House of Cards [CHAPTER 18]

 


Eighteen


The world of Westminster is driven by ambition and exhaustion and alcohol. And lust. Especially lust.

The room had a low ceiling and was packed with people. Even with the windows wide open, “Overtime Alley” had come to resemble a Third World airport terminal. As a consequence the chilled champagne being dispensed by Urquhart’s constituency secretary was in ever greater demand. The heat and alcohol cut through the formality and the occasion was already on its way to being one of the Chief Whip’s more relaxed conference receptions.

  Urquhart, however, was not in a position to circulate and accept his guests’ thanks. He was effectively pinned in one corner by the enormous bulk of Benjamin Landless. The East End newspaper magnate was sweating heavily and he had his jacket off and collar undone, displaying his thick green braces like parachute webbing that were holding up his vast, flowing trousers. Landless refused to take any notice of his discomfort; his full attention was concentrated on his trapped prey.

  “But that’s all bloody bollocks, Frankie, and you know it. I put my whole newspaper chain behind you lot at the last election. I’ve moved my entire worldwide headquarters to London. I’ve invested millions in the country. The way I see it, you owe me. But if Henry don’t pull his fingers out the whole bloody circus is going down the drain at the next election. And because I’ve been so good to you, those buggers in the Opposition will crucify me if they get in. So stop pratting around, for God’s sake!”

  He paused to produce a large silk handkerchief from within the folds of his trousers and wipe his brow, while Urquhart goaded him on. 

  “Surely it’s not as bad as that, Ben. All governments go through sticky patches. We’ve been through all this before. We’ll pull out of it.”

  “Bollocks! That’s complacent crap and you know it, Frankie. Haven’t you seen your own latest poll? They phoned it through to me earlier this afternoon. Cata-bleedin’-strophic! If you held the election today you’d get thrashed. Bloody annihilated!”

  Urquhart felt a rush of comfort as he envisaged the chronicle's headline in the morning, but couldn’t afford to show it. “Damn. How on earth did you get hold of that? That will really hurt us at the by-election tomorrow.”

  “Don’t mess your pants, Frankie. I’ve told Preston to pull it. It’ll leak, of course, eventually, but that’ll be after the by-election.” He stuck a thick finger into his own chest. “I’ve saved your conference from being turned into a bear pit.” He sighed deeply. “It’s more than you bloody deserve.”

“I know Henry will be grateful, Ben,” Urquhart said, feeling sick with disappointment.

  “Course he will,” Landless growled, his finger now prodding into Urquhart’s chest, “but the gratitude of the most unpopular Prime Minister since Christ was crucified isn’t something you can put in the bank.”

“What do you mean?”

  “Get real, Frankie. Political popularity is cash. While you lot are in, I should be able to get on with my business and do what I do best—make money. That’s why I’ve supported you. But as soon as your boat starts taking in water everybody panics. The Stock Market sinks. People don’t want to invest. Unions get bolshy. I can’t look ahead. And that’s what’s been happening ever since June. The PM couldn’t organize an arse-cracking contest right now. If he kissed a baby he’d be done for common assault. He’s dragging the whole Party down, and my business with it. Unless you do something about it, we’re all going to disappear down a bloody great hole.”

“Do you really feel like that?”

Landless paused, just to let Urquhart know it wasn’t the champagne speaking.

“Passionately,” he growled.

“Then it looks as if we have a problem.”

“Damn right.”

“What would you have us do, Ben?”

“Frankie, if my shareholders saw me screwing around like this, I wouldn’t last till lunchtime. I’d be gone.”

“You mean…?”

“Sure. Get rid of him. The Big Bye-Bye!”

  Urquhart raised his eyebrows sharply but Landless was the sort of man who, once he mounted a horse and charged, had difficulty in turning the beast. “Life’s too short to spend it propping up losers, Frankie. I haven’t spent the last twenty years working my guts out just to watch your boss piss it all away.”

  Urquhart found his arm gripped painfully by his guest’s huge fingers. There was real strength behind the man’s enormous girth and Urquhart began to understand how Landless always seemed to get his way. Those he couldn’t dominate with his wealth or commercial muscle he would trap with his physical strength and whip with his sharp tongue. Urquhart had always hated being called Frankie and this was the only man in the world who insisted on using it. But tonight, of all nights, he wouldn’t object. This was one argument he was going to enjoy losing.

  Landless drew nearer, conspiratorial, pinning Urquhart ever more tightly in the corner. “Let me give you an example, in confidence. OK, Frankie?” He glanced around to ensure no one was eavesdropping. “A little bird has told me that very shortly United Newspapers will be up for sale. If it is, I want to buy it. In fact, I’ve already had some serious discussions with them. But the limp-wrist lawyers are telling me that I already own one newspaper group and that the Government isn’t going to allow me to buy another. I said to them, you are telling me that I can’t become the biggest newspaper owner in the country, even if I commit all of the titles to supporting the Government!” Perspiration was slipping freely from his face but he ignored it. “You know what they said, Frankie? You know what those numb-nuts told me? That it’s precisely because I do support the Government that I’m in trouble. If I so much as wink at United the Opposition’s going to go apeshit. Kick up the most god-awful stink. And no one would have the guts to stand up and defend me, that’s what they said. The takeover would be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, it’d get bogged down for months with a herd of expensive lawyers stuck in some bloody committee room, with me having to listen to a bunch of closet queens lecturing me on how to run my own business. And you know what makes me really fucking mad, Frankie?”

  Urquhart blinked. Up close the man really was rather frightening. “I have no idea, Ben. Please tell me.”

  “What makes me really fucking mad”—the prodding finger again—“is that whatever arguments I use, whatever I say, in the end the Government will refuse to let the deal to go through. Why? Because they don’t have the balls for a fight.” He blew cigar smoke in Urquhart’s face. “And because your Government doesn’t have the balls, my dick’s going to be shoved through the wringer. It’s not enough that you’re buggering up your own business, you’re going to bugger up mine as well!”

  Only then did Landless remove his finger from his host’s chest. It had been digging in painfully; Urquhart was sure he would find a bruise in the morning. His words came slowly.

  “Ben, you have been a great friend of the Party. I, for one, very much appreciate what you have done. It would be unforgivable if we weren’t able to repay that friendship. I can’t speak for the Prime Minister on this—in fact, I find myself increasingly unable to speak for him on anything nowadays—but I would do everything I can to support you when you need it.”

  Landless was nodding. “That’s good to know, Frankie. I like what you say, very much. If only Henry could be so decisive.”

“I fear that’s not his nature. But I know he’ll be enormously grateful.”

“For what?”

“For burying that opinion poll. I can’t imagine what damage it would do to him if it were published. It would turn the entire conference into a bear fight.”

“Yeah. It would, wouldn’t it?”

“Mind you, there are those who believe that progress is never made without a little discomfort.”

  The frowns of frustration that had covered the Landless brow now gave way to a smile. His skin was remarkably pink and soft, his grin enormous. “I think I see your point, Frankie.”

“What point was that, Ben?”

“Hah! I think we understand each other, you and me.”

“Yes, Ben, I think we do.”

  Landless squeezed the Chief Whip’s arm once more, but gently, in gratitude. Then he looked at his watch. “Tickle my tits, is that the time? I have work to do, Frankie. The first edition is closing in less than thirty minutes. I need to make a telephone call.” He grabbed his jacket and draped it over his arm. “Thanks for the party. It’s been fun. Won’t forget it, Frankie.”

  Urquhart watched as the industrialist, damp shirt sticking closely to his broad back, pushed his way across the crowded room and disappeared through the door.

* * *

Across the other side of the crowded room, hidden behind the squash of bodies, Roger O’Neill was huddled on a small sofa with a young and attractive conference-goer. He was in a state of considerable excitement. He fingers fidgeted incessantly, his eyes danced as though scalded, his words rattled out at an alarming pace. The young girl from Rotherham had already been overwhelmed with the names O’Neill had dropped and the secrets he had shared, an innocent bystander in a one-way conversation.

  “The Prime Minister’s under constant surveillance by our security men, of course. There’s always a threat. Irish. Arabs. Black Militants. They’re trying to get me, too. Been trying for months. The Special Branch boys insisted on giving me protection throughout the election. Found both our names on a hit list, Henry and me. So they gave me twenty-four-hour cover. Not public knowledge, of course, but all the journos know.” He dragged furiously at a cigarette and started coughing. He took out a soiled handkerchief and blew his nose loudly, inspecting the result before returning it to his pocket.

“But why you, Roger?” his young companion ventured.

  “Soft target. Easy access. High publicity hit,” he rattled. “If they can’t get the PM, they’ll go for someone like me.” He looked around nervously, his eyes not settling. “Can you keep a confidence? A real secret?” He took another deep drag.

  “This morning I found my car had been tampered with. Bomb Squad boys went over it with a fine tooth comb. They found the wheel nuts on one of the front wheels had been undone. Straight home on the motorway, the wheel comes off at eighty and—more work for the road sweepers! They think it was deliberate. The Murder Squad are on their way over to interview me right now.”

“Roger, that’s awful,” she gasped.

“Mustn’t tell anyone. The SB don’t want to frighten them off if there’s a chance of catching them unawares.”

  “I hadn’t realized you were so close to the Prime Minister,” she said with growing awe. “What a terrible time for…” She suddenly gasped. “Are you all right, Roger? You’re looking very upset. Your, your eyes…” she stammered.

  O’Neill’s eyes were rotating wildly, sucking still further lurid hallucinations into his brain. His attention seemed to have strayed elsewhere; he was no longer with the young woman but in some other world, with some other conversation. His eyes wavered back to her but they were gone again in an instant. They were bloodshot and watering, had no focus, his nose was dribbling like an old man’s in winter; he gave it a cursory and unsuccessful wipe with the back of his hand. As she watched, his face turned to an ashen gray, his body twitched and he stood up sharply. He appeared terrified, as if the walls were falling in on him.

  She looked on helplessly, unsure what he needed, too embarrassed to make a public scene. She moved to take his arm and support him, but as she did so he turned on her and lost his balance. He grabbed at her to steady himself, caught her blouse, and a couple of buttons popped.

“Get out of my way, get out of my way,” he snarled.

  He thrust her violently backwards and she fell into a table laden with glasses before sprawling back onto the sofa. The crash of glass onto the floor stopped all conversation as everyone in the room turned to see what was going on. More buttons had gone and her left breast stood exposed.

There was absolute silence as O’Neill stumbled toward the door, pushing still more people out of the way before he tumbled into the night, leaving behind a room of shocked faces and a young girl clutching at her tattered clothing and fighting back tears of humiliation. An elderly female guest began helping her rearrange herself and shepherding her toward the bathroom. As the bathroom door shut behind them, the room instantly flooded with speculation that quickly grew into a broad sea of gossip that would keep them engaged and entertained all evening.

  Penny Guy did not join in the gossip. A moment before, she had been laughing merrily, thoroughly enjoying the engaging wit and Merseyside charm of Patrick Woolton. Urquhart had introduced them more than an hour earlier and had ensured that the champagne flowed as easily as their conversation. But the moment of magic had dissolved in the uproar and Penny’s bright smile withered into an expression of abject misery. She fought a losing battle to control the tears, which spilled down her cheeks and seemed unstoppable despite the encouragement and large white handkerchief that Woolton had provided. Her pain was all too real.

  “He’s really a kind man, brilliant at what he does,” she explained. “But sometimes it all seems to get too much for him and he goes a little crazy. It’s so out of character.” As she pleaded for him the tears flowed still faster.

“Penny. I’m so sorry, love. Look, you need to get out of this bloody place.

My bungalow’s next door. What say you we go and dry you off there, OK?”

  She knew what would happen. But it no longer seemed to matter very much. She nodded in gratitude and the couple squeezed their way through the crowd. No one seemed to notice as they eased their way out of the room, except Urquhart. His eyes followed them through the door where Landless and O’Neill had gone before. He felt deeply content. This was turning out to be a party to remember.






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