Table of Contents
Books by Jane Harvey-Berrick
Jane A. C. Harvey-Berrick has asserted her rights under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
This book is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved; no part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.
First published in Great Britain in 2012
Harvey Berrick Publishing
Copyright © Jane A. C. Harvey-Berrick 2012
Cover design by Nicky Stott
Formatting by Perfectly Publishable
BOOKS BY JANE HARVEY-BERRICK
The Education of Sebastian
The Education of Caroline
Dangerous to Know & Love
At Your Beck & Call
Playing in the Rain
Summer of Seventeen
The New Samurai
The Dark Detective
To John, always my gold standard.
The computing power inside the sleek, concrete and glass building, locally known as the Doughnut, could probably send several manned space craft to Mars. Instead it watched and waited, processing billions of phone calls, mobile signals and satellite images on a daily basis.
There were literally hundreds of thousands of watchwords on the list, and hundreds of thousands of people that were watched: each word or person could trigger a green flag. Two watchwords together and you got an amber flag; three, and the red flag sent an automatic alert to a member of staff for immediate processing.
When the message came through to Agent Jeffries, she’d just cleared her desk as a preliminary to going home.
She raised her eyebrows: the watchwords – and the caller – had done more than trigger a red flag, it was as if the balloon had gone up. But Agent Jeffries couldn’t quite work out why: it all seemed fairly mild, hardly red flag material. But this alert was Priority One so she had no decision to make: she knew what to do.
She pressed the buttons on her office speed dial, with a memorised number that nobody was allowed to write down.
A voice at the other end answered quickly.
“Good afternoon,” she said. “This is Agent Jeffries, GCHQ 173982. We have a red flag alert for you. The information is coming through the secure channel now.”
There was a slight pause.
“Thank you, Agent Jeffries. We’ll pass that along to the Chief of Staff.”
The line went dead.
Agent Jeffries picked up her ready-packed bag and headed home. She didn’t think about the call she’d made or the information she’d passed on. That’s how it was supposed to work.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to bat one down the line,” growled Frank.
She felt like slamming the phone down, which wasn’t as satisfying as it sounded since she was talking on a mobile. Instead she gritted her teeth, her jaw clenched fiercely.
The silence, nevertheless, was interpreted correctly.
“Come on, Helene, you’re a great reporter – I know that. We all know that.”
Too right, she thought: One Pulitzer, two Orwells and counting.
But of course she didn’t need to remind him. She just took it on the chin – and seethed in stony silence, her contempt palpable.
“I need something commercial from you,” he said in a tone close to pleading. “Something I can sell. Can’t you do a celebrity story? That’s big in England, right? That’s where the money is. Nobody wants to read another misery memoir, Blood Diamonds or orphans in Angola or wherever the hell you get orphans these days. You’ve gotta give me something juicy.”
Oh, bugger that! she thought. Anyone can write that rubbish. Any blogger or twitterer or mediocre media hack can churn that out. Some jejune, joyless voyeur. That wasn’t her style.
The silence lengthened. Someone had to speak and Frank had nothing left to say.
“I’ll get onto it,” she muttered.
She flicked the phone shut, feeling like she’d just had cut-price root canal surgery by a Lithuanian blacksmith. Frank had that effect on quite a few people. It was one of the reasons he made such a good agent.
She felt exhausted by resisting the inevitable. Who wanted hard-hitting journalism these days? Who wanted honest reality, not some cheap piece of manipulative TV sadism? Celebrity sells. The painful truth was her stuff didn’t. Not anymore. Newspapers couldn’t afford to keep real journalists. They paid writers for 800 word columns, or 1500 word opinion pieces by ‘personalities’. News, real news, was wired from Reuters, one of the few agencies still making a living for journalists, and the rest was culled ruthlessly from a handful of gaunt-eyed freelancers who could, would and did turn their hand to anything. Corporate brochures were a profitable sideline for many. Fleet Street had no more fat left to trim. The poor beast was emaciated.
She leaned back in her seat, willing the tension away, letting the wash of voices flow around her soothingly. The train was busy, and in these days of enforced economy she’d had to travel second class.
She stared moodily at her reflection in the dirty window. Short, dark hair, thin face, large brown eyes and a permanent frown mark between her narrow eyebrows.
She closed her eyes, the face older than she wanted to see.
What next? She rubbed her aching back thoughtfully. She could compound the joy by checking her bank balance but a few hours’ difference since she last looked wasn’t going to add any zeros to a balance of nil. That had been the case pretty much since being a Lloyd’s Name had made her virtually bankrupt back in the nineties. Plus, she didn’t like to dwell on failure.
She began a slow massage of her temples, trying to fend off the incipient migraine. It was a pity Frank’s name began with ‘f’; the temptation to call him back and use a lazy, but favourite alliteration was growing. Logic and commonsense felt like threadbare friends.
There’s nothing like a good wallow she decided, and so the waves of self-pity and unappreciation settled over her unchecked.
It was some minutes before her consciousness tuned into one voice in the crowd. Some journalistic antenna had twitched.
“Yah. The police guy said, ‘You’re not just SAS, are you? You’re high up.’ Pause. What? No. I didn’t shoot anyone. I didn’t need to. Well, all the police were standing around with their thumbs up their arses and they were scared; they didn’t know what to do. The station was a really bad situation. Another pause. Yes, I was scared but I
react to adrenalin, I’m not frozen by it. It’s the training. Yah, so I nicked a gun and took over. I gave the gun back later when it was all calm again and you know what? They tried to say that my train ticket had gone over. I mean, I just gave them back their station and they say the ticket isn’t valid! A ninety-five pound ticket. What’s that about?”
She glanced over her left shoulder and casually let her eyes wander over the man sitting on the other side of the train, one row behind. His voice said mid thirties but he looked younger. Tall, very tall. Lanky. Tanned wrists and face. Suit. No tie. Curly blond hair. Longish. Blue-grey eyes.
An ex-SAS officer? It seemed unlikely. Besides, when did the SAS ever advertise themselves in public? Even ex-SAS. Especially ex-SAS. The few military types she’d known would keep something like that quiet. This guy was no low profile Andy McNabb. Curiouser and curiouser.
“Yah. So what’s the sit-rep with you? Pause Ha ha! It means ‘situation report’. Sorry. Force of habit. Yah, okay. Later.”
Phone call suspended, the man stood up and stretched awkwardly. His suit was unremarkable, certainly not custom made but his shoes in all probability were expensive. Highly polished. Brown.
Never wear brown in town. She was reminded of her ex-brother-in-law. He was the only person – well, the only man – she’d ever met who still cared about being seen to wear the right clothes in the old style: tweed ties for a country weekend, plus eights on the golf course. Strictly speaking the train wasn’t in town any more. Even so: brown with a grey suit? She raised her eyebrows. Maybe he just didn’t want to look like a banker.
A large suitcase that she assumed was his, still sat in the rack above his head. So when he threaded his way up the crowded aisle she guessed he wasn’t getting off immediately. And yet... he was carrying a tan briefcase. It reminded her of a type her father had carried on his daily commute. Gieves and Hawkes? This one was worn and battered. It looked cheap – a bit like the man, now she could see him close up.
She closed her eyes then opened them again, a thought occurring to her. How many men took their briefcase to have a pee? None that she could think of. None she’d ever known. What was he carrying that was so important he couldn’t leave it behind for three minutes? His passport? More than one passport? His sandwiches? A gun? Or maybe he just wanted people to wonder what he carried in his case.
Once he disappeared down the carriage her attention started to wander, interest evaporating. She had more immediate, personal concerns.
But when he came back to his seat she couldn’t help glancing up: years of being a professional busy-body was habit-forming. He brushed past her and caught her eye as she looked up. She looked away quickly, embarrassed.
The man’s hair was damp as if he’d run wet hands through it. okay, so maybe the train was out of paper towels.
She was amused and, she had to face it, with nothing better to do with her time, intrigued.
He folded his spidery frame back into the seat and leaned his head against the window, eyes closed. The briefcase was wedged firmly between his knees. It looked uncomfortable.
God, these seats were so badly designed. She was too short to make any real use of the headrest. Instead it forced her head forward at an awkward angle that had made her neck ache within ten minutes of sitting down. Only by wadding her coat into a makeshift cushion and pushing it into the small of her back was she able to get any rest. Thank God it wasn’t high summer, or the aroma of warm armpits would have made the journey more unbearable. What was the superlative? Unbearabler. Hell’s bells and buckets of blood, as mum would have said. Her brain had fried.
“I’m a bloody awful journalist and a lousy wordsmith and I deserve to go back to being a junior on the Wilmslow Advertiser,” she said, almost aloud.
If it still existed. Local papers were closing like old curtains these days.
Helene sighed and shifted wearily on her hard-packed seat. This journey never got any shorter.
She sighed again, the headache worsening with each rattle of the sleepers. Passing for 45, but on the slippery road past fifty, she was scarily close to retirement, with a dwindling pension pot, decimated by a falling pound and anxious stock market: it was terrifying. Bad luck and thirteen years of a bollocks Labour government had seen to that. Only work kept the dragons at bay. And now the work didn’t want her.
The train pulled into another rural station and there was a muted shuffling as people rearranged and re-seated themselves. A mother with two attractive teenage daughters got in at the rear of the carriage. They were loud in the way of people who had been talking outside and suddenly come inside. West Country accents. Rather charmless.
But the man behind didn’t think so. Or maybe now his phone conversation had finished he was looking for another audience.
“Where are you from?” he asked the mother conversationally. “You sound like you’re from around here – or maybe Somerset?”
“Zommerzet!” laughed the older girl. “No, we’re proper Cornish!”
“Ah,” he said, “I knew there was an accent. So you’re really local?”
“Yes,” said the mother. “Not from here though. From near here.”
Wherever ‘here’ was it was clearly, in her mind, inferior to where she came from. Camborne, perhaps?
“Where are you from?” said the older girl, in a mildly polite but honestly uninterested voice.
Well, at least Helene still knew the difference between ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’. The thought was reassuring.
“I’ve come from Nottingham,” he said. “I’ve got a place there. Well, an apartment in London, too. But, I was born on the Equator. In Zambia.”
“Cool!” said the girl, her interest piqued very slightly.
Helene wondered if the girl had ever heard of Zambia before.
“Are you down here on holiday?” said the mother who apparently didn’t care for Zambia or any country beginning with the letter Z.
“Yah, sort of,” he said. “Actually I’m helping out my girlfriend. Her parents have got a cottage here. Somewhere near Newquay...”
Helene strained to hear the next bit: it sounded like ‘Tianamen Bay’, which was unlikely, but you never knew with the Cornish.
“How long are you staying?” said the mother.
“Er... six or seven weeks. I’ve been ill, so I’m down here for a break. Meningitis. It’s more dangerous than people know.”
There was a deep silence.
“Oh, I do know,” said the mother. “My son had it... Streptococcus, pneumococcus, everything, he...”
“Yah,” said the man. “I flat-lined six times. I was here but not here, you know?”
Helene was impressed. No matter what the topic of conversation he was able to turn it around to himself... She’d known others like him – men mostly, but not exclusively – and had been bored at many a dinner party until freed from restraint by wine or a change of topic.
The man chatted amiably about his remarkable recovery until the train drew into Bodmin Parkway.
“This is my stop,” he said. “It’s been great to meet you... you’re lovely!”
“Luvverly!” echoed the girls and giggled.
He tugged the suitcase from the overhead rack and hefted it easily. He joined the queue to exit the train and disappeared into the crowd.
Helene put on her distance glasses, hoping to see more, curious to catch a glimpse of the girlfriend he was on his way to meet. She spotted her instantly: dyed blonde hair, cherry red pea-coat. Older than she’d have guessed. From money. The woman stood out from the ranks of holidaymakers dressed in their Bank Holiday kagouls and dog-walking clothes.
Pushing her face against the glass, and shading her eyes from the sun, Helene watched them from a distance. She saw him scoop the woman into a long and passionate kiss. When the woman came up for air, her face was pink with pleasure and embarrassment. Then she leaned her head against his chest coquettishly as they walked out of the station together. It wa
s like watching a scene from a film. Pure Hollywood. The happy ending we all want. Pure schmaltz.
That was it. He was an actor starring in the film of his own life. Fascinating. An A-grade lesson in self-actualisation.
The train pulled gently out of the station and Helene lost sight of them. Pity. She’d have liked to have seen the car the woman drove. She imagined something flashy but not too expensive: a BMW Z4 perhaps.
Attention to detail had made her a good journalist. She checked her laptop had a signal, and googled Zambia. She was right. It wasn’t on the Equator. Not quite. Had he done a little rounding up to add to the drama, or was it a mistake? A not very clever give-away? Perhaps he had just been spicing the moment for the benefit of the teenage girls. And their mother.
Unwanted, the idea squirmed into her brain, insinuating, tantalising – reckless. It was dangerous – having nothing to lose.
She called up Frank’s number before she had time to think or to talk herself out of it and listened for the single dial tone of his NY office.
He sounded surprised. “Didn’t think I’d hear from you so soon.”
“Look, I’ve got something you might be interested in,” she said briskly. “It’s something I’ve been working on for a while. I wasn’t going to say anything until I’d got clarification on a few points, but... in the light of our last conversation... I’ve been working on this article about mercenaries and the double lives they lead with their friends and families. Drama, tears, love and death, borderline psychos in the public… Unstable security for celebrities. What do you think?”
“Tell me more,” he said.
She played for time.
“I can’t say too much; this line isn’t secure so I’ll have to keep it general, you understand. There’s a guy I’ve been talking to – ex-SAS. Into some heavy scenes in Somalia and Sierra Leone...”
“Goddam, Helene! Not blood diamonds again, I told you...”
“No, no, no! Listen Frank. This guy’s into something here in Britain, too, and there’s something going on with Langley. He hasn’t given it all up yet. He needs... persuasion. I’ve got to show him he can trust me... that takes time, it takes...”