House of Cards [CHAPTER 26]

 


Twenty-Six


The shadows of infidelity should always lurk at the door; otherwise, a marriage grows stale.


  “Mattie, I’m surprised,” Urquhart said as he opened his front door to find her standing beneath the lamp. “You’ve been avoiding me.”

“You know that’s not true, Mr. Urquhart. It’s you who’s been avoiding me. You practically ran away from me every time I tried to get near you at the conference.”

  “Well, they were a hectic few days in Bournemouth. And you are from the Chronicle. I have to admit that it wouldn’t have been”—he searched for a word —“proper for me to have been seen talking to one of their journalists, particularly one who is—how can I put this?—as blond as you.”

  His eyes were dancing in merriment and yet again she hesitated, as she had done so many times when she’d picked up the phone to call him but held back. She wasn’t entirely sure why. This man was dangerous, she knew that, made her feel things she shouldn’t, yet when she was with him she tingled with excitement right down to her toes.

  “People might have misunderstood, seeing you and me huddled in some dark corner, Mattie,” he continued, more serious now. “And that front page of yours did mortal damage to my Prime Minister.”

“Whoever leaked the poll did the damage, not me.”

“Well, timing is everything. And now you’re here once again. To ask me questions.”

“It’s what I do, Mr. Urquhart.”

“And there’s an early chill for the time of year, I think.” He gazed along the street as though to check the weather, and who might be watching. “Why don’t you come in?”

  He took her coat, sat her down in a large leather chair in his study, found them both whiskey.

“I hope this isn’t improper, too,” she ventured.

“Unlike Bournemouth there are no prying eyes.”

“Mrs. Urquhart…”

“Is at the opera with a friend. Won’t be back for some time. If at all.”

  And in a few words he had thrown a cloak of conspiracy around them that she found nestled so comfortably on her shoulders.

“It’s been quite a day,” she said, sipping.

“It isn’t every day that a comet appears in the sky and burns so spectacularly.”

“Can I talk to you frankly, Mr. Urquhart, not even on lobby terms?”

“Then you’d better call me Francis.”

“I’ll try—Francis. It’s just that…My father was a strong character. Clear blue eyes, clear mind. In some ways you remind me of him.”

“Of your father?” he said, a little startled.

“I need your advice. To understand things.”

“As a father?”

“No. Not even as a Chief Whip. As a…friend?”

He smiled.

“Is it all coincidence?”

“Is what coincidence?”

“These leaks. The opinion poll. It was put under my door, you know.”

“Extraordinary.”

“Then the Renox shares. I can’t help feeling that someone’s behind it all.”

“A plot to get rid of Henry Collingridge? But, Mattie, how could that be?”

“Sounds silly, perhaps, but…”

“Leaks are a part of the trade, Mattie. There are some politicians who can’t pass the doors of the Guardianwithout going inside and turning on the taps.”

“You don’t destroy a prime minister by accident.”

“Mattie, Henry Collingridge wasn’t destroyed by his opponents but by his brother’s apparent fiddling of the Renox shares. Cock-up, not conspiracy.”

  “But, Francis, I’ve met Charlie Collingridge. Spent several hours with him at the Party conference. He struck me as being a pleasant and straightforward drunk who didn’t look as if he had two hundred pounds to put together, let alone being able to raise tens of thousands to start speculating in shares.”

“He’s an alcoholic.”

“Would he have jeopardized his brother’s career for a few thousand pounds’ profit on the Stock Market?”

“Alcoholics are rarely responsible.”

“But Henry Collingridge isn’t an alcoholic. Do you really think he’d stoop to feeding his brother insider share tips to finance his boozing?”

“I take your point. But is it any more credible to believe there’s some form of high-level plot involving senior party figures to cause total chaos?”

She pursed her lips and a frown crept across her brow. “I don’t know,” she conceded. “It’s possible,” she added stubbornly.

“You may be right. I’ll bear that in mind.” He finished his drink, the moment was over. He found her coat, escorted her to the door. He had his hand on the lock but didn’t open it. They were close together. “Look, Mattie, it’s possible your fears are correct.”

“I don’t fear it, Francis,” she corrected him.

  “In any event the next few weeks are going to be tumultuous. Can we do this again, discuss these ideas, whatever twists and turns we discover—just you and me? Entirely privately?”

She smiled. “You know, I was going to ask you much the same.”

  “Mrs. Urquhart doesn’t spend the entire week in London. She’s often away or involved with her other activities. Tuesday and Wednesday nights I’m usually here on my own. Please feel free to drop round.”

His gaze was steady, penetrating, left her stirred and with a sense of danger.

“Thank you,” she said softly. “I will.”

He opened the door. She was down the step when she turned. “Are you going to stand, Francis?”

“Me? But I’m the Chief Whip, not even a full member of the Cabinet.”

“You’re strong, you understand power. And you’re a little bit dangerous.”

“That’s kind of you—I think. But, no, I won’t be standing.”

“I think you should.”

She took another step but he called after her.

“Did you get on with your father, Mattie?”

“I loved him,” she said before finally slipping into the night.

* * *

He settled himself back in his chair with a fresh whiskey, his mind alive with the events of the day, and of the hour just past. Mattie Storin was exceptionally bright and beautiful, and had made it clear she was available. But for what, precisely? The possibilities seemed as endless as they were attractive. He was musing contentedly on the matter when the phone rang.

“Frankie?”

“Ben, excellent to hear from you, even at this late hour.”

Landless ignored the sarcasm. “Interesting times, Frankie, interesting times. Isn’t that what they say in China?”

“I believe it’s a curse.”

“I guess old Harry Collingridge would agree!”

“I was sitting here thinking much the same.”

“Frankie, you haven’t got time to sit on your backside. Game on. You up for it?”

“Up for what, Ben?”

“Don’t be so—what’s the word?”

“Obtuse?”

“Yeah, up your arse. I need you to be right out in the open with me, Frankie.”

“About what?”

“Do you want to stand?” Landless pressed impatiently.

“For the leadership? I’m merely the Chief Whip. I don’t appear on stage, I sit in the wings and prompt the players.”

“Sure, sure, but do you want it? Because if you do, old son, I can be very helpful to you.”

“Me? Prime Minister?”

  “Frankie, we’re playing a new game now, bigger balls. And your balls are almost as big as mine. I like what you do and the way you do it. You understand how to use power. So do you want to play?”

  Urquhart didn’t immediately reply. His eye went to an oil that hung on his wall in an ornate gilded frame, of a stag at bay surrounded by baying hounds. Did he have the stomach for it? The words came slowly. They took him by surprise. “I would like to play very, very much.”

  It was the first time he had confessed his ambition to anyone other than himself, yet with a man like Landless who exposed his naked desires with every chime of the clock, he felt no embarrassment.

  “That’s good, Frankie. That’s great! So let’s start from there. I’m going to tell you what the Chronicle’s running tomorrow. It’s an analysis piece by our political correspondent, Mattie Storin. Pretty blond girl with long legs and great tits—you know who I mean?”

“I think so.”

“She’s going to say it’s an open race, everybody’s hand dipped in Collingridge’s blood, lots more chaos to come.”

“I believe she is right.”

“Chaos. I like chaos. Sells newspapers. So who is your money on?”

  “Well, let’s see…These things normally only last a couple of weeks. So the slick Willies, the flashy television performers, they’re the ones who will gain the best start. The tide is everything; if it’s with you it will sweep you home.”

“Which slick Willy in particular?”

“Try Michael Samuel.”

  “Mmm, young, impressive, principled, seems intelligent—not at all to my liking. He wants to interfere all the time, rebuild the world. Too much conscience, not enough experience.”

“So what do you suggest, Ben?”

“Frankie, tides turn. One minute you’re swimming for the shore, the next you’re by an outfall pipe just after I’ve flushed my toilet.”

  Urquhart heard the other man swilling drink around a goblet and taking a huge draught before he continued.

  “Frankie, I’m going to tell you something. This afternoon I instructed a small and extremely confidential team at the Chronicle to start contacting as many of your party’s MPs as they can get hold of to ask which way they’re going to vote. Wednesday we’re going to publish—which I confidently predict will show young Mickey Samuel with a small but clear lead over the rest of the field.”

  “What? How do you know this? The poll hasn’t even been finished yet.” A sigh of understanding. “Oh, Ben, I’m being naive, aren’t I?”

  “Ring-a-ding-ding, Frankie. You’re on the ball. That’s why I like you. I know what the fucking poll is going to say because I’m the fucking publisher.”

“You mean you’ve fixed it. But why are you pushing Samuel?”

  “First one to get to the sewage pipe. Oh, you’ll be there somewhere, Frankie, toward the back of the field but not in bad shape for a Chief Whip. But young Mickey will be out in front, so everyone else has a target, the man they most want to beat. I reckon in a couple of weeks’ time he’s going to be amazed at the number of bad friends he’s got.”

“So where do I fit into this great plan?”

  “You come from behind, as the actress said to the archbishop. The compromise candidate. While all those other bastards are drowning each other, you slip quietly through as the man they all hate least.”

“When all the other trees have been blown down, even a bush can stand tall.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Can I trust you?”

“Trust me?” He sounded horrified. “I’m a newspaperman, Francis.”

  Urquhart burst into dark laughter. It was the first time the proprietor had called him by his proper name. Landless was serious.

“So aren’t you going to ask me what I want out of all this?” the proprietor asked.

“I think I already know, Ben.”

“And what’s that?”

“A friend. A friend in Downing Street. A very good friend. A friend just like me.”






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