“And Philip went through your office bins again.”
Lester raised an eyebrow. “Personally?”
That brought a very slight and very wry smile to Hazel's otherwise completely professional expression. “No. A member of the Prospro staff. One of his assistants.”
“The depths that some people will sink to.....” Lester shook his head, turning a page in his ledger. “We've intercepted his office bins of course?”
“Of course. And his mail. The scans are with yesterday's anomaly data”
Lester glanced at the file in question. Tucked amongst the usual incomprehensible readings were several loose-leaf sheets, almost transparent and packed with possibly essential secrets. Excellent.
His other aide, Samantha, finished tapping at her Blackberry. “Your meeting with the Minister is in an hour.”
Hazel marked something down on her clipboard. “The car will be here in thirty minutes.”
“Right. You'll come with me, eyes and ears. You.” He turned to Samantha. “The same here. Burton and Connor.”
Samantha nodded, already focused back on her Blackberry. No doubt she had uncovered something else that the ARC team had fruitlessly hidden from him. They might stupidly think that he couldn't be everywhere at once, but they were wrong. Wherever and whenever he wasn't present, Samantha and Hazel were. It was what they were paid for. It was one of the reasons that they had been so thoroughly and independently vetted. Lester was not going to endure another Oliver Leek incident. So far, so good, and it was going to stay that way.
It was in their contracts that the ARC staff had to run everything by him first. But that didn't happen. Scientists were laws unto themselves, stubborn and bloody-minded. They couldn't be corralled for very long before the plotting started. So Lester had Samantha and Hazel keeping an eye on everything, literally. It was much easier than relying on the ARC teams to actually tell him what was going on. His aides were better than Burton's array of electronic bugs that he thought no one else knew about, and they made sure that Lester’s office was impenetrable to Prospro's feelers. They just amusingly let Burton think otherwise.
It had started a month after his arrival. Burton had visited the office when Lester was out and had told Samantha and Hazel that he was worried about the strain that Lester was putting on himself with his workload and that if only Lester would share it with him as he was supposed to, it would be better for Lester’s health and for the ARC. So if they heard anything that he’d be able to help with, anything that Lester took on by himself, they should let him know so that he could relieve their boss of the dangerous strain. It had all been ridiculously transparent and Lester had heard every word, thanks to the discreet listening devices that his aides always wore – one of Hazel's blouse buttons and the elegant sweetheart broach pinned to Samantha's lapel. Burton hadn’t recognised them; thanks to his sweeping business deals, he didn't have any friends in the electronics division. Hazel and Samantha had both assured Burton that of course he’d be the first to know if there was anything that Lester was holding back. Stupidly, he’d believed them.
Hazel exited the office, off to walk the ARC floor and do her usual hourly check on everything. Samantha would soon be fixed to her computer tablet, working on scheduling and where exactly Burton was compared to where his paperwork claimed he would be, as well as whatever new trinkets or theories he was secretly developing on the side and keeping hidden on his system. All without Burton knowing about her activities, of course. That went without saying.
Lester stood to look down into the main control room. Jessica was at her terminals, being annoyingly perky, and Abby was talking to her. Connor was there too, but he was distracted. He was looking at what appeared to be blueprints. Lester narrowed his eyes and watched as Connor seemed to realise the very public area that he was standing in. With a goodbye to Abby that she didn't respond to, he hurried away in the direction of Burton's labs.
Burton had been spinning his web around Connor for some time now. Anything Lester would normally do in such a situation – threaten, shout, dock Connor's pay - would no doubt push Connor even further towards Burton. How very convenient. It was clearly what Burton was counting on. Lester grimaced. Just the very idea of Burton having the upper hand was infuriating.
Of course, Burton had no idea that he didn’t have as much to be smug about as he thought he did. Lester was not born yesterday. He’d been doing his own web-spinning for some time now. It had begun long before Burton had even set foot in the ARC.
Jessica had some idea of what was happening and had made it clear that she didn't like Philip. More importantly, she had become attached to the team. If it came to choosing sides, she wouldn't side with Burton. Becker was a slightly shakier prospect. If Burton told him stories of guaranteed safety and limited deaths, Becker, in his still very obvious grief and saviour-complex guilt, could be swayed. But if there was one thing the soldier did know about, it was loyalty. He had proved that during the Christine situation. Perhaps his growing connection with Jessica would cement matters.
“Keep an eye on Becker,” Lester instructed over his shoulder. “Burton will go in for the kill soon. Let’s at least shake his aim.”
Matt had entered the control room. He looked as inscrutable as ever. He gave Lester a nod as he passed, always so aware of who was watching. Lester continued to do just that.
“And we need the Anderson DNA testing done by next week.”
“Sir?” Hazel was back, holding a neat sheaf of papers. “You wanted the Cutter file.”
Lester beckoned her and the papers forward. He looked through the file once a week. Helen Cutter had to be dead. It was the only explanation. Still, Lester hadn't seen a body or heard a definite eye-witness report yet so he continued to study the file, just in case. The woman was a cockroach.
That reminded him. “A meeting this weekend. I'm assuming you can both make it.”
Hazel and Samantha both nodded. Good. Nick Cutter's grave was well-kept. It was nothing sentimental or expensive. A simple gravestone lined with planted flowers in a cemetery near where he was born, far from the ARC and amongst trees and landscape that he no doubt would have found fitting. It was exactly what he'd specified in his will. It had turned out to be very fortuitous for Lester.
The small cemetery was rarely busy. It was a good place for private conversations. There was nothing suspicious about Lester's presence there. The death had occurred on his watch after all, and he wasn't the only ARC inhabitant that regularly visited Nick’s grave. So he and his aides would visit, Samantha would run a scan on the surrounding area, then Lester would sit on the bench and they’d talk about matters that couldn't be discussed even within the confines of his office. Matters like exactly how they’d deal with Burton when his inevitable coup attempt took place. Preparation was one of the keys in politics, as was making sure that nobody knew that you were preparing at all. The power of surprise could never be underestimated.
If the weather was bad, then there was the nearby chapel. It reeked of furniture polish and gloom, but it was quiet and completely private. Lester had personally donated enough money to gain himself a door key. You couldn't buy God, but you could buy one of his houses.
And of course, it didn't look out of place in his personal finance records. He already paid for the upkeep of Nick's grave. Anyone idiotic enough to snoop would think it was guilt compelling Lester to keep the grave and chapel in good condition. It was penance. They could think what they liked. His accountant encouraged the donations. It looked good, now and then, to do something for the community. It tended to grease the wheels further down the line.
“The car's waiting, sir.”
Hazel had her jacket on and her messenger bag in hand. Lester closed Cutter's file. Hazel handed him his coat and briefcase. Lester took a final look around the office.
“I expect this to be in the same condition when I get back,” he told Samantha. “And I expect a full report.”
Samantha nodded and stood as he left. Once she began focusing on Burton and Connor, she'd set the motion sensors and cameras in his office. The sort of thing that Burton would expect to find. The sort of thing that distracted from the much more sophisticated and practically invisible back-up systems that were also in place. Excellent.
As they passed the control room, Lester announced his departure.
“I've got a meeting with the Minister. Call me if there's any emergencies. Any repairs will be taken out of your pay cheques.”
The car was idling just outside. After Hazel's security check, they were on their way. The way Len drove, they'd be at the Commons within fifteen minutes.
Hazel immediately focused on her Blackberry, communicating with Samantha. Lester didn't bother watching. All pertinent updates would be forwarded to his phone.
Lester took several. The refreshments in the Minister's room were notoriously dire. When he returned from the meeting, there would probably be news from Samantha on just what Burton had been getting up to in his absence and how much considerable property damage that the team had caused thanks to another of their wild ideas. Samantha would have pills waiting for him if the number was high, and a very strong coffee. Thank Christ.
The car got through security without any problems. Len would wait in the car with his ARC-issued stun gun, and Hazel would attend the meeting, taking notes. Samantha would be apprised of all relevant details at their next secure rendez-vu. Lester doubted that Burton shared anything with his own staff. The man had no back-up at all.
The car door opened. Hazel waited on the other side.
“Burton's on the move. Samantha's tracking him and reaching out to her contacts,” she told him quietly as he emerged from the car.
“Update me every fifteen minutes.”
Hazel nodded and fell into step beside him. Lester hefted the weight of his briefcase. Thanks to his years at the ARC, he now lived by the wisdom of always carrying something that could be thrown at an assailant. Both his aides carried attack alarms in their handbags. They'd come in useful on several occasions already.
Right now, his briefcase was useful because it held the reports that the Minister needed to see on the ARC's progress so that Lester could argue why the government should continue to provide funding for it. A meeting that Burton had not been invited to. What a pity.
Past security, Lester knocked on the Minister's door. Hazel switched on the recording device that was masquerading as a faintly-glittering stone on her necklace. You never knew what you might hear in confidence. This was an entirely different thread of the ARC's protection that Hazel and Samantha worked on. It was so much more effective than firearms. It was what any decent civil servant would do.
Lester straightened his tie. Burton had no idea what he was up against.