Sean Millar sat at his kitchen table dressed in tracksuit bottoms and T shirt. If dressed is the phrase for it. He was unshaven and unshowered. It was ten in the morning and he was into his third cup of strong French coffee. Millar was still wrestling with chapter six of a non fiction book about investigative journalism. As usual the cursor on his laptop spent more time going backwards than forwards.
He was disturbed by the buzz of his mobile. It was a number that he didn’t recognise and suspected it to be yet another call from a far away land to say that he had won the lottery and could he give them his bank details. As if. But as a journalist Millar knew that it sometimes pays to answer unknown calls. He pushed the green button
At first all he could hear was breathing. He was going to give an expletive and ring off until..
Who’s asking?” The voice was female, husky, well spoken.
“You don’t know me. I got your number from the paper.”
Over the years Millar had received many calls out of the blue. Whistleblowers. Pissed off police inspectors. Irate politicians. Heavies, time wasters and scumbags. But through experience he had built up an inner sense to know whether they were genuine or not. He listened.
“You’re a reporter right?”
“Of a fashion”
“But the paper said you had gone..”
Well that’s right I no longer work for the paper but I am still a journalist. An investigative journalist ” He was going to witter on about the difference between a journalist and a reporter but decided against it.
“They said to talk to you.”
I forget. He didn’t have a lot of charm.
” Figures. Talk to me about what?”
There was a pause down the end of the line and he could hear the woman gathering her thoughts. There might have been a click of a recording machine but it was too early in the process to get his head around that concept.
“I think my brother was murdered.”
That got Millar’s attention. Over the years he had got to hear about a few sordid details. Sleazy arms deals. Insider trading. Brown envelope stuff of course. But murder of an individual. Not really his patch. Not his bag. Not up till now. But still.
“Shouldn’t you be talking to the police.”
” That’s all been done. There was an inquest. The verdict was suicide. I am talking about something that happened three years ago.
“And you think it was murder.”
“Of a kind. I think it was an assassination. Ordered by one of the biggest drug companies in the World”
Now this was more Millar’s kind of gig. He liked investigating firms or big organisations. Always had Maybe it was because he had a chip on his shoulder or maybe it was to do with his sense of justice. Because all he could see were the fat cats slurping the cream from the efforts of ordinary people. And the people who worked with them – the executives, the policy makers, the suits and the blazers who hid behind the accountants and slick PR bods. Schmoozers. No doubt about it. He had an attitude. But that’s what drove him
“What’s your take on it?“
“Not on the phone. I will meet you.”
Millar was liking the way this woman operated. That’s how he preferred to do business. Old fashioned journalism. Cloak and dagger. Face to face – preferably with a pint on the go. And then you can look into the eyes of someone and hear their story. Besides he was keen to get out and there was something about the woman’s dark brown smokey voice that got his attention. There was a part of him that wondered why she would contact a journalist and especially himself but he figured she had tried other sources and he had a certain reputation of being dogged when trying to find the truth. In his opinion.
Millar arranged to meet that afternoon at a pub in Hammersmith down by the river – the Dove. It was down a small alley and if you didn’t know it was there you would never find the place.
Kicked into gear, Millar parked the book, shaved, showered and threw on some clothes that showed he cared about his image just enough. After all he was meeting a potential client.
He got there early and ordered a pint of the local brew from a young man dressed in black who looked as though he should have been at home doing his geography homework. It was a nook and cranny, flagstone floor place with a history that dated back to when Nell Gwynne was buffing up her oranges for Charles 11.
The only other people in the pub was a crumpled old boy with a grizzled dog who might have been there all week and a batty looking dowager type with smudged lipstick who was nursing what looked like a port and lemon.
Millar positioned himself in the corner next to the fire and so had a good sight of the door – the only way into the place – unless you were going to come by boat and hop over the river wall at the back. Her voice on the phone did not suggest she was the pirate type.
After half an hour of flipping beer mats and checking his mobile for non existent messages he was beginning to suspect his potential story was not going to make it. Until the door creaked open and a tall dark haired woman sidled in . She was wearing a short leather jacket and obligatory Jackie Onassis sunglasses despite the fact it was a glum autumnal day. She had a trim figure balanced on slim legs but carried herself with an easy confidence to suggest that she was used to meeting strange men in bars. You would describe her as easy on the eye.
It was that same husky voice that came from the school of Marianne Faithful and Mariella Frostrup. The sort of voice that could get a man into trouble.
“Yes hi. Take a seat.”
“Sorry I’m late. Little off the beaten track.”
That was the idea. What can I get you.
It’s a little early for me Mr Millar but don’t let me stop you. Diet Coke will be fine.
When Millar came back she had positioned herself in his seat so she could presumably see who was coming in and out of the door.. She had taken off her sunglasses and now he could get a good look at her. She was wearing mostly black apart from a white cotton shirt that looked expensive. It was hard to place her age. But he would have a guess at late thirties maybe early forties. She was in good nick whatever age. And certainly her dress sense was younger than whatever it said on her passport. Her makeup was subtle but enough to suggest she had made an effort. Whether it was for Millar or just her “go to” look he could not be sure. But he was already regretting not making a little more effort himself. It must have been the beer and the fact that he had not spoken to an attractive woman for a good six months that distracted him. This is business he told himself so cut out any dirty flirty wisecracks.
“Where do you want me to start.”
Millar liked her style. No pleasantries or small talk. Just straight to the point.
“How about starting with your name.”
“Is that important.?”
“You know my name.” Millar held her impatient look. She looked irritated by the fact that he had asked her which suggested her mistrust of journalists. And let’s face it thought Millar – who could blame her.
“Sophia Frampton – will that do? And don’t bother Facebooking it – I don’t have a profile.”
Millar wasn’t sure whether this Sophia lady was trying to act hard and mysterious or if it was just an act. There was something about her that made me him slightly uneasy. He was thinking to himself he shouldn’t be here. He should be back home at his kitchen table scanning the racing form. But here he was sitting opposite an attractive woman with two pints inside him and was being beguiled like a sap at a grown up poker game. But it was curiosity that made him listen. And you know what happened to that cat.
“Let me tell you. My brother was head of research at the Pharmaceutical Company ZPI. You must have heard of them. They are one of the biggest companies in the world. They manufacture and market most of the world’s top selling drugs.”
She adjusted herself in her seat and settled back a little. Maybe the early tension had gone and she felt more comfortable in the place.
“By background my brother Stephen was a chemist. He had been there five years. Headhunted from a German Pharma that manufactured similar drugs. He was really the lead scientist at the place responsible for developing the next new blockbuster. He was a decent man Mr Millar. He had a brilliant mind. He had a great sense of responsibility.”
She spoke with a quiet voice and from time to time looked around as if expecting that she had been followed. She had a habit of tossing her head back to let her glossy dark curls tumble a little. If she was doing it for Millar’s benefit it was working.
By now a few more people had entered the pub but they looked like a combination of tourists and students doing a crawl along the river. It was not the sort of place where the after work office crowd gathered. They would be nearer Hammersmith Bridge.
You keep talking about him in the past. What happened to him?
Sophia raised her hand and gestured to Millar not to interrupt.
“Mr Millar I would appreciate if you let me tell my story in my own way. Although this happened three years ago I am still raw.” And as if for theatrical effect she opened her bag and dabbed her right eye with a small white handkerchief.
He never really talked about his work with me. I wouldn’t understand anyway is the truth. But now and again he would let me in on projects they were working on.
You were close – your brother and you.
Since childhood. He has looked after me in many ways
The way she said it made Millar feel uneasy.
“About three years ago he was one of the team that developed a new type of antidepressant. Staracil. Have you heard of it?
Millar shrugged. He was going to make some quip about not being bright enough to get depressed but put it back into the box for a different audience. Sophia Frampton was on a roll and he didn’t want her to stop the flow.
It’s a highly effective drug and the company had invested hundreds of millions into the R and D.
Millar gave an appreciative low whistle. Even in his book that amount would butter a few parsnips.
You are probably aware of the stakes that these companies deal in. If they hit on a blockbuster that gives them a licence to make billions. Drugs are big business. And this drug Staracil is a best seller.
Millar had heard of these big pharma companies. They kinda slip under the radar when people talk about corporate giants. Their slick PR people probably made sure of that. But he thought about all the drugs that were prescribed. It’s like a thousand million a year in the UK. And as for the mother’s little helpers that Mrs Frampton was describing – the GP’s are handing scripts out like confetti. Multiply that by all the angst population on this planet. Put it another way – drug companies are not unhappy if millions are pissed off with life. There is no money in good health as far as the drug companies are concerned.
“He wouldn’t talk to me in any detail but I knew my brother was alarmed about some research figures. Something to do with the effects of this drug over the long term . I could tell on the phone when he talked to me he was a troubled man. But not that troubled to take his own life.”
“He committed suicide?”
“That was the verdict. He was found in his car in the underground car park by a security guard. They said he had put a pipe on the exhaust, started the engine and just gassed himself. “
At that moment one of the students in the group opposite let out a roar of laughter and playfully punched his companion in the chest. Millar realised they were in the wrong place for this kind of conversation.
“But you think the company did it for him.”
Mrs Frampton leant in closer to Millar and lowered her voice at the same time. He could smell her perfume and was close enough to see that she had been the recipient of some expensive facial work.
“All I am saying Mr Millar is that my brother was not the suicide type. He would have his tough moments but don’t we all. He was also working hard on a presentation he was giving later on that month over in Europe and then he was going to take me on a one week break together looking at the sites – Rome – Venice – Florence. We like art a lot. It was going to be our treat. He had planned it all. Booked it. It was all set. “
Sophia Frampton took a sip of her coke and dabbed her red lips with her handkerchief. Millar took a close interest in those red lips.
“Tell me Mr Millar are those the actions of a man about to end his own life?”
“Doesn’t sound like it. Was your brother married?”
“No Mr Millar. He was gay. He lived with his partner.”
“No. There is no point going down that route. His partner was devastated and still is in mourning. And he has been checked out by the police. There is no connection there.”
“He wasn’t being blackmailed?”
“Why would he be. For being gay. Certainly not. Although my brother did not advertise the fact – he certainly did not hide the fact. This is the twenty first century Mr Millar.”
The place was filling up and Millar could sense that they were being jostled. To be heard they would have to shout at each other and this was not the kind of conversation he wanted to broadcast.
“Let’s take a walk” he said. It’s getting crowded in here.
Millar stood up and shifted the table so she could squeeze past. He was tempted to reach out to her and guide her through the growing throng but decided to let her find her own way.
The evening was just starting to gather in. There was a fresh wind blowing down the river towards Chiswick and you could see the young oarsmen in the boats pulling hard against the current. On the opposite bank, a coach on a bike with a megaphone would bark an instruction about pushing with legs. Moored up against the river wall a number of houseboats were creaking with the tide. To their right were the houses that overlooked the river. These were serious properties either owned by bankers or old money types Millar guessed. This was a comfortable, polite and privileged part of the world and a strange backdrop to the conversation of murder.
Sophia Frampton walked slowly, arms folded across her chest. Her heels clicked on the gravel. For the first couple of hundred yards they continued in silence. Millar was waiting for her to make the first move. She carried on looking out across the river. Then she stopped and turned towards him. She had put her sunglasses back on and Millar could see the reflection of himself in her dark shades.
“I suppose you are wondering why I contacted you.”
It had crossed my mind.
To be blunt you weren’t my first choice.
Can’t blame you for that.
“You seem a bit too flippant for my liking.”
“It’s got me into trouble before.”
She turned away from Millar again and looked back along the river. It was nearly dark now.
I tried a couple of private detectives but they both drew blanks.
Not exactly encouraging for me then.
I wouldn’t worry – my mistake to go down that route. They were old fashioned flat footed ex cops that were used to sitting in cars outside a suspect’s house. They weren’t capable of thinking it through. Frankly they were out of their depth.
So you think I’m a strong swimmer huh. Millar smiled at the link. Mrs Frampton ignored it or just didn’t get it.
I read several article of yours about the Cash for Honours scandals.
Hardly murder though.
But you got involved in rooting out corruption. You must have got your feet dirty treading on the toes of the establishment.
I certainly had a few doors slam shut on them if that’s what you mean.
I asked around as well. You come with a determined reputation. You also come with a background of heavy drinking and occasional violence .
Those are my good bits.
She ignored him.
“Mr Millar, from what I have heard and read,you strike me as man who strives for the truth especially if it means getting into the face of the establishment and big business. I don’t know your methods and frankly I don’t want to – but I guess it involves asking people in positions awkward questions.”
“It’s been known”
I want you to try and find out what happened to my brother and if he was murdered. I will pay you more than your current freelance rate for knocking out whatever you are working on.
How do you know what my rate is?
You are a journalist Mr Millar – an investigative journalist. You are not turned on by money. But you get a hard on exposing the bad guys. Am I right?
For a classy woman – she could talk dirty. Millar liked that a lot.
“I don’t come cheap”
Sophia gave Millar a world weary look
It’s alright Mr Millar I can afford you and you can’t afford to turn me down. I will give you twenty thousand and one month to dig something up. Something that I can use to open up the enquiry. I will give you ten grand now and another ten grand if you can find out the truth.
Millar tried hard not to burst out laughing at the thought of twenty grand. Twenty fucking grand. That would solve a few problems. Instead he acted cool. At least he thought he did. “I can’t make any guarantees. What if your brother did commit suicide?”
She ignored his remark
My brother did not commit suicide. And if you think that this is some sort of way of getting around an insurance policy you would be wrong. Money is not a problem to us ..to me. Also my brother never bothered to insure his own life – so it’s not that angle either.
She then gave a slight wave of her hand to someone over Millar’s shoulder.
I will get someone to drop by with some data. It’s all on a memory stick. I have had it ever since my brother disappeared. I would sooner we didn’t do things electronically if that’s ok. And here’s a mobile number you can call me on. Please don’t try and contact me in any other way.
She handed Millar a small note which he jammed into his jacket pocket.
Do you need an address for me?
It’s ok. I’ve got it.
With that, she walked briskly away. Millar noticed she got into an black Land Rover car on the passenger side. He had seen it before. It had been following them on their walk along the river. The glass was tinted so Millar couldn’t see who else was inside. Within seconds it was heading for the Great West Road.
Millar’s instinct was to have nothing to do with Sophia Frampton but twenty grand would get him out of a hole that was getting deeper every day.
He decided to go back to the pub and order another pint and dwell on things. He didn’t normally drink on his own but he didn’t want to go back home and rattle around an empty flat. He was used to company either at home or in the office but mostly of course in a pub where he and fellow newspaper people would exchange tales and trade rumours. He loved all that. The laughs. The banter. The ambition that they all had to find good stories and then write about them. Write about them with imagination and wit. Craft them to a deadline bashing out the copy as the deadline ticked down. The good old days. Now gone it would seem.
Throughout his working life it would seem Millar preferred his work to his home life and as a result had pissed away one and a half decent marriages and been an absent father. The ex wives could take care of themselves now he had settled financially – but his two daughter.s He didn’t blame them for thinking he was a shit but one day they would understand. And as he sat there hearing the people laugh and chat around him he thought about the Frampton woman and what she had told him. And he also thought about her dark eyes and slim figure. His gut told him trouble but he kept thinking about the money. He could pay off a few debts, get the girls sorted and get a vindictive ex wife off his back for a bit. A month of his life. Maybe he could turn over a few stones for Sophia Frampton. What could possibly go wrong.