Authors: Ken McClure
Other Titles by Ken McClure
Twenty years ago I wrote a book called
, a medical thriller which did not have a happy ending. In fact, there was a marked absence of scones with jam and cream, and certainly no lashings of ginger beer. Good did not triumph over evil. This has led to my being asked many times, what happened next? Although
is not a sequel to
, Steven Dunbar does have cause to revisit the events of that time and answer some of these questions.
Melissa Carlisle, daughter of Lord and Lady Pennington and wife of John Carlisle MP, looked at her husband across the breakfast table as if she were examining something she’d just trodden on. When it came to expressing extreme distaste, the upper classes were a breed apart. Melissa had been born with the ability to look down her nose, as her husband – from more modest, middle-class roots – knew only too well.
‘Tell me it isn’t true,’ she said in a flat monotone, taking care to enunciate every syllable slowly and clearly.
‘What isn’t, dear?’ Carlisle brushed his thinning fair hair back from his brow in a nervous gesture that caused his wife to tighten her expression even more.
she mimicked. ‘The story in the
this morning … about your expenses claim for a mortgage that doesn’t exist on a second home you don’t have. That’s what.’
Carlisle moved uncomfortably in his seat, as if his trousers were filling with ants. ‘Well?’
‘It’s obviously some sort of misunderstanding, an
cock-up somewhere along the line.’
‘You mean this imaginary house belongs to someone else?’
‘Well, no, not exactly … You must remember I was thinking about getting a flat in London to be nearer the House …’
‘We live forty-five minutes from London and you’re never in the bloody House. Are you seriously saying that you claimed for a mortgage on a flat you were
‘A simple error of judgement. I must have looked into the costs involved, written it down somewhere on a bit of paper and somehow it got into my expenses claim. An oversight, plain and simple … easily done. My God, I’m only human.’
Melissa stared at her husband for a full ten seconds. ‘You disgust me.’
‘Look, Melissa, it was a genuine mistake. You must see that. I’m sure that they’ll see that too …’
‘God, Daddy was right. He warned me at the time that all the nonsense about you being a future leader of the party was bullshit. He said you were nothing more than a blond,
puppet set up to pull in the faithful in the shires while someone else was putting words in your mouth and pulling the strings all along. And here I am, seventeen years down the line, married to a greedy, vacuous slug whose career has gone
every step of the way … like his looks. You’re going to be flung out of the party over this, you cretin. What are you going to do then?’
‘Look, I understand you’re upset, old girl, but it was a genuine mistake,’ Carlisle insisted. ‘But if the worst came to the worst and the truth were to be swallowed up in some gutter press frenzy – they really are the bloody limit, you know, the press, scum the lot of them – maybe … Well, I was thinking … just maybe your father could bung a directorship or two my way? Just to tide us over?’
‘You couldn’t direct traffic in a one-way street.’
leadership material,’ said Carlisle, accepting that he wasn’t going to win Melissa round and starting to bristle under the verbal onslaught. ‘My time as health secretary was very successful. Everyone says so. I was stabbed in the back … but I know things, things I never mentioned at the time. They owe me.’
‘You weren’t stabbed in the back. You lost the bloody election because of what you and your venal pals were up to and you’ve been out of power for thirteen years over it. And now, just when people might have forgotten, you pop up with a mortgage that never was. Christ, the leader’s going to nail you to a tree over this … if the voters don’t get to you first.’
‘I was set up, I tell you … but I know things.’
Melissa got up. ‘I’m going away for a few days. The thought of having to play the dutiful wife at the garden gate when the hyenas arrive turns my stomach.’
She left the room, slamming the door and leaving Carlisle alone with his thoughts. They owed him: it was time to call in a few favours. Puppet, indeed. He’d see about that. He started reading the
article, the nervous mannerism of playing with what was left of his hair becoming more and more pronounced. ‘Bastards … utter bastards. This country’s at war and all these bastards can do is go on about a few measly quid and a genuine mistake.’
He finished reading and flung the paper across the room. He picked up the telephone and started dialling friends. Strangely, they were all unavailable.
The Englishman pushed a fifty-euro note into the taxi driver’s hand and got out. He remained oblivious of the smiles and mercis resulting from such a generous tip after only a five-minute ride from the Métro station at Orléans, and looked up at the street signs. Seeing
Rue de Bagneux
on one of them, he relaxed and took out a card from his overcoat pocket, memorising the numbers on it before getting his bearings from nearby doors. He walked on for twenty metres or so before crossing the street to punch four buttons on the entry panel of number
. A prolonged buzz followed by a heavy double click heralded the appearance of a two-centimetre gap. So far so good.
He found flat four on the second floor, above the lawyer and the dentist who occupied the two apartments on the first. There was no name on the door but there was a bell so he rang it and put his briefcase down between his feet, loosening his
cashmere scarf while he waited. The door was opened by another Englishman, more portly and a full head shorter than the newcomer, but about the same age, somewhere in his mid to late fifties. ‘So you found us then. Welcome.’
The new arrival was shown into a large, square, tastefully furnished room with four three-metre-high windows looking out to the north which, on a grey day in February, failed to let in much light. They got help from several elegant standard lamps placed at strategic intervals round the room.
‘Good to see you again,’ he said, recognising the five people sitting on sofas facing each other on either side of a marble
with a coal fire burning in it. Four were men in their fifties, three of them big names in UK business, the fourth a high-level British civil servant. The fifth person was a
woman in her late sixties whose complexion proclaimed the downside of a lifelong love affair with the sun.
‘As such things go these days.’
‘Remind me: how did you come?’
‘Air France. Birmingham to Charles de Gaulle.’
‘Good. Antonia came up from her holiday place in La Motte near Saint-Raphaël. Nigel and Neil were already in Paris on business and Christopher came via Zurich. Giles drove over from Bruges after catching the overnight ferry from Scotland.’
‘The short straw,’ said the driver.
‘It says something when we can’t even risk meeting in our own country,’ said the newcomer.
The host gave an apologetic shrug. ‘I’m probably being
, but my feeling is that we can’t be too careful after what happened back in the early nineties. We were damned lucky to walk away from that particular debacle although we did lose Paul in the process.’
Sherry was poured into seven crystal schooners and handed round before he continued, ‘I’d like to welcome you all to the first full meeting in many years of the executive committee of the Schiller Group. It’s good to be back – albeit in some bizarre surroundings.’ He turned to the newcomer. ‘We are also very pleased to welcome our new member to the executive committee. We have all, of course, followed his progress through the ranks of our organisation as well as watching him achieve success in his own career.’
The man nodded his appreciation.
‘Executive membership of our group comes, of course, with responsibilities. You will now be one of only seven people with comprehensive knowledge of our organisation and its
, one of only seven people carrying the hopes and dreams of our ordinary members for a better nation.’ He handed him a computer disk. ‘This must never fall into the wrong hands.’
‘Once again, I’m deeply honoured.’
‘And so to business. An election looms at home and we must be ready to do our bit for our country. Thirteen long years in the New Labour wilderness has seen it descend into chaos and become a broken wreck of what it once was. Fortunately, change is on the cards.’
‘It’s not going to be easy,’ said one of the group. ‘They’ve turned the place into a land fit for the weak, the ignorant and the deviant, and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, we’re keeping open house for the sweepings of the streets of Europe and beyond. Everybody’s welcome in dear old Blighty and bring your bloody family with you.’
‘More than a decade wasted in the celebration of image over substance.’
‘Which all the polls suggest is about to end,’ interjected the newcomer. ‘And presumably why we’re here?’
‘We’re not home and dry yet,’ the host cautioned. ‘The electorate may be totally disillusioned with Brown and his cronies but they’re still deeply suspicious of the alternatives. We should be all right if we maintain a steady course with no rising to the bait and no silly distractions in the next few months, but there’s little margin for error. On the other hand, the criminal aspect of the expenses scandal seems to be hitting Labour worse than anyone else, and if those in question should get away with a defence of parliamentary privilege … well, they’ll have to dig Brown out with a shovel.’
‘One of ours is involved.’
‘From the other house. Not quite the same as the brown paper bags that did for us last time.’
‘I almost feel sorry for Brown,’ said the woman. ‘Blair left him an impossible mess to clear up and he’s not exactly been helping himself. King Midas in reverse if ever I saw it.’
‘Everything he touches …’ agreed the host. There was a slight lull in the proceedings before he went on, ‘It’s clear that none of us underestimates the magnitude of our task but, as Confucius said, “A journey of ten thousand miles begins with but a single step.” And so to specifics. All of us have now had a chance to study our new colleague’s proposal and I for one would like to express my admiration for the amount of time and ingenuity that has clearly gone into the design of such a project.’
The hear hears from the others were muted.
‘But it’s too risky,’ said one.
‘There was nothing wrong with the original scheme,’ said the woman. ‘It was working perfectly well. It was just bad luck that that damned journalist popped up at the wrong time and ruined everything. We’ll just have to be more careful this time.’
A long and at times heated argument ensued, at the end of which the host said, ‘It’s now decision time, ladies and gentlemen. Do we adopt our new colleague’s bold project or do we make another attempt at going down the road we started on back in the early nineties?’
The newcomer sighed in frustration as the vote went
‘I’m sorry,’ said the host. ‘Tried and trusted it is.’
‘Democracy in action,’ replied the newcomer with a wry grin.
The host broke open two bottles of Krug champagne and they drank a toast to ‘a better future for our country’.
The last to arrive was the first to leave. He shook the hands of each in turn and kissed the silver-haired woman on both cheeks. He stopped his host from getting up. ‘Really, Charles, I’ll see myself out.’
‘Good chap,’ said one as he heard the outer door close. ‘Took it well, I thought.’
‘Bit forgetful though,’ said the host, suddenly noticing something beside the chair the newcomer had been sitting on. ‘He’s left his briefcase.’
‘Maybe we should be having second thoughts,’ someone joked.
The explosion cut short the laughter.
From the corner of the street, the newcomer watched a sheet of yellow flame erupt through the space where the windows had been as glass showered down on the Rue de Bagneux. He took out his mobile phone and made the call. ‘It’s out with the old,’ he said.
‘And in with the new,’ came the reply.