The Machines of Power
The corridors of power lay silent. The memories of a thousand decisions sat dormant in the dusty air, waiting to be joined by a thousand more.
All was still.
Rumbling through the quiet like distant thunder, a noise began to fill the air. As it grew, so did two accompanying voices.
‘No, no no!’ came the first.
‘Duck!’ came the second. With sickening rapidity, the noise increased in volume, paused for the tiniest of seconds and then erupted into a booming explosion that echoed down the corridors.
Silence followed, but this was quickly broken once again, this time by footsteps. They were purposeful footsteps and there were two pairs of them, one clearly attempting to keep up with the other. Suddenly, a nondescript side door burst open and two figures emerged through it, disgorging into the once pristine corridor a cloud of acrid smoke, dust and debris.
‘I told you not to push it that high!’ said the first figure irritably. ‘You knew the wiring was dodgy.’
‘I’m sorry,’ squeaked the second figure, as he trotted dutifully aside his annoyed colleague. ‘I knew we had problems but I didn’t think it was this bad.’
‘Well it just got a whole lot bloody worse, didn’t it?’ shouted the first figure. ‘I’ll tell you this for nothing; I ain’t paying for that load of shoddy slapdash. Outsourcing my arse!’
‘I’m sorry…’ repeated the downtrodden second figure. “They came with such glowing references.”
‘Hah! I’ll give them a glowing reference, right where the sun don’t shine!’ The first figure was so wrapped up in his haranguing of his colleague that he walked right past his intended destination: a small end table with a telephone and a lamp sat atop it. He grunted in annoyance and stomped back to the table, almost knocking his counterpart over in the process.
‘What are you doing?’ asked the second figure.
‘Calling someone who can help us out of this mess,’ said the first figure, gruffly.
‘But you can’t just call anyone in on this! There’s security to consider.’
‘Don’t panic, I trust him.’
‘But who is he?’
* * *
‘No, no, no!’
‘It still won’t start, Jim.’ James Caplan stood out from under the bonnet of the car that he was working on to face his colleague.
‘I can see that, Captain Obvious,’ he said irritably. ‘What does the diagnostic say now?’
‘That the car still won’t start.’ James sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. I know he means well, he thought, but honestly, a nodding bloody dog would be more useful right now.
‘Jim! Telephone!’ called another garage worker from the opposite end of the bay. Throwing his spanner into the nearby toolbox, James made his way to the office. As he passed the battered old radio that sat by his office door he overheard a snippet of a news item.
‘…and in other news,’ came the tinny voice of the newsreader. ‘The Deputy Prime Minister gave a press conference today stating that he is overseeing matters while the Prime Minister is away on holiday.’ James tutted to himself and rolled his eyes as he entered his office.
‘Bloody puppets, the lot of ‘em,’ he said, half to himself and half to his colleague who was holding out the phone receiver towards him. James sat down heavily in his chair before being handed the receiver.
‘Caplan Motors?’ he said, as professionally as he could manage.
‘Jimmy, my boy!’ came the voice at the other end of the telephone. James froze and in an instant he was catapulted back through the years to his childhood. No one called him Jimmy, no one except…
‘…Uncle Juniper?’ he said, tentatively.
‘Sharp as a tack as always,’ came the voice. ‘I always said you were the clever one.’
‘So, how’s my favourite nephew? Blimey, how long has it been?’
‘Um…thirty years or so,’ said James, shakily. James’ colleague who had handed him the phone was giving him a questioning look but James shooed him out of the office with a wave of his hand. Once the office door was closed James turned his seat around so that those in the garage could not see his face.
‘Really, thirty years?’ said the apparent uncle Juniper. ‘Lordy, how time does fly.’
‘Erm…yeah,’ said James, who was at a loss for words.
‘So, how’s the family?’ James frowned at this question.
‘How do you know I’m even married? We’ve not seen each for three decades!’
‘Oh, I like to keep tabs on things, you know.’
‘No, I don’t know,’ said James, feeling somewhat bolder. ‘How do I know you’re even who you say you are? How do I know this isn’t some kind of con?’
‘Jimmy, I wouldn’t dream of such a thing. It’s me for sure, large as life.’
‘But that’s just the point,’ said James, feeling as if he were nearing some kind of conversational victory with whoever it was on the other end of the phone. ‘Juniper Caplan died when I was a kid!’
‘Oh no Jimmy, I’m very much alive.’
‘I went to your funeral’” shouted James. This sudden rise in volume got another few questioning looks from some of James’ employees but he was too wrapped up in the bizarre conversation that he had been plunged into to notice.
‘That was nice of you,’ said the man claiming to be James’ supposedly dead uncle. ‘Because I didn’t.’ Silence hung in the air for a moment or two while James attempted to process what he had just been told. Quickly the confusion turned to anger.
‘Now you listen to me, whoever you are. Whatever it is you’re selling, I’m not buying do you hear me? And I’ve a good mind to report you for harassment. Pretending to be my dead uncle; that’s just sick!’
‘Fair’s fair Jimmy. I guess it has been a while, hasn’t it? You’ve no reason to trust me, I suppose. Tell me this though.’
‘How long did you play with that green and red lorry that I bought you that one Christmas before you broke it?’ James was stunned. His grip on the receiver loosened and it nearly fell from his hand.
‘What…what did you say?’ asked James unsteadily.
‘Didn’t manage a day, did you?’ said Juniper smugly. ‘Played with it too rough, like your dear old Mum warned you against, and smashed the thing behind your Dad’s shed.’ James sat aghast. He had never told anyone about that lorry before, mostly because he had completely forgotten all about it, but this man, his supposed uncle, had all the details, which was troubling. Not for the first time in the conversation, James frowned in confusion.
‘How do you even know about that?’ he asked, genuinely bemused. ‘No one ever found out about that because I…’
‘Tossed it in the bin before you could get caught, didn’t you? You naughty little boy.’ Juniper chuckled merrily down the phone, confusing James even further.
‘Like I said, Jimmy. I like to keep tabs on things.’
‘What, even my family’s rubbish bins? Juniper chuckled again.
‘The point is do you believe me now?’
‘Well…’ began James. He desperately wanted to be wrong about this, because it felt so strange, and he felt like he was being played for a fool. However, his uncle Juniper had bought him a green and red lorry one Christmas when James was a boy. He had been warned by his mother not to play with it too roughly in case he broke it. He had taken it into the garden on Christmas morning to play with it in the frozen dirt behind his father’s shed. He also had broken it and thrown away the evidence, fearful that he would get into trouble if anyone ever found out.
So how did this man know about it all?
‘Look, I can tell this is a lot to take in,’ said Juniper reasonably. ‘I understand it’s not rightly fair of me dropping out of the clear blue like this after so long. The truth is, Jimmy, I need your help.’
‘Yep. But first, I need to look you in the eye. Never do business with a man if I can’t look him square in the eye. That’s what got me where I am today.’
‘I…don’t understand,’ said James, feeling that truer words were never spoken.
‘You will. I’ll be in touch. Good talking to you again, Jimmy.’ As quickly as it came, the phone call was over. James sat dumbfounded until the dial tone of his telephone told him to replace the receiver. He sat there for a moment, thinking about the conversation that he had just had and what it could possibly mean. He was brought out of his pondering by a knock at the door.
‘Everything okay, Jim?’ asked one of his employees.
‘Hmm? Oh yes, fine, fine.’ James did not want to tell anyone about what had just happened, not until he understood it himself. If he ever did.
‘Only it’s closing time. Last car’s gone. Are we okay to lock up?’
‘Oh yes, yes, that’s fine.’ James could hear himself talking but he was not engaging with the conversation at all. His mind was still feebly grappling with the possibility that his uncle was still alive and may have even faked his own death.
‘See you tomorrow then, Jim,’ said the employee.
‘Hmm,’ said James wordlessly in affirmation. Snapping back to reality, James looked quickly at his desk calendar and called after the employee who was closing the door to the office. ‘No, wait. I’m not in tomorrow. It’s my birthday.’
‘Oh, well happy birthday for tomorrow then,’ smiled the employee.
‘Thanks,’ said James, as he prepared to go home for the evening.
Well, he thought, as he got into his car, I’ve had less strange birthday presents and that’s for sure. Turning the key in the ignition, James was about to pull out of his parking space when something caught his eye. Something small and white had been placed under one of the windscreen wipers of his car. He tutted in immediate annoyance, thinking it was some advert someone had seen fit to leave there. James got out of the car and snatched the small, rectangular card from under the wiper and was about to throw it away when it got his full attention. It did not appear to be advertising anything, at least not anything James had ever come across before. On one side of the card was some kind of logo: a depiction of a large human eye. This eye, though, had an image of the British Isles where the pupil and iris would normally be. Wondering what it could be, James turned the card over and almost fell backwards when he saw what was written on the other side. It said, as clear as day: See you tomorrow, Jimmy. Looking frantically about him, James scanned the immediate area to see if he could spot anyone suspicious walking away. He quickly got down on his hands and knees and checked under his car; for what he was not sure. Standing up, he walked a quick circuit of the car park looking for anything out of the ordinary, but all was normal.
Normal, except for the card.
James turned the small card over and over in his hand, looking at it in puzzlement. There was no phone number, no web or e-mail address, no means of contact that he could see. James’ eyes fell upon the very lockable and locked wrought iron gates that kept Caplan Motors’ private car park private and a sudden thought sent a sliver of ice snaking down into his stomach.
How the hell had they gotten in?
In an instant James’ hand dived into his trouser pocket and he was unlocking his mobile phone ready to call the police before he stopped himself. If he did call the police what would he say? That he had received a phone call from an uncle he’d presumed dead for the last thirty years, either that or a very well-informed con artist? Not to mention that someone somehow had gotten this card under his windscreen wiper in a locked private car park that was meant to be damn near impossible to break into, or at least so the security salesman had said. James looked around the car park again for any sign of forced entry but he could see none. The gates remained locked, the surrounding walls were too high to climb, plus they were topped with metal security spikes. The break-in that Caplan Motors had suffered a few years back had resulted in James beefing up the company’s security. He had even paid to have CCTV cameras installed...
James spun on his heel and ran back into the building, almost colliding with an employee who was about to leave.
‘Forget something, Jim?’ he asked. James grunted something in reply as he barrelled past the man and headed straight for his office. He fumbled with his keys and swore under his breath as he irritably tried to unlock his office door. Taking a steadying breath, he managed to slam the key home and as soon as the door was unlocked James swooped on the four small monitors that were stacked two by two on a small table in the corner of his office. He quickly surveyed them to see if anything was amiss but just as it had looked standing in the car park everything was normal. He pulled his chair from beside his desk and sat down in front of the monitors, frowning with concentration.
How do I do this again?
James cursed his lack of computer skills and a fleeting memory sent him back to when he had ordered this CCTV system. The installer had tried to explain how to use it and James had nodded mutely throughout, hoping against hope that he remembered any of it. Now, faced with an actual need to use the damn thing he wished he had taken notes. He started at the screen that showed the car park and dimly recalled something about being able to rewind through the day’s footage.
James drummed his fingers impatiently on the table and blinked at the security monitor, wishing he was better with computers. Cars? No problem. Machines of that ilk were easy; they spoke to him, but computers…
Slapping himself on the forehead, James remembered what he needed to do. The face of the installer swam into focus in his mind’s eye and he remembered being told that the monitors were for watching what was happening but if you wanted to watch footage from earlier in the day you had to go on your computer. James spun around in his chair and scooted himself towards his desk. He jabbed an impatient finger at the computer’s power button and resumed drumming his fingers as he waited for the machine to whirr into life. As soon as the login screen popped into view he grabbed the mouse and clicked his account icon, noting how old his user picture was. Once in his desktop he scanned the icons listed down the left-hand side of the screen and there it was. The shortcut icon for the CCTV package that James had been promised would deliver peace of mind and heightened security.
Peace of mind.
He would give a piece of his mind to whoever had found a way into his company’s car park.
Cheeky beggars, he thought grimly.
James double-clicked the icon for the CCTV software and watched in irritation as a splash screen emerged on his monitor.
Finally the program was open and James began searching the menu for how to replay recorded footage. After a few moments and a couple of wrong turns, each accompanied by some swearing on James’ part, he found the correct function. He brought up the camera feed for the car park and began to spool through the day’s footage. He knew that the small card had not been on his car when he had left the house that morning. It had also not been there when he pulled into work. With eerie timing it seemed to have been put there after he had spoken to the man claiming to be his uncle Juniper. It could not be just a coincidence, not something that closely linked.
James continued to trawl through the day’s footage of the car park but he could not see anything out of the ordinary. As he gazed fixedly at the computer monitor the picture suddenly turned to static. James blinked in surprise and quickly backtracked, wondering if he had definitely seen what he thought he had seen.
The picture had turned to static for a moment or two, resuming as if nothing had happened as quickly as it had arrived. James studied the static a few more times, growing more confused with each viewing. More details from his conversations with the people at the CCTV company were coming back to him now. One of the selling points of this system, he was told, was that the cameras would record continuously and only a loss of power to the building they were installed in would cause any camera to lose picture. James quickly checked the feed on the other cameras for the same timeframe and his growing sense of unease was ratcheted up a notch when he saw that all of the other cameras had remained on during the time that the car park camera went off.
What the hell is going on?
A thought struck James at that moment. He had surmised that the card must have been placed on his car after his conversation with the alleged Juniper Caplan. He quickly reached for his office phone and punched in the numbers to find out the time of the last call. He pulled a pad and pencil towards him as the robotic voice on the other end of the line droned the time when Juniper, if that is who it was, had phoned. James had not even finished writing down the time before he knew that the time of the call and the time of the camera going offline happened right after each other. James finished writing and he hung up the phone. He sat back in his chair and stared at nothing for a few moments. He tapped the end of the pencil against his chin thoughtfully as he mulled over all of the possible explanations for what was going on. None of them felt right. None of them felt feasible.
James reached into his trouser pocket and took out the small card. He stared at it with a furrowed brow, as if willing it to explain itself. He turned it over in his fingers a couple of times as he weighed up his options. James Caplan prided himself on being a reasonably practical man but this situation had him truly stumped. He let out a long breath as the creeping realisation that there really was nothing that he could do began to wash over him. His fist closed around the card as he came to a mental conclusion.
‘Sod it,’ he said, screwing up the card in his hand and throwing it dismissively into his waste paper basket. He closed down the CCTV program and shut off his computer. Taking one final glance at the security monitors he reasoned that if there was nothing he could then there was no point sitting in his office after hours like a lemon fretting over it. If this chap calling himself my uncle plans to get in touch, thought James as he turned off the light in his office, I’ll be damned sure to get some proper answers out of him then. James locked up the garage, triple-checked everything and got into his car to drive home. He hoped that his birthday would push this strange experience out of his mind.
* * *
‘Well?’ said an urgent voice.
‘Keep your hair on. I’ve spoken to him,’ said a much calmer voice.
‘And I’ll be seeing him tomorrow.’
‘Is he going to help us then?’ The first voice had more than a tinge of desperation to it. ‘Because this can’t wait much longer.’
‘Simmer down, will you? I said I’d handle it and I am.’
‘Look Grapeshot, I can’t just drop it all on him at once, can I? I mean, bloody hell, I’ve not seen the lad in person for thirty flipping years!’
‘I know, but…’
‘Trust me; I know what I’m doing. It’s his birthday tomorrow so I’ll go and see him at his local. He’s always in there come his birthday. I’ll start the ball rolling proper like then.’
‘Okay, good,’ said Grapeshot, wringing his hands nervously. He attempted to smile but it came out more like a grimace. Juniper patted him on the shoulder.
‘We’ll get ‘em back up and running,’ he said, comfortingly. ‘You’ll see.’
* * *
James’ birthday did indeed find him in his local pub in the evening. He had spent a nice day off work with his wife Kathryn and daughter Lucy and now he was ordering the first of what he planned to be a few well-deserved birthday pints. He had managed to not think about the odd events of the previous day too much, but the thoughts concerning it were never very far away. Occasionally he found himself thinking about the phone call, the card, the CCTV footage, or all of them, but he was not about to mention any of this to Kathryn. He knew that he would get one of her looks and be told that he was being silly. As nothing else strange had happened since he left the garage the night before James was starting to hope that the phone call and card were someone’s idea of a joke and the CCTV footage was just a glitch in the system. With this somewhat comforting thought he greeted the landlord of The Tap and Barrel.
‘Evening, Bob,’ he said cheerily.
‘Evening, Jim,’ replied the landlord. ‘And many happy returns of the day.’ Bob placed a freshly pulled pint of James’ favourite ale in front of him and flashed him a warm smile.
‘Cheers,’ said James, sounding pleasantly surprised. ‘You didn’t have to.’
‘I didn’t,’ said Bob, frowning ever so slightly. ‘Your mate got a round in just before you arrived. Took his drink and said to pour you one as soon as you arrived.’
‘My mate?’ said James, puzzled. He was sure that he would see some of his friends at the pub that night but he had made no specific plans to meet anyone there. ‘Who do you mean?’
‘Short chap, said he was meeting you for a birthday drink.’ Bob cast his eyes around the bar room for a second before continuing. ‘There he is, in the corner.’ James followed Bob’s gaze and almost dropped his drink when he caught sight of the man the landlord was indicating.
There was no denying it: the man sitting in the corner was his uncle. He was clearly older than James remembered him but it was him. James’ mind was instantly thrown back to his childhood to when he had last properly interacted with his uncle. The small man in the corner looked up from his drink and inclined his head in a slight nod. James felt his throat go dry and with a trembling hand he took a sip of his drink, never taking his eyes off of the man who could only have been Juniper Caplan. James saw the little man indicate the empty seat next to him and raise his eyebrows questioningly. Feeling numb, as if his legs had turned to lead, James made his way over to the corner where the man was now smiling widely up at him.
‘Jimmy!’ he said as he patted the chair next to him. ‘Pull up a pew, my boy.’ James swallowed and sat down clumsily next to Juniper, putting his drink down on the dark wooden table. As soon as James was settled Juniper raised his own glass in a toast. ‘Happy birthday!’
‘Um…thank you,’ said James, tentatively. He picked his glass back up to receive the toast and Juniper clinked his drink boisterously against James’.
‘So, how the devil are you?’ said Juniper after he had taken a generous swig of his drink.
‘Confused,’ said James with flat honesty. Juniper let out a peal of raucous laughter that caused some of the nearby patrons to look around to see what the joke was. It was a knowing laugh: a laugh that suggested things, not all of them clean.
‘I’m sure you are,’ said Juniper once he had stopped laughing. ‘That’s why I’m here.’
‘What, to confuse me more?’ said James, frowning a little at his uncle.
Another bout of laughter shot through the bar room. For such a small man, James thought, his uncle certainly had a large laugh. He looked around. It sounded like he was telling Juniper the dirtiest of jokes. He felt his face grow a little hot with embarrassment.
‘No Jimmy, no,’ said Juniper, smiling. ‘I came here tonight to ask for your help. Come on, drink up. You’ll need a couple more jars in you before the night’s out, I’ll wager.’ James looked at his pint as if he was seeing it for the first time. He dutifully picked it up and took another gulp. He had been so sure yesterday that if he did come face to face with his supposed uncle that he would have a laundry list of questions to hurl at him. However, now he sat faced with the man himself he was at a loss for words. He knew there were questions in his mind; all of them jostling and colliding inside his head, but he could not seem to grab hold of one to speak it. Feeling very conscious of how little he was saying he took another drink. As he pulled the glass away from his lips he looked down into its foamy depths and a question raced forward to the very forefront of his brain, elbowing all other thoughts out of the way in its wake.
‘Hang on a minute,’ he said, looking at his drink, then at Juniper and then at his drink again. ‘How did you know this was my local? And how did you know what I drink?’ Juniper smiled broadly again.
‘Like I said to you yesterday, Jimmy, I like to keep tabs on things.’
‘Have you…have you been spying on me?’ The last three words James spoke were delivered in a hissing whisper, as if the idea of his uncle effectively stalking him was too terrible a thought to comprehend.
‘Not spying Jimmy, no,’ said Juniper in a somewhat more serious tone. ‘More like… keeping an eye on you.’
‘You are spying on me!’ James’ voice had risen along with his shock and anger at this thought and again patrons turned to look at the pair in the corner.
‘Keep your voice down!’ said Juniper in a far sterner tone than he had used so far. The old man looked about furtively before continuing. ‘Look, it’s not just you, okay?’
‘What do you mean it’s not just me?’ Juniper leaned forward in his chair and when he spoke it was almost in a whisper.
‘I mean that you’re not the only one who we keep tabs on.’
‘We?’ said James in puzzlement and surprise, his voice threatening to rise again. ‘What we? Who are you talking about? What the hell’s going on?’ Juniper looked about conspiratorially again as he waved his nephew into silence.
‘Will you keep your voice down?’ he hissed. ‘Look, a crowded pub’s as good as any place to talk but not if you’re going to keep flying off the handle like that.’
‘Well what do you expect me to do?’ asked James indignantly. ‘Take it all with a smile and a nod when I’m told that my uncle whom I thought was dead for the last three decades is actually alive and lurking in my sodding garden bushes!’ James was practically shouting now and Juniper stopped trying to hush him into silence when Bob the landlord ambled over with a concerned look on his face.
‘Everything alright, chaps?’ he said, looking from James to Juniper. Before James could answer Juniper cut in.
‘Oh yes, perfectly, my good man.’ He flashed a winning smile and pulled a crisp ten pound note out of an inner pocket. ‘Keep ‘em coming.’ Bob took the note and eyed Juniper with no small amount of suspicion.
‘Same again, Jim?’ James noticed Bob’s expression as he asked about another drink. It was checking to see if everything really was alright. For a moment James considered telling Bob, the whole bar, anyone who would listen that this crazy old man was stalking him and to get him out of his sight but there was now something in Juniper’s expression that gave him pause. The old man’s eyes were fixed on him and they had a determined glaze to them. Considering this man knew where James worked and which pub was his local it was a good chance that he knew where he lived. He probably knew where Kathryn worked, where Lucy went to school. The rampant possibilities danced in his mind, naked and fearful, and he reasoned that if he could just find out what this old man wanted then perhaps this could all be over sooner. If he caused a scene now and tried to walk away who knows how it could end. James shook himself free of some disturbing thoughts and decided that, for the time being, it was probably best to hear his uncle out.
‘Yes please Bob. Thanks.’ Satisfied that James could handle whatever was going on between the two men, Bob made his way back to the bar to pour them more drinks. When James looked back to Juniper he was smiling again.
‘Good boy, Jimmy. Can’t be too careful, eh?’ James frowned at his uncle and leaned in to address him.
‘What’s going on here, Juniper? Why are you here? Why now? Why make everyone think you were dead all those years ago?’ The two men sat up again as Bob returned with their drinks. They thanked the landlord and quickly resumed their conversation once Bob was safely out of earshot.
‘Had to disappear, Jimmy. Had to.’
‘You had to fake your own death?’
‘Duty?’ James’ overwhelming sense of confusion was not lifting and he was barely keeping a lid on his frustration with the man sat opposite him.
‘Yep. Sacrifices and all that. Didn’t want to do it, of course, but when you do what I do…’
‘What do you do?’ interrupted James.
‘All in good time, Jimmy. All in good time.’
‘No, I want some answers now! You show up out of the blue after thirty years of me thinking that you were dead. You phone me at work meaning that you know God knows what else about me. Then, after I speak to you I get a card from you under my windscreen wiper…which reminds me. How the bloody hell did you manage to get into our car park?’
‘We have our ways, Jimmy.’
‘Who’s this we? If what you’re doing is some kind of job then who do you work for? And why are you spying on me? And why do you need my help?’
‘You’re good at fixing things, aren’t you?’ asked Juniper, almost as if he had not listened to anything James had just said.
‘What? What’s that got to do with anything?’
‘Ah but you see,’ said Juniper, smiling again and taking another sip of his drink. ‘That has everything to do with it.’
‘What does? Look, you’d better start making sense or I’m leaving!’
‘Fair’s fair, Jimmy. Fair’s fair. But you are, aren’t you? You’re a dab hand at fixing pretty much anything, right?’
‘Well yes, I suppose so,’ said James, still unsure as to what this had to do with anything. The truth was, James Caplan was more than a dab hand at fixing things. Providing it was not a computer, which James swore were the invention of the Devil, he could fix just about anything given the right tools and enough time.
‘That’s why I need your help, Jimmy my boy. I need you to fix something for me.’
‘What, you mean like your car?’ Juniper chuckled.
‘No, no. It’s a little more complicated than that. Well, a lot more complicated if I’m being truthful.’
‘What is? What do you need fixing? And why me?’
‘Because I need someone I can trust. And if you can’t trust family then who can you, eh?’
‘I still don’t understand,’ said James, wondering what it was that could be so important as to bring his uncle out of supposed hiding after all these years and look his nephew up for his skill with machines.
‘I’ll wager you don’t,’ said Juniper sagely. ‘Look Jimmy, I’m real sorry for the whole cloak and dagger routine, but when this is all said and done you’ll understand why it had to be this way.’
‘Why what had to be this way? If you want my help so badly why can’t you tell me what’s going on?’
‘I can. And I will. All in good time.’ James opened his mouth to protest but Juniper held up a hand and continued. ‘I couldn’t tell you over the phone because I hadn’t looked you in the eye. Now I have I feel we can do business together. I can’t tell you anymore now though.’
‘Why not?’ asked James, desperate to make sense of any of what was going on.
‘Because you wouldn’t believe me.’
‘Trust me Jimmy, you wouldn’t. Answer me one thing though. Are you a man of your word?’
‘I…I like to think so, yes.’
‘’Course you are, you’re a Caplan! I just needed to hear you say it. So, as you’re a man of your word I need you to promise that you won’t tell anyone about what you’re going to do for me. Ever.’
‘Well wait a minute,’ said James, sitting back in his chair and looking curiously at his uncle. ‘How do you know that I’m going to help you? I haven’t said yes or anything yet.’
‘You will, Jimmy. You will.’ The smile on his uncle’s face was infuriating James. Why couldn’t he just come out and ask him without all of this beating about the bush? James Caplan was not a man to turn his back on family, even family who were supposed to be dead, but if he was going to help Juniper out he wanted to know what he was getting himself into.
As James was processing as much of what he had been told as he could Juniper drained the last drops of his drink and stood up.
‘Well, it’s been a pleasure, Jimmy my boy.’ He fished an envelope out his pocket and slid it across the table towards his nephew. ‘Here’s my offer. Don’t open it until you’re somewhere private, and I’d make sure you were sitting down when you do so. On the toilet would probably be best.’
‘But…’ began James.
‘I would say give my love to Kathryn and Lucy but of course they’ve never met me, have they?’
‘But…’ repeated James.
‘Trust me, Jimmy. I wouldn’t be bothering you with this if I didn’t need to, but I need someone with your skills and you’re the only man I want on a job this big. The letter will tell you all you need to know, for now.’
‘But…’ said James one last time, as he looked in complete bewilderment from his uncle to the envelope that now sat before him.
‘See you soon, Jimmy. I’ll be in touch.’ Juniper laid a hand on James’ shoulder, gave him one last smile and was gone. James sat in silence for a moment or two trying to take in everything that had just happened. His mouth had gone dry again so he took another sip of his pint. As he put the glass back down on the table he eyed the envelope that Juniper had given him with a heady mixture of curiosity and confusion. He drummed his fingers absentmindedly on the table for a second before a thought struck him. The answers he so desperately craved could be contained within the plain manila envelope. Wanting more than anything in that moment to make sense of what was going on, James picked up the envelope and was about to open it when his mobile phone started ringing. James dropped the envelope back on to the table and fished his phone out of his pocket. It was an unknown number. Thinking it might be a customer James answered automatically.
‘Not yet, Jimmy,’ came the now all too familiar voice of Juniper from the other end of the phone. ‘Open it when you get home.’
James promptly dropped his phone. The resultant clunk caused a few nearby drinkers to look his way.
No, he thought to himself. This is going too far. James tentatively picked up his phone as if it might explode at any moment and brought it back up to his ear.
‘J…Juniper?’ said James uncertainly.
‘The very same,’ said Juniper convivially, but with an unmistakable tone of admonishment in his voice. ‘I thought I told you to look over my offer in private.’
‘But…how…?’ spluttered James. His uncle had left the pub a good five minutes ago. Had he crept back in to spy on him some more, James wondered. He looked about him to see if he could catch any sign of Juniper lurking in another corner or peering at him from around some other pub goer, but James could not see anything out of the ordinary. As he looked this way and that he heard a chuckle in his ear.
‘Don’t bother looking for me, Jimmy, because I ain’t there anymore.’ James stiffened and almost knocked his drink off of the table. He could feel the unpleasant prickle of a nervous sweat coming on. He ran his hand twitchily across his mouth as his eyes bulged in their sockets.
‘How are you doing this?’ said James, practically in a whimper.
‘You’ll see, Jimmy. You’ll see. But I’m not trying to scare you or anything. I just have a notion of what my offer’s going to do to you and I think it’d be best for all of us if you were by yourself when it did.’
‘But how did you know?’ asked James, almost pleading with his uncle.
‘That you were about to open the envelope in the middle of a busy pub and send this entire job right round the S bend?’
James tried to speak but no words came out.
‘I just knew,’ said Juniper. ‘Look Jimmy, finish your drink. Have a few more. It’s your birthday, after all. Then, when you’re at home and have a few minutes to yourself go over my offer. It won’t tell you everything because it can’t. This is high security stuff, Jimmy. I couldn’t risk putting everything in that envelope. What if it fell into the wrong hands? That ain’t worth thinking about, believe me.’
‘But…’ said James, who was still unable to find any other words to say.
‘Just trust me on this, Jimmy. Please. You’ll understand in time. I promise.’
Juniper had hung up. James quickly redialled the number that Juniper had phoned him on but his ear was hit instantly with the dead line tone. James sat in ever more confused silence for a moment, staring at his phone as it continued to remind him that the number he was trying to reach was out of service. James ended the call and sat motionless for what felt like the rest of the night. Looking up, he saw that barely ten minutes had elapsed. He took another look at the envelope, cast his eyes about him again just in case Juniper really was watching him and pocketed it. He then picked up his pint glass and drank the remnants. Birthday or no, he was going to find out what this was about as soon as he could.
‘Not staying, Jim?’ called Bob, as James made his way to the door.
‘Sorry, I’ve got to go,’ stammered James. ‘I…I feel a little off.’
‘Oh well, you get yourself home and take it easy.’ James nodded and smiled weakly. The walk from the pub to his house was a daze and when he reached his front door he took a cautious look around him before finally entering his house, the envelope tucked away inside his coat pocket.
* * *
‘Well? Is he going to do it?’
‘He’ll do it,’ said Juniper in response to Grapeshot’s nervous questioning. ‘Once he’s seen my offer he’ll do it.’
‘Your offer?’ Grapeshot frowned a little in confusion, although his eyes never lost the panicked look they had acquired ever since it had all gone wrong. ‘What do you mean “your offer”? And what do you mean “once he’s seen it”? Didn’t you explain the situation to him?’ Juniper fidgeted a little, knowing that his colleague was not going to like what he said next.
‘Well, not exactly, but…’
‘Not exactly?’ spluttered Grapeshot. ‘Not exactly? You assured me that this man, this nephew of yours, could be trusted.’
‘And he can,’ said Juniper in a calming voice. ‘I wouldn’t have gone to him if I didn’t know we could trust him.’
‘So why didn’t you tell him what this involves?’ said Grapeshot in an increasingly exasperated tone. ‘You do realise the seriousness of this situation, don’t you?’ He had begun to pace up and down as he spoke with Juniper, his hands gesturing wildly and his eyes darting this way and that.
‘Of course I do!’ snapped Juniper. ‘But if I told him everything all at once he wouldn’t have believed me, would he? That’s the reason for the phone call, the card on his car, phoning him after I’d left the pub.’
‘What?’ said Grapeshot, stopping in mid-pace and fixing Juniper with another worried look. Juniper cursed himself for mentioning this part. Grapeshot was very good at his job but he did have a tendency to get in a flap when things went wrong. Juniper sighed before continuing.
‘I left him with an envelope telling him everything he needed to know for now,’ said Juniper, holding up a hand to silence Grapeshot before he could interrupt again. ‘I told him not to open it until he was at home but he was about to so I had to do something.’
‘So you phoned him?’ asked Grapeshot, sounding incredulous.
‘After you had left the pub?’
‘Giving over further proof of our surveillance capabilities?’ Juniper sighed again.
‘Yes. Look, we’ve been involved in all of this for so long we don’t even really think about it anymore, do we? I mean, not until we have to.’
‘Like now, you mean?’ said Grapeshot bitterly.
‘Yes, like now. But try to think about it from an outsider’s viewpoint. Imagine what it would do to poor Jimmy if I just phoned him out of the blue and dropped everything in his lap. He’d go potty. I know I would.’
‘Well…’ began Grapeshot, realising that Juniper probably had a point.
‘Just trust me on this,’ said Juniper reassuringly. ‘I’ve been keeping an eye on Jimmy for long enough to know that he’s the man for the job. No one else even comes close.’ Grapeshot visibly sagged; the fight seemingly leaving his body.
‘Alright, fine, we’ll do it your way,’ said Grapeshot, resignedly.
‘This is the only way, believe me.’
‘What about the money?’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Juniper, dismissively. ‘I added that, too.’
‘But I didn’t say how much.’
‘It’s not necessary,’ said Juniper, firmly.
‘But what if he says no?’ asked Grapeshot, the pleading nervousness back in his voice. ‘It wasn’t easy budgeting that much money just for a....repairman!’
‘Watch your mouth!’ snapped Juniper, angrily. ‘He’s family.’
‘Yes yes, he’s family,’ said Grapeshot in a hurried tone. ‘But that money was meant to convince him of the severity of the situation and to make sure that he did the job for us.’
‘No,’ said Juniper, flatly. ‘It isn’t.’
‘What are you talking about? Of course it is!’
‘We ain’t paying Jimmy to do the job. If I thought he needed buying then he wouldn’t be worth the price.’
‘So what’s the money for then?’ asked Grapeshot, sounding flustered.
‘It’s to keep him quiet after it’s all done, and to convince him to come back if we ever need him again.’
‘Again?’ asked Grapeshot, suddenly alert and panicked. ‘What do you mean “again”?’
‘I ain’t taking any chances,’ said Juniper, bitterly. ‘Not after this time. If it can happen once it could happen again, so we need Jimmy on side, just in case.’
‘Does he know that this may not be a one time thing?’ asked Grapeshot, nervously.
‘No, but he will. Once he knows what’s what around here and sees the job that needs doing, then I’ll talk to him about future repairs and maintenance. That’s also when he and I will talk amounts, not a moment sooner.’ Grapeshot heaved a sigh and collapsed into an office chair that sat next to a workbench. He looked down the room as he rubbed his forehead thoughtfully.
‘I suppose you know best,’ he said, sounding deflated.
‘I do. He’ll be in touch soon. I guarantee it.’
‘For all our sakes, I hope you’re right,’ said Grapeshot as he surveyed the work that lay ahead of James. Broken, all of them, he thought miserably to himself. He looked into dozens of blank, staring eyes and hoped that James Caplan was as good as his uncle said he was.
* * *
James could not wait. The curiosity surrounding what his uncle Juniper was apparently up to and what lay within the envelope he had been given was burning a hole in his mind. As soon as James got through his front door he hurried into the downstairs toilet and locked the door behind him. He sat down quickly and pulled the envelope out of his pocket, tearing it open with equal measures of eagerness and trepidation as to what it could possibly contain.
Then, the toilet flushed.
* * *
The following morning James was a bundle of nerves. He had slept poorly and he had no appetite for breakfast. His wife, Kathryn, had not failed to notice both things.
‘Are you sure you’re alright, James?’ she asked, concernedly as she sorted through the morning’s post.
‘Hmmm?’ said James, absentmindedly.
‘You don’t seem yourself this morning. Maybe you should stay home today.’
‘I’ll be fine,’ said James as he attempted a reassuring smile. ‘Besides, I’ve got lots on today. No time to pull a sickie.’ Kathryn looked at her husband for a moment or two.
‘Well, if you’re sure,’ she said.
‘I am,’ nodded James. He stood up and looked down into his wife’s concerned face. ‘Tell you what. If I start to feel worse I promise I’ll come home. Deal?’
‘Okay,’ said Kathryn, seemingly satisfied. ‘Just don’t go working yourself too hard. If you’re not feeling well I don’t want you making yourself worse.’
‘I’ll see how I go,’ said James. He smiled again and indicated the pile of post that Kathryn was sorting through. ‘Besides, bills to pay and all that.’
‘Oh don’t,’ said Kathryn, rolling her eyes. ‘The car needing servicing and the boiler packing up at the same time has hit us harder than expected. We may have to move some things around on the credit cards again.’ James leaned down and kissed Kathryn gently on the forehead.
‘We’ll be fine,’ he said soothingly.
‘I hope you’re right,’ said Kathryn, waving a hand at the pile of post that seemed to be all bills. ‘I don’t like all this debt.’ James wanted to tell her. He wanted to reassure his wife that he was on the verge of being able to solve all of their money woes. He knew he couldn’t though. If Juniper was telling the truth then James needed to keep his mouth shut. If he didn’t… the consequences of James telling anyone what his uncle had confided in him were not worth thinking about. James took one more look at the pile of bills and thought to himself: you had better be telling the truth, Juniper.
James left his house and drove to work, all the while looking about him suspiciously. He kept telling himself that he was being ridiculous. If Juniper really was doing what he claimed to be doing then it was obviously being done well enough to go unnoticed. An odd mixture of fear and excitement gripped him as he made his way to his garage. He hadn’t asked for this. All James Caplan had ever wanted was a quiet, comfortable life for him and his family. But now this? The thoughts and questions swam ferociously inside James’ head as he pulled into the car park of Caplan Motors. He didn’t like the thought of keeping things from Kathryn or lying to his employees about where he was really going later that day, but he knew he had no choice. If that letter was right…
James instinctively felt inside his jacket pocket for the envelope that Juniper had given him the day before. How had something like this happened to him? The letter had read like something out of a James Bond film, and it had not even told him the full story, apparently. It had given him the bare bones but that was enough to set James’ curiosity on fire. He both longed for and dreaded the full story that was yet to fully unfold. He felt himself continually flitting between wanting and not wanting this all to be some kind of elaborate prank and as he entered his office he honestly could not decide which option he liked the sound of more. This train of thought was quickly derailed as James sat down. He recoiled in surprise as he saw his name as clear as day plastered across another envelope that lay in the centre of his desk. James knew who it was from in an instant: the envelope simply said Jimmy.
James looked around his office in a vain attempt to find any points of forced entry. He had had to unlock his office upon arrival that morning. He always locked his office at the end of the working day. Plus the garage was similarly locked at the end of each day as well. For a moment James panicked about security threats to his business, but after a few steadying breaths he realised that this was no different to the card being placed on his car in the also nightly locked private company car park. James sighed. Whatever it was that Juniper did, he clearly had access to places that others didn’t. Once again the cocktail of fear and excitement welled up inside James. Juniper had said in the first letter that what he did was not illegal, but leaving the card on James’ car and now this second envelope in his office was breaking and entering, surely. Realising that he was not going to get any more answers to the myriad questions pummelling his brain, James picked up the envelope off of his desk. It was a large padded envelope that felt somewhat bulky. James could feel three objects inside the envelope. He ripped open the envelope and scattered the contents on to his desk. The objects were a Sat Nav, a mobile phone and an accompanying earpiece. James looked at them in confusion for a second or two before noticing that a piece of paper had also fallen out of the envelope. He picked it up and recognised Juniper’s handwriting from the first letter. He read:
By now you’ve read my first letter and you know that me
and my people are in need of your skills. We have some
very important equipment that has broken down and it
needs repairing as soon as possible.
The Sat Nav is programmed to bring you to me. I’ll call
you on the mobile phone once you get going. Make sure
you wear the ear thingy; I don’t want you getting into a smash.
Tell no one about where you’re going, and make sure to bring
everything that I sent you today with you. No loose ends
Jimmy my boy. No loose ends. Do this and that pile of bills
will be a distant memory.
James dropped the letter when he read the part about the pile of bills.
James stared, wide eyed, at the letter for a second. His uncle knew what went on in his home as well as his work. The fear quickly overtook the excitement and James briefly thought about abandoning the whole thing and going to the police about his crazed uncle. He sat there in silence and considered his options. He had already thought numerous times on what the police would say if he went to them with a story such as this. Also, came an infuriatingly rational voice from somewhere inside James’ head, if Juniper had been doing this for as long as he claimed then he had had ample opportunity to come after James and his family. He hadn’t though, thought James. He felt a little ashamed of himself as he tried to scrub the thoughts from his mind of his uncle being some kind of maniac.
You gave your word, too, came the same annoying little voice.
James had indeed given his word. James Caplan had always prided himself on being a man who dealt fairly with people and so a further wave of shame washed over him for a moment. He had given his word and he wasn’t going to break that. Not unless he absolutely had to.
He really hoped he wouldn’t have to.
James sat for a moment while the confusion, the curiosity and the worry fought it out for supremacy inside his head. He looked down at the Sat Nav and mobile phone that both lay on his desk. Picking the Sat Nav up, James turned it on and watched as the pre-programmed route was calculated. James didn’t recognise where he was supposed to go but one thing was for sure, it was going to be quite a drive. He looked at his watch and decided that he may as well set off now. He didn’t see the point in attempting to get any work done around the garage. The whole business with Juniper had got him so distracted that he would probably do more harm than good, so he scooped up the phone, envelope and letter and made his way out of his office.
‘Off somewhere, Jim?’ asked one of his employees.
‘Erm…yes,’ said James, trying to think of a convincing lie. ‘Special job, out of town.’
‘Right you are,’ said the employee.
‘I’ll…um…I’ll probably be gone all day,’ said James, feeling it was probably best to buy himself as much time as he could.
‘Fair enough. If you’re not back by closing I’ll lock up.’
‘Cheers.’ James tried to sound casual as the garage employee went back to his checklist. Taking one last look around the garage bay, James scurried out of the building and got into his car. His eyes flicked nervously to the windscreen wipers to see if another card had been left underneath them but there was nothing there. James reached into his glove compartment and fished out the bracket that he used for his own Sat Nav. Amazingly, Juniper’s Sat Nav fitted the bracket, but as James thought on this he reasoned that his uncle probably knew the make of Sat Nav that he used and therefore sent one that would fit his bracket. James marvelled at how quickly that thought came to him and how it didn’t seem to be accompanied by a sudden rush of fear. James had reached his own private conclusion that whatever Juniper was up to it didn’t seem to have anything to do with harming him or his family.
James fitted Juniper’s Sat Nav into the bracket and then fixed the bracket to his windscreen, adjusting the screen slightly so that he had the best view. He turned the mobile phone on and placed it in the holder that he would normally have put his own phone in. He fitted the earpiece and began his journey. As he pulled out of the car park and into traffic his mind raced. Just a couple of days ago his life was perfectly normal, he thought to himself as he took the first of the Sat Nav’s directions. But now he was driving off to who knows where to do who knows what for his uncle whom he had, until a couple of days ago, thought had died when he was a child. James had not been driving five minutes when the mobile phone started to ring. Nervously, James pressed the Answer button on the earpiece.
‘Erm…hello?’ he said, tentatively.
‘Jimmy, my boy!’ boomed Juniper’s voice into James’ ear. ‘Glad to see you’re on your way.’
‘Um…yeah, I’ll be there in about…’
‘An hour, I know,’ interrupted Juniper. James caught himself before he could ask how Juniper could know this. James didn’t feel it was wise to test his nerves too much whilst driving. He’d save that for when he was with Juniper.
‘So, what’s this all about, Juniper?’ said James, trying to sound conversational. ‘What is this job that you want me to do?’
‘All in good time, Jimmy. All in good time. Plus, I don’t like to say too much over the phone. Can’t be too careful.’ James frowned a little at his uncle’s evasiveness.
‘But you’ll tell me everything when I get there, right?’
‘Trust me, Jimmy. When you get here you’ll know everything.’
‘Okay, I’ll see you in about an hour then.’
‘Take it steady.’ James heard the click of the call ending and he reached up and pressed the earpiece to hang up. In just an hour, he thought hopefully to himself, I’ll find out what all this is about. The endless possibilities of what Juniper could have in store for his nephew paraded themselves in front of James’ mind, each more outlandish than the last. James tried to shake the ridiculous thoughts free from his head as he concentrated on following the Sat Nav’s directions. Whatever it was, he thought firmly, it had better be worth it.
As James continued to drive, Juniper sat back in his chair and contemplated what he was about to let his nephew in on. Oh yes, Jimmy, he thought to himself, you’re going to know everything alright.
* * *
After an hour or so of driving, James was told by the Sat Nav that he was nearing his destination. He turned off the main road and into what looked like an old industrial estate. There did not seem to be much activity that James could see and many of the units looked as if they had not been occupied in quite some time. Another turning brought him up to a set of iron gates with an intercom set close by. James drove up to the gates, rolled down his car window and cautiously pressed the intercom button, not really knowing what to expect.
‘Yes?’ said a tinny voice.
‘I’m…erm…here to see Juniper Caplan.’ James could not suppress the feeling that the person on the other end of the intercom was going to ask who Juniper Caplan was and then he would find out that he had been the butt of one enormous and very unfunny joke.
‘Name?’ said the tinny voice in reply.
‘Drive through.’ The intercom clicked off and a buzzing sounded, followed by the gates opening to admit James’ car. He drove slowly into a yard that had definitely seen better days. He swerved deftly around a large pothole in the tarmac and parked up next to a very nondescript building. All function and no form, the building was one of those depressing post-modern concrete one-size-fits-all boxes that were inexplicably popular one time. If James had not just spoken to someone on the intercom he would have believed this place deserted like most of the estate that he had seen. James looked around him while the car engine idled but nothing save the intercom exchange suggested that anyone was around. He wondered where Juniper was and why he was not greeting him enthusiastically like he had done over the phone and in the pub.
This really had better not be a wind up, thought James.
Reasoning that he was not going to get any answers by sitting in the car, James switched off the engine and stepped out into the shabby yard. He looked around him with mild disdain. He would never let his business go to such disrepair, he thought to himself. James pocketed his keys and approached the building’s main entrance. All of the windows that he could see had the blinds pulled down so he could not see in. Another whiff of disdain floated under James’ nose as he noticed the peeling paint of the window frames. This place was in bad need of a refurb, he thought. Maybe that’s why I’m here, came a sudden thought in James’ mind. Maybe Juniper’s running some kind of business and it’s struggling and he wants me to help him out. James considered the possibility but still the question of Juniper apparently faking his own death came to the forefront. James had been pondering on what kind of business would require such drastic measures but he was at a total loss. Looking around the drab façade of the building some more, James noticed another intercom, identical to the one stationed outside the double gates. He pressed the call button and waited for the tinny voice to address him again.
‘Jimmy, my boy!’
‘Who else? Come in. Come in.’ The door buzzed and James opened it tentatively. He was expecting to find his uncle waiting for him. What he was not expecting was the massive difference between the building’s exterior and interior. Where the outside looked threadbare and dreary, the inside was spacious and professionally appointed. The impeccably tiled floor gleamed with the reflected orbs of stylish lighting, the walls were smooth and light and boasted tasteful yet subtle works of art, and the furniture looked crisp and showroom quality. Everything about the interior that James could see screamed professionalism and a very high price tag. He suddenly felt underdressed and a little bit grubby in his garage clothes. He looked down to make sure that he was not trailing mud on to the glistening polished floor. He saw that he was standing on a large welcome mat, which looked like it cost more than his living room carpet, and there, emblazoned across the mat, was the same symbol that James had seen on the card that had been left under the windscreen wiper of his car. An image of an eye with the British Isles where the pupil and iris would normally be. James reached into his pocket and took out his wallet. He removed the card that had been left on his car and checked it against the mat, just to make sure. He was not imagining it; they were the exact same symbol.
‘Jimmy!’ Juniper’s voice brought James out of his silent admiration for his surroundings and he finally noticed his uncle standing in the middle of the room, a big smile plastered across his face. Juniper was wearing a very expensive looking suit and once again James grew a little self-conscious of how unkempt he was starting to feel. He had suits, decent ones too, that he would wear when meeting with big or prospective new clients, and looking around him James wondered if any of his suits would have been good enough for such a place. Probably not, he thought.
‘Er…hi, Juniper,’ said James uneasily.
‘So you got here okay? Marvellous!’ Juniper smiled again as he noticed James’ eyes still taking in the room. ‘Nice, ain’t it?’
‘it’s…very impressive,’ said James, unsure of what else to say.
‘Better than the outside, eh?’ Juniper chuckled and gave his nephew a knowing look. ‘I’m sure you’ve got a million and a half questions, am I right?’
‘Just a bit,’ said James, smiling weakly.
‘Well, I’ve dangled you on the hook for long enough Jimmy my boy, and for that I’m sorry. Let’s go up to my office and all will become clear.’
‘Erm…yeah…okay. Lead the way.’ Juniper beckoned James to follow and he strode purposefully across the immaculate floor towards an ornate set of lift doors, his shoes clicking importantly as he went. James kept pace and waited as his uncle pressed the call button for the lift. A moment or two later the doors swished open to reveal another stylish interior. James fought the sudden urge to wipe his feet as he stepped inside the lift. Once inside, Juniper pressed for the top floor and the lift purred elegantly into life, moving them both as if they were being carried by a rising cloud. As they reached the top floor, the lift sighed gently to a stop with not a bit of a jolt. The doors slid smoothly open again and Juniper started down a corridor as equally exquisite as the reception area they had just left. Turning a corner, James saw a large and commanding set of double wooden doors, highly polished, with a gleaming brass nameplate affixed to it that proudly said JUNIPER CAPLAN, MANAGING DIRECTOR. Whatever his uncle was doing, James thought to himself, he must have been doing it well.
‘Come on in, Jimmy,’ said Juniper, as he pushed open the right-hand door. James passed his uncle and stepped into what felt like a time machine. Gone was the ultra-modern clean and clinical look of the reception area and the corridor they had just been in, replaced by sumptuous dark wood and leather, brass and heavy fabrics. If the reception area was cutting edge for now, James thought, this office would have been in vogue around the time of Queen Victoria. However, he could not help but admire the overall effect this office was having on him. He felt somehow comforted, as if the richness and historical ambience of the room was reassuring him that everything was going to be okay and that Juniper knew exactly what he was doing.
‘Like it?’ said Juniper, proudly. James realised with a tinge of embarrassment that he had been standing with his mouth agape.
‘It’s wonderful,’ exclaimed James, who had always had a soft spot for older, more traditional things. ‘But why’s it so different to the corridor and the reception area?’
‘Because this is my office, Jimmy, and I like it this way.’ James looked down at his uncle and frowned in questioning confusion. ‘Take a seat. Let me explain.’ Juniper indicated a handsome leather Chesterfield armchair and James sat down, relishing the opulent material sinking lovingly beneath his weight. Juniper walked around a magnificent polished wooden desk and sat down in an equally majestic armchair, the fine leather creaking melodiously under him. James looked around and took in shelf after shelf of thick and studious looking books, standing proudly side by side on tall and regal bookcases. A grandfather clock stood ticking sombrely in the corner and a wooden framed globe sat impressively by a gleaming dark wooden coffee table. The office was truly stunning and James could not help but be very impressed.
‘As I was saying, Jimmy,’ continued Juniper. ‘That space-age stuff is all fine and good for the rest of the building but me, I like to rest my backside in a bit of history, you know?’ James nodded appreciatively. If he could have had an office this well furnished he would jump at the chance, but as his eyes took in the grandness of it all he cringed mentally at what a room like this must have cost to put together.
‘So you were allowed to decorate your office however you wanted?’ asked James. He felt a bit stupid for what instantly sounded like an obvious question but he was finding it difficult to keep his thoughts in a proper order. Things had been and were still so unexpected that he felt constantly off-guard.
‘Damn right I was,’ said Juniper stoutly. ‘I told ‘em, do up the rest of the building however you see fit, but my office is my office and I’ll have it how I like it, thank you very much.’
‘Who’s “them” though?’ asked James, grasping frantically at anything that could help to explain this bizarre situation.
‘Ah, that’s the very nub of it all, ain’t it?’ grinned Juniper.
‘Yes Jimmy. It is. For you see, “they” are the reason we’re here today.’
‘But who are they?’ asked James, feeling like he was being run around in circles again. ‘I’m sorry Juniper but you said all was going to become clear, so can you please start making sense?’
‘I’m sorry Jimmy, it’s just hard, you see. We’ve never really been in this position before.’
‘Having to explain what we do to an outsider.’ James felt a little hurt at being branded an “outsider” but he quickly realised that he was just that. He was clearly outside the know with regards to whatever was going on.
‘So what do you do?’ pressed James, as he shifted a little closer to the edge of his seat. Juniper looked at his nephew for a moment and sighed. He knew it had been unfair to keep James waiting this long for the truth, teasing him with the briefest snippets of information. He also knew that they needed his help, desperately so, and he had to be told.
‘Truthfully Jimmy, in a nutshell, we run the place.’ A moment of silence followed.
‘What, this place?’ asked James, indicating the building they were in.
‘No Jimmy. The place. Everything.’
‘What? I don’t think I understand.’ Juniper sighed again. Time to drop the bomb, he thought. I hope he can handle it.
‘Jimmy, you’re standing in the unofficial command centre of the British government.’
James fell out of his armchair and fainted clean away.
‘Shit!’ said Juniper.
* * *
Yes, that must be it. Dreaming.
James thought he was dreaming, and then the thought was gone.
Yes, his name was James.
James. The name reverberated inside his head.
No, not James. Jimmy.
James came to.
‘You alright, Jimmy?’ said a familiar voice.
‘…Err…,’ replied James, groggily.
‘Here, let me help you up.’ James felt hands reach under his arms and hoist him into a sitting position. He was rotated slightly and as he leaned back he could feel something hard taking his weight.
Oh yes, James thought automatically, the desk.
James stiffened and sat up, alert. In one terrible moment of clarity everything came crashing back to him. Where he was; who he was with; what he had just been told.
What had he just been told?
‘Drink this,’ said the familiar voice again. A heavy-bottomed tumbler was thrust into James’ hand. He heard the clink of ice on glass as he distinctively raised the tumbler to his lips. Before he tasted anything James caught the unmistakable sent of whiskey emanating from the tumbler.
It smelled like good whiskey.
‘I can’t,’ mumbled James. ‘I drove here.’
‘Don’t worry about that,’ said the voice that James now could not ignore was his uncle Juniper’s. ‘You’ll be sober enough by the time you’re ready to leave. Drink. You’ll feel better.’ James took a sip and felt the fire travel down his throat.
Very good whiskey, if James was any judge.
‘Come on Jimmy; let’s have you back in the chair, shall we? Can’t talk business on the floor.’ James looked around him and felt rather foolish. He wondered for the tiniest of seconds why he was sitting on the floor when he remembered that too.
I fainted, he thought with a growing sense of embarrassment. I actually fainted! The last time James could remember passing out was that one time he went for a blood test and forgot to eat something beforehand. Other than that, he wasn’t a fainter.
But what Juniper had said…
‘Hang on a minute!’ spluttered James as the words his uncle had said to him charged once again to the forefront of his mind. ‘Where did you say we were?’
‘I said Jimmy, and try and keep your wits about you this time, that we’re sat in the unofficial control centre of the British government.’ James would look back on this conversation in later years and remember with some degree of pride that he did not faint again. Nor did he burst out laughing, vomit or wet himself.
Instead, James sat there in complete and total silence.
He felt the tumbler slip a little in his slackened grip and he squeezed the cold glass to keep from dropping his drink. It tasted like expensive whiskey and the tumbler was probably worth something, too. James tried to speak but no words left his lips. His throat had gone noticeably dry. Looking into the warm depths of his drink he drained the rest of the whiskey in one gulp.
What the hell, he thought; I get the feeling I might need a few more of these. After a few seconds James tried speaking again.
‘I…I…beg your pardon.’
‘This Jimmy,’ said Juniper, as he rose from his chair and walked over to his finely stocked drinks cabinet. ‘Is where the country is run from. Everything from working out the budget to making sure your bins are collected on time.’ Juniper returned to his desk with a cut crystal decanter bearing what James assumed was more of the whiskey he had just drank. James accepted another glass and took a generous sip. He kept his breathing as steady as he could as he surveyed his uncle for any signs that this might all be one big joke. His eyes took in the corners of the room to see if he could make out anyone hiding, ready to spring out and reveal an elaborate birthday prank, but there was just him and Juniper, whose face showed no signs of joking whatsoever.
‘You’re joking?’ said James, feeling as if it would be so much better if he were.
‘Afraid not Jimmy. This is all true blue.’
‘But…how is that possible?’
‘Well, I don’t want to bore with the details, Jimmy, not when we’ve got a job to do, but the short version is that it goes back to my days in the military. Not to toot my own horn but I was a good man to have around, still am, if you ask me.’ Juniper puffed his chest out proudly and took a swig of whiskey. Not wanting to refuse hospitality, James took another drink as well. ‘Anyway, my achievements got noticed higher and higher up the ladder and as time went on I became more and more useful.’
‘So you assist the Government then?’ asked James, attempting to mould this conversation into a form that he could recognise. His question made Juniper chortle.
‘No Jimmy. We are the Government.’ More silence followed as James’ brain tried its best to keep up. It was fighting a losing battle.
‘I’m sorry but I still don’t understand,’ said James, trying his best not to blurt out the one thought that would not leave him alone: that his uncle was stark raving mad.
‘Fair enough, Jimmy my boy. It’s a lot to take in, I’ll grant you. I had trouble myself. Maybe some proof will help ease this thing along, eh?’
‘What kind of proof?’
‘Come with me.’ Juniper swallowed the last mouthful of whiskey in his tumbler and set it firmly down on his desk. James stood up as his uncle rose from his chair and made his way to the door. They were about to leave when Juniper smiled up at him. ‘You can leave that here.’ James looked down and saw that he was still holding his tumbler. He drank down the last drops of whiskey and clumsily put the tumbler on the desk.
‘Sorry,’ he said, sheepishly.
Juniper pulled open the door to his office and strode off down the corridor, James following curiously behind him. When they reached the part of the floor where they had come from the lifts Juniper turned left instead of right, so now they were heading to a section of the building that James had not seen. They rounded a corner and came to another set of lifts, identical to the one that they had used to come up from the reception area. Juniper pressed a button and tapped his foot absentmindedly as the digital display rounded off numbers in anticipation of the lift’s arrival.
Wait a minute, thought James, as he took a second look at the readout. That can’t be right. When James had arrived in the ramshackle car park the building couldn’t have been more than four floors, but according to this readout there were more.
A lot more.
James looked at Juniper with a questioning expression and he was just about to speak when a melodious chime signalled the arrival of the lift. The doors slid gracefully open and Juniper walked straight into someone hurrying out of the lift.
‘Juniper! There you are!’ said the man, as he picked himself up off of the floor.
‘Hello, Grapeshot,’ said Juniper, smoothing down his jacket front. The man called Grapeshot looked at James appraisingly.
‘And this must be Mister Caplan,’ he said smoothly, extending a hand in greeting. ‘Grapeshot Scoggins.’
‘Erm, James Caplan,’ said James as he shook Grapeshot’s hand.
‘Your uncle has told me so much about you,’ said Grapeshot, warmly.
‘He has?’ said James.
‘I have?’ said Juniper. Grapeshot looked a little flustered for a moment but he quickly recovered.
‘Well, he has certainly vouched for you in regards to your skills; I can assure you of that.’
‘Oh…That’s nice,’ said James, who was not quite sure what else to say.
‘I was just taking Jimmy downstairs, Grapeshot. Let him see for himself, you know?’ James might have imagined it, but he thought he saw Grapeshot’s facial muscles twitch ever so slightly after Juniper had spoken. It was gone in an instant, if it was ever there in the first place, and Grapeshot was all smiles again.
‘Splendid! I was actually on my way to find you, actually. Time’s getting on, and all that, so the sooner young Mister Caplan here is set to work the better it will be for all. Yes?’
‘Calm down, Grapeshot,’ said Juniper, as all three men stepped into the lift. ‘It’ll get done. We just need to show Jimmy what it’s all about first. Make sure he knows what he’s dealing with.’
‘You mean you haven’t told him?’ spluttered Grapeshot, his voice rebounding inside the enclosed space of the lift. ‘What have you been doing since he arrived? Chatting about the football?’
‘I…’ began James, but Juniper cut in.
‘Get a hold of yourself, man,’ he said, irritably. ‘I’ve told Jimmy what we do here, but that’s just words, isn’t it? He needs to see to really get it, doesn’t he?’ Grapeshot did not reply at first. Instead he breathed heavily while he steadied himself.
‘I’m sorry Juniper, James,’ he said, still sounded a little winded. ‘It’s just that this whole thing has been such a mess, and the pressure’s on to put it right.’
‘And we will,’ said Juniper, reassuringly. ‘Won’t we, Jimmy?’ James stood there, stunned, for a second. He had not expected to be dragged into this exchange and was, once again, momentarily lost for words.
‘I…erm…’ was all he could manage.
‘That’s my boy,’ said Juniper heartily. ‘Like I’ve told you a hundred times, Grapeshot: Jimmy here can fix damn near anything. Isn’t that right, Jimmy?’
‘I suppose so,’ said James, humbly. ‘But I’m still unclear as to what specifically you expect me to fix.’ Grapeshot gave Juniper a very meaningful look before James went on. ‘I mean, as long as it’s not your computers that have gone on the blink I can probably do something.’
‘Relax, Jimmy. Our computers are just fine.’ As Juniper said this, the lift slid to a halt and another chime sounded. The doors glided apart and as they did James felt a cool breeze fill the inside of the lift.
‘Bloody hell!’ said James, his eyes wide and his eyebrows raised.
Stretching out before him was an enormous room lined with desks. On each of these desks, at least the ones that James could see, were slick looking computer monitors, and at each desk sat a busy-looking person. A few of the closer people looked up in the direction of the lift but quickly returned to whatever it was they were doing. The air was cool and comfortable but at the same time filled with the low thrum of seemingly thousands of computers all quietly doing their thing. James said a silent prayer to whomever or whatever might be listening that nothing ever went wrong with these things. He’d hang himself with a lamp cord if he thought he would have to fix even a fraction of these computers.
‘This is where it all happens, Jimmy, my boy,’ said Juniper proudly, as he and Grapeshot stepped out of the lift and onto the carpet-tiled floor that spread out before them. Juniper looked to where he thought James was and then turned around to see his nephew still standing in the lift. ‘Come on, Jimmy. Time’s a wasting.’
‘What…what is this place?’ asked James in a slow voice.
‘This,’ said Grapeshot, crisply. ‘Is where we monitor the nation from. I assume Juniper has told you that much, yes?’
James nodded mutely.
‘Good.’ Grapeshot continued as they walked. ‘Every town, every city, every borough. Nothing escapes our gaze.’
‘Nothing?’ asked James. He wasn’t quite sure he approved of everyone’s movements being tracked down to the last detail. As he considered this, a thought struck him. Not a particularly pleasant thought, either. ‘You mean you watch as people…’
‘Don’t worry, Jimmy,’ interrupted Juniper. ‘This place isn’t so we can watch people taking showers or going at it or anything. We just keep an eye on things.’
‘Oh. Right,’ said James, who made a mental note to make sure he pulled the bathroom window blind down all the way the next time he took a shower.
‘But it’s best not to think about it,’ said Juniper, sagely. ‘Imagine the panic if people knew we could see them whenever and wherever they go. There’d be outrage.’
‘So why do you do it?’ asked James.
‘Because the people need watching,’ said Grapeshot, importantly.
‘Do they? I mean, do we?’
‘Yes, Mister Caplan. They do.’
‘But why? And please, call me James. All this “Mister Caplan” stuff makes me feel like I’m back at school.’
‘Because, James,’ Grapeshot said the name with the distinct tone that he would have preferred to keep things a little more formal. ‘People are idiots.’
James was stunned.
Juniper erupted into a coughing fit that sounded a lot like masked laughter.
‘What he means,’ said Juniper, cutting in quickly. ‘Is that what we do here really is in the best interests of everyone.’
‘Everyone?’ said James, feeling annoyed. ‘You mean all us idiots?’
‘Yes,’ said Grapeshot, without the slightest hint of irony.
‘No!’ said Juniper, as he shot Grapeshot a look that had “shut up” written all over it.
‘Well which is it?’ asked James. ‘Because I want to know if I’ve just been insulted or not.’
‘What we mean, Jimmy, is that your average person can be as clever as you like. Doctors, teachers, mechanics, all of ‘em brainy as the day is long.’
‘Go on,’ said James.
‘But people, there’s a different story.’
‘I don’t follow,’ said James, frowning.
‘It is a curious phenomenon,’ said Grapeshot, taking the lead once again. ‘How individuals can be sensible, intelligent and productive, but put them together to form the entity of people and you get chaos!’
‘Oh come on,’ said James, defensively. ‘We’re not that bad!’
‘Oh no?’ said Grapeshot, his one eyebrow rising. ‘Come over there and look at this.’ Grapeshot walked off amongst the rows and rows of desks and stopped at one a few moments later. The person sat at the desk wheeled themselves out of the way on their office chair and allowed Grapeshot access to their machine.
‘What’s he doing?’ asked James.
‘Being a bloody pain in the arse, as usual,’ said Juniper, gruffly. ‘He loves to prove his little points though.’
‘If you’ll kindly watch the main monitor, please.’ Grapeshot pointed to what James had assumed was a bank of individual screens that dominated one of the walls. Instead it was a giant monitor that had been showing multiple images all at once. All of the individual screens disappeared and were replaced by one massive image. It was a street view, the kind taken by CCTV cameras. James could see a pub with people milling around outside it.
That one wasn’t milling, James thought to himself. He’s…
And those two. They’re not doing what I think they’re doing, are they?
Oh God they are!
James stared up at the obscene display of drunken debauchery being shown to the whole room, ashamed to be a human being. He looked back down and saw a self-satisfied smirk sitting smugly on Grapeshot’s face.
‘You see the gentleman using that potted plant as a latrine?’ asked Grapeshot, the smugness in his voice easily outstripping the smugness on his face. ‘That man is a very successful property developer. Quite well respected in his field. And the couple in the alleyway who think that no one can see them? A solicitor and an architect. Individually you could not fault them, but look at what they become when they are swallowed up into the collective known as people.’
James continued to look between the giant monitor and Grapeshot.
Juniper shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose in exasperation.
‘Alright, Grapeshot,’ said Juniper wearily. ‘I think you’ve made your point.’
‘But wait a moment,’ said James, frowning up at the monitor. ‘I admit that looks pretty bad, but they’re clearly drunk.’
‘And your point is?’ asked Grapeshot, coolly. James was beginning to dislike him.
‘My point is that you can’t possibly judge people’s abilities to function based on what they’re like when they’ve had a few.’ Grapeshot looked taken aback at this statement.
‘Well of course not,’ he said, as if that point was glaringly obvious. ‘But there is a wealth of evidence that I could show you to prove that what we do here is for the greater good.’
‘He could, you know?’ said Juniper in a low voice. He sighed before adding: ‘He really could.’
‘Okay then,’ said James, feeling as if he were the sole defendant for the nation’s independence. ‘Show me something else. Something not related to how people behave when they’re drunk.’ James folded his arms with some small degree of satisfaction. He felt he was perhaps on the verge of some minor victory.
‘I’d be happy to,’ said Grapeshot, without missing a beat. He walked briskly off to another desk and spoke briefly to the person who was sat there. A moment later, Grapeshot returned to where James and Juniper were standing, a stack of printouts in his hands. ‘Here you are,’ he said as he handed them to James.
‘This is a list of people who have replied to spam e-mails over the past six months. If you were to check the details of some of these people you would find professionals of all kinds, highly educated and successful, but still we see people handing over credit card details to the shadiest of sources again and again.’ James thumbed through the pages and felt a growing sense of despair as he saw name after name of people who had apparently fallen prey to the Nigerian Lottery scam, or whatever fraudulent scheme was currently doing the rounds. He silently handed back the papers to Grapeshot; that victory he sensed speeding away with its middle finger raised.
Grapeshot continued to look smug, but this time it did not go without mention.
‘Will you wipe that bloody smirk off your face?’ snapped Juniper. ‘You’ve made your point and then some, so let’s get Jimmy to the workshop so he can do what we brought him here for!’ Grapeshot looked a little sullen for a moment; he had clearly been enjoying himself parading society’s faults in front of James, but he quickly recovered.
‘Yes, quite right. This way, James.’ Grapeshot took off again at a brisk pace and James and Juniper followed. As they passed row after row of desks, James looked around him.
‘So you really watch the whole country from this one room?’
‘Oh no, lad,’ said Juniper, smiling. ‘That would be impossible.’ James felt a sag of relief flood his body. He knew it couldn’t all be true. He knew that this place couldn’t really be watching the nation’s every move. ‘No, this is just one of the observation rooms.’
‘This is just one of the rooms,’ said Juniper, more slowly. ‘We have a room like this on each floor, all watching a different bit of the country.’ James remembered the readout on the lift and how it had more numbers than he thought it should. As much as James wanted to fight it, what Juniper and Grapeshot were telling him seemed to be true.
‘Oh,’ was all he could manage as they continued to make their way across the huge observation room. After a few more minutes’ walking, they came to another lift, although this one was more like a freight goods lift than the ones they had previously used. Grapeshot pressed a large button on a control panel set into the wall and the reluctant groan of metal on metal momentarily filled the air as the lift made its way up from who knows where. It took long enough for the lift to arrive for James to wonder, again, just how big the building was, or how deep. Eventually, the lift arrived at their floor and Grapeshot tugged the metal fencing aside to allow all three men to step inside. Closing the lift, Grapeshot pressed another button and the lift began its rumbling descent. Everyone was silent for a moment or two, but as they continued to travel deeper into the earth another question stepped to the front of the queue in James’ mind.
‘What about the Government?’ he asked.
‘What do you mean?’ asked Grapeshot, raising an eyebrow.
‘I mean what about the Prime Minister? The Cabinet? All of the politicians? What do they think about all of this?’ As James looked from one man to the other, Grapeshot gave Juniper another meaningful look and James noticed his uncle shuffle his feet a little.
‘Well, it’s funny you should mention that, Jimmy, my boy.’
‘Because that’s why you’re here.’
‘What? I don’t understand.’
‘Well perhaps this will help,’ said Grapeshot, as the lift shuddered to a stop. He pulled back the metal fencing once again and stepped out on to the floor they had arrived at. ‘As you can see, Mister Caplan, the Government needs your help.’
As countless pairs of blank, expressionless faces stared back at James he felt the world get pulled out from under him for the second time that day, and before he had any real chance to process what his eyes were telling him were in front of him, he fainted again.
‘Not again!’ said Juniper, rolling his eyes.
* * *
No, no, no!
The voice inside James’ head was quite insistent. It refused to believe what it had just seen, so much so that James came to vocalising this very thought process.
‘No, no, no!’ he said, blearily.
‘Erm…is he alright?’ asked the voice of Grapeshot. James could not see him, or anything for that matter, because he had screwed his eyes tight shut in the hope that this was all going to be a dream. A horrible, extremely long and thoroughly detailed dream.
‘He’ll be fine,’ said Juniper’s voice. ‘It’s not the first one he’s had today, is it Jimmy, my boy?’ James felt the gentle nudge of Juniper’s boot in the small of his back. ‘But as long as it’s the last, eh? Can’t have you falling about the place when there’s work to be done.’
‘But how…why…?’ said James, as he cautiously opened his eyes. He shut them again straight away when the vacant faces were still there, staring at him.
‘Well, if you would kindly get up off the floor we can explain,’ said Grapeshot, testily.
‘Yeah, come on Jimmy,’ said Juniper in as jovial a tone as he could muster. ‘It’s not too bad, once you’ve wrapped your head around the basics.’ James stood up uneasily and fixed both men with a look of confusion and bewilderment. He then looked into the workshop that stretched away before him.
‘Wrapped my head around it?’ he said, incredulously. ‘Wrapped my head around it? I’d need a head the size of the West Midlands to wrap my head around this!’ James waved a hand in the direction of the workshop.
‘I understand that it is a lot to take in,’ said Grapeshot, soothingly. ‘But think of it like this. You have a unique opportunity to be of real service to your government.’
James laughed, but there was no mirth in it.
‘Hah! Service! Good one.’ He strode out of the lift and up to one of the blank faces that had been watching him expressionlessly all this time. ‘I can see the headlines now: Prime Minister goes in for M.O.T.’ Juniper chuckled and Grapeshot gave him another stern look.
‘I hardly think this is the time for jokes, Mister Caplan,’ said Grapeshot, stiffly.
‘Oh you don’t think?’ said James, excitedly, a wild stare entering his gaze. ‘Because I think it’s the perfect time for jokes. In the last few days I’ve found out that my uncle is actually alive after me thinking him dead for the last thirty years, that he’s part of some secret organisation that runs the country, and to top it all off that the politicians who make up the government are…are…’ James faltered as he waved his hand in ever more frantic motions at the slumped figures on the numerous workbenches.
‘Automatons,’ said Grapeshot, importantly.
‘Robots, to you and me,’ said Juniper more plainly.
Whatever James had been expecting, robots wasn’t it. He stared, dumbfounded, into the unmoving faces of people he had seen on the news, heard on the radio, even voted for. The Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer; they were all here and they were all clearly robots. Some of them had no lower half to their bodies, just a mass of cables and wires; others were missing arms or the tops of their heads. The more James looked around the eerier it became. It was like being suddenly dropped into some kind of weird, futuristic horror film. James turned on the spot a few times, taking in the mass of immobile robots that covered practically every available surface in the workshop. As he locked eyes with the ones nearest to him he felt a cold shudder run down his back.
‘What happened?’ he asked in a small voice.
‘Bad wiring,’ said Juniper.
‘Look Jimmy, take a seat for a moment.’ Juniper indicated a couple of chairs by a nearby workbench. James walked tentatively over to it and sat down, Juniper following suit.
‘I’ll…erm…go and make some tea,’ said Grapeshot, uneasily.
‘Yeah, you do that,’ said Juniper over his shoulder. He looked back at his nephew and continued. ‘This is it, Jimmy. This is what we need you for.’
‘You want me to fix these things?’ asked James, hoping he wasn’t going to get the answer that he knew was coming.
‘Yes, and quite quickly, if you can.’ James looked around some more, a look of helplessness on his face.
‘But I don’t know anything about robots!’
‘But you know machines,’ said Juniper, encouragingly. ‘Just think of them as machines and you’ll do fine. I wouldn’t have brought you on this job if I didn’t think you were up to muster.’
‘But why do you have them at all? What about the real politicians?’ At this Juniper chuckled again.
‘Jimmy, my boy, these are the real politicians.’
‘Yeah, we’ve not used real politicians in years.’
‘Oh yeah. Apart from some silly sod thinking that we could save a few quid by skimping on quality repairs, our robots have worked fine.’
‘Who…?’ began James, but before he could continue Grapeshot came bustling towards them with a laden tea tray. Juniper sensed James’ question and pointed his eyes in a very meaningful way towards Grapeshot. James understood at once and did not press the matter further.
‘Basically Jimmy, you remember me saying that my Army days got me noticed in high places?’
‘Well, it was about that time, just after the war, that it was reckoned that the way things were being run wasn’t doing anyone a whole lot of good. So, I got picked to run The Institution.’
‘Is that what this place is?’ asked James, trying desperately to keep up.
‘That it is, Jimmy; that it is. But as what we were doing was top secret we still had to keep a public face, you know? Couldn’t bear the thought of the headaches we’d have if the people knew what was really going on. So, we cobbled together the best minds we could find, and with a screwdriver here and a soldering iron there we had ourselves a government for the people.’
‘But all of the nation’s decisions are made here?’ said James slowly, working it all through in his mind to make sure he hadn’t missed anything. ‘There’s no actual parliament? No one actually lives at Number Ten Downing Street?’
‘Of course they do,’ said Juniper, grinning. ‘I do.’
‘Oh.’ James thought to protest but felt he was on extremely shaky ground, so he kept his mouth shut.
‘Yeah, it seemed like such a waste of a nice house like that. Plus it’s nice and central.’
‘What about the Queen?’ asked James, the question popping into his head like a firework. ‘Is she a robot, too?’
‘She most certainly is not!’ said Grapeshot, haughtily.
‘Calm down,’ said Juniper. ‘You’ll have to excuse old Grapeshot here, he’s a bit of royalist. No Jimmy, the Queen’s as real as you or I.’
‘And she knows about all of this?’
‘Of course,’ said Juniper, matter of factly. ‘Who do you think hired me to run this place?’
‘The Queen hired you?’ asked James, taken aback.
‘Who else did you expect?’ James thought on this for a second and realised that Juniper had a point. If the British government was really staffed by robots then what other authority figure save the Queen would have the power to initiate something like this? James couldn’t believe what was happening, but what was distressing him more now was that the more he thought about it and the more Juniper explained it to him the more it started to make sense. It was still the most bizarre thing he had ever heard, but James could not ignore the evidence in front of him.
It was true, he thought. It was all true.
His uncle was alive.
His uncle practically ran the country.
And the government was made up of robots.
Robots he was supposed to fix.
‘What about elections and things like that?’ asked James.
‘A mere show for the populace,’ said Grapeshot, dismissively. Juniper cut in quickly as he noticed the rising look of indignation on James’ face.
‘It’s not as bad as that, Jimmy. We listen to what the people want and do our best to give it to them.’
‘But it’s still you lot running things?’
‘But what about democracy?’ asked James, pressingly. ‘What about the people having their say?’
‘Jimmy, do you know how many people in the country can’t even be bothered to vote? It doesn’t matter who’s in power to some people, they just naturally mistrust authority.’
‘But I vote!’ said James, defensively. ‘Are you saying that my vote doesn’t count?’
‘Of course it counts,’ said Juniper. ‘Like I said, we hold elections to see the way the wind is blowing and we do what needs doing based on that. We change the government around whenever necessary and that’s been good enough for those that pay attention to politics. As for the buggers who couldn’t give a toss, we look after them all the same, but if they don’t vote and tell us what they think then how are we supposed to know what they want? We ain’t mind-readers, Jimmy!’
‘But how fair a system is that?’ asked James, feeling as if a cornerstone of what he could comfortably rely on as normalcy was being violently jerked out of his grip. ‘Democracy is supposed to be representation of the people!’
‘Ah, but you see, Jimmy,’ said Juniper, leaning in his chair a little and fixing James with a knowing look. ‘Democracy can only be a true representation of the people if all of the people take part, and seeing as that ain’t going to happen unless we drag people kicking and screaming to the polling stations, the way we run things is no less fair than the way they were before.’ James opened his mouth to speak but shut it again. He wanted to argue against what Juniper had just said, but he couldn’t. How many times, he thought to himself, had he heard people disparage the government? How many times had he heard people say that they didn’t vote because they didn’t feel it made a difference? Part of James didn’t want to accept a society wherein people’s votes had no bearing on changes in power, but once again the evidence was right in front of him, smugly pointing out how everything he was finding so hard to believe was already happening and had been happening for a long time. James sagged in his chair as the fight seemed to drain out of his body. Whatever moral issues James had with the system as outlined by his uncle, the bare fact that it all seemed to work refused to go away. There were faults, of course, there had to be. James knew that there was no such thing as a perfect system or a perfect society, and for a moment he felt a touch of gratitude that Juniper wasn’t using his power to force people to be better. He was letting people be people, and that was something at least.
‘Custard cream?’ asked Grapeshot, fastidiously interrupting James’ train of thought with a small plate of biscuits. James took one.
‘So what exactly is wrong with these…things?’ asked James, indicating the politician robots that surrounded him.
‘Buggered if I know, Jimmy,’ said Juniper, shrugging. ‘That’s why we need you. If I could have fixed them on my own I would have and you wouldn’t have been dragged into all of this.’
‘So they’re all broken?’ asked James, as he took another bite of his biscuit.
‘No, not all,’ said Grapeshot, with a definite hint of gratitude in his voice that this was not the case. ‘But enough of the, shall we say, main players, to give us quite the headache.’ James looked at Juniper and raised his eyebrows questioningly. He could not talk, as he still had a mouthful of custard cream.
‘What he means, Jimmy, is that the ones you see on the telly, they’re the ones that have broken. Flaming typical, ain’t it? We still have plenty that work but it would raise far too many questions if we started putting lower characters on the totem on Prime Minister’s Question Time and the News at Ten. We’ve done the best we can for now by putting it about that the PM is away on holiday, and we’re just bloody lucky that this happened during the annual recess. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if it had happened at any other time.’
‘So I don’t have to fix them all?’ asked James, sensing his workload was perhaps not as extensive as he first feared.
‘Well, not right now, no,’ said Juniper, shifting a little in his chair.
‘What do you mean “not right now”?’ asked James, with more than a hint of suspicion in his voice.
‘I won’t lie to you, Jimmy. This isn’t a one-off job.’
‘Believe me, I wish it was. But if something like this can happen once it can happen again, and I’ll sleep a lot better at night knowing we have a man on side who I can trust.’
‘What are you saying?’ James didn’t like where the conversation was going, and he felt that it was going to get worse way before it got better.
‘We are saying, Mister Caplan,’ interjected Grapeshot. ‘That should we require your services again in the future, we need to know that you can be counted upon to answer our call.’
‘But I already have a job,’ protested James. ‘I run a business. I can’t just leave all that behind to be your personal repair man!’
‘No one’s asking you to do that, Jimmy,’ said Juniper, calmly. ‘Hopefully a breakdown of this size won’t happen again, but we’d be fools if we thought it totally impossible. That’s why we need you now and that’s why we may need you again down the line.’ James let out a long sigh and ran his fingers through his hair. He wasn’t even sure he could do this job once, let alone whenever it happened again. Agreeing to something like this, he thought, was fully admitting the existence of such an absurd set of circumstances, and there was still quite a large part of James that was struggling to come to terms with them. He looked into the expectant faces of Juniper and Grapeshot, both of them hanging on for whatever answer James might give them.
‘So if I do this…’ he began.
‘You will be handsomely compensated,’ said Grapeshot, eagerly.
‘I know it’s a lot to ask, Jimmy, but you’ve seen what we do here. We can’t have any old Johnny clapping eyes on this sort of thing.’ Juniper waved a hand at the mass of robots that filled the workshop. ‘And you’re the best at what you do. Plus, you’re family.’
‘Doesn’t look like I have a lot of choice,’ said James, resignedly.
‘I wish it didn’t have to be this way, Jimmy,’ said Juniper, consolingly. ‘But this is the hand we’ve been dealt. And trust me, playing it is going to be a lot less hassle than not.’
‘What about the garage?’ asked James; keen to cover all bases before he actually agreed to anything. ‘I can’t take too much time off with no explanation. The lads there depend on me.’
‘And they’re right to do so,’ said Juniper, proudly. ‘It’s a fine ship you run over there, Jimmy my boy.’ James smiled weakly at the compliment before Juniper continued. ‘But we’ll only ever call on you when we need to, and that’s a cast iron promise.’
‘So, I won’t have to give up the business?’ asked James; sounding a little more hopeful.
‘Course not,’ said Juniper, reassuringly. ‘Do this job right for us, Jimmy, and fingers crossed we won’t have to call on you for a long time.’
‘What about ongoing maintenance?’ This thought struck James like a blow to the stomach. He had no idea how much upkeep these robots needed and he didn’t much fancy the idea of making the long drive to and from his uncle’s secret government control centre every time one of the cabinet blew a fuse.
‘Oh we can handle that,’ said Juniper; waving a hand dismissively. ‘We’ve been managing for this long, haven’t we? No, we called you in because this is a big job; bigger than anyone here can handle. So, as I say, touch wood we won’t have to call on you very often. Only when it really hits the fan.’ James sat back in his chair and contemplated the job that was in front of him. Providing he could do it, he was looking at a hopeful one-off. A one-off that meant he wouldn’t have to give up Caplan Motors. He thought of his employees, of Kathryn and Lucy, of his home and the pile of bills…
James thought about what both Juniper and Grapeshot had said about him being compensated for his time; about how Juniper had somehow known about the bills that were mounting up within the Caplan household. James did feel a little guilty thinking about money in connection to this job, considering it seemed that his uncle was really in a bind, but James could not escape the fact that he had bills to pay.
‘Erm, Juniper?’ he said, tentatively.
‘I don’t like to bring this up, but this is a paid job, right?’ James hated the way his voice sounded. He didn’t like talking money until it was absolutely necessary, but he had to know.
‘Of course it is,’ said Juniper, smiling. ‘You think we’d drag you out here and drop all of this in your lap and not pay you?’ James returned the smile, but it was still weak. He still didn’t feel like there was a lot to smile about in this situation.
‘As previously mentioned,’ said Grapeshot, importantly. ‘You services will be handsomely rewarded, due to the delicate nature of our little problem.’
‘Put it this way, Jimmy,’ said Juniper; leaning in towards his nephew again. ‘You know that stack of bills sitting on the side in your kitchen?’
‘Forget ‘em.’ Juniper sat back and smiled again. The look in his eyes told James everything he needed to know. They didn’t need to talk amounts or anything like that. James knew in that moment that if he could help his uncle then his uncle would help him.
‘Okay,’ said James; reaching a mental conclusion. ‘Let’s do it.’
‘Excellent!’ said Grapeshot, as he clapped his hands together.
‘That’s my boy,’ said Juniper, proudly.
‘Where do I start?’ asked James; as he looked around the workshop.
‘Right here,’ said Juniper, laying a hand on the robotic Prime Minister. ‘We’ve got this chappie scheduled for a TV appearance later on today so we need to get cracking.’
‘Today?’ said James; as panic crept up his throat. ‘But I’ve not even started yet!’
‘Sorry, Jimmy, but this bugger’s been on holiday long enough. How are people supposed to have faith in their politicians if they’re swanning off on their jollies for weeks at a time?’ James looked into the blank face of the Prime Minister and tried to keep his cool.
Think of them as machines, he told himself. He picked up a screwdriver and turned to face Juniper.
‘Fetch me a rolling board.’
* * *
That evening, as millions of people sat down to catch the day’s events on the news, it was announced that the Prime Minister had returned from his holiday. The impeccably groomed newsreader handed off to a live feed from Number 10 Downing Street, and the equally groomed Prime Minister delivered an address in typically smooth and measured style.
Little did the nation know that behind the plush curtained backdrop sat a small, elderly man in a crisp pinstripe suit, holding a microphone in one hand and a custard cream biscuit in the other. Juniper Caplan spoke the words that the Prime Minister delivered, and none were the wiser.
While all of this was going on, James Caplan lay on his back under the Prime Minister’s podium, a screwdriver clenched between his teeth, as he made some last minute adjustments.
And none were the wiser.
* * *- July 2014