The Carstairs Series
This book is part of a series, which at one point was referred to as the Carstairs Trilogy for books 1 through 3, but which has grown beyond that due to reader demand. Including this book, it consists of the following titles:
1. Best Sister Ever
2. An Audience With Carstairs
3. And The Winner Is
4. The Trials of Carstairs
5. This Is Your Carstairs Speaking
6. Carstairs of Arabia
Books 5 and 6 are the first parts of a three book story arch. It will be concluded in book 7, which will probably be called The Protocols of Carstairs. Work on that is already in progress.
Other books by Ron Dudderie:
- The Most Hated Man (stand alone novel)
- The Reluctant Guide (stand alone novel)
- Best Sinterklaas Ever (short story, set several years before Best Sister Ever)
For more information, visit funnyandsexyebooks.com
Subscribe to a newsletter (low volume) at tinyletter.com/ronsdirtybooks for updates and news about new books.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, companies, nations, religions, or actual events is purely coincidental.
The author does not necessarily condone, support or agree with actions and statements made by characters appearing in this story and urges readers to take a literary view, not a literal one.
This book airs many concerns over and criticisms of Islamic mores and culture. I'm sure this won't help, but may it be noted the book does not actually condemn or insult the religion or its prophet, but merely the people who claim to follow its teachings and yet do not unequivocally condemn all the violence and inequities perpetrated in its name. Assaulting me in any way merely proves the point of this book.
This book was started on October 21st, 2017.
First draft was completed on June 19th, 2019.
Final revision completed on September 26th, 2019.
Released on September 27th, 2019.
This is version 1.1. Cover image may change in future releases.
The story takes place in 2015. The narrative starts in This Is Your Carstairs Speaking, out now.
Thanks to Steve B for proofreading, not once but twice. He found some doozies, I don't mind telling you. As I release this book, I'm sure my readers will find one or two misplaced semi-colons here and there, and this section will no doubt grow.
This book is dedicated to two-time world chess champion Anna Muzychuck, who gave up her titles when the tournament was held in Saudi Arabia in 2017. She had no intention of allowing others to treat her like a second-class citizen by making her wear a hijab and requiring a male escort to be in charge of her, so she did not attend.
In memory of the victims of 9/11, the attack on the Bataclan theatre, the Manchester Arena bombing, the Westgate mall shooting, the mass execution at Charlie Hebdo, the truck attacks in Nice and Berlin and the literally countless other attacks on innocent civilians committed in the name of Islam. I cannot speak for them, but I can remind others of the cost of indulging this religion, and letting it fester unchecked. Most muslims are not violent terrorists. But most violent terrorists are muslim, and Islam continues to be a source of hatred, discrimination and fear for many. And if you don't believe me, bring a teddy bear to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan or any other Islamic stronghold and casually mention that you've named it 'Muhammad'.
And now a brief word from a certain Mr. Winston Churchill in his 1899 book 'The River Wars'. Emphasis mine.
“How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity.
The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property – either as a child, a wife, or a concubine – must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men. Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities. Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen: all know how to die; but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world.
Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytising faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity were sheltered in the strong arms of science – the science against which it had vainly struggled – the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.”
Characters are listed in the order in which they appear or are mentioned (more or less).
Martin van de Casteele, aka King - One time business owner, became an actor. Best known as Carstairs, a butler.
Daphne / Hotwheels - Martin's legal secretary. She has cerebral palsy.
Ali / Algernon - Martin's chauffeur in London.
Nigel - Classically trained actor. Diana's husband.
Diana Albinson - Martin's first love after his divorce. Renowned actress.
Melody van de Casteele - Martin's wife, of Caribbean descent. Mother to their son, Edwin.
Kate Castle - Martin's sister and a very senior staff member at the Keller & Fox talent agency.
Alfred van de Casteele - Martin and Kate's father. (Kate uses a professional last name.)
Peter Fox - Half of Keller & Fox, a talent management agency. Very, very rich.
Sir Rupert Dupree - A very senior government official. Liaison between Foreign Office and MI6.
Hugo Corcoran - Sir Rupert's principal private secretary and right hand man.
Kelly Newman - Young woman who helped turn Martin into Carstairs. They are... uhm, friends?
Lara Armstrong - Owner of Armstrong Security, which was started by her father.
Tom and William - Employees of Armstrong Security.
Simon Sixsmith - An MI6 operative. Job description unknown.
Indiana Jones - An archeologist who has nothing to do with the case.
Caroline Keller - God, but female and less interested in murder. See Peter Fox. Very rich.
Prince Asim bin Badr al Din Al Saud - 17th in line to the Saudi throne. Likes to party.
Prince Omar Abdullah Al Din Al Saud - 6th in line. A very devout muslim. Cousin of Asim.
Alice - Caroline's loyal, trusted secretary.
Stafford - A lie detector operator with MI6.
Dr. Nityasundar 'Johnny' Sarma - medical researcher with Brain Drain Cybernetics LTD.
Anaïs Hachimi - A French chef, specialising in pastry. Nominally muslim. Very French.
Miles Bamford - Board member at Aston Martin, MI6 vendor for high tech vehicles.
John Stein - Technically with Aramco, actually with the CIA.
Gerald - A CIA field operative stationed with the US embassy.
Ralph Edgebaston - Senior intelligence officer at the British embassy.
William Constable - Junior intelligence officer at the British embassy.
Imam Musa ibn Ja'far - Imam of the extremely conservative Hittin mosque, Omar's mentor.
Abdul(rahim) bin Musa - Imam Musa's son. Sports car enthusiast.
Faroukh bin Musa - Imam Musa's other son. Listens to his father, loves gaming.
Gunther - Purser on board The Crescent, Omar's yacht.
Audio Guy - An audio engineer Martin has worked with in the past.
Oleg Kadimirov - A Russian smuggler whose cover is... arms dealing.
Mustafa bin Said - A nice, somewhat tall Omani shipping magnate.
Azur bin Rachman - A gold dealer who married a Russian wife.
Princess Alexandra / Lexy - Omar's niece. He is in charge of her as her parents are dead.
Khafama Abdulaziz - Majordomo of Prince Omar's household. Khafama is his job title.
Amina - Cleaner at the Saudi Royal Palace, assigned to the Guest Palace.
Mutton Chops - Senior Mutawa officer (the religious police).
Squeeky - Very Junior Mutawa officer.
Friday June 26th, 2015. Keller & Fox building 3, Sussex Gardens, London.
“Well, that's me done. I'll file these on Monday. Anything else I can do for you?”
“Thank you Daphne, but I think you should go home and enjoy the weekend.”
“Smashing! Have you got any plans? Oh... Sorry.”
“That's quite alright. Shall I order you a car?”
“Nah, I'll take the... Oh.”
“You can say Underground, you know. It's not banned. Life goes on. But why turn down a ride?”
“Because I've got to stay in shape! It's so easy to lose muscle tone in a wheelchair. Besides, I'm doing some shopping on the way home. Now, you sure you'll be alright?”
“Yes. I'll see you... Tuesday?”
“Wednesday. Exams on Tuesday.”
“Oh, right. Well, good luck.”
“Won't need it. Well, kiss your son for me. Or gob on him. Same thing.”
Daphne makes that joke all the time. She's my legal assistant and fifty percent of the staff of a company I run. (I'm the other half.) She's also confined to a wheelchair, because she has cerebral palsy. That means she always sounds as if she is completely drunk, which I prefer not to relay in writing because it might give the impression she's not all there. And she bloody well is, believe me. I don't know if I'd have the willpower to take public transport and do my own shopping if I were in a wheelchair. I've been known to sit through an entire episode of Temptation Island, just because the remote was on the other sofa. Although I did try making myself pass out by pressing a sofa cushion in my face, because I'm not mental or anything.
When Daphne had left, I called my wife, Melody.
“Hi sweetheart,” she said, picking up after just one ring.
“Hi gorgeous. How's your mother doing?”
“Not great. I was going to call you. It might be best if Edwin and I spend the night here. Would that be okay?”
“Absolutely. But I can come and take him off your hands if you like.”
“No, don't. Mum so loves having him around. And I brought all the gear. We're fine.”
Melody's mother had had an operation two days previous. Gall stones. If you ever have a chance to wish something upon your worst enemy, you could do worse than pick gall stones. Mrs. Warder and I weren't close, but she was my wife's mother and a lovely grandmother to our son Edwin, so I bore her no ill will.
“Well, let me know if you change your mind. And your mother is welcome at our place, as I've said. Kate is away and Kelly has rehearsals, so she won't be in the way.”
“I know, but you know what old people are like. They prefer to be home. Ecoute, maman, tu as cinquante-trois ans!”
I guess Mrs. Warder was listening in and objected to being called old at fifty-three. And she was right, but Mel was twenty-nine at that point. Mel and her mother often speak French, because Mel grew up in Paris.
“Your mother is right, Mel. And besides, she doesn't look a day over forty!” I said loudly, eager to score some points with my mother in law.
“Kiss-ass,” giggled Melody. And I think Mrs. Warder chuckled too, which she'd never do if I were in the room. “Now, will you be alright? Oh hang on, it's game night, isn't it?”
“Yes. I'll be fine. Give Edwin a hug.”
“Will do. Bye, sweetheart.”
After I hung up I stepped into the pantry to load the dishwasher. It's just Daphne and me, on the second floor of a building on Sussex Street. We had four empty offices to ourselves, but we shared the largest one. Running Scytale, which develops and licenses ticketing software, doesn't take up much time. That's fine, because Daphne is actually studying for her law degree and I fill the rest of my week as the interim IT Manager for Keller & Fox. Once a month, on a Friday, everybody in the IT department stays late. We order pizza and spare ribs and then we play Team Fortress 2. Except today, because I really wasn't in the mood. I'd had my share of violence, recently.
I don't suppose you remember the terrorist attack of June 11th, even though you will have heard about it. It wasn't the only one that year and these incidents have an unfortunate habit of blending together. They follow certain patterns and the images from the news are often all too familiar. These days everyone has a phone with a camera, but even then you hardly get more than some shaky footage of someone hiding behind a wall or a table. The rest is all police cars and ambulances, white sheets and puddles of blood, politicians and spokespeople, marches and protests, candles and flowers. And we'll see it all again the next time terror strikes.
I stopped following the news a while ago, to shield myself from all this misery. What can you do about it, anyway? But then it happened to me. To me and, more importantly, my family. My son, my wife, my sister and my friend, Diana. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Terrorism came for us, that day. And it took someone I held very dear.
Some shit stain believed his religion demanded that he take a sword to a bunch of innocent people, which I saw him do three times that day. That it was justified to take a swing at my wife and my infant son as they were seeking shelter. That his God, called Allah, would approve of that and reward him.
If it hadn't been for Diana, I would now be a widower and a... an... You know, it occurs to me we have no word for parents who have lost their children, but I would have been one of those, too. And that bastard had a go at my sister as well, even though she stood her ground. Still, he tried. Which is why I personally fed him feet first into the machinery of an Underground escalator, which tore the flesh from his bones and devoured him while he was very much alive and conscious. I know this for a fact, because I looked him in the eye as it happened. And I'd have seen it through to the end, but friends came to get me and my family and took us to safety, away from prying eyes and police interviews.
We left Diana there, because she was beyond help. I only saw her again on the day of her funeral, which was a week ago. And now I was back in the office. Because life goes on, apparently. I finished loading the dishwasher, which only had a few cups and mugs to do, and took out my phone to call my driver.
“Yo, Mista King.”
“Ali, please bring the car around.”
“You got it. 'Ere, hang on, ain't it freaky Friday?”
“Yes. I'm not joining in. But I'll let Winston know, thanks for reminding me. How long will you need?”
“I was just givin' it a wash. If I can 'ave ten more minutes, I can do the rims an' all.”
“Sure. I'll wait outside.”
“Hi, Mr. King.”
“Hello Winston. I just wanted to let you know I won't be joining in tonight.”
“Yes, Sir. I understand. In fact, we were wondering if it was appropriate to have game night at all.”
“I'd say it most certainly is, for you. It's just a bit too soon for me to play a shoot 'em up.”
“We could play Gran Turismo? Or FIFA?”
“No. I've somewhere I need to be. You go ahead and have fun. You've earned it. Well, you have. I'm not sure about the rest of 'em. Bunch of fucking geeks.”
Winston chuckled. In that moment we switched from the employer - employee routine to being gaming buddies.
“If you change you mind, give us a call. Join in from home if you want. Uhm... is Daphne still there?”
“She left fifteen minutes ago. Why, were you finally going to ask her out?”
“I was... uhm... No, it's just...”
“I thought so. Look, you have to make the first move! She'll say yes, but you have to ask her!”
“Yeah... I will. Soon.”
“Uh-huh. Have a good one, Winston.”
“Thanks. We'll keep a seat warm for you.”
“That sounds disgusting. Ta ta.”
Yes, I started making jokes again. I had to. For the first three days after the incident I couldn't even speak. I was so afraid of the vile, racist, hurtful, stupid things that might come tumbling out of my mouth that it was just physically impossible for me to say anything. I wanted to say things that are usually said by the dumbest, most despicable people on TV (and YouTube. Especially YouTube). Things no educated, self-respecting man would say, because violence and hatred are not supposed to be the solution to anything, especially not to violence and hatred from others. I wanted to say things you usually only hear in an Arkansan drawl, uttered by a shifty-eyed man in a camouflage jacket, or shouted in a Glaswegian accent by a drunk teenager with a ballpoint pen tattoo swastika on his forehead. And so I said nothing. Nothing at all. For three days.
Eventually the desire to communicate with Edwin helped me to overcome that blockade, but it was a weird and unsettling experience.
I was one of the last to leave the building, so I had a brief chat with the guard and the cleaning lady while I waited for Ali to pull out of the underground garage. The drivers treat that as their inner sanctum, so I don't usually get in the car there unless it's raining.
I didn't have to wait long before a gleaming silver Mercedes calmly pulled up at the front entrance and Ali got out to open the door for me.
“Home?” he asked, as I got in the back.
“No. Highgate cemetery, please. And find a florist on the way there.”
“Oh. Right. Sure, man.”
Ali, whose full name is Algernon, is my chauffeur. I didn't ask for a company car and I certainly didn't ask for a driver, but I got one all the same. Initially I found him extremely annoying, but we've been through a few scrapes together and we both made some concessions that make this arrangement possible. Ali no longer tries to foist his awful music on me and I don't make him listen to Jazz FM. He's learned to open doors and not eat KFC in the car, which is basically all I ask. The other drivers are a lot more servile and polite, but I don't care for that. Just don't expect me to fist bump you when we reach our destination, or to discuss 'luscious chicks' we spot on the sidewalk.
Highgate Cemetery covers 15 hectares and counts quite a few celebrities, if that is the word, amongst its permanent residents. Karl Marx is probably the most famous example, but Anna Mahler, daughter to Gustav, also has a grave there, as does Douglas Adams, one of the funniest authors I've ever read. And now Diana Albinson, noted actress of stage and screen. Unlike most of the other notable figures, who are buried in the eastern part of the grounds, her grave is quite near the entrance of the west side. Ali knew where to park.
“Shall I... I mean... D'ya want me to come along?” he asked, as he held the door open for me. He had been unusually quiet during our journey.
“Well, you were there when she died. I'd understand if you wanted to say goodbye to her.”
“Yeah. I would. If you don't mind.”
“Not at all.”
Highgate is more like a park than a cemetery. We'd just had a bit of rain and I like the way that makes the trees smell. We walked in silence on the gravel pathways that meander through the park. It's not all graves, not by a long shot. Highgate was established in 1839 and isn't anywhere near full, despite having more than 53,000 graves and a large section for urns. Most of the trees, shrubs and wildflowers appeared without any human intervention, and it's become something of a wildlife reserve. Sadly, it caught the attention of filmmakers a while ago, because the Victorians put up a host of very picturesque Gothic tombs, gravestones and mausoleums. The Egyptian Avenue in particular has featured in quite a few movies and there are numerous bullshit stories about vampires and ghosts connected to the site. Some sections are now only accessible via a guided tour. I was happy Diana's grave wasn't anywhere near those areas. I'd hate to see it in the background of some horror movie or lurid Victorian murder mystery.
Her grave was very ornate, because a lot of people had come together to pay for something lavish. The gravestone was actually a column with some symbols carved into it. One side featured a rose, the symbol of beauty. On the opposite side was an arrow, which symbolises martyrdom. The front had the comedy and tragedy masks, to indicate her calling in life. Below that her date of birth and date of death. In life she had kept her age hidden, but that secret was out now, anyway. Thanks, Wikipedia.
The column was broken, to indicate her life had ended too soon. And it stood on a marble slab, into which her name was chiseled in gilded letters: Diana Louise Albinson. It was very much the kind of final resting place you get when lots of people are chipping in. But then again, matters of taste are irrelevant when it comes to graves, don't you think?
To top it all off, a wrought iron fence about fifty centimetres in height ran around the slab. It even had a little gate, which I opened to place my bouquet of pink roses just under her name. I was going to get her red roses, but the florist had discreetly asked if it was for a friend or someone more intimate. And obviously, although I did love her briefly, we were friends at that point. Apparently there's a code regarding the right flowers to put on a grave. Sunflowers indicate admiration, red is for romantic love and pink is for friendship or gratitude. So pink it was, because even though it hurt like a bastard when I found out she didn't love me back, the fact that a kind and amazing woman such as her had taken an interest in me at all had really helped to cheer me up. So much so that the real me reappeared, which brought me Melody.
To my surprise, Ali cleared his throat and began to speak. That's perfectly fine, obviously, but I just didn't see it coming. Just in time I managed to shut my mouth and fold my hands in front of me, to listen quietly.
“So uhm Missus Albinson, my name is Ali, right, and I just wanna say... I'm sorry. For what happened. But thanks for saving Missus King and Eddie. And Kate. That was a real stand up thing you did. I was there, you know, when it happened, on the platform. And I thought I knew who you was. Well, it took me a while, but I figured it out. I, like, saw you doin' um... wassername... Ophelia, right? In 'Amlet. On the telly, in Mr. Tapper's class. On video tape it was, in like that square shape from when television was really long ago. He started the tape and I remember thinking: 'Bloody hell, am I gonna have to look at this grainy shit for two hours?' But then after like fifteen minutes I really got into it and you was Ophelia, I remember. That king made you spy on 'Amlet an' you did it, 'cause you was a good daughter. I kept thinking about you for a while, after that class. You was really properly good in that play.”
Ali stopped talking and looked at me.
“Was that alright?” he asked. I had to swallow twice and blink even more before I could answer.
“That was beautiful, Ali. That's exactly what she wanted to achieve as an actress. Well said.”
“Aight. Now you do it.”
I shook my head.
“I don't think I can do better than you right now, Ali. But if it's okay with you, I'd like a few minutes here by myself.”
“Yeah. Sure. I'ma... gonna hang back. Like, well back.”
Ali, clearly following some improvised ritual in his own head, took three steps backwards before he turned away from the grave and calmly walked away. I assumed he'd be quiet, but after only a few seconds I could hear his annoyingly loud whisper behind my back.
“Oi, mate, would you, like, be okay with walking the odda way? 'Cause my mate, he'd like to have a moment wiv...”
“I think Mr. King won't mind me,” said a familiar voice. I turned to look. It was Nigel, Diana's husband. He wasn't wearing a suit and didn't have a chauffeur. He wore a parka and held a single red rose in his hand.
“It's alright, Ali,” I said. “Hello Nigel.”
Nigel smiled at Ali, patted his shoulder in a friendly way and walked up to me. We shook hands. He saw my roses.
“That's lovely,” he said. “Thanks so much for that. I was going to bring her a rose every week for a year. Looks a bit puny next to those.”
“Not at all. Look, I'll give you some privacy,” I said. Diana had been his wife. I had no idea what kind of arrangement they had at the time, that she was allowed to have boyfriends, but that was all water under the bridge now.
“Oh, don't leave on my account! I mean... It's great someone's here. No, please. Stay. Were you... going to pray?”
“I don't pray. But go right ahead.”
“I don't either. Let me just...”
He opened the tiny gate and placed his rose on top of my bouquet, chatting to Diana as if she were actually listening.
“Hello puppet, this is for you. I was on my way to have dinner with Lola and I thought I'd drop in. She's at work now but we'll come together next week.”
I waited for him to close the gate and asked:
“How is Lola? And how are you?”
He pointed at a bench, about fifty metres down the path.
“Shall we sit down? I walked here from the tube and I've got a bit of a dicky knee. If you've got time, of course.”
I'd sit here all night and listen to him if I had to. I had nowhere else to be and if I had lost Melody, or Kate for that matter, I'd be a complete fucking mess. The fact he was able to walk at all amazed me. We wiped some raindrops off the bench and sat down.
“Lola is over the worst of it, I'd say,” he said, answering my question from a minute earlier. “This is the first night she's back on stage. I was going to go and see her and then have dinner. But I suppose it doesn't matter if I'm a bit late. I've seen that play half a dozen times now.”
It was five thirty, or thereabouts. Plays generally start at eight. I guessed he was settling in for a long talk and wondered if I should send Ali away. But it turned out he was more worried about me!
“So I hear you couldn't speak for a week, what's that all about?”
“What? How did you hear that? Besides, it was only a few days. We spoke before the funeral, remember?”
“Oh right. Bit of a haze, to be honest. So much to do. I don't know who told me. And then there was all that police business. That wasn't easy, keeping you out of it.”
I should stress I never asked him to keep me out of it. Caroline did that. I spoke to Nigel and Lola, to let them know Diana's last words and to give a brief account of what had happened. Then for some reason the police wanted to interview him and apparently Caroline had asked him not to mention our presence. You know, what with me having killed two of the attackers. Or to be precise: I pushed one in front of a train and stuffed the other in a moving cogwheel. He died three hours later, while they were trying to get him out.
“How did you manage that?”
“Crying. I just cried like a maniac whenever they asked for details. In the end they gave up. Caroline told me all sorts of things I should and shouldn't say, but I couldn't remember them. Crying is perfect: coppers hate it. And it came quite easy, as you can imagine. So your secret is safe with me. I hope that bastard suffered.”
“They both did. I appreciate it, Nigel.”
“Yeah. Who'd have thought you and me would be friends, right? Ha.”
I didn't. Right up until that moment, in fact.
We met when I started doing theatre lights for a production called 'I Married A Murderer', produced by and starring Diana in a theatre one hour away from London. Nigel was the male lead and even though his part was mainly to run around nervously and distract the police inspector which I later came to play, he did it very well and always got the laughs he was supposed to get.
Nigel and I had disliked each other from the start. My reason was that he was a grumpy sod off-stage, but his reason was that I was fucking his wife. I just didn't know that, because Diana assumed everyone knew she was married to Nigel. But I have to admit that he was very generous on stage, where it would have been very easy to upstage or embarrass me. He never did that, because he's a professional. I've seen some of his work since and his career is about as impressive as Diana's, even though he mostly played smaller parts. He's done a lot of them, though: his IMBD page lists over one hundred entries, but at least fifty of those roles are simply described as 'thug', 'Russian henchman', 'police sergeant' or 'businessman'. Still, these people are badly needed. We can't all be stars and headliners: supporting roles are vital to making the story feel realistic. Nigel, with his eternal scowl and his doglike face, had made a career of that kind of work. And Diana had seen right through it all and picked him to share her life with, even though she asked to be let off the leash occasionally. And one day she picked me as a playmate, and he had put up with it.
He'd had bigger roles, too. In fact, he had played Macbeth opposite Diana (as Lady Macbeth, obviously) in a BBC stage adaptation in the late eighties, which I'd watched on TV only two nights before, and he was amazing in that. In fact, even though I'd known him for a while now, I was a tiny bit star struck all of a sudden. Isn't that weird? People sometimes get that with me, but it's good to be reminded of what it feels like, occasionally.
“So how have you been handling it?” he asked.
“Me? I'm fine. Really. I was asking about you, remember?”
“Yeah, but I'm not the one who was actually attacked by two guys with a knife and a gun, with his family there. You really couldn't speak?”
“No. I mean yes. Completely mute.”
“Not even 'pass the sugar' or something?”
“You were that angry?”
“Wow. You should speak to someone about that, mate. That's not good.”
“Excuse me? I got off easy compared to you!”
He scowled. And that’s a scowl that has made him quite a bit of money, so it packs a punch.
“Yeah. That's why you're here, on a Friday afternoon, putting flowers on my wife's grave. 'Cause you got off easy.”
“It's not about me, Nigel,” I said, as I leaned forward and rested my elbows on my knees. I could see Ali in the distance, listening to music on his phone. I could just make out the white cable from his headphones. He was fine there.
“Listen, Martin. I want to tell you something that might help. But you have to promise, really swear on a stack of bibles, that this will never make the press. So no telling Kate or Caroline or any of 'em. Okay?”
“Absolutely. Where would two atheists get a stack of bibles, by the way?”
“I'm no atheist: I'm just done praying. But even though I'm completely fucked up by this, I've cried enough in the past two weeks to last me for a while. But you need to know something. So you promise?”
“You have my word.”
“Okay. Diana wanted to do that play with you, right? Wind down her career.”
“Yes. She wanted to start directing.”
“Bollocks. She's never cared for that. The truth of the matter is that... Ooohhh, fuck. I hate this.”
He sighed, leaned back and folded his hands behind his head. That wasn't very comfortable, so he changed back and mirrored my position.
“About a year ago, Diana had an infection. She had to take pills for that. A lot of pills, at different intervals. And she messed it up, big time. Like... damned near poisoned herself. Just couldn't keep track of the dosage. I couldn't understand, but the long and the short of it is that we discovered she had Alzheimer's. I mean, the doctor came up with that, based on a few clues. As soon as we heard that, a lot of things fell into place.”
“Oh Jesus...” I groaned. “Don't tell me she thought I was you when we.... dated!”
“NO! Oh God no! Dear boy, no! Don't worry about that. No. She was fine back then. But lately she'd been forgetting a lot of things, she started to repeat herself... things like that. She startled easy. Lost her sense of smell, sometimes. Anyway, they did a brain scan. Alzheimer's. Clear as day. Fairly advanced.”
“But she was on stage four nights a week!”
Nigel slapped his own thigh.
“YES! That's why it took us a while to find out! She's spent her entire life training her memory. It was her job. Pages and pages and more bloody pages, year after year. For theatre plays, films, TV-shows, anything. Big stacks of paper. And she always knew every bloody word. Apparently that’s exactly the kind of mental exercise that helps you keep Alzheimer’s at bay. Use it or lose it, the doctor said. And she used it. Woman never even wrote shopping lists. Checked her bank statements once a month, and she was never surprised by the balance. She had a good memory. Plus, she was a great actress and a great improviser, so any time she'd forgotten something she would just fix it on the go. That script you and her did? She learned that in three days. That would have taken me a MONTH!”
“Okay. I get it. But Nigel, that makes no difference. We've still lost her. She had God knows how many good years left in her. I don't know much about Alzheimer's, but there's medication and maybe therapy and...”
Nigel placed his hand on my shoulder.
“Listen. Shut up. I know what you're saying. But for HER, it was terrible. She was deathly afraid of losing it, Martin. It shook her up something awful. She started looking into options for assisted suicide, she drew up a new will, she just completely lost it. And then she decided she wanted to do one last thing. That play.”
“With me. Of all people! When you're a fine actor! Why?”
“She wanted me to direct. And truth be told, I suck at improvisation. You don't. Besides, you wouldn't have known. I would have frozen as soon as she deviated one word from the script, but you'd just have rolled with it. You may be a one trick pony, Martin, but you do that trick VERY well.”
“Uhm... Excuse me?”
“What? Like that's a secret?”
“I'm not asking for a review, but... one trick pony?!”
“Yes! Look, that's not a bad thing! You just... Your range is limited to... well, you. Aspects of you. The Inspector, that's just you. A grumpy, mistrusting version of you. Carstairs, that's you being nice and caring and then suddenly ripping someone's tits off when they are a threat to Kelly. That Nazi, that's you! Not the... Not the anti-Semitism, obviously, don't get me wrong. But if someone shakes you up, you'll go on a fucking rampage and nobody better get in your way. Right? That's just... That's who you are. You couldn't play, say, a gay hairdresser or a snitch or a... a... politician or something. That's not in you. You'd suck. I've worked with you, remember?”
I needed a moment to let that sink in. I never made any effort to become an actor, that just happened. Certainly never took lessons. And I was aware I had a limited range, but I didn't care because I had no ambitions. But surely I'd be able to play a snitch? How hard is that? I couldn't quite see myself as a gay hairdresser, but I'd give it a damned good go if I liked the part. I'd play the Fairy Godmother in panto if anyone asked! In fact, I’d quietly been hoping someone asked!
“Look, it's fine. I'm not saying this to be mean. I play snivelling arseholes most of the time. Made bank with that. Do what comes natural, eh?” said Nigel, offering a fairly convincing smile and some self-deprecation to soften the blow.
“Yes... well... Be that as it may: the fact Diana was suffering from Alzheimer's doesn't suddenly make it alright that she died.”
Nigel turned and made sure we had eye contact.
“It does. Not for you and me. We still have to miss her. We had to bury her. I had to tell her daughter that her mum died. For us it's fucking awful. But for HER... I'm sure that's why she did it. Well, not deliberately. I'm not saying she was suicidal. But she saw a way to make her death mean something. Save some innocent people. A child. A mother. And she did it. And you know what, Martin? I'm glad. I'm fucking GLAD! She died a Goddamned hero in that tunnel. She died for a purpose and she died with a friend by her side. And it saved her five, maybe ten years of being afraid. Afraid to take on work. Afraid of humiliating herself. Of pissing herself. Of ending up in the papers or on fucking TWITTER as that former actress who was found waiting at a bus stop for a day and a half because she forgot who she was and where she lived. Because she...”
He stopped talking abruptly and started to cry. Poor bastard.
Yeah, that wasn't a fun five minutes. I don't think I ever hugged another man for that long before. My dad and I are a bit more at ease with physical contact, now that he's old and I've spent time around American men, but I think twenty seconds is our record. And that was on my wedding day. But the thing about actors, proper actors I mean, is that they're generally a bit more in touch with their emotions. They spend a lot more time thinking about them, or forcing them out when it's needed for a scene, than men like me do, who would rather chew off their tongues than cry.
Mind you, I've still had my share of breakdowns, but I'm hardly proud of those. And generally speaking it doesn't take a whole lot to set me off, but this time I had nothing. Perhaps that was better, or it would have been a right spectacle. I held Nigel, patted his back, eventually helped him to sit down and then he just petered out. He didn't even apologise.
“Well... better out than in,” he said, drying his eyes with a paper tissue that had clearly been in his pockets for a while. “I thought I was done for the week, but I guess I wasn't.”
I just nodded.
“Aaaaaanyway... I'd better be off. Martin, you're seeing someone about all this, right? You're not just unloading on your wife, I hope?”
“We're fine, really.”
“I mean it,” he said, as he got up and offered his hand. “Don't bottle it all up. And let her go, eventually. She was here, she made our lives more fun, we're grateful and in a little while we move on.”
I shook his hand.
“I will. But only after I've had a conversation with whoever is responsible. And it's not the pair of morons they brainwashed into carrying out the attack. There's someone higher up.”
“Right...” said Nigel, studying my face. “I don't suppose you'll just let the government handle that?”
I got up as well.
“I'd rather not. And don't know how far I'll get, but we shouldn't be the only ones crying.”
He let go of my hand and gave me a weird, resigned smile.
“You know, some of us get to pretend we're kings, whereas we're really just servants. But I suppose some men can pretend they're servants all they want: they're still kings. And kings have subjects to protect, and justice to mete out. Good luck, fair king.”
He bowed his head, took one step backwards, turned and sauntered off. I stood dumbstruck for a second and called after him.
“Nige! What the hell?! Was that Shakespeare or something?”
“Nope,” he said, looking over his shoulder. “But it seemed appropriate.”
He continued on his way.
“You do know my name is not King!”
This time he didn't even turn his head.
“I know. See ya.”
I was tempted to lob a pine cone at him, but then I remembered where I was.
I walked back to Diana's grave. What I'd just said to Nigel had surprised even me. I'd been thinking about stepping up, about going on the hunt. In fact, I had discussed it with Peter. But Peter didn't really count and now I'd told Nigel I would try to find whoever was responsible. That's how it works, sometimes: you mull something over for days or even weeks, and when you come to a decision you find you have already been taking small steps in that direction. Mostly by not doing something that would get in the way, like taking on new responsibilities, or by not discussing it with people who might object. I guess I was doing that. And now I found myself taking another step, as I stood at Diana's grave.
“Someone will pay, Diana,” I whispered, feeling a tiny bit silly for speaking to myself. Thankfully, before I could add something stupid like 'and that is a promise', my phone rang.
I will have nothing bad said against my father, apart from the fact he's a racist with appallingly shortsighted political views, that he is deaf as a post and should have gotten a hearing aid thirty years ago, that he usually put his work before family, that he is obsessed with watching sports and would rather watch some sort of Formula One race than spend time chatting with Kate or me and that our relationship has always been somewhat strained. He never really believed I turned out well until I showed him a copy of my tax filings.
It is a minor miracle our mum hasn't strangled him in his sleep because of his wilful absentmindedness, in which case Kate and I would have helped her to get rid of the body. Okay, I'm done venting. He has his good sides and the racism is mainly informed by his habit of reading the trashiest newspapers available and taking them as gospel, but he always had work colleagues of all creeds and colours and many of them became friends. It's just that he collects and tells the most awful, awful jokes. I swear he writes them down somewhere.
Old age has mellowed him, fortunately, so family gatherings are a lot more fun nowadays. He has also never laid a hand on anyone as far as I can tell and when push comes to shove he is my dad and I love him. And so does Kate, when she's not shouting at him. Or maybe even while she does. Apart from that, he has embraced Melody as a daughter and she is also very fond of him. So much so that he will take her side on any issue (not that there are many) against me. It's quite moving, actually. Mel never really had a father figure in her life, but he's doing his best and they get on like a house on fire. A lot better than him and me ever did, truth be told.
I was therefore surprised that he called me, because like most men of his generation he firmly believes telephones should be used about as often as fire extinguishers and mainly for the same reason.
“Hi dad,” I said, because he may be old but he has an iPhone so he must know about caller ID.
“Hi, my boy. It's your dad.”
Oh, if only that were a joke... As if I wouldn't know my father's voice.
“Yes, hello dad. What's up?”
“Well, your mother and I, we were wondering if you were going to be on telly tonight?”
“What? No! Well, I don't know. Maybe there's a repeat of something. Why?”
“Well, if you're not, then perhaps Mel and you could come over? So we can look at you?”
Oh, now I got it. It was a joke.
“Ah, right. Thing is, Mel is with her mother. You recall she went in for surgery the other day, right?”
We'd only mentioned it ten or fifteen times, which was usually enough to lodge something in his memory. Unless it was Tour de France season, in which case the best thing to do was probably to get a big black marker and write it on his television screen. We were saving that trick for real emergencies.
“Yes! Yes, I do! So how did that go?”
“Surgery went fine. They took out three gall stones the size of a chestnut and some smaller ones. And her gall bladder.”
“Yeah. Anyway, the anaesthesia shook her up a bit, so Mel is staying at her place.”
“Edwin. He's not a Belgian folk singer. But he's with them.”
“Right. I see. And Kate is still overseas, right?”
“If by that you mean: 'Is she on assignment in Denmark', then yes. If you think she's been deployed with a battle group in the South Pacific, then no.”
“No, I meant Denmark. On assignment... bloody heck. You'd think my daughter was with the FBI or something, rather than some casting agency. Anyway, does that mean you're alone tonight?”
“I wouldn't put it quite so dramatically, but yes.”
“Well then, that's sorted. What time can you be here? Your mother is planning a lasagna. She's already firing up the wok.”
God knows why, but my mother uses a wok for damned near everything. Cooking was never her thing, but because we hardly ever went out for dinner neither Kate nor I knew any better for the first years of our lives. And she tries, bless her. God knows she tries. She bakes cakes with margarine (it saves calories!) and she thinks all vegetables, even asparagus, should be a bit crunchy, but she does try. My dad doesn't really mind: he covers all his food in black pepper. Seriously, ground black pepper is part of mum's weekly food shop. He just unscrews the shaker, creates a little Pinatubo diorama on his plate and digs in. Doesn't taste a bloody thing.
“Half an hour?”
“Great! I'll open an extra bottle.”
“Dad? I know you've only known me for forty-odd years, but here's the thing: I don't drink wine. Never have. Kate does, but I'm the other one: the taller one, with the Adam's apple.”
“Then I'll open a beer for you. Hope you like it flat. Bye bye!”
I see my parents at least twice a week, now that they live nearby. They still have a house in Hastings, but what with having a grandson in Ealing they rented an apartment in Brentford, about five miles from our house. It's quite nice, actually. Cosy, but without all the chintzy rubbish they have collected over the course of their marriage, because that's all back in Hastings. It's nice to be with your parents and getting to sit on a decent sofa, rather than the worn out piece of crap they bought thirty years ago.
Kate told them what had happened on the Underground. She needed four passes before they understood the severity, the magnitude of what the three of us had gone through. First they thought she'd also seen the attack on the news and just wanted to discuss it. Then they assumed she had been in the general vicinity, as it's near the office. After round three they understood there had been a degree of danger, but only on the fourth pass did they understand how close they had been to having to attend two, three and maybe even four funerals. I wasn't sure if we should burden them with that knowledge, but I let Kate make these judgements. What's astonishing is that you can actually tell someone three times how you nearly died and they just glaze over and hear something else. Because surely our daughter isn't saying our son pushed a terrorist under a train, right? That doesn't really happen, does it? The brain is very good at filtering out what we don't want to know.
To my utter astonishment my father was the one who then reached out to me and, during a number of walks through the parks around Brentford, allowed me to tell the story in my own way, with all the details I felt comfortable sharing. I had no idea that was his plan, that he was deliberately making time for me, but I was happy to go for a stroll with him because Caroline wouldn't allow me anywhere near the office. Besides, I could do with the exercise, and so could he.
And so, after three long walks I had told him everything. And not just what happened during the attack, but about all these horrors I've had to face recently: how Diana and I had started a brief affair, and how it ended. What I did to the boy who took a knife to Melody. What happened that day on the roof, when I (and everyone else on the planet) nearly lost Kate. The agonising fear I felt when Kelly's life was literally in my hand. Not even hands, but one hand. How I still felt her fingers pressing into my flesh, sometimes. And the latest horror: the image of my wife, holding my son and shielding him with her arm against a maniac with a sword, ready to strike. And what it did to me. How it affects my nights, my dreams, my mood. How it makes me so angry I've started to grind my teeth, both during the day and in my sleep. And let's not forget I watched several people die that day, including Diana. Her head was in my lap when she faded away. Literally in my lap. The cliché of seeing it every time you close your eyes isn't true, at least not for me: I saw her all the time, even when I had my eyes wide open.
Dad listened to all of it, waited patiently for me to compose my thoughts when I got stuck and asked just enough about the details to keep me going. More importantly, he asked me questions that helped me to see I had no other options, that I had always taken what seemed the most reasonable, logical actions. He didn't debate me, he didn't bring up stories of his own and he actually listened to what I was telling him. That in and of itself was new, because he usually just listens to the first ten words someone says and then switches off, thinking he can extrapolate the rest by just assuming we're all idiots. But there was none of that. He coaxed me into opening the floodgates, millimetre by millimetre, three days in a row. And it took me two and a half days to figure out he was actually doing it on purpose. To help me.
I don't want to give the impression he was a bad father before, because he wasn't: he put food on the table, he made countless sacrifices big and small like any parent does, he provided for his family and made sure we were safe and looked after. But he had always been my father, not my friend. His parenting style was: 'Walk it off', 'Hope you learned your lesson', 'Let's go to the shop and get you a Commodore 64 to keep you busy for the next year or so'. For a man raised by a single mother in a country ravaged by five years of German occupation and an actual famine, that's actually pretty good. But I was determined to do better with Edwin. Hopefully as well as my dad did that one week. One week out of my entire life. But he made it count.
I enjoy spending time with my parents, though I don't really know why. They never really seem to understand what I do for a living, not even when I'm on a big movie poster on the bus shelter outside their house. The TV is always on, always a bit too loud and usually tuned to a programme I can't stand. The coffee is atrocious. My father has known me my entire life, but every single Goddamned time I'm there he asks me if I take milk or sugar, if I want some wine and if 'things at work have improved yet'. Doesn't matter what I do: he always asks if they've improved yet. Even when I ran my own company he seemed to think I was beholden to some sort of boss, who was about to find out I was merely an imbecile hiding amongst the rank and file. I spoke to him not twelve hours after he'd watched me present the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and he STILL ASKED about work. Still, that's dad for you. Oh, if only it were dementia...
My mother is different. She used to run an entire retirement home, with a staff of seventy and over three hundred residents, with little more than a notepad and a desktop phone. Not because she is bossy or ruthlessly efficient, but because she's kind and reasonable and has the memory capacity of a Google Datacenter. It was impossible to pull the wool over her eyes in those days. Her sharpness has waned somewhat since she quit her job to join my dad in the UK, but she is still very much the social nexus of our family. I think she and Kate synchronise via ultrasound as soon as they're both in one room. Her health is not great and her husband is a deaf, formerly work-obsessed but now retired Daily Mail reader with attention deficit disorder, so her life isn't all that easy but she's generally in a good mood and if I have a sense of humour, which I know is debatable, I got it from her. She also instilled a love of language and music in me, though sadly I never got to develop the latter. I can carry a tune and play a few chords on the piano, but that's it.
I had Ali drive me to my parents' house and dismissed him for the rest of the weekend. I could have made him take a cab home and kept the Mercedes for my own use, but it would only be in the way on our driveway and I suspected dad would offer to drop me off home after dinner, having forgotten Melody wasn't there tonight. (Bit cruel? Perhaps. It's not like he has anything better to do and it would give my mom half an hour of blessed relief.)
I ate a lasagna that would have given Antony Worrall Thompson a gelastic seizure but that actually turned out well by my mom's standards, followed by a surprisingly good trifle from Lidl, and endured almost half an hour of Pointless, an inane TV show my parents both enjoy. It was nice to be looked after, to not be in charge of the cooking or Edwin or the laundry. All I had to do was sit and put my feet up, which I was glad to do. Mom told me about various friends and relatives I hadn't seen in at least a decade, many of whom could apparently no longer sleep until they'd had a chance to hold Edwin in their own arms. Well, they could certainly sleep during my bankruptcy and divorce, but they were welcome to book a ticket to London and a hotel and then they'd get to see him for as long as they liked.
And then, after I'd used the toilet, for absolutely no reason I stayed in the hallway, browsed through the memos on my phone until I found one with a name and a phone number, and dialled. Sure, it was Friday evening. But it was worth a try, right?
“Home Office switchboard, how may I direct your call?”
“Hello. Sir Rupert Dupree's office, please.”
“Who can I say is calling?”
“Martin van de Casteele.”
“Could you spell that for me?”
“Yes, but perhaps its easier if you say 'Mr. Carstairs off the telly'.”
There was a brief pause.
“I thought the voice was familiar. Sir, were you given a code word?”
“No, just a business card. Sir Rupert's card.”
“Could you look at the back of it for me, please?”
“I didn't think to look. I just copied the number to my phone. Haven't got the card on me.”
“Will you please hold?”
The Home Office doesn't play music while you're on hold. I listened to a bunch of buzzes and clicks, some static and then the familiar sound of a phone ringing. Okay, not ringing but the familiar tone at 425 Hertz, one second on, three seconds off. There are words and verbs for that in Dutch, you know. It's amazing there aren't any in English. Such a limited language.
“Director General's office. Is that you, Mr. Carstairs?”
“Yes, speaking. Hello.”
“Mr. Carstairs, this is Hugo Corcoran, I'm Sir Rupert's principal private secretary. I'm afraid he's not available right now. May I be of assistance?”
“Yes, well, you see... I met him a few weeks ago and he asked a favour of me.”
“And I should like to discuss it some more.”
“Right. Wonderful! Is this about...”
“I'd rather not discuss it on the phone.”
“Very wise, Mr. Carstairs. I'm afraid Sir Rupert has gone home for the weekend, but I shall pass on your message and I'm confident we shall be in touch with you very shortly. May we use this number?”
“Yes, but only if you text me first to check if I can take the call.”
“Absolutely, Sir. You'll get a text saying... Let's see... 'Free for drinks?' Will that do?”
None of my girls touches my phone in the rare instances it's not in my shirt pocket, so that was fine.
“Yes. Thank you.”
“A pleasure, Mr. Carstairs. And my best to Kelly, if you see her. Mother and I really enjoyed your last performance. I still can't look at the tiger's head she has mounted on the wall without giggling.”
“Uhm... Thanks. I'll mention that to her.”
And I did, because every time we meet up we exchange stories about the weird shit people feel completely at ease sharing with us.
Looking back, I still don't know why I made that call just after I had a slash at my parents' house. Obviously it had been on my mind. I'd been about to make that call half a dozen times and then backed off because I have a family to look after. I had discussed it with Peter Fox. I'd copied the number to a memo in my phone. But I never discussed it with either Melody or Kate, because I knew how they would react and at the end of the day, my responsibility is to them. And now I'd done it: I had set things in motion. Sure, I could still back out. But I knew I wouldn't.
My best guess is that a part of my brain that is usually engaged, the part that's busy planning dinner, tracking where my girls are, making a mental list of chores and repairs that need doing around the house and scanning for ominous sounds and smells from wherever Edwin is, had taken a breather while I was with my parents. I had no responsibilities there. I wasn't a father, nor a husband. I was only their son, getting my coffee handed to me and being forbidden from even bringing my plate into the kitchen. For an hour and a half, I was the one being taken care of. Absolved from all responsibility, all I had to do was relax. That's rare. I don't mean to say my girls don't take care of me, because of course they do. But when a burglar comes to the house at night, who ends up digging a shallow grave in Denham Country Park in the early hours of the morning? And grinding up molars and fingers in his shed? That's right: me. Muggins here. But while I was with my parents I was not in charge of anything and a part of my brain had clearly being waiting to take advantage of the lull to stage a coup. I needed to do something. Standing beside Diana's grave and not being able to promise her I'd see to it justice was done made me feel weak and insignificant. And I'm not. Not any more.
Saturday June 27th, 2015. Dallas Road, Ealing.
“You're up early?” said Kelly, who I found scooping yoghurt into a bowl of muesli when I sauntered into the kitchen. She'd spent the night at my house, in her own room.
“Are you kidding? It's five minutes past eight! I've been staring at the ceiling for half an hour, trying to get back to sleep.”
“Well, give it another go. Or give me ten minutes and I'll come and wear you out.”
“Cheeky cow,” I muttered, as I filled the tea kettle from the tap. Kelly just giggled. She had called me while dad drove me home after dinner, asking if it was okay for her to spend the night. Given that she slept at our house half the week and had her own room and front door key that wasn't strictly necessary, but she would always check. I was a bit surprised, because she usually went out with friends on a Friday and her parents' house was about as far from central London as ours.
“Hi, can I sleep with you?” she asked, because she loves double entendres.
“What, on a Friday? Are you planning to hide a hangover from your parents?”
“No. I just feel like it. I miss Eddie.”
“Edwin. He's not a Martian crater.”
“Oh, there's a crater called Eddie, is there? I found that Belgian singer, too. Eddy Wallie.”
“I didn't know you kept track.”
“Well, I do. Anyway, I'll be in at around midnight, so don't wait up.”
“I won't. Listen, sweetheart, there's nobody home. Kate is on assignment and Melody is spending the night at her mother's place and she's got Edwin with her.”
“So you're home alone?”
“Then I'm definitely coming over.”
“That joke is wearing rather thin, Kelly. I'm flattered, but tonight is not...”
“You should be, but that's not what I mean. I'm coming over because of your night terrors. Suppose you get one tonight! God knows what you'll do if nobody intervenes. Mobilise Ealing, probably. Or dig a moat around Dallas Road.”
“No, it isn't. But you shouldn't be alone. So you'd better sleep in your skivvies, because if I hear howling I'm coming in.”
Truth be told, I was glad she'd be there. There was every chance I'd have one tonight.
“I'll leave the door off the latch, then. Have a great evening, Kelly.”
“You too, Martin.”
I'd gone to bed as soon as I came in, but I read a book until I heard her coming up the stairs. She saw the light through the transom window and briefly stepped into my bedroom.
“Hi. I'm home safe and sound. You can go to sleep now, Carstairs.”
“Thank you, Miss Kelly. I trust you had a pleasant evening?”
“Yeah. Plenty of offers to get laid. Turned them all down.”
Fortunately I had a quiet night, so we met again over breakfast.
“Got any plans?” she asked, as I joined her while I waited for the kettle to boil.
“Yes, I'm going to Homebase and I'll wash the car on the way back. Wanna come?”
“God, no! So what's the job today?”
“Replacing some tiles in the garden.”
“Well, have fun with that. Mum is picking me up in half an hour. Will you be here alone tonight as well?”
“No, I don't think so.”
“Good. Then I'll sleep at home. Sunday morning coffee with something nice still on?”
“Always. I may get something from the supermarket, though. I might not have time to bake something.”
“I can bake a cake with mum. Give us a shout if you can't manage. Can I shower first?”
“Sure. Just don't leave any weird circles anywhere.”
“Oh, you bastard!”
Granted, that was a cheap shot. Even so, I got a kiss on my cheek before she went upstairs.
Kelly left the house while I was in the shower. I changed into jeans and a button-down shirt, grabbed the keys to my Seat Leon and drove straight to the Armstrong training academy, which is located just outside Twickenham. It used to be an airfield, in the days when those were dotted around London and consisted of little more than a fenced off field and a hangar. The grounds were surrounded by a trench and a metal fence, which you could see through if you were prepared to crawl through quite a lot of thorny brushwood. There was a model village, not model in scale but in that it contained fake houses, office buildings and, surprisingly, an oil rig where all sorts of dramas could be reenacted. They could stage a bank robbery turned hostage situation, a fire drill or a large scale riot there, depending on who was the customer that day, be it the police to practice crowd control or fire fighters getting their certificates renewed. That was the public face of Armstrong Security. But there was also a division that handled security for clients such as Keller & Fox. Clients who, on occasion, needed a protective detail or a secured transport. Our drivers all trained at this facility and I had joined them recently, to get some exercise and because Caroline felt I might benefit from knowing what to do in an emergency.
Right now the parking lot was half full with mostly black, mid-range cars. Volvos, Volkswagens, Toyotas. Everyone had backed into their space, one of the habits you get into when you do security for a living. Four silver Land Rovers stood parked nearest the door. Pray you never see those pull out of a side street when you're driving around, because you are probably getting nabbed. Armstrong Securities solves all kinds of problems and they're willing to break the law for their clients, up to a point anyway. They're not murderers, but they will cheerfully kick your teeth in if you decide to jump on stage during a performance where you're not wanted, or if you're found hiding in a hotel room closet, waiting for your idol to go to bed so you can declare your love or offer your body. And they will also snatch you off the street if Caroline Keller says she will bear the consequences.
A woman in her mid thirties, dressed like a well to do soccer mom, opened the door for me. I could hear gunshots in the background.
“Carstairs! How have you been!”
Apparently we were on a hugging basis. I wasn't aware, but I've learned to deal with that.
“Hi Lara, good to see you. Thanks for accommodating me.”
“Sure. Your guests are running a bit late. Care to join in some shooting exercises?”
“Don't mind if I do!”
I've never had formal training in handling firearms, but I've had a go with a few courtesy of my friend Wayne. You may know him as 'The Tank'. He's done more movies than I've had hot dinners and two or three of them are actually worth watching. That's his joke, by the way. Wayne lives on a farm... I'm sorry, a RANCH, and has a shed... BARN... where he shoots glass bottles, old lamps, basically anything he can buy for cheap at a car boot sale. (Or is that a trunk sale?) He’ll buy five awful plates that belonged to someone's dead grandmother, smile as he listens to the story of how granny once had the mayor over for dinner and how pleased she would be that her dinnerware will find a new home with someone who appreciates quality flatware and then he'll take them to his barn and shoot the shit out of them. Same with small pieces of furniture, paintings, basically anything he can get for a few bucks and destroy with his shotgun. It's hilarious. And it's how I learned to shoot, or rather how I learned to shoot without killing or crippling myself. Lesson number one: shooting is loud. Very loud. If we all shot people like they do in the movies we'd go deaf in an instant and spend the rest of our lives battling with horrible tinnitus. Lessons two and three are basically the same, but they focus on toes and bystanders rather than ear drums. Only at around lesson four did Wayne discuss what happens when you actually get shot, which he seemed to consider far less likely and far less dangerous than hearing loss. So I learned that lesson well and the rest of it is mostly about not being an idiot and learning how much of a kickback you get from various sorts of weapons, or burning yourself on the barrel. There are a lot of 'hilarious' clips on YouTube featuring people who knock their own teeth out with the butt of a rifle or an oversized pistol, simply because they have no idea that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. So I knew a little about the earplugs, the stance, the safety procedures and the fact that a gun gets quite hot after you've emptied a clip. But a gun, to me, was just a gun. A tool to have some fun with, but not something that should become a part of your identity.
The Armstrong shooting gallery was exactly as you've seen them on TV, with five lanes and a metal rail that would deliver the target card to you after the Range Master had made sure it was safe to take off the hearing protection. I had shot five bullets on my first try and had missed three times. One of them hadn't even hit the card. But the other two shots weren't too bad: I'd hit the target's chin and his left shoulder.
“Not too shabby, Carstairs!” said someone behind me, as a meaty hand landed on my shoulder.
“Oh, hi Tom! How nice of you to lie.”
I turned round and shook the hand of a tall, muscular guy I had met during my last training session.
“Yeah. William, actually. Tom was the other one. Never mind. Have you done this before?”
“Over a year ago. Shooting bottles in a barn.”
“What did you use?”
“Oh, I can never remember. Just a gun. Some sort of... gun type gun. With bullets.”
Lara laughed and William rolled his eyes. I'm sorry, I just don't know or care about guns.
“Take it outside, guys,” said the man who was supervising the shooting gallery. “Shooters! Approach the line!”
“Well, that was fun,” I said, as we left the shooting range and stepped into the canteen. It was all as homely and luxurious as a Serbian youth hostel, but most of the people who came here didn't care and the others, such as myself, just had to suck it up.
“Lara! G-men are here!” yelled someone who had been put in charge of minding the main entrance.
“You can use my office. Why don't you go ahead and take the best seat. Leave the blind up, so the sun is in their eyes,” said Lara, slapping my shoulder. Have I mentioned Lara owns the company and is quite dangerous? She pretends to be a waitress or a lost fan and then BANG, you're on the ground with her shoe on your chest. I like her a lot, even though she gave me half a dozen bruises in the first week I trained with her. She'll do whatever it takes to teach you about security, even if that means letting you pat her down five times in a row to find a razor blade she's hidden on her person, in exactly the same place where a mad fangirl would hide it. I'll leave that to your imagination. (What?! Not even an insane woman would hide it THERE, you pervert. Butt crack! Much safer. Wrapped in toilet tissue, obviously.)
I stepped into her office, which looked vaguely like Indiana Jones had stepped out for a smoke break. A steel desk, a black steel barrel that served as a side table, two wooden crates labeled 'Peru' and some maps on the wall. The seats were old office chairs and no two were alike. I leaned against the desk with my arms folded and waited for my guests to be shown in. William knocked and opened the door.
“Your visitors are here, boss. They're clean. Go right in, fellas. Oh, I'll hang on to that for ya.”
Two men walked in. I'd met them before. Sir Rupert seemed to find it all very amusing, as if he was being led through the pre-show of an amusement park ride. He scanned the room as he extended his hand.
“Martin! How lovely to see you! My, you have interesting friends!”
“FUCK!” said the second man, following Dupree in, as William relieved him of his suitcase.
“I'm sure you'll get it back, Simon. Martin, you remember Commander Sixsmith with MI6, right?”
“WHY WAS I BEING FRISKED?”
“Why are you bringing guns to a meeting?” I asked, as I pointed out two chairs and sat down behind the desk.
“Because I don't leave them in the car and I have more to do today! Bloody hell, I thought we'd be meeting in some kind of office.”
“Well, you are. Kind of.”
Someone on the range unloaded a full clip. Others cheered.
“Are those gunshots?!”
“Yes. I'm surprised you don't recognise them. Sir Rupert, thank you for seeing me.”
“Oh, the pleasure is all mine! Such a nice outing. I don't really get out of the city all that often. Although we do have tables and chairs in Marsham Street, you know.”
Sir Rupert was a man in his sixties, with grey curls and rather a cheeky smile. Last time I saw him he was wearing a herringbone suit, but now he was dressed in slacks and a knitted vest. This man was the most senior civil servant at the Home Office. Ministers would come and go, but Sir Rupert had been a constant for the past thirteen years, the crowning glory of a life in the civil service. I was pretty sure that pleasant smile could disappear at any minute if this meeting went the wrong way, though. I'd seen it happen.
“Well, I can't help hearing Caroline's words echoing through my mind. And the fact that you threatened me stuck in my craw, too. So I'd rather play a home game for this.”
“Ah, yes. Very unfortunate. A misunderstanding, I'm afraid. But you do realise the Official Secrets Act still applies, right? These gentlemen...”
He gestured to the door, behind which many people were taking classes, shooting guns and presumably having a great time doing manly stuff. I know I enjoyed it.
“Know nothing. No details, at any rate. Just that I needed a place to have a quiet, unrecorded conversation. Which they provide, for a small fee.”
“Good. And your family?”
“I never said a word.”
“Excellent. Well, in that case I propose we get to business. I gather you have had a change of heart vis a vis our request?”
I answered with a question of my own:
“I'm sure you're aware of the terrorist attack at Paddington Underground station?”
Dupree pulled a serious face.
“Very much so.”
“I lost someone in that attack. Someone very dear to me. And I came very close to losing much, much more.”
“I'm very sorry to hear that. May I ask what happened?”
“I'm friends with Diana Albinson.”
“Oh. I see. My condolences. And who else was involved?”
“I don't really want to discuss the details. But I would like to know if there is a connection between the attack and the nephew of prince Asim you asked me to go keep an eye on.”
Dupree and Sixsmith exchanged a brief glance. Sixsmith nodded. Dupree cleared his throat.
“We do not usually discuss ongoing investigations outside the intelligence community, but I suppose in this case I should be open with you. While we are reasonably certain that prince Omar, the cousin you are referring to, is in some way connected to the explosion on the number thirteen bus, we have not yet tied him to the attacks at Paddington. However, that is our primary route of investigation. In our experience, it is very unlikely two completely unrelated entities conduct similar attacks.”
“They're not that similar. The bus was just an explosion,” I remarked.
“Not quite. That explosion was intended to attract the emergency services and cause a panic. We managed to apprehend two men who were ready to start a shooting spree. The bomb on the bus appears to have gone off at the wrong time, because the person carrying it was unaware of its nature and so the thing had to be on a timer. This caused some confusion with the attackers, which allowed us to apprehend them. This has not been made public knowledge, for obvious reasons.”
There was a knock on the door. Lara entered after I answered, holding a tray with mismatched mugs and half a role of digestives. They weren't even on a saucer: just half a role, torn in two as if we were builders on a construction site.
“Tea? I brought one coffee, just in case.”
She was doing it right now: playing innocent, pretending to be nothing more than a secretary or an office worker, charged with bringing in tea. The first time we met I fell for that act and ten seconds later she had me pinned down. Dupree reached for a mug.
“Lovely, thank you. I'm sure Simon would prefer coffee, am I right?”
“Tea for me, thanks,” I said.
“There you go. Everything alright here, luv’?” asked Lara, smiling as she took in the room. That was for me. If I needed assistance in any way, a carefully worded remark would get it done. But I was fine, so I just smiled back and nodded.
“My dear, our conversation has reached a somewhat sensitive point,” said Dupree. “We will certainly call on you if we need a refill. In the meantime, I must ask you to prevent any interruptions. Though I appreciate the tea.”
“And you better stay away from my briefcase!” bristled Sixsmith.
“I'm afraid we've x-rayed it. The boys do like to practice,” said Lara, still smiling. “Tell me, is there a kazoo in there?”
Rupert bit his lip and turned to Sixsmith.
“Simon? Is there?”
Sixsmith went beet red!
“It's a TOY! For my SON! We had an office party the other week and I took one home for him. I just forgot to give it to him.”
I saw a bonding opportunity.
“Ah, that's nice. How old is your son?” I asked, as I waved Lara off.
“Mine's only fourteen months. I bought him a LEGO car the other day, even though that's for three years and up. My wife nearly pulled my ear off.”
Don't think that men are any less sentimental about their children than women. Our perspective may be different, but our experiences overlap quite a bit. Sixsmith smiled for the first time since we'd met.
“I got my boy a model train set. Battery powered, but my wife still blew a gasket.”
Dupree, the experienced diplomat, understood I was trying to mollify Sixsmith and asked us both some questions about our children. His were much older. In fact, he was a grandfather. But we spent close to ten minutes swapping our weirdest anecdotes about inappropriate but well intentioned gifts and the mood was a bit better when we resumed our original conversation.
“So, where were we?” said Dupree.
“You have people in custody. What have they told you?”
“Not much, I'm afraid,” answered Sixsmith. “They never do. It's all compartmentalised. They use PGP for their emails, but there isn't much communication between cells and their bosses. They were just another pair of brainwashed idiots, who'd had a few conversations in coffee houses with men they barely knew. That's all it takes, sadly.”
“Perhaps if these men actually got a reply when they sent out a job application, or even an interview, they wouldn't be so bitter about British society,” I observed.
“That may be true, but it is not an excuse to blow up women and children,” said Dupree. “But in answer to your question: we cannot guarantee that Omar Abdullah is part of the chain of command that instigated the attack that cost Miss Albinson her life. We think so, but there is very little evidence. In the case of the explosion on the bus we do have strong indications that he paid for the operation. When in doubt, follow the money, you see. These cells need financing. If the attackers were rich, they would not be drawn to extremism. Or at least, not the practical side of it.”
“So that's why you want to me to get close to Omar. Bug his room. Copy his laptop, given the chance.”
“Yes. Not just to indict him, obviously. But because he likely pays for it all. It would help to unravel the web.”
I sipped my tea.
“And you're quite sure that folding Asim's towels will give me the opportunity to spy on his nephew?”
“Cousin,” said Sixsmith, sounding irritated. “You keep saying nephew. They're cousins.”
“I'm sorry. In Dutch the terms are the same. We don't differentiate. I never noticed that until I learned English, but it hasn't stuck.”
Dupree chuckled and gleefully dunked a biscuit in his tea.
“You know, I keep forgetting that Mr. Carstairs is not actually an Englishman. In fact, he's not even British. And it would be weird enough if you were from one of the Commonwealth nations, an Australian or some such, but you're DUTCH. And yet here I am, feeling ever so slightly guilty because I'm dunking my biccie in front of Mr. Carstairs. Tee hee hee. Oh, I'm sorry. That's just me, apparently. Carry on.”
“So how long would this take?” I asked. I'm used to people reacting like that. Sixsmith sipped his coffee.
“The mission? Well, that's hard to say. Couple of weeks? You need to get close to Omar, but it's not as if he and Asim live in the same house. They see each other quite often, near as we can tell. But to be honest, Saudi is a bit of a black box to us. Very hard to penetrate. Our footprint there is minimal. It's the Americans' turf, really.”
“WEEKS?” I asked, stunned. In hindsight that was a bit naïve, I'll admit.
“Yes. At least. Look, it's not ideal. But it's the best option we have right now. Do you know how often we can plant an agent at the heart of the Saudi royal family?”
“Look, I have a family! What am I going to tell them?”
“I'm sure you had an idea when you called us,” said Dupree.
“Yes. Well, the thing is: I have a contract with Aston Martin to do some commercials and promotional appearances. I thought I might use that as an excuse to get out of the house. But a commercial doesn't take weeks to shoot, and if it does they'll definitely want to see it.”
“Aston Martin, eh? It’s not bad, as covers go. We have friends there. A contractor, even. But the length of the mission is unpredictable, Martin. Have you spoken to prince Asim recently?”
“No, I haven't. I'm not even sure the position is still open.”
“Well, then let's start there. We could... Hello, what's this?”
There was commotion in the hallway behind the door that lead out of the office. People were shouting. A siren started up, or maybe a fire alarm. Sixsmith got on his feet at once.
“What the fuck?”
Footsteps thundered down the hallway. Glass shattered.
“MISS! YOU CAN'T GO IN THERE!” someone bellowed.
“We'll see about that,” said a familiar voice. A very familiar voice. I buried my face in my hands, but just then the door flung open and two burly men, one of them William, burst into the room and grabbed me.
“I have the package!” said William, as the other one began to open the window.
“Now look here, what is this about!” asked Dupree.
Ominous sounds came around the corner. I was unceremoniously pushed to the ground, without a say in the matter. It helped I knew they were following protocol, so I didn't struggle. They'd just knock me out, I learned that much.
“HEY LADY! UNG!”
“MARTIN! COME HERE AT ONCE! Get out of my way, you ape.”
William turned over the metal desk I was, until very recently, sat behind.
“DON'T MAKE ME SHOOT YOU, MISS!”
“Get off me!” I said to William, who was shielding me with his body as he dragged me behind the desk.
“Miss Keller?!” said Lara, sounding very surprised.
“WHERE IS HE? I'm not asking twice!” said Caroline.
“I'm sorry, you can't go in there!”
“I'M HERE! Guys... fuck... LET ME GO! It's only Caroline. She's a friend!”
Caroline appeared in the doorway, with Lara Armstrong on her back! Lara had her hands around Caroline's neck and was pulling her hair. Caroline was brandishing a short, wooden baseball bat. The guy who had been trying to open the window got a blow to his back that expelled all the air from his lungs. He dropped to the floor and Caroline leapt over him. William was shielding me with his body, so she raised herself up to strike another blow. That's when Lara got really mad and ended it. It's a bit of a blur, but she shifted her weight, rolled over while still on Caroline's back and pulled her to the ground. There was a considerable amount of screeching, some of it from Sir Rupert.
“STOP! EVERYONE! STOP! Caroline, Jesus Christ! What the hell are you doing here? Lara, let her go!” I demanded.
“Will you be calm?” asked Lara, with a fist full of Caroline's hair and her knee on her sternum. I'd never seen Caroline like this. For one thing she was dressed in a grey, velour track suit. For another, her face was scrunched up with rage. No make up, no immaculate hair. Just anger.
“YOU! I KNEW IT!” she said, as he laid eyes on Sir Rupert, ignoring Lara completely. “What did I tell you? NOT HIM!”
“But... but... he called us!”
“Martin! Did you sign ANYTHING?”
Five minutes later, nobody was grabbing anyone anymore. Sore shoulders were being rubbed, one or two noses needed an Elastoplast, someone was sweeping up some shattered glass and the desk had been turned upright again. Caroline was more than a bit upset, so I stood next to her and stroked her back. Lara was royally pissed off, but wasn't sure who to blame: Keller & Fox were very lucrative clients, but now she had defended me against Caroline. I in turn defended her actions:
“Don't blame them, Caroline. I told them I had a sensitive discussion and asked not to be disturbed. They didn't know.”
“Yes. I'm aware. Now, at least. I'm sure Lara and I will work it out,” said Caroline, still partly hissing as she spoke. “But what have you DONE, Martin?”
“How the hell did you know I was here, anyway? I turned off my phone when I left the house.”
“I'm not about to tell you that. The thing is I caught you, didn't I? I said not to trust this man, not to take this mission. It's not for you, Martin. It really isn't.”
“That's for Mr. King to decide, isn't it?” said Sixsmith.
Lara closed the door, but remained inside the office.
“I think I deserve an explanation,” she said, as she sat on her own desk with one buttock.
“The Official Secrets Act...” began Dupree, but Caroline cut him off.
“Oh HANG the Official Secrets Act. These people have provided security for us for over a decade. I worked with her father and her uncle in Egypt.”
Lara nodded, to confirm the statement. Then she said:
“Will, close the door on your way out. Oh, what have we done with her driver?”
“I'll go and find out, Ma’am,” said William. He slapped my shoulder once more, thereby setting back the healing process another day or so, and left the room.
“I'm listening,” said Lara.
Caroline was given a chair and launched into her story.
“Last month Martin and I went to Qatar, to audition him for a long-term publicity contract for Aston Martin. On our way there, the pilot died and the co-pilot succumbed to food poisoning. And so Martin landed the plane.”
“So that WAS you?” said Lara. “I've been wondering about that! It was in the news for like three minutes and then it was retracted and disappeared. Suddenly it was supposedly an unidentified Qatar Airways employee!”
“Aren't they marvellous at K&F?” giggled Dupree. “Although I can't condone how someone...”
He gave Caroline a stern look.
“... has been hindering an official investigation by the AAIB. Quite successfully, so far.”
“Anyway...” answered Caroline, ignoring the accusation. “This is when Martin made quite an impression on Prince Asim, who played an important yet supporting role in communicating with an advisor on the ground. The thing is: Martin had identified himself as Carstairs. We had a bet, you see.”
“A bet. During an emergency landing,” said Sixsmith.
“Kindly shut up. Anyway, Asim was rather impressed by Carstairs and took him on a boat trip to show his gratitude. Martin felt it was awkward to change his story at that point, so he remained Carstairs.”
“What was the bet, if I may ask?” said Dupree, once again relaxed and loving all this weirdness.
“I bet him he couldn't stay in character as Carstairs for the duration of our journey. Martin said he could. And indeed he did, for most of it.”
“You... played a character while you landed an AIRBUS?” said Lara, grinning. She slapped my shoulder, which was still sore from William's slap. “Good show!”
“I forgot myself a few times,” I admitted. “But it helped me to focus. And I’d appreciate it if people would STOP HITTING ME. Go on, Caroline.”
“While Martin was out, there came a letter from Prince Asim, with a job offer. Which MI6 found out about because he dictated it to a secretary from the business desk over the phone.”
You can hire secretarial services from the business desk at the Four Seasons, in case you need someone to take notes or type out a contract. Just don't expect too much confidentiality.
“I intercepted the letter, but then these two showed up at our offices hoping to talk Martin into accepting the job.”
“Yes but WHY?” asked Lara, now all business.
“Because although Prince Asim is mostly a harmless layabout, he is very close to his cousin Omar Abdullah, sixth in line to the Saudi throne and a suspected sponsor of several acts of terrorism, including two recent ones in London.”
Lara got it right away.
“Oh, right! So Carstairs was an in! Even though he's not a real person. I mean, how does that work? Surely it takes ten seconds of Googling to find out Carstairs is just an act and Martin King is an IT guy from Ealing?”
“Well, Asim didn't do that. He believed what he saw and had no reason to question it. Besides, Martin is uniquely placed to play that role. His real name isn't King, either. That is his Equity name. He might very well be a butler in real life, even one who landed a few acting gigs. Young Kelly has certainly been busy spreading that story online. I'm not sure an outsider would spot what's going on here.”
“No. But if Martin... Carstairs is granted access to the Saudi Royal Palace, I'm sure they'll do a background check.”
Dupree spoke up.
“Yes. Do you know who does that check? MI6, Interpol and the CIA. The Saudis have no significant intelligence presence. They outsource. We may find it hard to look in, but they have an equally hard time developing any kind of network outside the Arabic world. And we're allies, after all. When it's about a Westerner, they just ask us what's what. Besides, the buggers are far too lazy to do any work of their own. And they're all related, so it's extremely hard to maintain decent information hygiene.”
“So... Are you going to be a spy, Martin?”
Caroline stood up so fast that her chair fell over.
“NO, HE IS NOT! That's why I am here. I will not have one of my company directors AND one of my assets AND the father to my Godchild risk his life on this frivolous mission! It has ZERO chance of yielding any useful results but it will put him at SIGNIFICANT risk.”
“What, serving tea?” asked Lara. Caroline gave her one of her looks. I've been on the receiving end of them once or twice. It's like the eye of Sauron has turned towards you. But Sauron only has the one eye, so that's considerably less intimidating.
“Sorry, I'm just... asking...” mumbled Lara, who wasn't immune either.
“Have you slept with him, dear?” she then asked.
“WHAT? Me? No! What, was I supposed to?” Lara spluttered. I could actually see Rupert elbowing Sixsmith, to signal this was going to be good!
“No, I'm just asking. And I'm not talking about sex, specifically. Maybe you took him camping, I don't know. I have no idea what goes on at these courses. But if you had spent the night with him, you'd know that he isn't a well man.”
“Excuse me?” I couldn't help saying. And that wasn't very smart of me, because she gave it to me with both barrels and exposed all my weaknesses to a room full of strangers.
“Oh please! You have a severe case of PTSD. You barricaded our bloody hotel room in your sleep, Martin! You threw my watch as a grenade! Kelly ignored you for a week and you went completely to pieces because you have no reserves. Your nerves are frayed. Which is no wonder because you've watched your wife get stabbed, you saw your sister nearly fall to her death, there's the incident at Tower Bridge and then to top it all off you watched Diana die in your arms not two weeks ago! And you refuse to discuss any of it! And that's just the stuff I can say out loud in public!”
Sixsmith veered up from his slouched position.
“Well, well, well! What was that about Diana dying in his arms? Are we talking about Miss Albinson?” asked Sixsmith.
“Yes,” I said. Which was stupid, because I wasn’t supposed to have been there.
“So… You were at the platform when she died? Is that what you’re saying?”
I realised my mistake and looked to Caroline for help, but her eyes simply shot back daggers.
“Only we’ve been rather busy with that incident and I don’t recall any mention of you there,” said Sixsmith, goading me.
“It was uhm… proverbial. I meant that I’d seen her just a little while before. At a rehearsal.”
“Oh leave it out,” said Sixsmith, testily. “We know already, Carstairs. You pushed one terrorist under a train. The driver saw the whole thing and radioed it in immediately. People in the carriages report seeing a man ‘who looked a lot like that Mr. Carstairs’ standing on the platform, next to a dead man laying on the floor. That was officer Wright. You wouldn’t by any chance also be responsible for feeding the other chap into a meat grinder, would you?”
“I plead the fifth,” I said.
“That’s America,” said Sixsmith, now through clenched teeth. “And like us, the Americans also don’t give much of a shit who kills whom when it comes to terrorism. You should have come forward. And how did you get out, anyway?”
I felt it better not to say another word. Right now, Kate and Melody weren’t a part of the equation. It was probably better that way.
“Now, now, Simon,” said Dupree, ever the diplomat. “We’ve discussed this before. All we had so far was a vague statement from the driver and a few passengers. And to be honest, if I had any doubts that Mr. King had the grit and determination to see this mission through, the fact that he dispatched two terrorists has waylaid them.”
“We could have questioned that bastard! Instead we spent three hours trying to pull him out of that machine and then he died!” spat Sixsmith. Dupree sighed.
“Oh, please! He’d have killed himself anyway. They always do. They run straight into the arms of the intervention team, weapons drawn. You can’t catch them alive once they are on mission, and you know it. Mr. King, I think we should begin to plan…”
Caroline spoke up.
“Oh no! We won’t be planning anything. Did I not make myself clear? He is not going on any kind of mission. And he wasn’t at the scene of the attack, either. I can find dozens of people who will testify to that. They don’t know it yet, but they will. So you have no leverage there.”
“Caroline… I’m doing this.”
“You are not.”
As we were opposite each other, it looked as if the others in the room were watching a tennis match.
“I am. I’m taking the job and I’m bugging Prince Omar’s house and laptop, given half a chance. If I’m the only reliable guy who can get near him, I will.”
Caroline rose. I’ve mentioned how she does that, right? Well, she did it again.
“I shall take this up with a higher authority,” Caroline said, worryingly calm.
“My dear Caroline, I’m the most senior civil servant in the land and the PM will do as I advise. There really is no higher authority in this matter. Well, God perhaps.”
“Martin answers to a power way beyond the PM, or indeed God. He won’t be going anywhere, trust me. Gentlemen. Lara.”
Dupree half-heartedly stood up as Caroline left to find her driver. William was directly behind the door.
“It’s okay, she can leave,” said Lara. “Bye, Caroline. No hard feelings?”
“Well… That was was quite something,” said Dupree, a few seconds after the footsteps of Caroline and William had faded away. “I wonder who she means, though. She’s rather close to Her Majesty, but she won’t intervene.”
“Maybe she’ll call King Willem-Alexander,” I shrugged, as I didn’t want to voice my own suspicion. I do obey one person without question. Well, perhaps not entirely without question. I'm Dutch, after all. But then, so is she, deep down.
“I keep forgetting you’re not really one of ours. But we’ll soon change that. I’ll have a passport made out in the name of Reginald Carstairs. And we’ll have you entered in all the official databases. Birth certificate, everything. Just because we do the background check ourselves doesn’t mean we can leave loose ends.”
“Loose ends? I have a bloody Wikipedia page! I'm on IMDB!”
“For now. But let’s find out if there is still a situation vacant, shall we? You wouldn’t happen to have the Prince’s phone number?”
“I don’t think you guys need me for this,” said Lara. “Martin, are you available this afternoon? We have a lot of fresh faces here and if I can get you to play a Russian mobster we can do a continuous series of exercises. Might be fun.”
“Oh, count me in! But I don’t know how long this will be.”
“Shouldn’t be long, dear lady. Just a phone call,” said Dupree.
“Nice! I’ll teach you a few tricks before you go and play secret agent, Carstairs.”
“We’ll take care of that as well, thank you. May we use your office for this?”
“Sure. I need to chew out a few guys, anyway. How the hell did that breadstick and her middle-aged driver manage to even make it past the front door? Bloody shambles.”
“That breadstick is my friend, I’ll have you know,” I said to Lara’s back as she left the room.
She turned around.
“It’s odd, though,” said Lara, staring at a point just to my left.
“Caroline. The way she acted.”
“Yeah, I’ll say. But I’m sure she’ll apologise, in one way or another.”
“No, I don’t mean that. I mean that she seems to be as protective of you as you are of Kelly. Odd, right? Hey, if you dial 90 you get an untraceable outside line. Good luck.”
And then the door closed behind her.
“Good afternoon, Your Royal Highness. This is Reginald Carstairs speaking. We met in…”
“CARSTAIRS! MY FRIEND! How are you!? Where are you?! It is SO good to hear from you! 'Ant hunaka! Akhrus limudat thaniatin. Hdha sadiqi. Wahid qult lak eanh. Carstairs! I’m sorry, someone was talking to me. Where are you?”
Dupree scribbled something on a notepad. He was listening in by pressing his ear to the other side of the phone.
“In Edinburgh, Your Royal Highness. Is this a good time?”
“Edinburgh! What are you doing there?”
“Attending to one of Ms. Kellers’ business concerns, Your Royal Highness. But I was wondering…”
Now I had to pretend to be hesitant, a bit embarrassed even. I needn't have bothered, though. He was keen as mustard.
“Yes? We can meet, sure! I am often in Europe!”
“Well, I wasn’t really after having tea. You extended a job offer, if you recall. And lately I have found myself wondering…”
“Yes?” he asked, sounding like a little boy who is about to get a present.
“If… life wasn’t becoming somewhat dull. I may have been a bit too hasty, I sometimes feel, in declining your offer.”
I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard at acting in my life. Dupree had talked me through various variations of this conversation. What to do if Asim was no longer interested, how to stall for time if he wanted me to pack my bags right away, which names to submit as references, stuff like that. And we had also tried to work out why Carstairs would have had a change of heart. Dupree had copies of both Asim’s letter and Caroline’s reply with him, but Asim’s was very vague and wordy whereas Caroline’s reply on my behalf had been polite but short. Plenty of wriggle room there.
“Dull? HAHAAA! Yes! I can imagine. A man like yourself, doing paperwork. Well, I am currently working on a number of important deals. And I am meeting some of the richest and most remarkable people in the world. I don’t think my life will ever be dull, my friend. And I could use some help, sure.”
“Well, in that case… How do you propose we proceed, Your Royal Highness?”
“I propose you pack your belongings and come here! Uhm… in two weeks. Yes?”
Dupree gave the thumbs up sign.
“Two weeks? That’s actually perfect. I wouldn’t want to leave Miss Keller in a bind, you see. Transfer my responsibilities.”
“Yes, yes! Of course! And also, seeing as how I am seventeenth in line to the throne and you will be around me and other members of the royal family, I’m afraid you are going to have to be uhmm… what is the word…. vetted?”
“Ah, yes. Of course.”
“And how much would you like to make?”
I almost laughed at Dupree’s face. Without saying a word, he managed to convey the sentence: ‘Well well, you’ll get some pocket money out of it, too!’ Sixsmith, on the other hand, looked stone-faced. I was sure he could hear every word Prince Asim was saying, even though he was three feet away.
“My current salary is one hundred thousand pou…”
“WHAT? That is too much! I’m sorry, my friend.”
Dupree pointed to the floor so intensely he was likely to break his index finger. I backtracked faster than a French tank on its way to lunch.
“I’m sure we can…” I began.
“Fifty. I can give you fifty. Thousand, of course. Oh, wait! I'm sorry! Riyal! I am used to Riyals. Fifty thousand Riyal, that’s… ten thousand English pounds. I think.”
Dupree and I exchanged puzzled looks. Did this man want a butler for ten thousand a year? You could make that kind of money flipping burgers in the U.K. Mail carriers made more than that. I had no choice but to push back a little. Maybe he was testing me? I couldn’t seem too eager. Who the hell takes a ninety-thousand pound pay cut for a new job?
“Yes, Your Royal Highness. I’m just… I’m aware I am well compensated by Ms. Keller, but one cannot really live on ten thousand a year.”
“A year?! No, I mean per month! I can pay you fifty thousand per month. Riyals. But remember we have no income tax here in Saudi Arabia, and you get free uhm… housing and meals.”
“Room and board, yes… I see,” I said, now trying very hard not to fist-bump Dupree and collapse into a giggling heap. Dupree scrawled ‘I’ll do it!!!’ on the notepad.
“Yes, I’m here. I just lowered the volume on my phone, Your Royal Highness. Uhm… well… that is a substantial pay rise for me. I should be happy to accept.” Or shall. Or will. I wasn't really sure, but I figured he wouldn't know either.
“Good! We have a deal! If you pass the screening, of course. If I can’t take you anywhere, then I’m afraid I can't use you. But I’m sure it will be fine. You’re not Muslim, are you?”
“Alas, no, Your Royal Highness. C of E.”
“Oh, I remember. Well, we’ll see how that goes. Just write down Catholic. I will have the embassy send you some forms. Do I send them to your house?”
“To the office is fine, Your Royal Highness. I intend to be forthright with Ms. Keller about this.”
“Good! This is good news, my friend! I’m sorry it will take so long, but you know… Since I am a Prince, you know…”
“It’s quite alright. I can use the time to get my affairs in order. Well, I shall look forward to seeing you, Your Royal Highness.”
“Yes! Me too!”
I saw Dupree and Sixsmith out. They would get to work preparing my ‘mission’, if you could call it that, and making sure that I’d pass any security screening with flying colours. They would handle most things on my behalf, including filling out the forms the embassy would send me.
“I’ll pass them on as soon as I get them,” I said, as I walked them to their car.
“Oh don’t worry about that, dear boy. We’ll intercept them at the post office. Now enjoy your playdate here, because I’m pretty sure we’ll have some training exercises of our own before we send you out. Toodle pip!”
He was probably right. This might well be my last day doing whatever the hell I liked. I’d be serving tea and biscuits before long. And so I decided I’d enjoy myself: I played the role of a Swiss arms dealer for Lara’s security staff. William drove me into London, where I waited in an office building until six silver Land Rovers came to collect me. I was annoying, abusive, arrogant and a pain in the arse while they transported me around London to various engagements, including lunch with a very nice young man who was playing an American intelligence officer interested in selling weapons, but who in real life was Lara’s next door neighbour who worked at Carpet Warehouse and was a leading light in his local amateur dramatics society. We both received the occasional text message on our phones, telling us how to torment my security detail even further. Lunch ended with one of the security guys finally discovering the ‘bug’ in the carpet salesman’s wrist watch, so we disposed of him in a skip and then I was taken back to Armstrong’s headquarters. It was a great and very childish way to spend an afternoon. You see, I do quite like acting. It’s all that waiting I can’t stand, while people mess about with cameras and lights. Oh, and green screens. Fucking hate green screens.
My phone had been suspiciously quiet all day, but when I finally got home at around seven p.m. I was not the least bit surprised to see Caroline’s royal blue Mercedes parked outside my house, with her driver stretched out in the passenger seat. He was watching something on his iPad and tried to avoid my gaze as I parked right next to him and walked to the front door. This would be very unpleasant, but my mind was made up.