The Mysterious D. B. Cooper

What happened to famous hijacker who jumped off a plane and into thin air carrying a fortune in banknotes?

The offence on the face of it was a simple one, but the mystery surrounding its aftermath has passed into legend. On 24 November 1971, a man going by the name of D. (‘Dan’) B. Cooper hijacked a Boeing 727 on a domestic flight and demanded $200,000 from its owners, Northwest Orient. Confident they would catch the hijacker, the company agreed to pay the cash in exchange for their passengers.

But the hijacker had other plans. After the aircraft had taken off again, minus its passengers and with D. B. Cooper $200,000 richer, he strapped himself to a parachute and jumped out into the cold night. He was never seen or heard of again, so if he survived the jump, it had been the perfect crime. If not, of course, he had been the perfect idiot. Either way, D. B. Cooper became an instant celebrity among the tie-dyed, hash-smoking hippies of the early 1970s, when hijacking had rather more of a romantic/revolutionary feel about it than it does today when terrorists are suspected at every turn. Despite one of the biggest manhunts in American history, including amateur investigations, books, TV documentaries and films, nothing more is known about D. B. Cooper today than was known on the day of his daring, airborne stunt.

So let’s look at the events in a bit more detail. At 4 p.m. on that particular day in 1971 – the fourth Thursday in November, Thanksgiving Eve – a soberly dressed businessman approached the counter of the Northwest Orient Airline at Portland International Airport and bought a one-way ticket to Seattle for $20. The businessman, who gave his name as D. B. Cooper, was allocated seat 18C on Flight 305, which left on time at 4.35 p.m., climbing into the cold, rainy night with thirty-seven passengers and five flight crew on board.

Shortly after take-off, the passenger sitting in seat 18C beckoned to an attractive young stewardess, Florence Schaffner, and passed her a note. This was such a common occurrence between businessmen and the flight crew that Schaffner, believing Cooper had given her his phone number, simply smiled and placed it, unread, in her pocket. The next time she passed seat 18C, Cooper whispered, ‘Miss, you had better read that note. I have a bomb.’ She duly read the note and rushed to the cockpit to show Captain William Scott. The captain then instructed Schaffner to walk to the back of the plane and, so as not to alarm the other passengers, quietly sit next to Cooper and try and gather more information. As she sat down, the hijacker opened his briefcase and wordlessly revealed a device consisting of two cylinders surrounded by wires. It certainly looked like a bomb to the young stewardess.

Captain Scott then radioed air traffic control with Cooper’s demand of $200,000 in used notes, together with four parachutes; two for him and the others for two of the crew he intended to take with him as hostages. The FBI were alerted and ordered Northwest Oriental’s president, Donald Nyrop, to comply fully with Cooper’s demands. After all, they reasoned, where was he going to go? No one could survive jumping from a jet passenger airliner and survive. There was also the safety of the other passengers to consider, together with the negative publicity such a hijacking would generate if the company refused to comply; Nyrop felt $200,000 was a small sum to pay in the circumstances. Cooper then instructed the pilot to stay in the air until the money and parachutes were ready, and soon heard Captain Scott announce to his passengers that a small mechanical problem would require the jet to circle before landing. The rest of the passengers remained unaware of the hijacking and Flight 305 finally landed at 5.45 p.m. at its intended destination.

Once Cooper was satisfied that the money, all in used $20 notes, and the parachutes had been delivered, he allowed the passengers to leave. At 7.45 p.m., with only the pilot, co-pilot, flight attendant and himself remaining on board, Cooper told Captain Scott to fly towards Mexico. He instructed him to fly at a low altitude of 10,000 feet (instead of the usual 30,000 feet), and with its landing gear down and the wing flaps set at 15 degrees, thus indicating a detailed knowledge of flying. Unknown to him, however, the plane was being closely tracked by two United States Air Force F-106 jet fighters, using a state-of-the-art radar detection system.

As the flight crossed southwest Washington, Cooper then ordered the pilot to slow his speed to 150 knots and the rest of the crew to remain at the front of the plane with the curtains closed. At 8.11 p.m. the rear door warning light came on and this was the last anyone saw of the mysterious D. B. Cooper. Even the air force pilots shadowing Flight 305 in their jet fighters failed to see him jump.

After landing safely in Mexico at Reno airport, the intended destination, the crew waited in the cockpit for ten minutes for further instructions. None came and air traffic control also confirmed they had not received any instructions from Cooper. Cautiously Captain Scott called the hijacker over the intercom and, on receiving no response, nervously opened the cockpit door. Cooper had vanished, having taken everything with him, including his briefcase bomb, the canvas bag full of $20 notes, his hat and coat. All that remained were the three unused parachutes. Cooper had done the unthinkable. He had jumped out of a commercial passenger jet and into the cold, wet night, thousands of feet above the ground. He had completely disappeared, never to be seen again. Nobody could prove he had survived and therefore got away with his crime, but, as even the FBI admitted, nobody could prove he was dead either.

The FBI calculated that the likely landing area for the skydiving hijacker was southwest of the town of Ariel, close to Lake Merwin, thirty miles north of Portland, Oregon. The eighteen-day manhunt that followed failed to reveal a single trace of the hijacker, but then all the FBI had was a description of a fit, six-foot, olive-skinned man, of Mediterranean appearance, clean shaven and wearing a dark suit, which narrowed the search right down to about a billion people, worldwide. They had some work to do.

It was soon apparent to the authorities that they were dealing with a meticulously planned crime, well thought out in every detail. First of all, Cooper had had no intention of taking any hostages with him: his request for four parachutes was simply to ensure that no dummy parachutes were delivered. Cooper had also worked out the weight of the ten thousand $20 notes as twenty-one pounds. If he’d asked for smaller denominations, they would have weighed considerably more and created a risk when landing, while larger denominations would be harder to pass on, thereby creating a risk of being caught. Hence $20 bills were perfect for Cooper’s purposes.

He also knew that the Boeing 727-100 has three engines, one high on the fuselage immediately in front of the vertical tail fin and two others on either side of the fuselage just above the horizontal tail fins. This meant that neither the engine exhausts nor the intakes would get in the way when he lowered the rear steps and threw himself out into the night, which led to speculation he had targeted Flight 305 specifically for its engine layout.

Cooper also insisted the pilot did not pressurize the cabin, knowing he would be able to breath naturally at 10,000 feet (but no higher) and reducing the risk of air rush as the door was opened. And as he was fully aware of the 727’s minimum flight speed with a full load of fuel, as well as the wing-flap settings required, and appeared to know that the 1,600 mph F-106 fighters would no longer be able to escort the jet once the aircraft speed had reduced to around 150 knots, this gave Cooper the window of time he needed to jump unseen, suggesting to many he was either a serving or retired airman.

The only mistake he made was to leave behind eight Raleigh cigarette stubs, his tie and tie pin, but even this evidence has led the police nowhere. There were also sixty-six fingerprints on the plane that could not be matched to the flight crew or any of the other passengers. Considering the number of people travelling on a commercial airliner in the course of a few weeks, this was regarded as unreliable evidence, although an exhaustive check with FBI records revealed no match anyway and D. B. Cooper’s real identity remained unknown. That he could recognize McChord Air Force Base as the Boeing 727 circled Seattle–Tacoma airport also provided a clue, as did his lack of a regional accent observed by the ticket agent who allocated his seat. This all led FBI investigators to conclude Cooper was local and with a background in either military or civil aviation, possibly from McChord Air Force Base itself.

Appalling weather the day after the hijacking interrupted the search through the vast wooded area Cooper had probably landed in. But the full-scale land and air search that took place over the ensuing weeks revealed no trace of Cooper, the distinctive red and yellow parachute or, most importantly, the cash. The police search team did discover the body of a missing teenager but Cooper himself had vanished, which seems to disprove the theory he had been killed during the jump or on landing. The FBI even checked the national database for any criminal by the name of Dan Cooper, or D. B. Cooper, in order to find out if, on the off chance, this otherwise meticulous and thorough hijacker had been stupid enough to buy a ticket in his own name. He wasn’t, although a genuine Dan Cooper in Portland did receive an uncomfortable few hours of questioning before being released without charge.

DB Cooper

The FBI circulated a wanted poster throughout the States, with an artist’s impression of Cooper based upon witness accounts, but it c s, the FBI interviewed over 1,400 people, but to no avail. The story held the popular imagination for a long time, the newspapers ridiculing the unsuccessful FBI investigation in the process. Eventually the hijacker, named as ‘John Doe, aka Dan B. Cooper’ was charged, in his absence, with air piracy at a federal court in 1976. (John Doe is the generic name America gives to persons, or bodies, unknown; for instance, unclaimed raffle-tickets are listed as belonging to ‘John Doe’ until claimed.)

The American public, on the other hand, was in the process of elevating D. B. Cooper to the status of a legend as the mystery around him continued to grow. Bars in the area of Ariel and Lake Merwin set up D. B. Cooper shrines, which remain to this day, and hold D. B. Cooper ‘days’, with local parachute clubs even re-enacting the jump on the day before Thanksgiving every year.

That is what we all like most about this sort of history. Nobody was hurt, it involved extraordinary courage and nothing has been found since. Not even Cooper’s hat, coat and briefcase. And that is why we all want Cooper to still be alive, and not to have been lying at the bottom of Lake Merwin all these years. We like the idea of Cooper jumping out of a passenger jet with the loot, landing and then dusting himself off, picking up his briefcase, putting on his hat, pausing only to straighten its brim, and being back in the office by nine.

But the FBI do not share our warmth towards the mystery man. Agent Ralph Himmelsbach spent eight years at the head of the investigation and was unable to hide his bitterness, calling Cooper a ‘dirty rotten crook’, a ‘rodent’, and nothing more than a ‘sleazy, rotten criminal who threatened the lives of more than forty people for money’, oh – and ‘a bastard’.

Himmelsbach once snapped at a journalist who enquired about Cooper’s growing status as a hero. ‘That’s not heroic,’ he shouted. ‘It is selfish, dangerous and antisocial. I have no admiration for him at all. He is not admirable. He is just stupid and greedy.’ Himmelsbach retired from the FBI in 1980, his work incomplete, to run his own charm school in the Deep South. In his subsequent book, Norjack – The Investigation of D. B. Cooper, Himmelsbach tried to promote what is known as the ‘splatter’ theory, meaning Cooper had been killed as he hit the ground. This is dismissed by most, as the body, highlighted by its bright red and yellow parachute, would have turned up sooner or later. When pressed by reporters about why the body had not been found despite a legion of police, the Army Reserve, volunteers and boy scouts all searching, Himmelsbach surprised everybody, including, I imagine, the FBI, when he insisted they had all been looking in the wrong area all the time, despite the Feds re-enacting the jump in an effort to pinpoint Cooper’s drop zone.

In 1980 an eight-year-old boy was playing by the river and discovered a bag of cash totalling $5,800, all in $20 notes. His father, aware of the D. B. Cooper mystery, immediately took the cash to the police, who checked the serial numbers and confirmed this was part of the missing money. Hopes of a conclusion were dashed on discovering the cash was found nearly forty miles upstream of where the police now believed Cooper to have landed. As did the geologists who claimed, having studied the notes and assessed their rate of deterioration, that the money must have been placed in the water in about 1974, three years after the hijacking. Despite these discrepancies, Himmelsbach considered this evidence proved his splatter theory. He claimed Cooper must have landed in the lake on that dark night and drowned. But the resulting search by scuba divers with modern sonar equipment failed to find any further clues.

Few people outside the FBI believe this theory. Instead many believe Cooper’s careful plan included dropping a few bags of money at a later date to serve as a red herring. It would appear that Cooper had thought of everything, which is why he is probably still at large. The hijacker had a further stroke of luck when on 18 May 1980 the volcano near the site of his purported landing, Mount St Helens, erupted with such force that the landscape was changed for ever, no doubt concealing many undiscovered clues. But there is, however, one more important piece of evidence for us to consider.

In 1972 an embarrassed FBI produced a 34-page booklet detailing the crime and, more importantly, including photographs of the money and listing every single serial number of the ten thousand notes. The booklet was sent to every bank and financial institution in America, with copies to the national media. But, despite rewards on offer of up to $150,000 for the production of just one solitary note, none have ever turned up in the American system (with the exception, that is, of the $5,800 discovered in the water). Like Cooper, they have simply vanished.

But this fact alone does not mean Cooper is dead, as most countries around the world, especially developing nations, trade in dollars and so the money could have turned up anywhere. But the police expected at least one to have turned up somewhere over the years, and that leaves investigators even more baffled. For nothing to have been seen or heard of Cooper, dead or alive, nor for a single bank note to have reappeared, is hard to imagine. And yet this quite literal vanishing into thin air is exactly what did happen.

The problem about the carrying out the perfect crime is that then everyone wants to try it too. The following year produced no fewer than four copycat jumps and although one, the first effort, did end in a splatter landing, the following three hijackers all landed safely but were arrested at the scene or soon afterwards. But then there was a new and interesting development. On 7 April 1972, four months after the Cooper hijack, a man checked in as James Johnson on United Flight 855 travelling from Newark to Los Angeles. Just after take-off, Johnson put on a wig, fake moustache and sunglasses and gave the stewardess a note. This read:

Land at San Francisco International Airport and taxi to Runway 19 Left [a remote part of the airport].

Send for a refuelling truck, but no other vehicles must approach without permission.

Direct United Airlines to provide four parachutes and a ransom of $500,000 in cash.

The captain carefully followed the instructions and the aircraft was soon back in the air again, this time heading for Provo in Utah. After an hour and a half, Johnson instructed the captain to reduce altitude, speed and depressurize the cabin, in a carbon copy of Cooper’s plan. Except that a co-pilot glanced around the cockpit door just in time to see Johnson expertly slip on the parachute, open the rear door and jump.

The FBI started their investigation the minute the aircraft landed at Provo. This time they had a cast-iron clue. Johnson had left a single, clear fingerprint on an in-flight magazine. They were initially baffled as Johnson had no criminal record and no match was found for the print. But then they had a breakthrough. In a telephone call to the FBI in Salt Lake City, a young man gave the police the detailed plan of the hijacking, including details not yet made public.

He claimed his friend Richard McCoy Jr had boasted about the plan to him, and the preparatory details he described were in fact identical in every way to those of the hijacking of Flight 855. McCoy was twenty-nine years old, married with two young children and studying law at BrighamYoungUniversity. He was also a Vietnam veteran, former green beret helicopter pilot and specialist parachute trooper. The FBI checked his service fingerprint record and found an exact match to the print found on the plane. The handwriting on the ransom note also matched McCoy’s samples in his military file. This time they had their man.

Two days later, McCoy was arrested at his home where police found a parachute suit and a bag of cash containing $499,970. The FBI asked the trial judge to make an example of McCoy to deter further copycat hijackings and the young man received a sentence of forty-five years without parole. But within months he had escaped from prison. He was eventually tracked to a house in Virginia Beach, where he was shot dead during the ensuing gun battle to rearrest him.

The similarities between the two crimes, in particular the evident flying expertise in each case, led to speculation that McCoy himself was in fact D. B. Cooper, and certainly the tie left behind by Cooper was similar to McCoy’s BrighamUniversity tie. It seems pretty unlikely, though: how would the D. B. Cooper money turn up in the river two years after McCoy’s death, for instance? Although it might explain why no money ever re-entered the system, as McCoy may have stashed it away for the future and it has remained hidden ever since.

The truth is that the identity of D. B. Cooper remains a mystery and each year the American media remind the public by way of anniversary articles and features, although to this day nobody has ever produced a credible theory, backed up with indisputable evidence, as to the identity or whereabouts of either Cooper or the money.

Extract from Gone Missing

Albert Jack books available for download here

Agatha Christie – The Queen of Mystery

How did the world’s favourite crime writer become involved in a mystery of her very own?

Agatha Miller was born in 1890, the youngest child of a wealthy American businessman. But after her father contracted double pneumonia, he was unable to provide for his young family and sank into a depression, dying when Agatha was only eleven. The poverty-stricken Millers almost lost their home as a result. The lesson was a harsh one for the young Agatha, and her continuing sense of financial insecurity was later to have disastrous consequences.

At a dance in Devon in 1912, Agatha, now an attractive 22-year-old, met a tall, dashing young army officer. Archibald Christie had trained at the Royal Woolwich Military Academy in London and had been posted to Exeter soon after he had been commissioned. Over the next two years, they slowly fell in love. When war broke out in 1914, Archie was sent to France. During his first return on leave later that year, the couple quickly got married. While Archie served in Europe, Agatha became a voluntary nurse at the Red Cross Hospital in Torquay and spent her many free hours (not many casualties were sent to Torquay) reading hundreds of detective stories.

She was desperate to be a writer like her elder sister Madge, whom she idolized and whose stories were regularly published in Vanity Fair. In a moment of inspiration Madge challenged her to write a good detective story, Agatha’s favourite genre. At the time, Torquay was full of Belgian refugees, and her first story featured a Belgian detective – one Hercule Poirot – who would become one of the most popular fictional detective characters in the world.

After the war ended, Archie started work at the Air Ministry in London, and the couple had a daughter in 1919. The Christies were struggling to make ends meet and so Agatha decided to approach a publisher with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first novel. John Lane at Bodley Head read and liked it. He persuaded the inexperienced young writer to sign a five-book deal with them, heavily weighted in their favour. She grew to regret this, however, when despite the book’s success and sales of 2,000 copies in America and Great Britain, she received only £25 in royalties.

Her final book for Bodley Head, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), had a controversial twist – the book’s narrator turned out to be the murderer – and it received lots of attention in the press as a result. That same year, Agatha moved publishers. Collins offered her an advance of £200 for her first book, an impressive sum in the postwar 1920s.

The Christies moved into a new house in Berkshire which she called Styles, after her first novel. Flushed with her growing success and sudden minor celebrity status, Agatha failed to notice her husband’s increasing resentment at her refusal to share any of her new income with him. Despite the fact that they were now comfortably off, she insisted on careful economy and thrift, something clearly related to her own father’s previous loss of wealth. Unknown to Agatha, Archie now began to spend a lot of time with Nancy Neele, a secretary and ten years her junior, whom he had met on the golf course.

But as her financial situation improved, other aspects of her life took a turn for the worse. In April that same year, Agatha, en route to visit her mother in Torquay, felt a strong premonition that she was dead. Then, upon her arrival in Torquay, she was informed her beloved mother had, in fact, died suddenly and unexpectedly, from bronchitis. Later that year, returning from a foreign holiday, Agatha got wind of her husband’s adultery. She immediately confronted Archie and collapsed in shock when he admitted that he had indeed been having an affair for the previous eighteen months. Agatha begged Archie to stay so that they could try to save their marriage, but Archie refused, moving out of the family home and into his club in London.

Then, on the morning of 4 December, a cold and wintry day, the Surrey police were called to the scene of a motor accident at Newlands Corner in Guildford. Agatha Christie’s car had been found halfway down a bank and partly buried in some bushes. The headlights were blazing, a suitcase and coat had been left on the back seat but there was no sign of the author. Upon discovering that the police suspected either suicide or murder, the press descended on Guildford and the Christies’ Berkshire home, thrilled at the prospect of a real-life mystery. By the following morning, the disappearance of the still relatively little-known author was a front-page story on every national newspaper. Agatha Christie was suddenly big news.

In one of the finest publicity coups of all time (intentional or otherwise, but for her publisher the cheapest), members of the public were offered rewards for sightings, and newspapers revelled in their ongoing real-life whodunnit, with new ‘evidence’ regularly being reported. Some observers suggested that it must have been Archie – with much to gain from his wife’s death – who had been responsible for her disappearance. But then it was discovered he had been at a weekend party with his mistress. The focus then moved on to Nancy Neele, and she was hounded by the press, eager to find a culprit. For ten days Surrey Police combed the area for evidence, and reports of sightings continued to pour in. People scoured her books for clues (the police actually dredged a pool that featured in one of Agatha Christie’s books and in which one of her characters had drowned) and followed the story avidly in the newspapers

The breakthrough finally came when, after ten days, the head waiter at the Hydropathic Hotel (now the Old Swan Hotel) in Harrogate, Yorkshire, realized that the mysterious novelist he had been reading about for nearly two weeks looked exactly like a stylish female guest who had booked in under the name of Mrs Neele, claiming to be from South Africa. For ten days ‘Mrs Neele’ had been singing, dancing and enjoying the company of the other guests while, like them, also following the Agatha Christie mystery in the newspapers.


Agathachristie

The police were called and Archie Christie travelled to Harrogate to identify his wife. In a scene that could have come straight from a Christie novel, Archie placed himself at a table in the corner of the dining room, hidden behind a large newspaper. From there he watched his wife enter the room, pick up the papers containing her picture and the story of the continued search, and sit at another table. The hotel manager later said that as Archie Christie approached his wife, she ‘looked distant as though she recognized him but could not remember where from’.

So as the police were scouring the hills around Guildford on their hands and knees, Agatha had been alive and well up in Yorkshire rather than lying dead at the bottom of a lake somewhere in Surrey. Needless to say, the police were not impressed; indeed some newspapers claimed the whole thing had been a publicity stunt. The press pack raced to Harrogate nevertheless, but few believed Archie when he informed them that Agatha was suffering from memory loss. There was a public backlash with demands for the police to be repaid the estimated £3,000 cost of the search for the missing novelist – indeed Guildford residents blamed the next increase in their rates on her. Reviews of her next book, The Big Four, were spiteful as a result, but Agatha Christie was now nationally famous and sales of this new work topped nine thousand copies. The whole affair was a marketing man’s dream, with all of Agatha’s earlier books being reprinted and enjoying healthy sales.

But the personal outcome for the author was not so positive, as Archie promptly divorced her and married Nancy Neele. In 1930 Agatha met and married archaeologist Max Mallowan, with whom, having learned her lesson, she immediately shared her resources. None of the parties involved ever spoke of the writer’s mysterious disappearance again.

But the debate continued. Could Agatha Christie have had a nervous breakdown? After all, how could she have read about her disappearance in the newspapers and not even recognize a picture or description of herself. For that matter, how could the other guests not have recognised her earlier? Many commentators have suspected a conspiracy – a pact of silence between the writer and her fellow guests.

It was only after the death of Agatha Christie, in January 1976, that the mystery was finally unravelled. It is obvious from the detail that the whole affair was in fact far from a publicity stunt. Indeed Agatha was mortified at seeing so much made of her disappearance. The great mystery of the 1920s, involving the crime writer who was to become one of the most famous and successful in the world, is in fact an easy one to solve.

In 1926, as we have seen, Agatha Christie’s world was thrown into turmoil by the sudden death of her mother and the breakdown of her marriage. The mixture of grief, anger and humiliation that she felt following these events led Agatha to the verge of a nervous breakdown and, for the first time in her life, she began to behave irrationally. On the morning of Friday 3 December, Agatha and Archie had a major argument about Archie’s intention to spend the weekend in Surrey at the house of a friend. He didn’t want her to accompany him because, as the writer later discovered, Nancy Neele was going to be present. Such a public breakdown of her marriage was incredibly humiliating and so – fuelled by despair, vengeance and plain old attention seeking – Agatha, assisted by her sister-in-law Nan, hatched a plot worthy of one of her own novels.

At 10 p.m. on 3 December, after Archie had left for the weekend, Agatha drove to Newlands Corner, parked on the edge of the road and pushed her car down the bank, leaving a suitcase and coat on the back seat and the headlights on, presumably to ensure the car would be discovered. Carrying a second suitcase, she then walked or received a lift to West Clandon station nearby, from where she caught the train to London. After staying the night with Nan, she wrote a letter to Archie’s brother Campbell and posted it at 9.45 a.m. on the Saturday, informing him she was travelling to the hotel in Harrogate. She addressed the letter to his office, knowing it would not arrive until at least Monday morning. In the meantime, she was fully expecting the car accident to ruin Archie’s weekend, and that of the other guests who, she presumed, would all be out looking for her rather than having fun without her. When Campbell received the letter on Monday morning, she thought that everything would then die down, and she herself, no doubt, already had her own story worked out about how she could explain the events to her own advantage and to Archie’s further misery.

Unfortunately, when Campbell opened the letter that Monday, he hardly looked at it and then managed to lose it, leaving Agatha’s whereabouts unknown and the so-called mystery in the hands of the frenzied press. Agatha, clearly alarmed that her mind games had rapidly become so public and out of her control, decided to lie low to consider her next move. Perhaps she would have continued to hide – clearly she hadn’t expected anybody to recognize her; or perhaps she would have fled abroad to escape the growing scandal.

It is intriguing to think what Agatha’s next real-life storyline would have been if the head waiter at the Harrogate Hydropathic Hotel had not finally recognized the author. But let us be grateful that he did, because some very fine stories subsequently began to flow out of this now famous author. I am off out now to leave my car at Beachy Head to see how many of you come looking for me. If, after a week or so, nobody has tracked me down, try the Old Swan at Harrogate. I don’t want to be left there too long.

Extract from Gone Missing

Albert Jack books available for download here

Bangkok, The City of Angles

It was time for a visa run. My first three months in Vietnam were over and so I needed to leave, return and procure a new stamp on the way back in. There doesn’t seem to be any other way. I know people in Vietnam who have one or two year business visas, that their employers pay for, and yet also I know people who have been here for ten years and still have to cross a border every ninety-days. I am told this is because of the $45 entry fee each time but I imagine there is more to it than that. So, I opened an airline website, picked a town within a two hour flight, packed my bag and headed for the airport.

Everybody has an angle in Bangkok. (see, that title wasn’t a misprint, in case you noticed) And one of the angles is to relieve you of as much money as is inhumanely possible. I thought Sapa was bad, but this town is a nest of snakes. Fake snakes. To start with even the history is fake. The ancient heart of the Orient, the historic old town, the culture dating back through the many centuries and more, the temples, the forgotten arts and all the rest of it.

The truth is that Bangkok was only settled in 1767, on the site of a small customs post that had been established two centuries earlier and the first real building, The City Pillar, was erected on 21st April 1782. And there is nothing ancient and historic about that. Even America is older than Bangkok. Australia and South Africa are too. And they, in the context of history, are new-born. In England we have schools and churches that are four or five times more senior. The Italians (Romans) even had plumbing and heating that predates Bangkok by two thousand years.

Most of the city was built during the 1960’s although, that said, there is some fantastic architecture to be found in the Old Town. The area is called Rattanakosin Island if you are interested. The Asian Investment Boom of the 1980’s led to the region becoming home to many of the world’s powerful corporations who turned the financial district into the financial hub of Asia, but don’t let that fool you. Sex is the industry that drives Bangkok, not MacDonalds , Barclays or two-hundred-year old temples.

One of the first things I noticed were the adverts offering what is known as the F.G.E. Now, I am usually quite good with acronyms but I couldn’t work this one out. I had to ask someone. Apparently F.G.E stands for Full Girlfriend Experience. It is where a girl, who will turn out to be intelligent (I assume that means comparatively) and who can speak some English, will spend the day with you pretending to be your girlfriend. Meet your business associates (I don’t have any) take you shopping to the famous market (you are joking, right?) Have lunch, dinner and breakfast with you (that sounds like fun) and who will have sex with you as many times as you like at any point in between.

And this last part doesn’t sound much like a normal girlfriend experience to me, after about three months, anyway. Unless somewhere along the experience she ignores you for two hours if a waitress smiles at you, mis-remembers things you didn’t say last year, talks all through the football match on TV, insists on telling you what a bastard her best friend’s boyfriend is, hands you the phone to say hello to her mother when she calls, wants you to go to her second cousin’s god daughter’s christening, turns into somebody you don’t know every twenty-eight days and when she goes early to bed on her own, expects you to wonder why – instead of reaching for the whiskey.

If so, then you have the Full Girlfriend Experience. However, although I claim to be no authority on the workings of a city such as Bangkok, I had previously imagined that hiring a prostitute would be for the reason of doing all the things your girlfriend won’t do, not the things she already does. I am no expert, I could be wrong. I have been wrong before now. One thing I do know for sure is that when you do the math this option is certainly cheaper than having a real girlfriend. And if you work out the cost of hours to sex ratio, I would wager it is also cheaper than being married for twenty-five years, having sex once every six months and then handing your house over. Cheaper by a long way. Maybe that’s the reason so many men visit Bangkok. I can’t think of another.

Because of you are not young, fit, healthy, handsome, charming and rich (and I am obviously still all of those things) then this is where you come to get laid. Although you will have to be pretty committed to the task because the side shows will test the patience of the most tolerant of men and women. It all starts as you walk out of the hotel door – within two yards. The man at the desk marked ‘taxi’ will offer you the hotel car for $50. ‘No thanks,’ you should say. ‘Please ask one of those metered taxis parked outside in the street to pull up.’

Just as you would in London, New York, Johannesburg and every other self respecting city of the world. Not here in Bangkok you don’t, because what you are doing is preventing the hotel’s taxi service from ripping you off by $35, which is the difference. The meter taxi driver in the street outside will then refuse to come onto the hotel driveway because he is not allowed to or is, perhaps, afraid of being killed.

A friend of mine was leaving this morning for the airport and refused the hotel car. Her meter taxi was then prevented from leaving the premises three times before I walked down the driveway and threatened to call the police if the hotel taxi operator stopped it again. And that was only 7am on the first morning.  Half an hour later I decided to walk up to the main street for a coffee and I hadn’t gone ten yards before I was surrounded by other taxi drivers. ‘Morning sir, where you going, what your name, where you from, welcome to Thailand, you want taxi?’ I politely declined, shook hands, smiled and explained that I didn’t need a taxi to travel fifty yards to the main street for a coffee.

So far so good. Ten yards later I passed a tailor’s shop, with the tailor standing outside. ‘Good morning sir, welcome to Bangkok, shake my hand, you very handsome, you would  look good in silk shirt, come in we measure you and make nice shirt, only fifteen dollar.’ I shook hands, exchanged pleasantries and suggested I may come back later. The next shop; ‘ahh sir, we no see you before, where you from, what your name, come for massage.’ ‘At 8am?’ I replied, ‘No thank you, maybe later.’

Ten yards further, ‘Ahh sir, you want suitcase? We have cheap suitcase.’ You will not be surprised to hear that I lost my patience by this time but thought I might as well enjoy this stupidity. I have experienced some of this ridiculous and relentless hassle in Hanoi already. ‘Where do you think I come from?’ I asked him. ‘Europe,’ he seemed proud. ‘Do you think I came without a suitcase?’ I replied. He said nothing. So I pushed it, ‘do you really think I have come eight-thousand miles without already having a suitcase?’ He looked confused. But I couldn’t help persisting, ‘tell me, how do you think I brought my things all this way, what do you think I carried them in?’

He didn’t appreciate my mild humor, pretended not to understand, went inside and slammed the door. Ten yards further, a street vendor. ‘You want some breakfast Mr.’ No thank you,’ I said, ‘I have only just arrived in town, maybe tomorrow.’ She looked like she wanted to kill me. This was all within forty-yards of leaving the hotel. I turned around and went back to my room as it would probably be easier to move around unmolested with the distraction of five-million other people come lunchtime.

Later on I found a bar that was showing the golf on television, so I settled in and ordered a beer. Then I looked around and counted about a dozen men aged between forty and sixty-years-old all sitting alone and nursing their own beers. ‘They can’t all be golf fans,’ I thought. Of course they weren’t, they were sex tourists. I then noticed my metaphoric reflection in the bar mirror and didn’t like what I could see. To the casual observer I must have looked the same, so paid my bill and left.

As I neared the hotel a smiling young thing approached me to say hello. I smiled back and said ‘no thanks,’ without inquiring as to what it was she was offering. Then she produced an even younger thing, from behind her, of about fifteen or sixteen years of age. So, I look like I pedophile to you do I? That’s nice, thank you very much. I walked past, wishing I hadn’t worn my Gary Glitter costume that day, rounded the corner and ran the usual gauntlet of; ‘new shirt Mr, buy suitcase Mr, you hungry Mr, what your name, where you from, you want girl?’ Five yards from the hotel a taxi driver approached me. ‘You want taxi Mr?’ ‘What from here to there?’ I pointed. ‘Ahh,’ he say, ‘Maybe tomorrow then, I take you on tour, show you girl, what time shall I collect. Just give me deposit?’

So I shot him in the head, walked inside and straight up to the travel desk. I didn’t know where I was going or what I was looking for but I then saw the name of a town I recognized and there is a train leaving at dawn in the morning. In fact I am very familiar with this town and have read about it many, many times. But, I had forgotten it is in Thailand and under three hours from Bangkok, so I immediately bought a ticket. Kanchanaburi may not be a familiar name to many people but to me it means only one thing. By lunchtime tomorrow I will be standing on the bridge over the River Kwai.

Albert Jack, Bangkok. August 2013

Albert Jack books available for download here

Next – The Bridge Over the River Kwai

Last Man in London

 

Last Man in London

 (2014 Paperback Edition)

HP Foggy

by Albert Jack

Money for Old Rope Publishing

Copyright Page

Last Man in London
(2014 Paperback Edition)
ISBN-13: 978-149-4358-433

Copyright ©December 2013 Albert Jack
Cover Art: Money for Old Rope Publishing
Cover Design: Money for Old Rope Publishing

All rights are reserved to the author. no part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

This is largely a work of fiction although the author could not resist the temptation to be creative with historical detail wherever possible. Any reference to any real life character or name used is purely coincidental, for the most part.

Money for Old Rope Publishing
PO Box 661
Seapoint
Cape Town
South Africa

albertjack.com
albertjackchat (facebook & Twitter)
albertjackchat.com

About the Author

Albert Jack is a writer and historian. His first book, Red Herrings and White Elephants explored the origins of well-known idioms and phrases and became an international bestseller in 2004. It was serialised by the Sunday Times and remained in their bestseller list for sixteen straight months. He followed this up with a series of bestsellers including Shaggy Dogs and Black Sheep, Pop Goes the Weasel and What Caesar did for My Salad.

Fascinated by discovering the truth behind the world’s great stories, Albert has become an expert in explaining the unexplained, enriching millions of dinner table conversations and ending bar room disputes the world over. He is now a veteran of hundreds of live television shows and thousands of radio programmes worldwide. Albert lives somewhere between Guildford in England and Cape Town in South Africa.


Other Books By Albert Jack

Red Herrings and White Elephants
Shaggy Dogs and Black Sheep
Phantom Hitchhikers
Loch Ness Monsters and other Mysteries Solved
Pop Goes the Weasel
The Old Dog and Duck
What Caesar did for My Salad
It’s a Wonderful Word
Money for Old Rope – Part 1
Money for Old Rope – Part 2
The Jam: Sounds from the Street
Want To Be a Writer? Then Do it Properly


Last Man in London

Chapter One

Of course he was nervous; he often was at times like these. Especially today as it was the first day of his contribution. His contribution to The Corporation that had been training him for his life’s work. For sixteen years their academy had been teaching him to be George Willoughby. And it was finally time to start giving something back to the people who had invested so much in his future. And, of course, in their own. George fumbled in his trouser pocket for the packet of diazepam he had collected from the smoke store on his way to the hydrostation. A couple of those would stop his internal organs from rattling. They usually did. He pulled gently on his earlobe and peered up at the departures board. The concourse of the main hydro-terminal at Waterloo Station was, as usual, neat, clean and with people moving casually around as they collected breakfast, met with friends or simply headed for their allocated platforms. Nobody appeared worried, nobody appeared hurried. And yet George stood upon legs that felt as if they had no bones.

Everybody appeared to know their purpose and George wondered how many of them were about to begin the first day of their working lives. It was, after all, the first week for his year of graduates to make their way to new work zones. To begin the life they had been preparing for since their career selection process sixteen years earlier, when all students has been assessed, at the age of ten, and allocated a suitable role within The Corporation. A role they would then spend the remainder of their education being carefully prepared to carry out. Finally George found what he was searching for. Platform 12, the South West Hydrotrain to Exeter was leaving at 09.15am and scheduled to arrive at the Southern Central Terminus at 09.37am. ‘Man, these Hydros are getting faster,’ he thought. ‘That’s 235km in 22 minutes.’ From Exeter he could catch the Sub Atlantic Pulsed Plasma Hydro to New York, Washington, Miami or Rio de Janeiro, if he wished. They were even faster.

George sucked the air in between his teeth and studied the terminals along the line between Waterloo and Exeter until he found Guildford; arriving at 09.22, which allowed him more than enough time to reach his work zone and begin at 10am. George was never late for anything. Nobody ever was.

‘Willoughby,’ called a voice marginally high enough above the low hum of the concourse to attract his attention, ‘where were you placed?’ George turned to see one of his oldest friends, Will Grainger, approaching with his usual wide smile. The pair had been neighbours as children, had attended assessment school together in the Central Complex and, despite being parted when Will was assigned a position in the Industrial Training Programme, whilst George had been placed on the Literature Updating Curriculum, they had remained close friends.

George felt relief. He had spent the entire weekend trying to control his nerves and, at one point, had felt as if his lower intestine had turned into ragged ice, dropped a little and was repeatedly stabbing him in the kidneys. He was pleased to see a friendly and familiar face.

Will seemed to have no similar concern. ‘Dude,’ he called again, ‘where were you placed in the end?’

‘Guildford,’ George replied. ‘There is a Department of Literature just outside the old town and a pod-car runs right beneath the building. I’ve plenty of time.’

Grainger looked up at the departures board. ‘I got Woking,’ he added, ‘it’s only one stop before yours and look, there is another Hydro leaving at 09.45. Guildford is only seven minutes away, let’s sit for coffee.’

George hesitated but his friend was already heading for the dispenser. ‘Ok, he called after him, but I’m taking mine with me and not sitting around here wasting time with you. Besides, I am keen to get there, see what the place looks like, to see where I am going to be spending the next thirty years.’

’Thirty years,’ Grainger repeated quietly. ‘They program us for sixteen years to make one single, repeated, contribution to the company for the next thirty. Then withdrawn at fifty six and free to spend the rest of our lives doing what exactly?’

‘As many 25-year olds as I can George joked.’ Grainger knew he wasn’t joking. George began to calm down a little as the pair made their way to Platform 12 and the diazepam started to work its magic. ‘Don’t mind if I do,’ said Will as George offered him the packet.

‘Keep them,’ he told him, ‘I’ve plenty.’ Will stuffed the tube into his pocket.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad after all, thought George. At least he wasn’t the only one making his debut into the real world, as his training supervisors had repeatedly called it. ‘The Real World?’ Grainger echoed his thoughts. ‘It won’t be any different to the role-play world we have become used to. I was fully trained two years ago and have spent all of my time since then doing exactly what I will be doing today, after the induction morning. Simple Transition they called it.’

George already knew as he also graduated two years earlier, as had everybody else from their respected education programmes, and spent that final twenty four months on the Advanced Supervised Preparation Programme (ASPP). The whole point of that was so graduates could start contributing to the company from the moment they took their placements.  It was the same each year; a seamless placement, zero disruption to those who had already begun their life contributions and without disruption to the work supervisors and the rest of the department.

The Hydrotrain slid to a silent halt at the terminal and the pair stepped on. George turned to his friend, ‘you also stuck to the ten-till-three work period then?’ he asked.

‘I don’t like early mornings and want to be back at Central Complex by half three,’ said Will. ‘That leaves me the rest of the day to do what Will does best.’

George shuddered. ‘Count me in later then, I will need some of that by the end of this day.’

During their final two years on the ASPP all graduates were invited to choose their daily working program. Each employee of the company had to contribute a full five hours of work for each of four days in a week. George opted to continue his ASPP hours as they suited him, Will had done the same but anybody could change, after checking the contribution pattern on their company issued hydro-devices, selecting available shifts and then logging them onto the central server which would alter their tracking patterns accordingly. The Global Positioning System on their hy-devs would record their contribution routines for the work period although, in truth, they recorded everything.

Will and George both knew, as they scanned their ident-cards at the platform gate, and again as they entered the work zone, that their movements were registered at the Divisional Database. So what; it was they same for everybody. It had been for all of their lives and, besides, the only time anybody checked it was during their annual appraisal, or if anybody had gone missing. Such as the famous case of Ivy George. She was the student who dropped hers in a lake whilst taking digi-pics on a lone, day trip to Boston. When the Divisional Database failed to pick up her signal for thirty minutes her Education Supervisor had been alerted and within seconds the entire Corporation had been informed and her picture profile was automatically displayed on everybody’s hy-dev main page.

Poor Ivy had some explaining to do when she finally arrived back at the Central Complex Hydroport, where the cameras immediately recognised her, alerted the nearest supervisor and she was taken to the personnel officer for a de-brief and retraining day. In truth, Ivy had quite enjoyed it. The following morning people she didn’t know smiled warmly at her, having recognised her digi-profile, which had been embedded on every home screen the previous day. Ivy found herself enjoying the slight attention and was disappointed when, within hours, something else had occupied everybody’s focus and she seemed to be forgotten about again.

George settled into his seat and studied his reflection in the smoked glass window opposite him. He had a narrow head with a small pointed nose and prominent cheekbones. Shoulder length blond hair and, at around 6’2, was carrying a few kilograms of extra weight, which his supervisor had already recommended a fitness programme for. It began the following week.

‘It’s your own fault you fat bastard,’ Will goaded him as if reading his thoughts. ‘You want to cut down on your pies and pints mate, and get some exercise.’ George laughed, pulled gently on his earlobe and then traced his finger along the port wine birthmark, around the size of a thumbnail, which drew attention to his right cheek. His supervisor had also recommended a clinic that would remove it for him

‘And leave the birth-mark,’ Will added, ‘it gives you character. It’s part of you and there is nothing perfect about perfect.’

George laughed again and sipped his coffee whilst considering the reflection of his friend as the Hydro sped out of the Central Complex and through the countryside. Will was shorter and with brown wavy hair. By the look of it his obsession with his hairdresser was not reciprocated. He was also leaner than George and fitter. He had a round, friendly face with a near permanent smile that revealed a prominent gap between his two front teeth. ‘I probably will,’ George said aimlessly. ‘As long as you leave the teeth alone.’

Will grinned widely as the Platform Pods of the Woking Terminal pulled alongside the Hydro and connected. ‘See you later then,’ said Will as the main doors opened and he stepped into the pod, after making way for those who were joining the Hydro. With that the doors smoothly closed, the Pod disengaged and peeled away from the main train. George sped onwards and watched as the Woking pod slowed into the terminal and the Guildford pods pulled up alongside and quietly connected. He stood up to wait for his turn. The tablet in his pocket had pinged a reminder that Guildford was only fifteen seconds from Woking.

Looking out of the smoked glass window George studied the building ahead as the hydro-pod slowed into its terminal. It was old, very old and built from red bricks with tinted windows and painted white window frames. ‘Like something from the old books,’ George grinned to himself. ‘Like many of the buildings in Cape Town. Ahh, Mira,’ George thought. ‘Still, no time for her now.’ He would see her at the weekend. At that moment George’s hy-dev pinged him a personal message which he checked as he moved towards the assembly area for the new intake. Mira: ‘good luck today babes like you need it, see you on Friday night x’ George tapped a single letter reply and slipped the device back into his pocket. She would know what that meant.

As he approached the intake lounge he checked his watch; 09.25. Looking through the smoked glass windows he cast his eye around the group of around twenty five graduates and recognised only one from his ASPP training. Hugo Gomez had not exactly been a friend but at least he was a friendly face, a familiar one. ‘Hugo,’ called George as he walked into the room. ‘Georgie boy,’ came the reply and the pair hugged like the friends they were not.

‘So, you got Guildford too?’ Hugo asked rhetorically.

‘I applied.’ Said George. ‘It seemed obvious to me, within seven minutes of the Central Complex so I can stay in my old apartment there. Edgar is on the Complex too…’

Edgar?’ interrupted Hugo.

‘He is my father’s grandfather. The only relative I know about these days, I go and see the old boy once a week, take him some whiskey and smokes and he sometimes talks about the old days. Never gives much away though, the old bastard, but he has seen it all and I often take my advice from him. He has been a sort of mentor to me, outside of the Corporation.’

‘We are not supposed to have those,’ replied Hugo, ‘but, I suppose, if he is family.’

George ignored the remark and continued, ‘he was something to do with the Corporation at a high level but retired in the early days, back in AI03, I think. He was given a fantastic top floor apartment in an old converted warehouse as a life reward. You should see the views from there. Right across the Complex and he has the whole floor so it’s a 360 degree panorama. And besides, my subject is history and he has lived in it, so I have learned a lot from him’ George watched as the supervisor walked into the room. ‘I will take you there one day, you can meet the old man, he is full of stories’

Hugo, George and the others straightened to face the last man into the room. ‘I would like that,’ Hugo whispered. ‘Seen much of Will?’ he asked.

‘On the hydro this morning, he got Woking for his Industrial Placement.’ George replied. ‘I saw it, just seconds along the line, I will make sure I am on the same hydro as you both tomorrow, it would be good to see him again and…’ Hugo tailed off.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ interrupted the Graduate Supervisor, ‘and welcome to your first day of contribution, the first day of your working lives and, of course, the first day of the rest of your lives.

‘What a twat,’ whispered George. ‘I hope he is not going to talk in clichés all morning.’

Hugo ignored him and listened alertly. ‘My name is Vincent Baptist and I have been the Intake Supervisor at this department for the last twenty years. There is nothing I do not know about what goes on around here and so if you need anything at all then I am the man to ask. I will be supervising you until I am withdrawn, which is in ten year’s time’ George listened as he surveyed the other graduates. They were all of the same age and all of them, like himself and Hugo, would have been assessed for this contribution at the same time and received a variation of the same training and preparation at one of the five hundred and twenty academies throughout the Corporation.

There were marginally more young women than men and he realised that, apart from Hugo, he knew none of them. George’s gaze stopped and rested upon a beautiful brown skinned girl with shiny, black hair who was staring up at the supervisor, listening intently. George found himself staring at her. She glanced quickly towards him and then back again as a small smile, which began in those brown eyes, briefly lit up her face. George quickly turned back to the supervisor and realised he had not been listening. He pulled gently on his ear with his thumb and forefinger and forced himself to concentrate. ‘You haven’t missed anything,’ whispered Hugo. ‘And yes, she is cute. I noticed her earlier.’

’What did he say?’ hissed George.

‘Just some crap about where the sports centre is, the dining room, overnight suites blah blah blah. It’s all in the induction PDF anyway, I read it earlier. Don’t worry about it.’ The supervisor’s words became audible to George again as he tuned back in.

‘And so, as you know, there is very little I can tell you about what you will be doing here. You are all fully trained, completely prepared and can go to your work zones right away, if you like. However, for those of you who are interested I can offer you a tour of the archives. Here you will see books. Real books as they were first printed back in the days when we used to use paper for everything.’ Some of the graduates started chattering excitedly. They had never seen a book before. They had all been recalled during the first years of the Incorporation and replaced by a brand new updated digital version that was uploaded automatically to everybody who handed their old battered, original copies into the re-cycling facilities.

Edgar, on the other hand, had an old chest full of them in his storage area back at the warehouse. He had shown George once, but hadn’t let him read any since they were considered to be against company policy to own, when everybody had the new digital copies safely on their hy-dev bookshelves. The Main Board’s Public Relations Department had sent an email to the entire corporation reminding everybody that paper was a valuable resource that needed to be preserved and recycled. Although George had never been told of what it was being used for instead. He had never seen any, apart from the old, tattered copy of a story called Treasure Island that Edgar had once, briefly, let him see before locking it back into the chest with what appeared to be a couple of hundred others.

The supervisor’s voice faded back into range again as he announced, ‘so, remember that the old democratic governments of the past encouraged fiction writers to make up names, places and situations, for reasons best known to themselves, and it is our job, in these new, enlighten times, to correct some of those details. The Main Board want an accurate record of history, not the fictionalised version the old regimes used to teach its subjugated populations, such as your grandfathers and great grandfathers. When you log on to your work zones your will all receive an introductory memo and an induction PDF. Once you have read this your first novel, chosen from your specialist subjects that were identified during ASPP, will download for you to begin correcting. Ladies and gentlemen, please remember there have been tens of millions of books published over the last, corrupt, five hundred years or so. They all need to be corrected and then preserved. It will take many of us many years and certainly, for you, it will be a lifetime’s work. Work that is well worth doing if it means that future generations will have a complete and accurate record of The Corporation’s real history, I am sure you would agree.’

Some of the group gasped eagerly. After all, correcting history was a very important career to have been chosen for. For these graduates there was no better way of spending their entire working life than reading books and making the odd improvement or deletion here and there to make sure it was perfect, accurate and that it reflected true history. All of them would also be given time to write their own books for publication by The Corporation. They were all now professional writers and editors and would, themselves, become part of the future’s own history. It was an exciting time.

‘And finally, for those of you would like to see the archive, for those of you who would like to see the old obsolete format, the way books used to be produced, then please follow me.’ George joined the back of the group and watched the dark-skinned beauty move slowly in front of him. From where he was he could almost smell her. He tried to get a little closer. The supervisor spoke again, ‘remember everyone, these are not all of the books ever written. The Corporation has about a five hundred departments like this all across the regions and other books are being corrected, or translated into Albion from old, dead, languages by thousands of literary workers just like you. Although all of the books you are about to see,’ he added proudly, ‘were updated and corrected right here in this very building. It is a historic achievement by those working here both past and present.’

Hugo could feel the sense of excitement among the group. As they stopped at the door to the archive George brushed arms with the girl with the dark eyes and, for a brief moment, felt her naked skin upon his. At that moment he felt excitement of an entirely different kind to the rest of the group. They entered the climate controlled archive room and along the shelving sat lines and lines of what the graduates immediately recognised as the old books. But they alone, among all the company members, knew this for only the graduates of the Literature Updating Curriculum (LUC) had been taught about books and magazines. Graduates from the Agriculture & Farming, or Industrial, Curriculum’s didn’t need to know anything about hardback and paperback books.

There had been nothing illegal about them in their day, but they were simply objects from a time long ago and nobody had used them, or pens, pencils, or paper for over forty years. Instead, the tap, tap tapping of the hydro-device was all members relied upon in the year AI43. Every member had been allocated their own on the first day of Pre-Training that was replaced each year with an updated model.

The grads marvelled at the sight. Some gasped while others simply stared. A bold few stepped forward and ran their fingers along the creased and fading spines and experienced the unique sensation of fanning a few pages. The girl with the dark eyes appeared to be close to tears, as if she had waited her entire life for a moment like this and had not been disappointed. ‘This may be her first orgasm,’ Hugo whispered. George looked at him and ignored the remark. To the right of the archive was an open plan area with hundreds, if not thousands, of neatly lined desks, each with a chair and a thin, modern plasma screen of about 20 inches wide that their hy-devs would automatically connect to once they were placed upon any of the desks.

The supervisor turned to address his new recruits. ‘Ladies, gentlemen, once again you will remember learning of how fiction writers of past generations such as Dickens, Twain and Nabakov had made up names for regions that they called countries. And then they all copied each other. The Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare, for example, called the Western Division of Albion, that we are all part of today, a country called England and even gave it a central city with the name of London. Emile Zola then borrowed the idea and referred to the Western Division of Gaul as France and gave it a central city called Paris. Mark Twain made up a place he called America, a name he gave the ten Western Divisions across the AtlanticSea. It was a fashion among fiction writers to provoke and sensationalise their stories but it wasn’t long before scurrilous and ill-meaning people, wrestling for power and control of these lands, adopted their ideas and presented them to uneducated people as facts. They re-wrote their history’

George appeared a little confused by this revelation. He thought John Bunyan had invented England, not William Shakespeare, in the first book ever published way back in the year AD1678 of the old calendar. That’s what Edgar had once told him although, when he tried to look for it at the Amazon Library, there was no trace to be found on the search archive. Mind you, he couldn’t remember the title. Something about a pilgrim was all he could recall. The supervisor continued without interruption.

‘They then used those uneducated people in the respected regions, your ancestors, to fight wars with each other in an attempt to control or defend these so called countries. They motivated the masses with what they called ‘national pride’ or ‘national defence.’ A little like the way the Middle East is organised today with warring nations using religion to provoke violence towards each other. Yes indeed, Shakespeare, Twain and the rest of them have a lot to answer for. We should all be grateful that when the Main Board took over the running of the Corporation they banned all religion throughout the Divisions. Here in the Western Corporation we have nothing to go to war over with each other and can all work together for the good of ourselves and The Corporation. Only a fool would allow these fiction writers to create an environment for the greed and avarice of democracy to raise its ugly head again. And in those days mankind was never short of fools. It was all revealed as a sham anyway. If voting had actually changed anything for the better then nobody would have been allowed to do it anyway.’

George appreciated the irony. All graduates had learned about democracy and Edgar had mentioned something once, so he made a mental note to ask him more about it one day. He then felt his personal messenger vibrate from the inside pocket of his jacket. Glancing down he saw it was Mira again, ‘Hello babes, how’s your first day going?’  George wasn’t quite sure how he felt about Mira. When they met she was just about to enter her first year-long marriage contract, and George was signing his own. Both had contracts with other partners. But George knew he was dismayed when he chose not to renew at the end of the first twelve months with his wife and yet Mira went ahead and renewed hers for a second year. That was a blow and when she did finally end after the third year she blamed George for not revealing his real feelings for her properly. She said she didn’t know how he felt about her and that was probably true; he wasn’t sure himself. He made a mental note to skyphone her later as he preferred to talk rather than personal message all day long, which was something of a habit of Mira’s. He would try to speak to her later, although she rarely answered his calls, unless he caught her on a good day.

George wandered through the work zone and selected a desk close to the window on the far side of the room. Placing his hy-dev on its surface the screen woke up and prompted him for his unique password. George tapped upon the keyboard and became aware of a presence at his right shoulder. ‘Hi, I’m Tibha,’ said the girl with the dark eyes. George turned in his seat, offered his hand and replied, ‘I’m George Willoughby, I noticed you earlier.’ Tibha’s eyes began to smile again, ‘I know, and I noticed you too, mind if I take this table?’ she asked as she pulled out a chair and sat down without waiting for a reply. George felt his natural anxiety rise up again and his marrowbone appeared to vibrate within his bones. He reached for some more diazepam in a manner he hoped she wouldn’t notice. ‘Vitamins,’ he explained when she did notice.

George wasn’t comfortable in the company of women as beautiful as Tibha. She had elegance about her, a friendly aloofness, and looked as though her ancestors were from the area of the old British Raj he had learned about when he corrected a book called A Passage to India during his ASPP final training. He loved the look of the women he had seen in the illustrations and one with a similar appearance had been on his curriculum for a couple of years before transferring to one of the ten Western Divisions. George remembered Jalini well, but had never found the courage to ask her out when he had the chance. He pretended to read his induction PDF as he tried to think of something to say to Tibha that was intelligent, funny and appropriate all at the same time. He had nothing. In truth George wasn’t comfortable in the company of any woman, let alone an example as beautiful as Tibha. As usual, he would have to leave it to her to do all the hard work, if there was any to be done.

‘So what is your specialist area?’ Tibha asked quietly.

‘You are a damned idiot,’ thought George, ‘even you could have come up with something like that.’

‘Nineteenth century of the old calendar,’ he smiled.

‘I know when the nineteenth century was,’ she teased. George reached for the diazepam once more. ‘Yours?’ he countered. Tibha turned to face him and George felt her warm, dark eyes penetrate his soul.

‘The Romantics, the poets,’ she said tenderly and then followed that with, ‘somebody has to make sure that Shelly wasn’t telling bloody lies.’ Tibha turned back to face her screen and, once again, a smile spread across her perfect features. George stared at her in disbelief; he hadn’t expected that. He was, for a moment, mesmerized but then started laughing.

‘Somebody certainly has,’ he agreed. ‘And keep an eye on Byron too, that one was always up to no good.’ Tibha laughed out loud and George felt the anxiety drain from his body as he turned to face his own screen, pressed the download prompt and received his very first assignment.

‘Great,’ he announced, ‘A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.’

’Boring,’ said Tibha, ‘And easy. You can start with the title; he invented Christmas and look at all the trouble that has caused over the years.’

‘True,’ George replied. ‘But he didn’t exactly invent Christmas. That was done long ago and he just made more people believe in it. With this particular book as it happens.’

George had been given A Christmas Carol to update and correct during his ASPP training and so he knew the story well. He had received the top mark in the academy for his re-write which was why, he imagined, he was given the task to do again for real this time. He also wondered how many other writers throughout the Corporation were tackling the same novel at the very same time, or had done so in years gone by. It didn’t matter. Today, this was his to work on. He had a beautiful girl who had chosen him to sit next to and it was going to be a perfect day.

He turned to his keyboard and tapped in the words, ‘A Winter’s Tale of Morality.’ That was it, he had started proper. It was his first unsupervised contribution to literature and history. George studied his work, considered his new title for a moment and then deleted the words ‘of Morality.’ He then read on; ‘Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker and the chief mourner.’ George paused, considered the passage and then replaced the word clergyman with the word ‘doctor.’ Next to him Tibha chuckled to herself, ‘hey I got London 1802 by William Wordsworth.’

George laughed. ‘I don’t envy you having to take references to England and London out of Wordsworth,’ he told her. ‘You won’t have much left will you?’

‘It’s easy,’ she replied. ‘You just have to replace every mention of England or London with the word Albion. That’s it, job done.’ He thought about that for a moment, turned back to his work and continued reading.

Chapter One  Chapter Two   Chapter Three   Chapter Four  Chapter Five  Chapter Six  Available now

Albert Jack books available for download here