House of Cards [CHAPTER 13]



Thirteen


Westminster was once a riverside swamp. Then they transformed it, built a palace and a great abbey, piled it high with noble architecture and insatiable ambition.

  But deep down it is still a swamp.

Friday, July 23

Praed Street, Paddington. A scruffy newsagent’s in a street that was modest by day and, in the view of the local constabulary, far too ambitious by night. A young black woman hesitated on the pavement, took a breath of west London air, and stepped inside. Behind the security grille and dirty windows, the shop was dark and musty. The shopkeeper, an overweight middle-aged Italian in a tight T-shirt with a cigarette hanging from his lip, was bent over a magazine, the sort that had few words. He raised his eyes reluctantly. She asked about the cost of accommodation address facilities that he advertised on a card in the window, explaining that she had a friend who needed a private address for some of his personal mail. The shopkeeper brushed away the cigarette ash he had spilled over the counter.

   “This friend of yours, he got a name?”

In reply she pushed across a copy of an old utility bill.

“No credit. I work only in cash,” he said.

“So do I,” she replied.

He offered her a fleshy smile, leered. “You do discounts?”

She stared at his midriff. “I’d have to charge you double.”

  He raised a lip, sneered, scribbled a quick note. She paid the fee for the minimum period of three months, put the receipt she would need for identification in her purse, and left. The shopkeeper stared at the retreating and delicately curved backside before being distracted by the complaints of an old age pensioner about the lack of her morning newspaper. He didn’t see the young woman get into the taxi that had been waiting for her outside.

“All right, Pen?” O’Neill asked as she slammed the door behind her and settled into the seat beside him.

“No problem, Rog,” his assistant answered. “But why the hell couldn’t he do it himself?”

  “Look, I told you. He has some delicate personal problems to sort out and needs some privacy for his mail. Dirty magazines for all I know. So no questions, and not a word to anyone. OK?”

  O’Neill was irritable, felt uncomfortable. Urquhart had sworn him to secrecy and he suspected the Chief Whip would be furious if he discovered that O’Neill had pushed the envelope and got Penny Guy to do his dirty work. But he knew he could trust Penny. And he resented the way Urquhart seemed to regard him as a dogsbody and made him feel so ridiculously insignificant.

  As the taxi pulled away he settled back in the seat while his fingers toyed nervously until they touched the small plastic packet in his pocket. That would soon settle things for him. Make him feel himself once again.

* * *

The day was growing ever hotter by the time the man in the sports jacket and trilby hat ventured into the north London branch of the Union Bank of Turkey on the Seven Sisters Road. He presented himself to the Cypriot counter clerk and inquired about opening an account. His eyes were hidden behind tinted glasses and he spoke with a slight but perceptible regional accent that the clerk couldn’t quite place.

  It took only a few minutes before the manager became available and the prospective new client was ushered into an inner sanctum. They exchanged pleasantries before the man explained that he lived in Kenya but was visiting the United Kingdom for a few months to develop his holiday and property portfolio. He was interested in investing in a hotel that was being built outside the Turkish resort of Antalya, on the southern Mediterranean coast.

  The manager responded that he did not know Antalya personally but had heard that it was a beautiful spot and, of course, the bank would be delighted to help him in whatever way possible. He offered the prospective customer a simple registration form, requiring details of his name, address, previous banking reference, and other details. The customer apologized for being able to provide a banking reference only from Kenya but explained that this was his first trip to London in nearly twenty years. The manager assured the older man that the bank was very accustomed to dealing with overseas inquiries and a banking reference from Kenya did not pose any particular problem.

  The customer smiled. The system operated in its own sweet time. It would take at least four weeks for the reference to be checked and would probably take another four before it would be established that the reference was false. Time enough for what he had in mind.

“And how would you like to open your account, sir?” the manager inquired.

  The man pulled open a brown corduroy holdall and placed it on the desk between them. “I would like to make an initial deposit of £50,000—in cash.”

“But, of course…” the manager said, struggling to contain his delight.

  Francis Urquhart leaned back in his chair and, without removing his glasses, rubbed his eyes. The spectacles were years old, at least two prescriptions behind his current contacts, and were making his eyes ache. A simple disguise, but one he thought was more than adequate to avoid recognition by any but his closest colleagues. There was, after all, some benefit in being the most faceless senior member of Her Majesty’s Government.

  While Urquhart signed the necessary forms with a scrawl, the manager finished counting the money and began filling out a receipt. Banks are like plumbers, Urquhart thought; cash in hand and no questions asked.

“One other thing,” Urquhart said.

“But of course.”

  “I don’t want the cash sitting idle in a current account. I’d like you to purchase some shares for me. Can you arrange that?”

  The manager was nodding delightedly. More commission. “I’d like you to purchase twenty thousand ordinary shares in the Renox Chemical Company PLC. They’re currently trading at just over 240p per share, I believe.”

  The manager consulted his screen and assured his client that the order would be completed by 4:00 p.m. that afternoon, at a cost of £49,288.40 including stamp duties and brokers’ fees. It would leave precisely £711.60 in the new account. Urquhart signed yet more forms with a flourish and the same illegible signature.

  The manager smiled as he pushed the receipt across the desktop to his new client. “It is a great pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Collingridge.”


Monday, July 26—Wednesday, July 28

End of term. The final week before the start of the summer recess. And a heat wave. Many MPs had already abandoned Westminster and those who had stayed at their posts were left distracted and impatient. Surviving eighty degree temperatures inside a building where the idea of air conditioning was to open a window and flap an Order Paper was an ordeal. But it would soon be over. Only seventy-two hours of bickering left.

  The Government didn’t mind the sense of distraction. The record would show that they, at least, had stuck to their posts, issuing wodges of Written Answers and press releases while others wilted. Ministers from the Department of Health were particularly grateful for the diversion since one of the many Written Answers they issued concerned the postponement of the hospital expansion program. Thanks to the leak it was already old news, but now it was on the record they could at least come out in daylight and not run for the shadows every time anyone asked.

  The Department had other issues to deal with, too. Hospital waiting lists. A press release about the latest outbreak of mumps in Wales. And a routine announcement about three new drugs that the Government, on the advice of their Chief Medical Officer and the Committee on the Safety of Medicines, were licensing for general use. One of the drugs was Cybernox, a new medication developed by the Renox Chemical Company PLC that had proved startlingly effective in controlling the craving for nicotine when fed in small doses to addicted rats and beagles. The same excellent results had been obtained during extensive testing on humans, and now the entire population could get it under doctor’s prescription.

  The announcement caused a flurry of activity at Renox Chemicals. A press conference was called for the following day. The Marketing Director pressed the button on a pre-planned mail shot to every single general practitioner in the country, and the company’s broker informed the Stock Exchange of the new license.

  The response was immediate. Shares in the Renox Chemical Company PLC jumped from 244p to 295p. The twenty thousand ordinary shares purchased two days before by the Union Bank of Turkey’s brokers were now worth £59,000, give or take a little loose change.

   Shortly before noon the following day, a telephone call to the manager of the Union Bank of Turkey instructed him to sell the shares and credit the amount to the appropriate account. The caller also explained that regrettably the hotel venture in Antalya was not proceeding and the account holder was returning to Kenya. Would the bank be kind enough to close the account and expect a visit from the account holder later that afternoon?

  It was just before the bank closed at 3:00 p.m. that the same man in the hat and sports jacket and tinted glasses walked into the branch on Seven Sisters Road. He was invited into the manager’s office, where tea was waiting, but he declined. He watched as the manager and an assistant placed bundles of £20 notes on his desk to the value of £58,250.00, plus another £92.16 in other denominations, which the customer placed in the bottom of his brown corduroy bag. He eyebrows arched at the £742.00 in charges the bank had levied on his short-lived and simple account but, as the manager had suspected, he chose not to make a fuss. He asked for a closing statement to be sent to him at his address in Paddington and thanked the clerk for his courtesy.

  The following morning and less than one week after Firdaus Jhabwala had met with Urquhart, the Chief Whip delivered £50,000 in cash to the Party treasurer. Substantial payments in cash were not unknown and the treasurer expressed delight at discovering a new source of funds. Urquhart suggested that the treasurer’s office make the usual arrangements to ensure that the donor and his wife were invited to a charity reception or two at Downing Street, and asked to be informed when this happened so that he could make a specific arrangement with the Prime Minister’s political secretary to ensure that Mr. and Mrs. Jhabwala had ten minutes alone with the Prime Minister beforehand.

  The treasurer made a careful note of the donor’s address, said that he would write an immediate and suitably cryptic letter of thanks, and locked the money in a safe.

  Uniquely among the fellowship of Cabinet ministers, Urquhart left for holiday that evening feeling utterly relaxed.





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