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VENDETTA

Terry Morgan





Copyright © 2018 Terry Morgan

First published in 2018 by TJM Books www.tjmbooks.com

The right of Terry Morgan to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the copyright owner.

ISBN: 9781370477906

www.tjmbooks.com.



The author:

Terry Morgan is a British citizen but lives in rural Thailand. Having travelled extensively, worldwide, with his own export business, his writing has a strong international, business and political flavour.





























VENDETTA



CHAPTER 1



Being a creature of predictable habit, Edward James Higgins, Professor of Tropical Plant Science at Oxford University did what he always did if it rained as he cycled to work. He hung his socks and sandals next to his bicycle clips on the radiator to dry. Then, to the amusement of his PhD student, he spent the rest of the Saturday morning tutorial padding around the laboratory in bare feet.

An hour later, alone once more, he sat quietly at his corner desk examining a computer print-out and glancing occasionally at the faded remains of an old newspaper cutting pinned to the cork board.

With the dark, shoulder-length hair and central parting, few would have recognised the accompanying photo as a forty-year old photo of himself - a short-lived celebrity, a student demonstrator and a fanatic, pale-faced environmental activist who the press had dubbed “Huggy”. A few old friends still called him Huggy, but nowadays, he was mostly known, even by first year students, as Eddie.

Eddie, his bicycle, his sandals and his flapping old raincoat were well known around the streets of Oxford but at sixty-two years old, the one-time Ozzie Osborne look-alike now sported a central parting that had broadened to six inches. “Hope springs eternally, but there’s nothing wrong internally,” he’d say in response to cruel jibes about his hair that had receded to a ring of sparse grey threads and fluff. Eddie, an enthusiastic writer of satirical poetry in what little spare time he had, always felt inspired to scribble another whenever he looked at that old photo.

He’d just taken a sheet of notepaper to start one when the phone rang. “Your visitor’s here, Eddie,” said Charlie who combined janitorial duties with unlocking the front door on quiet, Saturday mornings.

“Send her over, Charlie.”

He knew who it was although they’d not yet met. This was the chairman – or chairwoman – of a local, Oxford-based cosmetics company who had offered the University money in the form of a student bursary. Universities grabbed any cash on offer and Bill Hughes, the head of department, had done his best to quell Eddie’s well-known opinions on industry and especially what Eddie called ‘the vanity business’ and accept.

Remembering his bare feet, Eddie sat on the floor to drag on his socks and thought back to how Bill Hughes had finally persuaded him.

“We could use the money, Eddie, so can you try putting aside your well known personal opinions, prejudices and suspicions about businesses for once?”

Eddie had been adamant. “No.”

“Come on Eddie. Not all of them are so bad and you know as well as I do that your opinions are quickly seen for what they are – unfounded, private vendettas.”

“No.”

“Not even if, as part of the deal, you become their appointed scientific adviser, Eddie?” Bill had winked. “With all that that might offer? Influence? Powers of persuasion? Change for the better?”

“Well, if you put it like that.”

That was almost a year ago. Now, wearing his damp socks, Eddie went to the door and opened it to a wall of perfume.

Standing there was an unexpectedly tall, slim, black-haired woman in a dark suit who looked much younger than he’d imagined. This wasn’t the squat, savage-looking, bespectacled and mousy-haired chairman and chief executive of his imagination but a taller, more delicate creature with pure white skin, shiny red lips and deep brown eyes surrounded by thick, black paint. She smiled at him.

“Professor Higgins?”

“Call me Eddie.”

“May I come in?”

Baroness Isobel Johnson (she was one of those who had acquired a title for being well connected in circles that Eddie would deliberately avoid even if the opportunity arose) slipped passed him and he checked her from behind. She was wearing shiny, red, high-heeled shoes and black stockings. A flimsy red scarf was draped over a dark grey jacket and beneath that a matching grey skirt. A red handbag hung from her shoulder.

Eddie’s low interest in personal details meant he hadn’t learned much about her beforehand. Had he bothered he’d have discovered that Isobel Johnson was highly regarded in some circles. She was a regular contributor to magazines on fashion and such-like and was often called upon to speak on the radio or TV or at conferences in support of women in business All Eddie knew was that not a drop of rain had touched her so she’d clearly arrived by car or taxi, certainly not by bicycle.

He was still holding the door open with his glasses hanging on the cord around his neck. “We banned those sorts of shoes some years ago,” he said. “They leave marks on the laboratory floor.”

Isobel turned and looked at him and Eddie saw a striking resemblance to a waxworks model of a Chinese concubine he’d once seen.at Madame Tussaud’s. It was the glossy red lipstick that clinched it.

“Of course,” Isobel said. “How thoughtless of me. Shall I leave them outside?”

Eddie wondered about that because he’d also been at the forefront of a ban on high heels in corridors but at this rate she’d need to return to London for a complete change of clothing. “Outside is fine,” he said beckoning to the corridor.

He replaced his glasses to watch how she bent over in the tight skirt and removed the shoes. She placed them neatly against the wall, brushed the skirt down and then turned to look up at him from a slightly lower altitude. “Better?” she asked.

“Thank you,” Eddie said. “Please come in. Take the stool by the incubator.”

“Did you put the kettle on as you said you would, Professor Higgins?”

“Yes. It has already boiled. Twice. Tea?”

“Thank you.”

“Milk? Sugar?”

“Neither thank you. It’s a big laboratory, Professor Higgins.”

“Call me Eddie. “

“And you’re in charge?”

“Yes. Biscuit?”

“What sort do you have?”

“Osborne. Rich Tea, or whatever they’re now called.”

He busied himself with two mugs of tea, one with milk and two sugars, the other without. He squeezed the tea bags with the spoon, checked they were fully spent of colour and polyphenols and dropped them in the pedal bin. Then he grabbed four biscuits from the packet.

“This looks very complicated Professor Higgins.”

In looking to see what it was that was so complicated, the tea from one mug spilt on the floor so Eddie wiped the splashes with his foot hoping she hadn’t seen. Hot wetness seeped into his still damp, grey socks. “Gas chromatography and mass spectrography. Some students’ work. Results from a few tests on Krabok nut oil,” he said.

Eddie was a world expert on tropical hardwood trees such as Kraboks, their nuts and their fungal diseases but he tried hard not to bore anyone with too much science. He’d seen too many eyes glaze over in the past to even try.

“And what does it tell you?”

He slid the mug of tea towards her leaving a trail of wetness and put two Rich Teas alongside it. That’s when he noticed her fingers, the shiny red nails and three rings – gold with clear little stones.

“My students were looking for therapeutic properties, particularly antifungal ones amongst the aldehydes and esters components in nut oils.” He was speaking somewhat distractedly because nail paint always intrigued him. Why did they do it? What was the purpose?

“I see,” Isobel replied.

“In your cosmetics business, you call them essential oils, Baroness Johnson.”

“Isobel, please.”

“In theory, when choosing an essential oil for human use you would want one with a high therapeutic value and low toxicity. There are many different compounds within each of the major categories – in fact there are several hundred individual chemical substances in these oils. That makes it difficult to evaluate them chemically. Even though a chromatograph may show only a few of the constituents of an oil, one still needs knowledge of many individual substances and their properties to read and understand a GC-MS report. Some components can be quite toxic in large quantities.” Eddie glanced at her from the corner of his eye. “But you know all that of course. You’re in the cosmetics business.”

Isobel tried sipping her tea but Eddie knew it would be far too hot for her delicate red lips. She put the mug down.

Over his half-moons he watched her looking at the screen through two strands of straight black hair that had fallen forward. Her brown eyes peered through long black eyelashes that were either false or fluffed up with those little black brushes they use to improve the flutter effect. Her eyebrows were thick, black and neat mirror images of each another.

“This,” he said pressing a few keys, “is a comparison of two oils that you might think were identical – lavender oils. Lavender is useful for teaching students. If lavender is grown above 2,000 feet, the ester content increases. This, some say, makes high altitude lavender oil more useful in aromatherapy and therefore more profitable.

“We’re talking serious biochemistry coupled with complex benefits and toxicity testing, Baroness. Claims, for instance, that lavenders have calming effects and antispasmodic properties are - what shall I say? - mostly hearsay. Most users and sellers of aromatherapy products don’t have the slightest understanding of the chemistry behind the ludicrous claims they make.”

Eddie was getting into the swing of things now. He pulled up another stool and sat down close enough to find her perfume quite overpowering. “And neither do perfume and cosmetics manufacturers,” he added, wrinkling his nose.

She smiled. “But whoever heard of someone dying from an overdose of skin cream, Professor?”

“And whoever heard of someone taking an anti-ageing cream who finds the ageing process has been stopped in its tracks,” he snapped back.

“But it’s their choice.” She said checking the heat of her tea again. “If they feel and look better then…”

Eddie erupted. “The word anti means against,” he said. “Anti-ageing therefore means against ageing. It means something, in this case a mix of chemicals, that acts against ageing or at least delays the biological process of ageing. No such single chemical exists. Anti-ageing does not mean lessening the visual signs of ageing. The cosmetics industry uses expressions to distort scientific fact. It turns clearly understood words and changes their meanings. It distorts truth to get around advertising standards that are, in themselves, inadequate. The cosmetics industry lies, misrepresents and steals words to sell products that don’t work.”

“Really, Professor, I don’t quite……” but there was no interrupting Eddie when he was on a roll.

“Take the word serum,” he said. “Ask any woman these days what serum is and she’ll tell you it’s cosmetic. No. it’s not. Serum is a highly complex body fluid in which blood cells circulate in blood vessels. Serology is a scientific subject in its own right. Serum is not, and never can be, a mix of a few synthetic chemicals in a drop of oil sold in pink tubes and little bottles. They stole the word, Baroness. “

Isobel looked appalled as if no-one had ever spoken to her like this but Eddie still hadn’t finished.

“And you think that someone in a society like ours where good quality food of all types is cheap and available in indecent abundance needs to take food supplements and consume energy drinks as if they’re vital for general health and performance?”

He was pleased how he’d slipped in that indirect reference to the new range of Vital Sports drinks. He made a noise that was meant to sound triumphant

“What on earth is meant by replacing lost electrolytes for example?” he went on. “Do they really mean the sodium chloride in sweat? If so, say so. Does anyone who drinks these concoctions properly understand words like hypotonic, hypertonic or isotonic? And, even if it was possible, would anyone really need to improve and speed up their metabolism?”

Baroness Johnson wriggled off her stool. “Professor Higgins. I thought I was here to listen to your views following a talk you gave to our staff a short while ago.”

That was true. Talking to staff now and again was one of the jobs of the scientific adviser. So far, Eddie had only talked to them once, formally, but once was enough. He’d walked around their manufacturing area more than once but had found senior staff boring, disinterested, arrogant, flippant and, quite frankly, rude.

Eddie was still seated and Isobel was facing him at eye level so he stood because his mother had always told him to stand if a seated lady he was conversing with stood.

“Yes,” he said, “Because according to your short email to Professor Bill Hughes you had concerns about the way your business was being run. You’re in the cosmetics and health products business and you’ve appointed a scientific adviser. Well, here I am – asking questions and advising.”

Isobel sniffed. “Professional advice is one thing. Personal views are quite another, Professor.”

“Not so,” Eddie said crossly. “For a scientist, different sets of views must be allowed to overlap until indisputable facts tilt opinion one way or another. And, anyway, the message I received was that you wanted opinions on staff motivation and commitment, not just their scientific knowledge. That is a pity because as none of your staff are properly qualified their ability to question technical data is very limited. But it was as if you were suspicious of goings on within the company. Am I right?”

She sniffed again so he knew he was right. He continued: “If so then as your scientific adviser and as I am not at all clear who I actually report to, I would like to say that Vital started giving me cause for concern several months ago. Those concerns have recently increased substantially.”

“I see.”

Eddie swallowed some tea and wiped his mouth. “So, do you want to hear my views?”

“Yes,” she said. “That’s why I’m here. And if you are in any doubt, Professor, you report to me.”

Eddie was pleased she’d cleared up that long-standing question but it was the way she announced it that took him by surprise. It was surprisingly forceful.

At last she took a reasonable sip of her tea and nibbled on an Osborne. She was standing up and he’d always imagined well brought up ladies ate and drank sitting down, but he wasted no further time on that. “What qualifications does your chief buyer have?”

“Peter Lester?”

“That’s him. What is his background?”

“Business, Professor. He was not my appointee. You must understand all the staff were in place before I became Chairman. The Chief Executive, Nick Carstairs and the Finance Director, Boris Hamilton, were also in place.”

“Nick Carstairs?”

“He was in banking.”

“Boris Hamilton?”

“Accountancy.”

“The Quality Manager, Donald McVie?”

“I believe he worked for a local engineering company but why do you ask?”

“I think one or more of them broke into my home.”

That shook her. Her eyes widened and the thick black eyelashes didn’t move at all for a full three seconds.

“Broke in? How? When?”

“I trod in a sticky blob of chewing gum outside my front door.”

“Chewing gum?”

“Lester and McVie both chew gum.”

“Do they? But it could have been the postman. A delivery driver.”

“Perhaps, but let’s see what the finger prints tell us.”

“Finger prints? Did you call the police?”

“Finger prints found in dust in my home laboratory are being looked at by my private investigator.”

“Private investigator? Good gracious. But why on earth would anyone break in.”

“To steal my Krabok nuts, Baroness.”

“Nuts?” she repeated.

“And to steal my personal data and correspondence. Breaking into my home is far easier than breaking into this laboratory.”

“Your private correspondence? Why?”

“Let’s begin with my nuts,” Eddie said. “Drums of Krabok nut oil are used in some of your cosmetics. What’s more, during my jungle forays in South East Asia - which I conduct twice a year, by the way - I came across a type of Krabok tree that produced three times as much of a certain vital component as normal. Those trees could become very valuable if protected and genetic and other tests were performed. And that’s not just because of their value in cosmetics. Far more interesting to me is that we’ve shown they produce an interesting oil that could be extremely valuable in medicine. However, Baroness, that is all now very unlikely as those trees were also stolen.”

Eddie stopped at that point and watched her fingers playing around her shiny red lips. Her cheeks, too, showed a slightly rosier tinge. “Stolen?” she said.

“Perhaps I should have said illegally felled – taken from a prized and protected national park and wild life sanctuary in northern Thailand.”

Isobel’s cheeks were growing rosier by the second.

“All that aside,” Eddie said more quietly, “With regard to your concerns about the way your company is run, I’m not a businessman but it’s all about standards. We should all live according to a set of standards. In Vitals’ case staff should be suitably qualified, understand the products they make and sell and should not, whilst being remunerated by Vital, be tempted into doing things on the side that verge on illegality.”

He stopped then, wondering whether he’d gone too far. But it was Mark Dobson, his private investigator friend, who had sown many of Eddie’s suspicions. He watched Isobel remount the stool, wriggle and pull her skirt down to almost cover her knees. She sipped her tea, pushed the rogue strand of hair from her face and took a deep breath. Then came the minor capitulation that Mark Dobson had forecast when he knew Eddie was meeting the top boss.

“We all have to make the best of whatever we inherit,” she said.

Eddie had just dunked half an Osborne and lost it to the depths of his cup of tea. He decided to search for it later.

“I think, Baroness, that what you’ve inherited is a business philosophy of cutting corners, contempt for quality assurance and, or so it seems to me, total disregard for science, international law and the environment. And, personally, I would never have employed any of your senior management team. How does that make you feel?”

“Bad enough to seek your help, Professor Higgins. A public scandal would not be good for anyone. Despite your obvious passion, your views are, I admit, not too different from my own. The burglary is new though.”

“And I didn’t tell you about the United Nations and Interpol papers I’d been reading?”

“Interpol? Good gracious.”

Eddie wiped tea wetness from his nose and mouth with the back of his hand, but knocked his glasses off in the process. “I was planning some direct action of my own,” he said, hooking them back over his ears, “but I phoned an international commercial crime investigator instead.”

“Interpol? A commercial crime investigator?”

Suddenly Eddie felt sorry for her and looked at her over the top of his glasses. He’d never seen a face with such evenly distributed features before and it wasn’t just the eyebrows. One side of her face was a perfect mirror image of the other.

“Would you like lunch?” he said quietly. “If it’s not too crowded I often eat at Greggs. They do a nice cheese and ham baguette.”



CHAPTER 2



Colin Asher often ate his lunch with his feet on his office desk. For the eighteen hours or so he spent staring at his bank of computers each day, putting his feet up for ten minutes felt like home, but the arrival of the Pret a Manger takeaway next door to the office on Edgware Road had been a disaster for Asher’s waistline.

On the morning Eddie had called, it had been an egg and cress sandwich. “Who am I speaking to, please?” he’d said with his mouth full.

“At this stage, it’s an enquiry,” the voice said.

“You’re calling Asher and Asher. We’re international commercial crime investigators and I’m Colin Asher. How may I help?”

“I’m calling from Oxford University.”

“You’re a student?” To be fair, the caller hadn’t sounded like a student. “A mature student, perhaps?”

“I suppose you could say I was mature.”

“Nevertheless, a name would get us started.”

“Huggy. Will that do for now?”

“Huggy,” Asher repeated as if unsure if he’d heard correctly.

“Yes, but I’m a little unfamiliar with your type of business. It sounds so - so unusual. You understand.”

“The learning curve has to start somewhere, Mr Huggy. What’s the problem?”

Eddie had paused to reconsider his approach. It was such a long pause that Colin Asher wondered if he’d gone. Then: “I suppose I should be frank. Mr Asher. I’m not a student. My name is Edward Higgins, often referred to as Eddie, sometimes known as Huggy. More formally I’m Professor of Tropical Plant Science and Head of the Mycology Research Centre at Oxford.”

“Head of what, sir?”

“Mycology, Mr Asher. Fungi to you. The study of those millions of essential living things that inhabit the air you breathe, the water you drink and the soil beneath your feet and thrive on human detritus and other decaying matter to keep both you and the rest of the planet alive and in a relatively healthy state.”

“Ah, like the blue fluffy stuff on an old sandwich.”

“That would probably be a type of Penicillium, Mr Asher. Without which and the keen observations of Alexander Fleming, you probably would not have survived much beyond childhood let alone long enough to enjoy your sandwich. Be eternally grateful for blue moulds.”

“Righty ho,” Asher replied wondering how the caller knew he was eating a sandwich. He tossed the remains of it in the bin. “So how can I help you, Professor Higgins?”

“Cosmetics industry, Mr Asher. Health drinks industry. Scandalous businesses that rely on false promises and human weakness for their very existence. But I’ve been acting – after some arm-twisting I admit - as a scientific adviser to one such business. There are things that concern me.”

“What sort of things?”

“You operate over open phone lines, Mr Asher? I assumed you’d provide a certain amount of confidentiality.”

“We do, sir,” Colin Asher replied. He coughed and then removed his feet from the table. “We normally advise face to face discussions at all stages. I just wanted to get a feel for the problem before arranging one.”

Eddie decided he’d been a little frivolous calling himself Huggy but he’d never had to engage the services of a private investigator before, let alone one specialising in international commercial crime. “Well, that’s good to hear,” he said. “I’m not a businessman of course but I could list a few things, if you like.”

“Go ahead.” Asher said taking a deep breath.

“Insufficient and inaccurate labelling of cosmetics, use of uncontrolled substances in skin preparations, the ludicrous inclusion of unnatural and unhealthy ingredients in so-called health drinks. Dubious origins of imported raw materials and semi-finished product. The repackaging and re-labelling of same. Exaggerated claims, impossible claims and utterly false claims. I could go on. Is this the sort of thing you deal with?”

“Counterfeiting is a particular speciality of ours, Professor. What you describe is not dissimilar. Do you have evidence to back up your concerns?”

Despite the terrible south London accent he was hearing, Eddie’s confidence was slowly rising. Evidence was also what good science depended on.

“I’m a scientist with access to world class laboratory facilities, Mr Asher. I’m also capable of distinguishing between the well-researched, well-tested and properly approved pharmaceutical products you get with a prescription and products sold freely over the counter at extortionate prices that make claims to impossible miracles. I’ll give you an example. The claim to stop the ageing process in its tracks, remove all wrinkles and return you to a form of beauty you only dream about or see advertised in glossy magazines. Am I making my point?”

“Very clearly, Professor. But you say you are an adviser to one such company?”

“A local, Oxford-based company called Vital Cosmetics. Arm-twisted as I said and, fortunately, not required to waste too much time on it. I’m their token real scientist, Mr Asher, useful to mention now and then whenever it suits them. But I have to admit that I thought at the time of my appointment it might prove useful in getting to know how these businesses operate.”

“Because you have strong opinions about such business?”

“Which I could continue to expound on if you so wished.”

“Perhaps later. But we’d still need evidence, Professor.”

“South East Asia,” Eddie said without hesitation. “I’m a frequent visitor.”

“Can you explain that a little more?”

“Field trips, looking for naturally occurring, biologically active compounds that might have some use as fungicides, insecticides and so on.”

That may not have been enough but Colin Asher settled for patience. “Are you successful?”

“It takes time,” Eddie said. “The hunting, the finding, the sampling, the testing. Then someone comes along and undermines it all – hears about a scientific paper suggesting a possible active ingredient from, say the nuts and bark of a subspecies of a Krabok tree growing in a protected forest in northern Thailand and before you know it, another untested, unproved product is on the market as a miracle cure with little or no scientific evidence to support it.”

“That must be frustrating,” he commiserated.

“And Vital Cosmetics have some staff that I find are - what shall I say? - unprofessional, Mr Asher.”

“Evidence again?”

“Cutting of corners on quality control, deliberately overlooking sound evidence that ingredients don’t work.”

“It’s commercial pressure. Not unknown I’m afraid.”

“Directors with close links to Asian producers of similar products.”

“It happens.”

“One of the Asian businesses has links to Russian criminal gangs.”

“You sure of that?”

“I ran a few checks of my own, Mr Asher.”

“I see. Anything else?”

“There’s plenty more, but do you see why I’m calling you? Because I can tell you, Mr Asher, it’s not just the cosmetics industry that concerns me. The health foods and energy drinks firms are just the same, aided and abetted by the supermarkets and High Street chains of course.”

That last comment triggered something with Colin Asher. One of their current clients was a Taiwanese company struggling with counterfeit energy drinks. “You hold some strong opinions about these businesses I see, Professor.”

“Different viewpoints are essential if we are to evolve into better animals, Mr Asher.”

Colin Asher took a breath. “Perhaps a face to face might be useful. As it happens my partner has just left on a business trip to Taiwan and Malaysia. We’re extremely busy at present but I’ll ask Mark to call you when he returns. Mark Dobson’s the field man. I just sit in the office and twiddle the knobs of a bank of computers. Would that suit you, Professor?”

“I hope it won’t be too long.”

“About a week or so. Would that be acceptable?”

“I suppose I’ll have to wait. Meanwhile, thank you. Call me Eddie.”





CHAPTER 3



Mark Dobson had just returned from Taiwan and Malaysia and Colin Asher and he were having their routine post trip debrief in the Asher & Asher office on Edgware Road.

“Which brings me onto the good news,” Colin Asher said after twenty minutes. “The need to bring in some fresh blood.”

“I’m too young to retire,” Dobson responded.

“But much too stretched. I’ve got Ching and Else to help me in the office. You need someone. Anything could happen. You could die in a plane crash. How would I find time to attend the funeral?”

“I wouldn’t notice. If you felt any post mortem guilt, buy a headstone.”

In recent weeks, the two partners had mostly talked on the phone or by video link and only met for brief case reviews, progress reports and decision-making.

When Dobson was away he found he quickly forget what Asher looked like, but he was soon reminded. He looked at the familiar round face of the man he’d known for fifteen years and at the way he slumped in his chair. He was putting on weight. While he himself travelled and ate badly, irregularly and sometimes not at all, Asher sat in the office playing with the computers and sending out for Pret a Manger snacks every hour.

“Someone fresh coming on board would mean you might even finish a few outstanding jobs like the one for Kenny Tan in Taiwan who, don’t forget, has already paid us a decent fee up front,” Asher said.

“So, give me the good news?”

“I found someone, that’s what.”

“Without telling me?”

“You were away.”

“Anyway, you’re putting on weight. You could die long before me.”

“No chance.”

“So, who is it?”

They had been considering doubling the field staff from one to two for months. Ex police were easy enough to recruit for an international commercial crime investigation company like Asher & Asher but the problem with ex police was they never stopped looking and sounding like police. They couldn’t seem to shake off their attitude, their mannerisms, the way they walked and talked. Dobson kept telling Asher they needed a complete fresher, a raw character they could train up. He was about to find out how fresh and raw the recruit would be.

“Richie Nolan,” Colin Asher said. “Keith’s boy.”

“Keith?”

“Keith Nolan.”

“Ah. That Keith.” Keith Nolan was a friend of theirs, now doing something in the SIS that no-one talked about.

“Keith reckons Ritchie’s wasting his talent so I interviewed him at Costa Coffee outside the drama school where he’s a student.”

“A drama student?”

“I thought we’d decided we needed someone who could blend in and fall easily into character when necessary. Someone adaptable and young.”

“That’s it, isn’t it? You decided that at forty-five I’m too old and no longer blend in but stick out like a sore thumb amongst the latest generation with their tattoos, haircuts and ear-rings. How old is he?”

“Twenty-five or six,” Asher said vaguely. “Right colour as well. We need to meet our commitment to ethnic diversity.”

“But you’ve already got a Chinese and a Pole helping you on your computers and fetching your take-aways.”

“Despite their origins, Ching and Else are white ladies, Mark. Ritchie’s a nutty brown guy with Jamaican blood or some other ancient African genes. He’s got an Afro cut and proper trainers. He’s just what we need. I’ve told him we offer practical, hands-on experience, excitement, training, salary and expenses all thrown in.”

“What did he say?”

“He asked what he’d be doing as if he feared he might be making coffee or fetching sandwiches on minimum wage. I told him he’d be working for Asher & Asher.”



Richie’s face had sagged at the thought of working for Asher & Asher because Colin Asher’s pale face bore all the downtrodden looks of a struggling family solicitor, an accountant or estate agent who rarely saw the sun and who’s only source of nourishment was Pret a Manger sandwiches. Asher quickly squashed those superficial impressions.

“It’s highly specialised detection work - international fraud, corruption, money laundering. That sort of thing. We often work with the SIS, MI6, the FBI and the CIA. Interested?”

Ritchie’s face had brightened. “My father works for one of those. But he never talks about it.”

“Quite right, too,” Asher had said sipping his Costa latte. “You can’t bring work home every night to discuss around the dinner table with the wife and kids. Good friend of ours is Keith. He recommended you and said the chances of you finding any meaningful employment on TV or in Hollywood were limited to the point of unachievable. But he thought we might be able to use some of what you learned during your first week of drama classes.”

Richie’s black eyes set in his brown, part Jamaican face surrounded by long and tightly knitted black curls tied with brightly coloured strings, had shone briefly but clouded over again when Asher warned him that if he bragged, exaggerated or even dreamed of telling anyone what he was doing, his father would quickly find a way of dealing with him. And if his father didn’t, then one or more of Asher & Asher’s foreign clients certainly would. So, was he still interested?

“Might be. Well, yes. I suppose. Big company, is it?”

“Just me and my partner Mark Dobson with two part-time ladies nicked from the old Fraud Squad. We cover all corners of the globe, north, south, east and west of Edgware Road though nothing extra-terrestrial yet. Still interested?”

“Mmm. You travel a lot?” Ritchie asked checking his Converse trainers, then wetting his finger to remove a speck of north London street dirt from the toe of one of them.

“Me? No, not if I can help it. Mark does that with a few different names and passports. I just guard the office in Edgware Road. It’s a bit like a miniature GCHQ. You any good on IT?”

Ritchie livened up again. “Oh sure. I’ve got an IPhone.”

“Good man. Software? AshHack317, 318 and 319, for example?”

“Um, I’m not too familiar with those.”

“Not surprising really, I suppose,” Asher had told him. “I wrote them myself.”



So, when will he start?” Mark Dobson asked.

“As soon as you’re ready. Meanwhile, you need to call Professor Huggy Higgins.”





CHAPTER 4



Eddie’s reputation for personal hygiene and untidiness was well known but there was no mistaking his commitment to routine.

On the first Saturday of every month Eddie caught the 3.36pm train from Oxford to Bristol to attend Bristol Poet’s Night - an evening of live poetry recitals at The Ship pub at which Eddie was a regular and popular performer going, unsurprisingly, by the stage name of Huggy.

Eddie’s performances were not quite in the style of Wordsworth, Yeats or Byron. You either enjoyed them for their sour humour or turned the other way in embarrassment but Eddie wasn’t bothered either way. He specialised in a sort of rhyming satire through which he channelled his many aversions to modern life. It made a satisfying diversion from science, research and teaching. “Taxing but relaxing,” he called it.

Mark Dobson had phoned him the day before and so, anxious to speed things up, Eddie had suggested meeting in Bristol at The Ship.

When Eddie felt the tap on his shoulder he thought at first it was someone who’d found his glasses. They’d fallen off just as he’d mounted the stage although he hadn’t needed them for his performance. If he forgot a line he’d ad lib for a while until he remembered the next lines. That night he’d finished with a poem called “My Wife’s Cat”. He hadn’t had a wife or a cat for over thirty years but that wasn’t the point of the poem.

Mark Dobson and he sat outside on a wooden bench overlooking the waterfront and a view up to Brunel’s famous Clifton Suspension Bridge over the Avon Gorge and a sinking sun. Eddie drank his usual orange juice, Dobson a pint of lager with lime juice.

“I hear you’ve just returned from Malaysia,” Eddie said.

“And Bangkok and Taiwan. We have a Taiwanese client with a problem of counterfeiting. I understand you know Thailand.”

“Field trips, two or three times a year,” Eddie said. “I tramp through forests and jungles. The humidity is better than any medicine for ageing, creaking joints.”

“And you’re a part-time scientific adviser for Vital Cosmetics.”.

Eddie nodded but didn’t want to jump ahead too quickly. If he was to seek the help of Asher & Asher he needed to understand how they operated so he asked.

“We’re busy,” Dobson replied. “Too busy. Cases start from nothing and grow. The Taiwanese client is a good example. Co-incidentally that case also involves an energy drink like Vitals’ health drinks.”

“Totally unnecessary given a properly balanced diet,” Eddie said. “There’s no excuse in Western society. They are marketing gimmicks sold to the gullible.”

Dobson smiled. “What else do you do besides your University work and the poetry? By the way I enjoyed hearing about the cat.”

“I write articles for organisations wanting trendy, controversial pieces on sustainability, human population growth or the environment,” Eddie replied. “I’m a lobbyist on behalf of non-human life.”

“So, what’s your view on humans?”

“Greedy, selfish parasites,” he said.

“And cats?”

“Cruel carnivores with a particularly nasty way of attracting affection.”

“Does your wife know?”

“I’ve not had a wife or a cat for thirty-five years. Melissa took the only cat I’ve ever had the misfortune to know when she left me. As soon as both had gone I turned the room she’d used as a litter tray for the cat and a weekend retreat for her mother into a laboratory. The result is thirty-five years of accumulation - books, journals, research papers and so on. It’s just as well Melissa’s not there to see it.”

“Had she tired of you?”

“Tired of my obsessions, my constant rants about the state of the world, my futile attempts to justify my past run-ins with the law and my other youthful antics that once helped fill inside pages of tabloid newspapers. Funny thing the divorce. It was a blur then and a blur now, but I’d been engrossed in more important things and failed to see what was going on domestically. Or understand the cause. Or anticipate the effect.”

“It happens,” Mark Dobson said noting the run-ins with the police. “Mine lasted two years. Working twenty-four seven for the Fraud Squad, as I then was, put paid to mine.”

Eddie nodded. Divorced men were common enough. He took a mouthful of orange juice. “I’ve often asked myself how I’d deal with domestic problems now, in a scientific manner, at aged sixty-two and a half. It’s always worth analysing the hypothetical. Melissa saw me as a predictable bore and likely to become an increasingly predictable bore by my sixties. She clearly had foresight.”

Dobson smiled. “Tell me about the break-in at the house.”

“Meticulous disorder is what I call my home.,” Eddie said. “It’s so meticulous I quickly detect the disturbing hand of someone else. Especially an intruder. They’d even disturbed my copy of a United Nations Environment Programme report and an INTERPOL report on organised crime and illegal logging in South East Asia.”

“And, of course, your nuts,” Dobson added kindly.

“Perhaps I should have discussed things with Bill Hughes – he’s head of Department - but I wasn’t ready. That’s why I’d been reading the INTERPOL report. I know nothing about international policing but I wanted to know what’s being done about illegal logging, counterfeit medicines, the food supplements business and the infernal cosmetics industry.”

“Why don’t you like the cosmetics industry?”

“It’s not just the cosmetics industry. It’s elements of modern society. The self-pampering that the cosmetics industry thrives on is just a barometer of what I’m talking about. It’s the overindulgence of the West, the over expectations, the taking out of more than we put in, the selfishness, the demanding of rights without responsibilities, the look-at-me culture, the worship of physical appearance instead of knowledge and understanding and respect for life. Obesity is largely the physical manifestation of overindulgence and excess. I dislike the unnecessary material possessions and selfishness, the dumping of elderly parents to live out their remaining years of frailty with complete strangers in nursing homes. It’s inhuman but all we hear are excuses wrapped up as explanations rather than outright condemnation.

“The vanity industry, the cosmetics industry, concerns me as an indicator of what is wrong and so I’ve been trying to understand why it’s successful and yet so unnecessary. For instance, I frequently write to companies that claim their anti-ageing creams work. I’m merely seeking their evidence but replies are far less frequent.”

Mark Dobson, realising they were at last getting to the point, nodded his encouragement. The issue for him was whether Eddie was just a crazy obsessive with a vendetta against capitalism and society or whether he had a definite case.

“Let me give you an example. There’s a cream called – and don’t laugh, Mark – ‘Forever Youthful’. One pink tub of this stuff sells in the US for $100. I reckon that’s almost a hundred dollars profit less a few cents for the plastic tub and the label. And the label itself says, if you’ve got a strong enough lens to read it, that this concoction contains the ten most important anti-ageing ingredients known and that it promotes collagen production, boosts microcirculation and improves skin firmness.”

Dobson had been watching Eddie’s facial features change from amicable to concern to downright annoyance.

“That’s impossible,” Eddie went on. “It’s scientifically unproven. So, I wrote asking for the scientific evidence. They emailed me back a month later after I’d sent a reminder to say they ‘weren’t at liberty to share their proprietary data’” Eddie’s eyes widened. “The fact is Mark, with just a few rare exceptions, they’re all like that. No other industry would be allowed to get away with it. So, I threatened to write an article and mention ‘Forever Youthful’ as a case study in fraudulent marketing.”

“What happened?”

“I had a most extraordinary, threatening letter from an Italian lawyer.”

“Italian? I was imagining a US company.”

“So was I, but the letter came from Italy. From Trieste.”

“Did you write the article?”

“I drafted it but haven’t yet published it.”

“Where is the draft?”

“On my computer.”

“On your home computer? Is it password locked?”

Eddie’s expression now changed to puzzlement. “I never thought of that. You think they….?”

“Could have copied everything off your PC during the break-in? Of course.”

“I see. Oh, dear. All my personal documents. Everything. But what could they do with it?”

“It depends who they are,” Dobson said. “But if it’s someone you threatened then they’ll threaten you. The usual, soft approach is to pay you off for keeping your opinions to yourself. Another approach is blackmail. The extreme approach is to make sure you are no longer around to be a problem.”

“Death threats?”

“Not just threats, Eddie. Death itself. Is there anything on your PC you really don’t want people to see?”

Eddie thought for a moment. “Tax, insurance, bank details, most is password protected. Technical facts and figures. Copied items from online research. Personal letters and articles I’ve written – and letters to big companies, multinationals, that sort of thing.”

“Are there many of that latter sort?”

“Quite a lot.” Eddie began to see the problem.

“Containing serious accusations?”

“Mostly requests for information.”

“Provocative requests? Requests tinged with threats of exposure?”

“Not as such.”

“Meaning?”

“Nothing libellous.”

“Are you sure?”

“Well...”

“You know what my partner, Colin, says, Eddie? If the bear is sitting minding its own business don’t start poking it with a sharp stick.”

“Mm,” Eddie replied. “There’s a poem there somewhere.”

“What puzzles me is why they took your nuts.”

“Ah.” They were back on more explicable ground. “As it happens, I am a world expert on Krabok trees – their life cycle, nuts, oils, biochemistry and diseases. Vital use some Krabok nut oil extracted somewhere in Malaysia. They import it and use it in cosmetics and claim it’s good for complexion, as an anti-ageing cream and in suppositories for curing haemorrhoids. It’s out and out pseudoscience but a year ago someone asked me for help in granting credence to their claims. I refused. Only surgery cures chronic haemorrhoids, Mark. Haemorrhoid cream containing Krabok oil is a mere lubricant and about as useful as a tub of butter. It was dropped. Nothing more was said.”

“Are you suggesting Vital Cosmetics are responsible for the break in?”

“Who else? Krabok nuts have a high oil content - 42.97% to be precise. It helps form foam and gives hardness to soap. Krabok seeds are used in botanical soaps with the usual exaggerated claims. But the Krabok trees I recently found in northern Thailand had an even higher oil content than normal – 73% to be precise - and a unique element showing definite antifungal properties in my laboratory. It was an exciting discovery. Those trees looked similar to all the other trees but were a variant with a natural mutation that might have led to their survival over other Kraboks. That is unseen evolution leading to the survival of the fittest, the ones best able to withstand fungal disease. That was what excited me. I published a paper. Now the trees are gone. Illegally felled.”

Mark Dobson thought about that. Eddie’s suspicions and theories all seemed a little unlikely but cases often started like that. “If it wasn’t someone from Vital Cosmetics who broke in who else might it have been? Who makes this stuff called ‘Forever Youthful’?”

“The name on the pack says Bio-Kal but there is an American company also using the name Forever Youthful.”

With his other client in mind, Dobson wondered about counterfeiting. “Where are Bio-Kal based?”

“It says New York on the box but I don’t believe it. There was a post office box address in Milan and the lawyer was from Trieste.”

They were still sitting outside The Ship. Darkness had fallen, their drink glasses were empty and most people had gone. There was silence for a while until Mark Dobson spoke. “Listen, Eddie. I’m not sure what I can do for you right now. Normally we only work for commercial firms, businesses or private individuals with a vested commercial interest.”

Eddie recognised the bluntness of what he was saying. He removed his glasses, let them dangle on their cord and looked at him. “What you’re saying is you don’t work for individuals with what looks like a personal vendetta. Is that it?”

“Other than the break-in at home which would normally be dealt with by local police, where is your commercial interest?”

“There isn’t one.”

“Exactly. The part that interests me is a possible connection with our Taiwanese client – the counterfeit health drinks case but it’s vague.”

“Do you ever work with other private investigators?” Eddie asked.

“Not often but it has happened.”

“How much would you charge to help another private investigator?”

Dobson frowned. “To do what?”

“To investigate matters more deeply and see where it all leads.”

“Who have you got in mind?”

“Me,” Eddie had said.



Normally, Eddie cycled into the city if he wanted fresh air and lunch at Gregg’s the bakers. He’d lock the bike to a cycle rack, pocket his cycle clips and either buy a takeaway cheese and ham baguette or an eat-in Coronation Chicken and lettuce baguette. He much preferred the Coronation Chicken but they dripped yellow curry and carrying it on the bike meant that only half was left by the time he returned to the laboratory.

That day, the rain of earlier having stopped, his lunch companion, Baroness Isobel Johnson, trotted beside him in her red high heels. They weren’t talking because Eddie was feeling self-conscious and looking the other way hoping he wasn’t being watched by someone he knew. When he occasionally glanced at Isobel he felt as if he was being accompanied by some sort of alien, a creature from a different world but he was also calculating the speed of walking. Normally, by bicycle, it took two and a half minutes but today it would be fifteen and a half. By the time they arrived at Gregg’s he’d already decided it had to be Coronation Chicken.

Isobel chose smoked salmon.

Fortunately, there was a spare table at the back next to a couple of old ladies with shopping bags on wheels so they scraped up two plastic chairs and settled with paper plates, serviettes and the baguettes.

“Good?” Eddie asked with his mouth full.

“Delicious,” Isobel replied dabbing at her lips with the paper serviette.

Eddie bucked up courage. “So, what do you plan to do about the situation?” Such was the crusty texture of a fresh Gregg’s baguette that, as he spoke, fragments of bread flew across the table.

“I think, perhaps, I should speak to your private investigator friend,” Isobel said.

“Good idea,” Eddie replied putting his baguette down and extracting his faithful old Nokia from his jacket pocket. “This is his phone number. Do you want to call him?”

“Perhaps later.”

“No time like the present,” Eddie said pressing buttons. Isobel wiped her lips and opened her mouth as if to delay matters but she was far too late. The phone was already ringing.





CHAPTER 5



For Mark Dobson it was the so-called ‘training day’ for the new Asher & Asher recruit, Ritchie Nolan

Their day had started outside the Istanbul Turkish restaurant on Queensway at 9am. When Dobson drew up in his ten-year-old Ford Mondeo, Ritchie was standing there as if looking for a flash BMW or Jaguar. He was dressed appropriately in a suit – a dark grey two-piece with a white handkerchief in the top pocket, a white shirt and a scarlet tie. He’d even done away with the coloured hair bands and created a sort of central parting. From a first impressions perspective, it had been a good try. Dobson took note. Meanwhile he, himself, was in his usual grey chinos and black sweater.

“Where are we going?” Ritchie asked once seated.

“Round trip - Oxford and back. It’s training on the go. No classroom, no charts, no diagrams, no power-points, just sit, listen, watch and ask questions. We’ll stop for lunch at around eleven as I can’t remember when I last ate.”

Instead, they stopped at 10am, a cheese and pickle sandwich at a motorway services outside Oxford. Richie waited in the car. They didn’t stop to eat it but drove on, right past Vital Cosmetics’ office with its lime-green V-shaped logo and, to Richie’s surprise, parked around the side.

“OK,” Dobson said pulling on the handbrake and switching off.

“Training Part One. Location of client. Vital Cosmetics is a possible new client but nothing’s signed yet. This is their main office, processing plant and factory. It’s not worth seeing. It’s just a pre-fabricated block made of corrugated tin and painted lime green. Inside it’s shiny, stainless steel machinery, bottles, drums, conveyor belts and carboard boxes and smells like Harrod’s cosmetics counter or Holland & Barret on a Saturday afternoon.”

“When did you see inside?”

“I haven’t been inside. They have a video on their website promoting their good manufacturing practice, streamlined efficiency, their smartly dressed workers and of course their sustainability. For our purposes at this stage, seen one seen them all.”

“And the smell?”

“I’m guessing,” Dobson replied. He started on the cheese and pickle sandwich and, at the same time, fired up his laptop. “I repeat, this is a potential client, being used for training purposes only.”

“Is that why we’re not going inside?”

“Patience, Ritchie. Moving on. Training Part Two. Intelligence Gathering. Did Colin explain about my own special tasks man in Kuala Lumpur? No? Well, meet Jeffrey Lim.”

Jeffrey Lim was pictured standing in rolled-up sleeves in various uninspiring poses, next to an old blue Mitsubishi on a trading estate with coconut palms as backdrop.

“We’d just had a tropical thunderstorm when I took the photo so there were deep pools of water running across the concrete,” Dobson explained. “But Jeffrey did well. We already knew of a company in Malacca we suspected of counterfeiting Kenny Tan’s Red Power energy drinks.

“When I was there a few days ago, I asked Jeffrey to return for another looksee. It’s a big building. We think it may be a bottling plant and there may also be a sort of distillery inside, not for alcohol but oils for the cosmetics industry. We’re not sure. At any rate, something is going on there that doesn’t smell right. Hence the possible link with Vital Cosmetics. Eddie Higgins agrees. Co-incidentally, he’s also been there. Not inside the building but, apparently, he sat and watched it for an hour. If Eddie wasn’t a poet and Oxford Professor of Botany I reckon he’d make a good private investigator.”

“What evidence did Jeffrey get?”

“Photographs.”

“Does Jeffrey ever get inside these places?”

“Sometimes. He has several business cards. On one he’s a government factory inspector.”

“Will I get a business card?”

“You’ll certainly get a choice of passports. The one we’ve chosen for you on this particular case bears the name Michael Parker.”

“Is Michael a guy like me?”

“Micky Parker? Micky looks like you – right skin colour and hairstyle and so on - and he’s from north London, but you’ll need come to terms with his character.”

“I can do more educated accents if necessary.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Dobson said. “Micky is a small-time crook from Dagenham.”

Ritchie had grinned. Dobson put the car in gear and moved off and that’s when his phone rang. “Answer that will you, Ritchie? It’s probably Colin wondering where we are. He fussies like an old woman whenever I’m in the country.”

“Hello?” said Ritchie.

“Mark. I’ve got someone who needs to speak to you.” said the voice. It was Eddie.

“Hello?” said Ritchie for the second time.

“Am I speaking to Mr Dobson?” said a crystal-clear woman’s voice.

“No, he’s driving. Can I help?”

“My name is Isobel Johnson. I’m with Professor Higgins. He’s suggested that….”

“Oh, right,” said Ritchie looking at Dobson. “We were just talking about you.”

“About me?”

“It’s Vital Cosmetics, yes?”

“Yes, but…..”

“Mark’s driving. My name’s Ritchie Nolan. I think you should speak to Mark.”

“Enough,” Mark Dobson told Ritchie from the driver’s seat. “Tell her I’ll call her back asap.”





CHAPTER 6



In Gregg’s, Eddie took his Nokia back and stuffed it in his pocket.

“He’s calling back,” Isobel said.

“If you want to meet him you’ll need to be quick,” Eddie said. “He’s flying to Bangkok on Tuesday. I’ll be joining him later.”

“You’re joining him?”

“Coincidentally, I have meetings arranged with colleagues from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and with the director of one of the national parks.”

“And is this where the Krabok trees were illegally felled?”

Eddie nodded but was distracted by the way Isobel dabbed at her mouth with the serviette. The technique was so different from his own but, he concluded, a different procedure was probably essential if your face was covered in make-up. The distraction only lasted a second or two but by then he’d forgotten her question.

“I understand you have a patent pending on a method of oil extraction from Krabok wood,” he said.

“Uh yes,” she replied trying to keep up. “It’s not something I fully understand but one of our directors, Nick Carstairs, has driven this with Peter Lester. They think it would help to maintain our competitiveness by increasing yields and so on.”

“Is that so? How interesting. Is the patent being applied for in the name of the company or an individual?” It was a trick question because Eddie already knew the answer.

“I’d need to check, Professor but I’m sure….”

Eddie interrupted her. “Krabok nut oil is extracted in at least one distillation plant near Malacca,” he said. “Oil from krabok tree bark has a much smaller percentage of oil but it’s not unknown for it to be used to replace or dilute the purer nut oil.”

“Replace it? Dilute it?”

“The oil, suitably diluted and mixed with other oils, is shipped in cans or drums to processors like Vital.” He paused. “Would you like to know what I think?”

Isobel nodded.

“I think you’re paying for top quality, pure oil.” He looked at her over his half-moons, frowned and the ragged tufts of his grey eyebrows almost met in the middle of his forehead. “And then there are the other oils you use – coconut oil, palm oil, grapeseed oil and so on. I believe they have all been diluted with cheap vegetable oils by your suppliers. How may suppliers do you have? One? Two? More?”

“One, I understand,” Isobel replied vaguely. “They import our raw materials and handle a lot of our exports.”

“A dangerous practice would you not agree?”

She nodded.

“Especially as no-one at Vital properly analyses the imported oils or checks the quality,” Eddie added. “Instead you accept the analysis that comes with the shipment. These are easily forged. During a short tour of your processing plant I managed to take some samples. If we had more we might show it’s mixed with cheap vegetable oils.”

The grey, unblinking eyes stared at her. “Some cosmetics companies claim that mixing essential oils with what they call carrier oils helps ‘carry’ the essential oil into the skin, that it improves absorption into dry skin and prevents adverse skin reactions. So-called ‘fractionated coconut oil’ is one. It’s utter nonsense. It’s pseudoscience to cover up a desire to reduce manufacturing costs and increase profits.”

Eddie looked at her knowing full well she knew virtually nothing about manufacturing or science. He pounced.

“Take Krabok oil for example. Tests in my laboratory showed hardly any resemblance to pure Krabok oil. And yet Vital Cosmetics claims that Krabok oil is a key ingredient with all sorts of magical properties. The same can probably be said for all the other ingredients you use. Your quality assurance is virtually non-existent.”


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