What you have just read was my three and a half thousand word article to be published in the Daily Chronicle. After seven weeks spent researching, writing and assembling my UNIT dossier, it was time for me to return to work. I had decided to rename my series of articles ‘Bad Science’, after all the embarrassments, failures, and massively expensive blunders that I had uncovered during my time researching UNIT's shady background. I talked the idea through with my features editor who readily agreed.
‘Actually, we've been hearing whispers about some secret project near Eastchester that's gone horribly wrong, nicknamed ‘Inferno’. Nobody's been able to get the real story, but with your contacts...’ Michael suggested. I needed no more prompting.
My sources inside the Ministry of Science for once had plenty to say about this topic. It seemed the Government had poured millions into a project to drill into the Earth's core, releasing the superheated natural gases inside that could power a thousand turbines, providing a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cheap electricity.
But something had gone very wrong at Inferno. The guiding force behind it, Professor Eric Stahlman, had died trying to make his dream a reality, along with several technicians. The project director, Sir Keith Gold, had resigned his post with the Ministry of Science and was saying nothing about events at Inferno. But my old friend Martha had a possible contact.
‘You could try Greg Sutton. He's an Australian drilling consultant Sir Keith brought in to try and make Stahlman see sense. Sutton's not afraid of D-notices. If you can find him, he might just talk.’
Finding Sutton proved difficult enough. A friend in immigration confirmed that my quarry had not left the country, while someone else at the British Science Museum thought he could be living in Kent. I eventually tracked him down by chance, while visiting Professor Stahlman's former assistant, Petra Williams.
An attractive woman in her late twenties with ash-blonde hair, she was cleaning out Stahlman's office in the Mechanical Engineering Block at Imperial University in South Kensington when I arrived. She declined to talk about what had happened at Inferno and said she had no idea where Greg Sutton was. I noticed she kept nervously glancing at her watch, so I stalled as long as I possibly could. Finally, she snapped.
‘Look, I don't know where bloody Greg Sutton is and I don't care, all right? Now get out of here before I call security,’ she shouted.
‘That's not very nice,’ drawled a nasal voice behind me. I turned to find a tall, heavily-built man in casual tan-coloured shirt and jeans standing in the doorway. ‘Bloody Greg Sutton now, is it? That's not what you were saying last night, Petra.’ Miss Williams's face sank and I realized why she had been so desperate to get me out of the office: she was due to meet Greg Sutton here and he had just arrived.
Never one to miss an opportunity, I stepped forward to the new arrival with a hand extended in greeting. ‘You must be Greg Sutton. My name's James Stevens.’
Sutton's face broke into a smile as he shook my hand. ‘I'd know that accent anywhere, you must be a Kiwi. How long you been over?’
‘Nearly two years. I came -’
‘He's a reporter, Greg,’ interrupted Petra. The smile faded from Sutton's face. ‘He came here to see if I knew where you might be. He's doing a story about Inferno.’
‘That's right. I understand you two worked on it together,’ I chipped in, trying my best to be pleasant and friendly, to defuse any angry scenes before they started.
‘Yeah, that's right,’ Sutton nodded. The young woman, who was obviously his lover walked over to him and slipped an arm around his waist before he could say any more.
‘Greg, you know we're not allowed to talk about it.’
‘You might not be able to but we don't pay much attention to Pommie D-notices where I come from. So I don't see why I shouldn't give this fella his story. Besides, he'll probably never believe a word of it anyways.’ Sutton turned back to me. ‘Look, do you want to go to a pub or something to talk? There's a good little bar down a mews a couple of streets away where we can talk.’
‘I'd love to,’ I enthused. After so long listening to off-the-record sources and contacts who would only speak in enigmatic riddles, it would be refreshing to hear some straight talking. Petra decided to stay behind and finish the packing. That way she would not be part of any illegal disclosure of restricted information.
A few minutes later I was seated opposite Sutton in a small public house called the Queen's Arms. Two pints of lager stood between us and I had my pen and notebook, ready for anything - or so I thought. Sutton spun a tale that could have stepped straight off the page of a science fiction potboiler, about a mad scientist with his crackpot scheme, an old Government buffer trying to reign the madman in, and of a green slime oozing out of the drill shaft that turned men into primordial monsters.
About halfway through I stopped taking notes and just listened. It was hard to tell if Sutton was just winding me up, but he seemed to genuinely believe this fanciful yarn he was telling. Only when he mentioned the name of another independent consultant at Project Inferno did my pen snap back to attention.
‘The wildest part had to be this guy there, the Doctor, who said -’
‘What? What did you say?’ I blurted out.
‘The Doctor, Doctor John Smith. He was another one of the consultants Sir Keith had brought in to monitor Stahlman. I think he came down with the Brigadier and UNIT when they arrived -’
‘UNIT were there?’ I blurted again.
‘Yeah, that's right,’ Sutton laughed. ‘You better have another drink mate. Judging by the look on your face you need it.’
I took his advice and then invited him to continue.
‘This Doctor, he dressed like he'd just gotten out of some carnival or something. Frilly white shirts, a velvet smoking jacket -’
‘How old was he? What did his face look like?’ I interrupted.
‘Don't know, about fifty I guess. His face was kinda lived in, nose a bit beaky, and his eyes - they could bore a hole through metal,’ replied Sutton. ‘Anyway, without the Doctor's help we never would have stopped Stahlman before it all went too far. But boy could that guy come out with some whoppers. He told us he'd travelled to - now, let me see if I can remember this right - he'd been transported to a parallel dimension where the history was different and where Inferno had caused the entire planet to split apart. Something like that.’ The Australian laughed. ‘Craziest story I ever heard but at least he helped us stop Stahlman.’
At this point Petra Williams found us in the pub and took Sutton away with her. They were planning to leave the country any day. I wished them well for their future together.
‘Don't know what you'll make of that story, but good luck anyway,’ replied Sutton as he left. I remained behind for another ten minutes, staring at my half-finished pint without really seeing it.
If Sutton's story was to be believed - and parts of it were too bizarre for me to even contemplate seriously - that meant there was a fourth person going by the codename ‘the Doctor’. Even more startling, Sutton's description of this Doctor was a perfect fit for the astronaut that Professor Ralph Cornish and British Space Control had sent up on Recovery 7's second rescue mission to Mars Probe 7. Just like the Gatwick Doctor, this one also went by the codename of Doctor John Smith.
It all tied together neatly, perhaps too neatly. But how could I take this part of Sutton's story as truth while dismissing the rest as unbelievable? In the end, I could not find a way to resolve the dilemma. I finished my pint and headed home to Chelsea.
Natasha and I had been through a rough patch but we seemed to be coming through it at last. I looked forward to going home at nights now, and I definitely could not have said that just a few months before.
The next week I spent at the Chronicle, putting the finishing touches to my ‘Bad Science’ feature series. The news editor had gotten wind of some of my bombshells and requested a front page lead for the Monday morning edition to really hammer our exclusive revelations home.
‘Something juicy, you know the sort of thing, m'boy: govt. bungles billions on mad scientists - your taxes squandered on crazy science disasters,’ he explained with a boozy wave of his right hand.
The Editor even commanded the series be trailed below the masthead in the Saturday and Sunday editions just before it started - a rare show of faith in the Features Department.
The first five articles were already written by then, and I went into the Chronicle offices on the Saturday afternoon to put some spit and polish on my grand finale, ‘The UNIT Dossier’. I was just finishing the closing paragraphs when a call came through to my phone.
‘Good afternoon, Mr Stevens. I did so enjoy your article about the killer virus and Wenley Moor,’ purred the voice into my ear. It was my anonymous source - the first time he had called in nearly three months. ‘I understand you're working on a series of articles that should embarrass quite a few important people.’
‘That's right - they start on Monday morning,’ I replied proudly, before trying to draw the mystery caller out. His true identity, his motives, and his depth of knowledge had worried me for months. Certain contacts I knew I could trust, others you had to take a pinch of salt with whatever they said. Some you could risk your life on.
Sources will tell you secrets for a variety of reasons. Many feel it makes them more important; others do it out of spite or anger or guilt. A few like to play games and are happy to use journalists as their conduit to the outside world. My mystery caller definitely fell into the last category - the one that made me most uncomfortable. I did not like being anybody's message boy: I had higher aspirations.
Never before had I been given such reliable information without even meeting the source face to face. If I could just look into the eyes of the caller, I might have a better idea of how far to trust him. I prided myself on being a good judge of character face to face, but anyone could present a false image over the phone.
‘I never got to thank you for your help on Wenley Moor, and I had some questions to ask you about that, Mister, err..?’
‘I hope you plan to mention UNIT in your feature series,’ smiled the silken voice, elegantly side-stepping my blunt attempt at interrogation.
‘Yes, I'm planning a big exposé on UNIT's hidden agenda,’ I said, curious how he knew this in advance. I had made sure no one else knew the contents of the ‘UNIT Dossier’, not even the Editor. So far I had just promised a ‘big finish’ to the ‘Bad Science’ series and left it at that.
‘Excellent, most excellent. That should keep them well occupied over the coming months. I must congratulate you Mr Stevens, on a job well done,’ smiled the mystery caller.
‘I did have one problem you could perhaps help me with. Do you know anything about C19 or UNIT's links with a place called the Glasshouse? I keep getting -’
‘I should be very careful what you ask for, Mr Stevens, or one day you may just get it. Lots of people visit the Glasshouse, but no one ever comes back...’ he whispered before hanging up.
The whole conversation left me feeling very uncomfortable, and I decided to get out of the Chronicle offices, making sure to take all my notes about UNIT and C19 with me. I had received no threatening phone calls or other forms of harassment since before Christmas, but this feature series was going to embarrass a whole lot more people than before. Better safe than sorry, I told myself.
Come Monday morning and Fleet Street was abuzz with the Chronicle's ‘Bad Science’ series. Television, radio and the other papers were left scrabbling in our dust, trying to follow up the revelations I had unearthed over the past five months. Many of the other media were too timid to repeat the more daring allegations in the first feature, but I was totally confident about the truth of what I had written.
Every fact published in the article had been triple checked. Unless I had three separate sources who confirmed a fact, I did not include that fact, no matter how much I believed its veracity myself. The Chronicle's lawyers had poured over three different drafts of the first feature for hours before giving their approval. The Editor did not believe the adage ‘Publish and be Damned’; he preferred ‘Publish and Damn Others’.
By noon, questions were being asked in the House. The Chronicle had been given a tip-off from its Parliamentary correspondents that several of the more right-wing MPs were planning to bay for blood and I slipped into the Press Gallery to witness the spectacle. My presence sent a ripple through the other reporters, who recognized me from the pubs along Fleet Street, but the other hacks on the Chronicle kept a tight formation around me.
This was in the days before BBC3 began its live broadcasts of sessions in the Houses of Parliament, so there was none of the playing to the camera seen now. Instead, this was the last gleaming of the great orators in the House. There were several rousing speeches about facts cited in my feature, which was a general summary of the scientific disasters in Britain over the preceding ten years.
A particularly strong speech came from the backbenches, where Brian Mitchell recalled listening to Harold Wilson's famous speech about the ‘white heat of technology’ given at the Labour Party Conference in Scarborough in October 1963.
‘You said then we must be ready to think and to speak in the language of our scientific age. Well, if this is the glory of our scientific age, then call me a Luddite!’ thundered Mitchell to great applause.
In an attempt to silence its critics, the Government promised a full inquiry into the ‘allegations’ made in my article. There were murmurings in the Press Gallery that this could be the straw to break the Government's back altogether. Already leader articles were being crafted around Fleet Street demanding resignations, demanding answers to the questions I had raised. While the rest of the media tried desperately to find new information or a fresh angle on what I had written, I contented myself with a few late polishes on the subsequent articles.
Tuesday's feature delved deeply into the Inferno disaster at Eastchester, which the authorities had previously managed to keep almost a complete secret. The article was trailed with a typically overblown front page lead claiming bad science blunders add 2p to tax!, the gist of which threw a few numbers around to create the impression that all the money lost on failed projects could add two pence to the basic rate of tax.
On Wednesday the feature series back-tracked to re-examine the C-Day fiasco and raised questions about the rise of computers in society, while Thursday re-opened the wounds of the Wenley Moor plague. By this time two Government Ministers had resigned and a third was about to be forced out. But the blood-letting did not satisfy the critics, who sensed a mortal wounding of the Prime Minister's authority. Word from the House suggested a summer election, perhaps June - one last desperate roll of the dice.
In the newsroom there was talk of my articles being submitted as a late entry for the National Newspaper Awards, which were due to be announced the following week. I was happy to have the attention, but dubious about entering my work. ‘Don't be such a magnanimous prick, any award's worth another grand on your asking price!’ the news editor berated me. I took his advice and posted copies of the features in before leaving the office on Thursday night. Just before leaving the building I dropped my copy for the final feature, ‘The UNIT Dossier’, into the basket on the features sub-editor's desk for him to see first thing on Friday.
I got up the next morning to discover something curious at the end of my latest feature. Below a searching exposé about the flaws in the planning of the Mars Probe series, a small black box had appeared. Reversed-out in white was a simple wrap-up line: this is the final article in the ‘bad science’ series. the feature planned for tomorrow's edition of the daily chronicle will now not be published.
Forsaking breakfast I headed straight to the office to confront the features editor. ‘What the hell is going on? Who pulled my article, Michael?’ I yelled at him. He was getting a cup of black coffee from the canteen and refused to answer my questions until he got back to his office. I followed him inside and he shut the door behind me before sinking into the swivel chair behind his desk.
‘Jesus, Michael, you look like shit,’ I gasped, finally looking at his face instead of just shouting at him. He seemed to have aged overnight, his short black hair streaked with grey. Uncharacteristic stubble speckled his chin and dark rings encircled his eyes. Sweat stains were visible around the armpits of his white shirt and his tie hung limply around his neck.
Michael looked at me wearily. ‘Yeah, well, I feel worse,’ he eventually replied before gesturing at his desk. It was strewn with dozens of pieces of copy-paper, each covered in a spidery scrawl of handwriting, with words written, crossed out and rewritten many times over. The floor around the desk was littered with further crumplings of paper and torn up sheets of carbon. I recognized a few snatches of the original type-written text on some of the pages as my own work and my heart sank. It was my UNIT feature, my masterpiece.
‘What happened?’ I asked limply, already guessing the answer.
‘First thing I knew was a phone call to my house at midnight. Seems the Editor had wandered into features, browsed through the in-tray and found your feature for Saturday's paper. Next minute I'm getting a missile in my ear and the second edition is being re-made to delete any and all mention of your article. I've been in all night rewriting, trying to find a way to save the piece,’ he explained.
Michael just shook his head.
I should have been angry, but right then I just felt sorry for Michael. We had become friends during my short time upstairs in Features and I wanted to apologize for putting him through the grinder. He had shown a lot of faith in me during preparation of this series and given me a lot more slack than most editors would have countenanced. Now he was being repaid for his trust with misery and humiliation.
‘What reason was given for pulling the feature?’
‘What reason? What reason!? Jesus, James, have you read this?’ Michael grabbed up a sheaf of pages and shook them in front of my face, the veins bulging on his temples. ‘You didn't think we'd actually be able to run this, did you? Does the phrase D-notice mean anything to you? What about libel? Defamation, does that word ring any bells?’
He raved on for another few minutes in similar tones before running out of steam. I let him abuse me, let him get it out of his system. God knows I deserved every word of it, but it had just never occurred to me the feature could cause any trouble. Naïve, really, but I had felt like a crusader for truth, and almost invulnerable. Now the reality of my situation was causing an ugly nausea in my gut. All I felt was sick and scared.
A polite rap at the door and the Editor's secretary entered. A small, mousy woman, Jane knew more about what was going on with the paper and its staff than the Editor did. If you were getting a raise or getting fired, chances were she knew about it long before you did. ‘Michael, the Editor would like to see you. Oh, James, you're here, good. You'd better come and wait in my office; he wants to see you next.’
Michael stood up, straightened his tie with the resignation of a man who knows his fate has already been decided, and marched resolutely out of his office without looking back. Jane looked at me with eyes full of sympathy and walked quietly after the features editor. I followed sheepishly behind, like a naughty schoolboy who has been caught out and is on his way to see the headmaster.
Jane's office was a small, oak-panelled ante-room to the Editor's office. She busied herself with some filing while I spent an uncomfortable few minutes listening to the sound of shouting from next door. The barrage of noise was going all one way, pausing only for the occasional murmur in reply. The wooden walls muffled the words but the meaning was clear. Michael was getting the dressing-down of his life and I was next.
After a prolonged silence the dark-stained door opened, light glinting on the brass plaque with the word editor engraved into it. Michael beckoned me inside. I had never been into the Editor's office before and could not help glancing around to take in my surroundings. All around the wood-panelled walls black-and-white photographic portraits of previous editors looked down sternly on proceedings.
The current incumbent was seated behind a vast mahogany desk that was completely clean, barring a brass and green-glassed desk lamp and a single sheet of paper with the Chronicle's letterhead clearly visible at the top. Just two paragraphs were typed on the page, but these were partially concealed beneath the Editor's clasped hands. Michael was already seated opposite his superior on a stiff-backed wooden chair, and an empty chair was awaiting me beside him. I sat down without waiting to be told and regarded the figure opposite me.
Peter Wise had been Editor of the Daily Chronicle for twelve years, having been Deputy Editor for four years before that. Now in his early fifties, he had begun as a cadet reporter before quickly rising through the ranks via General News, the police round, the Business Section, a stint in the Press Gallery at Parliament and finally into senior management. For the Chronicle, his rise to the top was unusually quick but the Second World War had cut down many obvious candidates for the post.
In physical appearance Wise was not unlike the stereotypical image of an Oxbridge don. His hair was snow-white and receding, his hands were pink and callous-free and his face was deceptively placid behind the pair of half-moon glasses over which he peered. Only the piercing eyes of flinty blue revealed the killer instinct of the Fleet Street journalist that lurked within this unthreatening exterior. His visits to the newsroom were rare, but the sharpness of the Editor's tongue when riled was legendary. Perversely, I found myself wondering why he was always called the Editor with a capital ‘E’, even in my own subconscious.
‘Ah yes, Stevens,’ he began, eyes blazing into my own as his right hand pulled open a desk drawer. He withdrew a slim manila folder and placed it unopened on the desk in front of him, all the while never shifting his gaze from my eyes. ‘James Stevens, born on 22 November 1945, in Auckland, New Zealand. Attended various minor schools with an excellent academic record marred only by a total lack of respect for authority. Joined The Daily News in Taranaki as a cadet reporter, and quickly gained a series of promotions before shifting to the New Zealand Herald in Auckland less than two years later.’ He recited all this without once looking down to refer to the folder, which remained firmly shut on his desk, the words stevens, james carefully written in block capitals down its side.
‘You emigrated to Britain in 1968, and quickly worked your way from some worthy provincial papers to Fleet Street before securing a post here at the Chronicle. Married the daughter of a noted member of the aristocracy at a registry office to escape a problem with the immigration authorities, causing no end of scandal. Since arriving in this office you have distinguished yourself with diligence, hard work and solid graft. The problems with your youthful rebellious streak seemed behind you. You were settling down into a good, reliable reporter - until this incident.’
The Editor paused to sigh, like a disappointed uncle. ‘I won't ask you to explain this article, or how you thought you could possibly get this tissue of lies, wild suppositions, half-truths and falsehoods published in a highly respected journal of record. If you realized what you were doing was wrong and went ahead anyway, somehow hoping to sneak it into print, you're far too dangerous for us to continue employing. If you didn't realize what you were doing was wrong, that makes you possibly even more dangerous. Unless you can convince me otherwise, we can no longer continue with your services, Stevens.’
During his short but well-rehearsed speech, I kept wondering who was really behind all this charade. I knew my feature was based on facts and I could point to three sources for every statement in it. There was another agenda at work here. I decided to play along and see if I could get a glimmer of what was really going on.
‘What would I have to do to redeem myself?’
The Editor paused before answering, but plainly already knew his reply to my question. ‘Obviously this article can never be published, neither in the Chronicle nor in any other British or Commonwealth journal. Should all or any part of it be published anywhere in the world with or without your consent, you would be dismissed immediately.
‘Also, we would expect you to hand in all notes, tape recordings and documents obtained or taken during the course of your investigations for this article. They are the property of the Daily Chronicle and would remain in our possession. Finally, you would have to give an undertaking never to repeat any of the contents of this article to any person or persons.’ He sat back in his high-backed chair of burgundy leather fully satisfied, steepling his hands together in front of his chest.
I already knew my response to those terms, but decided to continue with the shadow boxing, to see if the Editor would reveal just how damaging the revelations in my article could be. It was obvious somebody wanted this story killed, but just how badly? ‘So what's in it for me?’ I asked cheekily, bringing a snort of disbelief from Wise. ‘I mean you're asking me to surrender a lot of time and work. I've spent seven weeks of my private holiday time putting this story together.’
The Editor leaned forward. ‘If you accept these terms, you would be fully compensated for the loss of time and earnings. Plus, you could expect a guarantee of employment here for at least another five years and annual increases in your salary at double your normal pay rate.’ I tried to calculate this figure out in my head but was quickly interrupted by Wise. ‘In case you're wondering, that's worth an extra £15,000 over the next five years.’
In the chair next to me Michael gave a sharp intake of breath. The amount of money on offer was close to his entire salary for the year - a small fortune. ‘Jesus, take the money, James!’ he whispered out the side of his mouth.
I decided it was time to take control of the situation. ‘For an article you say is full of lies, suppositions and half-truths, you seem willing to pay one hell of a lot of money to stop it seeing print,’ I ventured.
‘The money we're offering you is as nothing to the potential legal costs if we published and were sued - and we would be, I can assure you,’ replied the Editor evenly.
‘All the same, I can't help feeling maybe my story isn't so crazy after all. Maybe I should take it to another paper - they'll probably pay twice what you're offering for my juicy piece of news.’ By now the atmosphere in the office had fallen from frosty to arctic. ‘Anyway, you'll never be able to fire me, the journalist's union would be out on strike in a minute.’
‘I wouldn't count on that, Stevens. No one else on Fleet Street will touch you or your article: the word has already been put out. As for the unions, before I invited you in I was talking to the Father of the Chapel. He was more than happy with the extra two per cent pay rise I offered across the board in exchange for the union's silence on this matter. Everyone has their price - what's yours?’
Wise reached into his desk drawer again and brought out a large corporate cheque book. Using a fountain pen from the breast pocket of his suit jacket he wrote the date, my name and his signature on the top cheque, leaving the amount- to-be-paid line blank. Meticulously folding the cheque along its vertical perforations, he pulled it out of the book and offered it to me. ‘This is a blank cheque. You can fill in your own price - anything up to £50,000. Take it Stevens, while you still can.’
Those aching moments in the Editor's office at the Chronicle haunt me to this day. I remember turning to Michael, watching the sweat trickle down his face, his eyes staring directly in front of him, not daring to catch my eye. I remember the cheque held steadily in front of me, enticing, clean and crisp, the dark blue ink still glistening as it dried on the paper. I made my decision and stood up.
‘I'm sorry, but I'll have to refuse your kind offer. I'm not a whore whose favours and services you can buy off. This is a cover-up, a conspiracy, and I intend to expose it, no matter what you put in my way. You can fire me but you can't shut me up,’ I said, my voice surprising cold and passionless.
The Editor withdrew the cheque, tore it neatly into quarters, and dropped it into the cane waste basket by his desk. Pursing his lips, he signed the piece of letterheaded notepaper on his desk and pushed it towards me. ‘Due to this incident of gross misconduct, you are hereby summarily dismissed from the Daily Chronicle. You will receive no severance payments and are expected to vacate the building forthwith. Your personal items will be sent on to you. Good day.’
I picked up the letter of dismissal, tore it neatly into quarters, and threw it in the Editor's face before walking out of the office. I stopped by my desk to grab what few notes I had left at the Chronicle. I knew whoever was behind this would make good with the threat about seeing that I never worked as a newspaper reporter again. My career in the dailies was at an end. My telephone started ringing and I picked it up, answering without even thinking.
‘Good morning, James Stevens, Daily Chronicle.’
‘Not anymore, you're not,’ a chillingly familiar voice lisped. It was the same person who had been making threatening phone calls to me at work and at home before Christmas. ‘We told you to back off this story but you wouldn't listen. It's already cost you your job. But just wait until you get home Stevens, just you wait...’
I sped through the mid-morning streets, all the while expecting to be pulled over by the police. Abandoning the car outside the flat, I sprinted up the stairs and burst through the already open front door, fearing the worst. Inside the flat was a wreck; furniture torn apart, books and papers flung across the floor. I ran from room to room, shouting Natasha's name without reply. The door to my study had been broken open by brute force, the wooden frame around the lock splintered inwards. Within was a mess of ripped and smashed notes and reels of tape, all strewn across the floor.
Finally I went into the main bedroom, almost expecting to see Natasha's dead body lying on the floor. Instead, her discarded clothes littered the room and there was an ominous gap in the open wardrobe. Spread across the neatly-made double bed were a dozen glossy ten by eight black-and-white photographs.
Each depicted naked flesh, two bodies intertwined, coupling and uncoupling against silk sheets. Only in the fourth photograph was the man's face visible - my face. Suddenly, I recognized the woman in the pictures, the woman from the Savoy Hotel. Across a photo of the woman's bare chest three words had been smeared in angry red lipstick: ‘HOW COULD YOU?’ I recognized the handwriting as Natasha's.
I should have known. The whole incident at the Savoy. That woman virtually throwing herself at me. It had all been just a ploy to get some incriminating evidence to use against me, to hurt me. My colleagues at the Chronicle had warned me but I had been too drunk and too flattered to know any better. Now Natasha knew my guilty secret and I doubted she would ever forgive me. The bastards certainly knew how to fight dirty.
Hoping against hope, I dug out the personal phone book and called the number for Natasha's family home. It was the only place I could think she would have gone to first: most of her friends were still off skiing at this time of the year. It rang and rang, and just when I was about to slam the receiver down, a quivering voice answered my call.
‘Hello, Natasha, is that you? It's James.’
‘You bastard! How could you?’
‘It's not what you think; I was set up,’ I protested.
‘Are you saying you didn't sleep with that whore?’ My silence was answer enough. ‘All this time I've stayed faithful to you when you treated me like dirt and this is how you repay me!’
‘Look, where did the photos come from? Can you tell me that?’
‘They were delivered by hand this morning. Some guy in a dark suit. Said he was a friend of yours and he had something that might interest me,’ she sobbed.
‘Natasha, I'm so sorry, I never meant to hurt you,’ I pleaded.
‘And to think I'm going to have your baby, you shit! I never want to see you again!’ she screamed and slammed down the phone.
I must have stood there holding the receiver to my ear for a full minute, not realizing she had gone. A baby? Natasha was going to have a baby - our child? I never even knew she was pregnant.
After regaining my wits, I tried calling her back but the number was permanently engaged. The operator confirmed the phone was off the hook, but refused to try and break through. ‘Do you know whose phone number that is?’ she said imperiously before hanging up.
Days passed without reply to my phone calls or letters to Natasha. Finally I despaired of contacting her and decided to visit the family manor in the countryside. Digging out a battered road map from the mess of books and papers on the floor of the study, I set off for Castle Howarth. The journey was bitter, with the country caught in a cold snap that had closed schools, airports, and killed dozens of motorists.
Somehow I made it through the chaos on the roads. Just two miles short of my destination the weather closed in completely, with a blizzard reducing visibility to just a few feet in front of the vehicle. Eventually, inevitably, I lost control on an icy corner and wrapped the car around an old oak tree. The rest of the journey I made by foot, trudging through knee-high snow drifts to reach the main entranceway. It took another hour to cover the half-mile approach to the castle.
As I stumbled onward, I could hardly see the centuries-old turrets ahead of me, so heavy were the snow showers engulfing the sprawling country estate. I had only been here once before, during the previous summer when Natasha introduced me to her father. Then the grounds had been immaculate, the grass a brilliant emerald and the castle's sandstone walls blazing gold in the bright sunlight. Now the building loomed like a slumbering stone behemoth.
After clambering up the icy steps I hammered at the tall black doors and waited, my thin coat soaked through and almost frozen to my shoulders. The wind was so cold it pulled my cracked lips back to the gums, flashing my teeth in a grimacing parody of a smile. At last the door was opened by a few inches and I forced my way into the warmth inside, ignoring the protestations of the aged butler, Sumner.
‘Look, I don't care what your high and mighty Lordship has told you, I'm bloody frozen and I want to see my wife - got it?’ I demanded. The meticulously uniformed Sumner looked me up and down with disdain, as a puddle of water formed around my feet from the ice and snow dripping on to the black marble floor of the entrance hall. The frosting of snow on my hair was thawing out and melting down my face. It would have been comical in other circumstances.
‘Hmph,’ mused Sumner, arching a grey eyebrow at me before looking over my shoulder into the lounge behind. ‘Sir?’ I turned to see Lord Howarth standing in front of a blazing fire, swirling a generous measure of brandy in a ludicrously oversized balloon glass. The old man regarded me sourly but raised a finger to indicate I could stay - for now. ‘Come in here, boy,’ he boomed. I shook off my dripping coat and handed it to a disapproving Sumner before striding into the lounge. ‘Sumner, could you attend to the matter we discussed earlier? Thank you.’
Lord Howarth was a great bear of a man, over six foot tall and nearly eighteen stone of barrel-chested aristocracy. Hunting, shooting and fishing had put iron in his limbs and port, brandy and sherry had put a glow into his cheeks, as well as mapping prominent red veins across his nose. Now approaching sixty, he still had a full head of wiry grey hair and a generous, ginger-tinged beard and handle-bar moustache.
He stood commandingly in front of the fire, his massive frame encased in a three-piece checked tweed suit and his legs stretched out in well-worn brown riding boots. When I began dating Natasha, I thought it wise to do some background reading on her family in the clippings files. My compatriot Catherine had provided a full résumé of the Howarths.
His Lordship favoured flogging, birching and any other beatings that could be meted out, judging by the coverage of his few speeches in the House of Lords. He was said to be more disappointed when his wife produced a daughter as his only offspring than by the fact that she had died in the process of childbirth. Despite this he had doted on Natasha.
At our only previous meeting he had deemed me ‘a filthy colonial descendant of criminal scum’. When I pointed out that few convicts had been exiled to New Zealand, they mostly went to Australia, he merely shouted louder and longer about hanging being too good for my kind. It was about then I decided to marry Natasha if only to spite the old bastard. Now he had a look of satisfaction on his face requiring a sandblaster to remove it. He had told her so and now I had proved him right.
‘So, you've come crawling back to see my daughter, have you?’ he bellowed. Lord Howarth never spoke, never stated, never suggested. He shouted, bellowed and boomed, generally at a level of decibels that would put the Who to shame.
‘My wife, she's my wife,’ I replied quietly.
‘Not any more! I've already had my QC draw up the divorce papers - so kind of you to provide such irrefutable evidence of adultery; it will make the proceedings so much quicker and less painful.’ He gestured at a selection of the same photographs Natasha had already received. C19 had obviously been thorough in their work. ‘Thankfully I have a few friends on the bench who will make sure this never makes it into the papers.’
‘How convenient,’ I snarled.
Howarth reached out a great fist and pulled me towards him with a speed at odds with his bulk. ‘Now listen to me, you little shit! I have friends in very high places and I would advise you not to take that tone with me. It's this simple: you will never see my daughter again; never speak to my daughter again; never try to contact my daughter again. If you do so I will have you killed. Do you understand?’
‘If you think -’ My protests were cut short by a massive blow across my face. Pain exploded behind my left cheekbone and I went sprawling across the Persian rug on the floor. Howarth strode forward and picked me up again, one fist drawn back ready to strike again.
‘Do you understand?’
‘You can't keep me -’
A blow to the stomach doubled me over, while another to the face flung me backwards onto an immaculate mahogany coffee table that splintered apart beneath me, collapsing to the floor. His Lordship stood over me, now clutching a black metal poker from beside the fireplace. ‘Obviously, your grasp of English isn't all it should be. I shall have to beat it into you. Do’ - he smashed the poker into my side with a dull thud - ‘you’ - another blow, accompanied by a popping noise - ‘understand?’ A third blow and more pops: the sound of my ribs breaking, I realized through a haze of pain.
‘Yes,’ I said, blood dribbling from my mouth on to the rug.
‘Good, then that's settled,’ smiled Lord Howarth. He stepped back and looked up at several figures in the hallway. ‘Ah, gentlemen! This ruffian broke into my house and began smashing my priceless antiques, before attacking me personally. I had to defend myself and was only just able to repel him when you arrived.’
I tilted my head enough to see four policemen standing behind me, each clutching a wooden baton. ‘Yes, your Lordship,’ the leading policeman said. ‘What would you like done with this piece of scum?’
‘Make sure some harm comes to him, then take him to the cottage hospital. He appears to be bleeding on my furniture.’
‘Criminal damage as well, is it? We better sort this out, lads,’ announced the leader, a sergeant. The four stepped forward and began repeatedly hitting and kicking me about the head and body. I tried to put my hands up to protect my face but could find no strength in my arms to move them. After a minute the violence stopped, but the pain remained. ‘Right, that's enough lads,’ said the sergeant. ‘Let's take him away.’
Six hands grabbed at my clothing and began dragging me away. I was hardly conscious but looked around as I was being taken out of the front doors. Up a flight of stairs I could see a woman's figure in silhouette, a slight bulge prominent at her stomach. I tried to call out her name but just gurgled in my own blood.
‘Oh, James,’ I heard Natasha sob as I passed out.
It was nearly 36 hours before I regained consciousness in a hospital bed, and another week before I was well enough to leave. My attackers had been careful not to cripple me permanently, but my face was a swollen mess of cuts and bruising. I had a lot of time to think while I lay in the hospital bed, my nose full of the stench of disinfectant.
For so long, I had been obsessed only with myself, with what I wanted. When I finally found someone I could love, and who would give me the love I had never enjoyed before, I had treated her like dirt. Now I would never see Natasha again, and certainly never be a father to our child. I had done exactly what my own father had done to me: effectively abandoned my own offspring before it was even born. The vicious circle was complete.
Christ, what a mess I had made of my life. I had lost my wife, I had lost my unborn child, and I had lost my job. The one time I had abandoned my tabloid motto of never letting the facts get in the way of a good story, when I had tried to achieve something by uncovering the wrong-doing of others, was when I got the sack. And not just from the Daily Chronicle. By now the Editor would have carried out his threat to blacken my name all along Fleet Street.
But perhaps some good could still come out of this, I told myself. If I could nail the true story behind UNIT once and for all, I could vindicate myself. I could regain some self respect and maybe even find redemption for all the things I had done wrong.
It was not going to be easy. Already the UNIT conspiracy had forced me out of my job and the thugs from C19 had used their dirty methods to break up my marriage. Sure, I had slept with another woman, but by entrapment - a classic honeytrap. Whoever was really behind all this would obviously stop at nothing to hide their secrets: threats, intimidation, entrapment, perhaps even murder.
I made a resolution to myself. I was not going to be manipulated into dropping this investigation. There was too much at stake. I was going to discover the truth about C19, UNIT and the mysterious Doctor John Smith - even if it killed me.