Authors: Brian Freemantle
The Run Around
For Olive and Geoff, supporters from the beginning
He pulled the air into himself, panting, the effort burning his throat, grunting as he stumbled and collided with undergrowth that threatened to pull him down and tree branches which whipped his body and stung his face. The wetness, the torrential downpour, seemed to make it worse, which didn't make sense because it should actually have helped, but in his terror it was difficult to think properly about anything. Only one important thought: keep running. Had to keep running: stay ahead of them all the time. Not get caught. Terrible if he got caught. Rather be killed than be caught. He'd do that, instead of being captured: refuse to stop when they shouted the order, so that they'd shoot. What if the bullets didn't kill, only wounded? Unlikely. He knew, like he knew so much else, that the border guards carried machine pistols so it wouldn't be a single shot. A sprayed burst. People rarely survived a sprayed burst: weren't intended to. Definitely wouldn't stop, not if they got close enough positively to challenge him. Far better to be killed. Why the hell couldn't it have gone as he'd planned? Dignified. Not like this. Not running like some common criminal through some forest he didn't know towards some people he didn't know. Would he already have been listed as a criminal? That was how they'd regard him. Worse than a criminal; far worse. That's why he couldn't allow himself to be caught. He stopped, needing the wet-slimed support of a tree to stay upright, legs trembling from the unaccustomed running. The rain slapped and hissed into other trees all around him but beyond he could hear the other noises, the shouts of those pursuing him, calling to maintain contact with each other. And â worse â the barking and baying of their dogs. Thank God for the storm: the wet would confuse his scent. He was terrified of dogs. What if they didn't shoot when he refused to stop? Set the dogs on to him instead, to bring him down? He openly whimpered at the uncertainty, pushing himself away from the tree, staggering on. Not much further: it couldn't be. Two miles, according to the map. He must have already run more than two miles. It felt like a hundred. Time was more important than distance, though. Ten o'clock: with fifteen minutes as an emergency margin. Ten-fifteen then, before they drove off. He stopped again, holding his watch close to his face but it was too dark. Dear God, please don't let it be ten o'clock yet: don't let them go and leave me. And then he saw it, the briefest on-off signal of the car headlights, away to his left. He jerked towards it, aware his strength was nearly gone and almost at once tripped over a tree root, crashing full length into bracken and other roots and driving what little breath was left from his body. The dogs sounded much nearer now, their movement as well as their barking, as if they'd been released. He crawled forward, on his hands and knees, unable immediately to stand. The lights came again and he clawed upright against another tree, fleeing headlong towards it in a final desperate effort, knowing if he fell again he would not be able to get up, hands outstretched more in plea than for protection. The vehicle's shape formed before him and he tried to shout but it emerged only as a strained croak, so he was practically upon them before they saw him. Two men thrust from the car, to catch him as he fell, with the same movement bundling him roughly into the rear seat.
It was a long time before he could speak. When he could he said, croaking still: âSafe? Am I safe?'
âYou're safe,' assured a third man, who was sitting beside the driver. âWelcome to the West, Comrade Novikov.'
He'd missed a pin. Charlie Muffin had been sure he'd got every one as he unpacked the new shirt but now he knew he hadn't because something sharp and pointed kept jabbing into his neck, particularly if he swallowed heavily. And he'd done that a few times since entering the bank manager's office.
âAn overdraft?' echoed the man. His name was Roberts and he was newly appointed, so it was the first time they'd met.
âJust the facility,' said Charlie. The pin didn't hurt so much if he kept his head twisted to one side but if he did that it appeared he was furtively trying to avoid the man's eyes.
The bank manager, who was bespectacled and sparse haired, gazed down at some papers on his desk, running a pen down several lines of figures. It seemed a long time before he looked up. There was no expression on his face. He said: âThere were numerous occasions under my predecessor when you went into overdraft without any formal arrangement having been agreed.'
âNever a lot,' said Charlie, defensively.
âTwo hundred pounds, last November,' said Roberts.
The last time Harkness put him on suspension for fiddling his expenses, remembered Charlie. Why were accountants and bank managers always the same, parsimonious buggers acting as if the money they handled was personally theirs. He said: âThere was a delay, in the accounts department. Industrial action.'
The man frowned down at Charlie's file and then up again, failing to find what he was seeking. He said: âWhat exactly is it that you do, Mr Muffin?'
I'm an agent who spends too much time getting my balls caught in the vice while you go safely home every night on the six-ten, thought Charlie. Slipping easily into the prepared legend, he said: âI work for the government.'
âDoing what?' persisted Roberts.
âDepartment of Health and Social Security,' said Charlie. âPersonnel.' It even sounded like the lie it was.
âI suppose that could be regarded as protected employment,' said the bank manager, in apparent concession.
âVery safe,' assured Charlie. There had to be six occasions when he'd almost been killed, once when his own people had set him up. And then there'd been two years in jail and the time in Russia, when he'd been bait, hooked by his own side again. Bastards.
âHow much?' demanded Roberts.
âTen thousand would be nice,' suggested Charlie.
The other man stared in continued blankness across the desk. There was complete silence in the room, apart from the sound of the London traffic muted by the double glazing. At last Roberts said: âTen thousand pounds is always nice, Mr Muffin.'
Awkward sod, judged Charlie. If he'd called himself the chairman of some hole-in-the wall company with a posh name and asked for ten million there would have been lunches at the Savoy and hospitality marquees at Henley and Wimbledon. So far he hadn't even been offered a glass of supermarket sherry and didn't reckon he was going to be. âJust the facility, like I said,' he reminded. âI doubt it would ever go that high.'
Roberts made another unsuccessful search of Charlie's file and then said: âI don't see anything here about your owning your own house?'
âI live in a rented flat,' said Charlie. Box would be a better description: poxy box at that.
It would be easier to get cover on the life of a depressed kamikaze pilot with a death wish than upon himself, Charlie guessed. He said: âThere's a department scheme.'
âIt's customary â indeed, it's a bank regulation â for overdrafts to be secured,' lectured Roberts.
âThe company scheme is index-linked, to allow for inflation,' offered Charlie, hopefully.
âWhat exactly do you want an overdraft for?' asked the man.
There was a major reason and a lot of small ones. Harkness putting him back on the expenses stop list for not having identifiable meal receipts for one. And because taxis were safer but more expensive after the pubs and the drinking clubs closed and all the street lights blurred together in a linked line. And then there was the fact he had not had a winner in weeks and the bookmaker was jumping up and down. And because he'd already tried to get cards from American Express and Diners and Access and Mastercharge and they'd all turned him down. Searching for an acceptable reason, Charlie said: âI thought about a small car. Second-hand, of course. Maybe a new refrigerator.'
âPerhaps some clothes?' suggested the man.
Cheeky bugger, thought Charlie. He'd had the suit cleaned and worked for a good thirty minutes with one of those wire brush things buffing the Hush Puppies to look better than they had for years. He knew
looked better than he had for years! Christ that pin was making his neck sore. Eager to please, he said: âThat sounds like a good idea.'
âI'll need a reference, of course.'
Of course you will, sunshine, thought Charlie. The procedure automatically meant Harkness learning about it. He offered the security-screened address and the supposed works number that routed any correspondence involving him to the Westminster Bridge Road headquarters and said: âThere are a lot of divisions in the department, of course. This is the address you'll want for me.'
âThank you,' said the bank manager. âI've enjoyed our meeting; I always like to try to establish some sort of personal relationship with my clients.'
What about establishing it with a glass of sherry then! Charlie said: âHow long will it take, for the overdraft to be arranged?'
The manager held up his hand in a halting gesture: âIt would be wrong to anticipate any agreement, Mr Muffin. First we'll need a lot of supporting documentation from your department.'
Harkness was bound to jump backwards through the hoop, thought Charlie. He said: âSo I haven't got it yet?'
âThere's a long way to go,' said the man.
There always seemed a long way to go, reflected Charlie, outside the bank. He undid his collar and with difficulty extracted the pin, sighing with relief. He explored his neck with his finger and then examined it, glad the damned thing hadn't actually made him bleed, to stain the collar. Stiff new shirt like this was good for at least two wearings, three if he were careful and rolled the cuffs back when he got to the office. Charlie sighed again, with resignation this time, at the prospect of returning there. He supposed he would have to confront Harkness and put up some cock-and-bull story about the expenses not having enough supporting bills, which they would both know to be precisely that, a load of bullshit, and sit straight-faced through the familiar lecture on financial honesty. What place did honesty â financial or otherwise â have in the world in which they existed? About as much as a condom dispenser in a convent lavatory.
Charlie was conscious of the security guard's awareness of what was for him an unusual appearance as he went through the regulation scrutiny check at the Westminster Bridge Road building. As the man handed him back the pass, nodding him through, he said: âHope it was a wedding and not a funeral.'
âMore like a trial,' said Charlie. With a verdict that was going to be announced later. Charlie wondered how long it would take.
Charlie's office was at the rear of the building, overlooking a dusty neglected courtyard to which there appeared no obvious access and which was gradually filling, like a medieval rubbish pit, with the detritus from the dozen anonymous, curtained and unidentified cubicles which surrounded it. Where the wrappers and newspapers and plastic cups were most deeply piled was a pair of running shoes, arranged neatly side-by-side although upside down, which Charlie could not remember being there the previous day. He wondered if they were still attached to the feet of someone who'd made a suicide dive, unable any longer to stand the boredom of Whitehall bureaucracy: certainly they looked in too good a condition to have been discarded. Hardly worn in, not like his Hush Puppies were worn in. Mindful of how easily his feet became discomforted, Charlie eased them from his shoes to allow them the freedom they demanded. The socks were new, like the shirt: he'd made a bloody great effort and wanted very much to know it was going to be successful.
Charlie unnecessarily consulted his diary, blank as it had been for the past month, from the moment of his expenses suspension, and then looked through the opaque glass of his office door in the direction of Hubert Witherspoon's matching office. Witherspoon was Charlie's nemesis, the starch-knickered university entrant who knew by heart and obeyed by the letter all the regulations Charlie dismissed as irksome, particularly when he was reminded of them by the man, which he was constantly. Witherspoon's office had been empty for a month and Charlie wondered if his were the feet in the upside down training shoes. Unlikely. If Witherspoon decided upon suicide he'd probably choose to fall on his own knitting needles, Roman-style. At Cambridge the idiot had ponced about in a toga to attend some exclusive luncheon club: there was actually a photograph of the prick dressed like that at some graduation meal, on the man's desk. Nothing changed, thought Charlie: always boys trying to be men being boys.