Surrogate – a psychological thriller

BOOK: Surrogate – a psychological thriller
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Surrogate
Tim Adler

Copyright © 2014, Tim Adler

By the same author

Fiction

SLOW BLEED

Non Fiction

THE HOUSE OF REDGRAVE

HOLLYWOOD AND THE MOB

THE PRODUCERS: MONEY, MOVIES AND WHO REALLY CALLS THE SHOTS

For Kate

"When the train left the station,

It had two lights on behind,

The blue light was my baby,

and the red light was my mind."

ROBERT JOHNSON,

Love In Vain

Chapter One

"I love you," I said thickly, pushing the fifty-pound note down inside the elastic of the girl's panties. "Thank you," the stripper said before straightening up. She began swaying against the pole on stage again, running her hands lubriciously over her stomach. Even in this dimly lit strip club I could see how tired she was; there were dark smudges of exhaustion under her eyes, and for a moment I wondered if she was going to slide to the bottom of the pole, unable to get up again. Meanwhile, the bass of the music was so loud that it churned your insides. Suddenly I wanted to be anywhere but this place. The whole thing was about as erotic as a glass of warm milk.

That was the moment I felt my mobile phone vibrating in my jacket pocket. Fishing it out, I saw that it was a text message from Brian Sibley, the finance director of Berkshire RE, the private reinsurance syndicate I worked for. Hell, I did more than work for it, I was acting chief executive until my father returned to work full time. I glanced at my watch. Jesus, it was past two o'clock in the morning. Well, whatever it was, it could wait until tomorrow – or was that later today? I tried not to think about it. I was drunk, and there would be a reckoning in the morning.

The strip club was dark and full of small round tables decorated with rose lampshades. Brushing past one of them, I knocked over an empty glass. "Hey," somebody complained, and I picked it up, apologising with the exaggerated courtesy of the drunk. We were all on a stag night celebrating the marriage next week of an insurer who placed a lot of business with my syndicate. It was half past two in the morning, and I didn't even know him very well.

My best friend Rupert Currie, who worked for a company managing the riches of the super wealthy, waved from across the room. Currie had long been my partner in crime when we were out on the town. He was sitting on a banquette behind the roped-off VIP area, and a hostess in an evening dress was giving him a head massage. Currie leaned back, luxuriating in her massaging fingers. The rest of our group was sprawled behind a table littered with glasses and vodka bottles. Other girls were sitting beside my workmates, playing with their hair and trying to make conversation. I realised there was some kind of rotation system going on with the strippers. Over the noise I could just make out girls' names being called over the tannoy. As soon as a girl came off stage, she would go back to sitting in a customer's lap as if it was completely normal to break off a conversation ("So, where are you going on your holidays?"), upend yourself on a stripping pole and then pick up where you left off. Why did these men come here? Perhaps as a dare or a way of showing off to each other in the office tomorrow morning that they weren't just sad little grey men in cubicles.

Currie interrupted my thoughts. "Oy, oy" he said, breaking free of the girl, who looked as stung as a geisha not giving satisfaction. "You're drunk," he said. I nodded, sitting down heavily. Currie winked and said he had something that would pick me up. I lurched after him to the men's toilet with a pretty good idea of what he had in mind.

Sure enough, Currie pulled out a vial of cocaine as we crammed into the toilet cubicle. He dug the plastic spoon into the bottle and scooped out a hit. "Want some?" he asked, offering me the brown vial. The sharp powder hit the back of my throat and instantly I felt sober. Sibley's text message was still nagging at me, though. Whatever it was must be pretty important for him to text me at two in the morning. Reluctantly I looked at my mobile phone again. Clicking the message open, I read: "Urgent. Please come to office for immediate board meeting."

"Fuck," I said, resting my head against the toilet partition vibrating with the bass from outside. "What's the matter, matey?" said Currie, sniffing hard. Why on earth had I agreed to come out tonight? It wasn't as if I wanted to be here. I didn't even like the guy getting married. At the same time, I could feel the cocaine coursing through my bloodstream, blossoming my senses and promising a good time. My teeth were grinding. How the fuck was I going to deal with a board meeting in a state like this? One good thing was that at least I wouldn't have to face my father.

Perhaps I had better explain.

Although I am acting chief executive of Berkshire RE, I never applied for a job. It was given to me. Indeed, I have never applied for a job in my life. My father, Sir Ronald Cox, created Berkshire RE in the mid-eighties, having joined Lloyd's as a junior underwriter in the early seventies. You might have read about him in the papers. He's always portrayed as a kind of cross between Alan Sugar and Robert Maxwell, a finger-wagging East End market trader turned City financier with, as one newspaper said, a touch of the night about him. Reading the tabloids, you might assume that his effing and blinding was an act for the press. The reality was far worse, let me tell you. ("Your dad is one of those colourful characters in British life designed to cheer us all up," a newspaper reporter once told me.) Back then Lloyd's had been a gentleman's club. Nearly everybody apart from Dad had gone to public school. Dad described the other underwriters as the cream of society – rich and thick. What Ronnie Cox did, though, was clever: he was the first Lloyd's insider to open up the insurance market to the public; it was the era of Freddie Laker and Skytrain, the City of London Big Bang and privatising British Telecom ("Tell Buzby"). Mrs Thatcher knighted him. And Dad always had Mum to deflate him whenever he became too puffed up and rampant.

Dad met Mum when she was working as a flight attendant. We moved from the mansion flat in Knightsbridge where I was born to Sundials, a Georgian country house near Henley with an indoor swimming pool and even its own squash court. Currie used to joke that I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth so much as an entire solid-gold canteen in my gob. I was packed off to boarding school aged thirteen, and that was when I noticed the change happening at home: Mum started drinking because of Dad’s affairs – girls at work, the usual kind of thing. He hardly bothered to hide it, which was hurtful. There was one woman in particular, a brassy blonde whose flat he paid for. Mum sent me there once, a lumpy adolescent who surprised them both in their dressing gowns eating boiled eggs.

She was lonely, and retaliated by having her own affair with a builder who was doing work on the house. Dad threw her out. What startled everybody was how vindictive he was when it came to the divorce. Despite being the mother of his only child, Mum got only the minimum owing to her – Dad's lawyers made sure of that. "I'm not paying any cock tax," Dad kept saying. He even kept custody of me.

Mum lives in a bungalow near Hastings now, and the drinking has not got any better. She sits at a window overlooking the street; she says she likes the view. It took me a long time to realise that her real problem is loneliness. Dad, however, lost no time: I remember a succession of girlfriends when I was a teenager, some of them little better than hookers. Eventually Dad married Eliska, a tough little number from the Czech Republic, who, Mum snorted, was more like a nursemaid than a wife.

You see, around this time Dad was diagnosed with kidney failure, and he now has to spend hours each day hooked up to a dialysis machine. Without it his kidneys cannot function. Mum's view is that got his just deserts, instant karma and all that. That he is being poisoned to death because of what he did to her.

Well, that's enough about me. I just thought you needed to know where I was coming from.

"I know what you've been doing in there," the black lavatory attendant said as Currie and I unlocked the cubicle door. That made me feel bad. I probably earned more in a week than the guy did in a year. The attendant had run a basin of water, and I washed my hands and combed my hair in the mirror. My reflection looked funny. I smiled and the reflection grinned back at me, but it was not me grinning. Well, whoever it was didn't matter much right now.

Sibley's text message was still in my jacket pocket, worming away at me. I had to get out of here and try and sober up. Hell, what could be so important as to convene a meeting in the middle of the night? I thought about the toilet attendant again as I lurched after Currie and turned back, dropping a ten-quid note into his tips saucer. If I expected him to show some sort of gratitude, I was wrong. He just nodded and moved off.

The others tried calling me back when I said I was leaving. "The party's just getting started," one of them said. Looking at the table debris, I doubted that.

As I stumbled out of the nightclub, the doorman eyed my expensive coat. It would be dawn soon. I sniffed hard, and cocaine-y mucus slid down the back of my throat. My heart was beating so fast I thought it was going to burst through my chest. What could be so important at half past two in the morning?

A delivery van was parked outside Liverpool Street station, with the driver dumping newspaper bundles onto the pavement. First editions ready for early-morning commuters. A vendor was slitting one of them open, and I glanced down at the headline. That's when I felt my legs turning to water. "Sea Inferno. North Sea Oil Rig Disaster." There was a blurry black-and-white photo of an incandescent ball of light, like one of those night-vision photos showing how accurate American bombing was during the Iraq War. The oil platform was like a stricken skeleton.

I picked up the first edition, throwing down a two-pound coin. "Here mate, your change," the vendor called after me as my eyes drank in the newspaper report: "A biblical pillar of fire rising a thousand feet above sea level, and the only evidence there was even an oil rig at its heart was a vague dark shadow ... over fifty million metres of standard cubic feet of gas, enough to power millions of Britain's homes, exploded beneath the Dutch Marquez ... eyewitnesses said it was like seeing the birth of a star." I dropped the newspaper in a bin. My teeth were grinding away and my chest was hammering like a fucked clock while I comprehended what had just happened. This was serious.

The Dutch Marquez was one of ours.

I hailed a taxi, and it took me the few streets away to Berkshire RE. The developers had called it 30 St. Mary's Axe, but to everybody else it was known as the Gherkin, a phallic symbol of London's pre-eminence in the financial world. I walked through the airport-style security and submitted to a light frisking. Satisfied, the guard stepped back. Seconds later, I was hurtling upwards at stomach-lurching speed before the lift suddenly decelerated. There was a slight moment of weightlessness as my legs bent and the lift doors opened onto the thirty-ninth floor.

Pressing my plastic access card against the reader, I pushed my way into our space-age reception area. With its red Op Art couches and Apple computers, it looked like the set of a sixties’ Czech science-fiction movie. The design brief had been to say that we weren't some boring insurance company like everybody else. The irony was that, out of sight, Berkshire RE was just another office with beige computers and cubicle partitions. Still, the impact was undeniable. Office space like this, right beside the Lloyd's building in the heart of the City of London, did not come cheap.

You could smell the fear as I walked in to the boardroom.

Brian Sibley, our finance director, was standing beside the floor-to-ceiling window that looked down over the panoply of the City at night. Nigel Rosenthal, the company secretary and head of business affairs, was sitting at the board table. "Sorry to drag you out of bed at such short notice," said Sibley, turning from the window. Our accountant was so grey that he had only the faintest elephant's breath of personality. "You'd better sit down. We've had some bad news. Nigel, please could you explain?"

I had always thought of Rosenthal as a cold fish. He had disliked me since his protégé had been passed over for my job, the son also rises and all that. "I don't know if you've heard the news," Rosenthal said. I shook my head, deciding to play dumb. "But late last night a fire broke out on the Dutch Marquez oil platform in the North Sea. The platform was on our books. We don't know yet how many men have been rescued or died, but reports say that the rig has gone. There's nothing left. The entire platform melted down in the inferno."

My brain was fizzing. Would they notice the state I was in? "My God, what a disaster. Do you know what kind of loss we’re looking at? Have you come up with a figure yet? Who's insuring it with us?"

I realised I was gabbling, and I told myself to shut up.

In hindsight, I want to look back and laugh. Even then, buoyed by the shit coursing through my system, I was not unduly worried. Reinsurance has also been compared to a tree: by the time the risk has spread down through the roots, there is hardly any exposure left. Sure, we would face a loss, but that loss would be shared with other reinsurers. Sibley cleared his throat. "Here's the thing. Sir Ronald overruled me and insisted we cover the risk ourselves and not bring in any other reinsurers. He said we needed the premium."

Only now was the enormity of what had happened beginning to sink in. I felt myself going into shock, and my arms started shaking uncontrollably. This couldn't be happening, could it? "Jesus," I said finally. "What are we on the hook for?"

"Right now, Berkshire RE is staring at a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars," Rosenthal drawled. "For those of you old enough to remember, Piper Alpha cost the market nearly four billion."

"We don't have enough money in the kitty right now to pay out on the entire loss," Sibley added. "Our current account is a muddy hole in the ground."

"What do you mean there's not enough money?"

The idea that there was not enough cash in the bank had never occurred to me. There was always more money. True, we'd had a run of claims – Hurricane Nora had not helped – and had to go out to our investors cap in hand, asking them to make good the shortfall. You see, unlike bigger reinsurance syndicates, Berkshire RE was funded entirely by private individuals. Back in the early nineties, Lloyd's had nearly collapsed when asbestos claims wiped out many private investors. Since then, Lloyd's had reformed, with insurance companies taking the risk. There was still room, though, for private investors – known as "Names" – although the concept of unlimited liability – basically being on the hook for everything you owned – had almost been phased out completely. We were one of the last to do it: the market allowed colourful Sir Ronnie Cox a bit of leeway. Our investors still had to show they had half a million pounds in the bank in liquid wealth, and they were liable for up to a million pounds each if things went bad. What it meant, though, was that our syndicate had been pushed out by bigger syndicates, the ones that covered the safer bets. Berkshire RE was one of the smallest syndicates in the market. Which was why we had to keep extending into ever riskier areas of coverage. I wonder how many of our investors realised that Berkshire RE had become the dumping ground for risks the big boys didn't want.

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