The Beginning Of The End
1999 - The century fades into legend - icons tarnished, heroes diminished or dead - but still many cursed the new dawn, grasping for a belated mention in history.
The final months heralded a time of darkness like some plague of old but much more sinister. The decade began with hope, the break up of the USSR ending the Cold War.
Peace at last?
Mankind considered discarding his most powerful weapons.
Then came war in the Gulf - conflict from Europe across into Asia. A cancer spreading - problems, strife and uncertainty - crime and terrorism escalating as the have-nots grabbed a share of the good life. Authority crumbled, governments and monarchies became contemptuously reviled and ignored.
Weapons proliferated - tanks, warships, combat aircraft directed by electronic command and control systems integrating radars and automatic weapon arrays - lightning reflexes of modern warfare - detaching people from the life and the death of it - all too much like some giant computer game.
Arms for all - weapons of all description - the most powerful ever invented. The Genie had escaped the lamp and no one could put it back again.
A time of darkness - evil and hideous with cataclysmic promise stalked the planet. The Four Horsemen rode far and wide - following their smouldering hoof-prints walked the thunder of the Apocalypse - the time of the hunter - the man with the gun
* * *
'Die for my country...?' He paused - a calculated gesture or a space to gather his thoughts? Whichever, the effect was the same
'Call it old-fashioned, but to me it's the ultimate extension of honour.' He tried not to sound pompous, suddenly aware how stuffy and hot it had become under the blazing studio lights.
She examined his face closely, noting tiny beads of sweat penetrating the dust of make-up on his forehead. Finally she'd cornered him - nudged his guard - denting his icy composure. It excited her - she loathed this man, his kind, the things he stood for - but she'd left it too late - they'd run out of time.
'Thank you, Mr Fisher.'
The presenter wound up carefully, scanning the monitor while reading the autocue, a closing perfectly timed with the countdown in her tiny, discreet earpiece.
She made it look so easy
Still radiating self-confidence he turned slightly aside - but too late to mask the hint of self-congratulation that flickered across his face. Camera three zoomed in for a final close-up.
'That concludes Westminster In Private with my guest David Fisher - well-known entrepreneur and founder of Britain's newest political party.'
The production team began fading out presenter and guest as she turned to face camera one.
'Thank you for joining me, Jan Felix, for Westminster In Private. I hope for your company again in four weeks, when my guest will be the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland....'
Television's highest paid presenter had done it again.
As the programme faded into its final seconds of airtime, Joanna her assistant gathered a folder stuffed with programme notes and followed her boss from Studio Two. The floor manager carefully removing his headset and spectacles before mopping the sweat from his forehead.
'That's it, Jan - great.' Then turning, 'Thank you, studio - well done everybody.'
As the flashing on-air light extinguished, the studio resumed its other life - air conditioning humming - the buzz of reopened conversation between technicians and crew as they moved through the maze of lights, cables and cameras.
'How do you think it went?' Fisher enquired, as Jan escorted him from the claustrophobia of the tiny basement studio. Confident small talk - not a genuine enquiry- he knew exactly how it had gone.
'Very well, very well indeed - good television.'
'Will you cut any of the interview?' he asked, holding the door
'I'm sure you know it's not our policy to edit Westminster In Private. Although we record it for evening transmission we treat it as an unedited live programme. Its easier to produce and schedule if we tape it earlier'
'When you watch it I think you'll be very pleased with the way your points emerged.'
'I was on the alert for more of your famous supplementaries,' he teased - watching her eyes for any reaction.
'I think you had your share,' she was slightly annoyed by his over-confidence. 'I'm there to extract information, not to attack.'
She had the uneasy feeling of being used. It was the wrong way around - she did the exploiting. There was no warmth, no gratitude in this man - not towards her.
The bright sunlight flooded over, natural and cleansing, contrasting with the fake glare and choking claustrophobia of the studio as they parted outside the Queen Elizabeth Centre, the large building opposite Parliament - home to several studios strategically adjacent to the centre of power. His handshake, formal and cold - no attempt to prolong the relationship, or any half-hearted try to extract the final assurances usually sought.
Britain's hottest interviewer watched silently as Fisher entered the waiting Jaguar. Joined by Joanna, she paused while the dark blue car slid smoothly under the raised security barrier into Storey's Gate, edging to jostle into the traffic circulating Parliament Square.
'So that was the legendary David Fisher,' said Joanna, 'the man to revolutionise our system of government - Mr Cool, the Iceman.'
'Messages?' asked Jan, ignoring the comment - focusing across the square to the shimmering grey outline of the parliament buildings, briefly pausing still fascinated by the brooding bulk of granite and bronze likeness of Winston Churchill.
How she would have relished interviewing him
But in 1999 there were no giants, only men like Fisher towered above the political pigmies. From her subconscious floated that old adage - about using a long spoon when supping with the Devil - it would have been better recalled an hour before.
'Just a call from James. Could you phone him back when you have five minutes.'
'I thought you'd buy your guest lunch? As normal?'
Not Fisher...' Jan repeated herself, engrossed in thought, 'not him...'
'What's wrong?' the younger woman asked. 'You're very quiet - not like you - you're usually on a high after an interview?'
The older woman - still focused on that historic building where so many of her victims worked - wondered if it was all worth it. Perhaps Guy Fawkes had the best idea after all?
'There's something not right about that man - something sinister.' Her brow wrinkled with concern.
'What do you mean...? If you believe that, why didn't you expose it on air?'
'I don't know - for the first time I couldn't. He's like an eel - hard to grasp. My greatest asset is my sharpness - that's why I'm the best on the network.'
'Today's programme was excellent television - punchy, crisp, incisive, dramatic. I was good - he was good - we'll get great ratings, but it won't convey my real feelings. Won't even touch on them. For once I couldn't express myself, let alone voice my feelings on camera - not about Fisher.'
'You've never had this problem before,' Joanna was intrigued by her boss's unease, 'Usually the reverse - holding back to protect the company from defamation claims.'
'I'm not really sure...' Jan spoke slowly, selecting each word carefully.
'My instinct is to cross myself - reach for the garlic whenever I meet him. His presence sucks the warmth from the room - lowering the temperature.'
'Surely he's not that bad? I didn't feel it. He seems a nice guy for a politically ambitious billionaire.'
'Perhaps not - probably not...' Jan shrugged. 'Something's not right. He's hiding things - his true beliefs. I'm not naive - I don't expect honesty from politicians - but it goes deeper with him - I'm positive of that. There's something about David Bloody Super-cool Fisher that leaves me shivering with a chill I've never felt before.'
* * *
Ex-ace fighter pilots don't panic - Bonney knew that but his brain hadn't told his guts - churning bowels forgetting it was only one more storm in just another sky - no worse than hundreds before, none of which had troubled him much - he was still alive to remember.
Why the fear - the warning stabs from abdomen to brain? Was his arse saying he was too old - no more the fearless wartime ace? Just another fading has-been re-capturing his youth with one more crazy adventure? One last adrenalin surge to prove he was still a sharp and capable.
The stabbing abdominal pains intensified but there were skills to be summoned - concentration to be plundered. Fear's cold hand knotted his guts; he tasted its acid - but why? Just another storm, one more patch of turbulent sky - twisted masochistic fun to a flawed eternal child unable to reject a taunting dare.
Still he had a choice - go back, re-route around the storm - or fly through tempting fate. Nothing new - fear, in all its forms was an old acquaintance, friend and drug - the ultimate fix - opium to mad, incorrigible misfits seeking thrills in every trouble spot. Fear had flown as his co-pilot from Vietnam onwards - through his mercenary period in Africa and then gun running into Bosnia and Rwanda.
It had sat on his wingtip, taunting and beguiling
Fear, his old friend, in his mind's abyss - he tarried on its edge, peering, tempted to jump - always lingering, seduced for delicious seconds before pulling back, adrenalin recharged. He knew he could avoid it, but that wasn't the style of Major Lynton Bonney, one-time flight commander, 366th Tactical Fighter Wing, Vietnam - just another ex Nam jet jockey - used, rejected and forgotten.
The need for a high was again too strong - racing pulse heralded danger, pounding heartbeat the drum roll before the guillotine blade separated some poor bastard's head in the Place De La Revolution - marking time with the marching feet of his own funeral cortege.
Vietnam his highest high - before free-fall into disillusionment, pointless drifting and searching - he should have grown out of it.
The storm had started as a modest low-pressure trough twelve hundred miles west of California - in the featureless wastes of the mighty Pacific. The hot sun over a calm blue ocean seduced moisture from the sea until thousands of tons of saturated air drifted eastwards.
For weeks stagnant high-pressure air mass lingered over the Bay, building stifling smog, trapping the pollutants of seven million cars into a watery pall greying the sunshine. It became humid, sweaty, poisonous to breathe - inducing irritation, discomfort ill temper.
Many suffered - those with runny nostrils, hay fever and asthma had fared worse, but everyone who tasted the pollution - especially those sweating outside without air conditioning - now blessed the cool clarity the new weather brought.
The crab fishermen of Moss Landing welcomed the arrival of the clear air as the fog rolled back revealing the sparkling shimmering deep azure. The breeze and the drop in humidity eased their blistered hands as they laboured.
They blessed the change in the weather.
As Bonney sped into storm his thoughts were different from those below him. His lips curled - part grimace - part grin, as he greeted - welcomed the tempest.
To him it was just another day nearer death
The precocious weather matured on the gentle western slopes of the Diablos - wafted smoothly upwards, its invisible fingers parting the crowns of young sequoia trees - fattening rapidly by gulping thermal currents fed by the summer sun.
Bonney scanned his instruments - coaxing the pitching aircraft back to level flight. Oil and fuel gauges - temperatures and pressures indicating the health of the machine.
Everything was right
The adolescent storm annoyed that its tears brought relief to drought-threatened farmers below, punctuated its growing petulance by spitting enormous hailstorms - the saliva of contempt.
Steadying the control wheel, Bonney pushed first the left, then the right-hand lever, channelling hot air into the carburettors to melt any choking ice that had condensed from the moist air.
With a sickening wrench the plane fell from under him, shoulder straps biting painfully, dragging him with the plummeting machine. Cursing, he tightened the straps into a vice grip.
It was beginning
Peter Hunter 2011
Extract from Peter Hunter's full-length thriller Time Of The Eagle on Kindle