I spent much of March getting well and trying to pull parts of my life back together. Knowing my income as a freelance journalist might be erratic for a while, I sold the flat in Chelsea at a handsome profit and picked up a new car and a small terraced house just off Wandsworth Common for a song. It needed some work but that could wait. All I needed right now was an office (with at least two telephones in it), a toilet and somewhere to sleep. Interior decorating was not a priority.
The next step was to try and build a career as a freelancer. It was slow going at first, but I resisted the urge to grab any work on offer. Better to go hungry for a few weeks and make a splash with a great story than get a reputation for being small change and small time. For once I got a stroke of luck, although in reality it was only just reward for a lot of previous hard work on my part.
Despite a last minute effort by the Daily Chronicle to withdraw the ‘Bad Science’ feature series from competition, I won a major journalism award for my articles. The cash prize was minimal, but the kudos attached proved very helpful in jump-starting my freelance career. I cheekily used the acceptance speech to announce my availability for feature work on any magazines that wanted me and immediately picked up several good contacts. The editor at Metropolitan, Sally Lincoln, was especially enthusiastic and made me promise to give her first refusal on any scoops I might put together in future.
Better still was an immediate commission to turn my feature series into a book. ‘Strike while the iron's hot, dear boy,’ explained Henry Spencer, the non-fiction editor of a major publishing house. We met for an expensive literary lunch at Simpson's of Piccadilly a few days after the awards ceremony. ‘It needn't be the world's greatest book, as long as it's timely!’ I took him at his word and demanded a thousand pounds as an advance, a sum I knew to be ludicrously over-priced. But the thought of losing out to another publisher proved too powerful an incentive and Henry painfully agreed to my demand, along with a healthy percentage of the cover price in royalties.
When my ‘Bad Science’ feature series first hit the stands, the Fleet Street broadsheets had spent weeks investigating in far greater detail the incidents I had only broadly outlined. The Daily Chronicle would never have countenanced such expense on a story of unknown merit. Thanks to this hard work by others, I was quickly able to expand my five published features into 55,000 words, all bashed out in a sixteen day frenzy fuelled by caffeine and chocolate.
The prose was not pretty, but it did the job. When I delivered my manuscript at the end of the month, Henry asked me what I planned to write next, perhaps expecting me to be a one-trick pony. But I already had two ideas for new books brewing at the back of my brain, just waiting for a chance to get out.
‘I want to do a sequel to Bad Science, an investigation into covert agencies in Britain. I've already done quite a bit of work looking into this and it's amazing how many of these men in black suits there are lurking about the place, doing things behind the scenes,’ I explained.
He looked dubious. Henry was proud of boasting about his academic success at Cambridge but in fact had only just scraped through his degree, he had drunkenly admitted to me the first time we met. Too busy chasing the other students, particularly the boys. His father was in publishing and it was inevitable that the son should follow. But what Henry lacked in academic talent he more than made up for in publishing sense. He happily announced that he had the ‘common touch’ and could turn a book about farming guppies into a prodigious seller given the right marketing.
‘I'm not so sure about a sequel, dear boy,’ he sniffed. We were at Simpson's again, because Henry had his eye on one of the waiting staff. He always liked to mix business with a little pleasure. Replete in a finely pressed wool suit, white silk shirt and Eton tie, Henry cut a dashing figure. His receding brown hair was nearly cropped close to the skull and his eyes swept the room, hungrily seeking out his prey as spoke. ‘Once was good, but can you come up with the same sort of shocks again? Maybe, maybe not. What's the other idea?’
I leaned forward to whisper my idea across the table at him. ‘What if John F. Kennedy had lived?’ I sat back to let him digest for a moment before continuing. ‘It'll look at what could have happened if JFK hadn't died at Dallas. Would he have won a second term? If he had, would Bobby have replaced him as President? What with Chappaquiddick all over the papers, the Kennedy clan and its many tragedies are big news right now...’
The previous summer, the last surviving Kennedy brother had driven the final nail into his family's political coffin in America. Senator Edward ‘Teddy’ Kennedy had been at a party on the tiny island of Chappaquiddick during the annual Edgartown Regatta at Martha's Vineyard. Around midnight - the time was hotly disputed, as were most facts of the case - the senator was driving a young female secretary in his car. The car plunged off a small wooden bridge into the harbour.
Teddy somehow survived the crash and got to shore, but 25-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne drowned. There were rumours, allegations and slurs against the last surviving Kennedy brother, who carried the final hopes for a new Camelot following the assassination of his two brothers.
The whole messy story had just been dredged up again by an inquest. Now the anniversary of the tragedy was fast approaching and Teddy Kennedy would soon be running for Senate again.
Henry was sitting bolt upright now, his food ignored, his flirtation with the waiter utterly forgotten. ‘My boy, you're a genius! What if JFK Had Lived - it'll sell by the truckload! Every man-jack is doing a Chappaquiddick book, but this tome of yours could cover the entire, tragic Kennedy dynasty!’ His eyes were gleaming; I could almost see him writing the cover-copy in his mind. Realizing his enthusiasm was giving too much away, his gaze narrowed to regard me. ‘How much?’
‘Seventeen fifty,’ I said, smiling.
‘What! That's outrageous! I could never -’
‘For both books,’ I interrupted, before Henry could get a full head of steam. ‘Either you commission both books for a total advance of seventeen hundred and fifty pounds, or I take them to another publisher. It's that simple.’ Henry started talking again so I held up a hand. ‘Think of it this way: you're actually getting the Kennedy book for less than you paid me for Bad Science.’
‘But that didn't have any strings attached!’ he whined.
‘Take it or leave it,’ I replied, making it clear this was not open for further negotiation or debate. Although Bad Science had not yet been published, the advance orders had been exceptional and the book was sure to make the bestseller lists. A quick sequel would at least break even, while my proposal for the Kennedy book had money-maker written all over it for the publisher that picked it up. Henry sulked for another course but finally agreed to my terms, on condition that I paid for lunch. It was worth every penny.
By the middle of April I was back at the typewriter, trying to turn out as many pages as humanly possible each day for the Kennedy book. Finally my years of research into the background of JFK's presidency, his murder and the subsequent effects on his family, his nation and the rest of the world were paying off. The Kennedy scrapbook I started on my eighteenth birthday was now an invaluable resource, especially as I did not have direct access to the clipping files at the Chronicle anymore. Whenever I got particularly stuck for a fact I could make a discreet call to Catherine in the Chronicle's archives and she would post me the information I required for a tenner. I tried to avoid doing this as I did not like asking her to risk her job, especially while my name was still high on the Editor's blacklist.
In between writing sessions I combed the national and major regional papers for any references to bizarre happenings or passing mentions of public appearances by UNIT. The two categories almost always coincided. The name UNIT itself would never be published in any article - the usual flurry of D-notices made sure of that - but I soon became adept at recognizing the signs of an intervention by the covert intelligence taskforce. Eyewitness accounts of strange events were quickly followed by denials, retractions, or just an ominous silence, with nobody bothering to follow up a story that was plainly still very much alive.
I noted full details of all such occurrences in my UNIT log, for further investigation when I was blocked on my writing about the Kennedy clan. My contacts on the national papers and in the various Government agencies that I had built up over the last two years also proved helpful with information about UNIT's activities.
A typical example of an intervention was the death of two scientists at the Beacon Hill Research Establishment in what the papers called ‘mysterious circumstances.’ A source within the Ministry of Science indicated that UNIT had been called in to investigate while the local police were kept away from the scene. A sympathetic phone call to the sergeant at the nearest station revealed that his men were furious at being excluded from the investigation. If a murder or murders had taken place, it was up to the police to investigate such a crime - not some bunch of jumped-up tin soldiers playing at sleuth!
Several other oddities happened about the same time. There was a dramatic increase in sudden deaths from natural causes, such as asthma and heart attacks. This was blamed on ‘an unusually high level of pollution’, but nobody could explain why the deaths all occurred within the space of a few days and then mortality levels fell back to normal rates.
An exhibit apparently on loan from ‘an international intelligence organization’ was stolen out of a display case at the National Space Museum, although later reports stated it had just been ‘mislaid’. Elsewhere, 450,000 free plastic daffodils that had been distributed around the country were recalled for ‘safety reasons’ by the authorities. A source of mine within the Ministry of Science confirmed the authority behind the recall was actually Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. But what the hell did UNIT have to do with fake flowers?
With my Kennedy deadline looming fast, I had to put such questions aside for later investigation.