Stop the Press



It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Those documents were sensitive enough that I didn’t want to let them out of my sight, so taking the briefcase with me seemed the natural thing to do. I didn’t mean to leave it on the train. Obviously.

I wasn’t used to carrying a briefcase – I have a laptop bag that does me just fine. And amid the chaos of morning commuters on the Tube I had managed to find a seat and had put the case down for a second. Just a second. But then the brakes squealed and we arrived at my stop, and a pretty girl across the aisle smiled at me at a very inopportune moment, and I was late for work already. I jumped up without thinking and seconds later I was out the door and dashing for the escalators, wondering where that girl had gotten to.

And the case sat nonchalantly on the train, its contents waiting to be read by the hundreds of commuters that it was surrounded by. I didn’t even notice it was gone until—

—Fuck!

* * *

“You did what, Robert?” said my boss, incredulously. We were in his office, deep in the bureaucratic maze of Whitehall. Miles of desks, mountains of papers and various herds of free-roaming bureaucrats formed a comfortable insulating layer between us and the harsh outside world.

“Uh, I’m Eddie. And I think I left it on the Tube.”

“How many years have you been working in this department, Robert?” His expression was steadily darkening, like an approaching thunderstorm.

“Two weeks sir.”

He appeared not to hear me. “Long enough to know not to be such a bloody idiot, that’s for sure!”

“Well...shall I go and look for it?”

“No!” he cried. “You think you can just turn up at lost property and ask for your top secret documents? They’re probably half way to bloody Al-Qaeda already!” He put his head in his hands, apoplectic to the point of speechlessness. I edged towards the door.

“I’ll just go and work on something else then, shall I?”

“Go and...just go and sit at your desk and try not to touch anything.”

I fled.

* * *

Sat at my desk I tried to suppress the feeling that everyone knew what had happened. I couldn’t help snatching guilty glances over my shoulder in case the police came to arrest me for gross forgetfulness.

After a minute or so of managing successfully to do nothing, I decided I had better at least look like I was working, so I opened the report I had been writing the previous day and tried to look busy. I didn’t feel very convincing, and felt the dreadfully knowing eyes of my colleagues boring into my back the whole time. It was awful.

After ten minutes of this torture I couldn’t sit still any longer, and resolved to go and bloody well do something, whatever my boss said. I’d turn London upside down and shake it until the documents fell out. I'd show Al-Qaeda what a British civil servant can achieve when he sets his mind to it—

I was about to leap up purposefully when the phone rang and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I picked up the receiver, treating it like an unexploded bomb.

“Hello?” I whispered. They were all listening to me, I could just tell.

“Is that you Eddie?”

“Jennifer! What do you want? Now’s not a very good time...”

I tried to keep the panic out of my voice. Jennifer was a friend from school. She also happened to be a reporter.

“Why are you whispering?”

“Nothing—er, I mean, no reason.” I switched back to normal volume. “What do you want?” It came out a little more defensively than I meant it to.

“Look, I just want to interview a few people about the ‘CONTEST’ program. It’s dull as ditchwater but we’re a bit desperate this week. Your goons on the front desk won’t let me in.”

“That’s because this office is private. No stray riffraff or annoying press allowed. It is the counter-terrorism department for God’s sake!”

“Your own little private club, huh?” she said sarcastically.

I ignored her. “Look, something’s come up, I’ve got to go...”

She must have smelled the panic. “Are you all right Eddie? You sound really—”

I hung up. For a brief moment I considered hibernating under a pile of papers until the whole thing blew over, but I decided I’d probably get hungry. Instead I stood up, pulled on my coat and took the lift to the ground floor. Only when the doors opened did I remember that Jennifer had said she was in the lobby of my office not her office, but by then it was too late. As I tried to stroll nonchalantly past she appeared at my elbow.

“Going somewhere?”

“Bugger off Jennifer, I’m not in the mood.”

Without waiting for a reply I set off up Great Smith Street towards Westminster Tube station, and she followed along behind. It was a lovely sunny day, and the tourists were out in force as I passed Westminster Abbey, serving only to increase my annoyance. I wasn’t in the mood for a nice day.

Jennifer and I strode along in silence, and when I arrived at the station information counter she was still at my elbow.

“Look, will you just go away?!” I snapped.

She pretended to consider this for a moment. “No,” she concluded.

I decided I would have to ignore her. As long as she didn’t find out what was in the briefcase it would all be fine. Just fine.

Very aware of Jennifer’s nearby ears, I strode up to the counter and explained that I had lost a black briefcase with the words “Home Office” written on the side. I did my best to make out that this was perfectly normal and most certainly did not spell a national emergency. Which it didn’t, just yet.

The bovine lady behind the counter cleared her throat and gazed at her computer screen for a moment. “What time and which line did you lose it on?” she drawled, speaking about as slowly as a human can possibly talk and still be understood. Clearly she wasn’t too worried.

“Districtlinewestboundatabouteightthismorning,” I said, trying not to hop up and down with impatience. Five minutes dribbled by while she languorously typed my details into her computer and stared for a while at the screen. Finally it transpired that my best chance was to go to Ealing Broadway where the train terminated, and ask there.

As I turned to leave I saw Jennifer disappearing up the steps to the exit at a run. For a brief second I thought she’d been called back to her office and I was saved, and then the truth dawned. I sprinted out into the sunlight just in time to see her climbing into the back of a cab.

Shit.

“Taxi!” I yelled.

* * *

Naturally, in my hour of need, the traffic was solid, and I soon found myself punching the seat in frustration as we crawled at snail-speed past the Houses of Parliament. If Jennifer’s taxi somehow made it out of the mêlée first, I was sunk.

In a desperate bid to reason with her, I pulled out my mobile and called her.

“Hi Eddie,” she said brightly.

“Jennifer, what exactly do you think you’re doing?! This is my career on the line!”

“It's fine, I'll just write this story, then you can have the briefcase back. No one will ever know it was you!”

“My boss will bloody well know! And his boss. And his boss, who is also known as the Prime Minister. They’ll fire me. I’ll be living on the streets. Cold, hungry—”

“Don’t be so melodramatic. You can come and live with me. Besides, it was your fault you lost the case, and your fault that you got me so interested! If you had just let me into your office none of this would have happened! Well, apart from the bit where some idiot lost the case...”

I spluttered indignantly at her, but she had a point. If I had just invited her in, let her speak to a few people, maybe told her about the stupid CONTEST program myself, she’d have gone away happy and none the wiser. But I didn’t, and now this had happened.

Life, you old bastard, you're not as funny as you think you are.

“...By the way, what exactly is in the case?” she asked.

“Oh no, I’m not falling for that!” I said. “Suffice to say, if I don’t get there first you’ll probably have the story of your career on your hands...”

“You better hope you get there first then,” she said, helpfully.

“You’re officially not my friend anymore!”

She made a kissing sound and hung up.

* * *

I arrived at Ealing Broadway one hour and six missed calls from my boss later. By this time I had very little hair left and nails bitten to the first finger-joint, but I was still clinging doggedly to my sanity. I thrust some money at the cab driver and shouted my thanks as I leapt out.

Striding towards the station entrance I almost crashed into Jennifer going the other way.

And wouldn’t you believe it – she had the briefcase, gold letters marking out “Home Office” on the side in big, incriminating letters. I didn’t know whether to be extraordinarily relieved that it wasn’t on its way to Al-Qaeda high command or burst into tears at the injustice of her getting to it first. At any rate there was still a glimmer of a possibility that I might not lose my job, and I wasn’t about to let that go.

Irritatingly, she dodged past me and nipped into the nearest cab before I had a chance to stop her. I swore in her general direction and dashed back to the cab that had just dropped me off.

“Follow that car!” I said to the driver, leaping into the back seat and pointing at Jennifer’s taxi. He grinned at me as if he’d been waiting his whole life for someone to say this, glanced in his mirror and stepped on the gas. Unfortunately this only got us as far as the road outside, where we got stuck in traffic once more. This time though we were directly behind Jennifer’s taxi.

The hair-tearingly slow chase that ensued took us all the way back through central London; through Notting Hill, past Regent’s Park on our left and UCL on our right. Eventually we cleared the worst of the traffic and emerged onto the unassuming Virginia Street, home of News International and The Times, where Jennifer worked.

As we passed through the menacing iron gates, the high-rise office block of one of the most powerful news companies in the world loomed over us. I suspected that this was what Han Solo felt like when the Millennium Falcon got sucked into the Death Star.

Somehow we made it to the front entrance unchallenged, and I paid my taxi driver for a second time before running after Jennifer, who stepped through the shiny sliding doors just ahead of me.

We arrived in a spacious atrium filled with light and modernity. There was a smattering of stylish leather chairs, a few minimalist sculptures, and a desk staffed by sickeningly attractive male and female receptionists. Jennifer flashed her ID card at them and was let through, while I found my path blocked by a tall, smiling man in a sharp suit. I couldn’t help noticing that although he looked friendly, he seemed to have hands that were designed for snapping necks.

“Can I help you sir?” he asked, politely.

“Don’t worry, I’m with her,” I said.

At this moment Jennifer turned and gave me a wave, calling out: “Sorry Eddie, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for me here. Y’know, it’s kind of a private club.” She smiled provocatively and turned away, pressing the button that called the elevator.

I couldn’t believe it. Talk about rubbing salt in the gaping knife wound she’d already left in my back.

Still, I smiled a ‘what-can-you-do?’ type smile at the man with the neck-snappy hands and made to sit down on one of the chairs. He turned away and said something to his unnaturally stunning colleague, who gave a high-pitched laugh. As the lift doors opened on the other side of the room I saw my chance, and rather than sitting down I made a little walk/run round the desk, slipping through the doors just as they started to close. The two receptionists noticed too late to stop me, and I hammered a button at random to get the lift moving.

“What the hell are you doing?!” hissed Jennifer, getting vicious now that she was threatened on her own territory.

“I could ask the same of you! Not only are you putting my career at risk, you’re also threatening the security of the nation!”

“Security of the nation?!” she cried. “What could possibly...?” She broke out into a smile. “No way! These documents must be worth more than I thought!”

That was the last straw. “Give them here!” I shouted, and made a grab for the case. For a brief second we struggled. She was hanging on tight, but mine was the strength of desperation, and suddenly the case slipped out of her grasp.

I wasn’t ready; it flew through the air, springing open as it tumbled in a dramatic snowstorm of—

—Photos? There weren’t any photos in my case. What the...?

We both stood frozen in surprise for a second as the last few Polaroids fluttered past and settled on the floor of the lift.

“Oh. My. God.” said Jennifer delightedly, as if this day couldn’t possibly get any better.

She bent down and picked up one of the photos, looked at it for a second and let out an involuntary snort of laughter. “Wow.”

I think she realised from the look of confused horror on my face that this wasn’t my briefcase. I bent down in consternation to look at one of the photos, and I must admit I saw rather more than I’d like to have seen.

“They’re kind of...kinky,” I said weakly. “Oh God, I think I know him.”

“I should hope so,” said Jennifer, between sniggers. “That’s the foreign secretary. At least, I think it is. He looks a bit different wearing tights.”

We both sat down amongst the photos, unable to stop ourselves from giggling, and finally the doors of the lift opened. I imagine the people waiting there were quite surprised to see us, but we didn’t even notice.

I still have no idea where the real briefcase is. If Al-Qaeda can find it in the depths of the Tube's lost property system, they're welcome to it.

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