Melissa Carlisle, daughter of Lord and Lady Pennington and wife of John Carlisle MP, looked at her husband across the breakfast table as if she were examining something she’d just trodden on. When it came to expressing extreme distaste, the upper classes were a breed apart. Melissa had been born with the ability to look down her nose, as her husband — from more modest, middle-class roots — knew only too well.
‘Tell me it isn’t true,’ she said in a flat monotone, taking care to enunciate every syllable slowly and clearly.
‘What isn’t, dear?’ Carlisle brushed his thinning fair hair back from his brow in a nervous gesture that caused his wife to tighten her expression even more.
‘What isn’t,’ she mimicked. ‘The story in the Telegraph this morning… about your expenses claim for a mortgage that doesn’t exist on a second home you don’t have. That’s what.’
Carlisle moved uncomfortably in his seat, as if his trousers were filling with ants. ‘Well?’
‘It’s obviously some sort of misunderstanding, an administrative cock-up somewhere along the line.’
‘You mean this imaginary house belongs to someone else?’
‘Well, no, not exactly… You must remember I was thinking about getting a flat in London to be nearer the House…’
‘We live forty-five minutes from London and you’re never in the bloody House. Are you seriously saying that you claimed for a mortgage on a flat you were thinking of buying?’
‘A simple error of judgement. I must have looked into the costs involved, written it down somewhere on a bit of paper and somehow it got into my expenses claim. An oversight, plain and simple… easily done. My God, I’m only human.’
Melissa stared at her husband for a full ten seconds. ‘You disgust me.’
‘Look, Melissa, it was a genuine mistake. You must see that. I’m sure that they’ll see that too…’
‘God, Daddy was right. He warned me at the time that all the nonsense about you being a future leader of the party was bullshit. He said you were nothing more than a blond, handsome puppet set up to pull in the faithful in the shires while someone else was putting words in your mouth and pulling the strings all along. And here I am, seventeen years down the line, married to a greedy, vacuous slug whose career has gone downhill every step of the way… like his looks. You’re going to be flung out of the party over this, you cretin. What are you going to do then?’
‘Look, I understand you’re upset, old girl, but it was a genuine mistake,’ Carlisle insisted. ‘But if the worst came to the worst and the truth were to be swallowed up in some gutter press frenzy — they really are the bloody limit, you know, the press, scum the lot of them — maybe… Well, I was thinking… just maybe your father could bung a directorship or two my way? Just to tide us over?’
‘You couldn’t direct traffic in a one-way street.’
‘I was leadership material,’ said Carlisle, accepting that he wasn’t going to win Melissa round and starting to bristle under the verbal onslaught. ‘My time as health secretary was very successful. Everyone says so. I was stabbed in the back… but I know things, things I never mentioned at the time. They owe me.’
‘You weren’t stabbed in the back. You lost the bloody election because of what you and your venal pals were up to and you’ve been out of power for thirteen years over it. And now, just when people might have forgotten, you pop up with a mortgage that never was. Christ, the leader’s going to nail you to a tree over this… if the voters don’t get to you first.’
‘I was set up, I tell you… but I know things.’
Melissa got up. ‘I’m going away for a few days. The thought of having to play the dutiful wife at the garden gate when the hyenas arrive turns my stomach.’
She left the room, slamming the door and leaving Carlisle alone with his thoughts. They owed him: it was time to call in a few favours. Puppet, indeed. He’d see about that. He started reading the Telegraph article, the nervous mannerism of playing with what was left of his hair becoming more and more pronounced. ‘Bastards… utter bastards. This country’s at war and all these bastards can do is go on about a few measly quid and a genuine mistake.’
He finished reading and flung the paper across the room. He picked up the telephone and started dialling friends. Strangely, they were all unavailable.
Montrouge, Paris, 15 February 2010
The Englishman pushed a fifty-euro note into the taxi driver’s hand and got out. He remained oblivious of the smiles and mercis resulting from such a generous tip after only a five-minute ride from the Metro station at Orleans, and looked up at the street signs. Seeing Rue de Bagneux on one of them, he relaxed and took out a card from his overcoat pocket, memorising the numbers on it before getting his bearings from nearby doors. He walked on for twenty metres or so before crossing the street to punch four buttons on the entry panel of number twenty-seven. A prolonged buzz followed by a heavy double click heralded the appearance of a two-centimetre gap. So far so good.
He found flat four on the second floor, above the lawyer and the dentist who occupied the two apartments on the first. There was no name on the door but there was a bell so he rang it and put his briefcase down between his feet, loosening his fashionable cashmere scarf while he waited. The door was opened by another Englishman, more portly and a full head shorter than the newcomer, but about the same age, somewhere in his mid to late fifties. ‘So you found us then. Welcome.’
The new arrival was shown into a large, square, tastefully furnished room with four three-metre-high windows looking out to the north which, on a grey day in February, failed to let in much light. They got help from several elegant standard lamps placed at strategic intervals round the room.
‘Good to see you again,’ he said, recognising the five people sitting on sofas facing each other on either side of a marble fireplace with a coal fire burning in it. Four were men in their fifties, three of them big names in UK business, the fourth a high-level British civil servant. The fifth person was a silver-haired woman in her late sixties whose complexion proclaimed the downside of a lifelong love affair with the sun.
‘As such things go these days.’
‘Remind me: how did you come?’
‘Air France. Birmingham to Charles de Gaulle.’
‘Good. Antonia came up from her holiday place in La Motte near Saint-Raphael. Nigel and Neil were already in Paris on business and Christopher came via Zurich. Giles drove over from Bruges after catching the overnight ferry from Scotland.’
‘The short straw,’ said the driver.
‘It says something when we can’t even risk meeting in our own country,’ said the newcomer.
The host gave an apologetic shrug. ‘I’m probably being overcautious, but my feeling is that we can’t be too careful after what happened back in the early nineties. We were damned lucky to walk away from that particular debacle although we did lose Paul in the process.’
Sherry was poured into seven crystal schooners and handed round before he continued, ‘I’d like to welcome you all to the first full meeting in many years of the executive committee of the Schiller Group. It’s good to be back — albeit in some bizarre surroundings.’ He turned to the newcomer. ‘We are also very pleased to welcome our new member to the executive committee. We have all, of course, followed his progress through the ranks of our organisation as well as watching him achieve success in his own career.’
The man nodded his appreciation.
‘Executive membership of our group comes, of course, with responsibilities. You will now be one of only seven people with comprehensive knowledge of our organisation and its structure, one of only seven people carrying