“Ah, Dole! Can I get you a drink?”
I don’t want alcohol. Being under the influence makes it so much harder to keep the voice in my head at bay, so it’s an easy lie to start my get-together with an old acquaintance.
“You certainly can.”
“What would you prefer, the Laphroaig or the Glenfiddich?”
“Do you need to ask?” I counter his question with my own. Sometimes it’s the easiest way for me to speak to others.
Robert Pacer nods knowingly as he moves across the well-presented office. Plenty of taxpayers’ money has gone into this space. Yet, as I drop into one of the overstuffed chairs, I can spot his personal touches. The signed cricket photo, the snaps with senior foreign dignitaries, the silver-plated tray that the good booze sits on.
“The Fiddich it is then, my friend.”
I just manage to keep my snort of derision inside me and glance at my phone. It’s been over an hour since I arrived outside the man’s London office. Friends, indeed. Why must he play these games with me?
“Because he’s a politician. You know what he’s like, and it’s your fault he’s this way. You made him, after all.”
It’s true. The man’s thirty-year career working his way up from parish councillor to Chief Whip for the Government has my fingerprints all over it. Not that I knew how far he’d go when I gave him a foot up all those years back. Back then, I had different priorities and other motives for getting him elected. Although I did always see him as an investment.
“Cheers!” The Member of Parliament roughly clinks his glass against mine and then saunters over to his exquisitely carved desk. As an artist, I can admire the workmanship that’s gone into it. As a guest, it does nothing else for me. I imagine there are plenty of people who sit in the same position as me and stare across the worktop in wonderment or gulp loudly and guess at why they’ve been summoned. Not me, though. I’m here on my own terms, regardless of what Pacer thinks.
“Bit late for one of our informal catch-ups, isn’t it?” I fire the opening salvo, interested to hear what he has to say for himself.
“Governing the country is a busy job. The party doesn’t run itself, you know.”
Pacer looks too pleased with himself. It’s like the fate of the whole world rests on his shoulders, and he knows it. I let an eyebrow skyrocket. “And, of course, there are some things that are better discussed late at night…”
The man chuckles to himself, multiple chins bouncing up and down against his loosened collar. The way the tie sits slightly askew tells me so much.
“Is that why no one is here to pour the drinks for you?” I lightly challenge. The jib lands, and he leans back in his chair, the springs making a soft complaint.
“The boys and girls work hard enough. I can’t expect them to be here all hours. They do have loved ones to go home to, after all.” He thinks he’s being cute, but I know what a slave driver he is. He’s been through four office managers in the last two months alone. “You also never know when you might truly need the team to burn the midnight oil. Anyway, can’t a man just schedule in a quick catch-up with a mate?”
Pacer smirks coyly. He is so transparent he might as well not be here.
“To old friends!” He holds his glass aloft as if his work with me is already done. As if I’m taken in by his pretence. I nod slowly and sip at my whiskey. It’s warm and soothing, even though I know it comes with a price tag. And I’m not just referring to Pacer. The MP pours most of his drink down his gullet in one go before clunking the glass heavily down on the desk. He then eases himself forward, steepling his fingers. “Although, there was something I wanted to ask you.”
I sit and wait. I’m not going to go to the effort of crafting a lie just to tee him up for whatever words he’s already rehearsed. A pause, then he gets to the point. “I really wish you would come and work for us, Dole. Think of what we’ve done together already. What you and I could do next!” He finishes his drink and stares me down expectantly.
“Why do you think my answer would be any different from the last time you asked?”
“Look, if it’s money. We can pay you. Handsomely.”
I hold still, our eyes locked. Finally, he blinks and adds, “And if it’s perks you want, I can sort those too. A new Bentley? We’ll get you one of those. A few well-placed connections with business, or even world leaders? That can be arranged. Or maybe a peerage in the future? It’s no problem.”
The silence that falls between us must be all-consuming to him. I simply let my mind wander to other matters, gears turning elsewhere. My lack of response really gets under Pacer’s skin. “Come on, man…You read the papers. You know what’s afoot. Our glorious leader hasn’t got long. A new age is coming, and I…we…want you to be part of it.”
“Isn’t that sort of talk rather career limiting?” I let my lips curl up slightly.
“There’s something called the greater good, Dole. A few of us are agreed that we can’t keep pandering to one man’s delusions.”
I take a tiny sip of my drink, maintaining my indifference. I do so love watching the mortals attempt their own tricky schemes. They are all such amateurs. But then no one can match me. “Are you sure?” I rest the glass on the arm of the chair. That will be quite enough of that for the time being.
“Look, I’m loyal to our Prime Minister. He’s made a real difference over the years. Dealt with injustice, improved working conditions, delivered economic reform.” Good party line, well delivered. Whoever did his media training would be proud. “But battle lines are being drawn. Whether I agree with it or not, change is upon us. I’ve…we, yes, we have been thinking it’s time to get ready for what comes next.”
Pacer fidgets and mops his brow with an off-white handkerchief. “Look, I’ve made some…errr…promises, you see.” He suddenly rises and moves across to the office’s window, surveying the famous London landmarks in the distance. “One of them is you.”
He turns and strides across the room, coming to stand over me. “Whatever you want, Dole. I can make it happen. You’ve made such a difference to me across the years. Come and do it full-time. Think what we can achieve together for the party. For the good of the country.”
Rousing words delivered, he collects his empty tumbler and refills it with a heavy clank of crystal against glass. He lands heavily in his chair and almost immediately is at the whisky.
“Is that all it is, Robert?”
“Fine,” he gives in with a huff, “cards on the table. There’s talk others have similar aspirations about the party leadership. The rumours say they’re getting advice from someone outside. I don’t know the details, but they are making moves. Good ones.” He stands, plants his fists firmly on the desk, and leans across the top of it. “And I’m talking more than just column inches. We need to do something to stop them!”
I just manage to catch my head before I incline it too far and give away my surprise. I’m not bothered about him or his politics. I am, however, concerned to hear that there’s someone else involved. Someone I haven’t heard about. “Are you slipping?”
“No–I’ve just been busy, okay? It’s not like it’s a problem. I’ve seen plenty of advisers, consultants, gurus, whatever the mortals want to call them, come and go. Some of them have fallen from grace by their own hand. Some have had a little help.”
“But you don’t know anything about this one…”
I resist the urge to continue the conversation. I shouldn’t be encouraging the voice. It’s definitely not good for me. Especially not when I’ve got other things to focus on. It’s my turn to stand, and I make a point of placing my glass on the desk. Distance is sometimes a help. I walk a little, giving the impression I’m considering the man’s words. It does the trick. “Look, Dole, I need you. The whole party does,” he scowls, his brows sinking low, “not that all of them know it. Yet. There must be something I can offer to convince you. Something in advance of starting—a golden handshake, if you will?”
I pause. I can’t rush this bit. I scratch at my chin thoughtfully, my soft fingers rubbing against my neatly trimmed beard. Then I reach in my pocket and retrieve the USB stick. Slowly, deliberately, I place it on the desk. Pacer’s gaze flicks from it to me and back again. He’s too excited to realise he’s been played. “Information? Is that all you want? Well, why didn’t you say so.” He grabs at the device as if it’s my signed contract of employment. “Don’t tell me,” and he taps the end of his nose, “The cyber protection work, yes?” He really doesn’t know a fraction of what he thinks he does. I shake my head slowly. “Not the council tax stats! That’s all out in the open already…”
“Why don’t you think a little more?”
“What, you want sight of the forthcoming foreign negotiations? Got investments to protect, have we? Well, they’re still considering—” He’s silenced with a look from me. Then he follows my gaze out of the window. I rest it exactly where I want him to look. “Not, the defence procurement work? That’s all very hush-hush? I couldn’t…” Deftly, I scoop up the stick, and instantly his hand is on mine. It’s clammy. Disgusting. Our eyes meet once more. “If that’s what it takes, but it will require some time. It’ll have to be the end of the month.” I shift my weight backward, my hand lifting higher. His pressure is firm, aggressive. “I’m sure I can do the end of the week.” I nod, a little grin tugging at my lips. All my plans are slowly clicking into place. “But you promise me one thing. The next time I call, you’ll be here like a shot.”
“Of course.” I smile warmly, the lie so straightforward and simple.
He won’t call me. He won’t be allowed to. When the police discover a senior minister has been downloading sensitive government information onto random devices, especially those with foreign software loaded onto them,they’ll confiscate every electronic item he owns, including his phone.
“Excellent. Another drink to celebrate?” Pacer is already moving towards the booze as I turn on my heel and leave. It’s a shame. He has been a useful asset to me over the years, but that’s all he was. A means to an end, and now he’s served his purpose. Or at least he will do so soon.
I step out into the street, the early morning chill fogging my breath. The sound of my phone ringing shatters the tranquillity. As I reach for it, I’m surprised by the number on the display. I wasn’t expecting her. Certainly not at this hour.