Episode 3 – Lockdown
Lance recognised the knock at the door, two short ones followed by a longer one, a beat and a half later. He knew his visitor never waited to be called and Lance had just enough time to slip his cherished copy of The Boys’ Big Rugby Annual 1974 under the stack of buff-covered files on the desk. The door handle turned and the CEO sat up in his chair, affecting a look of puppy-dog eagerness.
His visitor bustled into the room and planted a Sainsbury’s shopping bag and planted it on one of the two directors’ chairs that had been placed in front of the desk. Each chair had the same name stencilled onto the back – “Mike”. MSQ sat down in the free chair. “Morning boss!” said Lance brightly, “What’s new?”
MSQ did not return the greeting. “I’m putting together an inventory, for… ahem.. insurance purposes. I’m also removing any valuable items for security reasons, so they don’t go missing during the lockdown.” MSQ picked up the shopping bag and rattled it. “I’ve already emptied the trophy room and I’m just checking all the offices to make sure I haven’t missed anything.”
Lance nodded. “Nothing in here boss.”
“What about all this stuff?” He pointed to the extensive array of framed signed shirts around the wall.
Lanced held his hand up defensively. “Those are all mine. I brought them from home when I moved in here. All except that one.” Lance pointed to a frame at the far end of the office.
“What on earth is that? It looks like an ancient slingshot of some sort.”
Lance looked up at the dirty grey jockstrap. “It’s the last thing we have of Mike Teague’s. He took all of the shirts and caps and left us with that. I think he was trying to send us a message.”
MSQ grunted. Then something on Lance’s desk caught his eye. It was a silver figure atop what looked to be a large pencil sharpener. The figure was a rugby player in the throes of passing to an unseen team-mate. MSQ picked it up “What’s this?” He looked closer and saw an inscription. To my bud, from your homey, Danny. Thanks for always being in my corner, man.
MSQ weighed the figure in the palm of his hand. It was heavy. He unscrewed the figure from the top of the sharpener, reached inside his pocket and pulled out a jeweller’s glass. He put the glass to his right eye and scrutinised the base of the metal figure. He tutted, then mumbled to himself, something that sounded to Lance like “Nickel-pated” and he threw the little rugby player back onto the table.
MSQ squinted at Lance. “So nothing else here of value?” He pointed to the desk. “Nothing in the drawers?” Lance shook his head. MSQ sighed disappointedly. “Well I’d better be off…time and tide..”.
“Um before you go…” ventured Lance, “I need your signature on something.”
MSQ sighed. “Make it quick. I want to get back in time for Cash in the Attic.”
Lance went over to a stack of cardboard, bankers’ boxes, lifted the lid off one and started rummaging through it. “Ah, here we are.”. He fished out a short, wide notebook, the shape and size of a letterbox. MSQ was puzzled. It was way too small for a ledger or a sealing book. Lance placed it on the desk and held out a pen. On the leatherette cover was embossed Autographs – St. to Su. A page had been marked with a sliver of a Post-it Note and Lance turned to it. “If you wouldn’t mind signing there – just below Philippe Saint-André.”
MSQ was about to thrown the pen back on the desk, but then relented and started to make his mark. “Just how many of these books have you got in those boxes?” he asked casually.
Lance looked pleased at MSQ’s sudden expression of interest. “Two hundred and forty three, last time I counted.” He beamed. “They are my pride and joy. I’ve been collecting them since I was seven.”
MSQ stroked his nose thoughtfully. “And worth quite a bit by now I should have thought.”
Camilla and Stephanie, squeezed up together on the plush George Skivington sofa. It was the week of “Matso”, the Matson Contemporary Dance and Cider Festival, cancelled this year because of the virus, but the BBC was broadcasting highlights of some of the best acts of the last 12 years. Stephanie couldn’t repress a squeal as Lauren Laverne announced the big act from 2016 – “Guys, we always save the best until last, but this year is very special indeed. Let’s give it up in the way that only Matso can for… BAMPTON MORRIS!”. The producer cut away from the host, to a drone-shot of tens of thousands of fans swarming towards the front of a giant stage. Massive TV screens showed sixteen men running onto the stage, all stripped to the east, their muscles rippling, white handkerchiefs tied to their wrists, bells jangling at their ankles.”
Stephanie nudged Camilla. “I like the look of your two.”
Camilla smirked, emptied a glass of Basteraud ’82 in one gulp and held out her glass to Vickery for another.
Baz gave her a baleful look. “Christ, that’s three hundred quid a bottle and you’re knocking it back like its Prosecco.” He turned to his butler, “How much have we got left Vickery?”
“I believe sir this was the first bottle from the last case.”
Baz gripped the arm of his chair in horror. “But we still had fifty cases at lockdown. We can’t have drunk 600 bottles?”
Vickery corrected him, “Five hundred and eighty nine to be precise sir.”
“Alright, five hundred and eighty nine then.”
Vickery raised an eyebrow. “I’m rather afraid you have sir. Not to mention all the Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque champagne AND the last case of McCrae’s 25 year-old Speyside Malt AND all the 1963 Cockburn’s Port.”
OG momentarily roused himself from his drunken semi-slumber on the other side of the room “It was bloody good stuff though.”
Baz was aghast. “So what is left down there?”
“The last time I looked sir, half a bottle of Advocaat, a barely touched bottle of ouzo and a bottle which has lost its label, but rather smells like cherry brandy, but could easily be Ribena.”
“Good heavens Vickery, why on earth haven’t you restocked? Get on the phone to Marshall and Woodward immediately and order some more.”
“I’m afraid sir, our account has been suspended.” Vickery gave Baz a withering look. “As has our account with Banahan the Butcher.”
Baz closed his eyes and let out a deep silent breath. So it was come to this. They couldn’t even pay their butchers’ bill. Baz thought of his old mum in Matson, scraping together the coppers out of her battered biscuit tin to buy Baz and his dad a scrag end of lamb for their Sunday lunch. How the wheel had turned.
Baz was a multi-millionaire no longer. The Bazsoft factory was based in Wuhan and for six months production had stopped completely. Tens of thousands of Son of Samsung phones had been impounded by the Chinese authorities in lieu of unpaid tax. The Bazsoft share-price had gone through the floor and the banks had quickly turned their backs on him.
His beloved house, his last real financial asset, was now up for sale, but his agent, Seville’s, hadn’t had a sniff of interest. The world’s billionaires had retreated to their private bunkers on their Caribbean islands and had no interest in coming to live, even for part of the year, in one of the most infected countries in the world.
Baz tried to choke back his emotions, but it was too much. “Chrisy. What the hell is to become of us?”
Steph tried to cheer him up. “Look we could try and save a little money on the heating if you want. Cammie and I could move into your room with you. That old four poster must be big enough for the three of us.”
Baz waved his hand dismissively. “It would save just a few pounds possibly, not enough to…” But then he stayed himself. “You know what Steph? If you’re prepared to put up with that kind of hardship, just to try and save this old place, then it would be beyond churlish for me to refuse that kind of offer.”
OG suddenly perked up. “I say, would it be helpful if I moved in as well?”
“NO!” chorused Baz, Stephanie and Camilla together.
At the back of the old cave at the end of the deep fissure on the other side of Painswick Beacon Mutey was stretched out on a pile of old blankets. He was struggling to breathe and was sweating profusely. Every few minutes great eruptions of coughing would wrack his entire body.It was clear that Mutey was dying.
With a superhuman effort he managed to summon the breath to call out to the Banshee. “My love,” he croaked, “my love, I must speak to you.”
The Banshee put down her large ladle next to the cauldron and bustled over to him. “’Ow you doin’ Mutey?”
“I feel terrible, so terrible,” he whispered. “I think I am done for.”
The Banshee smiled. “That’s excellent. ‘Ow long do you think you’ve got?”
“I don’t know. A few hours at the most.”
The Banshee patted his hand. “Not to worry then. Still plenty of time.”
The crone returned to her fire and her cauldron and started whistling merrily to herself. “Now then where is it?” she reached up onto a high shelf a brought down an old Branston Pickle jar. It was stuffed with hundred small, pale jelly-like globules. Eyes of Newt – a standard of every wise woman’s store cupboard. She took two of the small globes and threw them into the mixture. There was a great eruption of smoke accompanied by green flames.
Mutey suddenly cried out again. “Good God, what is that evil stench?”
The Banshee soothed him “Oh this? It’s Charlie by Revlon, I got it from the perfume counter in Poundland in the Eastgate.”
Mutey gasped, “Not that! What you’re cooking?”
The Banshee cooed. “This my little Blazered Beauty is our future.” She ladled a little of the mixture into a battered old enamel cup, blew on it several times and took it over to where Mutey lay dying. “Now get your laughing gear around that my love.”
She poured a little of the liquid onto his dry, broken lips and allowed it to seep into his mouth. Suddenly Mutey’s body started to shudder and then it went into huge deep convulsions. His fingers were bent down to his toes – something that hadn’t happened for more than thirty years. Then he gave out a long, slow, guttural rattle.
Then he sighed. Then he smiled. “Oh my word, that’s better!”
Four days later, Mutey was breathing heavily as he returned to the family hovel fresh from his 10k run. The Banshee was cackling over her lap-top. On YouTube two billion viewers had already watched Mutey rise from his death bed. News organisations around the world were now describing him as The Modern Lazarus.
“It’s all done my love!”
Mutey removed his earbuds. Wagner’s Ring Cycle was still hissing away. “What is?”
The Banshee pointed to the email on her screen. “Just got the okay from Humphreys, Ackermann and Vaughan, our New York lawyers. We’ve got the worldwide patent on the antidote. “
Pulling off his Cipriani running top, sniffed at it then mopped his brow with it. “What does that mean?”
“It means my old beauty that we are rich – rich beyond our wildest dreams. The lawyers have already got emails from all the big pharma companies, offering us royalties on every tablet they sell.”
Mutey grinned. “Did I ever tell you that you’re a VERY wise woman, Carol?”
“Our family’s womenfolk have been wise for centuries. Two hundred years ago old Jenner took all the credit for Old Mother Banshee’s work. It ain’t ‘appening this time.”
Mutey took a deep refreshing draught from a delightfully chilled bottle of Tom Oliver’s At the Hop Cider and smacked his lips.
The Banshee cackled. “As soon as I known there was bits of bat in the virus I knew all you had to do was add a touch of eye of newt. It’s Wise Woman 1.01. all the way from old Bill Shakespeare’s time. And when you went down with the virus Mutey, it was the best thing that could have happened to us. You were my little guinea pig my love.”
Mutey slipped of his skimpy Hohneck running shorts and wiped under his arms. “Oh I do love you Carol.” He kissed her gently below her moustache. Then he looked down and smiled. “Now there’s an unexpected side-effect.”
* * *
Three hours later, Mutey was lying naked, puffing on a large Montecristo cigar. The Banshee was sucking contentedly on her clay pipe. Both were in a state of post-coital bliss. She stroked at some of the long grey hairs that covered his entire body. “Mutey…”
“Do you know that village Lower Downe on the other side of the A40 towards Stowe?”
“I think so.”
“There’s a big ‘ouse there called Fumblings. It’s up for sale.”
“Can we go and ‘ave a look?”
Mutey tickled the extensive ginger thatch below her abdomen. “Anything for you my love.”
[TO BE CONTINUED]
Episode 2 – French Leave (Part 1)
OG was in the dining room staring bleary eyed at his laptop screen as Camilla sashayed past him, brushing his arm with the folds of her newly-acquired Louis Rees Zammit satin shirt. “Shit!” he muttered to himself.
Camilla plucked a sugared almond from the silver filigree dish on the side board. She popped it into her mouth and then licked the dusting of icing sugar from the tips of her fingers and licked her lips. “What’s the matter humble scribe? Minecraft down again?”
OG looked up from the screen. “Very funny. No, tickets for the Matson Contemporary Dance and Cider Festival went on sale a five o’clock this morning. I’ve been on-line for six hours and I’m still number 176,937 in the queue.”
Camilla raised an eyebrow. “Matso’s going to be busy this year then?”
OG nodded, “It’s busier because they had one of their fallow years last summer. They do it every so often to give the sheep a chance to recover.”
Suddenly a lightbulb appeared to switch on in OG’s head. “Hey, didn’t your cousin… what’s her name – perform last time with Les Danseurs du Clog de Toulouse?
“Oh you mean, Maxime? No she got married last year to a very bright young chap, Jean. They moved to an old farmstead that he found up in Normandy. Reckons he can bring some stuff he learned at agricultural college to the local cider-making business. I’ve been giving them a little pro bono advice.”
OG scoffed. “What on earth do you know about cider-making.”
Camilla gave a dismissive smile. “Oh you haven’t heard then?”
Camilla pointed a long, slender finger to her chest. “I… have been chosen as the Face of Tom Oliver’s for 2020.”
OG whistled through his teeth. “Tom Oliver. The best cider-maker on the planet. Winner of numerous gold awards and potential sponsor of my new web-site?”
“The very same. And they’ve had me in for a few late-night pressings in the cider-shed. So, actually I have do quite a bit of experience in the business. In fact, they’re sponsoring Matso this year and I will be in the Media Centre with Jo Whiley and Lauren Laverne.”
OG could feel himself going green with envy, but tried to recover. “We’ll see each other though? We’ll be camping together?”
“Afraid not. I’ll be in the glamping yurt, with Stephanie.”
OG went for bust. “Would there be room for one more?”
“Certainly not. We have plans. Girls-only plans.”
OG felt a tinge of spitefulness flood through his veins. “And what about that chap you were seeing from Cirencester – just a hetero front I suppose?”
“Oh Charlie you mean? – that’s just a casual thing. Anyway, I’ve decided I’m pansexual”.
At that moment Baz strolled into the room in his elegant Mostert and Grobler dressing gown. He’d clearly overheard the last part of their conversation. “I invented that word.”
Camilla and OG looked at him expectantly as if to say “What word?”
“Pansexual – I invented it in 1982… at a Top of the Pops Reunion Party.” He glanced at Camilla, hopefully. “I don’t suppose they’re coming to Matso this year?”
* * *
“Bloody, bloody, bloody hell!” shouted Baz as he stormed down the only platform at the tiny railway station, somewhere in southern Normandy. “Bloody French train-drivers!”
At Gare du Nord, Baz and Camilla had been told that the way of reaching the game during the current strike was to take a train to Alencon and change from there to Toulouse. But at the sleepy hamlet of Philippe St André, the train had been forced to stop as 200 protesting strikers blocked the track ahead with piles of burning tyres and remaindered copies of Jacques Brunel’s autobiography. The driver had marched from his cab giving his passengers a friendly two-fingered wave as he headed to the station bar for a restorative Calvados or five.
Baz turned to Camilla, “Have you any idea where we are?”
Camilla checked the maps on her phone. “Actually, that’s remarkable. We are not far from Maxime’s place. According to this, she’s about five kilometres away. I could give them a call and see if they could put us up for the night and we could try and get the train down tomorrow. That would still give us two days before the game.”
Baz grunted his agreement. Camilla called her cousin. “Maxie, bonjour… Are you okay?… You sound different…. No okay… well we are stuck at Philippe St André station at the moment and we can’t get out until tomorrow… Could you? … That would be fantastic. Thirty minutes… see you then.”
* * *
In the back of the battered old 2CV van, bits of old chicken wire and curious lengths of rubber tubing whipped at Baz’s face as they careered around the bends of the narrow roads leading to the farm and Camilla tried to chat away in the front. Maxime was uncharacteristically quiet she thought.
Baz’s trip could not have got off to a worse start. “Are we nearly there yet?” he bleated.
They turned off down a rutted track at the end of which was an old farmhouse from pre-revolutionary times. Large areas of brick were revealed by the crumbling stucco and parts of the roof had been patched with tarpaulin. Old copies of L’Equipe had been stuffed into the gaps between the window frames and the walls. Baz didn’t think his heart could have sunk any deeper, but somehow it did.
Inside, the farmhouse was even more shabby than the exterior, with wallpaper hanging from the cracked plaster and threadbare carpets revealing old wormy floorboards. Jean came out to greet them. Was this really the same person who Camilla had met at the wedding? Instead of the strapping young man, straight out of agricultural college, here was a broken figure, hunched, unshaven with deep dark bags under his eyes.
“Welcome both of you” he rasped. “I’m so pleased you could come. Can I offer you a glass of cider?”
Maxime interrupted, “Jean no… I think.”
Camilla held up her hand. “No, I’d love one. Just the thing after our journey” She turned to Baz. “You’d like one too wouldn’t you Baz?”
Baz hesitated, but accepted. Jean pouted a glass of thick orange liquid into a jam jar and proffered it to Baz. Baz took the jar and sniffed at it. Closing his eyes he took a gulp. “Jesus Christ!” he spluttered as he sprayed Jean with offending juice. “What the hell is that?”
Jean’s chin sunk even deeper into his chest. “Maxime, it is no use. Not even the English can drink this.”
Camilla took her cousin by the shoulders. “Maxime, what is going on here?”
Maxime couldn’t help herself. Her explanation was interspersed with deep, breathless sobs. “When we arrived here, the old cistern up the hill that we rely on for water for the apple trees was brimming with clear spring water. Now when we go to look, there is barely a puddle and even that little bit smells like the devil himself had put it there.”
“We cannot survive another season here. Not without water. The apples are too few and too small. They are so bitter – too bitter even for cider.”
After a miserable supper of old bread and stale cheese, Baz and Camilla turned in for the night. Around 4.00 am, as had become customary in recent years, Baz got up to empty his bladder. As he lifted his exclusive Fuimano-Sapolu nightshirt and took casual aim at the chamber pot he noticed something strange through the broken shutter. A light appeared to be moving about up on the hill overlooking the farm. Baz quickly pulled on his clothes, crept downstairs and out through the kitchen door. He found the little path that led up the hill and followed it.
As he neared the top of the hill by the old cistern he could hear a cackling sound. It sounded like the voice of an old crone. “Ah mon cher Mutée, you are so clever and so naughty. You make all my juices run so ‘ot.”
A figure in the darkness replied. “Would you like to do ze ‘onours and add a little jus de Sirène?”
Baz watched as the hideous crone straddled the opening to the cistern and lifted her skirts. Baz immediately leaped forward, knocking her to the ground with his fist. She screamed like a Banshee. “Get ‘im Mutée! Kill le bâtard!”
He turned to see the prongs of a pitchfork heading straight towards his chest. Baz leaped to one side and felt a deadly prong scratch his face. He dived backwards and then jumped forward towards the shadowy figure and slammed his forehead towards it. There was a scream. “Oh non! Pas mon nez! Paz mon nez.” Baz had delivered a perfect Matson handshake.
La Sirène screeched and ran off into the darkness with Mutée close behind, groaning as he nursed his flattened nose. Baz looked around him found the torch lying on the ground. He flashed it through 360 degrees and saw that there was a low barbed wire fence which had been trampled by the retreating couple. Baz stepped over it gingerly and crossed over onto the neighbouring land. He used the torch to follow the course of the dried-up spring a hundred metres further up the hill. Out of the gloom suddenly appeared a crudely-built wooden barrier made from old cider cases. A dam had been built to stem the flow of water onto Jean’s land. Baz cast around for a heavy stone, picked up the biggest one he could lift and slammed it into the uprights supporting the barrier. A trickle of clear water started to flow around the edge. Baz hammered again and again and again until the flow had turned into a steady stream. The dry earth turned from grey to brown and the cistern started to fill.
Baz filled his lungs with the clear night air, listening to the gentle babble of the stream. Down in the farmhouse Jean tossed and turned as Maxime slept quietly next to him, dreaming of rich ripe apples and the purest crispest cider – cider that would rival that of the great Tom Oliver himself.
To be continued…
Yves Montand as Mutée
Gerard Depardieu as La Sirène
Special storyline credit: GlawsyD
Episode 1; Follow the Money
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?