MAN, THE HUNTER
An Amelia Hartliss Mystery, 2017
CHAPTER ONE: Fleeing to freedom
Melia was livid.
No, worse than that: she was mad as hell. She was more than angry. She was furious.
It wasn't enough that every damn agent in the Northern office had been taken out of town on some mysterious assignment, and she had been left behind - ignored with all the action going on - and then told to do the worst job that her Unit could give her: baby-sitting.
Of course, that isn't what they called it. The official term was 'Personal Protection', and sometimes it was fun. Or at least worthwhile, if the 'person' in question was an important politician, or maybe some member of the Royal Family.
But Melia had been assigned to watch over Beau Stule, the most egregious man in the North of England. He was despicable. His attitude to women - Well, it was beyond words. Melia couldn't begin to describe her loathing for the bastard.
And the worst thing about him - from a purely professional point of view - is that by giving him official 'Protection', the agency was more or less admitting that he was 'Important', but he wasn't - not yet. At that particular point in time, that cold February evening, he was nothing more or less than one of the dozen candidates for Mayor of Greater Manchester. Just one. None of the others had such close attention. None of them were surrounded by police and had the benefit of British Security personnel.
No, but there were several problems with Mr Stule.
The first was that he was the 'Business Candidate', as he styled himself. He was rich, a self-made man. An important cog in the wheel of business enterprise in the top half of England. Which meant he knew people and had powerful friends. They wanted to look after him, no doubt about that. And those kind of folks, well, they had the ear of the Chief Constable, didn't they? Melia was thinking viciously. They looked after their own. They protected each other. They were all 'Very Important Persons'.
But the second reason was even worse.
The real reason he needed protection, this nasty Mr Stule, was that he had so many enemies.
He brought that on himself. Campaigning had hardly begun in the GM Mayor race, and the actual voting day was three months off, and yet, after a mere few meetings, some speeches, a couple of Press Releases, this horrific idiot had managed to insult, malign and threaten just about every other interest group, culture and race in the county.
It made Melia savage. She'd seen him on TV, and the man was either a complete buffoon, she decided, or else he was playing a very clever game of casting himself in the role of 'People's Champion', the straight-talking, no-nonsense 'Man of the People' who was going to save the country, the economy, and all inhabitants of this 'once great country of ours' - as he described it.
Melia wanted to punch him. Instead, she had been summoned to the Director's office and been told - in no uncertain terms - that it was no her duty and responsibility to keep the guy from harm or attack. I want to do that myself, she was thinking to herself as the orders were being given. I understand how people feel. He stirs up hatred.
He also inspired great loyalty too, it seemed.
People wanted to see him and to hear him talk. Melia was now outside G-MEX, the huge conference and exhibition centre in the middle of Manchester city, and bodies had been flooding past her for more than an hour. It was an enormous venue, but it was filling up, with men, women, young and old, rich and poor. They all wanted to be told what to do by this rabble rouser.
They were all there. The only person who wasn't, yet, was the Guest of Honour - Mr Stule himself.
Melia looked at her watch. He was overdue.
It had been agreed - with police and the Security staff at the hall - that it would be safer if he arrived at the last minute, sweeping in while most other people had taken their seats. That way, he couldn't be barracked, jostled or accosted by the crowd before the event started. Also there was a plan to hustle him out the back at the end. Strange. This Man of the People was being protected from members of the populace itself, not from the ones who loved him, though. From the others.
That was the danger. This night, this chilly winter evening, had only been announced a few weeks before, but all tickets were gone. People wanted to see him, to hear him. But some would cheer and some would boo. That was the problem.
Melia's task was to shelter the candidate from the negative opinions, cat calls, and abuse.
There had been Death Threats. Well, it certainly enlivened the campaign. Up to the point at which Mr Stule came forward, it had been a lacklustre affair. Even though it was unique, never having happened before, the prospect of electing a Mayor for Greater Manchester hadn't brought forth universal excitement. Most people seemed distinctly underwhelmed at the opportunity to cast their vote for this new post, but it was a government initiative, from the highest level. It was part of the plan to devolve power from London to the regions, and it was hoped that the Greater Manchester Mayor - and the other new Mayors in Lancashire, Yorkshire and Merseyside - would help to launch and to form the new 'Northern Powerhouse'. The die had been cast.
So why am I shivering? Melia was wondering. Why is he keeping us waiting?
In her fragile state, it was very easy for Melia's mind to conjure up a hundred and one things that might have gone wrong. His car might have crashed. Someone might have beaten him up. He might have withdrawn from the contest.
Usually, such fears could have been easily quelled. She could have phoned Regional Office in Salford, spoken to someone on the Now Desk, and got reports. But there was no one there. All the back-up staff had been taken for the 'major operation', whatever that was, and Melia was adrift, on her own. There was not a single person she could call.
Not even Mickey.
Melia stamped her feet, not just to keep warm, but to figuratively stamp on her on-off boyfriend, that most unreliable of men, Mickey. She cursed him under her breath. Sure, management brought him in some times to help the Unit, but he wasn't an official employee. He was ex-Army, an operative now officially retired from duty, who just happened to be living in the area, so someone who could be called upon to bring his many talents to bear when they had a problem. There was a saying in the Service, that 'once you were Special Forces, they never let you go', but, in this case, Melia had no idea whether it was true that day or not. Maybe Mickey had been summoned and sent off across the Pennines with the rest of her team. She didn't know. They hadn't told her, and nor had he. But that was normal. Mickey never told her anything about his orders. Why, they had even been working on the same project, like recently, and she hadn't known about it until she saw him in action!
What an idiot I am, she was thinking. Why do I put up with it?
She was a fool to herself, she knew. But she missed him, loved him, in her way. If only he was there now -
Melia knew she deserved better. She also knew she could get it. She was only just thirty. She had good looks and a rounded body. She was an independent, strong-minded woman, trained and honed. She could look after herself.
So why couldn't she control her heart? She needed to give it to someone who would appreciate her, she knew.
Not a magnificent loner like Mickey.
Her phone buzzed.
Melia pulled it out of her pocket. This can't be right, she was thinking. Nobody but Control has my number -
"Five minutes out," a voice snapped, and rang off.
Melia stared at the blank screen. She hadn't recognised the voice. This was terrible! She was part of an operation but didn't know the rest of the team. She didn't know her contact, her upline, her Commander.
What a shambles! And now they were telling her to be ready, the car was on its way. Well, what did they want her to do?
She was at the front of the massive building, by the main door. There were police there, uniformed officers on either side of the entrance. She could call on them for back-up maybe. She didn't know. Melia had her I.D. in her pocket, and if she flashed that, they should respond. Perhaps. They wouldn't have been briefed, probably. They wouldn't recognise her.
Also, she didn't know if they were armed. This was a serious task, she knew. Her own gun nestled tidily in her waist band. She was ready for trouble. She wouldn't hesitate to apply deadly force. There might be terrorists -
Five minutes passed. It came and went. Nothing happened.
Great, Melia was thinking sarcastically. Just perfect. Nobody knows what's going on.
No, just her.
At that moment, music started up from inside the hall. There was cheering, whistling. A great commotion.
The police personnel turned to look inside. They turned back smiling.
"It's starting," one of them observed, talking to no one in particular.
Melia was outraged.
How could they! They knew she was at the front, but if Mr Stule was taking to the stage - Well, then, they must have sneaked him in the back door. That wasn't the plan! Damn. What else could go wrong? she wondered, feeling ready to spit.
Mr Stule knew how to work a crowd. He was a natural performed.
He came in from one side, walked across the stage, waving at people, recognising some faces at the front, blowing kissed. He stood, he posed, he preened. Camera flashes went off. Everyone was smiling, pleased to finally see him.
Behind him was a table, right across the stage, at behind it were chairs for about a dozen people. Men. They were all men. As the candidate whipped the audience into a fervour, they started to file on. Not yet sitting down, they clapped politely and looked admiringly at their candidate. Men in suits. They were his supporters, his backers, his funders. Maybe they were pulling his strings. Who knew? Whatever the relationship, he was at the front and they were lined up behind.
They were behind him.
Mr Stule finished his parade, then, strangely, walked to an empty chair on one side of the platform and sat down. Everyone else sat, on stage and on the floor. The noise died. There was a respectful silence.
A man in the middle of the platform party struggled awkwardly to his feet, coughed a little, tapped the microphone and said a few innocuous words of welcome. Then he called on the honoured guest to 'say a few words'.
There was wild and uncontrollable applause.
He called him 'St-yule', Melia was thinking at the back of the hall. She had never heard it said that way before.
Mr Stule bounded to his feet. There was pandemonium, louder and louder. He strode forward. There was a lectern at the front, centre stage. He took his place there. It looked so natural. He could have been born to it. He waved his hands, acknowledging the adulation, nudging it away modestly. He's so pleased with himself, Melia noted.
"My friends, my friends," he started, in a nasal, mid-Atlantic twang. "You know why we're here."
'Kick the Con!' they shouted. 'Kick the Con!'
Melia had wormed her way in at the back of the enormous hall, and was now trying to move up one side, closing on the stage. She was listening, slightly. She heard the words, but she had no idea what they meant.
She cast a professional eye around the area,
There were rows and rows of seats, then the hastily constructed stage at the front. It wasn't a theatre arrangement. It wasn't a theatre. In fact, this middle area had once been a railway station, Central Station, on Peter Street in Manchester. It still had the massive iron vaulting and glass panelled roof. It was very impressive.
Ironically, it had been converted into event space in the 1980s by a body called the Greater Manchester Council, but that had been abolished by Mrs Thatcher in the mid-80s. Coincidental, then, that this was the setting for cajoling people into voting for a new Mayor of Greater Manchester - even though the county had been dispensed with for thirty years, mainly because the then Prime Minister had told everyone, 'It has no purpose'. Well, it created this space, Melia was thinking. That's impressive.
Melia looked at the backs of people's heads. They were all directed resolutely forward. No one seemed to be looking around, looking for trouble in that way trouble-makers and terrorists had, assessing weak points to attack.
There were no weak points. In front of the stage, arranged like a thuggish chorus line, there were big men in black sweaters. Mr Stule's supporters, recruited to defend him. More of this gang had disposed themselves along each wall, on the left and the right. If any single member of that throng on chairs decided to shout or get abusive, the muscular defenders could leap on them and drag them out, without let or hindrance. There was no one else. No police. There should have been G-MEX Security people, men and women in red jackets and ties, but there wasn't one to be seen. Bouncers. The usual door staff. Absent. Sent away.
Melia was worried.
She was conscious that she stuck out like a sore thumb. In her usual garb of leather jacket, tight jeans, sweater and boots, she looked like an Amazon at a Women's Institute Tea Party. She had better keep in the background, she decided.
She might inadvertently make herself a target.
"Who the hell are you?" a thug demanded, blocking her path.
He was big, wide. He was angry. Angry about something. Was it Melia, or the state of the nation?
She wearily pulled out her Warrant Card and let him have a look at her picture. He seized it from her fingers and brought it up close to his nose. He didn't seem to think that the pretty girl in the photo was the same pretty girl in front of him.
"Where are you going?" he blathered, maybe trying to make himself important.
"Look, man, we're on the same side," she said, trying to mollify him. She had to shout to make herself heard over the screams and clapping from the crowd. Good Lord, she was thinking, the speeches haven't even started yet.
What would this rabble start doing when their divine leader really started to let rip with the sermon?
Still, Melia wasn't looking for trouble. She was willing to discuss the situation with this guy, despite the confrontation and the challenge. She was right of course: they all had the speaker's best interests at heart. Didn't they?
Then Melia made the mistake of looking over the testosterone fuelled youngster at the stage. He gaze drifted along the line of important men, and her blood ran suddenly cold. Abruptly, all at once, she knew she had no time to debate.
She grabbed her card back and elbowed the man out of the way. She hadn't got time for niceties.
"Where do you think - " he began again, gasping for breath.
"I need to report to my boss," she snapped testily, moving on, moving forward. Towards the stage.
Because that's where her boss was. Deputy Director Caulfield. He was sitting on a chair at the end of the line, her right.
She hadn't noticed him, first time. He was old, greying, slightly overweight. Pleased with himself in his expensive but slightly worn, more or less shiny suit. He didn't stand out. In fact, he looked completely at home, one of the team.
He damn well shouldn't be!
He was Richard Caulfield, and for the last few years he had been only a heartbeat away from being the commander of WSB, Britain's best and most efficient Security unit. He was an essential cog in the wheel of activity that kept ordinary citizens safe in their beds. Part of that deal was that he didn't get involved in politics. He was above all that.
But now, here he was, nailing his colours firmly to the mast of Beau Stule, the Business candidate.
How dare he? How could he? He knew the rules! Melia was thinking furiously.
Mr Stule was a controversial character. He had expressed views on immigration and race that would probably win endorsement from the Ku Klux Klan. Mr Stule had lived in the U.S.A. for a time, maybe he had picked up strands of philosophy there. But back in this country, the newspapers were calling him 'the Ghengis Khan of Greater Manchester'. That wasn't a very flattering comparison. Mr Khan's family were probably furious.
And Caulfield? His position was even more delicate than it would usually be, due to the recent changes at the top of the Unit. The nominal head, Captain Gibson, had announced last month that he was about to go on Trial Retirement. Melia was baffled. She had never heard of such a thing, and though everyone else seemed to simply accept it, she secretly thought that the concept had been invented just for this occasion. The men in Whitehall, the civil servants at the heart of British government, knew that Gibson would never go willingly. He had said many times to his team that 'they would have to carry me out in a box'. So, since that was more of a last resort to the mandarins, maybe they had conceived this 'Trial' business as something that the old man might be persuaded to agree to, even if it made no logical sense.
For Melia and the other agents, it was a disaster. Not just that they had recently lost a guiding hand, the steadying hold of the Captain, a man who knew exactly what he was doing. But also they had gained the new controller, a fool who 'couldn't be relied upon tie his shoe laces separately', as they used to say in the canteen.
Melia didn't know for sure, but she got the feeling that many of her colleagues were re-considering their positions. She wouldn't be surprised if some of them started putting in for transfer to other units. She had even entertained the thought herself.
Still, Caulfield was nominally the boss. Now. Right there, right then. Okay, she would ask him for orders. He was in charge? She would go to him, ask him what did he want her to do? What was his plan? His strategy, if he had one.
A hand touched her shoulder.
That was a mistake. She had whirled and flattened the guy before she had time to think. It was an automatic move. She was acting defensively. She had been trained to react. She did so. The man went down. He wouldn't be challenging her again.
She was still moving forward. The action had taken the rest of the Stule Defence Force by surprise. They hadn't seen what had happened, but the ones nearest the stage now saw this tall, impressive woman stalking along their line and they started to get nervous. They looked at each other. There was no one to organise them, give orders. They hesitated, then piled in.
Mr Stule wasn't completely oblivious. He saw some kind of fracas breaking out on his right, and he hit the microphone, calling for quiet. He knew that kind of thing played badly in the Press. He didn't want the journalists using it against him.
"Now, now," he boomed. "What's all the fuss, eh? What's the trouble? Surely we can talk about this."
Melia wasn't talking: she was punching. She'd cracked three or four noses, and there were bodies on the floor.
Still, they kept coming. There seemed an endless supply of reinforcements. She wasn't certain she could take them all.
"Stand down!" Beau Stule yelled. He meant it. "Stop!" he shouted, and his automatons hesitated.
Then a man got up from the table, hurried over and whispered in his ear. Stule looked at him. His name was Caulfield, he knew.
"Your operative, your problem," the candidate hissed at Caulfield, and turned back to the crowd. His strategy was clear: he would start talking, the audience would attend to him. Meanwhile, Caulfield could get down on the floor and rescue his agent.
"I am not going to apologise," Mr Stule started, and the crowd cheered. "We want out of Europe and into the future!" he told them. "We want our borders back and the visitors to leave. I'm not saying they are all rapists - "
"Out!" the audience yelled, waving arms, torches, phones, banners. They approved of every ill formed word and phrase.
"Out! Out!" they called, and their mood was vicious and virtuous at the same time. Their blood was up.
Melia, frozen in mid-fight, was surrounded by tough men, but they'd stopped attacking. There were following orders. They contained her now, wouldn't let her move but had given up approaching her. They were waiting for someone to arrive.
It was Mickey.
Melia didn't know whether to laugh or cry. But there he was, large as life and twice as handsome, pushing his way between the men in black. He stood in front of her and grinned at her. She wanted to kiss him, but didn't want to shock Mr Stule's troops more than she had done already. He was wearing a black sweater, she saw. Was he one of them now?
"You've been told," Mickey said loudly to the men. "The order is 'Stand Down'. I'll take care of this intruder."
The foot soldiers reluctantly returned to their former positions, grumbling, as if they hadn't done enough damage to be satisfied. They were looking at each other, but guiltily, out of the corners of their eyes. They weren't going to confront Mickey.
Mickey took Melia's elbow, in a non-committal way, partly forcefully and partly supportively. He nodded his head towards the stage. We'll go that way, he was indicating. Just play along. Do what I'm asking. Don't make trouble.
He found them a Dressing Room.
Melia could tell that was what it was being used for, as it had some chairs in front of make-up tables, the sort that had lights all the way round, like they had in theatres. But the room was on the side of the building, and had a window that looked out to the Bridgewater Hall, the concert venue across the road. Maybe it was simply storage space ordinarily.
"You believe in that maniac?" Melia snapped, as Mickey shut the door behind them.
He looked at her, appreciatively. She was a fine-looking woman. He admired her, her spirit, as well as her good looks.
Melia saw him looking at her, as if he was weighing her up. What right did he have to do that? He was the one who should be apologising! She hadn't heard from him - Damn, the list of her complaints could fill a private diary.
"I'm not here for him," Mickey said slowly, as if starting to explain. "I'm here for Caulfield."
"So am I!" Melia blurted, as if by that Mickey was meaning he was following orders. She was. She had been told to protect Stule, but it was an official command, from the agency, and Caulfield was in charge of the agency. For now.
"I'm shadowing Caulfield," Mickey went on, contradicting her thoughts. "He seems to have gone completely crazy."
Melia took a breath. She was stunned. She sat down in one of the chairs, back to the bright lights and the mirror.
What did that mean? Mickey wasn't working for WSB? Well, he could do that. Technically, being 'retired', if he ever did get given any other job, he was a Freelance, working for himself. He'd done plenty like it in the past, all sorts of employers.
"I'm working for Gibson," Mickey said, laying out the parameters.
It was a favour, he said. The Old Man was worried that Caulfield was going 'off message', and was taking this new populist movement seriously. It may have been some of the things he said; the former Deputy Director had talked admiringly of Stule and all that he stood for. Caulfield had shocked Directors' meetings in London, Gibson said. They were all worried.
"What have you found out?" Melia asked her ex-boyfriend carefully, feeling her way.
"He supports this guy," Mickey said. He was reluctant to talk ill of the feeble-minded, but it was his opinion.
That's when the door burst open.
What seemed like a dozen people crowded into the tiny room. At their head was a tall but overweight would-be politician. It was Beau Stule himself. He had come in for a brush and make-up repair. He sat down in front of a mirror.
Who's holding the stage? Melia wondered. She couldn't help herself: she said it out loud.
"It's a musical break," Stule snapped irritably. "Mandingo and The Darktown Strutters."
Apparently, that was two groups, taking it in turns to play. Melia listened. Yes, the door was open and she could hear loud thumping, tinny sounds coming from the main hall. It was 'music', but not any that she would like.
Still, the names of the bands shocked her. They sounded like Rap artists, or maybe Soul musicians. Beau Stule hated black people, didn't he? That's what they said about him. Why would he - or his supporters - enjoy such garage sounds?
Close up, Mr Stule looked less healthy than from a distance. His skin was sallow. On stage, he seemed to glow with energy, but Melia could now see - as the make-up woman worked her magic - that it was mainly fake tan.
"Anyway," the big man said to Melia, "what are you doing here? Shouldn't you be out on the Women's March, or something?"
Melia baulked. Firstly, it was downright rude. Secondly, it was denigrating to women.
Thirdly, she hadn't realised such a thing was happening. She walked over to the window and looked out. Yes, there were banners down there, on the road, and chanting, angry females. Mr Stule did that: he inspired opposition.
"She works for me," a voice said, across the room.
Melia stared over. It was Caulfield, looking like he was trying to apologise, maybe explain and excuse.
"Get the hell out!" Stule barked. "I've told you before about interrupting. Stan, slam the door."
A man in a black sweater obediently hustled Caulfield out of the room. He slammed the door behind him, as ordered.
Melia gaped. She had never seen such bad behaviour. And so disrespectful. Say what you liked about Caulfield, he was Acting Director of WSB. Their little unit punched above its weight. It deserved a smidgeon of admiration
Stule was having none of it. He kept his face pointing at the mirror and his head up, but he kept giving orders.
"Madam," he said belligerently, "get that speech over here. I need to refresh my memory."
A small woman with tight blonde curls came bustling up to the great man's elbow. She had a clipboard in her hand. Evidently it had typed paper on the front, maybe the elements of the speech Stule was about to make, after the musicians finished.
He grunted, and she turned the page over. He grunted again.
"Nothing new," he purred. "I like it. Keep it coming, Madam."
Apparently 'Madam' was her first name. It was an unusual arrangement, but then, there was nothing 'usual' about any of this.
Mr Stule nodded his head and the clipboard was withdrawn. He had something else on his mind.
"Where's my opposition tonight?" he said beligerently.
"Nobody returned your invitation," the woman told him.
He looked even more annoyed. He had sent out a challenge to the other candidates to meet him on the platform and 'debate' the issues in front of the masses. Maybe some of them has realised that it would be Stule's Home crowd, and he would start with too much of an advantage. They would cheer every word he said, boo every statement of theirs. It wouldn't be worth it.
"Not even the Green candidate?" Stule said. "That pastey worm. I knew he was a total coward."
"He's dead," she informed her boss.
Mr Stule didn't pause for breath, launching into an impromptu diatribe against all Green policies and beliefs. That seemed a little unfair to Melia. She'd read about the Green candidate: he had dropped dead unexpectedly over Christmas.
Surely he was worth a little consideration? No. The Business candidate had no time for the man, dead or alive.
"Listen," Stule said, turning in his chair and disrupting the make-up artist's work, "You're in charge of Press Relations. You're my PR guru. What am I paying you for? You don't just write the speeches, girl. That's not it, at all. I want you to get out there and line up the Press. Every reporter, every journalist. I want them hanging on my every word. You got that?"
"Sure, Boss," she said, tried to grin, failed, turned and rushed out of the door without looking back.
Melia was suddenly aware of a silence in the room. It was packed, but not one man dared speak without their Leader's approval, it seemed. She scanned their faces. They were waiting for instructions, unable to move under their own volition.
Across from her, Mickey too stood mute. He had a small smile on his face, but whether that was for her, she didn't know.
"Okay, people," Stule boomed, "pick up your loins and let's get back out there. We got giants to slay!"
He stood, brushed himself down and stalked out, through a moil of hangers-on who did a good job of making way for him. They closed ranks in behind him, like and Honour Guard, and escorted him back to the stage. There was music. A fanfare.
Somebody came in the door. A young lady. That made three people in the room, counting Mickey and Melia. Everyone else had gone. Melia looked at Mickey. He seemed to know this new arrival. He greeted her with a friendly hug.
The girl looked to be a teenager. She was painfully thin, and straight up and down: she had no curves whatever. Her hair was long and coloured unnaturally white. He skin was pale too. She could have been a ghost.
"This is Titch," Mickey said, smiling happily. "She's working with me on this."
Melia looked questioningly. This girl was too young, surely. She would be completely inexperienced.
"She has specialist information," Mickey said. "She knows about Stule's new wife."
Ah, that spoke volumes, Melia was thinking.
Firstly, Mr Stule had been through a wife or two, and the latest was Number Three.
Secondly, she wasn't from round here. She was from Eastern Europe, by all accounts.
Thirdly, she had a chequered and unseemly past. Some gossips said she had been a lingerie model.
"She isn't Romanian," the girl said. "That's what they all say about her. It isn't accurate."
Melia nodded. The youngster had an Eastern accent. She could have been Romanian herself. Was she?
"I'm from Russia," the kid explained. "I've lived there all my life. I know the place. His new wife is Russian."
Melia gasped. That was a problem! Good Grief, a Russian wife in local politics? The woman could be a security threat!
"You seem very well informed," Melia said, trying to sound supportive. She wanted to be kind.
Mickey seemed to trust the youngster. He looked happy in her company. How long had they worked together?
"Titch is my daughter," Mickey said quietly, proudly, as if that explained everything.
Melia staggered back.
She felt as though she had been kicked in the stomach. How many years - How many days, months, years, had Mickey and Melia been together? How long - even when not 'together', they'd clearly been lovers, a couple, a relationship.
He couldn't think to mention this thing, something so big!
To Melia, the ground seemed to fall away from beneath her feet. She felt herself come back to the make-up table and she leaned on it for support. She found herself gasping for breath, as though the wind had been knocked out of her.
"We've only just found each other," Mickey said, smiling hugely. "After all these years - Well, I'd never known her, growing up. We've got a lot of years to make up, a lot of ground to cover. There's so much to learn about each other."
Melia bounced up and slid along the chairs, coming up against the wall. She knew she could burst into tears at any moment, and it was making her unsteady. Her confidence had deserted her. Mickey - whatever was he thinking?
She was next to the outside window. She looked down to the road, and was just in time to see a baffling sight. There was a car parked up on the pavement, a black car, and it had its back door open. The PR woman, Mr Stule's speech writer and liaison person, the one with the tight curls, was being manhandled into the car by a pair of guys in black sweaters.
To all intents and purposes, it looked like she was being kidnapped.
Melia turned back, to exclaim to Mickey, but he was too busy, preoccupied with the young woman.
Melia looked again out the window. The black car was hurtling away, up the street, at speed. The demo, the crowd of women there previously, seemed to have dispersed. There was a usual amount of passing traffic, but no other activity.
Mickey said: "You know, we could all go out, all three of us. It's a good idea, Mel. I'd like you to get to know, Titch. She's a delight, I can tell you that. You'll be really impressed with her qualifications. Doesn't she speak good English?"
Melia couldn't disagree with that, but she was still staggered by Mickey's lack of comprehension.
Didn't he realise how cruel he was being?
She found herself practically falling along the wall. Now she was behind the line of tables. It was dark back there, no light between the make-up stations and the solid stone wall of the ex-station. Also, the bright lights around the tables made it difficult to see anything in the shadows. But there was something -
As she was out of direct line of the lights, and partially shielded by the mirrors, her eyes started to adjust to the gloom
"What the heck are we going to do about this?" she gasped, struggling to breathe.
Mickey, alerted at last, left the side of his new-found offspring and came over. He was cautious, but curious. Looking behind, into the darkness, he gradually began to make out what had caused Melia to start. He was interested.
There, on the floor, it appeared to be a body, face down. The person was wearing a familiar black sweater and trousers, but, surprisingly, there was the handle of some kind of knife sticking out of their back, in the middle of their shoulder blades.
"I'm not sure this was what any of us had planned," Mickey said calmly.
Melia stared at him, lost for words.
What did he mean by that? What did he mean by anything? She wasn't sure she knew him at all, anymore.
(END of Chapter One. More to follow.)
CHAPTER TWO: Rough living
Melia's cousin Liv was being stalked.
What was really upsetting to her, was that it was both online and in reality.
Like now, this bright sunny day, she was trying to get to her office in the University, and there was a crowd of flag-waving cretins standing in her way. They were waving placards and chanting. Liv regarded them coolly from a distance, She read the words on the boards they were carrying. Really! The phrases weren't even grammatically correct.
The campus of Salford University is wide, open and planted nicely with trees and real grass lawns. Liv was able to loiter in the shadows of the Bradshaw Building and see the swirling crowd outside the new Media Centre, where she was based. It upset her, what was happening. She couldn't deny it. She hadn't been having much luck since Christmas. The last few weeks, especially, had been troubling. She wanted desperately to get on with her research. She was behind in her schedule. This wasn't helping.
She turned, and caught sight of herself in one of the full-length windows of the Bradshaw.
Liv looked an unlikely academic.
She was tall, statuesque, like Melia, but fair, where her cousin was dark. She had the long hair, good looks and shapely figure, of course, and - given her upbringing in the middle of Salford - might have been expected to work in a clothes shop, maybe, while earning a bit extra in the evenings behind a bar, making the most of a low-cut top. Instead, she had shaken off her childhood, turned her back on low expectations and non-existent educational attainment, and made a virtue out of studying.
Nothing had come easy. She'd had to go back and do the most basic level of qualifications at Evening Classes, then take an Open University course at home, which took years for her to get herself a Degree. But after that, she was lucky. Her brother died. That was a huge blow, but he had made a fortune in the Computer Games industry, and the money he left her meant she didn't have to worry about juggling part-time work and study. Finally, finally, she could devote herself to a University career.
Now here she was, established, or so she thought. She had a light timetable of teaching to deliver, and was positively encouraged to devote the rest of her days to research. Unfortunately, she had chosen badly. Or so it seemed.
She wasn't to know. The area had suggested itself when Salford University was left a collection of unpublished work by the distinguished ethnobiologist, Esmer Crant. He wasn't well-known in Europe, but the last Vice-Chancellor was from South Africa and had worked for many years on that dark continent. He had been 'lucky', he said, in receiving the bequest while teaching in Cape Town. There simply hadn't been enough time to work through the late Mr Crant's legacy, so he brought it with him, across the seas, and deposited the boxes in the University of Salford's Library. Liv, casting around for some new ideas, had come across the collection. She opened the first file and been won over. It was stunning work.
There wasn't even an accepted name for the field. The deceased Mr Crant had started calling it 'The Beach Theory of Human Evolution', shortly before he died. He hadn't been able to take it any further. Liv sighed. She would complete his opus, she decided. It would open up a whole new branch of the science. Building on his start, she would make it fly.
Liv pulled back from her place, stepped behind the trees and walked along the pathway towards the railway station. She turned left and came up to a back door of the Media Building. She let herself in and climbed the stairs.
There was a man in a flagrant sports coat waiting outside her door.
"Ms Moriarty?" he asked, in a faint North American accent. He smiled.
He looked like a candidate for the FBI. He had a short haircut and wide shoulders, like he was an ex-footballer. His shirt was as loud as his tone. He wasn't the sort of person Liv would expect to see on campus.
"I took the liberty - " he began, but she waved him quiet. She had no reason to converse.
He stepped out of the way and she opened her office door. Liv planned to leave him in the corridor, outside her office.
"I can offer to sponsor your work," he said, his voice a little lower in volume. He hadn't stopped smiling.
Liv paused. She didn't need the money, of course, and wanted to tell him that.
Still, if he was offering - Well, maybe that meant he took her research seriously. Maybe he wanted to see it published.
Liv was intrigued. Most people, it seemed, wanted to close her down. Why would this individual want her to plough on?
She opened the door wide and waved him to a chair. She went over and filled the percolator by the window.
"You Americans like coffee," she said cheerily, sharing her research findings.
"I'm Canadian," he corrected her.
She made them both a mug of coffee. There were formalities with the ceremony. It took a while.
Eventually he was ready to talk.
"You've heard of the Stule Foundation?" he asked her.
She had to admit she hadn't. He waved that aside. It didn't matter. He was just trying to prove he had adequate resources.
"My name is John Glenn," he told her. "Like the astronaut."
Liv didn't recognise that name either. She wasn't talking. If he was there, well, he must know about her.
It was just him that was coming across as a bit of a mystery.
"You haven't made many friends," he observed.
They both nodded. The chanting crowd was audible, just barely, in the background. Like tinnitus.
He said: "You've started to put a whole new slant on Man as a hunter/gatherer."
Liv nodded. Everyone knew that humankind had spent most of its life living on food gathered and hunted down. The theory she was developing came from Esmer Crant's observations that primitive tribes in Africa were living a life that had barely changed since our species emerged. Their diet, he asserted, was eighty per cent 'gathered'.
The 'hunting' bit of the equation was barely scratching the surface.
"I'm asking questions," she said. She had written some articles, hoping for feedback from her peers.
She hadn't predicted trolls.
"They are awkward questions," Glenn said. "It stirs up emotions. It makes it seem as though Tarzan never really existed."
"He is fictional," she pointed out.
"Men in suits," he said, "working mundanely in banks and insurance offices, well, they like to think of themselves as warriors, perhaps stalking across the veldt as their ancestors did, a hundred thousand years ago."
Liv nodded. She doubted that had ever been the case. That was her impression now. That's as far as she had got.
It was all a myth.
"Those men out there," he noted, "I doubt most of them have ever skinned a rabbit, let alone wrestled a crocodile. It's just an impression, a fantasy. It gives them comfort, in their offices and workplaces."
"You want me to leave them in their ignorance?"
John Glenn chuckled. "Some of them are students. Some of them are your peers, fellow academics, who feel their own areas of expertise are being challenged. You know what unites them all? What has - quite recently - brought them together?"
Liv shook her head. This man was taking his time getting to the point. She didn't know what to expect.
"They are all followers of Beau Stule," he told her.
Liv nodded, but didn't understand. She had never heard of anybody called 'Bo'.
Interesting though, that he had the same name as the Foundation that Mr Glenn has so conveniently mentioned.
The Canadian saw her realisation, and nodded his head. Yes, they were related.
"Mr Stule feels bad that his army are causing you grief," he said, quietly, again. "That's why he wants his charity arm to support you. He is a great respecter of science. He says he wants the truth to come out. We must progress."
What did it matter to him?
Liv was still baffled, until Mr Glenn brought out a shiny piece of paper and laid it on the desk between them.
It was an election flyer. Its headline read, 'Stule for Mayor of Greater Manchester'.
She could understand that. Liv had heard of the election. Salford was in Greater Manchester. Mr Stule didn't want any unpleasantness in a borough that could cost him a few votes. He was trying to buy her compliance.
"Does a hundred thousand sound like the right kind of ball park?" he asked.
Liv didn't know what kind of game they played in Mr Glenn's ball park, and was about to criticise him.
But her internal phone rang.
"It's the Creche," a female voice said. "You need to get down here."
"Give me a card," she told John Glenn as she put down the phone. "I'll be in touch."
Liv's hormones were suddenly in play. She was scared about the summons. She was needed! Quick.
She rattled down the back stairs and across the quadrangle, reaching the Creche building by the train tracks in record time. She burst through the outside door, and was blocked by the inside one. She anxiously pressed the buzzer.
Inside she could see a handsome man jiggling a baby in his arms, trying to comfort it.
A woman assistant let Liv in. She dived across the space and grabbed the baby.
"He's been missing you," the man said kindly.
What man? She didn't recognise him. He had a Scandinavian accent. Was he new? She couldn't place him.
"My name is Lichen," he said quietly, smiling to see that Liv was comforting the child. The baby began to coo.
"There," she said. "There, there. It's all right, it's all right."
"It must be a worry," he said sympathetically, "trying to get back to work, knowing your infant is here."
She practically snarled at him. Of course it is! No question. But she had work to do, and the University Creche was one of the best. It had all the facilities and opened hours that allowed her to function. She needed the place.
She wouldn't be able to manage without it.
Liv turned away. She was focussing on the youngster, but her mind was talking to itself. Words were coming to her.
Don't trust him, it said. You don't know him. Don't listen to this man.
What was that about? she wondered.
What makes me think of that?
Mickey looked out of the tent flap.
It was still morning, he could see that, and dawn had been hours ago. Had he been sleeping? Again?
He looked around at the slowly steaming forest. Last night's rain had made the place fresh and clear, but the morning's dew was only just burning off as the sun cleared the hills over by the river. The birds were subdued, he was thinking.
Mickey sighed. He wasn't much good as a Survivalist.
He hadn't been able to hunt. He couldn't make fire. He hadn't even been able to build a shelter - they had to steal the tent.
He was there with Titch, of course.
The two of them had made their escape, the week before, and after some adventures - well, they were hiding out.
Not making a very good job of it. Mickey was a City boy. He understood shops and cash machines.
He didn't understand Nature.
It had all started at G-MEX.
He was there for the Stule rally, keeping an eye on Caulfield, but then he had been forced to rescue Melia. They had been in that dressing room - and found a body. Things had got pretty confused after that. The police were called -
It was all a misunderstanding, Mickey decided, thinking about it. Of course the cops would be nervous, since Beau was such a high profile character. Plus the fact that some of the local law enforcement didn't seem to know about WSB -
In the melee, as the small room filled up with uniforms and detectives, it seemed that all eyes turned to Mickey. For some reason, the consensus seemed to be that he looked guilty. They started getting aggressive with him.
He did the only thing he could think of. He did what he had been trained to do.
He broke free.
Dashing through the door, running away from the police, seemed like a pretty silly thing to do, looking back on it. But at the time - Well, it seemed the only option. Luckily, Melia was watching his back. As he brushed past her, she managed to get in between him and the exit, so that the boys in blue were blocked: they couldn't pursue Mickey, as he made his forlorn way along the corridor and down the outside stairs. The police were furious with Melia, and promised to arrest her instead. She shrugged: they didn't have a case. Besides, she was prettier than Mickey. She could charm them. They were only men.
As the constables jabbered into their radios - demanding 'road blocks' and 'perimeters' - Melia drifted quietly over to the window and saw what happened next. Mickey, alarmingly, had Titch in tow. She was dragging along behind him, her shorter legs stretching to keep up with the man who called himself her father. Mickey ran into the road.
Now that was just foolhardy! He flagged down a car, forced the driver out, and commandeered the vehicle. Coincidentally, the occupants were an older man and a young woman. Maybe another father and daughter combination, Melia was thinking.
Mickey roared off. It was a good move. Rather than trying to find his own car in the underground car park, and possibly getting caught in a queue for the exit ramp and the pay barrier, he took a car that could be driven away. By the time the police emerged, found the distraught driver, got his story and vehicle details, Mickey could have lost himself in the city.
But Mickey didn't think to do that. Rather than find a back alley or a friendly garage, he headed for the countryside.
Mickey shuddered to remember it. It was a miscalculation, he realised now. Yes, the detectives would have got the registration number from the highjacked owner and once they had that and fed it into the computer, automatic recognition cameras on all the motorways and major roads would spot the fleeing vehicle. They'd put up a helicopter and he would be spotted.
He took back roads. There would be no cameras there, he figured. He headed west, then south.
Salford, the city, is about the size of Malta, from one side to the other. It has a surprising amount of fields, barns and farms within its boundaries. I can find some cover, Mickey was thinking. They won't spot me from the air.
He was driving too fast.
It might have all gone swimmingly, but the country lanes were narrow and winding. Coming out of a bend, the car lost its grip on the damp roads and spun into a tree. It caught the forward panels, not front on, so not too jarringly, but the metal buckled and the back doors flew open. One wheel ended up in a ditch. As Mickey lifted Titch out, he could smell petrol.
It shouldn't have burst into flames. But it did.
The two runaways stared in wonder as their only means of transport started to burn. Soon it was an inferno.
There was nothing for it but to walk. Better off the road, Mickey decided, and started along a Public Right of Way. There were lights in the distance, maybe a farmhouse. He followed the hedgerows and skirted the fields.
They nearly hadn't made it, he was thinking. They could have been stuck at G-MEX, captured and falsely imprisoned.
The only thing that saved them were the demonstrators.
Mickey hadn't realised. He didn't know that Beau Stule attracted not only fanatical support but also apoplectic opposition. From the banners of the groups outside, he worked out that one main group were women. All kinds of woman. Any woman, in fact, who knew anything about politics, gender and discrimination. They were all against Beau, and they made it clear.
The other main group were Russians.
Now that was odd. Mr Stule said publicly that he 'got on well' with Russians. He 'did business' with them, he said. He 'respected' their leaders and their new-found faith in capitalism and the Free Market. He thought he'd won them over.
Maybe he had. Maybe the Russians who lived in Russia were his friends.
But the Russians who lived in Britain didn't trust him, didn't like him, and weren't going to vote for him. They waved placards and shouted things, rude things. Since it was in their own language, nobody English was offended.
Still, it made a big difference. The protestors were blocking all of the main entrances, and the police people pursuing the escaping fugitives were hopelessly hampered from getting out. Even when they got to their cars, parked at the back near Watson Street, the side roads and junctions were swarming with milling bodies. Even sirens couldn't get them to move.
Mickey, counting his blessings, realised he had escaped. However, he had then lost the car.
It was cold, slightly damp. He needed some good luck if the pair of them were going to survive.
They got it.
Arriving at the back of a large house, Mickey was delighted to see a small tent set up in the back garden.
How indulgent! Maybe rich parents were encouraging their spoilt brats to enjoy the delights of the open air, and had constructed a full 'sleep out' for the little darlings. Yes, there was a tent, two sleeping bags and - best of all - torches and small, square metal boxes that looked like some kind of heater or cooking equipment.
There were two rucksacks in the corner of the tent. Showing Titch by example, he began dismantling the camp, packing it away and putting everything on their backs. They would steal away, he told her.
It was comical. Tents are not easy to erect, he knew, but having spent many years in the Army, he thought it would be simple enough to demount. The strings and pegs were not, definitely not, Army issue, and everything became tangled and confused. At one point they heard voices and, fearing discovery, went back behind the hedge. However, it was a false alarm; some adults came out of the house and looked at the stars, drank cocktails for a while, then disappeared back in.
Mickey and Titch resumed their escapade and completed the second major theft of the night.
We need to be out of their eyeline, he told her. Keep walking, he said, and wasn't content until they were at least three fields over, with a number of copses between them and the isolated house. They could hear a stream running nearby. That seemed a good sign: water, he said. It's a prerequisite. We can set up here, on the edge of the wood, using trees for cover.
They spent a cold and disturbing night, getting little sleep. It's only for a while, he assured the young girl.
A week went by.
They explored the area and realised there were other houses further down the road, and a few shops. Mickey bought food, so they didn't starve. But it was all pre-prepared. He was not able to make the 'cooker' work. He didn't find anything by foraging. It was an 'adventure' for them, camping under the black night sky, but Titch grew bored, then annoyed.
"I need to continue my studies," she told him flatly. She wasn't starting a debate.
Mickey sighed. Yes, he knew she was a student at Salford University. Her supervisor was Liv, Melia's cousin. He knew Liv, he told Titch, but Liv didn't know that Titch knew Mickey. They both preferred it that way, for now.
"I have a friend," Mickey said, desperate to find some kind of viable plan for the immediate future.
Yes, it was true. He knew a man who owned a farm, quite close by. The fellow had worked for the Security Services, a long time ago, and was still in touch with WSB ex-colleagues. He was reliable. He had been helpful in the past.
Maybe he would provide them with a barn or an outhouse, somewhere warmer than here, protected. Maybe with food.
Anything, Titch said, and she meant it.
Anything would be better than this, she was thinking.
That weekend, Mr Stule held a meeting at the Arts Mill on Chapel Street in Salford.
He was hoping he would sell a few books.
"Where's my opposition?" he saying, grumbling to his team. "Where are they? Why won't they come out?"
It was a good point.
So far, there had been no organised debates. No joint public meetings. Every time that Beau Stule appeared in public, he had to stage the activity on his own. Surely that couldn't be right! By now, mid-February, the other parties should have chosen their candidates. Conservative, Labour, whatever the Liberal-Democrats were called now. The Green Party, as he had mentioned before, and maybe some outriders, extremists like 'England First'. The election was in May! They didn't have much time to rouse the populace and get them enthused about casting their precious votes.
Was he completely alone?
There was a good crowd in tonight, he was thinking. It must have been the free beer that motivated them.
The main room on the ground floor of the mill was off to the right of the stairs. It had a bar against the far wall, and a stage beside, a good sized performance area for bands and singers. There was an excellent P.A. system, which suited Mr Stule's needs. Chairs and small tables had been arranged around the area, cafe style. His supporters had been arriving since early afternoon and many of them were almost totally drunk. He would get an enthusiastic welcome, he was sure of that.
Still, business was business. He had instructed Ms Allbright, his Public Relations person, to put posters and pop-ups along the walls of the corridor leading from the main door. They all plugged his book, his one and only book. His tome. His creed.
It was called 'The Kick of the Con', and it was all about making deals.
That was Beau's talent, he always thought. The vital skill that had made him a successful businessman. He was able to go into a room and come out with agreements favourable to his needs, his cause. He could bend people to his position. He could ensure they gave him the profit. It was a rare talent, and he had made the most of it, over many years.
The title said it all. To do that, to get other people to agree, it needed a stratagem of deception; you had to let them think that they were winning, even when they weren't. That was the 'con'. The 'kick' was the thrill of the deal, knowing that money was being made and empires being built. He had never tired of the business jungle. It energised him.
Let's try it, he was thinking to himself, and gathered up a handful of the books. He swept into the room, confronted admirers, hangers-on, journalists and curious visitors, and, in a matter of minutes, had sold the first stack. Then the second.
"Of course I'll sign them for you," he said, eagerly accepting a pen. He dashed off his flambouyant autograph.
People were giving him money, and smiling. That was how it worked! he was thinking.
I give them what they want. They love me. In between, they hand over cash.
It was a dream of capitalism made real. It was his life's work.
People were calling on him to take the stage. They wanted to hear from him. Tell us what we want to hear, they begged.
It was a smallish space, by his standards. There was room for maybe a hundred people. He jumped up onto the low stage, grabbed the microphone and exorted people to 'take their seats'. Those at the bar were reluctant, but he insisted.
Then he went amongst them.
The mike was wireless, no cable. He didn't need to stand up there, above them, he said. I am one of you, he said.
"The one thing I do know about is property," he confided. He had made his fortune in it, he said.
He walked between the tables, tapping shoulders, smiling this way and that. He was creating an atmosphere.
"The one thing I know about Salford," he said cynically, "is that people round here don't understand property. Not at all."
There were murmurs of approval. The crowd wanted to hear that current politicians were useless. They wanted to be told that local Councils had got it wrong and needed to be replaced. They wanted Beau Stule to right wrongs for them.
Somebody turned to their companion and muttered, "He's an expert".
Beau heard the comment. He had to agree. I am, he said.
He added: "Let's review what's happening right now, in this ancient city. Firstly, I read in the local paper, the Local Authority has gone to court to seize an empty house. It's been empty for two years. No occupants. No tenants. The Council wants to see the house brought back into use. They're trying to get a Court Order that allows them to buy it. They'll repair it, put it on the market, and rent it out to homeless people. You think I approve of that? I sure as hell do!"
People looked a bit confused. He was approving something that Salford Council had done? When did he last do that?
"An empty house is an abomination," he explained. "A person who owns a house and doesn't use it is a criminal. They should be in court! That property should be taken off them, no compensation. If you can't be a landlord, get out of the game!"
Ah, the message was a little clearer now. It wouldn't happen to Beau, he wouldn't do that. If he had a dwelling, he would rent it out, or improve it and sell it on. He would use the asset, make it pay. That's business.
People who own empty flats and houses are rank amateurs. They don't deserve sympathy or support.
"That's One," Mr Stule declared. "You with me so far?"
There was a roar of approval. Of course we are Beau, they beamed. We are your tribe now.
"So let's look at Two," he went on, getting into his stride. "I read that Council Officers in the north of the city have raided a house and found squalid sheds in the back garden. People were living in them. Families. They were small, no facilities. The Council has stepped in, found them inadequate and unsanitary and closed them down. You think I approve of that?"
The people sitting at the tables looked confused. Would he? Wouldn't he? They weren't sure.
They had the feeling it was a catch question.
"I sure as hell don't!" he yelled, looking round, letting it sink in. He paused.
"People need homes," he said at last. "They need a place to live. Any roof over their heads - whether it makes a mansion or a hovel - is better than sleeping in the rain. The Council supports that? Not at all! They say: Mansion or nothing!"
This was hard work, Mr Stule was thinking. It's as painful as pulling teeth. Damn, why do I have to explain myself so much?
"I'm here for the people," he stated, as though it was a new thought, something that nobody in the room would have thought of before. He wanted to make it his mantra, so he said it again. "I'm here for the poor, the destitute, the homeless. The jobless. You need a job? Well, it will be my job as Mayor to make you one. You need somewhere to live? It will be my job as Mayor of Greater Manchester to build more houses than ever before! And press the empty ones into service. And to turn all the derelict offices, factories, pavilions and sports halls into places to live. We need to all get behind this. Houses for people!"
They clapped that.
Beau went back on stage. He was nodding his head, accepting their approval, basking in their attention.
"We in the Business Party," he told them, voice low, the epitome of reasonableness, "are here for out community. We don't stand by and watch people drown!" They liked that. There had been floods at Christmas. It was awful.
He said: "The community suffers, we suffer. People cry out, we answer. Now, come on, people. Let's hear it."
There was a scuffle at the back of the room as a little delegation got organised, then, seeing his invitation, stepped up.
Beau made room for them on the stage. The four people, young and old, male and female, gazed nervously into the lights.
"Friends," he said, "tell us your troubles."
"Vandals burned down our church," one said hesitantly, and the audience growled.
It had been all over the News. A church in Broughton, which had survived for a hundred and fifty years, had suddenly succumbed to fire. It was deliberate, the police were saying. It was arson. The community had lost its centre.
Mr Stule, being dramatic, raised his right hand and extended it out sideways.
Melia followed his pointing and noticed, for the first time, that Merilynn Allbright was standing in the shadows, beside the stage.
Her? Madam's daughter. She seemed to have taken over her mother's role. Melia had made a statement to the police, reporting what she had seen, the P.R. guru being bundled into a car. Detectives had asked questions, but appeared satisfied.
She had 'gone back to America', they told Melia. It was nothing to worry about.
Beau didn't seem worried. He had a new Head of Public Relations. He carried on.
His hand was inviting. It was time.
Ms Allbright, right on cue, appeared out of the wings. She was clutching a plastic bucket. She held it up.
Mr Stule hadn't rehearsed this, but they had discussed it in depth. They knew what they were going to do.
"Don't worry," he told the grieving parishioners. "We are here for you. We are your aid."
Slowly, deliberately, Mr Stule put down the microphone. He reached into a pocket and brought out a fistful of coins. He clattered them into the bucket, taking his time, watching the reaction.
Again, he dug deep. Again the coins chimed.
Somebody, a long-time supporter, jumped up from their table, rushed forward and threw some paper in the bucket.
Beau smiled, ostentatiously reached into his jacket pocket, and pulled out a wallet.
He withdrew notes and added them to his donation. He was smiling, but staring at people, daring them to react.
One at a time, then more, people sitting down stood up. They rushed forward, like it was an old-time Revivalist meeting, down to the front. They put in their contributions and turned to accept the ovation. People were clapping, cheering.
The mood was euphoric.
Melia and Caulfield were standing at the back, beside the P.A. control desk. They had arrived in time to see this orchestrated charade. Caulfield was impressed. This man knows how to work a crowd, he was thinking.
A man in glasses, clutching his precious glass of free beer, turned, saw Caulfield and commented: "He used to be called Colin Stule. But he went to America and got involved in their kind of football. They started calling him 'Beau'. They did."
A woman, maybe his wife, turned to join in. "The American college girls noticed he was handsome," she said, as if there was a logical train of thought. "They have always said he made a good boyfriend."
Caulfield told them: "It's 2017. It's a hundred years since Lawrence of Arabia inspired the disparate tribes of the peninsula to revolt against their Turkish overlords."
Melia looked baffled. It's also a hundred years since the Russian Revolution, she was thinking, and a hundred years since the Germans launched unrestricted submarine warfare in the Great War, which brought the USA into the fray.
Caulfield know that, of course, but he was thinking about T.E.Lawrence and how B.W.Stule reminded him of that demagogue. They had both launched a movement, and Lawrence's initiative had changed that part of the world for ever.
Would Beau be just as 'successful', or, at least, as impactful?
The party was breaking up.
Merilynn Allbright was now taking the bucket around the tables, taxing all the attendees for a contribution. She was accompanied by the little party of distraught residents, who were only too willing to describe their latest disaster to disbelievers. People were intimidated and the collection bucket was filling, one pound at a time.
Mr Stule got off the low platform again, abandoned the microphone, and just started talking to people.
He's preaching to the converted, Melia was thinking, seeing the all too positive reactions he was getting.
Another young man came sidling up to her. He had the clean-cut look of an intern. He was glowing enthusiasm.
"We're moving up to the Gallery area on the second floor," he told Melia. He was looking at Caulfield too, as if he was invited, or maybe that Melia was allowed to go along with him as Caulfield was important enough to have the personal invitation.
She was puzzled. Was this the real gathering, upstairs? Was the ground floor for the plebs only?
"Wine," the youngster said, as if that explained things.
Ah, wine, Melia noted. Down here, beer.
The Gallery area on the second floor was being used for an exhibition. However, there were plenty of chairs and benches for people to sit down and socialise, so maybe having the pictures on the walls merely added to the ambience, Melia speculated.
The pictures were of breasts.
Women's breast, all shapes and sizes. The pictures were all big, poster size, some from ceiling to floor. Melia had no idea what the purpose of this titillating display was, but then, she hadn't read the artist's brochure.
All she knew, as she entered the double doors, was that there were a pair of clothes racks facing her, and a crudely written sign that said, in bold letters, 'Use our rack and show us your rack'.
That was very American!
It hadn't occurred to her that this 'exhibition' was going to be participative. But, looking around at the elegant young men and women sipping flute-like glasses of wine, she saw that most of the women were topless.
That's a little sexist, she was thinking, and somewhat demeaning.
Still, 'Art' had changed in recent years. It seemed like anything was possible these days. Especially nudity.
Melia hesitated, but Caulfield was a step behind her, and when she saw his discomfiture, confronted with the undressed, a wicked sense of mischief came over her. Slowly, provocatively, she removed her leather jacket, shirt and bra and hung them on a clothes hanger, then put it amongst the rest on the rack. She took a deep breath. It was strangely liberating.
Accepting a glass of wine from a young lady with a tray, she wandered along the wall, admiring the pictures.
Then stopped, brought up short.
Her cousin Liv was sitting on a bench by the window, in intense discussion with a strange young man.
That shouldn't be so surprising, Melia was thinking. Liv was based at the University, which was only a few hundred yards up Chapel Street, from where they were now. And she had always been interested in Modern Art, moved by its concerns.
Liv had entered into the spirit of the event and shed her upper garments. But then, she was clutching a baby to her bosom. Still, that was strange as she wasn't feeding it directly. She had a bottle of milk in one hand for the baby. She didn't have a spare hand for wine for herself. The young man held two glasses of wine. Maybe one of them was for his companion.
Melia paused. She hadn't seen Liv in weeks. She had no idea what she was up to. Should she approach?
Behind her, there was some fuss at the door.
Beau had arrived. He was talking to someone and didn't notice the decorations at first. But as soon as the huge photos impinged on his consciousness, his brow furrowed and he seemed uncomfortable. He started looking away, as if embarrassed.
"Whose bright idea was this?" he hissed at Merilynn Allbright, who was standing by the clothes rack, starting to disrobe.
Mr Stule spun on his heels and walked back into the corridor.
didn't approve of overt displays of sexuality.
(END of Chapter Two. More to follow.)
CHAPTER ONE: Poison on a plate
"Why here?" Mickey said irritably.
"We had to meet somewhere," Dr Jenner. "Somewhere public, central, near the centre of Manchester. Easily accessible by bus and train, public transport. And I wasn't going to go to your office, or your house. Sorry. I have to take precautions."
No, I mean why here, Mickey was thinking.
It wasn't the place agreed.
The Doctor had made a great fuss about the need he said to select a suitable venue, then invited Mickey to suggest a place. Mickey said Essy's Cafe, as it was a favourite haunt of his, and the man concurred. Then, when Mickey came walking up the street, he found Jenner waiting outside. He took Mickey's elbow and hustled him around the corner into another cafe, a dive called 'Miles'. A place, he later confirmed, that neither man had been to before. Ever.
"We talked on the phone," the Doctor said, his voice low and breathless as they walked.
That explained everything? Mickey didn't think so!
They talked, right. So that would mean someone would have to be listening in, if they were going to find out the planned rendezvous. Jenner's phone was bugged? Mickey was pretty sure his wasn't. After all, he had access to Terry at Regional Office. That man could make a brick talk. Or, if need be, he could encrypt a tabloid newspaper. He was good at such things.
"You're being overly cautious," Mickey suggested.
The Doctor didn't seem to think so. He said that he had evidence that his voice and e-mail were bugged. Well, Mickey couldn't wait. He wanted to see something definite. So far, this man had given him nothing.
It wasn't even a job!
Not that Mickey had a job at the moment, a 'proper' job. He'd given many years service in the defence of his country, but he was signed out and paid off, given a pension and a few discrete medals. Still, nobody ever retired from the Secret Service. Captain Gibson, his boss of many years, said that Mickey was 'on retainer'. That was the polite way of saying it.
Still, that meant assignments came and went, and Mickey reported for duty when ordered. In between, he was on his own.
Like now. This week he had been planning spending time with a paintbrush and some wallpaper, sprucing up his small house in North Salford. Then he got the mysterious telephone call. Dr Jenner introduced himself and said he was a 'friend of a friend'. He said that Mickey had been 'recommended'. He needed some help, evidently, and thought Mickey could obige.
Who had given him that idea? Mickey wondered, irritated again. The Doctor was being so secretive. He had said nothing definite, about that or any other details. He wanted to meet in person, he was insistent on that.
It would all be explained then, he assured Mickey.
Mickey should have made some excuse, he began thinking, immediately after. Still, he was intrigued. He had asked around at the office, and, surprise, surprise, Terry had heard of the man. He said he was 'Nobel Prize material'. An important researcher, with a reputation in the field of biotechnology. Terry had seen his articles on the internet. Jenner had written books.
Mickey took a seat in the corner of the cafe, away from the door, and accepted the offer of a frothy coffee. He sat and waited for the man to fetch it, and looked around. No one suspicious. No spies. No men in rain coats, glancing their way.
A quiet day in Manchester.
Mickey looked at Dr Jenner, as he struggled to find cash and pay for the goods. Typical absent-minded Professor. He had straggling hair, grey and unkempt. His suit was expensive, but worn, with stains along the lapels and under the pockets. He looked as though he slept in it. The man's skin was sallow, worn, as if he had spent time travelling in the Tropics.
Mickey sighed. What was he thinking of, agreeing to meet? It wouldn't end well.
It was nearly mid-day.
"I've taken the liberty of ordering you a sandwich," Jenner said quietly, as he sat down.
Mickey stared. He was hungry?
Mickey didn't usually bother about such things. He ate when he was hungry. Years of being away from home, working odd hourse, staying up late, he didn't bother with the niceties. He was touched. The man was trying to be thoughtful.
"Do you have any recording devices on your person?" Dr Jenner said, as if it was his usual conversation opener.
Mickey made a point of emptying his pockets. No, he said. This won't be recorded.
At least, he was thinking, until I've heard anything that is worth saving. I've heard nothing yet.
Jenner said: "You look like a policeman."
Mickey shrugged. He hadn't heard that. He was a big man, wide at the shoulders. People generally assumed he was some kind of mature sportsman, maybe someone who has left the sport of his choice and was now earning wages representing sporting goods companies, or commentating on the radio. He had a big smile when he found it. He was good with people, usually.
This wasn't one of those days.
Mickey decided to come straight to the point.
"Who put you on to me?" he asked the Doctor.
It had to be someone who had Mickey's private number, his home phone. Maybe a colleague.
Mickey stared. Then he took a breath. Then he counted to ten.
Dolf wasn't a colleague. Not any more. He had been sacked by Captain Gibson when the boss found out that Dolf had been selling secrets, betraying his country. In the old days, Dolf might have faced a firing squad.
"He's no friend of mine," Mickey said, struggling to keep calm.
"Strange. He said you were quite close."
Once. Maybe. They had worked together, during the election, the last General Election. It hadn't ended well.
"Sandwiches, gentlemen," a voice said.
Looking up, Mickey saw an older man standing over them, a plate in either hand. He was dressed in black and white.
"This, I think, is for you," he said to Jenner, proffering the plate. The Doctor nodded, so the chef put the other plate in front of Mickey and left, walking away, not looking back. He didn't seem interested in them, once the food had been supplied.
"What have you got?" Mickey asked, not really interested.
Jenner looked at Mickey, quietly, as if weighing him up. There was a pause.
Then he said, at last: "Do you mind if we swap?"
Mickey stared again. This is getting weirder, he was thinking.
He lifted the slab of white bread on his sandwich, suddenly keen to see what he might be losing. It was cheese and pickle. A favourite. How did the scientist know that? It couldn't be Dolf. Mickey had only started on cheese a few months ago, when Melia told him he was eating too much meat. She cared about him, she said. She didn't want him to face an early death.
"What have you got?" Mickey asked the older man again.
Mickey scowled. It might be a Northern delicacy, he was thinking, but he had never liked it.
"Let's get this straight," he said quietly. "You've never been in this place before, you say, and yet you think it's possible that the staff might have tried to poison your lunch. Your answer is to swap platters. That way, if they want to kill one of us, it ends up being me. You don't mind that? But you want my help in defending yourself against your enemies, somehow. Is that it?"
The researcher, having achieved the exchange, started biting at the cheese sandwich. He was chewing, but he nodded.
"You seriously think you're in danger?"
The Doctor put down the half-eaten morsel. "I know they're trying to poison me," he said.
Mickey had no reply to that. He took a bite. The meat wasn't half bad, or, at least, not as bad as he was expecting.
"What's in your water?" the scientist asked.
Mickey was taken aback. He looked at the table. He had been given a coffee, as asked for, and they had served him with a glass of water too. He looked around. That was common in Mediterranean countries. Was this cafe foreign?
"Tap water," Mickey said, guessing. "No worries. It's been filtered." He had no doubt about that.
Jenner nodded. "It might have gone through a carbon filter, to kill bacteria. It might have been dripped through sand, to removed larger particulates. It might even have endured ultra-violet light, U.V., too. This is Manchester, and one thing you can say about the area is that it's one of the few places in the country that doesn't add fluoride, so we know that. Also, this city gets water piped in from the Lake District, so it's hard water, less calcium than down south."
So? That all sounded good. Mickey wasn't being put off drinking it.
"You have a girlfriend?" the Doctor asked.
Mickey nodded. Melia. He had a relationship with Amelia Hartliss, a peer in the anti-terrorism unit that was WSB.
Jenner asked: "Is she taking birth control pills?"
Mickey chewed on his sandwich. Good question. He was the old-fashioned type, so it wasn't a subject he was happy to discuss with his lady. Still, he presumed she was. She was on the cusp of thirty, so young enough to have children.
He nodded. The Doctor smiled.
"The pills are full of hormones, female hormones like oestregen," he told the security agent. "She pees it out, it goes into the drain and that water is recycled and pumped back into the city's taps. They can't get the hormones out of the water. Or antibiotics that are fed to dairy cattle. Or run-off from farms, stuff like phosphates and nitrates. Additives."
Mickey raised a hand. Stop! Stop! He got the picture. He didn't think he would get the image out of his mind.
"You don't have that problem," he sneered.
Jenner looked down. He had a bottle of water in front of him. A bottle, Mickey noted. Was that safe?
"This water comes from Somerset," he said. He had brought it with him. It was the only stuff he would drink, he said. "The water is filtered through the limestone levels of the Mendip Hills. It takes a while to get through. The water in this bottle could be a thousand years old, old enough to miss out on all of the modern contaminants. Yes, it's safe."
"I know you."
Mickey looked up. A new figure had arrived, even more haggard and bedraggled than Jenner, with a whispy beard. He was staring at the two men, and his eyes were wild and dilated. He looked quite mad. He looked ready to attack.
Dr Jenner gasped, pushed back his chair against the wall and looked about to flee, but he couldn't: his path was blocked.
He was spooked, panicking. He grabbed at his cutlery, brushing the plates aside, as if looking for a weapon.
Oh great, Mickey was thinking. He's going to stab this tramp with a fork.
Mickey sighed, wondering what he was going to do next.
Yeah, well, one promise is as good as another -
We did say that most of the chapters would be available, above, but November is a fast-moving month, and well, the book got written before the content got uploaded here. Sorry.
The truth is that the whole book- 'Jennercide' - is indeed up on Amazon and Kindle now, so if you go there you can find it, all right. Click here.
But the truth is -
Oh, yeah. I said that.
No, the real truth is that some people are more equal than others, (as George Orwell said), and you could keep coming back here looking for new free chapters and they might be here.
Or they might not.
The only way to ensure you actually see them, regularly, as they are written, is to join the Mailing List.
That way, I write to YOU, maybe once a week, and send the new chapters direct, no interference, no messing. No waiting, and no let downs.
All you need to do is fill in the form below.
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Okay, you're taking a chance, I grant you that. I could be a mass murderer, or I might come round to your house and kidnap your dog or swallow your goldfish. I might tell the neighbours you're unreliable, or put paint on your lawn. On the other hand, I might simply add your name to a growing bunch of wise people who haven't got time to waste on surfing, and can see the sense in making me do all the work.
Plus, you get my promise: I won't be selling your email address to hair product manufacturers, and I won't bother you with endless sales letters.
What you will get is a weekly note, probably at the weekend, and it will contain some free stuff, like a new chapter, or a link to a video, an article or a song.
All the stuff will be ahead of time: you will get to see it, before anyone else. Anyone.
If you're interested, scroll down to the link below and become my pen pal.
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