Saturday, 29 November 2008
Bitco is an unusual software consultancy, in that all its employees are dead. Bitco is a wholly owned subsidiary of Hell Corporate. Peter Highwater had died a year ago, gone to Hell, been sent to the Ninth Circle and put to work as a system administrator at Bitco. He was sitting in the weekly all hands meeting, listening to an address and pep talk by his manager Archimedes Runatalos. In front of a daylight screen showing the twelfth, or was it the thirteenth, Powerpoint slide of the day, Archimedes was explaining his new scheme for colour co-ordinating the carpets in the various parts of the Bitco office. Green carpets for the senior executives, for they needed to contemplate and dream. Red carpets for technical staff, for they had to remain alert, agile and active. Yellow carpets for reception areas, for our visitors must be cheerful. The summary slides read like the Beatitudes. This meeting had started at eleven o'clock and had been going on for two hours at least. Peter stared idly out of the window. A distant volcano, too far away to be heard or to do any damage to the building, gave off a powerful blast of sulphurous yellow gas and flung red hot rock into the sky. Archimedes continued talking without noticing it.
Archimedes flipped to the next slide and began explaining that the coffee machines would stand on circular patches of easy to clean orange synthetic carpet with resilient underlay in order to motivate coffee drinkers to return to their desks instead of standing around doing nothing, while providing luxurious support underfoot. He had drafted the carpeting scheme in admirable detail. The new scheme was going to need some effort in procurement, since nothing was easy to come by in Hell and carpets rarely arrived in new condition. This effort was to be contributed by Sandy Luff, a brilliant programmer who was part of Peter's team but who was happy to tackle more or less any job that came along, despite knowing nothing and caring not in the least about carpets. Peter was a little irritated that Sandy would now be spending time doing a purchasing clerk's job instead of his own, but reflected that Archimedes had, at least, chosen someone other than himself.
After that, Archimedes put down his notes and beamed to his audience. "You know," he declaimed, "In my garden I grow mushrooms. I look after them and I care for them and I make them grow. I like to think that I care for my team in the same way that I care for my many mushrooms."
"Yes," Sandy Luff's voice could be heard in a stage whisper, "keep us in the dark and give us some shit every so often." There were giggles, and at last the meeting was almost over.
"Any other issues?" Archimedes asked the meeting, but nobody raised any.
Back in Peter's office, his desktop was running an Access database and the Windows operating system — this was Hell, after all. Sandy settled in a desk on the opposite side of the room and began sorting pieces of paper. Routine tasks filled the afternoon. Queues of messages were building up on machines feeding data to the Outlying Territories. It looked as though there might be an interruption in service there. Peter attempted to restart the service from his desk, but failed. He phoned the administrator there, but nobody answered the phone. Never mind. Try later. The queues wouldn't cause a problem for a day or two, except to anyone who was waiting for a message that was trapped in them.
In the evening Peter went back to the house at 11 Blair Street, where he lived with his wife Angela. She was usually home before him, but today she wasn't back yet. Peter found a few euro in his pockets and decided to buy something from Iceland and get some dinner ready. The electricity was still on, so Peter managed to cook the food before the lights went off. After that, Peter wrapped the food in a blanket and sat, in the dark, at the window, watching for Angela to appear. He had even taken to wondering whether she had been injured by the volcano blast and was even now lying on the ground writhing in agony waiting for help that was never going to arrive in time, when she came in through the front door.
"What happened to you?" he asked, when the door finally opened. "I was getting worried."
"I got a job."
"How did that happen? I thought you never bothered with the Job Centre."
"I don't. You'd have more luck finding a tin of cat food at Crufts than looking for work at the Job Centre. But lo, the job came to me. This morning a Polish man in a yellow jacket came and banged on the door and gave me a letter of introduction. I'm working on the radio station."
"I didn't know there was a radio station."
"There soon will be. I'm in News."
"I made dinner."
"I make news, you make dinner. Sounds a fair division of labour to me. Chinese sweet and sour pork. Yummy."
"It was all they had in Farmfoods. As you've been working all day, I'll wash up afterwards as well. What does the job involve?"
"All I've done so far is make tea."
"They have tea?"
"Mm. It's a perk of the job."
"Is it interesting?"
"Of course. Did you know there are over a hundred different kinds of tea?"
"No, I didn't. I'm only a humble peasant so Asda Economy does it for me. But I really meant to ask if the job was interesting. Who else is working there?"
"I saw Robert Maxwell."
"I'm not surprised."
Hell Corporate owned four tower blocks from Castlemilk. The blocks were demolished in their native cities and their souls had been transported to Hell, which is where they should have been in the first place. Block One was now a call centre where thousands of tortured souls were put to work ringing up telephones at random and trying to ensnare whoever answered the phone into some fraud or scam or purchase of double glazing or a fitted kitchen. Block Two had remained empty at the time, and now the top two floors of Block Two had been converted into the improvised studios and offices of Radio Hell.
"What sort of programs will Radio Hell broadcast?" Peter asked innocently.
"Whatever's informative, entertaining and interesting. The Archers. Poetry Please. Thought for the Day. Lottery results. Just A Minute. That sort of thing."
"What sort of event gets on the news?"
"Anything vaguely interesting and not too upsetting to the demons."
"Cat walks three miles to old home?"
"Sure. Why do they do that?"
"I don't know. Maybe they left the gas on. Or maybe the grass isn't really greener three miles away."
Angela paused, dangling a fork above a sweet and sour pork meatball, and then asked Peter, "If you're interested, why don't you come with me to Radio Hell tomorrow? Just to get an idea what I'm doing all day. Where the kettle and the tea bags and the milk are, that sort of thing."
"I'd love to," Peter said as Angela stabbed the meatball. "What time do you start?"
"In time for the eight o'clock news."
Angela and Peter stepped out of the lift into the lobby of Radio Hell at about ten to eight and found turmoil. Two men were arguing incomprehensibly about air time and contractual obligations. A woman was desperately collecting and examining sheets of typescript, putting them into a pile. Another man in a cheap, badly fitting jacket and a large pair of headphones stopped shouting instructions down the phone and ran up to them looking red faced and panicky. "Angela," he panted, "there's a panic on. Can you read the news?"
"Why? What happened?" Angela tried to work out what was going on around her. Panic didn't quite seem to cover it.
"Alvar's gone missing."
"Missing?" Angela grasped the scale of the problem. Alvar Liddel was the finest newsreader the world had ever known — God alone knew why he had been sent to the Ninth Circle — the only person who knew how to interview an old age pensioner who had left her false teeth in the dishwasher, how to report from a courtroom or a bomb site, and where the sugar was. Without Alvar Liddel, the radio station was an ocean-going liner without a rudder, a Wild West sheriff without a horse, a driverless train, a factory without light or power, an axe without a handle, a bank robber without a getaway car, a field of sheep without any of those yappy black and white dogs. And the seconds-hand of the clock was sweeping over the number 9, so there was no time left to find him. "Oh, my G— I mean, what the devil are we all going to do? Where's he gone?"
"We don't know. That's what 'missing' means. Don't panic, though, because now is your big chance. Stand in for him. Studio two, go on the green light, here's..." he reached out and grabbed the woman's sheaf of typescripts, "...the script. Go!"
"Me stand in for...?"
"That door there, with the '2' on it," said Headphones, bundling himself into the goldfish bowl between the studios.
On a loudspeaker behind the reception desk, the time signal started.
"I'll see what I can do."
The time signal finished.
Angela dashed to the desk. She found an earpiece and she was almost ready to read the script when the green light went on.
"This is the news, and this is Alvar Liddel reading it." She read the 1940s catch phrase in an exact rendition of Alvar Liddel's unmistakeable voice.
"That's amazing!" In the lobby Headphones called out to nobody in particular. "She's got the voice exactly. Drinks all round, guys! We're not washed up after all!"
"It's her gift," Peter put in, "one of many."
"So when Alvar turns up, Angela can go on Dead Ringers."
"Or she can carry on reading news. She'd be perfect."
"Shares have continued to fall in value on stock exchanges throughout the world," she began, trying to get the earpiece to stay in her ear, "with prices falling as much as a hundred per cent in the first five minutes of trading on the London Stock Exchange. Mr Eric Swindler, of the Exchange, described the falls as a lot worse than they expected, adding that before the day was out, he would probably have thrown himself off the sill of a top floor window."
"Did he really say that?" asked Headphones down the talkback.
Angela pressed the cough key, "No, I made that bit up," in her own voice. The earpiece fell out of her ear and she pushed it back.
"Great. Feel free to improvise. This is only the news, after all."
"The Stock Exchange needs to hire some better pessimists," Peter muttered.
"Excuse me?" Headphones looked up.
"They need better pessimists. What's the point of an advisor who says everything's all right, the ship is on course, the iceberg has gone away all by itself and there's nothing to worry about? If the advisors had said that the entire civilised world would be reduced to rubble by five o'clock on Tuesday, Alvar — I mean Angela — would've been able to sit there and say that things were better than expected, instead of worse.
"I see what you're driving at."
"In an American election broadcast Mrs Sarah Palin, the Republican candidate for the Vice Presidency, stated that in her view schools should explain to children that the Earth is flat, heat is caused by an accumulation of phlogiston and the health of the body is governed by the balance of the four humours."
A tape of her voice saying the words began to play.
"Perhaps you didn't understand my use of irony, Angela," screeched Headphones. "Let me put it this way. Don't goddamn make things up! This is the news. You can't just say whatever comes into your head!"
"I didn't. She really said that." Angela held up the script and pointed.
The canned interview ended amid much applause, cheering and whooping. Angela moved on to the next story.
Headphones looked at Peter.
"Who are you?"
"I'm Peter Highwater. I'm Angela's husband, or something."
"Make yourself useful, then. As Angela's on air, you'll have to make the tea."
"How did you work that out?"
"Easy. You're British, you've never worked at Starbucks, so you know how to make tea. Kettle," Headphones pointed to a cupboard, "tea bags," he pointed somewhere else, "milk in the fridge, sugar."
Two or three minutes later Peter was silently taking Angela a cup of tea as she mimicked Alvar Liddel reading a story about Jocasta, a long haired black cat from Blunkett Buildings, walking three miles to its old home. She mouthed "Thanks" inaudibly, adding, "Have one yourself."
Peter arrived at the Bitco office around half past ten and sat down to an electronic in tray of about thirty e-mails, most of which he could safely delete without reading. The queue of messages to the Outlying Territories processor had grown huge, though, and it definitely needed attention. Peter would have to go and look at it.
Going to the Outlying Territories was not to be taken lightly. It would require hours of packing and preparation, and you never knew on which days or at which times transport would be available, since it was operated by South West Trains. Still, that was where the problem seemed to be, and nobody else seemed to want to sort things out, so Peter figured it was better to spend a few days away trying to fix problems in the Outlying Territories than staying in the office not reading endless e-mails about penis enlargement and dead relatives in Nigeria bequeathing him millions of pounds while the problem got worse.
"What's the problem exactly?" asked Sandy, when he and Peter were together in the office for a moment.
"Not sure. We have messages travelling from the call centre and not getting through."
"What are they about?"
"Just the usual bank things."
"Let me guess. Mrs Pile was so distracted by her neighbour's flamboyant new day-glow curtains that she drove her car straight into a shop window and smashed a crate of earthenware flowerpots to smithereens? Mr Jones from accounts was shagging Mrs Sanjee the cleaner in the broom cupboard after work on Thursday?"
"Nothing so exciting. Just money. Customers, accounts, invoices, cheques, standing orders, repayments, foreign exchange, share prices, interest rates. Just automatically generated messages that mark payments and receipts."
"Nothing interesting at all, then."
"Depends what you mean by interesting. Up there in the Outlying Territories people's salaries haven't been paid, rents haven't been collected, pensions haven't got to the post offices—"
"Didn't we close all the post offices so as to make them more efficient?"
"All right, wherever it is that the pensioners collect their pensions from."
"That would be the banks."
"Exactly, and those are the messages stuck behind the blockage that we have to clear."
"Sounds like a job for Dyno Rod."
"It does. Want to string along?"
Sandy laughed. "No thanks! You must be joking. I shall be sitting here in a special chair that holds my body rigid in a healthy, ergonomically sound posture, drinking cheap coffee out of flimsy paper cups in a nice warm office while you're out there in the freezing cold and the baking heat eating curried rocks, fighting off poisonous snakes, succumbing to malaria, coughing and spluttering in the sulphurous vapours and dodging bullets from hostile tribesmen."
"Tribespeople." Peter recognised the absence of gender neutral language when he heard it.
"Oh, yes, I forgot, the women have guns as well."
"I hadn't really thought of it like that. I was imagining drinking a heady cocktail of coconut milk and white rum beneath the fronds of exotic palm trees waving over silver sands, lapped by the warm waters of a tropical ocean, with not a ricocheting bullet within a hundred kilometres."
"Ha! You haven't looked at any maps lately, then."
Sandy was right. Maps were hard to come by, and Peter had omitted to consult one. When he did, he was rooted to the spot, amazed at his own stupidity in actually volunteering to go to the Outlying Territories when being fired, sent to prison, starved to death and having his body fed to sharks might be a possible alternative.
"There's a flight," the travel agent told him, "to Valhalla."
"Is there? That's good news. At least I don't have to drive all the way."
"Ryan Air go there."
Peter broke the news to Angela that evening. "It's only a few days."
"Good. Don't worry, I'll still be here when you get back."
It was pouring with rain in the morning and Peter was drenched by the time he reached the bus stop. With a bag of clothing and essential odds and ends, Peter took the bus from the Blocks to the Ninth Circle Airfield a couple of miles outside the town. He had arrived in good time, two hours before take off, but already there was a queue at the check in desk and nobody in an airline uniform to be seen anywhere.
The Ninth Circle Airfield had been built in the nineteen fifties to provide a runway, control tower and a simple booking office for the airline passengers of the day. It had changed little. Tatty cardboard signs still flapped in the wind, doors had come off their hinges, windows were cracked and filthy. As Peter waited with half a dozen others in the queue, a woman in a uniform appeared. She sat at the check in desk and put a well-used sign saying Soft Class on her own desk, then Hard Class and Rubbish Class on the unmanned desks to either side of her. Then she called the first person in the queue. Peter couldn't hear the conversation clearly, but she sent the passenger to stand in front of the unmanned Rubbish Class desk. The same conversation appeared to take place with the next passenger, and the next. When it was Peter's turn, she said, "Good morning. I need to see your biometric identity card, please."
Since it was compulsory to carry one's biometric identity card at all times, Peter found it after a few seconds of fumbling and presented it for inspection. Without looking at the card, the woman said, "Ryan Air is a one class airline. You are in the wrong queue. Please join the queue at the Rubbish Class desk."
After sending every passenger to the queue at the Rubbish Class desk, she picked up the Hard Class sign, put it in front of herself and called out, "Any Hard Class passengers?" When nobody responded, she picked up the Rubbish Class sign and called for the Rubbish Class passengers, who came back to queue in front of her again. At an airport, they reasoned, this is what you must expect. One by one the passengers showed their identity cards again and received boarding passes. Then they handed over their luggage and answered a litany of questions: Did you pack this bag yourself? Did anyone ask you to carry anything onto the aeroplane? Are there any liquids in your hand luggage? How about bombs, bullets, incendiary devices, knives, poison gases and live poisonous snakes: do you have any of those?
Getting through Security involved lining up, stripping to your underpants and being felt all over by an official, then being X rayed and having your bags searched, then having them all searched again in case the first search missed anything. Putting his clothes back on, picking all his luggage up and packing everything again, Peter finally made his way into the departure area, where a man with a bullhorn and an unintelligible accent summoned him and the rest of the queue to Gate Two.
The eight passengers were sitting in the back of the Embraer. Some were dressed for a holiday. One woman was wearing a bridal veil, another a pair of horns like a demon's, and several had obviously been drinking in the departure loungs. The woman from the check in desk appeared dressed as a stewardess. There were some magazines in a pile at the front of the plane. Peter took one. "No," she said firmly, snatching it back, "we do not give magazines to Rubbish Class passengers. I would rather throw them away unread and then die in a cellar full of rats than let any of you have one." There was a blast of engine noise. The aeroplane took off and Peter guessed it was flying northwards. The view on a cloudless day would have been beautiful and fascinating, but it was cloudy and there was nothing to see. After an hour or so, the stewardess gave Peter a landing card and made him fill it in.
The landing card was written in a curious language that Peter did not immediately recognise.
"Is this Old Norse?" he asked, guessing Old Norse to be the language of the Valhalla territory.
"No," said the stewardess, "it's English."
"English?" Peter scanned the card again, looking in vain for any resemblance between the language on the card and the language he spoke and knew as English.
"I see. You are passengerizing," he read, "aboard an airline/aircraft transportizing onboard personnel..."
"You're reading aloud."
"Oh. Sorry." Peter continued reading, silently, "...to a within the deauthorizated area zone destination. All personnel transitizing to or de-aircraftating in non-local territories must fill out an internal transferization record."
"Your lips are moving. Anyway, it means they want you to fill in a form."
"Ah. I see."
Peter continued to read the form while moving his lips. He scribbled his name, ID card number and so on with a ball point pen, in an irregular hand due to turbulence and vibration. There were routine questions, and then, "Have you ever been a member of the Nazi Party or the Communist Party?" No. "Have you ever committed a war crime or an act of deep moral turpitude?" No. "Have you ever blown up an aeroplane, assassinated any President or cut anybody's head off?" No. These were easy questions. "Have you been accused or found guilty of piracy on the High Seas?" No. "Do you suffer from any infectious disease, mental illness or disgusting parasite?" No. What happens, he wondered, if you answered "Yes" to any of these questions. Did they refuse you admittance to the Outlying Terriroties, or did they just stand you against a wall and shoot you? Or both?
There was a bump as the plane landed. The airport was a very small affair, just big enough to handle maybe half a dozen commuter aircraft each day. The uniforms who collected landing cards and checked IDs were surprisingly efficient, and while everyone else went to wait for an onward hop to some distant resort — Shangri La, perhaps — Peter wandered over to the car hire desk where, if things had gone right, a Jeep should be waiting for him, just like in MASH. A woman in a green beret and blazer greeted him. She was wearing a name badge:
"Driving licence?" she asked.
Peter showed it, and added, "Do you have a map?"
"Map?" Rosina seemed surprised at Peter's request.
"A map of the Valhalla area. I'm new here."
"You want to visit Valhalla?"
"Well, yes." Rosina's tone had made him uncertain about whether this was actually a good idea.
"There's only one road. Follow that. It's ten kilometres or thereabouts."
Peter picked up his luggage and walked away from the desk, and the rep called after him, "You forgot this," and tossed him the key fob.
There was indeed only one road. Standing in the chill air outside the airport, Peter saw the massive grey Jeep parked at a turning circle, and the one road that led into the distance. The road was narrow, certainly too narrow for two cars to pass. It was potholed and crazed, with loose surfacing, and appeared to have been built for horse drawn traffic rather than motor cars. Apart from a couple of houses which were probably for airport staff, and the terminal building itself, the landscape was bare: mainly grass, some green and some yellow, with low shrubs and occasional stunted trees. In the distance there appeared to be grey sea. In the other direction there were blue mountains, but no road led towards them. Peter slung his bag into the back seat and turned the diesel engine on. It fired up with a roar. Keeping the speed down and fearful of slithering and careering off the road into the fields on either side, Peter chugged along the road to Valhalla. Sheep turned and looked at him as he went by.
The town in the distance had to be Valhalla: there wasn't another place for a hundred kilometres. As he drove closer to it, Peter realised that the large stone central building, the Great Hall of mythological fame, was in a state of decay. The roof had fallen in. Some of the stonework had collapsed, the rest was cracked and covered with lichen and moss. Rain had attacked and damaged the walls, and the floors were too rotten to risk treading on them. The surrounding buildings had no glass in the windows, woodwork was crumbling, doors were missing. There was not another soul to be seen in the entire town. It dawned on Peter that believers in Valhalla had died out years ago, maybe centuries ago. Valhalla had once been a great city, but now it had been abandoned. There were not even any foot prints or tyre marks apart from his own: visitors must have been rare. No wonder Rosina was surprised at a young businessman turning up unannounced and picking up a Jeep to go there, as though it were the commercial and financial district of Tokyo. Valhalla was a broken shell. Valhalla had been abandoned a long time ago, well before the invention of the electronic computer.
Out at sea there was a long, low blast on a ship's whistle. Peter stared across the level, grey bay and say a vast passenger vessel, black with white trim, four funnels. It was — no doubt about it — the RMS Titanic, steaming steadily northwards. He was struck by how much light the vessel gave off. There were lights everywhere: masts, decks, portholes, all streamed light across the water — and that was when it hit him: in Valhalla, as the light failed, the buildings were all dark. There wasn't any sign of electricity. No-one could ever have installed a message processor here.
The News was scheduled to finish at ten minutes past eight, and Angela managed to end the final summary within thirty seconds of the advertised. She emerged from Studio Two beaming, to the sound of loud applause from all present.
"How do you do that?" asked Headphones, impressed.
"The voices? I don't know. I've always been able to do it, like some people can draw or do maths. It's just a random talent. Where's Peter?"
"He went to catch a flight. All right for some."
"Oh. I didn't think—"
He'll be back. Angela, you've got a job here for as long as you need it. How do you fancy doing Down Your Way?"
"How on earth could I help with Down Your Way? I live in a weatherbeaten Victorian house on Blair Street, not a converted royal palace with a conservatory, an attached arboretum and a water feature full of artificial waterfalls, rare tropical fish and small sailing vessels."
"You could be the interviewees, Angela. Think of it. With your skill and talent, we could talk to anyone in an entire city."
"Is that ethical?"
"Ethical? Ethical? I don't understand. What does that mean? What are you trying to tell me?"
Angela gulped. "Let me try another angle, Headphones." She took a deep breath and then, calmly, she explained as slowly as she was able, "I've only ever lived on Earth, in England, going to a comprehensive school and working a squalid existence selling my body on the back streets, and then I've been in the ninth circle of Hell for five years living on Blair Street. How am I going to play at being the local aristocracy, the vicar or the mill owner? I have no idea how they live. Let alone what they say in interviews."
"Read the script. You just read the script."
"I'd really be happier working in News. At least for the time being."
"OK, well, the offer's open any time you want to take me up on it." He paused, then, "Did you really—"
"Yes I did, and sometimes it's a horrible job but, yes, it was fun sometimes as well. Thanks for the job offer. I think it's tea time."
There was a canteen at the far end of the building and Angela took a cup of tea and sat down, dazed.
"Damn good job on the News," said a suit sitting next to her.
"Thanks. But where's Alvar?"
"Don't know. He didn't turn up for work, which is most unlike him. I sent a car to his house, and the driver came back saying the old man's house was empty. Locked. Nobody even answered the door. And we've had no message, no letter, nothing. I'm Reith, by the way. Pleased to meet you."
Reith held a hand out and Angela shook it. "People don't just disappear without trace, do they?" she asked him.
"Well, not usually, no. Not without some good reason, anyway. People don't get kidnapped and held to ransom, because nobody has any money to pay the ransom with. And people don't usually just wander off without reason. Alvar's pretty much a creature of habit, and when your work involves a permanent six-till-two shift in a high profile organisation like ours, you can't really up sticks and take the day off."
"Aren't you worried about him?"
Reith thought about this. "No," he said eventually, "well, yes, but he's sure to turn up."
Monique, who produced a handful of minor news programmes, burst into the canteen waving a pencil and a notepad. "Angela darling, I've been looking all over for you." she lied, "I need you to do a quick piece for me on the Block Tenants' Association meeting at mid day. Mr and Mrs Scrivens organised it. Can you get there, darling? Five minutes ready for the six o'clock this evening."
Whom the gods wish to force into service against their will, they first call Darling. Angela sensed that Monique would not welcome any reply of the form, "No thanks, I haven't finished drinking my tea and I can't imagine anything less interesting than going to a goddamn tenants' association." Collecting a portable sound recorder from the stock room on the way out, she splashed through the mud that lay all about the Blocks.
The Tenants' Association Hut was a wooden hut at the back of Block Two. It smelled distinctly of damp, and from the stuff strewn about the floor and piled on the shelves Angela could see that the hut was used by, at least, a nursery, an after school group, a scout troupe, a football team, some sort of religious support group — here?, she asked herself — and a club for people who liked to make tea, put paint on brushes and then throw the brushes at the walls.
There was one large room. Angela went in and found herself at the back of a large and unsettled crowd.
There was a trestle table at the front of the room. Angela pushed herself to the table and found a small, gentle looking old man in an old fashioned suit and waistcoat opening a briefcase full of loose papers and a couple of large, folded maps. With him a woman of the same age was trying to clear a space and drag a couple of chairs to the table.
"Excuse me," Angela said to them when she was within hailing distance, holding her Press card above her head, "I'm Angela Gates. I'm a reporter from Radio Hell and I've been sent to cover this meeting."
"Oh," said the woman, and uncertainly, "Pleased to meet you. I'm Sarah Bossie and I run the Tenants' Association This is Arthur Black from the council. Shake hands, Arthur."
Arthur shook hands with Angela, and afterwards Sarah shook hands with her as well.
"What's going on?" asked Angela.
"You're not going to try to interview us now, are you?"
"No, I just want to know the background. Why you're holding a meeting tonight, what you want to get out of it, what you're going to do as a result."
"Gosh, that's a lot... Tell you what," said Sarah as though she had just had a jolly clever idea, "why don't you sit down and listen to the meeting? It really is time we got started."
"She's right, you know," said Arthur.
"All right. I'll talk to you afterwards."
Angela grabbed an unoccupied chair in the front row and plonked her microphone on the trestle table. As Sarah went through her introduction, Angela fumbled with the controls of the recorder, hoping to get a clear recording despite the shuffling of feet, the coughing, the clunking of doors, the conversations breaking out among the audience, and all the other distractions that distinguish a wooden hut full of people from a purpose built broadcasting studio.
Sarah banged her front door key on the trestle table for an awfully long time, which pushed the Distortion meter well into the red zone, and finally began with "Ladies and gentlemen," which allowed the Distortion meter to return to a comfortable level. "Mr Black — Councillor Black, I mean, sorry! — has kindly agreed to address our concerns as expressed in our letters and petitions." She paused for breath.
"Well, I'll be buggered," said an old man at the back. He was wearing a trilby and he had a maroon scarf around his neck.
"I'll let the Councillor speak for himself," she concluded.
Councillor Black rose to his feet and picked up a sheet of paper.
"Madam Chairman, ladies and gentlemen," he began, "the Council notes your concerns about the infestations present in the Blocks. It is our intention—"
"Rats the size of Christmas puddings," said a middle aged woman with a Watson and Crich carrier bag.
"Thank you. It is our intention—"
"My grand-daughter's scared to go to the toilet in the night," said an older lady, wearing a cardigan, seated at the back of the room.
"That's because she's afraid of meeting you on the way!" shouted a young man at the front.
"It is our intention to improve the whole tone of the area, the whole tone of the area, by renaming the Blocks."
There was silence as Councillor Black held up four pieces of paper stuck together with tape. On the paper he had written the block numbers and their proposed new names.
"Block One will be renamed The Queen Block. Block Two will be renamed The Duke of Edinburgh Block. Block Three will be renamed Prince Charles Block and Block Four will be renamed The Late Lady Diana Spencer Block.
There was further silence as Councillor Black paused and added, "I knew you'd like it."
"They're still blocks," the young man pointed out.
"Then how about this?" Councillor Black unfolded a second set of stuck-together papers. "The Queen Mansions! The Duke of Edinburgh Mansions! Prince Charles Mansions! And—"
The young man summarised the proposal in one word. "It's rubbish!"
"How's it going to help us?" asked the woman with the frightened daughter.
"Because," Councillor Black explained as though to a hard of hearing imbecile, "you don't get rats and cockroaches in high class areas."
"It won't be a high class area." said the trilby. "The high class areas are down the Posh End. where they are now. The Blocks'll be four slums with silly names."
"They won't be slums at all," replied Councillor Black in the same slow and patronising manner, "because we're going to sell them off."
"You're mad," said the carrier bag lady, "who'd buy them?"
"Buy our own flats that we're already paying rent for?"
Carried away with the vigour of the discussion, Angela had forgotten to keep an eye on the meter, and she found it had slipped. There was no way she could record the contributions from the room, but she turned the volume up so as to record as much of Councillor Black's contribution as possible.
"Yes. They're your flats, in a manner of speaking. But under the new scheme they'll still be your flats and you won't have to pay any more rent to the council."
"How much will we have to pay the bank, then?" asked Cardigan Woman.
"That is not, obviously, a matter over which the Council is able to exert any control."
"Of course you can exert control over them, you fool. You're the one that's selling them."
Councillor Black bridled pompously, "I didn't come here to be insulted."
A woman in the uniform of a Demon Community Support Officer spoke up. "I'm a DCSO and I'm not paid much—"
"That's because you're useless!" someone put in cruelly. There was a laugh.
"How am I going to afford a mortgage?"
"That's the second part of our brilliant proposal. You won't have to afford the mortgage. You'll only have to pay it.
A warm ripple of approval spread through the audience.
"You mean we'll have mortgages to pay for our flats?" asked Cardigan Woman.
"Yes!" beamed Councillor Black.
"Even if we haven't got any money?"
On the recorder a small red light went on, Power Low, showing that the batteries were now exhausted. There was now no chance to interview the organisers, the satisfied and the dissatisfied and put together a coherent account of the afternoon's events. When the meeting broke up after some inconsequential argument ten minutes later, Councillor Black's chauffeur ushered Councillor Black into a vast car and drove him off, the tenants trudged across the mud to wait for the lifts that never seemed to come, and Angela carried her sound recorder back to the studio on the nineteenth floor of Block Two, or as it would soon come to be known, The Duke of Edinburgh Mansions.
Angela returned the sound recorder to the stock room, where she removed the memory card, plugged the recorder into a charger and left it.
Headphones was checking a recorder out at the same time as Angela was checking hers back in, so she asked him if there was a free editing room.
"I just finished with Room 3," he said.
Angela wandered down the corridor, settled in Room 3, pulled the headphones on and played the sound file. The result of her visit was disappointing: lots of crowd noise, with the principal speakers barely audible above the noise. After a minute or so, it was obvious that this sound file wasn't of broadcast quality, and she would have to chalk it up to experience. She took a deep breath and set off to tell Monique about the disappointing outcome.
"So none of it can be broadcast? None at all?" Monique took the news calmly.
"Don't worry about it. You're a trainee. Next time you'll get it right, that's how to look at it. Do you remember what they said at the meeting? You've got the sound file as an aide-memoire."
"Well, yes. I haven't deleted the sound file yet."
"Right. Do a two minute story for the local news. Can you have it with me by six?"
"Maybe Headphones will listen to the file, give you some techie help and tell you what went wrong."
"Wrong sort of mike," said Headphones. "Try a radio button mike. Here." He picked up a small device like a tie-clip and tossed it to her. "Latest gadget. Your career depends on how and where you use one of these, so watch closely. You pin this on someone's collar, and the other bit," he handed it to her, "plugs into the portable recorder," he indicated the sound recorder on his desk, "and you never miss a syllable. Easy. Want to try it out?"
"OK, then, we'll give it the once over— Not your collar! Mine. I'm the interviewee."
Angela had started to clip the button mike to her own sweater. Of course, you were supposed to fasten it to the interviewee so that it could hear him, and if your own lines weren't clear in the recording then you spoke them again in a studio and you edited them into the finished piece. She reached over Headphones's desk and fastened the mike to his shirt.
"It has three modes," said Headphones at speed, "local, WAN and off. Level and distortion are on auto pilot. Local mode means it records stuff on your portable recorder. WAN mode means it tries to log itself on to a wireless internet connection and store the stuff on a server out in Internet Land somewhere. It has a little lamp here to tell you how it's doing. Green for go, yellow for no connection, red means it's fucked. Go on, turn it on and interview me."
Angela reached for the mike and, without detaching it from Headphone's shirt, she played with the switch for a moment. The red light came on.
"Try putting the recorder on standby."
"Oh! All right."
Angela set the recorder to standy and the green light came on.
"Is the recorder going?"
"It it's in local mode. Otherwise it's sending digital audio over the net. You can pull the recording down later, when you're editing. Now start the interview. Everything's running normally."
Angela was still hesitating about what to do first.
"Go!" Headphones ordered.
Angela spluttered. An idea came into her head. She put on an accent.
"Would yez like to be interviewed by Terry Wogan?"
"How do you do that?"
"It's my interview. Don't ask questions. That's my job."
"Sorry. Yes, I would like. Better than Jeremy Paxman."
Angela composed herself and asked, "Headphones. Why do dey call you Headphones?"
"Good question. Well, I had these phones made for me, the casings are rolled gold, the cable is all screened, and they're exactly my size, so I never take them off in case somebody borrows them and I have to make do with the phones off a cheap Walkman for the rest of my career. My ears have grown to fit them. They're always either on my ears or around my neck."
"And what's yer favourite radio programme?"
"Now that you're in charge, I think I'm going to get to like the News. Apart from that, I occasionally have to listen to Russell Brand. That guy's going places, you know?"
"Tank yez, Mr Headphones," and in her own voice again, "OK, I have the idea, I think. And I'm hardly in charge of anything."
At five minutes to six, Angela was back in Studio Two with a typescript and instructions to improvise a light hearted item to end the bulletin on an up beat, so after the Labour Party winning a by election, a rise in bankruptcies and a man accused of making bombs, she told a wholly fictitious story of two tropical agronomists in Ghana who crossed a cocoa tree with a wild strain brassica and grew a chocolate-flavoured cabbage.
"How's that for a busy day?" Angela said to Monique, who was waiting outside the studio door.
"Pretty good for a beginner. Where did the Ghana story come from?"
"Off the rip-an'-read."
"Good stuff. I've had Arthur Black on the phone for you."
"Councillor Arthur Black? He of the Block Prettification Scheme?"
"The same. He asks if you'd please give him a quick phone call." Monique gave Angela a Filofax page with a phone number written on it.
Angela looked at the scrap of paper for a second and asked, "Have you run out of post-its?"
"This is Hell, Angela," Monique explained. "No post-its. We've got Filofax."
"I'll call him back, then."
Angela found a desk in the open plan office and picked up the phone.
"Hell's Bunch Of Swindlers, can I help you?"
"It's Angela Gates from Radio Hell. I'm trying to contact Arthur Black. Is he there?"
"Councillor Black in Property and Estates?"
"Yes, he's the one."
There was a minute of horrible electronic music, and then Black came on the line.
"Hello, Angela. Black here."
"Good evening, Councillor Black." There was a pause, and Angela sensed some awkwardness, so she volunteered, "Are you ringing about the tenants' association meeting last night? I was the reporter on the front row."
"In a, in a way. Angela, may I call you Angela?"
"Of course. It's my name, after all."
"I've been invited to another meeting and I thought you might like to come with me."
"About the Blocks?"
"In a way, yes. It'd be a chance to meet everyone behind the scheme. You could ask any questions you like. Well, anything within reason. Beëlzebub doesn't welcome personal questions, but anything to do with the Blocks would get a straight and authoritative answer."
"I'd love to, but why me? There are plenty of experienced reporters here. I've only been in the job a week."
"It's a demanding job that calls for a certain grace and beauty. Not the first things you think of when you summon reporters to mind."
"Grace and beauty?"
"Long dress, High heels. Generally glamorous demeanour. And I don't want to upset you but you're the only women I know who might possibly—"
"Are you," she tried to ask the question without having him put the phone down, "aware of how much it costs to take an escort to a meeting?"
"Money is no object. No object at all." Arthur was glad that Angela had raised the subject and saved him the embarrassment of raising it himself. "We've just been handed some vast sum of money, no strings attached — nearly fifteen billion euro — of tax payers' money to spend on whatever we like, so name your price. The only thing is that my wife must never know anything about it."
"I won't tell a soul. Never have, never will."
Angela was expert in this sort of negotiation, having come to similar agreements many times before. She had just struck a deal including expenses at Jimmy Choo and Versace and said an affectionate sounding goodbye when Monique appeared in the office door.
"You look pleased with yourself," Monique observed.
"I am. I just got invited to a party with the Great Man Himself."
Monique gasped with astonishment and almost dropped her handbag. "Russell Brand! Gosh!"
"No, Councillor Arthur Black. He's going to buy me a dress and take me out for an evening's luxurious entertainment with a few rich friends at a private venue."
"What about his w— I mean, I hope you have a good time together."
"Oh, we won't do anything that his wife would care twopence about," lied Angela. "I'm just arm candy. A man in his exalted position can't go to that sort of meeting alone: he needs a woman tagging along with him. I won't understand a word they say and even so I'm going to love it."
"He's in Valhalla. He'll probably never know."
"Valhalla? There's more entertainment at the North Pole than in Valhalla. What on earth is he doing there?"
The RMS Titanic sailed majestically northwards until it was a point of light far out at sea, and Peter took a final look around Valhalla. It was evening and becoming cold, and a wind sprang up. Peter looked around at the crumbling buildings and made for the Jeep. On impulse he decided to drive north, just to see what the place was like, before going back to the airport and getting on a flight back to the Ninth Circle. There would be no flight before tomorrow anyway. The road seemed to come to an end at the square outside the Great Hall, and any ride north would involve going at best over unsurfaced paths.
There appeared to be a path running across open land to the north, and Peter started along it. There were no trees here, just the low shrubs and grass of windswept moorlands. The Jeep's headlights picked out the pathway, and the pathway continued to lead northward, so Peter continued to drive along it. He had at least several hours to kill, some sleep would be nice, and the view of the shingle, the sunset over the mountains in the west and the stars over the bay were stark and beautiful.
The path curved slightly towards the sea and an obstruction came into view. A large shape blocked the whole width of the path. Peter hit the brake and stopped a metre or so short of it. It was a pile of something, and he got out of the Jeep to investigate. It was drainage pipes, of the kind used to drain low lying land. He couldn't see anyone guarding the pile, but it had definitely been left there recently: for one thing it was still standing, unbroken, and for another it was a kind of piping that he had seen on construction sites in England. He wound down the windows of the Jeep and paused to listen, in case any security guards or, worse, guard dogs had heard him arriving, but there seemed to be nobody around. In the glove compartment of the Jeep was a good torch, and armed with that he felt able to clamber down onto the path and look around. He found a tarpaulin with which someone might have intended to cover the pile of pipes. On the far side of the pile there was a battered metal sign facing the other way, "Road Ends." Continuing his walk around the pile of pipes, Peter slipped in the mud and fell against the heap, accidentally knocking the sign to the ground with a crash. The clatter of the collapsing metal sign echoed around the wood for a few seconds, and then someone called out, "Oi! Who are you?"
Peter picked the sign up again and called "I'm sorry. I was following the path," in the direction of the shout.
"Where are you headed for?" The voice was coming closer and Peter saw a torch coming towards him, maybe fifty metres distant.
"The airfield. Valhalla Airport."
"You're lost, mate." A large man in a black donkey jacket, wellingtons, heavy jeans and a woolly hat came into view, lit up in the headlamps of the Jeep. "Hello, I'm Charlie, the security man," he went on. He wore a badge saying "Hell Security."
"Sorry," said Peter, "I must have taken the wrong turning somewhere. I'm glad you found me."
"Can't think how you missed the airfield. Still, no harm done, nothing to worry about except you've probably missed your flight. Turn back and keep going and the airfield is twenty kilometres or thereabouts. There's only one road."
"It's harder to see where you're going in the dark. I didn't think there was anyone here."
"Welcome to The Millenium Waterfront, mate. There hasn't been anyone here, not for a long time, but there's building work going on now. This is all going to be flats, but you'll have to be rich to live in one. There'll be roads, houses, shops, supermarkets, cinemas, restaurants, a hotel, offices, even a marina to tie your yacht to and a heritage gas works."
"Yes. But you have to bring your own yacht with you when you move in. All right for some, eh?"
"Bit of a strange name, isn't it, Millennium Waterfront? The Millennium was eight years ago."
"They could hardly call it the Eight Years After The Millennium Waterfront, could they?"
"I suppose not. If I'm honest, I wish I could join in the fun."
"Me too, but there's not much chance of that, I'm afraid. Prices start at half a million euro for a cheap one bed flat overlooking the heritage gasworks."
Peter was disappointed that the conversation had turned to property prices even before it had really got going, so he asked, "Would it cause any problems if I spent the night here, in the back of the Jeep?"
"If you like. You'll be quite safe. Cold, but quite safe."
Charlie took his leave and disappeared into the trees and the darkness. Peter climbed into the back of the Jeep and instinctively locked the doors. Sitting on the back seat, he drank the bottle of Perrier water that he had packed in his bag of clothes and other odds and ends. Then he stretched out and dozed off.
Waking in the light of dawn, Peter looked out and saw that RMS Titanic was in the bay, standing still and facing south. It had turned and moored at the end of a makeshift pier that ran into the sea from a site on the shore a few kilometres away. A wooden crate was being hoisted down from the ship's deck onto the pier. Peter guessed that the crate held a delivery of building materials, because he couldn't think of anything else that would need to be ferried in aboard such a huge vessel to a construction site. He watched two workers on the pier prise the crate open. Inside was a large yellow vehicle, probably a bulldozer or a dumper truck destined to work the site. The pier was too far away for Peter to hear the engine start but he saw the vehicle drive along the pier onto shore.
Peter stared out at the building site through the trees. By the light of dawn he could see that there was plenty of building site detritus lying about, though as yet no completed buildings. Work seemed to be at the stage of clearing the trees, levelling the ground, laying the drains and generally preparing the site. He had forgotten to ask Charlie when the first residents would move in, but he guessed four or five years. He wondered what it must be like to live in a development like the Millenium Waterfront. He would have a vast apartment with picture windows facing the bay, a Roller in the garage, a catamaran on the marina, a large dog in the day room — a Labrador would do nicely — and the best CD player money could buy in one of the three day rooms. As pipe dreams go, sharing such a place with Angela was as good as any he could think of.
It took some careful reversing in the mud to turn the Jeep around, and he drove slowly back along the path to the ruins of the Great Hall of Valhalla. There was still no sign of anyone except himself in the ancient town. From there he followed the narrow road across the moorland back to the airfield, returned the Jeep and after a couple of hours' wait there was a Ryan Air flight back to the Ninth Circle. This is Hell, he told himself, where dreams don't come true. Get used to it.
It was about eleven in the morning, and the drunken community singing finally ceased on board the Embraer as it landed at the Ninth Circle. Outside the terminal Peter flashed the company credit card and took a taxi back to the Bitco office.
"What happened?" asked Sandy, as Peter settled at his desk.
"Couldn't find the message processor. Or a bed for the night. Is there still a hitch?"
"No. The queue cleared about an hour after you left. Look at the logs, you'll see. Valhalla Message Processor kicked in and cleared the lot in a few minutes."
"So I was wasting my time going all that way."
"No, you weren't. You were having a nice free holiday. Look at it that way."
"Yeah. Except for one strange thing. Where do you think the Valhalla Message Processor is?"
"Valhalla, of course."
"Right. Now look up the site of Valhalla Message Processor in the registered machines directory."
"Got it. Valhalla Money Transfer Operations plc, Heimskringla, Valhalla."
"When was it registered?"
"So it's based in Valhalla and it's been there for quite a while, but the funny thing is that Valhalla Message Processor doesn't exist. There are no people there. No computers. There isn't even any electricity."
"So? All that means is that the Valhalla Message Processor isn't in Valhalla at all, it's somewhere else. Maybe Mr Valhalla owns it and lives in Washington, or maybe it's been offshored to the Philippine Islands, or something."
"Well, that's what I was wondering. Have I just been stupid, made one assumption too many and gone to the wrong place?"
"Sounds as though you'd best have a riffle through the files while I have a nice game of Asteroids."
Peter went to have a look at the paper records of the authorised users. The process was fairly stringent. Many banks and financial companies used the Bitco message servers to pass data between their branches. The process was cheaper than maintaining servers of their own, and it was someone else's job to fix it if it went wrong. A bank could add a client to send and receive messages but it would have to submit a request in writing and possibly submit to an assessment and verification process as well. All the applications, reports, assessments, notes, service level agreements and so on were held in a set of filing cabinets in a dehumidified area of the basement. It took several minutes to find the necessary keys, and several more to find the suspension file in which the paperwork authorising the Valhalla message processor should have been. After finding the folder, the trail was cold. Search as he might, and he spent more than an hour in this morgue of a place, Peter found no trace of any document authorising Valhalla Money Transfer Operations plc, or anyone else, to connect a client called the Valhalla Message Processor.
"I think..." he said, hesitating, when he was back in his office, "Are you still playing Asteroids?"
"Come on, what?" asked Sandy, continuing with the game as he spoke.
"I think we've been had."
"Yes! Wow, oh, good shot!"
"I can't find the paperwork, either for Valhalla Money Transfer Operations or for their message client. I don't think anybody was authorised to connect the Valhalla Message Processor to the servers. We only knew it existed—"
"Damn! I've been hit!"
"Tough luck. We only knew the Valhalla Message Processor existed because the logs threw its name up. It's a rogue client."
"How can that happen?"
"You just forget to raise the force field when one of those blue flashing bastards gets too close."
"I mean how can it happen that someone connected a rogue client to a secured Bitco server?"
"Don't sound so surprised. It's just an extra client entry, just sitting and nicking messages. Nobody would notice provided it didn't cause any trouble. It would just look like any other client on the monitor until, say, it stopped working and a long queue of messages began to form. Well, we didn't notice it, anyway."
Sandy killed the game of Asteroids and instead he paid attention to what Peter was saying. "How difficult is it," Sandy asked, "to add a rogue client?"
"Depends how slapdash the administrators are about security. Could be just a matter of connecting, if you can guess which machine it is, the connections are made through a standard port and you use a standard password."
"And this slapdash administrator is you, is it?"
"No, it isn't, it's us."
"Yes, it is, it's you. Among your countless responsibilities, you're administering the message server. My principal focus is trying to source Archimedes's goddamn floor coverings."
"You're so right. How are you getting along with that, by the way?"
"Two successes, so far. Both of them more expensive than he is going to like."
"Do you want to forget about carpets and Asteroids for the rest of afternoon and see if we can sort this out, preferably before anyone notices?"
"Yes, I'd quite enjoy that, apart from the bit about Asteroids. Shouldn't we terminate the process before it does any more damage?"
"I wouldn't, not yet. Let it run. Firstly it might be legitimate. I'm suspicious, but it might be a legitimate client with the wrong name or something. Secondly, if it's illegitimate, it might be best if its owner, whoever that may be, doesn't realise we've noticed anything unusual about his client."
"In the basement," said Sandy portentously, "you seek the tall hat among the shadows."
"Yes, I do. Oh, look, it's over there."
"What? A tall hat?"
"No. One of those flashing blue things."
"You're distracting me."
"It's mutual. I need to go somewhere I can think, and it isn't in the same room with a maniac playing Asteroids."
There wasn't any tea in the office. There hadn't been tea in the office for months. Faced with the choice of Mellow Bird's Instant Coffee or a mixture of Bovril and hot water, Peter opted for the coffee and took the stairs to the company archive. Here, surrounded by lever arch files, document boxes, correspondence files, tapes, cartridges, diskettes and microfiches dating back to the foundation of Bitco Ltd. in 1988, Peter opened his laptop and watched it register with the wireless network while he thought over what was happening.
Peter started from the knowledge that there was an unaccounted-for client connection to the message server. This meant that either some legitimate client had made a connection in some way that didn't involve telling anyone, or someone had opened a process which could read messages that were intended for some financial institution. So this might all be a fuss about nothing, or it might be a serious lapse of security, or it might be part of a massive, overarching criminal syndicate. You couldn't rule anything out in Hell. The record of the authorisation of the server had gone missing, so unless a soft copy still existed, he would likely never know who authorised the connection.
Sandy was right, of course. If someone had simply fired up a standard client, a test program for instance, and connected to the message server, that indicated horribly lax security. Peter knew, though, that although every computer system has weak spots in its perimeter fence, the basic security holes had been closed. There were no default passwords, test accounts or well known ports on the system. Every legitimate user needed to show a current security certificate before the connection was allowed, and the only acceptable certificates were those issued by Bitco itself. This user, therefore, had found a way to make a connection which the server couldn't distinguish from an authorised one. The connection had been running trouble free and attracted no attention in its entire life of several years. Peter thought it impossible that anyone could make an unauthorised connection by just ringing up and asking for one.
Peter took a long drink of tea and went back to the office, where Sandy was sitting smirking at the terminal on his desk.
"Welcome back, Sherlock. Did you solve the case?" he asked.
"No. I didn't think of anything at all."
"Come and look at this, then."
Peter wandered over and looked at the terminal on Sandy's desk, expecting to see a new personal best score on Asteroids. Instead, it was one of the control screens for the message server, showing the connections.
"Look at this connection," he pointed to the screen, "London01."
"Snakes alive! Another unauthorised connection?"
"Yes!" Sandy sounded very proud of his discovery. "What's more, look at this." Sandy clicked a link. "The message processor is located on the top of Big Ben."
"Who's doing this? How are they doing it? Nobody gets past the security handshake without a certificate issued by Bitco after an authorisation process. You can't just wander onto the server without so much as a by your leave and ask for a bucketful of financial transactions to play with."
"I know exactly who made this connection."
"I did. In less than ten minutes."
"I put myself in their shoes. The message server sent out data worth millions of euro a minute, right? So that's been secured and you couldn't get onto it if you tried for a million years. In order to get onto the message server you have to pass through the authorisation process, and if you can't get in through the door, try the window. Now, the authorisation workflow..."
"...is unsecured," they both said together.
"All it does is chase up the paperwork, right? So it's never been secured properly. The authorisation workflow stores the current state of every application in a data base, and then it uses the data base to control the authorisation processes. I tried a couple of standard issue database passwords, got one that worked and had administrator privileges, set up a workflow server on my desktop in between games of Asteroids, connected it to the same database that manages the legit authorisations and issues legitimate certificates. I gave myself top priority, applied for permission to connect to a message processor to the message server, and authorised myself. Easy peasy. Now can I get back to playing Asteroids?"
"Not quite yet. The reason there are no paper documents supporting the Valhalla connection is that there never were any paper documents?"
"You got it, mister. I made my own server by sticking together bits of old software I had lying about, signed on to my own server as a comms centre drone and then all I had to do was tell the workflow what documents I wanted to see and then click the box that said I'd examined them and they were all in good order. There's supposed to be a referral to higher authority, but that's only triggered if there's something funny about the documents. So now the electronic record shows that London01 sent his passport, biological identity card, death certificate, driving licence, bank statement, company memorandum and articles of association in the envelope along with an application form. But there is no paper record, because there never were any papers. There's just an electronic record of me typing rubbish and clicking. And if I hadn't told you, nobody would ever have known, because nobody ever uses the paper record. Everyone uses the electronic record. We only hang onto the paper record because nobody can be bothered throwing it away."
"Well, I'll be. Brilliant work, Sandy."
"Sorry, I missed that last bit. Say it again. I wasn't concentrating because I was fighting off one of those blue flashing things."
"They're right bastards, aren't they?"
"Brilliant work, Sandy. I'd be lost without you. Thank you."
"Damn! It got me again."
"Of course," said Peter later, after the euphoria had died down, "this does rather leave unresolved the issue of who is copying messages off the server and what he's doing with them."
"He or she's doing with them. He or she. Utilise non-discriminatory gender neutrality expressive pronouns targetizing non-discriminatory equalship promotionisation, if you don't mind. This is Hell, remember?"
"He or she, then. Can you think of a way of finding out who's listening in?"
"No. Does it matter? We're not detectives, we're suffering souls condemned to spend eternity inhaling sulphurous vapours while bitterly regretting our sins and misdeeds while doing software administration as a sort of hard labour. So we don't really care who's copying messages, do we? Maybe we can find out what they're using the messages for, and then somehow mitigate any damage that they're doing, without knowing who they are. Or alternatively they might offer us a huge pile of money in exchange for letting them carry on doing it, although admittedly that is a little on the unlikely side. Unless someone comes up with a revolutionary invention, then we won't know who they are. At least, not when we start."
"I think I understand. How will we work out what they're doing?"
"I don't know. But I'll think of something. I'm sure you will, too. In the meantime I suppose I'd better delete London01 before anyone notices, except that nobody ever will, so that gives me plenty of time."
"No," said Peter, as an idea formed in his head, "don't delete it. Leave it running. We might need it, and as you've already realised, no-one will ever notice it."
Sir John Parsnip stared out of his top floor office onto the rectangular concrete buildings of the financial district of the Ninth Circle. Sir John was nearing retirement now, greying, rather portly, and so important a figure in the Ministry of Housing that he wore a charcoal grey suit with white pin stripes even on days like today when he didn't have any meetings with anybody. A cigar butt smouldered in an ash-tray on his desk, and a half empty bottle of claret stood beside it. After a day spent reading letters and order papers and then drafting and re-drafting a policy and good practice document on accessible front doors for the hard of walking, drinking the claret and inhaling the fine fragrant smoke of the cigar, he felt he was justified in calling it time to go home.
Sir John picked up the olive green phone, one of the three phones that sat on his desk. The olive green phone made internal calls, the black one made calls on the public network and the red one came from the office of Satan himself, in Downing Street. He dialled and waited a few seconds for an answer.
"Fred?" he began.
"Yes, Sir John?"
"I want to go home now. I'll be going by train, because those damn reporters are on my tail all the time trying to catch me polluting the atmosphere and breaching the environmental code of practice. You know I'd love to use the official cars for commuting to work. Can you bring the Jaguar round to the front entrance and take me to Waterloo Station? Straight away, please. I have a meeting later on this evening, it's already a quarter past and I need to be on the seventeen fifty three."
"Which Jaguar shall I bring, Sir John?"
The blue one's still being valeted isn't it? Bring the red one anyway."
"What time is your train, Sir John?"
"The train leaves Waterloo at five fifty three and gets into Surbiton at six twenty."
"Very good, Sir John."
In the back of the Jaguar, Sir John clutched his ministerial briefcase and stared at his watch. It was already five thirty. At the station, with four minutes to go, he took his leave of Fred and the car, strode across the concourse, exhibited his first class season ticket at the barrier, and just had time to find his usual seat, in the third compartment of the second carriage, before the train moved away.
On board the train Sir John drew from his briefcase a bright orange envelope marked Ministry of Housing, Top Secret. He closed the briefcase again and put it with his bowler hat on the luggage rack, then took three sheets of paper out of the orange envelope and feigned reading them for a while. As the train drew into Surbiton he put the papers back into the envelope, stood up to leave, put the envelope onto the luggage rack and picked up the briefcase. Then he went out of the compartment, leaving the orange envelope on the luggage rack, stepped onto the platform and walked through the booking hall and onto the street outside, where Fred was already waiting in the red Jaguar to convey him the last four hundred yards to his town house.
By eight thirty the next morning, the staff had begin to arrive in the vast hall that is the trading floor of the Hell Bunch Of Swindlers, bringing their paper cups of expensive coffee and bottles of watered-down fruit juice and propping themselves up in front of computer screens. They logged on to find out what had happened overnight: the dollar was flat, the pound was down, oil was down a bit and in the Far East the Nikkei had lost about four per cent. If you kept your eyes and ears open and your wits about you, the myth ran, you could make a fortune from the market most days, even with an unpromising start like this. After all, anyone could go to the bookie's and bet that, say, Hilton Hotels would go bankrupt, and if it did, everyone else would suffer inconvenience and maybe even redundancy and unemployment, but you were quids in. Trading floor staff didn't actually go to the bookie's, of course, but the principle was the same.
The computers showed the fluctuating prices of one thing after another. There was a new entry this morning that the traders had not seen before. The first voice of recognition came from a young man sitting the corner of the hall wearing red braces.
"Manlee Investment Corporation," the red braces read out loud, "debt purchase, two per cent."
"Tarquin, listen to me. That won't sell. You'll never sell that in a million years." commented his neighbour.
"I'm sure it won't," replied Tarquin. "But I've bought twelve million of it anyway."
"You have splashed out twelve million on it? You're barmy. Who's going to want that enough to pay good money for it?"
"Aha." The young man in red braces tapped the side of his nose with his forefinger. Then he grabbed a mobile phone from his breast pocket and dialled a shortcut.
"Uncle?" he checked when a male voice answered, and on hearing the confirming "Mm," he began, "Tarquin here. I'm on the trades again ... Do you still need that twelve million debt purchase? ... Great, listen, I found an opportunity. You can have it for two and a half per cent. ... Thanks, Uncle ... no, cost price, it was the least I could do, I knew you'd been asking."
Tarquin put down the phone and his neighbour burst out laughing. "He must be a mug. You jammy bastard."
"See? I told you I could shift it. Sixty kay just like that, without lifting a finger. Like taking legs off a spider."
The courier was dressed in Lycra from head to foot, topped with a white bicycle helmet. He chained his Halford's bike to a lamp post outside the head office of Hell Bunch of Swindlers, went inside and handed a cardboard envelope to the receptionist.
"Urgent package for Arthur Black."
Natalia, the receptionist, accepted the envelope, and the courier added,
"Any chance of your phone number?" asked the courier.
Natalia thought for a second, looked the lycra up and down and giggled, "Any chance of yours?"
"Sure," he said, and he wrote it down on the envelope. Natalia copied the number onto a scrap of Filofax paper and carried the envelope up to Councillor Black's office.
Councillor Black had just opened the cardboard envelope when the phone rang. When the call ended, he thought how kind his nephew Tarquin had been to think of him when an opportunity to help his business efforts had come his way. This debt purchase meant, of course, that Hell Bunch Of Swindlers, and in particular Councillor Arthur Black, had a heads we win tails we don't lose arrangement ready made, and they could now accept any proposal at all for mortgages on the Blocks. It remained only to push the tenants into signing on the dotted line. The tenants had only to be told that they now had the chance to buy their own flats, and they would surely jump at the chance. And if they didn't, the threat that their flat would be sold to a new owner and the new owner would evict them would probably force their hand.
Councillor Black took an orange envelope out of the cardboard one and laid it on the table. He phoned Aanandita, the manager of the Block One Call Centre, with an urgent request for a meeting.
"What do you want us to do for you?" she asked him.
"Contact the tenants. Tell them the situation. Sell them a loan for the purchase of their own flat."
"Not that it matters, but why not just break up the loan that the Housing Association took out to build the blocks into small chunks and then tell the tenants to pay their own chunk out of their own money? That would cost them about half as much."
"Because that way the money would go back to the Housing Association. This way it comes to me. I wouldn't make any profit if I did that. I can't work for nowt."
"I understand. Who are we selling to? Do you know the names of the targets? Or do we have to do research before we can start?"
"That's not necessary. I've got a list of them here." Councillor Black held up the orange envelope.
"I'm sure we can do business. I need to think about it and make notes before I see you, so I know what to ask. How about lunch? Come to Call Centre Reception at twelve o'clock. Do you prefer Pizza Land or Burger King?"
Councillor Black's face fell. "Those aren't the only choices, are they?"
"Not at all. Do you prefer The Gay Hussar, then, or the Savoy Grill, or Le Manoir Aux Quatre Saisons?"
"I would very much prefer to dine at any of the above."
"Well, this is Hell, Councillor," said Aanandita, flatly. "Get used to it. Pizza Land it is."
Over a ten-inch seafood pizza, a plate of garlic bread with cheese and a glass of alcohol free beer, Aanandita and Councillor Black discussed the business opportunity that seemed to be beckoning both of them.
"Block Four houses eighty tenant families, and they'll be the first to move over," explained Councillor Black.
"You'll have to start at the beginning," said Aanandita. "What are they moving over to?"
"The Blocks are the property of Hell Housing Association, a company limited by guarantee, which doesn't make a profit. It aims to break even. The tenants pay rent to Hell Housing Association. But if Hell Housing Association sold the flats to the tenants, and if Hell Bunch of Swindlers gave the tenants mortgages, then the tenants would be paying large sums of money to us, instead of small sums of money to the Housing Association."
"Will they all be evicted and starve to death on the street?" Aanandia fingered a slice of garlic bread, got grease on her fingers and decided against eating it.
"Can't be helped, I suppose."
"No, it can't be helped." Councillor Black shook his head as though regretting the possibility of evictions.
"You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, Councillor. What's in it for me?"
"Twelve and a half per cent."
"That's a lot of omelette. I'm interested."
"Good. Now, Aanandita, this is where I need your help."
"Go ahead." Aanandita picked up a slice of pizza and bit a chunk off. "I'm listening."
The phone rang in Sarah Bossie's flat just as the 6 pm time signal sounded on the radio and, in the continuing unexplained absence of Alvar Liddel, Angela started reading the news. Mrs Bossie answered the phone.
"Is that Mrs Sarah Bossie?"
"Yes. This is me. Who's that?"
"Mrs Bossie," began the telemarketer at the other end, "Are you aware that Hell Housing Association is selling off the Blocks, including the flat in which you are now living?"
"Who are you?"
"You have the chance of a lifetime to buy your own flat," he continued without the least intention of answering Mrs Bossie's question. "Are you thinking of taking it?"
"I'd hardly call it the chance of a lifetime. They're asking me to pay twice as much as I'm paying now for a flat I already live in."
"Do you want a representative of Hell Bunch of Swindlers to visit you in order to make financial arrangements appropriate to your needs?"
"Well, yes, being realistic. I suppose I have no choice in the matter, really."
Sarah Bossie agreed to an appointment for the Financial Advisor, and as soon as she put the phone down she heard through the dividing wall the phone ring in her neighbour's flat. The telemarketers were working their way through the tenants.
Leaving the Bitco office in the evening, Peter Highwater cast an eye over the Community Notice Board at the end of the corridor. There was a new notice: "Temporary Catering Staff Wanted," it said. Someone wanted dogsbodies — waitresses, cleaners, porters, washers up and so forth — for a night aboard the RMS Titanic. In the tradition of casual labour, those wanting the work should turn up at the bus stop near the Blocks and wait; some would be taken, the others sent home. Peter's first thought was that he couldn't understand why anyone would want to advertise low paid manual labour in a place like Bitco. Never keen on doing manual labour, Peter hesitated before writing down the details, until he realised this was probably the best chance he would ever have of actually seeing the inside of that great passenger vessel. It would have been better to be a guest and spend the night in a First Class Outside Cabin, but being chained to a stove in the kitchens and sleeping in the staff quarters would be better than turning the opportunity away altogether.
Peter was thinking of turning up and asking to work on the dish washing when he realised that as an experienced and convincing transvestite he could go as a waitress, work in the dining room and at least see who the partygoers were. He went home to Blair Street, noticed that Angela was not yet back at home, and went through the process of transforming himself into his alter ego, Paula. Paula wandered across to the bus stop at the Blocks where a tatty Dormobile stood, surrounded by six or eight women all trying to get on board, like her, for the chance to see the inside of the luxurious arrival. She and five others were allowed to scramble on board, and two others were left behind because the caterers only needed six casual labourers.
The Dormobile bounced off into the night. A woman on the front passenger seat announced that she was Doris the catering manager, and asked which of the casuals in the back had waitressing experience. Paula put her hand up even though she had never worked in a restaurant in her life before. "You're on tables three and four," ordered Doris, and added generally, "Guests arrive 7 pm, then dinner is in the restaurant, eight people per table, four courses, 8 pm to 9.30 pm, then you serve drinks in the ballroom until 2 am and after that you can get some sleep and the van will take you back at 6 am tomorrow. Paula, you ever done any cash handling?"
"Oh, yes," said Paula.
"Good. One other thing. All of you."
Doris paused to get the attention of all six of her staff.
"There are VIPs present. If anyone asks, you didn't see them, you didn't hear them, you weren't on board and you can't remember anything about them. Is that clear?"
There was a general nodding of heads, which Doris obviously thought less than adequate acknowledgement.
"Is that clear, everyone?" she repeated.
"Yes, Doris," said the casuals in their turn.
"Is the ship sailing anywhere?" asked Paula.
Doris smiled. "Corfu, but not tonight, it's at anchor for now. Don't worry, you'll still be in Hell when you wake up tomorrow."
"Who's thowing the party?" asked one of the other casuals, a late teenage girl with an East End accent.
"Remember what I told you about keeping secrets?"
Doris lowered her voice. "Beëlzebub."
"Gosh!" The girl appeared to be impressed. "Who's he?"
"You've never heard— The Prince of Darkness."
"A real prince! Think of that!"
Twenty minutes later the light from the distant ship was already piercing the darkness. The Dormobile bumped to a stop and parked on a weather-beaten quayside and Doris led the six casuals, who now had some idea of why they were there, up the gangplank and onto the great ship. Doris led them to the kitchens at the stern, showed them a pile of waitress uniforms and introduced Johnnie, the head chef, who started by giving out paper cups of cheap coffee and went on to brief the team about the menu and where everything was. Strange, thought Paula, listening to him, I didn't think a head chef would swear like a trooper. Yet here he was, telling them all to drink their fucking coffee, get their goddamn frocks on and listen carefully. "Catterick Pealty goes on in a quarter of an hour and talks bullshit for twenty minutes, then there's ten minutes to shoo everyone into the dining room and hand them a sherry, and after that the match starts. So you've got," he looked at his watch, "forty-five minutes before I start dishing the food out, so make the most of it. After the whistle goes, you'll be working until you drop. Four courses and coffee, then I want complete fucking silence from you lot while Beëzebub addresses the crowd, after that we clear up."
"Can we have a fag while Beëzebub's talking?" asked the girl with the East End speech impediment.
"Yes," said Johnnie, showing indulgence for a second, "as long as you're in the corridor I don't mind. No fags in the kitchen and none in the dining room either. I don't want some posh bastard complaining to the Captain and leaving all of us in the shit."
"Anything else for us to look out for?" asked Paula.
"Just don't drop the dinners on the floor," said Johnnie sarcastically.
The great ballroom was mainly a dance floor, with some armchairs and sofas set out around the oak panelled bar at one end, and a small stage at the other. It was not completely dark, but not light enough to read either: the right level of lighting, the crew must have thought, for sensuous close dancing. A five piece band was sorting out their instruments, scores and stands at the back of the stage. As the guests started to arrive, a footman called out their names.
"Mr and Mrs Aanandita," called the footman, and Aanandita and her beau looked around the ballroom and headed for the bar.
"You," Johnnie pointed at Paula, "Playtime's over early. Get behind the fucking bar." He tossed her a key on a keyring. "Before dinner drinks."
Paula looked at the keyring: the label said, "Chillers." She walked down the corridor and took up a place behind the bar.
Couples were arriving steadily. "Lord and Lady Reith... Mr and Mrs Mainsplug... Mr George Osborne and Mr Andrew Feldman... Mr and Mrs Bynne..."
The red Jaguar was waiting outside Sir John Parsnip's house by seven the next morning. At seven thirty Sir John stepped out of it and into the booking hall at Surbiton station. The train arrived eight minutes later, and he travelled in his usual compartment. As Fred drove the Jaguar from Surbiton station to Waterloo, Sir John laid his briefcase and bowler hat in the luggage rack. There was a thumbed, torn and dirty Jiffy bag on the rack. He picked it up and opened it. Inside the Jiffy bag were ten used two hundred euro banknotes. He slid the money into his pocket, sat down and relaxed for the rest of the journey. At Waterloo, as he carried his briefcase from the train to Fred and the red Jaguar, he cast the now empty Jiffy bag into a waste paper bin.
The sumptuous black Škoda stopped outside Eleven Blair Street and beeped its horn once. Angela, resplendent in a blue evening gown and with assiduously coiffed hair, wrapped herself in a jacket and picked her way down the garden path. She was holding a carrier bag as well as her handbag. Councillor Black was standing on the roadside holding the front passenger door open for her. They said hello and he drove carefully over the ill maintained roads towards the quayside.
"You ever been on the Titanic before?" he asked.
"No. I saw the film."
"Neither have I."
"Do you know anything about it?"
"Nothing except it's a luxury liner and you and I have an invitation to dinner a first class cabin."
"Sounds good. What's the catch?"
"Some comedian called Catterick Pealty. Contemporary and edgy, apparently. He's been on telly. Then there'll be a couple of speeches. Nothing we can't sit through."
At the quayside, a young man wearing the uniform of White Star Line offered to drive Councillor Black's car to the car park for him. Angela gave him the carrier bag and asked him to leave it in their cabin, and Councillor Black and Angela climbed up the gangplank and followed the steward's directions to the Ballroom.
"Councillor Arthur Black and Mrs Black," bawled the footman.
Behind the bar Paula spoke aloud by mistake. "Mrs Black?" She looked up and saw Angela, with a partner whom he didn't recognise, walking arm in arm across the dance floor towards the bar where she was serving.
"What's going on?" Paula whispered to Angela as soon as she was within earshot.
"Two gin and tonics, please," said Councillor Black.
"Tell you later," Angela hissed.
"Certainly, sir," Paula nodded, adding, to Angela, "May I say how magnificent you are looking this evening, Mrs Black."
"Thank you, barmaid," Angela replied, looking down at the evening dress.
Paula found two spirit glasses, squeezed two double gins from the optics, dropped slices of lemon into each, and then dived into the chiller for two small bottles of tonic water. She opened the bottles and set them before her customers. "Two gin and tonics, sir."
"Thank you." Councillor Black poured the tonics into the gins and handed one of the glasses to Angela.
On cue, the band started with Strike Up The Band. Councillor Black raised Angela's hand in a gesture inviting her to dance, and they left their drinks on the counter and went to dance together. They were both, Paula observed, very skilled dancers.
"Pint of Newcastle Brown Alr, please," said a middle aged lady in a broad Tyneside.
"Sorry, Madam. I've only got Watney's. This is Hell, after all."
"Pint of Watney's, then, barmaid," the lady ordered, and Paula searched the chiller for a bottle of it.
"I'll take the draught one, thanks," added the lady when Paula couldn't find a bottle.
"Oh, yes," said Paula, noticing the name on the beer pump in front of her for the first time and becoming flustered, "of course. Pint?"
The dance music gave way to the first few bars of I Want To Be Happy, a drum roll and a sting on the cymbal. A spotlight shone down as Catterick Pealty bounded up some steps to the centre of the stage calling "Good evening!" to the assembled couples. There was a half hearted round of applause. Pealty's voice, amplified by the stage microphone and played over the loudspeakers, was a little too loud for Angela's comfort.
"Good evening! I'm Catterick Pealty, and welcome aboard the great RMS Titanic. Isn't it grand?"
There was another outbreak of half hearted applause.
"Don't worry, it's unsinkable!" The joke got a limp laugh. "This party is about honouring the outstanding performers at Hell Bunch Of Swindlers. Does anyone here work for Hell Bunch of Swindlers?"
There was a general cheer. Most of the people in the room worked for Hell Bunch Of Swindlers.
"Great! You've made a huge pile of money this year, right?"
Most of the crowd chorused, "Yes," and someone else said, "I didn't!"
"You're too honest. The Honest Broker. They warned me about you!"
"And Hell Bunch Of Swindlers is going to buy up the Blocks in the Ninth Circle, isn't that right?"
Two people called out, "Yes!"
"I used to live in the Blocks," said Catterick Pealty, "and the banks weren't interested in them then, because as soon as anyone got any money, they moved out!"
This brought a disappointingly quiet laugh. Pealty moved on. "It's roughly dinner time. There's some wonderful food waiting for you in the restaurant through the big doors over there. British dishes made from one hundred per cent British ingredients. Isn't that right, ladies?"
"Yes!" chorised the waitresses.
"This is Hell and it's the best we could do. I'll see you all later!" Pealty started to clap himself, everyone on the floor joined in, and gradually the couples wandered from the dance floor through the open double door to the restaurant. From behind the bar, Paula watched Councillor Black put his arm around Angela's waist and guide her towards a table. As they walked, Angela looked straight at Paula with a wide smile. Paula mouthed "What are you up to?" to Angela, and Angela mouthed "Don't worry" in reply and blew Paula a kiss. Then Paula switched off the lights above the bar, pulled a cover over the beer pumps and locked the chillers.
In the kitchen the heat, the steam, the cramped lack of space and the demands of serving a hundred or so four course meals all at the same time had already created a kind of pandemonium. Amid the service the first course, Paula ladled out tomato soup and tonged out a bread roll to Angela and Councillor Black, who were sitting together, looking affectionately into one another's eyes, on Table Four, making small talk about the history of the vessel upon which they found themselves, life at the radio station, the chances of making a fortune out of the sale of the Blocks, the future of Blair Street and the train service to Heaven, and anything else that came to mind. Paula thought she might have been imagining it but she was sure the couple were sitting closer together when she revisited Table Four bringing roast beef, yorkshire pudding and vegetables. As she finished putting food on the couple's plates, Angela called her back.
"I don't think we'll be here for long after dinner. I need a favour from you." Angela spoke so quietly that Paula had to balance the food carefully while bending down to catch her words. "We shall be in First Class Cabin 203." She looked at Councillor Black. "That's right, Arthur, 203, wasn't it?"
"Can you get a couple of bottles of champers out of the chill cabinet and a couple of glasses and bring them to us at the stroke of midnight?" She produced a fifty euro note from her handbag and slipped it into Paula's hand. "Don't forget."
"203, madam. Certainly," Paula acknowledged. Awkwardly Paula stood upright again, almost dropping her tray in the process, and continued putting roast beef, yorkshire pudding and vegetables on the plates of Table Four, trying to look as though nothing was going on at all.
"She's beautiful," Angela remarked, looking after Paula.
"You're not inviting—"
"Oh, good Lord, no," Angela laughed. "Just you and me and something nice to drink."
"Sounds all right to me," the Councillor replied.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Catterick Pealty called into the microphone as the last remains of the desserts was consumed, "let us drink a loyal toast. To Satan!"
"To Satan!" they chorused.
"And another one." Pealty had obviously brought a bottle of something on board with him, and he struggled to recall the name. "Gentlemen, er... Hell Bunch Of Swindlers!"
"Hell Bunch Of Swindlers!" the reply came back.
"Now it's my privilege to introduce our host, Beëlzebub!"
The drummer played another drum roll and cymbal sting, and the spotlight shone on Beëlzebub. Angela and Councillor Black had never seen a member of the Infernal Royal Family before. Beëlzebub wore a red satin lounge suit with a black tie. He was slim, very tall and most good looking, with a trimmed moustache and beard. Angela had expected him to look more evil somehow. The diners sat expectantly.
Angela pulled her handbag onto her knee and, trying hard not to attract anyone's attention, found the radio button mike. Knowing it was unlikely to work on an ocean going yacht in the middle of nowhere, she tried switching it on and setting it to WAN. The light turned yellow, meaning no connection, which she expected, and then it went green and stayed green. Among the improvements and refurbishments on board, there must be an unsecured wireless network. She pinned the brooch to the front of her dress and sat so that it pointed towards the stage.
"Is everything all right, my dear?" asked Councillor Black.
"Fine," whispered Angela, "I'm just fidgeting. Sorry. Ssh!"
"Good evening and welcome aboard my new yacht." Beëlzebub spoke in a majestic Home Counties accent. "It's magnificent, isn't it? Eat your heart out, Oleg Derepaska. I picked it up for a song. I bought it secondhand and it was in rather poor condition when it arrived here. It had been holed by an iceberg, from which I learned never to sail my yacht to a cold place." There was a giggle from the audience. "Yet here it is, renovated, refurbished and in as-new condition. Feel free to explore anywhere on board that takes your fancy, after I've finished speaking of course." Laughter. "Are Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet on board this evening?"
He looked around. "Kate and Leonardo?" he repeated. There was silence.
"Thank heaven for that." There was another laugh. "Now, to business. I want to congratulate all of you on achieving a profit of six thousand one hundred and seventy nine million euro," there were whistles and some applause, "on a turnover of just over twenty five and a half billion euro in the 2007 financial year. I couldn't...," he had to pause as the applause and cheering drowned him out for a while, and as it receded he continued, "That's a lot of money, isn't it? I couldn't have done it without you." Beëlzebub clapped to show his appreciation of his guests' hard work and waited for the applause to die away before continuing.
Beëlzebub took a small clipboard from the pocket of the red suit and read aloud, "I want to congratulate a couple of particularly high achievers personally, and I want to give you a couple of bits of really exciting news, after that we can all dance the rest of the night away. Mr Ernest Mainsplug!"
A man in a dinner jacket put up a hand, and a spotlight from the ceiling picked him out.
Mr Ernest Mainsplug, you have been working on Overdue Accounts Collection this year and you have achieved an astonishing performance. Ladies and gentlemen, this colleague of ours has provoked no less than twenty two suicides." Applause rose. "Isn't that amazing!" Cries of "Well done," "Way to go!", "Brilliant work" could be heard as Mr Mainsplug enjoyed his moment of recognition. A few seconds later the spotlight went out.
"Aanandita, one of our external partners, where are you?"
Aanandiata waved her hand and the spotlight found her.
"And Mr Arthur Black, are you here?"
A second spotlight picked out Councillor Black. For a few seconds the beam also illuminated Angela's blue gown, which reflected brilliantly. From a corner of the room, where she was standing with a tray of dry sherries, Paula looked on bewildered.
"Aanandita works for one of our external partners and with her help Mr Black is in the process of shifting about eighty loans on property, transferring one of the Ninth Circle's most familiar landmarks into private ownership. That's the Blocks, isn't it?"
Aanandita and Councillor Black both nodded.
"I'm glad I can't see them from my office window. But I never was a fan of classical architecture." There were some laughs, and the two spotlights went off.
"Just think of that," Beëlzebub nodded towards the two visitors, and went on to congratulate a couple more high achievers before signing off. In the ballroom the band took their cue from him and began with a rendering of Money, Money, Money.
Angela turned the radio button mike off and replaced it in her bag. Then she looked up at Councillor Black and invited him, "Let's go back to the ballroom. I love to dance."
Paula also made her way across to the ballroom. She went back behind the small bar, unlocked the chillers, uncovered the beer pumps and turned the lights on in time to see Councillor Black and Angela together on the dance floor and obviously enjoying themselves. A queue formed in front of her counter and Paula was quickly swamped with work. When she next looked around the room, Angela and her partner had left the room.
Paula felt as though only a few minutes had passed, but the clock above the staircase said it was five minutes to midnight. She asked one of her customers, a man buying four pints of Watney's, whether the clock was right, and he reassured her that it was. Taking a look around to make sure Johnnie was not watching, Paula pulled two bottles of Moët and Chandon out of the chiller, balanced them on a silver tray with a couple of tulip glasses, and set off for Cabin 203. The way to the cabin was up the grand staircase and along one of the liner's endless corridors. By the time Paula was standing outside Cabin 203, she noticed her heart was pounding and her mouth was quite dry. She rapped on the door with her knuckles.
"Wait a moment. Just a moment."
Angela opened the cabin door and Paula asked, "May I come in for a moment?"
Angela was wearing a full length sheer black harem suit which left nothing to the imagination at all, a pair of shining black high heels, and nothing else. She smiled and replied in her familiar way, "Of course you can come in, Paula. Do you like my new outfit?" she asked.
Paula replied in character. "It's a very beautiful garment, madam. You look beutiful, absolutely stunning in it."
"You can relax, Paula," Angela reassured her, adding, "My face is up here, by the way."
Inside the cabin, Paula put the tray with the bottles and glasses on the desk. After Angela in her harem suit, the first things Paula noticed were his wife's gown and underwear hanging in the open wardrobe. After that she noticed Councillor Black lying naked on the bed. Angela pulled the blankets over him and whispered, "He's sleeping it off." Both women watched the motionless form of Councillor Black for a while.
"Are you sure?" asked Paula. "Hey," Paula addressed the Councillor, "it's Room Service. I brought your drinks."
The councillor did not move, and Paula bent over him. "He isn't breathing."
They pushed and poked him for a couple of minutes, and he lay without waking or responding. "Oh, shit," Angela cursed eventually, "I think he must have had a heart attack or something."
"What do we do now?" asked Paula.
"I don't know. I'm completely unprepared for the death of a client. Really, the training you get as a streetwalker is hopelessly inadequate."
Looking around the cabin, trying to decide what they could do next, Angela pulled on the White Star Lines embroidered dressing gown and Paula hit the Call Steward button. A moment later, the steward arrived: knocking on the door was the same young man who had taken Angela's carrier bag and driven Councillor Black's car to the quayside car park.
"Oh, gosh," he said when he took in the situation, "I'll get hold of the Infernal Infirmary and then I'll take your names and addresses so they can contact you."
"That's the easy bit," said Paula, "we live together at 11 Blair Street in the Ninth Circle."
The steward pulled a diminutive note pad from his breast pocket and made a note.
Paula and Angela sat in the cabin until a paramedic arrived from the Infirmary, examined Councillor Black and pronounced him dead. "I suppose I'd best speak to the Captain," he added. The steward was about to dash off and fetch the Captain when the Captain arrived at the scene.
"Who's the dead passenger?" he asked unnecessarily, displaying an uncanny ability to cut straight to the chase.
"Councillor Arthur Black," said Angela.
"Who are you both, then?"
"Angela Gates," said Angela. "Girlfriend." She looked nervously at Paula, hoping the truth wouldn't come out.
"Paula Highwater," said Paula. "Casual labour at Beëlzebub's do. Room service."
"Do you know the dead man's address? Phone number?"
"And you're his girlfriend, you say?"
"He's married so we, I mean, he was married so we had to be discreet. No addresses."
"Fine, I'm sure there will be something in his wallet or somewhere. Dave," he addressed the steward, "fetch a stretcher and we'll move this poor dead body into the morgue for the night. After that, I suppose I shall have to tell his wife. Most senior officer on board."
"Do you still need us?" asked Paula.
"Dave," the Captain asked, "did you get their details?"
"You might as well go home, then. There might be a post mortem in a few days, perhaps an inquest after that. You'll both have to turn up and answer questions, but try not to lose sleep over it. Not your fault. I don't expect you'll want to return to the party. Don't forget your things, Mrs Black. Dave, fetch Angela's car."
It was a clear, cold night with a chill wind. As Dave, Paula and Angela walked down the gangplank back onto the quay, Paula in waitress's uniform and Angela in a dressing gown wrapped around her harem suit, a porthole opened at the stern of the ship and someone leaned out.
Oi! it called, "where are you fucking going? We haven't washed up yet."
The clock on the dashboard showed three o'clock. "Is that right?" asked Angela.
"Roughly." Peter thought they would probably get home in time for an hour or two's sleep, which would help them get over the panic. "I said I'd return the car to the Councillor's home tomorrow. Poor fellow."
"Does this car have heating?" Angela pulled her dressing gown around her.
"It's already running. It's not really meant for young women wearing harem suits and hotel dressing gowns."
Angela began to sob. Peter offered, "It wasn't your fault," but he realised that she was crying from shock more than guilt or bereavement. He was able to drive with one hand on the wheel and the other around her shoulders. The Ninth Circle glowed in the distant landscape. "We'll soon be home," he added, trying to reassure her.
At home in 11 Blair Street they found that the electricity had gone off. Angela fell onto the couch, still sobbing. Peter brought a quilt from the linen cupboard and lay it over her. Then he tried to climb in beside her but there wasn't enough room. He slept on the floor, saying nice things like "There, there" and "It really wsn't your fault" whenever Angela woke up and started crying again. He completely forgot about the program that was due to start at 06.00 and flush out whoever was making unauthorised connections to the message server.
At 06.00, while Peter and Angela were both sleeping, a scheduled job came to life on one of the servers in the basement of the Bitco offices. A dummy message passing server configured itself and began accepting connections. Over the next two or three minutes a half dozen dummy client programs started and connected to the server. A firewall exemption opened, and the dummy server was ready to communicate with the outside world.
At 07.00, Tarquin arrived on the Hell Bunch Of Swindlers trading floor. Last night his uncle had not been at home but his wife briefed him and gave him the mortgage agreements. The twelve million pounds in mortgages hadn't all been sold yet, but not even the most hard working salesman could have sold the lot by now. About five million had been sold, and about seven million was still unsold, so why not sell the five million, pocket his share, and sell the rest when it was ready? He found the debt purchase offer from Manlee Brothers, keyed in the magic numbers and clicked the magic button. Expecting the usual confirmation of the money paid to his bank account, he looked only briefly at the acknowledgement. As he looked at it, he felt himself becoming slightly sick. "No Deal. Funds Unavailable."
This had to be a mistake. Fair enough, sometimes his credit cards ran out of credit and sometimes he didn't have as much in his wallet as he thought, but this was not Tarquin paying a debt to Manlee Brothers. It was the other way around: this was Manlee Brothers being asked to make good an agreement which they and Tarquin had struck only one or two days ago. He composed the message again. Debt purchase of five million at two percent. He hit the magic button again and after a couple of seconds the acknowledgement came back, "No Deal. Funds Unavailable."
Tarquin understood that Hell Bunch of Swindlers held large debt purchase agreements with Manlee Brothers — the so-called credit default swaps — compared with which the five million he was trying and failing to redeem was small beer. If Manlee Brothers couldn't find five million to make good on part of an agreement for twelve million, then it must put the entire organisation in jeopardy. Not just the Manlee Brothers organisation, but his too. Tarquin looked anxiously around the room. There was nobody else on the trading floor: it just so happened he had been unable to sleep because of the noise from a yacht party down at the quay, and he had decided to drag himself into work early, make some money and then get some kip while everyone else was fighting over whatever deals came in. And now this: "No Deal. Funds Unavailable." He had to tell someone.
Just before 08.00, Angela arrived for work in the morning. She grabbed the rip-an'-read and without looking at it she took her seat in Studio Two. The clock said she had about two minutes to go. The headphone wires were tangled and it took her a few seconds to sort them out. Headphones poked his head around the door, said "Hi, go on my green light" as though nothing were due to happen for a quarter of an hour, shut the studio door again, and suddenly Angela was live on air.
"Here is the news," Angela read, "and this is Alvar Liddel reading it."
"The entire financial system of Hell is in meltdown following the bankruptcy of investment brokers Manlee Brothers early this morning. Manlee Brothers has repudiated contracts with Hell Bunch of Swindlers, resulting in a knock-on threat to that organisation as well. The Central Committee of the Infernal Government will meet in about two hour's time to decide on a way out of the growing crisis."
"A director of Hell Bunch of Swindlers has died in mysterious circumstances," Angela gulped and carried on bravely, "at a yacht party thrown last night by its Chief Financial Officer, Beëlzebub, aboard the renovated RMS Titanic, which was moored in harbour in the inshore waters of the Ninth Circle. Councillor Arthur Black went to his cabin with his wife Angela shortly before midnight, and was found dead by a steward about an hour later. Critics of the Swindlers say that the cost of the party, which according to some estimates is nearly three hundred thousand euro, would have been better spent shoring up customers' accounts."
"A three legged dog from Llanelli whose owners accidentally left him behind on a camp site in Oxfordshire has caught a train to Birmingham New Street and been re-united with his owner. The dog, nicknamed Hopalong, caught a local train to Reading, changed onto a northbound express and got off at New Street..."
After reading the News, Angela opened the door of Studio Two. She was about to head across to the canteen for coffee and fruit shortbread biscuits when a middle aged lady ran into the building off the street, burst into the lobby, and produced a hunting knife from her handbag. "I'm Councillor Black's wife, you shameless," she drew breath and screamed at a bewildered Angela, "hussy! His wife. Do you hear me? Do you know what wife means? I hope you're pleased with yourself!"
At 09.00, Peter woke up on the floor of the living room and realised that Angela had already left. At least the electricity was on now, so he could get a warm bath. There were no meetings scheduled at Bitco today, so he could probably show up at eleven o'clock without anyone noticing. He was not in a desperate panic, and he took his time over getting ready and making his way to his desk in the Bitco office. There he took his first look at the state of his decoy server. Sure enough, there was the rogue connection, labelling itself Valhalla Message Processor. The rogue connection had sent two messages, and the dummy clients had responded with plausible but entirely bogus replies, as Peter had intended. The clients were programmed simply to refuse any requests sent to them, which seemed a good enough way of dealing with requests.
At 10.00, every retail branch of Hell Bunch of Swindlers put up its shutters and closed for the rest of the day, pending an investigation of the financial health of the company. Beëlzebub called an emergency meeting of the directors and personally wandered around Councillor Black's office looking for anything that Black would have brought to the attention of the meeting, had he been alive to do so. Among two piles of mortgage agreements, some signed and the rest unsigned, he found a scrap of filofax paper bearing Angela's address and the phone number of the News Division of Hell Broadcasting Corporation. He left the mortgage agreements, which were routine, but hung on to the filofax paper just in case the information written on it should turn out to be of importance. At the various locations where the Swindlers had built branches, handfuls of shoppers and passers-by, noticing that the Swindlers was closed during their usual opening hours, guessed that the company was in crisis and started queueing outside, so that if the doors opened again they could draw their own money out before everyone else's money all disappeared in a puff of magic smoke. Seeing the queues beginning to form, other passers-by swelled the queues until there were hundreds, possibly thousands, of people waiting for the Swindlers to open their doors.
At 11.00, the Central Committee of the Infernal Government made an announcement about the financial crisis.
In the face of the attack, Angela retreated back into Studio Two and watched Mrs Black flailing at her, trying to hold the door shut with her left foot. Mrs Black strode towards the studio door, shouting so loudly that Headphones was able to sneak up from behind her and press his leg against the back of her knees, causing her to fall backwards. Once she was on the ground it was — relatively — easy to disarm her.
"Trick I learned at school," he explained to Angela afterwards, tossing the knife into a waste basket, "Once you're down, you either let go of the weapon or you get your arm broken. I'm sorry I hurt you, Mrs Black, really, but if you barge into a recording studio trying to cut the announcer's head off with a carving knife then you must expect a little rough treatment. I would have done it painlessly if I knew how to."
"You bastard. You don't know who you're dealing with," Mrs Black seethed.
"I rather think," Headphones surveyed the two women and led the way to the canteen, "that as we have the next hour in the can, the three of us should go and get a nice cup of tea. At least that way you'll find out a bit about what happened, and so will I with a bit of luck."
"A nice cup of tea is your answer to everything, isn't it," Angela observed.
"It sure is. As Shakespeare tells us in Henry V Part Three, 'There is no problem so incommensurably vast that sufficient cups of tea cannot resolve it to the satisfaction of all parties.' And he knew what he was talking about. He loved his P G Tips with milk and two lumps of sugar, William Shakespeare did. It overcame his writer's block an absolute treat. Or was it Henry III Part Five?"
"And what, pray, might in the can mean?" queried Mrs Black.
"Techie talk for recorded in advance. Angela won't need to do any live announcing until the recording finishes. Which is good, because what with one thing and another she's pretty upset and stressed out by now. When your partner for the evening drops dead and then his wife attacks you with a meat knife long enough to bisect an elephant, you get a bit emotional about that, especially if you've had hardly any sleep. I'm surprised Angela's still able to stand upright without wobbling, let alone read scripts clearly and distinctly down a mike. Tea for three please," he said to the buffet lady as they reached the canteen, "and some of those nice fruit shortbreads, please."
"Four euro eighty."
"Ta very much."
There was a tense silence, broken only by kitchen noises and Radio Hell playing quietly on a speaker near the cash register. Eventually Mrs Black asked Angela, "What were you doing with my husband?"
"He asked me to Beëlzebub's yacht party. I think he knew I was a professional escort before I was married. It seemed a harmless enough way to spend an evening, so I went with him."
"You do realise he told me he was going to a directors' meeting with a sleep-over afterwards?"
"No, I don't, but what did you expect him to say? Cheerio, I've rented a prostitute for the night so don't wait up, see you tomorrow, dear?"
"Didn't you think of telling me about it?"
"Of course not. And believe it or not, it was a wonderful evening. For both of us. I do offer you my sympathy, of course. If there's anything I can do, please tell me."
Quietly Mrs Black said, "Thank you."
The chatter and occasional music of Radio Hell stopped suddenly. The voice of Alvar Liddel began reading.
"This is the Hell Broadcasting Service. The economy of Hell has collapsed. Financial transactions have been severely disrupted..."
"Did you record this?" Headphones asked Angela, recalling her extraordinary power of mimicry.
"No," said Angela. She shook her head.
Alvar Liddel went on, "...the number of casualties and the extent of the damage are not yet known. We shall bring you further information as soon as possible. Meanwhile, stay tuned to this wavelength, stay calm and stay in your own homes. Remember there is nothing to be gained by trying to get away. By heaving your loams— I'm sorry, I'll read that again..."
"This broadcast is live." Headphones had noticed the slip, which would have been edited out of a pre recorded broadcast.
"Unless the slip was put in on purpose, to make us think it's a live announcement," Angela guessed, "Alvar's somewhere in this building."
"By leaving your homes you could be exposing yourselves to greater danger. If you leave, you may find yourself without money, without your stocks and shares, without credit cards, without overdrafts, without insurance and without the Infernal Lottery. You may be unable to buy anything even if you really, really want it. The safest place is indoors. Outdoors it may be foggy, cold or raining, there may be mud underfoot, and trains may fail to arrive at the scheduled times. Do not take unnecessary risks. Money must not be used for conjuring tricks, wedging doors open, detaching supermarket trolleys from the ones in front or levering the lids off tins. Use your money only for essential purposes. Money means life. Don't waste it. There will be another bulletin on this wavelength in two hours. Now turn your radio off to conserve its batteries. That is the end of this broadcast."
Radio Hell fell silent.
"Oh, dear God." Mrs Black seemed suddenly alarmed. "Tarquin! He's somewhere in the Hell Bunch Of Swindlers building. He'll be trapped!"
"I'm sure he's a professional who knows exactly what to do," said Angela, but Mrs Black was still panicking.
"They have ladders that can reach twenty storeys now," said Headphones. "We'll be in touch with you, Mrs Black," he tried to reassure her as he aligned her with the exit.
"What was all that state of emergency stuff about?" Angela asked after Mrs Black had left for home, or maybe to look for Tarquin.
"Sounds like a standard issue national panic script with the blanks filled in to me."
"So what happens to us at a time like this? What do we do? How do we leap to our country's aid in its hour of need?"
"Easy. You work for News, right? Get out there and make a programme about it. What's really happened, what people are saying on the streets, that sort of thing."
"And what went wrong and whose fault it is."
"That's not reporting, that's features. Until there's a case in court at least. I think the name of the culprit might emerge from the confusion as time passes, but feel free to pitch in and speculate baselessly."
Angela grabbed a portable recorder and went out onto the street.
There was no panic on the streets. Angela had expected to see police cars shooting past with their lights blazing, people running up and down or in circles, screaming incoherently, sobbing and waving their arms about, while mobs looted food from the smashed windows of supermarkets now reduced to rubble, and set fire to the offices of financial advisors and mortgage brokers while formerly wealthy men, now reduced to beggary, leaped to their deaths from the tops of tall buildings. In reality she found a nightmare scenario. The streets were peaceful, which came as a bit of a disappointment. People were walking around, talking to each other and generally behaving normally, apart from queues of a dozen or so outside the closed doors of the banks, from which they doubtless planned to carry their money away in wheelbarrows or plastic rubbish bags as soon as their accounts became available again. Angela walked around with the microphone ready to catch any interesting replies and asked people whether they realised there was a financial emergency on. Most didn't, and even those who did didn't seem at all peturbed by the total collapse of the economy. After half an hour of getting nothing that she could put on air, she finally did what anyone else would have done, gave up, went into the Slug and Lettuce, took a seat at the bar and ordered a pint of Watney's.
"I haven't even had the radio on since breakfast," said the barman affably. "Mind you, things can happen quickly these days. What with the internet and all that. There were a bunch of them in from the Swindlers last night, and nobody seemed to say anything about any crisis."
"So it all blew up very suddenly?" Angela pursued the subject.
"It must have done, if there's an emergency now and there wasn't any this morning. Who knows, it will probably be business as usual again by this evening. Maybe even sooner. Look, here come the Swindlers crowd now. It must be time for an early lunch."
Five young men, identically dressed in Jermyn Street white shirts, no ties and red braces, came in and noisily took over a table at one side of the pub. "Five gins and tonics, Malcolm," they called to the barman.
"'Scuse me," the barman said to Angela, "duty calls." He carried the drinks over to their table, collected a gold card in payment, and walked back to Angela. "These boys," he waved a hand in the direction of the five gins and tonics, "were probably there when it happened. Why don't you ask them?"
"Good idea." Angela carried her beer across to the table and with a "Mind if I join you?" she pulled up a chair and sat in between two of them. "Hello, I'm Angela Gates from Radio Hell." She noticed that the boys appeared to be in their late teens rather than the mature and wise employees of long standing to whom, she imagined, Hell Bunch Of Swindlers would alone entrust its vast funds for safe keeping.
"Gosh, are we on the telly, then?" said the boy on her left.
"It's radio, innit. We ain't on telly," contributed the boy on her right.
"You're not being recorded, not yet anyway. Were any of you here at seven o'clock this morning?"
"He was." Four of the boys pointed at the fifth, who was opposite her.
"What's your name? Which bit of the Swindlers do you work for?"
"Used to work for. I don't think there will be much of it left after the emergency gets going."
"Sorry to hear that. What's your name, by the way?"
Angela paused for thought. "What happened this morning?"
"Manlee Brothers reneged on a deal we agreed yesterday. They wouldn't do that unless they were in dire straits, getting a real kicking in the markets."
"Was the deal with you?"
Before Tarquin could continue, the boy on Angela's left grinned, "See! I told you you'd never shift that rubbish."
Angela shushed him gently and looked back at Tarquin.
"So I told the trading floor manager. He realised that if Manlee Brothers couldn't pay a five million pound trade agreed on in advance, then the Swindlers was probably insolvent because we depend so much on them, they owe us millions." Tarquin waved his hands in a gesture that illustrated just how enormous millions are. "Then he told the finance director, and he basically gave orders to batten down the hatches and dive to the bottom."
"Ah," said Angela, draining her pint expertly, and she was about to shout an order for another round of gins and tonics, this time including one for herself, when Malcolm came over to the table, handed the gold card back to its owner and intimated quietly to him that it had no funds on it.
"Fuckin' computers," said the keeper of the card.
"It's no doubt due to the financial emergency, sir," said Malcolm apologetically.
"How much is the bill?" Angela asked without thinking.
"Twenty eight euro exactly," Malcolm replied.
"Here, and another round please, including one for me." She gave Malcolm three twenty euro notes from her handbag.
"Thanks," said the embarrassed card holder, "thanks a lot."
"Do you think," Angela turned to Tarquin again, "you were the first person to notice a problem with Manlee Brothers?"
"Probably. I was there before any of the other traders. I was trying to trade with them at seven o'clock in the morning."
Just then Tarquin's mobile phone trilled, and the table heard one side of the conversation while being unable to distinguish the other. "Hello?" ... "Yes, it was me." ... "I'm in the Slug and Lettuce." ... "Yes, of course, I'll be here."
"Who was that?" asked Angela.
"Beëlzebub, no less, ringing to congratulate me on spotting the problem."
"Hey, well done." Others at the table clapped in admiration mixed with envy and disbelief. After the drinks went down, a limousine drew up outside the bar.
"Excuse me, guys, that's my bus," said Tarquin, standing up and leaving. Through the windows they saw him climb into the car, and it drove off.
Tarquin stepped out of the lift on the top floor of the Swindlers building and found himself standing on the thick beige carpet in Beëlzebub's office. The first thing Tarquin noticed was the huge, elliptical desk and the tinted window behind it. There were bookshelves, pot plants, an impressive computer on a desk all its own, even a wine rack, a microwave oven, a kettle, and some cooking supplies. Beëlzebub himself was sitting in a vast office chair behind the desk with a couple of pages of computer print out on the table in front of him.
"Tarquin Black?" he asked, as though there might be any doubt as to who the visitor was.
"Sit down. I wanted to congratulate you on your sharp eye and your quick action this morning."
"Thank you, sir." Tarquin had no idea why his actions should have attracted the attention of an executive of such high standing.
"Were you aware that the Central Committee was spending this morning in emergency session deciding how to bring this financial emergency to an end?"
"I have just come from a meeting of the Central Committee. The outcome will probably be broadcast on the radio shortly, but for the moment please keep confidential the news I am about to give you. I am pleased to tell you that the Central Committee decided to end the emergency and restore the economy to full health by handing the banks huge amounts of money, sufficient to end our dependence upon those of our associates who are unfortunately no longer able to meet their commitments."
Beëlzebub waved the syllable aside. "In our case, Tarquin, the amount of money which I persuaded the Central Committee to invest in our enterprise is no less than eighteen billion euro."
"Billion?" Tarquin had heard the term in arithmetic lessons, but never before in business discussions.
"Billions, unaccountable, non repayable, and it is all ours to do with as we like." He paused. "It is our share of the greatest sum of money in human history. I do not leave such excellent results unrewarded. I have instructed the Wages and Salaries department to pay a bonus into your account of a million euro."
"A million euro, sir?" Tarquin gasped. "Thank you, sir."
"Do you have any questions?" said Beëlzebub after a few seconds as though he could not understand why Tarquin had not yet left the room.
"Do you believe that the Central Committee's vast investment bring the emergency to an end?"
"Strictly between you and me," said Beëlzebub in a low voice, smiling slyly, "I very much doubt that there ever was one. Does it matter?"
Angela was sitting at a desk in the open plan office with a piece of paper and a pencil, exerting herself to try to make a story out of today's events. Not that it mattered much, because Radio Hell was still maintaining silence on air except for Alvar Liddel reading the emergency bulletin once every two hours. She noted down the events of the day as she had understood them and tried to string them together into consecutive words. There were gaps in the narrative which she couldn't fill from what she knew. What did Manlee Brothers think, and had they really gone bankrupt or simply chosen for some reason to back out of a deal? Did today's events make it more, or less, likely that the Blocks would be divided into separate apartments and sold to the people who were already living in them? Oh — there was Councillor Arthur Black as well, and his postmortem, maybe an inquest, to face up to. She began her story: A state of emergency was declared today after a young worker at Hell Bunch Of Swindlers, Tarquin Black, realised that one of the country's greatest investment banks had failed to meet its commitments. If she ever had the opportunity to recount the day's events, she had the script ready, even though it was in longhand. It was unlikely, she felt, that the end of the emergency would be announced today, because that would suggest to any skeptical members of the public that the severity of the problem had been exaggerated. The resolution had to wait until tomorrow, at least.
Sir John Parsnip came back into his office, lit a cigar and poured himself a larger glass than usual. Today, he thought as he stretched out in his armchair and wrote his memoirs with one hand while holding the smouldering Romeo y Julieta in the other, had been most extraordinarily difficult. Central Committee meetings always took longer than seemed strictly necessary, always spent much valuable time on minor issues while major issues went unresolved, and always required a small mountain of paperwork to be handed to each committee member at the start of the meeting, only to be shredded at the end of it without ever having been read. In this case, the issue was straightforward, he thought. One of the biggest financial corporations in the Nether World, Hell Bunch Of Swindlers, faced collapse because of a sudden cash flow shortfall. The Committee had two choices, if you didn't count doing nothing and leaving them to sack all their staff and go bankrupt. The first choice, once you stripped out all the jargon words like securitisation and credit default swap, was to give a vast sum of money to the Swindlers, so that they could carry on trading unreformed and exactly as before. The second choice was to share the same vast sum of money among the investors and savers and share holders, to make up for all the money they had lodged with the Swindlers, and then let the Swindlers go bankrupt anyway. The Committee had laboriously taken evidence from one director or executive of the Swindlers after another, presuming them to be experts, and concluded that the first of these alternative courses of action had innumerable advantages over the second. At the end of the meeting, under the adoring gaze of all those attending, Sir John fiddled in his desk drawer and found the Exchequer's diamond studded American Express card, grubbed around for the piece of Filofax paper on which he had written its PIN code, and pushed it into the handy machine which Beëlzebub happened to have with him to pay Hell Bunch Of Swindlers the sum of Eight Billion Euro. It had to be the right decision, for the expert witnesses, he reflected, had been unanimous. The question of when the money was to be repaid, he mused incuriously, had never been mentioned during the entire meeting, so it probably didn't really matter very much.
Angela had her Compensation Without Nationalisation, What Really Happened On The Day In Question story cut down to five minutes and ready to be included in the news, whenever the news might next be broadcast. She sent a note up to Monique but she didn't expect a reply for a while. She went out and wandered around to the park, where she saw Paula, wrapped in a warm coat, sitting deep in thought and staring into space.
"Hi. I'm really pleased to see you."
"This is all your fault, you know." Angela waved her arms at the economic devastation on every hand, but her tone meant that she was joking.
"Yes. No. That's what I thought. This morning Hell Bunch Of Swindlers tried to close a deal with one of their partners, and my computers, acting as dummy clients, pretended to be the partner, and said they didn't have enough money to do the deal. It was all a scheme to expose whoever was making unauthorised connections to the message server. So I pushed the Swindlers into crisis and wrecked the entire economy."
"That's quite an achievement."
"Not really. They push hundreds of people into crisis every day. It would have been nice to be the first one to push them back, but then I looked at the logs. The dummy server and so forth were all set to start at eight in the morning UTC."
"Why not use Greenwich time?"
"Because UTC is French and this is Hell. Anyway, the trade request was made before eight o'clock. So whatever responded to the request wasn't part of my lash-up. It would have done that anyway."
"So the economy really collapsed for a good reason, instead of just because of a computer fault!" Angela smiled. "That's good to know."
"Well, maybe it had a good reason, and maybe it didn't. I still expect to get the blame for it eventually. Sooner or later someone always blames the computer."
"Oh, Paula." Angela put her arms round Paula. "Don't worry. You're safe. Everything will turn out all right." She paused, then, "Probably. Come on, let's go back to my house."
"Yes. Let's. Have we got any tea?"
"I think so."
The next morning, the conductor opened the sliding door of Sir John Parsnip's favourite first class compartment and asked to see his ticket. Sir John showed it to him, and the conductor said, "Sir John Parsnip. Good morning, sir. Something rather unusual has happened. A gentleman in another carriage asked me to give you this if I saw you this morning." He handed Sir John a parcel the size of a shoe box.
"Where is he?"
"I can't remember, sir. Sorry."
"What did he look like, then?"
"I'm sorry, sir, I simply can't remember. Your ticket is in order, by the way."
In the Jaguar on the way from Waterloo to the City, Sir John surreptitiously opened the package and peeked inside. As he expected, it was full of money.
The notice on the inside of the glass door of the Bitco office had been hastily written with a magic marker and stuck up with Blu Tak:
Closed due to Economic Crisis
Peter stood staring at it for a moment, mouthing "That was quick!" and wondering whether his job was important enough to force a window open, climb inside and spend the day working for nothing, and decided it wasn't. As days go, today wasn't bad. He imagined that if the crisis continued for any long period of time, Bitco would stop paying his wages, and that the money he had was probably worthless anyway. The weather was cold, dry and sunny. He decided to try scavenging for the day. Angela had shown him how to do it when he'd first arrived here. At least he could try to put some food on the table by evening.