Joker in the Pack
The Minister looked up with a start on hearing the bleep alerting him to an in-coming email. The message flashed up and just as quickly began to fade as if the monitor was crashing. David Raffo was left looking at a blank screen, but the words remained imprinted on his retina:
‘Ace is high and dangerous. The cards have been dealt and the game has begun. You are playing for high stakes. The Joker.’
Puzzled, David leaned back, folded his arms and stared at the screen as if there was still something to be learned from it. His mind in a whirl, he picked up a pen and scribbled down the message. It has to be something to do with the MI5 file, he thought. Someone has got onto that damned quickly. Anna was not back with it yet, so he had not even seen it himself. It was true he had expected some reaction, but certainly not a veiled threat. Whoever sent that email has very good connections.
Outside, the sky was already dark, but he had not been conscious of the sound of the rain clawing at the windowpanes, nor had the light flashing on his desk in front of him triggered the usual response. Now in his late fifties, still trim figured thanks to regular sessions in the gym, his thin face had not completely lost its boyish look and only the few touches of grey hair beginning to show around his temples reminded him when he looked in the mirror to shave each morning that he really was a Cabinet Minister.
Not for the first time, sitting at his desk in the late afternoon, he was lost in thought. A recent phone call to his American opposite number a few moments before had reminded him of his student days, particularly of the demo outside the American Embassy in ’68.
He could still feel the excitement of the riot it had turned into, of hurling his placard at the line of police and running for his life to escape the menacing black uniformed snatch squads darting into the crowd and dragging out protesters, often by their hair. Nor would he ever forget the smell of the eye-watering, choking tear gas streaming out of the canisters fired into the midst of the chanting crowd.
All around him people had been tripping, stumbling, falling and grabbing each other in a desperate effort to keep their footing as they fled across Grosvenor Square strewn with stones and debris and the still smoking spent gas canisters. Placards denouncing the American involvement in Vietnam were lying all around, abandoned in the struggle to avoid the advancing ranks of police and the jerking line of nervous horses. He remembered how he had skidded on a discarded placard, pitched forward, slithered helplessly across the grass and come to a halt on his side as his head hit a low metal surround protecting a flower bed.
Someone had helped him to his feet and pulling him along with her she had dodged out of the square and into the relative quiet of a side street. Moments later, out of breath, bleeding, experiencing a mixture of fear and exhilaration, relief and adrenaline rush, he sank down in a doorway and looked at the girl who had rescued him. She had light brown hair, cropped short like a boy's. Her polo-necked sweater and jeans were smeared with blood from the gash on his forehead. She grinned at him.
“Close one, David."
“Thanks, Kate," he had grinned back.
The flashing light on his desk finally caught his eye hauling him abruptly back into the present.
He held the button down.
"Anna is here with a file you sent for, Minister,” his secretary replied from the outer office.
"Good, ask her to bring it in, will you?"
His research assistant, Anna Farrow, came into the room carrying a battered, but bulky black cardboard file. Her designer jeans and white shirt open at the neck set off her shoulder-length jet-black hair, tied back in a pony-tail. She walked confidently across towards him.
How different she is to Kate, David thought, as he watched her. Similar ideals perhaps, but the language she used would be different. Something about socio-economic disparities, social justice and the redistribution of wealth, whereas Kate, all those years ago, would have talked late into the night about power to the people and the abuse of the people's right to take control of their own lives.
“Five seemed reluctant to hand it over, David, but I suppose they couldn’t refuse now that you’re a Minister, " said Anna as she put the file down on his desk, mistaking the thoughtful look on his face for an anxious unspoken question.
The irony of the situation amused her. The file she had collected from Thames House had been started a generation before to record the supposedly subversive activities of a young long-haired hothead called David Raffo – a radical student union leader in the Sixties barely out of his teens. Now 30 years or so later he was a Cabinet Minister. Anna, herself only in her early thirties, could not help wondering what David had been like then.
"Well, they could have claimed it had been destroyed or lost or even reclassified as closed until the year 2050 or some such date," he replied, a smile chasing away his lost-in-thought look and lighting up his face.
"MI5 kept files on a lot of my friends in those days. We knew they were doing it. Clicks on the phone lines, badly resealed letters, that sort of thing. It seemed exciting at the time and we just used it to bolster our anger about what we saw as ‘abuse of power by the State’. Perhaps exciting is the wrong word really, as we took things very seriously at the time and were genuinely outraged."
He paused for a second, suddenly aware of the difference between their ages. Although he was still fairly young for a Cabinet Minister and had kept himself in good shape, he knew that Anna must think of him as being of a different generation.
"Looking back,” David continued, more self-consciously this time, "I suppose we were rather young and pompous; as pompous as those we were criticizing! We were very idealistic and, of course, convinced we were 'right'. Such is the arrogance of youth.”
Had time and experience diluted his idealism, Anna wondered. One day she was determined to experience herself what it was like to be in his shoes. She had worked for him all through the long election campaign in ’97 and since then as his researcher. He hadn’t often talked much before about his student days and she was curious to know what had brought on this mood.
"Why have you asked for the file, if you don’t mind my asking?” she said, hoping that since he was in a nostalgic mood, he might reveal more of himself than usual.
It was interesting, David reflected, that Anna had no sense of shock or outrage that a file on him existed. No-one nowadays believed there wouldn’t be one. So much was retained electronically that to her generation the idea someone was also checking to see which way you voted or whether you had links with this or that political group seemed mundane.
"Well, partly just curiosity," he responded slowly to her question, "but maybe also because I suddenly want to know how Five gathered so much information about me, how they seemed at one time to know my every move. I keep wondering who gave them the information, and what their motives were. Things were not so electronic in those days. They literally did have people watching and tailing you and putting notes into secret drops for their controllers to pick up. "
"I can't imagine what that must feel like,” she said. “I’d definitely want to know now who’d been spying on me. Especially if I thought some of my friends were involved."
She paused, more shocked now at the idea of personal betrayal as opposed to electronic surveillance. She stood by the desk watching him, waiting for him to continue.
David looked up at her and smiled.
"You might as well get used to the idea though, Anna. They undoubtedly started a file on you when you became a researcher for a former dangerous radical like me trying to get into political office. They won’t close it either just because I'm a Minister, whatever they might claim. Don’t worry; it just goes with the territory."
He fell silent again for a moment. Her question had unsettled him. What was it he really wanted to do with the file? Take revenge on the informers? Surely not, after all these years. But he was genuinely curious to know who they were and what they were doing now. He wanted to know whether they too were now in powerful positions, whether he knew them and was even working with them. More than anything he wanted to understand their motives. Would he be able to work out their identities from the file?
"How long have I got until my next appointment?” he asked, interrupting his own thoughts.
"You’re meeting with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner at 5.30 – in about half an hour. The briefing papers are on your desk."
"OK. I'll look at the file tonight or at the weekend," he said, tapping the black M15 file and putting it in his briefcase.
"Thanks for going to fetch it. I wouldn’t have trusted anyone else, though I dare say word has got around anyway," he added, deciding not to mention the email yet.
She smiled, recognizing the compliment and started towards the door.
"Feel like a quick drink before you go home tonight?" he said looking up. "I'll be finished in about an hour as I know Sir Peter has another appointment and won't be long.”
“See you in Annie’s Bar then?”
He added quickly: “I don't want to delay you if you’ve other things to do of course."
"No, no, that would be nice,” she replied. "I'm in no hurry tonight. Jim is away and I’m on my own this evening. See you there."
She left the office with a backwards glance as she closed the door. He had picked up the briefing papers for his meeting with the Police Commissioner and was already reading them through, frowning. She knew he wasn’t looking forward to the meeting.*
At 6.00 the Police Commissioner got up to leave, apologizing for having to go on to another meeting. David was not sorry to see him go. The Commissioner was one of the old school and David always found it difficult to get to the heart of issues with someone so practised at talking in euphemisms.
The Commissioner was so guarded about his choice of words that he was completely unable to say what he really meant. David was too busy as a Minister to have time to waste with such niceties; he wanted the 'short story' not the beating about the bush version. If the man needed something, why didn't he just come out and say it, he thought, his impatience bubbling up to the surface. Is this what happens when you have been in the job for a long time – too long – and have dealt with Civil Servants and politicians from the same mould as yourself for twenty years or so? He shivered at the thought. I mustn't get like that.
On the other hand David had quickly found as he settled into his new job, that diplomats – the very people you might think had perfected the art of saying very little using a lot of words – were much more blunt, or direct, as they would prefer their style to be described. No room for ambiguity was permitted. Refreshing really when you got used to it and it certainly saved time.
“Rachel,” he said, speaking through the intercom to his secretary. “I'm off now. I think I’ll walk back to the flat this evening as the rain has stopped and I could do with the air. Would you tell Colin to collect the Red Boxes and to take them round by car? You can get me on the pager if anything turns up.”
“OK. I'll let Colin know. Good night, Minister.”
He picked up his briefcase, thought better of it and pressed the intercom again.
“Tell Colin I’d like him to take my briefcase with him too. I’ll leave it here on my desk. Good night, Rachel.”
"Will do. Good night, Minister."
He left by the side door and made his way through the underground passage across to the Palace of Westminster to Annie's Bar. It was a very public place where the MPs met with one another and more significantly with journalists and lobbyists. He had suggested it deliberately as he did not want their meeting in any way to seem secretive to her, or to any tongue-waggers, so soon after entrusting her with collecting the file on him.
No-one else outside MI5 knew yet – as far as he was aware – that he had asked to see the file. He knew he would need to take Anna further into his confidence later on if he decided to follow through with what he had in mind, but for the moment he intended to keep his cards close to his chest until he was sure. Sure of what? he asked himself. Sure he wanted to go ahead with his plan, or sure he wanted to draw Anna into something so personal and unofficial?
For a brief moment the memory of the email niggled at him again – the ‘Joker’ obviously already knew he had the file. Who the devil was the Joker? He was becoming lost in his own thoughts. Then he spotted Anna on the other side of the room and squeezed through the throng in order to reach her. She looked up, caught his eye, nodded yes and he veered away back to the bar. He knew her tastes well.
They had spent many late nights both before and after the election discussing tactics and policy. It usually ended with coffee, but always started with white wine for her and red for him and the others. Carrying the glasses, he worked his way back to where she was sitting.
Mostly these policy discussions had taken place in his flat with the rest of his team, but since he had become a Minister the team had split up. Some of the advisers had joined the various Think Tanks and Focus Groups which buzz around all governments like flies; others had simply returned to business or academia. Since the original members came together less and less frequently now, he had come to rely on sharing the strains and stresses of the day with Anna.
Till recently theirs had always been a very professional relationship, but since his divorce from Louise had come through, on his side at least he had begun to sense his relationship with Anna was changing. Perhaps it was time to suggest she should move on and for him to hire a new research assistant.
Political hours had meant he had spent more and more time away from home. When he did return there were always the Red Boxes to deal with and that left very little time for a normal social life with his family. Louise had come to resent his absences and they had simply drifted apart. It was a price many of his colleagues had paid for realising their dream of being in government.
As he took a seat beside her he was conscious he had nothing official he wanted to discuss and that, in such a public place, he could not bring up the subject of the file. He was simply feeling tired and wanted to relax in pleasant and familiar company after a long day.
"How was the meeting with Sir Peter?" she asked, sensing he didn’t know what to say in the present circumstances and judging that talking shop was the best tactic.
Her question brought him out of his reverie.
"Fine, but I'm still not sure what it is he wants me to do. He finds it so difficult to come to the point. If we’re going to ever really change the culture of the police service and for that matter the culture of the armed forces and the Civil Service then we’ll need to change the men – as they mostly are – at the top. It is happening – a younger generation are coming through but it’s all so slow!” he replied, slipping easily into the shop-talk mode.
"As impatient as ever to get things done, I see," Anna laughed. "I'm glad that at least that’s not changed since you became a Minister."
She paused, wondering whether she had not been too familiar. He was still her boss and occasionally, especially when they were in public in the Palace of Westminster, she caught herself being too relaxed and forgetting the difference in their status.
"So what has changed then?" he replied smiling, relieved at her slip, which had pricked the balloon of his discomfort and had instantly relaxed him.
"Well, where do you want me to start?"
She looked around her and then back at him, her eyes laughing, pleased at his reaction. “I'm not sure this is the right place to start listing the receding forehead, the odd grey hair, the change to executive suits, the use of the official car instead of the tube, the...”
"O.K., O.K. I give in! In fact, I cancelled the car before I came here, so I'm walking back. You haven't eaten yet have you? No? I was thinking of skipping the Dining Room tonight and cooking at the flat. If you’d like to join me, I'd welcome the company and you can continue with your list detailing my slide into senility."
“I’d love to – I wouldn’t mind a walk again myself. It was so nice to get out of the office this afternoon into the fresh air along the Embankment for a while.”
Finishing their wine a few minutes later, they got up and weaved their way through the crush of MPs and lobbyists crowding the room. Several pairs of eyes followed their progress, missing nothing and filing away the information for future reference. Outside, the police constable on duty at the gates acknowledged their departure with a nod and the security protection detective fell into step behind at a discreet distance.
David always enjoyed walking back to his flat if he could. It was a precious moment of peace in a demanding schedule. The evening was cool after the rain and the pavements were glistening in the light of the street-lamps. With his hat pulled forward and his chin buried in his scarf he was as anonymous as it was possible to be amongst the throng of pedestrians hurrying home. Recognising his need for silence, Anna slipped her arm through his and said nothing as they walked the London streets together like any couple heading home for a quiet evening.