V. Coda

Albert and Portia had sat quietly in the kitchen for a quarter of an hour each smelling the residue of Gordon’s fear, neither speaking of it. He had left the house for his board meeting at half past eight.

‘Doesn’t do to look overkeen,’ he had said, cheerfully stuffing papers into his briefcase.

Mother and son were each proud of the other’s hypocrisy. Albert had not imagined Portia capable of a phrase like ‘Go get ‘em, Tiger!’ and she had not thought that the day would ever dawn when Albert would punch his father on the arm and say ‘Attaboy, Dad!’

Gordon had swept out with a brisk nod of the head, as if to show that it was an ordinary day. On ordinary days, as Albert and Portia were all too well aware, he would have kissed them each and said, ‘Time to cast some pearls before swine’, ‘Wish me luck’ or even ‘Yeugh! Another shitty day for our hero.’

While the coffee went cold in their cups and Java howled in vain for admission, Portia had told Albert everything she knew about Ned Maddstone.

‘Why didn’t you tell me this before?’ he had wanted to know. ‘Why didn’t Dad tell me?’

‘I expect we would have told you one day. It didn’t seem … necessary. But Dad doesn’t know that Ned has come back. And there’s no reason why he should either. I only realised myself the other day. None of us knows what happened to Ned after he disappeared. I don’t suppose we ever shall. But your father worried about him terribly for years. Perhaps he still does. We don’t speak about it.’

‘Do you…, do you still love Ned?’

‘I love your father very much. And I love you.

‘And grandpa.’

‘And grandpa, of course.

‘And Java?’

‘Naturally Java.’

They had both laughed. Portia had squeezed Albert’s hand in appreciation of his lightening her load and he had returned the pressure.

Sitting now in his bedroom with the laptop open and Java on his knees looking in vain for a mouse to swat, he awaited an email. His mother had never answered his question and he supposed that she did still love Simon, Ned … whatever.

The computer chimed, Albert jumped in his seat and Java leapt crossly from his lap. He saw the letter there in his Inbox.

Simon Cotter Re: Ned

There was no attachment. He didn’t even care if Cotter knew a way of sending viruses by plain email. He moved his finger along the track-pad and double-clicked with his thumb. on 10/10/00 09:20 am, Albert Fendeman at aef©anon_anon_anon.co.tm wrote:

› Dear Mr Cotter

› My mother has explained things to me, but she

› has no idea I am writing to you.

› I am extremely sorry for any pain my father has

› caused you in the past.

› I understand why you are doing what you are

› doing and promise to leave you alone from now

› on.

› Thank you for the valuable experience I derived

› from working with you. I hope everything goes

› well for you and your company.

› Please do not stop the good work you are doing

› in the field of ethical trading.

› Yours

› Albert Fendeman

Albert

Thank you for your email. Start up your computer. Ignore the fact that the screen is blank. Press Alt-Control-Shift N, wait a few seconds and then press Shift-Delete. When prompted, key in the password “Babe” (observe the upper case B). You should find all your files intact.

Enjoy your time at Oxford. If ever you find yourself looking for employment afterwards, you know where to come. A brilliant career awaits you. Live up to your mother’s expectations.

Yours

Simon

PS: A splendid email address. My directory tells me that tm is Turkmenistan. A fine touch.

Simon Cotter simoncotter@cotdotcom.com

*******************************************

Any opinions expressed in the email are those of the individual and not necessarily the company. This email and any files transmitted with it are confidential and solely for the use of the intended recipient or entity to whom they are addressed. It may contain material protected by attorney-client privilege. If you are not the intended recipient or the person responsible for delivering to the intended recipient, be advised that you have received this email in error and that any use is strictly prohibited. If you have received this email in error please forward this email to housekeeping@cotdotcom.com

This footnote also confirms that although this email message has been swept for the presence of computer viruses, the recipient is responsible for ensuring that the email and contents have been swept and accepted by their own virus protection systems

********************************************

Simon closed his laptop and placed it carefully on the seat beside him.

‘Wait for me, John,’ he said, as he opened the door. ‘I shan’t be long.’

‘Very good, sir.’

Stepping from the car, Simon looked up at the tall building across the street in front of him. He stepped through the battery of cameras, neither looking into their lenses, nor avoiding them.

Half an hour earlier Gordon Fendeman had looked up at the same building in much the same way. He had made the mistake of trying to hold his briefcase up in front of his face as he ran the press gauntlet which only served to make him look simultaneously guilty and absurd.

He had left the house with a sensation in his stomach that he had not experienced for twenty years, since the days of lurking in terror of the police calling with news of Ned Maddstone and a warrant for Gordon’s arrest.

His wife and son hadn’t fooled him with their false joshing and cheery arm-punching at breakfast time. He had seen the dread in their eyes, clear as clear. They disbelieved him. They disbelieved him twice. First, they thought him guilty of a heinous betrayal of ethics and second they had no faith that he possessed the capacity to see this thing through. He had read that distrust in Portia s face. ‘Don’t make it worse, Gordon. Please, don’t make it worse.

The contempt they had for him. It was as though he had the letters F-A-I–L-U-R-E stamped across his forehead. ‘Look at me, I’m a schmuck!’ he wanted to shout at the other passengers in the elevator. ‘I’m a piece of shit. Laugh at me, why don’t you? Help yourself. Everybody else does.’

When he was upset, Gordon still thought to himself in American. It helped him feel more of a person. Maybe… maybe if his parents had not died so early he would have been a success. What kind of upbringing did he have in that Hampstead nut-house, anyway? Damn it, he was still living there. That same dark, dreadful house. He should have moved Porsh and Albie to the States on his passport years ago. For the price of the Plough Lane house he could have bought a place in upstate New York. Ithaca maybe. Albie would’ve grown up American. Portia could’ve gotten a job at the University and Gordon could have achieved there. Americans didn’t have that snobby look in their eyes. That English public school politeness that was like a knife in the guts. The murmuring ‘Gosh, awfully sorry’ and that oh-so self-deprecating smile. Self-deprecating, my ass. They knew who was boss, they knew who was in and who was out.

His family loved him, sure. But what kind of love was it that looked at you like you were a wounded deer? Too scared to say what they’re thinking because they think you’re too scared to hear it. That’s not love, that’s abuse. Abuse, nothing less.

He loved them too, he knew that. He wanted to provide for them, protect them, be loved and adored by them, but he never got the chance. No one had ever asked his advice on the simplest question. Even plumbers and electricians, when they came to the house. They always asked Portia to show them the ring main or the stop-cock, or whatever damned thing. These days they asked Albie. It was like some instinct they had. He could be standing there, in the middle of the room, master of the house, head of the family, but would they ask him if he wanted MDF or plywood? Jesus, the stink of failure he must give off.

His own son was earning more aged seventeen than he had most years of his life. That fucking asshole Simon Cotter. His humiliation of Gordon would never end.

On the forty-third floor the board was waiting to meet him with all the usual hearty jokes and false civilities. Purvis Alloway came forward with a handshake and – sure sign of betrayal to come – the simultaneous hand on the shoulder.

‘Probably best, Mr Chairman,’ – how they loved the formality of titles – ‘if I chair this meeting, since it’s mostly about…you know…’

‘Sure, sure …‘ Gordon waved the politeness aside. ‘I was going to suggest the same thing myself.’

‘Shall we be getting on?’

Gordon, breathing heavily felt sweat breaking out over his face as he sat at the opposite end from Alloway. He opened his briefcase and scooped out piles and piles of documents onto the table in front of him. An embarrassed silence fell and he knew that he had overdone the paperwork. Only crazed litigants and public health scare fanatics carry so much documentation about with them, he realised. He could feel pins of sweat beginning to push out from every pore on his face and he was breathing heavily as though he had taken the stairs.

He sat down, flushed while Alloway coughed and proceeded with business.

‘Gentlemen, I call this extraordinary meeting to order. Under article nine we may dispense with minutes and proceed to the single item on the agenda papers before us. I have promised the press a statement by twelve noon, which I think gives us time to cover all our, ah, bases. Before we listen to Mr Fendeman would anybody care to make any opening comments?’

Everyone was gentle and tactful and kind. No one wished to cast the least doubt on Gordon’s integrity. Several board members had wry and vinegary remarks to make on the subject of the British press and its irresponsibility.

Suzie, Gordon’s secretary, sat on Alloway’s left and took notes in shorthand.

‘I don’t believe, Mr Acting Chairman,’ said one board member, ‘that the London Evening Press even possesses an Africa correspondent.’

‘That’s right!’ Gordon put in eagerly. ‘I have a friend who works for the BBC World Service in Nairobi, and he deposes that at no time has a single British print journalist …’ He broke off, realising that it was not his turn to speak. ‘Well, I guess we’ll come to that later.’

Others wished to remind the board that it was Gordon Fendeman’s vision, Gordon Fendeman’s sense of justice, Gordon Fendeman’s idealism and sheer guts that had created this business in the first place. He had built it up from nothing, to a respectable shipper in speciality coffees and thence into a major quoted stock market player. A famous brand. The question of his share dealings in – ironically – the London Evening Press, was not a question for this board. If Gordon needed time to deal with his detractors, perhaps he could step down temporarily? The board member wished to emphasise the word ‘temporarily’, place it on the record and urge strongly for its inclusion in the press statement. When Gordon had cleared his name – and the board member for one never doubted that he would – then the way would be clear for him to be welcomed back to the chairman’s office. How was that for a plan?

The ‘hear hears’ and pattings of the blotters came so fast and so unanimously that Gordon realised at once that this compromise had been prearranged behind his back.

‘Before we come to a vote on that…’ said Purvis Alloway. Gordon swallowed and drew in a breath ready to begin his great speech, ‘I have a special request to put to the board. It is a little unorthodox perhaps, but since this is an extraordinary meeting called under extraordinary circumstances, I take it there will be no objection.’

Everyone looked at Purvis and this time Gordon knew that the surprise was not being sprung on him alone.

‘I received this morning a letter from a lady staying at Hazlitt’s Hotel,’ Alloway continued. ‘Her name is Princess M’binda and she claims to have information vital to the good name of this company. She is waiting in my office now. I think we should hear her.’

Gordon’s mouth was very dry and he took a sip of water, knowing that every face was turned in his direction. Setting down the glass he looked up, feigned surprise at the sight of so many eyes upon him.

‘Of course,’ he said, ‘why not? Show her in by all means.

Alloway pressed the chairman’s buzzer under the table and the door to the boardroom opened.

Everyone around the table rose awkwardly to their feet, Gordon last and most clumsily of all.

‘Good morning, Your … ah … good morning, Princess,’ Alloway was a little unsure of protocol and like the others had been thrown off guard by the extreme beauty of the girl who had come in and was now backed shyly against the wall. She was six foot tall and wrapped in vivid green, red and yellow cotton. The board members became suddenly and uncomfortably aware of the photographs on the wall which displayed similar girls in similar dress, girls with berry-filled baskets on their heads smiling toothily at the camera.

Alloway went to the side of the room to pull forward a chair which he placed to the right of his own and a little further back from the table. ‘Please, madam, if you would be so good as to sit down.’

She stayed where she was, arms outstretched and palms flattened against the wall, her large eyes fixed on the window. Alloway understood at once.

‘Is it the height, my dear? Would you like us to draw the curtains?’

The girl nodded and one board member attended to the blinds, while another switched on the lights. Immediately, the tension went out of her body and she dropped onto the chair with great elegance. Her eyes met Gordon’s at the end of the table opposite and held them steadily.

Gordon’s breath had been growing very shallow since the moment her name had been mentioned and his mouth was dry and clacky, but he knew that to take another drink of water would be to lose a psychological battle. He met the girl’s gaze and she slowly dropped her eyes to her lap.

‘Now then,’ Alloway was looking at a letter on the table in front of him. ‘You say that you have information vital to the interests of this company. Perhaps you would be good enough to tell us who you are and what information it is that you have for us?’

‘I am the Princess M’binda of the Ankoza,’ she began. ‘We are a people of the hills. My father B’goli was their king…’

As she talked, and Suzie’s pencil raced along her pad, Gordon was transported in his mind back to East Africa. He had been forced to go there because a shipment of futures on which he had invested the last of his – of Hillary’s – money had been delayed, as he thought, in port. In fact, the beans were in store somewhere, close to rotting. It had been his fault. Some piece of paperwork, eight months before, had not been sent from London. Typical of his luck.

It had been sorted out at last, at great extra cost, and he had met a man in a bar who had told him about the Ankoza. ‘They grew the plantation themselves from scratch, it’s just coming into maturity now. Some Robusta but Arabica mostly. Top quality peaberries too. Good high air, but they don’t know shit about selling coffee. They take it to market would you believe? Waste of damn good growing country. I’m trying to get my people to take an interest.’

Well, Gordon had found them first and charmed B’goli, their chief, into agreeing to accept him as their exclusive buyer for the produce of their soft lilac-coloured mountains. He had hurried back to civilisation to sell his original consignment, at a thundering loss, and used the cash to set up his own brokerage and to hire lawyers to hammer B’goli’s agreement into an ironclad contract. He duly obtained B’goli’s signature and word got about that there was a new player in town. A fortnight after he had registered his brokerage a man from the government came to see Gordon.

‘Dear me. It cannot be that you are going into business with the Ankoza? But everybody knows how corrupt they are. They will cheat you and rob you. My people, on the other hand, the Kobali people, thoroughly reliable. How much easier to deal with them. The government is entirely Kobali. How much more quickly your coffee will go through port, how much more efficiently it will be handled if you deal only with Kobali! Trading with the Ankoza, it is doubtful that a single bean would reach the warehouses. No, no, my friend. Much better deal with us. What’s this? The contract is not with the Ankoza … it is with the land. My dear fellow, this makes it so simple! The Ankoza do not own this land. No, no, no. I assure you they do not. I tell you what we shall do. We shall compensate you for all this extra work – a hundred thousand pounds English sterling – and we shall help you to remove those scoundrel Ankoza from the land they are illegally occupying.’

Not his fault. Not his fault. It was the man in the bar. Someone would have got there if Gordon hadn’t, it was inevitable. The Ankoza were always going to be kicked out. Not his fault. But M’binda…

The moment he had seen her, he had wanted her. He had asked that she be kept behind. She had wept inconsolably as her father and his family had been loaded onto lorries like potatoes and driven down the hill.

It was not rape though. If she said that it was rape, she was lying. She had been… if not compliant, certainly not non-compliant. She had been nothing. A lifeless doll.

Her word against his, that was the point. His word against hers. For the time being it was important to look surprised, outraged at everything she said, as if each fresh accusation came as a shock. He was somehow upset by the presence of Suzie in the room. She had never once looked up, but her pencil had never stopped moving and her lips moved imperceptibly as she scribbled. The whole story was down there in Pitman hieroglyphs and later today she would type it up into minutes. Gordon wanted to wrench the pad from her and rip it to pieces.

Nobody was looking at him now as M’binda finished her tale. That wasn’t true. She was looking at him. No disgust in her eyes, no flash of vengeful hatred. She just looked with a cool and steady gaze that screwed his lungs into a ball.

‘When I was allowed to leave I found my family living in iron sheds in a dusty village below the mountains. When the rains came the water from the mountains filled the village and the dust became mud. My mother and two of my brothers died from malaria. My father and my sisters, they died from cholera. That is my story. My father the king, he trusted Mr Fendeman very much and now he is dead and my people are starving, diseased and their hearts are broken from loss of home.’

Alloway leaned forward and patted her on the hand. ‘Thank you, Your Highness. Thank you very much indeed.’

Gordon coughed involuntarily and tried to turn the cough into a laugh.

‘Preposterous,’ he spluttered, dabbing at his face with a handkerchief. ‘I mean, gentlemen, please!’ He looked them all in the eyes, each one in turn. ‘I think … I insist that it is time I had my say. Firstly, I have to tell you that I have never seen this woman before in my life.’ He used the word ‘woman’ because he was uncomfortably aware how young she looked. He knew that everyone around the table would have made their calculations and determined that five years ago, at the time Gordon was in Africa, she can have been no older than thirteen or fourteen. ‘Secondly, what she says about the contract with King B’goli is a clever concoction of half truths. Yes, the deal was with the land, not with the people. But that is standard. You all know that. She paints a charming picture of naпve simplicity and honest dignity, but poverty?

Excuse me. This lady has flown from Africa and is staying – where did you say, Purvis? – the Waldorf. The Waldorf Fucking Hotel, you should excuse my French. We should all be so poor, Princess. Most importantly of all. Where is the proof? Am I to be condemned on the say so of a plausible actress, playing on your guilty heart strings. Christ almighty, I’m a married man. I have a family. Where is the proof? Without proof none of this is anything more than slander.’

‘Perhaps I can help you there, gentlemen.’

Every head turned towards the doorway, the source of the interruption. Simon Cotter strode in, smiling and stood behind M’binda, a hand resting on the back of her chair.

Gordon blinked the sweat out of his eyes and tried to speak, but no words came.

Purvis Alloway had sprung to his feet ‘I don’t know who let you in – Mr Cotter is it not? – but this is a private board meeting and I must ask you to remove yourself. If you have any submissions to make, I suggest you make them formally, in writing, to the chairman.’

‘I’m not in the habit, Mr Alloway,’ said Simon smoothly, ‘of writing to myself, formally or otherwise.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘As of ten o’clock this morning I became the majority shareholder in this company. I think that gives me every right to be here.’

A murmur of conversation broke out and one board member’s hand inched towards his mobile phone. Alloway slapped the table.

‘Gentlemen, please!’ He turned back to Cotter.

‘Is this really true?’

Simon passed a piece of paper. ‘A record of the transaction from my broker. You may check with your own people, if you prefer.’

‘No, no. This seems in order … really, Mr Cotter, we had no idea of your intentions towards our company. You come at a difficult moment.’

‘I could not help but overhear Mr Fendeman defending himself. He has a carrying voice, if I may say so.

Gordon’s face was grey and he was finding it difficult to control his breathing. He could feel the sweat around his collar and the cold drops ran from his armpits down the side of his body to his waist.

‘I said I can help you,’ continued Simon, ‘and I can. Let me deal straightaway with the subject of proof. I have here – ‘ he laid three pieces of paper carefully on the table, sworn depositions, duly, as you will see from the seals, notarised. The first confirms Mr Fendeman’s receipt of a hundred thousand pounds from the government. It is signed by the man who offered the bribe. The second contains the signature of another government official who testifies that Mr Fendeman insisted as part of the deal that the thirteen-year-old Princess M’binda be kept behind during the eviction of the Ankoza people. The third affidavit is signed by two drivers and a soldier, each of whom saw Mr Fendeman personally carry the Princess into a hut. The soldier, I’m afraid, who was young at the time, actually looked through a hole in the wall of the hut and witnessed the entire rape. At a moment’s notice any or all of these people can be flown to the United Kingdom if Mr Fendeman wishes to contest their evidence.’

Despite the hammering in his chest and the buzzing in his ears, Gordon managed to speak. The sound was hoarse and barely above the level of a whisper but everybody in the room heard it and Suzie’s pencil faithfully recorded the word.

‘Why?’

Simon smiled. ‘Why? Simple justice, Mr Fendeman. Simple justice.’

The sweat was running into his eyes but, with a jolt that wrenched at his lungs the realisation came upon him. He had only met him once, twenty years ago, but the image had never left him. It was an image that summed up everything Gordon hated about England and everything he hated about himself.

‘It’s you!’ he croaked.

He had only one thought now. The window. The blinds were down, but if he ran fast enough and led with his shoulder he could do it. He could break free and do one last thing that Albie might admire.

He charged like a mad bull. He heard cries of ‘Stop him!’ from the table and out of the corner of his eye he saw Suzie’s startled face look up from her pad at last.

He hit the window hard and, contemptible, useless prick that he was, failure from first to last, he bounced back like a squash-ball. As he crashed to the ground he felt his throat tighten in an iron stranglehold and a lightning-bolt of pain flashed and thumped down his left side. This was how he had watched his father die twenty years ago. The same roar of pain and clutching at the throat. Suzie, God bless her, was the first by his side, loosening his tie and raising his head. The others clustered behind her and at the back he saw the face looking down at him.

‘Ned fucking Maddstone,’ he said as he died. ‘Fuck you for ever.

Simon was out of the room before the last breath had left Gordon’s body. Time was fleeting by and he was on a tight schedule. Hairdressers to see and miles to go before he slept.

‘Two!’ he whispered, tactfully closing the door behind him.

Oliver Delft had been sent to find a hacker in Knightsbridge. Not to arrest him, but to recruit him.

‘Cosima picked up his trail and we’ve been watching him from a distance ever since. A good poacher who’ll make an even better gamekeeper,’ Cotter had told him. ‘Very young, but quite brilliant.’

Oliver was having trouble finding the right address. There was 46, an ice-cream parlour and there was 47, a College of English. Of 46B there was no sign whatsoever. He stood at the door of the College and pondered the problem. It was undignified to be back in the world of legwork. He had taken the Cotter shilling gladly, but he should have known that there would be a price. In his world, Oliver had been supreme commander. The pay was atrocious and the bureaucratic constrictions suffocating. Was he now nothing more than a bird in a gilded cage?

As he stood examining the doorbells a hand fell on his shoulder from behind. Oliver dropped the shoulder and tried to turn, but the hand knew what it was doing and had anticipated his move. It gripped the shoulder harder.

‘You come along with us, sir. Micky, car door. I shall read the gentleman his rights.’

If this was the private sector Oliver wanted nothing to do with it. The two bent-nosed plug-uglies either side of him were not officers of the law, for all their uniforms, plastic cuff-links and portentous language. Oliver had known a few in his time and he would have been prepared to bet that all this pair knew about police stations was the colour of tiles inside the cells. He sensed the strength and the violence in them, however, and was not prepared to argue just yet. If they were working for this hacker, then CDC had been seriously compromised. That kraut woman, his predecessor, was clearly incompetent, everyone at Cotter’s had told him so. She had stumbled on something she did not understand. However. Delft trusted his wits and at the end of it all smelled the possibility of gain. When Delft follows you into a revolving door, he likes to say, he always comes out first…

They drove north in silence. The driver interested Oliver. He saw the eyes watching him from the mirror. Sixty-ish, more dignified than the yahoos in the back. He could be a copper easily. Something familiar about him? Probably not.

The car swept into a farmhouse driveway and again a little stab of d?jа vu visited the pit of his stomach. A childhood holiday? Mysteriouser and mysteriouser.

Oliver was led into a bare kitchen and told to sit down.

‘Don’t move.’

‘It isn’t easy to sit down without moving.’

Ah, big mistake. An enormous fist crunched into the back of his neck. Oliver sat down. Sudden blows to the back of the neck, as to the nose, can cause the tear ducts to spring. Oliver blinked rapidly and widened his eyes to let them flow without reddening. He really was not going to be seen crying. That would be too ridiculous. He looked up at the ceiling, dilating his nostrils and sniffing, like a man who looks into the sun to make himself sneeze, while they removed his shoes and his tie. Did they imagine that he, Oliver Delft was the type to hang himself. Just when things were getting so interesting? The two barbarians left and he heard them lock the door behind them.

The tears subsided and he looked around. An Aga and a fridge. Was it a holiday? A dirty weekend years ago? He was sure now that he had been here before. It was an old-fashioned fridge, a squat Prestcold. Yet he could see lighter paint against the wall that suggested it had been put in to replace a taller, slimmer one. All very odd.

There was an LEP on the table. Today’s early edition.

ABUSE IN SWEDISH HOSPITAL OF HELL

It wasn’t the headline, it was the photograph inset halfway down that grabbed Oliver’s attention.

Mallo!

Thank Christ he was out of the service. God bless Simon Cotter. Looked like there was going to be a stink.

Would Mallo talk? If he was being threatened with arrest he might. Idiot prick, the whole point of Mallo was that he followed the regulations. Diplomas on the wall, government inspections, everything nice and legal. What the hell had he done to bring down the wrath of the Swedish government?

Who was there left in the padded cells who might lead a nosy investigation back to the department? Well, there was that mad idealist from Porton Down of course, research chemist – what was his name? – Michaels, Francis Michaels. There was Babe Fraser if he was still alive, which was doubtful. The only time Oliver had seen him, as a junior on the trail of all the money that the son of a bitch had salted away, the great legend had been as potty as a prawn, brains fried to hell. That was when Oliver had found about ‘The Island of Dr Mallo’. No, there was no danger from Babe. Finally of course there was young Ned Maddstone. Oliver remembered him as a mental weakling. He’d have been ECT-ed into gaga-land years since.

The article didn’t say much. Just that the conditions had been ‘medieval’ and that there had been allegations of physical and sexual abuse. Hardly worthy of the front page. If it had all taken place in Britain, Oliver could understand such a report appearing in an English paper, but why bother Londoners with such routine dross? Sexual abuse, he decided. The phrase sold millions of papers up and down the land. The law-abiding liked to read about it at their breakfast tables and on their trains. They tut-tutted in horror while deep inside their deepest, darkest fantasies were touched.

‘Sorry to keep you waiting. I hope you haven’t been uncomfortable. You’ve been crying I see, do borrow my handkerchief.’

‘Simon?’ Oliver stared. Cotter was removing his sunglasses. He had dyed his hair blond. No, he had undyed his hair. The blond was streaked with grey.

‘Simon?’ said Ned. ‘I know no Simon. Look again.’

Oliver looked again and saw that he was looking into the blue eyes of Ned Maddstone.

‘Not exactly the same fridge,’ he observed at length.

‘No,’ Ned admitted ruefully. ‘But as close as I could get. Thought it might help you feel at home.’

‘Oh it does, it does.’ Oliver was holding himself together very well. ‘You’ve been busy,’ he remarked.

Ned looked around the kitchen. ‘Thank you. I always say good design is all about taking away, not adding. You’ll note that aside from the fridge there is no other furniture or fitments, for reasons you will discover later. The old place hadn’t changed that much, as a matter of fact. Oh, there’s the Aga of course. Same old one. Tch! Agas, eh? Where would we be without them?’

‘No, no. I meant Ashley Barson-Garland and now poor old Gordon Fendeman. I should have made the connection.’

‘People keep saying that to me. You mustn’t blame yourself, it was a long time ago. But we mustn’t say “poor old Gordon Fendeman”, you know. He’s happy now. Gone to a better place.’

‘Quite the avenging angel, aren’t you?’

‘I do my best, Oliver, I do my best. As you will discover.’

‘You escaped then, from the “Swedish Hospital of Hell”?’ Oliver jerked his head towards the newspaper.

‘Ah, I thought that might amuse you. All nonsense as a matter of fact, had the paper specially made up for your entertainment. You’ll be pleased to know that dear Dr Mallo is still there. He’s working for me now. I have some documents in my possession that he would prefer kept private between ourselves. He’s a very reasonable man, as you know. He likes to describe himself as a rationalist. Pompous, but rather touching.’

‘Am I to be lectured at? If that’s your punishment, I might as well tell you here and now that I’m very good at switching off.’

‘My dear old periwinkle, was I lecturing? How very graceless of me. Let me fetch you a glass of milk. No? I’m having one myself. Sure? Okay then. Fresh and creamy this time. Not UHT semi-skimmed. There are limits to authenticity, after all.’

Oliver was thinking rapidly. The plastic bracelets around his wrist were more than he could cope with on his own. The man behind the wheel he had now identified as Sergeant Floyd, the Drug Squad officer he had bribed to keep his mouth shut over Ned’s arrest. He still had no idea who the other two men might be, but he had a nasty idea.

‘Smart of you to escape. I have to confess I didn’t mark you down as that sort.’

Ned sat down at the table opposite Oliver. ‘You met Babe, I think. You were one of the squad that tried to beat it out of him when you found out that all that money was missing.

‘So Mr Memory himself put the jigsaw together for you did he? Thought it was rather beyond your limited capabilities.’

‘His capabilities are now mine.

‘Oh I don’t think so, old crocus. Babe was special.’

‘Well,’ said Ned, not allowing himself to be annoyed. ‘We can agree on that at least. He even remembered your mother, you know? One glance at a file is all he ever had. Date of birth, everything.’

‘Must have been fun for him to have a blank canvas on which to paint,’ said Oliver. ‘Dumb brick of a child, eager to learn. Taught you all those languages. Smattering of philosophy and mathematics. Arranged your escape too, I’ll bet. You couldn’t have managed that on your own. Too weak to make it over the wall himself. Am I to expect him to walk through the door at any minute? “Aha, you pampered Asiatic Jades, I’ve a thirst on me today.” All that? My old boss used to do quite an impression of him.’

‘Babe is dead. Yes, he did arrange the escape. Yes, he did teach me. Yes, I was a dumb brick. You can’t expect me to rise to such obvious bait.’

‘Above that, are you? All passion spent. What are you now? Nemesis? The Hammer of God? The Cold Hand of Fate?’

‘Something like that,’ said Ned. ‘You will have plenty of time to decide what I am. You will be able to ponder too on what you are. Years you will have. There’ll be Martin and Paul and Rolf and dear Dr Mallo to help you come to a decision. The best possible care. No one else, I’m afraid. A small staff, but since there will be only one patient, I’m sure you won’t feel badly served.’

‘For fuck’s sake

‘The journey will be painful. But no more painful than was mine. My driver John, his two friends the Draper brothers and ex-Superintendent Floyd will take you over the water. My driver John – you’ll remember him as Mr Gaine, he’s put on a bit of weight, but you’ll find he’s lost none of his charm – will dislocate your shoulder which will cause quite shattering pain. It will unbalance your walk, which we can’t have, so Rolf will dislocate the other One for you.

‘You’re insane.

‘If I’m insane then so are you. Nothing will happen to you that did not happen to me. You are a grown man. I was a frightened child.’

‘My family! I have a family. You’ve sat with my children.’

‘I had a family, Oliver. The Fendemans had a family. When you had me recite the name of Peter Fendeman into a tape-recorder, did you consider Portia’s family?’

‘But her father is fine! He was released after a week. Special Forces had been a little rough when they arrested him, but he was soon released. He’s alive, isn’t he? He’s happy? And think…’ Oliver was clutching at straws now. ‘Why did he name his daughter Portia? Remember Portia in The Merchant of Venice? “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed. It blesses him that gives and him that receives.”‘

‘How perfectly marvellous that you should mention Shakespeare’s Portia. A happy coincidence, I was about to come to the one option left open to you if you really do wish to avoid a lifetime as a guest of Dr Mallo.’

‘Yes? What? What is it?’

‘There are, in case you have forgotten, two Portias in Shakespeare. One, as you rightly pointed out just now, in The Merchant of Venice. But have you forgotten the other Portia. The Portia in Julius Caesar?’

Oliver’s head was dizzy. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘She chooses to take her own life, if you recall, by swallowing hot coals. Always used to fascinate me as a child. How could it be done? Well, the Aga there is old-fashioned. The solid fuel type. There’s no other means of self slaughter in the room, I’m afraid. I’ve checked thoroughly and I know something about how rooms are furnished to prevent suicide. The floor and walls are rubberised, nothing metal, stone or wooden here. You could bash your head against the Aga I suppose, but I doubt it would kill you and it would certainly annul our agreement. It’s up to you. The plastic of your cuffs will melt against the stove very nicely. Agony, I should imagine, but it will work. You simply lift up the lid and help yourself. Basically, Oliver, it’s up to you. Swallow fiery coals like Portia or face the rest of your life in an insane asylum. You have ten minutes to make up your mind.’

‘You are mad.’

‘So you keep saying. I don’t understand how repeating it makes any difference. If it’s untrue then you can hardly expect me to be swayed by insult. If it’s true then I should have thought that it is even more useless to appeal to me. God have mercy on your soul either way, about sums it up. Nine minutes and forty-five seconds.’

The others were in the sitting-room, clustered around Mr Gaine, who was having difficulty with a crossword. Ned helped them finish it.

‘That should be owl. “Tight as an – “ Owl. You’ve put “eft”, John.’

‘Oh, well. Yeah. I reckoned, you know. An eft is a type of newt. Pissed as a newt, pissed as an eft.’

‘Mm,’ marvelling at Gaine’s thought processes, Ned checked that everything was ready.

‘Van warmed up? Good. The boat is ready. Everyone knows what they have to do.’

‘Everything ready, sir,’ said Floyd, smartly. ‘When We arrive at Levington it should be dark enough to – The screams were like nothing anyone in the room had ever heard before. Mr Gaine and the Drapers had seen violence. Floyd had witnessed enough to last a lifetime, but this … this was something new. He started towards the kitchen, but Ned held his hand up to detain him.

‘Give him a moment,’ he said. ‘This is his choice.’

The Drapers looked at each other with wide eyes. Gaine looked down at the carpet and Floyd stared at Ned. The screaming stopped.

‘Now I think,’ said Ned, who was the first to reach the kitchen door.

Delft’s hair and clothes were on fire, blisters the size of oranges had ballooned from his lips and his mouth was screaming. He had no tongue and no vocal chords with which to make a sound. He was hurling himself against the wall, clawing at his body.

He caught sight of Ned and lurched towards him. Ned smartly closed the door and bolted it. They heard the body bang against the rubber surface of the door.

‘We’ll give him another five minutes,’ he said. ‘He’ll be done then.’

Floyd put a hand on Ned’s chest. ‘I’m sorry, Mr Cotter,’ he said. ‘I don’t care how much you’re paying me. Someone’s got to go in there and put him out of his misery.’

Ned slipped aside and led the way back into the sitting room. ‘A word,’ he said. He stood and faced them with his back to the fireplace. ‘Now, let’s just sort ourselves out shall we? Mr Floyd, you arranged the lease of this house?’

‘You know I did, but what – ?‘

‘You paid in cash. The same with the car and the van?’

‘Of course.’

‘No one knows you’ve been here. Once we’ve wiped all the prints, the place will be clean.’

‘That’s not the point, sir.

‘Oh but it is, Mr Floyd.’ Ned took a small revolver from his pocket and shot Floyd through the throat. Moving round anticlockwise, he shot Gaine and the Drapers in the head. He dipped the end of the revolver in Gaine’s cup of tea on the table by the sofa and it hissed pleasingly. Ned drank the tea and dropped down to Gaine’s body. He pulled a set of car keys from the jacket, put them in his own pocket and moved to the kitchen.

Delft was lying on the floor writhing and twitching.

‘One,’ whispered Ned, administering a final kick to the charred ruin beneath him.

He drove the car as far as Peterborough, where he left it in the station car park, right next to the Lexus that he and Gaine had left there eight hours earlier. A busy day and still not over yet.

Ned was surprised that he was trembling, for he knew that he was calm. He had that true calm that can only come to those who have earned their night’s repose. The peace that flows from true achievement.

Now he was ready to turn his mind to good things. The memory of Babe would be celebrated in every major city from Copenhagen to Canberra. Libraries, schools, hospitals. An international university. Research centres. Orphanages run on new, enlightened principles. The children of the world would be enriched in mind and body. Portia would be by his side. Together they would rule the greatest charitable empire on earth. All the good that would flow from them. Maybe, in some extraordinary way, everything that had happened to him had been part of a great plan. How dull his life would have been without this great cause that had lit him from within for so many years. The stars had guided him well. They had led him to this great point.

He looked across the street to the house. Through the darkness he saw that the lights were on in one room only. Portia and Albert would be sitting in the kitchen, perhaps, talking quietly.

He rang the doorbell, but there was no reply. He rang again. A cat leapt down from the wall and rubbed itself against his ankles, mewing plaintively. Ned heard another plaintive sound from within, a low whining chant that he could not understand. He pushed against the door which swung open on its hinges. The cat jumped in ahead of him.

‘Portia? Are you there? Portia, it’s Ned.’

The chanting grew louder. Ned saw a light shining through the kitchen hatch and walked round into the dining-room.

‘Portia, it’s me. What are you doing here?’

A black cloth had been hung over the mirror above the sideboard and on a low stool sat Peter, his jacket and tie ripped. His eyes were cast down to the floor and he was chanting a Hebrew prayer.

‘Peter? It’s me. You remember me?’

Peter lifted his eyes. ‘Ned. I remember you. It’s Ned.’

‘Where are Portia and Albert?’

‘Gone. They are gone. My brother’s son is dead, did you know?’

‘Where? Where have they gone?’

‘Who knows?’

Ned left the room and ran upstairs. Clothes trailed across the floor, wardrobes hung open, bottles of shampoo and tubes of toothpaste had fallen into the basin under the bathroom cabinet and the floor was littered with pill-bottles and combs and bars of soap. They had left in a hurry, in a terrible panic. Did they think they had something to fear from him? From Ned?

He rushed downstairs again. The old man’s moaning was driving him crazy.

‘Where did they go? They must have told you.’

Peter said nothing but continued to rock backwards and forwards, singing his prayers. Ned went into the kitchen to find some milk. The light of the fridge shone onto the table and that is where he saw the envelope.

Ned Maddstone

He remembered her handwriting! From all those years he remembered her handwriting. He held the envelope to his cheek.

‘Now go,’ Peter’s voice came through the hatchway. ‘Go and never come back. You’ve done enough. Go.’

He sat in the car and wept. Nothing for him. Just the old letters. Not even a note. She couldn’t hide from him. His power would uncover her wherever she was in the world.

What then? Suppose he found her. What would he do then? Keep her prisoner? Force her to marry him? It was too late. It had always been too late.

Ned knew exactly what he had to do. He had to go home. It was so simple. So obvious. He must go home, away from the noise and terror of the world. Home, where it was either light and bright, or cosy and dark. Home, where they understood him. Home, where there was peace and ease and gentleness and love. Home, in every language that he spoke, it was the best and strongest word. Home. His Swedish island. Where his friends lived and where the ghost of Babe would come to him and teach him more.

He stood on the deck looking back towards England. He let the pieces of paper fly from his hand and dart like butterflies in the wake. They came from the last century, an age when lovers wrote letters to each other sealed up in envelopes. Sometimes they used coloured inks to show their love, or they perfumed their writing-paper with scent.

He slowly ripped the last of them, just glimpsing down at a halved sheet.

I picture your hair flopping down as you write, which is enough to make me writhe and froth like a… like a … er, I’ll come back to you on that one. I think of your legs under the table and a million trillion cells sparkle and fizz inside me. The way you cross a ‘t’ makes me breathless. I hold the back of my envelope to my lips and think of you licking it and my head swims. I’m a dotty dippy dozy dreadful delirious romantic and I love you to heaven.

Ned let the wind whip it from his hand.

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