IV. Thoroughly Thought Through

Simon Cotter arrived in England by private plane in the autumn of 1999. His reputation for financial adventuring preceded him.

There was not an. ambitious young person in Europe who did not want to catch the attention of this remarkable buccaneer. No one rode the dot.com bubble harder, funding young, energetic and ambitious dreamers whose ventures, when floated on the European technology exchanges, made opening valuations that caused the eyes of seasoned traders to pop. Some said that the swollen, iridescent membrane of e-commerce would soon burst, but for the moment no one was soaring higher than Simon Cotter of CotterDotCom. The doomsayers insisted that the balloon was given its stratospheric lift by hot air and that the world was growing giddy with altitude sickness. The faithful maintained that the venture was fired by a true spirit of innovation and enterprise and would last beyond the lifetime of the sceptics.

Cotter was not yet forty, but the gossip had it that he owned twenty-five million for every year of his life. A website tracked his estimated fortune against the fluctuation of the markets, one day in October it showed him earning four million pounds sterling in just eight hours of trading. The Man of the Millennium had arrived and, to the excitement of the British press, he was about to make his home in England, the land – some claimed – of his birth.

He was unmarried and said to exude a magnetic appeal that had men and women alike gasping and moaning with admiration. Cynics asserted that a dead sea-slug with that kind of money and power would radiate charisma and sex-appeal. That isn’t necessarily so, it was pointed out to them – look at Bill Gates. Not all that is gold, glitters.

That no one knew where Simon Cotter had come from with such indecent speed added greatly to his mystery. One moment the world was Cotter free, the next he was bigger than Harry Potter. Poems were written on that very subject, taking advantage of the happy accident of the rhyme.

The man was rumoured to be able to speak nine languages and play an unbeatable game of backgammon. The French believed that he was French, but the Germans, Italians and Austrians also claimed him for their own. The Swiss pointed to his head offices outside Geneva, not five kilometres from where the World Wide Web itself had been devised and declared Cotter to be Swisser than a yodel. Others tapped the sides of their noses and whispered gravely about the Russian mafia, Colombian cartels and other dark and dangerous corners of the world. Geneva might be the birthplace of the World Wide Web, they said, but it was also the world’s financial laundromat. Where there’s brass, there’s muck, they said. It can’t last, they said. It’s brightest just before the dusk, they said. Wiser heads were silent and disdained to take any notice of the mutter in the gutter. Talk it was that pushed prices up and talk that pulled them down again. Any fool could talk. Prattle and tattle were cheap and getting cheaper. What was this telephony revolution, with its faxes, pagers, cellular and satellite phones, email, intranets and real-time video-conferencing but a cheap and faster way to chatter and gossip and jabber? If it was more than that, then it could keep for the moment. Give us time to think, they said. We who wait on the platform may arrive later than those that jump aboard the speeding train, but we’ve a better chance of a good seat and a restful journey. We get there in the end, sounder in wind and limb. Only bandwagons are to be jumped upon, and bandwagons always crash at the first dangerous corner.

Cotter too kept his own counsel. His spokesmen would announce with great puff and pizzazz the latest bright young venture that CDC was funding and he might from time to time attend the launch of a favoured new dot.com enterprise in person, but the Robespierre of the Digital Revolution himself gave no interviews and threw out no theories for the world to chew over and tear apart. With his dark hair, his beard and the sunglasses that never left his face, the press had other nicknames for him too. The CyberSaviour they called him and the Jesus of Cool.

When he did, uncharacteristically, reveal to a London financial journalist at one of his company launches in Lausanne that he would soon be coming home, England sighed with pleasure and pride. He was immediately offered tickets to the Dome for Millennial Eve, the membership of four clubs, accounts with a dozen tailors and the opportunity to be interviewed on Channel Four by Chris Evans. This last offer he turned down.

‘I’m really so uninteresting,’ he emailed to the producer. ‘You’d be much better off with somebody else. Believe me, I’d only bore you.’

He was not believed and the crush of press waiting to meet him at Heathrow would have gratified a pop star.

Amongst the Britons who watched the footage and listened to the comment and analysis that spilled out in the media over the next few weeks were many who sat down immediately to compose letters to him, explaining their ideas for world-beating new internet sites or simply begging for money, employment or a charitable donation.

The reactions of three different individuals are of particular interest, however.

Ashley Barson-Garland MP, QC, had recently won the curious Commons lottery that gives the right to backbenchers to try and push their own Private Member’s Bill through parliament. Barson-Garland had been very keen to sponsor new legislation that would prove his party’s commitment to the family. He knew that in the next election, whenever it came, each party would attempt to represent itself as the true champion of Family Values. He believed that, since his party was almost certain to lose that election, he could do himself a great deal of good by making a name for himself as the Tories’ most prominent spokesman for the Family Agenda. When the dust of defeat had settled and the present leader had gone, as go he must, the Tories would look to someone like Ashley to lead them to victory in 2005, which he had for so long marked down as the year that would see him installed in Downing Street.

The Bill he had drafted called for the strictest laws yet on the control of the internet. All British Service Providers would be held accountable in law for any unseemly traffic that passed through their pipelines. Barson-Garland called for an all-embracing firewall to be built around the island to keep the British family safe from the ‘tide of filth’ that threatened to ‘engulf’ the ‘young and vulnerable’ and other ‘at-risk members of the community’. (He had long ago overcome any scruples about using clich?s. They worked. For some extraordinary reason, they worked and only a fool would consider himself above their use.) Under the terms of his proposed Internet Service Providers Act, an independent agency would be set up arid given the right to sweep all email randomly, much as police had the right to point speedguns at road traffic. Anyone who opposed such legislation might regard themselves as a friend of liberty, but Barson-Garland would demonstrate that in reality they were nothing less than enemies of the Family. Only those with suspect agendas or something to hide could possibly object to the purification of cyberspace. Ordinary, decent, law-abiding citizens would welcome such a move.

He did not expect his Bill to be passed into law, Private Members’ Bills almost always failed, but it was a way to plant a (patriotic) flag in the territory of family and to ‘force the agenda’. The Labour government already attempted to prove its family credentials by talking of family tax credits, child income allowances and other mechanisms that provoked yawns even from those who benefited directly from them. With his Bill, Barson-Garland had staked a claim that would force New Labour to play or pay. If they opposed him, he could make great political capital of their folly.

The middle-class tabloids were already on his side. Ashley Barson-Garland’s Great National Firewall appealed to the ‘instincts’ (as they preferred to call bigotry and prejudice) of the ‘vast majority’ who worried about ‘bogus’ asylum-seekers and ‘rampant’ Euro federalism. What was the internet after all, but backdoor cultural immigration of the most pernicious kind? Children (children for heaven’s sake!) were at the mercy of homosexual propagandists, anti-capitalist rioters, drug dealers and perverts. Thank God a man like Ashley Barson-Garland was standing up to all this. His Internet Service Providers Bill, all in all, ‘pressed the right buttons’ and ‘sent the right signals’.

This evening, this hero of ordinary decent law-abiding citizens was watching a BBC special on the ‘Dot Coin Phenomenon’ chiefly in order to see how much of what he had said in an interview to the producers of the programme had been cut, mangled in meaning or entirely omitted. When footage of Simon Cotter appeared he laughed contemptuously at the accompanying hyperbolic journalese, but his ears pricked up at the reports that Cotter was coming home to England. He opened his laptop, keyed in his password and made an instant note in his journal.

Like Winston Churchill, I find that sometimes it is enough just to read or hear ‘patriotism’ ‘England’ or ‘home’ for tears to spring to my eyes. I believe that ‘senile lability’ is the phrase for it. In my case it seems to have come early. What a turnaround … as a teenager, my prick used to twitch and leak at the mere sight of words like ‘youth’ and ‘boy’. In middle age ‘family’, ‘hearth’ and ‘country’ are the words that jump from the page and it is my eyes that do the twitching and leaking. Different symptoms of the same sickness, no doubt…

This Simon Cotter interests me. He has not nailed his colours to the mast. He thrives on enterprise and must perforce be a natural Tory, for all his hippy-happy appearance. Now that the glamour of New Labour is wearing thin he must be caught and cultivated. It is probable that he will instinctively see my bill as a threat. If I ask to see him however … suggest that I value his input, am anxious to consult all interested parties, canvas all views, hear all opinions, weigh all options, include not exclude, etc. etc., he may be flattered into some sort of cooperation. What a catch he would be.

Ashley closed the lid and looked up at the television screen once more. His Private Member’s Bill was being discussed. Some lank-haired millionaire yob in a tee-shirt was accusing Barson-Garland of trying to create a sterilised intranet that would cut Britain off from the rest of the world.

‘Cyberspace is like a giant city,’ the scrofulous oaf insisted in vowels that made Ashley wince and an intonation that rose at the end of every sentence as if everything this poltroon said were a question. ‘Along with the shopping centres, galleries, museums and libraries, it’s got its slums and red-light districts. Sure. That’s true in Amsterdam, New York, Paris, Berlin and London. It’s not true in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia or Montgomery, Alabama. Where would we rather live, London or Riyadh? Amsterdam or Alabama? Think about it, yeah? Wherever there’s freedom, you’ll find sex, drugs and rock and roll. The internet’s no different.’

Ashley snorted with derision. ‘And wherever there are sex, drugs and rock and roll,’ he said, ‘you will find desolated communities, dysfunctional families and moral wastelands befouled by gibbering nonentities like you.’

He was pleased with that and added it to his diary entry for the day.

Rufus Cade let himself into the flat and flopped onto a sofa.

‘I’m getting too fucking old for this,’ he told himself with a heavy sigh.

He could see the answering machine light flashing and ignored it. Probably Jo, Jane or Julie moaning about money. Why couldn’t he have married a girl whose name didn’t begin with a J? Just for once in his life at least. Given it a try. Lucy at the office, she was a good girl. A good girl and a damned good shag and all. Zoл too. And Dawn. They didn’t threaten him with court orders and solicitor’s letters. They called him ‘Roofy’ and teased him about his weight. In his next life he’d run a mile before speaking to any Js. Whining bitches the lot of them. School fees, health insurance, holidays. Every child, he thought furiously as he tapped out the last of his coke onto the glass-topped coffee table, every last sodding child has to have work done on their fucking teeth. Some bastard in Soho has decided that braces are now cool and there isn’t a teenager in the land without expensive multi-coloured metalwork wired across their front fucking snappers. Bollocks to the lot of them.

He picked up a newspaper. A new-laid pubescent dot.com millionaire grinned out from the front page, acne flaring.

‘Cunts,’ muttered Rufus. ‘How the fuck do they do it?’ Rufus had sent Michael Jackson, Madonna, Marilyn Monroe and the Prince of Wales to the launch of another new e-commerce company (e-tailers they called themselves now, ho, fucking ho) at the Business Design Centre just the week before. For some reason the people behind the launch – CotterDotCom, who bloody else? – had asked Rufus to turn up too, which had annoyed and puzzled him. He had better things to do than watch Madonna spilling wine and Michael Jackson having his hair pulled by drunken journalists. Why the hell did they want him there? He could hardly argue with them. Who pays the piper calls the tune and all that, and CDC paid better than anyone. Most people thought his agency was already over the hill (too eighties, sweetie, so vieux chapeau) which meant that the imprimatur of a hot shop like CDC took on special value. Rufus would have jumped naked through fiery hoops if they’d demanded it.

He had stood like a fat lemon watching his models move around the room with drinks and canap?s. He listened to a presentation that bored and irritated him and he got drunk. Mind you, he did score, so it wasn’t entirely a wasted morning. Come to think of it, he reminded himself, checking his watch, John should be here soon.

Weirdest thing. Just coming out of the cubicle after a nice toot and there’s this big fat old guy combing his hair in the mirror.

– Got some more if you want it.

– More what? Unlikely he would be law, but better safe than sorry.

– If you’re not interested, no worries. Very pure, very cheap. Try a line.

The guy hands me a wrap, just like that. Incredible. And fuck me, was it ever wild gear. Whooh! Nearly blows my fucking head off.

– How much? I ask, coming back out of the crapper, eyes watering, heart pumping like a locomotive.

– Fifty a gram.

Fifty. I mean, what? It was sixty fifteen years ago. Fifty. There’s got to be a catch.

– Come on, man. What’s the catch?

– Need you to take an ounce at a time. Got to get it off my hands.

– Look, I don’t have much cash on me at the moment.

– Got a card?

– You’re kidding. Thought for a second he meant a credit card. Oh, right. I give him my business card.

– Faces? What’s that then?

– Model agency, the waiting staff out there. They’re mine.

– The look-alikes?

– We call them featured stand-ins in the business.

– Yeah, right. Look-alikes. And there’s me thinking that really was Prince Charles. The name’s John. Give us a call.

And off he goes, leaving me with over two grams in the wrap which he doesn’t even ask for back. Don’t remember much more of that day, I can tell you. And next day a whole ounce for only five hundred and fifty quid. That soon went, twenty-eight grams in five days. Thirty grams if you include the initial freebie. You’re burning the candle at both ends and the middle, Rufus.

The door-bell chimed and he got up from the sofa and went over to the entry-phone.

‘John.’

‘Oh hi. Come on up.

By the time John had got to the top of the stairs his face was streaked in sweat and he was wheezing like a perished accordion.

‘Christ,’ he gasped. ‘Haven’t you heard of lifts?’

‘Mm, sorry about that, mate.’

The flat was on the second floor but even Rufus, flabby, overweight and unfit as he was, could usually manage it without heaving and panting like a dying walrus.

‘Get you a voddie?’

‘Nah, I’m driving.’

Rufus poured one for himself and watched, out of the corner of his eye, as John took a baggie from his pocket and dropped it on the coffee table.

‘Chop one for yourself,’ said Rufus.

‘I’ll love you and leave you, mate.’

Oh, such bliss. So many dealers liked to hang around. Worse still, so many stayed at home and forced you to visit. It was the part of drug life that Rufus most hated. The enforced pretence of matiness. If you want a pork chop, all you have to do is go into a butcher’s shop, he reasoned. You order and walk out with the fucking thing in a bag. No chit-chat, no shit. No ‘cheers mate’. Visit a dealer for a supply of charlie on the other hand, and you’re in for an hour of droning views on music, sport, politics, genetically modified crops and the evils of the World Bank. A sensitive social dance had to be danced, to show that you didn’t think of the guy as a servant or social inferior. You had to pretend that the whole transaction had something to do with friendship and mutual studenty Bohemian cool. It was a relief that he got none of that bullshit from John.

Still, he thought, it would be nice to see him take a line just once. Just to show that he did. Dealers who didn’t use always made Rufus nervous and guilty.

‘Can I ask you something?’ John said as he stood in the doorway, ready to leave. He looked a little nervous.

‘Sure. Ask away.

‘You don’t fancy coming in with me on something bigger, do you?’

‘Bigger?’

‘It’s my brother, see. He keeled over with a heart attack a couple of weeks ago …

‘Oh, bummer,’ Rufus said. ‘I am sorry.’ And you’ll soon be following him, he added to himself. Not so much a gene pool, more a lard pool.

‘No, it’s not that. He was a streak of fucking piss as it goes. Couldn’t stand the sight of him. Only, fact is, he didn’t have no family besides me and I’ve inherited five kilos of his bleeding gear and I don’t know how to shift it. Found it in a cupboard when I was clearing his flat out.’

‘John, I’d love it. Believe me, I’d love it, it’s great gear but I don’t deal. I wouldn’t know where to begin.’

‘No, what I’m saying is that I heard tell of some guys up in Stoke Newington who might be in the market. Turkish boys. Thought you could come up with me and help push it through. I’d go sixty-forty with you.’

‘If you already know who these people are, why do you need me?’

‘Well, I don’t want to get ripped off. You, you’re a businessman, you’ve got the public school accent and all that, touch of class. They wouldn’t dare do the dirty on someone like you. Someone like me, they’d probably just take the stuff and dump me in an alley, you know what I mean?’

‘Sixty-forty?’

‘Yeah. Reckon that’s fair.’

Rufus did some reckoning of his own. A kilo is a thousand grams. Fifty thousand quid. Five fives are twenty-five, so that’s a quarter of a million. Forty percent of quarter a million is … one hundred thousand. A hundred grand. A hundred grand.

‘You’re on,’ he said. ‘What kind of people are they?’

‘Well, they’re not boy scouts. They’re drug dealers, aren’t they? But business is business, I reckon. How’s Thursday night for you? I’ll give ‘em a bell and set it up. I can come and pick you up and we’ll drive there together.’

They shook on the deal and, as John waddled slowly down the stairs, Rufus sat down on the sofa and breathed out long and slow. A hundred grand. A hundred fucking grand.

With a hundred grand he could set up an international agency on the web. Look-alikes, singing telegrams, party events. He could have girls and boys across the globe, hired electronically. They would pay a registration fee, he would get them work. With his hundred grand he could design a ritzy pitch, artwork, dummy website, financial projections – the works. He’d take it to CotterDotCom and blow their minds with it. Might even get to meet the great Messiah himself.

Rufus dipped the corner of a credit card into the bag and dug out the biggest bump he’d ever sniffed in his life.

Breakfast time at the Fendemans’ was a confused affair that transcended age and gender expectations. Gordon ate nothing, but tried a different coffee or tea every day, Portia tucked into bacon, sausages and eggs and Albert, on the rare occasions he breakfasted at all, would eat nothing more than a slice of toast.

There were reasons for this. Albert rarely had appetite in the mornings. Anything that took him from his room and his computers he considered a waste of time. He had once spilled a cup of coffee over a USB hub and on another occasion the entire contents of a glass of orange juice had destroyed a printer. Portia, on the other hand, had discovered a new high protein diet. It was a regime that involved such a low intake of carbohydrates that she would check her urine each day with diabetic testing sticks to see how many ketones her body was leaking, much to the affectionate derision of her family. Gordon sampled different teas and coffees every day because tea and coffee constituted his trade. He usually spat the coffee out because he had inherited his father’s weak heart and the specialist disapproved of him ingesting caffeine. Java the cat ate whatever was going, but preferred pilchards in tomato sauce because he was peculiar.

On this particular morning however, Gordon was making a terrific mess in the kitchen because he had decided to experiment with cocoa. The fine powder was being transferred from surface to surface and from fingertips to finger-tips, which was causing panic.

‘Where’s my carbohydrate counter?’ Portia wailed.

‘Dad this stuff is getting everywhere,’ complained Albert, coming into the kitchen and spreading his hands out in front of Gordon’s face. ‘Look at it. The more you try and dust it away, the more it gets ingrained into everything. I’ve got cocoa on my keyboard, cocoa on my screen and cocoa on my mouse.

‘Good lyrics,’ said Gordon, approvingly. ‘Come on, kiddo, it’s only powder. Try this mocha, it’s not bad.’

‘Nineteen grams per hundred!’ gasped Portia. ‘I don’t believe it.’

‘No, hon,’ said Gordon, peering over her shoulder and dripping mocha coffee onto the pages of her book. ‘Those figures are for sweetened cocoa. Unsweetened is only three grams, see?’

‘All the same,’ said Portia crossly, pulling the book away from the drips, ‘you might be more careful.’

‘If you’ve ingested one hundredth of a milligram, I’d be amazed,’ said Gordon. ‘So, child of mine,’ he turned to Albert, who was assiduously scrubbing his hands under the sink. ‘How many hits yesterday?’

‘A new record. Three hundred and twenty-eight. From seven different countries. Not bad, huh?’

‘Not bad,’ conceded Gordon.

‘If only half of them, a quarter even, had placed orders, imagine how much that would be.’

‘We’re doing fine, Albie.’

‘I’m getting emails all the time asking if we sell direct. Every time I have to say no, I feel like we’re losing business.’

‘Selling to the public is a nightmare,’ said Gordon. ‘We’ve got all the supermarkets, let them do the work.’

‘Yeah but Dad, you’ve seen where they stack them. The lowest shelves, no special offers, no targeted advertising, no loyalty tie-ins, nothing.’

Portia went out to the hall to retrieve the newspapers and the post. This was an argument that she had heard a hundred times, ever since Gordon had first employed Albert to create his company website. She believed, with a wife and mother’s loyalty, that they were both right. Maybe the business should embrace e-commerce, as Albert thought. But maybe Gordon had a point too when he argued against the trouble and expense of guaranteeing secure transactions on the net and the added burden of costs that accrued with advertising, shipping and the extra staff who would have to be hired to handle the whole enterprise.

Caf? Ethica, founded by Gordon five years ago with money inherited from Portia’s mother Hillary, had become an enormous success. Gordon was the hero of students, eco-warriors, anti-capitalists and self-styled protectors of the third-world. Ethical Trading was the new big thing and Gordon’s courage in leaving his well-paid job as a successful commodity broker and striking out on his own, dealing direct with peasant farmers and co-operatives from the world’s poorest and most abjectly dependent cash-crop countries had transformed him into one of the country’s favourite businessmen. He had appeared on Question Time and Newsnight and, if he were to become a full British subject, many believed that he would be in line for a knighthood. Portia stayed out of the business and continued to plough her own furrow in academia. Albert had once offered to write web pages for her too, but she had gracefully declined. She found it hard to believe that a site devoted to Sienese tempera would be of much service either to her or to her students.

‘Pornography and a letter for you,’ she said now to her son, returning with the post. ‘Bills of course for us.

Pornography was Portia’s name for Albert’s preferred reading matter. Almost every day a different computer or web publishing magazine would hit the doormat and he would disappear with it into his bedroom, emerging several hours later with flushed cheeks and a faraway look in his eyes. If only the magazines really were pornography, she sometimes thought, wistfully. At least sex was something that she understood. The free CDs that came with the magazines filled the house. Portia, who liked to turn her hand to anything artistic to remind herself that she wasn’t just a dry professor and writer of obscure and expensive books, had created a number of amusing installations from them. There was a table whose top was constructed of nothing but America On Line giveaway disks, sealed in with perspex. There were silvery mobiles and sculptures all over the house. On her desk she had a number of stacks all glued together which she used as pen holders. In the kitchen they did service as coasters and place mats.

Albert, standing by the toaster, gave a gasp when he opened his single letter.

‘I don’t fucking believe it,’ he said, passing it to Gordon. ‘No, hang on. You don’t touch it till you’ve washed your hands. You read it first, Mum.’

Portia took the letter and held it to the window behind the sink. Presbyopia had come early to her. Too many slide shows and too much poring over too many documents in too many dark Tuscan libraries.

The letter was printed on expensive company stationery.

CotterDotCom

Dear Mr Fendeman,

Your name has come to our attention as the author and webmaster of The Caf? Ethica website. As you may know, our company has already acquired a unique name for excellence and innovation in the expanding world of electronic commerce. However, we are constantly looking for bright, imaginative and creative personnel to join us in our mission to continue to forge new businesses on the leading edge of the digital revolution. We believe that you may be just the kind of person we need.

If you are interested in visiting our London offices to discuss helping to set up and lead a new Ethical Trading Division, we would be delighted to talk to you about an employment package which we believe includes the most competitive share options, private health insurance, pension and bonus schemes in the field.

Your confidentiality in this matter would be appreciated.

Yours sincerely

Simon Cotter

Gordon took the letter from Portia.

‘It’s got to be a hoax,’ he said. ‘I mean, with the best will in the world, Albie, someone is pulling your bloody leg.’

‘We’ll see,’ said Albert snatching the letter from his father’s sudsy hands and going over to the telephone.

‘But darling,’ cried Portia. ‘What about Oxford?’ Albert was too busy dialling to pay any attention. They stood and watched as he talked nervously into the telephone. At one point he stood up straighter and Portia noticed that he was blushing slightly.

‘Three o’clock?’ he said. ‘Absolutely. No problem. Three o’clock. I’ll be there. Of course. Absolutely.’

He hung up, a dazed and ecstatic look on his face.

‘Well?’

‘I spoke to him! I actually spoke to him.’

‘You aren’t going to see him?’

‘Are you insane?’ Albert gave his mother a look of amazed disbelief. ‘Of course I’m going to see him! You heard. Three o’clock this afternoon. In his office.’

‘But you will tell him that you’re going to Oxford next October, won’t you? You will make it clear that you can’t even think of long term employment for at least three years.

‘Bugger Oxford. I’ve just spoken to Simon Cotter, Mum. Simon Cotter.’

‘And who’s he? Mother Theresa and Albert Schweitzer all rolled into one? Your education comes first.’

‘This will be my education.’

‘Has he any idea how young you are?’

‘Mum, there are people at CDC still awaiting their second set of teeth. There are millionaires working for Cotter with undescended testicles and training bras.’

‘Well that sounds encouraging, I must say. ‘You know what I mean. I wouldn’t be the youngest person there by a long way.

‘Gordon, tell him.’

Gordon had taken the letter back. Portia felt a wave of something coming from her husband that disturbed her.

Was it irritation? Not envy surely? She was shocked to realise, once the thought had flashed across her mind, that there could be no doubt of it. It was envy. Something in the way his tongue flicked over his lips and his eyes darted so quickly over the letter, as if still looking for proof that it was a hoax, told her that he was, beyond question, jealous of his own son. He was annoyed, he was resentful, he was angry. No one but Portia could have detected it, but it made her stomach turn over to see it.

‘Well now,’ said Gordon, assuming the measured tones of a wise and objective man of the world. ‘If you do go and see him, you make damned sure you don’t agree to anything – anything, without talking it through with us first. If there’s a contract we’ll make sure the company lawyers see it before you even think of signing. These people can be very convincing, very plausible but none the less…’

‘Sure Dad, sure. Jesus!’ Albert flashed a smile at both his parents and skipped from the room, a slice of toast between his teeth.

Oliver Delft hated politicians. Most people profess a dislike that springs from distaste at what they perceive as the hypocrisy, double-dealing and populist vulgarity of the breed. Delft disliked them for almost opposite reasons. It was their grindingly slow moral probity and obsession with ‘accountability’ that maddened him. Accountability in a double sense. Their pettifogging fixation with audits, financial openness and Treasury Rules was as numbingly odious to him as their perpetual nervous glances over the shoulder towards Commons Ethical Committees, “best practice guidelines” and investigative journalists. If a thing was to be done, then surely it should be done without qualms and scruples. Wavering and havering about morality was almost always, in Oliver’s view, the least moral option. He had warned them about Kosovo, Chechnya, Nigeria, East Timor, Zimbabwe, Myanmar – he could name a dozen little local cancers that could have benefited from the quick kindness of invasive surgery but had instead swollen and flourished in the name of ‘ethical foreign policy’ or ‘constructive engagement’ – the politicians had failed to listen and paid the price.

The secret world’s big secret was that it made a profit. This simple and surprising truth had saved Delft’s department from even more ministerial interference than he already suffered. Secrets made money and Britain (especially now that there were no ideological factors to complicate the world and make martyrs and traitors out of intellectuals and fanatics) retained a healthy balance of payments surplus with the rest of the world when it came to her trade in the dark arts. So long as those figures stayed on the right side of the ledger, ministers could be relied upon to allow Delft a freer hand than that enjoyed by any of his successors since the Second World War. Nevertheless, as far as Oliver was concerned, any interference was too much. It is a melancholy fact that shareholders in a company that makes a fat profit are greedier in chasing down every penny than shareholders in a company that breaks even or reports a small loss. Delft had siphoned off over the years enough to guarantee him an opulent retirement, but there was always room for more. For the moment however, his rectitude was beyond question. Every pony for his daughters and every necklace for his wife was bought with honest money from his meagre public salary and dwindling inheritance. That he had made provision for a better life in the future, no one could possibly guess. He was covered. In the meantime however, his surface life continued on its dull and grinding course. Today, for example, was a day of meetings.

He weathered the fortnightly RAM committee with his usual show of patience. The Resource Allocation Module had been the bright idea of a twenty-three-year-old wunderkind from Treasury and Oliver’s private contempt for the fashionable accountancy mechanisms dreamt up by such weird creatures knew no bounds. Old-fashioned double-entry book-keeping with quill and feint-margined foolscap was more secure and less easily manipulated. The RAM, however, used the latest ‘input engines’ and ‘nominal ledgering’ to model the department’s financial behaviour and (more importantly) it boasted its own logo, departmental colour-coding and screensaver. This made it the darling of ministers and entirely proof of criticism.

In a moment of weakness, Oliver had agreed to lunch with Ashley Barson-Garland to talk about his wretched Private Member’s Bill. They met at Mark’s Club in Mayfair. The good taste of the d?cor and the discreet expertise of the staff (‘Good afternoon, Sir Oliver.’ How the hell did they know his name? He needed people like that on his payroll) settled him into a better mood and by the time he had absorbed the menu he was ready to enjoy himself despite the prospect of political company.

Ashley arrived at the upstairs bar two minutes late and spent more than five minutes apologising in what Oliver guessed with a revolted shudder was supposed to be a charming and self-deprecating manner.

Oliver found it reassuring to remind himself that he was actually some six or seven years older than the balding, jowly and unappetising creature blathering beside him. Oliver’s secret vice was vanity. He had an interest in skin-care and male cosmetics that only his wife was aware of and no colleague or underling would ever have guessed at. Pomposity, ambition and bad soap had written themselves indelibly across Ashley’s features, Oliver noticed, much as gin and tropical sun used to print themselves on the complexion in the grand old days of Empire. A course of humectants, exfoliating creams and cell refreshant night masks would go some way to improving general skin tone, but very little could be done to help the folds of double chin and the dull glaze over the eyes. Perhaps these are nature’s way of warning us off, he thought.

‘I see they’ve shown you a menu,’ Barson-Garland said, when the tiresome story of his taxi ride from Westminster to Charles Street had finally wound to an end. ‘As to wines. Shall we go Burgundian? What do you think? There’s a mighty Corton Charlemagne to begin with and I happen to know they have recently added a La Tache that it would surely be madness to pass over.

Oliver was well aware that the only La Tache on the list cost over four hundred pounds a bottle. He suspected that Barson-Garland knew that Oliver would know this. Hum, he thought to himself. Trying to impress me, are you? Trying to soften me up? You in your Old Harrovian tie and Christ Church cufflinks. Jesus God, what kind of man wears college cufflinks?

They moved downstairs from the bar to the dining room. Barson-Garland had ordered a boiled egg crammed with Beluga caviar which he ate with repulsive elegance as he talked.

‘Let me first of all assure you that I am not here to enlist your support for my Bill,’ he said. ‘That would be quite improper. Quite improper. However, as you may be aware, there remains a certain level of confusion about the implications of my proposals both within and without the House. There are those who cast doubt on the Bill’s technical, legal and practical feasibility. It depends, as you know, upon the creation of a new body, something akin to America’s National Security Agency. Our own GCHQ won’t quite answer. I’m sure you agree with me there.’

Oliver moved his head in a manner that might have been interpreted as a nod.

‘Quite so. My proposed agency would have considerable, even awe-inspiring powers. We already have satellites that scan the surface of our world, but I am suggesting an electronic capability that would allow us to scan, as it were, beneath the surface. We have the macrocosm, let us help ourselves to the microcosm. There are those who fear that I am taking, as the Guardian put it only this morning, one hell of a civil liberty.’

Oliver made another non-committal movement of the head. A nauseating vision arose in his head of Barson-Garland pasting his press reviews into an album and sending them to his mother.

‘It seems to me,’ Ashley went on, delicately pressing at the corners of his mouth with a napkin, ‘that I need a trusted figure, someone of irreproachable integrity and proven expertise in the field of security, who is willing to shoulder the responsibility of building such an agency from the ground up. If it were known in the right quarters that a man of the reputation of Sir Oliver Delft might be prepared to take the job on…’ Barson-Garland took a prim sip of wine and let the thought hang.

‘I have not heard anything,’ Oliver said, ‘that leads me to believe that your Bill will meet with success.

‘Naturally not. The Bill will fail. That is axiomatic. We take it as read and move on. The issue will have been laid out, you see. That is the point. The possibility of government having such power within its grasp will have been propounded. The genie, as it were, will be out of the bottle. Such tedious niceties as open debate will have to, ah, take a powder.’

‘I hate to remind you of this, B-G, but you are not in government. You are in opposition.’

‘Oh, as to that,’ Ashley waved his hand, ‘while a week may be a long time in politics, a decade is but a passing breath. The Blessed Margaret already feels like a distant dream, does she not? His Toniness too will disappear into the vacuum history in a twinkling. I am sure you agree with me that it is in the interests of your service to take a longer, more strategic view. My suggestion is that you and I develop an informal relationship. Consider it as a wager on the future. I have no doubt that you have cultivated unpleasantly ambitious politicians like myself before now. You see? I have at least the virtue of self-knowledge.’

‘If I were to suggest to my masters that I do favour the idea of an agency along the lines you have proposed, how would that benefit you?’

‘It would benefit the country,’ said Ashley. ‘That may sound sententious, but I happen to believe it to be true. It would also establish my credentials in the field. Opposition provides few opportunities to do more than talk. The popularity of my bill amongst some journalists and much of the public is one thing, but I need to demonstrate to my party that I am capable of treading my way around the dark and slippery corridors that people like you inhabit without coming an arser. You follow?’

‘Mm,’ said Oliver. ‘I think I do.’ Barson-Garland put him in mind of those poison toads whose heads were said to contain jewels. Ugly and dangerous, to be sure, but offering the possibility of great riches none the less if handled properly.

‘There is nothing unethical about mutual advantage,’ said Ashley, as if reading his thoughts. ‘Quite the reverse, I should say.

‘Do you remember when we first met?’ Oliver asked.

Ashley seemed a little taken aback by the question. ‘Well now, let me see,’ he said, twisting the stem of his wine glass and screwing up his piggy eyes. ‘I pride myself on a fair memory. I fancy it may have been at the Telegraph Christmas party in Brooks’s club. December nineteen eighty-nine.’

‘No, no,’ said Oliver. ‘We met many years before that. You were still a schoolboy.’

A terrible image arose in Ashley’s mind of furtive liaisons in Manchester public lavatories long ago. ‘Really?’ he said with a ghastly attempt at a smile. ‘I’m not sure I quite understand. When and where might that have been?’

The dark crimson flooding Ashley’s face and the flash of fear leaping into his eyes had not escaped Oliver’s attention. ‘Catherine Street,’ he said, watching carefully. ‘You were working for Charles Maddstone. Private secretary, personal assistant, something like that.’

‘Good Lord,’ said Ashley. ‘How clever of you to remember!’

Oliver noted the instant look of relief that replaced Ashley’s initial expression of terror and wished, not for the first time, that he had the power of a J. Edgar Hoover to look more deeply into the lives of his political masters. It seemed that some dark secret lurked in Barson-Garland’s childhood. Oliver wondered if he came from a background that shamed him. Those plummy patrician tones and fifteen hundred pound Savile Row pin stripes were clearly too good to be true. Of course, with a free and unfettered press the resources of an intelligence service were hardly needed. The further Barson-Garland advanced in his career the more the media would uncover for themselves.

‘I am desolated that I do not recall the meeting,’ Ashley said. ‘Sir Charles had many political contacts of course, and I was young and inexperienced … wait a moment!’ Ashley stared at Oliver as the truth dawned. ‘I’ve got you now. You’re Smith! Good God! Smith, you called yourself. Smith! Young as I was I never for a minute believed it was your real name, even then. I’m right, aren’t I? You were Smith.’

Delft inclined his head. ‘The same.’

‘Dear me,’ said Ashley. ‘There’s an odd thing. And what a bad business that was. I don’t believe I’ve thought about it for the past – what – fifteen years? More perhaps. There wasn’t anything…’ he lowered his voice. ‘There’s nothing you can tell me about l’affaire Maddstone that didn’t make the public domain, is there?’

Oliver shrugged. ‘I dare say a river will be dredged one fine day and a skull dug up.’

Ashley nodded wisely. ‘Poor old Ned.’

Their main courses were set down in front of them and the sommelier approached to offer Ashley a taste of the La Tache.

‘The law is profitable, it would seem,’ Oliver remarked dryly. ‘This poor public servant thanks you for such a heady glimpse of the high life.’

Ashley smiled. ‘Tush,’ he said. ‘When it comes to spending money, I am a poor amateur. My wine merchant let slip last week that Simon Cotter has recently given him carte blanche to create the finest cellar in Europe. He has already spent over a million.’

‘Lordy,’ murmured Oliver.

‘That’s not the most amazing part of it. The man has never been seen drinking anything other than milk.’

‘Milk?’

‘Milk,’ said Ashley. ‘As a matter of fact, I am to be granted an audience with him tomorrow. If he offers me milk I think I may scream and go into spasm.

‘He has need of a lawyer?’

‘No, no. I’m sounding him out. His political affiliations are unknown. In fact,’ continued Ashley with a meaning look, ‘his whole life seems to be shrouded in mystery.’

‘I can’t help you there, I’m afraid,’ Oliver said, rightly interpreting the look as a plea for information. ‘We don’t have so much as his date of birth on file.’

‘Ah, you’ve looked then?’

‘Naturally we’ve looked. We know as much about him as you do. If anything comes up of course …

Oliver was prepared to let Ashley believe that the intelligence services were at his disposal. It was, after all, perfectly possible that the Conservatives were just insane enough to elect him as their leader one day. Money would have to be spent on image consultancy, of course. Not to mention dermatological treatment. But wasn’t Barson-Garland divorced? That wouldn’t do. Spokesmen for the family should be happily married. No, it was nothing more than a separation, Oliver recalled, and not yet picked up on by the press. She was the daughter of an earl, if he remembered rightly. Not quite the populist touch that the Conservative Party craved these days. On the other hand, it would never do to underestimate the snobbery of the Great British Electorate. They preferred the public school and Oxford manners of a Blair to all that forced Yorkshire ‘man of the people’ nonsense that came from Hague. As for poor old John Major…

No, the tide of history had washed weirder flotsam than Barson-Garland into Downing Street and no doubt would do so again. If he succeeded in getting Simon Cotter to unbelt some of his millions and drop them in the Tory coffers Ashley would take a deal of stopping.

Oliver smiled his most charming and confiding smile. ‘A superb lunch, Ashley. I don’t know when I’ve had a better. We should do this more often.’

‘Perhaps – what is today?’ Ashley looked at his watch. ‘Thursday. Perhaps we should meet here the first Thursday of every month? Chew things over and work our way through the wine list?’

‘An admirable idea.’

‘Would you like me to propose you for membership?’

Oliver put up his hands, ‘Above my touch,’ he said. ‘Quite above my touch.’

They parted, each glowing with a warm sense of self-satisfaction and good wine.

The theme from Mission Impossible rang out in Jim and Micky Draper’s cell. It was muffled by Micky’s pillow, but loud and insistent enough to distract the brothers, who were watching The Shawshank Redemption and in no mood to be disturbed.

‘Bollocks,’ said Jim. ‘Nobody calls on a Sunday afternoon. Leave it.’

The tune continued to play for a full minute before falling silent.

Tim Robbins and his fellow prisoners sipped beers on the roof of Shawshank Prison.

‘Lucky bastards,’ said Jim. ‘I could do with a pint myself.’

‘I could do with some of that sunshine,’ said Micky.

Mission Impossible started up again.

‘Who the fuck?’

‘I’ll see who it is.’ Micky went to his bunk and moved the pillow aside. ‘Doesn’t say. Number withheld. Shall I answer the fucker?’

Jim paused the movie and Micky pressed a key on the mobile.

‘Is that Mr Draper?’

‘It’s Micky Draper. Who wants to know?’

‘Good afternoon, Micky,’ said an unfamiliar male voice. ‘Sorry to disturb your Sunday afternoon movie. Tim Robbins escapes and the prison governor commits suicide. Morgan Freeman finally gets his parole and joins Robbins in Mexico. Charming film. I thought you should know the outcome as I’m afraid you won’t be able to watch the rest of it.’

‘Who the fuck is this?’

‘A well-wisher calling to let you know that all privileges are to be withdrawn from you and your brother as of right now.

‘Do what?’

‘You and Jim are enjoying quite absurd levels of comfort and protection. It’s a little unfair, don’t you think?’

‘Who is it?’ Jim asked, turning from the screen.

‘Some fucking posh nutter,’ said Micky. ‘Says we’re going to lose our privileges.’

‘Oh no,’ said the voice. ‘Not a nutter. Considering that I’m taking all this trouble to give you advance warning I think that’s somewhat ungrateful. Prison officers will be arriving at any moment. They will take away your television, your toaster and kettle, your radio, your furniture – even the mobile phone we’re having this nice little chat on. I’m afraid you’re both going to have to start right at the bottom of the heap again.’

‘Who is it?’ repeated Jim.

‘It’s a fucking wind up merchant. Did Snow put you up to this?’

‘It grieves me to relate that I do not have the honour of Mr Snow’s acquaintance. This is all my own work. Stand by your bunk now, Micky. The screws are on their way. I have a melancholy feeling that they are in a rough mood. You and Jim have been getting a little soft and flabby lately, I do hope you can take it. Goodbye.’

Micky dropped the phone onto the bunk.

‘What was all that about?’

‘Some twat,’ said Micky. ‘His idea of a practical joke. When I find out who it was – ‘ Micky turned towards the cell door, alarmed by the sound of metal tipped heels marching along the corridor towards their cell. ‘Nah,’ he said. ‘That’s impossible.’

‘What?’ repeated his brother, perplexed.

A voice shouted their names in a tone they had not heard for years and the cell door swung open.

‘Draper, J., Draper M. Stand by your bunks. Inspection!’

Five screws came into the cell, followed by the Senior Prison Officer, Martin Cardiff.

‘Well, well. What have we here? A Babylonian orgy by the looks of it. A Babbi-fucking-lonian orgy. I have never seen such decadence in all my life. Not in all my life.’ This was not strictly true, since SPO Cardiff liked nothing better of a morning than to join the brothers for a cup of coffee and a slice of toast in their cell. ‘Look at this, lads. A sofa, books, magazines, a coffee machine. Even a little fridge. Highly cosy.’

‘What the fuck’s going on, Martin?’

Cardiff’s eyes narrowed. ‘Martin? Martin? Oh dear, oh dear. Whatever happened to courtesy? Whatever happened to respect?’

Cardiff nodded to a prison officer who stepped forward and threw a punch so deep into Jim Draper’s stomach that he fell to the ground whooping for breath.

‘It’s Mr Cardiff to you, you fat cunt. You fat disgusting cunt,’ he added with distaste, as Jim vomited over himself.

Micky started towards Cardiff. ‘What did you do that for? What the fuck d’you do that for?’

This time Cardiff administered the blow himself, driving his fist into the side of Micky’s neck. The iron frame of the bunk rang as Micky crashed into it head first.

‘There’s the bell for Round Two,’ said Cardiff. ‘Time for a bit of tag wrestling, lads.’

The prison officers laughed as they moved in on the brothers and set to work.

An hour later Jim and Micky were lying naked on the floor of their empty cell. The screws had taken everything, even the bunk-bed and mattresses. Before slamming the door on the brothers they had hosed the cell to wash away the blood and vomit.

For five years, Jim and Micky Draper had ruled the prison. Nothing had moved, nothing had worked and nothing had been traded without their say so. The arrangement, as usual, had suited the governor and his staff admirably and they had repaid the Drapers in the usual way, by allowing them levels of comfort and autonomy that were denied the ordinary inmate. Now, suddenly and for no reason at all this had been taken away from them. The occupants of the neighbouring cells would have heard their weeping screams for mercy and their plight would already be known all over the prison. Power depends on strength and the appearance of impregnability. Many prisoners had cause to hate the Drapers and now that all support and protection had been withdrawn from them, their lives would be horribly different.

Jim raised his head. The posters had been taken from the wall and all he could see were smears of blood and buttons of blu-tak. His brother lay on the floor beside him.

‘Micky?’ he whispered, the effort shooting arrows of pain all around his body. ‘On the phone. Who the fuck was it?’

But Micky was unconscious.

Jim’s head dropped back to the floor and he tried to focus his thoughts. They would be out in a year, but it would be twelve months of fear and pain. From this moment on they were in hell. Jim consoled himself with one thought. The Drapers held one advantage over ordinary people, an edge that had helped them and given them strength throughout their troubled and violent lives. They had each other.

‘I think they should be separated as soon as possible,’ said Simon Cotter.

‘Different cells, you mean?’

‘Perhaps different wings. Would that be a possibility?’

‘Consider it done, sir.’

Cotter put a hand over the phone and apologetically shrugged his shoulders at the boy who had just come into his office. ‘With you in a moment, he said. ‘Just got to get this sorted out.’

Taking this to mean that he should leave, Albert turned towards the door.

‘No, no. Stay. Sit down, sit down.’

‘Sir?’

‘Not you, Cardiff.’

‘Is there a problem talking, sir?’

‘No, no, not at all. How are our friends this morning?’

‘Well, sir, Micky was out for eighteen hours, but he’s conscious now. They’ll both be taking food by straw for a month.’

‘Oh that is good news. Well done.’

‘Er…’

‘Say on, Mr Cardiff.’

‘I think you might have accidentally overpaid me, sir.’

‘How very honest of you. Not an overpayment, Mr Cardiff. Appreciation of a job well done. Your email was most marvellously and entertainingly composed. Quite beyond the call of duty. You should consider a literary career, you know.’

‘Well, thank you very much indeed, sir. Very kind indeed.’

‘Goodbye then.’ Cotter put down the phone and smiled across the desk. It had amused him to notice that the boy had been studying the carpet with great concentration, as if to imply that by not looking at the telephone he had not been listening. Quite illogical, but human and most charmingly polite. ‘So sorry about that. What a pleasure to meet you. I’m Simon Cotter.’

Albert stood up to shake hands across the desk.

‘No, no. I’ll come round. We’re not very desky here. They are tables to put computers and phones on, not for talking across.

They shook hands and Simon led Albert to the corner of the office.

‘Now then,’ Simon sat down in an armchair and pointed Albert to the sofa opposite him. ‘I said in my letter how much I admired the work you have done for your father’s company. Quite brilliant. I nearly said “for an amateur but we are all amateurs at this game and your work was brilliant I think by any standards.’

‘Amateur is the French for “lover”, after all,’ said Albert, shyly. ‘And it was very much a labour of love.’

‘Good for you! What I didn’t say in my letter was that I think Caf? Ethica is one of the great achievements of the last few years. Your father must be a remarkable man.

Albert’s face lit up. ‘He is, he really is! He used to work in commodities, trading tea and coffee futures in the City, but he went out there to Africa once and saw how the people lived and it completely changed his outlook. He now says, it’s not about coffee futures, it’s about human futures.’

‘Human futures, yes … very good. Human futures.

How does he feel, I wonder, about the possibility of you joining us here?’

‘Well, since the website has been rather a success, I think he imagined that after university I would, you know…’ Albert trailed off and looked towards Cotter, who nodded sympathetically.

‘He thought you might go into the business with him? Look after the cyber side of life.’

Albert nodded. ‘And my mother…’

Simon moved a hand down to his knee and pressed it down to stop a slight involuntary jogging motion that had started up. ‘Your mother,’ he said, lightly. ‘She’s the famous Professor Fendeman, is she not? I have read her books.’

‘I think she’s worried about me not getting a degree.’

‘Naturally. Any mother would be. You’re due to go up to Oxford – how very modest of you not to mention it by name, by the way – in October of next year, I believe. Which college?’

‘St Mark’s.’

‘Any reason for that choice?’

‘My mother always said it was the best.’

‘Hm … St Mark’s, that’s the one with the famous Maddstone Quad, isn’t it?’

‘I think so, yes.’

‘Very quaint as I remember.’

‘My mother’s always wanted me to go there. Doesn’t like the idea of me missing out on an education.’

‘I think she’s absolutely right,’ said Cotter. ‘I agree with her completely.’

The disappointment in Albert’s face was pitiful to behold. ‘Oh…’

‘But,’ Cotter continued. ‘I don’t like the idea of missing out on you. There’s ten months or so until October. Why don’t we come to an arrangement? Join us now and if in that ten months you and your family still feel that Oxford is a good idea, you can go. We’ll still be here when you emerge, all qualified and polished and graduated in your cap and gown. After all, you can carry on working for us in your vacations, and if you’ve done as well here as I think you will, we might even consider paying you a retainer, a kind of scholarship, if you like. As it happens we re looking at endowing a chair in IT at Oxford at the moment, so I think the university will be disposed to look favourably on anything we might suggest. Like all ancient and venerable English institutions Oxford will roll over backwards and do all kinds of undignified somersaults if there’s a smell of money in the air. How does that sound to you?’

‘It sounds … it sounds …‘ Albert searched hopelessly for a word. ‘It sounds brilliant.’

‘I’ll talk to my legal department about drawing up a contract. I like doing things quickly, if you’ve no objection. Let’s suppose a draft is delivered to you by five o’clock this evening. Your parents will want to show it to a lawyer. Perhaps you will have come to a decision by Friday? Come to me when it’s all been thoroughly thought through.’

Albert looked behind Cotter’s shoulder. A projector beamed the phrase ‘Thoroughly thought through’ onto the wall.

‘Ah, you’d spotted it. My motto. You’ll find it everywhere. On our screensavers and our desktop wallpaper.’ Cotter rose from his armchair and Albert instantly leapt to his feet.

‘Mr Cotter, I don’t know what to say.

‘It’s Simon. We’re very informal here. No suits, no surnames.’ Cotter put an arm round Albert’s shoulder and walked him to the door. ‘And by a happy coincidence, you’ll find that we only serve Caf? Ethica coffees and teas. Now, you’ll have to excuse me. Things are getting rather busy. I’m in the middle of trying to buy a newspaper. You’ve no idea how complicated a process it’s turning out to be.’

‘Really? I do it every day,’ said Albert, surprised at his own daring. ‘You just hand over money to the man in the shop and… voilа!’

‘Ha!’ Simon punched him playfully on the arm. ‘All this and a sense of humour too!’ How like his mother, he thought to himself. How absurdly like his mother. ‘I wish it were really that simple,’ he added. ‘I almost find myself feeling sorry for the Murdochs of this world. It’s nothing fancy, just the old LEP, but none the less, the regulations …

‘LEP?’

‘London Evening Press. Way before you were born. But it’s about time the Standard had a rival, don’t you think? You never know, we might even start you on a column. Anyway, I look forward to hearing from you some time before Friday.’

Crossing Waterloo Bridge on his way to the restaurant where Gordon and Portia would be awaiting him, Albert looked back towards the great glass tower that he had just left. He was not a superstitious or a religious youth, but he could not help wondering what power or deity had blessed him with such outrageous good fortune. Like all seventeen-year-olds his sense of guilt was greater than his sense of pride and as a rule if he expected anything from fate it was more likely to be punishment than reward. Four and a half years ago, during his barmitzvah, he had mentally crossed his fingers and thought scabrous blasphemous thoughts throughout the ceremony. For weeks afterwards he had been in dread of God’s revenge. None had come. God had expressed his wrath by giving him good friends, sound health and kindly parents. To crown it all he was now to become a favourite in the Court of King Cotter.

He strode up the stone stairs of Christopher’s two at a time. Portia and Gordon, nervously sipping mineral water at their table, didn’t see him enter. He stopped a passing waiter and smiled broadly.

‘Could you bring a bottle of champagne to that table over there? The best you’ve got.’

‘Certainly, sir.’ The waiter bowed and hurried away.

‘Darling!’ Portia beckoned him over. ‘How was it? How did it go?’

‘Blimey, where do I start?’

Feeling absurdly adult, Albert sat down at the table and told them of Simon Cotter’s plans.

‘So you see, it’s the best of both worlds,’ he said. ‘Is that brilliant or what?’

A waiter approached their table with an ice-bucket and a bottle of Cristal.

Gordon had been staring down at his cutlery with furrowed brows as if listening for a catch somewhere in Albert’s breathless recitation. He looked up now at the waiter. ‘What’s this? I ordered no champagne.’

‘Er, that was me actually, Dad. I’ll pay you back for it soon, I promise.

Portia squeezed Albert’s hand. ‘Quite right too,’ she said, looking anxiously at Gordon. ‘This definitely calls for a celebration, don’t you think, darling?’

Albert caught the pleading note in his mother s voice and leaned forward to add his own encouragement.

‘Dad, I know it’s all moving very quickly, but it’s just great don’t you think? I mean, I can’t lose either way.

Gordon smiled suddenly and put a hand to Albert’s shoulder. ‘Of course, it’s great, Albie. My years in the City have made me cautious, that’s all. I’m sure everything’s fine. I’m proud of you. Truly.’

‘He said …‘ Albert blushed slightly, ‘he said that he thought you were a remarkable man, Dad.’

‘Did he? Is that so? Well, he’s a remarkable man himself.’

‘He’s buying a paper at the moment, did you know that? The London Evening Press.’

‘Are you sure? There’s been nothing about it in the financial pages.’

‘Absolutely. He said it was a complicated business but it was time the Standard had some competition. He’s endowing a chair at Oxford too.’

‘Never mind about all that,’ said Portia. ‘Tell me what sort of man he is. Did he take his sunglasses off at any time? Do you think he’s Jewish? From pictures he looks impossibly dark and handsome. Does he dye his hair, do you think?’

‘For God’s sake, Mum…’ Gordon and Albert caught each other’s eyes and laughed with male solidarity.

‘Well, these things are important,’ Portia said defensively. ‘They tell you a lot about a person.

‘He’s read all your books anyway. He said so. What does that tell you about him?’

Father and son laughed again at Portia’s flustered reaction.

‘Let us drink to this paragon of taste and judgement,’ said Gordon, raising his glass.

‘To Simon Cotter,’ they chorused.

Rufus Cade sat in his flat and gazed lovingly at the money piled up in front of him. He had counted it twice and was considering counting it for a third time. Counting out a hundred thousand in used twenty pound notes is quite a task, but when the money is your own and wholly exempt from the ravenous clutches of tax men and ex-wives it is a pleasurable enough way to pass the time.

Rufus chopped a line on the small amount of free space on his coffee table. Finally, finally, things had taken a turn for the better. This evening was to be his last as a user. All those twenty pound notes were going to be put to good use. He would transform the business, settle down with a girl whose name didn’t begin with J and move to the country. Clean air, healthy exercise and a good diet would transform him from the flabby, sweating, red-eyed pig he had got to know into someone he could truly love. He realised now, as he looked at the money, that throughout his wretched life he had never even so much as liked himself. He would start by thinking more of others. Wasn’t that ‘the road less travelled’? The true path to self love is to take baby steps towards others.

To be able to go early into the office, with a clear sober head, that would be something in itself. There would be a special buzz to be got from sobriety, an irreducible high that would never lead to a terrible low. His cheerfulness and humour would become a byword. He had the weekend to begin the business of cleaning himself up. He would start any minute by throwing away his shot glasses and his silver straw. He might even drive round to see his parents. He played out the scene. His mother’s pleasure at seeing him, a bunch of flowers under his arm and a teasing joke on his lips, sprang to life within him and he smiled the broadest smile he had smiled for many years. He wasn’t such a bad man. He had a dry humour and quiet companionability that had appealed enough to turn three women into wives and countless others into girlfriends.

The entryphone buzzer sounded on the wall behind him and his heart banged in his chest at such a violent intrusion of the rude world into his thoughts. He rose from the sofa and was surprised to hear his voice trembling as he picked up the receiver.

‘Who is it?’

A voice he did not recognise spoke into the intercom with exaggerated intonation above the passing roar of traffic from the street. ‘I am a friend of John’s. It’s very important that I speak to you.

Rufus turned and looked at the money heaped on his table. ‘It’s not very convenient at the moment,’ he said. ‘I’m… I’m expecting some people.’

‘I won’t take more than five minutes. It’s for your own security.

‘Okay then… second floor.’

Rufus pressed the buzzer and ran to the kitchen for a bin liner. He stuffed the money into the bag and threw it into the corner of the room behind an armchair. By the time a knock came on the door, sweat was running down his face and he was out of breath.

He ran a sleeve across his dripping forehead and opened the flat door. A tall, powerfully built man of indeterminate age stood there, smiling apologetically, his eyes hidden by mirror shades.

‘I do apologise for calling so late.’

‘No, no… come in. I was just…, you know.’

The man came in and stood in the centre of the sitting-room. Rufus stared at him in disbelief.

‘Wait a minute… don’t I know you?’

‘The name’s Cotter. Simon Cotter.’

Rufus was already dizzy with the exertion of hiding his money. The presence of such a man as Simon Cotter on his doormat confused him completely. He could only imagine that there had been some problem with his look-alikes the day of that launch in Islington. But why on earth would Cotter himself come to visit him at home. On a Friday night, to boot. ‘I don’t quite follow. You said you were a friend of John’s.’

‘That’s right,’ said Cotter. ‘I’ve come to warn you.’

‘Warn me?’

‘The Suleiman brothers are rather upset.’

Rufus blinked. ‘I’m sorry. Suleiman brothers? I don’t believe I know anyone of that name.

‘You sold them a consignment of cocaine for a great deal of money. Only a few ounces of it were genuine. The rest was sherbet, I’m afraid. They are not in the least bit happy. Sherbet retails in sweetshops for a pitifully low price, I believe. Pitifully low. They’ll be wanting their money back. They may well want some pieces of your body to go with it. To be perfectly frank with you, they aren’t very nice people.’

Rufus had trouble focusing. Sweat was stinging his eyes. ‘I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about,’ he said in a voice that he recognised as absurdly tremulous and far too high in register to carry conviction.

‘Really?’ Cotter’s eyebrows shot up. ‘Then I’m wasting your time as well as my own. I thought you might want to understand what was going on.’

‘Well, of course I want to know what’s going on, but…’

‘You’ve sold a dud and the vendor is coming for revenge. It’s really as simple as that.’

‘But it was John’s gear! John set the whole thing up. I only went along as …

‘Ah, but John has been rather clever. I happen to know, you see, that he told them that all along he had been acting for you. As far as the Suleimans are concerned John is a nobody. A bagman, nothing more.’

‘But that’s a lie!’ Rufus grabbed the lapels of Cotter’s suit. ‘You’ve got to tell them. Tell them I acted in good faith. They’ll listen to you. In good faith.’

‘I?’ With the ease of a man brushing flies from his coat, Cotter took Rufus’s hands by the wrists and pulled them down. ‘Why in the name of God’s green earth should I do the slightest thing to help you?’

‘You know what happened! You can set them straight.’ Cotter looked at his watch. ‘They will be here in no more than five minutes. I left the front door on the latch. It’s a pity that you don’t seem to be in any kind of shape. I believe they favour machetes.’

Rufus almost danced with terror and bewilderment. ‘You can’t be serious. This is England.’

Cotter looked at him in amusement. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘This is England. And you are English. Wipe your face, stop snivelling and put up a good show, that’s my advice. They may spare your life, you never know. The sight of you snotty, sweaty, dribbling and whimpering will only bring out their fullest rage, you can be sure of that. Believe me. I know something about bullies.’

Rufus edged towards the corner of the room, possessed with the wild idea of grabbing the rubbish sack and making a run for it.

‘Ah, you’ve stashed it over there, have you?’ Cotter peered behind the armchair. ‘Well at least they won’t have to look very hard for it. That may count in your favour.’

‘For pity’s sake,’ cried Rufus.

‘For pity’s sake?’ Cotter’s voice was hard and cold. ‘Did you just use the word pity?’

‘You can have the money. Take it all.’

‘My dear Cade, I already have more money than I could possibly spend. Don’t you read the newspapers?’

‘Then let me go. Protect me. Pay them off, I’ll do anything, anything you say.

‘Anything? Do you mean that?’

‘I promise!’ Something in Cotter’s voice lent Rufus hope. ‘Just tell me and I’ll do it.’

‘Very well. Sit down.’

Rufus obeyed instantly. Sweat and mucus dropped from his chin onto the sofa. It had been many years since Cotter had last seen a grown man tremble so violently. His face, his hands, his feet – every part of him quivered.

‘What do you want me to do? Tell me and I’ll do it.’

‘I want you to build me a time machine.’

‘What?’

‘I want you to build me a time machine and to go back twenty years into the past.’

‘I–I don’t understand.’

‘Really? Yet it’s so simple.’ said Cotter. ‘And it’s the only thing that will save you. All I want you to do is to go back to the day when you, Ashley Barson-Garland and Gordon Fendeman planned the destruction of my life. Go back and rewind the tape. Reverse your decision.’

Rufus turned dazed eyes on him. He was hallucinating. On the very day he had determined to give up coke, the drug had visited upon him some insane psychotic nightmare.

‘You don’t remember?’ Cotter went on, removing his sunglasses and staring him in the face. ‘You don’t remember planting dope in the pocket of my sailing jacket? You don’t remember standing in an alleyway in Knightsbridge giggling as they led me away? Go back and make it all unhappen. Do that for me and I’ll pay off the Suleiman brothers and more. I will set you up in idle luxury for the rest of your pitiful and disgusting life.’

‘Ned? Ned Maddstone?’ Rufus leapt up from the sofa. ‘Jesus, it is. It’s you. I don’t fucking believe it.’

‘But somehow I don’t think it can be done, can it? I know a little about physics and a little about technology. Something tells me that a time machine is wholly beyond your powers to invent.

‘Christ, man, where have you been? What happened to you?’

‘Get away from me,’ Cotter took a step backwards as Rufus once more clawed desperately at his jacket. ‘How dare you even think of touching me?’

‘This is a joke, right? You’re winding me up. It’s your idea of revenge. To get me shit scared. Fucking hell, man…

‘You’ll find out about shit scared,’ said Cotter. ‘You’ll discover that it’s more than a phrase. You’ll find out too that there’s something worse than fear. Something called dread.’

‘You’re not serious,’ Rufus almost laughed at the look on Cotter’s face. ‘I mean come on, we were kids! We didn’t know what we were doing. Anyway, you were kidnapped, it was in all the papers. That was nothing to do with us. Jesus, man…

‘My father died. My father. He clung on for six months unable to speak or move. He died in an agony of fear and guilt, believing that his only son had been kidnapped and killed because of him and his work. An honourable, decent man who gave everything he had to his country. A man incomparably above you in quality and greatness. He died because of what you and your friends did to me.’

Rufus looked round in terror at the sound of car brakes squealing in the street below. Cotter moved towards the door and replaced his sunglasses.

‘I just want you to think of me as they start work on you. I want you to think of a frightened and bewildered child who had everything taken away from him because of your spite and envy.’

Rufus had scrambled behind the armchair and stood now in the middle of the floor clutching his money.

‘They know about the fire-escape,’ said Cotter. ‘They are certain to have it covered.’

‘NED!’ screamed Rufus.

Cotter let himself out of the door.

‘MADDSTONE!’

Cotter went quickly up one flight of stairs and looked down the stairwell as three men came running up to the second floor. He saw a flash of bright silver as one of them transferred a gleaming metal knife from one hand to the other. Inside the flat he heard Rufus still screaming his name, over and over again.

The door slammed shut and all screaming stopped.

Five minutes later the door to the flat opened and the three men emerged. One carrying a black bin-liner. They said nothing as they descended the staircase.

Simon waited for the sound of their car being driven away before he crept down and entered the flat.

Rufus was lying on the floor in a spreading pool of blood that had already reached the extreme edges of the carpet. On the coffee table ten feet away from him, his legs had been neatly laid, one beside the other, like bouquets recently delivered by a florist.

‘Dear me,’ said Simon. ‘Legless again, Rufus.’

Rufus stared up at him. ‘Fuck you,’ he hissed. ‘Fuck you to hell.’

Simon looked down and shook his head. ‘Phew!’ he said with distaste. ‘I was right wasn’t I? Now you do know the meaning of shit scared. I pity the person who finds you. Let’s see, your cleaner comes on Monday, I believe. Maybe I should spare her sensibilities and warn the police. An anonymous tip-off perhaps … you’re an expert in those, aren’t you? As a matter of fact you’re very lucky, do you know that? They say that it is quite pleasant to bleed to death. I dare say you won’t be feeling much pain. The effects of shock can be merciful. Not a word I have much use for, of course.

As he left, Rufus shouted after him. His voice came out huskily and over the next hour, as the life flowed out of him, he tried to console himself with the thought that Simon must have heard every word.

‘I was right about you from the first, Ned fucking Maddstone,’ he had called after him. ‘You were always an arrogant fucker. I saw through you from the very beginning! Fuck you, Ned. Fuck you. You deserved it. Whatever it was, you deserved it.’

Simon flicked out the latch and closed the door, leaning against it until the lock snicked home. Rufus’s words had not, in fact, penetrated the hammering in his own ears. He went slowly downstairs and out into the cold air.

Ned, trembling with exhilaration, looked up at the night sky. The stars winked down at him.

‘Four!’ he whispered, and winked back.

The Barson-Garland Page was turning out to be something of a saccиs d’estime. Taking a cue from the regular columnists on the rival evening paper, Ashley found that he had a gift for tediously obvious opinions expressed in a formulaic polemical style that exactly suited the kind of brain-fagged commuter most ready to confuse polysyllabic misanthropy for intelligent thought. London’s appetite for trenchant attacks on ‘Political Correctness’ seemed to know no bounds and Ashley was happy to feed it. He had in abundance that peculiar journalistic gift of stating all the prevailing bourgeois prejudices in a language that represented itself as ‘maverick’, ‘daring’ and ‘unconventional’. Nor had the heroic failure of his Private Member’s Bill done anything to harm his growing reputation as one who dared to speak up for ‘Common Sense’, ‘Decency’, ‘Standards’ and the deeper feelings of the ‘Silent Majority’ and his beloved ‘Instincts of the British People’. Whispers were growing within the Party. Barson-Garland was achieving more for the Conservatives from the back benches than leading figures were managing from the front. His name had been openly mentioned by the BBC’s senior political correspondent as a contender in any future leadership election. Things were moving along well.

Simon Cotter had not been able to help him with his Bill, but had expressed his sympathy in an orotund style very like Ashley’s own.

‘I have no doubt that governmental access to net traffic is ultimately inevitable,’ he had agreed. ‘The imperatives of financial security, public morals and systemic virus protection will make the idea irresistible in time. I cannot be seen to endorse it, however. I’m sure you understand that for commercial reasons I must place myself on the side of the civil libertarians. When the time does come, I suspect that you will play some part in its implementation and I want to assure you that you will have our full cooperation here at CDC. In the meantime, I wonder if I can talk to you about something else? As you may know, we have recently acquired the London Evening Press. My editor is on the lookout for a good regular columnist. Does the idea appeal?’

The idea – and Cotter’s elegant (to Ashley’s mind) manner of phrasing it – had appealed greatly and Barson-Garland had waxed great. On the back of his new found success as a Common Sense Tribune of the People, he had recently embarked upon a series of live television debates. Armed with a microphone and a bank of experts, victims and unbelievers, he stalked the studio like a grand inquisitor, probing moral and ethical issues to their depths: a Great White Oprah, an intellectual Jerry Springer, a Moral Montel for the New Millennium.

The first programme, under the title of ‘The Failure of Feminism’ had gone exceptionally well and he was currently preparing the next. His producer had told him that it was essential, in television, to put your heaviest artillery in the second programme in a series.

‘If the first is good,’ she had said, ‘the second must be better. Those who missed the opening episode will have been told about it by their friends or read reviews in the papers. They will tune in to number two in their droves, so let’s make it a stormer.’

It was to be entitled ‘The Threat of the Net’ and a stormer it would certainly be. Parents whose children had run up impossible phone bills or had met unsavoury perverts through chat room friendships, musicians whose royalties had been threatened – all had been lined up and were ready to accuse the defenders of the net, the authors of software that allowed mass music copyright infringement, the service providers who failed to filter repulsive news groups, the credit card companies, the irresponsible online medical services, the whole internet establishment. One of the programme s researchers had built a bomb by using information readily available on the web, another had bought drugs and yet another – and this would surely constitute one of the most sensational expos?s in television history – had been posing as a twelve-year-old for six months and was planning, live, to meet another apparent minor whom the programme had deduced (by linguistic analysis) to be an adult. A hidden camera would record the whole scene and police were standing by to make an arrest.

On the day of transmission, Ashley appeared to be the only one with a cool head. A group of parents had found themselves having supper in the studio canteen next to a man whose laptop displayed repulsive photographs of dead bodies and mutilated limbs. The parents had screamed and accused the producers of insensitivity, stupidity and deliberate manipulative wickedness. Ruffled feathers were smoothed when it turned out that the offending laptop belonged to a reporter who was researching Angolan landmines for a completely unconnected programme. The reporter in question, who had gone off to join the supper queue, was severely reprimanded for leaving his computer unattended. The father of the child who had opened the laptop was persuaded against legal action and relative calm was restored.

By the time Ashley made his opening address, the studio was crackling with tension.

‘Cyberspace, the final frontier …’ he began, standing in the centre of the studio. ‘We have sought out new worlds and new civilisations. We have boldly gone where no man has gone before and what has been our reward? An explosion in crime, gambling, pornography, exploitation, video-gaming and vice – a good old-fashioned word for a bad old-fashioned evil. No laws stand between a seven-year-old child and the corruption of his innocence. We are told nothing can be done about this. Is that true? Is there no such thing as political will? Are we already victims of the machine? Or is it just possible that humanity, as it always has, still retains the power to say No? Is it too late to decide simply to walk away?

‘Against the anarchy and degradation represented by the slimier corners of the net stands one institution: ancient, kindly, wise, noble, but apparently powerless in the face of man’s lust for technology … we call this institution The Family. What a pitifully small thing it seems when ranged against the colossal vested interests and unquenchable greed of e-commerce and the great e-future. Is it possible that the still, small voice of the Family can stand up to such howling din? Can the British Family truly resist… The Threat of The Net?’

Music. Applause. Titles. A collage of images showing Ashley Barson-Garland, bald, unprepossessing, ugly even, but somehow made glorious by his very ordinariness. He stands, he swoops, he glides, he bobs his way through ranks of admiring studio guests. There are stand-up rows and tearful reconciliations. The face of Barson-Garland stands above them all. The final image: his summing-up, directly into camera, his eyes holding yours as he weaves together the threads of the week’s debate. End music. End titles. End applause.

A double-sided plasma wide-screen television was hung high in CotterDotCom’s atrium. The atrium caf?, as usual, was busy. At eight in the evening most offices are the lonely province of security guards, cleaners and a handful of career climbers. Simon Cotter found that often he had to remind his staff, gently, to go home and help themselves to a life. He was there himself in the atrium that night, laughing with the others at Barson-Garland’s introductory speech.

‘Dear me,’ he said, peering over the top of his sunglasses as the title sequence played. ‘It seems that the Net is in for a spanking, guys.

‘He talks,’ said Albert Fendeman, who was sitting at the same table, ‘as if everyone who has anything to do with the net comes from another planet. I mean, we’ve all got families too. Doesn’t he realise that?’

‘It’s hard to imagine that he has a family, anyway, observed an intense young girl standing by their table and looking up at the screen with distaste.

‘Actually,’ said Albert sheepishly, ‘he’s an old friend of my family.’

‘Really?’ Simon was intrigued. ‘We should be polite about him then.’

‘Christ no, I never liked him. He always spoke to me like a schoolmaster, even when I was young.

‘And you’re so old now, of course,’ said the girl, who was one of the best programmers in the country, but barely twenty herself.

‘Sh!’ hissed someone from another table. ‘There’s Brad Messiter.’

Barson-Garland was standing in front of a guest known to everyone at Cotters. Brad Messiter had founded the fastest growing free Internet Service Provider in the country and Ashley was preparing to roast him whole.

‘You advertise during children’s television programmes and in children’s magazines. Your give-away CDs are available on sweetshop counters, packaged with cartoons and the faces of football stars. Yet your service offers no filters and no parental lock-outs …‘

‘Parents can buy fully functional gatekeeper packages which…’ the hapless Messiter began, but Ashley swept on regardless.

‘You’ll get your chance to speak later. For the moment let’s just set out what you do. You offer a full internet package, including unrestricted access to newsgroups of the most revolting kind. We’re all familiar with commercial web sites, many of which, it’s true, are guarded by some kind of credit card security. But newsgroups offer pictures and movies to anyone. Anyone. Let me run by some of the groups a child on your service might come across without the need for anything other than a personal computer and infant curiosity. Alt.binary.pictures.bestiality, alt.binary.pictures.lolita, alt.binary.pictures.foreskins … and there are literally hundreds of others here that are too grotesque, too bizarre and too horrifying for me to mention on air. This is the nature of the business that has made you a millionaire many times over. True or not true, Mr Messiter?’

‘There are thousands of magazines and photographs currently in the postal system.

‘True or not true, Mr Messiter?’

‘Currently being processed by the Royal Mail, technically the property of the Queen, which you would find just as offensive and which…’

‘True or not true, Mr Messiter?’

‘True or not true!’ chorused the studio audience. ‘True or not true?’

‘Yes, it’s true, but as I say …

‘It’s true!’ Ashley whipped the microphone away and walked towards the camera. ‘Mr Messiter’s twisted logic would have us believe that Her Majesty the Queen is somehow a pornographer, which tells us all we need to know about Mr Messiter, I think. We’ll be returning to him later, but meanwhile, let’s follow our researcher, Jamie Ross. For six months now, in the guise of twelve-year-old Lucy, Jamie has been conducting a romantic relationship with a boy of thirteen called Tom. Innocent, charming, perfectly acceptable. Nothing more than a pen friendship. Tom has now suggested they meet. Our language experts have analysed the emails and messages that Tom has been sending Lucy and they have determined that they were composed by an educated adult. Jamie.’

The Cotter Atrium watched with barely suppressed giggles as an earnest reporter stood on the corner of Argyll Street and Marlborough Street talking in a hushed whisper. A small girl stood nervously beside him.

‘Any moment now, I will be going into Wisenheimer’s, a hamburger restaurant popular with young people, just fifty yards from London’s famous Oxford Circus, for an assignation with “Tom”. He will be expecting a small girl, so I have brought along my daughter, Zoл. In my rucksack I have a hidden camera and sound recorder. The police are standing by to make an arrest if it turns out, as we strongly suspect, that “Tom” is an adult, masquerading as a child. Here goes.

A grainy but acceptable picture came on screen as the reporter, Jamie Ross, entered the restaurant and sat at a table, pointing his wide angled briefcase at the door. His daughter Zoл came in a second or two later and sat at another table.

‘So far,’ breathed Jamie into his radio mike. ‘Nothing. Mostly young people here, tourists by the look of them, a few adults spread out at different tables. The ideal spot for this kind of rendezvous perhaps. Ah, what’s this?’

A small nervous looking boy of twelve or thirteen had entered the restaurant, taken one look at Zoл, another at the table where Jamie sat with his camera bag and then sat down at an empty table.

‘Well, perhaps, our experts were wrong,’ the disappointment in Jamie’s voice was palpable.

‘Experts? Wrong?’ The crowd gathered in the Cotter Atrium were enjoying themselves hugely. ‘Surely not?’

‘Perhaps I should ask him what he’s doing there…’ Jamie picked up his camera bag and moved towards the young boy. ‘Hello, there,’ he said, placing the bag on the table between them. ‘Your name isn’t Tom by any chance?’

The boy made no verbal reply but stood up and pointed. Instantly, from different tables, half a dozen men and women sprang forward and surrounded the astonished Jamie.

‘You are under arrest,’ said one, attaching handcuffs, ‘on suspicion of luring a minor…’

‘Wait a minute, I’m Jamie Ross from the BBC…’

‘You do not have to say anything in your defence, but I must warn you that silence may be interpreted…’

The screen went blank for a second before cutting back to the studio and a rather flustered Ashley Barson-Garland.

‘Well,’ he said. ‘It looks as though… that is to say…’ In the CDC Atrium, Albert and the female coder were rolling around honking with laughter like seals.

‘Sh!’ said Cotter. ‘Let’s not miss the rest of it.’

‘It seems that perhaps this was a case of two minds with but a single thought,’ Ashley continued, drawing on all his reserves of aplomb, ‘two hearts, ah, beating each to each.’

‘What?’ roared Albert, writhing with delight. ‘Has he gone completely tonto?’

‘Robert Browning,’ said Simon. ‘When the mind goes, reflex literary quotation takes over.

‘But none the less, a lesson to be drawn there. The world of the chat room clearly arouses enough parental concern to cause a great deal of worry. We will bring you, of course, news of Jamie Ross’s release as soon as it comes.

‘Who’s looking after Zoл?’

‘Ah, well no doubt…’ Ashley looked up at the bank of studio audience to identify the heckler. ‘I’m sure she’s …

‘Someone has just left a twelve-year-old girl alone in a West End burger joint. I can see it on the monitor above. She’s just sitting there on her own.

‘I’m sure Jamie will inform the police right away…’

‘Call that responsible?’

‘Ah, Mr Messiter. It’s you.’

‘Too right it’s me. Hoist with your own petard there, weren’t you?’

‘Mr Messiter seems very interested in the fate of unprotected children, ladies and gentlemen.’ Ashley swiftly regained his composure. ‘Yet his company continues to open the porn portals of the internet to all, without accepting responsibility. He even manages to blame the parents. It’s their fault. If they only bought expensive and complex software to guard their children’s access, then all would be well.’

‘It isn’t expensive, it’s available free on…’

‘Well, let me now introduce you to an expert in the field of internet security. From CotterDotCom, Cosima Kretschmer!’

The Atrium fell silent and all eyes turned from the screen to Simon. He shrugged lightly. ‘You’re all free,’ he said. ‘If Cosima wants to speak and share her expertise on television, how could I possibly stand in her way?’

All heads turned back to the screen. It was rumoured that Cosima, whom Simon had brought back from the Geneva office, was more than just the head of the Secure Server Research Division. She and Simon had recently been photographed together coming out of the Ivy Restaurant. It seemed doubtful that she would consent to appear as a witness for Ashley Barson-Garland without Simon’s express wish. Albert frowned as he watched her take the microphone. He could not believe that his mentor, his hero, his god, would lend support to anything that threatened the sanctity and autonomy of the net.

Simon was watching the screen with a look of bland benevolence.

‘Fr?ulein Kretschmer, I’m sure only those who’ve holidayed on Mars for the last two years have failed to hear of CotterDotCom. You specialise in internet security, is that right?’

‘That is quite correct.’

‘I believe service providers can choose to make available all or only some newsgroups on their news servers, is that also correct?’

‘Certainly.’

‘So Mr Messiter’s company, the largest free provider in the United Kingdom, isn’t obliged to offer the full range of newsgroups. He could choose to filter out those which carry illegal child pornography, for example.’

‘For sure.

‘Now, as you may know, I proposed a bill which would have allowed the monitoring of such obscene transactions and I was told by the so-called “internet community” that such a course was “impractical”. Were they right?’

‘Not at all. People may use proxy servers and firewalls, but it is usually possible to detect those who upload and download illegal materials.’

‘It is possible? Do you think the government should take steps to implement the tracking of this kind of traffic?’

‘No, I do not.’

Ashley flickered for a moment. ‘Forgive me, Fr?ulein Kretschmer…’

‘Cosima, please.’

‘You told me earlier that you did believe in such monitoring.’

‘Did I?’

‘You know you did.’

‘It is a complex matter. The question of civil liberties is important. I have been thinking more deeply on this subject lately.’

‘Civil liberties? What about the rights of families to live free of fear and contamination. Do those count for nothing?’

A hearty round of applause interrupted the first part of Cosima’s reply.

‘Well, let us suppose,’ she said, ‘that in my research I came upon evidence of a person who had regularly used the internet for his own personal sexual gratification. Downloading illegal pornography and so forth. Do I have the right to expose such a person?’

‘Of course you do. If their computer drives contain illegal material it’s the same as possessing it in photographic form on paper. We all know that.’

‘Ah but this person is clever. He looks at the pictures on screen, but does not store them. He deletes the memory cache once he has … once he has satisfied himself, you understand?’

Ashley’s stern voice cut through a bubble of titters emanating from the back row of the audience. ‘All this hypothetical speculation seems to me to miss the main point of our discussion,’ he said. ‘We are addressing …

‘It is at the absolute heart of our discussion,’ Brad Messiter shouted from the back, unmiked, but loud enough to be heard. ‘Tell us more about this hypothetical case, Cosima.’

‘As a matter of fact,’ said Cosima, who unlike Messiter had a radio microphone clipped to the lapel of her jacket, ‘it is not hypothetical. I am talking about you, Mr Barson-Garland. You. You have logged up an average of sixteen hours a week accessing sites devoted to photographs of young teenage boys.’

A gasp ran round the studio as Ashley whipped round, his face white, to face Cosima. ‘I should warn you that I am a lawyer,’ he snarled. ‘Such unsubstantiated accusations are highly actionable. You cannot have a shred of evidence to support such outrageous…’

‘But I have,’ said Cosima, pointing to a briefcase. ‘I have tracked your internet use for many months now and watched you accessing web-cam sites, newsgroups and youth chatrooms.’

‘I have… I have …’ beads of sweat were beginning to appear on Ashley’s brow. ‘I have naturally researched all areas of the internet during the course of my campaign. It would be absurd to attempt to legislate against pornography without investigating it first.’

‘But why only teenage boys? Why only sites with titles like “Studmuffins For You”, “Twink Heaven”, “Smooth Buns R Us” and “First Cum First Served” – why only those?’

Ashley felt he was drowning in a sea of laughter.

‘It is perfectly clear to anyone of sense,’ he hissed into his microphone, ‘that I have been made the victim of a very clever conspiracy to besmirch my name and belittle the national campaign I have set up on behalf of the family. You cannot possibly prove any one of these revolting allegations. You have only recorded the internet use on my part that suits you and deliberately chosen to ignore the thousands of other visits I may or may not have legitimately made in the name of research. These vicious and repulsive smears show how far the internet establishment is prepared to go…’

‘I note,’ Cosima continued remorselessly, ‘that you always delete your client-side disk and internet cache. There will be no evidence at your home whatsoever.’

‘Of course there won’t be!’ Ashley shrieked. ‘There will be no evidence at my home because everything you have said is a farrago of lies, innuendo and twisted half truths. I don’t know if your employer is aware of what you have been doing – ‘

‘Your employer too, don’t forget. You write a column for his newspaper – ‘Never mind that! If I discover that you have been snooping around me on Cotter company time, the legal consequences will be such as you cannot imagine. Let me assure you of that, Fr?ulein!’

In the Atrium, two dozen mouths had dropped open and two dozen pairs of rounded eyes were staring at the giant plasma television. A scene, Simon supposed, that was reproduced in different numbers and configurations up and down the land. Albert peeked shyly once more at the face of his hero but could read nothing behind the mirrored lenses. Mild astonishment showed in the gentle uplift of one of his eyebrows, that was all.

Albert’s mother and father had watched the moon landing as children, Gordon in New York and Portia in London. Albert himself retained vague memories of 0. J.’s white Bronco being followed by news helicopters as it wound along the freeways of Los Angeles, but this…, this was a memory by which his generation would judge themselves forever. Where were you when Cosima Kretschmer humiliated Ashley Barson-Garland on live television? I was watching television, derr-brain, the smart arses would reply, where were you?

Cosima Kretschmer appeared to be the only calm person in the studio. The director up in the gallery was deep in a telephone conversation with his channel controller who had a lawyer on the other line. ‘Keep going,’ the controller ordered. ‘We’re okay. It’s up to Barson-Garland. He can hardly sue us for defamation on his own show.’

‘It is my suggestion,’ Cosima was saying, ‘that you have consistently downloaded obscene and mostly illegal pictures of youths onto your computer. You have masturbated in front of these images and then deleted them.’

Several parents had clamped hands over the ears of their children, who writhed and wriggled in their attempts to work free.

‘You have just earned yourself one terrifying court case!’ Ashley yelled, pointing a finger at her and shaking with rage.

‘That is your privilege. I have video pictures of you doing precisely that. Yes!’ Cosima repeated as a sudden hush fell on the studio and all eyes turned to stare at Ashley. ‘I have hours of videotape showing you masturbating in front of the screen in the study of your own house in London.’

‘Such footage would be completely inadmissible in any court,’ said Ashley, a terrible weight swelling in the pit of his stomach, ‘if it existed, that is. Which they do not. You are getting yourself further and further into trouble, young lady.’

‘But we are not talking about any court. We are talking about this court,’ Cosima continued remorselessly. ‘Your court. You cannot have any objection to my showing my evidence here.’ She pulled two cassettes from her briefcase. “‘There are no steps that should not be taken in the name of the family, in the name of decency.” Your own words. True or not, Mr Barson-Garland?’

Ashley stood frozen in the centre of the studio. Brad Messiter led a baying chorus of ‘True or not? True or not?’ The voices fused and swelled in his head. His mouth opened and closed, but his eyes followed the video cassettes that Cosima was brandishing above her head, never leaving them for a second.

‘I have printouts of your diary too, Mr Barson-Garland,’ Cosima’s free hand dipped into her briefcase and brought out sheaves of paper. ‘What extraordinary reading they make.’

Ashley screeched in rage and made a half lunge towards her. At the last minute he veered away from her and ran from the studio, dropping his microphone on the floor. Blindly, he butted his way past security officers too startled and confused to know what to do. He tore down the corridors and into reception, barely noticing the cluster of BBC employees staring at the screens set into the wall. He pushed his way out of the glass doors and hurtled madly through the horse-shoe forecourt and out onto Wood Lane. He heard voices raised behind him but he charged through the security gate and into the street. Cabs were lined up on the rank and he hurled himself at the first, scrabbling at the door.

‘All right mate, all right. Calm down.’ The driver released his central locking switch and Ashley threw himself onto the seat.

‘St James’s!’

‘I know you! You’re that Barson-Garland bloke.’

‘Never mind,’ Ashley’s breath came in huge gulping sobs. ‘Duke Street, as fast as you can.

‘Right-o. Shame that Bill of yours was never passed. It’s about time those perverts were brought to book. Got kids myself.’

Ashley felt in his pocket and almost wept with relief when his fingers closed around his leather Smythson key wallet. He had left the keys in his dressing-room the previous week and had been forced to return to Television Centre at midnight to retrieve them. He had cursed himself at the time but had that not happened, he would never have decided to keep them in his pocket today. He looked out of the back window of the cab and saw a crowd streaming from the studio audience door at the side of the building.

‘Had that Gary Glitter in here once,’ said the cabby.

As Ashley had feared, a small crowd had already gathered in Mason’s Yard. A handheld TV light focused on his front door and was turned towards the cab as it swung into the alley from Duke Street.

‘Strewth, you’ve got a few fans, then,’ said the cabby, shielding his eyes. ‘Going to make you party leader are they?’

Ashley pushed a twenty pound note through the glass and opened the cab door, his keys ready. ‘Keep the change.’

‘Very generous, guv’nor. You’ve got my vote!’

‘Mr Barson-Garland! Mr Barson-Garland!’

‘I have no comment, no comment. No comment. No comment at all.’

He pushed his way through the press of people, head down, key outstretched towards the door.

‘Is there any truth in these allegations?’

‘No comment, I tell you! I have absolutely no comment.’ He slammed the door on them and bolted it. As soon as he was alone, the tears began to flow.

The telephone upstairs in his study was ringing. He wrenched it from its socket and stood on the carpet, tears flowing down his cheeks. All around him were displayed the symbols of his success. The Romney portrait of a Sir William Barson that he had allowed people to believe was his ancestor stared down at him, hand on hip. His first editions of Gibbon, Carlyle and Burke gleamed on the shelves. And on the desk stood his computer.

It was a lie. All a lie. They had trapped him. For some evil, terrible reason they had trapped him into revealing himself. Video cameras in his study! It was inconceivable. Who would do such a thing? Inconceivable. Yet, they must have known. They could not have guessed that it was his practice to…

He woke his computer and input the first password. The diary files were also password protected, security within security. No one could have penetrated them. He double-clicked the most recent entry, made yesterday, when the world was still at his feet. The system demanded a second password, which he gave. The diary pages loaded themselves and he looked at them.

Sad news about poor old Rufus Cade. By all accounts a ‘drug hit’, as these things are termed. I suppose it was inevitable. From schoolboy on, it was apparent that dear Rufus was destined for a life of dependency and decline. What Americans would call ‘an addictive compulsive personality’ or some such hogwash. I have not seen him since he called upon me some five years ago with an embarrassing request for money to invest’ in a footling scheme to start up a model agency. I shall attend his funeral, I think and pray for the salvation of his soul. Grace will not be denied him.

A gratifying review of the first programme in the Telegraph this morning. It seems I am ‘a natural performer combining ease of manner with a steely refusal to be diverted from the hard moral questions’. Look out, David Starkey!

Gratifying! Would he ever use that word again? Or any word like it? Wiping back his tears, Ashley scrolled down until he saw something that made his heart stop.

Red!

Impossible, but true.

The last paragraph of his last diary entry was in red. Ashley never messed about with coloured text. Never. The paragraph was in a different font too. A font he never used.

His eyes hardly dared drag themselves to the bottom of the screen. If he read the paragraph he would know for sure that it was not a mistake, not the result of some inadvertent series of mouse clicks on his own part. He did not want to know any such thing. But he had to read on.

Hypocrite, lecteur, mon semblable, mon frиre! Not for the first time do I find myself reading your diary, Ashley Garland. You have not graduated far have you? From masturbating into school boaters to masturbating at pictures of schoolboys. What a pathetic failure of a man.

All pretence, snobbery, intolerance, bluster, bigotry and show. With such a brain as yours you could have gone so far, Ashley Garland. With such a cold, constipated heart, however, you were always destined for disgrace, ruin and humiliation. I wonder how they will treat you in prison? You fake, you pervert, you canting hypocrite. My revenge on you is complete. May you rot for ever in the burning filth of your own corruption.

The red text swam before Ashley’s eyes. He pressed his hands to the side of his head and pushed inwards, as if forcing his brain to concentrate. Tears dropped onto the keyboard.

This was insanity. Wild madness of a kind that could not be explained. He had his enemies. He was not universally liked, he knew that. He had always known that. But such demented hatred?

A flashing folder icon on the computer desktop caught his eye. It was entitled ‘Yummee!’ and Ashley knew that he had never seen it before. He double-clicked the folder which showed itself to contain over two thousand files, all of them in picture and movie formats. He double-clicked one at random and his screen was filled with a video clip of such clarity and unspeakable, uncompromising physical detail that he caught his breath. The participants were all male and under age.

The doorbell rang.

Ashley closed the file instantly and dragged the whole folder to his desktop waste basket.

The doorbell rang again.

Ashley emptied the wastebasket. A window came on screen.

Cannot delete without password

Ashley input his password and tried again.

Password incorrect

Ashley tried his secondary password.

Password incorrect. System shutting down…

Ashley stared unbelievingly at the screen as it went blank with a fizz and crackle of static.

The doorbell rang for a third time.

A flashing blue light was reflected on the wall behind the computer. Ashley rose, went to the window and looked down through the curtains. A battery of flashlights almost blinded him and he stepped back.

‘Damn you all,’ he sobbed, his whole body trembling. ‘Damn you all.’

A picture arose in his mind of his mother and sister in Manchester. They would have been watching the programme. Perhaps with neighbours. There was a news camera down in the yard below him pointing up at his window. Yes, they would be watching now, white faced and ashamed, hands over mouths. The neighbours would have crept away and dashed to their houses and television sets. Everyone from chambers, everyone in the Conservative Party would be watching. His wife, she was watching too and her father would be saying ‘Told you so, something not quite top drawer about your Ashley. Thought so from the first.’ Oliver Delft, he would have watched and already he would have scratched Ashley’s name from his list of useful contacts. The news would have got round the Carlton Club and they would all be crowded into the television room, watching. Everybody would watch him being led away and everybody would watch his trial.

No, they would not. No one would watch him. No one. The doorbell rang again and a distorted voice, amplified by a megaphone, called up from the street below.

‘Mr Barson-Garland! My name is Superintendent Wallace. Please let us into the house. The yard will be cleared of cameras and press, you have my word.’

Ashley stumbled into the kitchen. His Sabatier knives gleamed invitingly. Those few friends that he had knew Ashley to be a fine cook. His knives, like everything else about him, were perfect. He pulled one from its wooden block and returned to his study, crying like a child.

All his life, he realised, he had felt like an antelope being chased by a lion. The hot stinking breath of fate had pursued him close but he had always found new spurts of speed, dazzling new zig-zags of energy and wit that had kept the beast away. Now he was finally being shaken in its jaws and he didn’t care. Damn them, damn them all! It wasn’t his fault. He had never chosen to be who he was. He had never chosen to be ugly, to be bald, to be ‘not quite top drawer’, to be attracted by youth, to be socially inept, to be despised by the arrogant ease and vanity of Them. Them with their flops of silky hair and flops of silky charm. Damn them all!

He pushed the knife into his throat and twisted it round and round and round.

At the same time he heard the door downstairs being beaten open and saw, through the jets of blood pumping from his neck, that his computer had come to life. He imagined, and it must have been imagination, that he read these words crawling across the screen like tickertape from left to right in bright red letters.

Ned Maddstone sends you to hell

His mind had time to wonder why, in the delirium of his last moments on this mean earth, the name of Ned Maddstone should have come to him. Perhaps it was appropriate. Ned had been the archetype of Them. The very pattern-book of ease and flop-fringed assurance.

Ashley died cursing the name and the very thought of Ned Maddstone.

Simon Cotter locked his office door and descended the stairs three at a time, slapping his thigh as he went.

‘Three!’ he whispered.

Albert and the others were still crowded around the television. They turned expectantly as Simon approached.

‘I couldn’t raise him on the phone,’ he said. ‘He must have disconnected himself. Oh look, the BBC is being coy, have you tried Sky News?’

Albert found the remote control and they all gazed up at the screen as live pictures played of a stretcher being rushed through the smashed front door of Barson-Garland’s London town house.

Simon made a note to himself to call the editor of the LEP first thing. There was much to be attended to: an obituary, a new Voice of Reason – so many little things.

Oliver Delft took his pulse while running on the spot. Ninety-eight, not bad. He blew out five or six times and looked round the square, allowing his breathing to settle into a calmer rhythm. He did not like his wife to see him even slightly out of breath, so as a rule he would stay on the doorstep until he was able to go back into the house presenting the appearance of a man who has done no more than walk to the post-box and back.

Light was leaking into the sky from the east. Through the trees he could see that one or two of the Balkan embassies had their lights on. On a number of occasions in the past he had surprised his staff by warning them of impending crises, simply on the basis of his observations of ambassadorial windows, an irony that pleased him in this so-called digital age.

Oliver frowned suddenly. A car was parked in the bay next to his. A silver Lexus that did not bear diplomatic plates. He could see the broad silhouette of an enormously fat driver sitting at the wheel. He made a note of the number and fished for his latchkey.

The first sign that alerted him to something strange afoot in the house was the sound of the children’s laughter. Oliver’s brood were never merry at the breakfast table. They slouched over their cereal, sulkily reading the packets or groaning for the radio to be turned off in favour of the television. The second sign of unusual goings on was the smell of bacon hanging in the hallway. Oliver was following a strict low fat diet and Julia had been a vegetarian all her life. The children, although the youngest was now thirteen, were still addicted to Coco Pops and Frosties.

Oliver heard a man s voice as he approached the kitchen. Bugger, he thought to himself. Uncle Bloody Jimmy.

Julia’s brother Jimmy was a favourite with the children but, as so often with those that children take to, adults found him a complete bore. The time would fit, Oliver realised, glancing at his watch. Uncle Jimmy often ‘dropped by’ early in the morning, after his flight from America had landed and he had a few hours to fill before the business world woke up. At least his arrival cleared up the mystery of the Lexus and chauffeur parked outside. Oliver prepared a welcoming face and opened the kitchen door.

If he had been asked to compile a list of a thousand people he might expect to see sitting at his kitchen table performing magic tricks for the benefit of his family, the dot.com billionaire Simon Cotter would not have featured anywhere.

‘There you are, darling!’ said his wife.

Cotter looked up and smiled. ‘Good morning, Sir Oliver. You must excuse me for barging in on your family like this. So early too. I was passing on my way to the airport and took a chance on your being in. Been for a run?’

Oliver, acutely aware of his tracksuit and headband and for no good reason embarrassed by them, nodded.

‘It’s a great pleasure to see you, Mr Cotter. If you’ll let me shoot upstairs and change…’

‘Come on, Simon. Where is it?’

India, the youngest, had grabbed Simon’s hand and was feeling up his sleeve and tugging at his beard.

‘Ah, now. Where would you like it to be? Would you like it to be under the sugar bowl, perhaps? In the toast rack? Inside the newspaper?’

‘Under the sugar bowl.’

‘Well, then. Have a look.’

‘Bloody hell!’

Oliver was amazed to see that Rupert, back from Oxford and tiresomely sophisticated these days, was as wide-eyed and wriggling as the others.

‘Another! Do another!’

By the time Oliver came downstairs again they were in the middle of a mind-reading trick. Even Oliver’s mother, sitting slightly apart in her wheelchair, appeared to be enjoying herself, if the quantity of dribble sliding from the corners of her mouth could be regarded as a reliable index.

Julia, the children and Maria had all drawn shapes on pieces of paper and were clustered around Cotter, who put a finger dramatically to each temple and stared downwards with a great frown.

‘The great Cottini must think. He must theeeenk … aпeee … no desme la lata!’ he muttered to himself. Oliver was surprised to see Maria giggle. She said something in Spanish and Cotter replied fluently.

‘My spirit guide, he has advised me,’ he announced, after turning his face in turn to each of the giggling, hot-faced children. ‘Olivia, because she is vairrry clever and vairrry beautiful, she would be choosing a fine horse, yes? You have drawed a horse, I am fancying.’

Olivia unfolded her piece of paper to reveal a competently drawn horse.

‘It’s a pony, actually,’ she said.

Cotter slapped his forehead. ‘Ah, I am so stupid! Of course it is a pony. Not horse! Pony! Forgive me, child, my powers are weak in the mornings. Let me consider now, Hoolia. Hoolia will choose I think a napple. Yes. Of this I am quite sure. A napple. Half eaten.’

Julia opened her paper and the kitchen rocked with delighted laughter.

‘Good. We make progress, yes? Now we come to Rupert. Rupert is most spiritual. He does not know this yet, but he is most spiritual person in room. He chooses I think a fireplace, which is for him a symbol of his heart, which burns greatly.’

‘That is unbe-fucking-lievable!’

‘Rupert!’

‘Sorry, Mother, but how the hell?’

‘Now, as for India. India is also great beauty, India is wise, India is cleverer than all her brothers and sisters combined together…’

Oliver exchanged a look with his wife. She beamed and he nodded back with a small smile.

‘… so India, she would choose an object most deceiving, I think. What would be most deceiving, I must ask myself? Nothing. Nothing would be the most deceiving and wicked thing of all. Show me your paper, oh deceiving and wicked person.

Blushing, India unfolded a blank piece of paper to tremendous applause.

‘Finally, Seсorita Maria. What shall we say she draws? Maria is a good woman. Maria is kind. Maria is holy. Maria will draw a chicken, I think, which is a holy creature of God, like herself.’

Dropping her paper and crossing herself, Maria babbled in Spanish, to which Cotter replied in a fluent stream. She kissed him and fluttered from the room, giggling.

‘One more, please, one more!’

Cotter looked up at Oliver and smiled. ‘I’m afraid I have to have a few words with your father now,’ he said.

‘Business!’ he whispered to them privately and gave a hollow groan.

The children groaned back and made him promise to visit again.

‘We’ll go up here,’ Oliver led Simon upstairs. ‘We shan’t be disturbed.’

‘Tremendous place,’ Simon said looking round approvingly.

‘It’s my mother’s, actually.’

‘Ah.’

Oliver saw that Cotter was looking with interest at the stair-lift. ‘She had a series of strokes some years ago. Mind’s all there but…’

‘Very sad. And Maria looks after her?’

‘That’s right. Come in here.’

‘Thank you. What a charming room. You have a wonderful family, Sir Oliver. Something rare these days.’

‘Just Oliver, please. Well, I have to say you bring out the best in them. I’m sorry to repeat their badgering, but how the hell does that trick work?’

‘Ah, well,’ Simon tapped his sunglasses. ‘I provided the paper they drew upon. Very dull chemistry, I’m afraid. Nothing more. Sort of trickery you MI6 boys used all the time in the old days, I expect. Promise not to tell them?’

‘You have my word. But…’

‘Yes?’

‘What you said about India being cleverer than the others. It’s true, but how could you possibly tell?’

‘It’s perfectly obvious. It’s much easier to hide stupidity than brains. Surely you know that?’

‘Well, you’ve certainly scored a hit. Please, sit down.’

‘Thank you. You must be wondering why I’m here.’

Oliver, who had been biting his tongue with curiosity for the past fifteen minutes, shrugged amiably. ‘It’s a surprise, certainly. A pleasant one, I assure you.’

‘Mm. I’m afraid my ways of doing business are a little unorthodox, as you may know.’

‘New rules for a new industry.’

‘Exactly. I’ll be absolutely direct with you. As you may know, CotterDotCom has had to dispense with the services of its head of internet security.’

‘Cosima Kretschmer?’

‘A grim affair. The woman is being treated by many as a kind of cyberhero, but as I have made clear, she acted entirely without the company’s authority.’

‘I understand that Barson-Garland’s family is suing?’

‘I have satisfied their lawyer that all Cosima’s research was undertaken on her own time, not the company’s. The action is now solely against her. She is in hiding somewhere. Germany, they believe. I fear that Mrs Garland will find it difficult to win so much as a penny from her. After all, it seems that the allegations were far from baseless. A sad business.’

‘Hm… I have to confess it was quite the most riveting evening’s television I have ever experienced.’

‘You knew Barson-Garland quite well, I believe?’

Oliver studied his fingers and picked a sliver of skin from under a nail. ‘Knew him? Yes, I knew him. I wouldn’t say well, exactly.’

‘Rumour has it that he was trying to recruit you as an ally for his Security Agency. That he’d promised you the job of heading it up, if it were ever to get off the ground.’

‘Really? I –’

Oliver turned his head at the sound of a sudden creak on the stair. He strode quickly across the room and opened the door.

‘Ah, Maria, how can we help?’

‘I’m sorry disturbing you, Sir Oliver. I woss wunnering if you or Seсor Cotter like maybe some cop of coffee? Or some bisskiss? I have bake yesty some bisskiss. I come in.

Oliver stood uncomfortably by the fireplace while Maria cleared away piles of art books and magazines from the coffee table to make space for her tray. Cotter chattered away to her in Spanish and she left the room, simpering like a schoolgirl.

‘Lace on the tray!’ said Oliver, closing the door. ‘You’ve scored quite a hit there too. I seem to remember reading in some magazine or other that you are fluent in nine languages. Can that be true?’

‘Thing of it is,’ said Simon, helping himself to a biscuit, ‘I spent so much time learning languages that I never learned to count, so I couldn’t tell you how many I speak.’

Oliver smiled dryly.

‘You’re probably wondering,’ Simon went on, ‘-absolutely delicious biscuits by the way, simply melt in the mouth – how on earth I could know that Barson-Garland had been trying to seduce you.’

‘That question had crossed my mind.’

‘I haven’t bugged the tables or bribed the Thursday waiters at Mark’s Club, no need to worry about that. No, the fact is that dear old Barson-Garland was also flirting with me. Bit of a two-timing whore, that one.’

‘I see.’

‘He wasn’t sure whether to go public or private, you see. His instincts were actually quite sound in that respect. Which way will the world go? Some think that governments should oversee the formation of a global internet police force. Many are afraid that this is exactly what will happen and scream about privacy and civil liberties. You are probably aware that the recent spate of viruses, worms, mail-bombs and portal attacks has led the international community to one inevitable and irrevocable conclusion. They can’t do anything about it. Nothing will work. It’s too expensive. It’s too impractical. The legal ramifications of borders, copyright treaties and so on are complex and insoluble. The only answer is for private enterprise, at local corporate levels, to do its own policing, its own firewalling, its own vaccinating and prophylaxis. Only the private sector can cross the borders, only the private sector has the resources and the power to take the responsibility. The post of Head of internet Security at CotterDotCom takes on a greater meaning than ever before. Frankly, even if Cosima had not gone mad I would still be offering you this position. That, if you had not guessed, is what I am doing. It’s frankly the same job that Ashley Barson-Garland offered you, but it’s bigger, it’s real, it’s now, it’s free of political interference and it carries embarrassingly good pay. I do need an answer soon, however. I’m off to Africa later this morning and I’d love to know that you can start work as soon as you’ve cleared it with your people … in the meantime, I’m absolutely dying for a slash. You couldn’t…?’

‘Oh, yes. Of course. Through there, second door on the right.’

‘Do try one of those biscuits. So light. They can’t do your diet the least bit of harm.’

Simon left the room and crossed the landing as directed. As he passed the stairs he noticed that the stair-lift had moved from the bottom of the staircase to the top. A half open door caught Simon’s eye and he pushed it open and went in.

Alone and immobile, Oliver Delft’s mother sat on a wheelchair facing a window that overlooked the Square. Simon came and stood beside her. Her eyes rolled up towards him. It seemed to Simon that her face was capable of showing some expression, for he thought he detected a gleam of surprised pleasure.

‘Philippa Blackrow,’ he whispered. ‘How strange to meet you. I’m Ned Maddstone. Do you know that you are responsible for the destruction of my life? Do you know that because of you I spent twenty years imprisoned in an insane asylum? Twenty years because of you and your cunt of a son.

Breath hissed and bubbled from Philippa’s lungs and he could sense the strain in her as she tried to mobilise her sagging cheeks and drooping mouth into some shape that might move towards speech. Saliva ran from her lips and her clawed and wasted hands shook like dried leaves in a storm.

‘I was to have delivered a letter to you. From your Fenian friends. Of all the people in the world, it was your son who intercepted it. That is how cruel fate can be. To protect you and to save his own worthless skin he hid me away to rot amongst the mad for ever. And now I have come back. I am much crueller than fate. I thought you should know that. Infinitely more cruel. They tell me that inside this lifeless carcass your mind is fully active. Now it has something to ponder on for the rest of its days. Goodbye.’

The last picture of Philippa that Simon took away with him was of a mother down whose withered cheeks tears were flowing. He did not see, as he flushed the lavatory and crossed the landing to return to Oliver, that her mouth was trying to force itself into a smile and he could not know that the tears dropping from her eyes were tears of joy.

Albert banged into the house and called out from the bottom of the stairs.

‘Mum! Dad! Where are you?’

Only after he had yelled three times and heard no reply did he realise that Gordon and Portia would be out picking up his grandfather to bring him back for supper. That was the very reason for Albert leaving work so early, but the horrors of the tube journey had banished all such thoughts from his mind. He stormed angrily into the kitchen at the sound of the phone, swung his bag viciously onto the kitchen table, not caring if he cracked the screen of his laptop and pushed the phone off its hook, letting the receiver dangle down and bang against the wall. Java the cat wound around his ankles and he kicked him away.

‘Shit,’ he yelled. ‘Shit on everything. Shit you all. Shit, shit, shit.’

Breathing heavily through his nostrils, he took the newspaper from his jacket, sat down at the table and read the article for the twelfth time. Java sat coldly in the corner, ignoring him with great dignity.

CAF? UNETHICA

A coffee scandal was brewing in the world of ‘ethical trading’ this morning, when it was revealed exclusively to the London Evening Press that Gordon Fendeman, founder of Caf? Ethica and darling of New Labour and the eco-conscious chattering classes, had cheated an entire African community out of their land rights and destroyed the way of life of a whole people in order to start up his business. The so-called ‘co-operatives’ that Caf? Ethica claims to be supporting were actually, according to sources on the ground, bussed in from a tribe two hundred miles to the east of the plantation. Sources say that this was the result of a corrupt arrangement made between Fendeman (41) and the local government, which is composed entirely of the rival, majority tribe.

These disclosures will rock the rapidly expanding world of ethical commodities and cast fresh doubt on New Labour’s business judgement. Only two weeks ago, the Prime Minister in a speech to the City referred to Fendeman’s enterprise as a ‘beacon of light that led the way to new ways of trading with the Third World’, words which he must now be bitterly regretting.

Reports say that Fendeman, who is married to art historian Portia Fendeman, struck a deal in 1998 with the minority tribal leaders, who turned down a lucrative offer from a worldwide consortium in order to do business with Fendeman’s new company. They were led to believe that a deal with Caf? Ethica would be in their best interests, offering profit sharing, improved working conditions and the promise of a secure future for their people. They were horrified to discover that the terms of this contract in fact allowed Fendeman to evict them from land they had owned for countless generations and replace them with workers from another part of the country. These displaced people now face a future of starvation, disease and homelessness in a country where their tribe has few enough rights.

Fendeman’s personal profits from the local government deal that kicked these people off their land and from the growing sales of Caf? Ethica products have been calculated to exceed one million pounds a year. Comment, Page 12.

The ‘comment’ on page twelve was unspeakable, just unspeakable. Albert felt that his whole world was crashing down around him. It seemed impossible to separate the various strands of his despair.

His father. How could such a thing be written. How dared they? It must be lies. He knew his father too well to believe anything else. But it would hurt him so deeply. He was a proud man. Whatever the outcome, mud would stick.

His work: for five months, Albert had been toiling away in the field of Ethical Trading. He had broken new ground and achieved great things. He was proud of what he was doing and how it would help the world. Something like this, however deeply untrue it so manifestly was, would dwell in the mind of the public for ever. The consumer’s hand would start to close around a product whose labelling contained the word ‘ethical’ and then draw back as if stung. ‘Oh yes,’ they would say to themselves. ‘Wasn’t there some nasty fuss about these types of companies? Better stick to Nescaf?.’ And all that good work would be undone.

Simon: The London Evening Press was his newspaper. He was a busy man, of course. Albert had never seen a man with such a capacity for work and detail. Only yesterday, in a wine bar, Albert had been boasting about him to his friends. He had used the very word ‘detail’ time and time again in describing Simon’s awesome abilities. It was the quality that always marked out the great: their grasp on detail. And that was the problem. Albert could not imagine for a moment that Simon, however busy he was, could ever have been unaware of the LEP’s attack on Gordon. He must have known. But if he had known then how could he have allowed it? Not to warn Albert, not to take him aside and break the news. The same friends that Albert had talked to when raving on and on about him had been cynical. ‘Believe me,’ one of them had said. ‘No one makes that kind of money without being a complete son of a bitch deep down.’ ‘You’re wrong, so wrong!’ Albert had insisted. But a memory returned to him now of the strange sensation he had felt standing next to him while they watched the public destruction of Ashley Barson-Garland on television. There had been nothing in Simon’s expression that Albert could pin down, but none the less he had been aware of a feeling. An atmosphere. Intense waves had radiated from Simon that Albert had tried to push to the back of his mind. It had been like smelling fear, or sexual desire, or guilt, yet it had been none of those things. It had been something else. And the rumours that had flown throughout the company. Cosima? Acting independently? Getaway! She couldn’t take a pee without Cotter’s say-so, let alone appear on TV. Albert had dismissed all that as office gossip. Maybe though, maybe there was something about Simon. If Albert inspected his feelings honestly, maybe… maybe what he had smelt that night had been cruelty.

Gordon was his father. Ethical Trading was his life. Simon was his god. Fathers are weak. Life is a betrayal. Gods are cruel. Albert had read enough and seen enough to know these as objective facts, but he had not expected to experience them quite so soon and all at once. All three had been taken away from him in a single blow of fate. One minute he had been cheerfully sitting on the tube, listening to music and skimming through the evening paper – he only bought that bloody paper because it was Simon’s – and the next minute the triple pillars of his world had crumbled.

He rose from the table at the sound of the front door.

‘Where is he? Where’s my grandson?’

Albert folded up the newspaper and slipped it back into his pocket. ‘I’m in the kitchen, Grandpa. Grabbing some food before you get it all.’

‘Cheeky! The boy is so cheeky. Don’t you love him?’ Albert adored his grandfather. He was a constant reminder to him of his Jewishness and his heritage. It was hard to believe what his parents told him, that many years ago Grandpa had been a history lecturer and local politician. Rabidly left wing, Portia said, which was hard to imagine. Something had happened, Albert never quite got to the bottom of it, something to do with a wrongful arrest, but Peter had left academia and thrown himself into religion and the local synagogue. Theirs was a tight knit family, by definition. As the son of cousins, Albert had long endured the amusement of his friends at the circumstance of his grandfather also being his great-uncle and all the teasing suggestions of genetic weakness that went with it, but he loved his family and enjoyed the special closeness that came from not having two warring factions within it. No in-law jokes for the Fendemans.

He embraced his grandfather and saw, over his shoulder, that Portia and Gordon knew nothing.

‘So, my darlings. What’s to eat?’

‘You’ll see, Daddy, you’ll see.’ Portia laughed as she kissed her father and her son. ‘You look worried, darling, what is it?’

‘Nothing, Mum, nothing. Tough day at the office.’

Albert knew that it was not going to be a hard decision after all. Blood was thicker than worship. This was his family. They counted more than any hero. After all, there was Oxford. It wasn’t too late. It was never too late.

‘Hey, the phone’s off the hook.’

‘Leave it, Dad. No, leave it, really. It’s Friday night. The sun has set. No work. No calls.’

Peter put a hand to his grandson’s cheek. ‘Love him! Couldn’t you just eat him up? Am I right?’

Albert lit the candles and drew the curtains. He knew that soon enough the house would be under siege.

‘Welcome aboard, Oliver. I know we’ve both made the right decision. If you like I’ll walk you round the place, introduce you to a few people. How are you on heights?’

‘Heights?’

‘There’s a fabulous office at the top of the building, one of the best views in London, but if you prefer, you can make your habitation a little closer to ground.’

‘No, no. Heights are good.’

‘Of course you’re used to a view aren’t you? As a matter of fact, you can see your old office from my window here. Would you like to wave to your successor?’

‘Frankly no,’ said Oliver. ‘It’s only when you’ve shaken the dust of public service from your shoes that you realise how much you always hated it. By the way, my children will kill me if I forget to pass on an invitation to dinner next week. Thursday, can you make it?’

‘It would be a pleasure, please convey my grateful thanks. Now, let’s amble, shall we? Ah, good morning, Albert. Let me introduce you to Sir Oliver Delft. Anti-virus, anti-worm, anti-hacker.’

‘How do you do? Simon, I have to talk to you right now. It’s extremely urgent.’

‘Ah. Oliver, I’m so sorry, would you mind if I…?’

‘No, no. If it’s all right with you, I’ll wander on my own. I’d prefer it that way. I take it this pass allows me anywhere?’

‘Absolutely anywhere. Introduce yourself as you go along, I broke the glad tidings to everyone by email this morning.’

‘I will see you later then.’

‘Albert, I have a very strong idea why you are here. Let me say – ‘How could you do it? How?’

‘I’m the publisher, Albert, not the editor. I can’t be seen to interfere in.

‘Oh buhshit, that’s absolute bullshit. I’m not an idiot. And this, here, in today’s Times, have you seen? They are claiming that my father bought LEP shares the day before you announced that you were buying it and that he was acting on inside information. That was me! The first day I came here you told me you were buying the paper and I … I happened to mention it to him. I didn’t know it meant anything. And now they are painting him as some sort of crook. He’s not. He’s my father. He’s a decent man. What are you doing to him?’

‘Albert, calm down. I’m sure this will all come out right in the end.’

‘Anyway, I–I came here to tell you that I’m leaving.’

‘But Albert, that’s absurd.’

‘It’s a matter of… of… honour. I can’t possibly work for you. You’re my enemy. It’s family honour. We’re going to clear his name if it takes every penny we have. I’m going to expose you for what you are. A wrecker of lives. An animal. I’ll make your life hell. Goodbye.’

‘Albert, this is nothing more than absurd posturing. Dry your eyes. Come back.’

Albert had been in his room for nine days. The pages were uploading. The world would soon know the kind of man Simon Cotter truly was. He had collected together every morsel of gossip, every hint, rumour and theory that had ever been whispered on the subject of his mortal enemy. More would come, that was the nature of the internet. It wouldn’t matter if his subject was Mother Teresa, there would be people out there with scandal, conspiracy theories and reasons to hate. Albert had the advantage of knowing things. Nothing too terrible, but enough to make Cotter a figure of fun.

Albert watched the final page upload. He had chosen a free webserver in Australia. It made no difference really, but the site might as well be lodged as far away as possible. It gave the impression that Cotter’s enemies were spread around the globe. When he got to Oxford next month he would continue his campaign. They might have taken Wafiq Said’s money, but they’d never accept Cotter’s, not once Albert had done his work. Simon Cotter. The arrogance of him. The vain casual arrogance.

‘Albert! Let me in. Please.

Why not? His mother should see that he hadn’t just been sulking like Achilles in his tent. He had been arming and preparing for battle.

‘Okay, Mum. It’s a bit of a mess I’m afraid.’

Albert got up from his chair and unlocked the door. Portia was standing with a tray in her hand.

‘For goodness’ sake! What have you been doing in there?’

‘Yeah, I know. I’ve been busy. Hiya, Java.’

Portia trod gingerly in and stood in the middle of the room and swayed slightly as if she were about to lose her balance. ‘Where on earth am I going to put this tray?

‘Um… down there.’ Albert kicked away a pile of CDs, photographs and underwear. ‘Get away Java!’

Java had leapt onto the desk and was batting at the mouse, as cats will.

‘Lunch,’ said Portia firmly. ‘In fact it’s last night’s supper and this morning’s breakfast too. You absolutely must eat. I’m going to watch you. I don’t care if I sound like the worst Jewish mother in the world. You simply must eat.’

‘Yeah, yeah. Whatever. Look, Mum…’

‘Don’t you “whatever” me! I’m going to watch every sandwich going down your throat. And then sleep. You didn’t go to bed at all last night, did you?’

‘Okay, okay … only, look.’ Albert grinned. ‘You’ve arrived at a historic moment. The formal opening of the world’s first anti-Cotter site. Watch this.’

Albert sat down at this computer again and his mouse started skating.

‘See? www.ihatecotter.co.au. Here’s the welcome page. “Welcome to my parlour.” That’s Cotter in the centre of this web, I’ve made him look like a spider. You move the mouse over the spider and he scuttles from one part of his web to the other. When you click, it tells you about each part, see? And you can look at different areas, like cupboards in the parlour? Here’s a “Slap Cotter” page. When you click over his face, he gets slapped and it plays this sound. Hang on.’

The cartoon sound of a ringing slap came from the computer speakers followed by a treble ‘ouch!’

‘Pinched them from the Simpsons actually, but whatever. There’s a gossip page. As people log on they can add their own stories. See? I’ve put in stuff like “he only drinks milk”, “he dyes his hair”. He’s trying to buy into the establishment. He’s been giving money to St Mark’s in Oxford. To the MCC as well, so he can jump the queue and become a member, so I’ve got links to the official MCC and St Mark’s sites so real members can campaign against him from within.’

‘Darling, you can’t do this. He’ll sue.’

‘Let him. Let him bloody sue. That would be brilliant. How would it look? Suing a seventeen-year-old whose father he has been smearing in his papers? I don’t think so. Even if he got some sort of injunction or whatever, imagine what it would start. You know what the net is like. His name would be mud in days. He’d be the hate figure of all time. Share price would go frrfrfrfrffrfrrr… Check this out, this is a page of Conspiracy theories. Cosima Kretschmer, okay? This says how she was acting under orders to expose Barson-Garland. She was his girlfriend. That kind of stuff. Oh, and you’ll love this. Here’s a page of photos with him bald … you know like that kids’ magnet man with the iron filings? You can give him beards and moustaches and different hair colours to see if he’s actually a wanted criminal or something. You never know, someone may recognise him. That’s the thing about Simon Bloody Cotter. Nobody knows who he is. Maybe he’s a Nazi war criminal. Tell you what, let’s make him Aryan blond…’

‘Darling, he’s a bit young to be…’

Portia broke off, very suddenly. Albert turned to look at her. She was staring at the screen, absolutely transfixed.

‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost, Mum. What is it?’

Portia closed her eyes for a second.

‘Mum?’

‘Come on, let’s see you eat those sandwiches, right now.

‘Yeah, yeah. But what do you think?’

Portia leant forward and kissed her son, amazed that she could speak so calmly. ‘It’s brilliant of course, darling. I can’t begin to imagine how you could do such a thing.’

‘Should I show it to Dad?’

‘Not just at the minute, my love.’

‘Is he…? Where is he?’

‘Here, in the dining-room. He’s in good shape, don’t worry. There’s a board meeting next week. They want to give him a chance to explain. He’s preparing his…, his…’

‘Defence?’

‘Well, it’s not quite like that. The board believes him completely.’

‘I should bloody well hope so.’ Now that Albert had started eating he found that he was extremely hungry. ‘Top sandwiches, Mum.’

‘But there’s obviously a lot of pressure from shareholders.’

‘He’s never going to resign?’

‘Well he thinks it may be in the best interests of the company. Its reputation and share price.

‘But that’s like saying he’s guilty! He can’t resign!’

‘Well, that’s the point of the board meeting. To find a way of his stepping down that doesn’t look like an admission of guilt. The whole board wants to help. Do you want me to make you some more?’

‘These are fine. Thanks, Mum.’

‘All right. I’m going out now. I shall – ‘ Portia cleared her throat to hide the tremble in her voice ‘- I’ll be back later and I expect to find you in bed, asleep. You understand?’ She leant forward and kissed him, clenching her fists to cover the shaking. ‘I do love you very much. You know that, don’t you?’

Albert had turned back to his screen and he replied through a mouthful of chicken sandwich. ‘Love you too, Mum. Love you too. Hey, look! I’ve already got an email from someone. Look at that, it’s got an attachment. “I hate Cotter too.” Wonder what it is.

Albert double-clicked. Instantly the screen went black.

‘What the fuck?’

A ribbon of bright red text chugged along the screen.

YOU WANT A DUEL? YOU’VE GOT IT.

ALL FILES INFECTED. GOODBYE.

‘No … no!’ Albert switched his computer off and started it again.

‘Darling, what’s happening?’

‘It’s him, it’s him! He’s sent me a fucking virus. I can’t believe it. He’s destroyed the whole system. Oh, Jesus.’

‘But he can’t have done…’

‘He must be running a permanent search. He’s found the Australian site and knows it’s from me. Shit!’

‘All right, Albert. Calm down.’

‘I’ve still got my laptop. He can’t touch that. I’ll start again. Do it even better. Take it to a cybercaf?. This is just the fucking beginning. Everyone’s equal on the net.’

‘Albert…

‘Can’t talk, Mum. Work to do.’

Portia closed the door and walked slowly to the kitchen.

The whole terrible truth had come crashing into her mind.

Ashley and Rufus Cade. She should have made the connection before and been on her guard. Ashley and Rufus Cade. And Gordon next.

A noise like a farmer turning hay with a pitchfork came through the kitchen hatchway. Gordon was sitting at the dining-room table shuffling through a heap of faxes. Portia thought she had never seen him looking so energised and alive. She preferred not to remember the dread she sometimes saw in his eyes.

‘We will fight on until my husband’s name is cleared.’

How many times had she heard that over the years from the spouses of Aitken, Hamilton, Archer, Clinton, Nixon and countless others who had faced scandal while their wives ‘stood by them’?

She knew that Gordon was not a wicked man. Like most people, he was a child anxious to be loved and like most men, a boy desperate to prove himself in the world. She could picture him doing so many bad things for so many good reasons. He had spent most of his life trying to catch up: A second choice husband living off the earnings of a wife who had married him out of pity and her own despair. At the start of their marriage everything had come from Hillary’s money. Portia had been the brilliant young student with the doctorate and academic tenure, Gordon had been the American outsider who never quite managed to fit in. Ten years of bluff talk to friends had taken their toll on his pride.

‘I’m in the financial advisor game at the moment.’ He was selling endowment mortgages on commission. Somehow worse, in Portia’s opinion, than double-glazing or herbal remedies.

‘A franchise opportunity has opened up. Looking at that quite keenly. Quite keenly.’ He considered managing a Seattle style coffee bar.

‘Business consultancy, as matter of fact.’ Nothing.

‘Broking soft commodities.’ Trading in coffee futures on the residue left by Hillary after she died. And losing it too.

And one last throw. The idea had come from Portia in fact, though he chose not to remember it. She had heard a programme on the radio about the low world prices being fetched for tea and coffee, a subject Gordon had been kvetching about for years.

‘Darling, I know it’s tough for you that the prices are rock bottom. But what about the pickers?’

‘Yes, well, obviously it’s tough for them too.’

‘Surely lots of people in the west would be prepared to pay extra for coffee and tea if they thought it would benefit the third world?’

‘That’s a brilliant idea, Mum.’

‘It seems to make sense.’

‘Porsh, it doesn’t quite work like that – ‘

‘What about it, Dad?’

‘I remember,’ Portia had continued. ‘Peter used to make us buy Nicaraguan coffee. To support the revolution and thumb a nose at America. You could buy it everywhere. Collett’s bookshop, health stores, those sort of places. They used to advertise it in the New Statesman. Peter even put posters up in Hampstead library.’

‘Sure, it sounds all very well in theory…’

‘Why did you call Grandpa Peter?’

‘Did I, darling? It’s worth thinking about though, Gordon, don’t you think?’

Finally he had achieved something. Success on his own terms.

Portia put her head through the hatch.

‘Gordon, I’ve got to go out for an hour or so. Got everything you need?’

‘Going fine, Porsh. Going fine. A lot of good evidence coming in from Africa, South America, Indonesia. It’s looking good.’

Portia smiled and gave a thumbs up. She had long thought that there was a melancholy air of desolation that hung over dining-rooms that were seldom used for dining. Gordon had spread papers on that table before and never with any good result. The smell of furniture polish and candle wax reminded Portia of death. Dead flies had been candied and preserved in the lips of a half empty port decanter and cobwebs furred the dried flowers and fir cones in the fireplace. She remembered when the mirror over the sideboard had been draped with black cloth. Peter, Albert and Gordon, their neckties ripped, had sat Shiva for Hillary on low wooden stools, Albert’s face so solemn and white that she had wanted to cover it in kisses and hug him close to her. Peter had stayed there the full seven days, mourning his wife and perhaps also the atheism and contempt for ritual of his only daughter. There was no hope to be had from dining-rooms. None at all.

Simon had enjoyed a busy morning on the telephone. He looked down at the To Do List on his Palm Pilot.

Letter to St Mark’s ?

John ?

Floyd ?

Drapers ?

Estate Agents ?

Mbinda ?

(Hotel?) ?

Albert ?

CE Shares ?

DM ?

As far as he could tell he was up to speed and on top of everything. He considered leaving early and visiting the nets at Lords for a little cricket practice. A small part of him, looking at the checklist, had whispered the terrible word ‘boredom’ to him. Soon, it would all be over.

Simon swore at himself heartily in Russian. Then in Swedish. A man of his capacity would never be bored. The idea was absurd. He could be anything he wanted to be. Writer. Inventor. Translator. Statesman. Broadcaster. Philanthropist. Collector. Playboy. If he was never bored in a small room in a hospital on a remote island in the Kattegat, how could he imagine being bored when the whole world was his playground?

His desk phone rang and he pressed the monitor button.

‘Mmhm?’

‘I’m so sorry, Simon. I know you said no calls. There’s a woman here. She says you’ll definitely want to see her. I wouldn’t pay any attention, only it’s Albert’s mother. I wasn’t sure if maybe…’

‘One moment.’

He pressed the monitor button again. His plans were so complete, so absolute, so thoroughly thought through. He had not expected this visit, but naturally he had considered it. He was ready.

‘Very well, Lily. Show her in.’

Simon rose from his desk and moved round to the sitting area.

‘Mrs Fendeman, do come in. Coffee? No, of course not. I’m sorry, that was … water, perhaps? Fruit juice?’

‘A glass of water would be fine.’

‘Would you, Lily? Thanks. Sit down, please, Mrs Fendeman. Tell me how I can help you.

Portia sat down. She found it hard to raise her head and look into his eyes.

‘I think you know what you can do, Mr Cotter. You can leave my family alone.’

Simon dropped into the armchair opposite. ‘Oh dear,’ he said. ‘This is terribly difficult. Before you say anything else, let me tell you that I have absolutely no wish to hurt your son. He’s a very fine, very intelligent boy. You should be proud of him.’

‘I am proud of him. I don’t need your endorsement.’

‘Of course not.’

‘I notice,’ said Portia, ‘that you did not say that you had no wish to hurt my husband.’

‘Mrs Fendeman, it’s very important that you try to understand the complex relationship that exists between a newspaper publisher and his editorial staff.’

‘Oh please…’

‘Ah, thank you, Lily. That’s fine. Definitely no calls now, okay? Thanks, love.’

Simon watched her pour the water into a glass. She looked across at him and gave a sad half-smile.

‘If I hadn’t known when I came in, I would have known now,’ she said.

‘Excuse me?’

‘That habit of jogging your knee up and down. I can see you as you were. A little lost boy.’

Simon stood up. He took a deep breath. ‘Oh Portia,’ he said. ‘Portia. I can’t tell you what…’ He started to pace up and down the room. ‘I went to a lecture you gave last April. I have watched you in your kitchen, from the street. That same house in Plough Lane. I’ve read your books. I’ve seen your light in Albert’s eyes. But to have you here. It’s very.

‘There is no light in Albert’s eyes. Not any more. You’ve put it out.’

Simon had no wish to be side-tracked down paths opened up by Portia. ‘I suppose it was that page on his website, was it? I had a go too. Gave myself blond hair. Rather frightening. That’s what told you, is it? Or did you know before?’

‘I’m really not sure. I had only seen you on television and in magazines. There was something in my mind. A distrust. A worry, I suppose…’

‘A distrust?’ Simon came and sat down opposite her again. ‘How can you say distrust?’

‘An uncomfortable feeling. It should have been distrust. Please, Ned. I don’t want to talk to you about anything but my family. My son.

‘He should have been my son!’

‘But he isn’t. Half of him is Gordon, half of him is me. None of him is you.’

‘I know. I know. I thought … it crossed my mind … maybe you had lied about his age. Maybe he was actually two years older. Maybe he was conceived…’

‘There go those knees again…

Simon stood up. ‘But I realise that he is Gordon’s. What you have to understand,’ he started pacing again, ‘is what happened to me. What they did to me.’

‘Ashley, Gordon and Rufus. I know what they did to you.

‘You know? How could you possibly know? There isn’t the slightest possibility you could know.’

‘Gordon told me.’

Simon stopped and turned. ‘He told you?’ He resumed his pacing. ‘Yes. I see. He told you. I suppose that makes sense. You realised who I am and you told him. He confessed all and sent you to me. It makes sense.

‘You may know many things, Mr Cotter, but… ‘Portia, please. You know my name. Use it.’ ‘You may know many things, Mr Cotter,’ persisted Portia, ‘you may speak many languages, run many businesses and control many lives, but you do not know the first thing about people. Gordon told me years ago. Years ago. Around the time Albert was born in fact. It had been preying on his mind like a tumour. He had watched me go into the hospital and talk to your father day after day after day and he knew that he was responsible. It burned him up. He loved me, you see. He never stopped trying to find you. I gave up long before he did.’

‘That was certainly a clever way to win you. I never doubted his brains.’

‘Well you should have done, he hasn’t many. A good heart, but no brains. Look at the mess he’s in.’

‘Mess? Look at the mess that African tribe is in. A good heart?’

‘Oh, for heaven’s sake. You don’t want a debate about moral responsibility do you? Do we prefer to treat Africans like children? When they hurt their own, must it always be our fault? Was he more wicked than the government that actually did the deed? More wicked because he’s white and “should know better” than those poor helpless little piccaninnies? Yes, it was wrong of him. It’s wrong of us every time we buy a doll made by children in sweat shops. Good, decent, high-minded, liberal men and women once stirred sugar into their coffee knowing it was picked by slaves. You’re wearing leather shoes, one day such an act will be regarded as the height of immorality. We buy things, we live in the world, we’re all involved, all messed up together in the same moral soup. For the love of God, how can you be so arrogant? Can’t you extend a moment’s sympathy to a man floundering in quicksand?’

‘A quicksand of his own making.’

‘That’s what makes it so pitiful still. If it was not his fault he could be like you and wallow in the luxury of divine rage. If fate throws brickbats at you, it’s easy. When they’re your own and they bounce back at you, it’s hopeless. It is his fault, so he … he pretends. You should see him… he’s so lost. So completely helpless.’ Portia was furious to hear her voice quavering and she knew that there were now visible tears in her eyes.

‘I’m sorry, Portia. Truly sorry.

‘I don’t want your pity, I want your promise. I suppose it’s too late to do anything for Gordon’s reputation, but Albert. Leave him alone. For God’s sake leave him alone.’

‘He’s the one picking the fight,’ said Simon. He was leaning against the opposite wall. ‘If I know him, he’ll be sitting in a cybercaf? somewhere with a laptop, using an alias with a free account and not accepting any email for fear of more viruses. It’s quite an intellectual challenge.’

‘He’s a child. You can let go.’

Simon considered the letter he had written to Oxford that morning. A letter that would certainly reverse the college’s decision to accept Albert as an undergraduate.

‘I’m sorry, Portia,’ he said. ‘Everything is in train.

Portia looked at the space above his head. ‘Everything thoroughly thought through, in fact.’

‘One day you’ll understand.’

‘I can’t pretend that I know everything that’s happened to you. But I can see the result. Perhaps you should be thanking Gordon. You have almost boundless wealth and a mind that everyone assures me is terrifying in its breadth, knowledge and power. You seem to have everything that the world covets.’

‘Not you, Portia. I don’t have you. I don’t have your children. I don’t have a family history, a youth.’

‘Whatever had been done to him, do you know how Ned would have reacted? If Gordon had cut his arm off, say, in a fit of rage? Ned would have blushed and stammered and said, “Gosh, that’s all right. My fault, actually. Please don’t worry yourself. Awfully sorry.” That’s how Ned would have dealt with whatever fate had thrown him. With a dazzling smile and an embarrassed shuffle of the feet.’

‘I am Ned and that is not how I reacted.’

‘I don’t know who you are, Mr Cotter, but I can state with absolute assurance that you are not Ned Maddstone. I knew him well, you see.’

‘You will understand. And soon.’ Simon moved towards her. ‘I am not responsible for what is happening. All this will soon be over and you will understand completely. We will have time to talk and remember. You will see that I am merely an instrument. An instrument of God.’

From the doorway Portia shuddered. ‘Oh dear heavens,’ she whispered. ‘You poor man. I’m so sorry.’

Simon stood for while alone in the office, thinking. After a while he called Lily on the internal phone.

‘That post I put out. It hasn’t gone yet, has it?’

‘Still here, Simon.’

‘Bring it in would you? There’s a love.’

He found that he still could not sit down without his knees jiggling up and down, so he leant against the window as he reread the letter to St Mark’s. He laid it on the desk and smiled to himself. It could keep.

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