House of Cards [CHAPTER 30]

 


Thirty


There is no form of wickedness in which a politician can’t indulge and a journalist won’t inflate. Hysterical exaggeration is the hallmark of them both.


Wednesday, November 3

Mattie tried many times during the following week to get hold of Kevin Spence. Despite the repeated assurances of his gushingly polite secretary, he never returned her calls, so she waited until well beyond the time that secretaries usually have left for home before she called again. The night security guard put her straight through.

“Miss Storin, no, of course I haven’t been avoiding you,” Spence lied. “I’ve been very busy. These are distracting times.”

“Kevin, I need your help again.”

  There was a pause. He was braver and more focused when he wasn’t looking into her eyes. “I remember the last time I gave you my help. You said you were going to write a piece on opinion polls. Instead you wrote a story slandering the Prime Minister. Now he’s gone.” He spoke with a quiet sadness. “He was always very decent to me, very kind. I think you and the rest of the press have been unspeakably cruel.”

“Kevin, that wasn’t my story, I give you my word. My copy was hijacked, my byline wasn’t on it. I was even more furious than you must have been.”

“I’m afraid I have been very naive. Good night, Miss Storin.”

He was about to put the phone down.

“Kevin, give me just a moment. Please! There’s something strange about Mr. Collingridge’s resignation.”

And he was still there.

“Personally I don’t believe what’s being said about him and his brother. I’d like to be able to clear his name.”

“I can’t see how I could assist you,” Spence said in a distrusting tone.

“Anyway, nobody outside the Press Office is allowed to have contact with the media during the leadership campaign. Chairman’s strictest orders.”

“Kevin, there’s a lot at stake here. Not just the leadership of the Party and whether you are going to win the next election. There’s something much more personal, about whether history is going to regard Henry Collingridge as a crook or whether he’s going to get a chance to put the record straight. Don’t we owe him that?”

Another cautious pause, then: “If I could help, what would you want?”

“Something very simple. Do you understand the computer system at Party Headquarters?”

“Yes, of course. I use it all the time.”

“I think your computer system has been tampered with.”

“Tampered with? That’s impossible. We have the highest security. Nobody from outside can access it.”

“Not outside, Kevin. Inside.”

The silence from the other end of the phone was more prolonged this time.

“Think about it, Kevin. Your opinion poll was leaked from the inside. Only explanation. Dropped you right in it.”

She heard Spence whisper a mild curse as he battled with his doubts.

“Look, I’m working at the House of Commons. I can be with you in less than ten minutes and I guess the building is very quiet at this time of night. No one will notice, Kevin. I’m on my way over.”

“Come in through the car park,” he muttered. “For God’s sake don’t use the main reception.”

She was with him less than seven minutes later. They sat in his small garret office, penned in by the mountains of files that tumbled over every available flat surface and onto the floor. A glowing green screen dominated his desk and they were sitting close beside each other in front of it. She had unfastened a button on her blouse; he had noticed. Mattie decided she would scold herself later.

“Kevin, Charles Collingridge ordered material from the Party’s sales and literature service and asked them to be delivered to an address in Paddington.

Right?”

“Correct. I checked it as soon as I heard, but it’s there all right. Look.”

He tapped a few characters on the keyboard, and up came the incriminating evidence on the screen. “Chas Collingridge Esq 216 Praed St. Paddington London W2—001A/ 01.0091.”

“What do these other hieroglyphics mean?”

“The first set simply means that he subscribes to our comprehensive literature service. The second shows when his subscription expires. It’s our way of knowing what he wants—everything, or just the main publications, or if he was a member of our specialist book club, that sort of thing. Each one of our marketing programs has a different set of reference numbers. It also shows how he pays, if he’s up-to-date or behind on subscription.”

“And Charles?”

“Was fully paid up from the beginning of the year.”

“Even though he’s an alcoholic with no money who can’t even read when closing time has come.”

Spence shifted uneasily in his chair.

“This information, can you bring it up on all the monitors in the building?”

“Yes. It’s not information we regard as particularly confidential.”

“So tell me this, Kevin.” She leaned forward a little, breathed deep; men were pathetic, it worked all the time. “If you felt like bending the rules a little, wanted to make me a subscriber to your comprehensive literature service, could you do that? Enter my details from this terminal?”

“Why…yes.” Spence was beginning to follow her line of inquiry. “You think that Charles Collingridge’s details were hacked or invented. It could be done. Look.”

His fingers flew like a concert pianist’s and within a few seconds the screen was showing a comprehensive literature subscription in the name of “M Mouse Esq, 99 Disneyland Miami.”

“But that’s not enough, Mattie. You couldn’t get away with backdating it to the beginning of the year because…What a fool I am! Of course!” he exploded and started thrashing away once more at the keyboard. “If you really know what you’re doing, which very few people in this building do, you can tap into the main frame subdirectory…”

His words were almost drowned in the clattering of the keys.

“You see, that gives access to the financial data. So I can check the exact date when the account was paid, whether it was paid by check or credit card, when the subscription was first started…”

The monitor screen started glowing.

“You can only do it if you’ve got the right password and—oh, my giddy aunt!” He pushed himself away from the screen as if it had insulted him. Then he stared once more.

“Mattie, you’re not going to believe this…”

“Whatever it is, I think I just might.”

“According to the accounting record, Charles Collingridge has never paid for the literature service, this month or any month. His details only appear on the distribution file, not the payment file.”

“Kevin, can you tell me when his name first appeared on the distribution file?” she asked, very softly.

A few more keystrokes, this time cautious, deliberate affairs.

“Jesus. Exactly two weeks ago today.”

“Let me make sure I understand, Kevin. I want to be clear. Someone in this building, not the accounts staff or anyone who understood computers very well, altered the file to include Charles Collingridge’s name for the first time two weeks ago.”

He nodded. His face had gone white.

“Can you tell me who altered the file, or from which terminal it was altered?”

“No. It could have been done from any terminal in this building. The computer program trusts us…” He shook his head as if he had failed the most crucial test of his life.

“Don’t worry, Kevin, you’ve been brilliant.” She turned from the screen to face him, leaned toward him. “We’re on the trail. But it’s very important you don’t utter a word of this to anyone. I want to catch whoever did this and if he knows we’re looking he will cover his trail. Please, will you help me, keep this quiet until we’ve something more to go on?”

  His eyes met hers. “Who on earth would believe me, anyway?” he murmured.





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