The chaos of London on a Saturday was compounded by the Whitehall march. Martin White understood the sentiment of anti-austerity. The coalition government of Liberal Democrats and Conservatives had only been elected the year before and had already begun to implement unpopular changes to the country. The introduction of a fixed term in power meant there wasn’t a chance to switch governments until 2015. It was going to be a rocky four years.
While he understood and sympathised with the protesters, he wished they hadn’t decided on that day to do their marching about the government’s policies. A week earlier or later would have been perfect for him. He might even have been tempted to join the protests. It was good fodder for an article. It would mean the creation of another pseudonym, but he had so many it didn’t make a difference to him. The spreadsheet did most of the work for when he had to decide which one to go with. A new politically-aimed by line wouldn’t hurt at all.
A new by line, political or otherwise, wasn’t going to help him to get to the interview any quicker. It felt like he’d got the last parking space in the city and it was miles away from where he needed to be. He should have ducked into the Underground, but instead had spent the last fifteen minutes scurrying through the streets.
He didn’t like leaving his car and his possessions so far away. If the car was stolen he wouldn’t be left helpless, as, while he’d left his laptop in the boot, all his work was backed up online. Replacing his clothes would be an annoyance and dealing with all the changes to his online security would be a days-long headache, but he would survive. He had credit cards and a debit card in his wallet all the time, so everything was replaceable. He would rather not do it.
It was tempting to slide over the bonnets of the cars stuck bumper-to-bumper on Shaftesbury Avenue. He resisted the temptation and squeezed in between, even though getting through the tiny spaces slowed him down.
The amalgamated sweet-sharp smell of petrol and the dusty smell of diesel intensified as he wove through the crowds along Charing Cross Road and through Leicester Square. His nose felt clogged and crusted. There was no time to pay attention to the theatres, other than as obstacles from people clustering outside. Clouds of overwhelming cologne, perfume and sour sweat assailed him as he pushed through.
At Trafalgar Square he sat on the granite lip of one of the fountains and collected himself. The cool March air tightened the film of sweat on his neck and face. The fast walk was the closest he’d come to jogging in a long time and he didn’t feel great for it. His long-delayed plans of getting into exercise might have to be put into practice.
With a paper tissue he wiped away the worst of the sweat from under his collar and dabbed at this forehead. He adjusted and tightened the tie. Notebooks, phone, pens and recorder were all in their correct places, but the bag felt too light, looked too empty without his laptop. He felt he’d made the wrong decision in leaving the computer behind.
A final adjustment and he felt he was ready to make the short walk to the hotel. He was still annoyed that all of the car parks around Trafalgar Square were fully occupied. He’d spent an hour driving around the centre of London trying to find that one space.
He had to shake off the irritation, fall into the role of professional journalist. The offer to be a staff writer with the online publication was too flattering to refuse. He wasn’t going to give up his pseudonymous work, it was too lucrative.
All the editors he worked with online knew Martin wrote under different names. Not one of them knew the scale of his enterprise. Some editors had even tried to pit him against one of his other identities, which was both amusing and extremely awkward. Even without knowing the small village of writers he accounted for, some of the editors had taken to calling him Mister Nickname.
Most of what he wrote about was tech-based material. He had an insatiable need to find out about new gadgets, apps, computer technology, communications and general advancements. He would sometimes turn his attention to gaming, but his living situation wasn’t conducive to it, so it didn’t come up often. Games consoles weren’t even a consideration.
He hadn’t lived in a house or a flat for four years. His home and office were both his car. The large estate car afforded him plenty of flexibility as he could travel from city to town to city whenever he needed. As long as he could find a wi-fi signal, he could work wherever he parked. Hotels, bus stations and train stations meant he could shower and make himself generally presentable. There was no shortage of cleaning services for when his clothes became too smelly.
The lifestyle wasn’t cheap, but he didn’t want for money. He had written a couple of conspiracy thrillers – under yet another name – that had been commercially very successful. The best-selling status of the first led to a huge advance for the second and he was contracted for more. The money he earned from the books allowed him to live the hobo lifestyle. The lifestyle baffled his family, but suited him for the time being.
It was a lifestyle somewhat at odds with the surroundings the hotel offered. The entrance was modern-looking, understated, yet spoke of luxury. Neutral tones lit with a few low-key purple lights. The floors were wood panelled and polished to high sheen. He was afraid he would scuff the varnish with his outside shoes and had to fight the urge to take them off.
The reception was small and two young, efficient-looking young people worked behind the free-standing desks.
‘May I help you, sir?’ the woman said.
Martin walked up to the desk and was struck that she might not have been as young as his first impression suggested. Her voice was husky and her features had a set of maturity he’d missed from a distance. She still looked efficient. Her uniform was immaculate and her blonde hair pulled back in a perfect, simple style. He searched and couldn’t see a single errant strand.
‘I’m Martin White and I’m here to meet Oliver Tristan,’ he said.
A quick look at the screen in front of her and the already warm smile widened. ‘Yes, Mister Tristan is waiting for you in the bar.’ She pointed behind him, into the long room looking out into the street.
Some of his impressions of taste were broken. While there were still modern and tasteful touches, there were some pictures and items in the windows he found tacky. Stark light and shadow ink drawings along with what looked like haphazard t-shirts looked out of place. Bright, clean lights made the bar look large. More spot purple and green illumination at the tops of the round pillars made the place welcoming.
Yet, he didn’t feel welcome. The room was full. Most of the tables had groups crowded around them, but there was very little noise. He’d never experienced anything like it. So many people in one room should have created a constant low murmur. Isolated hiss. A brief mutter. Clink of a glass. Slight scrape of cutlery on a plate.
He hesitated in the entrance. There were ways out of the building: both reassuringly close. He could be out in the street and away if he thought something wasn’t right.
It was weird, but was it threatening? No one paid him any attention. So many quiet people and all stuck in their own worlds. It was strange and made him feel like he was in a haunted house, but he didn’t get the sense of danger.
Because of how he lived and worked, he had developed some mechanisms for knowing danger was close. Like the time, a few months before, when he’d made an appointment to speak to a Russian oligarch who had invested in a company developing a new kind of system for finding car problems. The man had asked Martin to meet him at a seedy bar in Birmingham. Something had been wrong several streets away, when Martin saw large men waiting in a dark car. The car had crawled away from the kerb and followed him. The second dark car convinced him things weren’t right, so he turned the car and left the city. No one ever interviewed the oligarch, but there was a rumour he’d had another journalist beaten for setting up a meeting.
The meeting with the oligarch had taken six months to set up. The interview with Oliver Tristan was handed to him by his new boss.
A quiet bar, in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world was strange, but it didn’t set off his sense of danger. It did encourage him to stay on his guard.
Oliver Tristan wasn’t difficult to find. His bulk was squeezed into one of the recesses at a window. Martin had seen plenty of pictures of the man and had been struck by how toad-like he was. Large, wide-spaced eyes, flat head, barely there nose and broad mouth. The impression wasn’t altered by seeing him in person. Martin wondered if the espresso cup in between the large, stubby-fingered hands contained coffee or insects.
When Oliver spotted Martin, the fleshy mouth stretched into a surprisingly welcoming smile and when he stood, he did it with swift ease.
Martin almost paused. Oliver was made to a different scale to him. Martin was a bit over six feet tall, but Oliver loomed over him. Martin managed to overcome his surprise and returned a smile he hoped didn’t look too sickly.
‘You must be Martin,’ Oliver said and offered a hand. ‘Oliver Tristan. Nice to meet you.’
The hand was warm and dry. It was like shaking hands with a teddy bear.
‘Nice to meet you, too, Mister Tristan.’
‘We shouldn’t get into that crap. Call me Oliver, Olly if you feel like it.’
‘Take a seat, mate.’
Martin sat across from Oliver. Oliver didn’t sit, instead he leaned over. ‘What will you have, Martin?’
‘To drink. Can’t talk with a dry throat. Takes all the fun out of it.’
‘A bottle of water will be good, thanks.’
Oliver didn’t walk like a man carrying so much bulk. His movements were fluid and assured. He leaned against the bar with easy authority.
Martin had noted a lot of anomalies about Oliver Tristan in his preliminary researches. Despite going to Cambridge, Oliver kept his Manchester accent. It was refined, but there was no mistaking the region.
‘Did you want a glass with it?’ Oliver asked as he put two bottles and two glasses on the table.
‘I don’t mind.’
‘Just as well, he wouldn’t give me just a bloody bottle.’
‘They have to keep certain standards.’
‘London’s a pain in the arse for that. I’d come here once every couple of years if I had my way. It gets tiresome constantly being here.’
‘Yeah, I’d rather be on the coast somewhere.’
‘Anywhere in particular?’
‘No, just as long as I can see the sea.’
‘I’d rather be in my little house in Manchester. But I suppose it’s a consequence of the type of business we’re in that we find ourselves stuck in this bloody city.’
‘Most of what gets done, gets done here.’
‘The hub of commerce on our doorstep. Problem is, we don’t like to live on our doorsteps. What would be the point of building the rest of the house in the first place?’ A smile, a laugh. ‘Anyway, enough shitting on London. There’s plenty of time to do that. I’m here to be interviewed by the infamous Mister Nickname.’
Martin grimaced. ‘Where did you hear that one?’
‘In my position it’s advisable to be on good terms with as many media types as I can. I go along to a few events, drink flows and people talk. Don’t worry, I won’t use it against you.’
It was Martin’s turn to laugh. ‘Good to know. We’ll just get into this, okay?’
‘That’s fine with me.’
Martin rummaged his recorder, pens and notebooks from his bag. He placed the items on the table, pushing the recorder to the middle. Oliver watched him, a slight smile played on his large lips.
‘So, Oliver, this isn’t the first company you’ve founded,’ Martin said. ‘How many companies have you started over the years?’
‘Since university I’ve created over a dozen companies. After the success of TriOl while I was still at university I found I had a lot of money. I was able to pay off all my student debts before finishing uni and I could invest in other businesses. A couple of years later I sold off my share of TriOl.’
‘Your experiences at university are fascinating and a lot of young up-and-coming tech Svengalis see you as a template. It doesn’t get talked about much, but what did TriOl do?’
‘It was the late, eighties, early nineties. I, and a few of my friends were concerned about the state of the environment. Recycling was only starting to become a thing and we offered a couple of services. One was we found out where all the places to recycle were in the local area. The second was we could take recyclables, sort them and take them away. For a tiny fee. Like ten pence or something, it was barely anything. Even I was sceptical at first, but people took to it.’
‘It doesn’t sound like it was easy.’
‘It was a lot of work. Not all of it pleasant. We offered composting services. I think we had the cleanest student accommodations in the country.’
‘And you were involved in all this work?’
‘I had to be. We didn’t have enough money to employ people. Not to start with. As we expanded the business outside the student circle, we were able to get people.’
‘And you were able to graduate and eventually sell your share in the business. Now we’ve talked about an undeniable success, let’s go onto one of your failures.’
Oliver laughed. ‘I wasn’t always good at seeing an opportunity. Sometimes I see an opportunity that isn’t there and because I like to get stuck in, it can be a while before I realise what I’m working on isn’t viable. Even if I’m involved in something worthwhile I don’t always stick around. I get restless and I want to do something new. That new thing hasn’t always been the best thing.’
‘Yes, there have been a few failed businesses. Though four out of twelve ventures isn’t a bad hit rate.’
‘Your first failure was the most controversial. After Silwan Inc. was folded there were accusations of financial irregularities.’
‘I was fined for that. It was my impatience again. I touched money that I shouldn’t have. I wanted to move the process along, even though I could see, even at an early stage it wasn’t going to work. The folly of youth, I’m afraid, but it taught me a lot of lessons. Mainly don’t try to mess around with your books, because someone’s gonna find out about it. Being roasted by a bunch of people from the government isn’t something I want to go through again. I’m diligent about my finances these days. It gives my accountant constant migraines. Poor bugger.’
‘No one can accuse you of bad financial management now. Give me a bit of information about your latest venture.’
‘Well, I looked at Fitbit and saw what they were doing. They’ve got quite a market share. Stresswire does something similar. We do the heart rate and GPS thing. Now, someone my size doesn’t only need to worry about his heart. I have to be really careful about my heart, but there are other physical concerns. Lung capacity is one. Cardio-vascular efficiency. Stress on the muscles and the joints. I found someone who was researching ways to measure all of these things. The technology is really clever. Our machines suggest ways to help make all of these things safer, too.’
‘The technology is incredible, but there’s something that concerns me. It’s the contacts you and several other similar companies have with the UK, US, French, Chinese, Russian and Indian governments.’
Oliver’s smile wavered, he shifted in his seat and he broke eye contact for the first time. ‘You always have interest from governments when you’re doing something new.’
‘Not just some slight interest, you are all talking to high level people in all these countries. Political, military and law enforcement. It’s been hard to find, but there is a lot of evidence out there.’
‘Dammit.’ Oliver shook his head and looked truly sad. ‘But you had to find enough. You’re a very good journalist Martin. I hate to see you go down this way.’
Movement behind him. He turned and found the patrons of the bar all standing. Men and women. Their smart suits didn’t conceal how muscular they all were. Dead eyes fixed on him.
He swiped the recorder from the table without looking and jumped out of the seat. He ran headlong for the exit. A hand swiped at him and he jinked out of the way. A woman stood and he barrelled on. A shout. Someone came up the ramp from downstairs. Martin got to the door and was out before the man could get there.
Trafalgar Square didn’t offer any comfort, even with all the people. He felt exposed. People were already emerging from the hotel and crossing the road.
A deep breath and he ran towards Charing Cross Road. He was gasping even before he got there, but he had to keep moving. Some of his pursuers had sprinted out of the hotel. It would be easy for them to eat into his head start.
By Shaftesbury Avenue, he felt like he was going to die. He had to push on. Past the British Museum. At Tavistock Square, he thought he was about to collapse, but he didn’t have far to go.
By the time he got to the car park, his lungs were unyielding. His breath wouldn’t stay in his chest long enough to keep him going and he staggered inside. He leaned on the back of the car until his eyes stopped feeling like they would explode from his skull.
He fell into the driver’s seat and looked at the recorder. It wasn’t much evidence, but there was enough on there to show something bad had happened in the hotel. At the least, he’d been set up. He didn’t know what he’d stumbled on. It had seemed strange when he found out about it, but he’d had no idea it might be something he needed to be silenced about.
Drive away. Think about it later. Wallet and keys were still in his pocket. Get out of the car park, grab as much cash as he could from a machine and keep driving.
He jammed the key into the steering column. Not even a cough from the engine when he twisted the key. He tried again and again. Nothing. The car was dead. Immobilised in a way that couldn’t be an accident.
Disgusted and terrified, he got out of the car. He found another jacket in the boot, along with his sleeping bag and a backpack. He stuffed his laptop, charger and some other essentials into the pack and hurried out of the car park. No one watched or walked towards him. He flinched at the crowds outside.
He had to go back the way he came. He was without a phone and on his own. There was one place he might get help.
The new route didn’t go past Trafalgar Square, but it got him to Whitehall. The march looked like it had broken up. There was still a sizeable group in the road, waving banners and chanting. They would be his way out.
Police stood by, looking bored. They didn’t look worried that the diminished group would become violent.
Exhausted, frightened and drained, Martin plodded to the group and pushed his way in. A man looked at him and Martin smiled, intending to say something. He realised he’d made a terrible mistake when he saw the man’s blank stare and broad shoulders. A large hand clamped over Martin’s mouth and his wrists were grabbed.
He struggled and bit the fingers over his mouth. The chanting of the crowd swelled when he shouted for help.
The crowd moved, carrying him with it. As the tight group went on, he was lifted. Hands cradled his arms, legs and torso. The collective grip was firm and he was unable to free himself. The group broke into a jog and he lost track of where they were.
An alley or a dark side street and he was dropped onto the tarmac. The crowd dispersed. They hung around close enough to make it clear he wasn’t going to escape again. More muscular people, too many to get past.
‘It was obvious you were going to get away at the hotel,’ a woman said.
He looked and saw a non-descript transit van, the side panel opened. The receptionist from the hotel stood next to it. The interior looked dark, as though anything that went in would be lost forever.
‘We still had to try. Mister Tristan sends his apologies, he really found you charming,’ she said and nodded.
Hands grasped his shoulders, slipped under his armpits, pulled his legs off the ground and threw him into the van.