16:15 BST – Thursday, 3rd June
Fermanagh Mansions, London NW3
I suppose I should have been happy, I’d won the lottery again.
But then again I won it most weeks. Frequently as often as once a day and I gave the laptop’s screen a bit of a poke. It seemed to stop the flickering for a while and it was still there, the rancid little email telling me that I’d won US$12m, this time in Colombia.
And that all I had to do in order to collect was to send my bank details to some Hotmail address or another for the attention of one Senor Eduardo Romero Sanchez. But anyone sending me an email that got caught by my spam filter and that was addressed to undisclosed recipients and referred to me as Dear sir Mr Alfred Spencer Beck probably wasn’t going to make me rich in a hurry.
I was going to have to stick to getting rich slowly but intrusions such as that from Senor Romero Sanchez might provide me with a little more material that I could use in my column, the daily comment that had fast become a ball and chain but which paid just about enough to keep body and soul together and I tabbed away from my email account and looked again at the wise words that I’d entrusted to the screen.
I moved the cursor to the ‘send’ button and it stayed there but this was what paid the bills and I had to be professional, read it back.
I overheard a conversation in the queue at the chip shop the other day as one of the would-be customers was running through her recent childbirth traumas with another.
So much for trying not to start a sentence with a pronoun. I could have been more creative and built the scene but at less than a pound a word they weren’t going to get Joyce or Wilde. I read on:
And she was sharing it with the rest of us too because, rather than whisper such intimacies over a coffee in one or other of their kitchens, she was belting it all out at full volume and, if I hadn’t been so hungry, she would have put me right off my food.
Well I should have said something of course. ‘Learn to write and put it on paper’ would have done the trick but she was an ugly-looking six foot bruiser and besides, it was fascinating in a morbid sort of way and, when she said that she’d had to have an ‘epidurable’, I just had to carry on listening.
And I’d swear that when she said it was still painful someone else in the queue whispered ‘good’ but I didn’t get to hear the ending because my food was ready and I couldn’t fumble with the salt for more than a minute or two. However, judging by the girth of the woman in question, I’d have to assume that the youngster was still in there and that he or she was possibly on horseback.
I allowed myself a nod. It would do. I hit send then tabbed back to the document that I’d cut the text from and read the column again. It might brighten some poor bugger’s morning commute and it got me a few mentions here and there. Kept me on the staff at the paper with the chance to do the odd piece for the financial section but it wouldn’t win any prizes.
Still, it kept my Twitter feed buzzing and the hits on the blog up. It even won me the odd sketch-writing gig here and there. I treated myself to another nod, stood up and worked a kink out of my lower back after which, with only a half turn or so, I managed to touch every wall in my living room without moving my feet as it wasn’t a very big room and it wasn’t a very big flat.
But it was mine and the mildew and damp and the mould and the piles of papers and unwashed clothing gave it the air of a writer’s hovel and that seemed apt. It just wouldn’t be the same if I tidied it up. Not that there was the least chance of that and I pushed back my chair and stood up. Walked the three or four feet to the corner of the room that was had been creatively called my kitchenette and opened the fridge, checked my dwindling beer stash.
Decorating could wait but a hot shower and a cold beer couldn’t and I was due both and preferably in that order so I reluctantly put the beer back, closed the fridge door and shuffled to the bathroom.
So you get in the shower and the phone rings. It wouldn’t ring for days but there it was now, challenging me to towel off and get to it before whoever it was rang off, and I considered letting the machine take the call but I’d just sent the email and it could be the paper, they might want a word.
They rang on my mobile as a rule but by the time I’d rationalised that it wasn’t going to be the office I was already dripping on the carpet with my towel flapping open and the phone in my hand.
It probably wasn’t a pretty sight. Still, whoever was on the other end of the line wasn’t to know that so I tried to put a bit of authority into my opening line. ‘Hello, Spencer Beck?’
It wasn’t bad. I sounded busy, irritated and, more importantly, fully clothed.
And the irritated bit at least was accurate though the pause the other end suggested that I’d wasted my effort and that it was going to be my mum. ‘Mr Beck, do you know anything about MI5?’
I scowled and turned to look at the phone in my hand. It certainly wasn’t my mum. ‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Mr Beck, Alfred?’
No one called me Alfred but now I’d had it twice in the space of an hour.
I was Spencer or occasionally Mr A Spencer Beck and only the passport office, the tax man and any one of my legion of aunts knew or cared what the A stood for so it had to be something official.
Or maybe family and official. Maybe an aunt had died and I felt a brief flush of guilt for not calling or visiting or whatever. I wiped a few drops of soapy water from my nose and chin and realised that the ball was in my court. ‘Speaking?’
‘You know what MI5 is?’
The accent was neutral, perhaps mildly Scottish. The silence lengthened until I spoke again. ‘Is this some kind of joke?’
That was really rather poor as far as responses go.
But it won me a couple of seconds and I scrubbed my head with the towel whilst wondering what the hell this was about. I nearly dropped the phone but then the voice that I now pictured as being that of a west coast Scotsman was back on the line. ‘Call me Simon, Alfred –’
‘Call me Spencer, Simon.’
That was better.
Because I had both sounded authoritative and moved to get us away from all that Alfred nonsense. Being christened Alfred had been one of several problems that I’d had to deal with since childhood. I’d become a good runner at an early age and a comedian when my legs failed me and Simon continued. I imagined he felt chastened but had to admit that he hid it well. ‘Very well, Spencer. Mr Adam Reid; you know him?’
Everyone knew of Adam Reid but very few people knew him so that ranked as another stupid question. ‘I know who he is.’
‘Quite,’ said Simon. ‘Did you know he’s a person of interest, has been under investigation for some time, Special Branch and now MI5?’
This was all new. I shook my head then verbalised my response for the benefit of the phone. ‘No.’
Perhaps I should humour the idiot. I had to get the balance right – no need to choke a story off if there was one there. But if this was some bastard from the office on a wind up I had to maintain the right degree of scepticism. ‘Would you care to tell me a little more?’
‘It’s true,’ said Simon. He didn’t sound like a lunatic. But that meant precious little. Perhaps he was a functioning imbecile? Some bug-eyed moron with his hand down his pants for all I knew. He went on. ‘I can get you in to see him but the stories, the cosmetic surgery, the experiments, his attitude towards race? They’re based on truth.’
Quite probably but new rubbish at least; I’d heard talk of surgery but I hadn’t heard anything about experiments and there had never been a racial angle. Adam Reid had enemies with agendas, of course. You didn’t get to become a zillionaire without annoying someone, somewhere but it was the racism line that had caught my ear, there could be a scandal here.
But even sopping wet and dripping I knew that if this guy was a crank then slinging that kind of mud could end my career. Safest to put the phone down and get back in the shower but what if it there was something in it?
‘What was that about race?’
‘We’ll get to that, Spencer,’ said Simon. ‘Ask him about Project Onesius.’
‘Ask him about his human subjects.’
I was doing a convincing bewildered but Simon didn’t seem to notice. He went on. ‘Ask him about Colombia. Ask him about the experiments.’
‘Don’t swear, Spencer. I can get you into one of his company meetings. He’s got one at his research centre in Ranulfskelf next week. Some sort of corporate love-fest and I can get Flanagan over, the detective who investigated Adam’s little problem in New York.’
It had been more than a little problem. ‘Slow down,’ I said.
Simon ignored me. He clearly had my measure. ‘And listen to this.’
‘Wait,’ I said.
I wiped a few more drops from my chin and saw that the water was pooling where it had dripped from my elbow. A series of clicks on the line, the tell-tale hiss of a tape and something like crockery being moved kept me interested enough to stand there in my growing puddle and I pictured a breakfast table. Perhaps a meeting over coffee and then a voice, ‘I told you.’
I strained to listen. The voice sounded familiar.
‘There was never any doubt.’
A humourless chuckle; it was Adam Reid.
‘It was the fucking Africans…’