House of Cards [CHAPTER 16]

 


Sixteen


What is the point of drawing a line in the sand? The wind blows and before you know it you’re right back where you started.

Mattie cursed her editor under her breath as she slipped down the broad stairs of the hotel and found her way into the breakfast room. It was still early, only a handful of enthusiasts yet about. She sat down at a table on her own praying she wouldn’t be disturbed. She needed recovery time. She hid herself in an alcove behind a copy of the Express and hoped people would conclude she was working rather than fixing a hangover.

  The first cup of coffee bounced off her like a pebble skimming water but the second helped, a little. Slowly her depression began to loosen its grip and she began to take some interest in the rest of the world. Her gaze worked its way round the small Victorian room. In a far corner she spotted another political correspondent in a huddle of conversation with a minister. Elsewhere a senior party figure with his wife, a television newscaster, an editor of one of the Sundays, two other people she thought she recognized but couldn’t yet place. The young man on the next table she definitely didn’t know. He sat, rather like Mattie, almost hiding from the rest of the room. He had a pile of papers and folders on the chair next to him and an air of academic scruffiness. A party researcher, she concluded, not because her intellect was yet working but because squeezed onto the table between the tea and toast was a folder with a prominent party logo, and a name. K. J. Spence.

  Her professional instincts began gradually to reassert themselves under the steady bombardment of caffeine, and she reached inside her ever-present shoulder bag for a copy of the Party’s internal telephone list that at some point she had begged or stolen—she couldn’t remember which.

“Spence. Kevin. Extension 371. Opinion Research.”

  She rechecked the name on top of the folder, taking things one step at a time. She’d already waded through enough crap. She didn’t want to make a fool of herself yet again, not before lunchtime at least. Her editor’s sarcasm had undermined her faith in the leaked poll’s statistics but it also left her wanting to rescue something from the fiasco. Maybe she could find out what the real figures were. She caught the man’s eye.

“Kevin Spence, isn’t it? From Party Headquarters? I’m Mattie Storin of the Chronicle.”

“Oh, I know who you are,” he replied, flustered, but also delighted to have been recognized.

“Can I join you for a cup of coffee, Kevin?” she asked, and without waiting for a reply moved across to his table.

  Kevin Spence was aged thirty-two but looked older, was unmarried and a life-long creature of the Party machine with a salary of £10,200 (no perks). He was shy, bespectacled, awkward, bobbed up and down, not knowing whether it was the done thing to rise to a young woman at the breakfast table. Mattie shook his hand and smiled, and soon he was explaining with enthusiasm and in detail about the regular reports he’d given during the election to the Prime Minister and the Party’s War Committee.

  “They spent the entire campaign claiming that they took almost no notice of opinion polls,” she prodded, “that the only poll that mattered—”

  “—was the one on election day,” he interrupted, delighted they were on a wavelength. “Yes, it’s a little fiction we have. My job depends on them taking things seriously, although between you and me, Miss Storin—”

“Mattie.”

“Some of them might be said to take the polls too seriously.”

“How could that be, Kevin?”

  “There’s always a margin of error. And a rogue poll, just when you don’t need it! Those wicked little creatures still sneak their way through from time to time.”

  “Like the one I’ve just seen,” Mattie remarked with a twinge, still tender from her earlier embarrassment.

“What do you mean?” Spence inquired, suddenly cautious, returning his tea to its saucer.

  As Mattie stared at him she saw that the affable official had become formal, his hands clasped together on the tablecloth. A flush was spreading upwards from the collar to the eyes, and the eyes themselves had lost their eagerness. Spence wasn’t a trained politician and had no skill at hiding his feelings. His confusion was flowing through, yet why was he so flustered? Suddenly, Mattie mentally kicked herself. Surely the damned figures couldn’t be right after all? But why not hoist them up the flagpole and see if someone saluted? She’d already jumped several somersaults that morning and made a fool of herself in the process; one more leap could scarcely dent her professional pride any further.

“I understand, Kevin, that your latest figures are quite disappointing.

Particularly those about the Prime Minister.”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” His hands were still clasped together, in prayer, or was it to stop them trembling? Then, in distraction, he made a grab for his cup but succeeded only in spilling it. In despair, he tried to mop up the mess with his napkin.

  Meanwhile Mattie had reached once more inside her bag and pulled out the mysterious sheet of paper, which she proceeded to smooth out on the tablecloth. As she did so, she noticed for the first time the initials KJS typed along the bottom. The last dregs of her hangover vanished.

“Aren’t these your latest figures, Kevin?”

  Spence tried to push the paper away from him as though it had some deep infestation. “Where on earth did you get that?” He looked around desperately to see whether anyone had noticed the exchange.

  Mattie picked up the note and began reading it out loud. “Opinion Research Survey Number Forty—”

“Please, Miss Storin!”

  He wasn’t a man used to dissembling, far too transparent to travel in safety, and he knew it. He could see no way of escape from his dilemma and decided that his only means of survival was to throw himself on the mercy of his breakfast companion. In a hushed voice he pleaded with her. “I’m not supposed to talk to you. It’s strictly confidential.”

“But Kevin, it’s only one piece of paper.”

  His eyes darted once more around the room. “You don’t know what it’s like. If these figures get out, and I’m the one thought to have given them to you, I’d be ruined. Shafted. Absolutely stuffed. Everyone’s looking for scapegoats. There are so many rumors flooding around. The PM doesn’t trust the Chairman, the Chairman doesn’t trust us, and nobody’s going to take pity on a guy like me. I like my job, Miss Storin. I can’t afford to be blamed for leaking confidential figures to you.”

“I didn’t realize morale was so bad.”

  Spence looked utterly miserable. “You can’t imagine. I’ve never known it worse. Frankly, all most of us are trying to do is to keep our heads down so that when it hits the fan we get as little of it as possible.” He looked at her eye-to-eye for the first time. “Please, Mattie, don’t drag me into this.”

  Sometimes she hated her job, and herself. This was one of those moments. She had to squeeze him until the pips squeaked. “Kevin, you didn’t leak this report. You know it, I know it, and I’ll confirm that to anyone who wants to know. But if I’m to help you, I shall need a little help myself. This is your latest polling report, right?”

  She pushed the paper back across the table. Spence took another anguished look at it and nodded.

“They are prepared by you and circulated on a tightly restricted basis.”

Another nod.

“All I need to know from you, Kevin, is who gets them. That can’t be a state secret, can it?”

  There was no more fight left in the man. He seemed to hold his breath for a long time before replying. “Numbered copies are circulated in double-sealed envelopes solely to Cabinet ministers and five senior headquarters personnel: the Deputy Chairman and four senior directors.” He tried to moisten his mouth with another drink of tea but discovered he had already spilled most of it. “How on earth did you get hold of it?” he demanded wretchedly.

“Let’s just say someone got a little careless, shall we?”

“Not my office? Tell me it wasn’t my office!”

  “No, Kevin. Do the arithmetic. You’ve just given me the names of more than two dozen people who get to see these figures. Add in their secretaries or assistants and that brings the possible number of sources to well over fifty.” She gave him one of her most reassuring, warm smiles. “Don’t worry, I won’t involve you.”

Relief flooded his face.

“But let’s keep in touch,” she added.

  Mattie left the breakfast room with Spence’s gratitude, which made her feel better, and his home phone number, which made her feel better still. Part of her felt elated about the front page story she was now able to write, and the sense of satisfaction she would get when she watched her editor eat his version of humble pie. The news desk would wine out on that for a week. Yet through it all cut another, altogether more powerful consideration. Any one of fifty-odd people could have been the turncoat, setting up Collingridge by leaking this piece of paper. So who the hell was it?

* * *

Room 561 in the hotel could not be described as five-star. It was one of the smallest rooms, far away from the main entrance at the end of the top floor corridor and squeezed under the eaves. This wasn’t where the Party hierarchy stayed, it was definitely a room for the workers.

  Penny Guy was taken unawares. She hadn’t heard any sound of approaching steps before the door burst open. She sat bolt upright in bed, startled, exposing two perfectly formed breasts.

  “Shit, Roger, don’t you ever bloody knock?” She threw a pillow at the intruder in exasperation more than anger. “And what the hell are you doing up so early? You don’t normally surface until lunchtime.” She didn’t bother covering herself as O’Neill sat down at the end of the bed. There was an ease between them suggesting an absence of any sexual threat, which would have startled most people. O’Neill constantly flirted with her, particularly in public, could be proprietorial when other men came on the scene; yet on the two occasions when Penny had mistaken the signals and offered more than secretarial service, O’Neill had been very affectionate and warm and muttered about being too exhausted. She guessed it wasn’t her, it was his way with all women, that he had a deep streak of sexual insecurity running through him which he hid beneath flattery and innuendo. He’d been married once, way back, a pain that still pursued him through the mists of years, another part of his private life he was keen to cover up. Penny had worked for O’Neill for nearly three years and was devoted to him, longing to ease his insecurities, but he never seemed willing to drop his guard. To those who didn’t know him well he was extrovert, amusing, full of charm, ideas, and energy, but Penny had watched him become increasingly erratic. His caution, even paranoia, about relationships had grown worse in recent months as he found the pressures of political life increasingly infatuating, even as he found them steadily more difficult to cope with. Nowadays he rarely came into the office before noon; he had started making many private phone calls, getting agitated, disappearing suddenly. Penny wasn’t in any respect naive but she did love him, and her devotion made her blind. She knew he depended on her and, if he didn’t need her in his bed, he needed her practically every other moment of his day. The bond between them was strong, and while it wasn’t all that she wanted, she was willing to wait.

  “You got up this early just to come and woo me, didn’t you?” she teased, pouting in her bed.

  “Cover yourself up, you little tart. That’s not fair. They’re not fair!” he exclaimed, gesturing at her body.

  Playfully, provocatively, she threw back the bedclothes. She was starkly, stunningly naked.

“Oh, Pen, my darling, I wish I had this moment captured forever, in oils and on my wall.”

“But not in your bed.”

“Pen, please! You know I’m not at my best this early in the morning.”

  Reluctantly, she reached for her gown. “Yes, it is rather early for you, Rog.

You haven’t been up all night, have you?”

  “Well, there was this incredibly beautiful Brazilian gymnast who’s been teaching me a whole series of new exercises. We didn’t have any gymnastic rings, so we used the chandelier. OK?”

“Shut up, Rog,” she said firmly, her mood grown gray like the morning sky.

“What’s going on?”

“So young and yet so cynical?”

“It’s never let me down.”

“Which? Youth or cynicism?

“Both. Particularly where you are concerned. So tell me the real reason you’re here.”

  “OK, OK. I had to make a delivery. In the vicinity. So…I thought I’d come and say good morning.” It was almost the truth, as close as he got nowadays, but not all the truth. He didn’t mention that Mattie Storin had nearly caught him as he was putting the document among her newspapers and needed a place to lie for a while. Oh, he’d scuttled down that corridor as though he were sidestepping his way through the entire English defense toward the try line. What fun! So it would cause the Party Chairman trouble. Brilliant. The cantankerous old sod had been particularly short with him these last few weeks, as Urquhart had pointed out. The paranoia that possessed O’Neill’s mind completely failed to capture the fact that Williams had been short with almost everyone.

  “Let’s just say I believe you,” Penny said. “But for pity’s sake, Rog, next time you come to say good morning, try knocking first. And make it after eight-thirty.”

“Don’t give me a hard time. You know I can’t live without you.”

  “Enough passion, Rog. What do you want? You have to want something, don’t you, even if not my body?”

  His eyes darted, like a guilty secret exposed. “Actually, I did come to ask you something. It’s a bit delicate really…” He gathered together his salesman’s charms and started upon the story that Urquhart had drummed into him the previous evening. “Pen, you remember Patrick Woolton, the Foreign Secretary. You typed a couple of his speeches during the election and he certainly remembers you. He, er, asked after you when I saw him last night. I think he’s rather smitten with you. Anyway, he wondered if you would be interested in dinner with him but he didn’t want to upset or offend you by asking direct, so I sort of offered, you know, to have a quiet word as it might be easier for you to say no to me rather than to him personally. You see that, don’t you, Pen?”

“Oh, Rog.” There were tears in her voice.

“What’s the matter, Pen?”

“Pimping for him.” Her tone was bitter, an accusation.

“No, no at all, Pen, it’s only dinner.”

  “It’s never been just dinner. Ever since the age of fourteen it’s never been just dinner.” She was second-generation immigrant, had been brought up in a crowded tenement off Ladbroke Grove and knew all the compromises required of a young black girl in a white male world. That didn’t distress her unduly; it gave her opportunity, but she wouldn’t have her dignity stripped away, not like this.

“He’s the Foreign Secretary, Pen,” O’Neill protested.

“With a reputation as long as the Channel Tunnel.”

“But what have you got to lose?”

“My self-esteem.”

“Oh, come on, Pen. This is important. You know I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t.”

“What the hell do you think of me?”

  “I think you are beautiful, truly I do. I see you every day and you’re the one thing that brings laughter into my life. But I’m desperate. Please, Pen, don’t ask but…you’ve got to help me on this. Just dinner, I swear.”

  They were both in tears, and in love with each other. She knew it hurt him to ask this of her, that for some reason he found himself with no choice. And because she loved him, she didn’t want to know why.

“OK. Just dinner,” she whispered, lying to herself.

  And he threw himself at her and kissed her with joy before he rushed out as breathlessly as he had barged in.

  Five minutes later he was back in his own room and on the phone to Urquhart. “Delivery made and dinner fixed, Francis.”

“Splendid, Roger. You’ve been most helpful. I hope the Foreign Secretary will be grateful too.”

“But I still don’t see how you’re going to get him to invite Penny to dinner.

What’s the point of all this?”

  “The point, dear Roger, is that he won’t have to invite her to dinner at all. He is coming to my reception this evening. You will bring Penny, I shall introduce them over a glass of champagne or two, and see what develops. If I know Patrick Woolton—which as Chief Whip I do—it won’t take more than twenty minutes before he’s suggesting that he might help her improve her French etiquette.”

“But I still don’t see where that gets us.”

  “Whatever happens, Roger, and that we must leave in the hands of two consenting adults, you and I will know about it.”

“I still don’t see what use that is,” O’Neill protested, still hoping the other man might change his mind.

“Trust me, Roger. You must trust me.”

“I do. I have to. I don’t really get much choice, do I?”

“That’s right, Roger. Now you are beginning to see. Knowledge is power.”

  The phone went dead. O’Neill thought he understood but still wasn’t absolutely sure. He was still struggling to figure out whether he was Urquhart’s partner or prisoner. Unable to decide, he rummaged in his bedside cabinet and took out a small carton. He swallowed a couple of sleeping pills and collapsed fully clothed on the bed.






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