House of Cards [CHAPTER 43]

 


Forty-Three


Love reaches a man’s heart. Fear, on the other hand, gets to his more persuadable parts.

Thursday, November 25

Penny cast an unwelcoming frown in the direction of the solid steel sky and, muffled in wool, she stepped carefully onto the pavement from the Earl’s Court mansion block in which she lived. The weathermen had been talking for days about the possibility of a sudden cold snap and now it had arrived, intent on getting on with its job. As she picked her way over frozen puddles she regretted her decision to wear heels instead of boots. She was moving slowly along the edge of the pavement, blowing hot breath on her fingers, as a car door swung open, blocking her path.

  She bent low to tell the driver to be more bloody careful when she saw Woolton at the wheel. She beamed at him but he didn’t return her warmth. He was looking straight ahead, not at her as she obeyed his clipped instruction and slipped into the passenger seat.

“What is it you want?” he demanded in a voice as hard as the morning air.

“What are you offering?” She smiled, but an edge of uncertainty was already creeping in as she saw his eyes. They were soulless.

  The lips were thin, curled, exposing his teeth as he spoke.

“Did you have to go and send that tape to me at home? That was a damned cruel thing to do. My wife heard it. It was also extremely stupid because she knows about it now so you can’t blackmail me. No newspaper or radio station will touch it, the potential libel damages will have them all running for cover, so there’s not much use you can make of it.”

  It wasn’t the truth. The tape could still do immense damage to him in the wrong hands but he hoped she would be too stupid to see all that. His bluff seemed to have worked as he watched her face fill with alarm.

“Pat, what on earth are you talking about?”

“The bloody tape you sent me, you silly trollop. Don’t you go coy on me!”

“I…I sent you no tape. I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about.”

  The unexpected assault on her feelings had come as a considerable shock and she began to sob and gasp for breath. He grabbed her arm ferociously and tears of real pain began to flow.

“The tape! The tape! You sent me the tape!”

“What tape, Pat? Why are you hurting me…?”

  The trickle of tears had become a torrent. The street outside began to disappear behind misted windows and she was locked in a world of madness.

“Look at me and tell me you didn’t send me a tape of us in Bournemouth.”

“No. No. What tape?” Suddenly she gasped and the tears died in horror.

“There’s a tape of us in Bournemouth? Pat, that’s vile. But who?”

  He released her arm and his head sank slowly onto the steering wheel. “Oh, my God, this is worse than I thought,” he muttered.

“Pat, I don’t understand.”

  His face was gray, suddenly aged, his skin stretched like old parchment across his cheeks. “Yesterday a cassette tape arrived at my home. It was a recording of us in bed at the Party conference.”

“And you thought that had sent it? Why, you miserable shit!”

“I hoped it was you, Pen.”

“Why? Why me?” she shouted in disgust.

  He gripped the steering wheel, knuckles white, looking ahead, but not at the road. “I hoped it was you, Pen, because if it’s not you then I haven’t the faintest idea who’s doing this. And it can’t be any type of coincidence that it’s arrived now, so many weeks after it was made. They’re not trying to blackmail me for money. They want me out of the leadership race.” His voice faded to a whisper.

“As far as next Tuesday goes, I’m toast.”

* * *

Woolton spent the rest of the morning trying to think constructively. He had no shred of doubt it was the leadership race that had caused the sudden appearance of the tape. He threw a dozen ideas against the wall as to who was behind it, even the Russians, but nothing stuck. He had nowhere else to go. He called his wife—he owed her that, and more—then he called a press conference.

  Faced with such a problem, some men might have decided to fade gently from the scene and pray that their quiet retirement would not be disturbed, but Woolton wasn’t some men. He was the type who would rather go down fighting, trying to salvage whatever he could from the wreckage of his dreams. He had nothing to lose.

  He was in a determined mood by the time the press conference gathered shortly after lunch. With no time to make more formal arrangements he had summoned the media to meet him on the Albert Embankment, on the south side of the river directly opposite the Houses of Parliament. He needed a dramatic backdrop and the gingerbread palace with the tower of Big Ben would provide it. As soon as the cameramen were ready, he began.

“Good afternoon. I’ve got a short statement to make and I’m sorry I’ll not have time afterwards for questions. But I don’t think you’re going to be disappointed.”

  He waited as another camera crew arrived and heaved their equipment into position.

“Following the ballot on Tuesday, it seems as if only three candidates have any realistic chance of success. In fact, I understand that all the others have already announced they’ll not be standing in the second round. So, as you gentlemen have put it, this is a three-horse race.”

  He paused. Bugger it, but this was hard. He hoped they were all freezing, too.

“Of course, I’m delighted to be one of those three, honored, but three can be an unlucky number. There aren’t really three alternatives in this election, only two. Either the Party can stick to the practical approach to politics that’s proved so successful and kept us in power for over a decade. Or it can develop a new raft of policies, sometimes called conscience politics, which will get Government much more deeply involved—some would say trapped—in trying to sort out every problem in the world. Big Brother it’s called, and as you all know that’s never been my brand of tea.”

  The reporters stirred. Everyone knew there were divisions within the Party but it was rare for them to be given such a public airing.

“However well intentioned, I don’t believe that a new emphasis on conscience politics would be appropriate—fact is, I think it would be a disaster for the Party and the country. I reckon that’s also the view of the clear majority within the Party. Yet that is just the way we could end up drifting if that majority gets divided between two candidates. The two candidates who support pragmatic policies are Francis Urquhart and myself. Now I am a practical man. I don’t want my personal ambitions to stand in the way of achieving those policies in which I’ve always believed. But that’s just what might happen.”

Despite the cold air his words were catching fire, sending spirals into the air.

“That place”—he cocked a thumb at the Parliament building behind him—“means too much to me. I want to make sure the right man is running it with the right policies in place. So, ladies and gentlemen”—he gave one last look around at the mass of cameras and bodies that pressed around him, toying with them for a second more—“I’m not going to take any risks. Too much is at stake. So I am withdrawing from the race. I shall be casting my own vote for Francis Urquhart, who I sincerely hope will be our next Prime Minister. I have nothing more to say.”

  His last words were almost lost in the clatter of a hundred camera shutters. He didn’t wait but began striding up the riverside steps toward his waiting car. A few gave chase, running after him, but were able to get no more than the sight of him being driven off across Westminster Bridge. The rest stood in a state of bewilderment. He had left them no time for questions, no opportunity to develop theories or detect hidden meanings behind his words. They had only what he had given them so they would have to report it straight—which is precisely what Woolton intended.

  He drove home, where his wife stood waiting on the doorstep, no less confused. He was smiling ruefully as they went inside; she allowed him a kiss on her cheek, he made the tea.

“You decided to spend more time with your family, Pat?” she asked, skeptical, as they sat on opposite sides of the kitchen table.

“Would do no harm, would it?”

“But. There’s always a ‘but’ somewhere with you. I understand why you had to back out and I suppose that’s going to have to be punishment enough.”

“You’ll stick with me, love? That’s more important than anything, you know that.”

She chose her words carefully, not wanting to let him slip so freely off the hook. “I shall go on supporting you, as I always have. But…”

“That bloody word again.”

“But why on earth did you decide to support Francis Urquhart? I never knew you two were that close.”

“That superior bugger? We’re not close. I don’t even like him!”

“Then why?”

“Because I’m fifty-five and Michael Samuel is forty-eight, which means that he could be in Downing Street for twenty years until I’m dead and buried. Francis Urquhart, on the other hand, is almost sixty-two. He’s not likely to be in office more than five years. So with Urquhart, there’s a chance of another leadership race before I’m reduced to dog meat. In the meantime, if I can find out who’s behind that tape, or they suffer some really brutal and horribly painful accident, as I sincerely hope they will, then I’m in with a second chance.”

  His pipe was hurling thick blue smoke at the ceiling as he worked on his logic.

“In any event, I’ve nothing to gain from remaining neutral. Samuel would never tolerate me in his Cabinet. So instead I’ve handed the election to Urquhart on a plate and he’ll have to show some public gratitude for that.”

  He looked at his wife, forced a smile for the first time since they had heard the tape.

“Hell, it could be worse. How do you fancy being the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s wife for the next couple of years?”





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