Nanites! Intelligent, microscopic technology that could cure fatal disease or create the deadliest smart weapons ever conceived.
The psychopathic ‘Conductor’ wants them, and with his own private army of assassins, nothing will stand in his way – until thirteen-year-old Ned Jones arrives home.
Ned is devastated when he discovers that his mother has been kidnapped, and when the assassin’s bomb destroys the nanite colony, there’s nothing left to trade for her return.
But the nanites find an unexpected sanctuary. One which transforms Ned and grants him some remarkable abilities in return.
Now, with time running out to save his mother, Ned, helped by two new friends, Ali and Jamie, must prepare to confront the deadliest killer… No-one has ever seen!
“My name is Mr Thompson. I am Gatekeeper of Bailiwick Hall. Your father sent me to take you home. He gave me a message for you. ‘Lord – Goldstone – Requests – It!’”
The arrogant stranger gloated at the effect the words had on the young boy. Ned Jones froze. That was his father’s password. He had no choice… He had to leave.
He said goodbye to the school that had been home for six years – nearly half his life – and got in the car. He almost didn’t believe he was going to see it again. Bailiwick Hall. Home.
And trailing them all the way there, Tuba and Saxophone, two members of a deadly orchestra of assassins operated by The Baron – code name Conductor. A psychopathic banker and the world’s biggest sponsor of war.
When Ned gets there, instead of the busy and vibrant stately home of his childhood, he finds the great house virtually empty. Then his father, Caretaker of Bailiwick, breaks the news that rocks Ned’s world. His mother, The Maid, has been kidnapped!
Their demands? The Living Colony of Bio-Mechanical Nanites, Bailiwick is about to gift to the world. Nanites that could cure disease or create the deadliest smart weapons ever conceived.
Ned discovers the truth about his childhood home, his parents, Lord Goldstone’s legacy and the Bailiwick motto – ‘Free To The World’. He meets Bailiwick’s five global directors in holographic conference and is amazed by the virtual worlds on Professor Winterborn’s holo-glasses.
But he can’t help his mother. Until the assassins bomb destroys the Colony’s incubator. Then the nanites, one old book, two new friends and three ancient maps prepare him to confront the deadliest killer… no-one has ever seen.
The Boy With The Unforgettable Memory
“JONES! NED JONES! Any of you lot seen Ned Jones?”
A blond, gangly youth appeared around the corner of the school’s main building and stood with his hands on his hips. He wore a prefect’s jacket and a look on his face that said he deserved it. The boys he addressed were relaxing in small groups on the grassy bank leading down to the stream. A few looked at him, squinting against the evening sun and shrugged in reply, but most ignored him completely.
“You there… Joshi,” he addressed one boy directly. “He’s in your form. Have you seen him?”
A disinterested Indian boy looked up from his chess game and answered in a very upper-class accent.
“Not since breakfast. Have you tried the dorms?”
A movement close by caught his eye.
“Oh sorry, Ned – Didn’t see you there. Fletcher seems to have the hots for you.” He grinned at his playing partner.
There was a slight commotion as a dark haired boy rose from where he was sitting at the edge of the group. He was used to not being noticed. Stuffing an old, worn-out road atlas into a tatty, brown satchel, he threw a resigned glance at the chess player and scrambled up the slope. He paused at the top to give his dark, leather jacket and faded blue-jeans a rough brush down. He was slightly shorter than the prefect but noticeably broader.
“Here I am, Fletcher,” he said, looking at the taller boy with calm, brown eyes. “What’s the panic?”
The prefect cast a critical look over the boy’s clothes.
“Goodness sake, Jones, there are standards you know. Must you dress like a lost child?”
Ned stifled a groan.
“We all know you were the first teenager, Fletcher. Tell you what. When I grow up, I’ll try to be just like you.”
A number of boys around them laughed out loud.
“Good one,” someone said.
“Yeah,” answered another, “must’ve been hard staying back a year.”
Fletcher whirled around.
“You lot mind your own business or you’ll go on report,” he warned them. “You’re wanted in the headmaster’s study right away,” he said, giving Ned a final once over. “You won’t have time to change.”
“The Head?” asked Ned in surprise. “What does he want?”
“Nothing good I’d say,” answered Fletcher with a smug grin. “You’ve got visitors, and they’ve put him in a foul mood.”
That stopped Ned in his tracks. In six years at Landing’s Preparatory School for Boys, he never had an unscheduled visit.
“Visitors?” he asked. “For me? I wasn’t expecting anyone. Is it my parents?”
“Not your parents, Jones,” replied Fletcher over his shoulder, “and I wouldn’t keep them waiting if I were you – they look serious.”
Ned hitched his satchel on his shoulder and headed quickly around to the front of the building. As he turned the corner he gave a low, appreciative whistle. A large, black, four wheel drive SUV had been abandoned beside the ‘No Parking’ sign at the school’s main door. Sunlight glinted off the chrome wheels and made the dark paintwork ripple like liquid gloss. He couldn’t see in through the darkened glass. With its blunt nose already pointing towards the avenue, it looked like an aggressive beast, impatient to be somewhere else.
He hurried through the doors and across the tiled entrance hall to the Headmaster’s office. Tea was about to be served in the dining hall, so the lobby and stairs were unnaturally quiet. His mind was racing as he stood outside the door.
“Oh well,” he thought, “only one way to find out.”
His knock seemed loud in the silence and he stepped back with a start. He wasn’t normally nervous and got a bit annoyed with himself.
“Get a grip,” he thought. “Can’t be that bad.”
“Come in,” called a voice sharply and Ned, taking a deep breath, stepped inside.
Mr Bernard, the balding, slightly plump Headmaster of Landings, was standing at a large, sash window, fuming at the offending vehicle blocking the steps outside. His appearance, like the room about him, was neat and tidy, although for once his usually pleasant face was red with barely contained anger. The cause was obvious. Two men, dressed in identical black suits and ties, and who obviously owned the car outside, appeared to have taken over his office.
The largest was at least a head taller than most men and built to match. He had dark, close-cropped hair and stood with his back to one wall, hands clasped behind him. His feet were slightly apart and he stared straight ahead from behind dark glasses, like a soldier on parade. The other was obviously in charge. He was slender and shorter than his colleague, with a thin face, very black hair and a slightly hooked nose. Studiously ignoring everyone, he casually flicked a long finger across the screen of the slimmest, blackest smart phone Ned had ever seen. Neither seemed to register him as he entered.
“Ah, Mr Jones, come in.” The headmaster turned from the window and tugged the bottom of his green, tweed jacket in irritation. “These… gentlemen…” he glanced pointedly at each of his visitors, “ have been sent by-”
“My name is Mr Thompson,” interrupted the thin man, without looking up from his phone. “I am Gatekeeper of Bailiwick Hall.”
He had a quiet voice and a neutral accent but arrogance dripped from every syllable.
“Now just look here,” Mr Bernard said angrily, “this boy is still my pupil. It’s my duty to expla–”
“Your father has sent me to take you home,” Thompson interrupted again, totally ignoring the headmaster. He turned to look directly at Ned for the first time. “You may pack a bag with some personal items. The school can forward the rest.”
Mr Bernard couldn’t believe he was being so completely ignored in his own office. He mouthed silently at the back of Thompson’s head, bristling with indignation.
“Home?” asked Ned in disbelief, looking at each of the men in turn.
He wasn’t sure he had heard correctly. Since the day he arrived at Landings he had never once been allowed home, and whenever his parents visited, they wouldn’t even let him speak about it.
“Yes, Ned,” Mr Bernard reasserted himself. “Home. Your father called just before these two arrived,” he flicked a thumb in Thompson’s direction, “and assured me you would know them and be happy to leave.” Gone was any attempt at good manners.
Ned looked more closely at the two men. He was sure he didn’t remember either of them, but it had been so long, he didn’t think he’d recognise anyone from there.
His headmaster saw Ned’s confusion.
“Do you know them, Ned?” he asked with some alarm. “You must assure me that you’re happy to leave or I can’t allow it. This is all very irregular. Very irregular indeed!”
“I… Well…,” he stammered. “I’m not sure.” He was becoming alarmed himself. “My father does work there,” he said, feeling the usual embarrassment he got whenever he had to talk about his parents. “He’s a caretaker,” he mumbled, as though confessing a guilty secret.
In fact, it was the strangest thing about Ned’s situation. Both his parents were servants. His father was a caretaker and his mother was one of the maids, at an ancient estate called Bailiwick Hall, where Ned had been born. He just never understood how they could afford to send him to one of the most exclusive schools in the country – or why they would bother. He had nothing in common with anyone at Landings, and as soon as the other boys knew his background, they had very little interest in him. Now, he was torn between an instant desire to go home at last and his immediate dislike of this arrogant stranger. He was about to suggest something sensible, like calling his father again.
“I’ve never seen these men before, Sir,” he said. “Maybe we should–”
Thompson closed the gap between Ned and himself in two swift strides. He placed one hand on the door frame and leaned forward, trapping Ned with his back to the closed door.
Mr Bernard exploded from behind his desk.
“GET AWAY FROM THAT BOY THIS INSTANT!” he shouted. “DON’T YOU DARE–”
The other man acted immediately. Turning on his right foot, he held out arms of steel, forming a barrier that prevented the headmaster from getting near Ned.
“GET – YOUR – HANDS – OFF – ME!” shouted Bernard, trying to force his way past.
The large man remained silent and immobile, looking past Mr Bernard as though checking the weather outside. The Headmaster’s efforts were wasted on him, so he turned to grab the telephone on his desk. Before he could lift it however, the silent bodyguard placed a powerful hand over it and shook his head slightly – just enough to indicate that there was nothing Mr Bernard could do. He was as trapped as Ned.
Ned could feel the door handle pressing into him and reached back to grab it. Thompson leaned closer so only Ned could hear him.
“Your father wants you back at Bailiwick Hall immediately and I don’t have time to waste with explanations. So do as I say… without delay. He gave me a message for you,” he said, staring directly into Ned’s eyes. “Lord – Goldstone – Requests – It!”
He spoke each word slowly as he stood to his full height, noting Ned’s reaction with an almost mocking expression.
Ned was frozen to the spot. The colour drained from his face and he only managed to stay upright by gripping the door handle tighter.
“Lord Goldstone requests it!” He thought he must have been hearing things. “Lord Goldstone requests it!” Their secret password.
He used to think it was only a childhood game when he was younger. “Pass the milk, Ned,” his dad would say, “Lord Goldstone requests it.” Or, “Time to leave now, Ned. Lord Goldstone requests it.”
But the game become more serious when he left home to come to Landing’s.
“Remember our password, Ned,” his dad said, every time they spoke. “Never tell anyone. If you ever hear it from anyone else, you’ll know it’s a message from me.”
Ned used to laugh at his father. “Okay, dad,” he’d say. “Our secret.” But he never took it seriously. Not until now.
He barely noticed the commotion at the other side of the room as his headmaster tried to help him.
“How did you…?” He spluttered. “That was… I mean… no one…”
He blinked slowly a couple of times as the message sank in. There was no other explanation, he decided. His father had sent this man to collect him.
“It’s okay, Sir,” he said, still sounding a little uncertain. “My father did send them. I’m going to have to leave.”
The large man had already stepped back against the wall, leaving room for a shocked Bernard to brush past him.
“Ned?” he asked, taking him by the elbow and leading him across the room. “Are you certain about this? Your father said they were coming but I never expected anyone like these two. Are you sure there’s no mistake?”
“Yes, Sir, I’m sure.” Ned replied, trying to sound calmer.
“Sorry about all this,” he said quietly. “It’s just come as a surprise. May I go up to my room? I’m going to have to pack a bag. I don’t want to keep them waiting,” he added in a whisper.
“Well yes… yes, I suppose so,” answered Mr Bernard, still agitated. “Once you’re happy to go I must let you. Your father was very clear about it. He wants you home as soon as possible.”
“And, you two,” he added, as Ned left the room. “There isn’t anything else for you to do in here. I think you’d be more comfortable waiting with your vehicle.”
He stared directly at each of his unwelcome guests and held the door wide open. Without another word, Thompson walked through, followed by his minder. Both still ignoring him completely.
Ned sat on the bed in his room, head bowed with his elbows on his knees and his hands hanging limply between his legs. He was breathing heavily from taking the stairs two at a time and the excitement of his sudden departure. His heart pounded in his ears like deep drum beats as he tried to clear his mind, but too many questions were spinning around. He took a deep breath and gave himself a shake, trying to concentrate on packing. He remembered hearing a question once about someone in a burning house.
“If your house was on fire and you could save only one thing, what would it be?”
He looked at the three posters on his walls – an old one of Concorde and two of outer space.
“They can stay,” he thought.
He checked his satchel. His road atlas and English journal were inside, complete with unfinished essay.
“Not my fault now,” he thought. “What else?”
He checked his bedside locker. Some model planes, a magnifying glass.
Wallet, with the last of this month’s allowance.
“Yes,” he thought and grabbed it.
Two pictures of Ned with his parents and his Aunt Helen – the only other relative he knew of. In they went too.
Then he stood quietly for a last look around the small room. Books. Clothes. A few comics. Nothing he couldn’t do without, at least for a while. The question repeated like a ghost voice in his mind. ‘If your house was on fire…?’ He looked into his satchel and felt a small surge of pride. It was still half empty. Everything he really wanted was packed and over his shoulder in less than five minutes.
It suddenly occurred to him that this was it. He was about to leave his home of six years for the last time. He crossed to the window for a final look at the sports fields and buildings. They had become so familiar that he had stopped noticing them. Should he feel sad? Lonely? He shrugged once and realised that he didn’t feel much at all.
As he turned to leave, a scraping noise, accompanied by grunts and loud puffing, announced the arrival of Timms, his next door neighbour and class glutton.
“What’cha up to, Timms?” he asked the rotund boy, struggling into the room beside him.
Timms looked up while heaving two stuffed shopping bags through his door. He shoved round glasses back up to the bridge of his nose with a podgy finger and brushed away some crumbs stubbornly sticking to his dark fringe.
“Midnight feast Sunday night… End of term in case you’ve forgotten,” he puffed. “Just back from the tuck shop. I think I’ve got just about enough. Fiver each was cutting it fine though. What are you doing here?” he asked, cramming the bags into a trunk at the foot of his bed. “Tea started ten minutes ago. Everyone is down in the dining hall. You know the rules at Landings,” he said, leaning heavily on the protesting bed frame to hoist himself upright. “If you want to dine – be on time!”
“I’m not going down,” answered Ned, noticing the finality of the statement. “I’ve got to leave straight away.”
“What do you mean leave?” asked Timms. “What’s happened? Is everything okay?”
“Not sure,” said Ned with a shrug. “My dad sent someone to pick me up. I don’t think I’m coming back.”
“Oh,” said Timms in surprise. Then he glanced at the trunk. “No refunds now… money’s all spent. Got the bulk discount from Sweetie.”
“Geez,” said Ned, “try not to miss me too much.”
A faint odour of food cooking reminded him that he was leaving on an empty stomach.
“Here,” he said going to the locker, “might as well get my money’s worth now.”
He opened the lid before Timms could answer.
“Blimey, Timms, there’s enough here for the entire school,” he exclaimed, looking into an Aladdin’s cave of confectionery. “I’ll just take some to eat in the car,” he said, opening his satchel.
“Well, I suppose,” mumbled Timms, “but go easy, Ned, I’ve got to have enough for everyone.”
“Relax,” said Ned, with a knowing grin, “there’s plenty. You might even have some left over. Eh, Timmsy?”
Timms smiled in reply.
“Couldn’t take the risk, Ned. This mob will kill me if they run out. Got enough?”
“Yeah,” grunted Ned, standing. “Well, I suppose that’s that.”
“Yeah,” Timms replied. “Suppose it is.”
They faced each other awkwardly, feeling a little shy all of a sudden.
“See ya then,” said Ned, throwing the leather strap over his shoulder.
“Yeah. See ya!” Timms jerked a hand in the air and down again.
Ned turned and within two steps was sprinting towards the stairs and the rumbling engine waiting outside. He knocked again on the headmaster’s door, which this time stood ajar.
“Ah, Ned,” said the Headmaster, stepping into the hall. “Your father was unavailable just now, but I’ve spoken with your housekeeper. It seems everything is in order. Apparently, Mr Thompson is just as… ahem, endearing shall we say, towards everyone.”
He studied Ned with a troubled look.
“This isn’t how I like to say goodbye to my students. Like to give you all something to think about for the future. You know… Something inspirational.”
Ned groaned to himself. Mr Bernard’s pep talks were legendary.
“It’s okay, Sir,” he said, looking behind the teacher and thinking quickly, “I think our motto says it all.”
They both looked up at the yellow, red and gold, stained-glass window over the stairs. The evening sun glowed warm against the letters. ‘Traditional Values in a Modern World.’ Ned knew his headmaster had composed it himself.
“Why… yes.” Mr Bernard said, looking pleased. “Yes, I suppose it does. In that case, Ned, all that remains is for me to wish you the very best, and hopefully, we’ll meet again sometime in the future.”
He held out a hand for Ned to shake.
“Oh,” said Ned, suddenly remembering. “Could you give this to Miss Monroe? I didn’t get a chance to finish it.”
He took his English journal from his bag and placed it in Mr Bernard’s open hand.
“Well… bye then.” A small tinge of nostalgia crept over him. “And… thanks.”
He took a last look around and surprised himself with a small catch of emotion.
“Thanks for everything.”
Outside, the car looked enormous in the evening shade. Dark windows, black paint and the impatient rumble of the engine. It was like the start of some kind of magical, mystery tour – only without the magic. He took a deep breath and opened the door.
It was equally imposing inside. Three dark leather seats – each as big as the armchairs in his common room – filled the back, with plush, navy carpet lining the floor. He felt small as he stepped up onto the running board. Taking the centre seat, he gave himself a clear view of the road and at least a partial view of his two escorts. Even to Ned – who had only ever travelled in his parents’ old bangers – the new car smell was unmistakable. He inhaled the delicious scent deep into his lungs. It was wonderful. The leather creaked under him as he stretched his legs fully and twisted deep into absolute comfort. The front seats were at least ten inches away from his outstretched feet. Despite his apprehension, he couldn’t fail to be impressed.
“This,” he thought, “is definitely the life.”
“Settle down back there,” Thompson ordered, giving Ned a withering look from the passenger seat, “and keep quiet! We’ve got a long journey ahead, so no distractions. Those buttons,” he indicated the side of the arm rest, “will allow the seat to recline fully if you want to sleep. There’s water in the fridge between the seats.”
“Fridge?” Ned asked looking around. “Wow!”
He was deeply impressed now. His fingers had already found the control buttons and his seat-back and foot-rest whirred in response.
“Nice,” he nodded in approval. “I like it!”
“I’m so glad,” said Thompson sarcastically. “Now stop fidgeting with it and take your shoes off – she’s brand new. We only took delivery on Tuesday morning and I don’t want it ruined by you”.
“Where are my parents?” Ned asked, giving the button a couple of extra jabs in defiance. “Why couldn’t they pick me up?”
“Your father has some pressing business,” Thompson answered, turning his back. “Now, be quiet! As Gatekeeper, I have the security of Bailiwick Hall to take care of and I’m too busy to waste my time answering questions.”
He gave the driver the smallest nod and the big machine lurched forward.
“Pressing business?” thought Ned. “A door hanging emergency… or some broken windows maybe.”
“But my dad’s a caretaker,” he said aloud. “What could be so important? Was there a flood or something?”
Thompson turned and stared at Ned for a long moment.
“He thinks his father is a caretaker,” he said, almost to himself. “You hear that?” He smirked at the driver. “He thinks his father’s a caretaker.”
The driver gave a twitch that might have been a smile but said nothing.
“Your father is not a caretaker,” he said, as though Ned was the greatest idiot he had ever met, “he is The Caretaker – of Bailiwick Hall. I’m sure he’ll be happy to enlighten you on the difference as soon as we get you there. Now, as I said. I’m busy. We have a long journey, so…”
He waggled his smart phone in front of Ned and turned to face the front, signalling the conversation was over.
“Big deal,” thought Ned. “So he’s the chief caretaker. Still don’t see why he couldn’t come – or send Mum.”
Ned was resenting this sudden uprooting without explanation. He turned for a last look at Landings. The big car had left a trail of swirling dust clouds spinning around the avenue trees like frenzied dervishes. His last view of the imposing building was closed doors and empty windows, darkening in the evening shade. No one waving goodbye or even watching him leave.
“By tomorrow, I’ll be completely forgotten,” he thought, feeling sorry for himself. Then he remembered that the final year photos were the next day and he wouldn’t even be in those. “Not only forgotten – a year from now no one will even know I was here.”
He sank lower in the seat and wondered what it was all about. A stab of pain reminded him that he hadn’t eaten for a while, so he grabbed his satchel and retrieved a couple of the chocolate bars he had lifted from Timms. He saw his road atlas and pulled that out as well. Flicking a switch he’d seen on the armrest, twin lamps in the roof responded with a soft reading light.
“Nice,” he thought, then spoke up again.
“What road are you taking home? Are you going on the motorway or along the coast?”
He had opened the atlas on the small scale route map showing the entire country across two whole pages. To anyone except Ned, the pages looked as though they had been defaced by some lunatic slugs dipped in paint. Lines of different colours traced their way along winding routes, all leading to the same place – Bailiwick Hall. Each line began from somewhere his parents had brought him on their short visits and Ned knew every route by heart. It was his hobby. Some people collected things, others painted – but all Ned ever wanted to do was get home. It was only natural he wanted to know which line to follow tonight.
“Be quiet!” Thompson ordered in reply.
Ned removed the wrapper from one of his bars as noisily as he could.
“Will you keep it down,” Thompson looked around in annoyance, “and don’t get any stains on those chairs – she’s brand new.”
“I know… You said,” Ned answered sullenly.
He made a grimacing face at the back of Thompson’s head while holding the bar between his teeth, but decided not to push it any more. There was still a long way to go, whichever way they went. Anyway, in three miles or so, they’d have to turn one way or the other and he’d be able to visualise his route then. Three hundred and seventy four miles one way, three hundred and forty eight the other, and he knew every bend on the road either way.
No one noticed the parked car as they sped by. Long and sleek, its dark form blended with the evening shadows like a panther hunting. Moments passed and the finely-tuned engine gave a low growl as it came alive. Unhurried, it followed gracefully in the wake of the loud beast ahead – the driver and passenger relaxing into their journey.
“About time,” said the bald driver in a surprisingly mellow voice, with a slight trace of an Irish accent. “I hate all this sitting around. Wonder which way they’ll go?”
“Thoon thee,” replied the squat passenger, typing on to his phone. “Only two choices from here. Five hours either way, tho thettle in.”
His voice was coarse and rasped from his throat as though every word was an effort. He struggled to breath through a nose so pulverised, it was almost flush with his face. These days he sounded like someone with a never-ending head cold. His thin lips were permanently open in a misshapen oval and he squinted through small, red-rimmed eyes. Bar fighting was still one of his favourite pastimes and many old scars nicked his prominent forehead and jaw. The screen illuminated his square face as he read the message, then jabbed ‘send’ with a strong, stubby finger.
“At least dings will tart to happen now.”
He stared at the phone until the ‘message sent’ melody chimed, then slipped it back into his pocket.
Two simple words – ‘Parcel away’.
After a few minutes, Ned’s driver indicated and turned towards the motorway. In his mind, Ned could clearly see the corresponding line on his atlas. As an exercise, he silently recited the names of each village and town they would bypass along the way and then checked the map to see if he was right. He was, and judging by the way this guy drove, he reckoned they’d be at the Hall in no more than four and a half hours. He still hardly believed it. Less than an hour ago, he was getting ready for his evening meal. Now he was just a few hours from home.
The blue glow from the dashboard lights allowed Ned to study Thompson and the driver’s profiles. Thompson had swapped his phone for a tablet, which had glided from a slot in front of him. He was flicking his fingers in every direction across the screen, opening and closing windows faster than Ned could read them.
“This guy is either a computer genius or the most addicted shopper on Earth,” he thought. Although, he couldn’t help being impressed by the speed of the slender fingers. The thin face and slightly too long nose told him nothing he hadn’t already learned. Thompson was rude, arrogant and maybe even cruel, but carried out his duties to the letter. He had been sent to collect Ned and like it or not, within an hour of arriving, he was already on the way back.
The driver, on the other hand, was a different animal. From the side, Ned could see a strong jaw line, muscled neck and a gaze that never wavered from the road. His bulging arms seemed to be trying to break free of his suit and his hands looked more than capable of snapping the steering wheel in two. Ned decided never to mess with him.
The car powered through the late evening, effortlessly devouring mile after mile and Ned soon surrendered to the luxury of a reclining seat and super-smooth motion. He began to drift in and out of a restless sleep, filled with dreams of Thompson and his partner chasing him round a half remembered home. Then those words came back to him, ‘Lord Goldstone requests it’, and he felt comforted. His dad must have sent them – no one else knew their secret password. He turned once more into the sweet smelling leather and slept on, until the crunch of gravel beneath the wheels told him they were finally there.
The heavy, iron gates opened quickly and quietly in the darkness as the car approached. Invisible laser emitters, embedded in the ancient piers, deactivated to allow them through and infra-red, day-night cameras checked the number plate, passengers and underside. Just as quickly, the gates closed and locked behind them.
The trailing car drove past as Ned’s disappeared on the long driveway. They had driven the final mile or so without headlights and pulled over into a dark lay-by as soon as they were out of view. Once again they appeared as nothing more than a shadow by the roadside.
“And that – as they say – is that,” said the driver, killing the engine and stretching his arms back over his headrest with a long exhale.
He finished loosening his back with some side stretches, pulling his grey polo shirt tight across a muscular chest. He switched on a soft reading light and looked at his passenger with intense blue-green eyes, permanently fixed in a hunter’s stare. His bald head and clean shaven jaw made his lips appear vividly red, like a cruel gash in a porcelain face.
“Time to make the call and maybe we can get back to the hotel ourselves,” he said. “I hear a new chef started this week. We might get some decent food out here after all.”
The gentle voice and soft accent were completely at odds with his appearance. His partner grunted and took out his phone. He was about to hit the speed dial when the driver stopped him.
“Might be better if I spoke to him, eh? No offence, but you are a little hard to understand on the phone these days.”
The squashed face took on an injured expression.
“No need to tay tins like dat! I can’t keeb getting by dose fixed. It’s a hazard ob the job.” He shrugged. “Go on den… pleads yourself.”
The driver produced an identical phone and hit a speed dial. The uplink was instantaneous and they waited for the series of clicks that told them the call had been diverted halfway around the world via a dozen satellites. It was now completely untraceable.
Hundreds of miles away, in a palatial Alpine villa, a very exclusive group of people were marking another year of exorbitant profits with their annual celebration banquet. The sumptuous dining room hummed with jovial conversation and the occasional ripple of polite laughter. Crystal chandeliers glowed with gentle light that shimmered on ball gowns and sparkled on jewels as big as marbles.
Their host, Baron Friedrich Von Sturm, sat with his usual two aides at the head table, waiting silently for the last plates to be cleared. His hair was a peculiar blue-grey, that appeared silver under the reflected light, matching his grey eyes, as he slowly scanned the room. He was a creature of self-indulgent comfort, with the pale pallor of someone who rarely feels the sun or wind.
Once the servants had left the room and the doors were locked, he stood – tall and regal – to deliver the speech he had been preparing for a very long time. One of his companions struck a cut-glass goblet with a silver fork, sending sharp, crystal notes pinging through the air. The hum of conversation died slowly as each head turned in his direction.
With four fingers in one pocket of his black dinner jacket, the Baron was completely relaxed. He ran a finger across one side of his thin moustache and, without taking his eyes off his guests, inclined his head slightly to his other aide. A large screen lowered from the ceiling behind him.
A film of carnage played. Cities and towns in various stages of destruction and helpless civilians running for their lives. He pointed his remote control and the image froze on a dusty, desert village, already half pounded back into the brown sand. A terrified child screamed silently into the camera. In the sky behind her, a long, black missile pointed like a mocking finger towards the ground.
Turning his emotionless eyes from the screen, he spoke with a slight lisp, in a clipped, Swiss-German accent.
“Dear friends. The wars that have been raging around the world have made you richer than you ever thought possible. So many wars, so much destruction, is adding millions of dollars to your bank accounts every day. The Destructor missile you see here, is one of the most widely used on the planet. Already this year’s consumption is eighty percent greater than last year’s… and next year promises to be even better.”
“That’s one of yours isn’t it?” A leering diner shouted across to a short, podgy man with no visible neck.
The accused smiled broadly and hid a champagne burp behind his fingers.
“What can I shay?” he slurred. “Issa damn fine product.”
The film restarted, showing the child and the already ruined buildings being razed to the ground. A dust cloud filled the screen and the room burst into spontaneous applause.
“Wow! Excellent payload!” someone shouted.
No-one mentioned the little girl.
The Baron ran through a few other missile strikes and a launch from a destroyer.
“Oh… Oh!” a skinny, excited man shouted from the bottom of the table. “That’s one of ours. That’s our Amphibo One cruise missile. Six hundred thousand a pop.”
This news met with enthusiastic admiration.
“My friends,” the Baron called for their attention. “These wars are profitable… but are placing a terrible financial strain on the governments involved. Their debts are so great now,” he smirked, “that they can no longer afford to rebuild the countries they leave in ruins. They can barely manage to provide adequate services to their own populations. Once again, they have turned to my bank for assistance and I, naturally, agreed.”
His audience stiffened. The Baron had promised them the greatest opportunity of their lifetime tonight and the Baron always kept his word, but as investors in his bank, they would be the ones to provide the money for his schemes. He fixed them with steady eyes and delivered his lifetime’s ambition.
“I have devised a plan that guarantees them the money they need to wage war forever, if they so choose. From now on, they will be able to purchase as much of your products as often as they wish. Your order books will be full to overflowing and your factories will never sleep.”
“We will simply erase the cost of war from their records,” he announced calmly. “Through my bank, we will assume these debts and hide them forever from their citizens.”
The diners looked perplexed but didn’t dare question him.
“With the help of some friends in a number of governments, my bank has been selected to manage all the United Nations budgets for rebuilding war-torn regions.”
The irony of using the world’s biggest sponsor of war to oversee war relief projects wasn’t lost on his guests. There were some incredulous giggles and gasps of amazement. Mr Destructor Missile laughed openly. Even the Baron allowed himself a rare snigger. Then he shrugged.
“Who better than The International Bank of Structural Change to handle such matters?” he asked innocently.
They guffawed loudly.
“This new arrangement will allow me to arrange a discreet, open-ended loan for every government you supply. A loan purely to purchase armaments!”
He watched their expressions change while he spoke. Some sat forward eagerly while others glanced around at their comrades, wondering if they had heard correctly. Then, they listened as he outlined details of colossal loans. Vast sums that would terrify ordinary people. Even in this company, some eyebrows lifted and a nervous shudder passed through the more sober amongst them.
“I will simply deduct their loan repayments from their annual payments into their foreign aid accounts and disguise it as administration fees. The money they lodge into my bank will appear only as their contribution to our noble efforts to rebuild their war zones. There will be no mention of weaponry. Their citizens will carry on like drones in a beehive, completely unaware that their charitable donations have been diverted to your profit sheets.”
It was a stunningly audacious plan, and their disbelief was waning, until one guest couldn’t contain himself any longer.
“But that will be trillions of dollars, Baron!” He sounded aghast. “They’ll never be able to pay us back!”
“Exactly,” the Baron replied. “We all know that debts which cannot be repaid, will not be repaid. Which is exactly where we want them. By taking control of their debts, we will also take control of them. This, at last, is our time. Those fools who wasted so much money waging pointless wars, will do anything to hold on to power. In return for our services, and,” his voice took on a note of warning, “our silence, these governments will pay us a very generous rate of interest… For ever.”
“I call it G.O.D., Government Offloaded Debt, and I am pleased to tell you that most of them will sign up immediately.”
“And there’s more,” he said, waving his hands down to calm their rising excitement. “Now that I control the relief funds, I also control all projects requiring those funds. From clearing rubble to rebuilding cities, I will be in charge of everything. I choose the companies that receive our contracts and they, also, will pay us.”
He paused long enough to stare into the eyes of each of the diners.
“From now on, there is no limit to the profits we can expect. Not only will we profit from selling them the weapons to destroy, we will also profit from the contracts to rebuild afterwards. And the interest they will pay us on the loans they require to do all this… will never end.”
“You, my friends, are about to become the wealthiest group of people who have ever walked the planet.”
After a moment of stunned silence, the room erupted in wild applause. Glasses were raised to delighted faces with shouts of ‘Hear, Hear!’ and ‘Good Show!’ Ringing notes of crystal being tapped with silver spoons, rebounded from the high ceiling.
The Baron raised both hands to his guests.
“My G.O.D. will ensure that we remain where we belong.” He gestured towards the majestic snow peaks outside. “Sitting on the top of the world!”
The applause reached new heights as the diners digested the meaning of this announcement. The money they would make from now on was limitless.
The Baron basked in the limelight until a cough behind him interrupted the moment.
“My apologies, Sir,” said the elderly butler, displaying a blinking light on a golden telephone. “You have a call.”
The Baron turned and regarded the phone being offered. The flashing light told him it was one of his agents. A momentary frown of annoyance passed quickly, and he directed the servant to his private rooms with a flick of his eyes.
Locking his dressing room door, he crossed to a mirrored wall that reflected the moonlit mountains outside. He stood on a button buried in the carpet and stared at the optical scanner hidden in the glass. A large section slid silently open. Inside, four curved rows of golden telephones nestled in black, velvet pockets, each bearing the red embroidered name of a classical instrument. Centre of the third row, the phone marked ‘Brass – Tuba’ flashed insistently.
He took it out to the balcony, where he welcomed the chill air and savoured the sweet scent of the silent mountains. An almost-full moon whitened the snow caps and cast long, pine shadows across the twinkling water of the lake below. Slowly, a subtle change came over him. His expression hardened and his lips twisted into a cruel sneer. He blinked once slowly and looked around – as if only just realising where he was. When he spoke, his lisp was more pronounced and his aristocratic accent was lost in a throaty hoarseness.
“Yess,” he whispered, raising the phone, still staring at the mountains.
“Tuba reporting, Conductor,” said the bald driver. “The package has arrived safely.”
“Good,” said the Baron. “Why could we not find it ssooner, I wonder? Surely, with the resources at your dissposal, thiss task should have been completed a long time ago?”
“Caretaker was clever,” replied the driver, swallowing hard. “The boy was placed in a private school under a different name for six years. We never knew when the parents would visit him. They worked hard to keep him concealed for so long,” he added, with grudging respect.
“Those people are sservants,” snarled the Baron. “They should never have outwitted uss for so long. In any case,” he calmed himself, “they are all contained now, sso you can complete your mission as instructed. Have you sspoken to our contact there yet?”
“Not yet. We thought we’d make the ransom call first and then contact him. He might be able to tell us what they’re thinking.”
“Very well,” replied the Baron. “Perhaps a little ssurprise from our Ssaxophone would also be helpful. Iss he with you?”
The driver passed the phone over.
“Yeth? Dis is Sax.”
“You have had another one of your accidents, Ssaxaphone. I grow tired of fixing that for you.”
“Yeth, yeth. Very grateful… but… um… happened again. Thorry. I’ll try to be more caref–”
“Enough!” interrupted the Baron. “I do not have time for thiss. We will need one of your sspecials. Nothing too dramatic. Just enough to let them know we are sserious. The day after tomorrow I think. Now put Tuba back on.”
The driver took the phone again.
“Call our Caretaker friend tonight. Offer him an exchange for their Maid. His wife for the Colony. Give him forty-eight hours to decide. In case he delays, Ssaxophone is planning a little persuasion. Whatever happenss, Tuba”, whispered the Baron, “their Nanite colony must never be allowed to leave Bailiwick Hall. Those fools will hand everything over to the world of medicine for free and block all military use. A gift like that to the world can never be allowed to happen.”
“Understood, Conductor,” said the driver. “I’ll call tonight. Oh, by the way,” he blurted. “I’ve been meaning to ask.”
“Yess?” The voice was as menacing as a gas leak.
“Well… it’s about my name, Sir. I was wondering… if you wouldn’t mind that is… do you think I could change to something else? It’s just… you know… well the truth is, I’ve never really liked the tuba. Much more a rock and roll man. How about Guitar?” he asked hopefully.
Saxophone was looking at him as though he had lost his mind.
The Baron was looking at his phone in much the same way.
“You don’t seem to understand your place in all of thiss, Tuba,” replied the Baron dangerously, “sso let me explain. I am composing a ssilent symphony that is felt all over the world. And just like the instrument in the orchestra, you join the playing when I tell you and you play your part exactly as instructed. Never sspeak again of guitars, or rock and roll.”
He disconnected without waiting for a reply and stood deep in thought for a while. He savoured a last deep breath of the fragrant air before walking back inside. Replacing the phone in its velvet pocket, he ran his fingers briefly over the others. Fifty lethal agents stationed all over the world – controlled from here.
“The deadliest orchestra ever assembled,” he thought, pressing a button in the velvet lining and watching his reflection reappear before him. “And now, with my God on my side, the world is truly mine.”
He stared at himself until his face regained its normal disdainful expression. With an unnecessary stroke of his perfect hair he turned to rejoin his guests, smiling the smile of a very contented man.
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