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Today in Alternate History
Day in Alternate History Blog
Tales of the Superpower Empire: Episode 02
It was damp in the shadow of the squat crates stacked high by the warehouse.
Sleet had sluiced down all of Pembroke for most of the day. But in the shadows
the dank pooled. The fat black man in the bomber jacket shifted unhappily in the
cold wind coming off the Irish Sea. He shivered – though Vasquez wondered
whether the large man could feel the weather. He had spotted the large man sidle
clumsily into the shadows half an hour before. He had recognised him for a
junkie before the man mauled some indistinct elements into a parody of a
cigarette. There weren’t many blacks in Wales, and fewer in Pembroke Dock.
There weren’t enough jobs for people born there, and sometimes anger pushed
out depression long enough for violence. Strangers were easy targets. Vasquez
touched his jaw carefully, wincing as pain skewered him from under the stitches.
His face darkened as he scowled. He briefly pitied the junkie, alone and wet.
Then returned to scanning the surroundings, dismissing him. He was nobody.
Joiner was bored. He was always bored by stakeouts. Nothing ever happened. Well,
once he had unhappily watched and photographed a local politician who had been
having an affair. The mayoress had seen him and chased him with a .22 pistol.
She was no markswoman. Three tacky garden statues, one sapling and an unlucky
badger regretted that. Joiner never got paid for that job. The police arrived,
drawn like wasps to rotten fruit by reports of gunfire in a wealthy suburb. His
client, a gnarled, wiry judge in his late sixties, died when he read the news in
the local rag. His heart must have felt more for the woman than he did, so it
stopped in sympathy. The family ignored Joiner’s request for payment. That was
his earliest case. It taught him to draw up legal contracts. It also persuaded
him to buy a gun. He preferred boring to dangerous. It paid better.
He heard a helicopter in the distance and wondered for a moment why the pilot
was flying so late. The noise faded and his mind wandered. Being black was
useful, he thought. It tended to blind people to anything else. Most whites here
were at least patronising. It didn’t help that black immigrants came from poor
countries, while the Indians and Chinese came from wealthy ones. Still, it
helped for a private detective to be inconspicuous – and when most people
deemed you a petty criminal or junkie on sight, they seldom saw much more. Even
that guard on the freighter clearly just thought that. Yes, he thought, taking
another draw from his roll-up, being underestimated was useful. He had dyed his
hair for this job, and bizarre strips of coloured string made the look complete.
For perhaps the hundredth time since his conspicuous arrival, he read the
smudged headlines on the oozing lump of newspaper near his feet. Russia had been
denying claims that her troops had massacred a wedding party in Afghanistan all
week. But now some film of the massacre had turned up. Shot by a Chinese Red
Swastika worker, the Russians had been desperately claiming it was manufactured
footage for at least a week now. The Foreign Secretary, Wedgwood Benn, had been
ineffectually pressing Russia to accept outside mediators. Joiner stiffened.
There had been a noise, something on the freighter. He stared out of the corner
of his eye.
A light illuminated from behind a woman stood in a doorway. She was pushed and
stumbled onto the deck. She fell out of his line of vision, then a second person
appeared in the light. A steady stream of people, young and old, but all Latin,
passed through the door, and two more crewmen had joined the guard. They all
seemed to be carrying AK-47s, though he could not look directly. The taller of
the new arrivals asked the original guard something, moving closer to him. The
distance and the sea breeze carried away the noise, but Joiner saw the man point
toward him, and both seemed to laugh before they turned back to the people still
pouring onto the deck.
Joiner heard an engine in the distance, and an articulated lorry soon appeared
from behind the warehouse. It bore the name of a large Welsh timber company, but
Joiner knew that wasn’t who had sent it. Nor was its cargo to be wood. The
guards on the boat began herding the people down the ramp to the dock. Some
fell, knocked down by those behind. One cried out something, and a guard hit her
with the butt of his AK. She collapsed into the arms of a shorter woman who spat
at the guard. He laughed and said something to her in a language Joiner guessed
was Spanish, then shoved her toward the lorry’s tailgate. Joiner heard the
helicopter again and felt uneasy. He reached round his body, pressing the
reassuring weight of his Guangzhou 9mm into his back. Knock-off of the Walther
P35 it may have been, but every bit as good. Then he heard the sound of cars and
knew things were going to get difficult.
He looked at the guards – they were joking to each other, one was smoking a
cigarette. None could hear the sound of approaching cars over the noise of the
lorry’s engine. He eased deeper into the shadow as the last few Cuban
passengers boarded the lorry. He sensed rather than felt a movement and spun
round. A figure in black, encased in body armour and a balaclava, only a pale
pair of eyes visible, pointed an expensive-looking submachine gun toward him and
motioned toward the floor. He complied quickly, lowering himself into the
mixture of oil, water and rotting fish at his feet. The scum oozed into Joiner’s
clothes. He considered asking the policeman for the number of a washing machine
company. Apparently satisfied, he moved forward, resting his gun on one of the
rust-tinted metal crates.
Joiner heard the noise of car engines get louder. A man screamed in Spanish. An
AK fired. Then screaming from dozens of voices – those in the lorry, he
guessed. Running feet, squealing tyres, the helicopter again – directly
overhead now, but all Joiner could see was darkness, marred only by the shadow
of the police marksman. More gunfire, the police now, then the smugglers again.
Still more screaming. Running feet. Then a sound very close – a dull thud,
then an exhalation, and the policeman splashed into the ooze like Joiner, but in
the light. The detective looked up, his eyes like headlights against the
darkness of his face. He saw one of the smugglers running toward them. A lucky
shot, Joiner guessed, had hit the man in the balaclava. Few firing an AK ever
hit what they shot at.
He reached quickly to the small of his back, drawing the Chinese-made handgun
with ease born from practice. The smuggler, thin, with a scrawny beard and
scrawnier moustache, a checked shirt flapping wide as he ran, pulled his gun up
to his stomach and aimed for the marksman. Joiner, deeper in the shadow, shot
the man in the stomach twice as he ran. He crumpled up, all the movement
suddenly going down not forward. His gun sparked as it struck the concrete,
sliding a few feet away. His face struck the ground shortly afterward, his hands
too busy clutching his gut to save his looks. The strange thing was his silence.
Apart from breathing he made no sound.
Then Joiner saw the girl behind him: black shoulder-length ragged hair, maybe 5’
6", scrawny, early twenties maybe, frightened. She gaped at the body,
faltered when she saw the man in the ooze, then kept running toward him anyway.
Joiner pushed up out of the black water and motioned her to silence. The
marksman groggily pushed himself up and saw the smuggler in front, but not
Joiner behind, wiping the worst of the slime off his face. Quietly, cautiously,
Joiner put his gun in the small of his back again. He took the girl’s hand,
put his finger again to his lips, and crept along the side of the warehouse.
Gunfire and shouting echoed still. They made it out of the docks somehow
avoiding the police. Sneaking through the large crates holding furniture for the
Anji furniture chain, they escaped notice.
The big black man pushed open the door. Although we had driven for a long time
to reach Swansea, I still didn’t know who he was. He told me he was a private
detective and let me wash myself clean. He seemed kind, and he gave me some of
his girlfriend’s clothes to wear. I was nervous of him, so I locked the
bathroom door, but he did nothing. The water felt so good after the weeks in the
ship’s hold. When I came out he smiled at me, gave me a cup of coffee and went
to clean himself up. I looked around his apartment. It was larger than where I’d
lived in Havana or in my village.
I looked around and saw two doorways leading off from the room I was in. The
walls were a light purple, and I remember seeing something odd which he later
told me was a dream catcher, a Native American device for catching bad thoughts.
There was a little statue of a fat smiling man. Buddha, he explained, his
girlfriend’s god. I was shocked. He had seemed normal till then. My expression
must have been obvious, for he explained to me a little about her. She was
descended from refugees from the Communist Revolution in Russian. She had been
brought up in the Orthodox faith, but on a business trip to China – she was a
lawyer – she had learnt something of Buddhism. When she returned, she learnt
more and left behind her Orthodox ways. But he told me all this later.
The television was on. A reporter called Michael Cass was reporting for the BBC
on the latest bombing in Havana, he had an accent I didn’t know. The large
black man came out of the bathroom, still towelling his hair dry as he
introduced himself. "Hi, my name’s Aloysius Joiner. Are you all right,
miss?" I told him I was, and he asked me if I would tell him how I came to
"My name’s Maria. I wanted to get out of Cuba. Before I remember, some
men came to the village I grew up in and killed my father. We never knew who
killed him – whether they were Communists or Federalists. There never seemed
much difference to me. Both sides came through the village every few weeks.
Sometimes soldiers came from the American army base in helicopters. Sometimes
big planes flew overhead, and once the village was bombed – or maybe someone
used artillery. It was night. Everyone was asleep. I thought it was a nightmare.
Bright light blinded me, I woke up and felt something warm and wet on my face.
It was not my blood. My cousins helped me bury my mother. There was not much of
her left. Many of the people in my village were maimed or crippled. After the
funeral, when we put the small coffin in the ground, and the priest spoke over
her, I decided to leave.
"I walked to the city, taking a few small precious things with me. I lost
those when a group of soldiers found me. I had hidden in a dry riverbed when I
heard their voices. But they found me. I was lucky. They only took my rosary and
my mother’s wedding ring. Then they let me go. I thought they were kind. But
as I walked away I found two girls’ bodies. The men had not been kind to them.
I was sick. I ran as fast as I could until I had to stop and then I was sick
again. Then I ran more. Eventually I realised they weren’t behind me. But
whenever I heard a sound I froze and hid. I reached Havana eventually. Some
weeks later I had managed to get passage on a ship to Europe. It didn’t matter
where. There was no war there. Even when I was in Havana I heard seven
explosions and more shootings than I can remember. I was glad to board the boat.
"It was cramped. There were many people from all over Cuba in there. At
first they let us out in the sun in small groups, but then some of the others
got sick and they kept us inside all the time. The children cried and people
became worried. Whenever someone died, they would take the body away. We
supposed they threw them overboard. They would not tell us. The days dragged by.
After some weeks, the ship stopped. The engines kept thrumming but we could tell
we were not moving. After hours the men came with guns. They ushered us up onto
the deck, joking with each other. If someone tripped, they hit them. We helped
each other up the stairs and down the ramp, and into the truck. When the
shooting started most people clung to each other in terror. But I leapt out. I
knew they would send us back to Cuba. I don’t want to go back there, Mr
She spoke with a forceful simplicity that touched me. I asked her how she had
contacted the smugglers. "There was a man from England, from here. He was
visiting the university where I worked. I asked him what Europe was like, and he
gave me an address. He said the people there would take me there." I picked
up my file from the coffee table, and showed her a picture. She recognised
Simmons at once and nodded.
I put the photo down and thought for a moment. "His name is Lord Philip
Simmons. He’s the distinguished head of the School of Foreign Languages at
Dynevor University a few hours from here. One of his fellow academics wants his
job and told me to be at the docks tonight. I don’t know how he knew about
this, but tomorrow I’m going to go and see Simmons." She couldn’t tell
me any more, so I chatted to her for a bit, helping her calm down. She seemed
cold, almost unemotional, and I was worried about her. So I told her about my
girlfriend and generally did my best to reassure her that I wouldn’t turn her
in. After that gunfight I needed a drink, and I offered her one, too. But she
gave me the same shocked look she did when I explained Natalie’s Buddhism.
Cuba, evidently, was much more Catholic than the terrorist guerrilla campaign
indicated. Around midnight we were both pretty tired. So, giving her the bed, I
made up the couch and drifted off to sleep, hoping the police wouldn’t pin me
to the docks.
As I drove to the tiny market town of Dynevor the next day, I reviewed what I
knew of Simmons, and what Mills, the rival who hired me, had said. "He
speaks a dozen different languages, has friends from here to the Sudan. He has
an incredible capacity to blend in – but no sense of geography. He once got
lost in his own library!" Mills seemed jittery, almost too eager to
convince me. Though I supposed it might just have been the nerves people feel
when they look for information to blackmail others. That was what he wanted, it
He was handsome in a nondescript way. In his pale blue shirt and khaki trousers
he looked more like a catalogue model than an academic. His floppy blond hair
suggested Oxbridge, as did his accent. But he was actually from one of the
redbrick universities, and seemed determined to make a name for himself, despite
being convinced that everyone else despised the place. He even looked
suspiciously at me when he admitted it. He seemed to feel I was flicking him
like a light-switch. But there was something missing when he spoke. I believed
his energy, his zeal and yearning for advancement, even his underhandedness in
using blackmail as a tool. But there was something missing. I could not place
it, but I could sense it.
It was in his eyes as he handed me a blank manila folder. I noticed his
fingernails were bitten to the quick. I leafed through the file as he raged.
"Simmons is an abomination! He does nothing for this university." My
eye caught something.
"I see here he managed to acquire £5 million of funding from mysterious
sources just last year. That doesn’t sound like nothing."
Mills’ face scrunched up like he had swallowed a lemon, "He disgraces us
all with that money." He almost spat the words. "That’s what I want
you to reveal. He must be forced to resign." Yes, I thought, then you can
take his place. I had already noticed that Mills was Simmons’ deputy. I bet
they had fun working together. I assured him I would get onto the case at once,
but as I left he spoke again sharply, "And go to Pembroke Dock tonight.
There’s a ship coming in tonight, the Tanager; she’s from San Pedro. Simmons
owns half of her, and I know there’s something wrong about her. I want you to
find out what." I nodded and walked out, the dossier under my arm. It had
been raining outside, and I had quickly put the dossier under my jacket to keep
That had been yesterday. This case was moving unusually quickly. I had rung
Simmons when I awoke that morning and arranged to meet him in the evening. He
had tried to avoid me, but when I mentioned Maria he had become hesitant and I
had pushed him into meeting me after work. I had left her at the flat that
morning with instructions not to leave. Then I spent the day checking the
contents of Mills’ file. It contained more than any private detective could
have found out on his own. I still hadn’t tracked down much of what was in
there. And yet Mills had never mentioned hiring anyone else. In fact, he had
acted as if I was the first one he had contacted.
When I reached Dynevor in my car it was seven o’clock and dark. I crossed the
small bridge into the town, passing a Second World War pillbox that now
sheltered sheep. For once it wasn’t raining. Instead the clouds were bunched
low in the sky, round and dark like grapes waiting to be picked and crushed. As
I drove up the narrow streets and through the university’s gateway I had a
feeling of unease. I dismissed it and stopped the car just inside the gateway. I
stepped out, unthinking, into a deep puddle, soaking my left foot. I swore.
Sitting back on my seat, I emptied what I could from the shoe, but the sky
started spitting on me, so I hastily retied my shoe and walked toward the Old
Dynevor is an interesting place. It is among the oldest universities in Britain,
though it was founded as a seminary. Built of local stone, it had stood since
the 1820s, and was home to several thriving departments. Probably its most
famous figure was Simmons, who was expected to be the vice-chancellor following
the resignation of the current incumbent, the elderly Curzon Blair. I pushed a
heavy Victorian door with white paint cracking on it. My foot was still
squelching from its meeting with the puddle as I took the steps up to Simmons’
office. The carpet was threadbare, and I wondered at the college’s prosperity
despite Simmons’ work on its behalf.
At the top of the stairs was a small office, perhaps twelve feet across on both
sides. I had entered through one door, and opposite me was another door; it
looked like oak and was slightly ajar, revealing that the light in Simmons’
office was off. A window which in the daytime would have let light in was
currently sucking it uselessly into the night. I noted that he had sent his
secretary home already. Her cheap plywood desk was bare, and the walls were
coated with plain white paint, slathered like butter atop a crumpet, but a
little more appetising. I slowly squidged across the pale green carpet, my shoe
leaving behind damp marks on the material.
I pushed open the door steadily. I was a little surprised to find Simmons dead
behind it. I carefully stepped around his corpse, and flicked the light on with
my fingernail before I looked around the room. Chintz curtains framed the small
window. Bookcases lined every wall. I recognised Alan Somerstein’s annotated
translations of the "Five Classics" of orthodox Confucianism.
Kneeling, I checked his pulse. He was certainly dead. The clues were the small
hole in his pale pink shirt and the dull smear that marred his old school tie.
Sometimes I amazed even myself. I put on some gloves before rifling through the
pockets of his expensive dark blue suit. Nothing. I checked a pair of gleaming
black filing cabinets behind his desk next. Students, exams, staff wages –
nothing. Finally I looked through his desk. In the lower left draw, underneath
some very disturbing Hentai, I found a neatly folded piece of A4 with the name
of the ship at the docks and an address in block capitals. I almost left. Then I
had a thought, and took from the filing cabinet the file of one student and
leafed through, looking at his remarks. Whoever had written the report had not
also written the note on the paper.
Something struck the window and I jerked upright, peering out. I felt an idiot.
It was just hail. Then I saw the headlights and flashing lights of the police
car through the white lines of the hail. I turned, stepping over what had been
Simmons to the door. I left the light on and quickly crossed the secretary’s
office, practically falling down the narrow stairwell in my haste. I heard a
door click open behind me and footsteps beating the tiled floor. I kept running
and pushed through a swing door. Behind me there was a grunt and muffled
swearing as the door swung back just as my pursuer reached it. I sprinted back
to my car, and saw the police car parked beside it. I glanced back, checking my
pursuers were still far away, then slipped a knife into the car’s front left
tyre. In my haste I broke off the tip of the blade as I withdrew it, and jumped
into my car. It started first try and I tore out of there. In my rear mirror I
saw them get into the car and watched it fishtail.
I drove quickly away from town for several miles before pulling off the road to
check the address on the paper. Dynevor only had the one police car, so I knew I
was safer here than anywhere else. Maria was a different matter. I couldn’t
get to a phone in time to warn her, nor did she know the city well enough to get
away. I was almost certain the police had seen my numberplate before I drove
away. So it was just a question of when, not if, they’d take her.
I’d been on the receiving end of police interest a few times. Last time the
damage had been one new door and several of Katrina’s heirlooms. I suspected
she would not be overjoyed to find that the police had broken in again and that
I hadn’t told her I had kept some stranger in the flat overnight. An
attractive female stranger, too. I sighed. I pictured what the apartment would
look like when I got back. Splinters and filthy fingerprints and footmarks
everywhere. No, Katrina would not be happy with me. I wondered whether flowers
I sighed and shook my head. For the moment the police would suspect me of
killing Simmons. Having dealt with them before I was under no illusions what
they felt about blacks. When it came to the bad ones it was worse than if I were
Chinese – almost as bad as being Irish. There had been a group of Irish put in
prison in ’76. They had only been released last month. There had been no good
evidence to put them in prison for that long. For some reason this made me
suspicious of the police’s benevolence. I didn’t look forward to taking on a
group of armed men – which I presumed would be what the smugglers would throw
against me – but I couldn’t see any option.
I looked at the paper I’d taken from Simmons’ office and confirmed the
address. A Victorian vicarage halfway between Dynevor and Aberystwyth. From what
I could remember of the outside of the building I sketched out a plan. I hoped
they would be considerate and not surprise me too much. Tearing the paper in
two, I wrote down a brief message on the part without the address. Then I turned
the key in the ignition, flicked the headlights on and drove off. I stopped once
before I arrived. It was a small scruffy pub with a smaller smellier clientele.
It was a quiet anonymous sort of place. There was little lighting inside and
barely anyone’s eyes raised toward the door which stuck and juddered as I
pushed it open. The woman at the bar had a face wrinkled like a pair of socks,
and she smiled disconcertingly as I approached. I didn’t touch the bar, it
looked unwholesome, almost as though it had auditioned for a role in an advert
for bleach but had been turned down for corroding the camera. I gave her the
scrap of paper wrapped around a five pound note, smiled, turned and left.
Getting back into the car, I hoped she would ring the number soon, and not just
dismiss it. I drove to the address stopped a mile down the road, parking behind
a scuffed dark green 1.6 litre Geeli that I recognised from somewhere. It
belonged to Mills, I remembered. I tensed, then made myself relax. I scanned
what I could see and listened cautiously, but I couldn’t hear or see anything
in the dark. At least the rain had stopped. The loose gravel on the road
crunching under my feet seemed deafening as I approached the car. I knelt and
pretended to tie my shoelace, looking under the car. Nothing. Taking a final
wary glance around as I stood up I approached the car. I hadn’t time to be
subtle and I never had got the hang of that whole business with coat hangers. I
took off my jacket and wrapped it round my arm, then smashed the window with one
stroke. I brushed the rest of the shards away and reached for the lock inside.
I opened the door and leaned in. I couldn’t see anything obvious, so reached
over and unlocked the other door. Not being a fan of impersonating a sea urchin,
I walked round the car and got in the other door, before sitting down and
opening the glove compartment. A road map and nothing else. Except . . . it
seemed a bit shallow. I pushed and prodded and was rewarded with a click as a
panel came loose and I found a holdout pistol. I was about to wonder why a
lecturer at a sleepy Welsh university would need a pistol, let alone one with
the serial number filed off, when a second click from a second and rather larger
gun told me that I was not alone.
The man pointing it didn’t look happy to see me. I felt the same way. He was
about six feet tall and broad-shouldered with it. He was wearing a faded brown
leather jacket zipped up, a pair of blue jeans, and an expression either of
great irritation or terrible constipation. Either way I decided not finding out
would be the best idea, and got out of the car. He had me trudge down across
fields until we reached the vicarage. I guess he was as eager to avoid police
attention as I was – although for a different reason, no doubt. The situation
was not promising, I thought. But remembered that one should always look on the
bright side. Somewhat spurious when a man’s training a gun on you, unless you
are pleased he hasn’t yet used it. I’m not that easily comforted. Especially
since I couldn’t see him and was walking toward a house probably full of other
So I was already feeling tense when I heard a soft thud and an exhalation of
breath. I spun round. The guard collapsed slowly to the ground. Mills was
standing behind him, wearing dark trousers and a black poloneck. He was holding
a silenced pistol. "What’s going on, Mills?" I asked cautiously,
keeping my hands still and at my sides. He put his finger to his lips and
gestured with the pistol toward a fence in front of us. As we approached a
second man, heavy and older, appeared from behind the hedge next to it. I had
had no idea he was there. He too held the same brand of small silenced pistol
and was dressed like Mills. Though he bulged out of the clothes in places. When
he saw me he looked doubly uncomfortable.
He spoke in a staccato bark of a whisper to Mills, "Is this that detective
you hired?" I saw Mills nod. "Is there anyone in Wales who doesn’t
already know what’s going on here?" I crossed off the thought of telling
them that the police were probably en route and stayed quiet. Mills raised an
eyebrow at the other man, but couldn’t stop him grumbling. Evidently, he
decided to make the best of a bad situation. "Fine, fine." He snapped,
still in that terse whisper. "You know Mills already. Call me Fredericks.
We work for MI5. You have surely worked out by now that Mills has been
investigating the smuggling of Cuban refugees into Britain. Simmons was a vital
contact for them, giving them some semblance of legitimacy in the eyes of the
people they were smuggling. Yes," he answered my questioning look, "we
know he’s dead. We think one of their agents is tying up loose ends. We had
been keeping a close eye on them, but someone," he glared at Mills angrily,
"didn’t agree with what he was told to do. That’s why you’re here,
Joiner. But now you are here, you may as well come with us. We’re going in
there, and I’m not leaving you out here to get found again. Give him a gun,
Mills passed me his pistol and Drew a second for himself. Reflexively I checked
the magazine and safety. It looked like I was going to end up in another
firefight. "I feel like leaping for Joy, Mills." I commented
laconically. "First, you almost get me killed in a waterfront shootout. Now
the police think I killed Simmons, and by way of apology you’ve decided to
involve me in another shootout. Do you do this for everyone you know or just
your friends?" He failed to look abashed. Instead he just raised that
eyebrow again, smiled and nodded toward the house. He sounded cheerful.
"If you two have quite finished complaining, then perhaps we might get some
work done. Would that be quite all right?" He smiled like it was Christmas.
Fredericks grunted acquiescence, so Mills spoke again. "Fredericks, you
cover our backs. Joiner, you and I will go in first." We crept toward the
house. It was pretty big, though in the dark it was hard to make out any
details. The front and back doors were probably heavily guarded, not to mention
as thick as my leg. So we made our way round the building to a patio window that
looked like it was part of a modern extension to the house. Peeking round the
edges of the window, we couldn’t see anyone within the room. Mills whispered
again, "I’m in first. I’ll take care of the left. You be sure of the
right." I nodded. He pushed at the door. It slid open easily. No alarms
rang. He looked at me and I nodded. We entered, cautiously checking out the dark
recesses of the room. A large window, covered with blinds, was a vague source of
Fredericks shattered the silence, "Joiner, Mills, put those guns on the
floor slowly, I spun round as Mills was turning to aim at Fredericks and thrust
myself between them, trying to calm the situation. A stupid decision, it turned
out. Fredericks was twitchy, and shot me in my left arm. The irrepressible Mills
promptly shot Fredericks twice in the chest. I heard rather than saw him fall,
and in the background sirens and cries from in the house. I began to wonder
whether the police had got my message or Mills had called them in. Then I passed
Waking in hospital the next morning, I was lost for a moment, piecing together
my thoughts. The young constable assigned to guard me filled me in on part of
what had happened; Mills and the police had captured half a dozen smugglers and
found papers implicating two members of the cabinet. I was still a bit woozy
when I came to, and his explanation didn’t make much sense. But it sounded as
if they had been using the Cubans for a cheap labour force to build houses. The
newspapers were no more help, either. I wasn’t very coherent that day, anyway,
but the next day I was far better. Katrina had heard about what had happened and
was coming home, a nurse told me as she gave me my breakfast. Hospital food
deserves its reputation. I’ve never tasted stranger "fishcakes."
The new policeman watching over me lived up to the stereotype of the police as
needlessly brutal. He waited until I had done my best to finish the inedible
piscine stuff and lost my battle to retain it, before telling me that Mills
wanted to see me for lunch – if I was up to it. Determined to get some food my
stomach wouldn’t reject I made my way unsteadily to Morgan’s Bar, haunt of
the moderately well-off and fairly well-known. Mills, now looked like a faceless
Whitehall mandarin in his pinstripe suit and some old school tie – except that
he still had the cheerful grin he had plastered on the other night.
"Afternoon, Mills, have you been auditioning for that film Burton’s
making? With that smile you look just like the Joker." The constable, half
propping me up, looked quite scandalised.
"Hello, Joiner!" His smile and good humour blazed like a pyre of books
in Nuremberg. "What’ll you have?" He looked a little drunk, but his
cheerfulness was infectious, so I asked for a Glenfiddich. As the constable went
to fetch my drink, we sat and I asked him what was going to happen to the
smugglers and their captives. "As luck would have it, Joiner, thanks to my
promotion – oh, you don’t know!" A twitch of puzzlement had crossed my
face. "Yes, old ‘Fredericks,’ as you know him, was my chief. Normally,
it’s frowned on to advance in the service by shooting one’s superiors, but
thankfully that quibble wasn’t raised at the meeting yesterday!" I was
starting to look irritated at his lack of answer, I think, because he broke off,
then continued with a smile, "Calm down, man. The poor old slaves will go
free. No, no, don’t worry. Not back to Cuba either. I’ve prevailed on the
government to set them up as students in Dynevor of all places! They desperately
need some good publicity after the –" he hemmed merrily, then chuckled
and continued, "ha! Latest round of bad publicity!" The constable came
back with the drinks, a policeman strangely reduced to being a waiter.
"Anyway, Joiner, I wanted to ask you something." I raised an eyebrow.
His face grew momentarily serious. "Well, what with my promotion, we really
have nobody experienced to take on my old job. So how would you feel about
working for MI5?"
I took a sip from the whisky. "Mills, it’s kind of you, but my fiancée’s
Russian. Haven’t you already had enough trouble with that problem? Thanks, but
no thanks. That said, I’ll happily accept a free meal." Mills chuckled
and handed me the menu.
To Episode 3