Writers Blog – Robert Taylor
GREAT MASSINGHAM WEBSITE BLOG
Hello. My name is Robert Taylor. My wife, Jane, and I recently moved to Great Massingham and we are trying to integrate into village life as much as possible. Doesn’t seem so easy in the winter as it would be in the summer!
Through “The Mallard” newsletter we made contact with Caroline Boyden who runs the website and she mentioned that she was running a blog for local writers. Back in 2011 I started writing “Lionheart” even though it didn’t have a name back then. In the autumn of 2014 I was lucky enough to get it published. I will be quite honest here, it wasn’t the rollicking success that every writer dreams of! As it is still relevant today I thought I would have a go at exposing it to a new audience; you lot, the readers of www.greatmassingham.net.
We will upload it chapter-by-chapter starting very soon.
If you can’t wait twenty or so weeks to find out what happens the book is still available for sale even though it is now out of print. Amazon seem to have a couple left or did last time I looked? It can be bought electronically on various platforms, I know it is available from Ibooks. Prices seem to vary from retailer to retailer. Should you be the old-school type and would much rather have the feel of a good book in your hands I have donated some to the Village Hall refurbishment fund and they can be bought for £6.00 each from the bar at the Village Hall. All proceeds will go to the refurbishment fund. By the way, if you think that sounds expensive, it’s not really as it is a hardback. And, a quite well produced one at that.
Jane and I have started a walk around the coast of Britain and I am trying to keep a log of what we are doing. We are only doing a little at a time and I will intersperse “Lionheart” chapters with the odd Coastal Walk upload which is purely for fun. They won’t be too regular as we only get the chance to do them intermittently!
Anyway, if you want to discuss any of my writing you can do so by introducing yourself in the village or contacting me through Twitter @RTaylorAuthor or emailing me at email@example.com.
I really do hope you enjoy it and I look forward to receiving your feedback.
Sir James Walters marched, almost at the double, into the broadcasting STUDIO OF Radio Fivelive. Although now in his sixties he still held the gait of a soldier. Close-cropped silver hair sat atop a tanned and chiseled face, the body still erect with shoulders back and chest jutting forward like the bow of an old battleship. He took in the scene: a round oak affect table stood in the centre with various cables running to and fro and three microphones positioned equidistantly around the circumference, one with a computer screen and keyboard. Three chairs with blue fabric coverings were stationed in front of the microphones each having a pair of headphones lying nearby.
A woman in her mid-thirties held a hand outstretched to greet the tall man as he entered. She was a striking looking woman with green flashing eyes and shoulder-length brown hair framing a high-cheeked face that betrayed a pound or two of excess weight but nothing a few sessions in the gym couldn’t sort out, Sir James thought.
“Sir James Walters, I presume?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” the man answered taking the proffered hand. Um! He thought. A strong handshake and an eye contact of steel that he admired. No doubt, a powerful inquisitor!
“My name is Mary Lawrence. Thank you very much for coming. I present the phone-in programme that starts at nine o’clock. Are you familiar with its format or would you like me to go through a few things?”
“Yes, ma’am. I am, indeed, familiar. Even though I generally listen to Radio Four I caught up with all of last week’s shows on the I-player over the weekend.”
A compliment would not go amiss now, he thought. “Indeed, I was impressed, ma’am. you are a strong advocate,” he smiled, showing his stunning white teeth with his silver hair which combined with the sharp charcoal suit, clearly cut in Savill Row, split by a strong blue silk tie and matching kerchief in his breast pocket clearly showed he was a man of some substance. “I must say,” he continued. “With your looks and style, cannot believe I have not seen you on television.”
She felt a satisfactory warmth around her neck and loosened her grip on the warm hand. Many men, and some women had flirted with her. Most she had found false and without depth but here was a man as old as her own father who was charming and sophisticated. But she would not be distracted, not be swayed, from grilling him if it became necessary to get to the crux. Utter charm had not won Mary Lawrence over in the past and it was not about to start now!
A feminine cough allowed her to re-gather her composure as the second combatant entered the studio.
“Ah! Colin. So nice to see you again,” she greeted the newcomer. Turning to Sir James she announced, “This is Colin Hunter. Colin, Sir James Walters.”
The two men shook hands.
“Nice to see you again, Sir,” Hunter greeted the older man.
“And, you. Um…. Mr Hunter?” enquired Sir James. “Or, are you still serving?”
“Plain Mister will serve absolutely fine, Sir,” Hunter returned. “How is Lady Isobel?”
“Ah! It appears you two already know one another,” Mary interjected.
“Indeed, we do,” the younger man agreed. “General Walters, as was, was my commanding officer in the Balkans in the nineties. The best in the business.”
“I see,” said the phone-in host.
“And, if I maybe so bold as to say, Major Colin Hunter was one of the more proficient officers on my staff. Do you remember that hideous man? The so called ‘Colonel’ Lukic was his name, I think?”
“Ah! I believe I do. The Beast of Southern Bosnia?” remembered Mary.
“The very same,” Sir James agreed. “Major Hunter went in on his own and took him out. An action that earned him a very well deserved George Cross.”
Mary looked through the glass at her production team for reassurance. Her notes told her none of this. It was too late now for in a few minutes they would be on air. This seems to be a mutual admiration society, she mused, rather than one that was about to debate the pros and cons of British involvement in Afghanistan. Mary was looking for the confirmation that it would be a worthy debate.
“Don’t worry,” assured the retired General, sensing her concern. “We are clearly on the opposite side of the battlefield on this occasion. I doubt either of us will be taking prisoners.”
They took their positions and waited for cues as the breakfast show began to wrap. The phone-in jingle started and at the same time, as she had done over the past three years, Mary Lawrence effortlessly opened the show. “My thanks to Richard and Shannon for the breakfast show. Now it’s our turn. My name is Mary Lawrence and welcome to this morning’s phone-in. It is Monday the thirtieth of June 2008 and at nine thirty, after the news headlines and sport, we will be taking calls on last night’s historic Spanish victory in the Euros in Vienna. First, though, we start with events in Afghanistan. On Saturday, three more of our soldiers died in an ambush in Helmond province. After the news I will be joined by the spokesman for Bring Them Home and a supporter of Government policy in Afghanistan. That’s all after the news with Caroline Holmes.”
Mary flicked off her microphone and waited for the news to finish before the end of the sports headlines would cue her in again.
“Thank you, George,” she said at the end of the sports bulletin. “Right, then. On Saturday afternoon in Helmond province a routine patrol turned into a bloodbath as three British soldiers and five Afghani troops were ambushed and killed by Taliban militia. Once again it has opened the debate about British involvement in this seemingly unwinnable war. Colin Hunter, himself a former major in the army who has seen action in the former Yugoslavia is here to represent Bring Them Home, the organisation vehemently opposed to our involvement in the war and to counter this we have retired General Sir James Walters who has seen distinguished action in the Falklands, the First Gulf War and the Balkans conflicts. It is said that they had the backing of the ordinary man in the street. Sir James knows the grief that the families are going through, for his son, Colonel Nathan Walters, was killed in action in 2005 and never saw his own unborn son.”
Even though Sir James knew the introduction was going to mention his son, he still felt the pain of his lost child. He clasped his hands together on the table with his microphone cradled between them like a lost soul looking for comfort, closed his eyes and offered up a silent prayer for Nathan.
Mary started with Colin Hunter, “Colin, an ex-soldier yourself, you are a man who is used to following orders. Why should now be any different?”
“No. That’s not what we stand for. Bring Them Home firmly believes we are now involved in a conflict we cannot win. In fact, if we were there for another hundred years we would not win. In the Balkans it was justified as it was on our own doorstep in Europe and we knew who the enemy was. Here, our poor lads are on a hiding to nothing. One minute we’re facing uniformed militia and you know who’s on who’s side and the next a civilian with a backpack saunters up to ask a question and Boom! You’re a gonna. Bring Them Home.”
“That seems fair and logical, Sir James?”
“Mary. May I correct one thing?” asked Sir James.
“Yes. Yes. Of course.”
“I was not a supporter of our Government sending our troops into Afghanistan in the first place. But, now we are there I believe we should finish the job. We now have a democratically elected government, increased women’s rights, education for all, a burgeoning economy among other things and I feel we cannot desert them now. If we left now the sluice gates would be reopened and the Taliban and Al Qaeda would flood back in. At present, they are dispersed around the world with no real base to launch attacks against our cities and towns.”
Colin took up the baton again, “um! Yes. That’s right. We don’t disagree with that view except we believe Afghanistan is becoming a lawless society and by withdrawing we would only make it more lawless. But, bring our boys and girls home and defend our realm from within.”
“Sir James,” Mary intervened. “Should we care what happens to the people of Afghanistan? If we brought all of our troops home, and from Iraq as well, surely we’d be better equipped to protect our own people with the manpower that would become available?”
“I see the argument but I don’t agree,” allowed Sir James. “I maintain that if we pull out we shall leave a vacuum that will suck in all the enemies of the west who, in turn, will rain their terror down on our towns and cities. Also, what would you do with the members of the democratically elected government and their associates?”
Hunter countered, “We have trained their security forces for long enough now and I am sure they are fully capable of filling the hole left by our men and women.”
“A fair point, Sir James?” the presenter enquired.
“Um! I don’t believe so. But, if I can just finish my point?”
“Of course,” she agreed. “Please continue.”
“Thank you. In addition to the politicians and bureaucrats of the present government there are also girls who are now getting an education, the women who may educate them, the women who run their own businesses or have risen to positions of responsibility in commercial organisations. What happens to them?”
“What do you think would happen to them, Colin Hunter?”
“I am sure there would be some disruption. Maybe it would return to the old ways but I am afraid to say this is not our concern.”
Up to this juncture the debate had been held with civil recognition of the other’s views but Sir James was beginning to fret and started to tap his right index finger on the table. His former subordinate was just beginning to get under his skin. For Christ’s sake, he thought. A soldier’s position was to obey orders and Hunter should understand this more than most. Even in retirement, questioning the army’s position could undermine the morale of those in the field. He continued to tap his finger as if to emphasise his point.”
“Some disruption,” he sneered. Raising his voice slightly he continued. “I’ll tell you exactly what will happen. There will be executions, public and private, of all forms, imprisonment without trial, amputations, floggings and other brutal punishments. That is what will happen if we bring our brave troops home. And, that, in my opinion, is unacceptable.”
The lovey-dovey start was waning. Good, Mary thought. Bring it on.
“Sir James infers,” began Hunter, his eyes widening in disbelief that his former commander was showing signs of letting his normal implacable mask slip. He believed it was the burden of Nathan’s death rather than anything he had said himself. Hunter conceded, in his own mind at least, that it must be difficult to put on a show in such trying circumstances.
Mary held up her right hand. “I think it’s about time we went to the phones. First up, we have Albert from Dorset. Good morning, Albert.”
“Ah! Um! Good morning, Mary.” Albert spoke in the slightly clipped tones of a more formal education. Please forgive me. I am slightly nervous. I am now eighty-seven years old and was a young officer at the Normandy landings in 1944. I have to tell you, I am with the general on this one.”
Feeling calmer at the thought of others continuing the debate, Sir James let out a long breath to help regain composure. “Thank you, Albert,” he said.
“Can you imagine?” continued Albert. “If we had had these open discussions during the war, what the effect would have been on the morale of our boys back then? Discussions did take place in private but I am sure it would have been treasonable to have held these discussions on the wireless.”
“Times have changed,” observed Mary.
“But not always for the better. The reason they have changed,” continued the old soldier, nerves seeming to have vanished. “Is that people like me and those that served with me or under me did not question what we were ordered to do. Mr Hunter, I shall not oblige him with his rank, is a disgrace and people like him should not be given airtime until after the conflict is over.”
Hunter rolled his eyes at the jibe. He had heard it before and, no doubt, would hear it again. “OK. Albert, I hear what you say but I am not in the army anymore and plain Mr Hunter or Colin will be fine,” he countered calmly. “All of us around this table and beyond owe you and your comrades a great deal of debt. And, it is because of what you did that we can have these open discussions. No-one is disputing that….”
“Exactly,” interrupted the caller, now raising his voice to emphasise his disdain for the Bring Them Home campaign. “And, you should not be encouraging these brave lads to question their duty which is exactly what you are doing.”
“If I could just finish. There is no way I would encourage soldiers of any era to question their duty. No way! But, that doesn’t mean we can’t have a discussion about the ethical or moral side to this war. If you like, we are conscientious objectors who, if I am not mistaken, were around in your day?”
“They were not, Sir, given a platform like this.” There was now a real anger in Albert’s tone.
Sir James sat back in his chair and admired the coolness with which his opponent was dealing with the caller. Indeed, he thought, Colin Hunter was demonstrating the very qualities that had made him stand out above his contemporaries when under fire in the Balkans.
“I am still of the opinion that you are wrong and as a former soldier you also have a duty to your old mates.” The voice had now quietened slightly but was quicker.
“My point exactly,” beamed a victorious Hunter. “My duty is to the soldiers out there in theatre. The soldiers out there who have not yet died or been mutilated in some horrendous suicide attack. Bring Them Home!”
“Just hold the line, Albert,” Mary requested of the caller. “We have Rameez from Burnley on the phone. Good morning Rameez.”
“Mornin’, Mary,” replied the broad Lancashire accent.
“Rameez. You are an Afghan national and don’t agree with Sir James and Albert?”
“No. I don’t.”
There was silence as Rameez searched for the words.
“Go on,” Mary encouraged.
“Well… Well. They should come home. And, I don’t agree that these people are brave. They are occupiers of a foreign land and they should expect hatred from the people they are trying to rule over. And, what sort of country sends women to war?”
“That’s another discussion for another time,” Mary put in. “Sir James. Would you….”
“No. It’s not,” Rameez exploded with a ferocity that had the three around the table exchanging glances. “That’s all part of it. Bush and Blair want the liberal ways of the west imposed on my people. My people are a proud people where everyone including, and most importantly of all, women know their place.”
Mary moved uncomfortably in her seat. Our so called liberal ways? “I’m sure the term liberal has not been used of President Bush too many times? Anyway, as I was saying, our so called liberal ways allow women like me to do jobs like this. Do you object to me working?”
“Actually. Yes. I do object. You should be at home.”
Sir James held up his hand and Mary nodded to him to comment.
“Hold on, Rameez. James Walters here. If I maybe so bold, you don’t sound much like an Afghan national? Your accent sounds like a man brought up in Lancashire?”
“I can’t help it that my father was so short-sighted as to settle in this God forsaken land with its promiscuous ways.”
“If you were in your homeland at this moment and the Taliban were still in control you would not be able to ring a phone-in like this and express views opposite to the regime? Is that correct?”
“You and your like are trying to force my people into a way of life we do not care for.”
“Can I come in?” asked Albert.
“Go ahead, Albert,” said Mary, now feeling she needed to be alert for fear of what this hothead from Burnley was going to come up with next. She could feel a fire inside. How dare this idiot put the entire female gender down like this? She wanted to declare Hunter the winner and let the bloody people get what they deserved. On the other hand, though, Sir James was right, if women were to prosper the troops had to stay.
“I can’t believe what I am hearing,” Albert started. “The man has just given us all the reasons we need to stay and….”
“Shut up you blithering old fool,” blazed Rameez.
“That’s enough, Rameez,” refereed Mary. “If you are going to make it personal I will have to end the call.”
“OK,” the seemingly reluctant caller agreed after a short pause and some deep breaths.
“Thank you. Please finish, Albert.”
“Um! Yes. Sorry. Where was I? Ah. Yes. The general is right. All peoples of Afghanistan should be equal and given the same chances that we expect for ourselves and if that fellow thinks it is such a wonderful place he should take the next plane. Then he can decide which is the better society.”
“Trust me! I will go back and celebrate with my people when the imperialist powers of the US and UK have been expelled and the crops grow well on the blood of your so called heroes.”
“We will stay until we have the job done and my son’s death will not be in vain,” Sir James added.
“Just listen to the hoity-toity general,” sneered Rameez. “I wouldn’t mind betting that you’re from a long line of imperialist conquerors?”
If you mean am I from an army background? Then, yes I am. My father was a soldier and my grandfather before him. And, I am proud of my son’s service.”
“I’m sure you are,” Rameez went on with a sarcastic tone. “I wonder how many countrymen of mine he murdered before he got his just desserts? And, if I had my way, I would urge my countrymen to rise up and kill your whole fuckin’ family.”
The last few words were not broadcast. They were replaced by a couple of trailers for programmes scheduled for later in the week.
A stunned silence befell the three participants. Never in her years of broadcasting had such a threat been issued on Mary Lawrence’s watch. “Wow!” was all she could manage.
Neither Hunter nor Sir James responded.
“I’m so sorry, Sir James,” said Mary, the apology cutting through the tension.
“You OK, James?” asked Hunter seeing that the tanned features had turned a ghostly white.
“Um. Yes. Yes. I am. Thank you.” Sir James let out a breath before continuing. “A young man of conviction, I would suggest,” he added with a wan smile.
“Indeed. We have other callers lined up but I would totally understand if you didn’t wish to continue?” said Mary.
Sir James emptied his glass of water and wiping his mouth said “I am happy to continue. Do we finish with young Rameez first?”
“We can’t take that chance. We’ll move onto someone else.”
“I wouldn’t mind being able to have a conversation with the young man away from the mike and try to understand his perspective,” said Sir James. “Anyway, I have faced real live bullets and shells before and not given up. I am not about to start now.”
“Colin?” enquired Mary.
“Yep. Yes. I will as well. And, I’m with you, James. I’d like to understand the young man’s angst as well.”
The producer came through the studio intercom. “Mary. We’ll take some early news headlines and sport. Rameez has gone. We’ll try to get him back. Sir James, would you have a quick word with Albert and let him know you’re alright?”
Sir James agreed and assured Albert he was in fine fettle and thanked him for his concern.
The producer could not get hold of Rameez. Sir James and Colin Hunter were not sure how hard he tried.
After the news and sport the debate continued for another fifteen minutes or so without any controversy or threat. The two old soldier friends then left together after a series of handshakes, cheek kisses and goodbyes. Outside on the pavement, Hunter pulled a slip of paper out of his pocket.
“That isn’t what I think it is? Is it?” asked a surprised Sir James.
“How did you get it?”
“Slipped one of the young lads a twenty while you were charming the delectable Ms Lawrence and he wrote the number down for me. Are you game for a little chat?”
“Maybe. Not sure!” The older man scratched his head before sighing and continuing. “Colin. While we were in there I did a bit of thinking. I know we disagree about the war but I know we are agreed that our young boys and girls are putting life and limb on the line. I’m thinking of making a point to go and visit all the bereaved families from now on. Will you join me in a united front?”
“I’ll give it some thought but I think not. I think that if my organisation were to see me doing that they’d think I’m offering support to the war. But, we must speak again for we have much common ground.”
I understand. Give my love to Emily.”
“Of course. And, likewise, give my best to Isobel.”
Eight days later, Rameez ul Shafiq was reported missing. He left his parents’ home to meet a friend in Burnley town centre. He never arrived. It was a newsworthy disappearance following his well-publicised spat with Sir James. The newspapers and other forums were full of tireless speculation about the missing man. There was talk that he had gone to join a terrorist cell in the UK or even in Afghanistan for training and would be back to wreak his revenge on the streets of Britain. Others said he had been kidnapped and murdered by a home-grown neo-Nazi group.
Rumoured sightings led to nothing. It was as if he had simply disappeared into the atmosphere. Police investigations drew a blank except for one thing. Rameez ul Shafiq was not an Afghan national as he had claimed in his short broadcasting career, but a third generation British Pakistani. Until that day in June 2008 he had seemed as English as English can be. He supported Burnley Football Club and, even, England at cricket. He enjoyed a pint with his mates, white and Asian. His ethos was moderate in the extreme. No-one will ever know what tipped the scales that morning. He left two grieving parents and two distraught younger sisters.
Three years later, in July 2011, a black Volkswagen Transporter looked out of place outside the glass-fronted headquarters of the London Echo and Post. Sean Bryant noticed it when he had taken a cigarette break earlier in the afternoon. The trees with fluttering leaves planted in gaps in the pavement and surrounded by cast iron protective grates were not out of place, the smokers in the office doorways under grey-blue clouds of tobacco smoke were not out of place, the aroma of coffee wafting on the summer breeze from Starbucks across the street was not out of place, the hubbub of London hanging in the warm air was not out of place, but the black VW was. The van had arrived in the early afternoon and was parked on the red line running along the road. The line depicted Transport for London’s red zone an area of the capital designated as no parking and no waiting except under permit. The van displayed no such permit. Police cars drifted by seeming not to notice the black hulk obstructing the busy traffic and traffic wardens had wandered past not even bothering to stop and write a ticket. Bryant sniffed his roll-up! No, it was definitely his favourite Drum shag. He was not hallucinating after all but what was making this gleaming black incongruity invisible to others, especially officers of the authorities?
Bryant drew hungrily on his cigarette as if it had been denied to him for half a lifetime, not just a couple of hours and wondered what the van’s purpose was. The driver’s side window was down and he could hear that two men, both dressed in black polo shirts with company insignia on the breast, were listening to tennis commentary from Wimbledon. He couldn’t make out who was playing for all he could hear were the thuds of racquet on ball and the shrieks of the female players as they summoned every ounce of energy into the orgasmic climax of a shot interspersed with cheers and applause from the crowd.
He reflected he had never been to the Wimbledon fortnight but now he would go. Someone in the sports department would blag a couple of tickets for him and he would take Amelia, a decent club player herself, as part of their wedding anniversary celebrations. Eight years, he thought. Where had all that time gone. Then, he smiled, he remembered an old boy from the village had said, “You think it goes quick now, boy. You wait ‘til you get to my age!” A wiser phrase, there couldn’t be. A bucket list, that was what he needed. In the few days off he and Amelia would write that list.
A man from the business section of the paper joined Bryant as he was nearly at the end of his roll-up. Ian was a great fat lump, about five feet six tall and probably the same around his wobbly, bulging waistline! Sweat had already appeared on his receding forehead just from the exertion of getting to the smoking area. Bryant exchanged meaningless pleasantries with the business journo as the fat man wheezed his way through a filter-tipped full-strength Marlborough.
They talked about the weather. Apparently, a very hot few days was forecast. They talked about the black van. Ian reckoned it had been there for about an hour-and-a-half or at least four Marlboroughs which, give or take a minute or two, was one every twenty minutes! What on earth was the van doing? The fat man came up with a plausible explanation.
“I know,” he said. “The Olympics are in about a year’s time, I think. I reckon it’s part of an ongoing security exercise by the organisers.”
Probably, thought Bryant and returned to his desk to put the finishing touches to his feature. One final read through and it was done. He clicked the submit button to file his copy at the editing desk, closed his laptop and headed for the exit. A couple of goodbyes as he made his way. A collision avoided with a woman on the stairs reading copy and slurping coffee and he was back on the pavement at 7.10pm.
At last, a few days off. After checking the time on his mobile phone, he was part of the increasing trend of not wearing a watch, the only decision left was a beer at a riverside hostelry and then the train or the train and then a beer in the Fox and Hounds garden in the village. No contest! It would be getting dark as he arrived home. The charms of the riparian hostelry calling him through the sound of the city would win out on this occasion.
He plucked the pre-rolled cigarette from behind his ear and flicked the cheap lighter into flame. He sucked on the lit tobacco, drawing it deep into his lungs before exhaling the exhaust. His fat friend had probably done seven or eight Marlboroughs in the time he had been back at his desk. The sanitised world of the commercial indoors was now a blight to a smoker’s working day. Since smoking had been banned in the workplace fag-breaks had probably added half-an-hour to the working day! He chuckled at the thought of his fat friend for he probably didn’t even have time to go home!
The van was still there. This time, though, there was a man leaning against its side, just in front of an open door which revealed a luxurious interior with tanned leather seats in a conference layout. Four or five? He couldn’t see them all. The man wore a similar black polo shirt to the others he had seen but wore a charcoal suit jacket and trousers like a fashion throwback to the eighties. He wore dark glasses and had an earpiece curled around his left ear. He appeared to be speaking into his jacket lapel.
A feeling of unease came over Bryant. The hairs stood up on the back of his neck and a lump formed in the pit of his stomach. He looked down the street toward the river. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed a front passenger getting out of the vehicle. His heart pounded against his ribs. He turned and headed back towards the security of the office lobby just as a fresh-faced cub reporter was disappearing in through the sliding doors.
“Will. Hold the doors, mate.”
The youngster looked round before stepping back into the line of the doors to prevent them from closing. Another man appeared from his left and came between him and the older journalist. Will recognised Sean Bryant as one of the paper’s senior feature writers. He had hardly talked to his esteemed colleague since he had joined the paper and, yet, here he was addressing him as “mate!” Bryant seemed perturbed by something and as the other man approached raised his left had to thank the young man although his assistance was not now necessary. Will went inside and the door slid closed.
Bryant had breathed a sigh of relief as the young man he could remember only as Will had stepped back into the line of the doors. Then the man came into vision from his right and blocked the route to sanctuary. He had raised his left hand to indicate that Will should hold the doors. To his dismay Will gave a polite nod and stepped away allowing the doors to slide closed.
God’s sake! Bryant thought. The idiot didn’t get the message.
Bryant spotted the CCTV camera above the doors and guessing it had an unobstructed view of the cigarette in his right hand, dropped it onto the floor. He hoped that someone, when reviewing the footage, would spot the gesture and realise it was at a moment of distress.
The man produced a warrant card from his inside jacket pocket and flourished it in Bryant’s line of view. The jacket was open just enough to show off a holstered pistol. That had been deliberate and the flap of the coat was not dropped until the man was sure of its effect.
The effect was instant. Jesus Christ, Bryant thought. Fuck me. This is serious. His mouth had now gone dry and he feared for his life. For Christ’s sake, stay calm and you’ll be alright.
“Mr Bryant. Mr Sean Bryant,” the man enquired politely.
“Yes. I am.” It was as much as he could answer.
“It wasn’t a question, Mr Bryant. We know who you are.”
“Oh! Jesus!” It was as if his mouth was full of flour.
“My name is Captain Ben Morgan of the Civil Protection Group.”
“Oh!” Bryant gasped again.
“You are to accompany us to our headquarters for questioning.” Morgan indicated the open van door with his free hand and said matter-of-factly, “Shall we?”
The pair climbed into the back of the van, Bryant taking one of the comfortable leather clad seats to which Morgan gestured. Another man got in behind and slid the door shut. Four downlighters in the ceiling came on as the door closed. Bryant heard the front passenger door slam shut and the van glided away into the evening traffic.
“Looks like you could use some water,” said the captor.
Bryant nodded. “Please.”
The other man grabbed a bottle of water from a small refrigerator and a glass from a cupboard above.
Bryant glanced around at the well-appointed interior and was impressed with the quality of the finishes. Deep piled carpet, the leather seats and real wood cabinetry. He felt reasonably secure. He didn’t believe they would spill his blood in such plush surroundings.
“Thank you,” he managed to say as the libation was placed in front of him. He poured some of the water into a glass and took a relieving gulp.
“As I said, my name is Captain Ben Morgan.” Tipping his left hand toward his colleague, Morgan continued, “And this is Neil Ramsey. I expect you are wondering who we are and what we want with you?”
Bryant began to feel a sense of relaxation. Morgan appeared affable, cool and collected so Bryant replied with more confidence. “You could say that. Yes.”
“Have you heard of the Civil Protection Group before?”
“No. I can’t say I have. What do you want with me and where are we going?”
“Mr Bryant. I will set the agenda.”
There wasn’t exactly menace in Morgan’s tone but an assertiveness borne out of what Bryant assumed was army officer training. “We’ll let you know who we are and then we’ll have time for some questions.
“The Civil Protection Group, or CPG, is one of the leading security companies in the world. Long before I joined the company we started installing domestic security alarms back in the seventies. The history is contained in this DVD.”
Ramsey placed the DVD on the table and slid it across to Bryant. He picked up the case. The front consisted of an outline map of the world with various regional offices pinpointed. Various icons of the security industry were scattered around the perimeter such as alarm boxes, fencing, safes and weapons. Peering out from the middle of the cover was a very attractive young woman with wisps of blonde hair strategically shaped under an army style combat helmet. She wore full combat body armour and brandished what Bryant took to be an automatic assault weapon. The uniform was entirely black and each part bore the same insignia as the men’s polo shirts, now clearly in view.
The woman’s blackened face indicated a veiled threat. The eyes, though, were something altogether different. They were the colour of the bright summer’s sky and, in this context, shone out like deadly looking lasers seeking a target. Nobody, thought Bryant, could sport such deadly looking eyes. He was convinced the picture had been doctored for effect. It worked!
“From these humble beginnings the company has gone from strength to strength. You can see it all in there. We now cover all aspects of security including personal protection and corporate security, hence our interest in you. One of our clients feels threatened by you and wants us to find out why you attacked them in this feature you just submitted for tomorrow’s Echo and Post?” Morgan held up a wad of six or seven A4 pages.
“God!” uttered Bryant. “Where’d you get that from?”
“Not difficult. We simply hacked your computer,” Morgan smiled. “I believe it’s a technique some of your colleagues use. I’m quite sure you wouldn’t stoop so low.”
Bryant hated the mess in which his profession had become embroiled. In his mind phone and computer hacking were not the tools of a true investigative journalist any more than burglary and torture was and should not be tolerated in any quarter. Burglary was against the law, torture was against the law and hacking was against the law. If you get caught doing any of them don’t claim you were just doing your job and tar all good honest journalists with the same brush. Punishment should go right to the top as well. Any direct link with the owner of a news organisation should mean that the officer should face a Court Martial as well as the trench-fighter.
Morgan continued, “Anyway, we sat in here and watched every keystroke you made and when you filed your copy we got ourselves ready for you. You could never have escaped. Oh! And if you are wondering, it didn’t arrive at the editing desk. It came here via your main server.”
“So much for our state-of-the-art fire wall protection or whatever it’s called,” joked Bryant.
“Ah! Yes,” said Morgan. “It is state-of-the-art and very, very good. I must admit to a slight conflict of interest here. We provided it to your organisation. Bit naughty, I know, but our client believes this is a matter of national security.”
Bryant smiled. The hackers hacked by the hackers!
“Sit back. Enjoy the corporate blurb on the DVD and we will resume in forty minutes or so.”
“Forty minutes! How long’s the journey, then?”
“Two-and-a-half, three hours, depending on traffic.”
After another ten minutes or so the van came to a stop. A few seconds later it rolled forward slowly.
Bryant sensed it had moved inside. His heart began to race. National security? He reflected on Morgan’s statement. This is it. His palms were sweating and his throat felt as if it was constricting.
Morgan sensed the apprehension in Bryant and moved to reassure him. A narrow smile played on his lips as he thought about playing with his victim as a cat would toy with a mouse but then sighed. “Don’t be alarmed. We’re not about to cut your throat or anything hideous like that. “We’ve only stopped for some planned maintenance.”
Peculiar, thought Bryant. An organisation like this that had planned his abduction in such fine detail and here it was stopping for maintenance.
He returned to the DVD which featured the laser-eyed woman selling the company’s wares from the simple intruder alarm for semi-detached homes in suburbia to personal protection for celebrities and high-powered business executives and to security for global sporting events and government and military installations. She took the viewer through the history of the organisation from the sale of their first burglar alarm in a small town in Hertfordshire to the security provided to dignitaries at the soccer world cup in South Africa in 2010.
While watching the film Bryant was aware of activity around the van. Activity he couldn’t identify. There was a whirring sound like a giant hair-dryer; there was a crinkling sort of a sound like someone scrunching up aluminium baking foil; there was the distinct sound of a drilling type machine and numerous sounds of scraping on concrete which could have been step-ladders being dragged around. In short, he had no idea what was going on.
After a while, he wasn’t sure how long, but before the end of the video, the sound and feel of the engine being gunned took his attention. The van reversed and turned to the left before moving forward and stopping, perhaps at a junction before pulling away once more. He was then aware of the sound of traffic again. A few turns left and right and they seemed to be on their way.
The film ran its course.
“Now, Mr Bryant. We don’t want any alarms raised with the lovely Amelia….”
Bryant snapped. “It’s not the lovely Amelia to you. To you, my friend, she is, and will remain, Mrs Bryant. Understand?”
Morgan was taken aback and quickly withdrew the familiarity. “ I am sorry, sir. I was just trying to….”
“Well. Don’t.” The very mention of his wife’s name had conjured a vision of their bucolic bliss in the Suffolk village of Oakshott. The family dream home near the picturesque Norman church. Amelia sitting on the swing chair sipping a chilled Pinot Grigio. The two children, Poppy, aged seven, and Daisy, just turned six, playing in the back garden. Even his beloved white Labrador, Elsa, laid out in the sun, keeping the expenditure of energy to a minimum. Bryant’s eyes pricked at the vivid image. He shook himself free of the reverie.
“We don’t mean to keep you for long and don’t want your family to become worried and do something silly like alert the police. I believe we have covered our tracks extremely well but we don’t want them sniffing around anyway. Will you be kind enough to send a message to your wife and let her know you’ve been detained on business and will be taking a flight somewhere tonight. Let’s say for four nights. You’ll return Sunday. We already know you can go at short or no notice if a story demands it.”
Brilliant, thought Bryant. Absolutely brilliant. He couldn’t believe his luck. He reached in his pocket and pulled out his mobile phone. Glancing down at the screen he saw he had two messages, both from Geoff Woodcock. “Two messages from my editor,” Bryant announced.
“Read them. No. Don’t read them. He may request read notices. No. Leave it for now. I’ll give it some thought.”
“As you wish. Now, what do you want me to write?”
“Anything you like. We’ll look at it before you send it anyway.”
Bryant thought about sneaking a look at Woodcock’s messages but shied away not knowing what sort of surveillance equipment his captors had on board. He didn’t need to read the messages to know that Woodcock would be marching up and down in the aisles between the desks in the newsroom shouting, “Where’s Bryant. That’s the last time he writes for us. He’s finished.” Every senior member of the staff had been threatened with the sack at some stage, usually a couple of times a week! To his knowledge, Woodcock had never actually fired anybody. Once the paper was out on the streets the editor changed from a snarling rottweiler to a cuddly poodle. He smiled at the contrasting images and started to text his message to Amelia. Bryant tapped out the message and handed the mobile to Morgan.
Morgan read the text. “Sounds plausible,” he said and pressed the send button. Morgan took his own phone from his pocket and after a brief delay gave Ramsey an instruction, “Send for Walker to come forward, please.”
A few minutes later the van rolled to a halt and the side door slid open four or five inches. Morgan handed the mobile phones to a gloved hand. A motorcyclist, Bryant pondered.
“Can’t be too careful,” Morgan said to Bryant. “Don’t want the boys in blue knocking on the door the minute we get there.”
Bryant had tried to get a peek through the opening to see if he recognised any landmarks. Not a thing. It was just an anonymous street on the outskirts of London. The shadow of the van was on the driver’s side but that didn’t really tell him anything apart from the van was facing north. It could have been facing north in Wimbledon or Romford or Brentford.
At nearly 10.00pm the van came to a stop. After a muffled exchange of words from outside it moved forward a few metres. It stopped and moved forward again, this time for twenty or thirty seconds. The door was opened by an armed man with the same familiar uniform as his captors.
“After you,” said Morgan to Bryant, indicating the open door with his left hand.
Even though it was now ten o’clock at night the sky was not yet fully dark but all he could make out were shadows: a building, fencing, car park. Lights were on in the building and he was faced with a revolving door that might be found at a hotel or office lobby. Above the door there was a black granite stone with gold block writing announcing Plantagenet House.
Bryant took a few steps toward the entrance before holding back to wait for Morgan. He turned to see Morgan was only a couple of paces behind. Bryant’s eyes widened at the shock of what he saw! Words caught in his throat but eventually came, loud and clear. “Jesus Christ! No.”
Amelia Bryant took her place in the queue at the Oakshott village post office, two from the front. She had received her husband’s text message on Wednesday at 8.03pm. Poppy and Daisy were both in bed, the washing-up was done and at the time she was sitting in the conservatory reading the evening newspaper. Sean was expected home around nine-thirty. She wasn’t expecting anyone to call so was sitting in her evening comfies, a pink t-shirt and light grey pyjama bottoms. Her right leg was tucked under her. Life was good! Their eighth wedding anniversary was now less than a week away and when Sean arrived home that evening he wouldn’t be going back to work until the Monday after the anniversary.
Then, the text had arrived. The double ping of the alert had drawn her from her contemplative mood. She placed her glass of red wine on the window sill, pushed the paper to one side and went off in search of her Iphone. Unlike many of her friends she hadn’t made it an extension of her arm and was always leaving it in the most obscure places. She paused in the doorway between the conservatory and the lounge, cocked an ear and waited for the second alert. Ah! There it is, she mused, raising her right index finger into the air as if she had solved some great conundrum! It was on the hearth next to the coal scuttle. God knows how it got there! One message, Sean, the screen announced. She pressed the read button.
“Sorry, hun. Got to go to Libya. Col G wants to talk to the world through the EP. See you Sun. Got passport before you ask.”
“Fuck you, Sean Bryant,” she whispered. The words had been heard only by Elsa who raised her head from the floor with a quizzical look on her face, as if she were asking “Wanna talk about it?”
Amelia just smiled at the apparent concern and when no further words were uttered in Elsa’s direction she rested the big head back on the floor and closed her eyes, yawning at the fuss.
How many times did Amelia have to put up with this treatment? Other wives at the tennis club spoke about the control they had over their men. How? She couldn’t imagine anyone controlling Sean.
Amelia immediately regretted cursing her husband and reddened slightly and the selfish thoughts about having to cancel the anniversary dinner on Saturday as it dawned on her that the message contained two code words they had worked out. The third code word in the message was “Passport.”
Amelia went upstairs to the main bedroom and opened the bottom drawer of Sean’s bedside table. There lay his passport. He was in trouble! Next to the passport was a small notebook, about A6 in size. She worked her way through the pages until she came to the end of the notes. The first nine pages had scribblings that had been crossed through, the meanings now redundant. She remembered how she had laughed at the thought of having these codes between them after he told her the story of how he helped put three armed robbers behind bars in the West Midlands three or four years before they met. She wasn’t laughing now but summoning all of her self-control to remain calm.
She ran her finger down the columns of recently concocted codes looking for the true meaning. The secret meanings were updated to reflect long-running news stories. “Libya” meant Sean had been abducted and “Col G” meant that he wasn’t sure why. If “G” had been “Gadhafi” written in full it would have indicated it was the armed robbers.
Who had him? Amelia mused for a moment. Sure, some of his forthright writing had upset politicians, sport personalities and other celebrities but without doubt all would move on within a short time and forget about it. In short, she could not think of anyone. Sean had always told her that all publicity was good. “Remember,” he had said. “Today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper!”
A smile played on her lips. She had no idea that newspaper had once been the wrapping for takeaway fish dishes! “Yuk!” she had exclaimed. “How unhygienic!”
The leader of that small band of thugs had threatened to kill all those whom had given evidence against him resulting in a fourteen year sentence. Randolph Soames had now been out of prison since April having served eleven years. It was judged that he was no longer a threat to society. Bryant did not agree and had many sleepless nights after he learned of the release. He could still remember the wild rant and the deathly glare from the dock as the three men were led away.
Soames had received the longest term of the three. Fourteen years seemed fair. Stephen Patrick had been given a nine year term and released from his incarceration in 2005 and as far as Bryant knew had been as upstanding a citizen as one could possibly be after his earlier career choice. He managed to get menial employment which he would keep for a time before the employer was tipped the wink about his previous. Bryant was convinced that the then still imprisoned ringleader had been behind these tipoffs in a bid to keep Patrick on side.
The third member of the gang was a young black kid called Dwight Carter. Carter had been the getaway driver, doing the job even before he had passed his driving test. When the sentences were passed down Carter was two weeks short of his twentieth birthday. He was given five years. The sentence had shocked Bryant and the policeman who had led the enquiry.
Shortly after Bryant had graduated as a journalist from Portsmouth University he had taken a position as a trainee reporter with a provincial newspaper close to his home town of Ledbury in Herefordshire. He had met the copper whilst playing football for a Sunday League side and they had become good friends. Although only five years Bryant’s senior the policeman already held the rank of Detective Inspector and, in Bryant’s opinion, was destined for the very top.
One night Bryant had been due to meet the policeman in a Ledbury town centre pub but a message was handed to him from behind the bar saying that his friend had been delayed at work and would not be making it that night. There was only one other person in the pub. A bright eyed black kid was playing darts on his own.
“Fancy a game?” Bryant asked.
The kid, who was actually only two years younger than himself, viewed him with suspicion. “Why?” he eventually asked, the Birmingham accent easily detected, even in the one word.
“My mate’s stood me up and I’ve got a whole pint to finish before I go.”
“And, you don’t mind playing with a no-hope black kid?”
“No. Why should I?”
They played darts, they drank some beer and the friendship grew.
Dwight Carter had maintained he was a student. A student, however, who was not sure what he was studying. One night it would be brickwork and building. The next, something to do with cars. Eventually, one night, the truth came out. They had met for a drink in the pub and were sitting at the bar, each nursing a pint of lager. Bryant rolled a cigarette, lit it, and noticed out of the corner of his eye his new friend was captivated by a news story on the small portable television perched behind the bar.
“What’s up?” Sean asked.
Carter raised his right hand to quieten him.
Bryant turned to the TV but the volume was low. “Mick,” he summoned the barman. “Turn the volume up, mate?”
There had been an armed robbery in a village post office, the latest in a series of similar raids on small convenience stores, garages, pubs and the like going back over three years. The difference this time was that there had actually been a shot fired and there had been a group of young children in buying sweets on their way home from school. The shot had narrowly missed a small girl. Police were seeking two black men and a white man in connection with the robbery.
“She pissed herself. It was horrible,” said Carter, taking a slug from his beer.
“What?!” asked an astonished Bryant.
Nothing more needed to be said.
Tears were now rolling down Carter’s face. Bryant was sure nobody else had heard.
“Come on, mate. Let’s go get some air.” Bryant helped the youngster to his feet.
“Is he alright?” asked Mick.
Bryant nodded. “Just feels a bit peculiar. Needs some air.”
By this time Bryant had his own flat in Ledbury so the pair headed there. They sat on the worn armchairs he had acquired from an uncle. Carter leaned forward, elbows on his knees and chin resting in his hands. He sighed! “I was…. Um!…. I’ve been at ‘em all for the last three years.”
Carter went on to explain how he was normally the driver but had persuaded Soames he wanted more of the action. Soames agreed as the job was a small rural post office and Patrick drove the car. The shop was empty until the schoolkids had come in. At the sight of the stocking faced thugs they began to scream. Soames fired a shot to quieten them. One of the little girls started crying and shaking, the colour drained from her face and a pool formed at her feet. As Carter looked on an image of his young niece danced across his thoughts. From that moment he had wanted out. It was time to change.
Bryant and Carter agreed they would set up a meeting with the copper where a deal would be done to protect Carter if he gave evidence against his accomplices. The policeman took the deal to his seniors who had ratified it. But, the Judge had not read the script and sent Carter away for five years.
After the court case all Bryant wanted to do was go to his friend and say sorry but he never saw Carter again. And, Carter never saw his twentieth birthday. Bryant was sitting alone in his flat when the news came through that Carter had been murdered in prison. Not a single person was ever convicted of the killing but Soames openly bragged that he was behind the death. The crook made it clear that he was not a man to be messed with and let it be known from inside his cell that the journalist and copper were also on the list.
Soames and Carter were sent to different prisons but Soames’ brother, Charlton, and Carter were in the same one. The rumours would not go away. The message was clear and loud: no-one messed with Randolph Soames.
Amelia handed her letter to the postmaster and asked for recorded delivery to the
Now Detective Chief Inspector Duncan Cobbold of the London Metropolitan Police. It was Friday so she didn’t expect to hear anything until the following week. She had many attempts to contact Cobbold on the mobile number she had for her husband’s friend but to no avail. Plan B was the antiquated postal system. But, it would have to do.
From the post office she crossed over the road and walked along to the primary school. It was brightening after a dull, misty start. Des Leadbetter, the jolly publican of the Fox and Hounds, was sweeping-down the forecourt of the pub.
“Morning, Des,” Amelia greeted from the other side of the road.
“Mornin’ Amelia. ‘Ope your keepin’ well?”
“Fine. Thanks,” she lied and waved. “Have a good day!”
He leaned on his broom and reciprocated the wave before turning back to his work.
Amelia continued, passing the little duck pond before turning into the school gate. Gillian Francis, the head-teacher, looked up from her desk and came to welcome her. Not really protocol but the two women exchanged cheek kisses.
“Amelia. How are you? Nothing we’ve done I hope?”
“No, good heavens. No.”
Gillian had been good friends with Amelia and Sean for more than three years. Her divorce from Craig had been acrimonious. Most of the village had taken pity on her and seen Craig as a lazy-good-for-nothing who gambled and drank away her salary. The pair had been declared bankrupt and Gillian had moved into the old schoolhouse which, luckily for her, had been vacated by the retired caretaker. The move had, in effect, made her neighbours with Amelia and Sean even though they were on different roads and were parted by about two-hundred-and-fifty metres of field. Gillian had remained loyal to the village that had given her a supporting shoulder. Despite County encouraging her to take a larger school with less successful OFSTED inspections. Her school had been marked good with many aspects outstanding. And, that was the mark she had given to the village with which she had now fallen in love with.
The friendship had preceded Poppy starting school. Amelia and Sean had been prepared to find another school for the sake of the friendship but Gillian would have none of it and they set out a way forward that either party could walk away from without risking the bond built up over the years.
“What is it, then?” asked Gillian.
“Oh God! Where to start? Gill, can I speak in confidence? I mean strict confidence.”
“Of course,” said Gillian getting up from her chair and closing the door. “Go on?!
“Sean’s disappeared.” She let the words hang in the air for a few moments.
“When? How? I mean…. I only saw him Wednesday morning when I was out jogging.”
“Remember we told you about the coded messages?” Amelia pulled out her mobile phone and flicked through the messages and passed the gadget to her friend. “This came through Wednesday night.”
Gillian read it. It meant nothing. Shaking her head she asked, “What does it mean?”
“He’s been abducted. But, he doesn’t know why or by whom.”
“And, you think it’s Soames?” Gill knew the history of murder and threats.
“Can’t be anyone else.”
“He’s a journalist. It could be?”
“Anyway, Gill. What I really want, and I know you wouldn’t allow it anyway, is that you won’t let anyone else take the girls in the evening, no matter how well you know them or trust them. If I’m not here, I won’t be far.”
“Consider it done.”
Amelia turned off The Street into Church Lane still carrying the weight of worry. A blue Mercedes saloon was coming up the road and slowing for the junction she made eye contact with the driver and shuddered. A black man smiled back. She quickened her step and broke into a trot as she approached home. She didn’t pay any attention to the farmer in the field taking crop samples checking readiness for harvest.
Curtly Richardson sat on a sun-lounger on the foredeck of Deck Five on the Seabourn cruise ship Legend. He had boarded at the southern Italian port town of Sorrento as a special guest of its captain, an old friend, William Bathgate. A waiter had just delivered a generous port and a cup of Americano coffee that sat on the squat table to his side. He was stretched out on the lounger, neck tie of his black tuxedo suit undone. Formal dress! He reflected. Huh! That was the last time he would fall for that one! Apart from him there had only been one other man in the restaurant dressed penguin style. And, that was the captain! So called friend! Others were counted formally attired simply by draping a borrowed jacket over the back of their chair. Nearly five hundred euros!
Then, there had been the infernal Esther Lowbender. Esther had been a guest at the captain’s table for dinner and Richardson had had the misfortune of sitting next to the plump Floridian.
“Curtly?!” she had exclaimed at Richardson’s introduction. “That’s a funny name!” And, after no-one joined in with her hysterical cackle she made to reinforce the point. “My word! So it is. A funny name.”
“You may call me Curt,” he responded.
She had been polite enough to start but had continued to dominate Richardson’s evening like a young puppy brought a rawhide treat. Even the red wine had failed to shut her out.
He exchanged the briefest of conversations on his beloved cricket with an Englishman across the table before she interjected. “My husband says cricket is the stupidest game in the world. You play for days on end and no-one wins.” The cackling laugh was this time accompanied by pig sounding snorts.
Richardson peered back at the Englishman, seeking a safe harbour in a known port. The man had turned away to strike up a conversation with a total stranger. Richardson got the message, you’re on your own with this one! He glugged a three-quarter glass of red in one.
“My husband says too much red wine gives you gout.”
I bet your bloody husband is sitting at home in the sublime silence of an early Miami evening drinking gallons of the stuff and at the beginning of each glass raising a toast to absent friends! He mused.
“What do you do for work, Curt?” Esther asked when Richardson was nearing the end of his dessert and was dreaming of a getaway.
“I’m a civil servant,” he replied.
Indeed, he was a public servant in the employ of Her Britannic Majesty’s government. A pen-pusher behind a desk in Whitehall he certainly was not. In truth he was in one of only half-a-dozen crack pairs brought together to protect British interests at home and abroad. They had one commander, an ex-policeman named Duncan Cobbold, who held the title of Detective Chief Inspector. Apart from Cobbold they were responsible to only one other and that was the Home Secretary. Each pair was made up of a policeman, in this case, Richardson, and a special forces operative, as was his partner, Michael Jones. The pair had just lately been on baby-sitting duty at a summit in Rome that was discussing the Middle-East. An ex British Prime Minister had been present, with Jones and Richardson added to his retinue as extra eyes and ears. Protection wasn’t ever mentioned but both men were very capable. The summit passed without incident. The former PM left for a break in Tuscany. Jones had headed back to England and Richardson, after phoning his old friend, the sea captain, had boarded a train for Naples followed by the local rattler to Sorrento.
“My husband says that public servants are a waste of money and that is why the world is in such a financial mess.”
Richardson balled his fists under the table. He was well trained in all methods of keeping cool in stressful scenarios. This woman, however, was testing his resolve far more than any terrorist had ever done. This was his private time. “Does he? Indeed?” Richardson snapped. “And, pray tell, what does this amazing font of all knowledge do?”
“Oh. He’s an investment banker. And, very important too.”
“Sometimes,” Richardson started thoughtfully. “It might be worth the important investment banker looking in the mirror and debating the truth of the cause of financial ruin. I am sure if he is as intelligent as you make him out to be he will find the real reasons.”
“Oh. He often discusses it with all sorts of people including poor folk. He always wins the argument as he is very strong. We all know that poor folk cause financial angst for the rest of us. They should get off their asses and go do some work rather than steal all of our money by taking so called welfare cheques. That’s what my husband says, anyway.”
“A bully, more like,” Richardson whispered to the captain before turning back to Mrs Lowbender. “I would like to meet your husband, madam. I believe educated debate can play a part.”
“He wouldn’t discuss it with you. He thinks black folk are less intelligent and doesn’t like them too much.” Mrs Lowbender didn’t even realise she was being offensive and hadn’t noticed that the rest of the table had stopped talking and were concentrating on the exchange between the congenial Englishman and the in-bred bigot from Florida. Oblivious, she continued. “I, on the other-hand, think there is a place for men like you.” She affectionately stroked the man’s massive bicep.
He didn’t reply but turned to Bathgate and asked, “Apart from my suite, where can I go for some lonely and tranquil peace and quiet?”
So, here he was, on the outside foredeck just below the bridge and under the stars. The sun had slid into the oily sea beside Vesuvius two hours earlier to be replaced in the heavens by an almost full moon. He had been staring at the silver avenue running from the horizon when the waiter appeared.
Richardson had fallen in love with Sorrento. Or, had he fallen in love with Augusta, the beautiful dancing girl he had met only two nights before? After travelling to the end of the suburban line on a rattling train with nothing more than a shoulder bag, he had strolled to the hotel along the Corsa Italia. Through the Piazza Tasso, named after the famous Sorrentine poet and on into the lanes of the old town. He passed a church in which a wedding was taking place where the accents were, clearly, of a Welsh origin rather than the romantic sounding local dialect. And, finally, onto the Hotel Tramontano, perched on cliff-tops with a panoramic view of the stunning Bay of Naples. On the edge of the old town he had spotted a theatre with posters advertising a performance about Sorrento life. After freshening up in his suite, which had a sea view from the balcony, he made his way back to the theatre and bought a ticket.
That evening he set out early to grab a bite before the show. He found his seat after a complimentary glass of wine in the terrace bar. The auditorium was by no means full. The seating, spacious and comfortable, was in three banks with two aisles. He found himself sitting in an aisle seat closest to the right hand walkway. The show got under way with rousing renditions of many Italian classics and he even recognised some of the tunes as they were knitted into a tale of daily life in Sorrento.
The fishermen set sail into the Bay of Naples to cast their nets before returning to sell their catch in the old market place. The story, all in Italian, was not difficult to follow with the final scene a Sorrentine fiesta. The dancers spilled over from the stage and into the aisles. Now he knew why the audience had been seated to the edges of the blocks rather than in the centre. His toes were tapping, roughly in time with the beat. An attractive woman dancer took position next to him. He didn’t want to make eye contact for fear of being dragged to his feet and proving what a useless dancer he was but the girl’s eyes were full of a fiery vibrancy that had him captivated and then captured. He didn’t want to dance but before he could fend her off he was on his feet and whirling around. Although a fit man Richardson had the dancing ability of a man with two right legs made of iron! However, the girl took control, her firm hold steering him in the right direction like an equestrian would guide a horse. Lights whirled about! Those fiery dark eyes reflected the light in flashes of bright sparkling reds and yellows. The brilliant smile, which could have illuminated the room alone had him mesmerised and he was under her spell. The music stopped. Richardson and the girl faced one another applauding. He effected a bow of sorts, her a low curtsy.
“Grazi, Signor,” she said.
“No,” he replied. “It is I who should thank you.”
He regained his seat and continued clapping until his hands were sore. The audience was then invited to join the cast on the terrace for some champagne. Richardson took his glass and made his way to the railing at the back. Stars twinkled in the sky, lights flickered in and around the bay, the great hulk of Vesuvius slept. He was in a dreamy stupa but he became aware of a woman at his right arm. The sweet fragrance betrayed her presence first. He turned to see the same captivating smile.
“I never tire of this view, Englishman.”
“I understand why,” he confirmed. Indeed, it was breath-taking.
She sipped her wine. “Are you on vacation, Signor?”
“Sort of. I’ve just finished a job in Rome and came down here for a couple of days. The day after tomorrow I will meet up with a cruise ship and disappear.”
The smile changed to a scowl. “That is a shame. Sorrento, it is so beautiful.”
“Yes. I agree,” he said sipping his drink.
“What are you going to do? What do you mean to see?” she enquired, moving closer.
It was a heady cocktail. Hairspray and perfume mixed with her own sweet scent. “I don’t really know,” he said gazing in the direction of the dormant volcano. “I wouldn’t mind going up there.”
“Me as well,” she replied. “I go with you? Tomorrow?”
And, so they went to the top of the mountain and looked back at Sorrento. They went to Pompeii and looked back at Vesuvius from the ruins of the Roman forum. It was a hot and dusty day and the cool shower was as welcome as a rainstorm in a drought.
He returned to the theatre and watched the spectacle all over again. He had the same aisle seat and danced with the same girl. After champagne in the terrace they ate at Augusta’s favourite rooftop restaurant. The following day they wandered through the old town and Richardson got kitted out for the cruise. Case, tux, shoes, shirts, even deck shoes.
The goodbye had to come as sure as the sun would rise in the morning. As inevitable as parting was, the hurt was so painful it gripped him like a vice. Richardson, instinctively, knew he had found the woman he was going to share the rest of his life with. They had been together for a paltry two days but he knew, it was like blundering into a huge rock on a country lane, you couldn’t move it and you couldn’t go round it. He had never before felt like this, yet they weren’t even lovers. He knew there was room on the ship for her for Jonah had turned down an invite to cruise quoting his young age as a barrier. Augusta declined the offer, pragmatically, putting contract before love. Not instead of love She had assured him for her heart would dance for him every night until they were together again.
They watched the tender bouncing its way across the bay from the ship. They held one another. He promised her he would return later in the summer. She promised him she was already counting the days. The parting kiss was not even a kiss of parting lovers. The tender chopped its way back to the ship. He could still return with it or the distance was still swimmable and he could throw himself in the sea and make his way back to her arms. He stared at her image on the screen of his mobile. No-one noticed the teardrop from an eye of granite fall on the picture.
All it was now was a sweet memory.
“Ah. There you are.” It was the loud and slightly tipsy Mrs Lowbender. “The waiter said you were out here. I’ve been lookin’ for ya.”
“OH!” was all the acknowledgement he could muster.
“My word!” Mrs Lowbender exclaimed pointing at the bow of the ship with her wine glass, the contents of which were sloshing from side-to-side. “The pointy bit!”
“That’s the bow,” he corrected with heavy disdain.
“Will you do me the honour, Curtly?” she slurred.
“Honour?” he queried. Like throw you overboard, he thought. After all, it would make the rest of the cruise more pleasant.
“Let me climb up like the woman in Titanic.”
Innocent enough, he thought, but he was keen not to indicate there was any chance of it going any further. “If you must.”
“I must,” she insisted before taking a none too straight line to the pointy bit and climbed up on the railing. “Hold me, Curt. Hold me real tight.”
Seeing how precarious her actions were he held his arms around her podgy middle. She extended her arms out like a floundering bird trying to take off. Then, she started to sing! Apart from it being out of tune, lacking melody and being the wrong song altogether, it was perfect!
“Everything I do, I do it for you,” she blurted.
He didn’t have the heart to tell her it was the wrong theme.
His mobile phone rang in his trouser pocket and he was suddenly forced to juggle his grip on the cut-price Kate Winslett whilst fumbling for the phone. He glanced at the screen. It was Duncan, then pressed the answer button. “Duncan. How are you?”
He lowered Mrs Lowbender to the deck loosening his grip as he did so. An unexpected wave sent her sprawling to the floor like a freshly landed fish with legs; much as she tried to coerce her legs to stability there was no reaction.
“Fine. Thank you,” replied the Technical Chief of the UK Home Security Team. The only person Duncan Cobbold answered to was the Home Secretary. He could never be brought before Parliament to answer for his actions for one single reason: officially, the Home Security Team did not exist. All of its operatives were paid by their former employers. In the case of Curtly Richardson, Hampshire Police; Michael Jones, the SAS.
“Good. I hope this is a social call but I suspect not?”
“Very perceptive. You should go far.”
“Ha! Bloody ha!” Richardson watched his companion regain her unsteady feet.
Cobbold went on to explain that Sean Bryant had been abducted. by whom they weren’t sure. Randolph Soames was the only one in the frame at present but most were agreed that the means by which the kidnapping was carried out was well above the Soames station.
Soames, however, was also on the missing list as was the other surviving gang member, Stephen Patrick. Cobbold had reviewed the CCTV tapes from the Echo and Post and was convinced it was not Soames and Patrick but they needed to be found and eliminated from enquiries.
Cobbold went on to brief Richardson about what he expected him and Jones to do. A Sea King was already on its way from Brindisi and should be over the Legend in less than forty minutes.
“I’d better pack my bags.”
“Don’t worry about that. Just get changed out of that penguin suit!”
“It’s above you. Pretty amazing, isn’t it? Borrowed it from our American friends.”
Richardson involuntarily looked into the heavens.
“Nice smile! Who’s your friend by the way?”
Richardson turned to Mrs Lowbender who was now managing to stand unaided. “Esther. Give my friend, Duncan, a wave.”
Mrs Lowbender wore a puzzled look. Richardson pointed skywards. She looked upwards! He waved at the empty darkness and, after a further moment of confusion, so did Mrs Lowbender. Her legs immediately gave way as another wave moved her centre of gravity and she hit the deck like a blancmange falling off a table.
Richardson, hearing Cobbold chuckling down the line, ended the call before bending to help his unwanted admirer.
“Have you got any of that stuff left?” she slurred again. “It must be good.”
Richardson bade farewell to his sea-captain friend giving him assurances that there was nothing in his luggage that would embarrass the upright sailor. He changed into black jeans and black polo shirt before making his way up the central spiral staircase and out onto the aft of Deck Eight. Bathgate had slowed the ship to a couple of knots and before long the whirring, chopping sound of the aircraft’s blades could be heard. The yellow monster hovered above the stern deck. Richardson climbed into the harnass dangling on the end of the winch-rope and, to the astonishment of the passengers who had gathered at the commotion, was whisked away into the night-sky. Esther Lowbender ordered some more wine.
Richardson touched down at RAF Wattisham in Suffolk in the early hours after a two-and-a-half hour flight from Brindisi. Michael Jones was there to meet him.
“Hey, Jonah. I can’t say it’s nice to see you but here I am anyway!”
The smiles exchanged were warm. Jones tossed his partner the car keys. Richardson gunned the engine , heading for the sleepy Suffolk village of Oakshott, no more than five miles away. After a short stop at a rented house Jones acquainted Richardson with the area. Roads in, roads out, woods, streams, that sort of thing.
Richardson dropped Jones off and after allowing him a few minutes to gain position posing as a farmer testing a cereal crop drove off. He went past the church on the left followed by a small farm, open fields on the right. The Bryant home, an attractive two storey house with garage, was next on the left. Richardson continued along Church Road to the village. A woman was walking towards him on the opposite side of the road. Well, I never, he thought. Is that who I think it is? Richardson bent to get a better look at Amelia Bryant as he drove up to her and beyond her. Eye contact was made. All that was reflected back was cold fear. He glanced at his driver’s side wing mirror and watched the woman break into a jog.