CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
A FRESH PAIR OF EYES
As the Turkish and Israeli armoured columns rolled serenely to their destinations without encountering any kind of opposition, my investigation into Holbrooke was still staring at a brick wall. We had by now accepted there was no chance of dragging any information out of the British Virgin Isles. We still had a steady stream of Hackney families making contact to tell the stories of how their loved ones had vanished into thin air. The problem was we didn't need any more evidence of what was actually done. We had that part of the story nailed to the wall. What we needed now was clear proof of who had ordered it to happen. And who had paid Holbrooke Securities to make it happen.
After three weeks of fruitlessly smacking my head against the brick wall, I decided it was time to take a break and spend the weekend up in Edinburgh. I tried to persuade Wendel to come along, but he was too busy beasting a new batch of wannabees up and down the Brecon Beacons.
I took the plane and never before had Scotland felt so utterly different to England. I left a London which felt beaten down and simmering with discontent. Roads which had once been constantly gridlocked were now home to free flowing traffic. Half of the shops on Oxford Street were boarded up and a multitude of street beggars had replaced the teeming crowds of visiting Asian tourists. The queue of taxis waiting for arrivals was barely twenty cabs long.
Edinburgh, on the other hand, had a frantic feel about it. My dad was waiting for me at in the Arrivals Terminal. We hugged and I could see he was sweating profusely.
“Had to bloody run all the way from the car park. Everyone keeps saying the congestion can't get any worse and guess what? It just keeps on getting worse. Good trip?"
“Fine. London was the complete opposite. It is turning into a ghost town.”
“I heard as much. Come on. We're this way.”
The journey from the airport to Morningside took over two hours, but that was OK. It gave us time to catch up. Of course dad's main concern was how many death threats I was receiving. I told him they were no better but no worse. For the umpteenth time, I told him not to worry. And for the umpteenth time, I knew my words were somewhat hollow. I sensed his frustration.
“OK. I'll only say it once and your mother has promised not to say it all.”
“Come home, right?”
“Of course come home. I simply cannot understand why on earth you are so determined to stay down there. Surely there has never been a better time to be a reporter in Scotland. Everything is running at a million miles an hour. Really, Sam, it is absolutely exhilarating. And I know for a fact you have job offers on the table from every one of the main papers. What on earth is stopping you?"
“Two things, Dad. A really, really big thing and a big thing. You already know the really, really big thing.”
Dad nodded. “Wendel.”
“Of course Wendel. And you get that, right?”
A long, resigned sigh. "Yes. Of course, I get it. And for what it is worth both me and your mother like him a lot. I mean, a man who saves my daughter's life, what is there not to like?"
“How is his mum doing?”
A chuckle. "Oh, she's in the pink. She invites us round all the time to eat. You can probably see the evidence on my waistline. Do you think Wendel will be willing to give up his army career and come to Scotland."
“I think so. But I don't go on and on at him. It wouldn't be fair.”
“No. I don't suppose it would. You said there was something else? I presume this is your investigation into the death squads?”
“It is. I can't leave it, dad. And it isn't just me being a horrid ambitious hack. Fair enough, it is the kind of story which only comes along once in a lifetime. If we can nail it down, Edward Montford will go down with it. Believe me, it is huge. That hideous man might well end up on trial in The Hague."
Another chuckle. “I think Mr Montford chose the wrong Scot to pick a fight with when he had a go at you in the Press Conference.”
I smiled. Fair enough. No point arguing the toss on that one. I had plenty of skin in this particular game.
“But there's much more, dad. I know it sounds corny, but there has to be some justice. I have met so many of the families who have lost their loved ones. Mums and dads and grandparents and aunts and uncles. I have given them tissues to wipe away the tears. I have held their hands. I have looked all the way into their eyes. And every time, I have promised them I would do everything in my power to find them some justice. You cannot expect me to break my word. You didn't bring me up that way. Right?”
He stared forlornly out into the long line of queued cars. "No. We didn't. And I know this is your Woodward and Bernstein moment. Of course I do. And we are both as proud of you as any parents can be. We just worry. We worry all the bloody time. Anyway. Enough of this. How is it going? Your big investigation?"
“Bloody awful to be honest. We have hit a wall and the wall is about a mile high."
Dad waved a hand at the seized traffic. "Well, we're going nowhere fast. This mess is going to take at least an hour to get through. Why don't you run me through the investigation? You know. Maybe a fresh pair of eyes might help. Legal eyes sometimes see things in a different way to journalist eyes."
So I walked him through. I laid out the evidence we had gathered piece by piece until I reached the infamous brick wall in the BVI. When I was done, he was quiet for a while. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.
“OK. Let me check a few things.”
“Once you identified Holbrooke Securities as being the people behind the abductions, all of your efforts have been focussed on finding out who they are.”
“And if you can pin down who they are and what they are, then you will try to prise the truth out of them. Who engaged their services? How much was the contract worth? What precise instructions were they given? Who signed off?”
“However in a way, all this will do is provide evidence to prove what you already know. I presume you are certain these abductions were sanctioned by the Westminster Government?”
“OK. So try this on for size. You don't know much about Holbrooke Securities, but you do know this. They proved themselves to be extremely effective. They went into what was pretty well a war zone and within a month the streets of Hackney were quiet. They took on the task with a cold brutality. Every abduction was planned down to the last detail. To the best of our knowledge they didn't lose a single person.”
“It seems like you are impressed.”
“In a way, I am. Don't get me wrong. I find everything about them despicable. But there is no point in our not acknowledging their efficiency. Look, I'll show you where I am going with this. Let's assume you find a way in. Let's assume you start to identify some of the key players. What then? Do you really think any of these men will tell you anything? Not a chance. Not in a million years. I know these kind of guys. I have prosecuted them for years. Gangbangers. Omerta. Their beloved code. These Holbrooke Securities guys will be ten times worse. Military gangbangers."
“So you're saying it's pointless trying to find out who Holbrooke really are?”
“Not entirely. Maybe if you can find out where they operate from, your hacker might be able to drag some evidence out of their systems. But I doubt it. I assume they will have the best cyber security money can buy. You couldn't use it anyway. Think about it. Imagine the front page. Here is all the proof we illegally hacked from a company called Holbrooke Securities. Your lawyers wouldn't sign off on it in a hundred years."
“No. I don't suppose they would. Christ. So you think we should give up on trying to find out who the hell Holbrooke are?”
“Yes. I think you're flogging a dead horse."
“So if not Holbrooke, then where on earth do we go?”
Dad grinned. “You go old school. Follow the money.”
“That is what we are trying to do. We need to get into Holbrooke to find the money and where it came from.”
“No you don't. Come on Sam, you are all thinking far too conventionally. You need to think laterally.”
I think I probably rolled my eyes. “Go on.”
“I will. Here's your starting point. You feel quite certain the Government engaged the services of Holbrooke Securities to go into Hackney and break the People's Republic?”
“You are also certain Holbrooke Securities didn't do what they did as an act of patriotic fervour. They did it for money, yes?”
“Money from the Government, yes?”
“What you have been trying to do is find the place where the money arrived and that place is locked in a concrete bunker in the Britsih Virgin Isles.”
“So it seems to me you need to follow the money in a different way. If the Westminster Government has been paying very large sums of money to Holbrooke Securities, it must have come from somewhere. It will be well hidden, you can be sure of that. But at the end of the day the public pound is actually quite hard to hide. The money will have been paid out from some obscure department. But there will be some kind of record. And the people in charge of these records will not be gangsters. They will be civil servants. And maybe they will already be feeling uneasy about what has happened."
And there it was. The light bulb moment. "Oh my God. How could I have been so bloody blind? We don't try to dig into Holbrooke to try and find who paid them and how much. We need to dig into the government and find out who paid Holbrooke. And how much. And who signed off. So bloody simple when you think about it."
Dad grinned like a cat sizing up a bucket of cream. The traffic, at last, started to unwind itself. Already I couldn't wait to catch the plane back. I managed to switch my return ticket to early Sunday morning and by eleven o'clock I was banging away at the door of our favourite hacker's flat. After a couple of minutes, he emerged looking bleary eyed and pissed off. I appeased him with a cappuccino and a six pack of still warm donuts.
All residual grumpiness evaporated once I ran my dad's lateral thinking by him and within minutes his grubby fingers were flying.
Three days later he summoned me. If anything, he looked even worse. His eyes were as red as a Cambodian sunset and without putting too fine a point on it, he stank. His flat was a fetid mix of endless rollies and discarded takeaway cartons. With a triumphant bite of cold pizza he ushered me to his workspace.
And there it was.
The Department of Environment. And very quickly it became blindingly obvious this was the perfect place to hide huge sums of cash in plain sight. The Government had been shelling out lorry loads of cash to clean up the decommissioned reprocessing plant at Sellafield for well over ten years. Initially, the clean-up bill had been estimated at an eye watering £8 billion. Soon this initially frightening figure seemed like mere chicken feed. By 2022 the sum had risen to £61 billion. By 2028 it went through the £100 billion ceiling. Every time the figure was yet again adjusted upwards, there would be a fierce political storm as all the parties blamed each other. Only the Greens enjoyed the luxury of an absolute 'we told you so.' But in the end, everyone knew only too well there was absolutely no choice in the matter. The bills had to be paid if the whole of Western Cumbria wasn't to be turned into a radioactive 'no go' area.
The Hinkley Point bills were not quite in the same league as the Sellafield bills, but they weren't so very far behind. A horrible number of billions had been squandered as successive Governments tried to find a way to bring the nuclear plant to life. Hinkley Point spent years being the great white hope. And when the dream finally crashed to the canvas, a bitter Edward Montford was forced to go cap in hand to Edinburgh to keep the lights on.
My hacker had unearthed well buried contracts and invoices which had first come to life in the summer of 2029 just as the People's Republic of Hackney was dominating the news. There were a total of seventy two contracts for Sellafield and thirty three for Hinkley Point. The wording which described the contracted services was a selection of initials, acronyms and bureaucratic double speak. Basically, the contracts were for site security. It would have been easy enough to have wrapped the whole thing up in one simple document. Instead, they chose to create a hundred and five documents every one of which ran to over fifty pages of small print legalese.
However, all of the documents had two things in common. Every contract ran for three years until the summer of 2032. And every contract engaged the services of Holbrooke Securities. The monthly amounts paid out to meet the terms of each of the contracts were not huge. Only when all the amounts were added up did the real figure start to emerge. £12.3 million a month. £12.3 million a month for 36 months.
Holy mother of Jesus bloody Christ.
On a bike.
Nearly half a billion pounds worth of tax payer's cash had been paid out to cover the cost of Edward Montford deploying private sector death squads onto the streets of London.
I wanted to punch the air. I wanted to dance a jig in the midst of all those festering takeaway wrappers. I wanted to run away to the mountains of New Zealand and hide. Adrenaline coursed through me. I felt exhilaration and blind terror in equal measure. This was shaping up to become one of the greatest stories any English newspaper had ever run. Maybe the greatest.
The next two weeks were a frenzy. Wendel gave me the contact details of a couple of Regiment guys who had set up on their own. Among their list of advertised services was covert surveillance. We shook on a deal and sent them off to do some covert surveillance on Sellafield and Hinkley Point. They watched and logged what they saw for ten days and came back with a comprehensive report.
A Portacabin in Sellafield and a Portacabin in Hinkley Point. Two guys at each site. Twelve hour shifts which basically involved sitting in the portacabin playing on an Xbox or watching movies. No patrols. No drive rounds. No nothing. Just two portacabins with a small sign on the door. 'Holbrooke Securities.'
The Government didn't seem to be getting much for an outlay of £12.3 million a month. Two Portacabins. Four guys.
Whilst Wendel's guys hid in bushes and took photos, my hacker continued to earn his corn. The next target was the personnel department of the D of E. Who was in finance? Who was in remittances? Soon one name started to jump from the page.
We mined the history of her social media and the deeper we went, the better she looked. 56 years old. Single. A civil servant since graduating from the University of East Anglia in 1995. She became a single mum at the age of thirty and Facebook suggested she had made a decent fist of raising her only son, Liam. Days out at the seaside. A holiday in Spain. A holiday in Tunisia. Occasional tickets to watch Arsenal.
In 2016 the look and feel of her Facebook changed. All of a sudden she was keen to tell the world she was 'With Jeremy'. All of a sudden there were endless pictures of Eleanor and Liam flying the flag at Corbyn rallies. There was even an image of mother and son beaming through a selfie with the great man himself.
Her enthusiasm didn't survive the chaos of Labour rule and by 2026 she was posting photos of her three pet cats and little else. Now it was Liam's Facebook page which was the main point of interest. Listening to all those fired up Jeremy speeches had obviously had a lasting effect. At University he spent lots of time attending rallies and not so much time studying. He dropped out after two years and drifted from one minimum wage job to another. And he became a very angry young man indeed.
He was drawn to the People's Republic like a moth to a candle. For a while, his posts burned with the thrill of revolution. And then everything changed. Photos from a hospital ward. A selfie of a wrecked face. Bitter words described how he and three others had been ambushed by thirty EFP stormtroopers. A ruptured spleen. six cracked ribs. No sight in his right eye.
Eleanor's postings were more careful. She tried to show pictures where her son was looking like he was on the road to recovery. The mood of her page was one of sadness rather than rage. Her beloved son had been broken. The dreams Jeremy had sold her had been broken. Everything seemed broken. Only her three cats seemed to offer much in the way of solace.
I knocked her door a little after seven on an airless Thursday evening. She peeped out with apprehension all over her tired face. I managed to convince her I was genuinely harmless. When all was said and done, she had been a Guardian reader all her adult life. And she knew who I was. She had seen me on the TV. She had watched Edward Montford take a piece out of me.
She let me in. The flat smelt of burning incense and quiet music complemented the low lighting. Her three cats were sprawled out on the furniture. There were African carvings and old posters from back in the day demanding freedom for the Palestinians.
“Can I get you anything? I like mint tea. It is quite cooling.You know. After a long hot day. The tube. All of that.”
“That would be lovely. Thank you, Eleanor."
I watched her as she did the honours. Baggy cotton pants. A loose T shirt and stick thin arms. She was careworn. Old beyond her years. Her loneliness seemed to fill every corner of the room.
Her shyness was painful. “So. Sam. How can I help you?”
Show time. "I think you need to brace yourself, Eleanor. What I am about to tell you is truly shocking. And what I am going to ask you to do is very frightening. All I ask is for you to hear me out. I promise not to put any pressure on. I think you will know what is the right thing to do. And I very much hope you will make the choice to do exactly that: the right thing. Is that OK, Eleanor?"
“Good gracious. Well, yes. Yes, I suppose it is.”
I took papers from my case. They were already in the right order. And I took her through the whole thing. The vans. The men in masks. The foreign voices. Then CCTV all the way to the compound on the outskirts of Colchester. The tearful mothers and fathers and grandparents and uncles and aunts. Photos of the disappeared. Photos from doomed mantelpieces. School photos. Football team photos. Party photos. Graduation photos. Paddling pool photos. Smiling photos. Victim photos.
And then it was all about Holbrooke Securities. Two portacabins. Four guys. Sellafield and Hinkley Point. And £12.3 million each and every month all the way to the summer of 2032.
A vast ocean of off the books money. Dark money. Dirty money. Blood money.
And now I could see a desperate recognition in her eyes. She was familiar with the name. Before my visit, the name Holbrooke Securities had meant nothing. It was just one name among many. Why would it stand out? And £12.3 million a month was little more than loose change. She had questioned nothing. Why should she have?
“What are you asking me to do?”
The moment. The moment where things could go one way or the other. "We have seen all the invoices, Eleanor. Each and every one. But we are not supposed to have seen them. We hacked the system. Which means we cannot use any of this. We need to be able to see the invoices in a legal way.
Every vestige of colour drained from her face. "Oh my god, you want me to leak them."
“We do. I do. All the families do.”
She fiddled with the papers in front of her. I was desperate to say something but managed not to. Eventually, she looked up.
“You know about Liam, don't you?”
“And what happened to my son is why you think I will do this? Because my son could easily have been one of the disappeared?”
“Yes. That is what we think.”
She held my gaze and gave a small nod.
“I think you are right." And now she smiled. "I seems like it is time for me to put my money where my mouth is. After all those rallies and protests, the time seems to have finally arrived for me to step up. Well, fine. I'll step up. Give me the details and you will have your invoices tomorrow."
Heroes and heroines come in all shapes and sizes. This heroine came in cotton pants and a baggy T shirt.
And she was the bravest woman I have ever met.
We had her leaked e-mails in our possession by one o'clock the next afternoon. A meeting with the lawyers was held at three. They made encouraging noises, but they needed time. How much time? Two weeks to be on the safe side. My editor was perfectly happy with the timescale. Two weeks would be perfect. We would get everything written and ready to be rolled out over four days. He was confident it would be the greatest story in the long history of the paper.
We had finally crashed through the wall. Now it would all be about the fun part.
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