The Doomsday Conspiracy

Chapter Twenty


Leslie Mothershed was lost in a golden daydream. He was being interviewed by the world press. They were asking him about the huge castle he had just bought in Scotland, his chateau in the South of France, his enormous yacht. "And is it true that the Queen has invited you to become the official Royal photographer?" "Yes. I said I would let her know. And now, ladies and gentlemen, if you will all excuse me, I'm late for my show at the BBC ..."
His reverie was interrupted by the sound of the doorbell. He looked at his watch. Eleven o'clock. Has that man returned? He walked over to the door and cautiously opened it. In the doorway stood a man shorter than Mothershed (that was the first thing he noticed about him) with thick glasses and a thin, sallow face.
"Excuse me," the man said diffidently. "I apologize for disturbing you at this hour. I live just down the block. The sign outside says you're a photographer."
"Do you do passport photos?"
Leslie Mothershed do passport photos? The man who was about to own the world? That would be like asking Michelangelo to paint the bathroom.
"No," he said, rudely. He started to close the door.
"I really hate to bother you, but I'm in a terrible jam. My plane leaves for Tokyo at eight o'clock in the morning and a little while ago when I took out my passport, I saw that somehow my photograph had been torn loose. It's missing. I've looked everywhere. They won't let me on the plane without a passport photo." The little man was near tears.
"I'm sorry," Mothershed said. "I can't help you."
"I'd be willing to pay you a hundred pounds."
A hundred pounds? To a man with a castle and a chateau and a yacht? It was an insult.
The pathetic little man was going on. "I could go even higher. Two hundred or three hundred. You see, I really must be on that plane or I'll lose my job."
Three hundred pounds to take a passport picture? Forgetting the developing, it would take about ten seconds. Mothershed began to calculate. That came to eighteen hundred pounds a minute. Eighteen hundred pounds a minute was one hundred and eight thousand pounds an hour. If he worked an eight-hour day, that would be eight hundred and sixty-four thousand pounds a day. In one week that would come to ...
"Will you do it?"
Mothershed's ego jockeyed with his greed, and greed won out. I can use a bit of pocket money.
"Come in," Mothershed said. "Stand against that wall."
"Thank you. I really appreciate this."
Mothershed wished he had a Polaroid camera. That would have made it so simple. He picked up his Vivitar and said, "Hold still."
Ten seconds later it was done.
"It will take a while to develop it," Mothershed said. "If you come back in ..."
"If you don't mind, I'll wait."
"Suit yourself."
Mothershed took the camera into the darkroom, put it into the black bag, turned out the overhead light, switched on the red light and removed the film. He would do this in a hurry. Passport pictures always looked terrible, anyway. Fifteen minutes later, as Mothershed was timing the film in the developer tanks, he began to smell smoke. He paused. Was it his imagination? No. The smell was getting stronger. He turned to open the door. It seemed to be stuck. Mothershed pushed against it. It held fast.
"Hello," he called out. "What's happening out there?"
There was no response.
"Hello?" He pressed his shoulder against the door, but there seemed to be something heavy on the other side of it, keeping it closed. "Mister?"
There was no answer. The only sound he could hear was a loud crackling noise. The smell of smoke was becoming overpowering. The flat was on fire. That was probably why the man had left. He must have gone to get help. Leslie Mothershed slammed his shoulder against the door, but it would not budge. "Help!" he screamed. "Get me out of here!"
Smoke was starting to pour under the door, and Mothershed could feel the heat of the flames beginning to lick at it. It was getting difficult to breathe. He was starting to choke. He tore at his collar, gasping for air. His lungs were burning. He was beginning to lose consciousness. He sank down on his knees. "Oh, God, please don't let me die now. Not now that I'm going to be rich and famous ..."
"Reggie here."
"Was the order filled?"
"Yes, sir. A bit overcooked but delivered on time."
When Robert arrived at Grove Road at two o'clock in the morning, to begin his surveillance, he was confronted with an enormous traffic jam. The street was filled with official vehicles, a fire engine, ambulances and three police cars. Robert pushed his way through the crowd of bystanders and hurried over to the centre of activity. The whole building had been engulfed by the fire. From the outside he could see that the first-floor flat occupied by the photographer had been completely gutted.
"How did it happen?" Robert asked a fireman.
"We don't know yet. Stand back, please."
"My cousin lives in that flat. Is he all right?"
"I'm afraid not." His tone became sympathetic. "They're just taking him out of the building now."
Robert watched as two ambulance attendants pushed a stretcher carrying a body into the ambulance.
"I was staying with him," Robert said. "All my clothes are in there. I'd like to go in and ..."
The fireman shook his head. "It wouldn't do you any good, sir. There's nothing left of the flat but ashes."
Nothing left but ashes. Including the photographs and the precious list of passengers with their names and addresses.
So much for fucking serendipity, Robert thought bitterly.
In Washington, Dustin Thornton was having lunch with his father-in-law, in Willard Stone's offices, in his lavish private dining room. Dustin Thornton was nervous. He was always nervous in the presence of his powerful father-in-law.
Willard Stone was in a good mood. "I had dinner with the President last evening. He told me that he's very pleased with your work, Dustin."
"I'm very gratified."
"You're doing a fine job. You're helping to protect us against the hordes."
"The hordes?"
"Those who would try to bring this great country to its knees. But it is not just the enemy outside the walls we have to beware of. It is those who pretend to be serving our country, who fail to do their duty. Those who do not carry out their orders."
"The mavericks."
"That's right, Dustin. The mavericks. They must be punished. If ..."
A man walked into the room. "Excuse me, Mr Stone. The gentlemen have arrived. They're waiting for you."
"Yes." Stone turned to his son-in-law. "Finish your lunch, Dustin. I have something important to take care of. One day, I may be able to tell you about it."