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Number Ten: Dramatic Thriller By One Of The UK's Most Prolific Playwrights

Number Ten: Dramatic Thriller By One Of The UK's Most Prolific Playwrights

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Number Ten: Dramatic Thriller By One Of The UK's Most Prolific Playwrights

Lungime:
340 pages
4 hours
Lansat:
Apr 9, 2019
ISBN:
9781839520013
Format:
Carte

Descriere

Unknown forces attempt to assassinate radical new British Prime Minister, James Torrence. No-one knows whether they were organised by business magnates, criminal oligarchs, or jihadist extremists, all of whom are threatened by his rule. What is known is that they are getting information from inside Number Ten Downing Street. Paul Gunter, bright young member of the PM's staff, is arrested by MI5 in the middle of the night, and finds himself falsely implicated in the assassination attempt. He has to fight for his life against all involved parties, using his inside knowledge of Downing Street processes, and the reluctant help of senior staff member, Andrea Holt, to extricate himself. Will the pair survive against vastly superior forces? Will James Torrence and his fragile government endure amidst the revelations? Will love win out against political intrigue? Suspense, romance, and high action ranging across modern London's extraordinary cityscape and beyond.
Lansat:
Apr 9, 2019
ISBN:
9781839520013
Format:
Carte

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Number Ten - Robin Hawdon

Hawdon

PRELUDE

Night-time. An intercity train speeds through the half-sleeping countryside. The light from its windows flashes over fences and hedges, banks and bridges – a racing reflection of itself. The dark trees along the embankment appear to lean in to gain a sight of the approaching intruder, then recoil at its velocity and are left with summer foliage waving helplessly in the wind of its passing, like outraged ladies assaulted by a charging bull.

A long echoing whistle as the train approaches the tunnel mouth. It enters the abyss at over a hundred miles an hour, the noise of the leading engine muffled and then dying, replaced by the rumble of the dozen-odd carriages as they follow. Their noise too gradually fades until there is no sound left. The landscape returns to its slumber, broken only by the last goodnight from the wood pigeons and the distant bark of a farm dog.

Then from the depths comes a muffled, elongated roar as from some alien monster aroused in its lair. The earth shudders slightly for half a mile around. A second’s pause, then a great burst of fire and smoke erupts from the tunnel mouth, illuminating the scene as if dawn had jumped ahead of itself. The roar explodes in a thunderous boom along with the flames. The countryside reawakens. Time stops and the world waits, all chance of sleep now banished for the rest of the night.

CHAPTER ONE

If one had the choice, would one choose to see the future? Now there’s a question.

He didn’t try to answer it, but stared at his morning face in the mirror instead. A touch haggard with the night of sleep, the days of having to be constantly on the ball. But his eyes were clear. He wondered whether one could be both worn and primed at the same time. A soldier would say yes. But then he wasn’t a soldier. His battles were all mental ones. The confrontations of opinion.

He grimaced at his reflection, then rubbed his scalp briskly with the fingers of both hands. He liked to imagine it helped kick-start his brain. All those tiny connections stirring to face the new day’s demands. Because if they didn’t stir there could be serious repercussions. Nations could fall, he thought drily. Or if not nations, then at least his job.

He yawned, left the bedroom and crossed the passage to the bathroom. As he reached it the door opened and a girl came out wearing nothing but a pair of knickers.

‘Oops!’ she said. ‘Sorry.’

He stood aside. ‘My pleasure,’ he said.

She made no attempt to hide her breasts, threw him a friendly smile and padded down the passage to where his flatmate John had appeared in the next bedroom doorway, running an electric shaver over his chin. The two men exchanged the glances of long-standing mates, and he continued into the bathroom resisting envious thoughts. It had been a while since he had woken to a naked form beside him.

His own bathroom ritual was meticulous. Just as his brain could not be ungroomed, so with his appearance. ‘State of dress shows state of mind,’ as his father used to say. But then his father was a soldier. And for soldiers there was little uncertainty about anything. For him it was different – however it might have looked from the outside. The fact was that he, Paul Gunter, fit, bright, personable – junior aide and research assistant to the Prime Minister of Great Britain – did not know where his life was going. And at twenty-eight it was high time he did.

Ten minutes later he entered the kitchen, dressed and carrying the jacket of his charcoal-grey tailored suit. Like his other navy one it had been more expensive than he could afford on his modest salary. He wore the grey one when feeling innovative, the blue when feeling administrative. Today was innovative. He found the two others already there – John, in Jermyn Street shirt and tie and even more expensive suit, reading the Financial Times at the table, the girl, now fully clothed, making coffee at the work counter. The morning news rumbled from the TV set in one corner.

‘Coffee, toast, Paul?’ said the girl.

‘Thanks.’ He poured himself orange juice from the carton on the table – more from habit than desire – and went to gaze out of the window. The flat (rented of course, not owned – he should be so lucky) was three floors up in a once smart, but now a touch faded, nineteen-thirties block. From the window he could see the rooftops of St John’s Wood and, beyond, the rest of London stretching away to the distant pinnacles of Westminster and the City. Ancient and modern mingling in impregnable seeming contrast. He had looked at the view a thousand times, but he still allowed himself a touch of pride. Insecure or not, this was his domain. He was a component at the centre of things in this extraordinary place. A minor component maybe, but still at the centre.

Behind him, John rustled the pages of his newspaper. ‘Bloody Wall Street! Up and down like a whore’s bum.’

Paul glanced round. Did John ever look at anything other than the financial pages?

‘Such an exciting life you have, John.’

The other raised a blond eyebrow. Yes, well we can’t all live at the hub of power.’

Paul gazed at the distant Shard which towered above other buildings in the Square Mile. ‘Your hub’s probably more powerful than mine actually.’ John worked in the City doing things with billions which Paul never quite understood. Their rivalry was good-natured but distinct.

The girl put a mug of instant coffee and a slice of wholemeal toast on the table. ‘Breakfast,’ she said in her clipped business voice, as if handing over a set of accounts. She was an assistant manager at a private bank, also based in the City.

‘Thanks, Julia,’ said Paul.

She stood with hand on hip. Perhaps being extra provocative after he had seen her half naked? But then it wasn’t the first time.

‘Drafting the Queen’s Speech or anything today?’

He was used to such quips. His acquaintances sent him up because of where he worked, but the ribaldry disguised an envious curiosity. Evenings at the pub, or weekend games at the rugby ground, invariably involved subtle enquiries as to the goings-on at Number Ten, which he humoured with titbits of information but nothing actually enlightening. Security was a concern that hovered like a cloud over the heads of all staff members there.

He was about to respond to her, when something from the TV commentary caught his attention. He turned towards the set.

‘What...?’

The others looked round. He reached for the remote and turned up the volume. The picture showed a news announcer standing in front of the dark mouth of a railway tunnel, a microphone to his mouth.

‘....and we’ve heard of four incidents so far across the country. The worst happened here in the tunnel behind me which is just south of Leeds, and involved a large explosion on an inter-city train. There are at least forty deaths reported so far, with a large number of injuries. As you can see behind me, the emergency services are here in force, but it’s not known at this point whether....’ He rumbled on with the contrived dramatic delivery that all TV reporters are apparently trained to use when reporting from the field.

The three stared at the set. ‘Christ!’ murmured Paul. The brain connections sparked violently. He was caught between the shocked horror of a common citizen, and the instinctive responsibility of a civil servant. This was the kind of eventuality that his masters had been anticipating for a long time, but still it seemed surreal. If one had the choice, would one choose to see the future?

He flung on his jacket. ‘I must go.’

He downed his orange juice, grimaced at its acidity, grabbed his heavy leather briefcase from a corner of the room – chafing as always that he had to carry so much paper around in this digital age – and hurried out, leaving the other two transfixed – John by the TV, Julia by her smartphone.

It always took him between twenty-two and twenty-six minutes to get to Downing Street. Made up of four minutes’ walk to St John’s Wood station, grabbing at least two morning newspapers on the way, maximum four’ minutes wait for the tube (provided the staff weren’t on strike), twelve minutes’ ride to Charing Cross, then six minutes’ walk down The Mall and Horse Guards Road, arriving at the rear entrance to the legendary address.

Today the tube station was already manned by extra police on emergency call-out. He passed them by and caught a tube train almost immediately. He stood in the crowded rush-hour carriage scanning the papers’ headline stories. As the TV news had said, there had been explosions on four different trains in different parts of the country and with different levels of effect, but the early morning edition was scanty on the details. The various journalists involved all expounded the same few facts in different words. The comment pages reverted to speculations about the advance of fundamentalism and the insoluble conflict between diverse cultures.

He looked around at the other passengers herded within the stark space. He was several inches taller than the majority. They presented the usual array of impassive commuter faces, white, black, and all shades in between. Half of them staring into their smartphones. Their lack of expression seemed to indicate that they either had not yet heard the news, or were hypnotised by it. He wondered what would happen if he shouted ‘Bomb!’ at the top of his voice. Would they all rush in panic to the far end of the carriage, or would they simply look at him as if he was mad?

He reached Charing Cross, barged his way up the crowd passively standing on the escalator (why did people always stand on escalators – was energy really in such short supply?), and emerged into the hubbub of central London. He took his usual route, rejecting the temptation to run, but walking as briskly as he could. His thoughts were confused. There had been nothing this severe since seventy-seven. Trains, planes, buses were relatively easy targets, but the impossibility of monitoring them all left the modern state in a somewhat impotent position. In this case the multiplicity of attacks seemed to indicate an organised campaign that must bewilder even the most senior heads at MI5 and Scotland Yard. Paul wondered what responsibilities would land on his own shoulders in the maelstrom of activity that must now follow at Number Ten.

As he marched, he barely noticed the beauties of the city basking in the early summer sunshine. Trafalgar Square already thronged with tourists and pigeons, The Mall serene in its mantle of trees, Buckingham Palace implacably solid at the far end. He did however register that the Royal Ensign flew on the roof – the Queen was in residence. No sign that the ancient establishments had been shaken to the core a few hours ago.

He turned left to Horse Guards Parade, reached the discreet rear access to Downing Street, flashed his identity card to the armed police at the security gates and at the staff entrance, although they all knew him and even called him by name – ‘Good morning, Mr Gunter’ – and entered his place of work.

Things had changed at the Prime Minister’s headquarters since the days of Churchill, or Margaret Thatcher, or even Theresa May. The new P.M. had finally dragged the incongruous building into the twenty-first century. The commonplace façade was unchanged – still apparently a Georgian private house, but as the whole world knew, behind it stretched a much larger and grander complex of buildings which had evolved through the intervening three centuries. They had retained the intimate atmosphere that had beguiled so many incumbents, but the demands of the modern era had finally persuaded the latest resident to link the building with the even grander Foreign Office edifice on the other side of the street by means of an enclosed, classically styled footbridge at the second-floor level. The penny-pinchers had complained mightily at the cost, but the general public and the Downing Street staff loved it. The bridge allowed access to the state rooms of the later building – which could now be utilised for formal receptions and dinners – whilst retaining the original premises for the everyday functions of the Prime Minister’s department. It also allowed the Chancellor’s territory, ostensibly next door at Number Eleven but in fact largely integrated with parts of the Prime Minister’s, to expand to accommodate the bureaucratic demands of an increasingly complex financial system. The whole conglomeration contained over two hundred rooms – a compilation of state reception rooms, working offices, and private living quarters – facilities for more than two hundred staff, and an eccentric repository of three centuries of British history.

Paul pushed aside the apprehension which always assailed him when arriving here – now intensified – and made his brisk way through the web of passages and stairways. As he went he noted the atmosphere of preoccupation throughout the building. There was a universal focus now. It contrasted with the elegance of the surroundings. People hurried past with fixed expressions, computer screens flickered with intensity, telephones bleeped from various directions. Snatches of conversation floated by: ‘...the police have prevented another incident at Bristol...’ ‘No, no one claiming responsibility yet...’ ‘It’s the Head of MI5 for the Director of Security...’ ‘Yes, there’s a press call in half an hour...’

He reached the large general office known as the Garden Room, in the semi-basement overlooking the rear garden, and went past heads preoccupied with screens to his own desk – a chrome and black leather affair in a semi-cubicle posing as an office. It was the latest embodiment of business management dynamics theory, but despite that gave him a cocoon-like feeling in that hectic place. It was his own personal bolt-hole, even though his chiefs had access to him via many different channels.

He loosened his tie, placed his briefcase on the floor beside the swivel chair, sat and switched on his computer. Apart from brief nods to one or two people en route he had not exchanged with a soul. Downing Street was rarely a place for informal civilities, especially not in these circumstances.

As always, his first port of call was the day’s agenda, which usually appeared with crisp efficiency on his desktop via the office network system. However today there was no information on the screen. Merely the terse message, ‘Pending update’. He switched to another site, available to selected staff members, which usually showed the Prime Minister’s schedule for the day. That too displayed the same unhelpful statement.

He glanced around for someone to communicate with. His next-door neighbour, another member of the P.M.’s research staff, was also peering at his screen.

‘What’s happening, Alex?’ demanded Paul across the dividing partition.

Alex Chandler, a lanky character with a long nose and a melancholic expression which belied his encyclopaedic mind, glanced up and grimaced. ‘No idea. People are running about upstairs like headless chickens. Haven’t had orders yet.’ Alex gave the impression that, because no one ever asked his opinion as to how the country should be run, it was always on the point of collapse.

The telephone on Paul’s desk buzzed. He answered. A female voice said, ‘Paul, it’s Mary Deacon here. The Home Secretary’s on his way over to you, but Sir Anthony has asked me to find out what’s happening there.’ She was P.A. to the head of the civil service staff at the Home Office. Her boss was always wanting to know what was happening down the road. That was the civil service for you. Intensely protective of their own patch, forever obsessed about all the others.

‘Don’t know yet, Mary,’ replied Paul. ‘I’ve only just got in and we’re all waiting for instructions.’

‘Oh well, keep me informed. Everyone’s on hot bricks over here.’

‘Hasn’t the Home Secretary taken any measures?’

‘Well of course. Everyone from MI5 to the Royal Corgis are on full alert, but nobody knows what for. Horses and stable doors come to mind.’

‘No, well I don’t know either. I’m afraid I...’ At that moment his own boss, Sir Richard Talbot, the Downing Street Chief of Staff, came past his cubicle and tapped on the partition.

‘Paul, Alex – Cabinet Room, please.’ From his tone one might have thought he was asking for more toilet paper for the gents. He vanished, having barely broken his stride. As he was six feet four tall, it was a long stride.

Paul’s caller had probably heard. ‘Have to go, Mary,’ Paul said. ‘Sounds like a war council in the Cabinet Room.’

‘Let me know what happens.’

‘Will do.’

He probably wouldn’t. She would hear it from many other sources anyway. He grabbed an old-fashioned pocket notebook and pen from the desk – still quicker for hurried notes than his smartphone – and followed Alex’s gangling figure already heading towards the exit. His sense of anticipation rose. A staff meeting in the Cabinet Room was not a common occasion.

Disdaining the lifts out of habit, the pair took the internal stairway two stairs at a time to the more imposing spaces of the ground floor at main entry level. These were the areas that visiting statesmen and big shots saw. They rarely got further backstage. The two progressed from there to the Cabinet Room at the rear of the building – even more generally off-limits.

As they entered the famous chamber, some two dozen people were already gathering around the long table. Various ministers and junior ministers, whose composition revealed much about the substance of the meeting. Also a number of support staff, most of whom stood scattered behind the chairs.

Paul pushed his way down the narrow room to the far end of the table. A girl already stood there, leaning against the end wall shuffling papers. He affected nonchalance, and stood a yard or so away.

‘Morning, Andrea.’

She looked up. ‘Morning, Paul.’

‘Picked up anything since you got in?’

‘Only what the BBC says.’

‘Come on, you must know a bit more.’

Her eyes flashed. ‘No, actually. My boss has been closeted with the P.M. since I got in.’ She was P.A. to the Chief of Staff. As he was probably the most powerful civil servant in the country she was possibly one of the most importuned P.A.s in the country.

He glanced down the table to where a man was taking a seat. ‘I see Creswell’s here. Let’s hope MI5 know something.’

She looked sceptical. ‘Even if they do they won’t tell us, and if they don’t they won’t admit it.’

He nodded. The ways of the modern intelligence services were obscure to all but themselves.

Alex took the space between them. He grinned ingratiatingly at the girl. ‘Hi, Andrea.’

She nodded. She was used to such salutations. ‘Morning, Alex.’

‘Not often the whole gang is up here together.’

‘Not often the whole country is attacked by terrorists.’ She went back to her papers. He pulled a face at Paul and folded his arms. He knew better than to pursue the approach.

At that moment the Prime Minister entered, the tall figure of his Chief of Staff at his side, followed by the Home Secretary and a couple of others. A bevy of formal suits, of different shapes and sizes, yet in their expressions all oddly conforming. The politician’s face of intensity and wariness. The room hushed. The two senior politicians took their seats at the centre of the table, and sat in silence as the remaining leather-upholstered chairs were filled.

James Torrence had been in office four years. He was forty-three, following the trend for youthful P.M.s. He was brisk, slim – sexy according to some women, asexual according to others – and persistent in pursuit of his agenda. He had come to power on reiterated promises of tackling the ever-growing wealth inequality within the populace, and the ever-increasing threat of organised crime and religious fundamentalism that were fuelled by that inequality. Optimistic assurances, but he had initiated a number of radical measures during his first term of office, which had endeared him to the bulk of the electorate and antagonised many at the head of the crime syndicates and the big business interests. His strength lay in his apparent unconcern about the opinions of vested interests, or of the newspapers, or the state of popularity polls. He announced his aims precisely, and then pursued them. He even occasionally admitted his mistakes. He looked well set for a second term in office.

The Number Ten staff, who could usually assess a P.M.’s potential within six weeks of his or her taking office, were admiring and apprehensive in equal measure.

Now he looked around the huge table, as so many of his predecessors had done before him, and waited until there was stillness. Then he spoke.

‘All right. It’s happened. We feared it. I want... I expect everyone to stay calm and in control. We stopped the majority of attacks – we’re not sure yet how many were planned – but inevitably some got through. There may be more.’ He gazed at the brass chandelier above him as though its radiance would illuminate the problem. ‘However, in one way they’ve shot themselves in the foot. This will make the passage of the terrorism bill inexorable. I’ve called a full Cabinet meeting this afternoon, and I’m going to insist... I’m going to demand that we stick out for every clause, every provision, no matter how much the opposition and the dissent groups whinge. We have to defend ourselves against this... insanity with every method available. Otherwise this planet is going back to the Stone Age.’

A smattering of nods and murmurs around the table. No way this ensemble was going back to the Stone Age.

He noted the reaction, then went on. ‘Now, as it happens the new anti-crime measures are also coming up before Parliament next week. No direct connection, but ironically this could also give them the boost they need.’ He turned to the minister seated next to him. ‘Home Secretary.’

The minister, an old campaigner with a permanently long-suffering expression, which probably indicated that he should have quit the cockfight arena of politics for the croquet lawn of the boardroom long ago, spoke. ‘As we know, these are the most contentious measures against mainstream crime ever put before the House. The liberal establishment are already screaming blue murder, as they are honour-bound to do, and Brussels is of course twittering like a cage-full of budgerigars.’ A ripple of laughter round the room. Reference to the European Parliament was always guaranteed to produce either derision or despair, accentuated if anything since the country had voted to disentangle itself from that institution.

He went on. ‘However, we may well be able to ride the proposals through on the back of the counter-terrorism campaign. In the public’s mind the big crime bosses and the terrorists are all tarred with the same brush.’ His chin jutted as if he was about to take them on single-handedly himself. ‘And indeed we know there are often connections, especially when it comes to their money-making operations. We’ll stress this at the press call in a few minutes.’ His gaze circled the assembly. An actor pausing before his final speech. ‘Now, the media will be on hot coals over last night’s incidents. I just ask everyone to keep cool, implacable, and stick to the lines.’ He sank back into his chair, party piece finished.

The P.M. granted him a nod that said, yes – satisfactorily done, then turned to the figure sitting diagonally across the table. ‘Most of you know Rupert Creswell – head of the counter-terrorist unit at MI5. Rupert, do you wish to say anything?’ An unnecessary question, else why was he there?

The man’s open countenance seemed at odds with his confidential profession. In fact it seemed incompatible with that profession. His apparent detachment was disconcerting to those who weren’t familiar with it. But perhaps that was why he was good at the job.

He looked round the assembly. His voice was soothing, like

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