Vickery was gently brushing the slivers of glass from the ancient rug – once the prized possession of that great mogul, Sila of Puafisi – into a gilded dustpan. The ageing retainer sighed. “I venture to suggest sir, though I know little of these things, that your accuracy is somewhat better than that of Mr Twelvetrees.” The empty bottle of Chateau Bastareaud ’83 had struck -the middle of what was once an 84” wrap-around Sonofsamsung TV screen and was now just a sad jumble of glass shards intermingled with a tangle wires and electronic components
Baz was rubbing the top of his foot. The luxurious Bortolami snakeskin slippers had afforded little in the way of protection. Baz grimaced. “That was my left boot as well. Perhaps they should have brought me on as kicker.” Another defeat. Five straight losses now.
“If I may say so, it is a most desultory start to the festive season, sir.” sympathised Vickery.
Baz drained the last drops of wine from his glass. “I can’t sit here twiddling my fingers while Glaws might be looking at a relegation battle at the end of the season.”
Vickery coughed politely. “I find it hard to see what might be done sir. I was reading that clever Mr Sannox’s gossip column in The Tatler this week. At the end of the piece he says that Gloucester are paying up to the salary cap.”
Baz snorted derisivelty. “Most of the clubs are. Except for Sarries, of course. Lord knows how they manage to get 23 internationals into their academy team.” He corrected himself. “Well, of course, we do know. If they published that PRL report, I reckon that Sarries would be forced into relegation and Gloucester would be safe for another year.”
“I understand sir, that OG has organised an on-line petition, suggesting that the report should be published, but it garnered very little support.”
Baz sneererd. “OG is a naïve fool. What good has signing a petition ever done? Action is what is needed. Action!” Baz turned on his heel and stared out through the French doors into the darkness beyond. “ Tell Camilla and Stephanie I need them in the war-room at 9.00 on Tuesday morning. OG too. And you might see if Smirkey is available. Someone has to get a grip on all this.”
The scene was the war-room (which, as Fumblings aficionados will well know, was once the old dairy, before being converted into a recording studio when the old house was briefly in the hands of that popular Irish crooner, Bono). Baz was pacing up and down. Pinned to one wall was a series of blueprints. At the top was printed “TOP SECRET – PLANS OF PRL HEADQUARTERS, TWICKENHAM.” Baz was jabbing at the wall with the pointy end of a billiard cue.
“As you can see ladies and gentlemen, security at the site is as tight as Andy Powell at the wheel of a golf buggy. The perimeter fence is completely electrified – touch that and there is going to be no RCD between you and a very frank discussion with your maker.”
Baz moved the cue along the wall. “At each corner of the security fence there are watch-towers, manned by armed guards, all of them equipped with night-vision glasses. Once you get into the compound there are more guards accompanied some very unfriendly mutts. If you managed to do that you would still have to get through the alarmed steel security shutters. We believe the report is being held in this vault – here.” He prodded towards a spot at the centre of the plan. “Behind 24 inches of armour plate. “
OG whistled through his teeth. “It’s not going to be possible is it.”
Camilla shook her curly auburn locks. “We’ve got as much chance of getting in there as we have of spotting Prince Andrew at a “Grab-a-Granny night at the Moomoo Clubrooms.”
Stephanie blew gently on her fingernails which she had just finished painting. “I’m with Cammie. We get near that place and we’re dead meat.”
“You could all just sign my petition instead,” ventured OG. The others said nothing, gave him withering looks.
Baz banged the table with his fist. “There is one way we can get in there.” He nodded to Vickery and an image came up on the video screen behind him. It was a security van on the side of which was the name of the company – ‘CVC Capital Partners’.
Baz continued. “This is the van that delivers the cash to PRL every Tuesday at noon. All we have to do is to get our own vehicle, paint it up and in we go.”
“Hold on,” interjected Camilla, “Won’t they be the teensiest bit suspicious when two vans show up?”
Baz held up his hand. Vickery could you patch in Professor Halfway please.” Up on the screen flashed the unmistakable figure of the teenage genius, complete with his signature bright orange hoodie and skateboard shorts.
It was Johnny Halfway who spoke “Awrigh’ Baz my bro. Haw ya doin’?”
“I’m doing very well thank you Johnny. Look, let’s cut to the chase. I believe you put the Recycling Transmission Sequencer, RTS, into hibernation after that brilliant attack on the Bath Message Board, but I understand that you have been trialling it again of late.”
Johnny Halfway tugged at the peak of his baseball cap. “S’right. We is just tweakin’ it a bit to make it a bit more convincing innit.”
Baz nodded approvingly. “That’s excellent Johnny, but tell me can it be used to hack into traffic signal systems?”
“No bovver bruv. A couple of lines of code and we is in. “
“So you would be able, for argument’s sake, to control all the traffic lights between Swindon to Twickenham so that it could delay a particular vehicle for an hour or more? And would you be able to disable any mobile phones carried inside that vehicle.”
Johnny grinned “For sure innit.”
Baz turned to the group in the room. “So, we’re on?”
Camilla and Stephanie nodded cautiously, but OG broke in. “I still think a petition….”
Camilla picked up her empty coffee cup and threw it towards OG. “We are ALL in!”
Baz smiled. “Excellent now all we have to do is….”
He was interrupted by a buzzer coming from the screen by the door. Smirkey’s face was looking up expectantly in to the camera lens. Baz nodded to Vickery. “You’d better let him in.”
Into the room ambled a pudgy figure in tweeds, absent-mindedly polishing his spectacles on his tie. He looked around disinterestedly at the blueprints on the wall. “You asked to see me Baz?”
Baz took Smirkey’s hand and pumped it. “It’s good to see you Smirkey. But I fear I have brought you out here on a wild-goose chase. I think we already have everything covered.”
Smirkey withdrew his hand from Baz’s grip. “So what’s afoot?”
Baz gave a sympathetic smile. “Really Smirky, I don’t think you need to be any part of this. The fewer people who know about it, the better for all concerned.”
Smirkey looked injured. “Well, if that’s the way it’s got to be Baz, I understand of course. I’ll be in touch.”
Baz waved as Smirkey turned and walked out of the room. Baz was faintly troubled by Smirkey’s reaction, but resumed his peroration. “So to disguises….”
* * *
Camilla, Baz could see, was tense and she gripped the wheel of the security van as it approached the guardhouse. Baz took a deep breath, wound down the window and gestured to the guard. “Watcha. We’re here with some more of the… investment.”
The guard signalled to Baz to switch off the engine and then walked around the vehicle, inspecting it. Baz could feel his stomach knot. When they had picked up the van from the spray shop the previous day, he noticed that in the right light you could still see the outline of the previous sign, ‘Burns Bros Builders (no job too small).’ Still the old van had been rusting on the far side of the south lawn, ever since the two Burns boys had abandoned the site to “go travelling” and it had seemed the obvious candidate for a make-over.
In the back of the van, Stephanie squeezed OG’s hand. His nervousness was irritating her, but she tried not to show it. She cooed at him. “Don’t worry, when we are back at the house, I’ll run you a nice relaxing bath and then you can have a massage.”
OG looked at her expectantly. “Really?”
Sophie smiled and nodded. “In your dreams,” she thought to herself.
There was a bang on the rear door and Sophie opened it. There was the guard with Baz standing behind him. The guard looked at the large cardboard boxes and the hastily scribbled labels on the sides. “Fifties”, “Twenties”, ”Krugerands”.
Stephanie gave the guard a winning smile. If he looked inside those boxes the game would have been up. Her rented security guard’s uniform was at least a size too small and the guard gave a lascivious glance at the heaving buttons on her jacket. She undid the top two and whispered something in his ear. The guard blushed and then waved at them to close the door again. They heard an indistinct shout and the van started to move off.
OG looked at her quizzically. “What did you say?”
Stephanie coquettishly placed the sip of her forefinger against her temple. “I just asked him if he had a sister as good looking as him.”
Baz glanced across at Camilla as they approached the main building and its reinforced steel shutters. “Steady as she goes” he muttered under his breath. They must have been expected for as they got within twenty metres of the entrance the roller shutter was raised by some invisible hand and they drove right into the heart of the beast’s lair.
Numerous faceless operatives were scurrying around the place, carrying invoices, media contracts, press releases, social media briefings – all the essential materiel of a grassroots sporting organisation. Baz waved at a passing managerial-type, distracted as he typed an urgent reply to a tweet on his phone. “Excuse me. We’re delivering the CVC money. Where should it go?”
Irritated at being distracted from his work, the shirt-sleeved manager looked up. “Stick it in the vault with all the rest. You know the combination, right?”
Baz shook his head. “I’m new – only started this week.”
“It’s, one, eight, six, five.”
“Cheers!” Baz thought he recognised those digits. Then her remembered the last time he had been thrown out of the Wreck, he had tried to blag his way into members’ lounge– the 1865. Still, there was no time to dwell on this.
The manager pointed towards the corner of the loading bay, where a large steel door stood before the entrance to the vault. Baz jumped out of the van and whispered to Camilla. “Back it up to the door – that way we stay out of sight.”
Baz tapped the numbers on the keypad next to the vault and he heard the door click. He heaved the door open, revealing an Aladdin’s cave of treasure. There were boxes and boxes of money in currencies, Euros, Rand, Australian dollars – money from every rugby-playing country in the world. There were signed England shirts by the box-load and Six Nations tickets in overflowing bin-bags. Even Baz was impressed. The others jumped out of the van and scrambled into the vault. They were stunned by the display of largesse.
Baz roused them from their reverie. “Come on! We need to find the dossier.”
It took them five minutes to find the folder marked “Highly Confidential – Report into Saracens Salary Cap Breaches.” Baz flicked the pages over one by one. As he did so Camilla snapped each page of the report on her phone. After the last page was turned, Camilla hurriedly slipped the file back onto the shelf. Then she froze.
“I’ll take that please Miss Camilla.” It was a familiar voice. She turned and saw a middle-aged pudgy figure, absent-mindedly polishing his spectacles on his tie.
For a moment all four of them were dumbfounded. It was Baz who spoke first. “Smirkey!” What the hell?”
“I’m sorry Baz. I can’t let you do this.”
“I can’t believe that you, you of all people.”
“Baz you have to realise that there is more at stake here than an even playing-field between sides or even Gloucester facing relegation – if it came to that.”
Baz could not disguise the contempt in his voice. “What in the world could be more important than that?”
Smirkey spoke with surprising patience. “I’m afraid it is a matter of national security.”
“Go on I’m all ears.” As they all looked at Smirkey expectantly, Camilla turned away and discretely plunged her hand beneath the waistband of her black combat trousers.
Smirkey replaced his spectacles, pushing them up his nose until Baz was back in focus. “Very well. I will explain. You know that for years Moscow has been trying to undermine the oligarch community in this country – to the point of murdering a number of them.” He waited for them to acknowledge his point and then continued. “Well it is in our interests that the oligarchs remain an irritant to the Russian government. It is an enormous distraction for their security services. Moscow would like to see them all dead of course, or failing that, ruined financially.”
Baz shook his head uncomprehendingly. “What on earth can that have to do with this Saracens salary cap business.”
“Well you see Baz, nobody quite realised how far the co-investment scheme had gone. It far exceeds what you may have seen in the press. Now if this got out and they were forced to disinvest from all those property deals, it would be enough to cause a sudden glut in the market – particularly around Mayfair and Belgravia.”
Baz still couldn’t see where all this was going “And….?”
Smirkey gave a mirthless smile. “And our oligarch friends have most of their money tied up in property. The effect would be ruinous. Most of them would be on the streets. And we would lose a major weapon in our armoury against our Russian opponents. We can’t allow that to happen.”
Baz was still not won over. “So you are going to let the co-investments continue and for the cap to be flouted?”
“It gives me no pleasure to do this Baz.” He looked to his left. “Miss Camilla, I will have your phone now please.” At that same moment two ugly looking security guards appeared and flanked Smirkey. One was holding a taut leash at the other end of which was a slavering Rottweiler.
Reluctantly Camilla handed him her phone. Smirkey slipped it into his pocket. “I’ll have the memory card too if you please?”
Camilla feigned ignorance. “It doesn’t have one.”
Smirkey shrugged. “These micro SD cards are so easy to conceal. I’m afraid if you don’t hand it over I will have to ask one of these gentlemen…” he pointed to the guards. “…to look for it.”
The guard with the dog gave a filthy laugh. Sensing his handlers’ excitement, the Rottweiler gave a guttural snarl. The guard gave a tug on the leash. “Steady Dimes, steady.”
Reluctantly, Camilla fished deep inside the front of her trousers and pulled out a tiny memory card. She handed it towards Smirkey, who, out of delicacy, indicated that she should give it to the guard.
Baz tried to keep the anger out of his voice. “What now? We disappear I suppose?”
Smirkey looked genuinely hurt. “Baz, how could you say that. You are one of my oldest friends. I’m sure that in time we will put all this behind us. We will just take custody of your vehicle and give you a ride out into the countryside. You can find your way back to Gloucestershire from there.”
It was nearly midnight. Rain was falling steadily and the little company were trudging miserably along a dark country lane. The PRL had confiscated their phones and their money. Hitching was the only option available to them. Rainwater was leaking into their shows and down the insides of their collars.
As they began to give up all hope, from behind them they heard the low growl of engine noise. In the darkness the sound could have been an enormous biker gang, all on Harley Davidsons. The group turned as one to see just a pair of headlights heading towards them. The growl grew louder and louder. OG thought he could feel the tarmac vibrating beneath his feet. Slowly, majestically, a long sleek black 1955 Cadillac Eldorado drew up next to them. Baz sidled over to the passenger window as it was wound slowly down. Baz suddenly drew back in surprise. From inside the vehicle came a familiar cackle.
“Ha ha ha. Well stick me on a corner-post with a flag on it. If it ain’t old Baz. What you doin’ all the way out here in the middle of the flamin’ night?”
Baz tried to recover some of his poise. “Old Crone!” he stuttered. “Look, as you can see, we’re a bit stuck…”
“’Oo is it?” came a phlegmatic voice from the driver’s seat.”
The driver flicked on the courtesy light and Baz could see a red-faced fellow of advancing years, sporting a splendid set of mutton chop whiskers. He was wearing a shiny double-breasted dinner jacket, whose shoulders were neatly flecked with a generous dusting of dandruff.
“Oh Mutey, it’s that nice Mr Baz. You know the one ‘oo lives over at the Fumblings.” Mutey grunted something. She turned back to Baz. “Me and Mutey have been the RFU County Chairmen’s Ladies’ Night. Ever so posh it was. Mutey got me this lovely new frock.”
Baz looked closer and saw that she was wearing what looked like a negligee with a few sequins sewn on?”
Baz was all diplomacy. “Um it looks very nice. Look we couldn’t trouble you for a lift could we? We’re a bit stuck?”
“You can all just f*** off!” came the peremptory reply from the driver’s side.
“Take no notice of him” cackled the Banshee, “It’s just ‘is way of being friendly. You all climb in.” She pointed to OG. “Young man, you get in the front here between me and Mutey and we can keep each other warm. Watch old Mutey’s hands though, he sometimes misses the gearstick.”
It was the longest journey of OG’s life, but now he found himself in the warmth and comfort of Baz’s study with a glass of McRae’s 25 Year Old Speyside Malt cradled in his hand. Baz was grinning. He turned to Camilla and gave her a rueful look. “Are you ready to hand it over?”
Before she could answer, Stephanie spoke. “I think she might need some help, isn’t that right Cammie?” Stephanie gave Camilla a knowing look. Camilla said nothing but nodded enthusiastically.
Baz sighed and motioned to OG. “We’d better go into the drawing room. This could take some time.”
Baz and OG sat before the open fire in the drawing room, refilling their glasses with whiskey, saying nothing, enjoying the shared silence. Suddenly there was a loud groan from down the hall. The two men ran out of the drawing room and burst through the study door. Stephanie was still on her knees. Camilla was lying next to her on the sofa, her hair dishevelled, her face flushed, still breathing heavily.
Baz looked eagerly at Stephanie. “Have you got it?”
Stephanie unclenched her fist and there in the palm of her hand was a tiny electronic device. It was a prototype developed just that year by the boffins over at the Bazsoft labs in California – the smallest body-worn memory card reader in existence – codename, The Faniskanner (Mk 1).
Baz grinned and saluted his comrades by raising his whisky glass. “So we have it. Well done everyone. What was it the man said? Publish and be damned!”
Then Baz thought of his old friend in the tweed suit, polishing away at his spectacles. Could it really be as easy as all that?