Exclusive serialisation of Charles Bancroft's latest book; Deadline
Rob drew on his Gauloises and stared up at the number in the sky. 365, one year to go, the number visible across the London skyline from the top of the Telecom Tower. Jesus Christ, and we’re only in the foundations. He looked down at the morning’s Guardian next to his Macchiato. The date on the front page was 27th July 2011. The headline said the same thing, 365 days was emblazoned across the front page. The date was already etched in his mind but seeing it here, now in the paper, knowing that the whole world was watching, added a new dimension. As an architect, he had worked with deadlines his entire career, they were as much a part of a project as the walls and windows, but ultimately any deadline could be extended, it was just about money. Penalty clauses, fines in effect, would be triggered, it was expensive, but deadlines could be moved. Even London’s huge Wembley Stadium had been delayed, football matches had been switched to other venues. Any deadline could be moved. Except this one.
After the fiasco of Athens, the world’s media eagerly scrutinised Olympic construction progress and relished any delays as tomorrow’s headlines. But it was worse than that, much worse. After initially being left at the gate, through a mysterious benefactor, he was now running with the hounds. All the other major Olympic projects were running according to schedule, Zaha, Hopkins, Populous all his contemporaries were on track, but his pavilion had encountered major setbacks from the getgo. Everyday the deadline seemed to be more unattainable. This was make or break for his career. He had to deliver this project on time.
Yes the press could smell blood even when it wasn’t there. But in this case, it was. Literally. He shuddered which seemed to cause his phone to vibrate.
“Nina, how nice to hear from you,”
“Rob, have you heard about the Russian?”
“No, what Russian?” A feeling of dread seeped into his heart.
“The last body, at the site. It was Russian.”
“Nina how on earth do you…”
“Come on Rob, it’s my job, this is big news,” she interjected, “by the way, she had a mobile phone,”
“Sorry I thought you knew…” This news devastated Rob. Both that the “remains” weren’t ancient after all and then hearing that one was a woman. He suddenly felt ashamed that he hadn’t been taking this more seriously. Then a darker more sinister thought crept into his mind.
“You don’t think there’s any connection do you?” Rob’s heart laboured under the growing suspicion that the Petrov affair might be resurfacing. He harboured an even deeper worry that was just too horrible to crystallise into a conscious thought. His heart of hearts was playing with the dark scenario but his conscious mind managed to keep it at bay. For the moment.
“Rob I don’t know, but I’ll let you know the minute I hear any more,” the phone clicked off. He looked at his watch. Eleven. He waited for a cluster of Boris bikes to pass and hailed one of Tottenham Court Road’s now plentiful taxis. Hope time.
“Usual Mr Gilbert?” the attractive Eastern European girl behind the bar at the Hope, Rob’s adopted local and one of Clerkenwell’s buzziest pubs, asked while grabbing a glass,” He smiled mischievously in return, and in his trade mark silky voice replied as he did every morning, “naturally, my dear, and how you today?” he had been good recently, his self-imposed rule not to drink before lunch was holding. A cold refreshing beer was not drink under these rules, he wouldn’t have a wine until later.
With the first sip of beer, he allowed himself to drift into the dark place that the word “Russian” would forever be associated with. The Petrov affair. This long buried… he inwardly cringed at his use of the word, he was after all, in reality, just a little boy. Playful, adventurous and naughty, it was just that now, in his grown up body, these same traits seemed to get him into all sorts of trouble. The Petrov affair had been one. He had fallen in love with a mysterious woman, she had called herself Angelika. From heaven. But she hadn’t been from heaven. A part of his heart was still owned by this woman. He hoped that it would never be reclaimed. It was at that moment that his phone rang again.
“Rob?” His old friend Husani, the eminent heart surgeon sounded agitated.
“Husani? Dear boy, how are you?”
“Not so well my friend, and nor will be when you hear this…” Rob listened with growing dread, took a swig of beer and signalled at the wine rack behind the counter. In their specially evolved communication the girl extracted the architect’s current favourite red, asked without words whether her customer wanted a glass or bottle, in return Rob tilted his head to one side, come on. The whole exchange and transaction happened in a nano second.
Rob’s relationship with alcohol was a close one. He adjusted his intake with the precision of a watch maker, he knew the moment it was taking over. But he also knew that a dramatic change in circumstances, imminent danger or a few other events could wash away any inebriation in a flash. Self survival kicked in and he could become sober as a judge in a split second. So it was now. The news he received left him cold. He felt sick.
All his worst nightmares had come home to roost.