BLACK FLAG EXTRACT
Owen Gallagher had spent the morning praying for death. It was the relentlessness of it: the pain spiking through his body, the ebb and flow of unforgiving nausea, the sucking and dumping of mental flotsam borne on a sea of agonies. Even his hair seemed to hurt. Then there was the noise, the bright light, the smell, the shouting, the shoving and the sheer dreadfulness of the human condition writ large.
As he stepped inside off the street, he heard a woman’s voice. ‘Where were you last night?’
That was a good question. He had other last-night-related questions himself – like how he’d woken up in Kennington next to a woman with a broken alarm clock – but he wouldn’t be attempting any answers until a drink had been had.
‘You said you would take me dancing.’
Gallagher fished around in the murky pool of his recent memory but caught nothing.
‘You always disappoint,’ said Eve, with a pout so French that it managed to be accusing and alluring in equal measure.
‘It’s been said before, but never by anyone nearly as beautiful as you.’
Eve moved towards the counter to hide a smile that was threatening to shimmy across her lips. ‘Glass or bottle?’
The bar was just off Charing Cross Road. Gallagher moved to his usual table in the corner, with a view of the door, to settle into the comforting late morning light.
‘We’ll start with a glass, I think.’
It was a good vantage point for watching unobserved as London went by outside the window. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a book still in its paper bag and placed his coat over the back of the chair. As he sat down, Eve placed a glass of chilled Alsace Pinot Noir on the table – followed by the bottle. Gallagher was about to speak but the young woman gave him a wink and walked away. Might as well be drunk as be as we are, he thought.
The menu of various meat and cheese platters held no interest for him, but it would be pleasant enough to while away a couple of hours as the lunchtime crowd came and went. He would watch Eve wiggle between the tables, read his book, sip his wine and wave his hangover goodbye in a thoroughly civilised manner.
Within two sips another customer entered and ordered coffee. A figure blocked the light in which Gallagher was reading.
‘Do you mind if I join you?’ asked the shadow.
‘Are the empty tables not to your liking?’ Gallagher answered without glancing up.
‘That’s no way to welcome an old friend, Owen.’
‘I think that would be pushing things, don’t you?’
‘The camaraderie of brothers in arms?’
‘Too long ago – another life, in fact.’ Gallagher put down his book and finally looked up at the man in the suit grinning down at him.
‘A cheery hello for your guardian angel?’
‘What do you want, Bannerman?’
‘Jesus, Gallagher, you’re a miserable bastard. I come bearing gifts, well, a job actually – interested?’
‘Sit down then and try to use one word when ten won’t do.’
‘Kind of you, I think I shall,’ said Bannerman. He held out his immaculate trench coat to Eve who was hovering nearby. Her friend Claire prepared his coffee.
‘How did you know I was here? Actually, don’t answer that.’
‘I was surprised you weren’t watching the door as I came in.’
‘I saw you turn the corner and cross the road.’
‘Very observant, that’s what I like about you Owen. Ha! You look a picture. A good night was it?’
‘I have no idea. What have you got for me?’
‘Just a find and a fix. Not worth putting an Alpha team on it, so I thought I’d farm it out to you. Good book?’ Bannerman nodded his thanks to Eve as she placed his coffee down.
Gallagher pushed his book across the table.
‘Ah, Richard Harris, the hell-raising thespian,’ said Bannerman, turning the pages of the biography. ‘Here’s a good quote: “I often sit back and think I wish I’d done that and find out later I already have.” Is he a role-model of yours, Owen?’
‘Please, be my guest,’ said Gallagher, leaning back in his chair to watch Bannerman read the book’s cover blurb. Claire had started to flash cutlery noisily, sending fresh agonies through him. Eve was absent-mindedly polishing glasses at the bar. Bannerman flipped the book over and pushed it back across the table.
‘So, who do you want me to watch?’ Gallagher asked.
‘All in good time. I think I’ll join you.’
Bannerman called for an empty glass and Gallagher saw his afternoon disappear before it could begin.
* * *
On his last day in Baghdad Tom Edwards had made the short journey from the team’s compound, listening to banter directed at him across the radio by colleagues yet to finish their security contracts in Iraq. At the airport, he’d wished his friend Gus well. They’d arranged to meet in London for a quiet beer – to be followed by ten louder ones. Then Gus was gone and another tour was finished, next stop Africa.
Now Tom was worried. Gus had telephoned and left him a message via the firm’s operations centre in Johannesburg. Tom had been on a security detail down in Cape Town for a few days. The message was that four of their old six-man team in Iraq had been killed in the last week. They hadn’t lost a single man in two years. There was no mention of how they’d died. Of the originals on the contract, only he and Gus were now left alive. Gus had said he’d call again regarding funeral arrangements in the UK. The message had been taken five days ago but there was no record of a return call. Gus had said something else at the end of his message: ‘Jack is the wrong way up.’
A South African colleague had delivered a hand-written note containing the message’s details and had placed it on Tom’s bed ready for his return. Tom stood looking at it, his mind racing. He placed the note back on the bed and peeled off his equipment. As he removed his clothes, he read the note again. Trying to take in the fact that Gary, Martin, Chalky and Joe were dead, he walked to the shower in the en-suite bathroom.
He allowed the water to wash over him, clearing away the dust and the dirt. He felt a surge of emotion and punched the tiled wall. Then he turned, sliding down the tiles, to sit as the cleansing heat of the water rushed over his head.
With a towel wrapped around his waist, he lay on his bed and stared up at the ceiling. The note was in a scrunched-up ball on the floor to his right. Jack was the Union Flag, the Union Jack. Most people were unaware that there was a right way and a wrong way to fly it. An advert at Waterloo Station in London had been taken down some years before with much embarrassment, after a major media company had attempted some positive public relations by backing ‘our boys’ in Afghanistan. The problem was that the Union Jack they’d placed above the caption was upside down. Arseholes.
Traditionally, as all British service personnel knew, if you were approaching a garrison or outpost and the flag was upside down then there was something wrong – it was a distress signal, a warning. And it was a good one at that, because no one else in the area would notice – like most of the British public. So whatever it was, it was serious. And whatever it was, this was a warning for Tom to go careful, to watch his back.
* * *
Gallagher moved under a glowering sky along Upper St Martin’s Lane to his flat a short walk away from Le Lion Rouge, where he’d left Bannerman to settle the bill. He passed the sundial monument and headed into Shorts Gardens three minutes after the rain began bouncing off the pavement, but was soaked before he reached the top of the steps to Seven Dials Court.
Having disabled the alarm, he looked back along the hallway at his wet footsteps and threw his sodden coat at the hooks behind the door. It hit the rack and fell in a heavy heap on to the letters he had stepped over a moment before.
The room he walked into could have been described as moderately spacious for central London, had it not contained so many books and so much clutter. There was a vintage brown leather sofa of such distressed demeanour that it wouldn’t have looked out of place in a trendy bar or a shop selling overpriced sweaters and boat shoes to the middle classes. An armchair of the same age and colour was its constant companion and the two sat contentedly across from each other, as they had done for many years. An Edwardian mantel clock ticked through the slow minutes, chimed the quarter hours with a melancholy bong and the hours loudly with – ironically, Gallagher thought – no consideration regarding the time of day or night.
He hated that clock. He hated it and its obsessive marking out of minutes and mortality. But the clock, like almost everything in the room, had been Uncle Edwin’s and although Gallagher had arranged the transformation of the rest of the flat since it had been left to him four years before, he’d left this room exactly as Edwin had known it. He liked the fact that the old boy still seemed to inhabit the space in some way, an absent presence between the artefacts collected during a life centred on the West End for over half a century. Edwin had been the black sheep of the family. Gallagher smiled in remembrance as he flicked on a standard lamp in the corner.
The envelope that Bannerman had given him at the bar was wet but the contents were held in a black-plastic zip folder, which Gallagher emptied on to the small desk on the far side of the room. When he switched on the desk lamp the first thing to be illuminated was the face of a young woman under a woolly hat. The picture had been taken by a police photographer at a demonstration in London. The woman in the picture was smiling, while sticking two fingers up at the rank of riot-shielded officers in front of her. Gallagher paused for a moment to consider this seemingly carefree figure flanked by angry protesters with scarves pulled up over their faces, hats and baseball caps pulled firmly down.
Gallagher sat and began to sift through the various papers and pictures contained in the file. First he found a printout from the Police National Computer detailing a couple of cautions for public order offences and a dropped charge of affray.
Next was a newspaper clipping that possibly explained the dropped charge. It described a court victory for compensation against the Metropolitan Police. The pay-out seemed proportionate to the injuries that the awarding judge had deemed proven to have been inflicted by ‘over-zealous and fatigued’ officers of the law in an incident a street away from the main route of a march.
A photograph taken in a police custody suite showed the same woman two years later. The image was clearer this time. Her black hair was below shoulder length in this shot and her blue eyes pierced the lens with what seemed like good-humoured defiance. There was no record of any action being taken against her, nor anything relating to why she’d been detained.
The last photograph in the pile was similar to the first one. The woman was visible in a crowd of protesters some months later. In this one she was just another ‘known face’ in a crowd dotted with, no doubt, long-term subversives at a student demonstration.
The only other document for Gallagher to read was a Student Records Form from City University. Back in the day, there might have been a file created by ‘F’ Branch (counter-subversion) an inch thick but priorities had changed. Documenting the lives of left-wing crusties had given way to a massive investment of resources focused on counter-terrorism. Not to worry though, thought Gallagher: Connie Edwards, born 14th of March; aged 28; student, School of Social Sciences, City University, London; studying for a PhD in International Politics. Address: 271 Dagnall Road, SE15. How hard could it be? He’d almost be embarrassed to take MI5’s money. Almost.
* * *
Connie Edwards reached out to silence the alarm that shrilled her awake, only to remember that it was several feet away. She had placed it on the other side of the cabin the night before, to ensure an early arrival at the British Library. Bagging your favourite seat in the reading room was part of the research ritual, after all.
Throwing back the duvet, she stretched out the pain in her shoulder and massaged the ache in her left wrist. The little skylight above showed a rectangle of blue, promising a pleasant day ahead rather than the incessant rain of recent weeks – although she would be cloistered in the still hush of a book-lined room for most of it.
Connie left her robe hanging on the back of the cabin door and padded into the galley. There was a slight chill in the air but it wasn’t too cold. The tingle on her skin felt good. She arched her back and yawned before blowing out the match that had lit the gas. She loved living aboard and was sure she’d buy her own boat one day; in the meantime, her godfather’s gift of rent-free accommodation for the year was more than welcome.
As she waited for the kettle to boil, she heard voices greeting each other out in the canal basin. She craned her neck, looking to the left through the window over the small sink and saw Tony pushing his bike in a circle as he checked the brakes. The widower would be off for his usual morning ride along the tow-paths of Regent’s Canal.
Stirring her coffee with one hand Connie opened the top section of the window with the other to let in the cool morning air, just as Tony’s legs and wheels came into view.
Tony crouched. ‘Ah, Connie,’ he said, holding the bike’s cross bar with his left hand as he fixed a bicycle clip to his right ankle. ‘A beautiful crisp morning and a great day to be one of the Hackney Boat People.’
Tony’s conversational gambits were rather limited, but she liked to play along. ‘Kingsland Basin is a very salubrious address, don’t you know,’ Connie replied, laughing.
‘That’s right. You wouldn’t want to live in one of those poncy new developments, would you?’
As he looked up from placing his trouser leg in the clip, Connie saw the blush spread rapidly across the man’s face. Poor old Tony: Connie berated herself for her thoughtlessness – she hadn’t meant to shock him, it was just the way she was. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen her in some form of undress, but he’d never been greeted by quite so much of her at once. She moved closer to the sink unit to spare some of his blushes and half crossed her arms across her breasts as she held the coffee mug in front of her.
‘Sorry Tony, I forget.’
The father of three grown-up daughters closed his mouth. He fumbled with the clip again. ‘So, any news from that brother of yours? Still out in Iraq earning his crust?’
Tony was an ex-paratrooper like her brother, and the two had met briefly on one of Tom’s short visits.
‘Not lately. He’s moved to a short-term contract in Africa. I heard from him when he arrived, but he must be busy,’ she replied, trying to give Tony an exit. ‘Maybe tomorrow.’
‘Yeah, tomorrow, I’m sure. Take care, Connie,’ Tony said, with a friendly roll of his eyes.
As he moved away, pushing his bike towards the main path, Connie placed the mug down, turned around and leant back against the sink. She bit her lip and went in search of her mobile phone. She found it on the small bookcase and took it to the equally small table in the narrow boat’s sitting area. With her forearms flat upon the wood, she held the phone in a triangle between her fingers and thumbs.
This wasn’t like Tom, not like him at all. There was a phone call once a week or so. If not, he’d have told her in advance that he wouldn’t be able to contact her. The only time he hadn’t been able to and three weeks had elapsed, one of the other lads had called. Occasionally, he’d even write – if he was holed up somewhere with little else to do – telling her about the local landscape, wildlife and people, sharing some of the cleaner jokes flying between the men. If something had happened the company would have called her: she was his Next of Kin. She knew better than to call the head office in London. But it wasn’t like him to go so long without making contact. She was his only family and he hers.
‘Where are you, Tom?’ she asked aloud. Perhaps she was being silly. It hadn’t really been that long. He’d been to all sorts of places on security contracts in the last few years and he’d always managed to keep in touch. He must be busy. He’d tell her off for worrying, for nagging. She wouldn’t mention it when he called.
* * *
Gallagher was back at Le Lion Rouge. It was early evening, a few days after his meeting with Bannerman. He needed a couple of hours to take stock of the unfolding situation. Actually, he needed to work out why the situation wasn’t unfolding at all. In truth, he needed red wine and some ambient noise in which to think.
He’d been out walking for hours, eschewing the joys of London’s public transport system, on what had been a pleasant, if cool, sunny day. That was something at least. The city seemed a brighter, happier place in the sunshine. Another bonus was that Eve and Claire were nowhere to be seen, so he wouldn’t need to be charming. The girls always took their day off together. Monsieur Moreau was holding the fort until the other girls on the staff arrived for the evening shift. His business partner Monsieur Laroche, Eve’s uncle, would no doubt appear before long for a glass or two and a chat.
Moreau and Laroche were an old-fashioned kind of business double act. They had arrived from France in the early eighties, set up shop and became part of the fabric of the area. However, the choice of name for their establishment was a prime example of how they were generally taking the piss. It wouldn’t be busy. Even if it was, Moreau would shrug his way through his customer-facing interactions at a Gallic pace and with an understated belligerence cultivated over three decades or so of living in London.
Gallagher went back to taking stock. The address in SE15 was a non-starter. To be more accurate, it was a newsagent’s shop. There was the possibility of a post-handling service or a personal arrangement with the owner, but he hadn’t seen anything that confirmed either and he couldn’t very well ask in case it was the latter. He’d staked the place out for a few hours at a time, but no joy. Not surprising really, he needed a more disciplined approach. He wasn’t just going to get lucky on this one.
Bannerman had called, as promised, but had drawn blanks too: no council tax records for Ms C. Edwards in any of the Greater London boroughs; no driving licence details held at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency; nothing held by internet service providers. There was a university email account, but it had never been accessed. Her library card had the same address as her student record, obviously. There was no listing with Directory Enquiries; no mobile telephone contract and no record of a registered ‘pay as you go’ phone; no National Health Service interactions recorded in the last four years; no bank accounts in her name; no social security benefits claimed; no National Insurance or tax records held by the Revenue for years. Nothing. Bannerman hadn’t had time to talk.
Gallagher had done the usual internet searches but found nothing on Facebook or via Google. No listing on the Register of Electors, either. A PhD Politics student not registered to vote: that was more than a bit odd. Connie Edwards was, as they say, well and truly ‘off-grid.’
He had spent more than a few hours around City University, hoping that she’d take her lunch in Northampton Square with other students, or that he’d see her coming from the bus stops on the main road. Then he’d made a tentative attempt to look around for any postgraduate hangouts, with no luck. Gallagher hadn’t gone to university. He’d wanted to get away, to earn his own living, to live his own life on his own terms. The army had given him that opportunity.
He’d made his way into the Social Sciences Building across the road in Whiskin Street but was pounced upon by a bored administrator in the main building’s entrance: a woman who could differentiate between students and non-students with a studied ease. At the reception desk he quickly explained that he’d just popped in to look for a friend. The gatekeeper was a female dragon in her early fifties, her scales hardened by years of deflecting idiotic questions fielded by baffled undergraduates. She’d given him short shrift and mocked him for assuming that a PhD student would be in the vicinity of a university building on a daily, or even monthly, basis. She would, of course, be happy to take a message if it was a serious matter – if he’d just give his name and show some form of identification. He’d played the bumbling fool well enough for her not to be alarmed and then made a tactical withdrawal.
Gallagher looked towards the door as four braying suits walked in off the street to disturb Monsieur Moreau’s own stock-take. The first chinless wonder attempted some one-way bonhomie. When that elicited a quizzical look from Moreau and embarrassed chuckles from Chinless Wonders Two, Three and Four, Number One slapped his palms on the counter and called for ‘the finest wines available to humanity.’ It was his best Richard E. Grant impression. He was very proud of it. Gallagher eased back in his seat and folded his arms.
Monsieur Moreau put down his pen. ‘Gentlemen, what is it that you want?’
This seemed to confuse his new customers, but Number Three stepped bravely forward and declared ‘Beaujolais!’
‘Yes,’ said Number One. ‘Two bottles of your best Beaujolais, Monsieur.’
Moreau shrugged. ‘We do not sell Beaujolais, Monsieur.’
‘You mean you’ve run out,’ Number Three suggested.
‘I mean we do not sell Beaujolais, Monsieur.’ The last two words echoed with a weary disdain.
‘And you call this a French bar?’ said an increasingly discombobulated Number Two.
‘Yes,’ said Number Four, not wishing to be left out. ‘Why not?’
‘I do not like Beaujolais,’ Moreau answered, straightening a cloth on the counter with both of his large dark hands.
Moreau then sold the men two hideously expensive bottles of red and they removed themselves to the corner farthest from the bar, occasionally catching themselves being too loud beneath the Frenchman’s gaze. Gallagher went back to looking out of the window. A find and a fix: that was the job. Locate the target, fix her to an address, observe and await further instructions. He had a bad feeling about this one. It was going to drag on and he didn’t like the jobs that dragged on. That kind of job interfered with his social life. He was going to need some help. He was going to need Harry.