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Authors: Anthony Camber

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The Pink and the Grey (22 page)

BOOK: The Pink and the Grey
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He led me through to the Hub and its many screens, most showing unchanging views as college rose slowly from its slumber. A fellow walking over the grass of New Court leaving a rod-straight trail in the dew and cutting a tangent against the arc of stone surrounding the fountain. A strange miscoloured view, no doubt infra-red, of a silent and occupied student room. A suited, disheveled, bleary night warrior setting forth on the stumble of shame, gazing into his phone perhaps in an effort to ascertain his location. It would likely be another hour before the stretching and the scratching began in earnest.

Overnight in the Hub a new, small monitoring station had been wheeled into position and connected to what the Archivist called the Grid. This station comprised just four screens, three of which were black. The other showed a jumping, disorienting, fish-eye view of a street I did not immediately recognise. Curved along the right edge of the fish-eye was the elongated face and body of Helen. The camera was embedded in a button on Arthur’s jacket. They were headed toward the offices of the
Bugle
.

I stood behind the screens with the Archivist. An elf, the fresher Jay I had seen here a few times now, sat adjusting sound and vision via mouse and laptop in consultation with another.

We heard the voice of Helen announce breezily: “And here we are!” It was to us as well as Arthur.

The view darkened and adjusted as the two agents entered a building and the camera’s light rebalanced automatically. We saw some kind of marble-effect security desk, imperially dominated by a middle-aged uniform with cap askew and it seemed a fleck of pastry clinging to his lower lip.

“What have we got here, then?” said the uniform. “Not like you lot to be up and about on a Saturday.”

“Unfinished job from yesterday,” said Helen, her voice now Home Counties Newcastle. “Someone’s bonus on the line.”

The uniform emitted an I-know-that-type grunt. “Where do you need?”

“The
Bugle
, darling,” said Arthur. His inability to avoid the endearment often sped up these interactions, I was informed. “Report of someone being able to open a window.”

“Can’t have that,” said the uniform, reaching for a piece of paper or a clipboard, it was unclear. “Go on up. Second floor.”

“We’ll need you to let us in,” said northerly Helen.

“It’s already open, love. Someone else’s bonus on the line, probably.”

“Alright, cheers, darling.” Arthur’s voice revealed no trace of worry. Although this was not the most desirable scenario, I was sure it had been anticipated and planned for. I glanced in concern toward the concentrated face of the Archivist.

We saw the two walk to a lift, in deference to Arthur’s disintegrating hip, and made out their reflections, doubly distorted in the scratched polish of the lift door. They both wore the outfits of a maintenance crew, as observed and duplicated — or obtained — at short notice by Jonathan. Both carried bags of some kind.

A
ting
, and the doors slid open. Helen and Arthur were the only travellers. The Archivist warned me the signal would likely cut out as they ascended, and it did, and my heart beat faster regardless. This was hardly as threatening as a loss of signal during a spacecraft’s atmospheric re-entry, I thought, and yet its predictability seemed to make it equally as dramatic and tense.

The signal crackled back to life as the lift doors opened. In front were a set of double doors, above which was fixed the newspaper’s logo. The two passed confidently through into a new room and the stronger light washed out the view for a second. It resolved into a rather pedestrian office, not at all how I had imagined, and recognisably the
Bugle
’s only by a pile of copies at a desk to one side. And at another desk, turning towards us — towards Arthur and Helen — sat a stick-thin young gentleman, of perhaps Indian or Pakistani heritage.

“Can I help you guys?” he said — ah, it was Brummie heritage, I realised. I was thankful he wasn’t about to see immediately through Helen’s impersonation.

The two explained the reason they were there, and the young man seemed content to leave them alone. They went straight to a corner window and worked smoothly and silently, pausing occasionally to make an unsuspicious noise or stage-whispered exclamation. Helen climbed upon the table beside the window, we saw, and then Arthur turned away, perhaps to identify whether our Birmingham friend was paying attention. He was unseen behind a monitor.

Arthur lowered himself slowly and noisily to his knees, The room shook and tilted and then we saw only dull, worn, grey squares of what used to be carpet, flitting and rotating as he moved about apparently on his hands and knees. I prayed we would not see his hairpiece flop into vision.

Then I caught a glimpse of a flat black box with flickering lights and spaghetti wiring, which I recognised as network-related. With a swift move Arthur located one particular wire, unplugged it, and then reinserted it via an additional, unobtrusive device he could camouflage amongst the techno-jungle detritus.

We heard a muffled, quiet noise of inquiry in the room. Arthur replied, “Sorry, darling, I must have kicked something. Is it OK now?” It seemed so.

A second screen on the monitoring station in the Hub lit with lines of data. The elves whispered and indicated, fingers silhouetted against the slowly scrolling figures and words.

And then a third screen came to life, full with Helen’s distorted face. She withdrew from the newly enabled camera and climbed off the table. This screen showed the entire office, apparently from one corner. Arthur was clambering slowly, assisted by chair and table, to his feet. I marvelled at the technology.

“An invisible fly on the wall,” I said to the Archivist.

“And a spy on the network,” he said. “Know your enemy, Dr Flowers. Tell me: have you read
The Art of War
?”

“I have not, I am afraid. Though I do frequent gay bars. I expect there is some overlap.”

Once our two infiltrators had tidied up, covered their tracks and gently scarpered we kept a nervous eye on the Brummie for signs of suspicion. I knew that on the previous evening Conor had tried to, as it were, sign the gentleman up, but he had as yet affirmed no decision. It was prudent to proceed with utmost caution.

The Archivist said his elves would keep watch and report. He had adjusted the elf rota to ensure existing coverage was unaffected, and boasted of the procedural changes he had introduced to ensure no repeat of the week’s shortcomings.

I left him and his elves to their shifts. I had other business: welcoming Seb once more into college and escorting him to what I publicly called his
orientation
meeting. He would spend the day locked in a room with various of the Archivist’s special operations team, being initiated into his temporary new role.

I had been worried that Amanda, with her camera access, would discover the truth about Seb and alert the newspaper. The Archivist said this would not be a problem: there would be a cover story involving a piece of performance art. The truth would be known only to highly trusted parties, personally vetted by the Archivist.

Seb anticipated his day in training with gusto.

“Do you know what it is, Spencer?” he asked me. “Is it something I will enjoy?”

“In good time,” I said, sounding suddenly like the Archivist. I did not want to speak of it in public view. “You will be fine.”

I checked in regularly with his progress as I dealt with the many race matters that began to pile up and tried to avoid the paint-stripping rays of the purple eye. I knew Amanda would be hankering for the response to my supposed mulling regarding my position. She would have to hanker on. Every half-day’s hanker, I estimated, added about a finger of gin to my jolliness. By the end of the week, with a following wind, I hoped I would be utterly hankered.

sixteen
The Hack

“OK, let’s have some sort of order,” said Geoff, chewing on a lump of curried chicken I could still see far too much of. It was our usual Monday editorial meeting over glorious fragrant Thai food. “It’s a big week, boys. You kids could make your names with this one if you keep your noses brown.”

I nodded eagerly, playing the part like a pro. Simon was Simon, struggling with some reluctant bean sprouts and wishing we could be in a greasy spoon. Manish met nobody’s eye.

 
Geoff pointed his fork at me. “I know it’s early, but what have you got so far?”

“I’ve spent the morning being blinded by websites that look like shite,” I said, which was true, and shovelled in a pepper-hot pineapple and some rice.

Geoff refused to make a website for the
Bugle
. He claimed it would stop people buying the print edition, but we all knew it was because he didn’t want to shell out the pennies for one, and he didn’t understand the whole internet fad anyway.

A toxic concoction of liquids escaped his mouth. “Is that what you call research, ginge?”

“I was trying to find out what people are saying about the race. It’s sort of like interviewing, but without the exercise. I mean, if you
want
me to wear out my shoe leather all afternoon I’ll do it. It’s a decent enough day, I could top up my tan.” I was working up a decent sweat from the curry, and the endorphins were kicking the hell in.

Simon cut in. “I found a possible lead, in some godawful student
chat room.
” He spat the words as if they were
vice den
or
crack house
or
teen-ager
. To me
chat room
sounded as ancient as
wireless
before it became all modern again. A glance from Manish, a barely perceptible smirk, showed he thought the same. But then, hey, people still said
horse power
even though nobody had ridden a horse in, like, sixty years.

“What was in this
chat room
?” I asked, making cutlery air quotes. “Hippies on beanbags with the marry-joo-ahna?”

“It was about how these poor old toffs were having such a poor old time in this shit-hole of a city — I’ll give ’em that — because there weren’t enough stick-up-the-arse restaurants to take mater and pater to. And then one fella, no proper name, just some string of letters and numbers, started up about foreigners. The usual gubbins, too many, all the jobs, go home — no offence Twiglet.”

Manish put his hand up. “I’m British.”

“Whatever. And then he says, there’s a foreign student at St Paul’s. Big deal, someone says, place is full of ’em, and then he says he’s ‘unregistered’.”

“Hello,” said Geoff, mouth full again. I think he only spoke with his mouth full. “Does that mean illegal? Or is it one of those la-de-da college words?”

“Dunno. I’m gonna look into it.” He hacked away at his bean sprouts like he was forking a hay bale, except he never picked anything up.

“Yeah. Promising,” said Geoff. “That’d be a story, illegal immigration funnelled through the college. Back-handers for the left-footers, that sort of thing.”

“Or maybe trafficking?” said Manish, plate already empty. “Bound to be a top headline for that. Something about red lights, maybe. You want me to start thinking?”

“Keep your hair on, Twiglet. Flowers piece first.”

“I was thinking
Spencer De-Flowers
for that one.”

I laughed, despite myself. I hoped it didn’t mean Manish wasn’t going to support us. “Have you found anything out?” I asked pointedly, spearing a piece of chicken.

“Nothing since Friday night,” he replied equally pointedly.

“What happened Friday night?” said Geoff.

Manish hesitated and I held my breath, which was a bad idea given the mouthful I had.

“Ginge just filled me in, that’s all,” he said finally.

“Did he now?” Geoff laughed. “Filled you in up the wrong ’un, did he? Told you you should never go to those places. Was it the Rohypnol again, ginge?”

I chewed and swallowed quickly. “For the record, there was no Rohypnol and none of
that
kind of filling in. It was a perfectly respectable knowledge transfer over a beer or two. I
may
have innocently brushed against his knee a couple of times. But there was no mad fumble down an alley. I’m not that kind of girl.”

“I bet you’re not. So, possible illegals, nothing yet on Flowers, and ginge has been surfing the bleedin’ internet. Well, I’ve—”

“Actually, I did find something about the race,” I said, putting down my cutlery. “Might be worth a bit of digging.”

“Go on then, tell the class.” Geoff spread his hands grandly and sarcastically. Simon had progressed to lifting his plate to his face. Soon he’d be like a horse with a feed bag, dead-eyed and thinking of fags.

“What’s interesting,” I said, “is it wasn’t something that Sp— that Flowers mentioned when we spoke last week for the puff piece with all the boobs. I’ve discovered the race has a sponsor, funding all the publicity, the equipment, everything.”

“Oh yeah? Who?”

“I don’t know.”

“That’s no bloody good. Find out.”

“That’s it. Nobody knows. Except Flowers, apparently.”

Manish gave me a crafty look, the git, and I wished he hadn’t. “How do you know that?” he asked.

“Know what?”

“That only Flowers knows. He might have told someone.”

I thought quickly. “Well, that’s what people are saying.”

“What people?” said Simon, nose up from the bean sprouts, glaring at me.

“The people… on the website I looked at. One of the ones that made me go blind. Not a porn one. I don’t look at porn, of course. Not at work anyway. OK, I have, once or twice, but only accidentally. I clicked when I should have run away. What can I say, he had a decent smile on him. And that wasn’t all he had, either.” That was better: I tried to drag the subject elsewhere. Jeez, if only there was a squirrel I could point at. Everybody loves looking at squirrels.

“Alright,” said Geoff, “enough. Illegal immigrants, secret donor. Query trafficking, query laundering. Very bleedin’ queery indeed. Plenty to get your teeth into. Bit like the good old days, ain’t it Psych?”

BOOK: The Pink and the Grey
7.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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