YOU HAVE ARRIVED AT YOUR DESTINATION
More accurately, we have arrived at our destination. Me, the writer. You, the reader. It's time to switch off the ignition and wind down the windows. Take in the view. Feel the air on the face. Light up a cigarette if that is your thing. Maybe get out of the car and stretch the legs.
A set of four numbers to go along with other similar sets of four numbers.
1314. 1513. 1650. 1745.
Bannockburn, Flodden, Dunbar, Culloden.
A stream, a field, a town, a moor.
Places of slaughter. Places where history was turned. Places where the English and the Scots ran out of patience with each other. Places where hundreds and sometimes thousands of men ended the day with lifeless eyes staring up into the Scottish sky.
When I was a teenager, I remember hearing a political talking head on the car radio. It must have been a couple of weeks after the English voted for Brexit. The political chaos of the days following the vote was unprecedented at the time, though it seems like pretty small beer now. The guy on the radio said that from this point onwards no matter what the political question in a pub quiz might be, the answer will always be the same: 2016
And at that point, the guy didn't even know the people of America were lining themselves up to vote Donald Trump into the White House.
I am pretty sure in decades to come historians will link the two dates together. They will conclude the tumultuous events of the summer of 2030 would never have happened without 2016 happening first.
Maybe. Probably. I don't care much to be honest.
The set of four numbers duly took their place alongside all the other sets of four numbers.
Well, dear reader. The time has come for you and me to part company. From this point onwards there will be no more of the chit chat. I have done my best to present you with the line-up of characters who played lead roles in the epic drama of 2030.
The makers of history. Some were large figures on the world stage. Others were people barely anyone had ever heard of.
We all had our own reasons. Our own histories. Our own back stories. We all played our part.
We were there.
And after 2030 nothing would ever be the same again. I guess that is what history is all about, right?
THE DRUMS OF WAR
Angus Campbell drained the last of his coffee and forced himself to focus on the agenda for the Cabinet Meeting which was due in less than ninety minutes. Christ, he was tired. He was tired all the way to the marrow of his bones. His schedule was becoming overwhelming.
When he had first assumed the role of First Minister he had wound his alarm back half an hour from his accustomed 6.30. After a month it had retreated a further half hour. Now it was five o'clock and every time the bleeping dragged him from sleep he felt like screaming.
He tried to recall when he had last slept for more than five hours and couldn't. There must have been a good reason for his decision to put his name forward to take on the role of Scotland's leader. And no doubt the reason must have looked pretty good at the time. Now? Now, not so much so. Now he hankered for the relative simplicity of his old life when all he had to do was sell solar panels and make a few quid.
Come on Angus you miserable old bastard. Shape up and stop the self-pity. More coffee. Stretch the legs a bit. Check the view from the big window. At least you’re knackered as a result of trying to keep up with riding the crest of a wave. Better than being in Edward Montford's shoes.
He grinned out of the window. Oh yeah. A million times than being in that toffee nosed prick's shoes.
A tap on the office door pulled him out of his reverie.
His secretary, Margaret.
“It's Mr Khalidi.”
“Oh right. Great. That's fine. Thank you, Margaret."
By 2030 the two men who had laid the first bricks of the Scotland/Qatar partnership had become firm friends.
“Suleiman. Salam Alaikum my friend.”
“Here. Grab a pew. Coffee or are you going to give the chance Margaret to show off her mint tea skills?"
“Why not mint tea?" Suleiman switched on his brightest smile to the waiting secretary. "When I drink your mint tea Margaret I am transported back to the deserts of Arabia."
“Get away with you Mr Khalidi.”
They took a few minutes of small talk before getting down to the nuts and bolts.
“So how was Spain?”
Khalidi grinned like a double glazing salesman who had just closed a deal for six windows and a patio door. Without discount.
“Actually, Spain couldn't have gone any better.”
He went on to explain the draft agreements he had in place to supply Bilbao, Valencia, and Barcelona with a combined total of 25 tankers a month of water. Marseilles had become the first customer for Scottish water in 2027 and other cities soon followed. First, it was Nice, Toulon, and Cannes. Genoa came next. Then Lisbon and Porto. And now the cities of Spain were joining the club.
“What is the new total?”
“86 tankers a month.”
“That must be pretty close to capacity.”
“It is capacity.”
They moved along to the frantic reconstruction of the Girvan shipyards. Everyone was going at a hundred miles an hour but it would still be many years before the Clyde yards would be able to sail their first tanker.
“Are there any more second hand ships to be had?”
“Not really. There are tankers out there of course but the owners are being greedy. They think we will pay any price.”
“Which we won't of course.”
Suleiman ran through a number of reports. It seemed like every week saw the opening of another hydroelectric plant in the Highlands. New towns and villages were coming to life in areas which had been empty since the Clearances. Scotland was home to the largest construction boom outside of India and China. It was both exhilarating and terrifying. The sums of cash involved made Angus almost physically sick at times but the economists who advised him laughed off his concerns. The money, it seemed, wasn't even close to being any kind of object. And fair enough, every time the Scottish Government released a new bond issue the money markets snapped up every penny's worth in a matter of seconds.
“I can't help but feel this is all too good to be true. My innate Scottish pessimism I guess. I keep looking for the catch.”
“Well here's something which might qualify.”
Angus sat back and wrapped his hands around the back of his head.
“I have had a back channel contact from London.”
“For Christ's sake, what do they want now?”
Angus sat forward. “Water? You're bloody kidding me.”
Suleiman shrugged. “Not at all. They are looking for ten tankers a month into Tilbury.”
“There's no bloody chance. Not until we get a few more ships. Even five a month would be a stretch.”
“And you told them that?”
“I did. They didn't seem to want to listen.”
Angus jumped up to his feet and started pacing. “Oh they didn't, did they? For fuck's sake Suleiman. So come on. What are they expecting us to do?”
“Reduce our contracts with France.”
“WHAT!! Are they fucking kidding?”
“It certainly didn't seem that way to me.”
“So who was it? The back channel boys?”
“Whitehall Mandarins. You know the type. All grooming and expensive cologne. I could tell one of them was itching to call me a jumped up wog.”
“Arrogant bastards. Sod it. I'm going to get that bastard Montford on the phone right now, so I am.”
“And what will you tell him?”
“I'll tell him to get caught up with his fucking electric bill and then we might just consider it. That's what I'm going to tell him. I mean for Christ's sake Suleiman they're five months in arrears.”
“Six months. And if they are not in a position to bring their electricity payments up to date?"
“Then fuck them, that's what. They've used my country like a convenient piggy bank for seven hundred years. Well not anymore. Those days are bloody gone. If Edward Montford wants water he can get a spade and dig himself a fucking well."
Angus stared furiously at the phone in front of him and his hand started to make a move towards it.
Suleiman's voice dripped calm. “Are you quite sure this is a good idea?”
“No. Of course, it isn't a good idea. But that arrogant bastard is seriously starting to get under my skin. They kill our people on the streets, give a mealy mouthed apology and then they expect us to keep their lights on and their toilets flushing without paying their bills. "
“The old habits of Empire die hard.”
“It seems so." Angus jumped up again and stood by the window with his hands plunged deep into his pockets. "OK. You're right of course. No doubt you have some wisdom ready."
The Qatari smiled. “I hope so. I think we should give them four ships a month. Just because England is proving to be the neighbour from hell doesn't mean we have to stoop to their level. Michelle Obama came up with a line which has always stayed with me. 'If they go low, we go high.”
Angus laughed. “Maybe I should go and spend a few days in one of your Bedouin tents. A bit of quality desert time might just teach me to think more diplomatically.” He sat back down and some of the tension seemed to ease a little. “What are you hearing about things in London?”
“Nothing good. A lot of people are getting very worried about the story your daughter's friend is working on."
“The alleged death squads?”
“Indeed. It looks like the truth is going to be somewhere beyond ugly. They are bracing themselves."
“How bad could things get?”
“Pretty desperate actually. There are rumours. People are saying France might ask the UN to impose sanctions.”
“Jesus. I had no idea it was that serious.”
They were silent for a moment whilst the First Minister tried to get his head around just how bad things were getting for his country's ex-partner.
“As a Qatari, much of this situation feels very familiar. We always had Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other. Two countries many, many times larger and more powerful than we ever were. We were much richer than they were in comparative terms, but that didn't really count for anything. They were like a pair of frustrated bears driven mad with fleas. They were always itching to find an excuse to reach out and rip our heads from our shoulders. So we learned how to play nice: to keep them distracted with jars of honey and pots of flea powder. So if Edward Montford needs some water, the best thing to do is to let him have some water. And if Edward Montford is struggling to keep up with his electric bills, then we will give him a little more time. Things are going well for us. Better than we could ever have dreamed of. What is the greatest threat to our continuing prosperity?"
“Even more chaos in England.”
“And why is that First Minister?”
“The potential for a huge refugee crisis at the border. A collapse in Anglo-Scottish trade. It's a long list..... Fair enough. As per usual, I am thankful for your words of wisdom. You'll do the deal?"
April 2030 started with eight straight days of rain. And it wasn't just any old rain. It was pure pissing it down all day rain. And never in the history of the British Isles had a prolonged period of spring rain been celebrated with such nail biting enthusiasm. News items focussed on empty looking reservoirs which maybe were not quite as empty as they had been. Climate experts refused to jump down from the fence and say the rain might just be a sign of something better. In pubs and offices and shop counters, everyone was talking about the rain and hoping against hope it would last all the way to October.
The whole thing completely washed over me if you'll excuse the unintended pun. I was locked down in the office and I even lived up to the ultimate journalistic cliché: I asked my editor for permission to put a camp bed in my tiny office and he said it was OK.
All my reporting life I had yearned for a story like the one which was completely dominating my eighteen hour days. The story of the alleged Hackney Death squads had everything. It was dark, harrowing, and it had the ability to change everything. Even in the chaotic, turbulent early months of 2030, no government could survive being caught in the act of ordering kill squads to murder English citizens in the nation's capital.
I had always anticipated working on this kind of story would have all the thrill and adrenaline of a big dipper ride. How wrong I had been. Maybe if things had been different, it might have been the case. If I had been dispassionate. An outsider looking in. Patiently picking at the threads and gathering my evidence. But I didn't feel like an outsider. I had only met Leroy once, but once was more than enough. He was so very different from Wendel but they shared the same courage and utter sense of right and wrong. I guess in hindsight I spotted the martyr in Leroy the very first time I laid eyes on him outside the Guardian offices. The diffident stance. The bookish glasses. The canvas shoulder bag. The nervous smile. The careful handshake. The thoughtful silence.
I could see the huge toll Leroy's disappearance and subsequent loss had taken on Wendel. On the surface, nothing had changed but there was a new look in his eyes. A mix of pain and rage. He refused point blank to talk about his feelings. Instead, he grilled me about all aspects of the investigation and did all he could to think of new dark corners I could delve into.
At first everything was about the victims. As the word of our genuine determination to look under the rocks spread through Hackney, the families started to come forward. I met mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and grandmothers and grandfathers. We met in cafes and parks and pubs. Their stories were different, but in a way they were always the same. An abduction. Weeks and weeks of frantic searching. Begging the police to investigate. Waiting for hours on end to get five minutes with their MP. Firing out an endless stream of 'Have you seen?' pages into the vastness of Facebook. But the end result was always the same.
Nothing. A wall of silence. A giant brick wall.
By March we had a growing collection of evidence of how so many had disappeared. We had over a hundred affidavits sworn in the company of the paper's in-house solicitor. We had some grainy footage of a van pulling up outside a low rise block and five masked figures jumping down from the back and returning a few minutes later dragging a writhing figure. Next, we received actual footage from inside a flat. It was jumpy, noisy, chaotic and absolutely terrifying. Screaming and shouting. Furniture tipped over and four masked men who seemed too large for the small room. Angry voices which a language expert identified as Latvian. A young man yanked out through the front door with undistilled terror in his eyes. A final brutal warning backed up with a pointed weapon.
By the third week of March we had a hundred cases under our belts. We had a clear handle on the tactics the snatch squads had used. We had reasonable proof of at least eight different nationalities under the masks.
One fact overwhelmed all others. Of the ninety two men and eight women who had been taken from Hackney, not a single one had ever been seen or heard from again. They had disappeared. Vanished. Become statistics nobody was willing to put on any kind of public list. The police always shrugged and said the disappeared ones were no doubt on the run. Hiding out in another city. Maybe even in another country. After all, they had been a part of a terrorist group. What was so surprising?
Oh yes. That particular part of the narrative had by now hardened. The narrative was parroted by policemen and politicians alike and they stuck to it ferociously. The Peoples' Republic of Hackney had in fact been a vast terrorist cell. It was something akin to the 'so called Islamic State of Syria and the Levant' which had scared the pants off the western world a few years earlier. The men and women of the so called Peoples' Council were much like the men and women who had ordered murder and mayhem from their seats on the IRA Army Council back in the 1970's and 80's. The so called Peoples' Republic had presented a clear and present terrorist threat to the whole of the nation. Only the dedication and professionalism of the police and the security services had driven this particular pack of rabid dogs from the door. The tabloid press was more than happy to take this narrative and run with it with everything they had. The people of Hackney learned how it felt to be cast as designated bogeymen and bogeywomen. Hackney became the latest version of the useful baddy state. Hackney became the new Cuba. The new Libya. Iran. North Korea.
Nobody was in the mood to give a damn about the alleged disappearance of over a hundred English citizens. Desperate times had required harsh measures. The threat had been neutralised. The good guys had prevailed and the bad guys had been put back in the box.
In mid-March I was introduced to a young hacker who was, without doubt, the most paranoid individual I have ever met. I had some time-stamped video footage of a man being thrown into the back of a van. And my footage showed the number plate surprisingly clearly. Could he hack into whichever system collected number plate recognition data? He could. For a price. I was pleasantly astonished when my editor agreed to pay up without batting an eyelid.
The hacker came good after two days and managed to track the van across London and all the way to an industrial estate on the outskirts of Colchester. A stand-alone one storey warehouse. Nondescript. Mildly decrepit looking and rather unloved. The only part of the compound which looked remotely new and cared for was the ten foot high razor wire fence which was wrapped around the perimeter. Alf and I arrived on the first day of the Spring rains to find a 'To Let' sign on the padlocked gates and nothing but shrugs from everyone we talked to. The letting agency was grumpy with us. No, they couldn't reveal details of any of their tenants. Not in a million years. And there was something more behind the aggressive order to leave the office. There was genuine fear.
Could the hacker find a way into the records of the Estate Agents? He could. For a price. Nice work if you can get it.
And suddenly there it was. A name. Something to get a hold of.
Now the investigation was racing along two different roads. A further fat envelope of cash to the hacker gave us the footage from a CCTV camera sited two streets away from the locked warehouse. Alf's eagle eyes had noticed what was a freakish piece of good luck. The camera was keeping an eye on a small row of tawdry looking shops. A betting shop. A bit of everything mix of groceries and booze. A charity shop. A launderette. A Chicken and Kebab place.
At the end of the row, there was an alley which provided a cut through to the next street. On the far side of the next street, there was a building site which a developer had earmarked for six new houses before the crash in prices. So instead of six new houses, there was a patch of overgrown waste ground and a clear view all the way from the CCTV camera to the chained front gate of the warehouse compound.
We soon had three weeks’ worth of footage which showed the comings and goings of ten different vans. Our first van was filmed coming and going on eight different occasions. We had nothing else. No pictures of figures being yanked from the vans and dragged inside. But it was another brick in the wall we were trying to build.
The second strand of the investigation involved engaging the services of a renowned firm of forensic accountants. They were digital bloodhounds and we allowed them to inhale the scent of Holbrooke Securities and then we let them loose.
Two days later they returned with an air of resignation. They walked us through their journey from a bank in Jersey to a bank in Macau to a bank in Delaware all the way to their final destination which was a bank in the British Virgin Isles.
All they had was a list of three nominee directors. Were they worth looking into? Not remotely. They were complete nobodies who were paid a few pounds to masquerade as directors for literally hundreds of shell companies. Could our intrepid hacker find a way through the off shore firewalls of the bank? He just laughed. Be serious guys.
Outside the windows of the office, the sky crackled with thunder and the rains of April started in earnest.
There were six of us around the table in the conference room. Nobody was in the mood to speak. We were all sleep-deprived and strung out. For weeks we had chased the elusive Holbrooke Securities and it had seemed like we were about to land our prey.
Instead, we had reached a brick wall.
Our editor slowly packed up his brief case. "OK. Enough for tonight. Get yourselves home. Get a proper night's sleep. We'll reconvene at ten and do some brain storming. There has to be a way. Keep the faith."
We slept and showered and breakfasted and commuted. And we brainstormed. And we kept the faith. And none of it did any good whatsoever.
We remained parked up on the wrong side of an offshore brick wall.
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