The trees and hills look sharp and vivid in the slanting late-afternoon light, slopes and trunks coated yellow-orange or standing in their own shadows. Crowded House provide the sound track. The sky fades to deep violet before five and the headlights of oncoming cars start to hurt my eyes; obviously I was too conservative with that last medicinal blast. I stop in a lay-by just past Hawick for a booster shot.
Langholm is a quiet little town near the border. I don't have a map of the place but finding Bruntshiel Road takes only five minutes of driving around. I check out the phone box at one end of the street and park the car alongside.
There's a hotel two minutes" walk away; time for a drink.
The lounge bar is dustily ramshackle and has yet to suffer the atmosphere-bypass operation brewers call remodelling. It's moderately busy with a mixture of people.
A double whisky doesn't take too long to knock back, and keeps the system in equilibrium, what with the speed aboard. I've been economising ever since I got my new PC so it's a Grouse instead of a single malt but it does the job. My mobile goes while I'm finishing the whisky. It's the paper, reminding me it's nearly deadline time. I turn away from the inquisitive stares of the locals and mutter into the cellphone, saying I'll be phoning in real soon now, honest. I buy some cigarettes, have a pee and return to the car. I mate the Tosh to the cigarette lighter in the dash and type out the rest of the Vanguard piece by the light of the street lamp above the phone box. I'm yawning but I resist the pull of the little plastic bag.
I finish the story then take out the modem and call the story into the paper. Back in the car, there's still ten minutes until Mr Archer calls. He's usually prompt. I nip back to the hotel for a quick single whisky.
The phone in the box is ringing when I get back. I run in, grab it, and fiddle with the Olympus, clicking it on and untangling the wires, cursing under my breath.
"Hello?" I shout.
"Who is that?" says the calm, mechanical voice. I get the recorder working and take a deep breath.
"Cameron Colley, Mr Archer."
"Mr Colley. I will have to ring you back later, but the first name I have for you is Ares."
"The name I have for you is Ares: A-R-E-S. You will remember the other names I have already given you."
"Yes: Wood, Ben —»
"Ares is the name of the project they were working on when they died. I have to go now but I will call back in an hour or so. I will have some more information then. Goodbye."
"Mr Archer —»
Dead is also what the people Mr Archer has been calling me about are. They were all men; their names were Wood, Harrison, Bennet, Aramphahal and Isaacs. Mr Archer gave me the names the first time he brought me on one of these tour-of-Scotland telephonic rendezvous. (Mr Archer does not trust mobiles — can't say I blame him.) The names sounded vaguely familiar at the time and seemed to have a weird implicit seriality about them, plus, as soon as he mentioned them, I suddenly thought of the Lake District, without knowing why. Mr Archer gave me the names and rang off before I could ask him anything else about them.
I still have this tetchy pride about remembering things myself, but in the office the following morning I logged into Profile and let it do the hard work. Profile is just a staggeringly gigantic database that probably knows your maternal great-grandfather's inside-leg measurement and how many sugars his wife took in her tea; almost anything mentioned in a broadsheet over the last ten years will be there, as will stuff from US, European and Far Eastern newspapers, plus whole oceans of information from a zillion other sources.
The names posed it no problems. The five dead geezers all expired between six and four years ago and they were all connected with either the nuclear industry or the security services. Each death looked like suicide but all of them could have been murders; there was speculation in the press at the time that something murky was going on but nobody seemed to get anywhere. So far all Mr Archer's added to what I could find in the paper's library is some detail about exactly how the men died, and — tonight — that project name: Ares.
I sit in the car for a while, tinkering with the whisky article I've been working on for a while and wondering who or what Ares is. A few people use the phone box. I play some rather pathetic low-level games on the Tosh, wishing I had a decent colour machine with the speed and the RAM and the hard disk to run Despot. I roll a joint and smoke that, listening to the radio and then to my k.d.lang tape but it's too soporific and I turn the radio on but it's too inane so I scrabble in the glove-box until I find Trompe le Monde by the Pixies and that keeps me awake better than speed though the tape's stretched a bit because I've played it so much and so the sound comes and goes a bit but that's cool.
I'm running through the woods at Strathspeld, on a bright summer's day; I'm thirteen years old and while I'm running I'm also looking at myself from outside, as though I'm watching all this on a screen. I've been here many times before and I know how to turn away from this place, I know how to escape from it. I'm just about to do that when I hear a bell.
I wake up and the phone is ringing. It takes me a second to realise I've been asleep, and another second to remember where I am. I leap out of the car and into the box, just ahead of an old man walking his dog.
"Who is that?" says the voice.
"Cameron Colley again, Mr Archer. Look —»
"There is one other person who knows about the ones who died, Mr Colley: the go-between. I do not know his real name yet. When I find out I will tell you."
"His code-name is Jemmel. I will spell that for you," the Stephen Hawking voice says. It does so.
"Got that, Mr Archer, but who —?"
"Goodbye, Mr Colley. Take care."
But Mr Archer rings off.
"Shit!" I shout. I forgot to record the call, too.
I sit in the car for a while, entering the name Jemmel into the Tosh. It means nothing to me.
I head back to the hotel for a piss and a last drink, another double: one for the road now that the first one's probably out of my system. I haven't eaten since this morning but I don't feel hungry. I force myself to eat some dried peanuts and have a half of Murphy's to wash them down and for the iron. (I used to drink Guinness but I've been boycotting the stuff since those bastards lied about moving their HQ to Scotland.)
In the car I suck a little speed (purely in the interests of road safety — it'll keep me awake), then smoke a joint as I drive away, just to keep things balanced. There's a Radio Scotland programme on at midnight which sometimes does a Tomorrow's Headlines bit right at the end; I listen to it and sure enough they mention our headline tomorrow, but we're leading with the manoeuvring in the Tory party on the run-up to the Maastricht vote. I feel let down, but then they mention that the photograph on our front page is of the Vanguard arriving at Faslane, so I know my story's there, and with any luck at all it'll be alongside the photo on the front page, rather than buried inside. I experience a modest thrill of news-fix; a dose of journo-buzz.
This is a kind of hit unique to the profession: near-instant in-print gratification. I suppose if you're a stand-up comic, a live musician or an actor the reward is similar and even quicker, but if what you're into is the printed word and the dubious authority of on-the-page black-and-white, then this is entirely the biz. The best fix of all comes from a front-page splash, but a page lead on an odd-numbered page provides a pretty sublime high, and only getting a basement piece on an even page produces any sensation of let-down.