“Dr Ezekiel Frayn, an American neuroscientist, a Christian evangelist, who had been researching the root causes of violent behavioural disorders among a hill dweller tribe in South America, has been found hacked to death by a machete. His wounds had been self-inflicted. The only clue as to why he had taken his own life was a sign daubed in blood on the wall of his cabin – it read:
For I have sinned a great sin.”
Lincolnshire, England, 4a.m.
The old boy didn’t stand a chance. There he was, strolling across the High Street on his regular night patrol, minding his own business, looking out for any more scraps to top up the half-eaten burger. His hearing wasn’t too good these days but that was OK. He loved this place. At night he was lord of all he surveyed. When you’re old, what you don’t notice doesn’t bother you: you just get on with life. What’s left of it.
By the time he sensed danger, it was far, far too late. He was surrounded by men. Lots of men. Arthur was well used to those teenage louts disturbing his sleep, the odd kick in the guts; one time, they’d even peed on him. Stupid bastards. But this lot were different, he could smell the difference: these were silent, evil, ferocious, menacing, a mob. And yet, somehow, familiar.
He rushed back and forth, snarling, terrified, searching for an escape route, but there was none. Confused, the old feral cat hurled himself at the nearest pair of legs just as something hard and heavy smashed down on the back of his head …
‘We’ve got a problem, James.’ His plant manager never called at night. No matter how big a problem might be, he would always hold the fort until the following morning. Not this time. From the moment he started to speak, James knew this was very serious.
‘James, I hope you’re sitting down. I just picked up an email from the Health and Safety Executive. Those guys they sent in to do a routine check last week think – they only think, mind you – they’ve found the first traces of Frayn’s syndrome in the UK – guess where - in our plant’s heating system.’
‘Frayn’s syndrome? What the hell’s that, Brad?’
‘Google it, my friend. I had to scratch my head too, till I remembered reading something in one of the food trade magazines. Nobody is entirely sure what causes it or how it works, but there have been a couple of isolated cases in the States.’
‘Go on,’ said James. This didn’t sound good.
‘Apparently, in these two factories, a previously peaceable, trouble-free bunch of migrant workers suddenly lost their marbles and started beating the shit out of each other. Then they went on the rampage, ransacked the chief exec’s office before heading into the local town, burning and looting shops, threatening to kill anyone who tried to stop them. Exactly the same thing happened in both places, and they’re thousands of miles from each other.
‘What they’re thinking,’ Brad continued, ‘and again it’s pure speculation, is that, when whatever-it-is gets into the heating system, it does something strange to some people’s brains. When they ran tests on the two plants, they found the same microbe in the pipes. But so far they haven’t a clue what it is or where it comes from.’
‘And now they think they’ve found it at our place? Why us, for God’s sake?’ James asked.
‘What I should have mentioned is that, by the most unlikely coincidence, a large percentage of the workforce in both Stateside factories are African refugees. Somalis, would you believe? And it was only those guys, all African, who went crazy. The white employees were not affected.’
‘Shit,’ was the only appropriate response James could muster. He’d begun to shiver. Most of his workforce were Somalis. Refugees who had been offered a safe haven in England.
Brad waited before saying, ‘That’s the gist of it. But, it gets worse, James. Even though they haven’t established whether we’ve got the bug for sure, they’ve ordered us to close down and seal the plant tomorrow morning – in-fucking-definitely.’
James took a few seconds, as the ramifications of ‘in-fucking-definitely’ dismantled every sector of his comfort zone, one by one.
All he could think was, Stay calm – think clearly – oh, Christ!
Then he exploded. ‘And they tell us this by email? Who are these arseholes?’ Then a thought occurred.
‘But hold on, Brad, are we sure they’re not over-reacting? It all sounds pretty nebulous. From what you say, nobody’s proved that it’s definitely this mysterious microbe that’s causing people to go crazy. It could be just be coincidence. And, as far as I know, there’s been no pitched battle on our shop floor, has there?’
‘They’re taking no chances, James. Look, I hate to spoil your evening any more, but I’ve just been reading on the web that, no matter how hard they tried, they still haven’t been able to clean the microbe out of those two plants. The word is they may both have to be closed down and mothballed for good.’
The conversation continued another ten minutes, while both men thought through, step by step, what needed to be done: how they should break the news to their staff, their milk suppliers and to the world at large.
Brad had been his plant manager from the start. The German dairy company’s British sales had reached a level that made it economic sense to start manufacturing in the UK. James, headhunted to set things up, had selected this small East Midlands town primarily for its milk. Many of the local farmers, unable to compete with year-round imported produce, had given up arable and turned their land over to dairy. The milk was plentiful and good.
And then, of course, there was the money. The multinational that now owned most of Britain’s steel industry had shut down the small town’s aging foundry works, putting hundreds out of work. With an eye to retaining local votes, the government were offering substantial grants to tempt new employers to settle there.
Many of the townspeople, their family’s prospects devastated by the foundry closure, had upped and left, heading for what they were told would be a prosperous future down south. Hundreds of properties had become empty - an ideal opportunity for the State to house some of the tens of thousands of asylum seekers who were pouring into the UK every month.
Pictures of the world’s most unfortunate queuing at food banks or collecting unemployment benefit were not good for the image of Great Britain. The arrival of James’s factory had been a win-win for everyone.
Sitting in the darkened room in front of his laptop, James spent the next hour scrolling through everything he could find on Frayn’s syndrome.
He looked up, thinking he heard something. In the sitting room, he pulled back the curtain in front of the French windows. The first sledge-hammer blow didn’t break through the toughened double-glazed glass. The second one did.
These days, only the well-paid and those students prepared to live in a tiny one room bed-sit could afford to live close enough to town to be able to cycle to work. Dr Patrick Cameron and his wife Angela counted themselves lucky to be in the former category, following his appointment to a senior medical research post and a rather generous pay-off from Her Majesty’s Department that Does Not Officially Exist.
In truth, luck had little to do with it. Eighteen months in hiding from an Ulster loyalist assassination squad, living in Scotland under an assumed name, had put a hold on his life, career and his sanity, only rescued by the extraordinary Angela, a true canny Scot with that instinctive awareness and God-given energy they breed in that country.
But now he was back, living under his own name, married at last to the woman he loved, and working on his true passion, exploring new ways for science to help cure the mentally ill. The dangerous days, as a Security Service double agent in Ulster and later, going underground to infiltrate international conspirators, were well behind him and, looking at the sky, today threatened to be the first day of Spring. All in all, life was pretty damned good.
Parking and locking his bike behind the lab, Patrick strolled into the building. As he turned the corner towards his office, he was surprised to see his secretary, the strange but ever dependable Rowena, taking a cup of coffee, one of the cups reserved for visiting ‘knobs’, into his office.
He waited until she re-emerged, saw him and, in a gesture that was technically and biologically impossible for the human brain to achieve, managed to cock an eyebrow, shrug and skip at the same time before brushing past him. None the wiser, Patrick entered his office and stopped dead.
There, elegantly attired as always, sporting his usual cheeky smile, sat the tall languid figure of his nemesis, the man he never expected to see again, at least on this Earth, the recently deceased Assistant Commissioner Andy Fields of the Security Service.
Washington, D C
John McLean, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve and ex-Governor of New York State, had had a bad night. He was never a good sleeper, particularly since his wife’s death, but events of the last twelve months were regularly keeping him awake, prowling his enormous mansion apartment night after night.
John McLean had never been known for his lighthearted temperament: his sheer physical presence, the magnificent head of silver hair and the profuse eyebrows complemented well the booming voice and brilliant mind. His staff referred to him, only when his back was turned, as “the Yeti”, which said it all.
Except that now he had no staff, with the sole exception of his housekeeper Maretta, a woman of Cuban descent and eternal serenity, who carried on regardless through McLean’s blackest moods, buoyed along by her unflinching faith in the round-the-clock protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
It was his wife who had allowed Maretta to join the McLean household as soon as the girl passed her sixteenth birthday. Under Mrs McLean’s and her own mother’s careful guidance, she became accomplished in the kitchen, discovering a natural feel for the arts of fine flavour and presentation. Before long, she was waiting at table too, even pouring the wine on occasion.
When her mother’s pancreatic cancer was diagnosed five years later, McLean had come to rely heavily on the young woman, such that, when his own wife passed away, he made her head of his household’s staff. Now her mother and McLean’s wife were both gone. The mistress of the house had never recovered from a fall at their Florida summer house.
Maretta had grown used to McLean’s tantrums.
‘This coffee’s cold, woman. Can’t you even get that right?’ It clearly did not occur to him that he had spent the last ten minutes pacing back and forth, picking up the newspaper and slamming it down on the breakfast table. Little wonder the coffee was cold.
Almost exactly one year ago to the day, John McLean, widely recognised as the most powerful of America’s back-stage power brokers, for twenty years the man without whose unwritten consent no candidate, of no matter which political persuasion, would have dared to stand for a senior federal office, this seemingly impregnable fortress, had been removed from the skyline, forced to resign, “on the grounds of ill health”.
At the time, he had never been fitter. His doctor predicted privately that he would last another twenty-five years at the very least. His sin, the root cause of his downfall, was not his involvement in ethically dubious political manipulation; if it were only that, it would have been brushed under the same carpet as many other cases of “human frailty” among the Washington elite. No, McLean’s fatal transgression was that he had been caught.
A complex conspiracy, fronted by top business leaders, to create a global political, economic and military management structure had been discovered and brought to a halt. The problem for John McLean was that he was in the room at the time and that didn’t look good.
In truth, he had been distinctly unhappy with some of the more extreme measures proposed in the conspiracy plan. But John McLean had to go.
Which was why, in the middle of the night, John McLean was angry again. And when John McLean was angry, as several senior bankers, state officials and would-be senators could testify, everyone within range had better take cover. If you appeared on this man’s blacklist, life would be considerably simpler if you changed your name, left the country, jumped in the river, or all three.
And what he had just read in the early online edition of the Washington Post, was very surely blacklist material.