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Day twenty-four – Another day, another unfinished novel

November 24, 2017

And it will stay that way for the next couple of days, given that there are matinees on both Saturday and Sunday and given the unlikelihood of me getting up early enough to write anything before I have to head out.

Voting next week on which I should try to continue writing after the panto.

A couple of regular readers will recognise the story on which this chapter is based. 🙂

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CHAPTER ONE

ROGER WILCOX should have been able to guess when he saw QPix as the sender’s name on the message, but it simply didn’t register. Of course, once he’d read the short and irresistible message he knew: “Fun and games at the Old Bailey tomorrow. You should come. Love, Q.”  Christ, how long had it been?

Roger wracked his brain, trying to identify what, if anything, that unreliable organ had stored about cases currently slated for the Old Bailey. The answer: nothing. Five minutes on the internet corrected this.

Regina v the world’s most famous environmental group. A stunt that had staggered the nation: two inflatables racing up to huge American warship anchored at Portsmouth and hosting visiting dignitaries including the Minister of Defence. One nuclear radiation warning symbol spray painted on the side of the vessel before everyone was arrested at gunpoint, television cameras running throughout. The Government’s determination to see the perpetrators prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws should have been laughed out of court before ever arriving there, but somehow the prosecution was proceeding. Clearly the Yanks weren’t amused and someone was going to have to pay. Yes, there probably would be fun and games at the Old Bailey, but why should he be particularly interested? Roger skimmed through the list of defendants. Ah.

Roger thought the show trial was kicking off at 10am, but when he arrived at 9:30 it was already underway. The press box was chockablock – not that Roger still had any accreditation sufficient to claim a space. A combination of wheedling and brute force allowed him to squeeze his not inconsiderable girth into a space in the public gallery in the row behind. The manoeuvre unintentionally connected his elbow with the head of one of the members of the press. The resulting protest turned into a greeting from the victim: Chas Peterson, an old pal from Roger’s Fleet Street days.

The fact that they really had worked in Fleet Street was an indication of how long it had been since Roger’s days as a crusading journalist. It was decades now since Chas and his paper had gone to the Dogs. Roger, after a lengthy hiatus spent mostly in the company of Johnny Walker and Jack Daniels, was crusading again, although in quite what capacity he still wasn’t sure. Chas, who, at a minimum should have been a deputy editor now, was his paper’s crime reporter, a job which should have been well beneath him. Unfortunately, in these days of shrinking newsrooms and circulation, the choice was usually take what was offered or swallow the increasingly ungenerous redundancy on offer.

After offering Chas an apologetic shrug, Roger craned his head around to view the defendants in the dock. There were a baker’s dozen in all, ranging in age, he guessed, from their twenties to their sixties.  He knew for a fact that the stockily-built man with the mane of Heseltine-like snow white hair had turned sixty-five on the day of his arrest – going out in a blaze of glory before collecting his bus pass. Not that multi-millionaire Sir Harry Otterly was ever likely to need a bus pass.

Sir Harry, who had for fifteen years served as the UK director of the world’s biggest environmental group, was an old hand at this. He was also a consummate actor, his expression exactly the right combination of contempt for the charges and respect for his surroundings. Roger could tell the judge had taken against Sir Harry already, but that didn’t matter. Attempts to try him separately had failed. Attempts to avoid a jury trial had failed. It was all for one and one for all, and, despite the extraordinary seriousness of the charges, Roger was confident that Oliver Macintyre would prevail. Quick-witted, silver-tongued Mac had been defending the group’s cases for years and no one had ever been sentenced to gaol.

Of course, Mac had never been up against the full weight of the US military and the UK government, both brimming over with outrage at what they were desperately and unsuccessfully attempting to portray as a terrorist threat. Even the most rabidly right wing press was having a hard time swallowing the idea that a dozen people armed with tins of spray paint had ever posed a serious threat to world security, but this hadn’t prevented the trial taking place. As far as the military and security services were concerned, dissent was now an act of terrorism and would carry with it the stiffest penalty possible.

This fact did not seem to have escaped the majority of Sir Harry’s co-defendants, earnest individuals trying very hard not to look worried. Some of them looked like students, others like thirty-something professionals. Only two of the accused managed to look as calm as Sir Harry: the weather-beaten middle-aged Royal Navy veteran, more recently captain of the group’s flagship, and the pre-Raphaelite redhead whose gaze was darting from the judge to the jury to the public gallery, no doubt assessing the best angle for the photo she’d love to be taking. As if sensing his eyes on her, she turned her head and spotted him. Even from across the courtroom he could see how astonishingly blue her eyes were, the same blue his had been long ago before the booze turned them bloodshot red. She knew enough not to wave, but she did grin at him and, checking quickly to make sure the judge wasn’t watching, gave him a quick thumb’s up and a wink. Roger grinned back at her, surprised by quite how wonderful it was to see her.

Sir Clive Wallingford QC, the prosecuting barrister, was winding up his opening remarks. Roger leaned towards Chas and whispered, “This is bollocks, isn’t it?”

Chas turned to look at Roger, rolled his eyes and then gestured towards the jury. Out of the corner of his mouth he muttered, “They’re not buying it.”

One look at the seven men and five women confirmed this assessment. Four of them looked bored to tears – hardly surprising given Sir Clive’s soporific attempts at oratory. The body language of a further four – arms folded stiffly across their chests, bodies slouched slightly into their seats – and the clearly suspicious looks they were shooting in Sir Clive’s direction made it obvious they’d already decided they were being conned. Two of the women were sneaking admiring looks at the defendants, as if wishing they had the nerve or even the opportunity to race up to a huge US naval ship in inflatables to spray-paint nuclear warnings on its sides. The remaining man and woman were leaning forward eagerly, eyes on Mac, waiting for him to give them the goods.

A quick glance at Sir Clive confirmed the man’s understanding that winning the hearts and minds of this jury was going to be an uphill battle. The only faces in the courtroom more stony than Sir Clive’s were those of the uniformed US military officers sitting at the other end of the front row of the public gallery.

Roger smiled as Mac stood up, adjusted his robe and his half-moon spectacles, and turned to face the jury.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, his deep baritone filling the chamber, “I would like to congratulate you. It took considerable self-restraint on your part not to burst out laughing as my learned friend attempted to convince you that my clients represent a threat to global security.” A number of the jurors did smile, one even tittered. The judge shot Mac a warning look and Mac nodded his head respectfully towards the bench.

“Since 2001,” he continued, “draconian laws have been passed in the name of protecting us from some largely invisible terrorist threat.” The judge cleared his throat noisily and Mac responded with another nod in his direction, before continuing. “My clients believe that everyone has a right to know if some practice or activity is placing their lives and the wellbeing of their loved ones at risk. I will later bring forward witnesses to detail for you the long and noble tradition of non-violent direct action, of bearing witness to moral, ethical and legal crimes.

“For now, all I will say is that, on the day in question, it was the true belief of my clients that the presence in Portsmouth of a US warship, powered by a nuclear engine and in all probability carrying a large arsenal of nuclear weapons, posed a threat to the safety not just of the citizens of Portsmouth, but also to the population of much of southern England, including yourselves, the good citizens of London.”

“Well, was it or wasn’t it?” interrupted the judge.

All eyes turned to him. Mac blinked several times before replying. “Was it what, My Lord?”

“Was the ship carrying a large arsenal of nuclear weapons?” the judge asked impatiently.

“I do not know, my lord,” Mac answered. “Neither the prosecution nor any of the government agencies supporting this sham of a trial have been willing to provide this information.”

The judge then turned to Sir Clive, repeating his question, “Was it or wasn’t it?” When Sir Clive confessed he did not know, the judge, his voice dripping with sarcasm, said, “Then I suggest you call as your first witness a representative of the US military who can answer the question.”

“Yes, My Lord,” Sir Clive said, before whispering some instruction to an assistant, who quickly scurried out of the courtroom.

As the judge instructed Mac to continue, Roger could see the defence barrister was struggling not to smile. In the dock, Sir Harry, the captain and the redhead weren’t even trying.

The first witness sworn in for the prosecution was a fresh-faced captain whose role in the US military was not explained. Clearly far from happy about posing the question, Sir Clive asked, “Captain, as you may be aware, the defence claims that the presence on board your warship in Portsmouth harbour of nuclear weapons represented a potential threat to the local population. The court would like to know if such a threat did indeed exist.”

The captain stood ramrod straight as he replied, “It is the policy of the US government to neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons on board any of its vessels.”

A lengthy silence was finally broken by the judge. “I beg your pardon?” he asked incredulously.

The captain turned to face the judge, cleared his throat. “Your Honour,” he said, then quickly corrected himself as he’d no doubt been instructed, “My Lord, it is the policy of the US government to neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons on board any of its vessels.”

“Yes, yes,” said the judge. “I understand that. However, this court requires an unambiguous answer to a straightforward question. Were there or were there not nuclear weapons on board the ship in Portsmouth on the day in question?”

The captain glanced nervously back and forth several times between the judge and the Army brass sitting in the front row of the public gallery, before beginning once again, “My Lord, it is the policy of the US government – ”

That was as far as he got before the judge interrupted. “Captain,” he said, I am as sadly unacquainted with the intricacies of the American judicial system as you clearly are with the British judicial system. So let me explain something to you. Refusing to answer my question places you in contempt of court and liable for incarceration. Do you understand me?”

Journos were scribbling furiously, members of the public were murmuring and Mac was having increasing difficulty suppressing a grin, while the hapless captain looked once more to the brass for guidance. As he opened his mouth, no doubt bent on parroting the same statement, Sir Clive intervened, requesting a short adjournment to allow the captain to consult with his superior officers. The judge scowled, first at Sir Clive, then at the uniformed officers in the public gallery, but he agreed to the request.

Sir Clive and the captain were followed out of court by two of the officers. Five minutes turned into ten and then into fifteen. Sir Clive returned alone, his expression both furious and defeated.

“My Lord,” he said, his eyes fixed firmly on the judge, “the Crown wishes to withdraw this prosecution.”

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