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Authors: Tim Lees

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BOOK: The God Hunter
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CHAPTER 5

IN THE STONE AGE

S
ix years later, I was standing in my ex-­wife's garden, soaking wet.

She asked me, “Where's my frog?”

“Your what?”

“My frog! Is he all right?”

I shook myself, and something like a chilled pearl slithered down my neck.

“You haven't asked how I am yet.”

“You,” she said, “can take care of yourself,” and she turned from me to peer into the scummy water.

Country life suited her. She'd put on a few pounds, it's true, and she dressed plainly now, in jeans and sweaters, while her hair—­no longer dyed—­was clipped up in a practical way; but her skin was clear, her movements calm. So different from the women I saw in London every day, rushing from the tube to shops and offices and back again. So different from the way she'd been when we were married.

“I'm wet,” I said, redundantly.

Then I bent, too.

A little reservoir of water tucked up in my pants broke suddenly and trickled down my leg. I wriggled, pulling at the fabric like a child.

“So what's he like, then?”

“Who?”

“Your frog.”

“Big mouth. Long legs. Like a frog, you know?”

“You'd recognize him if you saw him?”

“Course I would.”

“ 'Cause I think he's over here.”

Only the eyes were visible, two little studs tacked on the water-­top, the body just a shadow under them. Which made him, I suppose, a bit wetter than I was. Although not by much.

My life had changed since Budapest. I'd cut back on the fieldwork, for a start. I couldn't face it anymore. It wasn't that my nerve had gone, exactly, but it was close. I'd seen it happening with other guys over the years. They'd get so they were literally waiting for their own mistakes, wondering when they'd make that fatal bad move, that one, disastrous hesitation. Knowing it would happen. Not now, perhaps. Not this time. Not today, most likely not tomorrow. But next week, next year . . . Sometime soon.

And maybe Shailer was to blame. Maybe. Except a good op checks before he throws the switch. He doesn't let some jumped-­up kid make all the final preps.

So I'd changed roles. Talked about
career moves
and
professional development
. Made out I'd got a plan, when all I'd really got was fear and sleepless nights.

I'd done office work, admin work. Run training courses. Helped write reports and policies and put proposals to committees full of CEOs and government officials, ­people whose names would vanish from my head almost the moment that I left the room. Even now, I was working—­officially—­signed in at the Sixteenth International Energy Symposium: Initiative and Innovation in a Global Economic Hegemony (rule of thumb: the longer the title, the more prestigious they assume it sounds). That was in Oxford. By lunch, I'd had as much as I could take. It was worth the half-­hour drive to Moira's place just to get away from all the buzzwords, the eco-­babble, the frantic networking, the press and jostle of a hundred third-­rate academics hoping to be talent-­spotted for TV. My new role might have been safer, but it wasn't always one that I enjoyed.

I don't see Moira often, and like she says, it's almost always when it suits me, never her. So I'd felt vaguely guilty, turning up out of the blue like that. Guilty enough to want to make amends.

“Got any jobs?” I'd said. “Anything needs doing? While I'm here?”

She'd um'd and ah'd, then handed me a little plastic scoop, like a child's seaside spade.

“Pond needs clearing.”

“Right.”

And off I went.

It was an easy job: skim the water, flick the muck—­done in minutes, really, with just a few small rafts of algae, floating in the middle of the pool. “Leave them,” she'd said. But I was in full swing by then, and macho as they come. “Leave 'em and they'll grow,” I'd said and leaned out, perching on the water's edge, heedless how I'd slopped the muck around, heedless of the recent rains, the wet grass. I stretched. I reached . . .

The bank just slid away.

I'd gone in sideways, cartwheeling my arms. Couldn't help it. Muck and sludge and goo all whirling up around me.

Not a foot deep. Still, enough to ruin shirt, pants, and a brand-­new twenty-­five-­quid haircut.

I felt water squelching in my boots, like they'd just been dredged up with the freight from the
Titanic
. My nose was running. My handkerchief was just a sodden, dirty rag.

“I'm stinking like a toilet here,” I said.

“You're stinking like a pond.”

“Same difference.”

As she led me back towards the house, she cast a look over her shoulder. “You know where the bathroom is. Just leave your clothes outside.”

“You're laughing at me.”

“Not a bit. No. Not me. Well . . . Just 'cause it's funny, I suppose, that's all.” She grinned, made to hug me, then thought better of it. “Take your shoes and socks off outside.
Out
-­side, right?”

I sighed, a token protest. Then did as I was told.

I
sat, wrapped in Moira's toweling robe, drinking Fairtrade coffee at the kitchen table, the washer humming with the promise of some clean clothes in an hour or two. It was a lovely kitchen, with a big, warm AGA and jars full of strange, edible items; a proper country kitchen, so different from my scruffy London cupboard.

“Got a biscuit?”

“I don't buy that stuff now. You know I don't.”

“Bread . . . ?”

She gave me a banana. “I'm wheat intolerant. I told you.”

“Did you?”

“Last time you were here!”

I searched my memory, drew a blank.

“That's like . . . an allergy, yeah?”


Intolerance,
not allergy. You are, too, I 'spect. Most ­people are, they just don't realize it.”

“Ah. Right.”

And this, I suppose, was where it always started going wrong between us. She'd told me I was selfish, lazy in relationships, and maybe she was right. I held a lot of blame for why we'd split up, all those years ago.

Moira, though—­Moira was a crank.

Crank diets, crank therapy, crank science—­whole shelves filled with self-­help books, schemes to help you sleep or eat or just to cheer you up, formulae she'd share with evangelical enthusiasm, and though I listened with a good pretense of interest, inside I'd find myself just switching off, no matter how polite I tried to be. And we'd part company, in more ways than one.

“You're in a Stone Age body, right?
Old
Stone Age. Human evolution's slow. But what we eat—­that's changed at a colossal speed. As soon as they invented farming –”

I sipped my coffee. Checked my watch.

“Our diet's mostly grains now. But we can't process them. We've still got Stone Age bodies. Physically, we're hunter-­gatherers. Raw veg, fruit, nuts. A bit of meat. That's our natural diet. See?”

“Um.”

“You know how you feel tired after eating?”

I'm not tired,
I thought.
I'm hungry. It's not the same
.

I don't believe in premonitions. You only see them looking back, once the mind's had chance to make up shapes and patterns, and give form to random data. And yet now, in retrospect, it seems those days were full of omens, all trying to tell me something, circling me like softly-­whispered threats.

The past, come back to haunt us. The ancient, Stone Age past.

I should have paid her more attention, I suppose. From anybody else, I might have taken it and realized a basic truth: we can't outrun the past.

We can't even outrun the present.

Sometimes, though, we can make it smell a little sweeter.

My clothes came out scented with lemon and vanilla. Nice. Better than pond water, at any rate.

“Best wishes to your frog.”

She kissed me on the cheek. It was a good try, but I still didn't turn into a prince.

“Take care,” she said. “You worry me.”

“I worry me, as well.”

And then I got into my car and drove away.

I
t's lovely country there. I drove back slowly, half my mind still snagged on the past: the Stone Age past, the past of elephants and hippopotami along the Thames, of standing stones and deer hunts and druidic rituals; the past of marriages and crazy jobs and many other things that started off in great hopes and then boiled down to something else entirely.

Back in the conference hall, a man in a flamboyant yellow suit announced that we were “facing challenges mankind has never seen before, but facing them with courage, hope, and, best of all—­with all the deep resources of our human ingenuity.”

He had a great gimmick: his firm had found a fuel source in old diapers and what he carefully called “animal by-­products.” The process was effective, but the stink from their plant brought so much flack they'd twice had to move premises.

Later, I met a man who'd built a car that ran on chocolate.

He showed it to me on his phone, a little, lightweight buggy whizzing round in circles on a bar of Dairy Milk.

“Incredible,” I said. “Incredible, amazing. Thrilling. Astonishing.”

Then I went home.

It bothered me a little, seeing Moira. It always did. Part of my own, personal past I couldn't get a handle on, a part that should have meant so much and somehow didn't, yet which I'd never really left behind. It would have been much easier to say that we were friends, except it wasn't that; we irritated one another, got on one another's nerves, got angry with each other —­and still kept meeting up.

If it was friendship, it was the kind of friendship linked by mutual experience, a bond of history as much as anything. We had become like some old married ­couple, creatures of habit, comfortable in repetition, the difference being that we'd long since bailed out of the marriage.

 

CHAPTER 6

SEDDON

“E
xpenses forms?”

Derek didn't answer me, just rolled the words around his prim, pink mouth, stretching the syllables exquisitely: “Ex-­
pen
-­ses forms . . .”

“That's what I said.”

I jerked open another drawer, flicking through the papers.

Nothing.

“Seddon wants to see you.”

“He can wait.”

“My, my. I'll tell him, shall I?”

“Do.”

“He's got you for some secret mission. Very hush-­hush. Don't know the details.”

I slammed the drawer shut, moved on to the next.

“What you're looking for,” he said at last. “They're not there.”

“Where are they, then?”

“Oh . . .”

I said, “They've changed the system again, haven't they?”

“Three weeks back. You got an e-­mail.”

“I didn't.”

“You got it, you just didn't read it, that's all. Not the same.”

“This is ridiculous—­”

Derek pulled a haughty little moue, then made a show of clipping up his papers. He looked like an efficient vicar. “You got an e-­mail,” he repeated. “It was ‘all staff.' You couldn't not have got it.”

“I get a million e-­mails. It's all ­people I've never heard of, telling me not to contact them 'cause they're on leave. How am I supposed to know which one's important? Jesus—­”

“ ‘I'm too old, I can't adapt, I want to die.' ”

“I don't want to die. I want to put in my expenses claim like anybody else, that's all.”

“I'll let Seddon know you're here, shall I?”

“Not till I've filed my expenses claim.”

“And what would it be this time, then? Hm? Plane fare to Bangkok? Romantic night for two? More if you could manage it? Uh-­hm?”

“Conference in Oxford.”

“Oh. Right.” He was silent for a moment. “Quickie with the missus, then. I see.”

“Anything but, if you must know. And I haven't had a quickie with the missus, as you so delicately put it, since we split up, ten years back.”

“Oh. Oh dear. Tetchy, eh? Well, that explains it.” He gestured with his ballpoint. “They're online, by the way. Expenses forms. You need to download the page for the day you're claiming, right? Click Search and type
expenses,
hm?”

I did.

Derek said, “The clever plan is, you can send them off, it's instantaneous, no waiting for the post, and everything gets sorted out immediately. Good, eh?”

I grunted that it was.

“But you don't want to do that. That's my advice. You send it off online, you get a message asking for receipts, which have to be stapled to the claim form. So essentially you have to print the page, then clip it to your paperwork and put it in the post, same as before. You're really telling me you've not done this, in three whole weeks?”

“I don't get out much.”

“Still. You want to put expenses in. They'll take it off you fast enough in other ways.” He nodded, word to the wise. “Claim while you can. That's my motto.”

“Which date is it?”

“Which date is what?”

“I'm meant to claim on? Today's date, or the date it happened?”

“Oh, well.” He sat back, drummed his pen against the tape dispenser. “Can't help you there. Sorry. Wouldn't want to make it too easy. You've had your clues. Now: what do
you
think? That's the big test, isn't it? Your starter for ten.” He rolled up his sleeve, looked at his watch. “Go on. I'm timing you . . .”

The Registry's UK HQ is unmarked and unlisted. It occupies an office block in Greenwich, south of the river, masquerading as the Pollins-­Read Association, plc, which of course does not exist, except on paper, and in the lists of Companies House. So far, so cloak-­and-­dagger. What went on inside was pretty much as James Bond as an insurance office.

Seddon called me in at 12:15, just as I was gearing up for lunch.

He's old school, terribly polite; stood up and came out from behind his desk to shake my hand. White hair, feathery and cowlicked, like a cockatoo. The handshake, though, was brutal, unexpected in this gangly string bean of a man. It took a lot of ­people by surprise.

“Copeland. Chris,” he beamed at me.

I sat. He sat. He asked me how things were. I told him things were fine and dandy, thank you very much. He clasped his hands upon the desk in front of him. Steepled his index fingers. Said, “I'm told that you're an old Hungary op.”

He looked at me, eyes blue and quizzical under the thick white tufts of brow.

I had expected many things. This wasn't one of them.

“That was . . . a few years back. I was there, oh, three times. About a week, each trip.”

“Really . . . ?” He frowned. His fingers meshed, his two hands squeezed into a ball. “Assume you've got some expertise, then? Language? Contacts? Things like that?”

“Well, I can order beer. If the waiter speaks English.”

He watched me, hands clutched on the desk in front of him.

I said, “What's this about?”

“Ah. Now then.” His fingers opened, moved across the slick oak surface. “Adam Shailer? The name familiar? He's off to Hungary in a week or two. Requests your company, apparently.”

Seddon raised one bright white eyebrow. He had very pale, very innocent blue eyes, but there was precious little innocence behind them, I knew that.

“Well,” I told him, “I'm surprised,” because I was.

“Really?”

“Um . . . really. Yeah.”

He had a scent, though, and he wasn't going to let me off. It was one of Seddon's little tricks: he'd called me in on the pretense of telling me something, when it was he who wanted answers. A technique that he'd perfected through a long and very prosperous career.

I said, “You've looked this up, I'm sure. Last time in Hungary, Shailer was a trainee. They put him down as my assistant.”

“Hm. Well. Roles reversed, these days, no doubt.”

“I don't see why he wants me. We're not, you know, in contact.”

“No. And if I knew, of course, I'd tell you. I presume he's got his reasons. Tell me”—­the index fingers steepled once again—­“what happened there? When you were with him last? Eh?”

“You've read it. That's what happened.”

“Yes, yes. Only I'd like to hear it . . . from the horse's mouth, let's say. Hm?”

I shrugged, sat back. “Not much to tell. I wrote what happened. It's a long time back. There was a bit of trouble—­malfunction. We sorted it, the job went fine. It was a good haul.”

“Not as good as was expected, though. There was a shortfall. Also, I notice from the file that Shailer came home early. Any reason?”

“I don't know. Probably a prior appointment.”

“Well, that would be one explanation, anyway. And you stayed on.”

I nodded. No point fuddling the facts.

“A difficult one, though? I know you ops. You have a problem, you talk about it ever after, analyze and gossip, and you never let it drop. So. Difficult?”

I said, “There was . . . oh, a problem with a cable. Cracked core. I moved it, got the current flowing, finished off the job. After, I replaced it. Nothing much to talk about.”

“Resourceful. So that must be why Shailer's picked you.”

“Well. I wouldn't know.”

Seddon said one last thing, just before he let me go. “I knew a fellow worked for Shailer once. Bright chap, nice enough. They had a falling out—­don't know the details, what it was about, who was responsible.” He was watching me now, scrutinizing every twitch and nuance on my face. “Drives a cab, these days. I'd imagine it's a decent wage. But he isn't with the Registry.”

“Ah.”

“Just so you know.”

Ten minutes later I was sitting at my desk, trying, for the third time, to make out my expenses claim.

Hungary,
I thought.

And:
Shailer
.

Then I swore and smacked the tabletop.

Derek, pattering away at his keyboard, gave me a nasty little sideways smirk.

No wonder I preferred to work alone.

BOOK: The God Hunter
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