The thunderclap came out of nowhere. It shook windows in office buildings. Shoppers and tourists stopped in their tracks and looked to the sky which was bright and hazy. Confusing; no sign of rain. A second equally loud thunderclap shook the air, rolled on for a moment, and then – at least for those in Westminster – morphed into the thunderous roar of a small sports car speeding through the streets.
The driver didn't react to the thunder, didn’t slow down, actually didn’t care about the weather. He had more urgent things on his mind. He swung round a corner, chopped from second to third and put his foot down.
Virgil Street Garage, London
Charles wound down the last of the windows of the gleaming black vehicle halfway and began the almost ceremonial wiping of the tops of each door glass with his chamois cloth. Not many people know to do this final thing after washing a motor car, he thought. It’s the attention to detail that counts. Anyone sees these windows open won’t see any dried droplets along the top, or streaks. It’s what sets a professional apart, he smiled to himself.
‘There Tommy,’ he said to his mechanic who was at the workbench. ‘That’s how to properly clean a motor car. Spick and span, ready for inspection.’
Tommy turned and shook his head. He’d heard this many times before.
The phone at the back of the garage rang, and Charles wrung his chamois cloth out as he headed for the office door. ‘I'll get it,’ he said.
It was the red phone, Charles noted. His heart rate increased, and he cleared his throat, picked up the receiver.
‘I understand you can supply half a dozen red roses on the 27th,’ a woman’s voice said clearly, then paused.
‘A dozen for anyone called Moira,’ Charles replied.
‘Right. Charles, job for you, priority one.’ The caller, satisfied that the counter-response was correct, now talked hurriedly.
‘No problem ma’am, where and when?’
‘Now actually – we might already be too late. One male. We’re confident he’ll be leaving the underground car park any moment. Green and yellow Lotus sports car.’ She gave him the registration number: Kilo Alpha Romeo, one-two-zero Charlie.
‘He'll likely go home, Buckingham Place, SW1, but we’re not certain. Head there if you lose him. If he doesn’t turn up immediately, wait. He’ll arrive eventually. Be careful, he’s angry. Make sure the subject is compliant before entry. You know where to take him, the ambulance will be on stand-by.’
‘Of course ma’am. Leave it to me.’ The anonymous caller cut the connection and Charles put the phone down.
‘Tom! We’re on!’ he called. Tommy wiped his hands on a cloth and pressed the control that opened the garage door, then climbed out of his overalls and grabbed his black suit coat. Charles peeled off his own overalls to reveal his formal clothing underneath. He grabbed his own black coat and two spotless top hats off a shelf and ran to the hearse, throwing the hats and coat into the middle of the front seat.
Tommy climbed in the passenger’s side and the gleaming Austin Princess eased out onto the street, the garage door closing automatically behind.
Charles picked up the radio handset from under the dashboard. ‘Mobile Black, Mobile Black to Mobile Control, receiving, over?’
The radio speaker crackled and a female voice answered immediately. ‘Mobile Control, Mobile Black, receiving. You have your instructions?’
‘Yes, en route now. Traffic seems good, ETA five minutes.’
‘Make it three. Out.’
‘What's the job?’ asked Tommy, checking his tie in the vanity mirror on the sun visor. He combed his red hair with his fingers.
‘Extraction,' said Charles. ‘Just the one. Male. We'll use the gas, through the keyhole.’
‘Then what?’ asked Tommy.
‘Then I drop you back at the garage and you go about your business, as usual. I'll take care of the funeral.’
100 Westminster Bridge Road, London
Riley put the telephone handset back in the cradle and blew his cheeks out.
‘What’s the matter old boy?’ asked Symes, turning from the window and breaking his gaze from the river which he’d been watching between the office buildings and the hospital.
‘He's resigned. As we expected. Seems he was rather angry.’
‘Jeepers. Do we know why?’
Riley picked up the phone again, pressed one of the buttons on the console, covered the mouthpiece and replied, ‘No. He submitted his resignation letter but there was nothing much more in the envelope, just something about it being a matter of principle. Hello? Director, Strategic here. Get me Anastasia, quickly,’ he said into the phone.
Symes sat at his own desk and gripped the arms of his chair. ‘And this was just now?’
‘Just now, in the last ten min... ah, Anastasia? Have you heard? Yes resigned. Mmm, well yes, our top man, as you say.... I know... and, no clear explanation. He’s furious apparently. Should we... you know… take action? Really? The undertakers are on the job already? I say, that was quick… well yes, I suppose so.’
Symes noted Riley ran a finger under his collar as he listened. ‘Of course. Of course Anastasia, absolute top secret, I'm sure we both recognise that.’ He shook his head at Symes in despair at being told the obvious. ‘All right, see you there shortly.’
Riley stood and grabbed his suit jacket from the coat stand. Symes rose too, the colour draining from his face. ‘The funeral director's involved? So this is it?’
‘Yes, this is it. Not a drill, not a rehearsal. Call the undertakers on the radio and keep tabs on the extraction. They’re mobile now and tailing him, to his place we think. Let me know if anything goes wrong. I’ll be in a meeting in Sub-3 for a while, but brief me when you can. D-Ops is alerting the facility.’
He paused momentarily, looked through the windows at the city and rubbed his face. ‘I'm not sure this is a good idea. Not at all.’
Sub-basement 3, Century House
The lift doors opened and Riley stepped out, almost colliding with Anastasia Walker.
‘Ah, Anastasia.’ He fell in step with her and they headed quickly down the quiet dimly-lit corridor.
‘Riley.’ Anastasia acknowledged him with a nod, but kept walking purposefully.
‘You know we haven’t had anyone of his calibre in the facility before,’ Riley said.
‘And your point is?’
‘Well, he's our number one operative. And he is our number one because he’s so very damned good at what he does. Plus, he’s not retired, he’s resigned.’
Anastasia Walker suddenly stopped. ‘Exactly. Which is why we absolutely cannot let him out of our sight. He’s far too valuable to be on the loose, especially the mood he’s in, and especially given the nature of the project.’ She set off, and Riley hurried to keep up.
‘Yes, I suppose you're right. But...’
‘But nothing. Think about the information he's got in his head. Along with information we probably don’t even know about.’
They reached the black door at the end of the corridor. Walker punched the access code into the buttons on the lock and the door swung open automatically with a hum. They entered a dark cavernous space, almost black, except for a large structure in the centre, raised about three feet off the floor. It was a windowless room, isolated from its surroundings and lit from beneath. It seemed to almost float in mid-air. There were no windows. Access steps led to a steel door in the front of the structure, with another keypad beside it which Riley unlocked this time. The door swung open, again automatically.
After Riley and Walker had stepped inside, those already there, seated around a large oval conference table, turned to face them.
‘Ah, Walker, Riley, please, take a seat,’ said the bald man with glasses at the head of the table. He had a voice like syrup.
‘I think you know everybody,’ said the man, whose name was Stone. If he had a first name nobody knew it.
Walker and Riley took the only remaining seats and sat down, nodding to those present. The table was bare save for some water jugs and glasses. Nobody had any notebooks or jotters, or even pencils. No record-taking was ever allowed within this secure room.
Stone looked at each person in turn, as though summing up their qualifications to be present, which in fact was exactly what he was doing. The meeting was too important to take any chances. He seemed satisfied.
‘Right. Let’s begin. The only person in this directors-only meeting you’re not likely to know is Miss Wilson here.’ Stone gesticulated to an unsmiling woman with a severe haircut to his right. ‘Olivia, perhaps you'd like to introduce yourself.’
Olivia Wilson pushed her chair back and stood up with her feet slightly apart and her hands behind her back. She squared her shoulders and raised her chin before speaking. Most in the room immediately recognised the clues: she came from a military background.
‘Thank you sir. I am Major Olivia Wilson,’ she said to the group. ‘I’m a qualified psychiatrist as well as having qualifications and extensive experience in psychology. I was… quietly seconded to this organisation over a year ago. My skills are applied in the field of psychological strategic planning and operations, which, as you probably know, involves interpreting or manipulating the thought processes, emotions and beliefs of a subject or subjects to our advantage.’
She sat down again, and Stone resumed. ‘Thank you.’ He turned to the group. ‘Major Wilson holds the interim role of Director, Psychological Operations. Any questions?’
A man to Stone's left, older, in a pin-striped suit which probably first saw a hanger in 1950, cleared his throat. ‘Er, excuse my asking, but what is Miss Wilson’s clearance?’
Stone stared at him for a moment before replying, his rimless glasses fully reflecting the light so that the man couldn’t see his eyes, only two pale orbs of luminescence. ‘Adequate,' he snapped, ‘or she wouldn't be here.’
He turned to the rest of the group. ‘Now, I've asked Major Wilson to join us today because, although we find ourselves in a somewhat expected situation, we didn’t anticipate the timing of it. And it’s a situation which, from today, will demand all our initiative, intelligence and indeed cunning. We are dealing with what could be an unhinged mind.’ Stone glanced briefly at Wilson. ‘Not just any mind either. The mind of this man...’
Stone turned towards the wall behind him and pressed a remote control on the arm of his chair. The image of a good-looking man in his late 30s or early 40s appeared on the wall screen.
Stone turned back. ‘As you can see, he has a half-smile on his face. He appears confident, at ease. As indeed he was when this photograph was taken just a year ago. Then he was at the top of his game, operating effectively in the field, and doing our bidding wherever we sent him, which was far and wide.
‘He became, as you know, the best operative we have. Or at least had, until today. He has resigned with immediate effect, and on a “matter of principle.” Exactly what we’re not sure, but we can, I believe, make an intelligent guess. However, we need to ask, what does he know that’s tipped him over the edge, and whose side is he on?’
‘And how will we find out?’ asked a woman to Stone’s left.
‘A brief stay in the facility should be all that’s required. He’s already begun his journey there. Major Wilson will explain what will happen upon his arrival.’
Wilson stood once more, clasped her hands behind her back, and faced the room.
Virgil Street Garage
Tommy watched the hearse drive regally down the short road under the railway arches and turn the corner, Charles using his indicator even though no other vehicles were in sight. Perfectionist, he thought, always the perfectionist. And then he recited the numbers to himself out loud: ‘Two, two, seven, nine, six.’ He repeated them, committing them to memory: ‘Two, two, seven, nine, six.’
A train rumbled past over the bridge behind him as he turned and unlocked the garage’s side door. He stepped inside, switched the lights on, headed for the office and stopped in the doorway. He removed his top hat and placed it on the shelf where it lived, then filled the kettle from the small sink in the corner and put it on the gas burner. He loosened his tie, thought about putting his overalls back on, but instead sat behind Charles's Desk.
He called it Charles’s Desk (with a capital 'D') because he wasn’t allowed to sit behind it. As with the rest of the garage, it was spotless, immaculate. Topped in green leather, it would have looked more at home in a gentleman’s study, but then Tommy didn’t know much about Charles's background, or where he lived, nor was he supposed to.
The man carried himself with military bearing, always ramrod straight in his walk, thumbs to the front as his arms swung as though on parade. He was tall and lean, despite the cream buns Tommy had seen him devour for morning tea. He wondered how he stayed so slim, so... lanky.
The whistling kettle brought him out of his reverie, and he made himself a mug of tea. His was the tin mug; Charles had a bone china one. Of course, thought Tommy, he would.
Not that he envied him in any way, well, not much. Charles was a good boss – not many blokes of my age have such interesting jobs, he thought. But then again, just what is my job, he wondered. It was obvious on the surface, but his real duties were less clear.
Tommy had not done brilliantly at school. Yes he was bright, always achieving good marks for most subjects, but he was never a team player. His reports frequently noted that, ‘Tommy is a loner’, ‘Tommy doesn’t seem to mix well with others,’ and so forth, yet his English teacher – who doubled as the school’s drama coach – adored him. ‘Tommy could play Hamlet!’ she wrote once. He was also good with his hands and did well in woodwork and especially metalwork.
He never did play the Prince of Denmark, though uncharacteristically he’d joined an amateur repertory group and had scored some good roles. But his day job had been as an apprentice mechanic. He’d joined a large engineering firm and, after going through all the usual initiations – he was too clever to fall for the ‘Go and ask stores for a long weight’ ruse – worked hard and diligently. Until he was accused of stealing.
It still riled him of course. He hadn’t stolen a thing, it was fit-up, that’s what it was. He slurped his tea, and put his mug on the desk, then thought better of it and got a saucer to put it on in case the hot mug marked the leather. Before he swung his feet up onto the desk he placed a cloth on it to avoid scratching. He didn’t want to lose this job, because now he worked for ‘the government’, even though he wasn't quite sure which part of it. Charles was his boss, and the only person he answered to.
He thought about this morning's job. It had gone smoothly. They’d arrived outside the underground car park just in time, then tailed the subject to his flat. The man hadn’t once looked back to check if they were there, which made it easy. Very easy. Inside, knock-out gas cylinder and hose ready, into the keyhole, then after a few minutes bring in the casket and off we go. But where, he wondered? Where do they go, the departed?
Thomas Alex Deighton finished his tea, lifted his legs off the desk and wiped it to make sure Charles wouldn't know he'd sat there. He washed and dried his mug and turned to leave the office but then stopped and took his top hat off the shelf and placed it on his head. He looked in the mirror on the wall beside the door, tilted the hat to a jaunty angle and tapped it on top to ensure it stayed in place.
I work for the government, he thought. As a mechanic, and ‘an undertaker’s assistant.’ Sure. Of course that's what I am. But at least my so-called criminal record has been wiped. Now all I’ve got to do is keep my nose clean and deal with the ‘funerals.’ His reflection smiled a lop-sided smile back at him and he started singing softly to himself.
‘Dem bones, dem bones, dem... dry bones, dem bones, dem bones, dem... dry bones...’
RAF Northolt, West London
The hangar doors opened upon Charles beeping the horn and closed again after him as he drove in and parked. He exited the driver's seat and closed the hearse door, the sound echoing in the cavernous interior of the hangar.
In front of him was a military ambulance with blacked-out windows on the sides and rear doors. The ambulance driver walked over to Charles and they shook hands. They’d shared jobs like this a few times.
‘You've got the patient then?’ asked the driver, in Cockney as thick as butter.
Charles indicated the hearse. ‘In the back Don, sleeping like a baby. Mind you, it’s your job to keep him that way for a while. Have you got the kit ready?’
Don nodded. ‘Yeah, but come and take a butcher’s. We’ve got a bloomin’ transfer pod now, no expense spared,’ and he led Charles to the open doors at the back of the ambulance. Inside the vehicle, which was lined in gleaming white and stainless steel, Charles saw a large, clear half-tube that fitted perfectly...