Authors: Alan Cooke
A SERVANT OF THE COMPANY
Copyright © 2014, Alan Cooke
All rights reserved
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This novel is entirely the work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
With thanks to my wife Catherine for her patience during my many absences in the study when a little help in the kitchen would have been appreciated, and to my daughters Wendy and Philippa for assisting me into the 21
century and for their encouragement and advice.
Alan Cooke is married with three daughters and now retired. He spent eight years on an aircrew engagement with the Royal Air Force before joining an International Retail Organisation as a Trainee Executive. Thirty-three years later he retired as a Senior Manager. Like many people, the idea of writing a book had lingered in his mind. This is the result of the lingering, I hope you enjoy it.
He didn’t care for churches, they usually made him sneeze. The stained glass windows illuminated by the sun showing the artist’s work in all its glory might have appealed to him, but the mist of dust particles dancing in the sun’s rays caused him too much misery. Today with luck a rain soaked congregation would help to keep the dust at ground level and leave him sneeze free to complete his work. The memorial service for James (Jimmy) Sutherland was due to start at eleven thirty following a private family burial service. He would join the congregation at the last minute.
Funerals he decided were a bit like weddings, you never knew what to expect. Both were natural progressions in people’s lives but sometimes the pressures of the day or the occasion, erupted into bizarre behaviour. Hopefully today would be an exception and everything would go smoothly, but it wasn’t a certainty. It was important that James (Jimmy) Sutherland had a good send off, and with luck his former life would be pronounced in glowing terms, his character laid bare devoid of stains for all to hear and concur.
The alarm clock delivered its message at six a.m. as instructed. He was already awake but still struggled to reach the clock and silence its unwelcome intrusion into his thoughts on the day ahead. Easing himself out of bed he checked the time before heading for the bathroom. Thirty minutes later having showered and dressed, he felt refreshed. Just two cups of coffee and a slice of toast and he would be on his way. The journey didn’t bother him, he’d done it a week earlier but that had not prevented him from checking his sat nav the previous evening. It indicated that the journey to the church would take fifty-five minutes, but this did not allow for the vagaries of the weather and morning traffic so he added an extra thirty minutes to be sure. He had to be there on time, arriving late was out of the question. Dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and black tie, he checked his appearance in the mirror. Lowering his head slightly he adopted the blandness of a pall bearer, an adjustment to his tie and he was satisfied everything was appropriate for the occasion. His appearance would hopefully be matched by many other males attending, and nothing about him would linger in the memory of his fellow mourners for longer than ten seconds. The aim was to blend in as just another of those people who’d had the good fortune to have known and regretted the passing of James Sutherland, husband, father of three and small time building contractor
‘Just one more thing,’ he whispered to himself nodding his head as if confirming his thoughts. A quick glance at a row of CDs lined up on a mahogany rack and he selected one for the journey. It was becoming a habit, this was the fourth funeral he had attended where Mozart’s Requiem would be his travelling companion.
His aim was to park his car in sight of the Church entrance. If he could check the assembling mourners without being noticed it would be helpful. From experience, older men on their own were usually eager to talk and might fill in any gaps he might need. There was a risk, but if the plan had to be changed he was confident an alternative would lend itself to ensure that the final result was positive. There would be a good turnout, the newspaper ‘Deaths’ columns had provided the publishers with a fair profit from the numerous messages of condolence, while giving some support to the grieving family. James Sutherland had been a popular man and a pillar in the local community, each attribute carefully extolled in print. An accident at work had seen his demise, the fall from the roof of a three storey building leaving him lifeless on a totally unforgiving pavement. At the age of thirty-six, the once successful building contractor had left behind a grieving family and many unfinished contracts. A throng of friends and relatives had inundated the local newspaper in praise of the departed which was then displayed for all to see. And he had seen.
The time to leave had arrived, no briefcase today but an umbrella was a must. The weather forecast was right so far, overcast with prolonged periods of rain. It couldn’t be better. Hopefully the Church would be full of mourners wanting to sing the praises of the deceased and unwittingly prepare him for his new role in death.
Not wanting to be early, he dropped his speed and settled on the inside lane. Arriving too soon might draw unwanted attention. Any contact that might be necessary he would make once the service was over and people were congregating outside the Church. The journey was unexpectedly straightforward, by the time he reached the A3 he was ahead of schedule. There should be a large gathering if the newspaper content was to be believed. The weather was still on his side, if it continued the umbrella would give him more than adequate cover from inquisitive eyes outside the Church. Inside, people might glance around the congregation to acknowledge friends and relatives, but he would enter at the last minute and avoid eye contact with anyone and sit as far back as he could without being obvious.
Passing the Church fifteen minutes before the service was due to start gave him time to find a suitable parking spot within view of the Church. Checking his mirror, the entrance was visible with just two men standing outside chatting under a golf umbrella. He didn’t have to wait long before people started to arrive in larger numbers. It was twenty-five past eleven, five minutes to go. Suddenly there was activity, a small fleet of cars arrived depositing who he believed might be family members. It was time to join the congregation. Entering the Church, he kept his coat collar turned up and adjusted his heavy framed spectacles. If anyone should mention him later, he would be described as the one with glasses. The clear glass allowed him to use his perfect vision without giving the game away. Walking with a stoop disguised his height and sagging shoulders added ten years to his age. A mental note of the day, time and place of the funeral was all that had been necessary. The opportunity had presented itself and now he would take advantage of it. Looking around the gathering congregation he saw similar figures in the pews ahead and felt comfortable in the role of concerned mourner. This was going to be easy. As the organist played a piece by Bach, the congregation shuffled, breaking their silence with the occasional nervous cough. At eleven thirty precisely the Vicar appeared and climbed the few steps to the pulpit, the organ music ending at exactly the right moment. Choreography perfected with years of practice. This was the moment he was waiting for. What could he learn from the eulogy about to be delivered? Apart from the details in the newspaper, the deceased was something of an unknown quantity, but this morning that would hopefully change. The vicar did not disappoint him. Family background, names of wife and children, date of birth, school, and occupation all flowed and were recorded carefully in his memory.
The sudden outburst of sobbing from the front row of mourners irritated him, he was here on Company business and could do without this incursion into his work time. It must be the widow he thought, as a black hat ahead of him shook uncontrollably. A consoling arm stretched out and the sobs became muffled and finally ceased. He was thankful. The hymns he had mouthed silently while scanning the singers ahead of him. Two were strong possibilities, if only they were on their own. He needed Jimmy Sutherland’s mother’s maiden name. Although it was not vital, it would save him searching the internet and possibly leaving unwanted clues to his site visit.
It was over and the vicar had laid more than the foundation stones. As the congregation moved slowly from the church and gathered in groups outside, one of his two target elderly gentlemen was on his own. Umbrella up, he approached him and following a brief chat, had his information. Now there was as much on James (Jimmy) Sutherland, deceased, as he needed. Jimmy was ready to be resurrected and would join three earlier additions to the team.
Returning to his car, he checked that none of the mourners were around to see him remove his spectacles and replace the black tie with one which suited his mood. Checking his appearance in the mirror he gave a nod of satisfaction and set off for the drive home.
‘Well Jimmy, I think the Company will benefit from your joining us,’ he mused. His eyes shone, the sagging shoulders returned to normal and sitting behind the wheel of his Jaguar, all evidence of the sad faced mourner had vanished. His aims had been achieved without having to make contact with anyone other than the thirty second chat with the elderly gentleman who he was certain, would not remember him. The team of the living and the dead would soon be complete, ready to work in whatever role their skills and experience might benefit the twilight organisation.
There was information, lots of it, collected and stored over a long period. Now it was to be put to good use. Information laid out like pieces being prepared to start a difficult jigsaw puzzle. Everything should fit. No overlaps, just a perfect picture emerging. One which would bring the Organisation the rewards expected. His pleasure would come from his ability to manipulate people and situations and make the plans work.
The recruitment drive was almost complete and opportunities were there to be exploited. Failure was not an option, each plan had been carefully crafted to the last detail. The pieces in the imaginary jigsaw were clear in his mind, and from the collection of information gathered from overheard conversations and elicited responses to his seemingly innocent questions, the picture was emerging. Still a few more pieces to find but soon many of the proposed enterprises would be a reality.
Arriving home his first task was to fine tune the plans. Looking at the files he had taken from the safe earlier, he felt a warm glow of satisfaction. Each one held information carefully gathered, researched, checked and double checked. All were neatly annotated and coded according to their content. His gaze settled on the smallest pile, one for each of the names already allocated roles in the Organisation. Individuals selected to support a part of the business where their strengths would be invaluable to its success. Losers would be transformed into winners. Selecting a new file, he tore three pages of notes from an A4 pad and secured them in the file before annotating the front cover with the name JAMES SUTHERLAND.
After a quick check he was satisfied the opportunities and resources were nearing the required stage. At times he wondered if the files were necessary, he knew their contents by heart and everything was also stored on computer. He patted the files affectionately before starting on the next pile. Now the files were thicker, each one held a detailed operational business plan. The
system now in operation made it so much more professional and perfect for the Organisation. Anything less than perfect was unacceptable. The contents of the files when seen as a whole and not in isolation assured him that everything was under control.
All that was needed was an office staffed by one person, and then the unsuspecting players would be brought into the game. And it would all be controlled from a Pay As You Go mobile phone. Bought with cash and used cautiously, it would be an untraceable source of communication. Recruitment of the living had started six months earlier to establish a foundation for the businesses. The first was an accountant with doubtful sexual preferences. He had heard about him at a dinner party a year earlier. A fair amount of alcohol had been consumed which loosened a number of tongues, and he had taken due note of the subject of the story being told. This centred on the accountant, a barn in Dorset and some less than savoury activities. At functions like these, alcohol usually played its part in all manner of confidential information being disclosed. He drank very little, remaining sober and constantly alert. If the stories might be useful to the Company, he needed to know everything but without drawing attention to his interest. The information bandied around the table was food and drink to him, particularly if the subject of the indiscreet comments might fit into the Company plans.
The evening had been successful in more ways than one. Not only had he acquired valuable information but also an introduction to an extremely attractive female barrister which secured him a dinner date in Notting Hill for the following evening. If things went well, he would invite her to join him for a weekend in Paris.
He had gone to bed the previous evening and lay awake for a long time considering the options. Some two hours later everything was clear in his mind. The next day it would start, the pieces of the jigsaw had been selected and would be laid out on the table. He had closed his eyes and happily surrendered to the night. The following morning it hadn’t taken him long to find the address and telephone number for the accountant, and a file was opened and deposited in the safe. He was excited, things were beginning to happen and he would make sure they happened to the company’s advantage.
The morning was warm with a clear blue sky as he drove to the station where he would park his car and then take a train into the city. Before he left, two telephone numbers were neatly written on a small pad. There were three objectives for the day and he had a timetable worked out. If all three could be dealt with successfully, he would be a happy man. Gazing out of the train window he considered his plan for the day. There would be time gaps between the telephone calls he would make, and then last but not least there would be the pleasure of seeing Honor again. Leaving the main station, he took the Piccadilly line to Hyde Park where once settled on a seat in the park, he set up a temporary office. Taking out his mobile phone, he made his first call. It was answered immediately and when he asked to speak to the accountant by name, his call was put through. The accountant was clutching a cup of coffee in one hand, the other gripped his iPad tightly, his eyes and mouth wide open as he gazed at the images on the screen. He let the phone ring for some time before picking up the handset.
‘Yes,’ he barked. Now was not the time for intrusion.
‘Good morning, my name is James Sutherland and I represent a major company needing the services of an accountant, and your name was mentioned.’ He paused, then continued before the accountant could reply. ‘I’m afraid I am unable to give you any details about our organisation at this stage as we have a number of enterprises under wraps. As you will appreciate the less our competitors know the better.’ He examined his nails while waiting for a response.
The accountant didn’t care for the sound of James Sutherland, he was far too polished, just too Public School for him.
‘Well, what is the name of your company?’ he asked aggressively.
‘You will be dealing with me, any information you would be given comes directly to me from the board. The name of the company at this stage is irrelevant.’
‘Sorry, can’t do that. Must know who I’m dealing with.’ He swivelled from side to side in his chair. ‘Look I’m a busy man.’ Glancing back at his iPad the video facing him was of far greater importance at this moment.
‘I’m afraid you haven’t been listening.’ The voice was calm but the intonation was cold and threatening. ‘The Organisation wants you, and what it wants it gets. I’m just a servant of the Company and do as I’m told. I strongly recommend that you do the same. There are things known about you which could never form an introduction in your company brochure, and most certainly not in Dorset. Barns are just so much conversion material aren’t they?’
He smiled as he heard the crash of breaking crockery. His message had been received and understood. ‘I don’t think there is anything else to say at this moment except that I do know the financial director will want to rent an office in the not too far distant future. I’m sure you and one of your solicitor friends,’ he paused, ‘maybe from the Dorset set, would be able to organise this. You would of course be paid in the fullness of time but any contact would be with me on this telephone number. If I happen to get promotion, then you will be given a new contact. It could be some time before you hear from me, but rest assured, the Organisation has you well and truly in its sights and most certainly won’t forget you.’
‘Well, work is work,’ the accountant blustered, still in shock over the Dorset comment. Suddenly a pleasant easy day was turning into a nightmare. He was losing control and slipping gently but certainly into the claws of an organisation which could ruin him, or worse. Mopping the perspiration accumulating on his forehead, he wondered what else they might do if he didn’t comply.
‘I think we understand each other. My board will be pleased to hear of your acceptance but I would warn you that there are penalties for non-compliance with Company instructions.’ Again his voice was threatening. ‘Take a note of my number but only ring in an emergency. I will contact you again when I have that authorisation. Just one more thing, all contact between you and the Company is confidential. Absolutely confidential. Do you understand?’ Once again the thinly veiled threat was there.
The accountant slumped in his chair was not a happy man but the situation was of his own making. He had made himself vulnerable and now someone from a Mafia type organisation had found him.
‘Yes, yes. I understand.’ He didn’t want to understand, if only the floor would open up and swallow him was his only wish. But he would do as the Organisation wanted, the risk to do otherwise was too great.
Turning off his mobile phone he congratulated himself on his performance. ‘I bet the poor little bugger’s still quaking in his shoes.’ He laughed softly at the thought. ‘Well that was a good start wasn’t it?’ The contented grin gave the answer.
The first item on his mental list was ticked off. The second he would deal with before his dinner date. While looking at the note he had written before leaving home, he recalled the day he had acquired the information which brought Mr. Arif Rahman into his sights. During a visit to view a commercial property which was up for sale, a chance overheard conversation had given him details of someone who might play an important role in his plans.
The day had been hot and uncomfortable with the temperature in the low 80s. The visit had been a waste of time, the building was in a poor state of repair and not a viable proposition for the Company needs. Leaving the building he had noticed a pub nearby. He didn’t care for the type of establishment, but the thought of a cool drink overcame any doubts. It was lunchtime and the bar was very busy, there were no seats and the people standing were elbow to elbow. At one end of the bar meals were being prepared and a steady flow of laden plates were being ferried with difficulty to all areas of the pub. He had reached the bar after manoeuvring past groups of drinkers in deep conversation and eventually succeeded in ordering his drink. Moving away from the bar he had found himself hemmed in when the volume of people would not allow him to move anywhere else. ‘So be it,’ he thought. ‘This is where I make my last stand, at least until the glass is empty.’
He was back to back with a man discussing a colleague at the factory where he worked. He gathered that the subject of the conversation was from a Bangladeshi family and was suffering racial abuse at the hands of a small group within the factory. He had thought the two men behind him were probably decent types, against victimisation but afraid to do anything about it. The noise from the customers had not affected his hearing which was finely tuned to the conversation. As the men continued, he soon learned that the victim’s name was Arif and that he lived in the Sideswell flats with his wife and two children. More information came when he heard one man say, ‘He should have known there might be trouble ahead when they put him in number thirteen.’
He had finished his drink, reaching through the crowd he left his glass on a table already overflowing with plates and glasses, and eased his way out into the sunlight.
A plan was already forming in his brain. There were times when chance conversations excited him and this was one of them. If Arif fitted his expectations, then the accountant would be faced with his first task of finding a rental property with living accommodation over it. With this in place the Company could set up headquarters. Although he had never seen Arif, a sixth sense told him that an opportunity was emerging, and this unhappy man could be part of it.
Before leaving the area, he had called at the local council offices to check the electoral register and obtain the names of the residents at 13, Sideswell, he didn’t know whether it was Road, Flats, Gardens or whatever else, but the Register had soon filled in the blank spaces. Arif Rahman, 13, Sideswell Court. He’d got all he wanted for the moment. That day he had opened up a file on him. That had been months ago and he hoped that the situation had not changed. If this was the case, he would make contact and the first minute of conversation would hopefully confirm his judgement. If things progressed as he planned, Arif would operate a clearing house for all planned activities, some legal, but most criminal. The job would not be an intellectual challenge, but involve accepting and passing on unopened, all mail received. He would never meet anyone from the Organisation, any contact would be by mobile phone. Figuring that Arif Rahman would not be home from work until after five thirty p.m., he decided to leave the call until seven p.m. when he would probably have finished his meal and be in a relaxed state of mind. He wanted the job cleared up and in place.
The time had passed too slowly for his liking, he needed to talk to Arif Rahman and have another piece of the jigsaw firmly in place. Keying in the number he waited, hoping that he still lived at the address and was in fact at home. Suddenly the ringing tone ceased and a female voice answered nervously. He detected the sign and replied with as much reassurance as he could.
‘Good evening, may I speak to Mr. Rahman please. My name is Crichton.’ The line was quiet for a few moments, and then came the question.
‘What is it about?’ The nervousness in her voice was immediately obvious to him.
‘Nothing to worry about. Our Company has a job which might interest him.’ Again the delay. He sensed her concern and didn’t want her to hang up.
‘Could I possibly have a word with Mr. Rahman?’
‘Yes, yes. I’ll get him for you.’ The sound of the handset hitting a hard surface echoed in his ear.
‘Hello, this is Arif Rahman, can I help you?’
‘Mr. Rahman, my name is Crichton. I represent a large organisation and we will be opening an office in an area not far from your address. We heard of the problems you have endured at the factory and now feel that we are in a position to consider you for a job with us. Would you be interested in that sort of challenge?’
Arif was in shock, this sort of thing had never happened to him before. Realising a response was required he quickly replied, ‘Yes Sir, the job does interest me and I would be pleased to hear more about it.’
‘The work involved would be to manage a mail receiving unit acting on behalf of several companies owned by our organisation. A good salary would be paid to the person selected for this vacancy. Free accommodation over the premises would be available. Our organisation does however require its employees at all levels to be honest, discreet and totally loyal. No excuses would be acceptable if any of these requirements are ignored. In the development of our businesses, absolute secrecy is necessary to keep us ahead of our competitors. Do you understand that?’
Arif’s pulse was racing, could this be the opportunity he longed for. It had been a particularly awful day, but he hadn’t mentioned it to Sumi. When the problems had first started he had told her everything and she had been very upset, so after a while he told her things had improved and that there was nothing to worry about. Now he was being offered an escape route. He had tried many times to change his job, but realized that he had little to offer. Leaving school with only three GCSE’s, he had taken any work that paid him enough to help his mother feed him and have a little left over for Friday and Saturday night socializing. It was only when he met Sumi that he started to think of the future. She came from a similar background, and both set of parents knew each other, though not well. When they announced their engagement, it was their decision, not an arranged marriage. They were British and had different values from their parents. They did have however keep the Bangladeshi custom of respect for their elders.
When they married, they had lived with each of their parents in turn until such time as the first child was born. It was then that they had been offered a council flat. They had been delighted until they saw it. Some of the nearby flats were boarded up, the passageways were covered in graffiti and there was litter everywhere. The Council had made an effort to clean the flat up after the previous tenants had disappeared, but the stale smell was sickening. They had stuck it out, improved the flat and made an effort to improve the area around it. Arif had finally got a job in the factory, the pay was not great but it was better than any other job he had been in. The down side became apparent when his jacket had been sprayed with the letters NF and this was soon followed by other forms of racial abuse. There were only a small number of people causing the problem, but it made life very uncomfortable. Sumi had just given birth to their second child and he could not afford to lose his income so he stuck it out.