House of Cards [CHAPTER 38]


 

Thirty-Eight


It’s all very well volunteering to lead an army, but that’s the point that the enemy aims at first. Better just a few steps behind, give yourself time to pick your way through the piles of bodies.


Monday, November 22

The Members’ Lobby that is the main entrance to the Chamber is dominated by large bronze figures of Churchill and Attlee and Lloyd George. The toecaps of the statues are bright from the brushing fingers of MPs hoping to share in their greatness. The Lobby has two solid oak doors that protect the Chamber and on which Black Rod knocks to summon MPs for the State Opening of Parliament. The door is set in a battered stone arch that still bears the scars of the destruction of the original Chamber in the bombing of 1941. When the Chamber had been rebuilt, Churchill had asked for the disfigured and scorched arch to be retained. “To remind us.”

The Lobby is also where Members collect messages.

“Hello, Mr. Kendrick.”

He looked up from his inspection of various pieces of paper to find Mattie at his elbow. He smiled. “You’re…”

“Mattie Storin.”

“Yes, of course you are.” His eyes wandered before returning to her face.

“And what can I do for you, Mattie?”

“I’d like to ask you a few questions, if that’s all right.”

“My pleasure. But not now, I’m afraid,” he said, glancing at his watch. “How about tea? My place? Four-thirty? I’ll have plenty of time for you then.”

  Kendrick was an Opposition backbencher and his office was a small single room in Norman Shaw North, the red brick building made famous in countless aging black and white films as New Scotland Yard, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police. The forces of law and order had long since moved to a gray concrete fortress in Victoria Street, and the parliamentary authorities had been delighted to snap up the vacant, albeit dilapidated, space just across the road from the Houses of Parliament to provide much needed additional office space. Kendrick jumped up from his desk as she walked in.

“Mattie, come into my home and invade my personal space. It’s got as much charm as a monk’s cell, hasn’t it?”

“Wouldn’t know. I don’t do monks,” she replied.

  He helped her out of her coat, his eyes appreciative rather than predatory, her woolen sweater deliberately tight, her skirt short enough to show her knees. She needed his attention and she was getting it.

“Tea, or…” he inquired, lifting an eyebrow.

“Or,” she said.

  He pulled a bottle of chardonnay from a small refrigerator that stood in a corner and pulled down two glasses from a bookshelf. She sat on the small sofa while he poured.

“Home,” she said, raising her glass in salute.

“This is nothing like bloody home and I never want it to be,” he growled. “How the hell we’re expected to run a faded empire from broom closets, God only knows. But I’ll drink to it with you, anyway.”

“You can’t hate it so much. You spent years struggling to get into the place.”

“Ungrateful sod, aren’t I?” he said and burst into a fetching smile.

“And you’ve managed to make your mark very quickly.”

“Flattery, eh? And legs. You must want something very badly.” He looked at her with steady, understanding eyes. It was her turn to smile.

“Mr. Kendrick—”

“Oh, bloody hell, we’re way past the Mr. Kendrick stage, I hope.”

“Stephen, I’m looking at a piece on how Parliament works and how politics can be so full of surprises. And when it comes to surprises, yours was one of the biggest.”

  Kendrick chuckled. “I’m still amazed at how my reputation was built on such a—well, what would you call it? Stroke of luck? Throw of the dice? Guesswork?”

“Are you trying to tell me you didn’t actually know the hospital scheme had been shelved, that you were guessing?” she asked, her tone incredulous.

“You don’t believe that?”

“Let me put it this way. I’m a cynic with a smile.”

“Well, so long as you’re smiling, Mattie…” He poured another glass for her.

“Let me put it this way. I wasn’t absolutely certain. I took a risk.”

“So what did you know?”

“Off the record?”

“Way off, if you like.”

  “I’ve never really told the full story before to anyone…” He glanced down to where Mattie was rubbing her ankles, as if to relieve sore shins. “But I like your interrogation technique. And I suppose there’s no harm in telling you a little of the background.” He pondered a second to decide how far he should go. “I found out that the Government—or rather their Party Headquarters—had planned a massive publicity campaign to promote the new hospital plan. They’d worked hard at it, spent a lot of money on the preparations—well, you would, wouldn’t you, with a plan like that? But at the last minute they canceled the whole bloody thing. Just pulled the plug on it. I thought about it for a long while, and the more I thought the only explanation that made any sense was that they weren’t pulling the plug just on the publicity campaign but on the policy itself. So I decided to challenge the Prime Minister—and he fell for it! I couldn’t have been more surprised myself.”

“I don’t remember any discussion at the time about a publicity campaign.”

“They wanted the element of surprise. I think all the planning of it was highly confidential.”

“You obviously have confidential sources.”

“And that’s exactly how they’re going to stay, even for you. Confidential! It’s the sort of thing I wouldn’t even tell my ex.”

“You’re…”

“Divorced. Very single.”

  Mattie suspected he was offering a deal but, as attractive as he was, she wasn’t willing to pay that sort of price. Her life was already complicated enough.

“I know how valuable sources are,” she said, getting the conversation back on track, “but can you give me a little guidance? The leak could only have come from one of two sources, Party or Government, yes…?”

“Insight as well as ankles.”

“There’s been bad blood between Party Headquarters and Downing Street since the election. You said it was a party publicity drive, so it would be logical to suspect the information came out of Party Headquarters.”

“You’re very good, Mattie. But you didn’t get that from me, OK? And I’m not saying any more about my source.” His tone had lost its gaiety, he was now in business mode and cautious.

“No need to worry. Roger’s secret is safe with me.”

  Kendrick was halfway through a mouthful of wine. He let it dribble back into his glass. The eyes, when they came up to meet hers, were like unhammered steel. “You think I’m shallow enough to turn on an old friend just because you flash your tits at me?”

  An old friend? The pieces of this part of the jigsaw were beginning to fit together. “I know it was Roger. I don’t need you to confirm it. And I’m not on an inquisition. He’s got enough on his plate without this. This won’t appear in the press.”

“So why are you here?”

“Information. Understanding.”

“And there was me beginning to like you. I think it’s time for you to leave, Mattie.”

* * *

The men from the Mirror were there at lunchtime and still there in the evening, reading, picking their teeth, watching. They had been waiting for Earle in their sordid little car almost continuously for forty-eight hours, witnessing every flicker of the curtain, photographing everyone who called including the postman and the milkman. And his wife, of course. He found only a crumb of comfort that she had left early to visit her sister. Sweet, blind woman that she was, she’d assumed the journalists were lurking outside her front door because of the leadership campaign—which, in a way, they were.

  Earle had no one to turn to, no one with whom to share his misery or seek wise counsel. He was a lonely figure, a sincere and even devout man who had made one mistake for which one day he knew he would pay.

  They had grown tired with waiting. They knocked on the door. “Sorry to bother you, Mr. Earle. Simmonds and Peters again. Just a quick question our editor wanted us to ask. How long have you known him?”

  Into his face was thrust another photograph of Simon, this time taken not at a public rally but in a photographer’s studio, and dressed from head to foot in black leather slashed by zip fasteners. The jacket was open to the waist, exposing a slender, tapering body, while from his right hand there trailed a long bullwhip.

“Go away. Go away. Please—go away!” he screamed, so loudly that neighbors came to the window to investigate.

“If it’s inconvenient, we’ll come back some other time, sir.” Silently they filed back to their car and resumed the watch.






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