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By Paul Bennett
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2009 Paul Bennett
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AUC Agrochemicals Division, Weedkiller Plant, Zaragoza, Spain. Twenty years ago.
Paco Ramirez did not know much about chemistry. But from what he could make out from observing the activities at the plant, it was just like cooking (not that he knew much about that either): you put some ingredients in a pot, turned up the heat and after a while you finished up with a soup or a stew or something. And, if his wife's meals were anything to go by, sometimes the result was good and sometimes it was bad. What he did know about, from the accumulated wisdom of his fifty- five years, was human behaviour – which, come to think of it, was like taking a child and cooking up a different sort of stew. And that was why Paco was muttering philosophically to himself as he worked.
If he had been English he would have been talking about the devil you know, instead of reciting some old Spanish proverb about your next donkey always being more stubborn than the last one. If he had been paying closer attention to the work in hand, he would have noticed the rupture in the fabric of the dioxin container. And if he had not had his nose broken in a fight at school, he would have smelt the gas vapourized by the heat of the sun. But that is life – history shrugs its shoulders at ifs and carries on its own sweetsour way, looking only straight ahead.
Paco wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of a paint-smeared hand and climbed down the ladder propped up against the side of the twenty-metre diameter steel cylinder. He placed the long-handled brush in the tray of paint and sought out a thin sliver of shade in which to settle down for his lunch and siesta – his foreshortened siesta.
He took a sip from the neck of the brown litre bottle of Aquila beer, gave a knowing laugh and shook his head. Everyone had cheered when they had heard the news that the man they called El Marinero was leaving. Two years he had been the head of the factory. Two years when they had laboured under a greater and more selfish dictator than General Franco.
'Escoces,' Paco hissed, simultaneously spitting on the dusty ground. The Scotsman had mocked them, calling the whole workforce together and declaring in the words of 'La Bamba', 'Yo no soy marinero. Soy capitan. Soy capitan.' And then, so there could be no misunderstanding, he had sacked ten per cent of the workers.
Not that they had been missed. El Marinero, among other economies made to swell profits (and increase his bonus and the chances of rapid promotion to a bigger cog in the AUC wheel), had cut back on the maintenance of the plant. That was why Paco was simply repainting the cylinder rather than examining it and repairing those places where rust was pitting and cracking the surface. Like heavy make-up on an old lady, he thought: it can fool you from a distance, but doesn't bear closer inspection. Not that there had been much of that lately either. The new man – the more stubborn donkey – had made his own economies. With his room for manoeuvre severely limited by the swinging axe of his predecessor, he had been reduced to cutting the number of safety officers and, sacrilegiously, shortening the siesta by one hour.
Paco finished the last mouthful of the crusty bread sandwich, picked a thread of stringy ham from between his teeth and took out his cigarettes and matches.
Why were they even bothering to store the dioxin? It had no use and no value, just something they were stuck with when producing the weedkiller. In the old days – the good old days – the dioxin would have been burnt. But that cost money – too many man-hours spent on closely monitoring and controlling the combustion. He had heard rumours that they were intending to add it to a new product – Nemesis, it was supposed to be called. But Paco didn't believe a word of it. Who would want a product that included highly poisonous dioxin? No, it was just an excuse. The new man was simply storing up his problems in order to pass them, and the associated costs, on to his successor when his time came.
Paco took a last swig of beer, placed a cigarette in his mouth and struck the match against the side of the container.
The thin stream of escaping dioxin gas caught fire.
And set off a chain reaction.
The flame worked its way inside the half-painted cylinder. The mass of gas within ignited. A fireball erupted into the air. The steel sides shattered. Hundreds of sharp red-hot shards of shrapnel shot in all directions, peppering Paco's charred body and puncturing the thin fabric of the adjacent container.
Instantaneously, there was a second explosion.
The heat generated reached the walls of the neighbouring three dioxin containers and caused the gas to expand. As the pressure inside increased, the steel walls began to bow out. When the limit of flexion had been reached these three containers exploded in their turn. A mushroom cloud of toxic vapour rose up into the air. And hung there, like a bird of prey hovering on a thermal, waiting for the wind to carry it on a trail of death.
London. Present time.
The only advantage of the back staircase was that it was rarely used outside of emergencies. In every other respect it was a totally unsuitable route out of the building. A bannister that yielded as you leaned against it. An enveloping dusky darkness brought about by the absence of windows and the miserly spacing of low-wattage light bulbs. Stairs dangerously worn, their bare concrete amplifying the sound of each unsteady footstep. Walls echoing in counterpoint to the rhythm of laboured breathing. But there were no ears to hear, no eyes to witness the clandestine descent. That was the whole point.
Kit Harper managed to negotiate only two of the ten flights before his heel caught on a crumbled edge and skidded off into the gloomy void. Already unbalanced by the body he was carrying, there was nothing Harper could do to stop himself from catapulting forward. The cold, hard floor was unforgiving, his ill-cushioned bony ribcage screaming with pain. The dead weight landed on top of him, compounding his problems by knocking the wind from his chest. With the roughness of temper he pushed up and extricated himself by rolling sideways along the landing. He uttered a long and vehement curse. The sprawled heap on the floor opened one bloodshot eye and giggled.
'Come on,' Harper urged. 'Try to be some help, for chrissake.'
Harper bent down and hooked a limp arm around his shoulder, pulled Grayson into a sitting position and then rose so that both of them were standing upright. Grayson's legs wobbled, knees coming together to provide a precarious point of equilibrium. His head rolled against Harper's shoulder, mouth lolling open. Another helpless giggle brought forth a noxious stream of garlic, red wine and brandy. Harper turned his face up and to the side, half in self-defence and half in supplication to heaven, rolled his eyes and resumed the tragicomic descent.
It took a further five minutes of faltering steps and regular stops to reposition the constantly shifting burden before they reached the relative safety of the ground floor. With an awkward movement of his free arm Harper levered up on the stiff bar of the emergency exit and manoeuvred his colleague outside into the blindingly bright sunlight of the early September afternoon. Grayson closed his eyes and groaned, bringing the trace of a smile to Harper's lips: at least some stimuli were getting through to the nerve centre of the alcohol-sodden brain.
Harper whistled to the minicab waiting unhelpfully thirty yards down the street. The driver pulled alongside, climbed out slowly and, with an unsurprising lack of enthusiasm, opened the rear door and glared accusingly at Harper as the mass of floppy limbs was manhandled onto the back seat.
'Not bleeding again!' the driver moaned. 'I could refuse, Mr Harper. You know that, don't you? Well within my rights I'd be, too.'
Harper took two twenty-pound notes from his wallet and pressed them into the palm of the outstretched hand.
'All right then,' the driver responded grudgingly. 'But this is the very last time. OK? It's costing me more in cleaning bills and air freshener than I make on the journey. Straight up.'
'Just get him home, Mike,' Harper said. 'Before he passes out completely and you give yourself a hernia carrying him to his front door.'
The driver shrugged his shoulders, added a toss of his head for good measure, and finally got back into the car. Harper watched with a mixture of dread and admiration as the car was propelled with professional abandon into the stream of traffic.
He sighed deeply, knowing it was as much to do with relief at Grayson's departure as sadness for the man's condition and whatever problems had brought it about. He brushed the cobwebs and dust from the blue suit that had seen better days and stretched his aching back. He felt the pain in his side from the fall competing for sympathy with overworked muscles, turned toward the revolving doors of the front entrance to the building, and stared disbelievingly into the eyes of his boss.
'My office, Kit,' Klein said, shaking his head. 'Twenty minutes.'
Wonderful, Harper thought. Just bloody wonderful. All the cloak-and- dagger nonsense had been a complete waste of time. All the sweating and straining a total waste of energy. And what have you achieved, Kit? Pole position in Grayson's paddleless canoe, that's what.
Trust Klein, Harper thought, rubbing away subconsciously at the scar under his eye as he habitually did in times of crisis. Bloody sadist. Couldn't be 'see me now', could it? Just had to spin out the agony. A full twenty minutes to sweat over what Fate had in store.
Harper removed his hands from behind his head, swung his feet off the desk and walked across to the window of his fifth-floor office. He was a little over six feet tall, his spare frame a result of skipped meals and a high metabolic rate caused by too much nervous energy. His light-brown hair needed the luxury of a good cut: it hung a couple of centimetres over the collar of his white shirt and fell across his pale blue eyes as if to cast a veil over what lay buried beneath. He looked down at the afternoon procession of shoppers shuffling along Oxford Street. Stubbornly refused, against the internal consensus of opinion, to see them as 'punters'. It was simply another symptom of the disillusionment, the cancerous crisis of conscience that had been growing inexorably inside him over the last few years.
There was a time when Harper had regarded working in advertising as paradise with pay cheques, and his role within the agency as the pinnacle of job satisfaction. True, the 'creatives' had the most freedom and the frequent perks of attending the shoot of some commercial that 'just won't work, man,' without the golden sands and fringed palms of a Caribbean shore – albeit that the product was a bog-standard brand of lavatory cleaner. And the streetwise lads in the Production Department were the most lavishly entertained – Ascot, Aintree, Henley, Wimbledon – desperate printers and reproduction houses vying with each other for the opportunity to pour champagne down throats in order to lubricate the machinery that would sign the next contract. Account directors (or 'suits' as they were openly, and more than a little derisively, termed) received the kudos from winning a new business pitch – inadequate compensation in Harper's view for the day-to-day drudgery of covering up the mistakes of others in their team and the trials of selling the agency's sometimes dubious product to hypercritical (or perceptive, depending on what side of the fence you were on) clients. The media buyers had their daily long, drawn-out business lunches and 'seminally essential' conferences in Cannes and Monaco about how many naked angels can dance on a tabloid masthead. But it was the planner who had the real challenge.
As one of eight planners – seven and a quarter if you discounted Grayson's contribution – at Jackson, Klein and Lottersby (mercifully shortened to JKL), Harper, when he wasn't attempting to prevent lame ducks being served up with a bitter orange sauce, spent his time solving problems of strategy and tactics: gathering evidence; making deductions; unravelling the singular mysteries of each client's business; laying bare the associated wants and needs that had to be satisfied if consumers were to be persuaded to buy some product they either couldn't afford, didn't need or both. Take a generous helping of sleuth, add an ability to empathize with people, stir together with a measure of communication skills and you have the recipe for the hybrid beast known as a planner. In that wince-inducing pretentious jargon favoured by the advertising industry – you can't glorify it by calling it a profession – Harper was an 'enabler'. He, ever contrary, preferred to see himself as a catalyst, simply providing the stimulus to the disparate ingredients that go to make up the account team, sparking off a chemical reaction that would bring about an effective, and saleable, campaign.
There was still some residual enjoyment left in the job. As long as he didn't think about it too much.
And what could he do? He needed the monthly salary cheque – mortgage to pay, school fees to find, all the ongoing expenses of running a single-parent household with an old-fashioned (and, therefore, expensive) treasure of a nanny and a daughter who grew out of shoes the moment you cut off the price tag. But he couldn't change career, or the direction of his life – he wasn't qualified for anything else. Who else but an advertising agency would be indulgent enough, or just plain daft enough, to hire someone with a degree in Classics? So, he was doomed to being a solver of irrelevant puzzles, a crown prince in the kingdom of trivia.
'You can't save Grayson, you know,' Klein said matter-of-factly.
'Surely Grayson deserves a second chance,' he said.
'What do you mean second chance?' Klein spluttered. 'More like fifth or sixth. No, it's gone on for too long now. Reached the point of no return, I'm afraid.'
'I was given a chance once. Why not Grayson?'
'For one thing, I wasn't running the agency then.' Klein shook his head at the misplaced sentimental forbearance of his predecessor.
Only vehicles carry passengers, that was Klein's motto.
'And for another,' he continued, 'your situation was different. Grayson doesn't have any mitigating circumstances.'
Klein was all heart. God knows where he kept it, though. Probably locked away in his safe at home, only to be brought out at Christmas.
'And how is ...?' Klein consulted the file on his lap, 'Cassandra?'
Such consideration. Such spontaneity. Such ignorance! No one called his daughter Cassandra, not unless it was a reinforcement to a rebuke.
'She's fine,' Harper said.
He looked across at Klein and searched for a weakness to exploit. What he saw wasn't encouraging.
Klein was Cassius reincarnated. Lean and hungry. Cold, piercing grey eyes that showed about as much emotion as two pebbles on a beach at midnight when there's no moon. Thin lips built for sneering, but not smiling. Long aquiline nose – a tempting target only just resisted by Harper in the past – ideal for looking down. He was wearing a white shirt, plain blue tie and a charcoal suit that told you nothing and everything about the man.
'Grayson's been under a lot of stress,' Harper said lamely.
'Is that the best you can come up with? I expected something a little more imaginative from you.'
'He's worked hard on the AUC image data,' Harper said, more imaginatively.
'Let's hope so. The presentation is in three days' time. If there's so much as a single error in the figures, or the logic of the conclusions isn't impeccable, then Sir Angus will crucify us.'
Klein paused ominously, leaving the last word dangling in the air like the sword of Damocles.
'By us,' Harper said, 'I presume you mean the agency.'
One thin lip curled upward.
'That's what I wanted to talk to you about,' Klein said. 'I'm moving you to the AUC account. I need someone I can rely on totally and absolutely for this presentation.' Totally and absolutely, Harper thought: this was both serious and tautological. 'As of now, Grayson is out and you are in.'
Harper shook his head vigorously. 'You can't do that to me,' he said. 'Not AUC.'
Excerpted from Catalyst by Paul Bennett. Copyright © 2009 Paul Bennett. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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