Authors: Mike A Vickers
âI did not come here to listen to your pathetic complaints,' snapped Abraham Brasenose. He'd finally had enough, having just endured more bleating than a herd of Blackface sheep lost in a foggy Yorkshire dale. The phone call was the last straw. âWe've all suffered in one way or another so shut the hell up.' He was their leader, a man so influential and wealthy a mere nod was enough to condemn tens of thousands to unemployment or send the pound spinning downwards like a sycamore seed falling in autumn. He was the evil genius behind the Leyland cypress, benefitting from a double whammy of selling untold millions of the trees to unsuspecting gardeners nationwide, then cleaning up the hedge trimmer, chainsaw and stump grinder market. âThe real question facing us is not how much we're losing but why the economic and political landscape is changing. Money can be plentiful again but only if we counter these new changes in the country from which we have gratefully extracted so much.'
âThere's the rub,' agreed a waspish-looking man, thin and angular, with the close-set eyes of an assassin. âAbraham is right. We should have been looking closer at these new Independent MPs. There's a wind blowing through politics and we have to learn to bend or we will break.' Adam Netheridge had no sympathies for his fellows. He thought them soft. He was the youngster of the group and was sometimes treated accordingly, but wondered what their attitude towards him would be if they realised he'd poisoned their missing colleague. A subtle plan had just come to fruition and now Lord Robin Newnham was reaping the benefits of ingesting monkshood with a curry, a rare poison noted for inducing cardiac instability. Naturally forewarned of the consequences, Netheridge had ensured an astonishingly quick response by the paramedics, for which his victim was already expressing gratitude. He planned to prosper accordingly.
Netheridge was a man with a damaged moral compass.
He was in good company.
âThe common man is shaking off the cloak of apathy which we have worked so hard to stifle him with over the last twenty years. I'll not see all that good work go to waste,' observed Brasenose.
âI agree,' said Woolley, still smarting. âPeople are slowly emerging from their political indifference. They're getting involved again, and this needs to be avoided at all cost. Apathy is our secret weapon; when people don't care, we can do what we like. An alert and inclusive electorate is dangerous to us, and Timbrill's politics are thoroughly inclusive and his constituents distressingly alert.'
âSo what are our alternatives? What pressure can we bring to bear on the man?' asked Brasenose. âHe's undoubtedly the key. These new IMPs regard him as their unspoken leader.'
âThat damned GIMP,' snapped Woolley. âHe's trouble. People are waking up. It's the small stone that starts an avalanche.'
âColourful metaphor, but not much help.'
âChaplain should have reined him in.'
âWell he didn't and now we're left to sort out this mess.'
Netheridge cursed James roundly, his language atrociously offensive. He was the least influential of the group, which actually meant he was the least wealthy. They were multi-billionaires allÂ â but he was merely a billionaire a few times over.
âI'm glad to see the extent of our problem has finally focused your mind.' Brasenose's tone was as dry as a Bedouin's sandal.
âIt's not bloody fair. We've worked hard to get where we are,' muttered Woolley.
âFor Christ's sake, we need action, not this self-indulgent grumbling,' snapped Netheridge, still fuming. They were so bloody spineless. Perhaps he should start looking at ingenious ways of despatching them all, one by one, Agatha Christie-style. Mmm, now there's an idea, he thought.
âTimbrill is famously immune to blackmail, our usual weapon of choice,' observed Brasenose.
âWell then, let's employ pecuniary persuasion.'
This sent an almost undetectable ripple of unease around the table. Now they would have to invest some moneyÂ â and as stinking rich as they all were, none of them liked the thought of that.
âHow much?' asked Brasenose, voicing their collective discomfort. âWhat's the going rate for an MP nowadays?'
âDepends on the MP,' said Woolley. âI've collected souls in exchange for a pair of opera tickets. Others are inconveniently burdened with a sickening flux of morals, and they're the most expensive to buy. I think we need the experience of someone with street knowledge to pitch theÂ â ah â invitation at the correct level.'
âI think Mr Netheridge, having just displayed a fine turn of gutter language, is the natural choice. As you were the one to advocate a bribe then perhaps you should put up the collateral,' Brasenose suggested suavely.
Netheridge boiled with anger, but kept his expression neutral. Bastards all! Definitely time to start procuring some more monkshood.
âThat's agreed, then,' said Brasenose. âYou'll initiate an operation?'
âCertainly,' agreed Netheridge. And you're next on the list, you slimy turd! âBut we have to consider a back-up plan. Timbrill may well refuse the invitation, however generous. He has a disturbing reputation for honesty. We must consider alternatives.
âThere's his wife.'
âAlso immune to blackmail. The woman's proclivities are nationally admired. That leaves us with limited options.'
âAre you suggesting a physical threat, distasteful as it may be?'
âSadly, she's again already proved to be annoyingly resistant to such methods. No, Chaplain's failure has made that course impossible. No doubt she will contact the police, who will throw their entire weight into the case. Since JSON's demise there are now a disturbing number of honest officers infecting the force. Another symptom of our decline.'
There were curt nods of agreement. Two years ago the MIGS had had the Met and ACPO in their pocket, but no longer, and that new Lord Chief Justice, Cruikshank, was proving to be a right slippery customer as well. A real thorn in their sides.
âThe bird,' growled the man at the end of the table, contributing for the first time. He was always taciturn at these meetings, preferring instead to observe his fellows. He knew their weaknesses, could discern the fine variations of deceit between them, had even discovered Netheridge's sly poisoning, having paid one of his assets handsomely for an independent toxicology report. The man was as subtle as a blood-crazed ferret running up a trouser legÂ â and just as charming. He'd have to keep a close eye on young Adam, the nasty little tyke.
âYes?' enquired Woolley. Matthew Black spoke sparingly at these meetings, but his words were pithy and always worthy of consideration.
âUse the bird. If you have the bird, you have the woman. If you have the woman, the man is yours.' Black was an industrial titan, a grizzled man, thickset and bullish. His companies operated a cartel, an intricate, hidden, oh-so-clever arrangement allowing him to manipulate the paint industry. All of it. From infant faces to the Forth Bridge, everything painted in BritainÂ â and a goodly part of Europe as wellÂ â was painted with products he manufactured from companies he owned, and it had made him immensely, astonishingly wealthy. That's the whole point of a cartel.
âThat blue parrot.'
âGet your facts right. It's a macaw.'
âI don't care if it's a pink and purple parakeet from Piddlehinton, it's the key. The pressure point.'
âPointless. You merely eliminate your lever.'
âYou mean we're going to have to look after it?'
âYou fail to understand the principle of kidnapping,' said Black. âThe victim is taken, shown once under controlled conditions to prove it's still in good health, then disposed of quietly. The woman will for ever hold out hope that the bird will eventually be returned.'
âPluck it!' exclaimed Netheridge enthusiastically.
âI beg your pardon.'
âKill it, pluck it, then send feathers on a regular basis to fool her into thinking it's still alive.'
âI like your thinking,' said Woolley.
âThe damned thing is still dangerous,' said Brasenose doubtfully.
âIt's a bird, for God's sake. How dangerous can it be?'
âAsk Chaplain's associates. They're out of prison now. I think you'll find they consider it very dangerous indeed. Ask them about their scars.'
âDrugs and a cage, that's all it takes.' Netheridge warmed to the idea. âMiller can handle the details.' He had a man.
âMiller. Ah yes, the thug.'
âHe's a tool. We all surround ourselves with tools,' snapped Netheridge.
Out of the mouth of babes, thought Black sourly. He had better things to do than sit here arguing with these idiots. Newnham, Woolley and Brasenose had inherited their fortunes, along with some unpleasant genetic defects, whereas he and Netheridge had forged their own empires. The difference in thought processes fascinated Black. The wrinklies, as he sneeringly dubbed them, clung frightened to their fortunes, ever keen to accumulate but wary of innovation. He and Netheridge were an entirely different kettle of fish. Both were proactive, both had started with nothing. Netheridge's vast fortune was lightbulb-based. He'd identified and then bribed key officials, arranging for EU legislation to be introduced phasing out the old-fashioned filament bulbs in favour of low energy LED lamps, lamps that were manufactured exclusively by his companies. Marketed as immeasurably more reliable, Netheridge ensured a subtle flaw had been engineered into the design, causing the lamps to fail prematurely and so necessitating constant renewal. The mark-up was eye-watering! Even Black had to acknowledge Netheridge's ingenuity on that scam.
Black was proud of his own history. He had started as a shop assistant and worked his way up to the very pinnacle of his trade. His fortune now increased at the rate of many thousands of pounds a minute. Every minute. Of every day. Each year, his personal enrichment swelled by more than the gross national product of many minor countries, yet he never forgot where he came from.
Swaffham. What a dump! He'd hated his unhappy childhood there so much he'd arranged to have the town blighted by two huge wind turbines. It's great to be rich!
Nevertheless, their alliance remained very productive, and he did need to keep a close eye on his colleagues. Particularly Netheridge. A dose of monkshood could arrive at any time. All of them were capable of such treachery if the rewards were great enough. As he was himself, of course.
It would be unfair to say their association was based on mutual trust and comradeship.
âWe're agreed then. We will send an invitation and if that fails, turn our attention to the woman, and by extension, her bird. We may well discover that the macaw is the key,' said Brasenose. âYou'll get your employee on it immediately.'
Netheridge nodded. If Miller could figure a way to administer poisoned chicken curry to a notoriously fussy eater, then extending an invitation to Timbrill should be a walk in the park.
Failing that, he'd simply kidnap the parrot. After all, it wasn't as if he'd have any trouble identifying his target. Just grab the largest blue bird in sight and stuff it in a cage.
This was going to be easy.
James crawled forward, eager to reach his goal, knee joints cracking in protest against the floor. Celeste watched haughtily from the sofa, unmoved by his difficulties. They, of course, were self-inflicted, and she allowed herself a small smile of fondness. He was born to bear such burdens, her poor leather slave. A soft creaking attended his snubbed movements, a discreet sound accompanied by an occasional faint chink of tensioned buckle.
The Kneeling Man was at it again. Doing what he did best.
Bertie cocked his head at the familiar sound, watching idly from his perch by the lounge window. It was dark outside, the curtains drawn, the phone off the hook, the room cosy and intimate, warmed by the fire and lit by a scattering of candles. Daddy had been away for a few days, but now he was home for the weekend. They both very much anticipated his return from Westminster, but in different ways. Bertie loved the attention, the conversation, the stroking and hand-feeding of the best Brazil nuts to be found in London, whereas Celeste's welcome was of an entirely different nature. Time to playÂ â and to set him to his task.
Time to meditate!
He was edging closer now, so close she could detect the faint aroma of warm leather emanating from his clothing, then he settled directly in front of her, taking up position between her parted legs. Sitting back on his haunches, he wriggled against his bondage, useless arms strapped around his chest in a straitjacket, peering up at her with wide-eyed expectation. She idly stroked his flank with her calf and felt the silky texture of his leather body suit slide across her skin.
James floated in a haze of deeply masochistic bliss. His body may have been restrained but his mind most certainly wasn't. In fact, he frequently found himself experiencing total mental freedom, especially when Celeste left him alone in the bondage wardrobe. The trance-like state induced by these physically adverse situations helped clear his mind, stripping away the unimportant to reveal the truth. He often used these times to consider the subtleties of his job, to examine the machinations of those he worked alongside, searching for connections and motives. It was all rather inspiring, as well as providing him with a profound personal pleasure.
However, on this occasion, his attention remained focused on his Mistress. As always, her intoxicating presence bewitched him. He drank in her flame-haired loveliness. Her emerald eyes sparkled with anticipation. Goodness, he was as hard as an unripe pear. Suited, booted, hooded, gagged and bound, he was entirely occluded from the outside world. There was not much give in the restraints and all he could do was wriggle a bitÂ â but then wasn't that the idea? He inhaled the sweet aromas of supple leather, totally reliant on Celeste to release him from this delicious predicament. He trembled at the sight of her. His Mistress. His beloved goddess, the woman who breathed life and passion and purpose into him. He was as besotted with her now as he had been from the moment he set eyes on her at that infamous party of Patti's.