloke at the meeting. Some special operations consultant Bow had filched off the insurers.’
Mary interrupted. ‘Why? Has Bow got them to change their minds?’
Dick shook his head. ‘No chance they’re claiming acts of god and terrorism are in the same basket. Bow claiming it was his suggestion is only the slant he wants us to think. It’s a follow up by the Ops firm. For a fat fee they’ll guarantee to get them out. His proposal was to go in through the roof. Fancy explosives. Went on about controlled damage, stun grenades, phasers all types of gobbledy gook and high jinks. Made me exhausted just listening to him. Of course they’d not be liable for any damage they caused in the process but he was confident of pulling it off.’
‘Why couldn’t Haverick do it?’ Mary askedDick managed a slow smile. ‘Paul was pissed off that the bloke was even there. Said we’d probably be left with a pile of rubble and if we used them we would be liable for all the costs of the Ambulance, Hospital, Fire Service and the Police. And to answer your question, there’s no hostages involved, only property. Which is why they weren’t too pleased with Bob after their first visit. He’d told them we were in there. But Haverick did force action man to admit that if all the security stuff we installed was locked tight it would slow them down, and that would only add to the carnage. Finally.’ Dick looked for fingers but forgetting how many points he’d covered opened his palm. ‘Just suppose Flint’s told the truth and is prepared to torch the place. Which of the suggestions, or anything else you can think of, prevents that?’
‘Then what are you saying?’
‘Mary, you know it could have been worse. I mean it was stupid of me not to ring Bob or even Dan or something just to check. Sue’s sister being there sort of threw me, but the place could have been taken by a bunch of low lives and probably we wouldn’t be around and having this argument now.’
‘Did you see Mrs Flint?’
‘Mrs Flint, you know, his wife?’
Sensing the sarcasm, Dick wondered where it was leading. ‘ I’ve told you everything I’ve seen. What’s his wife got to do with it?’
‘He may not have one.’
‘I don’t think he has. So?’
‘Good job I wasn’t alone in the house when they took over otherwise I might be regarded as part of the plunder and you’d be dithering about whether you wanted me back or not.’
‘Don’t be bloody stupid.’
‘Stupid! I’ll tell you what’s really stupid. It’s stupid that we should be standing here in Bobs home arguing about how to get back into our own and you’re ludicrously proposing we move into that…’ Mary waved dismissively at the brochure, ‘ that bloody ghetto because you don’t want Flint and his clan harmed. What it this, some sort of fleece lease arrangement?’
‘It’s called pragmatism Mary and you bloody know it; you’re just refusing to accept it.’ Dick tried for calm and took the edge from his tone. ‘Mary suppose I talked to Flint and persuaded, bribed, whatever, but got him to leave. No force, no carnage or body bags, no gutted shell, nothing: just back to you and me. How could we live there now?’
‘What do you mean, how will we live? Just like we used to.’
‘Now who’s being stubborn Mary? Now its happened, do we ever leave the place? Do we have ten guards who we hardly know covering twenty-four seven, year-in year-out? Where’s the privacy or quality in that?’
‘You’re losing it, giving in. You’re saying we change our lives completely to suit Flint.’
Shaking his head Dick tried not to react to the disgust in Mary’s eyes and voice. ‘ No Mary, not to suit Flint; he’s just the effect. The only way we can live there would be to take him up on his offer.’
‘Never. Not a hope in hell. I’d rather see it flattened.’
‘You’re not being reasonable, Mary.’
‘Reasonable! I know I’m not being bloody reasonable. I don’t feel like being reasonable. Don’t you understand that? Reason has got nothing to do with it, you fuckwit.’ Mary wondered where she’d dredged that word from and whether she regretted using it. ‘It’s us you idiot. You’re at home most days, we had space, Orson; but not just that, we had a sort of routine, a history. And daft as it sounds, in our home it all had a purpose.’ Shrugging she turned from him. ‘I don’t know how to put it; just everything was sort of maturing. Maybe we didn’t like everything that was happening around us but between us and the house it was liveable. I just don’t think we’re strong enough to stand this drastic a change. I’m sorry.’
Dick felt his guts slump. ‘Sorry, what does that mean? I thought it was because we were together that made all this crap we’re living with liveable. I didn’t for the life of me think I was part of the crap.’ He searched for a way back. ‘I’ll try for someplace, maybe that place we talked about in the Hebrides. There’s got to be place’s where there’s still a community and we can live without turning the house into a fortress.’
Putting his hands on her shoulder to turn her to him he felt Mary stiffen. That was a first and it frightened the hell out of him. ‘C’mon girl, we’ll sort it out.’
‘No Dick, we can’t drop this atmosphere on Bob. I’m going into Chester and book into a hotel. I’ll let you know.’
Dick found Bob stripping a valve in the milking parlour, his pipe billowing smoke and Bess, his Staffy bitch, snapping at everything that buzzed. ‘Want a hand with that?’
Laying down the wrench, Bob threw the valve in the scrap. ‘No it’s buggered. Already knew it, just looking for something to do. Well, what’s been decided?’
Dick shrugged. ‘Nothing. Mary’s still letting me know how pissed off she is with the whole bloody thing.’
Chuckling, Bob swatted a fly on a kamikaze mission with his pipe. ‘Got a bit of that this morning. Let me know she thought I could have been more regular with the inspections.’
‘Don’t be daft. She’s bound to be upset. You both are.’
‘Maybe, but she’s moving into a hotel in Chester for now.’
Bob could see the look in his elder brother’s eyes, a look he wouldn’t have wished on anybody. ‘Shit man, you know you’re both welcome here; plenty room, I’ll move into one of the cottages and give you some privacy.’
‘It’s not that, Bob. Seems things haven’t been quite as content between us as I thought. Besides, being here leaves her as exposed as we were at home. And you moving to a cottage doesn’t make sense. It’s numbers we need to have any safety.’
‘Or something like this.’ Bob hefted the pump action that never left his side.
Dick shook his head. ‘What if there’s too many of them?’
‘If that happens I’ll just need the one to finish it. Made up my mind about that a long time ago Dick.’
‘Shit Bob it’s been a wonderful day.’
Dick heard the chopper, but didn’t go near the house or see Mary leave. Maybe it was cowardice or merely more denial; anything rather than having to admit the break could even be conceivable. He knew reason or logic, whatever, didn’t come into it. Neither of these had played a part in loving her; why should they feature now in losing her. He wasn’t cold or apathetic. They had stretched the odds and been lucky, just as Bob was lucky, but it was all ‘so far’. No matter how they looked at it, the house, the privacy, the space and freedom it stood for as a home, had gone long before Flint came on the scene. Society’s answer to crumbling control, the era of the designer ghetto colony was being forced on them. They’d have to move within the protected des-res’s, the flats, the condominiums, where only one qualification was needed to allow a surreal normalcy: money. He went into the house and made his call; told Bow to buy both of the penthouses. Worst case scenario, he’d have one and, perhaps, Mary the other. Best scenario? He hadn’t quite convinced himself of that yet; perhaps he should have levelled with Mary that he hadn’t just flown over the Keep.
What, Klaus thought to himself, was the opposite of a clutch of bankers - a bank of clutchers?
He’d faked sleep all the way across the Atlantic. Used ‘business’ to disappear during the fuelling stop at Heathrow and been forced to show some interest on the hop to Moscow. That had been enough; he made excuses to avoid the formal dinner and had a night’s sleep. Breakfasted before the bankers he was half way through the London Times when Draper joined him.
Klaus asked, ‘When are we scheduled to fly back?’
‘Around six. Don’t want to be later than that; I’ve important engagements tomorrow.’
Klaus nodded. ‘Fine, if I’m not here don’t hold for me.’ Folding the Times to the international section he pointed to the lead story. ‘Worth reading that. Seems we should be lending to Bangladesh before there’s even less of Bangladesh to lend to.’
Draper glanced at the plea for sea defences, knowing there was no way the values of tidal and cash flow could be balanced. ‘Country’s simply not worth it.’
Klaus stood and put his coat on. ‘A few million people seem to think so, Henry.’ Leaving the hotel, he signalled the first taxi in the rank to follow him while he walked for twenty minutes
The cemetery had grown in the eighteen years since his last visit. Not in size, though he couldn’t be sure, but shrubs had grown to trees and the grass was a meadow of neglect, with only the occasional plot trimmed in respect, or perhaps fortitude. His wanderings and backtracking had nothing to do with subterfuge, only the lapse of memory further confused by the camouflage of growth. Having innocently done every thing to spot a tail and failed, he was beginning to hope there was one he could ask directions from when he spotted Andrei with his back to him.
The grave was as neglected as the others except for the flowers conspicuous by their freshness. Settling on the bench he gently clasped the arthritic hand extended to him. ‘Sorry I’m late. Lost my bearings a bit.’
Andrei smiled. ‘Yes, it’s a long time. Wouldn’t have been much use to us like this. Too deserted and too much cover; altogether too suspicious.’
‘Maybe we should have let them listen. Most of the time it would be difficult to claim any success for our schemes. The crises either seemed to fizzle out, solved themselves in ways we’d never thought of, or were swamped by something bigger.’
‘Yes Klaus, often bigger, seldom better. Anyway, it would have been foolish. Spooks never needed sense or proof to justify their existence, only the results they claimed.’
‘Are you saying they’re less of a problem?’
Andrei took his hand from Klaus and slipped it back under his coat, ‘No, not really. Only the emphasis has changed and the spectres are hidden in other departments, often with differing agendas and mostly engineered by Varbagin. I do know for the moment we are well protected.’
‘Good to know. Who do you report to?’
Andrei took his walking stick and started poking at a weed between the pavings. ‘Now Klaus, who would you think?’
‘Varbagin and Yusov?’‘Yusov is no longer in position, it seems he got too friendly with Chan. I don’t know what air he’s breathing, if any. Pavlovin will be taking over from him. You have been told the limit of these reports?’
So much openness cast a flicker of doubt through Klaus. ‘Most of phase one and two. Phase three, as I understand it, isn’t finalised yet.’
The chuckle from Andrei was matched by his hand being moved from his coat and nudging rather than patting Klaus’s arm. ‘It’s difficult to change the habits of a lifetime yes? You see, I think that after Moira went to bed you were told of the third stage. Of, how would you put it, the end game?’
‘How?’ Immediately he knew the answer. ‘Ah, otherwise I wouldn’t be here.’
Andrei smiled then sighed, ‘Not a pleasant thought but necessary. The first two stages are blinds. Both adaptable and primarily to provide the technology and logistics for the final stage. We are hoping you will be able to direct the progress of those without disclosing our goal, which would be difficult, perhaps impossible if you were not aware of the objective.’
‘So, had I refused and tried to go public, nothing exists to make it verifiable.’
‘No my friend - and you wouldn’t either.’
‘As final as that?’
Andrei nodded. ‘For both of us. But much of the preparatory work has been done over here, only under false labels’
Aware of the world they were contemplating, each allowed the sun to warm him and silence to luxuriate between them.
Klaus broke the silence. ‘How long have we got?’
‘Six, seven years; sooner if it’s possible.’
‘God, I could still be living.’
‘Wouldn’t you want to?’
Klaus shrugged, and washed his face with dry hands. ‘Don’t know. Too big a question that,’ he said, then shuddered. ‘Anyway, I was told by Mair that we had an outline of a scheme and you would fill me in, so maybe we should get rid of the gloom and start.’
‘Okay. We see the crux of the problem as one of control and the power to keep us in control. A lot of that has been lost to the conglomerates and to the general chaos we are living with. The euphemism the global village is more correctly the global hypermarket. We need to get control back and that can only be done by increasing the size of the unit acting as government. The modus must be something that seems to be compatible with everyone’s interests. We know the threat of world famine is real and supposedly being accelerated by this global warming. So favourite at the moment is something that can be labelled as pest control, maximum land utilisation and tied in directly with harvest gains. We see that as phase one. Phase two is directed at using the success of the first to create a radical solution to the warming. Assuming we succeed with those the third will be truly radical primarily to ensure they are sustainable. Perhaps then we can only hope time makes them understandable. I hope that is much as your president explained it to you?
Klaus nodded, ‘Not word for word but pretty much.’
‘It seems these climate changes are giving us a shifting scenario as far as bugs are concerned.’ Andrei worked his coat buttons open with his claw like hand. ‘ So we do what we always do when our past mistakes and idiocies catch up with us. We form a committee, a department, a task force and hope for leaden time; at least enough to let us wash our hands, form the excuse, blame the committee or, if chance favours a solution, claim the success.’ Lifting his eyes from the paving his stick had been worrying he looked straight at Klaus. ‘Nothing new in that, except this time it must succeed.’
‘Andrei, I asked this question of Mair; he wouldn’t answer. Now I’m asking you. I know nothing about pest controls or whatever sciences are involved. How can I control...’
‘Klaus, Klaus, you don’t. You’re a respected statesman, a pragmatist that’s never been bothered by ideology; those are the skills we need. You are the diversion, the ringmaster that amuses the world with hope. Did Mair tell you the budget?’
‘He said there wasn’t one.’
‘Precisely. You head the World Resource Unit. We will see to it that funding will not be a problem and neither will the U.N. The U.N’s FAO, NASA’s earth observatory resources, ours, they will all come under your control. As a concept the UN has failed. A honourable failure caused by the obdurate failure of us to relinquish control perhaps, but it’s a negative position and one we can no longer afford. We have to be ruthless and to succeed we must first produce or seem to the miracles it has failed to produce. Who was it that said a camel is the result of a committee trying to define a horse. Well if we were to use the existing world forums and trying to design a horse, we’d probably end up with a catheterised dung beetle. We simply haven’t the time.’
Klaus smiled. ‘Salvation by stealth.’
Andrei shrugged. ‘Perhaps blitzkrieg would be more appropriate. You will have dedicated laboratories worldwide. The ones here and in the States will be committed primarily to stage three. We will produce the threat, which will be leaked to your people so they can produce antibodies. We will learn of these and refine the threat. In effect both will help the development. Any findings of the other science groups you set up will be reviewed for possible inclusion or perhaps used as a blind. You have been told of the acronym G.A.M.E.?’
‘Stage two should begin to see the acronym in controlled use. Whoever uses the word will denote its importance after that.’
‘How many know of it now?’
Andrei gave a wry snort. ‘With you my friend, probably less than ten; and. not all of them know everything and its possible I could be one of them and you another.’
‘Stannought and Yusov, sorry Pavlovin?’
‘Stannought believes the result we’re aiming for is stage two. Assume the same for Pavlovin until Mair or Varbagin tells you different. The list will probably increase but unless there’s need, you won’t know about them, nor they the truth about you.’
‘So, I’m to create a confusion of progress during the first and second to make the third possible.’
‘You my friend are the ringmaster, the magician with –‘ Andrei hesitated. ‘How do you say… Yes the smoke and mirrors and you must create the infrastructure and gain the results that fool the world. Only way to make us and the world viable. How you say… It puts us top of the league.’
‘Yes Andrei, maybe too far ahead for any comfort and not the league I would have hoped for.”
‘But Klaus are we not the only species stupid enough to believe technology would bring happiness?’
‘One question Andrei. Mair was a bit ambiguous when I asked and in view of Yosov’s fall from grace it strikes me as pertinent. What’s Chan’s and China’s role in all this?’
‘Simple answer Klaus; crucial. Bluntly we have no option but to include China to increase the odds in our favour. However, and this is the reason behind Yusov’s removal, it’s exclusively between Mair and Varbagin as to when and how he’s invited in. As to the mechanics of the when and how I can tell you in all honesty, I’ve no idea.’
‘None and for the present I would advise you to adopt the same philosophy.’
Both let silence press in on them before Andrei spat out. ‘Right, time to go. Who knows you are meeting me?’
‘I told Draper you were getting me some projections on the economy. I’ve got them here, supposedly sourced from Cosbank. Don’t know if he’s told anybody else.’
‘I take it there is no reference to me in them?’
Klaus shook his head. ‘No names or positions listed.’
Taking his leave, Klaus had fewer problems finding the way out and was bemused to find the taxi waiting. He decided to ride his luck and took it back to the hotel. There he put the ten-year projection into an envelope and addressed it to Draper, collected his bag and took the same taxi to the airport. Any flight to the States would do, he needed thinking time.
Andrei, in less of a hurry, made a call to the States and a second to Cosbank. Then musing on his disappointment that Klaus should think his life would be possible after stage three. He waited for the coded confirmation on the ten million dollars transferred to an account in the Antilles and that the notification was already queuing in Draper’s e-mail by the time the IMF plane was over Norway.
Henry Draper instructed his driver to collect him at seven as his limo pulled up at his apartment on the south fringe of Central Park. It was already two am and the dimmed lobby lights highlighted the flickering screen of the security monitors. The air was still over the park and the hum of New York subdued, as though sanctifying the metropolis’s rest. Draper felt the tremor of nerves run through his shoulder and eased both blades to relieve the stress. His brain was in its usual nightly cerebral maze, though a few hours sleep would allow it to settle and function again. Slipping his hand to the inside pocket of his coat he felt again the envelope he’d picked up and wondered what, if anything, he was going to do about it. The projection was Cosbank’s; far more pessimistic than the “official” one they’d based their negotiations on yesterday, and was supposedly direct from Cuirakin. And where the hell was Schultz? He’d try calling him again when he got up to his apartment.
A discreet cough had him pivoting on his heels, relaxing when he saw how they were dressed.
‘Sorry to disturb you sir.’ Both men held out their Treasury identity cards. ‘The Secretary sends his apologies but would appreciate you accompanying us to meet with him.’
Draper barely glanced at the cards. With a sigh of resignation he made for the car that had slid silently alongside, then hesitated. ‘I’ll need to ring my wife. She’s expecting me home about now.’
His escorts appeared to hesitate for a second. ‘We’d prefer you didn’t sir. We will arrange for her to be contacted. Secretary Croxton was quite specific.’
‘Let’s get it done then.’
Draper had just settled in his seat when he realised they were headed into the park. ‘Where the hell are we going?’
The talking treasury man answered,’ Got a chopper in here. Thought it better to keep travelling time to a minimum.’
Draper felt the tension return to his neck and shoulders. He hated choppers, frightened him to death. Metallic gnats kept in the air by a wingless prayer.Strapped in and with the treasury bulked either side of him, he stared straight ahead and tried to maintain composure. There was a seat next to the pilot. Why the hell hadn’t one of them used it? That would have given him more room. Thank God they didn’t stink of aftershave or deodorant. Sometimes in a crowded lift the combination of body contact, scented men and heavier scented women made him want to barf. The silent one to his right had something hard under his coat that threatened to crack his ribs. As though realising the discomfort he was causing, the man eased himself forward so his shoulder overlapped Draper’s.
Nodding to acknowledge the improvement to his comfort Draper asked, ‘You still haven’t told me where we’re heading?’
‘Just over the sound Mr Draper. Won’t be long now.’
They were already over the sound. Right over, flying down the middle of it. He was still more concerned about getting the flight over with, when his companion to his left nonchalantly braced his left foot against the back of the empty seat. Draper’s eyes flicked towards him. Perhaps choppers made him nervous too. They didn’t. Draper knew it when the man’s right leg draped itself over his thighs and hooked its foot behind the seat support.
‘What the hell?’
He could still kick but only from the knee down and with neither force nor direction. Restricted to a frenzied stomping like a kid in a tantrum, he tried biting a shoulder till two fingers adopted his nostrils. His head was yanked back by a shoulder pressed under his chin till his skull threatened to fuse with the chopper’s bulkhead. Negotiation was out. His teeth were clamped shut and didn’t allow him to utter a single coherent plea or cuss. Torso held tight, legs and arms capable only of weak taps Draper forgot prayer and panicked. At any moment he expected the gun that had played against his ribs to play a different tune. He didn’t know why and was beginning not to care; he just wanted it to be quick and painless.
Quick wasn’t what they had in mind. Their priority was for it to be neat. Draper’s wishes were redundant. He felt the pressure on his chin ease but failed to react other than to gulp air. He was transfixed by funk when the clear plastic slid over his head and the opening twisted till it formed a choking seal round his neck. Water, dancing round his crown like a liquid halo, began to trickle down his face. He wasted breath trying to grab the plastic with his teeth and gnaw his way to salvation. His last sweet breath was when the elastic band holding the water above his head was broken.
There wasn’t a lot of water; just enough to reach his eyes so life could be seen leaving them. Draper’s last thought was of the myth surrounding drowning. As the seconds stretched into aeons of lung bursting minutes he waited for his past to flash by: nothing. The abyss deepened, he gave a last convulsive heave for reprieve from the fatal womb. If he’d been a drinker of beer instead of cocktails, he might have drunk his way to life. It would probably have killed him anyway, the water having been scooped from the sound earlier that evening.
Knowing Draper wasn’t a swimmer, there was a calculable distance the currents and tides would take him. The chopper continued on its course for another fifteen minutes before turning and doing a parallel run along the opposite shore. Hovering briefly at zero feet, it was a strange looking Draper that slid into the depths.