Chapter 1 – ‘Per Fine Ounce’

This is the first chapter Per Fine Ounce by Peter Vollmer, published by Acorn Books and available on Amazon.

***

It was a miserable morning. Low cloud rolled in from the west and cloaked the city of London in a drab ominous grey, streaked with dark bands, heralding rain. Cars were driven with their lights on and pedestrians scurried along the pavements with their umbrellas handy, clearly expecting the rain to start at any moment.

The black cab drew up alongside the kerb. A tall man in his late thirties alighted, fished in his back pocket, and withdrew a folded clip of banknotes. He peeled off a few and thrust them at the driver. He looked slightly out of place among the others in the street, many of whom were in black pinstripe suits, and one or two still even in bowler hats. He appeared more uptodate, his Saville Row tailored suit was of modern cut, with slim-fit trousers, and was worn without the usual waistcoat. The collar of his light-blue shirt was buttoned down and his Gordonstoun Old Boy’s tie swung free: he hated tiepins. A fawn mackintosh was draped over his forearm from which swung a black umbrella. He glanced down to check the shine on his expensive black slip-on moccasins. This was no city executive employed by a bank or firm of stockbrokers. Perhaps the tie revealed some loyalty to his past, but he wore it because he liked its design. He wasn’t tied to his past; he saw little value in things old: he was a modern man.

The cab had drawn up outside the fortress-like building at 85 Albert Embankment in Vauxhall Cross, London. Its drab, slightly sooty appearance belied its importance, it the headquarters of MI6 and the SIS.

The Regimental Sergeant-Major at the door immediately recognized the new arrival.

“Good morning, Commander,” he said a welcoming smile on his face.

“Jim, you know it should actually be Mr. Peace,” Geoffrey Peace grinned in return. “We don’t want to remind eavesdroppers of my rank, do we? The VA would have a fit!” There was a hint of gravel in his deep voice. “Bloody ridiculous really, they probably all know who I am by now.”

He looked around as if the enemy could be seen in the passing crowd. Both laughed.The RSM and Peace had known each other for years and these short conversations, which usually took place after Peace has been absent for a while, were a ritual. The RSM, a battle-hardened veteran, had participated in his fair share of black ops, and knew where Peace fitted in MI6.

“Well, in that case, tell me, Guv, how was the holiday?” the RSM asked. The same scene was repeated every time the Commander returned from a mission, a few comments about his supposed sexual conquests before he entered the precincts. The RSM had long realized that if the Commander did not arrive daily for work then he was on some mission. The reasons that and where were known to but a few.

The young man’s eyes flashed, the corners crinkling.

“Smashing, as our chaps would put it. Jim, believe me – there’s nothing like those hot-blooded Brazilian women. I think they were sorry to see me leave. Those arses on Copacabana Beach! Believe me, a sight never to forget.”

Peace stood six-foot two. His sandy hair was parted on one side, cut short back-and-sides, and shaped by a West End barber. Piercing silver-grey eyes with laugh lines radiating from the corners were set in a chiselled face. His facial features revealed nothing soft, and under his suit, his body was lean and muscled. When he laughed, he revealed straight teeth that he had undergone some recent major dental work. The British Crown had paid for this. Chipped teeth, smashed jaws, and broken bones were accepted injuries, an occupational hazard of his work.

“How is our illustrious leader, Sir John this morning?” he enquired.

The sergeant rolled his eyes. “Awful Guv, but that’s not unusual. I was told by Sir John’s office to speed up your arrival were I to see you. The Vice Admiral has some important bigwigs with him. I recognized the Governor of the Bank, would you believe.”

The young man frowned.

“That’s ominous.Well, I best hurry.I’ll see you later.”

After passing through the security checkpoint where he looked into the iris-recognition device, he strode towards the bank of lifts.

Many might expect the Section Chief, in recognition of his exulted position, would be accommodated in an office near the top floor, overlooking the Thames. However, Vice Admiral Sir John Whitehead, generally referred to VA when not in his presence, would have none of this. He and his staff were housed on a lower basement floor, which never saw the light of day. However, the décor belied the position of the floor. Other than the lack of sunlight, there was no indication that the walls were constructed from solid reinforced concrete, or that there were no apertures to accommodate windows. The lack of windows was deftly concealed behind drapes, panelling and paintings. Air was circulated through ducts in the ceiling at a constant 20ºC. The furnishings were modern and intended to create a relaxed atmosphere, enhanced by the deep carpets and recessed lighting.

Peace walked down the corridor towards the end, passing through a general office, an open-plan area with a dozen or so desks separated by shoulder-high room dividers, giving the occupants at their desks a small degree of privacy, a layout cribbed from the Americans. He was greeted by those at the desks who noticed him.

Sir John preferred the confines of the basement, this preventing any long-range eavesdropping with any sophisticated equipment, and the single entrance through the lifts made any unauthorised entry impossible. He had a phobia about security, forever aware of the embarrassment that Burgess and other Soviet spies had heaped on the British intelligence services, which had never been forgotten by their American allies.

Peace entered a door marked Vice Admiral Sir John Whitehead, and smiled at the middle-aged woman seated behind her desk.

“Geoffrey, what a pleasant surprise,” Jenny Damsby said with a smile. “Need I tell you that Sir John is not happy?” she added, this telling him that he was late.

“Really?”Peace replied, raising his eyebrows. He had long since immunized himself against his boss’s mood-swings.

“Don’t let him hear you, he has….”

Miss Damsby was interrupted by a loud crackle from the intercom on her desk.

“No chit-chat, please. Send him in immediately.”

Peace rolled his eyes. She smiled, shrugging her shoulders.

“He’s inclined to eavesdrop, isn’t he?” Peace murmured.

Miss Damsby’s eyes widened in alarm and she brought her finger to her lips, emitting a faint ssssh. She was terrified lest Sir John should hear them. Peace realized that she knew about his private and professional exploits.How many times had she not sent him a bottle of Glenfiddich, courtesy of Sir John, to some hospital where he was recuperating? Peace also knew that she realized that he and the VA were forever at a game of one-upmanship to which neither would ever admit. On occasion, Peace would refer to VA as a member of the Y-front brigade, emphasising that he himself wore skants. “Bunch of bloody pansies, the Y-fronts,” he had once said. British Military Intelligence was not without its share of homosexuals whom the Soviets manipulated to their advantage.

Leaving his mackintosh and umbrella hanging from the hat rack in her office, Peace opened the door and strode into Sir John’s office, and was surprised to see other occupants in the room seated around the small conference table.

“Come in, Peace.You’re late,” barked the Vice Admiral. “I’m sure you know the others, but let me introduce you. There’s no need to stand on formality. Sit, we have serious matters to discuss.”

He’d received no welcoming smile. He wasn’t surprised.VA, in his opinion, was an emotionless mental bully. How could he be late? He had just returned from holiday. It was 9.08 Hell, that wasn’t late! This was London!

Sir John did the introductions. Peace had immediately recognized the Governor of the Bank of England, Sir Ian Douglas, unmistakable with his straight combed-back white hair, and Thomas Fulton, the Exchequer’s assistant and right-hand man. What the hell was going on? This looked extremely serious.

Sir John carefully studied Peace. “Brazil seems to have agreed with you,” he remarked. “Well, you’re probably soon off to a land of sunshine again, but first I have to tell you a rather involved story. Listen carefully, Commander.”

Sir John nodded at the Governor. Sir Ian cleared his throat.

“Commander, to all intents and purposes and certainly as far as the rest of the world is concerned;it appears that we have distanced us from the South African government because of the abhorrent apartheid policy they practice. Actually, this is no more than a façade. In reality, we are still close: the Communists are still a common enemy. The South Africans are the biggest gold producers in the world, the world’s largest supplier of strategic metals, and the most powerful country on the African continent. The western world needs them to protect the sea-route around the tip of southern Africa as well. Need I say more?”

“You could say we still need each other for a good number of reasons,” the Exchequer’s man interposed, he the only representative of the elected government present.

The Governor frowned at Fulton as he continued. “To the problem.A rather large bullion shipment en route to us from South Africa has been hijacked. In physical terms, this was eight tons of gold ingots.Unbelievable, isn’t?”

When was gold ever expressed in terms of tons? Peace did a quick mental calculation: that was roughly £21,000,000 at the current gold price.

“How were the bullion containers hi-jacked?” he asked.

“Well, that’s the point. They arrived at their destination at London Heathrow, but when the containers were opened, they contained only lead bars. The containers were the original steel ones from the refinery in Germiston. Of course, we’ve carried out an extensive investigation, this together with the Gold Branch of the South African Police. I should add that the Gold Branch is staffed by the best the South African Police has. Those chaps know what they’re doing, in particular a Mr. Desmond Carruthers, a Colonel who held the rank of a Chief Superintendent when he was with Scotland Yard. Sadly, he was made an offer he could not ignore by the South Africans a few years ago, if you know what I mean. Putting it bluntly, they stole him. However, his presence has ensured good cooperation. Fortunately, he still does have some loyalty to the Crown.”

Sir John intervened.“Of course, Peace, everything is still under wraps. The disappearance has not been leaked to anyone; neither Fleet Street nor any other international news agencies have an inkling of what has happened. We want to keep it that way. The South African Gold Squad is playing the same game. A loss of this dimension would affect heavily on the mining sector of the stock market, here and in South Africa. This would not bode well.Also, no one has come forward to take responsibility.”

Sir Ian nodded in agreement before continuing.

“Naturally, we’re in constant communication with South Africa. To add to this, a number of other disturbing events have taken place during the last few months. An abnormally high number of gold shares on the Johannesburg and London Stock Exchange have changed hands. Whether this is merely business as usual has been impossible to establish. The current political situation in South Africa, as you can well imagine, has had a profound influence on South African shares quoted on both the London and Johannesburg stock exchanges.

There are simply too many front companies and investment houses involved. During the past year or so, the gold mines have been plagued by wildcat strikes and other unexplainable disruptions – explosions, mechanical breakdowns, a whole series of incidents, certainly a good many more than is usual. Nobody seems to know whether this is subtle sabotage by the underground Black Nationalist movements, or no more than a spate of unusual incidents. Some have even suggested that these disruptions have been instigated from within in order to manipulate the share price. As you can imagine, these have driven the share price down, with many shareholders disposing of their shares before these plunge further. There are always ready buyers in the wings – there still are, and they are holding the price artificially high as they take up these shares, otherwise prices would have fallen appreciably more,”

“How much do you know about the gold industry?” Sir Ian asked Peace.

“Not much, I’m not interested in the stock market. I’ve never been a gambling man and buying shares is no more than gambling, isn’t it? I leave it to my brokers to do any investing; they know a lot more than I do.”

A look of disdain crossed the Vice Admiral’s face, he was clearly not happy with Peace’s reply. Sir John’s love for the tables was no secret among his staff. Peace noticed the VA’s expression. He thinks I’m an insolent bastard trying to upstage or embarrass him, he thought.

The VA indicated to Sir Ian that he should continue.

“Well, let me tell you this –, the bulk of the gold industry in South Africa is controlled by five large mining houses. The one that interests us is an Afrikaner group called Afrikaner Goudeiendomme – Gold Properties, if you want a translation. It’s chaired by Anton VanRhyn. He’s a late arrival in the industry, but he’s amassed a colossal fortune in a relatively short time. He’s said to be brilliant, ruthless and an ardent Afrikaner nationalist. He was a firebrand when still young; a follower of the Afrikaner diehards who were sympathetic towards the Nazis and who took over the government from General Smuts in ’48. Like many other young Afrikaners, he joined the Afrikaner national youth movement after Smuts’ downfall. He has two daughters, who were or are still both at Oxford. His elder daughter is Janet VanRhyn and, like her father, is said to be ultra right wing. Apparently, she dislikes the Blacks. She’s never married.She’s also on the board of Afrikaner Goudeiendomme. Her mother, VanRhyn’s first wife, died of cancer and he remarried. He later married Lady Jocelyn Langton –, ring a bell? She had a daughter, Margaret, whom VanRhyn adopted: she’s now known as Margaret Langton-VanRhyn.”

Peace arched his eyebrows. “Lady Jocelyn Langton? Yes, I do recall her – did she not, even before her husband’s death, openly consort with this VanRhyn chap, causing a scandal? I hear she’s quite a bombshell, if you know what I mean?”

VA frowned at Peace’s description.

The bastard thinks I’ve no subtlety whatsoever, Peace thought, as Sir John made no effort to hide his disdain.

For a moment, Peace’s directness seemed to have also embarrassed Fulton. “Oh well.., yes, you could say that.., you’re right. Anyway, she and VanRhyn married three years ago. Her inherited fortune combined with that of his, probably places them among those whose wealth borders on the astronomical. Need I say more?”

There was a subdued knock and a steward entered with a tray with tea and biscuits.

When the door closed behind the steward, Fulton continued.

“We believe VanRhyn is behind the manipulations of the gold shares, particularly as these relate to the five large mining houses. In this, he is supported by Lady Jocelyn. They’re both outspoken about our government and the manner in which we have mismanaged our African mining interests, allowing them to be nationalised with little compensation for the original shareholders. Naturally, they’re most unhappy about the alacrity with which we’ve granted independence to our various colonies in Africa. If I were to wear an industrialist’s hat, I would have to concede that they have a point. They have tremendous support from right-wing quarters. Believe me, there is no shortage of right-wing fanatics out there.”

Sir John sighed once again and leaned back in his chair. They sat in silence, digesting the information.

“You’ve told me little of the gold hijack. Any idea how this was pulled off?” Peace asked.Sir Ian’s faint smile vanished and his face was serious again.

“Unbeknown to many, Afrikaner Goudeiendomme holds a majority shareholding in the gold refining industry in South Africa. That would be Consortium Gold Refiners Limited. Most gold mined in the country passes through Consortium; they are the largest gold refiners in the world. This shipment was supposedly taken directly from their premises on the outskirts of Johannesburg, in proper bullion containers, to Jan Smuts Airport, a few miles away. However, we have no doubt that the gold never left the refinery; clearly, this was an inside job. However, at this stage, this remains speculation. Mr. VanRhyn is being obstructive and prefers to carry out his own internal investigation. I do not need to tell you that he is under tremendous pressure from the South African government. They’re not all diehard fanatics, and our friend is certainly not liked by the new enlightened supporters of President de Klerk.”

Sir John leaned forward in his chair and rested his elbows on the armrests, his hands clasped in front of him. He silently appraised Peace for a few seconds. Peace just knew that another surprise was coming.

Sir John’s expression became particularly sombre.

“And now for the really bad news. Several of us believe the South Africans have their hands on a neutron bomb. A bloody enhanced radiation weapon, or ERW as it’s referred to. It’s not capable of the structural damage an ordinary nuclear bomb can inflict, although its explosive yield is still in the kiloton range. It’s the radiation release that’s the real killer: armour, dugouts, and so forth, aren’t able to protect the occupants. What it does is destroy life indiscriminately by intense radiation. It permeates through everything.”

He paused to light a cigarette. “The Russians have done their utmost to hush things up, but we have reason to believe that a bomb has gone missing from their previous Strategic Rocket Forces, from a nuclear base in the Ukraine. It may well have found its way to South Africa. We know it’s not part of the South African nuclear arsenal, around which the strictest of security is maintained.As you know, their nuclear weapons arenow in the process of being de-commissioned. We think VanRhyn has it, with four South African missing nuclear bombs, these all stashed in Copperton.” He tapped a photograph on the table as if to lend significance to his statement. “Intelligence sources have revealed that South Africa never disclosed the correct number of bombs it had, but left all with the impression that those being decommissioned were the total number they possess. However, this was not so.Ultra right factions in the highest echelons of the military spirited these away in some ingenious manner. The bombs simply disappeared. Well, can you imagine the embarrassment to the South African government? The disappearance of the four bombs is still a secret known to but a few.”

Sir John added a few other aerial surveillance photographs to those on the table and pushed these across the table towards Peace.

“That’s Copperton.”He tapped one of the large prints with a fingernail. “We believe this is VanRhyn’s hideaway, but more of this later. We have little to substantiate this tale, but it demands investigation. That’s where you come in.”

Peace had the feeling that he’d soon be leaving on another trip.

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